Ralph flinched. Nadine glanced at the wolf with raised brow. He shrugged with an apologetic smile.
"Sorry, still nervous!"
Nadine rolled her eyes, "I'm not gonna cut you open."
He chuckled with a wry grin, "Marks on my back say otherwise!" The tiger's ears tinted pink, but she remaining focused on her work. Ralph cocked his head to the side to glimpse at the process. The wolf was sitting on one of their two chairs, shirtless and holding a damp cloth in his right paw. On the table to his right was an open first aid kit, gauze and medical tape laid out. Just above his heart, a small patch of fur had been shaved down to expose the pink skin underneath. The couple had borrowed Dani's sheers, with the promise to clean it afterwards.
Nadine was kneeling in front of him, crouched low and close enough that the lupine could feel puffs of air from her nose. She wore a pair of grey sweats and a white t-shirt, the tiger's relaxing attire. In her left paw was a small bowl filled with water and hydroperoxide, and a single claw was extended on her right paw. She dabbed the claw in the bowl. The tiger glanced at the wolf, "Ready?"
Ralph breathed in deeply, letting it out slowly. He nodded.
The feline pressed the tip of her claw back into the etching on the wolf's chest, and pulled it down deliberately. Blood dripped slowly from the deep scratch, a droplet forming and trickling down. Cautiously, Nadine finished the first line of the chosen design. It was an "N," for the obvious reason that it was the tiger's first initial. That way she was always on the wolf's heart. It would have been more sentimental, if not for the painful process.
Ralph gritted his teeth, digging his blunt claws into the wood of the chair as he forced his body to stay still. Any other situation or mammal, and the wolf wouldn't even be in his seat. This wasn't any ordinary individual though, but Nadine. The feline he loved from afar, only to find his love reciprocated. If she asked him to the lupine would shave all his fur off! The tiger thankfully didn't, and only asked for some real estate above his heart. Something the lupine was more than willing to give. Ralph hissed, then chuckled.
"I guess love really does sting!" Nadine didn't respond. "Oh come on! It was kinda funny."
"Not normally," grumbled the tiger, "and even less with my claw in your chest."
The wolf tried to smile, but it turned into a grimace, "You couldn't give me a pity smile?"
Nadine stopped, and looked at the lupine with a hard stare. "Why should I pity you?" Silence settled between the two, growing thicker with each passing second. The feline cracked, and a small smile appeared.
"There it is!" announced Ralph proudly, "there's that amazing smile!" He beamed at the tiger, who was trying to hide her growing mirth. The lupine tried to lean forward, but something stopped him. He looked down to see Nadine's digits pressed against his chest, tip of her claw still embedded.
"Don't move," commanded the feline. She slowly pulled her claw out.
The wolf felt a peculiar tugging sensation in his chest. It stopped as soon as the feline detached herself from him. He dabbed at the open wound with the wet cloth, wiping it clean for the next session. "How deep do you think you're going?"
Nadine pursed her lips and examined her extended claw. "No more than a quarter of an inch." She dipped it into the bowl, and swirled it in the liquid. "Why?"
Ralph shrugged, "Felt weird that's all."
The tiger's brow rose, "Not used to taking a prick?"
The wolf furrowed his brow, and was about to respond seriously, when the feline's words sunk in. "Was that a sex joke!" Ralph exclaimed, a little shocked and extremely proud, "You never do that!"
Nadine chuffed, and looked away from the lupine, "Maybe you're rubbing off on me."
Ralph laughed, "Maybe more than rubbing?"
The feline shook her head, "What have I done?"
"Opened up a whole new world of possibilities!" exclaimed the wolf. Nadine chuckled softly, and Ralph smiled like a fool. Music to his ears.
"Enough of that," stated the tiger, mirth disappearing behind a serious demeanor, "We should continue on you, so we can do me."
The lupine flinched, his smile straining as he tried to hold it in place. The feline obviously noticed. The wolf stood up, and put his paws up defensively. "Now don't get mad-"
"Not the best way to begin a sentence." Nadine interjected firmly.
