You let out a groan as you slowly come to, your eyelids unable to keep out the sunlight seeping in through the window curtains. To say you didn't sleep well would be an understatement, judging by the soreness radiating from your back. You quickly come to realize you aren’t in your bedroom, not unless you re-decorated it from the ground up and somehow also forgot overnight. Movie posters adorn the walls and on the dresser are what look to be… plushies? Honestly, if you didn’t remember that you’d stayed the night, you never would’ve guessed this is her room. A glance down reveals a still asleep Ruby, resting against you with her arm loosely wrapped around your torso. While you’d like nothing more than to just rest your aching body back into bed and appreciate her company, you know better.
Last night alone made you well aware of the veritable powder keg of emotions you’re toying with. And even though you know that your next move could be the spark to reignite that short fuse, some part of you is telling you to put some distance between the two of you. Everything that happened last night is still vivid in your mind and just thinking about some of the things she admitted to you is enough to make your blood boil. While her words stung, you can’t help but feel like some of her anger was justified, even if misdirected. Two whole years… just thinking about what could’ve happened to her is enough to send a shudder down your spine. Even through her choked sobs and loud snorts, you think you got the gist of what she'd gone through, wincing as you think back on the more vivid details. You briefly wonder how long ago this happened to her, and your train of thought momentarily drifts to your botched relationship with Kelly.
By comparison, your problems and hangups seem like an insignificant blip on the map. You rub your eyes and take a slow, deep breath as your brain works out what to do next, knowing staying in bed isn’t a luxury you can afford.
You decide to start with the first step to any plan you could come up with: leaving the bed. Hesitantly, you look down at Ruby, still peacefully resting despite you now being fully awake. While you try to ignore the irrational part of your brain, you can’t help but think it’s wrong that she’s holding you for comfort after shutting her down the way you did. You try to shake off the thought and make a risky, yet calculated shift of your torso as you watch her, thankful that she barely reacts to your movements. You hope that she’s a heavy sleeper as you slowly shimmy your way out from under her and towards the edge of the bed. Once there, you gingerly lift her arm and set it down gently onto the sheets beneath her, being careful to not make any noise as you slowly come to a rise. You bite back a groan as you shift your legs off the side of the bed, your sore back a reminder of the uncomfortable position you'd fallen asleep in; your foot an equally terrible reminder of how you got yourself in this situation in the first place. Now that you’re up and about, you’re not entirely sure what you should do next. You figure she could use a glass of water and some aspirin, but you’re not keen on raiding her medicine cabinet. The next best thing you can think to do is to leave a glass of water on the nightstand. After all, it’s the least you can do to try and remedy last night’s fuckups, assuming partial responsibility for how much she had to drink.
It feels like you're violating her privacy just by looking at the way she's decorated and organized her bedroom without her explicit permission. You quickly shake off the feeling that you're an unwanted intruder, being careful to not make any noise as you head towards the kitchen. With the natural light now illuminating the house, you get a clearer picture of the layout and the-
"Fuck!" you quietly hiss out as you stumble, thankfully catching yourself as you brace against the wall. 'And the mess the place is in,' your thoughts finish, having nearly tripped over a discarded pair of sweatpants dead in the middle of the hallway.
You usually try not to assume the worst in people, but the rest of her apartment doesn’t exactly paint a picture of tidiness. The takeout boxes and snack wrappers littered about the kitchen counter you could accept since it’s not like she was expecting company last night, but the dishes piled high in the sink are almost inexcusable in your eyes. Your parents had drilled some pretty high standards of cleanliness into you, and you take pride in keeping your apartment pristine regardless of if you were having company over or not. There’s no way you’re going to be able to concentrate on anything else until you clean up this mess of a kitchen; so you rummage around its drawers for a bit until you find some garbage bags.
'Okay... I’ll clean this up real quick, then get her a glass of water. Probably the least I can do to make up for what I did last night,' you think to yourself as you air out the garbage bag before getting to work.
As you clean up the trash scattered about the kitchen, you hope that having her house in this state isn’t something Ruby considers normal. It would drive you up a wall if she invited you over and things were like this, so much so that you’re not sure you’d be able to resist commenting on it. You wonder if the little you learned about her last night has anything to do with the disarray her apartment is in. Another part wonders if you would’ve even learned about that to begin with, had you put your foot down and cut her off. You know everyone handles being drunk differently and while last night is proof of that, the more you think about it, the more you feel responsible for what happened. Maybe if you'd just... had the guts to say something a few minutes earlier it would've made enough of a difference to matter? You keep replaying the events in your head and even though you have no way of knowing for sure, you’re almost positive she wouldn’t have tried to kiss you had she not been hammered. And despite everything, you’re glad the two of you ended up laying everything out the way you did, even if the circumstances weren’t ideal. It’s a painful reminder of the mistakes you made with Kelly, your failure to come to terms with the way you felt leading to your relationship quickly crumbling down around you. Your fear of dealing with things head-on reared its ugly head again last night, that much was apparent. You can’t help but feel disgusted with yourself for being afraid of making a scene at the restaurant, especially after making it abundantly clear to both yourself and Ruby that you care about her a great deal. Maybe it’d be for the best if you were more assertive in general? The thought gives you momentary pause, and you can feel your stomach flip and churn at the idea of acting the same way you did back in college. You know the reason you've acted like you're walking on eggshells around Ruby is out of fear of ruining yet another good relationship. Both extremes have gotten you nowhere, handling every outing and conversation with kid gloves proving to be just as disastrous as the hands-off approach you took in your relationship with Kelly. As much as you’d like to cast the thoughts from your mind permanently, you keep thinking back to your past relationships as you shove more and more things into the trash bag. You realize it’s probably horribly unhealthy to cling to the past the way you have, but you’re not entirely sure how else to handle things. You finish cleaning up the kitchen, tying up the trash bag, and shoving it in a corner before the dishes in the sink catch your eye once more. You didn't initially intend on washing them out of fear of overstepping your boundaries as a guest, but something inside you practically compels you to finish tidying things up, caving into your inner neat freak as you make your way towards the sink.
'...Maybe clean this too,’ you think to yourself as your gaze wanders to the slightly dirtied countertop. ‘No, no, just do this last thing, then get her some water.’
As you wash the dishes, you realize you could probably do with being less harsh on yourself, considering it’d make you a hypocrite if you didn’t, given what you said to Ruby last night. Putting all the blame on yourself for how your relationship with Kelly fell apart would only further muddle your judgment when deciding how to handle your friendship with Ruby. Though after yesterday, you’re not entirely sure there’s still a friendship left to handle. You can feel the anxiety bubbling up in your gut just thinking about what to say or do when she wakes up. Some part of you would prefer to avoid the conversation that you know is coming, and yet your rational half is screaming that you should come clean to her. You’re not even sure how much you should share with her, given you’re terrified of her learning about the kind of person you can be. Given all the things she said about you being nice and well mannered last night, you’re almost positive if she knew about the nature of your last relationship, she would’ve never been interested in you as a friend, much less romantically. You’re conflicted, because on the one hand, you know coming clean and explaining yourself is the right thing to do. On the other hand, you’re terrified about how she’ll react to your honesty and the fact that you’d kept this from her for so long.
You try to distract yourself by finishing the last of the dishes so you can get her some water. After you finish drying off the last plate, you towel off your hands before grabbing a clean glass and filling it from the sink. You carefully make your way back towards her bedroom, wincing slightly with each step you take. It stings a bit when you attempt to wiggle your toes around and for a moment you’re worried the door slam might’ve broken something. You don’t exactly hold it against Ruby because she didn’t knowingly do it, though you wonder if she even remembers it happening. Even if she doesn’t, you’re sure she’ll notice the slight limp in your step, and you briefly consider trying to conceal it. You quickly disregard the thought, knowing keeping something like that a secret won’t do either of you any favors. As you slowly begin to open the door to her room, you pray that the light you’re letting in from the hallway doesn’t prematurely wake her. You gently tiptoe towards her nightstand and carefully set the glass of water down before looking down at her.
You feel relief seeing her in this calm, undisturbed state, though you quickly notice she’s now hugging her pillow, a slight smile on her face as if dreaming of pleasant things. The sight is enough to make you smile, and you barely manage to resist the urge to chuckle. You soon realize watching her sleep is a bit creepy, and decide to head back to the living room to try and think of what you’re going to say when she wakes up.
When you reach the kitchen, you take a seat on one of the stools, tapping your fingers on the granite countertop as you try and get your thoughts together. Just thinking about how to start a conversation about what happened last night has your insides squirming in anxious wait. Past that feeling of butterflies fluttering about in your stomach, you can feel a slight rumbling; a staunch reminder of the fact that you didn't get to finish your meal last night. You look at the gas range almost longingly, reminded of days when you'd cook at your parent’s house. You hadn't realized it last night, but her kitchen is an extremely upscale one, even featuring a small island to do prep work on. By comparison, the kitchen in your current apartment leaves a lot to be desired, with barely enough arm room to chop vegetables comfortably. The thought gives you an idea though, and you consider whipping up some breakfast for both yourself and Ruby. You’re conflicted about actually going through with the plan, given it’s not your house or food that you’d be cooking; though you’d be lying if you said you weren’t interested in cooking in such a nice kitchen. Cooking has always been relaxing to you and you figure it might help you get your mind in a better state to prepare for the awkward conversation ahead. You get off the stool and walk towards the fridge, a bit apprehensive about taking a peek to see what’s inside. You’re unsure about basically raiding her kitchen to make breakfast, but you think she’ll ultimately appreciate the gesture. Plus, maybe you could use the breakfast as a peace offering of some kind. You press on, opening the door before scanning the fridge for things to throw together to make into something edible. For how big the fridge is, the selection inside is fairly slim, a few takeout containers which you assume have leftovers inside, some eggs, a half-finished packet of bacon, and some butter. It’ll do for breakfast, though the milk and eggs have you wondering if the other ingredients for pancakes are lingering elsewhere. You collect the ingredients in your arms and set them down on the counter, quickly getting to work in the hopes you can have breakfast done before she wakes up.
You awake to a terrible grittiness somewhere under your eyelids, scratching at the sensitive lenses below. A sense of dread fills you as you realize you fell asleep with your contact lenses still in, the feeling slowly creeping into the rest of your body, the once subtle aches and pains now screaming to be heard. You loudly groan as you start to sit up in your bed, the awful feeling of removing your long dried contacts only made worse by the pounding headache brought on by your sudden movements. With a relieved sigh you manage to successfully remove the contacts, setting them aside on the nightstand before attempting to blink some much-needed moisture back into your eyes. As soon as your lids part, the blinding light streaming through the curtains burns into them, driving you to duck your head back into the pillow. 'How much did I drink last night?' you ponder as you rub the soreness from your eyes. All that discomfort pales in comparison to the raging hangover pounding its way out of your head. The room seems to spin when you turn your head and while it's not nearly as bad as other times, it's not exactly an experience you're keen on reliving. Hangovers are far from your favorite thing, but a headache and some nausea beat cleaning puked on sheets any day.
‘The pretzels and water he gave me really must’ve-’
You quickly look to your side, and you grimace as the sudden movement sends fresh, sharp waves of pain throughout your head. He isn't there, and the only sign of him ever being here is the wrinkled pillow resting against the backboard of the bed. Your chest tightens even though you fully understand why he would leave. A tired sigh escapes you as you force yourself fully upright, though something catches your eye as you lift yourself upright. Your hands are stained a dark black, with certain spots having long streaks of shadowy makeup smeared across the fur leading up to your forearm. More importantly, after finishing the brief examination of your dirtied arms, you notice a glass of water and a small box beside you on the nightstand. You shift yourself to the edge of the bed and instead reach for the small, plainly colored box. While you know it’s none of your business to look inside, curiosity gets the better of you and you can’t resist the temptation to carefully slide the top off.
What you see inside is a gold necklace resting gingerly atop fluffy jewelry padding, a brilliantly shining, polished amber stone set into the pendant attached to it. You can’t shake the feeling that you’ve seen this somewhere before when it suddenly hits you: this is the very same necklace you’d had your eye on a week ago. The thought of Mike buying it leaves you confused, your head swimming with possibilities as you try and figure out why he’d left it. The fact that he was observant enough to notice your interest in it surprises you, considering you never brought it up to him. Was he planning on giving it to you before you ruined the night? Did he leave it on your nightstand by mistake? While your memory is hazy at best, you think you remember most of what went down last night. There’s no accompanying note as far as you can tell, even going so far as to peek behind the nightstand in case it had fallen. If he’d been planning on giving this to you, there’s no way you could accept it under the circumstances. After botching the dinner date with your self-sabotaging you don’t even feel you deserve his friendship, much less a piece of jewelry he spent god knows how much on. You close the box and opt to deal with it later, carefully setting it back down where you found it. You fish your phone out of your pouch to check for any potentially missed messages from him. The only thing you find, however, is that you’d slept in until almost noon. You’re suddenly thankful today is Sunday.
Even the slightest movements aggravate your pounding headache, but if you don’t get out of bed now then you know you’ll be glued to it until later in the afternoon. You carefully move your legs off the side of the bed, taking deep breaths until the feeling of nausea finally subsides. In one slow, yet deliberate motion, you stand upright, briefly closing your eyes until you get your bearings together. Your stomach grumbles and you realize that if you don’t get some food in you soon, you’re going to be feeling like shit all day. But first, you decide to slip out of the dress limiting your movements, pulling off your skirt and top, and leaving them on the bed to deal with later. You look down and consider taking off your push-up bra to join the clothes pile on the bed. After some thought, you decide to leave it on for now, the autumn cold liable to freeze your nips off otherwise. You collect your contacts and drag yourself towards the bathroom, making a beeline for the sink to place the lenses in their case before you begin to brush the harsh and dry taste of bourbon out of your mouth. As you brush your teeth, you catch a glimpse of your mascara-stained fur in the mirror, suddenly having to fight the urge to look away. While your reflection isn’t as awful as it was the night before, several black lines streak across your face from your eyes all the way down to the darker fur of your chin. No matter how hard you try to dispel them, memories of last night dance about in your head, mixing in with the regret and nausea you feel forming in the pit of your stomach. You quickly finish brushing your teeth before splashing your face with warm water, hoping to wash away any physical reminders of your mistakes. The dryness in your eyes only serves to further blur your vision and you rummage around the medicine cabinet until you find the bottle of eye drops. You tilt your head back and put a few drops in each eye, blinking a couple of times to make sure they stay in. While saline isn’t some magical cure-all, you feel the discomfort slowly start to wane. Even still, you’d have to go a few hours without your contacts until your eyes recover from their dehydrated state. You quickly dry off your fur before going back into the bedroom, downing the entire glass of water on your nightstand before palming the small jewelry box. As you make your way down the hallway and towards the kitchen, you think about what you’re going to do with it next time you see Mike. Would he even want to see you again? You hope the things he said last night weren’t empty promises but just the fact that he left without saying anything stings, and you can feel the butterflies in your stomach fluttering violently. You find it hard to breathe through your nose, your sniffles turning into a loud snort as you attempt to clear it. As much of an annoyance as a stuffy nose can be, you can put up with it for the time being.
‘Wonder if I still have some of that nasal spray,’ you think to yourself, briefly considering turning back for the bathroom. You ultimately decide against it, having made it this far down the hallway without iss-
Your thoughts are quickly cut short by your lost footing as you’re sent careening forward, tripping on what you can only assume is a piece of clothing.
“Shit!” you yell out, thankfully managing to catch yourself on the edge of your couch before hitting the ground. “Fucking stupid goddamn pants!”
Even though you’d like to blame the fact that everything a foot in front of you is a blurry mess, you know you should’ve been paying more attention. You’re halfway through pulling yourself to your feet when you hear a sound that leaves you frozen in shock.
“Ruby?” you hear someone ask, thoroughly convinced you’re hearing things before they speak again. “You awake?”
You scan your surroundings and your stomach sinks even further when you see what looks like Mike standing in your kitchen, the blurry, human-shaped blob undoubtedly looking towards you as a result of your loud entrance. You realize you’re practically nude given you’re only wearing panties and a pushup br-
In a panic, your brain decides the best course of action is to blurt out “Don’t turn around!” at the top of your lungs. You see him flinch in response, almost causing him to drop whatever he’s holding, but you don't see his blurry self shift or turn away from what he’s doing.
‘Stupid, stupid, why did I do that?’ you think to yourself as you hide your body behind the couch.
“S-sorry,” you manage to stutter out, scrambling to find something to say. “Just… what are you still doing here?”
"You, uh... didn't want me to leave. It's what you told me last night," he says, still stirring something you can’t quite make out from where you’re standing. A part of you feels the smallest bit relieved that he hasn't changed his position at all, hopefully meaning he didn't get to see you near stark naked. "Figured you'd want some breakfast to help beat that hangover. Was planning on waking you up when it was ready.
“Oh, right,” you say, even though you don’t remember asking him to stay the night.
The only thing your hazy memory can produce is that you’d tugged at his sleeve as he was getting up from your bed. A weird combination of embarrassment and anxiety washes over you when you realize you’re not entirely sure exactly what you did towards the end of the night.
You remember kissing and yelling at him, but your blood turns cold when you realize you’re not entirely sure if you apologized for letting your emotions get the better of you. “Sorry for yelling at you, Mike. You just… startled me a little.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to,” he says back, still keeping to his promise. “I figured it was best to let you get some sleep, so I tried not to wake you up.”
“Thanks, Mike,” you say, baffled as to why he’s acting so calmly. “I’ll be right back. I, uh, forgot something in the bathroom.”
“Sure,” he says, and you keep an eye trained on him as you come out from behind the couch before quickly ducking into the hallway.
You make a beeline for your bedroom, setting down the small box on the dresser before rummaging through your closet for anything you can quickly throw on. As you scramble to make yourself presentable, you wonder if you should even bother with putting your contacts back into your still sore and stinging eyes. You decide against putting yourself through the pain, even though you won't be able to see jack shit.
‘Then again, you could always look for your old gl- No, no. Just gonna have to go blind for the time being,' you think to yourself as you continue rummaging through your drawers for something decent to wear.
You ultimately settle on a simple t-shirt and sweatpants combo. The shirt slips on easily enough, and it’s baggy enough to hide the fact that you’re wearing a push-up bra. Even though the sweatpants are equally loose-fitting, you still have to wrestle with your thick tail to thread it through the hole. You briefly consider leaving the jewelry box where you’d found it in the hopes that he'd remember to collect it before leaving. You quickly cast the thought out of your mind, deciding it's best to ask him about it directly instead of letting your questions bottle up and get the better of you again. You shove the box into your sweatpants’ pocket and start making your way back towards the kitchen before suddenly stopping yourself. Something about the way he’s acting bothers you and for the life of you, you can’t figure out why that is. Is he purposely avoiding sharing his feelings about what happened last night? You know him to be a kind and understanding person, but the fact he’s acting like nothing’s happened makes you wonder if something did that you’re just not remembering. From the little you do recall, he let you down pretty gently and you blew up on him, a fact that makes you feel like the lowest of scum. You remember yelling at him, practically slamming the door in his face, and then yelling at him some more when he came looking for you purely out of concern; yet you can’t help but feel like there’s a missing piece to the puzzle. You know he eventually managed to calm you down and you feel deep shame when you remember how you cried in his arms, the absolute lowest you’ve sunk in recent memory. While things aren’t exactly crystal clear, you also remember loosely mentioning details of your past relationship to him, something you stupidly let slip. The only thing that comes to mind as to why he’d be so friendly after all the horrible shit you did and accused him of is that you pushed him into having sex with you. It’s a line of thought that doesn’t make any sense to you, especially given he told you that the only reason he didn’t kiss you was specifically that he didn’t want to take advantage of you. But you know that you can be pushy and you find yourself nearly hyperventilating as you try and convince yourself that you aren’t capable of doing something as horrible as forcing yourself on him. You take a few deep breaths to get yourself back under control, and you remember what he said to you in the kitchen just minutes ago. He said you asked him to stay the night, and knowing that briefly takes some of the weight off your shoulders. You know you don’t deserve his kindness, patience, or sympathy, much less his friendship after the shit you pulled last night. And while you feel disgusted with yourself, you know that you have to buck up and assume responsibility for your actions, regardless of what the outcome might be. You stare into the dresser mirror and take a final deep breath before setting off for the kitchen once more.
