Playing Favorites – Chapter 9


Jacinda

When I was a kid and my sister would call me stupid, I would punch her. Today, if she were to call me stupid, I might punch myself. Because I am stupid. Fucking stupid.

Yeah, so, remember that plan to tease Chris to get back at him for all that shit he did? Or because it’s fun to tease that jerk? Damn, I’m not even sure why I was doing it. Well, anyway, it’s just gone from dumb to dumber.

After that whole shirt snafu two nights ago, and after Nova tattled on me -because of course she did-, things somehow managed to go back to something closely ressembling normal between Chris and I. Better yet, Chris had seemingly forgotten about his cactus-humper of a dad trying to barge into his dorm. He invited me to hang out with Manny and her sister Viv, for the latter’s birthday. It was a pretty fun day. Unfortunately, my old instincts kicked back, and he and I were soon doing that strange passive-aggressive dance where we snark at each other in lieu of proper conversation. Then, I made a bet against him, and entered some competition at some video game he liked. Nothing wrong with that, in theory. I mean, bets are a common thing between friends, right?

Well, yeah, except I just had to tease him again, despite telling myself I wouldn’t do that again, given how much it backfired last time.

I tried to restrain myself. Really I did. But then, it turned out that I won that stupid bet. Now, Chris owes me a favor. Strike that, he owes me two favors. I’m suuuure I’m going to use them for something completely innocent, not at all for something that will escalate things between us until we get to the point where we murder each other. Or worse.

Oh, but did I forget the best/worst part? After we came back from our hanging out, I fucking gave him the bra I was wearing! Yeah, because why the fuck not?!

Right, so I didn’t just hand him my underwear out of the blue like that. There was some context around that action. But honestly, context doesn’t make it much better. What happened was, Chris decided to take off his shirt -yeah, same shirt I sniffed the other night to masturbate-, and “jokingly” offered to trade. Which, again, nothing wrong with that. I mean, he was probably just getting back at me for teasing him. But of course I had to turn it into a contest because I wanted to be the teaser and not the… teased? Teasee? Whatever. Of course I couldn’t just leave well enough alone. And of course I couldn’t just hand him my shirt. Of course I had to fucking escalate and give him my goddamn bra!

Yeah, so even in context, I don’t come off as any less fucking dumb.

Before you ask, no, I did not use his shirt to masturbate again. Once was totally enough. More than enough, actually. Should never have fucking happened. And it never will again. So, no, I did not use it. For that. I might, however, have used it as a pillowcase. Which is a lot better, and not creepy or pathetic in any way. Also, shut up.

It’s a damn shame Nova refuses to be my sparring partner, because I could really use someone to punch me in the face right about now. Maybe Mom could volunteer? I know Dad certainly won’t. I’m pretty sure he still feels guilty about accidentally elbowing me in the face when I was ten, even though it barely hurt me.

I drag myself out of bed, mostly motivated by my bladder who urgently needs a purge. Unluckily, Nova has woken up before me, and is using the upper floor bathroom. I could use the toilet downstairs, but… Ugh, I just don’t feel like taking the stairs. Plus, the other toilet just isn’t as comfortable. Call me privileged, but I’ve gotten used to having my seat warmer and that water up your butt thing when I use the can. Plus, by the time I’ve gone downstairs, done my business, and come back up, my sister might have finished, and someone else might have stolen my turn in the bathroom. There’s also the bathroom in my parents’ room, but even though they might let me use it, I don’t want to risk interrupting them in the middle of their… conjugal felicity. Again. No, I’ll just wait.

Maybe five minutes later, the guest bedroom’s door opens, and I hear yawning. Chris appears, scratching his stubble. He’s wearing pajama bottoms and a new shirt. A white one; I didn’t know he owned any white clothes. Damn it, Jacinda, stop regretting that he’s wearing a top. And stop picturing him without his shirt. I get it, that flame tattoo on the left side of his chest is pretty damn cool, even if it is clearly unfinished, and the bird wing with “Live Free Or Die” written on it in stylized letters over his right pec is even cooler, but still.

