“Dad, I’m home!”
Stephen looked up from his tablet, the daily news forgotten as the melodious sound of his daughter’s voice filled the household. He stretched, his poor back aching from years of abuse, but it was just a dull little facet of daily life in his late thirties now. Checking his watch, he noticed it was 4:30pm, right when he told her to be home. Good girl his little Bella was growing up to be. Smiling, he walked toward the front of the house, when he heard a wet, squelching sound and froze.
Squish, squelch, squish, squelch.
There came rhythmic pattern of disgusting noises that sent his spine shivering. Oh no, oh no no no, Bella didn’t… she wouldn’t… But of course, she did. He groaned as the sounds grew closer and the small form of his daughter appeared in the carpeted living room, dripping mud where she stood.
“Hi Dad!” She said, her smile a beacon cutting through the mud that caked her face.
Stephen put his hands over this mouth and took in a deep breath as he observed his nine-year old Hellhound daughter. About four feet tall, her naturally dark skin was impossible to see through the brown mud that coated her like a second layer. Her canine paws too were caked, mixing in with her dark black fur and drying it in strange, spiky formations. Her long, beautiful hair was not spared either, and it was almost impossible to make out her eyes with their black sclera, though a section of mud was already dried in the corners of her eyes as small gouts of flame did their best to break through their bonds.
Bella twitched one of her canine ears, digging a mud caked paw into the canal and frowning as all it did was make more of a mess. Stephen had to take a moment and contemplate this situation before he took another calming breath and knelt down to become eye level with his daughter. She smiled as she did so and raised her arms to hug him, but he held up a hand and shook his head, his face quite perturbed. Bella took a step back, confused as he said in a low, fatherly voice, “Bella… what did we tell you about tracking mud into the house?”
The little Hellhound blinked a few times before her expression turned worried. She looked down and grabbed at her arm, her normally imperious demeanor becoming that of a mere sulking child. “Uhm… don’t do it?”
“And what did you do?”
“Uhm. Track mud into the house?”
Stephen sighed and pinched his bridge of his nose. “Your Mother is going to throw a fit when she sees this.”
“I… I’ll clean it up!” Bella said, looking mildly terrified. When roused to anger, Lynn, her adoptive Lizardman mother, could be utterly terrifying. “Just don’t tell Mom!” She hurried over out of the living room, tracking mud on MORE carpet, making a mess as her canine tail flung the sticky earth across the hallway. Stephen hurriedly ran and caught up to the girl, and lifted her up with minimal effort, eliciting a little squeak from the poor girl.
“Oh no you don’t, you’re not doing anything until you get cleaned off little missy.”
“No butts about it, you’re taking a bath.”
Bella’s face grew ashen, although it was kind of hard to tell through the mud. She shook her head back and forth and struggled to get out of his grip, but Stephen held firm, walking her up the stairs, despite her protesting and wailing.
“Noooo! I haaaaate bathhhsss!”
“Well, maybe you should have thought of that before you rolled around in mud!”
“But everyone else was doing it!”
“If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it?”
“I mean, I guess Midge might, she’s a harpy, but I don’t think the other kids would…”
Stephen sighed as he nudged the door to the bathroom open with his foot. “It’s a phrase, now stop struggling, we’re already here.” He set her down and quickly closed and locked the door before she could spring past him, merely managing to collide with the door and make a Bella shaped splatter there. Great, something else he’ll have to clean up later.
He took his daughter’s arm as she shook her head, looking a little dazed, and dragged her over to the bathtub, where he gave her his most fatherly glare. It managed to keep her in place as he turned to start the bath, twisting both nozzles in unison while stopping up the drain. In moments, water began to flow from the faucet, gently growing warmer as it ran, filling the tub. As it got about halfway full, he dipped his finger in, judging it to be a good warmth before nodding his head and saying, without even looking behind him, “Don’t you try it little lady.”
