AoM Chpt 30: In the Dungeons

The big knight threw Limax and Megaera onto a cold stone floor. Megaera spun around to face him, and saw the man complete the motions of a spell, twirling a finger at her. Suddenly her limbs went rigid and she fell back, only her eyes free to move. She scanned frantically left and right. The man had deposited them at one end of a wide echoing corridor flanked by heavy cell doors with barred windows. A torch sputtered in a bracket on the wall behind her, and another lit the space between cells far down the passage. Beside her on his knees, Lim heaved shuddering breaths, clutching the armband two-handed as if it was mooring him against a fierce internal storm.

The knight lowered Bugclaw casually, with the bored arrogance of one taking his time in a malicious game. The flail lashed, restive, and then he gave it a flick and it struck out and encircled the armband. Limax clutched after it as the knight tore it away. The flail arced the armband high aloft, before dropping it to the man’s gauntleted hand. He stuck Bugclaw in a scabbard at his hip and pushed the band up over his right vambrace, then raised and swiveled his decorated forearm, admiring it. “How do you like that?” he said. Though they no longer appeared mortal, Lim’s wounds were far from healed. The flesh was red-raw, weeping, and blistered around his charred goggles. He curled in on himself miserably. The knight gave him a slow but brutal kick that sprawled him on his face.

“Why?” Lim croaked.

“Why not?” The man’s voice was harsh and uncouth, befitting a common bar rat rather than this figure of dread in plate armor. Megaera formed an image of a dull-eyed human boar, with bristly jowls and a fat body trained only to short, powerful exertions. A natural bully.

He wound up and kicked Lim again, this time audibly cracking a rib. Lim grunted, and then his frame convulsed and settled loose.

“All the hells!” the man said, and nudged Lim with a boot, but he had gone completely unstrung. His chest didn’t rise.

The great helmet swiveled toward Megaera. “How do you like that? He seemed scrawny, but I thought he could take a bit more. Ah, but I suppose whatever he could tell me can be got from you. And that will be some fun, won’t it?” Her senses had grown keen under the thrust of a heart-racing panic. She smelled distant sweat, excrement, and urine in the stale air of the hall, and closer by, the acid tang of something odd and even worse, like vomit and rotting shellfish. The torchlight caressed the helmet’s impassive face. Instead of a plan, her mind flashed memories of her drunken adoptive father: images of hair-pulling rage, bleary self-pity, sneering contempt. But that viciousness was hot and mercurial, born of insecurity and guilt. This man appeared to be a jaded predator. He evoked the confusion and terror of the time before she could read her father’s moods; when she’d been young, and similarly helpless.

The man stooped and put his head close to Megaera’s face. His heavy breath was rank with rotten meat and sour ale. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t remove my hat,” he said. “Now that you’ve gone and messed with my plans, don’t try to lie at me with those pretty eyes. You didn’t win Vidal’s night talon in a game of cards. I guess I should be careful with you. Anyone who could kill that bastard is dangerous. But somehow, I think you got lucky. Sorry to say but now you’ve met Orson and your luck’s run out.” The man gripped her by the throat and gave her a vicious raking squeeze, lifting her partway off the floor. Her urgent need to cough was restrained by the binding spell. He let her fall, and the impact starred her vision. From the back of her scalp, she could feel the blood seeping.

Orson continued, “Let’s get Davron’s jewelry off you.” He lifted her right arm and stripped the rings fast and rough, and wrenched her index finger. Pain speared her hand, head, and bowels all at once. He’d dislocated it.

A moan came from one of the nearby cells and Orson looked up. “I don’t know how much time we’ll have before my friends arrive. Better peel you out of that armor, and get down to games.”

* * *

Tess held up a hand. “Wait a minute. So I tried to resist his spell and missed my roll, and now there isn’t anything I can do? Steve, this is bumming me out. If it’s gonna get nasty, just summarize, or maybe we should just quit. Is the slug going to be able to help me, or what?”

“What do you mean?”

“C’mon, you gave me a big clue. Just don’t linger.”

* * *

Orson removed a gauntlet but then jerked up at a protracted, hollow exhalation behind him. “Hmm, what’s this?” He got up off his haunches and walked over to Lim while lazily fitting the rings to his exposed hand. When he had them all on, he replaced the metal glove and paced, looking down slantwise at Lim’s head. A moment later, his helmet cocked back slightly in confusion. He stooped and drew near to Lim’s face.

