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.
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 stadium effect, Steve recalls the weatherman sayin’. The eye-wall of the storm curved ’round them like a bowl, like a stadium. Yup, ‘zactly like a stadium. Not that she’d ever been inside one — pro sports were purty damn useless far as she was concerned.
Penelope yammers on in that creepy voice of hers, but Steve weren’t listening. She’s busy fillin’ her eyes with the sights all around them. Tree branches lay splintered on the ground, in the creek that chugs along yards from its usual course. There’s water everywhere, rushing over and around trees and bushes, creepin’ closer to the house with every passin’ hour. The shed roof lays in huge chunks ‘cross the yard and ‘gainst the house. Yah, this is gonna take some doin’, fixin’ this.
Her hands itch for a hammer. Get a coupla bits, a decent cordless drill to drive ’em, get a pocket of good brass Phillips screws, make sure things stay where the builder meant ’em to be, some eighty, ninety year ago. Folks forget there was reasons for strips of this and that, channeling water away from the support beams, keep that foundation dry. Could be a beautiful snug place, with somebody to get after that old siding, get the moss off the shingles. Makes her knuckle joints hot, just lookin’ at the cracks and the warps. It’s jus’ in her blood, like Penelope’s weaving. Jus’ in her blood. She knows nothin’ could be done for the old shed, but the house? She can do somethin’ ’bout the house. The house, she has good bones. Better make sure that nobody’s snugged down in the little root cellar since it’s surely gonna flood real soon. But even that ain’t the end of the world. The roof, she’s gonna stay. Penelope made sure of that.
Poor old gal, hope she don’t wear out her weavin’ fingers, gonna have her hands full, tightening the sticks and planks they’ve rounded up to strengthen the work they already did, make nice tight secure shelters for the critters in the barn. Barn is in worse shape than the house. She starts poking round, finding tools again where the storm flung ’em. Can’t leave that evil-eyed old bull, lurkin’ back there in his broken-down pen, to go wandering out there like so much target practice when that eye-wall comes down. See him get driven full of splinters to the point he’s insane with agony? No. Not on Steve’s watch. Just, no. Ain’t nobody got no business keeping a bull in this barn, but somebody had the mercy to get him out of wherever they found him–some vague story about finding him wandering loose, and dragging him along with them on foot, with carrot-tops, god bless’ em. Nails, there’s sloppy old boxes, perched on a wall joist. Not good for a real bull-pen, but he ain’t gonna get any worse hurt on nail heads than if he panics and breaks out in the wind. Ain’t nobody knows what an animal that big can do till you seen the damage. Keep that sucker safely in his hole, Steve grunts, and glares him back when he wants to lean into her and snuff her pockets and chew her hair. “Big lummox,” she says, mad, swatting him away from the hair and making him snort and shake those horns.
Penelope witters on. “Were it my place in thiss,” she says, “Those dogss would be rounded up safe and sound–“
Was it Penelope’s place, she’d have the chicken coops in the living room where she could keep an eye on ’em, she knew as well as Steve did that tain’t no kindness to stick an animal out in a whooping howling act of God like this monster and nobody round close to calm ’em down–but Pen’s house is the only knob around high and dry for miles, looks like. The place is already full, top to bottom. There’s people sittin’ on the stairs, wrapped up in their blankets, starin’ into space, and nobody askin’ what they seen on the road. No one whisperin’ about bugs and green goo and claws like lobsters, or some such. Nope. Ain’t room in there for a barn kitty with six-week-old kittens, a three-legged bunny, five pigs round about seventy pound each, a tom what needs doctorin’ for fightin’ wounds, something like twelve or fourteen tick-ridden half-bald dogs all ages and sizes and condition, a coupla aged and ornery nannies gone dry, and a dozen ragged banties with lice that ain’t got sense to take off somewhere else, where somebody’d feed ’em decent. Maybe that new gal in the kitchen might pay attention, was anybody with sense to teach her how to get these poor things back to shape. She’s been keeping the water dishes up, bless her.
