He’s leaning against the kitchen door frame, turning loops of string in his big hands, looks like. He is pretty. He’s wearing his dark hair long, loosely braided down his back, and he looks calm and easy, like he rides out a Category 3 storm every other Tuesday.
“Hey, Auntie,” he says. “We’ll see if all my hard work paid off, goin’ all over the parish with a truckload of plywood this past week or so. Storm’s supposed to be a bad one– plywood over the windows is useless if the whole house blows down.” He looks down at Haroldine. “Betcha missed me.”
“You’d never guess him for kin of mine, would you!” Haroldine says, tossing a meaning-laden glance at Claudia, who has simply stopped moving in surprise. She’s beginning to lose track of the number of surprises she’s had today, and she’s sure there are bound to be more.
“I’ve got kisses for everyone, in just a sec,” he says then, faux-innocent, and playful, and serious, at the same time. “Miss Penelope, I found you some more stuff.” And he slips by Claudia, handing his string-bundle over; it’s nylon and looks slippery and strong.
The spider-woman gives him a long, squinty look, but takes the string. “Oooh,” Penelope breathes. “More pretty sstrings for me to play with.”
“Your tricks,” Haroldine says, “are wasted on me, Hal.”
“He’ss alwayss playing these talk-pretty gamess,” Penelope informs Dia sighingly, peering at her, and then smiling down at her new bundle, head tilted. “Look, it’ss got such a nice tensile ssstrength, we could do a lot with this, yess.”
Hal shakes his head, woefully.
“Ladies,” he says, “you’re my base. If I lose you, I lose the support of my nation.”
Claudia blinks. “Your nation?” she asks.
“Don’t,” Haroldine roars, “get him started. Thinks he’s Little Lord Fauntleroy of the Great Swamp Nation.”
“They are so cold,” Hal says to Claudia, shaking his head.
“They’re stern,” she replies suddenly, full of a pleasure she can’t explain. “Stern, but just.”
Hal smacks himself in feigned despair.
“Christ,” he says, “have I lost ya before I even got ya?”
Got her? She looks at him sharply, then, that he would make light of… would joke… Oh, hell, what was her problem? The low pressure was doing something to her sinuses to make her this crabby. “You’ll have to do more than flirt prettily and crack jokes to get me…” she grumbles under her breath, her brow wrinkling uncharacteristically in bad temper.
Hal, though, meets her glance with something unexpected; serious calm.
“I understand. I got it, too jokey. I know who you are, you’re Claudia. Everyone’s heard of you.” Solemnly he extends his hand. “I’m Harold Two Horses, out of the Quiet clan on my mother’s side. Sorry ’bout my first name, they named me for Auntie Frog. Everyone calls me Hal.”
“I’m Claudia.” She takes his hand and shakes, firmly and a bit formally.
He blinks at her, letting his hand get shaken, and not letting go. When she begins to pull back, he looks at her hand, and pets it sadly, saying, “But I was just getting to know you!”
Claudia leans into him, glaring right into those gorgeous chocolate laughing eyes, but a giggle escapes, and she’s almost shocked by the sound. “You’re a weirdo, do you know that?”
He nods vigorously. “Came by it honestly, from my mom,” he says, and slides his eyes over at his Aunt Frog.
“You’re so rude!” Claudia whispers, horrified, “your Auntie ought to smack you!” But she sure couldn’t smack him, even if she could bear to. Her hand wants to curl around his fingers.
Haroldine is laughing. “You ran into your match dere!”
“My aunties, why do you betray me?” Hal says, shaking his head. Still, he hasn’t relinquished her hand. She pulls a little, meets his eyes.
“I’m going to need that back,” she says.
“Oh no you’re not,” he says breezily. “I was…Sent. I was…Told to Come…Get You. I was given a message from On High that you Had Enough and needed to be dragged away from doing Useful Things.”
“How high?” Haroldine says, suspiciously.
“Ohhh, yea high,” he says, waving his other hand about a foot over his head. “I was given Command Voice from Somebody Who Told Me to come make you sit down and rest. And boy, do we have ways of–”
“You’ll need to let go soon,” Claudia reminds him. “Like… now.”
“We just started,” he protests, softly. Lifts her hand to his lips, lightly, then releases it.
“Harold Quiet Two Horses, you are not living up to your name,” Penelope says. “The quiet one, I mean.” She makes a hiss softly between her teeth in thought, then says doubtfully, “Not sure about the horses.”
“Well, I can’t help it,” he says. “Really, though, I was sent to get Claudia, and make her stop working. Really.”
