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FLIPSIDE
AUTHOR'S NOTE
PROLOGUE
CHAPTER I
CHAPTER II
CHAPTER III
CHAPTER IV
CHAPTER V
CHAPTER VI
CHAPTER VII
CHAPTER VIII
CHAPTER IX
CHAPTER X
CHAPTER XI
CHAPTER XII
CHAPTER XIII
CHAPTER XIV
EPILOGUE

CHAPTER V

"How about now." came Doug’s voice, so quiet Mike almost didn’t hear him. John reluctantly tore his attention from their conversation to watch Doug walk in.

"Guess what?" Doug asked, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorjamb.

"You’re going implant a properly programmed computer chip into my brain."

John gave Mike an admonishing glance before turning back to Doug. "What?"

Doug looked at Mike. "I just had lunch with Cooper. Come Monday, you’re out of here."

"Are you serious?" Mike exclaimed, rising from the cot.

"Already?" John asked.

"Absolutely. I told him that there was no longer a reason to keep you here. The main reason we had you here in the first place was because we were afraid you’d go berserk and eat everyone. John and I expected to come in that first morning and find a half-naked wolf sitting in the middle of a ransacked room. So, come Monday, we’ll be moving you to an FBI safehouse in the suburbs."

"Thank God! A real house, with carpet and windows and a kitchen..."

"John?"

"Yeah, boss?"

"I’m recommending that you move in with him. What do you think?"

John stared at him with a shocked expression. "Are you kidding?"

"No. We’re going to need someone there with him to keep the guys upstairs appraised of his acclimation to our society. You know him better than any of us and you don’t have a family waiting at home. It would give us a perfect way of helping Mike to start a new life. You have a minor in psychology with a great grade. Do you think you can handle it?"

"What about our work with Jud? He’s back now and I thought that I would be going back to him, with you."

"I can promote Mark to your spot as my assistant. He’ll be a suitable replacement for you. We’ll be able to handle Jud between the two of us until your work with Mike is done. Since you’ll technically be working, your pay won’t change. It sounds like a cake job to me." Doug raised his eyebrows and perked his ears expectantly.

John looked over at Mike, who smiled and shrugged. He thought for a moment, looking back at Doug and then letting his gaze rest on the floor. Share a house with a wereman? God, this is weird.

"What about my lease? And all my stuff?"

"They can take care of the lease upstairs. I’m sure they can convince your landlord to sublet. Anything you have that won’t fit in the house they can have stored for you."

John thought quickly. Doug obviously wanted an answer right now. He had the strangest feeling that Doug had already decided. He was a nice guy, but he always seemed to get his way once his mind was made up. At least, it would probably look good on his resume’. He looked back at Mike, who had grabbed a chair at the table.

"I promise I won’t bite."

John couldn’t help but smile. He was so cute when he teased, and he didn’t even look evil. Oh well, he thought, there goes my social life. "All right, I’ll do it."

"Great." Doug said happily, clapping his hands together. "Now that that’s settled, we’d better get started on those medical files. We’ve got a lot of work to do for the rest of the day. Mike," he went on, turning to him, "I hope you don’t mind if we leave you to yourself for the rest of the day."

"No, go ahead. I’ll get some reading done."

The two of them walked out, followed by one of the guards. The other one, Paul, hung around for small talk.

The weekend passed in a blur. Most of his time was taken up with workouts, reading, and prayer. The guards had lightened up considerably, and Paul had beat him in three close games of chess.

He read the bible a lot, and found that everything except the sexual and marital references seemed to be as he remembered.

On Sunday night he sat himself down and tried to come to grips with his feelings about Deb.

It would now be foolish to deny the fact that he would never see her or any other human again. He didn’t even know where she was, let alone the world he had know all his life. The odds of the phenomenon that brought him here repeating itself were astronomical. It wasn’t supposed to happen at all. He was a victim of a freak of nature, and there was little chance of it rectifying itself.

Her loss was a deep, empty ache in his soul. He loved her more than life itself. She had been the center of his attention for so long that he hardly knew what to do with his time.

He tried to remember the good times they had shared, which ended up being close to all of them. The only thing they ever argued about was her overwrought femininity. He ended up crying again.

He decided to keep wearing his engagement band. Even though he would never see her again, he wanted to have something to remember her by.

He had finished his prayer that night by asking god that He grant her a happy life and a loving husband. That had brought the tears back, and he fell asleep with them drying on his face.

On Monday morning, Doug and John woke him up at seven-thirty.

He went through his usual morning ritual, shaving with a razor Doug had to get from some nebulous FBI source. The entire concept of shaving had puzzled both of them when Mike had asked for the razor. Mike blew them off, not being in the mood for explanations. Neither had pressed the issue, seeing that he was in a bad mood. The coffee came quicker than usual.

He resumed his practice of waking up to a cold blast of water. The guard had laughed loudly, bringing John over from the lockers. He joined in on the laughter as Mike gasped and sputtered under the frigid spray.

When Mike had gone through at least three cups of coffee and two of John’s cigarettes, Doug risked a friendly greeting and handed him a box to pack his things into.

As he sipped his fourth cup, he noticed that both John and Doug seemed unusually nervous. "Why are you two so touchy? You’re both going to shake the fur out of your skin."

John laughed uneasily. "We’ve never been in a press conference before."

"What press conference?"

"Oh my God!" Doug cried. "I completely forgot to tell you! We’ve been so busy and neither of us has been around...oh, Mike, I’m sorry."

"Press conference!?"

"The Bureau is being very careful about you." Doug hastened to explain. "The last thing they want is to be accused of any typical cover-up garbage. Since it will be impossible to keep you hidden once we leave here, Cooper decided to have a press conference before we leave to let the press know about you. It’s scheduled for ten o’clock. After that, we’ll leave for the house. I can’t believe we forgot to tell you."

"Press conference!"

"Is there a problem?" Steve asked as he was led in by a guard.

"Damn straight there is!"

"I forgot to tell him about the press conference." Doug admitted sheepishly.

"Oh, hell," Steve said with a sigh, "Over the whole weekend?" He walked over to Mike, offering a tentative handshake. "I’m Steve Cooper, the director here in Chicago."

Mike shook the proffered hand, still dumbfounded.

"What Doug didn’t tell you," Steve continued, giving Doug a disapproving glance, "Is that we scheduled a press conference to announce your existence to the outside world. We don’t want to be accused of covering up your existence. If we waited for you to be discovered, the public fallout would be disastrous."

"What am I supposed to do at a freaking press conference?"

"Okay, I’ll go over the whole thing with you." He sat on the edge of the table, steadying himself with one foot on a chair. "My press agent will make a statement before we go out and show a few photos of you. We’ll all be walking in through a side door when he’s finished. Myself and my assistant will be first, followed by Doug, yourself, and John. We will be sitting behind a long table. The press will have their microphones set up on it. Of course, no one is going to believe us until you walk out. After they all calm down, we’ll field questions from the press. Easy."

"Oh, wonderful!" Mike said, looking down at himself. He was wearing a pair of zipper-leg Levis and a pale yellow shirt. The shirt was open down the front and back in typical werewolf casual wear fashion.

"You look fine." John assured him.

"Whatever you say." Mike remarked, starting to pack. "Now I’m nervous! What am I going to say?"

"Just answer their questions honestly. If they ask something you don’t want to answer, don’t be afraid to tell them so. I’m sure they won’t come up with anything you won’t have an answer to."

Mike kept packing for a few seconds before looking at Steve. "You’re staring." he said, resuming his packing. Screw being nice, he thought. A press conference!

