Reality and Release

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3 of Just A Chore - With My Straight Friend It's the evening after Tuesday's events, and both friends are feeling the repercussions. Will Mark be able to offer any comfort to his friend?




Hello, and welcome to read my latest story!

This continues the tale of "Just a Chore", and follows up from the action of the previous chapter. You should definitely check out the rest before reading, if you haven't already done so! *smiles* I've been told it's quite the good story.

As for everyone, of course, don't forget to comment, vote, fave and watch! All feedback is always appreciated, and will help others to find these stories to enjoy as well!


Have a good read!



*


When the phone finally rang, Mark almost dropped the glass of Merlot in his paw, in his rush to answer. The lion grabbed the phone and tilted it to a correct angle to read the nervewracking "Jake is calling" across the small screen.

Mark let out a shuddering breath. This was it...it was well past six pm now....that meant that the tiger must've come back home after...after.

The lion put the glass of wine down to the low table by the couch and then lifted the phone up to his ear, swallowed, and opened the line.

"Hey!" the lion cheered, all to aware that the energy in his greeting was put up for the tiger's benefit, as much as his own, while the nerves kept crawling through his stomach. But part of it was genuine, too. He always liked answering the phone when it was his best and oldest friend Jake calling.

Even on a day like this.

The first thing the lion heard was a deep breath, rumbling and tinged with the edges of a snarl that must have felt horrible, lingering in the tiger's throat. Mark was frowning even before the sound tapered away and was replaced by a tired voice.

"Hi."

The lion's tail jolted and smacked against a table leg. The resigned, subdued tone was very much unlike his often boisterous character, it felt painful to listen to the tiger's breaths like that, let alone that greeting all too void of "Wassup, man!" kind of epithets.

Mark had to swallow before he dared to speak again.

"How are you?" the lion stated carefully.

The tiger's huff hissed loudly over the phone and made Mark's ear flick. The loud breath was followed by a hollow chuckle.

"Sore," the tiger grunted.

Mark winced, but couldn't help but smile, briefly. The dry tone seemed just a little bit promising, but considering the circumstances, he would need a lot more assurances before he was convinced that the tiger was coping.

"Are you alright?" Mark's brow furrowed with concern.

The tiger snorted.

"Sitting in a hot bath," Jake huffed.

Mark shuddered unwittingly.

"Seemed like a good idea," the tiger added dryly.

The lion sighed softly. He couldn't even bear to think about everything that had let to his friend needing such a therapy for easing up whatever discomfort he was in at the moment. It made him feel sickened, the same way he had felt throughout the day, in uncomfortable bouts that had made it impossible to do any productive work at the office today, and caused him to consume half of the wine bottle that was meant to last a week. And it was Tuesday.

"Well, you're right on that," Mark rumbled nervously. "Are you...otherwise okay?"

The long pause that followed seemed to stretch on for minutes, which did nothing to contribute to Mark's nerves. The day had sucked so damn badly for him, thinking about the horrors of his friend's ordeal. No wonder he'd went for the bottle. Mark felt a bit ashamed for that. It wasn't his style.

"It was...huh...a bit rough on the head mostly," the tiger replied in that all too hollow voice Mark had already learned to associate with his friend speaking about his...work.

Mark's fingers fidgeted with the furs of his belly while he held onto the phone and tried to think of the right words to say.

"Was it worse than you expected?" he asked carefully.

"It was bad enough," came the huffed reply.

Mark flinched.

"But, hey, it was just a gig, right?" the tiger's voice sounded unusually breathless and nervous...Mark didn't dare to go for the word 'hysterical' just yet. "And it's over now, eh?"

The lion bit his lip and wet it with his tongue before he spoke again.

"And it's all over now, yeah?" the lion asked, wanting the confirmation.

He needed to hear it.

"Yeah," the tiger grunted. "Finished. All's finished. And I got the check!"

Mark let out a sigh that he couldn't keep back any longer. The tiger's disheartened tone made him feel even worse once again.

"That's good to hear," he muttered, paw going over his belly in a small gesture of self-comfort. "Really good."

"Yeah," the tiger muttered.

"Hey, you could always come over if you feel like having company," Mark spoke up, trying to cheer himself as much as the tiger. Thinking about him alone in that empty house after...that...was painful to say the least. Maybe it'd help them both, to see each other and see the mess that was one another.

Perhaps.

"I think I'm good for now, uhh...thanks," the tiger's reply didn't sound as enthusiastic as Mark's faux exuberant tone from before. "Maybe I'll pop by tomorrow, huh? Maybe..."

Mark swallowed a sigh. He really didn't want to think about the implications of the tiger preferring not to come. The possibility of him being unable to face his friend after today's events seemed all too true, and all too painful to consider.

"That'd be nice," he rumbled.

The lion knew that he sounded all too sullen, because the tiger soon breathed out, and was talking again.

"Look, Mark, thank you again..."

He couldn't really listen to that, Mark knew, he was already struggling as he did.

"Don't worry about it," the lion tried to keep his voice light. "It's over with now, yeah? Nothing more about it, huh?"

"Oh goddamn right!" the tiger snarled. "I don't think my tail could handle any more of that shit...seven fucking hours!"

Mark frowned at the ridiculous figure, and had to bite back the comment about fucking that seemed all too opportunistic. The tiger probably wouldn't approve of it in this state of mind. He sighed and shook his head, softly.

"Ugh."

"Sorry, man. You don't need to hear this shit."

"Never mind," Mark hurried to speak up. "It's alright."

"Uh...okay...and sorry," the tiger muttered. "So...uh...what were you up to? Did I interrupt anything?"

Mark snorted and let out a laugh that was more like a bark, coming out of a lion nonetheless.

