<< Back to Chapter 3: Over a Few Drinks | On to Chapter 5: Into the Deep End >>

I almost came to regret that decision. For whatever reason, our teacher, a middle-aged wolf and champion fighter named Jason Yin, had decided to drill the green-belts himself instead of leaving it to one of his senior students, and the regimen was gruelling. As the clock rolled past one, I contemplated calling to let Sam know I wouldn’t be up for a bout.

When break was called, I discovered a hitch in that plan: Sam was already there, a duffel bag over his shoulder, chatting up my teacher. Who, damn it all, looked far too happy to see someone here from a different school and style.

He wasn’t even surprised. He’d known about this in advance – Sam must’ve called to be sure showing up mid-session wouldn’t be thought rude.

When we filed back into the training room, Sam had changed into a gi which, while cut loose, still managed to look too small for his massive frame. He stood respectfully at a corner of the room while Yin assigned duties for the last stretch of class that day.

Finally, to the green belts, he said, “As you can see, we have a guest here today. He’s come to see our style at work. Since he’s at about the same level of training as all of you, what better way to demonstrate than to show just how we match up? Will anyone volunteer to step onto the mat with Mr. Knight and see whose school winds up better?”

Silence reigned. I was somewhat surprised when I wasn’t invited forward directly, and even more so when Sam himself gave me just a smile and a brief nod.

So he wasn’t actually expecting to face me at this point, with the class watching. He was leaving that for after. He might not have even said he knew me, and this bout may have been Yin’s idea all along.

I relaxed. If he wasn’t trying to show me up –

If he wasn’t calling me out, ironically, I just might have a chance.

“I will,” I said, getting up to my feet.

Brows arched in surprise. The wolf knew I wasn’t his most confident student, and Sam had expected me to wait for some privacy. And yet there I was, stepping up to the edge of the mat.

Neither questioned me.

“Very well, Timothy. Gentlemen, this won’t be an ordinary tournament fight, and official mixed-martial-arts competition hasn’t caught my eye in the past, so we’ll play it by ear. I’ll watch for clear fouls, but a blow will not itself signal a point. That I’ll call when one of you is reeling, or yields, or is knocked down while the other stands. Understood?”

I spoke an affirmative; Sam’s rumbling bass followed suit. Yin waved us forward. We bowed to the mat, stepped onto it, faced each other, and bowed again. We dropped into our respective stances; Sam’s heavily grounded, mine light on my feet. And we waited.


I was moving before Yin’s voice had faded. If Sam came to me on his own terms, the skunk’s inertia would barrel through my defences and bowl me over, leaving me off-balance and helpless. The only way I would succeed, if I could, was by pressing the attack.

So that was what I did. I advanced, bobbing and weaving, and threw punches as fast as my weary arms could muster them. Sometimes he only managed glancing blocks, but that was all he needed; as soon as my blow didn’t land solidly, it was no longer enough to faze him, glancing off his arms or sides or shoulders with no effect. I sidestepped a few checks, leaned away from snatches and grabs, even vaulted over a sweep of his leg, aiming a flying kick at his shoulder.

He was ready for it. He grabbed my leg and twisted me over in mid-air, slamming me to the mat face-first. He had my leg pinned behind me at an uncomfortable angle, and his grip suggested it could be quickly made more so.

“Enough,” I choked out, and the first full point was called. Instantly, Sam eased my leg down, bending over me.

“Are you okay, Tim?” he breathed, one big hand gliding along my back, perhaps making sure I hadn’t wrenched it out of place. “I’m sorry, that put you down harder than I expected – “

“I’ll be fine,” I told him, grinning over my shoulder. “I’m not done quite yet.” I clambered to my feet, buoyed by the soft applause of my classmates as I worked out a bit of lingering stiffness. They believed in me; they wanted to see me win. For them, as much as for myself, I would keep trying.

