"I'll stay until Damian is down for the day."
"I think you've done your part," Lillian said.
"They needed my help before," he said.
I couldn't argue that, but... "How did you happen to be Johnny-on-the-spot this morning?"
"Gregory couldn't get anyone here to pick him up. He got worried. On his way over, his car broke down. I was next on the list at the coalition help line."
I hadn't actually known Richard was helping staff the emergency calls. "Why didn't he call AAA?"
"He was more worried about why no one was answering your phone than his car."
"I didn't think Gregory cared that much."
Fredo said, "All your leopards are very serious about your and Micah's safety."
I looked at him. "I wasn't aware of that."
He grinned, a brief flash of teeth in his dark face. "You don't like being babied. They know that." The smile faded. "You are their safe harbor; they value that."
I don't know what I would have said to that, but Lillian interrupted and saved me.
"You need to go home, Richard."
"Micah is here now, and Fredo," she said, "I think you can leave it to us."
He started to shake his head again and stopped in mid-motion. "I'll stay until we're sure."
She sighed and shrugged. "You are a very stubborn man. Fine, stay, stay and be in pain." Then she turned to me. "Is there coffee to spare?"
I had to smile. "I think Nathaniel can fix you up."
"I'll just bet he can," she said, and did a polite leer.
Nathaniel took it in stride, with a laugh.
I don't know what the look on my face was, but it caused Lillian to say, "I'm over fifty, Anita, not dead."
"No, it wasn't that." I wasn't sure how to put it into words, but it was more like you didn't say things like that about someone's boyfriend, not in front of them, anyway. There was that word boyfriend again in my head, with Nathaniel attached to it.
She was looking at me, sort of narrowly. "By the look on your face, I stepped in something. Is he more than just a member of your pard?"
I said, "yes," and Richard said, "no." Which left the two of us looking at each other. "I don't think you get to answer questions like that for me, Richard."
"You're right, I'm sorry, but he's not your lover, or your boyfriend."
"No, he's my pomme de sang."
Richard shook his head and had to stop again. I don't think he knew how often he made that motion until today. "I thought, we all thought, he was your live-in, but now I know he's not."
"He does live with me," I said.
Richard started to shake his head, but actually caught himself before he'd begun the movement. "I know that, but he's not your live-in lover."
"And that matters, how?"
"Alright, children," Doc Lillian said, "I made a careless remark. I didn't understand what a pomme de sang means to its, his... owner, master." She sighed. "I didn't mean to offend anyone, let's just leave it at that."
"You didn't offend me," Nathaniel said, and handed her coffee in one of the colored mugs he'd purchased for Furry Coalition meetings. He'd thought it would be nice if we had enough matching mugs to serve our guests. I'd agreed, if I didn't have to shop for them, so he shopped for them. They were all either a deep, rich blue or a dark, forest green. Nice.
He handed me my baby penguin mug with coffee nearly to the brim, just the color I liked it, pale brown. By the color alone, I knew it would be perfect. "Drink," he said, "you'll feel better once you've had some coffee."
"I feel fine," I said, but I sipped the coffee. Perfect.
He'd also already plugged in the coffeemaker. I was right about the French press not making enough coffee at a time to satisfy this many people. Hell, it barely made enough for my early morning needs. "We've got enough for one more cup, who wants it? There'll be more in a few minutes." He smiled at the room in general, getting more of the blue and green mugs out of the cabinet.
"He acts like it's his kitchen," Richard said.
"He cooks in it more than I do," I said.
Richard made a visible effort not to shake his head, though he wanted to. "No, I mean... Jason is Jean-Claude's pomme de sang, but he doesn't move around the Circus of the Damned like he owns it. Nathaniel acts like this is his home."
Nathaniel had his back to the room, but he was close enough to me that I felt his sudden stillness, as he poured coffee and tried to pretend he couldn't hear.
"It is his home," I said.
I was standing close enough to him to hear the slight sigh of his breath, as if he'd held it waiting to hear what I'd say. He was careful not to look at me, but he was smiling as he puttered with the coffee.
"Jason lives with Jean-Claude, but he isn't..." Richard seemed at a loss for words.
Lillian helped him out. "Jean-Claude wouldn't have minded me remarking how cute Jason was, you minded when I said something about Nathaniel. If they're both pomme de sangs, then I think Richard and I are both confused about how we're supposed to act around them. Not boyfriend, not lover, it can get a little confusing."
Nathaniel was very carefully not looking at me, or anyone, but especially not me. I don't know how I knew that he wasn't just busy getting real cream out of the fridge to pour into an honest-to-God cream pitcher. The little pitcher was blue, and the sugar bowl was green, so the mugs matched everything. I knew his favorite color was purple, and had asked him why blue and green, and not purple? His reply was that blue was my favorite color, and green was Micah's favorite color. The answer seemed to make sense to him. It didn't really make sense to me, but I was beginning to learn that things didn't have to make sense to me if it made the people around me happy, and the new dishes seemed to make Nathaniel very happy.
He set the creamer and pitcher on a little tray, along with little tongs for the sugar cubes. Why sugar cubes? Because Nathaniel seemed to get a kick out of asking how many lumps people wanted. He was like a kid playing house. No, that wasn't fair. He was like a new bride that had never had a house, or a kitchen of her own, and was really enjoying the hostess stuff. But it was like he didn't know what real people did in a house, so he was taking it from movies, books, or magazines. I mean nobody serves cream and sugar anymore on a little tray with little tongs, right?
Nathaniel was wearing one of his favorite pairs of blue jeans, so faded that they were turning white in places. They fit his lower body like they were painted on, and it was a nice paint job. His shoulders had broadened since he moved in with me. He was filling out, developing the body he'd have for the rest of his life, if he took care of it. A "late bloomer," my grandmother would have called him. He'd looked younger than he was for years, a delicate body to match the eyes and hair. It had made him popular with a certain kind of clientele that his old Nimir-Raj had pimped him out to. Muscles moved in his arms, shoulders, and back, as he set the tray on the table and began to pass out mugs of coffee. I watched him asking, "How many lumps?" and "Do you want cream?" He moved gracefully around the table on his bare feet. He'd thrown his hair over one shoulder like a cape, so that it was out of the way. I'd have never been able to keep that much hair out of the way without help. Nathaniel made it look effortless.
I sipped coffee out of my penguin mug, and watched him play Suzy Homemaker. I waited to be irritated, but I wasn't. In fact, I was somewhere in the middle of amused, proud, and pleased. He was so cute when he did this.
Richard tensed whenever Nathaniel got close to him, as if he'd have moved back if it hadn't hurt. He didn't take coffee, because he didn't drink coffee. Nathaniel offered to fix tea, but Richard said he didn't want any.
Richard looked at me. "Jason never does this for Jean-Claude."
"Does what?" I asked.
"Nathaniel isn't playing," I said. "He's the closest thing we've got to a hostess. It's not really my gig."
Richard looked down at the floor as if looking for inspiration, or counting to ten. Since I hadn't done anything to piss him off in the last five minutes, I wasn't sure where all the tension was coming from. He looked at me with those solid brown eyes, and I still missed his hair. The sad remnants of curls were beginning to grace his head, but it wasn't even close to what he'd had before he got mad at himself and butchered his own hair. "He acts like your wife."