It seemed to take forever to get to Zavvy’s place. At one point, I stopped to rest in a boarded-up doorway, and he cleared his throat.
“We’re almost there,” he said. “I should warn you…”
“Eda may have told the others that you’re coming.”
“And…” I shifted my shoulder carefully to lean against the thick frame without hurting anything. My fingers pressed into the powdery white wash of the wall behind me as I braced myself.
“Well…there are quite a few of them.” He wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“How many kids are we talking about here?” I asked.
“I only have thirteen living with me.”
“Thirteen.” I raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, but then there are the kids that come during the day.”
“So all together, that makes…?”
“Twenty-five.” I lowered my chin and stared at him.
“They really don’t have anywhere else to go. Even the ones who are still in school are afraid of the regular kids.”
“Because they’re pretending to be binary gendered?”
“Oh no. I only get the ones that have been outed. The masked ones’ parents would never let them come here. Much too dangerous to be seen associating with my kids.”
“Huh. Just how many herms do you think there are in the city?”
He shrugged. “No one knows. Often the doctors are bribed to record their births as normal. I’m sure you know that some herm babies were killed by their families or communities.”
“Yes.” I clenched my teeth, thinking of my own birth story, and looked into Zavvy’s eyes. “I really don’t know what you expect me to do.”
He shrugged. “Just be you.”
I sighed. “And that is?”
“Famous, eccentric, exotic, unashamed.” He smiled at me, and my lungs suddenly seemed incapable of taking in any air.
A lump was forming in my throat. I blinked several times. “And naked and bleeding.”
“Well, only half-naked.” He smiled cheekily at me, and I snuffled a laugh. “And we’ll have that sorted out in a few minutes. The bleeding part we can take care of too.” He sobered and looked at me for a long moment, his eyes intent on mine. “But when I first saw you…you looked…”
I held my breath again. Horrible? Pitiful? Dead?
He wet his lips as though searching for courage, and then as his eyes held mine, desire filled his face. “On fire,” he said. I stared back and could feel the heat between us build.
Oh yes, I like this man.
I squared my shoulders and stood up straight.
As we climbed the creaking stairs, I heard a great commotion above us, then running steps, then a hushing of all sounds. Zavvy turned on the stairs ahead of me and smiled back at me. “Ah…I think they’re here.”
I blew out my breath and focused on not falling down the stairs as a wave of lightheadedness came over me. Twenty-five herms. I couldn’t even imagine it. It was wonderful and yet terrifying. Would I disappoint them? How would I have felt when I was a kid, meeting an infamous older herm? Mother of Us All, that would have helped, wouldn’t it? All right, Dell, suck it up. These kids need a little quing.
I closed my eyes as I plodded up after him and focused on my breathing. I am the fabulous, scandalous Dell. I will not be subjugated. I will not be shamed.
I ran energy through each of my nodes, imagining each area of my body roaring with white-hot life-force. I inflated my lungs, feeling stronger with each step. I will stand up and fight. Hmm…well, I guess I fight lying down, don’t I?
A little hysteria escaped, and I laughed. The sound echoed in the stairwell, and I opened my eyes to see that the door on the landing had opened and many little faces were all tilted up toward me as I reached the top step. Such beautiful, earnest, round owl faces! I beamed at them.
“Well, hello, my darlings! Aren’t you just the most wonderful pack of pretties I’ve ever seen!” I crouched down in the doorway, ignoring my protesting body. “Now tell me all your names.” I started with the shortest one. “I know you already! Eda the Brave. Eda the Quick. I am Dell, but you can call me Antunkle if you like.” I shook per hand as per stared up at me in wide-eyed wonder. “Pleased to know you. I sure did appreciate your concern and quick thinking back there. Very helpful.”
Per eyes roamed from my face down to a long gouge on the back of my hand, which disappeared under Zavvy’s shirt cuff. “Just a scratch, honey. Really, I’m quite all right.”
