There were bottles of expensive hand lotion in every bathroom in the Candidate's now-abandoned mansion, as Stephen discovered on his first night when he set out on a quest to collect them all.
Only to use them for their intended purpose, mind you! Not that he and his companion hadn't done...things...to each other, but not that particular...thing, and the origin of Stephen's cutaneous concern was entirely innocent: Jon showed affection by licking him. Particularly his hands. Particularly after a meal. Okay, so maybe what Jon was showing there was mostly his possession of working taste buds. But there was definitely affection too!
Once he had settled in to the unconventional housing situation, Stephen had to wonder why he had been afraid of wolves all these years. They were basically people, right? If Jon hid his ears under a hat, tucked his tail down his pant leg, and trimmed his nails, you wouldn't know him from a human, albeit a particularly fuzzy one whose grin revealed somewhat alarming canines.
And sure, Jon ate actual humans once in a while, but everyone had their flaws. Why, Stephen's own dearly-deceased Candidate had killed lots of people in his day (if by "people" you meant "corporations", which Stephen did).
There was a feather bed the size of a small swimming pool in one of the Candidate's bedrooms. The moment Stephen saw it, he fell in love, and called dibs.
He kind of expected Jon to pick another bed (it wasn't like there was a shortage). When he threw himself back onto this one's thick quilt, though, Jon hopped up beside him, rolled over a few times, then grabbed one of the gold-brocaded pillows and started chewing on the corner.
"Hey!" exclaimed Stephen. "That's mine! Let it go!"
"Says who?" demanded Jon. He had changed into a light grey T-shirt and dark grey slacks; with bare arms he hugged the silk pillow, resting his chin amidst its tassels. "It's my house. I ate the owner, I get dibs. You only get sub-dibs on the bed because I let you."
"Well...well, it's still not food!" said Stephen. "Now give it!"
He grabbed for the prize. Jon sank his fangs into it. The tug-of-war began.
Later Stephen would insist that he won, because he wound up with most of the pillow, while Jon got a mouthful of shredded fabric. (The stuffing, meanwhile, went all over.) And Jon would insist that he won, because he got to destroy the offending object with his teeth, which was his whole plan all along.
Either way, when Stephen snuggled under the covers that night and rested his head on one of the eight other pillows that had witnessed their companion's demise, Jon curled up at his feet. And Stephen decided he liked it. Even when it turned out that Jon snored.
The garden outside had prize roses, and fountains, and a hedge maze. Stephen went out to pick some of the former, and ended up getting lost in the latter.
He was seriously considering kicking his way through the hedges when a bluebird landed on one of the branches above him. "U lost, bro?" she tweeted.
"Yes!" said Stephen. "Where's the stupid exit? Help me out here!"
"No need to yell dude. Im right here. #GeezCalmDown," said the bluebird, waving. "C'mon, follow me."
There was no mistaking a bluebird for a human. She was sort of the same shape, with light brown skin and a bob of dark hair, but even if she hadn't been small enough to sit in Stephen's palm, the giant blue-feathered wings would have been a dead giveaway. Still, birds tended to be pretty nice, and loved having followers, so Stephen trusted her enough to let her guide him down half a dozen turns until the green walls fell away. "Thanks!"
"No problem. So are u a new employee for the #Candidate, or what?"
"No! Haven't you heard? He got, um, eaten."
"He WHAT? #DudeNoWay. Whos livin in the house then?"
"The Wolf, who else? And, well...me too, I guess," said Stephen shyly. "I'm Stephen, by the way. Everyone used to call me Little Red State Riding Hood, but the Wolf just calls me Stephen. Which is nice of him, I think. Don't you think that's nice?"
"Aww, #SomeonesGotACrush." The bluebird landed on his shoulder and folded her wings. "Im Olivia, nice to meet u. Are u sure about this wolf thing tho? Seems like a dangerous BF."
"Don't you be mean to Jon," Stephen warned her. "It's not like being a wolf is a choice! Anyway, he's not my boyfriend. He's just a very attractive person that I happen to be staying with for a while, and also having sex with."
"Well, I hope u luck out," said Olivia generously. "Gotta fly now. In v high demand. Songs to sing, u know. TTYL!"
"Steeeeeeephen," wheedled Jon, flopping across Stephen's legs where he was trying to sit on the rug by the hearth. "Stephen, pet me."
