I ran down the stairs with a hop in my step, rounding the corner into the kitchen. Javier still sat at the counter, staring straight at the laptop with an intent look on his face.
"Hey, Javier, I'm gonna order us all some pizzas for dinner," I said as I grabbed the Danville yellow pages from the desk underneath the kitchen phone. "What kind of topping do you prefer?"
He didn't respond, and I looked over to see his eyes were still fixated on the screen. I waited a few seconds for him to say something, but he didn't move. "Javier?" I repeated, a little louder this time.
He looked up and saw me staring at him, waiting for an answer. "Hm? What?"
Chuckling, I indicated the phone book I was flipping through. "Pizza, Javier. My dime. What kind do you want?"
"Oh, anything's fine," Javier said. That answer told me he wasn't really listening, as Javier was notoriously picky with his pizza, not eating anything but plain cheese pizza with light sauce.
I sat the phone book down and walked up to the counter. "What's going on, man? I've lived with you for too long to miss out on when something's bothering you."
Javier sighed softly, then flipped around the laptop to show me what he had been reading. It was a article from the Louisville Free-Fur Press, the anthro community biweekly newspaper I recognized from my hometown. Dated over a year ago, in big block letters the headline screamed "Anthro Teen Arrested During Rally." The picture below the headline showed a bobcat in a crowd composed mostly of other anthros, being handcuffed and led away by two human police officers. Though the photo wasn't the best quality, I could clearly identify the face of my new feline friend, and the caption identified him by name.
"W-what's this? Where did you find it?"
Javier rolled his eyes. "I know how to do a Google search, Carson. This was near the top of the results."
I read the beginning of the article aloud. "'A planned peaceful demonstration for anthro rights at Waterfront Park today turned ugly when a group of human counter-protesters started heckling some of the presenters who were on stage. One speaker, seventeen-year-old bobcat Likax Rufallo, president of the Young Furs of Kentucky organization, confronted the hecklers during the speech, which after a heated exchange of words finally escalated into an all-out brawl.'" I stopped reading the article and looked up at Javier, a bit confused. "Young Furs of Kentucky?"
He shook his head. "I've never heard of the group either. Apparently, they're some kind of activist group for anthro teenagers whose M.O. is staging controversial events like this that either fall flat on their face or attract a lot of attention, like this one apparently did. They have a pretty barebones website; not a lot of information to be found on them, really."
Nodding, I continued with the article. "'Police officers quickly arrived on the scene to break up the fight, arresting Rufallo and quickly removing him from the park grounds. They later charged him with two counts of aggravated assault and one count of instigation to violence. Eyewitness on the scene, though, say that while Rufallo's rhetoric was intense, he never threatened violence or called for it, and that the only fighting he did during the brawl was in self-defense.'" Groaning in disgust, I flipped the laptop back around to Javier. "I don't want to read anymore," I sighed. "It sounds like he was completely set-up to be caught, and that his charges were all fabricated."
Javier nodded. "Remember, this is a paper that has a stated political agenda. Still, I can't believe the police would keep him locked up for a year on charges this flimsy. I wonder if something else happened that never got reported."
"Did you see any other articles or mentions of him?"
"No," Javier went back to looking at the computer as he talked. "Only a few other anthro papers in the region picking up this same article, and the Young Furs site I mentioned also listed him as a past president. Other than that, though, nothing. Not even a mention of a trial. It's almost like they locked him up right away and threw away the key."
That didn't surprise me. While Louisville had a more progressive attitude towards anthros than the rest of Kentucky (or the South, for that matter), there were still plenty of reports floating around of police misconduct and brutality in the anthro community. I could easily picture a bad cop or a crooked judge fixing the system so that Likax would never get a fair trial.
"Listen," I said after I thought about it for a moment, "I don't want you saying anything about this to Likax tonight. Please. I want him to enjoy the rest of the evening. We can talk to him about it some more tomorrow, after he's gotten a good night's rest."
"I got it," Javier's voice was flat and a bit annoyed. "But that doesn't mean I'm gonna stop researching and finding out as much as possible about him and his story."
"Fine." I stopped speaking, leaving the discussion at that. After picking up the phone and placing the order (two large pizzas, one all cheese and one with The Works), I turned back to the stairs and headed up to my room, excited to be back with the bobcat once again.
