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A Roo'd Awakening: Chapter Eight (Part 1)


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You can't help but resist the siren call of consciousness trying to force you away from your pleasant dreams, your body shivering as the biting cold spreads across your bare skin before seeping into your bones. Instinctively, you try to hold on to what little warmth you have left, clutching at your blanket as you shift to your side, searching for a warmer part of the bed to sleep on. Unfortunately, said instincts are firmly rooted in the assumption that you’d fallen asleep in your own bed, and your roll sends you crashing onto the hardwood floor below. You attempt to grab onto anything that might help cushion your fall, but the only thing you manage to do is bring the pillow with you. There’s a loud thud when the inevitable finally happens, your outstretched arms taking the brunt of the impact. You groan loudly as a sharp pain shoots up and through your side, hissing as you slowly begin to prop yourself up on your side; the blanket you’re now tangled up in certainly not helping matters any.

“Mike?!” you hear from a distance, the thunderous, yet familiar sounds of Ruby’s running quickly following as you see her round the corner. “Shit, are you alright?”

“I’m… fine,” you say, flashing a half-smile even though the strain in your voice gives away your white lie.

She steps closer, her furred arm shooting forward and quickly finding its way in front of your face as she bends down.

“Here, let me help you up,” she smiles, and you can’t help but smile back at just how quickly she scrambled to your aid.

You take hold of her hand, doing your best to avoid putting most of the strain on her as you slowly bring yourself upright again. She gently helps you settle back down onto the couch before collecting the blanket you’d managed to sprawl all over the floor. Once done, she tosses it onto the far edge of the sofa before audibly slumping down next to you. She starts to rub the sleep from her eyes, letting out a long, almost infectious yawn before resting her head against your shoulder.

“So…” she says, looking up at you with a small smile on her face. “You want to tell me how you ended up on the floor?”

“Well,” you say, chuckling nervously as you rub at the back of your neck. “You know, I’m pretty sure I fell asleep sitting upright. Must’ve turned a bunch in my sleep.”

“Least you didn’t take me with you before I woke up,” she giggles, closing her eyes before letting out a long sigh. “You mind if I call you my alarm clock from now on, Mike? You’ve got a pretty solid track record for waking me up.”

“Not my fault your couch is tiny. Where’d you get off to any-” you say, your sentence and train of thought both interrupted by the strangely familiar song playing from the phone in front of you.

She quickly leans forward to grab the phone before you can identify the song and settles against you as she brings it up towards her ears. You’re normally not one to snoop but the brief glimpse you caught clearly showed ‘Lily’ under the caller ID.

“Hello?” Ruby asks, and you can see her smile start to widen as she listens intently to the panda on the other end of the line. “Thanks, Lily. Sucks that you couldn’t make it.”

You tilt your head a bit as you watch in silence, not wanting to expose the fact that you’d stayed the night, unsure if Ruby would be comfortable sharing that much so soon after… whatever happened yesterday. If it hadn’t been for the fact that you woke up in her house, you’d have chalked up your memories to some sort of freaky fever dream, especially with all the talk about your last relationship. You can very faintly hear the panda’s voice with how high and far away Ruby’s holding the phone from her ears.

‘Guess that’s one of the perks of having sensitive hearing,’ you think to yourself.

You’re quickly knocked out of your strange train of thought by the sound of her laughter ringing out.

“Yeah, he showed up,” she says, smiling as she playfully elbows you in the side. “Still here, actually.”

You’re not entirely sure why, but you can feel your cheeks burning with embarrassment at the words. Not because you’d actually stayed the night, but because she was so confident in sharing that with her friend and… wait. You remember the panda making wild assumptions about the two of you when you’d first met at the mall, and some part of you hopes her mind isn’t filling in the blanks with things that haven’t happened.

“I told you we were celebrating our birthdays the same day, remember?” Ruby asks, and not even a second later she looks like she’s struggling to hold back another laugh, though with the way she looks away as her cheeks and ears flare up, you can tell she’s embarrassed by whatever was said on the other end of the line. “Looong story, Lil. I’ll tell you later, still kind of sleepy.”

You can vaguely hear something about lovebirds before Ruby hurriedly says her goodbyes before hanging up the phone.

“So what was that about telling her later?” you ask, leaning into her slightly as you clear some of the gunk from your eyes.

“Oh nothing, just…” she says, her grin about as wide as it can possibly be. “...have to explain to her why some dork had to stay the night. And you know, how he woke up by falling off the couch.”

“Your fault for having such a tiny and comfy couch,” you say, grumbling to yourself in mock offense. “Thing’s not built for someone like me.”

She rolls her eyes as she leans forward to set her phone down on the coffee table. “You’re tall, Mike, not a cyclops.”

“How about now?” you ask, putting a hand over one of your eyes before looking down to lock eyes with her again.

“God,” she says, putting a hand over her mouth as she tries and fails to stifle a hearty laugh. “I don’t know what I hate more… that joke, or the fact that I laughed at it.”

“Do you hate it more or less than the idea of having a cyclops for a boyfriend?” you ask, a pang of anxiety welling up within you as the words leave your lips. “Could get a little eyepatch and everything.”

“I think I’ll stick to the regular, human sized dork, thanks,” she snorts, her hand shooting up to her mouth again, though far too late to stop the embarrassing noise. “Jokes are bad enough already without supersizing them.”

“Clearly you can’t get enough of them,” you say, lightly wrapping an arm around the kangaroo. “Otherwise you wouldn’t hang around me so much. Speaking of supersizing though, what do you feel like doing for breakfast?”

“More like lunch,” she chuckles, nodding her snout towards the wall mounted clock. “I can whip something up for us if you want. If you still trust my cooking after yesterday, anyway.”

“You still worried about that?” you ask, not quite able to gauge how she feels from her expression alone. “I can help out if you want.”

“You sure?” she asks, though the hint of a smile past her otherwise neutral expression is almost answer enough for you. "I feel bad since, y'know... last time you stayed, you cooked too."

“It’s cooking, not brain surgery Ruby,” you smile, nudging the kangaroo as you finally hit your second wind, washing your residual drowsiness away. “I’m happy to just help out if you want to do the bulk of it.”

As if on cue, the sound of your grumbling stomach soon follows your words.

“You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Cyclops,” she laughs, poking a finger into the side of your midsection. “Let’s get you something to eat before you go devouring all the villagers.

“You just saying that because you’re one of them?” you chuckle, the urge to make the jab irresistible. “And shit- what time is it? Just realized I’ve probably got to call out from work.”

The look she gives you in response accompanied by a roll of her eyes tells you exactly what she thinks of your cheeky response, though her ears perk up a bit at the second part of your statement.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about work,” she chuckles, leaning into you a bit more as she nods towards the window. “Don’t think anyone’s going to be buying much ice cream when they’re snowed in.”

“What, really?” you ask, not quite believing her with how your closeness to her has put warmth back in your body. “You’re fucking with me, right?”

“I’m not,” she laughs as she starts to sit upright. “See for yourself if you don’t believe me.”

You decide to take the initiative and peel yourself off the couch first, letting out one final yawn as you stretch, the last remnants of sleep vanishing from your body. She quickly follows behind as you make your way towards the nearest window, and you can tell she's eager to see your reaction, a wide smile shining through as she eyes you from the side. You rub the last of the gunk out of your eyes as your other hand reaches towards the curtains, moving them aside. What you see as faint rays of sunlight begin to pour in through the window is nothing short of picturesque, and you lean forward to get an even better view of the snowy landscape in front of you. While it’s not coming down quite as hard as you’d seen it in the past, every branch, twig and leaf as far as the eye can see is coated in a heavy dusting of snow, the ground beneath covered by a thick blanket of white. You can't help but let a small smile tug at the corner of your mouth as your mind briefly drifts back to better, much simpler times, only shaken out of your train of thought by the sound of her voice.

"So, you still don't believe me?" she asks from your side, a glance down revealing a smug grin to match her tone. "Pretty, right?"

“Yeah…” you trail off, still trying to take as much of the sight in as you can as trails of frost start to creep in from the corners of the window. “One hell of a view you’ve got from your living room.”

Your smile widens as she steps in front of you, balancing on her tiptoes in an effort to get the same view.

“You know… if you want me to carry you, all you have to do is ask, right?” you ask, smirking when she tilts her head back to meet your gaze, rolling her eyes in disapproval at you despite the small smile on her face. “Really could get used to looking at this every morning though.”

“Part of the reason I picked this place back when I was looking,” she chuckles before leaning back against you a bit. “I know a way to get up on the roof if you want an even better view.”

“I appreciate it but…” you say, scratching at your bare chest as you think of how to phrase things. “I don’t exactly have a clean shirt to wear after yesterday and I’m not exactly sure how you’d feel about dating a snowman.”

“Right, right,” she says, offering a sheepish smile at your words. “Almost forgot about that. Did toss it in the wash when I woke up though, so maybe it’ll be dry by the time you leave.”

“If it is, I wouldn't mind taking a little peek at the view from up there,” you say, hoping you haven’t taken the wind out of her sails. “Might have to borrow a blanket though, I’m not built for this kind of cold like you guys are.”

“Pfft,” she says, leaning forward to wipe away some of the condensation on the inside of the window. “Not like the fur keeps me that warm, mate. At least, not until my winter coat comes all the way in.”

“Wait, that’s for real?” you ask, unsure if she’s just messing with you again or not. “I thought that was just what you guys call growing out your fur.”

“Real as can be. And if you don’t believe me…” she says, tugging down the collar of her blouse a bit to show a very pillowy looking tuft of fur forming near her neck. “Here's the proof. Pretty great when it’s all grown out and you’re outside on a cold day but it can suck if you’re inside without the AC on. Made the mistake of jogging too hard when it was really long one time and nearly passed out from heatstroke.”

Past the fluff, something else catches your eye though. It takes you a second to realize it but it was the necklace you gave her weeks ago, the gold chain and inlaid ruby crest resting comfortably amidst her fluff. You're overwhelmed by the realization that she's worn it pretty much every day since, and a smile starts to yank at the corners of your mouth as it widens.

“Huh,” you say, still smiling as you hold your gaze on the jewelry, trying to hide the fact that you're more than a bit flustered by your realization. “Sounds pretty useful at least, even if it does make working out annoying. Does it get like that all over or just in some places?”

“Guess it’s mostly all over,” she shrugs as she tucks the fur back under her blouse. “Honestly hate how it makes all your clothes feel way too tiny and cramped. You never noticed how anthros are always wearing baggier clothes this time of year?"

"Can't say I ever did, but I bet that's why I see so many anthros shopping around this time of year," you say, mind briefly drifting back to the time Ruby had helped you pick out clothes. “I’m not going to lie though, not that I don’t believe you or anything, but I’m having trouble imagining you all puffed up like that. You got a picture or something?”

“Not on me no, I hate the way it makes me look so I barely take any photos of myself in winter,” she says, her smile faltering a tiny bit before going back to normal. “Could bug my sister or mom about one though, I’m sure they’ve taken plenty. You know the michelin man? Just imagine that but with fur instead of rubber.”

You can’t help but chuckle a little bit at the mental image and it seems like it’s contagious because you soon find Ruby laughing alongside you. While you’d never paid it too much mind before, the quiet reprieve from conversation lets you really focus in on her laugh. It always starts off really soft, and yet even when it gets louder it’s not super grating on your ears. What you find cutest of all though is that when she really gets going, that laughter sometimes happens to turn on her in the form of an embarrassing snort. You can't quite explain why you're feeling this way, but the more time you spend with her, the more that apprehension over the whole dating thing seems to fade into nothingness. The relative peace and quiet is unfortunately cut short by the very inelegant sound of your stomach rumbling loudly. Whatever you did manage to eat the day before had been flushed down the toilet along with the cake, leaving you starving. You start to say something, though the sound of her voice rings out first.

“I… don’t know why that was so funny,” she says, rubbing something out of her eye. “Though, I seriously think we should get you something to eat before the king starts complaining about the missing villagers, Mr. Cyclops.”

“I agree,” you say, chuckling at her nickname for you. “You mind if I wash up in your bathroom real quick?”

“Nah, knock yourself out, it’s uh…” she says, turning and pointing towards the hallway to her bedroom before rescinding her finger. “Right. Forgot you already know where it is.”

You can’t help but smile and shake your head a bit at the way she gets all wound up and flustered sometimes. “Anything I shouldn’t touch in there?”

“Nah, feel free to use whatever,” she says with a wave of the hand. “Though I don’t think you’ll have much use for fur conditioners. I’ll get started on breakfast while you’re in there.”

“Sounds good to me,” you say, quickly making your way towards the bathroom. “If you need help with anything just shout.”

“I’m not that terrible a cook, Mike,” she says, rolling her eyes a bit as she slips past you on her way to the kitchen. “But… thanks.”

"Anytime," you say to yourself as you continue to stretch on your way to the bathroom.

While you’d been in here before, you hadn’t exactly gotten a good look at anything except the inside of the toilet and the floor tiles around it as you rushed in to puke your guts out. For one thing, it was a lot bigger than you’d thought, even for an apartment as nice as hers. You can’t even remember the last time you’d seen a separate shower and bathtub outside of a movie, and the bathroom itself is damn near the size of your living room. You shuffle over to the sink, sweeping back your hair a bit as you reach to turn the tap on. A shiver runs down your spine as the cool water splashes over your face, washing away whatever fragments of sleep your brain was still desperately trying to cling to. A quick glance in the mirror after you’re done thoroughly washing your face shows the reflection of a messy haired, tired looking man staring back at you despite not feeling like it. And the weirdest part is that it doesn’t really bother you in the slightest, maybe in part because of everything that happened yesterday.

You can't quite narrow it down to just one thing, but the thoughtful gift and her conviction in asking you out despite her embarrassment? It was nothing short of touching, a massive confidence boost in your eyes, and something you've needed for a long time. Things that’d normally give you cause for worry around her like your appearance or even the words you use just don’t really feel like they’re even worth thinking about. For the first time in a long while, life is feeling like you’re headed in the right direction instead of deeper into stagnation; and if trying to have a relationship with Ruby is going to continue allowing you to feel that way, then you’re going to put your best self forward from this point on. The thought makes you crack a visible smile, but something out of the corner catches your eye and snaps you right out of your self reflection, both literally and figuratively. A pink bottle of what looks to be recently used fur conditioner, if the moisture and open cap are any indication, sits on the far edge of the sink alongside a few other care products, scrunchies and hair brushes.

‘Cherry blossom scented’ and ‘Especially formulated for mid-length coats’ are the two phrases that draw your attention the most when you palm the bottle.

You can’t say it’s exactly the kind of scent you’d have expected someone like her to go for, but it’s a pleasant surprise still. At the same time, it starts to dawn on you that you’ve never picked up on it before as far as you can remember. You can’t recall a single time you’ve smelled anything resembling the flowery aroma coming from her and as you swap the bottle to your other hand, you finally put two and two together. The bottle is damn near full and from what you can glean, it did seem like she showered before you woke up, if her almost curly hair was anything to go by. While you don’t want to jump to conclusions, you can feel your heart flutter a bit at the thought that she did it for you. You set the bottle down, take one last look in the mirror to smile at yourself before letting those warm, fuzzy feelings set the pace as you quickly make your way out of the bathroom and towards the kitchen.

What you find instead of the tiny kangaroo working away at breakfast, is her with a mountain of ingredients and utensils in her arms, looking dangerously close to dropping them as she nearly bumps into you.

“Careful there!” you exclaim, followed by a small chuckle as you try and grab things off the top to lighten her load. “You’re going to slay yourself before you even get a chance to get at the cyclops.”

She shakes her head a bit at your words, though the smile on her face as she does it lets you know exactly how she really feels about your jokes. You're glad she seems to be in a better mood today, especially after seeing firsthand how the whole tainted cake situation affected her yesterday. You wish you could get a read on how she feels about the whole trying to date situation, but you take it as a good sign that she didn’t object to you calling yourself her boyfriend earlier and instead decide to take things as they come. Overthinking in the past has gotten you nowhere, and while you’re sure she’s thinking similar thoughts, her upbeat mood has an energy about it you want to match.

“So… ah, finished up quick, didn’t you?” she asks, seemingly relieved about your help as her gaze slowly travels up your still bare chest before eventually meeting yours directly. “Wasn’t sure what you were feeling so I decided to try and make a couple different things. Call it payback for last time you made breakfast.”

“Ah, don’t worry about last time,” you say, offering what you hope is a calming smile as you wave a hand dismissively. “I said I didn’t mind and I meant it. What are you feeling for uh… lunch, I guess?”

“I’m thinking it might be better for both of us if we call it a late breakfast,” she laughs as she moves past you to set a couple things down on the kitchen island. “Was thinking just some pancakes, hash browns and a couple bangers for each of us.”

“Some what, now?” you say, coughing as you near choke on your spit at what she just said. “What was that last thing you said?”

“Oh come on, don’t tell me you don’t know what that is,” she says, turning and cocking her head at you before shaking it in disbelief. “It’s just another word for sausage, Mike.”

“I mean yeah, I knew that,” you say, chuckling to yourself a bit. “Just didn’t think anyone called them that outside of like, comedy skits or something like that.”

“Well, now you know,” she says, heading towards the pantry to rummage through for more ingredients. “You grow up with Australian born parents and all their slang sticks to ya’ like glue.”

“Makes sense,” you say, making your way towards the fridge before swinging the door open. “You want me to whip up some eggs or something too?”

“Yeah, that works for me,” she says as she crouches down to grab a bowl from the cabinets. “You mind grabbing the milk and butter for the pancakes too?”

“Sure thing,” you say, your eyes scanning the fridge.

The first thing you notice, and that you find infinitely amusing, is that the taller, more out of her reach compartments in the fridge have absolutely nothing in them. So much so, that you can’t help but let out a stifled chuckle, thankful Ruby is seemingly too lost in what she’s doing to pick up on it. Out of the corner of your eye you can see her tapping a finger on the side of her snout as she stands in front of the piled up ingredients, seemingly wondering what to start with first. You quickly grab the stuff you need and set down what she’d asked for on the island before shutting the door with your elbow.

“You want anything in your pancakes or is plain Jane fine with you?” she asks as she starts to combine a bunch of dry ingredients in the bowl. “And do you mind grabbing me the other bowl up on the top shelf over there? Think my sister put it all the way up there last time she was over.”

“Could go for chocolate chip or blueberry if you have it, but plain is fine with me too,” you say, turning to the shelf she’d pointed out with a nudge of her snout. “Did you want the big one or the small one?”

“Whichever is fine, it’s just for the hashbrowns,” she says past the clattering of utensils as she digs through a nearby cabinet behind you. “Don’t know if I have any chocolate chips left, but you could check the freezer for blueberries if you want.”

“You really need the bowl for that?” you ask, chuckling a bit as you pass it to her.

“What do you mean?” she asks back, a look of confusion now plastered across her features. “How else would you do it?”

“Maybe I’m just an idiot,” you laugh, shrugging as you do. “My mom taught me to do it right over the pan or the cutting board if you’re already using one. She’d always say if you work smarter there’s less dishes to do at the end.”