Bella froze behind him, her paw reaching up for the lock. She slowly retracted her arm and sulked, padding back over to Stephen before pouting. He showed her the water and she hesitantly put a finger in, a ripple of brown spreading outward from where the mud melted off. She immediately withdrew her finger and shivered, saying, “Cold!”
Stephen blinked a few timed before smacking his forehead. “Ah, right, sorry, I forgot.” He turned the hot water up higher and shut off the cold water, filling the room with radiating heat as near-scalding hot water poured into the tub. Bella put her paw into this water and make a happy little noise, apparently finding it pleasing. Stephen just shook his head and sighed.
“It really has been awhile since I drew a bath for you, huh?”
“Mom does it now mostly, or shuts me in here until I draw it for myself…” Bella said, still pouting.
“That… sounds like Lynn.” He said, chuckling. “But really, did you think you were going to come home, looking like that, and NOT get to take a bath?”
“I mean, I thought maybe if I looked cute enough you’d let me…” She said, batting those Hellpuppy eyes.
Stephen smirked and shook his head, “The effect is ruined by the mud, sweetie.”
“Drat.” She muttered before looking to the bath and sighing. Stephen turned the faucets off, leaving a steaming pool of hot water, to which he gestured to Bella.
“Alright, let’s get those clothes off. Though honestly, I have no idea where the mud begins and the clothes end.”
She pulled away from him, sniffing indigently. “I can do it! I’m a big girl!”
Stephen smiled broadly and took a step back, shrugging, “Oh, if you say so. You’re a big enough girl to get ready for the bath, yet you won’t take one yourself?”
“That’s not fair!” She said, huffing. Bella stood there a moment before looking up at Stephen and then waving a paw for him to turn around. He raised an eyebrow, but did as she commanded, turning about on the spot. There’s a slight ruffling sound as she removed her clothing, which turned out to be a T-shirt and shorts, and she tossed them into a muddy pile in the corner before crawling over to the tub and frowning at it. Her tail swished back and forth hesitantly and she looked back over her shoulder to Stephen who said, not even looking at her, “Do it now, little lady.” She sighed and slipped into the tub, sending over a small amount of water splashing to the floor, prompting Stephen to turn about and watch to make sure she did as he instructed.
Nearly instantly, the tub began to turn brown as loose mud drifted away from her body, obscuring her form from sight. She looked down at the water and made a disgusted face before sighing and reaching for the bar of soap, getting mud all over it as her paws gripped the slippery object. She began to scrub then, rather half-heartedly, when the bar slipped from her grasp, shooting into the air. She cried out and tried fumbling for it, but managed to send it crashing to the floor, where Stephen sat, doing his best to keep from laughing.
The young Hellhound frowned as she looked at her father before grumbling and sinking down into the murky water. Stephen rolled his eyes and picked up the soap, his non-muddy hands able to grip it better. He handed the bar over to Bella, but she just glared up at him from the murk. He frowned and said, “Bella, don’t look at me like that, take the soap and get yourself clean.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“Well, you’re going to.”
“Why don’t you just do it then!” She said, huffing and sending a spray of water out of the tub onto Stephen. He rolled his eyes and leaned over to the tub, taking the little Hellhound’s arm, making her squeal for a moment as he began scrubbing her arms.
“You know, big girls don’t make their dad’s scrub them.” He said, breaking down the caked on mud stuck to her arm. “Big girls would wash themselves.”
“Dad!” She said, struggling some, yet unable once again to escape his grasp, though she put up one hell of a fight. Stephen knew soon enough she’d be able to overpower him, Hellhounds being much stronger than humans, but for now, he was going to leverage all he can get. She looked at him, distraught, as he scrubbed at her face, and she wailed, “Waaaait!”
Stephen didn’t wait though, continuing to scrub her face until he could see the little girl under the mud. When that much as done at least, he gently put down the soap, crossing his arms and looking at her as she wrapped her arms around herself, looking at him with a wounded expression, ears drooping down. They exchanged looks like this for a few moments before Stephen sighed and rubbed at his forehead.
“Bella… why are you fighting me so hard on this?”