The next round, I was more careful, but I still pressed the advantage of speed. Thanks to his considerable strength, Sam could move faster than I’d thought. He could not, however, move faster than I could. I kept attacking faster, until he only had time to defend; I pummelled at his arms, got him to lean over to catch my blows – and without missing a strike, I whirled around, sweeping at his bent leg. I connected; overbalanced, the man tumbled to the mat with a heavy thud while I alighted beside him. For a moment my weight was spread between my other foot and one hand; then I flipped upright. I was flushed with excitement – excitement that surged even higher as, with Sam still on the mat, Yin called a point in my favour.

The rest of the dojo had stopped what they were doing now, intent on the contest we were having. The mat was clear; once Sam picked himself up, we moved to the middle of it, and once more, bowed to one another.

Once Yin gave the word, I gave it everything I had. I had Sam’s measure now, but no less did he have mine. This third round would be the deciding point. The victory could go either way – that was enough of a surprise to me. But this time I wanted it. Not that I wanted to beat Sam, specifically; but I wanted to win, for once, and be seen to win.

He weathered a flurry of punches; I leaned around one that, had it been a few inches over, would have knocked me flat. He grabbed my arm; I chopped his funny bone and tore free, dancing away, when he flinched. Back and forth we went across the mat, our shouts, steps, hoarse breathing, and the smack of flesh against flesh the only sounds.

Getting in close, I saw it – the tension in his leg and arm. He was waiting for me, waiting to flip me like he had that first round, and I saw it too late to stop. I was not, however, too late to change direction.

Instead of flipping me over, he corrected a deliberately lopsided leap on my part, and practically hurled me over his shoulder. As he lurched forward, off-balance, I spun in mid-air, pouring all the air in my lungs into a yell, just as I poured all my strength into a kick that lanced forward, clipping inside the arm he raised for defence and barrelling past it, catching his jaw and sending him tumbling down. The recoil made me flip over again before I landed in a crouch, slowly standing. Sam started to rise, but sank back down with a groan, cupping a hand against his jaw.

“Point and match,” Yin announced. “Carver, flying kick.”

A cheer went up from the other students. For a moment I felt giddy. They’d been welcoming enough before, true, but I’d never been the focus of such positive attention before.

But Sam was still lying there.

I crouched down by his shoulders. He stirred, looking up at me – quite focused; thank goodness I hadn’t hit him hard enough to addle him. “Are you alright?” it was my turn to ask.

The skunk groaned, pushing his shoulders up with one arm and taking his mouth guard out with the other hand. “I think I almost bit through this thing,” he mused. “Time for a new one. Other than that, I’m fine.”

He got back up to his feet, and so did I. We faced each other, bowed one last time, and started off the mat.

“Just a moment, Timothy.”

I paused, turning, suddenly more nervous than I had been even before the fight started. The wolf held, lying across both hands, a long strip of brown cloth – my heart leaped into my throat.

“For some time,” he said, “you’ve been physically ready to advance. You know the moves, the drills, and you’re strong enough, agile enough, to perform them. I and a few visiting masters agreed that all you needed was the confidence to let yourself use them properly.

“Now you’ve learned to let yourself go. To permit yourself to act. With this, you’re more than ready to wear the brown belt.”

He held it up in front of him. I moved up to stand right in front of him, such that when we bowed, our heads were inches apart; and with my shaking hands I lifted the cloth from his.

“Well done, Timothy,” he said once we were standing straight, and smiled. “As you’re a little worn to start a new set of lessons this late in the day, maybe you should cool down early, and get a proper start next time.”

“Thank you, sensei. I’ll – ” I paused. I’d been about to say ‘I’ll do my best,’ but contemplating his words, I thought better of it. Grinning, I declared, “I won’t disappoint you.”

“That’s more like it,” he praised, and pushed his fist against my shoulder. We backed up, exchanged bows, and parted. Once I was off the mat, I turned to give it one last bow, then found a free corner of the room to do some cool-down exercises.

