Writers Note: Sorry friends, but this one is much longer. 5,000 words? Sheesh. But I felt it all had to go together. Troy's fantasies still don't get realized, but maybe now that some secrets are out and some walls are scaled, things can progress in a more...intimate manner. Hope you enjoy and thanks for reading.
He walked happily behind Shadow as they made their way further into the thick batch of evergreens, trusting that Shadow really did know where they were going. The branches bowed so low over the seldom trodden path that the soft needles of the trees brushed occasionally against the tips of their ears and the sides of their muzzles. You could barely see fifty paces in any direction. The forest was so enveloping that there wasn't a hint of snow on the nearby branches or anywhere on the hard packed ground. The ancient trees blocked the cold December breeze so effectively that it almost felt like early fall again.
"Man, I can't believe you found a place like this next to such a busy school." Troy said as he looked around, appreciating how the sun filtering through the trees seemed to cast everything into a perpetual twilight.
"This park..." Shadow began, pausing to take a quick drink of water from his canteen, "Is way older than the school. It used to part of a forest that stretched for hundreds and hundreds of miles before larger cities and towns started carving it up with roads or, like the college, sectioning off parts that fell within their borders for their own use."
"There are even some places where you can see evidence of the ancient wolf, panther, and bear tribes that used hunt through these lands" Shadow continued, stepping lightly over a batch of snarled tree roots that had risen up in the middle of the path.
Troy's ears perked up at that. "Are there any spots like that near here?" he asked, looking around as if he might see an age old hunting spear or obsidian axe lodged into one of the nearby pines.
"No, not near where we'll be staying. Maybe when the weather gets a bit warmer, and if you don't mind a walk that takes the better part of three hours, I'll show you one of the sites I've seen." Shadow said, pausing to lean against an old tree that had fallen partially sideways against another. He seemed a little winded to Troy.
"You want to take a break for a minute?" Troy asked, concerned. Maybe Shadow shouldn't be pushing himself. Shadow looked back at him a little sharply, then straightened his back and began continuing on.
"No," Shadow said, "I'm fine. I'm not dead yet." His step faltered a little at that and he cast a quick glance back at Troy, who only stared back at him. "C'mon, we're only a few minutes away." He said, pushing forward briskly through the branches.
The rest of the walk was done without further conversation. The surrounding area was quiet as a tomb; the only distinguishable sounds were the creaking of tree limbs, the hushed passing of the wind high above and the slight rattle the gear in their packs made as they penetrated deeper into the ancient woods. As majestic as it all was, Troy also found it ever so oppressive. It was as if row after row of the tough, weather beaten trees were a collection of silent, judging guardians. He could understand well now why so many old scary stories started in dark, empty forests. Forests were scary!
Eventually, the nearly overgrown path began angling slightly upwards and the close press of the trees began to finally break a part. "Well, there it is." Shadow said suddenly, stopping to point forward.Troy walked forward and stood next to Shadow, looking to where he pointed. Just ahead, a small depression snaked away a little north and south before being covered up by trees and underbrush.
Nestled on the far side was a gargantuan boulder, about the size of a two story building. Its backside was embedded in a grass covered hill, while its northern face was pitted and scarred by the countless storms of long ago ages. A few inches of white snow on the top gave the formation the appearance of an unfathomably old face, gazing eternally northward.
"Amazing!" Troy exclaimed. He was awestruck by the massive sight and could do nothing but gaze at its immutable presence for a long moment. When he finally looked away he noticed that the surrounding area about the stone was an impressive scene as well. The tight formation of the forest cleared to just a dozen small trees near the boulder, with tall grass and scrub plants covering the ground. Without the thick press of evergreens blocking the weather, a thin layer of snow had managed to cover the ground in between the trees; its sparkling appearance in the mid-afternoon light gave the appearance that the whole area had been sprinkled with precious metals.
Troy's breath caught as he noticed that one of the trees nearest the rock formation had a collection of Winter Jasmine growing up its side. Managing to bloom despite the late season, the yellow flower blossoms looked like tiny spheres of gold, glittering from afar. It was all too beautiful for Troy to express properly.
