“What did you do?” I called the moment I walked through the front door. I was greeted with a cacophony of barks, meows, and a few high-pitched shrieks. Claws scraped along the cheap laminate floor and I could practically see feathers flying in the other room as Skittles and Blueberry likely simultaneously took to the air to try and get to me first.
But just by a feather.
I put out my arm to give the gray parrot a place to land. Just as she settled effortlessly on my arm and got her wings tucked against her body, Skittles slammed into her. Blueberry’s claws dug into my arm as I reached my hand out to catch Skittles before she fell. The colorful macaw was small for her age, so that made the task of steadying her and keeping Blueberry upright at the same time a little easier. While Blueberry was as nimble-footed as they came, Skittles wasn’t so lucky. The brightly colored parrot had suffered significant neurological damage at the hands of her previous owner and while it was a miracle she could even fly, if she didn’t have Blueberry around to use as a guide, her ability to hit her target was fifty-fifty at best… even a target as big as myself.
I immediately felt more at ease as the birds began moving up my arm so they could perch on my shoulder at the exact same time that all five of the dogs and three of the four cats rushed into the room.
“Okay, okay,” I murmured as I greeted each four-legged family member in turn. The knot of pain that had been building in my chest as I’d gotten closer to the house eased a bit as one animal after another greeted me in their unique way. Bentley, the one dog I’d come into the relationship with seven years earlier, lay dutifully at my feet as the other animals got their attention. But like clockwork, the little menagerie parted like the Red Sea at the subtle click-clack sound coming down the short hallway from the kitchen to the front door. More of the tightness in my chest eased as the medium-sized black and white bird carefully made his way along the slippery floor toward me. We’d long ago put a runner down on this part of the floor just to make it a little easier for Waldo, but the stubborn toucan always made it a point to walk around the narrow strip of carpet. It seemed to be his way of reminding us that he might have had a shit-ton of bad things happen to him and he didn’t necessarily look like his beautiful brothers and sisters flying free in the rainforests of South America, but he was still here. And with his unique brand of determination to survive whatever was thrown at him, he’d likely outlive us all.
I waited until Waldo was within a few feet of me before I carefully bent down. Skittles and Blueberry balanced themselves on my shoulder and flapped around a bit but stayed where they were.
“Hey, old man,” I said to Waldo as I held out my hand to him. He ignored the cats and dogs that were circled around me as he slowly stepped onto my hand. Like Skittles, his balance wasn’t great, but I knew better than to try to assist him like I had the macaw. It took a good minute for the battered bird to make it to my forearm. He used his mutilated beak to balance himself as he stepped, and when I slowly lifted my arm and stood, he spread his crippled wings to try and balance himself. I tucked my arm close to my chest so he’d have my body to use as additional support if he needed it.
Which he did.
“You been keeping an eye on your daddy for me?” I asked Waldo just before dropping a little kiss to the top of his head. As crusty as the bird pretended to be, for some reason he’d gotten particularly attached to me, of all people. So much so that I was the only one who was able to actually touch him, despite the fact that Zak was the one who’d played a part in his rescue more than a year ago. It was the reason Waldo now lived with us rather than the rescue group that’d coordinated getting the bird away from his abuser.
My eyes fell to the small black screws that stuck out like a sore thumb against the bright orange of the bird’s long upper beak. Part of the beak was the gorgeous, natural orange that the bird had been born with. The rest was a close match but didn’t have the subtle hues of color that Waldo’s remaining natural beak did. I’d done my best to match the primary shade of orange, but there was only so much a 3-D printer could do. I’d managed to give Waldo a beak that made it possible for him to eat more of the foods that were a part of the bird’s natural diet, but it still broke my heart every time I saw those damn screws. I could feel my anger and frustration building as I thought about the nameless, faceless human who’d beaten the poor bird with a stick so badly that his upper beak had been ripped in two.
“Did you say something?” I heard Zak call, and I automatically pulled in several breaths to force myself to calm down. By the time my man rounded the same corner the animals had, I had a smile pasted on my face. I saw Zak falter a bit and I knew why.
