Renfield Billings was worried. More than worried, he was terrified! As he sulked on his office in the U.A.C., a stack of paperwork sat on his desk, unfinished. He couldn't concentrate on work now. Dozens of questions were running through his mind, but the most pertinent was whether or not Fritz Warner suspected him.
Chairman Sirius Dogstar was dead. Assassinated by a toad agent. The recently re-elected Fritz Warner had replaced him, and one of Fritz's first orders of business had been to disband to liaison division Dogstar pioneered, and which, until its demise, Renfield worked for, acting as Dogstar's connection to the crew of the Righteous Indignation.
Strangely, Fritz had summoned Renfield personally to his office and offered him a position on his private staff. What was unusual about this was that, as far as he knew, Renfield was the only one of the ex-liaisons Fritz was making this offer to. Fritz claimed his "extracurricular activities," that is, his various side errands for Dogstar, had impressed him. He said Renfield had good work ethic and he needed someone like him on his staff.
Renfield would've bought that completely if only he hadn't been the only one offered such a position from amongst the former liaisons! He felt... singled out. And he didn't like it. Consequently, the nagging thought squirming inside him now was that Fritz suspected his dirty secret and wanted him on his personal staff so he could keep an eye on him.
"He has to be on to me!" Renfield said quietly to himself. "Why me? Why only me?"
He leaned against his desk. The handsome young Warrenian hare was not what he appeared to be. He wasn't from Warren, and he wasn't even a hare, but the groundbreaking scientific techniques of Professor Glutgrave had seen to it that, to all outward appearances, the toad spy Zaysen was just another hare working dilligently at the U.A.C.
He'd been ferreting information to his fellow toads who had dug in following the mammals' retaking of Genus, but he'd been in place as a double agent for longer than even that, having been planted on the post-invasion Warren with a false past that led back to a destroyed town. It was very nearly perfect. But now, it seemed, the sly Chairman Warner was seeing through his disguise.
His stomach lurched as he thought of Drollard, the other toad spy altered by Professor Glutgrave, the one who murdered Dogstar. Whereas Zaysen had been made to resemble a generic hare who never actually existed, Glutgrave had been tasked with turning Drollard into a perfect copy of Bucky O'Hare so he could frame O'Hare for Dogstar's murder. And now Drollard was dead.
Nevermind that Renfield had genuinely liked Dogstar, old blowhard that he was, and venomously held it against his fellow toads for killing him, it was Drollard's fate that weighed on him. It hadn't been officially stated in public, but Renfield knew through his closeness to Fritz that Drollard had been killed not long after his interrogation by a lethal injection. It made Renfield shiver, and again the thought of Fritz suspecting him resurfaced. Did Fritz tell him this in order to try and scare him into turning himself in?
Ironic, considering that Renfield had been enjoying his life as a hare so far. For this and other reasons, he'd been seriously considering cutting his ties with the toads entirely and just living as a hare for the rest of his life. Only two things were stopping him. One, the worry of what the toads would do to him, and now, two, what the mammals would do!
He went to a mirror and stared at his reflection. He had light green fur and short brown hair parted down the middle, and watery gray eyes that made him difficult to read. He'd practiced many facial expressions in front of this mirror, but now, it wasn't just second nature, it seemed like the real him. He had honestly forgotten what he looked like before the procedure.
Walking back to the desk, Renfield practically collapsed into his chair. If he did turn himself in, what would the mammals do to him? Inject him, too, and kill him? Unconsciously, he rubbed his arm and thought of the needle going in, and felt ill.
"Why?" he asked aloud to no one. "Why did they kill Drollard?"
He looked at the papers in front of him and twirled a pen in his nimble fingers. Suddenly, the toad communicator sitting on his desk beeped. Sergeant Krug was calling. Probably to ask why he hadn't contacted him in a whole week. He looked over at it, absently wondering what it was doing sitting out in the open like this instead of hidden away in a drawer. In his worry, he was getting careless. He fought back tears.
"Will the ammals kill me too, like Drollard, when they find out? Will the toads? Will I beg when it happens, or will I have enough self-respect to just...?"
