A flash of light speared his brain; Seung shut his eyes once more and kept them that way. Everything hurt. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like this, hot and chilled at the same time, every joint either throbbing with a dark ache or painfully on fire. Someone told him to stop screaming for fuck’s sake and take this, which he did, washing down the single pill with a tumbler of blessedly wet water, and he went back to sleep again.
The next time he woke he cataloged the sounds of water hitting a fiberglass hull, frogs and crickets, people talking nearby in a lilting dialect, a buzz of activity. There was only a dim light burning, and through his carefully slitted eyes he could see the beginnings of dawn light outside the window.
“…coming in, got about five more minutes on the road, Tee Pom says,” a woman’s clear voice remarked. “Dance, can you.. thank you, lovie.” The scent of the other one– the snake– came to his nostrils, and with it a flood of saliva. He swallowed past a raw throat.
“Older Brother,” Dance’s upper class Korean, “Our outriders are coming back with your friends, will you wake for them?”
“Women?” Seung mumbled.
Dance repeated it in English.
“Yes, your women,” Emma said. “Tee Pom says they are a little bit hurt, he’s bringing them straight here.”
“My women hurt!” Seung tried to sit up at that, struggling with his restraints. “Let me–”
“Older Brother, be calm,” Dance said. “The doctor will attend them, here in your presence. You must rest and grow strong once more.”
The snake man honored him? Seung drew in a great, gasping breath and lay still, listening to the rushing of his own blood in his body, and listening for the diesel engine.
“Get her head back,” the doctor’s voice came from outside. “You ignorant sonofabitches, back! No, no, let her go– let go, give her a minute, you sorry bastard.”
“What is happening?” Seung asked the snake man.
“Your woman is a scrapper,” Dance said at the window, and charged out, his tail whipping once against the doorjamb as he went. It raked a vivid scar down into raw wood.
The doctor’s strident voice was going on. “Never try to restrain someone in convulsions like that. What the hell are you thinking, she’ll tear her own muscles apart! Dance, thank God you’re here…” The voices sank to mumbles, but Seung heard Peach now, her growl rising and falling rhythmically, and he felt choked with frustration.
He heard movement in the next room now, the creak of cot springs. A sad little meow from Peach ripped a bellow through Seung’s throat, leaving him coughing. And the next thing he knew was a warm furry weight landing upon him, Peach’s dry-grass fragrance and her glass-blue eyes inches from his. “Seung!” she said. “Seung, Keisha, Seung!”
“What about Keisha, dushka moy?” he croaked out.
Dance came to the door. “She’s well, Older Brother, only dehydrated. She will be with you in only a few more moments. She was convulsing and is now not awake, but you will have her quickly, I promise.” He said into the doorway, “Bring the whole cot in, we’ll get her fluids hooked up in here.”
“Who died and made you the doctor?” the doctor groused, but Dance only laughed, and and Seung heard the gurney casters protesting as Alexander and Emma wheeled it into the room, maneuvering it into place next to him.
Keisha lay limp, dark against the white sheet. There was a thin crescent of white showing under her eyelids, which hadn’t completely closed, and Seung wanted badly to stroke them shut. Her skin was ashen. Doctor Alexander, muttering, shuffled into the cramped space with a glittering bag of saline to hook up to her arm; Peach all but leapt at him, growling.
“Hey! I’m not hurting her, kitty, swear it.” Doctor Alexander said. It was, Seung realized, the first sentence the man had said without swear words. He spoke differently, talking to Peach. “C’mon, little girl. Lemme do my work.”
“Only I hold Peach,” Seung said, and rattled his restraints. Doctor Alexander looked over, measuringly, nodded at Emma, who reached over and unbuckled the leather bands on Seung’s bedframe.
“My dushka, you come here now,” Seung ordered. “Come.” And Peach actually did so, nuzzling into his armpit, licking his face frantically. Wads of shed fur came off her. Seung wrapped grateful arms around her, crooning. “Little love, little love…” Together, they watched the doctor clean wounds and wrap white bandages around Keisha’s hands. “What did that?” Seung demanded.
“Keisha hit house.” Peach whispered. “Hit door, hit wood house, many hits. Kick lots.”
Seung was surprised into a bark of laughter. He reached painfully across, rested his hand on the dark, soft skin of Keisha’s shoulder.
“Tee Pom says she was that close to breaking right through the wall,” Emma said. “She’s a fighter, your woman.”
“Is good, my woman,” Seung said. The saline bag shifted as it emptied, trickling its lifegiving fluids into Keisha’s’s bloodstream. Contentedly, he watched the steady rise and fall of her breathing, and held Peach close.
“Those pills your boss give you, do you know what it was?” Keisha asked, making one of those long slow turns where the highway climbed into the mist, the white fences ticking by against the bright green turf of Kentucky horse country.
“No, Miss Keisha.” He drew in a deep breath, tipping his chin upward.
“You got papers to be in this country?”
“Oh, green card? The passport? No. Just troops on boat. Boss, he say, you do this thing. Long trip. Sea. Troops not like sea.”
“Huh,” Keisha said. “You gettin’ tired?”
He waved it off, frowning. “You?”
“Yeah, road running, you get tired,” she agreed, with a shrug. “So what’s wrong with your back?”
“Say they fix small part, but no,” the guy said. “Small part maybe break spine, maybe I be no legs, maybe monster.”
“Say what?” Keisha said.
“I show,” he said, setting the gun between his knees. He rummaged in a pocket, pulled out a thin wallet. He pulled out some small photographs, held them out where she could see them. “Like that. I shoot Boss, I take these with boss’s gun too. See, monster. This like me. I go find him, yes?”
Keisha flicked her eyes up at the road, back to the snapshot. Somebody just like this guy was standing next to a pond, holding up fish with both brown hands and with a long silvery snakey tail of some kind. Three weeks ago, there were no cat things in her life.
Another picture got shoved under her nose. Same guy, swimming in the same pond, with little ripples where the tail was coming out of the water. A third one, dim, ass up in some bed where he’s naked and hugging two other people, and clearly everybody was just fine with the tail all over them. Another man and a pale woman in that trio. Too awkward for porn, and too odd for a prank. The prints were beat up, crumpled.
The guy tapped the picture. “Boss say, you take special shots. Not take shots, you turn into that. Say, You go like him. You want your shots, you do what I tell. And pills.”
“Fuck, I’d shoot your boss too,” Keisha said.
“My shots, no more. My pills, no bottle. No name. Baggies, like crack. Like smack.”
“Your boss dealt smack?”
“No, not crack, not smack. Not horse, raw. Black tar bricks. Russia, Burma, Afghanistan. Pallets.”
“Why was he coming over here if he’s based over there–” Keisha asked slowly.
“I no ask,” he said, chin up. “Not know troops. All new.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Keisha said, watching the road. Pallets, the man said.
“You know a lot,” he said coolly, watching her.
She waved it off. “Crap, I’m just hauling a little weed, engine parts, some Havanas– or I was. Nothing that size.”
“What is load of boxes this truck by Dan?”
“Here on the truck? Oh, this. Umm, dry goods for the local groceries for his home folks. Canned tomatoes, stew, beans, that kinda thing. I checked, you betcha.”
She took the curves gently. She saw his face tighten up as the cab jolted. They weren’t maintaining the highways real well out here. She left spaces in between her questions. Driving gave a reason not to talk, made her take some time to think it out before she opened her mouth. It helped.
She said finally, “So what else do you know about those pictures of Mister Tail Guy there?”
He looked at the picture with the other people too. “Mister Tail, he use my family name too, old time ago.”
“Holy– is he a relative? Is he in your family?”
“Nobody know. Not always tail, boss say it grow. He run away. I go find him, yes? See? He got friends.”
“You gonna find that guy?”
“You help me, yes,” he said quietly, looking at her. “You smart. Look hard picture, I tell you what boss say, we open laptop, we go find them.”
“So you want to stick by Peach and me and the laptop, and you want my help to find that guy?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Even if you turn into Mister Tail like him?”
He picked up the gun, held out the stock toward her.
“Now stop that, don’t play games,” Keisha said crossly. “We’re coming up on the only bridge for miles. No other way out, right? Coming up pretty soon. You keep an eye out. They could be waiting on us.”
“Yes, Boss Lady,” he said, and he smiled, and flipped the gun around.
It’s at the third bridge that crosses a slough that trouble shows up. Somebody was waiting for them. Well, about four trucks, actually.
“Hoh shit,” the Chinese guy said, peering around at the mirrors.
The truckers were inspecting traffic from that high point on the levee. When Keisha hauled up onto the levee to make the bridge, they pulled out the trucks into the way. They blocked the damn highway. Just blocked it. Passenger cars screeched to a halt, and four guys with guns–guys riding shotgun, because the drivers were still up in those cabs–directed the little cars into a tight s-curve past their grills.
The Chinese guy leaned to squint at the truck cab windows, trying to make out who was driving. He shook his head.
Keisha looked over at him, who said, “Not troops. Not boss of the guy I shot, not boss boss’s guys.”
“So these are other guys.”
“Yes. Guys I not know.”
The CB crackled in the cab.
Then Keisha saw the name glittering on one of the truck cab doors. The same company name was on the clipboard of invoices Dan left behind.
“Holy crap,” Keisha said, drifting the truck to a halt. She hit the CB button. She winced at the clarity of the voice coming back at her on about six bands, all the ones she pushed the tuner through. Which probably meant more than just four trucks out there. She picked one, picked up the mike, said, “Hi.”
“Yeah, you there with Dan’s truck!” it shouted back at her.
The Chinese guy flinched even worse than she did.
“My name’s Fozzie,” replied the CB on all those channels at once. “I understand somebody started shooting, my guy Dan went down, and you hijacked my truck in a hurry. I understand you shot out a tricked-out pickup what was giving you trouble, too. So I know you brung trouble with you. I can listen to you and we all figure out what to do about it, or I can just put a stop to it right here. Dan was one of the good guys. I ain’t above blowing a truck if I think you murdered him. Get out of that cab, and bring your people out with you. And leave back the gun what done in that gray pickup.”
Keisha said, “Fozzie, I’m Keisha. I got some pretty weird shit going down. You might have heard some from Dan about my kitty gal. So I’m not sure you want this public.”
“Yeah, we know about that. Just come on out, don’t rush things.”
The Chinese guy looked at her.
Keisha told him, “You think you could take ’em all, and maybe you can, but I don’t think we’d get out of here again in a truck, so let’s be quiet, okay? Let’s just step out and talk to the man. Never hurts to talk.”
The guy actually dipped his head to her. It was a bow, almost Japanese-style formal. If it hurt him, it didn’t show. “As you say.” And he opened the door slowly, and left the gun behind as he climbed down to the pavement.
Keisha said, “Okay, Peach, we’re getting out now, just take it slow.”
Peach whimpered. She was afraid to climb down from her perch in the sleepover cab.
“Gimme a minute, guys, my kitty gal is frightened. Just be cool,” Keisha told the CB mike. When she glanced up, she saw her not-Chinese guy crossing in front of their radiator grill, coming around to the driver’s side, empty hands out widely, strolling, cool as a cucumber. When he got to the cab door, he opened it for her.
“Come on down, Peach, I’ll give you a big hug, we’ll be fine, and we’ll have lots more deer meat for you,” Keisha said, reaching up. “Now put your foot down here on the next step, that’s it. Okay. Down you come, mama. All right.”
The Chinese guy looked up at them. “Please come,” he said softly, coaxing, holding out his hand, and Peach came. She clung to Keisha a moment, and then she moved down far enough to take the guy’s hand, climbing down to the road. She shivered. When he put both arms around her and crooned, she put down her head into his shoulder, same as she always did with Keisha.
Peach wasn’t that trusting with anybody a week ago, Keisha thought, surprised.
Gotta give the guy points, he knew from the start how to pet a kitty. He petted the fur on Peach’s shoulders, scritched up her neck, murmuring to her, but all the time he had his eyes up, watching Fozzie’s truckers.
Keisha got her stiff legs working enough to stumble out of the cab, and the guy put up one hand and braced her as well. It couldn’t be more clear. He claimed them both, they were under his protection.
“Okay, Boss Lady?” he said, looking up at Keisha, holding onto her arm.
“I’m good,” Keisha said. “Guess I needed a break from that seat. Wow, I’m stiff.”
A big guy, wide and hairy and about a foot taller than Keisha herself, strolled up to them with a sailor’s wide-legged roll to his gait. He looked pretty stiff from driving too. But he didn’t look like he was armed.
“I’m Fozzy, Dan’s boss,” he said, and nodded to her. Then he looked steadily at Peach. “Well. That’s a new bagheera strain, for sure, Dan was right. Looks like you been feeding her up lately, that’s good. I take it Dan’s gone.”
Keisha took a deep breath. “Yeah, I think so. All happened so fast.”
He nodded. “Coupla my guys caught up to the pickup. You don’t need to worry about them. But that kind don’t work alone. We got some ideas what we’re gonna do with Dan’s truck, pull the rest of ’em outta the woods. Now, what have we got here.” He folds his arms, looking at the dark guy. It’s absurd, the difference in heights. But there was no sense that he thought the shorter man was less dangerous, no sense that Fozzie wasn’t alert as hell to the man’s speed. Fozzie grunted. “I wanna hear your story. You shot out that pickup with a popgun like that?” He nodded at the gun that somebody was holding, taken from the cab of their truck by one of the guys who already had a gun of his own.
“Yes,” said the not-so-Chinese guy, still stroking Peach, holding onto Keisha, poised ready to do something if the shooting started. Keisha had no idea what it might be, just fast.
“Easy there,” Fozzie said to him, and nodded for his guy to carry the gun away. Then he looked down at Keisha. “Why don’t you get your stuff outta the cab, and my guys will make good use of Dan’s truck, while we head off for parts that those pickup guys aren’t likely to think of, being they ain’t local. We don’t appreciate guys comin’ in shooting our drivers and trying to take out our trucks. Can’t be having with that. And we can get some more food into your kitty gal there.” Fozzie looked at Keisha. He knew who decided stuff for them.
“Okay. Okay. I’m Keisha, our kitty gal is Peach.” She held out her hand.
The big guy took it, kissed the air above it like he was Cajun from way back, and murmured something in French.
“And this guy is– umm–” she turned in the firm grip on her arm, and looked at their own guy.
“Seung,” he said quietly. “My handle now, you say.” And he bowed to her, and then to Fozzie.
Fozzie, by God, bowed right back.
“Right, Seung, wouldja mind holding Peach here while I fetch our stuff down?” Keisha asked her own guy.