“We should take ’em home,” Steve says, almost barking it, she’s so mad at what’s she finding, and Penelope blinks at her. “Will you look at these broken old feed troughs? Pig get their head caught in that–“
“Ssteve, she of the ssoft heart and– ” Penelope chuckles, a whispering helium rattle.
“Can’t abide it. People gotta take responsibility. If they can’t do it, let someone who can, dammit!” Steve glares up.
“But there isn’t always anyone, anyone at all–” Penelope reminds her, calmly weaving shut a hole she found in some rabbit wire.
“Gaaawdammit!” Steve roars, and everything freezes and stares at her. The bull gets off her boot-toe. The dogs whimper, and the poor little blind one snuffles at her leg nervously. The biggest one, some kinda cross between a coonhound and maybe a Saint Bernard, raises its head and gives a mournful howl, and then eerily, all the dogs turn with it and trot away outside, and head off somewhere into the brush. They both stare after them. “What the hell ‘zat?”
Then Penelope’s talking about how they patrol the trails, they’re part of Pen’s Sounding thingie. Something hits something and makes a racket, they’re the first to go look. Part of their self-assigned job.
“Well, dammit, he should get ’em treated for fleas!” Steve says. There’s the hammer. Rusty, the handle’s all cracked, tear up your hand in a coupla hour. Damn fools left it in the weather. Reminds her why she does woodworking. Calms her down, goddammit. She takes it, shoves it into the loop in her overhauls. No sense puttin’ away what yer gonna need later. Steve eyes the approaching clouds and decides it’s time to get Penelope inside. Stadium effect. Goddamn weatherman.
Drake Gerritson gives Grace a sly look when she asks him to keep an eye on the three kids, but she sure can’t just leave them. God only knows what they’d get up to. Drake winks at her after he agrees to watch them; he’s no fool. She’s sure that he’s going to tease her mercilessly the next time he and Ruby come over to dinner.
There isn’t anyone in the hall closet, thank God. The towels are a wreck, much worse than before, and Claudia cringes as the thought of stepping on all that. There are pale packets of condoms spilled on the floor. She pushes Hal firmly into the dark, and pulls the door shut behind her. He gives a little grunt, skidding on things, and there’s a thud of his back hitting the wall and the shelves, and he’s laughing again. “Are you gonna–”
“Yes, I am,” she says in her mildest voice, and feels his hands on her legs, sliding upward. She steps wide, making it easier for him, and his hands slide around baffled under her skirt for some time, while she smiles.
“You’re wearin’ a garter belt in a hurricane,” he says, in a voice full of awe. “And lace …somethings.. on top.”
“The panties come off better that way, on top,” she says.
“Why?” he says.
“It’s what I have that’s worth keeping. I did have stockings, you see, but they’re toast.” She reminds herself not to sound so sheepish. She doesn’t need to explain or apologize. Or even tell him that she put those things on this morning to… make herself feel more secure. She would have worn her collar, too, if it wouldn’t have brought up more questions than she’s willing to answer right now.
“That’s not all dere is to it,” Hal says gently, and suddenly the closet’s darkness doesn’t feel so secure as it did. “Is it?”
Grace’s breathing sounds loud in the dark.
His hands brush the lace gently. “You’d be amazed at dah stories people tell, to get through dah day. An’ a storm like this? What’s a story, between friends? It’s all right. It’ll get better.”
There’s a moment of silence, while his hands tug the lace, and it slides down quite nicely. It feels good, coming off, and she sighs.
“Can I kiss you now?” she says, reaching out and taking the band of lace from his hand, and putting it up on a shelf where she’ll remember to retrieve it.
“Yeah,” he says. “I think I’m okay, you kissin’ me. I think I’m okay anything you want. I’m okay if–”
“Are you going to stay this shape?” she says, hearing more roofing rip loose far above them.
“Yes,” he says. There’s more strength in his voice. “I know… I know how. Now.”
