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“Laugh, Luff, Love” – Neither of them, or Both – an Other word – his Weaknesses –

“Laugh,” she says. “Luff? Love.”

“Love,” he says, the word askew. He kisses her cheek, the point of her jaw.

“The tennis score,” she says. “If you’re not a fan of sentiment.”

“Go on,” he says. He kisses her throat, her shoulder, nosing the folds of her cocktail dress aside, and she’s tipping her yellow hair away from his mouth. “Luck?” she says. “Lock? Loch,” she says, firmly, opening her eyes, but he shakes his head and kisses the notch of her clavicle. She strokes his head still in that white watch cap. “Lack,” she says, then “Lick.” He laughs around his kiss, his hands on her hips, strumming the bare skin of her back there between the artful drapes of shimmering black. “How,” he says, leaning back a little, “do I get you out of this,” and his hands swoop up that length of skin, and she sucks in a quick sip of air. “Let go,” she says. “Take off your shirt. Go on.”

He steps back bootheel chiming on the wide plank floor, bumps into, sits abruptly on the foot of the big white bed. Tugs his T-shirt free from his baggy black jeans, works it up over his head. His narrow chest asymmetrically furred, the thicker, broader patch to the left brushed with tufts of grey. His ribs can just be made out, and the bones about his shoulders. “Take off the cap,” she says, but he shakes his head. “Chilly,” he says. “Your turn.”

She reaches behind her neck, there under her hair, and does something, her dress slumps, slips down her arms as she lowers them, reaches around her hips and does something, her dress loosens, rolls away down her legs. She steps out of it in her heels and those complicated briefs. He holds out a hand and she takes it, and he draws her to him, one knee on the bed, then the other, to either side of his thighs. “Lick,” she says, again.

“Lough,” he says, the vowels weirdly out of tune, the end of it ragged and rough. He says it again. “Lauch.”

“Look,” she says, kissing his mouth. “Luke.” He’s smiling. “Lake,” says someone behind them, and Lough stiffens, that smile faltering. Jessie looks back over a shoulder with something terrible in her eyes, “You little shit,” she says.

Lauren’s there, at the mouth of the alcove, hands on hips cocked in high-waisted gingham shorts, a matching cropped halter, her long straight hair in sloppy pigtails, dark eyes full. “You’re Lake,” she says, voice trembling. “You’re back.”

“Lauren,” says Jessie, “I swear to God if you don’t – ” but then Lough raises a hand. “Lauren,” he says, roughly. “Yallowshot.”

Those dark eyes shut, spill over, she nods, jerkily, and suddenly all elbows and knees and red Keds slapping runs into the alcove leaping on the bed tackling him in a wild hug Jessie leaning back, away, one arm uselessly up over her breasts, her face knitted in quizzical horror as Lauren kisses Lough and he kisses her right back. “I don’t,” she says, pushing away, “I don’t need this,” but he’s reaching for, he’s caught her hand, “Wait,” he says, pulling her back, and she doesn’t resist. He leans away from Lauren to kiss her knuckles.

“I’m not,” Jessie starts to say as Lauren sits up, grabs her other hand and pulls it toward her, “Stay!” she says. “You have to. That’s the point.”

Lough lets go of her hand, leans across the puffy white comforter, his lap still full of Lauren, and Jessie doesn’t start any further back, she’s looking at Lauren, looking at the hand Lough’s lifted to brush her cheek. She doesn’t set her other foot on the floor. Her hand in Lauren’s shifting, no longer held but holding hers in turn, there on his black-denimed knee. “It’s all right,” says Lough, leaning close, tipping his head back, and holding herself very still she turns just to meet his mouth, blinking quickly. “It’s why we’re here,” he says, and settling back on an elbow, he nods, but he’s looking away from them both with something of a frown. Jessie still blinking at him says “Lake?” as Lauren pulls her close, their hands still squeezed together caught between gingham and bare skin. Jessie turning away from Lough to meet those big dark eyes right there, that mouth opening for a kiss.

It’s a slow and steady thing at first but the breath Jessie catches in the middle of it’s a tremble of a sigh and Lauren’s hiking up off Lough’s lap pushing and she topples slowly back into deep soft pillowy white and the kiss redoubles into something fierce and hungry, snarling, crushing groans from them both.

