Playing Favorites – Chapter 8


Christopher

My word of the day is: obsession.

There’s really no better word for it. I’m clearly obsessed with Jacinda. She seems to be the only thing I can think of. I first realized that last night, when I dreamt of her entering my room while I was sleeping. It was a pretty vivid dream, too. She was half-naked -of course she was, far be it from me to dream of a fully clothed girl-, and, in the darkness, I could distinguish the tantalizing curves of her breasts sliding sensually as she moved closer. Her mesmerizing eyes shone in the dark. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucid enough in this dream to do anything else but look at her.

I was much more interactive in the morning, when I thought of her again. Thank God there was a box of tissues on the nightstand. 

Okay, so I had a wet dream. That happens, right? Probably had something to do with all the teasing she gave me, first in school, then yesterday in my room. Not to mention, that thing she did when she covered her mouth and her nose in apple pie and licked it clean; I didn’t realize her tongue was this long… or this agile. That sure sent my imagination on a roll.

Yeah, just a wet dream. I thought that’d be the end of it. Heh. How naive can I be? But from the moment I put on my day-old clothes, Jacinda has been on the back of my mind. And this time, cold-showering is not enough to calm me down -not even with the release I give myself once more some time after.

The Abercromby twins are already in the kitchen when I get down to get some breakfast.

“Good morning!” Nova says, perky even before nine P.M.. “What would you like to eat?”

“Morning. Uhm, whatever you got.”

“Ooh, take your pick. We’ve got pancakes, toast, croissants, fruits, cereals, bacon, eggs, butter, marmalade, jam…”

“Wow, all right.” I smile. “What are you girls having?”

“Us?” Nova says. “Pancakes, toast, croissants, fruits, cereals…”

“Okay, I think I get it.”

I take a seat at the kitchen table, and help myself to some toast. As my hand goes to grab the butter, my fingers accidentally brush Jacinda’s paw, who also wanted some. Our eyes meet, very briefly, before I turn away. Surprisingly, she does the same. Great, am I giving off some kind of creepy vibe? I’ll have to try extra hard not to stare at her today.

“So, did you guys have a nice night?” Nova asks.

“Um, yeah, sure,” I say.

“Yeah, yeah, it was fine,” Jacinda says at the same time, before taking a big sip from her tea cup.

“You know, Chris, we have some spare clothes if you want to change,” Nova says.

“That’s all right. I’ll drop by my dorm later today to get some.”

“Not to be an ass, but you should probably wash those.”

“That bad?” I say, sniffing my shirt.

“Well, maybe not to you, but our kind is rather sensitive to smells.”

Jacinda turns to Nova, so abruptly her neck cracks.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “Your sister told me yesterday. Sounds like a blessing and a curse.”

“You don’t know half of it,” Nova says, shooting Jacinda an amused glance. Her sister blushes. What am I missing here? Some kind of private joke between sisters? Or between Werewolves?

“I’ll drive you to the dorm,” Jacinda says. “Right after my morning exercise.”

“Thanks. Hey, can I join you? I haven’t exercised in a while.”

“No,” she says sharply. “I mean, um, sorry, I prefer to exercise alone. I need lots of space, you understand.”

I really don’t, but whatever. She wants her personal space, I’ll give it to her. Hopefully, she’ll return the favor by putting a lid on all that teasing. It was already bad yesterday, but I’m pretty sure if she does it again today, I’m going to blow up. I don’t know how, but it’s going to be ugly. The worst part is, I’m starting to enjoy it.

Jacinda and Nova sure can eat. I had a glimpse of that at dinner yesterday, when I saw them wolf down -pun not intended- their own weight in food. Fifteen minutes, two pieces of buttered toast, one apple, and one bowl of cereal later, I’m pretty much done, but they look like they’ll be at it for another half-hour.

Mr and Mrs Abercromby only show up after nine, their arms intertwined, and smiling sweetly. Not hard to guess why they slept in. Mr Abercromby -I remember his name is Duncan- goes to man the stove, while his Missus sits at the end of the table, tail wagging happily.

“Will you be having your usual, my queen?” the man says, the sweetness of his voice making me cringe a little. Is that what happily married couples sound like? I wouldn’t know.

“I believe I already did,” she says, her lips curling up. “Three times.”

“Mom!” the twins protest. Huh, they both blush the same way.

Their mother -Niasa, right?- lets out a throaty laugh, giving me some serious Stacy’s Mom vibes.

“Good thing their room is soundproof,” I hear Nova whisper to her sister.

“Otherwise, we’d both be in therapy right now,” Jacinda says.

“You’d be in therapy. I’d be in jail for grievous bodily harm.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, listening to their parents talk about bow-chicka-wow-wow does little to hinder their appetite, but they do seem to be eating a bit faster now. Minutes later, Mr Abercromby serves his wife a pile of rare steaks on a large plate, doused in some kind of syrup. Now I see where the twins get it. And, looking at her husband’s afterglow, I can’t help but hope… I mean, wonder if Jacinda didn’t inherit another trait from her mom.

