So, here we are! First chapter of part 3. We've come a long way now, haven't we? I'll save the thank-yous for after the story's trully done, though. Come to think of it, that's also closing in, huh...
Please make sure to leave a review with your thoughts guys; as always, I really appreciate it.
Let the reading commence.
The hoarse yawn came from the open door of the room, followed by an unnaturally loud echo, as it was heard in the empty apartment. Leo had always been proud of his yawns, as he thought they resembled a lion's rawr; and his belief was not entirely wrong, if one were to consider the said lion to have skipped on a week's worth of sleep.
Leo sat up on his bed and blinked a few times, trying to shake the ecstasy of sleep off his eyes. After his vision stopped blurring, he slowly sat up from his bed and let out another beastly yawn before falling to his fours and stretching his body to the limits of his feline flexibility. This had become a sort of daily ritual, necessary for him to start his day.
His room was a mess, even by his normal standards: there were three different sheets on his bed, two of which had almost fallen off. The carpet of his room was crumpled in many sides, and it was mostly covered by random articles of clothing, such as socks and t-shirts. His wardrobe was wide open and almost empty of any really clean clothes, while his desk was covered by a thin layer of dust; only the part around his pc was relatively clean, proof of it's occasional use.
Leo himself appeared to be in an equal mess. He hadn't clipped his whiskers for more than a week now, and they had grown so long that they too crumpled in his sleep, bothering him the morning after. He was wearing nothing but his blue bell, boxers and a white t-shirt, with which he had replaced his normal pajamas for some time now. His eyes also looked strangely dull; and not only due to being bleary. He hadn't been sleeping well lately. Lastly, the bell seemed to be dancing around on his neck much less than usual, and it hadn't been polished in a while.
Letting out another yawn, Leo made for the kitchen while scratching his back, thinking that he could wash himself clean and fix his messy hair later. It was Saturday and he didn't have to go to his work, much to his relief, as Brian had given him that morning off. He had told him to get some rest, as he didn't look okay lately. God bless that puma, thought the grey cat as he poured some milk in his bowl of cereals and took a seat on a kitchen table.
He chewed his food with a severe lack of excitement as he wondered how to occupy himself for the rest of the day. He thought about going out with Pantsman and Krug, or perhaps his high school friends, but he quickly crossed that possibility out. That day, as well as the day before, he was having a strange feeling he wasn't accustomed to; a feeling that caused his head to feel heavy and his legs numb, and a very unwelcome uneasiness in his chest as he thought about leaving the house.
It was fatally boring. What was fatally boring, you say? Everything, that's what. His favorite games were boring him, his work –which he used to love- was now plainly tiresome; he felt that even his friends would bore him, although he wasn't seeing them a lot the past few months, truth be told. He was unwilling to do anything for a while now, to the extent where he had neglected even the basic housecleaning he usually did; as the situation was getting pretty bad, he had noted to himself to do the laundry and maybe sweep a little –the last time he had tried to clean the floor was approximately three weeks before- within the following week.
He threw his head on the back of his chair and let out a sigh as he stared at the ceiling. He had never, ever, felt this way before. A few months ago, he wouldn't believe that anything could cause him to. As he formed that thought, though, he realized that it actually made sense; he had been deprived of something he had had with him for so long that it was now a part of him. And apparently, that was also the part that put the smile on his face. That didn't surprise him too much either.
Five months. That is how much time had passed since Aeris had left for Japan; and that was also how long she had been occupying Leo's mind with annoying persistence.
It wasn't all that bad at first, actually; they would chat on the computer every day, sometimes more than once, and always for many hours on end. It was a huge relief for him and it had him thinking that this Japan thing wouldn't cause that much of a difference after all. Aeris was talking to him with enthusiasm about every little impression she had of the eastern country, and he would listen and comment with equal excitement.
This went on for about a month; she would tell him of all the weird stuff she was seeing there –and she was seeing a lot of weird stuff- and he would tell her about what was going on back in Canada. Even when Leo went to his mother's house for Christmas, he didn't neglect to call her and exchange wishes.
Easy as it was at first, it soon became harder. Leo felt like he had exhausted every topic of discussion, and for some reason, he couldn't think of anything new to tell her after a point. The same went for Aeris; in addition, she also had very much work to do, and pleasing her clients sometimes required her to give up on any free time. Leo was surprised by how difficult it was to find something to say to the pink cat; it always came to him so naturally whenever he talked to Aeris in the past. He had concluded that this was what people called "the difficulties of long range". He had to admit, it wasn't the same as the real thing; and it wasn't nearly good enough.
Their talks gradually lessened, and while they never went a full week without talking, the difference was obvious and painful to Leo. As he was brainstorming to find a way around this obstacle, he realized exactly what was happening: he and Aeris could probably handle being best friends from a distance for six months, as long as they could talk and maybe game with each other.
But for the first time ever, and probably because of the fact that she wasn't close to him anymore, he wanted to do more than that. Not that he wanted to engage in any form of sweet talk, which he so much despised, of course; he only liked using that as a means of teasing her, and that went only for when they were together. It was just that before Aeris had left, he had never really needed to say anything to express his affection, as he always had other, much more efficient ways of doing so.
Unfortunately, that was no longer an option. He also felt unable to resort to any other verbal means, as he and Aeris had never called themselves "lovers". As their talks about their relationship were always limited to non existent, they had easily settled for that "best-friends-with-benefits" while she was here; Leo was now cursing himself for ever coming up with that term.
A best-friend-with-benefits doesn't say "I love you, good night!" or "I wish you were here", or "I miss you". And as Aeris' absence emptied his days, those were really the only things he wanted to say to her.
As he was facing this kind of depression of his, he made a huge decision. He had already showed her many times during those two short months they had spend together -and even before that, although neither of them was paying attention at the time-, so telling her should now be easy.
He would tell Aeris everything he had been trying to express to her all this time, both as a friend and, the recent months, as something more; not because she wouldn't know, as he was in fact certain that she did actually know, but because he had concluded that it was this half-assed approach of his that had gotten him into this mess to begin with. Of course, he couldn't say something like that from a distance, so he had to wait for her to come back.
When he had first made that decision, it seemed like the perfect plan. He wasn't very worried about her response to his confession because he knew, he could tell that she had feelings for him as well; especially after seeing how badly she wanted to stay with him when she was assigned to Japan. He scowled through his munching as he, for the umpteenth time since she had left, blamed himself for not stopping her.
Regardless, he knew it was the right thing to do. It wasn't fair to ask her to give up on such an opportunity just for him, and he was sure he would always feel terrible about it had he done that. No, he had made the right call; besides, back then it seemed to him that it wouldn't be so hard, that those six months would pass by quickly, just as he and Aeris had assured each other would happen. He exhaled while taking another spoonful of his breakfast. Well, that guess went down the gutter…
After the first night they had spent together, Aeris' feelings had become clear to him, and during those two months that followed this knowledge contributed the most to his happiness. However, things had now taken a different turn. They had spent two months together, that's true, but then they spent five whole months apart. And what's worse, during those months it felt to Leo that their relationship had taken a few steps backwards whenever they talked… So he couldn't help but think about the possibility that Aeris' feelings had changed during that period.
The thought had his gut twisting, causing his appetite to drop; he put the semi-full bowl of cereals into the sink, right on top of a small pile of dirty dishes, and made his way to the couch, once again lost in his thoughts. He could hear Aeris' voice clearly: This was all fun, Leo, but I think we're over that phase, don't you agree?
And after all, there were tomcats in Japan as well; many of them obsessive with the anime she so much loved. Probably lots of tall ones too, with those squinty eyes, looking all serious; the "honorable samurai" kind of look, no doubt. Yes she had always had a thing for those… Lame-ass, costive assholes…
This was Leo's first time experiencing jealousy of that kind, and he was unsure how to best deal with it. His approach involved constant reminders of all the demeaning stuff Aeris had said about the Japanese, and even though that did help ease his worry a bit, it did nothing to bring him closer to Aeris; and thus, nothing to stop him from imagining the worst over and over again.
