by Kyell Gold
It feels weird getting on the plane to Chevali and not talking to Dev about it. The airport, the terminal, all that is so familiar, and yet there's that one piece that's lacking. It's like going home and forgetting my favorite tail brush at college. Or, more appropriately, it's like going home and finding a completely different family there.
I lift the white cloth mask to my nose one more time as I walk off the jetway, then drop it in a pocket of my overnight bag. I stock up on NeutraScent because the planes are just hell otherwise, but I'm not one of those canids who's rude enough to wear one of their masks out in public. You might as well be one of those high school coyotes with the t-shirt that says, “You all smell like sh*t.” On a plane, it's okay, because you're crammed together for one, three, six, fourteen hours. Even then it's kind of rude.
But if I can have a spotted skunk as a best friend for three years, I can take a couple hours on the plane with only a discreet sniff at the NeutraScent now and then to clear my head. One of the reasons Brian and I got on so well together is that we'd both had people stare at us and then press their noses quite obviously into a NeutraScent. Usually it's cats that are all snooty about odor. Brian and I used to crack up about 'em. You have to laugh. Otherwise you just want to hit them.
Brian and I helped each other laugh a lot. Besides that, we got on well together because we both loved football and cocksucking, not necessarily in that order. Neither is on the agenda for this visit.
He's leaning against a pillar in the airport when I come through the security area. The grin on his black-and-white muzzle doesn't change much when he sees me, but his tail twitches behind him. His customary silk shirt is open like it never was in Hilltown, but I notice that he hasn't quite copped to the local tradition of wearing shorts.
“Still in the slacks,” I say, walking up to him.
He looks me up and down. “Still in the jeans.”
I stick out a paw. He looks at it and then steps forward into a hug. “We're not gonna start this with a shake, Tip,” he says.
I hug back as noncommittally as I can. His scent is familiar, but a little different. Sharper, maybe. I shrug it off. People change. “What exactly are we starting?”
He doesn't offer to take my bag. “You got any checked luggage?”
I shake my head and pat the bag. “Travel light. I'm only staying the one night.”
“One night with me and one with him?”
Before I can get a good look at his eyes, he's turned, leading me through the airport to the parking garage. So I take him at face value. “Just you, Spotty.”
“I feel so special.”
Now this is familiar, but jarring in the Chevali airport. I follow his feathery black-and-white tail amidst the crowd of people. “I thought it'd be easier face to face.” Saying it now, I wonder whether it will be. Perhaps more accurate would have been to say that I have a better chance of convincing him in person.
We trot down a staircase, past a crowd I recognize from my flight, standing around the baggage claim. I hug my bag to my side as Brian leads me past them and outside.
The heat hits me worse than the scents on the plane, a buffeting of sun and temperature like opening an oven. Brian takes out a pair of black designer sunglasses and flips them open as I gasp. He doesn't turn for my reaction to the heat, but he must know, because as he slips the sunglasses on, he says, “Keep your ears up. Helps dissipate the heat. Hungry?”
I put them up, even though the inside of them already feels almost unbearably sticky. I can't help panting as we stand waiting for the light to cross to the parking garage. Next to us, a cougar glances our way and then buries his nose in a NeutraScent handkerchief. He doesn't seem to care that I'm watching him do it. “Sure,” I say. “You got a favorite place here?”
“Have I ever.” The light changes. We cross and take the elevator up two levels. He walks me to a late-model convertible and puts his paw on it, looking back at me with a smile.
I toss my bag in the back and run my paw over it, too. “Nice. How much did it set you back?”
“One phone call a week.” He slides into the driver's seat, curling his tail around his legs, and rests one arm on the door.
I stand and look down at him, lounging in his convertible with his shirt open. I'd almost swear he was straight. “How is the family, anyway? Do they know you've gone native?”
“Dad visited last month,” he says. “They're the same as ever. All investments and properties and crap. Get in, already.”
The leather is surprisingly cool against my fur. I take out my own sunglasses—narrow, cheap, rectangular—and slide them on. Brian tools out of the parking lot with a lot of showing off of his car's engine.
The air rushing past me feels like the roaring of the desert, a hot, dry wind that pulls the fur from my face. I hold up a paw to shield myself from the worst of it and yell over the noise, “Thanks for letting me visit.”
“Letting you?” Brian yells back. He laughs. “Tip, I should be thankin' you for bestowing the favor of your presence on me. And all I hadda do was stalk your boyfriend, snap a pic of him with his fake girlfriend, and threaten to out him.”
That's enough to shut me up. “What's the matter?” Brian yells a couple minutes later. “Thought you came here to talk?”
I did, but not to yell. The wind is like a radio turned on full to static in my ears, and my throat's already dry from the wind. So I just wave a paw to signify, “Later,” and fix my eyes on the distant hills.
He lives in a suburb with parks and trees, about ten minutes from the airport. The houses have flower gardens, some of them, and meticulous landscaping. “You guys use enough water here?” I remark as we roll down the main street, past boutique furscaping stores and fashion clothiers and gourmet food shops.
“I guess,” Brian says. He turns down a side street. “Whatever it takes.”
