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Set Me Free!
To my surprise, I was thoroughly rested when I woke up the next morning. The sun was shining in through the window, and I stretched happily, yawning as I reached for my alarm clock. It showed half past nine, and I sat up with a yelp. That was far longer than I normally slept, and I knew that I was in for sour looks from Ten. She was used to having her morning walk at seven-thirty, at the latest. I began wondering why she hadn't woken me up, when the world began creeping in, awakening one sense at a time. I felt that the bed was empty, except for me, and I couldn't see Ten anywhere. For a couple of seconds, I felt very alone; a feeling I'd never really had before. Then I heard noise from the kitchen, and I could smell frying bacon. Smiling to myself, I slipped into my casual clothes and left the bedroom. Florian had really busied himself; there were slices of toast, crispbread, orange juice and coffee. He turned towards me, smiling as he filled up two plates with bacon and... omelet! Clearly, he'd been up for a while."Good morning, Scott. Sit down, breakfast is just about ready. Just the finishing touch." "Thanks, Florian. Wow, you've really kept busy." He giggled, and started frying tomatoes. "But I need to take Ten for her walk. She's not very happy when I oversleep." "Don't worry, I took her to the park." He noticed my look of surprise, and lowered his gaze. "I hope you don't mind..." "Not at all, I just hadn't expected it." "We tossed a little frisbee, and she found a frog." He laughed. "She didn't know what to make of it." "No, she's a little daft sometimes." He put the tomatoes on our plates, turned off the stove and sat down to eat. "How long've you been up?" "Since seven. I couldn't sleep. You slept so sweetly, I decided to turn off your alarm." "Well, it sure was nice, sleeping in. Mmm, Florian, this omelet is heavenly!" "Thanks. I found some eggs with a short date, and I thought I could use them." "Do you cook a lot?" I tried some of the bacon, and it was just as crispy as I liked it. "This is great, too." "I usually do the cooking back home. I mean, I used to do." He looked down, blushing and smiling from the compliment while the rest of his face turned sad. It was a sight that made my heart ache, that made me want to make everything all right for him. That made me want to make him happy again. Eventually, the smile won, and he looked up from the table. "Dad taught me, and I really love it. Sometimes, he used to help me, but mostly he let me do it on my own." "Well, it's the best breakfast I've had since I moved away from home. Nothing ever really beats the food you had when you were little, but you come in close second." "Thanks, Scott, it means a lot to me, to hear that. I want to be nice to you, since you're so nice to me." "You don't really have to, but it's much appreciated." We kept on talking while we finished breakfast, then I insisted on loading the dishwasher. Florian sat at the table, watching me work while he scratched Ten's ears. There was a fidgety look on his face, like he wasn't sure what to do. It seemed like he had something on his mind, but wasn't sure whether or not he should say it. I decided to wait him out, and after starting the dishwasher, I brought out the popcorn machine. "You go into the living room and pick us a movie. Saturday is my slacking day, and I'm not going back on that." He trotted off, still deep in thought, and I opened a bag of chips, fixing us some dip while the machine spat its fluffy goodies. Florian came back into the kitchen with a small stack of DVD's, making huge eyes as he saw what I was stocking up. Before he could begin to object, I shoved the chips bowl and the dip to him. "Do you like butter and salt on your popcorn?" "Yes, but..." "Beer or cola?" "Erh... I'll have what you're having." "Cola, then. Did you find anything to watch?" "Yeah, but I didn't know what you've been watching, so I picked a few to choose from. But Scott..." "No buts, Florian. Today is movie day, and if you try to make me do something else before lunch, I might have to hurt you." I picked up the popcorn bowl, two glasses and a large bottle of soda, trying my best not to drop anything. "Come on, let's see what movies you picked out." "All right, but I still think this is all too much." "Well, by lunchtime, it had better all be gone. Which means I'll need your help." "Heh. Okay, I'll try my best." "So, what are we watching?" "I really don't feel like action movies and such." He put the bowl and the movies down on the coffee table, then sat down on the couch. "I mean, they can be fun, but right now I don't feel like watching people die. I've had enough of death." "I understand." I looked at the ones he had selected, a couple of cartoons and some comedies. I held up a cartoon version of Midsummer Night's Dream, that I hadn't seen yet. "How about this one?" "Great! Erh... Scott?" "Yes?" I had got up to start the movie, and as I turned to see what was wrong, I had to stifle a bout of laughter. "Just ignore her, she knows she can't sleep on the couch." "It's not easy. She's got very piercing eyes." Ten was sitting on the floor next to Florian, her head tilted and with a longing gaze begging him to make room for her. "Daddy said no, Ten." "That's right, girl. Go lie in your corner." Her head fell, and she strolled off, sighing deeply as she laid down in her usual place. "She'll try to make you feel guilty, don't let it get to you." "That's not very easy." "Here, have