“Yeah, hello?” Keisha said, shading her eyes against the morning light. Then she blinked. One of the prettiest men she’d seen in a long time was standing on her front boardwalk, one brown fist raised toward the rusty old door-knocker. She said to him, “Seung said he heard you coming.”
He swished that long hair back. Blue notes in the black. Seung’s hair would look like that, if he ever let it grow out. But the world would be a very different place if Seung ever let his hair get that long.
Keisha blinked away the distracting thought of combing her hands through long sheaves of stuff like that draped over Seung’s shoulders. Seung had shoulders.
This guy smiled. He had shoulders too. He was used to distracting women, too.
“Can’t sneak around with a naga in the house,” he said. He held out the hand to her instead. “My name’s Hal. I’m one of the folks who tries to organize some care for the patients who come to the clinic.”
Keisha held out her hand, bandages and all.
He supported it without gripping onto it, kissed the air just above it, murmured in French, and released it gently. “I’m so sorry to hear about the problems you folks had the other night. Fozzie wanted me to come by and let you know we found Mike, and the truck, and I think–”
“Mike’s got some questions to answer,” Keisha said, baring her teeth.
Hal just smiled tiredly at her. “Join the line.”
“Our stuff got left on that red truck.”
“Yeah. It’s weird, but the bugs drove it for about twenty miles, dumped it, and wandered off. We found them all in a pile head-down in the bayou, looked like they were trying to kill each other. Hard to tell, by then they were coming apart. They’re down to bug parts and pretty rank after they’ve been dead about eight hours. Now, personally, I think something happened on that truck after your bunch left it. Like some kinda bug-jamming signal. I’d love to know what it was, me.”
Keisha stared at him. “Bug-jamming signal.”
“Yeah. You think of anything on that one, you let us know. Now, what do you want right away from the stuff in the truck?”
“My laptop,” Keisha said, without thinking first.
“Yeah? Well, that looks okay. A little scraped up, one of the bugs tried to scissor it. I’ve never seen a hunka plastic that could stand up to that. It broke the claw. So nobody’s messing with it. We knew you wanted it back for Seung’s sake.”
Keisha took a step forward into the guy’s space. “Who told you that? I mean, about Seung maybe needing the laptop?”
“Dance and the doctor told me,” Hal said, not even blinking. “Dance thinks it might be involved in how to finish unpinning Seung.”
“Finish it? That pin came out of that man’s back–”
“That may not be all there is to it. Dance needed to find his viola after his pin came out. I was there when that parasail finally came ripping out of Dance’s back. We don’t know what else Seung has going on.”
Keisha looked into the big brown eyes. The eyes were a little odd. Not enough white around that iris. This was not just a human being either. Something else was going on. She’d heard some very wild stories about Hal. Seeing how pretty he was, some of it made sense. This guy could induce a lot of silly behavior in other people, men and women both. She meant to sit down for a talk with the guy she’d heard about. Now seemed as good as any time for that. He was watching her, waiting for her to make up her mind. She took a deep breath. “Well, I just made a pot of coffee, and we got some oatmeal going, and I was gonna whip up some eggs. Why don’t you come on in and have some breakfast and talk to Seung. He’s bored looking at the walls.”
“How’s he doin’?” Hal seemed to be genuinely concerned.
“Things are healing, but it’s hurting. Tail’s hurting him, the hole where the pin came out is hurting him, and he’s not about to admit to a coupla women that he’s cryin’ every time he has to use the can. He doesn’t wanna eat cause he doesn’t want to visit the little boy’s room, but he can’t help it. I make him eat. He’s starvin’, he oughta be snarfin’ down anything I can give him, especially if it’s got protein.”
Hal nodded. “We’ll get him some more fish and seafood and easy stuff that won’t upset his system, Dance knows what ought to go down easier. Keep your guy from having mineral problems like Dance did.”
“And he’s nuts for that apple butter Dance likes, got to be the cinnamon. Emma says she ordered a big can of it for us, waitin’ for that to get here.” Keisha led the way down the hall to the bedroom. She spoke into the closed door. “You heard? Hal here is visiting for breakfast. Are you dressed?”
“Yes, I’m coming,” Seung’s voice said.
Keisha opened the door, and smiled at her snake man. He was up, he had his two hospital gowns wrapped on front and back, and he was up on his feet, leaning on the wall. His tail was dragging on the floor. Keisha didn’t stare at it, but the lower half of it was the same color as the carpet it was lying on. That was new, as of two days ago. When Hal walked in the bedroom, most of it faded out so close to the background Keisha couldn’t see it at all. She didn’t comment when she saw it doing that. Even when it was invisible, she knew where it was. What gave it away was the long skinny shreds of skin peeling off it. Lots of them. The scraps of skin didn’t go invisible. They glittered like shards of glass. They felt like it underfoot, too. Drin knew what that was like. She was glad he had lino installed all over this houseboat, instead of carpeting the bedroom like normal people would. The tail stirred, and Seung winced.
