Header

A Roo'd Awakening: Chapter Four


Previous Chapter | Chapter Index | Next Chapter


It's not terribly cold for an early autumn morning, and unlike most other days, that chilling wind can't quite manage to pierce your many layers of clothing, no matter how hard it tries. As you swing open the doors to your workplace and rush to clock in, you can’t help but let out a sigh when you realize what day of the week it is. Week in and week out, Fridays manage to simultaneously be the most liberating and hellish day of your life. On one hand, you get off work almost an hour earlier than usual, something you’re ultimately grateful for despite the increased workload. On the other hand, it’s not like you use said hour for anything other than getting to the gym quicker in an attempt to avoid the hellish weekend rush. Despite how early in the morning it is, you already feel exhausted, your cardio workout with Ruby draining what little energy you normally have.

You try to look on the bright side of things, suddenly grateful you’re working somewhere that only has busy afternoons. After heading into the back to stash your bag, you grab a rag and spray bottle and quickly get to work on your morning duties, every step you take while walking around the store only emphasizing the crippling muscle soreness in your legs. Maybe jogging and squatting on the same day isn’t the best idea you’ve ever had, but jogging the day right after that definitely makes you a certifiable idiot.

Short of a single elderly woman who’d come in a couple of minutes ago, the store is practically deserted. You’re hard at work cleaning the drip trays of all the ice cream dispensers when you feel a hand on your shoulder, making you jump a bit.

“Hey bud, you got a second?” Kevin asks, “Want to talk to you about something once you’re done here.”

“Christ, you trying to give me a heart attack again?” you ask, chuckling as you shake your head. “And yeah sure, give me a second to finish up here.”

You quickly wrap up your cleaning, washing your rag in the tiny sink before finally joining Kevin behind the counter. “So, what’s up? You wanted to talk about something?”

He sheepishly rubs at the back of his head. “Well… it’s more a favor I wanted to ask about, really.”

You can’t help but raise an eyebrow in skepticism with the way he’s acting. “What is it?”

“Well…” he starts, seemingly unable to find the right words. “Melanie wants to go on a date to some fancy place downtown and I’m freaking out about it.”

“A girl asked you on a fancy dinner date and you’re freaking out?” you ask, relieved it’s nothing serious. “Isn’t she super into you? What could you possibly need from me?”

“I was wondering if you could maybe come along with someone, make it a double date, you know?” he asks, a nervous half smile on his face.

You think long and hard, mentally rifling through and listing every person you still keep in touch with that might agree to come along as you date, even if just for the prospect of a free dinner. All that comes to mind are a few girls from college you still talk to through social media on occasion, and maybe the one flirty barista from your local coffee shop. As you continue going down the list, your prospects aren’t looking good and you shudder to think you might have to resort to something as awful as Tinder to find someone on short notice, god forbidding.

“What about that one girl…” he asks, shaking you from your thoughts. “Ruby, wasn’t it?”

She hadn’t even registered in your mind as a potential option, your brain blocking her out for the sake of avoiding an awkward conversation.

You wave a hand dismissively in response. “Nah, out of the question.”

“What, seriously?” he asks, and you can hear the disbelief in his voice. “She’s not going to say no to you, come on.”

“Look… it’s way more complicated than that, and I don’t even know how she’d take it if I asked,” you say, leaning your elbows against the counter. “And even if she does say yes, I don’t want to put her on the spot like that.”

“What do you mean, complicated?” he asks, raising an eyebrow at your vague explanation.

“I don’t know…” you say, unable to find the right words to describe her. “I don’t really want to get into it, just take my word for it, alright? I’ll find someone to bring, but I don’t know Ruby well enough to ask that kind of thing yet.”

“Alright, alright,” he says, raising his hands. “Point taken. Really appreciate you doing this for me though.”

“How long do I have to find a date anyways?” you ask. “I swear if you tell me I’ve got until tomorrow I’m going to strangle you.”

“Melanie hasn’t really given an exact date yet, but maybe this Sunday or sometime next week if you’re free?” he asks. “Take it easy though man, you make it sound like it’d be hard for a guy like you to find a date. And if you can’t find anyone, there’s always the aussie princess chasing after you.”

“Look,” you say, turning to stare him straight in the eyes. “We’re just friends and I don’t know about you, but I don’t typically go around dating all my friends, alright?”

“Relax my man, I’m just busting your balls a little,” he says, putting an arm around your neck. “If you don’t want to invite her then don’t sweat it. Please find someone though, or it’s my ass on the line. Owe you big time if you can come through on this one.”

“I’ll try my best, no promises though,” you say, moving away from the arm around you.

“You’re the man, Mike,” he says before ducking into the back to start unpacking things.

The hours pass by so slowly it’s almost painful, customers quickly coming and going until you’re granted a reprieve in the form of your lunch break. You’d actually bothered to pack something for yourself today, determined to stick to your new diet plans. It’s nothing special, just some marinated chicken and rice tossed together with some assorted vegetables, but the sauce takes the normally bland meal to something you’d pay for. As you eat your meal at one of the more isolated tables, you get it in your head to ask Ruby when she’s getting off work today since you’ll be out of here much earlier than usual, whipping your phone out and shooting off a quick text. A few minutes later, halfway through your meal, your phone makes an overly loud buzz against the table, and you quickly snatch it to read it.

‘Same time as usual, why?’ the display reads.

‘It’s a surprise, just tell me when you’re off work,’ you text back as you shove another forkful of fluffy rice into your mouth.

Your vague response earns you another text, this time with an attached photo of her mock pouting. You can’t see much, but you grin when you take notice of her messy hair, a stark contrast to the neat bun she usually rocks. Hell, you’re tempted to tell her it’s a cute look, but after seeing her boxing moves, you fear for the safety of your internal organs. After you’re done with your meal and smiling like a dope, you stand up and get back to work after tucking your tupperware container into your bag. Your aching muscles quickly remind you that you’re in no shape to go to the gym today and you decide to skip your workout in favor of giving your body some much needed and well deserved recovery time. There’s only one problem though, and it’s that it’ll leave you with not much to do on a Friday night. Video games are an easy first choice, but you already spend far too much time cooped up in your house doing that so you cross it off the list. You continue to think as you work, and something you overhear from your customers gives you the idea to pass the time at your local mall, unable to think of anything better to do with your night. After all, what could be better than doing a little window shopping and maybe indulging in some terrible grub from the food court? Maybe even a movie if one of the new releases catches your eye. Regardless of your future plans, you still have a few hours before you’re free to do whatever you want.

After the incredibly busy afternoon rush finally clears up, you head into the back to grab a mop and some cleaning supplies to take care of a few spills. On your way, you notice the door to Kelly's office is slightly ajar and you move in to close it, though you're stopped in your tracks when you notice the lights are off, and even more when you realize there's someone inside. What you find is Kelly fast down and fast asleep on her desk, something that puts a grin on your face. If the tall stack of completed forms and empty coffee cups was any indication, she’d stayed late last night to be able to wrap things up. You have to admire her dedication to the job sometimes, unsure whether you'd be able to get things done in her position, job on the line or not. That being said, you can’t resist the urge to snap a photo, figuring it might come in handy if you ever needed some extra time off in the future. After you take it, you leave the office, closing the door as gently as possible so as to not wake the poor girl up. Mop and bucket quickly acquired, you head back out to the front, unable to resist showing Kevin the picture.

“Dude, check it,” you say, nudging him with an elbow.

“Wait, is that…” he says, squinting as he focuses on the dark picture. “...Kelly? When did you take this?”

