This is a furry story, set in a world where animals live pretty much as humans do in our world.
It's a story that deals with the love of two boys, a wolf and a fox, both longing for a life together.
If you find the theme offensive, then please back away now. Otherwise, enjoy!
Any thoughts or comments are most welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org
For more of my stories click here.
Seven White Flowers
The wide stone halls of the Alexander Mansion echoed with boyish giggles as two pairs of furry feet came dashing towards the marble staircase. Tom reached it first, his bare footpads skidding to a halt while he caught his breath.
"Beat ya," he panted. "Beat ya again."
"No fair!" called Jonathan as he slowed down and walked the last few paces to join his friend. "You called 'race' while I was still getting dressed!"
"No, it doesn't!"
The two were soon little more than a brawling pile of greyish-white and reddish-brown fur, rolling around dangerously close to the top step while trying to decide by pin-down who was right. In the end Tom's larger size won him out, and the snarl on Jonathan's muzzle was replaced with a foxish grin. Tom knew that there was just no way he could stay mad for long. He returned the grin, then helped Jonathan to his feet. Their palms met in a loud high-five slap, then they patted downstairs for breakfast. The other members of the Alexander family had yet to turn up, except for old granma Rosalyn, whose half-long hair and unkempt cheek fur was now mostly white. She looked at the two boys through her thick glasses and smiled.
"Good morning, m'dears." The voice was still clear and steady, and surprisingly low to come from such a tiny old woman. "You two look happy today."
"I jus' beat Jon'than at 'race'," Tom beamed, struggling to keep his words loud yet clear. "He wasn't too mad, either."
"No, but you did cheat."
"Now, boys, no fighting in the dining room!" They both snapped to attention and ceased their bickering. Granma Rosalyn was not to be disobeyed, everybody knew that. "I say Tomas is right. He won fair and square. And if he did trick you, Jonathan, it serves you right."
The boys sat down on granma Rosalyn's left side, in their usual seats, and helped themselves to pancakes with blueberry jam. They didn't talk much, for which Tom was quite happy. Everybody knew that the young wolf had a hard time getting the words he knew so well inside his head to sound right on his tongue, and unlike some of Jonathan's many siblings granma Rosalyn was always kind enough not to press him to speak, or to make fun of him when the words came out wrong. He took the time to look around while Jonathan and his grandmother made some polite conversation about yesterday's fun and today's chores. His own family was pretty well off, too, but they had nothing like the Alexander Mansion. Tom especially liked this room. The walls were lined with portraits, some hundreds and hundreds of years old, of serious-looking foxes. The line of Alexanders who had lived and died as rulers of this magnificent estate. Tom ticked them off, one by one. He still remembered each name and what year they had died, even though it had been two years since granma Rosalyn had talked him and Jonathan through the family history, and then they had been only six. But because he couldn't even pronounce the name 'Alexander' without getting it wrong most people around him thought that he was slow and stupid. Not Jonathan, though. He let his eyes wander over the glass door cabinets with their ancient, priceless china and glassware, past the rich flower decorations on the sturdy oak table that was large enough to easily seat thirty people, to come to rest on his friend. Jonathan was two weeks younger than him, and quite a bit smaller. They had been best friends since before they could walk on hind legs, and because their families lived next door neighbours they had barely ever been apart, sleeping and eating wherever they happened to be at the moment.
It had been Jonathan who had talked everyone into letting Tom join him in going to school, rather than being sent off to receive 'special' education. With some help, Tom suspected but had never wanted to ask, from the current head of the Alexander family, granma Rosalyn. It was also Jonathan who had persuaded his mother to let Tom stay with him while he was educated in the Alexander family history and traditions, something that again got granma Rosalyn's full support. He had a feeling that she knew just how much he had learned during the last two years, although he was sure that she had no idea just how he wanted to use that knowledge some day.
Just then he was interrupted in his thoughts when Jonathan turned around and caught him staring. The fox boy smiled, then used his napkin to wipe some jam off Tom's chin. The gesture was a simple one, but it made Tom's heart flutter. Jonathan was so kind to him. Had always been. A moment later, the fleeting touch was over, but Tom thought he could still feel the thin silky cloth against his face fur. Jonathan had turned to greet two of his sisters, Jenna and Jolena, and after a quick greeting of his own Tom was soon back to looking quietly at his friend while they ate.
Jonathan had a lean and very pretty muzzle, he thought. Thin lips and a black button nose with large green eyes above. His hair, like his grandmother's, was half-long and looked permanently tousled, but still had its dark brown colour. Two wide, ever-twitching ears stuck up above it, both reddish-brown like the rest of his fur except for the insides which were white and the tips that were jet black. Tom loved touching those ear tips when Jonathan was asleep. They would press back against his fingers when he stroked them, then twitch impatiently as if waiting for the next touch. The bushy, white-tipped tail was also a favourite of Tom's. It was usually wagging this way or that, especially when the two of them were talking or playing, and it would often reach over to Tom at night as if on its own, to touch him and to rub against him. Tom always found this so relaxing and reassuring, and whenever he wasn't too tired he stayed awake waiting for this fleeting touch. Jonathan's hands, like his hair, were mostly like granma Rosalyn's; more like splashed with greyish dirt than black like the rest of the family. Tom often wondered if these likenesses, which set those two foxes apart from the rest of their family, were why he liked them better, or if they had anything to do with them being the only ones who treated him with complete respect.
As if on cue, the door opened and the two oldest siblings walked in. John and Jean were twins, seventeen years old, and they had never liked Tom. He quickly looked away from Jonathan and returned his attention to his food, but it had clearly been too late. John shot him a hostile glare as he took his seat, while Jean walked around the table to greet her grandmother. As she passed Tom, she leaned down and hissed into his ear.
"If you don't stop staring like that you might as well glue your eyes to our brother." She elbowed him in the shoulder, but not hard enough to cause any pain because she didn't want granma Rosalyn to see. "Stupid idiot."
Tom was well used to harsh words from these two. They were the only members of the Alexander who were outright mean to him. Normally it didn't bother him much, but this time he felt annoyed that they had caught him looking at Jonathan. Also, she had emphasised the words 'our brother' in a way that made it totally clear that he, Tom, was an intruder here. Someone who took up too much of Jonathan's attention and who got in the way of the family. This hurt Tom more than anything else they said; to feel as if he had no place in Jonathan's life or in his family, despite the many times granma Rosalyn and Theena, Jonathan's mother, had assured him that he was always welcome.
* * * * * *
After breakfast, Tom's gloomy mood stayed with him. The boys were joined by Jenna, Jolena and James, who was Jonathan's only younger brother, in a game of soccer out on the lawn behind the house, but Tom did not enjoy it as much as usual. Jean's words still echoed inside his mind, although he merely shrugged when someone asked him what was wrong. He couldn't fool Jonathan, though, and as they trotted upstairs for a quick shower before today's family history lesson the inevitable question came.
"What did Jean say to you?"
"Come on, Tom, I know she said something nasty again. You've looked like your kitten just died the whole morning."
"Nah, it's nothin'. Just bein' stupid."
"Is that what she said?" Tom shrugged. "She's the stupid one! Tom, you know that!"
"No, really, it's true!" They reached Jonathan's bathroom and started stripping down, and when Tom's mood still didn't seem to lighten Jonathan gave him a hug. "You are smart. You're sweet and you're caring, and those idiots just can't see that. Tom, I know that you know all the words inside of you, they just won't come out right. That doesn't make you stupid."
"It does to some."
"Not to granma, though, or to mom. Or to your folks." Jonathan leaned his head against Tom's shoulder as they stepped into the large shower room and turned the taps on. "You should listen to the people who matter."
"I do." Tom took a deep breath, held it for a little while then let out a long, deep sigh. With it went much of his tension, and he leaned happily against the wall as Jonathan started washing his back. "Thanks."
"No problem. You're worth ten times the twins, you know."
"Yes, you are. At least to me." Tom turned around and searched his friend's face for any sign of jest, but found only a warm, sincere smile. He grinned back, his heart skipping a beat out of sheer joy. "Now you wash my back, Tommy-boy."
