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Conbadge of Honor

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

“I feel too old for this,” said Ross as he watched yet another white college kid in a brightly-colored animal head pass through the registration area. There was a seemingly endless supply of them and he knew they all went to louder parties than he did.

He felt Chet gave his shoulder a fond squeeze. “That’s normal,” Chet said. “Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of people more your speed once we get our badges taken care of.” Ross tried to let those words soothe him; Chet had been doing this sort of thing for who knew how many years by then, and since he was generally taller and blacker than anyone else in the room he almost certainly got the whole fish-out-of-water deal. Then again, Chet was also significantly less Weeble-shaped than Ross was—which was to say he looked like a statue carved out of volcanic glass—so it wasn’t entirely the same. At least he was a familiar face.

They had arrived at the sign-in queue early, but so had everyone else, so even with the line moving at a steady clip Ross had found it necessary to people-watch to pass the time. And what people they were! Most weren’t in any sort of costume, instead being doppelgangers of the kinds of people Ross had hung out with back when he was working on his bachelor’s, their hair and wardrobes updated to keep with the times; Ross had long since learned how to identify the sort of person who was likely to be interested in nerdy conversations and maybe wasn’t entirely straight. What captured his attention most were the smaller number of attendees who’d already suited up and were now walking, talking imaginary creatures whose gravitational field of presence demanded attention from across the room. It was hard not to be distracted by orange and purple dinosaurs that apparently had boomboxes built somewhere into their mass.

It wasn’t the first out-of-town convention he’d been to, that honor belonging to some unremarkable business thing he’d attended his second year with his current company, nor was it his first hobbyist con, that honor belonging to something closer to home with a lot more anime; it was still different from anything he’d attended before. That it was a furry con probably had something to do with that. There was something surreal about waiting in line to get a piece of laminated paper that verified he’d paid money to come look at framed pictures of fox tits in the charity auction. He was so lost in comparing his surroundings to past experiences that he barely parsed showing his ID to the person at the desk, signing the code of conduct paperwork they gave him in a half-daze. Chet had to gently guide him out of the line.

“So all that talk about badges was for this?” asked Ross as he studied the glossy bit of plastic-encased card he now wore on a clip. It had the name of the con on it, and the name he’d put into the registration system all those months back, and a species field for some reason (his read “canid”), and a little picture of a rattlesnake wearing a bowling shirt to match the convention’s theme. Someone had spent a lot of time rendering the scales on that snake. Most of the other attendees had one just like it. “It looks kind of… mass-produced.”

Chet grinned and flicked through the folder he’d brought with him. “That’s just the one you show the staff to get into stuff. What I was talking about were these…” He produced a pair of entirely different laminated pictures from the folder’s depths. Both were bust portraits: one was of a pharaoh hound in rugged nomad’s clothing and expensive jewelry, the other an Afghan hound dressed like a Crusades-era merchant. They had names written under them in both English and Arabic. They also were drawn in such a way that if placed side-by-side the dogs’ snouts rested tenderly against each other. Chet looked over the moon. “I got these in the mail ages ago. Aren’t they great? It’s been torture not spoiling the surprise.”

“You got us matching badges?”

“I got us matching badges.” His expression sobered slightly. “You don’t have to wear yours if you’d rather not, of course. But it’s here if you want it, and you can take it home with you. Free souvenir, right?”

Ross tilted the Afghan hound portrait in the light. Whoever had drawn the thing had used metallic inks on parts of it so the dog-man’s glasses frames and the Arabic lettering shimmered when they caught the glow of the hotel’s many fluorescent panels. He knew the character, and not just because his name—Shayeq—was written on the front; he’d been reading stories featuring Shayeq the helpful informant for a few months by then, and every time Chet wrote another chapter Ross would wait until he could sit down with his tablet and a cup of decaf coffee to see what mischief that talking animal based on him had gotten up to. He was a supporting character to the lead (Chet’s pharaoh hound, naturally), but that suited him just fine. Ross suspected if he’d been a mercantile manimal in historical North Africa he probably would’ve spent most of his time at home with an abacus, too.

It was one thing to see pictures on a screen (and there had been many; Chet was a voracious patron of the arts and that meant seeing dozens of different artists’ takes on his creations) and another to have a little artifact to have, hold, and clip onto a lanyard.

He’d traveled across the country to see his boyfriend in person for the first time, and if it happened to be in the context of a con he still wasn’t sure if he belonged at then so be it. If that meant having strangers call him Shayeq out of the blue it wouldn’t be any weirder than the rest of the goings on. “No, don’t worry, I like it,” he said, truthfully. “I just have no idea how I’m supposed to wear this right.”

Chet’s resulting smile was so bright it was a wonder it didn’t reflect in the gold leafing, too.

.o.o.o.

It had started thanks to Zootopia if he was going to be honest about it.

Ross was one of those people who had never outgrown his taste for cartoons. He liked animation in general just fine, and read plenty of books on how the metaphorical sausage was made, and he’d watch and enjoy serious fare that pushed the limits of the medium, but his heart lay in cheerful stories with princesses, talking inanimate objects, and funny animals. He’d long since perfected the art of going out to new movies or snagging boxed sets without being creepy; having a suite of siblings with children who all kept having birthdays was immensely convenient. It was a little bit lonely at times—because good God, he wasn’t going to tell someone he wanted to invite over to spend the night just how much he cared about Mulan finding herself—but he enjoyed every memorized pratfall with the utmost sincerity, and that more than outweighed the distance it put between him and other people.

He’d come out of the Saturday matinee humming the song from the credits and having conflicting feelings about tigers. Over the next week he tried to be critical of what he’d seen, since as a consumer of mass media he felt it was his responsibility to think about what messages he and the rest of the audience had been taking in, but it was just so hard to concentrate with a head stuffed to the neurons with spectacle.