Megaera’s panic and helplessness had reduced her to dull animal misery with no thought beyond vague gratitude at his distraction, at being spared for a few moments longer. She felt neither surprise nor hope when a glistening black filament shot from Lim’s mouth into Orson’s helm below the nose guard. The big man jerked to his feet, stretching the cord taut. He drew out Bugclaw. The cord pulsed and dropped away, just before he could swat it. He steadied himself, and then shook, the plates of his armor rattling. He swayed, stumbled back. The flail slipped from his grasp; he pitched forward on his knees. Megaera could hear his rapid, shallow breaths echoing in the helmet. Another spasm hit him, and this time, he fell headlong just beyond Limax, the dark opening of his helm turned toward her but still concealing the face within.

Torchlight slid wetly over something that boiled from Limax’s mouth, a gray semisolid mass expanding to nearly the size of his head. It had a dark oval on top, wrinkled like some curdled skim. The thing flowed over to the helmet. A bulbed tentacle arched toward the eye hole of Orson’s helm, drawing back, and then pushing into the open space between the cheek guards. The mass followed partway in. A moment later, there was a hideous wet noise, very faint but intelligible: the sound of meat being sawed, interspersed with crunching.

Orson’s limbs flopped a moment, then stilled. The crunching and rasping became fainter, replaced by a slow squelch. There was a soft wet pop and then a sucking noise, followed by another. The mass worked its way into the helmet by degrees.

Abruptly the spell of binding shattered, and Megaera pushed herself upright, injured hand protesting, and backed away. Her head cleared. She considered attacking the creature, but then a warmth in the floor beneath her palms drew her attention. She had backed into a teleportation circle and now its runed edge began a pulsing glow.

Freshly panicked, Megaera rolled out of the circle just as an ogre in plate armor appeared. His breastplate had been dented and a pauldron hung loose at his shoulder, exposing a deep red gash beneath. His head bore no helmet, and the skin of his face was blistered and charred. She glanced over to Bugclaw lying several yards away. The ogre cast about with a ponderous turn of his great neck and shoulders. He marked Megaera first before she could make a move and then the bodies splayed on the ground. Megaera followed his gaze. The creature was gone. Only a faint gleam of slime on Orson’s helmet remained.

“My lord?” the ogre intoned, glancing back at Megaera. His blazing eyes promised a reckoning.

Orson’s hands clenched the flagstones, and then, slowly, he pushed himself up and drew his knees under him. “Y-yess,” he hissed. Megaera felt a cold needle of revulsion between her shoulder blades.

“Are you all right, my lord?”

“I fell, exerting myself with this man.” He waved a gauntled hand at Limax’s corpse. The voice from Orson’s helmet had a familiar hoarseness.

“Annabis is slain, my lord. I am sorry, but I had to flee. I took the boat out the way we came, and used the circle at the docks. My brother was slain by the dwarves. I alone escaped. They could not have penetrated the inn while Davron lived. He must have been betrayed.”

“That is… grievous. We will investigate.”

“What of this one, my lord?” The ogre swung its huge head toward Megaera.

“Leave her to me. I’ve lain a spell on her. Go and summon the warden. Have him bring the keys.”

The ogre hesitated.

“Now!” Orson croaked, and he staggered to his feet.

The ogre lumbered past down the corridor. Orson stood still, his helmet inclined toward Megaera, seeming to appraise her. Then he removed the armband from his vambrace and threw it to her. She caught it, and her injured finger twisted painlessly into line as if by an invisible hand. The throbbing at the back of her head faded like the echo of a final drumbeat.

“Who are you?” she said.

“You know that already,” the man said. “I am still integrating with this host, but soon he will be mine.”

“A parasite?”

“I prefer to think of myself as a man. A mollusk passes from host to host, but a man is what emerges. I am still Limax, as I was in that body you see on the floor. Ah, you cannot imagine how unpleasant this is, having to eat into them, to make room for myself, tasting their vile thoughts. Orson was depraved. The evil echoes of his mind will fade, but for now, I’ve inherited his sins.”

“Is Orson dead, then?”

“An interesting question. His mind is gone, past returning, and that is a relief to this body. You might suppose that a person is a mind and body in one accord, but I can feel that this one did not approve of him; I believe we will get along well.”

“What are you?” When his eye had retreated from her light back in Davron’s basement, he had fascinated her, but now with the extent of his alien nature revealed, he made her somewhat ill.