Gah. You see? Obsessed. This isn’t just sexual attraction anymore. My thoughts concerning Jacinda are becoming more… precise. And more invasive, too.

“Mrs Abercromby,” I say. “Do you mind if I use your TV?”

“Of course not, make yourself at home! Though I do mind that you call me Mrs. It’s Niasa.”

“Hah. Okay, Niasa.”

I move to the living room, which is directly adjacent to the kitchen. In the center of the room is a couch; a pretty damn nice couch at that. Large enough for two big guys to lie on, made out of leather, and comfy enough that standing up is going to be a challenge. The TV is nothing to laugh at either. It’s one of those hyperflat screens with autostereoscopic technology. Damn, how rich are the Abercrombys? Between the fancy furniture, their three cars, and the fact that they live in a four-bedroom house in Berkeley…

I’m not surprised to see that they’re subscribed to a lot of streaming services. Within a minute, I find a baseball game. Some kind of Japanese league, apparently. I don’t know either of the teams, but whatever; baseball is baseball. Whoever the blue team is, they’re not having a good day. Their first batter gets eliminated by the second baseman, then their second batter injures himself in a bad dive and has to be removed from the field. As the third batter takes his mark, my phone comes alive with Manny’s ringtone –Sound Barrier, by The Zen Disaster.

“Morning, Manny.”

“Yo, Chris!” he says with energy. Am I the only one I know who’s not a morning person? “Are you at your dorm?”

“Uh, not right now, no. I’ll swing by in a few.”

“Oh-oh! Did someone sleep out last night?”

“I had to, uh, crash at a friend’s house,” I say. Calling Jacinda a friend is not stretching the truth too much, is it?

“Thought I was your only friend,” Manny says.

“Rude.”

“So how did it go with Hayley last night?”

Hayley. Shit. With all that happened, I’ve completely forgotten about her. Real nice, Christopher.

“It was fine.”

“That’s it? Fine?”

“Well, yeah. We sat down, we talked, we had coffee. It was… fine.”

“All you did was talk?” I can almost see him balk through the phone.

“Hey, it was our first date. What was I supposed to do? Fingerbang her in the bathroom?”

“Sure, if you’re going for romantic,” he chuckles. “So it’s not her place you crashed at last night?”

“No, the date didn’t go that well.”

There’s a silence on the line as he waits for me to go on. I don’t.

“You’re not gonna tell me whose place you slept at, huh?” he says.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Oh, something tells me I already do…”

Another silence.

“So?” he insists.

“I’m not saying anything,” I say, fiddling with the remote with my free hand. It’s one of those fancy remotes with dynamic digital display instead of actual buttons.

“Right, you don’t kiss and tell, I get it. Hey, you doing anything today?”

Good question. Laying low until I figure out what to do about my dad, I guess.

“I’ve got nothing planned.”

“Wanna hang out in SF? We could have lunch at the Embarcadero, then maybe hit the VR-Copolis? I heard they’ve got the new Zeroball.”

“Sure. I can’t wait to pummel you at this one too.”

“I do believe I’m being challenged!”

“No, just given a reality check,” I say, smiling.

“Yeah, all right. Care to put your small savings where your big mouth is?”

Manny is the only person I let get away with joking about my money situation. And he knows it, the jackass.

“Oh, it’s on,” I say. “How about this? Three games. Loser pays for dinner at Buffalo Buffalo.”

“Deal. Fair warning: I’ll have a family-size bucket of wings.”

“Like you could finish it in one sitting,” I chuckle.

“One bet at a time, bro. So, should I come pick you up?”

“You mean now? Uh, I’m not available now.”

He laughs. “Hah! You really don’t want me to know where you’ve been tonight. Guess my hunch was right.”

“Alright, you guessed it: your sister and I got it on last night.”

“Ha, ha. Real funny.”

“She’s got good taste in furniture. I particularly like the purple bed sheets.”

“My sister sleeps under a comforter, asshole. Fine, how about you get your mysterious host to drop you at a neutral place, and I’ll pick you up there?”

“I’ll ask the mysterious host. Let’s say at eleven?”

“You got it. See you then.”

“See ya.”

My smartphone goes back in my pocket. I report my attention to the game, just in time for the blue team to lose. Oh well, they put up a good fight, kinda. Go green team, whose town name I can’t even pronounce and whose existence I will probably not remember. I crane my neck to look behind the couch. Jacinda has left the kitchen, and Nova is standing in the living room, reading some pocket-size book; their parents are still eating, conversing joyfully as they do.

Nova walks toward the couch, without looking up from her book. I try to read the title, but her paw is hiding most of the cover.

