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RIVALS

By Max Turner

Content Warnings: Anthropomorphised animals, drinking, rivalry, sexually suggestive content (non-explicit).

Oberon Morningheart hummed his annoyance as he tapped his claws against his thigh. A cool and calm tiger by nature, he kept most of the emotion buried, seething under the surface.

This was supposed to have been a quick task. 

In and out. 

Pick up the shipment and get off the planet before it closed down for the annual Light Festival. He knew he shouldn’t have accepted a job this close to a festival on planet Winter, and now he cursed his stupidity.

Winter was already a hell of a planet to try and trade on; the unpredictable temperature drops, the unending parade of public holidays, the very delicate natural resources. It was only the fact that many of those resources were not available anywhere else this side of the galaxy that kept trade coming through this inconvenient planet.

The risk traders ran for those highly priced resources was getting caught up in one of their many, many public holidays, the weather, or both.

And now, with extra checks required due to a recent drop below the usual range of sub-temperatures, the paperwork had delayed Oberon significantly enough that no one was around to approve his take-off.

Oberon stood at the small shuttle station that ferried crew back and forth to the launch site in the exclusion zone, growing cold enough he wished he’d tucked his tail into his pants or got one of those tail hoods that seemed all the rage here. Too late now; there was nothing he could do but go back to his ship, wait out the Light Festival and take off as soon as he was allowed.

But the shuttle station seemed deserted, leaving Oberon to wonder about his options until a voice broke through the still, chilled air. 

‘No access, friend,’ the launch officer told him with a smile. ‘The ships are outside of the exclusion zone.’ He was a bear from the Theta System, so not a native of the planet, but clearly acclimatised, given how effortlessly he moved in the jarringly cold temperatures. And, as with many on planets like Winter, he’d rarely seen felidae; that much was clear from the bear’s expression. Felidae was one of the few species native to only one planet – in their case, planet Earth. And very few of them travelled so far from the Sol System, given their territorial nature. 

Oberon turned his brightest smile on the bear. ‘I won’t freeze in a ship meant to survive the rigours of space.’

‘Absolutely right,’ the bear replied, jovial grin still in place. ‘But we can’t let people travel unaccompanied between the city and the launch docks, especially at night. One wrong turn, and you’re lost in the tundra and dead in a day. And I’m on my way home to enjoy the festivities with my wife, so I won’t be going looking for ya. Let me point you in the direction of a lodging house.’

To make the point, the bear wrapped his scarf a little tighter around himself and started back towards the city with the expectation that Oberon would follow.

He took a deep breath and accepted defeat, following the officer out of the shuttle station and towards the bright lights of the port town.


*


Quince Thornstick grumbled as he pushed his credits across the bar and picked up the refilled glass. Drink prices always seemed to be inflated over the holidays. And there were so damn many of them on this planet. There were more public holidays than normal working days, from what Quince could tell. 

He figured it was a way for the residents to stay cheerful in the constant and miserable cold. He also figured he was going to end up dying on this planet, drinking himself to death on overpriced booze, a sad and lonely old man. As it was, his fur, which had been as thick and soft as any other ocelot’s, was now lacklustre and rough, leaving him wishing he could grow a winter coat like some other felidae.

Quince knocked back the last of his drink and stood up from the bar stool, getting his bearings. A little tipsy but not too worse for wear, not at these prices! He was about to wander back upstairs to the room he rented above the bar when someone caught his eye.

‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ Quince growled. 

Oberon Morningheart? That damn tiger. Here? On Winter? 

As if Quince’s life couldn’t get any worse.

By the time Morningheart saw Quince striding to where he stood at the entrance of the bar, his fist was flying at the tiger’s jaw. It wasn’t as hard a punch as Quince would have liked – in fact, he’d barely glanced the blow – but the surprise was enough that it sent Oberon reeling back out through the door and into the street. Into the bustle of the festival-going populace.

The small crowd inside and the larger one outside on the street gasped and watched as Quince strode out and stood over Oberon, snarling down at him.