“Right.” We roll past a school, a nice one, with expensive-looking equipment out on the athletic field and well-groomed cats and rats—and one fennec, I notice—out doing some kind of organized activity on it. It's September, but it's still too hot for me to think about running around outdoors, at least here. “Nice neighborhood, anyway. Daddy knows his real estate.”
“I picked it.” He snaps that, then settles. “It's not that pricey. We get airplane noise sometimes. They change the flight paths when the wind kicks up. But there's a theater group just down that road.”
“Course there is.” I allow myself a bit of a smile. We turn the other way from where the theater group apparently is, onto a shady street of condos. Brian parks in a garage and puts the top up. I lean against the shady concrete, still panting. “Not quite crime-free?”
“Why tempt fate?” He flicks the remote to lock it, with a chirp of the alarm, and leads me upstairs.
Why, indeed? Why am I here in the desert instead of in downtown Chevali with Dev, or at home in my loft bed sifting through player rankings for work?
“I picked up a six of diet for you.” Brian fills a glass of water at the door of the gleaming chrome fridge. His apartment—condo, I guess—is air-cooled to a comfy sixty-five or so. The kitchen floor is cool ceramic under my paws. The brush of air circulation against my ears everywhere I go tells me why his smell isn't as strong as it had been back in his college dorm. Also why I can't smell anyone else in here. Posh place, then. Or else he's just been really antisocial since moving down.
“Actually, the water looks good,” I say.
Brian shrugs and gives me the glass he's just filled. I wander into the living room and park myself on the comfy fabric sofa. The glossy wood coffee table is stacked with sports magazines, but I can't see a remote, so I just drink my water and lean back. The posters here are the ones Brian had in college: famous Port City productions, professionally framed. Something about the room nags at me. I look around, trying to put my finger on it.
He sits on the couch next to me, sets his own glass of water on the side table, and takes out his phone. “You want to see your tiger with his black panther?”
“Seen it.” I take another drink and stare at the blank TV. Is it the posters? Where have I seen them before, other than in Brian's room at Forester?
He holds the phone in his paw and then puts it away. “Okay. What do you want to eat?”
My stomach does growl, then. Maybe it'd be better to get some food and drink in me before having this discussion. I give up trying to figure out the living room, for the moment.“What's good around here?”
“Besides me?” He smirks. I don't react, so he lists his two favorite places, and I pick a nice-sounding Sonoran restaurant. We chill a bit longer, while he talks about his theater group and I rehydrate myself. The theater group, of course, is far below his skill level. Just a community theater, but he's doing all he can. It's really much better for them to have him, but he gets what he can out of it. I nod sympathetically.
Over dinner, he does ask me about my life for a bit as well. I tell him about my job working scouting for the Dragons, and about Hilltown, how little it's changed in the few years he's been gone. Just a couple friends catching up, avoiding the elephant—or tiger—in the room.
The food's as good as he claimed. I'm still eating the chips and salsa even after my tacos have vanished. You don't get this kind of food in Hilltown. Brian watches over the rim of his second margarita. I've limited myself to one, though they're good, too. “You going to be okay to drive home?” I ask him.
“I figure you can drive.” He hefts the glass, toasting me, and drains it.
“Really.” I'm not sure what to make of this. Perhaps he thinks it'll win me over, letting me drive his expensive convertible. Maybe he thinks putting himself under my care will make me feel more protective of him, more inclined to help. “Shouldn't you be getting me drunk?”
“Oh, Tip, we're beyond that.” He sets down the empty glass. “We've had ample opportunity to take advantage of each other.”
“Mmm.” I sigh. On the few occasions when Dev and I talk about Brian, Dev insists that he wants to fuck me, or wants me to fuck him, even though I keep telling Dev that Brian and I never did anything more than hug. He regrets that, Dev says. I tell him he doesn't know Brian like I do.
“This is nice, isn't it?” Brian leans over the table, just a bit. “Couple friends out for dinner, right?”
“Sure,” I say.
“You should come visit more often.”
When I don't reply, he holds up a paw. “I know, I know, the photo, the whole 'outing' thing. Look, it's not...” He bites his lip. “It's not personal.”
“Right. If he were just anybody's boyfriend...”
“Hey, you saw all that nice shit I wrote about him yesterday, right?”
“After I agreed to come down here.” I toy with my silverware. “Also doesn't hurt for him to be more high-profile once he's outed, does it? Makes it more likely he'll stay in the league.”
“You overestimate my influence. Really. I'm sure there's some other gay football player out there trembling in his tight-fitting uniform that someone will see him and his darling together. I just don't know the darling. My options are limited.”
His voice is a little loud, but nobody looks around. “You shouldn't be interfering at all,” I say, keeping my own voice low.
“Interfering.” He shakes his head. “I should support the status quo, huh?”
“You should support my status quo.”
His muzzle sways back and forth. “What is your status quo? Furtive kisses under the bleachers? Night after night at home, never going out, watching him on TV with that black panther?” He leans forward. “Isn't that what we promised to fight?”
I fold my ears down. To avoid answering, I pick up my margarita glass and lick out the bottom. The sour tang and sharp tequila sting wash over my tongue. “I didn't know then,” I say. The words to make him understand elude me. All I can offer is my own ignorance.