He trailed off into silence, quaking. After a moment, he flung the pen across the room. His communicator continued to beep insistently. Finally he just picked it up and sent it flying after the pen. He didn't want to deal with Krug. Or any toad. Overcome with emotion, he buried his face in his hands and began to sob hysterically.
"Why did I ever take this assignment?" he bawled.
There was a knock at the door. Instinct kicked in. An actor's instinct. Renfield sat up, his mood changing immediately. Almost automatically, the false hare transformed into the very picture of calm and collected. Rising, he went and picked up the communicator and slid it into his jacket pocket.
"Come in," he said.
Gilly Stephenson opened the door and poked his head in. Great, Renfield though. He didn't much like Gilly. The short gopher had been his co-worker and office neighbor ever since Renfield came to work in the main U.A.C. offices, and he seemed intent on inserting himself into every aspect of Renfield's life. Renfield thought it was because Gilly noticed what others did not: the fact he didn't seem to have a life outside of the office. He figured Gilly was just curious and trying to learn more about his fellow employee, and he was pleasant enough, but Renfield still didn't like how he snooped.
"Hiya, Ren," Gilly said. "Sorry if I'm disturbing you. Just was wondering if you weren't too busy to help me with some file transporting I gotta do before you head out for lunch."
Renfield grumped. Lunch! He'd forgotten completely about food! Well, Gilly was good for one thing at least: making sure his co-worker ate! Of course, his lunch was currently in several jars locked away in his bottom desk drawer. He would have to eat later. For now, though, he had duties to attend to. Renfield managed a cheerful smile.
He rose and followed Gilly out of the office. He pulled the door shut and removed the lamenated ID card off of his lapel, and held it against the card-reader next to the doorframe. There was a beep and a click. Locked. Turning, he clipped the ID card back to his lapel and noticed Gilly was staring at him. The gopher clearly was disappointed that he'd locked the door. It meant he couldn't snoop while Renfield was gone.
"Just following procedure, good buddy," Renfield said.
He followed Gilly into the office across the hall. Gilly always tended to keep his door open. And in fact most of the employees did. Even though locking their offices even when they were in them was standard procedure, few people actually did it and the policy had been poorly enforced under Dogstar. Renfield reasoned this would changed now that Fritz was in charge again. But little would change for him in that regard. For obvious reasons, Renfield was more dilligent about locking his office than most. His apartment was similarly secured all of the time.
"Just grab an armful and come with me," Gilly said, gesturing to two large stacks of files on his desk.
A short time later, Renfield and Gilly walked down the hall toward the U.A.C.'s record department in another part of the building, their arms loaded. Renfield was cradling a large stack of papers, whilst Gilly had a big cardboard box. They took some stairs and as they reached the bottom and rounded a corner, they ran right into a young hare, himself carrying an armload of papers, who bumped right into them. With a grunt, the stouter Gilly stumbled but retained his footing. Renfield and the other hare, however, both fell down, spilling papers everywhere.
"Watch it!" Renfield snapped, initially irritated. But then he realized who it was he'd just smashed into and his voice softened. "Dawson!"
The young hare was Dawson Mackenzie. He laughed and stood, taking the accident well. He offered a hand, which Renfield took, and Dawson helped him to his feet.
"Sorry about that, Renfield," he apologized.
He was a young brown hare with blue eyes and reddish-brown hair, thin but solidly built and athletic. He and Renfield had first met on a tram ride early one morning and struck up a conversation. They'd seen each other off and on since then, but not often since they worked in different parts of the building.
"It's quite all right," Renfield assured him. "And what, may I ask, is the big rush?"
"I was taking these up to the top floor," Dawson replied, gesturing down at the mess. He looked up and smiled a little. "They're actually supposed to go on your desk, as a matter of fact."
Renfield felt his heart flutter, his worried about Fritz, Krug and the toads and everything momentarily seeming to disappear. He even forgot about Gilly for the moment and just stared at Dawson, smiling. Renfield liked him a lot. More than a lot. And, judging by the way Dawson tended to look at him, the feeling was mutual.
"There are so many forms, and so many more coming. I can't wait for this day to end!" Dawson said, as he bent and began to separate his papers from Renfield's.