some popcorn." "Thanks." The movie started, and we settled down to watch it, eating and drinking and laughing, and generally having a good time. It was half past twelve when the movie ended, and we actually did manage to clear out the bowls. I suggested we eat out, and Florian agreed, as long as he was allowed to pay for himself. We spent the afternoon downtown, and I gave him a good tour of the place. There wasn't really much to see, but his interest seemed genuine enough. "Maybe I'll move here, if I can get a job." "That shouldn't be too difficult. Have you got any degree?" "No, I never went to college." "Why not?" I gave him a puzzled look, and he shied away from it. "You're smart enough, and your father seemed like a wealthy man." "Yeah, he was. But he worked a lot, and I... I wanted to take care of the house, so he let me. I don't know what kind of job I could get." "Well, you could try working in a store or something. It'll work out, Florian." "I hope so. I'll probably need a job before I can get my own apartment." "Yes, that's the routine, usually." We were walking down the main street, idly window-shopping. "You're welcome to stay with me until you find something, Florian. There's no need to jump to the first offer you get. Take your time, I don't mind." "Thanks, but I guess I should manage on my own. It's just so... difficult... to imagine a life all alone. Dad was always there for me. Even when he was at work I could always call him, and talk for a while." He wasn't crying, but tears were rolling down his cheek. "I miss him so much." "Of course you do. Believe me, you won't stop missing him, but the pain will let up in time." I pulled him closer to me, laying my arm across his shoulders as we walked, ignoring the occasional odd look from people we met. "I promise you, the pain will fade." "I hope so," he whispered, "or my heart will fade."
We spent the rest of that day at home. Florian wasn't in a mood to do something, so we mostly sat on the couch, talking. I wanted to be there, to be someone he could lean on, borrow strength from, and he couldn't tell me enough how much he appreciated it. He kept talking about his father, and the things they had done together, occasionally crying a little, but mostly getting loads of pressure off his chest. Still, it seemed to me that he was withholding something. He didn't mention their sexual relationship, and I hesitated to ask. There was more to that, things that he didn't seem to want to talk about. I found myself telling him about my own childhood, about my brothers and sisters, and how it was to grow up in a house that was always crowded with kids. We were ten children, six girls and four boys, but with buddies, boyfriends and girlfriends there were never less than fifteen people in the house at all times, except for the occasional picnic. Florian listened almost reverently, asking questions every now and then, and before we knew it, it was getting dark outside. Ten walked up to me and stated her demands, and with a laugh Florian got up, pulling me to my feet and handing me my jacket. The park was empty that night, except for some stray cats or other animals scuttling about in the dark. Like the night before, Ten kept to Florian's side, guarding him like a hawk. I was just about to say something about that, when he spoke up, breaking the near-silence of the night."Sometimes I used to wish I had a brother or a sister. Someone to really play with. I had a couple of friends at school, and sometimes they spent the night. But I wanted something more, someone who would be there all the time, who would be like a special friend to me. Does it sound silly?" "No, not at all. I used to wish the exact same thing." He looked at me quizzically. "Let me tell you something I've never told anybody. I don't really know my siblings. I mean, really know them." "What do you mean? You grew up together." "Yes, but we were so many. We used to take every chance to be away from each other, to spend the night with friends, before we drove each other nuts. Personal space and privacy was a treasured luxury, which meant that we never really tried to get to know each other. There was never time to sit down and talk, to just spend time together. Maybe that's why I haven't married. I enjoy peace and quiet. Ten is all right, she doesn't crowd me, and she's usually very quiet. However..." I let my voice trail away, while I glanced over at Florian. He had a look of fear in his eyes. "Now that you're staying with me it feels different, in a way. I realise that, somehow, I miss them all. I really enjoy your company, Florian." "Wow. Thanks." He smiled at me, his first genuinely happy smile since breakfast. "I never thought of it like that. I was happy with dad, don't think anything else, it's just... I always wondered what it would've been like to have a brother. Someone to share all the games with. Dad was great, but he wasn't much for playing like a kid." "How did he play, then?" "Erf!" He blushed a deep crimson, his bright face fur almost glowing from the red skin beneath. "I'm not sure you really want to know. It's kind of private." "Oh. Sorry if I'm intruding..." "No, not at all." He grinned, still blushing. "But some people aren't very... tolerant." "You could try me, if you want to. I already know you and your father were lovers, and I'm sure you can tell I don't mind. Besides, remember Jeff? The guy I spoke to on the radio?" He nodded. "He's openly gay, he even flirts with me now and then. Besides that, he's one of my very best friends. I