“Good, that’s what I like to hear!” she says, and hears herself laugh, and then they’re both laughing, and then she’s fallen into his arms and they’re kissing, still giggling. His hands slide around on her hips and he moans, and then she’s pressing him back into the wall, feeling the jeans already undone, and her hands stumbling over his to get them yanked down his legs.
Then she says, on some whim, “Hal… I like pain and… humiliation, too,” as clearly as if she’s been told to do so by Sir.
He says, “Ahh, really? Dat’s what they all say. Dey don’t mean it, yanno. But a Princess has ta say what she wants.”
And somehow it’s funny, and sweet, and she laughs, and kisses him. The kissing is better than anything she ever remembers. Anything.
Then her knee is up high, with her foot propped on a shelf, in a way that she dimly recalls daydreaming about sometimes when she wakes up in the morning. One of those thoughts, amusingly irrelevant to her previous self. That thought, recognizing, oh yes, there’s room, I could prop my foot there, and then he’d be at just the right height– and he is. But he’s got his hand in the way, touching her first, the fingers curling up so astonishingly well. His forefinger knows what it’s looking for.
She gives a harsh cry, amazed, and he smiles, kissing her, and pulls back. “You’re all wet, baby,” he whispers, stroking his fingers down into the dampness. Then his other hand comes round on her hip, slides down her rear, under her, between her buttocks, and she braces wide to give him room. Then his hand fans out on the garter lace, pressing it hard into her flank. “Your ass is all wet from your cunt,” he whispers, and she hears the smile. “God, I can smell you.”
“Harder,” she whispers, pushing back into that grip. “Yes. More. Please.” He gives her the pressure she needs, fingertips at the same strength as his palm, pressing the lace into her skin, pushing her back.
His fingers slide deeper in front, exploring, and then brushing back outward, sliding upward, then pressing into the nub of her clitoris.
She gasps. “That,” she gasps, rocking into him, shameless, showing his fingers the need. Then his hand spreads wide, grips her whole pussy, and his other holds her ass still. Strong as a horse…
He’s breathing hard. “Still, hold still, baby,” he says.
“What?” she pants into his shoulder.
“You hafta ask. The Quiet People, you hafta ask. Ya hafta say what ya want.”
She’s imploding, shivering hard, trying not to make a racket out of sheer conditioning. But the house is rattling and peeling apart in the wind, so nobody would hear anyway. “Pleasepleaseplease…” she gasps, then rocks her head back up to stare into his face imploringly. “Please. Take me.”
“Up dah cunt? Up dah ass? Up your fantastic mouth?” he gasps, and his chest is heaving hard with each word. He strokes, featherlight, against her cunt, just a touch sliding into her, and then another touch on her mouth, and a deeper one sliding up the hot part of her butt, up onto the lace of her belt.
She’s beyond caring. “Anywhere you want, anyhow you want, all three at once, if I could find a way to do it.” Her voice is harsh, almost impatient.
“Yeah?” he says, not moving.
“Yes, please,” she says.
“Then pick up a condom and let’s get it on me,” he says, and he sounds like he’s breathing harder.
“Why–why–” she hears herself say, and she pulls herself together. “Why do you sound –”
“Like a slut?” he says calmly. “Nah, I’m dah anti-slut,” he says, and suddenly he’s laughing. “I’m so careful, you’d never believe. Ya know why? You want me to turn into a horse right here, or in your uterus?”
“What?” she says, jolted.
“It ain’t pretty, it ain’t nice, what all the popular girls do, getting demselves knocked up on impulse by boys with no beards,” he says harshly, and she can hear the anger suddenly. “But it really ain’t me. Sorry, baby. If that’s what you like, you can kiss me good-bye an’ walk out and get laid by some idiot prick to give you your next Lucas. But not me. I ain’t never done bareback without rubbers, knowing what I turn into. And I’ve known you, what? Two, three hours? I like you a lot better than that.”