Despite the warmth Aeris had demonstrated to him, he just couldn't shake that grim feeling in his gut. Aren't five months enough for a spark to fade away? It wasn't a simple spark for him, of course, but after being away from Aeris for so long… He just couldn't be sure the same went for her.
That deep seated worry that of his had been his only dominant feeling over the last few months, along with his insane, unprecedented boredom.
He hadn't told any of his friends about this issue; not only because they wouldn't be able to help anyway, but mostly because he was unwilling to let them know about him and Aeris. To his surprise, the only one who had gotten him to speak about this issue was none other than his sister, Tiffa, who after noticing his unusual behavior during the week they had spent together with their mother during Christmas, had gotten her brother to let her in on the situation through her unwavering persistence.
Tiffa hadn't seen Aeris in many years, and she should only remembered her as that peevish, pink furred girl her brother always hung out with when they were kids… or at least, so thought Leo. He was expecting her to be stunned after he had told her that something had actually happened between them; but, strangely enough, her reaction to the news betrayed little surprise.
In any case, after she had managed to lose the goofy smile she had put on at first, as if she had just bore witness to the most adorable thing in the world, she actually gave Leo some very good advice. It had helped him device his current plans.
Leo had realized that Tiffa was right to be mad at him, back at their father's last days; she had matured to an extent that had taken him by shock. In fact, it seemed to Leo that he himself was far more childish than her. The image he had of Tiffa was one of a sharp, deceptively innocent-looking little girl with a talent for mischief, but as it turned out, that image didn't describe Tiffa's current self. The realization gave him a weird mix of feelings, both pride and sadness for his baby sister's growth.
Nevertheless, he liked the way he could converse with "adult Tiffa" and, now that she knew about the situation with him and Aeris, he had found that talking to her was helping him deal with the dark mood Aeris' absence had thrown him into; to some extent, at least.
Just one more month. Aeris would be back in a month. He didn't know how things would be, he had no idea how her feelings might have changed while she was away… but she would be back, with him. So for now, patience… Not my field of expertise, but what can you do?
He ended his thinking with a light shake of his head; these thoughts had been on his mind for so long that he had completely memorized them, and there was no reason for him to review them now. He got up from the sofa to pick a game to play; he was feeling very unexcited about it, actually, but it was mostly force of habit. His eye caught the clock that hung on the wall next to the door of Aeris' now empty room; the time was almost 1 p.m. He let out a sigh. He might not have been sleeping well, but he sure was sleeping, alright.
He suddenly heard a ringing noise. He froze for a moment, not sure where it had come from. As his ears scanned the apartment in slight alarm, the noise sounded once more.
He facepalmed in embarrassment, genuinely dumbfounded. The bell? Maybe? Wow, I'm a fucking genius… He once again heard Aeris' voice laughing jeeringly at him, calling him flea-brain. His gut twisted yet again, causing him to frown lightly as he headed for the door, hearing a third ring come from it. No one's called me flea-brain in months…
"You sure took your sweet time!"
The yell came from the blond figure which was apparently ringing the bell with such tenacity. The figure walked inside the apartment with wide, decisive steps, pushing Leo to the side before he could make out who it was; they were followed by another person who was standing behind them. Surprised, the grey cat didn't manage to react to the assault of the two newcomers; only after they had entered did he try to question them.
"Wha- Ah…! Hey, hold it!" "My God! When was the last time you cleaned this place up, Leo?!" Came the response in a feminine voice. Too feminine…
"Mia…? Max…! What are you guys doing here?" It really was the shapely female raccoon and the blond male cat, his old friends, who he had finally recognized after being given the time to actually look at them. There weren't any cheer in his voice as he spoke their names, surprised as he was by their sudden appearance. They didn't look too happy either; rather, Max replied to him in an angry tone.
"We're here because clearly we're the only ones with balls! Neil and Sarah chickened out!" Leo didn't know what to make of that sentence, or his friend's angry grimace; another clear sign of his frustration was his tail, which was completely stiffened, as it always was whenever he was mad at someone.
"Ugh… Figure of speech, I'm hoping…" He tried to joke, looking over at Mia, who had so far been observing the untidy apartment with a scowl of disapproval. "No! Forget it! We're not doing that again! Max, don't you dare laugh!" She said, turning around and pointing her finger first at Leo and then at Max, who was about to let out a chuckle. He immediately straightened his face and spoke to the grey cat in a strict voice.
"Right… Leo! We're staging an intervention!" He paused, as if expecting his friend to either cower in fear or clap his hands with excitement. Instead, he got another surprised and confused look. "Eh?" "Leo, we… the siblings, me and Max, we are staging an intervention for you. This can't go on anymore!" Mia added.
They both looked at him with deep frowns, again expecting a dramatic reaction from his part; Leo gave them a vacant, unimpressed look. He scratched the back of his head lightly, as if in awkwardness, and threw one of his pointy ears to the side of his head before speaking. "Erm… Okay. And, why, exactly…?"
"Don't act as if you don't know, dumbass! I've been in Toronto for the first time in four years and we've hardly even seen each other! You've even been dodging my calls!" Said Max angrily, followed by Mia. "That's not all! Leo, we've been trying to get together, but you never agree to go out! It's like you… I don't know, Leo, ever since Aeris left..." "You got all… depressed, man! We can't let this go on! If you're depressed, then what has the world come to?!"
Leo's ears shot up with surprise as he received his friend's accusations. He shook his head and raised both his paws to stop their pattering. "Woah, woah… Wait a sec! Depressed? That's ridiculous! I'm not depressed…! And I haven't been dodging your calls, Max! I just-" "Oh, yeah, right! Just this morning I've called you like, a dozen times and you didn't pick up!" Max cut him off. Leo grabbed his phone from the couch on which he had placed it last night. Indeed, he had eight missed calls from "The Perv".
"Oh… Sorry, man, but I just woke up, actually…" Mia joined the conversation, her voice tensed by her concern; she nervously swept the ground with her thick, ring-patterned tail as she spoke. "You just woke up, Leo? At 1 p.m.?" "Yeah, okay, so I slept a little more on my day off! Sue me!" Max and Mia both made matching expressions of shock. "…So, you slept in all morning on a day off?" Max asked him numbly. "Ugh… Yeah? People do that, you kn-" "So, no gaming then? On your day off?"
Max took Leo by surprise; indeed, if he missed out on his gaming hours, like he had been doing for the past few months, then something was definitely off. The grey cat took in a breath, as if preparing to speak, but didn't answer. "So, are you still claiming you're not depressed, Leo?" Mia asked him, giving his eyes a deep, serious stare. "Again with the depression! Dammit Mia, do I look depressed to you?!" Leo asked her back in frustration.
"Yes! Yes, you do! Look at you!" She took a few steps closer to him, forcing her tail to stop it's motion and stand up with determination. "You're not taking care of yourself, the same obviously goes for your place, and as far as we know, Leo, you're not really doing anything! So yeah, forgive us if we are a bit worried about you…! And please put on some pants…!" "I can't believe you're acting like this just because Aeris left for a few months, man…" Max added in a bit of a calmer tone.
It was obvious from the look Mia gave him that he wasn't supposed to say that. The mention to Aeris caused the weight to reappear on Leo's chest, but he hurriedly responded. "What?! Oh, get over yourself, Max, that's not-" "Okay, then… What is it? Because there is something, Leo!" Max cut him off once again. He and Mia stared at Leo, awaiting his answer.
He averted his eyes from theirs and took a few seconds to think. This is actually pretty nice of them… For the second time in his life, he felt guilty for neglecting his friends, caught up as he was in his own troubles. It was true, Max being back in town would normally mean a weekly party, but his fowl mood had obviously kept that from happening. It was only natural that the affliction he was exhibiting would worry his friends; thinking that made him feel bad about lying to them… But he certainly didn't want to tell them exactly what was going on either.
Perhaps there is a middle road here…
He let out a deep sigh and sat down on the couch, dropping his ears and staring at his feet. Then he looked back at his friends' faces. "… Okay, that's it…" Mia and Max exchanged a look. Progress, finally.
Mia was about to say something, but Leo suddenly spoke up again before she could. "But… it's just… It's just SO. BORING around here now…!"
