“Sorry if I kept you waiting too long, mate,” she says, offering a sheepish smile as she uses a hand to adjust her let down hair.
“Nah, nah, you’re good,” you say, lifting the grocery bag in one hand with ease as if to make a point. “Not like this is very heavy anyways.”
You’d only made a comment about her hair once, but you’re almost tempted to bring up how nice she looks with her hair let down as opposed to her trademark ponytail for once. You also notice that she’s wearing the amber pendant you’d gifted her a week ago, the sight only widening the warm smile on your face.
Once again, your mouth gets ten steps ahead of your brain and you blurt something out. “Y’look nice.”
You feel relief when you see the smile she’s wearing get wider at your dumb compliment. “Thanks, Mike. Glad you think so. You pick up all the stuff I mentioned?”
A glance away from her and down at the grocery bag in your hand gives you all the answers you need. “Should be everything you asked for right here. Brought the receipt and everything like you asked me to.”
“Might be a bit much for the two of us, honestly,” she laughs, though the way it falters is a dead giveaway that something’s up with her. “Just ah, remind me to give you the money for the stuff before you go, in case I forget.”
“Will do,” you say, following her inside as she opens the door further. “And wait, two of us? Wasn’t Lily going to join us too?”
“She was supposed to… but then work wanted her in because someone else didn’t show up for the shift,” she says, a hint of disappointment in her voice. “Said she might swing by later if she can get off work early, but I dunno if that’ll happen.”
“Well hey…” you say, setting the bag down on a stool before taking a seat yourself. “I’m sure she wanted to be here just as much as you want her to be here.”
“I know,” she says, briefly facing you before walking further into the kitchen. “Just blows since me and her had this planned out for a while and then… shit gets in the way, yeah?”
“How things are sometimes, I guess,” you say, struggling to think of a way to shift the topic into a more positive light.
You didn’t notice it when you walked in, but a distinctive smell of something sweet wafts into your nose, and you look up to see Ruby peering into the open oven, standing on digitigrade tiptoes.
“What smells so good?” you smile, unable to resist at the sight of her struggling to check the oven.
She looks over to you before hurriedly going back to standing normally. You’re not entirely sure if it’s out of embarrassment or something else, but it’s endearing nonetheless.
“Figured I’d bake a cake or something, hoping it turns out alright, I guess,” she nervously laughs, continuing to check on it all the while. “Hope chocolate’s alright with you.”
“Course it is,” you say as you settle into a comfortable position, resting your forearms on the counter as you take in your surroundings.
A quick look around the kitchen shows it in a much more organized state than you’d seen it a couple of weeks ago, baking-related messes excluded. You feel… relief at the fact that the rejection hadn’t lingered at the forefront of her mind of the last few weeks, oddly enough. You’re still not entirely sure how she affords an apartment of this caliber on a teacher’s salary, especially given the kitchen looks like something you’d find in a home improvement magazine, under an article titled. ‘Your dream kitchen is within reach!’
Maybe that was pushing it, but after spending so many years locked into a lease for a crappy apartment, having actual arm room to cook things seemed like a luxury. Your train of thought is quickly interrupted by the diminutive kangaroo taking a seat next to you.
“So, how long are we waiting on the cake, Betty Crocker?” you ask, cracking a small smile at your terrible joke.
“Shouldn’t be much longer, I’ll give it another ten before I take it out to rest,” she says, taking off the oven mitt covering her paw before laying it on the counter. “Sorry for making you go to the store on such short notice, I would’ve asked Lily but… well, you know.”
“Eh, don’t worry about it,” you say, shrugging your shoulders. “You got anything in mind after the whole cake eating thing or are you just winging it since the wrench was already thrown?”
“Could watch a movie or…” she says, looking over at the TV set and entertainment console. “You play any games?”
“Every now and then sure,” you say, cocking an eyebrow at the question. “Didn’t take you for the videogame playing type.”
“What can I say?” she chuckles weakly, avoiding your glance for a brief moment before she continues. “Had a lot of free time back in high school, I guess.”
“You and me both, honestly,” you say, brushing aside her faltering gaze. “What uh, did you have in mind though?”
“For the movie or the game?” she asks, her unsure gaze now replaced with a slight smile. “I’ve got a bunch of horror movies and thrillers I’ve been meaning to watch. For the game, I guess a fighting game would do if you’re alright with those.”
“You a big fan of horror?” you ask, sort of taken aback by the sudden development.
“Guess you could say that, my older sister used to sneak the movies and watch them with us,” she says, smiling fondly at presumably good memories. “I had a lot of nightmares after watching them, but I kind of grew into liking em’, I guess.”
“Would you believe me if I told you horror movies kind of freak me out?” you chuckle, gazing at the kangaroo to gauge her reaction. “Dunno why, just… never was my thing. Guess being an only child might have something to do with it.”
“Why do you say that?” she asks, raising an eyebrow at your poorly worded statement. “Never get a chance to watch em’ growing up?”
“God, you don’t know the half of it,” you laugh, thinking back a bit on your childhood. “Mom was always super strict with that kind of thing and my dad… well, he kind of went along with things to keep the peace, you know? One time he tried to sneak a scary movie with me, but the plan to keep it a secret from her kind of fell apart when I woke up in the middle of the night screaming.”
You can’t help but smile when you see hers widen into a grin, laughter spilling forth from her lips.
“How’d she… take it?” she says once she’s finally gotten her giggles back under control. “Sorry, sorry, I don’t know why that’s so funny to me. What movie was it, out of curiosity?”
“Chucky, the original one,” you shudder at the mere mention of the movie, the bad memories associated with it resurfacing. “Couldn’t sleep right that entire week, and dad never heard the end of that one. He took most of the blame though, didn’t see even a little bit of punishment because of it.”
“That’s good at-” she cuts off abruptly as she bounds off the kitchen stool, quickly sprinting for the oven. “Shit, almost forgot about the cake.”
You feel odd for staring at her as she extends her legs to their full length, the digitigrade legs bending in ways that would seem unnatural for most humans. It’s an odd thought, but there’s something oddly hypnotic about the motion, and you’re definitely not just saying that because you happen to be staring at the powerful thighs attached to said legs. You shake the impure thoughts out of your head, not wanting to taint what’s supposed to be a celebration amongst friends. That being said, you were kind of hoping Lily would be here to give you guys something more to talk about. Especially given the two of you were still treading rocky ground despite the steady patching up of your friendship. At least awkward silence is a staple of movie watching, which makes you feel a smidge of relief.
“The cake alright or am I going to have to make another run to the store?” you chuckle, your tone lighthearted.
She just glances at you and flashes a small smile before rolling her eyes at you. “Yeah, it’s all good. Another couple minutes and it might’ve been too late though.”
“Guess that’s the price you pay for having an interesting conversation,” you say, watching as she carefully pulls the tray out of the oven, expertly placing it down on the granite countertop to settle.
“Guess so,” she says, clearly focused on making sure the cake is up to par, even going so far as to poke a knife through it to test doneness. “You want to pick a movie out for us to watch while I ice this thing?”
“Yeah sure,” you reply, getting up from your comfortable position against the breakfast nook. “You got Netflix or…?”
“Psh, for the good, good horror movies you have to go way back,” she says, taking her attention off the cake for a moment to join you. “Come on, let me show you the collection.”
