Laska and Me – Part 5

August 19th, 2005

“Laska! Hurry it up!” I yelled up the stairs. “We’re gonna be late!”

“Coming! Just a minute!”

“You said just a minute five minutes ago. C’mon, I thought you wanted to go?”

“I do!”

Laska was a lot of things, but punctual wasn’t one of them.  She was always pushing things to the very last moment possible, and then some. Five minutes late sort of became the norm at some point, so I had to plan around that. Make sure we left a little earlier than usual, that sort of thing. Though I was expecting that at some point Laska would find a way to start running ten minutes behind or some such. That aside, it wasn’t as if we were actually going to be late in getting over to Lydia and Steve’s. It was more like I just didn’t want the evening to waste away.

Still, waiting here and tapping my fingers was getting old in a hurry. Just as I was about to yell again, I heard the patter of little footsteps, followed shortly by Laska’s appearance at the top of the stairs. I sighed. No wonder she took so long – girl had a duffel bag nearly as big as she was slung over her shoulder.

“You know you’re only going for one night, right?”

“I know, but I just wanted to bring lots of stuff just in case,” she said as she began taking ginger steps down the stairs.

One paw on a step, then both. A careful appraisal and then another step. I suppose I should be thankful she didn’t plead for me to carry her bag, even if it meant taking another short eternity for her to descend the staircase. Something to be said about her sense of responsibility, twisted as it may be.

“They have plenty to do there, sweetie. You don’t need to bring everything you own.”

“But who knows what we’ll want to do?” said Laska, still very focused on her descent down the stairs.

I could only roll my eyes and sigh. It was all but guaranteed that the only thing in that bag Laska would touch would be her clothes, and only because Lydia would make sure she bathed and changed.

Though I guess I understood her reasoning a little bit. Okay, a lot. I vaguely remembered bringing loads of junk with me whenever I had a sleepover as a kid. Most likely for the same reasoning as Laska’s; an entire night with a friend did seem like the perfect time to do… everything.

With a thump she landed on the floor, having leapt from the last step. She held her arms in the air in a sort of flourish, mighty pleased with herself. “Kay dad, let’s go!” She said, tail swishing about happily.

“About time,” I said , ruffling her ears. “Though I think you forgot the kitchen sink.”

“Why would I need our sink?” Laska remarked curiously, cocking her head to a side.

I raised an eyebrow as I opened the front door. “What? You mean you’ve never heard that before?”

“I have, but… I don’t get it,” she said, now more confused than curious.

“What?” I said, confused about her confusion. “It’s just a… joke or saying.”

She took a few steps towards the door and glanced up at me with furrowed brows. “It’s a dumb saying, it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I didn’t come up with it,” I groaned. “Ah just forget it. Come on, let’s get going,” I said, ushering Laska out the door.

“But what does it meeeean,” Laska protested.

“It means get in the car or a certain little girl is going to have to walk.”

She gave me one of those looks. That hint of devilishness that played over her face. “That’s not what it means! Come on, tell me!”

With hands on my hips I shot her my best ‘dad face.’ By now I’d had over two years to work on it, so I think I was getting better at it. Laska had some sort of realization that she was pushing her luck, but she wasn’t quite cowed. Practically biting her tongue, Laska turned on her heel and scampered out the door as quick as she could manage given her luggage.

Then, once we were in the car she stared hard at me. I knew it was coming. I braced myself for it. Then, she spoke in a whisper. “Whaaat does it meeean?”

A double dose of ‘dad face’ got her to drop it, though not without a round of giggles.

“Thanks again for watching her tonight,” I said from just inside the entrance to their apartment.

“My pleasure. Laska’s such a dear,” Lydia said with her usual wolfish grin, then turned to her husband. “And try not to have too much fun tonight.”

Steve jingled his keys and smirked. “Don’t worry dear, we’ll only let a few girls have their way with us.”

Lydia was still smiling, but something was decidedly off about it now.  That she’d transformed one of her arms into a large wolf paw and clenched it into a menacing fist may have been one of those factors.

“Is that so?” she said through the best plastered-on smile I’ve ever seen.

Steve grimaced and raised both his hands up in defeat. “Er, calm down now. You know I’m just joking. Right, my love? Ha ha ha…?”

“Ha ha ha,” Lydia repeated dryly, morphing her paw back into a human-looking limb hand and placing it securely on her hip.

Meanwhile Laska and Zoe were staring on, aware something exciting was happening but not really sure what it was all about. Mostly ignoring the couple, I motioned Laska over to me and kneeled down. She smiled and darted over into my arms, hugging me back as tightly as I hugged her.

“Okay Laska, behave yourself and listen to Lydia, okay?” I said after one extra dad-strength squeeze.

“I will, dad!”

“Alright, love you Laska,” I said, letting her go but only after giving her a kiss on the cheek.

“Love you too,” she chirped in response, planting her own little peck on my cheek.

Full of smiles she ran back behind Zoe, who was ever looking the part of the jealous puppy. Laska peeked at me from over Zoe’s shoulder, the tip of her tail darting to and fro. Could never figure out why she got all giggly and embarrassed whenever I gave her a kiss these days. Just one of her quirks, I suppose.

“Well then,” Steve said just after clearing his throat. At some point he’d managed to put me between himself and Lydia. I’d have to collect on all the back-pay for all the bodyguard work he’d been enlisting me in one of these days. “Love you honey. We probably won’t be too late.”