“Hey, how long does your sister usually exercise for?” I ask her.

“Depends,” she says, still not interrupting her reading.

“On?”

“Her mood, mostly.”

“Ah. Well, she seemed okay to me.”

For some reason, this makes her snigger.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Yeah, clearly,” I mutter.

“Nice shirt, by the way,” she says, finally glancing at me.

I look down at it. It’s just a regular black shirt. No logo, nothing. I often wear black; it’s simple, and it goes with everything. And I guess I’d be lying if I said I don’t know how good that color looks on me.

“Uh, thanks?”

“I bet Jass likes it too.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Are you being weird on purpose?”

“Usually. You should ask her what she thinks of your shirt.”

“Oookay, then.”

And on those confusing words, she goes back to her book, and sashays away. Whatever. Let’s see what else is on…

Jacinda reappears about forty minutes later, fresh from the shower. My eyes bug out of my head as I watch her. Instead of her usual baggy clothes, she’s wearing a tight pair of jeans, a red crop top, and a jacket. Her cleavage is rather on the conservative side, but all the same I reflexively cross my legs when she leans over the couch, resting on her forearms. Apparently, I can give up on the hope that I’ve seen the last of her teasing.

“You ready?” she says.

I nod, turning off the TV in the middle of some sociological documentary about… something concerning the Third World, I wasn’t really paying attention.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Back we go in Jacinda’s car. Given how wealthy her parents are, it’s kind of surprising that her car is a rather cheap model. It’s got a pretty fancy self-driving module and a lot of electronics, but other than that it’s the sort of car just about anyone could afford. Her parents probably didn’t want her first car to be too expensive, in case it ended up in a collision. Which, given how Jacinda drives, is a valid concern.

“Right of fucking way, moron!” she shouts at a pick-up truck.

He had the right of way,” I point out.

“The fuck he did! I came from the right.”

“And you had a “yield” sign.”

She mutters a curse. As she stops at a red light, she asks:

“Are you gonna call campus police?”

“About my dad? Yeah, I should. I don’t know if they can trespass him, but maybe they can warn me if they see him or something.”

“Yeah. Maybe you should get a restraining order too.”

I sigh. “Back in LA, there was a guy who got a restraining order against my dad, after literally years of trying. I think Dad was racketeering him, so he feared for his safety. In the end, Dad continued to harass him, like the restraining order meant nothing at all -which I guess it did. Eventually, the guy just moved out of state.”

“Ah, hell.” She bites her lower lip. “You know, I took some martial art classes. Well, a lot of martial art classes. I can be your restraining order, if you like.”

Something not too uncomfortable shakes my insides. Jacinda, offering to protect me? That’s… very decent of her, especially considering our track record. I mean, I haven’t been a complete asshole to her, but neither have I gone out of my way to be nice to her.

“Pretty sure assaulting a police officer would land you in a lot of trouble,” I say, unable to restrain my smile. “But I’ll keep that offer in mind.”

The light turns green, and Jacinda takes a right -without signaling.

“So, you’re from LA, huh?”

“Yeah, a neighborhood called Alameda.”

“Nice place?”

“Pretty unremarkable, actually.”

“You’re not gonna miss it, then?”

“Definitely not. I’ve come to like the Bay Area too much.”

Especially the sights. Yeah, I’m staring at her again. I’ve decided I can’t help it. Plus, she’s basically flaunting her luscious curves at me; she might actually get offended if I don’t look. At least her eyes are focused on the road so she hopefully won’t notice. I’m making an effort not to let my imagination run wild, but it’s like appealing against the storm. That crop top in particular is working on her. Red is definitely her color. It really makes her eyes pop -although they already do a fine job of that on their own. Speaking of tops, Nova’s strange suggestion pops back in my head.

“Hey, um, so, you like my shirt?”

“What?!”

Jacinda fidgets, and the car swerves. I reflexively grab the edges of my seat. What the hell? How can a stupid question like that get such a reaction from her?

“What…” She clears her throat. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know, just… um, do you like it?”

“It’s… Yeah, it’s fine,” she stammers. “I mean, it’s a shirt. It’s fine. Sure, I like it.”

She’s blushing with her whole face now. I didn’t know she could rock the adorkable look.

“All right…” I say. “What is going on here?”

“Nothing. Nothing’s going on. What do you… Why do you assume there’s something going on?”

“Call it intuition. Come on, Furball, what’s up your butt?”

“I’m gonna veto that nickname, right now and for all of eternity.”

“You’re right, “honey bunny” is much better.” I smirk. “Now spill. What’s up with my shirt that makes you fret like that? Do Werewolves not like black?”

Her paws clutch the wheel. I guess she’s not going to talk. Let’s try another way.

“If you tell me, I’ll owe you a favor.”

She shoots me a sharp look, and thinks about for a moment.