You follow her to the TV, under which is a cabinet. She pulls open the black stained glass doors to reveal a surprisingly tidy set of horror movies, each separated by type of media no less. VHS tapes in their covers lined alphabetically barring one empty case left on top of the DVD-VCR combo, DVDs and Blu-Rays each given their own area too, and an unzipped black CD binder on the bottom filled with what you could only assume are caseless movies or rips.
"Wow," you say, slowly taking in the massive stash in front of you. “That is… something.”
"Yeah, though that's not all I have,” she says, carefully grabbing one of the CD binders and opening it up. “Lots more I still haven't picked up from my parent's house; just been too lazy to nab 'em.”
"Christ, you sure it's enough?" you respond with a smirk, wanting to make sure she understands just how impressive the collection is.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm sure you got something just as bad as I do if not worse," she replies with her own playful snark. "Go ahead and pick a movie, I'll get you a plate. Y'want any drink?"
"Yeah, water's good." Ruby leaves you to browse her selection, allowing you to engross yourself in her little shrine.
For the most part, you're just looking at the names and the cover art of the horror movies. There are some names you recognize, either from your friends bringing them up or hearing about them online. You know about Halloween, the Exorcist, and The Shining; you just never watched them, but you at least get the gist of what happened in them. Some of these are just... bizarre. Zaat? The Fly? Isn't that an old black-and-white movie? Devil's Rejects?
"Hey, you... got any recommendations?" you ask, looking back at Ruby preparing to cut the first slice.
"Uhh... I guess that depends,” she says from the breakfast nook, briefly glancing at you. “You want something with comedy like... I dunno, Beetlejuice or Shaun of the Dead?"
"How about your top pick?" you ask, seriously overwhelmed by the number of choices you have.
You see her put the knife down as she tries to think. You can almost hear the gears grinding in her head as her lips form to make words while she looks up.
"Well…” she says, seemingly still lost in thought. “...The Thing, though that's a soft pick from me."
"A soft pick?" you ask, not entirely sure what she means. “What’s that?”
"Yeah, just, you know…” she says, struggling to find the words. “Something that’s not too obscure, but also the type of movie everyone can enjoy, y'know?"
"Alright, sounds good... uh…” you say, looking through the DVD cases for the movie. “Which one? You have three of them."
"Oh, right, fuck, uh…” she says, tapping a finger against her temple. “...the one with the guy on it."
"Okay... this one?" you ask, holding up one of the cases. You see her face scrunch up slightly in disgust.
"Ew, no. That's, uh... the bad one,” she says, grimacing at the sight of the cover art. “The other one, says John Carpenter on it."
"Why do you have a copy of a movie you don’t like?" you ask as you put it back and fetch the correct one.
"Just... for collection's sake, I guess," she responds as she approaches the couch with two plates in hand.
You open the DVD player and put the movie in, leaving Ruby to fiddle with the remote as you’re not entirely familiar with her setup. You take your seat on the couch and take your plate from the coffee table in front of you, carefully balancing it in your lap. The cake looks delicious, but you ultimately decide to hold off on taking your first bite until she joins you. After a few moments, she finally returns from the kitchen, handing you a glass of water. You accept it with a near whispered thanks as she sits beside you.
“Alright…well, happy birthday, Ruby,” you announce with the warmest smile you can muster, holding the cake up to your mouth before taking a bite.
“Thanks, Mike. Happy birthday to you too,” she says, smiling in return as she lifts the slice to her mouth.
You’ve made a horrible mistake.
It didn’t take long to figure out that the cake you’d baked wasn’t properly cooked, as was made extremely obvious by the sounds of bile splattering against porcelain. You can feel your stomach churn a bit at the sounds, though you’re not sure if that’s due to the cake you’d eaten or the mounting anxiety. Thankfully, you’d been fortunate enough to not have eaten the whole slice, let alone go for seconds like he did before the disaster began to rear its ugly head.
Of all the awful, shitty things that have happened to you on birthdays, this is pretty high up on that list. You find yourself hovering between the bathroom door and the hallway leading to the kitchen, just in case you also find yourself needing to vomit. After several tense, nerve-wracking moments, the coughing and sputtering from the other side of the door begin to die down, silence taking its place. You approach with hesitation, your free hand slowly clenching out of apprehension as you use the other to tap against the door.
“Mike? Are you okay?” you ask, slowly moving to open the door in case he needs some help getting up.
You hear him loudly spit into the toilet before groaning out, something that causes your gut to do another set of flips.
“Y-yeah, I…” he groans again, hearing him take a deep breath through the slightly ajar door. “...I’m alright, Ruby.”
Before you can even find the words for another apology, you hear the toilet flush as well as the sound of him getting back on his feet. The door starts to open and you quickly pull your hand away from the handle. As he steps out from the bathroom, you can see that he still looks violently ill, even with most of the tainted cake now purged from his system.
“Mike, I’m so, so s-sorry-” you start, barely able to control your shaky tone.
“It’s… It’s fine,” he says, though the stumble in his step when he first starts moving betrays his words. “Just need… need to lay down a while.”
“Here, c’mon,” you respond, gently grabbing him around his lower back and slowly steering him towards your bedroom.
The thought of him potentially puking on your bed sheets or floor briefly comes to mind, but you’re more than fine risking busting out the absorbing powder or at worst, having to do a load of laundry. Even then, with the waste bin next to your bed, it’s unlikely you’ll have to do either. As he slowly climbs into your bed, you pull out the plastic trash can for him and make sure he’s fully settled in before you quietly leave for the kitchen. You fetch the cup he was drinking from before the incident and fill it up with some cool water.
So many thoughts cross your mind, though thankfully too many for you to focus on any specific, guilt-inducing thought. Right now you just want to get him something to drink and make sure he recovers. You pick up the pace and quickly return with a full glass, carefully setting it down on the nightstand.
“Here, drink this,” you say, helping him sit upright against a pillow. “You want me to get you some mouthwash or something?”
He eagerly accepts it and takes a long sip, finishing with a smack of his tongue.
“Blegh… at least the chocolate kind of overpowers the taste of puke,” he says, a dry laugh accompanying his words. “And nah, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
You want to immediately apologize for ruining the joint birthday celebration, to go into length about how you don't know what went wrong with the cake, how you're so sorry for ruining his day; you want to ask how you could even begin to make it up to him, if he would even let you drive him home and…
Everything and anything else. You want to say everything, to let the words spill out from your lips, but you don't even know where to start, much less stop, leaving you standing next to him, tight-lipped and silent, like a stunned deer caught in headlights. Unable to speak, you instead decide to take a seat on the edge of the bed next to him, watching over him as countless thoughts continue to swim through your head.
“You alright, Ruby?” he says, and you’re momentarily shaken from your trance.
“Hmm?” you say, turning your body slightly to face him. “Yeah… yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry. How are you feeling?”
“Still…” he says, making a noise that you can only compare to a mix of a burp and hiccup. “...a little nauseous, but I think I’ll live.”
“Here,” you say, scooting in closer and reaching a hand in behind him. “Just lay down for a little while.”
“Wait,” he says, and you stop your gentle nudging out of a worry he’s about to puke again. “Probably not the best time for this, but… fuck it. Might help turn this day around a little bit.”
You’re confused as to what he’s talking about, cocking your head slightly as you watch him reach into his pockets.
“Here. I was planning on giving it to you earlier, but when you said there’d be cake, I figured I’d wait until after,” he says, offering his closed hand before opening it to reveal a small jewelry box.