"Sorry." Steve said, looking away. "This is the first time I’ve actually seen you in the flesh. I’ve been too busy talking to just about everyone in the whole damned government about you to get down here."

Mike finished packing and sat on the cot with a huff. "So, what now? We just wait?"

"Afraid so."

"Well, we’ve got an hour. Tell me about this house you’ve got for me."

"It’s pretty nice, actually. Normally, we’d use it for hiding witnesses or other important people. It’s a split-level ranch with a finished basement. It has a large living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry room, three bedrooms, and a garage on the first floor. The two rooms downstairs will probably be used by the guards, when need be. The kitchen and laundry room are stock and waiting."

"How many guards will there be?"

"We’ll have at least one inside at all times. Four or five will watch the grounds. And they’ll be guarding you this time, not guarding against you."

"Isn’t that kind of conspicuous?"

"Yes, but we figure that we’ll have no way of avoiding detection. Chances are that we’ll be followed from here when the press conference is over."

"Really?"

"We can’t control every street from here to there. There’s no harm in them being nearby. The guards will keep them off of the property. I’ll make sure that that’s clear when we have the conference."

"How long will I be staying there?"

"Until you get some kind of life started."

"Hopefully, that won’t take too long." John said.

The next hour seemed to drag on forever. Everyone hung around Mike’s cell, fidgeting in his own way. Mike paced like a caged tiger, John tapped his foot, matching the rhythm with a claw against one of his fangs, and Doug groomed himself fastidiously. Steve left early to fetch his assistant.

At nine fifty-five Steve returned with another werewolf, introducing the new face. He looked genuinely scared.

"It’s show time." Steve said after Mike shook the man’s hand. "Let’s go."

They all left the cell and walked to the end of the hall, taking the stairs up to the first floor. Mike turned and blew a kiss back down the steps. Once upstairs, they walked down a long corridor, receiving wide-eyed stares from dozens of werewolves. Mike looked around constantly, amazed at how many of them there were.

The hallway opened into a large, deserted lobby. Steve led them to a door in the center of the wall to their right. Mike could here what must be dozens of voices coming from inside.

"How many reporters are in there?" Mike asked.

"About forty, if you count the camera and sound men." Steve answered, stopping before the door.

It opened a crack and a wolf slipped through. His eyes widened when he saw Mike. Turning to Steve, he muttered uncomfortably. "They’re, uh, ready, sir. They, well, they think this is a joke. Some of them are ready to leave." His gaze shifted back to Mike.

"I would be too." Steve said as he turned to the others. "Ready, everyone?"

"Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess." Mike said as his stomach flip-flopped.

"Ditto." John said.

"Let’s go."

Steve opened the door and walked in, the rest following. As Mike came into view, the crowd of reporters gasped in unison. Mike smiled as some of them actually jumped from their chairs, freezing in half-standing poses.

He followed Doug up onto the platform, taking his seat behind a row of microphones and eyeing the crowd nervously.

They were all staring at him in open amazement. Mike almost smiled again. The sight of so many werewolves, all clutching cameras, tape recorders, and note pads was hilarious. On the other hand, it meant that he really was on a world full of werewolves.

A cameraman toward the back of the crowd came to his senses and snapped a picture. The flash caught Mike off guard and he blinked to clear his vision. A torrent of flashes followed as the rest of them recovered from their initial shock. Cameras were still flashing as numerous hands shot up throughout the small crowd. Steve pointed to a reporter wearing an NBC press ID on his shirt.

The guy stood slowly, clearing his throat. "Uh, Eric Downs, NBC News." he started, gawking at Mike. "Uh, hell," he went on, shaking his furry head slightly, "Uh, what’s your name?"

Steve dropped his head, grabbing the top of his snout with two fingers.

Mike smiled in spite of himself. This was getting fun. "Michael Riggs."

"Where are you from?" Downs asked as more hands shot up.

"Originally? I was born in Chicago and raised in Decatur."

Downs sat down and hands shot up again. They were all calling his name, vying for attention. Mike chuckled as he marveled at how quickly all of the reporters had recovered after the ice had been broken. Steve pointed to a man with a CBS ID. Mike gave him credit for knowing who to point to first - go for the networks.

"Are there any more like you?"

"Here? Not that I know of. How I got here was quite a fluke, and a painful one at that."

"How did you get here?" someone yelled as the CBS guy sat down.

"Gentlemen," Steve interrupted quickly, shaking his head, "Please refrain from asking questions that were answered in the initial briefing. If you weren’t taking notes, that’s your problem." He pointed to the ABC man, who stood and glanced at a note pad.

"Do you, or did you, have an occupation?"

"I’m a computer programmer."

That started a wave of voices as they all talked amongst themselves. John leaned close to Mike and whispered in his ear. Mike had to ask him to repeat it, because a werewolf whisper was practically inaudible.

"I just heard someone say that we’re going live in about ten seconds. Gulp."

"Can you prove that?" the reporter yelled above the din.

"Give me a good computer and I’ll program something."

"Quite, please!" Steve said loudly, pointing to another man. Everyone shut up as he stood.

"Chicago Tribune. Where did you work, uh, Mike?"

"Haffley Software Systems. Someone else is doing my job here."

"We were told, before you came out, that you supposedly come from an Earth much like ours, but populated by people like yourself. Some weird natural phenomenon sent you here. Do you believe that? Can we believe that?"

"I can’t honestly tell you. I can guess, though, based on what I was told over the weekend. Even though it’s just a theory, what you just said seems to be true. I know that I have lived the past twenty-five years on an Earth full of my own people. I wasn’t born yesterday, and I’m obviously not a wolf waking up from some crazy dream. So, I would have to say that that’s the only plausible explanation."

"Chicago Sun Times." another one began. "Are you married, engaged, or seeing anyone?"

"I’m not married. I was engaged, but my fiancé’ is evidently on another world. How could I be seeing anyone?"

John chuckled, and Mike elbowed him. Another reporter stood.

"Do you have any hobbies?"

"I write and play music."

"What kind of music? What instruments?"

"Rock and roll, guitar, and a little piano."

"Who, exactly, are you?" a reporter asked, gesturing to Doug and John.

Doug leaned forward. "I’m Doctor Doug Sullivan. I’m in charge of everything having to do with Mr. Riggs. This," he added, nodding to John, "Is my assistant, John Carter. He’ll be serving as a liaison between Mike and myself."

"Does Mike have any, you know, unusual abilities?"

All of the reporters laughed, but none took their eyes from Doug. Mike laughed and shook his head.

"None whatsoever. He’s stronger than he looks and extremely fit, but nothing you would call superwolven."

Mike laughed again as Doug continued. Superwolven?

"...His vision isn’t very sharp and he can’t see too well at night. Other than that, he’s just like us."

That sent most of them scribbling on their note pads. "What are you going to be doing when you get out of here?"

All eyes turned to Mike. "I have no idea. Maybe I’ll sell silverware."

The crowd laughed again, writing on their pads and checking tape recorders.

"Are you cold without any fur?"

"No, but I do have to dress warmer than you when it gets chilly."

The conference went of for what seemed to be forever. Question after question came as the reporters overcame their initial fear and grew bolder. Some of the questions were quite personal, which Mike refused to answer.

When one reporter, following up on an earlier question, asked him what mode of lovemaking he preferred, Mike told him in no uncertain terms to mind his own damned business. That brought on more scribbles and a laugh from John.

If only they new, the faggots, Mike thought to himself.

Steve brought the conference to an end now that the questions had grown meaningless. The last one was to know what was being done with Mike.

