“I don’t believe it!” Emma exclaims, laughing.
Dance looks at her unhappily, hands up in front of him, ready to fend it off.
She grabs a wad of garish rubber creatures out of the bin, and just holds it up, and watches him flinch.
“It makes me get confused,” Dance mumbles. He’s much happier when she lets go, lets the floppy things drop back into the pile. He’s acutely relieved when she reaches out and rests her hand on his arm instead.
“Poor baby,” she says, instantly contrite.
“They don’t smell so great either,” Dance says, making a face. He’s glad suddenly that it’s five am, that there’s nobody around in the booths but some grumpy truckers at the back, that Emma and he have been horsing around for five minutes and no waitress has showed up.
He’s still not sure of himself, walking around in public with his pants pinned oddly and half his body weight draped around his shoulders like a big hot fur coat, and the tip tucked into his armpit trying to crawl away and hide somewhere safe and warm and dark. The restaurant lights seem excruciatingly bright.
He knows the hotel room isn’t safe at all. But he still wants to crawl away back in there, maybe hide under the bed or something.
He looks at Emma, thinking that he’s nowhere near brave enough to face what she’s looking at when she reaches up and kisses him on the cheek. “Poor baby,” she says again, and her eyes are still laughing. He leans into her, feeling her arms go around him. Then she whispers, “Your pants are falling down again.”
He sighs. “I know.”
“Want me to pin them up again?”
“Please.” He ought to be able to pin sixteen things at once now, but he hasn’t mastered picking up things that small with his tail, and his fingers feel stupid and clumsy and hopelessly thick. What he needs is to put in at least three hours of fingering practice on a decent instrument, he thinks, feeling her hands finish with the safety pins and rub up and down his back.
“Your back doing okay?” she murmurs, touching him.
“I’m okay,” he says.
“Ready for some waffles?” she says, smiling.
He makes a face. The truckstop smells are a little strong by the front door, and here by the kitchen, the cooking oil smells a little too far gone on the old side. He doesn’t feel hungry in here, but he’ll make an effort.
Then he turns his head and nods as Drin comes out of the restroom door.
What he doesn’t expect is the thick odor of sticky, stale honey that rolls out of there, or the two dark-coated men that follow Drin out and stand looking at them.
Dance opens his mouth, silently closes it. He didn’t smell it before, he’d have warned Drin. Not a clue. How in hell did they keep that smell from blanketing the whole place?
“Well, shit,” Emma says, and her arm blurs around, and there’s suddenly a whole swarm of rubber things in the air.
Dance’s tail suddenly figures out that it knows exactly what to do with a bin full of rubber toys. And a couple of thugs who smell of drying honey.
“Easy, easy,” Drin’s voice says into his ear. “Don’t gag them any harder than that.”
Emma says then, “Here, guys, I hate to tell you, but we got company.”
Dance thumps the bigger guy on the head, and watches the body sag, and makes a face. He doesn’t like touching them or their clothes or the stinking things in their hair.
When he turns his head, he can see the truckers standing around Emma. Grumpy truckers. Smiling, some of them, at Emma.
“These guys bothering your lady?” the biggest one rumbles.
“We’ve got it,” Drin says.
“Never doubted you for a minute,” says the big guy, scratching at a thick wiry black pelt that pokes up out of his shirt. “Ahh just don’t like getting left out of the fun. Here, Cado, you want to take the little one off the lady’s hands? Bruce, get the big ‘un, that’s it. Tell Mike to pick ’em up with the reefer, keep that stink down. We set up a new place to clean bugs, make sure we get everything they been meaning to broadcast. Make sure they don’t bother anybody else.”
One of the shorter guys steps forward, grinning, and tells Emma happily, “They sure cry when you pull their wings off.”
Emma’s face freezes into a crooked smile.
A tall thin trucker with really thick glasses pushes past and lifts the bigger of the dark pair out of Dance’s grip as if the considerable metal armoring under the clothes weighs nothing. The thin guy nods once, politely, at Dance, murmuring, “Ma’am,” and carries the inert thing away through the kitchen.
Dance leans back a little, releasing the second one into the support of the guy whose comment made Emma’s face blank out like that. The trucker looks directly into his eyes, and grins. “Preeeetty lady.”