Said spectacle had yet to wear off by the time the following Friday rolled around. Friday was date night, inasmuch that talking to someone he had a probably unrequited crush on for a few hours via IMs was a date, so Ross tried to focus on the short fiction he’d read that week so he could properly give feedback. Ross lived to give feedback ever since he’d lucked into commenting on Chet’s writing at the right time. They’d swapped comments, then swapped IM details, then their conversations ended up getting so long and out of hand that they’d ended up having to schedule them or risk getting nothing else done during their respective days. Was it weird to tell an author their prose caused you to be hopelessly smitten with them? It was probably weird.

Their chat had gone as it always did—with Chet being dazzling, naturally—until their conversation had passed the concrit stage and moved into small talk. Small talk was his favorite part since it meant he got to learn a little more about the mystery man on the other side of the screen, even if Ross didn’t know much about what he looked like save for the tiny, blurry photo inside the scarab-topped cartouche avatar he used. The topic moved to movies they’d been to recently, and Ross barely realized what he’d typed until he’d already sent it.

Have you seen that talking animal one? The text hung in his messenger window damningly. He already started scrabbling for excuses: Chet knew he had niblings aplenty, right? Surely he’d mentioned his nieces and nephews at some point. He could salvage this.

Chet’s typing notice showed up a few times, then went still. A nerve-wracking minute later he sent a proper answer. Sure. I took my sister’s kids. It was pretty fun.

Ah. That was fine, that was reasonable, Ross wouldn’t die if his crush didn’t share every single one of his interests. They were both good, respectable uncles entertaining family and not anything else. It was fine. Dropping the subject immediately might come off as rude, though, so he fumbled for a nice, neutral follow-up statement. I saw it a little while back, he said. That song was stuck in my head for days. I kept worrying I’d catch myself humming it at work.

Ever since one of my old roomies got me into lighting I keep watching for how movies do it. It was really lush! CG stuff has been getting nuts lately, even cheap movies have fancy rigs.

Ross couldn’t argue with that. His Netflix history was laden with awful direct-to-video flicks that still had remarkably advanced color profiles. Sometimes that was the only nice thing he could say about them.

It was not lost on Ross that Chet, too, seemed to have seen his share of animated movies. That probably meant that prying a little deeper wouldn’t come off too badly, so Ross decided to try his luck with a more classic icebreaker style of question. If you lived there, what kind of animal would you be?

A pharaoh hound, said Chet, immediately. They’re beautiful creatures. If he’d replied any faster his answer would have shown up before Ross even asked the question. Ross supposed it made sense; Chet crammed so much Egyptian culture into his online presence that anything short of a crocodile would have seemed out of place. How about you?

I don’t know. Maybe a dog. I like dogs.

So who domesticated your ancestors back in the day? Chet asked, and Ross was not sure how to take that until the grinning emoji popped up in its wake. I’m messing with you. Sometimes a talking dog’s just a talking dog.

That wasn’t quite the way Ross saw it, as he’d always had an easier time relating to the aforementioned talking dogs than human characters telling the exact same stories, but he didn’t bring it up. Not directly, anyway, as his next question was, Have you ever considered writing anything with pharaoh hounds in them? You answered that really fast.

Chet went quiet again. Ross forced himself to get up and make a cup of tea to keep from letting his nerves fray like so much cheap rope; when he got back, there was an answer waiting for him.

Yeah, I have. I’ve written some but I don’t post it on this site. I could show you a piece that really gives a shape to the character, if you’d like, assuming you don’t mind furry stuff. It’s cool if you aren’t interested. It’s not for everybody. Those last two sentences were added on as such a blatant backpedal of a postscript it took Ross by surprise. He knew of furry, because he was a person who’d been using the internet for a period longer than a week, but it seemed like a young man’s game, all ecstatic dances and bright colors and partygoers shaped like anything other than, well, people like himself and his crush du jour. Usually Chet was fearless when it came to his experimental work, even the dreaded shape poetry that Ross had never really been able to wrap his head around. What sort of blowback had he gotten if he was this skittish about sharing it?

Ross himself had never really considered the furry thing. He’d never really been the sort to get into fan-made stuff even as a young man, so it didn’t take much to turn him away from a fansite or zine back in the day, and as he was more into the “animated” angle of his preferred entertainment than the “animals” angle he didn’t see much of a need to branch out beyond the occasional documentary or history of the medium. He was vaguely aware that there were more people in furry than the ones who could quote every Looney Tune ever written (he was, after all, talking to one), but what did that even mean? At least there was an easy way to find out.

I have no idea, he answered, truthfully. I like your writing, though. I’ll give it a shot.

It wasn’t so much that Chet had written “some” stuff about a pharaoh hound that had thumbs and wore stylized traditional dress, as that would be like saying that the Pompeii eruption involved “some” lava. Chet had multiple novellas to his name, and that wasn’t counting the short stories, the poetry, the short pieces he wrote to go with the many, many commissions he paid for, and what appeared to be some kind of round-robin roleplaying exercise. Ross spent several evenings working through the archives Chet linked him. There was too much for him to read everything with any amount of celerity but Chet, thankfully, implied he didn’t expect anything of the sort from Ross. The part of him that always choked up when it came time to do book reports was grateful.

He wasn’t sure what he expected. What he got was an extended story about a talking dog whose adventures took him all across the northern African coast at some point in the past Ross didn’t immediately recognize. One of them had featured Dawud (that was Chet’s pharaoh hound, it turned out) having to evade some Crusaders, and there was something about the spice trade, and there had also been a weird but heartfelt piece about Dawud wrestling with his own faith (furries came in Muslim, which Ross suspected he should have known already). Chet clearly enjoyed making them because there was a lot more fire in his words than what he posted to what Ross found himself referring to as the general-interest groups.

What struck Ross most about what he read wasn’t how everyone was some kind of creature but how there was a certain vibe to the ongoing narrative that kept nagging him like a popcorn kernel stuck in his teeth. He couldn’t place it even as he read through his third lengthy tale of historical fantasy, nor even when going back through some of the art he’d looked at; realization didn’t strike him until he was halfway through a shower a week or so into the experience.

Dawud the hound-man was absolutely gay despite the stories never saying it outright.

Well, that made for one thing they had in common.