‘Quince?’ Oberon asked as he looked up, rubbing his jaw.

‘What are you doing here, Morningheart?’ Quince growled at the last felidae in the universe he ever wanted to see again.

‘I could ask you the same. You’re quite far from home,’ Oberon replied with a raised brow. Not quite amused but clearly nothing more than baffled at Quince’s actions. In fact, he then held up his arm for Quince to help him to his feet.

At that, Quince obliged, unsure what else he could do. Sure, he’d love to kick the guy in the ribs, but with a crowd having formed and law enforcement in this place not exactly forgiving of public disturbances during the holidays, it was best he didn’t. So instead, he pulled Oberon to his feet and dragged him back inside the bar.

‘I was told they have lodgings here,’ Oberon said, ‘though I had hoped for a warmer welcome.’

Quince grunted, ‘No less than you deserve.’ He went back to where he’d been at the bar and signalled for another drink after all, ignoring the tiger who took the stool beside him.

‘Is that so?’ Oberon questioned, at which Quince couldn’t help but shoot him a sharp look.

‘Yes, it’s so, Oberon.’ Quince almost snarled the words, his hackles rising as one might with a rival, but this went beyond rivalry. There had always been issues between them, ever since flight academy. They’d been in the same graduating year and were the top two from beginning to end.

And sure, that rivalry had sometimes gone beyond classes and flight simulations, as it might with two hotshots, as they had been. There were several occasions where it had become physical, jostling turning to pushing and then brawling. Though Quince recalled, then as now, it had usually been himself as the aggressor, with Oberon doing little more than evading and defending.

That had always annoyed him. He’d wanted Morningheart to fight back. He’d wanted to pin him down and tear him apart. And—

‘What is it I did, Quince? Surely you are over your petty adolescent rivalry?’ The tiger made a show of rubbing his jaw, though Quince was sure he had barely skimmed that fluffy chin.

Quince clenched his own jaw and resisted the urge to hit Morningheart again. ‘Are you being purposely obtuse?’ he asked before knocking back his drink and placing more credits on the bar.

Oberon signalled for a drink of his own and then shook his head at Quince, as infuriatingly cool and calm as always.

‘You remember the job on Tiko V? The job that should have been mine?’ Quince snarled.

Oberon frowned. ‘I took some VIP passengers from there to here, that has to have been at least a year ago now.’

‘Try two,’ Quince corrected. ‘You undercut me on that job, Oberon. I had to settle for a cargo contract on the same route. But I hit an asteroid storm on the way here, and the delay meant fuel loss. By the time I got here, and with a late penalty, the payment wasn’t enough to cover fuel. I’ve been stranded here ever since. Without being able to use my ship, I can’t earn enough to actually use my ship, and it’s all your fault.’

Oberon took in the words, then picked up his drink and began sipping at it thoughtfully. ‘I had no idea you were bidding on that contract, but even so. Business is business and—’

‘And you caused the storm! The asteroid belt was stable until you went through it.’

At that, Oberon paused, swirled his glass and then set it down. ‘I encountered an unusually large asteroid and had to blast it out of my path to get through without losing time by diverting.’

‘Like I had to divert,’ Quince growled.

‘Quince.’ Oberon breathed out his name. ‘I had no idea. I’m—’

‘Save it,’ Quince snapped. ‘You always seem so cool, but really, you’re just cold. You don’t think about others. You haven’t changed.’

They were both silent for a moment, Quince’s jaw tight as he locked eyes with the tiger.

Damn, his eyes were gorgeous, like blue sapphires. His scent was earthy and rich. Quince hated it.

It was more than enough to remind Quince quite how much he missed other felidae and how long it had been since he’d been around one. He was sure that until Morningheart arrived, he’d been the only felidae on the whole of Winter.

Just being around the scent of another felidae after so long with Winterians was making his fur hum, whether he wanted it to or not. The native Winterians might look very similar to Earth’s arctic wolves, but their culture was vastly different, even more than from Earth’s felidae species.