It didn’t look like I was going to get a single word in return, so I moved on to cover any uncomfortable silence. “And you, what’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Yes?” I raised my eyebrows. “Oh, that’s the term for a herm, ahh…aunt-uncle combo. My mother is forever inventing words for us.” I smiled and didn’t roll my eyes as I used to. She was right about more things than I cared to admit.
I forced myself not to flinch. Someone’s parents wanted a boy.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Edwin.” I shook per limp hand firmly.
That seemed to get the ball rolling, and I managed to get in the door with Zavvy’s help and get introduced to all of them. I counted myself lucky there were only nineteen present. I’d learned how to remember names, since we traveled back and forth between the Motherland and Fatherland a lot, and my parents led very public lives. Nineteen names at once was a stretch, though, and I really didn’t want to mess this up.
The apartment was mostly one long room. The door opened into the kitchen, with a window facing the street on the right and, to the left, a table area and then a sitting area and, lastly, two doors facing each other down a small hallway. I was frantically trying to fuse names to faces when they all cleared away from a chair at the table, clearly wanting me to sit down. I glanced at Zavvy.
“Perhaps Dell would like to get cleaned up right off,” he said.
“Oh yes, thanks, that would be lovely.”
“Right this way.” He led me to the back and opened the bathroom, leaving the door open. The left side of the room was tiled, walls and floor, funneling toward a drain in the middle. The small window at the end was open, and on the right stood a chair, sink, and cupboard. He pointed at various huge jars. “This one is for hair. This one for body. Oh, but you’ll be wanting something that doesn’t sting. Just a moment.” He crouched down and dug around in a cupboard. “Yes, this one is medicinal and gentle.” He placed a lump of soap on the tiled shelf under the window.
“Just leave those dirty things on the chair here, and I’ll slip in in a few minutes and put some clean things there for you.” He turned, and many little feet outside the door stepped back as he left. The air seemed to whoosh out of me as the door clicked shut behind him. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and quickly turned away. No, thank you!
Seeing that was definitely going to crack my brave-herm-role-model act. Snarled hair, swollen face, bruises coming up. It’s easier to act confident when you can’t see yourself looking pathetic. I stepped onto the tiles, pulled the curtain closed, and turned on the water.
The hot water was stinging horribly over my body when I heard him knock softly and come in again.
“Are you…” he said.
I called, “Could you, ahh… I don’t seem to be able to…”
He pulled the curtain back and grunted. I had my back to him, watching the pink water swirling around my feet. I knew my back was bruising and covered in cuts. Each one of them stung like mad, and I tried not to shrink under his gaze.
“That bad?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, just rolled up his sleeves, took some of his mild soap, and rubbed it between his hands. I stole a look at him over my shoulder. My bravado seemed to have fled completely.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“This is going to hurt.”
I nodded and braced myself against the wall. He slid his hands over my neck and shoulders, down my arms, my back and bum. He was gentle, so gentle, but I hope to never again experience such a vivid mix of pleasure and pain.
“I’ve sent them out to get things for dinner,” he said. I hung my head in relief, seeing sparkles of glass in the suds at my feet.
“I didn’t think you’d want them to hear you in here.”
“Thank you,” I whispered.
He crouched down to wash the backs of my legs, his strong hands slippery and sure of themselves.
I bit my lip to keep it from trembling and chuckled. “You seem to know what you’re doing.”
“It’s a lot of kids to bathe. I’ve had a lot of practice.” He turned me around and looked me over. I closed my eyes. “I never want them to feel like it’s wrong to be naked. Like there’s something wrong with them.” My body was shivering, waiting to see if he would touch me. My nipples stood up hard on my high, firm breasts. A man that likes herms! A man that thinks we should feel normal!
He turned me back around just as my penis started to get hard. Oh Mother! Did he
“The damage is mostly on your back. There’s a few bits of glass still stuck in there. Can you stand the tweezers?” I nodded and covered my genitals with my hands. I could feel myself blushing furiously.
He worked quickly, and I sucked air between my teeth and pinched my eyes shut. Maybe my arousal eased the pain a bit. I was certainly able to focus intently on his hands as they braced on my skin and held me still.