.o.o.o.

It was easy to keep track of Chet even in the most crowded halls because it was hard to lose sight of a very tall man with very long hair and very dark skin. He and Ross weren’t the only people there who weren’t white, which was nice, and who knew what kind of people were concealed by all those neon costumes, so that was already one load off his mind. Nobody could say he didn’t belong there because he already had the access badges around his neck for everyone to see. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

When he’d first asked Chet what exactly people were expected to do at these things he had gotten a novel’s worth of vague, excited answers that all boiled down to “enjoy the experience.” Ross scarcely had time to skim the program he’d picked up at registration when Chet had bolted off towards what turned out to be a massive room filled with people selling all manner of things.

In his youth Ross had attended an anime convention in his hometown and found it lacking; as an older man he’d tried again upon moving to a bigger city with a bigger local general-genre-fandom event, and the results were significantly better but decidedly not his scene. Both of these experiences came in handy as he trailed after Chet as they headed towards whatever it was their destination happened to be.

Ross spent the next half-hour standing next to Chet and smiling politely at people he didn’t know. The name badges were a godsend. He tended to be introduced as “still getting used to things” and then left alone, which suited him just fine; Ross was a man comfortable with becoming part of the scenery if he wasn’t actively trying to talk to someone. It also gave him time to process that he was out in public, with his internet boyfriend, who so far had not smothered him with a pillow and left him in the desert, and that was surprisingly okay. A few people even said they made a cute couple. If you couldn’t trust a random stranger wearing a sparkly unicorn horn on a headband, well, who could you?

“Chet?” he said after what felt like the dozenth meet-and-greet. He had to raise his voice a lot higher than he expected thanks to the cheerful din of the surrounding con-goers. People must go hoarse at these things all the time.

Chet slowed his pace and headed towards a less clamorous corner of the dealers’ room. “What’s up?”

“Can I take a break for a few minutes? It’s getting kind of loud.” As if on cue the background din rose in volume a notch.

“Oh! Sure, sure, no problem. Do you want me to come with you?”

“Yes, please.” He took Chet’s slender-fingered hand between his own. “I’m having a good time, honest, I just need to, um.” He gestured with his chin at the crowds.”Step away from this for a bit. You know how I get.”

Chet nodded. “Yeah, I remember us talking about that. I’ve got the whole weekend to see people! It’s fine.” He smiled and added, “Thanks for giving this a shot at all. It means a lot to me to have you here.”

The hotel housing the convention was a warren of passages and floors that could have made up an entire separate hotel, or at least several motels taped together, which meant it was only a brief trip down the escalator and past a few hallways to find a calmer spot among the trappings of a food court. Ross was grateful for the mystery of the hotel food court—not the same thing as its fancier dining wing, according to the map included with the program—since it gave him something inoffensive to focus on as he decompressed. Chet vanished long enough to buy them both soft drinks but otherwise stayed close to Ross’s side. It felt very much like a thing that real boyfriends on a real date would do.

Was it really a date? He’d flown across the country to a weird desert city to see and maybe possibly have sex with his boyfriend in the flesh, so if it wasn’t a single date it was absolutely a connected string of date-like events. Calling his love life up until Chet a dry spell was a disservice to humidity. Ross sipped his soda, tilted his badge to watch it shine, and listened to Chet talk excitedly about panels they could attend that day, and there was no doubt that he expected them to be attending at least one as a couple. Date-like events were doing them just fine.

.o.o.o.

Ross spent days rereading Dawud stories and fretting over what he was going to say about them. Chet’s bios on the sites Ross used were all open about him being some variation of gay, which meant there was a nonzero chance the stories were at least slightly autobiographical. The more Ross associated Dawud with Chet the the more he found his thoughts drifting places they usually didn’t go. Was there a hidden trove of steamier fiction hidden somewhere? Would reading it be its own thing, or would it be like Chet himself was the star of the show, just with pointy ears sticking out of his dreads? Was it weird if he wanted to read more about a friend’s very personal character because he had a crush on said friend? Fiction was so complicated!

After what felt like an eternity a scheduled Friday evening critique-and-chat finally came around. Chet had been busy with work the week before—something about being busy driving people around for an event—so Ross had had plenty of time to stew in his own thoughts up until then. If Chet was going to share this part of himself with Ross, it was definitely on Ross to try and approach more vulnerable topics of conversation. He was almost positive he knew what to bring up when they next talked, so naturally he forgot everything the moment the chat window chirped to life. The balm of small talk saved him from what he was convinced was a terrible misstep.

Small talk quickly gave way to more pressing matters. Did you have time to read any of the stuff I sent you?

I did. I didn’t expect it to stick with me as long as it did. Ross drummed his fingers on his desk. There had to be a good way to ask something creepy without actually making it creepy. How did you come up with Dawud, anyway? Asking about Chet’s favorite manimal was maybe not the most direct approach, though Ross had yet to meet an author who didn’t like chatting about the characters they’d created.

Okay, this is kind of a long story….

The story was, indeed, pretty long. The abridged version was something along the lines of Chet having been an amateur Egyptologist since a young age, and how he drew Anubis—or Anpw, as Chet called him, as he had some opinions about the traditional Greek spellings—all the time in his notebooks since said deity was the blackest one, and therefore looked the most like him. Years after he fell out of love with drawing he ended up on an online game where everyone had to pick a different animal, and he still liked the look of pharaoh hounds, so the choice was easy. Chet ended up writing so much for the game people suggested he make a separate place for it. The rest fell into place after that.

He’s always been a really personal character for me, Chet continued. I’ve used him to work some stuff out in the past. That and I get a lot more readers when I write furry stuff, since people are more likely to take a chance on animals than John Q. Saracen. Also people don’t get up your ass so much if you add in supernatural stuff because everyone’s already a cat or something.

I liked the history parts. They actually got me to check out a Thomas Asbridge book. Which he had only barely gotten a chapter or two into, likely due to a dearth of falcons in fancy turbans and lovingly-detailed boots, though what he’d managed to absorb had been interesting enough on its own terms. It’s slow going but it helps having a few familiar names in my head already.

