Lunchtime at Riki's (AaO Universe Side Story)

Story by Corben on SoFurry

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#54 of Against All Odds Universe

Synopsis: On a warm, springtime Saturday on Bolstrovo's sun-baked coast, an otter named Alen faces a far less relaxing afternoon than the beach-goers all around him. Struggling with a depressing, abusive relationship at home, his favourite hangout on the waterfront offers him an escape, albeit a temporary one. Can he face returning to the warzone he'd left behind, or will he finally find the courage to make a change?

Well, this story took a little longer to finish than I anticipated. It's been a little bit of an excuse to experiment for me, as I think this is the first time I've ever written a story from a first-person perspective. I'm hoping that I've done a decent job of it!

Also, while this did start off as a 'little story' I had an idea for after finishing Escaping the Storm... it kinda wound up developing and growing into something that came in a little over 17k words in the end, for better or worse. The next short story I start on -should- end up being a little more condensed!

Anyway - this is marked 'adult' for some very light sexual content. I hope you enjoy. :)

_ Lunchtime at Riki's _

"Things are gonna be okay," I called up to Zoran, backing away from the doorway of our apartment as he stormed in with the morning's mail in paw. "Don't get worked up about it."

"Don't get worked up!?" he boomed, thundering the door closed behind him. "How can I not!?" The ground shook with every stomp he took across the living room, leaving me wondering, yet again, about the best way to defuse a potential argument with a fox more than ten times my size.

"It can't be that bad."

"Really!? If you say so." Turned out that wasn't it. "Listen, Alen. If you've nothing helpful to say, say _nothing_at all!"

I caught a glimpse of the particular letter that appeared to be upsetting him the most. No surprise to see the Bank of Bolstrovo's logo flash by as he threw his red-furred arms aloft, ranting and raving in a way that only Zoran could.

"What a great start to the day this is. As if I don't have enough on my plate already."

With a look to my left, I found the smaller version of our front door. Maybe it'd have been best to head out for a bit and let him cool off?

"Gods damn!"

But why? Why did I have to head off every time he had a tantrum? This was my home, too.

"Is it about money?" It was always about money, but looking like a knowitall probably wouldn't have done me any favours right then.

"Work fucked up. Again!" He screwed the letter up tight in his paw, hurling it hard into the wall above me. "They didn't pay me my overtime!"

A jink to my right made sure the that ball of paper landed a comfortable distance away. Doubt it'd have hurt too much, but getting hit by anything large enough to come halfway up to knee-height is probably best avoided. "Can you get them to fix it when you go in today?"

"Of course! But I needed that money for the rent due today. Now, I'll be overdrawn, I'll get charged yet more money that I can't afford, and it's all because of... fucking... damn it!"

A solid kick saw Zoran send his computer chair flying. It barely missed the television, clattering noisily into the coffee table. Used mugs, dishes and other bits and pieces all went tumbling down to the carpet.

I braced myself back against the wall, watching that huge piece of furniture come rumbling halfway towards me. Thank the gods he didn't kick it any harder. "Calm down! Trashing the apartment won't help any--"

"Oh, be quiet," Zoran snapped. "All you ever do is complain."

"Complain? I _will_complain if you start sending Visoka-sized chairs flying towards me."

"It was nowhere near."

"Not the point!" I could feel my hackles rising. It _never_helped to shout back, but damnit, living under the same roof as him got tough sometimes. "You could have hurt me."

"It's always the same, isn't it? Alen, the tiny otter, moaning and squeaking and bitching on about something. Try dealing with what I have to, then you might have something to cry about."

I could have laughed right in his face at the hypocrisy on show... or right at his base of his shin at least; such is life as a Maleni in Bolstrovo. "That's why I'm sticking around, isn't it? To help you out until things start to get a little better moneywise--"

"Stop acting as if you're doing me a favour." Zoran hurled the letters to the coffee table so hard that they scattered, half of the pile going the same way as what he'd already knocked to the carpet. "_You_wanted to end things with me, remember? _You_are the one who insists we can't work." He dropped to the couch with a growl, glaring right at me as I stepped away from the wall. It felt good not to have the top of the base board digging into my legs. Zoran's fiery, orange eyes locked upon me not so much.

"When you blow up like this time and time again, is it any wonder?" I grumbled, quiet enough that his large, sensitive ears somehow didn't pick up on it. Probably for the best.

"All you want is a cheap place to live. It works out pretty well for you this way."

None of this came as anything new to me as I moved warily across the room, taking a long step over the fallen television remote and rounding an upturned mug leaking coffee onto the white carpeting. "You make it sound like I'm using you."

"Aren't you?"

"Of course not!"

"Could have fooled me. Maleni; you're all the same."

"That's crap and you know it." I growled that out a little louder than I should have, taking shelter beneath the overhang of the coffee table standing twice my height. "Tell me, who paid your share of the rent last month?"

He folded his arms and looked away to his right, off towards the connecting kitchen.

"Exactly," I huffed. "Try growing up a little."

The floor trembled with the force of Zoran's paws thumping down, practically jumping up out of his seat to tower high above me. One comeback too far, just like always. I'll never learn.

"Who do you think you're talking to!?"

I staggered back, trying to get away. A swift swing of Zoran's massive leg however brought him rumbling to the side of the table, keeping me firmly in his shadow.

"And you say _I_should 'grow up'? Rich coming from you."

I stood back against the coffee table's lower shelf, braced just like I had been against the wall. Having him looming here, close enough for me to have touched his paw, gave an uncomfortable reminder of how tall Zoran was, even for a Visoka. "W-What's that supposed to mean?"

"Stop trying to act big around me." He leaned forward, bringing his huge frame right above me. "It doesn't fit."

Processing that this huge, menacing fox was the same Zoran that I fell for less than a year ago came difficult. Impossible, in fact. _That_Zoran would've never acted this way, outside of being playful in the bedroom at least. He'd have never shouted and bawled at me, doing his best to make me feel genuinely small and insignificant. Wherever that handsome, kindhearted person had disappeared to, the mean-spirited bully snarling high above certainly wasn't someone I could bear to be around.

"J-Just go, will you?... You've got work soon."

He snorted out a snicker of derision, smirking as he stepped back and started towards the front door.

Let him go, I thought to myself. Just let him stomp off to work to leave me with a quiet Saturday at home. The sight of the cocky swagger in those long strides demanded I do otherwise.

"If you ever wonder why we broke up, why we have no future... just remember this." My words fell on deaf ears as Zoran stopped to slip on his sneakers. That just riled me even more. "You've got issues... big issues. Angry, short-tempered... you need help. You're just a damn bully, that's all."

"Don't you ever shut up!?" he roared. "Why don't you make yourself useful, Alen? Call the landlord and squeak on at him. Tell him I can pay on time this month."

"I was going to anyway--"

"Still you squeak."

"Fuck off!" I cried, pushing away from the coffee table's shelf. "Stop talking down to--"

"No,you fuck off!" Zoran marched straight for me. No warning.

I froze, taken completely taken by surprise. The white tips of his shoes raced closer, striking the floor ever harder until one of them swung out.

Gods above, that hit hard. I was lucky he didn't put all of his force behind it... He couldn't have, else I'd not be in any condition to experience the friction burn as I tumbled across the carpet. Up, down, left, right, I hadn't a clue which was which once I finally came to a stop. All I could see was Zoran's splaying ears, his darting glances finding anything but me.

"Y-you shouldn't push me." He backed off, recoiling towards the door. "See what happens?"

I pressed a paw to my stomach; the radiating heat of discomfort quickly telling me where Zoran's shoe had connected. Sucking in a breath, I managed to finally sit up. There didn't seem to be any lasting damage, thankfully. No harsh jabbing pains or anything else that might have come with something breaking.

"You have noone to blame but yourself for that."

Any inclining of desire to respond to him fortunately came too late; the sight and sound of the large apartment door thumping closed leaving me to wallow in the aftermath.

Even with the increasingly frequent shouting and arguments of the last few months, bad enough to help end our relationship together, Zoran had_never_ laid paws on me. Never.

Slowly, the pain eased as I sat alone on the carpet, surrounded by the mess his outrage had created. The image of that wall of white coming at me played over and over in my head. What if he kicked or hit me again? What if it was worse next time? I didn't plan on sticking around to find out.

Picking myself back up from the position Zoran had put me in, I charged straight off towards the bedroom. The memory of his kick persisted, leaving me sad, angry and scared all at once as I barged straight through the door beside the larger-scaled version. I wondered for a second what it might have been like for someone like me living somewhere like on the mainland; a place where this kind of co-habitation setup was so uncommon. I'd have have been trapped here. Helpless. Something to be thankful for at least.

A march past the huge, Visoka-sized double bed we once shared carried me to the small, 'room within a room' over in the far corner. Inside, the cosy bedroom that had offered sanctuary on so many recent occasions sat undisturbed.

"He's gone too far this time," I grumbled, snatching up my kit bag from inside the doorway and tossing it onto the bed that half-filled the space inside. "He won't have a clue where I am by the time he gets back."

Moving the short distance over to the built-in closet, I wasted no time in hauling my clothes and belongings out in their entirety. I'd thought about just dropping everything and leaving so many times before, but never had the guts to actually go through with it.

"Not today, though."

Somewhere during the rush to pack, I'd pulled out my phone and fired off a message to Zoran, telling him not to expect me here when he got back. Truthfully, I couldn't recall the exact words I'd used; emotions guiding my paws subconsciously. It might not have been the smartest idea, but the thought of hurting him, cutting him deeply overtook any semblance of restraint.

My simmering, muted rage kept on bubbling right on through until I'd stuffed my bag full to bursting. A ray of morning sunlight caught the corner of my eye while I cast a glance over my bare bedroom; one of many dancing across the wall beside me. They called me over to the little window above my bed, gifting such a magnificent view from the fourth floor down onto the shorefront a few streets away. The very same shorefront where I first met a brash, confident, but affectionate fox the previous summer. A fox that I'd often hoped might one day return.

"He kicked me today. Actually _hurt_me. I'm not letting him get away with this."

I shook those silly dreams from my head, zipping up my bag and tossing its strap around my shoulder. I could go anywhere I wanted and be free of Zoran's harsh treatment. Nothing could stop me. Nothing_would_ stop me.