“Morning,” he says.

I grumble something, and lean against the wall next to the bathroom door.

“Who’s in there? Nova?”

“Yup.”

“Do you think she’s going to be in there for long?”

“Ooooh yeah.”

“Ah, right,” he says. “I’d expect Werewolves would take a long time in the shower, what with all that fur to clean and dry. Not to mention the mess to clean up afterwards.”

I bite my tongue. Why the fuck do I want to correct him about that? The Werewolf thing I mean, the rest is right on the money. Seriously, why? Like I haven’t learned my damn lesson. Just because he opened up to me and told me something private, confided in me… Well, yeah, in theory, that’d be a good reason. But no. Nothing good can come out of this.

“Had a good night?” he asks.

“Hm.”

Let’s keep it short and unemotional. Don’t engage.

“Was that a yes or a no?”

“Yeah.”

“Doesn’t sound like it.”

I cross my arms. He yawns.

“I thought my little present would help you sleep nicely.”

Ugh. He had to go there. Ignore him. Don’t engage. Don’t tell him he’s wrong; you’re not that good a liar.

Through the door, I pick up the scent of Nova’s rose-flavored shampoo. She has to be over halfway done.

“You’re not going to ask if I liked your present?” he says.

“Oh, I know you did.”

Don’t freaking engage!

“You know I did, huh?”

“Of course. Men like tits, that’s a natural fact. And I’d say you loooove mine, judging how you looked at them that time. You were like a kid in front of an ice cream truck.”

For fuck’s sake, do you not know what not engaging means? And don’t be so smug about how flustered you got him!

“Yeah?” he says. “Want to talk about how you looked like when I grabbed your tail?”

Jerk! “I probably didn’t look as stupid as you will when I’ll mention I’m not wearing a bra right now.”

Yeah, hello Jacinda? This is your brain. I fucking give up on you. It looks like you don’t need me anyway. Farewell and adieu to you, don’t bother calling.

Stupid at that repartee was, at least it got him to shut up, and to go from flustered to hot and bothered. I can smell it. I probably shouldn’t enjoy this as much as I do, but seeing the normally confident, borderline arrogant jerk like this is like crack to me. Can’t help but wonder how he would react if I gave him a little show. Or maybe if I just gave my boobs a little massage, make him think about what it would be like to touch them…

Okay, seriously, somebody punch me. Something is seriously wrong with me. For years now, I’ve been trying to fend off the “attention” of men, especially when it comes to my chest. Why is it that, when it comes to this jerk, I go out of my way to get him to focus on my curves? Why… Why do I like it so much? Like, the other day, when that douchebag in the park leered at my ass, I wanted to rip his fuckind head off and score a touchdown with it. But somehow, I feel like if it had been Chris instead of that creep, I would have been okay with it; more than okay, actually: I would have enjoyed it. It probably helps that I’m fairly sure Chris wouldn’t have made any shitty comments, and not just because he would have been too busy picking up his jaw off the floor.

All of a sudden, I become very aware of the fact that I am indeed naked under my pajama top, and that Chris is standing less than three feet away from me. He looks to be very aware of that too. I feel his gaze over my skin, taking in every part of my body, and turning up the heat inside me. Did he just lick his lips? I think he did. Maybe it’s because my paws have moved to my sides, my claws closing on the hem of my top. When did they do that? I force myself to open them and release my top. The expression on his face noticeably changes; I can’t tell if he relaxes, or if he is disappointed. Shit, are my nipples hard? Can it be seen through my top?

The bathroom door opens, making Chris and I jump. A freshly clean Nova comes out, her fur still a little wet, and her hair properly brushed.

“Sorry to interrupt your eye-fucking,” she says, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, yeah,” I grumble. “You done, then?”

“Pretty much. I decided to rush through it, since we have a guest.”