* * * * * *
To their surprise, today's lesson was not on the Alexanders of the past. Instead granma Rosalyn, who waited for them in the library, had brought a small black book that almost made Tom blush. The Guide to the Etiquette of the Nobility. The first time they had borrowed that book, Tom had read it from cover to cover, and each etiquette lesson after that he had turned to the same page and fantasised about the same thing. Not that it would ever happen, but the thought was a nice one. Theena was there, too, which was slightly surprising. She sometimes took part of their lessons, but it had been a while since last time. It was she who opened the black book, and Tom nearly fell over when he saw that she had found his favourite page. Normally, granma Rosalyn addressed them both as if they were in school, but Theena ignored him and spoke to Jonathan.
"You are eight now, son, which means there are some things you need to know. About marriage."
"Marriage?" Jonathan giggled, but Tom's heart froze. "I'm not getting married yet, am I"
"Not yet, no." She placed the book on the table in front of Jonathan. "But you are old enough to be engaged, and you need to know the exact way this happens among the upper class."
"Isn't it just that the parents decide? Some kind of business contract?"
"In a way, but not quite as crude as that." Tom, who knew all this by heart, let his mind wander. He stared out of the window, but in the corner of his eye he saw granma Rosalyn. She was studying him carefully, and this frightened him somewhat. "The deciding is for the heads of family, but the young ones must know and follow the formalities."
Tom kept staring out the window, not really listening and doing his best not to feel granma Rosalyn's eyes on him. When a wedding between two noble families was decided, he knew, the procedure was always the same. The older of those to be wed proposed with a gift of seven different flowers, all white. If the proposal were accepted the gift was accepted. Then, within twenty-four hours, the younger picked seven white flowers of his or her own and returned the gift. With that, the engagement was sealed and the wedding took place as soon as the youngest had reached the age of fifteen, or earlier if the heads of the families decided so. In his dreams, Tom had often picked those flowers, but he knew he would never dare to do it for real. Just as he was abut to get lost in daydreams again, Theena's words called him back to the world. As he turned away from the window he noticed that granma Rosalyn was still watching him. He blushed.
"The reason why you need to know this, Jonathan, is because you might soon receive those seven white flowers." Tom felt his heart sink, but he didn't dare to look at Jonathan. "And you must know what they mean and what accepting them means. The Pine Hill family and ours is close to sealing a very important business deal, which could mean some quite serious profit in both land and wealth."
"But... but what has that to do with me?" Jonathan asked in a meek voice. "I don't wanna..."
"Their youngest, Kathrina I think, is ten, and we know for a fact that she fancies you. An engagement would be a proper way to seal the business deal firmly. Of course, if they don't live up to it we simply don't turn up at the wedding. It means a small scandal, but that's a small price to pay if the business part of it falls through." She laughed and looked at granma Rosalyn, who let out a brief and joyless chuckle. "So now you know what the flowers mean, and that you have one day to give her flowers of your own to seal the engagement."
"But what if I don't want...?"
"Oh, come now, son, don't be ridiculous!" Theena laughed again. "Kathrina is a pretty girl, and she comes from an old and well thought-of family. A fertile one, too. You could hardly do better being seventh child."
"Enough!" Theena cut Jonathan off. "This is not a matter for discussion. If you were older and obviously in love with another girl things might be different. But you can't refuse a Pine Hill, they are too important a family to mess with. When you get your flowers you will accept them with joy, and bring a gift of your own the next day. That's final."
Jonathan looked as if he wanted to argue, but in the end he gave a defeated nod and left the room. Theena put the Etiquette Guide back on its shelf and followed him, but when Tom got up from his seat granma Rosalyn grabbed his arm.
"You looked like you knew all this already." It was not a question, and Tom said nothing. "Did you have nothing to ask?"
"No," Tom replied, flashing her a lopsided grin. "Not for me."
"And why not? Surely you would want to know all this if you... get the flowers one day."
"No." The slight pause, and the emphasis on the word 'get' was not lost on Tom, but he could not understand what she meant. Of all the replies that spun around inside his head he chose a safe one. "Not a noble."
"Technically, you are. Your family may not be as old as mine, but it's still of noble blood. Why else do you think I have been teaching you all this?" She held his gaze for a second or two, then winked. "Or allowed you to read those same pages over and over again while you should have been studying?"
Tom blushed. Was he really that obvious? Granma Rosalyn smiled at him, then shooed him out of the library. He took off at a run, his mind a turmoil and his heart beating faster inside his chest. If she had known what he had been thinking, yet still smiled so warmly at him, did that mean...? Could it mean...? Tom did not know, and he felt helplessly confused. Jonathan waited for him at the front door with Jolena, James and the soccer ball, but as he followed them outside he pretended not to see the fox boy's quizzical look. How could he answer something he didn't know?
* * * * * *
A couple of hours later the soccer game had ended, and the boys strolled lazily through the garden munching on apples granma Rosalyn had given them. They hadn't talked much since the lesson, and even though it seemed as if Jonathan wanted to say something they stayed silent until they reached the lake that marked the western edge of the Alexander estate. Tom sat down in the shade underneath a birch tree, while Jonathan kicked off his shoes, rolled up his trouser legs and waded out into the shallow water.
"That flower thing seems a bit silly, don't you think?" Tom shrugged. "I think so. Would be better to just ask. Why go around picking flowers?"
"I don't wanna get married!" Jonathan suddenly spat out, kicking at a wave that was lazily rolling in. "Why do they hafta make that business deal?"
"Yeah," Tom agreed as Jonathan came over and sat down next to him. "No fair."
"At least they could let me choose, not just give me away, like, to sweeten the deal or something." Tom said nothing, but his ears lay back flat against his skull in a lupine blush. So Jonathan was not entirely opposed to marriage. "Will that happen to you, too?"
"Don' really know." Tom struggled to form the words. "I guess, maybe. But not like that."
"You mean you get to choose?" Tom shrugged. "I still think it's no fair. Wish I could say no or something. I don't even like Kathrina very much. Know what mother told me?"
"She said they're coming over this weekend, those Pine Hill's!" Tears had begun to form in the fox boy's eyes, and Tom felt a burning in his own. "In just three days! Wish I could run away or something."
"Don't worry, Tom, I won't." Jonathan put his hand on the wolf boy's knee in a comforting way. "But I don't know what to do. I can't say no, or mother will murder me, but I don't wanna say yes."
They went quiet, as if nothing more could be said. Half an hour passed, and then it was time to return to the mansion for dinner. Jonathan stood up and pulled Tom to his feet. They walked in continued silence, each lost in his own thoughts.
* * * * * *
Tom lay awake for a long time that night, absentmindedly running his fingers up and down Jonathan's tail, which had as usual snaked over to him as the fox boy fell asleep. Jonathan had lamented more after dinner, saying over and over again that he found everything unfair, and that he didn't want to marry Kathrina Pine Hill. Tom had kept pondering the easiest solution of all, but had not dared to voice his thoughts. Yet now, in the dark and with Jonathan's soft snores accompanying the images of his friend's unhappy face from during the day, Tom started gathering up his courage. He had to do it; no matter what would happen it would have been far worse not to try. To give up just because the aftermath would be difficult. He leaned over and brushed a stray tuft of hair out of Jonathan's eyes, then turned over and tried to go to sleep. It took a long time before he finally managed to drowse away.
* * * * * *
The next morning Tom woke up at dawn. Jonathan was having a fitful sleep next to him, and had tossed off his blankets. Smiling to himself, Tom tucked his friend in again, then hurried to get dressed and headed down to the kitchen. This early, not even the cook was up, so he fixed himself a quick bite to eat. To his surprise, Jolena came in just as he was finishing his cheese sandwich. Of all Jonathan's siblings, she was the one he liked the most. Well, maybe a close tie with little James. He watched as she poured herself a bowl of raspberry cream with milk, then sat down next to him and started eating. They stayed silent until they had both finished their breakfast, then she took his hand and a worried look crept onto her face.
