Sweat pours like a river down my brow and both my arms shake like they're about to give out, but finally, finally, I struggle my way into the lobby. The frosty breeze of the swamp cooler hits my face and I sigh so deeply I nearly drop my cargo. It may not be central air, but it'll do. Right now, it'll do. Feels like a little bit of heaven.
"Shut that fuckin' door, you're letting all the cold air out!"
"Nah, we don't need any help, Marty, but it's nice of you to offer," I grunt back.
I can hear Neil on the other end of our precious cargo, but all I can make out over the thing is the tiniest bit of his mane.
"C'mon, Rem, almost there," the lion cheers.
"Yep. Almost there," I repeat. Maybe saying it out loud'll give me the last bit of strength I need. Besides, I'm not about to choke at the finish line.
I steel my wobbling knees as best I can and haul the last few steps, the two of us muscling our prize into place. And then, just like that, the deed is done.
"Whoo!" Neil exhales, dusting off his paws. "You're all set!"
"Hell yes," Marty grins. The little stoat who just moments ago was content to sit on the stairs and watch, suddenly flings himself into a four foot vertical arc, and lands like a precision missile on the cushions, bouncing once before settling into the kind of all-encompassing softness you can't help but envy.
Every muscle in my body is burning, and it's all I can do to collapse over the arm and into the pillows opposite him.
Don't call it a sofa. It's paradise.
"Oh my god," I moan against the soft fabric in a way that I really hope doesn't come off as sexual. "It's even better indoors."
"Bury me here," Marty mumbles to no one in particular, basking in the glow of a job well done. As if he did much.
"You're gettin' rid of this old one, yeah?" Neil asks, stepping over to the old, tattered, pulled-aside sofa that up until now dominated the central lobby of The Royal Crown Estates at Aurora Gardens. "Why the change?"
"You kiddin'? Look at the damn thing," Marty chuckles back.
"Well yeah," the sweat-soaked lion smirks, testing it a little with a wiggle of his burly paws. "I just mean, why now? Looks like it's been falling apart for months. Years, maybe."
He's not wrong. That old wreck was here when I first moved in, covered in holes and moth-eaten from end to end. Smelled strongly, even though we'd try to clean it. Fluff spilling out like a burst bag on shearing day. Stains of every color. And let's not even talk about the sticky patch next to the one armrest. I don't know what kind of substance never dries out but science could benefit from its study. And the cushions -- flat as could be, and if anything fell between them, it was just gone. No-mammal's land. Might as well have fallen into another dimension. You reached in after it, you might not come back. Here be dragons.
Right, I'm getting carried away. Forcing myself to sit up, I shift against the plush cushions of the Pack's new sofa and peer over the back (which I notice doesn't even have any mismatched fabric patches sewn on to cover up tears!) at my moving buddy.
"Well, uh, specifically? I started my day off by sitting down on a rusty spring, poking right up out of the seat. That's what they call the last straw."
Marty nods. "When you can't even lie down safely, it's time to go."
"So I said hey, let's do something nice for the Pack, pay it back, y'know? Can't count on the Alpha to take care of everything. Al fronts so many other costs around here, I figured I'd pitch in--"
"And me," Marty adds like he's trying to win good-boy points.
"Yeah, actually," I point one hoof at the smug little stoat and his smug little smile. This is one time I'm willing to give him his due. "Marty found an incredible deal on this thing, refurbished. A total steal, nothing else even came close in the listings."
"I know some guys," he shrugs, smiling like he's all mysterious.
"Shut the fuck up Cormo," he says, instantly.
The lion nods, scratching his chin. "So this was just a spur of the moment thing?"
Marty and I shrug. It sorta was, but hey, feels nice to do something nice.
"Arright, cool, well in that case, you mind if I take the old sofa?" Neil asks, and I lean back to see him testing the creaky wood frame on it. "Since you're not gonna be usin' it."
I blink, nearly jumping to my hooves -- well I would if this seat wasn't so damn comfy. "What, you actually know someone that old heap would be an upgrade for?"
His turn to shrug. "I dunno, maybe. I'm just gonna ask around. Seems a shame to throw it out."
"Yeah, I mean if you think so, it's all yours. We don't exactly have space for two." This time I really do stand up, even though every aching muscle in my body is begging me to stay seated. "Here, lemme help you get it to your truck, at least."
