Stealing Love isn't Stealing

Dudley reached Jack's house in no time. The sun was already becoming warmer. He was thankful that Jack would have him holed up in the garage through the worst of it, even though Dudley would not be able to help out much with the Chevy. She was Jack's baby, and even if Dudley had known something about cars, he probably would not be allowed to work on her. But that was fine by him; he understood, or at least tried to understand, Jack's attachment to the car.

The house was not much bigger than Dudley's, but even from the outside it was a lot nicer. Jack was a single child, and did not have any siblings, so his parents spent most of their extra money on making their abode look better. It was not something Jack had ever noticed, but Dudley sure had. Christian Ramirez went out of his way to tend the front gardens every morning before work, and their lawn was always the greenest in the neighbourhood. Sharon, on the other hand, kept the inside of their home looking clean as a whistle. It was a subtle dedication that Dudley sometimes wished his own parents could upkeep.

As he reached the door, Dudley tried the knob to find it was unlocked. There was a brown bristly mat on the porch that welcomed any friends into their home. He made his way inside without ringing the doorbell that would surely give Sharon a fright if she was awake.

"Dudley? Jack said you would be coming along soon," Sharon's soft voice was much different than her son's. Jack could be heard miles away with his constant shouting. It was a wonder where the trait had come from, since neither of his parents were outspoken. Dudley shrugged it off as he closed the door behind himself, but kept his worn out boots on. He would need them in the garage. "Let me get you a drink, dear. The newsman says it's going to be a scorcher today."

Sharon disappeared into the little kitchen off to the right of the door. Dudley followed her. He fished out a carton of fresh orange juice while Sharon got a tall glass from the upper cupboards. She promptly took the juice from him with a small smile. "Thanks, Sherry," Dudley murmured as he put the carton back in the fridge for her. She plunked a couple of ice cubes into the drink as if she had forgotten where he was going.

"It's not a problem, dear," Sharon promised as she headed back out into the parlour. Dudley hung by the door for a moment as he savoured the first sip of his drink. He had not realised how much he needed it until the cool citrus-flavoured liquid slicked his warm throat with much welcomed moisture. There were folded shirts and boxers on the sofa next to where Sharon had been sitting. She must have been up too late with the laundry the night before to care about folding it. "Take care of Jax when you're out there, would you?"

Even though Sharon had been the one to encourage Christian that Jack needed the garage as his own private work space, she was always worrying about him. There were so many dangers, she had once said, that if something went wrong out there she would not even be able to identify what it was. Yet, she had also been the first one to sign Jack off for the demolition derby pass at the start of summer.

"I'm sure he's just fine," Dudley encouraged, but as he disappeared into the cold garage, he knew that he would instinctively fall into the role of looking out for Jack. It was not even because Sharon had asked him to do it so many times in the past. There were a lot more dangers in the world than working on the old rust bucket Malibu, and Dudley knew that Jack danced with a lot of devils in his everyday life. Since Jack was younger than him by two years, and his recklessness had never dissolved with age, it felt natural that Dudley would look out for him.

The garage was a cavernous room. The white '78 Malibu was plopped dead center in the room. There was a cherry red toolbox that stood at Dudley's shoulder in height, and there was a rusty old radio on top. It was tuned in to a rock and roll station, and the Scorpions were screaming out "Rock You Like a Hurricane" right into his sensitive ears. He would have cranked it down if the Scorpions were not Jack's favourite group.

Besides, Jack hardly seemed bothered by the overly loud music. He was underneath the Malibu on a little trolley. There were a few clangs and bangs as he worked away on her underside, and Dudley knew that the music would have been drowned out with the constant drone of the air conditioning on the other side of the room. In a few minutes he would probably adjust to the loud music, anyway. Dudley took a thoughtful sip of his orange juice as he waited for Jack to acknowledge his presence.

