Et Voila!

“…et Voila!”

The bouquet of bright paper blossoms just appears in his hand, as if by magic. He presents them to her with a flourish.

“You are the most unusual fairytale King I’ve ever met,” Claudia laughs, taking the flowers from Hal. The patchy bits of sunshine feel indescribably wonderful on her face, and the air smells freshly-washed, briny even. Astringent.

“Well, yanno dat King of dah Swamp is just a story dat I tell when I’m feelin’ silly,” Hal confides. “S’really a little more complicated dan dat.”

“More complicated than being a king?” she asks.

“Well, my ancestors are dah Chitimacha Nation. We have clans — mine is Dog. And in dah old days we had nobility, but not kings, exactly, dat’s kinda Euro-centric thang.”

“But it’s very fairytale for a Frog Prince to become a King.” Claudia is smiling so much that her face muscles ache.

“Yup, and dat’s why I use it. S’funny.” He makes an outrageous face. “Remember, I’m–”

” –a weirdo. Yeah, how can I forget? You keep reminding me. So what would the Chitimacha call what you do?”

“Not sure — our language’s been lost. I think da last known Chitimacha who could speak it died in the 1930’s or somethin’. Dey think da word was ma’ta.” He shrugs. “I knew an Anishinaabe Medicine Man who gave me lotta great advice when I was a kid. He called me an ogimaa — said dat it meant “Speaker” and dat I was gonna speak for my people.” He shakes his head. “An’ den I find out dat my people want me ta speak to them, too. Ya don’t get to be dah speaker without bein’ dah leader too.”

“Ogimaa,” she rolls the new word on her tongue, then looks at Hal.

He nods. “Yup, you’ve got it.”

She reaches out, traces his cheekbone with one finger. “I like that. Maybe I’ll use it. Is that okay?”

“Sure, baby. I’ll answer ta anythin’ you want ta call me. But why not just use Hal?”

“Hmmm,” Claudia says, “on the other hand, I could use Harold.” She nods. “That would work.”

“Ok, almost anything. I love Auntie Frog, but dayumm…”

“Hmmm, I’m looking for something that conveys a little more… respect.” She mostly manages to suppress a smile. “Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’ll be forgetting what your name is.” She lets the smile grow, leaning in to murmur throatily in his ear. “Mmm, Hal.” She rakes his earlobe with her teeth before leaning back. It makes him go silent for a moment; fun to watch him come back from wherever he’d gone off to.

“Your Majesty?” Hal looks anything but majestic at the moment, wearing a lop-sided smile, and blinking in the sunlight. “My majesty, I mean. No, umm… how come it’s my lord, and your majesty?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because the majesty belongs to the king, and he’s the lord of the vassal– hence the my…” So why is she thinking, quite suddenly about all the nasty things she could do with her king? Perhaps Aunt Frog put something in that bottle of cranberry juice she’s been drinking. Or perhaps it’s just Hal, sitting on the back porch, the last of the storm wind ruffling blue and green highlights out of his long black hair. Or maybe she’s just drunk from the sunshine. She lifts her hand, lets the breeze carry his hair across her arm, the palm of her hand. Mesmerizing.

He shifts closer to her, lifting his face, and takes a deep breath. He leans closer still, eyes closed, until he can rest his face against her cheek, breathing in quick little puffs, sliding down to her collarbone. She feels goosebumps raise on her arms, feels her nipples tighten. He’s scenting her. It makes her shudder hard enough for him to notice; she can feel him smiling against her throat.

Then he tilts his head and very deliberately takes her throat in his mouth, closing just hard enough for her to feel his teeth, then almost hard enough to bruise, but not quite. A hot flush starts in her throat, runs fast down her front to settle in her groin, and she relaxes into his grip. She murmurs, knowing he’ll feel the vibrations, encouraging him to — ooh, yes– scrape his teeth gently across the skin, and giving her a sharp little nip before he releases her.

“I know what you like,” he says. His expression is smug as all hell, and it makes her love him a little for it.

“Yes,” she tilts her head, offering her neck and shoulder once more. Instead, his hands travel down her arms, and she murmurs again when he takes her wrists, moves her hands to the small of her back, and tightens his grip.

Little nipping kisses, that make her squirm and grunt, and he growls playfully; “Hold still, woman,” while making it nearly impossible for her to do so. “Mmm, ya taste goooood,” Hal’s tongue is rough, licking at her neck, pushing wetly into her ear. Now she has a cold, wet ear, and an attack of the giggles that she can’t control, no matter how many warnings he gives her.

“Yer not so good at obedience after all, are ya?”

Her stomach lurches, but Hal is looking beautifully smug, and completely happy, and she settles once more into his warm regard.

“No, Ogimaa,” she says. It’s the first time she’s said it to him. It works; his eyes go half-lidded in an animal smile, and his body relaxes against hers– she feels boneless and melting herself.

“Let’s get some practice in.” Hal stands them up and walks her back a few steps. There’s a pause while he transfers her wrists into one of his hands, and runs his knuckles over her face. “Yep,” he says, “Love at first sight, baby.”

Then she’s walking in front, down the steps, and into the tall lush grass. it’s cool, and soaking wet on her legs. Hal is talking as they go —of course— she smiles to herself.

“See baby, ya said you’d be my straight man, and dat kind of makes me sad. I got a whole swamp full of dose. I want ta have a lover, I wanna own a pet, I wanna be with a woman who needs me, so bad she can’t stop herself– and that’s what you’re gonna be. That Derleth guy, he never played with you, did he? You got a lot of hard work ahead of you, baby.”

“Yes, Ogimaa.” She can hear her voice tremble.

“Yes?  He did play with you?” Hal says sharply and very close to her ear. He’s jerked her to a stop, near the line of cypress that mark the west side of the house’s yard.

“No! No, Ogimaa, he never — played with- with me.”

“What was the yes, then?”

“Yes,” Claudia says, through threatening tears, “Yes, I have a lot of hard work ahead of me.”

“C’mere, baby.” Hal turns her around to face him. “Ain’t no reason ta cry, it’s gonna be dah best hard work ya ever done.”

“I know, that’s why… oh, Hal!”

“Shh, baby, shh.” He never lets go of her wrists, even while his other hand is smoothing over her shoulders and back. He licks at her lips, more of that wet, sloppy dog-licking, that runs up and even into her nostrils, making her gasp and jerk away. “Uh-uh, baby, you hold still.”

His free hand holds her head, and she’s treated to more of his tongue bath, over her cheeks, swirling into the orbits of her eyes. It’s gross, such a boy-thing to do, and she has to struggle not to wince or screw up her face. He takes her chin in his teeth. The hold is gentle, but she knows that if she moves she’ll be bitten. After a moment of stillness, Hal releases her.

She follows him past the cypress. Hal walks into the meadow, and circles himself into the sparkling grass, creating a round nest, and gestures for her to join him. She shivers at the brushing of wet leaves on her bare arms. The world smells like water and clean mud– the sourness of the wetlands has been flooded away– and greenness.

“You can lick me, too, yanno.” he offers. Claudia wonders if she can decline to lick him, but she already knows better; “Stick out yer tongue, cutie,” Hal orders her. “You lick everything, like I did to you.”

“You licked into my nose!”

“You do too, then.” Hal grins. “Come on, call it one of your new chores.” he lays back heedless of the squelching mud, pulling her over him. Claudia tries to ignore the soft earth cooling her kneecaps and shins, and protects her hands from the soil by propping herself on his shoulders.

“Yes, Ogimaa,” she puts as much irony into the words as she can, and runs her tongue over his lips– no chore there! His eyes close, waiting for her laving, and she obliges, sucking gently at the shifting eyeballs hidden under such thin lids. She licks up each cheek, and then without giving herself any time to think about it, over his nostrils, finding– only a faint taste of salt there, and the sensation of the delicate cartilage curves that frame each opening. His hand at the back of her head moves, cradling her, and she probes daintily into one of them, before she finishes with a wet swipe up the bridge of his nose.

