Changing Stripes

‘There is hope. Make the call.’

Eric snorted and shook his head after reading the sign. It was posted above a small telephone that was installed in a small recess of the steel support.

“If there was hope, they wouldn’t need the sign, would they?” He muttered to himself.

His feet resume their slow trudge, carrying him further down the narrow walkway. A rush of cool, damp air came up to greet him now that he was no longer over land. If he’d have known it would be this chilly tonight, he’d have brought a jacket.

While the water near the shore had roared and crashed as waves broke against the rocky shore, the atmosphere became increasingly serene as he drew near the center of the span. Gentle breezes stirred the sea, breaking and scattering the moon’s pale reflection.

He paused to lean over the railing and stare down into the inky abyss. The water here was too deep for what he’d intended. Closer to the shore with its rocky outcropping and shallow depths would be ideal. Though as he’d come all the way out here, he wanted to stop and admire the view for at least a short time.

Gazing out across the water, and occasionally up towards the sky, he wondered if this really was the only option left to him.

The debt levied against him would be paid off soon. That was a plus, if a small one. Despite that, he could never forgive his parents for selling him off in the first place. Neither could he forgive the rest of his extended family that never even made an attempt to help him out. A downside to being in a large family – the more children there are, the more expendable the individual becomes. When they took him away, his brothers and sister seemed almost happy.

He shook his head and laughed bitterly. Even once his debt was gone, what then? No education, no skills. No family. No real friends. Just his clients that used him for a night and left. Those would be gone, too, unless he specifically sought them out for repeat service. No, the Madam would not likely take kindly to him stealing her business away after he was no longer working for her. Was his only option to whore himself on the streets?

No, fuck that – he was going to take charge of his own destiny. There was one last option. He’d spent many hours, days, weeks, and months thinking and pondering. One final option.

His will steeled, he let a deep sigh escape through his nose. “Right,” he told himself. “Time to get a move on.”

Pushing off from the railing, he continued walking on towards the other end of the expanse. He’d heard it was a bit rockier on that side. He didn’t want to risk this becoming a failure. His last action of free will absolutely had to be a success.

As his steps carried him closer to the other side, something on the wind caught his ear. A soft, sad sound. A sound he was very familiar with. He slowed to a stop and stared in the direction from which it was originating. His heartbeat had suddenly become very heavy.

He knew he shouldn’t get involved. He knew he should stay away. Yet, despite the protests of his mind, his feet began to carry him closer to the source before he knew it. Through the shadows he spotted a silhouette across the roadway, hunched down against one of the many steel girders. Whoever it was, they were facing the water.

With only the moonlight illuminating the bridge, he found it easy to sneak in close. He wasn’t sure why he was sneaking in the first place. Was it fear of what he would find? Or fear of what would find him? Closer and closer he crept, until he could begin to make out the figure. It was a woman, sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest. Her face was buried in her knees as her paws wrapped about her legs to keep them close. With every sob and cry her entire body trembled and shook, hidden amongst the shadows.

A few steps closer and he could make out a striped tail resting at her side, and large, striped, fluffy foot-paws sticking out of a black dress that halted mid-thigh. Small, somewhat rounded ears topped her head. At least, he assumed they were small. It was difficult to tell when they were pressed flat against her long, sandy-colored hair.

Eric frowned. Not so much from the display in front of him, but from his own conflicted emotions. Part of him wanted nothing to do with what he was seeing. A very large part, in fact. Yet, there was a quiet, whispering voice that told him this woman needed help. Desperately. The longer he waited and listened, the more the sounds of despair gnawed at him.

In her he saw himself. Had there ever been someone in the shadows watching him?

His feet resumed their steps. He emerged out in front of her, hand held up in a greeting. “Yo! Come here often?” He cringed at his own greeting. It sounded a little better in his head.

The woman’s head snapped up at the voice. Tear soaked, amber eyes focused on Eric.

Getting a good look at her face, there was little doubt she had been there for quite some time. Her eyes was reddened and puffy, and her cheeks were utterly drenched.

He mistook her for a were-cat at first, but everything marked her as a jinko. Only, she was rather tiny. As far as he knew, jinkos were supposed to be tall and rather muscle-bound.

The woman’s tail twitched a few times as she stared at him. Eric chewed on his lip as his hand began to sink. Just as he was about to say something else, the woman interrupted him.

“Get lost!” She snarled, her voice hoarse and raspy.

While Eric was sure she’d intended to be menacing or intimidating, there was still a gentle quality to her timbre. Instead of fierce, she simply sounded so very scared.

“Er, I was walking down the way and I heard someone crying. Thought I’d check it out.”

She continued to regard him suspiciously. Eric’s hands fumbled about, searching for something to keep themselves occupied with until he stuffed them into his pockets. For all his time spent with people, he wasn’t very skilled at talking with them.

Their eyes locked together for a time. The woman continued to hic and sniffle as tears kept on trickling down her cheeks.

Seeing that Eric wasn’t going anywhere, the woman spoke again. “A-are you done, ch-checking it o-out?” Her voice was choked and stuttered, and had completely dropped to a morose whisper. Little more than quiet gasps, really.

Despite all the time spent staring at each other wordlessly, he hadn’t been able to think of anything good to say. “No, I’m not,” he blurted out, kicking at the ground in frustration. He’d wanted to help her. Instead he felt like he was making a fool of himself.

For a brief instant the woman’s expression changed before settling back to how it was. “W-well what do y-you want? I-I’m not s-selling.”

Selling? Eric furrowed his brows. What would she be selling here…?

He bit his lip and turned away, facing the railing. “That’s, uh, fine. I wouldn’t want to buy, anyways. Just… Are you okay?”

He stole a furtive glance at the woman after a few seconds of silence. Her suspicion of him seemed to have faded. In its place was something like curiosity or relief. Or even amusement. An odd expression to be wearing underneath her tear-stained exterior.

In the chill of the eve, the only sounds for a time were those of the waves breaking against the supports and the rolling sea. He shivered slightly, then wondered if the jinko was cold. Maybe not, considering her furry arms and legs.

With something of a laughing sigh, the woman stood, interrupting his thoughts.

His impression of her build was accurate; she was indeed very short for a jinko. Probably just a few inches over five feet. The dress clung to her lithe frame, revealing just how dainty she was. Her long hair fluttered in the breeze as she adjusted her dress, pulling the hem down to cover her thighs as best as the short-cut garment could manage. It was then he noticed that she wore a simple leather choker as well.

She wiped away the last of her tears and took a series of deep, slow breaths. “I guess that was rude of me. Sorry.”

Eric sighed and folded his hands atop the railing as he leaned forward. “Don’t worry about it. I was just…”

He hesitated as his eyes dropped down to peer into the murky waters. Regret began bubbling up in his mind. What was the purpose of what he’d just done? The only thing he’d succeeded in doing was delaying what he’d set out to do.

Besides, her issue was probably a minor one. Like her latest client was too rough, or she just had a slow night and wasn’t making any money. Something stupid like that. Something she just wanted to get away from for a little while. She was probably upset he’d bothered her.

“Oh, I see,” the jinko said. Her tail swished low and slow. Amber eyes remained fixated on Eric, glowing softly as they reflected the moonlight. “Just concerned about a sobbing woman?”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah yeah, I should’ve minded my own business. Sorry for bothering you,” he grumbled.

