In a Word.

© 2005 By Philip Eggerding aka Cirrel

James Sheppard & Estaban characters © James Brunner; Zig Zag © Malcolm Earle; Special thanks to Joan Jacobsen for the inspiration for this story.

 

James Sheppard of Sheppard Computing Systems was almost done here. His job description at the company he'd founded did not normally include technician work, but any new computer virus that hit the Net usually meant that the technical staff was overwhelmed, and even the executive types needed to roll up their sleeves in order to get all the customers taken care of.

"One more keystroke and everything will be back to normal," James muttered. "Whatever 'normal' is," he added. Today had not started out well, and the workload had been formidable, but this task was the last of the day.

The coyote hit the key on the client's keyboard and the monitor went dark - to be replaced moments later by a logo and a familiar jingle that no song writer would ever be able to use again without facing an army of copyright lawyers from Redmond. James winced. He'd forgotten to disable that sound.

"You're getting sloppy," he grumbled, frowning.

This particular Operating System was not a favorite of his, but it was something he had to deal with because it was what many of his customers used. The OS finally finished booting up, and another program blossomed onto the screen. Apparently the customer had set the program to load automatically upon startup. James eyed the new program's title screen and frowned again. It was a word processing program - not unexpected since this particular client was a publishing firm. But, talk about ubiquitous. Couldn't they have come up with a different name for this thing?

They'd taken the very word "word" itself and given it a new meaning. There wasn't a fur out there who was familiar with computing that wouldn't think of this program when "word" was mentioned - which was probably what the marketers of the program had wanted.

James shook his head. It was only a computer program. It wasn't all that good, but it wasn't really bad, either. It was simply "pervasive".

Widespread.

Omnipresent.

Universal.

James let the different variations of the word 'pervasive' float through his mind. Then he debated whether he wanted to do anything about the operating system's opening jingle. He decided against it. He was finished with what he needed to do, and any default sounds were now the client's responsibility. This job had been a fairly simple. The only time James ever disabled system sounds was when the job required a lot of reboots. Hearing that jingle twenty times over destroyed any originality and sparkle it may have had. - not that this particular melody hadn't already been consigned to the 'gag when you hear it' department ages ago.

That was the problem. One could take almost anything - a melody, a sound, a word - and with constant repetition - give it a whole new meaning - and not necessarily a good one either. James stood up, put what few disks and other items he'd brought with him back into his briefcase, and snapped it closed. He glanced once more at the monitor and the word-processing program there. To him, the word "Word" had been hijacked. It would never be the same again, and no amount of convincing or cajolery would change that.

No amount of convincing...

Those had been Zig Zag's exact words this morning when he'd called her "Beautiful". It was also one of the reasons the morning hadn't started out well. He'd said the first thing that came to his mind when he'd awakened beside her, and then he had been too tired to know when to shut up when she'd argued the point. He'd gone through the whole "But you are beautiful" routine before realizing it was as useless now as it had always been. "Beautiful" was a word Zig Zag would never be comfortable with.

James knew why, too.

It was because of her past life and who she was. For her, the word "beautiful" had been terribly abused, and the abuse had happened so often that the word would never have the right meaning for her.

James needed a new word - something that hadn't been tainted by past misuse. Something that hadn't been spoiled.  He thought about it as he made his way out of the building and toward his car. What other words were there for "beautiful"?

Good-looking? Not good enough.

Gorgeous? Too cavernous sounding.

Stunning? Too dangerous.

Striking? No. That's what had been done to her by certain unsavory characters.

Fine-looking? Not unless she was a 'specimen' which she would object to being.

Attractive? So were magnets. Not personal enough.

Handsome? No. That was her word for him!

Charming? Not always. Not Zig.

Wonderful? Sort of, but not quite what he was looking for.

Exquisite? Too mysterious.

Pleasing? No. That was too close to her definition - someone who only pleasured you.

Magnificent? Too vast.

James shook his head as he pulled out of the parking lot. All those words described parts of who Zig Zag was and what she meant to him, but none of them seemed quite right. "Beautiful" was the word he wanted to use, but it also was the one he couldn't use.