“Such a good girl, such a good girl.” Hal rubs his damp forehead against hers, smiling into her eyes. It’s such a ridiculous thing to feel proud of– but his tone of voice rings true; the approval is unmistakable. His arms close around her waist, like any boy making out with his girlfriend.

And then she yelps, feeling the world swing over her; Hal has rolled her, straight into the sopping grass at their side, and onto her back. His hard body presses hers into the mud; she can feel wet seeping up the back of her head and over her scalp. Hal kneels up over her, and yanks at her shorts, and makes her yelp again.

“Shush, now, a little mud won’t hurt ya!” Hal bursts out with his braying laugh at her outrage.

“We were clean!”

“Still clean, dis is the cleanest mud you ever gonna see. I swear, but you’re a pretty woman, take that shirt off, I wanna look at your titties, too.”

“Dang it, we used up the last of the hot water, showering!” But she’s laughing right through her sense of propriety, and her beautiful man is standing, pushing Pen’s old sweats down his finely-sculpted legs. Naked and erect, he steps between her feet, and nudges at them to open. Claudia is looking up at a statue– some fantasy, an art deco figure, his sturdy legs with those thighs that belie the skinniness of the rest of him. His body can float above those legs, while they carry him tirelessly along.

She struggles out of her tank top, letting her knees sprawl open, feeling the silky smooth mud invade her butt crack. She rolls her spine a little to keep the stuff out of her vulva, she doesn’t care how clean he tells her it is. Hal looks down at the subtle movement.

“Pretty little clam,” he tells her, and drops to his knees between her thighs– she pulls them open wider, in alarm,– and splashes mud over her skin. He spits on his fingers, slides them slick over her labia and clit. “God, look at you, you’re beautiful!”

No one has ever told her that. Her former master never said anything about her genitals, when he’d command her to expose herself. He talked about the shame she must be feeling, and her squirming– neither of which were ever true. Claudia felt no shame having him look at her, and she was well-trained in holding still.

His fingers slide along into the mud on her skin, rub it around as if he’s finger-painting on her thighs, and then he pushes her knees wider apart, and he puts his forearms down right in the mud under her lifted thighs, and he leans his face in and his tongue strokes across her pubes in slow long strokes, as if he’s got all day, as if he’s not going to tire out, as if he could lick her to climax in moments, as easily as not, and he’s not. Yet.

His fingers stroke more mud gently onto her buttocks and her hips and her sides, and his tongue slides all round her crotch as if he’s seeking out the taste of her. He licks her pubic hair down in ranks, he lays his whole mouth down on the soft fold where her thigh meets her belly, he licks down her belly, and then he slides his tongue into the private places straining for touch, opening themselves to it.

Shock slaps Claudia, like a blow to the face. She jerks and cranes her head to stare at Hal in amazement. Nobody — ever — has done this to her. No shame at looking, no embarrassment, but this? She’d heard the men talking at the clubs when she and Master used to do demonstrations, arguing about whether eating pussy is nasty or not. She’s heard men rhapsodize about it, and others screw up their faces in disgust. But there he is, her prince, his face buried between her labia. She burns, and can’t tell how much is mortification and how much is lust. But she just can’t get over how good it feels, and she slumps back onto the ground, not even caring how the mud coats her scalp.

He licks in deep to feel the innermost textures and the shapes receding inward. He pauses now and then to look at her, and smile, and dive in again, eagerly, rubbing his nose and his chin on her clitoris, and licking down the cords of her thighs, and down onto the slopes of her buttocks. “Rock your cunt into it, baby,” he murmurs then, a buzz of vibration on her clitoris, and she groans. It sure seems like he’s having a good time. Screw embarrassment, she decides.

“Give me dhat woman in you,” he says. “Give me dat honey. I can taste it, ya want me in there. Show me you want it, let me lick it, let me taste how much you want to be fucked. Rock, baby, gently, just bump it up ta reach me, and I’ll suck it for you. You want yer clitoris sucked up like a dick? Ya want it? Say it, baby. You gotta ask. You can’t just lay there and be pretty and dainty and clean–but we’ll do that too, I promise–all lace and straps and little tight panties for spanking–but now you in the mud, with my face up your cunt, and I am tongue-fucking you, and I might lick your ass too. I might rim your little mud-covered ass like a dog. Dog don’t mind. Dog lick your ass till you come,” and his fingers grip into the cheeks of her buttocks, and his tongue is stroking deep into her pussy, flicking up at the tip on her clitoris, his whole body rocking absurdly into her. She arches her back and parts her knees as wide as she can and presents herself harder, and then he starts drawing back, not diving in as deep, he draws softly back, softer yet, drawing her after him, so she’s panting.

“Ask for it, baby,” he says. “Tell me what ya want. Tell us both what ya want. You’re wet, I can taste woman in there beggin’ for something, but yer strangled, ya can’t talk, that Derleth guy tied your mouth shut like a muzzle or somethin’?”

“Yes, Ogimaa,” she says, in a gasp.

“You like that?”

“Yes,” she groans.

“You don’t wanna talk to the Dogboy who’d lick ya all over? You don’t wanna tell me what your cunt wants from me?”

She wants to tell him, but she can’t force the words out. It’s too much. Something less, then. “Bite,” she gasps. “Bite me. Bite my neck, bite all over–”

“You want me to bite your cunt too?” He takes her vulva in his teeth, and they’re sharp teeth. He worries at the meat there, tugs at the hair with his mouth, until she wants to scream. But she can’t, someone might hear, it’s not allowed, so all that comes out is a thin wail. Then his muddy body slithers up hers, and he’s got the thin skin of her throat in his teeth. Just so, he nips. And again. She twists urgently, feels the mud squelch up between their bodies.

She groans. “Tell me, please…” she begs.

“No, you tell me when you’re going to give me your cunt,” he says, and he bites her shoulder.

She wails. “I can’t!”

He raises both muddy hands and he rubs his muddy hands across her belly and her breasts and her arms, and then he bites her nipples, more gently. “You can,” he says. “Maybe not now, but you will.”

And then he lowers his head between her thighs, and he drives in his tongue, and draws out. With the tip, he squeezes her clitoris hard against his front teeth, and releases it to push his tongue into her, and then presses it hard, and then pushes into her vagina again, over and over. Her brain stops, just like that, and she doesn’t have a mind, just a body that arches in time with his tonguing, slaps back into the mud.

She’s groaning in time to it, panting to catch her breath, when he stops completely. “You gotta ask,” he says then, looking over her, and kissing her nipples instead. Nipping all around them, licking even into the mud he’s put there, as if mud doesn’t bother him at all.

“Please let me come,” she pleads. “Please, Ogimaa, please.”

“Nope,” he says. “That’s not you telling me what your cunt wants. Being stubborn, that cunt is. I think I need to fuck your ass for a while. I know you got to keep your cunt pretty clean, can’t get shit for drugs in this swamp, but I can swampmud all over the rest of you. My hands are dirty, you put the condom on my cock.”

She sits up, trembling, finds his shirt pocket, and in this better light, it’s simple to roll it on. “Get the lube too, I brought some,” he says. “Lube it up. Lube yourself, show me your fingers lubing your ass. God, that’s one helluva a fine, fine woman ass. I could just bite dose butt slopes, and kiss yer sweet asshole all night. Now get on yer knees, get yer boobs down in it, lift your ass.” And he bites her there, too, wherever he can find a grip for his mouth, although mostly his teeth scrape across the slopes of her butt without finding purchase to pinch her. “You don’t like having me kiss mud off your ass? Believe me, baby, there’s worse every day. Lickin’ mud off a woman’s gorgeous white butt, I can do dat all day. Get some more lube on dere, put yer fingers in and open yourself up for me. Did Derleth ever ask you to show off dis pretty little asshole? Did he ever have you pleasure yourself, front and back? Did he ever stretch you out and let you feel something nice coming up your ass? No? Well, ain’t the same for a girl, but it’s one of dah nice things in life, gettin’ fucked by somebody who cares how ya feel when yer fucked!”

And then he’s inside her, his penis driving in, slick and hot and slow. So exquisitely, maddeningly slow.