You carefully accept the box from his outstretched hand, admiring it until you take his silent nodding as approval to open it. What you find inside are two beautiful earrings, tiny, brilliant rubies inset into polished gold. The weight in your stomach starts to fade as you stare at the flawless red gems, your heart racing at all the possibilities and implications swimming through your mind right now. Elation and confusion blend into a paralyzing mix that leaves you wondering if you should first thank him for the kind gift or ask out of sheer bewilderment why he went so above and beyond for your birthday present.
“I…” you sputter, unable to find the words to express your thoughts clearly. “...don’t…”
The gift feels like something you’d give to a wife or girlfriend, but you’re very much neither of those things. You’re once again left thinking fleeting thoughts about the possibility of a relationship with him, though you’re quickly reminded of his thoughts on the matter last time he was here, Mike having made it abundantly clear he wasn’t ready for a relationship so soon after his last. How would you even begin to propose something like that, especially after your catastrophic fuck up that fateful night?
‘Hey, I know last time you were here I was a stupid bitch that broke your foot and cried on your shoulder all night long as I broke down, but do you want to try the whole dating thing out?’
The words sound so outlandish in your head that you’re sure he’d probably walk right out the door if you asked, illness be damned.
‘Are you over your last shitty breakup yet? Maybe you’d like to get into another shaky relationship so you can relive that experience again?’
You know you’re being harsh on yourself, but you can’t envision things going any differently if you somehow find the courage to say the words. And you can’t help but berate yourself for sitting there in stunned silence, leaving him unsure about whether you even like the caring, thoughtful gift he’d spent god knows how much money on. Your mind’s screaming at you to say something, anything, to at least show the immense gratitude and warm, fuzzy feelings coursing through you presently. Even then, your mind can only focus on a single recurring question that's been plaguing you for the past two weeks.
‘Does he even remember what he said when he brought me back here that night?’
“What?” you hear his voice ring out, the sound breaking the contemplative silence hanging in the air.
You very quickly realize you’d said something aloud, judging by his confused expression, though you’re not entirely sure what he’d heard.
“Oh, I- just….” you stammer, taking a few moments to try and compose yourself. “I… don’t even know what to say, Mike. They’re beautiful.”
“I’m glad you think so,” he says, donning a wide smile at your words. “Go ahead, try them on.”
You gingerly remove one of the tiny earrings, slowly bringing it up to your ear as you use your free hand to find the right spot. While you haven’t worn jewelry of any sort in a long time, you still remember the part of your ear where your mom would poke the tiny studs to open up the skin. After no small amount of effort and some slight pain later, you manage to get both earrings on successfully.
“What do you think?” you say, though your confidence falters a bit when you see him chuckling.
“They suit you really well,” he says, his grin growing wider as he chuckles. “Course, they are rubies.”
“Oh, goddamnit, is that really why you picked these out?” you say, laughing alongside him when you finally make the connection. “Now I’m not going to hear the end of those jokes, dork.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he says, raising an arm in mock defeat. “Wasn’t the only reason I got them, but you have to admit it’s a funny coincidence, no?”
"Guess so," you say, your smile only getting wider as your gaze meets his. "Makes my gift seem pretty bad in comparison though. Wish I’d gotten you something half as beautiful as yours."
“You… got me something?” he says, a smile only widening as he attempts to play his excitement off, the hand rubbing the back of his head betraying his emotions. “Didn’t have to, you know.”
“What kind of a birthday would it be if I didn’t get you a gift, you dork,” you say, scooting up towards him as you speak. “Besides, I think I owe you a little something after you know… poisoning you.”
“I doubt it was your fault, Ruby,” he says, and the expression on his face makes it clear that he means what he’s saying. “Can’t say I’m not a little curious about that gift now though.”
His comment about it not being your fault only makes you want to confirm something that’d been on your mind ever since he started puking his guts out in your bathroom. The thought causes your gaze to drift to the now empty glass of water on your nightstand. You feel another sharp pang of guilt, one that practically forces you to offer him another glass out of fear of coming across as inconsiderate.
“Well… I’d have to actually go get it first,” you laugh nervously, your hand rubbing at the back of your neck. “You want me to grab you some more water while I’m at it?”
“Sure, that’d be nice,” he says, nodding ever so slightly. “Some ice would be great too if you’ve got it.”
“Alright, you want anything else?” you ask, reaching for the glass as you slowly stand up. “And If you need anything at all, just yell. Remember, you’ve got the bucket right next to you just in case you feel sick again.”
“I’ll be fine, don’t worry,” he says, flashing you a reassuring smile. “Pretty sure the worst of it is over anyhow.”
You quickly nod before turning for the kitchen, glass in hand. Another whirlwind of thoughts flies through your head as you slowly make your way down the hall, your tail swaying nervously as your worries start to pile up once more. No matter how many times he offers his reassurances that he’s fine, you still can’t help but feel guilty for making him sick. Once you’re finally there, your gaze focuses on one thing and one thing only, the bright red box of cake mix sitting next to the mixer on the counter. You pick it up and skim the label until you finally find what you’re looking for: the expiration date. You can’t help but breathe out a sigh of relief when you see the mix isn’t expired; which means it’s extremely unlikely the tainted cake was a mistake of your own doing, especially given you’d triple checked the doneness of the cake when you pulled it out of the oven.
Even still, it does little to quell the anxiety you feel about the gift you’re about to give him. You stand on your tiptoes to get at the cabinet where you’d stashed it. You set the gift down on the marble countertop, feeling the butterflies in your stomach start to flutter violently as you stare at the two small, carefully wrapped gift boxes. Your clawed fingers anxiously tap against the countertop as a flurry of thoughts crosses the forefront of your mind. Would he like the gift you spent nearly two weeks practically agonizing over? Your stomach does a flip at the thought of him not liking it, though the more rational part of you, the part that knows Mike well, reassures you that he’d appreciate the gift no matter what. Still, you feel as if you’re right to worry after the incredible gift he’d given you. Your free hand shoots up to your ear, and you can’t help but smile to yourself as you carefully run your fingers over one of the ruby studs. A warmth washes over you, bringing with it a feeling of confidence you felt you lacked just moments ago. Worries temporarily squashed, you quickly fill up the glass of water and take the two boxes in your free hand before heading back to check on Mike. You peek your head in from outside the doorway, being careful to hide the gift as best you can behind your back.
“Mike…” you ask, in a voice hopefully loud enough to get his attention. “You still awake?”
“How could I sleep when you promised me a gift?” he chuckles to himself, a small smile on his face. “You going to come in or just hang out in the doorway?”
“Can’t spoil the surprise early,” you say, responding with a nervous smile of your own. “Now, close your eyes, dork.”
He briefly cocks his head, his expression changing to one of amusement before he follows your instruction, even going so far as to cover his eyes with a hand. As you carefully tiptoe towards your bed, the thought that you look like a hot mess crosses your mind. You’re sure he doesn’t care much about it, but you feel obligated to do something about it. The second you set down the glass of water on the nightstand, your hand shoots up to tuck a few errant strands of hair behind one of your ears.
You close your eyes and let out a hopefully inaudible sigh to steady your nerves, just enough to be confident your voice won’t betray your conflicted emotions. A few more seconds pass before you feel ready, and once your confidence comes to a peak, you take a seat on the edge of the bed closest to him.
“Alright, you can open your eyes now,” you say, a smile tugging at the corners of your mouth as you idly run a finger over one of the boxes.