Though your nose is still partially stuffed up, the aroma of breakfast permeates your nostrils, your mouth practically watering in anticipation as you walk down the hall. You can’t remember the last time you had a home-cooked breakfast, usually opting to have something light so you wouldn’t feel bloated on your morning jogs. If you still felt hungry after the fact, you’d typically pick up something to eat on the way to the school, as unhealthy as that habit might be. You carefully step into the kitchen, making sure you don’t startle him into spilling a bubbling pan of oil on himself. While you appreciate him making breakfast for you, you’re mortified that he had to work in your mess of a kitchen, especially considering how high the dishes are piled in the-
‘Huh,’ you think to yourself when you get a glance at the sink. Even though you can’t make out details very well, you notice the dirty dishes that were there the previous night are now neatly stacked next to the sink, and the takeout boxes that previously occupied the small breakfast bar’s surface are also nowhere to be seen. You can’t help but feel ashamed about the fact that he had to take care of something that he isn’t responsible for and it makes you feel like a slob.
You take a seat on one of the kitchen stools before attempting to break the ice. “So… Uh… Good morning?”
He briefly turns away from the crackling pan to face you, and you resist the urge to look away when his gaze meets yours, finding it hard to focus on the blurry mess masking his features. You swallow hard when you see what you think are the dark stains of your makeup streaked across his otherwise spotless dress shirt. There's nothing you want to do more right now than apologize, terrified that you haven't already done so. However, your mind struggles to find the right words to express just how sorry you are about everything that happened last night. Thankfully, he speaks first and gives you some time to think about what to say.
"Morning," he says, his face a nigh-unreadable blur despite the short distance between you. "Wasn't expecting you up so early."
You can also tell that something’s bothering him as you squint to focus on what you hope is his smiling face. Maybe it's just your nervousness making you jump to conclusions, but you swear that you could see his blurry smile twitch. Despite all his reassurances last night, that alone is enough to make all the guilt you feel about last night come rushing back. You know that if you don’t say something now this might have a lasting impact on the future of your friendship. After last night, you’re not even sure he still wants to be friends despite the way he’s acting right now. And while you're glad he didn't leave, it's not a stretch to assume he's not exactly comfortable being in your home, or about the circumstances that put him here. You try to sit up in your seat to look at the stove, the mesh of blurred colors only giving you hints at what he's cooking, though the smell does a lot to help you decipher things.
He seems to notice your attempts at trying to figure out what he’s cooking. “Just figured some breakfast might help with that hangover, hope you like eggs and bacon. Would’ve made some pancakes too, but I couldn’t find any baking powder, so I just went with the classics.”
"Well... thanks. You, uh... didn't have to do this," you say, snapping out of your pessimistic train of thought and returning his smile out of politeness despite your conflicted feelings. “And sorry about that, I always forget to buy some.”
“No worries, I wanted to,” he says, turning back around to dedicate his attention to the eggs. “How do you like your eggs by the way? Runny or cooked through?”
“Cooked through,” you reply, hoping it won’t be an inconvenience to him. “Sorry if there wasn’t much to work with, I uh... haven’t gone grocery shopping in a while. And… thanks for tidying up a bit, you really didn’t have to.”
“Good, because I like mine the same way,” he says, using a spatula to push something on top of something else in the pan. “And it really didn’t take me too long to clean up, don’t worry about it.”
The silence that follows is almost unbearable, especially now that you’ve picked up on the unease in his words. You feel a tightness in your chest when you think back to every mistake you made last night. You’re positive he regrets ever having considered asking you to be his date, especially with how you embarrassed him in front of Kevin and Melanie. And being the fuckup you are, you didn’t stop there and decided to get drunk like an inconsiderate, irresponsible cunt. You more or less guaranteed that he can’t ever show his face in that restaurant again, not to mention that you probably irreparably damaged the trust between him and his friend. A part of you wishes those were the only mistakes you made, but you know for a fact you did far worse throughout the rest of the night. You can’t and won’t blame your poor decision-making on the alcohol, but some part of you wants to believe that things would’ve been different had you not downed nearly an entire bottle of bourbon after your conversation with Melanie. You want to tell yourself that the alcohol is what twisted her advice to make a move, but deep down you know that’s not true. You berate yourself for not having thought things through, that maybe your friendship could’ve been fine today had you not tried to force yourself on him. You can’t help but feel disgusted at yourself for what you did, now taking into account how he must’ve felt when you kissed him on the lips. And even still, you know you did even more disgusting things after he rightfully pushed you away; letting your temper and past experiences get the better of you once more. You’d promised yourself that you wouldn’t treat him that way ever again. You almost want to laugh at the fact that all it took to destroy all the effort you’d been putting into bettering your friendship with him was your poor impulse control. While you’re not sure your friendship with him can be saved, you still feel as if you should apologize for being such a shitty friend. Especially since you’re not entirely sure you did so after yelling at him. You’re not sure where you should start, or even what to say, but you’re clinging to the hope that you can patch things up with him. While you’d never admit it to him out of embarrassment, he’s one of the best friends you’ve had in a long time. And while you want to fix things, some part of you is screaming at you to let him go because he’d be better off without you to drag him down. You don’t deserve him, and you know for a fact he doesn’t need or want a burden like you in his life. You’re thankful his words briefly pull you back from your depressive thought spiral.
“You want some orange juice or water?” he asks as he uses the spatula to scoop out what looks like eggs onto a plate. He does the same with another plate before using a pair of tongs to put what you think are a few strips of bacon and some toast on each plate. He sets one down in front of you before turning back around. “Where do you keep the utensils?”
“Water’s fine. And they’re in the top drawer near the sink,” you shoot back, looking down at the meal in front of you. The sight and smell alone would be enough to make anyone’s mouth water, though you struggle to even think of eating anything with the terrible queasiness you feel in the pit of your stomach.
“Sorry I couldn’t find any aspirin for you, I imagine your head’s killing you right now,” he says, offering what you think is an apologetic smile as he hands you a fork and knife.
He sets down his plate and utensils on the breakfast bar before making his way around to join you. Even though he’s only an arm or two’s length away from you, you can’t help but feel like he shouldn’t be acting so casually.
“Nothin’ I haven’t had to go through before,” you say, forcing a small smile to try and maintain a calm demeanor. You look down at the plate of food, a part of you grateful for the meal and him not leaving, but one unanswered question still gnaws away at your insides. “This looks really good though, Mike.”
“Well, I just hope it tastes as good as it looks then,” he says with a small chuckle. “Dig in before it gets cold.”
You take a forkful of the eggs and shovel them into your mouth, trusting him to be a far better cook than you could ever hope to be. You chase a bite of the eggs with some of the crispy, fatty bacon and while the spread is nothing special, it’s probably the best-tasting breakfast you’ve had in a long time. It tastes great, but you can’t help but feel guilty about enjoying a meal he made just because you went overboard on the alcohol last night. Still, you don’t want him to feel bad about something he put so much effort into, and even though you feel queasy for a variety of reasons, you force yourself to take a few more bites.
“It’s really good, Mike,” you mutter between bites, forcing yourself to smile so your conflicted feelings don't show through. You desperately want to ask about last night, but you’re not sure how to begin, wondering if he would rather you never brought it up again. You take a brief pause from eating to steal a glance at him, also seemingly equally lost in thought.
Before you can muster up the courage and the right words to ask, he speaks up. “Listen, about yesterday… I’m sorry things went down the way they did.”
You're surprised at his honesty, and yet the knot in your throat prevents you from uttering anything other than a muttered "Huh?”
“I probably did a shit job at explaining myself last night, so I think I should apologize again,” he says, turning his head to face you before sighing out as he rubs at the back of his neck. "I shouldn't have called you up at the last second and... I sure as hell shouldn't have led you on like I did. I’m sorry, Ruby."
"I... You shouldn't be apologizing,” you say, trailing off as you try to find the right words to express how you feel. “You didn't lead me on and I... stupidly thought something was happening between us. It's not even close to being your fault."
You realize staring down at the counter in front of you as you speak is impolite and you fight the anxiety and fear bubbling up inside you to look to your side and meet his gaze. He looks to be slightly taken aback by your words, and you’re briefly worried you said something you shouldn’t have. You hope you haven’t made him feel the same way you do right now, but judging from the way his leg bounces and his fingers tap against the countertop, he’s just as nervous about having this conversation as you are.
“Look, I know I fucked up, Ruby. You don’t have to sugarcoat things for me so I can feel better about myself,” he says, putting his fork down before taking a deep breath. “I should’ve been a better friend to you.”
“What do you mean?” you ask, genuinely confused as to why he’s apologizing so profusely when he didn’t do anything wrong.
“Fuck, I… don’t know how to explain it,” he pauses, briefly running a hand through his hair. “I’m worried that I’ve been hurting you with some of the shit I’ve said. I know you said last night wasn’t my fault, but I still feel like if it wasn’t for me none of this would’ve happened.”
“You’re not at fault for anything that happened last night, Mike,” you say, absentmindedly poking at the remaining eggs on the plate with your fork. “I was a huge cunt to you last night and I’m sorry for making you feel responsible. It's my fault that I misread things and overreacted the way I did.”
You anxiously look to him to see if you can glean what he thinks of your sheer honesty. You feel relief when you see his shoulders relax as he takes a deep breath. “Be honest with me, did me calling you up last minute bother you? You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to, but it’d at least make me feel better to know.”
"I... well...." you begin, your tongue weighing down in your mouth like lead as you try to think of what to say. "I was... very surprised when you called me. I didn't, well... I was more bothered about it being a double date. Nothing against your friends, I... just... feel more comfortable one on one."
“I wasn’t trying to spring the date stuff on you last minute. I already felt bad enough that I waited until the very last day and when I went to ask you after I dropped you off I just… froze up,” he says, letting out a sigh as he rubs at the back of his neck. “Even before the first time I mentioned the dinner date, I was thinking about asking you. I just… didn’t know what you would think or say if I did. We’d only known each other for about a week then and I didn’t want to make things weird between us. I’m sorry if asking you on a double date made you feel uncomfortable.”
Even though you find it hard to trust anyone right now, you know he doesn’t have any reason to lie to you, taking him at his word, rather surprised at his honesty and the things he’s admitting to you. You can’t help but feel like an awful person for screaming at him over a simple misunderstanding, only serving to reaffirm the feeling that you don’t deserve to have him as a friend, much less someone you can be romantically involved with.
“I believe you. And you don’t have to apologize for that, Mike. I should’ve said something about it when you asked. I fucked up a lot of things last night and I definitely shouldn’t have yelled at you,” you say, swallowing hard as you try and push yourself to come clean about your feelings. “I wasn’t even really… angry with you, but you were there and I just… took it out on you instead. I’m really, really sorry for yelling at you. I shouldn't have just... dumped all of my shitty problems on you out of the blue; you didn’t need to hear any of that.”
He offers what you feel is a weak, yet sympathetic smile at your admissions. You know he probably hates every word that just came out of your mouth given what he said last night about you not being an awful person. You’re not sure you can believe that given how you ruined your one opportunity at a nice date by being a noisy, vulgar drunk. Not to mention how you very nearly slammed the door in his face along with the countless awful things you said and accused him of throughout the rest of the night. You’re surprised he hasn’t told you that he doesn’t want to be friends anymore and even if he does, you can’t blame him in the slightest.
"I forgive you, Ruby. If I'm being honest, I was more worried than upset about what happened last night," he says, briefly pausing as he averts his gaze. "I thought that it was entirely my fault that you were like that, and I felt like shit for doing that to you. A... lot of what you said last night hurt, I'm not going to lie and say it didn't; but I can come to forgive you for that too. And I don't know what happened, but I don't think the stuff you talked to me about last night are shitty problems.”
Even though his words are laden with sympathy and forgiveness, you still can’t help but feel like a bitch because of the things you've told him. Your heart sinks as your stomach continues to do flips and you swallow hard as you think of how to respond to his kind words. “I still feel like a cunt for yelling at you, Mike. I just want you to know that I didn’t mean any of the shit that came out of my mouth last night, and... you don't deserve to be called names or accused of doing anything like that. And even with me being a lousy fucking drunk, it’s no excuse for how I treated you. Fuck, I should've apologized to you last night, but I just kept being a cunt and stopped trying to listen."
"But you did apologize last night. Do you... not remember that?" he asks, and you can clearly see his expression shift into one of confusion despite your impaired vision.
While you want to feel relieved at the fact that you actually did apologize to him for being so awful last night, you only feel more anxiety because you can’t remember what exactly you said to him. And even though the question might make things even more awkward between the two of you, you know that if you don’t speak your mind now, you’ll likely come to regret it down the line. “I… remember most of what happened, but I don’t really remember apologizing to you, or some of the things I might’ve said. All I know is that I was a fucking stupid, selfish cunt.”
He takes a deep breath, his head briefly looking down at his now cold breakfast. He puts the fork down with an exhale and begins to speak. “I really don’t want you feeling guilty for what happened last night. I can’t blame you for seeing things the way you did, even I was worried that I might’ve been leading you on. But, trust me, I really do forgive you.” He pauses and breaks eye contact, his blurry expression still practically unreadable to you as he looks to what you think is the door before looking back. “You’ve been such a great friend that... I’m willing to try and work past this. And believe me, you’re not stupid, selfish, or a lousy drunk, Ruby; I know how easy it can be to get carried away sometimes.”
“Thanks, Mike,” you say, offering a small smile as you absentmindedly poke at your food with the fork. “I don’t feel like I’ve been that great of a friend, but I believe you. I’m still sorry for making you have to take me home early last night.”
"No, it's- it wasn't a big deal, everyone was pretty much done with dinner and it was getting late anyway," he answers, returning a small smile of his own. You realize that he hasn't acknowledged your comment about how shit you acted last night, a part of you understanding why he wouldn't refute it and another part disgusted at yourself for the behavior. It wasn't something you were glad to have picked up on but he made it sound like he wanted to say something else there. Or maybe you're just overthinking things again, settling on that explanation for fear that you'll blow things out of proportion again with a misunderstanding.
A question begins to burn up within you, one that’s begging to be answered to help put to rest one major worry: Just how far did you go last night?
You can remember a bit of what happened last night; like when he swept you off your feet to bridal carry you to your apartment, the memory enough to make your cheeks warm slightly. While it felt nice to be held that way, you know you shouldn’t have taken it as a sign to make a move. After that, you remember your awful decision to kiss him. But more importantly, you remember something that makes your stomach churn. How you’d let- no, invited him to reach into your pouch and get your keys. The thought alone makes you feel a bit nauseous, though it’s through no fault of his own. You look up from staring down at your plate only to find he’s gone back to eating and you feel relieved he’s not staring at you while several embarrassing thoughts and feelings run through your head. While you still feel a mix of guilt and anxiety bubbling in your stomach, you feel even worse when your thoughts drift to what he could be thinking right now. It's hard to make out his expression with your blurred vision and you briefly wonder if it's all in your head. Why else would he be treating you so kindly? If he was angry he would've just left instead of making you breakfast, right? You feel as if you're going to go insane if you don't manage to muster up the courage to ask the question at the forefront of your mind.
"C-Can I... ask you something?" you ask, almost choking on your words out of fear of saying something that'll only make things worse. "I don't... remember all of it. What happened last night, I mean. I know I yelled at you like a fucking shitty... I know I yelled at you, but... I don't even know if I really apologized or if I said more awful things than just what I remember."
"Well... You did apologize. Said you were sorry, and well... You asked if I could stay after a little while," he explains, the tone in his voice making his hesitation obvious even as he explains what happened.
You can’t be sure of it, but you feel as if he's holding back on something; that there’s some key detail he's refusing to divulge, though you have no real right to press him about anything else you might have done. You hate how much you desperately want to ask, but a part of you wonders if that really was all that was said last night. While you know you mentioned a few details of how your past ‘relationship’ ended with him, you understand why he wouldn’t want to talk about it, given how you reacted to having those unpleasant memories resurface.
"Okay," you respond, struggling to meet his gaze, the lack of focus only serving to worsen your still pounding headache. “I’m sorry again for… putting you through all that, I badly overreacted last night.”
“It’s alright, I forgive you, Ruby,” he says before going back to finishing off the rest of his plate.
You both sit in uncomfortable silence as you pick at the remainder of your meal, the tension eating away at your nerves as you desperately try to think of something else to say.
"Um... Do I, uh... owe you anything for the dinner? I know I asked for a bottle, but I don't want you to cover for that," you say, berating yourself for stumbling over your words to ask such a simple question.
"No, you did pay for it, don't worry about that," he says before finishing the last bite of food on his plate.
"And my half of dinner? I’d feel terrible making you pay for the whole meal,” you say, hoping he’ll take your offer and by extension, some of the guilt off your shoulders.
"Don't worry about it, it's fine. I covered it," he says dismissively as he comes to a stand, only serving to further worry you.
"Wait, look, I can pay you back my half right now," you try to interject as he collects his plate, reaching into your pouch to rummage around for your wallet before being interrupted by his words.
“I’m not going to take your money, Ruby,” he says as he works his way around you and into the kitchen. “I promised myself I’d pay for the date when I asked you to come along.”
“Can I at least ask how much it was?” you ask as he starts to wash the dishes, something you’re embarrassed that he’s taken upon himself to do.
“I won’t tell you the exact amount, but trust me when I say it wasn’t that expensive,” he says as he dries his hands off on the kitchen towel.
You can’t exactly refute the claim since you weren’t exactly in an attentive state throughout the meal considering what happened in the bathroom. It makes you feel like you owe Kevin and especially Melanie an apology for what went down at the restaurant last night. With no meal to distract your gazes, you’re left with no option other than to look up at him awkwardly as the two of you avoid being the first to speak for what feels like the tenth time this morning. He’s seemingly content with giving you time to think, and you hear the occasional tap of his fingers against the countertop. You badly wish you could go back and avoid the mistakes you made, but you’re determined to make up for what you did since he’s so kindly given you the opportunity to. And even though he’s forgiven you and said he’s willing to look past this, you feel an intrusive thought creep into the back of your mind. What if he starts to resent you for putting him through this? For making him feel like he has to hold his tongue around you for fear that you’ll blow up on him just like you did last night? You do your best to cast the thought out of your head before it gets the better of you and you let out a small sigh of relief when you hear him start to speak, giving you respite from your spiraling thoughts.
