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Living In Want
by Andrew Kaiser
Andrew Kaiser -- all rights reserved
 

Ever Have a Feeling It's Going to Be One of Those Days?

"Leo Proudheart"

"Here" I really hate the first day of classes. I always have.

"Is there, uh, any nickname you go by or Leon or Leonardo or..." The professor trailed off, looking hopeful.

"No. My name is Leo, I don't have any nicknames, and besides, no one is really likely to mistake me for the other Leo in class." The professor looked distraught, obviously hoping for a little help, not wanting to ask a 6'4 lion-morph to change his name or pick a nickname.

"Oh, I suppose you're right," the professor said and continued to take attendance. The lion-morph in question looked at me quizzically, trying to decide if I was a smart-ass or just an asshole. I hope he decides on smart-ass because I don't want a big ass lion mad at me any more than my professor does.

The teacher finishes up, mangling the names of a few Chinese exchange students, and begins passing out the syllabus and course guide and paper guidelines and on and on ad nauseum. The lion-morph is still staring at me. I think he's trying to figure out the name thing. I get that a lot, when people hear or see my name they tend to assume I'm some lion scab. Strangely enough, I tend to get that more from scabs than norms. I think it's because a lot of them think they ought to hang together and be brothers and all that, and they assume I'm one of them. I can understand, I mean Leo Proudheart seems a bit of a silly name for a norm. Sometimes I think that my parents named me that on purpose in hopes that I'd actually become a lion. My folks are a bit weird like that.

The prof really doesn't have much to say, typical of a first day, and tells us to be back on Wednesday with the first chapter of our book read and quotes ready for discussion. Great. One of those types. Would someone please remind me why I felt the need to go to a small college "where the professors care and you aren't some anonymous number." It's really not that bad, I tell myself as I pack up my bag, at least I don't have some incompetent grad student teaching my class.

As I stand up to leave, I notice the lion is walking in my direction. It's funny, but he looks timid and insecure. He really isn't built for that look. He gets next to my desk and makes a little cough. It's obvious he wants to ask me something but he doesn't know where to begin. I look up and decide I'm going to make him talk first. He looks like a lost kitten and it's making me smile. I mean, sure he's only got a couple of inches on me, but at 6'1" and a soft but somewhat lean build I'm not the kind of guy who would make a 6'4" stacked lion nervous.

"So, your name's Leo, too?"

"Yeah." Come on. Surely he didn't get all nervous and come over here to ask me that.

"Leo Proudheart, that sounds like a name that a scab would have."

"Yeah, I get that a lot."

"Is that your real name?" OK, so he wants to go there. He probably wants to know if I'm a scab and can form shift or polymorph or whatever but doesn't want to be rude and just ask.

"Yeah." Ok, so I suck at conversation. If this were a story I was writing it would be much better. I'm a much better conversationalist if I can revise.

"I mean, your parents named you that, you didn't pick it... later?" Ok, so he just asked if I had the Flu. Maybe he's not the greatest conversationalist either.

"No, I've been stuck with this name since birth." Turnabout is fair play. "Is Leo your real name?"

"It's real enough now." Ouch. He definitely looked hurt. He must not have been a scab very long.

"It's funny, I mean, my parents are wildlife nuts and I thought they always wanted me to be some kind of animal scab, but..." I trail off as I realize that I'm talking about this in a classroom with a stranger.

"But?" He doesn't want to let this go.

"But I had the Flu and nothing happened. Listen, I was going to go get lunch..." Ok, so I said that a bit abruptly.

"Um, right, sure..." Oh crap, now he's got this sad kitten look. That bastard. I must be a complete sucker.

"Well if you wanted to come with..." Yep, complete sucker, but now Leo's got that kitten with a ball of yarn look, and I know it's too late to change my mind. I have no idea why I keep thinking of Leo as a kitten. He bears no relation to the cute little tabby I had when I was growing up, and even now he is showing off his decidedly un-kittenish fangs.

"I know this great restaurant. All you can eat fried chicken, and they even still let me in." Somehow it sounds like there's a story behind that. "Of course they charge me for two, and I can only stay for forty-five minutes, but still..." Definitely a story there.

"Sure, whatever." We start walking, and are soon off campus and headed in a direction I'm not familiar with. As we walked, we weren't really talking, be we exchanged white noise. How's the weather, will this class be any good, and other nonsense to pass the blocks. We were waiting for the light to change at an intersection when Leo got bashful again.

"Um, I was wondering..."

"Yeah?"

"Well, there's this website, and it's got a bunch of stuff on it and it's by a guy that goes by Leo Proudheart, and I was wondering..."

"You were wondering if it was me." Aha, now it makes sense. That explains the looks in class. He looked at me expectantly, and I suddenly wondered what I should tell him. Yes I run a website, probably the one in question, where I keep some art, music, and stories. Back toward the end of high school I was really big into the website, and kept www.theleo.co.de, aka The Leo Code, pretty up to date and got over a thousand hits a month. As of late I had lost interest in it. Even though there were few updates, I still regularly got a couple hundred hits a month. Ok, stall, "I have a website, but I'm not sure it's the one you're talking about."

"Oh, the website I'm talking about is The Leo Code, it's a great site, but it's not being updated much. It's a shame, too. His stuff is really good..." Don't say it. Please don't say it. "I really feel like I know him from all his work." You said it.

"But you don't." I don't mean for it to sound so bitter, but it does. This is why I didn't want to tell him. I want to stop right there, but I can't, "I get letters all the time from people who think they know me because of my stupid website." There's a lot of emotional stuff in my art, and people seem to think that everything in my art is biographical, that they know what type of person I am just by reading my stories, or listening to my music. "I've tried making friends with fans of my website before, and it either goes nowhere or goes to hell. They think they know what they're getting but they don't. I don't care how many times you've read all my stories or listened to all my songs, you still don't know!" The light has changed, but neither of us are moving.

"No, I don't." Great, now Leo is looking down and turning away. Dammit! I do not need another fanboy! His ears are all down, and his tail is so low it's scraping the ground. Dammit, why should I even care what he thinks, I only met him and hour ago! Leo is turning around to say something. Fuck, I made him cry?! Why can't he have a little backbone for the love of god, a thicker skin? Why does he make me so flustered? Why the hell is my vision going blurry?

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset--"

"No... No. Don't apologize. I didn't mean to fly off the handle, and you had no way of knowing..." good god, I'm letting him completely off the hook? What am I thinking? "Lets just forget all of this and have lunch, OK?"

Leo stood up a little straighter and his ears did this half-lift hopeful kind of gesture. In a way it was really sad, like the smile on a kid who usually gets picked last (or not at all) and he's suddenly picked third to last. He wiped his eyes, and I did the same, surprised at how wet they were. Was that almost a tear? I didn't think I did that sort of thing anymore. This lion is trouble, no doubt about it. I start to cross the street but the light has already changed back. Suddenly I start to laugh.

"What's so funny?" Leo looks confused.

"This is going to be nothing but trouble, isn't it." I say with a big grin. Leo pauses for a moment.

"Like a train wreck." he says with a straight face. "You can see it coming, but you can't stop it and you can't look away."

"Sounds about right." And with that we cross the street and head for lunch.

The Morning After

Leo sat in front of his computer, silently cursing the solitary blinking line flashing in his word processor. Blink blink blink. The cursor just never stopped blinking. It never moved, either. For precisely twenty two minutes the cursor stood still, silently mocking Leo with its continued blinking. Leo wished he could just close the window, shut off the computer, move on, go out, do something other than staring at the screen. Blink blink blink. He moved the mouse as the screen saver flashed into effect, bringing the arrow over the little black x that would close this infernal torture program, but he could not click it. Leo fought the urge to scream and instead took a deep breath.