“Just now, she’s out cold back there,” you say. “Don’t go waking her up though, she deserves the rest. And besides, we could use the peace and quiet for once.”

The rest of the day comes and goes, and you’ve cleaned up enough spills to make you feel like you’re working for BP. Despite the crazy workload, you and Kevin make short work of it, doing double time since neither of you want to stay even a minute longer than is absolutely necessary. By the end of your shift, you have the place looking spotless; no table, chair, counter, nozzle or drip tray is left dirty. In some strange way you’re proud of how clean the store looks, a feeling ruined by the fact you'll have to do it all over again on Monday. Before leaving for the evening you decide to give Kelly a courtesy wake up, not wanting next shift’s manager to find her asleep. You give the door a firm, loud set of knocks, waiting a bit before doing it again, even louder this time.

You hear the sounds of papers quickly being shuffled around through the door before a voice rings out. “Come in!”

You open the door and once you get a good look at her it’s hard to stifle a laugh, her hair a complete mess. “Still hard at work, I see.”

“Something like that,” she says, letting out a sigh that turns into a yawn. “Had to take work home with me last night. Got it all done in the end though.”

“Hopefully I helped make a dent yesterday,” you say, a smile still on your face.

“Believe me, it was a huge help,” she says as she tries to fix her hair. “I really appreciate it, Mike. Couldn’t have finished without you.”

You can’t help but smile a little wider at her praise. “Glad I could help. Just thought I’d come by and check on things before I left.”

“I’ll be alright here,” she says, sorting the papers into a neat pile. “See you Monday.”

“See you around, Kelly,” you say. “Have a good weekend.”

“You too,” is the last thing you hear before you turn and head out the door.

You grab your bag, taking a quick detour to the bathroom to change into a plain white tee and some dark jeans. After getting a good look at yourself in the mirror, you head outside and towards your car, tossing your bag into the back before hopping into the driver’s seat. It only takes a few minutes of driving before the huge structure comes into view. You can’t quite place why, but there’s a sudden nagging feeling in the back of your mind that tells you you’ve forgotten something important. You figure if it was that important you’d remember it, though that doesn't stop it from bothering you as you look for a place to park. Once you find one, you pull up the e-brake and step out of the car for a much needed stretch.

The mall being a stone’s throw away from where you work isn’t the only good thing about the place, far from it. While you haven’t been there in a while, every time you go you’re nothing short of impressed with the layout and its decor. You’re no architecture nerd but even you can appreciate the considerations they took into account for the design, the outdoor shopping section laid out to look like a main street of sorts, well lit and decorated with gorgeous plants. The ‘street’ ends where the indoor section of the mall begins, an entire two floors of stores to shop at with an amazing movie theater built in to boot. If that’s not enough, an escalator leads straight to the lower portion of the indoor mall, where the food court and other entertainment sits pretty. It took ages to build the gargantuan shopping mall, but it put your relatively small town on the map and provided tons of jobs for locals. The only downside is that the place is constantly packed, with it being arguably the best place in town to hang out and grab a bite to eat. It takes you a few minutes to find a place to park, but once you step out of your car and start walking around you don’t regret your decision in the slightest. It’s a beautiful afternoon, not too chilly or too humid despite the time of year and it’s the absolute perfect temperature to walk around without a jacket. Somehow, you never grow tired of walking around the outdoor portion of the shopping center, always bustling with activity.

You can hear the sounds of couples of all ages laughing as they go in and out of stores. In a weird way, it makes you miss all the times you and Kelly did the same, the absence of someone to enjoy it with making you realize just how much you took her for granted in the past. It’s not enough to put a damper on your mood, but your thoughts can’t help but drift to those good times as you continue walking down the street. The ice cream shop you once used to frequent together comes into sight, and you remember your favorite orders by heart, two scoops of black raspberry with a scoop of cherry for her and three scoops of mint chocolate chip for you. It’s a small family owned place but despite that, business is booming due to the location. Neither of you would dare admit it to any of the higher ups at work, but the ice cream and frozen yogurt this place serves up blows the stuff from your store out of the water.

You walk inside for old time’s sake, the excessively colorful yet familiar decoration bringing a smile to your face as you recall even more good memories. The place is absolutely packed, and you can’t see a single booth seat available as you start making your way towards the counter, nearly jumping when you hear someone shouting from a distance.

“Hey!” you hear, and you turn towards the sound of the noise. “Long time no see, Mike!”

You’re relieved to see the person calling your name is none other than the owner, who despite his slightly graying hairs, looks as energetic as ever as he waves you over. You’ve been coming to this place since you were a kid and you know all the staff by name at this point.

“It’s been a while, Sam,” you say as you approach the counter. “How’s the wife?”

“Pain in my ass, but what else is new, right?” he asks, laughing as he steps closer. “What can I get my favorite customer? The usual?”

“I’ll just take a coke for now,” you say as you move towards the register.

“You got it boss,” he says, grabbing one from the fridge below the counter before popping off the top and handing it to you.

“You mind if I pay when I leave?” you ask, before knocking back a long sip.

“Go ahead kid, I trust you,” he laughs, waving you off as he starts to serve the next customer. “Next!”

You start heading outside, hoping it’s not nearly as crowded so you can sit down and give your sore legs some rest. Once you manage to squeeze past the hordes of people, you practically collapse into the nearest chair, leaning back as you let out a long sigh. By the looks of things, it’s shaping up to be another Friday night spent alone. You’re sick and tired of feeling sorry for yourself because of it, but it’s hard to feel any other way when you think about the direction your life has taken over the last few years. You aren't even sure why you get so down about things sometimes. You're young, in the best shape of your life, and you have a few but dependable friends with a job that lets you make ends meet. So why is it, that despite all that, you feel so alone sometimes?

You take a sip of your soda as you try to think positive thoughts to get your mind off the subject. Since you’re not doing much of anything, you decide to try and get a head-start on finding a date for that favor Kevin asked of you. You whip out your phone, unlocking it before opening the dating app you’d sworn off a little over a year ago. After you’re done having a funeral for your pride, you get to work swiping right on every conceivable image. Once you’ve exhausted all your potential choices, you look and see you have eight matches to work with. Two of them are immediately discarded once you get a closer look at their pictures, still having some semblance of standards left. That leaves you with what looks to be four humans and two anthros to try and woo with your ‘witty’ pickup lines. You can’t even muster up the energy to come up with something clever on the spot and you instead lead with a few variations of ‘what’s up?’ instead. Once you’re done, you kick up your legs on the chair opposite you and hope you get some bites soon.

Only three message you back within the hour, one human girl and both anthro girls. They’re all fairly cute by your standards, and you don’t exactly have much room to be picky considering the short notice Kevin had given you. Both anthros make it a point to tell you that humans don’t usually swipe on them early into the conversation, something that leaves you feeling uneasy and wondering why exactly that’s the case. Despite the bumps in the road, you hit things off with all three fairly well, making idle small talk before sealing the deal by asking for their phone numbers and springing the question on them. Pitching the double date to all three of them goes better than expected and while you’d managed to get their numbers, none of them made any promises about being available for that time of the week. Maybe you’d take one of them out to do something of your own volition, not wanting to spend a beautiful Friday evening sulking and feeling sorry for yourself. You’re almost done typing another text to the cute ocelot girl when a text from Ruby comes through.

‘Where are you?’ it reads.

‘Outside Dairy Goddess, why?’ you shoot back.

‘Thought we were hitting up the gym tonight?’ the next notification reads, and the guilt hits you like a ton of bricks when you realize exactly what was bugging you earlier.