She gasps out. “Yes. More — please –” God, it burns with heat, a welcome invasion. She keens at the first pull and stretch, making him pause. “Nonono…” She pushes back, driving herself onto him roughly. “Please… don’t stop.” It’s hot and slippery and wonderful.

“Gettin’ fucked by somebody who likes doing what pleases you. Fuckin’ you. Findin’ where you like it, doin’ you until you scream it out, it’s so good. Now you put yer fingers up your cunt, and you pleasure yourself, and I’ll feel you shakin’, I’ll know if you’re doin’ it right. I want lots of that woman honey coming out on yer fingers. Droolin’ and messy and no mistake what ya want.” And he bites her on the shoulder, on the nape of the neck gently, nipping in tiny little pinches down her back. “Yeah, baby, you’re wired this way, ain’t you?”

“Please –” she’s almost weeping with sensation. “Yes. Oh god, oh god, bite me more –”

“Yell it out, baby, I ain’t done with you,” he says, with his hips driving into her in a faster rhythm, and he bites her on the shoulder, and then he says, roughly, “Now, baby. Come when I’m fucking you up the ass. Come now,” and she does. He’s wound her up, and she bucks, and mud flies, and he doesn’t stop thrusting into her ass. “Come now,” he says again, and again she does, twisting under him, biting her own arm to keep silent. He grips her hips hard, and she feels him break rhythm, feels him bury himself inside as far as he can. He slumps over her to whisper against her shoulder.

“Come now.”

And she screams, spasming around his dick.

Hal brays with laughter at her exclamation, and it sounds joyful and glad and free. Maybe someday she’ll sound like that when she laughs. “Good girl,” he croons. He rolls then, so that he’s the one wallowing in the squelchy mud. “You’re mine now, baby, and I ain’t gonna ever let go. We’re gonna be happy, never mind dah bugs and problems and whatnot.” He regards her seriously for a long moment. “And to celebrate, you’re gonna get a new name, too, just like you gave me Ogimaa. “You move like a dancer, so I’m gonna call you Grace. You like dat, baby?”

She giggles, completely flustered. “Yes, Ogimaa, I like that. I like it a lot.”

Then Hal leaps to his feet in a spray of mud and water. It’s started to rain again, a mere drizzle now. “C’mon, baby, pick up our clothes and I’ll show ya somethin’ useful for a change.” She scoops up their muddy clothes and flip-flops, and lets the mud drip down her front. Everything else is covered in mud, so why not? Hal slides a hand through her hair and settles it on the nape of her neck. “Walk,” he demands, and the hand at her neck steers her toward the outbuildings.

Where do you go when you’re happy and naked and covered in mud? Out behind the barn, apparently.

He kisses the top of her head, oblivious to the mud, and steers her to the outhouse and its shower. He yells under the hard cold spray and pulls her in after him. Thirty shivering seconds later, their bodies and clothes are clean enough to reunite without scratching them raw. And then they’re off to feed the animals.

===

I had help, lots of help, from Stella Omega and Nagasvoice on the pr0n. Thank you!

Irises

For just a second, all Grace can feel is the warm back pressed up against her face. Just a second, and then the pain comes roaring in, along her limbs, her hips. And she has to pee, too. Great.

She tries to turn over and hasn’t got the strength. So she shimmies awkwardly off the bed on her stomach, until her feet touch the floor, and she can test them with a little weight. It hurts pretty bad, and her knees are rubbery with just that little pressure — there’s no way she’ll be walking to the bathroom. Well, crawling is always an option, if her wrists aren’t in as bad a shape as her feet are. She’ll just have to see.

She’s not aware of making any noise, but suddenly Hal is awake and beside her on the floor. Did she make a thump getting down here?

“Baby, what’s up?” Hal’s eyes are bleary, but his voice is warm. It feels wonderful, that voice. “You hurt?”

“No,” she grunts, “It’s just the stupid fibromyalgia. Sorry I woke you. Was just getting up to pee.” Her wrists are indeed in the same shape as her feet, and she pitches forward onto her face as she attempts to crawl. How. Absolutely. Mortifying.

In one motion, Hal has her off the floor and into his arms. He sets her down in front of the toilet gently, carefully, and steadies her as she yanks her nightgown up. And then she’s on the toilet. Easy as that. But, God, she had hoped that he would never have to see her like this.

“Thank you, Ogimaa,” she says in a very small voice. She can’t look at him.

His voice is still warm, even, almost uninflected. “Would a showe– a bath help?”

She shakes her head. There’s just no way.

She sees his bare kneecaps bob out of her line of sight. They reappear shortly, followed by the rest of him, as he kneels in front of her, lifting her feet into a pair of underwear and sweatpants. Together they dress her and brush her teeth and hair. His voice caresses her the whole time, calm, light, like this is no big deal.

“I’ve been wantin’ to go out in da pirogue for ages. It seems today might be a good time, no?”

The sun rising over the bayou is spectacular on any day. Grace thinks that there might not be any words for it today. She’s enthroned in the bow of the antique pirogue, propped up on cushions and padding and what-not. Hal is behind her, poling the boat through the water and the wisps of fog that rise up from it.

Frogs stare at them warily before plopping back in the water, birds wake, shake themselves, and take flight. She can see schools of fingerlings just below the surface of the water. And she learns the names of all of them in turn, as they glide past. It’s almost ridiculously magical, like something out of one of Lucas’ storybooks, almost as if they’re the only two people on earth.

The sun gets higher and warmer, and Hal stops poling for a while to rest. He laughingly hands her a silly-looking bottle, then pulls it back when she reaches for it. “Wait. You takin’ any painkillers or anythin’? Don’t wanna drug you to sleep, now.”

“No. I ran out of pills last month. But I haven’t had anything to eat, if that’s booze.”

“Course it’s booze. But I am, as always, meticulously prepared.” He hands her the opened bottle, then a couple of beignets, with very little powdered sugar, just the way Aunt Frog likes making them. She’s suddenly ravenous, and really thirsty. A battered golf umbrella appears, to shield her from the morning sun. The Queen of the Nile couldn’t have had it any better. The sun is warm, and Hal is warmer, heating her through with his smile, his voice, his presence. Of course she’s in love. How could she ever have wondered?

Inevitably, the sun and the alcohol and the relaxation undo her kinks enough for her to fall asleep. She wakes with the sun far above her — it must be nearly noon. The bottom of the pirogue makes scraping noises. She looks down, unbending her neck, to be confronted with a bobbing sea of purple and gold, the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.

“Remember me tellin’ ya about dah swamp irises? That’s what dese are.” Hal is beside her in the boat, leaning over her, stroking the hair away from her face. And it doesn’t matter that she’s stiff and sore, and that swamp irises are an invasive species and a pest, or even that the boat seems a bit wobbly with both of them stretched out side-by-side in the front.

She’s in wonderland.

And it doesn’t hurt that Hal’s caught a big mess of sac-a-lait, and they’re going to feast on fish tonight.

Letting the Other Shoe Drop

“I see it percolatin’ in yer eyes, every time you look at me,” Hal says lightly, “so maybe ya better just come out with it.” He leans one hip against Pen’s kitchen counter.

Claudia nearly drops the pitcher that she’s drying. Hal is scarily perceptive, even when he looks like he’s not paying attention. She sighs, and watches him wring out the dishrag with a little too much force, then set it aside– casually. A little too casually. His shoulders are stiff. He’s expecting something bad, and that’s not what’s on her mind at all. She remembered Hal saying that nobody who has seen all his shapes ever stayed. Now he’s looking at her like she’s changed her mind about wanting to be his. Looking at her like he was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

She puts the pitcher away, hangs up the towel, and tries to order her thoughts. He follows when she goes out the back door and onto Pen’s back porch. “Out with it, woman,” he orders, slumping down on Pen’s back steps, “you’re killin’ me here.”

She folds her legs under her and kneels at his feet. When she meets his eyes, they’re not impatient, they’re uncertain, resigned. She hopes that this goes a lot better than he seems to think it will.

“You know, we haven’t known each other very long at all–”

“When I told ya that I loved ya, I meant it.” Hal says with finality. Despite his firm tone, he says it like it won’t matter to her. But it does. Of course it does.