“Out, Efrim,” Fozzie growls. The guy just grins wider when the leader cuffs him on the back of the balding head.
“Thanks,” Drin says, looking at the burden being carried away after the first one. Then he looks at the economy-sized guy who’s been doing the talking. “I appreciate the help taking out the trash.”
“How’s it going, Drin? Been awhile.”
“Yeah,” Drin says quietly. “Too long, what with one thing or another. Fires to put out.”
“It has,” the black-haired guy grunts. “Wanna sit down and get some food? You guys look like you could use some feeding up. I think we got a cook round here somewhere, if we can get ‘m to pull his face outta the honey bottle this morning. Poor thing’s got no head for his bug likker, gotta tell you.” He waves a long arm toward the back booth.
“So let me introduce you,” Drin says then, walking ahead of them. He turns, at the table, and puts one hand out to Emma, and her fingers curl up with his. “My lady here, Emma, is a librarian.”
The big furry guy puts out a hand, and Emma takes it lightly, and the trucker lifts it and kisses the air just above it, politely. “Ma’am,” he says gravely. “Always a pleasure to meet Drin’s academic friends.”
Emma inclines her head to him as precisely as she would to a Japanese guest at the symphony, as if she’s been doing this at every library soiree in her life. “Sir, you have the advantage of me,” she says.
He grins. “Oh, well, people call me lots of things, but I ain’t gonna burden your lovely ears with most of that stuff. Fozzie Bear is my CB handle.”
“Fozzie,” she says, looking up into his eyes. She has to crane her neck to do it.
He’s smiling down at her. “I do love seeing a good strong girl throwing southpaw, I surely do. Nearly as much as I love watching my roller derby gals, and that’s saying something.”
She turns red.
He chuckles. Then he looks at Drin, one furry graying eyebrow lifting.
“And my other lady,” Drin says then, putting out his hand and touching Dance on the arm lightly, “is not a lady in any other sense of the word.”
The big guy bends a little, bringing his face down to Dance’s eye level. He holds out a hand gravely, palm open. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” he says. “I do admire a lady who can knock down Turner’s boys without harmin’ ’em, so we got something to work with. I do purely like that.”
Dance looks at the face, at the hand, and then reaches out with something that is not a hand. Hanging out of nothing, it is about two feet of bright lime-green with white belly scutes. It looks exactly like the snarls of rubber snakes in the bin, down to the awkward mold lines. The tip rises slightly, extending toward the trucker’s big hand, and poises there as if waiting to see if he’s going to respond.
Emma stares at it, and starts to laugh.
The big guy’s eyes start smiling. He closes his hand gently around the length as if he is shaking hands with it, and he brings up his other hand and pats the upper curve of it with thick fingertips. “My,” he says, fingers open as if ready to support it, if Dance should wish it. “Now that’s a compliment I don’t get every day.”
Emma is glancing away around the coffee shop, nervous, but everyone else is staring at the rubbery loop draped across Fozzi’s palm. Dance feels a flush come up in his face, and he glances up at Drin apologetically.
Drin just smiles wider. “Dance has style.”
“Oh, why didn’t you tell us your lady here just unpinned this,” the trucker said, palm open, with a curl of the tip resting on his palm. Little agitated flickers of blue mar the illusion of the rubber snake. “Look at that beauty, feel those tiny little keels moving on my hand. You haven’t even been up and walking around for a week, have you?”
He turns his hand, admiring the very fake-looking rubber snake.
“My God, Drin, when was the last time you saw one of them solid slidecoats like this? You could take an air-hammer to this and only piss it off a little. It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes, it truly is.”
Dance opens his mouth, and says, “How do you know–”
“Oh, I’m an antiques guy from way back,” Fozzie responds. He’s still looking at the visible tip closely. “Oh, such a young baby, too. Let me tell you, Dance, you did great for somebody who’s still tripping over their own feet.”
Drin still has his hand lightly on Dance’s shoulder. Drin nods at Fozzie’s hand and says, “That’s just the first shedding there.”
Fozzie nods. “I can see that. I’ve never seen the first shed on an old school slidecoat like this. Awesome. Just like you always claimed. It’s like anybody else’s ninth shed, at least.”