"What was wrong with Jonathan yesterday?" Tom said nothing, but watched the girl carefully. She was two years older than him, and she was very pretty, with the same lean face and the same large green eyes as Jonathan, but with long hair that reached way down her back when she didn't tie it up. "Well? He looked just like he was gonna cry."
"Yes, you do! He tells you everything, but he won't tell me or Jenna anything. I just wanna help."
Tom hesitated. He had always felt that he could trust Jolena, but this time he wasn't sure if he dared to confide in her. If she told her parents, or worse John or Jean, everything would be ruined. He had a strange feeling that it wouldn't matter if she told granma Rosalyn, that the old woman was on his side in this. Had steered him there, even. In the end it was pity that won out, seeing how distressed Jolena was. He stood up, then leaned in to whisper into her ear, doing his very best to make the words clear. She gasped, but when their eyes met again she was grinning broadly.
"Really?" Tom nodded, blushing. "Wow, that's great! Anything I can do to help?"
"Keep him here," Tom said, winking. "Don' let him look for me 'til after breakfast."
She giggled, but to Tom's great joy it was not because of the way 'breakfast' had sounded when he said it, but rather at being a part of this conspiracy. With a gesture that meant that she would not tell anyone, she bounced out of the kitchen, leaving Tom with his mounting nerves. This was it. He had to do it right this instant; there was no way he could back out now that he had told Jolena. She would never forgive him, and neither would he, himself. He got up and cleaned the table, then hurried out into the garden.
* * * * * *
Two hours later it was nearly time for breakfast at the Alexander Mansion, and Tom was getting more and more terrified with every minute that passed. Not only because he couldn't know how much longer Jolena would be able to keep her brother at bay, but more because he wasn't done yet. In his hand, he held five of the white flowers he needed, but he just couldn't find the last two. He had easily found a patch of windflowers, and down at the road he picked a white-collar and a twig of chex. The other two he wasn't sure what they were called, but the only thing that mattered was that they were white. His heart fluttered; he was really going to do it! Two years after first reading about this ceremonial proposal, two years of dreaming about it, he was finally going to propose to Jonathan. True, he had no way of knowing his friend's reaction, but something in the way granma Rosalyn had talked to him the day before made him feel that it couldn't go wrong. Theena would be furious, of course, not to mention the twins, but Tom knew that he could cope with anything. That was, as long as Jonathan didn't turn him down. The thought of the fox boy brought a smile to his muzzle. He had loved Jonathan as long as he had known him, and now he would finally find out if that love was returned. The only thing he really dreaded was that Jonathan would accept his proposal just to get away from Kathrina. Rejection was one thing, but he feared that he was making use of the situation, almost blackmailing his dear, dear friend.
With a shake of his head, he cleared away all the negative thoughts. It would all be in vain, anyway, if Jonathan found him before he had all the seven white flowers he needed. Then a thought struck him as if the head shake had put everything in place. The green houses! He took off at a run towards the back of the mansion. One of Theena Alexander's greatest passions was flowers, and she had made good use of the three green houses that stood between the orchards and the outdoor flowerbeds, growing all kinds of flowers from all over the world. Tom had hoped maybe to sneak in undetected and nick what he needed, but to his dismay he ran into the gardener before he had even got there. But the badger was a friendly old man, and Tom stopped, panting as he was out of breath.
"Hello, Mr Sands."
"Hi there, Tom. What brings you around here this early? Not stealing strawberries again?"
"Wasn't me," Tom lied, blushing slightly. "Uhm, could I have some flowers?"
"Sure, as long as you don't take anything too valuable. Come here."
The old man led the way into the middle green house, and they walked along rows and rows of pots and flowerbeds, some of which were freshly planted and some that were blooming. Tom spotted a couple of low bushes filled with brightly white flowers, and asked if he could have one. Smiling, the gardener took out a pair of secateurs and cut off a stem.
"Watch out for the thorns, Tom. Those are genuine Alexander roses, by the way, did you know?" Tom shook his head. "Miss Rosalyn's grandmother was the one who managed to give them this magnificent white colour."
"They smell good."
"They sure do. Are you sure one will do? Makes a poor gift, just one." He watched as Tom fitted the rose into his little bouquet, then smiled as the boy blushed even more. "Well, if that's what you're up to then one rose is sure than enough. Need one more flower, don't you?"
"Not until you tell me who the lucky girl is." The old badger laughed heartily. "Been a while since we had some romance here."
"It's... well..." Tom's voice failed him, and he had to start again. "It's not a girl."
"What! Surely you can't mean..." The look of shock on the gardener's face made Tom back away, ready to run if need be. "No, wait, don't be scared, son. Just took me by surprise there. I think I can guess who the lucky boy is, then. Second youngest Alexander son, right?"
"Madam Theena will not be happy. Better be careful."
"Well, I think I have the perfect seventh flower for you. Over here, in the back." He led the way to a pedestal which held three clay pots, each holding one beautiful, almost glittering white flower. Tom reached out and touched one, and without saying anything the gardener clipped it off for him. "That's a silverstar, a very special flower. Almost impossible to make it grow outside the tropical regions. It won't bloom again for five years. Miss Rosalyn will have my hide for this, even more so after I give Jonathan one."
"Don't you worry, son. I think she'll understand even if she only gets one. You run along now and find your man, and I'll be sure to help him with his own flowers."
"If he wants to."
"I think he will."
As he left the green house, Tom's heart was pounding rapidly in his chest. Mr Sands's words had given him hope, but his courage was still waning rapidly. What would he do if Jonathan laughed him in the face? What if this foolish dream of his would cost him his best friend? As he rounded the corner of the mansion he had half made up his mind to toss the flowers in the compost heap, and abandon this foolishness. But then he thought of granma Rosalyn, of Jolena and of the gardener, of how they had all in some way encouraged him. Maybe there was a shred of hope, after all. And the gift of the silverstar was too precious to just throw away. Tom still hadn't made up his mind when he felt a familiar hand on his shoulder.
"Where did you go?" Jonathan asked, his voice slightly annoyed. "I've looked everywhere for you!"
"Just had to think."
"About what? We missed you at breakfast. Did you eat any?"
"Yeah. With Jolena."
"Jolena?" Tom nodded. "She's acting weird, too. Wouldn't stop talking to me. So what have you been up to?"
"Just stuff," Tom muttered, hiding his flowers behind his back while Jonathan tried to get a glimpse of them. "Hey, don' peek!"
"What's that you've got? Lemme see!"
"Why soon? You know I can't stand being curious!" He whined, but made no more attempts to find out. Instead he held out a picnic basket. "Hey, granma gave us all kind of goodies. Wanna have some?"
"Sure." Tom smiled, then nodded towards the edge of a small forest that made out part of the Alexander estate. "In there."
"Okay," Jonathan said, slightly puzzled. "But if you stay mysterious I'll go crazy."
They followed a path through the trees until they reached a glade where a tiny creek made a bend, forming a shallow pool. This was one of Tom's favourite places, and they had often played in the chilly water, splashing each other or any of Jonathan's siblings who often joined them. Today they were alone, though, which suited Tom perfectly. It was bad enough trying to muster courage with Jonathan there; anybody else would have made the whole thing impossible. They sat down on some soft grass just next to the creek, and Jonathan started laying out their picnic. Granma Rosalyn had packed them bread, butter and cheese, ham and eggs, some fruit and a large bottle of lemonade. Jonathan grinned, licking his lips.
"Pity I just had breakfast." He started cutting the bread. "I think I can manage some anyway, though."
"Me too," Tom said, then took Jonathan's hand just as he was about to start buttering his sandwich. "Jon'than, I gotta ask you som'thing."
"What is it, Tom? You look awful." He touched Tom's forehead. "Are you sick?"
"No, it's just..." Tom took a deep breath, and when he spoke again it was little more than a whisper. "What do you think of me?"
"Tom..." Jonathan's face darkened. "Have the twins been at you again?"
"No. Just wanna know."
