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Aug 25

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Coyote Ugly

Summary: The pain of Ari’s transformations starts to take a physical toll, forcing Dale to make a potentially relationship-killing step to help her.

The uncut grass of the field was just below Ari’s chin, brushing by her shoulders on either side. It felt a little like wading through shallow water but with the added benefit of Smells. Bugs, grass, pollen, soil, spilled sugary snacks all combined to fill her head with their odors. She pushed past them, ignoring the distraction as she reached the street. Shards of broken beer bottles littered the curb and she carefully avoided them as she walked toward her destination.

Spider Auto Works was a two-story building converted into a garage. The main door, large enough to accommodate three cars side by side, stood open. Doors along the right side of the bay led to offices, and to the left was an open workspace separated by pillars and tall red toolboxes. She could hear work being done at the far end of the bay as she slipped inside. She moved carefully but the sound of her toenails clicking on the concrete sounded impossibly loud to her. She stayed low and used the cars to block herself from sight.

The voices were still on the other side of the bay. She let herself into one of the offices and stood on her hind legs to peer over the desk. She didn’t see anything worth mentioning, so she dropped down and went back out to the garage area. The little black bag she had strapped around her neck bumped her leg as she moved, but she was able to ignore it as she scanned the cars being worked on.

“–anybody says. You gonna call this one?”

“Yeah. I’ll have to finish it in the morning. Have you called Wyatt?”

Ari found a shadowy spot and slipped into it, ducking down and getting comfortable. She could see two men in greasy blue coveralls. They put away their tools and closed the cars they were working on, making idle small talk about some woman named Annie. They went into one of the offices and came back a few minutes later dressed in street clothes. They turned out the overhead lights, leaving a few on as a deterrent to thieves. Ari waited until the rumble of their truck engines faded before she left her hiding place.

She walked into the locker room and transformed, ending up naked on the floor. She pushed herself up and yelped in pain, falling to the side as she clutched at her shoulder. It felt like someone had slipped a razor between her shoulder blades, and moving made it twist against the muscle. She sucked in a breath through clenched teeth, holding her shoulder where it angled to meet her neck. When the pain subsided, she used a changing bench to pull herself up.

The lockers were open, so she grabbed a pair of coveralls that looked like they would fit her. She put them on and took the fanny pack off her neck. Inside was an iPhone. Dale had taught her how to use it and Ari punched the buttons until the list of VIN numbers appeared. “Why do they have to make those numbers so long?” She sighed and slipped out of the office.

The first car she checked was on the list, as was the second. They were partially hidden under tarps, and she covered them up again after she took a photo. She was checking a third car when she heard someone pull up outside. She cursed and ran to the far side of the garage. There was a rusty metal ladder that led up to an equally shaky-looking catwalk. Ari ascended, ignoring the sharp pains in her back as she climbed. She had just laid down when the garage door rolled up and a fleet of cars rolled in.

Five cars in all ended up parked underneath her. The man who had opened the door pulled it back down and secured it. The drivers climbed out of their cars and pulled the toolboxes over so they could get to work. Ari stayed against the stone wall, moving as slowly as possible so as not to draw attention. She sent a text message to Dale so she’d know what was going on and got comfortable. The men worked quickly, like a time-lapse video of urban decay. They stripped the cars, delivered various parts to boxes marked with Sharpie, and left the husks behind.

The back garage door was opened and several of the men were tasked with towing the remnants out into the scrap yard behind the shop. Ari took photos of the whole process, trying to get faces whenever possible. Finally, two hours after they arrived, the men put the toolboxes back where they had been before and started to clean up. The man who seemed to be a supervisor went into the office where he did something for five minutes, then returned. “Jo-Jo says we’ll have to skip tomorrow. Someone’s filed for overtime.”

“Can we afford that?”

“We’re gonna have to. C’mon, get everything out of here. Joe doesn’t want anything left behind when the law-abiders show up tomorrow.”

When they left, the silence was sudden and complete. Ari pushed away from the wall and both calves cramped from crouching so long. She hissed and dropped back into a seated position, rubbing one calf and then the other until the muscles cooperated. She caught her breath, shook her head, and climbed down the ladder.

She stripped out of the borrowed coveralls and hung them in the locker again. She sat on the bench and rested her elbows on her knees, hunched forward with the fanny pack dangling from her neck, and took a deep breath. Her skin rippled, and all of her muscles seemed to clench at once. Her lips pulled back in a feral grimace and she dropped onto her hands and knees, panting as the pain ripped through her body. She watched her hands twist and change and a thought occurred to her. A horrible, sickening thought.

She forgot to unlock the door.