promise you that I'll stay cool." "It's easy to say, Scott, harder to do. I have to go back to the house next week, maybe I'll show you then. It's easier to show than to explain." Back at the apartment, I gave Ten her supper, then we got ready for the night. Florian volunteered to change the sheets, while I took my shower. The hot water made me realise that I was dead tired. It wasn't like me; normally, I never go to bed before midnight, and I'm still up with the sun, but tonight I just couldn't stop yawning. I washed up quickly, dried myself off and brushed my teeth. Florian was waiting in the hall, petting Ten as I walked out of the bathroom, gesturing to him that it was all his. He smiled at me and went inside, and I took over his current `duties', telling my dog, for the thousandth time at the very least, how much I loved her. I dropped the towel, making a mental note to do the laundry tomorrow, then sat down on the bed to groom my tail. It had been a while, so the brush would occasionally get stuck on a tangled knot. Just as I was all but finished, Florian came in, freezing on the spot, his mouth stuck open. I realised that I was sitting on the bed, stark naked, and that he, too, was naked. For a couple of long, stretched-out seconds, we stared at each other, both blushing slightly as we started mumbling apologies. As we noticed the other's discomfort, we laughed, the tension vanishing like it had never been there. "Guess we had better get used to this," I muttered, still grinning. "Old habits die hard." "They sure do," he replied, giggling as he hurried over to his side of the bed. "Are you sure you don't mind...?" "Not at all. Just try not to get embarrassed." "All right. I will if you do, too." "Deal." I laid down and pulled the quilt up, then reached over to turn out the light. We wished each other good night, laughing a little as Ten leapt up to claim her place at our feet. Florian thanked me once again for letting him stay with me, and for sharing my bed with him, and I once more told him to think nothing of it. I lay awake as he drifted off to sleep, and I thought back to what had just happened, when we had caught each other naked. The sight of his lean body had made an impression on me, etching its way into my eyes so that I didn't see anything else when I closed them. I had let my gaze follow him as he hurried in beneath the quilt, and at the last moment, I had seen a hint of pink at the top of his off-white sheath. So he had enjoyed seeing me naked. The thought didn't really bother me; after all, I had been naked with lots of guys in locker rooms here and there, even with Jeff, who constantly drooled over me, but I had never felt so self-conscious as now. Nor had I ever let the sight of another naked male get to me like this. Florian was really beautiful, no doubt about that. There was something pure, something innocent about the way he could be both shy and unabashed at the same time. Something about the way he seemed so totally experienced, yet so genuinely naive. Something that made me react more than pity would have. But not even this thought really bothered me. I enjoyed his company, and would be happy to see him stay longer than these few days. It was friendship, but it was also more. It was a tinge of feeling protective, but it went beyond even that. It was as if something was happening inside me, something that was tearing down the wall of privacy I had built around myself, letting Florian enter as he wished. As if something was changing, as if I found out things about myself that I hadn't known, or allowed myself to know, before. And that thought did disturb me.
That night, too, Florian woke up crying after a nightmare. He wouldn't tell me what he had been dreaming, but he willingly let me hold him, soothing as best I could. It took a while before he calmed down enough to go back to sleep, but as he drowsed away, I found myself wide awake. I continued to hold him while he slept, surprised at how right it felt. How... comfortable. Maybe Ten wasn't the only one who was getting too attached to our guest. The thought nearly made me laugh, but as I fought it back, I realised that I was telling myself the truth. I really was getting attached to Florian. As the threatening laughter died down, I watched him as he slept, seemingly at total peace with the world. I stroked his hair, and in response, he shuffled closer to me, nuzzling my shoulder before he settled down again. The touch made me feel warm inside. What the hell was happening to me? The first thought that entered my mind was paternal instinct, but it didn't seem right. I tried mouthing the word `love', and felt a shiver run down my spine. I sighed, unable to keep myself from grinning wryly. If Jeff ever found out I was falling for a guy, he would go told-you-so until I'd be forced to shoot him in self-defence. And what about Florian? How would he react if he found out how I was beginning to feel? The warmth inside me turned into a jittery insecurity. I knew he found me attractive, by the way he had kept stealing glances last night, and the way he had reacted. But was there anything deeper? He had lost his father and lover, how could I expect him to feel anything for me so soon? I decided to keep it to myself. To avoid hurting him any more than he was already hurt. Confusion reigned supreme inside my skull, when I finally managed to close my eyes long enough to go back to sleep. The last thing I heard was Florian muttering something in his sleep, as he pulled us closer together.