He opens his eyes, and you take some relief in seeing that the smile on his face hasn’t faded in the slightest. That damn confident, trademark smile of his, somehow never failing to spread a comforting warmth through you. Not that you’d ever admit it to him, but it’d been enough to make you shudder slightly on more than one occasion.
“Ruby?” he asks, the sound of his voice shaking you from your contemplative reverie. “You good?”
You nearly jump at the sound, realizing you’d been sitting out of arm’s reach while quietly staring him down. You quickly scoot in closer, quietly offering him the small box you’d put an embarrassing amount of effort into wrapping nicely.
“Yeah, sorry, just got… a little distracted,” you say, your heart pounding in your chest as he reaches out to take the box from your hands. “I know it’s not much but… I hope you like it.”
You watch as he carefully undoes your wrapping job, oddly grateful that he didn’t just tear into it. Anticipation and anxiety build up within you once he finally gets all the wrapping off the box, and you watch his expression closely for his reaction. You see a slight tug at the corner of his mouth that gives way into a wide grin, and you can’t help but breathe out a quiet sigh of relief at the sight.
“Ruby, you… really, really didn’t have to…” he says, looking to you and smiling before glancing back at the box in his hands, his words trailing off.
“Don’t worry about it, Mike, really. Come on, open it,” you say, softly nudging him with your elbow.
“Alright, alright, I will,” he laughs, taking the cover off the box to reveal the smartwatch you’d gotten for him. “Do I even want to know how much this cost?”
“No, you don’t,” you say, laughing your worries away. “And I’m not telling you either, it’s bad luck.”
You look on curiously as he lifts the box above his head, seemingly scanning the underside for something. “I see you even peeled the price tag off the box.”
You narrow your eyes as you shoot him a look of mock disapproval, though your smile quickly betrays your feigned disappointment. Your impatience getting the better of you, you playfully slap at his exposed arm. You’d very nearly forgotten he’d taken off his shirt after puking his guts out in your bathroom, not having quite made it to the toilet in time. And as much as you hate to give in to the desire, your gaze briefly strays to his chest, toned musculature on full display as a result of him lifting the small box into the air. You make a mental note to get him a clean shirt as soon as possible, your cheeks suddenly feeling warm as a result of your unabashed ogling.
“So, are you going to keep being a dork or are you going to try it on?” you chuckle, his infectious laughter still seemingly affecting you.
“You know, it’s funny,” he says, putting the box down before carefully taking the watch from its foam pillow nest. “I was actually thinking about getting one of these a couple months back. Figured it’d help motivate me to work out more often, I guess.”
“Why didn’t you?” you ask, curiosity getting the best of you as you watch him put on the watch.
“Well, that’s easy,” he says, chuckling to himself as he adjusts the watch strap. “I met you, didn’t I? Don’t need some silly watch to stay committed to something when you’ve got someone you actually look forward to working out with. Plus, a little bit of competition never hurt anyone’s motivation either.”
His words of praise and appreciation melt away some of your worries, and you can feel the tip of your tail start to twitch involuntarily.
“That’s… really nice of you to say, Mike,” you say, a sudden wave of embarrassment washing over you when it sinks in just how much of an effect his words have on you, your ears twitching involuntarily. “And likewise, it’s been... really nice having someone else to work out and hang out with.”
He flashes you another smile before showing you the smartwatch now safely strapped to his wrist. “Well, what do you think?”
“Looks really nice on you, Mike,” you say, your cheeks burning with embarrassment at your choice of phrasing. “Color suits you a lot, honestly.”
“Suppose it’s a good thing most of my sweatpants are the same color then,” he chuckles, adjusting the strap on his watch slightly. “Fits like a dream, too.”
“Now you’re just looking for nice things to say, you flatterer,” you say, playfully nudging his side again.
You both share a small laugh before Mike quietly goes back to examining the watch on his arm. During the silence, you’re once again left to wrestle with your conflicted thoughts, the only constant being the singular thought your mind continues to dwell on; a question you choose to avoid addressing.
It's an idea that's crossed your mind over and over for a long while now, only worsened by him being here again. You're not sure if he remembers what he said, about what he would've done that night if things were different, but you remember. Even armed with the knowledge that he has feelings for you, your mind can't help but shoot down the possibility, endless self-defeating answers and instincts robbing you of the chance, answering your question for you. You’re aware of the fact that he might consider you too emotionally unstable to even entertain the idea of dating you. And even though you’re aware that he doesn’t feel ready for a relationship after recently getting out of one so soon, you’re desperate to know if he still feels the same way as he did two weeks ago. You can feel your stomach tying itself up in knots, and you’re keenly aware of the fact that both your ears and tail continue to twitch involuntarily from the mounting stress.
You’re thankful Mike is still entertained by your gift, because you’re not sure you could even string a sentence together if he put you on the spot. Right now you're content with just watching him appreciate your gift, a smile gently tugging at the corner of your mouth as you do, alongside an ever-growing flutter in your stomach. Thankfully, not a sign you need to puke yourself, or at least, it doesn’t feel like you do. Instead, it feels like an escalating nervousness, of a kind you haven’t felt in a very long time. For a brief moment, you can’t place why it feels so foreign, though it starts to click once you focus your gaze on him again. Him in your bed again, his trademark smile intertwined with laughter and an attitude you couldn’t beat out of him, even though you’d somehow poisoned him with the cake you baked; all slowly comes together in your mind, culminating in a single thought that stands above all others.
‘You want to ask him out.’
That nagging feeling only seems to escalate the longer you continue to stare in silence, Mike completely and blissfully unaware of the conflicting emotions running through your head. You’d never done anything like this before, especially not under these circumstances; your timing so poor you’re sure the only way it could be any worse is if you brought this up during a funeral. Even with that in mind, there’s a hint of fear egging you on to just... go through with it, a fear that you’ll never get a better chance or even the courage to do it down the line. It feels… instinctual, primal almost, and you reel yourself in before you do something you’ll regret again. Doing things on instinct rarely goes well for you, and the last time you wanted to express your feelings clearly proves that. You start to rack your brain for better ideas to form some semblance of a plan. Complex schemes and actions start to pollute your mind, but one answer, maybe even the simplest one jumps out at you like a stalking jaguar leaping from a bush.
‘Just talk to him.’
Easier said than done, you think to yourself, especially considering how alight your body is with conflicting emotions. Deep down, you know a better opportunity isn’t going to come and you steady your nerves for what feels like the hundredth time today. Your mouth moves but the words don’t quite come out the first time around.
‘Come on Ruby, you can do this,’ you think to yourself, the fluttering in your stomach coming to an all-time peak. ‘Once more, with feeling.’
“H-hey, A-Mike,” you say, the stammers in your nervous tone only making the lump in your throat feel even bigger. “Can I… talk to you about s-something?”
He looks to you, and while his smile slightly fades into a concerned look that makes you want to shrivel up and die, you're determined to press on.
“Sure, everything alright?” he asks, and the way his nostrils flare up as his chest rises make you worry about how he’s going to take your question.
It’d be much easier on both of you if the answer to his question was a simple yes, but the truth is far more complicated than that. You decide to answer with honesty, hoping to whatever god might be listening that it’ll make the conversation go smoother.