Hal saw it too, but he didn’t say anything. Didn’t blink. Hard to fake that reaction. This guy had seen Dance doing things like it. Hal just bowed a little, said, “A pleasure.”
Seung blinked at him, bent at the waist to bow, and then he held out one hand, Western-style. “Good to help the doctor’s clinic. Help Keisha and Peach. Help me.”
Hal nodded, took Seung’s hand, gripped carefully–as if he’s used to shaking hands with people he could hurt if he’s not careful–and released it. Then he said, bluntly, “But I hear you guys were maybe having some friction with Drin and Emma over what they were doing with the clinic?”
Seung took a deep breath of air, looked at Keisha, and told Hal, “Not fight of two bosses, but like that. Proud, we do for us, no strings. Not want take things maybe Doctor Alexander need for other folks instead, yes? Not use up money Drin need to help other zoomorph rescue. Only borrow, give back, only use up what we have to. Not working, got buy meat for Peach and me. Keisha stay here for me, I be very–” he gave Keisha a quick smile, “–very expensive pet.”
Keisha nodded. “But cute, gotta say that. Worth every steak bone.” She chuckled and held her hand out above his tail, clicked her fingers, and waited.
Seung just blinked at her, mouth open, and then he smiled back at her, and the tail tip glided up through her fingers, hugging around her wrist. Seung gave a little noise in his throat, took a deep breath, blinked again, looked at Hal. “Not– not wanting problems. We not want give Dance’s people insults.”
Keisha’s fingers tightened on Seung’s tail. He looked at her steadily, waiting.
Hal nodded. “I know folks who don’t want anybody else pokin’ in their business, tellin’ them what to do, or when. Sometimes you gotta think about everything, all the different factors that come into play, gotta let it shake down for awhile before you decide. ” He gave a little shrug. “Boy, Drin, he comes outta somewhere you make your decisions bang! like that.” He clicked his fingers. “And Emma–” he shook his head. “She ain’t afraid of anything. She just comes right at you. She doesn’t get how people gossip on her being so rowdy, you know? She’s like those horse ranch folks, moving all day. You ask her anything, man, she gets that thing done. Running all day long. The salon ladies tell me they been tryin’ to get her to calm down and take a minute, chat with folks. She’s one of them quick folks, she can’t just sit with the pain, let it be what it is. She always got to be up doing for folks. But lots of times, out here in the swamp, all these problems, there’s just nothing you can do. Nothing.”
Keisha blinked. That was a view of Emma’s history that she hadn’t expected. “Sounds like she’s running away from something.”
Hal tilted his head. “Yeah. I’m sure not asking her, though. She’d probably tell me!” And he laughs, giving an exaggerated shudder.
Seung chuckled, pointed his thumb at Hal. “You tell them about us?”
“Oh, hell no, I haven’t had some good long visits with you yet. I don’t know what’s up. But I can do that, if you want me to.”
Keisha said, “Most people don’t feel a need to get into other people’s business. Especially when they’re heading out in the country cause they don’t want no human company.”
Hal looked at her calmly. “It doesn’t matter if they got zoomorphs who need medical help. Most people who got the luxury to walk off like that in the woods and put up fences, like the bug labs do– well, they don’t have wolf-faced cousins with CP and cow-legged aunts with seizures and sick babies with cleft palates and kitty ears who can’t go off to a regular hospital. The Trio ain’t been here long. Hell, you’re new when you’ve lived here thirty years. Oh man, the gossip they caused. They’re all a couple together, urban folks who like weird food, they’re from the west coast, and they don’t think anybody’s lookin’ when that boat rocks? Can we count on them helping a year from now, who knows? They might leave, you know, might get fed up, they might need to go somewhere else. They haven’t made promises on that. But when Dance heard bug troop transmissions, he was the first one out there in front of somebody’s place to stop ’em. Bug wars this summer kinda convinced people the other two weren’t gonna dump Dance and take off for nicer places. Ain’t much nice about this swamp in a bug war, either.”
“Heroes,” Seung said wryly, before Keisha could open her mouth.
“Yeah, but so were a lot of other folks who just ain’t got all the fancy tools they do, and they’d be the first ones to say so.” Hal nodded at Seung’s tail. “You learn to fry things with that, and you can kill any bug you get close to, and most of their machinery. Take out the girders in buildings, demo work of any kind you like. Build things, too. Amazing stuff.”
“Not sure I can do hero stuff,” Seung said, in spite of the name he chose for himself.
Keisha gripped onto his tail, hard. “I know you do, you saved Peach and me,” she snapped, angry suddenly. What do those people want out here, anyway?
Seung looked at her. “Not brave like you. I know hurt.”
Keisha lifted her other hand, about to poke him hard, and then she changed her mind. She flattened her hand, rested it on his collarbone, slid it up into his hair. Stroked his neck. “I know you do, my man. I know.”
Seung rubbed her wrist with his hand, too. She felt how his callouses were peeling away in rough patches. He said, “When you know bugs go hunt Peach, you go stop them. You know bugs chase me, you stop them. You know bugs chase Dance?”
