Someone lit a bonfire when it started to get dark, and the sounds of a guitar playing a Cajun waltz drift through the light fog drifting off the bayou. The fireflies are out, and kids chase them with jars. There’s quiet conversations, too, and laughter.
Hal was down by the fire, telling some tall tale, but Grace didn’t feel very social at the moment. She’s drifted toward Frog’s back porch, where it’s quiet and still and very, very dark. There’s a lot to think about.
She doesn’t even know how to sit on her backside anymore. Hal had helped her put herself away – she seemed to have the same sort of zero-g box that he had, and helped her retract all that… stuff. But the area itches and tingles even worse than it had before it had burst out. Guess it wasn’t some creeping crud after all. It was a… Her mind slips away from the thought before she could finish it, and she shifts on the still-warm wooden stairs to ease the discomfort.
Someone very large and tall appears out of the fog, and slides onto the stair just above her, making the boards creak in protest. The shape doesn’t smell like herbs and leather, so it’s not Hal. Something kind of spicy, and vegetation, and… bayou water? Teobaldo.
“Hi,” he rumbles quietly. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” she replies.
He is silent in the darkness. She can hear his steady, slow breathing.
She sighs then, raises her knees, and puts her head down on them. “No. I’m not fine. Not in the least. But you know that, don’t you?”
“Dammit, Teobaldo, how am I supposed to feel? I’m confused, bewildered, and scared. I don’t want to be any of these things.” Her voice is sharper than she intended.
“That seems like a pretty normal reaction to me,” he says quietly.
Another silence, while she gathers her thoughts. Having an untidy pile beats having them whizzing around in her brain, bashing into one another and bruising the inside of her skull. “Nothing prepared me for this – I’ve been so normal my whole life. No signs of – anything.”
“You haven’t noticed anything strange about your memories of your childhood?” he asks gently. “Nothing about the drowning accident you were involved with?”
A chill runs down Grace’s spine. How did he know that had been bothering her?
He continues. “All I know is that you had an accident of some sort in the water, in which you nearly died. But how old were you? Who were you with? What color was your swimsuit? How did your parents react to this?”
“I… I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of that. Do you think that it was trauma that made me forget?”
“Hmmm. Possibly. Okay, let me ask you about something else. You said your mother was very close to her sister. Did you ever go to your Aunt’s house with her?”
“Of course I did. Every Saturday. She had a little dog named Dickens. He was a wiener dog, and we would play in the backyard sometimes.”
“That sounds like fun,” Teo agrees. “What was your Aunt’s name?”
This is a struggle. “I…” Grace feels like crying now. “I don’t know. What the HELL is wrong with me?”
Teo hums in the back of his throat as if he’s thinking. It’s a grumbly, soothing sound, and Grace has the odd urge to lay her head down on his chest and ask him to do it again. “Let me ask you a few more questions, and then I’ll tell you what I think. I promise.”
A part of her is screaming, Run away! but she doesn’t move. It’s easier to stay put in the dark, isn’t it? “Okay,” she sighs.
The questions come faster than she can process them: the hair color of the guy she went to prom with in high school, what make of car her father drove when she was young, whether or not she liked to paint her toenails when she was a tween. On and on.
She was crying softly by the time he stopped. He sighed and enveloped her hand in his. God, it was impossibly large. And warm. And very comforting.
“Do you really want to hear what I think?” His voice is very gentle, and he slides an arm around her shoulder as if he feels he has to brace her.
“Well, an answer is preferable to this yawning uncertainty,” she says acidly.
“True enough. You know that you’re some sort of naga, yes?”
“That’s pretty apparent.”
Teo chuckles at her tone. “Well, nagas aren’t born from a mother naga, they’re created. So I’m almost certain that your memories are created, too.”
“Wait.” Her question is very small, very faint. “All of them? All my memories?”
“Only to a certain point.” He thinks for a moment. “I’m thinking… they start after your graduation from high school? Your recall gets much clearer at that point.”
“So I still have some real memories. My life after school. Lucas.”
“Ah, yes, your son. Did you adopt him?”
Grace strains to see him in the dark. “No! Actually, I met a nice young man, snuggled up really close, and then my belly grew. After nine months, I popped him out of my vagina. He’s mine.” She starts to cry again, as quietly as she can.
“Anyone who sees the two of you together knows he’s your child,” Teo says in that rumbly voice, rubbing her shoulder.
Which just makes her cry harder. Until she stops cold, in mid-burble, with a hard, nasty thought spiking her heart rate. “But – but that means I’m still compatible enough – genetically, physiologically, whatever – to have children with a human being!”
“Yes,” Teo agrees.
She opens her mouth to continue that thought, and then her mind just slips over that whole issue, too Better to ask about other things. “And who the hell could just – manufacture memories in my brain, anyway?”
“Can Preacher do that?”
She jolted still again. “He – he – won’t. He says he can’t stand to – “ She takes a breath, then continues, “But, yes, I believe he could do that.”
“Yes, he could,” Teo says. There’s a world of sadness in his tone. “I do suspect they must have been gentle when they did it to you, just leaving an impression and letting you work off those, instead of making you remember lists of certain precise details.”
“Oh God, who’d want to live in a world where things like that are weapons of – “
“Agreed,” Teo says, and tightens the broad pad of his hand on her shoulder a moment. Then he lifts his hand, a little quick about it, as if he’s noticing it too, and really it wouldn’t be appropriate to continue touching her.