Ralph shrugged with a grimace," "So I was thinking that 'marking' isn't really a wolf thing!"
"You agreed to do this."
The wolf moved away from the increasingly irate feline. He kept his paws up between them as he backpedaled to the kitchen. "You're gonna get a mark…" Ralph tried to reassure, but he couldn't stop the truth from slipping out, "...of sorts…"
A look appeared on Nadine's face that the lupine had never seen before. Her eyes were wide, face expressionless and ears pinned. The feline's tail whipped wildly behind her, snapping back and forth angrily. She stepped forward, covering half the distance between the two as she loomed over the lupine.
"Explain. Now." Nadine growled.
Ralph rushed into the kitchen, taking the very real risk of turning his back to his extremely angry tiger. The wolf scrambled to the counter, hoisting himself onto it to reach the highest parts of the kitchen. The officer hunched his shoulders, and opened a cabinet door. His paw fumbled blindly as he reached for a box that he knew the tiger put there. It was a bright red box with a multicolored rainbow and big yellow lettering that read "Lucky Chomps." Ralph hopped down from the counter, landing upright with a dull thud. The lupine held the box protectively to his chest.
"I don't want to hurt you..." started Ralph, stepping closer to Nadine, "...and I didn't feel comfortable with this whole...cutting...you."
The tiger sighed heavily, her expression turning to reluctant acceptance. "If you truly don't feel comfortable marking me-"
"Well that's the thing," interrupted the lupine, hugging the box tighter, "I started thinking about what wolves do, and we kinda do things differently." He tried to smoothly pop open the already eaten cereal box, but the cardboard stuck and ripped. Nervously, Ralph tore off the top and shoved his paw into the box. As he tried to fish out the "prize," the wolf kept talking.
"There's lots of talking between packs and dumb stuff like that, but then I started thinking about what couples did and came up with a solution." The officer had his prize, but it slipped out of his trembling digits and became lost once more. "So I tried to call a favor with Wilde, but his terms were ridiculous. Don't ask me what they were cause I'm not sure if he was joking or serious…" Ralph had no idea what the fox would do with a picture of the wolf in a pink tutu. Thankfully he'd never find out. "...So I called Weaselton and he said he could get what I wanted, but it wouldn't be real." The lupine removed his paw from the box and waved it flippantly. "Like I could afford something real!"
Ralph had enough of the impromptu game of hide and seek, and dumped the contents of the cereal box onto the floor. Colorful marshmallows and oat X's and O's scattered along the tile. A black box with a thin gold trim around the middle filtered out with the food, bouncing once before stopping on the sugary goodness. The wolf lunged for the box, grasping it tightly in his paw.
"I couldn't have Weaselton just paw it over, cause you would definitely see! So I asked Clawhauser, who agreed to do it." With the caveat that the cheetah was one of the wolf's groomsmams. "Remember yesterday when I said I was hungry, and he gave me that box of cereal?" The lupine waved the cereal box in the air. "That's this! I saw you put in the shelf last night, probably because you didn't want me eating it, but I was gonna keep on the table for breakfast. I couldn't say anything or it'd be suspicious!"
Ralph stood and began to pace, cereal crunching under paw with each step. "I figured once we got up this morning, maybe I'd convince you to bring it down, but you gave me that judgy look when I buy something unhealthy when I brought it up. So then, how do I bring it down?!" The wolf sighed, dropping the empty box in his paw, "Which brings me to this..." He looked at the tiger, who had remained silent throughout his tirade. "I...I don't want you to get the wrong impression...because mammals have…"
The officer stepped closer to his partner, closing the remaining distance between them. "You've been through a lot…" Ralph whispered, looking into the feline's confused hazel eyes, "...and I almost lost you." He shook his head, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. "I want you to be mine, but like you're you so you'll never be mine, but if you will...I don't know, you be you with me….then I'd be happy." The wolf smiled, wiping at his misting eyes with the back of his paw, "I'd be real happy!"
Nadine remained silent throughout the lupine's rant, her anger changing to a puzzled expression. "Ralph," the tiger started hesitantly, "what's in the box?"