Surprised by his statement, which was spoken in the form of a childish complaint, the two listened as he continued. "I don't feel like doing anything! I mean, there's… there's no yelling when I sleep in, no arguing either, and…And I've got no one to make fun of either…! I just… I dunno, I feel like I'm asleep all the time, you know?" He concluded, letting himself sink in the couch while exhaling another sigh. None of that was actually a lie. Good job, major!
Max and Mia immediately changed their approach. Mia sat next to him with renewed concern while Max stood above him and placed a paw on his shoulder in a reassuring gesture. They both felt relieved to hear him say that he was simply bored, as their guesses were all describing much worse situations; they also felt a bit dumb for not making that guess themselves. Stands to reason… The only thing Leo couldn't possibly handle is boredom.
"Oh, I know sweetie… But you can't just let yourself go because of that! The rest of us are still here, you can't say there aren't any chances for fun!" Mia told him in a soft tone, trying to soothe him while rubbing his knee. It was a misunderstanding one would expect of her; the gesture wasn't exactly a "soothing" one for males. Leo sat up on the couch to get her to collect her paw.
"Yeah, that's right!" Max backed her up. "So don't worry, 'cause we'll take it from here! Right Mia?" "Exactly. We've got plans for today, and you're going along with them!" Leo lifted his head and briskly switched his gaze between the two of them. "Plans?" He asked them suspiciously.
"That's right bud! You and me are gonna get some drinks with Neil, and then we and Mia will hit the club!" Max announced as he joined his friends on the couch. Leo sat up again, meaning to mouth a mild complain. "Clubbing? Oh, come on dude, you know I don't-" "No objections!" Mia cut him off, her expression one of intransigence. "You're going out today, and that's final! But before that, we've got to get you all cleaned up… and cut off those whiskers! They don't suit your face one bit." Leo gave her an ironic scoff. "What, will you bathe me too?"
She instantly formed a smile she had found herself using many times in the past. "Oh, Leo, that's a nice try, but I can't… We've just been friends for too long, you see?" She replied, rubbing his back with a mellow look in her eyes. She was trying to joke, but the two males got the feeling she was partly serious; it just fit Mia's character perfectly. Leo arched a brow. "M-hm. The Diva lives on, I see…" He stated, rolling his eyes in a way he had picked up from a certain pink feline.
Max begun laughing to his friend's accurate remark. "Laugh all you want, Max. You're helping him clean up this mess!" His laughter ended abruptly with an exclamation of surprise. "What! Why? I mean, we got him to go out, isn't that enough?" "Hey, I'm still not up for this club thing!" Leo pointed out, but to his annoyance, he was ignored by both of them. "It's an intervention, Max… We have to do it right. And nothing's gonna be "right" until this mess is tidied up!"
Max narrowed his eyes with suspicion. "Okay… so will you help out, then?" She gave him a glittering smile as she shot herself off the couch. "Nah, I should go tell Neil and Sarah. Besides, I'm a girl, I shouldn't have to touch a male's underwear…" "Oh, like those would be you first ones!" Leo blurted out at her in a teasing tone he hadn't used in a long time; his mood was slowly lifting despite his dissent regarding their plans for the night.
"Wait, there'll be underwear involved?!" Max's face portrayed despair as he watched Mia walk towards the door. She blinked at both their complaints. "Okay! So you two clean up and make Leo halfway presentable again, I'll let Neil and Sarah know it all went down smoothly, and everyone's happy!" She concluded merrily as she opened the door and rushed out of it.
"Excuse me! I have a problem!" Leo yelled as he shot on his feet, followed by Max. "Yeah, me too! We didn't agree on this!" She chuckled as she closed the door behind her. "Right, well, have fun you two!"
They stared at the closed door for a bit after the raccoon had disappeared behind it, and then turned their necks to face each other, each seeing his own expression on the other one's face. They stared at each other like this for a few seconds and then, slowly, they smiled and started laughing.
"Some things just never change, huh?" Leo stated after their laughter started dying off. He hadn't felt this lighthearted in a while now, and he realized he couldn't drop his faint grin. "Heh, guess not…!" Max looked back at his friend with a strange expression, unsure as to whether he should say what he was thinking at the moment; he had never been good at expressing his emotions, and he always did so rather awkwardly.
Still ginning, Leo took a sniff on his armpits and made a hyperbolic expression of disgust. "Right… well, I can't enter society smelling like this…" He let out a few short chuckles as he headed towards the bathroom.
"…Hey, Leo?" "Hm?"
He turned to see Max looking at him with a light smile on his lips; he looked a bit embarrassed, but he had made up his mind. The blond cat extended an arm towards him. "…I've missed you, buddy." Leo replied with his trademark smile, all of his sharp teeth showing as he slowly reached out and grabbed the paw his friend was offering him. Max finally spotted that familiar glimmer in the emerald eyes of his grey friend. "Yeah… Me too. Look man, I'm sorry I've been such a dick lately-" "Don't worry about it! You'll make up for all that today… Been a while since I've last had a decent wingman!"
They let go of each other after a few seconds, their smiles still yet to fade away; it truly felt like forever since they had last hung out with each other, and they both considered that moment to be their true reunion.
Max stared at the untidy apartment and let out a sigh as Leo walked to the bathroom to take a shower and tend to his whiskers. Before entering the door, he stopped and turned to Max, narrowing his eyes in a comedic face of wonder. "Waaaaait a minute… when was I ever your "wingman"?" Max gave him a plain stare as he pondered the question. "Hm, fair point. Guess I'll have to mentor you then, eh? Ooooh, this is gonna be a fun night alright!"
For the first time in five months, Leo's mind had been diverted from Aeris, and he could actually feel his chest getting lighter. He gave his friend another wide smile of gratitude before withdrawing his head through the door.
"Yeah… I bet it will be!"
. . .
The bar Mia used to work at during her college years had long since shut down; there were rumors going around about a number of food poisoning cases, but Mia herself had refused to ever make any comments. Nevertheless, the building and location were ideal for a bar, and soon after the pervious owner had made himself scarce, a new owner rented the place. During the five years that had passed since the last reunion Leo and his friends had had at that place, the new owner had been doing big business, and that was evident in the bar's prestige, as well as in it's pricelist.
Leo, Max and Neil noticed the huge change as they walked inside the smoothly air-conditioned space of the bar –it was a pleasant touch, as the night was a very warm one- and joked about how "Mia's absence had done the place good". Max wanted them to stand at the bar, but the other two were against it, so they decided to sit down on the only available booth there was, at the far end of the room.
"…were just bored? For real?" Neil was asking Leo for the umpteenth time that evening as they took off their jackets and sat down. Leo gave him an annoyed look before responding in an aggravated manner. "Yes, Neil, I was bored! Do you think you will get over that anytime soon?" For some reason, Neil's persistence on the matter upset him more than it should. His tall friend eyed him narrowly for a few more seconds before dropping the matter with a light shake of his head.
"Can't believe this is really the same place…" Max stated, awe in his voice. "Yeah, no kidding... Wait, you haven't been here before ever since?" asked Leo. "Nope. What made you think that?" "Why did you pick this place, then?" "Oh, you know… for the romance of it." Leo arched a brow. "Romance?"
"Well, it's been five years since that reunion we had here, and… we had a fun time… And I just thought it'd be fitting, you know?" "Not a bad idea, actually! I need to reconsider my opinion of you, Blondie!" Neil teased his friend in a lacking attempt to reciprocate for the teases he himself had received so far; he wasn't going to join them in the club later that night, and Max hadn't stopped nagging him about that since they had met up at Leo's place.
They had just ordered a round of beers when Max started looking at the direction of the bar with blatant indiscretion. "Dude, we're going to a club later. You can peek all you want there!" "Buzz off, flea-brain! I think I know- Yeah, that's him!" "Who's who?" Asked Leo, now following Max's gaze along with Neil. "A friend of mine. I'll go tell him to come over!" The blond cat shot on his feet and made for the bar. "Max's friend… Do we want him to come over?" Neil asked Leo with worry; the grey cat simply laughed it off.