"Hey, thanks Rem. You don't have to do that," the cheery lion smiles, flicking back his sweaty mane like he's in some glamour shoot.
I smile back and feel the heat in my cheeks as I head over to the far end of the old sofa, trying not to get my wool snagged on the sticky patch.
"Least I could do," I mutter sheepishly.
"Might wanna tell 'em to wash it first," Marty calls out.
By the time I see Neil drive off and wander back into the dark, pleasant cool of the lobby, the new sofa's admirers have already multiplied. Anneke and Wolt are both here, the twin aardwolves mirroring each other uncannily as they scope out opposite ends, bobbing their heads one way, then the other.
"I think I baked my brain being out in the heat so long. I'd say wake me up when it's dinnertime, but--" I collapse onto its plush embrace, kicking my feet over the armrest. "Maybe just don't wake me up ever."
"Fine by me," Marty chuckles.
Anneke runs a free paw over the new spotless couch, grinning so wide her cheeks must hurt. "This thing looks more comfortable than my bed. Can't believe you two hauled this in all by yourselves."
Much as I want to take credit, I'm sure Marty wouldn't let me enjoy it anyway. "Nah, Neil did most of the heavy lifting. Guy's even more jacked than I thought."
"Yeah, I know, right?" Anna purrs, elbowing me in the side. "So can I get on yet or what?"
"Y-- what, did Marty say you couldn't?" I glance at the stoat, who's staring daggers at me, but relents with a roll of his eyes.
"Yeah, all right, just help yourselves, why don't you," Marty chides good-naturedly as the twins race to tear into the new piece of furniture.
"Hooooly fuck, yeah, I think I will!" Anna whoops, hopping on one of the cushions and burying her entire face in it. "Oh my god, this is amazing. It doesn't even smell like butt yet!"
Wolt's eyes are rolled back in his head as he rocks back and forth on the cushion beside his twin.
"Witchcraft," he gasps. "Damn, it's soooo soft. This'd be a great place to have a shag."
Marty shakes his head, with a sour grape kind of a look plastered on his tiny face. "I can't believe I have to say this, but no fucking on the new couch."
"What?! Hey, fuck you, that wasn't a rule with the old one!"
He bolts to his feet. "The fuck-- yes it-- TELL ME YOU DIDN'T FUCK--"
Wolt laughs so hard he almost rolls off the couch. I'm trying not to, myself, but come on, are you hearing this?
"Did someone fuck on that couch?" Marty shrieks.
"Don't ask questions you don't want the answers to," Wolt snickers.
Marty looks like he's about to burst a blood vessel. "I swear on my mother's grave--!"
Anna and Wolt high-five, laughing like hyenas. 'As hyenas'? ...hyenishly?
"IT'S A RULE NOW," he fumes.
Anneke wipes a tear from her eye, giggling. "Then write it down somewhere!"
"I will -- on a note I'll staple to your fuckin' foreheads!"
Man, I'm glad to see it's such a hit. I'm tired, but it's a satisfying kind of tired, like running a marathon or a long day at the gym. Being able to do something nice for the Pack feels pretty damn good.
It's bright out. I don't know how long I've been lying here.
Avo came and went, dressed in a sarong and a one-piece suit. Looking like she was going to the beach. Is there a beach around here? Phone's upstairs. Can't be bothered. She wasn't terribly impressed. Called the couch "spongy". Charlie remarked upon the make and model while we ate dinner here, reverently careful not to spill a thing.
But then they all left. And then it was just me and Marty, basking on the heavenly cool of the cushions, under the quiet drone of the fan.
Just us left.
I reach for my drink only to realize it's empty. Damn.
I crane my neck up an inch or two off the cushion, which is about as far as I can manage. "Hey Marty, can I have some of your soda?"
He murmurs back without even raising his head. "I'm out. Get your own, Cormo."
"Ugh, I would. Really. But all I have at home is water."
"Then get some from the machine," he waves a paw in the air. "And grab me one, too."
I strain to peer sideways at the vending machine by the door. "That's all the way over there, though."
No one says anything.
Okay. Let's see. "How about you get up and get me one from the machine, and I'll pay for yours, too."
He makes some kind of groaning sound and I think I can see him stretch one leg out, but he doesn't get up.
"C'mon, don't make me get up."
