Flame and Shadow

By Joshua Carr All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Other

Chapter 28

I couldn’t sleep again that night. I got up out of bed while it was still totally black out, and took the stairs down to the first floor. From there, I went outside to enjoy the cool morning air. With hours and hours of being alone with my thoughts, I had come to some important conclusions.

First of all, I wasn’t going to worry about what had happened with regards to the mission, or who it was that had wanted me, or not wanted me, to go. Whatever happened, it was in the past. I would just have to keep an eye on a specific few individuals.

Second, I had put any feelings that I may have had for Dani in perspective. My destiny was far too important to waste time with a relationship. I had to focus on being the best I could be, and spending time with any other person may jeopardize that. She would have to remain a friend, nothing more.

The sun still had not risen as I stretched out in preparation for my run. Yeah. Everything was going to be just fine.

Right then, Dani began walking out of the headquarters toward me. I prepared to tell her what I had been rehearsing in my mind. The whole “I’ve got too much going on; let’s just be friends” thing. But when I saw her, that became more difficult to do.

“Mm, good morning, Milo.” She yawned.

I couldn’t help but smile. The girl was wearing long, calf-length socks. One was fluorescent green, the other orange. Her footwear veritably glowed in the dim light. She was the kind of girl who was naturally beautiful. She could just roll out of bed, and in 30 seconds, look like a million bucks.

“How’re you feeling, today?” I inquired. “All that poison stuff out of your system?”

“Oh yeah! I feel tip top today! Thanks!” She stretched her arms out above her head. “So, you said you wanted to spend some more time together. Do you want to run with me this morning?”

Hm. Her pace was significantly slower than mine. Running with her would require my training to be compromised. If I started letting myself slip here, it wouldn’t be long before Kazushita could catch up to my level. The obvious answer was a big, fat “NO”.

But that’s not what came out of my mouth.

“Sure, why not?” I answered.

Was I hypnotized or drunk or something? But the next thing I knew, I was jogging alongside Dani on our normal route through the woods. Our speed was certainly slower than my usual, but it was actually pretty nice. And having some company was a great change of pace. We didn’t really talk too much, simply being around each other was enjoyable.

However, this reduced speed put us in the vicinity of the other students. First, Kazushita overtook us. I paid no attention to him. We both knew I could beat him, and if he went faster than me just this once, well, I’d let it slide. Later, we were running near Geoffrey.

I seriously wanted to punch him in the face. Not only has he been a jerk for so many years, but he tried to kill me, and put Dani in the hospital! I seethed with anger. If given the opportunity, I would beat him so bad, he’d forget about his stupid cancer. My rage must have been externally visible, because Dani moved in closer to me.

“Don’t take the poison, Milo.” She urged me, softly. “Let it go. It turns you into someone you’re not.”

Forgiveness was another thing that I was not especially stupendous at. My usual philosophy was to beat said trespasser senseless, until we both felt better about it. But, just this once, I would do this for her. I would try to release the hatred that I held inside.

Try. Even though my intentions were good, I didn’t feel anything magical happen. I still would like to clobber that creep. Still, something about her words calmed my spirit a little. When she warned me about the danger my soul was in, it somehow reminded me that it might not be too late. Maybe the rot that had infected my heart could be reversed.

After we finished the jog, the two of us went to eat the morning meal together. For the first time, it didn’t feel like too much of a chore to put up with my companion. Although my ineptitude at conversation and proper social mannerisms made our time together feel slightly unnatural and awkward, we put up with each other fairly well.

I finished the last of my breakfast, and set my fork down on the tray. Then I stood up, and began to take the empty tray back to the window into the kitchen. As I departed the table, I saw Dani getting up to take her tray back as well.

Damnit! I should have taken her tray for her! That would’ve been the gentlemanly thing to do, but it didn’t even occur to me until it was too late. This would take some getting used to. I attempted to avoid contact with her on the way to the kitchen to prevent any further discussion on the subject.

Following breakfast, I began heading down to the classroom area. The next session would be a review on the various types of Nephilim, and how to identify them. It shouldn’t be too difficult, as I had memorized almost all of the information already. Just then, I heard a voice from behind me.

“Hey, Milo! I was wondering something.”

I stopped and turned around. Dani was behind me, but other than her, we were alone in the hallway.

“Yes?” I answered. “What is it?”

