Local Flavor

written and illustrated by Ptarmigan

The summer in Minnelaskwa’s Iron Valley has finally come to its merciful end, where the weather transitions from ‘hot enough to where it’s only tolerable to sit around the house drunk in your underwear’ to ‘cool enough to sit around the house drunk in your underwear and an open flannel shirt,’ which incidentally, is what Cicada happens to be wearing right now.  In other words, it’s comfortable; an ideal climate for lounging on the couch with his laptop wired into the TV, stoned out of his gourd and wasting the day watching dashboard videos of drunken dwarves careening into each other and swearing in their native tongue before walking away unscathed and/or engaging in a fistfight with the other driver. It’s the perfect entertainment as the end of the logging off-season draws near.

If Cicada didn’t already know a litany of dwarvish swears simply by necessity of working alongside them for so many years, he’d have certainly learned the whole gamut just by watching so many dashcam videos from them.  The invention of the internet is truly the most wonderful thing.

He laughs as he watches blurry footage of a small, square vehicle bounce off the side of a freeway on his screen, skidding across three lanes before ricocheting off the side of an oncoming truck and flipping on its side, the dwarven driver stumbling from the hole where the shattered windshield once held, clutching his head and shaking his fist at the truck before angrily stomping off and flipping off the driver recording the incident.  Cicada’s laughter as the man takes a swig from a hip flask is interrupted by a sharp, loud knock at his door, prompting him to look back from the armrest of the couch.

“Who in th’ fuck…”

Cicada rarely got visitors, and when he did, it was usually hapless religious youth from the Firewalker Church trying to regale him of the glory of the Mother of Elves, or more rarely, local law enforcement.  Neither were particularly great, but if the person (or people) at his door were Firewalker kids, he could at least have fun trying to shock them into scurrying along to proselytize the neighbors instead of him.

He gropes along the floor, brushing aside empty beer cans for his prosthetic leg to reattach it and make his way to the front door, taking a cursory glance out the window to see if there were any unfamiliar vehicles and/or cop cars parked along the dirt road.  A station wagon of some sort – likely of mainlander origin, dark green in color and covered in mud – sits outside, a highly unusual sight for the area as most cars were dwarven in design around here. Could someone have moved in from out of town while he was busy getting inebriated and pigging out on boiled sausages for the last two months and he just didn’t notice?

Cicada exhales an agitated sigh as he grips the doorknob and pulls it open, leaning heavily against the frame in expectation that he’d have to tell a bunch of religious weirdos just how much dick he’s sucked in his long and illustrious life.

Instead, the man on the other side of the door definitely looks like he’s not from around here, and is probably not representing a church.  A compact but muscular elven figure with glossy black hair that cascades over his shoulders and skin the color of supple walnut wood stands before him, a paper  diner napkin in hand. He’s most likely either from the mainland or one of its far-reaching colonies, wearing a high-collared silken vest dyed a rich yellow, crisp clean black short leggings, flats that match his top, and a messenger bag hanging at his hip.  His features are softly hewn with almond-shaped amber eyes and a thin beard, likely just starting to grow out, that gives his chin a scruffy look despite obvious attempts at grooming it into something more presentable. His tall ears stand up perfectly straight and bow slightly inward at the ends, framing his high ponytail almost like a halo.

Cicada, feeling self-conscious of his listing ear for the first time in his life, presses his hand to the side of his head in attempt to prop the ear upright.  The moment he lets go to put his hand back on his hip, the ear goes back to tilting out at an angle like a broken antenna.


He doesn’t even know what to say to the man at first, regarding him with a look of confusion as he brushes his messy red hair out of his face.  Before he speaks, he briefly threads his tongue through the gap where one of his teeth used to be just to see if he’d react to that. “You lost, buddy?”

Despite himself, he finds the stranger strikingly beautiful in a way that elves tend to be conventionally considered in popular media.  In his mind, this is a man who truly has no place on his doorstep, because people like that do not intentionally go to rural ex-penal colonies in the literal middle of nowhere on the other side of the world just for the sake of visiting.  People like that do not just randomly show up like the Mother of Elves personally delivered one of her finest children to someone who might as well look like what happens if you let an elf get hit by a car and then released into a barn full of raccoons that raise him as family.  People like that are usually the furthest from what Cicada tends to consider ‘his type,’ and yet here he is, desperately trying not to swoon and clenching tightly onto his eponymous title as the Trash King of Minnelaskwa.

And Trash Kings do not swoon at incredibly pretty men, at least not until they get to know them better.

The stranger seems equally starstruck, likely in awe of how an elf like Cicada could possibly allow himself to get this badly maimed in his relatively short life, or perhaps he’s been mesmerized by the coarse carpet of ruddy body hair that blankets his chest and all but covers his bilateral surgery scars before running down his stomach all the way to and past the waistband of his tacky novelty boxers with the words ‘MOOSE DICK’ sewn into the elastic (Cicada is nothing if not a man of pure class). He blinks himself out of the trance and looks up at the numbers nailed to the front of the cabin, then back down at the diner napkin in his hand.  Cicada catches a glimpse of his own damn address and name scrawled on it in ballpoint pen as the man awkwardly clears his throat.

“Are you Cicada?”

Cicada would offer him a handjob on the spot if he didn’t think greater spiritual forces were testing him somehow, and he’s not even that religious.

“The one an’ only,” he says, putting a thumb to his chest. “What can I help ya with, bud?  M’not in trouble, am I?”

“Er, no,” the other man says, chuckling cordially he pockets the napkin.  “I’m here on behalf of the Imperial Thalassean Bureau of Statistics to update the demographic data on this particular outpost.”

“Y’mean like a census guy, eh?” Cicada asks.

“I suppose it’d be something like that.”  The man smiles pleasantly and extends his hand to Cicada.  His wrists are heavy with carved golden bangles and his nails are painted a striking, shiny maroon that surely must have been done this morning.   The stranger’s nail job certainly made Cicada feel conscious of his own nails, practically slobbered over with a thick and uneven coat of metallic purple that’s already starting to flake off.  “Dara Majaan.”

A census guy.  Of course. While Cicada can’t remember the last time anyone from the mainland came up here to take census, if they ever did in his lifetime at all, the realization brings him back down to reality even if momentarily because that would be a pretty valid reason for a person from the mainland to come here.

He’s a little thankful Dara wasn’t personally delivered to him on the Mother’s brightly burning tail.  He’s just some guy. Some incredibly handsome guy, but just some guy nonetheless (the fact that he has black hair instead of some ghastly shade of silver also redeems his mainland status a bit).

“Alright, Dara,” Cicada says as he accepts Dara’s handshake with a firm grip and a grin, then goes back to leaning against the doorway as soon as he lets go.  “Whaddya wanna know?”

“I’m glad you asked!” Dara rests his hand on the strap of the messenger bag, which is adorned with colorful buttons of various leaves and small plants.  “You see, the information for Iron Lake is nearly a century out of date–”

“–Rust Lake,” Cicada corrects him, folding his arms across his chest.  “We uh, stopped going by that name a while ago, eh. Your records don’t show that?”

“Rust Lake!  Sorry,” Dara sheepishly bows his head, then continues.  “Like I said, our information is almost a hundred years out of date and that update was apparently never logged with the census data.  We have plenty of records on the outpost’s lumber production each year, but there’s almost nothing about the people that live here. I asked around locally and got pointed your way as someone in charge.”

‘Someone in charge’?  Seriously? In the back of Cicada’s mind, he resolves to to find out whoever led this poor, beautiful man astray to his door and told him he was the leader of anything is getting the absolute shit knocked out of them to ensure they never do it again.  On the other hand, Dara is cute, so it might be worth attempting to humor him for a while by pretending to be mayor, or whatever it is Dara got told he is.  He might get in trouble with his mom for impersonating an authority figure, sure, but that just meant spending more time listening to the pretty census man talk and he is willing to accept his fate of a disappointed look and a possible ticket.

Needless to say, the revelation about the town’s records being wiped on the mainland’s end after a certain incident is hardly surprising to him.  “I can’t imagine why the ol’ chairman’d leave that stuff out, eh.”

Dara doesn’t say anything for a while, and Cicada catches the briefest flicker of a frown on his lips before he puts on a convincing smile.  “That’s why I’m here, I suppose. I’d like to get things up to date so we can connect your outpost to more mainland resources.”

“I’d say we’re more of a town than an outpost these days,” Cicada replies.  The way Dara keeps referring to his home as an ‘outpost’ raises his hackles a bit, but he’s going to give him the benefit of the doubt for now and assume it’s more out of ignorance than malice.  Dara’s been nothing but pleasant so far otherwise, so Cicada is willing to be a little patient with him instead of just telling him to fuck off back to where he came from.

“It seemed that way when I drove in.” Dara nods in agreement.  “A lot of the remote communities are still flagged as outposts or colonies, even in spite of obvious growth.  Yours stuck out due to a total information blackout.”

There’s a few snide responses Cicada could pull from the back of his mind – from pointing out that the town has a website (that he even helped set up, and he would have put in some sick flaming skull gifs if that weren’t immediately vetoed by the town secretary in favor of some much more boring, ‘friendlier’ animated flags) to perhaps even asking if the mainland blocks access to online encyclopedias where information about this town is extremely easily accessible by search engine or if this dude was just secretly 200 years old and doesn’t know how to operate a smartphone despite looking like he was born in the last half-century or so.  Hell, there was a murder last year where a mainland official was killed in cold blood in his office, so surely that would have made the news back home when it happened, or was government censorship so aggressive that even that information vanished into the void?  

“That’s innerestin’,” he finally says after a long silence.  Alas, he must keep all those other thoughts to himself because Dara still has given him no good reason to be an overt asshole.

“It is really strange,” Dara says, looking unsure of himself.  “I was honestly expecting a ghost town when I saw the official records, but your town is in much better shape than I was anticipating and positively thriving compared to some of the places I’ve surveyed in recent years.”

Again, Cicada finds himself biting his tongue.  He’d argue that it was likely the lack of mainland interference that Rust Lake is doing so well, and he’d really prefer it to stay that way.  Not that he’d have any real say in it given that he’s just a seasonal logger and not an elected official or anything, but if it ever came up in town hall he’d raise a ruckus about it and probably end up starting another fucking war just to keep the mainland elves from turning this place into a prison again (he has a proud legacy of rebellion to uphold, after all).  

“Gotta give credit to the dwarves for helpin’ us find our way here,” Cicada carefully says.  “We’re a pretty organized town and we make sure everyone gets their fair share, for sure.”

“I’m glad to hear things seem to be working out overall,” Dara trails off distractedly as he turns his head to look around him, then back at Cicada as he takes a deep breath in through his nose as he fidgets with his bag strap a bit.  

Cicada looks at him expectantly.  He wouldn’t expect a government official to ask him for sexual favors on the spot like that, but he wouldn’t turn Dara down if he did ask.  He settles into a slightly provocative pose with an arm raised behind his head as he looks at Dara with lidded eyes and a lazy smirk.  “Got somethin’ else you wanna ask me?”

“This… this is a little off script,” Dara admits, nervously stroking the thin hairs on his chin before moving his hand to the back of his neck.

“Yeah?” Cicada arches a brow, scratching the hair on his stomach and ‘accidentally’ letting his fingers to slip under the waistband of his underwear before moving them back up his chest, watching Dara’s gaze following him with amusement.

Dara clears his throat and straightens his shoulders, folding his hands together and putting them in front of him with a cryptic smile. “You seem like you’re familiar with the area and I couldn’t help but notice the natural beauty while I was driving in,” He says as he flashes an incredibly charming grin at Cicada.  “If it’s not asking too much, and if you’re not doing anything at the moment, I’d love to be shown around if you have time.”

Cicada really just wants to tell Dara he could just ask for a handjob if he wanted one, but if he’s going to go on this ‘town leader’ charade he might as well go along with it and keep even the thinnest veneer of professionalism until the moment is right.  Sometimes being the town snowmobile has its unexpected challenges.

“Oh, for sure!”  He gives Dara a wide, toothy grin, straightening himself up.  “But I kinda think I should get dressed first. Can’t go out lookin’ like this, y’know.”

“Oh,” Dara says, doing a terrible job of trying not to sound disappointed. “I suppose you’re right.”

Cicada laughs.  “I mean, I could, but I wanna at least get some boots on.” He opens the door wider and motions for Dara to come inside.   “I don’t wanna keep you waitin’ outside, though. Wanna come in and take a seat?”

“If you don’t mind,” Dara says, smiling pleasantly as he follows Cicada inside.

Either Dara doesn’t watch a lot of horror movies, or he’s way too trusting from the get-go (the fact that he was led here in the first place points to the latter). Thalassean pop culture tends to promote the depiction of forest elves like Cicada as dangerous hicks out to prey upon any pretty sea elves that finds themselves lost in the woods, luring them into a cabin full of rusty murder tools under the guise of hospitality.  Not that Cicada or any of his peers would dream of doing such a thing to anyone, mind you, but an offer to enter a forest elf’s abode would make most mainlanders hesitate before going in simply because of those movies imprinting on their perceptions of other people.

The air in Cicada’s living room is heavy with the scent of stale pot smoke and musk, and the dashcam videos are still playing on his TV screen.  The walls are practically covered with various animal skins, fading band posters, and tie-dyed tapestries draped over the windows to keep the brightest of light out. An enormous blue, pink, and white pride flag mounted over the fireplace, standing watch over the various bleached animal skulls and carved wooden creatures resting on the mantle.  

Also on the mantle are a few framed photographs: a tiny black and white photo of two positively glowing women, one much taller than the other and an iron collar around her neck, bending over to meet her partner’s height and holding a fox kit still fluffy with down fur in her arms; and next to it, a larger black and white photo the shorter of the women in a winter sweater with her arm around the shoulders of a dour, lanky young child with messy hair and a listing ear.  Other photos include more recent but faded color pictures of Cicada with his various logging crews over the years, cheerfully posing in front of timber stacks or sitting in front of their bunkhouses, and finally a picture of him in a hospital bed, his chest heavily bandaged, with the short woman beside him holding his hand and beaming at the camera.

“Help yersself to the sausages on the table there, buddy,” Cicada says, clearing the area of empty potato chip bags and pastry wrappers.  “They should still be warm, I just pulled ‘em off the pot before you came by. You want somethin’ to drink? Coffee, water? Tea?”

“I, uh…” Dara looks overwhelmed, although it’s unclear if it’s because of Cicada’s unexpected displays of hospitality or the smell or both, and he gingerly sits down on the uncomfortably warm couch Cicada leads him to.  He cranes his neck over to the small kitchen along the wall behind him, noting the ancient-looking coffee press on the counter is empty. “Water should be fine.”

“I was just thinkin’ I was gonna start some coffee for myself,” Cicada says, swiping his kettle off the counter and filling it with water in the sink.  “I mean, you probably could use some too, you came up here on a pretty long drive, eh?”

Dara makes a face, smirking with perplexed amusement as one of his ears swivels slightly back.  “Well if you’re already making some for yourself, sure, I could go for some coffee.”

“Great!”  Cicada beams proudly as he scoops some beans into the coffee grinder as he waits for the water to boil.  He then dumps the grinds into the press and moves to the fridge, gripping the handle. “You want a bar?”

“A bar?”  The question catches Dara slightly off guard, both of his ears pulled back in worry as he tries to puzzle out the exact nature of what he’s being offered this time.  “I-I probably shouldn’t be drinking, or taking recreational drugs, or–”

“–I just made ‘em last night,” Cicada opens the fridge and reaches inside, pulling out a glass casserole dish covered in plastic wrap.  “They’re like, graham cereal and marshmallows and chocolate chips and all that good shit gooped up together. You don’t have a nut allergy, do ya?  I might’ve put some peanut butter in there but I don’t fuckin’ remember. But I thought I’d warn ya in case I did, eh.”

The kettle starts to rumble on the stove.  Dara’s shoulders slump, and his ears slowly go back to standing up straight as all the air in his lungs exhale silently out in relief.  

“I’m not allergic to nuts, no,” he says after a long pause.

“Great!” Cicada walks over towards him, putting his hand on the back of the couch and leaning over Dara to put the snack dish on the table.  “Help yourself, buddy! These aren’t medicated by the way, but if ya happened to want some like that, those are in the green container in the fridge!”

“Thank you,” Dara murmurs, starting to sweat again as Cicada draws back and heads back towards the kitchen.  He decides to focus on the TV screen in front of him, watching the dashcam videos in morbid fascination as he picks up one of the cereal bars off the tray and bites into it.  A truck is shown onscreen pulling up ahead of the driver to reveal that one of its back tires had been removed completely and replaced by a log dragging along the asphalt. Dara mutters under his breath in a language that Cicada does not understand, but if he had to guess, it probably meant something along the lines of ‘what the fuck am I looking at?’

“You bet!”  The kettle is boiling.  Its shrill whistle screams through the air in a rapid crescendo, going on for too long because Cicada, too, has distracted himself with the video.  “Hey, I know that guy! He works at the nearby mill! Anyways, ya want some sugar in your coffee? Cream?”

He finally takes the kettle off the stove, pouring the water into the coffee press and clicking the dial of the burner off.  

“Uh.” Dara briefly glances back at him with the look of a man whose soul has been ejected from his body.  A car collides with a parked truck, reverses itself, and speeds away like nothing happened on a backdrop of bad techno music.  “You don’t need to do anything special, just black is fine.”

“Buddy, this shit’s like tar by itself,” Cicada says as he scoops a bunch of sugar into a mug.  “I’ll put some sugar in for ya.”

Dara makes a noncommittal noise, turning his attention back to the TV. The video cuts to more old techno music and a stocky dwarven driver getting out of his car to yell at someone steering a bulldozer onto the road, something that surely will end well for him.  Leaning forward, Dara’s ears pull back and his fingers lace together in anticipation as he watches the bulldozer’s rather cross driver push the car of his aggressor off the road and rolling down the hill. “How is any of this legal?”

“Iunno,” Cicada shrugs as he pushes the filter down through the coffee press.  He conspicuously only has one cup on the counter that he pours the coffee into, bringing it over to Dara and setting it down on a warped paper coaster that he probably took home from the bar.  “Dwarves, eh. Anyway, coffee’s done so I’ll go get some pants on and we can go see some attractions, eh?”

“Right!”  Picking up the mug from the table, Dara sniffs at it briefly before taking a cautious sip and evidently not finding the drink too disgusting (or maybe he’s just a master at having a killer poker face).  “I appreciate the hospitality. Thank you again.”

“Just bein’ a good an’ gracious host,” Cicada says as he puffs out his chest and taps his fist to his heart.    “By the way, if ya need to use the bathroom or anythin’, I’m right here.”

The slip makes Dara’s eyes widen with the mug frozen to his mouth as he chokes mid-sip, just barely able to prevent the spray of coffee out of his mouth.  Cicada looks equally mortified as his words catch up to his brain amid Dara’s coughing fit, his face turning a deep red as he lamely motions over to the nearby door.  

“I, uh, it’s right here, to the left.  I’m, uh, I’m gonna go get dressed now,” Cicada points over his shoulder before he rapidly strides back into his room, slamming the door behind him.  He starts rummaging through his drawers for a fresh change of clothes, dumping what he’s wearing on top of the overflowing hamper and trying desperately to forget what he said just moments before.

Settling on a faded band shirt (incidentally the one with the least amount of holes!) representing his favorite sludge ska concept album by Nuclear Shark, Toilet Ghost, he pulls a fresh flannel shirt on over that, leaving the front unbuttoned.  Of course it was well within his power to stop there and stride on out wearing only that while announcing to Dara that lunch was on the house, but that could be considered in extremely poor taste and not something an ambassador for the town would do in the presence of someone working for the mainland government unless he wanted to run the risk of getting arrested.  With that in mind, he decides it’s prudent to throw on some hideous pink camouflage briefs (because hey, you never know when you need to hide your junk and only your junk in a magenta forest hellscape) and a pair of old jeans patched up with floral print material from several old couches he’d harvested from the dump.

Satisfied with his choice of an outfit, Cicada then moves on to the arduous task of brushing his hair so it doesn’t look like he was lazing on the couch all day prior to Dara’s unexpected arrival.  It’s extremely fortuitous that he showered this morning or he’d have to reconcile with venturing out with wet hair, which isn’t fun for anyone. He briefly entertains the idea of taping his listing ear up so it stands up straight with the other one, but that would probably be obvious and Dara already saw it fall down once so he probably figured out that ear’s fucked by now.  

Again, he feels strange about the fact that he cares about his appearance at all.  It took a lot of convincing for him to even wear nice clothes going to court, and that had a lot more on the line than whether or not he can make out with a mainlander elf who came down here to take census on behalf of a detached government that has, for as long as he’s been alive, pretended that his hometown did not exist in official records than as a source of lumber and furs.  All the other men he’s fucked didn’t mind how he looked, and those that did were those he couldn’t stand spending time around to begin with for a variety of reasons.

Fuck it, a messy updo will do for now.  It’ll keep his hair out of his face and make him feel less like a slob, which is really what matters most in the end.  He ducks into the bathroom for a look in the mirror in one last quick pass as he brushes his teeth (a joke could be made here about the effects of giving head with sausage breath that is absolutely going to remain festering in his brain for the sake of everyone until the next time he takes his phone to the bathroom with him), then squares up his shoulders and goes back out to face Dara like nothing’s happened.

Dara looks up from a makeup mirror he’d been peering into to tidy up his hair, his lips curving into a smile as he folds the mirror shut and slips it back into his bag.  Cicada awkwardly smiles back, briefly flashing his teeth like a weird robot attempting a grin as he ambles up to the couch.

“So, uh, d’ya eat lunch already?  ‘Cause I know a good place,” Cicada says, putting his hands in his pockets.  “It’s, uh, free range, organic, dwarven… local… fusion…? Cuisine?”

The string of bullshit restaurant blog buzzwords seems to catch Dara’s attention as his ears perk up.  “Oh, I haven’t had lunch at all today! I love dwarven food,” he cheerfully says as he takes his phone out of his bag and enters the code to unlock it.  “What’s the name of it so I can look it up for directions?”

“It’s uh, uh, I’ll take ya there in my truck, eh,” Cicada quickly interjects, “You look like you need a break from drivin’ anyways.”

“Oh, sure,” Dara says, lowering his phone.  “Will it be all right where I’ve parked?”

“Pfft, nobody’s gonna tow ya, buddy,” Cicada snorts. “S’long as you’re not blockin’ anyone’s driveway, anyways.  Nobody’s gonna bat an eye at a weird car parkin’ outside my place, eh.”

“Thats, uh, good to know,” Dara says, getting up and picking up the coffee cup and tray of cereal bars to walk them back towards the kitchen.  “Where do you want me to put these, by the way?”

“Oh, just set ‘em on the counter,” Cicada says, collecting the dish of uneaten sausages off the coffee table and stuffing them into the fridge.  “I’ll take care of ‘em when we get back.”

He snatches the keys to his truck off the counter and goes towards the door to put on his favorite pair of boots, a set of battered, clunky black leather beasts that have served him for many a season.  Dara joins him at the doorway after leaving the dishes on the counter, and they make their departure for the restaurant.

Cicada’s truck is a fading, hulking beast plastered with various decals and stickers on the back window and tailgate, most notably a decal of his insect namesake with its wings spread across the back window, with a glittery pair of purple plastic testicles hanging up between the back tires (if you’re gonna put homoerotic bullshit on your truck, you might as well go all-out).  The hood of the truck is poorly welded on from another vehicle and held down by fraying bungee cords, with a rack of antlers glued to the front of the vehicle acting as a figurehead overlooking a set of bull bars over the truck’s grill and headlights. It’s his pride and glory, a marvelous frankentruck assembled from the corpses of other trucks welded and screwed together into something that shouldn’t be, its various parts spanning decades, makes, and models.

Sure, the option is always there for him to buy a newer truck when he finished the log drive all the way into the human territory in the spring, but that wasn’t nearly as fun as taping something together and getting it to work after many, many, many failed attempts.  When you spend all summer building a shitty truck for the sake of building a shitty truck, there’s a sense of parental pride when you turn the key and get the son of a bitch to start without bursting into flames.  It’s just not the same as handing someone a sack of cash in exchange for a functional vehicle that isn’t trapped in an eternal cycle of replacement parts.

Dara runs his hand along the obviously spraypainted side of the truck’s cabin as he walks along to the passenger door, waiting for the sound of the lock to click before pulling it open and climbing into the positively enormous, cracking leather bench seat (some of the more obvious cracks had been repaired with rainbow duct tape and there was absolutely no attempt to get them to match).  The decades-old foam sinks under his weight, air hissing softly out from beneath him.

A thick, folded blanket sits in the driver’s seat, and its purpose quickly becomes apparent when Cicada climbs into the vehicle and plops himself on top of it.  Without it, he wouldn’t be able to see over the steering wheel (although it has its other uses too, of course), since this truck’s chassis was designed with taller people in mind than relatively petite elves.  