“My master says creatures like me inhabit the depths of the ocean. Leviathans host them, but even so they are few and constantly at risk. All creatures will try to slay us. It is a firm instinct in them.

“The demon Cax took us and bred us to infest land animals, to be his spies. I was among the first. Cax’s slaves were very cruel. They taught me with punishment, prodding me with salts and acids. When I was a mere infant, I was brought my first host, before I had either speech or reason. I paralyzed him with my sting, a famous murderer sacrificed to begin the next phase in my instruction. Cax created me to serve evil, so — as my new master guesses — Cax brought me an evil man, thinking to infect me, and this plan had begun to work. But then my new master had me captured. In his citadel, he showed me mercy, and taught me to read and play music. He also told me stories, of noble heroes who rose from slime and degradation. At last I was released to seek my own way. I chose freely to become his agent. Until the hag caught me spying, no one but my master and Cax knew of my kind. She had me stored for her own study, and thus you found me.

“I have fought many evil creatures over the years, Megaera, and taken them for my hosts, but I am not one of them. My master revealed to me what I am; he also taught me self-respect, and for that, I devote my life to his service.”

The creature’s story lightened the despair and horror of Orson’s assault. She felt an instant kinship with it. “Who is your master?” she asked, curious.

“Do you know who rescued young Xanthe and slew the hag?”

“Yes,” said Megaera.

“You know whom they serve?”

“Yes,” she said. “Varanor sent me.”

A delighted chuckle emanated from the helmet. “Do you—”

The hurried clomping of booted feet interrupted him. Limax bent to retrieve Bugclaw from the ground, and pulled back just in time as it lashed out at him. Megaera put the armband in her belt pouch, scrambled forward, and grabbed the flail handle. The malice of the weapon slammed into her mind, the head extruded its iron-rending claws and poised to strike her, but this was all familiar. With far less effort than she’d needed the first time, she tamed it to her will. After she’d secreted the flail within her cloak, she backed against the wall.

A huge orc pounded into view, the ogre close behind. The orc came up short, glanced at the corpse, before fixing its eyes on Megaera. It fumbled with the key ring at its belt. “Master, why do you let this one alone?”

“And what is that on your helmet?” growled the ogre. “That slime?”

“How dare you?” Limax said. “The man retched bile on me when I broke his neck. You can see it there, on the floor by his mouth.”

“And your voice,” said the ogre. “I found you lying down. You are not yourself.”

“I explained myself once. I will not do so again.” Limax had the voice under control and made it perilous.

“Something is wrong,” said the ogre, with a glance back to the orc.

“Hand me the keys,” said Limax.

The ogre shook its head. “We should take the captive to Raglar. I do not mean to defy you, my lord, but you are not yourself. Tell me your brother’s name.”

“It’s Vidal. Don’t try my patience, Ancorax. I won’t tolerate it any more than he would. Raglar spared you and your own brother from the fighting pits. He said he did it because you’re smart as well as ruthless. I see he was wrong.”

The ogre dropped his head in submission, but a hateful eye gleamed under one thick brow. With controlled anger, he said, “My lord, I had to know. I thought she may have…”

“Controlled me? Replaced me with some changeling? How much insolence must I take from you?” The helmet swiveled toward the orc. “You, give me the keys. I won’t ask again. I want to lock this elf up.”

“My lord, once more, I beg your indulgence,” the ogre growled, “but I can afford to make no mistake. Everything may be as you say, but something is amiss. Davron is betrayed, the queen is dead. If I placed these keys in the hands of an enemy, Raglar would see me killed.”

“Are you saying I’m an enemy?” said Limax. The ogre took a step back.

The helmet swiveled to Megaera. She thought she read doubt and distress in the gesture. She realized that they could not let the ogre leave. “Don’t let the ogre touch me,” she said.

“What?” Limax said sharply.

“If you have to take my gear, you do it. Don’t let the filthy ogre touch me.”

“Are you sure?” Limax said in a low voice.

“Yes, not him, better even the disgusting orc than him.”

“Do you hear, Ancorax?” In response, the ogre growled, naked rage on its face. “She doesn’t like you. You can do the honors.”