"You know I love you, Tom. You're my best friend, and I won't let anybody put you down."
Tom smiled as Jonathan patted his free hand. He wanted to say more, but wasn't sure his voice would hold. Instead, he held out his bouquet, which he had built around the silverstar, towards his friend. While he waited, he stared at the ground, his heart beating faster than ever before. He heard a gasp, then there was silence. A silence that dragged out until it became unbearable, and Tom had to look up. What he saw was two green eyes that were slightly moist, and a warm smile. The lump that had formed in his throat gave way, and he found that he could breathe normally again.
"Are you sure?" Jonathan asked in a whisper. "Are you absolutely sure?"
"Yes," Tom whispered back. "I always was."
"Mom will get so mad," Jonathan giggled as he took the flowers out of Tom's hand and sniffed them. "But she did tell me to accept my flowers with joy."
Tom grinned, and soon the two of them were laughing so hard that tears were running down their cheeks. The laughter didn't end until Tom gave Jonathan a tentative hug. The fox boy shivered, but returned the hug and planted a kiss on Tom's cheek. Tom turned his head slightly, and their lips met for the first time. Neither of the boys really knew how to kiss, but it was still a mighty experience for them both. Jonathan purred as he ran his tongue against Tom's, while the wolf boy just melted into his friend's arms. It was as if something had clicked into place inside him, as if the world hadn't been right until that moment. Tears were still running down his cheeks, and he felt like he never wanted to let go, that he wouldn't mind spending the rest of his life just there, doing just that. The kiss soon ended, though, and Jonathan returned to smelling his flowers while Tom let out a joyful howl.
"Hey, don't be too happy just yet!" Jonathan laughed. "I still gotta give you flowers or it's not settled."
"Mr Sands said he'll help you," Tom said, grinning slyly. "An' there's more flowers down by the road."
"Are you in a hurry? I've got twenty-four hours to decide." A cold shiver ran down Tom's spine, but it vanished as he saw Jonathan's happy smile. "Don't worry, I think I can tell you right now that I'll say yes. You'll get your flowers tomorrow morning, just like the tradition, right here."
They finished their picnic, then fell asleep on the soft grass, pressed closely together. When they woke up they got undressed and spent the rest of the morning playing in the creek. Just before lunch they were joined by Jolena, Jenna and little James, who eagerly joined in the splashing game. Tom caught Jolena's gaze and nodded ever so subtly towards the bouquet that lay on the lid of the picnic basket. She raised an eyebrow, and he smiled in return. With a squeal of joy, she leapt into his arms and hugged him fiercely, then wrestled him down to make it look like part of the game, but she did whisper into his ear.
"I'm so happy for you two."
The rest of the day passed in a blur for Tom. After lunch there was a quite dull lesson on table manners at important dinners, but he kept listening even though he would much rather have spent the time staring at Jonathan. With a little luck this lesson might just apply to a future wedding banquet, he thought, smiling to himself. Granma Rosalyn must have seen his dreamy look, because she stopped talking until he had apologised, blushing deeply, and returned his attention to the present. Jonathan grinned at him, and he grinned back.
Before dinner, the boys decided to spend the night each at his own. They weren't sure what the traditions said, but both of them agreed that they wouldn't sleep much, anyway. So Tom trotted out of the Alexander estate and down the road towards his own house. It had been days since he had been home, and he couldn't help but laugh at his parents, Ben and Lena, as they pretended not to know him as he walked in the door. They had a pleasant dinner together, and then he told them what he had just done. At first they were shocked, but they calmed down when he told them about granma Rosalyn's support, leaving out the fact that this was just a feeling he had. He ended up getting hugs and kisses from them both, as well as a stammered promise from his mother that she would tell him all he needed to know before the wedding night in due time.
As he had thought, he had much trouble falling asleep that night. He kept reliving the kiss, almost certain he could still taste Jonathan on his lips. It was well after midnight before he finally gave in to sleep, and even after that he kept returning to the kiss in his dreams.
* * * * * *
The next morning, Tom woke up to the sound of rain on his bedroom window. It felt strange to be alone in bed. He was so used to spending each night with Jonathan that it was as if half of him were missing. His better half, he thought with a snicker as he got out of bed and headed towards his bathroom. While he brushed his teeth he thought about the weather, and if he should meet Jonathan indoors instead. No, they had said by the creek. A perfect day for a raincoat, he thought as he took a quick shower.
It was still early by the time he had finished his breakfast. His mother and father would probably sleep in for another hour or two, since today was Saturday, but Tom knew that he had to get going or his nerves would get the better of him again. He rummaged through the hallway wardrobe until he found his sky blue raincoat, and pulled it on. It was cold outside, and he wasn't sure if he should stay outdoors the whole time while he waited for Jonathan. Catching pneumonia would not be a good start for their engagement. That is, if Jonathan really did turn up. If he hadn't changed his mind. Tom's thought became as grey and dull as the rain while he wandered slowly towards the Alexander Mansion. Just as he reached the place where he would have to choose between going up to the mansion or turning out into the forest, he started feeling sick. What had he done? Why had he been such a fool? Of course Jonathan would have changed his mind, why would he want to spend his life with someone who couldn't even speak properly? Someone who always sounded dim-witted and slow? Someone who would never bear his children? Wouldn't even Kathrina Pine Hill be a better choice? He leaned against a tree, realising only then that he had reached the forest and was just a minute's walk from the glade, and tried to keep from throwing up. How could he be so stupid?
"Guess you couldn't sleep either, huh?" The soft voice made Tom jump, and he quickly spun around just to find himself staring into a pair of large, green fox eyes, surrounded by the hood of a bright red raincoat. "Good morning, Tom."
"G-good morning." So this was it, Tom thought. Jonathan was there to tell him no, to shuck him out of his life for good, just because of that stupid dream. If there were any way, any way at all to save things... "Listen, Jonathan..."
"These are for you," Jonathan said, holding out a bouquet of white flowers. "I picked them last night. Couldn't wait. Mr Sands helped me just like you said."
Tom took the flowers, but he couldn't really see them because of the tears in his eyes. And once he had blinked them away, all he could see was Jonathan. The fox boy had a sombre expression on his face, almost dreamy. His voice, too, had sounded a bit distant, as if he had his mind someplace else. Then Tom looked at the flowers. Each of the seven was a counterpart to the ones he had given Jonathan the day before, but arranged in a different way to make the white Alexander rose the centrepiece. He touched the flower, then sniffed his finger. The fragrance was exquisite, like he imagined a cloud on a bright sunny day would smell. Then he brought the entire bouquet to his nose and inhaled deeply. He sighed. Was this what love smelled like? When his eyes met Jonathan's again, the fox boy smiled warmly.
"I've never been as happy as you made me yesterday, Tom." He giggled. "Well, except maybe now."
Tom knew better than to try and use his voice right then. All he would have managed was a croak, at best. Instead, he pulled his friend closer and kissed him. It was a better kiss than the day before, maybe because he was no longer scared. Because the last of his fears had melted away. Jonathan, too, seemed more confident, more secure in the way he held on to the back of Tom's head and pressed their lips even closer together. When they finally broke apart they were both blushing, yet grinning.
"Blueberry pancakes," Tom said. "With orange juice."
"Ham and eggs. And you had orange juice, too." They laughed, then hugged each other tightly, not caring that pushing their raincoats aside meant they got wet. "Are we really getting married, Tom?"
"Hope so. I love you, Jonathan."
"Love you, too." They kissed again, a quick one this time, then they sat down underneath a tree where the ground was relatively dry. "I didn't sleep at all tonight, Tom. After I got the flowers, I just lay awake thinking about you. About how much you mean to me. I could own the world and still be poor, if I didn't have you by my side."
"Oh, Jonathan." Tom wiped his eyes with his sleeve, which only served to make his face even wetter. He had so many things inside his head that he wanted to say. Sweet, loving words just like the ones he had just heard, but they would not form in his mouth. All he could do was whisper. "Love you so much."