“Uh, you might wanna hold onto that door, it doesn’t always wanna stay shut, eh,” Cicada warns Dara as he buckles himself in and puts the key in the ignition.  “I thought about gettin’ some tape for it but never got around to it, and uh, that’d kinda suck for anyone tryin’ to get in, so I kinda just leave it…”

Dara looks at the interior of the truck’s door for something to grab onto, slightly jarred by the lack of an armrest.  “How do you keep the door shut when you don’t have a passenger, then?”

“By clenchin’ my ass and prayin’,” Cicada says with a smirk as he turns the key.  The truck’s engine roars to life and rumbles loudly as he moves his hand to the stick shift to put it in reverse, then to the hand control next to the steering wheel to pull back on it and set the vehicle in motion.  The air fills with crackling static as the muffled, warped sound of some alien-sounding ambient track wafts from the radio.

“Do you have a repair shop you can go to to get it fixed?” Dara asks, tightly gripping the door’s handle as it rattles against the frame.

“Oh, there’s a repair shop for sure, but you only go there when your car’s so fucked up even you can’t fix it,” Cicada says, fluidly pushing the control lever forward to brake and changing levers to shift into drive onto the road.  “Once that door comes off I’ll just tape it back on long enough for me go to the junkyard to get another, eh.”

“I see.”  Dara pauses to consider Cicada’s answer, likely realizing there’s probably nothing else that could be said about the state of the passenger door.  A short jingle plays on the radio followed by a female dwarven voice calmly reciting strings of random numbers on a backdrop of high-pitched frequency noises and static.  His ears pin back at the eerie, half-scrambled sound. “You listen to a numbers station while driving?”

“Wendigo Radio, buddy,” Cicada grins, leaning back into his seat, “Only the best damn station in the valley.”

‘Eight… Zero… Zero… Eight… Five… Six… Nine…’

Dara looks at Cicada and back at the radio, noticing how the call numbers appear to be scrambled on the digital stereo panel as the monotonous recital of numerals drones on between screeches of static.  He takes a breath and straightens his ears back up into their normal positions. “Your community doesn’t have other stations?”

Cicada shrugs nonchalantly.  “Well I mean, there’s like three different accordion stations that all got weird beef with each other, eh, and then there’s the country station which is your go-to for when you’re too depressed to do anything but get drunk an’ pass out on the couch with your face in a fast food bag, and the dwarf stations’re pretty good sometimes if you got a strong enough antenna… uh, there’s the police scanner, but that’s pretty boring ‘round here ‘til around happy hour, eh.”

“Does that happen a lot?” Dara looks at Cicada with concern, relaxing his grip on the door handle until the door pops itself open, prompting him to catch the handle and pull it shut with a surprised flash of teeth.  “I mean, uh, yeah, I think I see the appeal of the numbers station now.”

“Not as much as I used t– I mean, I can only stomach so many boohoo songs about some guy cryin’ in his beer ‘cause his wife left ‘im for a tractor or whatever.”  Cicada laughs as he makes a face and takes his hand off the wheel to make a jerking off motion. “And if you’ve heard one accordion song you’ve heard ‘em all, no idea why anyone would need three stations for that.  S’not my thing, personally, an’ I know one of ‘em’s all in Skogish so that’s definitely a station for old people, eh.”

“It’s good there’s at least one Skogish station here though,” Dara says, looking at Cicada as they pull into the closest thing Rust Lake has to a downtown, a cluster of shopfronts, a couple dispensaries, and the Moose’s Uncle diner that they drive right on past.  “It’s important to hold onto what culture you can when you have no choice but to leave everything behind.”

Cicada is quiet for a while, letting Dara’s words sink in.  Even though it seemed obvious, given the town’s history and where many of the ex-convict transports that populated the town were sourced prior to his birth, he had never learned Skogish beyond its colorful litany of swears and a handful of songs – one of his mothers barely knows any of it, having also been born here like him, and his other mother, who was a transport that did speak the language, was killed when he was little so he never got a chance to properly learn it.

“Yeah,  I guess you’re right about that.  I shouldn’ta said that,” He says. “A lotta the folks I crewed with were transports y’know, and they always talk about how they long for goin’ back, and they could now, but… s’never gonna be the same as what it was when they left.”

Dara doesn’t say anything, frowning as he looks in Cicada’s direction but gazing past him to the other side of the road.  

“I mean,” Cicada continues, glancing at Dara again, “What would you do if ya had to leave your home for who knows how many years – decades, centuries – ‘fore you could go back?  Ya can’t just walk into the place like you’ve come home from work an’ expect everythin’ to pick up where ya left off.  You might not even be able to recognize your home anymore, your house might not even be standin’ if ya had one, or someone else could be livin’ in it, eh.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence in the truck as the dwarven announcer on the radio continues reciting numbers.  Dara puts his free hand to his mouth and looks down, turning his attention away out the passenger window at the aging storefronts and colorful graffiti murals painted on the alley walls between the buildings.    

Three… Three… Zero… One… Four… Two… Zero… Six…

Cicada reaches over to pat Dara on the shoulder.  “Ah, sorry to get all political on ya there, bud. Boy, am I good at killin’ conversation, eh?  Phew. S’like fartin’ in church, eh.”

“No, you’re fine.” Dara shakes his head as if to clear his thoughts.  “I was just thinking, that’s all.”

The numbers station recording ends with a repeat of the jingle it started with, then a scratchy track of slow, dreary parlor music starts to play, the audio quality sounding like the record was left in a damp basement for the better part of a century before being unearthed to play over the radio.  

‘… You have now died and are listening to Wendigo Radio,’ a smooth, masculine voice softly announces over the dirge.  ‘Broadcasting for the free people of the greater Minnelaskwa area for over 70 years, we’re bringing you the finest in curated recordings from around the globe … Please, enjoy the music and be sure to drop us a line at our PO box if you have any requests … We are always out there listening and always watching.  Thank you for tuning in to Wendigo Radio …

The purring sound of a bong rip is heard over the radio as Dara quickly turns back to look at it in disbelief.  “This programming is very eclectic, isn’t it.”

Cicada starts to laugh.  

“It’s an independent station, donchaknow,” he says, briefly glancing at Dara to wink at him before turning his eyes back onto the road.  He’s thankful for the change of subject – discussion of transportation is always a huge downer, and talking about it with a mainland elf is invariably going to be a delicate conversation topic if he ever saw one.  “What we just heard was probably some field recordings by the guy that runs it. There’s nobody in the valley that knows who in th’ fuck he actually is, but what he doesn’t get submitted to ‘im he just goes out and records it ‘imself.”

“Really?  Not one person knows who he is?”  Dara looks back at Cicada, putting his hand back into his lap.  The truck rumbles to a stop at an intersection as their eyes follow an old RV that’s been spraypainted entirely black rolling past them, its windows too tinted to clearly see who’s driving it.  The strength of the radio signal briefly surges and becomes crystal clear for a few seconds, then goes back into crackly, static-smothered music, surely by pure coincidence.

“Sometimes he’ll just drop off the tracker for weeks at a time ‘fore he comes back with more weird shit he probably dug out of an ambient noise cave or somethin’,” Cicada says. The truck rumbles past the downtown area towards another short but empty stretch of road, save for the smallish building on the side of the road.  “An’ sometimes he changes frequencies so authorities can’t catch ‘im even though the cops here don’t give a shit and we’re too remote for the TCC to bother with.”

“So it’s a pirate radio station,” Dara says.  

“You shoulda been there when he recorded ‘imself partyin’ with the trolls,” Cicada says, looking absolutely chuffed.  “I wish more people got to know ‘em ‘round here, they’re real nice folks when ya get past the initial grumpiness.”

“Trolls?” Dara asks, dubiously lifting a brow.  “I thought they ate people.”

“Oh, I’ve been eaten by a troll and survived just fine, eh,” Cicada winks at Dara, then takes a sharp turn and steers into the parking lot.  He shows no regard for the faint lines on the pavement as he parks his truck right out in front. The building, a squat brick structure with angular glass windows and an oddly-shaped blue metal roof invoking memories of an old franchise pizza chain, proudly boasts a wooden sign on its roof featuring a cheerful cartoony elk with tire tracks across its midsection, its front hooves held out to present the name of the business:  Khurt and Murt’s Pavement Pasties and Meats. “By the way, we’re here!”

A slightly larger letterboard sign sits out front by the road with mismatched plastic letters, advertising that valley sausages are back in stock.  The truck shudders and silences as the engine is shut off, its key pulled from the ignition as Cicada rests his elbow on the back of the bench seat with a great big grin.  “Uh, just make sure to slam the door when ya get out, okay?”

“Noted,” Dara says, releasing the door as he carefully steps down out of the truck and onto the weathered asphalt.  It takes a few attempts to get the door to shut completely, clicking into a locked position after a couple bounces off the frame.  The fact that it doesn’t just fall off the hinge right then and there is nothing short of a miracle.

A bell chimes as the two men enter the restaurant, and Cicada is quickly mobbed by the waiter – a lanky, tall elven man around Cicada’s age whose light-colored hair cascades out from beneath a dirty orange toque that may as well be fused to his head.  He wears a baggy striped shirt and equally slouchy jeans, the black apron covering his front being the only indicator that he works here. Giving Cicada a big grin, the man is totally unfazed by the row of missing front teeth in his mouth. “Eyyy, Cic-o!  I was wonderin’ when you’d show up again, bud!”

“Khurtyr, eyyy!” Cicada gives the skinny man a strong hug, then pulls back and waves to the balding dwarf back in the kitchen.  The dwarven chef looks up and waves back, his smile obscured by the great bushy brown beard around his face. “Murtagh! How ya doin’, buddy?”

Murtagh doesn’t say anything, opting to give a thumbs up and a shrug while nodding.  He rarely if ever spoke for as long as Cicada’s known him, but he and Khurtyr both are good friends of his from the old logging crew before they found their calling as restaurateurs.  If Murtagh had anything to say he preferred to sign it, or let Khurt do all the talking instead.

“Good ta hear, buddy,” Cicada replies.  Murtagh nods, touching a flat hand to his chin and lowering it down in Cicada’s direction.  

“You pickin’ up somethin’ to go or sittin’ down with dinner for two?” Khurtyr asks, nodding his head towards Dara.  

Cicada puts his hands on his hips.  “Eatin’ in, buddy!”

“Not eatin’ out?” Khurtyr chuckles, winking at Cicada.  “I kid, bud. Sit wherever yous all like, I just got done wiping all the tables down in fact and I’ll be right back out with some menus, alright?”

As Khurt dashes off to the counter, Dara pulls his phone out to double check the time with furrowed brows.  “’Dinner’? It’s only noon…”

“Where d’ya wanna sit?” Cicada asks, extending his arm out towards the dining area.  The gaudy floral wallpaper is an attempt to make what was obviously an old pizza restaurant look a little more homey after Khurt and Murt transformed it into the hybrid bakery/butcher/diner it is today, complete with a framed photo of Khurtyr cheerfully holding a fish hanging on the wall next to the cash register.  The carpet is original, threadbare and patterned with triangles, circles, and weird squiggles.

The dining area’s tables are spaciously laid out and draped in white tablecloths, each one decorated with a variety of vases holding different local wildflowers, likely picked off the side of the road and the vases probably originating from rummage sales over many years.  Gauzy old curtains drape around the windows in an attempt to cover up the weird shape of them to mixed success, with the original booths still in place and earnestly reupholstered with more floral patterned fabric. The walls are lined with mounted racks of antlers from various local fauna, framed old advertisements and vegetable crate art, and a couple dusty CRT televisions strategically placed to be viewed from pretty much anywhere in the room, currently broadcasting a local sports game.  

Dara hesitantly looks over to Cicada, then looks in the direction of one of the tables by a window.  “Would one of those be okay?”

Cicada finds the way he’s asked that to be a little odd, but his chipper demeanor doesn’t change.  “Anywhere you want!”

“Very well,” Dara smiles as he looks back again at Cicada, walking ahead towards the table in the back corner in light, measured steps that hardly make a sound even in spite of the creaky floorboards beneath the carpet – the very floorboards that groan under Cicada’s feet when he follows Dara to the table.

“How d’ya do that?” Cicada asks him as he pulls out a wobbly chair to sit down at the table, knitting his fingers together.

Dara takes his seat across from Cicada, his head at a slight angle.  “Do what?”

“Get across that entire floor without makin’ a single noise,” Cicada says, leaning back into his chair and crossing his arms behind his head.  “This place creaks like a motherfucker, eh.”

“I could be a ghost.”  Dara puts his chin in his hand as he leans on his elbow, having that same cryptic smile that he did when he asked Cicada to take him out in the first place.  

Cicada snorts and blows a strand of stray hair out of his face.  “A ghost, uh? Fine by me s’long as you’re not sprayin’ blood all over the damn walls or leavin’ feathers all over the place, that shit’s hard to clean, eh.”

Dara straightens up, looking taken aback.  “What sort of ghosts have you encountered?”

“Buddy, don’t even get me fuckin’ started,” Cicada holds his hand out from the elbow, fingers splayed in emphasis.  “I almost got framed for murder ‘cause of ghost fuckery last year and m’not about to repeat that.”

“–Then I’m not a ghost,” Dara suddenly interjects, his eyes widening.  “Maybe – Maybe I am a deer.”

“Then that means I must eat you,” Cicada purrs as he slouches forward, propping his elbow up on the table and smiling lazily as he flutters his eyelashes at Dara.  “And then I mount you on my wall by the fireplace.”

“You eat deer?” Dara hooks a finger into the collar of his shirt and glances away, his cheeks flushing, yet the smile does not leave his face.  “That would be a terrible fate.”

Cicada jovially laughs as he pulls back, crossing his arms over his chest in satisfaction of getting a noticeable rise out of Dara.  “I mean, I’ll eat anything, donchaknow!”

“I-I-I’m sure you do!” Dara quickly runs a hand over his hair and puts his hands together on the table.

The sound of the floor creaking in their direction announces the return of Khurtyr, a tray of water glasses in one hand and a pair of yellowing plastic folders containing menus tucked under his arm as he strides in their direction.  

“Sorry for the wait, fellas, I had to type up the specials today and print ‘em out,” Khurtyr says as he passes the menus out and sets the glasses out on the table.  Dara looks relieved to be spared yet more flustering as he hides his face behind the menu, and Cicada can’t wipe the smug look off his face as he holds the menu open to peruse its contents.  

“Jeez, Khurt, you weren’t kiddin’,” Cicada says as he runs his fingers over the inserted page with the day’s specials, still warm from the printer and written in three languages – Dwarvish, Thalassean, and Skogish.  “Got some last-minute additions to the roster today, eh?”

“Oh, donchaknow someone brought in a big ol’ elk this mornin’,” Khurtyr says, scratching under his hat and wiping sweat off his brow.  “Poor thing looked like he ate the grill pretty hard eh, took me ‘n Murt all dang mornin’ cleanin’ the buddy up. We just got done puttin’ the last of it in the freezer ‘fore yous all came in but Murt’s thinkin’ it’ll make great booyah in a few days.”

“Jeez, can’t beat that for freshness!” Cicada licks his chops, then pats the table.  “Ey, Dara, you see anything you like yet?”

Dara looks up from the menu with wide, owlish eyes, having flipped it over to read the blurb on the back about the history of the restaurant and its contributions to the local community in the form of food donations to local families in need.  “Do you truly serve roadkill at this establishment?”

Cicada holds his breath, and Khurtyr attempts to keep his composure at the sudden question and the smotheringly formal way it was asked.  

“We sure do, sir!” Khurtyr says without skipping a beat, proudly putting a hand on his hip.  “Me an’ Murt have been at this for thirty years bringin’ the people of the Minnelaskwa area a good hearty meal and keepin’ our roads clean at the same time.”

For a few tense moments, time slows down as they wait for Dara to react.  Dara looks up at Khurtyr with eyes full of wonder, still holding the menu in both hands.  

“That’s so resourceful!” He blurts out, apparently unaware of the enthusiastic volume of his voice.  “You guys are truly pioneers of ethical food!”

Cicada damn near falls out of his chair and Khurtyr briefly staggers in disbelief as he claps a hand to the side of his head, and he spots Murtagh peeking around the corner of the kitchen, equally bewildered by the mainlander’s joyous declaration.  

“Sorry, we don’t really have anything like this in Thalassea…” Dara quickly shrinks back into himself in self-consciousness, smiling timidly. “Do you have any recommendations?”

“Well, the speedbump burger’s real popular,” Khurtyr says, reaching behind his ear to grab a pencil.  “Then of course we got the famous homemade hotdish on the curb, deep-fried battered deer oysters on a stick, the salad’s kind of an acquired taste if you’re not from around here– Oh!  I just baked up some pothole pot pies this morning, nice and fresh!”

“You should try the salad,” Cicada urges Dara with a devious smirk.  

Dara shoots him a skeptical look, then back at Khurtyr.  “What’s different about the salad?”

“Well, our salads are, uh, peas, carrots, corn, spinach, bananas, and cured fish,” Khurtyr begins, smiling nervously.  “Suspended in aspic.”

Cicada can almost see Dara’s soul ascending from his physical body at the mention of the word ‘aspic’, and his shoulders start shaking with laughter.  Dara’s lips twitch, most certainly an attempt to formulate a response that doesn’t sound too revolted or condescending or otherwise impolite.

Of all the things to put a crack in Dara’s mask, it took aspic.  Not the prospect of eating roadkill, not Cicada’s dubiously street legal truck, not even Cicada himself – but aspic.  There are just some culinary crimes that cannot be abided by across cultures, that for some reason, is still unironically enjoyed as a dish (because otherwise, why would it even be offered on the menu?).

“Some people think it’s good,” Khurtyr says in an attempt to ease the shock, trying his hardest not to grimace.  “And they are valued customers who are entitled to their opinion.”

“It’s more that they saw it in a human recipe book and thought that shit was exotic,” Cicada points out.  “But not even humans eat that shit anymore. They learned from their mistakes sooner’n we did, and we live way longer’n those guys!”

“I’ll pass on the salad,” Dara quickly says, still looking shellshocked. “The pothole pie sounds good, and I’d like to get that with a side of mushroom soup, please.”

“Eh, I’ll get a speedbump,” Cicada says.  “Lotsa fries and drowning in ketchup, eh!”

“You fellas got it,” Khurtyr says as he scribbles the order down in his notebook.  “We’ll have those bad boys right out for ya in a few. Y’want anything to drink?”

Dara folds up the menu and hands it back to him.  “Tea would be nice.”

“Gimme that well pop,” Cicada says, confidently putting his elbow on the back of his chair and leaning it back on two legs.

Khurtyr picks up the menu from in front of Cicada, straightening up and putting one arm behind his back like a waiter at a more high-class establishment.  “I regret to inform you there’s no such thing as ‘well pop’, sir.”

“Whaddya mean ‘there’s no such thing as well pop’, buddy?”  Cicada mockingly punches his palm at the absurd notion of being denied the ability to consume trash.  The audacity! “Then whaddya call that congealed syrupy shit at the bottom of the pop fountain, eh?”

“If you want to lick the drain catch of the pop fountain you can come by and do that after we close, alright?”  Khurtyr tucks the menus back under his arm, laughing. “And while you’re at it you can empty the grease trap, too!”

“Buddy, I empty the grease trap every night,” Cicada purrs as he lurches his chair forward, returning it to its normal all-fours position.  “Sometimes even three times a night, eh.”

“Ey, sure.  I’m gonna go back and help Murt out with youguyses’ orders.”  Khurtyr playfully rolls his eyes at Cicada, then leans over to Dara to stage-whisper to him on his way back to the kitchen.  “Buddy, don’t get your hopes up with ‘im, he’s a one-hit quitter, eh!”

“Ey, I heard that!”  Cicada withers in his seat with folded arms.

Dara laughs behind his hand.  “A grease trap, huh?”

Cicada immediately gets over his bruised ego and rests his arm on the back of the chair, perking up with a wide, toothy grin.  “For sure!”

“That sounds very appetizing,” Dara nonchalantly says as he takes a sip from his glass.  

Khurtyr briefly returns to leave a stoneware teapot and cup on the table for Dara, rushing back to the kitchen as soon as he’s thanked with a murmured ‘you bet.’  

Cicada awkwardly puts his chin in his hand as he glances out the window, scratching his short beard.  He’s never been one for going on dates, if this could be called one, preferring anonymous encounters or paid work to get his kicks if he’s not just going it alone.  This is what it is, isn’t it?


He suddenly finds himself relating to all those guys he’s fucked in the past who’d then bore him to death talking about fishing or something because they probably couldn’t find something else to talk about and they probably felt, like him, that they probably had no common ground with their sexual partner when it came down to it.  Does Dara like shitty movies? Does he like bugs? Has he ever eaten a bug? Would he shove fistfuls of bugs in his mouth if presented the opportunity? He seemed pretty unfazed about the roadkill thing, something Cicada thought for sure an out-of-towner would be at least a little skeeved out by.

“You’re not going to ask me if I wanted to help clean it out?” Dara smirks, casually pouring himself a cup of tea as a thick plume of steam rises from its surface.  

“I–” Cicada gets snapped away from his nervous thoughts and narrows his eyes suspiciously, feeling the heat climbing up from his neck all the way to the tips of his ears.  Dara notices this, the wry smile not leaving his face.

“I didn’t think you’d be so easily wound up,” Dara continues, bringing the teacup to his lips and crossing one leg over the other.  He shuts his eyes, parting one open just enough to watch Cicada squirm.

“M’not,” Cicada grumbles half-heartedly as he curls his fingers against his lips.  

“Mm-hm.  Sure,” Dara teases as he sips his tea.

“S’was just thinkin’ of conversation topics, eh,” he says lamely.  He’s not lying, but it sounds so bad when he outright admits it like that.  

Dara flicks one of his ears.  “Like what?”

“Like, uh…” Cicada feels like he’s at a job interview for a position he’s outrageously unqualified for.  “Y’ever gone campin’?”

“The kind with pitching a tent, right?” Dara asks without skipping a beat.  

“Fuck you,” Cicada growls, blushing.  “I mean, yeah.”

Dara snickers.  “I’ve thought about it before,” he says.  “I’ve never really gotten a chance to yet.”

“Well, I mean, if y’ever wanna go for it while you’re in the area, the weather’s prime right now, eh,” Cicada says, pointing a thumb over his shoulder.  “Lotsa good places ‘round here to do it.”

“Hm!” Dara definitely appears to be interested, his ears up and alert as he looks at Cicada.  “It seems like the kind of thing to do with another person than by one’s self, don’t you think?”

“I mean, yeah,” Cicada grunts.  He’s absolutely cornered with no way out of this and Dara probably knows it.

Dara leans forward, setting the teacup down and reaching across the table, gently resting his hand within easy reach in the middle.  “I mean you.”

Cicada looks at Dara’s hand like he had just put a snake on the table and he’s not sure why he feels so startled by the proposition.  Dara’s intentions seems sincere, but Cicada’s thoughts are clouded by wondering just what he could possibly see in someone who’s barely a step above a wild animal in his own mind.  

“S-Sorry.”  Dara quickly withdraws his hand, noticing Cicada’s discomfort as his ears pull back apologetically.  “I didn’t mean to be so forward.”

“No,” Cicada says reassuringly as he reaches his hand out where Dara’s once was.  “You’re fine. No need t’apologize for somethin’ like that, eh.”

“Is it because you’re already mated?” Dara asks, frowning with concern.  “I’m so sorry, I should have asked that earlier!”

“Oh jeez,” Cicada groans as he puts his face in his other hand.  “Mother’s tail, no! I can’t think of a single person that’d wanna– I mean–”

“I’m surprised,” Dara says softly, lowering his gaze.  

Cicada finds himself wanting to ask, ‘Are you really?’ but decides it’s better to keep his mouth shut and not say anything at all.  He sighs loudly and folds his arms over his chest, staring out the window and trying to convince himself he’s not just some freakishly tall goblin that happened to be raised by elves.

The floorboards creak once more as Khurtyr strides towards their table, his arms full of trays carrying their respective meals.  Cicada looks grateful for the interruption because he really didn’t want to have Dara to suss his shitty thoughts out of him and make him spill his stupid feelings and insecurities out in public at the roadkill restaurant to someone he only just met.

It’s probably more that he just hadn’t eaten recently and his mood will improve after some proper nourishment.  He uncovers his face and sits upright as the plastic trays are set down in front of them, thanking Khurtyr and waiting for Dara to start eating because he sure doesn’t want to continue the conversation the way it’s going right now.  

Apparently he’d been too stuck inside his head because he hadn’t even noticed that Dara had already started on his soup, likely wondering why Cicada’s just staring vacantly at him right now.

“This is really good,” Dara says, offering a spoonful of his soup to Cicada.  “Would you like to try some?”