"How come it always has to be about your needs?" demanded Stephen. "'Stephen, pet me.' 'Stephen, go chop the firewood — I won't do it because axes are scary~.' 'Stephen, don't eat the pepperoni I was going to use in dinner tonight.' 'Stephen, hide all the Candidate's tackiest suits so I don't accidentally wear one and go around looking like a hobo.' When is it going to be about me, huh?"
"Okay, first of all, you decided that thing about the suits on your own," said Jon. "And second, would it help if I promised to blow you for doing a good job?"
The indignation went out of Stephen's sails. "That would help a lot," he said sulkily.
"Good," said Jon with a smirk. "Also, if you do a bad job, I'll eat one of your legs. You can start with the ears, then move on to rubbing my tummy."
Stephen didn't think this was a very fair deal. However, he was confident in his skritching skills, so he began to scratch behind the Wolf's broad, furry ears. Jon let out a whuff of satisfaction, his tail setting into a rhythm of lazy thumping against the carpet.
A couple of thick, juicy slices of a fresh Ham Rove were sizzling on the counter when Jon wandered into the kitchen. "Oh, man, that smells good. How come you haven't cooked before?"
Stephen pouted. "But it tastes so much better when you do all the work."
There were vaulted windows running along behind the counter, pouring sunshine down on Jon's face as he pressed Stephen up against it. "But you seem so much hotter when you make me food," he pointed out, grinding his pelvis against Stephen's.
The Wolf's style of advance was like nothing Stephen had ever experienced before. If you wanted someone, you were supposed to ruthlessly suppress it until marriage, or at least have the decency to sneak around under cover of darkness and closed doors. You didn't just aim a smouldering smile at them, and then follow through with it, in broad daylight. It was weird.
Not that Stephen was complaining.
He wrapped his arms around Jon's shoulders and bent one knee, sliding his leg up the side of Jon's thigh. Jon caught him and held him in place with a strong clawed hand, tail brushing his foot as it whipped back and forth. One or both of them went for a kiss, and Stephen felt himself go lightheaded, his whole body reduced to two pools of sensation: the liquid heat between his hips and the subtler, sloppier warmth of Jon in his mouth.
After they had both finished, Jon licked Stephen's face a couple of times, then picked up the plate of ham and trotted off to the main dining room. Stephen slumped against the counter, still kind of wobbly, and also fashion-conscious enough to want to change his pants.
"OK, I see why u like him," tweeted a familiar voice from outside the window.
Sure enough, Olivia was perched on a tree branch that grew right up to one of the open panes. "Th-that was private!" said Stephen, blushing and trying to hide behind the counter. "I know animals don't care, but you should have some respect for human sensibilities!"
"Whoa, speciesist much?" said Olivia. "I didnt watch the whole thing, boo. Saw it heat up, then flew away 4 a while 2 let you finish."
"Oh." Stephen tried to relax. "Then, hang on, how did you 'see why I like him' if you skipped out on the good bits?"
Olivia rolled her eyes. "I saw the way he looks at u, ofc! #TotallyPrecious."
"That wasn't about me. That was about the lunch I cooked." Stephen glanced wistfully at the swinging doors that led to the dining room. "Which he's probably finished while I was distracted. You wouldn't think so for the cute fuzziness, but he has a really keen mind."
"Uh-huh. And I bet that keen mind is sayin, 'This Stephen sure is a keeper. Lets be BFs 4ever.'"
"It's definitely not that," said Stephen with authority. "I may not be an expert on Wolves, but I know plenty about love. Love is when you follow someone around, steal small keepsake items from their backpack, leave anonymous notes in their locker, and lurk outside their house at night taking photos of their bedroom. It doesn't mean you actually talk to them! They're on too much of a pedestal to ever allow that. Kissing them would be way beyond the pale."
"U got some strange ideas, bro," said the bluebird, shaking her head. "#MyKindOfLove is all about talking + kissing + making food 4 each other. Mostly pie. Mmmm, pie."
In spite of being curled up in his favorite spot at the foot of Stephen's bed, the Wolf couldn't sleep. The light of the full moon was brilliant silver through the bay windows, and it made him antsy.
Careful not to wake Stephen, he slipped out from under the covers and padded downstairs in his grey polka-dotted pajamas.
