The following is not so much a story as a brief vignette. Perhaps it is a fragment of a story that is yet to be written. In any case, a lot of people asked to see more of Nekobe. I hope that this humble effort will satisfy them, at least for the time being.
A followup to Nekobe
© 1994, 1997 Rogue (email@example.com)
I remember how overjoyed Nekobe was when he heard the weather report, that the clouds were going to give way to warm sunshine on the day after his last exam. The Northern winter had been especially hard on him, with temperatures far colder than anything he had ever experienced in Africa. April had plodded by with icy winds, then May started with a long week of chilly rain and gloom, and the poor lion was starting to wonder if coming to school in America had been such a good idea.
I did my best to comfort him, but I could see that the cold was gradually wearing him down. He was a pathetic sight each evening when he came home, his splendid mane wrapped tightly up in scarves and with his nose running. I could tell that he was depressed, but nonetheless he managed to keep his mind on his studies, and did well on all but one of his exams. I kept promising him that he would feel better once summer came, but the rain persisted, and with each day Nekobe grew more dejected. Worse, he had come home from his philosophy exam feeling certain he had not done well. It was his least-favorite class; the professor, he complained, refused to see things in anything other than human terms, and they were constantly at odds because of it. "Who is she to tell me that I am wrong, because I can see the world in a way she never could?" he griped.
The weather report that came on the television that evening was like a healing tonic. Nekobe let out a roar when he saw it and hugged me hard enough to make my ribs creak. I didn't want to spoil his good mood -- it was the first time I'd seen him really smile since December -- but I cautioned him that weather forecasters could not always be trusted. It only made him agitated, and he had trouble falling asleep. I sat up very late stroking his mane and reassuring him that America wasn't going to stay a frozen hell forever.
I woke up the next morning with sunlight streaming through the window onto my face. Blinking, I sat up and shielded my eyes, and smiled. "Well, hello there," I muttered. "I know someone who has been waiting to see you." Rolling over, I gave Nekobe a gentle kiss on the muzzle. It started him purring. "Nekobe," I whispered into his ear, "wake up. The sun's finally out, just like the man said it --"
Living with a feline had sharpened my reflexes, and so I was not knocked out of bed when Nekobe sprang up out of bed and ran to the window. He peered out, nose pressed to the glass, tail lashing excitedly behind him, and then let out a blissful sigh. "The sun! Warmth! Finally!"
"You act like you've never seen it before," I said. "Was the winter really that bad?"
He nodded, his back still to me. "You aren't from Africa. You wouldn't know what it's like. I hope I never see ice again!" I saw him shiver, and then he was silent for a while as he stared out at the rising sun. Even this early, we could tell that it was going to be a gorgeous day. Finally, he turned to face me with an ivory grin. "Today is my birthday," he said firmly.
I couldn't agree more with his choice. His people didn't pay attention to the particular day that a cub was born, only the year, and thus Nekobe had no idea when his birthday was. We had talked about it a few weeks earlier. The notion was strange to him at first, but he liked the idea, and decided he wanted to have an "American-style" birthday. I suggested picking an arbitrary date, but he felt that it was too important a day to be picked at random. "I'll know it when it gets here," he'd said simply.
Apparently this was it, and what better day than the day the sun returned? I crawled out of bed and stood next to him at the window. "Remember that I told you that it's a custom to give someone a present on his birthday, right?" I said. He nodded, mane swishing. "Well, if today's the day, then I'd better dig out something I've been saving."
He followed me curiously as I stepped over to the closet and fished out a brightly-wrapped package. "Here you go, then. I was going to get you a catnip mouse at first, but then I saw that they had scratching posts on sale..."
He growled at me -- lions growl convincingly -- and I yelped and pushed the box into his hands. "Happy birthday, Nekobe!"
His claws made short work of the wrapping paper. The box itself fared little better. Finally he held up his present: a pair of nylon running shorts with Detroit Lions and a pawprint stenciled on the left leg. He sniffed at them closely. "They're very nice...but they don't look like they would cover much."
"That's the idea."
He smirked at me. "Oh, I see. So a birthday present should be something that is useful to the recipient but pleasing to the giver?"
"You got it."
"I'll remember that. For your birthday I'll buy you a collar." He scooped me up in his arms before I could swat him and pressed me tightly to his purring chest. "So you can never get away from me," he added, licking at my ear. "Thank you."