Dudley never made his entrance known when Jack was working either under the car, or under the hood. There was too big of a risk that he could hurt himself. It was not something Jack liked to talk about, but he was very jumpy. Anything that abruptly popped out of the dark or made sudden loud noises was prone to make Jack panic. It was something that Dudley had always been cautious of in the garage.

But it did not take long for Jack to realise that he wasn't alone in the garage. He might have seen Dudley's boots by the small steps at the door, or maybe he had been expecting Dudley to be arriving soon, because he slid himself out from under the car. Jack hooked his hands up on the silver bumper with a smile before climbing to his feet. "I hope I didn't make you wait too long," he said. "You should have told me you were here, y'know?"

Dudley smiled, and set his orange juice on the toolbox as Jack wandered over. He turned the radio down a few notches, but Jack did not protest. The Scorpions had faded away to the DJ talking about all the latest music news. Neither of them were concerned with it. "Are you sure someone with a hangover should be working on a car this early in the morning?" Dudley teased.

Jack sucker punched him with a grin. "Hey, I wasn't hung over this morning," he said, but there was no other way for him to defend himself. Falling down drunk on Dudley's sofa said a lot about his state the night before, but he had not felt that bad after sleeping it off. "That old man didn't know what he was talking about. I wasn't as hammered as I have been other times when I've walked home, y'know."

Dudley knew that was probably true. Nicholas Sanderson did not keep tabs on everyone that came to the tavern, so it had been luck that he had been watching Jack so close the night before. "So, is that what you called me over here for?" Dudley pressed. "Did Sherry want me to babysit you while you work?"

"Hey, my mom isn't that overprotective, y'know!" Jack said with a laugh. He took a wrench from the back pocket of his grease monkey uniform and hauled open one of the large drawers on the toolbox. He put the wrench back into the mix before fishing out a small white envelope. It was not completely covered with grime so Dudley assumed it had not been there long. "Actually, I wanted to show you this. It came in the mail this morning."

Jack handed the letter to the older boy, who looked at it for a moment in confusion. Dudley pulled out the neatly folded letter inside that had already been opened once before. "No way," Dudley murmured as he read over the letter. His eyes scanned the neatly typed words with a smile. It continued to grow as he read farther. "Jax, that's incredible! You were accepted for the France mission?"

There was not the same reaction from the boy who had been accepted into the military, though. His eyes were dark, and there seemed to be an air of disappointment seething from him. "You didn't get one, did you?" Jack guessed. Dudley was surprised by the sudden change of attitude. He could not remember the last time he had seen Jack act like this. "Dudley, I don't want to go to France if it means I have to go alone, y'know."

"Don't be stupid," Dudley said, and then folded up the letter in the same neat fashion it had come in. He slipped it back into the envelope and handed it back to Jack. It disappeared back into the toolbox as fast as it had come out. "This is a great achievement for you, Jax. I'm sure my letter is coming. There's been a small mix up in the mail or something, but it will all be sorted out before next weekend."

In spite of the way Jack acted, optimism had never been his forte. He could never see the light at the end of the tunnel, and most of the time he did not even realise he was in a tunnel. But when something came up that did bother him, Jack could remain depressed for weeks at a time. Dudley had not been able to believe it the first time he had found Jack in such a state. Sharon had confirmed that her son went through minor episodes of pessimism, though, and had asked Dudley to encourage him through it by any means necessary. Dudley took the stern approach.

"Jax, don't you remember anything from the military academy? You worked your ass off to even make the sergeants take you seriously!" Dudley said, but his voice was rising to a shout. Jack did not shrink away before him, but listened attentively to the lecture. It was a skill he had picked up from the military training. "It was incredible that they even let you graduate at your age. To have been accepted for the actual enlisting is amazing. The least you could do in this situation is smile, Jax."

