The problem was that Skifander had a leftover second breakthrough project from Queen Luheia, not that Klaus knew that was what it was. All he knew was that it was a collection of magic springs in a meadow, something he vaguely understood as body-changing magitech activated by different temperatures of water… and he had just dropped his son in one.
Klaus, being currently on the run from a very large number of guards, was entirely ready to dive in, grab his son, and keep moving with a handful of moments spared to make sure the boy is breathing.
Instead, the springs spat him out, right into Klaus’s arms, seemingly unharmed. Klaus just thanked his lucky stars, and maybe the dead queen Luheia, and started running again.
It wasn’t until he got to the other side of the mirror, made sure he and Gil were safe, and tried to change his son’s diaper that Klaus realized that Gil did not come out of the situation unchanged. Unharmed, yes, but unchanged?
Well, there was a very glaring sign to the contrary.
Klaus made it to his barony only to find it in ruins.
Gilgamesh was on his back, eating a lollipop, facing well away from the destruction. Klaus… didn’t know what to do. He’d heard so much about the damage that the Other did to Europa, but he hadn’t expected his own home to be a victim. His parents were dead, his people scattered, and he didn’t…
Mechanicsburg. He can go to Mechanicsburg.
“Dada!” Gilgamesh managed to say. “Dada, hungwy!”
Klaus couldn’t neglect his child. Even in the face of all this, he couldn’t ignore Gil.
Klaus lifted Gil carefully from the iron carrier that kept Gil safe, and set about looking for some of the baby food he’d managed to pick up in the last town. He kept an eye out for danger as he pulled Gil into his arms, and started feeding time.
Gil was fidgeting by the end. “Gotta potty!”
Klaus winced. Right. Potty training. In the wild and on the run. And with other complicating factors… “In or out?”
“Outie!” Gil said, still fidgeting.
“Alright then,” Klaus said. That was easier to deal with. “Time for you to go potty. Let’s find a tree, first.”
“Gotta potty now!”
Still not easy, though.
“The child?” Von Pinn demanded, as Klaus led her through the hotel towards the room he’d picked for himself and Gil. Mistress Von Pinn is twitching and fidgeting and still has that maddened look in her eye.
“This way,” Klaus said.
“You still have not told me if you have a son or daughter,” Von Pinn said.
“It’s complicated,” Klaus told her. “But… both. My daughter, I left behind. She was safe. My son was not. However, on the way out, I encountered difficulties.”
“An enchanted spring, or something of such advanced science that it was indistinguishable from such,” Klaus told her. “It’s water-activated, depending on temperature. Gilgamesh’s form changes as a result of a fall into the spring, and it’s not painful, but it may be confusing in the coming years.”
“Why?” Von Pinn demanded. “What form does he take, then?”
“Because the enchantment is…” Klaus faltered. “The body he was born with is one that would be designated male. The enchantment changes his form to one that would be designated female. This was… not uncommon, in his mother’s land. Some undertook the enchantments willingly, some looking forward to them for years, if they felt that the body they had been born to did not suit them. Generally speaking, though, most of those enchantments were undertaken at the age of fourteen at the earliest.”
“You fear that such an early enchantment,” Von Pinn said the word like she wasn’t sure she liked it. “May make it difficult for him to engage with gender roles?”
Klaus shrugged. “Gender roles vary by culture. If he refused to engage with ours, he would be engaging with those of his mother’s country. No, what I fear is that without a consistent baseline, he may have difficulty understanding them for some time, or once he encounters other children…”
“Bullying,” Von Pinn said shortly. “That is where I come in.”
Klaus nods, the motion sharp and curt. “Indeed.”
Klaus opened the door, sidled in, and led Von Pinn to the cradle that Gil was in. The child was asleep right now, enjoying the temporary soft comforts of the mattress.
“I’m going to make Europa safe,” Klaus said. “I can’t have people knowing he’s my son.”
Von Pinn eyes him archly. “Is that so.”
Klaus looked at her. “Yes.”
“I presume you have picked out a cover story?”
“Layered,” Klaus said, sighing. “The initial story will simply be that he is the orphaned child of some rural sparks, unknown and unnoted, and that this situation of his is simply the result of an experiment gone oddly. The layer after that will be that he is the prince of a distant kingdom where such things are common, under threat by rival parties and squirreled away to Europa for his own safety until such a time as his mother sends word that it is safe.”