"Nah, who're we to t- Woah!" He had just seen the person that Max was bringing along. "Where did they meet, in the clink?!" He exclamated silently, causing Neil to chuckle as Max and the newcomer sat down with them.
"Guys, this here is- um… Jeremy!" He announced happily, needlessly gesturing over at the tiger that had taken a seat next to him with his paw. The tiger was clearly older than them by at least twenty years, and his looks justified Leo's comment; his long arms and short yet sturdy-looking body gave off an aura of an old-school cutthroat. "Jeremy, this here's Neil, and the one with the ridiculous bell is Leo." "Hey, nice to meet you!" "Fuck you, Max!"
The tiger returned their –well, Neil's- greeting, and the two cats were surprised by his voice. It's tone was calm and composed, and it didn't seem to fit his hostile image. They instantly understood that despite his appearance, he was actually a kind person; Leo even expected him to turn out to be a pushover.
"Max, I told you a thousand times, my name's not Jeremy…" He complained after exchanging hellos with the other two. Max gave him an awkward look, as if fearing what he would say next would be an insult to the tiger. "Yeah, I know, but… well, do you really want to be called "Jeremiah", man?"
"Max, just because you hate your name, doesn't mean everybody else should too!" Neil pointed out with mischief. Max's look immediately changed to surprise, and then annoyance. He was about to tell Neil off before he had the time to elaborate, but before he could Jeremiah asked the dreaded question.
"What? Why's that? What's wrong with "Max""? Before anyone could explain or avoid giving an explanation, Max and Neil caught a pleasantly –to Neil- familiar snicker; it was the kind of laugh you would expect of a Disney villain. And it was one of the many humorous touches Leo liked to add to his teases. "Well, Jeremiah, you've never been around his mom. That's why you wonder." "Leo, don't you-" "Max! Would you be so kind as to tell us your full name, please? As in…how does your mother call you?" Leo cut him off in hurried speech, not letting him finish his threat.
Jeremiah was looking confused while Neil and Leo were savoring the wonderful look of embarrassment on Max's face. "Listen, can't we just for once-" He was cut off again, and again by Leo. "Oh, hush, everyone! Let us bear witness as he masterfully changes the subject!"
Upon finishing his sentence, Leo gave Max a straight look filled with polite anticipation. Jeremiah chose to simply enjoy the cheery mood of the booth and not bother himself with understanding, while Neil had put a paw over his mouth to hide his smile and simply observed; Max had always been that one friend of his that tried to make his life difficult, so he enjoyed it whenever Leo chose him as his victim.
Max let out a sigh of frustration; he hated being on the receiving end of it, and it was widely known that Leo never held back against any of his friends. "Okay guys; that was fun, you've had your fun. Neil, I'm sorry I teased you about not wanting to go to the club with us tonight. There, see...?" He smiled at his two friends, but they didn't respond in any way; they just kept staring at him with devilish amusement in their eyes. He let out another deep sigh as he dropped his smile. "Can we please just talk about something else?" His defeated voice was meant to make them drop the joke.
Leo exchanged a look with Neil and nodded. The two put on a shared expression of composed approval and started clapping their paws, as if giving Max a round of applause for his "masterful change of subject". "Stupendous!" "Marvellous!".
Jeremiah's confusion didn't hinder his amusement; he was laughing along with the two cats as the latter received a number of epithets from Max and apologized, without however tuning down their giggling. Their booth was collecting the annoyed stares of the other patrons and the staff; just like five years ago. Leo noticed, and he thought that Max might have been right after all; there really was a kind of romance in what they were doing. At that moment, his spirits couldn't have been any higher.
"Heh, aren't you guys a fun bunch!" Jeremiah stated merrily as a waitress served them their drinks, most likely hoping that drinking might make the four felines a bit quieter. Leo received the compliment with a nod and drank a gulp of his beer, choosing to save his strength for when he would need it; he had a feeling that night would be full of moments similar to the one just passed.
"So, what's up with you, Jeremiah?" Neil asked politely. "What do you mean- ugh, Neil, right?" "Yeap. I mean… Well, what do you do for a living?" Max made a groan in response to his friend's perfectly casual question. "Neil, you're not having a date right now, you know that, right?" Jeremiah let out a chuckle before answering the tall cat.
"I'm a bus driver. That's how I met this gem over here, too." He added mirthfully, pointing at Max. "So, you immediately recognized his, um… rich character, and inevitably fell victim to his irresistible charm. That it?" Leo concluded with a face, causing Max to put on a cocky smug. "Yeah, we chatted for a while and, seeing how smart people have been disappointing me all my life, I decided to give the poor guy a shot…"
Jeremiah had caught up with the mood; and sadly for Max, it was still against him. "Hah! I like him!" Leo reached out and grabbed the tiger's paw in acknowledgment; Jeremiah was smiling under Max's icy stare, not bothered by it. He had understood that didn't mean much for those three. He liked seeing friends who were this tensionless with one another.
They started talking about this and that, and as Neil and Leo got to know Jeremiah better, they understood why Max had befriended him. Despite his not-so-mental occupation, he was actually a fairly sophisticated man, knowledgeable in a way life could make you, and that made him an interesting person to converse with. He also had the humor to back that up; Leo especially found himself talking to the tiger with the same ease as he did to his two other friends.
The four of them kept on chatting, really just hanging out, for a little more than an hour; most of other patrons had left, and the people sitting at the booths gradually got replaced by flirting couples and laughing groups of friends, who generally preferred to stand at the bar.
Just as it seemed that their group was about to run out of topics to discuss, the bar was shaken by the sound of a human sobbing audibly, his face buried in his arms which he had laid in front of him on the bar. A friend of his was patting his back and ordering more drinks to the barman; the leopard that was in charge of the shop for that shift must have known the crying man, as he didn't seem bothered by the loud noise that was annoying most of his other customers.
The four felines looked over to the sobbing human. "What's up with him?" Max's voice had a very cat-like curiosity in it as he asked the question. "Oh… Oh, sad case, my friend…" Jeremiah averted his gaze from the noisy human with an expression of pity on his face. "You know him?" asked Leo. "Yeah, he's a regular here, like me. And I know he's having it rough right now." "What happened? Um, I mean… Can you tell us?" Neil added, not wanting to be indiscreet.
Jeremiah let out a sigh. "Might as well… Pretty much everyone here knows the poor bastard's story. You see… It's his wife…" he said with a face, not adding anything else. "What about her?" Max rolled his eyes to Leo's question. "What do you think, flea-brain?" "Stop calling me that! It's not working when you say it… As for the wife, she could be sick or something, right?" "No, it's the cheating thing alright." Jeremiah confirmed. Leo focused on avoiding Max's triumphant gaze while drinking a huge sip from his glass.
"Did he catch her… ugh… on the act?" Neil was the only one of the three cats who had remained serious. "He might as well had… You see, there were some- well, various rumors about her going around, and he's recently confirmed them." "What… All of them?" Max had decided that was the right time for him to join the conversation. Jeremiah hesitated for a second, not sure if he had the right to go into such detail, but he decided it didn't matter as the cats didn't know the guy in the first place. "I know about at least three of them for sure…"
"Oh… Oh, poor guy…" Neil looked back at the direction of the human; he had grown a bit quieter as he was drinking with his friend. "Hey, sounds like your kind of girl!" Leo stated neutrally, turning to Max. "Yeah, I know right?" He responded likewise.
Neil gave the two an angry look as they started giggling to the joke like the fully grown adults they were. "What's wrong with you two?!" He scolded them in a strict tone. "You're right… We're sorry, pops!" Max responded, a smirk still on his face. "Yeah, we promise we'll behave." Leo added.
Neil was about to continue, but to his surprise, he heard a few short laughs come form Jeremiah. "Oh, come on… That was kinda funny!" the tiger told him defensively as he gave him a surprised look. "…Really like him!" Leo stated, exchanging smiles with the tiger.
Neil didn't respond. He let out a sigh and looked back to the poor cuckold, a broody sadness in his gaze; admittedly, he looked incredibly luscious, straight out of a movie. "I don't get it… Is it that hard for a woman be loyal to a man…?"
"Not at all! Apparently, this guy's wife could manage fifty."
