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Hulkasaurus

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Smartest thing Natasha ever did was finally let Stark Industries acquire her company, get out of tech and trade in her tiny San Francisco flat for a beach house on Lake Michigan.

She knows now that the dumbest thing she ever did was buy the house only looking at it once, when the neighbor was gone.

She's had two weeks of serene gorgeous views from her deck, where her yard slopes down from scrubby grass to bright sand, to water that stretches past the horizon, sky and white capped waves rolling in, the bright triangles of sailboats fresh out of storage for the season. She's even bought a set of watercolor tubes and a block of hot press paper from the strangely large art supply store in town.

The town of Drijfhout sounds like ‘drive out’, and is a weird mix of art and nostalgia, with a main street that’s gone picturesque and has a solid block parceled out into the kind of high-end artisan shops one sees in Tahoe, only smaller, more heartfelt.

She gets breakfast at the diner Wednesdays and Saturdays when she goes to buy groceries at the farmer’s market, where Bob with his long skinny ponytail and faded USMC tattoo already knows her name. Then she looks around and checks out the library and the options for non-solitary entertainment. It's limited but offers some variety. There’s a movie theater, and a Mexican place that looks questionable in an ostensibly Dutch town, though the Elks club does feature a salsa dancing night, and there’s a coffee shop with a counter selling handmade ice cream. There are six churches, which seems excessive, though one’s a Unitarian joint advertising a Rainbow Youth Alliance meeting. There are three art galleries, two gas stations, and a microbrewery.

Nat has time now, for sleeping in and doing enough yoga to start unknotting years spent bent over a keyboard, first hacking, then building something legit. In the afternoons she throws down some muddy washes, perversely enjoying the dissatisfaction, the freedom to waste her time failing to capture the shifting light with water and pigment.

She slips a knife into the block of paper and cuts the top sheet free, jamming it into the sand at her feet so it doesn’t blow away while she dozes in one of the plastic Adirondack chairs left by the previous owners. The Liebers had been an older couple, hearing impaired. It was a novelty that her lights flashed when the doorbell was rung.

Lulled by the breeze and the play of light on her eyelids as clouds scudded across the sun, the screech of gulls and the lap of waves, she didn’t realize this was a more salient fact than the real estate agent had let on.

Not until her neighbor came back home to his yard, which was only screened off from hers by a thicket of dogwood and grape vines, fired up a welding torch, and started building a metal dinosaur.

A metal. Goddamned. Dinosaur. He's made them for years, the clerk at the art supply store tells her, metal frame sauropods all over the country. Big skeletal herbivores with vegetal designs on their horns and armoured plates, soldered vines twining up their bones. He’d been off in another state, installing a fantastical triceratops in a tech park in Portland.

The welding is the least of it, because he wears a thick hide jacket and a full helmet and the hiss and pops are relatively quiet. She can indulge in a clean neighborly hate and still pursue a life of leisure, read or paint, peevishly flicking rinse water from her brush against the boundary greenery that doesn’t quite screen out the flare of sparks in her peripheral vision.

It's when he breaks out the ball peen hammer, the sledge, the heavy files; when he's crafting teeth and scales and claws with his shirt off and just that stupid hippy necklace swinging against his ridiculous seventies furry chest with each strike; when she finds her foot bobbing along at that tempo; that’s what shatters her composure about the whole thing and she starts peering through the scrub and trying to get a read on him.

His house is set farther back from the shore than hers, a narrower lot tucked in a copse of trees with a work yard set up. Six large squares of concrete slab, fronted by a two car garage with the doors open to reveal an array of tools and equipment, sheets and tubing and slabs of metal, a chest freezer, workbench, generator, and a hammock slung from the rafters but tied up out of the way.

His clothes are a wretched mess, utilitarian jeans gone tattered at the hems and knees, work boots with the leather scuffed so much the steel toe gleams out of the right one. Shirts are hit or miss, more often miss now that he’s doing tool work and the summer humidity is stifling.

That's when she sees his current project looks nothing like what the clerk had showed her on his phone while she picked out more brushes. This is the outline of a monstrous copper-chased dragon bristling with teeth and claws, shimmering with a handful of hammered scales turning green with patina.