"Well you know me, heh," the lion spoke nervously, "just a book and some wine...high brow...hah..."

"Cool," the tiger commented. "Makes me wish I had some."

Mark couldn't help but chuckle, briefly.

"I think you'll be better off with a Tylenol and a lot of rest, Jake."

"I know," the tiger mumbled.

The implications made Mark flinch, but he tried to keep it calm.

"Good."

"I think I better leave you to it now, Mark, I'm really tired and I don't want to be a bother."

"You're not a bother!" the lion's ears jumped.

"Well you know what I mean...I'll...call you back tomorrow, ok?"

The lion felt another pang of guilt, but nodded quietly to himself.

"Sure, Jake, I'll look forward to hearing from you. And if you're not gonna call me, I'm going to call you, you hear me?" he spoke.

The tiger snuffled.

"You planning to check up on me, Mark?"

"You bet!" Mark rumbled.

"Heh," the tiger replied. "Okay, thanks. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Jake."

"Bye...and thanks, Mark."

"Bye."

The line seemed to close with a beep beep beep even more hollow than Mark was used to hearing. The lion let out another sigh when it finally silenced up.

"Damn," Mark muttered and rubbed his muzzle.

*

Jake dropped the phone onto the big, folded towel by the bathtub and let out a big rumble out of his before he lifted a submerged paw from the water and rubbed it over his face. His breath was a cool flow of air against his palm and made his whiskers shake.

"Crap," the tiger snorted into the slightly steamy air, and let his ears echo with the silence of the empty house.

Jake flopped both of his paws into the warm water and yawned, his jaws practically cracking with the effort. He felt damn tired. He'd gotten up early for the drive to the studio, it had indeed taken hours to get it all done. Add the damn stress and his current half an hour soak in the water, and he was pretty much ready to nod off.

He ached. His thighs felt numb, almost as if he had ran miles after miles, not simply held them up while...

Jake flinched at the memory, and forced himself not to think about the fox and his goddamn paws all over his body, while he had to grin and pretend that he liked having those dark paws rubbing on his chest and listening to the fox calling him a hot cat.

"Shit."

Jake could see the final fourth or so of the length of his tail, floating near the surface of the water like some sort of a mysterious striped aquatic snake. He knew that the appendage was connected in its end to that part of his body that had suffered the most during the ordeal. Even thinking about it made his tailhole clench down on itself. The involuntary shifting of his muscles sent a twinge of a strange, almost painful sensation through his innards. The tiger made a face. It felt like his body still hadn't gotten over the trauma of being pounded for hours on end by that fox, no matter that he wasn't the most well-hung guy he had encountered in the business.

No, it was more the actual duration of the...act, Jake decided with a loud huff. That part of his body was meant for occasional brief use, not to be prodded in reverse for hours on end. The tiger winced at the mental image once more and shook his head. A few droplets of water fell from his chin and cheeks and dripped onto the surface of the tub. Jake rubbed his submerged paw over his thigh and his side and wondered whether he might've actually suffered some damage. He felt pretty raw and sore and hadn't gone to the bathroom all day, not besides...flushing everything out in the morning with the help of that stupid enema. No wonder he hadn't felt like going. That fox must've compacted the rest, too.

Jake snorted, rubbed his hip some more, and decided that fretting over his damn asshole was not doing any more good over his mindset. The tiger yawned again, snorted to clear his nose, and felt his body complain again.

"Shit," Jake muttered.

The tiger stopped his rubbing and let his paw to rest against his groin. Just thinking about it didn't seem like the best way to go at it, either. The tiger groaned in displeasure. The things his mind could come up with...

"I'm gonna strangle that Tom Rhodes," Jake muttered.

Jake snorted and tentatively pushed his paw over his belly. He let his other paw swim over to cup his balls and lift them a little to the side so that his not so determined fingers could get where he needed them to be now. Want didn't really come into that thought, the tiger snuffled to himself, while he tentatively brushed his fingers down his taint.

"Oh, man..."

The tiger took a deep breath and then carefully pressed the padded tip of his index finger against his tightly closed opening. The ring-shaped muscle immediately decided to spasm and clench, sending another of those strange jolts through his insides. Jake grunted between his gritted teeth and eased off the touch. At least it didn't hurt, not exactly, so perhaps nothing was torn, at least. He took a deep breath and then ran his fingertip around the circumference of his badly used ring, keeping the pressure light, but there, to see how his body reacted. The fleshy opening get clenching under his touch, and it felt weird, to say the least, but at least it didn't seem to hurt in a way that something, say, a pulled muscle would ache.

Jake grimaced at the idea of pulling that particular muscle, and let his finger fall back. His prodded hole throbbed, but seemed fine enough. He could only hope that things were as good on the inside, too. He really didn't want to go there.

The tiger snorted and folded his paws over his flat, toned stomach. He leaned back against the shaped neckrest on the edge of the oversized, expensive tub, and let out another huge breath. Was this really what he had worked for, all those years at the office, and now, he'd done this to his body and his soul, so that he could keep holding onto this? The house that was meant to be the home to him and his family, and now only served as a fortress of solitude, and a symbol to his failure. Angela was gone, his job was gone, and the porn checks would keep the mortgage running for another three months or so before he would be unable to pay more. And he still had almost 100 grand left, on the house, the loan he'd taken to renovate it, the same fucking money that had paid for this miniature pool Angela had insisted for.

It's great for sex, too, honey.

_ _

Jake made a face and slapped his tail against the edge of the tub, no matter the consequences to his rear. His frustrated snarl echoed off the spotless tiled walls and made his ears flatten. His face felt it was burning.

"Shit..." the tiger moaned through his clenched jaws.