The offering of food puts Cicada in a different headspace now, one of an animal being coaxed with food to earn his trust, like a strange and skittish horse at the fence.  He leans over and accepts the spoon into his mouth, closing his eyes and fantasizing about gentle head pats and soothing words. The tinkly piano music and dramatic movie trailer voiceover could practically be heard over them, talking of how a young, beautiful man inherits a farm or something and manages to befriend the filthy, mangy fox that happened to be living in the trash can out back, in a once-in-a-lifetime adventure moviegoers won’t soon forget.

“Damn,” Cicada says as he pulls away.  “Murt’s gotten really good at his soup game lately.”

Dara seems pleased at Cicada’s reaction, smiling tenderly as he withdraws the spoon and plunges it into the crust of the pot pie.  His gentleness makes Cicada feel a bit like a dumb baby kit, placated by gifts of food handfed right into his dumb baby face.

“Uh…” Cicada picks up his burger, half of it wrapped in paper, holding it out to Dara.  “You want the first bite of this?”

“You’re not hungry?” Dara asks, an ear swinging forward as he hesitantly reaches for it.  He probably thinks it’s one of those weird Minnelaskwan hospitality things again.

“Go on, try it,” Cicada urges him on with a wave of his hand and a playful grin.  “I bet they don’t make burgers like this in Thalassea, eh.”

Dara looks at him with suspicion as he takes the burger in both hands and primes himself to bite into it – carefully, mind you, he didn’t want to take too much off.  Immediately his eyes widen in confusion and pulls the burger away, trailing a long string of gooey yellow cheese oozing from the center of the patty. He utters something in an unfamiliar language as he breaks the cheese string and puts it up in his mouth.

“I’m stealing this,” he declares.  

“Th’ hell you are, buddy!” Cicada leans over the table, holding out his palm to Dara.  “Give it here!”

“No way,” Dara grins as he holds the gooey sandwich out of Cicada’s grasp.  “You can have my pie.”

“Buddy!” Cicada gets up and lunges forward at Dara, who stands up and casually twirls past him to effortlessly plant himself where Cicada was just sitting, primly crossing a leg over his knee.  He sits down in Dara’s seat with an exasperated huff, tugging the chair forward and leaning back in it. “Alright, jeez.”

Without a word, Dara offers the burger back to Cicada.  Cicada hesitantly reaches out to take it back, watching Dara affirmatively nod at him as the food is surrendered to its rightful owner.

Cicada eyes him warily, ignoring the vulpine part of his brain that tells him to trot off with the burger in his mouth to retreat into a hidey-hole, bury it for later, and then piss all over it to make sure everyone knows it’s his.  “Uh, thanks.”

He turns to the side and starts to eat, if only to satisfy those stupid vestigial instincts that told him there was less of a chance of his food getting stolen if he faced away.

Dara covers his mouth as he chuckles.  “I hope you realize how adorable you’re being right now.”

Cicada gives him a baleful, high-pitched growl before going back to eating, tugging at the cheese strings with his jaws like he would hypothetically do to disembowel prey.  “So, like,” he begins, still chewing. “What do you do for the census?”

Dara reaches across the table to retrieve his pot pie, setting the basket of fries in front of Cicada.  “It depends on what my boss wants,” he says rather neutrally, picking up his spoon. “Sometimes I’m compiling data, sometimes I go out somewhere and go door-to-door asking questions and then enter the answers people give me into a database when I get back.”  

“Huh.”  Cicada turns back around to face him, shoving the last of the burger into his mouth.  “You’d think they’d send someone local to do the information gatherin’, eh.”

“In most places they do,” Dara says.  “First they mail out forms for people to fill out and return.  Those that don’t then get visited, but some communities – like yours – are too remote for the Thalassean mail system to reach without bloating up postage costs due to international shipping and it’s cheaper to just send an enumerator out like me.”

“Did they only send you here?” Cicada asks.

Dara nods.  “For now. Once I get a better idea of the amount of people here I can hire locals to assist me in collecting data.”

“Well, hell,” Cicada says.  “I got nothin’ to do ‘til the first snow, count me in on that.  Don’t even hafta pay me, just buy me snacks or somethin’, eh.”

Dara laughs.  “Really? You’d do that?”

“Most people here already know me,” Cicada shrugs.  “So most of ‘em probably won’t tell me to fuck off while answerin’ their door with a gun.”

“That’s reassuring,” Dara says while looking decidedly not reassured.  “I can’t really blame the people here for not having a lot of love for mainlanders, honestly.”

“Oh, for sure,” Cicada says, sopping up ketchup with his fries.  “I mean, you might wanna recruit at least one person that speaks Skogish, though.  I only know like a few things in it.”

“I took a few years of Skogish at university,” Dara says.  “It was part of the exchange program I was in.”

“No shit,” Cicada says, genuinely surprised the language of the forest elves would be taught in any capacity at a Thalassean university.  “Say somethin’ in Skogish for me!”

“Alright, well,” Dara clears his throat and switches languages.  “I am Dara Majaan from the lake country, I am seventy-six years old, the weather today is sunny and clear.  Are you well today?

“I only understood ‘bout halfa that,” Cicada says, smiling dumbly, then switches to about the only Skogish he knows with a big wide grin: “I have a devil pussy.

Tell me about the devil pussy,” Dara says, trying not to laugh.

Devil pussy is big,” Cicada says, sticking his tongue through the gap where his missing tooth is.  “You can do a suck on it.

Dara casually puts two fingers on the corners of his mouth, purposefully looking at Cicada.  “I would not mind to suck on your devil pussy.”

Cicada’s face and ears turn red as he looks away, bashfully hiding his face behind flannel sleeves.  “Oh jeez,” he says rather plaintively, starting to get up to his feet. “I, uh, I’m gonna go to the bathroom.”

“Oh,” Dara says, inclining his head and lowering his voice.  “Can I join you?

Dick,” Cicada spits.  “Yes.”

Dara follows Cicada into the single occupancy bathroom at the back of the restaurant, clicking the lock behind them and taking in a deep, nervous breath.  “I hope I wasn’t–”

“You’re fine,” Cicada says, fumbling with the zipper on his jeans and pulling his pants down, putting his back to a urinal.  “You’re quicker on the uptake than some folks ‘round here, I’ll give ya that.”

“I, um.”  Dara swallows as he lowers to his knees before Cicada, helping push his jeans further out of the way.  “I saw the flag in your house. And the stuff on your truck. And, um.”

He draws lines across his chest with his finger, indicating top surgery scars.  “Those.”

“Yeah, s’not exactly somethin’ I keep a secret for sure,” Cicada says, hooking his thumbs in the waistband of his underwear.  Most people were oblivious to the meaning of the pride flags, or they just didn’t care.

“Then the ‘devil pussy’ thing came up and the way you reacted when I went along with it pretty much confirmed my initial impressions,” Dara says as he runs his hands to the top of Cicada’s waistband, pulling them down inch by inch.

“Uh-huh,” Cicada says, sounding detached as he stares away from the mirror.  He can feel his heart racing as his waistband goes further and further down.

“Are you okay with this?” Dara asks, hesitating as he seems to be picking up on his discomfort.  “I can stop if you’re not.”

“S’fine.”  Cicada makes a vague gurgling noise.  “M’just used to bein’ on the other end of the equation, is all.”

“If you want to stop, just say something weird, like ‘aspic,’” Dara says calmly.  Cicada only nods, not even looking down. He’s not used to other men taking an immediate interest in his ‘devil pussy’, and there were days where he preferred that he didn’t have it in lieu of something else, and today is one of those days where he’s on the fence about his true feelings about his junk.  

Like Dara said, if he hates it he can just say ‘aspic’ and he can pull his pants back up and do something he’s more comfortable with, like getting on his knees for Dara instead.  

Dara swears in the unfamiliar language when he drags Cicada’s underwear down over his thighs and comes face-to-face with his engorged clitoris, his face turning a full shade darker.  “How long have you been on the potions to get it like this?! Mine’s–”

Cicada suddenly looks at him, very interested in the slip that Dara just caught himself with.  “Your what now?”

Dara takes a long time to answer, frozen in place for a few seconds.

“My– You know,” He says as he looks away, his ears pinned back as sweat beads on his temples.  “It’s small,” he says ashamedly.

Cicada’s eyes search the crotch area of Dara’s pants, noticing a conspicuous lack of tent or bulge and making an understanding noise.  So it turns out they had more common ground than he had initially realized, from the looks of it. If Dara had a dick, there’s no way it wouldn’t be visible in some way right now.  “I see,” he says, reaching down to affectionately stroke Dara’s soft, black hair. “So that’s why you took an interest in me, uh?”

“Some of it, yes.”  Dara leans into Cicada’s hand, closing his eyes.  “That’s not weird, is it?”

“Iunno,” Cicada says, shrugging.  “Is feeling inspired to give someone head in a bathroom after swearin’ at each other in another language weird?”

“Point,” Dara says, smiling nervously as he looks back at Cicada’s decently-sized clit with a mixture of admiration and awe.  

“S’not gonna bitecha,” Cicada says reassuringly as he opens his legs more and reaches down to pull the hood back with a finger.  “This your first time suckin’ dick in a bathroom?”

“It is,” Dara says, getting spit on his finger and stroking it onto Cicada’s tiny dick head – on some days he felt it looked close enough to a dick that he felt comfortable calling it that – then slides his fingers between Cicada’s slick cleft and pushes them upwards against his entrance.  “I’m no stranger to this anatomical configuration, though.”

“No kiddin’,” Cicada gasps as he involuntarily clenches against Dara’s fingers.  Even his nails are the perfect length for this kind of thing, which really shouldn’t be a surprise to Cicada.  He grabs onto the urinal for support as Dara moves in to kiss him right on the little dick, dragging his tongue along the bottom of it and pulling it into his mouth.  “Fuck.”

Dara’s silver tongue didn’t only just apply to his words, apparently, and Cicada being plenty worked up beforehand certainly made it a lot easier for Dara to navigate the finer parts of his anatomy.  He hooks his fingers along Cicada’s inner walls, pressing hard against his G-spot and opening one eye just to watch him short the fuck out at the sensation.

Cicada’s legs wobble as he curls his fingers into Dara’s hair and presses his hips up against his face, prompting Dara to suck him like he’s trying to get a marble through a plastic straw.  “Aw, jeez– Buddy–”

It’s embarrassing how little it takes for him to feel like he’s getting close, and he can feel the pressure building in his head as his knees buckle against the tile floor.  Dara continues to finger him, massaging him hard from the inside while lapping up and lightly pressing his clit against his mouth, his bracelets rhythmically rattling as he works Cicada to a fast, messy orgasm.  The dizzying rush that ensues feels like a really solid bong hit, putting his mind in the air as he imagines his spirit rising from his body and looking down at himself from the ceiling before getting pulled back into his mortal shell.

Dara withdraws from between his legs, licking his lips and wiping a string of musky cum from his chin, then licks that off his fingers.  Cicada can feel more running down his thigh, his chest heaving as he attempts to regain his breath. The bathroom positively reeks of the heady smell of fox rut now thanks to their shenanigans.

“I thought you’d be louder than that,” Dara teases him as he gently strokes Cicada’s twitching little cock, still so sensitive after the treatment it got.  “I must be out of practice.”

“Buddy,” Cicada pants, slumping against the urinal.  He holds up his finger like he wants to say something, but he can’t even think of a snappy comeback right now.  He can barely even remember his own damn name at the moment, let alone construct coherent sentences. “You can practice on me anytime y’like, for sure.”

Dara gets to his feet and dusts himself off, leaning over to Cicada and getting close to his face.  “I’d love to,” he says, cupping his hand between Cicada’s legs as he presses his lips to Cicada’s mouth, something Cicada is all too eager to receive.  “And I’d like to see more than just your grease trap next time.”

“Hmph.”  Cicada snorts as he smiles at Dara, bowing his head down in submission to him.  “You’ll see that’n more for sure if you chance to stick around, eh.”

Dara plants a kiss on Cicada’s forehead as he withdraws his hand, wiggling his finger against his little dick.  “In the meantime, though, we should probably get cleaned up and head out.”

“Head out?” Cicada repeats, frowning.  “Buddy, don’t think I’m gonna let you absolutely fuckin’ wreck me without gettin’ anything back for that, eh!”

“I’d love to now, but I’ll need to take a rain check for that,” Dara says, sounding apologetic.  “I really should find out who actually heads up the town so I can get some addresses and people to visit and do what I actually came into town to do.”

“Oh,” Cicada says.  Right, he almost forgot about the bullshit that lead Dara to his doorstep to begin with, and the dumb charade of pretending to be an important figure that was so paper thin that he probably should have been figured out from the start.  “You knew I wasn’t a leader guy?”

Dara chuckles.  “Of course, you goofball,” he says affectionately.  “I figured that out when I pulled up to a guy’s house instead of an office and he answered the door in his underwear in the middle of a dashcam video binge.”

Cicada stares at him incredulously, smirking a bit.  “Then why’d you stick around, eh?”

“You were cute.”  Dara shrugs, “I thought I’d go along with it and see what would happen.”

“Huh,” Cicada says, crossing his arms.  “That’s funny, eh. I thought you were cute too, but really lost, so I thought I’d go along with it and flex my bullshittin’ skills, eh.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m still pretty lost,” Dara laughs, “But I found you, at least, so that’s something.”

Cicada finds himself blushing again as he averts his gaze toward the ceiling.  “Aw, jeez!”

“You are so adorable,” Dara coos as he smooches Cicada’s freckled cheek.  “And I just want to walk around wearing your scent all day.”

“Aw come on,” Cicada says, his blush remaining on his face.  Being told that one wants to wear your scent is a huge romantic compliment, and it can communicate some concepts better than words can, more readily.  “You’re just layin’ it on real thick now, buddy.”

By default, an elf’s scent has been compared to that of violets, and thus fairly inoffensive for the most part.  But a randy elf, much like their vulpine ancestors, smells a heck of a lot like weed. It’s no shock so many of them have such an affinity for the plant, and saying that you or someone else lit a joint in the bathroom is a convenient way to socially cover up the smell of a good fuck if you don’t carry any neutralizing sprays on you.

“I can’t help it,” Dara says, putting his face behind Cicada’s ear and breathing in.  “You have an incredible smell. I want to roll in it.”

“Okay, okay,” Cicada says, shifting his weight and finding himself stuck in the urinal.  “Can you help me get down outta this thing so I can get my pants back on? Unless, y’know, you wanna help wash me down while I’m here…”

Cicada winks at him, patting the side of the urinal.  Hey, if he’s serious about that ‘wearing your scent’ thing, it’s worth a shot.  At least Dara now knows the feeling is mutual, however crassly worded Cicada put it.

Dara curls a finger under Cicada’s chin and lifts his head up, holding his other hand out for Cicada to grab for leverage.  “Would that I could were there a more discreet way to go about that.”

Cicada takes Dara’s hand and hoists himself up, getting to his feet and starting to pull up his pants.  “Eh, fair ‘nuff. Maybe later, uh?”

Dara gently reaches over to straighten up Cicada’s shirt, flashing a smirk at him.  “You would like that, wouldn’t you?”

Cicada looks up, then down, having only now registered that Dara is actually shorter than him now that they’re standing close together.  Huh. He thought for sure the other man was way taller, but he’s just the right height to kiss on the forehead. “If y’ever feel inclined that way, buddy.”

The two of them wash up (and Cicada had the foresight to bring some spray with him so the bathroom wouldn’t smell like a musk bomb when they left) and leave a big tip when they exit the restaurant, getting back into Cicada’s truck.  He starts the ignition, the truck roaring to life as the radio now plays some cheerful cowboy yodeling.

As Cicada focuses on reversing the truck and steering it out of the parking lot to set course for the Chairman’s Lodge, he’s quiet for a few moments.  

“Y’know,” he starts, glancing over at Dara.  “I woulda never guessed you were on the potions, eh.”

“I thought it was pretty obvious.”  Dara’s expression considerably lightens, but he still looks a bit bashful.  “I should have said something sooner.”

“You’re an elf,” Cicada says.  “You can be born with a dick and still be the prettiest asshole on the planet wearin’ killer eyeliner and no one’ll bat an eye just ‘cause you’re an elf and you’re expected to be pretty no matter what you got in your pants.  Or you can be born with a cunt and look like a junkyard dog if ya choose to. People’ll think that’s weird, but it is what ya make it, eh.”

“But look at you,” Dara says, putting a hand to his chest.  “Your hair’s so thick it could host a metropolis of fleas. I’ve barely got anything on my body.”

“Give it time,” Cicada assures him.  “How long you been on ‘em?”

Dara looks down to silently count on his fingers.  “Just about two or three years, I think.”

Cicada snorts.  “You’re just gettin’ started, then!  Couple more years’n you’ll be bristlin’, for sure.”

“How long have you been on yours?” Dara asks.  Cicada tilts his head back to think.

“Uhh… ‘Bout ten years, I think?  Maybe more? I lost count after a while, eh,” he says.  “It was right around when we first started gettin’ internet in the valley so I ordered an herb kit online and a crappy li’l junior alchemy set and a lot of trial n’ error, lemme tell ya.”

“I-I guess you wouldn’t have access to a doctor to help you with that sort of thing, would you,” Dara says.  Cicada laughs.

“’Fraid not,” he says.  “We had a cleric at the lodge for any basic medical stuff but they didn’t really know the first thing about gender stuff, or they didn’t care.”

“I’m really sorry,” Dara says, frowning.  Cicada takes a sharp turn on a road going up a hill, where the old Chairman’s Lodge sits.  The lodge is draped with a plastic banner boasting about being under new management, with free and open voter registration during regular business hours.

“Don’t be.”  Cicada shrugs.  “You got nothin’ to apologize for, you weren’t involved in the decisions that made the town what it is or was or what we got access to.  All I wished was that I’d known about it sooner, woulda saved me’n mine a whole lotta grief, for sure.”

“It’s not much of a consolation,” Dara says, looking out the window, “But it isn’t that much better on the mainland, either.”  

“Huh,” Cicada says.  He thought for sure the mainland would have better access to care and information than here.  “Do they censor it up there?”

“No, nothing is censored about it.”  Dara shakes his head. “It’s just not very talked about, I’m not sure why.  I’d only known about it from going online, myself. It was…” He pauses, blinking away tears with a wistful smile.  “Elucidating.”

Cicada draws in a deep breath, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.  Memories of long, tearful, and drunken nights spent surfing scattered online forums and personal websites come to the fore of his mind, of people just like him talking about their experiences and discussing the alchemical formulas needed to change their bodies to make them feel more congruent with what’s inside.  It made him feel so much less like an aberration knowing there were others out there dealing with the same shit, the shit he never felt like he could talk to anyone about except for on those sites. It’s a very suffocating kind of loneliness that bled into every aspect of his life, and he had no doubts Dara went through a similar hell before coming to his own conclusion of self-actualization.  

“Tell me all about it, bud.”

He pulls into the parking lot of the lodge, driving up to the front door and holding the brake pedal with his left foot as he reaches over to comfortingly put his hand on Dara’s shoulder.  “We’re here. You need a few minutes?”

“I’m fine,” Dara says, exhaling through his nose as he rubs his eyes.  “Your town leader’s Miss Omdahl, right?”

“Yah, Lyyli Omdahl,” Cicada nods.  “She’s nice. Kinda weird, but I think that’s ‘cause the last guy overworked her so much ‘fore she took over, eh.  But she’ll be able to get ya what ya need, or connect you to someone who can.”

“That’s good to know,” Dara says.  “Shall I contact you to pick me up when I’m done, then?”

“You betcha,” Cicada says, reaching across Dara’s lap to get a notepad and pen out of the glove box to write down his number.  He could have just as easily entered it into Dara’s phone himself, but he felt the pen and paper approach had a bit more of a personal touch as he rips out the page and hands it over to him.  

Dara accepts the number and takes the pen and paper from Cicada to write down his own, handing them back with a nod.  Cicada glances at it – of course Dara’s number would be an international number, the communication infrastructure in Rust Lake and its surrounding areas was put in by the dwarves and thus the phone numbers were in line with dwarven regulations, not Thalassean.  

“Uh, do I gotta put in a one in front or somethin’ ‘fore I call ya?” Cicada asks, pointing at the foreign number.  

“Oh,” Dara says.  “I should have known to pick up a burner phone with a local number at the gas station earlier.  Will texting be okay?”

Cicada shrugs.  “Sure.”

“Great!”  Dara leans over to give Cicada a kiss.  “I’ll let you know as soon as I’m out, then.”

“For sure,” Cicada says, smiling fondly as he returns the kiss.  “Lemme know how it goes, eh.”

“Certainly.” Dara pops the truck door open and looks over his shoulder as he waves goodbye.  After giving the truck door a hard slam shut, he walks up to the double doors of the lodge, turns around to wave again, and disappears into the building.  

It wouldn’t be until a time where it normally gets dark in other parts of the world when Cicada’s phone pings him with a text from Dara letting him know it’s time to come get him, and he makes the journey out to the lodge.  Dara waits outside under a light, clutching an enormous binder to his chest as he runs up to the truck. Cicada reaches over and pops open the door – really, opening it was more like a nudge considering how flimsy the lock is – so Dara can climb in, tossing the binder onto the seat first so his arms are free to balance himself as he pulls himself up into the truck.  

“Sorry it took me so long to get back to you,” Dara says, pulling his seatbelt over himself and reaching for the door so he can hold it shut.  “Mayor Omdahl had a lot to say and a lot to print out for me.”

“Jeez, no kiddin’,” Cicada says, looking at the binder sitting between them, all but bursting to the seams with paper.  “Looks like you got your work all cut out for ya, eh.”

“Well… in a way, yes,” Dara says.  “The legal status of this town is… well, messy, let’s put it at that–”

“Oh for sure, that’s an understatement,” Cicada says, steering the truck out onto the road to take them back down the hill.  

“–But what I didn’t realize was that you guys already had census data on file, taken by the government of Feromont,” Dara continues.  “Recent data, too!”

“Oh yeah, the dwarves,” Cicada says.  “They come around every few years, eh.  You’re the first elf I’ve seen doin’ it.”

“Yeah, that’s the thing,” Dara says.  “Legally, you guys are on dwarf land. When Thalassea set up the penal colony here centuries ago, they were leasing the land from Feromont.  That’s where things get kinda sticky when it comes to citizenship and how the laws are handled here.”

“No kiddin’,” Cicada says.  He doesn’t feel even remotely smart enough to think about what that’s going to mean if he ever gets the inclination to go get a passport, or even if that sham trial he was tangled up in last year was even more bullshit than it already was.

“But the point is!”  Dara excitedly holds up a finger.  “Mayor Omdahl gave me a copy of the most recent census data from Feromont and all I’ll have to do is enter it into the Thalassean system!”

Cicada reaches over to briefly flip open the binder and glance at a couple pages while at a stop sign, noticing the thing is stuffed to the brim with printouts of spreadsheets.  He sees lots and lots of spreadsheets, each little line containing demographic information for every person residing in the incorporated township of Rust Lake. “Not t’ ruin your day, but this all looks like shit that coulda been put on a thumb drive, eh.”

All the color drains from Dara’s face, and in that moment, Cicada can practically smell his enthusiasm for the project evaporating on the spot as he slumps into the seat of the truck.  He could have saved so much time. And so much paper.  And not have had to sit for hours getting infodumped on the legal grey area this town occupied (which, okay, that actually was kind of interesting) while waiting for the printer to produce each and every sheet in that binder.  

“It’s okay,” Dara says, mostly to himself as he puts a hand on the binder and drums his fingers against it.  “I’ll just– I’ll just drive back up there first thing in the morning, with a flash drive, and then I can just copy that data over and not make my RSI even worse than it already is manually entering all those pages…”

Cicada can hear Dara doing breathing exercises and whispering mantras to himself under his tongue from the other side of the truck.  

“Don’t worry about it right now, buddy.”  He pats Dara’s hand, running his fingers over it to give it a squeeze before returning it to the control lever of the truck.  “It sounds like you need a break from that stuff today anyways.”

Dara takes in one last long breath, holds it, and exhales slowly as he recomposes himself.  “You’re right. There’s nothing else I can do about it today.”

Cicada chuckles as he turns down a side road.  “Y’know,” he begins, looking at Dara with a smirk.  “I thought you mainland guys would be a little more savvy with tech.”

“I’m usually more on top of things,” Dara says defensively, sounding melodramatically wounded.  “Besides, I was distracted.

“Distracted, eh,” Cicada purrs, arching a brow.  A neon pink cowboy hat erected on a tall sign comes into view on the horizon.  “I can’t imagine why.”

“You kept sending me those pictures,” Dara huffs, crossing his arms.  

Cicada quickly jerks on the steering wheel, grinning like a jackass as he pulls into the fast food restaurant bearing the neon hat sign.  His truck is ushered into the drive-thru lane by a faded and cracking animatronic statue of a rat in a hot pink cowboy hat waving at them from the store’s entrance.  “Listen, buddy, I thought it was important that you saw that eight-legged cow!”

Dara wails.  “It was disgusting!”

“C’mon, it was cool,” Cicada says, feigning disappointment.  “What about the cyclops goat?”