“Nice match,” Sam praised, following me into the locker room as I tried not to favour my wrenched leg. “The wolf said he didn’t expect you to step forward, but if you did, I might be in over my head. Guess he wasn’t kidding.”

“Hey, we split the first points,” I protested, making for my locker. “The match could’ve gone either way.”

A snort. “I only did that well because you were tired and I wasn’t. If you’d come at me fresh, you could’ve tap-danced on my skull until you felt like kicking it to the mat.” Around the row of lockers from me, his voice started moving toward the showers. I grabbed my grooming kit and followed suit.

Don’t look, I told myself as I hung my towel on the rack. It’ll just invite feelings of inadequacy.

“I guess I can see your point,” I said aloud, turning on one of the heads and stretching full-length under it, leaning on the leg he hadn’t grabbed and pushing the other one right out as the water cascaded over me. “I sure wouldn’t want to face the brown belts if he hadn’t said I was ready to be one myself.”

“Earlier this week,” the skunk replied, “I don’t think you really believed you could bring me down, could you? And I’m a green myself.”

That, I had to admit, was a fair point.

“Even if someone is officially ‘better’, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance,” Sam went on. “You might be underrated. They might be overrated. They might be complacent, or just vulnerable to something about your particular style.”

“So try anyway,” I concluded, grabbing my fur wash from the ledge I’d set it on.

“Exactly. If you try, you have a chance. It’s only – “

The rest of what he had to say was lost to me.

Apparently I hadn’t quite done my cool-down right. As I twisted around to soap up my right leg, my lower back exploded in pain so intense, it drowned out everything else. I couldn’t even see past the stars. I felt, more than heard, my chest spasm in a gasp before my throat locked entirely, and was barely aware of my balance slipping away from me.

“Tim? Tim!” Massive hands slid under my shoulders, supporting me, keeping me from hitting the rubber mat. “Don’t move, Tim – stay very still. I know first aid for this sort of thing. Can I help you?”

He had to repeat himself before I could make sense of the words, but once I had, I immediately choked out, “Y-yes!” Anything to make that pain stop…

“Okay. Where does it hurt? Your back?” I jerked my chin up in a nod. “Low down?” Another nod. “Right side?” After a moment’s effort trying to focus on just where the agony was coming from, I shook my head. “Left?” To that I nodded again.

“Right. Anywhere else? Does that leg hurt, too?” When I nodded, he said, “Okay. I know what’s wrong, Tim. You’ll be okay. Just do exactly as I tell you and I’ll set you right. I’ll make the pain stop. You’ll be okay.”

His voice was magical. The reassurance cut off my incipient panic and helped to make the pain a little more bearable, knowing that it wouldn’t last.

“Tim, I want you – slowly – to straighten your shoulders out. Just turn them to the left, very carefully. That’s it, nice and easy… good.” His one hand stayed up to support my shoulders, splayed between them; the other moved to my lower back, moving over the source of that blinding pain with a touch so light, it was almost a caress. “Now, this may make the pain flare up, Tim, but you need to get that nerve unpinched. Slowly, again – straighten out that leg.”

He hadn’t been kidding. It hurt – it hurt a lot. But he kept talking, soothing me, and his strong hands guided things along, until I was lying face-up on the non-skid mat.

As the pain mercifully began to subside to a dull ache, I was suddenly acutely aware of his presence. There he was, mere inches away from me, his hands still upon me. Concern was thick in his eyes and on his face, but as he noticed my pain lessening, I thought I saw something else there, too. A yearning.

“Tim,” he whispered, his breath stirring my whiskers, his mouth so close to mine. I’d never really noticed how animated his face could be, how bright his eyes were, how warm and steady his breath. One of my own trembling hands lifted up, felt along the strong line of his jaw – not the side I’d clipped earlier – and spread over his cheek. He leaned against it, his head tilting slightly, pushing down, and his lips brushed mine.

In that moment of contact, the electric thrill of his touch also awakened a memory – a thought of the twisted braid of metal that normally adorned his finger. He’d taken it off for the match, but I could still picture it there clear as day. God, what the hell was I doing?

