Carl was at the bar, polishing glasses for the night’s session.
“And what did ‘e say?” the bruin asked.
Mike shrugged. “Nothing really. He looked worried, to be honest.”
Carl finished wiping the glass in his hand and carefully placed it with the others. “Per’aps you should talk to Moosie ‘bout this.” He leaned over and rubbed Mike’s head a bit before giving him a gentle pat on the cheek. “He’s a good guy.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Mike started, but was interrupted by someone opening the door.
“Aaaand she was blinded by the light!” Joe sang out, one hand on headphones, the other pulling the door, his bag slung over his shoulder. “Cut loose like a deuce, another runner in the night! Bliiiinded by the light!” he continued, stepping in. He waggled his fingers a bit as if he was banging on drums, but then he noticed the two at the bar looking at him. Joe cleared his throat and pushed down the earphones to his neck.
“Sorry guys,” he said sheepishly. “It’s just that I’m in a good mood right now.”
“Really?” Mike said. “In regards to what?”
Instead of answering, Joe went up to Mike and gave him a proper snug.
Mike rumbled a bit, his arms snaking around Joe and snugging him back. “Mmmm…”
The snug went a bit longer than expected, with Carl clearing his throat.
“Yeah,” Joe said, separating. “Sorry about that. You looked in need of a good snug.”
Mike grinned. “Sure, no problem. I like moose snugs.”
“Everyone likes moose snugs,” Joe said, grinning back. “Now, if you excuse me, I’m headed to the gym to get a workout in. It’s back today.”
“Mind me askin’,” Carl said to Joe’s retreating figure, “why you’re so happy right now?”
“Milhouse,” was all Joe answered before he went through the double doors.
Carl and Mike looked at each other. “Oh boy,” Mike said.
Joe was still humming along to the music blaring through the earphones when Cindy intercepted him.
“Excuse me,” she said, “but Mr. Huxley wants to talk to you.”
“Yeah, sure,” Joe said, and followed her to the office.
“Ah, Joe,” the bison said, shuffling through a few files on the desk. “Sit down, please. Care for coffee?”
Joe nodded, digging into his pockets to pull out a small music player. He fiddled with it for a moment, turning off the music. He placed the gadget and the earphones on the desk, and he slung the bag onto the floor. “What’s up?”
Huxley glared above his spectacles. “I would like to know your relationship with Mister Buchanan.”
Joe raised an eyebrow. “Who?”
“Relationship?” Joe said slowly, as if it was a piece of toffee he had to chew on. He looked at Cindy, who was placing a small cup of coffee next to his headphones and another next to her employer, and looked back. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Really now,” Huxley said. “First you paid his bail…”
“It was a courtesy,” Joe interrupted. “I had no hard feelings for the guy. He was going through a rough patch, that’s all.”
“…and now I received word that he was at your house?”
“Ah.” Joe looked pensive. “That was something entirely different.”
Joe nodded. “For starters, I had no idea Milhouse was headed my way. He was out cold when I found him. I called my uncle to get him and to place him inside.”
“Well, apparently, my uncle talked to him for a bit this morning. I didn’t know where they were until a few hours ago. About two or so.”
Huxley leaned back and slowly sipped his coffee. “Apparently, you have caused a stir with him.”
“Let us say that Mister Giulotti thinks Milhouse is trying to put his hands on you, hm?”
“What?” Joe said, still not understanding.
Cindy leaned from where she stood and whispered a few words into Joe’s ear. The moose’s expression went from puzzlement to fiery embarrassment.
“Yes,” Huxley said.
“And that Milhouse-!?”
Joe raised his hands in bafflement. “No! Oh no. No no no no no,” he said. He grabbed the mug and drained it in long swallows. “No!”
Huxley calmly sipped coffee. “So you are not with him?”
Joe shook his head and put the mug on the table. “I assure you, sir, me and him are doing nothing at all in that fashion.” He blinked a few times. “Who else is thinking this?”