Further on, the trees closed ranks again; like eternal sentinels blocking the unworthy from this sacred place. When he was at last able to speak again, Troy asked "where will we be staying though?" looking around.
"We'll be staying down there." Shadow answered pointing at the boulder again. "Take a closer look."
Troy did so and this time noticed that at the foot of the rock formation, an angular space seemed to have been carved into its side, flat on the bottom and steeped like a rooftop above. "In there?" He asked gesturing at the space.
"Yeah." Shadow said with a short nod. "This used to be an old riverbed, the water must've worn away the rock there; but some kind of landslide farther up blocked it off a long, long time ago. It only fills up with water now during the spring snowmelt."
He scratched the back of his head, "I found it on my third day of exploring this park and I've been coming here off and on ever since."Shadow shrugged his shoulders a little self consciously, "It's kind of been...my special...place. Or retreat or whatever."
Troy looked over at Shadow and smiled. "Cool. Let's go down."As they descended into the ancient water way and approached the base of the rock, Troy pulled his dark green windbreaker jacket closer against his body. The winter breeze was more prevalent here than back in the confining forest, unfortunately.
When they finally reached the formation, Troy was again struck by its sheer size. He also felt that the rock seemed to have a stubborn sense about it; as if it had no need or desire to acknowledge the passing of time. Troy found it very compelling. Feeling dwarfed by the enormous thing, he examined the cavity where they'd be sleeping. It was a full four heads taller than him at its widest point and narrowed only slightly a dozen paces into the stone. There was easily enough room to stand in or set up a fair sized tent.
"I don't get it." Troy said, shaking his head and running the tips of his paws over the surprisingly smooth ceiling. "It took us, what? Maybe an hour and forty minutes to get here? How come no else has ever seen this place?"
Shadow shrugged one shoulder. "I don't know," he replied, "I guess most of the people in town prefer going around the established areas the school has built and maintained over the years. It's probably safer back there as well, I'd guess. You can still get turned around out here pretty bad, even this close to the edge of the park."
Troy turned and looked at him. "That doesn't seem to bother you much, though." He said. Shadow just turned around and said nonchalantly, "No one really who'd want to come looking for me anyway." Troy frowned a little, wondering what Shadow meant by that.
Shadow shrugged off his pack at the entrance and unclipped the rolled up tent that had been attached. "Here," he said, nudging the tent with his foot paw. "Set this up. I know where there's some firewood nearby. It's going to get really cold in a few hours." Then, Shadow turned and climbed up the side of the embankment and out of view.
Troy watched Shadows black tail disappear into the trees, then bent and picked up the tent. Holding it made him remember his main purpose to this whole trip, and caused some of his nervousness to reestablish in his chest. Gods, he liked Shadow. Really liked him. If things went badly, things like this trip would certainly cease. Things would get awkward and terrible until they just stopped speaking altogether. Wasn't it better to just keep things as they were, to enjoy Shadows presence to the extent that he was able? Wasn't that the smart thing to do?
The longing in his heart warred against the practicality of his mind. He went about setting up the tent near a black mark on the ground, close to the wall of the rock where he could see Shadow had set up his camp before. "I should at least have the courage to tell him that I'm gay." He thought as he unfolded the tent poles and fit them together. "He's going to find out eventually anyway. And besides, it's not as if it's a horrible secret or anything." He just wished he could know how Shadow would react to it. Almost all of his closest friends and family from before had turned on him instantly when he'd told them. He had thought then that he had known them better too. "That was a long time ago. Besides, it's not as if you're going to be like 'oh, hey, I think I'm falling in love with you' and start humping him like crazy then and there." He chided himself.
The image that sprang unbidden to his mind had him staring blankly at the ground for a full two minutes.
Shadow walked around the remains of the incredibly large, old tree. It must've fallen over a while ago from some kind of storm, or maybe its own titanic weight had finally been too much for its own roots. Whatever the reason, Shadow was glad of it. This tree had provided steady fuel for him the last few times he'd come here.