He hadn't yet felt this lonely and this desolate, in the empty house. The hollowness of the things he had done today, what had been done to him, the empty promises of the life he had dreamed for him, it all seemed to come crashing down now in a wave of pain...physical pain and anguish that made his body tense and shiver.

"Fuck..." the tiger moaned.

He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to give way to the burn. His throat was already on fire, and his paws clenched down into fists and pressed against his aching belly. The big tiger's body tensed and shuddered with the release of the first gasping sob.

"FUCK!"

The burn didn't get any better, and when Jake blinked, the tears escaped and rolled over his damp cheeks. The burning wetness made him blink rapidly, but it did not help in clearing them. The dams had burst, the tiger thought dully, when another sob tore its way through his throat and into the warm bathroom air.

There was no point in holding it back. He could only hug his own body and rock back and forth in the water, and let it all come out. Jake hated crying. It made him feel weak and unhappy with himself. But he couldn't really see how he could have felt any worse than he already did. Might as well stop feeling ashamed over something that might actually help, at least a little.

It still didn't make crying any easier, but by the time he finished, blinked his reddened eyes and blew his nose, he simply felt too exhausted to carry on with it anymore. His body ached all over now, and his paw trembled when he finally lifted it from the water, to rub over his weary eyes.

The water was starting to feel lukewarm, too, which didn't cheer him up at all. Jake snorted and shook some of the water away from his head, causing furs to spike up. The bath now felt like a bother. He needed to get out and dried before he started to feel cold, Jake decided.

The tiger got out of the tub with a big groan, now that his weary legs had to carry on his weight after his prolonged time among the lifting effects of the water. His tail hung limp and flopped against the edge of the bed when he stepped out. Water dripped anywhere, including on top of his phone, too, Jake noticed when he leaned down to pick up the towel.

"Damn..." the tiger grunted.

The tiger pushed his phone off to the carpet and then used the towel to wipe his face and pat down some of the more copious amounts of water running over his muscled body. He tossed the towel down onto the pile of used ones after he was done, and then slowly walked over to the shower unit. It was one of the expensive types, with sliding doors and massaging water jets, and best of all, it also doubled as a fur drier and saved a lot of space in the bathroom. Much nicer than the open units, too, or a simple paw-held dryer.

Another testament to Angela's insistence on living the high life.

No wonder the economy had capsized, the tiger grunted to himself as he pulled the sliding doors open and stepped into the cabinet. He pressed the illuminated touch-sensitive button on the special high end watertight control console under the showerhead and felt the jets of hot air flush over him even before he got the time to pull the doors shut.

Jake stood there, head hung, tail limb, and holding his limbs away from his body so that the warm air could do its magic over his soaked furs. The warmth felt good, in a way that almost managed to cheer him up. Jake was only glad to get dry and done with the dampness. The warm air was soon starting to ruffle his furs in a sure sign of them slowly becoming more malleable, and dry. The tiger had to adjust his position a little when he realized that one of the air streams was making his buttcrack itch again. His tail flapped against the wall in annoyance.

"Stupid asshole," the tiger grunted, both to himself, and his body.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The nifty EcoSave program terminated after 5 minutes of drying, making Jake's ears flick when the rushing sound was suddenly cut off. For a moment he could only hear his own breathing, steady and deep, and highlighted by the closed quarters of the shower unit.

"Stupid..."

The tiger stepped out and rubbed his footpaws onto the carpet a couple of times to get the remaining wetness of them. Slipping and dying by cracking his head on the bathroom floor would've been a remarkable end to this lousy day, Jake thought dully as he slowly walked over to the sink. The quick glance on the mirror told him that his eyes were bloodshot and his expression was not particularly pleased. Jake averted his eyes before he opened the cabinet door. He didn't really want to see himself now, not in this state. A small light went on when he opened the door and illuminated the few things left in the sink cabinet that Angela hadn't taken when she bailed out with most of their stuff.

"It's your house but I've been buying this stuff here, Jake!"

_ _

Jake grunted as he pushed away a package of definitely forgotten tampons and grabbed a hold of the Tylenol. He popped one of the pills into his paw and then ran some water into his toothbrushing mug, to wash the pill down. He grimaced and rubbed coldw water from his muzzle once he was done. Jake scratched his neck and rumbled when he felt his tailhole clench again, still doing its own thing.

"Fuck..."

The tiger snorted. He knew that there was one more thing he could do, but that was not a particularly attractive opportunity. It still seemed like something he should do. The tiger huffed and slowly walked over to the full-length mirror that was placed between the bathroom cleaning cabinet and the door to the master bedroom. Jake grimaced even before he reached the mirror and felt the coolness of the tiles under his footpads.

The amount of madness in this world surely overwhelmed him sometimes.

"Fucking shit..." the tiger grunted and planted himself in front of the mirror, facing away from it. He took a deep breath, lifted his tail, grabbed his round, muscled rump cheeks, and pulled on them to get a good view on that particular part of his body, when he finally got the nerve to turn around and peek over his shoulder.

He could see the curves of his striped rump cheeks, slowly melting into the almost pure white of his taint, and the outline of his balls, too, hanging low as they were after being soaked in the warm bath. That wasn't really his concern, rather, what was located higher above, near where his fingers were pressing against his rump. The fluffy, slightly damp furs made it a bit difficult to see properly, but he could still catch enough of a glimpse at his tailhole to tell that the skin seemed awfully red.

"Oh, crap..."

Jake frowned and dug his fingertips against his rump to spread them just a little bit more, and arched his back to make sure that he got the best look that he could. The irritated flesh was easy to see, even amidst its protective furs, but much to Jake's relief, it didn't look swollen or anything like that. Just...bad.