He inclined his head again, and stroked the base of Peach’s ears gently. “It’s okay, Peach gal,” he murmured, and brushed her cheek lightly with his. It calmed Peach, too. “It’s okay. All safe. All safe now.”
Fozzie nodded, and turned his gaze back to Keisha. Then he glanced back at the other trucks. “Hey, Mike, go help out Miz Keisha, she can hand stuff out to you.”
Dan had not been fooling when he told those stories about animal people. Mike came out of the shadow between two of the trucks where he’d been hiding. Mike had tall wolfish ears and a graying muzzle and yellow eyes. He had something that was less of a beard and more of a mane, and his striped hair ran down into his shirt. His shoulders were massive. Like Fozzie, he was much taller than she was. “Welcome home, Miss Keisha,” Mike said formally, and it sounded a little odd, because the lips on that muzzle weren’t all that mobile and his speech was coming mostly from his tongue and his throat. He held out a hand with fingers that weren’t quite regular, as they had long black clawlike nails.
“Pleased ta meetcha,” Keisha said, gripping the odd-shaped hand carefully. Her gaze went back up to the intelligent eyes.
Mike nodded. “You done the right thing. Let’s get your things.”
While they were moving around, Keisha warned Mike about what kind of jokers might be following her. He just nodded, passing her pathetic little bag of dirty clothes to one of the other guys. Keisha managed to unlock the cabinets and pull out the laptop without making a big deal of it among their bags of groceries, but Mike didn’t comment on any of it. Their stuff got put into a locker on one of the trucks. Mike gestured, and they climbed up to ride in the same truck with Mike at the wheel.
At the passenger-side door, Mike said to Seung, “You can ride shotgun for me, keep an eye on the mirror for the bad guys. Fozzie said you maybe know them?”
Seung said, “Yes. Some. Not all.”
“That’ll help. Yell out if you see anybody like that, Fozzie will get some questions answered.” Then Mike nodded up at the sleepover cab, and said to Keisha, “You and Peach could nap for awhile. Looks like some rest would do you both good. We’ll get you some more game meat for Peach. Fozzie told me, and I think he’s right, that was a damn good idea buying some from Pierre, I’m glad you guys thought of that.”
“Car?” Peach asked, anxiously, clinging to both Seung and to Keisha at once.
“No, mama, it’s okay, you don’t haveta watch for cars. They’re gonna watch for us. You can nap,” Keisha said.
“Sleep,” Seung advised Peach, nodding. Peach was gone up the footholds into the sleepover cab just like that. Upward was easy for her.
Seung looked at Keisha, waiting. Waiting for orders, or permission, or something.
Keisha rubbed her eyes. “I gotta rest. Talk to Mike, see what he knows about that snake guy you’re looking for. You wake me up when you need to fall over.”
Seung nodded. Then he did something odd. He put up his hand and rested it on her shoulder, patted her. “No dreams,” he said firmly. “Just sleep.”
“Oh yeah,” Keisha agreed. And she found herself doing something odd too. She patted him on the arm too, careful not to jolt his sore back. Then she followed Peach upward. She poked her head out briefly, thanked Mike for his hospitality. She was half gone by the time she curled up with Peach warm and furry in her aching arms.
He’s leaning against the kitchen door frame, turning loops of string in his big hands, looks like. He is pretty. He’s wearing his dark hair long, loosely braided down his back, and he looks calm and easy, like he rides out a Category 3 storm every other Tuesday.
“Hey, Auntie,” he says. “We’ll see if all my hard work paid off, goin’ all over the parish with a truckload of plywood this past week or so. Storm’s supposed to be a bad one– plywood over the windows is useless if the whole house blows down.” He looks down at Haroldine. “Betcha missed me.”
“You’d never guess him for kin of mine, would you!” Haroldine says, tossing a meaning-laden glance at Claudia, who has simply stopped moving in surprise. She’s beginning to lose track of the number of surprises she’s had today, and she’s sure there are bound to be more.
“I’ve got kisses for everyone, in just a sec,” he says then, faux-innocent, and playful, and serious, at the same time. “Miss Penelope, I found you some more stuff.” And he slips by Claudia, handing his string-bundle over; it’s nylon and looks slippery and strong.
The spider-woman gives him a long, squinty look, but takes the string. “Oooh,” Penelope breathes. “More pretty sstrings for me to play with.”
“Your tricks,” Haroldine says, “are wasted on me, Hal.”
“He’ss alwayss playing these talk-pretty gamess,” Penelope informs Dia sighingly, peering at her, and then smiling down at her new bundle, head tilted. “Look, it’ss got such a nice tensile ssstrength, we could do a lot with this, yess.”
Hal shakes his head, woefully.
“Ladies,” he says, “you’re my base. If I lose you, I lose the support of my nation.”
Claudia blinks. “Your nation?” she asks.
“Don’t,” Haroldine roars, “get him started. Thinks he’s Little Lord Fauntleroy of the Great Swamp Nation.”
“They are so cold,” Hal says to Claudia, shaking his head.
“They’re stern,” she replies suddenly, full of a pleasure she can’t explain. “Stern, but just.”
Hal smacks himself in feigned despair.
“Christ,” he says, “have I lost ya before I even got ya?”
Got her? She looks at him sharply, then, that he would make light of… would joke… Oh, hell, what was her problem? The low pressure was doing something to her sinuses to make her this crabby. “You’ll have to do more than flirt prettily and crack jokes to get me…” she grumbles under her breath, her brow wrinkling uncharacteristically in bad temper.
Hal, though, meets her glance with something unexpected; serious calm.
“I understand. I got it, too jokey. I know who you are, you’re Claudia. Everyone’s heard of you.” Solemnly he extends his hand. “I’m Harold Two Horses, out of the Quiet clan on my mother’s side. Sorry ’bout my first name, they named me for Auntie Frog. Everyone calls me Hal.”
“I’m Claudia.” She takes his hand and shakes, firmly and a bit formally.
He blinks at her, letting his hand get shaken, and not letting go. When she begins to pull back, he looks at her hand, and pets it sadly, saying, “But I was just getting to know you!”
Claudia leans into him, glaring right into those gorgeous chocolate laughing eyes, but a giggle escapes, and she’s almost shocked by the sound. “You’re a weirdo, do you know that?”
He nods vigorously. “Came by it honestly, from my mom,” he says, and slides his eyes over at his Aunt Frog.
“You’re so rude!” Claudia whispers, horrified, “your Auntie ought to smack you!” But she sure couldn’t smack him, even if she could bear to. Her hand wants to curl around his fingers.
Haroldine is laughing. “You ran into your match dere!”
“My aunties, why do you betray me?” Hal says, shaking his head. Still, he hasn’t relinquished her hand. She pulls a little, meets his eyes.
“I’m going to need that back,” she says.
“Oh no you’re not,” he says breezily. “I was…Sent. I was…Told to Come…Get You. I was given a message from On High that you Had Enough and needed to be dragged away from doing Useful Things.”
“How high?” Haroldine says, suspiciously.
“Ohhh, yea high,” he says, waving his other hand about a foot over his head. “I was given Command Voice from Somebody Who Told Me to come make you sit down and rest. And boy, do we have ways of–”
“You’ll need to let go soon,” Claudia reminds him. “Like… now.”
“We just started,” he protests, softly. Lifts her hand to his lips, lightly, then releases it.
“Harold Quiet Two Horses, you are not living up to your name,” Penelope says. “The quiet one, I mean.” She makes a hiss softly between her teeth in thought, then says doubtfully, “Not sure about the horses.”
“Well, I can’t help it,” he says. “Really, though, I was sent to get Claudia, and make her stop working. Really.”
Hal puts his hands behind his back, looking as if he’s a little afraid he might use them to reach for her again.
“Really,” he says, in that same soft voice. “You’re supposed to come and sit down and talk to me. Is that okay? Can you stand me?”
She tilts her head to one side and considers the question. “That is okay. You are horrid.” A smile curves the corner of her lips. “I think I can stand you if I try.” She takes an impossibly deep breath, her shoulders slumping with the exhale. Better. “What do you want to talk about?”
He blinks at her, and a really child-like wide grin comes over his face, and he opens his mouth, and Haroldine says, “Take it in dah living room, right now, or I’ll get dah broom to you, if I hear one more word ’bout that damn organization of yours I’m gonna–”
Really, it was amazing how fast they reach in the living room, and isn’t it astonishing how smoothly he evicts one of the teen-aged Circus girls from the one decent chair as if he had a crowbar–and then they’re both sitting in it, flopped down side by side in the wide seat, which isn’t quite wide enough for two, but they manage. She tries to sit primly next to him, but it’s nearly impossible, with those meaty legs of his taking up all the space, and her woman’s hips arguing about getting enough of their own space. She tries not to stare. What does he do with those thighs?
Lucas interrupts her train of thought by trotting up to her, plopping his tennie shoes in her lap, and giggling as he wiggles his bare toes. “Hi, Mama. We’re taking a potty break. Aren’t Mr. Gerritson’s stories great?”
“Yup, they sure are.” Claudia holds up his shoes. “Why are these off your feet?”
“They’re too hot,” he whines.
“Too bad. Put them back on, please.” Broken glass, leftover nails, there are a million things, and she hands the shoes back to him. He slumps, but drops on the floor and starts to pull his socks back on, whining a bit
Grace laughs. “Sorry, dude, not today. The tennies stay on.” She watches him tie his shoes. “Good job.”
He grins at her, then looks at Hal sideways, from under his bangs.
“Lucas, this is Mr. Two Horses. Hal, this is my son, Lucas.” Lucas offers his hand gravely, then smiles in delight as Hal shakes it like a man.
“Hi, Mr. Two Horses, glad to meetcha!”
Claudia scoops up the toddler who is rarely far from Lucas. “And of course you know Marcie, Pen’s daughter.”
“Hi, honey.” Hal makes a silly face at her, and she breaks into a shy smile.
“Sweetie, have you gone potty yet?” Claudia asks. Marcie shakes her head. “Do you have to go?” A nod. “Hal, could you excuse us for a moment?”
Hal wiggles until he’s in the center of the chair. “Sure thing.”
“Lucas, why don’t you go and get Mr. Two Horses a cup of coffee?” Claudia asks. “Be careful, though, it’s gonna be hot. Walk, don’t run.”
“Ok, Mom!” Lucas takes off towards the kitchen, takes three steps, then remembers to slow it down.
There’s a line for the downstairs bathroom, and by the time they get back Hal has his coffee and Lucas is looking at something in his hand. It’s been a long time since she’s seen him this impressed.
“Whatcha got, Lucas?” He shows his mom a pretty marble with green and blue swirls in it.
“Thanks, Mr. Two Horses! I gotta show this to Dav,” he crows, and thunders off.
Okay, where were they? Oh, yeah, Hal’s organization. She slides back onto the chair with him. “So, you’re a politician?” she asks politely, knowing in her heart of hearts that it’s Not Nice of her, but she can’t resist teasing him. She watches the dismayed shock appear comically on his face.
“I’m–not a politician,” he says. “I mean, I have to be able to function as a politician.” Claudia studies his profile, the slightly beaked nose, his cheek–soft–how old, she wonders, can he be? “I have to go toe-to-toe with politicians. I hate it. It sucks. I’m not a politician.”
“Okay, I believe you,” she says. He grimaces, and she sees something new, then, like a promise. A flicker of what he might be, or become someday. Interesting.
“What organization?” she asks, more gently.
“Huh?” He’d been examining their kneecaps, and his head whips up at her question.
“What organization are you involved in?” She looks genuinely interested.
“I’m a king,” he says. “I’m founding a nation.”
She sucks in a startled breath.
“Auntie Frog–” she doesn’t even realize she’s reverted to Hal’s name for Haroldine–“she was serious?”
“Oh, god,” Hal mumbles, dropping his face into his hands.
“Who made you king? Did you just decide–”
“No–no! I was born–”
“Well, of course you were born. Did you,” and she is teasing for sure, now– “did you just wake up one morning and say, ‘Today, I shall be king!'”
“I am failing, so hard, to seduce you, huh,” Hal mumbles into his hands. “You never think about these things. You have this birthright, and your people are suffering, and you start to organize, and WHAM! you’re a king, and neighboring governments send you obnoxious and patronizing emails, and the girl you want to impress just gives you one look, and it all becomes clear, being a king is really…really…dorky…”
Claudia pulls his hands away from his face.
“You want to seduce me?” she asks.
Hal blinks his dark eyes, slowly, twice.
“Why?” she says, astonished. “You’ve never seen me before.”
“It was a sudden impulse,” he says, wiggling a bit, so his hip bumps into hers. Her eyes widen, and flood with heat. Too late, he’s seen it before she can turn away.
“Oh, just something to do while you’re waiting, Your Kingship?” she says, infuriated. Unpleasant memories of the kind of mail that Pen gets here, at the house, prompts her to wickedness of a different sort. “So how do you talk to Immigration and the IRS when you’re rescuing people?”
His mouth hangs open a moment. It’s quite a nice mouth, she thinks kindly. Rather wide, and that he’s still pretty with it is quite odd indeed. Probably has a helluva yell in there, if he was playing ball or shouting from a truck or something. She could see him doing that.
“I generally do things on the Internet, it’s much safer than tangling with the brownshirts in person,” he says then, very quietly. “I hope Pen’s been careful. They don’t fool around. I’ve been hearing about people disappearing. Families, not just kids or prostitutes, although there’s a lot of them going missing–” he shifts his weight again, shifting around so his shoulders are facing her more, and gesturing with his hands, and some of his hair has come loose. He pushes it back impatiently, as if he does it all the time. “–I mean, the numbers are appalling, I went back and did some compilations to show the state people that it couldn’t be just due to regular crime statistics, we’ve got an unholy number of prisoners getting released here who were never local, never mind what their records were doctored to say–”
“Yes,” Claudia says, meeting the eyes.
“You already knew this?” he says, staring.
“If you listen to people here, when they talk,” she says simply.
“I’m in love,” he says.
“With your own voice?” she says, smiling to take away the sting of her words.
“Oh,” he says, and it’s completely genuine, the consternation on his face. “Ouch.”
“It helps with the kinging stuff, I’ll bet,” she says generously, and feels the tiniest little twitch of a smile starting.
“Oh god, it’s not like I do this every day.” He’s staring at her again, looking apprehensive.
“You have to build up to kinging all the time?” she says, smiling wider.
“I got to hearing about you and decided to meet you for myself and I can’t help it if you’re this smart… I’m not sure if I’m just talking people into submission. That’s what Aunt Frog says. She says I’m just blinding people with words all the time and they don’t know what part I really mean and–”
“All of them,” she says, with the kind of certainly that holds like a rock in her gut. “All of them.”