“Mine was just more of a… by the recipe book kind of cook,” she says, a fond smile forming on her face. “Guess it’s just what I’m used to since I learned everything I know from her.”

“Don’t sweat it, I’m just being dumb,” you say, waving a hand dismissively as you watch her continue to work. “There anything you want me to help out with first or should I just get started on the eggs and stuff?”

“Actually now that you mention it, you mind helping out with the hash browns?” she asks, nodding towards the bag of potatoes to her side. “I’d do it myself but I’m kind of scared of getting fur in them from having to grate so fast. I’ll try to take care of everything else though.”

“Easy enough,” you say, connecting the dots and realizing that’s probably why you’ve never seen many furred anthros working in kitchens and cafeterias growing up. “So what do you do when you have to work with your hands or something? Long gloves?”

“Either that or just like, really tight and tiny arm nets to keep the fur in place,” she says, picking up the carton of milk as she continues to talk. “Huge pain in the ass if you’re trying to work with dough or something, my mom used to always have to grease up her gloves so everything wouldn’t stick.”

“Got a lot more respect for the anthro lunch ladies at my old high school now,” you chuckle, moving everything you’ll need to your side of the kitchen island. “Never really thought about them having trouble in the kitchen.”

“Well, now you know why I take you up on tagging along to your cheat meals,” she laughs, the huge smile she flashes you making your heart flutter a bit.

The two of you continue to work in silence, Ruby working on incorporating the rest of the wet ingredients into her pancake mix as you peel potatoes before grating them into the bowl. It takes you a second to pick up on it, but out of the corner of your eye you can see the diminutive roo swaying slightly as she hums a little melody to herself. You’re content with just watching her dance as she smoothes her mix out with a wooden spoon, not wanting to ruin the moment. Other than the occasional sound of utensils clattering against each other as the two of you shuffle about the kitchen and the rare if loud roars and howls of the wind rushing through the small gaps in the windows, it’s the most peace and quiet you’ve had in a long time. You’re not exactly sure why you feel the way you do, but even doing something as simple as cooking is a lot more enjoyable when you’re with her.It's refreshing to be able to enjoy each other's company even in borderline silence, and you can't remember the last time you experienced anything even close to it. Soon enough, you find yourself also swaying along to her hummed melody, one you notice has been slowly increasing in volume. It's almost scary how in sync with her you seem to be sometimes, wordlessly passing each other everything you need, both your nods and gestures doing all the heavy lifting as silence hangs in the air. You grab a nonstick pan hanging off a hook and put it over one of the gas burners before turning it on, wanting to get started sooner than later on your part of the meal.

With how distracted you’ve been these last couple minutes focusing on her face and your own prep, you hadn’t even realized that she’s been standing on a small step stool tucked away under the edge of the island this entire time, a small chuckle escaping your lips as you turn back around and get an eyeful. As much as you should be working on cooking the eggs and hash browns, you take a moment to silently observe as she cuts into a pack of sausages, the wannabe chef in you wanting to see how her knife technique is. She seems to be doing fine slicing up the sausages before butterflying them, yet you can't help but wince seeing her fingers not tucked in properly, afraid she might cut herself.

“Hey Ruby,” you say, breaking the silence as you turn the burner down a bit. “You mind if I show you something real quick?”

You saunter over, standing behind and looming over the tiny kangaroo who’s since stopped her chopping to look up at you. She sets down her knife, a mix of amusement and confusion dotting her features.

“Hm?” she asks, her nostrils flaring a bit as her smile widens upon meeting your gaze. “I swear to god if you’re playing some kind of trick on me, Mike…”

“It’s not a trick, I promise,” you say, carefully taking the knife into your hand. “Just worried you’re going to cut yourself if you keep doing it like that.”

“What’s wrong with the way I’m cutting?” she pouts, and you can’t help but smile at the reaction. “It’s how my mom taught me to do it.”

“So much for doing things by the book…” you say, chuckling as her eyes start to narrow a bit.

“Take it back,” she says in mock offense, her gaze now firmly focused on your hands. “I bet my mum could cook circles around you.”

“What, is she going to whip me up some gourmet fairy bread?” you laugh, your other hand reaching for a fresh sausage. “You’re right, no way I could compete with that kind of Australian high cuisine.”

“I… that’s…” she says, your words seemingly having disabled her ability to fire back with a snarky response of her own. “...fairy bread is actually... really good, cunt.”

Now it's your turn to be equally surprised at her words. “You’re fucking with me. No way it’s something you guys actually eat.”

“It is, and it’s fuckin’ delicious,” she says, and you can’t help but smile a bit when her thick tail swats your side slightly. “You’re lucky I forgot to mention the cake sprinkles yesterday or I’d make you some right now.”

“Tell you what,” you say as you grip the knife tightly, bringing it into proper position for cutting. “Let’s make a deal. If you pay attention to this, I promise I’ll give your fairy bread a fair shot.”

She crosses her arms, her gaze still firmly on your dominant hand. “You’re on. Let’s see this ‘legendary’ technique of yours.”

“Gladly,” you say as you tuck your fingertips in behind your knuckles. “So you can either make a claw sort of shape with your hand or have your fingers even more bunched up, but the important thing is that your knuckles are the first and only thing the side of your blade should be touching. Your fingers should be tucked in behind the knuckle so that it can guide your blade as you go along.”

“I thought you were about to chop through that banger in a split second or something mate, not give a whole kitchen safety course,” she chuckles as you continue cycling between the two hand positions.

“I’m getting to that, trust me. But that’s the beauty of it,” you say as you start to quickly chop through the entire length of the sausage before quickly carving a butterfly shape into each slice. “With your hand like this, you can go as slow or fast as you want since you’ll never be afraid of cutting yourself.”

“So first you’re a cyclops and now you’re moonlighting as Gordon Ramsay or something?” she asks, giggling as you finish chopping. “You really are a man of many talents, Mike.”

You can’t help but feel your cheeks flush a bit as you crack a smile at her compliment, even if slightly sarcastic.

“Alright, your turn to try it,” you say, setting down the knife on the board in front of her. “Put your money where your fairy bread eating mouth is.”

“Bastard,” she says, playfully jabbing you in the gut with an elbow before picking up the knife. “You’re going to change your tune when you actually try it, I swear.”

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” you say, keeping your gaze on her furred hands. “Focus up.”

She attempts to follow your technique as faithfully as possible, though you can tell her fur and paw pads make it harder to maintain a good grip, evident by her clumsy movements. You put your hand over hers, gently guiding her fingers into the right position before pulling back. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see that telltale twitch of the ear you’d come to associate with her embarrassment in the past. Much to your surprise, it doesn’t seem to affect her too badly as she executes your technique at about the same speed.

She sets down the knife before turning around in place on the stool, a proud smirk accenting her already cute facial features. “See, easy.”

“Now I’m not going to have to worry about you chopping your fingers off when I’m not around,” you laugh, relief washing over you. “You can handle the rest on your own, yeah?”

“Just because I teach Kindergarten doesn’t mean I’m a Kindergartener,” she laughs, shaking her head. “I’ll be fine, you big worrywart.”

“Alright, alright,” you say, putting your hands up in mock protest. “I’ll go back to my line cook duty.”

She shakes her head, and you’re proud of managing to get yet another giggle out of her before she turns back around. Content with your impromptu lesson, you season the pile of shredded potatoes in the bowl before slicking up the now searing hot pan with some oil. You drop the potato shreds in and spread them evenly with a pan before turning your attention elsewhere to get another pan started for the eggs.

Before long you’ve finished cooking most of your half of breakfast, and the wonderful and varied smells that remind you of a local diner start to overpower the room. She’s finishing off the last of the pancake mix as you focus on plating the eggs, hash browns and sausage. You’re practically drooling by the time she starts stacking your plates high with soft, fluffy looking pancakes, though you stop yourself from digging in out of respect for her. Her voice softly shakes you from your hunger induced stupor as you bring your attention to a different type of meal.

“You mind taking those plates to the table, Mike?” she asks, nodding towards them. “And uh… what do you want to drink? Juice, milk, water?”

“Orange juice is more than fine with me,” you say, taking the three plates in hand before making your way over to the table.

You set all three down on one side of the table, and just as you’re about to finish sitting down you feel the tickle of her fur and paw pads as she taps your shoulder.

“Sit over here,” she says, patting the cushion one seat away as she sets down your drinks. “I’ll take that one.”

“Yeah alright, sure I guess,” you say, quickly swapping seats with the kangaroo. “Why’s it matter?”

“Look over there, dork,” she says, moving an errant strand of her messy hair out of the way as she points her snout towards the window. “Figure I’d give you a seat with the best view of outside. Doesn’t really snow often and it felt like it was important to you the one time you mentioned it to me, anyways.”

You can’t help but smile at her considerate act and words, poking at your breakfast with a fork as you try and think of what to say. “...Thanks, Ruby. I’m actually kinda surprised you still remember that.”

“What, you thought I didn’t pay attention to those kinds of things?” she asks jokingly before taking a small sip of her drink. “Usually have a pretty good memory for important stuff like that. Now dig in before your stomach collapses in on itself, we’ve got a workout to get in later.”

It's not surprising to you in the slightest that she's still got exercise on the mind even when you're snowed in, but the more shocking thing is how much your heart flutters, her attentiveness to your stories bringing a wide smile to your lips.

“Alright, alright, fair point,” you say, chuckling to yourself a bit. “You mind passing me the syrup?”

She hands you the small jug and you lather your pancakes in the sticky substance before starting to tear into your meal with the hunger of a thousand men. The two of you eat your breakfast in relative silence, the only sounds in the air those of your utensils clinking against the plates, your waves and gestures to each other more than enough to ask for any little thing either of you might need. You can’t help but stare out the window every chance you get, silently thinking about taking up Ruby on her offer of heading up on the roof. Even with how cold it's been lately, you might not get a chance to experience the snow like this for another couple years. There’s a brief moment where you start to consider heading up there draped in one of her blankets so you don’t freeze to death, though your train of thought is interrupted when you feel her furred hand touch yours.

“Mike?” she asks, cocking her head slightly as one of her ears gives off a slight twitch. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah, yeah, definitely,” you say, shaking your head a bit as you bring your attention back to your food. “Was just thinking about what you said earlier. About going up on the roof.”

“Well your clothes should be done in a little bit,” she says between forkfuls of pancakes. “And if you want, I’ve got a big comforter my mum knitted for me that you could use as a sweater.”

“You sure?” you ask before taking a long drink. “Don’t want to impose and end up ripping it or something.”

“How many times do I gotta tell you not to worry, you dork?” she laughs as she nudges you with her leg under the table. “Even if you do somehow rip it, my mom would kill for an excuse to come over and do a little snooping while she patches it up. Now finish your pancakes, I made way too many to finish on my own.”

“Yes, dear,” you say in a tone absolutely dripping with sarcasm, earning you a gentle tap on the shin from her leg.

“Fuckin’ smartass…” she mumbles, rolling her eyes as she tries and fails to hide her small grin. “...give you an inch and you take a mile.”

You can’t help but chuckle a bit before going back to eating, downright flattered at the extent she’s willing to go to make this happen for you. By the time the two of you are done, there’s not even a single crumb left on the three plates and you lean back in your chair a bit as you sigh in contentment. A part of you is thankful work was likely called off because you’d probably go into a food coma mid-shift after a breakfast this hearty and rich. And yet another part of you thinks you should probably at least text just to make sure you’re not accidentally missing work.

“I’m stuffed,” you groan as you rub a hand on your now slightly bulged abs. “Pancakes and bangers really hit the spot.”

“You know you don’t have to use that word just because I do, you right?” she asks, chuckling softly as she puts her fork down. “Not like I’m gonna give you shit for calling them sausages. The eggs and hashbrowns were great too.”

“I dunno, it’s kinda growing on me. Sounds nicer with your accent though, and besides, I never said you were gonna give me shit,” you say, smiling as you meet her gaze again. “Thanks though, you figure out how to make them taste good when you have them for breakfast every other day.”

“It shows,” she says as she shoves her now empty plate aside. “You want to finish watching the last bit of that movie?”

“Well, I think that depends,” you say, cracking a slight smile as you start to stack the plates. “Are you going to fall asleep on me again like last night?”

“Eat me,” she says, sticking her tongue out at you. “Not my fault I had to stay up late the night before working on curriculum stuff.”

“Don’t kill me for this, but I still can’t picture you teaching a bunch of grade schoolers,” you say, chuckling a bit as you get up. “Not in like a bad way or anything, just that all my teachers were older ladies growing up.”

“Eh, I’m kind of used to it at this point, no worries,” she says, following suit as she starts to pick up the dishes and silverware. “People tend to not take you as seriously when you’re young and haven’t been around very long. Still wouldn’t trade the job for the world though.”

You grab the two cups before following her into the kitchen, gently setting them down in the sink. As much as you probably shouldn’t, you can’t help but chuckle a bit as she kicks the stool from the island over to the sink before stepping onto it.

“How long you been doing the whole teaching thing for, anyway?” you ask as the sound of running water fills your ears. “Also, if you want me to do the dishes I don’t really mind. Least I can do for you letting me stay the night.”

“Well, it’s not like I was going to kick you out after I got you sick,” she says, playfully elbowing you in the side before picking up a plate. “And nah, I got it. Won’t stop ya’ if you feel like drying the dishes though.”

“Think I can manage that before the food coma knocks me on my ass,” you laugh.

“To answer your question though, I think it’s been about three years since I first started?” she says as she passes you a clean dish. “Guess it depends if you count substitute work or not, harder than you’d think to get hired at an elementary school without some prior experience.”

“Can’t imagine it’s super fun having to bounce around from school to school,” you say, grabbing a rag at your side. “How long did you have to do that for?”

“Couple months, could’ve been a lot worse from the stuff I heard,” she shrugs as she picks up the pace. “Heard horror stories about people taking years to even get their foot in the door, so I don’t complain too much about getting saddled with extra work sometimes. It’s worth it for the kids, though.”

“That’s sweet of you to say,” you say, smiling as you set down the final plate. “Glad you didn’t burn yourself out too hard looking for work though, been there and it’s not fun in the slightest.”

“You know, I was going to ask why you’re working at a yogurt place when you could easily make it as a personal trainer,” she chuckles as she reaches to turn the tap off before jumping off the small stool. “Knew I was missing something. What kind of job were you looking for?”

There’s absolutely nothing that could wipe off the huge grin forming on your face from her compliment. “Wouldn’t say I’m quite strong enough to get hired as a trainer just yet, but thanks. Honestly I was just looking for literally anywhere I could use my engineering degree, couldn’t even find a half decent internship opportunity no matter how hard I tried.”

“Cmon, don’t give me that not strong enough nonsense, mister six pack,” she says, smiling as she nudges your abs playfully. “Besides, your cardio game is probably strong enough for it by now thanks to me. Can’t say I would’ve pegged you for an engineer though, guess there’s some brains rattling around in that worrywart skull of yours.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? A guy can’t be buff AND smart?” you ask with a mock pout, trying desperately to hide how much her comments on your physique are making your cheeks burn and heart skip beats. “Jokes aside though, I blame my dad for drilling math into my head since I was a little shit. Best tutor an engineer major could ask for.”

“It’s all starting to come together now…” she laughs as she makes her way towards the living room, you doing your best to follow close behind. “The interest in mechanics… the ancient yet functional car. Kind of reminds me of my dad if I’m being honest. Is that weird?”

You cock your head a little at her words even though she’s only occasionally glancing up at you as she walks. “Eh… only a little. He a big car guy too, I’m guessing?”

“Oh yeah, he loves everything car related to death,” she says as she plops down on the sofa, propping up her legs on the coffee table as you slip past. “If you let him, he'll go on for hours and hours about his project cars and all the parts he wants to order for them. Almost has more cars than kids at this point.”

“Yeah? Sounds like the kinda guy I’d get along with,” you say, highly amused by the mental image as you join her on the couch. “How many siblings you got again?”

“Almost too many to count on both hands,” she says, letting out a big yawn as she stretches. “It’s… interesting growing up with a bunch of siblings.”

“I bet,” you say, chuckling a bit as you imagine a house full of kangaroos hopping around. “Can’t say I know what it’s like though, my parents decided one kid was enough for them. Grew up with some alright close family though, so I can’t complain too much.”

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be to have siblings, but there’s definitely been times I’ve been grateful to have them,” she says, her smile fading a bit before going back to its cheery self. “My big sister’s been there for me more times than I can count. She pushed me to do the whole teachin’ thing when she figured out it’s what I wanted to do.”

“That’s pretty damn cool of her, honestly,” you say, leaning back into the couch cushions. “She also a teacher?”

She shakes her head before settling in next to you, leaning her head on your shoulder. “Nah, but I think she would’ve made a pretty good one if she bothered to try. She’s pretty good at anything she puts even a little effort into. Kinda why I look up to her so damn much.”

“See, that’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I’d grown up with at least a brother or something,” you say, shivering a bit from both the sensation of her fur on your skin and the bitter cold wafting from the nearby window. “I had probably the best dad you could ask for and there were still times where it would’ve been nice to have someone else to talk to about stuff.”

“You want me to go grab you that shirt?” she asks, clearly having felt you shudder moments ago. “I’d feel really bad if you also caught a cold because of me.”

“I think I’ll be fine, don’t worry,” you laugh, your smile widening from the concern she’s showing. “Just so long as you pass me that blanket over there.”

She quickly looks to the side, grabbing the blanket with both hands and tossing it over to you. The second you feel her head land on your shoulder again as she settles in, you drape the blanket over the both of you, the warmth enveloping you instantly making you let out a sigh of contentment.

“Better?” she asks, fumbling under the blankets until you see her fish out the TV remote. “And sorry for interrupting you. Does sound kind of rough growing up with no siblings at all. Can’t say all mine are model siblings, but it’s still nice having a couple people you can rely on to pick you up when you’re feeling low.”

“Better. I dunno, I think I make it sound a little worse than it actually was,” you chuckle before letting out another yawn. “Even when it got pretty bad I always had the couple friends I grew up with to fall back on. Kind of fell out of touch with a couple of them after high school, but you know how that is.”

“Honestly don’t think I do,” she says, chuckling a bit weakly. “Didn’t have that many good friends in high school on account of school hopping a bunch halfway through. Lily was my best friend back then but I still keep in touch with her all the time. Wasn’t really much of a social butterfly honestly, kinda kept to myself a lot.”

“Same here for the most part, though I’d talk to a lot of people here and there just on account of accidentally being the class clown,” you say, laughing a bit when you think back to some of your more fond memories. “Guess not that much has changed according to you, huh?”

“You still seem like a pretty dorky clown to me,” she chuckles, nudging against you before she moves to turn the TV on. “So yeah, I guess nothing’s really changed too much.”

“Well if you want to put like that…” you say, shifting beneath the blankets to put an arm around her. “I could always go the whole nine yards, buy a clown nose and shoes to go with it. I’m sure everyone would get a kick out of it.”