Her bones snapped, and her skin erupted in thick brown hair. She bit back the urge to howl as she writhed and kicked. After what felt like an hour, but was really just over a minute, Ari pushed herself back to all four feet and shook herself. She walked shakily into the garage and began searching for a way out. She paused and smelled the air. Stray cat was heavy in the northeast corner, so she headed that way. She passed scents that dogs and other animals had left, and slipped behind a large piece of machinery. A hose for an exhaust fan had slipped loose, and there was a gap just barely wide enough for her to scramble through to the outside.

Once she was finally free, her body had recovered enough from the transformation that she could run.

Dale was parked three blocks away, far enough that the people from the garage wouldn’t notice or get suspicious of her. Running, it felt like three miles. Ari was panting by the time she got back to the car, pawing at the door until Dale leaned across the passenger seat to open it for her. She climbed into the seat and used her front paw to push the strap of the fanny pack off.

“Ari? What happened? Are you okay?”

Ari yelped and howled, nodding her head before she settled in the seat. Dale stroked the flat plane of Ari’s head, scratching between her ears.

“Did you have a blackout? Your clothes are in the backseat.”

Ari barked quietly and whimpered. She placed her head on her paws in what she hoped was a meaningful way.

“Okay.” Dale opened the fanny pack and withdrew the phone. She checked the list, ran down the photos Ari had taken, and smiled. “Excellent work. You did well.” She looked over and her smile faded. “Want to go to the office?”

Ari barked and dipped her head.

“All right.”

Ari rested while Dale drove. She let the vibration of the car soothe her, calming her mind. In the wolf form, music sounded odd to her. Her favorite song could be reduced to a trembling hum of static and hisses, but the radio was comforting nonetheless. When they got to the office, Dale let Ari out of the car and led her up the stairs to their office. She unlocked the door and tossed her phone and everything onto her desk.

She opened the inner office door and Ari dragged herself inside. Dale sat on the couch and held Ari’s head in her hands. “It hurt, didn’t it? Changing when you got to the garage? You need me to do anything? Ice?”

Ari whimpered.

“Okay. You go ahead and change.” She took the afghan off the back of the couch and draped it over Ari’s shoulders. Ari dropped her head and began breathing heavily. She rocked her head back and forth as if disagreeing with Dale about something. Then her entire body trembled, her legs shot out in front of her, and she began to shake uncontrollably. “I’m right here,” Dale said. Ari cried out, her voice human but tinged with a canine growl, as pain shot up both legs and through her back.

She was sweating when she finally lay on the ground. Dale adjusted the blanket until it covered her from thigh to shoulder, and Ari laced her hands on the back of her head like she was about to get arrested. Dale stroked her hair and Ari, without warning, began to sob. Dale whispered that it was okay and got up, took some clothes from the wardrobe in the corner, and carried them over to where Ari was lying.

“Need anything to drink?”

“Water.”

Dale left to retrieve the water, and Ari dressed. It was just a tank top and sweatpants, but it made her feel a little more human. She moved gingerly, stretching out on the couch so she could sink into the cushions. She sighed with relief, and Dale reappeared with a large bottle of water and a small bottle of aspirin. Ari took two pills and swallowed them, washing them down with a long drink of water. Dale sat on the couch next to Ari’s hip and touched her arm.

“Bad one?”

“Bad couple.”

Dale nodded. “How long has it been? How many transformations have you had without a massage?”

Ari remembered the massage she had gotten from Sadie and then quickly pushed it out of her mind. “I don’t know. A half-dozen.”

“Ari.”

“Okay, maybe a dozen. I don’t know. I don’t keep count.”

They were quiet for a long moment. Dale was looking across the office out the window, and Ari was trying to drift to sleep so the pain would magically disappear upon waking. Finally, Dale said, “Roll over.”

“What?”

“Take off your shirt and roll over.”

Ari shook her head. “Natalie wouldn’t like that.”

“I’m not going to let you get crippled. I know massages don’t magically heal you, but they help. They help a lot.”

“You shouldn’t.”

“Either do it now and enjoy the relief, or I’ll wait until you pass out from the pain and do it anyway. How’d you like that, you big baby?”

Ari stared at her for a moment and then reluctantly rolled over on the couch. Dale helped her out of the shirt, and Ari used it as a pillow. Dale’s weight, familiar and comforting, settled in the small of her back. “Does that hurt?”

“Feel good.”