She put her hands behind her back, and rotated back and forth a little.

“Would you be interested in going to town with me?”

I was a bit puzzled.

“What town?”

“Bindmont. It’s about 10 miles east of here.”

“Um, when would we go?” I didn’t know exactly what she was talking about.

“Well, I was thinking now…”

“Now? But, what about class?”

This crazy girl was asking me to play hooky!

“Oh, well, I guess you’d just have to…skip it!”

I shook my head. This is exactly why we were not going to start dating. The next thing you know, I’d be missing class, training sessions, missions, and I might lose my edge to Kazushita! There was no way I’d let that happen. Not when I’d come so far.

Dani had obviously detected my hesitation.

“I don’t think you need to worry about missing class! You’re way better than those other guys. You could probably miss a class or two, and no one would even notice!”

Hm. Well, she was kind of right. I already knew everything that they’d be talking about in the next class, and even if not, I was still ahead of the other students. Geoffrey was nearly as good as me at the classroom activities, but that couldn’t really make him a threat, as he was struggling so much physically. Against my better judgment, my mind was beginning to veer toward a “yes” answer. What was the worst thing that could happen?

“Alright.” I stated.

“Alright as in-“ Dani asked hopefully.

“I’ll come with you. But on one condition; nothing too crazy, OK?”

Several minutes later, I found myself on the back of a motorcycle we had “borrowed” from the garage, sitting behind Dani. We both wore black riding helmets, with tinted visors. She propped us up with her foot as we waited at the corner of a wall.

“Not quite…wait for it…” She whispered.

There was a guard casually patrolling the area just outside of the garage. I was having some very serious second thoughts about my decision. Not only was I missing class, but this was obviously violating the one and only condition I had set.

“This is totally crazy.” I said quietly to myself. “This is exactly why I never should’ve-“

Suddenly, Dani shouted: “NOW!” and hit the throttle. The guard must have just left his post, and the motorcycle squealed and leapt forward. I tightly grabbed the driver around the waist to prevent getting thrown off. She sped across the compound like a madwoman, heading for the chain-link fence. Ah! That’s what she was waiting for! The guard had opened the gate for a delivery truck, and Dani was aiming to slip out while it was still ajar.

I gritted my teeth and held on for dear life, but the girl seemed to be having great fun. Just then, the guard must have seen us, and tried to block our path, waving his arms while standing in the narrow gap between the truck and gate. Rather than turn away, Dani gunned it.

“Woohoooooooooo!” She shouted.

“Daniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” I simultaneously cried.

At the last second, the man dove out of our way, and the motorcycle zipped through the opening out of the compound. I let out my breath, and loosened my grip around Dani’s waist as we cruised along the road at high speed.

Aside from sparring with Rachael a couple of times, this was the most contact I had ever had with a female in my whole life. I wasn’t sure I entirely liked it. It was extremely awkward, and I had this strange sensation throughout my body. The best comparison I can think of is it felt like overheating while rolling in poison ivy. I couldn’t risk letting go to scratch myself or attempt to relieve excess heat.

At our velocity, we made it to Bindmont in under 10 minutes. Dani pulled into a small plaza on the outside of town, and parked the bike. I quickly hopped off of my seat, and removed my helmet. She did the same.

“So, now that we’re here, what do we do?” I asked.

I had never just “gone to town” or anything before.

“I don’t really know!” She cheerfully responded. “That’s the fun part!”

I rolled my eyes. What did I just get myself into? Now I was stuck in unfamiliar territory with a wacko girl who had no idea what she was doing.

Dani looked around the plaza for a minute, until she excitedly burst out:

“Hey! Let’s go there!”

She pointed her finger at a used clothing thrift store called Goodwill.

What was she even thinking?

“Dani, we don’t have any money.” I reminded her.

At Tsalderek, we didn’t receive any pay. All of our efforts were to build the organization so everyone benefited, and there was no use for spending money.

“What’s the point of going in places when we can’t buy anything?”

She gave me a sly smile.

“Oh, you let me take care of that!”

The girl began walking toward a building marked “EZ Exchange”, and I apprehensively followed. What the hell was “EZ Exchange”? I didn’t know what we would be exchanging for what, but I suspected that it would be violating my one condition again.