Sunday morning was grey and rainy, and I once more woke up in an empty bed. Stretching and yawning, I saw that it was just after half past seven. The apartment was totally devoid of life as I made my way to the bathroom, so I guess my pet and my guest were playing in the park again. The hot water brought me back to life, and I thought back to my reflections from the night. Was that just the ramblings of a tired mind? Back then, in the moonlight, and in the warm embrace, it had seemed perfect, but now, in daylight, I felt that I had been over-reacting. Was I really falling for the young wolf? I didn't know, and decided to give it time. As I stepped out of the shower and started towelling myself, I heard the front door open, a sound followed by Ten's happy barks and Florian's clear voice. Once I was done, I slipped into my casuals, and joined the two of them in the living room, watching the morning news. They both greeted me good morning, each in his or her own way, and we spent some time in front of the TV. It wasn't long, though, before Florian started to get fidgety, twiddling his thumbs and constantly shifting his legs. In the end, he got up, hurriedly making his way towards the kitchen."I'll make us some breakfast." "Wait a minute, Florian," I said, following him. "You're my guest, you shouldn't do all the cooking." "You're so nice to me, I'd like to do something in return." "But there's no need for you to pay me back." "Scott, please let me!" He took my hands, looking up until our eyes met. There was a need in those large, green eyes, almost a longing. "I'm so used to doing stuff. Sitting still like that makes me jittery." "I could tell." We grinned at each other. "All right, but let me help you." "Okay..." He sighed. "If you set the table, I'll get that omelet started. I saw you have more bacon in the freezer." "Florian, you're going to make me fat," I said, laughing. "I'm used to a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee." "Well, that's a poor diet. From now on, I'll keep you well fed." "Sounds like you're moving in," I quipped. He blushed a deep crimson. "Oh no, I... I didn't mean... It wasn't..." He almost dropped the frying pan. "I... I said I'll start looking for something tomorrow morning, and I will. I just..." "Don't fret, Florian." I took the pan from him, putting it on the stove. "I said you were welcome to stay, and I mean it. If cooking helps you feel better, you're welcome to it." "Th-thanks, Scott. I'm just... Promise me you won't let me intrude on you! I couldn't bear that." "You're not intruding! I've got two home-cooked breakfasts, and Ten gets free walkies. Plus, you're very nice company. You're not intruding, Florian, I like having you as a guest." "Thanks, Scott. That's... that's good to hear." "One thing though," I said, making my voice a little bit stern. He perked his ears. "Household rule. Stop thanking me all the time." "Okay. Sorry if I'm being..." "Rule two," I interrupted. "Stop apologising all the time" "I'm so..." He looked down, blushing, then caught himself. Our eyes met again, and he couldn't suppress a giggle. "Thanks for setting up the rules. I'm sorry I broke them right away." I made a grab for him, but he leapt out of the way, giggling furiously. Once more, he seemed so much younger than his years. But a challenge is a challenge, and I chased him into the living room, where I caught up with him, grabbing him around the waist. The slender wolf seemed to weigh next to nothing as I carried him back into the kitchen. Ten bounced around my feet, barking happily at this new game while Florian squealed and squirmed, trying to break my grip. But cops have good arms, and I carried him with me to the fridge, then proceeded to pour orange juice down the back of his neck. He screamed, and when I let him go he was shivering all over from the sudden chill. Ripping off his shirt, he ran his hand down his back, coming away all yellow. "Aww, now I have to take another shower," he whined. "And my clothes got dirty." "Just put them in the laundry basket after you've changed, and I'll get them washed." I ushered him out of the kitchen. "Go on, orange-boy, get your shower. Breakfast will be ready when you get out." "And I thought you were nice," he pouted, but I could see a hint of a smile on his muzzle. "I take back all the nice things I said." "Sorry if I was mean," I said, grinning widely. "Thanks for the entertainment, though." "You just broke both your rules! You're so funny, Scott!" Suddenly, he was doubling over in a fit of laughter, and I couldn't help but join in. We both sank to the floor, getting very puzzled looks from my poor dog. "Whew, It's been a while since I laughed that much."