"What am I doing." Leo asked the screen. "I've been sitting here for the past half hour and I can't come up with a single thing, and now I'm talking to myself." Leo paused and pondered. "If I keep this up they'll be sending along a straight jacket for me." But a little voice in his head answered, "oh please, if they locked people up for that they would have thrown away the key for you years ago." "Great, now I'm having a conversation with myself about talking to myself." Leo glared at the monitor, but the little voice in his head wouldn't shut up. "we've had this conversation before, you know." Leo just sighed and banged his head down on his keyboard. He sat there quietly for a while, wrestling his subconscience back under control, and finally looked up at the monitor. At least that cursor was no longer mocking him from the top left corner of the page. No, now it was laughing at him beneath the three lines of hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh that his nose had typed. Three lines of H. "I could get a song out of that," mused Leo.

Three lines of H, one for you, one for me, one for the devil cause the devil's got his fee.

Yeah. Play it dark and kinda slow, like Violent Femmes, but with a darker, Industrial edge. Repeat the hook, then add:

Screw you and the devil and I'll take 'em all for me.

I take three lines of H and now I'm floating in a black sea...

Hmm... maybe more like Nine Inch Nails, with dark trance overtones. Add the hook again and then:

I lay out three lines of H, take a sniff and say Whee!

But here comes the devil and he's comin' after me.

"God, where is this coming from? What could have possibly put me is such a black mood?" Leo's subconscious, recognizing a good straight line, comes popping back to life. "Gee, it couldn't possibly be that lion, I mean, that's not even possible."

"Whatever" Leo retorted to himself out loud. "I mean, I all we did was have lunch, and after we got kicked out of the restaurant, he went to work and I went to my afternoon class."

"All hail King Leo, ruler of deNile"

"You know, sometimes I really hate those voices in my head."

"Why," said the voices gleefully, "We keep you company, and besides, you know we're always riiiiiight." At this point Leo had had quite enough introspection for one day, and he saved the start of the song, shut down his computer and went into his kitchen. He grabbed the bottle of Stoli from the top of the refrigerator, and was reaching for a glass when he remembered he had to drive to work tonight. Dejected, he set the bottle on the counter and collapsed into a chair at his kitchen table.

"I wonder what they would say at work if I called in insane." Leo mulled it over in his head, imagining the conversation. "Hi, we're the voices inside Leo's head. We've got him a bit tied up right now, so he won't be in tonight." "Gee, that would be fun to explain." Leo sat back in his chair and felt his energy flow away, taking along with it his anger and bitterness.

"Ok," said Leo, "This is getting me nowhere. I've got to... to... I've got to figure out what I'm feeling." Leo sighed and continued. "Ok... Ok, Ok, Ok. I've been a mess since I met Leo yesterday. Why do I have such a problem with that? What is it about Leo that messes me up? I mean, sure he's big enough to rip my head off without thinking, but I'm not scared or anything. He's a scab, but so what? I've known enough scabs that that doesn't bother me. Why do I get so freaked out thinking of him? Yeah, I've only known him one day, but he hasn't been anything but nice in his shy little way. I mean, he probably would have asked for my freakin autograph. Since when do I say freakin? Since Leo winced every time I said fuck. Fuck Fuck Fuckety Fuck. Face it. He's only been nice and I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. It would be really stupid of me to think we're going to be anything more than acquaintances, or author/drooling fanboy. Yes. That's exactly why I spent half an hour in front of my computer trying to create an update for him. Why can't I lie to myself about him? What am I lying about? I like him. He's really nice and I would like to be his friend. I hope he feels the same way, and I hope he won't turn out to be a ass-- I mean jerk like so many of my other "friends". Was that so hard?" Leo looked at his shoes, and without another word headed off to work.

Lunch Reduex

Yeah. Wednesday. I've got my class with the lion again. I've decided I'm looking forward to it. I get to class a bit early and take a seat on the aisle. I wonder if we'll get lunch again. I probably shouldn't get my hopes up. He'll probably just say hi, and leave it at that. It's not like we're going to do anything, or have plans or anything. Jeeze, maybe I just need to chill. I'm getting jumpy, and the last thing I need to do is look like an idi--

"Ahh!" Something just poked me, and I about jumped out of my seat.

"Someone needs to lay off the caffeine."

"Very funny, someone should learn to keep their claws to themselves." Of course it's just Leo, and I feel hopelessly stupid for jumping, but it's a little late to do anything about that. He is standing next to me, towering over me, and he puts one of his paws on my shoulder. I'm not expecting it and I flinch. I hope he doesn't catch it, but he cocks his head a bit and sniffs.

"Just how much caffeine did you have this morning?" Yeah, he's got the senses of a lion, of course he catches it. How could he not.

"I'll have you know that caffeine doesn't do a thing for me. That's why I smoke crack." I swear, I could actually hear the splat as that joke fell flat on its face. I just got the standard motherly disapproval look. "Gee mom, I'm sorry, it was just a joke." Leo winced, but grinned at being called mom. He scooted past me and sat down at the desk next to me.

"Hey, I was wondering, do you have any plans for after class?" I swear that lion should go into advertising. He's got this look that would make you do anything.

"No, not really anything special." I perk up a bit, because I know he's going to ask me to have lunch with him.

"I was thinking, maybe we could, you know, get lunch again." I love it when I'm right. Of course, our prof decides to begin class at that exact moment, so our conversation is curtailed in favor of literary critique.

Class passes rather quickly, the professor not only is smart, but he can teach, and is entertaining to boot. I think we have a winner. Fifty short minutes later, the professor wraps up discussion and reminds us of our ridiculously huge reading assignment for Friday. I swear, it must be some kind of law that professors must assign obscene amounts of reading every week. Of course, this being an English course our esteemed professor feels obligated to double the usual amount of weekly reading. I ought to save the sour grapes for winemaking. Anyway, I have lunch to look forward to.

As we're packing up our notes Leo speaks up, "So, what do you think about lunch?"

"Sounds great, did you have anything in mind?"

"Actually I was wondering if you'd want to come to my apartment and I could cook, I've been trying to save money by avoiding restaurants."

"You realize that as a college student, when someone offers home cooking I am contractually obligated to accept." I grin at my own joke, and continue on, "Are you far away?"

"Not really, just ten to fifteen minutes walking."

"Then by all means, lead the way." As we start walking I begin to get a bit nervous. I barely know Leo, and here I am, going to his house. I don't usually do that. I barely know him, and for all I know he might be crazy. Except I trust him for some reason. That's scarier than anything. It's a really nice late summer day, with a warm breeze blowing. We're walking in silence, but it's a comfortable silence. There's no pressure to make conversation, and we simply walk, enjoying each other's company. As we walk, I take a closer look at Leo. Scabs may be a horrible thing to go through, but looking at Leo, I wonder if that's really true. I mean, he's part lion, king of beasts and all that. He's got this big regal mane, and a face that is strong and impassive. Between that and his sheer size, he could be seriously scary. I wouldn't want to be at this business end of his claws and fangs. His eyes are really soulful though. Sometimes, when he's laughing or smiling, they sparkle. They definitely aren't frightening. That and his tail. His tail has a mind of its own, and today in class, when he though no one was looking, he started nibbling on the tip of it. The all of the sudden, he realized what he was doing, and whipped his tail back down around his ankles. It was so cute.

Today he's wearing jogging shorts and a tight t-shirt that shows off his impressive chest. Scabs or no, he must work out a lot to keep that build. Suddenly I get a flash of him in a tux, sipping a martini and saying, "Johnson, Leo Johnson." It makes me chuckle, and Leo looks over at me.

"What's so funny?" I grin like an idiot and shake my head.

"Nothing."

"Oh, yeah?" Leo rumbles in a baritone with more than a little growl in it, "We have ways of making you talk." he continues in a bad Russian accent.

"Do your worst, I'll never talk" I retort, full of bravado.

"Very well, keep your foolish little secret. It will not save you from my plan." With that voice, Leo'd make a hell of a movie villain.

"Gasp, what plan?" I play along for a bit.

"I cannot tell you until I have you in an elaborate death trap from which there is no escape." Leo's got that twinkle in his eye.

"Oh, well then. I don't suppose you'd mind if we had lunch first, I don't fancy dying with an empty stomach." Leo just grins and gestures to a nearby door.