“How trite.” He smiles, with some sadness. “Does he really love you?”
“Yes!” That, I know.
“Then what's the problem?” Brian rests an elbow on the table and leans his head into his paw. “Would he give up football for you?”
If I say no, Brian will feel he has to force Dev. If I say yes, he'll feel justified in whatever he does. “Would you give up the theater for—for someone special?”
His little smile vanishes. “Sure I would.”
“I don't just mean this little community theater.” I wave a paw at the window. “I mean everywhere. Acting, writing, all of it. If I—if your boyfriend asked you to give it all up to be with him, would you do it?”
He straightens, lowers his paw to the table. His eyes are serious, and not at all drunk. “I promise you I would.”
It's very convincing. I don't know where the acting ends and the real Brian begins.
I drive back to his place, while he sits in the front seat and directs me. He tries singing a song from one of the musicals he did back in college, a little number called “Under the Moon,” which goes, in part, “Two of us under the moon, our paws in time and touch, this night will end too soon, I love you far too much.”
“What musical is that from?” I ask, as much because I don't remember as to stop his singing. It's not that he's bad—he's not—it just isn't what I need to hear right now. It's making me think of Dev in his apartment, looking out the window at the moon, thinking I'm at home in Hilltown.
Brian stops and leans against the door, looking across the seat at me. He grins. “It's 'Win Some, Lose Some.' Freshman year.”
“Right.” Dev never leaves my mind completely, but for a moment I'm an eighteen-year-old fox again, in a cramped, hot student theater. “You were the stockbroker. You didn't sing that song.”
“Not in the play. But it got me laid a half-dozen times.”
“Only that many?”
“I had a bunch of songs.” He rests his arm on the door and looks ahead. “Turn here.”
I turn, looking up at the old stone building, and my mind is back with my tiger again. I'm doing this for him, I remind myself.
Brian stops me when we get to his garage. “I'll pull it in,” he says. “Don't want you to scrape the paint and then feel guilty.”
“I wouldn't,” I murmur as I get out and wait, but I don't think he hears me. He manages to get the car into his space without touching either of the cars next to it, then hits the button to put the top up and tries to vault out of the car without opening the door.
There are times when you know something's a bad idea a split-second before it happens. I feel the beginning of the urge to yell at him not to do it, but my muzzle is not even open when his foot catches on the door. His body twists in mid-air as though someone had hit him. He smacks into the car next to his before dropping flat to the concrete with a sound like a hard tackle on the football field.
The rag-top keeps closing with a mechanical whirr. I hurry forward to him. “Teeth and tail, are you okay?”
“Fine,” he slurs. “Just banged up.” But when he lifts a paw to wipe his muzzle, I smell the tang of blood.
“Come on,” I sigh. “Let's go upstairs.”
He limps along until I help him, over his protests. I'm a little taller than he is, but by stooping, I can support him with his arm over my shoulders. It's not that uncomfortable, and it gets him up the stairs and to his door. After that, he collapses on the couch while I get a fresh cloth.
“Feel like an idiot,” he murmurs.
I sit next to him and wipe at his muzzle. This is 'taking care of him' on whole new level. “You look like an idiot,” I say.
His tail flips across the sofa, away from me. The cloth comes away bloody, but by the third time I swap him, it's clean. “Did you think you were going to impress me, jumping out of the car like that?”
“Wasn't room to open the door,” he says.
“Seriously,” I say. I get up to toss the cloth into the hamper in the bathroom. When I come back, he's put on a DVD of “Win Some, Lose Some,” the Port City production. It's a little loud for the room, but perhaps not as much for him as for me. I fold my ears back, give him a clean cloth, and sit in the armchair next to the couch.
“I remember seeing you in the audience,” he says, not looking at me. “Remember those first meetings? FLAG, with, um, what was his name, the arctic fox?”
“No, not Micha. The one who was running the group then.”
“Oh!” I search my memory, but all I see is Micha's amber eyes and short muzzle. “Can't remember.”
He takes the cloth down and puts it in his lap. “We laughed at him, I remember.”
“But we missed him later.”
“Lion Christ, yes.”
“Keith was such a tool.”
He frowns. “When did Keith...” He realizes it in the same moment I do.
“Yeah, that was...after.”
He stares down into his lap. “I shouldn't have left,” he says.
I didn't expect that. I rest my paws on my knees and look at him, at the white cloth in his lap. “It was a while ago,” I say. “You were scared.”
He shakes his head sharply once, then stops, as if thinking about it. “Maybe. Dad was more scared.”
But he wouldn't have moved you out of Forester if you hadn't wanted it. The old argument surfaces, and I swallow it before it gets past my throat. “You're safer here.”
“Somewhat.” He snorts. “It's not exactly a gilded cage. Maybe a silver-plated one.”
“Poor, poor, pitiful me. Poor little rich drama queen. You know this place is like three times the size of mine?”
“Why doesn't your boyfriend get you a better place?”
“Why don't you get a job?”
At that, he looks up. “If I wanted that lecture, I'd have asked my Dad down for the weekend.”