As he stood and began to continue his journey down the path to the other side, the woman did not move out of the way. Nor did it appear that she wanted him to leave. Swish, swish, went her tail.

“Thank you,” she whispered quietly, looking down for a moment. When she turned back up, new tears were beginning to well in her eyes.

Her words froze Eric on the spot. He blinked at her at few times before he turned away to the familiar scene of the sea and leaned against the railing once more.

A heavy weight tugged on his heart and his eyes grew damp with emotion. He cursed himself yet again for allowing this to happen. He was supposed to be strong, tonight. He was supposed finally find freedom and a reprieve, tonight. But he just had to go and talk to someone. Someone who spoke two little words with a sincerity he had not heard in many long years. All over a simple gesture.

He rested his forehead on his folded hands. He was desperate to keep himself under control. He was supposed to be poised and stoic. That’s what had been expected of him all his life. Men didn’t cry. Men didn’t hurt. He had to go out with a smug grin as he finally took hold of the reins of his life.

A soft voice came to life, so very close to his side, accompanied by a light touch on his back. “Is something the matter?”

He’d heard that many times before. Always as an aside or a lead-in, and always with an expected answer. The voice that spoke to him now, however, posed that question with honesty and concern. Which left him at a loss for how to answer.

All he could do was let out a short, quiet laugh as she straightened himself up and turned to face her. He smiled bitterly and looked down.

Something slightly coarse yet fluffy brushed against his cheek and brought his eyes back up. The fur on her paw soaked away a solitary tear that’d managed to squeeze itself out. She gave him a small, brave smile.

How the tables had turned.

“Thanks,” he said with a sigh.

Her smile broadened a little. “You’re welcome.”

Eric rubbed a hand on the back of his neck. He still had no idea what he should say or ask. So he had to opt for whatever was at the forefront of his thoughts. “So, why are you here?”

Anxiety seemed to fill her small frame. The tip of her tail twitched and her hips swayed slightly. “I’m… well, I came here because I’m a little sad, I suppose.”

“A little sad?” Eric smiled bitterly. “That makes two of us.”

Some of her anxiety vanished as she regarded him curiously once more. “Is that so?”

“…Yeah.”

The jinko tilted her head and hummed softly to herself. “…Would you like to tell me what’s wrong?”

He let out another short, bark of a laugh. Even the handful of acquaintances that he might have considered friends never bothered to ask that little question. “Sure, why not? I mean, it’s not like I have anything to lose,” he said, shaking his head and sighing. “Kind of sad that I have to rely on the kindness of strangers, though.”

She thrust out a paw in his direction. “Name’s Vona.”

Eric looked down at the dainty paw for a moment before he collected it in his hand. “Eric.”

Vona smirked. “Good. Now we’re not strangers.”

For someone who was sobbing her eyes out just minutes ago, she’d become awfully friendly. Her sudden congeniality put Eric a bit on guard. Then again, he was distrustful of most people when they were nice to him for no apparent reason. At this point, however, desperation was overriding his cynicism.

She continued to wear a fatigued smile and lean back against the railing. Her eyes searched his face expectantly. There was something very earnest about her; she knew his woes all too well.

Eric opened his mouth to speak several times, but couldn’t quite find the words. It wasn’t for a lack of things to say, no – It was more like he couldn’t articulate the many thoughts and feelings he wished to grant a voice.

“Cat got your tongue?” Vona said, her damp eyes glittering in the moonlight.

He shut his mouth and pursed his lips. She chuckled lightly at his reaction.

A few words suddenly found a voice. “More like a pretty girl, really.”

The jinko froze for a moment. “Y-you mean it?” She replied, bringing her paws together in front of her chest, tapping the ends together.

Vona was used to hearing compliments. It was fairly common in her line of work, after all. Though such words rang utterly hollow when spoken by the men who bought her services. They’d say anything if it made her a little more receptive. Sure, those words made her happy when she began working all those years ago. But now? Now those compliments had the opposite effect. Like they were saying it to convince themselves their money was well-spent.

To hear it from a stranger when he wasn’t trying to get in her panties made her blush and flustered her terribly. She’d hoped the dark of the night would prevent him from seeing the warmth spreading across her cheeks.

Eric was surprised by her sudden bashfulness. He’d thought her sort would be immune to such everyday compliments. So, he decided to press a little further.

“Yeah, you’re pretty cute.”

Her cheeks burned brighter and a small little smile blossomed on her face, accompanied by a few happy chuffs as she fidgeted with the hem of her dress. “Thanks…”

Eric returned her smile. But there the conversation died as they both found themselves at a loss for words. Basking in the glow of the his compliment, Vona turned to face the sea. “…You’re pretty cute yourself,” she said without looking at him.

He let out a chuckle and gave a quiet thanks. The pair both let out little sighs as silence covered them again, save for the familiar serenade of the waves and wind.

It was a strange thing. The two of them could sense the other was something rare – something special. This was definitely an opportunity that would never come again. Yet, they were both absolutely terrified. Rather than attempted to make small talk or walk away from the silent and awkward atmosphere, they instead shared little furtive smiles and glances. In place of words they slowly inched their way closer to one another tiny bits at a time until their shoulders just barely touched.

For a time they remained like that, sharing a sliver of warmth through that tiny point of contact.

Then, Eric cleared his throat. “Well, to answer your question: Yeah, there are a lot of things wrong. Things I can’t fix. So, I came here to find the answer.” He shifted uneasily. He’d never admitted his feelings to anyone before, let alone someone he’d just met.

From her reaction, he figured she was here seeking the same thing – a solution found at the end of a long drop. He wanted to look away as her composure began to break down, but he held his eyes to her face.

“You too, huh?” she said weakly, reaching up to brush away fresh tears. “Yeah, this is a good place for… that. But…”

He shifted closer towards her, applying more weight to her shoulder. “But…?”

“I’m so scared.” Her voice was barely above a strained whisper. More tears dripped off her chin. “So scared,” she repeated, covering her face.

Her mind tracked downwards as she struggled in vain to fight back her bitter tears. It was such silly thing that’d driven her to this point. Who would believe that a prostitute could be so lonely? So lonely as to cry her eyes out every night and morning after the last of her clients had left. Whenever she’d try to hold someone close they’d just push her off – even when she said it was free. If it wasn’t one of her orifices, they simply weren’t interested.

Vona was so very tired of her life. Hope had been abandoned long ago, much as she had been. She yearned for an end to her torment more than anything. The specter of death, however, triggered a primal fear that she could never find the strength or courage to overcome.

As she shivered and shook, Vona just about found the will to vault the railing then and there. But something held her back. It wasn’t to hold in her place so she could be fucked like a beast. Nor around her neck to choke her in a display of dominance and superiority. They held her gently in a way she’d long forgotten – warm hands and arms embraced and held her close.

She opened her eyes and stared forward into a chest. Her own arms trembled and hesitated, hanging awkwardly at her side. Gingerly, as if the warmth, safety, and comfort would vanish if she moved too quickly or squeezed too tightly, she wrapped her paws around Eric’s waist and nuzzled her face into his body.

Truthfully, Eric had been scared shitless and had to force himself to hug her. His heart told him it was the right thing to do, no matter how much his mind protested. In her he could see himself. In her he could see the salve for his wounds. Despite those images in his mind, it took all he could muster to force his arms around her.

Vona breathed out heavily and then drew in a slow breath to take in his scent. Then the tears came in a torrent.