"We’re taking him to a nearby house, where he will be staying until he becomes self-sufficient." He held up a finger before continuing. "Now, I’m going to warn you all right now. The house and property will be guarded twenty-four hours a day. It’s government property and any trespassers will be dealt with to the full extent of the law. I personally guarantee anyone caught near that house a few nights in jail, and if I have my way, it will be B-block."

The reporters cringed. John leaned close and whispered in Mike’s ear. "That’s where they put the rapists."

Mike returned the smile. "If you ask me, that’s where they should put all of these guys. The can be really obnoxious."

"Is the government paying for this?"

"Yes." Steve answered.

"Do you think the taxpayers will approve of this use of government funds?"

Steve sighed loudly. "It doesn’t really matter. The government is paying for the house whether someone’s living in it right now or not. As for the guards we’ll be assigning to it, they’d be getting paid anyway. If they weren’t guarding this house, they’d be guarding something else. That’s their job. No money is being spent that wouldn’t be spent anyway."

That said, Steve ended the show and the reporters began filing out, glancing back at Mike constantly.

He stood and stretched. Five or six flashes went off as he did. He looked at John as his vision cleared. "Boy, I just can’t wait to see the caption under those shots." he said, striking a dramatic pose. "Crazed man-eating wereman raises fists to strike out at his captors!"

"You’re too cynical." John replied with a smile as they turned to walk out, breathing a sigh of relief now that it was over. "I’m glad that’s done. I hope my whiskers aren’t uneven."

Mike laughed. "Look here."

John turned to him and Mike studied the short whiskers closely. "Oh my, they’re all crooked."

"You’re kidding!" John cried, going cross-eyed to look at his snout.

Mike completely lost it at the sight, plopping into a chair and holding his stomach.

"You’re lying, aren’t you?"

"Oh John, don’t ever do that again! I don’t think I could stand it!"

"What?"

"Nothing." Mike said, catching his breath and edging past him.

"Oh, Mike." John said behind him. "We found out about the Michael Riggs who wrote those songs. Get this: He’s a senior at the same university you went to. His major is computer science. His parents died when he was seventeen, just like yours. A trust account for his parents’ estate is paying for his college education. Music is his hobby and his friends call him ‘Mozart.’ Well, they did, anyway. Here’s the weird part. The day you arrived, he disappeared without a trace from the same trail we found you on. They found his body yesterday, along the bank a ways downstream. The autopsy said that he died from a sudden brain aneurysm. Bruises on his body indicate that he was thrown about twenty feet a few minutes before it hit him. He landed in the stream, floated about a mile, and snagged in some growth along the bank. He pulled himself out of the water, unhurt except for a few bad bruises, a sprained wrist and a little water in his lungs, and then just...died. No one on the search party noticed him because he had sat down between some rocks and the water covered his scent. His fiancee’ found him. Strange, eh?"

"Yeah, it is." Mike agreed. "I almost feel guilty. He would probably still be alive if I hadn’t showed up. It must have been awful for his fiancé’. I guess you can’t have two of us on the same planet. I wonder why it wasn’t me? I’m the one out of place." He thought for a few moments as they walked. "It could be that the hole wasn’t big enough for both of us and he got caught in some kind of feedback. One thing doesn’t make sense, though. If he’s a senior in college, then that means that he’s twenty-one. That’s four years out of synch. I didn’t write those songs until after graduation. That means that he wrote them while he was still in school."

"You got me." John said, leaning his head closer, "But that’s not all. He was born in Chicago and grew up in Decatur. He and his fiancé’ were at an Eagle dealer three weeks ago looking at Talons. He owned two guitars."

"So do...did I. A Gibson and a Jackson."

"I bet scientists are going to go crazy over this." John said as they headed down a set of stairs. "Seems to me that this whole thing must be part of someone’s master plan. Everything fits just right when common sense says that it shouldn’t. And then again, some things don’t fit. For instance, why didn’t he just end up in your world instead of getting thrown twenty feet away and having his brain stopped?"

"I wish I knew. Like I said, he just may not have fit. That halo was wrapped around me pretty tight. And I wish whoever it is with this master plan would get bored with me real soon. God, this is all so weird."

The stairway ended at an underground garage. They walked toward a plain-looking minivan. It was the same gray color as the suit worn by the guard standing next to it. Mike’s box was at his feet.

"You guys really go for gray, don’t you?"

"They’re not all gray. This one happens to be the only one available at the time. We’re extremely busy." Steve replied.

"I hate Chryslers."

"I thought you owned an Eagle Talon. They’re Chryslers, aren’t they?" Doug asked with a curious glance.

"I owned an Eagle Talon because it’s mostly a Mitsubishi and has better looking wheels than the Eclipse. The price was a little lower in the end, too."

"Oh."

"What do you mean by ‘mostly Mitsubishi?’" John asked.

Mike smiled as he climbed into the back seat, pushing his box underneath it. "The only thing Chrysler about an Eagle Talon or Plymouth Laser is the body and interior. All the running hear is Japanese. They assemble them in Normal."

"I didn’t know that."

"The way I see it," Mike continued, "The only good Chrysler is a Mitsubishi, and the only good Ford is a Mazda."

"What does Mazda make for Ford?"

"The Probe is a Ford body and interior on a Mazda MX-6 chassis. The new Escort is a 323."

"Really? You know a lot about cars, don’t you?"

"Cars are my third passion."

"Anything I should know about my Beretta?"

"You should have held out for the GTZ."

"I shouldn’t have asked."

They pulled out of the garage with one of the guards driving. Steve rode shotgun and the front bench was occupied by two guards. John and Doug joined Mike in the back. The windows were heavily tinted, making the early afternoon look like twilight.

The driver wove though town, heading for the bypass. As they threaded their way through the lunch-hour traffic, Mike’s predicament set in with a finality that was, until now, impossible.

Downtown Chicago looked exactly the same as he remembered it. There was, of course, one big difference. The streets were full of werewolves. He looked around in amazement.

They came in all combinations of black, gray, brown, and silver that he could imagine. Some were fat and looked quite comical. Some were short, while others were tall. Couples and groups walked through the crowd, chatting just like normal people would. Many of them were probably chatting about the press conference Mike had just left. Their clothes seemed normal enough, except for the fact that everyone wore shorts and had gaps in their shirts. Almost all wore waist bags, as is the current fashion back home. Some carried them over their shoulder.

Occasionally he saw children. They were extremely cute and were usually accompanied by a single male adult.

As the van stopped at a light, a man and two small kids began to cross the street within a small crowd of pedestrians. Mike nudged John. "I assume the smaller one is a girl."

"Yeah," John agreed, "You can’t tell?"

"They look pretty much the same to me."

"I’d guess that they’re about eight." John said as they walked passed. "I wonder why they’re not in school?"

"Don’t ask me." Mike said as he watched them cross the street and disappear into an electronics store on the corner. "Hey, that’s the store where I bought my car speakers."

"You came up here from Decatur to buy speakers?"

"I was up this way visiting a friend, and besides, they were on sale." Mike answered matter-of-factly as he continued to look around in amazement. They left downtown and turned onto the bypass. Now that they were out of town, he turned his attention to the cars around him. A Cadillac was slowly passing them. Mike peered into the driver’s window and saw a hugely fat werewolf driving it. They guy looked more like a bear than a werewolf. He leaned back in his seat, sighed, and closed his eyes. "Well, Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore."

"What was that?" John asked.

"Nothing."

He opened his eyes and saw a billboard in the distance, growing closer as they passed an exit sign. A werewolf, silver from head to toe, appeared to lean against one side of the billboard’s edge. He was shirtless and showing his fangs in a smile. The rest of the sign was occupied by a large, hand-written phrase. "The only one-step, all-over fur color kit; and only from Clairol." Mike read silently, laughing to himself at the totally ridiculous parody.