With the burden of my belongings weighing me down, striding out of my bedroom with the same intensity I'd entered was a little much to ask. Not only that, but the memory of that encounter on the beach nearly a year ago hadn't been as easy to shake off as I'd hoped. Still, I pressed on, eventually making it back to where the fallout of my argument with Zoran remained. I _was_going to leave. I _wasn't_going to stick around to be picked on again.

So then, why did the smaller door of the apartment look just as imposing as the larger one? Why did those final few steps feel as if they'd go on for miles?

"Damn it!" I dropped my bag to the ground, throwing a paw to my head. After everything I'd suffered, after being physically kicked across this very room, I _still_couldn't leave! "What's wrong with me!?"

Yet again, the image of that big, attractive fox from the beach filled my mind. I remembered him wearing nothing but a pair of swimming shorts, literally sweeping me off of my feet with those muscles subtly hidden beneath fur of bold red and soft white. Those same muscles could be a lot more violent to an otter like me if they wished it. Especially if their owner found me after making an escape.

"I'm such a mess," I groaned, voice muffled by my paw while its webbing masked my eyes. "I'm pathetic."

I peeked on past to the door again. Suddenly, it didn't look quite so imposing with my life down in a heap at the side of my feet. The scorn I poured upon myself rivalled that of Zoran's as I reached for the handle, twisting it and stepping outside. I'd slink off out into town, just like I always did after a big argument. Nothing would change after today. Nothing at all.

On a bright, sunny spring day like this, the shorefront could always be relied upon to be absolutely heaving. Down here on the conveyor belt pathways, a huge crowd of people made their way in both directions along the main strip. Our Visoka neighbours meanwhile did the same, up on the roadside pavements that made them look even taller than usual.

Here in Sturanja, I always appreciated how the walkways that carried us around the city sat fenced off just below ground level. Those back home, like most other small towns in Bolstrovo, ran right parallel to the paths they followed. Not that accidents were common, but it felt so much safer to be placed a little further from harm's way in a busy city.

I pondered that the entire way to my destination, standing to the right among the others taking a more leisurely journey than those walking on the left. No rushing for me; I had a lot to think about.

The bold green and blue signage for Riki's Lounge Bar came into view ahead, fixed to the wall on my right, beside their walkway-level entrance.

I stepped off the conveyor belt, leaving the family of wolves decked out in beachwear I'd been standing behind to continue along on their journey. After a morning spent moping aimlessly downtown, my favourite hangout spot felt like as good a place as any to fall back to. Honestly, anywhere but home would have worked for me.

A short flight of stairs just inside carried me back up to ground level, with another set beyond that taking me up to the raised section designated for customers my size. I'd found myself here amid the sun-bathed wood panelling more times than I could remember recently, hiding out after just one in a line of arguments. In spite of the confidence I took from my rage that morning, another afternoon recuperating on the coastside strip beckoned.

"Table for one?"

"Please," I muttered to the vixen waitress standing at the top of the stairs, trying my hardest not to look too down.

"If you'd care to follow me?"

Her cheery smile did nothing to lift my mood as she guided me, stopping at a two-seater table right beside the balcony overlooking the main area of the lounge. She handed me a menu and asked if I'd like anything to drink. At least, I think that's what she asked. My brain was all over the place. Either way, I declined, flopping down to bury my snout deep into the list of lunch options.

The left hand page contained the healthier options that usually caught my attention. Food here was great, but so damn rich that you'd feel it for the rest of the day. Screw healthy today. After a morning as bad as this, the warm, greasy hug of a double battered fish burger with extra sauce and a huge side of fries called out from the right. If anything could help kick this funk into touch, it'd be this.

I called the waitress back over to give her my order; the thought of my disgustingly, wonderfully unhealthy lunch to come helping me to at least raise the starts of a smile. She plumbed my request into her handheld, waiting a second before confirming, "It'll be about ten minutes."

"Great," I replied, watching her head off to wait another table and leave me alone with my thoughts.

Saturday afternoons here were always heaving, and today proved no different. Customers and workers both large and small packed the place out, filling the air with a lively chorus of chatter. On days like this, the full-on retrofitting a lot of establishments put in place for the Maleni community came in handy. Even with dozens upon dozens of Visoka coming and going close by, the dull trembling of the floor below could barely be registered up here on the mezzanine. Lunch would be a far more... interesting proposition without it, that's for sure.

To my right, the wide, plate glass window gave a perfect view of the beachfront and the sea beyond it, sparkling beautifully under the midday sun. It was a view so perfect in fact, that it almost started me forgetting about the events of that morning. Almost.

"How did things ever get this bad?" I asked myself this over and over again, but still I couldn't put a finger on it. Sure, Zoran had had a difficult time at work lately. The cutbacks being made over at the harbour had been hitting everyone hard. Hell, working in travel wasn't much better these days. With so many fewer people visiting and moving to the mainland because of what's going on there lately; airlines and ferry companies were feeling the pinch. Of course, discussing that with Zoran seldom went well-- another argument the only likely outcome.

"So why the hell can't I just up and leave!?" I groaned that a little louder and I'd hoped, drawing the attention of the weasel sat at the table opposite. Whatever. Him thinking I'm nuts was far from my cares.

Fact of that matter was that the memory of, and any ridiculous, lingering affection for the Zoran of old only partway explained my hesitance. While I _could_just up and leave, I didn't have anyplace to go. You can't just go and find another apartment to rent in a day, and while a hotel or something similar might do for a night or two, it'd get expensive fast.

"What if I _do_stick around?" If Zoran could hurt me once, he could do it again. I wasn't safe in that apartment any longer, no matter how convenient it might be. By rights, I could report what happened this morning to the police. The authorities here didn't mess around when it came to domestic violence between a Maleni and Visoka. They have me giving a report before the end of the day, no question.

Still, I couldn't do that to Zoran, could I? No matter how much we argued, I could always remember the fox I bumped into at the beach just across the road. The same fox that showed so much care, so much attention when his literal bump to the edge of the Maleni promenade section knocked me off my feet.

I couldn't stop that stupid grin from stretching across my face, remembering that if I'd not been so busy ogling Zoran, the tall fox wearing nothing but a pair of asset-enhancing red trunks, I'd have not been so near the edge in the first place.

That thought died as my mind leapt back to the present; a time where Zoran had become far less concerned over any harm he might have caused. I turned back from the window with a wince and a whine, chiding myself for daring to forget that.

"Are you okay?"

"Huh?" I looked up to find my waitress standing beside the table, no doubt within earshot of my pathetic little squeak. Great.

"Is something wrong?" That daydream must have gone on far longer than I'd realised. "Sorry... No, I'm fine."

"Are you sure, sir?" Another, deeper voice rumbled from high above.

Gods above me, when did waiting staff get so considerate!? I peered up to where that second voice originated, ready to reply in a way that would discourage any follow up. "Yes, I said--!"

My jaw froze half-open, eyes transfixed upon the huge, well-built raccoon waiting beside the mezzanine floor. Even as I sat just above knee-height to him, from this perspective, he rose up nearly as tall as most other Visoka would have from the ground. I'd never seen a raccoon this big before, and I'd never seen one with such thick, golden-brown arms, bulky midriff and broad chest; all packed beneath a pressed white uniform that fit him _so_much better than any of his colleagues. On top of that, high above, his cute, cream-furred muzzle sat below a deep black mask of fur, emphasising warm eyes of hazel and... and, he was holding my food._That's_what I was here for.

"Sorry," I cleared my throat and looked down to my paws fidgeting atop the table. "I'm fine, really. Thanks for your concern." My ears burned hot, flicking about uncontrollably. I felt like a teenager again; a teenager whose parents had just walked in to find him doing something he'd preferred they hadn't.

In the end, I managed to get past the embarrassment, peeking up just enough to watch the raccoon waiter I'd been gawking at offer down my plate of food. His colleague took it from the tips of his middle three fingers, placing it in front of me with the standard 'enjoy your meal' before disappearing from view.

My burger looked fantastic, begging me with it's fried, fishy aroma to take a huge bite out of it. Didn't have to ask me twice.

Wrapping my paws around its alluring warmth, I couldn't help notice the shadow lingering around my table. Looking up, I found that massive raccoon still hovering, face full of what appeared to curiosity, concern or something in between. Part of me wanted him to stop making me feel even more awkward than I already did. Another part, well, that didn't mind him being here one bit.

"Thank you." A quick smile up at him won the same in return.

"You're welcome, sir."

His hefty form began to move back from my table, a sharp turn bringing his large, striped bush of a tail whipping up behind him. It sent a short gust of air ruffling through my fur as it passed, carrying with it the quickest blast of his scent. I couldn't stop from letting my smile stretch, nor could I stop myself watching him navigate his wide hips and thick torso through the maze of Visoka-sized tables. If he hadn't eventually disappeared through a side door behind the bar, there's no question I'd have been eating a soggy burger and cold fries for lunch.

As if there'd been any doubt to begin with, my food tasted just as good as it looked; well worth ten tolars of anyone's money. In fact, it left such an impression that I managed to forget about Zoran and what happened at the apartment. Well, I _had_forgotten. Until my brain so kindly conspired to remind me all over again.

With nothing left on the table to occupy me, it didn't take long for my thoughts and focus to start wandering. My eyes traced past those dining at the tables, and those drinking at the bar beyond that, until they found the deep purple couches arranged at the far end of the lounge. Zoran adored chilling out there. In fact, I did, too. Whenever we came here, we always took the chance to settle down together after eating. We'd enjoy a drink or two and just chat and chat, keeping on until darkness fell and the mood light took over.

My lips twitched, then again as I turned back to the emptiness of my plate. I let out a shrill, uneven cough, trying but failing to clear my drying throat. I wasn't going to get emotional. Not here, and not because of that vicious bastard back home.

The drink my waitress offered way back when I first arrived sounded pretty good right about then. Typically, that same moment lined up perfectly with her absence from the mezzanine. In fact, not a single member of staff could be found amid the half-dozen other occupied tables.

"Great service," I complained, just about loud enough that some of my fellow customers might hear and share in my annoyance. With a shake of the head, I looked back towards the main area. No way was I going to wait for the staff here to return from their trip below stairs to the kitchen, or whether they'd disappeared to. My mood, and my dry mouth, demanded something wet and preferably alcoholic.

In contrast, it didn't take more than a second to find a waiter here; no surprise in a room full of Visoka, really.