“Horrible!”  Dara flails his arms in front of him, scrunching up his face.  “By the way, where are we going?”

“I’m buyin’ a little lunch,” Cicada says as he drives up to the menu board and turns the crank in the truck’s door to roll down the window.  “I kinda figured you’d be starvin’ with as long as you were up at the lodge, eh.”

Dara sighs as his stomach makes a very loud and unflattering noise, as if on cue.  “I suppose you’d be right.”

A crackly voice comes out of the speaker.  “–khrrt– Welcome to Scarby’s, we’ll take your order whenever you’re ready! –khrrt–”

“Great!  Can I get a twelve-sack and uhhh, surprise me on the drink, uhh,” Cicada leans over to Dara.  “You want anythin’, bud?”

Dara quickly shakes his head.  “I-I dunno. I can’t really see the menu from here.”  

“Alright,” Cicada says, leaning back towards the window.  “Two large fries and a ratshake–” He leans back towards Dara.  “What flavor d’ya want on the ratshake?”

“The whatshake?”  Dara looks bewildered.  “Uh, does it come in strawberry?”

“Strawberry ratshake,” Cicada tells the speaker.  “That’ll be it, thanks!”

“–khrrt– You got it!  I’ll have your total for you at the window. –khrrt–”

After getting a sizable quarry of food to bring home in Dara’s lap, Cicada pulls up to the cabin and into the driveway, parking the truck and shutting it off.  He looks over at Dara, holding the paper bag that’s nearly as tall as his torso, noticing how it seems to have not been touched.

“Don’t like eatin’ in the car, eh?”

“Huh?”  Dara gives Cicada a look of utter perplexion.  “No, I just– I didn’t want to get crumbs in your truck.”

Cicada slowly blinks at him, then wordlessly looks around the interior of the truck at all the accumulated crumbs, dirt, receipts from the gas station and fast food places, condom wrappers, and paper straw sleeves that have been strewn about the seats and dashboard over the years with an amused, toothy grin.  He could say something or start laughing, but he doesn’t want to make Dara feel hurt for doing something any decent person would do. His intentions are as sincere as ever, even if his desire to keep crumbs out of Cicada’s truck is like holding an umbrella over the ocean when it’s raining.

Dara’s eyes follow Cicada’s, noticing even in the dim light from the porch lamp how utterly unpristine the truck cabin is.  His ears twitch and start tugging back in embarrassment, and he looks like he’s about to apologize until Cicada reaches across to rest his hand on his shoulder.

“S’no need to feel bad for bein’ decent, eh,” Cicada says with warmth in his voice, patting Dara for emphasis.  “Even if the truck’s a landfill on wheels.”

Dara sheepishly rubs the back of his neck.  “I guess that was kind of silly of me, huh?”

“A little.” Cicada smirks as he leans over to give Dara a kiss on the cheek. “Now c’mon, let’s go inside and eat some garbage food, eh?”

“Right!”  Dara reaches down to pick up his binder, quickly realizing he can’t carry both that and the food.  Cicada scoops it up in his arms, surprised at how fucking heavy the thing is and finding himself wondering just how much toner the mayor had burned away as she was printing this all out for Dara’s sake.  

“This’ll make a pretty decent doorstop, for sure,” Cicada says as he hefts the binder against his chest as he waits for Dara to get out to lock up the truck.  “Say, d’ya already got a hotel booked for your time away here?”

“Oh, no, not yet,” Dara says as he follows Cicada to the front door.  “I was going to look that up later. Do you know any good ones around here?”

“Iunno.  There’s probably at least one around here that doesn’t have roaches if that’s what you mean.”  Cicada looks back at him, smirking again.  “But if ya wanted to stay the night here an’ save yourself the trouble for right now, my couch is open to ya, eh.”

“Only the couch?” Dara pouts.

Cicada shrugs a shoulder as he unlocks the front door and holds it open for him.  “Alright, you can use the sauna too, I guess.”

“You have a sauna?!”  Dara practically teleports to Cicada’s side now, standing on his toes in wonderment.  “Okay, I’m sold. I gotta check out this sauna after we eat. –Uh, assuming it’s not another euphemism for something again!”

“Nah buddy, I actually got a real sauna in the backyard,” Cicada laughs.  “Lotsa people have ‘em ‘round here, eh.”

He sets the binder down on the mudroom bench and goes over to the living room to pick up his bong off the floor and carry it to the kitchen.  After taking out the bowl and the downstem, he dumps the bong water out into the sink and puts a few pumps of soap into the chamber.

“Ey, Dara, your job’s not one of those that collects your piss, is it?”

Dara makes a disgusted face as he sets the Scarby’s bag on the kitchen counter and starts taking out its contents to lay them out and divvy them up.  “No, that’s disgusting! Why would anyone do that?”

Cicada slowly turns around to stare in amused bewilderment as he’s scrubbing up the soapy bong with a bottle brush.  He shrugs a shoulder. “Iunno, some places still do that ‘cause they care way too much about what you do in your off time, eh.”

Dara doesn’t look like he follows, but is afraid to ask more.  He points to the bong. “Y-you aren’t gonna have me pee in that thing, are you?”

“Wait, what?  No!–” Cicada drops his jaw in shock and damn near drops the bong too, barely catching it by the neck and holding it up for him.  “D’ya not know what this is, buddy?”

Dara walks over to take another look at the glass piece in Cicada’s hand.  “Oh, it’s an alchemy thing, isn’t it?”

“Dara,” Cicada says with exasperation.  “Dara, you sweet, kind, gentle, loving soul who is uncannily good at giving head…”

Mother of Elves grant him patience, he’s going to find out Dara was homeschooled, isn’t he?

Instead, Dara starts to laugh.  Cicada is at a loss for words, largely because he doesn’t want to say anything too mean, but also because he just doesn’t know what to do with a man that apparently doesn’t recognize one of the most iconic tools of weed paraphernalia.  He’s going to have to sit Dara down on the couch and ready this whole spiel about weed and how it’s safe to use and legal here and it’s not scary and he’ll have to dispel all these myths and ugh.  All this when he just wanted to get high and eat shitty food and make out and put his fingers in Dara’s pie and then go to sauna with him and make out some more until Dara realizes how gross and sticky making out in a sauna actually is.

“I know it’s a bong, dude.” Dara stops laughing long enough to catch his breath, wiping tears from his eyes as he leans on Cicada.  “And no, my job doesn’t involve operating heavy machinery, so it doesn’t drug test.”

“Dara.”  Cicada just stares at him, his jaw slack and his ears laying flat as he slowly fills his lungs with air and exhales back out.  He puts the bong back down in the sink and puts his arm around Dara. “You amazing, wonderful, perfect creation of the Mother.”

Dara rests his head on Cicada’s shoulder, looking up at him and fluttering his eyelashes.  “Yeeees?”

“You’re gonna kill me, buddy.” He kisses Dara’s forehead.  “Can you bring some of the food over to the coffee table? I’m gonna finish cleaning this thing up an’ I’ll be right over, eh.”

“Of course!”  Dara gives him a squeeze before separating and gathering a handful of the foil-wrapped sandwiches.  “Want me to put something on the TV?”

“Uhh…” Cicada thinks for a moment as he rinses the bong out, setting it on a towel on the counter to dry.  He doesn’t even remember what day it is, so it’s hard to guess if there’s going to be a wrestling match on tonight or not.  Shrugging, he starts working on cleaning the downstem and bowl. “Iunno, go put somethin’ up on the laptop. Whatever y’want, since you’re a guest n’ all, eh!”

“Whatever I want, huh?  Alright, let’s see…” Dara neatly folds his legs up beneath him in front of the laptop, which is sitting on a milk crate just so it’s close enough to be plugged into the TV.  Cicada can hear him typing incredibly quickly but he doesn’t look over, since his mind tends to wander when he’s at the sink and a part of him wants to be surprised by what Dara puts on the screen.  After all, he’s spent pretty much the entire day with the man and still barely knows anything about him.

Were it not for the fact that Dara had spent literal hours at the lodge today waiting for spreadsheets to print, Cicada could have pegged him for an extremely charming burglar casing his house, except for the fact that he has nothing of value unless Dara wants a laptop held together with tape and/or happens to be a connoisseur of bootleg DVDs of shitty movies and exotic mantises.  

“Oy, you like music videos, right?”

Cicada’s ear swivels towards the sound of Dara’s voice, and he turns his head to look over from the sink.  One he’d finished cleaning the bowl, he had started doing the dishes without really thinking (might as well use the water while it’s hot, right?). “Eh, yeah!  Put some music on, buddy!”

He puts the last dish on the drying rack and reassembles the bong, filling it with water as he comes over to the couch with the bong in hand.  Dara has something on fullscreen as he hovers the cursor over the play button, waiting for Cicada to sit down with an impish grin.

Cicada gives him a dubious look as he pushes some of the wrapped sandwiches aside to put the bong down on the coffee table, noticing there’s some colorful characters from feature animated films frozen behind the play button.  He motions for Dara to start, reaching for the glass jar he keeps under the table to fish out a good-sized nugget of weed for the grinder. “Alright bud, let it rip!”

Dara clicks on the play button and sits back, putting his hands in his lap and glancing from the screen to Cicada.  An angsty love song starts to play, not immediately familiar to Cicada but sounding like something that he’d hear in the credits of a sad romance movie or playing on the sound system at a grocery store, interposed with bizarrely competent editing featuring the animated human protagonist of a well-known animated movie meeting a deer from an entirely different renowned animated movie.  It starts with a longing gaze from man to beast (because who hasn’t had a moment where they exchange smoldering gazes with a large hoofed animal in the woods), and before long, they fall in love.

The man’s village don’t approve, as most sane cultures around the globe tend to condemn romantic relationships with animals, but that doesn’t stop the man from charging off into the woods to live with his nasty deer boyfriend and presumably have some freaky man-deer sex offscreen. To compound on the overall surreality of the video, its editor throws in a villain from a completely different movie for an element of suspense, antagonizing the human-animal couple to swells of the music until he sends them to their dramatic, overwrought deaths on a backdrop of fire.  But wait, don’t be sad, dear viewers! The interspecies couple is then shown ascending to the sky as spirits and being reunited in death, closing on a note of whimsical chimes and a ‘THANKS FOR WATCHING :)’ notecard at the end.

“Well?  What did you think?”

Cicada looks at Dara, then back at the screen where it’s autoplayed into another music video, this one concerning the forbidden love between a lion and a mermaid.  Dara’s huge stupid grin tells him enough; he’s trying to get a rise out of Cicada by showing him something weird he found on the internet. Setting the grinder down on the coffee table, Cicada folds his hands together and nods his head as though deep in thought.  

“Honestly?  I’d let a deer fuck me,” he says with an air of casualness and a nonchalant shrug.  “Hell, I’d eat the deer’s ass if he asked me to, eh.”

Dara’s smile wavers a bit.  “Really? You’d fuck a deer?”

“What?  Could be a shapeshifter,” Cicada grins, picking the grinder up again to unscrew it and grab a good-sized pinch of weed to pack the bowl.  “I mean, I’ve definitely never jerked off to the thought of a huntin’ buddy bendin’ me over a log, pullin’ down my pants, and stringin’ me up to use me as bait for a buck or nothin’ before.  Nuh-uh.”

“None of this should surprise me,” Dara says, resting his hand on the laptop.  “And yet, here we are.”

Cicada steadies the bong in his lap, groping around on the coffee table for the lighter.  “Nah, that video was weird as fuck, buddy. Deer aren’t really my thing.”

Dara looks relieved.  “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about you running off into the woods after a deer, then.”

Having successfully found his lighter, he brandishes it in the air.  “Yeah, I’m more of a moose guy donchaknow! They got a li’l more to offer for us size queens, eh.”

Dara gives Cicada a dead-eyed stare, groaning loudly.  “Give me the bong, Mr. Moosefucker.”

Cicada is nothing but cheerful when he passes the bong and lighter over to Dara, who takes it carefully into his hands.  He puts his lips inside the mouthpiece and lights the bowl, filling the chamber with smoke as the water purrs and bubbles on the draw.  As he takes the bowl out to clear the chamber, the smoke vanishes and gets sucked into his lungs and held there until it erupts from his mouth in a coughing fit.  

“Uh, I’m gonna get you some water, eh.”  Cicada sets the bong down and filling up a glass in the kitchen, returning to offer the drink to Dara.

Dara claps his chest a few times before slouching against the fireplace, accepting the water and taking a drink.  “Ugh. Thanks.”

“You bet.”  Cicada sits back down and takes his turn with the bong, torching the bowl and milking it for all it’s worth, holding the smoke in his lungs and closing his eyes before exhaling it out through his nostrils like a tiny gay dragon.  He then starts to pack another bowl. “Want more?”

“Hm.”  Dara looks around himself and rises to his feet, holding out an arm to steady himself as he assesses his state of inebriation.  “Sure, a little more can’t hurt.”

Cicada pats the couch next to him as Dara ambles over and sits down, and taking the bong again for another rip and this time succeeding in not scorching his throat.  Dara exhales through his mouth, tilting his head back so the smoke billows up towards the ceiling, and watches it dissipate in the air.

He passes the bong back to Cicada, coughing into his elbow as Cicada finishes off the bowl, belching smoke into the air.  Now it’s time to set the bong aside somewhere safe to keep it from getting accidentally knocked over.

“So, uh, kind of a weird question.”  Cicada puts his arm on the back of the couch, holding up a finger at Dara.

Dara shifts his eyes to Cicada, studying him intently.  “Yeah?”

There are many different questions on Cicada’s mind mind, all popping up and scattering sort of arbitrarily in his mind: Questions like ‘do you actually like me’ and ‘why are you so nice to me’ quickly get dashed; he doesn’t want to bring the mood down too much and he doesn’t want to seem like he’s fishing for praise.  Besides, there are more important questions to ask, one that’s been at the back of his mind (one could even say it’s been bugging him) since their outing at the roadkill restaurant: “Have you ever eaten a bug?”

“Uh…” Dara seems to consider his question, his eyes squinting and his mouth held slightly open as the weed takes its hold.  It takes him a few long moments to process the question, and perhaps why Cicada even asked it in the first place. He grins widely.  “I ate you, didn’t I?”

“Oh jeez!” Cicada’s ears turn red as he puts a hand on his burning hot cheek. “I meant like, real bugs.”

“That is, ah, hm.”  Dara studies him for a bit, an ear swiveling back unsurely.  His speech becomes slower and slightly more accented, but no less formal.  “I guess bugs would not be common in a cold place like this to eat?”

“Not usually, uh, this is gonna sound really dumb,” Cicada says.  He could just as easily say he’s a complete manchild for wanting to know this, but saying he’s a terrible conversationalist is also pretty accurate.  “But uh, I keep insects as pets, and I breed crickets to feed ‘em with, and uh, I guess I was wondering if that was weird or made me a bad person for wondering what it’d be like if I ate ‘em when I had too many, but I’d also feel really bad if I like put a bunch in a skillet and wouldn’t they all just jump out and–”

He stops himself, noticing Dara is staring at him, and sheepishly looks away.  

With laughter, Dara’s hand lands on Cicada’s shoulder, patting him reassuringly.  “You silly tod! You freeze the crickets before you fry them, of course. There is no jumping out of the pot that way.”

Cicada looks at him, both dumbstruck and relieved his impulsively dumb question went over better than expected.  “For sure? That’s all it takes?”

Dara enthusiastically nods at him.  “Do you like spicy? They’re really good spicy,” he says with a sense of excitement.  “They are very crunchy!”

“No way!”  Subconsciously, Cicada reaches for one of the sandwiches Dara had put out on the table earlier and unwraps the thin foil covering from it, taking a bite out of its soft, ambiguously meaty goodness.  All this talk about crunchy, spicy crickets was revving up his appetite, and it seems Dara’s on that same wavelength as he too goes to claim a sandwich of floppy, greasy meat in a smushy white bun. “Do you, like, know any recipes?”

Dara shakes his head.  “I do not remember off the top of my head, I’m afraid.  But, maybe there are some online?”

“Cool,” Cicada says, his mind taking a while to catch up with his speech.  “I’ll have to look that up later.”

A whole new culinary world has opened up for Cicada as he idly wonders what seasoning would work best, perhaps starting with something basic like sugar and salt and chili powder to get a feel for the baseline flavor of the crickets and adapt from there.  He’s not even the world’s greatest culinarian but he’s going to try, gosh darn it, and that’s what matters!

But also: Presenting a Cricket Surprise Hotdish at the next potluck he’s invited to, and he will probably never get invited to another potluck again.

“But um,” Dara speaks up.  “What would make you a bad person for wanting to eat the crickets?”

Cicada stops mid-bite, the gears whirring in his brain as he momentarily dedicates his energy towards thinking because chewing and thinking is too demanding right now.  “Iunno, it’d feel like I’d be like… betraying ‘em, I guess, ‘cause I’m kinda like their dad or somethin’.  Seems wrong to just raise a society and then pour ‘em all into the deep fryer, eh.”

Dara thinks over Cicada’s words, looking simultaneously amused and baffled by his declaration. The thought of a cricket tank being a society tended to by a strange ginger-haired god that sees no problem in arbitrarily selecting a few to sacrifice to his pet mantises but draws the line at claiming some for himself is a point both of their minds are too hazy to really think about.  “They’re crickets, they just make more, don’t they?”

“Eh, yeah, I guess,” Cicada says.  Even if crickets can’t comprehend concepts like betrayal or fatherhood, there’s still a part of him that feels a bit bad about it.  He likes having them in his room to sing at night even when the population starts to become a bit too bustling inside the tank and he has to release a few of them into the wild (which, in hindsight of Dara’s suggestion to freeze them and mentioning that the valley is too cold to sustain most edible insects, may as well have been just as much of a death sentence as eating them).  

He will certainly never have a shortage of crickets, and for now, they have a glut of fast food sandwiches to work through.  Dara neatly folds the aluminum paper wrappers and sets them in an equally tidy pile on the table as he finishes his share, then turns to Cicada with ears up and an eager look on his face.  

Cicad notices his gaze lingering, tilting his chin up at Dara and smirking at him.  “Whatcha lookin’ at me like that for, buddy?”

Dara crawls closer to Cicada, pulling his legs up onto the couch as he leans forward and rests his head on his shoulder, his reddened, squinting eyes glittering with adoration.  “Can I touch your beard?”

“My beard, uh?” Cicada plants his lips on Dara’s forehead as he puts his arm around his shoulder.  Even while stoned, Dara manages to collect himself so tidily it strikes Cicada as almost impossible.  “That all you wanna touch?”

Dara bashfully buries his face in Cicada’s neck, carefully placing his hand over his ratty band t-shirt and running it down his chest and back up again.  “Noooo…”

Cicada takes in a deep breath, the sensation of Dara’s hand running up his body heightened by the effects of the pot.  He’s ready to roll over for Dara like something tamed; unwittingly realizing just how touch-starved he’d been lately and wondering if Dara was in that same boat as him as he feels blood rushing downward for hardly the first time today.  

“Then you can do with me whatever you wanna do, bud.”

“Very well.”  Dara rolls his shoulders and inhales loudly, pulling himself out of the crook of Cicada’s neck to carefully climb into his lap, facing him as he steadies himself on the back of the couch and standing on his knees.  Even though Dara is small, his diminutive height hides an impressive muscle density that practically pins Cicada to the couch (as though the leadening of his body from being stoned wasn’t already weighing him down enough).  Cicada’s eyes widen, and he can catch a whiff of faint musk as he rests his hands on Dara’s hips.

Also, the way Dara’s positioned himself has made him tower over Cicada, and he really likes that.  If half of his blood’s already flown down to his dick, the rest of it’s gone up to light up his face as he tilts his head against the couch cushions to look up at Dara in awe.  He wonders how much chest hair that top of his is hiding, and hopes Dara will let him see eventually, knowing all too well the emotional barriers standing in place that may make him feel uncomfortable sharing just yet.

Here, he’s fine with letting Dara explore him while he gets to enjoy the feeling of being small and vulnerable, but in a spot where he knows no harm will come to him for allowing Dara to lay hands on him (and other parts, if he so desires).  Had Dara been cis, there would have absolutely been no chance they’d be on the couch sharing a bong and entangling themselves in each other or offering anything more intimate than a handjob.

It’s not that Cicada had a problem with other men, but there always sat the nagging fear that they’d treat him differently once they got to know him or experienced parts of him that weren’t his hands or various orifices.  Although he certainly couldn’t be the only person in town to have rolled over the hazy lines of gender, and he’s been with men on his crews over the years who, under various influences, would confess to him that they’d trade certain body parts with him if they could, and those women-in-wait were often the ones he felt closest to.  

Some would take to the potions and blossom into fully-realized expressions of their hearts’ true selves, while others shied from the prospect because they didn’t want to upset the order of the workplace or make things uncomfortable with their families.  And the women he bedded – most of them prior to his discovery of bodily-altering alchemy – never expressed such thoughts to him, possibly because they were silently existing in the same hell he was or didn’t think he would understand, unaware that the answer to their problem lied in a concoction of herbs in a small glass vial much like him.

He’d occasionally see guys around town that looked familiar, and he to them, but neither spoke to each other despite the silent agreement that they did, at one point, meet in a distant and now unfamiliar past and few things are more awkward than approaching someone you think you know in a bar all like ‘Hey, remember that time we were both still girls and fucked drunkenly on that pile of burlap sacks behind the general store like thirty years ago?  Good times, buddy!’

“You’re okay with this, right?”

Dara’s voice draws Cicada back out of his thoughts, feeling his hands on either side of his jaw gently stroking the hairs of his sideburns.

He blinks up at him.  “Yah. M’fine.”

Dara smiles down at him, looking relieved as he bends his neck down to kiss Cicada on the forehead.  “You looked a bit out of it, so I wanted to check in on you.”

“Oh, uh.”  Cicada blushes, tilting his face away with a vacant grin.  “S’was just enjoyin’ the view, eh.”

“Yes.  I can smell it on you,” Dara teases as he curls a finger under Cicada’s chin and guiding him into his chest.  “Can you smell mine?”

Cicada breathes deep of Dara’s musk through the fabric of his top, a pleasantly masculine, violet scent.  “Mmm. Sure can, bud. S’nice.”

He didn’t get much of a chance back at the restaurant to really familiarize himself with Dara’s scent, so he’s glad he can experience it now.  He cranes his head up to sniff along Dara’s neck, impeded slightly by the high collar of his shirt, as Dara patiently tilts his chin up to give him more room.  

“Do you like it?” Dara asks.  Although Cicada can’t see it right now, he can hear the eager smile in Dara’s voice.

Cicada flicks his tongue out against what bare skin he can, causing Dara to softly whine.  “Love it.”

His hands wander, finding the bottom hem of Dara’s top and sliding beneath it to push it up, exposing his waist and toned, flat belly.  Dara pulls away, startled at first, then relaxes as he hikes the bottom of his shirt up more.

“Wouldya look at that fluff,” Cicada grins as he looks down, stroking the black hair latticed under Dara’s bellybutton.  “That’s some good fluff right there, buddy.”

He’s not sure why he feels so compelled to tickle Dara on his bare skin, but he gives into the impulse to do so because it’s right there and it’s cute, darn it, and he wants to see Dara curl in on himself and laugh.  

“Oh no,” Dara plaintively giggles, brushing Cicada’s hand away and starting to push his leggings down.  “Maybe you should work on this instead.”

“Don’t mind if I do!” Cicada obediently puts his hands on either side of Dara’s hips, helping his leggings down the rest of the way and noticing his star-printed underwear with an amused smirk.  “Those undies are adorable, buddy.”

“I like them,” Dara pouts defensively, looking away in embarrassment.

“Nah, buddy, I like ‘em too!”  Cicada reassuringly pats him on the leg.  “The star motif is like, really fun an’ stuff, eh.”

Dara glances back down at him, smiling shyly.  “If you really think so.”

“No, really, they’re fine.”  Cicada smirks at him, casually pressing his finger up between Dara’s legs and lightly dragging them across his mound.  He can’t help but notice the poor guy’s a thurible of horny dude musk right now, realizing his digits are brushing against decidedly wet underwear fabric and smelling like a dense, sticky cannabis bush in full summer bloom.  “Jeez, buddy, looks like you’re already seein’ more stars’n what’s all on your skivvies, eh.”


“Hmpf.”  Dara bucks his hips at his touch, widening his knees and quickly bracing himself on Cicada’s shoulders with a loud clattering of bracelets.  His expression is caught somewhere between being mortified and deeply flustered, his ears held low and back as he presses himself into Cicada’s hand.  “Can you…?”

Cicada starts to lightly massage Dara, feeling his arousal grow through the fabric. “You bet.  Want me to take ‘em off for ya?”

Dara nods at him, attempting to steady himself and concentrating on breathing as if he’s actively trying not to make any noise as he’s being fondled.  Cicada tugs on the waistband of his celestially-printed underwear, sliding them on down his thighs and idly wondering to himself how far down he’d have to pull them to break that string of clear cum that’s adhered itself to the fabric.  