I lie here for a bit, and slowly I realize that tiny drone is snoring from the other end of the sofa. He fell asleep?! Seriously?
Guess I'll have to get up and get it. In just a bit, though. I'm just gonna sit here for another minute or two first.
When I wake up, the light's coming in harsh through the windows. Must be almost noon. I can't see much past the glow of the TV. The credits to Restless Paws have just finished rolling and Betty's finishing a cigarette.
"So? What do you think? Of the couch, I mean," I ask the big black wolf, forcing myself upright. Man, my mouth is dry. Wish I'd gotten that soda.
"Old one was better on my back," Betty responds instantly, stubbing her smoke out in an ash tray.
She lifts a brow, tilting her head and watching me out of the corner of her eye. "Did you ask Al if it was okay to throw out his couch?"
"It was the Pack's couch. Everyone used it," Marty corrects as he trots in from the stairs, carrying a bag of chips as big as he is. "And you're in my seat, Beta."
She opens her mouth to say something, but a second later, Ozzy comes in from the street spinning his guitar in both paws.
"Hey, sweet couch!" the hyena grins toothily, immediately hurrying over to it.
Marty gives Betty a smug look. "Glad someone appreciates it."
"Hell yeah! We get to keep this?" Ozzy circles around the new sofa, touching and prodding. "What happened to the old one? Someone break it?"
I smile, easy. "Nah, we just threw it out."
"Really!" Oz whistles, nodding. "I never would'a figured Al'd finally get over it. He loved that old couch."
Marty and I shoot each other a long, silent look. I can see a drop of sweat fall from his downturned ears and land on the seat cushion.
I cough, brushing the seat clean with the back of my hoof. "Yeah, I'm... sure he's-- I mean, he wasn't that attached to it."
"Didn't he and V buy it together?" Ozzy asks, tapping the side of his muzzle thoughtfully.
Marty gulps. "They did?"
"I thought it was his dad's," Betty sits up, scratching the thick, shaggy black fur on her throat.
I gulp. "Al's dad's?"
"Well," Ozzy smacks his lips, shouldering his guitar. "I'm glad you guys talked him into it! Must not have been easy."
"But it's a way nicer couch!" I groan, huddled forward on Ozzy's shoulders.
"Yeah, way nicer," Marty agrees from his perch right on top of my fuckin' head. He waves his phone around, squinting.
"I didn't even get to sit on it," Ozzy sulks from below.
Frustrated, Marty taps my head, and I tap Ozzy's shoulder, and all together our little mammal totem pole lowers itself back down to the sidewalk.
"No luck," the stoat sighs.
"Fuck do you mean 'no luck'?!" Anna scoffs, incredulous. "You've got a fucking signal, he's just not picking up his phone!"
"Well, Neil will be back at the gym on Monday, anyway," Ozzy shrugs.
"Al will be back by then!" she counters.
"I know that!" Marty barks back at her. "We'll figure this out, okay?!"
Sitting down on the hot pavement, thankful for my natural insulation, I scratch my sweaty head and try to figure out where the couch could've gone. Neil didn't say who he was offering it to, and we already checked the thrift store up the street. No dice.
Anneke pipes up. "Y'know, the old one wasn't so bad. Even if it did kinda smell like a dozen or so butts."
"While I was tryin' to nap, my tail got caught in the gap between the armrest and the backrest," Marty sighs. "The old couch? That wasn't a problem."
"You're not seriously suggesting you miss that old thing?" I frown, hardly able to believe my ears.
He shrugs. "Definitely had its pros and cons."
No way. I get back to my feet, unable to just keep still, and without even a plan, I start wandering through the midday heat, down towards Herd Street. Lotta residences that way. Maybe we'll spot it on some stoop. I'm about to tell the others my plan, but when I glance over my shoulder, I see they're already following me. None of 'em look any more sure than I do, so maybe it's just an automatic response. With no other options, I lead on, scanning the old houses with their stripping paint, tiny dead lawns, and barred windows.
"C'mon, spare me," I grumble. "We are not keeping it in the lobby. If Al wants it taken up to his room, fine, but there's not going to be room for both couches down there."
"Maybe we should take a vote on it."
"No! Hell no!" I nearly choke. "The new sofa's amazing, and if you can't see that I'll take it up to my room!"
"Lotta memories in that old couch." Ozzy sniffs, nodding to himself and ignoring me completely.