A pleasantly familiar, striped tail caught my eye, swaying rhythmically as that same big raccoon from earlier approached a couple dining a few tables ahead of me. Suddenly, the lack of Maleni staff present didn't irritate me so much. As he bent down to serve the fellow otters there their food, offering quite the view of his black trousers shifting to contain those generous curves pushing back I might add, I pondered over why he'd paid so much attention to me earlier. As awkward as it might have been, I was kinda happy, too. It reassured me to know that some people out there could show even a little care. The way things had been going, even a gesture as simple as that was enough to offer me a lift.

A slight tremble beneath my seat broke me from the trance I'd threatened to enter. I blinked my head clear, finding a moving wall of black lurching my way. Only then did I realise I'd been staring, straight towards the waiter who'd long since finished up at that other table. A huge pair of thighs pumped slowly towards me, his crotch perfectly positioned to afford me an excellent view without even meaning it. I needed to look away. Why couldn't I look away?

"Would you like something?"

My heart was pumping like a jackhammer, rapidly pushing blood up to my warming cheeks... and downwards to someplace else entirely. This whole situation would have been galling, if it weren't so completely ridiculous.

"I... Yeah, I..." As hard as I tried, I just couldn't get my words past my tongue. Taking a breath, I shifted and squirmed in my seat, feeling like I'd turned bright red beneath my fur. Another gentle rumble followed; this enormous, towering raccoon coming to a stop right beside me. "N-no, sorry-- I mean, yes! Sorry."

I finally managed to look upwards, spotting his broad smile and arched brow peering back from beyond the bulk of his midsection. If anything, he enjoyed all the attention coming his way, too. Maybe. "I was hoping to get a drink..." Snatching up the drinks menu offered the perfect excuse to stop my hopeless glaring. "...Not sure what, exactly."

"Our cocktails are half price between two and six." He glanced at his tablet, smiling a little wider. "2pm is still a little bit away... but hey, what's a few minutes."

"Oh... Thank you. That's real kind of you."

"You're welcome." He beamed even brighter. "I can recommend the White Velikan. It's one of my favourites."

"Sounds good." I started to match his cheerful grin, slowly sliding the menu away from me. "I'll take one of those, please."

"Great." Those twinkling eyes of gentle brown looked to his handheld, his large paw casually tapping away before confirming, "That'll be three tolars."

They looked back to me, trapping my gaze and pulling me right back towards that mask of deep black.

"Sorry... sir?"

"Huh?" I blinked and broke away, returning to the awkwardness of my table. "W-What was that?"

"Three tolars, please."

For probably the first time ever, I was happy to grab my currency card and place it on the scanner at the middle of the table. My balance flashed up, and the charge for my drink promptly left it. Gods above, I just couldn't help myself. The embarrassment just wouldn't end.

"Thank you." I kept my eyes forward as the waiter added, "I'll bring it over for you in a moment."

"That's great. Thanks a lot," came my reply, resisting the incredible urge to eye him up again as he turned to start towards the bar.

Looking around, the relief at knowing that the blaring siren going off in my head, telling me what an idiot I was couldn't be heard by anyone else as they ate, drank and chatted away. I shouldn't have been checking out this waiter, no matter how attractive he was... not with Zoran...

Then it hit me. Hard. "I'm not with Zoran any more." Just why was I doing this to myself? Just _why_couldn't I just pack up and leave and to hell with the consequences!? For the love of the gods, why couldn't I stop pretending I was just sticking around to help him and just move on with my life? Before something _really_bad happened to me.

"And here is your drink." My big waiter made his return just in time, saving me from the sour mood I'd started setting up for myself. I watched his enormous paw, large even for a Visoka, moving towards my table. Atop his fingers rested a tray carrying my drink, balanced with such amazing care that not a single drop had spilt.

"Thank you so much," I said softly, grabbing the short glass containing my creamy cocktail from his grasp.

"You're very welcome." His already sizeable grin expanded further, cheeks pushing adorably to crease his black-masked eyes. "If you need anything else, please, just call me over."

"I'll be sure to." He turned his wide form to walk away again. I didn't intend to deny myself a good look this time. In fact, judging by the added swagger in those swaying hips and tail, I felt certain the large raccoon knew all about his captive audience.

My sickly sweet cocktail slipped down my throat easily, as did the two that followed over the course of the next couple of hours. Unfortunately, I had to settle for another, far less cute Maleni server retrieving those for me, else they'd have tasted all the better.

Despite him offering his services, I'd not seen my waiter since starting my first drink. At first, I figured he must have been tied up elsewhere, but with more and more time passing, it looked as if he'd perhaps finished his shift. Shame. But at least I'd been able to enjoy some eye candy that afternoon; the highlight of a pretty terrible day so far.

Nicely relaxed, and lightly buzzed, I sat back to gaze out of the window. The busy crowd on the beach had thinned since the sun crept slowly towards the water, no doubt moving on to enjoy their evenings.

For me however, the evening ahead held little in the way of prospects, other than perhaps heading back home to await Zoran's return.

That thought didn't hold the same dread as it might have earlier that day... Though that might have just been the drink talking. Didn't matter, though. Whatever my feeling about it, I had to be there when Zoran got home from work. It'd just be something else for him to find a way to be annoyed about if I wasn't.

"Maybe I'll leave it another... few minutes or so," I muttered under my breath, picking up my glass to sip down the final drops.

What little motivation I'd gathered to head off home didn't take long to be lost again. A comfortingly familiar presence lurched into the corner of my eyeline, helping me to find another smile.

"Hello again." My raccoon waiter's deep voice carried down to my flicking ears, pulling my thankful eyes up towards his. Guess he hadn't finished up here after all.

"Hey there." I succeeded in containing my contentment at least a bit, restricting myself to a casual grin.

"I'd like to apologise for not being around to serve you this afternoon." His ears dipped and his smile started to fade. "I've been tied out the back, helping with an unexpected delivery."

Even for a tip-seeking waiter, he sounded pretty specific and honest in his apology. "Oh... well it's not a problem. Your co-workers have all been pretty great."

"That's good... Glad to hear it." He moved those bulky yet muscular arms to clasp his paws together, striped tail twitching while his eyes began to wander. Visoka were usually pretty easy to read, what with their big, sweeping movements, but his anxiety was as clear as the day outside.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes," he answered hurriedly, almost defensive. "I just wanted to come over... to see if you wanted a drink."

"Oh, right." I placed my currency card atop the scanner, letting it confirm what I already suspected. "Thanks, but I shouldn't. I don't like the look of these numbers, and it's still a week until payday."

"That's fair, but as you can see..." I glanced up to find him gesturing a paw to present himself, highlighting a bold yellow shirt that hugged his hill-like chest and rounded stomach. A thick, silver neck chain topped it off, glistening in the sunlight. "I'm not in uniform any more. _I_would like to buy _you_one."

All the attention he'd been paying me throughout the day. The pleasantness that crept a little beyond professional courtesy. Only then did I realise the glaringly obvious: he _was_hitting on me.

I started to tense up; some weird, mixed up wave of emotion hitting me as I focused on my paws rolling my currency card within them. The delight in having the affection of such a big, attractive guy was very real. At the same time, even with those feelings set to propel me up towards cloud nine, something else grabbed ahold of me and refused to let go.

I thought back to Zoran. Again. I hated myself for it, but be it loyalty, the dying flame of attraction, or simply fear over somehow defying him, I just _couldn't_erase the deep-seeded, leftover affection towards my abusive ex. Towards the fox he _could_be, not the fox he'd become. I wasn't over him, no matter how much I wanted to be.

"How does that sound to you? Would you like to join me?"

The hesitance within me made the glance back up at him a difficult one, as if the muscles in my neck had conspired with these frustrating, messed up thoughts floating around my head. I was glad to have managed it, though, able to see the sweet, nervous smile fixed upon that short, cream-furred muzzle. I wanted so badly to shake off these thoughts and yell 'Yes! Yes, you huge, adorable guy, you. I would love to have a drink'.

The corners of his mouth started to flicker, smile faltering to advertise its owner's worry. I bit down, shook off that guilt and flashed the brightest, boldest grin I could muster. "Sure. I'd like that."

"Great," he replied, practically singing as he bounced about on his heels.

The rumbling of the floor started me chuckling over the reaction I'd won.

His massive, dark brown paw moved towards me, easily large enough to have wrapped around me completely. Something carried me back to that morning in the apartment, to relive the moment Zoran's kick connected and sent me falling across the living room carpet.

I refused to flinch back, though, focusing my eyes, and my thoughts, on that charming muzzle high above.

"I'm Jonas," he stated, leaving his upturned paw hovering a short distance from my seat; the typical icebreaker from a Visoka first meeting a Maleni.

"Nice to meet you, Jonas." I climbed to my feet, reaching out to return the gesture by setting my palm atop his thick, jet black index fingerpad. "I'm Alen."

We soon left the mezzanine I'd spent the afternoon atop behind, moving across the bustling lounge to those nice, comfy couches over in the chillout area. Aided literally by a helping paw from the big raccoon... or rather, from Jonas, the trip was a short one. Too short in fact. I enjoyed his warmth, and the softness of those pads beneath me. His delicate touch reminded me, just for a moment, of how Zoran used to hold me way back when we first met.

"Have you sat here before, Alen?" Jonas asked, setting me atop a wooden table adjacent to the violet-coloured couch in the corner booth of the open-plan hangout section. "Or have you always kept to the balcony area?"

"Yeah, I've been here a few times." I had to stop myself from adding 'with my ex'.

"So you're okay with it?"

"Of course. I don't mind this at all." No need to censor myself that time. I settled within the scaled-down equivalent of the couch Jonas hovered in front of; the same kind that found a home atop each of the tables in this area of the lounge. "The seats over here are way more comfortable, and it's still nice and quiet at this time of the afternoon."

"Totally agree." Jonas swept his thick bush of a tail aside before letting his hefty form drop with a thud. He sank deep into the plush cushions beneath him, growling out a sigh. "It's _so_good to be off my paws after today. Carrying in all those boxes alone was something else, I can tell you."

I watched him stretch as he came to rest with his waist level to my eyeline, pulling his shoulders back to show off the twin peaks of his broad chest and thickness of his stomach. "Yeah... I can imagine it was... hard." The grin I could sense myself developing said all that needed to be about my opinion of his performance.

