A Lot to Take In
The pale curve of the beach was sparsely populated so late at night. Four individuals walked dogs—the four-legged sort—at the edge of the water. A few couples and small parties of holiday-makers still occupied blankets, towels, and the odd lounge chair. There was ample space along the strand for the rabbit and puma to walk. The sand, still cooling from the heat of the day, was too tempting to the big cat, who dropped onto the steps that led down to the beach and began removing his shoes and socks.
“Tree, d’ye believe in love at first sight?” Cat asked, holding on to the slap-dash wooden handrail that ran more or less the length of the steps. She looked down from where they stood to where lines of white froth undulated over the sand in the darkness.
Alder looked up from the ground, one boot off and working on the second. He regarded her in silence for a moment. Sighing, he pulled his paw out and waggled his toes. He tugged off his socks and stuffed both into his left boot, then set the pair aside.
“Nah” he replied, elbows on his raised knees. “I did when I was younger. In the end, though, love at first sight is just lust at first sight. Might be lust for sex or lust for control, maybe just lust for novelty…a change, like. Whatever it is, it’s something that exists in you already and manifests itself in the desire for specific traits in the other person.
“Way I see it, love ain’t some preexisting force-with-a-capital-F; it something that grows in you. It’s fed by everything you learn about another person over time and about yourself through them. If you turn around one day to find a rose plant that wasn’t there a minute before—no soil and no water in the pot—you can bet your ass that fucker’s plastic. Works that way no matter what sort of love you’re talking about: the kind between friends, the kind between family, or the kind between lovers.”
The rabbit huffed, “Wish someone had said something like that tae me years go.” She started to move off down the sand toward the surf.
The puma tied his laces together and stood, groaning as quietly as he could. It wasn’t particularly flattering to be making such old-cat sounds. He dangled the shoes over his shoulder and padded across the beach to catch up with his partner.
When he arrived at her side, Cat looked up at his attentive face. Her cheek and nose twitched with the flash of a self-conscious grimace and she said, “Paul.”
“Would that be your equine ex?”
She nodded and turned back to the waves. The moon hadn’t yet risen and the beach was separated from most of the city’s lights by a line of tall dunes, so the gentle surf could only barely be glimpsed in the darkness. It made itself known, rather, by means of sound and touch. The stunted waves rushed up the sand with the hushed murmur of wind through tall grass. Each upward pass made by the water sent a mist from the collapsing bubbles to cool the pair’s trousers and a rush of air to ruffle their fur. Above, dimmed by Sydney’s dome of light pollution, the wide swath of the galaxy stretched in a fuzzy stripe. Alder thanked the soft bed in the hotel for the rest that had restored his body to something approaching normal and his night vision to its former acuity. Still, the dark rabbit would have been a challenge to make out against the surrounding blackness, if it weren’t for the lighter tones of her clothes.
“It felt enough like love at first sight,” Cat grumbled. “I was working in one of the local chemists, staffing the front-of-shop. Dad encouraged me tae try it on a part-time basis while I was in school; mostly weekends and a few late afternoons. I stuck with it full-time after I left school, because I wanted work experience and tae pad my bank account before heading off to university.” She elaborated with a shrug, “The family business makes a decent amount of money, but there were too many of us tae have tae cover…rabbits, y’know?”
Alder chuckled a bit. “Hey, I get it. I have some Catholic human friends with a similar problem. School uniforms are expensive enough without having to buy five sets for nine kids. You’re pretty well screwed for college tuition, by that time.”
“Nine?” she scoffed. “Lucky bastards. We have ‘em beat by three.”
“Ah, twelve’s not too much worse, surely?”
Cat giggled. “Not three kids, tree. Three times.”
Alder stared at her in disbelief. “Holy shit, bun! Twenty-seven?”
“Twenty-nine. But the fifteen eldest are all moved out; so, the house isn’t awfully crowded except on holidays.”
Alder shook his head, at a loss for words.
The rabbit smiled. “It really wasn’t all bad, though. We were never lonely growing up. We each learned the importance of hard work and providing for ourselves and each other. Those of us who want tae, join the business. Those who need…space…make sure that they can make it happen for themselves. Disnae mean we’d never get help from Dad, or Grandad before he died; just meant that we only leaned on them when it was absolutely necessary.”
She motioned along the beach and they began to walking parallel to the line of the water. As they ambled, she continued, “So, I worked the front-of-store at the chemist and the manager, Max, a nice old human frae Germany, worked the back. Paul was a delivery driver for the company that sold Max his bulk pharmaceuticals and supplies. Oh, my god,”—the rabbit clenched her paws and pressed them to her closed eyes, as if to block a vision that wasn’t coming from outside—“was he a fuckin’ sight!
“He was three years ahead of me in school; though, his school was across the river. His coat was this, sortae, grey-white that looked like ash when it was dry and like old silver when it was wet. Rodin would have ripped his own cock off and fed it tae Satan himself to be able to carve anything like that fucking horse. He was tall enough that he had tae duck coming through the door and still managed to sweep the lintel. I never saw him with his mane longer than two or three inches; it was always this crisp, shiny, black, bristle brush. He was a fine fuckin’ specimen.”
Alder, walking beside her and a step behind, glanced down at his own thin body and grabbed a pawful of shirt and the loose skin that was a hallmark of his breed. Can’t argue with biology, bud, he thought. His species wasn’t equipped for pushing, pulling, or carrying enormous weights; the muscles just wouldn’t develop that way—not without deleterious effects to posture and joints. The rabbit caught him grimacing and slowed down just enough for him to be walking right next to her.
“Knock it off, you silly cunt,” she gruffed at him, punctuating it by playfully swatting him on the shoulder with the back of her paw. “By the time he came around, my head was full of comic books, movie heroes, and chiseled bodies in underwear adverts, an’ that. What I saw in him was this ideal body that had been stuffed doon mah throat. If I’m honest, he kindae spoiled the look for me by the end.”