“Guest, singular? I thought you brought Viv home.”

“I did. She didn’t stay over.”

I hear the door close. Surprised, I turn to look. Damnit! Apparently, while I was talking with my sister, Chris decided to steal my spot in the line. I bang on the door.

“Hey! I was first!”

“You didn’t call dibs.”

“Dibs?! I was waiting! You… You could see I was waiting!”

“See, that’s what you did wrong. You should have been proactive instead. Don’t worry, I won’t be long.”

I roar in frustration, and raise my fisted paw at the door. Before I can do anything more, I’m reminded of how full my bladder is, and I run down the stairs to relieve it. Yay, nothing like pressing down your butt on an ice-cold toilet seat to wake you up in the morning.

Nova has been nice enough to put the kettle on while I was on the can. Good, I need my bowl of black tea, with a spoonful of honey. Mom and Dad aren’t at the breakfast table; they tend to wake up very late on Sundays. Well, actually, I’m pretty sure they wake up early, but they don’t get out of bed before ten or eleven in the morning.

“So, how did it go with Viv?” I ask Nova.

“Sorry, sis. I don’t kiss and tell.”

“Huh-uh, right.”

“How about you and Chris? Did one of you miraculously become audacious enough to make the first move?”

“Depends on what you call by move,” I answer, dipping a croissant in my tea.

“Right, that’s a no.”

“Shut up.”

“Definitely a no.” Nova smirks. “Do you want some advice?”

“Still don’t need it,” I say categorically. Less categorically, I add: “But, hypothetically, what would your advice be?”

The smugness in her expression almost makes me want to throw my pile of raspberry jam-covered toasts at her. But I’m too hungry.

“All right,” she says. “First, I need to know: what exactly do you want from him?”

“Nothing,” I say.

“Try again.”

I sigh and drop my head.

“I don’t know. I… I like what we’re doing. The teasing, the back and forth. I don’t understand it, but I like it.”

“What’s to understand? You’re having fun with someone you’re attracted to, and who’s attracted to you.”

“Yeah, but I mean… why? This is nuts. I shouldn’t be enjoying this. When those pricks in school…”

“Those pricks were a different story. They were bullying you; they didn’t care about you, your feelings, or your boundaries.” Leaning over her plate of toast, she adds: “And they sure didn’t have feelings for you.”

“He doesn’t- that’s not-”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Nova says, shaking her paw in dismissal. “As amusing as it is to watch you fluster and refuse to admit the obvious, I’m going to push past that part if it’s okay with you. Yes, he has feelings for you, and yes, you have feelings for him too.”

I open my mouth, and almost immediately close it.

“He really does, doesn’t he?” I say, sotto voce.

“You thought he was simply obsessed with your tits and your ass? Admittedly, a legitimate concern. Genetics certainly did not skimp on us in those departments. But nope, that boy wants the whole package, and any extra he can get.”

My cheeks are burning.

“I notice you haven’t denied having feelings for him,” she says. “Progress.”

Yeah, why am I not denying it, by the way? Is it just too obvious at this point?

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you wear crop tops, by the way,” Nova says. “They really suit you.”

“Thanks,” I mutter.

“When was the last time you wore something vaguely flattering? Freshman year in high school?”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, it’s a good thing. You’re no longer letting others decide what you should wear.”

I nod. Is that really what’s happening? I thought I was just wearing those things to annoy Chris, but it’s true I now feel comfortable in them. Yesterday, I wore tight pants and a red crop top for no other reason than because I wanted to. I eat for a moment, pondering about that.

“I want to tell him,” I say.

“Tell him what? About the clothes?”

“No… The other thing. The, err, not-a-Werewolf thing.”

“Oh,” she says.

She bites off half a slice of toast.

“Are you sure you can trust him with that?”

“I mean, I don’t know. I think so? After all, he trusted me with… Err, with something personal that I probably shouldn’t tell you about.”

“Does this personal thing have to do with why he’s crashing at our house out of the blue?”

