He was sitting on the patio in the cold, ears pointed low, arms crossed against the damp wind, staring vacantly at the city lights cupped in the hands of San Francisco's hills. At the sliding of the glass door, his whiskers straightened and his ears swiveled, though his muzzle didn't turn.
She stepped out into the night, a bit unsteady on high heels, the chill instantly wrapping around her pale legs and creeping through her thin sweater. She leaned against the wall -- long, straight brown hair spilling over her shoulders, and her black dress riding low on her hips, about at eye level for the furry form beside her.
"I'm sorry," the fox-man said, still not looking. "I'm not in the mood right now."
Her eyes flicked briefly toward him. "That's alright," she said. "I'm just out here for a smoke."
"Oh," the fox said in a small tone, and she couldn't quite tell if it was disappointment or relief.
The woman speared her lips with a cigarette, hunted through the pocket of her sweater for a lighter, and pried flame from its jaws. "Things getting too intense inside?" she asked, and sucked the cig into glowing life.
"I guess," the fox said. "I don't know. I don't know why I came."
She exhaled a long cloud of smoke into the damp air. "Don't be so hard on yourself," she said, then looked down, fully taking in his drooping form. "... Want a cigarette?"
The fox finally stirred. He looked up, and their eyes met. "I, uh, haven't since I changed," he replied. "I ... the first time I tried ..." he wavered, but pressed on. "I burned off a whisker."
She burst out into laughter, loud and musical. Almost immediately she felt guilty. "Oh, god. I'm sorry. That must have been horrible," she said between giggles.
The fox shrugged. "Eh. Painful. Disorienting. I got over it." He looked away. "Probably for the best. I can't stand the smell any more."
Her eyes flashed down to the cigarette glowing in mid-drag. She wedged it between her fingers and turned her head to exhale away from the fox; it came out as a sigh. "You should have said. I'll head out front and leave you to your moping."
"No!" he protested. "I mean, that's not what I meant." The fox gestured vaguely. "I mean, when I smoke, myself ... my nose is sharper. It's overwhelming." He stood up, unfolding thin legs clad in jeans that drooped over raised heels. "You're okay."
She turned to him. "That makes one of us, I guess." Staring into his black eyes: "You've seemed jumpy all night, and now you're hiding out on the porch. Want to talk about what's wrong?"
The fox fidgeted. "It's nobody's fault. I just ... maybe I shouldn't have come. I feel so out of place. I don't know anyone except Jer."
She stuck out her cigarette-free hand. "Well, we can fix that, at least. I'm Sara."
The fox slowly took it; his fur was cold and damp against her skin, but as he squeezed, the warmth of his body came through. "I'm, uh." He paused as he shook her hand. "Alex."
"Not Redfur or Swiftpaw or anything?" Sara said with a smile. "All the therianthropes on TV have these comic-book names."
Alex released her hand and leaned back against the wall. "I went by Vulpauco for a while, before. But ... I'm not really feeling like him now, y'know? Everything's so disjointed, so unreal. So, Alex is fine."
She took a thoughtful drag, turning her head to exhale away from the fox. "I don't know how anyone can talk about 'unreal' any more with a straight face. I mean, look around. Look at you."
"Don't I know it," Alex sighed.
They stood in awkward silence.
"Hey, want to go back inside and try the cheese dip?" Sara suggested. "It's fantastic. And a lot warmer."
Alex leaned toward the glass door to peer in at the party. "I really oughta stay here. The crowd was freaking me out."
"It shouldn't," Sara said. "Everyone's friendly. They're good people. And everyone's really interested in you. It's the first time we've had a theri show up."
"That's just it," Alex said, running a hand through the fur atop his head. "I feel so awkward, with everyone looking at me."
Sara shrugged with her shoulders and flicked some ashes away. "Then pick someone. Find a bedroom. You don't have to play social butterfly. Make the party work for you."
Alex swung his muzzle.side to side, letting out a long breath. "I can't. Not tonight. Not in a roomful of total strangers ... I guess a sex party is one of those things that sounds better in the abstract, you know? I thought I'd be able to handle it better than this. I'm sorry."
Sara stepped up to Alex and gave him a gentle hug, which he accepted after a frozen moment. "It's alright, honey," she said. "Nobody will think any less of you, I promise. It can take a few nights to adjust. You wanna hear about my first time here?" She continued without pausing to hear his answer. "I had three people flirting with me before I finished my first drink. Then Kev walked up and flat-out propositioned me. He was cute, but it was all so sudden ... I got so unnerved I locked myself in the bathroom for 20 minutes."
A smile flickered across the fox's muzzle. "Is the bathroom free?"
Sara grinned. "They've got two. How long do you need one?"
His face drooped again. "I was kind of thinking the rest of the night."
Sara took a long drag on her cigarette. "Alex, if you just want to head home -- like I said, nobody will think any less of you. You're welcome back next week, or whenever you feel ready."
The fox looked back inside, and his ears flattened against his head. "I'm ... I'm scared to. Absolutely everyone is watching. They'll think I freaked out over them. Then it'll be even more awkward if I come back."
Sara glanced into the house. "Make an excuse. You left an iron on. Your roommate paged you. Those things happen. I'll back you up, I promise."
Alex stared up into Sara's eyes -- his thin frame was fairly short, and face to face, her high heels gave her the edge. "Jerry drove me here. I can't drag him out of here just to take me home."
"I'll drive you back," she said without hesitation.
The fox paused, and his flat ears twitched. "... Really?"
Sara jingled the car keys in her sweater pocket. "We're all here to have fun, honey. But we all have off nights. If we deal with the bad times, the good times are better."
He tilted his head. "So you mean it? A ride home? This isn't you trying to pick me up or anything?"
Sara grinned and gave him a quick peck on the side of the muzzle. "Not unless you want it to be."
Alex smiled thinly, ears relaxing, and dodged the question. "Thank you."