Alameda This could be the time we work things out
Coming home wasn’t like how it used to be. It was wearing on him, daily, like sandpaper upon a stone, the grit further pushing its will against the other. It was draining and an upsetting reality when he could remember the times it had been the highlight of the day because of the person behind the doors. Even with the holidays having been a bit of a slight change, they were back to where things had been prior. Even New Years, usually a very exciting day considering it was their anniversary, had been muted.

Today was no different and coming home he was left with a feeling boring under his skin, stomach yawning in discomfort. Still, dinner was had, routine opted, and he was left in the living room unable to focus on reading for reasons the jaguar had little input about. Besides the current mood change, there was the fact it had been over a year with little change in Frank not bringing up his own baggage which certainly felt less important considering.

A sigh left him after a while, giving up. Setting the book down, pages pressed against the seat to hold its place, Frank made his way through the hall to the connected building. The grey clouds clogging the dark sky offered little avenue for the moon to light his path, the warm hall light doing all the work.

Steady spinning behind a door had him pausing, cat making an unsatisfied noise as they stood there for a moment, something Mathis no doubt could feel the pressure of by now. Was it even right to interrupt him? Unsure, he shifted his weight, wondering if simply going to bed was for the best, an excuse taken for a ride many a night now.

Before he could second guess himself further, the door reverberated with a careful knock.

Hopefully, tonight they’d get somewhere without Mathis closing further off; without Frank himself unable to fully articulate the fear that gripped him.
Wet clay seeped in spidering rivulets over the back of his hands, catching on callouses and pooling in the deeper ridges and valleys that made up the topography of his work-worn skin. He watched that more than the lump of clay he was working, his eyes distant and refusing to focus no matter the absent-minded acknowledgement that he was zoning out. Frustrating. Working clay had, for many years, served as one of the only things that could ground him and center his mind. A cliche, but the act of creating something rather than destroying when things became overwhelming had been his saving grace many times.

Not tonight. Not for many nights recently, try as he might as he spent hours secluded away in this retrofitted room. He’d lost his work studio when he’d lost The Kiln, and he hadn’t found somewhere suitable to rent out yet. He’d told himself that, anyway. Maybe he’d been holding out for another reason. Releasing his hold on Alameda’s borders had served as a reminder that there was a world beyond this city, and he didn’t have to plant all of his seeds so close to the tree. Especially when the tree felt like it was a stiff wind from blowing over.

Despite his inability to focus, it was impossible for him not to notice Frank’s approach. What his mind as a man failed to do, the cat’s instincts overcompensated. He liked it that way. When he roamed the streets on the evenings he couldn’t stand to be home, he turned his mind away from human things, and let himself exist as something made of instinct and power. The charade of being anything but was exhausting. But he was trying.

Even now, as Frank’s knock pulled him out of some in-the-middle field of vision, Mathis forced his face to change. For his eyes to crease, his lips to turn up. He eased off the pedal of his wheel, bringing the speed down as he straightened out of the hunch he hadn’t realized he’d been in. Licking a stray speck of clay from his lip, he intoned an inviting, ”Hmmm?”

As he waited for Frank to open the door, no doubt in some attempt to entice him into the living room, he searched for a rubber rib to scrape the excess clay from his palms.
The spinning shushing slowed and eventually an answering noise seemed to be an invitation his way. Turning the knob, the door swung open at a soft steady pace, revealing Frank, who, now that he was looking at Mathis in the middle of working, suddenly felt less than welcome. It was a hard thing to shake for all this was his house, too.