You feel like shit for forgetting about your plans to surprise her, and you struggle to come up with a response in a timely fashion, biting down on your lip as you mull it over.

‘Sorry, muscles are way too sore today. Felt like doing something else for a change,’ you reply after a few minutes of thinking, hoping she’ll understand.

‘Stay put wuss, I’ll be there in a sec,’ she replies, and you can’t help but smile at the bluntness.

Well, at least on the bright side, you wouldn’t be spending the rest of your day alone for a change. Another half hour quickly passes you by, and you can see more and more people steadily pouring into the streets and forming crowds.

‘Is she even coming?’ you think to yourself as you take the last sip of your now flat soda.

You start to reach into your pocket to fish your headphones out when you suddenly feel a tap on your shoulder. When you look behind you and see nobody, you chalk it up to some random passerby trying to prank you and you’re met with another scare when you turn around to see Ruby staring you in the face..

“What’s the matter, did I scare ya?” she says, the grin on her face telling you she gets a kick out of this.

You try to respond but when you get a good look at the rest of her you swallow your words. You’d never seen her in casual clothing before, the slightly too large for her black blouse and white chinos she’s wearing looking great on her small frame.

“You trying to give me a heart attack or something?” you ask, mock clutching at your chest to play things up. “Sit down.”

“What, so I can hear your lame excuses for not going to the gym?” she asks, her grin only widening. “Going to have to. And what was that about a surprise you mentioned earlier?”

“You ever hear of a rest day?” you ask as you lean further back in your seat, stalling for time as you think of an answer to her second question “Sue me for wanting to have some fun for once.”

She moves to take a seat next to you, and you get a brief glimpse of her thick tail poking through what you can only assume is a hole in her pants as she sits down. You’d never really paid much mind to that sort of thing, but having a tail that large seems like a burden. You can’t help but chuckle to yourself as she wrestles with it, eventually folding the bulk of it over her lap so she can sit down comfortably, the chairs outside clearly not made with tails in mind. You can see her tail move on its own out of the corner of your eye even as her gaze meets yours, and you silently wonder how much control anthros have over their tails.

“Yesterday was pretty much a rest day, you big baby,” she says, nudging you in the side. “And what, your idea of fun is sitting outside an ice cream shop after working at one all day?”

“Spoken like someone who's never had the ice cream here. Besides, do you see anywhere else that sells soda out here? Believe me, this place is that good.” you say, as you point towards the street. “As for that surprise, well… I meant to surprise you at the gym since I got off work early, but then I sort of forgot about it since I was exhausted.”

“You’re a real dork, you know that, Mike?” she laughs softly as she socks you in the arm, propping her feet up all the while. “And nah, I don’t really eat ice cream too often unless it’s a cheat day. Trying to stick to a diet and all.”

“See, you say that but you came to our store two days in a row. I mean, a cheat meal every now and then won’t kill you, but at least be honest with yourself,” you laugh as you move to stand up again. “Hell, I’m living proof of that. Come on, let me get you something for having you walk all the way here. My treat.”

“Unlike you, I actually work the extra calories off,” she says, laughing before following your lead. “And fine, but if I gain weight, I’m blaming you for it.”

You opt not to say anything and instead let her follow you back inside. Once you’re back in the shop and at the counter, you glance down to see her eyes light up as she takes in all the different flavors. This place might look like your average ice cream store but they really pull out all the stops when it comes to coming up with new, unique flavors. Never in a million years would you have thought a toothpaste flavor would work with hints of orange, but Sam was here to prove you wrong.

“So…” you hear him say as he saunters over from the cash register. “The usual then?”

“Yeah sure, why not,” you shrug. “Mix it up a little and throw a scoop of pistachio on there too, will you Sammy?”

“Only my wife gets to call me that, son,” he says, laughing as he shakes his head. “But sure, three scoops of mint chocolate chip and one of pistachio, coming right up. And for you, miss?”

She looks up at him briefly before pointing out the flavors. “One scoop of toffee, two of rocky road and… one of whatever that is back there!”

You can’t help but smile at how she’s been reduced to a kid in a candy store by ice cream of all things. Sam expertly serves up both cones in record time, and you pay for both them and your soda before heading back out to the street with Ruby. The two of you start to take a long stroll down the sidewalk as you enjoy your treat, taking in all the sights and sounds as you go. She’s looking to have a hard time with the four scoops, her thin yet long tongue lashing out at the frosty treat from a distance as she tries to avoid getting ice cream all over her snout fur. It’s something you take for granted now that you try to keep your beard limited to just stubble, but you know first hand how much of a pain it is to eat anything with some hair on your chin.

“Get a little carried away?” you ask, chuckling at how focused and careful she seems to be with eating it.

“Eat a dick,” she says, sticking her tongue out at you before getting back to work. “Not my fault the scoops are massive.”

“Could’ve asked,” you laugh as you continue walking around, stopping to do some window shopping every so often.

Once you’re about halfway down the road, you start to take notice of her normally upbeat expression faltering. You know for sure it’s not your fault as you’ve just been walking and watching for the last couple of minutes. You decide to pry a little bit in the form of small talk, wondering what’s eating at the girl.

“Don’t think I’ll ever get tired of coming here,” you sigh as you finish off the last remnants of your cone.

She takes a few more licks of her ice cream before responding. “Yeah? Why’s that?”

“Got a lot of good childhood memories of this place,” you say, smiling as you reminisce in your head. “Used to spend almost every day after school with friends here when it first got built.”

“Can’t say the same,” she says, chuckling nervously after taking a few licks from her cone. “Moved back here after they finished building it. Switching high schools was a pain in the arse though, let me tell ya.”

“Don’t envy you there,” you say, offering a sympathetic smile. “Know a friend who had to move from here and do the same. Was it rough?”

“It was pretty bad at first. Even though I moved back here at the start of the year, I’m kind of glad I did in the end,” she sighs, shrugging her shoulders a bit. “The school I came from was… less than great. Sucked having no friends here for a while though.”

“Have a hard time adjusting or..?” you ask. “Know a lot of the kids at my school gave anthro kids the cold shoulder.”

She breaks her gaze with you at your words, choosing to instead stare at the ground as the two of you walk.

“Don’t worry about it,” she mutters so quietly you can barely hear it.

There it is again, that telltale expression that lets you know something’s bothering her. You remember the promise you’d made yourself about prying, but it looks like she really needs to get something off her chest and you double down on your concern by shooting her a worried look.

“No really, tell me,” you say, and you slow down your walking in an effort to get her to come to a stop.

It works better than you expected, even if she’s still looking down at her feet. She looks anxious, and you can see her chest rising erratically as her breathing quickens.

“It’s… fine Mike, really,” she says, though with the way her nostrils are flaring you don’t believe her for a second. “Just… need a second is all.”

“Look, it’s only fair after you heard me out the other day,” you say, gently putting a hand on her back as you point towards a bench in the distance. “Come on, let’s go sit down for a second.”

She flinches away from your touch and you decide to pull back as she reluctantly walks towards the bench with you. You let her sit down before you follow suit, scooting in slightly but still leaving her enough space so as to not put her even more on edge than she already looks to be.

“Seriously, what’s bugging you?” you ask, and you do your best to make eye contact despite her looking away.

“Just work being a pain in the arse,” she says, briefly glancing to the side and flashing you a weak smile before looking away again. “I’m fine, really.”

You know she’s hiding something else but even an idiot like you knows being that direct is an express ticket to a bad time. You put a hand on her shoulder again and you’re surprised when she doesn’t shy away.