Hal puts his hands behind his back, looking as if he’s a little afraid he might use them to reach for her again.
“Really,” he says, in that same soft voice. “You’re supposed to come and sit down and talk to me. Is that okay? Can you stand me?”
She tilts her head to one side and considers the question. “That is okay. You are horrid.” A smile curves the corner of her lips. “I think I can stand you if I try.” She takes an impossibly deep breath, her shoulders slumping with the exhale. Better. “What do you want to talk about?”
He blinks at her, and a really child-like wide grin comes over his face, and he opens his mouth, and Haroldine says, “Take it in dah living room, right now, or I’ll get dah broom to you, if I hear one more word ’bout that damn organization of yours I’m gonna–”
Really, it was amazing how fast they reach in the living room, and isn’t it astonishing how smoothly he evicts one of the teen-aged Circus girls from the one decent chair as if he had a crowbar–and then they’re both sitting in it, flopped down side by side in the wide seat, which isn’t quite wide enough for two, but they manage. She tries to sit primly next to him, but it’s nearly impossible, with those meaty legs of his taking up all the space, and her woman’s hips arguing about getting enough of their own space. She tries not to stare. What does he do with those thighs?
Lucas interrupts her train of thought by trotting up to her, plopping his tennie shoes in her lap, and giggling as he wiggles his bare toes. “Hi, Mama. We’re taking a potty break. Aren’t Mr. Gerritson’s stories great?”
“Yup, they sure are.” Claudia holds up his shoes. “Why are these off your feet?”
“They’re too hot,” he whines.
“Too bad. Put them back on, please.” Broken glass, leftover nails, there are a million things, and she hands the shoes back to him. He slumps, but drops on the floor and starts to pull his socks back on, whining a bit
Grace laughs. “Sorry, dude, not today. The tennies stay on.” She watches him tie his shoes. “Good job.”
He grins at her, then looks at Hal sideways, from under his bangs.
“Lucas, this is Mr. Two Horses. Hal, this is my son, Lucas.” Lucas offers his hand gravely, then smiles in delight as Hal shakes it like a man.
“Hi, Mr. Two Horses, glad to meetcha!”
Claudia scoops up the toddler who is rarely far from Lucas. “And of course you know Marcie, Pen’s daughter.”
“Hi, honey.” Hal makes a silly face at her, and she breaks into a shy smile.
“Sweetie, have you gone potty yet?” Claudia asks. Marcie shakes her head. “Do you have to go?” A nod. “Hal, could you excuse us for a moment?”
Hal wiggles until he’s in the center of the chair. “Sure thing.”
“Lucas, why don’t you go and get Mr. Two Horses a cup of coffee?” Claudia asks. “Be careful, though, it’s gonna be hot. Walk, don’t run.”
“Ok, Mom!” Lucas takes off towards the kitchen, takes three steps, then remembers to slow it down.
There’s a line for the downstairs bathroom, and by the time they get back Hal has his coffee and Lucas is looking at something in his hand. It’s been a long time since she’s seen him this impressed.
“Whatcha got, Lucas?” He shows his mom a pretty marble with green and blue swirls in it.
“Thanks, Mr. Two Horses! I gotta show this to Dav,” he crows, and thunders off.
Okay, where were they? Oh, yeah, Hal’s organization. She slides back onto the chair with him. “So, you’re a politician?” she asks politely, knowing in her heart of hearts that it’s Not Nice of her, but she can’t resist teasing him. She watches the dismayed shock appear comically on his face.
“I’m–not a politician,” he says. “I mean, I have to be able to function as a politician.” Claudia studies his profile, the slightly beaked nose, his cheek–soft–how old, she wonders, can he be? “I have to go toe-to-toe with politicians. I hate it. It sucks. I’m not a politician.”
“Okay, I believe you,” she says. He grimaces, and she sees something new, then, like a promise. A flicker of what he might be, or become someday. Interesting.
“What organization?” she asks, more gently.
“Huh?” He’d been examining their kneecaps, and his head whips up at her question.
“What organization are you involved in?” She looks genuinely interested.
“I’m a king,” he says. “I’m founding a nation.”
She sucks in a startled breath.
“Auntie Frog–” she doesn’t even realize she’s reverted to Hal’s name for Haroldine–“she was serious?”
“Oh, god,” Hal mumbles, dropping his face into his hands.
“Who made you king? Did you just decide–”
“No–no! I was born–”
“Well, of course you were born. Did you,” and she is teasing for sure, now– “did you just wake up one morning and say, ‘Today, I shall be king!'”