“I d-don’t know… kind of?” you offer, shaking your head as you try to rectify your poor answer. “It’s b-been on my mind a while and I-I was going to bring it up but then-”
“Slow down Ruby, it’s okay,” he says, and you can't help but feel like an idiot when you realize how rambly you must sound to him for him to say that. “Just… breathe.”
You take a deep inhale before letting it all out, his reassurances taking away some of that mounting anxiety.
“Look, I…” you start, some of that stammering in your voice now gone thanks to the breathing exercise. “There’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while and... I-I know it’s not a good time to ask, but… I need to. If you don’t want me to, then I… totally understand.”
The expression on his face changes rapidly as he contemplates your words in silence, alternating from concern to worry repeatedly over the span of what feels like an hour to you.
He swallows loudly before he finally opens his mouth to speak. “If it’s as important as it sounds to you Ruby, then… sure, ask away.”
It’s not the answer you expected to get, but it is a welcome one. You do your best to smile, as nervous as you are about the whole situation.
“You sure?” you ask, giving him a second chance to bail out of this whole thing. “Can always do it later if you want to get some rest.”
He seems to think it over for a moment and for a second it feels like you’re going to be in the clear, Mike seemingly considering putting it off. As the seconds pass, the suspense starts to mount and you resist the sudden urge to bite your claws.
After a short while, you can see his mouth start to move again and you do your best to give him your full attention as you await his answer.
“I’m sure, Ruby,” he nods, as if to make sure you understand his approval. “Not like you could’ve known I was going to get sick.”
“Okay…” you say, stalling for time as you try and find the right words to say. “Do you uh… fuck me this is harder than I thought it’d be-”
‘Come on, you’re an adult, Ruby, you can do this.’ you think to yourself, feeling every unconscious twitch of your ears and tail as you try and push on.
“Do you… remember what you said to me two weeks ago?” you ask, practically having to force the words out.
“I mean…” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck as his expression crosses over to one of anxiety. “I remember a lot of the things I said, yeah.”
“Do y-you remember…” you say, every word a struggle to push past your lips. “...when you said if things were… different that... you would’ve kissed m-me?”
You feel that a lightheadedness wash over you as you try and fail to continue, a feeling of dread creeping in close behind as you try and picture his response to your poorly worded question.
“Y-yeah, I... remember,” he stammers, clearing his throat as he continues rubbing at the back of his head. “Why?”
That ‘Why?’ pierces your heart as easily as a rail spike left out on a hot day would. You know he doesn’t mean it in a negative way, but the question still drives up your heart rate like no other. And while you know exactly why you brought it up, it doesn’t make what’s about to follow any easier.
“D-do y-you…” you say, fighting the urge to clam up and shut him out again. “...s-still feel that way?”
His face crosses over from anxiety to contemplation like an emotional metronome, Mike having trouble parsing your loaded question. You clench your fist tight in anxious wait, though you release slightly when you feel your sharp claws get close to breaking the skin of your furred palm.
He nods his head slightly before his mouth finally opens to speak, finally breaking the awkward silence hanging in the air.
“I don’t… regret having said it, if… that’s what you wanted to know,” he says, leaning back against the pillows as he continues. “And… I can’t say I feel any differently about it than I did that night.”
You let out the breath you’d been holding for the last minute or so, shutting your eyes briefly as a wave of new emotions washes over you. You can’t say for certain if the question you’re about to ask next is worded properly, but frankly, you’ve stopped caring. Deep down you know this is something that has to be said. Now or never, Ruby.
“Even… the stuff about not being r-ready for a new relationship yet?” you ask, wincing as the words leave your mouth.
The words bring back old school memories and fresh wounds alike to the forefront of your mind. Your chest tightens, and your heart feels like a pincushion as you begin to relive moments you thought you’d buried long ago, slowly delivering a death by a thousand agonizing cuts. You can feel a tear begin to form in the corner of your eye but you will yourself to stem the flow, quickly bringing up a hand to wipe the errant drop away before he realizes. You’d managed to repress those feelings for this long, you could certainly reign them in a little while longer.
He lets out a long, drawn-out sigh, the hand once rubbing at the back of his neck now rubbing at his temples. It was exactly the thing you’d been afraid of going into this conversation, stressing him out like this, but you’d been careful to leave him an out. Even if he chose to stop after getting this far into it, you couldn’t blame him in the slightest. A hopeful part of you is praying he answers the question, even if it’s not what you might want to hear. All you can do is sit in silence, trying to keep your ears, tail, and other nervous tics in check, even if just to avoid both distracting him and embarrassing yourself even more.
He clears his throat loudly, startling you into giving him your full attention again. You’ve quickly given up on controlling the involuntary twitches of your traitorous ears and tail, but you’re still keenly aware of each and every time it happens. You’re content with just trying to keep your tail out of his sight. Right now all you care about is listening to what he has to say.
“Honestly? I... can’t say I know for sure,” he says, letting out a long, almost exasperated sigh before continuing. “I like you Ruby, I really do but…”
There’s that word again. You don’t feel angry or snubbed like you did last time, but there’s still that sting of rejection that punctures your heart, deflating it like a helium balloon after a party. Even though you know where things are likely going to go, you feel a need to see this to its conclusion, so you continue to quietly listen. Both out of respect for him and because of the burning desire you suddenly feel to know how to better approach this next time, if there even is one.
“...I’m scared,” he says, and you’re suddenly sent reeling because it was the furthest thing from the blunt rejection you’re so sure was coming. “Scared of… I don’t know, fucking up again. I broke Kelly’s heart and she broke mine, so who’s to say it won’t… happen again?”
He clasps his hands together, his thumb rubbing over the other as his head lowers in quiet contemplation. There’s something off about it, but you can’t exactly place it. You can see his chest rising and falling erratically, but that’s par for the course in a conversation as serious as this.
“I-I don’t want to… hurt like that again,” he says, nervously biting at his lower lip before sucking in a hurried breath. “Or… hurt anyone else the way I did.”
You can see his Adam's apple bob as he swallows hard, a muffled clearing of his throat following soon thereafter. It all connects then, as you spot that telltale glint of a tear forming in the corner of his eye. He quickly tries to blink it away, but you know what you saw and the pit in your stomach grows ten sizes from the guilt. You feel a sudden urge to do something, anything to help. You’re not sure how he’ll react but there’s nothing you want to do more right now than to be there for him, just like he was for you that night. You quickly scoot in closer before wrapping your arms around him as best you can, using a free hand to bring his head down to rest on the crook of your shoulder. You feel him freeze up, and he takes a sharp breath in before he returns the hug in kind, his hand gripping the back of your blouse before he pulls you even closer to him. The knot in your heart twists even further when he lets out something that sounds like the beginning of a choked sob. You’d rarely been in a position where you’d have to console someone short of Lily, but what you think to do next feels nothing short of instinctual.
“It’s alright, I’m here,” you repeat on loop as you run your furred fingers gently through his hair and scalp, hoping your words are soothing. “Just… deep breaths.”
Normally the closeness would have you feeling nervous, but right now you only care about one thing, and that’s calming him down. Your other free hand gently glides across his back as if to reassure him that you’re there for him. You can feel everything wrong with his breathing, with his heartbeat, your own separated only by skin and bone, relief washing over you as that erratic drumming begins to slow down into a gentle consistent beating. You feel guilty for pushing him into this conversation, though some part of you feels it was bound to happen. You know better than anyone else that bottling up your problems only delays the inevitable, a flood of emotions bursting forth at the worst possible time. His breathing starts to come down and you start to think about how much worse you were that night. It’s an errant thought interrupted by the sudden dampness you feel on your shoulder, a sure sign of tears.