She goes cold, suddenly, in the sweltering heat, and stares into the dark like he spit in her face. “Lucas was the best thing that’s ever happened to me, a gift.” Her voice shakes, loaded with outrage and hurt. “Besides,” she adds, quieter, “we used condoms. One broke. I’m not a complete moron.” She can feel herself open her mouth in a groan that she doesn’t let out. For maybe never having had Lucas, in a different world than this.
“Ah, see?” he sighs, his voice gentling. He gropes for her hand and squeezes it. “Dere’s dat, too. Dere’s no tellin’ with my spunk what kind of litters you might drop. I don’t wanna hurt you, not never, nohow. Accidents happen, you know dat better than most.” His voice in the dark turns thoughtful, at odds with the feel of his erection brushing up against her thigh. “I’ve never had my fertility tested, but…”
“Ah!” she cries then. “You’re silly and geeky, too!” Mock-horrified, trying to lighten up. She could feel the apology in the grip of his hand as clearly as if he had said it. She squeezes back.
“And a weirdo, don’t forget,” he says, wiggling his fingers in hers.
“I don’t know if I can do this in the dark. I’ve never tried.” Her voice fades in and out strangely.
“Get some rubbers. I’ll make sure it’s on right when I use it.”
She bends down with his hand on her rump feeling her go, and she scrabbles after the packets, and picks up three, and feels his other hand close around hers, and take all but one. He has her give him a whole wad, which he stuffs in his shirt pockets. His shirt flaps open, she feels it brush her face when she leans close. “For later,” he says. “We’ll use da goo in dose. I have plans,” in one of his silly voices.
She stands up, and gasps when his other hand slides onto her belly. It’s bewildering, hearing his voice shift silly like that in the dark.
“You feel where dah rim of dah rubber unrolls on one side?” he says in the dark, with his fingers over hers.
“Yes, I can,” she says, as steady as she can manage. There’s a moment of struggle. It’s gooey. It slips, and she drops it, and she gasps. “Damn.”
“Princess,” he says, and his voice is amused, “dere’s plenty. We got time. Stop,” he says then, with his hand on hers. “Just feel it, Princess. Touch my cock. Just get to know where I am, what it feels like. I can wait.”
She strokes him, with her fingers gooey with latex-scented lubricant. She strokes back his foreskin, strokes the rumpled skin wonderingly. It’s soft. She’s never been with a man who has one. He gives a tight hiss through his teeth, and it moves in her hand. Hot fluid drools out of the warm, slippery head of it. She concentrates, gets the condom onto the tip of his penis, and starts pushing the slippery ring. It doesn’t go anywhere.
He laughs. “Inside out! Coyote jokester takes the point, score!”
She sighs, and somehow she starts laughing too. “Hal,” she says.
“Yes, Princess Grace?”
“I really want to–”
“I want to fuck like rabbits,” she says lightly, “if I could just get my act together.” She doesn’t quite manage to keep from sounding plaintive and frustrated.
“Flattering,” he says. “Try dah next one dah other way.”
“I used to know how to do this,” she sputters with laughter, and sighs. This time it works.
“Yes,” he says, “I’ve heard that people fumble their way to ecstasy like this every day of the week.”
“And twice on Sundays?” she says, dryly.
“Oh God, I hope so,” he says.
“Is it on right?”
“Oh, it’s great. But you did it with your fingers all covered in my personal goo. You rubbed me up and got it all over the outside. Not so safe, Princess. I’ll get this one on, and you can do it next time.”
“Next time,” she repeats.
“That’s not a question, I hope. Dat’d be sad, and I haven’t even given you reason to avoid me. Or I don’t think I did.”
He groans, and then he’s pulling her forward, and guiding himself in. “Get what you ask for.”
He’s hot and he’s big and she’s tight, but she’s sloppy, and he takes his time, muttering in her ear about what he’ll do to her mouth and her ass. He holds still, braced against the wall, and he tells her, “You take me in dah way you want, at your speed,” and she groans. Her hip joint will ache in the morning. If there is a morning– but then he gives a little jolt with his hips, jerking her back into her body, into how her vagina is relaxing slowly, ever so slowly, around the penis inside her, and she gasps. She feels his hand on her thigh, then.