”Hey,” he started, leaning against the frame, missing the easy way a conversation used to happen for them. The kind where he could just go in and sit next to Mathis in the Kiln, many a shirt spattered with clay smelled heavily of dank earth and water. Where he’d ask what Mathis was making and get a lesson about how a technique pulled the clay just so before inevitably the conversation would roll into fits of laughter. God, he missed it. ”I was wondering if you had some time to talk?” There was a moment where he might have made a joke about what was currently on the wheel after being in here all night, but there was no spark for it. ”Unless, you’re still working on throwing.”
Frank filled the doorway, but did not cross the threshold. Reluctant to pass through the invisible barrier Mathis had done a despicable job at building between them. He was feet away and at the other side of a yawning chasm. But here he was, tossing a rope, hoping Mathis would catch it and hoist him over.

He wanted to talk. And since they’d done a phenomenal job of saying nothing about what was really going on, he assumed it had to be about something present. The vampire from the church, maybe. He’d bee disgusted to hear that one had been so close to the chapel. Not that he was a pious man in the slightest, but he’d had some faith that maybe hallowed ground could keep them away.

Mathis shrugged, and nodded his head toward an empty stool for Frank to enter and take, ”This can wait,” He gestured to the amorphous column that he’d likely scrap. He hadn’t made anything worthwhile in weeks. Sighing through his nose, he busied his hands with scraping them free of clay, letting the excess drip into the basin of the wheel.
A shrug and then an invitation into the space that Frank would take. Righting himself, he moved in, pulling the stool in question up with a soft tapping of wood to cement. Sighing, elbows went to knees as he watched the repetitive motion of clay being scraped off hands. Moving a hand to scratch through hair in thought, Frank tried to work out how to start.

There was a lot to talk about and it was going to entail meticulously and thoroughly peeling layers, starting with this between them. It was the type of conversation that was a two person activity and he hoped Mathis would be willing to join in this time, instead of hiding behind a wall that Frank couldn’t follow behind.

”I know you’re tired of me asking,” he began, trying to get ahead of prior conversations that had felt like they’d been on repeat for months now. ”But, I just want to know what’s going on. I miss you — us.” His gaze searched Mathis’ face, trying to find the key here. Mathis felt more and more like a stranger to him each passing day and it was freaking Frank out, making it feel like any day now he’d be seeing that familiar figure leaving out that door any minute now and not coming back. ”And I feel like,” Frank tried, chest heavy, not exactly sure the words to use to encompass everything from the heavy mood hanging around their house, to their strained conversations and looks. ”You’re pulling away, that something happened… And I want to help, but I’m at a loss here.”
His eyes danced between his grey-stained hands and Frank as he entered, his movements slow. Deliberately prolonging the process so that he had something to do with himself as Frank settled and sought for words.

Mathis drew up a touch straighter at the opening words. The kind of preface that inevitably called for a guard to be drawn up. He knew the topic before Frank even continued on. The one they’d been circling for weeks. The feeling he’d been waiting to fade. The pit that only kept growing deeper. Which had sunk to an all time low as the New Year had come and gone. Another anniversary, another year which the promise Frank had made to him had yet to be fulfilled.

Mathis swallowed down against the chill in the back of his throat, pushing it down through the rest of his body. It was not an easy thing to hear put into so many words. That things had grown so distant that Frank missed him when he was no more than two feet from him. When they had been living in the same home, sleeping in the same bed.

What had happened? Nothing had changed in the day-to-day. He’d forged ahead, disregarding the things that ate at him since the fight night. Practicing a routine he wore like stage clothes. Convincing in the right lighting, but itchy and ill-fitting. But his charade was perhaps less convincing than he’d thought.

Irrationally, he was angry that Frank even had to ask. It felt painfully obvious to him, all of the things that were wrong. But he’d been the one to insist these weeks that things were alright, that he was only tired or sore or stressed about this thing or the other. Still. That Frank had let it go on this long before cornering him for an answer... it only reaffirmed that he was willing to ignore things that threatened his sense of normalcy.