Dale put her hands on Ari’s shoulders and squeezed. Her thumbs worked the knots out of her muscles, following the line of her spine down before spreading out. Her fingers danced, applying pressure exactly where it was needed before moving on to the next spot. Ari sagged into the cushions, lips parted in a silent gasp of relief as her muscles were kneaded into complacency. Their shouts turned into contented murmurs, and her body seemed to turn from stone into clay. Dale touched Ari’s neck, moved down her arms. She held Ari’s hand and used her thumb on the palm. Ari never knew a hand could be massaged, but Dale was an expert.

Her upper body was so relaxed, the comfort so complete, that Ari didn’t complain when her sweatpants were dragged down. She was wearing panties, so she wasn’t naked as Dale massaged her thighs and calves. They had done this dozens of times, but something made it feel scandalous now. Dale had massaged her while she was dating Lisa. Ari had been massaged by Dale while she was dating someone else.

It wasn’t romantic. It was a medical procedure, as sexual as getting her temperature taken. But she couldn’t deny that she was getting turned on as Dale kneaded the tight muscles of her thighs. She felt loose, more relaxed than she had in ages, and she cleared her throat as Dale started to massage her feet.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“Of course. How do you feel?”

“Almost normal.”

Dale tugged Ari’s sweats back up, and Ari squirmed back into her tank top before she rolled over. “Thanks, Dale.”

“You need a ride home?”

“No. I’m too exhausted. I’ll just crash here.”

Dale lay down in the crook of Ari’s arm, pushing her hair out of her face as she looked up at the wall. There was a framed concert poster hanging next to the couch, and Dale examined it closely. “When did you see Elvis Costello?”

“The date is on the poster.” She breathed deep and got a whiff of Dale’s perfume. She turned her head to smell it better. “You were out of town with Lisa. Trying to save the romance.”

“Oh, right. Bailing water from a sinking ship.”

Ari smiled. She put her hand on Dale’s shoulder and rubbed it in a minimalist massage. “You should have Natalie give you a rubdown some night. Does wonders.”

“So you really feel better?”

“A thousand percent. Thank you, Dale.”

Dale yawned. “My pleasure. I’m glad I can make you feel better.”

“Yeah.”

They lay in silence for a long time.

“You should head home.”

“Mm.”

Ari scooted to one side and Dale took the extra room, rolling over to face Ari. They laced their arms together, holding each other on the couch as they both stopped fighting sleep and drifted off.

#

The afghan from the couch was draped over them, Dale’s head cradled against Ari’s chest. Ari woke first and looked down. Dale cuddled closer and Ari stroked her back before she looked around the office. “Uh-oh.” She kissed the top of Dale’s head. “Dale? Dale, wake up, hon.”

“Mm.” Dale kissed Ari’s chest next to the strap of her tank top. She began to lick, and Ari pushed her gently away.

“Dale, stop.”

“Ari?”

“Shit, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Dale pulled away and rolled off the couch, standing up before she looked down to confirm she was fully-dressed. Ari sat up as well, keeping the afghan tangled on her lap as she pushed her hair out of her face. “It’s not the worst.”

“No.” Dale scratched the tip of her nose and then put her hands on her hips. “It’s not bad. It’s just something…” She sighed. “If we’d done this a month ago, we wouldn’t even think anything of it.”

“Right. We’re friends, and we were exhausted. It’s not like there are two couches in here.”

“Yeah. And Natalie wouldn’t have wanted me driving when I was half-asleep anyway. I could have gotten into an accident.”

Ari stood up and put her hands on Dale’s shoulders. “It’ll be fine. Don’t–“

She was interrupted by music coming from the outer office.

“Damn it. That’s Natalie.” She stepped around Ari and went to her desk, snatching up her phone. “Hey, hi. Morning.”

Ari leaned against the office door and watched her.

“No. Are you… shit, you’re at my place. No, Ari and I got finished with work really, really late. She didn’t want me driving home, so she let me crash on the couch at the office.” She winced at the lie and then forced a laugh. “Well, technically I was at work. I’ll ask her about overtime. Maybe we can meet somewhere halfway for breakf–” She listened. “Oh. Yeah. That would be, that would be fine. Yeah, I’m still wearing the clothes from yesterday. Could you let yourself into my place and get me something else to wear? Thank you. I’ll see you in about twenty minutes. Bye. Love you.”

She hung up and kept her back to Ari.

“She has a key to your place?”

“Yeah, of course.”

Ari pushed away from the door. “I should go. If she sees me here dressed like this, she might get the wrong impression.”

“Right. Ari…” Ari stopped at the door. “I’m not sorry. If it screws things up with Natalie, then so be it. But you were hurting and I made you feel better. No matter what happens, I want you to know that I wouldn’t change anything.”

“Good. I may have worn a few more clothes when we fell asleep…”

Dale laughed. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

Ari waved and left the office. She didn’t know what was going to happen when Natalie showed up, if Dale would come clean or pretend nothing happened. Either way, Ari didn’t particularly want to be there when it happened.

