Chapter Two: Family Meeting (Dev)

It's funny, weird--Lee has a word for it, I'm sure. As we head for the stairs, I feel more worried than when I'm stepping onto the football field. In a game, I know pretty much what's going to happen, how the eleven guys across the line are going to come at us, and Gerrard has twenty or thirty plays he can call that put us in a good position to deal with it. Worst case is we lose. Well, no. Worst case is one of our guys gets carted off the field on a stretcher. That happened to my buddy--mentor, really--Fisher almost two months ago, and to Corey a month before that (although I'm the one who replaced Corey in the starting lineup, so I guess it wasn't a worst case for everyone). But anyway, I know kind of the range of what's going to happen.

I'm walking down in front of my fox, and the range of what might happen is only limited by my imagination. Even that's not enough to predict things, because there's no way in hell I would've imagined that my dad would break Lee's thumb. Sprain it, whatever. So I'm nervous, going down these stairs and hearing the conversations of all my relatives, and I know my tail is twitching. I don't know how the team down there is gonna come at us.

And then Lee puts a paw on my shoulder and whispers, just for me, "Don't worry, tiger. We got this." That's all it takes. It's like Gerrard coming in with the playbook. Lee might have caused this tension, but he's also the reason I can deal with it.

We meet up with Aunt Ania first, and my formal thought-out introductions turn into simply, "This is Lee," when she turns.

Aunt Ania looks like my mom: same height, same stripes, just about, same build. But Mom is still on her first husband, and her older sister is twice divorced. "All the money and none of the dead weight," Ania likes to say. She wears flashy jewelry that my dad grumbles about, and her dresses are always out of the latest Vogue.

Under all that, she is definitely family. She greets us with a smile as bright as my mom's, and turns it full power on Lee. "What a pleasure to meet you," she says. "So you're the one turning my nephew's head."

"None of the running backs he's faced have managed to," Lee says.

Ania looks to me as she says, "How charming."

"Football humor," I say. "A 'swivelhead' is a guy who has to keep turning his head because the player he's supposed to be tackling is running past him."

"Oh, I see." She plainly doesn't. "So how did you two meet?"

He tells variations of this story three times in my hearing that night. "We went to the same college. I was a football fan, he was a player."

"And how did you start dating?" Aunt Mariya wants to know, later.

"Well, I had to talk him into it." Lee smiles, aware of Uncle Roger over her shoulder and the cup of buttered rum Roger's holding in his paw.

"I bet you did." Uncle Roger is not as big as me or father--not as tall, that is. He's as big around as both of us put together. "I bet you were real fuckin' persuasive. Foxes."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Lee lies with a long fox smile.

"Be polite, Roger, or he might put you in the hospital, too." Aunt Mariya doesn't sound like she'd mind all that much. She probably wouldn't, from what I've heard about their lives since my cousins went off to college.

"Where are David and Darlene?" I ask, to head off drunk-Roger trouble.

"College," Roger stifles a belch. "Hey, is Kingston going to be back this season?"

That's to me, about Fisher. "He wants to be, yeah."

"That bear's doing okay for him. What's his name, uh..." He scratches behind his ear.

"The cubs get Thanksgiving off, of course." Mariya sighs, maybe at her children, maybe at her husband's belch. "But Darlene is at her boyfriend's, and David and some friends are flying to Hyeong-Kin. Adventure holiday package."

"They better not come back with the clap," Roger mutters.

"Honestly, Roger." Mariya half-turns. "Why don't you get another rum and see if you can make a complete fool of yourself?"

"Great idea." Roger totters over to the kitchen.

Mariya beams at us again. "So you got together against all odds. How romantic. It's so nice to see a young couple in love."

Lee smiles. I look down at the floor. "The more I got to know Dev," he says, then and again, to Gregory, later, "the more I wanted to spend time with him."

Gregory, with Marta on his arm, is a little smaller than I am. An inch or two away in height, but he hasn't spent the last five years bulking up his frame. The difference is only really apparent when we stand side by side. In my head, he's still my big brother, so I get this uncomfortable awareness of his aging when I see him.

