The Heat is On

nude ginger-furry man laying prone on bed, butt and legs closer
ginger-furred nude

“Was that brand okay?” Drin says, scrubbing at his face sleepily. He’s sitting on the edge of the rumpled bed, hair sticking up, his knees all bony and his legs incredibly naked-looking. He smells powerfully of sweat and man and semen, and Dance just wants to crawl up into his furry lap and bury his face in Drin’s chest hair.

He thinks about it, but he doesn’t do it.  Drin won’t be up to the burden until he’s a little more awake. Drin is looking just as fragile now as Emma was last night, and that’s unusual for him in the mornings.

“It was wonderful,” Dance says sadly, looking at the empty jar in his hands.

Drin blinks at him. “You ate it all?”

“I smelled it when you brought it in,” Dance mumbles happily. He turns the lid upside down and licks the last little bit of apple butter off the inside of the screw threads. “God, what I wouldn’t do for a nice big bottle of korintje cinnamon, I can’t tell you.”

“Be careful what you ask for,” Drin says dryly. “So you want some more this morning?”

“Please.”

Drin smiles. “Well, we can at least score some strawberry jam on the waffles.”

“No waffles,” Dance says, making a face. “Just jam. Or apple butter.”

“Sushi for breakfast, then?” Drin says, in that deceptively easy tone.

Dance frowns. “Maybe later. If we can find a place that smells okay.”

“Sorry, dude. I know you loved that really fresh place back home, by the recital hall.”

Dance rolls his eyes upward in remembered ecstasy, making finger gestures like an Italian trying to describe heaven. “The smoked eel, man.”

mixed salad in white bowl
mixed salad

Drin smiles. They both know he’s a total sucker for presenting Dance with the opportunity to roll his eyes back in his head and bliss out in sensual pink-noise joy overload. He loves watching Dance lose it.

Dance blinks, and focuses back into the current reality, and cuffs Drin lightly on the arm. “You’re so bad, man, you get to me every time.”

“I heard you practicing percussion for awhile, I meant to say something, but I was too tired to make mouth noises. I fell asleep again,” Drin says, his eyes apologetic.

Dance cuffs him again, smiling. “Bad patron, no big-ass musician for you! C’mon, don’t be so hard on yourself.   You are driving serious mileage for us.”

Drin leans forward, elbows on knees, and looks at him. “You want to pick up a pawn shop violin, besides the guitar? Or a mandolin? They won’t be as good as–”

Dance sighs. “Well, it’s another tell, isn’t it?”

Drin lowers his head. “Yeah, but we’ve got out of the easy-diameter search radius, made it a little harder to pick us up, so long as we’re careful about the credit cards we use. We have to hang onto the cash as long as possible.”

“We may be easy as hell, but we ain’t cheap,” Dance says then, watching Drin’s face.

Drin sighs. “Yeah,” he says. Then he looks at Dance, eyes awake now, steady, waiting for something.

Dance could be flippant, or dismissive, or any number of things, and evade the moment of honesty. He could. But he’s not going to. “The cinnamon helps,” Dance says. “I miss my garden. Going around nibbling on the herbs, tasting things. I know Emma used to go batshit when she saw me chewing on things like holly, I don’t know how she recognized it, but she said it was poisonous–”

Drin’s eyes go wide. The sockets look dark. “Oh shit,” he breathes. “You had a lot of really …different..things growing.”

“Well, we can pick up Thai basil and lemon grass and fresh galangal root in any Asian market, no problem,” Dance says, and shrugs. “I just don’t know for sure which of the other things that I…that I’m going to need.”

Drin’s eyes flash from wide-open to little focused slits of concentration. It’s like being stared at by an industrial laser.

Dance takes in a deep breath. Yes, love has a smell. He trusts it.

Drin will watch him struggle, not telling him how to go on, not imposing his own ideas, not making it easier. Dance has shouted at him, sometimes, for this eerily dispassionate patience, for refusing to engage, refusing to take the situation into his own hands and shape it into whatever he wants it to be.