Lydia just sighed. “See you tonight.” Then, to make her point she narrowed an eye to a thin razor and tapped her nose. “I’ll know.” If it wasn’t for the quirky little smile that crinkled the corner of her other eye I’d have thought it was an actual threat.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Steve said, attempting to slip out the door as inconspicuously as possible.

Sometimes I wondered how they got married and had a kid. Then I’d realize that despite seeming like they always accused the other of cheating, there was a certain way they acted that made it more like a play or comedy act than anything else – it’s just how they got along. Sort of like it was all an inside joke between them; that’s how I interpreted it, anyways.

Out in the hall, Steve gave me a hearty slap on the back. “So, any place you want to hit up?”

“Hmm, not sure,” I said. “Wait, how about that one place we went to last time? The something-tail lounge? It was pretty nice there.”

“What? The Blooming Tail?” He said, then flashed a sly grin. “Sure, why not. Maybe that cute little manticore will be there tonight.”

“Oh, her? Yeah, she was a little spitfire,” I said as the image of the perky little red-haired girl came into my mind’s eye.

“And she was pretty into you,” Steve said as he led the way down the stairs.

“You keep saying that, but I still say it was just service with a smile.”

“Service with a smile doesn’t include prodding your junk with her tail and winking, you know.”

“Who said she had to be the only one smiling?”

“Got me there,” Steve said with a grin. “But if she’s there again you better make a move. Kills me to see you let ‘em get away like that.”

“We’ll just have to see,” I said, searching my memory for more of the little details. “She did have a thick tail for such a little girl…”

It was a sort of plain building just off by its lonesome. At first glance one wouldn’t think it was anything special, until they noticed the tacky neon sign situated just above the entrance. Written with a garish bright pink were the words ‘Blooming Tail,’ done in some sort of cursive font. Next to the written bit was the end-bulb of a manticore tail that was animated to show itself open and closed – hence the name of the place. When closed the tail would look like a flower bud, and when open it looked, well, like a flower that’d just bloomed.

One would think it’d be some sort of den of wicked depravity. In reality, and much to my initial surprise, it was only a little depraved. It was more or less a lounge; quiet music, modern decor, comfy furniture, and a well-stocked bar. Compared to the noisy, crowded college-age bars that were rampant in the city, it was a welcome retreat. How fortuitous that Steve and I discovered it by pure chance a while ago.

Inside we took up at one end of the bar, sort of to ourselves. The night being as young as it was, there weren’t many folks in yet. Not that it was a bad thing. Having a bit of peace and quiet to chat over a drink or two was always a plus.

Sadly the cute little manticore from last time wasn’t working the bar tonight, or maybe she’d just be coming in later. Behind the bar were two older, though still very attractive, manticores. Made me wonder if they were all related or something, or maybe only that race was hired.

“What can I get for you?” said the taller of the bartenders luridly, leaning over onto the bar to make her rather ample cleavage obvious and smiling almost a little too predatorily. Though soon as she saw the band on Steve’s finger her interest in him waned more or less immediately, which left me solely in her sights.

“Whiskey and ginger,” I said, making it a point to avoid staring down her shirt.

Steve hummed, studying their beer menu. “I’ll have a Wyvern’s Milk, thanks.”

A little less enthusiastic now, the manticore picked herself off the bar. “Alright, comin’ right up.”

Once she was out of earshot, Steve dropped down into a whisper. “She sure came on heavy, even for a manticore. Good thing I have my shield,” he said with a light chuckle, twisting the ring on his finger.

“Probably because it’s so dead in here right now,” I replied, glancing around again. “She must be a little bored.”

“More like very bored,” the bartender said, setting our drinks down with a clink.

“Er, you heard that?” Steve said, rubbing at the back of his neck and wincing.

The manticore smiled and wiggled the fluffy ears atop her head. “No harm done. Since you two aren’t lookin’, I’ll leave you be.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking my drink just a smidge of embarrassment. She gave a nod and walked back towards a few of the other patrons, leaving Steve and I to ourselves once again.

For the next two hours or so we just chatted away the night over drinks, talking about this and that. Eventually the place got a little more lively, a little more noisy, but for the most part we were left to ourselves. Of course, being that we were both fathers, our conversations often wound up on the topic of our daughters.

“Really? She’s going to get to be that big? I thought she just hit puberty early or something,” I said, rocking my glass back and forth. After my third tall I was starting to feel pretty good, but at the same time I knew not to get too drunk lest I become an easy target. I was on maintenance, so to speak.

“Nawww… Or maybe yeah. I can’t tell, but Lydia’s said she’s just about there. I sure ain’t lookin’ forward to dealin’ with that,” Steve said as he hung his head for a moment. “But yeah, she’s a Dire Werewolf. Somewhere in either my or Lydia’s family tree there’s Direwolf and it came out in Zoe.”

“Huh. Seven feet tall…” I said, trailing off in thought. “Well for a few years you’ll still be bigger than her, I guess.”

Steve let out a sort of cross between a snort and a laugh. “Hah, I’ll always be bigger than her ‘cause she’ll always be my little girl.”

I suspected he’d tried to play it off like a joke, but he couldn’t quite cover the pride in his voice. Figured I’d let him slide on that one, considering I felt the same way about Laska.

“How come Zoe doesn’t have any brothers or sisters?” I asked, thinking about how I’d never bothered to ask before.

He studied me for a moment, then took a swig and sighed. “We’ve talked about it, but after Zoe was born the doctors said any other kids would be really high-risk. Especially if it was another direwolf pup.”