“It might.”

One of her ears lowers in concern. “Is he going to be okay?”

I purse my lips. “I don’t know. I hope so.”

My tea must be properly steeped now. I’m not as much of a tea snob as my dad, or worse yet as Uncle Gordie, but I do care to make it right; bitterness doesn’t agree with my palate.

“So what’s your advice?”

She straightens up, putting on that face she has when she’s about to deliver some deep truth.

“Just go for it.”

I blink, waiting for the rest, before realizing that she’s done.

“That’s it? “Just go for it”? You call that advice?”

“Advice doesn’t have to be profound, or philosophical, or ground-breaking. It just has to be helpful.”

“Well, it’s not! What exactly should I go for?”

“Do you want an explanation or a video?”

I scowl at her. “Super funny.”

“Look, Jass, there’s really nothing complicated about this. Make a move. Take a decisive step. Make it clear to him what you want, what you’re about. This, of course, requires you to know what you want.”

“Well…”

“Right, so let’s try this in another way: what’s the last thing you two have done?”

I click my tongue, then tell her about the bra thing.

“Not bad, not bad,” she says. “Now, let’s see… I’m guessing you’d like to up the ante while making sure you remain on top of this weird game you’re playing.”

“Something like that.”

“Okay. First of all, it’s pretty clear that this thing between you is about control. Both of you want to take it, but also enjoy giving it to the other.”

“What, like in those trashy BDSM novels you keep reading?”

“I don’t keep reading them,” Nova retorts, her face darkening a little. “I only have a couple of them; I have eclectic tastes.”

“Sure.”

“But there is definitely some dominance-submission thing here.”

“I’m not a sub,” I say, wrinkling my nose.

“Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but no, you’re not; not really. And he’s not really a dom, either, I don’t think. You both simply enjoy the power play. It’s like a competition, except better because you both end up winning.”

That’s an interesting way to see it. It’s true Chris has… challenged me ever since we first met. He pushed my buttons, but also my limits. I wonder if I’ve had a similar effect on him.

Heh, silly question. I seriously doubt he’s spanked anyone in a library before. Or anywhere else. For all I know, mine might actually have been the first pair of boobs he’s ever drooled over.

“Let’s say you’re right so far,” I tell my sister. “That still doesn’t tell me what I’m supposed to do next.”

“Well, it’s not my purpose to tell you exactly how to act.” She raises an eyebrow. “This may come as a shock to you, but I don’t actually know how to seduce a man. Nor do I care to learn.”

“… Fair point.”

“All I’m going to give you is a few pointers. On one condition.”

“Of course.” I roll my eyes. “Far be it from you to selflessly help your sister.”

“Oh, relax. I just want you to tell me how it went after.”

“In great detail?” I snark.

“Just the bullet points will be fine,” Nova says. “How you felt about it, how much progress you’ve made, stuff like that.” She puts her paw over mine and goes on, her voice lowered: “Look, here’s what I would do…”

Both of our ears peek up, as we’ve just picked up noise coming from the stairs. Someone is coming down; the footsteps are too light to be Mom’s, and too quick to be Dad’s. Right before Chris enters the kitchen, Nova grabs my head, pulls it close so her mouth is near my ear, and whispers the end of her sentence.

“Your shower is pretty great,” he says as he comes in, smiling broadly and smelling of his citrus-flavored body soap. I try not to be too obvious when I sniff him as he sits next to me.

“Here, you must try the pancakes,” Nova says. “Dad tried a new recipe, and it’s even better.”

“Wow! Your pancakes are homemade?”

“Dad loves cooking,” I say. Seeing him go for the maple syrup, I scream: “Wait, no, no, no!”

“What?” he says.

“Our maple syrup is homemade too.”

“So?”

“So Dad makes it with Cayenne peppers”, Nova explains.

Chris does a double take, and withdraws his hand.

“Who the Hell puts peppers in maple syrup?”