"What?" Doug asked from the other side of John.

Mike noticed for the first time that they both were watching him closely. "You wouldn’t understand."

John glanced out the window and caught a glance of the billboard as they passed it. "That billboard?"

"Yeah." Mike admitted. "I’ve heard of hair color, but that’s ridiculous."

"...And expensive."

"You were going to do that?"

"I thought about it, once."

"Why?"

"Well, brown and black is kind of common. I was thinking of dying myself completely black. Unfortunately, it costs about a hundred and ten bucks."

"Brown and black looks fine to me."

"You think so?" John asked as Mike looked him over.

"Yeah, but you can take that with a grain of salt, coming from me. I hardly think that I’m qualified to comment."

A funny half-smile crept onto John’s face and his eyes brightened. "Sure you are."

Mike looked back out the window, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. That’s it, you idiot, he thought, lead him on!

Mike continued to watch the traffic as they exited the bypass and turned onto a suburban street. They followed it for a few miles, continuing on until the housing started to thin. To Mike, it all looked like a thoroughly twisted version of suburbia.

Werewolves were mowing lawns, washing cars, trimming hedges - all going about the business of day-to-day life. He was having trouble believing his eyes.

"The press is following us." the driver said to Steve as he turned down another street.

They all turned and looked out back. Sure enough, a van marked with the NBC logo was trailing them at a discreet distance.

"We’ll shoo them off at the house." Steve said warily. "There are already a couple of men there."

They turned onto what would be Mike’s street. A Seven-Eleven was on the corner with a small bar next door. About a mile down the road they reached the house.

It was attractive in a plain sort of way. The top half was light blue aluminum siding and the bottom half was brick. A large bay window faced out from above and to one side of the front door. Bushes lined the front and a small sidewalk curved out from the door to meet the driveway. A two-car garage was built into the lower level, and a basketball hoop hung above it. A simple wooden fence bordered the yard.

The driver pulled into the driveway, waving to a guard as he pushed the remote for the garage door. Steve called for a guard to ward off the press van, barely raising his voice. Whoever it was nodded and headed out toward the road, speaking to another guard.

Yet another guard met them in the garage and called a hello to the driver as he closed the door.

"Good Lord," Mike said, impressed, "You look like you’re trying to start a war here."

"There won’t be this many after we get you settled." Steve answered as he stepped out. He slid open the side door and everyone followed him out.

They walked toward the guard at the door to the house, John grabbing Mike’s box for him. Paul was waiting at the door to the house. The lack of light somehow enhanced the fact that he was built like a Mack truck.

"You know Paul, of course." Steve said to Mike. "He’ll be in charge of security here."

"Yeah, and now that I’ve got you locked up in a house with me, I’d like to talk to you about that day in the woods. You wouldn’t happen to be one of the guys who shot me, would you?"

Paul’s snout paled noticeably and he looked as if he would bolt for his life. "Well, Mike, uh..."

"Relax, I’m kidding." Mike said, laughing.

"Actually, I shot you first." Meuller said, emerging from the doorway. He seemed as though he wasn’t nervous, and shook Mike’s hand firmly. "Ford would have got you first, but he missed. I hope you understand that it was nothing personal. To tell you the truth, you scared us shitless. You run like the wind, too."

Mike smiled, glad to meet someone who wasn’t afraid of him. "Do you think I was running like the wind for the fun of it?"

Meuller’s smile widened. "Paul did get you, though, if I remember correctly." he said, turning to Paul. "It was the thigh, right?"

"Yeah." Paul agreed.

"That hurt."

"Anyway, let’s see what this place looks like." Doug interrupted, giving Mike a small push.

The house was a typical half-duplex. Mike passed a laundry room and saw the back door on his right. After a small closet came the kitchen. Mike walked through it and circled around through the dining and living rooms. The house, to Mike’s mild surprise, was L-shaped. A hall led from the dining room back to the bedrooms, making the house larger than it appeared from out front. He concentrated on the living room first.

It was fully furnished in a conservative taste. A TV sat in one corner by the bay window. A couch, lounge chair, and love seat were arranged facing it. A coffee table and two end tables completed the furnishings. Each end table held a lamp in addition to the one in the ceiling.

The dining room contained a table, six chairs, and a small china cabinet. He walked back to the bedrooms next, passing a fairly large bathroom on the way.

The master bedroom was big, decorated with more of the living room’s conservatism. The queen-sized bed and night table were both only a couple of inches from the floor, as his cot had been.

"John, what’s with the beds always being so low?"

"What do you mean?" John asked from behind.

"Where I come from, most beds are mid-thigh height or so from the floor."

"That high? What if you fell out?"

"You don’t." he answered, facing him.

John looked puzzled. "Yeah, but what if you do? Doesn’t it make you nervous to be sleeping up so high?"

"Nooooo." Mike said slowly. "Well, let’s just chalk that up to being one of those things.’"

He looked in on the master bathroom, which was small but complete. "Who gets the master bedroom?"

"You’re the guest of honor."

"I guess so." Mike agreed as he peeked into the other bedrooms before heading for the kitchen. Once there, he opened the refrigerator. In addition to the usual milk, eggs, lunch meat, and so forth, a twelve-pack of beer sat on the bottom shelf.

"You weren’t kidding when you said the place was fully stocked."

"A gift. We aim to please." Steve said.

"Thanks." Mike said, rooting through the cupboards. John followed him, and again they found the usual sort of things one expects to find in the average kitchen.

"Anyone else hungry?"

"I am." John agreed, grabbing the bread and getting some bologna from the fridge. They hunted down the plates and silverware and started making sandwiches. Doug, Steve, and Paul joined them.

Mike looked at the bologna John was using. "You eat that stuff?"

"Sure, why not?"

"Do you know what they use to make it?"

John stared at him, his head tilted slightly. Mike chuckled at the sight as John read the label. "Beef and pork."

"Ah!" Mike exclaimed, smiling at his newest victim and picking up his plate, "But do you know what beef and pork?"

"What are you getting at?" John asked, his head still cocked. He picked up his sandwich and took a bite. "You’re not going to hit me with another bit of your endless wisdom, are you?"

Mike grinned wider as John chewed. "Sure it’s beef and pork; as in beef and pork skin, eyes, noses, tongues, lips..."

John stopped chewing and a mildly disgusted look invaded his features. "You’re kidding."

Mike laughed wickedly and turned away, grabbing a coke on his way into the dining room. John followed, taking a tentative bite of his sandwich. He sat across from Mike as the others joined them. Mike took a bite, looking at John and scratching his nose. He winked as John took another bite.

"Leave me alone, damn it!" John growled.

Mike laughed and stuck his tongue out.

"I hate you."

Mike decided to leave him alone and Doug spoke up. "Have you thought about what you want to do yet?"

"No. I was too busy quietly freaking out during that drive over here."

"How about my suggestion?"

"What, you mean doing pin-ups and that sort of thing?" Mike asked, thinking. "I don’t think that I’d make a very good model. Do you think anyone would buy them? Who wants a poster of a monster?"

"I think they would sell tremendously. Since it’s unlikely for you to get a job as a computer programmer, you may as well take advantage of your appearance. They don’t necessarily have to be pin-ups, either. You could advertising something. I’m sure you could probably get into magazines and commercials, too."

"Why does it have to be so impossible for me to just get a job? I’m sure the novelty will wear off sooner or later. Programming is what I’m best at, and my qualifications are more than adequate. I don’t mean to sound vain, but I’m a damn good programmer."