"So, how about that drink?" He beamed down at me, the hint of a smirk behind it telling me he'd not missed my spectating.

"Looks--uh, sounds good to me." I sat back in my seat, not fussed about my slip of the lip as I gazed up, studying Jonas intently while he reached for the menu.

We ordered ourselves a couple of drinks; Jonas plumping for some deep red, fruit-based cocktail whose name escaped me. I on the other hand settled for the familiarity of another White Velikan. The waiter serving us, a fresh-faced young beaver, strolled up to our table with a coy smile. He lowered his paw down, letting me take my drink from his fingers and set it on the scaled-down table ahead of me. I turned to thank him, stopped short by the sight of Jonas matching his colleague's expression as he took his own glass.

"Everything okay?" I asked, sensing that smile spreading to me.

"Absolutely," Jonas replied, giving a nod to our waiter as he left us. "Just... remembering a joke we were having together earlier today."

"Got it." I picked up my drink, letting its sweetness wash over my tongue as a quick sting of uncertainty struck. It dug deep, forcing my eyes away from his and down into my lap.

As fast as those feelings came, they left, allowing me the opportunity to shake my head and dismiss them as something trivial. After everything that had happened so far, it was safe to say my emotions were more than a little frazzled. I needed to relax and enjoy myself.

"You must enjoy those." He gestured to my drink, ears flicking as his large paw lifted his own up to his muzzle. "Seeing as you stuck with it."

The bitter aftertaste stabbed at my throat as I swallowed and set my glass down. "I do. Never had one here before, and it's been awhile since I've had one at all. Have to say, it's pretty good. Thanks for the recommendation."

Jonas' ears flitted again as he sipped his own crimson concoction. "You're welcome. I'm glad I could guide you well."

He shifted forward, bringing his wide, bulky frame to hover over me before setting his drink down atop the table. I peered upwards, overshadowed by a wall of raccoon whose yellow shirt shone as brightly as his grin. I couldn't stop myself letting out a grumble as I sat back, feeling his warmth and smelling his scent wash over me.

"Sorry, did you say something, Alen?"

"Oh, n-no..." I had to reach down to my lap, casually splaying my paw in the hope that my webbing might help hide the expansion beneath my shorts. "Just... enjoying myself."

"That's good. I'm glad to hear it." He gazed straight down at me, offering another perfect view of his cheerful face. I wondered how much of that cheer might have come from the sight of my barely-masked bulge. "I am, too."

I watched him shift his glass, trying to focus on something mundane to help relieve the growing situation under my paw. He placed it into one of the holders built into the tabletop, set there to help prevent a Visoka-sized glass from being knocked over. The last thing any Maleni would want while sat here would be for that to happen, drenching them with the contents of a glass standing close to as tall as they did. Whenever we visited places like this together, I _always_had to remind Zoran to use them. Thankfully, Jonas didn't need such prompting.

"You know, I can recommend you some other drinks, if you'd like to try something different after this?"

I watched the cushions of Jonas' seat sink and shift around him as he reclined back. "Thanks... that sounds great, but I think I'll stick to a soda next. Don't want to get too drunk."

"Of course." His smile persisted. "Maybe a little later?"

Try as I might to match his contentment, the memory of Zoran just wouldn't be shaken; a constant reminder that I shouldn't be too late getting back, unless I wanted another shouting match. "Yeah... maybe."

"O-Okay," he answered, losing just a little of his sparkle. "Later... maybe."

I had to change the subject, before I managed to crash the mood completely. "So... How long have you been working here, Jonas?"

Brilliant. As much as I wanted to know how I'd missed such a handsome guy working here before, I couldn't have been more clichéd if I just up and blurted 'So, come here often?'. The urge to throw my paw to my face was real, but the glint I'd won from Jonas' eyes told me I needn't feel annoyed at myself after all.

"It's been... a few months now. I started here after getting back home."

"Back home? Were you working someplace else?"

"No... well, yes and no." He chuckled and smirked, holding up one of his massive paws. "You see, I decided to go travelling. I spent about a year away, moving around places like Vodaskal, Lepala and Severnia. I worked some small jobs in the process; mostly bar and waiter work like this."

"Wow. That's quite a few different countries. Must have been a great experience."

"It really was! It was so much fun to just tour around, see the sights and experience all the different places and people. You understand how things are so similar, but so different at the same time."

"I'd love to do something like that someday. I don't travel around as much as I could."

"Well, if it's something you'd be interested in, I can definitely recommend it." He reached for his drink again, the gleam of his smile fully restored now. "I visited the mainland for a short while, too. Mostly Velika, but a couple of other places also. That was interesting for a whole load of different reasons."

"I bet... Things have been getting a little crazy over there lately. Makes you wonder when it'll stop."

He took a quick sip of his cocktail before offering back a short nod. "But now, I'm back and working here. This was really meant to just be a stopgap while I figured out what I wanted to do... even if I haven't managed to do that in the two years since I graduated."

I had to laugh, grinning as I replied, "I know the feeling."

"I'm in no rush, though. I quite like this job, my colleagues. The tips are pretty good, and it pays the bills well enough."

"That's so great. I wish I could be that laid back about things." I recoiled with dread the moment those words slipped from my tongue. "Sorry. I didn't mean... I didn't want that to come off as if you don't care, I--"

"It didn't." Jonas snorted loudly, but kept on smiling. "Don't worry yourself."

I breathed a silent sigh of relief. Just why the whole concept of thinking before speaking lied beyond me that afternoon, I hadn't a clue.

"It's nice here, and it suits me for now. What I _do_know, and always have known, is that going back down south to Padinica to be a fisherman like my dad and brothers isn't for me."

"How come? I know some that'd jump at an opportunity like that."

He turned to me with a what sounded like a forced snicker. "I get seasick."

"Oh." I chuckled back, shrugging my shoulders. "Well, that's a pretty good reason."

"I've also always been a lot taller than the rest of my family, so... I... kinda always used to worry I might tip the boat over somehow."

My chuckling became full-on laughter; something that earned the furrowing of Jonas' brow. "Seriously?"

"Hey!" He threw a paw to his hip, sloshing the bulk of his muffin top while his smile spread to expose his teeth. "The rowboats we used to go out on the water in as kids were pretty small, you know?"

"I do, I know." I stopped myself from laughing at his story too much longer. As good-natured as the ribbing was, I didn't want to overdo it. "I'm from a fishing town, too. Lucica. For some reason, and I can't quite put my finger on it, the boats I used to go out with my Visoka friends on always seemed on the huge side to me."

Jonas' turn to bellow out a laugh this time. "Yeah... that's a complete mystery."

"In your defense, even for a Visoka..." I hesitated over the choice of my next words, hoping to get them out without being too obvious about my feelings behind them. "You're pretty... _big..._f-for a raccoon." Well... I didn't stumble over _all_of them at least. I reached to take another sip of my drink, glancing up to find Jonas' knowing smirk grow and grow.

"That's probably why I've never wrestled with many other raccoons."

I choked a little as I tried to swallow, nostrils burning with alcohol. That statement blindsided me completely. Never saw it coming.

"I used to compete, at school and for my university after that."

"Oh!" I scoffed and shook my head, shrinking back with the force of my embarrassment. "Right... I thought..." I dared not tell him what I was thinking. "...Cool."

"I mostly competed against larger species. Bears, bulls, wolves, larger foxes and such." That endearingly cute creasing of his eyes returned. "I was pretty good, if I say so myself."

I had to admit, both his adorable grin and the topic at hand were pretty captivating. "Do you still compete at all?"

"Not any more. I stopped before my final year of studying. It was taking up far too much of my time." He sat back and moved a thick, muscular, golden-furred arm from his side, reaching to press and pat at his stomach. "As you can see, it's been a while."

The heavy wave of jiggling movement, accented only further by Jonas' form-hugging yellow shirt, proved more alluring than his smile and conversing put together. I squirmed in my seat, biting my lip at the sight of this strapping, incredibly handsome raccoon relaxing beside me. If I'd been a little more forward, a little more confident, I might well have asked to join him over there on the couch.

As it was, my cheeks and ears began to warm. I had to reach down to adjust and relieve the rapid tightening in my shorts. There'd be no hiding the rush of blood to my crotch beneath my paw this time. That ship had long since sailed.

I winced as I threw an arm to my gut, still sensitive from the events of that morning. Trapping my tentpoling shame between them both, I folded my other arm above to hide it away completely. By the gods, back to feeling like some teenager with his hormones on turbo again. I just hoped Jonas didn't take my crossed arms as boredom or disinterest. If he chose to, he'd not have been more wrong, that's for certain.

So caught up in keeping myself looking something approaching dignified, I'd somehow missed Jonas shift his hulking frame to take a long sip of his big, red cocktail.

"So, how about you, Alen?" He set his near-empty glass back down, licking his lips to catch the stray droplets of red around his muzzle. "What do you do?"

I sat forward, moving myself enough to reach my own drink while still keeping my waist hidden. Fortunately, Jonas didn't feel compelled to ask just why I'd begun assuming something approaching the brace position. I finished off my White Velikan, letting its sweet creaminess dampen my drying mouth and throat.

"For work..." Peering up past Jonas' strong, twin hill-like chest didn't help calm myself, nor did finding that irrepressible contentment on his cute, milky muzzle. "I work for a travel company," I stated, voice cracking and uneven. "Marketing and such. Kinda fell into it after I graduated."

"Damn!" Jonas boomed, throwing his large arms out to his side while a kick connected with the table beneath my seat. "If only you were around when I was travelling. Could have used a discount."

My laugh in response came out like a squealing giggle, the heavy vibrations his simple movement sent through everything around me didn't help the sensation in my crotch. I pressed my arms tighter to my midriff, upsetting my tender stomach once again. I grimaced and shook my head, cursing the timing of it all.

"What's wrong?" he asked, looking both puzzled and a little upset. "Sorry, I was just jok--"

"Nothing, it's... I just hurt myself a bit this morning and it's acting up again."

"Oh." His pain and concern only grew. Weirdly, that started to fill my heart with quite the opposite feeling. "Are you okay?"

"It's fine, really. Thank you for asking, though." I smiled, helping Jonas to start doing the same again. "But yes, for fun, I suppose I'm quite the opposite to you in that I _love_the sea."