“Sorry. I know I’m hurting you,” he said.
I shook my head, unable to answer.
“Do you…not like men? I mean, am I making you uncomfortable?”
I shot a look at him.
He smiled tentatively. “You’re cowering.”
“I’m afraid my body is a bit confused.” I tried to laugh. “I guess it’s been a while since anyone touched me. I mean…in a friendly way.”
“If you call digging glass out of your back friendly.” He smiled.
“Right.” I trembled.
“Please, don’t be afraid. I wouldn’t try to…take advantage.”
And then I jumped him.
It wasn’t a choice or a decision or anything. My body just took over. One moment, I was turned away and looking over my shoulder at his concerned, earnest expression and amazing full lips, and the next I was pressing my wet, naked breasts against him and kissing him. My tongue slid into his mouth as my arms wrapped around his neck and my fingers dug into his hair, all of their own accord. He kissed me back, but I stopped when I noticed his arms weren’t coming around me. I pulled away, breathing hard, and looked into his eyes. Oh shit, Dell, what have you done?
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he whispered.
I searched his eyes. “Then don’t say no.”
I held perfectly still, but it was like my whole body was vibrating, humming. I tried to keep my mind still as well, to not think about the humiliation that was about to happen as he pushed me away. Would I be able to stand that, on top of everything else this day had served up? My cock was so hard, there was no way he didn’t feel every inch of it pressing into his hip. Did that disturb him, disgust him? The water from my body was no doubt seeping into his clothes in the heat between us. I imagined the wet circles my breasts were slowly creating on his shirt.
His hands came up to my face and brushed the wet curls off my cheeks. It was so gentle, so tender, the breath that I’d been holding escaped in a tiny pant. This was a good sign, wasn’t it? But then he pulled back, loosening my hands so they slid down to his shoulders. He looked at me with his eyebrows drawn down fiercely, and for a heart-stopping moment I thought that was it. He was going to give me some patronizing speech about why this was foolish. Of course this is foolish.
What was I thinking? Wasn’t it just like me to make a mess of something that might have been wonderful? I’d had a gut feeling that he was kind, that he was wide open. And, Mother, why hadn’t I been able to just resist that pull? I’d thought my reckless days were behind me, but clearly I had a vein of recklessness that ran right to the heart of me.
The humming that seemed to originate in my bone marrow decided then would be a good time to ratchet up a notch, and a shiver ran through me. Hellnation, I had his shoulders in a death grip, didn’t I? Was there some way to recover this situation? I’d never been terribly good at recovery. I could feel the tightening behind my eyes that meant tears were threatening. Not that. Oh please, not that.
His look of fierce concern cleared then and morphed into something like desperation, like he was so tempted that he just couldn’t stop himself. His jaw clenched, he gave the tiniest whimper, and then, carefully, he began to kiss me. First my temple, then my cheek, then my eyelid. I held my breath, and the shiver turned into a tremble I couldn’t control. Two kisses and then he would stop and look me in the eye, again and again. He worked his way across my face as though he wanted to devour me, but slowly, as if I were something rare and delicious. His face so serious, so open. I wanted him so badly, but I didn’t move. This should be his choice, not me frantically mauling him. Was this his pity for me? But, oh, it didn’t feel like pity. It felt…honest.
He ran the tip of his tongue along my parted lips, then along the edges of my teeth, and then he kissed me, gentle and deep. I let my hands move over him again, one returning to the silkiness of his short hair, the other sliding around his neck. Maybe it was okay. Maybe he wanted me enough. There was no way he wanted me as much as I wanted him, so I had to hold back, be careful.
His finger ran up my ribs, raising goose bumps all over my wet flesh. His thumb brushed the bottom curve of my breast. A whimper escaped my lips as heat pooled in my vulva. I wanted to part my legs and press harder against him, to grind myself into his hip bone.
Then we heard the door slam, and we both jerked and broke the firm press of our bodies. “Hellnation. They’re back,” he said.