Looking around, he breathed deeply. He really loved this place. It had helped bring him closer to happiness than he had been the last decade or so of his life. Certainly the closest he'd been since his parents had died. Maybe he should arrange to have himself buried here, instead of next to them back home. They'd understand, wouldn't they?
He chuffed, ears going flat. Best not to think of that right at this moment. He was supposed to be having a fun trip with his friend. He may not have a whole lot of time, but he had some. He should try to enjoy at least a small portion of it, despite the fact that part of the reason he had wanted to come out here was to tell Troy what was going on. This was just the only place he felt he might have the determination to put into words the painful and tumultuous jumble of emotions he'd dealt with every day since his last visit to the hospital in September. Probably even longer than that.
He finally reached the spot on the side of the tree where the tough, old bark had begun to rotten and become soft; spilling bright, cylindrical chunks of wood in a sloping pile. The stuff on the top was damp from snow, but underneath was a good amount of usable material for kindling. He grabbed about four pawfuls and put them in the large pocket of his faded red, heavy winter jacket. Then he walked up near the top of the tree and began tearing off some of the medium sized limbs he could reach. He took five that he held over one shoulder and decided that would be enough for now. He'd head back with the hatchet a little bit before dark to get some of the bigger ones to last them through the evening. Shadow began walking back to camp, his thoughts inevitably pulled back to the dismal prospects of his future.
Troy finished putting up the tent and put the rest of the gear inside. He felt a little guilty looking at it. He could easily have afforded to buy his own tent, but when Shadow had mentioned that he had one already and suggested that they just share it...well, lesser minds within him had prevailed at that moment. In exchange, he had offered to buy all the food needed for the trip. Shadow had suggested mostly small kinds of *meats they could put into a stew, saying that was easy to make and, more importantly, easy to pack.
Turning around, he spotted Shadow coming back down the embankment with the firewood. "This should last us a little bit." Shadow said as he reached their camp, dropping the wood on the ground."Great!" Troy said. "We're pretty much set up here." He cocked his head to the right a little, "So now what should we do?"
"Follow me." Shadow said turning and following the riverbeds northerly direction, "there are a few other interesting things I can show you about this place."
The next couple of hours were spent following Shadow around the nearby area, touring the unique features he had uncovered over his trips here. Shadow showed him a half buried log so old, it seemed to have become petrified. He pointed out some places around the riverbed that had some noticeable deposits of glittering Fools Gold. They gazed at a gnarled, blackened old tree that despite appearing to have been through a fire and maybe more than a few lightning strikes, Still bore some valiantly struggling needles on a few of its branches. There was a small hole on one side of the embankment that Shadow said he suspected was the winter home of one of the larger species of mountainous scorpions.
Troy was peering into that small, dark space thinking squeamish thoughts of crawling legs finding their way into their tent somehow, when a spot of snow fell from one of the branches above to land on his nose. He let out an only slightly feminine yelp and danced back, paws swatting away the swarm of menacing creatures he briefly imagined to have surged toward his face.
Panting slightly, he chuffed and glared at the stupid hole. Then he noticed an odd sound beside him. Troy turned and saw Shadow sitting down on a rock, head bowed downward with his paws over his eyes. His shoulders were shaking. Troy was concerned at first, but then saw......that Shadow was... laughing at him! Laughing!
Troy frowned and said "I don't think there's anything in there, anyway."
Shadow uncovered his eyes and looked up long enough to see the expression on Troy's face, then doubled over, howling his amusement. Struggling for breath he said "Y...you were all... 'Yip!' an..and then..." his paws made furious swatting motions while he took on a look of exaggerated horror in his features.
"Are you quite done?" Troy asked, a large grin beginning to spread on his own face. Shadows humor was infectious, and the fact that he couldn't remember Shadow ever genuinely laugh at anything before caused a warm feeling to stir in Troy's chest.