I used to look forward to being his height, to doing the things he did. Now, for the first time, I'm scared of the day when I'll be that thin, a little hunched over, and constantly flicking my eyes around the room like I'm worried some tackle is going to jump out of the china closet and knock me down. It wasn't this bad at Christmas, the last time I saw him in person, and he didn't look this bad on his commercial, though of course then he was in a suit and sitting behind a desk.

Marta responds to Lee first. "That's sweet," she says.

"Yeah. Course, back then he couldn't really keep a girl around." Gregory eyes me, slides his glance to Lee, then over my shoulder. "Yeah, football player on campus gets a lot of action, but this is the first time he brought someone to Thanksgiving in like five years."

"Well," Lee says, "for the last two, he hadn't been able to tell anyone who he was dating."

Gregory's face looks like he just ate a lime. "Personally, I'd be okay not knowing," he says.

"Oh, honey." Marta sounds slightly reproving, but doesn't take it any further.

I just shrug and grin. "Don't worry, we don't have a big wedding planned."

Lee arches an eyebrow at me. I showed him pictures of Gregory's wedding last year, which led to an argument about whether I'd take him to a family wedding. After making up, we used the white handkerchief that was Gregory and Marta's wedding favor to clean up.

This would be a great time to tell Gregory that, actually. If I were Lee. So I keep an eye on my fox as Gregory says, "I don't see how you could have any kind of wedding planned anyway."

"Oh, well," Lee says. "There are a few civilized places around."

"Legally..."

"Oh, boy," I say. Marta tugs at Gregory's arm.

"...the precedents have been--stop pulling--have been clearly set. This whole malarkey about it being an equal rights issue is just political posturing bullshit."

"That's an interesting take on things." Lee keeps his voice even.

Gregory points a finger at him. "And any court that finds in favor of this bullshit marriage law is not doing it on legal grounds. They're doing it to placate you people because you've finally started making enough noise that it bothers them."

I clear my throat. "You mean 'us people'?" I stand closer to Lee.

"Oh, come on, Dev." Gregory's attention is all on me now. "Don't pretend like this is anything more than...than posturing for attention from the national media. You planned this together, I bet, right?"

I kind of want to punch him, but I can't do that here, of course. Lee's whiskers twitch like he's thinking the same, but he responds smoothly. "None of this was planned, actually. It's just worked out okay so far."

"For you." Gregory snarls down at him. "I know Dev. I knew him all his life, he was always into girls, always! You people say you're born that way, so how come he never looked at a guy, not once, not until you came along?"

"Sounds like a Families United brochure." Lee keeps his tone light.

"United family," Gregory snorts. "Not since you showed up."

"Honey." Marta tries to pull him away, but he shrugs her off.

"You know how foxes are," he says. Cider from his breath spills over both of us.

I put my paw on Lee's shoulder. "Yeah, I do," I say. "I don't think you do."

"I argued a case against this fox once," Gregory shakes an unsteady finger at us, "and he tried every lowdown trick to get the case tossed out. But I held on and pinned him down and finally won."

"Sounds like a fun night out," Lee says.

"All right," I say, because Gregory's eyes are bugging out and I think he might take a swing at Lee in a minute.

"Those Family United people have the right idea," my brother yells.

Before Lee or I can say anything, my whiskers twitch at a presence behind me, and Lee stiffens. A deep, familiar voice rumbles. "Gregory. Stop it now."

Gregory's eyes slide sideways, and he hunches in more. "So you're on his side too now," he mumbles.

Dad steps around Lee, staring down at Gregory. "It is Thanksgiving."

"He's not family." Gregory stares stubbornly at Lee.

"He is a guest in our house. And he is important to your brother. You will behave respectfully."

I exhale. I'd talked to Dad about Lee, he said he was okay, but you never know with Dad. "Okay" could mean a big range of things. But he came over here to take Lee's side. Or at least, to take my side with him.

Gregory, too, sees where Dad is standing and with whom. "I was respecting the Lord," he hisses. "Is Devlin?"

Lee, to his credit, is standing up pretty well, despite the cold tones and tension in the large tigers all around him. My father puts a paw on Lee's shoulder. "His relationship with the Lord is his own business. I suggest you go to bed if you cannot maintain a polite conversation." He shifts his gaze to Marta. "How much has he had to drink?"