“We do,” I say. “We put spices in pretty much everything.”

“Christ almighty,” he sighs, shaking his head. “Not in the tea, I hope?”

Nova nods to tell him the tea is fine, while I pour a pint of syrup on my pile of pancakes. Hah. Wimp. I must have made a face, or maybe a noise, because Chris glares at me, and elects to put a few drops of it on one of his pancakes. A smile stretches on my lips as I look at him, as if to say: “you sure about this?”. His glare intensifies as if in response, and, without breaking eye contact, he cuts a piece of pancake, picks it up with his fork, and shoves it in his mouth. He starts chewing, slowly, deliberately, as if he’s masticating a live grenade. Gotta hand it to him: even though his face is turning fire truck red, he doesn’t tear up, he doesn’t spit his bite out.

“How is it?” I ask, faux-candidly.

“It’s like there’s a party in my mouth, and the place has multiple fire code violations.”

Nova and I laugh, while Chris drowns himself in tea with lots of cream.

After breakfast, I decide to do my daily jogging in the morning instead of the afternoon. Nova gave me a lot to think about, and I do my best thinking when I’m exercising. My brain is basically a dynamo. It’s pretty chilly out on this Sunday morning, but on the plus side, that means the streets are empty. The dry, cold air irritates my nostrils, stings my eyes, and chafes my lips. Good thing I love running so much, because this is the kind of stuff that’d make me regret not spending the morning under my bed sheets.

When I make it back home, my muscles are nicely fatigued, and my fur is damp with sweat. I go to the kitchen, and grab some water from the fridge. Dad is up, although there’s no sign of Mom. Nova and Chris are cleaning up the table, while making small talk about college.

“Good morning, pup,” Dad says as he puts a pot on the stove.

“Hey, Dad.”

He drops a dozen chocolate bars in the pot, and watches over as the heat melts them. Then, he gets some of the chicken nuggets he cooked the day before, and dips them into the chocolate.

Uh-oh. My danger sense kicks in. He’s making his chick-choc nuggets, he has quite a few noticeable scratches, he’s a little winded, and our mother’s scent, which he’s carrying as always, has a piquant, almost aggressive finish. Nova and I trade looks, and I can tell she’s arrived at the same conclusion.

“Oh, shit,” my sister mumbles.

“Is something wrong?” Chris says.

“Code red,” I say. “Right, Dad?”

“Afraid so, pup,” he says with a tired smile.

Nova and I groan. Great. Fun day ahead.

“You know the drill,” Dad says. “Keep the noise to a minimum when you’re inside the house, open the windows if you’re going to cook something, and stay out of our bedroom.”

“Roger,” Nova says.

“No problem,” I say. “I think I’ll hang out at Fisherman’s Wharf for the day.”

“What’s going on?” Chris asks, getting agitated. “What’s a code red?”

“Mom’s having her period.”

It’s almost hilarious how his expression goes from “what’s on fire?” to “are you fucking kidding me?” in a matter of seconds.

“Her periods can get… pretty bad,” Nova explains.

“Like killer headaches, mood swings, and awful nausea kind of bad,” I say.

“Right,” my sister nods. “So she basically spends the day in bed, in the dark, eating comfort food and trying to avoid all noises. Oh, and most smells make her want to vomit.”

Dad also told us -well, implied- that she’s also a bit more… active than usual, thus why we won’t be seeing him much through the day either, but we obviously don’t mention that part.

“Oh, I… see.”

Chris scratches the back of his neck, obviously uncomfortable.

“Err, can I…”

“Come with me to Fisherman’s Wharf?” I offer.

“Yeah… I think that’s probably best.”

Sure, no problem.

 

Like I said earlier, showering takes a really long time for a Hellhound. Well, the shower part itself is not that much more time-consuming than it is for any other Humanoid, for the most part; it’s what comes after that’s really annoying. First, you’ve got to clean up the shower. Given the amount of fur on our bodies, and the average length of our hair, that’s every bit as tedious as it is necessary. When I was younger, I got grounded for neglecting that part; my punishment was unplugging the damn thing, which is just as fun as it sounds. Yeah, never forgot to clean up my hair even once after that.