I hummed out a little affirmation, kind of regretting my question. A little bit of a mood killer, but Steve seemed to rebound quick.

“What about you?” Steve asked, pointing his mostly empty bottle at me.

“What about me?”

“I mean, are you thinking of adopting another kid or makin’ one with some lucky cutie?”

“One kid is enough for me to take care of alone,” I said, leaning back in the chair. “And as for getting a girlfriend or something? Well, I’ve thought about it, but Laska’s still not really comfortable yet.”

Steve nodded, then took another sip from his beer. “Maybe she ain’t comfortable because you’ve never had any women around.”

That was certainly something that’d crossed my mind before on more than one occasion. Hearing it from Steve sort of gave it a different edge for some reason, lent it more weight in my mind. Laska may still have been skittish around women, but it was a little more like a specific kind of social anxiety at this point. Besides, she got along well with Lydia, so there had to be some kind potential there.

“Maybe you’re right. But still, just kind of showing up with a strange woman in the house probably wouldn’t go very well,” I said, downing the last of my drink.

“Not with that attitude,” Steve said, pausing to look around the bar before he returned his attention to me. “Have you ever, you know, been up front with Laska about wanting to date?”

“Well…”

Steve smirked and let out another snort. “That sounds like you. Well, why not try to find someone you can introduce to her?”

I leaned forward onto my arms and regarded him with more than a little incredulousness. “Are you seriously implying that anyone here is looking for something beyond a one-night stand?”

“How do you no one is?”

“Because we’re at a bar,” I remarked with no small measure of sarcasm. “No one goes to a bar looking for the love of their life.”

“Curtis, Curtis, Curtis,” Steve said as he shook his head. He then pat my shoulder pityingly, though he still had that little grin of his. “You’ll never know if you don’t try. You remember how I met Lydia, right?”

“Uh,  yeah? Something about how you met while you were walking home from work, right?”

“Right. I was walking home from work on a full moon and ran into her quite by chance. We were both heading the same way so we struck up a conversation. I accidentally flipped her switch, she carried me to the top of a roof or three,” he said, looking rather wistful as the memories crossed his mind. “Then some excitement happened, and we wound up getting along well. So we stuck together, and now here we are.”

I shifted back in my chair and crossed my arms across my chest. “And what’s the point of that? Yeah you got lucky and Lydia’s a great gal, but how often does that happen?”

“The point is that who would have thought being proactively dated by a little firecracker of a werewolf would’ve lasted beyond the night? Nothing will happen if you don’t give it a chance,” Steve said, finishing off the last of his beer in the process.

“It’s not like I haven’t tried, you know. Just that no one has stuck around past morning.”

“So keep trying. You’ll find someone eventually.”

I gave something of a grumbling affirmation and sighed.

“That aside, why are you so worried about how Laska will react?” Steve asked, sounding more than a little concerned. “Not like it’s unusual for a single parent to have someone over for the night on occasion. She’ll get used to it.”

He had a point, but that didn’t make it any easier to answer. “I guess I’m just trying to keep her happy, that’s all. She still gets rather uncomfortable…”

“Is that so? That’s all well and good, but you need to think about your own happiness sometime.”

“My own happiness, huh?” I mumbled.

He didn’t say anything immediately, which left me to consider what he’d said for a few extra seconds. The more I thought, the more right he was.

“Speaking of,” Steve said, breaking the silence when something at the far end of the bar caught his interest. “Check it out – it’s that little cutie from last time.”

“Last time? You mean the manticore?” I said, perking up and then following his gaze until I found the red-haired woman.

She must come in at some point after us, but it didn’t look like she was working the bar tonight. She was chatting with one of the girls behind the bar, but otherwise appeared to be by her lonesome. While I was considering my available options, I must’ve let my gaze linger just a little too long. Her eyes swept across the bar and found mine. Almost immediately her conversation with the bartender died and a warm smile lit up her face.

As sort of a reflex I wound up smiling back at her – one of those automated responses where you smile because someone smiled at you. At first I regretted it since it gave her a signal, but then I thought about my happiness.

“Seems she remembers you,” Steve said, appearing rather smug as the manticore scooped up her drink and began walking towards us – or rather me.

“Lucky me,” I said, half-genuine and half-sarcastic. I was still feeling rather ambivalent about what was unfolding.

Steve rolled his eyes. “Ya know, with that attitude it’s no wonder you’ve never had anyone stick around. Give her a chance,” he said, pausing as an odd twinkle took to his eye. “Either way you’ll get some tail tonight, right?”

I could only stare incredulously at his stupid, toothy smile and horrible pun. But, before I could fire off something snappy, the predator was upon me.

“Fancy seeing you here again,” the fire-haired manticore said, sliding onto the seat to the other side of me.

“Oh, you remember me?” I asked, knowing full well the answer.

She stirred her drink, though still very much focused on me. “Of course I do, Curtis – I never forget a face and a name, especially one that plays hard to get,” she said with a light giggle. Serving as compliment to her words, her tail snaked around the stool and lightly brushed against my leg.

“I see. Well, I suppose that’s a helpful skill to have when you’re a bartender,” I said, making no effort to pull away from her like the other night. Up close she was more attractive than I remembered, and she was wearing a little black dress that accentuated her figure, skin, and hair all at the same time. I had no idea why I turned her down the first time. I must’ve been insane.

“Oh, it is. People enjoy being recognized. Makes them feel a bit more… comfortable,” she said with a wink and brushed her tail further up my leg.