"I'm not drunk!" Gregory straightens. "And he put you in the hospital, for Chrissake, Dad."

"Don't take the name of the Lord in vain," I chime in.

Dad glares at me. "Devlin, there is no call to make this worse. Gregory, we have settled all that, and neither is that your business. Do we understand each other?"

"Yes." Gregory lowers his eyes just a fraction.

"Good. Lee, thank you for coming."

"It's good to see you again too, sir," he says. "Thank you for inviting us."

Dad reaches down to shake my fox's paw. I'm sure he's deliberately doing this in front of Gregory, and my brother watches with that sour curl to his lip as Lee's dark brown paw disappears into my father's orange and white one.

"Come. Your father is talking to my sister and she would like to meet you as well." Dad guides us across the room.

Behind us, Gregory calls, "You haven't even asked about my commercial!" I don't know if that's to me or to Dad, but we both ignore it.

I lower my voice as I follow Dad around an armchair, Lee trailing behind me. "Is he okay? Is he just having a bad day?"

Dad harrumphs. "Bad month. He says business has been down. You have not talked to him?"

"I've been a little busy with football. I thought things were going well. The commercial and all."

We circle Aunt Mariya, sitting at the coffee table with Mom, and walk over to my third aunt, Zarya--Auntie Za. She's sitting with Lee's father on the loveseat, but stands when she sees us. "Ah," she beams. "So this is Lee. I see the family resemblance."

Lee laughs, and before he can say anything, she's wrapping him up in a hug. "You are a lovely fox. So handsome! And your father, Brenly, I have just enjoyed the pleasure of meeting. He tells me that you have made my nephew very very happy. I am so delighted for this."

She steps back, leaving my fox a little breathless. "He's made me happy, too." Lee grins, his tail wagging.

I can't help but match his grin. Auntie Za is awesome. She notices the wagging and points. "And you wag your tail for him! So adorable, so wonderful. Look how lovely you look together. Hello, Devlin, come give your Auntie Za a kiss."

She hugs me and kisses me on both cheeks. "You are so big, so strong! You need it, to run into those other players on the field, yes."

"It helps." It's not just how cheery she is; it's how easily she's accepted Lee. Dad is still standing off to one side, but he's smiling--if only a little--and looking fairly relaxed. For Dad. Lee's father stands up, too, with a smile. Auntie Za does that to people. "How've you been?"

"I am leaving in one month--two days before Christmas, so sad I will miss it--to go back to Moskva for one year. There is counseling center there for abused wives, I am going to help them. Exciting, no?"

"Very exciting," Lee's dad says. "Are you a counselor?"

Auntie Za laughs. "Oh, my stripes, no. But I will work with counselors, and I hope to talk to some of the wives myself. Officially my job is working in kitchen, but they have asked for people with 'bright and cheery disposition,' and prefer native Siberian speakers, so I am accepted quickly." Her eyes catch the light of a nearby candle. "I am so excited!"

"It sounds really cool." Lee smiles. "Is domestic abuse a big problem there?"

"Always." Auntie Za's smile fades, the stripes over her eyebrows creasing downward. "Is terrible problem. Only now is truly being recognized. Counseling center is first of its kind."

"You never talked about helping domestic abuse victims before," I say. "I mean, it's great, just...I wouldn't have expected it."

She glances at my father. "When you reach my age, perhaps you will understand. I have been wondering lately if the things I do make a difference in the world. I love my life, you know, but I manage a restaurant. I go to parties. I have no family of my own, nothing to leave behind. So I want to do something that will...that will matter, that is making a difference. This center in Moskva, it is a wonderful thing. It makes a difference."

I catch the spark in Lee's eye, the wistful tone, when he says, "That's great. Making a difference in people's lives. My dad helps people plan their retirements, save money, make ends meet."

"Like Gregory," Dad says, and I follow his eyes across the room to where my brother, still angry, slumps against the wall next to his wife. "Fighting for people who need help."

The last two cases I can remember hearing about were on behalf of small businesses defending themselves against individuals. Property claims, tenant disputes, something like that. I know Gregory's specialty is corporate law, and I used to think that meant he would be fighting for people against big companies. I think he thought that too.