“I am failing, so hard, to seduce you, huh,” Hal mumbles into his hands. “You never think about these things. You have this birthright, and your people are suffering, and you start to organize, and WHAM! you’re a king, and neighboring governments send you obnoxious and patronizing emails, and the girl you want to impress just gives you one look, and it all becomes clear, being a king is really…really…dorky…”
Claudia pulls his hands away from his face.
“You want to seduce me?” she asks.
Hal blinks his dark eyes, slowly, twice.
“Why?” she says, astonished. “You’ve never seen me before.”
“It was a sudden impulse,” he says, wiggling a bit, so his hip bumps into hers. Her eyes widen, and flood with heat. Too late, he’s seen it before she can turn away.
“Oh, just something to do while you’re waiting, Your Kingship?” she says, infuriated. Unpleasant memories of the kind of mail that Pen gets here, at the house, prompts her to wickedness of a different sort. “So how do you talk to Immigration and the IRS when you’re rescuing people?”
His mouth hangs open a moment. It’s quite a nice mouth, she thinks kindly. Rather wide, and that he’s still pretty with it is quite odd indeed. Probably has a helluva yell in there, if he was playing ball or shouting from a truck or something. She could see him doing that.
“I generally do things on the Internet, it’s much safer than tangling with the brownshirts in person,” he says then, very quietly. “I hope Pen’s been careful. They don’t fool around. I’ve been hearing about people disappearing. Families, not just kids or prostitutes, although there’s a lot of them going missing–” he shifts his weight again, shifting around so his shoulders are facing her more, and gesturing with his hands, and some of his hair has come loose. He pushes it back impatiently, as if he does it all the time. “–I mean, the numbers are appalling, I went back and did some compilations to show the state people that it couldn’t be just due to regular crime statistics, we’ve got an unholy number of prisoners getting released here who were never local, never mind what their records were doctored to say–”
“Yes,” Claudia says, meeting the eyes.
“You already knew this?” he says, staring.
“If you listen to people here, when they talk,” she says simply.
“I’m in love,” he says.
“With your own voice?” she says, smiling to take away the sting of her words.
“Oh,” he says, and it’s completely genuine, the consternation on his face. “Ouch.”
“It helps with the kinging stuff, I’ll bet,” she says generously, and feels the tiniest little twitch of a smile starting.
“Oh god, it’s not like I do this every day.” He’s staring at her again, looking apprehensive.
“You have to build up to kinging all the time?” she says, smiling wider.
“I got to hearing about you and decided to meet you for myself and I can’t help it if you’re this smart… I’m not sure if I’m just talking people into submission. That’s what Aunt Frog says. She says I’m just blinding people with words all the time and they don’t know what part I really mean and–”
“All of them,” she says, with the kind of certainly that holds like a rock in her gut. “All of them.”
“I don’t think,” and he is very serious now, “I can talk you into submission.”
She tilts her head. “You have to ask for that.”
His eyes get even wider. She didn’t think that was possible. He’s staring down into her eyes, and seeing… God knows what. She isn’t sorry, she isn’t about to apologize, and she will explain if he asks, but she isn’t afraid to let him look, either.
Very gently, cautiously, Hal reaches out with one hand, runs the edge of it down the side of Claudia’s face. He doesn’t say anything, at all.
Finally Quiet, she thinks, giddily.
He does, actually, know how to just sit, without talking at all. She wasn’t sure about that. It’s such a white person’s habit, really, always filling the air. Some of the people she’s sat with here in Pen’s living room, they may not speak for an hour, just listening to the crickets through the screen door, sniffing the breeze, watching the sun go down. Although right now, she thinks, hearing the house creak and shift like a wooden ship under the increasing force of the wind, she could use some distraction.
She looks into Harold Two Horses’s beautiful face, and thinks in astonishment that the universe has just plopped one of the biggest surprises she’s ever had right down into her lap. Because she’s sitting in his lap, mostly, his legs riding up over hers, because the chair is really only built for one. He’s just touching her face, brushing at it as if he doesn’t quite think it’s real. As if she’s talking to him, when she isn’t saying anything at all.
It’s amazing, really, because he’s sweet and charming and smells like horses and dogs and some sort of herbal… shampoo, maybe? He’s just quiet enough, under the bluster and the sparkle, to listen. It’s been a really long time since anyone has listened to Claudia. Well, anyone adult, anyway. She’s not sure if she has anything to say.
“Do you think we could move over to the corner?” she requests quietly, indicating what is probably the only unpopulated bit of the house. Maybe someone has gone to the bathroom. Well, they can just have the chair.