“…will she?” Von Pinn asked, stare hard. “That’s too specific to not be at least partially true.”
“Considering that I destroyed one of the only ways to Europa, it’s unlikely,” Klaus admitted. “I do not know how much she supported plans to kill Gilgamesh, and I didn’t leave a forwarding address. It will explain his presence on the ship once people start digging, however, and may give me an excuse to occasionally take interest in him specifically, to… teach him Skiff, and so on.”
“He will not know you are his father,” Von Pinn summarized.
“No,” Klaus admitted. “Not for some years yet.”
“It may ruin a child to lose a parent so early,” Von Pinn warned him. “More so than your worries about the gender roles.”
“It may kill him to be known as my son,” Klaus said. “He’s too young to keep a secret. Not yet.”
Von Pinn eyed him, and then nodded sharply. “So be it.”
“So…” Gil frowned down at the anatomy book. “Most of the time, an innie is a girl, and an outie is a boy?”
“Yes,” Mistress Von Pinn said.
“But I’m not just one. I change, sometimes, if the water happens,” Gil said, looking up at her. “So what am I supposed to be?”
“Whatever you want,” Von Pinn told him. “As you were born, most would consider you a boy. Your ability to change is artificial, but has been part of your life for so long that it might as well not be. However, to understand the people around yourself, and engage with society, you must at least be able to understand the common standards before you break them.”
Gil nodded slowly, looking back down at the anatomy book again. “So, girls are she and her. And boys are he and him and his. Right?”
“And I can… just pick one?”
“Anyone can just pick one,” Von Pinn said. “In fact, many do, and recent scientific advancements have made lives for them easier. However, most do not, and they may often judge those who identify in a way that does not, by societal standards, match their body.”
Gil frowned at the book, then up at her. “Do I hafta choose now?”
“No. You are five. You have your entire life to choose, if you’d like,” Von Pinn said. “So far, we have referred to you as he and him, because of the form you were born in. If you would like to change that, we will do so. And if the other children try to cause trouble about it… I will take care of it.”
“…I dunno,” Gil said. “Words are weird. I don’t think I care that much.”
“So be it. Inform me if you change your mind.”
Tarvek and Gil have one thing in common: they’ve never had a best friend before.
“But it doesn’t make sense!” Tarvek insisted. “The baron doesn’t just take in random orphans! You can’t be part of the school and a nobody, right?”
Gil frowned. “Maybe he thinks I’m gonna be a spark?”
“Then he’d be shipping you off with one of the families he trusts!” Tarvek insisted. “There has to be more to it.”
“Maybe—” Gil cut off, yelping as cold water splattered across his back. “Ah!”
“Oops! Sorry, keedo!” A Jäger on the floor above leaned over the railing and shouted down at them. “Hy tripped! Deedn’t mean to speel dot!”
“It’s okay!” Gil shouted back, though he still made a face. “That’s cold.”
“Do you need a towel?” Tarvek asked. It hadn’t been a lot of water, but Gil was reacting pretty strongly.
“I can handle it,” Gil grumbled, shivering. “What were you saying?”
“You were the one that got interrupted.”
“Oh! Maybe I’m secret royalty!” Gil said excitedly. “Like, like, like a prince of Mars or something!”
Tarvek’s eyes lit up. “Or a lost Heterodyne!”
Tarvek frowned at the wall, and then pounded a fist into his other hand. “We can find out!”
Tarvek got kicked off of Castle Wulfenbach, of course. This one thing didn’t change.
The child of some rural sparks who had been changed in ways the Baron didn’t understand? Tarvek didn’t even know what ways it was talking about, but it still didn’t make sense, unless Gil was… was immune to wasping or something! The baron wouldn’t personally take Gil on board just for that, right?
There had to be more to it.
Tarvek was going to find out, he was.
“No corsets,” Klaus said, not even looking up from his papers.
“They are proper,” Von Pinn insisted.
“Gil complained about you starting him on them,” Klaus said, finally setting his pen down and meeting her eyes. “And while I recognize that is a common complaint, and that there are reasons for him to be training in how to wear one, I do need to point out that Gil’s ribcage will most likely be spontaneously changing sizes at random as he gets older, and that the adjustments a corset causes to the body may not transfer from one body to the other. Tightlacing will almost certainly be a health risk for that reason alone. Either his ribcage will be limited in both forms, which may cause trouble for his born body, or it will only be shaped in the cold water body, in which case the spontaneous changes are a risk. No corsets.”