Drin is capable of shaping most situations into the form of his choice–but when he’s in it with Dance, and with Emma, he won’t do it for them. He won’t make them over into what he wants. He won’t. He waits for them to flounder through and decide what they want to do, whether it’s admitting he craves sushi for breakfast, or Emma asking for help to repaint the living room because some perfectly ordinary landlord color gives her migraine.

het couple kissing
whole body kiss

Dance takes another deeper breath. Drin’s chemistry is so amazingly different from Emma’s and yet Dance reads the same emotion from it. Emma has a singular, sharp, plain-spoken smell when she smiles at him. She’s all of a piece about it, which always surprises him. Women are complex, their odors are rich overlays of conflicting pathways, often torn in many different directions. But when Emma hugs him, that smell pours over him like a fountain, cleansing, clear, unmistakable as a shout.

Drin is the complicated one. He has reserves and secrets and fences where he never goes, things he will not think about, reflexes that he doesn’t explain, that Dance is not sure he even realizes need an explanation. Drin isn’t going to stop loving either one of them. But he won’t permit them to be used in some godawful war, again. He’ll walk onto somebody’s gun and shoot them both right in the eye before he lets Dance go back into that silent nightmare cold-box again. Dance trusts that, too. It’s one of the things that makes him want to curl up in Drin’s arms and never crawl out again.

“I don’t want to scare anybody,” Dance says, after a difficult moment.

“Too late,” Drin says instantly, and smiles.

Dance blinks. It’s easy to forget that the man can stare down just about anybody. Dance chokes a little, and laughs, and cuffs him again, and sits down on the bed next to him.

Drin’s arm comes up around his waist. His hand rubs along Dance’s arm, up onto his neck, up into his hair, and Dance just leans over into him, ignoring the sharp ache in the bruised area between his shoulderblades. He lets Drin’s fingers stroke across the back of his skull. The fingers fan through his hair, stroking his scalp in even circles. Dance closes his eyes. He could sit forever with Drin’s fingers sending curls of loosening tingles through his scalp and neck and shoulders.

He’s pretty sure that Drin’s fingers are looking for something and not finding it. The off button has run away with the fork and the cow’s jumped over the moon, Dance thinks, with black amusement tightening under his breastbone.

Drin says, “You can’t pop your back at all any more, can you?”

“No,” Dance says.

“Ilex vomitorium has some central nervous system sedatives, as best I recall,” Drin says softly, breathing it into his hair, and then kisses his forehead.

Dance feels the heat well up in his eyes. He doesn’t move, doesn’t bother to hide it.

Drin lifts his other hand and brushes the water off of Dance’s cheek. “It’s okay,” Drin says softly.

He leans into Drin. “I didn’t want to frighten Emma,” he says, and runs out of words. His throat works, and he shakes his head.

Drin rests his palm lightly on Dance’s lower back, avoiding the bruised area. “I don’t think I entirely understand– she knows about the shedding–”

Dance shakes his head again. He begins unbuckling his belt, unzipping his pants. “Don’t look. Just feel the base of my spine.”

Drin slides the hand down Dance’s shirt, under the band of Dance’s boxer shorts. Dance draws in a deep slow breath, because Drin’s touch hits his nerves the way it always does when it’s been awhile. The skin is hot and dry. Dance’s back muscles are stiff. He needs massage with lotion again. That need has been increasing lately, just when Drin and Emma were working extra hours. Then they were doing that long-distance driving, after all the weird stuff started happening.

Drin’s fingertips slide down his spine. Dance shifts his weight, his hips move, something twitches under the other man’s hand.

His hand should be reaching Dance’s butt, but it isn’t. Drin’s fingertips slip along skin and just keep going, and the spread of Drin’s hand starts closing in. His fingers have wrapped around something. His fingers draw in until Drin’s fingertips touch the thumb.

Dance feels muscles clench and relax inside it, just another part of the long tired muscles alongside his spine. The muscles tense, the strange new thing arches to the left, and he can feel the jolt of it shift Drin’s hand.

Dance’s hips shift, trying to present his bottom like a cat in heat even when he’s sitting down. Dance gives a little surprised grunt.

He strokes at that extension of Dance’s backbone, and they both feel it shiver and arch aside, as if it’s eager for Drin to take him from behind, too. With the other hand, Drin reaches in and strokes Dance’s prick, and it responds as eagerly as it ever did.