My sympathy is pretty low for him after the way he yelled at Lee, but I keep my mouth shut and let my dad use him as an example. Lee's the one who really did fight for people, once upon a time. He doesn't say anything, but his ears are down just enough that I know he's thinking about the stuff he did in college with his activist friends.

Me, I'm fighting for the people of Chevali who have never had a football champion in their town. That's kind of lame compared to what Lee did and what Auntie Za is going to do, so I keep my mouth shut about it.

"So Dev's brother is a lawyer," Lee's dad says to my dad.

"Yes. He has been with this company, this law firm, for two years now, and he continues to be assigned cases. This year he has been in charge of twelve cases by himself, and won nine of them." He sets his jaw. "This is good."

Lee's dad nods. "How's the auto shop doing?"

"Business is good..."

Auntie Za cuts across the conversation. "Oh, business. I want to know how this fox put you in the hospital, Misha." She turns to Lee. "Growing up, you know, I never won a fight with him, not once. Not even when I was five and he was three."

Lee flicks his ears. "It was luck," he said. "He tripped and hit his head."

Dad looks between his sister and Lee, and finally coughs. "This fox is clever. He makes me lose my temper."

"I'm not sure it's cleverness," I say. "He does that to a lot of people."

"That's for sure," his father says.

Lee looks around at all of us, but it's me he elbows in the side. "Aren't you supposed to defend me?"

I nudge him back, making him lose his balance. "When you need defending, sure."

Auntie Za laughs her boisterous laugh again. "So you are willing to fight for my nephew. Good, good. I can leave the country with peace in my heart now." She winks at her brother. "Now I know there is someone who can keep Misha in line."

"I wouldn't presume to do that," Lee says lightly. "I'm just happy to be here, meeting more of Dev's family. Do you have any embarrassing stories from when he was a cub? His mother already told me one."

"Well," I say loudly, "I think Mom needs some help clearing up some glasses. Lee, why don't you help me for a minute here?"

"Later," Auntie Za says to Lee with a wink, and how the heck am I going to keep him away from her until she leaves?

I pick up glasses and Lee follows me, doing the same until both our paws are full. We take them to the kitchen, where my mother scolds us and tells us to go back out and be social. But I'm a little weary of my family now, so I just lean against the wall outside the kitchen.

Lee leans back at my side, his tail brushing the backs of my legs. He's quiet, reflective, and then shakes his head as though dismissing some other thoughts and smiles up at me. "Your Auntie Za is awesome."

"She's pretty cool." We both look across the room. She's still talking to Lee's father there. "You ever miss that activist stuff?"

"Mmm. Sometimes." Lee rubs his whiskers back. "Especially when I see those, like, Families United people...that name's ironic."

"Ironic how?"

"Oh, nothing. They just...they're trying to prevent people like us from having families. And..." He sighs. "Some stuff about Mother. I'll tell you later."

I have a pretty good idea then what he wants to tell me, but I don't pursue it. "You could try to get involved again. Down in Chevali, I mean. There's a group that's contacted Ogleby about getting me to speak."

"I remember." He flicks his ears. "Why haven't you?"

"Me?" I wave a paw. "Timing never works out, I guess. Ogleby doesn't give me details."

We listen to the murmur of conversation in the room, and I think about how different my relationship with all my relatives is. I used to be the quiet one, the one who didn't really have many stories to tell next to Gregory's accomplishments, the one everyone asked, "What are you going to be doing when you're not playing football?" Now I'm the one with the stories, the football player. The football star.

The gay football star. With my boyfriend. I kind of want to put an arm around him, but I don't know how people would take it. Probably it would piss off Gregory, which almost gets me to do it right then, but he's not the only one in the room.

"You remember that Brian moved to Chevali, right?"

Lee's words break my reverie. "Of course," I say, but I hadn't put the pieces together. Brian's in Chevali. He was Lee's best friend in Lee's activist days. Probably Brian is involved in the gay rights scene there. "There's other activist groups, though, right? You don't have to be involved with him."