Renfield stooped down and began to assist him. Working together, they soon had their respective paperwork separated. As they arranged them into neat little piles, Renfield pondered working up the courage to ask Dawson out. Just for a drink or something for now. He wasn't even sure his fascination with the hare went beyond simple curiosity just yet. He was a toad, after all. He shouldn't be attracted to a mammal! And yet here he was, butterflies in his tummy, trying to stutter out an invitation to a date.
Dawson beat him to it. Arranging the papers into a neater stack before picking them up and standing erect again, he said, "I would do anything to get out of this for a little while, if you catch my meaning."
Renfield swallowed and grinned. Actually grinned! Of course, Dawson could just be innocently suggesting a trip to some bar or restaurant, the latter of which Renfield would of course have to decline, and Renfield wasn't even sure of Dawson was even gay, but something in what the brown hare said clicked with him, and he nodded.
"Well, I think that can be arranged," he said. "It's almost lunchtime, anyway."
Remembering Gilly, Stephenson turned and looked at the gopher, who was staring at the two hares in confusion. Apparently, he either didn't have gaydar or it was malfunctioning. Renfield put his stack of papers on top of the box Gilly was holding, then took the files from Dawson and put those on top of them, leaving Gilly holding the slightly wobbly stack in his arms.
"Stephenson can handle things, can't you, Stephenson?" asked Renfield, hopeful.
He felt a little guilty for dumping everything on Gilly who despite his nosiness had never been anything other than a good co-worker to him, but he didn't want to pass up this opportunity to spend some quality time with this young hare who fascinated him so.
"Um, sure," said Gilly, a little uncertain.
"Great!" said Renfield.
He unclipped the ID card from his lapel and handed it to Gilly, who took it a little awkwardly. If Gilly was going to get into his office to put the papers Dawson was supposed to deliver in there, he'd need the card.
The drawer containing the only incriminating evidence of who and what Renfield actually was was in a drawed locked with an actual key which only Renfield had. Renfield didn't think Gilly could pick the lock. If he even suspected him at all the way Fritz seemed to. He was probably just wondering why Renfield was so private. Maybe the revelation that his co-worker was gay would be the explanation Gilly was looking for, and perhaps this gesture of trust would end Gilly's snoopiness, and after finding nothing unusual in Renfield's office, his curiosity would finally be satisfied.
Of course, he had no way of knowing any of this for certain, but at the moment, he was more concerned with getting to know Dawson Mackenzie better. As Gilly struggled to balance the stack of paperwork wobbling on top of the box in his arms, Renfield put his hand on Dawson's shoulder and began escorting the hare off down the hall. Gilly watched them go.
"Just put the files we were carrying down here in storage, then stick the ones Mackenzie had on my desk for me," Renfield said over his shoulder. "I owe you one, buddy. Just remember to lock up again after you're done, okay?"
Renfield and Dawson took the stares, Renfield's heart thudding rapidly in his chest. Dawson was in the lead and Renfield coming up behind him couldn't help but stare at the hare's butt in his tight dress slacks. He again wondered what it was about Dawson that made him, a toad, find him so attractive, and whether or not Dawson was even gay.
"So, where do you want to eat?" Dawson asked.
"No, no food," said Renfield with a chuckle. "This may sound a little weird, but I usually eat alone."
"Sensitive stomach?" Dawson asked.
Renfield nodded and lied, "Eating by myself aids my digestion." He gave his stomach a slap for emphasis.
Dawson laughed. "All right, then, a drink, then. How about this great place I know, called the Briar Patch?"
Renfield almost fell backwards in surprise, gripping the handrail. The Briar Patch was one of the hottest gay night spots on all of Genus. It seemed his hope had paid off, and that Dawson was indeed gay, or at least bisexual. This meant there was a chance for something more than friendship to exist between them, after all.
Even as he grinned crookedly and tried to manage a reply, Dawson, who seemed to sense Renfield's answer intuitively, seized him by the arm and dragged him along with him.
The Briar Patch was, rather surprisingly, in a quite upscale district of Genus' largest city, only a four minute drive from U.A.C. Headquarters. This surprised Renfield. The Toad Homeworld had a gay subculture, but it was buried and not practiced openly the way the mammals here on Genus did.