Mathis pressed his lips together, allowing himself the time to find words as he put the rib aside, and reached for a towel nearby. Balling his hands around it, he spoke, ”Nothing is different. Nothing is changed.” He said at last. He could have left it at that. Denied it all, found some way to brush this further under the rug. But his frustration was too big now, it would only be something to trip over later. ”This is the problem.” He concluded.
There was a pause and a small spark of hope flashed to life that he was finally heard only to be snuffed out within a breath. It was the same excuse given to him every time he’d tried to approach this through the weeks that had slowly been seemingly dragging for eons. Hurt snaked its way in, constricting, seemingly for the long haul. He was the sort of frustrated when someone had enough time to let the feeling putter out and exhaustion took hold in its place with the same old same old. Something had to give and at this point Frank felt like he was grasping for something Mathis wasn’t even trying for.

The additional words labeling that the problem was that exact worn excuse hardly helped. Confusion grabbed at him. Looking to the side in thought for, but a split second felt much like trying to sift through sand in the ocean for a particular shiny small bit that continued to fall through his fingers, the meaning unable to be grasped. He didn’t understand.

“What does that even mean,” he asked, simply trying to have Mathis extrapolate on it. ”Things have changed. You won’t talk to me and it feels like you would rather be anywhere, but in the same room. It's unfair to assume I can somehow read your mind and make everything better.”
Would it really take a mind reader to grasp what was wrong?

He knew what he said was confusing, but the way he felt wasn’t exactly simple to put into words. At least not kind words. He could have let the surmounting pressure get to him, shattered like a piece of over-cooked pottery and let his words be explosive.

But Frank was asking to help. Mathis didn’t know if he could be helped. But he could try.

He just couldn’t stay still. Tension drove him into movement. He exhaled sharply as he turned in his stool and stood. He didn’t go far, only a few feet to the sink, where he tossed the rag. “I mean… It is all the same. Every day.” Mathis explained, and rested his hands on the edge of the sink, bearing some of his weight down.

He couldn’t bring himself to do more than speak over his shoulder.

“All of it. It just feels like we are pretending.” He shook his head, “Living like we’re something we’re not.” As if they did not grow fangs and claws, as if they did not lurk the streets in search of vampires that sought to destroy their false sense of security. As if they belonged in a quaint little cottage in the woods.

“This… playing human. It’s exhausting.” And the cruel truth was that Frank would not understand. He would cling to the charade, and try to convince him it wasn’t a lie.
His movements were quick and sharp as Mathis went off to the sink, not bothering to face him as Frank listened solitary upon his stool throne. It seemed in a way that domesticity was what was itching under Mathis’ skin and he could understand that, though was in a very direct opposite stance of craving it. Everyday being the same with the people he cared about seemed alright with him, especially as Frank was in a whirlwind with trying to correct the prowl. It couldn’t be wrong to want an easy life outside of duties.

But, there was more. And it was this that drew a sharp contrast to what he knew of Mathis. There was the one who had told him he would never be a monster, that they were still human no matter what as Frank had broken down and felt the world was ending, and then there was this one seemingly wanting the opposite. This was a stranger.

”Where the hell is this coming from,” he questioned. ”You’ve never thought this.”
Of course Frank was blindsided by it. Frustration prickled the back of his neck, and he drummed his fingers on the edge of the sink. Of course, because he’d been willfully turning his eye from the reality of their world for so long. Of course he wouldn’t have noticed that Mathis was growing weary of doing the same.

“Well, I do now.” He said quietly, his head shaking. He drew in a slow, steady breath, the air catching in his lungs as if they’d been punctured by claws. The next truth was harder to speak aloud. “You want to ignore it.” His weight shifted on his feet. He should turn and look. He should. He couldn’t.