#

Dale changed in Ari’s office, smoothing down the sweater Natalie had brought her as she went back out into the front office. In her absence, Natalie had cleared off the center section of Dale’s desk and set up their take-out breakfast like it was a fancy dinner. Dale smiled. “You spoil me.”

“I do what I can.” They kissed hello again, and Dale sat on the visitor’s side of the desk. Her knees touched Natalie’s. Natalie was already dressed for work in pale blue scrubs, her hair pulled back into a frizzy ponytail. Natalie started to eat, but Dale rubbed her thigh.

“Can we, um, talk real quick?”

“Is something wrong?”

“Kind of. I don’t know. I mean, there’s just something I have to tell you, and I’m not sure how you’ll react.”

Natalie widened her eyes dramatically. “That sounds ominous. What’s going on?”

Dale cleared her throat. “Last night, Ari didn’t exactly invite me to crash on the couch. We finished working really late, and she was hurting incredibly bad. So I gave her a massage and then we sort of… fell asleep together on the couch in her office.” She kept her hand on Natalie’s leg. “I know this is a lot to throw at you over breakfast, but the longer I went without telling you, the more it felt like a lie. Nothing happened. There’s nothing to interpret or read into it. She’s my friend, and she was hurting. I did what was in my power to make her feel better.” She pressed her lips together and leaned back, waiting for Natalie to speak.

“The massage. She was topless?”

Dale nodded. “Yeah.”

Natalie’s fork hovered over her plate, as if she was trying to decide if she really wanted eggs or not. Finally she put down her fork. “And then you slept together.”

“We… well, yes, I suppose we slept together. But we didn’t sleep together.”

“That’s a fine line, Dale.”

Dale frowned. “No, it’s not. We fell asleep together–“

“In each other’s arms? I’ve seen that couch, Dale. It’s not exactly wide open spaces. That seems just as intimate as doing it all.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for the next time,” Dale said. She closed her eyes and immediately shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I’m just saying that… this is what my life with Ari is like. Occasionally I’m going to give her a backrub. Once in a while we might sleep in the same bed. She’s my best friend.”

Natalie leaned back in her chair and folded her hands. “Okay. So let’s get it all out. Why don’t you tell me how far you and Ari have gone and I’ll see if I can handle it.”

Dale felt a twinge of panic. “That’s not necessary.”

“If I have to accept how you and Ari act when you’re together, I should know what I’m getting into. Have you had sex with her?”

“No.”

“Kissed her? I mean, a romantic, tongues involved kiss.”

Dale remembered arriving home from her day with Lisa. “Yes. But it was… I was vulnerable.”

“So she preyed on you?”

No. I just meant that we both needed something that night, and a kiss was a comfort to us both. It had been a really long day for both of us. I’d just found out that a woman I had a very long relationship with is dying of cancer, and Ari had spent–“

“What?”

“She spent the day not knowing where I was.”

“Poor Ari.”

Dale stood up. “This isn’t some sordid affair. We slept on the same couch.”

“After you gave her a massage. Can you understand how that might be a little… weird to me? So you’ve made out with Ari, we’ve confirmed that. Have you seen her naked outside of the massage?”

She was naked the first time I ever saw her. “Yeah. You’ve seen her naked, too. At the junkyard, with the–“

“Please, don’t remind me. I’m still having nightmares about that hallucination.” She had folded a napkin in her lap before she started eating, but she wadded that up and tossed it onto the desk. “That’s something you should consider, Dale. When I was high on that gas, your boss looked like a… a monster.”

“Wolf,” Dale said softly. She realized what she had done and quickly covered. “Y-you said it was a wolf when you were telling me about it.”

“Wolf, monster. Again, a very thin line.” She stood up and put her hands on Dale’s shoulders. “I know you said that what happened at the junkyard wasn’t typical, but that doesn’t help me sleep at night. I don’t want to be the girlfriend who tells you that you have to quit your job. But sweetie…”

Dale reached up and covered Natalie’s hands with hers. “Are you worried about what might happen to me on a case, or what might happen between me and Ari?”

“I’m scared… that I won’t… be able to compete with her. You two apparently have a very special bond. You put yourself into these dangerous situations for her, and I know you’ll do it again if you have to. I want to be the person you’re willing to put your life on the line for. But to be honest, I just want a normal life. I want to get off work at five, go out for dinner, go home to fuck your brains out, and then watch the late news before we fall asleep.”