She urges Hal off her, off the chair, and into the corner. “Here?” he asks, a bit bemused.
“Yup.” She says. “Save my place.”
Upstairs, whoever was in the closet has finished and put most of the towels back on the shelves. But they left the door open, displaying how badly they did it. She sighs at the mess, and shuts the door. All of her nice, clean, neatly folded towels. Maybe Hal and I should take a turn in there, she thinks dizzily.
The comforter under her bed hasn’t been pillaged yet, so she yanks it out, taking care not to disturb the exhausted tangle of people that sleep in her bed. There are cuts and bruises on their poor faces; she helped with the tape and bandages on their injuries. She brings the blanket and a stray pillow back down to him.
“Wow,” he says, “You are something.” He spreads the blanket down for the two of them, then sprawls, holding out his arms in an extravagant gesture. She’s as shocked as anyone else in the room when she goes to them and allows herself to be enveloped. “Used to sleeping on the floor?”
“Half my life,” she says, and turns her face into his chest. She can feel his muscles shift under her weight. Her head goes up and down as he breathes in careful, slow movements, as if he’s afraid of dislodging her. Like that’s likely to happen, she thinks, curling up closer.
She’s so distracted with her own body, with his, with the feel of the blanket over the hard floor, that she’s completely lost track of her surroundings.
Dangerous. Foolish. Bad idea in any of the places she’s drifted through lately. Never, ever a wise idea in a hurricane.
The wind has come up with a roar.
She comes back to reality with a jolt, hearing people crying out, and then the rising wind scales up so quickly there’s no chance to warn anyone. There’s a roar of force pounding the walls, a gush of water that sounds like fire hoses pumping cascades onto the entire world, there’s high whining noises from the plywood whipping around in the tight string cages that Penelope built to keep them safe, and she knows people are moaning or gasping in response, but she can’t hear it over the battering of the wind. Her eyes open wide, staring past Harold’s tensed shoulder. There’s trails of water running down the cracked plaster wall beneath the window openings.
His arms are very tight around her, very strong, so strong it’s making her collarbones creak in pain, and it helps. It does. The pain clears her head of panic. She blinks, gives herself a little shake, and stares wild-eyed up into his face instead of staring off at the screaming walls.
Something comes loudly crashing along outside, galloping at them at an appalling speed, and it whangs into the plywood over Claudia’s head, and the cage of strings flexes with it, holding, giving a clear shrill high note over all the rest, the amazing sproing! of materials tested to their limits. Then there are more things flying outside, whipping past and ricocheting, the vibration of the heavier objects bouncing through the floorboards under them.
That was the shed roof, she thinks then, just from the sound of it flapping and catching briefly on the corner of the house over their heads.
He reaches up with one hand and pats her face sharply, almost a smack, jerking her back to attention, to him, not to staring at the walls.
She blinks at him stupidly. He slapped her. Kinda. She struggles, unwilling to allow the gesture to arouse her. It wasn’t meant to, after all.
He’s got his neck arched down tightly, chin on his chest like a stallion defying his bit, and his eyes are furious, the black brows drawn into harsh lines of fury. Rage at the world, at the circumstances, at being silenced by wind, of all things. He can’t tell her anything, over this. Gently, very softly, his arms lift her higher, and he kisses her on the cheek, on each cheek, and then on the the forehead, and he blinks up directly into her eyes.
I love you, his lips articulate it with careful movements, caught in the little pool of howling silence where they are lying, unable to talk at all.
It makes her smile. Silly boy, she thinks, and kisses him back in the same way, staying awhile with her lips on his forehead, and feeling the brush of his hair against her cheek, and how his ribs are mostly still as if he’s not breathing enough. She feels how he’s laying so still, only flinching now and then at the really loud objects banging off the house.
She leans then into his cheek, and kisses the side of his face, and gets her nose down to his ear, and she speaks into it. “Breath,” she says, “breath, Hal.” And he does, with a shocked little hiccup of his ribs. She reaches up and tugs his wrist a little, tugs him to hold her tighter, until her ribs creak when she inhales, and he does. It helps.
He’s petting her hair with one hand, somehow, too. Nobody has ever petted her hair, not in the last few years anyway, and here today two people have decided to touch her hair. It’s very odd. Come to think of it, her hair is odd, too. Too short and too black. Nobody has seemed to notice, but it bothers her. And now she can feel his ribs under her straining arms. Big wide rib bones. And bony elbows. And hips that stick up nearly as much as hers do. His waist doesn’t even touch the floor because his butt sticks out enough to hold it up. Is it because he’s tense, or because he has a meaty rear? she wonders crazily. What a thing to be thinking in the midst of all this uproar.