“I don’t think,” and he is very serious now, “I can talk you into submission.”
She tilts her head. “You have to ask for that.”
His eyes get even wider. She didn’t think that was possible. He’s staring down into her eyes, and seeing… God knows what. She isn’t sorry, she isn’t about to apologize, and she will explain if he asks, but she isn’t afraid to let him look, either.
Very gently, cautiously, Hal reaches out with one hand, runs the edge of it down the side of Claudia’s face. He doesn’t say anything, at all.
Finally Quiet, she thinks, giddily.
He does, actually, know how to just sit, without talking at all. She wasn’t sure about that. It’s such a white person’s habit, really, always filling the air. Some of the people she’s sat with here in Pen’s living room, they may not speak for an hour, just listening to the crickets through the screen door, sniffing the breeze, watching the sun go down. Although right now, she thinks, hearing the house creak and shift like a wooden ship under the increasing force of the wind, she could use some distraction.
She looks into Harold Two Horses’s beautiful face, and thinks in astonishment that the universe has just plopped one of the biggest surprises she’s ever had right down into her lap. Because she’s sitting in his lap, mostly, his legs riding up over hers, because the chair is really only built for one. He’s just touching her face, brushing at it as if he doesn’t quite think it’s real. As if she’s talking to him, when she isn’t saying anything at all.
It’s amazing, really, because he’s sweet and charming and smells like horses and dogs and some sort of herbal… shampoo, maybe? He’s just quiet enough, under the bluster and the sparkle, to listen. It’s been a really long time since anyone has listened to Claudia. Well, anyone adult, anyway. She’s not sure if she has anything to say.
“Do you think we could move over to the corner?” she requests quietly, indicating what is probably the only unpopulated bit of the house. Maybe someone has gone to the bathroom. Well, they can just have the chair.
She urges Hal off her, off the chair, and into the corner. “Here?” he asks, a bit bemused.
“Yup.” She says. “Save my place.”
Upstairs, whoever was in the closet has finished and put most of the towels back on the shelves. But they left the door open, displaying how badly they did it. She sighs at the mess, and shuts the door. All of her nice, clean, neatly folded towels. Maybe Hal and I should take a turn in there, she thinks dizzily.
The comforter under her bed hasn’t been pillaged yet, so she yanks it out, taking care not to disturb the exhausted tangle of people that sleep in her bed. There are cuts and bruises on their poor faces; she helped with the tape and bandages on their injuries. She brings the blanket and a stray pillow back down to him.
“Wow,” he says, “You are something.” He spreads the blanket down for the two of them, then sprawls, holding out his arms in an extravagant gesture. She’s as shocked as anyone else in the room when she goes to them and allows herself to be enveloped. “Used to sleeping on the floor?”
“Half my life,” she says, and turns her face into his chest. She can feel his muscles shift under her weight. Her head goes up and down as he breathes in careful, slow movements, as if he’s afraid of dislodging her. Like that’s likely to happen, she thinks, curling up closer.
She’s so distracted with her own body, with his, with the feel of the blanket over the hard floor, that she’s completely lost track of her surroundings.
Dangerous. Foolish. Bad idea in any of the places she’s drifted through lately. Never, ever a wise idea in a hurricane.
The wind has come up with a roar.
She comes back to reality with a jolt, hearing people crying out, and then the rising wind scales up so quickly there’s no chance to warn anyone. There’s a roar of force pounding the walls, a gush of water that sounds like fire hoses pumping cascades onto the entire world, there’s high whining noises from the plywood whipping around in the tight string cages that Penelope built to keep them safe, and she knows people are moaning or gasping in response, but she can’t hear it over the battering of the wind. Her eyes open wide, staring past Harold’s tensed shoulder. There’s trails of water running down the cracked plaster wall beneath the window openings.
His arms are very tight around her, very strong, so strong it’s making her collarbones creak in pain, and it helps. It does. The pain clears her head of panic. She blinks, gives herself a little shake, and stares wild-eyed up into his face instead of staring off at the screaming walls.
Something comes loudly crashing along outside, galloping at them at an appalling speed, and it whangs into the plywood over Claudia’s head, and the cage of strings flexes with it, holding, giving a clear shrill high note over all the rest, the amazing sproing! of materials tested to their limits. Then there are more things flying outside, whipping past and ricocheting, the vibration of the heavier objects bouncing through the floorboards under them.
That was the shed roof, she thinks then, just from the sound of it flapping and catching briefly on the corner of the house over their heads.
He reaches up with one hand and pats her face sharply, almost a smack, jerking her back to attention, to him, not to staring at the walls.
She blinks at him stupidly. He slapped her. Kinda. She struggles, unwilling to allow the gesture to arouse her. It wasn’t meant to, after all.
He’s got his neck arched down tightly, chin on his chest like a stallion defying his bit, and his eyes are furious, the black brows drawn into harsh lines of fury. Rage at the world, at the circumstances, at being silenced by wind, of all things. He can’t tell her anything, over this. Gently, very softly, his arms lift her higher, and he kisses her on the cheek, on each cheek, and then on the the forehead, and he blinks up directly into her eyes.
I love you, his lips articulate it with careful movements, caught in the little pool of howling silence where they are lying, unable to talk at all.
It makes her smile. Silly boy, she thinks, and kisses him back in the same way, staying awhile with her lips on his forehead, and feeling the brush of his hair against her cheek, and how his ribs are mostly still as if he’s not breathing enough. She feels how he’s laying so still, only flinching now and then at the really loud objects banging off the house.
She leans then into his cheek, and kisses the side of his face, and gets her nose down to his ear, and she speaks into it. “Breath,” she says, “breath, Hal.” And he does, with a shocked little hiccup of his ribs. She reaches up and tugs his wrist a little, tugs him to hold her tighter, until her ribs creak when she inhales, and he does. It helps.
He’s petting her hair with one hand, somehow, too. Nobody has ever petted her hair, not in the last few years anyway, and here today two people have decided to touch her hair. It’s very odd. Come to think of it, her hair is odd, too. Too short and too black. Nobody has seemed to notice, but it bothers her. And now she can feel his ribs under her straining arms. Big wide rib bones. And bony elbows. And hips that stick up nearly as much as hers do. His waist doesn’t even touch the floor because his butt sticks out enough to hold it up. Is it because he’s tense, or because he has a meaty rear? she wonders crazily. What a thing to be thinking in the midst of all this uproar.
And then it’s quiet, as fast as it got noisy.
“Dat was a tornado cell, I swear it was,” says Ruby’s voice from the living room door, faintly, as if she’s speaking from far away, and Claudia realizes she’s partly deafened from the racket. “We’re goan need more room to park people in dah bathroom if we get any more of dose.”
Somebody in the center of the house is testifying, in a clear, thin, steady old voice, about walking through the Valley of Death, and fearing no evil. They sound like they know what they’re talking about.
The next thing she hears is a high little twirl of music, coming from the chimes, like a message. Lucas has made the chimes sing for her, to let her know he’s all right. Thank God.
“Y’all come over here,” Drake the storyteller invites the kids. “Bring your blankets. C’mon, now.” His voice is coming from the windowless alcove just off the living room. She knows it’s probably the safest place in the house, structurally speaking. Smart man. “Hurry up, now, and bring your blankets.” She can dimly see Dav helping Marcie and Lucas move their stuff to safety. She wishes that she were holding Lucas, in a storm like this. But there just isn’t enough space in the alcove for worried moms. There’s barely enough room for all the kids.
She blinks, and feels tears starting, and she wipes them away, fiercely. She feels Hal’s hand come up, giving her a rather grubby tissue from some pocket. She nods, and wipes her nose and her eyes.
When she looks at him again, he’s serious for a long moment, studying her in the dim battery-lantern light from across the room. Then he smiles wryly. “Allergies,” he says, nodding at the tissue, his voice not quite as faint to her as Ruby’s was.
She smiles shakily. “You’re allergic to being a frog, Your Majesty?”
“Oh yeah,” he says. He sticks one hand in her skirt pocket, then, as she is lying on her side, and he waves his fingers around, and then he’s holding up a marble in front of her eyes. A marble with a swirl of golden glass in it. “Princess, your golden ball,” he says.
“I’m a princess, now?” She almost chokes, laughing hard enough smack her own head against the wood floor, with a solid thunk that makes people startle around, and look at them.
“Oh, yeah,” he says, rubbing the soreness away.
The observers all smile, and go back to what they were doing. People are moving about now, with the wind slackening. When Claudia shifts, about to get up and help other people check on things, fix the house while they have a chance, his arms tighten on her until she can’t move. She can’t get up. He lifts his eyebrows warningly at her, lips pursed, as if to remind her of what his orders were, earlier, and she relents, smiling, and kisses him on the forehead.
“Claudia and Hal, sittin’ in a tree,” somebody is chanting, a light childish voice, full of glee, and then there are peals of laughter, and running feet chasing off.
“K-I-S-S-I-N-G, First comes love, Then comes marriage, Then comes Claudia with a baby carriage!” Dav had run as far as the kitchen door, but just had to finish it. Trust the kid to get the last word in.
She hears Callie’s voice, just as high and clear, saying, “Oh God, Dav, paleeze…” and she can hear footsteps running about, voices laughing, fetching things for the grownups, very shrill and over-excited, running it off. She can hear Lucas crowing at Dav’s sparkling wit, and the sound allows her shoulders to loosen in increments.
She hears Haroldine’s whiskey voice from the kitchen, giving orders, coughing sometimes and complaining about losing her voice. Claudia’s whole body finally relaxes. Everything is fine, just like she told Pen. They’re all still alive. This must be the eye of the storm.
“My God, I think I scraped the varnish off the underside of that poor kitchen table, hugging my knees so hard,” Haroldine says, laughing. “Oh yes, sweetie, now go get me that second big sack. Yeah, take the toilet paper around, would you? The bathrooms are really gonna get a workout. Lucas, oh good, I was looking for you– listen up, this is important. You see that drawer? You get out the hammer, and all the boxes of nails, and every last bit of string in that drawer, put them in this wooden box, and take it up to Penelope in the attic. Got it? Good boy. I know that woman saved my life, roping down the windows, and now I’ma never gonna hear the end of it. Has Hal got Claudia settled down? Good. Dav– have those animals out in the barn been fed and watered today? Dunno? Well, maybe you better go an’ check ’em. Keep an eye on those clouds, though, all right, an’ be careful, fer god’s sake. You got sense, you’re old enough. Go on, now! Now, where’s my batteries, I want some more batteries in these lamps…”
“Hi Mom!” Lucas yells, sneakers thudding as he races over, drops the box for a moment, grabs her hand and squeezes. Then he looks at Hal, grinning. “Hi Mister Two Horses,” and then he’s picked up the box and he’s off, sneakers squeaking on the floor as if they’ve run through wet spots, and then he’s thudding up the stairs, panting.
Claudia sighs. “I should really check out that hallway, like Ruby says, and make sure– ”
He tightens his grip on her, looking cross, and she blinks at him. “Ain’t baby carriages old-fashioned?” Hal says abruptly, blinking sternly at her.
“Very out of style, but around here, it probably has a performing chimp in it, wearing a bow and squeezing a blompy horn,” she says, rolling her eyes, thinking of the Circus people.
He laughs. He has a loud laugh, just like she thought he would, with his mouth wide open, so all his teeth show. People look around at that, too, and it makes them relax. Makes their shoulders ease downward a little.
“I don’t know, kinging is a lot of work. Princessing must be just as bad.” She says it absently, looking at his eyes again. Looking at his eyes smile, slowly and marvelously, at her.
“So, you want this golden ball or not? I can just throw it back in the pond, ya know, I don’t have to–” he’s using a silly voice.
She smiles. “Yeah you do. It’s in the rules.”
“Yeah?” he says, looking up at her, with those eyes full of mischief. He doesn’t look like he’s ever stuck by the rules.
“Yes, the princess must possess the golden ball. It’s the focus of her awesome powers.” She looks serious.
“Okay,” he says, “open your mouth.”
And she does.
And he puts the marble in it and grins at her outraged expression. An instant before she begins to move her arm to get rid of it, he brings up his hand, and says, “Spit it out,” and she does, breathing hard, and staring at him like he’s gross to even ask.
He holds it up, squinting at it. “Hmmm, I don’t see no magic powers there. Maybe it needs more time in the spin cycle,” and he lifts his hand as if he’s going to pop it into her mouth again.
“Oh no,” she demurs, blocking her mouth with her hand. “Put that thing in your own mouth.”
“Oh?” He grins, pops it into his mouth, and makes really atrocious faces. The kids would love seeing this. Then he gives a really wicked grin, and pops it out into his hand, and holds it up. Ergh, he really is that gross.
Then she blinks, startled.
“Presto, chango–” The marble is a nice, bright, solid blue. He grins. “You should see me with rings and magnets,” he says.
“Ahh, you’re one of the Circus people yourself,” she says, relaxing again.
“Well, sometimes I am, and sometimes I’m not–”
“Oh God,” she groans. “I should have known.”
“Two Horses,” she says. “Are you a Gemini, or do you just annoy the heck out of people like one?”
He blinks at her. “We-ell, oh, my middle name is Freddie Mercury, and my first name is a king’s, and I be pissing off the gods on Saturday nights,” he chants it like a kid, in a different funny voice.
“Okay, okay, let me think–so you’re the God of Thieves and Crossroads, and I think sometimes boar-hunting–” she squints, trying to remember what she learned in that History of Religion class that Sir paid for.
“Oh no, I’m the God of Abundance and grain and business and mediation,” he corrects her, chin lifted proudly. “Gotta be quick to keep up with that stuff.”
She looks at him.
He’s still smiling. He says, “I told you I spend a lot of time on the Internet.”
She smiles, too, remembering the night that Sir took her to the theater in Chicago to see Avenue Q. She sings, “The Internet is for porn.”
His eyes go comically wide, shocked, and then he’s laughing again, rolling a little side to side, hugging her tight, so he’s dragging her with him, and she’s laughing down at him, with her forearms on his chest, and she’s laying on him.
“Madam,” he says, “please remove your elbows from my serratus, they may not be much, but they’re all I got. Your arms go here, and here–” and he puts her hands where he wants them, and she’s still laying on him. It should alarm her, embarrass her, but it doesn’t.
He blinks up at her, with his chin cramped down to see her, and she squirms a bit upward so he doesn’t have to do that so much. Her knees slide down quite comfortably on either side of his hips. Nice tight hips, she notes approvingly, it’s not a bit of strain to straddle him, not in the least. It does odd things to her skirt, and she doesn’t care. Master would be so disappointed. She tells herself Master isn’t here, to see her on the floor with Hal Two Horses between her legs.