She turned her body away from him, looking at him with an uneasy expression, as if she had something difficult to say. Her father looked at her for a few moments before taking a deep breath and sitting down with his back to the tub. He looked up at the ceiling, feeling the wetness of the murky water press against his shirt, but he was filthy as it was, so it didn’t matter. The only sound for the longest time was the soft sloshing of water in the tub as it swished back and forth around it’s occupant.
Stephen took in a deep breath and said, his voice carrying a sense of reminiscence. “I remember when you were just a little Hellpuppy. You used to love taking baths with me, although I must admit, your heat tolerance is much, much higher than mine.”
Bella was silent, so Stephen continued speaking. “I used to sit there and wash out your fur, then gently rub shampoo into your hair until you looked like you were made of bubbles.” He chuckled softly at that, and Bella grumbled to herself,
“You’re making me sound like a dog, Dad.”
He didn’t make the obvious comment there, instead sighing and saying, “I wonder what happened to those days?”
“I grew up. I’m not a little kid anymore.”
Stephen smiled, though it was anything but happy. He felt those words keenly every day as she seemed to grow right before his eyes. With every inch taller she grew, it seemed like she grew a yard farther away from him. He closed his eyes and hung his head, before saying, his voice almost choked with tears, “Yeah, you’re right… but you’ll always be my little girl.”
He heard the gentle sounds of water swishing behind him, and then suddenly two very warm, very muddy paws wrapped themselves around his chest, and he felt Bella’s tiny form press against his back. She dug her face into his back, and he felt the tiny echoes of embers from her eyes flicker on his neck. It was a sensation he used to find unpleasant, but now he merely accepted it as a matter of course for Bella, his lovely little girl.
Closing his eyes, he placed his hand upon Bella’s paw and she hugged him tighter, whispering “I’m sorry Dad, I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“It’s fine, you’re growing up, you have every right to not want your old man involved with your life.”
“I don’t want you out of my life…” She said, still hugging onto him. “I just… don’t know what I want.”
Stephen smiled and patted her paw, whispering gently, “That’s part of growing up, sweetie. Figuring out what you really want.”
Bella became silent for a few moments before saying, in a confident voice, “Well then… I want you to wash my hair like you used to.”
Stephen blinked in surprise as Bella pulled away from him, turning about to present her mud caked hair to him. She looked over her shoulder and smiled broadly at him, the impetuous glee he was used to seeing present there. “It’s not going to wash itself!”
Her father gave her a long, flat stare, before he broke into an amused grin, reaching for a bottle of shampoo and the shower head, turning on the nigh burning water on through it. His tools in hand, he began to rinse his daughter’s hair, gently washing out the mud and revealing the silky black strands underneath. He then rubbed in the shampoo, eliciting giggles from the girl as the two talked about her day, becoming lost in the simple joy of the bath.
Thud, thud, thud.
Stephen and Bella froze in place, their eyes meeting slowly before they both turned their heads to the door, their faces taking on expressions of panic. Bella spoke, her voice no louder than a whisper, “We didn’t clean the mud.”
“No sweetie, no we didn’t.”
Thud, thud, thud.
“Dad, I’m scared.” Bella said turning around to hug Stephen, her little body trembling.
“I know dear, I know.” Stephen said, setting his jaw in grim determination as the door shuddered once, twice, and then a clicking sound was heard. Slowly, the door opened, revealing the form of a tall Lizardman, her eyes burning with a kind of rage thought only possible of Fire Elementals. Stephen gently licked his lips and said, in his most charming voice, “Hey there honey, back from the grocery store early?”
Lynn closed her eyes before slowly taking a deep breath through her nose. “When both of you are finished, we’re going to have a little chat, understand?”
Both Stephen and Bella nodded their heads sullenly as the angry Lizardman stalked off. They looked at each other before Bella said, in a low voice, “I think my hair needs another shampooing.”
“Yes sweetie,” Stephen said, dreading what was awaiting them when they finished. “Yes, I think that it does.”