The dark, slender rabbit giggled and replied, “I shit you not, tree.”
Alder stared at his shallow bowl in frowning confusion. “Tofu?”
“Yup.” She sipped at her tea and watched him with amusement.
The puma poked at the chunks of what he had thought were meat. He shook his head and took another bite, savoring the rich sauce. “I’ll be a son of a bitch,” he mumbled.
They sat on the patio of a small Indian restaurant, about which Cataría had read good things. It was just before noon on their first full day away from the destruction in Newcastle. If either one were asked, they would say that they were having a wonderful time and had hardly a care in the world.
It was mostly true. They were having a fantastic time with one another. They had walked and talked along the strand this morning, sharing more about each other’s childhoods (her brief time as a Catholic and his atheism-by-default, and comparing tastes in books, television, movies, and music. There were few topics upon which they encountered walls—one being The Wall (Cat professed that it was her favorite Pink Floyd album, while Alder preferred Wish You Were Here.)—and none which generated any real tension.
Reciprocal familiarity with the popular culture contributions made by their respective homelands cemented their growing affection. The night before, instead of the heated session of lovemaking that their passionate non-coital play had foretold, they had talked for hours about Doctor Who, the various Star Trek franchises, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Under the surface, however, they were both still dealing with the trauma of their search and rescue experience. Each woke, crying, at different times in the middle of the night from the cold grip of nightmares. Fortunately, they had each other to hold in those times.
Cat set her cup on the table and commented to her partner, “I really dinnae see how you’re just casually eating that.”
“Why? I mean, yeah it’s not meat, but…” He shrugged and too another bite.
The rabbit looked down at her own bowl, scarcely eaten. “Not the tofu, doofus. How can you stand the spice?”
Alder’s mouthful almost exited through his nose. He dropped his spoon with a clatter into the bowl. He wiped his mouth, chuckling through the napkin. “Look, bun,” he chuffed kindly, pointing down at the bowl, “that ain’t spice. If I ever get your fluffy butt to New Mexico, I’m gonna blow your fuckin’ mind. I’ll take you to a little bodega and café in Tularosa where they make the best food ever and half of it is so goddamned hot you could soften steel over your pellets.”
Her bright laugh in response made some of the other patrons turn to them. The bunny’s ears drooped and went red inside from the attention. “Silly Yank cunt,” she said with a smirk.
“Yank it? I’m not even sure how one might do such a thing. You’ll have to show me later.” He winked and resumed eating.
Cat shook her head and laughed again.
After they finished lunch, the pair went back to their hotel. They were still exhausted from the physical toil of their time in the rubble of Newcastle and didn’t have it in them to explore the tourist destinations that Sydney had to offer just yet. Laying in bed, they flipped through the television channels on offer and relaxed in each other’s arms. Both of them fell asleep midway through making fun of some obnoxious, made-for-tv, science fiction movie that pitted college students (played by a cadre daytime-melodrama actors whose makeup team failed to hide that they were double the age they were meant to portray) against an impossible combination of disasters—Blizznadocano vs. Hurricomet or some such nonsense.
Cat awoke to the flickering light and tumult of an infomercial on the tv. Dusk showed through the window and the cable receiver’s display reported that the time was 9:45 in the evening. Between the nine and the four a glowing colon blinked in seeming remonstration over their casual disregard for civilized circadian rhythms.
She slowly exited the bed, not wanting to wake Alder. Her long, furred feet made no noise on the carpet, but she gasped at the cold touch of the tile floor in the washroom on her bare toe pads. They should have been insulated by the thick fur growing between them, but all the time she had spent on her feet over the previous couple of weeks had worn that fur down, leaving the soft flesh exposed. She closed the door and turned on the light, blinking in the sudden brightness. The fan, operated by the same switch as the light, spun up to a soft purr overhead. She settled onto the toilet and fiddled with the apps on her phone while her body did what it needed to do. She never bothered with social media, but flipped through an assortment of news providers and played a puzzle game to which she had become addicted. Her lives in the game ran out quickly on a hard level. Bored of news and not yet wanting to get up, she scratched her belly and let her mind wander.