"You done with yours?" he asks, nodding towards your plate, a few scraps of food left on it.
You quickly finish one last bite before pushing the plate away, letting out a sigh of satisfaction.
While your head is still pounding, having something in your stomach really helped stave off your nausea. “Yeah, I’m done. Thanks for breakfast Mike, it was really good.”
“No worries, I’m glad you liked it,” he says, taking your plate before turning to wash it in the sink. “Just make sure you drink plenty of water and maybe take an Advil for that headache.”
Halfway through his stride towards the sink, a distinct, yet muffled hiss makes its way into your ears. It’s accompanied by what sounds like a brief sigh, your sensitive hearing telling you he's the source of the sound. It sounds a lot like he’s in… some kind of pain? You’re immediately thrown into a state of light panic, your mind instantly assuming the worst possibility. Was that what he was holding back on? Did you hit or god forbid, kick him in your drunken anger last night? You’ve never been that violent with anyone but considering everything else you did, you wouldn’t be surprised if you took things that far. You pray that’s not what happened; anything but you crossing that line you could accept or even try to work past. However, if you did something that horrible to him, there’s no way you’d be able to forgive yourself for it, let alone expect him to not hold something like that against you. Such thoughts only confuse you further. If you were such a violent, drunk piece of shit to him, why is he still here? What the fuck happened last night? You already feel bad enough about the circumstances that led up to you two meeting and becoming friends, to the point where your apology didn’t even seem like you came close to making up for things. He accepted it, sure, but you still feel guilty about having done that to him. You try to focus your blurred vision in an attempt to try and identify the source of his pain, and you spot the likely culprit as your gaze veers south.
He’s got a slight limp to his step and you can tell he’s putting most of his weight on one foot to hide it. If you didn’t hit him, did he injure himself on one of your jogs together and have too much pride to say something about it? You don’t know him to be the type of person to do that though and your thoughts drift to when he gave you a piggyback ride a few days ago. While it was an extremely nice gesture, you hope he didn’t hurt himself carrying you. Or worse yet, you really, really hope he didn’t injure himself when carrying your drunk self home last night. As much as you hate to think it, with how quickly he swept you off your feet, it’s likely he pulled some kind of muscle doing so. Against your better judgment, you speak up as he returns to the breakfast nook.
“Hey Mike, is something wrong with your leg?” you ask, hoping the expression on your face shows concern and not the anxiety you’ve been struggling to keep hidden away.
You can see the corner of his mouth briefly twitch before he forces a small smile. “Just a little sore, but it’s nothing a good night’s sleep and an ice pack won’t fix. Don’t worry about it.”
For a moment you consider just dropping the subject, but you know Mike to be the type of guy to downplay things even if they are bothering him, so you press on with another question. “You sure? I wouldn’t mind taking a look at it real quick, it’s nothing I haven’t done before.”
Even with your blurred vision, you can see his contemplative expression between his glances down at his foot. “You sure it’s not a big deal?”
“Yeah, I promise,” you say, getting off the stool before heading towards the living room. “Come to the couch though, it’ll make it a lot easier for me to get a close look at it.”
You take a seat on the ample couch, looking over to Mike as he carefully hobbles over to you, shifting his weight to his other, seemingly uninjured foot. While you do your best to not worry, some intrusive thoughts about this being entirely your fault begin to spill through, only serving to bring back that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. He takes a seat to your left before taking off his dress shoe, crossing his left leg over the right one to give you better access to his foot. You grip the underside of his foot, looking to him for approval before you take the sock off. He gives you a brief nod and you gingerly peel back the sock, your worries slowly waning until the front of his foot becomes exposed. There’s a purple bruise running alongside his big toe, and a glance at him tells you that even he’s surprised to see the extent of the injury. It only helps confirm your theory that this is all your doing since it looks fresh.
“Tell me if anything I do hurts, alright?” you ask as your fingers slowly begin to glide around the site of the injury, gently applying pressure around the slightly swollen toe. “Going to try not to press down too hard.”
“Sure,” he nods, maintaining his stoic expression even as you begin touching over the bruise. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”
You touch and apply pressure all around the site of the injury, but he doesn’t even flinch until you apply a tiny bit of pressure to the side of his foot, directly on the center of the bruise. He recoils back a tiny bit, your tight grasp the only thing stopping him from pulling his foot away entirely. You hear a hiss escape his tight lips, and for a moment you wonder if you pressed down too hard.
“Sorry, sorry, just… didn’t think it would hurt that much,” he says, taking a deep breath as he carefully wiggles his injured toe around.
You know it's probably a terrible idea to press him about what happened given how sure you are that you're to blame, and yet you find your mouth acting before your brain, firing out a question before you can decide on the best course of action.
“What happened?” you ask, that dreadful feeling of guilt washing over you once more.
“Just… something stupid I did,” he says, his suddenly averted gaze only serving to confirm your worst fears. “I’m sure it’ll get better once I get some ice on it.
While you can’t perfectly make out his expression, you’re almost positive there’s something he’s not telling you. Even though you’re yet to discover the truth, your burning curiosity begins to override your fear of making your friendship even more strained.
As the dreadful feeling of regret in the pit of your stomach begins to mix in with your burning shame, you find yourself asking a simple question aloud. "Did I do this?"
He doesn't answer immediately. You look to him and as your eyes meet his, he looks away for a brief moment. "You... It was my own fault, but-"
"Mike," you interrupt, reaching forward to put a hand on his lower leg. "Did I do this?"
The burning intensifies as that sick feeling in your stomach begins to spread to the rest of your body. You don't know exactly what you did to give him that bruise, but you suppose it doesn't matter if you were the one that did it in the end. Knowing that he had no good reason to stay only further complicates the emotional storm brewing in your head.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what I did, but... fuck..." you say, your voice practically whisper quiet.
You feel his hand gently grip your shoulder. "Hey, no, it was my stupid decision to stick my foot in the door. Like I said, it was my fault."
While you’re thankful for his kindness, his words don’t really help as much as he would want them to. Why did he stay past that point, or as the black marks on his shirt remind you, after all that? The worst part is you don’t remember doing any of this to him, though you have no reason to not take him at his word, given the evidence staring you in the face.
“I don't... even remember doing this to you last night," you admit, worried that he thinks you're just lying about your fuzzy memory. "What exactly did I do to you? And how?"
"It doesn't matter," he says, his blunt response surprising you. "It happened, but I don't blame you. I don't even think you meant to do it."
"It matters to me, Mike," you assert, still slowly tracing the area around the bruise, every glance at it only further amplifying the guilt you feel. "And I appreciate you saying that, but I'm not sure if it was intentional or not."
He looks like he wants to say something, but keeps stopping himself just as he starts to open his mouth. You're not sure if he's afraid of telling you what happened, or if he's afraid of how you might react. You can't really blame him either way considering how you reacted to what you thought was a harsh rejection. You decide to give him some room to breathe and think about what to say. "I'll be right back, I'm going to get you some ice."
You throw open the fridge door in your haste before realizing that the door itself can dispense ice. As if to only make you further aware of what an emotional mess you are right now, you also realize you don't have anywhere to put the ice cubes, turning to rummage through one of the kitchen drawers. You quickly find exactly what you're looking for, a small kitchen towel your mom had gotten you long ago as a housewarming gift. Knowing she'd taken the time to sew it for you makes you smile, the happy memory almost enough to help you forget both the cause of the injury and the person you inflicted it on.
You take a few ice cubes and place them in the rag, tying a snug knot at the top to ensure nothing would spill out. For a moment you contemplate sitting in the kitchen for a few minutes to give him some more time to think, though you decide against it for fear of him catching on to what you're doing. You still don't understand why he stayed after everything you did to him, though you're grateful that he did to talk things out with you. It gives you a glimmer of hope in the bleak patch your friendship is sitting in right now, and you're hoping that with some luck and effort, the two of you will be able to patch things up. You take yet another deep breath as you make your way back to the couch.
"Hopefully this'll help some," you say as you sit back down, applying as little pressure as possible as you press the makeshift ice pack onto his bruised foot. "Sorry it's not a real ice pack, forgot where those ended up."
"It's fine," he says, and even though you can see some tugging at the corner of his mouth from the slight pain, his expression looks to be one of relief. "Listen... I can't say I know for sure whether you did it intentionally or not, but I honestly don’t think you're the kind of person that would do this on purpose. Drunk or not.”
You frankly don’t know how to reply to his kind words, though you’re still curious about what happened. “How did I do it?”
He pauses for a moment before replying, the tension in the room almost palpable. “You really want to know?”
“Yeah, I do,” you say, being sure to keep the ice pack pressed to his foot. “I promise I can handle it.”
There’s still some apprehension in his eyes, and he takes a deep inhale before speaking again. “It was my mistake, and the reason it happened was because I decided to stick my foot in the door in the first place. You were just trying to get away from me and I don’t think you realized my foot was stuck in the door when you slammed it shut.”
You know that you’re the one who asked him to tell you the truth and even still you can’t help but feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. You do your best to not let it show on your face how much it pains you and how guilty you feel for hurting him. Even if he forgives you, the damage you’ve done is probably already too much for your strained friendship to bear. As fucked as it is, some part of you wishes he didn’t care so much about you, because all he’s gotten for his troubles is the displeasure of dealing with you. You desperately want to take back the things you said last night. It’s not his responsibility to deal with your burdens, and you impulsively pushed them onto him by talking about them. It doesn’t really surprise you since your feelings on that stuff have been bottled up for years, but he shouldn’t have to put up with any of this. He looks to you inquisitively and you quickly realize you’ve been lost in thought for some time, Mike seemingly looking to you for an answer.
“Fuck… I’m really, really sorry, Mike,” you say, fighting the urge to tear up as you can feel your breath quicken. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you, I just… let my stupid emotions get the better of me again. That’s not an excuse for any of the bullshit I pulled last night, and if there’s anything I can do to make up for how shitty I was to you, please tell me.”
“Ruby, it’s okay,” he says, putting his hand on your shoulder once again. You don’t flinch away, scared that he’ll pick up on your obvious unease and distress. “I know you’re sorry about the stuff that happened last night, and I can forgive you for it. I don’t want you beating yourself up over something that can’t be changed, no matter how much we’d both like it to.”
“But I was so awful to you last night,” you say, trying to explain your perspective on the matter to him. “I don’t deserve you being nice to me after all the shit I pulled. I’m sorry that you had to put up with me at the restaurant and here last night.”
“I wasn’t… putting up with you, Ruby,” he says, and you swallow hard upon hearing your name. His expression is as genuine as you’ve always known it to be, and he’s never given you a reason to distrust him. “You already apologized to me for everything last night and this morning. And I stayed the night because I wanted to. I’m not going to stop being your friend over this, Ruby. I meant all the stuff I said to you last night.”
Even though you know it’s probably a bad idea to continue pressing him, there’s one question that needs answering. “Thanks, Mike, that’s…. really kind of you to say. I have a question though.”
“Name it,” he says, though you’re positive it’s a question he doesn’t want to hear, much less answer.
“Did the stuff I said to you last night upset you in any way?” you say, and you feel a pang of regret the instant the words leave your mouth.
“It did get to me a little bit, yeah,” he says after a brief pause. “I’m not mad about it anymore, and I don’t think some of what was said was entirely unwarranted. You told me to leave and instead, I decided to stubbornly barge into your apartment. I deserve to be yelled at for that much, at least.”
From what you can tell of his expression, it pains him to recall last night’s events. The last thing you want is for him to feel guilt for something that isn’t even close to being his fault. Against your better judgment, you decide to tell him exactly how you feel about him deciding to stay the night.
“I’m glad you stayed, Mike,” you say, mustering the warmest smile you can manage. “It really helped getting some of that stuff off my chest.”
“I’m happy my stubborn self could be of help,” he says, returning the gesture with an equally warm smile. “And thanks for the ice, it feels a whole lot better now.”
“It’s the least I can do,” you say, even though your hand is going slightly numb from the cold.
There’s a silence now permeating the room, neither of you choosing to talk for vastly different reasons. It feels like there’s nothing else you could say to him without going in circles or dredging up more painful recalling of memories, from last night or otherwise. Some part of you wants to break the silence, but you’re not sure what you should say. You’d give anything to know what’s going through his head right now, though his refreshing honesty has managed to quell some of the anxiety and stress bubbling up within you. As much as you want to ask a few more questions, namely about what he meant when he said he would’ve kissed you under different circumstances, you decide against it, your embarrassment winning over your curiosity.
“You uh, left something in my bedroom last night, Mike,” you say, rummaging through your sweatpants pocket with your free hand for the jewelry box. “Must’ve fallen out or something.”
“I left something?” he asks, seemingly confused until he sees what’s in your hand. He seems surprised upon seeing it, palming his pants pocket before looking back to you. “Must’ve forgotten to put it back in my pocket when I woke up.”
You reach out in an attempt to hand it back to him. “Glad I noticed it then, wouldn’t have wanted you to leave it.”
He shakes his head and gently pushes your hand away. “It’s for you. I wanted to get you something as thanks for agreeing to be my date on such short notice. Plus, I noticed you had your eye on it at the mall.”
You decide to stick to your guns and go with what you decided on earlier, pushing your hand back out at him. “I… can’t accept this, Mike. I really appreciate that you wanted to give me a nice gift, but I don’t deserve it. Not after last night.”
You know he’s stubborn enough to say otherwise, but his stunned silence tells you that he’s surprised by your willingness to argue against him. “I’m not going to take it back, Ruby. Last night doesn’t change the fact that I wanted to give this to you.”
You’d be lying if you said you didn’t love the necklace, but even if you did decide to keep it, it would only serve as a reminder of how much of an ass you were to him. Besides, come worst-case scenario, it'd only be made all the worse if he ever decides to cut all ties with you.
"It just... doesn't feel right accepting this, Mike."
"Well," he says, seemingly eager to offer a rebuttal. "Like I said before, just... consider it thanks for being there for me. Everything that happened after that doesn't matter."
You sit there in silence as you rack your brain trying to come up with a good response. You consider just accepting it and hiding it away in a drawer, but it feels wrong to essentially throw away such a pretty pendant. Hell, he might even feel bad if he doesn’t see you try it on, but…
You look back down at the box, unsure if you could come up with any reason to tell him no, let alone try to untangle the awkward ball of emotions you're left with. He briefly dips a hand into his pockets and pulls out his phone, checking something briefly before he suddenly stands up. "Hey, I'm really sorry, but... I gotta go and cover for a shift at work."
"Oh, uh... that's fine," you say as you set the box down beside you and stand up. You can see in his face that he looks like he doesn't want to go, but you wouldn't blame him if something like work sounds more appealing than spending a second longer here. You want to say something more about the gift but you decide to swallow your words for now, not wanting to hold him up.
An awkward pause is shared between the two of you, a part of you wishing someone would say something to ease the tension.
"Well, uh, hey. You still want to, uh... meet up at the park?” he asks, breaking the silence. “You know, keep up the whole jogging thing?"
That's right, you did promise that. A part of you wishes you could hold that off for the time being, but you know there's no good way you could explain why you need just a bit more time to think things through.
"Yeah, I... I'm still up for that," you half-heartedly reply, mentally berating yourself for your lack of enthusiasm.
Another tense silence with another awkward look shared, thankfully cut short as you see his blurry face smile as he says, "Cool, cool. I'll still be at the gym tonight, probably after work. Got me on shifts like this for the rest of the week it looks like."
You do your best to return the smile in a poor attempt to mask your feelings. "Great."
"So, I'll see you later, Ruby. Hope the, uh, hangover eases up soon," he says, opening the door before quickly stealing another glance at his phone. "Think you'll make it to the gym later or...?"
You doubt you'd be up for exercising for the next two weeks, let alone today, but you force a smile in response. "I'll, uh... I'll let you know if I'm headed there."
You think he smiles again as he nods his head. "Cool. Hope you have a good rest of the day, Ruby."
Somehow, you really don't think that’ll be the case. "Yeah, you too, Mike."
And finally, he closes the door, leaving you to let out a much-needed sigh of relief. You slump down onto the couch, your tail coming to rest onto your lap as you stare up at the blank ceiling. Despite all his reassurances and kind words that you’re sure are undeserved, you’re not sure you’ll ever be able to work up the confidence to work out with him again, much less casually hang out. With the way he rushed out of your apartment, you’re almost sure you’ve scared him off for good. Your chest feels tight and your tail involuntarily twitches to and fro as you once again mentally revisit last night’s events. Each painful recollection only reaffirms that you’re right to feel the way you do. A quick tilt of your head and glance over at the kitchen tells you that you have a few hours to decide whether to go to the gym or not. You hope that you’ll be able to make a decision you won’t regret by then.
You’re in nowhere near as bad a state as Ruby likely is right now, but you’re dreading the thought of coming into work on a Sunday afternoon, especially after everything that happened last night. You’re not even sure why you agreed to come in the first place, and you silently berate yourself for suddenly leaving her alone. While it felt wrong to overstay your welcome, you worry that leaving as quickly as you did may have made things worse. Whatever the right course of action might’ve been, it was already far too late to go back on your word to Kelly. You just hope that Ruby wouldn’t take things the wrong way, mentally noting down to send her an apology text when you got off work. Facing Kevin was shaping up to be another hurdle entirely, only made worse by the fact that you still owe him god knows how much money for dinner. You pray he isn’t too upset by the fact that dinner had to be cut short due to your carelessness regarding Ruby’s drinking. You take a deep breath and head inside seconds before you’re officially late, being sure to quickly punch in before heading off to the bathroom to change into your work uniform. Though you weren’t expecting anything different, a knot forms in your stomach when you see Kevin beckoning you over from behind the counter, a smirk forming on his face. You take yet another deep breath to steady your nerves before walking over to greet him.
Before you can even get a chance to speak, his voice rings out. “Kelly manage to rope you in for a Sunday shift too, huh?”
You can’t help but smile a bit as you lean against the counter next to him. “Hard to beat the overtime pay after getting cleaned out last night.”
“That’s about the only reason I showed up today,” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck. “If it was up to Melanie, I wouldn’t have even made it out of the bedroom.”
“Speaking of, I owe you an apology for last night, I should’ve put a stop to things before they got as bad as they did,” you say, barely even able to look your friend in the eyes out of the sheer amount of shame you feel for what happened. “I thought she could handle her drink and-”
He interrupts your near frantic speaking pace with a firm pat on the back. “Look, don’t worry about it too much, shit happens. God knows I’ve had my fair share of embarrassing things happen when I’ve been totally shitfaced.”
You can’t help but crack a small smile with how understanding he’s being. “I just feel bad because it feels like I ruined a nice night out for you and Melanie and-”
“Don’t. We both had a good time last night, trust me. Melanie and Ruby hit it off really well, and I got to learn a thing or two about you,” he laughs before giving you another reaffirming pat on the back. “I know Melanie said it a couple of times last night, but the two of you seem like you would make a good couple.”
You can’t help but swallow audibly at the implication, not exactly eager to share what happened after you decided to take Ruby home.
“Yeah, that’s what people keep telling us,” you say, eager to steer the conversation away from the idea of you two as a couple. “Anyway, how much do I owe you for everything last night? I’ll just Venmo you or something.”
“Can’t remember off the top of my head, left the receipt in the car. We can work it out whenever we get off work, I’m not really in a rush,” he says, waving his hand dismissively. “Sorry I didn’t call to make sure everything was alright after the two of you left. You manage to get her back home safe and sound?”