My boss can transform into a wolf. You’ll never have a normal life with me. Never, ever. Dale swallowed and put her forehead against Natalie’s.Unless I leave. Unless I quit this job and get a job as your receptionist. Leave Ari twisting in the wind.

“Ari needs me.”

“Maybe I need you more.”

Dale kissed Natalie. They held each other, neither of them wanting to be the first to let go. Dale thought of what might happen if she quit. Would Ari find someone to take her place? God, the thought made her tremendously sad. Someone else sitting at her desk, waiting in the car for Ari to come back. But she knew that would never happen. Ari would never trust anyone as much as she trusted Dale. Their foundation was too strong. If Dale tried to pull away, it would be like tapping a house of cards.

Dale finally broke the kiss. “I can’t leave her.”

“Then I don’t think I can stay.”

Dale grabbed Natalie’s arms. “Don’t make me choose between you. Please.”

“Oh, Dale.” Natalie kissed her forehead. “You already chose.”

Dale let her hands fall away as Natalie went back to her desk. She gathered up her food, replacing it in the container and slipping it into the bag.

“Don’t go.”

“I have to go, Dale.”

“Please.”

The office door opened and Ari stepped inside. Dale closed her eyes and turned away, wiping at her cheeks to erase the tears she’d only just realized were there. Natalie kept her back to the door. After a long silence, Ari said, “Hey, Natalie.”

“I’ll be out of your hair in a second.”

“What’s going on?”

“Things will be going back to normal around here for you, Ariadne. Congratulations.”

Ari was quiet. Dale turned and watched as Natalie went to the door. Ari didn’t move out of her way, looking at Dale before she met Natalie’s gaze.

“I’m a werewolf. Dale helps me when I transform.”

Natalie stared at her and then looked at Dale. Dale didn’t know how she looked, but it must have been quite an expression. Natalie looked back at Ari.

“You’re insane.”

Ari had bought herself breakfast, and she handed the bag to Dale. Before Dale could deduce the plan, Ari began to transform. She dropped the bag and took a step forward before she stopped herself. “Ari, no!”

Natalie retreated to the desk, her eyes widening as she watched Ari’s skin ripple. “Stop it, make her stop it, Dale!”

“It doesn’t work that way.” Dale’s voice was a whisper. She started crying again; she hated to watch Ari transform. It was sickening, and knowing how painful it was made her throat close up. She knelt next to Ari and put a hand on her back, holding her as she completed transforming. Her shirt had ripped during the transformation, and Dale helped her get it and her sweatpants off. Ari shook herself, ruffling her hair as she looked up at Natalie.

Natalie sagged against the desk. Dale got up and grabbed her just as she fainted and her legs gave out. Dale cradled Natalie, lowering her to the ground before glaring at Ari.

“A little warning would have been nice.”

Ari huffed and lay down with her head on her paws.

#

Dale got Natalie onto the couch without help from Ari, who had transformed back into her normal form as soon as the pain subsided. She went to the bathroom and got a wet towel, and Dale lightly patted Natalie’s forehead with it. “Do you think we should call a doctor or–“

“Dale?” Natalie stirred slightly, turning her head toward Dale’s voice without opening her eyes. She pushed herself up and frowned. “God. I think I hit my head.”

“No, you just fell down. I caught you.”

Natalie nodded. “Oh. I–” She opened her eyes and caught sight of Ari. Her eyes widened and she pressed against the back of the couch. “No. Get her away from me. Get her back.”

Dale put her hands on Natalie’s shoulders. “Hey, no. It’s okay.”

“She’s a… a…”

“The proper term is canidae,” Ari supplied. “But you’re probably going for werewolf. It’s okay if you want to call me that. It’s not derogatory.”

Natalie’s voice turned into a low growl. “Werewolves do not exist.”

Dale nodded. “Yeah. They do.”

Natalie suddenly jerked away from Dale, looking at her warily. “What are you?”

“I-I’m… I’m not anything. I just help Ari. When she changes, sometimes the wolf mind takes over. She needs me to help her with things like clothes, getting her out of dangerous situations, bailing her out. I once had to claim her at a kennel.” She cleared her throat. “And sometimes I give her massages. I don’t know how bad it hurts, but I can guess. Imagine having your entire skeleton reformed into a dog’s. Try and imagine all of your muscles being twisted into new arrangements. I don’t give her massages for the titillation, I do it because otherwise she’ll be crippled by the time she turns forty.”

Natalie was still staring at Ari as if waiting for her to start barking. Ari slipped off the desk. “I probably shouldn’t be here for this.”

“No, Ari. Please stay,” Dale said.

Natalie muttered, “Sit, stay. Good girl.”

Ari pointed a finger at her. “That is derogatory.”