“So, what happened?” Alder asked, taking her hand and curling his tail around her legs to draw her with him as he drifted a little inside the line where sheets of water slid hissing over the sand.
When his paws fell just within the highest reaches of the waves, he resumed walking in their initial direction. The water was just a touch warmer than the air and felt fantastic between his pads. He spread his toes and sighed each time the water rose to kiss them. Cataría quickly pulled off her boots and socks to keep them from getting waterlogged. She handed them to the puma with a smirk and moved to walk on his seaward side, so they could both enjoy the water.
“He started talking with me at the front counter when he’d finish the deliveries. Small-talk stuff to start: we introduced ourselves and we’d chat aboot work or the weather. Over time, the chat drifted tae questions about one another and flirting crept in. Well,”—she chuckled and shook her head—“it started tae creep in from him. I’d been fawning over him since day one. Looking back, it’s kindae embarrassing.
“When I was in Fourth Year, we started going oot, official like. The first time we met ootside of work was because I asked him. We went to a movie and then closed down a chip shop talking about everything under the sun. He was in his first year of university, studying architecture. I hung on his every word and didn’t really pay attention to whether he did the same for me.”
The sand of the small beach gave way to rocks of increasing size. The pair clambered up onto a jutting boulder that hung a few feet over the water. Cat sat and dangled her feet off the edge, where her fur began to collect beads of moisture tossed up by the waves striking the pitted surfaces of the rocks below. The puma followed suit, sitting beside her and placing their shoes on the boulder behind them.
The rabbit continued, “I admired how absorbed Paul seemed to be in his studies; it made him appear dedicated and I liked that; figured maybe he’d be that dedicated with me, if I played it right. We’d spend evenings together when we could both find the time and met almost every other weekend. Took a couple of holiday trips and met each others’ families, like people do. From our second date on there were some heated make out sessions, but we didn’t have sex. Paul said that he was holding out for marriage, for religious reasons. My family have never been particularly devout…or chaste, for that matter…but I just kinda accepted it as a quirk of his upbringing.”
Alder nodded beside her. “I’m familiar with that argument. It’s not something you can blame them for, but you sure wish you could sometimes.”
“Tell me about it,” Cat sighed. “I figured that he would propose sooner or later. We’d talked about it once or twice, and he said that he wanted tae wait until I was out of school tae dae anything. When I did finish school, though, he shut up aboot it. Our dates and the time we spent together remained pretty much the same and he never made a move tae take it further.”
The rabbit shook her feet to toss off the accumulated water. With a heavy sigh, she laid down on her back and stared up into the sky. Alder reached over and rested his paw on her thigh. He looked out across the surf as she continued.
“I didn’t want tae bring it up. I was feart that it would put him off; but, I needed to know. I couldnae just sit there, going tae work like normal and putting off a decision about university for myself. Our dinners together got tense. Eventually, we’d hardly talk aboot us, y’know. We’d still stay over at each other’s places and share the same bed, but we might as weel not have. We weren’t touching, or cuddling, or laughing together anymore.
“Around the same time, he started losing control of his temper: he’d explode out of fuckin’ nowhere. I didnae know if it was something going on at uni, with his family, or if it was me. He widnae talk aboot it and pressing him for answers just made him more angry.”
The rabbit’s pulse was racing beneath the puma’s paw; her muscles quivered in short, shivering spasms. He turned to meet her eyes, but they were closed. Moving carefully, Alder scooted over to her head and lifted her up. He nestled in behind her with his legs to either side and leaned her shoulders back against his chest. With both arms draped across Cat’s chest, he nuzzled the top of her head.
“I’m guessing it turned physical at some point?” he asked.
Eyes still closed, she shuddered and reached up to take one of his paws in hers. “Aye. It started oot with crockery. We couldnae make it through a row withoot at least one cup or something being broken against a wall. The first time I demanded answers if I was going tae help him through whatever it was, he kicked oot at me under the table and almost broke my damn leg. He bellowed at me that I was just making it worse and I needed tae mind my own fucking business. Looking back, I genuinely have no idea what made me accept that it was somehow my fault, but I did.
“After that it just got worse. My friends tried tae tell me that I needed tae get oot. Most of my pals were blokes—just sort of how it worked out—so Paul made it oot like they were jealous of him. He convinced me that they were trying to drive a wedge between us because they wanted me and that if I cut ties with ‘em, things would get better, an’ that. I shut them oot, but things didn’t get any better, y’know?
“Then it was work: I was putting in too much time, he said. So, I cut back my hours until I was just barely scraping by. I made all the time for him that I could, but he was still busy with his work and uni. Next it was my appearance: I made too much of an effort tae look nice—never mind that it was only for him. So, I started to let myself go. I stopped goin’ tae the gym, stopped making the effort. I might as well have been a hermit; hardly even saw my family. I just sat around my flat most of the time, waiting for him tae call or waiting for him tae come over. It almost became peaceful for a bit.
“Before long, the screaming and the violence were back. Everything eventually boiled down tae one last fight and one last hospital trip. It had gotten easy tae tell the nurses and doctors that I tripped on the stairs or tipped a pot of boiling water off the stove. But, you cannae give excuses when you’re unconscious, y’know? The police were called by a neighbor, who heard the commotion; and, since I wisnae awake tae waive medical care that time, an ambulance was called to take me in.”
“Damn, bun,” Alder whispered into the fur of her head, holding her tight. His jaw muscles strained beneath the fur of his face. A dark part of him wanted that fucking horse in front of him…under him…in his claws. That part was small, though. The majority of his mind was given over to concern for the bunny in his arms.