While thinking of something most clever to say, I had a sudden realization – I’d forgotten her name. A short, natural pause was steadily growing into a long awkward moment as I debated internally on whether or not to ask. Fortunately I had Steve to back up me, though the manticore was so into me I don’t think it would have mattered a whole lot.

“You remember me, right?” Steve said, leaning forward onto the bar so he could see past me .

The manticore tilted her head for a moment. Guess she’d gotten a bit caught up herself, but she did manage to pull through. “Yes, Steve,” she said with none of the congeniality she’d shown me.

“Ah, that makes me feel like a jerk for forgetting yours,” Steve remarked with a toned of feigned apology.

“Amanda,” she said, trying her damndest to avoid rolling her eyes. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a manticore be so cold to someone before, but then again her intentions were obvious – and so was Steve’s ring.

At the mention of her name the gears in my head began to turn. Then I remembered a little nugget of joy, a little something Steve and I cooked up when we were far too drunk. One of those times when everything is funny, especially things that shouldn’t be. One of those things that you’d never say if you wanted to have any hope of keeping a person around.

“Right! Mandy the manticore!” Steve said far, far too enthusiastically.

I pursed my lips and clenched my jaw hard. Meanwhile Amanda stared daggers at Steve, who, due in no small part to not caring whether or not he was liked, simply smiled back. My facade was faltering, earning me her ire. If I wanted to save any attempt with her I was going to have do something drastic. That asshole probably had intended for this to happen. So, in my haste I just touched her tail. A light touch on its leathery surface, but that’s all it took.

Amanda completely forgot about Steve and was once again more friendly with me. I’d just have to pay back Steve for his attempted block later.

We talked about this and that, jobs, interests, even a slightly painful segment about the weather. Steve, to his credit, kept quiet – until he said he was going to the bathroom. I wasn’t sure why he’d told me, at least until I realized he’d been gone for nearly 15 minutes. Must’ve been his way to sneak out and leave me alone with the lovely manticore. Not long after I figured it out, Amanda did too.

Soon she was advancing well beyond small talk and was laying it on thick; both her words and tail. Her tail caressed me all over and would suggestively poke at me every so often. The attention was a bit charming and appealing in its own way, I suppose, but I did prefer slightly less aggressive women.

The night was all but sealed, but there was one thing I wanted to mention. something I figured would be required if there was to be any chance of a relationship building out of this encounter.

“Say, how do you feel about kids?” I asked, more or less out of the blue. Nothing had provided the opportunity to sort of segue into the topic, so I was left with little choice but the awkward route.

“Kids? They’re cute, I guess. Why?” She inquired suspiciously.

“Well, I say that because I have a daughter,” I replied, more or less expecting her to become extremely disinterested in a hurry. Maybe even simply stand up, smile politely, and walk off.

Instead, her suspicion simply fell away. “Really? Which one is it?” She asked, leaning in close and taking a deep breath in through her nose. “The wolf or the cat?”

“The cat,” I said, sort of leaning away from her. “A cheshire, actually – and my daughter. The wolf is a friend of hers.”

“Oh yeah? How old is she going to be?”

First time in a long time a potential hookup didn’t immediately try to escape the conversation. Not that I didn’t understand the compulsion to flee – most women didn’t want to take care of someone else’s kid since it usually meant there was less of a chance to have several of their own. Having her actually express some kind of interest in Laska was a pretty good sign, far as I was concerned.

“She’ll be 9 on Sunday. We always have a small little party for her,” I said with a faint smile.

Amanda’s tailbulb twitched back and forth. “So is she with her mother tonight or…?”

“Her friend’s, actually,” I said, again touching her tail, hoping it’d clarify things.

The bit of stiffness in her body from when I had mentioned my daughter melted away. “Mmm, I see. Well, I do actually like kids; I used to work at a daycare before I started working here.”

“Really? You probably have some interesting stories,” I said with a chuckle.

She leaned forward again, this time with her tail resting between my legs. “Very interesting,” she said with a cock-sure grin. “Why don’t we go back to your place and I’ll tell you a few?”

Honestly, I was surprised it took her that long to ask. Even more so considering I’d just told her about my daughter. Taking a little longer than normal may have been part of her plan, considering I hadn’t really warmed up to her except for in the last while.

In a gulp I finished off the last of my drink. “Sounds good,” I said.

“Alright, let’s get out of here,” Amanda replied, wrapping her tail around my leg as we both stood. “Oh, and don’t worry about your tab. I’ll take it care of it later.”

“You can do that?” I asked, glancing back as she led me towards the exit.

“I can do all sorts of things~” She said, squeezing my fingers between her furry digits.

I’m fairly certain that as we left, I had the dopiest grin on my face in many years.

August 20th, 2005

Amanda was my first experience with a manticore. Now I could certainly understand why they were always bursting with confidence. While fun, I wasn’t sure about her somewhat sadistic tendencies. Could always talk about that later, I suppose.

Yawning and stretching, I glanced at the clock – it was already late morning. Not really surprising considering how late I’d been up. I then rolled out of bed – or attempted to, anyways. Furry paws hooked around me and pulled me against warm fur and skin.

“Just where do you think you’re going?” Amanda asked half-asleep, half-luridly, then planted a kiss on my lips. “You need to stay right here and keep me nice and warm.”

As much as I wanted to fly back into her embrace, there were certain things I had to do. “Gotta get up,” I replied, attempting to peel her paws off me.