She stows the tubes of watercolor in a kitchen drawer and unpacks the boxes from her own workshop and office, that had laid in the corner of her empty living room for a month. Soldering iron, tool boxes, cables, power supplies, this is the stuff she hasn’t used for years, not since the chips were designed and sourced cheaper. Then she’d had to focus on the code, and then on the business and the market, and then on the big blue corporate whale circling around her company looking to filter her out like krill.

She spends a whole afternoon sorting tools, ordering missing items and supplies, booting up the microcontrollers and cleaning up the code. She stuffs one into her pocket around sunset, fired up by the rasp of a file he’s been working for the last hour.

She pads over to his yard, through a gap between saplings where there’s not as much tangled underbrush. He’s got a worklight clipped to a strut of the dragon, another on a band around his head, both angled to not be visible from her house. She clears her throat between passes of the file and begins, "You know, if you're interested in collaboration...I could program it to breathe fire."

He looks up at her, a little startled, and she can see where flecks of metal shavings dot his skin, stick to the sweat and hair.

It’s humid near the water, mosquitoes and gnats buzzing around in the near twilight. She bats them away idly, waits for him to reply.

He yanks the worklight from his head. His arms and chest are solid, lean muscle, and his hair is dark and curly, sticks to the back of his neck. It’s a surprisingly...decadent sight. A little dissolute. She’s always been a sucker for dissolute. In San Francisco, she knew a lot of folks whose labor was theoretical - long hours, commitment to their causes, across the board carpal tunnel, but they didn’t sweat much. Even the other artists she knew, the artisans and crafters, spent more time in basements and workshops with small, fine tools.

“You’re my neighbor,” he says, looks around and spies his shirt hanging off a scale. He wipes his hands with it, and holds one out to shake. The surprise has been replaced by an amused grin.

“You’re making a dragon,” she says, incredulous. Of course she’s his neighbor; she walked over from her back deck just visible from his yard.

“Yeah.” He looks at her, and the shirt in his hands, and kind of dips his head like he knows he should be embarrassed a little, but isn’t so much. She just continues to look, and he puts on the shirt, halfheartedly buttons it like he’s only obeying social norms to test out what she does next. Her mouth twitches.

“Natasha--Nat,” she says. “And I don’t know if you do 21st century, but I can make that thing roar. Maybe some fire too, depending on where it’s intended to go. Fire codes, you know.”

“Bruce,” he says. “And it’s gonna be outdoors. So, fire codes aren’t a problem.”

They both wait a beat, and then he says. “It’s almost dark. I was thinking about taking this inside.”

Nat doubts that’s true. He worked well into the late hours last night, work lights tilted away from her property but hammer ringing unchecked, though maybe it’s occurring to him that he’s noisy as fuck and the sound carries. She waits.

“Do you want to come in? Maybe have a drink?”

“Are you a serial killer?”

“No,” his smile is sly, “but would I tell you if I were?”

“I’m kidding,” she says, “I can take care of myself.”

~*~

Bruce has wine and iced tea and filtered water, something that was lunch meat a long time ago, and five types of mustard. She accepts a glass of white wine, which is crisp and biting and better than she expected, and looks around the house.

It’s comfortable, warm and open and inviting. Someone who cares about it lives here. She doesn’t know enough about him to know if it’s his stuff or if it was decorated. A wife, an ex, a boyfriend, a sibling, a parent, a someone. No ring, but that doesn’t mean anything, that could be a safety thing with his work. Once she'd melted a gold chain right off her wrist, brushing against an unplugged power supply that still held a charge.

He’s got a big buttery leather couch that looks good for napping and movies and tucking into with a project, the leather worn smooth and shiny in places. He’s got an equally hideous coffee table that seems to fit in the space anyway, made of logs and a hunk of beveled glass.

“I heard you’re a genius,” he says, which is a pretty good opening gambit. He leans against the snack bar in the kitchen.

There are drawings all over it, the dragon sketched out at varying scales, the detailing beautiful and wild and precise, some of them diagrammed with arrows and equations. He pushes them towards the center, but she can see that there are coffee rings and wine stains on them anyway.

“Who told you that?” She actually wants to know.

He shrugs a shoulder, and buttons up the rest of the shirt, pushes his hair around but just ends up looking more like a delectable mess. She thinks he must wreak havoc on the local gossip scene--she’s already aware there’s not a lot to do, not a lot to talk about aside from each other, and apparently now her.

