illustrated by festivewind
Notes: Dedicated to theillusionist in honor of her birthday and all-around awesomeness. Betaed with patience by shadowgoddess42, pulsebeat, and rosalyn_angel.
It was a warm day, and sunlight streamed through the leaves and onto the ground, sprinkling fallen logs and tree trunks and curious ferns with dappled light and brighter color. Tal breathed in the heavy summer air, smelling the honeysuckle bushes strung along their neighbors’ fence and the deeper smell of earth and fresh greenery. It was the height of summer, and he had been aching to get into the woods since even before the end of the advanced class that kept him cooped up in the University for almost a week. Reading in the light through a window was one thing—exploring the woods, taking it all in—sun, life, the beauty of both—well, it was something else entirely. He had grown up in this house, and these woods were his woods. As much as studying kept him out of them, he missed the footpaths he’d pounded into the earth in elementary school making forts and exploring the caves, and he missed climbing trees with a good book and leaning against the trunk and feeling weightless as his imagination transported him to another place and time. Tal remembered going into these woods barefoot when he was young and fearing neither snakes nor the bears his parents told him were sometimes sighted in the area.
He smiled at the memory of playing with the neighbors’ kids, long since moved away, and making up stories about the woods and the creatures in it. It was while he thought of those long-gone playmates that he suddenly realized someone was talking up ahead. Tal frowned. He rarely ran into other people in the woods, and rarer still were people he saw but couldn’t recognize. Tal cocked his head and followed the voice. It was sinuous, if a voice could be described as sinuous, and rose and fell in pitch almost like a song or a winding stream. And while Tal was sure it was a man talking, he couldn’t tell if the man was young or old.
Young, Tal realized when he finally got close enough to see the stranger through the trees. Definitely young. Tal’s age, maybe a little older, and…different. For one thing, he was talking to himself. For another, his clothes, a pair of grass-stained slacks that hugged his thighs and hips like a second skin, seemed like they had once been nice, but were now little more than threadbare. The man was much more tanned than Tal—not that such a feat was difficult—but his hair was lighter, a burnt amber shade half-tied back in thick locks that, upon closer inspection, Tal realized were braids. They fell almost halfway down his chest, and each looked to be enclosed in gold and cream beads.
The man swiped at the locks in his face, flipping the longest ones over his shoulder, and Tal could suddenly see a dusky nipple in the expanse of golden skin. The stranger seemed suffused with sunlight, and for a startling moment, Tal could not look away.
…Then he got a grip. He knew getting any closer would be a bad idea, though. Some people in the woods wanted to talk when they saw someone else, and next to this man, Tal would look gawky and small. His glasses were forever getting dirty, he never cared that the seat of his pants had grass and mud stains from sitting in the woods and reading all day, and his mousy brown hair was always getting into his wide brown eyes and making it hard to see. Besides, Tal just knew that if the stranger didn’t immediately dismiss him, he’d manage to embarrass himself somehow.
Tal never had much luck acting cool around men he was attracted to.
There was no sense wasting a perfectly good day making a fool out of himself, Tal thought, and he was just about to make his way off the path to give the man a wide berth, when he finally caught sight of what the man was talking to: a rattlesnake.
Tal’s breath caught in his throat. The snake was rattling its tail and its head was raised, mouth slightly open and level with the stranger’s heart. He wanted to yell for the man to stop talking, to just be still, but even if he had had the presence of mind to do such a thing, his breath was barely squeaking out of his mouth—a shout would be impossible to manage.
Don’t move! he thought at the stranger, as if the man could hear him.
The man was clearly not paying attention to Tal’s panicked mental warnings, because the next thing he did was throw his head back in a clacking of beads, and laugh.
Tal was running before he realized he had moved, purposefully crashing through the woods, slapping bushes and crunching down hard on sticks in an effort to get closer to the stranger and scare off the snake in the process. The snake’s large, angular head twisted in Tal’s direction. So did the stranger’s, whose laughter had tapered off as Tal rushed toward him.
Waving his hands wildly, Tal yelled, “Don’t move! It’ll bite you!”
The stranger cocked his head, and the snake swayed in the air and, as if deciding the noisy creature approaching was trouble, slithered off in the opposite direction.
Tal practically fell into the little clearing where the stranger was getting to his feet, looking between Tal and the bushes the snake had disappeared beneath with a torn expression. “Are you ok?” Tal gasped, staring after the snake and then up at the stranger’s face. The man was…tall. Tal found himself staring at a collarbone when he finally straightened up, hands pressed to his hips to keep himself upright. “You didn’t get bitten, did you?”
The stranger frowned down at Tal with eyes the color of green olives. “Why would I get bitten?”
Tal gaped. “Why would—snakes have bitten people in these woods! When a snake rattles at you, you don’t—you don’t just laugh!”
The stranger crossed one arm over his chest and put the other to his chin. “You were worried I’d get bitten.”
“Yes!” Tal thought that should be painfully obvious by now, but clearly the stranger required more time to think.
The man looked at the path of the long-gone snake and then pursed his lips. “Is that why you were so noisy coming over here?”
Was this man crazy? “Of course! I was trying to scare it away—it’s just good that you went still while I was coming, otherwise it might’ve struck at you before it left.” Tal wiped hair out of his eyes and sighed. “I’m just…the snakes around here usually aren’t bad, but sometimes people do get hurt.”
The stranger licked his lips, was silent a few moments, and then suddenly smiled. “Name’s Adam Anteus,” he said, thrusting out a hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Tal wished he could make his heart stop beating so fast, but from the stranger’s grin to the warmth of his larger hand, Tal knew he was well and truly smitten, and fast on his way to making a fool of himself. “I’m Tal,” he said in a rush, and took his hand back. “Nice to meet you.”
The stranger’s—Adam’s—mouth quirked down in one corner. “Tal? Where have I heard that name before?”
He was blushing, he knew; soon his ears would start lighting up like a Christmas tree. “If you were out here a few weeks ago, you probably heard my mom yelling for me to come home. I’d left my phone in the house.”
“Perhaps that’s it,” Adam said, voice casting doubt on those very words.
Tal frowned. “Yeah. So…” He wracked his brain for something to say, given that the stranger had gone quiet, yet was still standing in front of him. “You talk to snakes?” That sounded farfetched, despite the stranger’s foolish display. Tal quickly rephrased. “Uh, you were—you were talking to that snake. How do you know for sure it wouldn’t have bitten you? I mean, it looked like it was going to bite you.”
“A lot of things look different from the way they really are,” Adam said, olive eyes fixed on Tal’s. Tal didn’t know quite what to say, paralyzed by Adam’s gaze like a hypnotized mouse, so there was silence between them for a moment, punctuated by the scratching of little feet on leaves and the hesitant trill of far away birds. “Anyway,” Adam resumed at last, eyes softening and smile once again tugging the corners of his lips, “you have nothing to fear from the snakes around here. I hear they like you.”
