July 5th, 2008
Eralia had me right where she wanted me. She eyed me as a wolf would when looking down at its prey. She’d come out on top and there was nothing I could do about it. I knew it. She knew it. All that was left was the finale. But, Eralia was taking her sweet time. Her tongue flicked across her lips and she just smiled at me when I glared at her.
“Please, just get this over with,” I said weakly.
“You can’t even take this little bit of teasing?” She said innocently, giving me a pitying sort of look. “Poor thing. Fine…”
Relief passed through me as her paw moved into position. Almost there – just a little more and I’d be free!
“Connect four,” she said with a sigh as the final piece dropped into place with a satisfying, game-ending clack.
“You could’ve just quit, you know.”
“I never quit,” I said in defiance, crossing my arms in front of my chest.
Eralia just rolled her eyes and shook her head, though her grin never faded. “We’ll see about that,” she said, ending on a throaty little laugh.
“Is this really what you want to do?” I asked, slumping back in my chair.
She’d already begun putting everything away in the box, but paused to look up at me. “What do you mean?”
“That,” I said, indicating towards the pile of boxes with my eyes. “Surely you had something else in mind for tonight?”
“Not really,” she said with a shrug, then slipped the top of the box on and shoved the game to one side of the table.
Her eyes darted towards the large pile of boxes on the other end. Hard to imagine I’d been having a ‘date’ like this. Having invited her over, I expected we’d go out for drinks or something. Maybe go get dinner at a nice place. Typical date stuff. Instead, as I gave her the tour of my place, she got into the pile of games that I forgot to put away after playing with Laska the other night.
When she’d suggested we play some, I thought she was joking. To my surprise it was something she was rather adamant about, so I just gave in thinking she’d get bored after a quick game or two. Now here I was, two hours later, about to start another game with Eralia after suffering so many losses at her paws.
But that wasn’t even the worst part. See, Laska wasn’t bad by any stretch, but sometimes I had to sandbag a little. Going into the first game with Eralia I may have kept that attitude. And it may have handed me a swift defeat. And I may have yet to win a game at that point, much to the detriment of my pride.
Didn’t help Eralia always got this shit-eating grin when she won.
“Ooh, how about this?”
I glanced at the box. “Stratego?” Perhaps my crushed pride would be avenged yet this night. Not that I ever really attended any competitions or anything, but I fancied myself decent at the game. “Sure, why not,” I said, taking renewed interest in what had come to be a little game night date. Possibly due to the prospect of actually winning a game for once, I began to warm up to the whole idea.
“Great! I haven’t played this since I was a girl,” she said, staring at the box cover with an odd sort of affection.
I’ll admit I felt a sort of malevolent, childish joy.
“What’re you smirking about over there?”
“Er, oh nothing,” I said, attempting to wipe away any traces of retribution from my face. “Do you remember how to play?”
“Sort of,” she said, popping off the cover and rifling through for the instruction sheet.
“Not much too it,” I began, explaining the rules as I stole away the box to setup the board and fish out all the pieces. “Alright, which color do you want?”
After pushing the heap of red pieces towards her and the blue towards me, I began to setup my side of the board. As I did, I couldn’t help but notice Eralia’s fondness as her eyes played across the board and pieces. Carefully she picked up one piece between her claws, stared at it hard for a moment, then clicked it down into place on the board while wearing a girlish smile.
She took her took setting up her side of the board. Couldn’t tell if her inspecting the various pieces was a stalling tactic while she thought about where to place it or what. Being the good, courteous player I was I didn’t say anything while I waited for her. It wasn’t as if I was so very eager to hand her a swift defeat. Not at all.
“Seems you’re finally getting into things,” she said, looking up at me for a moment with a smirk.
Shit, she was on to me. Had to play it cool and make it seem like I wasn’t trying to prey on her.
“Well, I do actually kind of like this game,” I replied. “Laska’s not bad, but…” I trailed off, leaving the rest unspoken.
“Oh? How often do you play with this with her?”
“Not that often. We’ll play a few matches a couple times a month, if that. We used to play more, but now she spends most of her free time on her computer. Can’t say I blame her though.”
Eralia didn’t say anything, just sort of hummed a response.
A few pieces later and her side of the board was finally setup. “So, who goes first?” She said with a clap of her paws.
“How gracious of you,” she said, flashing a coy look.
Her eyes searched across her pieces and after a few seconds she decided on her opening move. Happy with her choice, she stared intently at me, waiting for my move. As I thought about what to play, she spoke up.
“Speaking of Laska…”
“How come you haven’t introduced me to her yet?”