“What is she to you,” says Lough when the storm has passed, stroking Jessie’s yellow hair.

“How did you know,” says Jessie, kissing Lauren’s throat.

“He was always my favorite,” says Lauren. Biting her lip, pigtails awry, looking at Lough tipped up on his side. “You made such beautiful things, did you think I’d forget?” She pushes up, pushes back, “It’s going to be so good now,” she says, sliding off the edge of the bed. Jessie hitches up a little to look down her body at Lauren’s wicked grin, her quick hands busy with the straps that criss-cross Jessie’s hips.

“What are you,” Jessie starts to say, but Lough leans down, breathes a shush in her ear. His long hand on her breast, her nipple palely pink between his fingers. Her head falls back, her chin lifts, she takes in a breath, and in some more, and more, rising, rising. “You didn’t answer the question,” he whispers, as she claws up handfuls of comforter.

“Wizard,” he snarls, hand the size of a dinner plate flat against Kerr’s chest shoving him dark coat flapping into the wall by the bright red Coke machine. “Pyrocles!” says Becker, grabbing at a slab of shoulder bared by a sleeveless grey T-shirt. Piano rings out over a thumping beat somewhere behind them, I’m a boy, someone’s singing, at an open door, why you staring, do you think you know?

“Actually,” says Kerr, pushing off from the wall, “I prefer the term magician.” Settling his coat, utterly black in the lurid glare of the Coke machine. Straightening his black and silver tie. “Wizard makes it sound like something supernatural’s involved.”

“Melanchlœnidon,” spits Pyrocles, and Kerr tips back at that, an eyebrow cocked, a nod, “Yes,” he says. “That’s another word.”

“I don’t,” says Becker, “I didn’t remember – anything, Kerr, until I saw him. You,” he says, blinking the sweat from his eyes, to Pyrocles, that broad chest working like a bellows, a couple of heavy beads strung from the drooping tips of his mustaches swaying with the force of his breath, tocking almost to the thundering music. “I’m sorry,” says Becker. And then, to Kerr, “There’s something weird going on – ”

“No,” snaps Kerr, and Becker’s brought up short.

“Trust me,” he says. “I’m standing here, telling you. This is weird.”

“No,” says Kerr again, shaking his head. “There is nothing weird in this world,” he says, “nothing above nature, or beyond it, there can’t be. There’s just,” and he taps his temple, “a failure, of your mental model, to account for something that’s occurred, and I’m arguing semantics in a goddamn rave, Becker, are you coming.”

“I , uh,” says Becker, arms folded in his short-sleeved shirt, open at the throat, “I need my coat.”

Wordlessly Pyrocles plucks the bundle from under his other arm, holding it out, Becker’s heavy raincoat, his crumpled trilby. “Oh,” says Becker. “Um. Thanks.” The music drops suddenly as he takes them from Pyrocles, and the crowd off away behind them, it sounds like the whole roomful, they’re chanting along with the chorus, we are not what you think we are! We are golden! We are golden! and Kerr’s face crumples, he lifts a hand as he ducks forward shoulders shaking, laughter that can’t be heard as the song crashes to a close. Becker looks over at Pyrocles, who’s looking at the floor, somewhere almost exactly between Becker’s feet, and Kerr’s. Kerr straightens, quaking with an aftershock, a long sighing breath, “Well, Becker?” he says, and there’s not a trace left now but the hint of a twinkle in his eye. “Coming?”

“I should,” says Becker, and he’s looking down now, too, at the hat he’s pinching and pressing, pushing it back into shape. “I think I’ll, ah – ”

“Take the bus,” says Kerr, with a shrug. “Okay.” Holding up a hand, turning it slowly before them, the back of it, the front, empty but for a plain thick silvery ring. “Yes,” he says, “I am a magician,” and when he turns the back of his hand to them again with a fnap there’s a business card tucked between his index and middle fingers. “Which means exactly what you think it does.” He extends the card to Becker. “Go on,” he says, and Becker gingerly takes it. “I’ll call you.”