What the hell was she going to do? She couldn’t stay in Australia forever. Well, technically she could; she just didn’t want to. The country was nice enough, but there wasn’t anything there that held her. Going back to Scotland was a possibility, but there wouldn’t be much for her to do there. She could only bum around the family estate so long. So? That was two nations out of an entire globe. She had opted to specialize in New World, temperate zone fauna so that left extreme southern South America or North America. Canada could work, but she only knew one person in the whole country. Even though the chances of bumping into that person at random were astronomical, they weren’t astronomical enough.
She shook her head, cleaned herself up, and stood to pull up and fasten her pants. Finished, she flushed. Thank fuck this hotel has a nice, quiet toilet that can handle voxie rabbit pellets, she thought to herself as she washed and dried her paws, switched off the light, and stealthily opened the door. No sense waking Alder up with whooshing water or a panicked bunny trying to handle an overflowing loo. Even though the silly bugger would probably just laugh. She started snickering at the thought, then caught herself.
She stood at the sliding door for a moment, watching the big cat sleep. From time to time his upper lip would twitch, swishing his whiskers about. Bloody adorable, isn’t he? She thought about the long conversations that they’d had over the last two days. Somehow, the desire to shag had taken a back seat to fulfilling some deeper need that they both seemed to feel. They hadn’t gone farther than the foreplay and oral sex that had happened when they arrived at the hotel. Oh, please, she chided herself, in Scottish terms that hardly even counted as making out.
She continued to watch him with a wry grin. He lay atop the covers, still clothed. The long, fluid lines of his body made him look as far from athletic as anything could look; but beneath the lanky exterior and tawny fur she had felt exactly the sort of sleeping power that one should expect from an ambush predator. He was a loaded spring, and as much as she loved his company and his conversation, she was getting increasingly curious about what would happen if she ever got that bound up energy to release.
She subconsciously started toward the bed but paused after only a couple of steps. Och, noo! This isnae the time for thinking with your pussy. Get a clear heid on ye. She slid the door open quietly and stepped outside. The night air was cool in comparison to the heat of day, but still warmer than the air-conditioned room. Stretching her limbs, she yawned and continued her earlier thoughts.
Where to? America? Alaska (technically part of America, but geographically a world of its own)? Or, perhaps forego her specialty and go to Europe or Russia? She stuck her tongue out at the thought. She’d been all over Europe and visited Russia. Neither held any interest for her. Argentina or Chile? She paced the balcony quietly. No, ye know damn well what you’re thinking. True, but was it her head thinking it or was she just thinking about chasing that odd, prickly cock across the ocean?
She ultimately decided that while there was a hint of that, in the end, whatever drew her to Alder now was clearly deeper than getting laid. Besides, everything else about America interested her, too. The simultaneous novelty and familiarity of the culture, the diversity of ecosystems. The conservation network! More than a hundred million acres of national and state parks, preserves, and conservation areas dotted the nation. Hell, many of those parks neighbored unprotected forestland, where forestry concerns harvested timber. Maybe she could get a post at a park near where he worked.
Okay, rein it in a bit. He’s attractive and fun to be around, but don’t get ahead of yourself. Chris’sakes, woman. If you’re gonnae go, you’re gonnae go for you and no other goddamn reason.
Looking out across the white-streaked, dark expanse of the sea—with the warm, yellow-orange lights of lonesome freighters and pleasure craft mirroring the cold blue of the stars—Cat leaned against the balustrade, ornate frosted glass panes capped by a polished teak rail that still held the heat of day, swiveling her ears to and fro at the various sounds of a coastline community transitioning from the business of day to the play of night. She breathed deeply of the salt air. The smell was vaguely reminiscent of the shores of home, but the climate was far warmer. A smile tugged at her velvet cheeks. Dad would have likely have said something like, “Let th’ fuck’rs come dip their wee pink willies intae th’ water off Peterhead. See how they like fartin’ aboot in th’ sea then!” Yet, the gruff bastard would happily tote his brood to the sands of Peterhead to freeze their own arses off in the North Sea every year.
For a moment, her ears ceased their asynchronous rotations and stood alert over her forehead. She grinned and withdrew her phone. A quick check of the sliding door confirmed that she had closed it. No sense waking the big pussy cat. A press of the lock button lit up the display. Ten o’clock in Sydney corresponded to one in the afternoon back at home. She selected a contact and initiated a call.