Von Pinn pursed her lips, but nodded. “Very well. I will find some other form of support and control for the chest as he grows, then.”
Klaus nodded, already focusing back on his papers. “Thank you.”
“You can’t sit with us,” Zulenna said. “It’s the girls table.”
Gil stared at her, and then glanced down. At nine, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot going on, but he—she? ‘She’ felt… right, today. Huh. She distinctly remembered being hit by cold water earlier today. That meant most people would call her a girl.
“I’m a girl today,” Gil finally said. “I think. Can I sit here even if I’m not?”
Zulenna’s brow wrinkled. “I… what? Mistress Von Pinn!”
The terrifying woman was over in seconds. “What seems to be the problem?”
“I want to sit with them,” Gil said. “I’m a girl today, I think. That means I can sit at the girls table, right?”
Von Pinn blinked. “Yes, that is… acceptable.”
“But he’s not a girl!” Zulenna burst out.
“She,” Von Pinn said, eyes darting to Gil for a fraction of a moment to make sure this was the correct course of action. “Says she is. I am aware of information that you are not, Miss Luzhakna. If Gil would like to sit with the girls today, then I don’t see why not.”
Zulenna bit her tongue and nodded, and Gil grinned and hopped up onto the bench next to her, and then stuck her tongue out when Von Pinn’s back was turned.
“Are you cursed?” Theo asked.
Gil looked up from where he was drying his hair. “What?”
“You get hit by water all the time,” Theo said. He passed over another towel. “Here, take this. You get hit by water even when it doesn’t make sense.”
Gil shrugged. “Might be a side effect of the sparky stuff from when I was a baby?”
Theo tilted his head, frowning. “What sparky stuff?”
Gil blinked at him. Oh. Okay then. “…are you any good at sneaking?”
“Follow me, we’re going to the showers,” Gil decided. “Sleipnir, you wanna come?”
“I’m curious,” Sleipnir admitted. “But is it really something you can’t just tell us?”
“…probably,” Gil said. “But actual proof would mean going to the showers.”
“I think we can take your word for it,” Sleipnir assured him.
“Is this part of why Von Pinn doesn’t let you use the communal showers?” Theo asked.
“I don’t think it’s supposed to be that big of a secret,” Gil said. “I thought you guys already knew.”
“Knew what?” Theo demanded.
“Um… I have a girl body, or, no, I have a body that people consider a girl body, when I get hit by cold water. Like, um, the reproductive systems that Von Pinn taught us? When I get hit by cold water, I have the uterus one,” Gil said. “And when there’s hot water, I have the penis and stuff.”
Sleipnir and Theo stared at him.
Gil tilted his head. “Is that weird?”
“Um,” Sleipnir said. “Well, it’s definitely sparky stuff. So, wait, you just got hit with cold water. So you’re a girl now?”
“Um, no, I don’t think so?” Gil shrugged. “I still feel like a boy, in my head. My body’s just not what other people think a boy is.”
“Okay,” Theo said carefully, like he was still trying to process that. “So… okay. Sometimes you’re a girl, and sometimes you’re a boy, and it doesn’t really matter which body you have at the moment, just what your brain feels like?”
“Exactly!” Gil cheered. “Von Pinn said I’m not the only one that feels like that, with, um, a fluid identity? But most people don’t have bodies that can change if they want, they just have one body and have to do makeup and stuff if they wanna look different. And some people don’t wanna look different but still feel different.”
“You don’t look different,” Sleipnir pointed out. “Nobody even knew.”
“Well, yeah, I’m ten,” Gil said. “And I’m not allowed to take my pants off, so nobody can tell ‘cause I’m still, uh… prepu… prepubescent? Yeah, that. It’ll probably be easier to tell when I’m older and my body does more stuff.”
“Like boobs?” Sleipnir asked.
“Yeah, mostly,” Gil said. “Hey, wanna meet Zoing? Or, oh! Do you maybe wanna go help me steal Jäger hats?”
“Not really,” Sleipnir said.
“I feel like you’re going to do this no matter what,” Theo said. “So I might as well come along and make sure you don’t fall off the ceiling or something.”