“Uhh,” he says, staring up at her.
She raises an eyebrow. “And where do your hands go?” Her heart is galloping wild, beating hot in her arms until it thumps painfully at her palms against the wood of the floor. She shivers – it must be nerves, because it’s hot as Hades in this house.
“B’lieve they go here,” Hal says, cupping her skull, and stroking her hair back from her eyes, tucking it behind her ears. “And then here, I think.” His palms push through her hair onto her neck, sliding down her shoulders. “Easy, baby, easy, you’ve got bigass knots going there, carrying this whole house on these shoulders, we’re gonna put that down for awhile. Houses are big. You ain’t.”
House? What house? Oh, yeah, the one that had been shuddering all around them like a ship at sea. She couldn’t bring herself to care at the moment. She was falling right in those eyes. Oh, God, those eyes…
“So my hands go here, right?” she says, and she rests her forearms on the floor next to his shoulders, and cups his head in her two hands, and she brushes the wild stray hair out of his eyes, automatically, with her fingers. And then she’s combing her fingers into the hair steadily, as she might when Lucas was a baby. She looks at his eyes, with her whole body against his, and her fingers have a job to untangle that hair.
He frowns a little, and her fingers pause, apprehensive, but then he blinks at her, and he says gravely, “I think my hands go here, right?” and he rests them on her back, down her waist, just propping up his forearms against her, resting his palms on the small of her back.
She nods, and resumes combing back his hair.
“You know how good that feels?” he says, and she can barely hear him over the racket of the house.
She smiles. She knows.
She knows that he can feel the muscles in the small of her back clench and release as she resists the urge to squirm. A distant part of her brain is blaring klaxon-like in her head. Here she is, straddling a man she met ohhh, maybe two hours ago, in very frightening circumstances, skirt rucked up on her thighs, panting like an adolescent, in plain sight of everyone in the house. She tells that part of her brain to shut the hell up. Thank God the storm shutters and plywood have made the house so dark.
She leans in closer, breathing along his neck, memorizing his scent, running her cheek along the long stretch of muscle there. Before she can think about it, her tongue touches the hollow of his throat, to taste the skin there. She wonders vaguely what other parts of him taste like. A sudden recklessness seizes her, and she leans down just a fraction, brushing his lips with hers, licking delicately along his lower lip. He sucks in a breath against her lips, and then she feels him go all still, not breathing at all.
“Now wouldn’t it be silly,” he says very, very quietly into her mouth–she can barely hear him–“if you kissed me and I turn into a frog?”
Claudia jerks, pauses. “Yes. Too silly. Much too silly.” From the reproachful look, one might think that she actually believes that he can polymorph at will, and would do it in a heartbeat, just to distract her. But she leans back over his face, breathing his breath, and kisses him again, anyway.
When she draws her head back, the pupils of his eyes are a very strange shape indeed, almost rectangular. The irises are spreading, too, almost no white to the eye. Those eyes are so familiar, she’s seen similar at the riding center where she took lessons.
“Oh damn,” he says, and blinks at her. “Sorry.”
She leans very close, gripping his head in both her hands, as if she might be hanging onto a hysterical child, and she tells him, “No way, Tam Lin. Just no. This house too crowded to have something that large thrashing around in it.” He pulls his chin into his chest and snorts, struggling for control.
His body is shifting around under her, and she’s certain that anybody watching them bump around are thinking the worst, but she’s got more important things to think about. It’s probably the dumbest thing she’s done –Master was always telling her that her curiosity would get her into trouble one day–but she leans down into him.
He gives a little grunt, arching his back, and twisting his head away from her, and the tusks swing wide of her face just in time, and thump into the plaster wall, leaving marks. His arms strain wide away from her, as if he’s having epileptic seizures, and he strains up against her, gasping, and she hears claws scrape the floor in an arc, scoring the wood enough to screech over the howl of the wind. He lies there like that, back like a bow, for a long scary moment, and then he sighs, and gives a gulping swallow, and his body sags down.
And then he whines down in his throat, and he’s licking her face with a perfectly normal human tongue, but his eyes have no white, and his jaw is too long. He gives that whine, and licks her chin, as clear an apology as a girl could ask for, but there’s too much dark hair everywhere, still, his arms are covered in it. His body heaves under her, as if he’s going to struggle away, roll aside, and she hangs on stubbornly.
“We need you here, Hal, not running in the woods somewhere,” she says. There’s days when she’s lost patience with Estelle for the same fault, and schooled herself not to show it. It doesn’t help. “Here. We need you here. I need you.”
There’s a tremendous jolt in his muscles, his arms thrash oddly, and then he’s flat on his back under her, breathing hard, and shaking his head, looking dazed.
Her face is fixed in that odd rictus that people get when something unbelievable has happened. Then she refocuses, and leans close by his face, a bit of the fear draining away. “Would you think I was a freak if I admitted that I found that strangely erotic?”
He blinks at her, arms flung wide, and shifts his knees, and he rests his head back on the floor, breathing hard. “God, baby…that was…amazing. I didn’t… I never… ”
She sits up and blinks at him, incredulous. “Just how long have you been doing this?” She has been jostled further up his body, and doesn’t have to stretch up to look into his face anymore. It was a miracle that she managed to hang on at all.
He breathes hard for a moment. “Forever,” he says. “But I never… I go off into one… one shape… it takes days…I don’t remember how… to come back. Aunt Frog, she knows… knows how to recognize me. I started remembering…to come back to her house. Last year.” He pants. “God, last year.” And he wipes sweat off his brow. “I never… I’ve never done all of them. In a row. Not like that, I mean. I just…” He shakes his head, blinking up at her.
“Are you going to turn into something if I kiss you again?”
He blinks. “No idea.”
His hair has fallen into disarray from all of the shape-shifting, and lays in black streamers across her bare thighs. She strokes it back from his face, gently, and begins again to smooth it. Something extraordinary has happened, and she can feel it still shivering over her skin. “Hal, can you wear a collar through all your different shapes?”
“I don’t know.”
“We may have to have a vet chip you,” she says, frowning a little, stroking back his hair gently. She can feel little shivers chase though his body, too, as if he’s been through a fright. “Can you decide on purpose to change?”
He takes a deep, gulping breath. “I did once, yeah. To reach somebody who was drowning.” The shivers get worse. “Two weeks in the pound.”
“You don’t need to shiver,” Claudia whispers, running her fingers down his face, feather-soft. “It’s ok. You’re ok.” She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself just as hard as she’s trying to convince him. It won’t do. She knows that. She has to project certainty. She’s cared for animals and children and old people.
“Put up your knees for me,” she tells him, “make me a chair back.” He does, staring at her. She pulls his own tactic on him: distract him. She rolls her hips round, brings up her knees, and leans back into the prop of his thighs. Of course it puts her full weight into his gut, and by God, that’s distracting. He grunts. She smiles, and shifts back, until her hips are on his, and she wiggles her ass into his thighs to a better position, and sighs. When she looks down, she can see his eyes show the whites quite well now, because the view up her legs is just as rude as a man could wish. She shifts her knees, on a whim, letting him see more.
Of course, the tactic backfires back onto her. With their hips aligned, she can feel a thread of energy flow from him to her, and back again. Kundalini, she thinks distantly. It feels rather like very good sex, and derails her brain completely. She arches her back and makes a soft, animal, hungry noise, overwhelmed by sensation. She says, distantly, “Tell me all of the shapes you ever changed into.”
“What?” he says, stupidly.
“So I’ll know what to expect…” she breathes, her mind half gone to mush.
She feels his hips shift slightly, and shift more, under her. “Uh,” he says. “Um, dog. Horse. Um…” His pelvis is pushing upward. “Um, yeah. The thing with the tusks, I lost three teeth bashing tusks on things, I couldn’t see for a damn, it’s all blurry and dim and people shout at you and things just keep coming at you and–”
“Maybe,” she says, putting her knees on the floor, “your goblin shape needs glasses. Or maybe all goblins are near-sighted? And bad-tempered, I assume?”
“God, it’s like having a permanent hangover,” he says. “Or PMS, or something. You can tear out brick walls, but you can’t figure out why you needed to.”
“Poor thing,” she says, and there it is, rubbing at her through his clothes, and it feels just as good as she remembers. Years, and she still remembers. “Right,” she says, “anything else?”
“Aunt Frog always yells at me, she swears I crib something fierce as a horse,” he says then, frowning, and somehow, in the lashings of rain that half-drown what he’s saying, it’s all funny. But the time for laughing is past, now.
The marbles tucked into his pockets are poking her. On some impulse she doesn’t stop to question, she reaches down into his pockets, extracts the things, and flings them away gently. They clatter against the wall, then roll into the corner, where they’ll keep until morning. Then she settles herself along the length of him, and props up her head, and regards him at length, tracing one finger on his lips, hushing him when he might protest the loss of his toys.
“Uh,” he says, looking up at her, and he is just where she wanted him, and he is still looking human. She leans down over him, propping out her hands again, and quite consciously she rubs her hips down on his, and she leans in, and she says, “Are you going to go funny again?”
He takes a deep gasping breath. “You gonna kiss me?”
“I hope so,” she says, and smiles. “I wonder if everything is ok upstairs.” And she adds silently to herself, and I wonder if anyone is in that closet.
Author’s note: More collaboration… Nagasvoice, GreenJudy, Kiyakotari, Stella_Omega and me, Numaari.
The closet is a complete wreck, and so are Hal and Claudia. Thankfully nobody’s standing out in the hall when they stumble out of the closet. She knows her face is flaming, but when she sneaks a look at Hal, he’s laughing. Again. She shoves the trampled towels back inside with her foot and closes the closet door.
The house gives a violent shudder as the wind picks up again, and a hail of some smaller objects hit the siding. Claudia starts at the sound of glass breaking. It was the hall window. The house groans and thrums as the wind whips from other direction. “C’mon, Princess, I’ve gotta go back down dere. Duty calls, and all dat.” His voice in her ear tries for flippant, falls a bit short. It occurs to her that he is making this all up as he goes along, that he’s not entirely sure how to go about doing what needs doing.
“Ummm, we can’t exactly go like this,” she says. Their clothes are rumpled and smell of sex and latex. Somehow, her skirt has gotten torn.
“What?” he says loudly. It’s hard to hear, with the wind roaring. The rain has begun in earnest again, slamming in sheets.
“We can’t go like this,” she yells. “What would your people think?”
He just grins.
Claudia manages to grab a clean towel from the top shelf of the closet. A detour to the bedroom yields some clean clothes for herself, and a pair of old stretched-out sweatpants she borrowed from Pen when her joints were hurting and she needed heat. She can’t find a shirt for Hal, and she’s quite sure that he doesn’t want to wear a pair of her undies. Just doesn’t seem to be his style.
Hal has already hit the bathroom, and she ducks in after him.
Doesn’t take him long to shed clothes, does it? she thinks. In the dim light of the flashlight, he’s all bronze curves and inky shadows. He’s undone his hair and it falls down his back. God, he’s beautiful.
She stuffs her smelly clothes in the hamper and steps in the shower after him. The water pressure is still good, and the water beats down on them. He’s slippery and wet and huge in the confines of the bathtub. There’s really not enough room for two people, the wet shower curtain sticks to them as they maneuver awkwardly, but his soapy hands slide over her shoulders and onto her breasts, and she decides to stay. No sense wasting water. He turns into the spray and she washes his back, stroking up and down his spine with a washcloth. He leans into it. She scrubs harder, until she’s pushing against his arched back and he’s beginning to rock with the force of it. Yeah, he’d be fun to scritch as a dog. Their hands tangle in his wet hair as they try to wash it together. Then he inches around in the bathtub and it’s her turn.
It takes her all of thirty seconds to shampoo her hair. They both smell like strawberries now. He washes all the tender places that he’s just made, his broad hands careful. The storm is too loud to talk over, and she can’t really see his face. But his gestures are as clear as expressions, as clear as words. So much emotion so close to the surface, for both of them.
She feels a sob well up from her throat, and she pushes it down in horror. She hates to hear herself cry. She hates to cry. She never used to cry. It’s not allowed. She goes through all the breathing exercises she knows. That doesn’t help much, so she loosens up a tiny bit and lets a few tears escape. In the way of all water, the drops become a trickle, the trickle a stream, the stream a flood. She twists away from Hal and gropes on the edge of the tub for the tube of conditioner.
One of those ugly noises she’d been trained to avoid escapes. She cringes, but the sound is lost in the wailing of the storm. Nobody outside the tiled walls of the bathroom can hear her, she can barely hear herself. Something inside pops like a blister and she sobs aloud. Her whole body jerks, and she drops the conditioner in the bottom of the tub. She curls herself away from Hal. Oh, God, it hurts.
Gripping the shower curtain in both hands, she sobs.
She startles when Hal’s hands cover her fists. He pries the shower curtain out of her fingers, grips her wrists and flips her around, tucking her arms behind her back and pressing her to his slippery front. She gets soap suds in her mouth as she gasps. They taste bitter on her tongue. He’s wrapped her up so tight in the cocoon of his body that she can barely move, barely breathe. So tight that her arms go numb, even under the hot spray of the shower.
She sobs against his skin, she screams as loud as she is able, she grieves.
She grieves for her lost self, cast adrift without a master, or a place to belong, or an identity. She grieves Master’s betrayal of Lucas and her, the bitter culmination of the seven wonderful years they’d spent together building a life. She grieves losing the satisfaction of service, of knowing someone so well that she was able to provide what they needed a split-second before they even knew that they needed it. She grieves for lost time, for missing out on the simple glory of good sex for seven years. She grieves for stupid stuff, like her favorite leather jacket and the well-made, pretty clothes and her photo albums and her good headphones and those season tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra. Things she’d left behind.
She grieves for her son, losing the only father figure he had ever known. For never having known his father. For every single time someone thinks that, his conception having been an accident, that he is a mistake. For ripping him away from his home and putting him in danger, for the college education that he’d probably never have, now. She grieves because Lucas is someone special, something special, and she has no idea what that is, or if there are others like him out there somewhere.
She grieves for these people here, troubled and put-upon, forgotten, sometimes disappearing without a trace. They had never had a chance at the perfect, privileged life she had led with Master. She grieves for Pen, sitting with Estelle and unable to fix her, while the home he built with Tree is torn apart in the wind. She grieves for Hal, lost in a labyrinth of changing forms, bewildering and bewildered, hiding behind a charming smile and wondering how to accomplish a nearly impossible task.
She grieves for everything from the state of Tibet to the shingles tearing off the roof. And running under it, the grief that she no longer has the certainty of belonging, of knowing where she fits in the world. That loss has ripped the biggest hole, and it hurts the worst.