There was a loud, curt nasal sound, followed by wet coughing as Max chocked on his beer; Jeremiah begun laughing anew, both to the grey cat's statement and to the blond one's desperate attempts to breathe through his choking. Neil gave Leo a derogatory stare, to which he responded with an apologetic shrug and a guilty smile. Sorry man, couldn't let that one slip by! He didn't try too much to hide his frolic, though; and even if he had, Max's loud laughter and coughing would have definitely brought it out.
"Alright, that's it! I give up. You're all morons." Neil exhaled in defeat, a look of annoyance on his face as he drank some of his beer. "Nah, let them have their fun, Neil. If you kids ever fall for a girl for real, you'll be missing the times when you could laugh about these things."
Max scoffed to himself, thinking the tiger to be trying to pass as older than he actually was, while Neil turned to him with renewed interest, meaning to ask him about any girls in his life. And neither noticed the huge impact Jeremiah's short phrase had on Leo.
His grin disappeared in a flash and his eyes turned serious. He's right… Isn't that kind of where I stand? He focused on hiding the sudden dive of his mood as Aeris once again swept his mind like a tidal wave, emptying it of all other thoughts.
He dozed off for a few seconds, but then his ears picked on a few phrases Neil and Jeremiah were exchanging. "So, have you ever fallen for a girl this way?" Neil was asking him. Jeremiah put on a bittersweet smile and a nostalgic look that caused another silent snort from Max. "Oh, you can bet I have… And I've had her fall for me too, I'll have you know!"
"What happened, then?" Max and Neil looked over at Leo in astonishment; knowing him, they expected the subject to be of little to no interest for him, yet it was obvious that the tiger had captured attention. Neil gave his friend and inquisitive look as Jeremiah replied.
"We just kinda… Drifted apart, I guess. These things happen." "….Just drifted apart? But how? You said you had both fallen for each other!" "We had, but… Well, here's a prime example." Jeremiah nodded towards the human, who had begun sobbing anew after finishing his first drink. "Do you think they didn't love each other when they first got married?"
Neil followed Leo's gaze towards the bar, making a light frown. Leo's face remained relatively neutral. "You see… Time changes people. And especially females; they're the most whimsical creatures on the planet." He let out a saddened sigh as he gulped down what was left of his third glass of beer for the night.
Max, having accepted the fact that this would be their next topic of discussion, was making a face of polite interest, not wanting to insult the tiger with his complete indifference. Neil had taken on a similar look despite strongly disagreeing with what the tiger was saying; it was going against his whole worldview. Focused as they both were on managing their own reactions, they once again missed Leo's.
He hadn't heard the last phrase Jeremiah had mouthed; his attention faded as he heard him talking about "time changing people". This night was the first time he had actually found himself having fun in five months, and that was because his mind had been averted from his great worry regarding Aeris' feelings. And now, a few hours after he had finally left his home for a night out with his friends, he had heard the single statement that would definitely succeed in throwing him straight back into that black pit.
He stared at his glass for a few seconds, his face void of any expression and his ears standing as if frozen, deprived of their normal, energetic posture. He suddenly grabbed his glass and brought it up his mouth, drinking almost all of it's content in a single gulp; he was glad there was loads of alcohol there, at least; he was overcome by that noxious feeling of wanting to drink oneself numb.
In the meantime, Neil was speaking to Jeremiah about something, probably the issue of "love standing time"; Leo wasn't sure. He wasn't listening anymore. The tiger's words had a certainty in them that merged with the fear in his heart, amplifying it. In the next five minutes, he had ordered two more rounds of beer, followed by Max, who was apparently looking to escape the boring conversation of the two other felines by engaging in a drinking contest with his grey friend. Thankfully, he didn't pay much attention to his "opponent", granting him the silence he desired.
After a few more minutes, Jeremiah got up, claiming he had to get going. The group thanked him for joining them as he was leaving; he had made for good company, and they honestly hoped they would get to hang out with the older tiger again in the future. They all believed that, but only Max and Neil formed the thought at that moment; Leo had just barely raised his paw to shake it with the tiger's and made a few undistinguishable noises that combined with his friend's words, passing for a proper farewell.
"Hey, it's time for us to get going too! It's almost 2 now!" Max said looking at the watch on his wrist as the tiger walked out of the bar. "You're right. Let's get going." Neil agreed with him. "Yeah, you gotta go to sleep early or mommy is gonna ground ya, right?" Leo rushed a laugh without really hearing Max's tease, not wanting to let his friends know of his fowl mood.
"Wait a minute though, I've got to go empty up first…" Max added, getting up and heading for the toilet. "Why did you drink so much, anyways?" Neil asked him, having noticed how quickly his friends were finishing up their drinks. "Just ask the loser next to you, he'll tell ya!" Max responded loudly as he opened the door to the restroom, laughing as he noticed the bitterness on Leo's expression; a clear sign of his defeat in their drinking game, surely.
"Oh, I get it… Man, I swear, you guys are stuck in high school…" "Hey, Neil, can I ask you something?" "Hm…? Yeah, what is it?"
Leo had sat up in his seat and was looking at his friend with tension. Max would be back soon, so he didn't have much time to talk with him, and he really felt he needed to.
"Say… Do you think he was right?" His fear showed in his eyes as he pointed them into his friend's, despite his attempts of hiding it. "Jeremiah, I mean… was he right, Neil?" Posing the question held many risks for him, but he couldn't help it; he was desperate for a straight answer. It might hurt, but it couldn't possibly be worse than that cursed doubtfulness that was eating away at him.
Neil returned his stare for a few seconds. He then slowly laid back into his seat, still giving Leo some side looks. He looked reluctant to answer and Leo, rapt as he was in his dread, hurriedly interpreted that as a sign of Neil's own displease. It's Neil, of course he wouldn't want to admit it… But he was right, wasn't he? He averted his gaze from Neil and made a scowl; he wished he had ordered another glass before they had decided to leave.
Then he heard Neil's voice. "…Leo, promise me you won't say a thing to anyone; not even Sarah. And especially not Max!" Neil's tone didn't reveal distress, as Leo would have guessed; he turned to face him, frowning in question as the tall cat eyed him once more. "…Okay…?" Neil leaned in aggressively. "Promise me!" "Okay, okay! I promise…! What's gotten into you? Sheesh…"
Neil's expression changed yet again, now revealing a new feeling; he seemed embarrassed. Leo's curiosity managed to overcome his sorrowful feelings as he waited for his friend to muster the strength to tell him what he wanted to, as it seemed like he was doing. "… Do you remember Amber?"
Leo scanned his memory, as the name did sound distantly familiar. "Amber… Oh!" His ears shot up as he remembered the name being stated by Neil in that reunion of theirs, five years ago. "That girl you were seeing back in college, right?" Neil gave him a smile. "Yeap, that's the one…" Leo eyed his smiling friend in question. "What about her? Did you get back in touch with her?" "No, actually… Actually, we…" Neil inhaled deeply and his smile grew slightly wider. "…We never broke up, man."
Leo's frown remained for several seconds after Neil had spoken, him trying to understand what he had just heard. Neil was just starting to grow impatient when his friend finally showed signs of comprehension. His reaction was certainly worth the wait; his brows shot up first as his eyes widened, then his ears folded backwards and, after a few more seconds, his jaw dropped, completing his face of complete surprise. Neil couldn't help himself and started laughing, just as Leo finally tried to find the words to speak.
"Wha- Wait, then… What?! So since… Since then, you've-?!" "Yeap. Five years, my friend!" Leo opened his mouth a few more times, but his shock didn't let him make a sound, so he ended up making a series of funny expressions and rapid blinking before Neil decided to stop enjoying himself at his expense. "Take a few deep breaths Leo… Come on, just like that…" his amusement was evident in his voice.