He knew the smile was shit.
But instead of calling me on it, his own lips pulled into a not-really-there grin as he leaned against the doorframe. His gaze shifted to the animals who were all lying on the floor around me or sitting on the nearby couch.
“Traitors,” he said to the animals. A couple of them actually looked chagrined but only Dash, a black and white cat with a fluffy tail, went to Zak and began rubbing up against his legs. “Well, at least someone loves me,” Zak groused as he leaned down to pick the cat up.
It was on the tip of my tongue to remind Zak that no one loved him more than I did, but I kept silent. They were words I wouldn’t have hesitated to speak eighteen months ago.
But a lot had changed since then.
Sometimes I wondered if maybe too much had changed.
Maybe I’d changed things too much.
My heart pounded frantically in my chest as I watched Zak nervously pet Dash. The need to walk up to him and take the cat from his arms so I could claim Zak’s touch for myself was strong, but I managed to stay where I was. But I couldn’t stop my eyes from roaming over Zak’s body.
He was actually a hair taller than me, but not as heavily built. We were often mistaken for brothers since we were both in our early thirties, had dirty blond hair, some scruff on our faces, and various piercings. But whereas my tattoos went all the way up and down my arms and part of my chest and back, Zak only had a few on his upper arms. And while my eyes were a boring shade of brown, Zak’s were a startling, crisp gray that had flecks of gold and green in them. His eyes were windows to his soul, even when he didn’t want them to be.
There’d been a time earlier in our relationship that those eyes had only been filled with lightness, but that’d changed.
I’d changed that for him.
I tried to ignore the tension that settled in the air around us as I said, “You’re making your famous beef stew. I could smell it from outside.”
Zak finally lifted his eyes to meet mine. Something flashed through them… something that reminded me of the old Zak… the Zak I’d fallen in love with from the moment I’d first laid eyes on him in a crowded bar on Super Bowl Sunday. We’d both gone to the bar to hang out with like-minded fans, but by the time the nail-biting last quarter had been underway, I’d already had Zak pressed up against the wall of a bathroom stall. If the crowd hadn’t been as loud and celebratory as they’d been, they surely would have heard every moan and cry of pleasure as I’d shoved hard and deep into Zak’s perfect body. My knees had still been wobbly from my mind-numbing orgasm when I’d taken Zak’s hand and led him from the bar. We’d ended up at my place and hadn’t even learned who’d won the game until we’d stumbled out of bed long enough for a shower and some sandwiches the next afternoon.
“So I repeat, what did you do?” I asked as I tried to ignore the pain in my belly that threatened to send me to my knees. “That stew takes hours to prepare, as you’ve reminded me many, many times,” I added as I looked around the room. “I don’t see anyone new.”
Zak had a habit of bringing home animals from the small rescue group he volunteered for – the ones that were most in need of a little extra TLC. He always called them fosters, but only on the rarest of occasions did they leave our house after that.
They had a way of becoming family from the moment they walked or were carried over the threshold.
In the past, Zak and I had had a lot of fun pretending to let him “convince me” to accept another four-legged or two-winged creature into our lives, but we’d both known it had been just another excuse to touch one another, to be with each other. Zak had always known I’d give him anything and everything to make him happy… I’d told him as much the first time I’d admitted that I was so deeply in love with him that it scared the ever-loving shit out of me. But things had changed there too.
I could feel the guilt starting to layer in with the pain, and the urge to go find a drink was strong. I forced myself to take in some deep breaths as I turned away from Zak so he wouldn’t see my shaking fingers. I pretended I was just using the time to get Blueberry, Skittles, and Waldo settled on the perch we kept near the door. Skittles and Blueberry got the bars at the top, since both could fly down to the ground or back to their perches in the kitchen if they wanted to. But Waldo’s perch was on the bottom so he could just jump off. In addition to his beak, he’d lost the ability to fly when the fucker who’d maimed him had broken his wings too.
I forced myself to go to Zak. It was all I could do not to reach for him and pull him against me.
But we didn’t do that anymore.