“I’m in. Put your leg down, I can hear ya hurting. Just stand firm, baby, while I move.” And he does, both of his hands wrapped tight around that belt, until it begins to rip, pressing her forward into him, his fingers gripping down in her butt hard enough to leave bruises.
It doesn’t take very many adjustments, hardly any time at all, and they are rocking madly, in tune with the motion of each other’s bodies and frantic with the friction that it makes. She can still feel that crazy thread of energy linking their hips, oscillating violently now. She wonders if he feels it too, or if she’s going spectacularly mad. She can feel him shudder deep and begin to lose himself, and she groans, “Hal… Hal. You have to say it. You have to tell me. Or I won’t. Please. You have to tell me to. Tell me to come. And I will.”
“Ahh, he says,” but I ain’t done ya all of the ways ya asked, have I?” And he comes, and he comes, and he comes, while she shudders under the spasms. When he pulls out of her, with a softening penis and a deep sigh of happiness, she’s still vibrating madly in her own skin, with her own hot syrupy fluids cooling on her thighs. He lifts both arms around her shoulders, lazily, and looks at her.
“I think ya need more,” he says, and his hands cup her breasts, slide into the bra, unhook it, so it hangs crooked and sloppy. “I ain’t done nearly enough ta please ya. I’m a bad lover, gettin’ all that excited. Nailin’ my princess in a linen closet with your foot on a shelf, dat ain’t right.”
“Please,” she begs. All of the fear, all of the day’s terrors, all of it recedes before the vast wave of her need, her body roaring its imperatives, shuddering her in his grip.
“Well, dis is nice,” he says, into the darkness, and his hands strokes over her skin, touching her nipples, squeezing her breasts, and none so gently, either. “I did hear a few things, but nothin’ like this. You ain’t gonna have fun with most of these boys, you’re way too freaky for dem. But I know, Princess, I do.”
“How…how..” she gasps, and feels tears leaking down her face.
“You got no idea what a clever woman can do with a boy who turns into a dog,” he says, with the sound of another condom packet ripping open, “and never once give him the right to come out of his kennel, or eat from a table, or fuck in a bed.”
“It’s a story I tell when I’m sad,” he says, flatly. “Right now, my arms full of the hurricane-riding Princess in garters? Nuh-uh.”
“Hal,” she says.
“That wasn’t always my name, but I’ll take it,” he says, and wraps his arms round her, tight. “Hal is a story I tell when I’m nice.”
“Hal,” she pants.
“So now you know half of my secrets, darlin’, and I ain’t kept even half my word to you.”
“Hal,” she says, and it’s painful, the ache in her groin.
His hand slides down her belly, and she shudders. She lurches in his grip. His fingers are covered in an unrolled condom. He slides his latex-covered fingers into the amazing amount of liquid drooled out on her leg, inside her, and he touches her clitoris gently. Then he slides them inside her vagina, wetting them, and says, “Turn,” and she does, and the wet latex-covered fingers brush at her ass, slide swiftly down from the lace into the hot depths, and the fingers rest tormentingly at the part of her anus, just resting there. Her breath hisses in and out of her teeth, she breathes so hard.
“You want it?” he says, and in front, his bare fingertip touches her clitoris. “Want me to bend ya over and spank ya too? I could do dat. I could spank you red, and keep your ass and your cunt as hot as a pistol.”
She draws in a deep breath. “Please, yes,” she says, and the big palm comes down on her flank with a bang like the end of the world.
One rubber-covered finger is inside her ass when she gasps, and then the next strike and the next, until she’s bent over the man’s hot bare knee, sniffling, with her ass stretched by condom lubricant and her own juices, holding three fingers, and the threat of a fourth, and she’s whimpering out loud for mercy.