Her wailing sobs chipped the final defenses from his heart. He could no longer find the means to hold his emotions back; not even the self-inflicted shame of someone seeing him cry was a match for the onrush. And so they stood there, clinging to each one another as if their very lives depended on it, all their anguish pouring out in streams.

The deep of the sea and the craggy outcroppings sang their siren song, inviting the two towards their final destination. Neither, however, could stand to separate from the other’s arms. For the moment, they’d both found purpose.

To the occasional car that passed by, the pair appeared to be lovers on a clandestine meeting. Lovers embracing with the blessing of the moon and the seas. Should they have heard as well as seen the two, however, that illusion would’ve been quickly dispelled.

In time, when neither side had any tears left to shed, they broke apart in a smile and wiped away the salty trails that wet their cheeks.

“Heh, I haven’t had a cry like that in ages,” said Vona, letting out a deep sigh interrupted by a few sniffles. “A little different than when I’m by myself.”

Eric made to half-hide his face, giving the jinko in front of him an embarrassed smile. “Sorry you had to see me cry like that. Normally I’m a little stronger…”

At his words, Vona gave a very soft expression. “What are you talking about? There’s nothing wrong with… Here, come here again,” she said, pulling him into another hug. This time she turned her head, resting an ear over his chest.

She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. When she was done, she looked up at Eric and flashed a quirky smile. “Sounds like you have a heart to me. Why not let it show every now and then?”

He looked down at the small jinko and returned her hug tightly, letting a few more tears drip into her hair. “…Thanks.”

Letting out a happy little chuff, she broke free of his grasp after a long moment and took a few short steps backwards. “You’re one of those macho types that thinks you’re supposed to be all strong and silent, huh?”

Eric’s shoulder slumped in resigned defeat as he wiped away the last of his tears. “Yeah. Just the way I was brought up I suppose. Job probably doesn’t help much with that.”

“Mmmm, I see… The good women tend to like the sensitive type, you know.” Vona’s tail was flicking back and forth as she stared at him. And stared.

He rolled his eyes and suppressed a laugh. She wasn’t very good at hiding her curiosity. Ordinarily he wouldn’t breathe a word of himself to someone. But tonight had been far from ordinary, and he’d already shown a deeply emotional side to Vona that no one else had ever seen. And she didn’t reject him or think of him less for it. So, why not.

“Want to know more, do you?”

“Oh! Well, if you want to tell me I’ll listen,” she said as her eyes sparkled.

He let a little grin play out on his face for a moment.

“Fine, fine. So, let’s see. About how I was raised… Well, I was the second oldest in a fairly large family. All human. Had a big sister, four younger brothers, and a younger sister. Mom and dad were always busy with work. So my sister and I were often responsible for taking care of the younger ones.”

Eric began to pace slightly as he spoke, probably without realizing. He also started staring at his feet and his voice grew distant. Vona was beginning to regret showing her curiosity, if only because he’d already bared so much of himself tonight. She considered telling him that it was fine if he didn’t wish to speak, but it was too late. Saying anything now would simply make her appear disinterested or uncaring – so she simply readied herself for the inevitable.

“It was hard to balance taking care of five younger siblings with school and everything else. Especially with my parents so distant. Things were okay for a while, but when I was just entering high school my big sister just up and left one day. She’d always been a bit on edge, and didn’t seem to really care for any of us after a while. Can’t say I blame her. It was hell on her, more than it was on me.”

He looked upwards towards the sky, taking a small break from his monologue. After a time of silence, he looked back down at Vona. “Ah, sorry, am I boring you? I can stop.”

The jinko shook her head. “No, please continue. I would… I would like to hear more about you,” she said, smiling earnestly.

“Alright, if you insist.” One deep sigh later, he continued. “So then it was just me. I couldn’t handle it all, and I think that’s when my brothers and sister began to… dislike me. Especially when mom couldn’t work as much anymore, and we slipped further into poverty. They blamed me, for some reason.”

Vona noticed the edge of his lip was beginning to twinge and curl as if he was suppressing a snarl.

“Dad took to gambling, thinking it’d help make ends meet. Didn’t work. Quite the opposite, in fact. So, in order to clear his debts with some unsavory folks, he pulled me out of my final year of school and set me to work. Sold me, really. To a place in this city where women can purchase my services for the night. Sure, I was free to do as I wished during the day. I’d talk with my friends when they got out of school.”

She began to scoot closer towards him, despite his angry tone. This was a story she’d heard before. Many times, in fact. One she knew the ending to. She swore to herself she wouldn’t let this one end the same way.

“So yeah, my family sold me off. Figured my friends would have my back, right? Haha, how stupid of me. I made the mistake of telling them how much I hated ‘working’ there. How much I hated how the women that purchased me would lure me in with false words of comfort, only to touch me. I fell for it every time, you know. For a long while. So anyways, you know what my friends said? They said they were jealous, and that I must not actually be a man for not wanting all these strange women to fuck me senseless and make me do all sorts of things to them. So I just laughed along with them. Haha, yeah, totally just messing with you, guys! Having beautiful women get you to trust them, then force themselves on you is the greatest thing ever! Then they’d pat me on the back and wish they could be just like me. Just like me…”

Anger bled into despair, then into sorrow and disbelief. Vona could see he was again fighting back tears as he turned around to hide himself.

Coming up from behind, Vona slipped her arms around his waist. Eric began to cry again. Bitter, angry tears. That he could even tolerate her touch, and had even hugged her earlier struck her deeply. For all he’d been betrayed and hurt, there was still a spark of kindness and trust left in him. She simply couldn’t let that spark be extinguished.

When he placed his hands over his paws, she smiled and rested a cheek against his back. Rocking side to side, she sang a little song until the last of his tears had fallen.

“…Thanks,” Eric said quietly. “You sing well.”

“You’re welcome, and thanks,” Vona replied. Unhooking her paws, she took a step back as he turned around to face her.

He looked terribly pained, but also relieved. By now the cool sea breeze had died down, allowing their warmth to linger on each other’s skin.

“So, what’s your story?” Eric asked as he wiped away a few errant drops.

“I suppose you’ve earned that,” she began, gazing up towards the falling moon before her eyes settled on his. She then stood up straight, and made a show of displaying herself, turning in place and running her paws down her body. “How old do you think I am?”

Eric closed his eyes and took a deep breath to settle the remainder of his emotions before focusing on her. He drank in her lithe body. Her provocative, short-cut dress. Pert, smallish breasts. Short height and slim frame. Her face was young and girlish – very much akin to ‘girl next door,’ rather than a sexy beauty. Almost the exact opposite of his usual clientele. And, she was far more kind and would probably be so very gentle.

“Ah, 16? 17?”

Vona gave a chuckle, followed by a wink. “You flatterer, you. No,” she began to sigh, “I’m a fair bit older than that. Still in my 20s, mind you, but I haven’t been a teenager in a long time.”

At Eric’s somewhat confused face, she continued. “The reason I brought it up is because I am a jinko. So I’m supposed to be big and strong! Grrr!” She emphasized her last bit by clenching her teeth together and pulling her lips back in a mock growl as she swiped at the air with her paws.

He laughed at the display, but knew there was a seriousness underlying her actions.

Laughing along for a moment, she then let her facade drop as she slumped down. “But no, I’m smaller than even the typical were-cat. I… was abandoned. I don’t remember my parents at all. When I was three or four I was left at an orphanage and raised there. Even back then I was a tiny thing, and grew very slowly.”