Tal frowned dubiously. “Did they tell you that?”
“Don’t you believe me?”
“I’m gullible, but not that gullible.”
Adam crossed his arms. “So if I told you that as the lord of all the snakes in this region, I know for a fact that the snakes around here like you, you wouldn’t believe me?”
Tal chuckled despite himself. “I’d believe you have a healthy imagination and an interesting sense of humor.”
“But you wouldn’t believe me.”
“No.” Tal shook his head. Adam cast him a mock-sorrowful look, and Tal surprised himself by laughing.
“You’re all right,” Adam said.
“Thanks,” Tal said, “You’re not so bad yourself.”
They met again the next day, though not by spoken agreement. It was no accident that Tal took the same path through the woods as he had the previous day, but he was still pleasantly surprised to find Adam in the same spot he’d been the day before, talking distractedly at a much less agitated-looking snake.
Tal’s walks in the woods continued so regularly the two men may as well have agreed to meet every afternoon. Tal didn’t always take the same path though—sometimes he would set off in the opposite direction and find Adam waiting for him at the end of the trail, or sneaking up behind him as he tried to figure out where Adam would come from next. Tal liked trying to stump Adam, but every time the other man fell into step beside him, he found he didn’t mind losing their little game.
By this time, Tal was past being so nervous he embarrassed himself, and was almost past the stage where he couldn’t help but stare at Adam’s hard chest or stomach, or the way his back rippled when he climbed trees too tall for Tal to reach, and the way his hair fell over his shoulder when he stooped to look at something on the ground. He’d even gotten used to the way Adam would sometimes seem to smell things Tal didn’t, and the way he’d sometimes jump at car horns when they got too close to the road, and steer them away from campers and hikers who crossed their path when they went deeper into the woods than their usual route.
“You’re so anti-social,” Tal joked when they passed a family taking a sandwich break around a stone campsite fireplace. The group was dressed for hiking, and each of the four had a backpack at his or her feet. The mother was withdrawing a bottle of water from hers.
Adam, who was staring balefully at the family, turned to glare at Tal when he spoke. “I like to stay away from humans when I can avoid them.”
“You talk funny sometimes, too,” Tal said.
Adam raised an eyebrow. Tal tried to do the same and failed, prompting a breathy laugh from his companion. “Well, you see funny,” Adam said, pressing a finger into the left lens of Tal’s glasses.
Tal squawked in indignation and ripped his glasses off to clean them. “Why do you keep doing that?” he wailed, raising his white undershirt to rub furiously at the lens. He lifted it so his squinting would actually yield something close to clear vision, and then breathed on the lens until it fogged, and resumed his vigorous rubbing. When he looked up again, Adam was grinning down at him. Tal shook his head, his expression promising vengeance, and slid his glasses back on.
“Oh, you’re not really mad,” Adam said, sounding more confident than he looked.
“Wait and see,” Tal said, turning abruptly in the family’s direction.
“Tal!” Adam’s voice was a hiss, and Tal grinned since his back was to Adam, and kept walking. Suddenly, hands gripped his hips and a familiar clump of braids fell over Tal’s shoulder. Adam’s chin pressed against the side of Tal’s hair. “Tal, what’re you doing?” he asked.
Adam’s feet so close to his own made walking more difficult, and Tal found himself stumbling and being pressed closer. His steps slowed and he tried to pry Adam’s fingers off even though it was the very last thing he wanted to do. “I’m going to ask them something.”
“Ask them what?” Tal stopped and Adam bumped into him and grunted. Then he resumed walking, and Adam’s grip slipped. “Tal!” Tal kept walking. One of the kids, a little girl, looked up and took a bite of her sandwich. “Tal!” Adam launched himself in front of Tal and started pushing him backwards by the shoulders. “I’m sorry I touched your glasses—can we go now?”
“It’s just a family,” Tal teased, “Do you have something against families?”
Adam’s mouth opened and shut. Finally, when Tal wondered if he really had hit a nerve, Adam said, “Let’s go—I’ll show you one of my favorite places ever.”
Tal would have raised an eyebrow at Adam’s abrupt shift in subject, but his inability to actually raise one at a time would just make Adam laugh. So he crossed his arms and pursed his lips instead. “Okay,” he said, “Where is it?”
The place was deeper into the woods than the hikers, in a direction Tal hadn’t traveled in years. It took him a little while to notice he recognized some of the landmarks; he was wondering why such a wholesome-looking family had put Adam off.
But when they arrived at Adam’s chosen place, Tal forgot the hikers entirely. He couldn’t keep himself from smiling. Adam’s grip slackened on his arm, and Tal stepped out of it and inside the mouth of a familiar weather-beaten cave. Vines crept along the outside walls, and the ground inside was gritty, a mixture of damp not-quite mud and of crushed and smoothed stone. The walls, he knew, would feel damp and cool. The cave was no good for bringing books, but was perfect for a young boy seeking solitude and small-scale adventure. “I’d forgotten how to find this place,” Tal said, turning back to Adam.
The other man shrugged and grinned down at him. “It’s not hard to find if you know how to look.”
Tal rolled his eyes and turned back to squint at the bend he could just barely make out inside the cave. “I used to play here all the time,” he said softly. “I practically wore a trail here from my house when I was little.” He motioned to Adam and then stepped further into the cave, walking until he reached one of the dimmest sections, right before the bend. “See how the wall just ends?” He heard Adam come up beside him in the careful tread of his sandals and the rattling of hair beads. “My friends and I—the kids that moved away from next door—we would pretend this was a portal to another world, or that this whole place was a spaceship, or one of the caves in Indiana Jones…all kinds of stuff.”
Adam’s chuckle echoed like another shadow on the cave walls. He patted Tal on the shoulder. Then Tal felt a warm thumb run up the back of his neck and back down. He shivered. Adam did things like that sometimes—things that made Tal’s stomach knot deliciously, and made the blood run to his cheeks and pool in his gut and then run lower still. The other man never seemed to notice Tal’s response; indeed, he seemed to be oblivious to any romantic or sexual connotations his actions had.
And Tal was afraid to tell him. Afraid that Adam was making such gestures innocently, and would be upset with Tal for taking them the wrong way; and afraid that Adam would be super-conscious of himself in the future, but would not be upset, and instead would let Tal down in that gentle way he had of handling Tal’s favorite books and laughing at Tal’s random jokes and telling Tal he had never seen Indiana Jones the character, much less the movies, and had no familiarity with the outrun-the-boulder game Tal and his friends used to play all the time.