Dani opened the glass door and we went inside. An irritating clanging bell announced our presence. As Dani and I made our way up to the store’s desk, I took in the surroundings. There was all manner of objects, including (but not limited to) an acoustic guitar, a single ruby earring, an entire stack of VCRs, and a box full of Dragon Ball Z manga.

It dawned on me what kind of business this was. It was a pawn shop. People went there to basically sell their stuff for some cash, and their items went up for sale to the public. Why were we here? We didn’t have anything to pawn, did we?

Dani rang the bell at the counter. After a few seconds, a man emerged from a back room. He appeared to be a middle-aged man, with a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, short black hair, and a bit of extra weight around his midsection. Something caught my attention about him, and I inconspicuously leaned forward to as to see over the edge of the desk. The clerk was wearing shorts, which exposed his freakishly powerful calf muscles on his legs.

“Hey there! How can I help you?” He pleasantly greeted, and I snapped back to standing straight up.

“Hi, Mr. Safford! How’s it going?” Dani cheerfully responded, to my surprise.

I leaned over and whispered in her ear.

“How do you know this guy?”

She had no similar discretion, and answered in her normal tone.

“Oh, I’ve been here a few times before. This is just the first time I’ve ever had anyone with me.”

Of course she had. How else could she have gotten those crazy socks of hers? I couldn’t explain why, but I felt considerably relieved that she had never done this with anyone else. Not like I really cared. I mean, it’s not like this was a date or anything. She just wanted some company on her trip.

“Oh, can’t complain.” Mr. Safford replied. “How long’s it been since you came here? Almost a year, huh?”

“Something like that!” Dani reached into a bag which she had strapped over her shoulder. “I’ve got something interesting for you!”

The pawn shop owner leaned forward onto the counter in anticipation as she pulled out some kind of device. I did a double take as I recognized it. In her hand was a prototype Survivortex 2000. It was a portable tool which was capable of filtering streams into drinking water, electronically providing GPS and a compass, launching locator flares, and delivering a stun-gun-like electric shock. It could also perfectly slice English Muffins while preserving the nooks and crannies.

Mr. Safford’s eyes widened.

“Whoa! That’s even cooler looking than the Hygenicore VII you brought me last time! The guy that I sold it to really liked it, but he said that the toothpaste tube squeezer function could use a little tweaking.”

Everyone was wondering what had happened to the Hygenicore VII prototype, and now I knew where it went! At first, I was really ticked off. Then, the hilarity of the situation settled in. Dani was pawning off Tsalderek issued prototype devices for spending money! What a goofy girl. The Research and Development department gave them to students for testing and feedback purposes, and that’s what she was doing! They never said HOW to get the feedback!

“Thank you sir!” Dani handed over the newest device. “How much would you say this one is worth?”

Mr. Safford took the Survivortex 2000 and looked it over for a minute.

“Hm. This’s a really involved little gadget. It looks like it has a lot more useful applications than the others you’ve brought.”

The man placed it down on the counter.

“I’ll give you three hundred for it.”

“You’ve got yourself a deal!” Dani extended her hand.

I shook my head. Dani sure wasn’t a very good bargainer. I guess she was perfectly happy with the amount being offered.

After the transaction was complete, we exited the pawn shop, Dani holding a wad of cash.

“You’re ridiculous.” I said, smiling.

“I know.” She chirped.

It was a gorgeous day, and the midmorning sun shone brightly on the large town. I looked around the plaza.

“OK, where do you want to go next, now that you’re an independently wealthy young woman?”

“Um…” She looked around for a second, before remembering. “Ah ha! Goodwill! Let’s go there!”

The girl took off running toward the thrift store, and I had to hurry to catch up.

“Why are we running? It isn’t going anywhere!”

“I don’t know! It’s just fun, I guess!”

In a few seconds, we reached the store. Dani opened the door, and we went inside. There was row after row of used clothes, for both genders and in various sizes. There was also a section for other goods, such as appliances, dishes, books, and toys. Dani yelped with delight, and dashed over to a far corner of the store. I followed at a more casual pace.

When I caught up to her, she was leaning her upper body into an enormous bin, and rustling around through the contents. When I approached, I found that the large container was packed full of socks! There were socks of all different lengths, colors, and styles, but they were all singles; there were no pairs folded together. I guess this explains where Dani obtained her footwear.

“Ooh! Check this one out! Isn’t it funny?”