The rabbit continued, “The x-rays showed three broken ribs and the scarring from four other fractures that I’d never seen anyone aboot. My nose and jaw were nae better. It was a skull fracture that put me there, though. They did surgery tae reduce the pressure, repaired it and the ribs. It was when they shaved me for the incisions that they found the bruises. Kindae difficult to explain away hoof marks, y’know? Paul was jailed for a bit, pending trial. The judge reduced his sentence to time-served, and after that, the cunt moved to Canada tae start over.”
Alder gave her a gentle lick between the ears and said, “I feel like I should say something, but nothing fits. I’m so sorry that you went through that, bun.”
Cat sat up and patted the puma’s leg. She stood and stretched, then looked down to him and said, “The funny thing is, that wisnae the worst part for me.”
He stood and dusted himself off, looking confused. “Seriously? What the hell was the worst part?”
“The reason behind that last row. See, I had been oot shopping at a grocery store one town up the road from where I lived. I’d started using it because there was less chance of me running intae someone I knew. On my way tae the tills I saw him. He was with this tall, beautiful mare and a wee foal, maybe a two years old. I fooled myself intae thinking that maybe they were relatives, like cousins or something, even though the mare looked nothing like him and the foal had the same color coat as him. I took a step tae go over and talk with them, when the little girl turned and asked him something. She called him ‘Daddy’.”
The puma closed his eyes and shook his head, groaning, “Son of a bitch…. What did you do?”
“Left my trolley and all of my shopping in the middle of an aisle and legged it. I fucked off ootae that store as if it had been on fire. When I got back to my flat, I waited. I knew he would come eventually. I didn’t expect it to be that night. He walked in thinking that it was just going to be a normal night of hanging out, spending time making me feel small and him feel great.
“I was at the kitchen table, drinking tea; I didn’t have the stomach for anything stronger just then. He said ‘hello’ or something and I probably said something. He asked me what was wrong and might have followed it up with a crack about me running ootae biscuits. I don’t remember much. What I do remember is asking him when he was planning to tell me he had a wean.
“Paul sort of dropped into the other seat and stared at me for a bit. Like he was trying to decide if it was worth lying or if I didn’t even deserve the effort any longer. He told me he wisnae planning tae tell me at all and that it wasn’t any of my fucking business. Then we were off…
“I dinnae remember much of the rest of the conversation, beyond him spouting some bullshit—horseshit, I guess—aboot habits that couldn’t be broken and following instinct. Maybe it was getting my head knocked around or maybe I just blocked oot the words, but I managed tae piece together most of it after he left the country. He had been seeing a bunch of women while he was dating me. He wasn’t oot tae fuck any of us or settle down; he just loved to feel wanted. We weren’t women tae him; I dunno what we were. Mums, maybe? Fuck knows.
“One of the lasses got him drunk enough tae forget that he was ‘waiting for marriage’ and fucked him. That would have been right about the time that things started going tae hell between us. The bitch repeated the stunt a couple of times and managed to get pregnant, trying tae force him intae a commitment. I talked tae the mean cunt after everything fell apart and Paul disappeared. She knew about me and the others. Hell, the others probably knew about us, too. Might be I was the only one too daft tae notice. She wanted him tae stop fooling around and be hers alone, so she backed him intae a corner. After it all blew over, she ended up stuck raising the foal by herself. He didn’t love that poor kid or her; he didn’t love any of us. So we all pretty much lost.
“He was comfortable piling abuse on me because I was the only one who would take it. The others buggered off, leaving just the three of us. Well, four: me, him, the bitch and her kid. She did everything she could tae manage his life so that he belonged entirely tae her and the only way he saw tae get some measure of control back was tae exert it upon me in the moments he stole away from her. That was my therapist’s theory, anyway. Her way of telling me that it wasn’t because of something I did.
“She…eh…also told me that it wasn’t unusual for someone whose been on the receiving end of treatment like that to behave, eh…erratically…when they got free of it.” Her ears dropped and she fidgeted with her earrings, looking down at the waves below.
“Erratic?” Alder asked. “How so?”
“Oh…eh…well, some get nightmares. Had those; still dae from time tae time. Some develop obsessive or compulsive behaviors.”—she seemed to notice her fidgeting and released the earring between her claws, electing to hug her torso with both arms instead—“There hasn’t been a lot of that for me. Anxious tics, aye, but nothing debilitating,” she continued, flashing an uncomfortable smile. “Some battle with addiction, eating disorders, an’ that. I managed tae dodge those bullets. Some…eh, how’d she put it? ‘Seek oot validation through physical intimacy’, in some cases by sortae descending, like, intae a spiral of self-destructive sexual behavior that takes them on a county-by-county sex-tour of an island nation, until an STI scare brings them tae a screeching halt. Then some of ‘em kindae hole themselves up in their flats with whatever liquor they can scrounge up and experiment tae see how many pills it takes tae fill the void inside them and get the internal voice that whispers about how shite they are tae shut up.
“The lucky ones wake up in A&E with a tube doon their throat and their parents hovering over them, lookin’ like they’d just watched their child die twice…because they had. Then they go back tae regular appointments with their therapist for intensive treatment for post-traumatic stress and depression.”
The big cat approached her, wet paws making squishing sounds on the rock. He wrapped his arms around her and simply held her for a while. At first, she accepted the embrace as she would any other. As he held her, though, something loosened within her. Where her eyes had merely stung with the remembrance, they now burned with fresh tears. Alder felt her claws poking into his sides, where she clung to him. Soft sobs were almost inaudible through the fabric of his shirt and the thick fur beneath. He continued holding her until it passed and she pushed back from him, the fur of her face soaked through.
Alder’s forehead wrinkled around his peaked eyebrows, and his ears folded down to the sides in sympathy and concern for the rabbit as he reached up and carefully wiped her cheeks with the back of his paw. “Thank you for telling me, bun,” he whispered.
Cat, nodding and wiping her face, said, “I dinnae make it a habit of sharing all of that, tree. You’re the first person ootside of my family, my therapist, and my support group. In fact, you’re the only one aside from my therapist who knows about the…eh…tour.”