There’s a lot of things he could say here, all of them jokes and all of them more terrible than the last: That Dara’s so wet he could get in a boat and go fishing in his great lake, that talking about cricket cuisine must’ve really riled him up that much, that his phone just alerted him to a flood advisory warning.  Instead, he goes to his usual standby when he sees something simultaneously impressive and hot: “Jeez louise!”

“Who’s Louise?”

Dara’s question catches Cicada off guard, taking a few seconds for his words to catch up to his brain to fully process what he was just asked, a dumb, stoned grin sprawling across his face and he begins to laugh.  “It’s a figure’a speech, bud.”

“Oh… Oh!”  Dara facepalms in embarrassment.  “I-Is that good or bad?”

Cicada chuckles warmly at him as he invites himself in to play with Dara’s junk, spreading his labia with his fingers and pressing the butt of his hand against his clit (Dara lied or was in denial about his size earlier, Cicada realizes). “S’good, bud, s’good.”

“Oh,” Dara pants as he starts to grind against Cicada’s hand, lowering himself even further as Cicada turns his wrist and starts circling his thumb over his clit.  “Okay.”

“’Okay,’” Cicada echoes, smirking.  He puts his other hand on Dara’s hip, gliding it up his side and over to the exposed hair on his belly, running his fingers through it and wishing he could just bury his face in it and breathe in his musky sweat to the point where he can taste it on his tongue.  There are other things he wishes for right now, like having a fat cock he could unzip his jeans and have Dara sit on and ride, but his fingers would have to do for now and Dara certainly doesn’t seem to mind them one bit.

Occasionally he can hear muffled whimpers and whines coming from Dara, who’s now hunching over and grabbing onto Cicada’s shoulders for dear life.  Not to mention he’s got some arousal of his own to deal with now, fumbling one-handedly with the button of his jeans as he slides down a bit to make that easier.  

Dara notices him being distracted (or more likely, he was forced to resituate himself when Cicada sunk further into the couch), realizing what he’s trying to do.  He shimmies back a little, his legs trembling, as he helps Cicada unzip his jeans and make an earnest attempt at pulling them down despite being pinned to the couch.  

“So, I’ve an idea,” Cicada says, toning down his rubbing of Dara’s pussy into lighter, gentler strokes to try and bring him back down a bit.  It seems to work, Dara’s breathing slowing as he pushes himself back enough to look at Cicada, his face still quite flushed.


“Uh-huh!”  Cicada nods at him.  “Wanna getcher pants all the way off, an’ I take mine all the way off, an’ we rub our dicks together?  Could be fun, eh!”

Dara looks at him like he just suggested that they go to the 24 hour diner right now and gorge on a shitload of eggs.  “That sounds amazing.

“S’cuz I get the best ideas when high, buddy!” Cicada grins.  Dara awkwardly cowboy-walks with his knees out of Cicada’s lap as quickly as he can manage, pulling his leggings down over one leg and kicking them away, visibly panting as he looks at Cicada.  

Lurching up off the couch is a laborious act for Cicada, but he manages to stand up and lets his jeans drop to his ankles and steps out of them.  Dara doesn’t even wait, he leans over and grabs Cicada’s underwear by the waistband and yanks them on down, getting them briefly caught on the metallic joint of his prosthetic leg, which Cicada frees with a finger.  

Now having been successfully depantsed, he gets back down on the couch, resting his back on the armrest as he spreads his legs and pats the area directly in front of him for Dara to sit.  Dara clamors over, somewhat clumsily as he attempts to figure out where to put his legs so he can get closest to where he wants to be.

“How do we…?”

“Uhh.”  Cicada tries to scoot himself forward towards Dara, reaching out for his hips to try and pull them closer together so their legs can lock together and allow their clits to touch.  “I didn’t really plan this far ahead.”

“Well it’s a really hot idea,” Dara says, leaning his torso over and stroking his beard as he assesses the situation.  “Maybe if one of us laid on our side?”

“Hey, yeah!  And like, put your leg over mine’r somethin’, eh.” Cicada’s face lights up as he rolls over on his side and pops off his prosthetic leg, leaning it against the couch on the floor (after all, accidentally kicking Dara in the head without realizing it would be a terrible thing).  Dara straddles his thigh, his knees on either side of his waist, as he slides in and locks himself into place.

The two of them pause in a moment of confused, horny silence as they both try to figure out how the fuck any of this is supposed to work – but hey, their clits are touching and that’s a thing!  And so is the rest of their vulvas, which is a weird fucking sensation that neither of them seem to have experienced before – it’s weird and wet and slippery, like a really sloppy kiss between two very drooly mouths that happen to be wearing erectile tissue as a hat.  Dara is the first to start trying to make something of this, slowly rocking his hips against Cicada’s. Cicada follows suit, closing his eyes as he tries to focus on the sensation of their awkward rutting together, licking his lips and clenching his teeth as he breathes through his nose.

It doesn’t take too much grinding together for him to feel his walls clenching and pumping in orgasm, although he’s pretty sure he felt Dara go off before him despite the ungainly positioning the two of them shared.  When there’s a will and two very stoned, horny elves, there’s absolutely a fucking way even if it takes frotting against each other in the weirdest imaginable position to accomplish the mutual goal of getting off.

Dara is panting loudly as he looks at Cicada with one ear pulled back, laying back on his half of the couch and starting to laugh hysterically, his slippery wet vulva jostling against Cicada’s with each jolly howl in floaty, intoxicated, post-coital bliss.

“That was the weirdest sex thing I’ve ever tried to do,” Dara says, hiding his face in his hands as he tries to muffle his chortling.  “I don’t even know what I’m doing.

“But it sure fuckin’ worked, dinnit?” Cicada wheezes, joining in the joyous, uproarious laughter.  “How did we even fuckin’– s’like we’re knotted without a single fuckin’ knot between us, eh!”

“Fuck!”  Dara laughs so hard he coughs, hitting himself in the chest to dislodge the phlegm stuck in his airways.  He bobs forward then back, pounding his chest more as he clears his throat. “Fuck. Fuck knots.”

“Fuck knots!” Cicada emphatically agrees, punching his hand.  “Y’ever get tied to some boring fucker who can’t talk about nothin’ else but his fishin’ boat while he’s stuck in yer pooch for twenty more minutes?”

“That sounds awful!”  Dara drags his hands down his face before folding them over his chest in a full body shudder.  “I think if I ever got tied to someone like that I’d chew his dick off and run away like my leg were stuck in a trap.”

The mental image makes Cicada sit upwards in tear-inducing mirth, slapping his knee as his throat rasps and chokes on phlegm from cackling so much.  “Y’know, I should’ve done that, for sure.”

“You should have.”  Dara nods sagely at him.  “Just… just gnaw that thing right off and scurry off into the bushes to squat and ploop it out into the dirt.  Just leave it there, he’ll come back and get it later.”

“Fuckin’– ‘ploop it into the dirt’!” Cicada’s laughing so hard now that the muscles in his head are starting to go sore, his eyes wet with tears as he sighs and relaxes his neck on the armrest of the couch.  “I can’t even fuckin’ see right now from laughin’ so much.”

Dara looks around with an amused curl of his lips, then back to Cicada.  “I don’t even remember what we were trying to do.”

“I don’t remember either,” Cicada admits, inclining his head back and noticing how pretty the overhead lights are.  He shifts his weight, starting with his hips, when that weird, wet sensation between his legs reminds him. “Oh, hey.  Our cunts are makin’ out, eh.”

Dara looks down, noticing how their pubic mounds have been so elegantly mushed together, and breaks out into helpless peals of laughter again before falling back on the couch and sinking into its cushions.  His chest heaves as he tries to regain his breath, his eyes squinted and watery, with an enormously stupid grin on his face.

“Y’wanna know what I like about dwarves?” Cicada asks Dara, holding up a finger.  Dara lifts his head up at him to listen, his ears up. Cicada grins at him once he has his attention.  “No knots.”

Dara snorts loudly and lays his head back down.  “Do they really?”

“No fuckin’ knots,” Cicada repeats himself, smiling blissfully.  “They tip great, too.”

“Hmm.”  Dara closes his eyes and exhales peacefully, relaxing into the couch and into what parts of Cicada he can from this incredibly awkward angle.  “Although if I’m being honest, I don’t think I would mind being tied with you, actually.”

Cicada wiggles his hips against him, his ears pulled back with amusement.  “You’re really sure about that, eh?”

Dara nudges him back, smiling languidly.  “I already like spending time with you, what’s another twenty minutes stuck on your dick or having you stuck on mine?”

“Heh.  Alright,” Cicada murmurs as he pushes himself against Dara.  He feels corny actually admitting the feeling is mutual, so he just lets the lazy grin on his face say it for him.  “Fair ‘nuff.”

They lay in relaxed silence for a few tranquil moments, their legs locked together until Dara shifts his weight and attempts to twist himself upright.  He could have just as easily pulled himself away, since there’s nothing physically holding them together but the gravity of their own bodies, but just the mere thought of the two of them being tied together is a strongly instinctual, comforting impulse.  

“Oy, Cicada.”

Cicada looks up from the hazy half-nap he was taking on the armrest of the couch.  “Yeah?”

“Could we do sauna after this?”  Dara flashes an eager, playful grin at him as he curls his upper body upwards, bending his knees around Cicada’s waist.  

“What, y’wanna see more of my naked ass, doncha?”  Cicada grins, winking at him. “You’ve done sauna before, right?”

Shaking his head, Dara leans forward and holds onto Cicada’s leg for support.  “No, I’ve never been. I’d like to try it!”

“Well, it’s sauna,” Cicada says, looking a little stunned.  Dara never having been to sauna is probably the biggest cultural shock he’s had to deal with so far – around here, everyone made sauna a part of their life.  To imagine a life without it is profoundly alien to him – sauna is a reflection of an elf’s instinctive nature to nestle in a dark, warm den for birthing and raising their kits, and it didn’t take much for them to realize it was a great way to keep warm in their sapient, furless forms, thus enshrining it as an integral part of elven culture.  “You guys don’t have sauna in Thalassea?”

“There is sauna in Thalassea, but…” Dara trails off as he swivels back an ear as he looks aside in thought.  “I’m always too shy to go. But everyone makes it sound so fun!”

“Could always wear a towel if you don’t want people checkin’ out your junk,” Cicada shrugs, smiling at him.  “Eh, I get it though. I don’t think people care as much as y’think, but I get it. If half the town didn’t already seen my cunt in some way or another, I probably wouldn’t’a care much for public sauna, either.”

“Well, good thing we’ve already seen each other’s, then!” Dara releases Cicada’s knee and lays back down on the couch, snuggling against his legs.  “I just need a few more minutes here before I can get up.”

“For sure.”  Cicada sighs contentedly as he squeezes his thighs against Dara’s pelvis, resting his head down on the armrest again.  

He wonders if Thalasseans ever get to experience the post-sauna joy of jumping ass-naked in a freezing lake in winter or sitting nude outside in a lawn chair with a cold beer in summer and watching the stars before going back in to cook themselves all over again and repeat the process.  There had to be lakes out there, surely, and even those in apartments could sit out on their balconies with a towel at their waist to cool off.

If they don’t, then Dara’s next experience in a sauna could probably never hold up to a simple backyard sauna in a small rural town in the middle of nowhere.  

Once they manage to pry themselves off of each other and make it to the backyard, Cicada enters the sauna first to start the fire in the woodstove to begin heating it up so it’s ready by the time they’ve undressed and showered.  The sauna is a small wooden outbuilding a short distance from the house just on the edge of the woods, almost resembling a large shed to an outsider’s eye with only a tin chimney on the roof to indicate its actual purpose.

Earlier in the summer, Cicada had the foresight to weave bundles of birch leaves as well having already cut as a good supply of firewood to warm the stove as well as the cabin itself once the biting cold of winter comes around.  

The entrance to the sauna is a small dressing room with a bench, its cubbyholes stuffed neatly with clean towels, next to an equally tiny shower with sturdy handrails, a handheld shower head, and a shower seat.  Dara’s offer to help him set up is greatly appreciated; when Cicada is by himself he usually sets up the towels and birch bundles beforehand as he needs to remove his leg prosthetic to shower (and, often, he keeps it off when in sauna itself since he’s not moving much in the first place).  

After showering and carrying himself inside on a crutch, Cicada takes his seat on a towel in the back corner closest to the little cylindrical woodstove topped with a basket of stones, his stump against the wall and his leg off the side of the bench to hold himself upright.  It’s not long before Dara comes in from the shower room with a bucket of water and birch bundles in hand, setting it down next to the stove. The lighting in the sauna is dim, its only sources of light being the lit stove, a tiny window near the roof, and the sliding glass entry door that takes no time in getting fogged over as Dara shuts it behind him.  

He eyes the suggestive thermometer nailed up on the wall, watching the little needle tilt upwards as the room’s temperature climbs. Dara lays out his towel next to him and carefully sits down with his arms held close to his body, slightly hunched over as he tucks a leg under the other.  For all his excited chatter about wanting to go to sauna earlier, his disposition is a lot more shy now that he’s been shed all of his clothing and jewelry in contrast to Cicada’s super casual sprawl in his favorite corner.

“S’just a body, nothin’ I haven’t seen before,” Cicada says as he gives him a comforting pat on the knee.   “But if you wanna go back and get another towel to cover yourself, you can.”

“I think I’ll be okay.”  Dara pulls an ear back as he glances over his shoulder towards the door, then shakes his head.  From what Cicada can see, he has a nice layer of guard hairs growing in on his chest at the same rate as what he saw on his stomach earlier, and a pair of scars along his chest that look like they could have been done in the last year or two.  Even his forearms – previously mostly hidden by those bangles – have a good coating of hair on them. The alchemy’s been good to Dara, if he’s only been on the potions for as long as he said – Cicada’s first years on the potions were full of acne, wispy facial hair that looked like pubes growing on his neck, and even more acne until his skin decided to chill the fuck out.

Adolescent male elves could easily be mistaken for goblins that way, and he’s glad that phase of his transition is long over.

“Buddy, you’re gonna look so damn good in a few years,” Cicada says, thinking out loud.  “I mean– you look amazing now, but those potions’re gonna turn you into an absolute fuckin’ prince in no time.”

“You flatter me so,” Dara laughs awkwardly, running a hand over his thin beard as he blushes.  “But thank you.”

“I mean it.”  Water hisses into steam as Cicada leans down to scoop up a ladle full to splash onto the stones, setting it back into the bucket and fishing out the wet birch branches.  One is kept for himself, the other handed off to Dara. “You’re gorgeous.”

“You really are kind.”  Dara turns an ear back as he’s handed the bundle, his first instinct upon taking it is to hold it to his face and sniff at the leaves.  “Do you… eat this?”

Cicada gives him a look, starting to laugh as he raps the leaves against his chest and shoulders.  “If you’re a deer, maybe!”

Both of Dara’s ears pull back as he rears his head up in surprise, watching Cicada lazily transfer the bundle to his other hand to smack the leaves along his other side.  “You strike yourself with them?”

Cicada nods, grabbing onto the nearby handrail as he leans forward, steadying himself with his foot, to get his back with the birch leaves.  “Yeah, s’posed t’ open up your skin, or somethin’. Smells really good too, eh?”

Dara watches him for a few moments, then imitates what Cicada is doing, whisking the leaves against his bare skin.  It’s an unfamiliar sensation as his ears involuntarily twitch with each strike. “My coworkers never mentioned anything about hitting yourself with a branch.”

“Oh yeah?  What’ve you heard about sauna up on mainland?” Cicada pours water over himself from the ladle, then throws more onto the rocks for more steam.  He’s practically melted into his little corner with relaxation now.

“Well, you’re sweaty and naked like this,” Dara says, gesturing to himself before excitedly holding his arms out.  “But then cute girls come out and massage you! But, you know, they massage you everywhere.”

“Th’ fuck?” Cicada’s expression sours as he stops mid-ladling.  Sure, he’s the type of person to willingly and eagerly give someone a blowjob in church, but doing something like that in sauna makes him feel weird and uncomfortable for reasons he can’t adequately explain, and not just for the physical unpleasantness of sexual contact when you’re a molten glob of sweaty flesh at the peak of relaxation.  Sauna was something you did with your family as a kit, and then with your friends (and strangers) when you become of age. He quickly laughs off his discomfort. “That’s different.”

“Do they not do that here?” Dara asks, tilting his head.

“Well, there ain’t gonna be no cute girls comin’ out to give us backrubs or handjobs out here, I’m afraid,” Cicada says, smirking.  “I mean– the public ones got a lady who comes out to scrub your ass down with some soap n’ water but I think if you were dumb enough to ask ‘er for a handjob she’d grab you by the scruff a’ your neck and throw your ass out, for sure.”

Dara considers the mental image of that and starts to laugh, grinning.

“I don’t know if I’d want something like that in here anyway,” he says, slumping against the back wall, tilting back his head.  In the dim firelight, Cicada can make out a distinct mark on either side of Dara’s neck as he watches him sink into the bench. “It’s so warm, it makes feel like a little kit in the den.  I just want to laze around with my siblings until Mom and Dad come home with food.”

“For sure,” Cicada says, somewhat distractedly as he subconsciously touches a hand to his neck to rub the unmarred skin there.  “Didya ever hear about how the first sauna was built?”

Dara shakes his head.  “No, I’ve not heard that story.”

“Well, you know when Ketunaiti stole the flame from the Creator’s middens, she was just an ordinary-ass fox at the time,” Cicada says.  He takes his hand off his neck and uses it to support himself as he leans back against the wall. “And as you know, contact with the flames was what made her a person.  An elf. And as we know, bein’ a person means you have no fur to keep warm and no good claws to dig yourself a den in the earth, right?”

“Right.”  Dara nods, listening intently.

“Well, she was swollen with kits at the time when she and her mate came to stand on two legs and this was a long, freezing fuckin’ winter, y’know.  S’not like she could stop bein’ pregnant, and spring wasn’t anywhere near on the horizon so she had to do somethin’, as any sensible fox-mother would do,” Cicada continues.  “So she and her mate then built a den above the ground, using branches from the trees, and dug what they could so that they could build a fire pit, which they then covered with loose rocks an’ stuff to keep it goin’ and keep it hot as long as they could.

“Now, Ketunaiti, she realized that the fire on its own made everything too dry, which isn’t good when you’ve got yourself no fur and a bushel o’ babies on the way.  So she got the idea, then, to bring spring into her den, and went out to collect snow from outside in her arms, knowing that warmth would melt the snow and make it become spring.  Her mate questioned her motives when she brought the snow into the den, for the purpose of the den was to keep snow out, right?”


“So she threw the snow onto the burnin’ hot rocks, ‘spectin’ it to just melt, y’know, ‘cause they were just foxes and didn’t know science stuff or nothin’ yet.  So they didn’t expect steam at all, and they realized, y’know, that made things really nice with the warm wet air, not to mention the ideal conditions for havin’ a litter, eh.”

“And so the first elves were born in sauna,” Dara concludes.  

“For sure, and that’s why we have sauna today!”  Cicada nods at him, smiling brilliantly. “All ‘cause the Mother of Elves wanted a nice, cozy place to have her kits, eh.”

“It’s a good story,” Dara chuckles pleasantly.  “We never had such traditions where I grew up. It was way too hot for sauna, and we never had such severe winters to prepare for or anything close to a winter.  The Mother of Elves did not do such things in our stories, but she would do other things, like sacrificing her tears to flood the rivers so that we could have a good harvest every year, and, uh, becoming the sun.”

“I’ve never heard that take on the story before,” Cicada says, stroking his beard with a grin.  Ketunaiti becoming the sun was never a part of the tales he heard growing up, but Her association with fire didn’t take much of a stretch to link the two, he supposes.  “And y’know, I’ve never heard anyone describe Thalassea as too hot for anything – I thought the place was cold and damp. You’re not from there, then?”

“No, I’m not from Thalassea.” Dara shakes his head, lazily fanning himself with the birch brush and smiling.  “I’m from Samoutea. Very hot, very humid. Imagine a whole country of sauna.”

“Wow, you’re a long way from home, then,” Cicada says, resting his chin in his hand as he leans forward with interest.  He doesn’t know much geography, but he knows Samoutea is somewhere far to the south, somewhere in the tropics on the furthest side of the ocean.  It definitely wasn’t on the same continent as Minnelaskwa or even Thalassea itself. “What brought you to Thalassea, then? Got tired of the hot weather, eh?”

“School, mostly,” Dara says, sounding vague as he looks up in thought and brushes his fingers against his neck without really being aware of it.  “Then after that, work. I’ve always just been too busy to go back.”

“For sure, for sure,” Cicada nods, his eyes lingering on Dara’s neck again, looking back up when he notices Dara leveling his head.  The scarring on Dara’s neck is not as wide as the ones he’s used to seeing on the older folks, the iron-collared convicts that arrived at the colony prior to his birth, which has him wondering if there’s been a recent resurgence of the cruel practice under a bullshit ‘kinder, gentler’ shell.  “Never did too much schoolin’ myself. The church taught us basic stuff like readin’ and countin’ and all when we were kits but I pretty much jumped straight into the work as soon as I was big enough to carry an axe, eh.”

“To have work is good.”  Dara is quiet for a moment, deep in thought.  “And to have education is very lucky. My parents saved for years so I could get an education abroad when I was old enough.”

“For sure.”  Cicada nervously drums his fingers on the side of the bench, his ears tugging back.  It’s not that Dara being a convict bothered him – he could hardly give a fraction of a fuck what his criminal record was because he knows full well the reasons for many convictions in Thalassea were bullshit – but Dara is younger than him by almost two decades, born well after the practice of collaring prisoners to keep them from using magic should have been abolished.  “Lotsa folks ‘round here didn’t even know how to read for the longest time.”

He swallows, feeling his throat move beneath his fingertips.  

Dara notices him staring, lowering his ears and angling his head down in an attempt to hide the collar-mark as he casts his eyes to the floor, folding his arms over his chest as he curls into himself.  “Ah.”

“S-sorry,” Cicada says, blinking quickly and looking away to stare at his reflection in the bucket, halfheartedly scooping up some water to pour on himself to try and distract his thoughts.  At least the damn thing isn’t still burning on Dara’s neck, but it hardly makes him feel better about the fact that it was there on him at all.

There’s a lot he wants to say – and a lot he doesn’t want to know – but he’d really rather lighten the mood right now.  Seeing Dara sad like this makes him feel like an ass just for noticing the mark, so maybe he could deflect things a bit and try and cheer him up with one of his favorite comedy routines when the atmosphere at the bar got too depressing.  

Squaring his shoulders, Cicada takes a deep breath as he tries to force a huge dumb smile, loudly patting himself on the thigh where he’d been amputated below the knee.  “Wanna hear about how I lost my leg?”

Dara seems taken aback by Cicada’s suddenly chipper mood, his ears flat on the sides of his head.  “Er– that sounds really personal. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“It’s a funny story,” Cicada says, grinning widely as he shifts his body and straightens up.  “I promise.”

Dara looks unconvinced as he glances down at the stump.  “What’s funny about losing a leg?”

“Uh– Well–” Cicada’s smile wavers.  This is going to be a hard fucking sell, isn’t it?  “So, this’s some forty, fifty years back, eh, y’know, late in the fall, y’know, as logging crews tend to go out into the woods to stake out spots to start settin’ up camp while we wait for the first snow, right?”

“Right,” Dara nods, looking unsure as he bends past Cicada to grab for the ladle, splashing water over his chest.  

“Right, so, we’re settin’ up camp, but we need to get some meat for provisions, right?  So me n’ a couple dwarves go out and we set up some traps and leave ‘em overnight,” Cicada says, pantomiming as though he were walking in the woods.  “So we get back to camp, and donchaknowit, it’s startin’ to snow! Now, if you know dwarves, you know they’ll find any cause for celebration, right, and they’re not ones to leave anybody out if they can help it, right?”

Steam hisses off the hot stones as Dara throws more water on them.  “I guess?”

“Yeah, well, uh, so it’s snowing, and everyone’s all gettin’ drunk off their asses and dancin’ around and by the time the last embers go out we all go back to the little bunkhouse we have, and the next morning everything’s just fuckin’ covered in snow!” Cicada excitedly holds his arms out.  “So, uh, as you can imagine, traps got snowed over, and of course, we got drunk the night before so we kinda, uh, forgot where we put them…”

Dara glances at Cicada’s stump again, frowning.  “So you found one with your foot.”

“Eh, yeah.”  Cicada falters, feeling the wind rapidly draining from his sails as his shoulders droop and his hands fall into his lap.  “I guess it’s a lot funnier when I got my fake leg on and I can act it out, eh.”

“It’s okay,” Dara says, gently putting his hand on Cicada’s knee and smiling softly.  “I appreciate your attempt at amusement nonetheless.”