Chet’s activity indicator was ablaze with action. Good! Great! If I can get one more person to learn about this stuff I’ll have done my duty. Fantasy’s getting big again but why stick to Europe all the time, right? I bet more people would be less shitty about current events if they actually understood the history of the region. It was the closest Chet had come to getting political during their talks, which was probably a sign. Probably. Let me know if you find anything in there that sounds like it’d be a good idea for a story…. he continued, eagerly, and later on Ross would pinpoint that moment as when he decided it was worth pursuing a more than one-sided relationship with this fascinating man.

It would take another week before Ross mustered up the courage to ask a question about the elephant in the room.

So, he said after their usual small talk, you’ve written a lot about how Dawud handles being a gay man in kind of a trying point in history. Like how it affects his faith, how he sees other people, that kind of thing.

Oh good, I was worried that was too subtle to the average reader.

Ross felt himself unclench. That could have gone a lot worse. It took a lot longer than he wanted for the words he wanted to find their way to his fingertips. This was so much harder than sauntering up to someone at a bar and asking if they wanted company. I don’t want to sound like a creep or anything, but do you have any pieces about how he handles that, like, with other people like him?

You’re asking if I took this very personal character and wrote porn about him?

No sense in being dishonest about it. Yes?

That’s one awkward conversation out of the way, then, because yeah, I’ve made a lot. A link appeared in the IM window. It led to a simply-formatted PDF with a picture of a very familiar pharaoh hound on the cover page. This is the tamest one. It’s not the greatest from a writing standpoint, but since you know Dawud already it’ll probably be fine.

I’m surprised this wasn’t on that site you linked me, said Ross as he skimmed the first few paragraphs. There were some terms he’d definitely have to look up later but it looked promising, if slightly embarrassing to admit he actually liked it. That most of it was text and not graphic imagery helped a great deal; that level of disconnect helped ease the lingering weirdness that he was reading about talking animals getting down and dirty. He could understand if Chet wanted to keep something like this to himself.

I thought you said you made an account to follow my stuff? A brief pause from Chet. Then, Go into your settings and update your maximum content rating. I’ll show you how to set up a blacklist later on.

Ross had known Chet was fond of paying people money to draw pictures of Dawud for him. He soon learned that Chet paid all sorts of people to draw all sorts of pictures, and while some of them were content-locked for what he felt were more or less mild reasons—a bloodied dagger, a smoking hookah, a still frame from a fight—others were far more eye-opening. It took exactly one click on a warning thumbnail to decide he was not yet ready to see that much of Chet’s id on display; instead, Ross took note of all the different stories he’d need to catch up on once he finished the PDF.

I’m big into having content warnings on my stuff, said Chet. Don’t feel like you have to read everything, okay? It’s not like there’s going to be a shortage.

I’m going to have a hard enough time reading just one of these!

Haha, don’t strain yourself or anything, bud.

Their conversation wandered elsewhere over the course of the evening, but Ross didn’t forget the file now waiting for him on his tablet, and once he got over the fact that he had just asked someone he had a not insignificant liking for to share bespoke erotica with him it wasn’t even that weird. People paid serious money for ebooks about shacking up with werewolves or Bigfoot, right? Dawud was just a werewolf who never happened to look human, and so was everyone else. In the long run it wasn’t any stranger than all those torrid stories about elves Ross’d consumed in college. And it was written by a history nerd! From a certain standpoint you could even say it would be an educational look into historical sexuality.

The longer he read the more he felt the need to make sure the blinds were drawn. Educational or not, he would not be sharing this part of his personal life with his friends on his regular all-ages animation discussion boards.

.o.o.o.

The type of conventions Ross was used to had panels, so he understood the basic concept of attending a scheduled talk on a topic relevant to the con at large. Those, however, skewed more towards efficient software use, or management strategies, or various other business-flavored things that never failed to make a friend’s eyes start glazing over within a few minutes of him trying to explain them. His familiar world of accounting was a far cry from the jumble of mysterious words his now somewhat rumpled schedule assured him would be starting in a few minutes. It was going to be the third one he’d attended that day and the program implied they went on long into the night. Ross dearly hoped he would have blood left in his body by the end of the weekend.

There had been a panel about how to practice conservation at home, one about digital publishing that Chet was definitely more invested in than anything else, and some sort of demonstration of feats of household science; the last one didn’t strike him as very furry at all, but he wasn’t about to confront the very tall presenter wearing a white dog costume that made him even taller. Watching someone make corny jokes about ferrofluids definitely helped pass the time better than having to filter through all the sound and fury on the main floor.

It wasn’t that the panel they were in was boring—it was about comparing European funny animal comics to their American counterparts, which as an animation fan was something he could actually relate to—or that the company was unpleasant—Chet had sat nice and close throughout everything, save when he was taking notes—but as the panel wound to a close he could feel his energy drain away like blue liquid through one of the science dog’s funnel contraptions. He filed out with the rest of the group in a daze; hydrating helped some, as did spending some quiet time in one of the lobby chairs near the meeting room where the panel had been, and things might have gone in a different direction if he hadn’t followed Chet down towards what turned out to be right outside a rip-roaring dance in progress.

He could see people dancing from where he stood, some in costume and some not, but it was the sheer percussive force of the bass that hit him in the pit of his stomach and made him feel a lot more tired than he’d been a few minutes ago. Ross hadn’t even liked loud parties back in college; the thought of someone dragging him to a rave made him feel more thirty-five than ever. “Is there somewhere other than the dance floor we could be?” he said, half trying to keep from bothering anyone and half fighting to be heard above the din.

“What?”

“I said can we go somewhere else?

A bit of pantomime later and they were back out in a much quieter hallway. “Not much of a dancer?” asked Chet.

“I think I’m done with this sort of thing for the day, yes.”

“No problem, no problem. Plenty of other stuff to do here without even leaving the hotel.” He started ticking off options on his fingers. “There’s bowling, drinks, I think the theater’s got another movie starting soon….”