There went my concentration. Not only was it something I wasn’t exactly comfortable saying, but I also wondered if this was some kind of ploy. Ultimately, as it was our third time together, or date, or whatever one would call it, I guess it was kind of odd they’d never been introduced yet. Or was it? Eralia and Laska already knew each other, in a manner of speaking, just Laska didn’t know Eralia as my…
That raised another question.
I moved a piece with a tik and took a deep breath. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“It’s a long, messy story.”
“Just the kind I find most interesting,” she said, sporting the sort of disarming smile I’d never figured her capable of.
My train of thought regarding Laska was interrupted as she claimed one of my pieces. That didn’t take long. Sneaky little jackal. Countering her early attack with one of my own, I swept away one of her pieces, much to her dismay.
“Fine. I probably should’ve told you all this from the onset.”
Her ears perked up and she quietly moved one of her pieces. Taking her silence as a cue, I continued.
“The short of it is that Laska is – or was – scared of women. She’s fine in public nowadays, but whenever I’ve brought a date home or something she always freaked out. It’s been a while since the last time, but I’m still worried about her reaction.”
Eralia’s expression clouded over. “What about your friend – what’s her name – Lydia?”
“Hm? They get along great. Well, not at first. Took a few years before Laska realized Lydia wasn’t a threat.”
“That’s…” Whatever she was about to say died along with her slumping shoulders. “It’s been that way since you adopted her, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said with a sharp exhale. “Though the last two times it wasn’t as bad. Less scared and more really anxious, or something. Still wound up scaring my dates off,” I said with a self-deprecating smile.
“Hard to imagine her behaving like that. Poor thing. Still, we’ve already met, at least. She seemed pretty amiable to me.”
I thought for a bit, both of what to say and how to move. “I think she liked you, but I worry about how she’ll act if I try and introduce you.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, is it related to her scars?”
I nodded. Something felt a bit wrong about telling people Laska’s backstory, but it wasn’t as if Eralia was a stranger at this point. It was something she’d need to know anyways if I wanted any meaningful relationship.
So I told her about how Laska got her scars, how she came to me. Even mentioned the first time I discovered Laska’s terror with Amanda. Eralia listened intently, keeping her ears glued to me no matter where she was looking. I may have wandered off course a few times, going on tangents about things Laska did or said. What was supposed to be a straight, to-the-point story of why I didn’t want to introduce her turned into a meandering narrative. By the time I was done we’d both lost over half our pieces.
“Sorry, talked a bit more than I wanted,” I half-apologized.
“No problem at all. I love hearing those sorts of cute stories,” she said warmly, tail swishing slowly. “Honestly, I’m surprised you’ve had the patience to raise her on your own.”
“Patience? Sure there’ve been some rough patches, especially at the beginning. Nothing lately that’s been too much for me, though.”
She gave me a look like she thought I was making a bad joke, then just pat my hand with her pat with an oddly sympathetic face. “Not what I meant, but that’s what makes it cute.”
“What do you mean?”
The way she was grinning just confused me even more. Dismissing my stare with a wave of her paw, she continued on.
“Anyways, why don’t the three of us meet up some place for lunch or something? I think it’d be better than having me come here when she’s home.”
Why the hell had I never thought of that? A neutral ground was a fantastic idea! Laska wouldn’t feel like her personal space was being imposed on, she wouldn’t get defensive – probably.
“Good idea,” I started, only to come to an abrupt halt. Another thought took hold, or rather, one I’d stashed away once I began to talk about Laska. “How about tomorrow?”
“Sure, works for me.”
Given how she’d been the one to suggest the idea in the first place I suppose her immediate response wasn’t unexpected, but still. It seemed strange to me that she was so eager to meet Laska. Perhaps I just thought it was strange she wanted to meet Laska.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” I asked, capturing another of her pieces.
Not too many remained. I’d made a few mistakes, but I was gaining ground.
“Hmm? What’s up?” She asked, swiveling her ears up while her eyes stayed on the board.
Treacherous ground lay ahead. If I asked in the wrong way she might get the wrong idea. I quickly began to reconsider asking, but then just as quickly made up my mind that it was something I had to know.
“Should I introduce you to her as my girlfriend?”
I winced ever so slightly, worried about her reaction. Immediately after my wince I cringed when the words I’d spoke played back in my head. While I did think things were moving a little too quickly, I was also excited at the prospect of someone who really seemed to like Laska.
Her lips bunched up in a corner of her mouth as she stared at the board, then reached out and moved a piece. “Sure.”
Huh. That was remarkably easy. So easy, in fact, it left me at a loss for words.
“Hey, you gonna move?”
“You’re just kinda spacing out there.”
I blinked at her. “Er, right.”
She grinned at me, one of her fangs peeking out from behind her lip. Turning her attention back to the board, she mumbled something under her breath.
“What was that?”