You open your mouth to speak, but the words die in your throat as the very idea of telling your best friend a lie is enough to make you sick to your stomach. You push on, swallowing to clear the knot forming in your throat. “I got her home alright, but…”
“But what?” he asks, a concerned look on his face. “She didn’t black out or anything right?”
“No, but… ah,” you say, letting out an exasperated sigh. “She tried to kiss me and I… didn’t want to take advantage of her being drunk so I just kind of pushed her away. Fuck.”
“What’s so bad about that?” he asks, his concerned look quickly replaced by one of confusion. “You did exactly what you should’ve done in that scenario, man, don’t beat yourself up over it.”
“I know that, but she didn’t take it too well. I don’t know if it was just the alcohol or if I pushed her away too strongly but she took it badly. Really, really badly,” you say, the previous night’s events still fresh in your head.”
He looks to you, concern apparent on his face as he puts a hand on your shoulder in support. “How badly?”
You don’t know where to start, or if talking about this even with someone like your best friend would be a huge breach of her trust, but you have to talk to someone about it. “I mean I… took her home last night because I was worried she’d had too much to drink but all that was meant to happen was me dropping her off and making sure she’d be alright overnight. That’s… not even close to what happened.”
“But what exactly happened?” he asks, his grip on your shoulder tightening slightly. “You keep saying she took it badly, but what did she do?”
You wrestle with yourself momentarily before finally letting the words spill free from your mouth. “I don’t know how to explain it man, I turned her down and she kind of just… broke down. I feel awful but at least now I know I can’t keep blaming myself for it.”
“Why’s that?” he asks, the concern on his face now joined by equal parts confusion.
You don’t want to let on too many of the details for fear of violating Ruby’s trust in you, but you have an almost equal obligation to be honest with your friend in kind. “I… don’t think she would’ve reacted that way just from me rejecting her normally.”
“You mean because she was drunk? I mean, I guess people always act differently when drunk.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean. Maybe she took it harder because she was drunk but with some of the stuff she admitted to me I don’t think this is the first time she’s been rejected like that. I don’t know, it doesn’t make the way she acted okay, but she did apologize for the way she acted in the morning.”
“Wait. Did you actually stay the night?” Kevin asks, looking to you expectantly for a response. “I’m not saying it was a bad idea but was there really nothing else you could’ve done instead?”
You rub at the back of your neck as you let out a long, drawn-out sigh. “I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time and with how she was acting I sure as hell wasn’t planning on just leaving her alone. I don’t know if it was a mistake or not.”
He gives you a reassuring pat on the back. “Honestly, you did better than I would’ve in that situation, man. I don’t know if it’s good advice, but maybe you should talk to her about it.”
“We kind of did this morning, she apologized, I apologized for some of the stuff I’ve done before, but then I had to come in today and we didn’t get a chance to talk about too much more,” you say, thinking back on things and wondering if you should’ve done anything differently.
“Are you going to see her again today?”
“Maybe. I told her I’d let her know when I get off work to see about heading to the gym. If she shows I might try to talk to her about things some more.”
“Sounds like a plan, man,” he says, giving you yet another reassuring pat on the back. “For what it’s worth, I talked to Melanie last night and she told me Ruby seemed a bit nervous when she went to go check on her. Might have something to do with how much she drank last night, if I had to guess.”
You’re not at all surprised to learn this from Kevin, considering she’d been acting strange all night long. What does surprise you is the fact that she’d opened up about it to a stranger, considering how reserved she tended to be about more serious matters. “Did she tell you what she was nervous about?”
Now it almost seems like it’s his turn to feel sheepish, his hand now rubbing the back of his neck. “I don’t know if Ruby or Melanie would’ve wanted you to find out but if you really want to know, I’ll tell you.”
Even though he’s your best friend you wouldn’t want to breach the trust between him and his girlfriend against his will. “Are you sure, man? Last thing I want to do is land you in hot water with Melanie.”
You can see him briefly hesitate, though it seems something wins over his better judgment. “I trust you. Besides, it’s not like you’re going to go straight to Melanie and tell her what I told you.”
“I would never do that, scout’s honor,” you laugh, putting a hand over your heart. “Is it really that serious?”
“It’s… pretty fucking bad, yeah,” he says, a slight bit of hesitation seemingly still in his voice. “Are you sure you want to know man? I don’t want to mess anything up between you and Ruby either.”
After everything that happened last night you’re not sure things between the two of you could be any more strained. “If it was my fault, I have to know. Don’t hold anything back for my sake, I can handle it.”
“Alright, if you’re sure then I guess I’ll start from the top,” he says, looking to the ceiling and letting out a sigh before turning to grab a stool from behind the cash register. “You already know Melanie went to go check on her in the bathroom when she disappeared for a little while so I’ll spare you the details there.”
“Melanie told me she’d walked into the bathroom and heard someone crying in one of the stalls so she stuck around to see who it was. She said she was hoping she wouldn’t find Ruby in there, but it turned out to be her,” he says, a worried expression on his face as he continues to recount the things Melanie had confided in him. “She told me it was pretty bad. Her makeup was all fucked up from the crying so Melanie helped her fix it up. She didn’t go too into detail about what they talked about, but she told me Ruby was worried about being a bad date; Melanie pretty much had to convince her not to panic and just walk out.”
You’d feel more guilt about the things he’s telling you if you hadn’t already been made painfully aware of the fact that you aren’t to blame for most of it. However, that doesn’t stop the words from making your heart feel like someone had pierced it with a knife. Her breaking down last night after drinking far more than what was reasonable was one thing, but breaking down into tears before she’d even had a drink? Whatever the cause was, it went way beyond anything you could have possibly done since the two of you met. Your reverie and silent contemplation are interrupted by the sound of your friend’s voice. “Hello, earth to Mike, you still with me, buddy? What I said wasn’t that bad was it?”
You decide to respond if not purely out of fear that you’ll further burden him with more worries regarding whatever’s going on between you and Ruby. “Yeah sorry, I’m just trying to process it all. Shit, here I was thinking it was just the stuff that happened at the end of the night and now you’re telling me she was crying in the bathroom before she even had a drink?”
He gives you yet another reassuring pat on the back, though it does little to make you feel better about the situation. “I’m sorry you had to find out this way man, I just figured it’d help you talk to her if you knew what really happened. Don’t like that I had to break a promise to Melanie to do it, but I’m sure she’d see my side of things if it came to that.”
Now it’s your turn to reassure him he did the right thing by coming to you about it, and you put a hand on his shoulder in kind. The consideration and kindness of your best friend are almost enough to get you emotional. “I’m glad you told me man, you’re honestly the most solid friend a guy could ask for. And don’t worry, your secret is safe with me, I’ll make sure none of this gets back to Melanie.”
“I appreciate your friendship too man, you saved my ass by even agreeing to do this whole double date business in the first place,” he says, a smile now tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I just hope you guys manage to hash things out whenever you talk again. I still think the two of you could be good together.”
You can’t help but feel a hot wave of embarrassment wash over you at his words. While it’s clear you have some kind of feelings for Ruby, there’s a lot of things you want to clear up before you ever put the thought of a relationship into consideration.
“I think so too,” the words leave your mouth before you even have time to rescind them, only serving to add to your embarrassment. “About us maybe being good together I mean.”
Your friend only chuckles a bit at your expense, the knowing grin on his face growing wider. “It’s all good man, I know what you meant. We should probably stop slacking off and go get the tubs set up before we get a talking to from Kelly.”
You can’t help but chuckle at his still somehow upbeat attitude. “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks for listening, man.”
“Hey, what else are friends for, right?” he asks, and you follow him into the back to help him get things set up.
The rest of your workday is fairly uneventful, with not many customers stopping in with temperatures being at all-time lows. You say your goodbyes and before you’re even out the door, you’re looking down at your phone, swiping down your contact list to find Ruby. While the two of you had kind of left things off abruptly that morning, you were still more than willing to work out with her.
‘Hey, we still on for the gym today?’
As you make your way to the car, you continue to look down at your phone, nearly bumping into the only other car in the parking lot. While you’d told Kevin things between the two of you were fairly okay, last night’s events still had you fairly shaken up and worse, distracted. You couldn’t help but think back to the conversation you’d had with her this morning, her genuine and repeated apologies leaving you lost for words. Even if you hadn’t led her on as badly as you’d allowed yourself to believe, you still felt weirdly responsible for not considering her feelings. It’s a mistake you wouldn’t make again moving forward, wanting to at the very least stay friends. Or at least, that’s what you kept telling yourself, fully aware of the mutual feelings between the two of you. You can’t help but feel like an idiot for not having steered the conversation at least slightly in that direction this morning. Of course, that was the less rational part of you talking, your other half knowing full well it’d be a bad idea to bring it up after a breakdown that had seemingly left her emotionally raw. You’re bumped out of your thoughts by your familiar notification tone and you quickly check to see if you’d received a message.
‘Yeah, I’ll be there, mate. Not going to let a hangover stop me from kicking your ass :^)’
You can’t help but smile at the response, though the mention of a hangover does admittedly worry you a bit. ‘Aspirin didn’t help? Also if you want me to come pick you up, I’m just now getting off work.’
Not even a minute later you get a response. ‘It’s gone for the most part, don’t worry. And don’t sweat it, I’m getting a ride from a friend. Might be a bit late to the gym though, don’t wait on me to start.’
Content with her answer you throw back a casual, ‘Alright, see you then.’
Putting your phone away, you open the car door and toss your bag into the passenger seat, quickly getting settled in before heading off for the gym. You’d be lying if you said you aren't feeling the slightest bit nervous about seeing her so soon, especially after the awkwardness that had permeated the room this morning. It felt like a lot of things had been left unsaid on both fronts, and you could only hope her reasons were similar to yours. It’s probably for the best you don’t psych yourself out before you even get to see her, and you do your best to focus on the road for the remainder of the short drive.
You’d been trying to sleep the worst of your hangover off on the couch when a text from Mike suddenly comes through, the noise startling you out of your impromptu nap. You quickly pick up the phone and tap out a response, staring intently at the screen as you wait for a reply. You feel relieved that he still wants to talk to you after everything you’d done, convinced his earlier hurried exit was just a prelude to him blocking you out of his life completely. Even if he had done something that drastic, you wouldn’t and couldn’t blame him for doing so, especially with the way you’d drunkenly blown up on him. The second he’d left you’d reached out to Lily, wanting to have someone else to talk to and hopefully give you some perspective on how to approach this mess with Mike moving forward. You badly wanted to mend your friendship with him, though your lack of experience with this kind of stuff would make it difficult to do on your own. She’d told you she’d be over as soon as her shift at the mall was over, and you were now anxiously awaiting messages from two people. You hear another ding and look over at his response, smiling at his thoughtfulness. While you would’ve loved nothing more than to take him up on the offer, you’d already made plans to have Lily give you a ride to the gym instead. It’d give you some much-needed time to have a lengthy talk about everything that’d happened last night. It dawns on you that you’re not entirely sure how to start a conversation with her about it, despite her being your best friend. You’d practically grown up with her, trusting her with things you wouldn’t even trust your parents or siblings on.
You let out a sigh of relief when Mike’s response comes through, smiling at his understanding attitude. The only worry on your mind was that he was acting like this out of a need to keep you calm and placated after your unwarranted outbursts. In reality, that was the only positive outcome you didn’t want. You didn’t want him to feel like you were holding him hostage in a friendship or worse yet, staying out of concern you’d do something drastic if he were to walk out of your life forever. That kind of thinking wasn’t going to do you much good if you had any hope of your conversation with him turning out for the better. You do your best to dispel the thoughts as you sit idly on the couch, waiting for the ding of a doorbell to pull you away from your pessimistic line of thinking. You decide to get up and take the time to clean up your kitchen and living room. It’s odd, but you can’t help but smile a bit as you pick up the dirty dishware and glasses that remain on the counter. You feel almost pathetic for thinking about it the way you do, but his kindness in staying and even making breakfast for the two of you had gone a long way from turning what would’ve been an awful morning into an almost sweet memory. You get to doing the dishes and soon enough the kitchen is looking almost as spotless as the day you moved in. All that was left to do was pick up some of the clothes strewn about on the ground and- Shit. The sound of the doorbell was almost agonizingly loud to someone with hearing as sensitive as yours, the lingering remnants of your hangover certainly not helping matters any. You rush over to the door, neglecting to look through the peephole before opening it. You don’t even have time to berate yourself for being so careless before the panda behind the door greets you.
“Hey, sorry I’m late, got stuck in traffic on the way here,” she says, still in her restaurant uniform. “Everything alright with you? How’d that date with Mike go?”
Shit, you’d forgotten you even mentioned that to her, much less that you’d told her who you were going on the date with. The question is enough to knock you off guard, clamming up at the sheer mention of your date. You swallow, trying to calm your nerves enough to answer the question without her suspecting something was up.
“No worries, I’m glad you could make it in the first place,” you say, returning the smile in kind. “The date? Well, that’s... actually kind of what I wanted to talk about. Just didn’t feel right doing it over the phone, you know?”
“Nah, I totally understand,” she says, stepping inside before putting her bag atop the counter. “Everything go alright? Surprised you didn’t invite him to stay the night or anything, with how you were gushing about him over the phone.”
You can feel your cheeks burn at the implication, some part of you wishing that’s how last night had gone. Hell, her words of encouragement and an impromptu pep talk were part of the reason you’d even worked up the courage to go on the date in the first place. Even with everything that happened last night you were grateful that she’d pushed you to go, relieved that you’d at least managed to admit you had feelings for Mike straight to his face.
“I wasn’t gush-” you say before managing to stop yourself, realizing getting defensive about it would only reinforce her point about you. “He was… actually here a couple hours ago, but it’s not what you think, I promise.”
She raises an eyebrow at your wording, though the grin forming on her muzzle quickly betrays any skepticism she might’ve had. “I was kidding, but holy shit, how’d you get him to stay the night? Did the two of you, you know?”
Just when you think your blush couldn’t burn any brighter, your best friend is there to prove you wrong, quickly jumping to correct the record. “No! I mean, uh, not that I would’ve minded, but no, we didn’t… do that. That’s actually kind of related to the thing I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Well, spill the beans then,” she says, taking a moment to plop herself down onto your couch before she continues. “You can’t just say something like that and not share all the details, you know.”
You gently take a seat on the couch next to her, briefly thinking back to the conversation you and Mike had in this very spot not too long ago. While you might’ve beat around the bush with anyone else, you were determined to share the truth with Lily, even down to the most embarrassing details.
“I honestly don’t even know where to start,” you say, rubbing at the back of your neck, your tail swatting erratically against the leather couch. “Things started okay, I guess, and then... I made the stupid fuckin’ mistake of slamming down a drink or two and things just… kind of got out of control from there.”
She hesitates for a moment, seemingly taking some time to think out a response now that she’s realized what happened isn’t a joking matter. “How out of control are we talking?”
You take a deep breath before swallowing hard, the situation still at the forefront of your thoughts. Despite that, the words don’t seem to want to come. “I guess… I thought everything was going alright when he picked me up, had to change up my makeup some but I expected that much since I don’t really ever use it.”
“So everything went fine at the restaurant until you had a drink? Did he say or do something that made you think he wasn’t having a good time?”
“No, no, if anything I was the one acting weird,” you say, thinking back to the small talk between the four of you. “I’m such a fuckin’ idiot sometimes. He commented on the two of us not dating, which in hindsight I should’ve known was a joke, but I took it at face value instead.”
“And then what?” your friend asks, looking to you with concern apparent on her features. “If it was just that you wouldn’t have asked me to come over to talk about it.”
You can’t help but smile at her gesture, thankful you have such a good friend, especially one that’s willing to hear out your inane rambling. “I… took it really, really badly. I don’t know what got into me but I somehow convinced myself he only wanted me around to fill a seat. Guess I’d gotten my hopes up a little too much when he asked me to come on the date in the first place.”
“Oh, come on, don’t say that, Ruby,” Lily says, scooting closer to you as she speaks. “If he asked, it's because he’s interested in you.”
“Well, too late now,” you say, swallowing hard as you work up to explaining the severity of the situation to her. “I don’t think I can fix things between us with how hard I fucked up last night.”
“Worse than you can imagine, I think,” you continue, feeling anxiety and doubt bubble up within you as you start to come clean to your best friend. “A lot of the stuff that happened kind of blurs together with how much I had to drink, but I remember the worst of what I did.”
As much as you never wanted to repeat your mistakes, some part of you wished you had drunk a bit more just to fully drown out those painful memories of last night. “After he made that joke I just- couldn’t handle it anymore, I guess. I got up from the table nearly in tears already and once I finally got into the bathroom stall I just kind of… let it all out.”
You take a glance away from the floor, barely able to look your friend in the eyes out of the pure shame you feel retelling the story. “I guess some part of me was looking forward to the possibility of us becoming something more because of the date, I don’t know. At that point, my makeup was ruined and I was just about ready to go home. If it wasn’t for me not wanting to leave him hanging I probably would’ve just walked out.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” your friend says, her kind words helping you continue the difficult confession.
“It’s not your fault. It’s not his fault either, just mine for blowing a joke way out of proportion,” you say, almost teary-eyed yourself as you think back to how pathetic you felt crying your eyes out in that bathroom stall. “I feel even fucking dumber for drinking so much after the fact. I thought, what harm is one drink going to do, you know?”
She looks to you with concern, pausing as she takes in everything you’re telling her. “So how much did you have to drink last night?”
You can’t help but rub at the back of your neck in embarrassment as she presses you with the question. “Honestly, I lost track after the first five drinks. Probably for the best I don’t remember exactly how many times I made an ass out of myself last night.”
You continue with your retelling of the night, fighting the screaming in your head telling you to just clam up. “I remember making stupid jokes between all the drinking and then suddenly the bottle was gone. Must’ve been Mike or someone else deciding to cut me off, and the next thing I remember was him escorting me out of the restaurant to take me home.”
While it hurts to think about it, you remember every little detail of what you felt on the ride home. The guilt, nausea, anxiety all combine with the fear that he’d want nothing to do with you anymore after you’d ruined the night. How surprised you were when he pulled over out of concern for your well-being, how happy you felt that he didn’t seem upset about the night coming to an early end. The hope that had filled you when he’d shared that he’d never even so much as dated an anthro before. While you didn’t remember exactly how you felt when he shared how much he values your friendship, you know your heart skipped a few beats. All those things combined pushed you into making a decision you’d come to regret for god knows how long. Your friend’s soft voice shakes you out of your guilty reminiscing.
“It doesn’t end there though, does it?” she asks, trying to meet your gaze despite it being pointed towards the ground. “If it was just that you wouldn’t have called me here to talk.”
“God...” you say, bringing a hand up to your head and rubbing at your temples. “On the way home, he was just so… nice. I was expecting him to be upset that I’d ruined the night, but instead, he just said all this… really nice stuff about me.”
“So, what, did the two of you, you know?” your friend asks, and the question only serves to remind you of the disastrous outcome.
“No, nothing like that….” you say, trailing off, finding it difficult to muster the words to explain your colossal fuckup. “I don’t know if it was just because of how drunk I was or if I’m just a fuckin’ dipshit, but I got it into my head that those things were signals he was sending me. And of course, I figured the best course of action was to kiss him.”