“Aw, how come?” She pouted

“Bathroom,” I grumbled. “And I’m a bit hungry. So, I was thinking of cooking something for the both of us, if you’d like.”

At the mention of food her paws went slack and her tail drooped. I wriggled free of her clutches and then set about scrounging up clothing from the floor.

“Mmm, what are you going to make?” Amanda asked, yawning wide enough to reveal feline-like fangs and massaged the sleep from her eyes.

“I dunno, probably French toast or something.”

She then rolled onto her stomach, propping her head up with a paw. “Really? Haven’t had that in ages.”

I shrugged. “Can’t say it’s the best, but I think I do well enough. Anyways, feel free to do whatever. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.”

Her response was to let her face flop down into the pillows and mumble something that sounded like ‘okay.’ Made sense that she wouldn’t be much an early riser considering she worked at a bar. Wouldn’t surprise me if she normally went to bed at four or five in the morning.

Ambling from the room I made my way to the bathroom, then head downstairs. I did want to just go back to bed and curl up in her embrace, but it was already getting kind of late. All it took was a single day of sleeping past noon to throw off my schedule and make the next week hell for getting up early. Just one of the downsides to being a natural night owl.

Clinking and clattering as I pulled out everything I’d need to cook, I was reminded a little of the first time I cooked for Laska. It was kind of nice to make food for other people, to see their faces light up when they enjoyed it. Although it was just as disheartening when they didn’t like it, but I got used to it when dealing with a picky eater like Laska. My thoughts began to wander, and I imagined what it’d be like to cook for a family.

Sometime just before I’d finished cooking, I was startled out of my daydreaming by the sudden appearance and sensation of paws around my waist and someone pressing up against me from behind. “Mmm, smells delicious,” Amanda said, poking her head around the side to gaze hungrily at the sizzling food on the range.

“Er, thanks, hope it’s as good as it smells,” I responded, hoping I didn’t jump too much.

Amanda licked her chops, then turned her focus back to me.  “By the way, I had a great time last night,” she said, giving me one extra squeeze.

“So did I. I can see why manticores have their reputation,” I said with what was probably a lurid little smirk.

She giggled and squeezed me a little more tightly.

“By the way, since you’re down here, could you do me a favor?” I asked, making my tone as suggestive as possible.

Amanda perked up, intrigued at what I was about to ask her. At least until I laid out my question on her.

“Could you grab the plates out of the cabinet there?” I said, pointing with a spatula.

Visibly crestfallen and sporting a little pout, Amanda shot me a mock-glare for a moment. “Don’t get a lady’s hopes up like that. It’s not very gentlemanly, you know.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I responded most innocently.

With a sigh she released me from her grasp and trudged over to collect the plates. She then set out the table and took her seat, gazing at me expectantly while I finished up. Just like Laska, I mused to myself. Except for the part where the only thing she was wearing was one of my t-shirts that didn’t quite cover everything. And except for that part where she was aware of what was revealed and flaunted it. Took a bit of willpower to remain focused.

Amanda seemed disappointed that I hadn’t pounced on her, until I dished out some French toast and sausage to her. She forgot all about being lascivious as she dug into the meal and complimented me on the flavor. I may have puffed a little with pride. Just a little.

We then chatted about this and that while we ate, mostly small-talk topics with a smidge of depth. That is, until we got to ‘us.’

Finished with her meal, she sat with her legs folded up on the chair and looking happy as a clam. “You know,” she began, flashing a sort of appraising glance my way, “this has been pretty good.”

“Oh, thanks. Glad you liked it.”

A devilish glint sparkled in her eyes, putting me ever so slightly on edge. “Not just the meal, or rather this meal, but everything. We should do this again sometime.”

It was everything I could do to keep a stupid grin off my face and push my excitement down. Seems Steve was right after all. Though knowing he was right kind of annoyed me, but this was one case where being wrong was completely fine with me.

“We should,” I said, doing my best to keep my tone even.

She smirked and waved her tail about. “You free sometime later this week?”

“Sure, I think. I’d need to get someone to watch Laska, but that shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Great. I don’t think I work Wednesday, so let’s plan for then?” She said, standing up and stretching, casually lifting the shirt up to reveal everything from her toned belly down.

Once again ignoring her not-so-obvious advance, I simply scooped up the dirty dishes and brought them over to the sink. “It’s a date,” I said jubilantly – seemed I’d lost the battle to keep myself from getting too eager. Whatever, I was happy, and based on Amanda’s reaction she was rather looking forward to it herself. Either that or she was determined to go around round today. Probably both.

Really though, I was kicking myself for not taking her up on her offer the other night. Thankfully I got a second chance to correct that mistake. I had a feeling Laska would take to Amanda, given enough time. Things would likely be rough to start, but I was hopeful that she’d warm up to her after a while. Not that I wanted to introduce them right away; I was planning on another two or three dates to get to know Amanda a little better before I brought them together. Would also give me time to tell Laska I was going to be dating someone. Didn’t really want to drop that bomb on her.

Plus, it’d actually give me some time to think of what exactly to say.

September 2nd, 2005

Today had arrived far too soon, but also felt like it took forever. Certainly an odd feeling, but I guess that’s because I was both excited and anxious at the same time. Amanda would arrive later tonight, about an hour after I picked up Laska from school. It’d give her time to relax a little and settle in before Amanda arrived.

