An Excerpt from Jules Jones's “First Footer” in A Kiss at Midnight
Marcia was clearly wangling a chance for him, and Matthew had every intention of taking it. He went along the buffet table with a large plate, carefully arranging small tidbits in an attractive manner, but making sure that none of the small samples touched each other. If something didn't suit Hraldrin, at least it wouldn't contaminate anything else he might want to try. He took the plate and a fork over to Hraldrin, along with a couple of napkins.
“Would you hold this for me, please?” Hraldrin said, handing his glass of whisky to Fran. He accepted the napkins from Matthew, looking up at him with that intense green gaze. Matthew had intended to take a closer look at Hraldrin's hand, curious as he was about the fur; instead he found himself staring back into Hraldrin's eyes.
Damn, but the man was attractive, alien or not. Something about him pulled at Matthew, a mix of lust, curiosity…and perhaps incipient friendship. And the worst of it was that he could read Hraldrin's body language just well enough to be convinced that at least some of that mix was returned, without knowing exactly which and how much.
They stared at each other for a second or two longer than was quite appropriate; then Hraldrin looked down as he arranged one of the napkins across his lap. He took the plate from Matthew and set it down on the napkin.
More prodding with the probe Hraldrin had used on the whisky. He tried the turkey first. Liz had gone to some trouble to find a free-range bird that tasted
like a turkey, so there were sighs of relief all round when Hraldrin pronounced it good and asked if some could be saved for him to eat later, when he was quite certain that he could digest it safely.
Satisfied that some of the food at least was edible, Matthew sat on the floor at Hraldrin's feet. “Say if there's anything you want more of.”
Hraldrin smiled down at him. “Thanks, but I'd better be careful.” He tapped the probe with one of those clawed fingers. “The portable tester will pick up anything likely to kill me on the spot, but it might miss things that would make me feel sorry for myself in the morning if I ate too much of them. I'll wait until things have been properly tested in the lab before I get too greedy.”
Hraldrin might look like a carnivore, but he seemed perfectly happy to try everything on the plate whether animal or vegetable. He pronounced some of the salad bland, but was very taken with buttered baked potato.
“Sorry it's all cold by now,” Marcia said, “but we can heat some things in the microwave if you'd like.”
“When you're sure you're not going to regret eating any of it,” Matthew said.
Hraldrin grinned down at him. “Exactly. There are limits to what I'll risk if I'm not hungry enough, or scared enough of my hosts, to eat whatever's in front of me.” He prodded experimentally at yet another tidbit and kept talking to the room at large as he waited for the tester to tell him whether it was safe to sample.
He tried almost everything. The smoked salmon went down very
well. “It's probably as carcinogenic as hell, but it smells too damned good to pass up.”
Hraldrin's eyes widened as he tasted the salmon, then closed in obvious ecstasy. “Take it away, before I'm tempted to eat more than a sample.”
More whisky. More conversation, Hraldrin giving them a brief political rundown on the federation he represented. “Joining isn't compulsory. You can ask to be left alone. You don't even have to join if you want to trade. It's just that you don't get access to the high technology if you don't sign up to the treaties.”
“Why give us technology at all?” Brian asked.
“Lots of reasons.” Hraldrin stared at something far away. “But when it comes down to it, because we're more scared of who made us than of each other. Someone
must have, and we don't know why. Or if they'll come back, and what they'll want from us if they do. Safety in numbers, you see.” He drained the last of his whisky and looked more cheerful. “Besides, it's usually worth the trade.” He peered rather blearily into his glass. “I suppose I'd better stop at that one.” He tried to stand up. Matthew grabbed the plate as it slid off Hraldrin's lap. “Dear me. Sorry, Matthew.”
It was the first time Matthew had heard Hraldrin say his name. He liked it, but not enough to stop wondering if Hraldrin had lost count of how many shots of whisky he'd had. “Are you all right?”
Various people hastily removed glass, napkins, and fork from Hraldrin's person before he could drop anything else. Susan leaned over him and peered into his eyes. “You look
all right,” she said rather doubtfully, “but I don't know what's normal for you.”
“Just a bit drunk. I think I'd like to go to bed now.”
Matthew looked at his watch. “It's two in the morning! If you're on local time, no wonder you're feeling a bit sleepy.”
“Oh.” Hraldrin staggered to his feet. “Do you have a spare bed?”
“A spare bed, in a spare room,” Dan said. “Someone didn't make it for the weekend, so you're not making anyone sleep on the sofa.”
Marcia glanced at Matthew. He knew what she was thinking. The spare bed was supposed to have been for Marcia's friend, the one who'd found a nice man in the pub instead. Well, even if Marcia's friend had turned up, there would have been no guarantees. Matthew thought Hraldrin was a more than adequate replacement, even if there was nothing more on Hraldrin's side than simple curiosity.
Hraldrin retrieved his thing from the mantelpiece and tucked it into a belt pouch, and then everyone tried to help Hraldrin to the spare bed. After a few minutes, Marcia took charge and shooed everyone out. “The poor man will never get any sleep! No, not you, Matthew. You show him where the bathroom is and how to use it.”
Not the most romantic of settings, and Matthew had no intention of giving a personal demonstration. Especially not after catching the gleam of amusement in Hraldrin's eye. He still had no idea of how much Hraldrin was deliberately allowing to leak through in his body language. He demonstrated the taps and the toilet flush and suggested that the workings of the shower could wait until morning. Then he waited outside the bathroom, in case Hraldrin needed any help.
Five uneventful minutes later, he was taking Hraldrin back to the spare room. The alien was definitely unsteady on his feet, though not enough to need a supporting arm. “We shouldn't have let you drink that much.”
“I'll be all right.”
“Do you need some pyjamas?” Hraldrin was tall, but someone would probably have spare clothing that would more or less fit if necessary. “I'm afraid the door doesn't lock, so you can't guarantee privacy.”
“Don't worry.” Hraldrin laid his hand on Matthew's arm. “I've had much worse jobs than this. Having a nice warm room to myself and some time to sleep is more than I expected, to be honest.”
Matthew forced himself to ignore the touch of Hraldrin's hand. “Could you have gone back to the ship?” The snow hadn't been that heavy. It would have been poor hospitality to send Hraldrin out again, but the aliens must have at least had some idea of retrieving him if he hadn't been able to find a place to stay.
“If it had been necessary.” That twinkle of amusement was gone, Hraldrin deadly serious now. “But the snow wasn't just a convenient excuse to stay and make friends, Matthew. Landing in a bog did rather throw off our original plans for making contact politely, and we really don't want to scare people by flitting about in an obviously alien shuttle.”
“So if you are
“It won't be your problem.” Then he grinned. “Unless it's just feeling very, very sorry for myself without being in any actual danger, in which case I'm sure the medic will be quite glad to leave the fetching of buckets to you people.”
“I told you there were more similarities than differences between us. Unfortunately that's one of them.” Hraldrin raised his hand and brushed the tips of his fingers over Matthew's cheek. “Thank you. Thank you for making me welcome. It's my first time being the one to make contact; I didn't want things to go wrong.” Then he abruptly pulled his hand away. “Good night, Matthew.” He went inside the bedroom and shut the door.
Matthew stared at the door. What on earth had brought that on? Hraldrin had almost been leading up to…well, something
, if perhaps not a pass. And then he'd abruptly shut Matthew out.
No fraternising with the natives, perhaps. Matthew decided not to take it personally, and went to his own bed. Alone, but carrying the memory of fingertips delicately brushing over his cheek.Copyright © Jules Jones, December 2005
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