"Y...yeah. I think so." Shadow answered, hiccupping a bit as he tried to stop his mirth. "Let's...let's go back to camp now." He got up and began walking in the direction of their tent. "Don't worry, I checked it for deadly scorpions..." Shadow said, chuckling some more.
Troy picked up some snow out of a nearby pile and flung it at Shadows back, their laughter echoing around the silent trees.They made their way back to their camp, the sun beginning to lower and blanket their surroundings in vivid red and gold shades. As long as they stuck to the old riverbed they could see the sky for the most part. There didn't appear to be any clouds at all and Troy eagerly anticipated what they would see in the night time sky way out here.
As the mound of stone that marked their camp came into view, Shadow said "Hurry, there's one more thing you should see today. It's probably my favorite part." He then increased the pace a little until they were at the foot of the grass covered hilly side of the old boulder.
"C'mon, hurry." Shadow said again and began climbing his way up to the top of the mound. Troy did so, wondering what was at the top.When Troy managed to join Shadow above, he found Shadow sitting cross legged and gazing at toward the setting sun. Troy turned and looked the same direction, wondering.
He thought his heart might stop from the brilliant image he beheld.
From their vantage on top of the boulder, they could see over the tops of most but the tallest trees for a fairly good distance. As the trees swayed gently and peacefully from the passing breeze, the snow on their tips sparkled and shined like fine jewels with every shift of reflected light. The sun was a vibrant red orange that lit up the horizon, but on the ground a darkening purple hue began taking hold as the trees blocked more and more of the fading beams. Troy was sitting next to Shadow, mesmerized as he stared at the slowly darkening horizon for a long time.
"Incredible..." Was all Troy could say, as he took it all in. Without any further speaking, they both just sat and witnessed the days ending. Finally, when the first few stars began to display their twinkling presences, Troy was startled slightly when Shadow began speaking.
He spoke as if he were hardly aware that Troy was there at all, his eyes gazing unknowably far away and his voice only just above a whisper.
"When I sit up here and watch the sun set, I sometimes think how much we take its light for granted. When it's high above, we hardly notice it, even wish it would it would go by faster sometimes. It's odd that it is only in its last moments, when it shines so clearly and beautifully that your heart breaks and soul weeps, do we finally notice how precious it actually is. And how little of it we were able to enjoy before it faded away."
Troy looked at Shadow in slight astonishment. He had never heard him talk like this before.
Shadow continued, gazing unblinkingly westward as the sky continued to darken; "I think 'if only it looked this beautiful all the time, we wouldn't have wasted all the time we had with it.' But that's the cruel irony of it all isn't it? The horrible joke we play on ourselves. We never understand the true worth of what we have right in front of us, until those last few seconds before it's gone forever."
Troy watched Shadow in utter amazement as he saw his friends' tears roll down the sides of his muzzle, to land soundlessly on the stone beneath them, his voice becoming more tinged with pain and sorrow.
"And sometimes, we're not even that lucky. That last crucial, beautiful moment passes us by, unnoticed, until we finally realize that what was so precious and finite is never coming back. Ever. That all we have left is pale memories and the pain of having something so wonderful slip through our grasp without a second thought."
At that moment, Shadows wristwatch began buzzing; signaling the need for him to take his medicine. With a shredding, violent growl deep within his chest, Shadow suddenly stood and ripped it free from his arm; flinging it as hard as he was able into the darkening forest. He followed it with a loud bellow Troy could never have believed anyone could make. A terrible blend of a howl and an incredibly raw snarl, it sounded somewhat like the roar of lion except with a piercing quality that gripped Troy's insides. All he could do was stare.
After a few seconds, Shadow simply slumped to his paws and knees, panting after his exertion. "The biggest laugh of it all..." He said with a spiteful chuckle, his voice cracking slightly. "Is that I know I earned this. Everything that's happened in my life; couldn't have fallen on a more deserving head." And with that, Shadow said nothing more. He just kneeled with his head down as the cold night sky began to quickly blossom with shining stars.