We didn’t do a lot of things anymore.
I gave him a peck on the cheek. He started to turn his face like he was going to kiss me, but I pulled back. If I felt his mouth on mine, I’d do something I’d regret. I’d take all the anger and fear and guilt I was feeling out on the man I loved more than should be humanly possible, and I wouldn’t do that to him.
He deserved better.
“Where is it?” I frowned. “He or she?” I added because I hated calling an animal “it.”
“He,” Zak said quietly. The hurt in his voice made my heart ache. As tough as Zak outwardly appeared, he felt more deeply than anyone I’d ever known. Whatever had happened to the newest member of our family had obviously cut him to the bone.
“Where is he?” I asked.
I nodded because it wasn’t uncommon for a new animal to need to be isolated from the rest of our little zoo until they could calm down a bit. I began heading that direction so I could have a look at the little – or possibly big – guy.
“It’s fine, Zak,” I called over my shoulder. “I’ll just see how he’s settling in.”
“That’s just it, he’s not—”
“We’ll be fine,” I said as I turned and faced him while walking backward to the room that was located at the back of the house. “Maybe I can convince him to have some stew with us,” I added with a wink.
Once again, something flashed in Zak’s eyes, but I couldn’t tell what it was. It actually had me stopping in my tracks. But when I opened my mouth to ask him what was wrong, the words refused to come out.
“Killian,” Zak whispered softly.
It tore at my heart, but I couldn’t move.
Not toward him, anyway.
The need to escape was just too great.
I wasn’t sure how long we hung there until Zak broke the silence by saying, “Nana’s in there with him.”
I was almost disappointed that Zak had sidestepped confronting the truth of what was happening between us by bringing up the safer subject matter.
“I thought we weren’t going to let her inside anymore,” I said dutifully. It was a “fight” we had all the time, though it was just another meaningless conversation so we wouldn’t have to talk about anything real. Zak and I both knew that I didn’t care if Nana spent time in the house.
“She was out front when we got here and she had this calming effect on him, so I…” Zak was still holding on to Dash, probably as a way to hide his anxiety from me. The fact that the cat was bumping his head against Zak’s chest was proof enough that he sensed his owner’s tension and was trying to help ease it. Many of the animals had that same sensitivity, and I was afraid to admit that their toned-down behavior was because they all sensed what was happening between me and Zak.
It’d been that way for a while now.
“I’ll just peek in then,” I said, eager to escape Zak’s presence. But he followed me to the room and when I reached for the doorknob, his hand covered mine before I could turn it.
“I had to, Killian… he didn’t have anyone, and he was so fucking scared.”
Electricity spread up my arm and throughout my entire body. My heart pounded painfully against my chest. Zak’s touch… it was real. Not one of his quick little pats that was more awkward than anything else.
It’d been months since he’d touched me like this.
Since I’d let him touch me like this.
My eyes held Zak’s shimmering ones. Zak was someone who could say more with one look than a mouthful of pretty words. When we’d met, he’d been wary and reserved and he’d worked hard to keep me from seeing what he was actually feeling, but over the years he’d come out of his shell and I’d met and fallen even more deeply in love with the real Zak. As fucked up as things had become between us, I was glad I could still see that part of him… that he hadn’t hidden himself so deeply from me that I’d lost that final link to him.
“It’s okay, baby,” I whispered, and then I did what I hadn’t dared do out in the living room. I kissed him.
It was a mere brush of my lips over his.
But it was a direct punch to my heart because Zak let out the smallest of whimpers when I did it. He was the one to pull back and avert his eyes. He still had Dash in his arms and I was suddenly weirdly jealous that his grip on the cat tightened rather than him putting the animal down and reaching for me.
“We’ll take care of him,” I said, forcing myself to put a little more space between myself and Zak. “Just like we do all the others. He’s family now, okay?”
Zak didn’t respond, which surprised me.
But only for as long as it took for me to open the door and spot our new “family member” sitting quietly on the floor in the far corner of the room.
“Fucking hell,” I muttered before I could stop myself.