“I’m good at what I do,” Nat finally says. “I don’t know if that makes me a genius.”

“I guess we’ll see,” he says, and pours himself a deep red that smells like dark cherry and wood smoke. “I know a few geniuses. Mostly they’re hard to live with.”

It turns out he’s divorced. She asks because she doesn’t want to hint. She’s not here for that conversation, but she notes it, nonetheless.

“I’m hard to live with too,” Bruce explains.

“Transitive property?” she asks, which earns her another harsh laugh.

“Technically?”

She’s intrigued. “Yeah.”

“Technically, yes.”

Her stomach growls and he gets this look on his face like he’s forgotten something, and asks her what day it is. “Thursday,” she says.

He groans. “That explains the empty fridge--I should have pulled something from the freezer this morning. Other than that, I might have some crackers.”

She takes a deep breath. “I’ve got steaks,” she says. “A gift from my brother. Housewarming present. But I don’t cook, and I didn’t put them in the freezer, and now they’ll go bad if I don’t eat them.”

“Do you have a grill?”

She shakes her head. “I’ve got a frying pan. Also a gift. Clint thought he was being funny.”

Bruce sets down his wine, goes around to the drawers in the well-appointed kitchen.

“I can loan you tongs and a spatula,” he says, and puts them on the counter like he’s looking to make a trade.

“You don’t have any food, and I don’t have any furniture,” she says. “So maybe I should bring the food over here.”

She’s not usually this amenable, certainly not with someone she doesn’t know, but she’s a little bored and this is the most interesting thing she’s done in a week. The risk versus reward scale shifts when she’s idle, and she likes the wine, likes this house, the detail work on those drawings paired with the math of creating a stable structure, and the solid feel of his hand when they shook, calloused and firm. She trusts her judgement here.

She brings back the steaks and tiny fingerling potatoes and a bag of greens plus garlic and butter and olive oil. He’s run through the shower while she’s gone, smells like soap and sun and water, though honestly she hadn’t minded the sweat.

“Nice spread for someone who doesn’t cook.”

“I like to buy produce out here,” she says. “Bob thinks I might be vitamin deficient. I think I’m just easily swayed by pretty colors.”

He sets her to work chopping things, oiling the potatoes and sprinkling them with herbs and salt and pepper.

“How come you have all the stuff to cook, but no food?”

“Why do you have food you can’t cook?”

It’s a stand-off, but they both grin at each other. He breaks first.

“My pantry’s pretty bare right now, and I worked all day Saturday and missed the market. I didn’t want to trek all the way out to the Meijer when I could pick up something fresh on Wednesday, but I lost track of the week, so here I am.”

“Bob’s putting together some kind of hybrid CSA at the community center, you could go subscription.”

He shakes his head. “I travel a fair amount in the summer, I don’t like for things to go to waste.”

He sears the steaks, then bastes them in the butter and rendered fat, a precise and hypnotic movement.

“It’s a treat,” he says. “I don’t eat a lot of red meat these days.”

She switches to his red when they sit down at the counter, and closes her eyes at the taste, an involuntary reflex that’s more about how long it’d been since she ate a meal someone had prepared at home than the luxury of the steak, though it is a luxury.

“Why don’t you have any furniture?” he asks, takes a sip, looks at her intently.

She cuts a potato in half, thinks about it. “I lived in a studio,” she says finally. “Didn’t need much. I never had a reason to acquire it before. We moved around a lot, when I was a kid. So now…” she shrugs. “My sister-in-law is threatening to throw darts at the Ikea catalogue and order accordingly, so that at least everyone will have a place to sleep when they come by in August.”

“This place was part of the Arts and Crafts movement,” he says, like that might mean something to her. “There’s a bunch of beautiful stuff out there, people still making Stickley models and Mission style if you’re into it.”

“I don’t even know.” She’s also usually not this honest with people. “I guess I should check it out.”

He gives a throaty laugh, and they move on to talk about how to get a copper dinosaur to come to life.

There’s a moment, before she leaves, walking back across the join of their properties when she thinks she could push him, see what he reveals. They’re strangers still, but they’ve shared a meal, shown their talents. A handshake is weird, a hug too intimate. Finally, she brushes her mouth against his cheek, and his fingers rest slightly on her hip, and she thinks, for just a heartbeat, of pressing this. His eyes are dark, and she suspects he doesn’t do this either, that he’s also testing something, but she moves away and just says thank you, and goodnight, and I’ll see you soon.