“You alright?” you ask, though you don’t expect a response, instead just continuing to run your fingers over the back of his head. “It’s okay… just... let it all out.”
A minute or two passes and you can’t feel any more wetness on your shoulder which brings you a little bit of relief. You attempt to gently rock your body in an attempt to put him more at ease. His once tight grip on the back of your blouse slowly starts to wane as you go through the motions.
“I-I just… don’t want to h-hurt anyone else, Ruby,” he says, some of his words coming choked and muffled from how his head is buried in your shoulder. “I d-don’t want to hurt... you.”
“You’re not…” you start, ultimately deciding to hold your tongue until he recovers. “Just… keep breathing.”
You’d never been in a position to see him as vulnerable as he is now. Maybe in the park a few weeks ago but this feels... different, somehow. The unconditional trust handed to you in this slump, this moment of vulnerability is strangely touching, but also incredibly paralyzing. Despite the sudden heavy feeling in your limbs, you continue going through the comforting motions; unconsciously tightening your embrace on the man surrendering himself to you in more ways than one. You’re not entirely sure what to make of it, but you can’t stop the warmth from spreading through your body. His words are irrefutable proof that he cares about you a great deal, a thought that should make you feel overjoyed, and yet… it doesn’t. You want him to care but… not at a cost like this, one too high for anyone to reasonably pay.
“You alright?” you ask in what’s hopefully a soothing tone, the bottom of your furred snout nearly touching his hair. “You haven’t hurt me, Mike.”
You hold him for what feels like another five minutes, rocking him in absolute silence. His once erratic heartbeat and breathing have settled down to normal by now, and you breathe out a quiet sigh of relief. He startles you when he starts to move again, and you loosen your tight hug slightly in response. After a short moment, he finally lifts his head from your shoulder, briefly meeting your sympathetic gaze before looking away out of what seems like embarrassment. His gaze refocuses further south and for a moment you’re not entirely sure what he’s looking at, a small but unsteady smile briefly tugging at the corners of his mouth, gone almost as quickly as it materialized. It suddenly hits you that he was looking over the amber pendant around your neck, and you feel happy that wearing it is enough to get that kind of response out of him. You try to say something but the words don’t come, and you feel relief when you see his mouth start to move.
“S-Sorry, I don’t know what…” he says, pausing to take in what sounds like a much-needed breath. “...got into me.”
“It’s okay,” you whisper, feeling a wave of embarrassment wash over you when you realize you’re still unconsciously stroking his hair. “Sorry for... bringing that stuff up.”
He finally pulls away, and you feel relieved that there’s not much of a trace of the tears that had flowed earlier. Despite that, you can’t help but feel a small pang of guilt when you see his bloodshot eyes, still feeling awful about prompting it.
“It’s… not your fault, Ruby,” he says, sniffling in an attempt to clear his stuffy nose. “I… honestly feel a lot better now. Guess I needed to get that off my chest.”
“Just glad I could help,” you say, twiddling your thumbs as his kind words only refresh the warmth you feel. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“Ah, don’t be,” he says, looking down before finally meeting your gaze, flashing an uneasy smile. “I think how it ended was for the best, I learned something from it. Beats the whole being stuck in a miserable relationship thing.”
The words make you swallow hard. Even if you manage to get him to agree to some semblance of a relationship, would it eventually go down the same path? While the thought scares you, you feel it’s better to try than resign yourself to doing nothing at all. Normally you wouldn’t press this conversation any further, but you’re curious about why exactly his relationship went the way it did.
“That bad, huh?” you say, offering what you think is a sympathetic smile. “What... happened? Don’t have to say if you don’t want to.”
He reaches for the glass of water on the nightstand, taking a few loud gulps before setting it back down.
He shrugs before settling back against the pillow behind him. “Don’t think there’s any harm in sharing. Not like you don’t know how it ends.”
“Guess that’s true,” you chuckle, hoping it’ll lighten the serious mood some. “Who broke it off?”
“Ended up having to do it,” he sighs, and you can’t quite place if it’s out of regret or something else entirely. “God knows how long we would’ve been stuck together if I’d left it up to her. Not that it mattered in the end, I guess.”
“Why do you say that?” you ask, curiosity still getting the better of you. “Did you guys share a lot of friends or something?”
“Well… that’s uh, complicated, to say the least,” he chuckles, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Doesn’t help that we still see each other about as often still.”
“What, are you guys roommates or something?” you ask, cocking your head slightly. "Never mentioned one before.”
"God, no," he says, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Almost as bad though. She's my boss."
The words take a second to fully register, a lot of questions you’d had before clicking into place once they do. You’re not entirely sure what to say, but given his situation, it makes a lot more sense for him to be so apprehensive about getting into a new relationship.
“The girl I saw at your job one time?” you ask, wanting to be sure before you say anything more. “Didn’t even think she actually worked there.”
“Perks of being the boss, I suppose,” he says, and you’re at least glad he can talk about this without much trouble. “Keeps to herself in the back doing inventory and stuff. Doesn’t stop her from bitching me out about being late though.”
“Sounds like a real charmer,” you say, taking his side on the matter.
“She’s mellowed out a lot more lately, honestly,” he says, laying his head against the backboard of the bed. “Reason we broke up was mostly my fault anyway, can’t really blame her for being upset about it.”
“Why’s that?” you ask, partly out of a curiosity to avoid making the same mistakes.
“She wanted to get serious way too quickly. Wanted to move in with me and I just… wasn’t really comfortable with the idea,” he says, that wistful expression appearing on his face once more. “That was the beginning of the end. Had arguments over the littlest shit after that.”
“I’m sorry,” you offer, not sure what else to say that isn’t grossly overstepping your boundaries with how little you know about his situation. “Sounds awful to go through.”
“It was, but I also learned a lot. Taught me relationships don’t tend to work out if both people don’t want it the same way,” he says, scratching at his side as he continues. “Even if everything seems perfect at first. Anyway, I’ll stop being such a downer.”
“You’re not a downer, Mike,” you say, hoping to lift his spirits with your words. “Takes a lot of courage to end a relationship like that, I’d imagine.”
“Thanks, Ruby,” he says, a slight grin forming on his face. “You’re not wrong though, took me about a week before I decided to go through with it.”
“You’re welcome,” you say, returning his smile with one of your own. “And… Can I ask you one more thing? It’s important.”
“Sure, why not,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “Owe you as much for hearing my dumb ass out.”
You’ve got the green light to finally propose the thing that’d been in and out of your thoughts for the past few days. All you have to do is somehow force the words out of yourself. If you don’t do it now, you’ll likely never get the chance to ask again. You very briefly close your eyes and take a deep breath.
“I know you said you’re not… ready for another relationship,” you say, taking another breath to keep your voice from stammering or cracking. “But… would you maybe uh, be open to the idea of a… trial date or something?”
Your cheeks burn at your downright embarrassing delivery, and those involuntary twitches of your ears and tail have become near-permanent fixtures with how nervous you feel right now. You brace for the worst, having fully accepted you’d be alright with whatever response he gives you.
“Uh, what do you mean, exactly?” he asks, his expression a mix of both confusion and embarrassment. “Like going on another date or something?”