The interior of the Briar Patch was a swirling, neon nightmare that made Renfield dizzy, as numerous male mammals from all walks of life swayed trancelike to throbbing music on a multicolored dance floor, bathed in spinning strobe lights. Others stood around, talking, sharing drinks, watching scantily-clad male dancers wearing next to nothing gyrating on floor-to-ceiling metal poles.
Upon entering, Renfield had made it plain to his friend that he was intimated by the festive nature and open celebreating of homosexuality of the club, and so, as opposed to venturing out onto the dance floor, the pair had elected to remain over by the neon-ringed bar. Dawson ordered drinks for them.
"Two zombies," he said to the bartender. Renfield, who thought a zombie was an undead walking corpse, blinked his gray eyes at Dawson questioningly. Dawson chuckled and reassured him, "It's a drink. You'll like it."
The bartender, a large bulge wearing a mesh muscle shirt and tight leather shorts which made Renfield blush and need to loosen his shirt collar a little, returned after a moment with two tall glasses filled with a glowing blue liquid. Dawson immediately and without thought began to guzzle his. Renfield frowned and inspected his own. He wasn't terribly keen on putting some such a bright shade of blue into himself, but then shrugged and took a sip. He gagged.
"Agh," he cried, coughing.
"What's wrong?" asked Dawson worriedly. "Does it taste bad?"
Renfield shook his head. "No, no, it's really good. Just very strong!"
Dawson laughed and patted Renfield on the back as Renfield shrugged and swallowed the rest of the "zombie" in a few large, chugging gulps, Dawson rubbing his back gently as he did so. As he overcame the rush of guzzling the entire thing so quickly and set the empty glass down, he noticed that the brown hare was gazing at him with lidded eyes.
"Y'know, I still don't know know that much about you," he said. He set his own half-finished zombie aside and leaned against the counter, placing his hand on Renfield's.
Renfield licked his lips nervously. All this was covered, of course. The toads had thought up a fairly consistent, but suitably vague, background for his identity after he had been sent to Warren to begin his undercover mission. That story included the fact all his friends and relatives were killed in the destruction of his hometown when the toads took over Warren the first time.
But Renfield didn't want to lie to Dawson like that. He decided it would be best, for the time being, to give him something that part of the truth and part of the lie.
"Well, if you really must know, I come from a fairly large family."
"Big surprise there!" Dawson said with a chuckle.
Renfield mentally kicked himself, having momentarily forgotten that hares tended to have large amounts of children. Like toads, he realized with some irony. They weren't as different as either species liked to pretend. Thinking about this fact made Renfield realize that he, or, at least, Zaysen, had never really known his parents. He'd seen them a lot growing up, of course, but as he'd reached adulthood, his contact with them eventually tapered off. He hadn't seen his mother since he left home, and had seen his father exactly three times since then, and they'd only had anything nice to say to one another on one of those occasions.
"I never really got to know my parents," said Renfield morosely. "I was one of, well, a lot of children, so I never really garnered much of their attention to begin with. My, uh, chosen walk of life didn't help."
He wasn't sure if he meant his sexuality or his choice to become an actor. Both had made his father angry. Despite their over-reliance on Toad TV, toad parents in today's toad culture all wanted their children to grow up to become heroic Storm Toads. His dad was very disappointed when told he didn't want to be a Storm Toad. The one nice thing his father had ever said to him had been when he learned Zaysen was going to become a spy for the Empire and finally, as his father put it, be of some use to Komplex.
And as for being gay, well, in a society that valued reproduction above any real love or familial connections, the decision to pursue a course that wouldn't result in any tadpoles was something Zaysen's father refused to accept. Whether his mother shared either sentiment, he couldn't say. He frowned and stared into his empty glass.
"Don't worry," said Dawson, his voice overflowing with sympathy for his co-worker. "My parents didn't really approve of where my lifestyle was headed, either, so I totally know where you're coming from. But who cares?"
He smiled and finished the rest of his zombie, then ordered them a second round of drinks, which the hunky bartender brought over and set down. Dawson sipped his but Renfield left his untouched, his empty one still in hand.
"We're here together and that's all that matters right now," Dawson added.