The moment ended, his head lifting away. “We need to get you to a doctor,” he told me. “Fortunately, I happen to know one. I’m just going to give you a bit of a wash here – you can do the rest yourself, later, but for now this’ll get the worst out.”

He used his own body wash to do it; I was still too stunned to point out that mine was right there, and that mildly-spicy scent I’d come to associate with him, being rubbed into my own fur, kept me just as thoroughly confused as the way he touched me. It was sort of a wash and a massage at the same time, and it was magical. At one point, despite trying to keep my hormones under control, I actually caught myself moaning.

“It’s okay, you’ll be fine,” Sam murmured, and I bit my lip. Maybe he thought I was still hurting. Whatever the case, he brushed a hand over my brow. “That should do for now. Let’s get dressed and get you someplace comfortable.”

Oh, right. All this had happened in the shower, which meant I was naked. And the man who’d done all that, the man still close to me, the biggest piece of masculinity I’d ever known – he was naked, too, his fur plastered down by the water, still rich with the smell of that same fur wash. Another moan tried to work its way free. I managed to swallow it, but couldn’t do the same for my blush.

Thank goodness, he didn’t comment on that.

I didn’t need a warning to be careful getting dressed. Sam stayed close, but if he was watching, he was discreet about it. For my own sake, I kept my eyes away from him; there was just too much that could go wrong by looking too close.

Sam guided me down the hall with one arm, both our bags hanging from the other. He hooked a wireless earpiece behind his ear with that hand and, apparently, hit the speed dial. As we got to the door, a perk in his ears told me someone had answered, and he said, “Sarah, good, you’re still home. You’re not on your way out, are you?” Then, “I’ll be bringing Tim over. Keep your doctor’s bag handy, if you could. Pulled or pinched something – the sciatic, I’m pretty sure. Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be careful. See you soon. Bye.”

That took enough time to get to the green pickup truck in the parking lot. He unlocked the passenger door and actually lifted me in, and even leaned over to do up my seat belt before going around to the driver door.

The drive was a short one, and Sarah stepped out the door even as Sam was pulling in the driveway. Once the truck had stopped, she got me out of it much the same way her husband had got me in, very cool and professional. From there, she had me lean on her for the trip inside, Sam trailing behind us with my duffel bag, winding up in what turned out to be a spare bedroom on the ground floor. They got me settled on a bed that was far, far softer than my own, and Sarah did a quick examination. I met some lingering stiffness but, thankfully, the pain stayed at its manageable level, and even that I was starting to tune out.

“An anti-inflammatory would probably help,” she mused. “Do you have a drug plan, Tim?”

“Yeah. But I don’t know what it covers.”

“Got an info card on you, by chance?”

She didn’t let me dig around even far enough to reach my wallet. She got that out of my pocket for me and let me get the little card out of it. Once I’d done so, she took it out of the room to make a phone call.

I’d lost track of Sam during this, so for a few moments I was alone. I could hear Sarah’s voice, just not clearly enough to make out what she was talking about; not that I needed to. It was enough of a reassurance that there were people not far off. And as Sam had pointed out, Sarah was a doctor – a specialist in sport injuries, at that. I couldn’t ask to be in better hands.

She came back in with a smile, bearing a glass of water and a pad and pen. “I can get you the good stuff, no problem,” she declared. “Take it for a week and it should let you start putting some strain on those muscles, but I’ll fill it out for twelve days, just to be sure. In the meantime, I happen to have samples. Any medical allergies?” When I responded in the negative, and the same to a query of whether or not I was taking anything else, she popped the foil seal on one little plastic bubble. “Swallow this,” she instructed, giving me the water to wash it down. While I was doing that, she filled out what I could now see was a blank prescription form.