Unfortunately, I’d found the topic of the manticore more than a little difficult to discuss with Laska. I kept trying to bring it up, only to instantly veer off onto a completely unrelated topic. My daughter humored me at first, but even she was getting that concerned expression on her face after the fifth or sixth time and had even asked me if I was feeling well.

Finally I managed to tell her that I had someone special I wanted her to meet and set the day for today. Kind of left out the part about her being more or less my girlfriend at this point, but I think Laska understood a little. She was old enough to figure those kinds of things out, right?

Through the entire time I was all kinds of amped up, unable to focus on anything I did. Be it playing games, trying to watch TV, or even making a futile effort at cleaning the house. I had no idea why I was so anxious over this, I mean, I’d only known Amanda for barely three weeks. We might wind up sticking together for only a few months before we split apart. No need to have all my stupid daydreams and thoughts of something that was significantly more permanent give me false hope. Just had to force myself to stay realistic. Harder said than done.

So I wound up flitting about the house doing one thing for five or ten minutes before moving onto another, eventually making my way back to the first thing I was doing. All the while I kept my eyes on the clock, waiting for the time to pick up Laska from school to come. Finally, after a nerve-wracking morning and afternoon, four o’clock chimed. Took me all of 30 seconds to get from upstairs to my car.

“Hi dad!” Laska said cheerfully as she settled down into her seat and buckled up.

“Hey sweetie, how was your day?”

“It was okay. Some of the other girls were being mean again,” she said sullenly, but quickly bounced back with a smile. “But then Zoe got them to stop!”

Speaking of the devil, or wolf in this case, Zoe had scrambled into the car just in time to catch her name.

“Who did I stop?” She asked, cocking her head to a side.

“Laska was telling me you helped her with some girls that were being mean?”

“Oh yeah!” Zoe beamed, then quickly put on what I assumed was her ‘tough’ face. Though the way she furrowed her eyebrows and scrunched up her face just made her look cute and pouty. “Some stupid birds and a snake were teasing Laska about her scars, so I told them to stop.”

From what I’d learned, ‘telling them to stop’ probably meant that Zoe had transformed her arms into their more feral form and loomed over the bullies. If I remembered right, she was the tallest girl in her class – even more so than a minotaur, not counting her horns. As much as I hated hearing Laska was getting picked on, I was glad Zoe was there for her.

“Ya! Then they all ran off and left me alone for the rest of the day,” Laska added in, all smiles.

“Did you tell your teacher that they were bothering you?”

Laska’s smile vanished. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because they still do it anyways no matter how much he talks to them,” Laska said with the resignation of someone who’d given up.

I’d have to call the school yet again, or better yet, meet with them regarding this. For the time being, I decided it’d be best to just abandon the topic. “Well, good thing you have Zoe there for you, huh?”

“Yeah! I’d do anything for Laska!” Zoe chirped, wrapping her arms around Laska and smooshing her cheek to my daughter’s.

Laska giggled and hugged Zoe back, but as often happened with the two it turned into some kind of contest. In this case it seemed to be who could squeeze the hardest. I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Hey. Not in the car,” I said in a low dad-voice, pointing at each of them in turn. Nearly said I’d stop the car, but we were still parked.

They both immediately stopped, sat up straight with hands and paws folded neatly in their laps, and stared at me like perfect little angels. Their transparency was insulting, really.  Much as I’d expected, soon as I turned to drive off they were back at it, though they tried to be subtle about it. As subtle as a test of strength when buckled into the backseat of a car can be, anyways.

Back at home, I only had Zoe for a short while, much to her disappointment. She, along with Laska, had pleaded for a slumber party until I reminded Laska that I had someone I wanted her to meet. As always, Zoe had pleaded to be able to meet the someone, whereas Laska was a little more apprehensive. Though after saying ‘special friend,’ again, I realized that, to anyone else, it would’ve like I was coming out of the closet and introducing my ‘special’ friend to my daughter.

Thankfully they were young enough to be completely oblivious to those sorts of turns of phrase. Did have a suspicion it’d get back to Lydia and Steve, and I’m sure they’d have a laugh over it. I probably should have told here right then and there what was really about to happen, but I was afraid she’d wind up getting all psyched out and turn into a bundle of nerves.

Sort of like how I was. My anxiety was building in the final stretch, but thankfully Laska had gone off to her room. Let me fuss and pace without worrying about Laska wondering what was going on. I kept my eyes closed to the clock, much as I’d done for the entire day. Made me feel like a nervous teenager waiting for their prom date to arrive. A bit amusing, considering this was more like the first date between my daughter and Amanda. Not that the amusement did anything to alleviate my sweaty palms.

Nearly jumped out of my skin when the doorbell rang. This was the moment, or would be soon.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Amanda said with a bright smile that put me a little bit at ease as I opened the door.

“Hey! Ah, not much,” I replied with more than a bit of awkwardness, then quickly gestured for her to enter. “Come on in.”

She threw her arms around me in a hug and planted a kiss on me in the same motion soon as she took a step inside. “Good to see you, how have you been?”

“Pretty good,” I said, kissing her back. “You?”

“Not bad, not bad… So where’s Laska at?” she inquired, sort of peeking around me. I was surprised that she’d taken a sudden interest. Last time I spoke with her she still seemed on the fence regarding Laska. Maybe she’d finally made up her mind to try and turn this into something long-term.

“Up in her room,” I said, gesturing up the stairs with my eyes. “Tell you what, I’ll go up and get her and meet you in the living room.”

“Sure,” she said, slipping past me.

