Benson sighed as Troy trotted past them to catch up with his father on the walk back to the timber cats’ village from Scarlemange’s palace. He was just so cute when he jogged. Troy was just so cute in general, from the tips of his undercut hair to the tops of his stylish, yet sensible shoes. If only Benson could just find a way to tell him that without babbling like an idiot.
“Man, I have got to figure out how to talk to him like a normal person.”
“You could just try flapjacks again,” said Wolf.
Benson shot her a sharp look. He honestly could not tell whether or not she was she's being sarcastic. Either way, she might have a point. He smiled down at baby Dave, sleeping in his arms. Their whole friendship had been based on their shared love of food. Who was to say the same thing wouldn’t work twice? Too bad he and Troy had already agreed that flapjacks and pancakes were the same thing. Once you had that conversation, the topic was pretty much done.
“You're trying too hard,” Kipo said. “You're a great guy, Benson. Just be yourself.”
Easy for her to say. Everyone loved her, even Scharlemagne. The only people who loved Benson were literally walking with him right now. “I just really need him to like me. Okay?”
Kipo nodded. “I understand completely.” There was a beat where he thought she might drop it, but no. He’d just forgotten she was Kipo. “Hey, Troy!” she called.
“Hey, what?” he asked, turning around and walking backward to face them.
“Benson likes you. Do you like Benson?”
Literally everyone turned to stare at him and why could the ground not open up and swallow him right now? Wolf cringed and she wasn’t even the center of attention.
“Sure. I like Benson,” Troy said, seemingly as cool and unflappable as ever. The tips of his ears reddened, but that was nothing compared to the burning blush spreading across Benson’s entire face. “He’s great.” Troy beamed at him, then turned back around before he could trip over something.
“See,” Kipo said, nudging Benson with her elbow. “Easy.”
“Yeah,” Benson said with a shaky laugh. “Easy.”Troy shot him a half-smile over his shoulder and Benson replied with an awkward wave. He liked Troy and Troy liked him. Great! Now all Benson had to do was figure out what to do about it.
Benson groaned as he looked out over the ruins of Ratland. He’d seen the fire. He’d known it had been destroyed but, in the cold light of day, it was way worse than he's been imagining. Where was the giant donut Ferris wheel? The roller coaster? All the concession stands were just gone. Benson slumped down against what was left of the giant mega pug. He'd sort of been thinking about bringing Troy here. It would have been just like when he took Kipo, but way better because it would have been gay and awesome instead of awkward and heterosexual. So much for that plan.
“You think Troy would like Vanland?”
“Oh, heck yeah!” said teen Dave. “Vanland’s awesome!”
It kind of was, and it wasn’t like Troy would have ever even seen a van before, let alone ridden in one. He’d probably love it. The problem was it wasn’t exactly private. Amy and Brad were great, but Benson wasn’t sure he wanted an audience for his first date. “I don’t know,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Maybe for a second date. Seems a little weird for a first.”
“Hey, I know! You two should just chug a bunch of Mulholland,” Dave suggested. “Everyone loves hallucinating. You’d never top that.”
“Yeah,” Benson said slowly, drawing out the word. That did sound pretty awesome in theory. After all, last time had been a blast. Right up until they’d had to wake up anyway. Like Dave said, they’d never top that and he didn’t want to spend their whole relationship chasing after the high of something that had never really happened.
Why was this so hard? There were dozens of cool things to do around town, some of which weren’t even life threatening. He just needed it to be perfect, is all. “I’ll figure something out,” he said with a sigh. It just might take a while.
“Hey, Benson.” Troy caught him mid-scrounge with his hand inside an abandoned car’s glove compartment.
Benson jerked back hurriedly, narrowly avoiding banging his head on the roof of the car. “Hey, Troy.” He winced as his voice cracked mid-word. “What’s up?” he asked, dropping his voice an octave in hopes of sounding a little less like a 12-year-old.
“You lost your tape player, right?”
“Yeah.” Benson’s shoulder’s slumped. It had gone into Scarlemange’s crazy river of gold along with everything else in his backpack: Kipo’s anchor, his spare clothes, and, most tragically of all, his tape collection. He’d spent years putting that together and it had all been lost in a single moment. It was great that Kipo didn’t need her photo to change back, but Benson really missed being able to pop in a tape and let the world disappear into music. Some of those tapes had been one of a kind too.
Troy smiled. “Well, I found you a new one,” he said, pulling it from behind his back. “It was in that old store over there.” He jerked his chin toward a storefront with a sagging sign shaped like a guitar. “There’s a bunch of tapes there too. Want to see if they’re any good?”
“Ah, yeah!” Did he really need to ask?
Troy held out his hand and and Benson took it before he could start to overthink. He let Troy tug him across the street, into the store, and down an aisle lined with cassette tapes in faded packaging. They settled together on the floor amid the dust. The new tape player had speakers, but they ended up using the headphones instead. For safety, of course, and not just an excuse to press their heads together as they shared. Troy’s breath puffed on his cheek as they listened to tape after tape. Dust tickled his nose and the hard floor hurt his butt. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty darn great and way better than anything Benson could have planned. Best first date ever.