After two or three eternally long minutes, Troy spoke. "Shadow?" No response. "Shadow, c'mon. It's getting cold. Let's start up the fire and you can tell me what's going on. You need to take your meds too. Okay?"
Troy got up and put his left paw on Shadows chest, the other gripping under his arm and helping him stand. "Okay?" Troy repeated. Shadow simply nodded, and they carefully made their way back down the hill.
For a little while, neither of them said anything. Shadow built up the fire and Troy prepared a small stew with bits of steak in it. Shadow swallowed a pill from his tin and sat back as Troy put the large handled pot into the fire. When it was done cooking, they ate in silence and watched the dance of the twisting flames about the wood, each apparently in their own thoughts.Shadow snuck a few quick glances at Troy. He hadn't meant to freak out like that, damn it.
The sunset had just been so beautiful, and he had actually been having such a good time with Troy, that when the thought "This will probably be the happiest moment of your life" had come to him, he'd lost all control.
He went into the tent and retrieved his spare watch from his pack, strapping it onto its familiar place on his wrist.Troy looked up at him as he sat back at the fire. He looked very uncomfortable. Great.
"So..." Troy began, "You...want to talk to me? About anything?"
Shadow sighed, rubbing his eyes and muzzle. "Look, I'm sorry about earlier...I just...I don't know what happened. Things have been tough." He shook his head. "Normally, I can handle things and not bother people with my issues. Sorry."
Troy got up and moved over next to Shadow. "Hey, stop apologizing okay?" He said. "You're just about my most favorite person ever. And obviously something is wrong that I haven't clued in on at all. Just talk to me and let me know what I can do to help. Even if it's only just listening to you tell me."
Shadow felt his eyes sting at those words, but he breathed deeply and controlled himself. Hadn't he bawled in front of Troy like a cub more than enough?
"Okay." He said.So, he told Troy everything. Deciding to start where he believed his life; his real, normal life, had ended and this sad imitation of an existence had begun to form. He knew it was somewhat rushed, but he feared if he went into more detail that he'd fall to pieces again.
When he was fourteen years old, his relationship with his parents had started getting strained. He was willful and stubborn and had decided he didn't like listening to them anymore about damn near anything. They had constant arguments erupt over various petty things for a few months until the day before his fifteenth birthday, they'd had one to beat them all. Shadow couldn't even remember what it was about anymore, it was so stupid. He just remembered the yelling and the desperate attempt of his parents to get through to him.
The one thing he'll never forget, however, was that night. He was sitting on the couch watching T.V. when his mother came in the room and said that she and dad were going to go look around for his birthday present, and was there anything specific he would like them to keep in mind?
Shadow remembered, to his forever damning regret, turning around and snarling "Nothing. Especially if it's from you!" He told how the image of her faltering smile still haunted his dreams at night. She had obviously been trying to patch things up. And he might as well have stuck a knife through her heart for all the notice he gave her.
They had left, and he'd spent the night alone; brooding and thinking what an awful life he had. His parents didn't come back for a long time. Shadow, starting to get hungry, wondered what was taking them so long. He decided to forget them and grabbed a bunch of illicit treats out of the cupboard, stuffing himself and then going upstairs to sleep.
That morning, there was a knock on the front door. When Shadow finally stumbled downstairs and opened it, he found an official looking female fox and a couple of police dogs outside. They told him that his parents had been killed last night in the parking lot of one of the late night strip malls.
They weren't sure if there was any foul play, it seemed it might have been a simple hit and run. They asked him if he had any other family. He didn't, so they took him to a special holding place for cubs while they found a place for him to live.
He had some crackers and a cup of water for his birthday dinner that night.
From then on, Shadow migrated between different foster homes. He became more and more unmanageable as time passed, angry and bitter at everyone he met. His foster families often put up with it for a time because of what had happened to him, but they eventually couldn't take it and would get rid of him.
One foster parent had thought to enroll him in martial arts, thinking it would help curb his aggression. It turned out to be the biggest mistake. Shadow was almost instantaneously adept at fighting and had used his knowledge to bully and torment others.