Took me until then to realize she’d actually wore something a little on the nicer side. Nothing too extravagant; just an elegant dress that hugged her figure without being revealing. Even had a lavender ribbon on her tail.

Upstairs I found Laska’s door closed – rather unusual since she almost always left it happen. Had she closed it when she heard Amanda’s voice, or did she get startled and close it when the doorbell rang?

“Laska, why don’t you come on down?” I asked, knocking on her door at the same time.

There was a bit of shuffling and other noises from inside, then the door creaked partially open. Little orange eyes peeked out at me, hidden underneath a cloak fashioned from a blanket. “Do I have to?”

She certainly had heard something. Hadn’t seen her do the cloak-of-safety thing in ages.  “Well, you don’t have to, but I’d appreciate it if you did.”

Her ears shifted to lay flat underneath the blanket, and something akin to fear and anxiety ringed her eyes. Laska always got skittish and hid whenever someone she didn’t know came into the house – delivery men, a guy who’d fixed some plumbing, that sort of thing. This was a little more extreme, but I assumed it was due to her having to go meet them instead of being able to hide in the safety of her room.

“Don’t worry sweetie, nothing bad will happen, I promise,” I said, kneeling down and patting her head.

“You promise?”

“I promise,” I repeated.

Took her a little bit longer and some silence, but then she retreated into her room and discarded her make-shift cloak. She didn’t exactly skip merrily out of her room, but she was coming out through her own will. I thought that was the important thing – that I didn’t have to force or plead with her.

Laska crept down the stairs after me, taking her time. I’d already made my way over to the entrance to the living room and motioned for Amanda to come over. She stood from the coach and gave me a silent nod, smoothed out her dress, and began walking over.

As Laska came around the corner, her tail was twitching back and forth and she didn’t look quite so afraid as just a minute or two ago. More curious than anxious. Until she saw Amanda.

Every single muscle in her body froze. If she’d been mid-stride when she saw the manticore, I had no doubt she would have fallen over like a statue. Her eyes went wider than I’ve ever seen before, her skin blanched, and all her fur stood on end.

The smile I’d had on my face up until that point completely vanished. Amanda halted in place behind me, practically radiating tension. After a moment of hesitation, she finally spoke, wearing the friendliest tone should be muster. “Hi. I’m Amanda. You’re Laska, right?”

My daughter flinched as if every word physically impacted her. Amanda took another step forward, holding her paw out. Laska took a matching step back, her eyes darting down to Amanda’s paw before fixing back onto her face. Amanda shot me an uneasy glance. Laska was just having nerves, I thought, so I nodded to Amanda.

She took another small step forward. Again Laska retreated in equal measure, pressing up against the wall behind her. Amanda withdrew her paw and regarded me with a great deal more concern.

“What’s wrong?” She whispered to me.

Laska’s ears swiveled forward to lock onto her. Otherwise, she remained pressed motionless against the wall, nearly white, all her hackles up. Her reaction didn’t make any sense to me. She’d been mostly fine around women, that’s why I decided to go ahead with this. Even Steve had said this would be a good thing to do. He was right – how else would I acclimate Laska?

“I don’t know,” I whispered back. One of Laska’s ears pivoted to me.

“Maybe I should just leave?”

I shook my head. “No, stay – please. We’ll get this sorted out,” I said, feeling a flush of embarrassment. I could feel everything unwinding, unraveling.

Amanda opened her mouth, but didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “If you think so,” she finally said, her tone making it seem like this was going to be a lost cause. “I think she’d rather I leave.”

No, I wasn’t going to let it be. This would work, I’d make it work. “She’s just nervous,” I said with a painfully forced smile and laugh.

Then I turned to my daughter, determined to fix this. “Laska,” I said firmly.

As if spring-loaded, her head snapped to me. For a moment her face softened and her eyes relaxed, visibly watering. Then Amanda moved. Just as quickly Laska returned her attention to the manticore beside me.

“Laska!” I repeated, taking a step forward.

Didn’t even get a response. I knew she was nervous, but that was ridiculous. There was no reason whatsoever for her to behave like that. None.

“Hey! Look at me when I’m talking to you,” I said as firm as possible, my voice elevating slightly. That finally got her attention.

From behind Amanda laid a paw on my shoulder. “Curtis, I don’t think-“

I cut her off. “This is something she needs to get over.”

Again it looked like she wanted to say something, but stayed her tongue. Step by step I approached Laska until I was within arm’s reach. She kept alternating her gaze between me and Amanda, but once I got close enough she relaxed some.

“Dad,” she whispered so quietly as to barely be audible. I should’ve heard everything in her voice. Any decent father would have.

“What are you doing? Why are you doing this to me?” I asked – no, more like demanded.

Laska began to tremble. Amanda cleared her throat. “She won’t hurt or harm you,” I said, my tone shot through with frustration that boiled out of places I wasn’t even aware of. I then knelt down and whispered harshly, “drop the act already.”

Something arced through her eyes. They went wide, then clamped tightly shut, squeezing a few tears out onto her cheeks.

I then grabbed her arm and tried to pull her away from the wall. “No, no, no!” Laska blurted out over and over as she broke completely into tears.

Amanda was watching, holding her paw up to her mouth. All I could think was that things were going so well until now. Laska just had to act up.

“Knock it off!” I hissed out, using more force to pull her away from the wall.

“NOOO!” Laska cried out, thrashing about like a wild animal for a few seconds until she remembered herself. In the blink of an eye she’d teleported herself out of my grasp and close to the foot of the stairs. Panting and huffing and shaking she fled upstairs on all fours.