"You're an otter," he scoffed, cupping a cheek with his paw. "It's basically the law that you have to enjoy the sea, isn't it?"

"I suppose," I chuckled back, drawing from Jonas another flick of his ears. "I loved sailing back home, with my friends, but I haven't really done that since I was young. Swimming, though, I've enjoyed for as long as I can remember. I used to do it pretty much everyday after school."

"Nice." He leaned forward, ears perked intently towards me. "Was it _for_your school?"

"Oh, no, nothing like that. Just for fun. I never really wanted the pressure of competing. Far easier to just go to the pool, or down to the bay and just... have a little time to coast around and relax in the water."

"That sounds lovely... even if I can't imagine anything involving swimming to be relaxing."

"It depends on the surroundings," I answered softly, leaning in my chair towards him. "The company."

"Right," Jonas answered with a soft nod, resting his cheek in his paw while that beacon-like smile lit up ever brighter. "Do you still find time to coast around now?"

"Sometimes, when the weather's good like today. It's just great to be around the water."

"That explains why you enjoy coming here so often, I guess." I didn't pick up on his mention of 'so often' at first, my attention focused more on the rest of his statement. "I don't think you can get a much better view of the beach and the sea."

"Oh, you're right." I followed his gesturing towards the wide, plate glass window at the front of the lounge. "I live just a few streets away, up on the hill overlooking the beach, so I get some pretty good views at home, too." I looked back up to Jonas and his handsome muzzle. "They can't hold a candle to the views on offer here, though."

"Well..." That coy smile he offered his beaver workmate earlier returned, focused purely upon me this time. "You're welcome to come back here and enjoy them whenever you like."

"Maybe I could help you with your discomfort with the water sometime... so that we can both enjoy a little more than just the view." That suggestion slipped past my lips far too easily, and without much thought prompting it. I searched for something to add to help explain or frame it better, but the fast flicking of Jonas' ears told me, deep down, I didn't need to.

"I think I'd like that," he cooed, grinning as he ran a finger pad around the rim of his glass. "I'd like that a lot."

We sat there together for a good while, making idle small talk that didn't serve much purpose other than allowing us to bask in one another's company. The seats and tables around us gradually filled as the afternoon crept towards evening. Single parties, couples and numerous groups of friends, made up of people of all sizes, came together to generate a buzzing atmosphere full of life and positive energy. You couldn't not get carried away with it, let it lift your spirits and leave you content at just being in that specific place at that specific moment in time. Screw it. I _would_take Jonas up on that second drink, and I'd let him offer one of his recommendations, too.

Jonas' beaver friend brought over our second round, flashing me a toothy smile as I slipped my currency card onto the scanner. I'd worry about my bank balance in the morning. I took my drink from his fingers; the same deliciously crimson creation that Jonas chose first and second time round. An Estordorian Sunset, apparently. One sip and I'd been thrown head first into a vat of berries. Damn, he really did have incredible taste.

"You know, Alen... you look quite lonely."

I stopped myself mid-sip, throwing a look that probably settled somewhere between shock and bemusement. "Lonely? How so?"

Jonas swished his drink around in his glass, his golden fur tinged with warm amber from the subtle mood lighting positioned just beside our table. "I mean all the way over there, on that seat." He moved his mitt-like paw to his thigh, giving it a quick pat. "Maybe _this_seat would be better?"

I hesitated to reply, staggered by the suddenness of that offer.

"How does that sound?"

We'd been having a great time so far, sure, but it did feel a little forward. At the same time... We _had_been having a great time so far, and I'd be lying if I said the prospect of settling down and resting against Jonas' thick, strong frame didn't excite me.

I looked up for guidance, finding his gentle smile and relaxed posture greeting me. Beckoning me. This wasn't some trick, or some demand wrapped up to look innocent. It _was_just that; an innocent suggestion by this huge, confident raccoon whose bright, happy features kept on pulling me closer. I couldn't say no to him, and I had no intention of doing so.

"I think that sounds great, Jonas. I'd love to."

Those large paws couldn't reach me fast enough; a sentiment Jonas must have shared judging by the speed they moved. I barely had time to grab my drink and stand from my seat before he'd set one down invitingly, nursing me towards it with a finger to the small of my back from the other. Not that I needed much prompting to step up and settle into the softness of his paw again.

I sat myself upon the leathery cushion that was Jonas' palm pad, crossing my legs as his fingers bent up to support my back. He lifted me with ease, holding his free paw like a barrier to help me feel even more secure in his hold.

Unable to resist, I reached out, splaying my own paw across the breadth of Jonas' index finger pad hovering beside my head. Stroking and squeezing, I settled back, gazing up at his huge grin glowing from above.

A low creak sounded in response to Jonas settling back; the fabric and cushioning having to work to readjust around him. "This is better," he rumbled, helping me down into his lap with a supportive finger beneath my arm. "That table is further away than it seems."

"It is," I answered quickly, more feeling than thought behind it as I sat myself down. "Much better."

The top of his massive left thigh, easily spreading wider than I stood tall, offered a warm comfort the likes of which no seat ever could. I let myself recline back, quickly finding the soft, mountainous form of Jonas' belly. It moulded slowly around me; conforming to my back, shoulders and head like the most wonderful backrest in the world. I let out a groan, closing my eyes to simply exist in that moment. A moment I feared would end far sooner than I could have ever accepted.

"Comfortable?" Jonas called with the hint of a laugh, stroking at my side with what must have been a finger as I simply allowed myself to sink further into his beautiful form.

It didn't take long for my crotch to begin stirring again. This time, though, I really, truly couldn't have cared less. Taking in a deep breath; Jonas' scent, his very aura, joined with the air around me. My fur tingled. My heartbeat quickened. I felt alive. For the first time in weeks, months, I felt so incredibly alive.

My problems at home had been left in the far distant past, free to fade away and become just another unspectacular thought in a long line of others. That was at least until Jonas spoke up again.

"I'm glad you're happier now... compared to how you were when you first arrived." My eyes were forced open to peer up to that sweet, cream-furred muzzle high above. "I've seen you in here a few times before. Alone. Looking a little down."

"You have?" I sat forward a little, feeling Jonas' doughy midsection shift behind me.

He moved his paw slowly, lifting and turning until it became a wall of fur before me. For the shortest second, I flashed back to the living room that morning, reminded of Zoran's foot moments before it sent me tumbling. I caught myself flinching, stopping the instant Jonas carefully wrapped his fingers around me.

"Yeah." He tugged me back, cuddling me into the inviting softness of his stomach before easing his grasp. "Honestly... I've wanted to find a reason to come and talk to you before now... to find out if you were..." I grabbed at Jonas' paw as everything around me shook, his shifting drawing out a faint rumble from the seat below us. "I wanted to get to know you because... I thought you were... nice."

It quickly struck me that 'nice' was likely far from the first word that came to his mind. Poor Jonas. Even Visoka, with all their size, still had to battle just as hard against such simple emotions as shyness and nervousness. I nosed into his belly, able to sense the unmistakable strength of his muscles beneath the cuddly cushioning. Hearing him grasping for words was so endearingly sweet.

"I never found the chance to, though, since I was always busy waiting other tables, or stuck behind the bar... Today, thankfully, things were a little quieter. I saw you were looking quite sad again... so that's why I _had_to make sure it was _me_that brought your lunch to the table."


Jonas smiled wide enough that his cheeks practically pushed his eyes shut. "Really. I was so glad to see you come in today." His paw tightened around me, keeping me close. "Not so glad to see you sad, though."

"I'm fine, honestly. Just... a bad day." I began to squirm as the bulging yellow backdrop of his shirt began to enter my periphery. "It's nothing you need to be worried about."

My focus shifted from Jonas above, past his thick fingers wrapped around my midsection to those sharing the lounge with us. A soft whirring started from the table across from ours; the edge of it gradually moving downwards to carry one smartly-dressed weasel to the floor below. His friends atop the table, and those in larger seats around it watched on, tracing his careful steps across the flooring to the bathroom nearby.

"I'm sorry," Jonas muttered, pulling his paw away from me. "I didn't mean to pry. It's none of my business."

The sudden release from his hold came as a disappointing surprise. I hurriedly gazed back up into those sweet, crestfallen eyes. They made my response that much easier. "It's fine... You're not prying in the slightest." I reached out to stroke Jonas through his shirt; letting my pads glide across the strong curve of his stomach. "See... What it is, is... I have a roommate..."

"I can understand that. Difficult roommates can be a real pain."

I gritted my teeth and shook my head. Difficult? I don't think he fully grasped just how 'difficult' dealing with, coping with Zoran could be.

"Are they messy? Not paying their way?"

My shoulders sank. I looked off towards the wide front window, sighing softly. Of course Jonas didn't understand. How could he if I kept the details to myself?

"Something else?"

I turned back from the golden light cast upon the horizon, beyond the busy road and sidewalk outside. "My roommate... he's an ex of sorts." Crossing my arms, I slumped down against Jonas' warm, supportive form. "We have a lot of disagreements... arguments. This morning's was a pretty bad one... It got pretty heated."

My head and shoulders were pressed forward as Jonas took in a deep, audible breath. "If that's true, why do you stay?"

"I nearly left today," I protested, shoving myself back against his expanding frame just in time to meet his exhale. "I wanted to just get up and leave after what happened... but I couldn't go through with it. I really don't know what keeps me there sometimes. Days like this make me wish, so badly, that I could get past it... just go."

My words threatened to break, forcing me to stop the outpour. Definitely for the best. I peeked up at Jonas, finding his sad smile and folded ears pointed down towards me. Why was I telling him about Zoran? My ex. My terrible, hurtful ex. It'd be the last thing he'd want to be hearing about during such an otherwise perfect day. He'd go home, thinking about _that_otter down on the beachfront who couldn't stop whining about his old partner. I was ruining everything.

"I'm sorry. I should go." My paws sank deep into Jonas' belly as I pushed and scrambled my way up onto my feet. I couldn't look him in the eyes any longer, so I busied myself in search of the best exit route instead. "It's getting late. I said I'd be back home by now."

"No, no, it's fine--"

"If I'm not there, he'll just find a reason to hu-- shout at me again."

"I said it's fine," Jonas repeated; his words soft yet forceful. "I asked you, and you told me."

I started down his jeans-clad thigh, taking care as it shifted beneath me with each step. "Would you mind helping me down to the floor?"