“I want to stay with you, Ogimaa.” It comes out in a rush. “I mean, I want to come and live with you. I drive Estelle nuts, you know I do, and Steve’s helped us put Pen’s house back together again. The Aunties seem to think that it’s a good idea, they need help over there with the tiggers–” She stops, breathes.

“I’m in love with you, Hal.” The words sound surreal to her. She’s never said them to anyone before. Now that she thinks about it, no one’s ever said it to her, either. No one except Hal.

The uncertainty on his face dissolves, just like that, right in front of her eyes. He grins. “Then come home with me tonight. To stay.”

===

I know, this is kind of fluffy, but I just can’t resist. Can’t have too much pr0n without the romance, can we??

A Mechanical Emergency

Lucas is crumpled in the shade of a large live oak tree. It’s almost impossible to see him huddled against the tree’s trunk, but easy enough to hear him sobbing. His face is streaked with mud where he’s swiped at his eyes.

He holds his new toy truck like it’s a wounded bird. “Ohhhhhhh, Mister Two Horses,” he sobs, “mah-mah-my new truck. I feh-fell, and now thuh-huh-huh wheeeeel came off and it’s broh-oh-oh-oken.” He stares at the severed wheel with eyes that are spilling tears.

“Well, now we know how much ya really like it, but ya know, I wasn’t in any doubt ’bout that before,” Hal says. “Not one bit.” He stands a moment. “Mind if I sit with ya a spell, maybe have a look at it?”

Lucas gives that weird bubbling noise that happens when you’re trying to suck in air and stop crying at the same time. “Please– can you-ou fix it?”

“Ya trust me ta take a look at it, when it’s kinda hurt from being busted?” Hal says.

Lucas gives a quick nod, holding it up. He sucks in another breath, steadies himself.

“Okay, okay, ya got all the parts safe?” Hal says, holding it up, squinting. “Well, a’course you know Penelope could wind some string on dis in five seconds and it’s gonna hold forever and a day extra, but it’ll still look like it’s got string tied on it. Black marker’d take care of that, mostly. Hmm. It’s the metal parts I’m cogitating about the most. Hmm. Might have to talk to Steve ’bout getting a new axle rod on dis bad boy. Now dese plastic parts, I’m sure she’s got some kinda glue that’d work on this kind of plastic, she does love her box of glues. Mebbe you ain’t seen that yet? Awesome, man. I think she could glue her head ta the wind and fly away with dat!”

Lucas sniffs once, loudly, tries to smile. “It’s– I only have two toys. I feel stupid that I broke one.” He looks at Hal, squints. “I had lots of toys at home, but Mom– Mom says we’re never going back home.”

“Well, you know, depends where I am, what I call home, speakin’ strictly fer myself,” Hal says, leaning back against the tree, and avoiding the little trail of ants trooping up the bark. “See, when I’m at Pen’s place a spell, and I’m givin’ directions to some new person, I might say, ‘Oh then you turn right and when you smell bacon, you’re home.’ But if I’m havin’ fried fish at Aunt Frog’s place, then I’ll tell your mom, ‘Hey, come on home, we got cracklins and biscuits and gravy and dah best damn catfish you ever had!’ And it will be, right? All places you call home. Now, where you used to live all the time, that sounds like a lot of fun, all those toys–”

Lucas frowns. “It wasn’t…fun. It was a lot of work. But I liked having all my stuff.”

“And you’re not workin’ now? Aren’t you learnin’ things in dah woods, and helpin’ fix things with me and your mom and helpin’ Aunt Frog, and doin’ your homework? Learnin’ that music Mister Dance gives you every week? I mean, come on, I see you get done and you’re sweatin’, man, like you run a good lap ’round the house or three. Dat ain’t work?”

“No, that’s fun.” He nods, quite serious about it all. “Well, not the homework part.”

“So would it be more fun ta have the stuff you used ta have?”

“Well… yeah.” He thinks. “Maybe.” Maybe some of that stuff is for babies, now that he thinks about it. Then it comes out, without him even thinking about it. “Do you think Uncle Russ misses us?”

“Oh, prolly he does, man, from all you and your mom said. But it wasn’t safe stayin’ either. It really wasn’t. Your mom was one smart lady, getting both of you out of dere.”

“Why did we have to leave? Mom just said we had to. And then she started to cry, but not like she does when she’s sad. She cried like she does when she’s mad.”

Hal looks at him for a bit. “You know how grownups don’t say things sometimes and it drives you crazy?”

Lucas nods until he feels like his head is going to come right off. But then he gets worried. “Yeahhhh….”

“Let’s just say grownups know a lot of scary stuff, really scary stuff, Lucas–and I don’t like scarin’ myself, either! Some of that nasty stuff scares me–” he takes a deep breath, and blows it out, and swipes his hair out of his face like he does when he’s puzzling out what to do, and it’s not easy. “We’re gonna be brave, Lucas, okay? I don’t have your mom’s consent to talk about it to you, so it ain’t my right ta tell ya, even if I knew about the whole thing. I’m not even sure your mom knows everything dat was going on, but your mom’s got real good instincts about dis stuff. So I’m gonna talk to her, and then we’ll sit down and talk about it together, all three of us, because you’re smart and we can use all the help we can get, right? I know it’s frustrating, but we gotta think about this the right way. We should talk to the Aunties about it, too, once we figure out what’s safe to tell people. And you know a lot about computers, you could learn a lot more than we know about it right now, but you gotta be careful, too. It’d be like calling bugs down on you by yelling out right where you are.”

Bugs were scary and smelled funny. Lucas knows that they could kill him, if he ever let them catch him. “Mister Two Horses, why do some zoothingies like me and some want to hurt me? What makes the bugs different from… you or Miss Estelle? Well, besides the smell.”

“Well, dah bugs were regular people first, and some very bad things happened to dem, and now dey don’t have any choice, dey got to do what dey’re told by dah things stuck in deir heads. Dey hurt a lot, they’re angry all the time, boy, it is no fun at all, and it hurts them if ya take the bug parts away again. Miss Estelle, and me, we were born dah way we are. Mebbe it’s an accident dat we’re like this, but we grew up like dis. Now, ya know dere’s some folks, dey grow up okay for a while, but then things change and suddenly dey have ears or a tail or whathaveyou, and then dey aren’t used to it. Dey gotta figure things out. Dey can be happy about it and find some people who like dem the way dey are, and den figure how they can use it to help people–like Aunt Penelope does. Or Mister Dance. Or they can decide they’re really mad and unhappy with how people treat them, and nobody will ever love dem anyway, and why don’t dey just run away and hide, and hurt anybody who tries to make dem do things? Boy, do I know how dat feels, too. No fun! So you can see how you’d treat people really differently, right?”

“Yeah, I don’t act the same when I’m mad, either. So were you ever mad about being like you are and wanting to hurt people?”

“Oh man, was I ever,” says Hal. “I did some truly dumb stuff, got myself in all kinda trouble, got dah attitude adjustment of my life, believe me. And I got lucky. Aunt Frog, she just kept looking till she found me again. I am so lucky, I can’t tell you. Any time I start feeling fretted, I think about the day I saw her come ta get me back, and I am okay with all kinds of stuff. I am all right. Lots of folks ain’t so lucky.”

“Where were your mom and dad?”

“Nobody knows,” Hal says. “Aunt Frog adopted me when I was about, oh, three or four, I think. She thought I was just a colt got loose, come in the stable next morning and found me curled up human-shape in the hay. Nice and warm and dry, oh man, I was happy. Man, Aunt Frog always keeps a nice clean stable, too.”

“So Auntie Frog isn’t your real aunt just like Uncle Russ isn’t my real uncle? Sometimes you look kinda the same, and talk kinda the same.”

“Auntie Frog is about as real an aunt as ya’ll ever see, trust me. Especially with dah talking, yeah! You mean blood relative, in the genetics, right?”

Lucas is confused for a second. Then he remembers what relative means. “Yeah, I think.”