“No!” Megaera shouted in a hollow pretense of fright. The ogre advanced, drawing a huge scimitar. She had sudden misgivings. Her stomach clenched. She glanced to Limax. He had begun to sidle toward the orc, which shifted from foot to foot, watching the ogre. Limax’s resolve strengthened her own. She held up a hand, loose, in a feeble warding gesture. The ogre slowed and smiled. Suddenly, she cast her spell. Blackness enclosed them in a private sphere. She sidestepped and pulled out Bugclaw as the ogre resolved in lines of white. The ogre jerked its eyes this way and that against the dark. A clumsy, probing strike missed her as she dodged. She dove in and encircled the ogre’s neck, pulled, and tore, opening his throat. As she stepped away, the ogre expertly slashed her own neck. She felt a sting, an alarming gush of blood. Numbness spread through her. Mortally wounded itself, the ogre dropped the scimitar and fell to its knees.

Megaera fumbled in her pouch, grabbed the armband, and felt it heat in her grip. Her head cleared, and the wound at her neck zipped shut, drawing a line of searing pain behind it. The burning subsided, replaced by an intolerable itch. She had control of herself now. The ogre dropped over and twitched, eyes bulging. Not waiting to mark its final throes, she ran forward, dispelling the darkness as she went.

The orc had a longsword poised overhead, but Limax held its wrists, straining to keep the sword at bay. Megaera charged and felled the orc with a snake-swift strike to the neck.

They spent a moment to recover. The dread knight mirrored her, folded over, hands to knees. His breath echoed in the helmet. The absurdity of her new alliance coupled with relief at her narrow victory made her chuckle. Limax pulled back as if affronted. Megaera shrugged. “Let’s move quickly.” She stowed the flail as Limax relieved the corpse of both the keys and the weapon. While he clumsily stripped the scabbard from the orc’s belt with one hand, Megaera nodded at the sword in his other. “Are you good with that?”

Limax assumed a fighting crouch, balanced the hilt on the edge of his open hand, whirled the sword beside his shoulder, and stopped it dead straight.

“Yes,” he said. “I can use it.”

“Will the magic circle take us back?” she asked.

The helmet rose slightly, seeming to stare into space. “No. The circle does not connect with any other. It is one-way—an entrance, not an exit.”

They decided to explore the cells and gather a small warrior band. Megaera noted, though, that they should not release any more prisoners than they could arm. If they found weapons, they could always come back. Abruptly, it occurred to her that the baron and his sorcerer might be in this very dungeon. She informed Limax. “Look in the cells and find them. We’ll release them first.”

“Why?”

“I trust them, and they can help.”

Megaera summoned light and held the globe up to each cell as she went. A group of dwarves, not the milk-eyed stone shapers but common mountain dwarves, answered at the first cell. “I’ll return for you,” she said.

The occupant of the next cell, barred with shadows, glared from a stone bench at the far wall, where he was restrained by a collar and short manacles. He had wild black hair, a broad chest raked with thick white scars, and a shaggy beard.

His voice rumbled at such a low bass that she seemed to feel it in her feet. “Let me out.”

“We’ll return with weapons,” she said.

“I have weapons.” He clenched and unclenched his hands. “I’m a werebear, and I heard you talking. I know Dunstan. I can smell him if we find him. Let me out, and I’ll make sure you don’t release a shapestealer by mistake. They’ve had them down here.”

“How do I know you’re not a werewolf?”

The man grunted. “Good question. There are werewolves. I suppose you can’t smell them, though. Stinking, butt-sniffing curs.”

“What’s your name?”

“Karl. Like I said, I heard you talking, heard every word. Didn’t understand it much.” He shook his head. “But I heard the ogre die, and the orc, and smelled their blood. I do understand that. I hear better and can scent better than a werewolf. I don’t see quite so well, but I’m stronger. Are you a human woman or an elf? You don’t smell quite human.”

“An elf. Will you help us fight?”

“Do I get to kill that bastard Sigurd first, or do I have to wait?”

Megaera placed the name of Lydia’s friend after a moment, but she pretended ignorance. “Who’s he?”

“The werewolf who cut me.” Karl dropped his chin to indicate his scars. “They called him the winner in our pit fight, because they thought he’d killed me at first, but I’m tough to kill. Caught me off guard that he was lycanthrope. He rubbed himself with orc shit so I couldn’t smell him right.”

Megaera had an idea that this could be Sigurd himself, but she’d pictured someone leaner. Also, he had a different air from a werewolf.

“Do you know Lydia?”

Karl frowned. “Nope.” His bland tone convinced her. “What about Zadrian?”