It took a few moments for him to work up the courage to comply, but eventually Jack smiled. It was not like his usual cheeky smiles, or the big sheepish grins that came when he was caught found out for doing something bad. It was a simple smile that looked almost sincere. "Have you ever thought about being a drill sergeant?" Jack asked. Dudley's cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "You would make a good one. I've never heard anyone crush dreams quite like that before, y'know?"

A real Jack Ramirez smile came across the younger boy's innocent baby-face. Dudley was relieved to see it, and took Jack's head under his arm before drilling his fist into the crown. "It's all in good intentions," Dudley chuckled as he finally released the flailing boy. "I know we'll be alright in France. And it looks like you can have a chance to derby with the rust bucket before being drafted."

Jack's eyes turned to settle on the car behind him. The radio DJ had faded off into some classic tune while they had been talking, but now Zeppelin was coming through strong with "Stairway to Heaven." It was a nice enough song, but neither of them were really big fans of Zeppelin, so it became soft background noise within moments of the instrumental introduction.

"That was probably the only thing I was thankful for when my mom handed me that letter this morning," Jack confessed with a sheepish grin. He ran his hand down the flat hood of the Malibu with a gentle sigh. It was like watching a man in love, but Dudley was certain that no woman would be able to hold Jack's attention for that long. "I've been waiting to enter a demolition derby since I was twelve, y'know. My dad used to take me to abandoned parking lots, and he would show me the ropes of driving even back then. If the drafting had been for this weekend I would have run off to Canada for the week."

Dudley chuckled at his friend's ignorance, and then handed him the orange juice that had been left on the toolbox. Jack took it gratefully and gulped it down. "You're the best driver I know," Dudley said with a smile. "The only other person I can think of with as much precision as you is Charlie."

The name almost made Jack spew orange juice from his nose. He had swollen up with laughter, and he had to set the glass on the toolbox before he doubled over. Dudley watched him with a faint smile, but he was not amused with the reaction. "Charlie? You must be kidding!" Jack continued to laugh even when he was down on his knees. "She's a woman, y'know! How the hell can she be a good driver?"

Jack Ramirez and Charlotte Nelson had never liked each other. There had been a feud since the first time they met. Jack had jumped on Charlotte about everything, whether it was her sex, the fact that she was a Human, or even her passion for film making. He could not get enough of hounding her. That pissed Charlotte right off, of course. She was a polite girl, but the only time Dudley had ever heard her cuss was following a confrontation with Jack.

The worst part was there was nothing Dudley could do. He used to scold Jack for picking on her, but it was not something that would ever stop. He had also tried to tell Charlotte that Jack was just fooling with her because they were dating, but she refused to accept that. In her mind, Jack hated her because she was a woman and because she was a Human.

However, they both managed to put up with each other when they were around Dudley. They never spoke to each other when he was not around, and went to great lengths to avoid each other. But when they were both alone with Dudley, and the topic of the other came up, they were brutally honest about their hate for each other. It was something that Dudley had never understood, and he assumed that he never would.

"Charlie's a really good driver, but she'll never be in the same league as you," Dudley explained as he waited for Jack to pick himself up from the greasy floor. Dudley finished off what was left of the orange juice and rolled his eyes. "It has nothing to do with her sex. It's about how much passion she puts into it, and your passion far exceeds hers."

"Yeah, yeah," Jack said as he waved off his friend. He leaned into the toolbox's already open drawer to find another tool that he would need for his excavation. Dudley watched as he dug around for a monkey wrench but, not surprisingly, he could not find one. "You can defend her all you want, Dudley. All of those teenage romances end the same. You'll be the one being burned, y'know."

Dudley chuckled. He pulled out a shape from the toolbox that somewhat resembled the wrench that Jack had thrown into the toolbox before, but there were a few differences. "Is this it?" He asked. Jack looked at it for a moment before smiling. "I know how you feel about relationships, Jax. I don't feel the same way, so I'm sorry, but I'm going to continue loving my girlfriend, Charlotte Nelson."