She pulled herself out of the bin with a sock. To my surprise, she was also wearing a black top hat. Where did she even get that? She held up a dark blue calf-length sock, covered with print of a cat with a Pop-Tart body and a rainbow behind it.

“Um…I guess?”

Dani tossed the sock at me, and dove back into the container. I caught it out of the air, and gave her a peculiar look. What is with this girl? Over time, she threw several other socks out of the large box, and I struggled to keep catching them. Eventually, she stood back up.

“OK. I think that’s all of the interesting ones!”

“Alright. Is there anything else you-“

“What’s that over there!?”

And she moseyed quickly across the store.

I followed behind her more slowly. On my way over, something caught my eye. There was a whole row of men’s suits. A glance at the price tags revealed that they were quite inexpensive. I guess if I ever needed to go to a funeral or wedding or something, I knew where to go to find a cheap suit.

“Hey Milo! Look at this!”

I turned my attention to Dani. She was wearing a huge fluffy fur shawl. It must have been made from a white tiger or something. The girl had thrown it around her body, and it looked thoroughly preposterous when paired with the top hat she was still wearing.

“I live for furs. I worship furs! After all, is there a woman in all this wretched world who doesn’t?” She exclaimed spinning around.

“Um…what?” I was certainly confused.

Dani tossed the shawl aside.

“Just kidding. I prefer my animals alive, thank you!”

She then ducked behind a rack, and popped out wearing a men’s greed plaid overcoat.

“I say, top of the morning, my chap!” The girl imitated a British accent while tipping her top hat.

“OK…”

Was she planning on buying all this stuff, or was she just messing around?

At that point, the girl removed her overcoat as well, and began to skip toward the checkout.

“Alright! I think we’re ready!”

I followed behind, still carrying an armful of colorful socks. I laid them on the counter, and Dani paid for the purchase with her money from the pawn shop. She thanked the clerk and began heading out the door while the socks were being packed into a plastic bag. I noiselessly removed the top hat from off of Dani’s head before she could make it out without paying for it, and handed it to the cashier. Then, I followed my eccentric friend out of the store. Once outside, we took a look around. I shielded my eyes against the late morning sun. It must have been getting pretty close to noon.

Dani must have been reading my thoughts, because she said:

“Hey, I’m starting to get darn hungry! You want to find somewhere to eat?”

I nodded.

“Sounds good to me. Where do you want to go?”

She turned around in a circle to survey her surroundings, before answering.

“I don’t know! Let’s walk that way!”

The girl began to head north, away from the plaza where we had parked. I shrugged, and walked with her. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, but not too hot. I took a deep breath. It was like the weather one might find in a dream; so perfect that you could hardly even tell it was there. I hadn’t left the compound for anything other than training sessions and that one mission for six years, and it felt pretty nice. There were a number of people walking about their business, also enjoying the day. I felt a little out of place with my training uniform, and the fact that I hadn’t interacted with any humans outside of Tsalderek for years. I would be fine, as long as I didn’t draw any attention to myself.

After a few minutes, we came to a small diner at the very edge of the small city.

“Hey! Let’s try that place!” Dani exclaimed.

She then started running toward the restaurant.

Why does she always have to run everywhere? I hurried after her, knowing that everyone in the area was probably staring at us. We reached the diner, called Jack’s Corner Grill at the same time, and Dani grabbed the door handle first.

“After you…” She said, opening the portal into the building.

“Um…thanks.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I went inside anyway.

Once inside, the girl bounced over to a booth by a window, and beckoned me to join her. I walked somewhat reluctantly over, and sat on the soft vinyl-covered seat. I had never been in anything close to this situation before, and felt like I was in enemy territory. My body was tense and rigid, and I was ready for anything. Dani laughed at me.

“Come one, Milo! Loosen up a little! Relax! Have some fun!”

Hm. Those were not my normal priorities. Ordinarily, everything I did had a specific purpose and methodology. I had no idea how to relax and have fun… So I continued to sit stiff and stone faced. Dani laughed at me again as a waiter approached our booth.

“How are ya? My name is Ryan, and I’ll be your server today.”

The young man greeted pleasantly. He pulled out a little notepad, but before he asked us what we wanted to start out with, he looked us over a little.

“First time, eh?” He addressed us.

I said nothing, but Dani was surprised.

“How could you tell?”

Ryan pointed at me with his pencil.