His eyes widened, and his face softened. “Is she here?”

“No.” His face fell. “Can you tell me who she is?”

“Dunstan’s daughter,” he muttered. “Pretty girl, white hair. Stubborn.” He sighed.

Megaera opened the cell. She noticed right away that his restraints had silver runes set in them.

“I’ve heard of Sigurd,” she said. “He was thrown out of his pack for challenging the leader.”

“Is that a fact? So will you let me go or not?”

“Yes, but you can’t kill him. We’ll leave him and the other werewolves for last. I might need him. We captured his girlfriend. It’s a long story.”

Karl frowned. “Whatever. Just don’t let the werewolves go.”

Megaera located the key that fit his restraints, and the silver runes gave a fitful spark as she unlocked them. Karl rose from his bench and towered up nearly seven feet high. “Let’s find Dunstan, kill something, and then get the hell out of here.”

* * *

The party made their way swiftly down the hall, Karl in front. Every now and then someone or something cried out from a cell they passed, but he simply muttered, “We’re coming back for you.”

At an intersection, he stopped, sniffed, and gave a slow nod to the left. “They’re all werewolves down there.” His manner was so ponderously ursine that Megaera had no doubt now that he was what he said. “Hey!” he yelled. “Don’t get too cozy, you mangy crotch lickers!”

“Quiet!” Megaera whispered.

“Yes,” said Limax, “please be quiet.”

The werebear grunted and shrugged. “Just standing their fur up a little.”

They took the right-hand branch. Halfway down, Karl said, “Here he is.”

Megaera went to the nearby cell with her light. Standing a few feet inside was the baron, stripped to the waist. His thick body was ribboned with whip tracks. She immediately unlocked and opened the door.

The werebear grunted, “Good to see you.”

“Megaera!” he shouted. “Thank the gods. And Karl, good to see you, my friend. Where is Zadrian. What—” He faltered at seeing Limax.

“I’m not what I appear.”

“Yeah, he’s not,” Karl said. “He’s some squidgy slimy thing that ate into Orson’s head through his mouth and is nesting in his brain. By the way, if there’s any of you left in there, Orson you asshole, listen up…” He stooped toward Limax’s helmet. “Hahahaha!” His rough guffaws, somewhat forced, grew unrestrained, and rolled on and on. At last he wiped a tear from each eye and said to Megaera, “You know what Orson means?” He growled. “It means ‘like a bear.’ Ha!”

The baron turned Megaera gently around. “My daughter,” he said, searching her face, his eyes hollow and anguished.

She smiled. “Zadrian is safe.” His face lightened, and he hugged her. She closed her eyes and breathed deep. Affection, even reflected love, was a novel experience.

“I have other news,” she said. “The hag is slain.”

This staggered him. “How?” He cast about. “Is the giant dead too? Have my men won the day?”

She shook her head. “Sit, listen.” Megaera patted his shoulder, and he reluctantly lowered himself to the cell’s crude bench. As she cast a healing spell on him, she talked, and recounted their adventure since the ambush. When she’d finished, his wounds were erased.

Suddenly she remembered the sorcerer. “But where is Jonril?”

He gained his feet in alarm. “They put him in a cell up the passage when they brought us in. Many times I thought I heard him yell in pain, but he never answered my shout.”

Karl and Limax went off ahead of them and found the sorcerer four doors down. He had been stripped, put in stocks with his feet shackled together, and gagged. Megaera hurried inside, located the proper key on the ring, and undid his bonds. Jonril slumped onto the floor, moaning and clutching at his legs. They spasmed under him. The sorcerer’s eyes were wild, his tongue swollen, and his wrists and ankles chafed and bloody. He wore only a loin cloth, but his purple robes hung neatly from a hook on the wall, along with a bulging water skin, evidently there to taunt him.

Megaera cast a spell to heal his legs, and he let out a long sigh. Limax retrieved the water skin. Jonril gulped the water, coughed, drank again. Megaera summoned a second healing, and his tongue lost its bloat. “Thank you,” he said. “That was uncomfortable. Forgive me, my lord,” he said to the baron, hand shaking on his bowed head. “I told them much.” The old man drew him up and fiercely embraced him. Megaera felt a pang of admiration that made her eyes grow wet.

“You’re that sorcerer I’ve seen at camp,” Karl said. “They put the hurt on you. What’d you do to piss them off?”