“Look, I know you haven’t given you much reason to trust me, but you can,” you say, hoping some honesty might help crack her shell some. “I know I said I wouldn’t bug you about it, but I feel like I owe you one.”

She looks to you, and her gaze locks with yours again. “Mate, you don’t owe me anything. I did it because I wanted to. That’s what friends are for.”

“Your friends are lucky then,” you chuckle softly. “Seriously though, what’s the matter?”

“I’ll tell you, but it’s going to sound real stupid,” she says, her nervous chuckle only driving her words home. “Promise ya won’t laugh?”

You put a hand over your heart and smile. “Swear to god I won’t.”

She rolls an eye at your over the top display before lightly elbowing you in the ribs. “God, you’re such a dork.”

“Hey, I can’t help it. I was born this way,” you laugh, relieved at her willingness to open up. “Spit it out though, what is it?”

“You brought up school and well…” she says, a clawed hand rubbing at the back of her neck. “Got me worrying about dumb stuff again, is all.”

“Like what?” you ask, your curiosity beyond peaked at this point.

“Do you think I’m too short? Not like, regular short but like… freakishly short?” she mutters under her breath. “I can’t remember the last time I saw someone my age as short as me.”

“What kind of question is that?” you ask, almost relieved this isn’t about something more serious. “I already told you before your height suits you just fine, it’s cute. Besides, it’s not like it’s something you can control.”

She quickly breaks eye contact, and you swear you can see a hint of a blush peek through the thinnest part of her fur. “I want a real answer mate, none of that beating around the bush crap.”

You’re not sure how much more serious or honest of an answer you can give her, but you decide to humor her anyway. “Like what? I’m being honest.”

“If a girl my height asked you to dinner or something, what would you say to her?” she asks, and no sooner than the words leave her mouth you can see one of her large ears twitch.

“I’d ask her where she wants to go,” you say, shrugging. “Height isn’t a big deal to me. There’s an appeal to all kinds.”

“You don’t really mean that,” she says. “Well… let me ask you this, what if two girls asked you on a date and one was tall and the other was my height? What would you say then?”

“If they were both equally attractive?” you ask. “The one that’s more fun to hang out with, I couldn't care less about height. Now let me ask you something. Why does it bother you so much?”

She sighs, rubbing at the back of her neck. “Fuck if I know mate, all the jokes get to you eventually, I guess…”

“Fuck em’, they’re missing out by not knowing you,” you laugh, hoping the words will lift her spirits.

“S-stop it…” she mutters, continuing to stare at the ground instead of you.

“What? I mean it, you’re pretty fun to hang out with,” you say, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Besides that, you’re a good listener and an even better friend.”

“You’re just saying that to cheer me up,” she says, reaching up to tuck an errant strand of hair behind a twitchy ear. “You barely even know me.”

“Doesn’t make what I’m saying any less true,” you counter, hoping you can get through to her. “What you did for me at the park is proof of that.”

“I don’t know mate…” she sighs and while for a brief moment it looks like she’s going to say something else, it never comes.

Just from a glance at her expression alone you can tell she desperately needs something to lift her spirits, but if your honeyed words and ice cream aren’t enough to pull her from her slump you don’t know what would be. The two of you sit in awkward silence as you mentally go through every possible option, something that yields no useful thoughts until you think back to something that you always did with Kelly. When she was feeling down, the only thing that without fail could cheer her up was holding her hand and telling her things were going to be alright. It’s a long shot, but maybe Ruby would respond similarly? The biggest difference in the situation being that you’d actually been dating then, and you didn’t know how Ruby would react to the physical contact, given a hand on her shoulder already has her flinching away.

‘Fuck it.’ you think to yourself. ‘Might as well go for broke, right? After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.’

You reach down while she’s distracted, and in one swift motion you take her furred hand into yours before interlocking fingers. The warmth radiating from it surprises you, the sensation that you can only compare to wearing a fuzzy mitten making goosebumps erupt from your forearms. Even though your fingers are connected, you leave your grip loose enough to let her pull away if she wants to. You mentally and physically brace for a slap or scream once she realizes what you’ve done, but to your surprise, it never comes. You watch as she glances down at her hand before looking up at you with a small scowl on her features.

“What. Are. You. Doing?” she asks, and you swear you can hear a low growl coming from her.

Her expression makes your confidence about your plan working falter a bit, but you press forward regardless. “Trying to get you to believe me.”

“Let. Go.” she says, barely pulling her hand away.

“Look, you can pull away whenever you want,” you say. “If I don’t care who sees us like this, then you shouldn’t care what other people think about your height.”

Her scowl only intensifies at your choice in words. “Not. Helping.”

“Okay listen, that sounded a lot better in my head,” you say, chuckling. “Look, how about I show you what I mean?”

“Fine…” she grumbles to herself as you start to stand up.

You get off the bench, your hands and fingers still intertwined as you continue walking down the street together. She’s seemingly given up on trying to pull her hand away from your grip after a while, paralyzed by the embarrassment of being seen holding hands with you. The apathetic look she’s putting on tells you that you aren’t out of the woods quite yet, but the twitching of her ears and flaring of her nose gives away her true feelings.

“What’s the point of all this, Mike?” she asks, glancing up and to the side to finally meet your gaze again. “What good is calling attention to us going to do?”

“I wanted to show you that people don’t care about this stuff nearly as much as you think they do,” you say, using your free hand to subtly point at the hordes of people walking down the same street. “People think anthro and human couples are weird, but do you see a single person staring or bothering us about it? They’re all too caught up in their own stuff to pay us any mind.”

“Pff, yeah right,” she mutters. “They’re just too afraid to say anything because you’re here. If you weren’t built like a brick shithouse they’d all be gawking.”

“I’m glad someone finally acknowledges it,” you say, and you can’t help but smile at her unintentional compliment.

“Don’t let it get to your head or anything, wanker...” she mumbles, though you can see the beginnings of a smile forming on her snout.

You continue your stroll down the sidewalk, getting closer and closer outside the entrance to the mall proper, letting her set the pace as you continue to take in the surroundings.

(-----)

You don’t know how to feel about what’s happening right now. It’s not like you’ve never held hands with a friend before, but something about this just feels so… different to all the other times. You can feel your heart racing as your breathing becomes heavier, and you pray to god that he doesn’t notice. Why are you even letting this happen? He’s going to think you’re some kind of airheaded ditz for going along with this without even the slightest bit of resistance. You feel a whirlwind of emotions, confusion, embarrassment, anger but above and perhaps the strangest of all, you feel… safe. Why exactly you feel so safe by his side, the side of someone you barely know, you have no idea. Sure he’s handsome and… maybe decently buff but… it’s something else entirely. How he has that habit of always going out of his way to try and cheer you up, how he’s willing to put up with your shit when most other people would've given up on you by now.

A million thoughts and questions fly through your head as you continue to walk by his side. Did he really not care about those times you lashed out at him? Or the time you’d confronted him outside his work and nearly mustered up the courage to hit him before calling him all sorts of names? The fact that he doesn’t seem to care or think less of you because of your height is a huge relief, but what does he think about you? Or your budding friendship? It didn't quite sink in until just now how good of a friend Mike is, and here you are, letting him slip away between your fingers due to your own doubts and hangups. Whatever this is… you don’t want to lose it over nothing. And while it might be difficult to do so, you make a promise to yourself to be less aggressive and abrasive. Even if it’s just around him and for his sake, since deep down you know someone as kind as him doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment. While you wouldn’t be caught dead admitting it to anyone, you can’t deny that it’s nice to have your hand held tight like this, even under the circumstances. It’d been a while since you’ve had any sort of physical contact even remotely close to this, your personality doing a fine job of scaring away everyone short of your closest friends. You take a few deep breaths as the two of you approach the fountain, fingers still tightly intertwined with his as you notice you've subconsciously tightened your grip on his hand. It’s concerning that it’s your first instinct, and you can feel your tail swaying to and fro, moving on its own accord and without your consent.