I wave a paw. “You sit here and complain about things, but—”
“What am I qualified to do? With a theater degree?” His tone sharpens. “Answer phones? Make telemarketing calls? Fast food server? 'Prithee, good sir, wouldst thou like fries with that?' I'm not going to do that, Tip. I'm an actor.”
“Fine,” I say, pulling my knees up to my chest and curling my tail around them. “So act. But don't go around complaining like there's this big piece of your life that's missing.”
He shrugs. “There's no gay scene. Nothing.”
“Not even the theater group?”
He snorts. “They all act kind of queeny. But none of them even have a sniff of interest. There's a gay area in downtown Chevali. It's pathetic. Half a block. I went there once and got so depressed I listened to “Hello Dolly” all the way home.”
“So you are trying to...what?”
“I don't know.” He seems to cave in on himself, shoulders falling in, head dropping. “I just want to do something worthwhile.”
“You can. You've got so much going for you.”
“Like what? Come on, throw me a bone. List my good qualities.”
We share a grin. I tick them off on my fingers. “You're smart, you're attractive, you take care of yourself, you're endearingly stupid sometimes, you're a great actor—”
“All right, all right. Consider my ego assuaged.” He doesn't sit up any straighter, though, just rubs the spot on his muzzle that hit the ground. “I just don't have anyone to talk to.”
“You have the whole Internet.”
“Not the same.”
He wants me to come sit next to him. Less sophisticated guys than Brian have tried that hangdog 'I need an arm across my shoulders' routine. But it's precisely because it's so transparent that I can't believe he doesn't actually mean it. “I don't know what you want me to do. You want me to chat with you more?”
“That'd be a start.”
“So stop threatening my boyfriend.”
He sighs. “I don't wanna talk about him.”
I drum claws on the arm of his armchair. “Well, that's too bad, seeing as how that's the whole reason I came down here. We're gonna talk about him sooner or later.”
“Gosh,” he says, without a smile, “and here I thought you came to see me.”
“Is it really that bad?” I flick my tail against the chair. “You can't find anything better to do than out famous people.”
“Not so bad a hobby,” he says. “Maybe then someone'd pay attention to me.”
I can't help it; I laugh. “You can't get people to pay attention to you? No wonder you're not getting along with the theater group.”
“It's so easy for you,” he says. “You've got a great job, you've got a boyfriend. Don't need poor old Spots now you've got your Stripes.”
“Hey,” I say. “That's not—”
He waves the paw holding the white cloth. “I know, I know, I left. But you never gave me a chance to make it up.”
I spread my paws. “I'm here now.”
He sighs and gets up. “Yeah. Want a beer?”
“No,” I say, but when he comes back from the kitchen he has two bottles. He holds one out to me. “I said, no, thanks.”
“It's non-alcoholic.” He keeps it extended toward me even when I wave it away.
“Then what's the point?” But I take it, mostly so he'll go sit down again. It's not bad; cold, at least, and not too foul-tasting. Kind of watery, more than anything else, like it's mostly meant to remind me of what beer is.
“Point is to feel cool without losing control, right?” He sits in the middle of the couch again, turning to face me as he hefts the bottle.
“If you say so.” I take another drink. “So, look, can you just drop it with Dev?”
He shakes his head. “You don't see how it all connects, do you?”
“I've been trying.” He takes a drink himself. “I'm just a symptom. The isolation here, it's all because of the barriers in our society. If I can knock down those barriers, then maybe I have a chance to find some companionship.”
Underneath, you know, people don't really change that much. To Brian, life's just a morality play, with him at center stage. “It's not society that's keeping you alone,” I say. “It's your sparkling personality.”
He takes another drink and gives me a baleful look. “That hurts.”
“Really. How many friends did you have in college, besides me?” He opens his muzzle. “Not counting your one-night-stands.”
He sniffs. “You, Liz, Allen, Jake.” He thinks. “Randy, I guess.”
“Everyone from FLAG.”
“Exactly.” He points a finger at me. “Exactly.”
I swig the non-beer again. “Brian, it's only because you never really made an effort to hang out with anyone else. Nobody from the theater outside the shows. Nobody from your classes.”
“Beatrice called me a couple times.”
“Who was she, your acting coach?”
“So I don't always have a lot of friends.” He looks at the bottle in his paws. “I always really cared about the ones I had.”
Did you? I wonder. But I keep quiet. After a moment, he goes on. “It just sucks down here. I mean, I know I'm a big ol' fag and all, but sometimes I just want that contact. I can curl up in bed, I can jerk off, but it's...”
He sighs. And even though part of me recognizes that it's manipulative, the weight of all our years behind us and his vulnerability now push me out of the chair. I can't just sit next to him, though. I have to accompany it with a smart-ass remark. “Gee, don't they have male prostitutes down here?” I say, as I plop down next to him, sweeping my tail around to the other side.
On the screen, a somewhat grainy hunk and hunkette are singing a duet. Brian relaxes and leans toward me, watching them with me for a moment before he responds. “Yeah, but they're all these intimidating bodybuilders. More your type, really.”
“You never did figure out what my type is.”
“Neither did you.”
Our shoulders bump and press together. Even with my winter fur starting to come in, just the feel of being next to someone is nice. It's so hard to spend weeks away from Dev, and I imagine that stretching on into months, years. “I know my type. He's smart, funny, and cares about me. And,” I say as Brian opens his muzzle, “he listens to me.”