“Can you see any other changes?”

“Yes,” Dance says. “But you can’t. Except just after I come.”

Drin kisses him again. “I can’t see it?”

“I can’t see it most of the time. I just feel it. Like that.”

Drin must have felt it, too, but he doesn’t move, doesn’t jerk, doesn’t do anything. He stops breathing for a moment, and then he draws in a deep breath, and sighs it out. Slowly, he draws his hand away from Dance’s strange new tissue. He puts it down on the bed and leans back, and waits. If he’s putting himself beautifully in position to be grabbed by the wrist, flipped and pinned, he certainly knows it.

Dance looks into Drin’s face, and relaxes something inside with an almost audible popping sensation. Gently, awkwardly, he lets that new thing reach out. He’s still clumsy with it, afraid to do anything to bash into things. Carefully he lets what neither of them could see touch Drin’s forearm lightly. Stroke up along Drin’s back, and curl around Drin’s hip, holding him, fingering Drin’s belly in wonder. Tasting him. It’s a helluva a rush.

nude man's furry torso, arm, and thighs
a taste of furry man

Dance can feel a flush come up on his throat and the blood come thundering up into his head. He leans forward and opens Drin’s mouth with his, kisses him, hugs him, feeling the gasp of air from Drin’s lungs as he grabs a little too hard.

He makes himself ease up, relax, let the man breath a little.

Drin breathes quite hard into his shoulder for awhile, hugging him back. “I guess I –wasn’t ready for that,” Drin said, blinking.

The new thing strokes down the other man’s back and shoulder blades, feeling muscles shift under the skin as he breathes, tasting him. Drin’s hand comes up at his shoulder, holding him up. He can feel himself lolling back in Drin’s arms, head falling back, losing himself in the sensations.

Drin turns him, rolls him onto his back on the bed, holds him steady.

Then Drin reaches down between Dance’s thighs and … touches it.

Dance moans.

Drin lifts his hand instantly away.

“Okay?”

Dance gasps, and finally struggles to pull himself together enough to nod. “It’s … a lot. Feeling a lot at once. You can… you’ll make me come if you… do… that.”

And Drin does.

“You okay?” Drin asks him.

Dance turns his head reaches out blindly for Drin. “I didn’t–” Dance takes in a deep breath, nostrils flaring. “I didn’t know it’d make me– get so turned on when you touch it–”

Drin slides his fingers carefully upward again, sliding along underneath the strange extension, and that’s how he finds Dance’s butt muscles finally, pushed aside by the new thing grown out of Dance’s pelvis. Underneath it, at the base, there’s a little ridge. Drin’s fingers slide around, learning that is a notch where two larger, stiff ridges come together, ridges that run off forward between Dance’s thighs and cradle his anus. The ridges in his skin are fainter as they run forward onto his belly, raised lines outlining personal bits. Outlining bare skin, no public hair. No hair left at all on his testicles or around his penis.

Dance pants, turns his head, kisses Drin’s hand, leans into the hand. “It…goes away…somewhere… most of the time. Even when I’m turned on, like this. At first… I only felt it… fall out sometimes. But it’s… staying out longer. Falling out more often. I can’t… Drin, I can’t help it. It’s growing.”

Drin leans into him, kisses his face. “We’ll figure it out. We will.”

He breathes harder, staring up at Drin. “I couldn’t tell you… I couldn’t say it. Or tell Emma. I couldn’t.”

Drin looks into those eyes. “Why? Do you know?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t want to make people afraid… I was … afraid what… And I can smell things, smelling their fear… I couldn’t… I just… I just… ” He’s panting harder.

“Do I smell like I’m afraid, love?”

“No,” Dance says, surprised, and he blinks. “You aren’t afraid. Why aren’t you afraid?”

“I know how careful you are with people.” Drin kisses him again, wraps his free arm around Dance.

Dance shoves his head into Drin’s shoulder, panting. “I think I might be afraid of me.”

Drin hugs him with one arm. With the other hand, Drin strokes the new thing coming out of his body.

It’s about ten inches inches long, pencil-narrow at the tip, about six inches thick at the base, with a raspy texture to the touch.