A pack of dogs chasing one another comes roaring around the house, barking and then one of them peels away and runs up and barks at her, and lays his head on her knee. The dog is large and all black, tongue lolling, and he looks up at her imploringly. She strokes back the fur on his brows and rests her head on his. “Hey, it’s okay, sweetheart,” she murmurs. “I’ve just got these – these gaps – and that’s making me upset – “
The dog gives a whine, nudges her leg gently with his nose.
“Yeah Hal, I’m still trying to figure it all out, too..”
The dog makes a gurgly talking noise in his throat and licks her hand.
“Yeah, I know, I’ll explain it later, don’t worry. It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”
The dog takes a few steps up the stairs to rest his head very carefully on her shoulder, licks her cheek and her ear, and then backs off and stands quite still, gazing at Teo. He raises his head and snuffs at the air higher up, air that’s drafting around the corner of the house and coming downwind off the two sitting on the step.
“So this is Hal.” Teo says.
“Yeah, he’ll fuss later about licking up all that citronella repellent I sprayed on tonight,” Grace says, carefully wiping the backs of her hands at the tears on her face. She doesn’t want to wipe the repellent into her eyes.
For some reason that seems to amuse Teo, he gives a surprised sort of laugh. Then he holds out both hands flat, open palms turned up, toward the dog.
The dog makes a grumbly chest noise, barks once at Grace, and trots off around the corner, off on his own business.
“What was that?” Teo twists to watch him go.
“Smelled something more important. Barbecue, maybe.”
“Or roadkill, maybe,” Teo says.
“He’s only playing at being suspicious. I mean, Drin vouched for you, so he’s not worried about me talking with you, even after dark..”
“It’s not safe for zoomorph women to talk to whoever they meet in the swamp.” Teo says.
“It’s not safe to get too close to somebody who might have gotten bugbit, not when you last saw them a week ago,” Grace says bitterly. Then she stops, her eyes wide. “Zoomorph women. I’m a zoomorph. I don’t know if I will ever get used to that.”
“You got a chance to know what normal life is like,” Teo says.
“That’s not very helpful!”
Mmm,” Teo says like he agrees.
“No, no actually it is. This is all helpful.” Grace lays her head on Teo’s shoulder for a moment, and then slides away when she realizes what she’s done. “I’m just so tired,” she says hastily. She tries to stand up and go inside, but her legs aren’t working very well.
“Let me find Hal to help you inside, then-” Teo lurches to his feet. Waves of tiredness come off him, too. It’s been a long day.
“Let me,” Grace says, and whistles a clear, two-note sound, like you would to call a dog. “He’ll hear that.”
After a moment, he does indeed show up, in human form, padding up the path wearing only a pair of jeans and his long hair. There are a few twigs and weeds, too, although he doesn’t seem to notice. “Princess?”
“I’m so tired, Hal, can you help me to bed?” Grace asks.
“Course I can.” Hal smiles and reaches to scoop her up… and can’t quite manage. “Whoo, that zero-g box isn’t working quite right yet. That tail may be tucked out of sight, but it sure is heavy.” He shifts his attention to Teo, and extends an arm.
Ah, Teo’s done this a time or three. Together, they do a two-man seat carry, and it’s much easier than carrying her alone. More comfortable, too. She feels a bit like she’s on a palanquin, being carried by her loyal porters. All she needs is one behind to fan her with a peacock feather fan.
“Don’t worry, your box should be fully functional in 24 hours. It’s just a little early yet.” Teo grins reassuringly at her.
“It was working early this evening,” Hal grunts.
“Technology is a wonderful thing.”
Together the two men maneuver Grace through the door and up the stairs to the bedroom. “I’ll get some water from downstairs. She needs to stay hydrated. Hell, we all do.” Teo heads downstairs.
Hal stays close, but Grace would rather change her clothes herself and doesn’t struggle too badly. Hal’s eyes are heavy on her though; she can feel them Finally, she slides into bed with a groan, then motions Hal closer. “Come here, handsome man.” She runs her fingers through his hair, removing twigs and debris, then makes a long braid for him to sleep in. She’s certainly not too tired to miss out on this.
Teo comes back in with three glasses and a pitcher of cold water that he found in the fridge. He pours, and hands a glass to each of them. “Staying hydrated will make things easier. Grace, if you wake up in the night, you might have dry mouth. Drink more. It’ll all get absorbed by your body, so you probably won’t have to use the bathroom too much.” Grace sips primly and obediently, but the two men gulp the water quickly. Teo sets the pitcher down by her bedside.
Hal clears his throat. “You, uhh, seem to know quite a lot about naga physiology. Would you mind… staying close tonight?”
Teo nods. “I saw a throw on a chair downstairs. Is the couch okay?”
Even though she’s half-asleep, Grace protests. “I’ll be fine. I’m sure Dr. Navarre will be more comfortable in his own bed…”
“No, it’s okay. Things might get a little weird tonight, so I don’t mind at all. Call me if you need anything. I’m a light sleeper.”
Hal nods his thanks, and Teo turns one last time to gaze at them as they burrow into the comfort of their bed. Grace has just enough time to notice that he looks odd, almost wistful, before she sinks into darkness,