“Ah,” he says. “So close.”
“Not really,” I say lightly.
“Really?” He sounds far unhappier than I would've thought. “Why not?”
My ears flick back. I try to process the question, and the question behind the question. “I dunno, it just never really would've worked, would it? We're both too similar, isn't that what we always said?”
“That 'opposites attract' bullshit is just—bullshit.” He finishes off his bottle and puts it down. “We had such great talks.”
“Yeah. Corrigan Hall, second-floor lounge.”
“The roof of my apartment building.”
“The dining hall.”
“Where we figured out how people would never have to worry about sex again.”
“Not meaning it would go away,” I echo Jake's comment when we'd said that at lunch, and Brian chimes in with the rest of the response, “just that we wouldn't have to worry about it.”
I laugh. He leans against me a little. “How did that work, again?” he says.
I shake my head. “Can't remember. Something about safe sex and college dorms and...” His paw brushes my wrist. I move my arm, but then his fingers drop to my leg. He doesn't seem to be making a move or anything, so I let it go. After all, in our talks in college, in our dorm rooms, we'd brush each other's legs and not think anything of it.
And that's when it hits me, why this room is familiar. The smell is different, the TV is bigger and shinier, the coffee table newer, but the same style, but as soon as I realize it, my ears flick back. It's not just that the posters are the same ones that were in Brian's dorm room. From this angle, sitting on the sofa with him leaning against me, I can see that the posters are set up in exactly the same configuration around the TV. The couch is the same size, the coffee table the same size, the beer bottle just where Brian used to put his bottles back in college. And the armchair, now that I'm not sitting in it, looks almost exactly the same.
I guess it's not so strange for someone to keep going with a room that works for them. But the memory of Brian's college room comes back so vividly that I start to feel a little unnerved by it. It's like he wants to go back to his college days.
“It's a good theory.”
I've forgotten what we were talking about. “What?”
He laughs. “Not worrying about sex. What the hell do you think?”
“Oh.” I try to recapture the thread of the conversation. “Couldn't get anyone to buy into it,” I say.
“How is it with your guy?”
“Jesus, Brian.” I shift, start to get up.
“Oh, don't be like that.” He presses on my leg, trying to pull me back down. “We used to talk about boyfriends all the time. Does he play rough? Does he like it rough?”
I stay halfway between sitting and standing. “We never threatened to publish things in our blogs, back in college.”
His paw rests on my leg, but he stops the pressure. “I wouldn't do that,” he says.
“I didn't think you'd publish info about his date with Caroll, either.”
“I never promised not to do that.” He grins. “Besides, I'm an activist. Like you used to be.”
I sit back down. “Does that mean you're promising not to post anything we talk about tonight?”
“Cross my heart.” And he does. “Come on. If I'm not getting any, at least I want to hear about someone who is.”
I lean back into the couch. The truth is, I don't really have anyone else I can talk to about Dev. I call Salim every now and then, but it's not the same. “It's really great,” I say. “I mean, you know how I used to say Micha knew just what to do?”
He gets comfortable against me. I don't stop him. “Yeah.”
“Well, Micha only had, like, three moves.”
“So this guy's a real freak?”
I grin. “No. He's got about four moves, but they're good ones.”
“Uh-huh.” His short muzzle dips a bit, showing me his ears, a habit he picked up from me. “Is it the muscles?”
“Part of it.” I chuckle. “You remember the guy you went out with?”
“Mmmm. But he was just a one-night thing.”
“Okay.” I stretch my arm back over the back of the couch, and he kind of settles against me. I'm not really paying attention to the TV any more, barely hearing the song the lead female is singing with her younger sister. “So imagine Ken's body and, like, Allen's mind.”
“He's that smart?”
I flip my tail against the side of the couch. “You don't have to sound so surprised.”
“He's a football player. You know what they're—”
“Like I keep telling you, he's different.”
“Right.” His paw rests on my leg again. I know I should have him move it, but there's no harm in leaving it there. He's not gonna do anything, and we've cuddled this close before without doing anything. “So whose sense of morality and relationships does he have?”
I flick my ears, leaving my arm on the sofa rather than putting it around his shoulder. “Mine.”
He sighs against me. “Sounds pretty good.”
We sit like that. He moves his fingers up and down along my leg, making it tingle. I'm about to tell him to stop when he says, “So why don't you want to be able to be with him in public?”
I lean my head back to stare at the ceiling. “It's not that easy.”
“You wanna know one of the things I learned?”
“You mean there's something you haven't already told me?” I lift my right leg a bit, trying to gently dislodge his paw, but it stays where it is.
“In the whole thing,” he says, head against my shoulder, his voice vibrating against my chest, “with me leaving Forester and moving down here, I learned that I...that we...overthink things.”
I let out a bark of a laugh, bringing my head down. “You think?”
He grins. “I know, I know. I mean, I shoulda stayed at Forester. I wanted to. But I kept thinking about what it was gonna be like there, with the whole victim thing, and the FLAG people and the theater and the football, and it just freaked me out.”
He sounds small. I drop my paw to his shoulder. “It was a freaky thing to go through.”