And then it’s quiet, as fast as it got noisy.
“Dat was a tornado cell, I swear it was,” says Ruby’s voice from the living room door, faintly, as if she’s speaking from far away, and Claudia realizes she’s partly deafened from the racket. “We’re goan need more room to park people in dah bathroom if we get any more of dose.”
Somebody in the center of the house is testifying, in a clear, thin, steady old voice, about walking through the Valley of Death, and fearing no evil. They sound like they know what they’re talking about.
The next thing she hears is a high little twirl of music, coming from the chimes, like a message. Lucas has made the chimes sing for her, to let her know he’s all right. Thank God.
“Y’all come over here,” Drake the storyteller invites the kids. “Bring your blankets. C’mon, now.” His voice is coming from the windowless alcove just off the living room. She knows it’s probably the safest place in the house, structurally speaking. Smart man. “Hurry up, now, and bring your blankets.” She can dimly see Dav helping Marcie and Lucas move their stuff to safety. She wishes that she were holding Lucas, in a storm like this. But there just isn’t enough space in the alcove for worried moms. There’s barely enough room for all the kids.
She blinks, and feels tears starting, and she wipes them away, fiercely. She feels Hal’s hand come up, giving her a rather grubby tissue from some pocket. She nods, and wipes her nose and her eyes.
When she looks at him again, he’s serious for a long moment, studying her in the dim battery-lantern light from across the room. Then he smiles wryly. “Allergies,” he says, nodding at the tissue, his voice not quite as faint to her as Ruby’s was.
She smiles shakily. “You’re allergic to being a frog, Your Majesty?”
“Oh yeah,” he says. He sticks one hand in her skirt pocket, then, as she is lying on her side, and he waves his fingers around, and then he’s holding up a marble in front of her eyes. A marble with a swirl of golden glass in it. “Princess, your golden ball,” he says.
“I’m a princess, now?” She almost chokes, laughing hard enough smack her own head against the wood floor, with a solid thunk that makes people startle around, and look at them.
“Oh, yeah,” he says, rubbing the soreness away.
The observers all smile, and go back to what they were doing. People are moving about now, with the wind slackening. When Claudia shifts, about to get up and help other people check on things, fix the house while they have a chance, his arms tighten on her until she can’t move. She can’t get up. He lifts his eyebrows warningly at her, lips pursed, as if to remind her of what his orders were, earlier, and she relents, smiling, and kisses him on the forehead.
“Claudia and Hal, sittin’ in a tree,” somebody is chanting, a light childish voice, full of glee, and then there are peals of laughter, and running feet chasing off.
“K-I-S-S-I-N-G, First comes love, Then comes marriage, Then comes Claudia with a baby carriage!” Dav had run as far as the kitchen door, but just had to finish it. Trust the kid to get the last word in.
She hears Callie’s voice, just as high and clear, saying, “Oh God, Dav, paleeze…” and she can hear footsteps running about, voices laughing, fetching things for the grownups, very shrill and over-excited, running it off. She can hear Lucas crowing at Dav’s sparkling wit, and the sound allows her shoulders to loosen in increments.
She hears Haroldine’s whiskey voice from the kitchen, giving orders, coughing sometimes and complaining about losing her voice. Claudia’s whole body finally relaxes. Everything is fine, just like she told Pen. They’re all still alive. This must be the eye of the storm.
“My God, I think I scraped the varnish off the underside of that poor kitchen table, hugging my knees so hard,” Haroldine says, laughing. “Oh yes, sweetie, now go get me that second big sack. Yeah, take the toilet paper around, would you? The bathrooms are really gonna get a workout. Lucas, oh good, I was looking for you– listen up, this is important. You see that drawer? You get out the hammer, and all the boxes of nails, and every last bit of string in that drawer, put them in this wooden box, and take it up to Penelope in the attic. Got it? Good boy. I know that woman saved my life, roping down the windows, and now I’ma never gonna hear the end of it. Has Hal got Claudia settled down? Good. Dav– have those animals out in the barn been fed and watered today? Dunno? Well, maybe you better go an’ check ’em. Keep an eye on those clouds, though, all right, an’ be careful, fer god’s sake. You got sense, you’re old enough. Go on, now! Now, where’s my batteries, I want some more batteries in these lamps…”
“Hi Mom!” Lucas yells, sneakers thudding as he races over, drops the box for a moment, grabs her hand and squeezes. Then he looks at Hal, grinning. “Hi Mister Two Horses,” and then he’s picked up the box and he’s off, sneakers squeaking on the floor as if they’ve run through wet spots, and then he’s thudding up the stairs, panting.