If he was honest with himself, it wasn't just the moon that was getting under the Wolf's skin. This whole situation over the past...month? Month and a half?...made him feel strange and uncertain. After all, he'd only planned to stick around the Candidate's former house long enough to empty some of the cupboards, then go back to his simple, comfortable den. He hadn't counted on Stephen.
Stephen would hate it in a den. He had mentioned living in a tiny human cottage, part of a village of other tiny human cottages, but he didn't seem to like that much either. The Wolf didn't get why humans hadn't figured out a system to distribute their living space more equally — certainly the Candidate had had more house than any one person could ever use — but he did like being the one to give extra house space to Stephen.
He also liked licking Stephen's hands...and having Stephen rub his tummy...and talking to Stephen about things...and falling asleep at Stephen's feet. Ugh, was he becoming domesticated? He shuddered to think.
Not that the Wolf had any idea if Stephen even wanted that. With his own kind, you had a quick chat and some sniffing and a bit of suggestive positioning of tails, and then you knew whether you were heading into a 'let's have some short-term fun' thing or a 'let's get together and make puppies' thing. With humans, the rules for conversation were different, they smelled puppy-ready no matter what, and they didn't have tails at all. Fast talker though he normally was, the Wolf was at a loss.
He trotted down the spiral staircase, eyeing the front door. Maybe he should go outside for a while. Roll around in the grass, have a drink from the birdbath, get in touch with his roots again. Clear his head.
He was still at the far end of the front hall when the door handle turned.
"Excuse me? Are you perhaps Little Red State Riding Hood?"
"Stephen," mumbled Stephen from under the quilt. Was the nickname going to stick forever? He wasn't even wearing the hood right now, just a nightshirt of similar hue. "My name's...."
Then he recognized the voice, and sat bolt upright.
"Candidate!" he cried, in semi-delight. "You're alive! Jon didn't eat you!"
The Candidate, sitting on the edge of Stephen's bed in a pressed suit with a flag pin on the lapel, smiled his plastic smile. "I'm afraid he did, young man. Fortunately for me, corporations aren't the easiest people to kill. It took a while to push through the forms to requisition another body, but here it is."
Anxiety crept into the edges of Stephen's newly-wakened consciousness. "So you're basically fine, then? That must mean you're not holding a grudge against Jon, right?"
"Jon? You mean that Wolf?" The Candidate's grin didn't move, though he managed an aw-shucks tilt of the head. "Of course not. We had a polite conversation, then he decided to go on his way."
"What do you mean, 'go on his way'?"
"Took a walk. Headed out. Vamoosed. Struck out for greener shores. Do any of those sound more natural? I'm working on my real-person diction, honest."
Stephen shook his head blankly. His eyes felt hot, his limbs weak. Jon hadn't even said goodbye.
"There, there," said the Candidate, patting him stiffly on the cheek. "Can I get you anything? I'm always looking out for the little guy. How about a tax cut for me? Would you like that?"
The Wolf had never been so terrified in his life.
The Candidate, still startlingly alive for a person the Wolf distinctly remembered dining on, and a woman with a hunting rifle had ordered him at gunpoint into a plastic case so small he couldn't stand up in it. There were slats in the top and a barred door on the front, through which he could see a giant bus with gaudy paintings on the sides (an eagle, a scroll, some inspirational words in flowing script...) as they carried him to it.
Now the van was barreling down a dirt road with the Wolf's cage strapped to the top. Every time it went over a rock, he whined in fear and tried to hunker down lower. He was going to come out of this with so many bumps and bruises...if one of the straps didn't snap and send him crashing to a messy death first.
"Hey! Hey, u w/ the ears! Look up!"
The Wolf, who had been hiding his face under his arms, peeked out at the sound of the call. At the front end of the cage was a bluebird, waving at him through the bars.
"U got on the Ex-Governors bad side? #ToughLuck," she tweeted sympathetically.
"Wh-what? She's who's got me?" whimpered the Wolf, feeling dizzy. The Ex-Governor was a legendary menace to his kind, although none of them knew her face: she only killed from helicopters. She was supposed to live up north, which was why Jon had always kept to more temperate climates. But of course she would know the Candidate, and since he had somehow survived, it only made sense that he would call her for help with a...wolf problem.
"Uh-huh. But no need 2 worry," said the bluebird. "Ive got ur back. Hang in there, boo."