He held me close and stared longingly out the window for a long time while I toyed with his mane, and finally he said, "Shawn, could you take the day off from work? I want to spend it with you, outside, where we can both enjoy the sun."
I shook my head. "I can't. I've got too much to do at work. I can't afford to miss a day."
He mewled sorrowfully. "Please?"
"I told you, I can't. I'm sorry. Even if I wasn't swamped, I don't have any leave-time left right now."
"You could call in sick."
"No, I couldn't. I told you."
"I'll wear my birthday present."
"...I'll call in sick."
After a little experimentation, we discovered that talking on the phone while lying on the floor with a seven-foot-plus-tall lion sitting on your chest sounds exactly like a person having a severe asthma attack, so I had no trouble getting the day off. I remembered a promise I'd once made to take him to a state park that I sometimes went to so I could draw in peace, and decided that today would be the perfect time to make good on that promise. Nekobe made good on his, too, and stepped into his new shorts. I watched him as he tugged them up over his hips and fastened them over his tail with the hook-and-eye I had sewn into the waistband. As he had feared and I had expected, they did not cover very much at all. The curve of his rump was quite visible through the wedges cut from the sides, and in front, all of his contours were subtly and beautifully outlined. It was perfect.
He noticed me staring. "Are you sure they're all right to wear in public?" he said uncertainly.
"Don't worry. It's fashionable. All the rage. You look fine." Besides, I thought, where we were going, there wouldn't be anyone else to see. "Let's get going, shall we?"
The park was a half-hour drive from the city. Nekobe fidgeted the whole way, his tail flipping around the front seat until I made him hold it in his lap. When we finally pulled onto the little dirt patch that served as the parking area, he nearly exploded out of the car and dove into the field surrounding us. "Grass!" he roared happily, rolling around in it like a kitten. "I was starting to think I'd never see it again."
I followed and sat down nearby. For the first time, I began to understand just how difficult it must have been for him to leave his home and settle in such an alien world, where the sights, the sounds, the people, and even the climate were nearly beyond his imagination. All of the things that I took for granted became so much more precious as I watched Nekobe frolic in the sunshine. I realized I would never have the courage to adapt to such a vastly different environment as he had.
But then, lions have always been known for their courage. "Come on," I said after he had settled down a bit. "Let me show you my spot."
It was about a mile or so along a narrow, overgrown path. I let Nekobe walk ahead of me, telling him that I wanted to let him set the pace, but really because I wanted to watch his tail sway back and forth over his oh-so-lovely buns as he walked. Some things I would never take for granted. He wasn't fooled, of course -- he knew me too well -- and accented each swish, knowing that I was drooling just a few paces behind him. At last we came to "my spot", a broad rock that hung over the edge of a pond. "It's crawling with school kids on weekends, usually," I said, kicking at a soda can that some shmuck had left on the ground, "but during the week it's pretty well deserted. When I was in college, I'd come out here to draw, since it's nice and quiet."
Nekobe draped himself out across the rock, absorbing the sun's rays as only a feline can. "It is beautiful, " he purred, following the forest wall around the pond with his gaze. "I can see why you like to come here."
"Yes. I could spend hours just watching the trees reflect off the water."
"That sounds like a good plan," he said with a smile, and then he rolled to his feet. "But first, I'm going to go swimming."
"What? I thought lions didn't swim."
"This one does." With that he crouched, and then leaped out, spearing down through the water and surfacing a few yards away. "Ahhh, magnificent!" He shook out his mane, spraying water in a silvery arc. "Come on, Shawn, join me."
I scurried up further onto the rock. "No way! It looks cold."
"It's not. It's warm! Come on!"
"Are you sure?"
He nodded briskly, and I couldn't think of any other excuses. The day was getting hotter, after all. "All right." I shrugged out of my shirt and tested the water with a toe, and then splashed in after him. It was, indeed, surprisingly warm. The water must have soaked up the sunlight even faster than Nekobe, who was now gliding toward me. "Where did you learn how to swim, anyway?"
He smiled and shook out his mane again, spraying me. "Remember the map of Kenya that I showed you?" I nodded. "Well, remember that my people's homeland is on the shores of Lake Victoria. One morning when I was very young, my father took me down to the shores of the lake. He was wearing a necklace with obsidian beads, which in my culture is traditionally worn by a father during a rite of passage by his son. Obsidian: symbol of growth, you see. Anyway, he held my hand and we both walked out into the lake, until the water was over my head, and then he carried me, until the water was up to his chin. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. The water was warm, and the sun was shining very brightly, just like today. My father held me out flat on the surface, his hand under my belly, and told me to put my arms out straight. Then, very slowly, he lowered his hand from under me."