“I’m not gonna—”
“It happened last week, Gil. I was there.”
“And you couldn’t do anything then, so why would you be able to do anything now?”
“A faint spot of hope on the horizon?”
“Okay, okay, okay,” Theo muttered. “Temperature set to seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit. Testing splash in three, two, one.”
Sleipnir tossed the bucket.
Gil hesitated for a moment, and then shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Okay, that was ten tests of seventy-two degree water at room temperature, dry subject in hot water form,” Theo said. “I think we can say that seventy-two does not cause hot water changes, and causes a cold water change in… almost a third of cases, some investigation pending on circumstances. I think it’s more likely to cause a cold water change if the ambient temperature is higher, but we can do that next round. Jumping up to seventy-seven next.”
“On it!” Sleipnir said.
Gil looked down at his chest, then grabbed a bucket of cold water, fifty-something degrees with a near-surefire chance of change, and splashed himself. He looked down again, and then ambled over to the other two.
“Hey, Sleipnir? When did you start getting boobs?”
“Um…” Sleipnir blinked. “I think I first noticed a bit of growth a few months ago, why?”
“Twelve is a normal age, right?” Gil poked at his chest again. “I think I’m getting a bit.”
“Could be,” Sleipnir said. “…pull your shirt tight?”
Gil pulled the hem of his shirt back and down.
“Mm…” Sleipnir eyed him critically, head tilted. “Might be. Hard to tell. Are you gonna tell the other kids or just let them figure it out?”
Gil shrugged. “Most of them know now. I’ve been telling people. Zulenna asked if that meant I needed help learning how to do makeup.”
“…she wears blue eyeshadow,” Sleipnir said, making a face.
“Yeah,” Gil said. “I said I don’t really care about makeup, just that people call me a girl when I say I am, and a boy when I say I am.”
“Still defaulting to he and him?” Theo asked.
“…yes?” Gil said. “I don’t… gender doesn’t feel real. Sometimes I’m definitely a boy, and sometimes I’m definitely a girl, but I think most of the time I don’t care. And my body doesn’t match on purpose, usually. The older I get, the less I understand gender roles. Or gender in general.”
“Gotcha,” Sleipnir said. “Water’s almost ready!”
“Are you going to wear dresses more?” Theo asked from where he was poring over the numbers. “Actually, come look at this. I was expecting an inverted bell curve, but there’s a weird angle change here. I think if the cold water was lowering your body temperature a little, or at least your skin, and that might actually be affecting things too, not just the ambient temperature.”
“We’ll need to run more tests,” Gil said. “And on the dresses thing… maybe? I’ve only worn them a few times, and they’re usually itchy.”
“I could help,” Sleipnir offered.
“Wait, you mean that one’s true?” Gil asked.
“Yes,” Klaus said. “What… what did you think you were learning Skiff for?”
Gil shrugged. “I don’t know. You teach me all sorts of things. I figured it was just one of those things that might save my life in a situation that realistically shouldn’t happen, ever, but does.”
Klaus pinched the bridge of his nose. “Gilgamesh, as my son—”
Gil shrugged. “Probably. Both extremes feel wrong today. I think it’s the safest bet.”
“…as my child,” Klaus said. “You are in plenty of danger. As a child of your mother’s people, you are… well. You wouldn’t have been in danger there, either, if not for some unfortunate circumstances at your birth.”
“What kind of circumstances?” Gil asked.
“…I can’t tell you that, yet,” Klaus said. “But if you ever meet a female warrior with green hair, there is a very good chance she is from Skifander, and furthermore that she has been sent to kill you.”
“…no pressure or anything,” Gil muttered. “Why tell me now?”
“Tarvek Sturmvoraus has managed to independently find this particular story,” Klaus said. “Given how dangerous his family is, and how close the two of you are, I felt it necessary that you know at least some of your background in this respect.”
Gil’s stomach turned. Right. First friend ever. Total spy. They still missed him, sometimes. “So you’re telling me because Tarvek found something he wasn’t supposed to find. Again.”
Klaus’s lips pressed together into a thin line. “Indeed.”
“You… could tell me things on your own,” Gil said. “I’m fourteen. I can keep a secret.”
“Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead, Gil,” Klaus said.
“…is that your way of telling me you’d have to kill me?” Gil asked.