Drin frowns. His hands shift around, taking informal measurements on Dance’s body. For Dance’s hips to accommodate something that thick, the pelvic ridges and plates of bone that anchor his glutes have shifted apart. His pelvic girdle is that much wider than it was, and it aches. No wonder his pants have been getting tighter at the waist, and his weight has been going up, but he doesn’t look fatter in the mirror. He looks skinnier. Well, that much tail is a lot of extra tissue to be feeding. And bone, too, he can feel vertebral ridges in it as it moves. And hiding it? Falling out of somewhere? How does it have somewhere to go off and hide?

Oh, something in Drin knows exactly what this is about. His body makes it very clear he wants to grab Dance, bend him over, and fuck him silly. But Drin grips Dance’s prick in the other hand, and says, a little breathlessly, “When did you first notice it?”

Dance blinks, closes his eyes again, leans harder into Drin’s grip on him. He gasps, thrusting a little. “Umm. There was a weird little nub that wiggled a little, for a month, right after… that concert where we…really liked…fucking in the concert hall closet. It just… stayed like that.”

“When did it start growing faster?” He starts to slide his hand up and down Dance’s prick. He rubs in deeper, stronger strokes. Dance won’t last long, and Drin knows it. Drin’s other hand starts stroking lightly up and down the strange new thing coming out of Dance’s spine.

Dance gives another deep sigh, thrusting into Drin’s grip on him, closing his eyes. “Since that… attack at that cafe.”

“It shot out from just a nub to this?” But Drin keeps both his hands moving, front and back, keeping the rhythm steady.

“Yes,” Dance says, rolling his head, arching his back, thrusting hard into Drin’s hand. Dance’s body hardens into climax. Dance’s mouth opens wide, and he gives that gasp they both tease him about. “Oh,” Dance says.

Drin sits down next to him, holds him a little while, kissing him.

“You look tired, love,” Drin says, and kisses him on the cheek, on the forehead, on the lips.

“Yes.” Dance breathes more slowly. He says in puffs of breath into Drin’s chest, “Do you know…anything…that might help?”

“I might. It’s like… secret military stuff, I think. Not easy to track down. I’ve been giving Emma whatever facts I can pin down, when I… get them.”

Dance takes a deep breath, sighs it out. Calm. They both need to stay very calm. Dance rolls upward, sits up, leans his elbows on his knees. He adds, “The hair started falling out down there awhile ago.”

Now it’s bare skin. There’s no pubic hair inside those raised lines. How could that have started without him ever noticing? Oh, he noticed losing the last of it, out here on the road.

Dance looks down at his knees, reaches down, and picks up little shreds of skin that are scaled. His skin has been peeling as if he’s sunburnt, without even being in the sun for long. He sets the shreds carefully on the bedside table, to be put into a plastic bag and taken safely away with them. They’ve been doing that for awhile. Oh, they’ve had some warning that Dance isn’t regular issue human being. If he looks carefully in good light, he can see muted glints all across his back, down his arms.

Drin says, slowly, “I remember a bit, seeing people with different kinds of…changes. I don’t see it as an illness. It’s not wrong. It’s… who they are. How they were born.” He leans in harder, kisses Dance on the face, the neck, down onto his collarbone. “So you can choose to put it away, and to take it out of this hiding place?”

“It used to be, yes. Now it’s… falling out of hiding all the time. When it’s put away, I feel it, but nobody sees it there. It feels like it’s pushed up into a hot little hatbox, there’s no room, it starts to ache.”

“Zero-g box, probably attached to your pelvic crests and lower pelvic vertebrae,” Drin says suddenly, in that maddening cool voice of his former self, the guy who used to know things. It always comes out of nowhere, and Drin says he’s left puzzled by what it means.

Dance grits his teeth, hearing all that smooth expertise fade away just when it’s needed most.

More slowly, Drin goes on, “I’m guessing that it needs to spend time out in the open, come out of… wherever it goes, whatever little box it lives in. You don’t have to keep it locked up around us any more, I promise. I’m wondering now if this is what was going on when you needed us to push at your tailbone before we could get going on your prostate gland.”