Leo gradually regained his capacity of speech. "Wow… Wow, man, that's just… Whew…! And you haven't told anyone? Not even your sister?" "Not even my mother. I just… I just think they'll freak out, you know? Well, yeah, you surely know!" He looked at his paws, an absent smile on his furry lips. "…Make fun of me if you want to, Leo. Really, I don't mind one bit. Amber-"
"Congratulations, man!" Neil looked back at Leo's face with surprise. His shock had been replaced with such honest joy that the tall cat felt touched. "…Eh?" "So, this is serious, right?" Leo asked him with excitement that moved Neil once again. He had forgotten about that aspect of Leo's, that thing about him that made him cherish their friendship. "Y-Yeah…! As serious as it gets!"
"Hahah! Good! Great! This is wonderful, Neil…!" "Heh, yeah! You think so too, huh?" Neil asked, delighted that his friend shared in his happiness to such extent. "Of course…! Well, a little weird, I suppose, but still!" They were left smiling at each other, fist bumping and laughing lightly.
"So anyway, Leo… About your question…" Surprised by the sudden change of subject, Leo lost his smile as his bitterness resurfaced; of course, Neil must have mentioned Amber at that time to make a point. He listened as his friend started talking.
"…Jeremiah was right. He was, Leo, you can't argue with that." Leo could tell he still had a lot to say, so his heart didn't sink too much as he heard his statement. He kept on listening. "Time changes a person. It changes their tastes, the things they want… And of course, it can definitely beat a crush." Neil once again noticed the hurt in Leo's expression, brought out by his words.
"But what's with me and Amber, then? We've been together five years, Leo, and this young too… I didn't aim for it, you know. I never planned to have one girlfriend in all my years, even I am not that naïve! I mean, I know I'm… well, more stable than average, but I never meant for it to last this long. I thought that with time, we would also "drift apart"…"
"But we didn't. We stayed together. I couldn't help it; and I know she couldn't either… Do you know why?" He focused on Leo's troubled face. He knew the answer, and he numbly gave it as he returned Neil's stare. "…Because you love each other…?" "…Exactly." Neil confirmed with a faint smile; Leo's face remained serious, his full attention aimed at him.
"So time changes things… That's true. That's a law. But you see, when it comes to love, there are exceptions. In fact, there's nothing but exceptions. Think about it!" He leaned in closer, his voice now spangled with enthusiasm. Leo thought that his confidence was much like Jeremiah's; except that Neil seemed… excited, while Jeremiah seemed tired instead. Neil felt like a victor, while Jeremiah felt beaten.
"You wouldn't lightheartedly humiliate yourself for someone else, right? Except if you love them. You give up on your pride the instant you fall in love… And two people never really open up to each other completely… Unless if there's love involved. Because if so, then trust isn't even an issue." Leo's focus intensified; that description fit him and Aeris even back when they considered themselves best friends. "So, in short… I guess that, even though time can change many things…"
"If you're in love, Leo, and it's the real thing… Then I don't think it will ever fade away. No, if it's the real deal, then it will only grow, no matter the circumstances. I, for once, don't have a single doubt. And believe me, Leo..." He leaned in again, bringing his smiling face closer to Leo's before continuing. "If it's the real thing… you will know; just like I know now. It might take you some time to realize it, but in the end you always know, because you can't possibly mistake it for anything else."
Leo's focus was too intense for him to immediately respond. His mind numbly analyzed all the things his friend had just told him, and he felt their optimistic meaning slowly soothing his restlessness. Before he had time to sort things out in his mind, though, Neil spoke up once more.
"Now, I was lucky enough to meet the girl I love before I even turned twenty two. But then again, there are others…" Leo noticed, along with the change in Neil's tone, the meaningful look he was giving him as he paused. "…Who were even luckier than I was... right, Leo?"
Leo's face took on many expressions over the course of the next few seconds. There was question for the first one, then surprise for the next, and then several seconds of him trying to regain control over the muscles of his face before responding, attempting to chuckle through his words. "Er… W-Wait, what do you-"
"Leo, I told you about me and Amber before anyone else was because, for some reason, I got the feeling you would understand me. And evidently, I was right." Leo's face kept betraying him, persistently denying to exhibit ignorance. "…I don't- I don't know what you mean by-" "Let's just say I'm picking on some signs…I'm not sure what they might mean, but I won't try to find out." "Dude, what's gotten into you?! I'm telling you, I-"
"Leo, listen to me! I'm not asking you anything, and I'm not gonna say a thing to anyone either, so just shut up for a minute!" Neil's tone put an end to Leo's stammering, allowing him to continue. "Now, as I said, I might be wrong and this might really mean nothing to you, but I think I'll just say it anyways…"
He looked into Leo's eyes once again and spotted a number of other signs in the storm he had caused inside of them. He spotted his despair through their emerald color; a despair which at the moment was gradually being replaced by a newfound hope. The storm had shaken Leo so much that, at that moment, he wasn't really afraid of Neil figuring something out. He just stared back at the tall cat, who had yet again acquired his full attention.
"…Good luck, buddy. I'm cheering for you."
Max came out of the restroom before Leo could give a reply to Neil's last phrase. He took a seat and started speaking with Neil, reaching into his pockets to find some change to pay the tab; the latter acted naturally, as if trying to give Leo the time to calm himself down and thing the things he had told him through. As his two friends were motioning over to the waitress, the grey cat managed to collect his thoughts.
I already knew all that. That's not my problem… I know how I feel, but what about her? I can't know that now… So why…?
Why was he feeling this way? What Neil had just told him had caused his heartbeats to quicken, and he could feel his distress slowly turning into excitement. What did he say…? That I would "know"… But what d-
Suddenly, in a flash, the bar disappeared from his eyes. For a single instant, his mind ignored the world around him and shot him back to a neglected memory of his. Utilizing all his five senses, he saw Aeris, lying next to him on the couch in the dark apartment. And under the familiar, dazzling blue of her eyes, he could see her smile.
He remembered that smile; that feint curve on her lips, lingering in the afterglow of her crystal laughter. The single sharp tooth, always sticking out one side, as in every smile she had ever given him; but this one was special.
Because that was the smile he had put on her face seven months ago, as the two lay in each other's arms, right before he had kissed her goodnight…
Right before that kiss.
He was thrown back into reality as abruptly as he had exited it. The bar was the same, his friends were just as he had left them, having paid and preparing to leave. He realized he must have paid for his drinks as well, but he couldn't recall doing so. There was nothing occupying his mind other than the shadow of the smile he had once put on that pink and white face, seven whole months ago. And it's shadow was enough to completely blind him.
Max and Neil had begun walking towards the exit, so he got up and followed them. They were talking about something; from what Leo could tell, Max was once again teasing Neil.
Yeah, everything really was exactly the same as before.
And yet, nothing felt the same to him.
His smile was a discreet one, but it was without a doubt the happiest smile to ever crease his lips. Neil's voice echoed in his head: It might take you some time to realize, but in the end, you always know.
He was right. And Leo did know; not only about himself. Upon realizing that he knew, he got the same feeling he had gotten back when he had first received that wonderful smile of hers. Seven months and it's beauty hadn't lessened in the least; it had only grown. …Heh. What do you know…
The memory had felt like a morning kiss, conjuring a nightmare and gently waking him up.
He blinked a few times to help his eyes adapt to the now brighter colors of the world around him. In a mere thirty days, he would see Aeris again. He would go pick her up from the airport, he would see her walk towards him. He would catch her expression as she would spot him in the crowd, and time would freeze for them, just like in those sappy chick flicks they both hated… And he was now certain that, in the few seconds that would follow before he finally held her in his arms once more, he would see that brilliant smile one more time. And many more times to come.
He could never again have a single doubt about it's meaning.
Just one more month… And then we'll pick things up where we left them…
He allowed himself a moment to soak in his new state of emotion before walking out of the bar and into the street, following his two friends, who were now arguing in high spirits. He let out a loud laugh, purposely letting them believe that it was caused by Max's assaults on Neil, and ended his musing, focusing solely on his happiness and his innate urge to pass it on to everyone else in the wide, beautiful world.
. . .
"Alright guys, I'm going. Have fun!"
They had reached the intersection that led to Neil's neighborhood. Max and Leo would be turning right to get to that new club Max had gotten so excited about and Neil would go left to get to his apartment. The apartment that, as Leo had guessed, he shared with Amber. The thought brought a smile to his face as Neil turned around and said his hellos before leaving.