“We don’t even know dat. I might be related to her, somewhere. Dere’s a couple of folks who left town, never came back, real sudden, and the two of dem might have been my parents. We don’t know. We just don’t know. And that’s different from somebody like Estelle, or like Mister Dance, where somebody took bits and bobs and stirred them like stew, and here’s a person with feathers. Who was their momma? Well, you know what I say? I say that person’s real momma and poppa were the folks who raised ’em. The folks who took care of dem when dey were sick, or when dey were all mad, or when dey weren’t being so smart about things, or when dey were havin’ a tough time in school. That’s their parents, the folks who loved ’em. I know dere’s folks where it bothers dem a lot, not knowing, but the folks who cared for dem, dat’s who shaped dem the most, for good or ill.”

Lucas suddenly feels like he’s gonna cry again. He doesn’t want to, but he might. He asks, very quietly, “Do you ever wish that you had a mom and dad, even though you have Aunt Frog?”

“Oh hell yeah,” Hal says comfortably, leaning into the tree. “I just knew dey were gonna drive up in a big shiny car in cool clothes and take me to my real home, outta all this muddy damn poverty and mess. Yup. Irony is, Auntie Frog is more royalty in our tribe than most of this swamp has ever known. And she don’t give a damn about shiny cars. She got bigger things on her mind than that. Which, now I’m older and had my attitude adjusted a coupla times, I do understand she’s right a lot better. You can change your mind as you get older. It’s okay.”

So Mister Two Horses had wished that stuff, too. Now Lucas does start to cry, big gulping sobs that kinda make him ashamed to be such a big baby. He would trade all the toys he ever had just to have a mom and a dad like most of his friends back in Philadelphia. He misses his friends, too. Mom made him promise he wouldn’t try to talk them online, he must use all new names and never go back even to look, it was too dangerous, and he might endanger them. And she said it all quiet and scary, meaning it was really important. Get away from bugs and run important.

Mister Two Horses looks at him. He doesn’t offer to hug him or hold him like Mom would. Uncle Russ would be lecturing him right now to control himself. But Mister Two Horses’s not doing that, either. He just looks at Lucas, not blinking. Slowly, very slowly, something about his head changes shape and he’s got big old dog ears pricked up on the top of his head, and he’s got a snout, and he’s leaning his nose on Lucas’s shoulder, looking at him. Mister Two Horses is not a small dog; and he’s not entirely a dog right now, he’s something in between. It’s a little odd-sounding, but he says, “I hear ya, man.”

Lucas blinks at him, surprised, then reaches out and scratches his neck. “I thought you never changed where people could see–”

Astonishment has stemmed the tears completely, and he doesn’t even notice.

“Yeah,” Hal says, and his ears start moving back down onto the sides of his head, slowly. The long snout retreats. “Don’t want ta scare people.”

“That’s so cool. I always wanted a dog,” Lucas sighs, “but Uncle Russ said that they were dirty.”

“Oh no,” Hal says. “Only when people don’t let them keep clean. Horses and pigs and dogs, they want their fur clean and their feet nice and dry, just like people. And they like a nice bath sometimes too.”

“Does that mean I can get a dog?”

“It isn’t my house to say so, it’s Aunt Frog’s, and your mom would have ta clean up after it a lot, too,” Hal says. “I am not about to give two women like dat more work to do. I am also a very large dog who smells weird, and it really confuses dogs who aren’t bright. Scares ’em. Finding a dog smart enough to handle me, and then keeping it from getting bored? Dere’s a chore. But you ask your mom, and if she says okay, then you can ask Frog.”

“You– you don’t… like to play fetch, do you?”

Mister Two Horses laughs that huge laugh of his. “Well, sure I do.”

“Will you play with me some time?”

“‘Course I will. Maybe tonight after dinner, even.” He raises an eyebrow. “If you help your mom do dishes.”

Lucas nods some more, feeling more excited than he has in a while. Then he remembers another question, and asks, “Mom doesn’t cry any more. Is she going to be happy now, or is she going to get sad again?”

“Buddy of mine,” Hal says, “If I have my way, she’ll never cry like dat again.” Lucas looks over at his newest friend. He looks kinda serious, and kinda laughing, and that’s the way Mister Two Horses looks a lot of the time. “But sometimes stuff happens, and we can’t stop it, so I can’t make you no promises. I’ll just try my very best.”

“That’s kind of a promise, isn’t it?”

“It’s the kind I can keep, too,” Hal says. Then he snorts and waves one hand, and pats the toy truck gently. “Well, you know what we should do with your broken-legged truck here? We should get one of your mom’s plastic bags and put all the parts with it, and ask Steve nicely if she’s got a little rod she can cut to size for that axle, and ask her and Penelope to glue the plastic wheel and the gears back together there. You should sit and watch her do it, too, so you know how it goes back together.”

“Okay.” Lucas looks up. “Can I ask you another question, or am I bugging you?” This is kinda the most important question, and Lucas watches him carefully. Is this guy gonna be somebody to keep Mom safe and happy, or can Lucas depend on him, too? Could they be a family some day?

“You’re not bugging me.” Mister Two Horses looks at him like he has all the time in the world for his questions. “Go ahead and ask.”

“How did you get so smart?” He answered all of Lucas’s questions, and he wasn’t even sweating. Uncle Russ would have been.

Mister Two Horses looks terribly astonished for a second, like Lucas has blown a big bubble-gum bubble out his nose or something, and then he starts to laugh. He just ruffled Lucas’s hair, laughing. Together they scoop up the broken toy parts and go to find Auntie Steve to ask about that axle.

Ritual

Hal helped Grace stash the groceries she’d bought in town. Lucas sat at the kitchen table. The red-haired boy was totally enthralled by the weird toy that Hal had bought him. It was a series of brightly-colored clear plastic tubes twisted into different shapes, with little gears and levers and stuff — you could put it together in different ways and run marbles through it. Of course, Lucas thought that Hal was the coolest thing ever now; toys were high on both of their lists of priorities. She was more interested in making sure her son got a new pair of sturdy shoes, but she was the mom, after all.

Then the expensive little kit came out of the pharmacy bag. The cellophane was a pain to unwrap, and she growled at it. Hal just laughed, whipped out a penknife, and slit it open for her. She dumped the contents on the counter, two lancets, two long test strips, a prepaid envelope, and a thick booklet of instructions.

Hal just grabbed a lancet and ripped it open, and she growled at him. This thing had cost an arm and a leg, so reading the directions would be prudent. Yeah. He just rolled his eyes and propped a hip against the edge of the counter.

Ten pages later, Hal grew bored, and went over to help Lucas play with his toy. The two guys huddled together over the thing, exclaiming over the wheels and levers and paddles and whatnot. In two minutes flat it started to look like a demented hamster house, and the whole thing made a cool noise as the first marble rolled from top to bottom. Gotta admit it, it was an awesome toy.

Twenty pages of instructions, and all they basically said was clean your finger, stick it, drip some blood on the strip, send it in, and wait fourteen business days for the test results. Fair enough. At least she knew she would be doing it right.

When she threw the booklet down on the kitchen counter, Hal left Lucas with the whirring toy and came over to her. He ripped open an alcohol swab, handed to her, and presented his index finger. She thought he’d be laughing at her — he so often was — but his face was completely serious. She swabbed his finger, poked it with the lancet, and squeezed some blood out. The first drip went on the used swab, the second through the sixth drops on the test strip. Carefully, she slid the strip onto the counter to dry.

Hal’s eyes were dark and grave as he repeated the procedure on her finger, precisely as she had done with his. Somehow it seemed more important than the casual surroundings indicated, this little ritual that they were enacting on each other. It meant that they wanted to protect each other from illness, that they intended to be monogamous. It felt… momentous.

He stared intently for a moment, then smiled and kissed her forehead. “So, how long we wait?”

“Two weeks or so,” she sighed.

“We have the time, baby. I’m not going anywhere,” he teased.

Momentous.

TUSK!

They’re laughing as they walk to the parking lot.  There isn’t enough parking along Main Street, where most of the shops are; this overflow lot handles quite a bit of traffic on the weekends, but today it’s nearly empty.  Lucas hugs a huge plastic bag to his chest.  It bumps rhythmically across his knees as he walks, but he can’t hold it any higher, and he won’t let go of it.  It has socks and underwear in it, but it also holds a few precious toys.  The household is doing well right now, and Hal has some idea of what the kid left behind.  It’s just not fair, when you’re six.