He set the thought aside and headed toward Zig Zag's place. He'd wondered about calling her and offering to move to a motel for the rest of the week to give her some breathing room. Things at the studio right now were very hectic what with the recent distribution snafu and the two movies in production, but she'd insisted he stay at her place anyway until the contractors could replace the sections of roof on his house that had been torn off by the tornado. He'd thought about doing the repairs himself at first, but his initial assessment of the damage after the storm had told him one thing. This would be a big job - one more easily and expeditiously handled by a contractor.

He'd been with Zig Zag at her place during that particular storm. She had a deep dislike of thunderstorms - almost a paranoia - and James had been more than happy to keep her company. It was fortunate that he'd been with her, too. A large branch from one of the elms in his yard had crashed through the bedroom roof.

James would need to replace the shattered bed too.

Zig was a life-saver for him now in more ways than one. She was vital to him. She was so precious to him.

She was so…

James let out a heavy sigh.

Every time he wanted to say "beautiful" he could see the look in her eyes - the one that contradicted him. He'd thought at first if he could only say it often enough to her, things would change. James shook his head. There had been some change, he admitted. Zig wasn't nearly as defensive about the word as she'd first been - at least not most of the time. However, when she was stressed out by other things such as the recent studio problems, she could still be quite touchy - like this morning. James tried to shove the unpleasant memory out of his mind, but he now realized that no matter how many times he called Zig Zag "beautiful", it wouldn't mean the same to her as what it meant to him.

He needed to find another word.

Looking at the dashboard clock, James noted that it was nearly 7:00 pm. Zig should be home by now, so he steeled himself and punched a button on the arm console next to him. He might as well face the unpleasantness about the rest of the week's living arrangements. Four rings came out from the speaker-cell-phone clipped to the car's driver side visor before Zig's answering machine took over. It seemed Zig wasn't home yet, either. James frowned. She'd already been late twice this week. James left a message about when he would arrive at her place and punched the console button again to hang up.

 

 

James was only a block from Zig's house when a black and white striped Bugatti Veyron zipped past him as if he were standing still. What was it with exotic car manufacturers anyway? The all seemed to think letting Zig 'borrow' one of their newest hot cars for a few months was good advertising. Maybe it was, but a car with more horses under the hood than a Cavalry Regiment was just plain scary.

By the time James had pulled into the driveway, Zig was already in the house. That she hadn't waited for him outside said something about her mood. He sighed as he got out of his car and walked to the door.

Zig Zag had already flopped down on the living room couch when James entered and took off his coat. He hung it on the coat rack instead of in the closet, because he might be staying all that long. That is, if he'd read Zig Zag's actions correctly. He continued to look at her as he loosened his tie a bit, but now he noted that, although her posture was definitely not relaxed, she didn't look angry or tense either. She looked…James sought out an appropriate word and found one.

Careworn.

Careworn - as in "showing the effects of worry, anxiety, or burdensome responsibility - a weariness of the mind that comes from too much work and too little reward."

Yes. Zig looked careworn, and now she was slowly shaking her head.

"What am I doing here, James? What is my purpose in life?"

"Whoa, Zig," James said in a tone he hoped would lighten an atmosphere that had suddenly grown heavier than expected. He'd thought he might hear something from her about this morning's argument. Not this sudden introspection into the meaning of life. "That's a bit philosophical for this early in the evening. Um. Should I make us some tea?"

"Please," answered the striped skunk still staring at the fireplace. "For starters anyway. I may want something a little stronger later."

James hid his concern as he filled the kettle and set it on the stove to boil. He continued to look at Zig Zag, but she wasn't looking back. She's flipped her shoes off, crossed her legs and arms, and now her only motion was the steady up and down motion of one foot - as if beating out time to some silent rhythm. Again, he noted that it wasn't a furious rhythm as if she were angry. It was more like simply marking time. Finally the kettle boiled and James steeped the Earl Grey for as long as he knew Zig Zag liked it. He then filled two mugs and walked into the living room. Zig didn't seem in a 'teacup' mood.

James set the mugs on the coffee table in front of Zig and took a seat beside her. As he did so, he wondered briefly why the low table in front of them wasn called a coffee table. Why not "Tea-table" instead.

Words.

He was becoming obsessed with words. Not a good thing when the love of his life was feeling the vagaries of life pressing down on her.

"Philosophical or no," James began, "I'll listen, if you want to talk."

He decided to risk running a paw behind the silver-white hair at the base of her neck. His paw was still warm from holding the tea-mugs, and he knew it would feel pleasant. She leaned into his caress and dropped a cheek on his arm.