"Oh, shit," the tiger muttered as he released himself and walked back over to the sink.

It probably wasn't designed for this, the tiger thought as he rummaged through the upper shelf of the cabinet and pulled out a half-empty tube. The tiger rumbled to himself while he uncapped the tube and the squeezed out some of the white paste over one of his fingerpads. It had a scent to it that almost reminded him of the lubricant he had lathered himself with earlier in the day, and winced at the association. Why did everything had to smell the same, slightly medicinal, and dull? The tiger snorted to get the scent out of his nose and then, with a resigned huff, grabbed a hold of his left rump cheek and lifted his tail to make room for his other paw.

His tailhole reacted about as expected, by clenching when the slick ointment came into contact with the overworked muscle. Jake hissed and almost pulled out, but then decided that he didn't want to do this again, and decided to just go with it. He bit his lip and spread the white stuff over his bare, slightly raw skin, and tried not to flinch at the cold sensation. Jake sure hoped that the zinc oxide would do its trick on that particular part of his body as much as it helped on little nicks on his fingerpads, too. The thought of nicks down there made him grunt and toss the tube down to the sink once he was done. He didn't even bother closing the door once he was done now with his ...treatment.

Jake yawned, scratching his belly on his way to the bedroom. The sight of the cardboard boxers containing his clothes reminded him that he was seriously in need of a new pair of clothes after today...he definitely didn't want to wear the ones he'd had on today again...maybe never again, in fact, the tiger grunted as he went over to the box containing underwear and chose a pair of boxers for himself. He'd need to go to the Laundromat soon, he decided, Angela took the washing machine and he had gone through most of his clothing once again. The pile of smelly used underwear didn't cheer him up at all, and neither did the grumble his stomach did when the boxer elastic snapped against it.

He was famished, he realized, hungry, tired, under the weather, and so damn lonely. Jake put on an oversized T-shirt and shuffled his way downstairs to raid the fridge. The cool puff of air and the sudden brightness of the light made him snort, as much as the sight of the empty plastic wrapper for wieners did. The long-suffering tomatoes and the can of baked beans didn't help much. He should have gone by the supermarket on his way back. No wonder he hadn't felt like eating much recently, especially if the stuff he had piled into his muzzle was like the things he saw in front of his eyes now. And he loved cooking, the tiger reminded to himself, rubbing his empty stomach and contemplating whether he should call for a pizza. Just like in the old days, one half pepperoni, the other with anchovies, because Angela loved pepperoni but couldn't stand Jake's anchovies.

Seems that she couldn't stand him in the end, the tiger grimaced as his brains cancelled the idea of takeaway. Maybe he should just go to sleep, perhaps his head would feel less heavy afterwards. Maybe he'd actually feel like eating, or even going to the 24/7 supermarket for the groceries.

His brain began to hurt from all the maybes. Jake rubbed his arms and leaned heavily against the kitchen counter. The air mattress upstairs would offer about as much comfort as that can of baked beans. The self-hugging didn't help much either. Jake snapped his tail against a side of a kitchen cabinet and snarled.

"Fuck...."

*

Mark had given up on the book hours ago, and polished off three quarters of the wine bottle, too, as he found himself slumped on the couch and watching a rerun of St. Elsewhere on cable. The lion yawned, let his heavy tailtip bat against the small coffee table, and scratched his belly occasionally. His tummy felt warm in that particular way that wine made it feel, and the same could be said about his head, too. Still within what he could call a pleasant stupor, rather than the all-out intoxication he was sure to experience should he indulge in any more of the wine. He wasn't sure whether to welcome the dullness or curse himself for going all out on the wine. It helped staying calm and gathered and not just think about his friend. Stuck in that house and pretending that everything was alright.

Mark knew the tiger well enough to tell that he hadn't told half of it. So typical of him, bottling things up again. That thing hadn't changed a bit, it seemed, the lion mused dully to himself while he watched young and cute Denzel Washington perform CPR on wolf while that creepy guy from 12 Monkeys and Howie Mandel assisted. He wasn't even sure why he'd gotten stuck watching this. The other channel might've had something enlightening such as 16 and Pregnant on. The remote control was on the coffee table, and not within his paw's reach. So close, yet so far...

The ringing of the door buzzer almost made him jump. The lion's eyes opened wide, and he gave a glance at the small panel with its blinking light. His tail flopped against his ankles. The clock on the DVD player said that it was almost nine pm. What was going on?

Mark forced his lazy butt off the couch and quickly walked over to the again buzzing panel. He cleared his throat and pushed down the button.

"Phillips," the lion mumbled.

"Mark?" a familiar voice came crackling through.

The lion's ears flicked rapidly.

"Jake?" he gasped.

"I know I should've called first but I...didn't know what to say," the tiger's filtered voice explained. "Can I come up? Please?"

_ _

"Sure...hold on..." Mark spoke quickly and pressed the button to open the front door downstairs.

"Thanks, buddy."

_ _

The lion released the button once the light went off, and then stood there, breathing quietly. Mark scratched over his muzzle and stared at the wall in front of him. The air he exhaled smelled of wine and almost made him feel embarrassed over the fact that he was about to meet his friend stinking like booze. Jake was most probably in need of some solid friendly presence, not the tipsy placations of an intoxicated lion. Mark grumbled and rubbed his chin and wondered whether he should grab a breath mint or something before Jake got up to his apartment. But then again, he'd told the tiger that he had been drinking, so it'd be a poor excuse, anyway.

It only took a couple of minutes before the doorbell rang, and Mark let the tiger in. The smell of newly washed fur was strong in the lion's nose, as well as something else he couldn't quite name, and his ears flicked rapidly when he heard the big rumble coming from the tall male now filling up his hall.