~*~

Natasha spends the next day writing the code for opening and closing the dragon’s jaw. Her soldering iron isn’t getting hot enough, and the project shows her how much of her work station had gone missing since she’s made anything, things she didn’t notice on the first pass when she unpacked. It’s not like she thought she was going to leave her livelihood behind, but she hadn’t really considered taking on a new project so soon.

She’s going to have get inside the mouth, see how he’s attached the hinge of the jaw, figure out the micro-movements that will make the whole thing feel more realistic.

Laura calls as she’s sketching out the logistics, and Nat puts her on speaker.

“Do you think that if I just accidentally lost one of these kids at the mall for an hour or two, someone would call social services?”

Nat laughs. “You’re not worried about them getting kidnapped, just looking bad?”

“Trust me, no one’s kidnapping them. They’re terrorists. It’s like they sprang fully formed from Clint. I can’t believe my DNA is even in the older two. I found Cooper hanging upside down in the stairwell the other day, like a goddamned bat. He said you and Clint used to get up in the crawlspaces, dangle down and scare each other.”

“Laura I love you, but do you need something?”

“We’re coming up that first weekend in August. Clint’ll be home, finally. I just wanted to prepare you.”

Laura pauses, and Nat waits. “Spit it out,” she says finally.

“How are you? You sounded kind of… lonely last week.”

“I’m not lonely.”

“Really.” A different kind of pause. Laura’s always been the best kind of nosy. If she hadn’t been, Nat and Clint really would have remained feral, gone rabid, ended up a scourge on the world. She’d saved Clint, and given him the stability to save Nat.

“My neighbor makes giant sculptures. Loudly. At all hours.”

“And?”

“I went over to introduce myself yesterday.”

“Huh.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing. What’s he like?”

“I didn’t say he.”

“Oh please. You’re being all cagey, I can hear it even on speaker. It’s a he. So, worth the noise?”

“Maybe.”

“Sounds like Captain America has a rival.”

Nat snorts, but it’s been a few days since she talked to Steve. She should feel worse about that than she does, but it’s not like they’d had a lot of time together before she left. Between their careers it had been like a long distance relationship where they shared a bed, but since they also shared a history it still worked, it was comfortable. But there hadn’t been a lot of discussion about what it meant for her to drift her golden parachute into the Midwest.

“Let me guess, he’s a crusty old hippy who looks like Iggy Pop. Snow white walrus moustache. Only drinks kombucha.”

“No, that’s my grocer, Bob.” She takes the phone off speaker, hearing the swish of Bruce’s screen door through her open kitchen window. “He’s interesting. His work is interesting. I don’t know, he’s...something.”

“Nat, don’t go chasing interesting just because you’re bored. Get a hobby.”

“I did,” she says. “Monsters. I’m gonna animate some monsters.”

~*~

Bruce is wearing a worn thin t-shirt, and Nat wonders if it’s for her benefit. She would have told him not to bother.

She waves, and he puts down the file, shoves his goggles up on top of his head. It makes him look kind of rakish.

“I looked up Mission style,” she says. “I like it.”

He grins.

“I want to go buy furniture, but I don’t have a truck.”

“Ah, but I do.”

She nods.

“How do you know you’re gonna find something you like?”

“I’m sure I’ll find something I like well enough.”

“No,” he says, dragging the goggles off his head. “That’s not how it works. You should have things you love around you. If you’re gonna bother.”

She raises an eyebrow.

“We’ll go into town. I’ll introduce you to some folks, you can look. See up close what you like.”

“I don’t want to bother you,” she says, although that’s not true. She expressly wanted to bother him, or she wouldn’t be out here.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I’d like it. Honestly. You can buy me lunch.”

“Fair,” she says.

He changes into a loose button down that doesn’t fit quite right, and she follows him to the garage behind the house, but he walks right past the battered 4Runner parked outside that she’s seen rattling back and forth from his driveway to the road. Instead, he pulls a helmet down from a peg, hands it to her, and gestures to an ancient Triumph Bonneville stashed inside with the tools.

“Jesus,” she says, “Aren’t you too old to be a hipster?”

His reply would be defensive if it wasn't delivered with such a slow dry blink. “I’ve had this bike since college.”