After one ring, a voice crackled on the line. “Kitty?”
“Hi, Dad. Aye, it’s me.” The smile in her voice did little to cover her nervousness.
“What is it, tomorrow there? Ye all right?”
She laughed. “No, ye silly twat. It’s only ten. And, yeah, I’m good. You?”
A clatter echoed in the background. “Damn it, David! Keep yer eyes pointed in th’ direction that yer fuckin’ moving!”
“Still haven’t got Davie trained on the forklift?”
“Nah,” grumbled the voice. “Stupid bugger probably still hurts hisself every time he uses a bloody spoon.”
She snorted. “Well, tell him his sister says he’s a silly cunt that’ll never amount tae anything.”
“Dave! Oi, Davie! Kitty says yer a useless cunt!” A bellow of distant laughter rose amid the background noise of the warehouse, followed by something indistinct. “Aye, he says he loves ye, too.”
“Awww,” she moaned. “I miss the lot of ye.”
“Well,” her father gruffed, eschewing emotion, “what’re ye callin’ for?”
“I think I ken where I’m going.” She looked down to the patio and swimming pool below, nervously fondling the ruff of fur and skin that pillowed out between her shirt collar and chin. In a human, this would have given her a double-chin at odds with the rest of her frame. The dewlap, though, so characteristic in lasses of her species, merely gave the impression that she was wrapped in a plush, black stole. Unfortunately, the position also changed the dynamic of her voice. Something her father never missed.
“Oh, aye?,” the old rabbit hummed pensively. “And what? You’re thinkin’ I’ll no like it?”
Cat nodded and sighed, “Aye, probably not.”
“Wait a bit, Kitty.” The cacophony in the background on his end faded as he walked out of the storehouse and into his office. She could hear the creak of his chair as he sat down and the soft thwump of a cork being pulled. A slosh of liquid. A squeak of the cork being replaced. A sip. A sigh. A throat being cleared. They were the sounds of a ritual that she had seen performed countless times.
“A’right, love. What is it?” His voice and accent were softer, more…professional.
“Dad,” she began, “what’s the worst place you could see me trying tae settle down?”
There was a sharp sound of glass on wood. The softness broke momentarily. “Oh, Christ! Cataría, tell me ye’re no knocked up by some dingo-fucker, did ye?”
She turned and leaned her back against the railing, laughing. “No, Dad! I didn’t get pregnant, for fuck’s sake. Also, I guess it’d be the second worst place.”
A sigh of relief. “Ok, good. Wait, Wales? No…Rwanda? Albania? What’s just slightly less awful than Australia? Hell? South Africa?”
“The U.S., Dad.”
“Pish!” He chuckled. “No even close. Aye, I bitch about Yanks, but only about half of them are cunts. At least you won’t get bored there; plenty to see. Fuck knows, their diet there isn’t any better than here. Careful you don’t get so fat you have to roll home. I’ll have Bill get in touch with you about taking care of your visa and whatever else you need to look for work.” Bill was the family solicitor and a long-time friend of her father.
“Of course, Kitty. Noo,” another sip and a faint snicker, “what’s this I hear aboot you tryin’ tae get yersel et by a…what was he?…a puma?” He pronounced it differently from Alder, drawing out and stressing the first syllable. Pyew-ma.
Cat almost dropped her phone.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” she whisper-yelled into the handset. “Which one of those awful coos mooed tae ye? Molly, was it?”
The old bunny laughed merrily. “Ne’er ye mind which of yer sisters it was,” he said, slipping back into his usual, comfortable brusqueness now that the serious business was concluded. “So, is he better than th’ last one?”
She looked through the window at the vague shape of the big cat laying in the darkness of the room, then turned back toward the sea. “I think so, aye. Time will tell.”
“Well, tell hem if he hurts ye, I’ll cut his baws off and push them doon his throat.”
Cat smiled. “Hell, if he tries tae hurt me the way you’re talking, I’ll dae it for ye. Anyhow, I’d best let you get back to making sure Davie doesn’t demolish the storehouse. Talk to you again soon, dad. Love ye.”
