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. 🙂