There’s a trick to real estate in the Emejre Reservation, and maybe one day somebody will clue me in. Aeneas introduced our new digs as a fixer upper, but anyone with a lick of common sense would have deemed it a tearer downer. Honestly, I tried not to harp on the issue that much, but the issues was forced when I leaned against one of the walls, and it promptly collapsed under my weight. I scrambled back to my feet and gave the rotting drywall a kick for good measure, then turned my attention back to the doorway.
Not unlike the pot never boiling, a watched door never opens… or, in our case, a watched ragged sheet covering the entryway is never pulled back. My foot stamped against the ground before I could stop it, a nasty habit picked up from my wild cousins that reared its ugly head whenever I felt stressed. What distracted Aeneas this time, I wondered. His flare for the dramatic extended well beyond introducing me to beautiful women and even our chosen profession, and his entrances almost always fir the pattern.
In other words, he was often late and made up fantastic excuses. Normally I just accepted that as part and parcel of having Aeneas as a friend, but his tardiness wasn’t helping my already high levels of anxiety. I paced around the room a few times, then stopped to look into the cracked mirror leaned against one wall. I found the right angle where my body wasn’t distorted like a funhouse mirror, then looked for any imperfections in my fur. I’d given up on the longer hair atop my head a long time ago, as even a half can of styling gel couldn’t tame it. I settled on a meticulously disheveled look and rolled with it.
Before long, my thoughts left my appearance and veered in a predictable direction. Telara Ansara. I liked the name, it suited her almost perfectly. Telara Ansara. I’d been mulling it in my head ever since she’d first spoken it, like a mandatory mantra to keep all of this from being real. Of course, my brain being what it is, I couldn’t resist trying out a little alternative. Telara Matthias?
No, no. Far too soon, too soon to contemplate that idea even as a distant fantasy. First, I’d need to string together coherent sentences around her, a skill I’d yet to master. And how might it go after that? She might find me boorish or, even worse, boring. For that matter, while I found her stunning and our limited interaction painted her as almost painfully charming, who knew what longer conversation would yield? And even if she proved every bit as charismatic as I imagined, and even if I could convince myself to speak to her, there was no guarantee we’d have chemistry.
Aeneas made it look easy. He reacted instinctively to everything, be a problem on the job or finding the rights words to defuse a situation or impress a stranger. I, on the other hand, agonized over every word that came into my head and whether or not I should say them, and more often than not I remained silent. Where he rolled with the punches, I just lingered in the background and let him handle things. Which, come to think of it, is how I ended up in this situation in the first place.
Thing is, when I get to know people I’m fine. And if you put me on stage, it was a different story. Back when I worked at The Asylum, I could banter with anyone in the audience and could charm them with each. Of course, I wasn’t Owen Matthias at that point, I was Erich the Great. And even with that life behind me, I could still slip into a character so long as it fit the requirements of the job. But when the characters disappeared and I was just left with Owen Matthias? That was the problem.
I was so lost in those kinds of thoughts that I’d stopped paying attention to the mirror, let along the entryway, and I’d failed to hear Aeneas walk back in, so the shopping bag hit me square in the head.
“Wake up, Easter. You need to get ready.”
I pulled it open and looked inside to find a black dress shirt with gold trim around the collar and cuffs, a pair of black slacks and… oh, thank goodness, a gold scarf that matched the trim.
“It’s not like you’re shedding right now.”
“True.” I tugged at the green scarf I currently wore. “Thanks for remembering.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Where’d you get this from, anyhow?”
“Rock and Blues, down in the Plaza.”
“Seriously? That’s not cheap.”
Aeneas smirked. “I got a pretty good discount.”
“I’ll bet you did.”
“Now hurry up and get changed. We don’t want to keep Miss Ansara waiting, now do we?”
“I still can’t believe you talked our way into this.”
“You notice she said yes, though.”
“That hadn’t escaped my attention. It’s also why I’ve been having a borderline panic attack for the last hour.”
“Everything will be fine.”
“Not as much as you. But look on the bright side, if it does go bad, at least you know, right?”
“Sure,” I replied, but at the back of my mind I wondered if not knowing might be preferable.
That was the only coherent thought I was capable of for at least a good few seconds after I caught sight of Telara. We’d tried to dress up, but compared to her I might as well have been wearing the rags of a beggar. She wore a blue dress that flowed around her and shimmered like a waterfall. She wore her hair down, though twin copper braids started just below her ears and joined into a larger one in the back. A string of silver beads stretched across the curve of her long tail, matching her delicate silver necklace.
She must have noticed my expression, because she greeted me with a sheepish grin. “I… ain’t overdressed, am I?”
“Not at all,” Aeneas said, not missing a beat. If he noticed how much the look flattered her, and he surely must have noticed, he wisely failed to show it, especially since Cinnia met us in route and already had her hands locked with his. Her dress wasn’t as elaborate as Telara’s but it was sleeveless and showed off impressive muscle definition in her arms. I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side, and I suspect Aeneas felt the same.
“Shall we?” Telara asked.
“Indeed we shall, “Aeneas replied, and we all fell into a line. To my horror, Aeneas and Cinnia picked up their pace, and in short order were a good distance ahead of us and locked in conversation, while Telara slowed down and fell in step with me. Unbelievable as it might sound, I found it hard to look at her, but only because all those doubts filled my mind once again. So instead I kept my head down, and thought up and shot down at least a half dozen ways to break the ice. That, and I didn’t want to stare at her and give her the wrong idea. She’s already made it plain she had little patience for shameless men.
“Sidewalk’s pretty damn interesting, huh?”
I winced, and my ears pressed flat against my head. “Um, well, kinda.”
Smooth opener there, Matthias.