Vona sighed and again stared up at the moon. Her ears wiggled and her tail curled around her leg. “I can only imagine my parents abandoned me, thinking I’d just be some pathetic runt of a child. Turns out they were right. The orphanage was simply awful. I was smaller than children that were two or three years younger than me. I was picked on relentlessly…”

The life of someone in their profession was never easy, Eric thought to himself. He never really talked to any of his so-called coworkers, but he always had an inkling their lives were not all that different from his. Thing is, none of them wanted to expose themselves at all. Listening to Vona bare herself after he’d talked a little of his past, he wondered if this is what trusting someone meant. Based on his nervous heartbeat, he then wondered if trust was supposed to be a fearful thing.

“People would come by to adopt us kids, but they’d always look at me like I was damaged in some way. ‘Why isn’t she bigger?’ and all that. So I was pretty happy when a husband and wife had specifically requested me after a tour when I was almost a teen. Looking back now, I see their intention. And boy did I fall for it. They took me to their home, showed me a little kindness when I was a kid just hitting puberty, and then they ‘allowed’ me to join in their sex. Being the horny little thing I was, I didn’t think it odd. That’s just how they showed their ‘love’ for me.” Her words dripped with sarcasm and she began to laugh dryly.

“Now I realize I was basically a sex toy to both of them. They had me do all kinds of things to them. Sure, it was fun for a while. But, as with all toys, they got bored of me. So, after a few years, I found myself on my own, again, though too old for any orphanages.”

The wind picked back up, and Vona wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. Eric leaned against the railing beside her, then slid over until they touched. She smiled briefly before grimacing again as her thoughts turned back to the past.

“Wandering the city as a homeless alley cat, I eventually caught the eye of a local… proprietor. He offered me steady work and decent pay. I could choose my clients. Not too bad, so why not. Only, there were fees I had to pay, so I couldn’t be too choosey. And, as it turns out, girls my size from so-called fierce species are sought after by the sort that wish to get revenge. They are not kind. See, look.” Her tone shifted from anger, to disgust, and then a sort of apathy.

Without shame, Vona dropped the straps on her dress and pulled it down. Her bare breasts were marked from teeth that bit too hard. Her back had furrows cut into the flesh from whips and bruises from ropes tied too tight. Looking more closely, Eric could see light bruising around her neck as well.

He looked away from her. “…I’m so sorry.”

After a moment, she began to speak again, though the anger had gone. All that remained was a quiet, forlorn whisper. “Don’t be. It’s not your fault. But you know what? I think I’m almost getting used to pain. The physical pain, anyways. I could deal with getting whipped and having hot wax dripped on me if they’d just… just look at me. Or hold me afterwards. Or not call me a whore and a bitch and say that I deserved to be hurt because of what I am.”

Much as she’d done earlier, Eric wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close. “Held like this, you mean?”

“…Yeah. Like this.” She closed her eyes and relaxed, reciprocating his embrace.

Eric wondered how she could still be so friendly and open after what she’d been through. Nearly all the female prostitutes he’d encountered during his career had been some of the most jaded and cynical people he’d ever met. Just like he found himself becoming. He thought back to earlier, and how he’d made many assumptions about Vona. She’d proven them all wrong.

He thought that the small, fuzzy-limbed woman leaning against him and breathing softly wasn’t afraid of death. She was afraid of losing the last bit of hope. Hope that maybe was now invested in him. Did he now have someone that depended on him?

The pink sky continued to brighten as the sun rose, until a flash of brightness washed over them as dawn finally broke. Traffic began to pick up, and the occupants of the vehicles that went by gave curious glances towards the odd pair. The cool breeze began to warm and stir, whipping up white peaks on the water below.

“Looks-“ “Well-“ They both began, breaking the long silence. Laughing, they both spoke at the time once again that the other should go first. And again when that failed. Placing her paw to his lips to silence him, Vona winked and began.

“I need to get home and get to sleep for work today. I am guessing you need to do the same thing?”

Eric nodded. “Yeah… but I’d love to stay and chat.”

“How about we agree to meet here again tomorrow morning? Though maybe a little earlier?”

Eric yawned and stretched before replying. “Sure. How about three in the morning? That’s a little after I uh, get off my shift.”

“Three? That’s good. I’ll bring my phone so I can get your number,” Vona replied with a bright smile. “I wasn’t expecting… well, you know. I didn’t have it with me tonight because of that.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

With one final tight hug, the two sighed and parted ways. “See you tomorrow,” they both said at the same time.

 

 

‘There is hope. Make the call.’

Eric smirked after reading the sign; he stopped to read it every time he came here. He wondered what would have happened had he not made the decision to investigate the sounds of a sobbing woman that night. Sighing, he was glad his cynicism hadn’t completely taken him over by that point. Not just for his own sake, but for hers as well. Maybe there really was always hope no matter the situation.

That night not too long ago, he’d found a dear friend. On the second night they talked like they’d known each other for years, rather than a single day. They shared secrets and surprises, fears and desires. Cuddles and hugs that could last hours as they let themselves forget who and what they had been, instead thinking of what might be. And what they had in each other.

On occasion they’d meet on the bridge – if only because of what it signified to them. Usually for special occasions, such as tonight. Or, at least, Vona claimed tonight was special. She’d absolutely insisted on meeting here tonight.

Waiting along a familiar strip of railing, he tapped his foot idly against the concrete. Warm breezes stirred, bringing with them the scents of the sea. Though the moon was hidden tonight by clouds, the bridge was still well-lit. Not long ago the city had finally got around to installing lighting on the bridge. The dull, yellow glow sort of ruined the atmosphere the location once held, much to Eric’s disappointment.

“Guess whoooo?!” Came a chipper voice at the same time paws covered his eyes and a body laid against him.

Eric let out a girlish yelp and arched his back, causing Vona to promptly let go and dart backwards.

“W-what’s wrong? Did I claw your eyes?! Are you hurt?!” Her voice rose to a nervous squeak as she held a paw up to her face.

He closed one eye and grit his teeth, then turned around to greet the jinko. “N-no, nothing you did, and hi, Vona,” he said, holding up a hand and hunching over slightly. “Had a client earlier that went a bit wild with her claws on my back. See?” Eric lifted up the back of his shirt, revealing bandages that ran from his shoulders to the bottom of his ribcage.

“Oh dear, I’m sorry…” Vona mewled, then pat him with paw.

Eric shrugged as best as he was able, given the twinges of pain that sparked down his shoulders and back. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll mend. Anyways, why did you want to meet here tonight?”

She gazed out at the sea for a moment, then smirked. “Well, tonight’s the night you said you’d be able to have that debt paid, off, right? That calls for celebration! Er, you did manage to pull it off, right?” Vona blinked several times and held her paws up as she stared intently.

He smirked. “Yeah, thanks to Mrs. Wicked Claws. I’m a free man now, I suppose.”

Beaming brightly, Vona clapped her paws together and sounded off a few giddy chuffs. “That’s great! I’m glad too, ‘cause I made some arraignments for us at The Place.”

“Huh? How’d you… It’s midnight, isn’t it?”

Vona puffed up with pride. “I managed to secure something for tonight, but we need to hurry over there. Let’s take my car. C’mon, I’ll drive.”

“It’s expensive too, isn’t it? Just what did you do?” Eric said, furrowing his brow.

“Mmm, girl’s secret!”