Weirdly, Dara’s tone comes off as a lot less condescending than it probably should have been.  Cicada’s delivery of that story was terrible and he knows it, but a part of him feels like even if he had his prosthetic leg on the comedy would’ve fallen flat with Dara.  Maybe self-deprecating amputee humor just isn’t his cup of tea, and truthfully, there’s nothing wrong with that either.  

“I know, that story sucked.” A long sigh drags through Cicada’s lungs from the depths of his chest as he puts his hands in his lap.  “What really happened was nothin’ special, eh.”

“Oh?” Dara curls his fingers against Cicada’s leg.  “What did happen?”

“Eh, s’kinda dumb, honestly.”  Cicada inhales slowly, lowering his gaze and smiling sadly.  It’s not that he has an aversion to telling the truth, but this story was one he never liked telling.  He’ll keep it succinct. “Got hit by a car.”

Dara considers this as he gently strokes the top of Cicada’s forearm, his fingers running down the coarse hairs.  “I see.”

“Yeah, not as good a story as the bullshit one I made up to tell people.”  Cicada tries to grin. “Nobody wants to hear a story ‘bout someone bein’ sad and doin’ stupid shit ‘cause they’re sad, right?”

“Right.”  Dara’s eyes wander up from Cicada’s hand, noticing the small, fox-sized bite marks along the inner side of of his arm – long healed over, but distinct in what they are.  He quickly looks up from them, gazing into the fire burning in the stove for a moment before looking back to Cicada. “You don’t want people to feel sorry for you, so you make them laugh instead.”

“More or less, yeah,” Cicada sheepishly smiles as he looks towards the ceiling.  “There’s enough depressin’ shit in the world and I don’t wanna add to it if I don’t hafta, y’know?”

They look at each other in a knowing, weighty silence, with Dara gently running his fingers over Cicada’s leg.  In the dim light, thin, raised lines, also healed over and spaced out methodically, lay faint on the underside of his wrists that are definitely not imprints from his bangles upon second glance.  Cicada sighs, giving him an understanding nod. While their methods were different, the intent was the same – a primal, maladaptive expression of pain and self-loathing to which they saw no other outlet in a faded and almost forgotten past.

Those signs of what their lives were like before actualization are always good reminders of what they went through to get to where they are now – signs of realization, signs that they no longer would have to lay another tooth, claw, or blade on themselves, that they weren’t changing themselves because of an external stimulus but to quell a storm that raged within for so much of their lives that they now live in relative peace and comfort and to share that with someone else who gets it is such an intense feeling of unspoken closeness.

“Oy.”  Dara gives Cicada a squeeze, smiling tenderly as he gets his attention.  “Is it alright if we cool off for a bit?”

“Oh, yah, sure,” Cicada says, wiping his forehead and grabbing for his crutch, transferring it to his right hand as he turns his whole body to hop off the bench.  “S’probably due time to have a sit outside, eh.”

After putting out the stove, the two of them wash up in the shower and put towels around their waists, Cicada putting his prosthetic leg back on before exiting the sauna.  His backyard isn’t the grassiest lot in the area, much of it worn down to bare dirt from heavy travel with any remaining grass overgrown and speckled with weeds. An old stone fire pit sits in the middle of the yard, a small ways in front of the sauna, showing all the signs of regular use and a pair of metal tongs laying on the pit. Plastic lawn chairs are set up next to the pit, facing the woods that surround the yard.

Cicada briefly returns to the house to get a pitcher of ice water, some plastic cups, and a small package of sausages, setting them out on the brick sides of the fire pit as Dara sits down.  Normally, he’d be grabbing a six pack of beer to share with his guests after a session in the sauna, but he decided that would probably be a terrible idea right now given the conversation he and Dara had earlier.  Elves and alcohol typically meant a higher chance of emotionally raw conversations and thus a dangerously high chance of blubbery tears and that’s just downright not good for anyone.

He pours Dara a glass before sitting down himself, sinking into the lawn chair and enjoying the cool evening air on his warm, wet skin.  

“Thank you,” Dara says, bringing the cup to his nose to sniff it before taking a sip.  “Just water?”

“S’fresh from the well,” Cicada says, holding his hand over the fire pit to start a small cantrip flame before grabbing for the sausage pack.  “If you want booze or somethin’ I could go to the house and get some, eh.”

Dara shakes his head, holding up his hand.  “A beer might be nice, but you don’t have to get up again.”

“I was just goin’ back to the house to get condiments,” Cicada says, tearing the package open and laying sausages out on the charred grill laying over the pit.  “And, like, napkins n’ shit.”

Eyeing the sausages on the grill for a while, as if he’s trying to determine that Cicada wasn’t just inventing a reason to go back to the house solely for the sake of him, Dara smiles at Cicada.  “How about I help you carry some stuff out, then?”

The offer to help catches Cicada slightly off guard, having been accustomed to passive, pleasant banter centering around offering to do something nice and being told ‘oh don’t go out of your way just for me’ but replying ‘oh but I was going to do the thing anyway’ to ‘well alright then, but you don’t have to’ ad nauseum for at least half an hour before finally just doing the thing, frozen in shock for just a second.  He could easily drag on the charade by saying ‘you don’t hafta’, but Dara is not fluent enough in Minnelaskwan politeness theatre to be put on the spot like that.

Also, he really was going back to the house to get condiments anyway.  At least with Dara helping, he’ll have to make fewer trips because he only has so many arms.

“Alright,” Cicada concedes with a shrug and a smile.  “Sure.”

Dara gets up first, offering Cicada his hand to pull him up out of his chair as they walk back to the cabin and head for the kitchen, gathering necessary supplies to bring back outside.  He briefly checks on his phone while he’s in the kitchen, leaving it plugged into the charger as he turns back around with an armful of sausage buns and plastic-wrapped paper plates.

“I think my phone might be going screwy,” Dara says, holding open the screen door for Cicada.  “It says it’s almost ten right now but it’s still daylight out.”

Cicada looks at him, then looks up at the pink sky.  The sun looks like it’s about to set, casting a warm tone on everything.  “S’just summer, days’re long as hell this time a’ year, eh.”

Dara yawns as he sets the paper plates and bag of buns on the ground by the pit.  “And here I thought my phone just had a latent case of jet lag.”

“Ah, right, that jet lag thing,” Cicada says, yawning after Dara.  “If you wanna go t’bed instead’a sittin’ around out here with me, you’re more’n welcome to head back in, for sure.”

“I can stay up a little longer,” Dara tells him, sitting back down and stretching his limbs out in the chair.  “I have no other plans tomorrow besides going back up to the lodge to get those files transferred over, so I can sleep in.”

Cicada picks up the metal tongs, using them to rotate the sausages on the grill while watching Dara rest his head on his hand.  “If you’re sure, eh.”

“I wouldn’t be able to sleep if it’s still light out, anyway.”  Dara smiles serenely as he closes his eyes.

“Fair ‘nuff,” says Cicada.  He’s used to staying up late into the night during the off-season, often going to bed just before the sun rises, but he’s feeling more languid than usual tonight and Dara’s yawning is absolutely not helping.  Reaching for the six pack he put down on the thinning grass, he breaks one off and offers it to Dara. “Here y’go, bud.”

“Oh, thank you!” Dara opens his eyes again, taking the cold can of beer and noticing the somewhat outdated ring tab it has, pulling it up and out with a satisfying hiss of carbonation.  “I didn’t even know they still made cans like this.”

“Well, you know dwarves,” Cicada says as he turns his head towards the pit and watches the flame flicker and stir on the coals, its burning tendrils licking upwards towards the grease dripping off from the sausages on the grill.  The food looks about done, just one more flip and a couple more minutes should do it. “If the machinery’s still good, why throw it out, eh?”

“I suppose you’re right,” Dara says, taking a swig of his drink and watching Cicada for a few moments.  “You’re not having any yourself?”

“Huh?  Oh!” Cicada looks up from the fire at Dara, who’s holding up his can and nudging what’s left of the six pack with his foot.  He hadn’t planned on drinking tonight, but if Dara insists, surely one can won’t be enough to turn him into a weird, sobbing idiot.  “Sure. Alright.”

He’s about to turn the ring up and pull, deciding against it as he stares at it and sets the can down on the bricks of the pit with a hollow clunk.  

“You don’t have to if you’re not feeling it,” Dara says as he smiles at him.  

“Eh, yeah.”  Cicada leans on his elbow, putting his chin in his hand.  “S’probably better I didn’t right now, to be honest.”

The sausages on the grill look almost done, and Cicada picks up the tongs to prod at them to test the crispiness of the casing, rotating them one last time just to get a look at the fresh grill marks.  Maybe his mood will improve after he eats, and then he might be better equipped emotionally to drink than on an empty stomach.

“Is the food done?” Dara asks, putting his beer down on the pit and stooping over to get the paper plates and buns ready.  

“Looks like,” Cicada says, picking up a sausage with the tongs and dropping it into the open bun Dara holds out.  The rest he lays out on another paper plate to keep them from burning to a crisp on the grill, taking no time to stain the plates with grease.  “Though, uh, might wanna wait a bit before diggin’ in, of course.”

“Of course,” Dara says, putting the paper plate in his lap and carefully squeezing mustard out onto the light brown sausage.  “Are these from the roadkill place?”

“Darn tootin’ they are, bud,” Cicada says, beaming as he pulls one off for himself and spreads soggy onions out over the meat.  He’s not even gonna front, he’s fucking starving right now and a big fat greasy mystery meat deer sausage is exactly what he needs after an intense sauna session.  Dara offers the mustard bottle over and he gladly accepts it, squirting the pungent yellow gunk all over his meal with not even the fraction of the precision Dara applied to his.  It’s not like he didn’t care– okay, he actually doesn’t care.  It’s all going into the same place and coming out the same way, so long as it tastes good and doesn’t burn his mouth going in.  

Dara’s face lights up as he holds the sausage up to take a bite out of it.  “I thought I smelled venison!”

“For sure, for sure,” Cicada says before messily chowing down on his food and going to collect seconds while Dara is still meticulously eating his first, stopping every few bites to dab at himself with a napkin before setting the empty plate down on the ground.

“Not gonna go for the last one?” Cicada asks, motioning to the lone remaining sausage.  

Looking at it in consideration, Dara shakes his head.  “You can have it if you want.”

Cicada nudges the plate in Dara’s direction.  “Y’sure? S’just gonna go in the fridge if you don’t want it, eh.”

Dara looks between Cicada and the greasy meat tube sogging up the paper plate, gingerly patting it down with a napkin to wick away any surface grease before putting it in a bun on a fresh plate.  “Alright.”

Evidently satisfied with this outcome, Cicada reaches for his still unopened can of beer and cracks it open once he devours the rest of what’s on his plate.  

“So, uh… Dara,” he says, taking a deep breath as he dusts crumbs off his chest and leans back into his chair.  He knows he probably shouldn’t say anything about it, but it’s been on his mind since he saw Dara’s neck in the sauna.  

Dara looks up at him from starting on his second sausage, still chewing as he nods in acknowledgment.  

“I dunno if this is gonna make you feel better ‘bout your neck mark – and I really hope it does,” Cicada begins, briefly pausing to take a swig of his beer before continuing.  There’s a lot he wants to say, and a lot he’s praying won’t result in him tripping over his own ass and making Dara walk out on him. “But, uh, ‘least ‘round here, nobody’s gonna bat an eye at you for it.  Lotsa people here got convict marks, donchaknow, an’ I bet they’ll be more likely to talk to you knowin’ you went through all the same bullshit they did back then, eh.”

Dara stops chewing and swallows his food but doesn’t speak, he only looks at Cicada with an unreadable expression.  

“Whatever you did to get that thing doesn’t even fuckin’ matter, an’ obviously your criminal record can’t be that bad ‘cause you got yourself a nice government job, eh?”  Cicada nervously touches the crook of his collarbone – had he been dressed, it’d be about where his shirt collar would be for him to tug on it. “‘Least I don’t care watcha did, anyways…  Anyways, s’all I’m tryin’ to say is–”

Dara holds up a hand signaling for Cicada to stop talking.  Cicada grips his armrest, expecting Dara to get up and leave as he feels his heart pounding in his throat all because he couldn’t resist the temptation to run his dumb mouth and reopen some old wounds he had no business fucking with.  

“I was not a convict.”

Dara’s tone is neutral, measured, and completely devoid of emotion.  Cicada can’t even read the expression on his face, other than deeply tired eyes that don’t seem to be focusing on anything.  His words rang in Cicada’s ears, clear yet vexing in their context.

“I’m sorry,” Cicada says, his ears lowering.  “Whatever you did, you don’t need to tell me. I’ll believe you had a good reason for it.”

Dara pulls his chair up closer to Cicada, putting him within reach to put his hand on Cicada’s knee.

“I was not convicted of anything.  I have no criminal record. This,” he says with an upsetting calm, touching his neck with his other hand, “Came from my old job.”

Cicada’s eyes linger on the thin marks, up to Dara’s face, suddenly feeling like there’s something stuck in his throat and making it harder to breathe.  

“Your old job,” Cicada repeats, his expression grim.  “Your job put a collar on you.”

Dara looks away, lacing his fingers together as he puts his hands in his lap for a second before pulling them apart and yanking another beer can out of the six pack with a long, regretful sigh.  “It’s not as bad as you think.”

‘It’s not as bad as you think’?

Cicada mouths the words ‘what the fuck’, his ears pulling back in disbelief.  “What kind of job makes you wear a fuckin’ collar?

The beer can hisses as Dara pulls the tab ring up and out, tossing it aside in the dirt as he tilts his head back and takes a big drink from it, not stopping until the can is empty and slamming it down on the walls of the pit.  He looks at Cicada, wiping his mouth, looking unsure if he should say anything more or spill out his emotions or is simply doing his best to not just vomit all over the place because Cicada was dumb enough to ask him an uncomfortable question about a topic that was undeniably sensitive for him.  

Good job Cicada, you’re the number one conversational minesweeper!

“Sorry.  S’not my business to know.  If you don’t wanna talk about it, I won’t ask no more questions.  I’ve just– I’ve never met no one that had those marks that wasn’t a convict, or a transport, or whatever.  I didn’t even think they still did that, y’know, puttin’ iron collars on people–”

Dara holds his hand up again, shaking his head.  

“No, I understand.  It’s shocking to see marks from a collar on someone my age.”  He pauses, carefully thinking about his next words. “Some families in Thalassea want it to be known to all who you’re in the direct employ of.”

Dara’s words make Cicada’s stomach heave, and he covers his mouth.  

“When Samoutea was still a colony of Thalassea’s, they were good allies to us, even after our country became independent from them.  I think we’re probably the only country in the world that’s ever decolonized on good terms with its invaders,” Dara laughs sardonically, rubbing the side of his head.  “We had no idea that they used iron to subjugate their own people, because they sure never used it on us.”

“Hmph.  Thalassea, doin’ good by other elves,” Cicada snorts.  “That’s a new one to me, eh.”

“Yeah.  I know,” Dara sighs, propping his elbow up on the wall of the pit and leaning his head on his hand.   “I know that now. I didn’t know that then when I was offered the job and signed the contract. When I first had it put on, I thought it was a piece of jewelry at first.  I didn’t know what it was, or what it could do to me.”

Contracts, collars, and Dara, a student from abroad, who likely did not know enough Thalassean at the time to understand the fine print of a dubious job offer from a noble, got signed away into what more or less sounds to Cicada like some sort of servitude.  He can already feel his blood starting to boil.

“Yeah.  Shit’s fuckin’ poison,” Cicada says, kicking at the dirt.  He thinks to himself how lucky Dara’s people must be, to have never been on the receiving end of Thalassea’s infamous ‘iron therapy’ until Dara came to visit their land himself.

“Seriously!  I thought I was having an allergic reaction at first!”  Dara runs his fingers over his neck, flashing his teeth in a grimace.  “It was literally burning my skin and I couldn’t even take it off because they had welded the damned thing on.  When I told Madame about it, she only smiled and told me that was normal and I’d get used to it once some scar tissue had built up.”


“That’s fucking disgusting,” Cicada says, his expression darkening.  He doesn’t know who this ‘Madame’ is and suspects that’s not information Dara is going to be quick to part with, but he does know that the more Dara talks about his collar and how he got it, the more he wants to rip ‘Madame’s throat out with his teeth.  “So how’d you get it off?”

Dara slowly breathes in, then exhales to collect his thoughts.  “I asked her to remove it. So she did.”

“So, this… ‘Madame’ lady put a collar on you, then told you getting sick from it was normal, then took it off just ‘cause you asked.” Cicada counts the points out on his fingers.  “How long’d it take for her to finally pop it off, then?”

An uncomfortable silence passes between them.  Dara shamefully hangs his head, knitting his fingers together.  

“Fifty years.”

Cicada’s eyelid and ear twitches as he grips the armrests of his chair.  ‘Madame’ clearly knew what the collar was doing to Dara, and it took her fifty fucking years to take it off?  “You don’t say.”

“It really wasn’t that bad,” Dara quickly adds, looking nervous.  “Madame liked me, she treated me well. She gave me room, board, a full education beyond what my parents paid for.  I got to perform, I had full run of the house when Madame didn’t have guests over. She would take me with her when she went on trips.  People in my country would kill for that kind of job–”

“–Dara,” Cicada cuts him off, holding up both hands.  He’s breathing slowly, mostly to contain his anger, feeling the familiar burn of tears pricking at his eyes as his whole body trembles.  “Please tell me this was some fucked up BDSM thing and you guys broke it off ‘cause you just weren’t feeling it anymore. I won’t judge you on that shit if it was.”

“No.  It was nothing like that.” Dara glances up at Cicada, then back down, keeping his head low and ears back as he crosses his arms over his chest and curls in on himself as though he had been scolded.  “I’m sorry if anything I said upset you.”

“Dara…”  Seeing Dara like this causes an overwhelming amount of sadness and anger to well up in Cicada’s being.  He snorts back a truly unflattering amount of snot, getting out of his chair to kneel on the ground before Dara, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder.  “Dara, you don’t need to apologize for shit.  S’not your fault you got tricked into wearing a fucking collar, alright?”

Dara lifts his head, barely meeting Cicada’s gaze, with tears running down his face.  “It really wasn’t as bad as you think it was.”

“Oh, Dara…”  Cicada moves his hand to Dara’s cheek, carefully wiping his tears away with his thumb with a tearful smile.  “Why’re you cryin’ then, if it weren’t so bad?”

“I don’t know,” Dara says, wiping the other side of his face.  “Because you’re crying.”

“M’not cryin’,” Cicada says defensively, knowing full well he’s full of shit given there are giant ugly tears presently coming right out of his snotty, sniffling face.  “B-But what happened to you’s not right, y’know, no matter how ‘not bad’ you say it is. Anything that involves fuckin’ iron gettin’ put on you’s bad, no matter how well you’re treated.”

A heavy sigh pushes its way out of Dara’s lungs as he hiccups and sobs, loosely throwing his arms around Cicada’s shoulders.  “I don’t even know why I said all that stuff. Normally I just lie and say I got arrested for jaywalking if someone asks.”

“Jaywalkin’, huh.”  Cicada smiles sadly at him, blinking out more tears.  “You don’t drink all that much, do you?”

Dara shakes his head, sniffling.  “No. Not often.”

“S’what I figured.”  He crawls closer to Dara, hugging him as best he can from where he’s crouched, patting his back and planting a kiss on the scarring of his neck.  “S’alright, buddy. S’gonna be alright. You got that thing off you now, s’all that matters in the here’n now, eh.”

Dara buries his face in Cicada’s shoulder, wetting it with his tears.  “But the scars are still there, and they’ll always be there.”

“I know, buddy, I know,” Cicada says, petting Dara’s back.  “But they’ll fade in time, y’know. Maybe not completely, but enough to where you won’t hafta parade around in a turtleneck all summer, eh.”

“It was that obvious, huh?”  Dara slowly pulls himself away from Cicada, sitting upright in his chair as he wipes his eyes and weakly smiles.  

“Someone coverin’ their neck in a former penal colony when it’s not the season to be sensibly wearin’ somethin’ like that?  You betcha,” Cicada says as he pushes himself up to his feet and sits back down in his chair. “That draws attention to convict scars like nothin’.  At least wearin’ a bandanna looks a li’l more normal, eh.”

“I’ll have to keep that in mind for future outpost checks,” Dara says.  He’s stopped crying for now, but his face is still splotchy and puffy. “Thank you.”

“You bet,” Cicada says.  He wipes his drying eyes, smiling tenderly at Dara.  “Y’wanna go back in? It’s startin’ to get dark, eh.”

“Hm.”  Dara looks around, noticing how the light has considerably dimmed since they’d gotten out of the sauna.  “Yeah, I should probably start getting ready for bed.”

“For sure,” Cicada says, dumping the rest of the water pitcher onto the fire to put it out and collecting the condiments and things to go back inside the house.  “Don’t forget your clothes in the sauna, eh.”

Late into the night, Cicada lays in his bed, wide awake as he scrolls through social media on his phone on a backdrop of cricketsong coming from the tank inside his room.  There’s too much on his mind to even begin to hope for a restful sleep, thoughts of Dara and wondering if he’d gone too far in obliging his request for alcohol.

His ears twitch involuntarily; he can faintly hear the sound of creaking floorboards from feather-light steps.  Dara must be up already from his deep alcohol-induced nap, probably looking for the bathroom or raiding the fridge or something.  

That little guy really does sound like a ghost when he walks.  Had Cicada not built this cabin himself with his mother and some friends many, many summers ago, and thus is absolutely certain that nobody’s died in it but countless generations of insects and a raccoon under the porch a few years back, he’d be pretty convinced he was getting a visit from the other side right now.

He sees something move out the corner of his eye, glancing towards the doorway to spot a pair of eyes reflecting the light from his phone standing just under five feet off the ground, and the vague, elflike shape of what couldn’t be anyone else but Dara.

The eyes blink and look away when Cicada notices them, and Dara’s voice timidly calls out from the darkness.  “I didn’t wake you up, did I?”

Cicada rolls over to lay on his back, putting his arm behind his head as he turns the phone face-down on his nightstand.  “Nah, bud. Y’doin’ alright?”

Dara looks at the floor, then back to Cicada as he stands in the doorway.  “Is it alright if I come in?”

“Yah, sure,” Cicada says, moving over to the side of the bed and patting the area next to him.  “Everything okay?”

Dara nods as he quietly steps across the floor of Cicada’s room, climbing into bed in such a way that the springs of his mattress barely squeak.  Wearing nothing but a fresh pair of boxers, it’s too dark to see what sort of pattern has been printed on them. He sighs heavily and lays his head on Cicada’s shoulder.  “Yeah. I’m just tired.”

Cicada puts his arm around Dara, gently petting him.  “I bet. S’been a long day, buddy.”

“Mm-hm.”  Dara nods into his chest, yawning softly and closing his eyes.  “I was thinking.”

Cicada nuzzles the top of Dara’s head.  “Yeah?”

“After I go back to Town Hall tomorrow and get that census data copied over,” Dara begins, draping his arm over Cicada’s chest, “I’m going to have a lot of free time before I have to go back to Thalassea.”

“You sure are,” Cicada says.  “Figured out what you wanna do up here, then?”

“Yeah.”  Dara nods, stroking the hair on Cicada’s body.  “I’d like to go camping with you. I-I-If that’s okay.”

“Of course it is, Dara,” Cicada says, squeezing him.  “I’d love to take you out campin’. In fact, I know a great spot we could go, eh.”

“Oh, that’s lovely,” Dara sleepily murmurs as he snuggles against Cicada.  “Then let’s do that.”

“For sure,” Cicada yawns.  The warmth of Dara’s body against his is rapidly intensifying the desire to sleep, and he settles into the bed to a more relaxed position, inviting Dara to lay with his back against his chest as he feels himself starting to drift off.

In the dark, Dara laughs against him.  “You’re not gonna take me on a date to the dump, are you?”

“Always ruinin’ my surprises,” Cicada playfully groans, patting Dara’s chest.  “But I can if ya want, eh.”

“If it were anyone else, I’d tell them to go piss up a rope,” Dara says.  “But you being you, I bet you’d find a way to make it fun.”

“Buddy, there’s a lotta cool shit you can find at the dump!” Cicada huffs.  “You know that couch we fucked on today? That came from the dump!  And like half of my truck?  Also from the dump!”

“Thank you for proving my point,” Dara murmurs happily.  “You’d probably, like, give me a lesson on town history just going by the strata of trash and then pull out a perfectly intact bike horn to tape onto your truck’s side mirror later.”

Cicada starts to laugh.  “Don’t give me ideas, buddy.”  

Wiggling against Cicada’s chest, Dara takes a big yawn.  “I’ll give you all the ideas I want and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

“Mm-hm.”  Cicada puts his arm over Dara’s and hugs him close, feeling himself starting to succumb to the siren call of sleep.  He closes his eyes, yawning one last time, absently stroking the skin of Dara’s wrist and the back of his hand as he slips into peaceful repose.