Quince sighed. If only he had the company of a tiger he actually liked.

‘I apologise, Quince. What else can I do?’


*


Oberon had gladly paid for more drinks for Quince. Enough so that he became all the more tipsy, though not more forgiving.

Despite Oberon’s offer to at least take him back to Earth, Quince was adamant he would not leave his ship, which Oberon could, of course, understand. But fuel wasn’t cheap. Perhaps there were other options?

In the meantime, he was happy to listen to Quince rant all about his time on Winter, the seemingly endless public holidays and how expensive everything was. Until Quince finally ran out of steam.

‘I’m going to bed,’ Quince finally mumbled, his eyes slightly glassy.

‘I should get a room, too,’ Oberon agreed, startled by Quince’s laughter.

‘You won’t get a room. Haven’t been rooms here for days. Nowhere else either, I imagine. This is the biggest of the many, many festivals. The Light Festival attracts people from all over the sector.’ Quince was still chuckling, shaking his head in disbelief that Oberon thought he might be able to find a room.

‘I see,’ Oberon murmured, looking around the bustling bar. ‘I had been told this place would hopefully have rooms.’

‘You might have been in luck a couple of days ago...’ Quince started and then stopped to look at him. That same look he’d given Oberon many times in flight school. A look that had always made Oberon wonder if Quince Thornstick was actually attracted to him. It would explain why the ocelot always seemed so flustered around him.

‘I will have to see if I can make some other arrangements. A couch in a backroom, perhaps?’ Oberon ventured.

That earned another slight chuckle, and Quince shook his head. ‘No, there won’t be anything. Nothing remotely resembling a surface you can sleep on.’

As Quince said the words, he looked Oberon over again and then went quiet as though realising the predicament. Which he surely did because then he added, ‘After what you did, I should let you sleep on the street and hope someone gives you a warm blanket.’

‘But?’ Oberon asked hopefully.

‘No buts, that’s what I should do.’ Quince chuckled again, clearly a little more than tipsy now. He took in a deep breath and let it out as he kept Oberon’s gaze and continued. ‘You can come to my room. It’s not much, and you can take the floor. It’s warm. Just for tonight, though.’

‘Of course,’ Oberon agreed, inclining his head in thanks. ‘This is very much appreciated, my old friend.’

Quince grumbled something unintelligible under his breath in response.


*


Of course, this was a mistake.

Having another felidae sleep over? And one he hated this much? It left Quince with an aggravating mix of comfort and frustration that sobered him up quickly enough he regretted the number of credits he’d spent that evening.

He’d given Oberon some blankets and pillows and let him sleep on the floor, true to his word, despite having a large enough bed to comfortably accommodate them both if they didn’t mind sharing.

It was the consumption of so much alcohol that led to Quince having to use the bathroom in the night. And after an hour or two of heavy sleep, he was barely awake when he tripped over the prone body on his floor.

‘Dammit,’ he muttered under his breath, remembering Oberon was there. ‘Could you just…’ Quince started, irritated, ‘just get into the bed. I don’t want to break my neck because of you. Though, at this point, it would be fitting for you to be the cause of my death.’

When Quince returned from the bathroom, he was still muttering under his breath. But as he got back into bed, overcome by the warm and comforting presence of someone there with him, he fell immediately back to sleep.

Hours later, he woke to find himself curled around Oberon Morningheart, purring.


*


Oberon had been enjoying the closeness of the ocelot wrapped around him when he felt Quince draw a sharp breath and still.

It had been a while since he’d been in port long enough to make an acquaintance with someone, much less a felidae, and he had been savouring it. Along with the chance to finally feel what it was like to be close to this felidae in particular.

He still remembered, with fondness and frustration, their rivalry and the tension between them when they were younger. It had been exhilarating and only served to make him work all the harder because he had wanted to impress his rival, as one often seeks to impress a potential mate. Not that it ever worked. So, he had just assumed Quince wasn’t interested in him.