"Well, don't say I didn't warn you," Jack winked. He twirled the wrench once with a smile. "Thanks. I couldn't find this monkey for the life of me, y'know. And here you said you wouldn't be a help in the garage!"

"It was a lucky guess," Dudley said with a shrug. He fingered the empty glass of orange juice as he debated whether or not to get a refill. Jack took the wrench around back the Malibu, and then settled down on the wooden trolley he had used to pull himself out from under the car. The friendly banter was such a common occurrence that Dudley sometimes took it for granted, but now he realised that his life would be so empty without it. "I'm running back out to the kitchen for more juice. Want me to get you something?"

Jack had his hands hooked on the back bumper again, one holding the monkey wrench, as he gave Dudley a grin. "A Coke will suffice," Jack answered before slipping himself under the Malibu. "You can leave it next to the rear wheel for me, y'know. I'll get it when I'm done."

They spent the rest of the afternoon working on the car off and on. Every time Jack came out for a break they would spend about an hour talking before he realised he was supposed to be working. And they would talk while he was working, as well. The sun was setting in the western sky by the time Dudley got out of the Ramirez house, and he was full to the brim with orange juice. He would have went home to pee first, but he was cutting it close with the art shop downtown, so he decided his discomfort would have to wait.

x-x-x

Dudley took a bus downtown. There was barely anybody on his bus, but that gave him more places to sit. He usually had to be careful who he sat next to on the city bus. Not everyone was as accepting of the Hybrids as Charlotte. Some of them would make a fuss if he sat next to them. It was always allergies that were the complaint- people were allergic to fur, they claimed, and his tail was too bushy.

However, the ride downtown was pleasant without the ignorant people that he usually ran into in the middle of the day. It was the main reason he preferred walking downtown over taking the bus, but this time he had no choice. Even if there had been crowds, and there was nowhere to sit, he would have taken the bus to make it on time. There was a woman heading towards the entrance of the shop with a big closed sign as he hopped off the bus.

"Excuse me!" Dudley said as he pushed the door open a crack. The woman stopped as she looked at him curiously. Her eyes immediately located the rounded ears poking through his dark locks of hair. "I'm sorry if I'm being an inconvenience, but my sister really wanted me to pick up some copic markers. Have I come too late for that?"

It was always the mention of Kite that saved the day. "You wouldn't happen to be Kite Rowley's big brother, would you?" The woman asked, and he nodded with a faint smile. "I should have known. You two have the same face. I'll make an exception for you, but please don't dawdle, Mr. Rowley."

Dudley had never been called that before, but he moved out of the way so she could put the sign on the door. There were still people milling about when an automated message warned customers that the store had closed. They were all supposed to pick up any last supplies they needed before heading for the checkouts. "If it isn't too much to ask," Dudley said with a sheepish smile, "could I have some directions for where the copic markers are located?"

The woman turned around to face him with a smile after the sign was set in place. "I'll show you where they are," she said, and then led him through the aisles of art supplies. The whole place smelled like Styrofoam. It was not an unpleasant smell, but Dudley felt out of place. This was not his area of expertise, and he could only wonder what some of the supplies were for when he was led past them. "Here we go. Thank you for stopping by this evening."

Her last words had come out as automated as the message that had echoed through the store only a few moments earlier. Dudley went down the aisle with his eyes searching feverishly for any packages that said copic on them. He did not know anything about what these markers were supposed to look like.

He found them near the end of the aisle. A woman with long blond hair was busied with items for a summer scrapbook, her big blue eyes wide and curious as she looked over a plastic-wrapped package. She hardly seemed to notice Dudley as he placed himself beside her at the copic marker section. "I haven't seen you around in a while," he murmured. "How have you been, Charlie?"

Charlotte Nelson turned to look at him with surprise, but that quickly melted away into a doting fondness for the boy. "Oh, I've been much better. The boss has been piling on hours since I have to go to college in September," she said with a small smile. Her eyes wandered to the product before him as he unhooked a package of markers to get a better look. "Did Kite send you down here?"