“No,” Klaus said. “It’s not. There are simply some secrets that are best kept with one person alone, for everyone’s safety.”
“And that person is you.”
“More often than not, yes,” Klaus said.
“…so my mother was actually a queen,” Gil said. “That’s… actually, that ranks me higher than everyone else in the school.”
“You can’t tell them,” Klaus said immediately.
“Of course I can’t. I can’t tell them I’m your child, or that I’m a Spark, either,” Gil said. They fell forward to lean against the table. “So I stay at the bottom of the heap.”
“Better than dead.”
“…I know that conceptually but that doesn’t make it better.”
“Boobs are weird,” Gil said, flopping back against Sleipnir’s bed and poking her own chest. “How do you deal with these all the time?”
“…the same way anyone does?”
“But how do you run?” Gil whined. “They just flop everywhere.”
“Support,” Sleipnir said flatly. “I wear a corset designed for it. Just stop skipping the bras in the morning! Carry one in your bag in case of an emergency! You’re sixteen!”
“But they’re so uncomfortable!”
“They’re how you stop the bouncing!” Sleipnir shouted. “Zulenna, back me up.”
“Adequate support is necessary for physical activity,” Zulenna said. She turned a page in her book. “We’ve been over this several times.”
“I don’t like them,” Gil grumbled.
“It doesn’t help that your pecs are pretty built,” Sleipnir said. “I think that makes them stand out more. You’ve got, like, structure under them.”
“I like my muscles,” Gil said. “I can throw entire people already!”
“We know,” Zulenna said. “Considering the entire person you threw was me.”
Gil stuck out her tongue at Zulenna. “What if I could just… tie them down.”
“Extra tight shirt?” Sleipnir guessed. “Listen, at least you don’t have to deal with periods. Those actually mean that the boobs are different sizes depending on the time of month, apparently, so nothing fits.”
“That’s not my fault,” Gil said. “My body just resets every time I change!”
“Lucky,” Zulenna muttered.
“Point is, you need to actually get support if you want to run without them bouncing,” Sleipnir said. “Hopefully something that doesn’t dig way into your skin when you put it on. Or collect sweat too much and start getting stinky.”
“I thought you said you used corsets,” Gil said.
“Usually,” Sleipnir said. “I’ve been trying to branch out.”
“Unsuccessfully,” Zulenna tossed in.
Sleipnir threw a pillow at her.
“Boobs suck,” Gil whined, putting her own book over her face.
“Welcome to the club,” Sleipnir said. “But hey, do you want another silver lining?”
“Ours get sore for PMS. They hurt for no reason.”
“…I knew that but it’s still awful,” Gil decided. “Call me when it happens and the boys are being annoying. I will be the friend to get you chocolate or whatever.”
“My hero,” Zulenna muttered. “Can I read you part of this novel? It’s ridiculous.”
“How ridiculous?” Sleipnir asked immediately. “Also, Gil, get over here. I have an idea for your hair.”
“Noooooooooo,” Gil whined. “It’s too short for you to do anything, stop trying!”
“I promise it’s not going to involve any yanking!” Sleipnir said. “Just some combing and product. Please? For me?”
“Very ridiculous, and relevant to this conversation,” Zulenna said. “Also, let her try, Gil. It can’t be worse than last time.”
“Hey!” Sleipnir threw Zulenna an offended look.
“Fine,” Gil said, shifting closer to Sleipnir. The other girl started combing her hair back, and then there was something wet on her head. “Gah! What are you doing?!”
“It’s just some gel, calm down,” Sleipnir said.
“The passage,” Zulenna said. “Starts with ‘her limpid tears.’”
“What?” Gil asked, momentarily distracted from Sleipnir’s hands on her head.
“It then goes on to describe her outfit and breasts in excruciating detail,” Zulenna said with relish. “There is, in fact, bouncing.”
“Read it out loud,” Sleipnir decided. “In a moment, though, I finished with Gil’s hair. Take a look!”
Gil took the mirror with caution, and then stared at her reflection. She made a face. “What did you do?”
“Slicked it back,” Sleipnir said. “I know you hate doing anything girly with your hair, but this might make it look a little more controlled than the… madgirl fluff.”
“I like my fluff,” Gil grumbled. She twisted her head from one side to the other. “Maybe?”