“Oh, did I hurt the puppy’s feelings?”

Dale bristled. “Stop it.”

Natalie stood up and stood one step away from Dale. “She’s worse than I thought, Dale. She really is a monster. And you’re just along for the ride? Really? How long do you think that will last? How long do you think it’ll be before her dog brain takes over like you said and she attacks you? Or until she gets confused and bites your hand? It happens all the time.”

“I would never hurt Dale.”

“Okay, then. How about me? What if you go all-dog and decide I’m not good enough for Dale? What if you get jealous of me and decide to let puppy take me out of the equation? Do you think you could stop yourself?”

“I’ve never killed or hurt anyone as the wolf. And if you call me puppy one more time, I’m going to punch you.”

“This puppy’s got bite.”

Ari shoved Natalie down onto the couch. Natalie was only down for a minute before she got back to her feet. Dale lunged between the two women and kept them from coming to blows. “Will you both just stop? For God’s sake. Natalie, I don’t want Ari, I want you. I told you about what happened last night because I wanted us to get past it. And now that you know about Ari, about what she really is, there’s no reason for me to lie anymore. I did this so that you and I can get closer.”

“Looks like your plan backfired.” She left the office and stormed through the waiting room. At the main door, she scoffed at the frosted glass and threw the door open. She lightly thumped the T in BITCHES with her knuckles. “You guys sure picked the right name for your agency. Goodbye, Dale.”

She stormed out of the room and Dale pushed her hands through her hair, dropped into a crouch, stood up, and spun on Ari. Her face was beet red and her eyes were brimmed with tears. She stared at Ari for a minute before she growled and threw her hands in the air. “I don’t know why I’m pissed at you.”

“It’s okay. Feel free.” Ari’s voice was soft. “I’m not too fond of myself at the moment, either. Dale, if you want to leave–“

Dale was breathing heavily. “I probably should. God, what a mess.”

Ari sagged against the desk. “Let me know when you’re coming back for your stuff. I’ll make sure I’m not here.”

Dale frowned at her, looked at her desk, and then moved aggressively toward Ari. “I meant leave to catch up with her. I’m not quitting this job, you bitch. You need me.”

“But if it interferes with you and Natalie–“

“Then Natalie isn’t who I’m looking for.” She grabbed her coat. “I’ll be back when I’ve talked with her.”

Dale was at the door when Ari said her name and stopped her. “I’m really sorry.”

Dale’s expression softened, as did her tone. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll be back.” She knocked her fist against the doorframe and headed out, leaving Ari alone in the office.

#

The room was ringed with plastic chairs, and the receptionist sat behind a quarter-circle of a desk in the far corner. Half the chairs were filled, mostly with duos of parent/child. One boy was fidgeting when Dale entered, and his mother bent down to whisper some threat or another in his ear. His fidgeting stopped. Dale took a seat in the middle of the waiting room and crossed her legs, her hands folded in her lap, staring at the blank brown door that led to the inner offices.

The receptionist waited for Dale to approach her. When she didn’t, the cheerful blonde smiled. “Good morning. Do you have an appointment?”

“No. I’m just waiting for someone.”

The receptionist didn’t seem thrilled with that, but she turned back to her computer. A few minutes later the door opened and Natalie escorted out a mother and a little girl. She was wearing a white lab coat over her scrubs, and her hair was pinned up. She glanced into the waiting room and her smile became flat when she saw Dale waiting for her. She finished speaking to the patients, sent them on their way, and turned to the desk. The fact that she was turning her back to the room wasn’t lost on Dale.

“Who’s next, Winnie?”

“Bradley Rice. And you have a guest–“

Natalie turned and waved for the fidgety boy. “Bradley? C’mon. You get to miss school for this. That’s kind of exciting, huh? I’ll try to make it as painless as possible. Hi, Mrs. Rice.” The door closed behind her.

Winnie, the receptionist, looked at the door and then at Dale. “Well, that was kind of rude. I’m sorry, miss, I’ve never seen Dr. Regan act like that before.”

“It’s okay,” Dale said. “I earned it.” She picked up a magazine and started to thumb through it, reading articles about whether or not they would ever find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or not. While she read, patients came and went. After the first encounter, Natalie started sending her hygienist out to retrieve the patients. Dale had to change seats three times to get new reading material, but she always stayed where she could be seen from the door. Winnie kept an eye on her and, after the first hour or so, Dale could feel her commiseration.

At lunch, Winnie called in an order and looked over the top of the desk. She covered the receiver with her hand. “Would you like something? We’re just ordering from the deli downstairs.”

Dale smiled. “No. Thank you.”