“Alright, alright, I get it,” she says, trying and failing to stifle her soft laughter. “I demote you from your clown status down to just a regular old dork.”

“Thank you,” you say, your amused smile carrying well after she’s stopped laughing. “I expect my certificate in the mail.”

“So… where’d we leave off yesterday?” she asks, flying through the chapters on the screen with each press of the remote. “I’ve watched this movie so many times I don’t think I can trust my memory on it.”

“I want to say it was like…” you say, doing your best to rack your memory despite the quickly setting in brain fog as a result of the absolute feast of a breakfast you’d had. “The last thirty minutes? I honestly have no clue when you fell asleep, I was too busy watching the movie.”

“Watching, or looking away every time there was a scare?” she asks, giggling a little bit as she digs her snout a bit deeper into the crook of your shoulder.

As much as you want to object, you’re oddly distracted by her sudden closeness to you. Compared to how you felt yesterday when she snuggled up close, you feel as cool as a cucumber right now. No pang of anxiety welling up in the pit of your stomach, no worrying about being too close, no burn- okay, maybe you could still feel a little bit of that burning feeling in your cheeks. Was that really all that's been holding the two of you from feeling at ease with one another? Just a silly label? Things feel like they're going almost too smoothly, having only met her a month ago with the two of you now 'dating', yet you can't deny that you do like her. Is it really okay to be moving along this quickly, with everything that happened up to this point? Was everything really water under the bridge? Before your train of thought can go into overdrive, you’re interrupted by the feeling of a cool paw pad on your nose.

“Mike?” she asks, looking up at you as she cocks her head a bit, nose and ears twitching slightly. “Everything alright?”

“Of course,” you say, doing your best to come up with something to cover with. “Was just thinking about how I didn’t get scared once throughout the whole movie.”

“Oh no, you’re not going to weasel out of this one that easily,” she says, nudging you as a small grin starts to take over her concerned expression. “You’re lucky I’ve got fur or you’d be able to see when you dug your fingers into my hand every time there was a jumpscare.”

“All I’m hearing you say is that you’ve got no proof,” you say, doing your best to muster a smug grin. “Innocent until proven guilty and all that, no?”

“You’re lucky you make a nice pillow,” she says, borderline nuzzling the side of her head against your bare skin. “Or I’d call you out every time you get jumpscared.”

Having seen most of the rest of the movie after she passed out, there’s not much to be scared of as the two of you quietly continue to watch. As much as you’d like to say you’re paying attention to the movie, it’d be a lie if you even came close to saying as much. Instead, you’re too busy stealing glances at the smiling kangaroo, entranced with a movie she’s probably watched tens of times if her enthusiasm and sizable collection is anything to go by. As she adjusts herself against your arm and clings tighter to it, you can’t help but let out a small sigh of contentment as that lovely feeling of her soft, silky fur brushing against your bare skin almost makes you shudder once more as your skin breaks out into goosebumps. It makes you feel like you’re being tickled, but it’s a small price to pay to see her enjoying herself like this, so you choose to let it happen without saying a word. You shift your arm a bit to bring her even closer to you, smiling when you see that telltale twitch of her ears accompanied by a small thud every time the tip of her massive tail slaps against the couch. Even if her body didn’t practically spell out how she feels about the gesture, you’re pretty confident that you’re to blame for the sudden widening of her smile. You find yourself taken aback at how something so small can bring you so much joy, dwelling on the thought even as you bring your attention back to the movie, the titular ‘thing’ being blown into a million pieces as the station is destroyed.

Not in a thousand years would you have figured her to be a horror movie buff, but you’re more than happy to watch and listen to her gush about them even if it comes at the expense of your lifespan from all the heart attacks they give you. The movie finishes a short while later and as the credits start to roll, Ruby brings her attention back to you. While it’s not the first or even second time you’ve seen her with her hair let down, today marks the first day you’ve seen her hazelnut brown hair in its natural let down and curly state. It only serves to call more attention to those hypnotic amber eyes that you already frequently find yourself getting lost in.

“So, what’d you think?” she asks, derailing your train of thought by pushing against you as she sits upright a bit and looks to you expectantly for an answer. “Assuming you watched most of it…”

“Har har, very funny,” you say, your tone doing little to hide your small smile. “I liked it though, lived up to all the things I’d heard about it from you and a bunch of friends.”

“Good, good,” she says before blowing an errant strand of her own hair out of the way. “For a second I was worried you’d have awful taste in movies.”

“Only in puns and dad jokes, from what I’m told,” you say, laughing a bit as you continue to drink in this side of her you’re not used to seeing. “Got anything else you feel like watching from your great library of horror?”

“Oh come on, it’s not a library,” she says, softly socking you in the arm with her fist. “Well, at least not yet it’s not. And yeah, there’s a couple other ones but didn’t you want to go up on the roof?”

“Ah yeah,” you say, your gaze drifting up to the window to her side. “So long as that blanket offer is still on the table, anyway.”

“Mmmh,” she groans as she starts to pull away before breaking into a stretch. “Course’ it is. Should go check if your shirt is done drying too. Back in a sec, stay put.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to wander into traffic or anything,” you chuckle, earning you a shake of her head and a rolling of the eyes from her.

You’re treated to a nice view of her shapely ass as she walks away, though it doesn’t last very long as she disappears around the corner in a few seconds. It gives you some more time to appreciate how nice her place is, not having gotten this good a look at things the last time you’d invited yourself over. The nice furniture that dots every part of the living room, dining room and kitchen makes the apartment feel much more luxurious than it probably is, and for a moment you wonder if she’d decorated it herself. There’s definitely a personal touch here, but nothing quite like some of the things you’d seen in her bedroom. You’re not sure what you’d been expecting to see there, but movie and band posters covering part of the walls were definitely not high on your list of guesses. It only drives into your head that you still have a lot to learn about her, given that even after a month of spending most of your free time together you’re still seeing new sides of her. You start to think about grabbing a drink but as you start to stand up you’re greeted by the sight of her rounding the corner.

“Here, catch,” is the first thing you hear her say before your still warm shirt is launched at your chest. “Think pretty much all the smell washed out. Hope you don’t mind the soap I used.”

You bring the shirt up to your nose and take an inhale, only getting strong notes of lavender and nothing else.

“Smells like it’s brand new,” you say, smiling from ear to ear from her little gesture. “Thanks.”

“Nothing to thank me for,” she says, waving a paw dismissively as she fidgets in place a bit. “My fault it even had to get washed in the first place.”

“You know, for someone who calls me a worrywart all the damn time…” you say as you start to get the shirt over your head. “...you sure do sweat the little things sometimes.”

“Can’t help it,” she says, sheepishly smiling a bit as she gives a half hearted shrug. “Hard habit to put to sleep when you work at a school, always gotta be worried about the little tykes. And it’s not just a ‘little thing’ Mike, I pretty much poisoned you.”

“Ruby, I’m fine,” you say, as you iron out some of the wrinkles in the shirt with your hands. “I promise.”

“Hmph,” she says, her ears fidgeting and twitching even more as she crosses her arms. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, just… have a hard time taking things at face value sometimes.”

“Join the club,” you say, smiling as you joke at your own expense. “You ready to go freeze our asses off up there?”

“We’ll be fine you big baby,” she says, a bit of her upbeat demeanor coming back to her as she gently nudges you with her elbow. “I’d loan you my winter gloves too but somehow I don’t think they’d fit you at all.”

“I think they’d fit,” you smile as you prepare to deliver an awful joke. “So long as you don’t mind them being fingerless afterwards.”

“Just when I think the jokes can’t get any worse…” she says, shaking her head a bit as she chuckles to herself. “Ya’ have to go and prove me wrong. Stay put and I’ll go grab the blanket you goofball.”

“Yes, maam,” you say, earning you another wordless roll of the eyes as she darts off towards her bedroom.

She returns a short while later with the huge knitted quilt in her arms, practically covering her entire upper body and face from the sheer size of it.

“Here you go,” she says, extending her arms out to offer it to you. “Should at least keep you warm for a little while.”

“God, you weren’t kidding,” you say, chuckling to yourself a bit as you unfurl it, taking in the little details on it. “Did your mom actually knit this whole thing on her own?”

“Yeah…” she says, sheepishly rubbing at the back of her neck out of what you think is embarrassment. “She made one for me and every sibling. Still keep it around for when I’m feeling down, it reminds me of home a lot. Even took it with me when I went off to college, helped with the homesickness.”

“That’s actually really thoughtful of her,” you say, resisting the urge to call it cute. “Must’ve been nice to have something like this away from home. Only thing I had like this is the old soccer ball me and my dad used to kick around all the time.”

You don’t want to pry too much more considering she already seems slightly embarrassed by your questions, but you do find the little kangaroos and boomerangs weaved throughout oddly endearing. In the interest of saving her from getting too flustered, you drape the blanket over yourself.

“So, how’s it look on me?” you ask, instantly feeling the warmth and comfort of the soft material washing over you.

“Think if I stepped back really really far I could confuse you for an old granny,” she says, laughing a little bit. “A really tall and buff old lady, but still an old lady.”

“You’d think I was one already with how you wanted to help me walk last night,” you say, hoping it’s still not a sore subject for her.

“Dick,” she says, earning you a soft love tap to the arm. “Come on, let’s get going before it stops snowing.”

You follow her to the door, and she jumps up to grab her small jacket from the coat rack, throwing it on as the two of you step outside. You immediately feel the familiar chill you’d felt earlier this morning when stepping near the window, but multiplied by what feels like a factor of ten. Your teeth chatter a bit as you bring the blanket even tighter around yourself to preserve as much body heat as you can as you follow her down the stone steps. She walks around the corner, nearly bumping into her as she comes to an abrupt stop.

“Right there,” she says, pointing a furred finger towards what you can only describe as a fire escape ladder of sorts. “Just mind your step, don’t want you to slip or anything. Gets kind of icy sometimes.”

“Noted,” you say as you watch her start to climb the rungs carefully.

Once she’s given you enough room to start the ascent yourself, you follow close behind until eventually the two of you reach the top. There’s a thin layer of snow covering the roof with a slightly raised edge to it, but unfortunately not enough to put together a proper snowball. Despite that, you still can’t help but to dig your hand into it when the two of you come to a stop, frostbite be damned. The sensation brings back fond memories of days when you’d made snow angels and had snowball fights with your dad, something that puts the beginnings of a wide grin on your face. You watch as she walks over to a small concrete pillar, wondering what she’s doing as she bends down. She raises a small tarp and comes away with what looks to be two small folding chairs, perfectly dry and intact despite the weather.

“You really are prepared for everything, aren’t you?” you ask, chuckling a bit as she makes her way back to you. “Pouch snacks, roof chairs, what’s next? Gonna pull out two cold ones from the snow?”

“You know, that’s not a bad idea,” she says, handing one of the chairs to you before unfolding hers and setting it relatively close to the edge. “I’ll have to keep it in mind for next time.”

You can’t help but smile a bit at the fact that she’s already thinking about making this a regular thing. She slumps down onto the chair and you do the same, scooting over to get even closer to her. You decide to do the right thing and share part of the blanket with her, feeling her jump a bit in surprise as you drape one side of it over her in what feels like a flash. She turns to face you, wordlessly giving you a small smile as she shakes her head ever so slightly.

"Even when you're freezing your ass off, you still manage to be a complete goober. Are all humans this like this, or are you just a special case?" she asks, smiling as she also scoots her chair a bit closer to ease into your kind gesture.

“And who said I was freezing my ass off?” you say, a smirk tugging at the corners of your mouth.

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how good my sense of hearing is already,” she says, a bit of that same smugness seemingly rubbing off on her. “Could hear your teeth clicking up a storm from a mile away, ya’ dork.”

“I… ah, you know what, even I can’t talk my way out of that one,” you say, chuckling as you take turns drinking in the beauty of both the view in front of you and her even more gorgeous smile. “Blanket helps but it doesn’t completely stop the wind.”

“Well if it gets too bad just say the word and we can go back down,” she says, doing her best to lean against you despite the chair arm in between the two of you. “Could also try to… warmyouupifyouwant. I- well, I kind of owe you as much for all the times you did the same for me.”

Not in a million years could you hope to stifle the huge grin forming on your face right now, doing your best to meet her gaze as she does her best to break off eye contact. Despite her shooting out the words rapidfire, you understood her offer perfectly, and you hope your expression doesn’t seem too amused at both her offer and what seems to be embarrassment. You bring your arm around to wrap it around her, pulling her close in an effort to dispel the notion that you’d turn such a considerate gesture down.

“Ah, you don’t owe me anything,” you chuckle, smiling as you idly rub her shoulder. “Won’t say no to it though, might stop you from having to lug an ice sculpture back down.”

She lays her head against your shoulder, letting out what almost sounds like one of her trademark muffled snorts before sighing in contentment. “Don’t get too excited now… not a whole lot of fur to go around. Especially for a bloke your size and these chairs don’t exactly make it easy.”

“I’ll be happy with whatever I can get. Promise,” you smile, squinting a bit as you’re met with the brightness of the afternoon sun head-on.

You can’t help but notice her ears twitch just a bit more erratically at your words, the tip of her tail joining in on the fun by carving slight trails in the unpacked snow below.

“Can you feel that?” you ask, trailing off as you try and fail to word your question properly.

“Feel what?” she asks, cocking her head as she turns her attention solely on you again.

“That thing your ears and tail do when you’re… flustered?” you ask, half thinking you’ve completely beefed your wording here. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s really cute, but I’ve always wondered. Always felt like it might be rude to ask.”

“I’m not… It’s not-” she says, huffing a bit in what you know by now is mock annoyance, the tinge of pink slowly creeping in the part of her ears where her fur thins out giving away the game. “Kinda, I guess? I can feel them moving but it’s not the same as uh… touching something with your fingers since it’s kinda involuntary. Closest thing I can compare it to is like, when you twitch and jerk yourself awake before you fall asleep?”

“So if you wanted to, could you move them whenever you want?” you ask, your gaze still focused directly on her. “Kind of like how some of us can wiggle their ears?”

“Don’t really know how it is for most other anthros but I definitely can,” she says, breaking eye contact to look down at her tail. “Just takes… a little focus.”

You watch in interest as her thick tail goes from idly moving around and tracing old trails to lifting off the snow, coming to rest idly on her lap in the span of what feels like only a few seconds.

“See?” she asks, the tip of her tail slightly rubbing against one of your pant legs. “It’s not perfect but it’ll listen… for the most part. Kind of the same thing for the ears, but it’s way harder. Didn’t know you guys could move your ears too though.”

“Some of us can do it easy, some can’t,” you say, closing your eyes briefly as you try to focus solely on showing her what you mean. “See?”

“That’s a cute party trick,” she giggles, her praise once again not failing to make your heart skip a beat. “You show that to all the girls?”

“Just the pretty ones,” you fire back, the corners of your mouth tugging back into a smirk when your words instantly earn you a physical reaction from her.

“F-fuckin’ hell…” she mumbles, trying to avoid your gaze as those little tics of hers start to flare up again. “Always catching me off guard with those. Don’t always have to keep the charm turned up to 11 now that we’re… sort of a thing, Casanova.”

“Wouldn’t that make it an even better time then?” you say, chuckling to yourself a bit as you hold her even tighter to you. “Don’t know about charm though, I just blunder my way through this kinda stuff.”

“I guess…” she mumbles, though she leans even further into your slight embrace as she finally finds the confidence to look you in the eye again. “That’s really sweet of you to say still.”

“Guess that means I’m doing something right,” you say, sighing as you take in another good look at the now sun and snow kissed landscape before you. “I’ll take that as a good sign.”

“Don’t go getting too cocky now. Can’t have you flying away from me if your ego gets too inflated,” she says, giving you a love tap to the chest as she also turns her attention to the view. “So, what do you think? Does it live up to the last time it snowed?”

“Less snow, prettier view, but you know what’s the exact same as I remember?” you ask, a grin preemptively erupting on your face as you know exactly what you’re about to say.

“What’s that?” she asks, stealthily nuzzling up to you as you continue to rub her arm lightly.

“The fact that I’m spending the day with someone I care about,” you say, watching her intently as you silently hope you haven’t overstepped your boundaries.

Her ears twitch in rhythm with the swaying of her tail, and despite her silence, you don’t worry too much, the things she said earlier making you confident she’d take your words fine.

“Ruby? You alright?” you ask, hoping your voice isn’t absolutely dripping with concern.

“Yeah, y-yeah,” she manages to stutter out before taking a deep breath, your observant eye catching a hint of wetness in her eye before she brings up a furred finger to soak it up. “F-fuck, sorry… j-just caught me a lot off guard there. Been a while since anyone said something like that and I felt like they meant it.”

Her words hit you like a ton of bricks, and you find yourself frozen for a moment as you’re left borderline speechless. Despite that, you decide to act sooner rather than later.

“C’mere,” you say, contorting your body to pull her into an awkward sort of hug.

She seems to resist it a bit at first, flinching away slightly at the close contact before letting herself be enveloped by your broad arms beneath the blanket. Memories of the night she’d broken down on you come flooding back as she leans forward and rests her snout against your shoulder. The wetness and relative silence are a far cry to the ugly sobbing you’d been witness to before and yet, you feel just as bad for her now as you had then.

“It’s alright, Ruby…” you say, idly stroking her back with your free hand as you try your best to just let her get it out of her system. “I’m here.”

The longer the two of you embrace, the more difficult it becomes to hold the position that’d make even a contortionist jealous. You decide to put your hours at the gym to good use by gently nudging her off the seat and onto you, making things a little more comfortable for the both of you. For how comparatively tiny she is, you're surprised by how much weight you feel atop you, her body relaxing as your arms embrace her, your touch giving her the push she needs to start shedding away the layers of stress. Her furred hands fidget and roam across your arms as she does her best to keep her gaze away from yours as you try to massage the worries out of her. She’s so close to you that you can feel her quickened heartbeat against your clothed chest, her own heaving and rising at a pace that matches her erratic breathing. Every deep breath she takes you can hear clearly, her snout even closer to your ear than before. You hate seeing her like this, and even though you know it’s not your fault in the slightest, you wish you could do more for the poor girl. You quickly remind yourself that just being there for her is more than enough, the memories of her pep talks flooding in, of her doing the same when you needed it most. As the embrace goes on, you find yourself getting even closer as your head rests snugly alongside hers, the bitter windchill that occasionally breaks through the blanket and fur barrier the absolute least of your problems.

“I’m s-sorry,” is the first thing that breaks the awkward silence that had permeated the air for the last few minutes, and you hear her audibly swallow and sniffle a bit as she regains her composure. “Don’t know why that… made me feel like such a wreck. S-stupid.”

“You want to talk about it a little?” you ask, offering what you hope is a calming smile as she finally starts to look towards you again. “Always helps me.”

“M-maybe…” she mutters, her ear folding at the tip slightly as she continues to grasp your back tightly. “Kind of just want to think about anything else right now.”

“It’s fine. Don’t have to if you don’t want to,” you say, bringing your free hand around to rest on the side of her head that isn’t buried in your chest. “Want to hear some more dumb snow stories from me?”