"Please." A sudden pressure upon my right paw stopped me in my tracks. I gasped; flinching and twisting to find it held firm between Jonas' thumb and index finger.

On most occasions, for most people, instinct might have taken hold; urging them to shake themselves free. Not now, though. Not for me.

"Please stay. I'm really enjoying your company." His digits began working in circles; pads as broad as my entire paw tenderly caressing me. "I don't want you to go."

All of my embarrassment, all of my tension left with the shallow breath that escaped me. I revelled there beneath Jonas' adorably tight smile, the glow of his soothing touch coursing up my arm to flood through my entire body. It lifted me, compelling me to shine a grin right back up at him. I reached out, stepping closer to slowly stroke the back of his paw in kind.

We looked to each other in silence while the boisterous, happy people around us melted into the background. Only my throbbing heart could be heard as we became lost together, deep in one another's gaze. Our touch said everything we needed to. No need for words.

A thunderous crash pulsated through the lounge, forcing me in a quivering jolt clear across Jonas' thigh. He himself jerked in his seat, making my stumble all the more pronounced.

I managed to correct myself in time to see scores of those around us, Visoka _and_Maleni, looking up from their tables. That cheerful, bustling atmosphere had near instantly ended.

"Can I help you?" Jonas stated, knocking me off-balance almost as much as the loud bang that came before.

"Huh?" I gazed up towards him, but found his focus directed high above me. "What--?"

"I doubt that," snapped a painfully familiar voice, the faint rumble of stomping footsteps drawing worrying close.

My heart sank. My whiskers and fur began to prickle. I had no idea how, but he'd found me.

"I'm thinking Alen might be more helpful."

I pulled myself from Jonas' weakened hold, peering up as far as my dipping muzzle would allow. Zoran sneered back down at me from the opposite side of the table, face like he'd sucked on an entire bag of lemons and then some. "Hi..."

"I got your message," he grumbled, waving his phone in the air as if exhibit A in some crucial court case.

"R-Right..." That morning in my room came back to me, as did the memory the emotion-fueled text message I'd fired off at him.

"Imagine my surprise as I finished work, only to find out you were 'leaving' and that I 'shouldn't expect you back. Ever'."

I tore my focus from his twitching white muzzle, unable to stomach it any longer.

"You also made it clear what a 'vicious, evil bastard' I was ...but still, you left your bags waiting there by the front door."

The rich, amber mood light had become a distant memory; Zoran's immense, seething form filling the world with shadow as I scrabbled around for a response. Somehow, his tense, growling words had me shaking way more than if he'd just come out and starting screaming like usual.

"You can't even leave right." His short, stabbing laugh cut through me. It forced my head and shoulders even lower. He kicked out a leg, thudding one of the low, wooden stools that sat beside the table into its metal legs before striding forward. "You always threaten to leave, always insist there is nothing left for us." Jonas' drink rocked violently, splashing most of what remained across the smaller table and couch I'd been sitting at minutes before. "Instead, you just come back here; the same place you always hide when you run off to sulk like a spoilt kid."

"Spoilt?" I groaned, a sudden deluge of words coming to me where there'd previously been none. "After what you did today, you should be glad I didn't report you to the poli--"

"Shut up!" Zoran's horrific cry ripped through the entire lounge, silencing the dozens upon dozens of people drinking and dining here. I on the other hand found myself caught well within the blast radius, reeling back from the noise, the gust and the spattering saliva unleashed upon me. "I don't want to hear it from you. Not now."

Half-dazed, I practically fell into the solid, cushioned wall that Jonas' stomach created behind me. You could have heard a pin drop in here after that. He'd not finished there, though. Not by a longshot.

"So... exactly how long have you two been carrying on with each other like this? I think I have the right to know."

My brow creased as I worked back up the courage to glare at Zoran. I processed his words in my head, over and over. Through the anger, I could hear his hurt. Studying his coarse, twisted muzzle, I found his sorrow.

Then, from nowhere, something other than the kick came rushing towards me from that morning. I remembered our argument.

"You wanted to end things with me, remember?"

Or rather, I remembered one line in particular.

"You are the one who insists we can't work."

All day, I'd been wondering why I'd found it so difficult to get over and get away from this angry, explosive fox I called my ex. It dawned on me only then, in that horrid, hellish standoff, that those long, lingering feelings were something he'd been trying to grapple with, too.

"Can somebody... anybody get the doorman or something?" Jonas called out, drawing me up to his wandering gaze. "I've had enough of this."

"Oh? You've had enough?" Zoran scoffed. "What are you gonna do, big man?"

"I just want you out of here--"

His fist slammed into the damp tabletop, sending crimson droplets of fruity alcohol raining over me and my clothes. "I'll be out of here when I'm good and ready." A wicked, vulpine grin spread across the fiery red fur of his face. I'd seen that look from him far too often, appearing whenever he found himself on top in a situation. The sense that he could snap and truly erupt at any moment combined to leave my legs tight and my mouth dry. "Caught you having a nice, cosy little drink here, huh?"

"I guess you're the roommate," Jonas retorted through gritted teeth. "I _work_here, just so you know. Not that it's any business of yours."

"Right," Zoran snorted, both paws atop the table as his head shifted closer to Jonas. "This is just some _afterwork_drink, then?"

I lifted my paws to my eyes, hoping once again their webbing might help shroud me from the living nightmare unfolding here. How could a great evening like this become such a train wreck so quickly?

"Could have fooled me."

Why was he doing this? Zoran had ruined our relationship with his bullying and temper, but I guess that wasn't enough. He just had to tarnish and trample over anything good. Anything that made me happy. I felt sick. I wanted him gone, if only so I'd never have to look at that smug, evil face again. In that moment, I loathed him with every fibre of my being.

"Do you often hold paws with customers when you drink here?"

"Zoran," I spat, far more forceful than my cowering back against Jonas' stomach suggested I ought to be. "Why are you acting like we're still together!?"

For the first time, he recoiled. Not by much, but enough to let me know I'd had an effect.

"After everything you've done?" I took a stride forward, then again, strong enough to ripple the hefty thigh beneath me. "After all the times we've fought? After what you did to me today? You treat me like you own me. Like you can do and act however you want with no comeback, all because you're big and I'm not."

Something took ahold of me, giving me the urge, the confidence to hop down from Jonas' leg to the seat padding below. Heart pounding, I glowered up past the table, straight into the rusty orange of Zoran's widening eyes. The desperation to find something that would knock him right back to the exit carried me on. "Let me tell you, this whole day sums up why we could never work, and exactly why I haven't been anything close to your fucking _boyfriend_in a long, long time!"

I wanted to hurt him, just like he'd hurt me that morning. "We're done! Finished! Understand!? I told you that _months_ago. Get that into your head!"

With one hard breath, I drained myself of the last thing I had left to say to him. "I. Want. _Nothing_more to do with you."

Zoran reached to clasp his throat, taking a stiff step away from the table. His eyes shined like rippling water in the light of the lounge. I couldn't believe this was news to him. It staggered me that he could be so utterly broken as to think we were in some way, shape or form still somehow... together? This relationship... these shattered remains of a relationship he'd somehow managed to cling on to were all kinds of fucked up. I kinda felt sorry for him.

"If... that's how it is..."

"It_is_ how it is. You know that."

The quiet returned; Zoran standing there alone, staring into space. It set me on edge, wondering and waiting over the reaction to come.

"Fine." He lurched forward so quickly that the shock physically knocked me across the couch cushion. His huge form overtook the world. Those nimble black paws hurtled towards me.

I ducked back, trying somehow to evade Zoran's overwhelming size. It set me completely off-balance, perfectly positioned to be shaken down onto my back as the entire surface beneath me shifted.

"Back off!" Jonas roared, trembling everything around me as he thrusted his considerable bulk from his seat.

My spirits lifted at the sight of this wonderful raccoon high above, throwing a paw to Zoran's chest to stop him in his tracks.

"Back off yourself," he thundered in reply, slapping Jonas' thick forearm away. "You going to hit a customer, big man?"

I sat up, choking on my disgust. "Look at how you're acting! Besides, you haven't even bought anything--"

"Hey!" Zoran growled, his pointed muzzle looming high over me. "As for you... I'm taking you back so--"

"I'm not going anywhere with you--"

"So you can get your things!" He bumped past Jonas without warning, leaving him to stagger a step to his right. My heart began to break.


"You can get your things... T-Then you... you can slink off to wherever you want to go."

"You're serious?"

"It's that, or _I_go home and throw them all out. I don't care any more."

I pushed myself to my feet, insisting, "You can't do that."

"Watch me!"

"But... You-- I'll be homeless."

"You didn't seem to care about that this morning." The blackness of his paws quickly constricted me, leaving time only to squeak and whine from the pressure squeezing me from knee to torso. "Or this evening."

"H-Hey!" I wheezed, squirming as hard as I could as he yanked me away from the couch. From Jonas. "If you're gonna make me do this... I'm walking back."

"Suit yourself."

He whipped himself around with such force that I came close to losing my lunch, storming away from the corner booth with no let up in his violent, sweeping motions. I honestly started to worry he might hurt me, and not necessarily by accident. Hanging there, almost within touching distance of his scowling maw, I couldn't help think that maybe, just maybe, agreeing to this wasn't the greatest idea I'd ever had.

Countless faces around me came and went as Zoran marched on, the same blank, gormless expression plastered across every single one of them. He'd certainly made an impression here.

As we reached the dining area, close to the exit, I wondered whether someone, somehow might step in and stop him. Wishful thinking.

"Problem?" Zoran growled, stomping past the burly brown bear working security on the door. No doubt the scenes I'd been an unwilling party to had drawn him inside.

"No problem," he gruffed back, eyes locked upon us as we passed. "But I think you should put him down. Then both of you can leave before there is one."

Zoran didn't make a sound as his paw lowered and grasp loosened, practically tossing me back to the raised balcony I'd started the afternoon atop. I came in hard, but somehow kept from crashing into any of the keen spectators at the tables around me. My knee buckled, a sharp stabbing setting me wincing. Like hell was I going to cry out in pain. Not in front of this massive crowd of onlookers. Not in front of him.

"Come on!" Zoran's paw struck between my shoulder blades, shoving me forwards with a force not far short of a punch.

Even with the gawking and hostility surrounding me, I couldn't leave yet. Not without finding Jonas again. I had so much more I wanted to say to him. So much more I wanted to do with him.