“And on that thing stuck between my shoulderblades, the one that drove me crazy all the time. The one that just broke up…”

“Yes. That must have been doing something too.” Drin shifts his free hand, strokes Dance’s belly, pulls the boxers off Dance’s feet, helps him lean over on his side, lie down on the bed. Dance sighs, twists his neck, looking around at what’s flopped out on the bed. There is no mistaking that what is sticking out of the base of his spine is an organic part of him, it is the same brown as his skin, for now. But it glints in little coins of light. It has tiny scales. It moves and touches things, feeling what’s around it, poking at things.

When Drin rests a hand near it, the tip seeks out Drin’s hand and curls along his wrist. It’s clumsy, fumbling at it. Dance turns his head and blinks at Drin, and kisses Drin’s arm. Dance sighs and leans into Drin. “I haven’t… satisfied… you,” he says.

“It’s all right. You’ll be ready again in a little bit, and believe me, I want to make you happy again. I knew it’s been a long time since we got to really make love, but–”

“I was… afraid to,” Dance says. “This… I only meant to tell you all this… I didn’t know… it surprised me. I didn’t know it’d excite me when you–”

“When I touch the new tissue?” Drin says, stroking him there, lightly. It moves and responds, twisting under Drin’s touch, trying to curl around Drin’s hand. It likes Drin. The color is fading from it. It’s going transparent, fading from view, as if the only thing there is the bed. Only the raspy surface remains glittery, like very fine glassy flakes. “Is it sensitive more on some places than others?”

“Underneath, close to my ass,” Dance says, flinching a little when Drin shifts his hand upward. It’s just like handling his testicles just after he’s climaxed. It’s a little much for him. “It’s tender. God, right now it feels like…a lot like it’s another prick.”

“You look like I’ve been fucking you up against the wall,” Drin says.

“Good, that’s what I should look like when my husband makes love to me!” Dance says, eyes flashing.

“You want me to kiss you?”

“You could fuck me up against the wall, too, I’d like that,” Dance says. “But this thing growing out–”

“It’s a date,” Drin says firmly.

“You’re sure?” Dance pushes wild sweaty hair out of his eyes.

“Yes,” Drin says. “I’m crazy about you, and I’d do you in a minute if I knew I wasn’t going to hurt your back.” He touches the tail, gently, stroking it, and Dance is flopping over on his side, coming all over again, as hard as if he hasn’t been touched for weeks.

side of woman's breast
smooth

When Dance can open his eyes again, he sees Emma bent over him, naked, with her breasts drooping over him, and the smell of her when she touches him there on the new tissue is beyond bearing. She smells so amazingly erotic that hot white flares blank out the base of his spine and shoot out the top of his head, and he moans and comes again.

When he finally comes back to himself, he’s lying on his side, with a towel under his head and another bunched up between his thighs. Sullen flares of prickles are chasing over his skin and down along the part of him that none of them should be able to see, but now they can, if they squint and only look at it out of the corner of their eyes. It’s only visible at the far curves, where the scales catch the light.

It refuses to respond to any of his frantic attempts to shut down that internal sphincter that makes it just go away. It just keeps hanging out there. It feels remarkably like having a bad case of tourist-based intestinal distress.

Emma is sitting on the bed next to him, where he can see her, spreading skin cream on his chest and shoulder and down his arm.

He can feel the heat from Drin at his back, stroking more cream along the top ridge of his shoulder blades, just above where the stained, bruised area is, where the cuts ache. He doesn’t know why both of them stroking him like that should be so cooling, why it should make him feel like he can wait out the awkwardness if he’s patient.

Dance blinks up at Emma.

“Poor baby,’ she murmurs, and kisses his temple, smoothing back the hair.

“Gnnnhhh,” he says, which is all he can manage.

“Drink of water?” she says, and tips the straw for him to drink. “That’s good. We need you to drink more water, okay? Promise?”

“Mmmm,” Dance says.

“I got you some more apple butter. You want a bite?”

“Uhhh,” Dance says, pushing up on his elbow until he’s at least got his head in the air. He twists around enough to see Drin looking at him. “Hhhh?”

“Apple butter,” Drin says firmly. “And more water.”