“And I didn't really have anyone to talk to about it.”
I don't say anything to that. His paw tightens on my leg, then lifts. “We just talked about revenge,” he says. “We never really talked about what happened. What it meant.”
“I guess,” I say. His scent is a little stronger in my nostrils. “I mean, you didn't seem to want to. And then...”
“I ran out,” he says.
I'd never heard him admit it before. I pull him a little closer. “Yeah, well...”
“You don't have to say anything,” he says.
“I tried to get revenge for you,” I say.
He turns his head, looking up with one shiny eye. “Is that what you call it?”
“Yeah.” I grin. “Worked pretty good, too.”
“I'm touched,” he says. “What'd you do?”
I start to tell him, tail wagging against the couch, but just then his paw strays a little further in, brushing the crease of my jeans where my sheath is. “Hey,” I say. “I thought you were the one who was touched.”
I reach down to move his paw, but he's quicker, pressing it against me. “Figured I'd even things up,” he says. “Anyway, feels like you don't mind.”
I'm half-hard, sure, but just from sitting so close to someone and thinking about Dev in the bargain. I grab his paw and lift it away. “I didn't come down here to...”
“To what?” He lifts his head and looks at me.
“To do that.” I take my arm from around his shoulder.
He sighs, leaning against my shoulder. “It's just been so freakin' long.”
“We saw friendships get ruined by relationships. We promised that'd never happen, right?”
“Hasn't it?” He looks grim and forlorn all at once. I want to reassure him, to tell him that those days in the dorm lounge can come back again, but the truth is, I've moved on and he hasn't. “Come on,” he says. “Where's our friendship now?”
“I'm not leaving Dev.”
“I'm not asking you to.” He grabs my paw and presses it right to his pants. “I'm just asking you to help me out. Just a little bit.”
He's hard and warm through his slacks. I don't rub or anything, just try to pull away. “Jesus, Brian, if you wanted a quick paw job you could just go down to whatever Chevali's version of Nineteenth Street is.”
“I don't want it from just anyone.” He's pretty insistent, keeping my paw there. “You know, if I felt less lonely...”
I yank my paw free and stare down at him, our muzzles a couple inches apart. From this distance, the gleam in his eye is unmistakable. So this was all an act, all of it. The remorse, the vulnerability. The friendship? “If you want me to jerk you off,” I say, “just come out and say it.”
“Aw, Tip,” he says, “I kinda thought sticking your paw on my dick said it for me.”
“And if I do...”
He takes hold of my paw again. “I'll feel a lot better about our relationship.”
Dammit. I wouldn't consider it normally, but if it'd get him off Dev's case...I pull my paw out of his. “You wanna do it here on the couch?”
He turns off the TV and gets up, grinning over his shoulder as he walks into the bedroom. I sit on the couch and stare at the blank screen, thinking, do I really want to do this? What would Dev think? We are pretty exclusive, but a hand job doesn't count, does it? If it would make Brian keep out of our business? I press my paws to my eyes. All I can think is that if I don't, it'll definitely make things worse. I shouldn't have come down here at all. But it's too late for that.
By the time I sit down next to him on the bed, he's already got his pants down. I've seen him naked before, a couple times, but I've never seen him out of his sheath. I try not to look, try to treat it like a job. Quick strokes, like you're jerking yourself off, don't think. He arches his back and squirms and moans, and tries to grab me back through my jeans, but I angle my hips away from him. He doesn't insist.
For someone who hasn't had any in a while, it's sure taking him a long time to come. I slide my paw up and down while the smell of skunk gets stronger. “You got a nice paw,” he says, and when I don't respond, he says, “last guy to jerk me off had sharp claws.”
“Shut up,” I say, without breaking my rhythm, and he does.
I'm a little aroused just from jerking off someone, and the smells of fox and skunk are pretty strong, even to my accustomed nose. My paw's starting to get stiff, and so I speed up a little. He bucks into the stroking, and ten short minutes later, he finally shudders, gasps, and spurts warmth all over his stomach and my paw.
As soon as I feel it's okay, I take my paw away. Holding it awkwardly in front of me, trying not to smell the mess all over it, I avoid looking at Brian. “I'm gonna clean up,” I say.
His paw reaches out for me. “What's your hurry?”
I hesitate. But only for a second. Even if I wanted to, I've made a promise to Dev about not coming 'til he did, an explicit promise as opposed to the implicit one I just broke. “I'm gonna clean up,” I say again, and get up before he can do anything else. Without looking back, I walk to the bathroom and close the door.
To my surprise, my paw doesn't smell all that strongly of skunk. And Brian has lots of strong soaps to cover the scent. After a couple washes, I can't even tell he came on my paw, which is pretty impressive. I do, however, smell like I stuck my paw into a jar of orange cardamom.
I'm not only taking my time to try to get rid of the smell. I'm also trying to figure out what I just did, how it affects my relationship with Brian, and with Dev. I'd really be happy if Dev never found out about that. He might ask why Brian's easing up on him, but I can hopefully tell him Brian did it out of respect for our friendship. He'll be suspicious, but Brian and I never did anything sexual before. There's no reason this should've been different.