She explained the doses for me and set the sample pack on the end table. “Give that about fifteen minutes to kick in,” she instructed, “and we’ll see how you’re feeling. Oh, hi, Sam.” She looked up as the big man carried in the TV. “Moving in here or something? Leaving me for another man?”

Thank goodness neither of them was looking my way. Not only did I have a massive blush going on, a sudden flashback to that moment in the shower – conveniently forgetting the pain – made part of my body report that, yes, I was bisexual enough to like the notion a lot. While both of them were facing the wall looking for a power outlet, I propped up my knees and did a quick bit of rearranging.

Sam got the TV in place, sitting atop a low chest. After their murmured conversation, Sarah had left the room; as he straightened, she returned with the matte black box and attached paraphernalia of a Samson PlaySystem.

“Something made me think fighting games would be out,” she drawled, setting the ageing but quite viable console on the chest and starting to hook up cables. “You said you like RPGs, Tim. Ever tried Call of Dreams? I’ve always wanted to see what it’s like with a full trio.”

She’d chosen a mostly-classic-style RPG, with a small twist: it had been built with multiple players in mind. In this case, the ideal mix was one person from each of the three archetypes – a combination I’d never had the pleasure of seeing in action.

“Sounds good to me,” I said, grinning.

“Grab a cushion from the couch, would you, dear? Here, Tim,” she passed a controller, “have the wireless, it should be fully charged.” While Sarah disentangled some more cables, Sam returned from his errand. They got me propped up in a half-sitting position, supported by that cushion and the pillows, Sam sitting to my left, Sarah in the narrower gap on my right.

For the record, the bed was not wider than the seat of their truck. But at least it was a less vulnerable place to be than flat on my back in the shower.


With those big, powerful hands on me.

Oh, God. I’d known I found Sarah attractive. Wasn’t it bad enough to be crushing over a married woman? Did I have to have the hots for her husband, too? It just wasn’t fair…

“So I guess the big match didn’t happen?” Sarah mused as the credits rolled. “That was for three…”

“My jaw says it happened, thank you very much,” Sam shot back. “The old wolf asked for volunteers for a demo match. Our stripey friend here pounded me into the mat a few times, and the sensei handed him a brown belt and sent him home early.”

“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” I protested. “You got the first point.”

“And for the next two,” replied the big skunk, clicking through the title screen, “I went down hard.”

“That I’d have liked to see,” Sarah murmured.

Somehow, I didn’t think she was talking about the match. I blushed all over again.

“Stop teasing the man,” said Sam, confirming my assessment, “and pick a character.”

The game would allow any combination of characters, but the ideal was one of each. Thus, I was quite happy when, as I moved my pointer to the Shadow Hunter, Kalen, Sam chose the sorceress Elyssa, and Sarah, Raven the Dragonborn.

“Huh. That works out all right. I never had much luck with Kalen,” Sarah observed.

“He works best with Raven,” I explained. “Lyss alone can get in his way, and on his own he’s a bit squishy.”

“So you are familiar with the game,” Sam chuckled over the intro.

“You could say that.” I couldn’t help but grin again as I went on, “I worked on the graphics drivers for the PC port.”

Sam turned toward me. “You work for Triton?”

“Close. Technically, their parent company, AdvenTech.”

“Later,” Sarah hissed. “This part’s different. It’s… dumping us right in the prison?”

The full trio actually got a different storyline – one starting in an area which was otherwise fairly advanced. It started out giving me centre stage, sneaking into the prison, avoiding the guards, taking advantage of Kalen’s affinity for the shadows. I sprung Sam’s character, and as we travelled together for a little, the dialogue made it quite clear just how much each despised the other. Still, they had a common goal, and they fought toward it.

We came to a place Kalen couldn’t go through, and the panther left to find a way around, leaving the spotlight to Sam’s character. The lioness conquered some challenges on her own, healed an injured escapee, and with that character’s help, triggered a chain of events that set the last protagonist free. After some solo work on the snow leopard’s part, and short co-operative stints with first Sam’s character, then mine, we all came together at last – just in time to challenge the prison’s overlord and head warden.

