A great stillness filled the upper ramparts of the house. An early evening frost lined the window at the end of the hall, and framed within that window the Earth's single moon shone, distant and waning. Lance finished his rounds and descended to the ground floor.
Downstairs, the stillness persisted. The television flickered, and outside through the bay window the street was silent and lit in golden patches by streetlights. Ilana lay curled up on the couch, her head upon the armrest. She shifted.
"Hm," he said.
At the door to the kitchen he paused. Ilana had turned back to the television. Red lights thrown by the screen shivered across her freckled neck. She'd a finger to her lips; her teeth flashed as she bit at the nail. He pushed the door open.
Empty kitchen. He snagged an apple from the fruit bowl and cycled through the remainder of the house, through the dark and quiet rooms and back again to Ilana.
She'd turned over onto her back and folded her long hands together across her belly. Ilana played with her forefingers, twisting them about each other. Lance swallowed the rest of the apple core.
"Um?" Her eyelashes flicked. "Oh, he's on a date with Kimmy. They're going to a movie and maybe dinner? I'm recording High School Heights for him."
She moved suddenly, pulling her legs up. Her capris strained. Her shins showed, long and smooth and faintly muscled.
"Come and sit with me. It's almost over," she cajoled.
His arms were cool and ran over with goosebumps. Frost glittered on the glass behind her. He wished he'd worn a sweater.
"Come onnnn." She wiggled her toes at him.
Lance stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged over to the couch. Ilana waited until he'd fallen in beside her to drop her feet in his lap. He looked down to her feet, finely shaped and long as the rest of her, and then he looked to her. She stared very intensely at the television. A crease had formed between her eyebrows. He slumped back.
"I'm not your footrest."
"Of course not," she said. "Footrests don't talk."
Her feet were light, but her heels pressed into his thighs. He could circle a hand about her ankle, like a bracelet on a wrist. Lance shifted, leaning away from her. Ilana played with her fingers still. Her chest rose and fell evenly.
The television blared, and he turned to it. A club scene. Lights strobed in arrythmic patterns, but the image was dark, the dancers shadows. He recognized two from the commercials and wished he didn't know their names. They twined about each other and ground, and the image cut to focus on their hips, pressed close and pressing closer.
"I don't think you should be watching this," he said.
She pushed her foot into his side. Her toes flattened on his chest.
"I'm not a kid, Lance. And besides, they're just dancing."
A woman had been singing; now she panted. The boy ran his hands down the girl's back, his fingers ghosting over her rear.
"That is not just dancing," he said.
"They're just expressing their feelings for each other through rhythmic motion."
He said, "You know what sex is, right?" then wished he could swallow his tongue.
"Yes," Ilana said. Her face was red. She curled her toes, and her heel bumped the inside of his thigh.
The music faded. A man pushed through the crowd on-screen and said, "Kelly?"
The girl turned. "Eric?"
"You know Eric?" asked the boy with her.
"He's my ex," said Kelly, and the screen froze then faded to black. In that dark silence, pale words rose: TO BE CONTINUED.
"Oh," said Ilana, "my, GOSH."
She swung her legs off his lap and rolled upright. Her shoulder bumped his. Lance stood and pulled at his t-shirt, tugging it flat over his chest.
"Did you see that? Octus is never going to believe this. Oh, Lance! Where are you going?"
He paused at the stairs. Ilana peered at him over the couch, her black eyes wide. Her hands dangled off the armrest.
"Getting my keys," he said. "I need to get out of the house for a while."
She brightened. "Oh, could you take me to the promenade?"
His skin crawled. He needed a sweater. He thought, No.
"Sure," he said.
Even now with frost heavy in the air, a crowd lingered at the promenade. Lance squared his shoulders and pushed through it. Ilana followed.
They stopped together at a corner, waiting for the light to change and the crosswalk to open. Ilana elbowed him. He glanced down at her. She was frowning, her small mouth pulled into a downward v.
"You could at least say hi to some of these people."
Lance glanced around. He recognized faces, but not names. A girl standing with her friends across the street looked at him, registered his gaze, and jumped. He looked back to Ilana.
"I don't know anyone."
Ilana sighed noisily. This, he'd learned, was her most irritatingly princessly of sighs, the one that meant, Why do I go anywherewith you.
"Well, they all know you. You should at least be polite."
She drew in breath for another sigh. Her jacket's ruffled collar rose, the golden folds bright against her neck. Lance reached over and lightly pinched her nose. Ilana sputtered; she threw her hands up to her face.