Even as her head is pressed tightly to you, she manages to nod out her silent approval before she goes back to wiping her misty eyes against the fabric of your shirt. It stings every time you feel a small damp patch, but you decide to press on with her request in an attempt to try and help her forget. Your train of thought however, is stopped dead in it's tracks when you see her bring up a hand to fiddle with the pendant hanging from her neck. There's the barest hint of a smile starting to form on her face as she looks down at it, and it only emboldens your desire to comfort her.

“Think I’ll start with the best one first,” you say, her contagious smile spreading to you as your thumb idly strokes an ear that just refuses to sit still. “The first snowball fight I ever had. Gave my dad a hell of a black eye on accident.”

“How’d you do that?” she asks in a soft, whisper quiet tone in between sniffles.

“Since it was my first time ever seeing snow, it’s not like I had any sort of snowball fight experience,” you say, chuckling as you mentally relive the memory. “I’d seen people do it on TV and stuff, so I just kind of tried to do the same thing. And me being the dumbass kid I was, I packed the tightest snowball you’d ever laid your eyes on thinking that was how you were supposed to do it. Thing was a solid ball of ice, absolutely fucking deadly.”

“Oh god,” she says, her voice growing a little more confident and that uneasy smile finally steadying as she closes her paw around the necklace. “He didn’t show you how to make one? Only ever seen snow a couple times but even I know how to make one.”

You don't want to bring it up now that she seems to be in better spirits, but it makes you unreasonably happy to know she appreciates your gift that much. Before she looks up and realizes you're staring, you decide to continue with your story.

“In fairness to my dad, I don’t think he’d ever seen snow before either,” you say, chuckling a little bit as you adjust your position so she doesn’t slide off you. “Think I did it while he was talking to my mom about something. So then I chuck the damn thing full speed and it smacks him in the face so hard it almost knocked him on his ass. I felt awful the rest of the day, even ended up crying because my mom freaked out so hard. He took it like a champ though, shrugged it off and taught me how to make one the right way.” 

“More I hear about your dad the cooler of a guy he sounds like,” she giggles, most traces of her sudden shift in mood pretty much gone by now. “Guess I can see how you turned out such a considerate goober now…”

“Being a goober and dork is genetic, I guess,” you smile back at her, your own mood improving just from seeing her back to her usual self. “I’m choosing to take that as a compliment though. And wait, I thought you said you hadn’t seen snow before?”

“I said I’d never seen it snow here , Mike,” she says, gently pressing a paw pad against your nose to drive her point home. “Parents moved us more times than we could count, until they finally ended up settling here. Spent a lot of time up north, rural sorta areas. Definitely got cold enough to snow most years.”

“You’re lucky there’s not enough snow on the ground up here or I’d challenge you to a snowball fight,” you laugh, sneaking another brief glimpse of the wonderful view in front of you. “Really put that money where your mouth is.”

“I dunno mate…” she says, her grip on you loosening a bit as she readjusts herself against you. “Think you’d lose against me ten times out of ten. Besides, don’t think you’ve got enough clothes to last very long in the cold. Speaking of, gimme your hands, I can feel how cold they are on my ears.”

“Next time I’ll actually remember to bring a coat and gloves over,” you say, taking your hands off her and bringing them down within her reach. “I’m kind of an idiot for forgetting.”

“Not like you could’ve known it was going to be this cold in October,” she says, cupping her furred hands around yours before rubbing back and forth. “Hopefully this helps a little.”

“We’re definitely even now on warming each other up,” you laugh, letting out a small sigh of contentment as the contrast in both temperature and texture from her fur and paw pads makes your skin break out into goosebumps. “That actually… feels really, really nice.”

“Can’t be that good,” she says, a little smile creeping up on her face. “Can it?”

“I mean… it’s not something I’d lie abou-” you say, interrupted by a shudder of pleasure that rips through you like lightning. “...a-about. Well, is that proof enough for you?”

“Maybe,” she says, laughing softly as she continues to rub her hands against yours. “Your body has always been more honest than your mouth. Whether that’s something you know or not.”

“Oh yeah?” you ask in a tone that hopefully doesn’t make you sound too eager. “How do you figure that, then?”

“Maybe the fact that I can hear your heartbeat thumping like a piston every time we’ve held hands,” she giggles as she squeezes you tight, her fingers interlocking with yours as you feel the rough pads slowly massaging you. “Or the fact that you almost crushed my fingers into paste while we were watching The Thing despite insisting you weren’t scared.”

“You’re bullshitting me,” you say, raising an eyebrow at her. “There’s no way your hearing is good enough to hear my heartbeat from that far away.”

“See how you didn’t actually deny either of those?” she asks as the smuggest possible grin starts to overtake her features. “I’m being serious, by the way. Not like I can do it from across the room or anything, but I can feel it without being close up.”

“I think I’m starting to rub off on you,” you laugh as you struggle to come up with a good rebuttal. “You’re getting way too good at pulling one over on me.”

“Learned from the best,” she says as she nuzzles into you a bit more, your face mere inches away from hers. “You want to tell me another story about the snow?”

“Actually…” you say as you start to pull away a bit, tightening your light grip on her hand. “I was kind of hoping you'd tell me some of yours.”

“You really want to hear em?” she asks, the small twitches of her ears only accentuating her nervousness. “They’re probably not all that interesting, really.”

“Come on,” you say, playfully nudging her with your shoulder as you flash her a smile. “I told you about my embarrassing childhood, only fair you spill some of the beans too.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll tell ya,” she says, giving in to your well meaning teasing. “But only the ones having to do with the snow. You’re not getting everything else that easily, dork.”

“I’ll settle for that,” you say, laying your head back even more in the somewhat uncomfortable chair as you pull the quilt closer, forming a small cocoon against the cold wind.

The two of you share a small smile in silence as she tilts her snout downwards a bit, seemingly trying to think up something to share with you. You’ve known her to be pretty reluctant to talk about this sort of personal stuff in the past, and you’re quietly hoping this’ll mark a small stride forward for her.

“Guess there’s that time… no, wait, that was something else,” she says, closing her eyes before shaking her head a bit. “Maybe the-”

“You’re overthinking it,” you say, freeing one of your hands to wrap around the small kangaroo once more. “Just tell me about the very first time you ever got to see snow.”

“Okay, the first time, uh…” she says, mumbling before trailing off as she tries to pull herself back together. “I don’t remember it super well, but there’s a couple fuzzy things. Still remember when my big sister woke me and my brothers up first thing in the morning. Practically dragged us outta bed and told us to get dressed for something. If it wasn’t for her looking so excited I would’ve thought something bad happened.”

“Could’ve used a sister like her growing up honestly, some days not even an earthquake could’ve gotten me out of bed,” you say, laughing a bit at the mental image. “So what, she took you guys outside or something?”

“Yeah, remember thinking I was dreaming since I’d always wanted to see snow,” she says, her face lighting up much like yours does every time you think back on old memories. “All the movies my siblings liked to watch had snow, and every time the season for it rolled around I remember praying for it. Even put it on my list for Santa Claus one year, but sadly it didn't really come true.”

“Must’ve gotten lost in the mail on the way to Santa,” you laugh, remembering all the excuses you’d been through as a kid. “That’s what my dad would always tell me anyway.”

“Besides that, my sister taught us how to snowball fight and we’d do that most of the time,” she says, idly walking her fingers up your arm. “Can’t really think of much else that’s super memorab- oh! Holy shit, I almost forgot about the pouch incident!”

“T-the pouch incident?” you say, nearly choking on your own saliva as you struggle to stifle your laughter. “You’re fucking with me, right?”

“I’m being serious!” she says, laughing as she nudges you firmly enough to shift you a bit in your seat. “I don’t remember it all that well but I know that for some reason I decided to try and keep some snowballs in my pouch when we were fighting one time. Ended up almost giving myself frostbite down there by accident. Jade had to bring me inside and use a blow dryer on my pouch to dry me off so I wouldn’t end up catching a cold.”

You can’t help but laugh a little bit at her expense, the mental image of her having a pouch full of snow and water a little too funny to keep yourself in check. “I’m sorry… for some reason that’s really funny to think about.”

“It’s not funny, you big goober,” she says, flicking your nose with a finger to make you flinch away. “It’s actually really annoying for us to clean down there, and you don’t really want to get it wet or you’ll end up getting that wet… roo smell.”

“So wait, what about when you need to take a shower or go swimming?” you ask, genuinely intrigued. “Do you just tape it off or something?”

“Kind of, I guess?” she says, shrugging her shoulders a bit before pulling the blanket over herself some more. “They sell these showercap kinda things for your pouch that are sealed and catch most of the water. Still have to dry off after sometimes, but it’s not so bad so long as it’s not totally soaked.”

“Sounds like a pain in the ass to have to dry all your fur off every time you go for a shower though,” you say, squinting a bit as the sun starts to get in your eyes. “Probably takes forever too.”

“It does, especially when you’ve only got a blow dryer and not one of those fancy full body ones,” she says, slowly interlocking her fingers with yours as she continues to speak. “Best money I’ve ever spent, honestly.”

You don't object in the slightest to the way she's slowly getting closer to you, her warmth and weight against you downright distracting as you listen to her talk. “So that’s why they put those things in the gym lockers, huh? I think I might be an idiot for not making that connection before.”

“Can’t blame ya, it’s like a fifty-fifty chance they even have them in your apartment these days,” she says, and you can see her eyes flutter a bit as she nuzzles her head against you again. “Can’t imagine it’s cheap to put ‘em in every unit. Plus, it’s not like you guys need them.”

“Dunno, I think if you saw my dad you’d disagree,” you laugh. “Guy looks like a fuckin bear when he doesn’t shave, probably weighs ten more pounds fresh out of the shower.”

“Does the same thing happen to you then?” she asks, tapping her furred finger against your stubble covered chin.

“Only if I stop shaving for a while,” you say, the tickle of her fur feeling oddly nice against the firm hairs. “Why, would you rather I grow it out?”

“Up to you, only ever seen you like this. But I think you’d look handsome either way,” she says, flashing you a small smile.

The compliment on your looks makes your cheeks burn hard, especially since you know her to be pretty honest about this stuff. “Thanks. You uh… feel up to talking about what was bothering you earlier?”

“Yeah, I think so,” she says, softly nodding her head. “Don’t even know where to start really. I just… hope you don’t think it’s your fault. It’s not.”

“I know,” you say, tightening your grip on her hand to drive your words home. “Still makes me worried when you get like that, you know? Makes my stomach sink every time.”

“I’m sorry… I don’t want you to feel like that around me,” she says, offering up a sympathetic half smile for a brief moment. “I don’t know, no matter how hard I try to not think about the stuff sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. How can you just… not feel like shit when you’re reminded of awful things? Feel like a stunted idiot every time it happens.”

You take a second to choose your words carefully, not wanting to give shoddy, uncalculated advice to the clearly frustrated and fed up girl, tightening your grip and pulling her closer all the while.

“You don’t, really. Take it from me, you just learn how to deal with that stuff better over time,” you say, letting out a small sigh. “It might always bother you a little bit when you think about it, but the less power over you it has, the easier it is to just brush off and not let it get to you as much.”

“Yeah, but how do you do that?” she asks, her previously soft tone now accented by slight exasperation. “I don’t know how to give it less power. I think about it even for a tiny bit and it just sours my whole mood for a while, I fucking hate it.”

“I think that kind of depends on what exactly it is,” you say bluntly, not wanting to sugarcoat something so serious. “Could be as easy as distracting yourself or as hard as talking it out a bunch with someone.”

“I… don’t really know that I want to get into all the details,” she says, squeezing down on your hand tightly. “But I’ll at least sorta explain it. Maybe it’ll make more sense to you then.”

“You’ve got me until you and this blanket stop keeping me warm,” you say, hoping a little bit of humor might lift her spirits some. “Really though, take your time.”

“Where do I even start?” she asks, leaning her head back even further against you as she tries to maintain eye contact. “Again, it’s not your fault at all. It just reminded me of a really bad day I had when I was younger. Remember just running up into my room and crying into my pillow. Didn’t even help too much since Jade showed up to check on me after a little while. What you said made me think of what she told me when she was sitting there stroking my hair and back.”

“What exactly did she say then?” you ask, hoping to get her to budge a little bit more. “Can’t imagine it was anything bad, right? Your sister seemed like a pretty cool person from what you told me.”

“No, no, it wasn’t anything even close to bad,” she says, and you can feel her tail swishing against your legs as she continues to speak. “That’s why it makes me feel stupid that it gets to me so much. She was there to console me and when I told her she didn’t have to be here, she said she cared about me a lot. Almost exactly the way you said it. And hearing it from you brought me right back to that moment, since besides Lily and my family, I’ve never really heard it from people.”

“So why does it make you sad to remember your sister being sweet?” you ask, half confused at her explanation.

“It’s not that bit that makes me sad, it’s remembering the stuff she said right after that,” she says, her voice growing even quieter as she takes on a dejected tone. “She was supposed to go off to some really nice college in another state she’d gotten accepted to, but she told me decided to take another gap year because of me. I felt happy at the time but then… it just turned into guilt when I realized she’d given up her freshman year with friends just to stay closer to me because I was having trouble. Because she knew I didn’t really have anyone else but Lily back then and she was one of the only people who really understood what was going on with me.”

She sucks in a deep breath before letting out a long, exasperated sigh. You can feel her rapid, erratic heartbeat as you pull her even tighter against you, wanting nothing more than to soothe her worries. Against your better judgment, you decide to let your mouth get ahead of your brain.

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” you say, idly stroking your shoulder with your free hand prompting her to squeeze down a bit on your hand. “Nobody should feel like they have something like that hanging over their head, much less a kid.”

“It’s fine…” she mutters, choosing to stare at your arm instead of making eye contact with you. “It’s just… I’ve apologized, tried to make up for that year I stole from her, pretty much everything I can think of to try and make myself feel like I don’t owe her. Nothing really helped too much. If anything it made me feel worse because it feels like I failed at doing that too. I know she’s my sister and she did it because she loves and cares about me, but I still feel awful for holding her back like that. Makes me feel like a burden.”

“Hey, c'mon… don’t talk about yourself like that. You’re not a burden, Ruby,” you say, running your fingers through her fur. “Your sister did all that because she wanted to, not because you forced her. You recognize she sacrificed something for you, and you tried to make up for it, but that doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up fore-”

Your impassioned speech is stopped dead in its tracks by an ungodly loud noise blaring from your pockets, one you immediately recognize as your ringtone. She’s just as startled as you are by it, and the two of you narrowly avoid sliding to the ground as she holds onto your shirt for dear life. The two of you manage to stabilize and for a brief second, you’re left staring at each other with slightly shaken expressions. She’s the first to move her lips, bringing your attention back to the source of the noise.

“You gonna get that?” is all she asks as she nods down towards your pocket. “Go ahead, I don’t mind. Could be important.”

Her expression and the words coming from her mouth both seem genuine, but right now the last thing you want to do is pick up your phone. You’re already upset by the call knocking you off balance, both physically and mentally. On top of that, you’re afraid of making Ruby feel even more unimportant than she already feels she is. You decide to trust your gut on this one, letting it ring since both of your hands are presently occupied by your girlfriend.

“I’m just going to let it ring,” you say bluntly, offering a half smile as the song continues to play before cutting off in its entirety. “Whatever it is, it’s not important right now.”

She doesn’t seem entirely convinced, but you do see the hints of a small smile starting to form on her features. Whether that’s from your words and actions or something else, you’re not sure but it does make you smile in turn.

“Are you sure?” she asks, and as if the stars had aligned to fuck up your time with her, the ridiculously loud melody starts to fill the air again.

“Fucking goddamnit,” you curse just loud enough for her to hear before letting out a frustrated sigh. “I’m really sorry about this. Don’t usually get calls this early and I don’t want to pick up and interrupt ou-”

Your frantic words are cut short by Ruby’s gentle touch, more specifically, her bringing a furred finger up to your lips. “Michael. I can handle waiting a second while you take a phone call. Even if you’re not going to pick it up, at least check who it is. Could be your dad calling about an emergency for all you know.”

Her saying your full first name while being that direct with you both flusters you and gives you a much needed reality check. As much as you hate to admit it, you know she’s right, and that feeling only grows with each passing second. You’d hate to be the one on the other end of the line.

“Alright, I’ll be real quick,” you say, half smiling as you awkwardly remove your arm from around her, twisting just enough to give yourself enough leeway to reach your pocket.

The pins and needles feeling from your long asleep leg makes you softly grunt as you strain to fish the phone out, a quick glance down showing the caller ID to be none other than your best friend, Kevin. You slide your finger to decline the call before unlocking your phone and opening your messaging app.

You quickly tap the text out while glancing up to see Ruby staring down at the snow below. ‘rly busy rn call u in 30 min’

Not even thirty seconds later you hear that familiar ding and you look down to see his response. ‘cool, talk 2 u then.’

Even with her explicit permission you can’t help but grimace a bit as you twist once more to slip your phone back down into your pocket.

She turns her undivided attention back at you once she feels you move, and you wrap your arm tightly around her midsection. “Everything alright then?”

“Just my buddy from work wanting to talk,” you say, shrugging your shoulders. “Not sure what about but I wouldn’t worry about it. Didn’t seem urgent, anyway. You still feel like talking about your sister some more?”

“Good,” she says, before going back to resting her head against your shoulder. “And yeah, I guess. What is it that you were saying before?”

It takes you a second to mentally go back to where you were before you were so rudely interrupted by your phone. “Right I was uh… talking about how you shouldn’t beat yourself up forever over this. Your sister seems like she’s got a good head on her shoulders from everything you’ve told me about her. She wouldn't want you feeling this way over something she did out of good will, right? So why should you keep feeling guilty over something she probably never even blamed you for?”

“I shouldn’t. And you’re right but…” she says, letting another hurried, exasperated sigh. “Even though it doesn’t get to me as bad as it used to, it still happens. Just wish I didn’t overthink things so much sometimes. How do you do it?”

“What do you mean? How do I do what?” you ask, cocking your head a bit.

“Not… overthink stuff all the time. Not let stuff get to you like it does to me,” she says, swallowing audibly as she takes another deep breath. “Compared to me it feels like that stuff never bothers you for long.”

You’re left thinking for a moment as she waits expectantly for an answer. While she’s not wrong in her assessment of the both of you, you feel like she doesn’t exactly have the entire picture.

“Ruby. There’s not a person alive that doesn’t worry about things sometimes, me included. You remember how I got yesterday, right? It happens to all of us,” you say, smiling a bit in an effort to try and lift her mood as well. “Just because you overthink and dwell on the bad doesn’t make you a bad person. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean you can’t get better at dealing with that.”

Her eyes dart around and for a brief moment you can see a flash of hesitation as she tries to speak before stopping herself. She closes her eyes and lets out a series of small, but deep breaths.

“Everything alright?” you ask, idly stroking her thumb with yours.

“Yeah, yeah,” she says, offering a sheepish smile as she glances up to meet your gaze again. “Just… thinking about what you said. I know you’re right but still, it feels really fucking hard to make any kind of progress sometimes. That’s what makes me feel like I’m stunted.”