Likax was still sitting on my bed reading, and when I opened the door, he looked up at me, beaming ecstatically. I couldn't help but notice that his clothing seemed a tiny bit tighter than before, a hair's width of the bobcat's furry stomach now being exposed where the bottom of the tank top no longer could reach. I ignored it for now, eager to answer any questions Likax might have about my stories.
"Wow, Carson!" His eyes were warm and encouraging. "This is really good stuff! You're certainly a talented writer."
Blushing a little, I shrugged. "I do what I can. I don't know if it's really that good, though."
"It is!" He jumped up and walked over to me, the binder still open. He pointed to the currently-open page, the first chapter of a novella about a human boy who had been adopted by two male anthro foxes.
"That?" I asked, a little surprised. "I started writing that a couple years back, when I was a freshman. I haven't ever gotten around to finishing it."
"Well, you should!" Likax exclaimed. "I've read through it three times now, and the characters--"
"Wait," I interrupted him. "You've read it three times? Just that first chapter?"
Likax shook his head, a big grin on his face. "No, all seven of them! Well, that and the rest of the binder."
"The rest of-- What?!" I nearly fell back in surprise. "That's over a hundred pages! I wasn't gone that long, was I?"
The bobcat chuckled while walking up to me, placing his paw on my shoulder. "Nah, it was only ten minutes or so. I-- Well, I don't know how to explain it, mostly because I don't really understand it myself, but... I guess I just can read things really fast now."
My jaw dropped open as I tried to process what he was saying. "But, that's nearly impossible! You couldn't comprehend everything that quickly!"
"Oh yeah?" Likax smiled proudly and crossed his arms. "Go ahead. Quiz me."
"Uhh, all right..." I racked my brain, trying to come up with some detail that I actually remembered from my own writings. "Okay, how's this: in the short story 'All The King's Unicorns', what's the main character's reason for leaving town at the end?"
Without a moment's hesitation, Likax answered, "Oh, that's easy. He hated himself for how he had behaved at his mother's funeral and how his family had basically disowned him because of that behavior, so he was going to make a new life across the country. I kinda teared up during that one, by the way."
I couldn't imagine how he'd have time for tears, I thought, if he read it as quickly as he said he did. "That's right," I said, smiling but still amazed. "How 'bout a tougher one?"
I thought a little harder. "Okay, here goes: the third chapter of Fathers' Paw has the main character, Jeremiah, getting tormented by a guy at his school. What's the bully's name?" I was sure that Likax wouldn't be able to answer this question. The bully's name was only mentioned once in the story; the only reason I knew it off the top of my head was because I'd named him after a particular jerk from high school that stuck in my mind somewhat prominently.
Likax brought his paw to his chin, glancing up in thought for only a moment, before finally looking straight into my eyes with determination. "Charlie. He didn't have a last name, I believe."
I whistled in amazement. "Wow, Likax. Okay, I believe you; you read it all! But how could you possibly do that so quickly?"
The bobcat shrugged, a silly smile on his face. "I have no clue! I wasn't able to do it before. Maybe it's related to my sudden growth spurt."
That made sense, I thought, in a weird, completely nonsensical way. "Well, I guess you don't really need my--"
"Oh, no no no no!" Likax placed his arm around my shoulder, squeezing it tight and gently guiding me to the bed. "I'd still love it if you'd be able to answer some questions for me. And, if you don't mind, I have a couple of things I think could be changed to make some of the stories even better!"
The next thirty minutes flew by in a flash as we went over two dozen or so pages of my writing, Likax asking about things he wasn't sure he had interpreted correctly, and also pointing out some lines of dialogue that didn't work or small inconsistencies in my stories' logic. I couldn't help but be amazed by how well he understood and appreciated my writing style, how much the two of us were on the same page, and how his suggestions for improvements were always spot-on. In the back of my mind, I couldn't decide what role I wanted Likax to fill more: my editor, or my lover. Perhaps both, I finally said to myself.
In seemingly no time at all, I heard the sound of the doorbell ringing. Looking out the window, I saw the car with the pizza company's sign on top of it. Likax jumped up off the bed, his feetpaws landing on the floor with a loud THUD, and headed for the door. "Pizza!!" he cried out, with all the enthusiasm of a little kid.
"Wait, Likax," I said, loving his excitement but also concerned. "Why don't you stay up here while I answer the door and pay for the pizza?"