So Tal was very consciously still, breathing in the damp air of the cave and letting Adam run his thumb along the bones of his spine and ask him questions about his friends, which Tal answered as best he could while thankful for the dark that hid his blush.
In the coming weeks, they went fishing for crayfish, Tal with slacks rolled up almost to his thighs, customary book and notepad lying safe on the bank, and cool water numbing his bare feet as he bent over the rushing stream, neck baking in the sun, and tried to follow Adam’s example with pruning fingers as the other man caught and released crayfish after crayfish, and only got nipped once.
They tried wild mushrooms and leaves and strawberries and flowers, some from Tal’s book of wild edibles and some from Adam’s dubious assurance that yes, he was sure this flower with its yellow petals tasted like lemons, or maybe it was a sweeter taste—but it was edible, he knew that.
A few times, they lay together by the stream and basked in the sunlight, occasionally being so still the birds would land nearby, and, once, a weather-beaten dog shyly pawed its way to the bank and lapped up the water with a pink tongue.
Other times, Tal would read in the forest, back against a tree, and Adam would show up minutes or hours after he sat down, basket of rich food in hand, and the two would picnic in the woods, or Tal would simply transfer his weight from the tree trunk to Adam’s shoulder, reach across him, and pull a slice of cheese or a piece of smoked meat or hot bread from the basket in Adam’s lap, and continue reading even as Adam protested being ignored in favor of food and a book.
On reading days, Adam would eventually get sick of being ignored and steal the book, or poke or tickle Tal until he stopped reading and engaged his friend in conversation. Once, Adam leaned backward and Tal fell half into his lap. Adam laughed at Tal’s shocked expression, and then laughed again when Tal cast him a challenging look, set his book upright on his chest, and continued reading. That was the day Adam stroked his hair, and Tal tried to concentrate on his book, but couldn’t; Adam was looking at him with such an intent expression that Tal’s stomach fluttered and his lips parted, suddenly dry. He looked back at Adam, and Adam’s hand slid down to his cheek, knuckle rubbing along the bone.
“Tal,” Adam said, voice soft, “I—”
A rattle from the bushes startled them both. Adam jolted, as if slapped, and Tal, gaze broken, looked toward the source of the noise.
A rattlesnake, yellow-brown with cream scales outlining the black diamonds on its back, had slithered into view. It raised its head, tasted the air, and coiled in on itself. When it was done coiling, it rattled its tail again.
Adam sighed. Tal did, too, though softer and without so much exasperation as Adam displayed. Even staring at the underside of his jaw, Tal knew Adam was glaring at the snake.
“What’s he saying?” Tal asked, recognizing this snake as the one that generally popped up and rattled whenever Adam’s gaze turned such an intense green that Tal felt naked and known completely. He was beginning to hate this particular snake.
“He says I have to go,” Adam said, not sounding at all pleased. Tal knew better than to argue—sometimes he really did swear Adam could talk to snakes.
“I better get up then,” he said, sitting up and swiping hair out of his eyes. He put his book on his knee and watched Adam stand, beads in his hair snapping like agitated snake tails as he whipped forward to get the day’s basket of food, and again when he stood back up and waved goodbye to Tal with a harassed expression.
That only happened once, but it was Tal’s favorite reading day, and he often hoped, even as Adam tickled him or stole his book and ran with it, or took his glasses and held them too high for Tal to reach without Tal pressing against him for leverage, that that stare would pin him again.
Tal took a water bottle and shoved a book and notepad in their customary places in his back pocket, and headed boldly into the glaring afternoon sunshine. The heat baked his face and made his skin feel too tight, but the feeling of discomfort lessened as he entered the woods to look for his customary companion.
He walked around to their usual places, but Adam wasn’t in any of them, nor did he surprise Tal on any of the trails. Tal had half a mind to go ahead and walk to the stream, but he knew Adam probably wouldn’t be there—neither of them had ever gone to the stream without the other, that Tal knew. Before he realized he was doing it, Tal found he was walking to the cave he’d played in as a child, the cave Adam had said that he loved. Maybe Adam would be there and maybe he wouldn’t, but it would be a cooler place to read, just inside the mouth of the cave so the sun wasn’t directly overhead anymore. Adam could find him.
When he got to the cave, though, in place of Adam was one of his hair beads. At first Tal hadn’t known what it was, but curiosity compelled him to walk back and see. He recognized the grasping gold end-bead upon closer inspection and, picking it up, breathed a short laugh. “You really need to take care of your stuff better,” he mused, thinking of Adam. Adam had left his sandals at the stream two or three times, noticing only when he crunched on a sharp twig or Tal pointed it out that they were not on his feet. He had also lost a hair band on his wrist a few times, and hidden one of Tal’s books and forgotten where he put it (Adam claimed the next day, when he returned it, that a snake had found it for him).
Tal smiled softly, thinking of Adam’s chagrined expression every time he forgot something, and his claims of not being used to wearing shoes or keeping track of things because the snakes did it for him. Hearing Adam’s voice saying this, even in memory, made Tal roll his eyes.
Which is, perhaps, how he noticed that the cave wall just around the bend had gone almost transparent.
Tal startled, and his hand clenched around the bead. Beyond the cave wall—through the cave wall—was an ornately decorated room with black and cream sashes hanging like tapestries from the ceiling, and a prominent bed against one wall, surrounded by a moat-like pit filled with what looked like velvet or a softly feathered material. The bed posts looked like they were carved stone, but the bottom of the bed was covered in the same soft fabric that covered the floor of the pit. The bed itself looked deceptively normal, if made with richer materials than Tal’s double bed would ever have. Tal stepped closer to the cave wall and skimmed his empty hand over it. It crossed through the wall easily, with the barest feeling of passing through a fog or vapor.
Tal frowned. There was no one in the room…a quick look around wouldn’t hurt, right? It was like the portal game he’d played as a kid. Like the game…
Stepping as soundlessly into the room as he could, Tal felt an odd sensation in his shoes, like he was stepping on river stones. The floor was uneven, its surface rising like regular little cobblestones. He couldn’t figure out why that would be—the stones were almost too big for his shoes to get proper friction. The rest of the room was odd, too: there were no doors. Tal slipped the bead into his front pocket and crept along the outer wall, walking from wall tapestry to serpentine wall tapestry, wary but still taking in his surroundings.
The portrait above the bed stopped him cold. Larger than life and exquisitely rendered and framed, it reminded him of portraits in museum exhibits, the ones royal and noble families made who wanted to stare down at their subjects from every wall. In it were an imperious man and a regal-looking woman. They each wore jeweled bands around their arms and crowns on their heads, and the woman wore a sash that barely covered her breasts. Each figure’s inside hand rested on the shoulder of the man situated between and below them—a man with familiar olive eyes and burnt amber braids.