“Okay. But I will call it in.”

“I hope you will,” I mutter.

“So, like I told you earlier, I’m sensitive to smells,” she says, licking her lips. “Like, really, really sensitive. And, err, you know how some Human males sometimes can’t get their eyes off a pretty girl?”

“I’m vaguely aware of that behavior, yes.”

Have I mentioned how her top is basically hugging her glorious chest? Never thought I could envy a piece of clothing.

“Right, well, sometimes I get… a little obsessed with some smells. Certain people’s smells.”

“Are you saying you like my smell?” I say, my heart starting to beat in a weird way.

“No. Yes. Kinda.” She scratches her nose.

I can’t see my own face, but I’m pretty sure that little revelation is making me smile like an idiot. God bless whoever invented my deodorant.

“Okay. What does that have to do with my shirt?”

“Well, the clothes you wear… You know, they smell like you. And, err, um…”

She shuts up.

“If you don’t tell me everything,” I say, “I won’t owe you anything.”

“LastnightItookyourshirt,” she spews out like a machine gun.

“Wait, last night you what?”

“Last-night-I-took-your-shirt,” she enunciates more clearly.

“You did? Why would you do that?” I try to sound weirded out, but I do a stupid giggle instead.

“Because… I… Because! I needed something to… to, uh…”

She rubs her thighs together, and I’m immediately hard again. Holy crap.

“Don’t tell me you did things with my shirt,” I say, unsure whether that would disgust me or…

“No!” she says. “I just… smelled it. And, um, I drooled on it. A little.”

“Which Nova picked up on this morning,” I deduce, “thus why she suggested I ask you this.”

“She did? Ugh. Figures.”

I frown. “Wait… So you were in my bedroom last night. I thought I dreamt that.”

“Shit, and I thought you were sleeping.”

And on that, we finally make it to the campus. Jacinda lets the self-driving AI take care of parking -thank God-, and we head out to my dorm. Seeing the building’s main entrance makes me wince. Jacinda notices.

“Sure you gonna be okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Want me to stay with you?”

“… Yeah.”

We make it to my room without any problems. A couple of acquaintances wave me by; some seem to recognize Jacinda. At least one of them checks her out. Although I can hardly blame him, I also can’t help but glare at him until he stops. My roommate is not here, which I guess makes things easier. His name is Connor, by the way. To put things mildly, he wouldn’t get my nomination for the Roommate Of The Year award. His favorite hobbies involve sneaking in booze, and getting drunk. I grab my old suitcase, throw some clothes in it, a couple of textbooks, and a toothbrush. As we get back down the stairs, Manny calls me again.

“Yo, Chris. Little change of plan.”

“What’s up?”

“Yeah, uh, so my mom wants me to babysit Viv today.”

“Last I checked, your sister was seventeen. What does she need a babysitter for?”

“I, uh, well, okay, so it’s more like Mom insisted I bring her along because today’s her birthday, and, uh, I kinda completely forgot I promised to take her out. Also, that’s the only way Mom was gonna give me money for today. Anyway, you still on?”

I glance at Jacinda. A strange thought goes through my mind -okay, maybe not that strange, especially compared to the others I have that concern her.

“Hey, since you’re bringing a plus one, can I too?”

Manny snorts. “Yeah, I see how it is. Is Jacinda close by? Hey, put me on speaker.”

Rolling my eyes, I press the button, and hold my phone between me and Jacinda.

“Hey, Jacinda. How’s it going?”

“Hi, Manny.”

“Manny and I are going to hang out today,” I explain. “Wanna come with?”

Her eyebrows go up, forming two half-circles above her eyes. I notice she’s not wearing any makeup today.

“Sure,” she says.

“Right,” Manny says. “Just to warn you: no way in hell I’m playing third wheel on your little date.”

“It’s not a date,” I say, but of course Jacinda just had to say the exact same thing at the exact same time. Excellent for credibility.

“Uh-HUH,” Manny says.

“How about I bring my sister too?” Jacinda says. “Make it a friend outing.”

“Mmmh, alright. Let’s meet at Giorgio’s before noon.”

“Your sister wants pizza for her eighteenth birthday?” I say.

“Yeah. She’s bringing candles to put on it too, to make it a birthday pizza.”

“I like her already,” Jacinda says.

After I hang up with Manny, Jacinda calls her sister to offer her to join. She agrees, but lets us know she’ll probably be late. I put my suitcase in the trunk of Jacinda’s car, and soon we’re back on the road. This time, at least, she agrees to let the self-driving AI take the wheel -mostly because she hates driving in heavy traffic. The tradeoff is, I have to listen to her grumble about how the AI drives too defensively.

“Why did you want me to come with, by the way?” she asks as we’re driving over the Bay Bridge.

Good question, actually. I’m not totally sure.