“Or maybe you have noticed. And that’s why you won’t actually marry me.” And maybe… maybe if he was truly afraid of the truth of who they were. Maybe it was better if they didn’t.
And that was it, wasn’t it? A shift in thinking, in ideals, and morals; the reason for stonewalling him like a child instead of an adult in a relationship. Mathis believed himself a wolf in sheep’s skin who tired of wearing such wool, aiming an arrow directly at Frank in the process and pointing out he wanted to live as they always did. The thing was though, Frank didn’t have a blind eye to what they were, it was a type of living he’d grown to accept through gritted teeth and a god damned bond that assured both sides were happy. He’d worked hard on that fact, pushed himself at a pace that was a miracle just to keep his friends safe. Holding to their human selves was vastly important. They were not animals nor were they human. And monsters? Hardly. They were themselves.

The last drop in his well of patience dried up as Mathis wrenched out a line that was incredibly out of character and manipulative to the point his stomach swooped, jaguar offering a growl to the cheetah that wouldn’t even look at them. Not even his human counterpart.

He paused and took a steady breath, coming to a decision that was both terrifying and yet seemed only natural at this point.

”Back when you proposed, I told you why,” he started evenly, clearing that all up with a careful sweeping of words as he got up slowly, resigned. ”And you promised me patience no matter how long it would take and I’ve been using that time to work on myself so I can be a better man for you to marry. I even would’ve welcomed us doing so together.” A soft smile was had that faded just as fast. Such a thing had never happened, especially once Mathis started to spiral. Frank completely pivoted what was important to simply trying to figure out how to help his fiancé.

Fingers from his right hand softly turned the ring on his left this way and that. ”This though, wanting to be a cheetah instead of Mathis? I won’t follow you there and if you really feel like this and want to keep misconstruing my intentions to fit whatever narrative is in your head, then we probably shouldn’t be together.” The fidgeting stilled.
Frank’s words peppered his back like well aimed darts, piercing between his ribs and along his spine. Somewhere along the line, he began to tremble, his body involuntarily reacting to the cold that seeped within.

When he’d proposed, Frank had almost said no. Out of fear of things going wrong, a fight driving them apart. He feared the commitment, because of what he stood to lose. Or so he insisted. Mathis had promised his patience, and he’d maintained it.Yet it had been two years now, and the only conversation that had neared some decision had ended in Mathis extinguishing his excitement in favor of Frank’s discomfort. He’d even asked then, if it was something Frank still wanted. He’d promised that all he wanted in return was Frank to be happy.

So many promises. What had been his words? “For you, I’ll be anything.” How could he have been so foolish to think that he could sacrifice all he was made of so that Frank could still love him? Frank spoke of working on themselves, together. How much of that would involve cutting out the pieces that overwhelmed and frightened him?

And Frank still did not get it. It was not a matter of wanting to be a cheetah, or Mathis. There was no one or the other. It was the separation between the two that Frank still clung to. He claimed it was a balance, but Mathis could see now that it was only vulnerability. Maybe Frank had been right to fear the commitment. The more they clung to the human charade, the more there was to lose. He didn’t want for that to be the truth. He didn’t seek this out, it was just something that was becoming glaringly apparent. And incredibly exhausting.

Mathis finally straightened, drawing in a slow breath as he blinked back a stabbing sensation behind his eyes. He turned then, forcing his gaze to land squarely on Frank’s face. It was like looking into the sun, but he did not turn away. ”It’s not the cheetah instead of me. It’s only me.” How else could he put it for Frank to understand? His inhale was shaky as he forged on. ”And there are parts of me I think that you cannot love.” And it was not something he could fix. There was no amount of patience they could promise one another that would see that changed.

He felt sick. He felt angry. He felt sad. But, he felt sure.

”I told you that all I wished to do was make you happy.” He turned his palms out, gesturing to the chasm between them as he shook his head, ”I do not think I can.”
For all his words, he was rewarded by Mathis finally turning to look at him and have a conversation. The fact that it had to be him tugging at their very relationship to get Mathis’ attention in such a way further highlighted up more of what was broken. That wasn’t how it usually was and it ached.