“Aye, dearie. Take care.” The line went quiet.
The rabbit sighed and slipped her phone back into her pocket. Her eyes roamed over the dark grey ocean to where it blended seamlessly with the sky. She couldn’t quite tell if it felt more like the sea was towering above her in some cataclysmic wave or that the little shoreline community sat at the edge of the world, bare meters away from the void of space. If she leapt off that edge, how far would she fly…or fall?A soft sound behind her made her ears swivel back. It was the balcony door sliding open.
Alder shuffled out, scratching his neck, claws furrowing the fur behind his ear. He gave her a tired smile and stretched his arms against the railing with a heavy, toothy yawn. Cat had mostly grown accustomed to cavorting with the predator, but there was something deep within her that still cringed when he moved just right. She shivered slightly, hoping that he would miss it. The big cat was more attentive than that. He’d noticed all the other times, too.
He gave her a sidelong glance and let out a little, self-conscious chuckle. “Takes some getting used to?”
Abashed, she admitted, “A little, aye.”
He nodded and looked down at his paws, sheathing and unsheathing the claws. He left them extended and stretched is arms out over the edge of the balcony. Against the darkness of the sky and the ocean, the claws flickered faintly with blue light from the television. He retracted them, sighed, and stared off into the distance, planting his paws on the rail. A heavy silence settled in the humid air between them, with only the odd sound—sea and road traffic, sea birds, and the like.
After a moment, Alder turned to her with a shake of his head at some internal thought and rested his hip against the rail. The puma took one of her paws in both of his, unintentionally highlighting for both of them how much smaller she was than him. With hers resting palm up in his left paw, he traced her fur-fringed pads with his index finger. She frowned, wondering what he was doing. He cupped her paw in both of his again and bent, pressing his lips softly against the larger pad of her palm. Alder remained still for a few beats, then lifted his head and folded her fingers over her palm. His right paw covered his left, enveloping hers with his warmth. Holding her thus, he leaned forward and rested his forehead on hers.
“Cataría,” he said, “we’ve only known each other for a little while. There’s a lot that we don’t know about each other’s habits, points of view, and instincts.”
She rested her free paw on his chest and whispered, “Aye.…” Her fingers flexed and the claws pulled at his shirt fabric.
She flashed back to another man, another conversation about instincts and habits. That conversation ended with the relationship. He had been a very different person, as had she back then, but the memory made her worry about where this talk was going. Was he getting ready to pull away, just when she thought things were going well. Fucking wanker!
“But, there is just no way I could hurt you like that.” He shook his head, pressing his fur deeper into hers.
Pardon? Cat’s eyes snapped open and tried to focus on his face. A smile tugged at the dark patches on either corner of his muzzle.
“I mean,” he continued, “I can’t promise that I won’t bite or scratch a bit during the odd moment of passion.
“Fuckin’ hold up, now.” She pushed back, confused, and looked him in the eye. “What the hell are you trying tae say? I thought you were getting ready tae break this off, but…”
The big cat’s ears twitched and he cocked an eyebrow in bemusement. “Uh…no. I was trying to tell you that I understand you having trouble with the tooth-and-claw bit, but that I love you too much to go farther than the occasional nip or scratch during sex. Why would I want to break up? I thought we were getting along really well.”
The pink skin of her ears, barely visible where they were pressed to her back, was slowly darkening. “What…the fuck…did ye just say?”
Alder leaned back from her snarl, unsure what to make of the expression on her face. It seemed to be more anxiety than anger. “That we’re getting along well…?”
“Not that, you ass. We’ve known each other for barely four fucking days and you’re dropping ‘love’ on me?”
He released her paw and spread is arms in open bewilderment. “Yeah? I like you a lot, but ‘like’ sounds like, ‘hey, wanna hold hands on the field trip to the dairy farm’. It’s got a nasty, juvenile taste. I tell my mom and my sister that I love them. I tell my kids that I love them. I tell my fishing buddies that I love them. Why the hell wouldn’t I tell you that?”
Her jaw hung open and her right eyebrow twitched a little.
“Change of venue, Alder. Now!” She reached up and massaged the bridge of her nose. “There is no way in hell I’m continuing this conversation without alcohol and a table between us.”