“And den Drake says, “What pillow?”  Hal dissolves into laughter, remembering the look on the older man’s face, and Grace shakes her head and chuckles.  He loves to watch her laugh.  It makes her face crinkle up totally contrary to the way it usually sits.  It makes him think that she’s not used to smiling, to laughing.  In a few hours the sun would start to set — maybe he could take her out in the pirogue and they could watch the sun set out on the water, with the herons catching fish, and the swallows swooping and diving around them, catching bugs.  But it’s not likely.  He’s been gone for a few hours already.  When he gets home there’s sure to be some emergency waiting for him, neighbors fussing at each other, some harried mother who’s run out of food, one of the zoomorphs being harassed by the police for daring to go into town.  It’s always something. 

Then his head snaps up, exactly like a stallion scenting predator.  Some primitive part of his brain screams “DANGER!” in bright red letters.  The breeze off the river carries bug-stench. Just then he spots the bugs in the parking lot.  They are heading right towards Grace’s son.

One step, two, and he grips Lucas, turns him around, says in his ear, “Run ta dah truck, fast,” and another step to Grace, gets her turned round onto her feet, “Run, save dat boy,” and then the third step is shorter and the fourth shorter yet and then he’s roaring, tusks snapping, flinging his arms out, drawing as much attention as he can.

He suspects Grace may be the only one in earshot who can understand him, with a mouthful of wicked long teeth, yelling, “Bugs, bugs, bugs–warning–get help, bug warning–” wailing it out loud and clear, in the way that people at Pen’s house have learned to do.

His fist clips the first bug, sends it flying backward into the others, and then his other fist hits bugshelled abdomen with a solid whanging! impact that jars up his shoulder bones.

Something impacts on his first arm as it swings away, clips into the meat of his forearm, and shocks him with the acid bite of it.  He swings his head around, blurred, struggling for some sense of where they are, and it doesn’t matter, anywhere he swings there’s a bug to hit.  He’s getting punched back, too, and sometimes he twists and snaps off things that are stuck too deeply in him, and all the pain does is to enrage him further.

He finds there’s a broken shard of bug shell gripped in one horny fist, and he’s stabbing it into bugs as fast as he can yank it out, ripping tusks through meat that reeks of bug juice poisonous enough to kill him slowly by itself if he gets too much of it in him.  He spits, spits again, keeps spitting it out.

There’s an ease in his thick furry body that he’s never had before.  His shoulders feel broader, his arms reach further, things that used to be tight and restricted can loosen and stretch to give him a little extra inch or three of reach.  And sometimes that’s what makes the difference when you’re fencing with the stabbity crab-arms of these goddamn bugs.

Then he’s following the bugs, they’ve got their backs to him, trying to evade his grabs, and he catches the last one–it’s one of those goddamn tall mantid things, God he hates those even worse than the runners–he breaks its back across a tree, which just seems like swamp justice to him.  It kind of explodes, but he knew it would, he’s tossed the thorax away in time.  He knows he’s not supposed to kill them if he can avoid it, but he can’t remember why.  A fight like this has strictest of rules:  rule number one is, hit first; rule number two is, don’t be there; and rule number three is, don’t lose your footing.  All the force he can bring to bear comes up through him from his soles flat on the ground, gripping with his knobbly long toes, throwing punches with every bit of muscle fiber he has.

But something’s changed in him; there’s a new lightness, a sense of balance when he has to duck and weave, when he does see it coming.  He can’t say his eyesight is any better, but he notices things better. He roars, turns, glares around among the trees, can’t remember where he was. 

That’s when somebody brave who’s followed him from the parking lot points a shotgun in his face, and says, in a piping frightened little voice, “Put yer hands up, monster!”

Hal just leans forward, opens his mouth, and roars at them.

They drop the gun and run away.

“Goddamn, where were you when I needed help?” Hal mumbles past his tusks.  He blinks around.  Shit, has he been chasing bugs into the woods for hours?  He hurts.  Things are dribbling down his legs.  He knows better than to look down at himself.  That never leads to good things.  Instead, he sighs, and he turns himself ponderously around, and he starts following the charging elephant path of destruction.  God he hates those mantid-type bugs.  He chased that one a good quarter mile, in his bare feet, and the bug itself running lame with both crab-arms broken off.  He knows to break those damn arms first, that’s how they aim those god-cursed energy weapons packed into the thorax.  Sonuvabitches.  He grumbles and swears and picks bug-fragments absently-mindedly out of his body as he goes, casting the bits aside like annoying splinters.  He’d kill for a beer.  Something. Okay, something stronger.  A lot stronger. His head is killing him already, squinting up into the late afternoon sun.

There’s quite a lot of bugs fallen together along the spattered, scuffed, torn woods near the parking lot.  Hal blinks.  Who the hell ripped up a sapling and swung it around to closeline four bugs on the neck?  They sprawl in a heap, heads lolling, and human-looking enough still to make him start to cry.  Oh god, somebody’s gramma was trying to stab him with crab arms, and he killed her, how pathetic is that?

 He didn’t remember any of that.

Then he’s standing at the edge of the paving, looking sadly at a crumpled little car, with a bug smashed into the hood and another into the roof, bug bodies smashed almost in half by more sapling blows.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t a sapling, as such, it was about four inches thick.  But not an actual tree, either.

Just as this is no longer a car.

Hal sighs, scoops the bug remains off the car, pitches them out into the trees with the rest.  Give it three days and there won’t be much left to show what they were, given how damp this part of the woods are, and how fast the fungi will attack the bug corpses.  It’s better than letting civilians mess with stuff like that, trying to haul off the car for scrap or something.  It strikes him as funny that the mundanes carry on with their lives, parting out cars and arguing over taxes and things like that, while the bugs try to kidnap Lucas and Grace.  He looks up, squinting.  If he changes back to human right now, the wounds may throw him into shock.  The goblin form can shrug off forces that would have cut the smart little human boy to bits.

He staggers around when a stream of cold water splashes over him, splats into his nose and eyes and down his shoulders and chest. It makes him start shaking with chill. Somebody is talking, murmurs that sound oddly far away, a woman’s voice urging him to turn around, and he realizes it’s certainly not bugs trying to hose all that goddamn poison juice off him as soon as they can.

The acrid reek of bug stings his nose, but then there’s a different scent, a human scent, the best scent.  “Nothing quite as dangerous as a scared redneck with a shotgun,” Grace quips, “and I diverted two before you scared that last one off.  Where the hell do these guys appear from?”

“Dunno.”  Hal shrugs.  It’s the swamp.  Sometimes stuff seems to pop into existence and pop out just as quickly out here.

“You okay, sweetheart?”  Hal can feel her gentle hands on him, throwing the blanket she’s found under the bench seat in his truck over his shoulders when she sees he’s shivering.  Her hands urge him into the back of the truck.

“Lucas?” he rasps.

“Luc is fine.  I stashed him under the seat in the truck when you distracted the bugs.”

Hal starts to shake a little harder, thinking of how the bugs might have shredded the boy, the same way that he shredded that bug that looked like a grandma.  Tears start to leak down his face again.  God, these things were people once.  Ahhh, god.  He could have shredded Lucas himself, caught in the middle of things, when he can’t see well enough in his fury to distinguish anybody, all he has is the swinging and the stink of bug in his nostrils.

Grace slides as close to him as she can, folds the blanket closer, wraps both arms around his bulky body, and lets him cry.  “Go ahead, Hal, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay…”  She murmurs little comforts to him. He dodges away when she tries to kiss him; “Bug Juice” he says placatingly, and she nods.  He smells no fear, just sadness and concern.

“Mister Two Horses?” Lucas’s bright voice, and Hal is noticing how clear sounds are.  How had he never realized the acute hearing of this form? Lucas’s sneakers on the steps of the truck as he descends are clear as bells. “Oh, wow,” Lucas says. “What are you?” And there is no fear in Lucas either, only a sort of technical curiosity, as if this garbled, half-formed shape is nothing more than some odd pair of shoes that Hal is wearing right now. “Those are are way cool teeth!”  He tips his head and considers.  “They look like this warthog from Africa that I saw on the Discovery Channel.” 