A swirl of that coat and off he’s gone, clattering brusquely down the stairs.

“Call me?” mutters Becker, turning the card over in his hand. It’s white, thick paper, stiff, and blank on both sides.

“Becker,” says Pyrocles, his voice a rasp.

Becker shakes out his heavy raincoat, puts his hat on his head. “I should,” he says, “I really should go.”

“Don’t,” says Pyrocles, his hand catching up Becker’s wrist, swallowing it, stained knuckles burred by rough skin, old scars, wisps of grey hair.

“Don’t what,” says Becker, half in his raincoat. “Don’t go?”

“Don’t see him,” says Pyrocles, letting go. Becker slips his arm into the other sleeve of his coat, tucks the card in his pocket. “Men like that,” says Pyrocles, “are bad news.” Becker meets Pyrocles’ eyes at that. “Don’t go,” says Pyrocles.

“I should,” says Becker, “I really should. The bus – ”

“You remember,” says Pyrocles. “Don’t you?”

“I remember,” say Becker, shaking his head, “that there’s something to remember.” He reaches up to lightly touch one of the beads at the ends of Pyrocles’ mustaches. It’s a dull and heavy pewter, irregularly shaped. “Is this, this is new, isn’t it.”

Pyrocles gently takes Becker’s hand, presses the back of it to his lips. “Stay,” he says.

“I, I can’t,” says Becker. “Not tonight.” A step back, his hand slipping free. “Tonight’s,” he says, “too,” his hand stirring the air, looking for a word, “too,” and then he shrugs, and ducks his head, and turns, and with a heavy tread he makes his way down the stairs.

The only light in the cramped kitchen comes from a shallow bay in the door of the refrigerator, a couple of levers and a spigot, she’s leaning over it, white vest shining in the glow, forehead pressed against the stainless steel, wine-red hair lost in the shadows. With deliberate care she fits the glass in her hand to one of the levers, squares her shoulders, pushes. The refrigerator grinds and chuckles and she starts back, yanks the glass away. Sets it against the other lever. Pushes. A jet of water squirts into the glass.

She drinks it down in noisy gulps, sets the empty glass in the sink. The window over the sink blank and black, scratches in the glass touched with pinkish orange. Outside that auroral streetlight’s shining through a fog of oily droplets that’s drifting thickly downward, softening an empty tree, a tiny parking lot two or three floors below, a single car angled across a couple of its spaces, a nameless color in this light that might be brown or red, a dark stripe slashed across its roof. Across the little lot an empty diner, a brilliant pool of indoor light trapped behind glass, red booths, plush red stools at a blue counter, Bob’s Big Boy says the swooning neon sign hoisted up behind the tree. She’s pulled her glossy black phone from a pocket and hiked herself up on her toes leaning over the sink, her elbows on the sill. She thumbs it to life. The photo, there, herself and Ysabel cheek to cheek, somewhere outside at night. 44:44, says the phone’s clock. Louhitag, Frostarious 4.

“Oh, good,” says the Duke, behind her. “You’re up.”

Jo turns away from the window, slipping the phone into her pocket. “Still up,” she says with a cough.

He’s there by one of the swinging doors, across the butcher’s block from her, barefoot in his shadowy paisley dressing gown. His dark hair parted like curtains about his face, curling where it’s tucked up behind his ears. He isn’t frowning, he isn’t smiling, his lips and brow inclined neither up nor down, his gaze open and steady upon her. “I realize,” he said, “a third time under these circumstances is as charmless as it might prove useless – ”

“Why did you do this?” says Jo.

“ – but – this. That?” He points back over his shoulder at the door behind him.

“The party,” she says. “If it’s all as bad as you say it is why are you – doing this.”

“This feast,” he says. “I do it every year. People would talk, if I didn’t.”

“Oh,” she says, looking down. And then, “You slept with him,” she says, and she looks up again to meet his gaze. “Didn’t you.”

His expression’s unmoved. “It’s the Mooncalfe you mean,” he says, after a moment. She nods. “Oh,” he says, “we each slept with the other. Many times over. You aren’t upset about Luys.”