"By all means." Leo leads me into his apartment. It isn't large, but it's quite tastefully furnished. It's quite clean, too. Either he's a neatnik or he was planning this. I look around the apartment and take stock. It's much nicer than the typical student place, the couch looks decently new and there isn't usual stack of mix'n'match electronics typical of student life, though there is a nice looking computer at a desk in the corner sporting a large pair of speakers. Leo stood watching me as I evaluated his apartment, and when I had completed my cursory examination he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Well?"

I couldn't help it, and again flinched at his touch. Leo frowned and withdrew his hand. I smiled and said "I like it, it's nice." but some how it didn't seem to fit, and my smile died when confronted by Leo's frown.

"What? Is it because I'm a scab?" Leo looked hurt, and a little angry.

"No, isn't--"

"Is it these?" Leo brought up his hand and extended his claws like switchblades.

"It has nothing to do with you." I reach up and hold his hand, claws and all. I find that it's too difficult to look at Leo's face, so I just look at his hand. Leo doesn't say anything. I want to tell him... I can't believe I'm about to say this. I've only known Leo for two days, and this is something that I hadn't told any of my other friends. I feel I owe him the truth. I don't want him to think it's him. I take a deep breath and began:

"I'm just not comfortable with physical contact with people my own age." I manage to look up at Leo's face, and he seems a bit bewildered. I had to look down to continue. "It comes from school, when I was younger. Back then the only time anyone touched me was to hit me. I got used to it. I had to, the teachers couldn't stop it, and eventually I learned to keep my distance. It became reflex. Even after the beating eventually stopped, I still couldn't get close to anyone." I looked at Leo's hand, and the claws were gone. It was shaking, but I couldn't tell if it was his hand or mine. He dropped my hand and pulled me into a massive hug.

"I'm so sorry." he whispered. I didn't trust my voice to reply. I accepted the hug, and I tried to relax, but I had spent too much time afraid to let it go. I couldn't stop shaking, and for all Leo tried to comfort me, the worse I became. I didn't even have the coordination to push him away. Eventually I couldn't hold back and began to cry. At that point I half-heartedly tried to break the hug, but Leo just kept holding me. "It's ok." he kept whispering. After a while he set me down on his couch. I would have resented it, except I don't think I could do anything. The world went bye bye for a moment while some of the demons I'd been trying to get rid of retreated a few paces.

I was vaguely aware that Leo was in the other room. I sniffed a good bit, and wiped my face on my shirt. I did my best to pull myself together. I heard music playing. Leo must have put it on. "If you want to, I can save you, I can take away from here, so lonely inside, so busy out there and all you wanted was somebody who cares" That Leo is one smooth cat.

He appeared in front of me, shoving a mug of tea into my hands. I looked up at him questioningly.

"It's what my mother did whenever I cried." he said plainly. I took a sip. It was very good tea.

"What is that song?" Leo shifted a little, uncomfortable that I had noticed the lyrics to the song.

"It's really old. It was in my dad's music collection, and I really liked it. It meant a lot to me when I was growing up." Leo looked a bit uncomfortable. Of course who was I to talk, just a few minutes ago I was sobbing in his arms. He started to talk.

"Listen, I really didn't mean... I mean, I--"

"No, it's Ok. It's not your fault. You had no way of knowing, and really, I'm... I'm glad I told you."

"Really?"

"Really. I've needed to get this off my chest for a long time. I hadn't realized that I was still so bitter and afraid." I sighed, and went on. "Maybe now I can really move on instead of trying to forget." I knew it wouldn't be that easy, but at least it was a start. I looked up, "Now how about lunch, I'm bloody starving over here." Leo gave a sad little half smile and wandered into the kitchen.

"You gonna help, or are you going to sit there like a lump." I got up and joined Leo in the kitchen.

A Treatise on Saving the Drama Fo Yo Mama

My god. What happened to me? One week ago I was a normal sane college student. I kept to myself, minded my own business and didn't have any problems. At least nothing that wasn't small or ordinary. College is just a series of small crisises, crisies, whatever the plural of crisis is. They aren't real, and the surely don't result in breaking down sobbing in the arms of someone you've only know for three days. And a guy at that. I mean, I hadn't really cried since my grandpa died five years ago.

That's ok, I'm better now. I am in control. It's Friday. I'm not really sure what happened to Thursday, but I was at work for a while, and I think some stuff happened, and now it's Friday. I have class with Leo, but that's ok. I like Leo, he's nice. I am not going to go nuts in his presence today. I also can't have lunch with him. That sounded wrong. I've got to work right after class, so I can't do anything today. Better. Ok, time to go to class. I'm looking forward to this. I like the professor, the class is interesting. I'm ready.

"Hey Leo, what's up?"

"Not much, how are you" Leo seems totally cool with not bringing up Wednesday.

"It's been a hell of a week, and I'm glad it's over." Leo may not be cool with swearing, but after the week I've had, even he had better admit it's an apt description.

"So what are you up to?" You have got to be kidding. After our first two consecutive meetings have turned into insane emotional outbursts he still wants to do something. Three times in a week even. Is that normal? It seems like an awful lot to me, but then I don't have very many friends, either. Heck, maybe we've even kind of bonded. I mean, I told him all that stuff...

"Not much. I've got an afternoon shift today and I'll have to hurry if I'm going to make it on time." He doesn't seem very upset, maybe he wasn't especially keen on lunch again either.

"S'cool. Gotta pay the bills somehow." Alright, normal conversation. I can handle this. Leo continued, "Listen, tomorrow night is retro night at this little club downtown. Some of my friends were gonna go and are dragging me along."

"Dragging? I thought you liked retro music."

"The music I like, and that's the only way they could get me to go. I'm not usually down with places that play the music twenty decibels above my pain threshold and stink from cigarette smoke and old beer."

"You have a point."

"Yeah, do you have any idea how hard it is to get the smell of smoke out of fur? Especially when your nose is twice as sensitive as it is now?" Leo made a disgusted face, not a pretty picture on a lion.

"I knew there was a reason I avoided those places."

"So I figured if you come with me, I won't have to suffer alone."

"What about your friends?"

"They're club bunnies. They like that sort of thing." Leo shook his head in bewilderment. "Besides, they'll spend most of the night dancing, and I'll spend most of the time in the corner, regretting that I never got custom earplugs made."

"Gee that sounds like fun."

"So you'll go?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world." At that point the professor came in and we began class. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. This man can teach! It's rare to find someone who both knows what he's talking about and can teach it to others, but this guy is amazing. All too soon, class is over, and I didn't think I'd ever say that. I'm quickly stuffing my notes into my bag and heading to the door when Leo stops me.

"Hey, I'll give you a call about the club, ok?"

"Yeah, let me give you my number." I grab the pen from his hand and quickly scribble my number on the back of his notebook. "I've gotta run so I won't be late. See ya."

"See ya."

I am very proud of myself as I quickly walk across campus to my job. I had an entire conversation with no unpleasant emotional outbursts. Of course, that was rather a limited meeting, just a few minutes before class, but still, it's a start. Now I just have to avoid making a fool of myself in front of his friends at the club, and I'll be all set.

Leo called the next afternoon with the details for that night. While the club was a bit of a walk, it was well within stumbling distance of home, so they decided to meet at Leo's and walk so we didn't have to worry about parking or picking a designated driver. We arranged to meet at quarter after ten, with the full knowledge that we probably wouldn't get to the club till eleven at the earliest.

I showed up on Leo's doorstep at ten thirteen. It's a thing I have, I can't stand to be late, even if I know things won't be starting on time anyway. Leo answered the door with his shirt half buttoned.

"Oh wow. Someone who is on time. Come in, sorry I'm not ready, but knowing the others I have another fifteen minutes to half an hour." I looked at Leo's shirt, and couldn't help but smirk. It was an electric blue, made of some kind of shimmery, silky synthetic and in big silver letters across the front it said Party Animal. Leo caught my smirk and looked down, "Oh, sorry," he said quickly buttoning up the shirt looking abashed.

"It's not that... Party Animal?" Leo looked even more embarrassed, if that is possible.

"It was a gift from my friends." Leo looked down at his paws. "They got it for me after I umm... came down with Scabs." I could tell Leo didn't really want to talk much about it, but he pressed on, "They wanted to show me that they still liked me and stuff and wanted to hang out and stuff."