Adam wore a gold circlet on his forehead and gold bands on his arms. But the crown, a mark of royalty, was a less jarring discovery than the lower half of the picture. Because where each of the three figures’ legs should have been were instead the long, sinuous tails of three giant snakes.
Tal wasn’t sure how long he stood frozen to that spot, staring up at the black diamond tail melded to the hips of the man who had quickly become his best friend, quickly become so much more to him than that, before his legs just gave out and he stumbled into the downy material that rested like clouds in the moat around the bed.
Not a moment afterward, he heard someone talking.
“—Father I’m not going to be gone long. If he’s really that concerned—”
Tal heard a small rattle from the other side of the bed, and did his best to pull some of the downy material over his body without making a sound.
He saw Adam come into view, just before he realized: the door to the cave was still open! But when he looked at the wall he’d emerged from, it was just another wall. Shit, he thought in a rare burst of foul panic, How was he going to get out without giving himself away?
Then Adam’s tail came into view, and Tal’s thoughts got as far as It’s so big and Do all snake muscles move that way? Before Adam’s tail curled around his own body and melded into a pair of bare legs and Ohmygodheisnaked.
“I really don’t see what his problem is. Tal’s not a bad person.” Tal’s ears pricked at the mention of his name, but Adam walked out of sight without saying another word, presumably through a doorway of some kind (another wall?). The snake following him was also familiar: it looked just like the one that always interrupted when Adam started giving Tal looks. Tal glared at the snake, then remembered Adam wasn’t exactly the way he’d presented himself to Tal, and hadn’t made any move to tell Tal about it in the months they’d known each other.
As if the thought had conjured the man—er, man-snake?—Adam returned with sudden audible clarity. “—my duty, he knows that.” The snake rattled, and Tal prayed it wouldn’t notice him; Adam seemed upset enough to be oblivious to Tal’s presence. “Look, I’m going out,” Adam said with finality, “And tell Father I don’t need a chaperone.” He strode past Tal, thankfully wearing a pair of burgundy pants ripped off at the calf, and was soon standing before the wall Tal had entered through.
The snake followed him with a hiss and a rattle. Adam groaned. “Fine—but would it kill you to stop interrupting us all the time? It’s annoying.” With that comment, Adam pulled one of his braids over his shoulder, did something Tal couldn’t see, and the wall became transparent. Adam stepped through, the snake followed, and then both were gone and the wall was a wall once again.
Tal didn’t try to leave until he’d counted to a hundred.
Then he eased out of the pit, walked quickly back to the wall, felt for the bead in his pocket, and imagined Adam.
Please, he thought, Just show me the way out.
To his surprise, it worked.
He quickly stepped through the misty wall, put the bead back in his pocket, and left the cave.
He walked straight home and shut himself in his room to think.
He didn’t go back to the woods for three days.
“You know,” his mother said one evening as she and Tal were loading dinner dishes into the dishwasher, “I never thought I’d want you going into those woods again.”
“Huh?” Tal paused in rinsing off gravy from his father’s plate and blinked at the water running over a clump of dried mashed potatoes. He kept seeing Adam’s thick black tail covered in pearl diamonds. Adam had lied to him—or at least, he hadn’t told the whole truth.
So if I told you that as the lord of all the snakes in this region, I know for a fact that the snakes around here like you, you wouldn’t believe me?
Well… not so Tal would think he was telling the truth, anyway.
“If looks could kill, that plate would be dead,” his mother said, taking it from him and turning off the water. “Now I know it isn’t my place to pry, but you’re still my son, and I want you to be happy.”
Tal eyed his mother warily.
She sighed. “I know that you like being in the woods, and I know you’ve been out there almost every day this summer. Until the other day, I thought you loved being out there.”
He did love being out there. And he had loved spending time with Adam. Except Adam wasn’t who he said he was. He was different. He was—
“Now, see, there’s that look again,” his mother’s voice cut in, “You’ve been staring off into space for the past few days and not leaving the house. Now I know you were meeting some boy in the woods while I was at work—”
She held up a hand. “I’m not finished. I know you’ve been meeting some boy up there, and I don’t object to that.” She paused, putting a dish-wet hand on one hip. Tal looked at the damp spot it made in her blue cotton dress. “Of course, I hope for your sake you’re using protection—”
“Now sweetie, I know you can’t get pregnant…” She looked away, and Tal resolutely closed his mouth. “You can’t get pregnant,” she said again, picking up speed, “but your age group is highly at risk, and you can get other things from sex. So just—”
“We haven’t had sex, Mom, we’re just friends.” Tal froze. Were they still friends? Did he want them to still be friends?
His mother raised an eyebrow at him. Tal wondered why she and Adam could both do that and he couldn’t. “If you’re such good friends, why haven’t you gone out to see him for the past two days? Is he sick? Is his family on vacation?”
“No,” Tal said sulkily.
“Then what’s the problem?”
Tal sighed. “It’s just…well, he didn’t lie, but he didn’t tell me some pretty big things about him, and it…I’m not sure what to think now.”
“Well, have you talked to him?” His mother said it as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
But his mother didn’t know Adam and his parents were giant snakes, did she?
“Tal, maybe he was embarrassed to tell you…whatever it was. But if you’re friends, does it really matter?”
“I guess not,” Tal hedged, not sure if he agreed with his own words.
His mother sighed. “Well, keep thinking then. But if you’re in this house when I get home from work tomorrow, you’ll have some ‘splainin to do, mister.”
Tal wrinkled his nose, and his mother’s answer was to mess up his hair as best she could with both hands. Tal laughed and half-heartedly tried to protect himself. “Mom! Mom stop!”
“Who do you need to look pretty for, if you’re not leaving the house?”
She stopped and closed the dishwasher. “Just asking a question. Goodnight, sweetie. I better not see you when I get home.”
Tal leaned against the sink, then, in a fit of restlessness, walked through the kitchen to the back door. Looking out, he could barely see the trees through his own reflection in the glass. Was the snake thing really that important? Well, yes. But did it change who Adam was to Tal? Who he was with Tal?
He could let it, he supposed. Or he could accept that Adam really had been telling the truth, in his own way… and move past it.
It had been a few days. Adam might be worried. Tal leaned his head against the cool glass and sighed. Did he tell Adam, when he went back into the woods, that he knew the truth? That it was… that it was still OK?
If he told Adam, would that change things, too? Would Adam have to stop coming?
At that thought, Tal felt his chest tighten. Then he chuckled. So it was OK if he left, but not if Adam did? He shook his head and walked back through the kitchen, turning off lights as he headed to his room. He’d go out to the woods tomorrow afternoon. And he would be normal. And he wouldn’t tell Adam, because if Adam hadn’t wanted him to know, there was probably a good reason.
…But he’d keep the bead, just in case. Because if Adam disappeared…well, Adam wouldn’t disappear on Tal. He wasn’t that kind of person. Snake.