She patted his tail (the only part of him she could reach), then worked her way to the corner of the cage, spread her wings, and took off in a rush of feathers before the Wolf could ask how a random bluebird was supposed to save him.
The van chose that minute to rattle to a stop.
Back in his original hood and trousers, Stephen trudged down the forest path, empty basket banging around over one elbow.
He was going back to his village, back to a normal Wolf-free life of sucking it up and voting for whatever Candidates came along, back to...home. The days of living in fairytale luxury were over. It was oddly easy to accept, since he had only half believed in them in the first place.
Stupid, sentimental Little Red State Riding Hood! What were you thinking, crushing on a Wolf? In what story does that ever end well?
The hood was up over his head, casting his face into shadow. It was, after all, none of those nosy trees' business whether his face was a little red, his eyes somewhat puffy.
He was too shut-off and distracted to notice he was being followed until something about the weight of a coconut smacked into the back of his head.
"OMG, ur just leavin? #DickMove," tweeted Olivia, claws digging into the scarlet fabric over his shoulder.
"What are you talking about?" demanded Stephen, with only a minimum of sniffling. "I don't owe the Candidate anything. Sure, he never got the gift basket that I ended up sharing with his pseudo-killer, but it's not my fault he was temporally vitally disabled when I showed up."
"Not Mittens, u idiot," said Olivia, punching him in the shoulder. This might even have hurt if she didn't have itty-bitty clawed hands. "Ur furry BF!"
"Jon's not my boyfriend!" cried Stephen automatically. "He's not even my friend! He's a mean, cruel, heartless user who stayed with me until he got bored, then chewed up my heart like it was a Ham Rove!"
"Or hes a sweet bro who likes u, which is why the #Candidate chased him off @ gunpoint," countered Olivia. "And whos now in a cage being driven to the territory of the #ExGovernor, alone & scared & missin u. #JustAThought."
The Ex-Governor's territory was drab and cold. A fine layer of frost coated the hard ground; the pine forests were dark and foreboding; mountains cut a jagged edge into the pale skyline.
The Wolf spent most of the afternoon trotting alongside the highway, well under the cover of the trees in case someone came looking. Twice he heard the rattling of a helicopter in the distance. If there was anyone else living in this area, other wolves or bears or birds or even the lowliest rodents, they were all in hiding.
Sensible of them.
He passed the turnoffs for a couple of towns, but avoided them, afraid to attract the attention of someone with more bullets than judgment. He had been counting on finding an abandoned den (the earth was too frozen to dig a new one) before the sun got low in the sky. As the evening wore on, though, he slowly realized that the sun up here wasn't going to set.
When the road lanced out into a bridge over a fair-sized stream, the Wolf tucked himself into the shelter of the trestles on the near side, tried to ignore the growling of his stomach, and closed his eyes.
"Ready?" asked Olivia, as Stephen shoved one last warm blanket into one of the precious niches of free space his vehicle had left.
Stephen's brows were set into a grim line. "Lead the way."
The racket of a helicopter jolted the Wolf out of his too-short nap.
He was fired on as he crossed the bridge, and only just made it to the cover of the forest.
Adrenaline shot through his fuel-starved system, leaving him buzzed and edgy and barely feeling the cold. He bolted from tree to tree. Another shot, this one embedding itself in a lichen-covered trunk: pine needles showered down. He bolted again.
Every edge seemed too sharp, the sunlight through the branches blinding white. He stumbled over broad-leaved, low-slung plants and carpets of white spruce needles. A small explosion to his left. He threw himself in the opposite direction.
She's driving me away from the road.
There was a rushing in his ears, louder than the helicopter. He could feel his heartbeat thudding in the pads of his fingers, rocks battering the soles of his feet.
"Wolf!" called a distant voice. "Jon!"
What was he trying to save himself for? More days and nights of dragging himself onward through this heartless landscape, maybe starving or freezing to death in the process?
Instinct kept him going, even as some detached part of him reflected that a shot to the leg would hurt like hell, but a shot to the heart would at least get him out of here....
A mechanical roar growled from what might have been the direction of the road. Saplings cracked and snapped. There was a deafening boom, like a gunshot amplified by a thousand and set directly inside the Wolf's head.
He tripped over something he didn't see and fell, landing roughly in the dirt, as an explosion in the sky above painted the bleak forest yellow and red.