The big cat twisted one side of his muzzle into a wry grin and spread his arms in an exaggerated shrug. “Don’t sweat it, bun. I wouldn’t want someone yapping about my history. We’ve only touched on a fraction of that. I’m in no position to judge others for their sexual foibles.”
“Heh…thanks, Alder.” She sniffed and looked around, shifting her weight from foot to foot.
The puma caught the look in her eye. “What’s up?”
“Nothing, really. Just…” she trailed off with a grimace and a little, shivering squirm.
He cocked his head to one side, but realization hit him suddenly. “Oh! Right, the ale. Um, hmm…”
He glanced about for a moment. There was a public restroom back by the steps they had used to reach the beach.
“Can you make it back to the—” he stopped, cut off by her vigorous head shake.
During their talk, nearly half of the other late-night beachgoers had cleared out. Those that remained were quite a distance away and there was still little light. On the far side of their perch, about a meter below, there was a cluster of smaller rocks. The puma hopped down to test the footing and found that they were stable and dry enough to stand on. He beckoned the bunny over and helped her down.
“I don’t know how comfortable you are with this, but it looks like you’ll have to make do.”
“It’s better than behind the bins out back of a pub, but…”—the rabbit looked back over the boulder—“someone’s gonnae hear it.”
“Oh, balls!” he dismissed with a grin. “No one’ll hear it over the ocean. Besides, I’ll hop back up and keep watch for you.”
She sighed and shuddered again, “Fine. There’s no way I’ll reach a loo in this condition.”
Alder leapt back to the top of the boulder and stood with his back to Cat. In the close darkness, the sound of her clothes shuffling was cacophonous. Her scent swirled around him as the breeze moved through her bare fur. It overpowered the smells of salt spray and decay from the sea and of stale popcorn and beer bottles from the mountainous garbage bins up the beach. For an unsettling moment he couldn’t see or hear; her scent filled his consciousness. When he realized that his nose was occupying all of his attention, he cleared his throat and shook his head.
Focus, bud, he chided himself.
“Say, tree?” came the rabbit’s amused voice from below.
“It’s a bit hard tae let go with you hovering over me, purring like that.”
Alder coughed. “Sorry! Didn’t realize I was. It’s just…”
She snickered and asked, “Just what? Y’gettin’ all excited about a girl pissing next tae ye?”
“That’s a ‘no’, bun.”
“Okay… So, what is it?”
“For just a moment, your scent sort of overwhelmed my senses when you were shuffling around. It was blinding…deafening…or, kinda both,” he replied.
“An’ that had ye rumblin’ like the boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark?”
He chuckled uneasily. “I guess so.”
Silence. Even if he had been looking at her, he wouldn’t have seen the insides of her ears redden in the dark.
“Eh…I’m getting a bit self-conscious doon ‘ere, Alder. Any chance you could just sort of, hum or something? I’m burstin’, but I cannae let go wi’ ye listening.”
“Maybe we should use that to our advantage and get you to a proper facility?” he joked.
“Aye, let’s do. I’m sure everyone will understand when I piss mahsel in front of them!”
He snorted. “Ok, ok. I’ll make some noise.”
The puma took a moment to think and started humming a tune. That helped the rabbit relax enough to do her business. Alder figured that she must have realized that the humming would hardly dampen his hearing and not affect the sense that had been of immediate concern at all, but at least it did the trick. There was, however, one problem with hearing the rush of her water over his hum.
“Uh…bun? When you’re finished, we need to trade places.”
A giggle came from behind him in the dark, along with the resumed shuffling of clothes.
“Aye,” she grunted, regaining the top of the boulder, “it’s all yours. Just…eh…watch your step.”
The big cat hopped down and turned away from her. After he unzipped and the patter of his stream started. Cat asked, “Say, tree, what was it that you were humming? It sounded familiar.”
“You ever play video games when you were younger?”
“Fuck that!” she scoffed. “I still play them now.”
“What platforms?” He finished and fastened his trousers. With a graceful hop that would have belied his age if not preceded and followed by grunts, he rejoined the bunny atop the boulder.
“Computer and the Japanese consoles,” she said, stretching her back and arms. “That American console never really caught on with me. Probably because most of my experience with their early version was having the controller thrown at my face. Have sort of the same problem with the wireless motion control things from the other ones, but that’s because the younger kids in my family can’t be arsed with fastening a fucking wrist strap. Holiday gatherings are dangerous times in Castle Caird.” Her bright laugh was back again.
“Hmm…” he mumbled. “Lemme guess: a fleeting brush with some online fantasy RPG, maybe the Myst and Elder Scrolls franchises, Legend of Zelda and it’s myriad variations.”
She threw him a look and said, “Aye! But, what? Dae I not strike you as a solitaire, football, falling blocks kindae lass?”
It was his turn to laugh. “Well, the first three were wild guesses based upon the last one. The tune was the theme from the desert area in one of the early Zelda games. Sticks in my head because it reminds me of old spaghetti westerns. The fact that you sort of recognized it lead me to think that you’d played enough for the tune to stick with you. If you played a great deal of that, you’d have to enjoy fantasy elements and puzzles; hence the other guesses.”
“Well!” Cat said with a giggle. “Look who’s Hercule fucking Poirot.”
Alder retrieved the pair’s footwear and dropped back down on the beach side of the boulder. He offered the rabbit a paw, but she waved him off and jumped down on her own. They walked back along the water’s edge, returning the way they had come. Halfway along the strand, a frantic dog of the two-legged variety ran up to them, footfalls unsteady in the shifting sand. She looked to be a greyhound, thin as a rail and the same height as the puma; all long lines and high cheekbones. Her paws waved anxiously as she approached.
Her accent marked her as a local when she yelped, “Can either of you swim?” Her voice was high and shrill with panic.