“I dunno, don’t you think talking to me about this stuff is progress?” you ask, hoping to get her to see things your way. “When’s the last time you even talked to your sister about this stuff anyway?”

“Couple years ago, I think, I don’t remember super well,” she says, shrugging her shoulders a bit. “Feel like it’d be really awkward to just bring it to her out of the blue again, no?”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” you say, really feeling the strain on your still asleep leg. “If you feel like you haven’t gotten closure about it yet, it might not be a bad idea.”

“Sometimes it feels like there’s a lot of things like that for me,” she chuckles dryly, and you offer what you hope is a sympathetic smile. “But maybe I should. Would be nice to have one less thing on my mind sometimes.”

“Hey, that’s the spirit,” you say, squeezing down on her hand a bit for reassurance. “If you’ve ever got something on your mind you can always talk to me too.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she says, smiling as she readjusts herself ever so slightly. “Thanks for hearing me out, Mike. You’ve got a good heart for putting up with my shit.”

Her honeyed words make your heart skip a beat, and you're damn sure she even heard it with how wide her smile is now. “Thanks, that’s sweet of you to say. I’m not putting up with anything though. And besides, it’s not like I don’t have two great views up here thanks to you.”

“Two?...” she asks, trailing off until her eyes light up, the kangaroo shaking her head a bit when the words finally click. “God… you really are the biggest dork on planet Earth.”

“Guilty as charged,” you say with a smile, keeping your eyes with a smile as the sunlight starts to dwindle, that bitter cold creeping in once more. “You got the time? Left my watch in your apartment.”

She shifts a bit against you before breaking eye contact to look down at her furred arm. “Two twenty, why? There somewhere you need to be? Don’t let me keep you or anything.”

“Nah, nah, I was just wondering is all,” you say, still sporting the small smile on your face. “Was just wondering how much more time we have before it gets too cold. Really is a killer view up here. Honestly, kinda jealous you can just come up here whenever you feel like it.”

“One of the hidden perks of this place, I guess,” she says, her free hand idly running over your arm and chest as she keeps eye contact with you. “Glad ya liked it though. Was pretty nervous it wouldn’t live up to the snow days you talked up before.”

“You kidding?” you laugh as you kick up a bit of snow with your still awake leg. “Only thing that could make an afternoon like this better is if there was enough snow up here for a little snowball fight. Of course, that’d mean you’d get your fur completely soaked.”

“Oh yeah?” she asks, a cocky sort of grin forming on her features. “What makes you so confident I wouldn’t do the same to you? Being soaked doesn’t sound all that bad anyways. At least not while I’ve got my own personal heater and dryer combo here with me.”

You want to reply with an equally snappy comeback but her flattering words leave you feeling simultaneously disarmed and flustered. Instead, you decide to simply enjoy the moment for a bit, pulling her closer to you as your smile widens. And even though you can feel your face burning red hot from her compliment, you don’t even make an attempt to hide it this time, wanting her to be fully aware of how she makes you feel.

“Well for one…” you say once you’ve regained a little bit of your composure, your tone both calm and slowed. “I used to play baseball when I was little. Like to think I still have a hell of a throwing arm. And two… I could say the same about having my own heater too, you know? Goes both ways.”

“Mmh…” is the only noise that comes from her as she nuzzles her snout against your chest, closing her eyes as she does. “How about we just… agree to call it even then?”

“I could do that,” you say, resting your eyes alongside her, resigning yourself to enjoy the intoxicating contrast of soft fur on exposed skin.

Her comforting warmth makes the bitter cold all that much bearable, even as its tendrils bite away at your face and everywhere else the wind dares to reach. While the two of you aren't exactly in the most comfortable position to cuddle up to one another, you can't find it in yourself to care about the awkwardness in the slightest. Not even the tingling of pins and needles in your leg can take away from this moment, the two of you locked in a close embrace, not a care in the world as you do your best to make her feel safe. It makes you happier than you've been in a long time to spend such a beautiful, snowy afternoon in her company, and part of you knows she feels the exact same way. You can feel the soft thumps of Ruby’s heartbeat against your chest, which only serves to speed up the beating of your own as you hear her soft breathing start to quicken. Her fingers fidget in between your tight grasp, and the two of you ‘fight’ for control as you stroke and explore each other’s hands. You don’t know how long your skin has been flush with goosebumps, but you know for sure all her little movements against you are likely to blame. Occasionally you can even feel her ear brush against your cheeks lightly as it twitches, another reminder of how much the two of you have closed the gap over the last hour. And as much as you wish you could focus on these feelings forever, you find your train of thought drifting to something else entirely.

You start to really think about all the personal things she's clued you in on about her sister and their relationship, the thoughts still on her mind and how that made her feel, and you can't help but to sense a strange sort of happiness welling up inside you. The fact she trusts you enough to bring this stuff up, heavy as it is, means something to you that you just can't ignore. You're proud of her for dealing with her emotions in a much more reasonable way, rather than bottling them up and letting them fester as she did before, those old memories of her shouting her heart out in tears as makeup ran down her fur still lingering in your mind. She's come a long way since then, and as much as you want to tell her these things, you feel like right now isn’t the time, instead choosing to let her just enjoy the moment without worry. Unfortunately, for as much as you'd like the moment to last forever, the sun and its warmth begin to inch away out of sight behind a distant skyscraper, your teeth chattering once more as her fur and knitted blanket alone can't quite keep the cold at bay.

“Ruby?” you ask, shaking your arm gently to nudge her out of her quiet reverie. “Y-you mind if we head back down? It’s getting real c-cold up here.”

It takes a second for her to respond, her eyes slowly fluttering open as you feel her fingers move against yours once more. “S-shit, did I fall asleep? Was I… out for very long?”

You hadn’t even realized she drifted off back to sleep with all the thoughts that had been flying through your head. It's surprising that she nodded off so easily with the cold, but you suppose the blanket, your warmth and her own fur are more than enough to allow her to nap.

“Guess you did,” you say, chuckling as her half lidded eyes lock onto yours again. “And nah, not very long at all. C-couple minutes at most? Honestly didn’t even notice you were sleeping.”

“Thought for sure I’d passed out for a couple hours since the sun was gone,” she laughs, using her free hand to rub some of the sleep out of her eyes. “What were you saying? Don’t think I caught all of it. Something about the cold?”

Your teeth start to audibly chatter again as a gust of wind sneaks in through the bottom of the blanket. “J-just… asking if we could head back d-down. Feeling a bit c-chilly.”

You can immediately see the concern light a fire under Ruby, her eyes going from half lidded to fully alert in what feels like a fraction of a second. She lifts her head from your chest and starts to sit upright again, her free hand landing on your chest as she looks for support and her other hand finally breaking her grasp on the hand you’d held for the majority of the last half hour.

“Shit, you should’ve woken me up sooner, you dork,” she says, slowly lifting herself off your leg and untangling herself from beneath the blankets before jumping down onto the snowy ground below you.

“Not your fault the sun suddenly d-decided to exit stage left,” you say, a smile plastered on your face from how considerate she’s being. “C-crazy how much c-colder it feels without you.”

“Guess that’s true, but still. Though I didn’t think I’d make that much of a difference,” she laughs, averting her gaze for a moment before reaching out to offer her hand to you. “Now come on and let’s get you down from here. Wouldn’t want you catchin’ a cold after last night.”

You wrap the blanket tight around yourself before reaching out to grab her hand from beneath, being careful to expose as little of yourself to the elements as possible. The strength of both her grip and small, yet muscled frame shines through as she grabs on tight before pulling with what feels like all her force. You put in some of your own force in to help get yourself upright, but you soon find one of your legs buckling beneath you as that pins and needles feeling returns, giving way to a muscle cramp that brings you down onto one knee as you slowly regain sensation in the leg.

“Fuckin s-shit,” you grunt, hissing under your breath as you get used to the uncomfortable feeling that comes with waking up a dead limb. “Hate this-s…”

In a flash, Ruby is at your side trying to find her way beneath your arm and shoulder to try and give you even more support than she already was.

“Sorry,” she says, offering an apologetic half smile as you glance to your side. “My fault for laying on your leg like that, huh?”

“That tail is heavier than it looks,” you laugh as you slowly attempt to power through the cramp and bring yourself back on your feet. “Maybe I really am turning into an old lady.”

“Not on my watch you’re not,” she says, and you feel a hand land on both your hand and midsection to keep you steady as she helps lift you up. “Just watch your step, don’t want you to take a nasty fall or anything.”

With her help, you find yourself easily closing the rest of the distance to the emergency ladder, the feeling in your leg completely regained by the time you have to climb down.

She gestures towards the ladder with her snout. “You good to climb down on your own or do you want me to go first so I can help you?”

The warm tone of her concerned voice makes your heart flutter just a tiny bit, but she's helped you enough as is getting here, and you flash a warm smile that you hope will soothe her worries.

"I'll be okay," you say, not wanting to worry the poor girl anymore, giving her a small pat on the back. "Scout's honor."

“Alright,” she says, her smile widening a tiny bit before she crosses her arms, rubbing them for warmth. “Just don’t keep me waiting too long. Pretty nippy up here without you or the blanket.”

You make your way to the edge and turn yourself around before starting to head down the ladder, gripping the slightly icy and slippery ladder as tight as humanly possible, making sure your footing holds with each rung down you go. It feels like you’re holding ice in your hands, and you feel a slight sting that ramps up with each second you’re still holding on. You ignore it as best you can and press on, your heart hitching in your chest when one of your feet slips off the rung in your efforts to pick up the pace. Aside from that, you soon find yourself safely back on the ground without incident, wrapping the blanket tight around yourself as you look up.

"You’re clear to come down!” you shout loudly enough for her to hear, and soon enough you see her backside coming down from above you. You keep your hands out and ready to catch her just in case, despite the bitter cold continuing to nip at them. Once she’s most of the way down the ladder, you step back to give her some room, the tiny kangaroo soon landing gracefully on digitigrade paws. She dusts some of the powdered snow off her blouse before turning to you and putting her paws back where they were before you climbed down.

“Alright, let’s get back inside before we end up like one of those couples on Mount Everest,” she laughs, walking alongside you all the way back to her place.

Once the two of you are safely back inside, you kick off your shoes as you let the warmth of the nearby heater vent wash over and rejuvenate your cold body. You can feel the dryness in your mouth, your lips still cracked from the bitter cold.

“You mind if I grab a glass of water real quick?” you ask as you start to get out from beneath the blanket.

“Knock yourself out,” she says, stretching her arms in front of her a bit. “And oh, don’t forget about that phone call you were gonna make.”

“Shit, thanks. Almost slipped my mind,” you say, folding the blanket as best you can before offering it to her. “Thanks for loaning me your blanket so I could see the snow up there, by the way.”

“Ah it’s nothing, I know you would’ve done the same for me,” she says, smiling as she reaches out and accepts the blanket before starting to neatly fold it. “I’ll be on the couch whenever you’re done.”

“Won’t be long,” you say, flashing her a reassuring smile as you make your way towards the kitchen.

Once there, you pour yourself a glass of water from the fridge dispenser before walking over to the small island in the center of the kitchen. You drink from the glass as greedily as a man stranded in the desert would, emptying it completely before setting it down with a satisfying clink. You reach into your pocket and fish out your phone, quickly swiping your thumb across the screen to call up Kevin. You hold up the phone to your ear and wait patiently through a couple dial tones before he finally picks up.

“Thirty minutes my ass,” is the first thing that comes from the other end of the line, and you can practically hear his wide grin from his tone alone. “What kept you so long, lover boy?”

There’s a part of you that’s hesitant to share what you’d just experienced with Ruby, especially as your gaze drifts over to her laying on the couch, relaxing after the moment you’d shared together. You trust Kevin, you trust him a lot, in fact; but it feels almost wrong to share something this private so soon, and you find yourself scratching at the back of your head as you think of how to answer him.

“It’s kind of complicated,” you say, audibly sighing out as you think back to last night. “Wouldn’t want to bore you to death or anything. What about you? What’d you want to talk about, anyway?”

“Ah come on, don’t be like that,” he pleads, as you continue to consider telling him. “You gotta be up to something spicy if you didn’t want to pick up the phone when I came calling. Just wanted to ask if you want to go for drinks later, since we got today off thanks to the big man upstairs powdering his nose. Might as well do something fun on our day off, yeah?”

“I’ll uh… have to see if I have the time for it,” you say, feeling a bit guilty as your eyes look over Ruby once more. “Sort of tied up with something right now. Thanks for checking in on me and the invitation though, man.”

“Ah c'mon, what else are friends for? Don’t sweat it if you can’t make it, but if you do come out it’s on me,” he asks, a hearty laugh following shortly after. “Kinda owe you something nice after all the favors you’ve done me. Speaking of, if I didn’t know any better… I’d say you’re with that Ruby girl right now. Eh, eh? Cmon, tell me I’m right!”

There’s a moment of hesitation since you’re pretty sure she can hear your every word even from the living room. If she does though, she’s not making it very obvious as she continues to focus on her phone, taking the occasional glance up at the ceiling. Part of you wonders if she’s texting Lily, the thought bringing a small smile to your face.

“Yeah…” you say after a small delay, letting out a sigh as you prepare for the verbal ribbing you’re about to receive. “It was her birthday and well… she invited me over to her place to celebrate mine too since it was right around the corner.”

“Look at you making moves…” he says, chuckling as you picture him smugly shaking his head. “Surprised the two of you aren’t going out still. You at least get a little tongue twister action for your troubles?”

You damn near choke on your saliva, and the second her ear twitches you know she’s noticed, her head turning to glance towards you out of concern. You wave her off with a hand to let her know you’re alright, and a cock of her head later she goes back to what she was doing before.

“Jesus Kev…” you say, chuckling a bit in surprise at his words. “C’mon, you of all people should know she’s not like that. Or did you already forget what Melanie told you?”

“I’m kidding man, relax,” he laughs, and you can perfectly picture how he’d slap you on the back if he was actually here with you. “You do seem pretty fuckin’ happy whenever you’re around her, though. Can you blame me for thinking something might’ve happened with how the two of you look at each other all the time?”

“Funny you mention all that, actually,” you say, bringing your free hand up to rub sheepishly at the back of your neck. “Something did happen, kinda?”

“Oh?” he asks, the curiosity in his tone palpable. “You gonna tell me what that was or are you going to make me play twenty questions with you again?”

“Things went pretty normal at first, honestly,” you say, going through the memories in your head once more. “Celebrated, decided to watch a movie and then… we ate the cake. Something about the ingredients being expired so I ended up puking my guts out in the bathroom something fierce.”

“Yeesh,” he says, sounding like he’s still hanging on your every word. “So then what happened?”

“Emptied my stomach, then she helped me to her bed,” you say, lowering your volume a bit in an effort to stop her from hearing everything you’re saying. “I could tell she felt really bad about it all, kept apologizing even though it wasn’t really her fault. Then we… ended up just talking while she watched over me.”

Even from a distance, you can see that telltale ear twitch again, her eyes still steady on her phone as she doesn't bother to look over her shoulder this time, seemingly just keeping an ear out on what you're saying. It's kind of cute how her body spells things out like that, consciously or not, and the sight makes a small smile start to spread over your lips as you focus back on the call.

“Knowing you, next you’re going to tell me you ended up sharing a bed again or something,” he laughs, and you can’t help but smile even at his ribbing. “Seriously, I know I keep bringing it up but… I’m just surprised the two of you aren’t going out by now is all.”

“You know, that’s a little closer to the truth than you’d think,” you say, intentionally masking your words from any prying ears. “And we’re uh… kind of a thing now, I guess?”

“Way to go my man,” he says, his smug and knowing tone almost palpable over the phone. “I was starting to think you didn’t have it in ya’ still. What do you mean by ‘kind of’, though?”

“Well… It uh, means we decided to feel things out, see where they go and all that,” you say, feeling your cheeks warming a bit when Ruby decides to steal another glance at you, giving you an eyeful of the small smile on her face. “It was her idea, actually.”

At this point you’re not entirely sure if you’ve overshared with your best friend, but given that you’re not getting a death stare coming from the couch, you’d say you’re in the clear.

“Long as you’re happy with it too, don’t think that’s a bad thing after all,” he says, his tone a bit more serious. “Does she uh, know about the whole thing with your ex?”

“Yeah, yeah, she knows,” you say, nodding your head a bit even though he’s not here. “Kind of came up when we were talking last night. And yeah, I’m happy about it, just… kind of unsure about the boundaries a bit sometimes, you know?”

“Yeah?” he asks, and you can hear the tapping of his fingers against something. “In what way?”

“Just that it’s kind of hard to tell with her if it’s the right time to take that next step, if you get what I’m saying,” you whisper, hoping to bring your voice down to a level where she can’t pick up on it clearly. “She seems comfortable with some things, not so much with others and I really don’t want to fuck this up.”

“Pff, you’re putting too much thought into it, man,” he says, chuckling. “With how into you she seems, I doubt there’s too much you can actually do to piss her off. If you’re thinking about it, odds are the same thing is on her mind. And you know what the best thing you can do to deal with it is?”

“No, what?” you ask, genuinely curious where he’s taking this. “Don't make me play games man, come on.”

“Talk. To. Her. You NERD!” he exclaims, making you feel a bit stupid for not seeing the obvious coming. “It’s like you’ve got cotton candy for brains when it comes to girls sometimes, man. If the two of you are feeling things out, I think she’d be happy if you wanted to talk about this kinda stuff, no? I could be way off base here, since you know her better than I do, obviously.”

“You’re right,” you mumble under your breath as you rub at your temples. “I shouldn’t be afraid to talk to her about it. She’s just… a little apprehensive about some things and I don’t want to become one of those things, you know?”

“Nothing wrong with wanting to take things slow man,” he says, his words giving you a bit more confidence. “Besides, you’ve always got me to fall back on if you need some guidance. Can’t say it’ll be good advice since me and Melanie moved pretty quick, but I’ll try to help if you need it.”

“Thanks Kev,” you say, touched by his offer. “Don’t know where I’d be without you.”

“Same place you are now, except without that little voice in your ear nagging at you,” he laughs and you can’t help but let a smile creep up on your face. “You’re fine on your own, sometimes you just need ol’ Kev to set you straight when you start to let things get in your head. I’ll get out of your hair now so you can get back to exploring the outback. Call me if you change your mind about the drinks though.”

“Oh fuck off…” you say, struggling to hold back your laughter at his words. “I’ll let you know whenever I get back to my place.”

“Sounds like a plan, amigo. Ciao,” he says before hanging up the call.

You can’t help but shake your head a bit at the conversation you’d just had with your buddy. Silly as it was, he made a good couple points about the nature of your relationship with Ruby and how to deal with it. You refill your glass of water and down it before slowly making your way towards the living room to join her on the couch.

“Sorry that took so long. What you watching?” you ask, leaning over the couch to look down from overhead.

“Nothing,” she says as she looks up from the screen to sit up properly. “Was just reading some stuff while I was waiting on you. Better question is, what do YOU feel like watching?”