“Huh? Nothing, just talking to myself.” If she hadn’t had that sort of expression that said ‘Shit he wasn’t supposed to hear that,’ I probably wouldn’t have been so suspicious.
She certainly was an enigma. At least I’d gotten my answer to the question of what we were. Though it wasn’t exactly a sure-thing at this point. That hinged on Laska, and that would have to wait until tomorrow. Some questions answered, and some answers that beget new questions.
Tik. Tak. I took another piece. I figured out where she’d hid her flag, just had to get rid of the bombs around it.
Eralia frowned and let out a heavy sigh. I was expecting her to concede, but she kept going, moving what she could.
“Not going to quit?” I said, doing my best to imitate her face and tone from earlier. Fortunately for me the turn of events was not lost on her.
“I never quit,” she retorted, crossing her arms across her chest.
We shared a laugh and just like that, a few moves later, I’d finally beaten her.
“That was fun. You had me surprised early on there.”
“You don’t have to try and comfort me,” she said, leaning back in the chair. “I’ll get you next time.”
“Oh? Want to go again?”
“Nah, I’m good. Need to cut my losses.”
“Losses? You lost once!”
“I know, it’s been a bad night for me.”
Her cocky smirk managed to have just enough charm so that it wasn’t entirely irritating.
“Well, what do you want to do now?” I asked, checking the time. Wasn’t even ten o’clock yet. “Want to go out or something?”
“Eh, I don’t feel like drinking,” she said dismissively as she began cleaning up the table.
The very model of excitement, this way. Before I could say anything else though, her entire body perked up. “Oh! Dinner, I forgot! I’m starving!”
Of course, she was looking very expectantly at me. “Want me to cook you something?” I asked dryly. The answer was obvious.
“Please? I loved what you made last time! Could you do something like that again?”
The high and mighty Eralia from earlier had been replaced by the so-very-attempting-to-look-cute model. As luck would have it, I’m a sucker for cute things.
“I suppose…” I said, defeated. Hadn’t really intended on cooking anything, especially this late.
“Aw! You’re the best,” she chirped, dashing up and hugging me from behind as I made my way to the kitchen.
I think, at that point, I understood very well how fiddles feel.
She watched very intently while I worked, as if mentally noting all the steps. By now I’d already figured out she was a, to put it as nicely as I could, poor cook. Her meals consisted of things she could shake out of a bag, bake, and eat. Sometimes boil, or put in a bowl and add milk. I couldn’t really blame her, considering that’s how I was before Laska came into my life. In exchange for the cooking lesson I made her clean up the pots and pans, so that was a relief.
“Thanks for dinner,” she said quickly before stuffing her mouth full of pasta.
“Yeah, anytime. Thanks for cleaning up.”
Compared to our first date, she was certainly much more relaxed around me. Was it good or bad she acclimated this fast? I couldn’t say. She was unique, that’s for sure.
After dinner she dragged me over to the couch and plopped down for a movie. Wasn’t what I’d call bad, but it didn’t really feel like tonight had been a date. More like we just hung out, or spent time together. Laid out on the couch, she held me against her, keeping me warm with her paws and bushy tail.
More than anything I was looking forward to tomorrow. I had a feeling, or maybe I just hoped, that everything would work out. I dearly wished for Laska to get on with Eralia, but I couldn’t say if it was for my sake or hers. Perhaps both.
And somewhere in the back of my mind I had lingering questions about Eralia.
“Hey, how come you got that look when you pulled out Stratego?”
It was the sort of question someone just randomly asks, one that gets the same kind of lackadaisical response. It should have, anyways – lying against her, I felt her body tense up and she held a breath for several heartbeats.
Why would she be elusive about something like that?
“You looked like you were, I dunno, remembering something happy.”
“Oh, did I?”
Normally one would follow that up with an explanation, but there was just silence. I gave her paw a squeeze and nestled up against her a little more snuggly. She got the hint, and finally continued after a long breath.
“When I was little I used to play games a lot with my dad. I loved those strategy games where there wasn’t any chance involved.”
Glancing over at her, I could make out a difficult expression on her face from the light of the television. Didn’t take a psychologist to realize there was a lot more going on than she let on.
“You should’ve told me earlier,” I mentioned in an off-hand way. “I’ve been looking for someone to play with for years.”
“Sounds fun,” she said, giving me a squeeze. Most of her good humor returned, much to my relief. While I had more I wanted to ask her about, I decided to let it be for the night. I could always pry later, after all.
“By the way…”
“I know something else that’s fun.”
In lieu of words her paws undid my pants in quite the display of alacrity considering the button and zipper were meant for hands.
“Hmm, I wonder who’ll come up on top this time?”
That got a laugh from her, followed by a short kiss. “We’ll just have to play to find out, won’t we?” She said with a wink.