Ralph held the black box out to the feline, "Why don't you, uh, see." He licked his dry lips as his partner gently grasped the small container. A panicked thought entered the wolf's mind, and he quickly clasped the tiger's large wrist. "B-Before you open it, just know that it's not a-a proposal. I want to spend the rest of my life with you…" The lupine's ears pinned back and his eyes went wide, "...if you'll be ok with that! I don't wanna force you into anything or make you feel uncomfortable or-"
Nadine pressed a digit to the raving lupine's lips. She then gently shook off his paws from around her wrist. The tiger looked at the box curiously, studying it from different angles as if she had never seen one before. Finally, the feline gently opened the lid, and gasped.
Ralph knew what was in there. A simple, silver band that was hopefully in the female's size. It's hard to judge a ring size when someone can't measure it. It wasn't pure silver either, but a bit of nickel as well. Weaselton had told him as much, checking with his uncle before passing on the information. The wolf planned on buying something better for the tiger, but that would take time and money he didn't have. One day, she'd have something worthy of her beauty.
"I-I know it's not much," started Ralph, growing increasingly nervous as the feline continued to silently look at the ring, "but I figured something plain so you could wear it at work, and I think it could hide in your fur...if you don't want it-"
"Why wouldn't I?" asked Nadine, gaze still locked onto the open box, "it's perfect...though…" She pulled the ring out of the box, "...a bit small."
Ralph's muzzle hung ajar. The ring couldn't fit his digits, let alone a tiger! It looked like it would fit only a smaller mammal. He groaned, pulling on his face with both paws. "Why put it in the correct box if it's not the right size!?" The wolf reached for the box, but the feline pulled away defensively.
"It's perfect," stated Nadine, "and I won't have you take it away."
The lupine sighed, "How are you gonna wear it?"
"I'll put it on a chain, and keep it close by," offered the tiger.
"You don't have too-"
"I want too," interrupted the feline. She opened her muzzle, but stopped. Instead Nadine smiled genuinely, "No one's ever given me a ring."
Ralph blinked, and cocked his head, "Really?" She nodded. He blinked again, "Why?"
Nadine shrugged, smile waning, "I guess...no one thought I wanted one…"
The wolf smirked with a raised brow, "Did you tell anyone?" The tiger looked away. "Uh huh, I thought so." He chuckled, smirk turning to a broad smile, "Well I'm glad I'm your first…" Ralph's smile turned to a knowing grin, "...again."
Nadine blushed. She knelt down to the wolf's level. "No one's ever treated me like you do," the feline whispered, "thank you." She wrapped her arms the lupine and hugged him. "And Ralph...I want to spend the rest of my life with you too."
Ralph smiled, looping his arms around the feline's neck and resting his cheek against hers. "No pressure," he mumbled, "We gotta long way to go."
"I know." the feline replied softly.
"Also…I realized something."
"You're about to have a big red 'N' on your shirt."
The tiger hugged the wolf tighter.
Nadine and Ralph spent the rest of the day working on the wolf's mark. On more than one occasion, the lupine needed a break from the process. This didn't bother the feline, she could study her new ring and try to determine what the best chain would be for it. Silver was the obvious choice, but gold didn't look too bad either. Whatever the choice, it would be the first piece of jewelry that the tiger would wear every day.
The couple's life had grown into a comfortable rhythm. It wasn't the distant compassion that the feline expected her marriage with Sai, or the hot and heavy first nights with Ralph. It was something more. There was a substance to their relationship that Nadine never knew could exist. They talked about subjects the partner's never dreamed of discussing. Love, family, beliefs, even kits. Their talks showed the feline just how deep her wolf could be, and it made her fall even more in love with him.
Nadine still worried about Ralph leaving, but marking him and the ring helped ease that anxiety. Still, it was this fear that woke the feline to an empty space where her wolf should be. A quick, blind swipe of her paw across the bed revealed that he hadn't simply rolled away either. The tiger slowly opened her eyes, taking a moment for them to adjust to the darkness, and found it as her other senses suggested. Ralph's side was empty, blanket folded open where he exited the bed.