Dance looks back along the bed, feeling his face crumple up, and he starts to lift his hand back there.

Drin catches him before he can touch anywhere along the odd little flicker of grayish-blue flickers and glints. “It seems to be really sensitive. Let’s not overload it right now. Let’s get some sugar and cinnamon in you, and see if you feel better.”

Neither of them says anything when he ends up wolfing down the entire second jar of apple butter. He gulps down what feels like a gallon of water, and when he finds it impossibly painful in those spinal muscles to sit up, Emma brings him a trash can to pee into. He knows it’s going to be awhile before can sit up without shifting that painfully over-sensitive part of him that just wants to curl up and die. He makes Emma laugh when he tells her it feels just like having the glans of your penis poking out in a nice stiff sandstorm.

Drin just smiles crookedly. It’s not as funny to anybody at the mercy of one.

“Just try to sleep for awhile, that’ll help things calm down,” Drin says. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you, handling it too soon like that.”

Dance grunts. “How would you know? It’s not like any of us know what — what–” he can’t go on.

“Oh, I’ve got some idea,” Drin says.

They both look at him.

Drin looks back at them. “Some of the work I used to do because … I lost someone. She… my wife… was killed by a Shere Khan that was… insane from abuse. The people who… owned it… didn’t know they were setting it off beyond any possible tolerance. They jettisoned the Khan near a public area.”

A what?” Emma says, loud enough to make a spike of pain run through Dance’s supine bits.

Drin gives them both a sharp look. Dance knows he hasn’t missed the little flinch in Dance’s butt muscles, lately, when people shout like that.

Quietly, he says, “They had what they wanted, game over, they couldn’t be bothered to go hunt it down and risk revealing they had dirty hands. Just walk away and let some bounty hunter with no idea what they were up against just wound it, making it more dangerous. And it wasn’t the first time. All those cases, it was guys like me who had to… track it down, and put it to sleep.”

panting by Sam Weber, masked man
masked man, painting by Sam Weber

Emma gives a sharp little cry of distress, hugging herself, staring at Drin. “You killed them–”

“And some of them thanked me before they passed away, they hurt so bad. You’d think that would make it easier.” He lowers his head into his hands, pressing at his temples. “I don’t know why they had to make all of the Kiplings so damn beautiful.”

Dance feels his insides lurching about in conflicting impulses, and he’s not sure if he’s going to fall off the bed or throw up first. He tries not to move at all. He’s pretty sure Drin can see it jolting through his muscles, and the twitches gradually dying away as Dance refuses to react to any of it.

Drin looks at him, waiting, until Dance nods for him to go on.

Drin says, “It just made it that much harder to deal with the crazy ones when the war was over, and everyone knew that they could… never… go home. Or go to some kind of new home. You’ve never seen anything as amazing as a full-blooded Bagheera hunting.”

Emma has her hands clenched into fists over her mouth. She looks a bit greenish, as if she’s feeling the same queasy lurches as Dance does.

There were tears in Drin’s eyes suddenly. “There’s a few places where you can keep some of the zoomorphs happy, we figured that much out. But not the Khans. Not some of the others. I’ve never seen a full-blooded Kaa alive, almost nobody has. That’s the original snake-bodied type some secret project created. They were never actually sentient, and never could respond to controls enough to do field tests.”

Emma’s eyes dart to the bed, to the little flickers of blue and silver flung out in sinusoid curves.

Dance twists enough to see it too, from the corner of his eye, and then he lays down again, resting his cheek on a crumpled towel. He never realized it was quite that big. And the prickling is just beginning to hurt. To ache. The muscles in there–because there are muscles and live bones in there–ache in deep pulses to his heartbeat. “Go on,” Dance says. “I’m okay. It’s just…sore.”

“You’re not a Kaa. Not at all. I remembered… I read transcripts of war crimes trials. They claimed… nobody in the labs was even thinking about adapting a Kaa, or any of the others. They swore the black market did all that. There were illegal series run off from scrubbed military cell samples, discards, genetic variants smuggled out from the military labs. Well, you’d expect that, given the lousy oversight.” Drin grimaces.

Emma grunts. “I’ve got some idea.”