Winnie nodded and finished the order. Fifteen minutes later, a young man arrived with a bag full of sandwiches. Winnie paid him and took the bag into the back. Dale thumbed through an ancient Newsweek, drumming her foot against the floor with the rhythm of the Muzak playing through the ceiling.

The door to the inner office opened and Natalie came out. She glanced at Dale as she crossed the waiting room and threw open the door to the hallway. “Come on.” She spoke as she left, making Dale hesitate before getting to her feet to follow. She had to hurry to catch up with Natalie, who was barreling down the stairs at a near-jog. When they hit the street, Natalie turned and threw a wrapped sandwich at her.

Dale caught it and looked down at it in disbelief. “What the hell?”

“Pickles and horseradish. Inedible, at least to me. Winnie has worked for me for two years, and she knows what I like for lunch. Suddenly today she screws it up. You really do attract loyalty, don’t you, Dale?”

Dale tossed the sandwich into a nearby trashcan. “Except from you, apparently.”

“What do you honestly expect from me? After everything that happened this morning, what is your honest expectation?”

“Understanding? I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never told anyone about Ari before.”

“Right.”

“No. I’ve never cared enough about anyone to break the confidence.”

Natalie was pacing on the sidewalk, her head down. Dale let her pace.

“I’m in love with you.” Natalie looked up and met Dale’s eyes before she repeated it. “I’m in love with you. I realized that pretty recently. And before I even get up the nerve to tell you, you reveal that you slept with your boss, you’re giving her naked massages, and–” She became aware of all the people on the street and bit down what she was about to say. “I don’t like Ari. I never have, but I didn’t know why. Now I do. She’s dangerous to you, Dale. And as long as you hang around her, you’re going to be in danger, too. I don’t think I’m cut out to be the woman waiting at home for a phone call that you’re okay. I don’t think I’ll like going to bed alone knowing that you’re with Ari and she’s most likely naked, or in danger, or… hell, maybe both.

“I don’t even know how you feel about her, because I don’t think you know. I think you’ve got a lot to figure out and a lot to admit. And I think it would be easier for you to figure those things out if you’re single.”

Dale had started crying sometime in the middle of the speech. “Maybe so.”

Natalie crumbled and stepped closer, wiping away Dale’s tears with her fingers. She kissed her softly. “Or we could stay together. I have a part-time receptionist position open. If you want it, it’s yours. Until you find something more permanent.” She sniffled. “But you won’t do that? Will you?”

“I can’t leave Ari. She needs me, Natalie. Don’t make me choose between you.”

“I won’t make you.” She kissed Dale again, her lips lingering. “Like I said before, Dale… you chose a long time ago.”

Dale stood rooted to the spot as Natalie let her go. She watched Natalie walk into the deli, blending into the crowd of people at the counter. After a few moments, the line of customers had become long enough that she couldn’t see Natalie anymore. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans, turned around, and walked down the street to where she had parked.

#

Ari was sitting on the couch when Dale came back. She heard the main door open and close, and then soft shuffling footsteps that led to Dale’s desk. She wanted to get up and check on her, but she also wanted to give Dale her space. So she sat and listened to the sound of her best friend moving around in the outer office, closed her eyes when she heard the sharp intake of breath and an unmistakable sob. She started to get up, but then there was a knock on the door.

“Come in.”

Dale opened the door but remained on the threshold, leaning her shoulder against the frame. “We broke up.”

“Goddamn it. I’m so sorry, Dale. I know how you felt about her.”

Dale nodded and looked down at her shoes. “Well. Love me, love my dog.” She looked at Ari’s desk, at the oversized clock hanging on the wall, and then back to the floor. Anywhere but at Ari, not that Ari could blame her. She was grateful that she didn’t have any mirrors in the office. Dale wiped at her cheeks and walked into the office. “Don’t blame yourself, Ari. She had to find out about you eventually. It’s better she did before… before a break-up would have been more painful.”

Ari toyed with the cuticle on her thumb. “Did she say why she was breaking up with you? Did she say it was because your work was too dangerous, because you wouldn’t leave me in the lurch?” She looked up at Dale and waited for a reply that never came. She nodded. “Fine. Then let me blame myself just a little.”

Dale crossed the room and surprised Ari by straddling her. She put her hands on Ari’s shoulders and pushed her back against the couch, then covered her lips in a searing kiss. Ari put her arms around Dale out of instinct, her eyes remaining open those Dale’s were squeezed tightly shut. Dale’s tongue thrust against Ari’s lips and forced them open just a crack before she retreated. Ari was very aware of Dale’s weight on her, but there was one thing missing: arousal. Dale wasn’t acting out of any actual desire, she was just acting out of sadness, grief, and guilt.