Anneke shuffles over to the three of us from the roof access door. "A lot of 'em from well before you moved in, Remmy."
"Lot of 'em after, though," Ozzy adds. "Remember Sheepfacts?"
NO. "Oh my god. Ozzy, please."
"Sheepfacts, sheepfacts," Ozzy begins to chant quietly, pumping both his fists in rhythm.
To my chagrin, Anneke joins in a moment later, and the two idiots egg each other on to a steadily increasing volume. "Sheepfacts, sheepfacts!"
"Look," I wave them off, "If we don't get this couch back in the next few hours we're gonna--"
"Hey Rem, when's Sheepfacts 2: The Sheepening?"
"OKAY THANK YOU, SHEEPFACTS, I GET IT." I bury my face in my hooves. "Can we please focus on the couch now?!"
Marty leans forward and shoots me a strange look as a crooked smile works up one side of his face. I squint, cocking my head in confusion, wondering if he's finally figured out a lead -- only to stop wide-eyed when I see him slowly make two fists.
"Sheepfacts," he mouths, grinning.
I'm sweating, and not just from the scorching heat. "Yeah, you're all real fuckin' funny! I don't think anyone's gonna be laughing if we don't get the old couch back before Al comes home."
"It was your idea!" Marty jabs a finger at me.
"MINE?!" My whole body rolls forward as I gawk at him. "You're the one who got the new couch!"
"Wh-- that's because you already got rid of--"
"I didn't get rid of shit," I interrupt him. "You were like 'oh my friend's got a new couch he's just giving away'!"
Ozzy says "Guys."
"That is NOT WHAT HAPPENED!"
"Al's gonna ask where the new couch came from, and we're gonna say 'oh yeah, one of Marty's friends' and he's gonna know exactly who--"
"You fuckin' snitch!" Marty spits, his tail frizzing up. "You viper! You're the one who wanted--"
Ozzy says "Marty your phone."
"Don't fuckin put this off on me! We're both in this together!"
"I swear to god, I'm not gonna--"
Ozzy finally taps the stoat firmly on the shoulder with his index finger. We both look over to see he's got Marty's little phone pressed carefully to his ear.
"Marty, it's your library friend!" Ozzy whispers -- or, just kinda says, but really breathily.
Marty shrugs, looking anxious. "Tell her I'm busy!"
Ozzy pauses, listening. "She says she can't cover for you today, Marty. You have to come in."
"I can't come in! Are you kidding me?!" He leans towards the phone, shouting, rather than just taking it back. "JEANINE! I need you on this!"
Jeanine? That space-cadet of a nanny goat?
Ozzy mutters something into the phone, pauses again, then nods. "She seems pretty sure."
"Gimme the--" Marty grumbles, holding his paw out, but Ozzy turns away, holding up one finger. "What is so important?!"
Still playing middleman, Ozzy covers the phone and turns back to us. "She says if someone can come help her, she'll be done faster and then she can cover."
"Help with what?" Ozzy repeats.
He listens for a moment, nodding, then suddenly his eyes go wide and he stops walking. I don't even notice till I'm a few paces ahead, and by then we're all looking back at him.
"...What kind of furniture?"
Marty and I simultaneously lunge for the phone. He leaps onto my shoulder, and before I can snag it, he's past my wrist, tackling his phone to the ground like some miniature linebacker.
"This is MY phone, Cormo!"
"Okay, fine! Can you at least put it on speaker?"
He spins back to his phone, tapping something on it, and the out-of-breath voice on the other end comes through loud enough for the four of us to all hear.
"Who's this?" I can hear Jeanine's dull voice.
"Your boss," Marty deadpans.
"Oh! That is you, Marty. Sorry, like I told Oz, I'm kinda in the middle of somethin' here. Moving furniture. Can't wait," she puffs.
"Jeanine, god dammit I--"
"...uuuuggghhh." Jeanine groans loud enough to interrupt him. "Look, I'd love to have you owe me one, but it's a million and a half degrees, the elevator here's busted, and I think I sprained my leg trying to wrestle this couch up the front stairs. Plus, I don't get overtime. You're on your own, tube dude."
The call ends abruptly, and Marty lets out a loud, frustrated noise that's somewhere between a bark and a growl. He immediately dials her back, but it just keeps ringing.