Claudia sighs. “I should really check out that hallway, like Ruby says, and make sure– ”
He tightens his grip on her, looking cross, and she blinks at him. “Ain’t baby carriages old-fashioned?” Hal says abruptly, blinking sternly at her.
“Very out of style, but around here, it probably has a performing chimp in it, wearing a bow and squeezing a blompy horn,” she says, rolling her eyes, thinking of the Circus people.
He laughs. He has a loud laugh, just like she thought he would, with his mouth wide open, so all his teeth show. People look around at that, too, and it makes them relax. Makes their shoulders ease downward a little.
“I don’t know, kinging is a lot of work. Princessing must be just as bad.” She says it absently, looking at his eyes again. Looking at his eyes smile, slowly and marvelously, at her.
“So, you want this golden ball or not? I can just throw it back in the pond, ya know, I don’t have to–” he’s using a silly voice.
She smiles. “Yeah you do. It’s in the rules.”
“Yeah?” he says, looking up at her, with those eyes full of mischief. He doesn’t look like he’s ever stuck by the rules.
“Yes, the princess must possess the golden ball. It’s the focus of her awesome powers.” She looks serious.
“Okay,” he says, “open your mouth.”
And she does.
And he puts the marble in it and grins at her outraged expression. An instant before she begins to move her arm to get rid of it, he brings up his hand, and says, “Spit it out,” and she does, breathing hard, and staring at him like he’s gross to even ask.
He holds it up, squinting at it. “Hmmm, I don’t see no magic powers there. Maybe it needs more time in the spin cycle,” and he lifts his hand as if he’s going to pop it into her mouth again.
“Oh no,” she demurs, blocking her mouth with her hand. “Put that thing in your own mouth.”
“Oh?” He grins, pops it into his mouth, and makes really atrocious faces. The kids would love seeing this. Then he gives a really wicked grin, and pops it out into his hand, and holds it up. Ergh, he really is that gross.
Then she blinks, startled.
“Presto, chango–” The marble is a nice, bright, solid blue. He grins. “You should see me with rings and magnets,” he says.
“Ahh, you’re one of the Circus people yourself,” she says, relaxing again.
“Well, sometimes I am, and sometimes I’m not–”
“Oh God,” she groans. “I should have known.”
“Two Horses,” she says. “Are you a Gemini, or do you just annoy the heck out of people like one?”
He blinks at her. “We-ell, oh, my middle name is Freddie Mercury, and my first name is a king’s, and I be pissing off the gods on Saturday nights,” he chants it like a kid, in a different funny voice.
“Okay, okay, let me think–so you’re the God of Thieves and Crossroads, and I think sometimes boar-hunting–” she squints, trying to remember what she learned in that History of Religion class that Sir paid for.
“Oh no, I’m the God of Abundance and grain and business and mediation,” he corrects her, chin lifted proudly. “Gotta be quick to keep up with that stuff.”
She looks at him.
He’s still smiling. He says, “I told you I spend a lot of time on the Internet.”
She smiles, too, remembering the night that Sir took her to the theater in Chicago to see Avenue Q. She sings, “The Internet is for porn.”
His eyes go comically wide, shocked, and then he’s laughing again, rolling a little side to side, hugging her tight, so he’s dragging her with him, and she’s laughing down at him, with her forearms on his chest, and she’s laying on him.
“Madam,” he says, “please remove your elbows from my serratus, they may not be much, but they’re all I got. Your arms go here, and here–” and he puts her hands where he wants them, and she’s still laying on him. It should alarm her, embarrass her, but it doesn’t.
He blinks up at her, with his chin cramped down to see her, and she squirms a bit upward so he doesn’t have to do that so much. Her knees slide down quite comfortably on either side of his hips. Nice tight hips, she notes approvingly, it’s not a bit of strain to straddle him, not in the least. It does odd things to her skirt, and she doesn’t care. Master would be so disappointed. She tells herself Master isn’t here, to see her on the floor with Hal Two Horses between her legs.
“Uhh,” he says, staring up at her.
She raises an eyebrow. “And where do your hands go?” Her heart is galloping wild, beating hot in her arms until it thumps painfully at her palms against the wood of the floor. She shivers – it must be nerves, because it’s hot as Hades in this house.