"Yeah," he said, and then laughed as he hooked the package back onto the wrack. He didn't like the colours in that certain package. Pink was Kite's favourite colour, and since she had not specified which ones she needed, he figured a package with pink would work. "I almost didn't make it in time. Jax had me over at his place working on that old rust bucket."

Charlotte fell silent for a moment, and then lifted off a package under the one that Dudley had just taken from the shelf. "Here. This one has pink," she said. Dudley looked at it for a moment. There were also two black markers, which he had learned in childhood was the quickest colour to disappear in any medium. It was used in almost everything; even the most beautiful pictures contained traces of darkness. "Did you tell Jack that you needed to be down here for Kite? He shouldn't have kept you so late."

Dudley shrugged absently. "Thanks," he said in regards to the markers. He placed them in the metal basket she had around her arms as she returned to searching for scrapbooking items. "Hey, Charlie, I was wondering if you would be able to get some time off work next Friday."

She turned to look at him with a sweet look in her eyes. "Are you planning to take me to the fair?" Charlotte asked, and Dudley nodded with a hint of embarrassment. "I think I can make something work. If I tell my boss I'll work Labour Day, I'm sure he'd be happy to let me take off the Friday evening."

He looked up at the ceiling stretching far overhead. The long fluorescent lights seemed to blur together, and Dudley realised that there were tears swelling in his eyes. He wiped them away before Charlotte could see that they had been there, but curiosity sank over him. Was he upset that Jack had received a letter to the military instead of him? No. Dudley was quite certain he was not frustrated. He was scared.

"Jax will be having his demolition derby on Friday," Dudley said, and then he turned to look at his girlfriend as she finally picked out the materials she wanted. They slipped into the basket alongside her other purchases. Her eyes never met his. "I know you're not really into the whole thing, but he would by really happy if you tagged along. Jax received his calling card for France this morning. He's going to be leaving on Saturday, so it might be his last derby."

This caught Charlotte's attention immediately. She looked up at Dudley with her eyes rounded in fear. "Jack is going to France? He's going to be killed!" Even though she did not sound worried, there was an instinctual fear that had come over her heart. "What about you, Dudley? Are you going to be fighting over in France, as well?"

Dudley shrugged his shoulders absently. He hooked his arm through hers reassuringly, and then leaned down to place a soft kiss on her temple. Charlotte was surprisingly tense. "I don't know yet," he said. He looked into her big blue eyes when she finally decided to meet his eyes. There was a fear not unlike Jack's burrowed deep in her heart. "I hope so. I don't know how well Jax will survive over there on his own."

Charlotte remained silent until they began heading towards the checkouts. "I'll try to get Friday off so that we can go to the fair together," she said, and then smiled. The colour had returned to her cheeks, and the nervous flare had disappeared from her eyes. Dudley had never been so thankful. "I'll even cheer on Jack when he's in his derby. It's his first and last, isn't it? I may hate him, but that doesn't mean he should have what he loves ripped away from him."

They kissed on the lips. It was a brief moment, and then they were in line behind a woman with a ton of art supplies, probably for a kid's school project, that would take several minutes to ring through. Their hands linked almost desperately. Dudley was not ignorant to the fact that Charlotte did not want him to be in France. Who would? It was a high demand. There would not be very many Hybridian soldiers in the platoons that were being sent over, and it was almost certain that they would be wiped out no sooner than they could get settled into their new homes.

But they needed to try. Dudley knew that much. The French Hybrids were facing extinction if there was not help from the Americans. If they lost the war, it would not be that they would continue living under the Human rule. They would be terminated from existence because they posed a future threat.

"You won't have to worry about that," Dudley murmured, and then smiled as he put his arm around Charlotte's waist. She snuggled up against him with a sweet smile. "I'm incredibly lucky to have someone so supportive my side. Thank you."