"Hey," Mark rumbled as he closed the door, "make yourself at home."

The tiger scratched the back of his neck and smacked the nearest wall with his tail.

"Exactly why I had to come," the tiger replied, standing by the wall still, next to Mark's coat rack.

The lion stepped back and gazed at his friend, with a small frown of worry on his face. The tiger seemed so tired, and he was obviously avoiding Mark's eyes, too, only looking at his toes for now. His tail waved and moved unusually much, too, not like the tail of a relaxed individual would behave. That's why ended up simply waving a paw in the direction of the living room, and nodding as well.

"You know where the couch is, I think," the lion mused and managed a smile.

The tiger snuffled.

"Yeah," Jake rasped.

The tiger headed down the corridor and exposed himself for the lion's scrutiny for a few moments, before Mark shook himself out of it and followed. Jake already managed to flop down onto the couch before Mark reached his own living room and stayed on the doorway, watching how the tiger seated himself stiffly. The lion didn't want his mind to go to the reasons as to why.

"Can I get you anything?" the lion questioned softly.

Jake gave him a quick glance.

"I'm starving."

Mark rubbed his chin briefly and then gave a glance over at his kitchen and the food he could potentially serve to the tiger guest.

"I could make you a chicken sandwich."

The tiger smiled wearily.

"I'd kill for one," he mumbled.

The lion chuckled and headed to the kitchen.

"One homicidal chicken sandwich, coming right up!" he announced.

"Thanks, Mark!"

"No problem!" the lion hollered from the kitchen now.

*

A few minutes later, almost half of the crispy bread had already disappeared into the tiger's muzzle, and judging by the rapid chewing, the rest would follow soon after. Mark sat on his own corner of the couch and watched the tiger's mayonnaise-stained work. It was the manner in which a hungry man ate, the lion noted, but kept that observation to himself.

Jake swallowed, rumbled, and licked over his lips to catch some of the mustard-tinged sauce over his tongue before he flicked his ears and let out a big secondary rumble.

"Damn, this is good," the tiger smiled. "I was so damn hungry...I went home and I realized I didn't have any food there...you're a real lifesaver!"

"Glad I could help," Mark replied.

The bread crunched when the tiger again took a huge bite out of it. Mark's ears flicked with surprise, but he remained as he was, bemused and relaxed against the armrest of the couch. The wine made him feel mellow and slightly tingling in his belly, but the feeling that was foremost in his mind was the concern he felt over his friend. He could tell that Jake wasn't doing so well, judging by the simple cues.

His smile was too quick both in appearing and leaving form the tiger's lips. His ears flicked nervously. His tail was still, and didn't move to accentuate his laughter, which too had reduced itself to a rather snappish little burst, over the couple of times it had happened now. The expressions were slightly forced. The eyes lingered on the ceiling.

Mark knew that this would take some time, but the best thing he could do was to be there, and let his best friend come out of it at his own pace. He would do no good by pushing. Pushing never helped with tigers who felt cornered in their own homes. That was the feeling he had gotten now, from how he had said, while waiting for the sandwich, that he couldn't calm down in the safety of his own home. He needed to be elsewhere. Safe, but not home. Mark was glad that he could provide that, besides the sustenance.

Jake swallowed his juicy bite and smacked his lips. Mark's nose wrinkled a little at the strong whiff of garlic and mustard.

"Damn, must be the best thing I ate in months," the tiger rumbled and patted his belly contently. "I've been living on takeaway and crap."

Mark snuffled.

"Isn't that usually the same thing?"

The tiger chuckled briefly and went for another bite and a chew before he spoke again.

"Gotcha," Jake rumbled.

"Do you want anything to drink?" Mark asked after watching the messy eating for a few moments more. "There's water and juice...and wine."

The lion pointed at the bottle on the nearby table. Jake caught a glimpse and the snuffled once he faced the lion again.

"I better not," he said. "Took that Tylenol you suggested. Kinda aching all over by now. Shit, you'd think that only your ass would get sore from that kind of stuff but not me, I guess. Everything's stiff now."

Jake patted his sore thigh and made a small face. The lion's ears flicked sharply at the remark. It made his own chest tense a little. He didn't like that tone at all. Jake had busied himself with his sandwich again, though, which made for a natural lull into the conversation.

"Well, you said it took what, seven hours?" Mark scratched behind his ear and made the statement, based on what the tiger had said before.

Jake nodded.

"Yeah," the tiger snuffled. "From start to...finish, I guess. You'd never think it takes that long, huh?"

Mark felt his own nervous tension intensify, but he managed a mostly calm nod from his part. The tiger was finally opening up a little, and he didn't want to cause him to clam up again because of a poor reaction to what he had to say. He wanted to give him all the support he could, after all. That included staying calm and measured even in the face of things he most certainly did not want to hear.

"Yeah, I guess you don't really think of all that on when actually doing that sort of stuff."

The tiger huffed.

"Yeah," he shook his head again. "All the waiting, too, and staying in one damn position for half an hour to film maybe...five minutes, and they'll maybe use thirty seconds of that in the final product. That's what the others there keep telling me...how most of it always ends up being cut. But still you have to do it."

Mark nodded slowly.

"Well no wonder you're feeling stiff, then," he mused.

"I damn sure am," the tiger kept rubbing his thigh while his other paw held the remains of his delicious sandwich. "It's almost worse than the rest."

Mark flinched a little at the implication, but decided to keep his calm.

"It's not pretty, I'm sure," he noted.

Jake lifted his paw up and rubbed his weary muzzle briefly, ears flicking as he gave himself a good scratch there, too, near the base of that ear. His tail looped about in that slightly nervous way that worrying Mark, too.