"I know you do, and I know you're thinking a lot of good things right now. But you don't have to say them, because I know. Like I've always known how smart you are. It doesn't matter that you can't talk very well, it's what's in here that counts." He touched first Tom's forehead, then his chest. "Love doesn't need words to be true."
Tom started crying, sobbing gulps of air while he leaned his head against his beloved friend's chest and let himself be comforted, kissed and caressed. All the years of frustration over not being able to talk as well as he could think welled up inside him, but it was all countered by the love and understanding that Jonathan had just shown. Had always shown, Tom corrected himself. When was there ever a time when Jonathan had let him down? The answer was never. They stayed that way for a long time, until Tom's crying finally abated. By then, he was all but completely exhausted, and nearly dozed off before Jonathan stood up, setting him gently down and making sure he could stand.
"Let's go inside, or we'll catch a cold." Tom was surprised to see streaks of tears down Jonathan's cheeks as well, but then again, that might just have been rainwater. "And we have to tell everybody."
"Don't be. They'll be mad, but there's nothing they can do. It's all sealed, remember?"
"Yeah, I 'member," Tom muttered, stealing one more kiss. "Hope you're right."
* * * * * *
They took a quick shower and slipped into warm, dry clothes, then walked back downstairs to confront the Alexander family. Jonathan took Tom's hand and squeezed it reassuringly, refusing to let go as they walked in through the door to the dining room. Both boys were holding their bouquets of white flowers in their free hands.
As Tom had feared, it quickly turned bad. They had barely entered the room when Jolena slammed into them, squeezing them both so hard they could barely breathe, and Tom had time to catch a glimpse of an approving smile on granma Rosalyn's lips, but then a cry of outrage from John got the shouting started. Tom, unable to defend himself very well verbally, quickly withdrew to a corner of the room, where he and Xander, Jonathan's father, comforted little James. The youngest Alexander kit did not understand what was going on, but the angry voices made him cry. Jenna soon joined them as well, along with her sisters Johanna and Juliette. The three girls whispered to Tom that they were on his side, but they had little to say in the matter. The second and third oldest boys, Jax and Joakim, quickly left the shouting match as well. They were a bit more reserved towards Tom, but he soon learned that this was mainly because they were now afraid that they would be forced to marry Kathrina Pine Hill, who did not seem very popular among the Alexander boys. They and the girls left the dining room, bringing with them the crying James. The ones left shouting now were on one side Theena, Jean and John, who were furious with the whole thing and whose anger was mostly directed at Tom, and on the other side Jonathan and Jolena, who were supported by granma Rosalyn although the old woman didn't shout much.
Tears ran down Tom's cheek fur as he heard many angry and hurtful words being flung back and forth across the room. He was used to being disliked by the twins, but the reproach in Theena's voice whenever she yelled his name hurt him deeply. It helped a little that Xander patted his shoulder now and then, and spoke reassuringly to him. Jonathan's father looked quite a bit like his second youngest son. They both had the same lean muzzle and the same large, green eyes, and just like Jonathan he had always been friendly to Tom. Xander had nothing to say in this matter though, as he was married into the family, but he had still made sure everybody knew that he approved of the boys' betrothal. Tom smiled meekly at him, but he couldn't stop his tears from running.
What won out in the end was respect for the tradition. The flowers had been given, accepted and returned, and no amount of shouting could change that. Theena had argued that the boys were too young to know what they were doing, and she had hinted that Tom was not fit to make decisions for himself. This had thrown Jonathan and Jolena into snarls of rage, enforced by the twins' snideful jeers. Granma Rosalyn had silenced them all, though, by slamming her fist into the top of the table with a loud bang.
"Are you all done yelling yet?" she asked with a smirk. "Theena, you know better than that. As do I. Tomas knows more about our tradition than any of my grandchildren. I have taught him, myself. It's all very simple; the boys are getting married, and nothing you three do or say can change that. I am the head of this family, Theena, not you, and the decision is mine."
Theena had kept silent during granma Rosalyn's speech, and now she looked as if she wanted to argue, but changed her mind. She turned on her heel and left the room without saying a word. The twins followed, but not before making sure that Tom had seen the glaring hatred in their eyes. He sobbed, but in the next instant he was crushed between Jonathan and Jolena, both of whom kissed his cheeks. Granma Rosalyn walked over to them and tousled Tom's hair.
"I will speak to your mother, Tom. If you boys want to, I'm sure we can set the wedding for just after Jonathan's twelfth birthday." She smiled warmly as they stared at her, wide-eyed. "It's not very common, but as long as both heads of family agree the Etiquette permits it."
Tom's head spun with excitement. To wait four years instead of seven, it almost seemed too good to be true. Then his thoughts were interrupted as Jolena kissed him on the lips, but was pushed aside by a furiously jealous Jonathan who immediately took her place. Tom let himself vanish into his betrothed's lips, and barely noticed it when Xander congratulated them, or when the other three left them alone inside the dining room. They couldn't stay like that for very long, though, because soon Jolena returned with the rest of Jonathan's siblings, and they were forced to tell and retell the story of their engagement.
That night the boys slept at Tom's house, after celebrating over dinner with his parents. They had been strangely shy as they undressed and took their evening shower, and hadn't talked much until they lay in Tom's bed, arms around each other and their faces flushed after another long kiss. It was as if everything had waited until that moment to fully sink into their minds. Jonathan was the first to let out a tiny squeal of a giggle, and before long they were rolling around on the bed, laughing and crying and kissing and hugging. After that, they calmed down and started talking about the future, about their love for each other, and in hushed giggles about their wedding. They did not fall asleep until the eastern sky was beginning to brighten.
* * * * * *
The following four years was a very happy period in Tom's life. His relationship with Jonathan had deepened, it seemed, with every passing day, and if they had been inseparable before they were more or less glued together now. Theena had slowly, grudgingly, accepted the fact that they were getting married, and was soon treating Tom with the same slightly distanced friendliness as ever. The twins, too, settled for showing their dislike and contempt, but refrained from bullying him. The other members of the Alexander family, led by Jolena, took Tom in as one of them. He loved them deeply for it, even though he couldn't say so to the girls without causing Jonathan to step in between to make sure they kept their distance.
Even though he still couldn't talk very well, Tom did okay in school. Not as well as Jonathan, who had top marks in almost every subject, but well enough to get passing or even good grades. His teachers had helped him develop a system of symbols and drawings that made it easier for him to express himself. When he had trouble speaking he could point at these symbols, and when he had trouble writing he could draw them. And, as always, he had Jonathan to help him whenever he needed. Their school friends had been astonished at first when they heard the news, but soon they got used to the idea. It was especially easy for those who had also received or given flowers, or who did so as the years went by. One of their classmates got engaged with Kathrina Pine Hill, much to the relief of Jax and Joakim. And of Jonathan, who had felt a bit sorry for Kathrina.
Jonathan's twelfth birthday was a rather quiet affair. With ten children in the immediate family, and uncles, aunts and cousins aplenty, it was next to impossible for the Alexander's to hold a huge party every time someone counted one year older. They all shared a birthday cake with twelve candles on it in the morning after breakfast, then Jonathan had some friends over for a garden picnic in the afternoon. After dinner, and another helping of cake, Tom and Jonathan went upstairs to their room. They had been a bit shy and quiet when on their own for the last couple of weeks, much like they had just after getting engaged, but now that seemed to be gone. Jonathan was beaming with happiness, bouncing up and down or pacing around the room while chattering away about the day and about the presents he had received. Tom merely sat down on their bed and watched him, listening with half an ear. During the years that had followed their engagement Jonathan had grown from scrawny kit to lanky preteen, on the verge of beginning his journey towards manhood. He was still smaller that Tom, who had worked every summer at his parents' orchards and had begun to fill out with muscles. The green eyes were still the same, though. Large and bright and captivating. After a while Jonathan's birthday elation started giving way, and he sat down next to Tom, taking his hand. They were quiet for quite some time before Jonathan leaned against Tom's shoulder.
"This is really it, right?" he asked, his voice trembling slightly. "We're both twelve now. Nothing can stop us from getting married."