She turned in place and began walking towards where he’d come from. Did she wait for and follow him for the surprise? Eric smiled at the thought of her waiting in ambush for him. But as he fell in behind her, he noticed Vona was walking a little strangely. In place of her usual hip sashay, it was more like she was walking on her toes. Staring at her behind for a few moments, he suddenly realized what had probably happened.

“So, just what’d you take up your butt?”

Vona halted and gave a scowl over her shoulder. “What a thing to ask a lady!”

Then she blushed. “…It was a butch deer with one hell of a strap-on. Something about predator becoming the prey…”

“…Wipe that grin off your face!” she followed up, narrowing her eyes to thin slits.

“Right, sorry,” Eric chortled, biting his lip.

Placing her paws on her hips, Vona sounded off a ‘Hmph’ as her tail went stiff. When Eric successfully kept his amusement hidden, the sore jinko relaxed and opened an eye. “Turns out she’s the manager of The Place, and used to be a chef there. So, in lieu of money, I asked if she’d cook us something tonight.”

“Hm, really? You get some interesting clients. I’m almost…” Eric scrunched up his face as he considered the implications of what he was about to say. “You know what? I’m not jealous at all.”

Rolling her eyes and jingling her keys, Vona unlocked the door to her car. Upon plopping down into the seat, she let out a little gasp and arched her eyes in pain. Dropping into the passenger seat, Eric gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

“There there, it’ll get better. In the end.”

Vona simply stared incredulously at him and his shit-eating grin before giving him a playful swat to the midsection.

~

“This steak is damn good! Thanks again for taking me here,” Eric mumbled out in between bites.

“Glad you like it. Yea, it’s pretty delish, though the chairs could be… comfier.” Vona squirmed about in her seat, alternating which hip supported her weight.

The restaurant was almost completely empty, save for a few people lingering at the bar. If it wasn’t for the deer-woman that’d cut a deal with Vona, there would have been no chance of them being able to order food at the hour they did.

“Dunno how I’ll make this up to you, though.”

Vona shrugged and waved a paw. “Don’t worry about it. What’s a meal between friends?”

Happily chewing away, he paused for a moment when movement in her peripheral caught his attention. Turning to look, he spotted the deer woman was lingering near the bar, staring at Vona and waving.

Following his stare, Vona made an exaggerated frown upon spotting the horned beast. “I wish she’d quit giving me the eye. It’s creeping me out. I feel like I’m going to be seeing more of her,” the diminutive jinko groaned.

As if on cue, the deer licked her lips and strode over to the table. “Well hello you little cutie,” she cooed, leaning in towards the jinko. Vona recoiled like a frightened kitten, tilting to the side so much she nearly fell out of her chair.

“Ha ha, haaa… Hiiii.”

The deer woman then made a V with her fingers and held it against her lips, sticking her tongue through the split and winking. Eric looked pityingly at Vona.

“Mmhmm, you’re cute~ Anyways, I’m done for the night. The kitchen is officially closed. The bartender will boot you two out at bar close. Enjoy your date, you two.” She waved her hand as she began walking off again.

“Date huh?” Eric mused once the deer had left. “Yeah, I guess this is a date, isn’t it?”

Vona was looking down at her plate and her tail twitched idly around a leg on the chair. Her eyes flicked up to him after a pause. “If this is a date, then wouldn’t most stuff we do be ‘going on a date’?”

“Heh, yeah, now that I think about it. We’ve been on a lot of dates, haven’t we?”

Eric wore a curious smile that Vona found difficult to read. She couldn’t tell if the thought of dating her amused him, or made him happy. There had been times she thought about attempting to elevate their friendship to a romance, but other than sex and kissing they were as close as two people in a relationship would be. Besides, she’d seen what happens when a prostitute attempts to love someone.

“Ha ha, yeah. I guess we have,” she said, sporting a forced, crooked smile.

The man across the table from arched an eyebrow before his smile faded into concern. “Is there something wrong with that?”

“Well…” she began quietly and nervously, toying with the strap on her dress. “Does it matter? I enjoy spending time with you, whatever it’s called.” Her tail continued to twitch and she folded her paws into her lap. Vona seemed to have suddenly become quite shy.

 

He smiled gently. “Nah, it doesn’t matter. Date or whatever. Wouldn’t trade our time together for anything.”

Vona returned his warm expression. They both resumed eating their dinner, albeit more quietly.

She wanted to say more, but held her tongue. They had a deep friendship that would make most couples envious. Not to say that thoughts of being a couple, having sex, and holding each other naked hadn’t crossed her mind. In fact they had – quite often. As much as she wanted a romance, she was thrilled to have someone like Eric as a friend.

He was kind, if a bit of a teasing asshole at times. He was someone that would listen as she spilled all her dreams, secrets, and desires – save for one desire, that is. Someone that gave the best cuddles she’d ever had.

A happy smile spread on her face and she inadvertently chuffed as the strong memories of warmth, along with dreamy – and steamy – notions of loved washed over her. Hearing herself, she bit her lip and looked over at Eric sheepishly.

Giving her a sidelong glance, Eric wondered where her sudden good mood had come from.

Though, in his time with her he’d learned that she could be a bit capricious. Not that it troubled him greatly; her joyous moods often proved to be quite infectious. Even when he was in the gloomiest of moods she managed to lift his spirits with seemingly no effort at all. That’d been the case back when they first met, and it’d been the case in the many days and nights since.

Laughing to himself, he wondered when he began to long for her as more than just as a friend. Whenever he held Vona in his arms, he felt like she was supporting him. He could tell her anything that might be on his mind or in his heart, and she’d accept whatever he had to say without judging him. She was a dear woman, and he very much wanted to bond more deeply with her.

Despite his pining, he thought he knew what was best. There was little sense in two prostitutes perusing any romance; it’d only end in heartbreak.

Their eyes wandered for a while as they continued to eat, purposefully avoiding looking at each other. Until they tried to speak.

“Hey-“ “I was-“ they overlapped. Then laughed. It seemed that whenever there was a lull in their conversation, they’d wind up speaking at the same time.

Vona pointed at Eric, signaling he should speak first. It was a little method she’d devised to resolve these conflicts.

“Ah, as I was going to say… I was wondering what else you have planned for tonight?”

The jinko shrugged. “Same as every night – whatever we happen to do.” She closed her eyes in a smile and wiggled her ears. “But,” she began a moment later by opening one eye and fixing him with it, “I was hoping you had something planned.”

“Hrm, well I don’t have any ideas,” he said, letting his silverware clatter onto his plate. “Since it’s a weekday most stuff closes early.”

Tapping a furry digit against her cheek, Vona gave thought to something they could do. A quick glance at the time reminded her that all the bars would be closing in an hour. From then on the city would be asleep. She looked over towards the bar just across the room.

“Want to grab a few drinks before we head out? I can probably convince the bartender that the deer said a few rounds were included,” she said with a mischievous smirk.

Eric shared in her grin.

~

“Free drinks for a free man,” Vona giggled as she raised her shot glass.

Eric tinked his against hers, then they both downed the fiery liquid. He did his best to keep his face from contorting as the alcohol burned its way down. Watching the jinko maintain a perfectly neutral expression, he was more than a little envious of how she seemed immune to the drink’s wrath.

“Ugh, how can you drink 190 proof straight like this?” He coughed out, wiping his mouth with a sleeve. “It’s fucking torture.”