I could only watch in disbelief as she disappeared out of sight, followed quickly by the sound of her door slamming shut. Anger and extreme embarrassment were the first things I felt. Amanda’s paw on my arm was the second.

“I’m so sorry,” I said in a rush, searching for something to explain what’d just happened. Why Laska had behaved so poorly.

Amanda stared at me hard. “You should be,” she said condescendingly. “Didn’t you see how scared she was?”

“I thought she was over it! She’s fine in public!”

She closed her eyes and exhaled deeply. When they opened they were softer, but no less stern. “How would you feel if someone invaded the one place you could feel safe?”

“What? Invader? I invited you,” I said, much to Amanda’s annoyance. She let out an even bigger sigh and made for the door.

“Wait,” I said, taking a half step after her.

“For? You have far more important things to worry about than me,” she said without turning to face me.

Right then I knew things were over. I was so close, and just like that it had all come crashing down. I had no idea what to feel. Desperation took hold and I feverishly tried to think of something to say to get her to stay. No words would come, however, as I stared at her back. It was only when she opened the door did she turn to face me.

“Dumbass or asshole?” she quipped.

“W-what?” I stammered, blindsided by her seemingly random question.

“You gushed about her constantly, and then you went and treated her like that,” she said with narrowed eyes. “How could you be so cruel?”

Then, before I could say anything, she walked out without another sound. There I stood, defeated and alone, allowing the best chance I’d ever had to slip through my fingers. All was silent, save for one sound coming from above. Anger and frustration still held me, but those emotions were crumbling fast as I stared up the stairs and listened. And thought.

Amanda had just watched me treat Laska like she was having a childish tantrum, like she was an obstacle. She watched me try to admonish a little girl clearly scared to death. But Laska shouldn’t have been so terrified. She was getting better, wasn’t she? My mind raced and raced as it sought to process everything that’d just happened.

The wail of sorrow continued while I just stood there, doing nothing. And then I remembered the last time she cried like this. It was the last time she woke up from a nightmare of being beat, of being abandoned. Of having nowhere she could feel safe.

Pieces began falling into place. Bit by bit everything ordered itself.

What a fucking idiot I was.

If only I had more patience, or more intelligence, or was a better father. Bolting up the stairs, I found myself staring at Laska’s closed door, imaging her curled up in a ball and sobbing her eyes out on the other side. The lament of her broken trust was clear as could be through the door, and I wanted nothing more than to hug and comfort and tell her how stupid and sorry I was.

Summoning courage I ought to have had from the start, I rapped lightly on her door. “Laska? Laska, please open up,” I said, testing the doorknob – she’d locked the door. She’d never locked the door before. There was no response, save for a slight pause in her cries.

“Please, I’m sorry,” I pleaded, leaning my head against the door. Nothing.

The gravity and magnitude of what I’d done pulled me under deeper and deeper with every passing second. All I could hear was her crying, and I was powerless to help her. And I’d been the cause. I had no idea what to do, what to say. I’d just fucked up the one solid thing I had going for me.

More than ever before I second-guessed every thought, every possible thing I could say. For who knows how long I said nothing; just sort of laid against her door with my fist balled up.

Old thoughts began to well up. Thoughts I’d long forgotten, long moved on from – or so I’d hoped. Stupid, incompetent, abrasive, unapproachable, unlovable, useless. Inch by inch I slumped down to the ground until I was sitting with my back against her door.

The phone rang a few times, temporarily drowning out Laska’s sobs. I didn’t bother trying to pick it up. Instead I just sat there, stewing in my guilt. Somewhere along the circuit of self-loathing I remembered that I’d had Laska for over three years now. I remembered that I managed to make her smile and laugh, and then I remembered that this wasn’t the first time I slipped into despair. Nor would it be the last, but so long as I tried, things would probably work out. They had so far. Right?

Something turned over inside my mind, and I thought that if the weight of the world was crushing down on me, I just had to become Atlas. Amanda was right. I got too impatient, lost sight of what I had because I focused on what I might have.

Laska wasn’t ready yet, not for this. She’d simply learned how to put up a wall and guard herself in public. At home she let her guard down. She felt safe. I didn’t see that, and now…

All I could do was sit on the floor. This was the first time Laska had cried for so long and the first time she complete shut me out. It hurt, stung, and ripped at me like a pack of wolves, but it was my fault – no one else’s. So I had to try and set it right. I couldn’t shrink away.

“Sweetie,” I began, loud and clear. “I just want you to know that I’m so very sorry I treated you like that tonight.”

By now her sobbing had calmed down some, and I think she paused for a moment while I spoke. Soon as I was done she went back to it. No words. Not that I could blame her.

“I… guess you’re not ready to talk yet. Please,” I paused as tears welled up in my eyes and my voice choked up. Speaking aloud was more difficult than simply thinking the words, I suppose. “Please just talk to me, whenever you’re ready. I’m so very sorry, and I love you so very much, Laska,” I said, standing up.

I paused to listen. Her tears quieted, but there were no words.

With a long, long sigh I laid a hand on her door. “I’m going to my room. I’ll be there if you need me.” The usual response. Silence.

Swallowing heavily, I began shuffling off towards my room. Every few steps I’d pause, looking back, hoping to hear something. Be it her voice or the sound of her door opening. But it never came. It was still daylight out, but I didn’t care. I collapsed into a heap on my bed, face down. What should I do? What could I do?

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