Definitely hallucinating now. Especially since the voice was back. "Wolfstein? Wolfburg? Jon Wolfowitz, answer me!"
"Here," moaned Jon, just in case. "I'm here."
"This way!" tweeted Olivia, before circling back and darting through the branches.
Little Red State Parka With Hood And Gloves ran after her, boots pounding on the frozen ground.
He found Jon struggling to sit up, shivering in spite of his fur, dirt and scratches across his face and paws. Olivia was tugging helpfully at the cuff of his well-worn pajamas. "Jon!"
Jon stared at him, pupils wide and half-focused. "S-Stephen? You found me?"
"Technically Olivia found you," said Stephen, unzipping his parka and putting it over Jon's shoulders. "I just provided the cavalry. You could've made this a lot easier for us, you know. Next time you want to go and get hauled away at gunpoint, leave a note or something!"
"Uh-huh." Jon leaned heavily on Stephen and allowed himself to be guided back toward the road. "The Ex-Governor...?"
"Shot her down," said Stephen, with no small amount of smugness.
"Not gonna last," Olivia put in. "Shes not even a corporation, shes like a whole industry. But it will keep her off our backs while we get u outta here."
"Uh-huh," repeated Jon, as the trees gave way to pavement. Then: "Oh. Um, wow."
"Took all my SuperPAC money, but it was worth it," said Stephen, gratified beyond words by Jon's awed stare up at the sand-colored tank, sitting squat across most of the road with vegetation crushed in its treads. "It's really cozy inside. Lots of blankets. And I brought you dinner."
Olivia landed on the lip of the tank's hatch. "Better start w/ dinner," she said. "I dont like the way hes lookin at me."
This time, when the Wolf woke up, he was nestled in a makeshift den of wool; his stomach was pleasantly full; and someone was scratching behind his ears.
No, not scratching...combing. Stephen was running a stiff-bristled brush through his fur, with slow, thorough strokes.
The Wolf wasn't one for complicated grooming, but this was soothing and didn't seem to involve getting wet, so he let it continue. "Mmmmm. 'S nice. Keep doing it."
"I'm only doing this until all the dirt's out," said Stephen primly. "When you're less half-starved, you can brush yourself."
"Guess I'll have to anyway," muttered the Wolf, thinking about his nice, cozy, Stephen-less den.
"What are you talking about?"
"Well, I mean...now that I can't offer you space in the house where a guy I ate used to live, you have no reason to stick around, right?"
"I wouldn't go that far," protested Stephen. "I mean, sure, you're a less attractive prospect now, but I wouldn't say you're an unattractive one. If you know what I mean."
The Wolf rolled over on his side, nearly crushing his tail as he twisted to look up at Stephen. "My brain's still pretty frozen right now, remember? Spell it out."
Stephen put the brush aside. "What I'm trying to say is...you could maybe stick around, you know? Because I would like to keep having the sex. But also...I like it when we talk, and cuddle, and make dinner for each other. I don't even mind that much when you threaten to eat me. So maybe we could stay together. If you want."
As the Wolf struggled to put his appreciation into words, his tail began thumping lightly against the blankets.
Stephen spent the rest of the ride cuddled up against him, hands tangled in warm fur. Jon licked his face a couple of times, though not too much, because it was still cold and dry and Stephen would throw a fit over chapped skin. Any other time he might have paused to be anxious that they were still in the tank and Olivia was driving, but right now he was too happy to worry about it. Stephen was staying. He was home.
The cottage Stephen owned at the edge of the village was indeed pretty small, even when not compared to the Candidate's mansion. There really wasn't enough space inside for a touchy human and a territorial wolf to live in harmony.
So they worked out something else.
"OMG u made pie," said Olivia, landing on the windowsill as Stephen set a steaming apple pie between the open panes. "Ur gonna share that right??"
"On the contrary," said Stephen. "This is a bribe. You get the whole thing. Now, I'm going to go next door for a while, and if you make sure nobody interrupts us until I get home, there's more where this came from."
Olivia hugged his hand. "On it boo! U can count on me. U 2 crazy kids have fun."
So Stephen crossed the lawn to the tank which was parked beside his cottage, knocked on the hatch, and moments later was engaged in fervent kissing in the privacy of Jon's new den. Meanwhile Olivia got to eat half her weight in pie, an activity which she would have testified was just as delicious, if not more so.
And they all lived happily ever after.