"Bummer," Anneke finally pipes up, stroking one paw back through her sweat-slicked mane. "Guess you gotta go into work after all."
"SHE HAS THE COUCH," Marty shouts.
"You don't have to yell!" Anna scolds back.
"I swear to god."
He taps away at the phone's screen a couple times, and angrily holds it out at arm's length.
"Zoob-ello," comes the familiar voice.
I crane myself down over Marty's shoulder, shouting into the phone and accidentally causing him to jump. "JEANINE. Don't hang up!"
"I know that voice," she chews her words, slowly. "Remmy Cormo."
"Jean Genie! Heyyyyyy. Hello." I grin awkwardly, as if she could see me, and Anneke mouths something at me with a look like she's trying not to burst out laughing. "How's... it going?"
"What do you want, lambchops?"
Marty glares up at me and tries to shove my overspilling wool out of his face, but I just keep going. "Hey so, Jeanine, uh, where did you get that couch?"
"Friend of mine graciously donated it."
"Any chance it's got a big coffee stain on the left arm?"
There's a long pause.
"Damn," she mutters. "...You psychic or something, Remmy Cormo? Or can you see me right now?"
"How many hooves am I holding up?"
"One!" Ozzy yaps, grinning.
"Whoa," Jeanine marvels from the other end. "Where are you guys??"
Anneke wags her paw in the air. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Would you all--" Marty fights to poke his head out from my fluff, shoving my face away with his free paw. "Just-- are you at home?"
"We'll be right there! Just-- don't go anywhere!"
"Don't you guys have a restraining order or something going on?"
Marty turns to me, and the others follow suit a moment later. Oh. Yeah. That whole... 'getting jumped' thing. I guess I was so preoccupied getting the couch back, I didn't even stop to think this is the same crew that cornered me in an alley and were probably gonna beat me to a red woolly pulp not all that long ago. Hell, Jeanine was there. So why is it that talking to this doofus over the phone, I'm thinking of that stupid couch, and not the look on her face as she pointed a metal pipe in my direction? Why am I mentally planning how I'm gonna scoot the sofa into the exact same spot it was in before, and not bracing myself for stepping into the almost literal wolf's den?
If I had to guess, it's because I don't want Al to dropkick me into the lower stratosphere when he finds out what I did. What we did, I mean. Even though it was basically all Marty's idea.
Well, nothing to do but hot-foot it over there. Literally, in this case, since you could probably fry an egg on the sidewalk at this point.
I take back everything bad I've ever said about the Crowns, because hoo boy, this place is a heap.
The Blue Roses Tower looks like it might be the oldest building on Pack Street. The whole thing is brick and mortar, and might've been nice once, with its heavy window arches and those multi-pane windows that don't actually open. There's a thick, gnarly looking ivy climbing up to nearly the third floor, except in a spot around just one of the windows, where it looks really neatly trimmed to, I'm guessing, as far as the occupant could reach out in any direction. It gets all tangled up in the rusty black fire escape that cuts down the front face, a big scar over the architecture. Ivy's not even the worst plant growth though, since there's literal briar patches around the edge of the lot, an abandoned scooter in a burst of weeds, and the entire lawn is grown over with stiff, thin, sharp yellow grass.
The huge front door is sunk back into the building, and big random patches of the bricks are different colors, so it's either been renovated a few times, or it's just half fallen apart. What an absolute eyesore. Smells here, too, but not dirt -- like wet laundry and soap.
I'm almost impressed at how bad it all is. "What a dump."
"Oh yeah," Ozzy grins. "I forgot you ain't been here before."
"Me neither," Anneke shrugs. "I love the ivy. Wonder if we could trade buildings."
Marty pushes past both of them, hauling the front door open in a surprising display of miniature strength. "Let's make this quick."
The halls are musty, and stink of mildew and ammonia. It's also muggy as fuck once we step inside -- I doubt there's anything resembling central air in this place. Floorboards creak under my hooves.
But the lobby -- my god, the lobby!
I was expecting a narrow corridor leading past some mailboxes and straight to an elevator, but holy shit, this place has a lobby like a hotel! It's so big, I don't even know how it fits in here. There's a few brick columns leading down the main walkway to the end, where it splits to the stairs and elevators, but there's so much space on either side, I feel like I could fit my whole apartment in here and not even block traffic. On the left, there's some worn-down looking chairs, upholstered but practically falling apart, all around a sort of long coffee table and a crooked set of drawers that's probably older than my grandpa.