He lets her howl like a lost child or a wild animal. Tears and spit and snot run down her face and smear on his skin, until the water catches it and washes it away. He lets her scream, and cry, and grieve until she’s done and there’s nothing left to cry about, until she’s quiet and hollow and empty, until she’s still under his steely grip except for a slow watery gasp, with the deafening roar of the world ending all around them. The water has grown cold.
Hal leans down, very slowly. As soft as the wings of a moth, he kisses each cheek, and then her forehead.
She doesn’t resist when he pulls her out of the tub and wraps the towel around her.
Somebody pounds frantically on the bathroom door, and roars, “Gotta go!” They yank their clothes on and make it just in time; a very short hairy man with the whites showing all around his eyes barrels into the room, his arms waving wildly in shooing motions. They get the hell out of the bathroom before something tragic happens. The glow of lanterns and the smell of coffee draw them back downstairs.
Haroldine and Penelope are sitting at the kitchen table, cleaning up at poker, ignoring the storm. Hal pours a cup of coffee for Claudia, and she takes it gratefully. Caffeine. Their ears are ringing in the relative quiet of the downstairs.
Lucas is observing the game, leaning in against Haroldine’s leg. She tickles him and he giggles. When he sees Hal and Claudia come downstairs, he runs to his mom and flings his arms around her waist. “It’s so cool, they’re playing a viola, and they let me help tune it, and I meet a bunch of cool people and they let me pet the tail, and I helped!” Lucas’ eyes shine in the lantern-light. “So I ran down here to tell you about it, but you weren’t there so Auntie Frog has been teaching me to play poker and–” He’s out of breath. “Wow.” Claudia loves to see him so happy; it enforces the overwhelming sense of peace that’s come over her. Lucas looks into her face, smiles, and goes back to Auntie Frog. “What did you say a royal flush was, again?”
Hal frowns, and tips Claudia’s face up to his. “What’s up, baby?” He looks angry, or worried. His black eyebrows are quite expressive, actually.
She looks up at him placidly. “Nothing. Why?” Raspy and hoarse are kind words to use for what her voice sounds like now, after she’s abused her throat so badly. But she doesn’t mind, she’s in that peaceful, floaty place that Master called sub-space. He used to send her there by giving her pain — not as a punishment, but as a reward. Hal is right, she’s just wired that way
She wonders, idly, from very far away, if her Frog Prince will understand that she needs to be owned, possessed, in much the same way. Wiring. It doesn’t worry her, though, not while she’s wallowing in the middle of all this… peace. After the months of turmoil since she’s run away from home, it’s blissful. But she’s too far away to explain this to Hal. Sometimes she even loses the ability to talk for a while.
Her disconnected answer doesn’t seem to satisfy him. His brows knit in confusion. “What do ya mean, nothin’? We’re in maybe a Category 3, Category 4 storm, ya just finished completely losin’ it, an’ now shit is just fine ’cause I gave ya a cuppa coffee?”
Claudia tries to swim to the surface, so that she can explain. Her throat hurts so much that it’s hard to swallow, but the coffee helps a little. Hal standing next to her helps more. She shakes her head, tries to tell him through the burning in her throat. “I get this way afterwards.” She smiles dreamily, and confides, “Endorphins, you know.”
Thinking about her outburst starts bringing her out of that state of mind, though. It’s getting easier to talk. Her flush starts at her chest and creeps up until even the tips of her ears are pink. “Hal. ‘M so sorry.” She looks down at her hands; one of them bumps his tentatively.
“For what?” he asks.
She looks up again, feeling ashamed, like somehow she’s failed him. “I’m sorry that I cried… all over you. It was… inexcusable.”
“Huh?” he replies, clearly baffled. “Everybody cries, sometimes.”
“Master never liked it when I cried.” The coffee has milk, it soothes her throat a little, and it’s easier to speak. “He forbade it except when I was alone and no one else could hear it, and I don’t –”
“Who is Master?” he asks.
“My master,” she replies. “Or at least… he was. Before I ran away.”
Haroldine looks up from her hand of cards and shouts, “Claudia, honey, dere any more milk in dah house? We’ve plumb run out up here.”
Claudia nods. “In the garage. I’ll go and get some.” She sets the coffee cup down and grabs her flashlight. She looks up at Hal. “If you come with me, we can bring more bottled water, too.”
“This house is a wonder,” she says. “Good old-fashioned swamp craftsmanship. It’s probably withstood hurricanes like this before our parents were born.” That was why it made her so sad to see it decay in the damp. Restoration was astronomically expensive, though.
Three neat rows of home-canned foods shine almost like stained glass in the beam of the flashlight. Peaches swimming in syrup, tomatoes in their own juices, pickles packed in neat bundles. Tree did those. Probably not good to eat any more, but Claudia doesn’t think Pen can bear to throw them away. The rows of store-bought canned goods on the shelves beneath them aren’t nearly as pretty.
The flashlight chooses that moment to die, and it’s suddenly too dark to take a step. Hal yelps.
Claudia laughs at the joke, teases back. “Don’t worry–”
“I don’t like the dark.” His voice is tense, carefully articulated, tightly controlled. Not joking.
She should have known better. She jiggles the flashlight, and, thankfully, it comes back on. She hands it to Hal. She’s careful not to look at his face, to give him a chance to recover himself.
“Where’s the milk?” Hal sounds grim.
“Right over here.” She splashes over to the shelves.
She hurries to find the milk, because Hal is standing silent, preoccupied. Silent Hal is kind of scary.
She grabs three cans of condensed milk, and Hal hooks a jug of water with each finger, carrying an obscene amount of water up the stairs with no effort at all.
“Hal, you need to come and listen to this!”
They are interrupted in the kitchen by the woman with pink hair, who drags Hal over to a middle-aged mom who stares at him like he’s her best and only chance. Claudia suspects that he gets that look a lot, and the way his knees suddenly lock lets her know that it panics him just a tiny bit.
The distraught woman starts talking to him about her teen-aged kids. She had gone to the grocery store to pick up bottled water and batteries, and her car stalled in three feet of water on the way back. No wonder she sounds a bit hysterical. Claudia watches Hal listen to her, throwing his whole self into it, like he throws his whole self into everything.
Hal turns, looking, asks somebody to come talk to him, and then somebody else follows them, joins the group, frowning. Heads are nodding. Somebody pats the mom. In a few moments someone’s offering to take their 4-wheel-drive truck out to the house as soon as the storm lets up a bit. Hal’s knees unlock. His body language is easier to read now that she knows about the dog and the horse. The goblin is a complete mystery.
Right now he’s writing something down on a steno pad and trying to hold a flashlight under his chin. Circus performer or not, he’s not doing too well with it
People have finally begun to cave in to exhaustion and are dozing on couches, on the floor, under the kitchen table. She steps around them carefully and takes the flashlight away from Hal so he can see to write better. It takes him about ten seconds to cover the whole sheet with an untidy scrawl.
She tugs on his arm, beckons until he leans down close to hear her.
“You know all these people, and I haven’t a clue. Why don’t you concentrate on talking to them and I can take notes?” Claudia suggests hoarsely.
She offers the flashlight and he takes it, hold it for her to see. She begins filling the next page with neat rows of information. He’s much better at talking to people than he is at writing.
“See here,” she shows him after a few minutes. “We have a list of families who have missing persons in this column, and a list of people with suitable vehicles in the other. We just need to match them up.”
She is rewarded with a look that tells her Hal thinks she’s clever. It makes something melt inside her.
“Hey, Hal! Hal Two Horses!” someone calls, and they begin circulating the room again, recording problems, but also many more offers of help.
“Hey, dat Master guy you talked about. Dat guy din’t hurt you none, did he?” Hal asks the next time they have a moment to themselves. She can see the shadow of the kennel lady in his eyes as he asks, and it hurts her.
“Well, yes he did,” she teases Hal gently, and winks. The eyebrows lower themselves again, and he grips her wrist. “Not like that, and you know it.”
Despite the circumstances, and the topic of their conversation, Claudia feels her well-abused girlparts respond to his grip. She has to take a deep breath in order to continue. “No, he really never did, he was strict, and… kind, and generous, and… And he used to play with Lucas, he taught him, and I thought he– loved him, but– then I found out.” Despite her hiccup, the sorrow is no longer as strong as her training.
Hal’s fingers tighten, holding her. His eyes are so focused on her, and she draws a deep breath and says; “Master was going to sell him.”
Hal’s eyes go black and then pale, the pupils totally constricted. The brows come down, the jaw muscles jump out in ridges. No doubts, no questions, and no need for explanations–not out here. His head gives a stiff upward jerk exactly like a horse balking at a gate. He’s angry. But his grip on her wrists does not change at all. Not at first. Such control, she thinks, surprised.
“Oh, baby,” Hal murmurs.
Her voice loses the calm, flat quality that it’s had, and goes sharp. “Master works for this mysterious group called the Knights of Saint Christopher, and I overheard him talking to one of the other Knights about taking Lucas away to do tests and experiments on him.” She snorts. “Over my dead body.”
Hal’s hands are very strong; she can feel the bones grate in her wrists. He breathes out, fast, hard, and then slowly he relaxes his grip, until his fingertips are stroking her arms.
“So I stole the household funds, threw some clothes in a bag, and bought a bus ticket. We changed buses in Oklahoma City and ended up here. And now I suppose someone is after us, and it’s hard to even figure out who it might be.” She grits her teeth. “Seven years, with Master, and I never even figured out who they are or what they do. God, I’m such a moron. For all I know, there’s someone from the Knights in this house right now, just waiting to kill me and snatch him. I don’t think so, but I just don’t know.”
Hal just pulls her against him and tucks her head under his chin. She has no idea what she did before she had his arms to go around her. So unreal; she’s only known him for a few hours. But then again, they might not live to see tomorrow.
Someone interrupts the embrace with a question, and they’re off and running again. It’s a long while before she has a moment to even think. It’s all reaction. Someone without her training would be overwhelmed, and she’s grateful to Master for that, at least.
They catch a breather tucked into a corner of the living room. “So, ’bout dis Master guy,” Hal asks. “What exactly was he to you?”
She responds automatically. “He was my owner –”
“You liked that?” Hal interjects, incredulously. “‘Course, you said he was some big-shot executive with a buttload of money. Bet he bought you a lot of pretty stuff like that garter belt.” He snorts. “Not like being owned by a horse or a dog…”
“Hal.” She grabs him by the front of the shirt and drags his face down to stare into his eyes, hard. Why couldn’t he see? She can feel her jaw clench. It hurts her stretched-out jaw socket, but she doesn’t care. “You are not a horse or a dog,” she says firmly. “You’re more than any of the things that you can change into. You’re a you.” He can’t lose faith in himself. Not now. Maybe not ever.
She turns him around, showing him the parade of newly-organizing groups. People are finding who they naturally feel comfortable with, making emergency alliances with erstwhile strangers. Lots of people have their heads together they way she and Hal are doing, talking seriously about whatever it is, in little private bubbles. It’s beautiful, and something she’s never seen before.
“You’re a king.” When she hears herself say it with such finality, she knows that it is absolutely true. He is a king.
“Hey, Two Horses, get in here and get me a new propane tank so we can get some coffee in people! We ain’t got coffee, we gonna ‘splode!” Aunt Frog’s voice is so hoarse it’s more rasp than words.
Hal tugs, and they go. “Man, Auntie, you really know how ta burn dah gas out of a kitchen, dontcha?” Hal says in the dark, chuckling. “You gonna lose your voice for a week, you keep it up.”
“The extra tanks are in the cabinet behind the side door, on the wall next to the fuse box,” Claudia says, leading Hal. She knows where it is, next to the fuse box, which must get shut off and on again about every other day. She explains that too, in case they need to know later, after the storm passes. “It’s not anyone’s fault, the old fuses need replacing.”
“I don’t go round makin’ excuses for people who don’t take care of deir house,” says Aunt Frog darkly.
“Don’t be such a fusser, not everybody got yer buddies Penelope and Steve to fix things up.” Hal makes tank-rattling noises. “Where is Steve, anyway? Didn’t she come in with the back forty bunch?”
“Dunno, I think she was checking on things, some of them outbuildings, make sure everybody come in.”
“Well, I seem to remember you doing that too, what, about three, four hours ago?”
“Yeah, but that was before–”
“Well, I try to make allowance for folks who don’t fix up deir houses, I do. Well, less they go out running around, chasing down kinfolks what get themselves all messed up. I don’t know nobody like that. I don’t recall ever having problems like dat, why, Aaaahh wouldn’t know what family troubles are, if they came up and bit me in dah–”
Hal gives a yelp.
“This boy bin treatin’ you right?” Aunt Frog demands. There’s rasp as the lighter clicks steel on flint.
“Yes he is,” Claudia says, and blinks as the blue flame lights up.
“Good.” Hal yelps again. Aunt Frog snaps, “Dat was just because you such an ornery cuss. You treat your princess right, I ain’t got no problem wit you. You do her wrong, you goan be sorry you ever born.”
“Yes’um,” Hal says.
“Go way and give dat girl some sugar, ‘fore somebody else starts hoppin’ up and down demandin’ you run off and play goddamn prince help them do things whut they oughta be doing demselves. She bin going short too long, I don’t like seeing my girls cryin.”
Claudia chuckles. Good advice. “Do I get my sugar now?” she asks sweetly.
“I’ll give ya sugar,” he threatens, and smacks her butt with the flat of his hand.
“Tease,” she laughs under her breath.
Hal plops down in Pen’s easy chair with a sigh; he’s finally begun to wind down a little. “Hey, Princess, c’mere.” She knows that he’ll jump up in about ten seconds and start gyrating around again. It would probably be good if they both rested a bit, but how was she supposed to keep him down? Lucas doesn’t even have this much energy! Her reserves were dwindling, and the long bones in her thighs were throbbing steadily, in time with her heartbeat. The ache that ran along the skin of her elbows was spreading, too. She didn’t have any more painkillers left from her prescription. So she’d just have to suck it up.
She can think of one way to make him rest — she straddles him again, sitting on his knees with hers tucked up against the sides of his hips. It’s a surprisingly comfortable way to sit. And it keeps Hal in place so they could take a breather.
“Can we turn off the flashlight for a minute? Batteries, you know…”
“Mm-hmm,” he says.
She flicks off the flashlight, leaving them in the dimness left from the few other lights in the room, where people are talking too fast and others are writing notes. Hal puts his arms around her, just letting them lay on her shoulders, relaxed. For a moment she just feels his breath on her cheek. Then she begins to feel that odd pull of energy again, flowing through them like a tide, in and out.