“You feel good,” Hal says, and rubs her butt and the hot wide-spread part of her ass, he rubs her pubic hair in front, rubs all around everywhere but her aching clit. “Ahhh, I could fuck ya all week, just lay in bed and turn you from one side to dah other, and have ya rub me up one side an’ down the other with dose breasts. And hello, the mouth. Ahh, yes. Let us give praise to that mouth. Rubbing yourself on me, tasting me, making promises with a mouth like that. That mouth wants cock, don’t it?”
She nods, with her eyes leaking tears, draws in a deep breath. “Is it safe? Safe sex, to go down on you?”
“Do you trust me that much?” he says. “Shouldn’t you find out on your own, before you get talked into putting your mouth on me?”
“I didn’t expect– tonight– I wasn’t– it’s been so long–”
“Yeah,” he says, and his hand strokes the lace of her garter. “Dere’s some older studies show a small risk of AIDS on normal guys, and more if you’re thinking diseases like herpes, but the epidemiology people have been scrambling so badly for funds–” and he puts on a silly voice. “Ain’t medicine fun? It might have made me, too, yanno.”
She wipes her eyes. “Something, someone, made you like this?” she says.
“Dat’s dah story when I’m doin’ history, and boy, is dat dry as an old bone.”
“You are silly,” she says again, softly. It’s a strange sensation, not knowing whether she wants to screw him senseless or fold him in her arms. Actually, she wants to do both.
“Ya still want it?” The question makes her chest hurt.
“Yes, I do,” she says, firmly. “If I’m going to fuck you in a closet, Harold Two Horses, I want it all.”
“You like fuckin’ in closets?”
She finds herself laughing. “I think so. I don’t know, I’ve never done it before.”
“Ya want it all, wow.” He moves, and his voice is harder now. “I think–if I’m clever–I can do both. Ya won’t move, I tell you not to. Understand?”
“Yes,” she says promptly.
“Right,” he says, and gets them both on their knees, with her face in his crotch and his arms stretched out below that, reaching between her thighs, the fingers still moving on her ass and her cunt. “Now take my cock in your mouth, and tongue it, but don’t move,” he says. “Not even to shift your knees on dirty towels, or for my finger-rubber up your ass, or for my thumb working your cunt,” he says.
Then he starts moving his fingers on her clitoris, and he says, “Now that’s service, having a woman offering herself, anything you want, her tits, or her nice warm wet grabby cunt, or her clean tight little ass, or her mouth. I want to feel that wet mouth wrapped around my cock.”
She swirls her tongue all around his cock, which is still a bit soft, relaxed, almost fragile. She closes her teeth on it, ever so carefully, showing him how much he can trust her, and he doesn’t jerk, he doesn’t flinch, he just goes very still, and he sighs. A long, long sigh.
“That’s so good,” he says. “Ya gonna bite my cock if I give you release? You gonna make me sorry I let ya come?”
She doesn’t move. She doesn’t bob her head to answer. She’s been very well-trained.
He pulls his cock out of her mouth. “Ya want me to say it? Nah, ya want me to say it when I’m comin’ in your mouth.” He puts it back in her mouth. “If I had lube, I’d come in your ass too. Been hoggin’ this closet a long time, waitin’ for me to get hard again, I bet somebody might open dah door and see you on your knees, sucking me off.”
She feels the jolt of dread, pushing her closer to climax.
He slides his penis back into her mouth. He’s begun to harden up as he talks, to stiffen and arch upward and his fingers get harsher, moving, the latex beginning to go almost painfully dry in her ass. “If dey’re nice, I might let them look at ya. Ya like being looked at, in your lacy underwear? Ya think you’d like that, somebody watchin’ you serve me? See you on your knees with my fingers way up inside you?”
He pulls out, and she gasps. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
He says, “Reach my pocket. Get out some more condoms, put some more of that lube on my fingers, for your ass. It’s probably dry by now. It don’t last long. So did you wear pretty underwear on show?”