Emma looks at the two men communing solemnly over the tail-tip, and her sense of the absurd gets the better of her. She says to Dance, “So, do you feel like a Harley put up on the rack for a tune-up?”
Dance smiles at her wryly.
Fozzi puts out his free hand gravely in Emma’s direction, and touches her arm with a fingertip, warningly. “My dear,” he tells her, “it’s much more like we are looking at a mint Aston-Martin, kept in a museum, with provenance, that was filmed doing stunts in the first Bond movie. It can actually do mountains just fine, but it’d give you a heart-attack to take it out the door.”
Emma frowns. “What if the Aston-Martin wants to get out of the museum sometimes?”
Fozzi smiles at her. “Drin, I’m in love. I wanna kidnap both of them and take them home to the wife and kids. Of course, with a back-fang boy like Dance, and knowing my kids, it’d be about like bringing home a snapping turtle for my three-year-old to play with, but that’s been known to happen too.”
Emma shifts her weight against the edge of the table. “Back-fang?”
Fozzie lifts his bushy eyebrows at her, and then glances at Drin. “You haven’t tried to poking any fingers down in Dance’s mouth, I hope.”
Drin shakes his head. “I knew we’d need a herp specialist.”
Fozzie draws in about a bushel of air and sighs it out over the curl of tail across his palm. “Okay, Dance, you got my scent now?”
Dance puts out a hand rather blindly, and Emma is right there, supporting his arm, steadying him. Dance blinks, shakes his head, and blinks again. “When did you go fishing?” he says, bewildered by the odors of motor oil and drying weed and mud and algae and chopped bait.
Fozzie grins. “This morning. Got my guests to think of, don’t I? Bet you ain’t feeling like chowing down on pancakes. I got you some nice feisty alligator gar out in a cooler, kept it in batches of good clean water in the cab of my reefer. Get some prey movement going, in case you need provocation to feel hungry. Yeah, you like that idea, don’t you, baby? Hey, Drin, you got any idea how much protein Dance needs right now? I know how many new beef sides we send over for Ringling’s tigers, and that adds up quick, let me tell you. Chickens are nice and cheap, but some folks got to have more gamey smell to their meat.”
Dance looked at the big guy in horror. His stomach rolls queasily. “I don’t want to– to grab live things and–”
He grunts. “Yeah, it takes some folks that way, too. Can’t live on sushi tuna your whole life either, you know. You probably need more live-bone calcium in your diet.”
Drin grabs his other arm, props him up a bit. Dance’s stomach gives another queasy turn. He feels hot and blind and either he’s going to faint or he’s going to hurl, right there on the floor. He doesn’t think it would be a new experience for this floor. He surprises himself by putting out a longer green length of snake and leaning more of the weight of it onto Fozzie’s supporting arm. It makes Fozzie look like he’s raided the toy bin.
“When the last time you ate?” Fozzie says.
Dance shakes his head, unable to remember anything.
“Cinnamon,” Emma prompts him. “You had the last of the ginger root this morning, remember?”
“Yeah, I can smell that on him,” Fozzie agrees. “Those two are a real good idea, settle you right down. Billy Dean, run back to the kitchen and see if they’ve got a knob of ginger back there, you know that stuff my old lady likes when her stomach is giving her gyp.”
The medium-large guy with the long ZZ-Top beard nods once, twirls his fingers in farewell at them, and slouches away without a word. As he turns, Dance sees that he’s wearing huge padded headphones, with a cord running down into his coat pocket. He shouldn’t be able to hear anything through it, but clearly he does.
Dance looks blurrily back at Fozzie.
“Yeah, I thought so,” Fozzie says, moving one finger back and forth, watching Dance’s eyes snap to it, track it. “It can take awhile to get the new body reflexes sorted out. My old lady was sick as a dog for a month, the last really big shed she did. Puked whenever she turned her head too fast. Got migraines if she went out when it was light, took her ages to get over jumping at loud noises. Buncha country boys get rowdy out there, you’re gonna get loud noises.”
Emma looks at Drin, points her chin at the bench seat in the booth, and Drin nods. Fozzie puts out both hands, lifting something he can’t see, and then Dance is sitting down with one side against Emma and the other against Drin. The cool table is holding up a long loop of bright green silly-looking rubber snake. Dance takes a deep breath. The coolness feels good.