‘Is it weird that I don’t want him to let go?’ is the thought that plagues you the most.

The way his smooth skin feels against your fur is unlike anything else you’d felt before, and you fight the urge to shudder from the contrast. He continues to hold your hand tight but not uncomfortably so, his fingers occasionally shifting between yours as your fur tickles his bare skin. His large and rugged hand almost fully envelops yours at this point, and you feel a warmth comparable to wearing a pair of gloves. As much as you hate to admit it, you could really get used to the feeling. He finally says something as you reach the fountain, pulling you from your sensory induced stupor.

(-----)

You fish a quarter from your pocket when you finally reach the fountain.

“Make a wish,” you say, handing her the coin.

She looks up at you, taking the coin before closing her eyes and tossing it into the water. “Done.”

“What’d you wish for?” you ask, a smile on your face now that she’s seemingly feeling better.

“It’s a secret,” she smiles, finally meeting your gaze again. “Won’t come true if I tell you, right?”

“You’re the worst, you know that?” you laugh. “You feeling better now?”

“A little bit, yeah,” she says. “Could use a bite to eat though, didn’t get a chance to grab lunch today.”

You’re more than a little surprised that she still hasn’t let go of your hand, but you don’t mind it in the slightest, unconsciously tightening your grip.

“I’m glad,” you smile, happy your little plan worked. “Let’s hit up the food court then.”

The two of you quickly make your way inside and somehow it’s even colder than it was outside, another shiver running down your spine.

‘At least my hands are warm,’ you think to yourself, shifting your fingers around to feel the sensation of her fur again.

As the two of you make your way to the food court you can see her expression soften, Ruby seemingly back to her upbeat and energetic self as she window shops. You’re happy that you could help in the end and more than a little relieved she hadn’t freaked out at your sudden advances. You do wish she was a bit less eager to get to the food court though, since she’s practically dragging you by the hand as is. Once you get to your destination, you take in the strange beauty of the mall food court, a seemingly limitless amount of options before you. While none of them are particularly healthy, nobody in their right mind expects that from a food court.

“So… what do you want to get?” she asks.

“I’m kind of feeling Chinese food right now,” you say. “How about you?”

“Fine with me,” she says.

Your eyes scan all around and find not one but four different choices. “Yeah, but which one?”

“That one over there,” she says, pointing towards a sign that says ‘Chinese Gourmet Express’ which you somehow doubt is true. “One of my friends works there.”

She finally lets go of your hand, and you can’t resist the opportunity to make a tiny joke. “So much for wanting me to let go, huh?”

“Fuck you,” she says, but the small smile on her face betrays her words. “Let’s get going before I starve.”

“Lead the way,” you chuckle.

You walk up close to the counter and eye up the menu options while you wait for Ruby to do the same.

“Let me get some Lo Mein with the orange chicken, teriyaki and two egg rolls,” you tell the panda girl behind the counter. “Oh, and a large coke.”

If you’re going to have a cheat meal, you might as well make the most of it and go all out. After being served, you grab your tray and sit by the register waiting to pay for your order. You can see Ruby greeting the girl, though they’re talking so quietly you can’t make out anything they’re saying. Hell, you’re surprised they can even hear each other, but maybe it’s the sensitive anthro hearing you’ve heard so much about at work. Whatever the case, you start to notice a pattern of the panda sneaking brief glances at you as she speaks, Ruby also occasionally turning back to look at you with the faintest hint of what you swear is a blush peeking through the thinnest bits of her facial fur.

‘What the hell are they talking about?’ is the only thought running through your mind, your curiosity peaked by their expressions.

You try to scoot in a bit closer, but at your size it’s not exactly easy to eavesdrop without being blatantly obvious and you’re only able to hear snippets of their conversation as you inch close.

“You… him… a thing?” is the first coherent thing you can make out.

‘Oh,’ the thought hits you like a brick. ‘So that’s what they’re talking about.’

A devilish idea pops into your head, so much so that you can’t resist the urge to do it despite how horrible an idea it might be.

You saunter over to the pair, your tray in hand. “Hey sweetie, I’m gonna go sit down, alright? Just pay for me and I’ll spot you later.”

“Uh… sure,” is all Ruby manages to say before you turn around and start walking away in search of a place to sit.

You’re most definitely going to live to regret that one later, but the opportunity was too good to pass, and you chuckle to yourself as you sit down. It seems you’re going to regret it sooner than you thought, and you watch Ruby fly at you like a missile. When she finally reaches the table, she slams her tray down.

“You. Fucking. Dick,” she says, lightly punching you in the arm.

You can’t help but grin at her words. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“Don’t give me that shit,” she says, a frown forming on her face as her eyes narrow. “Now she’s going to think I’m dating a human.”

“But you’re not,” you say, shrugging your shoulders. “And what’s so bad about dating humans anyways?”

She continues to glare at you. “You know what people think of anthro and human couples Mike, don’t play dumb. Can you just go tell her it was a joke, please?”

You can’t say no to that angry pout dotting her features. “Alright, look, if it really bothers you that much, I’ll tell her it was a joke after we eat, alright?”

“Fine,” she sighs before sitting down across from you. “Why do you have to go out of your way to make me look like a fuckwit?”

“Oh come on, it was funny,” you say, smiling even though she clearly doesn’t find the humor in it. “Besides, you’re adorable when you get all wound up, what more reason do I need?”

“Arsehole,” she mutters before taking the first forkful of her meal into her mouth.

You sit in silence as the two of you tear through your meals in record time, the cacophony of the crowded food court is oddly nostalgic and only brings back good memories. It even gives you an idea for what you can do next.

You shoot her a question between mouthfuls of food. “You want to catch a movie after this or something? Can at least save on the popcorn if we’re both stuffed.”

“Nah, I think I might go home in a little bit,” she says, picking at the last bits left in her styrofoam container. “Got a bunch of shit to do this weekend.”

“What, this early?” you ask in disbelief. “But we just got here. Besides, there’s tons of other shit we can do if you don’t feel like catching a movie.”

“Yeah?” she asks, raising an eyebrow. “Like what?”

You sit there for a second, trying to think of something else you can do together that’s fun, when it finally hits you. There’s a laser tag place that opened up not too long ago and from what you’d heard, they’d managed to snatch up a pretty large space.

“I’ve got it,” you say. “Two words, guess.”

“Air hockey?” she asks.

“Nope,” you smile. “Guess again.”

She thinks about it for what feels like a good minute before saying anything. “Alright, I give up. What is it?”

Your goofy grin only widens at her waving the white flag. “Laser tag.”

“Laser tag?” she chuckles. “What are you, twelve?”

“Look at Miss stick in the mud over here,” you say, downright appalled at the response. “You don’t like laser tag? How could you not? It’s fun as hell.”

“I don’t know, I’ve just… never got a chance to play it before,” she shrugs. “And from what I’ve seen it didn’t sound that fun to me.”

You can’t help but cock an eyebrow at her words. “Come on, you have to play. I can’t even believe people like you exist.”

“I don’t want to play,” she says, before taking a final bite of her food. “I’d probably be no good at it anyway.”