"Not a chance!" He turned around and gave Tom a kiss. "And you'd better not be having any, either!"
"Don' worry, I won't."
"I'm just nervous. Scared, even. Just being silly."
"Not silly," Tom said quietly, squeezing the hand he held. "I'm scared, too. Jus' four more days."
"Why did they have to set it on a Sunday! I don't wanna wait one more minute!"
"No! I hate this!" He stood up and started pacing the room again. "I love you, Tom. The wait is agony."
Tom said nothing. Instead he got to his feet and caught up with his beloved friend, giving him a tight hug. Jonathan sighed and leaned against his shoulder, the tension gone for the moment. They hurried to take their shower and get ready for bed, and after Jonathan had fallen asleep Tom lay awake, holding the fluffy fox tail that lay draped across his chest, as usual. Jonathan was right. It was agony to wait, even for just a few days. In accordance to the Etiquette and the agreement between their families they were now old enough to be wed, but in the middle of the week there was simply not time for a big ceremony with lots of guests. It was easy to understand, but difficult to accept. Butterflies were fluttering about inside Tom's chest as he thought about the wedding. He had been to a few of those ceremonies before, like when Juliette Alexander was wed to a boy from another noble family, or when his own cousin got married, and he dreaded the whole thing. All the attention would be focused on him and Jonathan, and all his old insecurities were beginning to resurface. What if he weren't able to say the words that needed to be said? What if something went wrong? What if Jonathan changed his mind in the last minute? No, that was no problem. He gazed lovingly at the sleeping fox. Jonathan was every bit as eager to get married as he was. Taking a deep breath, Tom forced himself to relax and to close his eyes. Everything would be fine.
* * * * * *
Sunday morning saw a clear blue sky, with a soft breeze taking away the worst of the heat and humidity. The boys hurried to shower and get dressed, then they stood by the bedroom window for a long time, holding each other and trying to calm down. Tom felt some of his fear melt away at this reassuring touch, but he was still very nervous as they walked downstairs for breakfast. Neither of them ate much, and before they knew it they had to part. Xander and Jolena whiskered Jonathan off to get him ready, while Ben and Lena dragged Tom over to their house.
One hour later, he was dressed in white cotton trousers, a white shirt with a bowtie in the Nordanskog family colours, blue and gold. A black-trimmed white jacket was the icing on the cake. Tom checked himself in the mirror, making sure he looked his very best for Jonathan. Most of his butterflies were gone by now, and he was looking forward to the ceremony. He could hear his father moving about downstairs, getting ready to leave for the Alexander estate. His mother was already there, meeting the guests and as head of the family hosting the ceremony together with granma Rosalyn. There was, Tom knew, a small stage set up not too far from the mansion, down towards the orchards, with rows and rows of chairs for all the guests, and many tables laden with food for the first day of celebration. All weddings among the nobility were celebrated for two days, that was something he knew perfectly well after reading the Guide to Etiquette. First the wedding, then the start of their new life. There was a knock on his door, and Tom had to fight back a nervous giggle. He went over and opened it, but the smile he had intended to greet his father with faded instantly. John and Jean stood out there, both wearing contemptuous scowls on their faces. Tom opened his mouth, but was silenced as Jean grabbed him around the neck and John covered his muzzle with a foul-smelling piece of cloth. An icy fear grabbed his heart, then everything turned dark.
* * * * * *
"Looks like he's coming 'round."
The darkness changed into a greyish blur. Tom's head was hurting, and he fought back an urge to vomit, not wanting to ruin his suit. It took him a while to realise that someone had spoken, and even longer to recognise the voice. Jean.
Panic welled up inside him, but when he tried to stand up he toppled over. The twins laughed at him as his muzzle hit the ground, and his mouth filled with the taste of blood. Whimpering, he sat up, and soon his eyes began to focus. He was in a room he had never seen before, and judging by the light coming in from the window not too much time had passed. He could still make it in time for the wedding, if only...
"No use getting up," Jean hissed as Tom tried to move. "Just sit still and be a good boy. This'll soon be over."
"A minor scandal," John said, his voice filled with hatred, "to avoid a major disgrace. You have to understand that we never, ever could allow you to marry our brother. It's just not done!"
"Oh, not because you're a boy." Jean leaned in closer and almost spat the word 'boy' into Tom's face. "That is bad, but not unheard of. The real reason, of course, is because you're such a retarded idiot!"
"And from a lower family. But, yes, most of all 'cause of that." They laughed as Tom failed to get up once again. "The wedding should have started two hours ago, Tom. The Etiquette says they'll only wait one more hour, then it's called off. And nobody knows where we are."
For a split second, Jonathan's face appeared before Tom's inner eye. Was he sad? Worried? Disappointed? Mad? The wolf boy tried his best to fight back his tears, but to no avail. His crying earned him renewed bouts of scornful laughter. Was it really all over now? Four years of waiting, four years of looking forward to a new life with his beloved Jonathan, would it really end just like that? Yes, he knew with a sinking feeling in his stomach, it would. For not turning up at the wedding he would be disgraced. A breaker of promises. They would think that he changed his mind and ran away at the last minute. He was still sobbing hard when John grabbed his muzzle and lifted it so that their eyes met.
"That's not all, little boy," he said, smiling coldly. "It's time for a change in our family. It's time for mother to become head. I've seen to it."
"What are you talking about?" Obviously, this was something that Jean was not in on. "We said we'd keep him here..."
"I changed the plan! By now granma has got my note. She calls off this travesty of a wedding, then she steps down!" He laughed, then held a knife to Tom's throat. "Otherwise she'll never see her favourite little retard again."
"John, we never..."
"Shut up! That old hag went too far when she allowed this. She steps down, and mom takes over!" He turned to Tom and waved the blade in front of his face. "Nobody will know just why, but they'll accept it. And this little idiot leaves our lives for good."
"I'll..." Tom began, but had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could continue. "I'll tell them."
"No, you won't." John pushed Tom down on his back, and dragged the knife against the side of his neck. "You most certainly won't."
"John, this is too much!" Jean cried. "I agreed to stop them getting married, not to murder!"
"This isn't murder, merely... weeding."
"Stop it, John!"
"I said..." John let hear a snarling roar as he spun around and slammed his fist into his sister's face. She dropped to the floor, barely conscious. "Shut up!!"
Tom tried to get away while John was staring at his sister's still form, as if unable to understand what he had done, but his head was still spinning. John grabbed his throat and pulled him close, again holding his knife up in front of Tom's face. Just then, the door slammed open. Tom could see Xander, granma Rosalyn and... His heart leapt. Jonathan! John dropped the knife, trembling as the head of his family stood before him.
"I... I just..." he whimpered. "For the good of the family."
"For the good of the family," granma Rosalyn said, her voice colder and more vicious than Tom had ever heard it, "you are no more a part of it, you disgrace of a boy!"
With that, she punched John on the chin, a blow so hard that Tom thought he could hear the crunch of bones. John dropped into a pile next to his sister, but what happened after that, Tom never knew. His arms were filled with Jonathan, and his ears were filled with all the whispers, whimpers and sobs coming from his beloved boy. Xander helped them to their feet and ushered them out of the room, while Jonathan fussed about Tom's bloodied nose and his messed-up clothes. To Tom's surprise they were suddenly in the attic of Alexander Mansion. He had thought he knew every room in the house. They walked slowly down the stairs until they reached the front door. Outside, there was frantic activity, all of which came to a halt as people caught sight of Tom and Jonathan half walking, half embracing each other.
"Sands," granma Rosalyn called to the gardener. "Get a couple of men and go up to the attic back room. Make sure you throw the filth you find there off my property!"
"Wait, granma," Tom spoke up. "Please... Jean... She didn't mean to, well, she jus' wanted to stop the weddin'."
"Tomas, my sweet, dear Tomas." The old fox knelt in front of the boys and hugged them tightly. "You are always so kind. I promise I will hear what she has to say, but I won't promise to be kind with her."