“Werewolves ambushed us,” said the baron. “He triggered a petrify spell. We were all turned to stone in a wide circle.”

“Hmm, but they’d get better too, wouldn’t they?”

Jonril answered. “While they tortured me, they let me know my spell caught a few in mid-jump. Apparently… they broke.” The werebear laughed and laughed. He slapped his knees, recovered a bit, then laughed some more.

Jonril spoke over him. “The giant and his henchmen trussed me up so I couldn’t cast spells. But I have been practicing here, storing power in my mind, if not my body.” Megaera brought him his robes. When he had dressed, he said, “How did you get in?”

“There’s a circle down the hall,” said Karl. “But this one says we can’t use it.” He dragged Limax to the fore. Jonril started in alarm, flicked his wrist, and instantly a pearly tower shield swam in the air between them. The werebear chuckled and waved him down. When he’d explained, Jonril hesitantly dispelled the shield. “Some sort of parasite?” He stroked his chin.

“I am a man,” said Limax, sounding hurt. “I think like a man. I have a man’s feelings.”

“Apologies, but you are something rare,” Jonril said, eyes keen. “You should have first prepared me, though. If I’d been slightly less surprised, I would have used a more powerful spell and done you an injury. Orson was no mere brute; he was a sorcerer as well, and I feared him. Can you do his magic?”

Limax shook his head. “I only have his stronger memories, and those already have begun to fade. I earn my skills by my own effort. I have made myself a fair swordsman, but I am no magician.”

“Ah, pity.”

“We need to get weapons,” Megaera said, feeling time drawing short. “We need to arm all the prisoners, and then we need to find a way out.”

“And slay that fat tub of pus Raglar,” growled the werebear.

Megaera led them to the end of the hall, where they met a broad pair of double doors without lock or handle. Karl thrust against them, and they barely shuddered. “How do you like that?” he said. “They had the jailer shut in with us.”

“How would Orson get out?” Megaera asked.

“The memories are slipping, I’m afraid,” Limax said. “He depended on the orc jailer to call help somehow. The orc’s personal room is this last one here.” He pointed to the door nearest the end of the hall, which lacked a barred window. The door was unlocked. Megaera went in first, thrusting out her ball of magic light. A smell like a sewer greeted her. Mangy hides in a pile evidently served as the orc’s nest-bed. A rough table scattered with bones stood opposite, and there was a stool beside it. In the corner lurked a latrine box with a chamber pot. Megaera went to the nest, stirred the hides with her flail, and uncovered a small ironbound coffer. She located the proper key on the ring and opened it. Inside, cradled in black silk, was a crystal ball.

She handed the open coffer to Limax. “Can you activate this?” He bent over the coffer, considering. “Don’t do it now,” Megaera said. “Just tell me if you can.”

“Yes,” said Limax, “I believe so.”

* * *

There was a knock on Tess’s door. “Come in,” she said. It was Tina.

“Steve, your mom said that she’s sorry but she’s really tired. She says it’s okay if I bring Tess over tomorrow or came and got you.”

Steve cast about for a clock and noticed that Tess had one just like his on her bookshelf. It was ten. They’d been going for just under two hours. “My mom’s here already?”

“She never left. We’ve had a good talk. Sorry to cut short your game. I can drive you home later instead if you want.”

Tess shrugged. Steve was on the point of asking for more time, even though they’d reached a pretty good stopping place. “Actually,” Tess said, “I’m pretty tired. Let’s do it again tomorrow. Maybe we can bring Rei and Curt in now.”

“Okay.”

Tina stood waiting as he gathered his things. Tess stared at her. “We’ll be out in a minute, Tina.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

When all his books and papers had been stowed, Steve slid back off the bed and began to turn away, but Tess laid a hand on his arm. “That slug thing is incredibly gross, Steve.”

“Yeah?”

She nodded, and then smirked. “But cool.”

“Thanks.”

She tugged at his shirt and he swiveled back and, heart pounding, aimed to connect with her lips, but she turned his face away and pecked him on the cheek. He felt the embarrassment rise in his face. “See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, okay.” And he stumbled out of the room and down the hall in a fog.

“Still lost in fantasy land?” his mother asked when he met her at the door. Without waiting for an answer, she said to Tina, “Thanks for such a nice visit.”

Gale said, “Let’s get the kids together soon.”

His mom said, “Any objections, Steve?” And she led him out with a chuckle.

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