“He looks like a statue. You’d better loosen up a little, buddy, or the birds are gonna come and start pooping on you.”

I glared at him without turning my head, but Dani started laughing once more.

The waiter smiled.

“It’s all right. You’ll get the hang of it.” He then prepared to take our order. “So, what can I start you out with?”

“Hm. Actually, we haven’t even looked at the menu yet.” Dani admitted. “What do you like the best?”

Ryan lowered his notepad and looked wistfully up at an angle.

“Ah…The Chicken Cordon Bleu Poutine. A base of golden crispy French fries, topped with tender chicken breast, ham, and cheese, and smothered in rich gravy. It not only includes the tried-and-true homestyle Canadian goodness of poutine, but combines it with the highest echelon of the paragon of French haute cuisine! This match made in heaven takes the best aspects of both gastronomies and exalts them to a level of inconceivably phenomenally deliciousness, unmatched by any other consumable on the planet!!”

In response to this poetic and enthusiastic glorification, even I raised an eyebrow; impressed. Dani sat in stunned silence for several seconds, before making her cheerful decision.

“OK! We’ll take one of those!”

Ryan had reverted to his calm nature once again as he wrote down our order.

“Very well. Can I get you something to drink?”

“I’ll just have water.” I stated.

“I guess I’ll have water, too.” My friend agreed. “Oh, with a lemon wedge, please!”

Ryan smiled, and closed his notepad.

“Alright! I’ll be back with your water, and your meal will be out in just a few minutes!”

After the waiter departed, Dani leaned back into her booth cushion.

“Ahhh…You know, Milo. This is really awesome. I’m so glad that you agreed to come with me! It makes everything better when you’re here!”

Seeing her this happy somehow helped me relax a bit. I attempted to lean back a little as well. My mind was still a little unsettled about skipping class. I mean, I didn’t need it, but what would something like this lead to?

Shortly thereafter, Ryan came back with our waters.

“Since this place isn’t too busy right now, your food will be out really quick here, eh?”

“OK, thanks!” Dani thanked him.

After he had left, she took a long drink of her water.

“Hello. My name is Danica Blaine, and I’m a Crazy Canadian French Fry Addict.”

I almost snorted my water out of my nose. Well, I guess the more time you spend with people, the more you learn about them.

Dani tried not to giggle at me, then began to speak again.

“Yeah, actually I was born and raised in Tsalderek. My parents had joined before I was even born, so I was born here in Canada.”

Uh, oh, was she about to go into her backstory? I really wasn’t interested, but I couldn’t think of a polite way to say that, so I kept my mouth shut.

“I was never good enough for my parents. They thought that I was just too ditsy and untalented to amount to anything. No matter how hard I tried, I always was just a disappointment.”

I nodded. I could certainly relate to that. No matter how much good I tried to do, no one seemed to appreciate me, and only wanted to take advantage of me.

“I’ve always had a really hard time concentrating on things, and when I started the mandatory training, my parents figured out that I wasn’t any good at that either. They didn’t like me the way I was, so I couldn’t be myself. And who they wanted to me to be was impossible. I didn’t know what to do. But then, I met you.”

I tried not to show any reaction on my face as she continued.

“When I was with you, everything seemed better. I had someone to look to, and someone to work for. When I saw you, I could also see all of the other wonderful things in the world, and just how much fun I could have! In a way, you helped me find me!”

She stretched her arms behind her head.

“And here I am!”

The girl sat back again, and was silent for a while. She had an expectant look on her face, and I determined that she probably wanted to hear my story as well. Well, she had shared hers. I guess it’s only fair that I’d at least give her at least a part of mine.

I adjusted myself in the booth.

“There’s not much for me to tell. I never knew my parents, and lived in a boy’s home for the first 10 years of my life. Then, I lived on the streets until Sagar found me, and I’ve been in Tsalderek ever since. Everyone there seems to hate me except…you.”

It was as though a light came on with the realization. She had always been there, even when no one else was. For years, I had wished that she’d just get lost, and leave me alone. How could I have not appreciated her for being the only person who cared about me? I mean, I thought that she was super irritating when she was obsessed with trying to make me like her. She just couldn’t take a hint. But now, I realized that without her, I would have been completely devoid of any allies in this life, and I needed her as much as she needed me.

Before I could say anything else out loud, Ryan returned with a huge tray.

