They were back at the main office. Mike was also there, nursing a Jersey Lightning. Joe had a small medicinal tot of brandy and soda in his hands. Billy, the rhino bouncer, was there also, along with a police officer, who was scribbling on a pad.
“Alright,” the officer said, reading the notes, “to review: Mister Milhouse was there at the door and tried to get past Mister Watson.” Billy nodded. “After failing to get in, Milhouse attacked Watson and then got inside to attack Mister Moose, who fought back and got him unconscious.” He looked up. “Am I missing anything?”
Mike shook his head. “Nothing comes to mind, officer.”
“I would say he was drunk,” Joe said. “He reeked of liquor,” Billy added, nodding.
The officer made a few more notes. “He’s already in the police jail, still knocked out, so nothing to worry about tonight.”
“And the other nights?” growled Huxley. “I will not put my employees in danger.”
“Of course,” the officer said. “I will contact you first thing tomorrow.” He tipped his hat in farewell and walked out.
“Slag and black fire,” Huxley swore, rubbing his temples.
“I am very sorry, sir,” Joe said.
“It isn’t you, Moose,” the bison said. “It’s the fact that he might come back to cause trouble again that worries me.”
Joe slowly sipped the brandy. “How’s things outside?”
Mike smiled slightly. “Well, things are looking up,” he said. “People weren’t expecting the fight, honestly, and a few people cheered when you knocked Milhouse cold.” He placed the drink on the desk and rubbed Joe’s shoulder. “I should be asking how you are. You’re alright?”
Joe shrugged. “What can I say? I am kinda ticked off. I mean, I’m there and suddenly the guy charges at me.” He waved a hand about. “What was I to do?” he asked. He then looked at his manager, who looked back. “I’m not in trouble, sir?”
Huxley shook his head. “No, Joe, I am not. You did well for the first day. I’m just sorry it had to end on a bad note.” He looked at Billy. “And you?”
“Right as rainwater,” the rhino said, adjusting himself slightly. “The steel codpiece came in very handy tonight, no mistake!”
“Wait,” Joe said, “you had protection?”
“Well, this is Milhouse we’re talking about,” Billy said, grinning toothily. “The bastard did that thing before with me. It was just the shock of the boot against metal that took me down tonight.” He stood and gave Joe a quick head rub. “Don’t worry about him right now.” He nodded to Huxley. “I’ll be back at the doors, sir.”
When the door shut behind Billy, Huxley glanced at Joe. “I would ask you to take the rest of the night off, if that is alright with you.”
Joe sipped the last of the brandy and placed the glass on the desk. “To be honest, sir, I am still feeling angry about the entire thing. If I can stay at the gym so I can get rid of this?”
Mike stood up. “I got to get going on the floor. Damage control, and all that.” He gave Joe a hug and a soft nuzzle on the neck, which caused Joe to smile a bit. “If you want to continue, feel free to come over.”
Joe nodded. “Alright.”
Mike slipped into the break cubicle and looked around outside. The crowd was still there, but it was somewhat subdued. The fight must have sapped some of the spirit, he thought, along with the absence of a certain moose.
He sighed and took a quarter-sandwich from the food tray. “Why must these things happen?” he muttered to himself in between bites.
Someone tapped Mike on the shoulder, and he turned around to see Sarge. “Hey. What’s up?”
Sarge grinned. “I saw you come over here, so I thought to ask about—”
“Joe’s gone for the night,” Mike said hastily, almost brusquely.
The rat nodded. “I’m not surprised. But I wasn’t asking about him.” He placed a hand on the ‘roo’s shoulder and looked straight into his eyes. “I was asking about you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sarge rubbed the shoulder and smiled. “I bet you do, Mikey.”
Mike grimaced. “Was it that obvious?” Sarge nodded, and Mike’s shoulders slumped. “Hell!”
Sarge grinned and reached over to give Mike a massive hug. “Husband-o was commenting on that,” he said in Mike’s ear. “He hasn’t seen you look at someone like that since Al.”
“Al is long gone,” Mike said hoarsely.
“I know,” Sarge said, rubbing Mike’s back. “But you’re still here. He’ll want nothing else.”
Mike separated from Sarge, rubbing his eyes. “I wasn’t expecting this. Let me make it clear.”
Sarge grinned. “I getcha. You just saw this huge moose waltz into your life, and you fell in love right there and then.”
“Love?” Mike grabbed a paper napkin from a pile and noisily blew his nose. “It’s not that—” He broke off when he saw Sarge’s dubious disbelief. “Well, I don’t know what else to say,” Mike finished lamely.
Sarge helped himself to a small sandwich from the plate. “Look,” he said between mouthfuls. “You need to let him know. Just give him a heads up, y’know?”