“Sort of?” you say, unsure how to put it in a way that doesn’t seem like you’re coming on too strong. “It’s hard to explain but… I mean like, how do you feel about actually trying to date? I don’t know, just to see if it works out?”
He looks even more confused than before, though you can’t imagine he doesn’t understand what you’re proposing. You know this whole thing is a long shot, but you’re better off trying and failing than eternally wondering what would’ve happened if you’d dared to ask.
“I don’t know, Ruby,” he sighs, rubbing at the back of his neck as he speaks. “What if it... doesn’t work out? I don’t want to throw away a good friendship over that.”
You know he has a good point, but there’s still something inside you screaming to push a little further; maybe in the hopes that he’ll come to see it like you do.
“I just… think it’s worth a shot,” you say, figuring brutal honesty is probably for the best. “No strings or anything attached. If you want out, you just say the word and it all goes back to normal. Won’t argue it or hold anything against you.”
“It’s… I don’t know, Ruby. It’s not that easy,” he says, the look of apprehension on his face unlike any other time you’ve seen it. “Whenever feelings get involved it’s hard to go back to just being friends.”
“Aren’t they already involved?” you ask, though you regret the words the instant they leave your mouth. “S-sorry, I didn’t-”
With all the foot-to-mouth action you’d been partaking in lately, you might as well make it an honorary permanent resident. You move to correct yourself, but the words die in your throat when you see him start to speak.
“No, no, you’re right,” he says, and you’re taken aback by his calm response. “It’s stupid to try and pretend they aren’t. I don’t know if it’s for the best but… fuck it, I guess it’s worth a shot. Let’s see where it goes.”
The words stun you, and you have to resist the urge to pinch yourself to check if you’re dreaming. There’s no way you heard him right, is there? Your hail mary worked out and yet you’re paralyzed by the prospect, your gaze meeting his as you sit there, like a deer caught in the headlights. Your heartbeat begins to quicken again, and you feel a mild panic start to overtake you even though you got exactly what you wanted. Your inner voice screams at you to say something reaffirming before he retracts, but you can’t quite find the right words.
“So… is that a yes?” you ask, hoping your voice doesn’t give away the excitement or anxiety you feel welling up within you. “Sorry I just… don’t want to assume anything.”
“It’s a yes,” he says, a slight smile beginning to form on his features. “I think testing the waters is better than shoving… whatever this is under the carpet.”
Excitement doesn’t even begin to describe how you feel about this whole situation. Your entire body is alight with familiar and unfamiliar feelings, but you try to reign yourself in; mostly out of fear that you’ll make a mistake before you’re even out of the gate. It wasn’t exactly how you’d thought this kind of thing would go, years of media preparing you for something right out of a movie, but right now you don’t care. Brief thoughts of a picturesque kiss flash through your mind, and you can feel your cheeks burn bright with embarrassment. As much as something like that would take this ideal situation up to an eleven in your mind, you didn’t want to make the same mistake as last time by forcing yourself on him, content with just testing the waters, as he put it.
“Sorry… I, uh, don’t really know what to say now,” you say, returning his smile in kind with a nervous one of your own. “Didn’t think I’d get this far.”
“It’s alright,” he laughs, dispelling some of the awkwardness hanging in the air. “Can’t say I really know what to say either. Wasn’t expecting today to go like... this.”
The two of you are left to sit in silence, playing the world’s most awkward game of chicken with each other’s gazes. As you shift around slightly, the small box you’d hidden behind your back presses into you. You quickly realize you’d completely forgotten to show him the second part of your gift.
“Shit, sorry, I almost forgot,” you say, interrupting the brief silence as you reach for the box you’d lazily hidden at your side. “I uh, actually got something else. Another watch, a matching one since we… you know, work out together all the time and… god am I bad at this kinda-”
Your nervous, rambling speech is thankfully cut off before you can embarrass yourself any further by the sound of chuckling coming from a very amused-looking Mike. “Take a deep breath, Ruby. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”
You silently nod, following his advice before finally attempting to express your thoughts. “I figured… since we did this whole, uh, celebrating our birthdays on the same day thing... I’d get a second watch to match yours. Oh! And… I almost forgot, the guy at the store told me you could actually sync these up.”
You hurriedly move to open your unwrapped box, that involuntary twitching in the tip of your tail and ears become all the more frequent as you blunder through something as simple as giving a birthday present. Your heart beats just a little faster with each passing second, his gaze on you certainly not helping matters any. Soon enough you manage to get the second watch out from its enclosure, and you turn it on with what little battery it comes with out of the box.
“Here,” you say, reaching over to turn his watch on as well, your hand briefly brushing against his in the process. “I’ll show you.”
“Now I really don’t want to know how much you spent on little old me,” he chuckles, one hand rubbing at the back of his neck out of what you think is guilt.
“Don’t worry about it Mike, really,” you say, tapping the touchscreen on his watch throughout the brief setup process. “So… all you have to do supposedly is go to the settings menu and then… hold down this button on both watches…”
The displays on both screens begin to display a small loading circle that’s soon followed by a message telling you the sync is complete.
“Now… anytime we go on a jog together it’ll track all kinds of things, and you can use the little app to compare each other’s stats,” you say, your words petering out as a hint of doubt starts to creep in. “There’s a lot of other neat stuff on there I wanted to show you, but I think I’ll save that for when you’re feeling better.”
“I’m feeling better already,” he says, and you meet his gaze only to find a genuine smile, one that was enough to stave off what little doubt had begun to set in. “I think this honestly might be the best birthday gift anyone’s ever gotten me.”
“Ah, it’s nothing, Mike,” you say, waving a hand dismissively as you return an awkward grin of your own. “Besides, I’m sure your parents or friends have gotten you plenty of nicer things than a watch.”
“Nicer, maybe,” he says, his words making a lump suddenly form in your throat. “But this is definitely the most thought anyone’s ever put into a birthday gift for me, and I mean that.”
“Thanks, Mike, that…” you say, quickly swallowing the lump before you continue. “Really means a lot to me. I’m glad you like the gift.”
“Now I really don’t have an excuse to miss a day,” he laughs, twisting his wrist around to get a feel for the watch. “How’s that saying go… birds of a feather run together?”
In your mind, his cheesy joke cements the fact that he’s feeling better, and you can’t help but laugh in turn, terrible as his sense of humor might be. “Somehow, Mike… I don’t think that’s how that saying goes.”
“No, no, I think that’s definitely… how it goes,” he says, chuckling as he attempts to hide his amusement at his own joke.
“So, are you really feeling better?” you ask, still concerned about his well-being despite the obvious uptick in his mood. “I can let you get some rest if you want.”
“Nah, nah, you don’t have to do that,” he says, waving a hand dismissively. “I think I pretty much puked up whatever it is that made me sick. I’m just sorry I made such a mess of your bathroom.”
“Nothing a little bleach can’t fix,” you say with a reassuring smile. “Just glad you’re alright, you uh… had me really worried for a second.”
“Believe me, it’s not my first rodeo with a little food poisoning,” he chuckles, pulling the blanket already over his lap even closer. “My college buddies always liked to eat at the shadiest hole-in-the-wall joints, swearing the food tasted better. And it did, though it doesn’t taste nearly as good coming back up.”
“Your friends sound like real characters,” you say, smiling at his story, attempting to keep your gaze affixed to his without staring.
“Made college a lot less painful, that’s for sure,” he laughs, adjusting the strap on his watch again. “Wouldn’t have made it through without those guys.”