“Alrighty! Here’s your slop!”

The young waiter unloaded two small plates, as well as an enormous platter piled high with French-Canadian goodness. Both of our eyes widened at the sight of the colossal mound of fried potatoes, chicken, cheese, and gravy.

“Enjoy! Give me a shout if you need anything, eh?”

“Thanks Ryan!” Dani called, and then turned her attention to the poutine before us.

Conversation was impossible for the next half hour, as the two of us hungrily obliterated the alimentary mountain. There were over five pounds of food, but it still stood no chance to two seemingly starving teenagers. After it was all gone, Dani grabbed the platter and lifted it over her head.

“This poutine! I like it! Another!” She exclaimed, and pretended to throw it to the floor.

I raised my eyebrow at her.

“Seriously? You just consumed approximately 3,500 calories. How can you still want more?”

“I’m just kidding.” She stated, setting the platter back down on the table. “I’m good.”

I nodded knowingly, as Ryan came over to our table.

“Hey, did you say you wanted another one?” He asked, flabbergasted.

“No. I just said, uh, your mother. I like your mother.” Dani joked with a straight face.

A very puzzled expression came to the waiter’s face.

“Um…OK…uh…I’ll be right back with your check, eh?”

A couple of minutes later, the young man returned with our check.

“It’s OK, I got this.” Dani said, making an exaggerated sweeping gesture with one arm.

Of course she does. She’s the only one with any money here. I didn’t have a cent, US or Canadian.

She attached the money to the bill, and gave it back to Ryan.

“You can leave the tip.”

I cocked my head and gave her an incredulous look. Still got no money here!

She laughed, and left a sizable tip on the table.

“I’m just kidding. I know that you are a poor pauper, and I, a rich debutant. I shall take care of you in the monetary respect.”

I smiled and shook my head. What’s with this girl? The two of us got up from the table, and left the diner, saying farewell to Ryan as we left. We decided that it would be best to head back to where we had parked the motorcycle, and go back to Tsalderek before they sent out a search party or something.

Upon reaching the plaza where the motorcycle was left, Dani’s eye suddenly caught something, and she jumped excitedly.

“Ooh! Milo, look! A pet store! Can we go there? Please?”

“Dani, you know we can’t have any animals in Tsalderek.” I said firmly. “Plus, how could we carry them back on the motorcycle?”

“Yeah, I know, but could we just look? It’ll be fun to look at all the animals!” She pleaded.

I vacillated my opinion back and forth in my mind for a few moments, before answering:

“Oh, OK. We can go in for just a-“

“Yipee!” The girl cheered.

She then yanked my hand to drag me along behind her, nearly causing me to drop the bag of socks I was carrying.

As we approached the store, my eyes made out the sign on the front: YODER’S PETS. It looked a bit run-down, but there were still a handful of cars outside, so it must get at least enough business to stay open. The first thing I noticed upon entering was the smell. I could individually smell the aquatic set up, small mammals, and birds. It was not at all unpleasant. In fact, the scent was comforting in a way.

I looked left and right, surveying the premises. Suddenly, something caught my foot, and sent me tumbling head over heels. In mid-air, I twisted my legs over top of my body, and landed on my feet. I quickly struck a fighting pose, ready to face my attacker. Instead, my stance was met by the blank stare of a large, lumbering tortoise.

My face reddened with embarrassment, but I instantly turned to Dani, who had observed the whole thing.

“Don’t you dare laugh!” I threatened, pointing my finger at her.

She struggled to suppress her mirth, actually having to physically hold her hands over her mouth. It was impossible for me to keep a straight face as I comprehended how goofy the situation actually was. I just let a turtle get the better of me. A grin began to come to my face, when I heard a voice to my right.

“Ah! I see you’ve met ol’ George!”

A heavier set man in a faded goldenrod polo shirt and khaki shorts approached us. He had a lizard sitting on his shoulder, and a smile on his stubbled face.

“Is that your turtle?” Dani asked.

“Yep!” He answered. “Ol’ George has been with me ever since I opened this place. He’s my partner in crime, if you will.”

“Oh! Are you Mr. Yoder?”

“Yes, ma’am, I am. This is the finest pet store in Bindmont! Actually, this is the only pet store in Bindmont,” he corrected. “but it’s still a fine establishment. Feel free to look around, and let me know if you need help with anything!”