"And I sank like a stone. So he sent me to the YMCA in Nairobi for lessons."
I groaned, then grabbed his shoulders and dunked him, then swam as fast as I could for shore. He surfaced, roaring, and bolted after me. The lessons he'd taken must have been better than the ones I took, because he was on me before I'd swum six strokes. A powerful hand clamped down on my right calf and started to drag me back; no amount of frantic kicking could shake it loose. Then a finger hooked into one of my belt loops and held firmly. Whiskers brushed my ear, and his resonant voice crooned, "You should have learned by now: Never run from a predator."
My arms tore at the water, as Nekobe released my leg and held me in place by the belt loop. "Go on, little one," he chuckled, toying with me playfully. "Keep struggling. Soon you'll be nice and tired, and then the lion will feast -- eh?"
He hadn't been expecting me to unbutton my shorts and slither out of them. By the time he realized what had happened, I had left him holding my shorts and was swimming frantically for land. Naked now, I was doubly glad that the path was not well-traveled. Nekobe had pulled me into the middle of the pond after catching me, and now I had even further to go. I threw all of my strength into it, determined not to let him catch me again, and maybe a little worried about what would happen if he did.
Something splashed into the water inches ahead of me. With a yelp I flailed to a halt, and watched a dark shape float lazily to the surface. Brightly-colored letters came into view as it turned over:
I floated there, treading water, turning in a slow circle, but couldn't see Nekobe anywhere. I tried to remember if lions ever hunted their prey into the water. Where was he? Is this what a zebra felt like in its last moments? The thought chilled me, and I strained to pick out any sign of a ripple, any hint of a shadow moving below. Suddenly the surface of the pond erupted behind me, and with a deafening roar he was upon me again.
I hardly had a chance. Two powerful hands landed on my shoulders and drove me far down below the surface. I shook free and clawed my way upward, breaking the surface and sputtering, gasping for air. I felt his arms lock tightly around my waist, my shoulder blades grinding against his chest. I struck out frantically with both arms, and abruptly felt teeth closing on the back of my neck.
Instantly I stopped moving, my head held back by his grip. Nekobe snarled and opened his mouth further, taking a large portion of the nape of my neck in his jaws. His bite was gentle, but held me firmly enough that I could not pull away. His arms tightened around my waist, squeezing me against his body. I could tell that his feet were resting on the bottom, yet I was still floating, my heels feebly brushing his shins. There was a nudge from behind, a pressure that forced me to draw my legs up, and at the same time his jaws tightened a tiny bit further on my neck. I moaned and obeyed, not able, nor willing to resist.
Nekobe growled again, and pressed his hips gradually up against my rump, his slow and delicate entry a bizarre contrast to the overpowering grip he held me in. My mind swam with pleasure as he began to thrust, the familiar bulk within me swelling warmly, the water rippling around me as my body gently bobbed with the rhythm. Reaching over my shoulder I buried my fingers in his mane, closing them into a fist; my other hand wandered downward through the water and began to stroke myself, the tempo matching his own. I was his, and he knew it, and I was already well past my release when he finally snarled and bucked, and I felt his warm rush within me.
After what seemed forever he released my neck, and nuzzled my ear with a quiet mewl. The warm bulk still throbbed within me. I was overwhelmed, but still managed to turn my head and meet his kiss. "So that's what happens," I panted weakly, "when you run from a predator?"
"Only if you're lucky." He smiled, and closed his eyes as he began gingerly to withdraw. I shivered as he finally slipped free, then went limp in his grasp and let him carry me up from the water and onto the shore. He laid me down in the grass in a warm patch of sun, then returned to the water to fetch our shorts before coming back to stretch out beside me. I rolled over and rested my cheek on his chest, lightly petting his stomach with one hand. After a while he rumbled, "Have I mentioned lately how much you have come to mean to me?"
"Not recently. I wouldn't mind hearing it again." I twirled my finger in the fur of his belly, basking in the rich resonance of his voice against my cheek.
His clawed fingers began to comb through my hair. "There's not enough time left in the day for me to express it fully. All I can say is thank you, for keeping me warm through the winter, and for being here by my side right now."
"There's no place I'd rather be," I replied earnestly. "Happy birthday, Nekobe."
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