I’d never actually seen this stage of the game, and now I was impressed. The game’s strength lay in its characters, and Agwin was a nasty looking man, but in a believable way. He was a big wolf, but no giant; his armour was worn, bloodstained, and a little spiky, but not impractical. He had a coarse, gravelly voice, and his speech and manner painted a picture of a man dedicated to his duty. He might’ve been a decent sort if he hadn’t chosen a duty that was so cruel.

One could almost feel sorry for him, if he weren’t swearing to torture the heroes to death for trying to get free.

I also found myself rewarded for playing in character. Even out of combat I’d stuck to the shadows; now it seemed Agwin had no idea I was there, no notion of how the other two had got loose. And then, as cutscene gave way to combat, I was behind him. The game let me know I’d scored an achievement for outsmarting a boss, and only when Kalen’s crystal dagger sank into the warden’s back did Agwin know he was there.

“Man, this guy’s tough,” Sam muttered a few minutes later. “I think he’s stealing more health with that whip than we’re doing in damage.”

“Whoa!” Sarah winced as the warden delivered a slash that took off half of Raven’s health and left Kalen almost out cold. “What is that sword, a chainsaw in disguise?”

“All right, regular attacks aren’t doing the trick,” Sam mused as Elyssa healed Raven and Kalen drew back to recover in the shadows. “I guess we need to try some combos.”

Inspiration struck. After knocking Kalen aside, Agwin had again focused on the other two, mostly Raven with his twin swords. “Sarah, keep his attention. Sam, get a Sunbeam ready,” I suggested, flipping through skills to ready Kalen’s Falling Star technique, the same jump-and-strike-down attack I’d used at the start.

“He just deflects it off that sword,” Sam complained.

“When I jump, you should have a combo marker on me.”

“But Kalen’s whole deal is shadow,” Sarah said, getting her character in position. “Won’t a light attack hurt you that much more?”

“Remember earlier, when I put my dagger in the fire?”

Sam hissed in recognition, readying the spell. “It’ll charge up your dagger?”

“About the only thing I know these two can do together,” I replied,. starting my attack. “Hit it!”

This being the first time we’d used this dual attack, we got treated to a little cutscene of Kalen leaping up, dagger held high and point-down, one hand on the hilt and the other behind the pommel – skewing over to Elyssa, a beam of light shooting from her hand. Agwin swung his sword up, but not far enough; the beam went past his shoulder, striking Kalen’s dagger at the apex of his leap. The blade sparkled with some very shiny special effects, time froze, the names of the skills slid onto the screen, and then they shattered, revealing the combination name of Moon Dagger Leap.

The camera panned back to the normal combat view, and time unfroze, letting the attack land – and take off a substantial chunk of the wolf’s health bar. Sam cheered.

The catch was that now Agwin was pissed, hitting even harder than before. It took fancy work on the controllers to keep from getting wiped out, never mind pulling off combos as we did.

Finally, though, we landed a doozie.

It was Sam who spotted it – saw that, with our current setup of skills, new target markers had appeared; his on Sarah’s character, Sarah’s and mine on the boss, with Raven’s being the one flashing. But instead of the Ds we’d seen before, or even logical Ts, these were Fs.

We tried it. And we nailed it dead on. Elyssa unleashed a Sunburst, a cone of bright light that gave Raven a boost and dazzled anyone else facing it. Raven swung one of his two swords hilt high, point almost clipping the ground as it arced upward in a Rising Moon Strike. Kalen vanished from the shadows behind Elyssa, shadow-stepping to appear instead in the very shadow cast by Raven and Agwin in that Sunburst, hitting the warden from behind again.

Sunburst, Rising Moon Strike, Shadow Lunge. We were briefly treated to a triple-attack announcement for Eclipse, but that promptly shifted to a caption of “FINISHING STRIKE: TOTAL ECLIPSE”.

There was no final speech, no defiant last stand. Warden Agwin just looked shocked for a moment and then keeled over, beaten.