“Well, why not?” I answer. “I owe you one for last night. And I guess we’re… err… friends. Kinda. Right?”

I’m channeling my inner Mister Smooth today.

“Right,” she says, just as smoothly. “Yeah. Friends. Okay.”

We don’t talk again during the rest of the drive. At some point, Jacinda puts on some loud music, probably just to have some ambient sound.

Manny and his sister are here to greet us when we arrive at Giorgio’s. Well, it’s mostly Manny doing the greeting. Viviana, as usual, is focusing almost entirely on whatever is displayed on her AR glasses, and barely gives me a “hi”. Manny’s sister is not one for first impressions; most people who meet her assume she’s antisocial, or just plain rude: she speaks very little, and sometimes actually seems to ignore you when you talk to her. In actuality, she’s a very shy person, who according to her mother suffers from crippling anxiety, especially in social situations. Recently, she’s been trying to get out of her comfort zone, partly under the influence of her brother who makes an effort to associate her with his activities. Jacinda introduces herself to her. Viv looks intimidated by her size, but feebly shakes her paw before going back to her AR glasses.

Aside from her jet black hair, Viv doesn’t look much like her brother. She takes more after their mother, and Manny more after their father: while his Latino heritage is clearly visible, Viv, however, draws more from her Asian ancestry, with her clear skin and the almond shape of her eyes. She’s pretty small and petite, too, which probably helps with the fact that she constantly seems to want to hide from everyone, as do her bangs that keep falling in front of her face to half-cover her dark brown eyes.

We find a table for six, and get to ordering, Nova having texted her sister what pizzas she wanted. Yes, pizzas, plural. Thank God the Abercromby twins are paying for their own meals. And thank God we got here early. The place immediately becomes packed the moment noon strikes.

Nova gets here almost twenty minutes later, clad in an outfit I had never seen her wear before, and which includes leather pants, a leather long coat, and a leather bustier top. She catches the eyes of quite a few people in the restaurant, including, surprisingly, those of Viv. Nova can certainly attract attention, even more so than her sister. In addition to having all of her features (minus the muscles, and, in my opinion, the eyes), she also has an air of quiet confidence; she seems completely at ease wherever she is or whoever she talks to. Jacinda tells me she wants to be a prosecutor. I pity the defense lawyers she’ll face.

The pizzas are brought soon after Nova sits down between her sister and Viv. There’s barely any room left on the table. Manny and I put on the candles on Viv’s pizza, then light them on.

“Please don’t sing,” Viv mutters timidly.

“Of course not,” Manny says, kissing her on the cheek. “Happy birthday, sis.”

The thought occurs to me that, if it had been my birthday, and I had made that request, Manny would have immediately started shout-singing, and probably invited the entire restaurant to join him for a verse. Hell, he might even have hired a mariachi band specifically for the occasion. Dude’s my best friend, what can I say?

Viviana blows her candles, managing to get twelve on the first try. After they’re all out, we each take a slice and toast.

“We didn’t get you any presents,” I say. “Hope that’s no problem.”

“Oh, no, no, no,” she says, waving her hands. “We barely know each other. I mean, err, we’re not that close. No, I mean, we’re not friends. I mean…”

“I get it, it’s okay,” I reply to calm her down before she works herself into an anxiety attack.

She nods awkwardly and goes back to her pizza. I notice her eyes jumping to Nova from time to time.

“What the hell is this?” Jacinda says, eyeballing my pizza.

“Chorizo, gorgonzola, artichoke hearts, and pineapple.”

“Oh my gods, you’re one of those people,” she says with a shudder.

“You mean, one of those people who have enough taste to appreciate pineapple on pizza? I sure am.”

“Taste. That’s a good one.”

“Well, excuse me. What’s on yours?”

“Meatballs, chicken, sausage, anchovies, ham, burger meat, and cheese.”

“Are you planning on having some pizza with your meat?” I say.

“Nah, but I’m gonna have a shitload of salsa piccante. Because I can take it.”

“So I take it these two idiots haven’t sealed the deal yet,” Manny says to Nova.

“Nope,” she replies with a heavy eye roll. “They now alternate between amusingly awkward and annoyingly tense.”

“I’m not tense,” Jacinda barks tensely.

“Yeah, whatever you say, sis. You can touch it, if you want.”

That last comment is addressed to Viv, who jumps in her seat. It seems she was staring at Nova’s tail, intrigued by the way it moves, and probably wondering how soft it feels. It’s not hard to assume that last part, as I’ve been wondering the same thing about Jacinda’s tail. I’ve only touched it once, very briefly, and ever since I occasionally think to myself that I wouldn’t mind touching it again, maybe more thoroughly.

“Oh, I-I don’t…” Viv stammers.

“It’s all right,” Nova insists, wagging her tail between the two of them. “Consider it your birthday present.”