One of her shoulders twitches, a bit of a shrug. “Luys hasn’t tried to kill me.”

“To be fair to us both,” says the Duke, one hand on the butcher’s block, “when we were doing all that sleeping, we neither of us knew that you were even in the world.”

Jo says, “So it’s all my fault, then,” and his brow knits at that. He says, “I get the distinct impression that we keep skipping steps in this conversation.”

“Keep up,” she mutters.

“Damn me for a fool if you must,” says the Duke, “but dance this far in my shoes, at least: he is one hell of a thing to look upon.” His smile’s a gentle thing, almost apologetic. “I’ve always had a weakness for blonds, and beautiful boys.”

“I’m not either,” says Jo, her voice thick.

“No,” says the Duke. “You’re something else entirely.” Tugging the loose gown a little more tightly about his body.

“Do you want to,” says Jo, and she swallows, looking down, takes in a breath, “Yes?” says the Duke, and she looks up, “fuck me?” Leaning back, elbows on the rim of the sink behind her.

“What?” says the Duke, after a moment.

“You heard me.”

“Not so sure I did.”

“It’s a simple question.”

“Like I said.” There by the corner of the block now. “I haven’t been sure of my footing since I stepped in here.”

“Do you want to fuck me, Leo,” she says, and each word’s crisply clear.

“I think,” says the Duke, “what’s paramount, to me at least, this precise moment,” taking another step closer, “is whether you, want to fuck, me,” and she’s taken hold of the lapel of his dressing gown, she’s bunched it in a fist, yanked him one last step to fetch up tight against her, nose by nose, her forehead against his. “Good question,” she says, and she kisses him, and smiles in the middle of the kiss. “Good answer, too,” she says, and he takes in a sharp breath through his nose the gown falling open away from her clutching hand, slipping from his shoulder, down his arm, baring his chest, his belly, his hip, her other hand there between them about his upright cock. His hand on her hip, his hand gripping the rim of the sink, his knee between her knees as she hauls him closer for a deeper kiss and bang that knee of his against the cabinet under the sink. “Unf,” he says, and “Jo,” he says, and “Maybe we should,” he says, pushing back, trying, failing to get the gown back up on his shoulders. Her hands falling away from his shoulder, leaving him a-bob, set to fumbling with the buttons of her vest as she chases his mouth with hers, “I want this,” she says to his lips, “you. Now.” Her vest dangling open she arches her back pressing close to him as his hand slips inside along bare skin where her shirt’s pulled free. “Here,” she says, and she starts to unbutton her baggy white trousers. “Before I lose my nerve.”

“Whoa,” says the Duke, pushing back, brought up against the butcher’s block, naked, the gown draped from his elbows, his hands on her side, her breast, he’s shaking his head, “that’s, that’s what I’m – ”


“That’s what I’m,” he says, lifting a hand to her face. She jerks away. “What.”

“Jo, you’re soused.”

“I am not,” she says, “that, drunk.”

“I don’t want another stupid mistake,” he says, and she leans into him, pulls him into a long and slow and tender kiss that melts away until they’re standing, barely swaying, lips parted just, eyes shut. “I want this,” says Jo, and he opens his eyes. “I want you, Leo Barganax.” And she opens hers.

“Maybe,” he says, gruffly, gathering his gown about himself, looking at the other door behind them. “Maybe we should take this to your room.”

She’s shaking her head. “Jessie’s, she’s,” and Jo doesn’t say what she was about to say, and the Duke nods. “Oh,” he says, tying off the belt to his gown.

“What about yours?” says Jo.

“I told,” says the Duke, “Luys, he’s waiting there. For, ah. Me.”

“Oh,” says Jo. Buttoning up her pants. She grabs the Duke’s hand. “You’ve still got the condoms? They’re in there?”

“Yes,” he says, frowning. “I think. Those are still good?”

“They last for months,” she says as she pushes past him, past the butcher’s block, tugging him after.

“And Luys?” says the Duke, following. “What do we, just kick him out?”

“Maybe,” says Jo, pushing open the door, stepping through.

“Jo?” says the Duke, limping after. “Jo!”

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“We Are Golden,” written by Mika, copyright holder unknown.

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