"Yeah, and you go enjoy your exciting sleep-in, grandpa!" Max threw a final tease at him before they separated. Neil turned; he formed a rarely seen grimace of mischief as he responded. "Heh, shows how much you know!" Max looked at him in question, and then at Leo, seeing Neil winking at him. Leo smiled again, understanding that his guess was spot on. Neil had begun walking away from them when Leo decided he had to tell him one more thing before they parted.
"Hey, Neil!" The cat turned around and faced the puzzled blond cat and the smiling grey one, focusing on the latter. "What?" Leo added some width to his lips as he caught Neil's mirthful glance; the tall cat had guessed what it was he wanted to say to him. "…Thank you!"
The look on Leo's face was all the gratifying he would ever need. "…Don't mention it!"
Neil waved at his friends and turned around, smiling to himself as he walked against the light, warm breeze. So I was right, huh…? Go figure! He relished the happy feeling that thought left behind as he cast it aside, directing his mind towards the girl waiting for him in the house at the end of the next street.
"What was that about?" Max asked his smiling friend as they were walking towards the opposite direction. "Hm? Oh, nothing important… Too shallow a matter for you to bother with, Maximilian!" He laughed to the face Max made, as if his friend had just stabbed him in the back. "Dude…! No! We're not-! Don't call-" "Halt thine earthly hassles this instance!" Leo cut him off, putting an arm over his shoulder and speaking in a deep voice; he could hardly contain his own joy. "Let us focus on getting you some fine tail tonight, sir Maximilian!"
Max was so surprised by his friend's sudden glee that he forgot to scold him for once again calling him by his full name. "Hahah! What was in that beer, man…?! Wait a minute…" He pushed Leo's arm away and gave him a thoughtful look. "…Did something happen while I was in the can?" Leo smirked playfully and picked up his pace, leaving him behind. "Heh… Wouldn't you like to know…" "…Huh?"
He turned to flash his smile at his friend one more time. "Come on, move it! You don't want to keep the ladies waiting, right?" Max laughed in astonishment. There you go! That's Leo! He put on a smile to accompany his friend's as he ran to catch up to him. "Same goes for you! I'm not letting you go home alone tonight!" "Heh, we'll see about that… For now, let the partying commence!"
The two walked down the street, teasing each other and laughing their way to the club.
. . .
It was early morning when the plane arrived in Canada. It had been a long flight; it took several hours to fly all the way there from Japan. Most passengers looked exhausted as they exited the vehicle; a senior couple which had been sleeping during most of the journey, many people in black suits who had occupied the first class seats of the plane, and a family of four cats who appeared to be going on vacations, as they were clearly Japanese. Everyone looked worn out; even the pilot and the flight attendants were clearly glad that they would spend the rest of the day in the airport. It was Sunday, and there weren't any more flights scheduled for them until Monday.
The only exception was the female cat that had drawn everyone's attention at least once during the flight; it was the first time anyone had ever seen a natural pink fur. Even the boy from the family, who had spent a good six hours chatting with her enthusiastically about various manga and anime, was still having a hard time moving past that fact. She didn't seem to have noticed, though; at the moment, she was walking with a slightly hastened pace, dragging the boy along with her, their discussion still on and heated.
Natsu, the boy that was accompanying her, felt a bit relieved he would be forced to part with her to join his family; he had enjoyed their talk, alright, but his fatigue came in contrast with her chatty and energetic mood. For some reason, she only seemed to be getting more and more hyped up throughout the flight; Natsu found it hard to believe that a grown up could like anime that much.
And he wasn't wrong. Anime was not what had gotten Aeris this excited, even though he hadn't picked on that during their long talk.
"How can you be so energetic, Aeris-san?" The boy asked her as he tried to subdue a long yawn. She laughed loudly and gave him a strong pat on his back, causing his strangled yawn to end in a humorous hiccup. "Oh, come on, kiddo! Where's your power of youth?!"
Natsu rubbed his neck and dropped his ears before replying, his tongue sticking out in an attempt to tease the older female. "Meh, never liked that series... But I suppose the yaoi potential got through to you, huh?" He added with a chuckle; in the end, he couldn't help but like the pink, pretty cat with the rough sense of humor who shared his interests. He did, however, give the matter some extra thought as a second, even heavier "friendly" strike landed between his shoulder blades.
"It was nice meeting you, Natsu-kun! I hope you enjoy your stay!" "Yeah, you too!" They waved at each other as Natsu walked towards his tired parents who were nodding at him with impatience. As he was approaching his family, he had a sudden inspiration. He turned around once more and let out a loud cry at Aeris' direction: "Kill all the Titans!"
He thought it was a fitting farewell for her. Apparently, so did she; she placed her fist in front of her heart area, saluting him in a way they were familiar with through an anime series they both followed. With that, she nodded to the boy one last time and turned tail, a faint smile still on her face as she went to grab her luggage.
Aeris Cole arrived back in Toronto at around nine in the morning, on a Sunday, a whole month earlier than when Leo was expecting her. The thought pleased her to no end, as it got her imagining Leo's reaction when she would suddenly appear before him. Aeris?! Wha…W-when did you…?! Or perhaps: …Welcome home! Hahah, damn, Aeris! Couldn't you call?! Her personal favorite, though, had no words involved whatsoever. And that's probably what's gonna happen, too…
These thoughts had caused that constant smile of her's during the long flight, as well as the vigor that Natsu was so astonished by. Her energetic walk clearly stood out among her fellow passengers', who were instead dragging their feet behind them as they debarked.
She hadn't thought about the time, though. This early in the morning, and on a Sunday, flea-brain would most likely still be asleep. All the better! I'll get to wake him up…
She chuckled as she imagined Leo whining in his sleep with her nudging him lightly, and then with more power. He blinks, and then he sees the pink color filling his vision… and then the shape of the cat standing in front of him, smiling. His eyes slowly widen and, before he has time to say anything, Aeris speaks up.
Morning, flea-brain, she tells him in a soft tone. I'm home!
Aeris ended her daydreaming with a purr as she exited the airport. She had loads of luggage; she had taken many things with her, as she expected to be spending six whole months away. She had three valises, one pink and two red, as well as a sack hanging from her back.
She had a thick pink jacket out, but it was warmer than she had expected in Canada, so she had taken it off and hung it from the pink valise. She was wearing a long sleeved blouse with a black and pink ring pattern, a simple pair of jeans and shoes of black and white. Her hair, which she had cut a bit shorter while she was away, were tied in a ponytail that kept falling on her chest as she was constantly shifting her gaze, reacquainting herself with the city she considered her home. Ah… Canada! She sure had missed the place…
She stopped a cab and gave the driver instructions to her home. She also let him know she "didn't mind if he stepped on it a bit", as she was in a hurry. She was getting more and more excited as time went by; she knew had to control herself, though. She wanted to do it right; she would be calmly smiling at Leo while he would be losing his shit. Yes, that's how it should be…!
Following her instructions, the driver entered the road and started racing down the streets of Toronto.
. . .
Things had truly been hard for Leo during the past five months. But perhaps he would have been more at ease had he been able to see Aeris a bit more clearly through the screen of his PC; because it wasn't easy for her either.
She had finally visited Japan, as it had been her dream ever since she was a kitten; after she was there, however, she found herself unable enjoy it in the least. Leo's absence made too striking a difference from her idea of "enjoyable".
She had been separated from him too suddenly, and it had left an empty feeling in her stomach. She had a bitter taste in her mouth as she finally got to try original Japanese sushi, as she never heard Leo's exorbitant comments regarding the raw fish's funny texture. She got to watch and converse about all her favorite anime with other fans in large conventions, but she many times found herself imagining Leo making fun of the character's hyperbolic expressions and voices instead of focusing on the show.
It was too early. Two months weren't nearly enough. This thing she had with Leo was still fresh when she had left, and she missed it way too much to truly have a good time doing anything. It had taken a strong hold over her, and she couldn't shake it off; and she didn't want to, either.
All she wanted was to go back to Leo, but she knew that couldn't happen. So instead, a mere few days after she had arrived in the eastern country, she came up with a different plan: She would devote her time solely to working and speaking with Leo online. The first was an obligation, and the latter was her only means of staying in touch with the grey cat she so desperately missed.