Emma reaches out among the trucker’s dishes, grabs a water glass, holds it out to Dance.
Dance reaches up for it, knocks it clumsily out of her hand. Water splatters across the table and the length of green tail, making him gasp, and blink.
Drin grabs another glass, grabs out a handful of ice cubes, and slathers it against the visible length of tail. Dance slumps back in the booth, leans his head back against Emma’s support, and blinks at the ceiling. Emma wets her hand and puts it against his forehead, and he sighs, closing his eyes.
“Overheated,” Fozzie says. “Goddamn bug-boys stressing him out.”
Drin nods, rummaging for more ice. He yanks open Dance’s shirt and scrubs cool wet palms over Dance’s chest.
Fozzie looks at Emma and remarks, “Slide coat isn’t fully developed yet, it’s probably reflecting all that heat back into his muscles, instead of venting off some of those IF frequencies. Modern coats, you’ll see them splattering all over the spectrum, they’re not invisible if you’re really watching for it. Not like these old-style surveillance specials. Button this up tight and you won’t see anything in your hunting goggles, even if it cooks the poor thing who’s wearing it. I’m real glad you turned green for me, Dance. That probably kept you from fainting.”
Dance looks at him blearily. He doesn’t move when Billie Dean’s long arm comes down in front of him and sets down a knob of ginger, several cloves of garlic, a bunch of parsley, and some elderly celery. It’s Emma who glances up and nods once at Billie Dean, saying, “Thank you.”
Billie Dean nods gravely back at her, and slides into the booth on the far side. Then he reaches into his coat pockets, frowns, rummages, and smiles. He holds out a bandanna, and points at Dance.
“Cover his eyes?” Emma asks.
Billie Dean nods.
“Dunk it in the icewater first, cool him off,” Fozzie advises her.
“Should we take Dance back to the hotel and throw him in the bathtub?” Emma says, leaning around Dance to tie the wet grubby cloth around his head.
Dance doesn’t move. The wet darkness feels better.
“Well, if them two bugboys got here so quick, it mighta been because some others are covering ground over there too,” Fozzie says. “Reeks of the hive, I must say.”
“That weird stale honey smell?” Dance says, eyes shut, and hears the silence.
“They smell like honey to you?”
“Like honey and oil that’s gone bad, rancid,” Dance says.
“Well,” Fozzie says. “How far away can you smell ’em coming?”
“Two, three blocks away, if they’re on foot,” Dance says. He rolls his head toward Emma, draws in a deep reassuring breath, and sighs it out. “But those two in the restroom, I don’t know how– I got no warning smell.”
Emma says sharply, “There should have been something.”
“Yeah, these new surveillance bugs, they go get dunked in some kinda chlorophyll bath to tone it down, but it wears off in a couple hours.” Then he says, “I appreciate you trusting me, telling me.”
Emm is fumbling with something. “Here,” she says, putting something in Dance’s hand. “Strawberry jam. Eat.”
Dance takes another deep breath. It’s the last thing his stomach wants to do. But he trusts her, he puts out his tongue and licks a little of it out of the coffeeshop packet, and lets it sit on his tongue for awhile. He takes another cautious lick, and when he puts out his hand, she doesn’t need to be told to put a water glass in it. He sips, and rests his head against her, and feels like falling asleep.
“Close your eyes, I’m going to wet down the bandanna again, it’s dried out,” Emma says.
Dance puts his head down on the table. “I just want to sleep,” he mumbles.
“Yeah, I get that,” Emma says. “Keep your eyes shut.”
Drin’s big warm hand comes up on the middle of his back, strokes his spine gently.
Emma puts the bandanna around his head, dripping water down onto his neck. “Okay, lean back now,” Emma says, and he leans back into the support of Drin’s hand, resting his head against Emma’s shoulder as before. She puts her hands on either side of his face and tells him, “Now, open your mouth, baby, I’m gonna put some more jam–”
Everything happens very fast. Something that tastes of rubber slams into his mouth, and Drin’s hand is pushing down on the back of his head, shoving him into it, and Emma’s hands are steady as rocks on either side of his face, not letting him jerk away to either side unless he’s willing to hurt her, and he isn’t.