Can she follow it, see where it’s going, where it’s coming from? When she tries, she can track it flowing out of his chest and into her arms, trickling down her middle and out through the inside of her knees into Hal’s hips. It’s warm and it — tingles. Strange.
Hal’s breath hitches. She bets he can feel it, too.
“What is that?” she wonders.
“Dunno,” he answers, “but I like it. It’s very — relaxing.” He sighs deeply, and she feels muscles un-knot beneath her fingers. After what’s probably only a few minutes, but feels much longer, Claudia feels like she’s rested enough to get up and move again.
“Hal, you know where we got sommore batteries?” A new voice says quietly, almost in her ear, and it’s such a peaceful, tired voice that Claudia doesn’t even jump.
“Well, Steve, I was wondering where you got to!” Hal says, and he sits up. “You met my princess yet? This is Claudia. Claudia, this is Steve, she keeps our place from fallin’ apart.”
“I seen ya, honey, gettin’ people sorted out. I gotta thank you for calming people down so we got that one gal’s broken leg splinted right,” Steve says, and holds out a scratched, grimy hand, gripping Claudia’s hand carefully. There are calluses. There’s a torn plaid shirt, and raggedy jeans, and a face of oddly indeterminate gender with even worse scratches on the chin and cheek. She sees the look, and she smiles a little crookedly. “Gotta be quick, if you’re handling feral animals in weather like this. Got those pens knocked together ‘fore the worst hit, they oughta be okay. I mean, God willing, if the crick don’t rise n’more and the bull don’t take out the side of the barn.”
Claudia blinks. “There’s a bull here?”
“There is now,” Steve says. She looks at Hal, smiles. “You could go down and have a little chat with him, show him how to behave, remind him to turn human sometime, soon’s the wind goes down.”
Hal sighs. “Thanks, Steve, I’ll do that. You remind me to do that, huh, Princess, when I get busy?”
“Yes, I will,” Claudia says. “I think Aunt Frog–I mean Haroldine–was hoarding batteries in the kitchen.”
Steve sketches a salute toward a gimme cap she’s not wearing, and nods, and departs kitchenward.
Claudia rests on Hal’s chest. It feels good. She watches the scattered groups of people sleeping, or huddling together to talk, or drinking coffee, or wondering if the house will still be standing in the morning.
Hal’s gone quiet, closing his eyes, but she can tell by his breathing that he’s not asleep. She takes a long look at his lovely face and wonders about a lot of things. Ok, so he’s a king, or becoming a king, or something like that. He’s not sure of what he’s doing, but he’s trying anyway, even though it’s uncertain and maybe even scary.
He said that he loved her — even if she couldn’t hear it — and she has the crazy conviction that he means it, that he really loves her. That they could be together as long as they lived, if she wanted to.
But did she want to? She knew how she presented to these people. Probably a lot of them were going to wonder if she was worthy of him. Claudia wondered if he was worthy of her. Would he appreciate her skills? What about Lucas? She’s sure that Hal and Lucas would adore each other. They were a lot alike when it came right down to it. Could Hal handle the responsibility of providing for a child? Would there be enough stability in Lucas’s life? Could he even get into college with the sort of haphazard education that Pen’s children were getting? She’d alienated her entire family by choosing the life of a servant, an owned person. Could she give up that life if Hal didn’t want to live like that? Could she keep up with the needs of all these people? Could Hal? If she really loved Hal as much as she suspected she might, could she live with never having a child with him?
It was making her head spin. So she laid it on Hal’s shoulder, breathing in the strawberry scent of his hair, and let her mind go blank.
“I have a question,” Hal announces.
“Okay.” She murmurs.
“So you said dat your master was a businessman and that you were a sort of personal assistant-type person for him, right?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies, nodding against his chest.
“So what would you want to be for me?” His voice sounds thoughtful.
She stops for a second to consider, then says, “A straight man.”
He chokes on his laughter. “Ahh, now, dat’s a good answer, baby. But a straight man who’s a girl, she’s customarily called a foil.”
“Okay, a foil, then.”
He’s quiet for a moment, then asks, “What would I be for you?” His fingers encircle her wrist.
“The center of my world, ” she says simply, and puts her head back down. His arms slide down around her and squeeze her. She sighs and closes her eyes.
Collaboration between Stella Omega, Nagasvoice, and myself. Thanks also to Nagasvoice for the title. 🙂
Kool-aid and coffee. That’s all Claudia has to offer, but things are getting tense and weird, and it’s easiest, really, to fall back into old patterns. Comforting as the familiar skirt that Master liked her to wear, although she prefers jeans now. How else is there to cope?
Besides, people are getting cranky and thirsty, with more and more bodies being crammed into Pen’s place, and all airflow cut off by the storm shutters and the plywood over the windows. The hand-cranking fans that Pen had the foresight to buy are whirring away busily, but it’s not nearly enough. They can’t count on any power, and they don’t want the house live when the real wind-force hits, and the temperature is slowly climbing into the fairly uncomfortable. Claudia inquires after everyone’s comfort, pouring liquid into plastic or paper cups and neatly printing each person’s name on the side. After a while, she gives up and shoves the marker into her skirt pocket. There are so many people here that she doesn’t really know all of their names. Ah well, they’d just have to keep track of their own cups.
Callie has attached herself to her, carrying the jug of kool-aid carefully. Claudia smiles into the kid’s eyes. Good. She looks more normal now, less like a victim and more like a third-grader being allowed to help the adults. Talking to Callie is good for the grownups too. It steadies them. She’s good with adults, Claudia notices, with mixed feelings. Callie moves with the practiced ease of a performer; she’s got resilience, but there’s a shadowy look to her, too. Claudia wonders what she does in the Circus.
There are folks crammed everywhere. In the cellar, a frail child-like woman with clouds of white hair as fine as spiderwebs crouches on top of a storage shelf, poking at the floor joists.
A gaggle of teen-aged Circus girls sit sprawled on the stairs, cracking their gum and laughing about guys. They call out their hellos to Claudia. A few people she barely knows sit in the bathroom smoking, with one of Pen’s precious few fans duct-taped, pushing the smoke out the overhead duct. Ahhh, what a fire hazard! She doesn’t see Pen, or many of Pen’s usual crowd, among the groups sprawled asleep on the living room floor, or rocking babies. People keep coming and going.
“Who’s watching the door? Where’s Pen?”
“Dunno. What’s he look like?” says a loud woman with fluffy pink hair, smiling at Callie as the child pours a cup full.
When she checks, it’s not Pen guarding the entrance, but Ruby and her shotgun. “Do you know where Pen is?” Claudia asks. She should ask him if it’s okay to have strange people in the house. Given his mania for security, she thought she’d find him here at the door. “Who are all these people?”
Ruby fixes her with startling amber eyes. “What would you have me do, cher? Doan tell me you’d have me turn good people out in dis.” She nods at the peek-window they’ve left in the glass of the door. “Now dat jus’ would not be right.”
“Of course not. But how can you tell that they’re good people, if you don’t know them?”
Ruby smiles, a bit nastily. Claudia has seen her chuckle, or even bark laughter, but she never smiles. Her sharp white teeth seem too big for her narrow face. “I smell ’em, darlin’. Trouble flat-out stinks. Dese people are ok, cher. Dey won’t be causin’ any fuss. And if dey do…” She smiles again, scarily. Ok. Point taken.
Ruby sobers. “Pen’s upstairs wit’ Estelle.”
Claudia leaves Callie with the cups and the awesome responsibility of pouring kool-aid. “I’ll be right back, sweetie.” She drops a kiss on top of Callie’s hair. Callie grins and serves the next cup with a comic flourish. The tired and dirty boy she hands it to drinks thirstily, then gives her a colorful smile, his upper lip stained blue. She laughs and moves along to the next person. The kid looks like she’s having fun.
Claudia knocks softly. Estelle stares with sightless black eyes, her mouth gaping open, panting in avian panic. Wow. It looks like he’s having a hard time holding her together.
“What… what’s wrong? Is it the storm?”
“No,” Pen answers sadly. “It’s Dance, m’dear.” Claudia gives him a look of utter confusion, so he elaborates. “The tail guy, didn’t you see them carry him in? All of him, not just the parts you can really see?” She remembers people staggering under loads of what looked like so much static. She wasn’t sure what it was.
“He’s a viper. Estelle could smell it. A snake.” Pen’s voice is almost too soft to hear over the wind. The rafters groan louder up here, too.
It takes Claudia a second to make the connection. She’s only really been exposed to domestic animals, pets trained to tolerate each other in deference to their masters, the way the human pets do. It’s never occurred to her that these animal-humans might clash with each other. But she’s watched enough educational television that it dawns on her. Discovery Channel to the rescue. “Snakes prey on birds.” Huh, finally someone that Estelle likes even less than her.
“Yes,” Pen answers dryly.
Her heart is wrenched in pity for Estelle, so panicked that she is more animal than human. Poor thing.
“Can’t be helped,” Pen says. “They are here, and we are all-in, whether we like it or not, m’dear. I’ll try not to explode.” Estelle turns her head sharply to him, at that. “Kidding, love, kidding,” he whispers. Then he looks back up at Claudia. “I’m sorry to leave you higger-jigger, but they…” and he’s sketching a gesture almost of defeat and looking at her apologetically. “I’ve got to stay here, I’m sorry. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, Pen. Honestly. I know you have to stay here.” Claudia reaches out and squeezes his shoulder. “We’re all fine downstairs, your kids are safe.” She takes a moment to lightly stroke Estelle’s shoulder, smoothing her lovely plumage. She wishes she could do something to ease her mind, somehow.
There’s really nothing she can do, so she goes to the hall closet for more blankets to spread on the floor downstairs. The pile of children has grown, and so has Drake’s story. They have taken to calling out suggestions and shaping the action, much to their delight. It now involves pirates and fairies and some sort of floating island in the sky. The older man just grins and takes it all in stride, adding a princess with a magic golden ball for good measure. They are giggling, eyes shining, forgetting all about the storm and the heat and the danger. They make Claudia smile. Perhaps they should have story time like this every night. Lucas and Marcie seem enthralled by it, and even Dav looks interested.
She stops just short of the closet door, hearing furtive rhythmic thumping and muffled cries. Someone has shut themselves away in there to have a bit of privacy. There are folded towels flung on the hall floor, trampled now. Overcome, Claudia leans against the wall outside. There it is — the familiar hollowness inside herself, the ache that trickles down the inside of her arms, across her wrists, to pool in the palms of her hands. She wants so badly to touch someone, to be touched, that it makes her a little nauseous. Six, seven years. It’s a long time.
Time to get out of here, forget the blankets. She feels like a voyeur. She trots down the stairs, weaving around the girls on the stairs, frowning at herself and the weakness of her hungry body. Even with the power out, she’s sure that there is something to do to take her mind off the storm. She finds Callie is doing just fine keeping everyone hydrated. Laundry is impossible with the storm, maybe she should go to the kitchen and see if something needs polishing.
She rounds the corner too fast, and runs smack into the large freckled man that arrived with the snake man, Dance. He moves so fast he catches her in time. He doesn’t grab, he doesn’t close his hands on her. He just holds out his arms for her to stumble into, until she can get her feet under her. And then he lowers his arms, and looks at her gravely. Looks steadily, as if he has all the time in the world to study her smudged face. The power of it is enough to jerk her still under that regard. He takes his time looking at her, as if he has the time for anybody who comes in front of him here, as if there aren’t dozens of bizarrely troubled souls crammed together here, in need of anything he could give them, and more.
As if there’s no shortage. As if there is time, and space enough, and leisure to wonder at things, and cherish them, and fix all the things that are broken.
He bends down a little, and he looks squarely into her eyes, and he says, “Thank you for helping us, Grace.”
For a moment she’s frozen under his extraordinary gaze, then conditioning takes over. Grace sinks to her knees, head bowed. Please, please, please, take this away from me, all this uncertainty, all this fear. Please make me feel safe again. Please take away all these choices, all my choices. Please, please.
The big freckled hands come out and touch her head lightly, a benediction, pressing her hair lightly. Then he whispers, “I know, love. C’mon, now, up. Up, dear. There are many things left to be done.'” And he smiles.
She looks dazed for a moment, almost unsure about what has just transpired. Then she chokes, gulps back tears, sharply, so she doesn’t make any of those ugly noises, the way she was taught to restrain herself. She rocks forward slightly until her toes are under her, and rises as she’s bid in one smooth motion.
He looks at her with the most terrible clear eyes, knowing it. All of it. “There’ll be a time for surrender later, trust me. You don’t have to carry it all. Ruby’s at the door, right? Has Pen got Estelle calmed down yet? I’d never do this to her, poor girl, bringing in my guy Dance, but this damn storm–” And he’s walking, with his arm out like a wing, scooping her along with him, and yet never actually pushing or grabbing or gripping. There’s no claiming involved.
She looks at his face, puzzled. He looks as if he knows exactly what she is, how she’s been trained, that he could run her through her paces as rapidly and expertly as fingering exercises, if he wanted to –but he acts as if she’s claimed. As if she can’t belong to him, she’s not an abandoned lost little girl, she already belongs to somebody, as clearly as if she was wearing their collar. He’s as carefully courtly as if he was looking after a girl who belongs to a good friend of his, making sure she’ll be back to them in good enough shape to serve properly.
The certainty is perfectly clear, rolling off him in such reassuring waves it makes her dizzy. She doesn’t stop to wonder who he thinks she belongs to – that thought is tucked away for later, when there is less to do.
“C’mon now,” he says briskly, “we gotta find you some helpers.”
When she gets back to the kitchen, certain they’re run out of coffee by now, she finds a large, slow-moving person in there who blinks at her from the sink. This person looks remarkably like the frog totem on their tee-shirt. But they are washing the coffeepot with care, and they smile with a very wide mouth, and say, “Nice clean ship ya run here, m’dear. Looks like you’ve got some more folks tumbling in at dah front end. There’s flood warnings out all over dah parish.”
Claudia smiles wryly. “There are perpetually more tumbling in at the front. Pretty soon they’ll be oozing out the back.” She nods toward the back door. She doesn’t see Drin smile tiredly and go back upstairs with a glass of water. “Thanks for the help. I’m Claudia. Don’t think we’ve ever met before.”
“Haroldine Stalks-Fish,” the other person says, and holds out a powerful and damp hand, and they squeeze Claudia’s fingers very carefully, very gently.
“Thosse windows, they worry me, they do,” says a high, sighing voice.
Haroldine answers, “So whatcha gonna do about it, Penelope?”
The skinny, dandelion-haired woman begins testing the edges of the plywood for stress. “Oh, my,” she breathes, “thiss iss not good, this iss not safe….” The plywood wiggles under her skinny fingers. She grins at Haroldine. “Sshall I fix it?” she asks slyly.