“And risk him running off? I can’t do that.”
“What will he do? What can he do?”
Mike turned the questions over in his head for a moment. “I don’t know, Sarge.” He looked at the rat. “I honestly don’t know.”
The weights clanged as Joe placed the bar on the bench. He was back in sweats; the thought of going back out there was not even considered. He was still angry.
He replayed the scene that happened after the fight. Mike pulling him away, trying to take him from the scene. Joe noticed the shock the ‘roo had. Fear as well, for some reason.
Then Huxley came up to the duo and asked, more like demanded, for them to wait in his office for the police to question them.
Mike looking so lost and confused, he looked like he was about to cry.
Joe threw himself at the weights, trying to forget that look of bewilderment. He didn’t know why he should be doing this, but it felt good to get this image out of his head. But his thoughts kept on playing.
Carl showing up and rumbling a few questions that he couldn’t hear. A ginger pat on the antlers, and a small drink appearing in his hands. Mike drinking a bit also and mumbling to the bear.
Then Billy came in and looking at Mike, then at Joe. He nodded, as if he was expecting something to happen. He talked to Carl, who walked out. Then Huxley and the police came and asking questions.
“Fuck!” Joe growled out, slamming the bar back into position. “Why am I feeling this way?”
“And how are you feeling?”
Joe looked at the grey wolf leaning on the doorway. He was tall, his thick bulk covered with a blue and white checked shirt and striped shorts.
“Who are you?” the moose asked.
“Me?” the wolf asked. “Yeah, sorry, I should’ve been here during the meeting, but I got back from vacation and still unpacking.” He walked over and extended a hand. “Scott Martin, at your service.”
Joe gave the hand a firm handshake. “Joe Moose.”
“Carl was telling me today’s your first day.”
Joe shrugged. “Might be the last.”
How could Joe describe this anger, this weird jealousy, in his chest? Instead, he shrugged.
“Milhouse was pretty alright before he got all hoity-toity,” Scott said without preamble.
“Egotistical,” the wolf clarified. “You heard that he was a pretty alright guy when he was first hired?”
Scott sat down next to Joe. “He was not bad,” he explained. “Came from a bad history, but I remember him saying he wanted to get away from it.”
“How did you know?”
“I interviewed him.” Scott nodded as Joe’s eyebrows rose. “Yep yep, he had a record and everything. He was on the road to recovery, I remember.”
Things clicked together in Joe’s mind. “He was an alcoholic,” he said.
“Oh yeah,” Scott said. “Got that in one.” He sighed and scratched his head. “Apparently he had a relapse while I was gone. He went on everyone so I heard.”
“Including me,” Joe said. He recounted the events from earlier.
“Damn,” Scott said when Joe finished. “If I knew what was going on, I should have helped him out. I wonder what made him relapse, though.”
“Did anyone else know?”
“That he was a recovering alcoholic?” Scott shook his head. “He told me not to let anyone know, but I had to tell the boss. It was on his application, though.”
“But I’m surprised no one caught on,” Joe said. “When I fought him, he reeked of alcohol.”
“Breath mints, the right cologne, and a change of clothes can do wonders, Joe.” Scott said. “I wonder where he is now.”
“He’s in jail,” Huxley said, coming in. “And I should have thought he would have relapsed,” he added, sitting down in front of the two. He focused on Joe. “How are you?”
Joe shrugged. “Angry and bewildered,” he said. “But I think I know what to do now.” He stood up. “I have to get going. I need to talk to Milhouse.”
“What?” Huxley said. “Why?”
“Call it a hunch.”
“He’s still unconscious,” the police matron said.
“Just for a moment, maybe two,” Joe said, looking around. “I just need to talk to him.”
The matron sighed and motioned to a slim heron in uniform. “Take him to Cell A-3,” she told the officer.
The heron nodded and waved Joe to follow.
Joe was soon face to face with Milhouse, who was not knocked out, but sitting on a dull-metal bench. “I’ll have to let them know he’s awake,” the officer said, walking towards the exit. “I’ll be right back.”
Joe looked at the leopard. “Hello.”
“The fuck do you want?” Milhouse growled out, glaring with fiery rage. His tail fidgeted and bristled. “Ain’t you happy with your cushy little job?”
“Scott says hello,” Joe said.
The fire snapped off, and Milhouse slumped against the bench. “Fuck,” he swore. He said it again, louder, as he slammed a fist against the bench, the sound frighteningly loud in the quiet.
“Yeah, I kind of figured you were drinking your courage,” Joe said.
“Fuck off,” Milhouse said. He charged at the moose and tried to shake the bars apart. “Fuck. Off. Now!” The last word came out as an angry growl.