Beside him, Dawson's hand left Renfield's and slid up his arm to stroke it. Renfield looked at him, his dull gray eyes meeting Dawson's vibrant blue ones. It seemed that they'd just taken their next step towards becoming more than simply friends, something which both excited and terrified Renfield.
"Fortunately," Dawson continued, "that attitude isn't common here on Genus. This place is proof of that."
"Well," Renfield said, setting the empty glass aside but still not picking up his full one. He'd had enough to drink for one afternoon. "The problem wasn't so much being gay itself, really. My father just hated the fact I'd never have a whole batch of kids to add to the, uh, hare workforce."
Dawson eyed him. "Workforce" was an unusual choice, Renfield realized, and was scared by how close he'd come to saying "toad workforce." He was clumsy when he was in love. He was going to have to choose his words a little more carefully from now on. Fortunately, Dawson seemed to let the odd word choice pass and so he continued.
"That's why I was sent to Genus," he said, irritated. "I never wanted to come here in the first place. I would've rather stayed home."
"Well, all the same, I'm glad you did come," Dawson said, "because it means I got to meet you."
Renfield managed a small smile, and then noticed the brown hare was leaning towards him. At first he reflexively leaned back, which made Dawson blink and start to draw back, looking hurt, but then Renfield got the idea and his small smile became a big one, and a moment later his lips were against Dawson's. They kissed softly for a few seconds before their private little moment was interrupted. One of the dancers, a lion, sashayed across the bartop to the catcalls and hollers of the clubgoers, and one of his feet knocked over Renfield's untouched drink, startling him and Dawson out of their kiss.
Renfield was initially furious, but calmed after seeing how apologetic the dancer was. "Whoops!" he cried. "Uh, sorry about that!"
"No worries, dude," Dawson reassured him, speaking for both himself and Renfield. "We were just on our way out."
Crud, the time! Renfield looked over at a clock over on the wall and saw that they were quite a bit late coming back from lunch. Indeed, it was time they left. He did the courtesy of paying for their drinks, then watched as the more outgoing and adventurous Dawson further reassured the lion who'd knocked their drinks over by taking out a simolean and beckoning him over, and then slipping the coin down the front of his skimpy neon underwear.
"Thanks!" the lion said, and then swayed off on his way.
After that, Renfield and Dawson exited the noisy club. On the way out, Renfield saw a very familiar-looking derelict hare named Jimmy elsewhere in the club. Jimmy was a young hare who'd done "favors" for the starved Renfield in the past. For the moment, he ignored him.
Dawson slipped his arm around Renfield's and laid his head against the green hare's shoulder. It was a very bold move, but Renfield didn't mind. He needed this. Needed Dawson. Needed emotional comfort to suppress the conflicting loyalties raging inside him. Outside, the two shared a hug, with Renfield clutching Dawson a little too tightly, he realized, but Dawson made no complaint. Finally, Renfield let go and pulled away.
"Sorry," said Renfield. "It's just..." He trailed off. "I had a really great time. I've been somewhat depressed lately, and this little outing... well, you, really, more than anything, really cheered me up."
Dawson smirked and stood with his hands on his hips. "Glad to be a positive influence on someone's life." Turning, he started off down the sidewalk, away from the Briar Patch. "Come on, let's go. We're already late and we should get back before Morgenstern sends out a search party after me."
Jay Morgenstern was the head of the U.A.C.'s file and record department and consequently Dawson's boss. He had a reputation as being a bit of a taskmaster who didn't tolerate laziness, and Renfield hoped, as he trotted off to catch up to Dawson, that Morgenstern wouldn't mind too much that his employee was a bit late.
Returning to U.A.C. Headquarters, Renfield and Dawson went their separate ways after a brief kiss and exchange of mutual sweet-nothings in the lobby, which earned them a few looks. The latter went back to the file and record department before Morgenstern had a coniption, and the former returned to his own office. On the way, he passed Gilly Stephenson and another co-worker, a female hare named Vernita Lapis, discussing something.
"Is it really necessary?" he heard Vernita say.
"Chairman's orders," Gilly responded, and then looked at Renfield. "Oh, Ren, you ought to hear this!"
Stopping, Renfield said, "What is it?"