Ross held up his hands and shook his head. “Chet, I’m exhausted. I just flew in yesterday, I was a little sick last night, and all day today I’ve been around more excitement than I’ve had in years. It’s been fine, don’t get the wrong idea, but if I don’t turn in early I’m going to be useless tomorrow, and that’s when the stuff you really wanted to do is scheduled, right?” He did his best to smile, weary as he was. “I’m not giving up on this weekend for good, but I really need to recharge.”

Chet’s posture relaxed a bit. “That’s fine,” he said. “It means a lot you’re doing this with me, you know.”

“I know,” said Ross. He seized the gathering courage he’d been nursing for the better part of the day, bounced up on his toes, and gave Chet a peck on the cheek. Chet looked startled, but not in a bad way. None of the other attendees seemed to care. Ross liked that. “See you tomorrow?”

“Sure, just text me once you’re up and feeling social.” He gave Ross a final hug, waved, and disappeared into the festivities.

It felt so natural, him being able to say he needed a break from the Fun Thing and his boyfriend checking to make sure everything was fine before letting him go on his way. Ross didn’t feel pressured to spend every waking moment together—Chet had been clear that he had plenty of other people he only saw occasionally to keep him busy—but he didn’t feel like he was keeping Chet from being somewhere he actually wanted to be, either. Once he got back to his room he went about his usual routine (checking locks, showering off the patina of parties he’d accumulated over the day, checking his email, flossing), and while he’d intended to spend some time reviewing the next day’s schedule he was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

.o.o.o.

The world of talking animal fandom had not been the kind of place Ross had seen himself visiting. He still wasn’t entirely sure if he was a good fit, especially since Chet was the only person with whom he socialized who actually subscribed to said fandom; thankfully, those lingering doubts were easier to ignore whenever he was poring over a new Dawud story. He’d started getting them in his inbox before Chet posted them solely for the sake of being able to offer some constructive criticism on the raw product. This one was a little bit different than usual, though.

They’d started talking using voice chat, sometimes even with video, which was exciting. Chet was just as handsome in 280p as his icons implied and didn’t seem to care that Ross was a round, mousy man with a thin mustache and thick glasses. It also made it easier to ask him questions without worrying about whether or not his tone of voice got lost in the mix. Ross checked to make sure Chet wasn’t idle and toggled off of push-to-talk in their conversation. “Hey, Chet?”

A familiar face appeared in the video call corner of Ross’s screen. After a bit of fumbling with his headset, Chet replied, “Yeah?”

“There’s this new character you’ve introduced, Shayeq—”

“What about him?”

“I couldn’t help but notice he’s got some kind of familiar traits.”

Chet made an amused noise. “What with how he’s a squat Afghan hound who wears glasses, is good with numbers, and provides useful information Dawud couldn’t have figured out on his own? Yeah, I like to tuck my friends in as background characters sometimes.”

“Dawud flirts with him a lot in this. An awful lot.” Ross took a deep breath. “I just wanted to know if this was how authors flirt with people who’ve already been reading their porn.” He raised his eyebrows and quirked his mouth into a half-smile past exes had told him was endearing. “I mean, if it’s not, we can forget this conversation ever happened. But I’d be more than okay with it if it is.”

Ross was generally the quietest man in the room, no question, the kind who never spoke up in class, and he knew he was likely going to stay where he was in his career indefinitely thanks to not having the kind of personality that looked good to the top brass. None of that mattered when it came to his personal life; you could look like a dumpling in a pair of pressed khakis and be doomed to a life of lower middle management and still get plenty of dates if you were charming enough. Hopefully he wasn’t reading too much into things. Hopefully Chet liked his brand of charming!

“Wow, I thought this conversation would be going a lot differently,” said Chet with a laugh. “So I take it you liked it—”

“Sure did.”

“—and yeah, okay, you got me. I like talking with you, you’re cute, and from what I’ve gathered from our past conversations you’re pretty good with your hands. Can’t blame a guy for being interested.”

An impish smile replaced Ross’s reserved one. “You’re taking forever to ask, so I’ll do it for you: you want to try out being a couple?”

“You’re a lot more forward than I expected when I first met you,” said Chet.

“That’s not an answer, Chet.”

Chet put his hands up defensively, though he was still smiling. “Okay, okay. Yeah. Let’s try it. Distance doesn’t matter, we’ll figure something out. I’d like to see you.”

Distance was not something Ross had considered. Save for a few quick, pleasant dates he’d been on before he’d started crushing heavily on Chet, his last few relationships had been wholly online. The thought of anything beyond the occasional dirty-talk chat and jerking off hadn’t occurred to him. His handsome author friend on the other side of the country wanted to see him in person! It was exciting! Awkward, as well, but mostly exciting. He wondered if Chet snored.

“I’d like to see you, too,” said Ross, because it was true, “but I don’t know how to do that without it being weird.”

“What do you mean, weird?”

How was one expected to define an already nebulous word like “weird” in this context? Ross fumbled for an explanation. Where was all that swagger and confidence when he needed it? At least Chet understood how he sometimes got a little tied up in his own thoughts. “Well, what if one of us travels and it turns out we don’t hit it off in person? No guarantee we’ll like each other as much if we can’t tab over into something else halfway through the date. That leaves somebody in an unfamiliar city with a return trip they can’t make for days, trying to avoid the only person they know there.”

“That’s kind of a worst-case scenario, but okay, okay, I see why you’re worried.” He looked at something off to the side of his screen and the color of the light reflecting off his face changed a bit. “So would planning a visit around a bigger event, one we can focus on while we figure out if we work in real life, would that be okay?”

“That sounds reasonable.”

“Okay.” It was his turn to smile mischievously. “How do you feel about conventions?”

.o.o.o.

The next day was better.

Ross had suspected it was going to be the moment he woke up and didn’t feel like the entire desert had lodged in his sinuses, and the moment he saw Chet waiting for him at the elevators was like something out of the sappiest movies in his collection. He was already committed to the momentum of a hug when he realized Chet was actually talking to somebody nearby. More than one somebody, even; Ross had interrupted a conversation involving at least two other people. That was probably a social faux pas. What if it had been something important?