“It only takes a minute or two,” Sleipnir said. “And this brand isn’t too hard to wash out. Not exactly high-maintenance.”
Gil pouted. “I don’t want to do makeup and hair stuff. I just want to wear guy clothes and do science.”
“You could slick it back on your boy days, too,” Zulenna pointed out. “Make it look classy.”
Gil shrugged. “Maybe. Fashion’s still weird.”
“You need help with dresses again?” Sleipnir offered. “Or we could brainstorm something that helps you indulge in the feminine side without being uncomfortable or sacrificing all the functionality again.”
Gil shook her head. “No, I think I know what I want. Kinda. Maybe. I’ll figure it out.”
“Do you girls want to hear the stupid novel bit or not?” Zulenna asked.
“We’re listening,” Sleipnir promised brightly.
“Okay. So. Her limpid tears trailed mercurial tracks down her downy cheeks—”
“Oh my god.”
“I know. –and she sighed with a sound like the bells at heaven’s gates.”
“What in blue fire?”
“I know,” Zulenna said. “It gets worse.”
“Z, get the door!” Theo called. “Oh man, Von Pinn is going to kill us if she finds out.”
“Which is why she won’t,” Zulenna said. “Mingmei, you have the water?”
“None of us are dying of alcohol poisoning tonight!” Mingmei confirmed.
“This stuff is so strong,” Sleipnir stage-whispered. “Theo’s good.”
“Prove it,” Z said.
“He already did!” Gil said.
The entire group piled through into Theo and Z’s room, closing the final door, and Theo started distributing cups.
Within five minutes, the entire group was collapsing into giggles and more than a little tipsy.
“No!” Zulenna gasped. “But you said your parents were hunting for an arranged marriage for you!”
“So? I can have a little fun first,” Sleipnir said. She pressed a finger to her lips and shushed the entire group. “If they don’t find out.”
“Your secret’s safe with us,” Z promised. He reached for another glass, and then seemed to think better of it. “So, with who?”
Sleipnir looked at Theo, then turned to the rest of them and grinned wider, sitting back against him as the catcalls hit. Her back was to his chest after a few shifts, and he wrapped his arms around her waist and hooked his chin over her shoulder.
“I don’t think I’ve ever kissed anybody,” Gil said. “I’d remember if I had. Probably.”
“You would,” Mingmei confirmed. “It’s the sort of thing one remembers.”
“You could kiss someone here,” Zulenna suggested. “Get it out of the way.”
“Oh, please, like you’ve ever kissed someone,” Sleipnir scoffed. “Von Pinn keeps such a close eye on us that—”
“She has,” Mingmei said.
“How do you figure that?” Z asked.
Mingmei and Zulenna shared a look, and then Zulenna turned to her cup and nodded minutely.
“Because,” Mingmei said, “I’m the one she was kissing.”
“Oooooooooooh!” Sleipnir howled. “Oh my god! Princess proper is breaking her own rules! Get out of here with your ‘you have an arranged marriage’ nonsense, you’ve been making out with Mingmei!”
Zulenna flushed red and didn’t look up from her cup.
She did lean into Mingmei’s side when the other girl shifted closer, though. That most definitely happened.
“Z?” Gil asked.
“On my most recent trip home, I began a relationship with the daughter of a nearby university professor,” Z said. “It was chaste, but yes. There was a kiss.”
“Nice!” Theo cheered.
“I’m the only one that hasn’t kissed anyone, then?” Gil asked. He groaned and fell back against the wall.
“I didn’t know you cared that much,” Sleipnir said.
“I don’t care that much,” Gil griped. “I’m just tired of being told that I need to find a wife, and want to maybe see if different people kiss different before I find one.”
“Why would you need a wife?” Zulenna asked.
“I don’t know. Something about politics and being the first student of the school,” Gil said. “And turning eighteen a few months ago, I guess. And going to Paris for university next week, maybe.”
“Husband isn’t an option?” Z asked. Behind him, Sleipnir and Theo were whispering.
“You’re not fifty houses,” Zulenna pointed out. “And it would be hard to make arguments about traditional marriage or sexuality considering your bodily changes. You have that option.”
Gil shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably.”
“So you just want to kiss someone to see what it’s like?” Sleipnir asked. “Does gender matter?”