“I’m sure that Carl has his suspicions,” Huxley said.
“Oh ye gods,” Joe said. He froze for a moment, clearly thinking of something, and then nodded. “I need to talk to them both,” he continued, rising from the chair and gathering up his stuff. “I need to clear things out with him.” He walked around the desk and gave a hug to a surprised bison. Then he went and hugged Cindy. “Thank you very much,” he said, picking up the bag and left the room.
“Well,” Cindy said after a moment. “That was unexpected.”
Joe entered the lobby to find Mike and Carl conversing with, from the moose’s guess, a fellow employee. “Hey!”
All three turned to look at Joe, which gave an opportunity to look at the newcomer a bit more. He was a wolf, somewhat shaggy with rich brown fur, but it did not hide the huge build. His hair shone purple with lavender highlights, an odd combination. He wore only a striped pair of basketball shorts.
“Hello,” Mike said when Joe came up to them. He gestured to the wolf. “Joe, meet Skarlath. Skarlath, meet Joe.”
“Pleasure’s all mine,” the wolf said, extending a hand.
“Same here,” Joe said, giving the hand a firm handshake.
“Skarlath is seasonal,” Mike said. “He comes during the holidays and for the New Year celebration. Or when we need more people really. Like tonight.”
“How many does this place have?” Joe asked.
“You ‘aveta ask Cindy ‘bout the numbers,” Carl said. “Speakin’ of which…?” The question was left spinning delicately in the air.
“Uhm, yes,” Joe said. “I just finished talking with the boss.”
“That’s my cue,” Skarlath said, nodding. “I’m going to be at the weight room, Mike.” The roo nodded as the wolf walked through the double doors.
Joe punched Mike on the shoulder.
“Ouch!” Mike said, rubbing the area. “Why did you do that for?”
“That was thinking me and Milhouse had something going on,” Joe said. He shook his head. “Really, dude, you actually thought that he and I would be going for heavy petting?”
Mike raised an eyebrow. “Heavy petting?”
“Honestly,” Joe said, looking at Mike and then at Carl, who was intensely focused on polishing a glass. “We are not doing anything sexual. All he did was visit and fell asleep on the step. That was all.”
“And the morning?”
“My uncle got his hands on him,” Joe said with a grimace. “They had a discussion. That’s it.” He shrugged, and then gave a mischievous grin. “If I didn’t know better, I would say you’re getting jealous of the attention.”
“Mike knows better than that,” Carl rumbled out before Mike could say anything.
“Teasing,” Joe said. He leaned over to hug the ‘roo again. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I think Milhouse won’t bother us anymore,” he added, looking at the two, smiling. “Now I need to get that workout in, so if you excuse me.”
Mike sighed as he watched Joe walk to the weight room again, and then felt a heavy pat on his shoulder. He looked to see Carl. “I don’t know why I should care about this. This isn’t any of my business.”
“But ‘e reminds you of Albert,” Carl said.
Mike sighed again, his shoulders slumping. “Yeah.” He looked at the bear. “I have no idea what to do. Sarge said I should tell him. That otter told me to tell him. And yet…” He shrugged.
“Take your time,” Carl said, still gently patting Mike’s shoulder. “When you’re ready, I’m sure ya’ll tell him.”
“I guess you’re right,” Mike said. He walked behind the bar and gave the bear a hug. “Thanks.”
“Anytime,” Carl said, hugging back.
“So you and Milhouse ain’t doing anything?” Sarge asked half an hour later.
“No!” an exasperated moose said. “How many times do I have to get it through your skull?”
“It’ll stop when we get the image of you and the feline out of our heads,” Gear said.
Joe sighed and bent down to grab the loaded bar. Like clockwork, he did a set of ten deadlifts before slamming it back on the ground. “You guys are teasing me, I can tell.”
The rats laughed. “Gee, you think?” Sarge said. He took Joe’s place and did fifteen reps.
“Showoff,” Joe grumbled.
Gear smiled briefly. “He does that on occasion.”