“Yeah, I bet.” It is a beauty, if a little battered.

He puts his own helmet on. It’s presumptuous. She kinda likes it. As a play, it’s hilarious.

“This way,” he says, “you can’t bring anything home without thinking about it first.”

“Fine,” she says, “I'll let you rein in my enthusiasm, but I want to pilot this thing on the way back.”

~*~

Peggy has pin up hair, worn Carhartt overalls, and is missing a pinky. She’s bright and pretty and in charge, clearly the big cheese around here, and god, she makes beautiful furniture.

Nat runs her hands over the sweeping curved back of an Adirondack style recliner, wood so dark and warm that it feels alive. Leather that’s supple, firm, threaded with a future. The chair is already prepping to be an heirloom for generations ahead. She can imagine generations of overtired Bartons snuggled into submission in this chair.

Bruce is chatting with Peggy about a communal garden and a welding project, resting against the doorframe to the woodshop, arms loosely crossed. She’d thought they were going to look in the stores, antique shops and designer showplaces, but instead, he’s taken her to the source.

“That’s my favorite,” Peggy says, voice clipped and precise, but not cold. “Modern luxury, classic styling. It was hell to get right, but now it keeps the lights on.”

“How much?” Nat asks. She doesn’t care. She’ll pay whatever it takes. There's a thrum of guilty pleasure in just being able to think that.

Peggy names a price that represents more money than Clint paid for the Ford Probe that Nat’s driving.

“Yes,” she says, because what’s the point of stupid amounts of money if she doesn’t spend it on something decadent.

“I’m making lunch,” Peggy says, “Stay.”

“Nat? You up for that?” Bruce’s mouth quirks at the corner. “Or do you need some alone time with the chair?”

“Sure,” she says. “But, no, I’m good. I know what I want.”

Peggy exchanges a look with Bruce that she can’t quite read.

“Don’t get too attached to that one, it’s earmarked already. But I can have another one for you by August. I’ll also send you to Phil’s. He’s been doing some lovely work with upcycling couches and settees, if that’s something you’d like. His work is on the other end of the spectrum from this, really interesting modern stuff that doesn’t feel like it came out of a Kubrick film. Might be a nice contrast.”

“Thanks,” Bruce says. “We’ll head over there after lunch.”

~*~

Phil is not what she expects, but instead a man with a precise haircut in a crisp button down and pressed slacks overseeing a team of young apprentices.

Whereas Peggy’s workshop was homey and intimate, WrekerWerks feels like a factory or a maker space, buzzing and functional. There are stations of fabrics, materials, machines and busy young folks experimenting with textures and torches and stencils and band saws.

“Peggy called,” Phil comes over, shakes Bruce’s hand and then hers. “Thought you might like a tour.”

Two people are disassembling a bathtub with an eye toward making it a couch, speaking in half sentences they snippily finish for each other. A young woman with furiously black hair is wrapping an innertube in contrasting strips of wool. A boy with thick red framed glasses is applying batik to the top of a desk with a mid-century modern top and a battered elephant statue as a base.

Phil takes them back to his office where an ancient trashcan lid has been painted with concentric circles of red, white and blue with a star in the middle. It’s mounted to the wall next to the can, black metal with angry red octopi stenciled in rows up and down the ridges.

Nat starts to laugh. “I don’t suppose that’s for sale?”

“That’s a one off,” Phil shakes his head. “My pet project.”

“I have a friend it would be perfect for.” She pauses, “Although I’m not sure he’d appreciate the joke.”

~*~

There’s something sharp and focused in the way Nat looks around the workshops, the way she catalogues the environment and staff, like she’s filing everything away for later.

Bruce recognizes that sharpness - situational awareness even in this haven of luxury furniture and good-feeling ethos. It’s the product of having to watch your back, take care of yourself, no one to manage your shit for you. She’s lush and beautiful, and combined with that edge, with her quick mind, the way she keeps things tight to herself, she is undeniably appealing.

He hasn’t enjoyed anything in ages as much as their back and forth about wiring up Ethelred, the mechanics and the coding, the point and purpose. Well, that’s a lie, but he’s not quite willing to think about how much he enjoyed the feeling of her thighs pressed against his hips as they rode into town, the confidence of her hands on his ribs and the easy way she leaned into the turns, anticipating his movements, effortless.