Again, she just tittered and chuffed happily as with the previous toasts. “Drank a lot of it in my youth, you know. I think I’ve told you that before…”

“Yeah, you have,” Eric grumbled and hung his head. It’d only been three shots for each of them, but his mind was already getting hazy.

From the blush on Vona’s face, she was likely getting just as drunk as he was. Effective at hiding it, though.

“So whatcha gonna do now that you don’t have to do people for money anymore?” She asked, switching from bemused to very intense almost instantly.

Eric rolled his head to the side on top of the bar and knit his brows together as he looked at her. “Dunno. Probably keep doin’ people? Ain’t much else I can do.”

A big fluffy paw began to pat his head. “You’ve got lots of talents! You just… you just don’t see it…” Vona trailed off quietly, resting her paw atop Eric’s head.

He let out a sigh and covered her paw with a hand, relishing the soft pads and texture of her fur on his face. “Like what?”

“Well… you’re a pretty decent talker, and you can think on your feet. Why not like, ummm …” Vona paused to think, then looked at down at Eric when he began nuzzling his face into her paw.

Giggling again, she left her other paw pads-up on the counter. As if guided, Eric began poking at the squishy pads and grinning. When he pressed hard on certain parts of her paw, claws sprang out as if spring loaded, then retracted as soon as he let go. This proved to be a source of endless amusement for the both of them for far too long.

“Ah! That’s it!” Vona proclaimed as a revelation dawned on her. “Why not like, sales or marketing? They’re good paying, respectable careers.”

Eric looked up at her face and frowned. “You think so? But I can’t really afford college. Not like I could get into a decent school anyways. I never finished high school, remember?” He sighed more deeply as he kept stroking at her paw, occasionally intertwining his fingers into hers.

Vona squeezed his hand. “Money huh? Why don’t you just move in with me then? It’ll save you rent and stuff.”

“Really? That’d be cool. Save a few bucks and room with you. Sounds pretty damn good, actually.” He said, sitting up and working the cricks out of his neck. Though he still poked absent-mindedly at her paw. Some habits die hard.

“Ya! It’ll save me some cash, too. Maybe I could get something goin’ with my life…” The jinko smiled brightly, her fair cheeks accented with a blush from the alcohol.

“You’ve said before you wanna be a tailor or seamstress or somethin’, right?”

“Haha, and I said that was a silly dream… but maybe. Realistically, I guess, maybe something business related…”

Eric took hold of her paw and gave her a hard stare for a moment before he broke into his usual half-grin. “So combine the two! Run your own sewing shop, or whatever the hell they’re called.”

“Ehh, mayyybeee. We’ll see,” Vona replied with a smirk.

She then broke into a giggle and turned to the bartender. “Another round, if you would be so kind!” Vona attempted to puff herself up and strike some sort of odd, daring pose. Instead, her elbow slipped on the counter and she flopped forward.

The bartender rolled his eyes. “No more hard shit for you two, you’ve both been falling over each other and giggling like school girls for the past fifteen minutes.”

“Fiiine. Maybe you’re right… maybe. How about ciders, then?” Vona grumbled out.

“Alright, that I’ll do for you. Oh, and this is your last call. I’ll be closing up in a few minutes.”

Once served, Vona raised her glass up into the air and shot Eric a look suggesting he ought to do the same. “To new beginnings! Or something like that,” she said as their glasses clinked together.

“New beginnings, huh?” Eric mumbled quietly, then smiled.

Perhaps a new leaf was waiting within arm’s reach. He stole a glance up at Vona as she made an attempt to down her glass in a single gulp. Nothing good in life was given easily, was it?

“How much they payin’ ya to babysit that,” Vona said, interrupting his thoughts. She’d slammed her glass down on the table, and was now almost glaring at Eric as he took sips.

Glaring back, he took a deep breath and mimicked her action, downing the entire glass in one go. When he finished and slammed his glass down as well, Vona clapped her paws together let a few chuffs slip out.

Though before either of them could say anything, the bartender interrupted. “Alright you two, it’s closin’ time.”

The pair frowned and looked towards the bartender, then grumbled and stood up. Yona began to stretch, but wound up stumbling backward instead. Eric reached out to her to stop her from falling, grabbing hold of her paw and pulling her back upright. Not on the most steady of feet himself, he wound up falling forward a few steps as she sprung back up towards him. They came together with a thud, practically collapsing against each other.

“Oh, why didn’t you tell me you wanted me close?” Vona giggled out, taking a step back and steadying herself on a stool. Eric rolled his eyes, then instantly regretted it when it made him dizzy. “Look, let’s just… let’s head home, huh?”

Vona nodded, and then the two made their way out on shaky legs. Just outside the door, they wound up leaning up against each other for balance yet again.

“Ya know, I’d tell you to give me your keys, but – but I don’t think I’m much better either,” Eric groaned as he fought to walk in a straight line.

The jinko yawned and pat his head. “Well it ain’t much of a walk to my place from here, you can crash there if you want. Come pick up the car in the morning or something.”

Eric smiled. “Ya, sounds good.”

Then with weary resignation, the two set off towards Vona’s house. Small talk and giggles made up most of their conversation, along with the occasional tale of a particularly memorable client. So, the things they usually talked about.

After a journey that took much longer than it had any right to, thanks to drunken stumbling and slow, careful steps, they turned onto the street that Vona’s house was on.

“Ah! There’s home! Almost there… Er, as I was sayin’ – fucking, just, fuck your apartment. Costs too much and it smells. Come live with me instead!”

“You keep askin’ that, even though I keep agreeing! And like I already said like three times, the landlord’ll be pissed when I just up and vanish. But you know what? He’s a dick anyways and steals shit from my apartment when I’m not around. So fuck him. Ya, I’ll move in with you.”

“Ya! fuck ‘em! You’ll like it at my place better. It’s bigger, bathroom is nicer, and I won’t take your shit when you ain’t around. Though I might be tempted to do some explora-ta-tation~” Vona began to giggle and chuff ceaselessly as perverted thoughts ran through her mind.

“Is that so?” Eric furrowed his eyebrows and shot her a suspicious look. Vona’s face bunched up as she tried to figure out what he was going on about. “I’ll have you know my dear, you’ve already stolen something of mine,” he said, deepening his voice.

Vona became increasingly confused. “Huh? When did I take anything of yours?”

“Why Vona, you mean you don’t know? I’ll have you know, you’ve stolen my he-“ His words caught in this throat just as his alcohol-fogged mind caught up with what he was going on about. Suddenly very skittish, he coughed awkwardly, then looked away as the pair finally made it to the walkway that led up to Vona’s house.

Unhappy with his sudden change of attitude, the jinko scowled at him, letting a little tiger-growl escape her throat. “Stolen your what? Tell me!”

“Ah, just a joke… don’t worry about it.”

“Hey! Don’t be keeping things from me. What did I take? Tell me!” She protested, stomping both her foot-paws down and came to a sudden stop.

Eric was slow to react, and kept walking while still attempting to lean against her. Without her shoulder to lean against, he spilled unceremoniously to the ground, much to the amusement of his companion.

She began laughing heartily for several seconds as Eric glowered up at her. Wiping away a tear from her eye, she then stuck out a paw to help him up. “Sorry, sorry!”

Seeking a bit of revenge, Eric took hold of her paw and then tugged down sharply, using his weight to drag her down. Letting out a yelp of surprise, she lost her balance and tumbled down on top of him. Unfortunately for Eric, Vona had the last laugh anyways as she inadvertently headbutt him in the gut as she fell and knocked him flat on his back.