“That’s crazy talk, someone as quick as you with your stamina would kick ass at laser tag,” you say, hoping you can convince her.

“You’re just saying that, mate…” she says, and you can see the hint of a smile again.

“I mean it,” you say, looking her square in the eyes. “Seriously, you’re in better shape than I am.”

“Not exactly a challenge, Mike,” she laughs.

“Laugh it up all you want,” you say, shaking your head. “We’re playing though, it’s on me. Owe you for paying for the food anyway.”

“Can I at least think about it?” she asks. “It’s not even that late yet, we could do something else first.”

“Like what?” you ask.

“I need to pick up a gift for a coworker’s birthday,” she says. “No idea what to get em’ though.”

“How about this,” you say, resting your elbows on the table. “We play a few games of laser tag and then I’ll help you pick something out. I’ve got a good eye for gifts, or so I’ve been told.”

“Fine, fine,” she relents, the smile on her face bigger now. “Just one game though, alright?”

“Yeah, yeah,” you chuckle. “Same thing I tell myself every time I play too. You still want me to talk to your friend?”

“Can’t hurt, I guess,” she shrugs. “Sorry for getting on your case about it, I know it’s a joke but… well, you know how people can be with that stuff.”

You’re taken aback by the apology and it spurs you on to make things right. “It’s fine, I’ll go talk to her. Be right back.”

You can see the panda girl eyeing you from a distance as you make your way back to the counter, a huge smile on her face.

“Can I get you anything else, sir?”

“Ruby just wanted me to let you know we’re not actually… a thing,” you say. “I was just trying to mess around with her.”

The panda girl just winks at you. “Got it.”

You’re not sure she’s picking up what you’re putting down and you decide to repeat yourself. “No seriously, we’re just friends.”

She pouts at your words. “Really? The two of you looked so cute holding hands. You’d make a cute couple, no offense.”

The mention of the two of you being a couple nearly makes you choke on your own saliva and you can feel your cheeks start to burn from her blunt words.

“None taken,” you say, coughing a bit. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard that around her. You two known each other long?”

“I want to say… almost five years now, known her since high school,” she says. “I was honestly surprised to see her with a guy, she’s never been… very lucky with them.”

“Know why?”

“Other than her sailor mouth?” she asks. “No clue, but she hasn’t had a boyfriend, much less a guy friend that I know of since I first met her. Be good to her, alright?”

You give the girl a mock salute. “I’ll do my best, chief.”

“Hope so, she’s a good friend,” she says. “Name’s Lily, by the way.”

You reach over the counter to shake her hand. “Michael, but you can call me Mike if you want.”

“Would if I could,” she says, raising two gloved hands. “Hope to see you around again, Mike.”

“Likewise,” you say, waving in favor of your failed handshake. “Nice meeting you.”

You slowly walk back over to Ruby, not sure what to think of your little conversation with her friend. She’d seemingly cleared the table while you were gone, a gesture not lost on you.

“Crisis averted,” you say as you sit back down.

“What took you so long?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

“She thought I was joking at first,” you chuckle. “Guess I’m just that good an actor. Anyway, you ready to kick some ass?”

“I guess…” she says, and the two of you stand up together. “Feel bad for making you pay for me though.”

“Don’t worry about it,” you say. “You paid for my food didn’t you? Consider us even.”

She nods and the two of you make your way through the mall and towards where you thought the laser tag arena was. You have to stop at a mall kiosk to ask for directions, something you know Ruby’s not going to let you live down. Once you’re at the right place, you step inside the comparatively dark locale, your eyes bombarded by bright, strobing lights the moment you set a foot in the door. There’s a very bored looking teen manning the counter, and you can sympathize with the guy, working this late on a Friday night must be hell.

“How much for a game?” you ask.

He points at the sign behind him. “Five dollars a game, ten dollars for three or an unlimited day pass for twenty-five dollars.”

“I’ll take three games,” you say, and you can see Ruby silently protest at the mention.

You pay and he hands each of you three tokens, a vest and a tagger. After handing Ruby her equipment and pocketing your tokens, you quickly strap on the vest only to find out it’s a little too small on you. She seems to be having the opposite problem, the vest looking more like a dress on her tiny frame.

“Somehow I think we’ve got the wrong vests,” you laugh.

She laughs once she gets a good look at you. “Didn’t know they made bras for men.”

“Didn’t take you for the kind to wear dresses either,” you shoot back as you start taking off your vest.

Once you swap and safely strap your vests on, you head to the waiting area for the next game. As you wait, you figure it might be a good idea to give her a rundown on the basics of laser tag.

“Alright, so you’re mainly going to want to aim for any of the sensors on the vest,” you say, pointing at all the different zones on the vest. “But it helps if you shoot their gun, disables it for a good bit.”

“How do I know if my gun got disabled?” she asks. “Anything else I should know?”

“Trust me, you’ll know by the vibration,” you say, reaching for her tagger. “So you see this light here? Whenever you need to reload it’ll turn red, and all you have to do is smack this button on the side when that happens.”

Shortly after the game ends, the referee comes out to the waiting area to give everyone present a quick rundown on the rules before collecting a token from each person.

“Alright, so we’ve got eight people, go ahead and split into two teams of four,” he shouts to make sure everyone can hear over the music.

You and Ruby link up with another nearby couple and you wait for further instructions.

“First team to twenty tags wins, if you get tagged walk back to the starting area and then come back in if you still have lives,” the referee says. “Each player has five lives. Any other questions before we start?”

Ruby and everyone around you shakes their heads in unison.

“Alright, everyone follow me,” the ref says.

Once inside the play area proper, you realize the arena is a lot larger than you’d anticipated, looking like one of those training areas swat teams use. A brief look up shows a catwalk overhead for the referees to oversee the match without interrupting. It’s extremely dark though, and the only illumination in the whole place comes from your taggers and the flashing, neon lights strewn around the arena. You gaze down at Ruby, who looks incredibly nervous.

“You good?” you ask.

She looks up at you, flashing you an uneasy smile. “Yeah, just worried I’m going to be dead weight.”

“Don’t sweat it, you’ll be fine,” you say, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Can’t be any worse than my first time, got two tags in four lives.”

“We’ll see about that,” she chuckles. “Least I’ll be harder to hit than you.

The referee starts counting down from ten and both you and Ruby get into a position to sprint out into the arena. “Go!”

With an explosive dash, you quickly slide into cover behind some stacked tires, Ruby following close behind. Each of you occasionally peek out from behind your cover on different sides, waiting for someone you can tag to pass by. You look over at her and see her pointing overhead towards the right, and you take it as a sign that someone’s coming. Being careful to be as quiet as possible, you sneak out of cover and make your way into the makeshift room nearby in an effort to get around and ambush them. You sit quietly beneath the single windowsill in the room, watching the entrance like a hawk as you listen for footsteps. It’s not long before you hear the sound of nearby footsteps and when they get close, you pop up and tag them.

“Out!” the ref shouts from above.

Soon after that, Ruby joins you inside, following close behind you like a lost puppy. You both slowly make your way deep into the enemy team’s lines, and she watches your back as you clear each individual room, both of you managing to tag some people as you go. Everything is going well when suddenly your tagger begins to vibrate as you step out of a room.

“Fuck, out!” you say, raising your hand as you walk back towards the spawn room.

You can’t help but smile when you Ruby nail the guy who’d gotten you. The moment you step foot in the starting room you turn to run straight back into the action, and halfway there you notice Ruby making her way back to the spawn room.

“Dickhead got me from behind,” she says as she continues walking. “Give em’ hell.”