How he might be anticipating the argument about letting her steer on the way back, and the feel of her waist under his hands when he inevitably gives in. It’s a dangerous road, he thinks.

Phil asks her a question about her design aesthetic and she looks at Bruce over her shoulder, and he shrugs, “It’s just a question we ask around here.”

“Developing,” Nat answers Phil, eyebrow raised in half a jest. “I like that desk in there, with the elephant--”

“Hunter calls it an Ele-scritoire,” Phil shares, spreading the pain, “We've been calling it Deskbo.”

“You're horrible people here, Phil.”

“We encourage a culture of improvisation and iterative refinement of ideas. Also, he started it with the puns.”

“Could be a marketing angle in there somewhere.” Nat tilts her head in thought. “But nothing will persuade me to park my ass in a former bathtub to watch tv.”

Damn it, he likes how easy she is, here in this place, talking to his friends.

“Fair enough,” Phil says, leading her over to where a handful of seventies era cabinet televisions have been gutted and re-proportioned to fit modern equipment; contrasting wood expansion joints and new metal fittings. “Let me show you what Daisy’s been working on this year; sky’s the limit with that kid.”

~*~

They take a break to drink lemonade at a roadside cafe, so manufactured to be rustic and homey it makes Nat’s teeth hurt, but the lemonade is real and perfectly tart and she has to force herself to sip, take it slow as she squints at him across the picnic table.

“So,” he says, and she can feel the curiosity carefully banked. “You’ve got a friend.”

Smart guys, she thinks. She’s used to being the smartest person in any room, doling out information, sussing out what she wants. But Bruce is perceptive. He chews on some of the ice in his drink, and quirks his mouth at her. But it’s that same line they’ve been dancing around - attraction, interest, piqued curiosity, this strange ease that can spring up between strangers who spark off each other. And she needs to be honest, maybe with herself more than anything.

“Yeah,” she says. “Friend. Boyfriend. What a stupid word.” She feels a little guilty, like she’s been hiding something.

“Boyfriend didn’t come out here with you though?”

She takes a large swallow of the drink, bright and tart, and sighs. “He’s a lawyer in San Francisco. Appellate case law. He’s a save the world type. A really good guy. He’ll probably be president someday, or a judge.”

“And?”

“And I’m also difficult to live with. I didn’t...we’re negotiating.”

“Sounds romantic.”

“Well, he is a lawyer. He argues for a living.”

“You love him?”

She looks at him sharply, and he puts up his hands. “I’m not prying, really. I...love doesn’t always mean much beyond making things hurt more. It doesn’t necessarily change what you want, what you can give.”

The frankness of that makes something tighten in her belly, but the way his face goes taut and serious makes the hard truth feel compassionate, like gentle fingers over a bruise.

“I don’t think Steve and I see the same things, when we look at the future.” It feels like pulling teeth to say that, to admit it, but it’s a truth she’s utterly certain of, one that’s been humming in her skull for a year, as real as the fact that she loves Steve but doesn’t really miss him, not like she should. “We were friends, and then we were more, and I keep thinking that was a mistake...but whether that’s my shit, or his…maybe just wanting different things. He’s a good man, he is...but I don’t know that I’m good for him. Or if I even want to be.”

She chokes to a stop with a wry smile and tries to dissolve the catch in her throat with the lemonade. She didn’t mean to say half of that. She watches Bruce take it in, dial back his intensity so she has some breathing room.

There's only ice left, and she shakes the cup, willing it to melt. “Sorry,” she says, but she’s not. You lay out truths to get them back, and even if it wasn’t intentional, she recognizes strategy in what she’s done. She wants some of his truths, and she’s willing to trade for them.

He shakes his head, like it’s fine that she unloaded, he’s the one who asked about love in the first place. And he’s quiet, but it’s not awkward or heavy, it’s soothing.

“You up for one more stop?” he asks, but when she nods, he offers her his hand to pull her up off the bench. His fingers are warm, and he squeezes her hand with this solid reassurance that’s grounding and real and unexpected. When she swings her leg over the bike, snugging up to his back, there’s a moment, however brief, where she thinks of wrapping her arms around his chest and pressing her cheek to his shoulder blade.

Instead, she settles into the easy, casual grip she’d adopted previously and follows the lean of his body as he steers into the curve of the road.