“I’m open to suggestions,” you say, plopping yourself down on the couch next to her. “Wouldn’t mind something similar to The Thing.”

“Hmm…” she hums, setting down her phone on the coffee table before leaning back against you. “Could watch one of the Alien movies if you haven’t seen ‘em. You ever watched Covenant?”

“Don’t think I have,” you say, trying to recall which ones you’ve seen before. “I’m down to watch it though.”

She looks down at her watch before responding. “Should have enough time to watch it before we head to the gym.”

You cough a bit at the mention of working out, especially given work had been canceled because of the snow. “Are the gyms even open today? There’s like four inches of snow outside.”

“Can’t hurt to check,” she says, playfully nudging you on the side. “Sounds to me like you’re trying to get out of a good workout. Gotta put those watches to use, eh?”

“Yeah, maybe you’ve got a point,” you say, chuckling as you wrap your arm around her. “Anyone ever tell you that you’re like the postal service, Ruby?”

She tilts her head up a bit to shoot you a look of confusion, accented by a raised brow. “W-what? I’m starting to think the cold might’ve fried your brain or something, mate.”

“Oh come on, you know how it goes…” you say, smiling as you continue telling your awful joke. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat…”

Your words are cut short by a slight love tap to your chest, and your smile only widens further as she shakes her head in disapproval. “I am not that bad, you big dork.”

“Sure had me fooled,” you say, your fingers idly brushing against the fur on her muscled arm. “I don’t think I can even remember the last time we had a full rest day. And yes, jogging still counts as a workout.”

“I-I…” she sputters before her mouth curls into a pout as she glares at you. “Didn’t we uh… shit. Okay, maybe you do have a point. For once.”

“I don’t really mind it, I’m just saying, is all,” you say, kicking your feet up on the coffee table. “How about we make a deal, huh?”

“I’m listening,” she says, struggling to hold onto the expression that’s slowly giving way to a small smile. “Better be a good one to make up for that joke.”

“No promises there,” you laugh, pulling her a bit tighter to you. “Okay, hear me out. If we do end up going to the gym today, we’ll do an arm and leg day but… tomorrow we’ll skip everything and go out and do something fun together.”

“And what would that something fun be?” she asks, her fingers dancing across your chest.

“Well… I wasn’t expecting to get this far,” you laugh, offering a sheepish grin as you feel your heartbeat rise a little. “Heard that boardwalk carnival is still in town for another week. Might be fun to go check it out. Call it a first date?”

“Hmm… that does sound kind of fun,” she says, pretending to think it over. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Mr. Cyclops. And a first date. But I hope you know we’re going to work to the bone at the gym today.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” You smile, starting to lean in closer to her snout before you stop yourself. “Though if the gym isn't open today we’re still on for that date.”

“You little… fine,” she sighs, letting her head fully rest against your chest once more, that absolutely intoxicating feeling of her closeness washing over you again. “You still want to watch that movie? Figure the weather won’t clear up for another couple hours.”

“Sure, spin it up,” you say, and the instant the words leave your mouth she springs upright and leans forward to reach for both the remote and her phone.

There’s a brief pause while she pulls up the movie on the completely legal movie site, before sending it to stream on the TV in front of you. Soon enough you find yourself watching the intro to the film while Ruby struggles to find a comfortable spot to settle in against you.

You can't help but jump at the opportunity to do a little ribbing, scooting your body closer to her. “Does the shirt really make it that uncomfortable? I could take it off again if you want.”

The way she suddenly stops dead in her tracks and looks up briefly to shoot you a glare tells you that you hit the mark dead on. The small, cute twitches that both her ears do involuntarily are just the cherry on top.

“Can it, dork,” she says, feigning irritation despite the small smile on her face. “Just because I was okay with it earlier doesn't mean I… need it.”

“Well, if you say so,” you say, chuckling to yourself as you feel her fingers start to envelop yours. “Don’t say I didn’t offer later though.”

“Dick,” she says, nudging you in the side with her elbow before turning her attention back to screen. “Pay attention, movie’s starting.”

“Aye, aye, Capn,” you say, earning you another jab to the ribs for your troubles.

The next two hours fly by in what feels like an instant, the two of you keeping yourselves entertained by poking fun at the lousy acting and incoherent plot line while cuddled up to one another. You feel like even watching paint dry could be entertaining in her company, and you find yourself still talking about the campy parts of the movie even long after the credits have finished rolling.

“Come on, was that really the ending? I saw that coming like thirty minutes in, but I didn’t think they’d actually do it!” you exclaim before laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all. “Prometheus was way, way better than this.”

“That’s the real ending,” she sighs before continuing to speak. “Unlike The Thing remakes, this movie is nowhere near ‘so bad it’s good’ territory, honestly.”

“At least the effects were good,” you say as she reaches for the remote to turn off the TV. “Jumpscares got me once or twice.”

“Wuss,” she mutters under her breath before she goes back to laying her head on your shoulder. “Haven’t seen the originals in a long time, maybe we should revisit sometime and see how they hold up.”

“You know, I’d like that,” you say, flashing her a warm smile as you stretch your free arm. “Though probably not right now, I’m all movie’d out for one day, I think.”

She glances over at the clock on the wall, squinting to try and make out the detail from a distance. “You feel like heading for the gym? It’s about to be five o clock, but maybe we can avoid the rush if we get there early.”

“Somehow I don’t think there’s going to be a rush on a snow day, Ruby,” you laugh, a yawn escaping you as your still sluggish body struggles to sit upright. “Might be a good idea though, think if I don’t get off this couch I’m going to crash here again.”

“Alright, here’s what we’ll do then,” she says, sitting upright and brushing away a few errant strands of her let down hair. “You go grab your watch and wash up and I’ll phone the gym and see if they’re open, okay?”

You can’t help but smile a bit at her attitude, chuckling a bit at her words. “Could probably actually use some cold water to the face.”

“Go on then,” she says with a smile as she nods her snout towards the hallway. “Don’t be a stranger.”

You nod and wordlessly get up from the couch before shuffling towards her bedroom for the second time today. Once there, you spot the box you’re looking for on the nightstand, making your way over to collect both it and the watch lying beside it. You strap it to your arm, smiling a bit as you think back to the way she’d given the gift to you yesterday. That same smile holds all the way to the bathroom, where you find yourself standing in front of the mirror once more. You run the cold tap and splash it at your face, instantly feeling more alert and refreshed as a small shiver runs through you. In the interest of not keeping her waiting too long, you quickly wash your face with some soap and style your hair back into a half presentable state, your fingers combing at it and tucking away at errant strands. While you’re preoccupied with your reflection, something catches your eye on the far edge of the vanity and you reach over to brush aside a few bottles to get a better look at it. You almost immediately recognize the purple container as a contact lens case owing to your mom using them. You're surprised to find out she wears them, a small part of you wondering what kind of glasses she'd used before, if any. The mental image of Ruby with thick, dorky looking tortoiseshells and her sporty getup is the first thing that comes to mind, and the silly grin on your face makes sure you wouldn't forget it anytime soon. You make a note to ask her about it next time you get a chance, your mind's eye going wild as it pictures all the different, clashing looks. Once you’re done, you head back out and find Ruby in the kitchen, filling up two bottles from the sink.

You decide to play a little practical joke and sneak up on the tiny kangaroo, inching your way across the tile while trying to stay undetected. Once in range, you grab her shoulders and shake a tiny bit, feeling her jump forward and almost off the stool she was standing on.

“So much for not getting jumpscared, huh?” you say, laughing as she steadies herself again.

The little stunt earns you a light jab backwards into your abs. “God… fuckin’ scared the hell out of me. You trying to get my heart to explode before we even make it to the gym?”

“Maybe. And what if I am?” you ask, a smug, satisfied grin tugging at the corners of your mouth.

She turns around to shoot you a glare as she squints her eyes. “You’re lucky I just washed that shirt or I’d splash you with this.”

“What, with water?” you ask, laughing.

“Protein shake,” she says, her frown of disapproval giving way to a slight smile as she closes the cap on both bottles before giving them a good shake. “You a cookies and cream or strawberry kind of guy?”

“Usually the first, but fuck it, I’ll try something new,” you say, taking your hands off her shoulders. “Pass the strawberry one here.”

“Don’t drink it all at once now,” she says before handing you the cold bottle. “Don’t want you puking mid set.”

“I’ll be fine,” you say, giving it another quick shake before uncapping it and taking a swig. “Pretty fucking good, actually.”

“Glad you approve,” she says, smiling as she hops off the small stool. “I’m going to go and change real quick before we head out.”

“Sounds good,” you say, taking another sip of the milkshake-tasting drink as she bounds towards her bedroom.

You set down the bottle after a couple more sips and decide to pull your phone out to pass the time while she gets ready to go. After answering a couple of texts, you decide to get lost in scrolling through your favorite malaysian miata posting website. A quick scroll through the catalog makes you chuckle at some of the opening posts, with one standing above the rest, focusing on project cars and the like. You pore over the pictures and the wonderful, if sometimes idiotic things people are doing with their cars in the comfort of their own garages. The ingenuity brings a smile to your face, though you can’t help but feel a pang of envy when you see some of the nicer cars people are working on in their spare time. The thought of going on the hunt for a better job in the near future pops up in your mind once more, thinking maybe it’s been long enough since last time that new opportunities will have popped up.

Your thoughts are, however, interrupted by the faint sound of a slammed door in the distance, and you’re jolted from staring at your phone towards the source of it. Ruby quickly rounds the corner, clad in her usual sports bra combined with a set of compression shorts you’ve never seen her wear before. The combination is more than flattering on her tiny frame, though you do your best not to ogle too much as she makes her way over to you.

“So, you all set to go?” she asks as she brings both her hands up to the back of her head to start forming a ponytail out of her long, slightly curled hair. “Lady at the desk said they’ll probably close up early today so we’ve got to get a move on.”

You’re not sure what it is about it, but the way she goes about tying up her hair is oddly hypnotic to you. The way she uses her teeth to grab the scrunchie wrapped around her wrist before dropping it in her free hand is oddly… cute, in a way. You didn’t think you were this head over heels for her but if something as simple as this has your heart fluttering slightly, you know you’ve got it bad. She finishes tying up her hair, and realizing you’ve been gawking for almost a minute, you decide to spit out a quick response.

“Sure am,” you say, grabbing the bottle she’d prepared for you. “You feel like skipping the cardio for today then?”

“I’ve actually got an idea for something we could do instead of cardio,” she says, the wide smile as she palms her own bottle off the counter making you a tiny bit uneasy.

“You going to tell me what it is, or do I have to guess till I get it right?” you ask, chuckling to yourself as you follow her to the door.

“It’s a surprise, dork,” she says while wagging a finger at nobody in particular. “Trust me, I think you’ll actually enjoy it.”

“If you say so,” you say, stepping through the door’s threshold and once again being embraced by the bitter cold outside. “Guess you haven’t been wrong yet.”

The two of you quickly make your way down the steps and towards your car parked nearby, practically diving inside to escape winter’s grasp. You put the key in the ignition, turn the key expecting the roar of an engine and instead are greeted by the sound of it struggling to start up. While it’s a little embarrassing, it’s nothing that wouldn’t happen to even a newer car and a glance to the side shows Ruby staring out the passenger side window instead of at you expectantly. After a few more turns of the key, a slap of the steering wheel and a curse under your breath later, it finally catches and you pull off towards the gym. The visibility isn’t great, and so you decide to take things slow due to the lack of trust you have in your brakes. You make another mental note to replace them soon as possible as you come to a stop at a traffic light.

“Hey Mike?” you hear from beside you, glancing over to meet her gaze.

“Yeah?” you ask, your fingers idly tapping against the steering wheel as you do your best to keep the light in your peripheral.

“Just wanted to say sorry if… all that was a little weird earlier,” she says, a small, nervous smile on her face. “Didn’t mean to unload like that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” you say, doing your best to sound reassuring. “If it helps you, then I don't mind talking about stuff like that at all.”

The light changes and you continue on, waiting for an answer from the girl next to you. The silence drags and you decide to feel out for an answer again, unable to take your eyes off the road.

“Did it?” you ask, hoping to get a response back. “Help, that is.”

"Sorry, I just... didn't really know what to say," she mutters, and even though you can't see her face, that nervousness in her tone just a few moments ago is nowhere to be heard. “Did actually help a lot to talk things out. Don’t take it the wrong way, I’m just not really used to people offering besides Lily and sometimes Jade. Thanks for being there for me.”

“I’m glad,” you say, the smile tugging at the corners of your mouth shaping up to be impossible to wipe off for a while. “I know you’d offer too if it was me in your shoes. Not like you haven’t been there for me before.”

“‘Course I would,” she says, sounding almost proud now. “What kind of girlf- uh, friend would I be if I wasn’t?”

You immediately catch her little slip, smiling wider as you come up with a way to tease her about it. “Probably the same kind of girlfriend that couldn’t put up with all my awful jokes.”

The little snide comments earns you a light knuckle tap to your upper arm and you wear it like a badge of pride.

“Asshole,” she says as you come to a stop again.

A quick stolen glance shows her wildly twitching tail, your words hitting the mark even better than you'd expected, Ruby smiling to herself as she looks down at her feet. You let the impact settle as you keep yourself quiet and smiling, the rest of the trip proving uneventful as you soon find yourself pulling into a nearly barren parking lot, only a few handfuls of cars dotted throughout. You quickly come to a stop near the gym's entrance, parking as close as possible before both of you hop out the car, quickly snatching your gym bags from the trunk and slamming it shut as the cold starts to bite at your skin.

“Alright, let’s go,” you say, taking up a brisk, almost running pace towards the gym. “Even fuckin’ colder here than it was up on the rooftop.”

Once inside you’re greeted by the modern miracle of central heating, and a near empty gym to boot. You make a beeline towards the locker rooms, knocking back another swig of the shake Ruby made as you walk.

Once at the entrance, you turn to the side and look down to face her. “Going to change into something that’s not going to have me sweating my balls off real quick. Back in a second.”

(-----)

“Sounds good,” you say, nodding as you unsling your gym bag from over your shoulder. “Meet you over by the mats?”

“Sure,” he says, before the two of you start to go into your respective locker rooms.

You cram your bag into the closest locker before slamming the door shut and applying your combination lock. There’s a couple thoughts vying for control in your head as you make your way towards the sink, and compared to what’s usually swimming around up there, you’re surprised nothing negative is inching its way into the mix. There’s an odd sense of happiness mixed with pride and nervousness surfacing within you, so strong that you’re not entirely sure you haven’t just dreamt this entire day up. A smile that feels a mile wide starts to form as you tuck a few strands of hair that came loose back underneath your scrunchie, closing your eyes and letting loose a deep sigh as you think back to everything that happened in the last few hours. You can feel your heart flutter when you think back to the close embrace you shared with him on the roof of your apartment, an almost phantom feeling of his arms wrapped around you only making your heart beat faster.

Part of you wants to snap out of your reverie, but you’re still riding the high of being able to trust your now boyfriend, as nervous as the label makes you, with all the stuff you’d spilled earlier. It’s been a long time since you’ve felt like things in your life were finally starting to click into place, the last time you felt this happy being when you finally managed to get your first teaching job. The butterflies in your stomach right now aren’t because you’re afraid of him rejecting you, but because you want to hold onto this feeling for as long as possible. You quickly finish messing with your hair as you stare into the mirror, straightening out the bits of fur sticking out on your face and snout before you wash and dry your paws.

As you finally start to leave the locker room, the thing at the forefront of your mind is that you hope he likes what you’ve got planned as a warmup. Bottle in hand, you saunter over to the corner with all the aerobics equipment, thankful for the snowy day providing the perfect amount of peace and quiet for what you want to do. There’s not a single other soul closeby, most of the other patrons being the diehard gym rats too preoccupied either doing cardio on the treadmills or with getting their deadlifts and squats in. You pull four mats off the wall and arrange them in a square shape, occasionally stealing a glance towards the locker rooms hoping to see Mike coming out. A few more minutes pass, and you decide to get started with some basic stretches and lunges, something you’re used to doing every morning to avoid hurting yourself on your runs together. Once you start with your first set of lunges, you start to hear the very faint sound of footsteps behind you, growing in volume with each passing second. The noise stops you in your tracks and you quickly turn around to avoid letting him get the jump on you like he’d managed earlier. There’s a contagious grin on his face, one that quickly spreads to you as you eye him up and down, your gaze lingering a bit longer than necessary on his arms and chest.

“Now who’s the one feeling jumpy?” he asks before chuckling a bit, leaning down to set his bottle down. “So, are we starting here first? Didn’t exactly take you for the yoga type.”

“Looks can be deceiving,” you say, as you take a seat on the far side of the mat. “Figured shaking things up would be a nice change of pace. Do a little stretching then you can join me.”

“If you say so,” he says, reaching up in the air to stretch. “Sure as hell beats you trying to kill me on the stairmaster.”

You lay back on the rubber mat, leaning the back of your against your arms for support as you watch him stretch. “Sounds to me like you’re just being a big baby again. You’ve been killing it on our jogs since I got you started doing ten minutes a day on it.”

“Ten my ass,” he says, grunting and straining as he reaches down to touch his toes. “You started me off on thirty a day and only took me down to ten when I couldn’t feel my calves the next morning.”

“Sorry,” you say, smiling sheepishly as you think back to that day. “At least you didn’t have to work that day, right?”

“Yeah, could’ve been worse I guess,” he says, crouching down to sit down on the side of the mat opposite you. “Forgot how much I told you, but it was so bad I had to actually order out because I couldn’t stand long enough to make food.”

“Could’ve just asked me to bring you something, dork,” you say, sitting upright and scooching forward a bit to get closer to him. “Would’ve been more than happy to.”

“I’ll keep that in mind next time you break my legs,” he says, smiling as he inches forward slightly. “What are we actually doing besides stretching though?”

“Don’t really want to call it yoga, but it’s just a bunch of flexibility exercises I used to do before,” you say, hoping the words aren’t coming out as hurried as they are in your head. “Might help you feel a little bit better the morning after a leg day. I’ll try and start us off with some easy ones so you don’t hurt yourself, okay?”

“Sounds good to me,” he says, still holding that same smile as he points his head down to meet your gaze. “Just tell me what I have to do.”

“You know the lotus position?” you ask, probing his knowledge a bit. “The one where you uh, cross your legs and put your feet on opposite thighs?”

“The one you always see monks doing when they meditate?” he asks, raising an eyebrow at your words. “Isn’t that one actually a yoga pose though?”

“Stop trying to get out of it by arguing semantics,” you say, bringing one of your legs towards your core. “Just follow my lead, okay?”

"As you wish, Guru Ruby," he says, an amused smile on his face as he does an exaggerated, mocking bow down to you.

"Quit being such a goober and pay attention," You laugh, and make sure his focus is on you before you start to cross your legs, slowly tying them into a vaguely pretzel-looking shape as your ankles touch your abdomen. “Got that? Now you do the same.”