And what he had to say, well, it was more of the same that just didn’t make sense. Embracing a part of you didn’t cause someone to act entirely different, to shut their partner out for months and blame it on them, to say they were bored. That’s something you brought up in conversation as it came up or you asked for time to discuss it. And to further put words in his mouth in such a way that he would never do, Frank was left wounded and his mouth twisted in confusion. When had he ever done anything to make Mathis feel like he didn't love all parts of him? That he wouldn’t try to help him in any way possible?

He wanted to make him happy, but all Frank had been was miserable these last few months because the partner he thought was there with him in everything had receded far away and become this. Purple eyes shone brightly back at Mathis, the jaguar right there as emotion fed it as the space between them felt as if they were miles and miles apart.

”You did,” he fixed. ”And I’ve loved all sides and parts and shapes of you since I met you. It hurts me that you think differently and I don’t know what I could’ve done to change that.”

Frank drew in an unsteady breath, blinking long. As much as he loved Mathis, the building around them had crumbled, the floor given out for some unknown reason, and he was the only one reaching out to keep his partner from falling away. That’s not how a relationship was meant to be and it had worn on him over time, his hold slipping more and more each day while Mathis pushed against him and gravity aided his assault.

It was time to let go.

”I think,” he paused, swallowing. ”I think it would be better for us both if we ended our relationship.” Not ‘us’ though, for as much as he felt their relationship had reached its finality in this capacity, Frank hoped Mathis would still welcome his presence. It was hard to imagine a life in this world nowadays without one of his closest friends.
Did. The past tense lent him all he needed to know. Though he’d hardly had much doubt that he was hurting Frank. He wished he could stop. But staying and leaving seemed to hurt him in equal measure. Guilt eroded at him from the inside, making him feel brittle and cold. But he couldn’t collapse yet. It would be harder for them both if he succumbed now to the consuming hollowness.

He withstood it, feeling much like he was standing in place while the world fell away. Everything he’d done in the past four years, he’d done with Frank in mind. So much of his life had been altered to perfectly entangle them together. He’d become a vase perfectly sculpted to fit one rose. With no regard how fragile that truly made him in the process. How much stood to shatter when a singular crack formed.

The truth stood before them now. There was a breaking point, and suddenly and without much warning, they’d found it.

Mathis cleared his throat, but his voice was still strained as he assured, ”It is nothing you did.” Truly, it wasn’t. Frank was doing nothing to actively hurt him. He was only living the life they’d built together. It was Mathis whom had found that he couldn’t keep living it. He swallowed, tried again as he shook his head, ”I know... I know that you loved me.” Or still did. Or... thought he did. ”There is just something... here,” He gestured to the center of his chest as his brows furrowed, ”That I cannot make you understand.”

Mathis let his hand fall away as he said at last, ”Maybe I do not even understand.” A harsh, ugly truth. That things had come to an end because he could not truly determine at what point in time this life had become unbearable. Perhaps a culmination of everything they’d faced in the past year. And the crushing realization that he and Frank might be changed people because of it.

”I think you are right.” He concluded quietly.
The assurance was hard to wrangle with for Mathis had just blamed him for so much and seemingly nothing at all within just a few minutes. What if it was his fault, a question all too easily floating just there and whispering to him for all Frank himself couldn’t figure whatever action it had been. There was nothing, yet the fear of abandonment was always such a loud voice. A fear Mathis couldn’t ever fully figure out as much as Frank had tried when being proposed to and had screamed it in all, but those words with the reason behind it. Like some sort of ironic twist, Frank had watched his fear led prophecy come to life as the person he loved deeply and who loved him back, left while sitting right next to him.

Loved. When had stopped loving him? Never. Not even in these last few months. It was in every action and word Frank took. Even now at this precipice of their relationship, it wasn’t something he could just turn off at the flip of a switch. It’s why it hurt to live in this house the last few months. And why he also had brought it up.