Tal took a bag of biscuits from last night’s dinner with him the next afternoon. Adam was once again not in any of the usual places, but Tal had left the bead at home, and he wasn’t going to use it unless he needed it. He knew he should return it to Adam, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Maybe it was because he’d never had any tangible part of Adam before, to keep. Or maybe it was because he was nosey and afraid that his friend would run out on him the way Tal had just done.
He frowned and wiped sweat from the back of his neck. Adam wasn’t like that.
Adam wasn’t like that.
But though Tal read for hours in their usual clearing, finishing his book and half the biscuits, Adam never showed up. When it was almost dark out, Tal finally realized he needed to go home. With a last look around at the strangely empty shadows, Tal began the trek back home.
The next day, he brought a new book and a bag of cookies his mom had left for him to bake that morning since he “seemed a little upset last night.” Tal made the cookies even though it was hot in the kitchen with the windows open, and took them with him that afternoon.
By nightfall, there was only one cookie left, and Tal was getting worried.
Maybe Adam really was gone.
The next day he went out with a book and a flashlight. He looked everywhere for snakes, fogging up his glasses more than once in the heat from the sun and the heat his body generated searching under rocks and down holes and under logs. Tal never worried that the snakes would bite him. He had Adam’s protection, he was pretty sure, and even if Adam was gone, that wouldn’t change.
Tal checked the cave last, as the sun was going down. Still no Adam—no beads, no tracks, no snakes. He stared at the cave wall for a long time before turning back and going home.
The next afternoon, he brought the bead with him. He had to see Adam, explain that they could still be friends, that the snake thing—because Adam had to know he knew, it was the only explanation!—he had to know that Tal didn’t mind, not anymore. It didn’t have to change things between them.
Tal waited in the clearing for an hour or so before he decided Adam really wasn’t coming. He stuck his book in his back pocket then, in front of the notepad so the book wouldn’t get messed up if he brushed against anything, and walked to the cave. As he approached, he could feel himself starting to sweat. What if Adam wasn’t there? Or what if he was, and he wasn’t happy to see Tal? He’d said Tal was a good person, but what if his parents, or the other snakes, didn’t think so? Would a snake-man’s bite hurt worse than a regular snake bite?
“Stop being melodramatic,” he told himself, glad to hear the sound of a voice speaking even if it was his own.
Adam was a good guy too. He wouldn’t let something bad happen to Tal just because he was scared.
Which was why if something bad was happening to Adam, Tal needed to stop being scared and try to fix it.
When he entered the cave, Tal looked around and, seeing no one, snake or human, put a hand in his pocket and pulled out the bead. He walked to the wall around the bend and thought of Adam—Adam’s sweet smile and olive eyes. Adam’s chest dripping with stream water and his strong golden hands—
The wall grew transparent.
—around someone else.
Tal nearly dropped the bead in surprise. He shouldn’t be watching this. But he couldn’t stop himself from staring at Adam, half-human, with his lips on a woman’s neck and his arms around her. Her dark hair cascaded over the feathery material in the pit around the bed, and her red nails dragged down Adam’s golden back.
Adam, with his long, black-and-pearl tail wrapped around hers, a corkscrew of scales fused together by lust, for there was no doubt what they were doing.
Adam’s hair was unbraided and fell across his shoulders, and when he bent over her head, Tal let go of the bead.
The wall became stone instantly, and Tal watched the bead roll against it and finally come to a stop. Mechanically, he pulled the notebook out of his pocket. He felt disembodied as he flipped to a clean page and scribbled down,
Tal stopped. What could he say? He felt so…empty. He had no claim on Adam, and yet he still felt…
Do you always lose things this easily?
Tal didn’t realize he’d written it until it was down, and he nearly ripped the page out before he realized Adam would think he was referring to the hair bead, and not to Tal himself. Because this time, Tal wouldn’t be coming back. No, not for a long time. Sniffing, he signed his name and ripped out the page. He put it next to the cave wall and placed the bead carefully on top of it, doing his best not to think of Adam while he was touching it.
He left his pen to keep the bead from rolling away, and then straightened, feeling suddenly too old for his bones and too constricted by his skin. His throat and eyes burned, and he realized with a sudden clarity that he was going to cry.
So Tal walked home, to a place where he could cry alone.
Cleaning the dishes with his mom that night, she commented on his silence. “Your friend is ok, right?”
Tal breathed a bitter laugh. “Yeah,” he said, “Adam’s fine.”
“Ooh, a name!” She jostled his shoulder and smiled conspiratorially, but when he didn’t smile back, she said, “Oh,” and, after a few minutes more, “Don’t worry about the dishes—I’ll finish up.”
“Thanks, Mom,” he mumbled, nodding and walking quickly to his room. Adam wasn’t his—never was—but still, Tal felt that this was something that Changed Things, at least for himself.
One thing was certain: he wasn’t going back to the woods now. Not until he could think of Adam without thinking of him tangled up in someone else.
Tal saw a snake in the grass just beyond the back door a week later. He was pulling the welcome mat inside for his mother to spray clean in the driveway, and saw the snake raise its head and flick out its tongue.
Tal’s jaw set in a hard line. “Go away,” he said, pushing up his glasses imperiously. Then, as he was closing the door, “You’ll scare my mom.”
The next afternoon, there was a different snake. It set its head on the front step, like some kind of scaly dog, and Tal’s eyes narrowed. “I’m serious—if you scare my mom, I’ll…” He didn’t know what he’d do. He wouldn’t hurt the snake—that would be tantamount to hurting Adam, and anyway, it would probably act in self-defense. “Look,” he said more softly, “please just go away.”
He said it the next day, too, to the snake with a yellow trail of diamonds down its back and a smaller rattle than Tal was used to seeing. Was Adam sending baby snakes now to make him feel guilty? “I can’t go with you,” he said resolutely, and made up his mind not to open the back door anymore.
And though he checked outside each day for the rest of that week, he never did open it to any of the snakes he saw slithering to the door, lying in wait for him, or, nearing dark, slithering slowly away. “This can’t keep happening,” Tal said to himself one night, turning off the porch light as the latest snake rippled a path through the tall grass toward the woods. He knew he was being a coward not facing Adam, but he wasn’t ready. Why couldn’t Adam give him time?
…Not that he planned to go back anyway. Maybe in winter, when it was too cold for snakes, it would be too cold for Adam, too.
Or maybe he was being foolish to sacrifice the woods altogether because of a boy.
But Adam was the woods to him now, he realized. They were inseparable, and Adam, unwittingly as it had been, had hurt him. Tal couldn’t face him now. Not this soon. Maybe not ever.
“Tal? Could you come here a minute?”