"That's nice."

"Yeah."

There was a pause where neither of us really knew what to do, and then Leo straightened up and offered me a drink while he finished getting ready. Slowly Leo's friends trickled in, and at ten thirty we were only waiting on one more.

"Where is Roger?" Leo was getting impatient.

Steve, a norm who personified average, piped up, "Oh come on. You know he's always horribly late. He should be here soon, I told him we were meeting at nine forty-five." Sure enough, there was a knock on the door, and without waiting to be let in, Roger walked in. Thankfully everyone burst out laughing at the same time, which covered my own laughter. Leo had described his friends as club bunnies, and in Roger's case it was literal. Roger was a scab with great big bunny ears and a cute little snout, but otherwise he was pretty much normal. He was not amused by the laughter.

"What?" Annoyance didn't really fit on his face, so when he narrowed his eyes, he just looked sleepy, but there was no mistaking the annoyance in his voice as he said "What?" again.

"Nothing, nothing, you just have impeccable timing as usual." Said Steve.

"Whatever, let's get going. The club closes at two, and if we wait any longer, we might as well not go." Leo's words got everyone moving, and en masse, we headed out the door for the club.

The walk to the club was uneventful, for me at least because they spent the entire time gossiping about someone I didn't know. I might as well have known him by the time we got to the club though. Mental note: don't tell these people anything I don't want repeated. At any rate we go into the club and I immediately head to the bar to get something to drink. I shout my order over the throbbing beat of some turn of the century techno, and turn around, watching Leo's friends disperse into the dancing mob. I pay for my drink and take my vodka tonic over to Leo, who stands poised at the edge of the mob, apparently debating whether to join or run.

Leo sees me, sees that I have a drink in my hand and nods with his head toward a quieter corner of the club where there are tables and a few benches. Leo heads to the bar and shortly returns with something clear and fizzy in a plastic cup. I could say we sat in silence, but that would be a lie. We weren't trying to talk, but the music was plenty loud enough to make up for that. I saw Roger's ears popping up from time to time on the dance floor and decided to join the crowd.

I drained the last of my cup and crunched a bit of the ice. I then threw the cup in a nearby trash barrel. I motioned to the dance floor and shouted to Leo, "You coming?"

"Maybe later." I saw as much as heard it, and nodded as I waded into the dancing sea of humanity. I like dancing every so often, and I was starting to loosen up as I worked the floor. Roger was a shameless flirt, dancing with anyone and everyone. Leo hadn't been kidding about the club bunny thing, Roger was definitely at home on the dance floor. I caught sight of Steve several times, at least I think I did, it was hard to tell amid the flashing strobes, mirror balls and other funky lighting effects. After a few high energy songs I was a bit winded and went to get another drink. As I picked up my vodka tonic I noticed Leo heading back to the corner with a fresh cup and joined him. After a few minutes of rest Roger came over to get Leo on the dance floor and was prepared to bodily drag him if necessary. He looked at me for sympathy, or maybe an excuse, but I just laughed and shoved him in the direction of the dancing crowd.

He loosened up a bit once he reached the dance floor, and shortly he started to really get into the music. He was a really good dancer. Must be that feline grace. He was relaxing, and dancing really well, and people started to watch. The end of the song came and, panting, he headed to the bar and came back with a fresh drink. The scene repeated itself with various members of our group, dancing, drinking, resting, and then dancing again. By the time last call had come around I was resting more than dancing and had went through the twenty dollars I'd brought for liquor.

The club was clearing out, and the music was cut off. We grouped up around the entrance to the club.

"Hey, there's an after party a few blocks away, you up for it?" Roger seemingly had boundless energy. I wonder where he got it, because I could sure use some.

"No, even if I had the cash, I don't have the energy. It's time to go home and crash."

"You guys go ahead. I've had enough for one night." Leo was looking a bit out of it, and his friends said their goodbyes and headed off to club land to dance the rest of the night away.

"Man, I can't remember the last time I've had that much to drink." Leo may have been acting the part, but it was time to call his bluff.

"Yeah. Tonic water sure takes it out of you." Leo shot me a glance but kept quiet. "You do realize that when you get a clear alcoholic drink at a club they almost always put a garnish in it, slice of lemon, lime, whatever. Even if they don't do that, they always put one of those worthless little stir straw things in it. And even if they don't do that, you seem to forget that I have a nose, too. I know the smell of alcohol, and there was none to be found in what you were drinking."

"Alright Mr. Detective." Leo straightened up.

"Hey, I don't care if you don't want to drink. You don't have to act like you are if you don't want to. I've had plenty of friends that liked clubs but didn't drink." Leo may have given up the drunk act, but he was still sullen and melancholy. We walked for a block in silence. Finally I asked, "Are you alright? You don't seem like yourself."

"I'm fine." Let's just say I wasn't convinced.

I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "If you don't want to talk about it, it's ok. But if you do ever want to talk about it, I'll listen."

"Thanks." We continued walking and soon reached the corner where Leo would turn to go to his apartment, and I would turn to go to mine. Leo turned and slowly started down his street.

"I mean it. If you ever want to talk just give me a call."

"Yeah. See you Monday?"

"Yeah." I watched Leo walk for a bit, then hurried home to bed.

I Don't Like Monday

My alarm clock is ringing. It's Monday again. I hate Monday. Monday is painful. I listen to my alarm clock ring for longer than necessary before turning it off.

Two hours later, Monday isn't quite so bad. I may not be happy about it, but I'm functional. I've got class with Leo, and that's nice, but at the same time I'm apprehensive about it. I don't know if I want to do something with him, or if I should back off for a bit. I'm not used to being around the same person so much voluntarily. I mean, I had a roommate for the first year in school, but we didn't really do that much, just sort of coexisted. Plus the last time I saw Leo, he wasn't looking too happy. Things are moving so quickly. I'm really not used to... whatever this is. I really ought to back off, take things slower. Except I've been able to talk to him, and I've told him stuff that I haven't managed to tell any of my other friends. I don't really have other friends. I have acquaintances, not friends. I'm just so damned confused about the whole thing. Maybe I should ask Leo what he thinks.

I got to class early, hoping Leo would show up, but he wasn't there. It got closer and closer to class time, but he still didn't show up. Finally, after the professor had arrived, just before he began to lecture, Leo rushed in and took a seat next to me. He looked agitated, and he didn't say hi, but just pulled out his notebook as the professor began to lecture.

Class was good as usual, but I couldn't really concentrate on it. Leo was sitting next to me, his tail lashing, and showing a lot more teeth than normal. Sometimes I even caught him growling softly. It was painful to wait out the fifty minutes, and even more painful when the professor continued on for another four minutes after class was officially over. Leo stood up quickly and began shoving his stuff into his bookbag.

"Hey Leo, is everything ok?" I asked.

"Look, I can't really talk right now. Can I give you a call tonight?"

"Yeah, sure." It wasn't exactly reassuring, so I asked again, "You're alright, right?"

Leo sighed and said, "I've got some business stuff that I need to take care of, and it has to get done as soon as possible. I'll give you a call later, and maybe I can explain over dinner."

"Ok." And with that, Leo was swiftly out the door and gone.

I went home and found myself with nothing to do. It was entirely too much to sit and do nothing while I waited for Leo to call, so I busied myself with the day to day stuff of life. I ran some errands, went shopping, did some laundry. At four thirty I found myself back in my apartment, waiting for the phone to ring. I hated myself for it, but I sat and waited for the phone to ring. Eventually, at a quarter to six, the phone rang.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Leo?" It was him.

"Yeah, what's up?"

"Uh, I'm kinda..." Leo sounded really drained.

"Ok, why don't you come over, I'll make dinner, and you can relax." I heard Leo take a deep breath on the other end of the line, and make a few non-commitment noises. I expected him to say no, but then he quietly said he would come. I quickly gave him directions and began making preparations for dinner.

By the time Leo rang my doorbell fifteen minutes later dinner was well underway. I opened the door and pulled Leo straight into the kitchen and handed him a glass of bubbly white wine. He opened his mouth to protest but I preempted him. "I know, I know, you don't normally drink. Trust me." Leo had a dead, haunted look in his eyes. He opened his mouth wide and poured the glass down his throat.