"Aww." Lee gives me a foxy smile. "You're not still jealous, are you? You know you won, right?"

"I didn't know it was a competition." I shrug and lean closer. "Anyway, I don't think you'd run off with him."

"Good."

"That doesn't mean you have to look him up. He's still an asshole."

He turns away from me, looks back toward the party. "He's just idealistic."

"Yeah," I say. His ears are splayed, so I work to keep the growl out of my voice. "An idealistic asshole."

"He might be a good connection. But if it bothers you," he says, and trails off as he watches his father smile at Auntie Za. It looks like his father's tail wags, too.

"Probably," I say, not saying that I'm bothered more by the reminder of his last visit to Brian, "but you know. You do a lot of shit that bothers me."

He flicks his tail against the back of my legs. "I like you bothered," he says. "Also hot."

"No sneaking around rooms this time," I mutter, even lower. "Gregory's staying in his room with Marta."

"Thanks for the invitation, but Father found a hotel room for us. The luxurious Quality Lodge."

I turn, but he's not looking at me. "It does sound better than our mildewy basement, but come on. I could put you up at the Hilton or something."

He shrugs. "It's okay. They're cheap and they don't surcharge for foxes."

"Does anyone really do that?"

"More expensive hotels do." Lee makes air quotes. "Euphemistically called the 'scent equalization surcharge.'"

"Even with the Orwell laws?"

"You're allowed to discriminate if you can show a compelling economic reason that non-discrimination would hurt you."

"Hmph." I lean over and daringly nuzzle one of his ears. "I think you smell terrific."

He flicks it and leans back against me. "I am glad none of your relatives commented on it."

"Nobody cares about smell in this day and age."

"Says the guy who doesn't smell musky all the time. I guess if they're expecting a fox, they're okay with it."

I nudge him. "We work with foxes and skunks and weasels, all of us. It's fine."

He grins. "Doesn't stop the occasional asshole from commenting on it. Or the hotel chains from charging us for it. Speaking of...want to come visit me in the hotel room?"

Across the room, his father joins my father and Auntie Za. From their gestures, I'd bet they're talking football. The two tigers dwarf Lee's father, but he doesn't seem uncomfortable. "What about your father?"

"He's a heavy sleeper, it'll be fine." A pair of sparkling blue fox eyes meets mine. "Kidding. I mostly meant just to sit and chat with me and him. Though I bet I could get him to go down to the bar for fifteen minutes."

"Mm-hmm." I curl my own tail against his. "And what could we do that he wouldn't smell when he got back?"

He licks his lips. "I'm sure we can think of something."

"You realize that in a few days, we'll be living together and we'll see each other all the time?"

"Doesn't mean I don't miss you now."

I exhale. "I miss you too. And tomorrow afternoon, I have to go back to football."

Mom comes out with another tray of small cookies. "You're welcome to stay longer if you like, Lee. After Devlin leaves."

"I thought I'd go with him to the airport. May I?" Lee reaches for one of the cookies, a small pile of coconut in a sugary glaze. They smell heavenly.

"Of course." She lifts the tray toward him. "So Devlin tells us you'll be moving in with him. I think that's lovely."

"I'm hoping to keep his apartment a little cleaner." Lee winks at me, chewing on the cookie. "This is really good, by the way."

Mom beams. "Thank you. Are you going to look for work in Chevali, or...?"

"I've got a couple interviews lined up, but nothing's really going to happen until after the season."

"I'm glad to hear you have options." Mom's eyes linger on him. I get the feeling that in this room of all our tall relatives, she likes having Lee to look down at. "Have you met everyone?"

"I don't know. Have I?" He turns blue eyes up to me.

There are a couple more distant cousins we haven't talked to, but I don't know them all that well anyway. "Kate and Peter," I say.

"Oh, you should go say hi!" Mom scans the room for them.

"We will, in a minute. We were just talking about my trip tomorrow and where Lee's staying tonight."

A cloud flickers across her expression. Lee sees it too. "Father got us a room a little ways down route 94," he says. "We're staying there and we thought we'd come back in the morning, if that's still okay."

"Oh, of course." Mom brightens, the weight of talking to us about what we are allowed to do under her roof lifted from her future.