"It just wouldn’t work, Mike." Steve said. "If anyone took the risk of hiring you, which isn’t likely, there would be problems galore. Please forgive me for saying this, but your appearance would be highly distracting in a work environment. Also, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume that not everyone is going to be your greatest fan. If you bump into someone, it will be sexual harassment. If you get promoted, it won’t be the best man for the job, it will be the wereman."

Mike sighed. "Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should give Doug’s suggestion a try. While I’m at it, I might make it a temporary thing. I’m going to start writing as soon as I get the time. If I can come up with enough material, I would like to try to release an album. Music is my next-best talent."

"That’s an idea." Doug said. "Do you have anything you wrote before your, uh, accident?"

"I’ve got some songs that show potential. Of course, I’m going to have to write them all over again from memory. That’s not such a bad thing, though, because they need to be rewritten anyway."

"What kind of supplies will you need?" Steve asked, removing a note pad from an inside shirt pocket.

"Do you all have those things? Well anyway, herein lies our problem. Everything I own is sitting in my apartment which, at the moment, is in another universe." He paused to finish his sandwich. "It would be expensive."

"How so?"

"Writing music takes more than a pencil and paper. I need sheet music - as many reams of it as you can carry - pencils, a sharpener, and erasers. I need an electric guitar, preferably a Jackson, and everything that goes with it. I’ll also need an acoustic guitar. Several sets of strings for each, picks, an amp, foot pedals, etceteras. I’d also like a piano."

"Wow." John said.

"Okay, make me a list."

"You’re serious?"

"Are you serious about making an album? How much do you think it will all cost?"

"Quite a few hundred. I can’t make good music playing on junk."

"Whew!" Steve breathed, shaking his head.

"Look, buy them for me on loan. As I make money I’ll pay the Bureau back. I probably won’t be able to do it all at once, of course, but if this model stuff sells it shouldn’t be too long."

Steve thought for a few moments, saying nothing.

"Put it in writing, and I’ll sign it."

Steve looked up, making up his mind. "All right, we’ll do it that way. We’ll have to wait until we get your legal status in order, though."

"Legal status?"

"Don’t forget, every legal document with your name on it is back where you came from. We have a lot of paperwork we’re doing on you. You need a social security number, a driver’s license, birth certificate, and so on. If you want them, we can arrange for a couple credit cards and get you registered to vote. Technically, you’re already an American, so we aren’t going to naturalize you. I’ve already had this stuff started. We’re using the portraits from the lab for your driver’s license."

"I guess this means that you can get speeding tickets in your new Talon." John joked.

Mike leaned back and rubbed his eyes, letting the conversation sink in. "You know, when I think about it, I can’t believe what I’m doing. I’m sitting here talking about doing pin-ups for werewolves, for crying out loud! And guy werewolves at that! Writing full time? How will I get a band?" he said, becoming more and more upset. "God, I can’t stand all of this uncertainty! My life was perfect before all of this! I was madly in love and engaged to the perfect wo...person. I was so sure and secure in my life and my faith! It’s just one thing after another. What is becoming of my life?" he finished, fighting off tears of frustration.

John reached over and put a firm, furry hand on his arm. "A new life, Mike. And in spite of the way you feel now, it does have promise. A great deal of promise."

Doug motioned for the others to leave. They all got up and quickly wandered outside.

"There are going to be people here to see you through this, Mike." John continued when everyone had left. "People who care about you."

Mike regained control after a few seconds, leaning back and pulling his arm from under John’s hand. He rubbed his eyes and sniffed, chuckling self-consciously. "That didn’t take much, did it?"

"You’re under a lot of stress." Doug said reassuringly. "You’re handling this very well. Most people would be pulling their fur out by now."

Mike got up and grabbed a tissue from the kitchen, returning to his seat after blowing his nose. "I’ve cried more in the last week than the rest of my life combined; even more than when my parents died. It’s not going to solve anything. What I need to do is deal with it." he said, smiling weakly.

"That’s the spirit." John said, holding up a finger. "But I’m sure you understand that it’s always best to cry when you feel the need. That was quite a battle you just put up. Letting go will keep you from having a nervous breakdown later."

"He’s right." Doug added as he stood. "I’m going to talk to Steve. I imagine that you’re going to need some sort of manager or something. The sooner we deal with all of this footwork, the sooner you can get your life in order."

Mike watched him go, getting another tissue to blow his nose. He threw it away and started gathering dishes. John helped him carry them to the sink. Mike found some dish soap under the sink and started running water. John hunted down a dish rag.

"Mind if I dry?" he asked. "That way I won’t have to worry about my arms getting all sudsed up. I can’t seem to find any dish gloves."

"No. I hate to dry, anyway."

"So, who do you think you’ll want to advertise for? I’m sure that’ll be one of the first things your future manager is going to ask."

"Oh, I don’t know. Who do you think would be interested?"

"Good question. Why don’t you start by telling me who you won’t advertise for?"

"Ford, liquor, beer, and stuff like that."

"That leaves a lot."

"I could do Nike commercials with Michael Jordon." Mike suggested, brightening.

John picked up on his sudden good cheer. "Yeah! Do you think you could get me in to meet him?"

"Hey, we haven’t even asked yet!"

"You never can tell."

"I can’t wait to meet this manager. He’ll probably be the typical agent. Big, fat, ugly, and hanging a big cigar from the corner of his mouth."

"Ah, don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll find you someone who knows what he’s doing."

"I hope so, but it is the government doing the choosing. I still can’t believe that I’m talking about becoming a model. What a thought! What time is it, anyway?"

John put down the glass he was drying and looked at his watch. "Oh no! It’s fifteen after four! There’s a Bulls game that started at four!" He dropped the towel and bolted for the living room.

"What?" Mike said, leaving the dishes and following him. John was finding the right station as Mike plopped onto the couch. They had only missed the first couple of minutes. The Bulls were behind by a couple of points, as they usually were at the beginning of a game.

Mike stared at the screen in shock. After all he had seen, it had never occurred to him that the Chicago Bulls would be werewolves. But sure enough, there they were. After overcoming his initial surprise, he began laughing at the spectacle of werewolves playing basketball.

John looked over at him. "What’s so funny? Grant just had the ball stolen."

"I’m sorry, John. It’s just that I never thought that, well, you know." he answered, nodding at the TV.

"Oh, yeah. I imagine that it looks pretty weird to you."

"Uh-Huh."

Mike tried to identify the players by the numbers on their jerseys. He found number twenty-three. "Hey! He’s the wrong color." he said as he watched Jordon dribble up the court. Michael Jordon was mostly silver. A patch of dark gray started just below his neck and disappeared into the top of his jersey. Silver continued below the shorts. Paxson was jet black. "This is all wrong."

"What is?"

"Paxson is black. He should be white, like me. Well, off-white, anyway. Jordon should be black."

"He has black skin?" John asked, his ears perking toward Mike.

"Well, it’s actually brown. Pull back the fur on your arm."

John held out his left arm and pulled a clump of fur back with his other hand. His skin was a light shade of copper underneath.

"He’s about three shades darker than that. A little darker than this couch, I guess."

"Oh."

"Your fur’s brown there. Does your skin change color under the black?"

"Yeah." John answered, pulling his shirt away from his shoulder and showing Mike the skin underneath. The skin there was charcoal gray.

"Just how many colors do you humans come in?"

"Anything from basically white, like me, to skin so black that it almost looks purple when the light hits it right. Most fall somewhere in-between. Great! Not only do I have to look for the right werewolf, but now I have to look for the right werewolf in the wrong color."