The light changed. Around them, the crowd flowed out onto the street.
"We should go," he said.
"I can't believe you did that!" She jabbed her finger into his shoulder. "That was unbelievably rude."
"Sorry," he said. "You're right. I should be protecting you from the dreaded nose-pinchers."
A man weighted down with a suitcase brushed by them. Lance stepped close to Ilana's side; he turned his shoulders out. The man's case thumped against Lance's back.
Ilana rubbed at her nose. "I never thought you'd turn traitor, corporal."
The light from the opposing streetlight caught in Ilana's pale, peaked hair. A month ago her joke that he would turn traitor would have cut. What she meant was, he never would.
Their hands brushed. The crowd moved around them. The green lights turned yellow; the crosswalk closed.
He said, "They made me an offer I couldn't resist, princess," and smiled.
Ilana laughed through her nose. She'd freckles scattered along her brow, little pale ones at odds with the dark clouds on her cheeks. When she laughed, her brow crinkling, they seemed to dance.
Lance tucked his hands into his hoodie's pocket. His watch was still, the comm line silent. He tipped his head up. Beyond the lights, beyond the glittering skyline, the night was dark, the star formations alien but brilliant. He breathed out and his breath dissipated slowly into the cold.
"Maybe we should go inside somewhere."
Ilana shivered in her coat. Here, halfway down the long strip of shops that was the promenade, the crowd thickened, and as it did so she stepped nearer to him. She peeked at him.
"Where do you want to go?"
He shrugged. "Doesn't matter."
She craned about, rising briefly on her toes. Her hand settled on his sleeve. Ilana gestured.
"How about there?"
'There' was a narrow restaurant with a large neon sign over the double doors and a number of teenagers lingering outside it. No patio. Closed environment, tight quarters. He touched his watch. Then he shrugged again, and he followed Ilana to it.
The inside of the place was dark, crowded and hot. Ilana peeled out of her coat. He'd thought it a restaurant, but the dance floor, the bar along the wall— A guy coming in the doors thumped Lance's shoulder in passing.
"We should go somewhere else," Lance said to Ilana over the music.
"I like it," she said. "And we're already here. Make the best of it. Socialize. Hi, Courtney!"
Courtney ignored her. She flashed Lance a sharp smile, then vanished onto the dance floor. Lance hunched his shoulders.
"I don't know why everyone likes you so much," Ilana muttered.
He stepped half-behind Ilana and leaned close to her ear. "There's too many people here. We should go somewhere more open. Less crowded. Somewhere safer."
"This is safe," she said. "And we have our watches. Come on, sourpatch."
She pulled his arm. His heels scraped along the floor, a polished cement spotted with sticky traces of spilled drinks. Ilana's fingers on his arm were soft through his hoodie. If he twisted his arm just so—
He went with her.
"If you just relaxed, you might even have some fun."
The music changed, electronica giving way to something louder and angrier.
"Where are we going?" he shouted. He glanced around the floor as the couples cleared and the more ordered dancing gave way to a racous, frenzied thing.
"The bar!" She looked around, too, her mouth tensing. "I thought it was over here, but—"
A group of shouting men jostled Lance, throwing him at Ilana. He threw his arm out to lighten the blow and caught Ilana around her shoulders. She took a startled step forward. Her shirt, candy striped and ribbed with lace, pulled up her back as she bent.
"Sorry. Maybe we should—"
Like the crowd at Alien Death Hammer's show, this one coursed with encompassing violence, and in a moment they were swallowed. Ilana fell against his chest.
"Oof. How do we—"
He turned with the thumping rhythm, pulling her with him. Ilana looked startled, her long lashes fanning out against her cheeks. The bass throbbed inside him, the drums pounding like a vast heart beating on his skin. The crowd surged and he absorbed the blow.
"I can't see the bar," she shouted.
The music pulsed and the dancers pulsed with it. An elbow struck the small of his back, and he pushed back. Ilana stumbled against him and turned. Lance turned with her.
"Relax," he said loudly. "You might have fun." He grinned.
Ilana laughed. Sweat dotted her brow, little glimmering spots which stood along with her freckles. She set her hand on his chest and pushed, and followed. He backed up as she advanced, and when a gap showed in the crowd he twisted toward it.