"It happened again," she whispered.

James felt the fur at the back of his neck rise. So many bad things had happened to Zig Zag in her life that a statement like this could mean any number of bad things. However, Zig wasn't tensing up, so perhaps it wasn't one of those.

"Care to give me a hint?" he whispered back as he kissed an ear on her bowed head. "Or is it one of those naughty business things I ought not know about?"

He felt her chest jerk slightly - just once - as if a weak laugh had tried to come out but had gotten stuck somewhere near her stomach. She turned her head and looked up at him. James felt his heart skip a beat. Would he ever get used to those blue-beyond-blue eyes? Zig gave a sort of half smile, then straightened up, and reached for her tea mug. James did the same.

She'd taken several sips, and now set the mug back on the table. James set his down as well and withdrew his paw from her back before turning to completely face her.

"Are you ready to get philosophical again?"

She huffed and turned full to him, her eyes sparkling now with a hint of annoyance.

"James, tell me this. Do I run a porn studio or not?"

"You run a porn studio," James answered in a neutral tone.

Zig Zag suddenly shot to her feet waving her paws around. "Then WHY is everyone using my business as a damned matchmaking service!"

James relaxed a little and reached for his mug. "Who is it this time?"

Zig Zag turned and shot him a foul look. "Celroy and Ronald. I may just be seeing problems that will never happen, but gods! Their timing! What if Ron wants to quit acting?"

James tried to think. "I haven't heard of Celroy, but isn't Ron that porcupine actor you hired recently?"

James had been puzzled by a porcupine porn actor until Zig had explained that they were very popular with the Studios that specialized in S&M. "You don't do S&M," James had commented at the time and Zig had agreed, but apparently Ron had this most amazing control over his quills. Zig had seen some unusual and interesting possibilities and had hired him with some specific roles in mind.

Zig nodded. "Yeah. Ron is the talented and pointy one. Celroy is one of my editing technicians."

"Let me guess," commented James leaning back. "Celroy is another Porcupine?"

Zig Zag shook her head. "Rabbit."

James looked into his mug. "Ouch. Well, at least they're both herbivores. That should make shopping for groceries easier."

"James!" Zig kicked his foot - almost playfully. "That's not the point! What if Ron doesn't want to act after this? I've got a script that's perfect for him! It's not fair! I'm having a personnel nightmare here!"

James set down his mug, got up, and put both arms around Zig Zag's waist. He looked into her eyes, searching for the right words that would remove the doubt and frustration he could still see smoldering there despite her lightening mood.

"I think you can handle it," he finally said in a quite voice. "You've got a way with persuasion that few can resist. I know I can't." He brought a paw up to her cheek in a gentle caress. "Never doubt your strength, love. Remember, mere personnel nightmares are nothing compared to the personal nightmares you've already overcome."

Silence.

It was as if all the growing warmth between them had suddenly been sucked away. James blinked in confusion.

"You're still not having those…are you?"

Zig Zag said nothing, but pulled away from James and turned her back on him. James shook his head. He was sure Zig had gotten past those. They'd even talked about them a few times recently, and she'd not reacted like this.

"I sorry, Zig," He reached out and let a paw hover over her right shoulder before slowly dropping it to the striped fur underneath it. "I really thought those had stopped."

Zig Zag's head dropped. "I don't have those nightmares anymore, James," she said, her voice calm but cool. "However, that doesn't mean I've forgotten them."

James withdrew his paw and let it drop to his side. He sighed. So much for lightening the mood. "Um. I'm sorry about all this - what I said to you this morning and just now. You've got an awful lot on your plate at the moment, Zig. Maybe it would it be best if I moved to a motel for a few days. It's no problem for me. Then you could concentrate on the problems at the studio. The contractors should be done with my place on Saturday."

James wasn't prepared at all for that flash of black and white fury that spun around and tackled him. He was suddenly on his back on the couch underneath a Zig Zag that seemed to be trying to bite his face off. Her open jaws had clamped over his mouth and nose, and he felt her sharp teeth digging into the flesh of his muzzle. If she bit any harder, he would be tasting blood. Her probing tongue was the only thing that indicated this might be a furious kiss rather than an attack.