“My own gender doesn’t matter to me most of the time,” Gil said. “I don’t even know what caring about a partner’s would be like, unless they needed help figuring out or, like, affirming their own. Validating? Whatever.”
“Cool,” Sleipnir said, grinning. “You wanna kiss me?”
Gil stared at her. “…huh?”
“Or Theo?” she continued. She held up their laced hands. “We’ve all been friends for years. We won’t get mad if it all opens a bit this one time.”
Gil could feel his face getting redder. “…can I try both?”
Sleipnir’s grin widened. “Sure. Come on over here, handsome.”
Z hurried out of the way, moving over to his own bed to sit behind Mingmei and Zulenna, and Gil clambered over to sit in front of Sleipnir.
“Um,” Gil said. He looked down at his flat chest, and then up at Sleipnir. “Do you want me to change? I don’t know if you were hoping to—to experiment yourself, or—”
“Do I look like the kind of person who cares?” Sleipnir asked. “Like you said, you don’t really care about your gender much, and we’ve been friends for way too long for me to really care. Theo?”
Theo shrugged. “I don’t care either.”
Gil blinked, and then surged forward and pressed his lips to Sleipnir’s. It was awkward and wet and a little sticky from all the sugar Theo had put in the drinks, and Sleipnir’s hands were on his hips, and Theo was laughing and the other three were catcalling them, and then she suddenly squeaked, and Gil pulled back.
“You have fangs!”
“…I guess?” Gil said. “Is that a bad thing?”
“Well I certainly don’t think so,” Sleipnir said. “So. How was your first kiss?”
“…you taste like alcohol,” Gil said, which made the other three start laughing again. “But it was… nice?”
“Maybe you’ll like kissing my boyfriend more than you like kissing me,” Sleipnir said, with a grin that suggested she found this all far more funny than she had any reason to.
Gil looked up, over Sleipnir’s shoulder at Theo, and then looked back down at her. “You wanna get out of the way?”
“Nnnnnnnnnope,” Sleipnir said, popping the P of the word and snuggling back into Theo’s arms with the grin of a cat that had caught the canary. “I’m fine right where I am.”
“Good heavens,” Z muttered.
Gil figured that if Sleipnir had already decided she was good where she was, he wasn’t going to argue it. He got up on his knees, steadied himself with a hand on Theo’s shoulder, and leaned in.
Theo was warmer than Sleipnir, and bigger, and that meant the hand that came across Gil’s back was bigger and warmer too. Gil decided he liked that part.
Then Theo tilted his head and there was a tongue in Gil’s mouth and wow. Okay. He could understand how people liked kissing now. Mingmei was catcalling them, and so was Zulenna, and Sleipnir was laughing under him and saying something he didn’t really understand, and—
Okay, mouth on his neck, hello Sleipnir, that was new, that was nice, that was good, oh he was definitely moaning directly into Theo’s mouth, wasn’t he.
Sleipnir’s arms were wrapped around him, tangled with Theo’s, and okay this was a lot but it wasn’t too much, it was good it was great it was—
“Shit!” Zulenna yelled, and something cold was splashing directly onto Gil’s back and shapes were changing and dammit Theo felt even bigger now, Sleipnir was doing something with her teeth and Theo was pulling on Gil’s bottom lip and wait, what was Zulenna doing?
Pulling him away, apparently.
“You idiots are far too drunk for this,” she told him. “Keep it in your pants, my god.”
Gil blinked at her, dazed. “Did you splash me?”
“Not on purpose,” Zulenna told him. “I smacked one of the water bottles by accident. I was going to pull you off anyway, though.”
“The water magnet curse strikes again,” Ze said quietly, chuckling.
“…why?” Gil asked.
“Because you’re drunk and shouldn’t go farther than you were without a clear head,” Zulenna said. “Mingmei, back me up.”
“She’s right,” Mingmei confirmed. “That was starting to enter questionable territory.”
“Boooooo,” Sleipnir said. “We’re not that drunk.”
She followed this sentence with a hiccup, thoroughly ruining her point.
“How about you stick to cuddling,” Zulenna suggested drily.
“How come you’re not drunk?” Gil asked archly. There may have been pouting involved.
“I am,” Zulenna said, falling heavily back onto Z’s bed. “I’ve just had alcohol before. I’m a sensible drunk.”
“A boring drunk,” Mingmei translated.