Marty elbows me, pointing to an alcove near the doors we just came through, where someone's parked--
I move towards it, but Marty shakes his head rapidly, eyes wide.
"What?" I hiss at him, voice lowered. "Let's just grab it and go!"
"It's in their territory. That'd be stealing, or near enough," Marty whispers back. "We gotta do this right -- we're here to make less trouble for Al, remember?"
"All right, wise guy, what do we do then?"
Anna gawks. "Hey, if I scream, do you think it'll echo?"
"If any of you feel the need to scream, I would rather you did it someplace more private," comes a smoky voice.
Some kind of stag -- a tall and skinny deer, maybe an elk? Except he's got long, thin, noodly antlers -- rises from a big blue sofa off to the right, walking over to confront us.
"...Like my bedroom, for instance." He smiles, looking us over, and leans against a nearby pillar in a blatant and shallow attempt to look cool. "Well hello, indeed."
"Uh, hi," I nod. He seems to be the only other mammal in the lobby. I was really hoping Jeanine would be here to meet us. "We're looking for someone."
"Oh, me too," he nods back, straightening the hem of his shorts and showily flapping his muscle shirt. "And here it seems we have found each other. What luck."
I blink, tilting my head. Ozzy strolls past me, giggling, and nods to the guy as he passes.
"Hello Ozzy, my friend."
"...So, hey, do you know Jeanine? Is she home?" I ask.
"Oh!" He lights up, clapping his hooves together. "Boyfriend? I knew she had it in her. I guess you knew that too!"
"What? No, I--"
"Oh," he shakes his head emphatically, off again like a light switch. "That is too bad, she needs a man in her life. Other than me, naturally. I am like junk food, you know, always sweet -- and so filling -- but you cannot live on me alone."
I glance at Anneke, wondering if she's picking this up any better than I am, and she's making a face like she just snorted a shot glass of lemon juice. I've never seen her snout so scrunched up. I turn the other way to Marty, and he's staring at this guy so hard any second now he's gonna bore a hole right through him. I think I can hear his teeth grinding. Meanwhile the only one of us who for sure even knows this guy has strolled over to the double TV setup and plopped his hyena butt down in front of it, sitting on the couch. Not our couch. The other couch.
"Ozzy, if you track dirt on those cushions one more time, Mama will be very cross! Oh, ach, what am I doing? Please, please. I am Dolph." The stag bows, extending his hoof. "Welcome, my new friends, to the Blue Roses."
Anneke awkwardly shakes his extended hoof, and he bows again, sweeping down to smooch the back of her paw. She coughs, trying not to laugh, and I'm so gobsmacked at the gesture I've still got my hoof out when he turns to me.
I move to tap hooves, but he grips me instead and shakes, like a pawed mammal would, and smooches the back of my hooves as well.
"If it does not work out with Jeanie, come back and see me," he winks at me. "I will help put a smile back on your little face."
"Oh." My brows shoot up my reddening face as I finally realize where this guy's gimmick is going. "Oh. Uh, like I said--"
"Hey, buddy," Marty growls, finally stepping forward.
Dolph tuts and wags one extended hoof. "Not you though, Marty! You are far, far too sour for my taste. Ouch, my face hurts just to look at you."
So he knows Marty too. I can't even see past him to that blue sofa, but I can hear Ozzy losing his mind with laughter.
"Okay, look--" Anneke laughs, only to be met with that same extended hoof to her snout, shushing her.
"Do not be jealous, my lovely little hyena. You are just a tiny touch too young for my taste."
"I'm only a year younger than-- okay, you know what? How about you--"
"Do not be heartbroken, if you--"
"Would you let me fucking talk?!" Anneke snaps, nearly biting his hoof, which he pulls away instantly. "Can the stupid fucking act and shut up for like two fucking seconds!"
Dolph stands there, blinking repeatedly and staring at her. Goddamn, good work, Anna. He looks like he's about to snap back with some huffy insult, but instead, he suddenly slumps his shoulders and lowers his head.
"Yes, my apologies. I can be a bit too very much, sometimes," Dolph murmurs, genuinely looking a little hurt. His whole tone's changed. "When you have no one to meet antlers with, there is a drive that grows and cooks inside. Instead, tell me how I can help you, and I will do my best."