Except it was. And no matter what Brian says about feeling a little less lonely, about that being all it is, I am starting to feel that there's more. I think he wants a relationship, wants me to leave Dev and come live with him. And all his posturing this evening, all the little things he did to get me to feel bad for him, all that was just acting. Wasn't it?
By the time I get my paws clean, my erection's gone down, too. That temptation won't be a problem. I'm annoyed enough that I hesitated when he reached for me. And now I'm starting to think about it more. Just a paw job, right? No big deal. I pawed off probably fifty guys through my college years. Never meant anything.
So then why didn't Brian and I ever do it? And what will Dev think of it if he finds out? When he finds out?
I shove aside the growing nausea of guilt in my stomach and chest. I can't even think about Dev this soon. It's either thinking about him finding out, or about me hiding it from him, and neither alternative is more palatable than the other. So I just think about Brian. Nothing really has to have changed, right? Not unless he wants it to.
He's still lying on the bed with his pants down when I walk out. I can't really obviously avoid looking at him, but he knows me well enough that I don't need to. “Something wrong?” he says.
“I'm kinda tired.” I stand awkwardly between the bathroom and the bed.
“It's not even ten.”
“It's eleven where I live.”
“Still.” He swings his legs off the bed and looks up at me. “Sure, whatever. I'll clean up and we can go to bed.”
I jerk my head toward the living room. “I'm sleeping on the couch, right?”
He doesn't reply right away. His eyes glitter with reflected light. “You don't have to,” he says softly.
“I think I do,” I say, and just then my phone rings.
His eyes narrow. “That's him, isn't it?”
I don't have to look at the number, but I do anyway. “Yeah. Be right back.”
But I'm already out in the living room, hitting the green Accept button, making my way out the front door to the hallway. “Hi,” I say.
“Monday practice sucks,” Dev grumbles.
“So win next time.”
“Like I can do anything about it, stuck on backup.”
“You'll be starting soon. Right?”
“I'd better,” he grumbles. “Already starting to get uncomfortable around Caroll.”
“Ah, I'm just teasing.” He sighs. “Don't know how I'm going to beat out Killer.”
“People are noticing,” I tell him. It's so refreshing to be able to talk to him. The air's cooled down with the evening and the night is cool. I can't see Chevali from here, but it helps to know he's close. Faintly, I hear the rumble of an airplane getting closer, and it reminds me I have to go home tomorrow.
“Did you see this thing ESPN wrote about me?”
“You got half a paragraph there. The guys at High and Bright did a whole paragraph.” I printed both out, stuck them on the wall over my loft so I can look at them when I wake up in the morning.
“Brian wrote nearly a whole article.”
My jaw snaps shut in surprise. I think about Brian, back in the apartment. It is pretty rude of me to be out here talking to Dev, no matter how good it feels. I say, “Yeah,” and then, “Look, Dev, this isn't a really good time...”
He goes on about the article and I put him off again, telling him I'll call him tomorrow, that I have a big meeting at work that got moved up. The plane is closer by that point, a droning reminder, and finally I get him off the phone. I stand there on the balcony, holding the phone, missing him. And just to be spiteful, I don't go back in for another five minutes.
He's cleaned up by then, sitting on the couch in his boxers, not watching TV. The images just flicker over the white spot on his nose, there in the center of black, as if I can see his thoughts flickering out from his eyes. I walk to the kitchen and get one of the diets he bought me.
“How's he doing?” he says, without turning.
“Good. He liked the bit you wrote about him.”
He raises a fist. “Tree Pride.”
“Yeah.” Nobody except the team and announcers called the Forester team the Rangers. The logo is a big pine tree, so the student body all calls them the “Trees.” “Dumb as a plank and twice as thick,” Brian used to say. Okay, I did, too.
I stand behind the sofa, watching Brian not watch the TV. The diet soda is cold in my paw, cold against my tongue, leaving the artificial sweetener taste after it goes down. “So,” Brian says, “you sleeping out here?”
“Are you feeling less lonely?” I ask. I need to know if what I've done is worth it. “Or do you need someone to tuck you in?”
He half-turns then, with a smirk. “I think I'm feeling even more lonely now.”
I fold my arms. “Just because I have a boyfriend doesn't mean I'm not still your friend.”
“Are you?” He turns back to the TV.
“I dunno,” I say. “How are you defining friendship? Is a friend someone who'd screw over his boyfriend for you? Someone who places you above everyone else?”
“Used to be that way.”
I look down at his small black ears, the white patches on them and on his face. It feels as though I've stepped back in time to our dorm, with a nicer couch and TV. The easy, the kind thing would be to acknowledge the bond that's still there. After all I've done already, I only have a few hours left to spend with him.
I'm just about to say something nice when he gives a little sigh. And it's that little dramatic touch, so perfectly Brian, that irritates the hell out of me. He was lonely and wanted a paw job; I gave it to him. He's still lonely and wants me to curl up with him. And there'll be more advances then, more hurt when I reject him, maybe another paw job in the morning. After I leave, he'll be pestering me for another visit, the way he did when I started going out with Dev.
College is his Golden Age. He's wandered down a dead end in the maze of life, only he doesn't want to acknowledge it. He wants to go back to where he made that turn, or else get an airlift out by doing something striking like outing Dev. So he's trying to get me to go back with him. And he'll keep trying.