"I can't believe this!" Jonathan cried out, still sobbing slightly. "Did John really try to kill you?"
"Yeah. Thanks for savin' my life."
"To think that he thought I didn't know about the back room!" granma Rosalyn snorted. "I built the foaming thing!"
A grin spread across Tom's muzzle as his parents came running around the corner of the house, gathering him up in a hug that was a bit lopsided, since Jonathan refused to let go completely. Soon they were joined by the rest of the Alexander siblings, all of whom were stunned as they heard what had happened. Just then Mr Sands and his helpers came out the door, leading a staggering Jean and carrying a barely moving John. Seeing them, Jonathan let go of Tom's arm and hurried over to his oldest brother. He kicked John hard in the side, earning a stifled moan of pain. As he returned to Tom's side, Jonathan was smiling.
"That felt really good."
Tom tried to hold back a giggle, but it escaped his lips nevertheless, and soon most of them were laughing hard. All except granma Rosalyn, who gestured to Mr Sands to throw John out of the property, after which she took Jean's hands and led the girl into the house. Before closing the door, she turned and winked to Tom, who waved at her, grinning.
Half an hour later, Tom was standing up on the podium, side by side with his father, in front of the two heads of the families and with the entire audience behind him. Music played from somewhere, and he turned around and watched Jonathan being led towards him by Xander, both foxes smiling broadly. Jonathan was wearing a white suit much like his own, but with a bowtie that was red, white and yellow. The Alexander colours. They stepped up on the podium and the music stopped. The boys moved closer to each other, facing the old equine woman who was the master of ceremony. Everything went quiet as she raised her hands over them.
* * * * * *
It was dark by the time the first day of celebration ended. Tom sat on his and Jonathan's bed, idly playing with the golden ring on his left ring finger, while the fox was still downstairs saying goodbye to those of his relatives who couldn't stay for the next day. Everything had gone well, much better than Tom had dared to hope. He had managed to keep his voice loud and his words clear as he spoke those magical words 'I do', and though he had cried tears of joy as the two of them exchanged rings and sealed their bond with a kiss, he had even managed to proclaim that his surname from that day forth was no longer Nordanskog, but Alexander. The ensuing feast had been little more than a blur, albeit a happy one. He had soon lost count on how many relatives, old and new, he had shaken hands with. One event that would stick forever in his mind, though, was when a tear-streaked Jean had come up to them and apologised for everything. Tom had hugged her right then and there, and had forgiven her. Jonathan followed suit, but with a little more reluctance. Jean would never really be his friend, Tom knew, but maybe the open hostility was over from now on.
The door opened, and a warm smile spread on Tom's lips as Jonathan entered, sighing with relief now that the day was finally over. They hugged, but there was a new kind of tension between them now. One that Tom couldn't really identify. They sat together for a while, talking about the day that had passed and the day that was to come, but neither mentioned the night in between. After a while, Jonathan yawned widely, and suggested that they should shower and get ready for bed. They took turns this night, rather than showering together as they normally did. It was as if the same strange shyness that had bothered them the weeks before Jonathan's birthday had returned with renewed strength. After turning the shower over to Jonathan, Tom quickly brushed his teeth, then went back to the bedroom. He hesitated for a moment, then tossed the towel he had been wearing around his waist into the hamper and lay down on top of the blankets. He didn't have to wait long before the door opened and closed again. There was a soft gasp as Jonathan looked him up and down, then a faint rustle of cloth as the second towel joined the first. There was a kind of hunger in Jonathan's eyes that showed perfectly even in the dim light from the moon shining in through their window. A hunger that both scared and excited Tom as Jonathan settled down next to him. There was a moment's hesitation, then they were locked in a tight embrace. Tom's fears and the tension between the two boys all melted away at the first kiss, the first touch and the first cry of pleasure.
* * * * * *
They were late for breakfast the next morning. While Tom fried them eggs and bacon, Jonathan made toast and fresh orange juice, both boys radiant with happiness. Every now and then, one of them would steal a kiss or a touch, and they often laughed for no apparent reason. While they ate, in the kitchen because the dining room was already being set up for lunch, granma Rosalyn entered followed by Jolena. They smiled knowingly, making Jonathan grin and Tom blush.
"Did you sleep well?" granma Rosalyn asked. Jolena giggled. "We didn't have the heart to wake you up."
"We did sleep well. Eventually." Jonathan winked at Tom, who blushed even deeper and kicked his shin under the table. "Ouch! Hey, it's true."
"Good for you guys," Jolena said, kissing them both and earning a dirty look from Jonathan. "Lemme have some bacon!"
She nicked a slice of crisp bacon from Tom's plate, and before he could protest she was out of the kitchen, squealing happily. Granma Rosalyn smiled while she poured herself some orange juice and joined the boys at the table.
"There are times when I think Jolena is the wisest and most mature of my grandchildren." She shook her head. "Then there are times like this when she reminds me she's just a kit."
"She's happy for us," Tom said. "I love her so much. Hey, don' look at me like that!"
"Well, remember who you love, then," Jonathan pouted. A quick kiss to the cheek soon changed his sour face to a smile. "All right, you win. I love her, too."
"Jonathan, dear," granma Rosalyn said once the boys had started eating again. "You really should talk to your mother before the celebration starts. She feels terrible about what happened yesterday. You know she had nothing to do with that, right?"
"Yeah, I know." The fox boy's face darkened. "I'm not mad at her. I was just mad at everybody."
"Then you should tell her that."
With that, granma Rosalyn stood up, put away her glass and left the kitchen. Tom pondered her words while he ate the last of his bacon. Jonathan had told him all about it last night. He had been furious when it was clear that Tom was missing, and many harsh words had been spoken. Afterwards, there hadn't really been time for making apologies. They were just cleaning the dishes when Theena came in. Jonathan hesitated for a moment, then flung himself into her arms. Tom dried his hands, then left the two foxes alone. The hall between the kitchen and the main entrance was empty save for a little kit. Not so little anymore, Tom thought to himself. James would soon turn eight, would soon be the same age as Tom had been when he proposed to his husband. Husband... The word had a good ring to it. A true ring, now.
"Are you really, like, my brother now?" James asked, tilting his head slightly. "Now that you and Jonathan are married, I mean?"
"Yeah, you could say that," Tom answered. "We're brothers-in-law."
"What's that mean?"
"Well," Tom said, trying to find words that were easy to say. "It's when a guy marries your brother or sister. He's your brother-in-law."
"Oh." The kit's eyes lit up, and he smiled. "That's good. I like you. I'm gonna marry a boy, too."
"Yeah! Eric in my class. I'm gonna give him flowers soon as he turns eight. He's younger than me."
"Cool." Tom tousled the giggling boy's hair. "Do you love each other?"
"Yeah! We've kissed, like, loads of times! I think he's really cute, too."
"He a fox, like you?"
"Nah, he's a bunny. He's got the softest ears. I love touching 'em."
"That's great. Jus' make sure you talk to granma first."
"You think she'll let me?"
"Hope so." The kit took off at a run. "Good luck!"
Tom was still chuckling quietly when Jonathan came out of the kitchen, wiping at his eyes. He smiled warmly at Tom, opening his arms for a hug Tom was only too willing to give. It turned out that his talk with Theena had gone well, and mother and son had both apologised and forgiven each other. Tom told him about the potential new brother-in-law, and Jonathan laughed out loud.
"You know granma's gonna blame us for this. She so wants great-grandchildren." They both laughed. "Well, she could get Jean married. Or Jax, he'll be fifteen soon. Juliette doesn't seem to ever become a mother."
"I think granma's gonna be 'kay with it."
"Of course she will, but she'll still blame us."
True enough, granma Rosalyn cornered the boys before lunch and gave them a mock-scolding. They both laid their ears flat back against their skulls and pretended to be deeply ashamed with themselves, at least until they could no longer contain their giggles. And once the laughter had started, the old woman heartily joined in. She would talk to the head of Eric's family, she told them, and if everything went well there would be another boy wedding in four more years. Unable to resist sharing more wedding gossip she went on to tell them, with strict orders to keep it under their fur, that Joakim would soon get his flowers from a girl of a noble family from the neighbouring town. She refused to tell them more, despite their pleading, and forbade them to try and find out more. Jonathan relented, and so did Tom, realising that granma Rosalyn was now his head of family.