“I’m serious, y’know. Think about it, how many things might’ve happened on this stretch of road here? If the concrete could talk, bet it would have some interesting stories.”
I looked further ahead of us, and to my horror the words came out before I could vet them. “I see where somebody spit out some gum.”
“It could’ve been really important gum.”
“How important could gum be?”
“Maybe the flavor lasted for a long time.”
“Good point. Should we put up a monument?”
Her voice took on a solemn tone. “’Here lies my favorite stick of spearmint. Long may its minty goodness live in our memories.’”
“But then somebody would set up an kiosk and start selling backs of gum.”
“For five bucks a pop.”
“No, seven with a collectible container.”
“And ten bucks gets you the photo op?”
“Sure, why not?”
At some point during that whole ridiculous exchange, I actually looked up and met her gaze without realizing it. She’d closed the distance between us, near enough that the fur from her tail brushed against my hand.
“So what do you do, Owen?”
“At the moment? I’m walking.”
“I mean, regularly.”
“I walk regularly too. I also sleep more than I should, and I spend a fair amount of time reading.”
“They pay you for that? Dang, I’m in the wrong line of work.”
I closed my eyes and went back to the story. I’d rehearsed it a number of times in the past, but the words came out harder than ever before. “I work as a courier, mostly. If you want something delivered faster than the human mailing service, I’m your guy.”
“Huh. Sounds like fun.”
“Honestly? It’s not.” I felt a pang of guilt telling the usual pack of lies to Telara. Sure, I’d always found it easy to slip into a character and recite my lines, but I didn’t want to play a character around her, not now. Finding someone who plays along with my lame sense of humor is a powerful drug.
“Then why do it?”
“It’s easy work, and I’m built for it.” I gestured across my lanky form. “I know some people think I look a little ridiculous, but I’ve got my advantages here and there.”
“That’s what Aeneas always says, among others. We rabbits aren’t exactly an intimidating lot, you know.”
“Just remember, the nice gentle rabbit keeps his whiskers and tail.”
An ear twitched forward. “Huh?”
She stopped head in her tracks, placed a hand on her hip and quirked a brow, which put me at a loss. It was a very flattering pose for her. “All that reading you claim to do, and you ain’t never picked up Beatrix Potter?”
I actually chuckled. “Well, you’ve got to admit, that would be just a little on the nose for me, wouldn’t it?”
“Don’t make it not worth reading. Put it this way, you don’t strike me as the bad rabbit who’d take a carrot without asking please first.”
Hopefully she didn’t catch the way that comment made me wince. “Well, probably not.”
“Besides, I wouldn’t say you look ridiculous.” The smile that had been on our face since we started curved in a devilish direction, coupled with a mischievous gleam in her eye. I should have known what was coming, but it still blindsided me all the same. “Some might even find you kinda cute.”
I’m not sure what I tripped over, and it’s entirely possible it was just my own two feet. Bede knows they’ve big enough. Whatever it was, at that very moment I almost found myself with an up close and personal view of that interesting sidewalk. I regained my balance at the last second, but it couldn’t have looked dignified in any way. Another flush of warmth washed over my face and the tips of my ears.
“You ain’t used to compliments, are you?”
Her hand came to rest on my shoulder, in what she must have meant as a comforting, friendly gesture, and it was a minor miracle I didn’t jump a few feet into the air.
“Not… not really.”
“Kinda obvious, seeing as you’re as nervous as I’d be in a room full of rocking chairs.” She grinned, that same charming smile I’d noticed before, then gave me a playful punch to the shoulder. “Look, don’t be scared, just be yourself. I like what I seen so far, and it ain’t like I’m gonna run away screaming. Well, unless you get really weird on me.”
It took more effort than you’d imagine, but I smiled back at her. “Guess that would depend on your definition of weird.”
“And you only figure that out by moving your mouth parts and making sounds come out. You were doing fine earlier, just keep that up.” By now, Cinnea and Aeneas were at least a good thirty feet ahead of us, and if they noticed how we were lagging behind, they’d not shown it. “Where we going on this little death march, anyhoo?”
“Aeneas likes to say life is experienced to its fullest when it’s full of unexpected turns.”
“So he ain’t got a clue.”
“I see you’re familiar with that attitude.”
“Bede’s beak, I could tell you some stories. He do this a lot?”
“At least once a day.”
“Golly. How do you survive?”
“Take a deep breath, close my eyes, leap as far as I can and hope someone upstairs has my back.”
“Words to live by.”
“I’ve only got a few.” A few words came to mind instantly, and I just said them aloud. “We’ve gotta roll with the punches, learn to play all our hunches.”
If Telara had thrown a few surprises at me to this point, she’d clearly saved the biggest one for this moment. “Forget that blind ambition, and learn to trust your intuition.”
“Wait. Wait! You know ‘Cowboy in the Jungle’ off the top of your head?”
If music really is the food of love, quoting lyrics at one another provided a hearty appetizer, and the conversation flowed from there, from music to our favorite places to eat, then to funny things that happened earlier in the week, and it just kept going. With each moment, I tore down the earlier blocks I’d built up with my doubts. I no longer felt wildly intimidated by her looks(okay, maybe a little), and instead just felt engrossed in the conversation and how much we shared in common.
It was clicking for us, and Bede help me I liked her more and more with each exchange, with every laugh and every smile. With every step we took I started to feel more of that fabled spark, and the doubts faded to mere whispers. After all, a woman who loved burritos, Buffett and bad puns was almost too good to be true. I mentioned that elusive l-word before. Was I falling in love? No, I wouldn’t have gone that far, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to see a path opening up in front of us. If nothing else, I felt certain this would last more than just one evening.
But the night was young, and I still had more to learn about Telara. And about myself.