Haroldine chuckles. “Like we’re gonna stop you, honey. You need a hand up?” She turns to Claudia. “Give her enough time, Penelope here could have this house meshed together tight enough and stable enough to sit through a nuclear blast, I swear. You oughta see the beautiful little beehives she builds of straw for the beekeeper down the way. Works of art.” She clears away dishes, drying them and putting them away as comfortably as if she already knows where everything goes. She hands dishes to Claudia, perfectly comfortable with expecting taller people to reach the high shelves for her.
“Penelope, you get you a step up here now so you can work on this kitchen window, right?” And she holds out the wide hand to her friend.
Penelope steps up onto the cleared counter prettily, like it’s a platform for the high wire, and begins to fix the window with some whitish fiber that seems to appear out of her fingertips. “There,” she lisps with a satisfied air. She hops down and wanders along into the living room, looking to see if more windows might be coming loose.
Then Haroldine turns toward the living room, and smiles all across her face. “Why, Hal, you pretty boy you, I ain’t seen you in a coon’s age. You come here and give your Aunt Frog a hug.”
This bit is so named because the storm is forcing all the wierd little micro-realities that exist on Pen’s Back Forty together like a bag of marbles. This was a collaboration between… well, all of us, I guess. Things got a little muddled after a while. Like a good curry.
“I am digging new plot weeds. Please may you call when it is one pm?” Dance requests.
“Sure,” Emma says, glancing up from her laptop, and blinking dry eyes.
He’s wearing the oldest of his cheap thrift store sweatpants, which sag down his hips, and nothing else. He’s put on nice pads of muscle since he moved in, but he’s still thin. He looks almost as ropy as one of those plaster art school models, the ecorchès, where the modeling of skin is left off to show the muscles. He’s so cautious about eating more than his share, and he’s always in motion at the Metro, herding things along. He’s constantly digging in her yard like a dog, running off more of the limited calories that she’s been able to afford.
They’re short of food and long on music. She spent that month’s extra money on wood for him. A halfway decent bow–well, they cost the earth. Amalia kicked in help on that, and it still hurt. The Metro wouldn’t budget a bow for their first chair, Lord have mercy on their wizened little accountant souls.
So Dance has been cooking a lot of beans and rice, potatoes and cabbage these past three weeks, although the dishes were all wonderfully spiced. She’s lost weight, too. She’s down to garish polyester rags for the gala holiday events she’s supposed to dress up for. Her shoes have been bought at Payless, and the “check engine” light is on all the time in her Volvo.
This poverty, Emma thinks, has got to change.
It’s not like he asks for much around the house, either. It gets pathetic. He offered to deliver newspapers for extra money, which she firmly squelched in favor of protecting his sleep and the quality of his playing. He was distressed at the cost of seed packets, too, when they discussed what to grow on that first plot he dug by the front door. But he was ecstatic at how good the soil was when he waded into her plot of prickly, knotted weeds. “Should be farm not house,” he’d said, and went about proving it.
“Okay?” he says now. There’s a little muscle breathing in and out at the hollow inside his hip bone, in time with his abs.
“You’re losing your pants.” She points at the trailing strings.
“Oh, sorry, sorry!” He hoists up his pants, reties them. He’s grown used to asking her help to learn phrases he doesn’t know and how things work and what behavior is appropriate. He’s very quick, she only has to tell him once or twice; but there’s so much he doesn’t know. “Okay pants for dig?”
“Oh, those pants are fine for digging, yes. If you’re going to start at that dojo you found, we need to get lots more protein into you, yeah?”
“Beans,” he agrees happily, and pads out, shutting the side door quietly.
Later she takes a break from the work overtime on the laptop, and stares outside.
Well, that’s her first mistake.
There he is, right in front of her. Abs and lats and ohgawd those deltoids. Her new responsibility is working in the shade right there next to the house, busy with his shovel. He’s framed in the old-fashioned arch of the front window like some painting of a peasant. He rakes back his hair and wipes sweat out of his eyes and sets his bare foot on the shovel. His trunk muscles jerk into amazing shapes, and relax again with each stroke.
A pause to step away for his water bottle and wipe his face only lets more sweat go trickling down his back. Dance is beautiful in the sun, the sheen of sweat and dust on him, the big muscles of his haunches making themselves known behind that ratty baggy gray jersey. Meaty thighs, bigger than they were when he got here–probably from standing and moving all day long. And of course the pants aren’t hiding the hard-on, either. It’s not like you can overlook something like that. His nipples are already tight enough that just a touch would probably bring him off. But he won’t do that. He’ll just keep working, tiring himself out, until he’s back to his usual dignity.
Why bother, he told her once, what would be the point?
“The little man is monkey tricks,” he said one night, while they were vegging in front of the televison, “Big man is not monkey,” and Emma had watched out of the corner of her eye as he willed his “little man” into laying down again. It was impressive to see, but rather saddening, and she’d said so.
He’d reached over and took her hand, patted it consolingly. “Okay. As you say, no worries. Yes? Please?” A half dozen things had crossed her tongue unspoken.
It hasn’t got any easier to look at him like this. These days, she’d probably grab him and– well, no, she wouldn’t. Down, girl, she orders herself. How unprofessional to letch after one’s charge, like a bad joke about older women.
Her mail client nags her away from the athlete in the window. Emma laughs aloud at what she reads.
From Amalia <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org;email@example.com
Subject: Review from Star Herald
Just got the paper and Basehart’s review mentioned Dance. Have you seen it? “He calls himself Dance Of Knives, and it’s apt. His solos are scary. He’s afraid of nothing, and when that bowing of his turns tender, it’s more like he’s stroking his audience with a straight razor than wallowing in the Metro’s usual sentimentality. Instead of fast careless New York jazzy slop, Bernstein becomes a basket of broken glass sparkling and screeching off Dance’s instrument. Mozart becomes a spooky confection of crystalline angles.” Nothing about moi, dammit, you stole my little refugee and he’s stolen the limelight! *cursing!*
Re: Review from Star Herald
Just be glad if Basehart did NOT mention Robert!
Remember last time, and count your blessings!
Outside her window, the scary man’s face is relaxed, easy, serene. He rarely slows down this way, he’s fast– fast reflexes, fast reactions. He’s startled people, turning on them before they’d finished approaching him. Maybe she can work with him on that, make him seem less… tigerish. He made old Walstadt nervous, and the new guy, Maestro Richard Young, is oddly hostile. That’s not good. The conductor needs to have faith in his concertmaster.
The concertmaster needs someone to have faith in as well… someone besides his best gal friend at home. Emma has such limited resources to help him at work. He needs someone beyond that. Someone who likes the hint of danger in Dance.
She opens the roster files on her laptop, considering the names of their higher quality patrons, and grimaces at the futility.
Dance isn’t showy enough for most of the gay patrons. And the ones who can look past the sweatpants, who can see past his ascetic monkish attitude, are taken… She’d had hopes that Bud Innes would make a proposal, but he’s going the easy route, with cute pouty Robert, a pretty boy who knows when to throw a tantrum, and doesn’t practice enough. Bud often sees Dance on bad nights, when Robert calls him in a panic because practices are going down the tubes. It’s been rough since Richard Young took over. Bud probably thinks Dance is some skinny anchorite with crazy eyes.
Emma starts tapping out another email;
Subject: Want to meet for lunch?
And she grins, knowing what kind of abuse she’ll get in return.
Originally posted Apr 16, 2009
Another piece that came from an lj post at bjd_30minfic, for the prompt “stairwell”
It rattles her. That name came out of the research she did before their prizewinner showed up, when she was trying to get some grip on where their first chair might take the Metro Symphony. From what she’s heard so far, it’ll be somewhere a lot more crisp and professional and technical.
Amalia’s email last night commented that Walstadt simply doesn’t hear the subtle problems. He rushes through when he is there. He’s busy feathering for his next nest. Naturally, says Amalia, he was perplexed and annoyed by the things that Dance of Knives recited carefully to him from scribbled notes, after their very first break. But the other first chairs were muttering a lot. The good ones were nodding, triumphant.
The email devolved into all caps with exclamations to say that Dance was absolutely right. It mentioned that he didn’t forget anything she warned him about. As an exercise in pure memory, Amalia said, he stunned half the orchestra into submission right there. She wrote that she was going to be happy as a clam to work with him.
“So how do you feel about work so far?” Emma asks.
“We are sorry to miss talking Metro Symphony with Amalia at night,” Dance says, tugging out paper napkins with careful precision, the way he does everything. “Sharp wit, yes? Advise us. We are being–” he takes a breath, smiles, “I am– grateful for so much generosity. Amalia is helping members of sections who struggle in this repertoire. She wants change for accommodation. Metro must train younger musicians.”
“We were lucky Walstadt brought in some funding to hire them at all,” Emma says.
Dance looks at her solemnly over the plate full of sticky bear claw. “Walnuts?” he ask, holding up some of it.
“Yes, these are a bit old, but–”
“Can we be telling if these are Persian walnuts or black English walnuts?” He says it with a distinct rhythm, articulating with care. “We– I– read these two trees look different. Black walnuts grow sticky husk?”
Emma pauses and blinks. “Yeah, they do. Can’t tell in pastries, but we can try to find something that does show the taste.”
“We will be liking that. Liking plants too,” he says. His eyes catch the light, turning a warm light brown. “We never live long enough with one place for planting trees.”
Emma grins. “Well, then you’ll go nuts–sorry!–you’ll go crazy over my weeds. I know what most of the weeds probably are, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bend over and dig the darn things out.”
“Can we give you digging help? Good, helps thinking. Good like jogging.”
“Oh, you do whatever you like out there, it can only improve things.”
“What is Miss Emma liking cooked in satay?” Dance asks then, and licks sticky cinnamon sugar glaze off his fingertips, wasting none of it. That reminds her of cats. Not a fluffy and sweet-tempered cat like her own, but something a lot more powerful. Perhaps with spots or stripes hidden in that sleek black coat. Feral as hell.
It’s just not on, she tells herself crossly, to project such patronizing nonsense onto somebody she barely knows. But the whole orchestra saw Dance being gently evasive. Walstadt likes to grab people, push them about, turn them to face new directions, when he gets aggressive or excited or carried away. Dance doesn’t accommodate that. He is too quick on his feet. Right now, he’s watching the gears grinding slowly in her head. He’s used to waiting for people to catch up.
“Oh, use anything in the fridge, whatever’s in there. I think there’s onions. I’ve got no idea if I have any of the spices or whatnot that you might want to use.”
He smiles then. “We ask if our third and fourth thing be good to our first two things, yes? When we have one thing only, we use. Pickles. Eggs. Odd things.”
Emma wipes sugar off her mouth, and his eyes follow the sugary napkin. Oh yes, that boy’s been hungry.
He does that head-tilt again. “Is Miss Emma liking carrots and celery with peanut butter?”
“No, but that’s what I can stand to snack on in a hurry, when my tum is all riled up and tossing round.” She pats herself.
“Is tum all tossing now? Is Miss Emma’s job giving upset?”
Emma whooshes out a breath. “No worries, I’m all right now. You made me settle down and eat something and laugh! But don’t get me started whingeing about work, we’ll sit here all night!”
“And that is bad?” he says, with a little quizzical smile. He waves his hand at the crowded little donut shop. “Yes, sit here in a warm place, eating sugar bombs with beautiful woman who has such wonderful laugh?”
“Oh, lord luv a duck, did you say pretty things like that to Amalia?”
“Oh, Amalia is pretty, but also such jammin’ awesome musician. But Miss Emma, yes! Miss Emma is jawdropper steaming hot, I know this before. Our section says this. They can’t say it to Miss Emma, all straight boys, no, no. But we are queer, so we can say whatever if we like. Right? So straight boys kid us. We say it, Miss Emma punch us out, we must go to rehearsal all black-eye, and Maestro Walstadt asks who hit us, and they all laugh at us a lot.”
Emma finds herself cracking up and laughing very hard. When she winds down, she reaches across the tiny table and gives him a little push on the shoulder. “Flattery!”
He smiles. He’s letting her push him, too. “That is, flattery is to say pretty things?”
“Yes! Silly things that you only say to make somebody happy!”
“But is not just silly,” Dance says. He puts out his two hands, and takes hers, and grips them gently. “Miss Emma impresses people, lots smartness, so quick, Miss Emma does not stop to visit a mirror who says Miss Emma is the fairest of all, yes?”
She grins. “Why? Do I need to brush my hair or something?”
He lets go of her hands, reaches up, and plucks a tangle of little twigs from the curls tousled by her right ear. “As we say, no worries, please. Leaves fall on the head coming in. Do not wish to surprise Miss Emma.” He frowns, smoothing the disordered curls above her ear.
“Oh damnitall,” Emma growls, looking ruefully at the twigs. She puts up a hand and adopts a silly dramatic pose. “Oh, I shall just have to play as if I’m really a wood nymph or water fairy or something terribly Shakespearean.”
He gets up, laughing, and puts the twigs in the can along with their paper trash. He’s still chuckling as he sits down. “Ha! Amalia tells stories on Miss Emma. Miss Emma plays Puck with tricks.”
“How do you– oh, of course! You’ve learned the music for plays and ballets, right?”
“Yes, we read translations to understand…how do we say… mood. Correct phrasing, style of bowing. But that old man Falstaff, that is nasty in Korean. Older village people don’t like actors yell those words where child might hear. Very sad. Old sad clown.” He touches her coat sleeve just enough that she can feel it. He’s so used to being cautious, it makes her want to reach out and arm wrestle him, teach how to do silly fingersnaps, or just maul him about while quoting silly movie lines, and hear him laughing some more. Of course she won’t do that, which is a shame.
He smiles, as if he read the thought anyway.
Emma taps his arm. He permits this, too. “We should get you a proper haircut. I’ve a buddy who wants new clients who won’t mind being experimented on.”
He pushes his untidy mop into a rooster comb like a bad mohawk, and makes a silly face. “Oh, sad again, not enough tats and earrings.”
“Amalia didn’t warn me I’d be laughing all night!”
He leans in close, opening his eyes very wide. “Amalia tires, we don’t joke at her all night. But Miss Emma! So glad Miss Emma is Miss Amalia’s friend!” He grins, with very white teeth.
“So am I,” Emma says, and gives him another mild push on the shoulder, which only makes the grin widen. He pats her arm, too. Emma is beginning to think that only a damn fool would chase Dance round the house. She’s certain that he’ll be underfoot all the time, alongside her cat.
written from a challenge on bjd_30minfic with the prompt of “stairwell”
Emma rubs her eyes, looks up from the stack of grant application paperwork. “What are you talking about?”