“Stop,” Ari said when her lips were freed.

“C’mon, Ari. Fuck me. Just fuck me and get it over with.”

Ari pushed Dale back. “No, Dale.”

Dale stared down at her and then rolled to the side. She dropped onto the couch beside Ari and covered her face with both hands. Ari leaned forward, her elbows on her knees and her chin on her fists.

“It’s always the wrong time with us, isn’t it?”

Ari nodded.

“Either I’m too sad about losing Lisa, or I just broke up with someone and I’m on the rebound. Or I’ve just gotten serious about someone and am apparently looking for a way to ruin the relationship…”

“You didn’t ruin anything.” She reached over and rubbed Dale’s arm. “You’ve done nothing but fight for her today.”

Dale shook her head. “She asked me for one thing.”

“She asked you to leave me.”

“Yep.” She frowned. “But if I agreed to that, if I turned my back on my best friend when she needed me… what kind of person would that make me? Probably not the kind of person she would want to date in the first place. So I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. And you’re stuck either dating another canidae or risk telling someone else about your secret and hoping they can deal with it. Maybe we should just start fucking each other and forget relationships all together.”

Ari leaned back. “You know when you become really good friends with someone, and you get so close to them that you realize you’ll never be able to see them as anything other than a friend. And even if you do eventually go to bed with them, you know it’ll just be weird and awkward?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve never gotten that feeling with you.”

Dale laughed. She scooted closer and put her head on Ari’s shoulder. “So we can take our time. That’s good.”

Ari kissed the top of Dale’s head. “I’m sorry you and Natalie broke up.”

“Thanks. I still have some of her stuff at my apartment. Some of my stuff is at hers. So there’s a chance we can still have one last hurrah.”

“Or make-up sex.”

Dale nodded. “Either way, I’m probably still getting laid tonight.”

Ari chuckled. “Lucky you.”

They sat silently for a while.

“I love you, Ari.”

“I love you, too, Dale.”

“If we’re both still single when we’re forty, let’s make a pact that we’ll start sleeping together. Forget all this dating and relationship crap and just rely on each other for everything.”

Ari nodded and patted Dale’s leg. “Okay. And even if one of us is in a relationship, we can always make it a group thing.”

“Like a puppy pile?”

Ari laughed. “Yeah.”

Dale sighed heavily. “What are we going to do, Ari?”

“We’re going print the pictures I took last night, and we’re going to take them to the police. Then we’re going to deposit the big consultant check they’re going to give us, and I’ll take you out to a really nice dinner to get your mind off the fact that you’re single again.”

“Then what?”

“Then we’ll take the next case, and solve it. And do the whole thing over again.”

Dale sat up. “I feel better already. Where’s my phone?”

“You put it on your desk with the rest of your stuff.” Dale stood and went into the other room, returning with the phone. She was already scrolling through the photos Ari had taken. Ari gestured dismissively at the device. “You’ll have to figure out how to get the pictures off the phone and onto paper on your own. It’s all Greek to me.”

Dale smiled. “You really are helpless without me.”

Ari tensed a little. “I’m sorry about that.”

“No. Don’t be. Ari…” She chose her words carefully. “I don’t stay here out of some misguided feeling of duty. I stay here because I like helping you. I like knowing that I’m useful. A lot of my jobs before I met you, I could be replaced in an afternoon. Most times I was replaced in an afternoon. I like knowing that you need me. You give me a sense of purpose. Ari, I’ll always choose you.”

“Have I ever told you how much I appreciate all you do for me?”

“Every day.”

Ari sighed. “I may have to up that to twice a day. Maybe even thrice.”

“Nah. I wouldn’t want to get sick of hearing it.” Ari held out her hand, and Dale took it. They hooked their fingers together and then Dale pulled, lifting Ari off the couch. “Come on. I’ll show you how to turn pixels and bytes into ink and paper.”

“I assume a magic wand is involved.”

“C’mon. Twenty-first century waiting right through this door. Suck it up and deal with it.”

Ari slipped her arm around Dale’s waist and followed her out to the desk. She still felt guilty for her part in Dale’s break-up, but there wasn’t much she could do to fix it. She planned to go ahead with what she’d said – the photos and the apology dinner – and hope that Dale was right about the possibility of reconciliatory sex. Some of Ari’s breakups ended up being like that.

She leaned on the desk and tried to pay attention as Dale explained to her how to get pictures from the phone to the laptop to the printer. She was fairly sure the information wasn’t sinking in, but that was all right. Dale would just run through it again the next time Ari needed her. Ari put her hand on Dale’s shoulder and tried, really tried, to concentrate on the steps.

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