And now here they were, in bed together.

Oberon knew he had a choice to make here. To allow the ocelot to pull away and pretend nothing happened, and even that there had never been that spark between them. Or to finally use this situation to say something.

The moment he felt Quince start to pull away, Oberon reached behind him and wrapped a hand around Quince’s arm. ‘Stay,’ he encouraged. Not a command or a request, more a hope, he realised.

A low hiss came from Quince, and for a moment, Oberon thought he might push him away or even assault him, which wouldn’t be entirely out of character. 

But Quince only hesitated a moment longer before he rolled back against Oberon, sliding an arm around him and caging him there.

Oberon couldn’t help but let loose a low rumble in his chest. Quince let out a contented purr in response, and they both drifted back into slumber.


*


Quince woke a little hazy.

He was, surprisingly, not hungover; if anything, he was feeling a residual kind of tipsy, still a little buzzed. And while that was nice, it did mean it took him a moment to realise there was someone in his bed.

Oberon Morningheart.

Damn!

The few dreams he’d had about the asshole back at flight school came back to him. It was only natural that he got riled up about a rival like that. No matter how much they hated each other, there was a fine line between that and desire. Those instincts and reactions ran deep.

Quince could easily slip out of the bed if he moved one way, but if he moved the other, he’d be spooning Morningheart, as he vaguely recalled doing in the night.

Before he could move either way, Oberon looked back over his shoulder and moved a hand backwards, taking a gentle hold of Quince’s, pulling him closer. It wasn’t so firm a movement that Quince couldn’t have easily pulled back from it. But he didn’t resist, rolling with the pull until he was behind Oberon once more.

It was a little surreal. Especially given the fragments he could remember of his drunken rantings the night before. This tiger had ruined his life, and yet there was a pull. Maybe it was the old rivalry getting his blood pumping? Maybe it was being next to a warm body for the first time since long before he’d been stranded on this frozen rock?

Quince inhaled deeply and nuzzled into Oberon’s neck as their bodies slotted together, his arm around Oberon pulling him tight to his chest.

‘You smell good,’ Quince growled as he pressed himself against Oberon.

Oberon hummed, and Quince knew he should pull back, but it was difficult to fight instinct. Maybe he wasn’t as evolved a felidae as Morningheart. ‘But we shouldn’t—’

‘Seems the least I owe you,’ Oberon muttered.

Quince winced and pulled away. ‘I shouldn’t be doing this—’

‘I don’t mind, Quince,’ Oberon replied softly.

‘Don’t mind? If I’m going to be intimate with someone, I want them to want it. Not minding it doesn’t quite cut it in my book. This isn’t right,’ Quince hissed, finally pulling back from his near-overwhelming instincts.

Quince sat and started to get up off the bed, but Oberon turned quickly and pulled him back down so they were face to face.

‘I don’t mind, Quince, because I’ve wanted you since school. The top of the class, someone I could never quite beat. I wanted you, and all you wanted was to stay on top and not let me beat you. Was there more to it?’ Oberon studied his expression, and Quince frowned. ‘Was there more to your rivalry with me?’

Quince huffed out a breath. ‘We were children, it was nothing,’ he dismissed.

‘We were young men, and it was everything. You consumed my thoughts then as you do now. If I had known you were also on Tiko V while I was making that deal, I wouldn’t have taken it. I would have found you and convinced you to end up in this situation we now find ourselves in.’

Quince blinked at the candid words and shook his head. ‘You ruined me.’

‘And I’d love nothing more than for you to ruin me,’ Oberon asserted with a wink. 

‘Damn!’ Quince breathed out the word.

He wasn’t sure who leaned in, but the next thing he knew, they were kissing, hungry and frantic as they pulled at each other’s clothes.


*


The festival was drawing to an end – this one at least – and Oberon woke purring. 

They hadn’t left Quince’s lodgings since going there from the bar. An unexpected but welcome turn of events as Oberon gladly discovered that perhaps their rivalry had indeed been tinged with a different sort of tension.