Tal shuffled down the dark hallway to his parents’ bedroom, at the opposite end of first floor. “What?” Tal poked his head inside their door, momentarily blinding himself in the lamplight filling their room.
His mom sat in bed with a book in her lap. His father’s covers were pulled back, and Tal could see their bathroom door was closed. “Sweetie,” his mom said, drawing Tal’s attention back to her stern expression, “if you’re not going out to see your friend, then go to town. You shouldn’t be cooped up in this house all day. It’s not healthy.”
Tal pursed his lips, then said, “I’m fine.”
“You’re sulking, Tal. Tomorrow, I’m leaving twenty dollars on the kitchen table for you to eat in town, and if it’s still there when I get back and there aren’t leftovers in the fridge, so help me I’ll go to the woods this Saturday and find that boy myself!”
“No what?” Tal’s father asked, stepping outside of the bathroom and running damp hands down the sides of his sleep shirt.
“No, I don’t think Mom should go into the woods this weekend. There are too many snakes out right now.”
Edward Cross pulled himself into bed like his joints ached and sighed. “Tal, you’ve been going into those woods all summer, and if your mother thinks it’s safe for you, then it’s because she thinks it’s safe for her, too.”
“Dad—” His dad raised his eyebrows, which meant Tal got his nasty eyebrow defect from him, and Tal’s train of thought nearly derailed on Adam again before he saw his mom gearing up to speak. “Uh, Mom? Don’t forget the lunch money,” he said, and hastily left before he could see her triumphant smile.
The next morning, Tal woke early to find his mother leaving the house for work. “There’s a twenty on the counter next to the cereal. Don’t forget to eat breakfast before you go!”
“Yes, Mom,” he told the suddenly closed door, and dutifully ate before he left for town. He took a mostly-empty backpack with him so he could get library books from the university, and, with the faded twenty his mother left for him, walked to town.
He’d forgotten how much he liked walking outside, and the walk to town, taking time to stop and look at roadside weeds and scraggly flowers, and the crumbling shacks making way for the cookie cutter houses, was bittersweet. He wished he could show these things to Adam, who didn’t like walking around humans, as he called everyone, but who seemed to like Tal’s company as much or more than the snakes who followed him everywhere—chaperones, Tal realized now.
But he shouldn’t think about Adam. Tal scratched his sweaty hair out of his eyes and behind his ears, and was glad for once of the damp that almost kept it in place. He’d go to the library, break for lunch at Bill’s Café, and then maybe browse the gallery that no one ever seemed to go to, and go back to the library.
Things didn’t go as he planned, though, when he arrived in town. He went to the library intent on perusing the newest nonfiction books, but found himself looking up the keywords “Diamondback Rattlesnakes” on the library computers instead. He couldn’t make himself not find the books once he wrote down the call numbers—why did he write those down?—and then, he couldn’t bring himself to stop reading about rattlesnake habits, nests, and behaviors.
Then he stumbled across the word “Naga” and went back to the computers, ran another search, and looked up from his growing pile of books only when the lights in the library flickered at five o’clock: the signal for closing.
Tal checked out two books on snakes and one on mythological creatures, which had a sizeable chapter on Naga myths, and started walking home. He only remembered to get something to eat—his mom had said to bring home leftovers, which probably meant she wanted proof he’d not forgotten to eat—when he was almost out of town. He stopped at a pizza place and picked up something with no meat on it, but plenty of tomatoes, and walked home, take-out box balanced in one hand, slowly diminishing pizza slice in the other.
When he got home, he’d eaten two slices, and realized he really wasn’t all that hungry anymore. He went in through the front door and put the leftovers in the fridge, then went to find his mom and give her the change.
“We’re in here, Tal,” his mom answered when he called.
Tal walked into the living room and stopped short.
Adam was sitting on the couch next to Tal’s mother like they were new best friends, and Tal’s father was leaning back on his favorite chair with an indulgent smile on his face. Adam was dressed…nicely. He wore black slacks and a button-up shirt that brought out the green in his eyes. He was even wearing shined black shoes instead of his ratty sandals. Tal swallowed, hard. Adam’s hair was unbraided, too, and pulled back in a ponytail that snaked its way over his shoulder and halfway down his chest.
His hair had been out for her, came a sudden violent thought, and his eyes grew hard.
Then he realized all three of them were staring at him, and tried to school his face into something more neutral.
“Hey, Tal,” Adam said, chagrined half-smile on his face. “Long time no see.”
Tal couldn’t answer at first. His hands tightened on the strap of his backpack, and he managed to nod. His glance shifted between the three people he thought he knew, all facing him with wilting smiles on their faces, before he realized if he didn’t say something, someone would ask him what was wrong, and that was the last question he wanted to hear in front of Adam. “What’s—it’s late, Adam, what’re you doing here?”
“It’s fine,” Adam said breezily.
“Won’t your parents be upset?” It slipped out before Tal realized it, and he was surprised at the hurt that came through in his voice.
Adam stood up immediately. “I’m sorry, but could you please excuse us?” he asked Tal’s parents, “Tal and I need to talk.”
“We should be going to bed anyway,” Tal’s mother said, standing as well. “Adam, it was so nice to finally meet you!” She shook his hand with obvious affection, and Adam nodded cordially and then shook Tal’s father’s hand when he, too stood. “You two talk as long as you like, okay, dears?”
His mom sent him a quelling look that Adam surely couldn’t see, and, as she was walking past him, stopped. “Sweetie,” she said softly into his ear, “I’m sure this is all just a misunderstanding. So I want you to be the bigger man and put this mess behind you.”
Tal glared at Adam, and his mother shook his shoulder firmly. “And use protection!” With that final stage whisper, she left the two alone, Adam with a hand over his mouth to hide his smile, and Tal blushing down to his neck.
“That wasn’t funny,” he snapped automatically, then winced when Adam’s grin grew wider. “C’mon,” he said at last. “We can talk in my room—otherwise Mom’ll probably try to listen through the wall. That’s their room,” he said, pointing at the wall to his left.
Adam looked wistfully at the window to the backyard, which was brightly overlaid by the reflected contents of the bright living room, and then nodded. “Sure,” he said, and followed Tal upstairs.
They didn’t speak until Tal had turned on the light in his room and closed the door. He set his backpack down by the dresser and turned to Adam. “So?”
“I, uh…Thanks for leaving my hair thing for me.”
Tal shrugged. “I figured you might want your room key back.”
Adam tensed, then sighed bitterly. “Is that what this is about?”
Tal averted his eyes and crossed his arms protectively over his chest. “Look, it was an accident—”
“You saw me, and you got scared, didn’t you?”
Adam’s voice was as bitter as his laugh, and when he strode forward the few steps necessary to grip Tal’s shoulder, Tal met Adam’s eyes and couldn’t help but flinch.