Sometime over the course of the night, Dara and Cicada had turned over, leaving Cicada held in Dara’s arms and snuggled against his chest when the morning light bleeds in through the gauzy tapestries he hung up over the windows.  He groggily reaches for his phone off the nightstand to glance at the time, feeling Dara stir and sigh behind him.

Cicada stretches what he can without breaking Dara’s grip, groping around over the side of the bed when he realizes his prosthetic leg isn’t on his side of the bed.  Carefully rolling over to look over on Dara’s side, he sees it laying against the opposite nightstand on the side he usually sleeps on, where he usually leaves it when he doesn’t have guests over to sleep with him in his bed.  His brain is still catching up to him from the morning grog and it makes sense in hindsight that it wouldn’t be on the side he’s at now.

Despite all they talked about the night before, the expression on Dara’s sleeping face is one of serenity.  It’s hard for Cicada to resist gently brushing his hair out of his face, kissing him on the forehead, and bidding him a good morning, but the man is probably stone tired between all the travel and emotionally taxing conversations of yesterday.  Cicada’s surprised he doesn’t feel like he’s been run through the wringer himself, given everything that happened.

If he can manage to sneak out of bed without waking Dara up, that’ll give him some time to shower and make breakfast for the both of them before Dara has to drive back up to the lodge (and hopefully not get caught up in all day another lecture about the minutiae of the town’s history), while giving Dara some well-needed and well-deserved rest.  Even still, there’s at least another hour or so before the lodge even opens its doors to the public.

Unfortunately, Cicada does not possess Dara’s grace or ability to move quietly.  There is nothing about Cicada that is either graceful or quiet.  In fact, this is something he should have accounted for when he got up on his hands and knees to attempt to lean over Dara to retrieve his leg, instead slipping on the sheets and flopping unceremoniously across his stomach with a plaintive “Aw, jeez.”

Dara yells out in surprise, jostling awake and sitting up as best he can with Cicada’s body draped over him.  “–Cicada?! What are you doing?”

A truly pathetic noise gurgles out of Cicada’s mouth as his arms dangle uselessly over the side of the bed, his face hidden in a tangled mess of red hair.  “Leg.”

“’Leg’?”  Dara blearily rubs his eyes, yawning as he lightly puts his hand over Cicada’s back.  “What about your leg?”

With nothing else but a sigh, Cicada points in the direction of the nightstand, not even looking up.  “Leg.”

“What?”  Dara leans over the side of the bed, noticing the weathered prosthetic propped up against the nightstand within comfortable reach.  “Oh!”

Cicada nods, placing his hands on the corner of the mattress to push himself up off of Dara and sitting up.  He shakes the hair out of his face and awkwardly tries to smile at him. “Didn’t mean to fall on your ass n’ wake you up, eh.”

“I-I-It’s fine!”  Dara quickly reaches over to collect Cicada’s leg, cradling it in his arms like a newborn kit as he hands it over.  “I didn’t know you had left it over here or I would have passed it over to your side when we went to sleep.”

“I thought about pogo-stickin’ around to your side of the bed an’ gettin’ it, but I figured that woulda made a lotta noise an’ wake you up,” Cicada grins sheepishly as he takes the prosthetic and suctions it to his stump.  “’Course, I wasn’t expectin’ to keel over like that on ya tryna climb over ya, either.”

“Expecting you to hop on one leg for my sake is completely unreasonable.”  Dara cups Cicada’s chin in his hand, stroking his jawline with his fingers.  “If it happens again, just wake me up the normal way and I’ll get it for you, alright?”

Lowering his ears, Cicada makes a low, grumbly whine as he leans into the Dara’s hand.  “M’not a helpless li’l baby, y’know.”

“I know,” Dara coos, moving on to affectionately pet his hair.  “But it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.”

“Didn’t wanna wake you up,” he says, folding his arms over his chest.  

“I was going to wake up eventually either way, so a few minutes wouldn’t have made that big of a difference,” Dara tells him as he pulls him into a hug.  It’s like he could tell that Cicada’s been beating himself up for awakening him from the moment he lost his balance on the bed.  

“Fair ‘nuff,” Cicada sighs as he leans into Dara.  It takes another tight, affectionate squeeze from Dara to get him to unfold his arms, and as much as he hates to admit it, Dara is really, really good at getting him to feel a tiny bit less shitty about himself.  “Thanks.”

“Of course.”  Dara nuzzles into his shoulder.  “By the way, what time is it?”

Dara is only gone for an hour after taking a quick shower and having a breakfast of eggs and canned ham that Cicada had cooked for them.  With the whole rest of the day ahead of them, and the census data safely uploaded into Dara’s laptop, Cicada loads his truck up with various camping supplies and canned and dried food.

“Uh, Dara, what kind of clothes did you bring with you?” Cicada asks, stopping mid-trip as he’s carrying a cooler to the truck.

Dara looks at what he’s wearing, holding out the bottom hem of his top.  It’s similar to what he wore yesterday – sleeveless, high-collared, and made of some thin, fancy material.  “Mostly stuff like this.”

“Ah, hm.”  Cicada swivels an ear back in thought – those are definitely not garments suitable for camping, he feels, and probably pretty spendy to boot.  They would likely not stand to last if caught on a bramble or branch if Dara took a fall or brushed against something, let alone keep him warm at night.  “Y’got anything more practical?”

“No, I mostly brought dress clothes.”  Dara’s eyes flick to the side, and he shakes his head at Cicada.  “Will that be a problem?”

“For your clothes, maybe,” Cicada says, ushering Dara back to his room.  “I might have some stuff that’ll fit you if you don’t want to take the chance of those gettin’ ripped up or dirty, eh.”

“Oh!  I hadn’t even thought of that,” Dara says, his ears perking with interest as he follows Cicada into the bedroom.  Cicada opens his closet and reaches deep inside, pulling out a cardboard box full of old clothes from his pre-potion days and setting it out on the bed.  

Its contents are more or less the same as what he wears now, just a couple sizes smaller – t-shirts, flannels, jeans, and a pair of hiking boots that he’d ordered online and were too expensive to ship back.  Dara eagerly takes one of the flannel shirts out of the box to sniff at it, his ears twitching in minor disappointment upon discovery that it doesn’t carry Cicada’s smell.

Cicada laughs good naturedly at him.  “Haven’t worn those in a long, long time, sorry!”

“They’re still good shirts,” Dara says insistently, hugging the flannel to his chest and pulling out another.  “I can wear these?”

“Hell, you can keep ‘em if you want,” Cicada says.  “They don’t fit me anymore, but they’ll do you well in the woods for sure.”

Dara quickly unbuttons and pulls his top off over his head, folding it up and putting it on the pillow before putting a white t-shirt on.  It’s a bit loose on him, but he doesn’t seem to mind terribly as he puts his arms into the sleeves of the flannel shirt over it with fervor.  “It’s so soft!”

Cicada laughs, covering his face as he smiles.  “Jeez, you’re like a kit at festival,” he says. “I take it you like the clothes, then?”

“I will wear these and I will absorb your masculine energy,” Dara says completely deadpan, turning around to face Cicada.  “And then I will have chest hair so thick strangers will mistake it for armor!”

“Whoa, buddy,” Cicada laughs, holding out his hands.  “They’re just old work clothes, eh.”

Dara grins widely at him and turns back around, gathering up armfuls of the clothes and hugging them as though they were an extension of Cicada himself before stuffing them into an empty backpack.  Cicada smiles and shakes his head, rubbing behind his ear in bewilderment – he didn’t expect Dara to take to his old clothes that well, but hey, it’s good they’re getting some use and some love than sitting in a musty closet for years.

“I love them.   Thank you.”

“You bet,” Cicada says, grinning at him.  He turns around and reaches into a drawer, taking out a couple bandannas and offering one to Dara with a warm smile.  “Here, for your you-know-what.”

Dara looks over to Cicada, studying the bandanna and touching his neck subconsciously.  “You’ve already seen it,” he says, smiling gently. “I don’t need to cover anything with you.”

“You sure?” Cicada asks, slowly withdrawing his hand.  Dara nods at him. “I’ll wear one for me, then,”

He folds the bandanna diagonally in half and ties it around his neck with the widest part out front.  

Dara quickly seems to be reconsidering.  “That looks really cute on you,” he says, snatching the other bandanna from Cicada’s hand.  “I’ll try it!”

“Jeez, when’d you become such a li’l copycat?”  Cicada laughs, watching Dara fold the bandanna over and over until it’s a suitable size for him, tying it loosely around his neck and looking proud.

“Because we’re going camping and I wanted to look like someone who actually spends time outdoors,” Dara says, smiling broadly.  

Cicada finds Dara’s enthusiasm infectious, putting his hands in his pockets and shrugging.  “Alright, fair enough.”

Dara stands on his toes and presses himself up against Cicada’s chest. “I am wholly prepared to roll in the dirt.

“Now you’re just bein’ weird,” Cicada says, playfully blowing a puff of air in Dara’s face.  “Go put your new duds in the truck an’ let’s get goin’, eh.”

It’s early afternoon when they take off down the old highway leading away from town.

At this time of year, few other vehicles are on the road, most of them belonging to deer hunters or people going out to fish.  It’s not until the logging season does the highway become busy with trucks driving to the crew sites and taking back lumber to the mill, so it otherwise sits overgrown and untended to until fall.  Cicada’s eyes are locked on the side of the highway, scanning for certain, well-remembered landmarks until he puts on the brakes and stops, looking towards the woods.

There’s little to indicate that there’s a road going off it at all but a barely-visible ingress obscured by tall grass – there’s no signage of any kind, nor any pavement or gravel.  The only proof a road was here at all was the telltale tire grooves in the ground that have now been mostly overtaken by grass, surrounded on one side by trees and a fenced-off, empty field the other side that looks to be part of a farm, its buildings well away and hidden from the road by sheer distance.  

There’s not a single other vehicle around them, but Cicada flips the turn signal on anyway as he dives his truck onto the bumpy, well-worn path.  

Dara clings to the passenger door for dear life as the truck growls over ancient potholes and tears its way through muddy puddles, past the field, to where now both sides of the road were flanked by a dense copse of trees that eventually lattice over the road and block out all but the smallest specks of light where the sun pokes through the boughs.  

He stares out the window, agog at every tree and shrub they rumble past.  “What did this road get used for?”

“Old site road,” Cicada says, swerving to avoid a particularly deep-looking puddle.  “Used to go to a logging camp out here a ways back.”

Dara looks on in disbelief at how vibrant the forest is up close, packed with so many different types of trees – from varieties of evergreens bearing rich green needles to more deciduous trees boasting the vibrant, fiery colors of fall on their leaves, with the ground carpeted by ferns and blackberry vines so dense they form a solid mass of greenery and thorns that is taller than the truck at points.

This was a logging site?”

“For sure it was,” Cicada says, glancing at him before looking ahead.

A clearing comes into view at the end of the road that gives them a view of cottonwood trees towering in the distance, swaying in the breeze well above the rest of the forest on the other side of a stream.  He parks the truck by a blocky concrete structure that’s been covered in plush green moss, shutting off the engine.

At the edge of the clearing opposite of them sits a dilapidated cabin, its roof caving in and one side of it covered completely in shaggy moss.  A maple tree stands next to it in defiance, its lowest boughs and trunk showing clear signs of being sawn off decades ago, with new growth emerging from the stump growing out many more branches bearing simply enormous leaves as if regrown out of sheer spite for the damage inflicted upon it.

Dara nudges the passenger door open and steps out into the shaded clearing, hearing only the sound of birdsong, wind in the trees, and the lazy flow of the creek.  He walks slowly towards the maimed tree, his head angled back to see how tall it grows, stopping at the trunk to run his hands over the moss.

Where Cicada parked is about the only patch of bare dirt they’ve seen that entire drive, broken only by the most stalwart of weeds and thin grass snaking through cracks in the compacted earth.  Cicada hops out of the truck and slams the door behind him, striding across the clearing with his hands in his pockets as he approaches Dara. A circle of stones is piled up in the middle of the clearing, a makeshift fire pit that Cicada had put together years ago when he first started camping out here.

“Y’know, just a few decades ago this whole darn place was cleared out,” Cicada says, bending over to pick up a maple leaf off the ground by the stem, offering it to Dara.  “You wouldn’t even think it lookin’ at it now, eh?”

Dara takes the large leaf, finding it to be bigger than his head, running his thumbs over its soft, leathery lobes in thought as he looks deeper into the woods and notices more decaying bunkhouses and buildings, the remains of one being only a brick chimney standing on a crumbling foundation.  The structures are blanketed in dense moss, ferns, and vines, leaving only the voids created by the windows to be the immediately noticeable things about them, otherwise nearly indistinguishable from their surroundings. He shakes his head at Cicada. “No, not at all.”

Cicada takes a breath as he looks up at the tree before them.  “S’funny what a little time can do after somethin’ like that, innit?”

Dara turns to Cicada, swallowing as he holds the leaf close to his chest.  “Yeah.”

Putting his hand on Dara’s shoulder, Cicada gives him a pat before letting it drop to his side and turning to go back to the truck.  “M’gonna go set us up, eh.”

Muffled music from the truck’s radio can barely be heard over the grinding whine of the tire pump inflating an air mattress that Cicada’s laid out on the dirt, filling the air with a strong rubbery smell.

“If I’m being honest, I thought camping was more stuff like sleeping bags and tents,” Dara chuckles, standing next to Cicada as he watches the mattress slowly expand and fill out.  “I wasn’t expecting an air mattress in a truck.”

“Who wants to wiggle around in a li’l nylon sock on the ground all night an’ get bugs in their hair?  Not me,” Cicada says as he points a thumb at his chest, grinning at Dara. “They make tents for trucks but honestly I think havin’ a tent defeats the whole entire purpose of sleepin’ in the woods, s’far as that goes.”

Dara smiles skeptically at him.  “And what if it rains?”

“S’not gonna rain,” Cicada says affirmatively as he stoops over to test the firmness of the mattress, looking over at Dara.  “An’ if it does, we’ll just sleep on the bench seat, eh.”

Looking to the overcast sky, Dara seems to be extremely okay with the idea of being nestled up against Cicada in the cabin of the truck with a sly look on his face and a finger curled under his chin.  “You have a very good point.”

Satisfied with the state of the air mattress, Cicada flips the pump off and goes to unplug it from the truck’s cigarette lighter, unhooking it from the mattress’s valve and throwing it into a bag on the floor of the truck.

“What did you bring with us, anyway?” Dara asks, peering into the bed of the truck at the various backpacks and cooler that Cicada piled up in the back.  Cicada looks over, walking over and pulling the tailgate down, climbing over it to drag the bags out, clearing the bed to make room for the mattress.

“Stuff,” Cicada says as he effortlessly hefts the air mattress up and chucks it into the bed of the truck, pressing it down so it fits snugly between the wheel wells.  “I hit the convenience store for snacks while you were out, eh.”

Dara unzips one of the duffel bags to peek inside, pretending not to see the plastic freezer bag containing a big purple dildo, wrapped condoms, and a bottle of lube sitting right on top of the rolled blankets as he quickly zips it back shut.  

“Well, I trust that you know what you’re doing,” Dara smiles pleasantly, unfolding the camping chairs next to the stone circle.  He pauses to look around more, gazing at the small meadow across the stream. “It really is beautiful out here.”

Cicada hoists the heavy duffel bag back into the truck bed, wedging it between the mattress and the walls and unrolling the blankets over the mattress, opting to leave the toys until their time is ready.  The mental list cycles through his head of the other important stuff he has to do – set up a cooking pot, collect kindling for the fire, figure out which bag he stowed the travel bong away in for later tonight.  He at least had the foresight to bring jugs of water from home because honestly, fuck having to boil water for drinking if he doesn’t have to.

“Ey, Dara, y’know how to identify good firewood?”  

The drive out here was definitely longer than Cicada remembers it being, because he wasn’t expecting it to be so late when they arrived. By the time he and Dara get back to their campsite with arms full of dead branches collected from the woods, the sky is starting to take on warm evening hues as the air fills with the sound of buzzing insects heralding the arrival of dusk.

Dara kneels to deposit his kindling into the stone circle, his ears twitching at the sound as he looks around in an attempt to pick up where it’s coming from.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d have guessed those cicadas were the ghosts of distant buzz saws coming from those old buildings or something,” he says, sitting down.  “I’m assuming those are cicadas, anyway.”

“They do sound a bit like a busy mill, don’t they?” Cicada drops his kindling in a pile to feed into the fire over the course of the night, going back to the truck to get a cooking stand and a pot.  “I like that, though. The ghosts of the folks manning the saws.”

“The cicadas back home are the embodiment of tinnitus,” Dara laughs.  “In Samoutea, I mean. They just sit and scream all day and blow out your ears.”

“Don’t cicadas do that everywhere?”  Cicada smirks as he looks over his shoulder, carrying over the stand and unfolding it over the pit.  “Scream all day and make your ass deaf, I mean.”

“You’ve been pretty quiet with me so far,” Dara says, winking at him.  “Which is what most shocked me about you, to be honest.”

“Buddy, it’s called bein’ discreet,” Cicada scoffs, his cheeks tinging as he flicks his thumb to start the campfire.  “You don’t want the whole crew knowin’ you’ve been jackin’ off in your bunk, alright?”

“I mean, they could probably smell it,” Dara points out, leaning towards him.

“Hmph.” Getting into his chair, Cicada smirks at Dara.  “You’ve never been in a bunkhouse with a bunch’a sweaty-ass loggers, have you?  S’like livin’ in a pent-up, horny sock for three t’ five months, eh.”

“Oh.”  Dara makes a disgusted grimace.  “I guess that’s fair.”

“I mean, s’not that bad honestly,” Cicada says, shrugging.  “And if I like ‘em enough and they’re willin’ to pay up, y’know…”

He smugly rubs his thumb and index fingers together, causing Dara to hide his smile behind his hands.

“I hope you don’t think I’m laughing at you or anything,” Dara says, looking away in embarrassment.  “I’m just imagining you getting bent over by some big muscular logger guy and it’s really hot.”

“Buddy, you have no idea,” Cicada purrs as he exaggeratedly fans himself.  “Y’ever do any of that kinda work, Dara?”

“No, never.”  Dara quickly shakes his head.  “I honestly didn’t even so much as look at anyone else in that way until I started the potions.”

Cicada tenses up for a second, only just now realizing how the answer to that question could have gone a whole lot worse given what he knows of Dara’s past circumstances. He relaxes his shoulders in relief and smiles at Dara.  “Hah, yeah. Those first few years on the potions just turn you into a rutty li’l buck, don’t they?”

“It’s so much,” Dara says, covering his face again.  “Everything is hot now and it’s terrible!”

“S’just how it is, innit?” Cicada laughs.  “Y’ever go on the internet and see somethin’ weird a buddy posts on your timeline an’ suddenly your dick starts twitchin’ at it and you’re like ‘jeez, really?!’”

Dara lets his mouth hang open, giving Cicada a wide-eyed, mortified stare.  “Yes.

“Tell me the weirdest thing that you’ve gotten horned up about in recent memory,” Cicada says, leaning towards him.

Hiding his face, Dara shakes his head.  “No! You’ll laugh.”

“C’mon, I won’t judge!”  Cicada can make out the distinct curve of a smile on Dara’s cheeks as he gently nudges his arm.  “Buddy, if you knew even half the shit in my browser history…”

Dara parts his fingers to peek at Cicada, lowering one hand to extend a finger over Cicada’s shoulder.  Following where Dara is pointing, Cicada turns his head, his eyes settling on the truck sitting behind them.  

“Huh.”  He slowly looks back at Dara, looking simultaneously very confused and very flattered.  “My truck, eh?”

Dara silently nods, closing his fingers again.

“He’s a pretty sexy truck for sure,” Cicada says with amusement.  “Whatcha like about ‘im, eh? His nice, roomy cabin? His big muddy tires?  His swingin’ purple sack an’ his twelve-point rack?”

Dara sits frozen and silent for a long while before sighing and speaking, shaking his head.  “The suspension.”

“Huh, the suspension?  The shocks on that thing’re fuckin’ terrib–”  The realization hits Cicada that someone whose butt hasn’t gone numb like his to the constant growling of the engine, on top of feeling every single bump and pothole in a thinning foam seat, would probably feel like they were sitting on a giant vibrator.  “Ohhhhhh!”

He chuckles happily, patting his stomach.  “Well, then! I’m gonna hafta take you whippin’ shitties in that thing before you go back to Thalassea, for sure.”

Dara lowers his hands and blinks a few times, looking at Cicada, then the fire, then back at Cicada.  “I realize the answer to this is probably going to be more innocuous than it sounds, but what’s ‘whipping shitties’?”

“Oh, it’s just a local drug concoction made by combining nitrous oxide with reindeer shit after they’ve been fed hallucinogenic wild mushrooms.  Most folks ‘round here inject it directly into their balls,” Cicada says extremely casually, pausing just long enough for Dara’s entire body to freeze back up in horror before playfully patting him on the shoulder.  “Nah, I’m just fuckin’ with you, bud. S’just drivin’ circles in the mud for the fuck of it, eh.”

Dara clutches his chest and slumps into his seat, looking like he’s already expired.  “I’m glad that’s not actually something people do.”

“I mean, there is a thing where reindeer eat those mushrooms and get fucked up and then drink their own mushroom piss and get high off the piss, though,” Cicada helpfully adds, holding up a finger.  “And I heard people can get high off the mushroom piss too!”

There’s a long pause as Dara just looks at Cicada, his mouth open and his teeth bared in disgust.

“So do they just feed it the mushrooms and then sit under it all day waiting for it to relieve itself?” Dara finally musters the courage to ask, curling and uncurling his fingers as he attempts to process this new information.  “That sounds like so much unnecessary effort to get high.”

“Dunno,” Cicada says, looking thoughtful. “Haven’t really had the chance to see how that’d work, eh.”

“Well, feel free to do that if the opportunity ever presents itself,” Dara laughs.  “I’d rather just do a couple bong rips myself and achieve the same effects without drinking magic mushroom reindeer urine straight from the source.”

“Hey, don’t knock it ‘til ya try it, eh!” Cicada winks at Dara.  “But buddy, you’re in luck if you happen to be in the mood for bong rips…”

After eating a meal of shitty canned soup over the fire, they retire back to the truck, climbing over the tailgate and on top of the air mattress with a new objective for the night: Get high as fuck and jack each other off until they pass out under the stars.  The sun has dipped below the horizon, the fire still crackling but slowly dying, giving them just enough light to see each other and their surroundings. The call of the wild cicadas has dimmed down and given way to the song of crickets to take over on the backdrop of night.

Cicada pulls his silicone travel bong out of a backpack along with a bag of weed, setting it out between himself and Dara and pouring some water into it from a plastic bottle.

“Y’know, if I didn’t need gas to get us back home later, I’d leave the engine on just for you, eh,” Cicada teases him as he starts grinding up the weed.  

“I don’t think we’d be able to feel it through this mattress, anyway,” Dara says as he takes the grinder from Cicada and loads the bowl.  “I saw some of the things you brought with us, though. Does a vibrator happen to be among them?”

“You betcha,” Cicada chuckles as Dara holds out the bong for him to light.  He flicks his thumb, producing a small enough flame to light the bowl as Dara pulls in a hit.  “Brought us a harness too, eh.”

Dara’s eyes flick up at Cicada as he finishes milking the bowl, pulling it out to clear the bong of smoke and hold it in his lungs before exhaling it through his nose.  Coughing the rest of the smoke out into his elbow, he shakes his head to get his bearings and passes the bong over to Cicada. “You really planned ahead.”

“Well, didn’t wantcha to get bored while we’re out here, eh!” Cicada cheerfully grins as he accepts the bong and holds it in his lap to torch the rest of the bowl.  After cashing it out, he opens the grinder to refill it, starting the cycle anew of passing the bong to Dara a second time until both decided they had their fill and tuck the bong away behind one of the wheel wells.  

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Dara says, tucking his legs up under him and leaning heavily on his hands towards Cicada.

Their bodies and limbs start to feel weighted down to the mattress, their eyelids leaden and ears slack as the telltale smile spreads across their faces like unfurling buds in the morning sun.  

“So, whaddya wanna try out first?” Cicada asks, leaning forward to meet Dara and touch their foreheads together.  

Dara hums thoughtfully, angling his head so their noses brush against each other.  “You mentioned a harness. Would bending you over be something you’d like?”

“Was hopin’ you’d wanna try somethin’ like that,” Cicada says cheerfully as he grins at him, licking his lips.  

They share a kiss, somehow both lazy and forceful at the same time, before pulling apart to reach for the duffel bag and sift through its contents for the harness and related objects.  Dara picks up the loosely tangled mess of leather straps, shaking them out and turning an ear back in thought.

“I guess I should uh, take my pants off for this to work, huh?”  Dara laughs, setting the harness aside to start pushing his leggings down.  

Cicada laughs, unzipping his jeans to work his own pants off.  “Probably, eh.”

He watches Dara attempt to put the harness on, reaching over to help him fit the straps over his hips and thighs. As the harness is fitted on, Dara slips fingers under the straps to ensure they’re stable and snug, but not enough so that the leather’s edges bite into his skin.  