“Will do, thank you sir!” Dani said.

I slowly reached out my hand toward the lizard on Mr. Yoder’s shoulder. When I got within a few inches of the creature, it suddenly popped open a frill which encircled its head. I jerked my hand backward in surprise.

“WOW!” Dani exclaimed. “It’s just like Jurassic Park!”

“I don’t think it likes me very much.” I muttered.

The owner laughed.

“Have a good time guys!” Then, he walked away.

My companion looked excitedly around the shop for a second, before deciding on a direction. She quickly bounced over to the cages along the east wall. Inside each of the stacked pens was a cat which was in need of a home. The girl talked to the cats, and attempted to rub and scratch them through the gates, before moving on.

We went from section to section, looking at freshwater and saltwater fish, hamsters, gerbils, birds, and snakes. I followed directly behind Dani, as she expressed how much she loved each one of them, and spouted random trivia facts about every single animal we looked at. It was truly fascinating. This was just another side of her I didn’t even know existed. There was so much more to her than what I had seen for the last six years, and I kicked myself for missing it.

I watched on contentedly as she demonstrated her personality. Just then, she squealed and leaned in close to a terrarium in front of us.

“Look! Look at the adorable little lizards!”

The girl’s voice had changed to a cute tone as she puckered up her face. She glanced from cage to cage at the small reptiles.

“Oh my gosh! Look at the geckos!”

She exclaimed pointing at a tiny lizard which was adhered to the front glass of the tank. Dani pressed her face and hands up against the glass on the other side from the gecko. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Sometimes, I wonder if maybe you are a gecko.”

“Yeah!” She laughed. “That would be awesome! But I can’t lick my eyeballs like they can!”

After the girl had observed every cage multiple times, I knew it was time for us to be getting back.

“Alright, Dani. It’s time for us to go.”

She nodded.

“Yeah, I just wish I could give one of these little guys a home.”

“Maybe someday.” I gave her encouragement. However, my voice of logic still demanded that we head for home. “But for now, we need to be getting back to Tsalderek.”

“OK. Goodbye guys! I’ll see you next time!”

As we walked out of Yoder’s toward the motorcycle, the conversation between us was unusually silent. It seemed as though there was a tension in the air that didn’t exist before. I had things that I wanted to say, but no idea how to say them. I had never been good with words, but this was something completely different. There was a feeling in my heart that I had never experienced before. I couldn’t put my finger on it, no matter how hard I tried.

It was just the way Dani was. The way she walked, her excessive optimism, her adorable face, blue eyes, asymmetrical hair, everything. I felt warm all over whenever I thought of her, and I obviously lost all ability to make good decisions. What was with this girl? How could she have this effect on me all of a sudden? I could think of no possible explanation, other than that age-old disease which had afflicted many a human heart over the years. I never thought that I would experience it, and especially not with her, but there was no way to deny what I was feeling.

I could feel sweat coming from my body, and I felt more and more uncomfortable. Presently, we reached where our transportation was parked. It was now or never for me. I took a deep breath, and broke the silence.

“Um, Dani?”

She turned to me.

“Yes?”

“I wanted to ask you something. Something that I never thought in a million years I would ever be asking. But…”

The girl tilted her head expectantly.

“Would you… want to be my girlfriend?”

Her eyes widened.

“Are you… do you really mean it?”

“I think so…”

“YIPEE!” She shouted, and proceeded to tackle hug me.

After a moment of stunned surprise, I wrapped my arms around her, and hugged her back.

“You know what, Dani?”

“What?”

“I might have changed your life, but you changed mine just as much. I’m afraid of what I might be without you.”

Dani said nothing, but continued holding me in her embrace. After some time, I cleared my throat.

“Um, we really do need to get back to the compound, ya know?”

She pulled back.

“OK! You’re right.” Then, she straightened up. “Would you like to drive on the way back?”

“Uh…sure. Why?”

Dani gave a big smile.

“So I can hug you the whole way back!”

Wow. Her honesty was shockingly refreshing. She had always been that way, never veiling a thing she ever felt. That was another thing I loved about her. I agreed to drive the motorcycle back to headquarters, and she sat behind me, wrapping her arms around my body and leaning her head against my back. I had never enjoyed anyone’s touch more than hers right then. I took the trip back to Tsalderek at a very slow speed, to make the moment last as long as possible.

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