You can’t help but be a little amused at how much he struggles, though you probably chalk some of the difficulty up to how huge he is by comparison, his legs nearly twice as long as yours. He manages after a little while, and you flash him a smile of encouragement as he looks to you for more instructions.

“Try to hold that as long as possible,” you say, slowly bringing your hands up from your lap. “Then start taking some deep breaths and… stretch your arms as high up above your head as you can.”

He doesn’t question you this time, even going as far to close his eyes as he emulates your movements. You watch his nostrils flare, though your eyes are quickly drawn elsewhere as his fingers interlock at the peak of his stretch, his strong shoulders and biceps on full display. You close your eyes and shake your head a bit, but the damage is already done as the image is seared into your memory. As distracting as a sleeveless, buff Mike is, it's hard to tell him to stop and you find yourself biting at your lip as the picture only continues to get stronger and stronger in your mind's eye. You try to focus on your breathing and the pose you're holding instead, occasionally opening your eyes to make sure he's doing the same. After a few more minutes pass, you decide to break him out of his trance.

“...And, stop,” you say, just loud enough to get his attention. “How do you feel?”

“Little more relaxed,” he says, a genuine smile on his face as he brings his hands back down to massage his legs as he uncrosses them. “Gotta say, this yoga stuff sure beats the hell out of sweating my ass off. Is it normal for it to be this hard though? Felt like I was going to cramp up halfway through.”

“If you haven’t done it in a while, or ever, sure,” you say, a smug grin forming on your features. “That one’s mostly good for your ankles and legs. If you want to try a couple more, there’s some that cover most of your body. Might help you break that deadlift PR you’ve been chasin’ after.”

As odd as human faces can be at times, it's hard to ignore that spark in his eyes when you mention a lifting record, the giddy smile on his face making it clear that he's basically putty in your hands from now until you're finished with this part of your workout.

“Sounds great to me,” he says, idly cracking his knuckles before starting a set of wrist stretches. “Just tell me what I’ve got to do.”

You uncross your legs and bring yourself to your knees, dropping down on all fours as your elbows hit the mat. “First thing, you’re going to want to get into this position. Next, palms go flat on the mat like you’re doing knee push-ups. Then the hardest bit is that you’re going to want to arch your back like… You know when cats do that stretch that’s kind of like a wave? Sort of like that, just watch me do it first.”

You do your best to try and arch you back upwards as high as possible, holding it there for a few moments before gently coming back down to normal. A glance at the side shows that he’s following along with his gaze, and you can’t help but feel a little flushed when you see it wander a bit, smiling to try and cover your true feelings.

“You get all that, Mike?” you say, the corners of your snout giving way to a grin as he snaps out of his little ogling reverie and starts nodding.

“Yeah, I think,” he says, a nervous smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he meets your gaze. “Not… really sure I can bend like that at all though.”

“Just try, I’ll help you out if you’re having trouble with it,” you say, hoping your words are reassuring enough for him to at least give it a shot. “Once you get it down once or twice, it’s a whole lot easier after that.”

“Only difference,” he says, grunting a bit as he tries to repeat your movements. “Is that… you look like a mermaid doing it and I probably look like a fish out of water.”

You can’t help but let out a little laugh at the comparison, and you decide to get off all fours as his grunting and straining only grows in volume and frequency, walking over to him before bending down by his side. A quick look tells you he’s having the most difficulty arching his back all the way, and you reach under him to give a gentle, helping push upwards as your other hand finds a nice resting spot around his lower back. It’s unexpectedly firm to the touch, never having felt this part of his body before. You try not to focus on the muscles beneath your pads too much as you press the hand on his back down a bit, your other gently pushing upwards towards his midsection, feeling the tensing abs beneath as you balance the pressures. It forces another low grunt out of him, but you continue on as he doesn’t verbally protest or sound like he’s in pain. His arching back peaks at a new height, though you stop dead in your tracks when your ears pick up on the faint sound of cracking, his body slowly adjusting to the unfamiliar movements, one snap and pop at a time.

“Feeling alright down there still?” you ask out of concern for his wellbeing as you bring the hand on his back down a bit more. “Let me know if you want me to ease off.”

“I’m fine,” he replies, though you can see and feel the tension coiled up in his limbs. “Keep going.”

“Not when you’re this tensed up,” you say, reaching down to have a quick feel at his thigh to see just how wound up he is. “If you don’t relax I might actually hurt you instead. Just take a couple deep breaths and let me guide you.”

After a few seconds it feels like he’s internalized your words, and you can feel him relax under your gentle touch. You don’t start pushing up yet, instead opting to tug at one of his legs as he continues to hold the pose, wanting to help him stretch his muscles the same way your mom had done for you when you felt sore. You hear another quiet cracking sound that soon gives way to a louder one, accompanied by an audible curse coming from under his breath.

“F-fuck, Ruby,” he says, accompanied by what feels like a laugh. “When you said we were doing yoga, I didn’t think you were going to break my legs again. Does feel kinda good though…”

“You’re gonna feel like a million bucks after this, trust me,” you say, shaking your head a little bit in disapproval of his doubt. “This is probably gonna feel a little uncomfortable so relax your leg a little more, just pretend it’s asleep or something.”

He does as you tell him and you continue tugging the way you were before, a cacophony of small cracking sounds filling the air. You’re not sure if he can hear them nearly as well as you do, your sense of hearing picking up on them like it’s nothing as you pull, push and massage the sore limb.

After a couple minutes of back and forth pushing and pulling on one of his legs, you decide to switch to the other, immediately noticing the difference in both tension and firmness. You start to go through the motions again, your fingers gliding across his skin and the muscle beneath, but this time around it feels much easier as he leans into your measured movements. Once you're satisfied with your work, you turn your attention to his still held pose, placing a hand beneath his chest to hold him up as you lay another on his back. You start around the base, pressing down into the muscle until you can hear those small grunts of relief come pouring from him, his sore body far more honest than he’d ever admit. You massage until you stop feeling his little reactions and staggered breathing, lingering far longer than you should in some places to feel along certain groups in his muscled back. You eventually manage to work all the way up to the shoulders, smiling a little as your hand on his underside lets you pick up on his quickening heartbeat.

You grip one of his shoulders tight and pull downwards, making him let out a long, relieved sigh.

“Didn’t I tell you you were going to feel nice?”

“Yeah…” he says, in an almost dazed tone from how relaxed he sounds. “God, I really needed this. If I didn’t know for a fact you’re a teacher I might’ve guessed massage therapist instead.”

You can’t help but beam with pride at his compliment at your skills as you coax the tension out of his neck. “You’re just saying to keep this going before I start breaking your back again, huh?”

“Maybe,” he says, audibly groaning in relief before he starts putting together words again. “That was nice too but this is… just heavenly.”

“Could always just ask if you’re feeling sore, you know?” you say as you start on his shoulder. “Not good if you’re always walking around this stressed out. You ready to try the pose again?”

“Yeah, I think I’m feeling pretty good about it noooww,” he says, words slurring a bit as you pull down on his shoulder. “Where’d you learn how to do this anyway?”

“Mostly my mom,” you say as you continue to repeat the motions. “Apparently a lot of this got taught to my dad and her when she was pregnant. Helped her feel a little better with us kicking in there. She passed it down to me and my sister when we started getting involved in sports.”

“The boxing stuff, or something else?” he asks, tilting his head to the side to try and look up at you.

“That and something I’ll have to tell you about some other time,” you say, shifting your hands back down to their original position under his midsection. “Don’t resist it so much this time, okay? This is meant to help, not hurt.”

You push his back upwards again, and though you can hear that slight cracking again, it's nowhere near as bad as before, making you doubt if he can even feel it at this point. It takes a little bit of doing, but eventually his back is arched about as high as you think he’s comfortable going.

“Alright, I’m gonna let go, Mike,” you say as you slowly ease up on the upward movement. “Just hold it for as long as you can then try to come back to normal smoothly, okay?”

You remove your hands and start to count the seconds in your head, smiling out of sheer pride when he inches past a minute before his back starts to give out, slowly returning to its normal curvature.

“Tell me…” he says, panting between words and he brings himself off the mat onto his knees. “That’s all we’re going to be doing today. Not sure my bones can handle more of that.”

“Had one more thing in mind,” you admit, reaching a hand out to help him back on his feet. “If you wanna just take a breather while I finish up though, I won’t make you do any more.”

“Sounds good to me,” he says, leaning down to pick up his bottle before taking what looks like a much needed swig. “Don’t know how the hell you’re still chomping at the bit for more.”

You shrug as you take a seat back down on the mat, reaching to your side to take a few sips of your own before you start working out the kinks in your legs. The thickened fur and your pawpads makes it a little harder than you’d like to find the sore spots and muscles and for a brief moment, you consider asking him for help. You’re left conflicted because while you want to let him take his time to rest, if you don’t get some help with this you’re going to be keeping him waiting a long while.

You decide to just go for broke and ask, figuring he won’t mind if it’s quick. “Hey, Mike?”

He glances down and to the side from his phone screen, meeting your gaze as the smile he had on his face straightens up. “Yeah, Ruby?”

“Would you mind helping me out real quick?” you ask, nudging your snout towards your outstretched leg. “Trying to find the right spots to massage, but I’m having a tough time pinning them down. Stupid winter fur…”

“Sure,” he says, flashing you that trademark smile of his as he slips his phone back into his pockets before plopping himself down next to you. “Just tell me what you need me to do.”

“You see these spots right here?” you say, looking at him before looking down at your leg, gliding your fingers through the top layer of fur of your upper thigh to show him exactly where the problem is. “Just need you to run your fingers through here quickly so I know where it hurts.”

He raises an eyebrow at your words for a brief moment but doesn’t say anything for a while as he cocks his head a little. “You sure you actually need my help for that? Never really done it before.”

You want to shoot back something equally cheeky at him, but you’re already flustered enough by the prospect of him running his hands over your thighs, feeling your tail involuntarily swipe over the mat. “Shut up and get over here, please. I’m serious.”

He scoots in closer and gently puts his hand over your right thigh before flashing you a sly smile. “Just didn’t think we’d be moving so quickly.”

It takes you a second to pick up what he actually means, and you deliver a rebuttal in the form of a playful tap to the shoulder. “Gutterbrained dork.”

“Kind of rich coming from you, no?” he asks, his smile widening as he nudges your side a bit with his elbow. “Not as sly as you think you are, Ms. Copafeel.”

“That’s… I-” you stammer, struggling to even come up with a rebuttal from how flustered his little nickname for you makes you feel. Your cheeks burn bright with embarrassment when you think back to all the times you’d done similar things, hoping he was just talking about the one occasion.

“That’s what?” he asks, his smug grin telling you he’s really enjoying having you on the backfoot for once. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”

You're sure he can feel your leg thumping slightly under his hand, so you don't see any point in sidestepping the accusation, a small sigh of relief escaping you as you look him in the eyes.

“It’s only a little true,” you mutter under your breath, feeling your ears perking up and twitching at your own blunt honesty. “Doesn’t bother you, does it?”

“Not in the slightest,” he says, lightly patting you on the thigh. “Just think it’s cute when you get all wound up like that. Means I’m doing a good job with the workouts, if anything.”

“Hmph,” you huff, mock pouting in response as you avert your gaze a tiny bit. “You are, but don’t let it go to your head or anything.”

“Too late,” he says, his grin practically a mile wide. “Should’ve thought about that before you did it so much. I still remember that one time in the changing room…”

“Just because it’s happened two or three times doesn’t mean shit,” you laugh, leaning back a bit onto your palms as his hand starts to move again. “And if your ego is getting inflated from that, Mr. Cyclops, you should hurry up and help me with this before you float away.”

“Who said anything about a third time?” he asks, the smirk on his face almost looking like a permanent fixture. “Besides, I can’t float away if I’m holding onto you, can I?”

“Smartass,” you say, lightly slapping him on the shoulder. “Put those muscles to good use then.”

He silently nods before getting to work, and you take a deep breath as his large yet agile fingers press into your thick fur, his gaze darting between laser focus on your leg and little glances at your face to make sure he’s doing things correctly. It’s when his fingers start to dig into the corded muscles beneath however, that you can’t help but let out a breathy, yet relieved groan. He looks to you for a second after you let out the embarrassing noise, but doesn’t say anything as he shakes his head, smiling as his nostrils flare a bit. If you thought you were flustered before by what he said, what you’re feeling right now makes it pale in comparison even as he starts to put pressure on one of the sore spots. You try to muffle it, but another shameful mix of a groan and a quiet cry of pain comes tumbling from your lips.

His gaze snaps to you second after, his movements slowing down to a crawl out of what looks to be concern. “Shit, you alright? Want me to keep going or do you want me to stop?”

You close your eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath to steady the slight nerves in your voice before responding.

“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry,” you say, nodding to reinforce your approval. “Just stings a little is all. Kinda my fault for pushing myself too much the other day. I can work out it out myself if you-”

He cuts you off before you can finish your sentence. “Sit back and relax, I got it. Gotta practice what you preach, right?”

“Alright, you made your point. Dork,” you chuckle, leaning back even further and supporting yourself by the forearms as he goes back to work.

You sit back and try to relax as you can, taking what you hope are fairly silent, yet deep breaths as he continues to work all the way around and down your thigh. You’d be lying if you said the care and focus in his expression doesn’t make your heart flutter a bit, and that’s not even considering how you feel about his touch now that you’ve given him approval to continue. You squirm and twitch a bit as his fingers glide beneath the fur, a light shiver running through your spine the next time his fingers find yet another spot to prod at to feel for soreness. For someone who’d just teased you about copping a feel he’s spending an awful lot of time lingering in places between his pokes and prods. You’re not exactly about to complain at how thorough he’s being, though out of the corner of your eye you can see his mouth moving, the curiosity in you prompting you to sit up a tiny bit to try and listen in.

“...goddamn, she’s strong,” is all you manage to catch him muttering under his breath, the compliment hitting you even harder as he traces your muscled inner thigh with his thumb.

The way your heart skips a beat or two as your smile widens makes you feel like a schoolgirl pining after her first crush, feeling your cheeks burn intensely from the praise. Your mind teeters between saying something about it to get back at him for earlier or just appreciating his words for what they are, ultimately deciding to let it go as he switches from massaging one sore leg to the other. You’re impressed with how fast he’s picked up on things, his movements quickly going from someone who’s never given a massage before to feeling like he’s practiced this a hundred times before. Part of you wonders if it’s because you’re just that easy to read with the way your paws, ears and tail love to betray your feelings when you least expect them to. He seems to get a kick out of that part of you though, because every time he steals a glance to his side, you swear his smile grows a little wider.

“You… mind going a liiittle lower?” You manage to breathe out between groans of relaxation. “Calf’s still kinda killing me from the other day.”

“Sure,” he says without even so much as looking over, both of his hands quickly getting to work massaging both sides of your lower leg.

After a couple more minutes of the wonderful treatment, you can feel him come to a full stop, and you open your eyes to find him staring down at you.

“That good enough?” he asks, cocking his head slightly. “Or should I keep going?”

You bring yourself upright from your laid back position and after a small delay, scoot towards him a bit. “More than good, actually. For someone saying they’ve never done it before, you’re a real natural at it.”

“Ah you’re just saying that,” he says, finally taking his hands off you to wave dismissively as he smiles, his other hand rubbing at the back of his neck. “Can’t say I’ve ever massaged an anthro’s leg before, no.”

“Well, I really appreciate you helping me out,” you say, flashing him a warm smile of your own. “You can’t even imagine how much of a nightmare it is to get at some of the lower spots sometimes.”

“I bet. There’s uh-” he says, still rubbing at the back of his neck. “A lot more muscle down there than it looks like. I mean I know you’re strong but… shit. Kinda surprised me a little bit, in a goo-”

You decide to interrupt his frantic and slightly flustered speech by leaning forward to put a paw on top of his hand. “Now who’s copping feels, Mr. Cyclops? But thanks, I’m glad you think so.”

“Guess that makes us a match made in heaven, no?" he says, laughing a bit at your nickname for him. His free hand suddenly reaches behind his neck to rub at it, a slight apprehension in his tone.

"You really think this is worth doing all the time though? Stacking the yoga with the leg day stuff and the stretches on top? Aren't we pushing it a little?"

“I think the progress we’ve both made on our runs speaks for itself,” you say, a slightly smug smile tugging at the corners of your mouth. “I remember our first couple jogs where I ran you absolutely ragged. Let me show you something too.”

You quickly find your way back onto your feet, staring down at him as you prepare to show him something you haven’t done in a long, long while.

“You say that like you still don’t try to kill me every morning,” he laughs, his gaze following you as you take a few steps back on the mat. “What’d you want to show me?”

You don't even bother to entertain the question, instead deciding to put on a little show, locking eyes with him as you take a long, deep breath. You keep your gaze locked straight onto his as your legs begin to spread apart, your tiny body slowly lowering itself as you gently glide down in one intentionally drawn out movement. Your thighs hit the mat first with a meaty thud, and you can't help but let out a small, muted grunt from both the impact and exertion. You're not quite done showing off yet even though you've done a pretty much picture perfect split, and you can't help but grin as you stare up at him in anticipation of what you're about to do next. You hold your arms out to the side, and as you've practiced what feels like a million times before, you bring them inward until the pads of your paws touch each other, briefly bringing them apart and interlocking your fingers in reverse. To cap it all off, you make sure he's still watching by locking your intense gaze with his before you slowly bring your arms up above your head as high as they'll go, tensing your muscles to show as much definition as you can through the fur. You bite down on your lip slightly from the strain as you try to hold the pose as long as you physically can, your gaze veering off slightly as you focus on your movements. Once you're satisfied that he's seen enough, you bring your arms back down and plant your palms face down on the mat in front of your groin. You look up once more, only to be pleasantly surprised with what you're met with.

The expression you put on when you landed must have been a perfect mix of sultry and smug, because not even thirty seconds after you raised your arms, you can see his eyes still open in bewilderment, his mouth half open and moving slightly as he tries to speak but fails to find the words to do so. You probably could've made your point in a different, much less flashy way, but the opportunity was too sweet not to take; that and you're enjoying every second of watching him struggle to think how he should feel about the sight in front of him, relishing in the feeling of leaving him both speechless and breathless.

“Still think it’s not worth it?” you ask, your breath a little ragged and heavy from the sudden exertion of having to hold such a pose.

You’re worried you’ve short circuited the guy, and he squirms a bit to reposition himself as a hint of blush starts to tinge his cheeks. It's a response you've really come to appreciate since the first time you noticed it, and one you're particularly glad humans have considering how difficult he can be to read sometimes.

“I uh, well I-” he says, going into a small coughing fit before he swallows audibly. “I could definitely see how it’s worth it now, sure.”

You pant a little bit before even trying to respond, still a little tired from everything you’d done leading up to now, though you try to hold your amused smile as best you can, still riding the high of provoking this kind of reaction from him.

“That’s definitely one way to put it,” you say, laughing even though you’re starting to feel the effects of holding a split for this long. “Might want to pick up your jaw off the ground before it gets too dirty, Mike.”