For a moment he was too stunned to comprehend much of anything other than the kiss, if that’s what it was. Then her face came into clearer focus. All he saw were eyes that were clamped shut and leaking tears copiously. He had no idea what had come over her. She had his arms pinned to his side and her claws in his back so he could do nothing but wait for the madness to pass, or whatever it was.

Finally she withdrew her mouth, took a great gasp of air, and buried her head in his neck sobbing.

"Damn you James Sheppard! Don't you DARE leave me!" came her muffled cry as further sobs racked her body.

James pulled one arm free and used it to stroke her head. "I'm not leaving Zig. I'm right here. I'll stay as long as you want. You know that."

For a very long time all he did was hold her and stroke her hair. He still hadn't a clue as to what had upset her so much, but he wouldn't press for answers. She would tell him when it was time. She could do that now.

Finally, after lying in his arms for nearly an hour, she raised her head to look at him. The tears had smeared her eye makeup and matted the fur on her face and her eyes were red and swollen. She didn't look anything like a former porn star, but that didn't matter. That didn't matter at all. Gently he licked the tears from her muzzle and smiled. "I'm here as long as you want me."

She laid her head back on his shoulder. "I couldn't stop thinking about it, James."

"Thinking about what, love."

"That you could have died during that storm, and I'd never be with you again."

James "ahhh-ed' in final comprehension, and dropped a kiss on Zig's head. "I thought you looked a bit shaken after I told you what had happened to my place after the storm. Maybe I shouldn't have been so graphic about the wrecked state of my bedroom?"

Zig Zag nodded into his shoulder. "It's been with me these past three days. I saw myself doing everything I do at the studio, but without you to look forward to afterwards. It was so… empty! I knew it wasn't true, but it could have been true. If you'd stayed home that night, you could have…you could have…"

Died.

James felt the body in his arms shudder slightly, and he heard the unsaid word in his mind. It was only a word, but if Zig didn't want to say it, he wasn't about to either. Instead, he nuzzled Zig's ear. "And work at the studio this week was no picnic either."

Zig Zag sighed, shaking her head. "No. Nothing was going right. At first I thought it was a blessing because I was so busy I didn't have time to think about what could have happened to you."

"So that's why you've been late this week, Zig. Still, work eventually ends at some point, and its time to come home."

"And you were there waiting for me," whispered Zig Zag. "I thought I should be happy to see you, and I was at first, but then I would start thinking about what life would be like without you." She looked up to him again and brought a finger up to her temple. "The worst part about thinking was that the old scars - in here - would start hurting again. I know I've come a long way on my own, but you are a big part of why they don't hurt like they used to. If I were to lose you…"

Zig Zag dropped her head back onto James' shoulder and tightened her hug as if that would keep him close. James tried to think of a word of reassurance - something he could say to take away her fear of losing him to an accident or an illness, but there was no such guarantee in life. He then realized that mere words were not the answer to everything. So instead of a word of comfort, he simply dropped another kiss on his beloved's head and held her more tightly. It was good enough for now.

Finally, Zig raised her head to look at him again. "Do you remember when I'd tell you that you were too good for me?"

James nodded.

"I was wrong. You are good. Period. No qualifiers. No 'ifs', 'ands', or 'buts'. You are, in a word, good."

"Thank you," James said. "Do I have your permission to call you the same?" He saw Zig grin, and knew her ribald sense of humor was making a comeback.

"You have my permission, but try to avoid using it too liberally around the studio. My employees might think I'm losing my despotic grip on the business."

James grinned back at her. This was more like the Zig Zag he knew - the lover of life -the strong, yet achingly beautiful femme.

Beautiful.

There was that word again.

James sighed. He might as well try to smooth over something else while Zig was in a good mood.

"Zig? About this morning…"

But Zig Zag had put a finger to his lips. "I'm sorry I snapped at you this morning, James. It was not your fault. My only excuse for such behavior was that some of my old scars were hurting again."

James nodded his acceptance of her apology and gave her a squeeze. He really had very little to complain about. After all, who else on the planet could say that they often woke up in the morning lying next to the world's most…

…the world's most…

The word hit him so hard he blinked. Why hadn't he thought of it before? James felt himself suddenly grinning from ear to ear. "Zig Zag. I think I may have found a cure for one of those scars!"

Zig cocked her head and returned his grin. "You have?"

James nodded. Seeing Zig Zag smile like she was doing now was a cure for any apprehensions he'd had earlier. "Yes I have. You're not very fond of the "B" word, are you."