I shifted along the aisle between the crowded tables around me, trying hard to place myself where I could see across the lounge. It didn't take long to realise there'd be no chance to find the warm amber and rich violet of the seating area I'd shared with Jonas. Not with the fierce red and suppressing white of Zoran's arms and shirt blocking my view.

"Alen, are you going outside, or will I have to pick you up and _carry_you?"

I'd resigned myself to leaving in defeat when suddenly, in the corner of my eye, I spotted Jonas' huge, golden-furred frame lumbering through the crowd. He'd reached the bar adjacent, striding with purpose to join his colleagues behind it. His beaver friend who'd been serving us greeted him, backtracking hurriedly as the far larger raccoon simply kept on walking. Whatever he had to say, Jonas wasn't listening.

As quickly as I found him, I'd lost him. He marched on without slowing once, disappearing out the back and out of sight.

"Move!" Zoran's paw loomed above, threatening another vicious shove. I figured it best not to wait around to experience it.

I wanted to cry as I rushed over to the staircase down from here. Not from the abuse however. Poor Jonas... He must have been so embarrassed. So hurt by this. He'd never want to see me again, I felt sure of it.

Rushing towards the scaled-down exit underground, I cursed Zoran's name with every step. Fuck him for this. Fuck me for folding and leaving with him.

That ended the moment I moved outside, the cool air of dusk sweeping through the conveyor belt gauntlet as if it were a gentle wind tunnel. The tickling of my skin beneath my fur would've been a pleasant experience, if not for the company.

"Cannot believe this," Zoran grunted from above, his position on ground level making the sight of him and his heavy, stomping strides incredibly unsettling. That protective fence sitting between us, there to help guard against any accidents, suddenly seemed a lot less sturdy. "After everything I've done for you."

I kept my head down as the path below carried me towards home... former home, as did the handful of other Maleni travellers around me. I hadn't a clue what Zoran believed he'd done for me lately, other that terrorise and torment me. I'd credited him with having a short fuse for a long time, but after what had just happened here, how he'd become so angry over... over _nothing_but his twisted thoughts about our 'relationship', he genuinely had to have a screw loose somewhere.

Those feelings I'd been battling with today, making me feel a guilt, a sadness for somehow betraying Zoran. Looking back, I could have laughed until sunrise came. This had been the last straw. If I couldn't bring myself to leave for good this morning, I'd have a far easier time of it this evening. Even without Zoran kicking me out. I might not have a place to stay... but I'd work it out. It might mean couch surfing with friends for a little while, but I'd sooner that than spend another second with this maniac. Gods above, I'd sleep in the park before it came to that.

Even with this barrage of thoughts racing through my head, I thought better of voicing them. It'd been a long time since I'd trusted him, but I feared for just what he might do if pushed at that moment.

I kept my chin tucked to my chest, hoping I could shut out the world around me and simply stew within myself. In spite of my best efforts, Zoran's constant grumbling kept on pricking my ears.

"For gods' sake. If you can't keep up, I _will_carry you back whether you like it or not."

It looked increasingly like I'd be subjected to his sniping threats the whole way back to collect my things. At least it did, until we reached the alley next to Riki's.

A low rumble pushed Zoran's voice from my notice, soon overtaking it completely as another followed shortly after. I glanced around, half curious, half concerned as a trembling underfoot accompanied the third. Nothing came into sight as I neared the underpass running beneath the alleyway opening, until a flashing blur of movement above came close to shocking me down onto my backside.

A winded splutter echoed through the street as Zoran went tumbling, plummeting fast towards the busy road just as the lights of the tunnel opening passed over me.

Even with the dampeners in place down here, the mighty thud that told of Zoran's fall carried through the entire underpass. Travellers around me were taken completely by surprise, pulled from their own thoughts and conversations to shout out in shock and steady themselves against the short-lived shaking.

I caught myself flinching, gritting my teeth until the rumbling ended. Thank the stars they built these paths and tunnels well.

"What the hell!? Get up off me!"

Shifting fast, I forced myself past the startled travelers around me, hopping over onto the belt running back in the opposite direction.

"Sorry," I heard as I reentered the open, nudging past a few more walkway riders to reach the static section on its outer edge.

"Sorry?" Zoran bellowed, moments before he picked himself back up to re-entered my eyeline. "You're sorry!?"

"I was in a rush... Didn't see you there, honest." My heart skipped a beat at the sound of Jonas' voice, and at the sight of him hovering there above. I hadn't a clue what had compelled him to be there. I just felt relief that it had.

"You think this is funny?" Zoran snarled, marching towards him. "You fat, rodent prick."

My jaw physically dropped. How he could toss out the r-word so readily like that left me staggered.

"Not really."

"Then why smile!?"

As rapidly as Jonas had appeared, he went, retreating from the hostility and back into the alley he'd rushed from. Zoran followed after him, prompting me to hurry over to the set of steps offering a path up to where the alley and pavement met.

"Zoran, wait!" My cries faded into the night; most of the Visoka walking along the beachfront strip paying neither them nor me any real attention. A few passersby did stand in watch, no doubt from the fall they'd witnessed, but didn't loiter for long once the commotion moved away from the street.

I peered into the alley, unable to see anything beyond the massive dumpsters and discarded trash bags twice my height blocking my view.

"I'm not joking!" Zoran boomed in the distance, building his rage all over again. I had to go after him, even if what I'd do once I caught with them remained a mystery. Whatever that would prove to be, I couldn't just stand by and let Zoran explode upon Jonas. I'd never forgive myself.

Treading carefully, wary of my proximity to the heavy steps of those around me, I entered the dimly lit alleyway. My shoes crunched atop the fine, gravelly stones underfoot; a constant reminder that I'd strayed well outside my comfort zone. Few, if any Maleni walked around up here on the surface, not in a bustling area of a major city at least.

"What are you talking about!?" Zoran's growling cut through the air again while I put a paw to my nose. Piles of trash bags sat heaped high against the walls, some looking like they'd been there a while. I wanted to puke from the stench. Not that the thought of Zoran hurting Jonas let my stomach sit right in the first place.

I picked up the pace, practically running now through the flickering light beaming down from the wall-fitted lamps around me. Finally, after what felt like forever and a day, I caught sight of Jonas standing in the middle of the alley. Zoran wasn't far away; blocking him off from where they'd come.

"Who the hell are you to talk to me like this?" A loud clap sounded as Zoran shoved him, charging forward to put every shred of his force behind it.

"Zoran," I cried, terrified for what could see coming. "Stop it!"

I could have started sprinting at that point, forgetting my size and foolishly rushing in to somehow try and defuse the tension. It wouldn't have taken much for me to get in way over my head, winding up far too close to their distracted paws. I could have been knocked over, pinned, kicked aside... or worse. If I hadn't seen the way Jonas managed to compose himself in the face of his attacker, what might have happened next didn't bear thinking about.

"Wanna try that again?"

Zoran obliged, crashing into Jonas with another vicious push. He had to reach up, mind. The big raccoon's chest hovered about level with his chin.

Despite the incredible noise and effort exerted, Jonas barely moved. A half-step back to balance himself, and that was that. All that force simply dissipated into nothing.

Even from down here, peering up at these two towering Visoka confronting one another, Zoran didn't cut the imposing figure he did back inside the lounge, that much was certain.

"I think you should calm down," Jonas suggested, showing off his teeth with a smirk.

"I think you should fuck off."

"_You_followed me along here--"

"Are you trying to start something!?"

I sneaked over to one of the dumpsters set against the wall of Riki's, not far from the faded blue door of their back entrance. My newfound cover gave me the confidence to stick around, letting me watch on from just a few Visoka-sized steps away.

"I was enjoying a great evening with your roommate, only to have it ruined." Jonas put his paws to his broad hips, staring at Zoran from behind that mask of black. "If anyone is 'starting something', it's you."

Only now, with both of them standing together in full view, did the size difference truly become apparent. Perhaps to all of us. The fox Jonas had begun facing down could have climbed a stool and still struggled to match his height. On top of that, Zoran's slender, toned form paled in comparison to the raccoon's heavy-set physique.

I'd have enjoyed comparing and admiring Jonas's chunky arms, stout midsection and solid thighs further, if not for the raised voices and hackles hoarding my attention.

"And? What of it?"

"I want you to apologise. To me, and to Alen."

"What?" Zoran cackled, throwing out his arms in disgust and jabbing Jonas in the process. "Are you serious?"


"What if I _don't?"_He nudged him again. Harder. "You think I'm afraid of you, big man?"

"I don't really care--"

"You will care!" Zoran pushed him by the muzzle, winning from Jonas a heavy snort and a distasteful scowl. "Who do you think you are!? You have no clue of what that little Maleni shit of an otter has put me through!"

"Put_you_through!?" I snapped, stepping out from cover against my better judgement.

Zoran sneered back over his shoulder, his disgust at spotting me watching practically tangible. "All the answering back. Forcing arguments all of the time."

"What in the gods are you talking about--!?"

"You don't show me respect anymore!"

"_Respect!?_How can I--"

"I don't know what I ever saw in you!"

I staggered back, rocked to my core by Zoran's piercing glare and snarling, crippling words. As I hid away beside the dumpster, it dawned on me, slowly but surely, that I couldn't be sure what I'd ever seen in _him_either. The memory of that attractive fox from the beach always persisted, always forced me to turn the other cheek and ignore how he'd treated me. Perhaps that memory really stood as the single, solitary aspect that formed 'us'. Had we really gotten to know each other when we first started dating, or did I simply find Zoran so handsome, so attractive that this gaping fissure in our relationship's foundation went ignored?

I'd always pined after the Zoran of old, longing for his return, but perhaps he'd always been this way; someone that liked to impose himself and put people in their place no matter what. Perhaps I'd enjoyed it, too... to start with at least. Before his dominant, possessive personality grew to include threats and physical abuse. If I'd gotten to know him better and discovered this side of him at the start... we'd have never got together in the first place. None of this would've ever happened. I was better off without him now, just like I always had been.

"Are you ill?" I cried, paw trembling as I threw it to my shaking head. "Is that really what you think our relationship should be? Me staying silent and taking all of your shit?" My other paw wandered to my midsection, its tenderness never far away. "As for what I've put you through, do you not remember kicking_me across the damn living room this morning? What have I done that compares remotely to _that!?"