“Ya jerk! What’d you do that for?!” Vona complained, hauling herself up so that she was sitting on his lap.

“Ooph, my own fault,” Eric gasped and winced as he forced himself upright only to find a jinko sitting squarely on him, her eyes inches from his.

They both fell into silence and stared at each other for a long while, their gaze occasionally flicking to the other’s lips. A deep crimson adorned their cheeks, and not all of it was from the liquor or sudden burst of excitement.

“Hey,” Vona started with a whisper. “What were you going to say?”

Eric laughed nervously, but quieted himself when he saw the yearning on her face. He turned away as he spoke. “I was going to say… to say that that you stole my… heart.”

He then looked at her out of the corner of one eye, still holding his face away. He’d expected her to start laughing or look at him in shock. Instead she was looking down, a silly little smile on her face.

Without a word she slowly shifted off his lap and stood up. Again she extended a paw to him. “Don’t yank me down this time, okay?”

He sighed and took her paw, using her help to stand. “Thanks.”

She smiled in response, then began walking towards her front door. Eric trailed along behind her. After fumbling with her keys and then the lock, Vona threw the front door open and headed in. When she heard the screen door close immediately behind her, she turned around to see Eric was still lingering on the stoop.

“What’re you just standin’ out there for? Come on in!” She said, waving him in.

“If you insist…”

Inside the house, Vona kicked off her paw-heels, then plopped down on the couch. She pat the cushion next to her while looking at Eric. He removed his own shoes and sat down next to her, though he kept a bit of distance.

No sooner did he sit down than she leaned her head on his shoulder. “Hey, tell me again,” she whispered.

“Tell you what again?” Eric looked down at the girl leaning on him. One corner of her lip hooked into a half-frown and her brows were pulled together in annoyance.

“You know damn well what…” she pouted.

He sighed. He’d said far sappier things to clients. Was it so difficult to say now because he actually meant it?

“Fine! Vona, you’ve stolen my heart.” He surprised himself with the force he’d spoken. Instead of the quiet whisper he’d intended, he’d nearly yelled it out.

A slight tremble shook his shoulder. Vona had closed her eyes and wore one of the most content, pleased faces he’d ever seen on her. Then, with a maiden-like, wistful sigh, she opened her eyes. Despite her drunkenness, they still sparkled like jewels.

“…If I’ve taken yours, then you’ve surely taken mine in exchange.”

It was such a saccharine, sappy line. He wanted to laugh at how silly it sounded. That is, until he realized that he was grinning and couldn’t stop.

His arm reached up to take hold of her shoulder and pull her close in a hug. Though it didn’t work out quite as he’d intended, and he instead pulled her down onto his lap. She let out a surprised squeak, but didn’t fight it and let herself tumble down.

Neither of them said anything as she laid with her head in his lap and he stroked her ears until a clock chimed out four times.

Vona stirred, then began to stand. “As much as I’d like to lay like that…”

Nodding, Eric understood what she meant. While they both wanted to, there was too much at risk to gamble with in a drunken stupor.

“I’ll be back in a sec,” she said, ambling towards her room with unsure steps.

After a minute she returned with blankets and a pillow heaped on her arms. Peeking her eyes over the top of the pile, she made her way over to the couch after running into a few walls and corners. Dropping the bundle onto the couch and Eric, Vona smiled and placed her paws on her hips and looked at him. Her tail swished behind in long, slow strokes.

Taking it as a request for a goodnight hug, Eric threw the blankets off himself and stood. Looking down at the short girl, he threw his arms around her and pulled her tight. Her usual happy chuffs sounded, vibrating against his chest as she hugged him back.

But, he felt like he ought to do more. Letting her go slightly, she simply gazed back up at him. He began to dip his head. She rose on her tip-toes. They kissed for only a brief moment, but they both practically melted in each other’s arms. It took all their willpower to break it off when they did, but not because it felt wrong.

“Well… I think that’s a fitting end for a first date. Don’t you?” Eric said, rocking the two of them side to side.

“Mmm. I had a great time.”

Their embrace lasted for a while longer, until Vona slipped from his grasp. “We’ll have to do it again sometime. But for now, I think we have a lot to… think about.”

Eric nodded. “Yeah, we do.”

Darting further away, Vona finally slipped inside her room, flashing him a toothy grin before she shut the door.

Still grinning, Eric turned down to the blankets and couch. “Just us two again, I suppose.”

~

The afternoon saw the two of them wake up at their usual time. Working a night job often meant never seeing the morning. Not that either of them particularly cared.

They’d stayed at each other’s places several times over the course of their friendship, so it was nearly business as usual. Fortunately Eric had left a set of clothes at her house the last time he crashed on her couch, so he wasn’t forced to wear his clothing from yesterday. After their showers, Vona had made breakfast for them – or rather lunch, given the time.

Last night’s events had gone largely unspoken. Until they left the house to retrieve her car.

“So, do you think it can work out between us?” Eric blurted out.

That question had been on his mind ever since he laid down on the couch last night. Ever since he admitted his affections to her, his heart had ached with both longing and pain. He deeply wanted her, but he also knew he couldn’t handle sharing her with anyone else.

She glanced at him and took a deep breath.

All night she tossed and turned, thinking about that question. Her heart pined for him in a way she’d never felt before. But reality had applied conditions to their blooming love, and she would likely not be able to tolerate anyone else being with him. Even if his heart belonged to her.

“I don’t know. I like what we have, but I also want… well, more. But…”

Eric kicked at a pebble on the ground, sending it skittering across the road. “…But if we decide to… allow ourselves to fall for each other,” he paused to look at her and smile weakly. “It’ll have to be an open relationship, huh? If only we could start new jobs today…”

“Well, you’re free now. And I can leave whenever I want. Just that working at a grocery store doesn’t pay quite as well as being a whore.” Vona leaned her head back to look up at the sky as she spoke. “I don’t think two people working retail can make it very far…”

Eric slowed to a stop. This train of thought was one he had so very often. One he was often inclined to agree with. But that way of thinking would allow all that he held dear to slip through his fingers.

Sensing that she was walking alone, Vona paused and turned around to see Eric staring at her.

“What’s up?” she asked.

He balled up his fists and looked down for a moment before meeting her eyes once again.

“Vona. I love you.”

She froze. Thinking she didn’t hear him, Eric repeated the words. Then a third time, and finally a fourth – growing louder with every utterance.

Her face grew a deep crimson, and then her body regained its mobility as she went slack. Her paws shot up to cover her cheeks, and her tail curled itself around her leg.

Vona’s reaction proved amusing to Eric, who began to grin. Apparently those words proved to be her weak point. He closed the gap between them and swept the trembling jinko into his arms. Almost immediately she began to nuzzle her face against his chest and make her usual happy vocalizations.

“I love you too,” she mumbled into his chest. Then ,after a moment she forced her head back and looked into his eyes as her own began to water. “I love you.”

“There, that’s settled then! We love each other, so why should we just… let it slip away from us,” he began, forcing down an emotion he was not used to dealing with. “It’s… right now, after you drop me off, I’ll bring what little shit I have back here and tell my landlord to go fuck himself. Then I’ll start looking for a job or three somewhere. We’ll make it work, damn it!”