He goes on, “But that was a lie too. Different kinds of secret military zoomorphs got picked up and boxed until somebody would commit to rehabilitating them or putting them down. There was a sort of.. rumor… in the military that they had some Black Ops Nagas, they denied it. But I knew better. You saved me during that bug firefight. Before that, I’d never seen anything like you before.”

Drin stands over him, reaches down, and rests his hand on Dance’s back, stroking his shoulder blades. “And I’m not going to let you get hurt by my ignorance, or anybody else’s, if I can possibly help it. There’s a whole lot of good reasons to keep you safe and happy and doing what you like. We still don’t know how you survived that sarcobox and how you… how you became a musician. ”

The smell of stress hormones rolling off Drin’s skin is dizzying. If he’s lying, Dance is too overwhelmed to be able to sort it out. He feels the curves on the bed flicker and shift, aching, and the tip of it lashes back and forth a moment, and then quiets again.

Dance takes a deep breath, reaches out, brushes his hand on Drin’s leg. He makes a restless gesture, impatient, and also tired to his bones suddenly. “Can you just carry me to the car, I don’t want to leave us tied down here in this place–”

“When you’re fully manifested like this, you’re too heavy for Emma and me to carry. With the fail-safes shutting down like this, it’s trying to rest. I think it’d be unwise of us to interfere. Let’s just let it recover.”

Emma says, “If it grows at the same rate as you told Drin, in the morning you’ll be five or ten pounds heavier just on armor scales alone. It can be toxic to grow out those silicon optics in the slide-coat so that it’s showing that kind of workmanship, such solid old-fashioned straight-through ray-tracing– never mind. I’m a little afraid to see what a urinalysis would show about your poor kidneys.” The sudden knowledge sounds sharp, bitter, in her voice.

Drin picks up the water glass, holds the straw for Dance to sip some more water.

More pragmatically, Emma says, “Are you still hungry?”

Dance shakes his head. “Maybe later.” He looks up at Drin.

Drin sighs, rubs his head, makes a frustrated gesture. Then he shares the latest new lump of knowledge that’s just surfaced in his head. He says, “It’s growing out from your tailbones because you just.. unpinned yourself. At some point you built your own nice little custom zero-g box to lug it around in, and you did such a nice carpentry job there that neither of us noticed it. Believe me, I was not exactly ignoring what your ass feels like. And yeah, I guess there’s a lot of really strange science that goes into creating a box into your back to hold it safely tucked up in zero-g.”

“I’d guess the momentum issues can get pretty complicated as a… as a Naga gets bigger,” Emma says shakily. “You know the… the janitors picking up after the coup, after Wojo couldn’t hide it any more, they probably cleaned out all the direct records.  Where would we start looking for more information?”

Drin looks over at her. “Probably we can pick up the history leading into developing those labs, facts about the early lives of the people who did that work. The janitors probably didn’t go back that far when they tried to blot out or bury project records. All that archivist stuff would be a very good resource to retrieve for historians later on.”

“But that doesn’t help us sort out what Dance needs us to do right now,” Emma says, frowning.

Drin rests his hand on Dance’s side, fingering his ribs gently, slipping his hand up into Dance’s armpit, either checking for how hot his body is, or else how ticklish he is. Dance doesn’t even feel the sluggish impulse to recoil at such an intimate touch. He just stretches a little into it, giving Drin more access to the inside of his arm, and when Drin strokes him gently, it feels good.

Drin shifts his hand to Dance’s collarbone, along his sternum, strokes down along his belly, and Dance closes his eyes, slackening into it, feeling all his muscles unknot themselves. It’s a little embarrassing, as if maybe he should be panting and wiggling happily in the carpet, belly up, but he can’t be bothered to care.

Emma says, “I have some theories. Dance, I think it’d be a damn good idea to drag you to some good general nursery and wander around and let you smell out what herbs you want to eat. Neural poisons or inhibitors in the plants have probably been helping you sedate down the the sensory nerve growth as it expands. If I’m right, then you’ve been growing the neural processing for it over the last two years, and it’s only since you unpinned yourself that the rest of the tissues have been catching up in a hurry.”