"We’re not werewolves, you know." John said defensively.

Mike looked apologetic. "Sorry, I’ll get used to it, I promise."

John smiled, tapping his hand on the armrest. "Something’s missing. My hand feels...empty."

"Beer!" they said as one. "I’ll get it." Mike volunteered.

Doug came back in as he was getting the beer. "Feeling better?"

"Yeah. There’s a Bulls game on. Want a beer?"

"No thanks. I’ve got to call home and let them know that I’m on my way. Steve said that he can have a manager over tomorrow to talk about signing you. Supposedly, he’s one of the better ones available locally. Steve called him from the phone in the van. He said that the guy was practically drooling through the phone. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow."

"Okay, take it easy."

Doug watched as Mike bounded back into the living room, vigorously shaking what must be John’s beer. He marveled at his quick change of mood.

He picked up the phone and dialed his home number, watching as Mike handed John the shaken beer. John popped it open and sprayed it all over himself. Mike burst into laughter and Doug couldn’t stop himself from smiling. John fumbled the foaming can onto the coffee table and punched Mike, who shied away.

"I’ll get you for that!" he heard John promise as he tried to brush beer out of his pelt.

One of his daughters answered his home phone. "Hello?"

"Hi, sweetheart. I just called to let you know that I’m on my way home."

"Are you in the house with the monster? We watched you on TV. Cool!"

"Yes, I’m here with Mike, who is not a monster. He’s just a regular guy."

"He’s at the monster’s house!" he heard her yell to his son, who picked up another extension.

"What’s he doin’?" he asked.

"Right now he’s watching the Bulls and getting mildly drunk with John."

As if on cue, they both yelled and rose from the couch as Jordon slam-dunked on a fast break.

"Was that him?" Donny asked.

"Yes, son, that was him. I’ve got to go. Tell your stepdad that I’ll be home in about half-an-hour, okay?"

"Okay dad. Can we see him?"

"You saw him on the news."

"Yeah, but we wanna meet him." Sandra said.

"Maybe later. I’ll see you in a few minutes."

"Okay, bye."

"Be good." he said, hanging up. He headed out the door, calling a goodbye into the living room.

"Oh!" they both yelled as the Bulls made another play. They glanced back and waved, turning immediately back to the game. Doug thought of how funny it was that they were so much alike. He walked out to get a ride into town.

Mike was watching Jordon walk off the court at half-time. It seemed weird, but he could actually recognize the real Michael Jordon in his face. A sudden thought occurred to him as he looked at the silver and gray fur. "Hold on," he mused quietly, "If Jordon is silver and not black..."

"Go on..." John urged.

Mike thought for a few seconds, unsure of how to proceed. "What do you consider a minority? I mean, how do you tell different people apart?"

"You mean their ancestry?"

"Yeah. Take you for instance. I’m British and German. What are you?"

"African and Swiss."

"How can you tell?"

"Well, tell me how you tell, and we’ll go on from there."

"Okay, African Americans, like Jordon, are various shakes of brown. Most often, they’re referred to as ‘black.’ Like I said earlier, anything from the skin under your brown fur to jet black. People of European stock are like me, fair-skinned. Orientals have a golden, yellowish tint, and Hispanics are somewhere in-between blacks and Orientals. Of course, that’s a stereotypical description. Doesn’t your fur coloration or facial features give any indication of racial heritage?"

"Well, Orientals tend to have slightly slanted eyes, for some reason or another, but that’s about it."

"What do you consider a Caucasian?"

"Someone of European descent."

"Yet you wouldn’t know without asking."

"Right."

"But that would mean..." Mike started, his thoughts racing. "Why was the civil war fought?" he asked, taking another direction.

"Slavery, mostly."

"Where did they get most of the slaves?"

"Africa."

"So, after slavery was abolished, how did anyone know if someone had been a slave, or the child of a slave?"

"I guess they would have had to ask."

"Are you saying that the descendants of the slaves had no problems melding into society?"

"Well, at first they did. but after that, it wasn’t a problem. After a while no one could say who had or hadn’t been a slave, and their kids lost the stigma after a few generations."

Mike sighed, blowing out his cheeks. Could this be real? No discrimination? No civil rights movement? How could history here be even remotely like his own without the civil rights movement ever happening?

"Have you ever heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?"

John thought for a few moments. Actually thought. "Not that I remember. Who is he?"

"Oh boy." Mike said, rubbing his forehead. Doing the best he could, he told John about racial discrimination back home, and the treatment blacks had received throughout the decades. John’s eyes looked as if they were ready to pop out of his head, and his ears started folding back. "You mean to tell me that I’d be looked down upon, even today?"

"In your case, it could even be worse with the right people. Being of mixed descent would brand you a half-breed. Your parents, especially the African one, would have been looked down upon. A lot of whites resent it when a black person marries a Caucasian. I think it’s a childish way to think, myself. I like to think that people like them are a minority. I hope they are, even though it doesn’t really matter too much to me anymore."

"I can’t believe it!" John exclaimed, pinning his ears back completely. The fur on his shoulders began to rise. "You people discriminate against Africans now?"

"Hey, relax! I’m not talking about me! And believe me, it’s a whole lot better than it was thirty years ago."

"That was nineteen sixty! Why? What’s so bad about being of African descent? People are people! We’ve felt that way since the war was over!"

John was obviously very offended, but Mike pushed on. "Do you think people would feel that way if you knew who the descendants of the slaves were?"

"Why wouldn’t we?"

"Because slaves were uneducated and misunderstood. They worked in the fields all day and got nothing but lousy food, mediocre shelter, and beatings for it. When they were set free, God bless Abe Lincoln, they were still unschooled. People thought, and thought wrongly, that they were unclean and barbaric. That was their own fault, because they didn’t go out of their way to make life for their slaves clean and healthy; and they made no attempt to understand their culture. The slaves brought their culture over with them, and so-called civilized Americans didn’t comprehend them. The slaves had to fight their way into society."

"It’s so easy, you see, for us to recognize African Americans. All we have to do is look at them and see the color of their skin. I don’t mean to put your society down, but I think that things would be very much the same here if people could look at you and know immediately that you were the descendent of a slave. You said that after a couple of generations, nobody know who was related to a slave and who was not. That made it easy for you. If someone was descended from a slave and said that they weren’t, who would know?"

John thought that over, moving his ears up slightly. After a few seconds, he spoke. "I see what you’re saying, but I don’t see people hating them. I’d like to think that they would help them out."

"Come on, John." Mike said with a disapproving glance. "I think you’re putting a little too much faith in human, um, wolven nature. I’d love to think that they would have helped them out back then, but it didn’t happen that way."

"I guess so."

"Have you ever heard of affirmative action?"

"Yeah, it’s an anti-discrimination law."

"For who?"

"Immigrants, mostly. A lot of people resent people who immigrate to America and take jobs that they could have had. The government set up a quota system, or something like that."

"It doesn’t apply to African Americans?"

"No. Nobody knows who is one until they ask, and it’s not a part of most job applications. With all the cross-breeding over the years, it’s hard to say who is African and who isn’t. Who cares, anyway? It’s a wonder that my mother was a full African. Tell me," he continued, "Since you’re used to judging people that way, what did you think I was when you met me?"

"I don’t judge people that way. I judge individuals, and I thought you were a monster."

"Be serious."

"I haven’t thought about it. Like you said, there’s no real way to tell with you. Because you’re so different, it never occurred to me to wonder. It wouldn’t have affected my opinion, anyway."

"Yeah, but did you have any idea that I was part African?"