“What happened?” Joe asked. He was scared to his feet, but he had to know. “Scott said you were doing well before he left.”
“That bastard can kiss my ass,” Milhouse said, reaching over with his claws extended, but it didn’t reach Joe. Instead, he caught the hand and started to rub it. “What are you doing?” the leopard snarled.
“I want to apologize for taking your job,” Joe said, looking straight in Milhouse’s eyes. “I need to apologize. That’s why I’m here.”
“You can shove that apology up your ass, sideways!” Milhouse said, glaring back at Joe. He didn’t remove the hand, though.
“Look, I know it’s hard to be polite for once,” Joe said, “but at least be gracious about this.” He edged to the wrist. “I’m trying to be civil, even to you.”
“Civility from you is like drinking sewer water. Full of shit.”
Joe tried not to break eye contact. If this worked… “That explains why you like the taste of it, I would say.”
“Gladly.” He leaned closer. “I’d bet you never bedded a moose before,” he murmured.
Milhouse froze, and then he blushed terribly, the red turning his fur carnation pink. He looked away. “How did you guess?” he mumbled.
Joe nodded slightly, somewhat pleased he figured something out. He kept rubbing the hand. “Makes sense. You drink mostly to forget, so I thought of why you would relapse. I bet no one realized that.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe the secretary, though. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had some sort of intuition.”
The leopard finally removed the hand from Joe’s. “I-I couldn’t stop doing it,” he said in a small voice. He clenched at the bars. “I had nothing worth fighting for anymore.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but who was he?”
Milhouse shook his head. “Not going to answer, fucker,” he said. He looked at Joe. “Why? Why are you here? Why are you doing this?”
“Family, I guess,” Joe said, shrugging. “Dad always said to apologize to those you wronged.”
“No, you didn’t wrong me. It’s that he…” Milhouse trailed off and grimaced. “I should apologize also,” he said, forcing the words out. “I was mad. So fucking angry.”
Joe nodded, feeling his own anger melt away. “So you came over, punch drunk, and attacked me. I understand.” He noticed a familiar ‘roo near the doorway, casually dressed. “How long have you been there, Mike?”
“A while,” he said, walking up to the two. Milhouse glared at him.
“Why didn’t you ask for help, dude?” Mike said to the leopard. “We could have kept you shored up.”
Milhouse didn’t say anything for a moment, and then he looked at the floor. “I didn’t know how,” he grumbled.
The door opened, and the officer came in. “Alright, visiting hours are over. Time for you two to leave.”
Mike nodded and walked out, but Joe lingered. He reached over to grab the leopard’s hands. “If you want, I’ll come back and visit,” he said.
Milhouse glared one last time, walked to the bench, and curled up facing the wall.
“I did not know,” Mike said as he packed Joe’s bike in the trunk of his car. He gingerly closed it, making sure it would not be damaged. “We didn’t know.”
“Scott said he was asked not to tell anyone,” Joe said.
Mike nodded. “He told me where you were.” He motioned at Joe to get in the car and got in also. “So, where to?”
“Home, James,” Joe said, leaning back and closing his eyes. “Ten blocks east from the bar.”
“Got it,” Mike said, turning the wheel to get on the street. He then looked at Joe. “You know,” he continued, “I wasn’t expecting you to go over to talk to him.”
“Are you going to say anything?” Joe asked.
“That’s up to him. I heard a lot of things over there, and I can’t help feel sorry for the guy.” Rain started to splash against the windshield, and Mike turned on the wipers. “I thought he was this major dick, and it turns out he’s something else. I have to let the bossman know, though, so he can get a grasp on the situation.”
Joe nodded. “I don’t think I’ll be pressing charges.”
“The bossman probably won’t make a fuss of it after I tell him.” Mike pulled up at a curb and looked at the townhouse looming in front of him. “Nice house,” he said.
“The family’s,” Joe said with pride. “My grandparents bought it as a gift for my dad, and it’s been with us since then.” He looked at Mike. “Want to come inside?”
Mike grinned. “Not tonight, Joe,” he said. “I have to talk to the bossman about Huxley.” He leaned over and quickly kissed Joe on the cheek. “You did good tonight, Moose. Very good.”
Joe tried not to blush and failed. “Thanks.”
“See you tomorrow?”
Joe nodded. “Sure.” He looked out to see the heavy torrent of rain. “Mind keeping the bike until the morning? The chain will rust in this weather.”
“Thanks.” Joe impulsively returned the kiss, and he blushed more. “Uhm, thanks for tonight. It was an eye-opener.”
Mike grinned. “Anytime, Joe.”
As Joe rushed out of the car and into the house, Mike drove off, ready for the future. His only thought was that, hopefully, Joe would be ready as well.