“Erin, Tip, this is my boyfriend, Ross,” said Chet without missing a beat. One hand stayed skimming through a messenger program on his phone while the other pulled him closer. “It’s his first time visiting out here, so we figured we’d make an event of it.”

And an event it most certainly was. The conversation with Erin and Tip, whoever they were, blended into a quick breakfast, which became another pass through the dealer’s floor and a chance to admire the pieces in the art show, and after that they were already heading off to their first panel. There was plenty of standing in Chet’s shadow as he spoke to people; this time around, however, Ross felt more up to making eye contact and even spoke a little now and again. Thanks to their regular sojourns outside of the con space for Ross to relax it felt a lot less overwhelming than the day before.

Being with Chet in person—and not suffering from what amounted to a mild hangover thanks to a day spent in the air—was both different from talking online, but at the same time comfortably familiar. Talking in person meant less multitasking mid-conversation; actually being able to see and hear and sometimes even touch every detail of his boyfriend gave Ross fewer reasons to want to multitask. It was nice being able to go in for another hug whenever he wanted instead of typing out stage directions and hoping they were reciprocated. It was also a bit of a pain in the ass always getting his thoughts together without the luxury of a keyboard to organize them first, but that happened over voice chat, as well. Actually being with a person and doing things with them was worth a few communication annoyances.

Two panels, a meet-and-greet with people who shared one of the few hobbies Chet had that Ross did not, and a showing of last season’s newest animated movie later, they deemed it time for an admittedly late lunch. The place was packed (at least partially with locals, according to Chet), which meant plenty of time to browse their phones while waiting to be seated. It was very easy spending the day together this way, as though it was a normal thing they did all the time instead of being their first time for nearly everything. A few wheels turned in Ross’s head as he composed a joke on his private account. If there were going to be a lot of firsts, he knew just the one he wanted to get up to with present company….

Eventually they were seated at a table that wasn’t too sticky, and eventually after that they had a nice meal of diner food. A few more pieces fell into place once Ross consulted a few schedules he’d saved to his phone’s cloud storage; he waited until he’d finished his fried chicken before making his first move.

“Hey Chet?”

“What’s up, bud?” Chet replied.

“I should come clean with you: I’ve been planning something for a while, and it’s time you knew about it.”

Chet dragged a french fry through a smear of ketchup and bit it in half. “Really, now.”

Ross nodded. “Really. We should finish lunch first, though. We might be a while.”

“Sounds like a plan, my man.”

Once they’d settled their bill Chet gestured for Ross to take the lead, which he did gladly. He steered them both through the food court and little warren of retailers until they stood before the facility he’d had his eye on since he first started researching the hotel to book a room: an indoor golfing range, complete with big screens in front of the putting greens that displayed video footage of famous courses. A pair of older tourists, who looked to have brought their own clubs, were having a leisurely game at one of the screens, though aside from the attendant there wasn’t anyone else inside.

Ross looked up at Chet with a grin and said, “Tada!”

Chet’s expression was blank. “Your big plan is nine holes of virtual golf?”

“Eighteen holes, and yes. They’ll rent us all the gear we need,” said Ross. He patted his wallet. “My treat!”

“I’m not really a golf kind of guy, is the thing.” Chet looked uncomfortable now: his forehead knitted while his hands hid inside his pockets. It was one of the only times Ross had ever seen him in such a state. “I’d have no idea what to do. I’ve never played more than a few rounds of Putt-Putt as a kid.”

“And until recently I’d never been this far west except on business. Nobody’s expecting you to be good at it, just have a good time. It’s fun to try new things, right?”

“Can’t argue with that.” Chet’s features smoothed back into their usual handsome self again. He glanced through the glass paneling at the two people already midway through a simulation of Pebble Beach and added, “It definitely beats having to walk everywhere in the heat of the day.”

Ross cracked his knuckles. “Let’s go reserve ourselves a virtual green.”

“Winner buys the loser drinks?”

“I was going to do that for you anyway,” he replied, which got a laugh out of Chet. Yes, this was going to be a much better day for just about everything.

.o.o.o.

Ross had long since learned that you couldn’t always tell there was a convention in town just by looking at its airport. When a con was in full swing was one thing: you’d get wandering packs of people in bowling shirts or hunting gear or business casual with big chunky lanyards, and while they’d usually stick close to whatever hotel was hosting the event you’d still see the occasional foray into the host city for meals. Aside from that, though? If you didn’t have a shirt advertising your favorite comic book or a big suitcase full of samples you were hauling through security checkpoints, nobody would suspect a thing or even care. He told himself this over and over as he ambled through the surreal hallways of RNO towards the man who’d be driving him to his first furry “thing.”

He could feel the eyes of a taxidermied bighorn sheep judging him as he rounded a corner. You’re one of those weirdos, aren’t you? its blank and glassy stare seemed to say. It’s complicated, he thought back. To be fair, it was.

The ground floor of the airport spread out directly opposite the escalators leading down from the terminals, and in the midst of slot machines, statuary, and the churning salmon-run of tourists he spotted Chet. They’d talked about how he’d have a sign with Ross’s last name on it—his family being only a generation or two out of central Asia meant it was hard to mistake said name for anything else—but Chet had neglected to say he’d be wearing his work clothes for the meeting. Work clothes for Ross meant a tie, and maybe a nice suit if he was going to be meeting someone from higher up the food chain. Work clothes for Chet meant a crisp black chauffeur’s uniform, complete with white gloves and peaked cap. Ross suspected he could probably see his reflection in the twin columns of buttons running down the front of Chet’s coat.

“Mr. Voynov, correct?” asked Chet. He was remarkably good at keeping his composure. Ross nodded, which prompted Chet to put away his sign. “I’m Mr. Ngom, from Silver State Private Transportation, and I’ll be your driver today. I’d be happy to help you collect your luggage from baggage claim. Would you like me to take your carry-on for you?”