"Warner's ordered mandatory blood tests for all UAC employees," the gopher said. "No ifs, ands or buts." He snorted derisively. "I guess he wants to make sure we aren't all toads."
Renfield felt cold terror sweep over him. Blood tests? He remembered the capture and execution of Drollard. He swallowed, making an audible gulping sound which attracted the attention of his two co-workers. They stared at him worriedly.
"Are you all right?" asked Vernita, concerned. She gingerly placed her hand on his arm.
"I'm fine," Renfield replied dimly.
But he was anything but fine. He was sweating. He glanced down at the female hare's hand and stared at it, and then up at Vernita herself. Warm sympathy flowed from her face. Then his gazed shifted to Gilly, who was glaring at him in a way Renfield was having difficulty figuring out. He seemed to read accusation in the gopher's eyes.
"Too many drinks at the Briar Patch," Gilly said. But his voice was monotone, as if he didn't really believe this was the reason for the green hare's sudden queasiness. "That's all."
"The Briar Patch?" Vernita said, and took her hand off of Renfield's arm. She looked embarassed. Somewhere in his terror-adled mind, Renfield figured she'd had a crush on him and was disappointed to learn he'd gone to a nearby gay club.
"Yeah," said Gilly. "Him and Dawson Mackenzie from file and records." He smirked a little bit as he noticed Vernita's disappointment, but it faded quickly. Changing the subject, he added, "Look, none of us have anything to worry about. We're all mammals. So Chairman Warner thinks there's a second toad spy out ther disguised as a mammal. So what? It's not like it's any of us, right, Renfield?"
He fixed his gaze on Renfield again and Renfield felt himself wither under that intense look. He knew!
Clearing his throat and straightening himself up to stand straighter, determined to save face before that accusing stare, Renfield said, "Right, absolutely. But it's the principle of the thing! We've all been loyal U.A.C. employees for years!"
"It's insulting!" insisted Vernita, crossing her arms and looking indignant. "To think anyone would think I was a toad in disguise! Disgusting!"
"When?" Renfield asked, turning to Gilly. He needed to know when the tests were to be conducted, so he could plan ahead. For what, exactly, he wasn't certain.
"Huh?" the gopher said, seemingly caught off guard.
"The blood tests. When are they?"
"Oh!" said Gilly. "Uh, tomorrow. We're all supposed to go to the nurse's station and give blood. The entire building, too! Every single employee!"
Renfield sighed, pretending to look insulted and exasperated as he ran his fingers through his hair. "Anyway, you're right, Stephenson," he said, speaking quickly, eager to get away from them, "I guess I had a little too much to drink at the club. I need to, uh, go and take a load off. I'm sure I'll feel better soon. Seeya."
Without waiting for a reply, he turned and continued off down the hall as fast as he could without actually running. He heard them continue talking over his shoulder. About him.
"The Briar Patch?" he heard Vernita ask again. She sounded surprised. "I had no idea Renfield was gay!"
"I noticed it the first time he and Dawson set eyes on each other," he heard Gilly say.
As he got to his office door, their voices faded away. Grabbing his ID card off his lapel, he ran it through the card reader and flung the door open even as the device beeped its acknowledgement of Renfield's access. Quickly, he slammed it and leaned against it, breathing hard, sweating. His good mood from his trip to the Briar Patch with Dawson was gone now.
Just as he'd feared, Fritz was on to him. Why else would he order these blood tests? And even if Fritz didn't know, then the tests would still allow him to narrow the list of suspects down. Renfield admittedly was ignorant of his own current body chemistry. He'd never cut himself so he wasn't sure whether or not his blood was still green. He didn't know how much toad remained just beneath the surface. But if he still needed to consume insects to nourish himself the way an ordinary toad did, there was enough left for a doctor to deduce his true species from something as simple as a blood test.
Pushing away from the door he walked over to his desk. He could feel the walls closing in on him. He was trapped. His options were becoming increasingly limited. What was he to do? Come forward and hope his cooperation would buy him a reprieve from sharing Drollard's fate? Or perhaps finally start answering his communicator and reconnect with Krug? With his hope of leaving his old life as Zaysen behind, should he resume helping his fellow toads? He palmed his face, uncertain of just who his friends were. Or his enemies.