“Oh hell yeah, I’d stop them,” Keisha growled, “and you know it. Nobody wants bug troops taking you or Dance.”
“Oh hell no,” Keisha said.
“Or Tee Pom, or his wife?”
Keisha glared at him. “No! I’m not walking away if bug troops show up, and you damn well know it. I’m gonna spank you, you keep that up.”
The smile on Seung’s face was totally bald evidence about his tastes in leather gear.
She added, sternly, “And not in a nice way!”
“Well, damn,” Seung said, leaning his head into her shoulder, and surprising all of them into laughter.
“Let me know if you want to borrow some dungeon gear,” Hal said, dryly.
Keisha blinked at Hal. Oh yeah, that meant what she thought it did. He was not exactly what she’d expect from an actual local-style Master–but then, she had only seen the costume versions at parties, and their entourages were pretty sad. Their manners sure lacked any kind of dignity. Peach had more dignity when she was giggling her head off, just stepping into a boat for the first time, trusting Keisha. Seung was like entire mountain ranges of challenge, looking up at her with those eyes unfocused with pain, straining to meet her, needing her, making demands on her that she’s never felt before. Hell, demands that she’s never seen anybody handle before.
Hal nodded towards Seung, frowning. “We’re a little on the home-made side, but we do manage to build sturdy. I don’t think you’ll get any restraints that could hold him for real. Dance asked me to think about restraints and how he might break out of them. He’s not kinky, I don’t think he’s wired that way. But he just doesn’t want bug troops to be able to hold him prisoner. I made him promise not to use his fry-cook tricks, either. So far, that tail is strong enough to break anything we can build. Tell you the truth, it’s kind of fun watching him pull things apart. I’m sure he’d be glad if Seung wants to collaborate on that project.” And Hal smiled. Something about the eyes that didn’t have enough white in them made Hal convincing.
“I’ll think about it,” Keisha said, and she can see Seung sure as hell liked the idea. His tail started stroking stealthily along her arm, sneaking its way upward. She smiled. “Tell you what, Seung, I’m gonna help Peach lift that tail up for you, and we’re gonna go sit in the kitchen where you can get some sun, and you’re gonna get some decent coffee in you.”
Seung squinted at her. “Not you. Bad. Hurt hands.”
Hal said, “If you don’t mind my help, we could spare Keisha’s hands a little bit.”
Seung looked at him. “Yes,” he said. Then he turned his head, and looked at Peach, and the pain eased away from his face.
“Peach, come up and shake hands with Hal.”
Peach was wearing her cute new pink sweats. She looked good, all fluffy and brushed, but she seemed flustered. She was reacting to Hal, looking away from him, getting all shy like a kid. She gave a little bob of the head and held out her hand and blinked, big-eyed, when Hal kissed the air over her hand in the same way as with Keisha. She ducked her head and muttered, “Hi, Hal.”
Keisha sneaked a quick look at Seung. Seung wasn’t even looking at Hal. Tracking him, yeah, but not staring. Certainly not cracking jokes or teasing, the way Dance would be, saying things to such a pretty man, flirting just a little. Seung was focused on Peach. He wasn’t jealous of her reaction to Hal at all. He just thought it was cute. He thought all of Peach’s odd litle quirks were adorable. Seung smiled, leaning on the wall. Forget the lace Valentines, he was gone, floating away on watching his little kitty gal.
Keisha groaned. She knew what that look meant.
Peach knew that look too. She knew what Seung wanted, what she was going to do with him. She kept glancing at Seung, and away again. She got more flustered. She blushed. It was unmistakable, her skin went all pink along the inside of her ears.
It shocked Keisha totally cold. When did Peach pick up enough savvy that she knew she wasn’t supposed to show those kinds of thoughts to guests?
Keisha was perfectly clear on what Peach wanted to be doing. Hell, the whole room was perfectly clear on it. Seung would let her do him right there on the spot, too, too. The eyes were so soft. His face was totally absorbed in admiring her, no pain showing at all.
But Peach knew she was supposed to behave. She had learned that. She looked up at Keisha, who gave a little shake of the head, and Peach bobbed her head again.
Hal flicked up a glance at Keisha, and back to Peach, and he smiled too. Hal said gravely to Peach, “I’ve heard stories how brave you were. Making sure Seung was okay, that he got a good doctor.”
Peach’s eyes got even bigger, and her ears pinker. She ducked her head and mumbled something.
“You gotta ask Hal first if it’s okay to sniff him,” Keisha said.
“Okay?” Peach asked, looking up.
“Certainment,” Hal said, and held out both hands toward her, open and flat, palms up, as he might for a dog to investigate.
Peach lowered her head close to his hands, looked startled, and backed off hastily. “Dog stable horse,” she said, confused. “Goat. Rabbit. Something. Big hairy mossy thing. What is that?”
Hal grinned. “Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Miss Peach. We call the last form a goblin. I’m a shape-changer.”