"It sure as hell isn't," the tiger groaned. "Mostly just ridiculous and made me feel stupid as fuck. Having to pretend that you like it, and begging for more."

The lion couldn't help but gasp. Hearing that same hollow edge in the voice again, and talking about what must've been one of the biggest selling points of any porn flick, the passionate, dirty talk, in that manner, was almost more unsettling than Mark could have imagined it to be. The lion had expected some sort of a...debriefing to happen, at some point, but the tiger was speaking up much sooner than he would have thought. Mark wasn't sure whether waiting would have made it any easier, either.

"Guess that's how they like it," he spoke quietly.

"Yeah," the tiger snorted. "Made me feel so dirty. Every time."

The tiger scratched his arm, and for a moment it made Mark wonder whether he was feeling so uncomfortable as to actually experience it as a physical sensation of sorts that would manifest itself as itching. Mark knew that feeling - when you were so damn uncomfortable, it almost felt like you wanted to crawl out of your own skin and find a safe haven somewhere else. The lion found himself sorely tempted to put his paw onto his friend's arm, to offer a bit of physical comfort in the most friendly way he knew how to, but he held back. The tiger had had his share of bodily intrusion today, sudden touching could be extra bad for him now, even if coming from his friend.

"But it's over now," Mark stated the fact that was pretty much the only thing that allowed him to keep his calm in the face of this situation.

"It damn right is," Jake snorted and stuffed the rest of the sandwich into his muzzle.

"I'm so glad for that," Mark said, and smiled honestly. It felt good to be able to say that, too.

Jake smacked his lips and then wiped his muzzle on the back of his paw. Now done with the food, the tiger leaned back on the couch and seemed to relax a little more, with at least some nourishment in his system after the long, exhausting day. His tail flicked up between his legs and patted his belly now. Mark smiled at the sight of the familiar gesture. Jake always did that, he remembered, as he watched the striped length play over the tiger's abdomen. Seemed almost normal.

"Yeah, but if it was up to them, I'd still be there," the tiger groaned.

"Hmmm?" Mark's ears perked.

The tiger snorted.

"The boss tried to hire me up for another gig," he said, "some dirty threesome thing, too, and when I said no, he tried to get me do it by raising my pay."

Mark tensed. He could see the tiger's unease, tension over his neck and jaws, and the earlier joviality of the tail was replaced by sharper flicks against Jake's knees.

"How did that go?" he asked cautiously.

The tiger's fingers clenched against his jaw.

"I told him to fuck off and got the hell out of there," the tiger replied. "Nothing else I could have done. The fucker might have offered me something ridiculous and I might have ended up doing it, huh."

The tiger made a face and shook his head again. Mark's ears jumped in surprise.

"Do you mean that?" he spoke quietly.

The tiger gave him a look.

"Huh?"

Mark snorted.

"Would've you really done it if he offered you a lot of money?" the lion stated. "Even if you had told yourself and...and me that you'd stop after this final time?"

The tiger's next breath came out as a snarl, and his tail smacked against the coffee table. Jake grimaced, which caused the lion's brow to furrow as well. The tiger shook his head quickly and let it rest against his paw. His teeth flashed between his lips, briefly, when he grunted again.

"Frankly, Mark, I wouldn't have put it beyond me if he had offered me a bit more than what he did," the tiger sighed and covered his eyes with his paw.

Mark watched how the tiger's head tilted down and he breathed deep, rattling breaths. The tense cat groaned and kept up the pressure of his paw against is face, and his cheeks puffed out. Marks' ears flicked when he heard the sound of the tiger's teeth grinding together. His breathing started to sound painful.

Cold terror began to seep into the lion's consciousness as he watched the tiger shake and tremble, while his breaths flowed rapidly. He was almost wheezing now, and for a moment Mark feared that the tiger was going to start hyperventilating. His paws clenched into fists and pressed against his belly tensely. The tiger let out a pained snarl.

"Fffff....fuck..." the tiger groaned, and then, the sob came.

The lion couldn't bear to watch it for long. He scooted over and put an arm over the tiger's shaking shoulders, and let his physical presence offer whatever comfort it could, while Jake snarled and sobbed against his paw.

Neither of them counted the minutes it took for Jake's breathing to steady before he put his paw down, snorted, and gave the lion a pained, sideways glance.

"Sorry," the tiger muttered.

Mark squeezed on the tiger's arm, softly, and whispered.

"You've nothing to apologize to me, Jake. Don't worry."

The tiger snorted.

"I'm crying to my best friend over the fact that I almost became a professional whore," Jake sniffled. "I think that makes me a sorry fuck."

The lion repeated his squeeze on the tiger's shoulder and rumbled loudly.

"The only thing I can't stand is you being sorry for yourself," Mark muttered. "Don't start now, please."

The tiger's ears flattened and he let out another pained grunt, and avoided the lion's eyes.

Mark snuffled.

"Well you asked for this..." the lion muttered and put his arms properly around the tiger.

Jake tensed momentarily, but rather than pushing his friend away, he soon had his own arms about the lion's waist. The tall cat leaned close and laid his chin against Mark's chin, and simply breathed deeply. Much to the lion's relief, he could not hear sobs, nor feel shaking to indicate more silent agony, which were...promising facts, considering that he'd just witnessed another bout of pain and suffering with his friend. The tiger held onto him tight, and Mark paid back in kind, by rubbing his paws slowly over his friend's potentially very stiff back.

The tiger rumbled quietly, and eventually let his breaths soften all the way into a purr, an occasional one, but it was there, breath stroking Mark's neck while he held the tired cat close to himself. The tension seemed to be on decrease, which made the lion feel better, but he still knew that a lot of still existed, hiding just beneath the slowly re-composing surface.