“No?” answered Cat, confused. She’d never gone deeper than her knees on the family trips to Peterhead and they’d never really visited any swimming baths.
Alder wobbled a paw a bit and said, “If I have to to stay alive, maybe. Why?”
Tears streaked the poor dog’s face. “My husband’s out there,”—she pointed a shaking paw into the surf—“he was practicing on his paddle board and something happened. He dropped down onto the board and he’s not moving! Please, help!”
The pair followed the greyhound’s finger out to past the breakers. There, in the light of the rising moon, they spotted a lone, pale object.
“Are you sure he’s not just resting or having a laugh?” the skeptical rabbit asked.
The dog shook her head, snarling, “He’s never done anything like that before and he knows better than to shit me like this. Look, he’s diabetic and he has a heart condition. Whatever happened out there is serious.”
Then what the fuck was he doing out there in the first damn place? Alder wondered, rolling his eyes. He snapped around, looking for a life guard or someone in a rescue capacity. There were a handful of beachgoers staring into the surf, but no one acting. At the landward edge of the sands was posted a large, well-lit sign which advised that all swimming after 8:00pm was unsupervised and entirely at the swimmer’s personal risk.
Fanfuckingtastic! the puma thought to himself and continued scanning the beach.
“Has someone called emergency services?” Cat asked.
“Yes,” cried the dog, “but they can’t get anyone here in less than forty-five minutes.”
“Half of the fire and paramedics crews are still in Newcastle dealing with that mess. The rest are stretched thin, but….”
“Fuck,” Adler hissed, ears laid back against his skull. He dropped their shoes and wriggled out of his shirt and trousers.
Cat turned at the sound of the items hitting the ground. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Haven’t worked that out yet,” he hollered, sprinting away from the water.
“The fuck…?” she squeaked.
The rabbit and the greyhound watched in anxious bewilderment as the puma dashed across the sand. Alder skittered to a stop by the vacant lifeguard perch. There, he snatched a life preserver and its rope. His tail thrashed in agitation behind him as he quickly gauged the length of the rope and he grabbed another from the scaffolding. Shouldering the items, he dashed to a row of closed concession stands and began yanking down a thin rope from which colored flags dangled. The rope ran the periphery of the stands and cordoned off a large dining area with folding furniture. He paused briefly to coil the new rope over his forearm in overlapping figure-eights, then ran to a rack of one-person sit-on-top kayaks. He yanked hard on one, snapping the handle on its bow to free it from the cable that secured it in place. Unable to find paddles, he threw the ropes onto the kayak and seized the handle on the stern to drag it down to the water. The big cat was breathing hard when he returned to his partner and the terrified hound.
“Alder,” Cat demanded, when he returned and started tying the ropes and flag line together at their ends, “what in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He shrugged one shoulder, still working. “Improvising.”
The tip of his tail flicked from side to side as he finished the knots and tugged hard to confirm their strength. He tied the rope to the remaining handle on the kayak, leaving almost two fathoms loose above the knot. After tying the life preserver to this shorter length of rope, he stood up.
“Tell me ye’re takin’ the piss, Alder.”
“Fuck, bun, I don’t know. Just…hold this.” He passed her the end of the long section of rope.
The rabbit took it reluctantly, still not sure exactly what the big cat was planning. Alder just shook his head and coiled the rope out in the hopes that it wouldn’t tangle.
“Okay, you two keep a hold on that rope and keep your ears up. I’ll tug on the line and yell when I get to him. There aren’t any fucking paddles around, so I’m stuck using my arms. I won’t be able to do that whil holding on to him, so you two are gonna have to pull, all right?”
“No, it’s not ‘all right’, you stupid twat!” she shouted. Her eyes were filled with anger and fear in equal measure. “Ye’re gonnae kill yersel!”
“Bun…” He gestured at the rest of the people on the beach and said, “None of these other assholes are moving. I don’t like this any more than you—less, probably—but, if the lady’s right, he could fucking die out there. I can’t stand here and watch something like that happen again. I can’t do it alone, though.”
She nodded, closing her eyes and gritting her teeth. She didn’t know what the story was behind the “again”, but she knew from his expression that there would be no talking him out of it. He kissed her on the forehead and dashed off into the surf.
Alder had to employ the kayak as an oversized bodyboard, laying down at the bow with arms thrown over the low gunwales. The waves weren’t that big, but clawing up and over them took all of the strength that he had. As he reached the relatively calmer water past the impact zone, he relocated his goal in the wan moonlight.
The guy was huge. He was human and had to be well over six feet tall, with a build of a once-muscular fellow who’d let fat creep in. Beads of seawater and sweat clung to the locks of silver-grey hair plastered scalp. It was hard to tell if the guy’s pale skin was from long hours indoors or a pallor forced upon him by his condition. He lay face-down on a mid-sized paddle board, unmoving. Stupid fucker is lucky he stayed on the board, thought Alder as he kicked awkwardly up to the board and checked the man’s pulse and breathing, both of which were weak and irregular. He tried to wake the man, to no avail. Holding tight to the kayak, raised to his knees and pulled the life preserver to him. Passing the loose rope through the preserver was easy; running the resulting loop beneath the paddleboard and around its stricken occupant were harder. Finished, Alder pulled the rope tight around the man. He gave the rope two sharp tugs, then clutched the man’s board and held on to its edge, claws biting through the surface.
“Cat!” he called over the waves.
Her voice drifted back to him, sharp with concern. “Alder! Are you all right?”
“So far,” he hollered.
“Do you have him? Is he okay?” cried the greyhound, no less anxious.
“Yes and no. Pull us in, you two!”