You can’t help but grin as you continue making your way back to the frontline. “I plan on it.”

Both teams continue trading blows as time goes on and you’re down to only three lives after getting pinched by the opposing team without any backup. Looking at the score indicator on your tagger reveals the scores are neck and neck, your other teammates down to one and two lives respectively. While they’d managed to score a few tags here and there, they were bleeding lives like nobody’s business. You can see Ruby using her height to full advantage even from behind the small wall you’re huddled behind, the tiny kangaroo leaning out from behind a short metal barrel to tag anyone unaware or brave enough to come into her line of sight. Out of the corner of your eye you can see someone sneaking their way behind her, and you sprint out from cover to tag them, getting tagged yourself in the process. Both you and her are down to just two lives each with the opposing team having five left spread out among three people. While you know it’s going to be incredibly difficult to pull out a win, if you stick together with her it’s still possible. You try to find Ruby as you head back into the arena, hoping she hasn’t gotten tagged out again. You quietly round a corner and get a tag on someone who had his back turned to you, quickly slinking off before one of his teammates notices you. You sigh as you look down at the scoreboards, despite your best efforts you’re still outnumbered, each of your three opponents still having a single life to their name. As you continue to skulk around the dark corridors you can’t see a single sign of her despite your tagger telling you she still has two lives left. You round another corner, suddenly feeling something tug at your sleeve and you quickly turn to try and tag them before they get you. You’re relieved to find it’s just Ruby trying to pull you into cover, though your finger damn near just pulled the trigger on her out of reflex.

“So what’s the game plan?” you ask in a low whisper.

She puts a finger to her lips then taps one of her ears in response. You figure she’s telling you to be quiet, though you can’t be certain. This room she’d decided to hole up is particularly open, with two entryways and two windows that could easily be peeked through. You silently split up the work, each of you watching one side of the room as you crouch down low on opposite sides, using the darkness to your advantage. You sit in absolute silence and stillness, waiting for even the slightest hint that might indicate someone is coming. After what feels like several minutes, you hear someone approaching your doorway, Ruby seemingly picking up on it as she turns to face your door in anticipation. The second he comes through you both blast him, and you can see the satisfaction in her grin. It’s short lived though, since not even five seconds later both of your taggers begin to vibrate, the rest of his teammates getting the drop on you from the other entry you’d briefly neglected to cover.

“Damn it!” you curse. “Out!”

“Fuckin’ agro cunts!” she spits out, equally frustrated. “Out!”

You head back to your spawn room together, trying to come up with a game plan you could use to win the match. It’s still neck and neck, both teams down to two participants and two lives each, the next encounter surely deciding the outcome of the game. You take a moment to try and get some semblance of a strategy discussion going with Ruby before heading back into the arena.

“So, what do you want to do?”

“How about we em’ a taste of their own medicine?” she asks, a smile on her face. “You bait them like they did with their teammate and I pop out and tag them both.”

“Wait, why do I have to be the bait?” you say, frowning even though her plan is solid.

“You’re a bigger target than me,” she says. “Besides, I think I’m a better shot than you anyway.”

“Yeah, okay,” you say, rolling your eyes a bit. “Where do you want me to bait them to?”

“Remember that barrel I hid behind before?” she asks. “Bring them around there and I’ll take care of the rest.”

A quick glance down at your gun tells you Ruby is outscoring you this match, six tags to your four. “Alright, I’ll do it. Ready to go?”

“Go,” she says, nodding as the two of you start to move.

The two of you take off towards the center of the Arena, Ruby stopping to crouch behind the metal barrel, trying her best to stay as low to the ground as possible. She gives you a quick nod and you take it as a sign to venture forward into enemy lines, doing your best not to get caught out as you move. If you’re going to be bait, you might as well be effective bait and you figure making some noise might be a good idea, banging your fist against the nearest wooden wall before hiding behind a corner. You keep peeking out every so often until the faint light coming off a tagger catches your eye, exposing yourself just enough so he knows you’re there but not enough that he can tag you. As soon as you see him turn, you start sprinting over to where Ruby had told you she’d be waiting and you can hear the pitter-patter of footsteps following close behind.

God, you hope she knows what she’s doing.

You quickly reach the spot where she wanted to meet up at but she’s nowhere to be seen or heard, and you quickly duck behind cover as the duo approaches you.

‘Did she mean another barrel? Did you come to the wrong place?’ you think to yourself, but you have little time to entertain the thoughts as the sounds of footsteps grow closer and closer.

You pop up from the left side of your cover and manage to tag one of their guns, sprinting to the next set of cover as quickly as you can before his buddy can follow up. While you’re still in a tight spot, at least you have a moment of reprieve before it becomes a two on one situation again.

‘Where the hell is she?’ you think to yourself as you briefly peek around the cover. ‘I’m not going down without a fight.’

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” they taunt as they approach.

You sit still for a short time before popping out from behind cover again, managing to tag one before your gun’s vibration lets you know you’ve lost your last life. You’re almost upset with yourself for a moment, but what you see next is nothing short of amazing, Ruby popping up from the inside of the metal drum and tagging the last enemy in the back.

The guy looks up at the ref, a look of pure disbelief on his face. “Oh come on, how is that fair?”

The referee just shrugs from his cozy position atop the catwalk. “There’s no rule against it, you’re out. Blue team wins!”

“Bullshit,” he says, starting the long walk of shame back to his spawn room.

You run over to Ruby, helping her out of the drum and pulling her into a quick but tight hug before hoisting her into a sitting position on your shoulder.

“You know, you had me worried for a second there,” you say, a huge smile on your face.

“Put me down Mike, this is embarrassing,” she says as she holds on for dear life. “I feel like I’m going to fall.”

“Relax, I’m not going to let that happen,” you say as you tighten your grip to reassure her. “And why? You carried our team to victory, only fair I carry you, no?”

You start to chant her name, shaking a fist as you make your way back to the spawn room. “Ruby! Ruby! Ruby!”

She starts laughing at your cheering. “Have I ever told you… how much of a dork you are?”

“Not enough times to get me to stop being one, apparently,” you say before continuing your chant.

Once you reach the starting room, you set her back down again, taking your equipment off and heading over to the counter to hand it back in. Looking at her white pants, you notice an orange stain, one you can only assume came from climbing into the rusty drum.

“You’ve got something on your pants there,” you say, pointing at the stain.

“Shit, I just washed these the other day,” she curses. “Ah, whatever. At least we won.”

You hold one of your remaining tokens between your fingers. “Guess we’ll save these for another time then?”

“And who said I wanted to play again?” she asks, though the smile plastered on her face betrays her words.

“Admit it, you had fun,” you say, pointing at the scoreboard on the wall. “Hell, you even managed to outgun me on your first time.”

“Just dumb luck,” she mutters. “It… was kind of fun though, can’t lie.”

“You still going to buy that birthday present for your coworker?” you ask.

“Shit, I almost forgot. If there’s enough time left still, yeah,” she says. “I was thinking about maybe getting her some jewelry, what do you think?”

You take a quick glance at your watch. “Not a bad idea, but if you’re going to buy something make it quick, place closes in twenty minutes.”

The two of you practically sprint out of the laser tag place and beeline for a nearby jewelry store, getting there in the nick of time. You walk around the store and quickly weigh your options as the annoyed looking worker silently judges the two of you.

“I can’t decide, Mike,” she says, and you can see her eyes scanning the displays.

“Well, what kind of jewelry does she normally wear?” you ask.

She thinks about it for a second as she continues to search for a gift. “Earrings and sometimes a pendant, why?”