"Easy there big guy." I took his glass and refilled it. "I want you to taste it this time." I handed him his glass back and stepped over to the counter. I poured some nice extra virgin olive oil on a plate and took a loaf of crusty bread out of the oven's warming drawer. I put the bread and oil on the kitchen table and said, "Help yourself. Dinner is in twenty two minutes." I turned back to the stove, put a covered dish in the oven and turned the gas to the front burner on. I turned back to face Leo and saw him swirling and sniffing his wine.

"So, what's the problem?"

"This is nice wine, what is it?" Leo didn't take his eyes off the bubbles in his glass.

"Prosecco, it's an Italian sparkling white. It took me forever to find it here in America." I turned to the stove, and judged the oil in the pan on the front burner was sufficiently hot. I threw in two generous handfuls of abborio.

"What are we having? I smell chicken soup."

I grinned and said, "Not quite. The chicken bouillon is for the risotto, that and roast chicken and vegetables." Leo slowly nodded. I sighed and began to stir the rice. "Has there been sufficient small talk for you to now tell me what is bothering you?"

"I don't suppose it could wait until we've eaten." I turned to look at Leo, and he looked utterly unhappy. Why can't I say no to him?

"Very well." I turn back to the risotto and splash in some Prosecco. "Why don't you put on some music. The discs are by the player, and for the love of god, don't play anything too depressing." As Leo went over the stereo I went to the table and helped myself to some bread. Leo came back to the table as the sound of my re-mastered, remixed best hit trance compilation came over the stereo. "Nice choice."

"It was the only thing I recognized."

"Now that's surprising, I've got a fair bit of oldies myself." Leo just shrugged and tore himself a hunk of bread. The next twenty odd minutes were tortuous, as several times I attempted to engage Leo in conversation and failed each time. Finally, after I'd stirred the cream into the risotto and was shredding parmesan cheese into it Leo stood and came over to me.

"I'm sorry, it's just..."

"The risotto is ready."

I pulled the dish of chicken and vegetables from the oven and placed it on the table. I freshened up our wineglasses and sat down. We ate in silence.

"That was good. Thanks for cooking."

"Sure. Thanks." I put the dirty dishes in the sink and started the coffee maker. I turned to Leo. "Ready?"

Leo nodded, his eyes flashing in the light. We went from the kitchen to the living room. Ok, so technically it's all the same room, but that's the side where the rug and comfortable seats were. Leo took a seat on the couch and I sat across from him in my only other chair.

"Ok, I got a letter in the mail on Saturday from my lawyer. He wanted a meeting as soon as possible. He said there was something wrong with my trust fund."

"You have a trust fund?" I let out a low whistle. "I wish I had one."

Leo gave me an anguished look and put his paws over his eyes. "I wish I didn't." he whined. He took his paws away and the fur around his eyes was glistening. "The money in the trust fund came from my parents' life insurance."

"Oh." I wished I could have said something better, but the realization was a bit of a shock.

"It was a car accident. I was ten and my parents were going out to see a movie. They didn't come back. It was a drunk driver. I... It..." Leo trailed off and I moved to the couch, putting my arm around him. I wanted to say something comforting, but there wasn't anything to say, so I just held him. Eventually he continued.

"Anyway, the money from the life insurance was put in a trust fund, and I can use it to pay for school, and I get complete control of it when I graduate. But then I met with my lawyer today, and he says that one of the accountants that worked on the trust fund had been embezzling. He's been caught, but there isn't much money left. This semester has been paid for, and there will be some money next semester, but not enough, and I don't know what I'm going to do." At this point Leo broke down into incoherent sobs. I hugged him a bit tighter and tried to reassure him.

"It'll be ok. Money isn't that hard to come by. We'll find a way to work it out."

"I'd have given it all back and more to have them back, but now it's gone and I've got nothing."

"Shhh. I know. But you don't have nothing. You've still got your memories, and love, and that's all that really counts. It counts for a hell of a lot more than money does." Leo sat and cried.

"I miss them so much. It's been so long." Leo's tears ran out, but he kept sobbing. He had probably been crying all afternoon. "And then last year I got scabs, and I though I was going to die, and I hoped I would cause then I could see my parents and I wouldn't have to be alone, but instead I became a monster."

"Stop right there. You are NOT a monster. Don't ever think that. You aren't alone, either." Leo checked out for a bit, just silently shaking. I held him and rocked him, and eventually he fell asleep. I covered him with a throw blanket I kept by the couch and went into the kitchen. I poured myself a mug of coffee laced with Fra Angelico, ok, more than laced, probably half brandy, half coffee. I then sat down across from Leo, sipping until I too fell asleep.

A Change in Perspective

I was mostly asleep, but I rolled over, and suddenly everything smelled wrong. That jarred me awake, and for a moment I wondered where I was. I looked around, not recognizing my surroundings, when I spotted Leo asleep in an overstuffed chair. That's when I remembered what happened, and where I was, and why I was there. I stood up to get a drink of water, and my head started spinning. I stood and waited for the sensation to pass, and silently padded into the kitchen.

I stood, opening up unfamiliar cupboards looking for a bowl I could lap out of, and replayed the night's events in my mind. I wanted to be mad at Leo. He made me drink, he made me cry, he... didn't force me to do any of that. I wanted to be mad, but I didn't have the emotional energy. I was really upset with myself for breaking. I didn't drink, I don't cry, I can't...

I noticed the top of the refrigerator. There were eight-- no nine, ten bottles at various levels. Vodka, gin, rum, from brands I'm not really familiar with, plus a bunch of other bottles I didn't even recognize. A nearly empty bottle of bright red Campari, whatever that was, a mostly full bottle of uh... Martini & Rossi Dry Vermouth. There was even a funny little bottle that looked like a monk. I turned back to the counter and noticed six bottles of wine in a wine rack mounted under a cabinet. I've been to parties with less booze than this guy just has lying around.

I returned to my search for a bowl, and shortly came up with something satisfactory. Normally if I'm with someone, or in public I'll use a cup, even if it is more difficult, but Leo's asleep, and I really don't care at this point. I fill the bowl from the tap and begin lapping up the water. I hear Leo shift in his chair, and continue to lap. Crap. Now he's getting up, and I'll get caught lapping up water. I set the bowl down and wipe off my mouth. Leo yawned and walked into the kitchen.

"Feeling any better?"

"Yes and no." Leo cocked his head to the side, hoping for elaboration. "I'm calmer, but I still haven't really sorted anything out. It's going to take some time."

"I understand." I didn't want to believe he could, but then again last week he had been the one crying in my arms. Maybe he could. "You said you wanted to die."

"That was then."

"And now?" He would have to bring that up. I looked at him, and I wanted to lie. I wanted to say everything is ok, and I'm fine, but...

"Not so much." Leo recognized that for what it was. He came up next to me and gave me a hug.

"Please don't. I know it sounds selfish, but I think you might be my only real friend." I was a bit stunned.

"Shhh. Don't worry. It won't come to that. You're stuck with me." I pondered a minute, and couldn't help but to ask, "Am I really your only friend?"

"Kind of. I know a lot of people, some of them fairly well, but I can't really talk to them. Not about my feelings and stuff. I couldn't hug any of them." As if to reinforce the point, he tightens his hug a bit and then lets go. I sat down at the kitchen table and sighed.

"We're both messed up, aren't we." Leo opened a cabinet and pulled out a cup. He filled it with water and then sat down at the table and-- and he brought my bowl with him, and set it down in front of me.

"Probably." He looked at me, and I know I look mortified. I did not want anyone to know about that. He paused, then said, "I really don't care how you drink you know. Just don't go marking my sofa, ok?" And he said it in such a deadpan.

I sputtered, "I-- but-- I don't-- "

"Don't worry. It was just a joke in very poor taste. Forget about it. And I really don't care how you drink." I found my throat to be very dry, and self consciously lapped up a few mouthfuls of water.

"So now what. We know each other's deepest darkest secrets--" Leo grinned and interrupted.