To his credit Zoran paused, maybe even taking a moment to process my complaint before simply growling and commanding me to, "Be quiet."

Jonas meanwhile stood in awe, gazing at me with his mouth hanging open. He corrected himself, turning back to Zoran with narrow slits for eyes. That thick, striped tail started to lash about behind his wide hips.

"No, I won't," I whimpered, remembering the pain, the sense of insignificance. "Fuck you, Zoran."

"I said be quiet!" He darted towards the dumpster, taking a step that terrified the living soul out of me. I recoiled back, ready to drop to my knees and squeeze beneath the metal structure for safety.

"Hey!" Jonas' huge mitt of a paw clamped down on Zoran's shoulder, stopping him dead. "You're not gonna touch him. Not again."

"Try and stop me!" Zoran threw out an arm, swinging a backhanded fist up towards his muzzle.

He bobbed back, letting the flailing strike float on by. "I don't want a fight--"

"You're gonna get one if you don't your fucking claws off me!"

Jonas pulled Zoran back hard, enough force to send him staggering into the opposite wall of the alley. He stood in wait for a reaction, positioning his enormous frame between me and the scowling fox.

"Get out my fucking way!" Zoran charged forward, hard and fast enough that the concrete beneath me began trembling yet again. I ducked away instinctively, cowering further at the crashing of his weight against Jonas.

That big fox, so threatening and so frightening, rebounded heavily. Twice he had to correct himself as he stumbled back, not able to save himself from falling to the gravel a third time.

Jonas meanwhile simply stood his ground, barely shifting from the spot he'd taken up a few steps away from me. "Back off. I mean it."

I didn't understand how Zoran hadn't got the message by now. Then again, his blind, twisted rage was something I'd seen often. Hell, after all he'd put me through, I'd become a fully-fledged expert on it.

A bark and a snarl and the gods awfulest scream reverberated off of the brickwork around us. Zoran climbed to his feet in a flash, flying back at Jonas with wicked speed. I couldn't see whatever strike he'd tried to throw, but I certainly had a front row seat to the reaction it won.

Jonas bent his knees and lowered his torso, dipping below Zoran's assault to let him slam flush into his shoulder. He clamped those thick, tree-like arms around his waist and pushed himself up, lifting the helplessly squirming fox with staggering ease.

"H-Hey-- Get the fuck off me!"

Jonas dropped him over his shoulder, carrying him forwards as if he were nothing more than a sack of potatoes.

I'd been so worried for him just moments ago. So scared of Zoran. That vanished as I watched Jonas' massive arms flex, heaving my ex even further into the air. He paused there for a moment, allowing Zoran to throw his arms and kick his legs in a tame, hopeless attempt at fighting back.

With a final step, Jonas unleashed a terrifying, bone-trembling roar of a grunt, hurling him hard across the width of the alley.

Zoran sailed back through the air, arcing twice as high as Jonas stood tall. He plummeted and impacted with a yelping cry, sinking deep into a heap of trash bags amassed opposite. Stunned still and silent, possibly from the impact, likely from the shock, Zoran suddenly posed far less of a threat.

I pushed myself away from the dumpster I'd taken shelter beside, gawking in sheer bemusement at the aftermath. "My... gods."

Jonas didn't respond. As I looked up from below his shin, I could see the blank expression with which he glanced hurriedly about. He frowned, touching his cheek, then his lips. I had to say something.

"Are you okay?"

"Me?" He whipped his head around, peering down at me with a heavily furrowed brow. "I... Yeah, I'm fine. I should be asking you that."

"Fine... I'm fine, too." Lightheaded, I glanced back to Zoran's crumpled frame for just a second. "Thank you."

"Good." Jonas stepped towards me, his careful strides far more welcomed than the angry stomps that could so easily have come mere moments ago. "I can't tell you how much of a relief that is."

I had to shift back as he approached. With Jonas being so tall and so broad, I could barely see his cream-furred muzzle past his rounded midsection. "I thought you'd left."

He cocked his head. "Left?"

"Yeah. When you rushed off behind the bar... I thought--"

"No chance." The smile he gave lit up the air around him. "I wasn't leaving you with him."

"But... How did you know to be here?"

"You told me that you lived up on the hill. I knew you'd have to come this way. Plus, it didn't take much to hear his cursing at you coming."

I felt warmth for the first time since we'd been sharing our seat in the lounge. "I'm just glad he didn't hurt you. You wouldn't have been the first."

"I wasn't worried about that," he sighed. "I've met plenty of bullies before. I'm used to it."

"For real?"

He nodded. "I was always big for a raccoon, remember? My brothers were_always_getting into trouble with jerks at school when we were younger, and it was always on _me_to get them out of it."

"I guess this is what it felt like for them." I clasped my paws together, rubbing my fingers across their webbing. "Having a big raccoon around, watching out for you... it's feels pretty good." I could sense my cheeks beginning to glow the moment I finished.

"You think so?" His smile became a grin. "Well... how about having a little otter to keep someone company like this afternoon? That was real nice, too."

The heat in my cheeks quickly spread to my ears, then to my heart as its beating grew faster.

A dazed groan pulled us back across the alley, over to where Zoran had begun to free himself from the trash that had broken his fall. I scurried towards the shiny buckle of Jonas' ankle boot, slipping a paw beneath the fabric of his jeans to the bare fur of his calf.

The towering raccoon also moved swiftly, sending another heavy jolt through the ground as he stepped, turned and bent down. For the first time in a good while, the sight of paws rushing towards me came welcomed. The soft, brown fur enveloped me, his chunky pads supporting me in their soothing heat as he grasped me tight.

"Don't bother coming back to the apartment," Zoran wheezed, staggering away from the trash pile. "I'm throwing your stuff out."

My jaw dropped. "You can't--!"

"I wouldn't if I were you," Jonas snapped, lifting his cupped paws to hold me beside his chest.

Zoran glanced back, ears folding and tail tucking. "Whatever." He slinked off slowly down the alley. "I'm throwing it outside the front door... Just don't think about coming inside. You're not welcome."

From the vantage of Jonas' safe, cosy paws, I traced Zoran's steps towards the shorefront, eventually losing track of him as he turned the corner at the end of the alley. It dawned on me then that might be the last time I ever saw him. My heart wrenched at that, but the hurt would be fleeting. Gazing up into those sparkling eyes of hazel, taking in his sweet, strong scent, Jonas' presence sent a filled me with a glow that overpowered everything else around me.

I extending a paw, reaching up towards his muzzle hanging just out of reach. He gave one of his cheek-lifting smiles, dipping his chin to allow my fingers to brush through his cream-coloured fur.

"You know, Alen... before... _this_all happened, I was going to ask you for your number."

"Y-You were?" My heart skipped yet another beat. It felt glorious.

He nodded keenly, starting off along the alley and towards the inviting glimmer of the streetlights beyond. "I was hoping that I might meet up with you again... Maybe, just maybe, we'd have gone out together. To dinner or something."

I reached up higher, caressing the side of his muzzle. "I'd have liked that."

"After all of this, though... those plans don't fit quite so well."

That chest-tightening pang returned. I thanked the gods for a strong heart. "I-I... hope we can make some others."

"Oh, that won't be a problem." He let out a deep rumble of a laugh, giving me a gentle nosing beneath my chin. "I think I'd prefer to ask if you'd like to go out to dinner this evening instead."

"I'd love to, Jonas." I chuckled softly, leaning up to nose back at his muzzle tip. "Without question."

"Maybe we should head to your apartment first though, so you can collect your things." I heard the hesitation in his voice as he finished, only growing as he continued, "Then... perhaps we can take them back to mine? Finding room for you won't be a problem." His eyes widened, the dawning of some realisation hitting hard enough for me to see it. "I-If you'd like to, that is. I don't want to be forward. I just don't want you out on the street--"

"That sounds wonderful," I cooed, heart thumping like a jackhammer, every strand of fur on my body tingling. "Yes. Please."

"Great." The cutest yelp squeezed past Jonas' lips, forcing me into a delighted bout of laughter in return. His massive paws snugged me to his chest, letting me feel the powerful muscles that lied beneath soft, welcoming twin crests of warmth. "Lead the way?"


"Unless... you'd prefer to walk?"

I wondered if he remembered my instance upon that desire to Zoran back inside. If he did, he needn't have. "Actually, I think I'd prefer to travel with you."

"Okay!" Still beaming, Jonas strode forward with even greater speed, nearing the lights and sounds of the shorefront filled with evening revellers.

A nagging voice in my head, shallow and faint, insisted I remember that day at the seafront. It warned me of the rush I'd been in to get together with Zoran in the weeks that followed. Over and over it whispered, begging me not to make that same mistake again.

Jonas' paw pressed firmer, until I could feel the thundering of his huge heart coarse through me. I gazed up, taking in the glorious smile that showed no sign of fading. Rushing in? Not a chance.

I let myself relax, go loose, spreading my arms across the might of Jonas' chest. Here, in his firm, strong hold, I felt safe for the first time in months. I felt secure. Wanted. I'd known Jonas for just a matter of hours, but the connection we'd developed in that short time had already grown far beyond anything else I'd ever experienced. This time, it made the startlingly rapid pace of progress in our budding relationship feel... right.

As we turned the corner, letting the dazzling lights and vibrant colours of the world wrap themselves around us, I gazed up into those deep pools of hazel. From just one shared look, I knew deep in my soul that Jonas shared that sentiment completely.

With barely a thought, I reached up to hold and lick beneath his muzzle, not having to wait long to receive the same in kind. On reflection, I guess this wasn't such a bad day after all.

Escaping the Storm: Part 10

_ **Part 10** _ While that single, solitary week before departure day proved flat and unremarkable, the same certainly couldn't be said of the atmosphere that grew to fill and take over the house. It reached its peak the morning Pieter and his family...

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Escaping the Storm: Part 9

_ **Part 9** _ Walking down to the kitchen for breakfast the following morning felt more akin to swimming through molasses; each step reminding Erik of the rough night's sleep he'd endured. Tuesdays, and the prospect of another week of work, were...

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Escaping the Storm: Part 8

_ **Part 8** _ "Erik! Thank the gods you're home!" He'd wondered how his mother would react upon his arrival home, almost two hours after escaping the station. Turned out he'd barely be able to set foot inside the front door before being ambushed by...

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