He tilted his head for a moment, looking at me questioningly, but suddenly got what I was saying. "Oh... right. For a moment, I guess I kinda forgot I was a... well, you know... a wanted fugitive."
Nodding, I stepped out of the room. "I'll call you down when the coast is clear." As I closed the door most of the way, I couldn't help but think of what would happen if someone did see Likax in my house. After all, I couldn't hide him forever, especially if his growth didn't eventually stop. I'd have to formulate a plan of action with Likax before things got too far out of hand.
But not tonight, I decided. Tonight was about recuperation, rest, and relaxation. Paying the delivery woman for the pizzas and giving her a healthy tip, I then closed the door and locked it, watching out the front window until she was back in her car. When she was gone, I decided to let the drapes fall closed and also lower the blinds, blocking any view of the living room from the outside. Satisfied that I would be safe, I turned my head to the stairs and shouted, "Likax, you can come down now!"
The house was filled with the sound of a very large feline running out the door and down the stairs. In no time at all, Likax and I had plopped down on the couch, munching on a slice each. As the spicy scent filled the house, Javier eventually wandered in, grabbing a slice of the cheese and eating while standing. The pizzas soon disappeared, the bobcat devouring two slices for every one Javier and I had. I didn't blame him; finally getting a chance to eat real food after a year of prison cafeteria slop had to be a godsend to the hungry feline.
Finally, Likax covered his mouth and burped quietly. "Sorry," he apologized sheepishly. He patted his belly, which I noticed now was being covered by even less of his shirt, and I hoped that was just because of all the pizza he had just eaten. "That was the best meal of my life." He gazed at me, glowing. "Thank you so much, Carson and Javier."
"You're welcome, Likax." I glared at Javier, who mumbled the same thing as he sat down on the sofa. The three of us sat in silence for a minute, digesting our dinner and starting to feel a little sleepy.
"Well…" Likax seemed to lie back on the couch, getting more comfortable as he settled down. He gave his belly a bit of a small pat before sighing and closing his eyes for a moment. He seemed content to lie back, and I couldn't help but smile as I sat next to him.
Javier was still sitting nearby, but he seemed a little bit distracted as he looked over Likax. He had eaten dinner without as much as a word, and it looked as though he wanted to keep his eyes on the bobcat the entire time. He still seemed a little distracted, but either he trusted Likax enough not to mention it, or he was suspicious enough that he didn't want to bring up anything. After he ate, he had taken a couple of moments to bring his laptop back to the other seat, and was once again tapping on it. I assumed he was still trying to find out more, but from the look of it, he was still drawing some major blanks.
I smiled as I felt Likax shift on the couch, his head tilting a little onto my shoulder. His eyes opened, staring at me for a moment. He seemed to glance towards the television every couple of moments, looking over it. I was going to suggest turning it on, maybe just watching what was on. However, as Likax glanced around, it soon became clear that he had something else on his mind.
I didn't feel the need to say a thing. I just watched quietly, chuckling as his gaze turned to the shelf, then back to me, then back onto the shelf again. I remained quiet, noticing he seemed to have found something that piqued his interest a good deal: the Xbox sitting on the shelf.
I let his gaze return to me before speaking. "Hey, don't look at me. That's Javier's." It only took him a moment before his eyes added Javier to their rotation, glancing over him after looking at me. I was busy watching him, a bit amused by the entire thing, and a little surprised that he was still taking the time to keep his eyes on me.
It took a few minutes before Javier even realized he was being watched, and another couple passed by before he had to ask. "Well? What is it?" I just smiled and shook my head as Likax eagerly stared. I tried to catch Javier's eye before nudging towards the shelf. To my surprise, he gave a small laugh as he realized what I was pointing to. "Yeah, that's fine. The game cabinet's the one on the right." Likax nearly pounced at the cabinet upon hearing those words, and I was almost worried he would crash. However, he landed inches from the TV, popping the cabinet door open and glancing through the ones we had.
"I take it you haven't really had a chance to play before?" I chuckled as I saw him dig through, his tail shifting along as he glanced. He seemed to eventually settle on a fighting game, a claw popping the case open before he managed to get the disk in.