"Uhm...Mark?"

The lion tilted his head a little, to look at the tiger whose muzzle still hadn't moved away from his shoulder.

"Yeah?" the lion rumbled.

"You wouldn't happen to have a silk hankie hanging off your back pocket or anything?" the tiger murmured. "I kinda need to sneeze badly."

Mark's eyes widened, and he leaned back a little, to look the tiger in the eye properly. Jake seemed tired, and those eyes had definitely seen better days, too, but there was a weary smile over his lips. Its presence made it feel safe for the lion to put a sufficiently outraged face onto his own features.

"Sorry, hankie code kinda didn't survive it when cruising moved over to the internet," the lion rumbled and patted the tiger's shoulders. "But I've got plenty of kitchen roll. I'll get you some."

The tiger nodded and let his paws fall from the lion's waist.

"Thanks, buddy."

Mark got up to his slightly stiff legs and made a quick tour into the kitchen to fetch the paper towel. The tiger accepted it with a courteous smile and made a trumpet-like noise with his sneezing. Mark could see him dab the corners of his eyes, too, from his position back in the couch, while he gave the tiger the relative privacy he needed. He crumpled the paper in his paw and dropped it to the coffee table next to the lion's book and TV remote. Then he yawned again, and rumbled loudly, ears flicking about.

"Are you tired?"

"Horribly," the belly-scratching tiger snuffled. "I woke up really early and...well, I didn't really sleep much, either."

Mark nodded.

"You are free to crash here," he said, patting the backrest of the couch. "Heck, you can stay as long as you like, you know that."

The tiger's ears jumped up and down, and he rubbed his chin before he spoke in a quiet voice.

"I kinda hoped you'd invite me in for the night," he breathed, looking at the lion only sideways now. "Just didn't want to..."

Mark patted the tiger's arm.

"It's alright," he spoke quickly before the tiger could have a chance to balk.

The tiger finally turned to face his friend, and let out a deep breath.

"Quite frankly, I doubt I could have slept there tonight," the tiger rumbled, shaking his head. "It felt so damn empty and I just couldn't....I couldn't even breathe in there, Mark."

The tiger's ears went flat against his skull as the next rumble coursed through his throat. Mark hurried to nod, and rubbed the conveniently placed paw up and down over the tiger's tense arm.

"Well I hope you feel a bit better about sleeping under my roof," the lion mused. "You're most welcome."

"Thanks," the tiger replied with a small smile. "It really means a lot to me, buddy."

"We've always helped each other out when we've needed it, Jake," Mark replied with the same conviction that allowed him to act as calmly as he did. "There's no question of it."

Jake patted the paw on his arm with his own and left it there.

"Thanks...I don't think I could've gone through any of this without you."

The lion snorted and squeezed on the tiger's arm.

"If you'd come to me right away when you started having troubles, you might have been spared from all of it, Jake," the lion spoke solemnly. "But before you start agonizing over it again and apologizing, I'm telling you that I'm forgiving your macho attitude, just this time."

The lion smiled, briefly, and waited.

Jake frowned and growled, even briefly baring his teeth, but he did not pull away from his friend, nor made a move to retort sharply. He simply shook his head and then hung it down.

"I know."

"That's why you're forgiven, Jake. As long as you promise not to do a crazy stunt like this again, ok?"

The tiger flapped his tail against Mark's ankles and groaned.

"I know."

"Come on then," the lion declared. "Let's get some bedclothes for you, and check out if I have a spare toothbrush you can use. Do you want to take a shower?"

The tiger snuffled and scooted a little to the other side of the couch, their hug-moment over, for now.

"I had that long hot bath, remember?" he snuffled. "And I showered extra carefully after the goddamn...filming."

The tiger let out a proper big cat hiss and grumbled under his breath.

"Alright," the lion muttered. "We better get into it, then. It's pretty late and I have to work in the morning. Do you need to be anywhere tomorrow?"

Jake chuckled darkly.

"Not even a porno shoot. Nothing."

Mark grimaced at the renewed mention of the day's terrible events, but wouldn't hang onto the dry remark.

"Alright. I'll try not to wake up you up in the morning so that you can sleep in and then let yourself out whenever you feel like getting out of bed," the lion smiled with quiet determination.

The tiger snuffled.

"Will you trust me not to pawn off your TV behind your back?" Jake winked.

The lion chuckled and enjoyed the feeling in his belly, when he did.

"Well now that you mention it..."

*

Mark was floating comfortably on the edge of sleep and awareness, quietly glad for the effects of the wine. He might have lost the buzz, but his earlier consumption was now providing a gentle way into the land of dreams after his more a little stressful evening. The pillow felt nice, the duet was comfortable, and his tail was tucked over his knees so that it would not flop out of the bed in the middle of the night and cause him to wake up to a strange falling sensation. Evolutionary vestiges could be a real bitch for a city cat.

There was no falling now, though, except for falling asleep, and the lion intended to do that soon. He was curled up on his side and ready to call it a day. Maybe he could actually do some work tomorrow. Or today, maybe. Mark had the feeling that he had been tossing around enough for the day to change into a Wednesday. Maybe he should check the time from his phone again. Just once more...or not. He could do without knowing just how many hours remained before his 6:45 wakeup call.

Almost unconscious or not, there was no way he could have missed the sound of the door opening. His ears flicked against the pillow, but the lion remained still, breathed out slowly, and listened carefully. The stillness in the room had been temporarily broken, but then it was quiet again.

Maybe he imagined it. A sleepy mind could play tricks on an exhausted cat, surely. What was a little creak to the imaginative mind of a grown man with a bit of wine and dreams in his blood?

"Mark?"