Once the cleanup is done comes the drying part. Oh, joy. You’d think it’d be easy to just blow-dry my whole body and be done with it. I did that once. Turns out, blow-drying fur leaves one hell of a build-up. Nova almost pissed herself laughing when she saw the result. And I couldn’t blame her: I looked like a fucking chow-chow! And, as adorable as I find those fluffy things, I’ve been doing all my drying with a towel ever since. Well, a couple of towels. Three or four. 

Oh, I forgot to mention the soap. Or rather, the soaps. Hellhound fur is pretty demanding in terms of care, at least if you don’t want to have knots everywhere; or worse yet, some goddamn fleas. Yeah, it happened once; I’d rather not talk about it. Neither does Mom: she’s the one who had to brush me thoroughly every day until I was one hundred percent bug-free.

So long story short, we use three soaps in every shower. One for the skin, one for the fur, and one for the hair. And no, we can’t use the same product for both our hair and our fur. Well, we can, but it’s not a good idea in the long term, according to Mom.

After the drying, there’s the brushing. My fur can get super messy, so I have to do it regularly. At least once a day. Probably more, actually: my sister does it three or four times a day. Hellhounds have to use a special kind of brush, given that our fur is tough enough to wreck any regular comb. I always start with my legs, from thighs to calves. Then, I do my arms, my tail, and finally my head. I actually enjoy the brushing part. There’s something relaxing about it; it centers me to focus on one part of my body at a time.

Brushing teeth is also pretty annoying for Hellhounds. Our fangs are a big fucking deal, so we have to make sure they’re very clean. And because we love meat, we often have bits stuck between that we need to get out. Not just because it’s grating, but also because over time it can crook our fangs and fuck up our dentition. Grandma has actually had a lot of issues with that; her mouth used to low-key scare me when I was a pup.

The makeup part is honestly the simplest and the shortest, mostly because I usually go by with the bare minimum. And since today is Sunday, maybe I won’t even bother with it at all. I mean, I’m going out, but who cares? Right, Chris is coming. That shouldn’t factor in, though. 

All right, maybe just some eyeliner, real quick.

Oh shit, is that a zit?… No, it’s a beauty mark. I got one over my eyebrow, apparently.

Okay, a little lipstick, too. Just to make sure my lips don’t look weird. Shit, I don’t have any left. I’ll just use Mom’s.

Now I’m done.

Wait. Do I tie my hair or let it loose? Tied up is more convenient, but I think it looks better loose…

Fuck it. Loose is fine. Let’s goooo already.

 

“So, what do you want to do?” I ask Chris as we arrive at Pier 39.

“I don’t know.”

“Have you ever come here before?”

“A couple of times, with Manny. I take it you come here often?”

“I grew up in the Bay Area,” I remind him. “So yeah, pretty often. My fifteenth birthday was here. Oh, and my eighteenth, too. Might have my twentieth there, as well.”

“So what do you want to do? What do you usually do?”

I lick my upper lip, staring at the Sea Lion sculpture as I walk under its claw.

“Promise you won’t call me a nerd?”

“Hell no,” he says with his trademark cocky grin. “Come on, what is it? Is there a museum around here?”

“No. Well, there is, but at Pier 45. My favorite thing to do here is the aquarium.”

“That’s it, the aquarium? That’s not really nerdy.”

“Yeah, but like… I’ve been there… a lot.”

“As in, you’re on first name basis with the octopuses a lot?”

“It’s “octopi”. And, err, kinda, yeah.”

He laughs. I should be insulted, but it doesn’t feel like he’s mocking me.

“Well, as far as nerdiness goes, I can’t throw the first stone,” he says.

“I’ll say, Mister 4.0. At least you got enough jock in you to balance out the nerd.”