“B’lieve they go here,” Hal says, cupping her skull, and stroking her hair back from her eyes, tucking it behind her ears. “And then here, I think.” His palms push through her hair onto her neck, sliding down her shoulders. “Easy, baby, easy, you’ve got bigass knots going there, carrying this whole house on these shoulders, we’re gonna put that down for awhile. Houses are big. You ain’t.”
House? What house? Oh, yeah, the one that had been shuddering all around them like a ship at sea. She couldn’t bring herself to care at the moment. She was falling right in those eyes. Oh, God, those eyes…
“So my hands go here, right?” she says, and she rests her forearms on the floor next to his shoulders, and cups his head in her two hands, and she brushes the wild stray hair out of his eyes, automatically, with her fingers. And then she’s combing her fingers into the hair steadily, as she might when Lucas was a baby. She looks at his eyes, with her whole body against his, and her fingers have a job to untangle that hair.
He frowns a little, and her fingers pause, apprehensive, but then he blinks at her, and he says gravely, “I think my hands go here, right?” and he rests them on her back, down her waist, just propping up his forearms against her, resting his palms on the small of her back.
She nods, and resumes combing back his hair.
“You know how good that feels?” he says, and she can barely hear him over the racket of the house.
She smiles. She knows.
She knows that he can feel the muscles in the small of her back clench and release as she resists the urge to squirm. A distant part of her brain is blaring klaxon-like in her head. Here she is, straddling a man she met ohhh, maybe two hours ago, in very frightening circumstances, skirt rucked up on her thighs, panting like an adolescent, in plain sight of everyone in the house. She tells that part of her brain to shut the hell up. Thank God the storm shutters and plywood have made the house so dark.
She leans in closer, breathing along his neck, memorizing his scent, running her cheek along the long stretch of muscle there. Before she can think about it, her tongue touches the hollow of his throat, to taste the skin there. She wonders vaguely what other parts of him taste like. A sudden recklessness seizes her, and she leans down just a fraction, brushing his lips with hers, licking delicately along his lower lip. He sucks in a breath against her lips, and then she feels him go all still, not breathing at all.
“Now wouldn’t it be silly,” he says very, very quietly into her mouth–she can barely hear him–“if you kissed me and I turn into a frog?”
Claudia jerks, pauses. “Yes. Too silly. Much too silly.” From the reproachful look, one might think that she actually believes that he can polymorph at will, and would do it in a heartbeat, just to distract her. But she leans back over his face, breathing his breath, and kisses him again, anyway.
When she draws her head back, the pupils of his eyes are a very strange shape indeed, almost rectangular. The irises are spreading, too, almost no white to the eye. Those eyes are so familiar, she’s seen similar at the riding center where she took lessons.
“Oh damn,” he says, and blinks at her. “Sorry.”
She leans very close, gripping his head in both her hands, as if she might be hanging onto a hysterical child, and she tells him, “No way, Tam Lin. Just no. This house too crowded to have something that large thrashing around in it.” He pulls his chin into his chest and snorts, struggling for control.
His body is shifting around under her, and she’s certain that anybody watching them bump around are thinking the worst, but she’s got more important things to think about. It’s probably the dumbest thing she’s done –Master was always telling her that her curiosity would get her into trouble one day–but she leans down into him.
He gives a little grunt, arching his back, and twisting his head away from her, and the tusks swing wide of her face just in time, and thump into the plaster wall, leaving marks. His arms strain wide away from her, as if he’s having epileptic seizures, and he strains up against her, gasping, and she hears claws scrape the floor in an arc, scoring the wood enough to screech over the howl of the wind. He lies there like that, back like a bow, for a long scary moment, and then he sighs, and gives a gulping swallow, and his body sags down.
And then he whines down in his throat, and he’s licking her face with a perfectly normal human tongue, but his eyes have no white, and his jaw is too long. He gives that whine, and licks her chin, as clear an apology as a girl could ask for, but there’s too much dark hair everywhere, still, his arms are covered in it. His body heaves under her, as if he’s going to struggle away, roll aside, and she hangs on stubbornly.
“We need you here, Hal, not running in the woods somewhere,” she says. There’s days when she’s lost patience with Estelle for the same fault, and schooled herself not to show it. It doesn’t help. “Here. We need you here. I need you.”
There’s a tremendous jolt in his muscles, his arms thrash oddly, and then he’s flat on his back under her, breathing hard, and shaking his head, looking dazed.
Her face is fixed in that odd rictus that people get when something unbelievable has happened. Then she refocuses, and leans close by his face, a bit of the fear draining away. “Would you think I was a freak if I admitted that I found that strangely erotic?”
