Time: Several weeks after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
I didn’t think this all the way through.
Mac did own a suit, singular, that Heckle had already seen, and nothing else beyond work clothes. Of the two choices, too formal or too utilitarian, he wasn’t sure which was worse.
But, damn it, Heck had never been on a date. They’d been talking about what people do on dates while Mac worked on one of the ventilation fans. He’d happened to mention one young man who had thought it was childish when Mac bought him ice cream.
Heckle had stared at his hooves and started twisting his tail in both hands. “I wonder…is ice cream good?” he’d said in that small voice that meant he wasn’t sure if he should have said it aloud.
Suit. He’d leave off the jacket. Black dress pants tucked into boots with the midnight blue shirt—wasn’t too much, right? The sheet of stainless he’d set up as a mirror showed him a forbidding figure towering over his bunk, the shine of a double row of jet buttons on the shirt and the deep blue sash around his waist gave him a martial instead of a formal air. Mac sighed, smoothing down the front of his shirt with one hand. I really need to get some casual civvies. Easier said than done when you were eight feet tall.
His breath stuttered when he spotted Heckle waiting for him by the loading ramp. The black leather pants, tailored to accommodate his cute, pointy tail, were heart attack tight. His dark green shirt, likewise custom made for his wings with the extra buttons down the sides, was open to mid-chest. Mac forced his mouth shut and stomped down on the urge to forget the date and take his delicious imp right to bed.
Heckles head snapped up, black eyes wandering over Mac’s frame. “Oh…you look…look…”
“No.” Heckle ducked his head as he chewed on the edge of a claw. “I was thinking more like…magnificent.”
Me? Mac’s face heated, though he laughed it off. “In a lumbering monster way? Okay, I’ll take it. You look gorgeous.”
It wasn’t possible for Heckle’s scarlet skin to blush, but his face darkened a shade or two. “Cap’n helped.”
Mac bit his tongue on several things about their busybody demon prince Captain. He sometimes treated Heckle like a dress-up doll. Shax’s little black heart was in the right place, more or less. He did try to look out for Heckle and was getting closer to seeing him as a grownup person. Instead, Mac offered his arm and a smile. “Ready?”
While Heckle didn’t have to reach too far, he did have to reach up to tuck his hand into the crook of Mac’s elbow as they walked out under the Elistrusian stars. As a wretched hive of villainy, Thinis was on the tame side, but as a food resupply port, there was no better spot in the galaxy. Not only was ice cream possible, several highly rated ice cream shops dotted the city.
Mac adopted a slow stroll to accommodate Heckle’s shorter legs, content to let Heckle absorb the sights at his own pace. Head swiveling in manic fashion, Heckle actually skipped a few steps every dozen or so, and if he heard the occasional whispers of freaks and monsters, it didn’t seem to bother him. Not that Mac worried about real ugliness. Thinis was urbane and full of artful ennui, the kind of place where it was gauche to exhibit surprise.
They soon passed the crystal shop Shax had described, the one with the huge glass peacock in the window, and arrived at Ezekiel’s Ice Cream Parlor. Ezekiel’s had come highly recommended, not only by Shax, but by Corny and Leopold as well, though Mac had to question whether hedgehogs should be eating ice cream.
The shop’s marquee bathed the sidewalk in cool blue, appropriate and inviting, while inside the light centered in warm glowing circles around each cozy table and the kiosks dotted around the walls.
Heckle stopped short in the doorway. “Where are the people?”
“There’s people.” Mac nodded to the other patrons in the shop, puzzled that Heckle balked now.
“The counter people. With the ice cream. I’ve…I’ve seen pictures.”
“Got it. This one’s AI run.” He managed to get Heckle moving to one of the queues so they didn’t block the doorway. “Might even be AI owned by now, for all I know.”
“Ooooh. Okay.” Heckle went back to excited bouncing beside him, the AI revelation obviously the perfect thing since he adored Ivana, the Brimstone’s AI.
When their turn came for the kiosk, Mac lifted Heckle onto the sliding stool at the menu board, the imp’s dark eyes darting with ever-increasing anxiety over the pictures of dozens of flavors on offer.
“Well, hey there, aren’t you just the cutest imp we’ve ever had in here?” the AI’s matronly voice purred from the speakers.
Heckle’s head jerked up so he could address the speakers directly. “Do you have a lot of imp customers, ma’am?”