Tears began to force their way from her eyes and run down her cheeks. “You, you mean it? T-then, I’ll try too! Because… Because I…” She never finished her words, instead burying herself into his chest. Her body trembled as she cried and sobbed. But, they weren’t the wails of despair Eric was so accustomed to hearing. Rather, it was the cry of someone who’d found hope after searching for so very long.

Eric found himself crying into her hair and ears, smiling all the while.

Stifling a yawn, Eric pinched himself hard in an attempt to stay awake. His laptop screen hid part of his face, but things were getting too obvious. Not that he could help it – anyone would be bored to death sitting in these endless meetings and just being talked to. Plus, Vona had become increasingly… needy at night, keeping him up to all hours.

He suspected training for his new position would be dull, but he couldn’t have fathomed this. A smile crept across his lips as he mouthed the words of his new title to himself. He’d worked hard for the promotion, and for once he was no longer at the bottom of society. Vona was getting there, too – she’d elected to finish her education second in an attempt to keep their debt down. She’d taken this semester off, but she only had a few credits left until she graduated with her teaching degree.

His eyes closed as the old danuki at the head of the table kept going on and on about such remarkably inconsequential things.

Someone’s phone rang, and he smirked with his eyes still closed. Whoever it was, was sure to get yelled at for not silencing their ring tone. Or, now that he thought about it, it sounded like the landline phone that was on the conference table. Someone answered it, and he heard some mumbled words in a quick conversation, but he was already drifting off by that point.

“…ric…”

He began to stir, thinking someone had called his called.

“Eric!” A voice boomed, followed by someone slapping his arm. Eric’s eyes shot open as he looked around. The entire table was looking at him.

“W-what?” he stammered. “I’m awake, really,” he said with a nervous laugh and looked around.

Eric’s new boss looked down for a moment, then back up. He licked his lips and took a breath. “That was MGC United Care. Your wife’s in the hospital.”

~

In his frantic rush to get to the hospital, Eric’d managed to attract the attention of a police officer. He very nearly ran from the cop, but in a moment of clarity forced himself to pull over. After explaining why he was doing 103 in a 55 zone, the officer agreed to take him directly to the hospital, lights and siren blaring the entire way.

He was very nearly going to pieces, but a slap from the Cheshire cop brought him back to his senses. “Get a hold of yourself, man!” she shouted at him, then swerved at the last moment to dodge around a line of cars. “What good is getting all worked up gonna do? Take it from me – ya gotta be strong in these times! For her!”

Eric mumbled something of a response, and limited himself to wringing his hands instead of shaking in his seat like a leaf. Everything had been all fun and happy times until now. He knew better than to assume something like this would never happen. He just had to keep imagining it’ll happen ‘later.’ Now he had to force himself to accept the events and deal with shit as it came.

Fortunately for him, the officer got him to the hospital faster than he could’ve hoped to achieve alone.. Though it had still taken nearly an hour to get there from his office. As a matter of protocol the officer followed him in as he dashed for the desk and asked about his wife. After he dashed away, the Cheshire spoke briefly with the nurse to confirm there was indeed an emergency. She adjusted her wide-brimmed hat and donned her aviators as she watched Eric sprint down the hall.

“Best of luck to ya, kid.”

Running through all the halls and up the stairs – the elevator was far too slow – Eric burst into the room where is wife was. He paled when he saw her; she looked absolutely ghastly.

He took a few short, slow steps into the room. His breath nearly as ragged as hers. A manticore nurse with unusually pale skin and red eyes took notice of him and asked who he was.

“I’m… I’m her husband. Tell me! How is she?!”

“Er, well, she’s stable. But, unfortunately, due to her unusually small size there are a few complications. We… may have to perform surgery.”

“What? Surgery?!” Eric grabbed the manticore by the shoulders.

“P-p-please sir, calm down…” she protested quietly as her tiny body was given a good shake, disorienting the poor girl.

“…Eric, don’t manhandle the poor thing,” came a quiet, strained voice.

He immediately let the nurse go, then nearly spun her around in a circle as he darted past.

“Honey! H-how are you?” Eric said in a loud whisper as she came up to her side, taking hold of a paw.

Her face and arms were slick with sweat, and she grimaced in pain every so often. “Ha ha… I’ve been better… I’m sorry, to have pulled you out of work. Just after you got your promotion, too…”

He gave her a hug as best as he was able with her laid out on the hospital bed. “Don’t worry about that right now. They’ll understand. And if they don’t, fuck them. Right now I’m here for you – you’re all that matters.”

She smiled at him. “I’m the only one? Ha ha, ho-“ She grit her teeth and cut her words short as another wave of pain overtook her.

Eric gave a brave smile and pat her paw as she recovered from her pain. He continued to console her as nurses came and went, performing this inspection and that test. With every minute that passed Vona seemed to get worse and worse.

His heart was racing, except for when her cries of pain made it catch in his throat.

He felt so utterly powerless to do anything. He wanted to jump up and grab a doctor and just make them do something – anything, but every time Vona would command him to sit back down. Eric didn’t know from where she could summon such an authoritative voice in her condition; he simply ascribed it to her determination. They’d gotten through worse in life. They could get through this. He had to keep telling himself that.

Then the grim news came that surgery would be required after all. She might be able to make it without, but the risk was too great.

Vona was then whisked away to the operating room, and Eric lead to a waiting room by the same manticore he’d roughed up several times already.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I’ve been kinda mean to you.”

The manticore gave him a gentle smile. “It’s okay, I know this is a stressful time for the both of you. But it’ll be okay! She’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

He thanked her for the kind words, then fell into silence when she stepped out.

Alone in the waiting room, every second seemed to stretch for an eternity. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t watch TV or read one of the many magazines strewn about in the small, warm room. Or maybe it was just that he was warm. Either way it was still very small and stifling.

Unable to sit still, he began pacing back and forth. His eyes never left the clock as it ticked and ticked. No matter how much it ticked no one came. Why wasn’t anyone coming? Why was the room so damn small and hot?

Just as he felt himself descending into the depths of madness, the manticore nurse made her appearance. She seemed to be quite happy. Her tail practically danced behind her and her ears wiggling atop her head.

“Everything went well! Very well. Vona is awake and alert, so if you-“

“Yes!” Eric shouted, again grabbing hold of the manticore. He shook her so hard her little nurse hat fell off.

“S-sir, P-p-please no sh-shaking…” She mewled, her ears and tail whipping around as she turned to putty in his hands.

Catching himself, he again apologized and let her go. Though an odd thought stuck in his head that her demeanor seemed to change radically whenever she was rough-handled.

She sighed and reaffixed her hat, then lead the way out of the waiting room and into the one where Vona was recovering from her ordeal. She looked even worse than when he saw her last, but to him she was still the most beautiful woman in the room – no, the hospital. No, the world.

Except maybe she had some competition now.

Eric made his way over to Vona’s side wordlessly and knelt down beside the bed. On his face was the broadest smile a man could have.

The jinko blinked a few times and returned his smile.

“Hi,” he said quietly, and stuck his hand out towards her.

She giggled and grabbed his finger with her tiny paw.

“Haha, she likes you,” Vona whispered, cradling their daughter in her arms.

 

LackingFairGoodExcellentPerfect (9 votes, average: 4.89 out of 5)
Loading...

4 thoughts on “Changing Stripes”

  1. It’s a very sad story that ends like a typical fairy tail. Makes you feel the emotion the author is portraying. Very nice work. Look forward to reading your other work.

Leave a Reply