"Ralph?" the tiger groggily called out. No response.
The bathroom door was open, and the feline saw it was empty. She turned over, swinging her legs off the edge of the bed. There was a crisp chill in the apartment, one that wasn't there when the couple crawled into bed that night. Nadine huffed, wrapping her arms around herself. Sleeping in underwear was the tiger's preference, but now it seemed like a hindrance. Still, she didn't consider putting anything on. The officer started around the bed, but paused at the dresser.
Sitting on top of the dresser was the black box, almost invisible in the dark room. The tiger picked up the box, studying it just as carefully as every other time that day. It was so plain, so unassuming, but it now held the most valuable item the feline ever possessed. Even if the ring became lost, the box itself was a sign of Ralph's love. Of course Nadine would die before she lost the too small silver band. She popped open the lid gently, and stared intently at her ring. It was still beautiful. The officer closed the lid cautiously, and placed it back down.
Ralph didn't leave. He loved her.
The tiger blew out a heavy breath, steadying her nerves to check the living room and kitchen. She poked her head through the doorway, looking left and right, and let out a relieved sigh. A shadow broke through the mixture of electrical and moon light, outlining a familiar figure. Nadine padded to the open screen door, steps muffled by the carpet. The figure stood outside on the small balcony, leaning against the metal railing. Their was back to the feline and staring up at the sky. As Nadine closed in on the balcony, she could make out the wolf's details.
Ralph's eyes were closed, nose pointed to the sky and ears pointed up, as if listening to the howling wind. The lupine only wore his boxers, a white pair with comically drawn, multicolored bones all over. He appeared tense, tail limp behind him as his back, as he leaned heavily on the railing. The tiger had never seen the wolf like this.
"Ralph?" Nadine called out hesitantly, free paw reaching for the wolf as she neared the screen door, "You ok?"
Ralph hummed, eyes still closed, "I'm ok." He held onto the railing and leaned back gently, opening an eye with a smile. Across his heart, white gauze were taped over his mark. "Did I wake you up?"
"No," lied the tiger. The lupine's brow rose questionably. "...Yes. I noticed you were missing." She slid open the dividing door, stepping out onto the crowded balcony, "You...going to come in?"
The lupine was about to respond, when the wind picked up again. It howled, echoing against the tall buildings and almost whispering to the couple. He turned back around, grasping the railing and standing on the bottom to get higher. Once more his muzzle was pointed up and eyes were closed.
Nadine was about to ask what her partner was doing, when she realized something. There was no wind. Her and Ralph's fur never stirred, and while it was still chilly, nothing pushed against the officer.
"What's that noise?" the feline quietly asked.
"Wolves," murmured Ralph, "It's the Howl."
Nadine's brow quirked, "They're howling?" The wolf nodded. "Why?"
The lupine sighed heavily, howl momentarily dying down, and glanced over his shoulder. "It's...hard to explain…" He chuckled with a shake of his head, "You could even call it a wolf thing!"
Nadine cocked her head as Ralph laughed. She didn't get it.
He shook his head at the confused feline. "The best way I can explain it is...it's like a song."
"Yes kitten, a song," teased Ralph with a wry grin, "you gonna repeat everything I say?" Nadine reached over and flicked the lupine's ear. He cringed and ducked his head. "Ouch! Ok! No jokes!"
The tiger chuffed and rolled her eyes. She knew that was a lie. "What are they singing about?"
"How they feel mostly," answered Ralph, his mirth subsiding, "Wolves howl naturally, but the Howl is a way for the pack to express themselves." He tilted his muzzle to the sky and breathed in deeply. "Sometimes...when words aren't enough...you can just let it all out."
Nadine stepped closer to the lupine, pressing herself against the wolf. "I can't howl," she murmured. The feeling of their furs intermixed, his coarser hairs poking through her coat, brought a sense of peace to the feline.
Ralph chuckled, "Oh yeah...forgot about that."
The tiger's brow rose, "You forgot?" The feline bent lower to the lupine, and circled around the wolf with her right arm. Her striped large paw gently covered the gauze on the male.