“So, nifty thing about this harness,” Cicada says, taking a small egg vibrator out of the bag and handing it to Dara, patting the side of his leg where some empty, seemingly random elastic straps hang from the harness, “S’that you’re gettin’ somethin’ out of it too, eh.”

“I was wondering what those were for!”  Dara puts the vibrator’s controller into the elastic and threads the egg under the harness and between his legs so it sits right where he needs it to be.  “I’ve never worn one of these things before.”

“Technology is fuckin’ great, idnit?”  Cicada lays back, spreading his legs as he watches Dara shake the plastic bag from earlier with the dildo, condoms, and lube in it.

“What are the condoms for?” Dara asks, unzipping the bag to take the dildo out.  

“Well, y’know, we got more’n one place to put that thing in your hands there an’ no bathroom sink to clean it with,” Cicada laughs.  “An’ if you’re askin’ me, I probably wouldn’t wanna put somethin’ in my pooch after it’s been in my butt and I figure you wouldn’t wanna either, eh.”

Dara almost drops the dildo in shock and embarrassment.  “Oh.”

“I mean, could always boil it in the pot between ruts but fuck waitin’ for that honestly,” Cicada says, shrugging and idly massaging his clit.  

“Right!  Uh…” Dara passes the dildo and a condom to Cicada.  “I don’t know how to put this on.”

“S’fine,” Cicada says, sitting up to tear the wrapper open and unroll the condom over the toy before passing it back.  “I’ll actually show ya how t’ do it when it’s daylight later. For now just, y’know, focus on the fun stuff, eh?”

“Right!”  Dara nods eagerly as he unsnaps the O-ring to put the toy in place, stroking it with his hand as though it were really his and looking down at himself in quiet awe.  “Alright, um… how do you want to do this?”

“However y’want,” Cicada says, letting his head droop onto his shoulder.  “Easiest way would probably be bendin’ my ass over the tailgate and standin’ up, or puttin’ me on my hands n’ knees up here.”

“Ugh, those both sound really hot,” Dara whines.  “I don’t know if the tailgate thing would work without me having to stand on something, though.”

Cicada laughs.  “Buddy, you’re not even the shortest guy I’ve fucked, eh.”

“Really?”  Dara looks aside to think, then turns back to a nodding Cicada, laughing.  “Oh, right! Dwarves!”

“But eh, you’ve got a point about probably needin’ to stand on somethin’,” Cicada says, grinning and turning around to get on his hands and knees to present himself to Dara.  “We can figure that one out later. Let’s just do it up here, then.”

Dara walks on his knees towards Cicada, running his hands over his bare skin and giving his butt a squeeze and slipping a finger or two between his wet folds as though to test them.  “Do you, uh, have any preferences for this sort of thing?”

“Whichever one you want,” Cicada says, smiling over his shoulder as he shifts his knees apart.  “Just remember t’use lube if you’re goin’ for my butt, eh.”

Taking a deep breath, Dara steadies the toy and centers it on Cicada’s pucker, picking the bottle of lube up and letting its contents dribble out onto the shaft and between Cicada’s cheeks.  Cicada gasps in pleasant surprise, feeling the cold lube against his asshole as Dara presses the tip of the toy against his entrance and carefully starts to push himself in. “Is this alright?”

Cicada groans under his breath as he pushes himself against Dara to invite more of the toy into his ass, feeling himself opening up.  “Good choice.”

Dara reaches towards the vibrator’s controller to turn it on for himself, then places both hands on either side of Cicada’s hips to pull him down the rest of the shaft until they hilt.

“Uff da!”  Cicada shouts out in surprise and moderate pain, his eyes widening as he starts to laugh.  He didn’t expect Dara to really know what he was doing, but he can save the lessons in stretching for later – after all, his asshole isn’t made of cellophane, and he’s definitely taken much bigger before.  “You’re just goin’ right on in, arencha?”

Dara quickly yanks his hips back, pulling the toy out of Cicada.  “I didn’t hurt you, did I?!”

“S’fine, s’fine, nothin’ that’ll ruin my day,” Cicada says, visibly panting as he backs himself up towards Dara.  “Loved that way you grabbed me, though, so maybe do a bit more of that, eh?”

Dara smiles nervously at him, nodding and giving Cicada’s hips a firm grip and pulling him back onto the toy and starting to build himself up into a good rhythm with Cicada pushing back in sync with him. The sensation of his ass filling causes Cicada to whimper and moan, inciting Dara to push harder into his ass with each oncoming thrust.

“So that’s how I get my little cicada to sing,” Dara says huskily, leaning over Cicada to growl into his ear after a deep and forceful thrust that sends him bouncing forward and groaning loudly.  

“More,” Cicada begs, dropping his entire upper body onto the mattress and hiking his rear up as he closes his eyes.  He can feel his juices running down his leg, his heart racing, his sweat running down his forehead as Dara shifts behind him and starts rutting him more aggressively, refusing to let him go.  When Dara turns the vibrator’s strength up for himself, Cicada can notice its energy transferring to the toy and into his body. “Oh, jeez…”

He buries his face into the mattress, muffling his whines and moans until Dara gently takes a fistful of his hair to pull his head up.

“Let me hear you,” Dara purrs breathlessly, leaning down to kiss his upper back.  “You can’t hide it from me, you rowdy tod, I can smell it all over you.”

“Fuck off,” Cicada laughs and snarls blissfully, laying his head on its side.  “Shut up an’ keep fuckin’ my ass, ya hoser.”

“Getting feisty, aren’t you?”  Dara notices Cicada trying to reach between his legs to rub at his clit, grabbing his arm and pinning it against the mattress.  “Ah, ah, ah, my wild little tod, you’re not allowed to cum until I say you can.”

“Fuck,” Cicada huffs, feeling his cock twitch in agonizing need, the pressure building and building and sitting on the edge until waiting to burst.  Dara must surely be close himself, and he feels the strength of the vibrator increase once more as the pace of the thrusting increases until he makes one final, hard push, crying out and shuddering in a heap over Cicada’s back, the toy lodged deep inside him.  The buzzing eventually dies away as he turns the vibrator off.

Dara lay panting on top of Cicada for a few moments, then pulls out and takes a step back, pinching Cicada’s clit between his fingers to stroke it.  

“Wanna cum,” Cicada groans, widening his legs and trembling.

“Not yet,” Dara says, inserting a few fingers into his vagina with his other hand.

“Fuck,” Cicada says, clenching his teeth.  “Please.”

“Hmmmm,” Dara loudly hums in consideration, taking his sweet time in weighing whether or not he should let Cicada get off as he lazily teases him.  “No.”

“Ugh.”  Cicada whines, his entire body feeling like a taut rubber band.  “Now? Please?”

“Let me think…” Dara smiles at him, intentionally delaying his answer as he curls his fingers around Cicada’s fully engorged clit and milking him with his thumb.  “You may.”

With permission to finally finish, his vaginal walls squeeze and pump around Dara’s fingers as nectar pours over his hands and he slumps forward in panting, shivering ecstasy, his legs giving out.  

Dara looks immensely pleased as he pats Cicada on the butt as though he were praising a dog.  “Good boy.”

“Thank you,” Cicada whispers as he lay face-down and twitching on the mattress.  “Fuck. Asshole.”

Dara undoes the straps of the harness, letting it fall to the mattress with a wet thump and crawling over to lay beside Cicada and hold him in his arms.  Cicada rolls over and leans into him, his legs feeling like rubber and his mind still spinning from that incredibly, incredibly cruel and wonderfully delayed orgasm as Dara nuzzles his cheek.  “Did you like that?”

Cicada noses Dara and kisses him on the cheek.  “I think I had fun.”

“You ‘think’ you had fun?” Dara pleasantly rumbles with laughter as he gives Cicada a squeeze.  “It sounded to me like you were really enjoying yourself back there.”

“You got me there,” Cicada sighs happily.  “Damn near ripped my ass in half. An’ what about you, eh?”

“I quite liked it!” Dara says, his voice chipper. “I’d be up for trying some more later.”

“Good,” Cicada says.  “You’re a fuckin’ natural top, didya know that?”

“Am I?”  Dara seems genuinely surprised by the revelation.  

“Uh, yeah?”  Cicada playfully bats at him.  “The way you grabbed me, that fuckin’ bit at the end?  How’d you even pick that up, buddy?”

“I don’t even really know, to be honest,” Dara says, blushing.  “I saw it in some porn once and I wanted to try it, it seemed like the right thing to do.”  

“Well keep fuckin’ doin’ it,” Cicada says, resting his head on Dara’s chest.  

“If you insist,” Dara says, kissing the top of Cicada’s head.  

The trees rustle in the night breeze as they gaze up at the night sky together in relaxed silence, admiring the enormous swaths of stars above them in the clear patches of sky not obscured by boughs.  Cicada closes his eyes and listens to Dara’s lungs filling with air then emptying as he breathes and the calm, relaxed beating of his heart as the crickets sing around them.

“I’m so glad I came out here,” Dara says, smiling.  “This has been such an incredible experience and I’m so glad I could share it with you.”

“Yeah,” Cicada says.  “S’beautiful out here.”

“Not just that,” Dara says, looking at him.  “I mean, I’m glad I took the assignment to go out to Minnelaskwa in the first place.  And I’m glad I got lost on the way, and that the waiter was just messing with me at the diner when he gave me your address.”  

He turns on his side, hugging Cicada close to him and gently pressing his hand against his chest.  “I’m glad I met you.”

“Aw jeez,” Cicada says, blinking tears away and sniffling as he tilts his head back to avoid Dara’s gaze.  “You don’t have to say that out loud, buddy.”

“Why not?” Dara asks, tilting Cicada’s head back down by the chin.  “You deserve to know how I feel about you.”

“Dunno why,” Cicada says, tears now fully rolling down his face.  “S’just me bein’ dumb, I guess.”

“Oh, Cicada…” Dara touches the back of his finger to Dara’s cheek, wiping his tears away.  “You’re not dumb. Would a dumb person be able to build a whole, entire, working truck out of random parts they found at a garbage dump?”

“Aw, shut the front door!” Cicada happily buries his face in Dara’s chest, rubbing his dumb, tear-stained face into him.  There’s definitely some element of not feeling worthy of this praise as well as feeling lifted up, as his emotions are both conflicting and overwhelming in a way that can only manifest in tears.  “I’m… I’m glad you randomly showed up at my house and decided you wanted to suck my dick in the bathroom at the roadkill place.”

Love truly does seem to find itself blossoming in the most unlikely of places, like a flower persistently growing out of a urinal cake left in a ditch.

“I would have worded that more romantically,” Dara laughs, rocking Cicada and petting his messy hair. “But if any sort of florid language came out of your mouth I’d have to check and make sure you weren’t some sort of doppelganger.”

Cicada smiles despite himself.  “Fuck you, buddy.”

“I love you too, Cicada.” Dara laughs, patting his back.  “I’m so glad we met.”

They spend the rest of their time at the campsite nearly inseparable, enjoying each other’s company in more ways than one as they go fishing, swimming, and exploring the woods and meadow.  They spend their nights by the fire as Dara talks about the stars and outer space, filling Cicada’s head with thoughts of how great and vast the universe is and how incredible it is that they live on a planet so teeming with life and how elves would make the ideal candidates for space travel if they weren’t so skittish about technology.

On one of those nights, Cicada brings out a banjo from the truck’s toolbox – a wooden, open-backed instrument with four strings, a popular dwarven instrument that oft accompanied logging crews to be played at campfire for musical entertainment when the day’s work was done.

Dara’s ears swing forward with interest as he listens to Cicada idly strum it in his lap, leaning forward in his camping chair as he concentrates on the notes. “What instrument is that? I’ve never seen one before.”

“You’ve never seen a banjo?” Cicada asks, tilting his head. “Well, I guess it’d make sense not knowin’ one if you don’t hang around dwarves, eh.”

“I see.” Dara pauses to listen to Cicada play for a bit more, then holds out his hands. “I would like to try something, may I see it?”

“Huh? Well sure,” Cicada says, holding the banjo out for Dara with a smile. Dara takes it into his hands, experimentally plucking each string a few times with curiosity. “M’no expert but I figure I could probably teach you some of the basics–”

He stops himself when he hears Dara try a few chords then subtly turns one of the tuning pegs and tests the strings again.

“I knew it,” Dara says, satisfied with the perfected tuning of the banjo. “This is the exact same tuning as a viola, isn’t it?”

“I… I guess?” Cicada has never played a viola before, but given how Dara is already capably plinking out melodies, he supposes Dara is right. “You’ve really never seen nor played a banjo before, right?”

Dara shakes his head. The test riffs he plays sound more classical than anything that banjo’s ever been used for, favoring soft, high notes. “No. I’ve just had a lot of musical training. Would you like it back?”

“You can keep playin’ with it if you want,” Cicada says, putting his chin in his hand. “S’nicer than anything I’ve ever played, for sure.”

“Very well.” Dara smiles at him and continues playing strange, beautiful music that sounds almost like a lullaby, quietly humming along.

Closing his eyes to listen, a calm smile crosses Cicada’s face as he imagines himself at home next to the fireplace, his head in Dara’s lap as his hair is being stroked and they’re watching some trashy rubber monster movie on TV while swearing cozy sweaters.

“D’ya like singin’ at all, Dara?”

The strumming stops, and Dara looks quietly into the fire for a long moment as he rests his arm on the drum of the banjo. Cicada opens his eyes, noticing Dara’s expression has changed for the melancholy.

“Ah, yeah, the voice changes.” Cicada reaches over to gently pat Dara’s forearm, smiling gently at him. “Your hummin’ was nice, anyways. I’m sure your singin’s fine, but you don’t hafta sing anything if you don’t feel okay with that right now, alright?”

Dara looks at Cicada, forcing a smile as he shakes his head. “It’s not that. My singing is awful.”

“Buddy, don’t even talk to me about bad singin’,” Cicada chuckles. “I can clear out a family a’ raccoons from a garbage buffet in a single verse with mine.”

“I’d like to hear that,” Dara says, smirking as he passes the banjo back to Cicada. “Play me your worst song.”

“Oh, you betcha!” Cicada grins, taking the instrument and plucking a jaunty little tune about a six-legged opossum (the joke is because opossums have two dicks, get it) and playing into the night every terrible, bawdy camp song he’s ever been taught to Dara’s great amusement before they both retire to the bed of the truck for sex and sleep.

Before long it’s time for them to head back to town, and the time for Dara to take the long drive back to the airport to depart to Thalassea is fast approaching.  It’s been at the back of Cicada’s mind the entire drive home, even more than his desire to take a real good shower which is usually what he craves most after a camping trip.  He thinks about all the cool things in the valley he wanted to show Dara, all the friends he wanted to introduce him to, to eventually maybe even meet his mothers both living and dead, and so much more.

He pulls into the driveway, stopping the truck and sitting silently in the driver’s seat, trying to make the lump in his throat go away as he stares ahead.

“Flight’s tomorrow morning, eh?”

Dara nods at him, his ears lowering.  “Unfortunately.”

Cicada sighs, giving him a wistful glance.  “Well, if y’ever get any PTO you gotta burn off and y’wanna come back out here, I’ll be more’n happy to put ya up, eh.”

“You know what?  I do have paid time off stored up,” Dara muses out loud as he looks at him in realization, seeming to be seriously considering this.  “I think I’ll see if I can’t swing it before the year is out. I like it out here.”

“Really?”  Cicada blinks, his lips pulling into a smile.  “Well, you’ll wanna bring a jacket for sure, it gets pretty cold here, eh.”

“It can’t be that cold with you around,” Dara says, undoing his seatbelt and crawling over the bench seat to kiss Cicada.  

“We’ll see about that, Mr. Out-of-Towner,” Cicada chuckles, kissing Dara back.  “Might hafta set you up t’ live in the sauna so ya don’t freeze dry into a li’l stick a’ jerky when ya go outside, eh.”

“Oh!  Can we jump in a frozen lake afterwards?” Dara pulls back from him, sitting on his legs.

“For sure,” Cicada says, looking fondly at Dara.  “By the way, next time you come up here… we got a mountain train that goes all the way down through the pass, s’way cheaper than takin’ a rental all the way from the airport, for sure.”

Dara gasps.  “Nobody mentioned a thing about there being a train here!”

“Not to mention the view’s just fuckin’ incredible,” Cicada says, dramatically sweeping his arm out.  “Damn near my favorite thing about the end of the log drive, comin’ home aside.”

“Well I’m definitely going to have to look into that now,” Dara says with determination.  

“What airport are you goin’ out to, anyways?” Cicada asks, tilting his head.  

“Martelo International,” Dara says.  Cicada pulls his lips and ears back in a grimace.  

“Aw jeez!  That’s a drive,” Cicada says.  If he ever meets whatever Thalassian officials are in charge of travel arrangements for its employees, he has a few choice words for them, chief among them firmly-worded instructions on how a search engine works and other ways to not subject their more technologically illiterate people to longer than necessary drives to and from the airport.  “If the train doesn’t work out, next time just hire a guy with a utility plane to take ya up to Feradomo from there, eh.”

Dara facepalms, groaning.  “I really wish my boss told me these things before I left.”

“Your boss didn’t even know the actual name of this town,” Cicada laughs.  “I wouldn’t ‘spect ‘em to know we even got a train, eh.”

“It’s good to know this for the future, at least,” Dara sighs, running a hand through his dirty hair.  “For now though, I think I could use a nice, hot shower.”

“What a coincidence,” Cicada says.  “I need to take a shower too, eh.”

They unload the truck and head straight for the bathroom, shedding their clothes and crowding into the shower stall to scrub off a week’s worth of dirt, pine needles, and leaves (sure, they bathed in the stream while they were out in the wilds, but nothing beats scalding hot water and actual, proper soap and shampoo). Cicada sits in the shower chair and detaches his prosthetic leg as Dara comes in behind him, wedging himself behind the chair and finding it to be more than a little cramped with two people in there.

“Whose idea was this?” Cicada laughs, turning on the water as hot steam fills the room, scooting his chair up to give Dara more space.

Dara grabs the shower handle, soaking water into Cicada’s hair and palming shampoo over his scalp.  “I distinctly remember it being yours.”

“Well…”  He trails off, blissfully closing his eyes at the soothing feeling of Dara massaging his head and working the lather through his mane.  “It coulda been worse, eh.”

“I hesitate to ask how,” Dara chuckles as he directs the shower handle to rinse the suds out of Cicada’s hair.  

Cicada is quiet for a few moments, thinking about whether or not he should say what’s on his mind to Dara as he takes the bar of soap out of the caddy and starts scrubbing himself up.  

The pressure builds as he starts cracking up, pursing his lips together and smiling like a jackass.  “We coulda tried using the toilet at the same time instead, eh.”

“I’m already showering with a toilet, so what’s the difference?” Dara stops lathering up his own hair long enough to switch the shower handle into jet mode, aiming it squarely at the back of Cicada’s head and hitting him with the water.

They both laugh, then resume cleaning each other up in relative peace until they feel like they’ve successfully scrubbed away all the dirt and grime, changing into fresh pajamas and collapsing exhausted in bed to watch dumb videos until they pass out, too tired to do anything more in their last hours than cuddle each other until it’s time for Dara to wake up to leave.

It’s definitely earlier than Cicada would ever voluntarily get up, but he wants to see Dara off before he goes.  The sun’s not even up yet and won’t be for another few hours, and his entire body’s still sore from camping. Dara’s out of bed before him, plucking his clean dress clothes out of his suitcase to put on and whisking around the house for his personal effects in one final sweep.  His suitcase is now bulging with the addition of the flannels Cicada had given him before the camping trip.

Cicada follows him out to the car, doing his damnedest not to start crying as he helps carry Dara’s bags out.

“Y’sure you don’t have any time for breakfast?” Cicada asks, putting the suitcase in the back of the station wagon.  

“I can’t, but thank you.”  Dara shakes his head. “I’ll grab some drive-thru coffee and then eat at the airport.”

“Hold up,” Cicada says, raising his finger as he quickly strides back to the house, returning with two sandwich bags – one clear and one tinted green, both of them containing his homemade dessert bars.

“This one’s for the road,” he says, handing Dara the clear bag first, then hands him the green bag with a wink.  “And this one’s for the flight.  Try to take it an hour or so before you board, eh.”

“I see, thank you.”  Dara takes the baggies, smiling knowingly as he tucks them away into his messenger bag.  He holds his arms out to Cicada for a tight hug, lingering for a long time before he lets go.  “I’m going to miss you so much.”

Cicada sniffs, kissing Dara on the cheek before he pulls back.  “Same, buddy, same.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as I can about vacation time,” he says, holding both of Cicada’s hands.  “Maybe you can help me pick out a winter coat.”

“For sure,” Cicada says, smiling.  “You have a good trip home, alright?  Drive safe an’ all that stuff.”

“I will,” Dara says, taking a breath as he lets go of Cicada’s hands and ducks into the car.  “I’ll let you know when I get to the airport, okay?”

“For sure,” Cicada says, taking a step back to the curb as Dara closes the door and waving to him as he starts the car.  Dara waves back at him, blowing him a kiss as he pulls out into the road and drives away.

Rust Lake is a small town with nothing to do, until you meet someone new and get to experience it all over again through their eyes and get to vicariously live through their joy and what they find in it that you might not have considered yourself.  

Cicada wonders if he’ll ever see Dara again once he drives off in that rental car, standing outside until the car is totally out of view.  He turns around and goes back inside his cabin, collapsing face-down in his empty bed until he goes back to sleep with nothing else to do, until he’s woken up by his phone vibrating hours later.  He blearily grabs his phone off the nightstand to see who it is that’s messaging him, fumbling the phone in surprise and rolling on his back immediately to open the message and respond with a huge smile on his face.

A few weeks later, Dara sits in his cubicle, supportive splints on both of his hands as he rapidly enters data into the beige, chunky computer from an old binder taken from one of the elven colonies.  His phone vibrates unexpectedly as the words ‘My Tod’ surrounded in heart emojis flashes on the screen, causing him to glance away from the computer for a second, then looks around to see if anyone’s got their eyes on him before unlocking the phone and opening the message.

It’s a picture of a truck tailpipe, familiar bumper stickers just out of frame.  ‘feelin cute today…….’

Dara does another check to see if he’s being watched before he thumbs a reply, trying not to look too distracted by the lewd message.  ‘You know I’m at work right now’

The message indicator shows ‘My Tod’ typing a reply.  Another picture loads in, showing a familiar hand suggestively putting his middle and ring fingers into the tailpipe with his palm facing up, accompanied by an eggplant emoji and a winking tongue emoji.  ‘oops i slipped haha’

Feeling his face turn hot, Dara only responds with a flustered emoji before turning his phone face-down on his desk and pressing his legs together, hoping nobody saw that.  The phone vibrates once more as he resume entering data, and Dara resolves not to open it until he’s on break lest he get too preoccupied with embarrassing thoughts and get frowned at by his manager for goofing off on his phone when he should be working.

Besides, his vacation is right around the corner.

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5 thoughts on “Local Flavor

  1. I was so pumped when I realized Cicada was the POV character on this one!!! I was not disappointed!!!

    a trans/trans romance….in my s2b2? it’s more likely than you think

    I’m just so happy about this aggressively midwestern elf and this entire settings and, not to be all “uwu smol bean” but: Dara is my precious baby adult elf I love him

    I did have occasional trouble with the tense, but honestly, the setting and the characters more than make up for some periodic confusion and rereading to get things straight. (And tbh my attention span is not what it once was, so this could absolutely be a personal idiosyncrasy wrt present tense)

    Also the art is very cute and I love Dara’s design!!! And OBVIOUSLY Cicada is a perfect trashbag, as we have known.

    I’m so glad to get more of this world and I’m just doubly glad to get such a sweet romance along with it!!!

  2. Oh no I’m in love???

    Queenofzan recommended this fic to me, and I’m super glad I read it. Queer Midwestern fantasy lit is entirely my jam, and this was a lovely way to indulge in it. This is some of the most heartwarming, feel good smut I’ve read in a long time, and I can tell you put a lot of love into it. Thanks for writing!!

  3. Knowing how much time and effort you put into this piece (and how you kept working on it right up to the wire) is incredibly impressive, especially with it being only your second non-serialized work on such a large scale! Cicada really got a chance to shine this time around and Dara is, of course, a darling. I’m so glad you decided to return to this setting again and show off a completely different side of the world this issue.

    I still get a kick out of the truck pictures at the end, too.

  4. I was VERY excited to see another story in this setting! I appreciated getting to learn more about Cicada, and Dara is delightful too – and they make a great pair together. There’s so much detail you put into the setting (I loved the little bit of mythology sprinkled in there!!) and the characters, it made this so great to read. I desperately want to hang out in a sauna now!
    Also I laughed at Cicada’s address. n i c e

  5. This is a really enjoyable time hanging out with these characters. I love the uniqueness of this setting and culture!

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