“What, as he was driving you home?”
“No, I mean I waited,” you say, feeling your cheeks burn as you get to the embarrassing details. “Even if I had the courage to do it right away, I wanted to sober up a little first. We eventually got home, and with him being the great guy he is, offered to carry me all the way to my doorstep.”
“So, what, you invited him in or something? If a guy I was into bridal carried me home, I’d probably kiss him too,” she asks, her concerned expression quickly turned into a puzzled one. “What happened that was so bad?”
As much as your brain is screaming at you to keep quiet about the details, Lily had been your best friend for years, always there to listen when you needed it. Deep down you were afraid she’d push you away after you admitted to all the horrible things you did last night. You didn’t want to use the alcohol as an excuse, though you had to admit it certainly made it easier to act the way you did.
“We got to my doorstep and… I don’t know,” you say, almost ashamed to admit that you’d kissed him. “The way he looked at me and all the things he’d said were still running in my head so I just… went for it. He… didn’t take it as well as I thought he would.”
“What’d he do, Ruby?” she says, putting a hand over yours as if to show her support.
“It’s nothing like that!” you say a little louder than you’d meant to, and you instantly regret raising your voice with a friend. “He didn’t do anything wrong, it’s my fucking fault for expecting everything to go like a goddamn fairy tale.”
Your eyes start to sting as you continue to fight a losing battle against your welled up emotions. “He pulled away from me and put me down and… I don’t know, I took it really, really badly. He didn’t even deserve that kind of treatment from me, there’s no way he could’ve known about me and my stupid fuckin-”
Lily interrupts your tear-laced rambling to pull you into a hug, and you can’t help but lean into it, hugging her tightly as you let the waterworks flow. You feel pathetic for crying like this in front of a friend, but it’s cathartic to let it all out with someone who knows every reason and detail behind why you feel this way.
“It’s alright, Ruby,” she says, running her fingers through your hair as you continue to cry. “Just let it out.”
For a moment it feels like you’ve been sent back in time a decade, the feeling of Lily comforting you like this all too familiar to your brain. You can even feel a slight sense of deja vu as you accept the hug, but you do your best to brush it aside as you try and wrangle your emotions back under control.
After a while you decide to wipe away some of your tears with a finger, swallowing hard before trying to continue your retelling. “The only reason he pulled away was because he… didn’t want to take advantage of me. I don’t know how I got it into my head that he was just taking advantage of me, but I was convinced that was the only reason he even asked me on the date in the first place was because he couldn’t find anyone else in time.”
Lily stays silent, only offering what you interpret as a sympathetic half-smile. You take a second to compose yourself, taking deep breaths as the thin streams of tears soaking into your fur finally stop flowing. What you’re about to say next probably paints you in an awful light, but if you’ve already gone far enough to tell her this much you might as well go all the way.
“I pretty much freaked out on him. I was crying like a little girl and I shouted at him before finally slamming the door in his face,” you say, not daring to meet her gaze out of pure shame. “God, it sounds so awful to admit, but I even found out later I’d slammed the door on his foot by accident, and I thought I’d broken it. I didn’t want anything to do with him after he pushed me away, I’d pretty much made up my mind on him in an instant.”
“What’d you do next?” she asks, still having her hand over yours as she absentmindedly strokes her finger against it. “Did you apologize the next day about the foot thing?”
“I did apologize, but I only half remember the stuff that happened after I ran inside,” you say, your leg and tail thumping and twitching out of the anxiety you’re feeling. “I remember running into my bedroom and just… crying my eyes out. I don’t know how long I did that for, but I remember how I felt when I saw him standing in the doorway.”
She looks to you, her gaze still firmly locked with yours as she waits for you to continue.
“My first instinct was just to yell at him. It wasn’t because I was angry at him or anything, I just… didn’t want him to see me like that,” you say, thinking back to how vulnerable you felt in that moment. “He could’ve just fuckin’ left me there, but no, he had to… be nice and care about me. And instead of trying to return that kindness, I just said whatever came to mind to try and make him leave.”
“So, what exactly did you say to him then?” Lily asks, readjusting herself on the couch as you take a breather.
“I told him he’d just asked me out as a joke, that he just wanted me there to fill a seat,” you admit, swallowing as the truth continues to spill forth. “I can’t take anything I said back. That’s probably not even the worst thing I accused him of last night, honestly.”
You can’t help but feel nauseous, the butterflies in your stomach going wild as you continue to rifle through the fresh wounds that call themselves memories. “I told him to leave multiple times, and he just wouldn’t listen so I… doubled down on opening my stupid fucking mouth. I still don’t know why he didn’t just leave, I basically told him he was just being nice to me so he could… feel good about himself.”
You stop your rambling to take in a much-needed breath of air, every word you admit to Lily causing fresh springs of anxiety to well up from within you.
“Even after all that he still fucking stayed….” you say, letting out a long sigh, still unsure as to why he even put himself through all that pain for you. “I don’t know if it’s just because he was that worried about me doing something drastic, but he just kept saying and doing all these nice things. Eventually I finally just let my guard down and let him sit down on the bed next to me.”
“He kept saying all these nice things about me and apologizing even though none of this shit was his fault in the first place,” you continue, feeling the tears start to come on again as your foggy memory lays out the scene. Your yells, your screams, and his endless patience, the tears down your cheek. “He was going to leave and I… told him to stay. That’s when all the horrible shit I’d said and done really started to hit me and I just… broke down right there in his arms.”
You feel helpless for letting your emotions get the better of you time and time again. Even with someone as kind and understanding as Mike, as Lily even, you still feel like you’re a walking disaster, crying on everyone's shoulders and single-handedly causing all their issues, whining and wailing, and ultimately fixing nothing. You take another series of deep breaths before continuing, reaching up to wipe away the half-formed tears before you move on.
“How’d he react to that?” Lily asks, and the look in her eyes tells you she’s on the verge of pulling you in for another hug. “Not a lot of guys would even bother to stay, much less check on you after you pushed him away like that.”
“He did the best he could from what I can remember. I was a train wreck last night, honestly,” you say, briefly glancing at your friend before continuing. “He was there for me while I cried into his shoulder, and honestly I didn’t even deserve that much. I was surprised he even cared enough to ask what was bothering me so much.”
“Shit, did you tell him? You at least apologized, right?” Lily asks, seemingly becoming more and more concerned with your friendship with Mike.
“I wanted to but… I felt like I’d already done enough harm for one night,” you say, swallowing hard as the guilt comes back in full force. “He was going to leave but me being the mess I was, I asked him to stay the night in my bed instead of the couch.”
“You should’ve told him, Ruby, especially if you didn’t want him to think everything was his fault,” your friend says, and you kick yourself for not having talked to him about it today. “Tell me you at least talked to him in the morning.”
“I did, yeah. He even got it into his head to make breakfast for me because I was hungover,” you say, still feeling relief at the fact that he stayed the morning just to make sure you were okay. “We talked about a lot of things and I took responsibility for everything I said and did but it still feels like I fucked things up with him for good.”
“What’d he say when you apologized?” she asks, scooting even closer to you before continuing. “If he’s still texting you it’s because he took your apology seriously, Ruby.”
“What if he’s only doing it because he’s afraid of what’ll happen if he doesn’t let me down easy?” you ask, the words leaving your mouth in a hurry. “I don’t want him to be friends with me out of pity.”
“Well, Ruby…” she says, clearly taking the time to put her thoughts together. “I doubt he’d go through all the trouble if he didn’t want to be your friend. But if you really want to find out what he thinks of your friendship and where the two of you are at, you’re going to have to talk to him.”
“But… what am I even supposed to say?” you say, rubbing at the back of your neck. “I feel like I’ve already talked to him about everything short of, you know, that.”
“You said it yourself, Ruby, you don’t want him to be your friend out of pity. If you don’t explain why you reacted the way you did to what happened then he might full well think things were his fault.”
“How do I even begin to go about something like that though, it’s hard enough for me to talk about it with you as is an-”
She cuts you off, and you feel her hand’s grip tighten on yours. “You’re giving up before you’ve even left the starting gate. You said you’ve talked about serious things with him before, right?”
You nod your head in agreement, still too embarrassed by the whole situation to even look your best friend in the eyes. Deep down you knew she was right about having to be the one to initiate things, Mike clearly too scarred by last night’s events to do so. Even if he did decide to ask, it was unlikely he’d be able to pry anything out of you, especially given the regret and shame you still feel from last night.
“Then you’re going to have to buck up and just tell him you want to talk,” she continues, the determined look in her eyes serving to raise your confidence ever so slightly. “If you don’t talk about it then he can’t help you. And I know you’re going to tell me it’s a difficult thing to talk about and I understand that, but even if you have to practice what you’re going to say in the mirror to get the words out, do it.”
“But what if he doesn’t want to-”
“I swear if you keep tearing yourself down like this, I’m going to find out where he works and tell him you want to talk myself,” she says, taking your other hand into hers before putting them together. “If you seriously value him as much as I think you do, then you absolutely should tell him everything. You can do this, Ruby.”
You absolutely hate the fact that she’s right, and even still you’re afraid to face the music. There are very few people you’d trusted enough to share your experiences with and while Mike had quickly gained yours, it still made you anxious to even think about. There was no telling how he’d react to knowing, or if he’d even believe you if you said it was the reason you reacted so strongly to his rejection. He had to at least suspect it wasn’t his fault, right? You’d said as much in the car and following your breakdown, even if you didn’t remember the specifics. Was it something you’d let spill that made him want to stay the night? You were quickly shaken out of your contemplative reverie by the sound of Lily’s voice ringing out again.
“So, how are you going to ask him?” she asks, cocking her head ever so slightly as you continue to stare blankly in her direction. “If I have to, I’m going to stay until you tell me what you’re going to say. I’m not leaving until you promise me you’re going to talk with him.”
“Okay, okay, fine, I’ll talk to him,” you say, her continued pressing managing to coax a small smile out of you. “I just… I’m scared he’ll think less of me when I tell him. I already strained things enough by pulling all this shit, what if he just thinks I’m making excuses?”
“Ruby,” she says, gripping both your hands tight as if to grab your attention. “I don’t pretend I know him better than you do but from what you’ve said about him, it’s pretty clear he’s an understanding guy.”
“He is, yeah,” you concede, taking a deep breath as you try to get your thoughts together. “You think it’d be too soon if I asked him after the gym today?”
“Wait, the two of you are still on for the gym today still and you’re worried about him not wanting to stay friends with you?” she asks, letting out an incredulous sounding chuckle. “I swear you’re the absolute worst at reading guys, Rube.”
You can’t help but smile slightly, her slight laughter almost infectious. “In fairness, I didn’t even know we were on for the gym until like thirty minutes ago. I still think it might not be the best idea, I wanted to give him some room to think after last night, especially since he left in a hurry this morning.”
“I think you’re reading too much into things, Ruby. I’m sure he had a good reason, if he wanted to leave in a hurry, I don’t think he would’ve stopped to make and eat breakfast with you.”
Sometimes you needed someone like Lily to knock some sense into you or you’d get all wound up thinking about stuff that had no ulterior meaning. It was one of the reasons you were so grateful to have her friendship in the first place, the two of you sticking together through thick and thin ever since that fateful day you met. She’d been a godsend in an otherwise bleak period in your life, having first met her when you transferred schools for the second time that year.
“I guess you’re right,” you admit, berating yourself slightly for having thought Mike lied about having to head to work on a Sunday. “I still don’t think it’d be a good idea considering it hasn’t even been a day.”
“Hmm, maybe you’re right, but I still think you should say something at least,” Lily says, briefly lost in thought as you look to her expectantly. “Just see how things play out. If things still feel kind of awkward and shaky between the two of you then leave it for another time.”
“Alright,” you nod, taking another deep breath to settle the butterflies threatening to escape your stomach. “I promise I’ll at least try to bring it up.”
“Attagirl,” Lily smiles, finally letting go of your hands. “Just act the same as you always have, Ruby. He wouldn’t stick around if he didn’t think you were worth working through the bumps in the road for.”
You look down at your phone and quickly realize you’re already running about thirty minutes late to your usual gym time, popping to your feet to try and get dressed quickly. “Shit, I’m not even going to have a chance if he thinks I’m a no-show. You mind giving me a ride? I can toss you the gas money.”
“Deal,” she says, chuckling again at your panic. “Skip the gas money though, I have some stuff I want to talk to you about too, consider that your payment.”
“Fair enough,” you say, quickly bolting off into your bedroom to throw on some workout clothes.
After a bit of fumbling with some sweatpants and a hoodie, the two of you find yourself on the way to the gym. Every glance you sneak at the digital clock on the dash only makes more anxiety well up in you as you wonder whether he’ll even be there by the time you arrive. You can’t exactly ask your friend to drive above the speed limit, so you turn to conversation to get your mind off things.
“So, what’d you want to talk to me about?” you ask, trying not to distract her too much.
“Kind of a long story, but I wanted your advice on a human guy I met at the bar a couple of days ago,” she says, only taking her eyes off the road for a brief second to glance at you. “Not sure if it’s just me being stupid or not, but I approached him at the bar and not even a minute later he just straight up walked out on me. You think I did something wrong?”
“You’re seriously asking me after everything I fucked up last night?” you ask, unable to hold back a chuckle at her question. “What’d he look like?”
“I’m asking you because you at least managed to hold down a date while I’ve been on a dry spree for months,” she says, a free hand brushing her bangs out of the way. “I don’t know, he was decently tall, brown hair, good build, and cleaned up pretty well. Not like he was out of my league or anything, but good looking still.”
“Could be he’s just not the type of dude that’s into anthros,” you say, shrugging your shoulders. “Plenty more humans like that than ones that’ll actually give us a shot. You manage to get his number before he bailed out on you?”
“Not quite, but… I did manage to kind of, uh, bribe the bartender into telling me some stuff.”
You look to her in disbelief, not knowing her to be someone to resort to dirty tricks in any facet of life. “What, seriously? How many drinks did you have to buy to get them to loosen up like that?”
“It was only a couple beers, I think,” she says, though the quickly forming blush betrays the white lie she’s telling. “Either way, I found out he’s a regular, so I’m hoping I can catch him in a better mood or something. You got any advice for what I could do?”
“Maybe wait until he has a couple of drinks before making small talk?” you offer, hoping the advice will work out for her. “Less likely he’ll just get up and leave if he’s got a good buzz going. Just don’t be afraid to ask things as long as you’re not talking over him or something.”
“Anything’s better than him walking out, I guess. Thanks, Ruby.”
“Anytime,” you smile, your anxiety once again flaring up when you see the familiar sights telling you you’re almost to the gym.
She pulls up near the front of the gym and you look to her for encouragement, trying to remember all the advice she’d given you before you leave the car. “Here goes nothing, I guess.”
“You’ll be alright, trust me. If you need me to come pick you up or if you just want to talk, just call me and I’ll swing by.”
“I think I’ll be alright,” you say, taking another deep breath before flashing her the most confident smile you can muster. “Thanks for everything, Lily.”
“Never a problem,” she says, returning the smile in kind.
You quickly make your way inside, but not before shooting off a text to Mike asking if he’s still here. It’s not long before he responds, and you look around only to see him flagging you down with his outstretched arm, sitting all the way in the back by the benches. You quickly saunter over, being careful not to bump into anyone. He doesn’t look quite as apprehensive as you remember him being this morning, letting out a brief sigh of relief as you get closer. You’ve seemingly caught him between sets, the sweat dripping down the various exposed parts of his body clear evidence of his efforts. It's not easy, but you put forth the effort to break the ice between the two of you.
“Doing reps like these without a spotter? Didn’t know you had it in you, Mike,” you say, casually leaning against the bar as he gets back into position.
“You saying you could spot me with this much weight on the rack?” he shoots back, getting under the bench.
“Oh shut up,” you chuckle, his teasing bringing a smile to your face. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m about two feet shorter than you.”
There are at least three plates on each side, which is a pretty impressive amount to be lifting considering he’d taken at least two days away from the gym. He strains for a bit getting the bar off the rack, but once he’s got it off he gets through his set nearly flawlessly, arms only shaking when he finally re-racks the weight. While you’re at the ready in case he fails a rep, you aren’t entirely sure you can pull the entire weight off on your own should it come to that. You feel oddly nervous just being around him, the thought that he’s only hanging out with you out of pity firmly at the forefront of your thoughts. His joking demeanor takes a little bit of the edge off, and you briefly think back to the advice Lily gave you not even an hour ago. You take another deep breath as he sits back up again, and you hope that he can’t tell how you feel based on your expression. You wonder if he’s done with his sets given he gets up to start taking plates off, looking at his focused expression with a cocked head. When he suddenly turns to look at you, you feel paralyzed, the butterflies in your stomach starting to flutter once more.
“You want me to take off some more plates or do you think you can lift this?” he asks, and you can’t help but feel like an idiot for getting yourself so wound up over something so innocuous. “I forgot if you benched 180 or 160.”
Once you finally recover yourself, you quickly respond, “I’m mostly used to lifting 160, but I’ll give 180 a shot if you spot me, mate.”
“Sure thing,” he says, stepping to the side to give you room to pass before slipping behind the bench himself. “I’ll be surprised if you can get more than 5 reps done.”
“Is that a bet?” you ask, chuckling to yourself as you lay down on the bench. “I might be a bit rusty, but I’m not even going to break a sweat doing five reps.”
You lay back onto the bench and prepare yourself, not entirely sure if you’ll be able to finish the set without having to stop midway. The way he suddenly looms over you doesn’t help that any, though you do feel a bit safer when you see him start to hover his hands under the bar, ready to catch it should you fail. You grip the bar tight, being careful to keep your form proper as to not injure yourself. In one swift motion, you lift the bar with no small amount of struggle, being careful to keep your arms steady as you fully extend them. You repeat the motion a few times and by the fifth rep, it feels like your arms are about to give out, the two days you’d taken off the gym having more of a profound effect than you’d initially thought. You barely finish the last rep, arms shaking to the point where Mike looks about ready to step in to re-rack the bar. Thankfully you manage to do it yourself, letting out a sigh of relief once the bar is safely back in place. You can hear his voice ring out as you catch your breath from the exertion.
“Barely five reps, but honestly that’s the most weight I’ve ever seen a girl lift in here,” he says, offering his hand to help you up from the bench. “I would’ve thought your strong suit was squatting.”
You can’t help but feel your cheeks burning at the compliment, and you struggle to come up with a proper response.
“Just because we’ve got strong legs doesn’t mean we can’t kick your asses elsewhere,” you say, taking his outstretched hand to help yourself sit up. “Thanks for the spot though, I felt like my arms were about to snap on that last one.”
“No problem,” he says, flashing you that trademark smile that now only makes you feel unease in the pit of your stomach. “Think I’m going to have to skip out on the leg stuff for today because… well, you know.”
It takes a second for the meaning of his sentence to sink in for you, but it all connects when you see him start to rub out of the back of his neck. You’d forgotten about the door you slammed on his foot the night before, and even though it had been accidental, you still felt awful about it. The fact that he’s unwilling to talk about the incident directly only makes those worries and insecurities you’d had earlier flare up again. With it looming over you, you aren’t exactly sure if you can muster up the courage to tell him you need to talk to him. The least you can do is acknowledge it and apologize for it, you figure.