Adam let go at once and raised his hands in surrender. “I thought you would be different,” he muttered. “Look, I should go.”
Tal felt his skin go cold and warm and itchy. “Yeah,” he said, moving aside and looking at the opposite wall. “Your girlfriend’s probably waiting for you.” He heard Adam’s hand rattle the doorknob, and couldn’t resist saying, “Must be nice, having someone who you don’t have to lie to. Someone who really gets you.”
The door slammed shut abruptly, and Tal was shoved into it by a fierce grip. “Oh, so you think I enjoyed that?” Adam snarled.
“It certainly looked like it!”
“My father chose her to give me heirs, Tal. That wasn’t something I wanted to do!”
“Well how am I supposed to know that when you won’t tell me anything?”
“I never lied to you,” Adam hissed.
Tal gripped Adam’s wrist and dug in his short nails. “You never told me the truth, either.”
Adam ripped himself away and strode to the window. He stared at the glass with hunched shoulders, and Tal glared at his back.
“The truth is, I knew about the snake thing, and the—Naga thing, or whatever you guys call it. I even figured out the royalty thing, and why you don’t like talking about your family. But—”
“Wait!” Adam held up a hand and turned slowly. “You knew about that?”
“That’s why I disappeared for a few days,” Tal admitted, running a nervous hand through is hair. “It was a little weird at first, but I was more pissed that you lied to me than anything else.”
A little smile crossed Adam’s lips, and Tal made himself not look at the way the expression made his friend (friend?) seem more like his usual, beautiful self. “You were mad because I lied to you.”
Tal nodded once and frowned.
Adam took a step closer, then stopped. He cocked his head. “But—if you knew already, why are you still mad? I just told you—she wasn’t my choice.” He walked forward again with agitated steps. “You know royal lines have to leave heirs to continue. What’s the problem?”
“Tal?” Adam was a step away now, but didn’t reach out the way Tal half hoped he would. “What’s really bothering you?”
“Why…” Tal knew he was beginning to blush, but he had to say something, and it might as well be part of the truth. “Why would you want to be around me when you thought you had to hide who you really were? You could’ve been with her—she’s…she’s like you. She’s…perfect.” His voice dropped on this last word, and he stared straight ahead, at Adam’s green shirt, and felt his eyes beginning to burn.
Oh please not now, he begged himself, Don’t cry now.
But then Adam touched his face in that way he had of doing things without realizing their implications, and a slick tear slipped from Tal’s eye. Tal drew back and wiped his face, and his back banged into the bedroom door.
Before he could move somewhere else, Adam was crowding him there, trapping him, that same hand cupping his jaw again and tilting Tal’s face up to meet his eyes. “Tal,” he said, smiling softly, “Why would I want her when I could be with you?”
Tal blinked, and another tear fell. “What?”
“I’ve known since I was born that I would have to assure my line with her. I could never hope to change that. But I knew the moment I saw a little boy playing make-believe in the Portal Cave that he was the one I wanted to be with. And that hasn’t changed either.”
Adam’s smile was breathtaking, and Tal felt his voice lodge in his throat. A final tear sank into the bottom rim of his glasses, and he fumbled them off only to realize Adam was standing too close for him to clean them. He tried to put them back on, but his hand wasn’t as steady as he thought it should be. Adam gently pried his glasses from his fingers and folded them, one-handed. Then he put set them on the dresser, whispered Tal’s name and kissed him like Tal was all that had ever really mattered in his world.
At first, Tal didn’t quite know what was happening. But then Adam’s mouth separated from his, and Tal’s fingers moved faster than his slowly comprehending thoughts and meshed themselves in the fabric of Adam’s shirt, and Adam’s lips returned, smiling and soft and sure; warm as Adam’s skin in the sunlight.
Tal’s eyes slipped shut, and he happily kissed back.
As if he had been waiting for that moment, Adam’s other hand clasped Tal’s hip, just resting there, burning into Tal’s skin even as Adam kissed him so achingly slow and sweet. His tongue flicked between Tal’s lips, human-slow and snake-deft, and Tal opened for it, reveled in its explorations, the way it coaxed his tongue into play, into Adam’s mouth, into a slow-motion frenzy that ended when Adam’s lips slipped lower, sucking Tal’s lower lip into his hot mouth and then biting firmly.
Tal moaned. He couldn’t help the sound, didn’t realize he’d uttered it, until the hand on his hip clenched and Adam licked a soothing line across Tal’s lip and bit again. That time, Tal knew he moaned, and Adam’s hand slipped back to grip his hair.
Tal sighed and opened his eyes. Adam was close enough not to be a blur, and the look in his green eyes was all that mattered. Adam’s gaze was scorching, and Tal shivered under its heat. “Adam,” he said, “Uh…”
Adam bent closer, lapped at Tal’s neck, and whispered a question against Tal’s skin that he never heard. His hips jutted forward of their own accord when Adam licked under his jaw, and the way he sucked on Tal’s earlobe was positively sinful. Tal didn’t want him to stop. His fingers tightened in Adam’s shirt and he distantly thought, I’m going to leave wrinkles, before Adam stole all thought with another kiss and pressed their hips together.
Tal sucked in air so fast he thought he might choke. He’d never done this before, and some part of him knew this was going to be Sex really soon, and was glad that it was Adam whose hips were grinding into his so hard the door was rattling against his back, Adam whose lips had slipped down Tal’s chin and were biting his jaw, Adam whose hand was gripping Tal’s hip hard enough to leave bruises that Tal knew he wouldn’t regret finding in the morning. Tal moaned at the thought, and Adam kissed him again, swallowing the sound and answering it with a trapped hiss of his own.
When Adam’s hand reached purposefully for the zipper of Tal’s slacks, Tal nearly came. “Wait,” he gasped, gripping Adam’s arm.
Adam groaned in frustration. “Tal,” he hissed against Tal’s lips, darting in for another kiss before pressing his forehead against Tal’s and waiting. “Is this too fast? I’m sorry, I just—”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Tal said, words tripping over themselves in his haste to push them out. Adam was pressing intently into his hip, and Tal could feel him hard and hot through his slacks. “I just—I don’t want to do this against the door.”
A pause. “Oh,” Adam said, and kissed him once, hard, before tugging him backward, the two of them stumbling in their attempt to stay pressed together and still walk across the room. After an eternity where the air separating them felt too cold and hard in all the wrong ways, and where Tal tripped over Adam’s feet twice and they giggled like children with a secret, Adam fell backward onto Tal’s bed and pulled Tal on top of him. “Okay?” he asked breathlessly.