In the space behind him, Ilana turned about on her heel and wound her arms above her head. An informal court dance, adapted for this place and this song and these people. She tapped her toes in an uneven one-two-three rhythm, rising on each fourth step, and turned her wrists out. The bracelet on her left arm trembled against her elbow, and a plastic mood ring on her right pinky twinkled as she spun beneath the lights.
Lance stomped his boots fiercely against the ungiving floor and threw his arms out. The crowd shifted to accomodate, then closed about him, and he thrashed as they thrashed. He knew no court dances.
Ilana, smiling, extended her arms toward him, her fingers spreading, her shoulders pulling forward; then she drew her hands to her chest, turned her fingers down, and tossed her arms out again as if to set something free. Her nose wrinkled. Lance stepped back hard on his heel and again on the other. A man cut between them, and when he moved away Ilana was gone.
The crowd swelled and ebbed. Someone struck Lance in passing. A trio of girls bounced in the space where Ilana was not, their hands raised to the ceiling, hair tossed and obscuring their faces. He turned. The music snarled, the bass lost to the drums as they beat louder and louder. His head throbbed.
Lance reached out, grasped a man's shoulder, and thrust him aside. Shadows consumed the spaces. He pushed through, and the shadows were empty; the spaces filled. He turned again and again. Sweat beaded his neck, his armpits, his chest and belly. She was not there.
"Ilana," he said. "Ilana!"
His voice carried in the sudden silence. A girl laughed. Another song began. Quiet, sweeter. The dancers thinned.
"Lance! Over here!"
Ilana waved to him. Her bracelet jangled on her wrist. Her cheeks were red, her brow slick.
"I ordered you a fruit punch," she said as he came to her. "I hope that's okay." She pinched his hoodie's drawstring. "You should've taken this off."
His tongue sat thickly in his mouth. Lance took a breath and said, "Yeah. Fruit punch's okay."
The house was dark, the lights out. Snow fell sparsely to melt upon the street. Ilana released her seat belt; it hissed through her fingers.
"Thanks again, Lance." She yawned. Belatedly, she covered her mouth. "I'm going to make some tea. Would you like any?"
He worked his hands on the steering wheel. The leather groaned.
"Nah," he said. "I'll be in in a sec."
She smiled and swung her legs out the door. He ran his thumb down the steering wheel. The door to the house opened, then Ilana vanished through it. Lance dropped his head back against the seat. The engine ticked, cooling. He shook his shoulders and grabbed the keys.
Ilana had a pot on the stove and a book open on the counter. She fumbled in the cupboards, her heels rising, her back arched. The bracelet slithered down her arm. Her nape showed, tensed, little dark freckles spattered low on her neck.
Lance rubbed his shoulder. He ached there, deep in the muscle.
"I'm, um, gonna head up," he said. "Check the floor."
She grunted and stood higher on her toes. Her left foot rose.
"Okay. Let me know if you change your mind about the tea, won't you?"
"Ah!" She emerged, triumphant, cup in hand. "Got it." Her nose was smudged with sawdust, her face red but paling.
Lance left her there, alone in the kitchen. He paused in the front room. The snow had thinned and gone, and the streetlights shone out into a night still as the silence which had settled in the house.
That silence followed him up the stairs and to his room. He kicked the door closed and stripped out of his hoodie. Balling it, he threw it toward the closet. Struck, the hangers made a discordant noise muffled by the row of sweaters. The brown arm of one hung out the closet. His chest tightened.
She had died in the swamp. He had held her hand as she died, and he had held it as she breathed again. Her fingers had twitched in the mud, then she had flinched at the cold, and he had stripped out of his sweater and given it to her that she would not be naked. The hem had hung loose around her thighs, and when she sat beside the fire she had pulled it to her knees.
The last of the hangers stilled. Lance pressed his hands to his eyes. At the club, she'd turned beneath the lights and held her arms out to him. He ground his hands harder against his eyes.
Dead in the swamp. His princess, whom he had sworn to protect. The princess.
His head throbbed. A kink knotted his back. Lance dragged his fingers through his hair. The room was cold; his bared arms prickled.
Enough, he thought.
It was ten thirteen at night, and downstairs, Ilana made tea for herself in the kitchen. The security system hummed in the walls. Lance dropped to his hands and pushed up, counting one, two, three, four, as the minutes on the clock changed to ten fourteen, then ten fifteen, then ten twenty.
At ten thirty, Ilana knocked on his door and said, "Good night, Lance."
Sweat warmed his arms. He said, "Good night," and he did not say her name.