Your teasing words have an immediate sobering effect on him, and he shakes his head as he snaps back to reality and becomes aware of how ridiculous he must look. “So uh, are you going to tell me where the hell you learned to do… that? I didn’t even know your legs could bend that way.”

You just shrug your shoulders, pretending what you just did isn’t really that big of a deal, but it’s hard to keep a straight face. “Looked up a couple videos online and spent a little while practicing it.”

“Bullshit,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief as his gaze travels down and to the side to take another glance at your still split legs. “No way you can do a split that clean without practicing a shitload. Tell me how you really learned to be that flexible.”

You’re not sure if it was your smile that you’d caught from him that gave the game away, but you don’t see any point in stringing him along any further. “Alright, alright, you got me. My parents enrolled me in a bunch of gymnastics classes when I was a little shit because I got it in my head that it’s something I really, really wanted to do. Turns out it’s a lot harder than it looks on TV, especially when you’re kinda out of shape.”

He chuckles a little bit at your admission, though it’s not any more embarrassing than the pose you’ve put yourself in. “You know, I thought I couldn’t imagine you teaching but you doing gymnastics is a hell of a mental image. Did you end up quitting or do it for a long time? Can’t imagine that’s something you pick up in a week or two.”

“Did it on and off for a couple years, but I kinda lost interest after middle school,” you say, trying not to let the slight regret you feel show in your voice. “Sorta wish I’d kept going with it, I met a lot of cool kids bouncing from class to class every time we moved. Sure beat the hell out of trying to make friends with people at every new school, that’s for sure.”

“Not like it’s too late to pick it back up as a hobby again if you want,” he says, offering a reassuring smile. “Same thing happened to me but with music. Really loved it when I was a kid, quit for a long time and then I picked it up again a few years ago.”

“Never told me you played music,” you say, cocking your head a bit with intrigue. “What instruments?”

“Little guitar, mostly piano,” he says, his hand shooting up to rub at the back of his neck slightly. “And I never told you because I’m actually not that good at them. Picked up guitar mostly because of my dad teaching me a little.”

“Wouldn’t mind seeing you play sometime,” you say, flashing a smile that you hope melts some of the doubt in his abilities. “I’m sure if you’ve kept up with it then you can play pretty well by now.”

“Not as well as I’d like to be playing,” he says, chuckling nervously. “Don’t think you’d be saying that if I decided to bust out Wonderwall on you, though.”

“Oh no, anything but that,” you say in a tone absolutely dripping with sarcasm. “Not sure I could stand to bear the dork I’m dating playing a song just for me…”

“Alright, alright I get your point,” he says, and you smile when you see he’s no longer rubbing at the back of his neck. “I’ll dust off the old guitar next time I come over to your place.”

“Good,” you say with a proud grin on your face. “Now do you mind helping me up? Legs are feeling a little like Jello right now and I don’t think I can get up by myself.”

“Sure,” he says, grunting a bit as he finds his way back onto his feet before offering out his outstretched hand. “You know, I could probably pick you up by the damn tail with how big it is.”

You take hold of the offered limb, though you stare up at him to shoot him a glare. “Don’t even think about it. It’s sensitive, remember?”

“Ah come on, how bad can it really be?” he asks as he tugs you up with a good bit of force, your legs slowly lifting off the ground. “It’s not like I’d be trying to pull it off or something.”

“Probably would hurt just as bad,” you say, springing back to your feet with his help. “So, what do you feel like doing next? Bench, couple sets of deadlifts maybe?”

He takes a second to think about it, his gaze wandering between a few different parts of the gym. No matter what he decides, you’ll be more than happy to do it, the high you’re riding from being able to fluster him so easily making you feel like you can do anything.

“Thought you said we were going to take it easy today?” He chuckles as he nods towards something behind you. “Benching sounds pretty good to me though, I haven't hit a chest day super hard in a little while.”

“Doing yoga is taking it easy, dork,” you say, taking him by the arm and tugging him towards the other side of the gym. “Now come on, I’m feeling pretty good about smashing a PR tonight.”

The two of you quickly make your way over to the benches, arms a hair's breadth away from being interlocked when you finally make it to the closest unoccupied one.

You awkwardly untangle yourself from him and step towards the loose plates sitting on a nearby rack. “You good to spot me for 230? Just want to try a single rep, feel like I’m ready for it.”

You turn to see him raising an eyebrow slightly at the question. “I mean… sure, I guess? You sure you can actually lift that though? Not to doubt you or anything but didn’t you top out at 200 two weeks ago?”

"Yeah, but it’s not like I struggled that hard with it,” you say, your smile and words trying to show some confidence despite your quickening heartbeat, gulping down hard at the thought of lifting that heavy. “‘Sides I think we’ve been hitting our arms and chest enough lately, no?”

“Guess you’re right,” he says, walking forward towards you. “Here, let me help you load the bar. Don’t want to get worn out before you even start lifting.”

“Thanks, Mike,” you say, smiling before turning back towards the rack, grabbing two plates and handing one off to him before repeating the process. “You going to try for a record too?”

“Maybe,” he says, walking over to the other side of the bar and loading the weights before starting to come back for more. “I’ll see how I’m feeling after your lift. Might save my energy to try for a deadlift PR.”

“Sounds good to me,” you say, smiling in an attempt to bolster his confidence. “I’m sure you can pull it off after all that stretching.”

“We’ll see about that,” he says, taking two more plates from your hands.

The two of you finish loading the bar in what feels like no time, making sure the clip is safely secured on both ends. Once done, you quickly straddle the bench and take a deep breath before laying back on the cushion. If you thought your heart was beating fast before, the way it’s racing now makes that feel like nothing as you’re assaulted by the bright, fluorescent lights above, massive plates to either side of you. When you see Mike start to loom over you, you feel a little better, but not nearly enough to steady your nerves completely. You wipe your hands down as best you can on your sports bra, gripping the bar tight before taking another set of deep breaths. Once you’re sure your grip is right on the bar you decide to double check if he’s ready.

“G-good to go?” you ask, and you cringe inwardly a little when you hear how unsteady your voice sounds from the nerves.

“I got you, don’t worry,” he says, that trademark smile helping peel away the anxiety for your lift.

You shakily nod back in response and take one last deep breath before as you start to focus all your strength on lifting the bar off the rack. The exertion only makes you audibly strain and grunt, and for a moment it feels like there’s no way you’re going to get it to budge even an inch. You push and push, but mentally you’re already struggling to not just reset after a few more seconds of giving it your all. It only makes you all the more surprised when a moment later, you feel your arm start to buckle a bit as you suddenly find all of the weight on the bar exclusively supported by your unsteady arms.

You manage to stabilize them after a little while, slowly bringing the weight down towards yourself until you can barely feel the pressure of the bar against your chest. It’s no small feat for you to get this far in the lift with this much weight, and you’re already feeling your arms quivering again as you start lifting the bar back up to rerack it. If not for the fur covering it, you’re sure you’d be visibly red in the face with how much you’re struggling with the weight despite pouring everything you’ve got into this rep. The sheer force pressing down against you causes a grunt of frustration to escape your lips like a cork shooting from a champagne bottle. You’re determined to continue pressing on and finish as strong as you possibly can though, feeling emboldened when the things Mike had said earlier about your strength cross your mind. With every thought you can feel that bar inching up towards the top of the rack, millimeter by millimeter, your arms wobbling like no other as you start to approach the halfway mark. It’s no easy journey to the top though, and you feel like you’re in a fleeting tug of war battle with yourself as you start to lose the progress you’d made just as quickly as it’d come. The bar drops almost a full inch in what feels like the span of seconds, and for a moment you start to lose hope that you’ll actually pull this off.

“Cmon, you got it!” you hear him say from above you, the sound startling you for a moment even as it starts to fill you with confidence. “Push through, Ruby!”

His words make every ounce of strength still left in every fiber of your being come pouring forth like a tidal wave, and in what feels like one gargantuan push, you manage to get the bar even higher than it was before. The thought of conquering this lift and smashing your record by a mile is the only thought at the forefront of your mind as you look forward to that payoff, that feeling that’s better than almost anything else. That high you’re riding as you chase an even greater one proves to be short lived when you feel your arm start to buckle again, your heart sinking down to your stomach in sheer terror when one of your pawpads starts to slip against the bar. You barely have time to react to what’s happening, but you know you have mere seconds to make a decision. Letting go of the bar to avoid breaking your arm is an option that briefly crosses your mind, but your gut tells you it’s better to try anything instead of giving up entirely. By now, your pad has almost completely slipped off the bar and thrown any semblance of stability out the window, your attempt at compensating upwards to fix your grip only making things worse. You can feel an overwhelming, gut wrenching panic wash over you as you watch that heavy bar hurtle towards your neck. It feels like time itself has slowed down from the sheer adrenaline coursing through your veins, your eyes widening with dread and your breath quickening as the mass of iron grows closer and closer with each passing second. The panicked thought that this is the end for you bursts forth like a geyser from the deepest recesses of your mind, and despite the paralyzing fright spreading to every inch of your body, you fight against the fate decided for you and push with what little of your hands are still in contact with the bar. It's not enough though, and in a rare moment of clarity, with what little time you have left to react, you flinch backwards and to the side as instinct takes over, trying to give yourself the best odds of survival as your arms finally give out.

“MICHAEL!” you scream at the top of your lungs as you close your eyes, bracing yourself for the impact you know is about to happen.

You feel the lethal bar barely brush against your chest fur as it undoubtedly continues to barrel towards your windpipe, your breath leaving your lungs as your body braces for the inevitable. You await the impact, time seemingly slowing down as dread fills you, yet it never comes. What does come, however, makes you flinch just as hard, an almost deafening, primal grunt that quickly swells into a yell filling the air, soon accompanied by the unceremonious crashing and clattering of metal against the bench and the floor below it, an eardrum-shattering noise you’re sure has grabbed the attention of the entire gym. Your eyes shoot open, but even though the immediate threat is gone your body still fights itself as you struggle to take in anything more than a shallow breath, the ringing in your eyes only giving you a momentary relief from the audible thumps of your quickened heartbeat. Your legs tremble and you can feel it, a sensation like static from a TV, spreading upwards from your fingers and into your arms as you continue to gasp harshly for air. You see a blur of movement fly past you, and what little part of your head still has room for coherent thoughts silently prays it’s Mike coming to your aid. The embarrassment of having both him and everyone else witness your almost fatal mistake only worsens your panic, the task of breathing seeming almost impossible as you keep trying only to fail, feeling more and more winded as the seconds go by. The only reassurance you get is in the form of his strong hands burying themselves beneath your back for support before they start to push you upright.

“RUBY?! RUBY?! Are you alright?!” he practically shouts, shaking you slightly as his words come pouring forth tinged with a panic you’ve never heard out of him before. “Come on, you’re good. Just breathe!”

You glance to your side and get a blurred glimpse of what you think is a worried Mike, his reassuring words making it a little easier to suck in fresh air into your lungs. The lack of oxygen has you feeling dizzy and you shakily raise a trembling paw as you close your eyes again to try and say that you’re alright, finding it hard to get even a single word out right now.

“You’re doing fine, Ruby,” he says as he continues to stroke your back, his tone still a bit shaken but noticeably more calm than mere moments ago. “Just… keep breathing. You’re safe now.”

You desperately wish you could cover your ears right now, not to block out his honeyed words but to not have to hear the borderline deafening commotion that snakes its way past the ringing of your ears. As much as you know it's probably a bad idea, you have to see if the crowd forming is as bad as the one you're imagining, and you open your eyes again, vision a little less blurred than before as you slowly scan your surroundings. It's not as bad as expected, but seeing all those people looking in your direction as they mutter to one another, with some of them even starting to approach the two of you? It's something that makes your stomach start to twist itself into knots, leaving you feeling like you're about to hurl. You bring your gaze back to him, staring into his eyes as you try to focus on him and him alone, taking the best deep breath you can muster to quell the nausea welling up within you. His worried smile and the hand still stroking your back do wonders to calm your nerves, but what catches your eye above all else is the bit of moisture pooling up in the corner of his eyes, the sight making you feel like someone’s twisting a knife into your gut. The sight combined with the sheer amount of concern in his expression only makes just how much he cares about you sink in, and the whirlwind of conflicting emotions sweeping through you leaves you thankful he was here to save you. As safe as you feel with him here, with his caring touch and that damn smile of his, there's nothing you want more right now than to be alone with him, away from this place. The muttering, the watchful eyes and the bright lights bring painful memories bubbling back to the forefront of your mind and you fight to keep them down as you can feel yourself starting to calm down a bit. You can feel his thumb start to stroke the fur on the side of your snout, and you close your eyes a bit as you lean into his gentle touch there for comfort. A few more deep breaths later and you finally feel some of the panic start to fade away, enough that you finally feel ready to speak again. It takes you a few attempts, not really sure what it is you want to say, so instead of giving it much thought you decide to be just as honest as possible.

(-----)

You hope she can’t feel the slight trembling in one of your hands as you continue gently massaging her back and shoulders, your heart beating so fast from the adrenaline high you’re riding that it feels like it’s going to burst out of your chest at any moment. The sudden rush of strength you had to muster from within to get that bar off her certainly doesn’t help matters any, leaving you slightly lightheaded but still in a much better state than she seems to be in. The fact that her normally pink inner ears had grown slightly pale is worrying, but she seems to be having less trouble drawing in air now, at the very least. Her strained gasps are still cause for concern, but it’s a far cry to how she’d been hyperventilating when you first sat her upright. You don't want to panic her even more with your likely hurried and downright worried speech, so you take her slow recovery from the near death experience as a sight that she's going to be fine, even if she's still shaken up. You appreciate that the few gym regulars care enough to start approaching the two of you, but knowing her as well you do, that kind of external pressure is the last thing she needs right now, and you wave a few of them off while offering a strained half smile. She opens her eyes again, and you stare into those amber pools intently even as her mouth starts to move.

“Mike,” she says, and you hold with bated breath as you wait for her to continue. “I’m… sorry, but can you just take me home?”

You swallow hard, nodding hard as you try to figure out how to exit stage left without drawing too much attention to yourselves. “Yeah, yeah, I can do that. Are you sure you’re good to walk?”

She shakes her head, offering a sheepish smile that almost makes you consider carrying her out of here. Just as you’re about to stand up though, you feel a tap against your shoulder that nearly makes you jump as you glance to your side.

You immediately recognize him as one of the trainers on staff, offering another strained smile as you try your best to seem friendly despite the worry and panic still coursing through your system, an alarming number of thoughts involving Ruby at the forefront of your mind.

“Is she going to be alright?” he asks, the mature, normally gruff sounding man speaking in a soft, much less harsh tone than you’re used to hearing from him. “If you need us to call an ambulance or well… anything, we’re here to help, okay?”

“She’s just a little shaken up is all,” you say, not wanting to make even more of a scene than you’ve already made by throwing weights so far you nearly cracked one of the nearby mirrors. “Appreciate it though. Sorry about all the mess.”

“Don’t worry about picking the weights up kid, I’ll deal with it,” he says, giving you a firm, but much needed pat on the back that gives you the strength to be even more of a rock for Ruby. “I’ll give you two some space.”

“Thanks, Dean.” You nod before flashing him what’s unquestionably a smile of gratitude before starting your attention back to the girl in front of you.

“Been there before, trust me. Happens to the best of us,” he says before you see him start to silently wave off the people that had started to form a small circle around the spectacle, something you’re immensely thankful for.

“Look at me, Ruby,” you say, staring her dead in the eyes, catching that unmistakable look of panic sullying those amber tinted pools. “Don’t worry about all those other people, it’s just you and me here right now, okay? Relax, take a couple deep breaths and we’ll get going soon, alright?”

“I’m s-sorry,” she says, and the shaky words tumbling from her lips as she nods makes your stomach sink a little bit more, though you try not to show it. “Got cocky… almost got you h-hurt too.”

“Hey, there’s nothing to be sorry about, the only thing that matters to me is that you’re alright,” you say, hoping your idle stroking of her back and snout are at least helping her calm down as she continues to draw deeper and deeper breaths. “No shame in having to bail out. That’s why I was spotting you, just in case.”

“B-but the weights and the manager,” she says, shaking her head even faster as she weakly grips your shoulder for support. “Don’t want to… get you in trouble too.”

“I just talked to Dean, Ruby, everything is fine, you understand?” you say, speaking slow and concisely to get things through to her in her anxiety ridden state. “Nobody’s in trouble. Do you think you’re good to walk now?”

“Think s-so,” she says, and you can feel her fingers trembling against your neck as she tries to move. “Gonna… need a little h-help.”

“That’s good, just grab onto me and don’t worry about anyone else, okay?” you ask, her grip on you slowly getting tighter and tighter as the seconds pass.

Before long, she manages to get her other leg over the bench and onto her other side before she turns her body to fully face you. You slowly help her up onto her feet and do your best to shield her from any prying eyes as you bring yourself up from your knees as she clings to you like a shipwrecked man would to a lone plank of driftwood. Once you’re sure she’s good to move without falling, the two of you slowly start to make your way towards the exit, taking a pace that’s comfortable for her. As the two of you start to pass the locker rooms, you can hear a faint muttering noise coming from your side.

“What about your… bag?” she asks, still sounding a little out of breath as you lean your head down to hear her better.

“I’ll swing by and get it tomorrow,” you say bluntly, not wanting to leave her side in her vulnerable state. “Nothing important in there worth stopping for.”

It doesn’t take long for the two of you to make it all the way to the front counter, the girl there offering a sympathetic half smile and a wave that you do your best to return kind before you slip past. Moments later, you find yourself pushing through the door and back into an even more powerful, bitter cold that you'd somehow forgotten about with all the thoughts racing through your mind, the sun now completely gone from the sky above. The light coating of snow you'd seen dusting everything in sight has more than tripled in thickness, your sneakers sinking into the powder as you take a step off the curb. She tries to take a step down, hobbling all the way to the edge of the walkway, nearly tripping and sending herself flying onto the coated pavement, your strong grip the only thing stopping it from happening.

“F-fuck,” she stutters, her voice and the loud clattering of her teeth filling the silence hanging in the air. “S-should’ve brought a… c-coat.”

You can’t bear to see her in this weakened state for much longer, your heart aching more and more with each passing second. You decide to skip the formalities for once and using your strength, you sweep the tiny girl off her feet and into your arms. You do your best to shield her from the elements as you start to practically power walk towards your car, praying nobody is out here to witness what you just did, for both your sakes. Despite how bad you know she feels, the hint of a both flustered and shocked expression on her features as you continue to walk brings you some relief, knowing you're helping to take her mind off things, even if it's with a gesture as silly as this. You're surprised she doesn't say anything at all, but you on the other hand can't help but to try and explain yourself, a sheepish smile starting to tug at the corners of your mouth.

“Sorry, Ruby,” you say almost under your breath as the windchill nips at the exposed parts of your skin. “Just didn’t want you to freeze to death is all.”

Part 2 of this chapter can be found by clicking the next chapter button.


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Pub: 24 Aug 2022 00:24 UTC
Edit: 29 Nov 2022 21:37 UTC
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