He lurched with the tug on the rope and scrabbled to hang on to the board and the kayak at the same time. Once they were pulled past the impact zone, the ride turned rough but their speed picked up. Maintaining his balance and keeping the man from slipping off absorbed all of the puma’s consciousness. When they neared the beach, the greyhound bounded into the water and began fretting over her husband. Cataría and a pair of bystanders joined her to help untie him and carry board and man together onto shore. Alder’s ears buzzed with his rushing pulse, but over that he made out the sound of sirens nearby. The puma slipped off the kayak unsteadily and dragged it out of the water. As the keel of the craft cleared the waterline, paramedics arrived and began tending to the man. While they loaded the guy and his wife into the ambulance and drove off for the nearest hospital, Alder sank to the sand. He sat silent in his boxers and stared out past the horizon. The other observers had wandered back to their spots or left the beach entirely now that the excitement was over. Cat walked up behind him and placed her paw on his head, stroked the short fur between his ears.
She offered him a weak punch to the back of his head by way of rebuke, and rasped, “Y’scared the shit oot of me, bastard!” Then she was on her knees behind him, wrapping her arms around his chest and pressing her forehead to his back.
“I’m sorry, bun. I really, really am.” He leaned back into her and muttered, “Was that all seriously forty-five minutes?”
“Twenty,” she answered. “The paramedics’ previous call was cancelled and they were rerouted here.”
“Thank fuck. And the guy’s ok?”
“Don’t know. They stabilized him before they tossed him in the back of the van. He wasn’t awake when they left, but he was alive. They said the time time ye saved ‘em by bringin’ him in probably means they’ll be able to keep him that way.”
“Good,” he whispered, relaxing. The big cat’s muscles gave out and his weight sprawled them both on the sand.
She held him and grunted, “Whoa there, tree. Shout ‘timber’ next time, would ye? You awrite?”
He nodded. “Muscles are all mush, bun. We might,”—he started shivering—“be here a while.”
Cat flagged down one of the few people that still loitered on the beach and asked if they could bring over a towel or a blanket. The woman fetched a large beach towel from where her group was sitting and shook the sand from it as she brought it over. Cat thanked her and wrapped her wet companion with the towel. Outside the fabric, she gently rubbed her paws over his arms and chest. After a few minutes, the shivering abated.
“Shit,” groaned the puma, sitting up. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus.”
He winced. “Yeah and the adrenaline’s wea—” he swallowed hard.
The puma rubbed his face with his paws, getting sand all over his cheeks and muzzle. Grains clung to his whiskers and they pulled backward toward his cheeks. A rhythmic convulsing started in his chest and abdomen, slight at first but building in intensity. Alder doubled over and moaned an incomprehensible curse. Leaning over on all fours, he retched for what felt like an eternity before painting the sand before him with a froth of bile, liquor, and half-digested fried cheese. When nothing else would come up he spat and coughed, muttering a weak apology as he shoved sand over his mess with trembling paws.
Cat stroked his back and chided, “Never ye mind that, love,” unconscious of her wording. “Come noo, let’s get ye on yer feet and back tae the hotel.”
She helped Alder up and steadied him. After stopping at the water’s edge, so he could splash his face, they set to work dressing him. It took a great deal of effort to get his shirt back on over his weak, shaking limbs and wet fur. The rabbit hoped that her companion’s boxers would suffice to cover his lower bits until they could return to their room. With the puma leaning heavily on her shoulder, she guided him up the beach to return the towel. They both thanked the woman again and then continued—their bare paws tracking sand across the sidewalks—back to the hotel.
Cat expected a commotion when they reached the hotel lobby. The concierge, she figured, would lay into them for Alder’s state of undress and the sandy mess they tracked across the marble floors. The puma was beginning to shiver again—likely from the touch of the air conditioned atmosphere on his still-soaked fur—when the prim stoat approached them. The rabbit ground her teeth, waiting for the first word to wriggle out of the posh cunt’s mouth.
“Jesus, miss! Someone from the beach ran in and told us what was happening. We could see most of it from the patio.”—she just stared at him—“Is your friend all right? And Mr.…um…the guy he pulled in, is he gonna make it?” The upper class veneer that he must have adopted for the sake of his paycheck was gone from his demeanor.
Cat replied a bit harshly with a nod, “The paramedics got the bloke stable and are taking him tae A&E. This daft fucker,”—Alder gave a meek wave—“is worn out and wet. I need to get him cleaned up, dried off, and warmed up.”
“Here, Gary’ll help you get him to your room,” he waved at a wide-eyed human bellhop, a boy in his late teens with orange hair. “I’ll also send someone up with some coffee, right away. On the house.”
Gary nervously transferred Alder’s weight from the rabbit’s shoulder to his own, supporting the puma with an arm around his waist. He helped him to a wheelchair next to guest check-in, one of the rickety sort that hotels keep handy when elderly guests need help from the car to their room. The elevator ride passed in swift, awkward silence. At their door, Cat fumbled with the tangle of footwear and trousers in her arms until she found the pocket that held the card key. She opened the door and held it for Alder and the bellhop.
“Bed’s fine, son,” Alder mumbled. “Just dump me there.”
“Bollocks,” the rabbit huffed. She walked into the washroom, switched on the light and the heater, and dropped the toilet lid. “Ye’ll set him doon ‘ere, lad. Thank you.”
The bell hop helped Alder out of the wheelchair and guided him to the toilet. Once his burden was safely settled, he backed away quickly and nodded to them both. He moved to exit into the corridor, but his hand froze on the door handle. He turned to Cataría.
“Aye?” she acknowledged, barely listening.
“D’you…” —he shook his head and screwed up his face—“I mean, are you gonna…ah, shit.”
Cat relaxed her ears and allowed herself an impatient frown. “Come on, spit it out.”
His spotted cheeks went red and he stammered. “It’s just, y’know, you’re,”—he gestured vaguely at her—“and he’s…he’s a—” His blue eyes went wide, meeting Alder’s.