“I did,” she says, struggling to reach around with the packets. “But sex wasn’t part of our contract. He only looked, never touched me, not once in seven years.”
“Ahh. Now dat’s sad.”
“So that’s a story for a day when I’m feeling lonely,” she tells the dark, the hot humid air that smells of his sex, and of hers.
“Oh yeah. So you can think about tellin’ me that one, but not tonight. You’re all mine tonight, I don’t wanna share, you gonna have to forego getting put on display, sorry. And some folks, we wouldn’t like knowing, would we? We don’t tell Aunt Frog about what we do in closets all by ourselves, with our pants down and our stash of lube, just imaginin’ we got our own princess all to ourselves and she’s lost her panties oh no. Aunt Frog has some ideas what nasty habits the kennel lady had, but we don’t talk ’bout it. What’s dah point?”
He starts pausing sometimes, with the base of his penis mashing the tip of her nose, and his testicles tight at her chin. It’s hard to hear him talk, it must be hard for him to give her words, whispering his truths, but he does.
He says, quiet and harsh and half-lost in the wind, “Nobody who knows what else dah dog-boy turns into has ever, ever wanted to get my prick in dem. Oh no. Just you. You’re special. You might–if we are both very careful–one day get to fuck me in some of my other shapes. You could even fuck dah horse all right, once you got used ta him.”
She moans, and he grabs her flank, pressing against the bruises he’s made. “You like dat idea? Bein’ fucked by a horse? I can fuck you any shape I take. Don’t laugh, you’d like me as a dog, I’d lick you all over and try to hump your leg, I get so crazy. The tusk-boy, though, he’s gonna be rough. He likes cunt, though. Boy he likes cunt. Ugly as sin, so that boy gets no help. You’d think he’d grab girls who ain’t careful at night, but funny thing is, no. He won’t take nothin’ but free, he’s too proud to take what ain’t offered. Only likes it when a woman is really turned on, he knows dat smell. He ain’t never been fucked, and he’s proud of it. You think you can bring tusk-boy down to his knees, cryin’ and pleadin’ for cuntjuice? The horse would be dah hardest, though. I mean, I’m small for a horse, but still. Up dah ass would be easiest. Would you like dat, bending over a bale of straw with an uncut stallion covering you? Kennel lady, she was afraid of horse cock, and she had reason to be. Not you. Ain’t no condom big enough for that. You want to play safe, I’d need to wear a whole roll of plastic wrap, and for you? I’d do dat.”
He pulls out of her mouth, and his fingers stop moving. “Would you?” he asks, soft enough that it’s hard to hear him over the wind dragging at the walls of the house, groaning.
Grace says, “Would you wear it, when you’re a horse? Would you let me do that to you?”
“Oh yeah, Grace,” and his fingers move again. “For you? Yes.” He gives a snort of a laugh. “I let total strangers pick up my feet and clean out my frogs, hell, I can let you touch me anywhere you like it.”
She has the feeling it may not be that simple. Her jaw hinges ache, so soon, from opening that wide. “We’ll have to see then,” she says, hoarse with the semen she’s swallowed already. She reaches forward then–because she hasn’t allowed herself to put her hands on him, yet–and slides up his thighs with her palms. She reaches forward, and strokes his waist, and his flanks, and the strong upper slopes of his butt.
“If you like it too, then we–” and by God, she’s talking about days in the future, she is, “–then we’ll see what it feels like. You’ll have to be so terribly careful.”
“Yes,” he says. “But a horse is. All dah time.”
“You remember, from one shape to the next?”
“A lot of it, not all,” he says. “I don’t remember pain very well. What caused it, I mean.”
“Come here, sweetheart,” she says, and urges him to her, and takes his cock in her mouth as he moves. She whimpers around his cock, holding her head still, running the tip of her tongue in circles just under the head. It’s not just service. It’s not just abasing herself to the needs of another.