“Wow,” Sarah said, setting her controller down on my leg as the game announced our winnings of experience and treasure. “For the first boss fight of the game, that was pretty epic.”

“Fastest,” Sam checked his watch, “ten minutes I’ve seen in a while.” The game rolled on in a cutscene, with Raven trying to play peacemaker between the other two talking about how they’d all fought well together, and could they please stop glaring at each other past him?

“Yeah, but let’s save and take a break here,” Sarah suggested. “Move around a little. How’s your back feeling, Tim?”

I blinked. “Just fine,” I said. The game had distracted me from the pain, and now I found that it was gone, leaving no more than a vague aching memory.

“Well, it isn’t,” she warned. “You’re to take it easy. Cutting down the swelling gets rid of much of the pain, but the injury’s still there. Give it time to heal.”

“Yes, doctor,” I said meekly. Once Sam had slid off the side of the bed, I gently moved the controller onto Sarah’s leg instead, rolled onto my side, and swung my legs over, letting their weight and my arm get me upright while keeping my back straight. So far, so good; I stood up without incident.

Sarah got called in to work shortly thereafter, and left with a stern injunction to Sam that I was not to leave until she’d got back and had a chance to look me over. Not wanting to sponge more meals than I already had, I started to protest, but she just set a finger on my lips and said, “Hush.”

What else could I do? I hushed.

“I guess we can add the game to our list of weekly Things To Do,” Sam noted once she’d gone. “Three people is a bit small for a pen and paper campaign, but for this one it’s about perfect.”

“Wednesdays are getting kind of busy,” I chuckled.

“We’re not doing much with the rest of the week,” the big skunk shot back. “How are your Saturday evenings, say?”

I blinked. “I don’t know. I feel bad enough taking advantage of your hospitality as it is.”

Thankfully, he didn’t brush aside my concerns. He looked me in the eye, rested a hand on my shoulder, and said, “You’ve shown us some great times here, Tim. As we see it, having you over here for a while and giving you some food doesn’t even begin to settle the account.”

“But I didn’t do anything special – “

“You,” Sam contradicted, “responded to our ad. We looked over profiles in the area and saw plenty more active than yours, but apparently all they wanted was an easy lay. Nobody else said anything to us – just you. That’s ‘special’ enough. And you’ve put up with our antics since.”

I didn’t really have a solid rebuttal to that.

Sam allowed me to soothe my guilt by helping him cook. Sarah got home at almost a perfect time, when we were debating going ahead and eating before she got there. Her arrival made it a moot point, and a fine cream of mushroom soup and pasta marinara were enjoyed by all.

Sarah was pleased that I was still moving carefully, but apparently I wasn’t fit for release yet. She suggested turning the evening into a gaming night, and her “offhand” note that I could spend the night and go home in the morning was accompanied by a rather pointed gaze and a too-sweet query of “Isn’t that right, Tim?”

I was about to point out that I didn’t have a change of clothes when I remembered that I’d come here from practise, and the clothes I had on were nearly fresh.

Besides, it probably wouldn’t have worked.

“All right,” I said, and grinned as I added, “But you’re not fooling anyone.”

“Another point for Tim,” was Sam’s prompt contribution.

We wound up having a low-key, relaxing evening, and the hours slid by unnoticed. Call of Dreams, moved back into the more comfortable venue of the living room, took up a few of those hours, but much of the time passed with the TV off. We talked for a good bit of the time about some of the unusual people we’d met at work. It was after one such tale – a former co-worker of mine who’d lost track of time, coding away all night until the morning shift came in – that we were reminded to check the time ourselves, and found out that it had gone past eleven, and we really should be getting to sleep.

I expected to have trouble dozing off, being in an unfamiliar bed in someone else’s home – never mind just who that someone else was in this case – but I must have been more tired than I realized; I fell asleep almost as soon as I’d pulled the covers over. However, I did not sleep very soundly. My dreams weren’t very specific, but they were compellingly sensual all the same. More than once, I woke up panting with desire, and all I could remember of what had got me that way was stripes of black and white.