Now his eyes opened, and his ears went flat again. That wasn't just a random noise, that was voice, and it sent a small wave of alarm through his body. Furs over the lion's neck spiked when his body geared up and allowed him to tilt his head a little to train his eyes and ears towards the source of the voice.

The bedroom door was open, and whatever little light there was allowed him to see the outline of the tiger, standing on the foot of the bed. He could hear his breathing now, edged with rumbles, louder than it should be.

Mark rolled onto his back and braced himself on his paws, under the blanket, ready to get up if he would need to.

"Jake?" the lion whispered.

The tall shadow of the cat let out a gasp and a whimper.

Mark blinked.

"Jake?"

He already grabbed the edge of the duvet in order to fold it away, when the tiger moved, simply stepping over onto the bed and then kneeling down on the foot of the bed. The springs undulated under the weight of the tiger, crouching on the bed.

"Jake, are you alright?"

The tiger let out another deep, dark sound, and then he moved again. His shifting body pressed onto the duvet and caused strange pressures over the lion's body, now quickly tensing up with this intrusion. It was part instinct, part shock, of course, and his extreme worry for his friend.

"Jake?"

The tiger's paws landed on either side of his head, and his muzzle came down, to hover inches away from Mark's own. He could smell the toothpaste, and feel the warmth, and his whiskers itched from the sheer heat of that breath landing over his face. The lion let out a surprised gasp.

"I just..."

The tiger's whisper was barely audible over the wheezing snarl that erupted from his throat. Mark let out a surprised breath and tried to get his paws out from under the duvet, to get them onto the tiger's shoulders for support. To try to make him snap out of this whatever it was.

"Jake..."

The tiger's muzzle pressed against his own, weightily, and with his hot breath flowing against Mark's suddenly flushed face. His ears flapped against his crown, and a surprised gasp escaped. This wasn't happening.

The lips moved, away from his chin and aimed higher, and finally touched the lion's own, dry pair, and pressed onto them. Mark's muzzle fell open at the sudden touch, and his paws, struggling to be relieved of the dungeon of his covers, stilled, out of sheer shock.

A big, warm paw cupped his chin and held onto it while the lips remained still, unmoving over Mark's own, but they were definitely there, soft pressure over the panting lion's whispering skin. He was frozen in the moment, heart racing to new speeds while the contact remained...lingered...and then disappeared, and was replaced by a hot snarl and a puff of breath against his burning face.

The tiger was panting too.

"Please don't tell me to go," the tiger whispered, still so damn close and making it difficult for the lion to breathe.

Mark blinked and finally wrestled a paw free from under his sandwiched duvet, and pressed it against the tiger's wrist, the same that was still holding onto his muzzle, cupping it in a warm grip.

"What are you doing, Jake?" the lion rumbled, trying to see the tiger's eyes in the darkness of the room. All he got was a hint of a glint in them, and nothing more. No expression.

The tiger whimpered and kissed him again, on the lips. This time the lion grabbed Jake's shoulder with his other newly released paw and pushed him away.

"Jake!"

The tiger panted all over his face, and the tension rolling through him could be felt under the lion's grasping fingers. He could hear the tiger's tail flapping against the bed in agitation.

"I...need to know..." the tiger whispered.

"Jake?" the lion replied, unsure what his friend meant...unsure and scared of the whole situation.

The tiger snarled again, and another wave of painful tension coursed through his body, causing him to press down on the lion. Mark let out a surprised grunt, when the heavy male pressed onto him, their bodies coming together now. Jake's chin lingered an inch away from the lion's own.

"I need to know it feels good for you...I need to know..."

"Know what?" the lion gasped, still unable to move under the weight of the tiger.

"Just hold me tonight...please..." Jake whispered. "Please..."

"Jake..."

"I know you love me..." the tiger mumbled. "Nobody else loves me anymore...and I need the only fur in this world who loves me to hold me...please..."

The lion gasped. The helpless tone, the heat, the pressure...they were all getting to him, fast...making his body respond in strong ways that he knew so well...the warmth under his skin...the pain in his throat...

He didn't stop the tiger when the kiss happened, but he did not return it, either. When Jake lifted his muzzle away, his paw landed on the scruff surrounding the tiger's cheeks, and held there.

"Jake," the lion panted, "I do love you...and I will hold you...goddamn I'm going to hold you..."

The lion didn't like how his voice sounded like...broken, and his cheeks burned, too...but he couldn't keep it down. It felt too strange. Too good as well.

"...but you don't have to kiss me to...to be held..." he whispered.

"I do," the tiger whispered passionately.

"Jake..."

The tiger growled, and snapped his teeth together.

"You've no idea how bad this thing's made me feel..." the tiger murmured, huskily, and through a constricting throat, "...how...how easy it'd be to hate not only myself but...all of you..."

The lion shuddered.

"Oh Jake..."

Their chins touched.

"Does it feel good when I kiss you?" the tiger whimpered.

"Jake, you're not - "

"Yes or no, Mark?" the tiger's lips trembled as he made the question, his body heavy against the lion's.

The lion's fingers clenched against the tiger's whispy mane.

"Jake, why do you do this?"

The tiger snarled.

"I just need to know..." he panted, "I just need to know I'm not as disgusting as I feel..."

The head leaned closer again, but Mark held fast. His other paw pressed against the tiger's side, and pushed.

"JAKE!" the lion yelped, his heavy tail smacking against the tiger's legs.

The tiger's muzzle fell against his shoulder and let out the painful sob that had been threatening to escape for a long time now. His body slumped against the lion's and shuddered.

"Oh, Jake..."

Mark could do precious little but to put his arms around the tiger and hold him as close as he could, just like he had promised before.

*