She wants the feel of him leaning into that touch, meeting that need drumming his body, the taste of him straining toward her, reaching as clearly as his hands stroking her. It feeds her own tension, winds her up until she’s knotted tighter than Penelope’s macrame. Her hands begin to ache again, the pain burning down the inside of her elbows, and she presses the heat of her body, the rushes of tingling energy, into his flesh with her palms, hoping he feels it, too.
Then he starts to rock his hips a little, sliding his penis very slightly in and out of her lips. Saliva drips out of her lips, down her chin, uncontrollably, with the size of him pushed into her mouth. He starts thrusting in slow, thoughtful drags.
“Ya think I’m being too rough with ya, telling you things like dat? You gotta be careful, baby, you gotta be quick and be strong, you gonna fuck me. It’s sad. I’m just tellin’ the truth here, you earned dat.” And he pulls out of her mouth.
“No, not too rough. Just honest.” She rubs her cheek against the tender skin on the crease of his hip, presses a kiss there, blinking tears in the dark. “So am I,” she says then.
He touches her hair, cups her head. “I know. Oh, I know. Ya want me to give it to you?”
“Please,” she pleads, feeling more tears come dribbling uselessly down her face. “I don’t know why, I just– I need– I always did–”
“Oh man, you’re wired like Pen’s house, whacked out all to shit. Okay, den mebbe I know what ya need,” and he draws her face down, and he pushes himself forcefully into the back of her throat. “Take it.”
The clearly spoken command makes her tense, shivering, then relax into it, and she controls herself. She’s never taken any man’s penis this deep in her throat, and she can either choke on it or submit to it. Fighting it means gagging, and she knows that won’t work. Relax, wait for breath, let his cock slide away again. It takes concentration. She can’t listen to the wind and things banging and the hum of metal things flapping in the wind, she can’t be afraid of anything else, not with his cock hitting her soft palate.
He breathes in short, tight pants. “I need to work on gettin’ back around through dese shapes. I prolly need to work with ya sittin’ on me like that, just like ya did. I know your hands are strong, but it’s more den dat. Ya gotta be strong in your mind, Grace, if I can’t make it back right away from dog shape, wrestling me down from dah front door when I’m barking mad at da neighbor. I’m bigger than you, it takes a choke chain. But I loves my people, I do, I run all day happy, bein’ a dog. I’m so happy, lay in your lap and just kick my foot all day long.”
He gives a little hiss of pleasure as she tongues the vein on the underside of his cock, giving it particular attention. “God, where did ya learn to suck prick like dat,” he says. “I bet ya know how to wear a strap-on dildo and bend over your boyfriend an’ fuck him through the mattress too. Wear dat double-headed thing in your cunt and fuck him up dah ass like my fingers are fuckin’ you, and make him yell. The lady who kept the Dogboy, she liked fuckin’ me up the ass. Found out how much I liked it. I liked a girl fucking me like dat. Ya think ya could make me happy fuckin’ me like a boy? Fuck the horse up dah ass, with ya right there where I might kick? Don’t know if regular horse stallions got that thing doin’, but I do.”
She grunts, but she doesn’t move. He’s doing the moving, sliding in and out, not worrying whether she can breathe easily.
“You don’t just like a little time getting prick in your mouth,” he says then. “You like it a lot. And the spanking. Boy, have I got some fun things to try.” Then he draw his fingers out of her ass, and he uses that palm to spank her instead, pulling the angle of it so it pushes her forward into him as he shoves himself into her mouth.
Four taps, testing it, and then he’s smacking her steadily, breathing hard, and then he’s saying the word. He says it.
“Come… come now,” he says, in a barrage of smacks, and his thumb between her legs does her clitoris, and she’s floating away from the world in a climax so huge that she has no idea what her mouth does to his cock, although liquid is pouring out of him into her mouth.
She comes harder than anything she’s ever experienced in her life. Ever.
Author’s notes: Another very, ahhhh, interesting collaboration effort. NSFW, FRM for smut and kink.
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. 🙂