Somehow, when I woke up to the lightening sky before dawn, I did feel refreshed – but this time my hormones refused to subside. Damn it. I wasn’t about to stroke off in a borrowed bed in someone else’s house; it could wait until I got home – but thinking that didn’t make it any more comfortable..

My watch said it was seven o’clock. We were already outside daylight saving time, so dawn would only get later from here. As it was, in my own room, with its blinds over the small window, I’d hardly have noticed the light.

Here, though, I self-consciously dug in my gym bag, trying to keep my midsection under the picture window until I’d grabbed my towel and wrapped it around myself. I heard voices in the kitchen; on my way by I called out that I was having a shower, and preempted the caution I’d probably get by adding that I’d be careful. Chuckles, acknowledgements, and the smell of tea wafted back out.

I’d already got upstairs, into the washroom, into the shower, and wet before I realized I hadn’t brought along my toiletries.


Drying off, running downstairs, grabbing them, and running back up to get wet again would be wasteful as well as embarrassing. Leaving a wet trail through the house would be even more embarrassing, not to mention rude. I would up grabbing a bigger bottle of the same stuff Sam had used yesterday, muttering a quick prayer that they wouldn’t mind me using it.

This was not without its hazards. My libido still hadn’t gone away, and the smell of Sam’s fur wash made it very easy to imagine that it was his hands, not mine, that slid about my body, rubbing suds into my fur…

God damn it! I’d specifically avoided thinking about Sarah, but when I’d had to avoid thoughts about married women in the past, I’d done so by thinking of their husbands. In this case, that was proving to be unwise. Far from discouraging my sex drive, it left me with the most stubborn arousal I’d felt in a long time.

And I hadn’t brought my clothes up with me either. Double damn.

Well, nothing to do about it now. I dried off as best I could, wrapped the towel around myself again, prayed for luck, and pulled the door open.

This time, my prayer went unanswered. Sarah was right there at the top of the stairs, dressed in another of those sleek little numbers that hugged her curves in all the right places. She seemed just as surprised to find herself face-to-face with me, drawing a breath… For one crazy moment, I thought she was looking me up and down, and my erection suddenly felt far too prominent to conceal under the tuck in the towel like I was trying to do.

Then she smiled – a friendly, neighbourly sort of smile, thank God, not one of her usual lust-inducing brand – and stepped a little closer, away from the stairs. “No problems with your back, then?”

I shook my head, not quite trusting my voice.

“Good. Sam will have breakfast ready in a few minutes, and don’t forget your medication.” She leaned in close, sniffed, and smiled again, patting my shoulder. “That smells nice on you, Tim.”

I could feel the blood rushing to my face. Hopefully it’d pull some from the other end… “Thanks,” I managed, pushing a smile into place. She favoured me with another smile – back to the sort that sent blood rushing right the other way again, damn it – and vanished into what seemed to be the bedroom.

I bit my lip and scurried down the stairs as fast as I could without losing the towel. They were friendly and supportive, these two, but sooner or later that’d make me do something stupid.

I got dressed, waited a few minutes for my treacherous little friend to calm down some, and joined them in the kitchen for… waffles, it turned out, with maple syrup. Nothing too ornate, but it was good.

After a quick examination – clothes on, thank God – Sarah said I was free to go, but with a stern injunction to take it easy. “I doubt you’ll be in good enough shape for brown-belt lessons by Saturday. Starting as soon as, oh, Wednesday or Thursday, swimming may be good physio, and on Saturday I’ll be at the pool anyway, if you want some coaching or company?”

Oh, God.

On the other hand, she at least would be in a different shower. And it was hard to argue that it’d be good exercise.

So I said, “Sure, why not?”

<< Back to Chapter 3: Over a Few Drinks | On to Chapter 5: Into the Deep End >>