“Shit, yeah. I’m…” you trail off, swallowing hard as the words struggle to leave your throat. “I’m still r-really fucking sorry about that, Mike. Is it feeling better than this morning?”
“Doesn’t hurt to walk on anymore at least,” he says, leaning his weight onto that foot. “I’m not too worried about it honestly, I’ll just put some ice on it when I get home and it should be alright in the morning.”
His words hit you like a freight train and you can’t help but wince at the fact that it’d likely been hurting all day as he worked. You berate yourself for starting to get teary-eyed at the fact that you’d done this to him, knowing it’d likely only make him feel more guilt for the things that went down last night. While you’d thought you had the courage to approach him and ask to have a serious conversation about things, you almost regret even coming to the gym in the first place. Your eyes briefly wander to the front door, and you have to look away as the urge to just run away briefly wells up within you. Even though you want to do it, you will yourself to stay and tough things out, not wanting to make things even worse on Mike.
“If you want to get it looked at my dad knows a guy that-” you say, interrupted by the sound of his voice ringing out.
“Nah, I wouldn’t worry about it that much,” he says, quickly waving the notion away. “Not like anything’s broken. Seriously, it’s not as bad as you think it is.”
You can’t help but smile at how considerate he’s being, though you still feel awful that any of these things happened in the first place. “Well if it gets any worse let me know, that offer’s on the table until it’s healed up.”
“Thanks, Ruby,” he smiles back, his warm smile making your heart skip more than a few beats. “I’ll keep it in mind but seriously, I forgive you, it’s not like you meant to do it or anything. Accidents happen.”
“Thanks, Mike,” you reply, suddenly feeling as if two anvils were lifted off your shoulders as he utters those words of forgiveness. “I’m sorry if I came at the end of your workout, got held up with some stuff I had to take care of for work.”
“I still have some deadlifts and curls to knock out still if you feel up for it,” he smiles, seemingly content with your change in mood. “Was thinking about grabbing something to eat afterward if you’re up for it.”
You don’t want to decline his offer or kindness, but you don’t feel quite ready to be forced into making small talk after everything that happened. As much as it pains you to do, you swallow before committing to telling a white lie that would save you both a lot of grief.
“I had a light lunch not too long ago,” you say, hoping he can’t tell you’re being dishonest. “You want to reschedule for the next time we work out?”
“Sounds good to me, though I’m still probably going to stop by McDonald’s or something on the way home, didn’t get a chance to grab lunch today,” he says, and you immediately feel another pang of guilt for holding him up so long in the morning.
“It’ll be on me though, yeah?” you say, playfully elbowing his side. “It’ll at least help make up for getting drunk off my ass last night.”
“You don’t have to do that, come on,” he says as the two of you walk towards the deadlift platform. “Everyone’s gone too far with the drink here and there, don’t feel too bad about it.”
“It’d make me feel better-” you mutter, feeling deep-seated regret the instant the words leave your mouth. “I’d feel better if I could do something nice for you in return, as thanks for getting me home and… staying with me.”
You can’t help but feel your cheeks burn at your sheer honesty, feeling embarrassed at how much you’d struggled and stuttered to get the words out. After everything that happened you figured being honest about your feelings was the best way to avoid anything bad happening between the two of you again. A quick look up and to the side tells you he likely feels the same way about things, likely too shocked by your sudden admission to even say anything. You desperately want to have another serious conversation but you can’t find the confidence within yourself to be the one to initiate things. Your head spins with thoughts as you consider if it’s too soon to ask or if it’s even the right place to do so considering he’d so willingly asked you to come to the gym as if nothing had happened. The thoughts, worries, and anxiety at the forefront of your mind are briefly dispelled by his voice.
“It’s no problem, I’m sure you would’ve done the same for me if I would’ve gotten hammered off my ass,” he chuckles as the two of you finally reach the deadlift platform. “You know, minus the whole carrying thing. If it’ll make you feel better though… I’ll take you up on that lunch offer tomorrow.”
You feel relief, though it’s quickly replaced with a worry that you have no idea where to take him besides your usual haunts. A place where the two of you could have some relative peace and quiet seemed like a good idea, and that alone crossed a few places off your list. As he sets up the bar for his deadlifts, you rack your memories for somewhere that’d impress him. Just as you’re running out of hope, your mind goes to a little hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop run by an older couple and their kids. It’s a little out of the way, but close enough to the park that the two of you could enjoy the outdoors as you ate. It solved the issue of needing quiet as the two of you could just enjoy the scenery on a bench and still be relatively unbothered. The problem now solved, you sat to the side of the platform as he got into position to lift. Normally you wouldn’t be worried about the amount of weight, but with his foot injury, the possibility of him injuring himself was there, no matter how miniscule.
“You sure you don’t want to take it a bit easier today, Mike?” you ask, hoping your concern shows through in your voice. “Don’t have to break a PR every time you come to the gym, you know.”
“I’ll be alright, don’t worry. I’m only doing two sets today,” he chuckles as he slips a lifting belt on. “And you call me a worrywart.”
You can’t help but roll your eyes at the remark, but him remembering to put on his belt has you way less worried about the risk of injury. Still, you’re attentive and ready to jump to his aid should anything happen, seeing as he’s extended you the same courtesy countless times. Thankfully, neither of you have had to step in for each other thus far, something you’re grateful for every day. You feel terribly guilty for doing it, but your eyes can’t help but linger on his strained arms as he starts to lift the bar off the platform, your eyes tracing the visible veins up to his shoulders. There’s a clear conflict of interest here as one part of you is mostly interested in ogling his body while another part of you is carefully eyeing his form to make sure he doesn’t mess up his back. It feels wrong, and you quickly look away once it hits you that this is the last thing you should be doing after last night. The two of you, or at least you, needed some time to think about your feelings on the matter. Especially considering that, from what you remember, you’d pretty much spilled your feelings for him as if the attempt to kiss him hadn’t been enough. You kept replaying a few of the things he’d said in your head. How under different circumstances he would’ve kissed you, and that he’d recently come off a bad breakup. There’s so much more you wanted to know and yet you couldn’t muster up the single drop of courage needed to ask about it. It made you feel like an idiot, especially since you’d drunkenly turned down his offer to talk when you were coming down from your nervous breakdown. As much as it hurts to remember that night, it felt oddly cathartic to get those things off your chest, even though you still think your misplaced anger is unforgivable. Yet for reasons you’re not entirely sure about, you’re here, working out with him as if nothing had happened. From the corner of your eye, you can spy the front door, and the more your mind lingers on the topic, the more the urge to just run out wells up within you. He seemingly takes notice of your unease, because the sound of his voice quickly breaks you away from those intrusive thoughts that threaten to unravel your composure.
“Everything alright? You seem a little distracted there, Ruby,” he says, playfully nudging your arm before going back to doing some stretches between sets.
He’s giving you an opening to say something, anything. To talk about all the questions that had been left unanswered the night before. All you had to do was tell him that things aren’t alright. You think back to Lily’s advice and words of encouragement, but it seems your mouth has other plans.
“I’m alright, just a little… dazed from the hangover is all,” you say, faking a smile as the words spill out of your traitorous lips.
“If you’re not feeling well, I can just take you home,” he says, looking to you with an expression of concern that only makes you feel even more guilt. “Don’t want to force you to be here if you’re still sick.”
“Don’t worry about me, I think it’s just because I had something to eat not too long ago,” grimacing internally at the slight white lie you’re telling. “I’ll just take it easy on the rest of the sets today and I should be fine.”
You feel relief at seeing his expression of concern morph into a slight smile, content with seeing him go back to his sets. Anything was better than giving in to those intrusive thoughts at the forefront of your mind, you figured. He quickly powers through his two remaining sets, taking a quick breather before helping you take the weights off for your own sets. It’s oddly touching that he remembers exactly how much weight you typically deadlift, though the more rational part of you tells you it makes sense considering how long the two of you had been working out together. You quickly get into the proper position, half squatting before gripping the bar tightly. Sometimes you wonder why Mike doesn't use gloves, figuring humans have weaker grip strength without the tiny paw pads on the undersides of their fingers. An embarrassing thought comes to you as you’re in the middle of your set, remembering exactly how strong his grip strength had been when he’d held your hand on several occasions. Despite feeling your cheeks burning at the idea, you do your best to concentrate on the exercise, doing your best to keep good form as you continue going through the motions. You blow through the rest of your sets in record time, the embarrassment somehow motivating you to stay focused. Once you’re finally finished, you help Mike get all the plates back onto the rack before turning to him, praying the burning you were feeling on your cheeks wasn’t shining through.
“We doing anything else today or was that all you had left to do?” you ask, doing a quick set of stretches to loosen up as you wait for a response.
“I was going to do some curls, but I can always finish up with those at home,” he says, shrugging as he tosses his equipment back into his bag. “Besides, even if I skip a day or two, I should be fine.”
“Don’t go getting all lazy on me now Mike,” you say, playfully nudging at his side. “No good use putting all this work in if you’re going to slack and lose all the progress, yeah?”
The remark seemingly hits harder than you’d intended it to, one of his hands shooting up to rub at the back of his neck. You could just be seeing things considering you weren’t exactly well put together at the moment, but you could swear there was a hint of a blush on his face.
“I guess you’re right,” he admits, still rubbing at the back of his neck. “Thanks for keeping me in line with my whole workout routine. Usually, I’m a lot more lax with it, but having someone to remind me to show up four times a week honestly helps more than you’d think.”
You’re not sure what to make of the sudden high praise, though you’re happy to hear you’d made that kind of impact on his life. It was strange to hear that kind of thing from anyone period, and your ability to string words together has seemingly gone out the window. You’re equally grateful for his friendship even if you haven’t been the best at showing it, and even if you can’t bring yourself to talk about last night, you at least want to express that much.
“T-that’s uh- really, seriously nice of you to say, Mike,” you manage to stutter the words out, fully aware of the fact that you’re blushing at full strength. “It’s been nice having someone to jog and shoot the shit with. You’ve been a pretty solid friend to me.”
“Don’t mention it,” he says, a smirk starting to form on his face from what you can only assume is due to your reaction. “I feel the same way about it. Working out alone can get pretty boring sometimes.”
For a brief moment, you’re both left staring at each other, an unspoken awkwardness left hanging in the air as neither of you can figure out how to proceed. You decide to ultimately break the silence by changing the subject, feelings of guilt and anxiety welling up within you throughout every second of the long pause.
“You mind giving me a ride home, mate?” you ask, doing your best to meet his gaze. “I’ll toss you a tenner for gas money.”
“You don’t have to give me anything, Ruby, I don’t mind taking a quick detour to drop you off at your place,” he says, bending down slightly to pick up his near full gym bag before hoisting it over his shoulder. “But… I won’t say no to some free gas money.”
“I didn’t bring my wallet along because I’m an idiot, but I’ll go up and grab it real quick when you drop me off,” you say, following him as he starts to walk towards the door. “Least I can do as thanks.”
The two of you quickly make it to the car, and even though you’d been doing this routine near every day for the past two weeks, it felt like you didn’t belong. That urge to run away threatens to take over for a brief moment, though you quickly quelled it by thinking back to the kind things Mike had just said about you. You do your best to keep thinking positive thoughts as you get into the car, the awkward silence creeping back in on the way home. Despite all his assurances and words of positivity, something had clearly changed in your friendship. And even though it was the last thing you’d wanted, you couldn’t find the words within yourself to ask him if he felt the same way about things. To take your mind off things, you decide to look out the window and observe the passing sights. His voice quickly takes you out of your reverie, practically snapping your head in the opposite direction, giving him your undivided attention.
“So… we still on for that lunch tomorrow?” he asks, briefly glancing at you before putting his eyes back on the road. “I can take my break whenever you have yours and swing by to pick you up.”
“I get off work pretty early usually, if you want to swing by around one I should be good for it,” you say, a tiny part of you hoping he can’t make it given you don’t want him to see you in your teaching attire.
“Works for me, though I only have a forty-five-minute break unless Kevin feels like covering for me,” he says, the sudden change of tone in his voice telling you he’s looking forward to the lunch. “I can probably sneak away for an hour without anyone else noticing, honestly.”
“Don’t want you getting fired now,” you chuckle, nudging his side slightly. “Should be enough time to grab some lunch real quick. Place I had in mind is pretty close to the school.”
“Cool, just shoot me a text when you’re about to get off work and I’ll take my break,” he says, pulling into your apartment complex. “Any hints as to what place you had in mind or is that also a surprise?”
“I think it’s more fun to keep you guessing,” you say with a smile, gathering your belongings before tossing the car door open. “Let me go up and grab you that tenner real quick before you go.”
“Don’t worry about it, just give it to me tomorrow or something,” he says, waving you off as if to say he didn’t want it in the first place. “No point in making you run up and down a flight of stairs.”
You know this tactic of his well, Mike having managed to dissuade you from giving him gas money last time you brought it. “Well, alright. Though I’m not going to take no for an answer tomorrow.”
“Fine, fine,” he says, chuckling ever so slightly. “Good night, Ruby.”
“Night, Mike,” you say, finally turning and closing the car door before making your way towards your apartment.
The stairs and everything leading up to your apartment only serves to pull bad memories to the forefront of your mind, and you do your best to block them out with positive thinking as you open the door to your apartment. It’s a welcome sight to not see the apartment in the state of disarray you’re used to working with, Mike having been so kind as to help tidy up in the morning. It’s just another thing that only amplifies the guilt you continue to feel for everything you’ve put him through over the last day. The last time you’d felt this awful for any considerable length of time had been back in… high school. The repressed thoughts make a chill jolt throughout your body, the involuntary full-body shudder stopping that train of thought dead in its tracks. You place down your phone on the counter before plopping down onto the couch, now both mentally and physically drained after the workout you’d done. You quickly tug at the hair tie holding your ponytail together and toss it into the coffee table in front of you. The cool air coming from the AC unit is a blessing and you quickly find yourself relaxing into the couch, legs and arms splayed out as you recover from your post-workout fatigue. Once you have your bearings together once again, you try to peel yourself off the couch to get yourself showered, a glance at the wall clock telling you it’s nearly nine already. You wanted to be well rested for tomorrow, the first few weeks of teaching typically being some of the most stressful, rife with paperwork that needed to be filled out and then collected from parents. You stumble to your feet and start heading towards the bathroom, stripping out of your shorts and top before tossing them into the clothes basket. A close look at yourself in the mirror reveals something you hope Mike hadn’t taken too much notice of.
"... Fuck," you mutter as you stare at yourself in the mirror, holding an eyelid open as you lean in closer to the mirror.
While near unnoticeable now, you can still see faint red streaks in your eyes, a remnant of your once bloodshot eyes. You can only hope it hadn’t been noticeable when you were with Mike, not wanting it to serve as a reminder of the previous night. A more important thought suddenly comes to the forefront of your mind, derailing your previous train of thought in an instant.
‘How the hell am I going to bring up last night to him?’
While you’d promised yourself you’d try to bring it up tomorrow, you knew that if left to your own devices you’d probably avoid having that conversation with him. Talking to him about it during lunch tomorrow was the most obvious answer, but you don’t want to make him uncomfortable, or worse yet, lead him on under false pretenses. As much as you want to figure things out, you can't think of a solution, something that only puts further stress on your already worn-out mind. A hot shower would probably let you relax enough to think of something, your feet hopping into the tiled cubicle, the cool feeling on your sensitive paw pads sending shivers up your spine. You turn the water up to a point where even the slightest bump to the handle would have it hot enough to burn you. People always looked at you weird whenever you mentioned liking the scalding temperatures, but it was one of the most relaxing things in the world for you. You sit down onto the shower bench, letting the hot water wash down onto you, shuddering as it soaks into your fur. It’s a welcome respite from the cold weather outside, especially given it’s equally cold in your apartment. After some much-needed relaxation, you get up and go through the motions of getting yourself clean, applying copious amounts of shampoo and fur conditioner everywhere you can reach. You make sure you get it into your fur, letting out a long sigh of relief as you dig deep into your fuzzy coat. For a brief moment, you’re free of all the worries and anxieties that have popped up endlessly throughout the day. The conversations you’d had with both Mike and Lily today needed to happen, but that didn’t stop them from being so mentally exhausting. You close your eyes and sigh as the warm stream of water continues melting your problems away. You don’t want the relaxing moment to end, but soon enough you’ve finished washing everything out of your fur, feeling it spotless, and you reach out to turn the water off, finding no excuse to stay even a second longer. A quick toweling off later and your now damp coat is no longer dripping onto the bathmat beneath you. While it certainly wasn’t the optimal way to finish drying, you opt to use a hairdryer to get the remaining water out. It takes a bit longer, but it sure beats trying to get the ancient full-sized body dryer working.
Once you’ve fully dried yourself, you quickly dart into the bedroom to get dressed, the cool air quickly eroding any semblance of warmth the drier had granted you. You quickly rummage through your dresser for something to wear, ultimately deciding on a combo consisting of shorts and a loose-fitting t-shirt. After getting dressed, you sprint back into the living room to grab your phone before retiring into the bedroom for the rest of the night. You dive into the covers, cocooning yourself under the thick sheets before settling in to absentmindedly scroll through your phone, waiting for that tired feeling to creep up on you. You’re quickly shaken from your momentary feelings of relaxation by the thought that you hadn’t come up with a way to commit to talking with Mike. Another glance back at your phone makes a thought pop into your head. It makes you feel stupid for not having considered it an option earlier, and you feel even dumber when you feel anxiety at the prospect of actually going through with it. Calling him and telling him you wanted to talk over lunch tomorrow was about as blunt as you could get, but it would force you to actually talk to him about it if you showed up.
You can barely bring yourself to open the calling app, your finger hovering over the screen for a few seconds before you finally tap down. You tap on the first contact on your list, taking a deep breath before you finally tap the button to call. It rings for what feels like ages, and multiple times you consider just hanging up, chalking it up to a mistake in dialing if he were to call back. The butterflies that had been lying dormant for the last couple of hours begin to flutter once again when you finally hear the dial tone stop. Your heart skips a bit when you hear the sound of ruffling sheets along with his muffled voice, praying you hadn’t woken him up.
“Mmmh… Ruby?” he asks, his voice unmistakably a tired one. “What’s up?”
You clam up at the question, and you feel the urge to just hang up the phone. The part of you that feels bad for waking him up pushes you to try to say something, but the words get lodged in your throat.
“Sorry if I... woke you up mate, I just wanted to ask something important,” you say, and you can hear him sit up in bed once the words leave your mouth.
“Don’t worry about it, I wasn’t asleep yet, just getting settled in,” he says, and you can hear him clear his throat. “What’s up?”
“I just… wanted to ask if we could talk more about… you know- uh, what happened yesterday,” you say, swallowing hard once you finally force the words out of yourself. “Maybe after or over lunch if that’s alright with you.”
“Yeah, yeah, of course. You really want to talk about it?” he asks, and even though you can’t physically see him you can feel an eagerness in his tone. “And yeah, over lunch is fine with me if you think there’s enough time.”
“I think… it’d be for the best if we talked it out some more, yeah,” you say, the worries in your mind only intensifying at the prospect of having said chat. “And if it’s not too much to ask could you uh, remind me that I said this tomorrow?”
Every second that goes by without a response from him is nerve-wracking. You feel like a wreck for letting yourself get so worked up over something as simple as a friendship. So much so that when he finally speaks again after thinking things over, you feel pathetic for having let it get to you so much.