Zig Zag dropped her eyes. "I'll try to be better about that."

"Maybe you won't need to," admonished James as he dropped a playful kiss on her nose and looked into her eyes.

"Tell me Zig Zag. Have you ever been called…Lovely?"

Zig Zag blinked. "Um…no. I don't think I ever have." Her brows furrowed into a combination frown and smirk. "Isn't that a word little old lady furs use for flowers and little femmes in bright dresses?"

James grinned. "It can be. Some furs associate 'Lovely' with things that are pretty - almost cute."

Zig zag snorted. "Cute is something I've never been."

James rocked his head back and forth. "Perhaps. But it's got other meanings as well." James propped himself up on one elbow and began counting on his fingers.

"Lovely - an adjective meaning the following. One. To be full of love. To be loving." He tapped Zig Zag's nose. "You, my dear, are full of it."

Zig Zag let out a laugh. "Me? Full of it? Really Mr. Sheppard."

"Its true," replied James, pointing at her. "There is no other explanation for some of the things you do for your employees. Despite your dictatorial temper and inability to tolerate fools, (which is not a bad thing) you are also protective, considerate, and respectful of your employees"

"Respectful!" Zig Zag blurted out. "Have you ever seen what I've done to Sabrina's Transformers?"

"Respectful when it counts then," corrected James. "Transformers are toys. You would never force furs to do the things you put poor Sabrina's toys through, would you?"

Zig Zag sighed. "All right, I respect my furs when it counts."

"And you know when it counts too. That's important, because it means you've taken the time to get to know your employees as friends. You care about them with a capital "C". Therefore, my overly self-critical striped femme, you are full of it. On to definition number two. 'Lovely' can also mean 'inspiring love or affection in others.'"

James ran a finger across Zig Zag's cheek. "I want no argument from you on this one, because I feel it myself. But putting myself aside for the moment, you cannot deny what your employees did in your honor after the location shooting for AVC. I was there, remember? I saw how they looked at you. I knew what they felt for you. I could feel it in the air. You were, and are inspiring."

Zig looked down. "James, I'm not…"

James put a finger over her muzzle. "No argument, Zig. How others see you is not something you have much of a say in. Their opinions are their choices. How often have you complained about the bigots and bible-thumpers out there who will never change their opinions? Don't be surprised then when you can't change the minds of the ones who've come to love you, either."

Zig Zag nodded. "I'll try not to."

James smiled and held up one more finger. "The last definition of 'Lovely' is my favorite, but I must warn you - it uses the "B" word as part of the definition."

"I'll try not to have that prejudice me," whispered Zig Zag softly.

James nodded once more. "The third definition of Lovely is this. 'Having beauty that appeals to the emotions as well as to the eye.'"

James gathered Zig Zag's face into his paws and looked deeply into her strikingly blue eyes. Doing so, he could understand how Estaban, one of Zig's former actors, had fallen into his femme's eyes. At the time, Zig had talked about never having seen anyone fall in love that hard and that fast just by looking into someone's eyes, but James could understand it now. This sensation was something that bypassed visual beauty and shot straight to the heart.

"I've heard it said that one test of true love is the ability to picture yourself with your loved one forty years into the future."

Zig Zag nodded. "I've heard that too."

"Do you know why that's so true?"

"I think I'm beginning to understand."

James kissed her gently. "I know you are."

Zig Zag ran a paw across James' cheek. "It means that with true love, time and physical appearance is irrelevant because even as the beauty that appeals to the eye fades, the beauty that appeals to heart grows. True love can never really fade away."

James kissed her once again and smiled. "So, do I have your permission to call you Lovely Lady?"

Zig Zag smiled - then grinned and poked him in the chest. "Only if I have permission to call you Lovely Gentlefur."

James considered that before nodding to the lovely fur lying next to him on the couch. "I give my consent, but…"

"But what, my Lovely Gentlefur?" teased Zig.

James facepawed himself and eyed his girlfriend. "Try not to use it in front of anyone who thinks it only means 'cute'."

"But you ARE cute!" Zig Zag was starting to laugh uncontrollably now.

"I am so going to regret this," mumbled James, but he was starting to laugh too. He couldn't help it. He was with the one he loved, and she was happy again.

'Cute' might never really fit him or Zig Zag.

But 'Lovely' would be good enough to last a lifetime.