“Don’t touch, Luc, Mister Two Horses probably has bug yuck all over his tusks still.”

“You drive?” Hal says through all that razor-sharp weaponry. “I don’ want to turn back. After I wash alla way.” He can hear himself say “worsh,” the malformed words.

“Yeah, we better get out of here and get that bug poison off of you.  Lucas, hop in the cab and put your seat belt on, okay?”  Grace carefully pulls the blanket closer over the goblin arms, kisses his watery forehead, and hops out of the truck bed.  Dead bugs in the bushes, not a real good thing to have to explain.  She seems to get that.

Grace pulls out of the parking lot, quick, but not too quick, and he grunts as he starts to roll in the truck bed.  Dammit. He shoves the blanket under him, gets his feet planted wide, and his hands as well, and rides on all spraddled fours, swaying with the motion.

“Is it okay if I call Mister Two Horses Uncle Hal, Mom?” he can hear Lucas ask. Hal makes a note to tell the boy yes. Hopefully the Goblin will remember to tell the human when he makes his change back.

The Popsicle Maker

Packaging crinkles as Hal turns the popsicle mold over in his hands, eyes narrowed. “Did you know,” he says, “that water-based lube freezes?”

Drin and Dance look at each other, thoughtful.  Emma brays laughter, sees Grace’s horrified face, and almost sprays everyone with lemonade.

Hal’s not expecting Grace to move as quickly as she does.  She twists the package out of his hand before he has time to do more than stutter, and flings herself back into the chair, trapping the mold under her butt.  No way Hal was getting that thing back, at least not while they have company.

Men. Honestly.

A Moment’s Peace

Haroldine stumps up the path to the house after midnight. In the mudroom Hal is leaning his back against the dryer and Grace is laid out along him, face tucked under his chin. There are streaks of mud from the garden on their clothes.

Hal opens an eye. “Just resting. The heat feels good, my back is killing me.”

Grace doesn’t even open hers. “Waiting for the washer to stop spinning. Goodnight, Aunt Frog.”

Haroldine chuckles as she makes her way upstairs. She’s going to take her aches and pains to bed; she’ll get another batch of pots thrown tomorrow.

=============

100 Word Drabble

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Early morning is Grace’s favorite time of day. The rising sun paints the swamp mist with such beautiful colors. Everything still smells fresh and clean after the cool of the night, before the sun has a chance to cook the bayou into a fetid stench. She and Hal have taken to riding in the morning, before it gets too hot — she has to poke him awake, most days, and he grumbles, but it doesn’t take him too long to roll out of bed.

They get some exercise, time alone without interruptions. They’re learning to move in sync outside of the bedroom. It’s also another way for Grace to show Hal that she accepts him as he is, all of him, not just the human part. She thinks that’s important, though Hal never mentions it.

Her riding instructor in Philadelphia taught her a series of balancing and suppling exercises, which she’s taught Hal. They’d been riding bareback until Grace’s tailbone began to ache fiercely every morning, until they discovered that a good Wintec synthetic saddle cost less than $100 used. Besides, even a zoomorph horse is still a horse, and Hal is prone to shying at stray plastic bags and flapping birds, and… Well, really anything could look strange and threatening to a prey animal. And then his body goes in one direction, hers goes in another, and her spine gets another jarring that it just doesn’t need.

She’s turned him back toward home because it’s just starting to steam up, and Hal is beginning to lather along his neck. He’s settled into a nice steady canter, Grace’s center of gravity pushed into the saddle like she’s been taught. The smell of horse rises up from his neck and shoulders – she loves that smell. The roll of his body presses tender places – she’s still bruised a bit from last night. Hal had tickled her until she screamed breathlessly, thrown her on the bed, and ridden her hard. She had clenched her hands around the round bunching shapes of his shoulders, his buttocks, inhaled the lovely scent of his sweat, his skin, the herbal shampoo he used. And now their positions are reversed, but the feeling is the same…

The stallion falters for a moment, snorts and resumes a steady rhythm. He can tell what she’s thinking – he’s told her more than once about his sense of smell, in graphic detail, quirking an amused lip. If he can’t read her mind, he can at least read her body.

Then Hal spooks suddenly, sidestepping with a little buck, nearly throwing her from the saddle. Something has come out of the trees. Dance?

The brown figure isn’t wearing anything but ragged cutoffs and flip-flops. Not the way Dance goes into the bayou. The Ra-hood is pulled up around his head like a vampire cape. His tail comes up, waves some signal that Hal recognizes, even in horse form. Hal snorts and comes back down on his front feet, dancing a bit. And then Emma steps out of the boat on the levee below, holding up a heavy gun. The kind they only use for bugs.

Dance projects, in that spooky Ra-hood amplification he can do, “Church is under attack.”

“Gotcha,” Grace calls back, and wheels Hal back around on his haunches. She can hear the splash of water as the boat slides back into the water under Dance’s weight.

Hal gathers himself and shoots down the road, making the morning fog part and swirl. Grace can only press herself tightly forward on his withers, hugging his neck, keeping her weight balanced for him on the turns, and trust that he can keep his footing. His hooves never even stumble. All of the suppling exercises have paid off.

Wait a minute, she thinks, isn’t there a meeting of the Rainette Quilter’s Society at the church annex this morning? Her mouth goes a little sour. And didn’t Aunt Frog promise to take Lucas with her to help sandwich and pin Penelope’s newest quilt together? Penelope was so proud of that new quilt top she’d finished! Hal can surely smell her rising panic; his back tenses and arches under the saddle.

She can hear the roar of truck engines and the rattle of sub-machine guns before they even reach the dirt road to the church lot. Thank God! Michel’s gang of rowdies has gotten there, too. They might have a prayer of holding off however many bugs showed up this time.

Hal throws up his nose, trumpets like a train whistle. Seems everybody knows that stallion scream of his. The guns stop firing.

Hal bunches himself, projects his forequarters high in the air, squeaking over the parking lot’s four foot fence, rattles it with his right hind hoof–Have I told you to pick up that lazy foot or not? Grace thinks crazily. And then he’s coming down on — things.

Rearing up in the next lunge, he slashes out with his forehooves, bucketing upward and kicking sidewise. They must look like crazed devotees of the White Stallions of Lippiza. Grace wishes that Hal could learn more dressage, but it would take years and years. God knows they’ve certainly studied the videos available on them, trying to analyze how the stallions did such amazing things. They’ve begun to practice crude versions, but Grace is no dressage pro, and how can she teach Hal something she doesn’t fully understand herself?

These bugs are taller than the straw bag dummies they’ve practiced with. Grace doesn’t stop to think why. They’re high enough to loom over her, even on Hal’s back. She punches one away with a thump of her riding crop before it can reach Hal’s neck. Balance, dammit!

Hal’s trusting her to stay up on his damn shoulders and not throw off his balance in the middle of kicking the heads off a mass of bugs. Hal is striking at the tall bugs from behind, where they didn’t seem to hear him coming. They’re not reacting much to anything, just marching forward in a pretty solid mass, with claws scissoring.

Grace has a sudden horror of a claw shearing shut on those sturdy cannon bones and snapping them like dry twigs. It doesn’t occur to her that her legs are even more fragile. She would die if anything happened to Hal. She’s wearing steel-toed riding boots. Both of them have built up new muscles from their practices. She can grip and balance with her thighs, snap out that crop, and still kick out too. Drilling with Hal — and occasionally falling off — has made her a much better rider.

Crunch.

She hates the noises, the crackle of breaking crab shell, and the shrill bug wails and screeches of agony.

Hal gives a bellow of pain, lurches, and recoils with a mighty thump of both hind feet, with a meaty horrid noise. He charges clear of the bug mass, wheels around in front of the church wall, where gun muzzles have sprouted from doors and windows. Grace flings herself off his back, yanks his bridle forward and off as he spits the bit out of his mouth, flings it aside. He’s shrinking down, fur turning into horny hard hide, and she reaches around him to flip the quick release latch that sends his girth and saddle tumbling to the ground. He humps up before she’s even got him entirely free, pats her back lightly with a clawed goblin hand, and then he’s clashing his tusks and roaring as he charges.

