#there he is.
"Will you still love me," Skimbleshanks had asked, leaning over his shoulder one winter afternoon. "When I'm as ancient as you are?"
Asparagus rolled his eyes, but did not look up from his book. Here they went again.
"You won't be here to find out if you go on," he replied dryly. "I may throttle you first."
Asparagus felt the huff of laughter on the side of his neck as the other tom clung to his back - which was good. The following silence indicated a gloomy drifting back into his own thoughts - which was, decidedly, not as good.
Asparagus supposed he should be insulted at the insinuation, but he wasn't. Not really. The question was a ridiculous one, certainly, but coming from the same place as the rest of his mate's recent odd behaviour. This had been their topic of conversation for weeks now, all leading up to the dreaded upcoming February morning. The railway cat was to celebrate his - what was the charming expression the humans used? - golden name-day, though thus far it had been anything but precious, and to say that he was displeased with this fact would be an understatement. They couldn’t even say the number, let alone apply it. Skimbleshanks, dynamic and vibrant as he was, saw the day as one of impending doom rather than something celebratory. Which meant, of course, this sense of doom had spread thoroughly throughout the household. Several times over.
A midlife crisis had already been steadily brewing on the horizon as it were; this was just the tipping point. The nail in the coffin, so to speak (though Asparagus hesitated to associate coffins anywhere near this particular issue). Having known the other tom for as long as he had, however, Asparagus wouldn't call it a midlife crisis so much as Skimbleshanks' own peculiar combination of melodrama and genuine fear. Midlife catastrophe, perhaps.
The railway cat had nearly had an aneurism when he discovered his first grey hair amidst his headfur (a day Asparagus remembered vividly, as he was the one to pluck it out at Skimble's flustered request), and a heart attack to boot when Jenny had responded innocently to a remark concerning his slowly dwindling energy reserve with a cheery: "It happens to all of us, dear - welcome to the club." Even Jellylorum's gentle reminders that he needed to start warming up before diving into the fray - that he needed to be careful when hoisting the kittens up like that - that his knees wouldn't be nearly as forgiving as they once were should he land wrong - had put such a look on his face, you would have thought she'd slapped him.
Having been raised as he was, Asparagus was used to dramatics, but this was approaching something else entirely. Sometimes, though he’d never say it out loud, he swore he had three children to mind rather than two.
"Besides," he eventually continued, snapping his book shut on its folded corner and gently knocking it against the other tom's head to bring him back to attention. "I'm only three years older than you are, you pest."
"Yes, I know," Skimbleshanks pouted, rubbing at the sore spot between his ears.
"And you know," he went on patiently. "That means that as you get older, so will I, and the point of comparison will shift."
"I know, I know, but you were born old, dear," Skimbleshanks explained, tilting his chin down, no doubt preparing for another knock. Cheeky little... He lowered his voice, as though to share a secret. "I don't think you've changed since I first laid eyes on you."
Asparagus looked back at him finally, removing his glasses, eyebrows raised. He debated whether that were meant to be a compliment. With Skimbleshanks, sometimes it was hard to tell. "I'll have you know I was at least slightly less grey then, thank you."
Skimbleshanks hummed, obviously enjoying himself. "But only slightly."
Asparagus scoffed, feigning a wounded pride. "You're very cruel, you know that?"
"Terribly so," the other tom muttered, pressing his cheek back against his neck as they readjusted.
The two fell quiet once again, but the silence remained heavy and melancholy. Obviously the banter had done little to lighten his mood.
"Are you saying," Asparagus tried again to adjust the perspective, leaning his head back. "You stopped loving me when I got older? That you don't still love me now? Because this is quite the way to tell me."
"Of course not!" Skimbleshanks retorted, hugging him tighter. Asparagus winced at the reflexive claws that dug into one shoulder. "Don't be daft."
"Then I must ask why you would assume it'd be different on my end. Must have been something I said.” Asparagus tapped a paw carefully on his book cover as he considered. “Or something I didn't, perhaps?"
The ginger tom made an uncertain sound in his throat, but offered nothing further.
"What would you like me to say instead?" Asparagus sighed, pushing his book away and turning fully towards the other tom. Skimbleshanks looked strangely perturbed for a moment at the loss of contact, slowly lowering his paws into his lap. He tilted his head down and shrugged.
"Perhaps: I will still love you even when every hair on your head has gone white, and your spine has curved down, and your whiskers start to sag, and you can't see an inch past your nose, and all of those quaint nothings?" Asparagus remained serious, but kept his tone decidedly light. A small smile twitched at the corner of Skimbleshanks' muzzle as he mulled this over.
"When every hair has gone white, eh?"
"Every single one."
"And what about," Skimbleshanks asked, wringing his paws. "When I can't do what I could before?"
He was getting warmer. "Even more - and then some," Asparagus answered firmly. "You will still be doing more than I can, that I will assure you of."
Asparagus thought a moment more, studying his mate's downtrodden expression before continuing.
"Or perhaps I should be more direct: if you ever thought, even for a second, I am so shallow that I would ever abandon you as you got older, then I have obviously not used those nothings enough."
Skimbleshanks remained quiet, but the twitch of his ears indicated he was listening intently.
Asparagus did admittedly feel a twinge at that - he wasn't nearly as verbal with his affection as perhaps he should be. It had never been in him for the level of theatrics his father boasted, or even the confident and persistent assurities that Jelly did. He was quiet and plain, just as he'd always been, tripping over his words, preferring their quality time with one another beyond all else. Skimble had never seemed to mind before, citing his bashful reservation as "charming" (the dear), but perhaps it had finally gotten to him after all. It can't have helped.
"I can't quite fix that one, can I? Not saying those enough?" Asparagus said quietly, reaching to place a paw on his knee. “I’m sorry.”
The silence stretched between them once again, but this time, it had changed. Minutely - but it had changed. He watched his mate’s tail swish with agitation, his mouth open, then close again. He flexed the hold of his paw on his leg when both of Skimble’s had reached to press it more firmly against the bone. Asparagus liked to think, after all this time, he had somewhat of a handle on what his mate was thinking and feeling - or at least in what direction he was headed when the wheels started turning. There was something trapped just behind Skimble’s teeth, he just needed a prompt.
Asparagus was beginning to connect the dots, slowly but surely.
"This isn't really about how I feel at all, is it?"
“Not exactly...I don’t think...no,” the other tom murmured at last. “Not really.”
Lukewarm on that one, but they were getting there. Asparagus stared at the top of the ginger tom’s head. He looked like a scolded kitten. Funny he should end up on this side of it, though perhaps he wouldn’t think so.
“Can you look at me, please?” he asked gently, glancing again at the tail swishing out of the corner of his eye.
Skimbleshanks complied, exhaling and looking up at him. There it was. That was the ticket.
“You’re afraid.” Direct. Matter-of-fact. The way the railway cat had always preferred.
Skimbleshanks’ muzzle twisted, as though he were about to deny it, but the way his posture softened spoke volumes.
“Of what, dear?” Asparagus knew very well “of” what, but the “why” was still just beyond his grasp.
“I just...oh…” Skimbleshanks bit the inside of his lip as he searched for the words. When he found them, it was as though a floodgate had opened. “I can’t stand it, Asparagus, I can’t stand it. What am I to do? I can’t even stand the thought of...of not being needed anymore. Not being wanted. Not being…”
“Not being me anymore.”
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