“Get her a bracelet then, she’ll probably like it,” you say. “Besides, it’ll go well with the other stuff.”

Ruby points out a simple silver bracelet to the worker, who quickly boxes it up before wrapping it with a small gift bow. You can’t help but notice her eyeing a different gold necklace as this is happening, and you make a mental note of it. She pays for the bracelet and apologizes to the worker for coming in near closing time before you both start making your way towards the mall’s exit. There’s something oddly nostalgic about walking the near empty mall, the sounds of shutters closing all around you only adding to it. It brings you back to the times you and your friends would spend entire Saturdays being mall rats. The first thing you notice when you step outside is how cold it is compared to just a few hours ago, and you start to shiver a bit. For a night you expected to spend alone, things had turned out pretty well and you’d spent some quality time with Ruby, ate some good food and overall had a great time. There’s not much more you can ask for, given it’s probably the best night out you’ve had in ages.

Despite all that, one question above all others continues to linger in the back of your mind. What the hell is this friendship of yours? It’s unlike any other you’ve had before, especially with how it feels like you’ve known each other for a decade in such a short span of time. You feel closer to a couple than friends, but without all the stress that accompanies a typical relationship. It makes you feel like you’re making the same mistakes you’ve made before, and the rational part of your brain tells you you’re already getting too attached and too close. You’ve only known her for a few days and you're already scared you've caught feelings for her, but even if all your worries are somehow perfectly logical, it’d feel wrong to just push her away. You can’t quite put your finger on what those feelings are, but there’s something there that your fear prevents you from exploring further and god forbid, acting on it.

Ruby’s voice temporarily dispels your worries and you glance down to see what the smiling kangaroo wants.

“Mike, it’s… f-freezing out here, can you…” she mutters, her teeth chattering. “...Can you warm up my h-hands, please?”

With how thick her coat of fur seems to be at a glance you didn’t think temperature would be a problem for them. Maybe it’s just because their hands have less fur?”

“Uh… Sure,” you say, a bit surprised by her request. “Of course, give em’ here.”

She reaches out and you take both her hands into yours and start kneading them. Immediately you can tell she wasn’t lying about the cold, her hands icy to the touch. Her fur tickles at your skin as you give an impromptu massage with your hands that, as far as you know, aren’t much warmer in the slightest. It’s a sensation you’re not sure you’ll ever get used to, but you do it for her.

“Better?” you ask once you’re sure you’ve done a decent job at warming her up.

“A little,” she smiles, and you can both see and hear her teeth chattering as she shivers violently. “Y-you mind holding them so they don’t get c-old again, please? Just until… we get to the c-car.”

You can’t help but grin at the request considering how she acted when you did the same earlier, though you’re not cruel enough to deny her request.

“Yeah, I can do that,” you say, your grin widening at her words.

You tightly grip her furred hand and interlock your fingers for the second time tonight, continuing down the parking lot towards your car. While the thin layer of fur warms your own hands, the way it tickles at your palms makes you want to loosen your grip, though you suppress the urge. Despite how the bitter night’s cold is affecting her, she seems oddly content, and you can see a hint of a smile on her as you walk hand in hand. Maybe you’re just being hasty with all your worrying.

‘Things are going to be fine, right?’ you think to yourself.

One worry is more prevalent than the rest right now, and you hope she doesn’t notice the goosebumps on your arms, a sure giveaway that you’re enjoying this just a bit too much, and something you wouldn’t be able to lie your way through. If she’s noticed, she certainly doesn’t say anything, the roo taking a few glances down at her shopping bag. After a few minutes of walking you finally make it back to your car, opening the passenger side door for her and letting go of her hand as she hops inside. You follow suit and jump into the driver’s seat before speeding off towards her house, knowing the route by memory now.

“So, you still think the gym was a better choice?” you ask, a smug, satisfied grin tugging at the corner of your mouth.

“No…” she begrudgingly admits. “...but I do still think you’re a wimp for skipping a workout. I had a good time though.”

“Nothing wrong with skipping a workout every now and then,” you say, still feeling the soreness in your legs when you press down on the pedals. “I’m glad you had fun though. I did too.”

You pull up to the spot you usually drop her off at. “So, see you tomorrow morning.”

“Bright and early, don’t forget,” she says, wagging a finger in your direction. “Don’t make me drag you to the park.”

“How could I?” you ask, chuckling. “My alarm sure as hell doesn't take days off, and I'm half scared I'll find you waiting in my living room if I try to skip out. Don't worry, I won't miss it.”

What she does next takes you by surprise, Ruby leaning over to hug you tightly and you awkwardly drape an arm around her back in an attempt to return the sudden hug. You can’t help but freeze up at the gesture, your brain rebooting at the sudden physical contact leaving you unsure of how to proceed. She looks up mid hug and the look in her eyes makes your heart skip a beat.

“Thanks for everything tonight, Mike,” she says, your heart suddenly deciding to work overtime to make up for the skipped beat, something you hope she doesn’t realize. “I… really needed this.”

You stammer out a response, instinct taking over in the absence of your brain. “N-no problem. I’m… glad I helped?”

‘Nice going, Casanova,’ you think to yourself as you cringe inwardly. ‘Really turning the charm up to eleven with that line.’

The embrace goes on for what feels like another minute, possibly the single longest one of your life, but the sensation of her fur on your cold, bare skin makes up for all the tension and awkwardness you’re feeling. When she finally breaks away, all your confused self can do is stare into those alluring amber pools until she finally gets out of the car. She waves at you once she’s a ways away from your car, and you stick around until you see her safely enter her apartment. The drive home gives you a lot of time to think over a few things you’d been meaning to do, cruising through the near empty streets serving as the perfect backdrop for organizing your thoughts. Despite your best efforts, you still haven’t found a date for the favor you agreed to do for Kevin, something you’d have to rectify over the weekend. Your car was also due for an oil change and a bit of maintenance, especially given the downright concerning noises you’ve heard coming from it throughout the week. Most importantly, you’re not exactly sure what to think about what happened not five minutes ago, the mixed signals you were getting from her leaving you downright puzzled. It’s not a surprise that you’re having trouble figuring her out, but one tidbit stands above everything else you’ve learned about her so far. You think about what her friend in the food court said about her not having a boyfriend in high school. It's definitely odd that someone as attractive as her hasn’t had one or two guy friends, unless... nah, there's no way. Admittedly you’re not the best at picking up on hints, but there’s no way Ruby’s batting for the other team, is there? Nothing else Ruby mentioned would even come close to implying it, but maybe you could talk to Lily again if you somehow ran into her again? The fact that you were even a little worried about her not being on the same team makes some uncomfortable thoughts surface, and you bite down on your lip a bit as you reach towards the car's console, taking a long, deep breath to calm yourself down. You turn on the music player and let shuffle take you on a journey for the rest of your short drive home, the melody distracting you from your train of thought.

Once home, you toss your clothes into a pile and you practically barge into your bathroom to take a quick hot shower before bed. While you’re not hungry thanks to your Chinese food binge at the mall, you’re also not in the mood to do much else at such a late hour, and you head into your bedroom to grab some much needed rest. You jump into the bed and throw the sheets over yourself. For what feels like the first time in ages, you feel comfortable and manage to settle in without much tossing and turning, happy memories of the day’s events dancing about in your head as you start to doze off.


Previous Chapter | Chapter Index | Next Chapter


Edit
Pub: 22 Feb 2021 06:08 UTC
Edit: 15 Oct 2022 18:47 UTC
Views: 1395