“Same for you, Miss Half-Marathon. So, wanna go introduce me to your favorite clownfish?”

“It opens at eleven,” I say. It’s quarter to, at the moment.

“Of course you know the hours by heart.”

“They are the same everyday!” I retort, my cheeks heating up.

“Okay, okay. So what do we do in the meantime?”

“Let’s go watch the sea lions.”

Fuck, it’s even colder by the sea. Well, the temperature is probably the same, but with that wind that won’t quit, I feel like I moved to the freaking North Pole. Chris is wearing his varsity jacket; I should have brought an extra layer too. As usual, we can hear the sea lions before we see them, honking and barking louder than even the seagulls can scream. And as usual, it’s pretty crowded in the viewing area. But that’s one of the few perks of towering over the vast majority of people: I don’t need a front seat to enjoy watching the lazy, silly, floppy, noisy sea-based mammals. There aren’t many of them today; guess it’s cold season for them too.

“Mommy! Look!” a young girl squeals.

Hah. There’s always a kid screaming happily. The girl looks about six. Or eight, or ten. I really can’t tell kids’ ages. But I can definitely tell that her dog is about two years old. It’s a male English Mastiff, with apricot hair and one gray eye. He, too, looks pretty happy, although it’s not the sea lions he’s looking at, but me. I crouch down as he trots to me, pulling on his leash.

“Hey, buddy,” I coo, holding my paw for him to sniff. He does so, wags his tail, and happily licks my fur. I pet him around the neck. “Aw, I love you too.”

“Do you often confess your love to random dogs you’ve just met?” Chris says, amused.

“No,” I say. Lower, I add: “Not just dogs. Cats, too.”

“Ah-ah.”

“And, erm, ferrets also. And goats. And cows, sometimes. And a capybara, once.”

He’s shaking with silent laughter.

“Well, I can’t help it, okay? Animals love me, and I love them.”

Chris pets the dog too, until a woman -the girl’s mother- calls him back.

And with that, it’s now past eleven. Chris and I make our way to the aquarium. I offer to pay for his ticket, but he gets miffed and tells me he’s got it. A little annoyed, I tell him I’ve got a membership, so I can get in for free. He rolls his eyes in a silent “of course you do”. Finally, after a bit more back-and-forth in front of an awkward cashier, he relents and lets me pay. Seriously, what’s up his ass? I’m just trying to treat him, he’s my guest.

We venture forth in the dimly-lit hallways. Eventually, we make it to the sevengill shark. Chris starts asking me several questions, which I answer the best I can. By this I mean I begin monologuing about it. I catch myself a few minutes into my speech, but Chris doesn’t seem bored or annoyed. In fact, he looks interested. He continues asking questions about some basic stuff concerning that particular kind of fish. Really basic stuff; actually, it’s all info he can read on the plaque next to the tank. I point this out.

“I know,” he says with a playful smirk. “But I wanted to see if you knew all this by heart.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay, I’m a nerd and a dork. I get it.”

“No, not at all. It’s actually endearing how passionate you get about it.”

I turn to the next tank so he doesn’t see me blushing again. We go through almost half the aquarium before noon hits, and we decide to take a lunch break. After hitting a seafood place, we find a bench in front of the bay -a rarity, at this hour- and quickly fill our stomachs.

“Seriously, it’s almost terrifying how much you Werewolves can eat in one sitting,” Chris says, eyeballing my leftovers -well, my crumbs. “What do you do for family gatherings? BBQ an entire cow?”

I muffle a burp behind my paw. Staring at the ripples on the sea, I finally make my decision. I know it’s a freaking terrible idea, but I have to tell him. Or rather, I want to tell him. Why? Fuck if I know. But I do want that.

“Chris?”

“Yeah?”

I pass my tongue over my fangs.

“I’m gonna call in my first favor.”

Chris puts down his half-eaten fried shrimp and swallows the other half.