It was frustrating to hear the cyclical conversation topic again with no further explanation except that what Mathis was upset with him about was something he didn’t even understand properly himself. Then why? Why all of this? Why not simply ask for a hand and work through it together? Or try to talk to his group if anything? Why had he pushed him away as he had done? So many actions and inactions had led to here.

Frank felt cold leech into him, the room feeling as if it was shifting as Mathis agreed. There hadn’t been a fight for it and hollowness yawned like a chasm. He’d had a plan and now there was none for even the next breath taken.

Four years. Of warm touches, shared words, and moments filled with happiness, contentment, excitement, but also sorrow and heartache. He’d hoped for so many more together. Indefinitely. But, indefinitely apparently also had a limit.

”Okay,” he managed to speak from a throat increasingly feeling like it was made out of glass, tight, dry, and sharp at each movement. Frank nodded into his words. ”Okay, then.” He swallowed, the hurt in his chest now to a degree that made it hard to breathe.

”I still love you so much and this hurts… I just,” he shook his head, words failing for all they had already been used up.

He tried again. ”We can figure everything out tomorrow.” So much of their lives interwoven, expected to always be that way, needed to be untangled. Eyes burned and hands trembled, one coming up to wipe the back of against eyes. “You’re busy and I need to, um, step out.”
Okay. Just at that moment, the love that had been growing between them was finally pruned back. The ever reaching branches that they’d nurtured for so long, snipped away. Nothing was uprooted, the mass of it still remained, but there would be no more blooms to tend to.

Frank’s love, and the love he had in return, was still as much a part of him as it always had been. Perhaps it would always would be. He didn’t think there was a way to ever stop loving him. But now they were parting ways. So Mathis could see what he became beyond the hedge of their lives together.

Mathis only nodded as Frank declared the conversation over. Something to handle tomorrow. They had their entire lives to dissect. Who would move, who would take what, who would keep Dolce. The reality of it all threatened to quash him beneath the immensity of it.

But he stayed standing until Frank left the room. Only then did he allow himself to exhale, and deflate to his knees. He shook, a tremble in his entire body he could not stay. But somehow, as he pressed his palms and the pads of his fingers into his cheeks, he found that he was not crying.
A nod was all that was given in return by Mathis, though he was hardly fairing well with words either. Still… still.

He wished things were different, wished they hadn’t found themselves at opposite ends of a path. Frank wanted something before leaving the moment, though what, he wasn’t sure. It was a yawning cavernous hole that simply continued to grow. To hold him, maybe? To go back to the past and live it all again now knowing there was an end? There was a want to stay to figure it out even if it was much like standing where a lush forest once stood and now only logging destruction remained, but he needed to leave before the fragile dose of control still in use slipped and Mathis had to deal with a jaguar too.

And so, he gave a pained and watery half smile with a nod and left quietly after looking over him for a beat and then another, hands unable to stop trembling of their own accord, a movement that soon spread. The closing of the door felt like it resonated for eons as it shut physically and metaphorically a chapter in both their lives.

God. He felt sick. Had it been the right choice?

Yes. It had to have been.

Moving to the living room, he carefully took the ring off, its weight immediately missed as it was put to the coffee table for safe keeping along with his phone. The book was still splayed on the couch waiting for him to pick up where he’d left off a lifetime ago. Funny how he’d had a very different idea of how the conversation would go minutes before.

To the back door, it rolled on its track and soon closed behind him. It was moments like these he was entirely grateful they were so close to the treeline, his skin already feeling incredibly foreign, mixing with the absolute hurt of everything while pressure built and throbbed much like a migraine as the cat fought him. Undressing, it came quickly, the pain a momentary reprieve, thoughts scrambling briefly. Soon enough, after a few sniffs at the door and a sad wailing chest cough, a jaguar sped off into the cold snowy woods that quietly welcomed him and his hurt.
Mathis listened in silence to the sounds of Frank moving through the house. Then out of the house. Perhaps just to get some air, or take a walk. Mathis couldn’t bring himself to move for a few more minutes. Perhaps it was shock, in some way, that kept him rooted to the spot and trembling. Was it the shock that kept his eyes so dry? Or was it something else that made him so... cold.