“Does Miss Emma ever pray for good luck, as some of the ladies of the Metro do before a performance?” Dance asks. He is reading sheets of music, and marking changes in careful details from his scribbled session notes. He has a lot of them. Conductor Richard Young must have been on a roll that afternoon.
“Nooo,” Emma says, amused. The sardonic editor in the back of her head remarks, Only because it takes too much to make you ask. Youhaven’t been on hard times that bad in the last two years Dance has been living here. She blinks it away and says, “What brings this up?”
“Maestro Young was yelling when somebody new walked in on our practice. This guest waved hello at us and sat down to watch. Of course Young has his instinct for patrons. But this one witness simply shut off Young’s temper. There was much speculation.”
“What’d he look like, this new guy?”
“Oh, we didn’t see him very well. Not well enough to gossip. Tall, big. Freckle, red hairs, sports guy with a beard, going gray. Good-natured.”
“Probably not one of our regular patrons. I’ll check it out,” Emma says absently, her eyes going back to her papers. She doesn’t look at Dance again until she’s sure he’s preoccupied with his notes. But she smiles a little. So Dance doesn’t think he got a good enough look?
When he glances up with an inquiring gaze, she blinks innocently at him. Maybe Dance isn’t as preoccupied as she thought. “Not luck,” she says, dead-pan, “I believe in planning.”
The stairwell is no longer pleasantly echoing with Irish jigs and reels.
“It’s drowning frogs out there,” Emma says, crossly, shaking out her umbrella. Her shoes are soaked. “Did you hear the thunder going?”
“Yes, I did, and just look at you!” says her buddy, Amalia Mortkowicz. Amalia speaks quietly because their voices echo so much in the concrete surfaces of the stairwell going up to the next floor. The open risers of the stairwell won’t stop either loud noises or a wet, skidding foot.
“Well, I’m not going out until it eases up, I’ve got that damned old cello case of mine to get home. Here’s the books. It took a month for our professor to decide the Greek folk music really wasn’t. Greek, I mean. Which made him such a grumpy old man. All worthless except for your local historical collection. You know that’s a very fast review for him, don’t you?”
Emma groans as she puts down the cloth bag of lumpy objects handed to her. “I owe you. I’m sure it’d be easier to pull teeth. So, how is it working out with our newest immigrant?”
“Oh, Emma, I wanted to ask you– Is there anywhere else for him to go?”
“You’re tired of him so quickly?”
“No, he’s a dear! But my sister is coming home day after tomorrow.. And he’s very self-contained and tidy, and my old sofa… Well, things are worse than when you stayed with me. The trip didn’t go well. She’s deep in one of those horrid rebound situations.”
“I remember you were worried about it,” Emma says, giving a little warning gesture upward.
Amalia murmurs, very soft, “I can’t fault her taste, but her comments last night! I’m sure she’ll try to seduce him, no matter what I told her. She fusses now about people who only talk in gerunds! It’ll drive them both mad. I just can’t see me letting her maul him about and demoralize him like that. He’s a lovely player. Well, I’ll see you later, girlfriend, I’ve got students to bully.”
The door slams after Amalia’s stout, fast-moving figure. There’s a brief echo in the stairwell. Then the hush of rain on the walls.
“I heard you doing jigs and reels up there at lunch time. You might as well come down and talk to me. I know where you work. If you help me get her cello home tonight, we can haul your things to my place.”
There’s a little rustle up there.
“I’m Emma, I’m a librarian on the fund-raising and symphony coordination committees. Amalia might not have bothered to explain. And trust me, you do not want to risk Amalia’s sofa or her sister,” says Emma. “I’ve got more room than she does. How are you on carrots and celery sticks and peanut butter for dinner?”
There’s a brown face peering down over the rail. “Much better in satay sauce with onions,” says a soft tenor voice.
Emma gazes upward. “You cook?”
“Liking much when finding pans,” he says. “And onion.”
“I have a few pans, I just never use them.”
“Amalia is very much nice lady, but all boxes, no pans,” he says.
“You’re on, Mister Ha Neol. Come on down and I’ll show you the cat and my digs and my pans, and we’ll come back later for Amalia. I want out of these wet things. Do you have a plastic grocery sack for your violin case?”
“No,” he says.
She props her purse on a rail, it weighs a ton, and rummages. “Zip ties, no, scissors, no, tape–I was mailing things in this weather, silly of me–” She pulls out a couple of wadded plastic sacks and waves them aloft. “Do I know how to rescue musicians and librarians, or what?”
“Miss Emma does!” he says, and then he’s edging down silently. He’s a foot shorter than she is. He has dark skin and eyes that look more Mongol than Korean. “Miss Emma was hearing us? Miss Emma came to our rehearsal?”
“I did,” she says, holding out the plastic in his direction with one hand while her other hand is rearranging the oddments that should stay stuffed in her purse, and are trying to fight back. She doesn’t stare at him. She knows better than to spook shy guys who play instruments and never use ‘you’, or ‘I’, those rudely direct pronouns, only the politer ‘we’ or ‘us’. If she’s not careful she’ll start doing it herself, as if she’s mocking him. “Mister Ahn Ha Neol–Mister Ahn, isn’t it?–you’re going to be the best damn concertmaster we’ve had in years, trust me.”
She’s surprised when he turns away, puts up one hand, and wipes at his eyes. “We are thanking Miss Emma.” Not for the first time, she silently rues the day the Metro signed a contract with Hovannes Walstadt, conductor. The old guy is like a bull in a china shop. Ha Neol’s other hand is clutching his violin case to his chest. The odd scars on his face are pale in the cold. He’s all angles, skin drawn hard over bones– far too thin, Emma thinks.
“Right,” Emma says, frowning. “Let’s get some coffee and sugar bombs into both of us first. My treat because you’re going to carry Amalia’s cello tonight, and I’m starved, and I don’t want to wait.”
“So kind,” he says, gazing up at her.
“Nonsense, I’m selfish! I like intelligent company.”
“We are not,” he says, following her down the stairs so the she has to stop and turn around and face him. This time he’s taller, since he’s three steps higher. He looks somehow larger at this angle. The skinny is muscular. The shift of his angular head reminds her of a large praying mantis staring at her, fascinated.
“I’m sorry? You’re not intelligent?”
“Not Ahn Ha Neol, not our name,” the violinist says, smiling at her. “Our name, it is now becoming Dance Of Knives. Amalia helped get our papers to start this changing.”
Emma bites back her first word, which would have been “sweetheart,” and merely says; “Of course, how silly of me!” and rushes him down to the door by sheer force of will.
He thunders down the back stairs and into the wild back yard, clutching a tattered and faded green book. She is waiting for him, and he throws himself into her lap, making her grunt. Oops, got her with an elbow! When he poked Mary Jane Weiler with his elbow last summer when they were watching a softball game, it had made her cry. “Sorry,” he says.
“It’s ok, honey,” Mom says, and he feels better. Mom really likes to snuggle.
He plops the book into her hands. It’s really old, maybe older than Mom, and it looks sad and beat up. Once Mom had turned a page and it fell out, and it made her cry. It had been her book before she gave it to him; she said her momma had read it to her when she was a little girl. She didn’t have anything else left from when she was a kid, so this book was special.
It was also the best book he had ever read. Maybe it was Mom’s favorite, too, even though she read lots and lots of books. Most of them didn’t even have pictures, and most of the ones that did were dumb. Pictures of rats in mazes, or rows and rows of green plants that all looked the same, not pictures of witches and mermaids and two little girls named Amy and Clarissa.
“Read the part about Malachi, Mom,” Lucas says, “that’s where we left off.” Lucas bets he’s read this book a million times, and it’s still cool!
Mom reads really good, with voices and everything, so the wild back yard starts to turn into Old Witch’s gloomy house on top of a glass mountain. Old Witch is very wicked and knows lots of bad spells and stuff, but she’s kind of dumb. She gets caught being wicked by two little girls and they banish her to the top of a glass mountain where she could never, ever get down, even if she tried for a hundred years. She has to stay there until she learns to be good.
Amy and Clarissa are friends with a magical bumblebee, and he ends up on the glass mountain with Old Witch. Old Witch looks and looks and looks for him, so that she can send him back to the two little girls! Why? Why not just make friends with him? It would be soo cool to have a magical bumblebee as a friend! Lucas had wished for a friend like Malachi every year on his birthday when he blew his candles out. Those sorts of wishes are supposed to come true, weren’t they? He also wished for a snake and a gerbil and a pony, but never, ever on his birthday.
They finished story time by chanting the magical incantation for about the zillionth time, by heart:
You are a magic
If in trouble
e’er I be,
here to me.*
Mom closes the book carefully. Story time is over. Now it’s monster-roaring time! The long grass is awesome to roll in. He’s a horse — no, a dinosaur! An allosaurus! They used to roll on their backs when their backs itched, didn’t they? They must have. He starts to giggle when he thinks about an allosaurus reaching up with his puny arms and scratching his own back.
He pops his head up over the tall grass. Oh, jeez, Mom’s watching him. Better mind his manners. He grins and tries to pick the dead leaves and twigs out of his hair, but he gives up after a second. It hurt! Mom’ll pull them out later, but she’ll laugh at him. He can’t help it, it’s like his hair is a weird magnet for all kinds of stuff. She calls it a bird’s nest, but he never found any eggs in it. Anyway…
“Thanks for reading to me, Mom. We’ll do more tomorrow, okay?” She smiles at him and nods, and he takes off running, whistling something by that silly laughing guy, Mozart, back toward the creek, to look for tadpoles and fish in the mud.
But the creek is a mud hole, no rain this week. Icky. He didn’t even want to wade in the gooey stuff, it’s too hard to see through, and he’d die if he got bit by a cottonmouth. He slumps in disappointment. Darn, there were tadpoles down in there somewhere. Nice, big, fat, slimy tadpoles that must turn into giant toads that eat mosquitoes. Just have to wait until there was more rain and the water didn’t look so creepy. He scratches one of the gazillion little bumps that the skeeters left from sucking his blood. Bloodsucking bugs were pretty cool, but Lucas wished they’d suck someone else’s and leave his alone. They itch! Mozart wouldn’t laugh at this. Boooring.
Well, until he sees some little tiny tracks printed in the mud. What made those? Okay, birds, yeah, and that’s a squirrel–he knows the way their toes splay out–and that looks like one of the barn cats, the one with the crooked hind leg who’s missing a toe– and awesome, a tiny little hoof print! A dee-, no, a fawn! Where was its mama?
There’s a path beat down along the bank of the creek, one that he’s never seen before. Why not follow it? It might lead to pirate treasure, or a meadow with flying unicorns living in it. Hey, he could catch one and fly up into the clouds! Or maybe there’s a wizard like Merlin, that would teach him spells like the one that calls Malachi. That would be good, too.
The path leads away from the creek and winds through some baby trees that shiver in the wind. Lucas knows that he’s too far away from the house now, Mom will yell if she finds out. She always seems to yell whenever he does anything really interesting. The meadow waves at him, making him want to walk farther into the grass. Something strange stands out in the sunshine, something haystack yellow and shaped like a big, upside-down basket. Who knows what was inside?
Lucas stands in the sunshine and listens. Above and around the leaves rustling, and a dog barking, there was a strange humming. It seems almost, kinda familiar.
Then a honeybee flies around his head twice, like he’s checking him out, and lands on his arm. He doesn’t sting — no, wait, this bee was a girl bee, not a boy bee like Malachi — she just crawls around a little bit and flies away. It feels way different from when a fly or a mosquito crawls on him. Like soft or fuzzy, maybe. Huh. Lucas wonders what her name is, and if she’s magical or not. Maybe not, maybe the magical ones are the bumblebees. But maybe all bees are magic. Maybe bumblebees knew spells, and honeybees knew Aikido, like Mary Jane Weiler’s mom did. Then they’d be awesome fighting bees! Now that makes him giggle. Commander Lucas of the Fighting Bee Squadron, reporting for duty!
More of them come to take a look at the weird human, like the first girl bee did. They buzz around him like all those old-fashioned planes flew around King Kong’s head, but he doesn’t roar at them and wave his arms. That’d be stupid. They don’t want to hurt him, after all. They want to be his friends! Where did he find all those flowers on his shirt? Must check it out, crawling around. Must find where that dirt came from, and that bit of mud. Yes, got it, ma’am, over this way!
And some of them zoom off, on patrol, gonna go find those wild bean flowers where the garden at the Back Forty used to be, not far from the cellar hole. The beans are kinda strange back there, giant and speckled and the bean pods are a dark purple until they dry out. They look like Martian beans! Maybe that’s where the Pod People come from. On second thought, maybe the bees better not go there, maybe the Pod People will eat them! But it’s too late, they’ve gone already. Well, good luck, bees! Will they come back transformed into Purple People-Eating Martian Bees? Ewwww.
He stands very still and lets them buzz around him, crawl on him even, if they want to. This is crazycool. He wonders if he could take one back to show Mom. She likes Malachi, after all! He reaches out with the place in his throat, unrolls the invisible leash that he uses when he sends out the secret centipede, and clips it onto one of the bees.
He’s not too sure she likes it, it makes her buzz harder in a circle around his head, held by the leash. It works, though!! Can’t hold her too long, she’ll get frightened and fly too hard trying to get away, and get too tired out to get back home. She’s not used to it. It’s like Mom’s friend Sonja working with a puppy, that’s it. But when the puppy figures out how much fun it is, getting to go everywhere, watch out! They’ll have to get used to it first. Maybe he could make enough leashes for all of the bees and hold on very tight to the other ends and they could fly away together, if they work very hard at it. Wonder where they’d take him?
Go bees! Go fly high, find lots of flowers so you’ll be strong! Lucas waves good bye as they go.
He’s gonna have to come back later, maybe tomorrow, and visit his new bee friends again. But now, he can hear his mom calling him, from very far away. It’s gonna take him a while to get back, so he breaks into a run down the worn path.
Dark splatters and splotches mark the dried mud on the edges. Whoa! He didn’t even see those clouds coming up, and here’s the wind, too! Big ploppy warm drops smack in his face and his hair. He runs harder, skidding, and slides at the line of trees. He’s just getting up, with a rip in his pants knee, when he sees a flash of blue flutter down by his foot.
It’s a big feather, like a jay. It’s very bright. He squints upward against more big plops of rain in his face.
Oh boy, this is gonna take help.
He grabs the feather, and runs harder.
*Exerpt from The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes, copyright 1960. If you haven’t read it, please do. It’s utterly charming.
A late evening collaboration between Numaari and Nagasvoice. But the Aikido bees are GreenJudy’s fault. 🙂