With considerable hesitation, Viv approaches her hand, very slowly, as if Nova’s tail is going to bite it. I have time to finish my slice before her hand finally connects. After another moment of pussy-footing, Viv begins brushing it.

“It’s, um, really soft.”

“Thank you,” Nova says, smiling. “I brush it every day.”

Jacinda huffs, then takes a glance at her own tail, which is about as bushy as her hair. Should I grab it and tell her it’s just as soft as her sister’s? Even if it’s not. But, I mean, I’m sure it is.

Man, God bless America, inventor of deep-dish pizzas. Sure, it has nothing left in common with the original pizza, but I really don’t care. And I pray that whoever came up with the idea of stuffing the crust with tomato sauce and basil has made it to Heaven.

“Gee-damn, I’m full,” Manny announces after eating five of his six slices.

“Me too,” Viv says.

“Me three,” I say. “Time to hit VR-Copolis and burn all these calories.”

“It’s true that kicking your ass has always been a good way to stay in shape,” Manny says.

I don’t deign to respond; my game will do the talking -and the trashing.

VR-Copolis is basically a modern-day video arcade. Virtual reality games are their main focus, but you can find all kinds of entertainment there, from old-timey arcade games (including a restored Space Invaders machine) to darts and air hockey. There’s also a bar which serves all kinds of non-alcoholic, sugar-rich drinks and wonderfully greasy, even-more-sugar-rich snacks. It opens at noon, and closes at two in the morning, or later when there’s a competition -which is often. The whole place has an 80’s nostalgia ambiance, complete with superfluous neons and retrowave music. Seriously, God bless America.

Zeroball is my and Manny’s favorite VR game. It’s a sports game. Essentially, it’s a mixture of football, soccer, and rugby, played in zero gravity, in a futuristic setting. Two teams of ten players face each other. The goal is to send the ball in the opponent team’s circle, like in soccer. And just like in soccer, using hands is forbidden, but so is using your feet. You can use every other part of your body: elbows, knees, head, torso… Oh, also it’s pretty damn violent. Like, would be banned from Olympics for all eternity the moment it’s invented level of violent. And even though that violence is of course entirely simulated, sometimes you can’t help but suck on your teeth when you see the moves some players pull on others.

There’s actually two modes: Real and Robot. The latter uses robot teammates -androids, if you want to be pedantic about it- and doesn’t display a single drop of blood, while the former uses humanoid models and is pretty damn realistic in terms of wounds (according to a critic I’ve read online, the developers actually contracted traumatologists and forensics experts in an effort to make it even more life-like). In fact, in the hardest difficulty setting (“Bloodsport”), you have to keep track of not only your teammates’ stamina, but also their health. Too many hits and your teammate is out. Forfeits are semi-common in professional competitions.

Overall, it’s pretty fun. Quite a workout, too. No doubt Priddy would approve of us working on our cardio even on weekends.

“Real mode?” Manny says. “Bloodsport?”

“Of course. There’s no better way to properly humiliate you in front of your sister. My birthday gift to you, by the way,” I add to Viv.

She’s not paying attention. But, interestingly, she’s not riveted on her AR glasses either. She is talking with Nova. Talking. I mean, Nova is dominating the conversation, but Viv is taking an active part in it. She’s not just answering in grunts and monosyllabic words either, she makes complete sentences.

“I’ll take the winner,” Jacinda suddenly says.

“You played this before?” Manny inquires.

“No, but how hard can it be? If Chris can do it…”

Oh-ho-ho. Someone is cruising for another spanking.

“You’re on,” I say.

“I guess I’m curious to see what facing you would be like,” Manny says. “I’ll go book us the first three rounds.”

“Want to make it interesting?” I say as Manny walks away.

“I would appreciate that, yes,” Jacinda says, smirking.

“Manny and I have a bet. Whoever wins pays for dinner at Buffalo Buffalo afterwards. How about a side bet?”

“I’m listening.”

“If I win, I no longer owe you that favor I took earlier in the car. If you win, I’ll owe you two favors.”

“You would owe me twice?” She raises an amused eyebrow. “Dangerous.”

“Only if I lose, which I won’t.”

Her smirk turns into a large, malevolent smile, the kind that would leave no man indifferent -and probably a few women, too. We shake on it, and go to the building section dedicated to Zeroball. They have no less than sixteen VR booths for this game alone; to say it’s popular would be an understatement.

“Jeeesus,” Manny moans as he comes back to us, holding two keycards for our booths. “They raised their prices again. Freaking supply and demand…”

He gives me one card, and we both enter our respective booths. They are small rooms, about eight feet square and ten feet high, entirely black, even the cushy chair. The VR equipment hangs on a hook on the door. It consists of a helmet -headphones, glasses, and a microphone-, two gloves, and four bands that go on the player’s forearms and calves. I use the card to activate each piece, and put them on.