"Don't presume." I raised my eyebrow, but continued on.

"So know you know my deepest darkest secret, what now?"

"Well, if you want, you can go home, otherwise I could get some blankets and you could sleep on the couch." I think I missed something, so I just cocked my head in confusion. "It is still Monday night, and I've got class in the morning, and I assume you have business to attend to as well. This isn't some earth shattering, life altering thing. At least, it doesn't have to be. It's just something that happened and now we move on."

"I suppose you're right, and I would like to brush my teeth, I've probably got some fierce lion breath right now." I took a deep breath and tried to pull myself together. Leo noticed that I wasn't all there.

"You're sure you're ok?" I nodded, but Leo didn't seem too convinced. "You're really alright? You don't have to go if you don't want to..." Now I was even more confused. Did he actually want me to stay? It's getting to be too much. I need some fresh air to clear my head.

"I'll be fine. Besides, I sleep better in my own bed." Leo nodded, as if taking a mental note.

"We'll talk about this again, when we're both more genki."

"Genki?"

"Sorry, it's a Japanese word. It means energetic, lucid, ok, happy."

"I see. Yeah, that sounds about right." I stood up to go, and so did Leo. He followed me to the door.

"Call me tomorrow, ok?" He tried to sound calm, but it was clear from the tone and his scent that he was nervous.

"Ok, I will, and don't worry. I'll be fine. I always am."

"Yeah. So am I. Make sure you call." Leo sounded really dead when he said that. I guess maybe I don't know his deepest secret. Still, I just nodded and walked out. "Talk to you tomorrow." he said softly.

I walked home slowly. It was only a little past midnight, not that late. I tried to think about what was happening, but I couldn't. I was just too empty. I had been wrung out, used up, there wasn't anything else in me. I didn't even have the energy to feel bad as I brushed my teeth and fell into bed.

Coming Clean

I spent the next day worrying about Leo. I knew he was going to talk to his lawyer some more, and see the people at financial aid. I thought maybe that being a lion, he could safely go into the lion's den, but the people at financial aid aren't lions, they're vampires. Because of those four little words, small private liberal arts, this college was obscenely expensive, and they make a habit of cutting everyone's aid package every year. Frankly Leo should be glad that he has three years paid for. Some of us aren't so lucky. Honestly, Leo should come out many thousands of dollars ahead of most graduating college students. Still, the first visit, and many subsequent visits, to the financial aid office can be traumatizing. Particularly if you aren't accustomed to the alphabet soup of student aid.

Leo called in the evening and sounded drained. I told him to come over and we could order pizza. He showed up at my door shortly thereafter, and when I opened the door, he reminded me of a pitiful little kitten that had been abandoned. He walked in and plopped face first on to my couch where he had been sleeping last night. I walked over and asked, "So what kind of pizza are we getting?"

"Are you ordering from Cappelli's?"

"We can if you want, I usually just order from whoever stuck a coupon in my mailbox that week."

"I usually get a large carnivore special from Cappelli's, cause they're the only ones who deliver a pizza with raw meat and low fiber crust."

"I thought you ate normally?"

"I can eat whatever I want, but I can only handle so much carbohydrates and roughage without getting really bad indigestion. Plus normal pizza is always so greasy."

"Right, Cappelli's it is." I went to the phone book and looked up the number. I called and got a man with a really thick Italian accent. I ordered Leo's carnivore special, and then got myself a pizza with spinach, tomatoes, green peppers, and broccoli. I heard him call the order out to someone else, then he said, "Hurry it up, or one of my customers will get eaten!" I laughed a bit and the man told me the total, and that it would show up in about twenty to thirty minutes.

"Would you like something to drink?" I asked.

"No! Uh, I mean..."

"Water?"

"Yeah."

I went into the kitchen and fixed myself a vodka tonic, and returned to the living room carrying my drink and a bowl for Leo. I set down the bowl by him and sat down. He sniffed suspiciously. "I didn't spike the water."

"So what's that you're drinking, a gin and tonic?"

"I'm surprised with that nose you can't tell the difference between gin and vodka. Even to my nose there's a huge difference."

"I don't have a lot of experience with that sort of thing."

"I suppose I have a bit too much experience with that sort of thing." Leo looked disapprovingly, but I didn't volunteer anything else. "So how did you make out at financial aid today?"

"I didn't actually find anything out. They said it's too late to get grants and scholarships for next semester, and it's too early to apply for next year."

"I'm not surprised. Did you talk to your lawyer anymore?"

"Yeah, but that's not encouraging either. He said he was going to try to get as much money back as possible, but not to hold my breath. He also said that I would be better off using his services as little as possible, what with fees and such. That means I'm on my own filling out tax forms and these financial aid forms."

"It's really not that bad. I've been doing my own taxes and financial aid stuff as long as I've had to do them." Leo raised his eyebrows, obviously a little surprised. "Frankly I don't trust anyone else in my family to do them." I paused, because I was sure Leo wouldn't want to hear this, but he ought to know. "I know it sounds cold, but it's better to have parents who are dead, rather than deadbeat."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean your parents can't illegally claim you as a dependant, lowering your tax refund, plus you don't have to report their income for student aid, even though they don't give you any money for college. Plus I'm pretty sure orphans qualify for even more grants." I know I sounded bitter, but at this point I don't know how I could not sound bitter. Leo picks up on this of course, and I suppose it's because of his feline curiosity that he can't leave it alone.

"Wow, is that... I mean your parents really do that?" I slowly nodded.

"Not parents, per se, but my mom. I haven't seen my dad in about three years." Leo looked surprised. I sighed, "It's a bit hard to blame her though, it's not like she has much of anything. Just sometimes I wish it was different, you know?" I'm sure Leo knows all about wishing it were different.

I finish my drink and get up to fix another. I don't usually drink that much on a weeknight, but tonight I need something. I really need to steer the conversation to something safe and innocuous. After I finish mixing my drink I go back to the living room, detouring by the stereo to put on some music.

"What is that you put on?" Leo is straining his ears, as if he recognizes the tune and is trying to place a name to it.

"It's a compilation I made. I copied all of my dad's old music before he moved out. There's a lot of crap, but some really good stuff too. There's a lot of stuff from the nineties, and just after the turn of the century. We sat back and listened until the pizza came, with me giving a little bit of track by track commentary. Leo recognized about one song in three from his father's collection. I guess our parents had similar music tastes, but then they were also from massively popular albums that could still be found in stores twenty some years later. Some stores at any rate.

The pizza came and while Leo paid for it, I fixed myself another drink, as well as getting Leo some more water. I overheard the pizza guy, "One large carnivore special, and one veggie lover. You two play nice, you hear?" After that Leo growled a bit, but mostly for show. Leo carried the boxes in and placed them on the table. I brought over plates and silverware, and opened the top box. I wordlessly shoved it toward Leo. I don't have anything against raw meat particularly, and I've eaten sushi on many occasions, but the fact that they arranged the pizza to look like a gutted corpse, replete with sausage innards, did in fact turn my stomach. Leo just grinned and dug in.

"They really out did themselves this time, he said as he dug into his box. Usually they just sort of throw it all on." I opened my box to reveal an artfully arranged garden of vegetables. I showed Leo.

"I think this is someone's idea of a joke." I paused, "I can't really say I blame them, but still..." I shuddered a bit at the thought of Leo's pizza. Leo just grinned, and attacked his first slice.

Leo made short work of his pizza and I stashed the leftovers of mine in the fridge. I reached to the top of the refrigerator for a bottle to mix another drink with when I heard Leo cough gently.

"Don't you think you've had enough for tonight?" I paused, but didn't put the bottle back. Leo continued, "It's a school night after all." I sighed and put the bottle back.

"I suppose you're right. I don't usually have more than one on a school night, but this last week has been a bit... stressful." Leo slowly nodded.

"I see." Leo kept an accusing stare on me.

"I'm not an alcoholic, alcoholics go to meetings." I don't know why I even tried that old joke. Leo just frowned and put his ears back. I'm stuck. I can't think, and...