A tension that Quince was happy to work through together, and Oberon wasn’t sure he was ready to say goodbye. But as soon as the flight restrictions were lifted, Oberon needed to go, to ensure that he lost as little time on this assignment as possible. 

That was easier said than done as he watched Quince stroll back from the adjoining bathroom, wet from a shower and with a towel slung low on his hips, his spotted and striped fur damp and sticking up at all angles.

Quince grinned at him, a mischievous smirk. One that had taken Oberon a day to pull from him. A day for him to finally relax and allow himself to enjoy the experience fully. They were both stranded, they both wanted each other, and it made sense that they should take advantage of that.

It had been intimate and enjoyable, something they’d both needed. 

But now it was over.

That much was clear as Quince’s face fell when he saw that Oberon was collecting his belongings together.

Quince silently went to his dresser and began pulling out his own fresh clothes, the mood instantly changing.

‘Quince,’ Oberon started, noticing how the ocelot tensed, ‘I can help you.’

Quince stilled but didn’t turn to look at him.

‘I have a surplus, several drums of fuel that I can spare. And once my current load is delivered, I’d willingly give you half of the fee to compensate—’

‘I don’t need your pity,’ Quince hissed, turning to look at him with fury in his eyes.

‘Not pity. Payback. Your misfortune is my doing. I owe you no less than I have offered. I can transfer you the credits as soon as I reach Sigma Prime and collect payment,’ Oberon explained, calm and reasonable. Hopeful that Quince would accept.

Quince huffed and cocked a brow. 

‘Yeah? Why should I take your word on that? Fuel is great, but I’ve been out of the business long enough that my contacts are meaningless. I might as well stay here—’

Oberon interrupted. ‘If you won’t take my word, we could rendezvous on Sigma Prime, and you can ensure I transfer the credits. And I have contacts I would willingly share, or perhaps we could work together… Two felidae take on the universe.’

The ocelot narrowed his eyes and huffed again. ‘Why should I trust you? Why should I waste the fuel getting there only to be stranded again?’

‘Come now, Quince. After the last couple of days, surely you can be in no doubt as to the regard I’ve always held you in. And even without that, I would feel obliged to right the wrong I caused you.’ When Oberon was sure that Quince was about to rebuff him, he continued. ‘And perhaps I can give you an incentive to meet me on Sigma Prime?’

Quince scoffed at that, but at least he seemed vaguely amused. ‘More incentive than the credits?’

‘Perhaps so,’ Oberon replied as he started towards Quince.

Quince watched him, clearly sceptical. Right up to the moment Oberon reached for him and pulled him into a kiss. 

He kissed the ocelot breathless until they had to part and draw in those breaths. 

‘Oberon.’ Quince whispered his name, and Oberon was sure there was purring. 

Oberon kissed him again, this time more chaste and just for a moment before he pulled back and smoothed down the lock of damp, amber fur that fell in front of the ocelot’s eyes. 

‘Okay,’ Quince said, breathless. ‘You’ve convinced me.’ He gulped down some more air before continuing. ‘As soon as the launchpad is open, we transfer the fuel. Then we rendezvous. Two felidae take on the universe.’

His heart thumping with hope and promise, Oberon nodded and confirmed, ‘Rendezvous on Sigma Prime.’

Quince nodded back, a slight smile playing across his lips as he purred. ‘Anywhere but Winter.’

Oberon chuckled and kissed Quince’s cheek. He couldn’t form any further words, and he was sure that even if he could, Quince wouldn’t care to hear that Winter had actually grown on him. 


He certainly would have some very fond memories of the place.

Max Turner

Max Turner is a gay transgender man based in the United Kingdom. He is also a parent, nerd, intersectional feminist and coffee addict. Max writes speculative and science fiction, fantasy, furry fiction, many sub-genres of horror, and LGBTQ+ romance and erotica. More often than not, he writes combinations thereof. You can find Max online here!

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