“A couple here and there. None as adorable as you. What can I get for you, sweetie?”
“I…um…” Heckle’s wings were fluttering so hard, Mac was afraid he might take off.
He put a calming hand on Heckle’s shoulder and leaned in. “It’s his first time having ice cream, ma’am. Any chance you have a sampler?”
“First time? That’s just criminal.” The AI somehow managed both genuine shock and amusement. “I can do five small dishes to try. You want me to pick, sweetie? Anything you really like? Or don’t like?”
“I like spicy things.” Heckle’s forehead scrunched as he concentrated. “And chocolate. I like most things. But not lima beans.”
The parlor AI laughed. “I promise. No lima bean ice cream. And what can I get for you, extra-large, dark and handsome?”
“Just a bourbon caramel for me, please.”
Machinery whirred and clanked, a drawer slid out, and the machine produced a tray with six dishes of ice cream, five small and one larger. The five small ones even had helpful labels. Heckle let out a little squeak of delight and Mac couldn’t help chuckling as he paid the AI and took the tray to an empty table.
Heckle watched with shining eyes as Mac lined up the dishes for him, naming them one by one. “Let’s see what the nice AI picked for you, Heck. There’s chocolate and chili peppers. I think you’ll like that one. White chocolate ginger. Nice. This one’s labeled an Ezekiel Special. Ah. Peanut butter, chocolate, almonds and fudge. Then there’s a peppermint chocolate chunk and a chai swirl. Sound like good choices?”
“Crazy good,” Heckle whispered, but he shot Mac a grin so he wasn’t overwhelmed.
They worked on their ice cream for a few minutes in near silence punctuated only by Heckle’s pleased purrs, squeaks, and moans so decadent they vibrated right through Mac’s balls. In his usual distractible fashion, Heckle couldn’t settle on one dish at a time, his spoon flitting from dish to dish as he devoured in uneven, random fashion. It was enough to make someone with borderline OCD a little crazy, but Mac kept his twitches to himself. The little guy was enjoying himself way too much.
He’d settled on attacking three of the dishes in turn, saving the chocolate chili and the white chocolate ginger, both of which he savored last with decadent, eyes half-lidded moans while his little hooves swung under his chair. After the last bite, Heckle put his spoon down, his complexion fading from scarlet to an unhealthy terra cotta.
“Excuse me,” he whispered before he leaped from his chair and rushed to the facilities at the back of the shop, hooves clattering and slipping on the tile floor.
Mac fought the urge to go after him, to make sure he was all right. But, damn it, he wouldn’t do that to any other male. He couldn’t barge in on Heckle’s possibly embarrassing moment, either. His instincts proved correct when Heckle emerged from the bathroom less than five minutes later, still pale but calmer.
“Okay there?” Mac asked out of habit as Heckle took his hand to urge him outside.
“I’m fine now.” No more bouncing. Wings drooping.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. “Heck…I’m sorry. I should have thought of that. Too much ice cream too fast. Your size—”
Mac cut off and halted in shock when Heckle’s face appeared before him, wings whirring to bring him up to Mac’s height. His mouth set in a hard line, Heckle actually seemed angry. He never got angry.
“Now you…you listen.” Heckle jabbed a finger at Mac’s shoulder as he obviously fought for words. “You’re not…I’m not… It’s my fucking body and I should know to listen to it. Not you. I mean it’s not your fault. I’m not a little kid and I knew I should’ve stopped. I was greedy. But it’s not like something bad happened. Okay. Not real bad. The next person using that bathroom might not agree.”
Mac swallowed hard, unsure what to say to this bold verbal assault. “Heck?”
“You’re wonderful. You’re perfect. This was wonderful.” Heckle was still jabbing. “You are not going to feel bad about this and ruin our first date because then I’ll feel bad and you’ll feel worse cause I do and…and…thank you for the ice cream!”
Heckle wrapped his arms around Mac, folding his wings so Mac had to return the embrace or take Heckle’s full weight around his neck. “I’m sorry for yelling. Ice cream is delicious. Just not so much of it. I really did have fun.”
Mac held him tight, right there in the middle of the walkway, not giving a single fuck about people trying to get by. “Glad you liked your first ice cream. Probably the first time that shop had to deal with imp airborne chemical warfare, too.”
Heckle was still snickering when they walked hand in hand back up the Brimstone’s loading ramp.