“Pffft,” Sleipnir scoffed. “Gil, c’mere. If you’re keeping the chest, I wanna snuggle.”
Theo slid back and down, pulling Sleipnir with him, and Gil crawled over to lie next to him, letting Sleipnir rearrange herself so she could press half her face into his boobs. She then hiccupped, giggled again, and rubbered her face against Gil’s chest. He patted her hair.
“You know what? Good enough,” Zulenna allowed, rolling her eyes. “It’s not like you don’t already do this all the time sober.”
“Gil’s a pillow,” Sleipnir informed her, twisting so only half her face was pressed to the awkward stretch of Gil’s shirt over his breasts. “He’s the softest.”
“It’s true,” Theo said.
Zulenna rolled her eyes. “Alright then.”
“Gil,” Klaus said, hands tucked behind his back and seemingly taking up the entire room. “This is Bangladesh DuPree. She’ll be accompanying you to Paris as a bodyguard.”
DuPree’s grin did not speak of any intention to guard Gil’s body, but rather some vague intent to set him on fire.
“…qualifications?” Gil asked.
“I’m a Pirate Queen,” DuPree informed him, grinning widely. “I was away on business and my army got destroyed, so I’m taking some time to work for your dad and hunt down the person who did it.”
Gil leaned subtly back and away from the woman.
“She’s being paid well,” Klaus said flatly. “The compensation will ensure that she does exactly what she’s been asked to do.”
“Yep!” DuPree chimed in. “And we’re gonna have fun!”
Klaus looked tired. Good. Gil was pretty sure he was gonna be tired of Bang too, soon.
“And to make sure you don’t run off on her in disguise,” Klaus said, with particular stress. “The thing we discussed?”
Ah. Right. Gil looked around and saw Boris holding out a cup of water. Well, he had agreed to it.
Gil dumped the water on his head, shivered and shook it out of his hair as best he could, and waited for the reaction.
DuPree peered at him, and then looked at Klaus. “This is some sparky stuff, right?”
“No, this is real.”
DuPree nodded slowly, and then turned to Gil and said, “Baron said you know how to fight?”
Gil paused. “Yes?”
“You can fight like that?” DuPree asked. “That shirt’s pretty loose. You look like you’re about to fall right out of it.”
Gil looked down. He looked back up and shrugged. “I’ve got a bra… somewhere.”
“Is it actually going to keep you under control?” DuPree asked. “And how fast can you get it on?”
Gil shrugged. “I usually just… skip it.”
DuPree stared at him. “…and you can fight like that.”
“I mean it hurts, but yeah?” Gil scratched the back of his head. “Bras are uncomfortable. I don’t like them.”
“Do you have any that are actually meant for fighting?” DuPree probed. “Or do you just have civvie bras?”
“Um… I don’t know,” Gil said. “I’ve been looking for fighting bras, but there was never a big rush.”
DuPree stared at him again, and then marched up to him and got into his face. “You’re going to be way less fun if you can’t fight whenever you’re like this.”
“So I’m going to take you to The Lady Adventurer’s Boudoir as soon as we touch down in Paris, and get you something that you can fight in, and then I’m going to see how well you can fight, whether you’ve got these or not!” DuPree emphasized the point with a violently fast pointer finger that still didn’t actually reach Gil.
“…I’d like that?” He was feeling a little confused. Definitely off put. Maybe scared. “I do want support that can put on quickly when I change. I can’t find anything I can buy on the ship that fits and that I can put on fast when the change is a surprise.”
DuPree crossed her arms and glared. “Do you actually know any professional fighting ladies on a personal basis?”
“…does Von Pinn count?”
“Not this time,” Klaus interrupted.
“You’re useless,” DuPree informed Gil, to his face. “And you obviously need some help before you get yourself killed because you couldn’t find the kind of specialty fabrics that even a rookie cabin kid would know to use.”
“Um… okay?” Gil said. “So you’re taking me shopping?”
“You’re paying,” DuPree said immediately. “And taking me out for chocolate mimmoths afterwards.”
“…those are so gross, though.”
“Then I’ll eat your share!”
“I see you two are going to get along fine,” Klaus said drily. “Your airship leaves in three hours. Assuming you’ve both taken the time to pack, right now is when you make your goodbyes. Do try not to blow up Paris while you’re there. I’d hate to have to renegotiate your stay with old Voltaire.”