"It happens," mumbled Ralph, though he didn't sound confident in his defense. The howling echoed once more, and the lupine shifted in the larger mammal's hold.
"Is it your pack?" Nadine asked cautiously.
"I'm not apart of them…" Ralph replied calmly, "...but yes. It's the Wolfords."
"What are they singing?" continued the tiger, ignoring the first part of the wolf's comment.
"Sadness." replied Ralph quietly, "Pain. Confusion. Desperation. Loneliness." He let out a staggered sigh, "They're, uh...not doing well."
"They're afraid," answered the lupine, voice thick with emotion, "Everything's changing, and they have no control over it."
"Change isn't bad," whispered the tiger into the wolf's ear. Nadine couldn't hear the howl like Ralph, but she could feel how tense he was. This...song...was tearing her wolf's heart apart. She never wanted that to happen, and suggested the first thing that came to mind. "Can you respond?"
The wolf huffed, "Why would I? They… they aren't my pack..."
"Ralph," Nadine started carefully, "I...know you don't want to admit this...but you were happy when you saw your family. You miss them, and...they may miss you." She hugged the lupine gently and rubbed her cheek against the back of her wolf's neck. "Just...let them know that change isn't bad."
Ralph sighed, leaning back into the feline's chest. "Ok...will you...stay with me?" The tiger nodded silently against the wolf. "Ok...ok…" He pulled away from the feline, but only to stand taller on the railing.
The wolf stood tall, tilting his muzzle once more to the sky. With pinned ears and closed eyes, the lupine let out a mournful howl. It started deep, resonating to the very core of the tiger, then slowly pitched up. Ralph held a high note, before it dropped to somewhere in between. His howl echoed into the night, reverberating off the steel and glass of the surrounding buildings.
Nadine held onto her partner's waist, worried that he may fall over. She felt how relaxed Ralph was, tension gone as he howled. The tiger's ears weren't tuned to the "song's" subtlety, but it sounded sad. The notes pulled on the feline's heartstrings, and memories of past lonely days came to the forefront of her mind. When the tone shifted, Nadine's spirit rose as well. She could imagine Ralph's message as his howl leveled out.
"It's ok. Things are tough, and scary, and no one knows what'll happen next, but it's ok. We are separated, but still close. Give it time. It'll be ok…"
The tiger smiled reservedly, which grew when she heard the pack's response. It matched Ralph's, but held an excited edge. Nadine heard her wolf's song change as well, growing louder and stronger as he almost pulled out of the feline's grasp. She protectively held on tighter, and laid her head against the lupine's upper back.
Eventually the howl died down, both sides fading till only the quiet night remained. Nadine didn't let go of Ralph, her paws simply travelling up to rest on his shoulders. He looked tired, as if howling drained him completely. The tiger cupped the wolf's chin gently, "You ok?"
Ralph smiled weakly, "Never better."
Nadine didn't believe him, but she wouldn't push the issue either. The lupine always talked when he was ready, and she could be patient.
"Let's go to bed," offered the feline softly.
Ralph shook his head with a chuckle, "You mean again?"
She nodded, and guided the lupine through the door first. Before she re-entered her apartment, Nadine cast a glance at where the howls came from. Even with her keen eyes, the tiger couldn't see the distance between her building and the Wolford compound. Still, she hoped that someone was looking their way as well. For Ralph's sake.
When Nadine finally closed the balcony door, and stepped back into the couple's bedroom, she couldn't help but stare at the scene. Ralph, the wolf who gave up everything for love, was curled up under the comforter on his side of what used to be simply her bed. This moment wasn't even a possibility months, let alone years ago, yet here they were. A tiger without a family, a wolf without a pack, and happier than they've been in a long time.
She quietly walked to her side of the bed, sliding back into their comfortable sleeping position. Ralph pressed his nose against her chest, and Nadine curled her right arm above the wolf. She smiled, watching her love slowly drift back to sleep, and ran her left paw across his cheek. The tiger who loved a wolf from afar closed her eyes, and rested her paw on the lupine's shoulder. Eventually, she fell asleep.
Dreaming of orange, black, and grey