“Especially now, when I’m beating you by a mile,” Sarge said, loading another two plates.
“That’s four hundred five pounds,” Joe said, slightly awed.
Sarge nodded as they both saw Gear did his own fifteen, slightly struggling with the last two. He placed the barbell on the ground and arched back, his spine audibly popping. “Argh. I needed that.” He then stepped back and motioned to Joe. “Your turn.”
The moose looked at the bar, then at Sarge, who nodded encouragingly. He then bent down and did ten before letting it fall.
“Five more, kid,” Gear rumbled out.
“Or else we’ll have you do another fifteen.”
“Damn you both,” Joe said before doing the five, struggling with the last two. “There!” he continued, letting it fall again.
“Attaboy,” Sarge said, giving Joe a pat on the back. Gear nodded in approval. “Now, another plate on the sides.”
Joe looked at the two as if they were mad. “Seriously?”
“Ah, pardon, Monsieur Moose.”
Joe turned to see Samson. “Oh, hey. What’s up?”
“I hate to sully anyone’s reputation,” the lion said, “but I cannot help to hear the rumor that-“
“Let me guess,” Joe said, momentarily holding up a hand. “It is about the leopard? About a so-called relationship?” Samson nodded, and Joe sighed in exasperation. “’Enter Rumour, covered in tongues,’ or however Shakespeare put it.” He sighed again.
“As I said, I do not like to sully reputations in any form, but I am just the slightest bit curious about this.”
Joe noticed a general sense of nonchalance in the gym, of the fellow lifters concentrating on their weights, and yet every ear open. He sighed again.
“Alright,” he said to Samson, but pitching his voice to the room in general. “I think we’ve had enough of this nonsense. I have barely started this job, and I am not going to have any rumor ruin it. Now, I’ve got deadlifts to finish, so…” The lion nodded and went to the rack to start his workout.
“Well done,” Gear said.
“Just bothered by this,” Joe said as he positioned himself at the bar. “I mean, really, you would think people would be more rational.” He stooped down and paused. “You put four plates more.”
“Yes I did,” Sarge said. “Come on at it, kid. Let us see what you can do.”
He glared at the rat, who only grinned toothily. “I hate you.”
“Then use that hate to lift,” he said. “Come on.”
“I think that concludes all of the business here,” Huxley said during the nightly meeting. “Is there anything else we would like to mention?” He looked at the tables. “No? Alright then. Dismissed.”
As the crews rose from the table, Mike came up to Joe. “If I may talk to you for a moment?”
Joe raised a quizzical eyebrow, but obeyed the order. A few moments, they were back to where Joe was on the first day of work.
“I take it this is your office, then?” he said, looking around at the pictures.
“Yes,” Mike said, going to the desk and tossing the moose a navy blue jock. “Put that on, and we’ll get you started with tonight’s shift.”
“So,” he continued as Joe stripped. “You and Milhouse are not together.”
The ‘roo openly admired beefy moose rump encased in briefs. “And, according to your otter friend, you are in an open relationship with the bear?”
“Uhm…yes.” He turned around a bit. “Mind me asking why you want to know?”
Mike blushed. “I am…erm…”
Joe kicked off his shorts and went over to Mike. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m sure no one will mind if we go out after this.”
The blush deepened.
Joe grinned and gave the ‘roo a peck on the cheek before going back to his place to change into the jock. “Honestly, I would not mind hanging out with you. You’re a likeable guy.” He adjusted himself into the pouch and turned around. “And if that goes to other things, I’m sure I wouldn’t mind.” He flexed an arm and winked.
Mike grinned. “That is the kind of attitude we’re expecting you to do tonight,” he said. He went over and cupped the arm. “Damn, so huge.”
Joe wrapped the arm around the ‘roo and snugged hard. “You’re a good guy. I can see why you do well here.”
“You too,” Mike said. He impulsively gave Joe a kiss on the cheek. “Now, let’s wow the folks out there.”