After breakfast, we took Ten with us for another walk. It was just after nine, and the park was beginning to fill up with people. By lunchtime, it would be almost crowded by picnickers, strollers, playing children, barking dogs and couples walking slowly arm-in-arm. The park was one of my favourite places in Treasure Chest, and now in the late summer it was nothing short of beautiful. Florian had brought one of Ten's tennis balls, and we played a little with her running between us as we tossed the ball back and forth. Every now and then, one of us would let her catch it, and then we'd have to chase her, to take it back. We all had a lot of fun, and we spent almost all morning there, before I took Ten back home and went to show Florian the local mall. It's not much to see, really, but most of the stores are open on Sundays, so we spent a couple of hours window-shopping, then had a light lunch at a burger bar before we went back home. Time seemed to just slip away that day, and before I knew it, we had watched another couple of movies and it was dark outside. Florian seemed to notice it, too, as he leaned back on the couch, sighing with content."This day passed quickly." "Yes." I turned off the TV, and got up to put the DVD away. "It's true what they say, you know, time does fly when you're having fun." "Well, whoever they were, they knew what they were talking about. I've had a good weekend, Scott, much better than if you hadn't taken me in." He stared out of the living room window. "I'd better watch it, or I'll start thanking you all over again." "Well, don't, or I'll give you more orange juice. So, have you thought anything about tomorrow?" "A lot." Again, he seemed to turn jittery. "I need to call dad's lawyer, I think I'll do that first of all. Then I'll go down to the employment office and see what I can find. Guess I should call an undertaker, too. And I should start looking for a place to live, too." "Whoa, slow down!" I got behind the couch, placing my hands on his shoulders. "One step at a time, or you'll get yourself ulcers. I agree that you should call the lawyer and the undertaker, but the rest is no hurry." "Scott, the more I stall, the harder it'll get! I'm so used to dad handling everything." He sighed, nervously running a hand through his hair. "I admit it, I'm scared, but if I let it build I'll never get over it." I muttered assent, although I was beginning to worry that he might overexert himself. The conversation seemed to die, so we simply left the room. I went to take Ten for her good-night walk, while Florian made himself ready for bed. I was a bit disappointed that he didn't join us, but at the same time, it gave me an opportunity to gather my thoughts. The cool night air chased away my tiredness, and while Ten sulked for not having her new playmate with her, my mind split up into two different wings, debating furiously with each other. On one hand, I wanted to encourage Florian, help him to take the first, difficult steps towards independence. I would be here for him for a while, then he would move on and be his own man. Surely we could still remain friends, especially if he did like he said, and stayed here in Treasure Chest? Another part of me wanted to run back home, take him into my arms and ask him to stay with me. Together we could work things out. He could get a job here in town, and live with me. Money was not an issue. I hadn't told him, but what I inherited from my parents, along with the money from their life insurances and the damage claims from the rail company practically made me independent for life. Besides, Florian would get plenty of money once he sold the house; it would be worth at least a couple of hundred thousand. He could even get into college, if he wanted to. But I knew it wasn't likely that he would take me up on such an offer. He was proud, and would not accept charity. All right, so how about love? Would he accept that? Most important of all, was I really in love with him? I had never felt attracted to another male before; it was a totally new feeling for me. Part of me wanted to reject the thought as ridiculous, but then again, it was there for a reason. I did feel strongly for him, and if it wasn't love, what was it? Pity? Infatuation? Racked with indecision, I looked up to find that I was back home again, my feet having carried me around the usual walk without me really noticing it. I went back inside, gave Ten her supper, and then took a quick shower. Florian was already asleep when I walked into the bedroom, so I just slipped in beneath the quilt, reminding myself one more time to do the laundry in the morning. In the moonlight, I watched Florian's chest rise and fall with every slow breath. He was lying on his back, with the quilt pulled up to just above his navel, and I admired his bright-furred chest and his slender, handsome face. His mouth was half open, and he looked so calm, so peaceful as he slept. Without really meaning to, I brushed a stray tuft of hair out of his eyes, and he smiled slightly at the touch. He was so beautiful, and the part of me that tried to deny the feelings that were stirring inside me lost a bit more way. I tried to form the thought in my mind. I love you, Florian. I really do love you. But somehow, I just couldn't. Not yet. Not while he still hadn't decided what he wanted to do. Sighing with frustration at my own wavering, I closed my eyes, and before I knew it, I was asleep.