Our first game begins by Manny going full on the offensive, as always. Manny loves the direct approach. Brute strength is his forte, and he definitely has a “when all you have is a hammer” mentality in most situations. Sadly for him, that makes him predictable. Whenever he sees an opening, he rushes in head first. So all I have to do is deliberately weaken a point in my defense, then wait. And when he attacks -he always does-, I spring my trap, capture the ball, and counterattack. I win the first game pretty easily, with 5 goals against Manny’s 1.

He proves a little smarter during the second game, but he still doesn’t manage to really gain any ground. While he succeeds in foiling a couple of my ambushes, he gets frustrated too easily, and that ends up biting him in the butt. The second game ends with a 4-2 score.

“Hell yeah!” I yell out when I join Manny in front of our booths, thrusting my fist in the skies. “That’s how it’s done.”

“God damn it,” he says. “Well, I guess you get to eat one warm meal this week.”

“You kids had your fun?” Jacinda says, uncrossing her arms. “Then, it’s my turn.”

We face each other without blinking, without moving; all that’s missing are the six-shooters. Then, we each enter our booths, and put on our gear.

“Damn, that headgear is tight,” I hear Jacinda complain through the voice chat.

“It’s not. You just have a big head.”

“Yeah? You know what I’m gonna do with my big head?”

“Hopefully think of a way to not lose too badly.”

She has no comeback to that. Sadly, I quickly understand why: she, too, has decided to let her game do the talking. And the trashing! Goddamn. It quickly becomes obvious to me that, even though she has no experience with this game -she struggles with swapping between teammates, and mistakenly passes the ball to one of mine once-, she is a quick study. Given her personality, I expected her to be an aggressive player. I guess I forgot that little speech she gave me about how cunning is important in a fight -which is what this is: a fight between me and her.

During the very first five minutes, she manages to turn one of my traps inside out, and I’m the one who ends up being trapped. I up my game, pulling every tactic I can come up with, as well as a few I’ve seen in online videos. But all I manage to do is slow her down. She’s got the upper hand, and she ain’t giving it up. At one point, Jacinda foils one of my tactics… then successfully uses that very same tactic against me! As she scores her sixth goal, and I only managed to get three, I’m forced to accept the obvious: I’m going to owe Jacinda two favors.

A part of me thinks there are worse fates.

I take off the headgear and put it back on the hook, followed by the bands. A deep exhalation escapes my mouth as I swipe my sweaty forehead. This last session has been particularly intense, and I don’t just mean on a physical level. As I stretch my arms over my head, I hear the door close. It’s Jacinda. There’s a glint of triumph in her sanguine orange eyes, and her smirk clearly indicates that she has no intention of being a humble winner. I should hate that, just like I should hate the fact that she’s probably going to make me her bitch. But I don’t.

“So,” I say, trying to sound detached. “What is your first favor?”

Jacinda chuckles darkly, dipping her chin and shooting me a classic Kubrick stare. She raises her paw, and trails the tip of her claws along my chest.

“I’ll let you know,” she says softly.

She turns on her heels, her tail lightly swatting my face. Like hell that was accidental.

We decide to occupy the rest of the afternoon with other games, having had enough Zeroball for… well, at least until the next weekend. Manny gets his revenge over me at ping-pong, Jacinda and Nova try their hands -or paws- at some kind of strategy game, while Viv proves once again to be the master of puzzle games. Seriously, that girl’s got a knack; the more obscure an enigma, the quicker she can solve it, it seems. No wonder she got into college one year early.

All of us are pretty much drained, both in energy and in money, when we arrive at Buffalo Buffalo. I always get mixed feelings about this place. The food I like, but the restaurant itself, not so much. It’s always super-crowded, not the cleanest, and the service is pretty mediocre. I mean, I get that it’s a fast food chain restaurant, but even so… The experience is greatly enhanced, however, by the fact that Manny is paying for my food: a bucket of buffalo wings, with BBQ sauce. They taste like victory.

All that was left in the restaurant when we got there was a table for four. With the five of us, including two pretty big Werewolves, we’re a little crowded. Viv gets the fifth seat, at the end of the table, with Manny on her left and Nova on her right. I’m on Manny’s left, with Jacinda in front of me. Given that we are both on the tall side, we keep accidentally kicking each other under the table.

Manny and I start talking about -what else?- baseball. Neither of us can wait for the upcoming Giants-Padres game, or agree on who the obvious winner is going to be. Manny simply can’t accept that the Padres’ golden age is behind them. Jacinda mocks us both, and “informs” us that the Rockies are the only team that will matter, in this season and the next. Oh, how I laugh at that one. Meanwhile, Viv and Nova are discussing literature. The former looks pretty lively about it; it seems she’s finally letting loose on her birthday. At one point, she offers Nova her AR glasses to show her something she’s “working on”. I try not to eavesdrop -it’s hard with the ambient noise anyway-, but I kinda wonder what exactly they’re talking about.