Thing is, I think I made some good turns. I like where I am. There were good things about college, but the phone call from Dev reminded me that there are lots better things now. I don't pretend to understand how this works, how two people so different can share a point of view, can depend on each other, can make each other's lives so much better. So I can't really begrudge Brian his lack of understanding.
But I can begrudge him his stubborn refusal to accept it, his manipulative acting all night to get what he wants out of me. Some of it I resisted, some of it I didn't. But it's not going to stop, not unless I stop it.
“It was never like that.” I say it quietly, with my own sense of drama.
“Don't be sour,” he says. “It doesn't suit you.”
“I never had a real boyfriend in college,” I say. “There were guys I went steady with, but I didn't know how to be serious with them. We didn't have a life together. We just agreed not to date other people. Sure, my best friend comes before those guys.”
Now, now he turns. Watches me. “But Dev's different.” I look back down at him. “He's different. He makes me...”
“Complete?” He smirks.
“You were happy all the time, back in college.”
I shake my head. “He cares about my life. All of it. I care about his. He listens to me, he likes that I care. He accepts what I am, and he is what he is, and when we're together, I feel like we can do anything.”
“You were an English major?” He sniffs, but the facade is cracking. “That's terrible. Give me Keats, give me Wordsworth.”
I take a breath. “I sail'd in darkness, blind 'til the false dawn/ Reveal'd her beacon, shin'd in the distance/ Believ'd I, foolish, 'twas my ain true guide/ Until your sunrise show'd true light, true love.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Donnigan?”
“Stuart. Not very well known.”
“I can see why. 'Ain'?”
“So is true love.”
I stare back at him, levelly. “If you really think that, and you can't be happy for me, then I guess we don't have much to talk about after all.”
“Come on,” he says. “I was joking.”
I flick my ears back and take another drink of the diet soda. It's warm, not as refreshing, and the artificial sweetener is losing what charm it had. “You wanna put a movie on or something, or you ready to go to bed?”
“Are you ready to go to bed?” He tries to make it into a leer, but I just walk over and sit in the armchair.
He watches me and then gets up. “I'll let you get some rest, then. Night.”
“Night,” I say.
For a moment, we look at each other. Then he walks into his bedroom.
No sheets for the couch, no blanket, no pillow. I turn off the TV and the lights, and that's when I notice that Brian's left his bedroom door open, a soft light on inside. I close my eyes and lie down on the couch. This could be Brian's old dorm room, just fancier: nicer couch, framed posters. The smell of skunk is the only thing that's close to the same, and even that is subtly different. People's scent changes with them over the years, and while Brian's is as strong and as defiant as ever, there's a bitter tinge to it that wasn't there before. I've got some NeutraScent in my bag, but that doesn't seem fair, somehow.
So I breathe in fox and skunk, modern day, and let my mind wander back, just for tonight, to the fox and skunk that used to be. Just because they're gone doesn't mean they weren't important, but it's a mistake to try too hard to hold onto them. Brian's got to be who he's going to be, and I've got to be who I am. And I wonder, staring at the ceiling, if this is how all friendships go. I've had relationships come and go, high school best friends fade into the past like ripples in a pond, slowly receding until they're gone. But Brian and I were close for a long time. When we're apart, the distance between us isn't as noticeable. Here in the next room, it feels greater, an unmanageable chasm.
Is this where Dev and I will be in a few years? Will he lose himself in his professional world, will I grow apart from him the way I've grown apart from Brian? Will there be some kind of incident that will pin him in one place while I move on, or something I won't be able to get past while he moves farther and farther away?
If you'd asked me, sitting in the lounge of the dorm in college with Brian, I would have told you that we'd withstand anything. Getting sent to the hospital, sent to another college—we'd always be together, brothers in arms in the war on injustice. My attempt to take revenge for Brian's pain now, in retrospect, seems to me an attempt to accomplish a feat he couldn't ignore, that would rekindle our friendship. I never considered that the war might change, that the people we saw as targets would become real to me, that I would find someone who wrapped himself in the core of me so much better than Brian did.
That thought, the memory of Dev's voice on the phone, his paw on my chest, relaxes me. Love can fade, love can turn, but you can't shy away from it because you're afraid it will become something else. Brian's lesson to me, here today, is not that all things wither and die, but that all relationships are even more valuable because they are impermanent. Perhaps one day I will be able to lie on a couch anywhere in the world and not be wishing with an ache like a vise that Dev were here with me. Perhaps. But I can do my best to make sure that that doesn't happen. And in the meantime, I can enjoy this feeling, this closeness, and be happy every day I have it with Dev.
I feel sorry for Brian, and I think I feel some of his pain in his attempt to twist what Dev and I have. I know why he wants me back as more than a friend, and is willing to gamble away our friendship on the chance that I'll go with him. If I didn't have Dev...
The air circulation carries away the scents of the room, Brian's noticeably fainter now. I breathe in again, his current scent melding with the one from my memory. No matter what, the friends we were are a part of who we are, and always will be.
It's important that I remember that. If I don't, I'm just going to walk into his bedroom and punch him in the face.