The boy wrung his hands and stuttered, his whole body trembling just enough to notice. Cat opened her mouth, but Alder spoke up first. The puma’s voice was amused and tired, responding to a question that he would likely never stop receiving.
He drawled, “You’re wantin’ to know if she’s worried I’m gonna forget how easy it is to go out and get a steak?”
The rabbit snickered. “Oh, hush. You’re just knackered and imag…” she trailed off seeing the boy nod his head. She growled, “Are you fucking serious, you little, ginger c—”
Alder held her back with a paw on her arm. He gave the weakest, most lopsided snarl the rabbit had ever seen and held his paws up, extending the claws. He’d left the tips of two of them in the paddle board as he towed it into shore. One ear cocked backward at a fierce angle, but the other drooped in a manner that even the boy recognized as submission. The overall image was one of a poor attempt at taxidermy by someone who had never seen a cat, much less a puma. He even crossed his sad eyes a bit, then dropped the pose with a wheezing laugh that managed to infect the other two.
“Son,” Alder drawled, leaning forward again to prop his elbows on his knees and gesturing at the rabbit with his thumb, “she’d be a damned fool not to be cautious, at some level. There are plenty of predators out there who don’t let walking upright stop them from being controlled by older instincts. Your kind’s got those types, too. Most of us, though, are generally content to never feel something shit itself to death with its throat between our teeth.” He smiled up at the bunny and added, winking, “With the possible exception of well-deserving ex-boyfriends.”
He turned back to the bellhop. “What you don’t know but she will, sooner or later, is that I’d wade through hell and back to keep her from harm.”
The kid nodded and turned the doorknob. Wishing them a good night, he scuttled out into the corridor with the wheelchair and closed the door softly behind him. The door had only been closed for a second or two when a knock came. Cat rolled her eyes and opened it, finding a young woman with two cups of coffee on a tray, accompanied by a pot of cream and a jar of sugar. She thanked the girl and let her in to deposit the tray on the room’s solitary table. Job complete, the lass nodded to them both and whisked back out into the corridor without having spoken a word.
Cat closed the door and took both cups into the bathroom, leaving the cream and sugar behind on the tray. She handed one to Alder, who nodded his thanks and took a sip. Meanwhile, the bunny leaned on the edge of the vanity and took a swig from her cup. They stayed quiet while they drank; both preferring to relish in the warmth of the liquid.
Once they were finished, the rabbit returned the cups to the tray and deposited it on the floor outside the door. She closed the door, then thought better of it and hung out the “Do Not Disturb” sign. It looked like they’d be sleeping late the next morning. No sense having a chambermaid bustle in on them.
Alder was shoving his shirt off over his head when Cat returned to the washroom. The smell of sand, salt and sweat swirled around in the eddies of air churned by the ventilation fan. Alder stood up slowly and leaned against the sink, brushing his teeth and tongue to get rid of the aftertaste of coffee and sick. Cat started the shower running and undressed while she waited for him to finish. After he set his toothbrush back down, she helped steady him as he eased off his boxers and stepped under the warm water.
“…wade through hell and back…” she grumbled at him, rubbing her paws through his fur to work out the sand and soreness. “Get tae fuck, ye bastard.”
He closed his eyes and hung his head in the spray, rumbling from the attention that she paid him. “I meant it, though, bun.”
“Aye, hush ye.” He couldn’t see her smile, but he could hear it in her voice.
Cat fell quiet for a few moments as she poured some of his shampoo into her paw, worked it into a lather, and coaxed the puma out from under the stream. Starting from his head, she worked the suds into the fur, continuing to his torso and arms before running out. She guided him back under the water and thoroughly rinsed the bubbles away, whispering apologies every time that he winced beneath her touch. She repeated the process with his lower half, seeming to pay little mind to the rosy flesh that began to peek expectantly from his sheath. The puma’s tail involuntarily struggled against her paws as she scrubbed, but she managed to subdue it. Once he was fully rinsed, she left him beneath the hot spray to release the lingering knots from his muscles.
Standing to the side, she soaped herself up as well. Alder watched through half-lidded eyes; his purring escalated with every pass that her paws made through her thick, dark fur. She glanced at him more than once, smirking at his enjoyment. When she finished lathering, she shooed him to the side so she could rinse. She watched him through one eye as she rubbed the shampoo from the fur of her head and down her ears.
“You’re looking better, tree,” she remarked. Her paws worked the lather out of the fur of her chest and arms, sending sheets of white foam down her legs to the tile.
The puma leaned against the wall and wiped the excess water from his face with his paws. He nodded and said, “Funny how some warm water and a hot, wet bunny can improve your mood.”
“How much better are you feeling?” she asked, getting the last of the shampoo out of her leg fur.
He shrugged. “Dunno, eighty percent of perfect, I gue—oof!”
Forty-eight kilograms of wet rabbit cut off his words, pressing his back to the wall and her mouth to his. Her paws clutched at the skin of his sides, both to pull herself closer and to hold herself up on the wet tile. His arms surrounded her, warm and strong, further supporting her. With a lurch, he spread his feet and lifted her off of hers. One of his paws pressed against her back; the other gripped her rear and held her suspended against him. Laughing, she hooked her heels behind him and wrapped her arms around his neck. They momentarily broke their kiss once, perhaps twice, to catch their breath.
Arms trembling, still fatigued, Alder spun and pinned her body between his and the wall. He wasn’t particularly heavy, himself—fifty-five kilograms, maybe sixty soaking wet as he was—and the moan that escaped Cat was not due to him leaning into her but his paws that were now free to roam through her dripping fur. She nuzzled and nipped at his neck, working her way up to clamp her lips onto the edge of his ear.
The rabbit slowly started to slide down the wall and he moved one paw to her rump to hold her up. His other paw traced four parallel rows through the damp fur of her chest and belly. When Alder’s fingers found the hard, raised bump of a nipple, he flicked the outer curve of a claw over the sensitive flesh; though, he kept the broken claws sheathed to protect her from the burrs. Her breath caught in her throat and her paws clenched, driving her own claws through his fur to press against his skin.