He blinks at her, arms flung wide, and shifts his knees, and he rests his head back on the floor, breathing hard. “God, baby…that was…amazing. I didn’t… I never… ”
She sits up and blinks at him, incredulous. “Just how long have you been doing this?” She has been jostled further up his body, and doesn’t have to stretch up to look into his face anymore. It was a miracle that she managed to hang on at all.
He breathes hard for a moment. “Forever,” he says. “But I never… I go off into one… one shape… it takes days…I don’t remember how… to come back. Aunt Frog, she knows… knows how to recognize me. I started remembering…to come back to her house. Last year.” He pants. “God, last year.” And he wipes sweat off his brow. “I never… I’ve never done all of them. In a row. Not like that, I mean. I just…” He shakes his head, blinking up at her.
“Are you going to turn into something if I kiss you again?”
He blinks. “No idea.”
His hair has fallen into disarray from all of the shape-shifting, and lays in black streamers across her bare thighs. She strokes it back from his face, gently, and begins again to smooth it. Something extraordinary has happened, and she can feel it still shivering over her skin. “Hal, can you wear a collar through all your different shapes?”
“I don’t know.”
“We may have to have a vet chip you,” she says, frowning a little, stroking back his hair gently. She can feel little shivers chase though his body, too, as if he’s been through a fright. “Can you decide on purpose to change?”
He takes a deep, gulping breath. “I did once, yeah. To reach somebody who was drowning.” The shivers get worse. “Two weeks in the pound.”
“You don’t need to shiver,” Claudia whispers, running her fingers down his face, feather-soft. “It’s ok. You’re ok.” She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself just as hard as she’s trying to convince him. It won’t do. She knows that. She has to project certainty. She’s cared for animals and children and old people.
“Put up your knees for me,” she tells him, “make me a chair back.” He does, staring at her. She pulls his own tactic on him: distract him. She rolls her hips round, brings up her knees, and leans back into the prop of his thighs. Of course it puts her full weight into his gut, and by God, that’s distracting. He grunts. She smiles, and shifts back, until her hips are on his, and she wiggles her ass into his thighs to a better position, and sighs. When she looks down, she can see his eyes show the whites quite well now, because the view up her legs is just as rude as a man could wish. She shifts her knees, on a whim, letting him see more.
Of course, the tactic backfires back onto her. With their hips aligned, she can feel a thread of energy flow from him to her, and back again. Kundalini, she thinks distantly. It feels rather like very good sex, and derails her brain completely. She arches her back and makes a soft, animal, hungry noise, overwhelmed by sensation. She says, distantly, “Tell me all of the shapes you ever changed into.”
“What?” he says, stupidly.
“So I’ll know what to expect…” she breathes, her mind half gone to mush.
She feels his hips shift slightly, and shift more, under her. “Uh,” he says. “Um, dog. Horse. Um…” His pelvis is pushing upward. “Um, yeah. The thing with the tusks, I lost three teeth bashing tusks on things, I couldn’t see for a damn, it’s all blurry and dim and people shout at you and things just keep coming at you and–”
“Maybe,” she says, putting her knees on the floor, “your goblin shape needs glasses. Or maybe all goblins are near-sighted? And bad-tempered, I assume?”
“God, it’s like having a permanent hangover,” he says. “Or PMS, or something. You can tear out brick walls, but you can’t figure out why you needed to.”
“Poor thing,” she says, and there it is, rubbing at her through his clothes, and it feels just as good as she remembers. Years, and she still remembers. “Right,” she says, “anything else?”
“Aunt Frog always yells at me, she swears I crib something fierce as a horse,” he says then, frowning, and somehow, in the lashings of rain that half-drown what he’s saying, it’s all funny. But the time for laughing is past, now.
The marbles tucked into his pockets are poking her. On some impulse she doesn’t stop to question, she reaches down into his pockets, extracts the things, and flings them away gently. They clatter against the wall, then roll into the corner, where they’ll keep until morning. Then she settles herself along the length of him, and props up her head, and regards him at length, tracing one finger on his lips, hushing him when he might protest the loss of his toys.
“Uh,” he says, looking up at her, and he is just where she wanted him, and he is still looking human. She leans down over him, propping out her hands again, and quite consciously she rubs her hips down on his, and she leans in, and she says, “Are you going to go funny again?”
He takes a deep gasping breath. “You gonna kiss me?”
“I hope so,” she says, and smiles. “I wonder if everything is ok upstairs.” And she adds silently to herself, and I wonder if anyone is in that closet.
Author’s note: More collaboration… Nagasvoice, GreenJudy, Kiyakotari, Stella_Omega and me, Numaari.