"No."

"What would you have thought if I was black, like Paxson? Would you have assumed that I was African? You acted surprised when you saw him."

"No. I don’t look at you as if you were human, so color wouldn’t have meant anything to me. It still doesn’t mean anything to me."

Half-time ended, and they turned their attention to the game.

"So, what do you think of me now?" John asked during a commercial.

"I think you’re worrying over nothing. I said that I’m not prejudiced."

"Just checking."

"I don’t think of you as black, white, or orange, if that’s what you mean. I think of you as a furry, fangy, claw-handed guy whom I hope doesn’t have fleas."

"Fleas!" John exclaimed with feigned anger. "I take a shower every other day, thank you!"

"Just checking." Mike said, turning back to the game. The Bulls won, barely. They relaxed after the final tense moments were over, finishing their beers. Twelve empty cans littered the coffee table.

"I’m buzzing like a bee." Mike said, chuckling in spite of his attempt not to.

"I’m fine. It takes a lot of beer to get me drunk. I didn’t always live such a clean life."

"I don’t drink that often. I’m maybe a little drunk."

"Well, if I’m moving in, I might as well go home and get a suitcase packed for the next couple of days. I don’t have anything here."

"Are you sure you’re okay to drive?" Mike asked suspiciously.

"Yeah, I’m fine."

"I hope you’re not lying to me. If you feel the slightest bit buzzed, don’t go. Did I tell you how my parents died? A drunk driver broadsided them. He was doing about eighty-five in a fifty zone. If I find out that you lied to me, I’ll beat the fur off your ass."

Mike’s conviction was self-evident and John felt for him. He couldn’t imagine what he’d do if he found out that his parents had been killed that way. He didn’t blame him for getting mad. Nonetheless, he wasn’t lying. "No, you didn’t tell me, and I’m sorry. I had no idea. I promise, I’m fine."

"All right." Mike acquiesced. "I’ll be here."

John left, hitching a ride downtown to get his car. Mike walked to the bay window and looked out over the yard. One of the guards was leaning on the front fence, eyeing one of the press vans unwaveringly. Another guard stood beside him, facing the other way. Apparently, the van wasn’t going to leave any time soon. They were, however, smart enough to stay at a discreet distance.

Across the street, about fifty yards to his right, was another house. Two wolves were sitting on the front porch, talking and watching his house. One of them pointed when he noticed Mike silhouetted in the window.

Mike smiled and waved. They both waved back. He left the window and walked to the coffee table, picking up beer cans. He carried them into the kitchen and threw them away, grabbing one of the remaining cans from the refrigerator. He popped it open and took a sip as he walked back into the living room, chiding himself for snapping at John. He knew that he was overly sensitive about drinking and driving, but he had no intention of changing. He had a good reason for the way he felt, and he was right.

He grabbed the remote control and flipped through the channels until he found MTV. Al B. Sure! was on. It offered Mike his first view of dancing werewolves, and he laughed as he watched them.

As he had noticed with Jordon, Al B. Sure! was eerily recognizable.

Paul came walking in from the back yard, and Mike turned to look at him, his head spinning. "Hey, what’s up?"

"Not much, I just got relieved. You wouldn’t believe all the cameras they have pointed at this place."

Mike burped. "I saw the van parked down the road."

"That’s not all. There are portable camera crews all over the place. I think they’re running shifts so they don’t miss anything."

"Just as long as they’re quiet."

"We’re not letting them get close enough to make any noise." Paul assured him, sitting on the love seat. "You’re looking pretty drunk."

"Who, me?" Mike asked with a giggle.

They watched videos for a while. Mike was mesmerized watching familiar videos being acted out by werewolves. He was surprised by the number of bands that he didn’t recognize. There were at least four rock bands he had never heard of before. Three of them were obviously very successful. A band he knew was in the top twenty never appeared.

He flipped through some more and stopped at an aerobics show. Within moments he was laughing himself silly, soon bringing a loud growl from Paul.

He had been learning about growls and such things by observing the people he knew and the TV. Quiet, low-key growls, snorts, and woofs were a good thing, used instinctively to express pleasure, approval, or affection. Sexually aroused men on a few shows he had glanced at were growling constantly. All were a constant, integral part of communication. Things get worse as growl volume rises, usually accompanied by folded-back ears and raised hackles. When feeling frustration, as with Mike when he became vague or uncooperative, they tended to emit a short, loud snort or huff.

Paul cut off his growl with one of those snorts, glaring at Mike with his ears folded part way back.

"I’m sorry." Mike said honestly. "I really have a lot to get used to."

"The quicker you stop laughing at us, the better."

"I know. I’m sorry."

John returned about an hour and a half after he had left, carrying a large suitcase. "I’ve got a surprise for you."

"What?" Mike asked, getting up.

"Stay here." John answered, going back out to the driveway. He returned a few seconds later carrying an acoustic guitar.

"Where did you get this? It’s not bad." Mike asked as he took it from him. John handed him a pick from his other hand.

"My neighbor plays a little. I asked him if I could borrow it for a few days. He’s got a broken arm and can’t play. I told him it was for you and he practically threw it at me. I’d like to have it back to him in two or three days, if you don’t mind."

"No, of course not. Thanks a lot." Mike said, giving him a slap on the shoulder. He sat on the lounge chair, strumming it experimentally. "Ugh! Does he know how to tune this?"

He sat back and began hand-tuning it. In a few minutes he had it sounding right. By then, most of the off-duty guards had wandered in.

"Oh! I almost forgot." John said, running back out to his car. He came back with a case of beer and tossed one to Mike.

"You trying to get me drunk?"

"Who, me?" John asked in exaggerated disbelief. "Besides, you’re already drunk."

Mike took a swallow as John passed beer around to the guards and took the case into the kitchen. He began strumming the opening to Loves Me Like A Rock. "Who’s going to sing along?"

No one looked interested.

"Come on, loosen up! Everybody knows this song. You guys gotta live a little. Didn’t any of you go to college?"

A few mumbled ‘yes’s’ came back.

"Well, everyone does this in college, right? So lighten up, slam down some beer, and let’s go."

"All the beer you can drink for anyone who sings along. I’m in." John said to help out. "Who knows, a bunch of drunken fools just might have a little fun."

John had to swear on his life that the beer would keep coming before three of them finally agreed. The other two had to go home to their families. Mike started singing and everyone joined in, singing back-up.

"I like your voice." John said to Mike. "It’s different."

"You’re interrupting the song." Mike said, repeating the current stanza.

Everyone but Mike was hesitant at first, but loosened up after a few beers. Soon they were all laughing more than they were singing, especially after Mike tried to play My Ding-A-Ling. They laughed, choked, and drank their way through it after several stops to catch their collective breath. After about an hour they were all pretty sauced, and Mike had to give up on the guitar. He couldn’t hit two right notes in a row.

The guards indicated that it was time for them to go home. Mike told them in no uncertain terms that they were welcome to leave after they had sobered up, or after they found someone to drive them. John advised them not to argue and they went downstairs to watch TV in the den. Mike picked the guitar back up and picked at it absently.

"I haven’t done that in years."

"Neither have I." John said, flopping onto the couch. "Now I am drunk."

"You guys sound like a chorus of falling rock."

"We weren’t that bad, were we?"

"No, I’m just kidding. You do have a deep voice, though."

"It’s a manly voice!" John declared with a flourish.

"Speaking of voices, are there any female celebrities? You know, pop stars or anything like that? Doug did say that they live once in a while. I hardly think they’d be secretaries."

"Only a couple that I know of. Do you have a band called Heart where you come from?"