I'm about to offer something gentle when Marty blurts out "Just tell us if Jeanine is here or not, for fuck's sake!"
"Yes!" the stag answers quickly, sounding less like a wannabe Catsanova and more like a scolded kid at school. "Yes, she is up in her room with an ice pack. Poor girl, hurt herself taking that ugly couch in."
"What room?" I ask.
"Well, if I tell you, I would like to know--" Dolph stops in mid sentence, frozen on the spot like someone just hit the pause button, and I notice with some discomfort his eyes are locked on me.
"What room, Dolph?" I prod.
"Hold on, one minute." He cranes his neck forward but takes a step back, keeping his face exactly as far away. "My own libido almost blinded me. You, the fluffy one. You are with this tee-hee-ing beefcake and this miniature sour apple?"
I hate that I know exactly who he means. "Yeah, and?"
"Uh oh." Marty chews his lip.
"Then you are the black sheep. Were we not all supposed to play on opposite sides of the street?" Dolph folds his arms, tucking his hooves directly into his armpits. "Are we to keep away from you while you come and go freely? Our packs, we reached understanding, yes?"
"Wait, you're in Don's pack?" I stammer. "But-- I mean, you're an herbivore."
"Ha!" He scoffs. "Takes one to know one!"
"Almost everyone in Mama Black Ivory's pack is an herbivore," Ozzy calls out from the couch, like he's playing distant mediator between us. "Hey, how do you change the channel on this thing, again?"
"No, no," I squint, "Only one of the mammals that jumped me was a prey species, and that was Jeanine."
"Most of those boys were not in this pack," Dolph insists, turning up his snout and closing his eyes. "And if you've come looking for Don, he is not here."
"I definitely have not come looking for Don," I sigh. "I told you like ten times I'm here for Jeanine."
"Can we just leave this joker and go upstairs already?" Anneke growls, looking about as fed up as I am with this self-made doorman blocking our way.
But this time it's Marty keeping us. "What do you mean he's not here?"
"Don is gone," Dolph claps his hooftips together a few times for emphasis. "That sour little snapper moved out weeks ago. And no, we did not kick him out! He chose to leave."
"Really?" I blink, feeling this kinda floaty feeling in my stomach. "He's not even here?"
"Back home to Tundratown, so I heard."
"Then it doesn't matter if Remmy's here, right? The agreement was to keep him and Don away, right?" Anneke snaps her fingers, trying to get on with it.
This feels surreal. And it's not even that I psyched myself up for a confrontation that didn't happen, because for whatever reason, I was barely even thinking about it. At the time, I was beyond paranoid, fearing for my own life and peeking out my window at every sound. Now, I just strolled in expecting Don to be lurking somewhere and not even really worrying about it. Maybe it's because I'm not alone this time? Anneke saved my ass then, and she's here now, plus Ozzy. And Marty's here too, I guess. I wasn't even on edge -- and maybe I should have been -- but now, to hear he's not even part of this pack anymore, I don't even care. Even saying that would feel weird, though, like I wasn't taking it seriously?
Anneke looks at me, cautious, like she's checking for my approval, and all I can do is shrug. "I mean... yeah, I'm not worried about Jeanine, if that's what you mean."
"So this is fine. Who cares."
The stag stares blankly at her for a moment, then scratches the back of his head.
"Well, that makes sense, yes."
"Great!" Marty practically shouts. Hey, his voice really does echo! "Then for the last time, where's Jeanine?!"
"I'm here," a now-familiar voice calls out, and we all look over in perfect sync to see the goat we came to talk to is waving at us from her spot on the blue sofa, next to Ozzy. She's got a plastic convenience store bag filled with ice resting on her ankle. "Didn't want to interrupt."
Marty scoffs, angrily. "How long have you been there?"
"Like, a few minutes?"
"Ozzy, why didn't you say anything?" Anneke frowns.
Ozzy shrugs, grinning from ear to ear. "She asked me not to!"
Jeanine stands up, lightly limping over to us, every click of her hooves echoing over the tile. Marty, who's been acting like every minute in this place causes him physical pain, doesn't even wait for her to reach us before he opens his mouth.
"We're here for the couch," he demands.
"Which one?" Jeanine asks, stepping in front of Dolph. "'Cause there's two."