“Thanks,” said Ross. They’d had plenty of time to plan how they’d meet, and he’d expected things between them to be casual and reserved until they left the airport, but the air of professionalism was a surprise. It also gave them plenty of reason to stay close to each other. It wasn’t that he was anxious about being out in public, Ross argued to himself, it was just that he didn’t know how much of a problem PDA would be in this state and he still needed time to get used to Chet being right there, in the flesh and it was honestly kind of fun starting things off with a bit of technically-true roleplay between them. He approved.

He kept himself at arm’s distance all through the indignity of scavenging the luggage-go-round until they arrived at the car. What a car it was! It was a sleek black machine with a cartouche-themed license plate frame, the kind of thing that had an equal chance of containing a Mafia don or Batman. Chet loaded Ross’s bags into the back before stepping to open the side door.

“When you’re ready, Mr. Voynov?”

Ross had expected to ride shotgun, but maybe Chet was one of those people who had rules about his car. He scooted into the cushioned comfort of the back seat and fussed with the belt. The only time he’d been in a vehicle even half as nice was as part of a company retreat, and the less he thought about that carnival of horrors the better. He waited until Chet had slid into the driver’s seat before saying anything.

“Is it okay if I have one of these bottles of water?”

“Please do, you’ll want to get some of that in you after a day in the air.” The car’s engine turned over with a purr that bordered on sensual. “There’s some granola bars back there, too, if you’re hungry.”

“Thank you,” said Ross. He busied himself with a snack as Chet handled paying for parking with a bored-sounding attendant; once they were on the road he spoke up again. “Sorry if I’m quiet. I’m happy to see you face to face.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it.” Chet smiled at him through the rear-view mirror. “I’ve been driving people to and from this place long enough to know nobody’s very talkative fresh off the plane. We’ve got a whole long weekend to be chummy.”

They turned out of the airport complex. The car had a prominent port for a screen display, though Chet didn’t have anything docked in it; Ross supposed that if this place was as frequent a destination as Chet had made it sound he long since had the route memorized. He cracked the cap on one of the water bottles and drank deeply. Even without being prompted on all manner of horror stories from people who didn’t hydrate properly upon visiting the high desert he probably would’ve drunk as many bottles as he’d been offered.

It was still bright out when they approached the hotel. Ross stared up at the huge glowing panel on the front of the building as they navigated its lot; the thing was so bright that it was harsh even in the light of the desert sun as it advertised an upcoming stage show. The buildings they’d passed on their way in had been more or less the same ones he could see anywhere else, but as they pulled into the shadow of the resort’s loading zone he actually felt like he was in Reno. That feeling only got stronger as he followed Chet—who had spoken briefly with one of the attendants before leaving his car—inside.

Ross had never been in any casinos before, at least not unless you counted the gambling zones at the airport, and none of the pictures he’d looked at had prepared him to confront the serene face of Ellen DeGeneres glowing from a bank of slot machines. This was going to be an experience in more ways than one.

He felt Chet’s gloved hand alight gently on his shoulder. “You doing okay, bud? I know it’s loud in here.”

“This place is a whole lot bigger than the name implied.” It wasn’t like he could expect the Furry Thing he was attending to be off in some secluded corner of it, given the giant glowing welcome banners for the con on LCD displays near the front desk.

Chet chuckled. “The con’s called ‘Biggest Little’ because it’s held in Reno, that’s the city’s whole motto. Nothing to do with the size. It beats a ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ reference by a mile, though.” He guided Ross towards the line of velvet ropes winding its way towards the desk, adding, “I’ll handle the car and your bags while you get this taken care of. Text me when you’re ready and I can help you carry everything up. Take as long as you need, okay?”

“You sure you won’t get bored?”

“Oh, no, I’ll be good. I know some of the valet guys here. It’ll be nice catching up while I don’t have to worry about some withered old white guy scowling at me for being social.” He saluted. “Welcome to Reno, Mr. Voynov.” With that, he ghosted away into the tide of humanity, leaving Ross with a messenger bag, his wallet, and the remains of his granola bar to his name. Nobody else in the hotel knew who he was or why he was there. As far as anyone else was concerned, he was just some fat Asian guy in glasses.

Ross exhaled slowly. So far, so good. He was here in one piece and he was going to attend his first ever Furry Thing and maybe he’d get laid. No matter how it shook out this was going to be a hell of an interesting vacation.

.o.o.o.

To nobody’s surprise Chet was extremely bad at golf, simulated or otherwise, but Ross had expected it; besides, he’d come to Reno with plans on spending money. This led to a visit to one of the hotel’s many bars—many of which had been open since alarmingly early, though by then it was already part ways into the evening—which segued nicely into the other half of Ross’s plan.

“I’m glad I was able to get a room in the hotel itself,” he said without looking at much of anything. “When you said the event’s block had sold out months in advance I was convinced I’d have to squat in a Motel 6 or something.”

“We would’ve figured it out,” said Chet. He chewed on a bit of orange peel; Ross had quickly learned that Chet was an avid eater of garnishes. “I mean, if it came down to it, I’ve got a couch. But that would’ve implied a level of familiarity we’re still negotiating. Also a pretty bad idea given that the whole point of your visit is making sure you’ve got an escape hatch in the event I end up trying to harvest you for your skin.”

Ross shuddered. Chet’s horror fiction was some of the only work of his Ross pointedly didn’t read; one experience had been enough. “It’s got to suck driving back and forth to your place all the time, though.”

“Pshh. Driving’s my job, it’s something I like to do. I don’t live that far out, either.”

“I guess so.” Ross clinked the ice in his glass and sipped at some of the melted boozy water at the bottom. “I’m glad I just had to head upstairs yesterday. I don’t know if I mentioned it but I had maybe ten minutes between getting in and being dead to the world. It was unreal. You would’ve needed a pallet jack to move me if I’d conked out in your car.”

“Yeah, well, good thing I know a guy,” said Chet.