"Yeah. I had a few part-time jobs before, but I never really had earned enough for anything new." He grabbed a couple of the controllers from where they were on top of the console, and in a second, he was back on the couch, dropping one in my lap. "I was usually at least a few years behind in terms of technology. I can play at a friend's sometimes, but I've been… Well, away, I suppose…" I could see his shoulders shift down a little, and I quickly interrupted his train of thought, snapping my fingers in front of him a couple of times.
"None of that now, alright?" It took a moment, and he seemed a little nervous as he sat next to me, but the sound of the game starting quickly drew his attention away. He smiled and gave a quiet nod, getting comfortable and preparing to play with me.
"Yeah. Today's been a good day…" He smiled as he gave me a quick glance. I couldn't help but smile back at him. I probably would've spent longer looking at him, if there wasn't something else immediately distracting the two of us. "Here we go… No holding back on me, okay?"
"Hey, I may not be the best, but you're really asking for it!"
The first couple of rounds were a massacre. He was taking his time figuring out the controls, and if he was asking for me to really play, I certainly wasn't going to argue. I weren't completely focused on the game, but I was still doing well enough to thoroughly beat him down.
The two of us played for about fifteen minutes, me winning six out of seven matches, before I heard the phone ringing from the kitchen. I paused the game and stood up, knowing it was for me, as anyone calling for Javier would reach him on his cell phone. "Play for me a bit," I said, handing the controller off to my roommate. Turning to Likax, I placed my hand on his shoulder gently. "I'll be right back." As I left, I saw the bobcat watching me out of the corner of his eye, but he turned his attention back to the game once Javier sat aside his laptop and un-paused.
I picked up the phone on the fourth ring, bringing the receiver to my ear. "Hello?"
"Yes," a gruff, unfamiliar voice said. "Is this the residence of Carson Fischer?"
I sighed, thinking it was a sales call, and began to hang up. Right before I got the chance to, though, the voice said, "I'm calling about Likax."
I froze, my heart skipping a beat. I considered hanging up anyways, but something inside urged me to keep listening. Still, I couldn't just come out and say that Likax was there; what if the gruff voice was with the police, or they were listening in? I had to say something, though. "I-I'm sorry, sir, but I d-don't know anyone by that n--"
"Relax, Carson," the voice said. "I'm a friend. I don't have a lot of time to talk, but I need to tell you something. They're close."
The voice ignored my question. "You'll be safe in your house tonight, but tomorrow both of you need to leave town. Tell the bobcat that Mujexa wants to meet. He'll know what to do."
I started to say something, but heard a CLICK from the other end, followed by a dial tone. My mouth still agape, I slowly put the receiver back in the cradle. If what the voice said was right and someone bad was close to finding us… I shuddered to think of what could happen to my friend... and to me.
Trying my best to put those feelings aside for now, I walked back into the living room. Likax and Javier both were focused on the screen, jamming on the buttons on the controller. "Who was that?" Javier asked.
"It was-- a wrong number." I tried my best to hide my nervousness, sitting back down next to Likax, my heart still racing. Being close to the bobcat again, though, made me feel better, and I started to relax.
Javier, however, could tell that I was hiding something. As the round ended, he glanced over at me, a bit worried, but kept quiet.
"YES!" Likax pumped his arm into the air, his face lighting up in jubilation. I looked at the screen, which showed the record now stood at seven wins for Javier and me, with five for Likax.
"Javier!" I turned my head his way with a surprised smirk. "I told you to play for me, not to just let Likax start wailing on my fighter."
"Hey!" Javier responded defensively, "I played my heart out! He's just really good!"
"He's been playing for all of twenty minutes, Javier." I rolled my eyes as he passed the controller back to me. "You've had this game for two years!"
Frowning, he picked back up his laptop, a perturbed look on his face. He muttered something in Portuguese under his breath, which I wasn't about to ask him to translate.
As I started playing again, though, I realized that he might have been right. As soon as the round started, Likax's character rushed at me with a flying kick, knocking mine down. The white-clad fighter on the screen leapt into the air and landed on my shirtless samurai warrior, pummeling him with his nunchucks, taking down my health nearly halfway, then quickly jumped back up to his feet. As I tried to lunge out and strike with my character's katana, Likax quickly dodged my attack and delivered another knockdown blow, leaving me with only a sliver of health. I didn't stand a chance from there.