After lunch, the boys returned to their bedroom. The air was a bit stale in there, so Jonathan opened the window and pretended that the fresh gust of air only just saved his life. Tom blushed deeply as he made the bed with clean sheets. They were supposed to change back into their wedding suits for the celebration of their new life together, but somehow a glance here and a wink there led to a touch, a hug and a kiss. Before long they were rolling around on the bed, hands all over each other and lips locked together. They made it down to the dining room with very little time to spare.
The second ceremony of celebration was less formal than the wedding itself. The two of them stood up in front of the gathered friends and relatives, less than half as many as the day before, and once more proclaimed their love for one another and their intention to spend the rest of their lives together. Tom managed this with only a couple of stuttered words, while Jonathan choked on happy tears halfway through and had to start over. After that, the feast began. The boys walked around and chatted and shook hands, both smiling the whole time. Time passed more quickly than anyone would have thought, and it soon begun to darken. As people were leaving, Tom and Jonathan went out into the entrance hall to say goodbye. It took almost half an hour for everyone to get dressed, hug them and wish them luck, but soon all who were left were Alexanders, except for Tom's parents. They were just about to return to the dining room when the door opened and a figure wearing a cloak entered. Thinking it was someone who had forgotten something, Jax and Jenna went to see if they could help. But the figure didn't even acknowledge them. Instead, he pushed them roughly aside and pulled a small axe from beneath his cloak.
"Disgrace!" John bellowed, his eyes bloodshot and wild with uncontrolled rage. "I'll show you who's a disgrace!"
He advanced on Jonathan and raised his axe to strike, but before he got there Theena and Joakim tackled him and brought him down. Xander and Ben hurried to help. Screaming with fury, John managed to get one arm free, and he threw the axe at Jonathan with deadly accuracy. It did not reach its target, though. Tom, his insides cold with fear, pushed his husband out of harm's way, but in doing so he lost his balance and stumbled right in front of the axe. Its blunt side hit him in the head with a crunching noise, and sharp pain shot through him from his temple. Tom stood and swayed for a second while the axe clattered to the ground, then his eyes met Jonathan's just before he fell. He was unconscious before he had even hit the ground.
* * * * * *
His whole head was burning with pain when he woke up again. People were all around him, some shouting, some sobbing. Someone was dabbing a piece of wet cloth against the side of his head, holding him gently. He saw Jonathan's tear-filled eyes gaze lovingly down at him, and he opened his mouth to say something reassuring.
But no sound escaped his lips.
Inside his mind, every thought seemed suddenly fuzzy, incomprehensible. The words that had always formed so easily in his head were now a chaotic jumble, and his blurred speech was now nothing but silence. Panic welled up within him, but before it could claim him completely he fainted again.
* * * * * *
The next time darkness turned to light he was lying in a bed, dressed in his pyjamas. There were several others in the room, but even though he knew them he could no longer form names inside his head. One of them was a stranger, though, a stranger dressed in white.
"The damage is severe," he said, but the words held no meaning at all to Tom. "I cannot tell when he will be back to normal, if ever."
Someone was crying, a teenaged fox girl Tom knew, and felt a strong fondness for. An elderly fox lady wiped tears from her eyes and saw the stranger out. Then Tom realised that there was movement on his other side, and he turned to see who it was. His heart leapt as he recognised... someone. A fox boy. He tried to find a name, tried to form words that would explain why he felt such strong love for this boy, but nothing came out of the buzzing cacophony that was his mind. Noting but love. Clearly this showed on his face, because the boy started crying, sobbing heavily as he hugged Tom tightly, whispering more incomprehensible words into his ear. He found comfort in this, though, and managed to fight off the rising panic as he hugged the boy back. Others came up and talked to him, kissing him or patting his head gently, but they could clearly tell that he no longer understood anything they said. They all looked sad, even more so when he tried to smile at them. In the end they left him alone with the fox boy, and that somehow felt right. The two of them belonged in that room, alone and together. He reached up and touched his head, mildly surprised to feel it covered in bandages. As he did, he noticed a ring on his finger. The fox who was hugging him had one just like it. Tom tried to think, but failed. The rings must mean something, something about the connection he felt with this boy. The love he felt. He touched the boy's face, and their eyes met. They smiled at one another, then the boy kissed him. Tom returned the kiss as best he could, the taste and the feeling of the soft lips against his own triggering memories. More words that meant nothing, but also images, feelings and even sounds. Moaning, whimpering sounds of pleasure, right here in this bed.
After a long while, the boy broke the kiss and sat up. He said something that Tom could not understand, then got to his feet, pulling Tom with him. They went into the next room, where the boy helped him undress and led him into a shower stall. There was a stool there, and he made Tom sit down on it, then proceeded to clean him with a wash cloth. It felt wonderful to Tom, not only the other boy's hands all over his body, but also the smells and the feeling of water and soap. After he was done, he sat on his stool and watched the boy as he washed himself, and new feelings stirred inside him. He wanted to touch this fox boy, wanted to let his hands explore every part of him. Wanted to bring back some of those pleasure sounds he had remembered. Once they were dried off, the boy changed his bandages and used a strong-smelling liquid to wash the side of his head. This hurt bad enough to bring tears to Tom's eyes, yet he stayed still, certain that this boy would never hurt him.
Tom was only mildly surprised when they returned to the bedroom leaving their clothes behind. This, too, felt right. The boy turned out the light, and they crept in beneath the blankets, cuddling up close. In the near-darkness, all Tom could see was the other's large, green eyes. The boy spoke softly to him, but Tom focused more on the smells and the feelings of closeness. He found that his mind worked better when he tried not to focus on words, but let himself be filled with images. The image that flooded back to him now was one of the two of them, standing in front of lots and lots of people, wearing beautiful white suits as they kissed. To help the memory, he kissed the boy, a kiss that was immediately returned with fervour. A name fluttered around inside Tom's mind, and this time it meant something. Jonathan. This boy was Jonathan. His Jonathan. He broke the kiss and tried to say the name, but all he managed was a weak smile. Jonathan said something, then playfully ran his fingers through Tom's chest fur, brushing against his nipples. The touch made Tom gasp, and he reciprocated by stroking Jonathan's face. The he had an idea, and took the fox boy's hand, holding it up to his own so that the rings touched. Jonathan nodded vigorously, smiling warmly as he spoke again.
"I love you, Tom."
The words told Tom nothing, but their meaning was crystal clear. He wanted so badly to say something back, but simply couldn't. Tears of frustration threatened to well up in his eyes, but then he thought of something. He was still holding Jonathan's hand, and he placed it against his chest, just over his fluttering heart. Then he moved their hands to Jonathan's chest, feeling the tap-tap-tap of the fox boy's rapid heartbeat. Jonathan smiled, his eyes misted as he leaned in for their most passionate kiss yet. Tom hugged him tightly, then rolled around so that Jonathan came to lie on top of him. Soon he was lost in bliss as the sounds of joy once more filled the room.
* * * * * *
Hours later, Tom still lay awake, gently hugging the bushy fox tail that lay draped across his chest. He was learning to think in pictures, smells and sounds instead of words, and it seemed to work. He knew now beyond a doubt that he and Jonathan were linked together forever. The rings meant that; they were symbols of their love. He called to his mind's eye the image of a smaller Jonathan, whom he was giving flowers. The same love had been there, even way back then. He stroked the fox boy's hair out of his eyes, then watched him breathe slowly for a while, before his eyelids started getting heavy. While he yawned widely, he found that he did not grieve the loss of words. It didn't matter. He had his Jonathan, and that meant everything. No words were needed when their love spoke so loud and clear. He kissed Jonathan's forehead one more time, then snuggled up to him and went to sleep, feeling safe and happy and with complete faith in the future to come. Everything was fine.