“Sounds good to me,” he says, that eager tone still present in his voice. “And yeah sure, I can do that for you.”
“Thanks, Mike,” you say, smiling even though he can’t see it. “You have a good night, sorry again for calling this late.”
“No worries. Sleep well, Ruby,” he says, and you swear you feel your heart skip a beat from something as simple as a goodnight from him.
“You too,” you say, hanging up the phone before letting out a long, drawn-out sigh of relief.
Your relief quickly turns to deep-seated dread as you realize just what you threw yourself into. A part of you may be happy to push yourself into talking with him, but that doesn't make your nerves feel any less frayed. You quickly set an alarm for tomorrow before setting your phone down on the nightstand, the butterflies in your stomach slowly simmering down as you get comfortable beneath the heavy sheets. No matter how many times you try to close your eyes to drift off to sleep, you can’t seem to manage it. You continue to toss and turn, some part of you hoping the slight exertion is enough to help you drift off. Taking a series of deep breaths seems to help, feeling yourself relax into the soft mattress below you. You pull the sheets tighter to yourself, feeling the warmth of tiredness wash over you as you rest on your side. Before you finally give in, you silently pray things will go well tomorrow. If not just for the sake of making your friendship with him less of an awkward mess.
You aren’t one to get anxious over most things, no matter how stressful or nerve-wracking they might be, but this wait is an exception. Business is slow as usual, the freezing weather certainly not helping push any customers through the door. You take occasional glances down at your phone, sitting just off to your side atop the counter. Waiting for a message from her to come through was agonizing in combination with the fact that it felt like time was moving ten times slower than normal. You couldn’t even pass by the time by shooting the shit with Kevin since he was busy talking to Kelly about something in the back. Another glance at your phone tells you it’s nearing one in the afternoon, and you’re wondering if she forgot about her promise entirely. Though, given her tone when she asked you to remind her, it’s also possible she got cold feet about even meeting up in the first place. Hell, you’d be more than understanding if she did, though it’d be nice to at least hear that from her so you wouldn’t be stuck waiting patiently on something that wasn’t going to happen in the first place. To take your mind off things, you grab your phone and start browsing the internet, trying to put together an estimate on how much a couple of replacement parts for your treasured junker would cost. Any reasonable person would have replaced the car with an entirely different one by now, but you were determined to get it working better than it did off the assembly line. It was stupid and if your dad knew about your plans he’d knock some sense into you, especially since he’d pretty much told you it was supposed to be a stepping stone of a car when he first gave it to you. You’re halfway through tallying up part totals on the calculator when a text notification comes through, the vibration briefly catching you off guard. All the message said is that she’d be off work in twenty minutes if you wanted to start swinging by soon. In an instant, your slight worries melt away, only to be replaced by another worry that your chat would last much longer than your allotted lunch break. Worst comes to worst, you could always just take one of your days off or say your lunch didn’t sit right to get off work early. It wasn’t right, but you figured you deserved a little leeway for all the extra hours of overtime you’d taken on over the years. You figured you might as well get a move on early since getting across town during the lunch rush would take a little bit, bending down to grab your bag from underneath the counter. Out of courtesy, you beeline for the back office, giving a quick set of knocks to the door.
“Come in,” you hear come from behind the door, and you open it only to be greeted by Kevin and Kelly still chatting.
“Just wanted to let you know I’m going to take my break now, didn’t want to just leave the counter unmanned,” you say, glancing down at your watch as you speak.
“Should be fine, I’m almost done talking with him,” Kelly says, giving a slight smile as she turns to speak to Kevin again.
“Cool, I’ll be back in about an hour,” you say, quickly turning to leave, shutting the door behind you.
With that out of the way, you beeline for the parking lot and quickly hop into your car, tossing your bag into the backseat. After putting on some suitable driving music you head off, not wanting to waste the precious minutes of your allotted lunch break, especially given the importance of the conversation you were about to have with Ruby. Despite your offer to listen to what she had to say that fateful night, you weren’t expecting her to make an effort to talk about it again. Especially with how strongly she dodged talking about the issues initially, and especially the morning after. The last thing you wanted to do was push her away, so you avoided mentioning things until she felt ready to talk. You were expecting her to take weeks to even so much as bring it up again, and while it was a pleasant surprise that it’d only taken her a day to work up the guts to do it. That being said, you were still worried about the conversation only souring things between the two of you even more than her breakdown and subsequent outbursts had. The most you could do to ensure things went well was to just listen to what she had to say. All the questions you’d wanted to ask the previous night but refrained from out of fear of making things worse. You try not to think about it too much, doing your best to stay clear and level-headed as you continue to drive towards the school. A tiny part of you still has an inkling of curiosity about what exactly she does there, and you promise yourself you’ll ask before your more serious talk. A few minutes quickly pass and soon enough you find yourself pulling into the school’s parking lot. A glance at the dashboard clock tells you made it with just enough time to spare.
Once you actually get out of the car you quickly realize just how busy the school is, the car pickup line nearly going off the property. You’re thankful you don’t have to wait in said line since you’re just swinging by to pick her up. You scan your surroundings to see if you can spot her but have no luck doing so. The only thing you can see is a couple of teachers heading towards the parking lot, along with a few kids presumably walking home. You decide to pull out your phone and check if she’d sent any messages, maybe she was running late or something. You’d somehow missed a text from her while you were driving, where she’d asked if you were here yet. Once you tap out a response you continue to scan your surroundings, but once again see nothing but teachers and students. One of said teachers seems oddly familiar though, namely how low to the ground she is. But there’s no way that’s Ruby, is there? You focus your eyes onto that small shape on the horizon and it slowly dawns on you. That is Ruby, no doubt in your mind about it, wearing a getup you'd never think she would wear. The first thing you spot is her trademark brown hair done up into a bun, which despite never having seen her hair in that style, you find incredibly cute. As the rest of her comes to focus you can see the rest of her getup, sporting a gray knit sweater along with a long black skirt that goes below her knees. It’s a complete and utter contrast to the Ruby you’re used to seeing, and you try to wipe the look of surprise off your face when she finally spots you. She quickly closes the distance across the parking lot, nearly speed walking in your direction with the pace she’s going at. If you didn’t know any better, you’d risk saying she looked almost embarrassed. It’s something that’s not at all helped by the pace she’s walking at, her awkward yet quick movements still endearing to you. Try as you might, you can’t manage to wipe the slight grin on your face by the time she finally reaches you. She seems averse to meeting your gaze, seemingly trying to hide as much of herself as she can behind your car.
“Sorry I’m a bit late, hopefully I didn’t keep you waiting too long,” you finally hear her mutter, the kangaroo still seemingly unable to look you in the eyes for more than a second.
“Nah, you’re good,” you say, trying your hardest not to chuckle at how cute the teaching attire looks on her. “I only got here a couple minutes ago anyways.”
“Alright, good,” she says, fidgety and seemingly eager to get into the car. “I’ll plug in where we’re going on the GPS real quick.”
You quickly stroll over to her side of the car, opening the car door for her before standing over to the side. While you’re not sure of it, you swear you can spot the barest hint of a blush forming beneath her furred cheeks. The way she gets into the car is almost graceful and you quickly find yourself wondering if you’re staring. She carefully makes sure her skirt isn’t being lifted before settling into the seat, looking to you with a small, appreciative smile as you shut the car door. You quickly hop into the driver’s side, eager to get going as the minutes you have for your break slowly dwindle. Even as you slowly start to pull out of the parking lot, you can’t help but keep stealing short glances at the kangaroo next to you. Once you’re safely out of the school’s lot, you ask the question that had been on your mind for the last five minutes.
“So… are you a teacher?” you ask, still having to suppress chuckling from the mental image of Ruby teaching a bunch of elementary students.
“Yeah, I uh-” she says, opting to look towards the passenger side window rather than take the risk of meeting your gaze. “Teach Kindergarten, actually.”
Once you come to a full stop at a traffic light, you look to your side only to find her covering the side of her face you could see with a furred hand. You’re sure it has something to do with the blush you saw on her cheeks earlier, likely feeling embarrassed about being seen by you in her work clothes. It only emboldens you to say something that might make her feel more at ease, though you’re careful to not come on too strongly given how shaky things are between the two of you in the romance department.
“That’s honestly really cool,” you say, a warm smile tugging at the corners of your mouth. “How long have you been teaching for?”
She takes the hand off her face before turning to you, and she eyes you as if to make sure you’re not making a joke at her expense. “Going on three years now, though it would probably be more if I could’ve found a job sooner. You’d be surprised how hard it is to find a permanent teaching position in some places.”
“You like it? Teaching kids, I mean,” you say, occasionally looking away to glance at the traffic light. “I always hear stuff about it being stressful, especially with younger kids.”
“You’d be surprised, actually. Most of the kids in my class are total saints, though they get a little rowdy now and then, but that’s pretty normal,” she smiles, and you can’t help but smile wider as she warms up to the idea of telling you about her job. “Honestly the most stressful part of the job is dealing with parents sometimes and collecting paperwork for stuff like field trips from parents. Other than that, it’s one of the best jobs I could ask for, even if the pay isn’t all that great.”
“I never would’ve guessed you were an elementary school teacher honestly,” you chuckle, now comfortable with doing so as she’s loosened up. “I had you figured for a P.E teacher or someone working in the office. Uniform suits you though. You should really wear your hair like that more often, I like how it looks.”
“Anyone ever tell you how much of a sappy smooth talker you are, Mike?” she asks, the compliment clearly having the intended effect as she looks away once more.
“Besides you?” you laugh before putting your eyes on the road again, the light finally turning green. “Don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of being told that, no. Where are we going, anyway?”
“I told you yesterday, mate, it’s a secret,” she says. “I promise you’ll like it though. If you don’t then I’ll pay for lunch next time too.”
You’re not entirely sure why, but it was oddly relieving to hear her talk about doing things in the future. You’d been fairly sure that your friendship would be strained and awkward after all the things that’d been said that night. It only fed into your hopes that whatever she wanted to discuss with you would go well, some part of you hoping she’d open up about the things she’d left unsaid. You find your train of thought interrupted by the synthetic voice coming from the GPS, telling you you’re approaching your destination. As you pull into the lot, you begin to ask yourself if you made a mistake, not spotting any place resembling a restaurant.
“Hey, Ruby,” you say, and she glances at you, a hint of confusion dotted on her features. “You sure this is the right place?”
“Yeah, just park over there,” she says, and you glance to the side to see where she’s pointing towards. “This place is kind of a hole in the wall, but the food is really damn good, trust me.”
“You haven’t been wrong about places to eat just yet, so I’ll take your word for it,” you say as you pull into a nearby parking spot. “I come by here all the time coming home from work. Never would’ve guessed there was somewhere good to eat around here.”
You both hop out of the car, and you quickly run a hand through your hair before redirecting your attention to Ruby. “So, where to, Columbus?”
She rolls her eyes at your sense of humor, though the slight smile starting to tug at the corners of her mouth betrays her mock annoyance. “Just around the corner.”
The two of you walk side by side for a while, and even still you’re not entirely sure where you’re going. As you finally start to approach the corner though, a pleasant aroma starts hitting you. A combination of scents wafts over your nose, the unmistakable aroma of coffee, the heady smell of freshly baked pastries, and the mouth-watering hints of greasy bacon and fried eggs. If you hadn’t trusted her judgment before, the smells would have certainly been enough to change your mind on the matter. Once you finally turn the corner, the hole-in-the-wall restaurant finally comes into view, the sign above the locale reading: ‘La Torre Cafe’. You figure it’s Spanish of some sort, doing your best to decipher the sign with your very limited knowledge of the language. Not having any such luck, you instead decide to follow Ruby inside. The decor of the restaurant is very homely, a long, square-shaped counter taking up most of the space inside, tall stools dotted along its length. You were expecting somewhere more run down seeing as some of the surrounding locals looked to be less than cared for, but the place is downright spotless, something your inner neat freak both respects and appreciates, perhaps a bit too much. Not having eaten breakfast, the smells and sight of the food cooking on the grills were nothing short of mouthwatering. You’re surprised they’re still serving breakfast this late in the afternoon, though you suppose this place is only open for breakfast and lunch given the menu choices. Seemingly having gotten lost in your own thoughts, you realize Ruby is already ordering at the counter. You quickly follow suit and walk up to her, the kangaroo seemingly striking up a conversation with one of the employees.
Ruby briefly turns to face you once the lady asks what she’ll be having. “So, Mike, how do you feel about Cuban sandwiches?”
“Uh, I mean… I haven’t had one in a hot minute but they’re pretty good, why?” you ask, confused as to why she’d be going for that as opposed to any number of things that smell and look great on the menu.
“Trust me, you haven’t had one until you’ve had it here,” she says, pointing at a picture of one on the menu so you can see it. “Besides, we can probably take ours to go, eat it at the park or something.”
It's obvious enough to you that she has no intention of eating at the restaurant, and whatever her plan might be, you suspect it's ultimately for the best. You decide to play along with it anyway, you could always come back another time if you wanted to try the other stuff on the menu.
“Sounds good to me,” you say, nodding as you do.
“Alright,” she says, turning her attention back to the lady clad in white. “Dos sandwiches cubanos con todo y dos cafes con leches para llevar, por favor.”
You’re taken aback by how decent her grasp on Spanish seems to be, at least compared to the small amount you know. She takes a seat on one of the stools as the two of you wait for your food to be prepared, and you quickly follow suit. While you want to ask about the talk she mentioned yesterday, you figure doing it out of the blue is a poor idea, and you settle for just chatting instead.
“I didn’t know you knew Spanish,” you say, the sudden display of skill from her still leaving you a bit jarred. “You take a class in college or something?”
“I did, actually. Was one of those forced electives but I figured it’d help me a little bit with the whole teaching thing,” she says, rubbing at the back of her neck as she speaks. “But the reason I know how to say this stuff is the coworker that introduced me to this place is Hispanic. Comes here all the time and she asked me to tag along for lunch one day.”
“I actually think knowing another language is pretty cool, I know a little Spanish, but not too much,” you say, hoping it makes her feel a bit more at ease about things. “Mostly because I had to take a class back in high school. Never really bothered learning it past that point.”
“I almost want to hear you speak it now,” she says, slightly chuckling to herself as a smile begins to form. “I bet you’ve got the worst accent.”
“I might be rusty, but I can guarantee you it’s not as bad as you think,” you chuckle, her laughter seemingly contagious. “On another note, do you still want to talk? Yesterday you asked me to remind you whenever we met up for lunch, so I figured I’d ask now.”
Her smile fades slightly at the question, but you feel relief at the fact that it doesn’t turn into a frown or disappear entirely. It only affirms the assumption you had about her wanting to talk about what happened two nights ago. You assume it’s still a sore spot for her judging from how her tail and ears start to erratically twitch and move, not aided by the fact that she suddenly seems unable to meet your gaze. You’re not sure whether to continue pressing the issue or just drop it entirely, but that’s decided for you when she starts to speak again.
“I do,” she says matter of factly before taking a deep breath. “That’s part of the reason I ordered our things to go. Figured it might be for the best if we talk about it somewhere quieter.”
“Alright, great,” you say, doing your best to keep things light. “You had anywhere specific in mind?”
“There’s a couple benches we always run past when we jog,” she says, occasionally meeting your gaze between glances towards the grills. “If you have a better place in mind though, I’m down for whatever.
“Park works for me, though are you going to be alright without a coat? It’s kind of freezing outside,” you say, looking at the frost starting to coat the establishment’s windows.
“I’ll be fine, don’t be a worrywart, Mike,” she says, running a hand over the tuft of fur peeking from her thick sweater. “If this sweater doesn’t keep me warm, the winter coat that’s coming in will.”
“Wait, that’s a thing?” you ask, unsure if you misheard what she was saying. “I always assumed that was some kind of anthro joke or something.”
“Believe me, it’s very much a real thing,” she chuckles, looking to you with surprise in her eyes. “Makes it a real pain to shop for clothes knowing things will fit a bit tighter in the winter. Don’t even get me started on all the shedding later on, because it’s a pain to keep the house clean.”
“I’ll… take your word for it,” you laugh, and you spot the worker lady coming back to you out of the corner of your eye. “Looks like that’s for us.”
She hands off the wrapped sandwiches to Ruby before setting the two paper cups of coffee on the counter. “If you guys need sugar or more creamer, it’s on the little counter by the door.”
“Thanks,” you say, picking up the two cups of coffee as Ruby clumsily tries to fish her wallet from her pouch with one hand.
She promptly pays the total and gets her change before the two of you make your way outside and back towards the car. The temptation to just eat them is strong, but you aren’t exactly going to complain about a free lunch. The fact she wants to talk about some of the things she'd hinted at that night both worries and excites you immensely, and while you aren't quite sure exactly what she wants to talk about, you have a pretty good idea based on some of the things she said. The park isn’t too far a drive from the restaurant, and the ride there is pretty uneventful as the two of you focus on the road and passing scenery respectively. Once there, you quickly find a suitable place to park and set off, taking sips of the sweet, warm coffee, thankful you chose to wear a thick coat on such a glacial day. You’re surprised she’s alright in the thin knit sweater she’s wearing, though with what little you’ve felt of her fur, you believe her when you say her winter coat is enough. You decide to slow your pace as you walk alongside her, letting her dictate the pace and direction as your eyes catch a small picnic bench in the distance, likely the spot she mentioned earlier. Your stomach grumbles a bit when you catch another whiff of the sandwiches from a distance, and you’re eager to finally sit down and dig in. Despite the chilly weather, the frost-covered leaves and blades of grass are oddly mesmerizing to look at, your fascinated eyes slowly grounded by the sad realization you are very much on a lunch break, and not off work quite yet. If it came down to it, you'd shoot Kevin or Kelly a text and cash in one of the many favors they owe you, especially considering how much this talk means to you, and by extension, to Ruby. A lot of things were riding on this going well, and you weren’t about to let work get in the way of that by any means. As lost in your thoughts as you are, you almost don't notice the bench you're rapidly approaching, coming to an abrupt stop that nearly makes you drop both coffee cups. Once you get your bearings together, you clear as much of the snow as you can off the bench before taking a seat. Not wanting to be impolite and have your hunger distract you from the important conversation ahead, you decide to ask something.
“Ruby, you mind if we eat before…” you trail off, waiting for her to sit down before continuing. “You know… we talk?”
“Yeah, of course,” she says, reaching for her cup of coffee as she sits beside you at the picnic table. “I’m starving too, believe me. Didn’t get a chance to grab anything for breakfast this morning.”
“We should start a club of some kind,” you chuckle as you reach into the bag for your sandwich, unwrapping it and taking a bite before you continue. “What’d be the opposite of the breakfast club you think?”
“The… starving gang?” she asks herself before also taking a bite of her sandwich. “No, no, wait, I’ve got it… the… fasting collective!”
“The fasting collective?” you chuckle, the grin on your face widening as you struggle to hold back laughter. “Sounds like some kind of 90’s boy band or rap group.”
“You saying you don’t like 90’s music, Mike?” she says, smiling as she leans over to playfully nudge you in the side. “Don’t tell me I made a mistake when I judged you to have good taste in music.”
“Hey now, don’t go putting words in my mouth,” you say before taking another two bites of your sandwich. “Just because I don’t play it in my car all the time doesn’t mean I don’t like that kind of music. Also, holy shit, you weren’t wrong about these being good.”