“Hey… you want to keep watching that movie?” you ask, hoping it’ll help avoid another one of the awkward silences you dread.
“Don’t think I have anything left to puke up,” he laughs, and you feel oddly happy that both the color in his face and attitude are back to normal. “Think I’ll survive a horror movie.”
“If you say so,” you say, jumping off the edge of the bed. “Come on, I’ll help you to the couch.”
“I’m sick, not eighty years old, Ruby,” he laughs, pulling the blanket off himself before moving his legs off the edge of the bed.
“Could’ve fooled me with how you walk after our runs sometimes,” you laugh, grabbing the bucket by the nightstand. “Come on, let me help you.”
“Not my fault my legs aren’t tailor-made for running,” he says, standing upright before letting you wrap an arm around his side for support. “Maybe I just need some new running shoes.”
“Sure, sure, blame it on the shoes,” you say, walking with him out of the bedroom and back towards the living room. “Gonna blame it on the watch next?”
“I’m going to remember that next time you ask me to carry you to the car because you can’t walk,” he laughs as the two of you finally reach the couch.
“You wouldn’t dare,” you say in mock disbelief as you help him sit down before taking a seat yourself. “Bucket’s right there in case you need it.”
“I just might,” he says, leaning back into the couch to make himself comfortable. “And thanks.”
“Yeah, yeah,” you say, looking around for something that seems to be missing. “Pass the blanket, will you? It’s freezing.”
“Gotta say the magic word,” he says, reaching over to grab the blanket before pausing. “Otherwise my old man bones can’t lift it.”
You roll your eyes as you give him a look of mock disapproval. “Can you please pass the blanket, Mike?”
“That’s more like it,” he says, lifting the blanket before draping it over the two of you. “One problem though.”
You look at him in confusion, cocking your head slightly at his words. “And what’s that?”
“Now you’re too settled in to get up and put the movie in,” he grins, nodding towards the open DVD case by the TV.
“We’ll see about that,” you say, pulling your phone out, your other hand reaching for the remote to turn on the TV.
You quickly browse to a very legal movie streaming site and quickly find the movie among their selection, in the same quality as the original. You press play and then stream it to the television set.
“See, don’t even have to get up,” you say, turning to Mike to flash him a self-satisfied grin.
“So wait, why didn’t you just do that before?” he asks, and you can visually see the wheels in his head-turning. “You just wanted to show off your movie collection, didn’t you?”
“Shut up,” you say, playfully elbowing him in the side. “Movie’s about to start, dork.”
You scoot in a little closer to him, the warmth under the blanket oddly comforting compared to the outside cold. You unconsciously move to lean against him, your fur barely grazing his bare chest as you pull yourself away out of embarrassment, but not soon enough to avoid bumping into him. He takes his eyes off the movie for a second to look down at you, giving you a small smile when he puts two and two together. You avert your gaze, feeling your ear twitch as your cheeks burn. You try to focus on the movie you’ve watched a million times over, silently hoping he won’t say anything about your failed attempt to rest against him. A minute or so later, you breathe out a quiet sigh of relief once you feel the proverbial coast is clear.
No sooner than you let your guard down, you feel him shift around a bit. Not even a moment later and you feel his hand on yours, seemingly clumsily searching for its exact position. His fingers interlock with yours from above, and you try to facilitate it by spreading out your fingers to allow his passage. Thanks to your heightened senses, you can hear your heart trying to work its way out of your chest. His gesture makes you oddly giddy, and you take it as a sign that he wouldn’t mind if you lean against him. You scooch in closer, your hand still clasped tight with his, slowly bringing your head to rest against his arm. The moment your head makes contact with his arm, he looks down at you again, that very same smile as before still on his face. This time you’re not too embarrassed to meet his gaze, and you return a warm smile of your own. It's oddly comforting to cuddle up to him like this, and you can feel those familiar tendrils of sleep start to dig into you, his focus on the movie, eyes staring at it with laser-like focus.
You don’t want to say anything considering he granted you the same mercy earlier, but every time there’s a jump scare or tense moment, you can feel his fingernails dig into your palm. You’d put that weakness of his into your mental bank to tease him another day, but right now you’re simply content with watching the movie in silence together. Today had gone far better than you reasonably could’ve expected out of a birthday, especially considering the two of you are tentatively a… thing now. The thought sounds so alien to you that you’re expecting to wake up in bed alone any second now, and yet the moment never comes. You desperately want this to work out, and so you make yet another promise to yourself to try and treat him as kindly and with as much care as he does you. A shiver runs up your spine as you feel his thumb absentmindedly running over your furred skin. While it feels great, you feel some embarrassment that something so simple can provoke that kind of response from you. You try not to think too much of it, nestling your head even deeper into the crook of his shoulder. You let out a soft yawn, doing your best to muffle it with your free hand. While you do your best to stay awake for the remainder of the movie, you’d stayed up far too late the night before making preparations for the birthday. Soon enough, the call of sleep is too strong to resist, your eyelids fluttering as you try and fail to fight it off. A fuzzy and oddly comforting warmth starts to emanate from your core, slowly radiating out towards your extremities. For the first time in a long time, you feel content and… safe. You scooch in even closer, the side of your head now snugly resting against his bare neck. You shut your eyes, willingly this time, and let out a long, quiet sigh before you give in to the sandman.
You didn’t want to say anything to Ruby, especially with how much she seems to be a fan of horror movies, but your heartbeat had been at sky-high levels for pretty much the entirety of the film. Admittedly, you were never good with horror movies, but this one just hit all the weak points you had with them. Body horror, jump scares, and tension combine to keep you on edge for the last hour or so. You just hoped she didn’t notice you shifting slightly anytime something happened to scare you. From how well you know her, she would’ve said something by now had she noticed, though maybe she’s just that enthralled by the movie. You know taking her by the hand had been a bold move, but you figured she’d appreciate that kind of gesture to cement what you’d agreed to earlier. The concept of a trial date was still totally foreign to you, but she’d made a lot of good points that made it difficult to disagree with her. Whatever might come of it, you promised yourself you’d at least give her a fair shot. She’d been there for you a lot over the last few weeks, and more recently than that, just an hour ago when you’d opened up to her. And as much as you’re reluctant to admit it to yourself, you do have some feelings for her. You just hope it won’t be a repeat of your last relationship.
You’re taken out of your thoughts by the feeling of her fur tickling against your bare skin, both on the shoulder her head is resting on and between your interlaced fingers; the contrast and warmth of her slightly scratchy, almost rugged pawpads dancing against your fingertips causing goosebumps to break out on your forearms. Every time you two had gotten this close, her comforting, warm fuzzy coat had without fail, prompted the same reaction. It’s an intoxicating feeling and the curious part of you wonders if it feels the same way for her. You take your eyes off the movie for a moment to see how she’s doing, your gaze trailing down to your shoulder. What you find is Ruby fast asleep, a blissful expression on her face. You can’t exactly fault her for falling asleep with everything she’d likely done today, not to mention the fact that she’s probably watched this movie a million times on her own. You can feel some drowsiness of your own start to creep in, your energy still sapped from your earlier worshiping of the porcelain throne. You decide to shelve your worries for another time, pulling the small kangaroo tight to you before adjusting the blanket to cover you both. You inch forward slightly, being careful not to wake her, reaching for the remote to shut the TV off. After doing so, you settle back against the comfortable couch, closing your eyes before slowly letting sleep take you.