Instinct whispered to the puma’s subconscious, spurring his hips into involuntary twitches that drove the dark pink length of his cock halfway out of his sheath to stab and strain at the open air beneath the rabbit. With her legs still wrapped around him, she wiggled herself lower, searching. They gasped together when the heat of his tip made contact with the bare skin of her mound. His thrusting became more insistent, matched by the motions of her hips. However, their movements failed to achieve the contact for which they both were hungry.
Frustrated, she rasped in his ear, “Enough muckin’ aboot. Get in me, goddamn it!”
Alder growled and gripped her ass in both paws. He could feel the change as he guided her hips and aligned his tip with Y of her cleft. Her sex was warmer and more slippery than the surrounding wetness. Pausing at her threshold, he closed his eyes and buried his face in the side of her neck. He could smell her arousal over the blended scents of their shampoos, and the sound of the water faded into the dull, buzzing thrum that could have been either or both of their heartbeats.
Cat’s moan and his snarl merged as the puma relaxed his arms, slowly lowering her onto himself. The tapered tip of his cock met with no resistance as it eased between her folds. The warm air and steam of the shower was no match for the heat within her.
Time became oddly dilated for both of them. Alder continued lowering her for what felt like minutes but couldn’t even have been seconds. He groaned as he felt the rabbit’s walls simultaneously stretch and squeeze around his penis, until her pelvis at last met his. Through his panting and the distracting stimuli of her heavy scent and intoxicating heat, the puma was dimly aware that she was arrhythmically patting his shoulder.
“—still,” Cat gasped, “hold…hold still, Alder.” Her breathing was ragged and her body twitched
“Bun? You all right?” he asked, concern snapping him out of his fugue.
She nodded—her forehead pressed to his chest and her claws digging into the fur of his shoulders.
“Mm-hmm,” she managed between gasps, “fine, just need a moment—” She cut off with a squeak and a shudder that rippled from her hips outward. “Fuck! D’ye have any idea how different those things feel to anything else?”
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Heard it feels a bit better where you’re getting ‘em than where I have.”
“Sucks…hah!…mmmf,” she moaned, “to be you-oooo, fucking hell.” It was difficult talking with the reflexive clenching of her walls driving his barbs against nerves that hadn’t received that sort of attention before.
They stayed still until she trusted motion. Resting his muzzle on her head, he muttered into the fur between her ears that it would be best for them to take it slow on the out-stroke until she was used to it. Cat felt exactly what he meant when they finally moved. The irregular rows of semi-rigid spines that circled his shaft in a wide band were angled to point away from his tip. As he inched his way out, they raked the walls of her pussy like nothing she had ever felt. Between her natural lubrication and the flexibility of the nubs, there was no pain; their effect in nature was, after all, not to injure but to stimulate the female. That stimulation, however, was intense and almost overpowering. To Cat’s combined delight and surprise, it seemed that the barbs moved on their own to an extent, too. The pair built by increments into a cautious rhythm of firm, hungry thrusts and slow, shuddering withdrawals that pushed both of them over the edge far quicker than either of them expected or wanted.
Cat cried out, grabbing pawfuls of fur and skin over his shoulder blades. Her hocks dug into Alder’s butt, pulling her down until her mound met his velvet-furred sheath and squashed it hard against his pelvis. Buried to his base within her, the puma felt every pulse and wave that rolled through her cunt. Each time the contractions reached her deepest recess, the clenching of the walls would press two oddly firm points against either side of his tip. He didn’t have time to wonder what they were. His own release hit him, just as his legs announced they were no longer up to the task of supporting them both.
He eased his way down to the floor, the claws of his right paw pressed hard to the rabbit’s back as his left paw swung for the wall to steady himself on the way down. The paw pumped the shower control, accidentally turning the water off before he landed with a muffled splash on the tiles. The impact, soft as it was, jostled their connection and sent a fresh shock through them both.
The puma’s cock swelled and jerked with every pulse that he poured into her. The heat of it enveloped him, matching hers, and slid back along his length to drip into the swirling water by the drain. Cat’s body sagged with fatigue, resting on his thighs. They clutched at each other, embracing and kissing one another’s faces, necks, lips.
“I don’t think I can move for a minute, bun,” Alder whispered. The muscles of his folded legs ached and his toes tingled.
Cat leaned back to look him in the eyes and smiled. “Good. If you try tae pull that prickly fucker out before my pussy calm doon, I’m gonnae murder ye.”
They sat for a moment, chests still heaving, and listened to the dripping of water—and more than water—in the echoing stall. Out of nowhere, the puma started snickering. He tried to choke it down but it swelled instead into a fit of giggles.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” the rabbit chuffed. “What?”
When Alder opened his mouth to answer, the first sound out was a staccato laugh that he managed to subdue to a low chuckle. “Sorry, bun. I was just thinking how ironic our situation is.”
She nuzzled his chin. “What are you babbling about?”
“Well,”—he licked her forehead—“it isn’t often you hear about a tree stuck in a cat.”
She snorted and fell into her own fit of giggles, which became a whole new sensory experience for both of them. Her laughter sent contractions through her that gripped him almost as hard as the ones during her climax. That, coupled with the puma’s ebbing erection, elicited a wet plop as he was forced out of her. This did nothing for their amusement and they toppled, laughing, to lean against adjacent walls. The laughter was more of a release than the sex had been, relaxing the last of the tension that had built within them over the past few hours.
Once they settled down and Alder thought that his legs could hold him, they eased up onto their feet and turned the water back on. They helped one another clean their mingled fluids from the fur of their crotches and legs. After toweling off and sharing the blow dryer, they flopped onto the bed. Snuggled close, they traced languid patterns through one another’s fur and within minutes were both asleep.