"The new one," Anneke answers.
"The old one," Marty corrects, frustrated.
"New to you, but old and beat up," I intervene, jabbing my hoof at Al's old couch by the entrance for emphasis to nip this in the bud. "We uh... gave it away without meaning to. And we'd like it back."
Jeanine smiles crookedly, baring her flat white teeth. Dolph chuckles, muttering something I can't hear, and shifts in place, bringing his hooves down to squeeze the goat's shoulders.
"I think this is what you call a case of 'finder's keepers," she yawns. "All I've got in my apartment is a wood chair and my bed. I need a new couch."
"It's not new," Marty insists again.
"New to her," Ozzy echoes me, and Marty shoots him a dirty look.
"Gaaaawwwwd. Enough with the fuckin' Rabbott-and-Cowstello routine," Anna groans. "Marty, just tell her she's fired if she doesn't give it back."
The stoat hisses, recoiling at the suggestion like she just splashed him with hot oil. "Fuck you take me for?"
Our two rival packmates seem to find all this very amusing. They've got matching smirks, and Dolph's massaging Jeanine's shoulders and neck while she stares us down. At least I think that's what she's doing, hard to tell with that squinting expression she's always wearing.
"How bad do you need it?" She tilts her head.
"It's not--" Marty begins, only for Ozzy to immediately interrupt.
"OZ!" Marty growls.
The two herbivores chuckle again.
"Please," I step forward, since Marty's special form of angry diplomacy doesn't seem to be working. "I owe it to a friend to get this back. We fucked up letting it go prematurely."
Jeanine shakes her head. "Maybe so, but I need this too. I need someplace to park my ass after a long day answering to Marty."
The stag glances up and opens his mouth, but she interrupts by jamming one hoof in the air in front of his face, without even looking at him.
"Do not fucking say your face, Dolph," she cracks her neck.
He mutters something to himself, and goes back to massaging her shoulders.
"So I'll tell you what, you twinky little cloud," she grins. "I'll let you have it back, if you can get me an even better place to sit."
Dolph stares, pointing with one hoof at me, and repeatedly mouths FACE.
"Well, uh," I sweat, scratching my head. "I don't really have a lot of, uh..."
They're both staring at me. And then, I notice Anneke is staring at me, too. Ozzy's-- well Ozzy is watching TV, but Marty's staring at me.
"No," I bleat. "No, no no no no no no. No way. No."
No one says anything for a second. Half-second.
"NO! I love that couch!"
"Remmy," Anneke touches my arm gently.
I look at Marty, but he avoids my gaze.
"Sacrifices must be made." I can barely hear him choke out the words.
I turn back to the two standing in front of me, smiling like nothing's wrong.
So this is how rivals are made.
The late afternoon sun's almost burned away, but so are we.
Marty went back to his room to try and sleep this off, so I guess the library's closed today after all. Ozzy's splayed out on the tile floor, tongue hanging out of his muzzle as he tries desperately to cool down, while Anna and I are just sort of strewn across the lobby chairs. We're surrounded by a half-dozen ice cream wrappers and a number of empty water bottles and soda cans.
Still, we did it.
We spent the last three hours carrying it by hoof (and paw) all the way here from the Blue Roses, and that after having to come back and bring Jeanine her fucking ransom. God, I'm going to miss that new couch, but for one glorious morning, I sat on something beautiful.
But here we are at last, and back in its rightful place is Al's beloved sofa, in more or less the same condition as it was in before all this started. And with time almost up, too.
"You think he'll notice?" I finally manage to ask.
"Oh god, don't jinx us," Anna whines. "I can't go through anything like that ever again."
Not even five full minutes pass before the door jingles and the big man himself slogs in, looking as tired and worn-out as the rest of us. Without saying a word, the great white wolf trudges into the lobby, gives us a tired nod, and strips his sweaty shirt off, throwing it unceremoniously into the pile of pawpsicle wrappers.
Al lets out a heavy sigh and takes his seat on the old sofa -- only for a piece of the internal frame to snap loudly, leaving the entire couch sagging to one side.
My heart catches in my throat as I lock eyes with Anneke. Ozzy, meanwhile, just slowly rolls over onto his side, eyes squeezed shut in a pained wince.
Al breathes one long, deep breath through his nose and closes his eyes.
"I hate this fucking couch."