“Maamaahah,” Dance gags it out, and then things are pulsing hotly in the sore spots in his sinuses, and then something gives, and fluid is draining out of his upper palate, he can feel the pressure easing somewhere within his cheek bones, and it feels like he’s peeing in his pants too. “Aaarggh,” he says, gagging.
“It’s all right, it’ll be all right,” Emma is crooning at him, “Just let it go. You’re all right, love, let it go.”
“Just about done,” Drin says grimly, “on my count of three,” and then the hands all leave him, the rubber jerks away out of his mouth, and Dance flings off the bandanna and blinks at them blurrily with tears in his eyes, gasping.
“What the hell was that?” he gasps, blinking at Drin.
“That was us making sure your venom glands weren’t impacted,” Drin says quietly.
Dance keeps on gasping. “You could have just fucking told me what you were going to do! I could have lost it and really hurt somebody! Emma’s not strong enough to hold me if I really thought you were suffocating me, and that’s goddamn near what it felt like.”
Drin looks into his eyes. “Yeah,” he says.
“I might have fucking bit you,” Dance says, and feels the absurd tears well up and spill over. And somehow it’s just the final straw that, yes, he really has wet his pants.
“Probably hurt a bit,” Fozzie says, squinting at the fluid he’s swirling around in a water glass. “It’s a little cloudy. He might have a bit of sinus infection going on there.” He looks at Dance and smiles. “I do surely like a civilized gentleman who won’t lose his temper and bite his friends accidentally.”
Dance blinks at the big man, breathing hard. It’s just all too much suddenly, and his body jolts the table, gripping it, ready to fling it aside so he can get out of there. Drin and Emma on either side of him won’t be able to block him then, if he’s willing to yank the table over.
It’s bolted into the floor. The floorboards give an ominous creaking noise.
Fozzie sighs, and reaches prosaically into his pocket, and pulls out his wallet. “You know, if it’ll make you feel better, we’ll buy Jessie a new table. She just hasn’t had the dough to fix this place up, and if you just rip the table up then we’ll get started on it this weekend– I think maybe you’ll want some more of that ice, like, soon. Billie Dean–”
Dance can feel the heat flushing up into his face, making his head ring. He wants to tell Drin angrily to move, he wants to stand up in a dignified manner, and march out of this place in his wet clothes, and he wants to walk back to the hotel room and crawl into a nice cool tub of ice water. He knows none of those things will happen.
He sits rigid, afraid the top of his head may explode, unwilling to turn his head and look at either of them. He’s afraid that if he does move, he’s going to grab each other in turn and give them a bare-assed spanking they’re not going to forget in a hurry. He’s never done anything like it in anger. Rage pours through his whole body. He’s not going to start now, either.
Emma says, “He’s burning up.”
“Don’t,” he says, when she wants to touch him.
Drin reaches for him, opening his mouth to say something, and the tip of Dance’s tail disappears and flicks through the air with a whirring noise. They look down, eyes wide, when the cuff at the end of Drin’s long sleeve flops open. The button of the cuff is gone, vanished, the threads that held it in place are severed, and tiny wisps of smoke rise from the tips of thread.
“Try asking next time,” Dance hears himself say. He looks at Fozzie. “So I remember there’s a difference between you lot and the bugs.”
Somebody else would have left it at that.
Dance is too much of a performer to let it go.
He reaches out, picks up the ginger root, and bites into it, rolls it around in his mouth, letting the hot taste soothe the swollen ache in the roof of his mouth. When he’s eaten that, he makes himself pick up the parley, and the celery, and eat that too.
When Emma grabs a full glass of icewater from the far end of the table for him, he’s not too proud to accept it. He thanks her. He is, he tells himself, a gentleman. Even if his sinuses are killing him and his back is throbbing and there are icepicks going up the bones of his sorry damp ass.
He brings up the main length of his tail and asks, civilly, for Drin to help him lay it on the table and slather more cooling ice on it.
When he can think a little bit again, he opens his eyes and stares up into Fozzie’s thoughtful gaze, and asks, “In exchange for your help, what do you want us to do for you and yours?”
For some reason, that makes Fozzie throw back his head and roar, laughing until there’s tears in his eyes.