God, the goblin form is damn fast. He joins Dance on the blind side of the building, where nobody human can hunker down with a gun, and the two of them roar in mutual satisfaction, letting everyone know they’re on the job.

Grace drops the saddle, crawls on her knees and elbows as fast as she can to the door, and feels hands grab her clothes and arms and yank her inside the doorway, behind the greater safety of brick walls. Something sizzles and hits the wall outside and bricks hiss, spit, and shatter outside under the impact. She hugs her head, gasping, and hits herself on the nose with the riding crop that she’s still, unbelievably, clutching hard. She grins up at Father Ollie a little stupidly. No security blankets or teddy bears for her, she hangs onto a riding crop.

Nobody can be heard over the continuous banging of the heavier guns. Emma is kneeling among a pile of smoking guns, checking for cooling barrels and handing reloaded weapons to various younger relatives of Michel, who run them forward to the gunners. Emma rocks forward oddly, groping a little, as if she’s just a little bit stoned. Grace’s gaze drops to some small bandaids on her forearm. Ahhh, Dance must have bit her recently–but she’s out here helping anyway.

Emma nods toward the scattered boxes of ammo, points silently from one kind of ammo to which gun will take it, as that gun cools. In a lull, Emma asks, “How many?”

Grace gulps. “The lot was full of them. Spaced about six, ten feet apart each way.”

Emma squints one eye. She talks more slowly than usual, too. “So at least eighty of them, maybe a hundred fifty, if there’s more up the other way. That’s a helluva uncorking, sending them out of the lab all at once. Why would they go after kids and old ladies?”

Grace is silenced by the renewed gunfire. She just shakes her head. Emma points at more ammo, nods once, gives an approving okay sign with her fingers as Grace’s hands move steadily among the weapons. They’re both going to pay for it later, of course. That’s how both of them are.

Twenty minutes, they’re running low on ammo. Michel’s family is still picking up reloaded guns and steadily and carefully emptying them, making every burst count. Twenty minutes is a long time for a pitched full-on firefight in any kind of modern combat. Grace’s shoulders ache as she scrabbles for more boxes, hunts among the empties. She’s panting, hard. Emma reaches out, grips Grace’s arm to get her attention. Grace jerks, blinks up, gasps. The guns are shooting raggedly, and then they stop. Emma taps her own ear, looking at Grace as if she doesn’t believe it. Grace can’t either. She strains to hear.

There are calls in Cajun French, responses, people crying and groaning in the building behind them. The shrill screams of bugs outside are wailing away, slowly falling silent one by one, as the last of the injured ones collapse like leaking balloons; the remaining healthy ones will have legged it somewhere to get picked up in anonymous trucks. Michel’s oldest sons whoop and race for the door, for their pickups. They hate those bug troop trucks with an unholy passion. His boys will trail such a convoy until hell freezes over. They’d been known to wait patiently for days to pick a up a trace on where those damn things came from. Drin says he suspects the boys bring out rocket launchers for those kinds of bug hunts.

Oh mercy, there’s Hal’s voice, hoarse, reporting back to people in muffled French. The goblin is walking in, his arms and legs covered in ragged cuts. Michel nods, talking to Hal, and Drin takes off his own shirt and wraps it around Hal, grips Hal’s shoulder, speaks urgently to him, pointing towards the two women, still kneeling amongst the detritus of the battlefield.

Grace stands up, wobbles on aching legs, and begins to topple. Suddenly she’s so very tired, doesn’t think she can keep her feet. She’s caught in strong hands. “Easy there,” Emma says roughly, and then there’s a cable wrapped around Grace’s shoulders and along her waist, stabilizing her on her unsteady feet. She meets Dance’s eyes. They are pale as gold platters.

She reaches out, blindly, and feels their arms come around her. Feels Hal’s arms wrap around her, and his voice is halfway to the growl of the goblin when he murmurs at her. It isn’t even words, but she understands perfectly well. “Fine, I’m fine,” Grace whispers, half-deafened. Her joints burn with pain. Her skin is on fire. She can’t move. “Go check on people. Find Lucas and Aunt Frog.”

Hal growls, “Ahhh, no.” with tusks still sticking out of his mouth. He knows what’s happening. He sees it at least once a week.

“She’s having a fibromyalgia flareup,” she hears Emma says crisply to someone. Grace wonders distantly who asked. “Not surprising. Let’s lay her down and let her breathe a bit while we help out on triage. Then we’ll take her home.”

Hal grunts urgently.

“Yes, I understand you want to take her home yourself, but should you stay here to keep people calmed down?” Emma says, as if he’s spoken.

Dance’s tail slides up Grace’s back, a little knot of it cups the back of Grace’s skull, and then he’s simply laying her down on the floor, looking into her face.

“Are you going to bite me?” Grace whispers.

“If it helps,” Dance says, and kisses her cheek. “Rest. I come back.”

Grace fumbles her hand up. “Help the hurt people first. I know this thing. It won’t kill me.” God her back is one solid sheet of pain now, the muscle spasms working up and down her spine like cascades of burning oil.

Dance snorts, and Emma folds her arms, looking down at Grace. “Yeah, it’ll just feel like it. Okay, let’s get a look at who needs work.” And then they’re gone, with Hal treading along heavily with them, almost halfway into goblin-form, and nobody is afraid of him at all. People reach out and touch him, he grunts and snuffles at little kids and makes them lose that look of fear, he’s soon got one of Michel’s great-grandsons riding around on his shoulders, importantly pointing where they should go next, playing guide for Hal’s poor eyesight in that form. “Turn right!” he yells. “Now left! Door!”

Grace gives a tearful smile. Did she ever think she’d see that? Little kids bouncing around the goblin, tugging him to come, look, smell things?

Emma and Drin are, similarly, steering Dance around. Grace lays on the hard floor, spine jerking in agony, and she watches them help Dance stagger to a trashcan and puke. He hangs on, spits, shakes his head, heaves up repeatedly. Drin shoves a chair under him, and he sags there into their support. “Bug toxins,” Dance whispers, eyes closed.

“Bad ones this time,” Emma says. “Tissue, Dance. There’s more. Here.”

He nods, wipes his face, and again. “Different. None quite all same.”

Emma stands up, folding her arms, glaring around. “That’s why they sent so damn many. Variations in their damn field test.”

“See which ones we can’t fight,” Dance says. “Which kills no matter what.”

“It’s fucking meaningless!” Emma growls. Somehow it’s more threatening than when she shouts. “Attacking sick old ladies with diabetes and heart trouble? That doesn’t prove a damn thing about toxins. It just proves you can knock over old people really easy. What the fuck were they after, it’s stupid–”

“Em,” Drin says mildly. “Maybe that’s the point. Skew the results positive when it isn’t deserved.”

Emma draws back her lips and snarls. In that moment she looks more like a bagheera than a regular human being, and Grace feels a surge of pride and admiration for her friend.

“Yeah,” Drin says, hands moving on Dance’s shoulders, “Dance’s sedation on you must be wearing down. C’mon, easy now. You really were going nuts, Em, you know how you just charge a solid bug line, you didn’t even check for backup. Get y’self killed that way.”

Emma glares at Dance, who holds up a hand wearily. “No, I did not ask first, I just grab and bite. Bad, me.”

“Damn right,” Emma says, and hauls off and smacks his back, hard. “Prolly saved my damn fool life. The goddamn smell of those fuckers–”

Dance looks up and smiles. His tail comes up and strokes her knee. “Stop next time?”

“Well, hell, I’ll try.” Emma nods stiffly. She pats the tail, grips it tight, strokes it furiously. “Skewing the stats–yeah, Drin, that’s it, right, of course you’re right,” and then she’s striding away from them and kneeling by Grace. “You hanging in there so far? You want some water?”

“Please,” Grace whispers.

“You got it.” Then Emma smiles, touches her forearm lightly. “Princess.”