Not wanting to tell Adam he had never done this, but not wanting to feel Adam’s weight pressing him down just yet, Tal nudged a thigh between Adam’s legs and kissed him as he gently pressed forward. Adam bucked up against him, hard, and Tal grinned into Adam’s mouth and thrust his tongue inside. Adam’s hands clutched at Tal’s back, his fingers dragging down until they clutched Tal’s ass and pulled him down. Tal slipped under the sudden pressure, and found himself on his back.
They separated for a moment, when Adam ripped the band out of his hair and tossed it somewhere, and then he was kissing Tal again, and Tal’s fingers were in Adam’s hair, burnt honey that felt like strong silk in his hands. Their hips ground together, Tal’s moving beyond his control or volition, and he prayed Adam would reach for him again. But Adam was touching everything but his hardness. He dragged up Tal’s shirt and fastened his mouth to Tal’s collarbone, nipples, to a spot just under his ribs that nearly tickled, but mostly felt really, really good. Tal gripped Adam’s hair, which dragged its way down Tal’s chest after Adam’s mouth and questing fingers, a third line of pleasure in Adam’s molasses-slow trail to the one place Tal wanted him to go.
“Adam,” Tal gasped when Adam lapped under his waistband. “Please just—” He groaned as Adam palmed him through his slacks, and felt something huge coiling in his gut, felt like a trip wire about to spring. “Adam,” he whined.
And Adam’s mouth fastened around the head of his cock, wet and warm through his suddenly too-rough slacks and briefs. Adam sucked once, hard, and Tal came with a low cry, trying to push Adam’s head away to no avail. Adam’s mouth remained fastened to Tal’s cock, and when Tal’s erratic bucking had stopped, Adam’s mouth was still there, hot and almost uncomfortable now that Tal was sticky and sated.
He tugged Adam up to his mouth and kissed him, sloppy and grateful, hoping Adam could understand the sluggishness of his lips and the languid motions of his tongue. Adam tasted heavier than before, slicker. Tal realized that was because of him, and felt an awed wonder, tasting himself in Adam’s mouth. When he finally let his head drop back down, Tal cast Adam a sweet smile. “Uh,” he said, for once not feeling foolish.
Adam smiled back at him, and then his eyes fluttered shut; Tal’s hands were under his shirt, stroking his sides and curling around to his back. Adam arched like a snake under Tal’s fingers, and his hair fell like a curtain around their faces.
“What do you need?” Tal found himself asking, for once sure he was doing the right thing.
“Touch me,” Adam breathed against Tal’s mouth. It was a whine, a request, an order, so Tal let his hands slip beneath Adam’s slacks to the boxers beneath—had Adam ever worn such things before?—and let himself feel the smooth skin there. He let himself get used to the way Adam’s hips worked faster against his, then gripped him, sudden and hard, pulling Adam against one of his thighs and pressing up at the same time he pulled insistently down. Adam kissed him roughly, then let his head fall into the crook of Tal’s neck. Tal could feel Adam’s breathing grow ragged, and knew if this kept up much longer, he would soon be hard again.
Then his hand slipped into the crease of Adam’s ass, and Adam groaned and pressed into his fingers. Tal pushed back just as insistently, trying to keep their bodies firmly together, and felt himself pressing against a pucker of skin. But before he fully realized what he was touching, Adam shuddered against him and bit down into his neck, and then grew still.
They lay together in the crashing silence of their pleasure ebbing from its peak: their mingled breath, the thumping of their heartbeats, the slow relaxation of muscles into bonelessness. The last thing Tal remembered was Adam’s hand caressing his face in the brightness of the bedroom’s fan lights. When he woke up in the morning, the light was still on, and his feet and knees were wrapped in a thick, strong tail, and his chest cradled by strong arms.
Tal yawned and arched, and Adam stirred behind him. Tal felt the tail separating into legs, and muttered something soothing before turning in Adam’s arms and pressing his nose to Adam’s chest. “S’ok,” he thought he said, slipping into sleep again. The pressure around his calves solidified into the hard, rippling sensation of a snake tail once more, and Tal nuzzled closer and drifted off again.
When Tal and Adam finally came downstairs it was almost noon. Tal’s mom said nothing about the hour of the day, however. She simply stood up from the kitchen table and pulled out a pitcher of pancake batter left by a skillet that was already on the burner.
“I trust you boys slept well last night?” she said innocently.
Tal mumbled an assent, and Adam answered more politely. Tal glared at his—friend? lover?—and mouthed “suck up.” Adam shoved him into a chair and sat on his lap without shame. “Did you leave the pants at the door for me?” Adam asked.
Tal shoved Adam against the table, and Adam sat right back up and yanked on Tal’s hair.
“I thought you might need them,” Tal’s mother said crisply. Pancakes sizzled, and the smell of them soon brought Tal’s dad into the kitchen.
“I see you boys are awake,” Edward Cross said. “I trust you had a good night’s sleep?”
Tal rolled his eyes. “Mom already said that.”
“Your parents are so cute!” Adam whispered when Tal’s parents’ backs were turned.
“You haven’t heard Mom talk about using protection,” Tal muttered back.
Adam grinned. “Actually, I have.”
Tal blanched, and his mother chose that moment to turn with a plate of fresh pancakes. “I hope you’re hungry.” She put the large plate in the middle of the table and shooed Adam into his own seat. “Now boys,” she began, taking a set of knives and forks from her husband and putting one each in front of Tal and Adam, “Edward and I have been discussing things, and we think that a surrogate mother would be a wonderful decision for you both.”
Tal’s fingers clenched around his silverware, and Adam’s knife screeched across his plate. “Mom!”
“I’m not finished, sweetie. Now as I was saying, if a surrogate doesn’t work, you two can always adopt.”
Adam’s eyes darted to Tal’s nervously. “Uh, I don’t think that’ll be an issue,” he said slowly.
“I know, I know, you’re too young to have children now, but maybe ten years down the line—you boys need to think ahead.”
“Henrietta, you promised to let them eat first.”
“Edward, dear, I said they’d get their breakfast before I brought it up, and they have it. Now, I hear gay couples can adopt these days, and I was thinking…well, a pair of beautiful grandchildren wouldn’t be too much to ask, now would it?”
Tal stood up abruptly and peeled a pancake from the top of the stack. “Adam, we’re eating at your house.”
“But sweetie, you just—”
“I’ll be back later, Mom,” Tal said, already halfway into one shoe. “Thanks for breakfast!”
He heard Adam struggling behind him to be both polite and leave quickly, and slammed the screen door with a smirk. Let Adam deal with his parents.
Then a rattle sounded from the grass in front of the bottom step. Tal groaned. “Fine! I’m waiting, okay?”
The screen door opened and shut more quietly, and Adam appeared beside him. “What’s wrong?”
Tal pointed at the agitated snake. “Your chaperone.”
Adam took the hand not holding Tal’s breakfast and grinned. “You think he’s bad? Wait till you meet my parents.”