The rest of the rounds faired similarly. At first, I thought I might be getting tired, my reflexes slowing, but when I looked over to the bobcat's paws, they seemed to be moving at a faster-than-possible rate, him anticipating my every move and pressing the corresponding buttons to counter before I had even started my attacks. After playing for five minutes, Likax had swept four matches, three of which he didn't even lose any health during, earning a perfect score.
"You see what I told you?" Javier motioned to the screen as it pulled the record up again, Likax now leading nine to seven. "I think he's been hustling us."
Likax's eyes went wide with surprise as his ears started to shift downward. "No!" he protested. "I've wanted to play this game for a while but never got the chance to until today. I swear!"
"Hey," I said, an idea coming to me, "let's see how you fare against other people." I exited back to the menu screen, choosing an online match.
Likax turned to me with a pleading look. "But..." he started, "I've never played a video game online before. I don't want to beat people I've never met."
"This game's over two years old," Javier stated. "The only ones left playing it online are the truly dedicated and hardcore. If you can beat any of these loons, I'd be shocked."
Likax slouched down, his whiskers sagging. "I don't want to play with anyone else though. I want to play with yooooooouuuu." He dragged out this last word as he sat the controller down and stretched across my lap, looking up at me with the sweetest, most adorable eyes I had ever seen. At that moment, I wanted more than anything to play with him too. And I wasn't thinking video games.
As another player connected. Likax reluctantly sat up and grabbed the controller again, selecting a large, heavily armored monster of a fighter who weld a massive battle ax. "Be careful," I cautioned Likax, "that character plays a lot different than the last one you used. Are you sure you--" But the match had already begun.
It took a few moments for Likax to get used to the slower, heavier fighter, but once he did, the results ended up being virtually the same as when Javier and I had played against him, Likax winning the match handily. The other player immediately requested a rematch, which Likax accepted, but after they had gone a round and a half without Likax's fighter even being touched, the other player abruptly disconnected, causing the game to go back to the home screen.
"That's why I've never wanted to play online," Likax commented as he put the controller down on the table. "There are some real jerks out there on the internet."
I nodded. Looking over at Javier, I noticed he was still frowning. "I just don't understand," he finally said, "how you can pick up this game a half-hour ago and suddenly be unbeatable."
Likax shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I'm a quick learner. Is that bad?"
Javier didn't answer right away. I started to recall the speed with which Likax had read through my writing binder earlier. I began to mention this but stopped myself, realizing that my roommate had already grown too suspicious with the changes in Likax's size. Giving him more reasons to distrust the bobcat sounded like a bad idea.
"No," he finally said, his brow still furrowed, "I guess not."
Likax smiled, and I breathed a sigh of relief. As I leaned back against the couch, the bobcat stretched his arms up into the air and yawned loudly. I couldn't help but stare, as his fit, muscled stomach was uncovered slightly. Bringing his arms back down, he noticed me watching him. His eyebrows went up slightly as he grinned suggestively.
Starting to yawn a little as well, I stood up. "Well," I said, "it's been a long day. I think we all could use some rest." I walked over to the TV and turned it off, along with the Xbox, putting the controllers and game away. "Do you mind sleeping on the couch, Likax?"
"Not at all!" The bobcat's voice sounded eager enough, but I could sense a slight disappointment in his demeanor when I turned back around to face him.
"Ask him up to your room, idiot," I told myself. But I couldn't. Not tonight. As much as I wanted to, I knew the best thing for the bobcat was to get some rest.
Bringing down blankets and pillows, I tried to make the couch into as much of a bed as possible. As Likax lied down, his feetpaws hung off the edge, but otherwise he looked comfortable enough. He smiled up at me and gave a thumbs up.
"Good night, Carson," he murmured, his eyelids half-closed.
"Good night, Likax," I sighed. Leaving him sleeping on the couch was the hardest thing I had to do all day. Halfway upstairs, I fought the urge to rush back, take the bobcat in my arms, and run straight to my bed, locking the door behind me. Instead, I just trudged into my room and collapsed on my bed, hoping my exhaustion would finally catch up and carry me off to sleep.
My body had other ideas, though. After an hour of lying there awake, replaying the events of the day over and over in my mind, I decided to just do what I always did when I couldn't sleep. Getting up, I walked over to my desk and sat down, pulled out my favorite pen and a blank sheet of paper, and began to write.
Before I could finish the first paragraph, however, the door behind me creaked open. Spinning around, I saw a figure standing in the doorframe looking straight at me, causing my heart to skip a beat.