There was not one thing he felt in full. Parts of guilt, of grief, of regret. Of relief? Only part. It was all too much to feel at once. He knew he would need time to address it all, but he couldn’t do so on the floor of his studio.

Swallowing back the lump in his throat, Mathis pushed to his feet, and cast his gaze around. It was just as easy to feel like smashing all of it to pieces as it was to wish to preserve it just as it was. There was so much he was walking away from. He could not think on what parts he would keep, and which he would entirely cut himself free of.

He couldn’t stay. Not tonight. He couldn’t lay in a bed; which one would he even sleep in?; while Frank lay in another, contemplating what next to do. Staying would only make him rethink it all. He would find himself back in the same place, forcing himself to fit inside the fragile mold to preserve something flawed and fragile. He’d just make a fool of himself, and waste both of their time.

Tonight, he’d go. They would have to decide later who kept the house, or if they sold it and went separate ways. It felt only fitting that he should be the one to go. Frank had a group rooted to the city. Mathis was not confined to any borders. Not anymore.

In silence, he left his studio, and headed for the bedroom. Frank had not returned from outside, but his presence had faded from nearby. Good. Easier, this way. He did not rush as he moved to the closet to bring down a small suitcase from the shelf. He pointedly ignored Frank’s clothing hanging before him, and only turned to collect a few things from his own side before heading for the bed. Once, he’d thought that the next time he would be packing, it would be in preparation for their wedding. Now he piled in a few changes of clothes and basic toiletries, destined for...

Where would he go? He’d figure it out after he left. The walls around him felt suddenly constricting. His the familiar room he’d shared with Frank swelled around him, taunting him with the threat of bringing about memories he did not care to recall right now. Mathis packed a bit more quickly.

Soon, he was leaving the room, and toting the suitcase into the living room. There, he paused, peering down at the coffee table and the ring upon it. He thumbed the space where his own should be, realizing he’d left it behind in the bathroom when he’d gone to work the clay. His stomach lurched. Part of him insisted on turning around to go retrieve it. He’d worn it every day for two years. It had symbolized so much for him. A promise, now broken.

He kept moving, going to the kitchen for his car keys and wallet. There upon the window sill over the sink, sat the ceramic potato he’d made for Frank those years ago. The stupid potato. Why had he used it to propose? All of it felt so foolish now.

As he turned to leave, he glanced toward the sliding door, and the clothes upon the patio caught his eye. Frank had gone for a shift. He wondered how close he’d been to losing control during their talk. He was always more prone to it than Mathis was. It was rarely ever a struggle for him anymore. Never a question of balance between him and the cat. Only the matter of if shifting was appropriate or not. It never seemed to be so symbiotic for Frank.

Frowning slightly, he turned, only to be once more stopped in his tracks. Dolce sat beside her bowl, peering up at him hopefully. He swallowed thickly as he dropped to a knee and patted the floor for her to approach. She did so with gusto, her body wagging as she propped her little feet on his thigh and stretched to kiss his chin. Guilt bore into him. She would be confused. Her life was forever changed, and she knew nothing of it. Innocent in the matter, she wouldn’t understand.

Mathis scritched her behind the ears. He wouldn’t leave her. Not forever. If they had to manage some sort of... custody. Too much to think about now. Tonight, she was best off here. Frank would return some hours later, and she wouldn’t be alone. He bent to kiss her patchwork head, then slowly stood. Enough drifting about his own house like a phantom. He’d haunted it long enough.

He gave nothing else a second glance as he moved back through to the front door. A murmured promise to Dolce that he would see her later was the only thing he broke the silence with before he stepped through the door.

When Frank returned, a message would be waiting for him on his phone.

I could not stay. Give me a few days and we can figure the rest out.
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