“When have I ever been wrong before?” she says, a slight smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Can’t say it’s the healthiest breakfast in the world, but it doesn’t hurt every now and then.”
While you’re not one to shy away from small talk you decide to try and steer the conversation towards a topic that had piqued your curiosity from the moment you’d picked her up from her job.
“Yeah, guess you’re right,” you say, setting your sandwich down as you take a moment to take in the scenery around you. “Speaking of, how was work? Had to deal with any little terrors yet?”
“Nah, they’re all sweethearts,” she says, her smile only growing wider as she talks about her job. “Most I’ve had to deal with was one of the kids getting picked on at recess, a little bunny girl. Her sister started a small push-fight to try and stand up for her, but thankfully I noticed before anything actually happened.”
“Glad nothing bad happened. You have to talk with the parents of the kid picking on the girl?” you ask, the thought of the little bun girl getting picked on concerning you. “Or is that only for when things escalate more?”
“Usually they have us talk to both sets of parents, mandatory reporting for that kind of thing is more common than you’d think,” she says, stopping to take a quick sip of her coffee. “If it keeps happening then it’s usually on the principal to bring the parents in to talk in person.”
“That’s good to hear,” you say, as you polish off the first half of the delicious sandwich. “Wish they’d cracked down on that stuff at the schools I went to. Nobody except a few teachers rarely gave a damn if kids were being bullied.”
For a moment, you see what you swear is her ear twitching, her smile faltering for a moment; though you chalk it up to her being invested in the safety of the kids she’s left in charge of. While you’d never have expected her to be anything even remotely close to a kindergarten teacher, she seems to have a real passion and care for her job despite her limited experience. It’s a quality you honestly wish you had, not having all that much passion for anything but your car over the last couple of years. The two of you continue eating in relative silence for a while, Ruby finally speaking up again when she’s seemingly finished eating.
“I do my best to stamp out that kind of thing whenever I see it,” she says, her tone a bit more serious than you’re used to hearing from her. “If I don't do anything about it then they're more likely to keep doing it as they get older.”
“Suppose that’s true enough…” you say, thinking over your words carefully. “Just hope the teachers don’t get onto kids for next to nothing though. Kids are kids sometimes, after all.”
“Hm,” she grunts in response. “I don’t try to put a stop to things unless I know it’s going to become a continual problem. I’m not going to make a big deal out of something that’s normal for a kid to do or anything, you know?”
“Nah, I didn’t mean it like that,” you say, as if to defend yourself. “I trust your judgment on it, honestly. I imagine it’s not easy dealing with a classroom full of kids, especially at that age.”
Things remain relatively silent for a few moments, the relative calm only broken by the sounds of the two of you eating and drinking. Despite your near ravenous hunger, you’ve only gotten about halfway through the massive sandwich, and by the looks of things, Ruby seems to be keeping pace with you in that regard. After taking a sip from her coffee, she wipes down her mouth with one of the napkins.
“...I know you said you wanted to eat first, but… Shit, I think I can hardly trust my judgment on well… anything.”
“I didn’t mean to say you’re not a good teacher, I just-” you say, though she starts to speak again.
“Nah, nah, don’t worry mate, I get you. I just…” she says, taking a long pause before letting out a prolonged exhale. “...I don’t know, I wanted to ask if you’d let whatever happened that night just be water under the bridge, but I know that kind of thing isn’t something that’s just supposed to be easily forgotten and forgiven, you know?”
Another long pause threatens to bring the mood crashing down once more, the only audible sound being that of the wind rustling leaves and the wrappers around your sandwiches.
“You, uh, don’t have to stop eatin’,” she says, another telltale twitch of her ears hinting to you that the conversation ahead might be a sore spot of discussion. “Just didn’t want to… you know, not say it and then forget how to say it later.”
You quickly wrap the sandwich and set it down on the picnic table, deciding hashing this out is way more important than some food getting cold. Before you say anything, you decide to shift yourself slightly to the side on the wooden bench to better face her.
“Look, I better than anyone know that you can’t really just expect anyone to let things slide even when they say it’s not a problem,” you start, tapping into some of your previous experiences as you continue to speak. “But, I really do mean it when I say I’m fine with letting things go. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about it so I can better understand why it happened, though.”
“Believe me, I’m beyond grateful that you decided to stay that night and that you’re still friends with me, but… why?” she asks, seemingly struggling to meet your gaze as she awaits a response.
You’re not entirely sure what to say to her, especially not with that anxious expression staring back at you. It reminds you of what you’d seen on her face that fateful night and some part of you hopes this conversation won’t go down in flames.
“Because you’ve been a good friend to me and…” you say, being extremely careful with how you word things here. “I’m not going to let one drunken mistake that anyone could’ve made ruin a good friendship.”
You decide to add onto your statement in the hopes of lightening up the tense mood building. “Not just going to meet up with you for free grub and then flake because of what happened that night.”
You feel relief when the small smile you’d offered alongside your joke seems to lift her mood a bit, seeing the corner of her mouth briefly twitch and form what you think is the beginning of a smile. “I know I say it a lot, but that… really does mean a lot to me, Mike.”
The smile is gone as quickly as it’d appeared, and both her expression and demeanor take a sudden turn for the serious. “But at the same time… as much I appreciate you not dropping our friendship like a bunch of hot coals, I need to at least make sure nothing like this happens again.”
She looks like she wants to say more but can’t quite find the words, so you just look at her in contemplative silence, waiting for the right opportunity to say your piece on the whole situation. It’s not often you’ve seen her with such a serious expression dotting her features, so you figure whatever it is she wants to say is important to her, and presumably important in regards to your continued friendship.
“I really appreciate all the kind things you’ve said and continue to say about me even though I don’t deserve them, but I don’t want you to… coddle me like that anymore,” she says, her nose and ears twitching ever so slightly as she rushes through the words. “Hell, I still can’t believe we’re still friends considering everything that happened that night and… well, everything leading up to this point. I haven’t been a good friend to you, and if you’re going to give me a chance, I want to at least ask something from you moving forward.”
You’re not entirely sure what she has in mind, but given her hurried and shaky tone, you’re at least willing to hear out the proposal. Your first instinct is to reassure her that she hasn’t been nearly as bad as she thinks, but you quickly stop yourself when you think back to what she’d just told you about not wanting to be coddled, especially given it’s something she’s clearly conflicted about. The only thing you can think to say is a short affirmation to at least let her know you’ve been listening and understanding throughout. “Alright, name it.”
She briefly looks away, taking a deep breath presumably to steel her nerves, before turning back to speak again.
“Can we… kind of start over again? Maybe forget about me kissing you that night and some of the things I said regarding that?” she says, her hurried tone driving home the point that she has reservations even asking this of you. “I’m not saying you can’t hold me accountable for all the rotten stuff I said either, I just want the opportunity to be a better friend to you. And if I’m being shitty, I want you to call me on it, okay?”
You were expecting something entirely different when she said she wanted to ask something of you, truth be told. But it isn’t an entirely unreasonable ask coming from her given how many times she’d apologized to you over the last two days. It’s unexpected enough to leave you in a brief stunned silence, Ruby looking to you expectantly as she waits for your answer. You delay even further as the words to respond fail to come together at the forefront of your mind.
“Alright but… are you sure?” you say, the words tumbling from your mouth, a pang of regret welling up in your chest at what you think is a stupid response.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more sure of anything in my life, Mike,” she says, weakly chuckling as she glances towards the ground. “I know you’re a good person and all, and I know you want to comfort people you consider friends, but I’d much rather be told when I’m out of line because I don’t ever want a repeat of the stuff that happened that night. Not with you, or any other good friend of mine. You guys deserve better than that.”
As much as you hate to admit it, even to yourself, she has a really good point. While you greatly appreciate your friendship and the things she’s done for you in the short time you’ve known each other, you know as well as she does that if you continue to brush things off and sugarcoat the truth because it’s her, that friendship won’t last very long. That’s not to say it’ll be easy to be honest with her, given how being honest with her went last time, but if she’s making an effort to be better, the least you can do is put that same effort back in towards being honest.
“Hey, if that’s what you want, I’ll respect your decision,” you say, carefully choosing your words as you continue. “Consider the slate wiped clean. And I promise that if something you do is bothering me, I’ll tell you.”
Your words of agreement seem to have a positive effect on the kangaroo next to you, and you can see the briefest hint of a smile on her face. She lets out a long breath she’d likely been holding in since the moment she asked the question. “Thanks, Mike… I’m sorry if it was weird to ask.”
At the risk of doing exactly the opposite of what she’d asked of you, you decide to hopefully reassure and boost her confidence a little. After all, it was the least you could do in return for the honesty she’d just exhibited in talking to you.
“Don’t worry about it,” you say, offering the warmest smile you can muster along with a slight wave of the hand. “I’ve had people ask worse things of me. Not that what you asked was weird, I just-”
She interrupts your frantic pace of speaking with a slight nudge of her elbow, and for the first time in what feels like ages, you hear laughter coming from her. “I get what you’re saying Mike, don’t worry about it.”
You nod at her response, not trusting your tongue to not tie itself at the moment. The two of you just continue to sit in silence, your gazes occasionally meeting as the two of you seemingly struggle to find the right words to keep the conversation flowing. You look to your side once more when you feel her nudging you again. She’s holding out the rest of the Cuban sandwich you’d neglected to finish, and you figure that’s the end of that conversation thread for the time being. You’re content with that fact, especially considering that you’re now keenly aware of how reluctant Ruby can be about opening up to others, you being no exception to that rule.
“Thanks, I was actually looking forward to finishing that,” you say as you grab the sandwich, quickly unwrapping it. “You sure know how to pick em’ when it comes to places to eat, you know that?”
“Ah, you’re just saying that,” she says, unwrapping her sandwich before taking a bite. “You’re not so bad yourself when it comes to that, you know.”
“Guess so,” you say, though you suddenly snap to alertness when you realize your break has been over for a while now. “Shit, I forgot I need to head back to work.”
She seemingly joins you in said panic, sitting upright from her leaning position against the park bench. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to get you in trouble or-”
You interrupt her, quickly pulling out your phone in the process. “Nah, nah, don’t worry about it. I can get Kevin to cover for me until I get back. Just gotta send a text and… there.”
You weren’t quite expecting to cash in one of the favors he owed you so soon, but anything beats getting chewed out by Kelly. “I really do have to get going though, so… you want me to drop you off anywhere?”
“You can drop me off on the way back, or at least somewhat close,” she says, after giving it some thought. “Up to you though, I don’t mind walking home if you’re in a rush.”
“I can get you pretty close,” you say, getting up from the bench, Ruby following suit behind you. “We still on for a gym session later?”
Some part of you can’t help but be relieved when you hear her chuckle. “And here I was thinking you’d never ask. Sure, I’ll meet you there when you get off work.”
“Sounds like a plan,” you say as you finally reach your car. “Not as much fun working out without someone to talk to, you know?”
“If I didn’t know you as well as I do, I’d say that’s an excuse to have your own personal spotter,” she laughs as she gets into the front passenger seat. “Can’t say I disagree with you though, it’s a lot less boring when you can shoot the shit with someone.”
The rest of the ride is uneventful, and you drop her off as close as you can to her home before continuing the rest of the way back to your job. You’re a bit worried the entire way there, but you’re confident Kevin would do a decent job of giving excuses and telling white lies, should the need arise. Your conversation with Ruby had left you with a lot of things to think about, though thankfully none of them were negative. It was going to be difficult to stop treating her with kid gloves, but she’d been so earnest in approaching you about the fact. The least you could do for her is put the same effort back in, hoping it’d be enough to save your friendship. You figure taking things one step at a time instead of drowning yourself in worry is a good, healthy step in the right direction, and you opt to think about other things until you have time at home to mull it over. For now, you have more important things to focus on, like the fact that the clock in your car tells you that you’re already a whole ten minutes late to work. Staying just under the speed limit, you quickly find yourself pulling back into the near-empty parking lot. Just as you’re about to reach into the backseat for your duffel bag, a familiar sound rings out from your phone.
You quickly reach for it, tapping the notification that takes you to a text from Ruby that reads: ‘Totally slipped my mind to ask but… my birthday is a week from now if you want to hang out that day or something.’
You smile before bringing the phone closer, quickly tapping out a response. ‘Really? Mine’s a couple days after yours, actually. I’d love to come.’
You quickly get a response back from her in the form of, ‘Seriously? I know it sounds weird but… do you maybe want to celebrate yours on the same day?’
You mull her question over for a moment, deciding to take her up on the offer after realizing you don’t really have any plans of your own that day. ‘Sure, why not. Don’t think I’ll be working that day, but I’ll double-check my schedule with Kelly just in case.’
Your phone vibrates in your palm once more, ‘Great! Hopefully, you don’t mind it being a small sort of get-together, never was a big party kind of person.’
‘Not at all,’ you quickly respond, before reaching back for the duffel, slinging it over your shoulder as you exit the car. ‘Who else is coming?’
‘Probably just going to be me, you and Lily, honestly,’ the reply says, and you quickly reply with a thumbs up as you walk back into work, silently praying Kelly wouldn’t be there to reprimand you.
You arrive at work and considering the fact that you’re not getting yelled at the moment you walk through the door, you figure Kevin did a good enough job keeping her distracted. The rest of the workday goes off without a hitch and you find yourself thinking about the joint birthday Ruby had proposed. Despite this rough patch suddenly arising in your friendship, you decided it'd be rude to show up empty-handed. Besides, you figure it’d probably go a long way to offer something to signify your friendship with her is headed in a positive direction. Of course, that was assuming the two of you would stick to your promises, something that you couldn’t take for granted just yet. At least you still have plenty of time to take your future interactions into consideration before you go through the lengths of buying a gift.
‘How hard could baking a cake possibly be?’ you mockingly think to yourself, your apron and most of the counter coated in a fine layer of powdered sugar and all-purpose flour.
You'd taken it upon yourself to bake a cake for your own birthday for some godforsaken reason, even though Lily wasn't even going to be able to make it, her workplace not wanting to give her a day off. So here you were, stuck in your kitchen baking a cake the day of despite not having baked in years, out of a desire to do something nice for the one person that's even showing up to your birthday. When it finally sinks in how profoundly depressing that is, the thought of giving up entirely crosses your mind, but you decide to press onward and give your best effort to get this cake made before Mike gets here in less than an hour. The fact that your kitchen counter is so elevated compared to your height doesn’t help matters any as even the stepstool you normally use doesn’t make it any easier to use the oversized stand mixer your parents had gotten you as part of a graduation gift. You add a little more flour and sugar to make up for the amount that had been blown everywhere the first time you turned the mixer on, making sure to add slightly more of the wet ingredients so as to not cause a second spill. You flinch as you turn the mixer on again, breathing out a sigh of relief when you realize you’re not being covered in another fine coat of white powder. Quickly standing on your tiptoes to ensure everything in the mixing bowl is incorporated correctly, you’re once again relieved to find things are going just like in the recipe you’d watched recently. It was nothing special as far as cakes went since you were cheating with some store-bought mix, but you figured anything was better than half-assing it and buying one straight from the store. At least, you hoped that’s how he’d see it, the butterflies in your stomach acting up at the thought of him not liking the cake. Those butterflies only fed the slight worries and insecurities you’d fooled yourself into thinking was normal behavior over the years, and you worry about him masking his disappointment as to not cause yet another divide in your slightly shaky friendship. You quickly attempt to shake the irrational worries out of your mind, thinking back on the past two weeks and how things had changed for the better despite said change being born from that fateful day and your subsequent breakdown. Wanting those unpleasant memories washed away from your mind, you decide to focus on other things, turning off the mixer and separating it from the bowl, being careful to get a good grip on it as you tilt the mixture into the cake pan. You steal a glance at the clock on the wall and start to panic when you realize your grasp on the time you had left was much worse than you originally guesstimated. You grab the cake pan with a mitt and place it into the oven that had been preheating for the last half hour. As you’re in the middle of adjusting the temperature for the baking process, you’re suddenly distracted by the sound of your phone vibrating against the granite countertop. You quickly sprint over and carefully tap the screen with a clean finger only to feel your stomach drop when you see the words displayed.
‘Be there in ten,’ the reply says, and you can feel your gut suddenly tying itself into knots when you realize you only have a short amount of time to get this place cleaned up and ready for his visit.
You quickly take the oven mitt and apron off, stashing them in some unseen corner of the kitchen to be dealt with later. After making sure the oven is closed, you decide to quickly spray down your counter with some cleaning solution, hoping you could pick away at most of the mess before Mike arrives. The last time he’d seen your house and kitchen in a state of disarray was already embarrassing enough, and you’d thankfully been cleaning all the days before to make sure everything was as spotless as could be.
When you’re finally starting to be satisfied with the state of your kitchen, you hear that dreaded series of knocks on your door which cause your stomach to do another set of flips. You freeze up for a moment, but once you finally come to, you throw down the rag you’d been using to wipe down the counter. A set of hurried steps to the front door later, you yell out “One second!” before retreating to the bathroom to quickly clean up some of the flour that had gotten onto your blouse. You can’t help but worry about the way you look as you sit there in the mirror, slowly picking away at the slight blemishes contrasting against the black fabric. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that you wanted today to go off without a hitch, the last two weeks being among some of the best you’d shared throughout your friendship. Even more to do with the fact that a certain question had been burning a hole in the forefront of your mind for what seemed like forever, though you hadn’t managed to work up the courage to spit it out thus far.
‘I’m an idiot for wearing black clothes and trying to bake, aren’t I?’ you think to yourself before letting out a deep-seated sigh of disappointment.
You step back from the doorway after delivering a firm set of knocks, not wanting to scare the diminutive kangaroo inside. While you’d been doing your best not to stress too much about it, you unconsciously pat your jacket pocket to check if the gift you’d gotten her was still inside. But to quell the worries dancing about in your head, you pull the small jewelry box from the safety of your jacket to examine it for the 10th time today. Opening it only reveals the exact same thing you’d seen the last nine times, though it doesn’t make the sight of the beautiful ruby studded earrings any less impressive. It’d been a less than negligible expense, though you reasoned it made a perfectly fine birthday gift considering you’d spent much more on other friends in the past. That wasn’t to say the price point didn’t bother you in other ways though, namely the worry that it would be misinterpreted similarly to the time you took her out for a dinner date. You do your best to shove that thought to the back of your mind, irrational as it is. Your friendship had changed in subtle ways over the past two weeks, but even then, none of that was enough to quell the nervous feeling welling up within you. You’re not even sure what to think about the fact that she’s so easily able to make you feel like you’re a lovesick high schooler all over again. And while you're sure you share the same kind of feelings she'd shown you a few weeks ago, you also knew you wouldn't feel this way if there wasn't something there, something big enough to care about. It’s a fairly chilling thought in a strange way, despite the fact that you’ve come to the same realization before. You find yourself asking if you’d get a gift this nice for any of the women in your life, excluding your mother. While it’s a question you should very much figure out the answer to, the door creaking to an open derails your train of thought in an instant, and you scramble to jam the box of jewelry back into your pockets. You try to offer up the most friendly smile you can muster when she peers out from the doorway, slowly stepping out. Before you can even manage to say anything, she interjects with words of her own.
Part 2 of this chapter can be found by clicking the next chapter button.