“Ah. Err, okay.”

Judging by his face and his scent, he’s feeling a mixture of anticipation and worry. Just like I am…

“I’m going to tell you something, and I want you to keep it a secret.”

“Oh!” He looks a little relieved, like my favor was going to be something much more embarrassing. Not an unfounded concern at all, if I’m being honest. “Yeah, sure. No problem.”

“From anyone,” I stress. “You can’t tell Manny, you can’t tell a soul.”

“Of course.”

I take a deep breath. Come on. Do it now, or you never will.

“Yeah, so I’m not a Werewolf.”

“Huh?” he says, lowering an eyebrow in confusion. “What are you, then? You don’t look like a Kobold. Not that I’ve ever seen one, but…”

“I’m a Hellhound.”

His confusion visibly intensifies. “I… Uh, I don’t think I’ve heard of that. Hellhound?”

“Few people know about us, although things are slowly changing.”

“Why the secrecy?”

“The main reason is there’s a lot of superstition about us in the people that have heard of us. Lots of suspicions, too. I mean, there’s “Hell” in our name…”

“The main reason?” he repeats. “What’s the other one?”

I place my paws over my knees.

“Some of us have been… hunted, in the past.”

“Hunted! Because of those superstitions?”

“Yeah… No. It’s a long story, and I don’t know much of it. My mom was actually kidnapped by one of the assholes who hunts us-”

“Holy shit. What happened?”

“Nothing, thankfully. Dad saved her. That’s how they met, actually. You can’t tell them I told you that,” I immediately add.

“Sure.”

“I…” My throat becomes sore as memories come back to my mind. “Back in middle school, there was this girl. We became best friends, and one day I told her I was a Hellhound. I thought I could trust her, but she became terrified of me. She stopped talking to me entirely, and then she started spreading gossip about me. She told people I was a Hellhound, that I was evil, that…”

My mouth twists into a snarl, baring my fangs. Chris puts his hand over my paw.

“Ah, geez. I’m sorry, Jacinda.”

“I had to change schools. Well, not just for that, there was some other stuff, but…”

I sigh.

“I’m thankful that you trust me enough to tell me,” Chris says. “That can’t be easy for you.”

“It’s not, but I, I err, I wanted you to know that. Like, I mean, you told me about your history with your dad, so it seemed fair, I guess.”

“I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”

Those words turn my snarl into a smile. Maybe it’s naive of me, but I believe him.

“Does that… Does that change anything?” I ask timidly. “I mean, for you. Or for us, or whatever.”

He hums, thinking about it.

“Yes, it does.”

I can actually feel my heart sinking. Like, no joke, I’m pretty sure it just dropped down a couple of inches. But then, he gets his cocky smile again.

“Now, I know why you’re addicted to my scent,” he says. “You’re just being a good hound, following your nose.”

“Jerk!” I sputter. “That’s not- It’s just- I just- you…!”

“Now, now,” he says, patting the top of my head in the most condescending way, “be a good hound or you won’t get another one of my shirts, tonight.”

I punch the jerk in the shoulder a couple of times. He tries to fend off my attacks, and manages to punch back, although I barely even feel it. I move one of my legs over the bench, stradling it. My paws grab his collar. That’s when I notice that our faces are only a few inches apart. He notices it too. We stop fighting, and stare into each other’s eyes. He’s blushing. Oh my gods, he’s blushing.

“Just so you know,” he says in a low voice, “that doesn’t count as a favor. I wouldn’t have told anyone, anyway.”

“No?” I say. He shakes his head. “So I can use that favor for something else then?”

“Of course.”

I lick my dried lips. Gods, my throat feels dry too.

“Then…”

Go on, Jacinda. Just like your sister suggested. Just go for it. You can do it.

“Then, for my first favor, I want you to…”

I fall silent.

“To?” he says, and I could swear his face is lightening up in expectation. Do it, Jacinda. Just go for it.

“I want you to kiss back,” I say.

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