One day, he'd beaten a lion cub so badly, that his foster family had demanded he leave their home even if he had to hop on the back of a train to do so. He was seventeen at that time. He followed their idea and hopped a train heading East with a few dollars and a bag of spare clothes. Shortly after, he'd started getting sick.
He'd had to write his foster family and ask for their help. They were still legally responsible for him, so they promised to pay his medical expenses as long as he didn't come back. That was when the doctors put him on the medicine he'd been taking the rest of his life.
He'd worked around the city for a few years, until he'd saved up enough money to try to enroll in college and see what he could make of his life.
Finally, last September he had gone in for his usual checkup at the hospital. The doctors had done more tests than usual. Then they had gently, but professionally, informed him of his general expiration date. And that was it.
"The thing of it is" Shadow said, lacking even the energy to lift his head, "ever since that horrible dinner of crackers and water, I've always felt that anything bad I got from then on would be right. Would be...Just." He sighed, holding his head in his paws. "If I hadn't...If I hadn't been so angry at them...maybe they would've stayed home that night, or something. I don't know." Shadow felt deflated, weak, and utterly alone.
Troy had said nothing during all of this. Just looking at Shadow as he talked. Finally, when it became apparent Shadow wasn't going to speak anymore, he reached over and pulled Shadow into a gentle hug, rocking back and forth with their muzzles touching side by side as the dwindling fire crackled companionably.
It felt good to have a warm body against him at that moment, so Shadow returned the hug and said nothing, trying to absorb as much comfort from Troy's embrace as he could. Shadow closed his eyes, and was beginning to drift, when he felt Troy's head turn and his mouth give him a short kiss on the side of his muzzle. Shadow blinked his eyes open in surprise.
"Troy?" He said questioningly.
Troy quickly pulled back out of their embrace. "Oh, uh. Sorry, um. Shit. I didn't mean...what I mean is..." He blathered.
Shadow raised a paw to the side of his muzzle. "Did you just...give me a kiss?"
Troy continued his fitful explanation. "Umm....man, this is like, the worst possible timing. I can't believe I...look, Shadow, I....I...I'm...it's just..."
Shadow just slowly cocked his head, looking into Troy's panicked eyes.
Troy seemed to be trying to think of a way to escape. Finally with the expression of someone that's not sure whether the pool he's diving into is thirty feet deep or thirty inches, he spoke.
"Shadow, I'm.......gay. And, I like you. A lot. And you looked so sad, and we were hugging and it felt nice, and I don't know it just happened I'm really sorry please don't be mad at me." He blurted all in a rush, his ears wilting.
Shadow simply looked at Troy for a moment. Troy was gay? And he thought Shadow was attractive? Somehow....it seemed so ridiculous at this moment.
"Well," Shadow said slowly, "You're not going to rape me in the night are you?"
"Only if it's consensual." Troy said, and immediately clapped a paw over his muzzle.
The look on Troy's face was so mortified, that Shadow couldn't help it. He laughed. And the laugh felt good. Shaking his head, Shadow leaned over and gave a big sloppy kiss on the side of Troy's muzzle, followed by a quick flick of his tongue over Troy's nose.
Troy's ears went rigid and Shadow could see his incredibly scarlet blush even underneath his fur. He chuckled again, and it seemed to remove a cartload of the pain he'd been feeling just recently.
"Well Romeo, I'm going to sleep now. You keep those roaming paws to yourself tonight."
Then Shadow got up and slipped into the tent. His mind, for once, was not on the past or shortened futures. Troy was gay? What a world.
Remembering the feel of Troy's kiss on his muzzle, Shadow slipped into his sleeping bag and drifted off into an easy slumber for the first time in what seemed a long, long time; leaving a completely speechless Troy still sitting around the fire with one paw gently touching the spot where Shadows mouth had been.
End of Part 4
*Historical note: "The creation and acceptance of synthetic meat products is generally considered the driving factor behind the civilization of the furred races. Its inventor is universally agreed to be the most important and influential figure of all time."
- From "History of the World", Gen. Edition, Volume I