The evening passes by quickly. Our minds empty and our bellies full, we elect to take a walk on the harbor to end the day.

“Damn,” Manny says as he yawns hard enough to unset his jaw. “I thought sugar was supposed to keep you awake. Maybe I should have had more soda.”

He belches, as if to underline that he has indeed drunk a lot of soda.

“Ah, anyway… Want me to drop you off at the dorms?”

“I’m not sleeping at the dorm tonight,” I say.

Manny looks alternatively at me and at Jacinda, who’s lagging behind us, munching on the chocolate parfait she ordered for dessert.

“Heh, I’ll bet,” he says.

“Stop it, it’s not that,” I retort, annoyed. Leaning towards him, I explain: “My dad was at my dorm last night.”

My friend staggers back as if I had slapped him.

“Holy shit! You sure?”

“Yeah… He didn’t see me, though, thank God. I ran into Jacinda, and she offered to let me stay in her parents’ house. In the guest room,” I quickly add, presaging a snarky comment from him.

“Damn, man. So he knows you’re living here? How did he find out?”

“Who knows? He’s a cop. Maybe he flashed his badge at someone in the administration, and they told him. Or maybe…”

Maybe Mom told him. No, there’s no way. She would never tell him. 

Not willingly.

A horrible feeling claws into my heart. Mom, as far as I know, still lives with that man. She’s likely still under his thumb. On top of that, getting me that money and sending me off to college was her biggest act of rebellion. I dread to think about what that asshole made her endure for it. I told Jacinda he was never physically abusive, and that’s true… as far as I know. But come to think of it, he might have just been good at hiding it. He might be a power-tripping, greedy douchebag, but he is not stupid. The day he found out Mom had played him, he got downright murderous; and I’m not being hyperbolic, that’s how I felt when I looked at him.

I pull on my rubber band to snap me back to reality. This train of thought is leading me to a very dark place.

“It’s better I stay away from the dorms until I figure out a plan,” I say.

“I get it,” Manny says. “If you want, we can exchange rooms for a while. Mine is in a different building, in a different section of the campus.”

“I appreciate the offer, but that could put you in danger. If my father figures out you’re my friend and you’re protecting me, he may come after you.”

He visibly deflates. “Fuck, bro. I don’t know what to say.”

“It’s okay. Staying at Jacinda’s works, for now. On Monday, I’ll contact campus police or the principal, and I’ll see what I can do to make sure he stays out of campus. I doubt he can stay here for long. He’ll probably leave me alone after a while.”

“Okay, bro,” Manny says. “It’s your call. And if you need anything…”

“I know, I know.”

We high-five, and I once again regret not shaking hands instead. Maybe I should make him use his weak hand? Does he even have one?

“All right, my bed’s calling me,” he says. He looks around. “Hey, where’s Viv?”

“She took off,” Jacinda says, catching up with us. “So did my sister,” she adds with a little smirk.

“But… I was her ride,” Manny says.

“Looks like she’s found another ride for the night,” I say. Jacinda laughs.

“Aw, man,” my friend says, his face screaming “TMI”. “And I got third-wheeled by my own sister. Not cool.”

Hey, good for Viv. Really breaking out of her shell, huh?

With another jaw-breaking yawn, Manny bids us goodbye. Jacinda and I get back to her car without exchanging a word. The ride back goes by pretty fast. Well, actually it doesn’t, what with the usual Bay Area traffic, but I sleep through most of it. Jacinda wakes me up by poking me in the shoulder with her claw. Ouch. Weren’t there any nicer ways to do that?

After I grab my bag from the trunk, we enter her house, walk up the stairs, and arrive in front of her bedroom’s door. I remember at this moment that I’m still wearing the same shirt as yesterday; I completely forgot to change earlier. An evil thought crosses my mind. I still have to get back at her for the teasing she gave me earlier…

“Hey,” I say, taking off my shirt. “Want to trade for it?”

Jacinda turns to me to see what I’m talking about, and her jaw drops. Her eyes descend to my chest tattoos, and she blushes. I’m starting to really like that darker color on her cheeks, almost as much as I like this strange game of out-teasing we play against one another -which I just won, not that that’s important.

“You know, to help with your addiction,” I say.

She stutters, then say: “Yeah, you know what? Fine.”

In the blink of an eye, she grabs the shirt out of my hands, opens her door, enters her room, and slams the door behind her. I knock.

“Hey ! I said trade, not help yours-”

The door opens up a couple of inches, and Jacinda’s arm pokes out, shoving something against my chest. Then she slams the door once more, and I hear her lock it. I take a look at what she gave me. It’s not her shirt; it’s her bra.

Well played, Jacinda, I say to myself as a million lecherous thoughts invade my brain. Well played…

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