Drin asks, “When was the first time you felt it, knew it was there?”

“Felt anything?” Dance says, with his eyes half-shut. The tiredness is crashing down on him, but he still hears himself chuckle. It seems funny now. “I just felt this weird wiggly messy sensation when I was sitting, waiting through the middle of a horn passage, and they were a little off. I was about to get up for my main solo in the Carmen excerpts at the library. We did that a couple months ago. I mean, stage fright will do weird things to you. I really thought I messed in my pants.”

“But you still stood up and did a solo,” Drin says, and he’s sounding amused for the first time.

“Good reason why those orchestra pants are black,” Dance says, smiling.

“But I was there,” Emma says. “You just stood up and did your solo and you looked fine. I don’t remember that you said anything later on about–”

“Because my pants were fine,” Dance says, grimacing. “The stage fright, it can do funny things to you. Being scared out of my tiny mind, I feel weird. The last few weeks–” He takes a deep breath.

Emma looms over him. “You felt all weird and you didn’t say one word to us. You felt that strange, and you never–”

Dance reaches out and touches her leg, and she smacks his hand, actually swats it, hits him three times with her open palm, hard enough to make it echo in the room. “You could have been sick, seriously ill, like a heart attack ill, and you never told us!”

Dance doesn’t let go of her. He put out his other hand, rests his open palm on her knee. “I knew it wasn’t anything that… normal.”

Emma simply gasps in outrage, throws herself onto him as he is lying on his side. She kneels astraddle his thighs, and bangs his chest with her open palm, smacking him, shouting at him. “Don’t you understand, you bloody crazy man, we can’t stand it if you–”

Drin stares at them, alarmed, hand out, mouth open. But he doesn’t stop her, either.

Dance twists around, captures each of her wrists in his hands, muscles standing to in both their forearms as she strains against him, and he says, gently, “I didn’t want to frighten you any harder. I didn’t know what it was, or what to do, and I just — tried to keep it from being a problem and figure out what was going on, and then weird stuff started happening–”

Emma gasps. “Let me go,” she says.

painting, The Great Worm, by Charles Ricketts
The Great Worm, by Charles Ricketts

His fingers open, the palms becoming props instead of manacles.

She frees her wrists, setting her hands down on the bed on either side of him. Then she lowers her chin and rests her face against his.

“Stop crying, you goddamn lying man you,” she says hoarsely. “I’ll bloody well give you something to cry about, I will, if you ever do that to me again, Dance. Don’t you ever. You understand? I’m not letting you lie to me. You’re goddamn beautiful, I don’t care if you turn out to be a bloody huge dragon or whatever you are, and I don’t care how big you grow, I’m keeping you, damn your eyes.”

He turns his face into hers, and then he’s kissing her, she’s on her side too, facing him, and they’re both crying. Dance doesn’t even understand why he’s sobbing his heart out into her shoulder, and why she keeps smacking him on the shoulder now and then, just because she’s so incredibly angry with him.

“You’re just a great big pansy softy,” Emma says, sniffling. “And I’m keeping you, you got that!”

Dance nods.

Emma has her arm around his waist, her leg hugged tight around his knees, and the weight of her breasts rolls against his chest as she moves. They’re surprisingly heavy. He feels his genitals twitch, but nothing much happens. His body feels dulled, inert, not at all like he would have reacted two days ago to have her sprawled on him in such a sexually intimate position. Not the way he would have reacted half an hour ago, either. He draws in a deep breath, feeling her weight solidly pushing him, and wonders what’s changed. He says, “You want me to tell you–”

“Both of us!” Emma says fiercely, whipping her head up and glaring at him with her eyes all puffy and red. “Tell both of us!”

“Okay,” Dance says.

“Promise!” she says.

“I promise,” he says, although what it means none of them could say. “You said to tell you things on this… change.”

He can see the apprehensive lines around her eyes tighten up. She draws a deep breath. “Yeah,” she says, bracing up to whatever it is. “You’re not in heat like you were yesterday, are you? You’d be gone already if I hugged you like this yesterday.”

“Yeah. And I’m losing one of my teeth,” Dance says. “At the back.”

===

Challenge: Cornered

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