"'Scuse me for a second." I went into the bathroom. I stood facing the mirror with my eyes closed. I tried to make sense of what I was feeling, and figure out why I was so worried about what Leo thought of me. That's a lie though. I knew the answer, but I didn't want it to be true. I couldn't tell anyone, and I couldn't admit it to myself yet. The three drinks were starting to work on me, and I didn't know what I would say when I went back out there. I squeezed my eyes shut tighter, and wished everything would just go away, but it didn't work. It never worked. I decided I needed to get back out before Leo got suspicious. I returned to the kitchen, where Leo was looking concerned. Before I could say anything he began:

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing."

"You know you're a terrible liar."

"Really."

"Yeah. What's the matter?"

"I don't really want to talk about it."

"That's better, but you're still lying. What's the matter?"

"I--"

I turned away. Leo stood up behind me and put one of his massive paws on my shoulder. I flinched a bit, and my stomach became lead. I felt dizzy, like I was loosing control of my body.

"Relax. It's ok." Leo was practically purring. I walked hurriedly over to the sofa and sat down on the end, curling up in a little ball. I couldn't talk, I didn't know what to say. I was confused. Leo looked concerned. He cautiously approached. I couldn't look at his face.

"I'm not usually like this." Leo didn't say anything. I continued in a very small voice, "I... like you." I risked a glance at Leo, but he just looked puzzled. "I mean I..." god. I couldn't say it again. I didn't know what to say. I took a deep breath and tried to continue. What was the worst that could happen, aside from him gutting me like a deer. "I'm interested in you." I said very softly. I continued at a whisper, Leo's ears perking to catch my words, "I'm... I'm gay."

I closed my eyes. I listened to Leo breath. I waited. Say something dammit! I needed him to say something, anything. I'm sitting here, dying in the silence. I'm drowning and I can't breath. It feels like I'm falling into hell. I'm waiting for something to rescue me, or till I hit the bottom. I'm waiting...

Mopping Up

It hadn't really been that long of a day, but it sure felt like it. I spent all of fifteen minutes in the financial aid office, long enough to tell them that my money was gone, and for them to tell me to come back in two months. The conversation with my lawyer was a bit longer, but not by much, and was even less encouraging. I hadn't slept well after I got home last night, and it was really starting to catch up to me. Ever since I got my fur coat, I need a lot more sleep.

I didn't really want to call Leo, but I knew I should. He had been worried about me when I left. I compromised and took a twenty minute nap before I called. I was still tired, but it was less pronounced now. Leo invited me over for pizza, and I found myself agreeing despite my exhaustion.

I went over and watched Leo have three drinks in rapid succession. He was reaching for his fourth when I said something. I don't drink, but I don't object to other people drinking. At least I almost never drink. And there's a difference between having a few drinks at a party and getting drunk by yourself on a school night. Besides, Leo did not look like he was enjoying himself. He seemed to be on edge, even more than usual. He ducked into his bathroom, but he wasn't using it. Something wasn't right, and I intended to find out what it was.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"Nothing."

"You know you're a terrible liar."

"Really."

"Yeah. What's the matter?"

"I don't really want to talk about it." Leo was hiding something.

"That's better, but you're still lying. What's the matter?"

"I--"

He turned away, and I put a hand on his shoulder. He was shaking. "Relax" I said, "It's ok." He just stalked over the the couch and curled up on it.

"I'm not usually like this." He said. Leo was looking at my footpaws. "I like you." he said. I wasn't sure where Leo was going with this. I mean, if he only said, 'I like you' that's one thing, but there was way to much other stuff for it to be a simple statement of appreciation. I didn't know how to respond, and before I could come up with an adequate response, Leo continued, "I'm interested in you. I'm... I'm gay."

Ok. If I was confused a moment ago, I have no idea what I am now. I mean, I like Leo and all, and he's nice, but what he just told me... I mean, I've never even considered... I mean, I've known a couple gay people, but... Oh no, Leo's looking like he's about to pass out. I don't think he breathed since he last talked. What do I say? I am not prepared to deal with this now.

"Leo. Breath." Leo remained frozen, but he did at least take a breath. God. What am I supposed to do. Leo is obviously not in the stablest of minds right now. I don't want to hurt him, he is my friend, and it's not like he's unnatractive. Where did that come from? I just-- What... Leo still looks like he's going to faint.

He's been holding his breath ever since that one breath.

"Leo. Breath. Continually. Don't stop." Leo, with great difficulty, took in a breath. He started shuddering, as if the air was poisonous. I sighed and sat down next to Leo. "Leo, I--"

"Oh my god. Why? What did I... Shit. You probably hate now." It looked as if real tears were beginning to form.

"Shhh. I don't hate you. I'm just... just surprised."

"I'm so stupid. I completely fucked up." Leo buried his face in his hands.

"You're not and you didn't." I put a paw on his shoulder and he nearly jumped across the room. "Have you told anyone else?" Leo just shook his head and looked away.

"I've been too afraid." Leo whispered. Was it still really that bad? I didn't think it was a big deal anymore. I mean... I thought... but I suppose I didn't know. I never really thought about it. I never had a reason to think about it. But now what? How do I help him?

"Leo, I... I don't know what to do, everything is mixed up right now." I took a deep breath and continued. "Listen. I'm worried about you. Are you going to be alright?" Leo slowly nodded, tears now streaming down his face. "Are you lying?" Leo froze with his head down.

"I don't know. I just don't know anymore." It's time I found out what's really going on. I think Leo might be ready to tell me. At least, he's not in any kind of shape to resist.

"What's bothering you?" I asked. "All of it." I added a bit of growl to forestall any argument. Leo took a deep breath and began.

"All of it? Heh. All of it is what's wrong. I'm just so tired. I can't go on like this." Leo was in serious pain.

"Like what?" I wanted to keep him talking.

"Being alone. All alone, everyday. Going to sleep alone, waking up alone, being isolated, even if I'm surrounded by 'friends'. It's too much."

"Why are you so alone?" Did Leo really feel like he had no one?

"I... I told you why I can't get close to people my own age." I slowly nodded.

"And you can't get past the barriers, even now?" Leo shook his head.

"I can't trust people. I'm afraid if I tell them how I feel they won't like me anymore." It felt like my heart was breaking. What could damage a person so badly?

"What about your family?" I asked.

"I told you I hadn't seen my dad in three years. It's because he moved halfway across the country, and is undergoing gender reassignment therapy." It took me a few moments to process that statement. Then my jaw hit my chest. Leo continued, "My mom can't really take it. That's why I left to go to college. I needed to get out. Things had been getting bad for years, though. My parents had been making too many stupid decisions, and I just stopped respecting them. It was almost a relief when my dad finally left. It was just awkward, even seeing him. My sister and I... we never talked. Not about anything important. It wasn't that we were different, I think we were too much alike."

I couldn't believe it. Just listening to Leo calmly write off his family made my chest ache and my stomach knot. "Don't you have anything? Church?" Leo continued on in a dead hollow voice. It was almost like he was in a trance.

"No. I was brought up Catholic, Sunday school and the whole nine yards, but it never really meant anything to me other than having to wake up early on Sunday. I stopped going when I got a job and had to work weekends. The only thing that works for me is alcohol. I started drinking just before my seventeenth birthday. It helps numb the pain, and sometimes I can think about things when I'm drunk that I can't..." I reached out to try and comfort Leo, but he jumped away, landing on the floor in a heap. It was like a spell was broken. Leo just stared at me in shock. "I... I..." Leo's jaw was working, but no sound was coming out. Leo jumped up and ran into the bathroom. I heard him shut the door, and fumble with the lock. I could even hear him panting, through the door and down the short hall. I wanted to go, make sure he was alright, try to comfort him, but I was frozen where I sat.

I sat, thinking over what I had just heard. It was just too much. I couldn't conceive of it all happening so fast. It was just entirely too much. I used to think I had it pretty bad, being an orph... having my parents die. Maybe Leo is right, there are worse things than having dead parents. I suppose that on some level I knew I had it better than a lot of people, but I had never met those people, so it wasn't real. They were always separated by the glass in the TV, or the pages of books.