"Yeah, Ann and Nancy Wilson."

"Right. Neither of them ever got pregnant. As for their voices, they definitely sound like no one else. Oh, there’s a famous actress or two."

"What are their songs like lyrically? I doubt that they would sing about anything intimate, being women in your society."

"Believe it or not, they sing about the same things men do. Of course, they only go so far. The rest of the band are guys, so you could consider it singing in the third person."

"Can I ask you a delicate question?"

"Sure." John said, rolling onto his back.

"I know there aren’t a lot of adult females, but do they, you know, have any sex drive?"

"No. They lose that after puberty."

"Oh."

"You weren’t thinking..."

"No, I wasn’t. But now that you mention it..."

"Hey! Enough of that!" John said, shuddering. "You could probably get arrested just for thinking it."

"I’m kidding! Relax!" Mike said quickly, laughing as his head spun. He had entirely too much to drink. "I wish the room would hold still."

"You know, they say that sex is a good cure for over-indulgence." John provided with a wink.

Mike did a double-take. "You were trying to get me drunk!"

"Was not!" John countered.

"Was too." Mike said smugly, crossing his arms.

"Was not."

"Was too."

"Was not."

"Was too a million times."

"Damn it!"

"I win." Mike said, casting his gaze at the ceiling.

"Did not."

"Did too."

"Did...damn it! You know I wouldn’t take advantage of you. I know we have to take this slowly."

"Assuming something?"

John blinked, the alcohol slowing his thoughts. He blushed when he realized what he had said. "No, of course not. I mean..."

Mike waved him off. "Sorry I brought it up. But then again, if it was anybody..." He stopped himself, realizing that he had gone too far again. Damn this beer! Time to change the subject. "I wonder what this manager Steve found me is going to have to say in the morning."

John let it drop. "My guess is that he’ll want to find out what kind of things you want to do. He’ll have some ideas of his own, I’m sure. From what Doug said, the guy was bananas. He’ll probably have a lawyer and a contract with him when he gets here."

"Just as long as he doesn’t expect me to do porno." Mike said, pointing below his waist. "This stays covered."

John laughed, shaking his head and rolling onto his side. "I doubt he’ll want to go that far. I bet it would sell magazines, though. I’d buy one."

"Of course you would. You’re a satyr. I guess they might sell. I don’t know."

"You still don’t believe that you’re attractive, do you?"

"Not really. I’m used to being thoroughly average."

"Here’s something I haven’t thought to ask;" John began, sitting up and twitching his ears. "What do you think of us?"

"I wish I had an easy answer to that." Mike said, trying to collect his thoughts. The beer was making it difficult, and he didn’t want to say something he would regret.

"Handsome? Ugly? Monstrous? Exotic?"

Better tread lightly, Tonto. "Well, tell me this; how do you see yourself?"

"What do you mean?"

"On a scale of one to ten, how do you think you rate?"

John grinned sheepishly. "I don’t know."

"Come on, everyone has an opinion of themselves. I think that, as a human, I’m fairly good looking. Give me something to work with."

"Okay, if you insist. I guess I’m pretty good looking. I’m not going to break hearts at first glance, but I don’t think I’m ugly. I keep in shape, too."

"Yeah, I noticed." Mike mused. This was going to be hard, and he knew that John wasn’t going to let him slip out of it.

"Well?"

An easy out popped to mind in the nick of time and he ran with it. "Do you remember what Doug said about physical presence and that sort of thing? I guess it’s about the same way with you."

"Yeah, but how do we look?"

"I’m trying not to judge your appearance in human terms."

"How do we look by human standards?" John asked with a loud burp.

"That isn’t really a factor, is it?"

"Sure, if that’s the basis of your opinion. I admit that I judge your looks that way. I can’t help it; the differences are too obvious to overlook. I will say this, though; I see you as a person, not as a wolf in a costume or a monster."

"I don’t know how to answer without insulting you."

"Why?"

"Well, hell," Mike sighed, trying to phrase his answer carefully, "You look, I don’t know, like..."

"What? Monsters?"

Mike shook his head.

"Aliens?"

"No."

"Animals?"

Mike blew it. He had reacted to that last suggestion, and John couldn’t help but notice.

"That’s it, isn’t it?" he asked, anger creeping into this voice. His hackles started raising. "You think we’re animals."

So much for my easy out, Mike thought. He tried to regroup. He genuinely liked John, and he didn’t want to insult him. John was the only friend he had. "No!" he said vehemently. "Not...quite. I mean, I know you’re not animals, but it’s hard for me not to perceive you that way. I’m getting better, believe me; but, well, don’t you see that in yourselves? Every time you see a picture of a wolf, I mean lupe, don’t you see the resemblance? Can’t you see how this could be hard for me?"

"Talking lupes! That’s what we are to you." John said angrily, standing unsteadily and walking toward the hallway. Mike got up and rushed over to him. Grabbing an arm, he swung John around to face him.

"John, look at me! John, you’re the only friend I have! I don’t want you to start hating me over something petty like this."

"Petty!"

"Look, I’m trying to adjust to this. You’re putting words in my mouth. I hate that! I know you’re not animals. I know that you have intelligence, souls, and feelings. The fact that yours were just hurt proves that."

John’s expression softened and his ears and hackles returned to their normal positions. Mike almost giggled as the short whiskers on his snout moved forward.

"Listen," Mike continued with a soft sigh, "I’m not very good at putting my thoughts into words. What I said was, I don’t know, a verbal rough draft. The thoughts behind what I said are much more complex. I can’t just say that you remind me of a lupe and leave it at that. I don’t know what to say." He let go of John’s arm and looked at the furry, sandaled feet. "I don’t know how to say what I feel."

John clasped his upper arms lightly. "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten mad. I keep forgetting that this is a lot harder for you than any of us. As a matter of fact, we don’t waste our time denying that we resemble lupes. It just sounded wrong coming from you. I was way out of line."

Mike looked back up. "I should be the one to say I’m sorry. I guess I was a little insensitive. Truce?"

"Truce." John agreed as an odd, familiar look crept onto his face. His furry head moved forward ever so slightly.

Mike knew what was coming, and looked back down quickly. His vision spun again and he back away, casting for something to say. John let go and dropped his arms.

"I know it’s early, but I think I better go to bed. I’m still drunk, and being hung over probably wouldn’t sit too well with my future manager." Mike said, walking over to the love seat and picking up the guitar.

John was still standing where he had left him. "Mike, I need to tell you something. Since I’ve..."

"Don’t, John." Mike said, interrupting him.

"But I want to tell you..."

"Don’t say anything." he interrupted again, moving past him toward the bedrooms. "I’m too drunk and I’m not thinking. Just...let it go."

John watched him disappear into the master bedroom, the door closing softly behind him. He sighed, walked over to the couch, and sat down with a huff.

He mentally slapped himself. He had just been about to tell Mike that he was starting to feel a little more than friendship.

Damn it, he knew it was too soon for that! He knew that Mike could not possible be ready for that yet, even if the feelings might one day be mutual. All of that beer had made him forsake caution and force Mike into a situation he couldn’t deal with. He had actually tried to kiss him!

I had never occurred to him that he was the only real friend Mike had. Aside from being a generation older, Doug was too clinically detached to be considered a friend. It suddenly became clear just how important their friendship was to Mike. At the moment, John was the only constant in his life.

He made a silent vow to do nothing more to jeopardize that, following with a short prayer. That done, he picked up the remote control and flipped through the channels for a few minutes. He found nothing worth watching and was having trouble focusing anyway. Eventually, he rose and went to bed, trying to ignore his sudden arousal.