Things were going well. It was time to cash in on the groundwork he’d laid before. “So the golf thing wasn’t the only part of my plans for today,” he said, noncommittally as possible. Chet made a curious noise but said nothing else, which Ross took as his cue to continue. “You want to see what the room I was able to get looks like?”

He heard the clack of Chet’s drink against its coaster. “Would you look at that,” said Chet. “Seems my schedule suddenly opened up. You got a phone charger in that room of yours, bud?”

“Sure do.”

“Fantastic.”

To Chet’s credit he actually did plug his phone into the little wall wart Ross had set up shortly before passing out the previous day, but as soon as he made sure the battery meter was properly incrementing they were far too busy making out to talk about phones, chargers, or anything else. Chet was the kind of kisser Ross liked, with soft, slightly ChapStick-flavored lips that sometimes parted and sometimes didn’t; they’d had plenty of time to flirt with each other about the kisses they preferred and it seemed like Chet had taken said advice to heart.

Being with a taller partner was nothing new to Ross, in no small part to him having always been on the shorter side. He knew the exact angles required to get Chet onto the bed without anyone cracking their head on things. The feeling of hard, warm flesh against his leg was encouraging, as was the way it was easy to flip Chet over or swap places as whims dictated. It had been a long time since Ross had gotten laid in a hotel room. The way things were going he figured he’d be breaking his streak soon.

“So I guess this means things are going pretty well?” asked Chet once they came up for air.

He’d been hoping Chet would say something like that. Ross grinned and gestured with his chin. “It means there’s a box of condoms in my nightstand, and if you’d like me to jerk you off all you have to do is put one on.”

“A condom for a handjob?”

Ross adjusted his glasses meaningfully. “My sister works in hospitality. I am not getting jizz on these nice clean sheets.”

“Well, when you put it that way….”

If you were a certain type of shy gay kid you spent a lot of time on your own, and what this meant in Ross’s case was spending time in his room perfecting his masturbation techniques when he wasn’t busy playing video games. The same fast hands that meant he never bothered investing in a turbo-fire controller came in very useful when it came time to touch a dick, be it his own or someone else’s, and by the time Ross was a shy gay kid of a certain age he didn’t have much trouble staying popular among a certain very special subset of his little circle of friends. He’d experimented with other methods all throughout college and through a string of agreeable boyfriends. There were other tools in his arsenal now, some of which he was quite good at, but he would never completely give up on what worked.

“Do you want me to—”

“Later,” said Ross, concentrating. They hadn’t bothered stripping because neither had seen the need to, which meant care was required. One wrong move where zippers were involved could make for an unhappy end to the evening.

When it came to jerking someone off you needed to do a bit of reconnaissance first: what parts did they like being touched? Where did they shy away when you got near? Fast or slow, tight or loose? Were the balls optional equipment or mandatory for getting someone off? He quickly pieced together that Chet’s cock needed to be stroked quickly, with most pressure around the base that eased up closer to the head, and that the occasional grind of his thumb up under Chet’s balls got approving noises but he couldn’t do it too much without risking Chet wincing and pulling away from overstimulation. A bit of calibration was all it took to render him a shuddering mess. Ross, being the host at the moment, took it upon himself to handle getting the now used condom into the proper place.

“How’s my driving?” he asked once Chet looked like he was in the mood for talking again.

“Pretty good,” said Chet. His ponytail had come undone at some point, so he was now collecting his dreads back up where they belonged. “I could get used to that. You going to let me have a shot at you today?”

Ross responded by unzipping his trousers and rolling a fresh condom down onto himself. “Hands for now,” he said as he made himself comfortable against the mound of pillows and cushions at the head of the bed. “Maybe that’s all I feel like doing this weekend, maybe it’s not. But if we’re going to be dating each other you’ve got to have good hands.”

It turned out Chet had a pretty acceptable pair. He was more into kissing while jerking a guy off, Ross found, and his hands kept finding their way under Ross’s sweater or even against the bare skin of his chest and stomach. Ross suspected he should’ve known; he’d read accounts of Dawud doing this exact thing dozens of times, though whether the fiction or the reality came first was a puzzle for another time. Chet’s hands were warm and firm on the other side of the latex. Ross rode things out as long as he could until his will finally broke. Soon enough the trash gained its second tied-off unmentionable and Ross had a desperate need for a comb.

Checking the clock, only a little over twenty minutes had passed since Chet had first plugged in his phone. It was remarkably easy freshening up so that neither looked like they’d just been hooking up in someone’s room less than halfway through a weekend-long event.

“If we hurry, we can still make that one panel you were talking about,” said Ross. He ran his mustache comb primly along his upper lip. It might have been a weird little John-Waters-looking affair, but it was his, and he was very proud of it. “After that, maybe get some dinner, or go bowling, or something. You kept talking about how much there is to do at this hotel so we might as well make use of it.”

“Oh yeah? You still in the mood to be social even after all we’ve done today?”

Ross shrugged. “My head’s clear, my wallet’s full, and if we stay out too late you can always crash on the spare bed. Or the not-spare bed. We can learn the fun way whether or not we snore. Besides,” he added, “aren’t you the one who keeps saying I’ll understand you by understanding your hobbies?”

Chet laughed. It was a wonderful sound, deep and heartfelt. Ross could get used to hearing it in person without the tinny distortion from his speakers. “So does this mean you want to go dancing?”

“Oh my God, no,” said Ross with a moan.

“You’re one big spoilsport for a guy who just hooked up at a furry convention.”

“And you’re awful. Thanks for everything.”

“Right back at you, bud.” Chet pocketed his phone and opened the door for Ross. “Now let’s get moving before some fucknut plays with the elevator buttons again, forcing us to show up so late all the good seats are taken.”

Ross and Chet hustled their way through the halls, together even if they weren’t touching, and as they narrowly avoided the trajectory of someone who’d had too much to drink and therefore not enough personal space Ross reflected on how he was grateful for being dragged out all the way to the desert to go to this, his first other-person’s-fandom event. Maybe it wouldn’t be his last. Who knew?

There were worse things in life than having a good time.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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