~*~

The Red Rooster sounds like a honky-tonk, but is actually stuffed to the gills with luxury kitchen supplies, knick knacks, cookbooks, and some surprisingly practical homegoods. Bruce waves to Wanda, asks her about college, inquires after her grandmother who owns the shop.

“She’s at a fiber fair in Ohio, sourcing textiles. My brother drove the truck, since she doesn’t do manual.” Wanda delicately plucks at a row of pie birds on a shelf, putting them in rainbow order from cardinals to purple martins. “I’m orphaned and alone.”

“While they drive each other crazy arguing about speed limits.” Bruce shares a smile with Wanda.

“His luck is going to run out sooner rather than later, driving like that through Ohio with Michigan plates.”

“Do you really know everyone?” Nat asks, and bumps him a little with her elbow.

“Population is less than a thousand people in the winter,” he says. “You get cozy or you go stir crazy.”

Nat wanders over to a line of novelty salt and pepper shakers and table wares, picks up a vicious looking metal hen and rooster set with feathers like shimmering scales.

She raises an eyebrow at him. “Seriously?”

He’s a little sheepish, but the damned things sell like hotcakes. They’re tedious and fiddly with the tin snips and the spot welds, and he’s going to have to give in this winter and either make a cast for them or just sell off the design. It’s a practical solution even if he hates to commercialize his babies. He crosses his arms. “The chicken is probably the closest descendant from dinosaurs.”

“Well, these do look like they’d peck out your eyes at a shady glance.”

“That’s the idea.”

He leaves her alone with the chickens, goes to the back and finds a bright green silicone spatula, tongs, and a slotted spoon. She’s picking through spices, and handmade silicone bowl covers that look like flowers, and tiny, delicate sauce containers, sushi stands shaped like cranes and koi.

Wanda wraps the utensils with a bow so they look like misguided tulips.

He holds them behind his back, and she approaches the counter with the hen and rooster.

“No,” he says. “Just...if you really want them later, I’ll make you a set.”

“C’mon,” she says, handing the hen to Wanda and petting the rooster tucked in her arm. “I want to support local business. I’m gonna send them to my sister-in-law.”

He gives in with a sigh, and when they get outside, he hands her the bouquet of utensils.

She purses her mouth, eyes bright, full of laughter.

“This way you can get things back out of the frying pan.”

She accepts them like an offering, puts them in her bag.

“Thank you,” she says. “Now hand over the keys, I still want to drive.”

~*~

“So hey, do you need a toothbrush?”

She really needs to pace the wine better, she realizes, noticing her cheeks feel warm. “I'm sorry?”

Bruce has the grace to look a little flustered, and she thinks maybe he's not hitting on her, maybe he's just too straightforward to drop a bottle of mouthwash in her mailbox. He scrambles up and heads down the hall, calling over his shoulder, “I, uh, well…”

She reluctantly follows, still clutching the wine glass. He's flung open a cabinet that looks like he's shoved a hygiene aisle into. He launches into an explanation that's part extreme couponing, part black market, and part Ponzi scheme, involving customer and fuel points with six companies, accumulated discounts, cycling through gift cards, swapping with neighbors, a wine auction email list he haunts for the proprietors of the Gilded Lily, “Lily drinks local, but Gilda prefers southern France, last week I scored her a case of Chateauneuf du Pape for nearly a song…” He shrugs.

“You’ve got stashes all over this place, don’t you.”

“Not anymore, this is last of it. Last summer Ellie, my oldest, kept giving me grief over the ‘egregious consumerism’, and honestly, it’d started to feel like the ass end of a pyramid scheme to stash factory overproduction.” He lays his hand over his heart, “Strictly fuel points and the wine thing these days. But I do still have all this, and...I’d say your speed is soft bristle, compact head?”

She sips, eyeing the wall of pastel handles and then him. “I like red.”

He reaches in without looking and pulls out a fire engine red number with a racing stripe. Compact head, super soft bristles.

“Thank you. So you’re set for life, then.”

“Well, not like you of course, besides…” He grabs the cabinet door and shakes his head at his own folly, “Does deodorant go bad?”

“Just out of style. The scents.” His cabinet smells like his bathroom, mint and pumice soap and a hint of bay rum. “You could give it away, you know, to those less…”

“Fortunate?”

“I was looking for a more polite way of saying ‘odd’, but yes, let’s go with fortunate.”