Where do I go from here? What do I do? It's pretty obvious that Leo was teetering on the edge of sanity, possibly close to taking drastic measures. And he said he has a thing for me! What do I do about that? What if I tell him I don't want him and he loses it? Could I have a relationship with him? I shook my head, and came back to reality for a moment. I tried to listen for Leo. I couldn't hear anything. Oh god, had Leo killed himself while I was sitting here? I ran to the bathroom door and pounded on it. I then pressed my ear against the door, and could finally make out the sound of shallow, unsteady breathing.

I pounded more and yelled, "If you don't open this door right now I'm breaking it down!" I heard a rustle, followed by the quiet click of the latch. I burst into the room, seeing Leo curled up on the floor. "Are you ok?" Leo looked confused, maybe drugged. I looked around to see if there were any empty bottles.

"What?" I tried to scent any drugs, but there was nothing over the alcohol. At least there was no blood.

"I didn't hear you and I was worried that..." I trailed off, feeling a bit sheepish now that it was apparent that I'd been mistaken. There was a look on Leo's face that I couldn't quite understand. It was pained, but it seemed almost relieved. I don't know. I took a deep breath. "Listen. We need to talk, but... I need some time. I need to figure some stuff out. It's too much, you know?"

"Yeah, I know." Leo whispered, "It's too much." I sighed.

"We'll talk this over in a few days. Ok? You'll be ok, right?" I was a little bit forceful on that. It was a command, not a question, and Leo took it as such. At least he seemed to. "I'm going to go for a walk, and try to sort things over. You'll be ok?" This time it was a question. Leo nodded, not particularly convincingly. "I'll see you in class tomorrow, ok?" This time Leo nodded with a bit more energy.

With that I left. It took me a long time to get home.

Getting On With It

Oh God, what have I done? What have I done? I'm on the floor in the bathroom, alone, and I think I'm going to puke. Why did I do it? Why? The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. What a crock of shit. I told the truth and he ran out on me. This is why I don't tell people things. I pushed myself up into a sitting position against the wall. Fuck that motherfucking bastard. Fuck that caring friend act. Fuck him for asking questions he doesn't fucking want to hear the answers to. Fuck that goddamn smile of his, and especially fuck that 'please help me' look. Shit shit fuck fuck FUCK!!! I blinked back the tears, and wiped the ones already on my cheek off with the back of my hand. I pulled my knees into my chest and just sat. Nights like this are the reason I don't own a gun. Nights like this are also the reason I want a gun.

I sat, back to the wall, and ponder other methods. It wasn't new, and I reject them all as too painful. I'm just a big coward. An immeasurable time later I stood up and brushed my teeth, then drug myself to my cold bed and fell in. I hugged my pillow tightly and imagined what it would be like to be holding someone, anyone in its stead. Finally I lost consciousness. Thank god.

I woke the next morning to the buzzing of my alarm clock. Had I even set it? I must have. I didn't remember. I didn't want to go to class. I didn't want to leave bed. I shut off my alarm clock, now screeching its displeasure, and rubbed my eyes. With a sigh I pushed back the covers and got ready to face the day.

It would be so easy to just ignore it. Stay in bed all day, not leave the apartment for a week or so, live off delivered pizza. I've got a credit card, I could do it. Hell, I'd known several people who did that. Except I didn't have a rich daddy, or a trust fund. This was my one chance, and I knew it. If I failed out, my scholarship money was gone. With nothing to fall back on, that meant a life of "Would you like fries with that?" and that was simply not an option. So with a reluctant sigh, I set off toward campus.

As my class with Leo grew closer I began to rethink my decision to go to this particular class. Surely missing one class wouldn't hurt. Hell, I could even drop the class. It might be a small campus, but not so small that I couldn't avoid running into Leo. I wouldn't do that though. That's a stupid reason to drop a class, especially one as good as my lit class. Still, I wasn't exactly anxious to be seeing Leo, so I deliberately showed up a couple seconds late to class and slipped in to the back.

Leo looked distinctly nervous. His tail was twitching, and his ears swiveled at every noise. Somebody else entered late, and at the sound of the door shutting, Leo turned around. His eyes went wide as he saw me, but whether from surprise, anger, or maybe even relief I couldn't tell. His tail kept up its relentless twitching and Leo still startled at every small sound. As I was watching him it was difficult to keep my mind on the lecture. Part of me didn't want to talk to him ever again, but part of me wanted desperately to know what he was thinking. When the end of class finally came I didn't know what to do.

I decided it was probably best to just slip away. As much as I wanted answers, this was not the place to get them. As the lecture ended I quietly slipped out the back, ahead of most of the rush. I started to walk down the hallway, hoping I'd made a clean getaway, but it wasn't going to be that easy.

"Hey Leo," I heard the lion's distinct timbre call, "Wait up." I sighed. I supposed I was going to find out how he felt here and now. Leo dodged through the throng of exiting students to catch up to me. "Hey, let's go somewhere we can talk." he said quietly.

"How about the third floor reading room. No one's ever there."

"Sounds good." Leo's demeanor gave no hint as to what he was feeling. He seemed a little nervous, moving his ears and tail more than normal, but aside from that he was effectively hiding his feelings. We made our way up the stairwell, struggling just a little against the masses of students getting out of class and headed toward lunch. We walked into the small room and I began to get nervous. That's not quite accurate. I had been nervous all morning. When I went into the reading room with Leo, I was well past nervous, and was getting dangerously close to terrified. Still, I hid it as best as I could and sat down in one of the comfortable leather chairs. Leo took a seat across from me. He took a deep breath. I waited. Silence. I waited some more. Leo was the one who wanted to talk. He seemed to be uncomfortable with me. He kept shifting in the chair, not looking at me, looking everywhere but me. I suppose I could have waited all day for him to say something, but I was getting hungry.

"Well?" I asked.

"Ummm" was the reply I got. How eloquent. Finally Leo began. "I... I want to say I'm sorry for the way I ran out last night. I just got... overwhelmed. I couldn't... think straight. I needed some time. You know, clear my head and stuff." I slowly nodded, and silently wished that Leo would just spit it out. It's hard though, God knows it's hard for me to talk about stuff. Leo continued, "After I left, I was just walking. I just walked. For a couple hours. I was thinking..."

Ok, I know it can be hard to talk about your feelings, but this was worse than getting teeth pulled. "What were you thinking about?"

"Well, the stuff you told me last night." Well duh. It's not like he suddenly solved the unified field theory or a cure for SCABS or anything. "It's a lot. I never really knew anyone that had it as bad as me. But I think, maybe you had it worse." I sighed and leaned back in my chair, staring up at the ceiling.

"I wouldn't know. It's impossible to measure that sort of thing. Besides, it honestly doesn't bother me that much most of the time. Just-sometimes it all comes crashing down." Now it was Leo's turn to nod.

"Yeah, I try to stay positive, but some days--"

"or weeks--"

"or months, it's just too hard." Leo put his head down in his hands. I guess he really does understand what it's like sometimes.

"It's been one of those months, hasn't it?" I ask Leo, but I really already know the answer.

"Yeah, for you too I bet."

"It's certainly shaping up that way." I was searching for something that summed up the way I was feeling. "I never really expected that it would be this much work, just living, you know?"

"I know." I looked at Leo, and he seemed much older. His normally impassive face was drooping and wrinkled. It seemed that there was a lifetime of suffering etched on his face. I would be surprised if I looked all that different. He continued, "I really would like to be your friend." He paused and took a breath. "I think I could use a friend who understands... what it's like to be hurt." Leo paused while I nodded, and then went on, "I'm really am sorry about last night. I shouldn't have run out like I did. When you were late to class I was worried that maybe you..."

"No, you're stuck with me." I shook my head, not wanting to admit that I had been very close to the edge. What a euphemism. Can't say the "s" word, 'cause that might cause problems. Maybe then people would see that I had problems. Severe depression is a chronic disease. I had been worse, and I had been better, but it always seems to come back. I wondered if it would always be like that until I finally gave in and committed suicide, or just got hit by a truck, or whatever other mundane disaster ended my life. I've got to get out of this.

Leo stood, and extended his hand, "Friends?"

I stood and took the extended hand. "Friends." I agreed.

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