However, she had noticed, just like Leo had, that after some time this wasn't working for them anymore. It reminded her of that one week five years ago, when Leo had first found out about his dad's disease and had kept his distance from her. Just like back then, she was talking with him, but she could still feel his absence. That was the first reason she stopped going online to talk with him as often in the recent months.
The way she saw it, this was a parody of the real deal and was in no way going to replace it; she wouldn't allow it to. It was better if they missed each other and then suddenly got together. It would be followed by an explosion of happiness for the both of them, and that would be enough to get them back to the way they were before.
The most basic difference between Leo's and Aeris' ways of dealing with the situation was that Aeris didn't feel the uncertainty Leo did. For a mentality as composed and rational as her's, a really strong emotion always leaves intense and lasting impressions. And there was this one impression she could never misinterpret.
Leo loved her. She knew it, she had felt it. It was just like the friendship she had shared with him for all those years: simple, unbiased and honest. And the affection Leo had exhibited towards her during those two short months before she had left remained warm in her heart, all throughout the time they had spent apart; even as she saw distance getting in the way, that conviction of her's stayed strong. And it had given her the mettle to see her new plan through during the rest of her time in Japan.
The second reason she had lessened her talks with Leo was that she had committed all of her free time to her job. She worked endlessly; she did overtimes, she worked on Sundays and she usually kept working on her laptop after she went to the apartment they had rented there for her to live in. Her Japanese co-workers appeared to be inspired by her, as she ended up forming and leading a little group of workaholic Japanese designers. And as most of them were also adept gamers, she ended up making some new friends in the foreign country; even though the program she had made for herself didn't allow for many nights out or LAN parties with them.
She was hoping her choosy clients would appreciate her zeal and, perhaps, if she managed to finish the project a bit early, give her the green light to leave and head back to Canada.
She had gone this far to try and maybe spend a day less away from Leo… This was the first time she had ever done something like that for a guy. The thought didn't embarrass her, though; rather, it made her happy. It was the proof she didn't need; the proof that what she had with Leo was special. She didn't care what they decided to call it, that didn't matter in the least; this was also the first time she had ever felt safer feeling her way through things rather than thinking them through. And she found it to feel very pleasant.
She was pleasantly surprised when the clients agreed to call the project complete a whole month earlier than it was originally planned. They congratulated her, arranged for the final details to be looked over by their own designers and sent her off to Canada with the best of praises for her boss and herself. Aeris had informed her boss of her success; and, admittedly, she wasn't very surprised from her reaction. Great! Work's piling up here, it's good that you're coming back early.
Jokes aside, Aeris was going to demand a lengthy leave as soon as she stepped foot into her new office; very strongly so, too. About time I showed that old hag she can't push Aeris Cole around that easily!
But these thoughts were for another time. Now she was in a cab, back in Canada, and she was starting to spot familiar houses. She was in her country, in her city, heading for her home… to wake Leo up.
To her Leo.
. . .
"So, where are you coming from?" The driver asked Aeris. She gave him a weary side look and tried not to be bothered by his appearance; she didn't think too highly of stoners, and the guy resembled one from head to toe. "Japan." she answered him in a neutral tone. In the end, she was in too good a mood to be irritated. As long as he gets me home safely…
The man made a long whistle. "Woah! Big flight, big flight…" Aeris snickered as she followed the line of houses with her eyes. Leo would have liked this guy. "Yeah, it really was." "You tired, huh?" She turned her head and gave the thin human a smile. "Actually, I'm not! Not one bit!"
It was rare for the driver to get positive reactions to his conversation starters, but the pink feline had answered in a cheerful tone, and she was smiling with all her heart. He kept on talking to her with renewed interest. "Really! How so? You got some sleep on board? Cause I never get any good sleep on those things, I sw-" "Nope. Nothing like that…" She gave him a look full of mirth before continuing; his questionable capabilities of rational thought, as she believed them to be, had caused her defenses to drop. "There's somebody I'm gonna surprise… Get what I mean?"
The driver received her wink and put on a laid back smile. "Aaaah, lucky fellow! Hahah… He your boyfriend?" She went back to looking out of the window, an absent smile still on her lips.. "…Yeah, sort of." She chuckled a bit. "Hmm… And how long have you been away, girl?"
Girl? Aeris finally started getting aggravated. Not to mention that talking this much was tiring for her, as she hadn't been using English a lot in the past months, and she had gotten a bit rusty at it; she was still struggling to stop herself from adding honorifics whenever she addressed the man, as was the custom in Japan.
"Five months." The driver let out an exclamation as he sunk into his seat and rested his arm on the opened window; he was now fully prepared for a nice, long and completely meaningless discussion with his passenger. "Oh, funny thing! You know, five months ago, a friend of mine left for the States, right? So, just yesterday, he calls me and-"
"Oh, there we are! Drop me right here, please." Aeris pointed at a small house, about ten walking minutes away from her apartment. The hippie wannabe was getting caught up in the talk –his talk, really- and he wasn't paying attention to the road; she wanted to get home fast, but whole.
The human looked a bit surprised, but he abided. She paid him and then tactlessly moved past the house she had pointed him towards with wide, decisive steps. The driver watched her walk away from his parking spot. Why do people keep doing that? Sheesh… he thought to himself, an offended look on his face as he rolled a cigarette, meaning to take a little break.
Aeris had forgotten all about the driver a minute after she had exited his car. She now had to carry all her luggage, that's true, but she didn't have time to think about that inconvenience. Leo was waiting. Her smile was slowly widening as she got closer and closer to the apartment. There were hardly any pedestrians out other than herself; as expected, this early on a Sunday morning.
She saw the coffee shop that was near her neighborhood, and a bit further down, she caught sight of the fancy-looking candy store at the end of the street. They were both closed, by the familiar sight had Aeris' heart beat faster. A few more steps now…
And she was standing in front of the complex their apartment was in. She allowed herself some time to laugh happily before heading in, and dragging her luggage up the stairs. She had to go up and down twice, but she did so as silently as possible; Leo never woke up that easily, but it couldn't hurt to be careful.
Aeris took out her key, which she hadn't used in a long time, pushed it in the keyhole and turned it until she heard the clicking sound; even that little sound had it's charm at the moment.
She entered the apartment and stared at it's interior. Nothing had changed, everything was exactly the way she had left it; she was surprised to notice how clean it was, though. Had Leo been tidying up while she was gone? If he had known she would be coming today, he would probably clean the place up a bit, but… Oh, whatever! Nice to see you again, my dear 32-inch Sharp tv! And hello to you too, my sweet and loyal Xbox 360! I promise we'll have plenty of time to get reacquainted!
But for now… It was finally time. Her heart was ready to beat itself right out of her chest as she opened the slightly ajar door to Leo's room. Nothing had changed there either… The blue atmosphere was the same, the wardrobe was left wide open and, finally, there was clothing on the carpet; the only sign of untidiness in the whole room. Leo had probably cleaned up yesterday, so this was all the mess he had the time to make.
Aeris paused at the threshold to soak in the image; her tail was all over the place, unable as she was to contain her own excitement. And of course… Leo is the same. Her pointy ears twitched as she let out another silent chuckle; she was wondering if her eyes were starting to water. She walked in the room and saw a lightly moving bump under the covers of the bed; she noticed that those too seemed messy. She moved closer to the bed, as quietly as she could, and stood above it for a few seconds.
Fuck it. Just wake up, please! "…Hey, flea-brain." She spoke in a light tone, which however echoed loudly in the quiet of the room. The bump moved slightly in response to her voice. She exhaled in the form of a happy laugh; she was sure she was getting teary now. Don't make me wait anymore, damn it! Get up! "Leo!" she nudged the bump as she took the covers off of it.
"Ugh… Wha-? Hey! W-Who's there?!"
Aeris' smile remained after she had pulled the covers. Her surprise had frozen it in place.
And so she was still smiling as she received the alarmed stare of the black female panther who lay naked under the sheets of Leo's bed.
In case you didn't know... Max is one hell of a wingman.