Authors: Ariana McGregor
“She went to the bathroom,” his mother shrugged as she tucked into Tara's cheesecake.
Alex turned back to Barry. “You are not welcome here. Leave Tara alone.”
Barry scowled at him. “You can't throw me out of an entire town.” With that, he turned and left.
Alex sat back down and looked at his mother.
“Excellent intimidation, dear,” his mother said, patting his hand. “Could use a little more growl though.”
Minutes passed and Tara didn't come back. Suspicion gnawed at him. She wouldn't have run, would she?
“Ma,” he said, “could you go check on Tara for me?”
His mother shrugged and went to the bathroom. Five minutes later, she returned carrying Tara's dress, shoes, and bag. Either Tara was hiding in the bathroom, butt naked, or else she'd shifted into her mouse and scarpered. Dammit. He wished he'd known running from his mother was an option. He'd have gone with her.
“She's not in there, is she?” he asked with a sigh.
“No,” his mother said. “I hope nobody saw her. I like this place. It'd be a shame if the health department shut it down because someone saw a mouse.”
Alex took the clothes with a sigh. His mate was developing a habit of running from him. At least now he knew where she lived. He paid his bill, picked up some more cheesecake to go, and went looking for his mate. Again.
Tara scuttled around outside her front door. It was entirely possible that she hadn't thought her plan through. Not that 'run away' really constituted a plan. Anyway, she was now in mouse form outside her house and completely unable to get inside. Her keys were in her bag which was still at the restaurant. Which was also where her clothes were. So, she could hang out in her front garden as a mouse or as a naked woman, but she couldn't get inside unless Sara came home. Still, scurrying around was better than having to deal with Barry. Or Alex's mother. Maybe she could just keep this form permanently. She really needed a mouse-flap in the door though.
She huddled under a bush for protection. Hopefully no cats would come sniffing around. She wouldn't get eaten since she could always turn back to human form, but she'd rather the neighbours didn't see her naked in the garden.
She wasn't sure what scared her more, Alex's mother or Barry. Both at the same time was more than she could handle. Even in mouse form, she sighed. She really shouldn't allow herself to be intimidated so easily, she was a grown woman and more than capable of dealing with Barry. It was just that every time he got close to her, she seemed to forget that and went straight back into cowering victim mode. She was disgusted with herself but she just couldn't stop that reaction to his presence.
As for Alex's mother, well... to be fair, Alex had looked pretty terrified himself, so maybe she had that effect on everyone.
“Do I even want to know?”
Tara looked up to see her sister crouching down beside her. She squeaked pathetically and scurried over to wait by the door.
Sara sighed and opened the door, waiting for Tara to enter first. Once inside, Tara shot for the little cage in the corner of the room, getting inside and closing the door behind her. She dived into her little pile of sawdust and pulled it over herself, one eye peeking out at her surroundings.
“That bad, huh?” Sara said, squatting down by the cage. “Do I need to go psycho on a certain hot bear?”
Tara squeaked a sad little “no” at her.
“Good, because his car just pulled up.” Sara straightened up and went to open the door.
Fabulous. Could this day get any worse? It didn't matter. She wasn't getting out of the cage, not even for hot bear dude. Besides, what if he'd brought his mother?
“Is she here?” Alex asked when Tara's sister opened the door. They really did look remarkably similar for non-identical twins, but his bear always knew. Only one of them made his heart beat faster.
“Yeah, she's in her cage.” She waved him in.
“Her what?” Alex entered the room and looked at the cage. “Is that a hamster cage? Why is she in there?” He hadn't even noticed it earlier.
Sara shrugged. “It's a safe place to let her mouse out. It seems to calm her when she's stressed out. Give her a while to calm down and she'll come out.”
“Is that normal?” Alex asked, crouching down to look at the little mouse burrowed under the sawdust. “Do you have a cage?”
Sara snorted and gave him a strange look. “No.”
Tara peeked up at Alex but stayed mostly hidden.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he crooned to her. “I'm sorry tonight didn't go well. Do you need anything in there? Some cheese, maybe?”
“Mice don't like cheese,” Sara informed him.
“What?” he asked, confused. “She loves cheesecake and she was eating a cheese sandwich earlier.”
Sara shrugged from where she lay sprawled in a chair reading a magazine. “Tara likes cheese. The mouse doesn't. Mice don't like cheese all that much, it's a common misconception.”
“Ah,” Alex said, watching the little mound of sawdust quiver. “I picked up some of Mario's cheesecake for you to have later. I didn't want you to miss out.”
A little nose poked out of the bedding, sniffed, and then inched forwards. Her head appeared, then her ears, finally the whole mouse was up against the bars, sniffing. He sat the box with the cheesecake next to the cage.
“I'm sorry about my mother,” he told her. “She's just your typical mama bear, trying to keep her cubs in line... and get them mated off. She just gets overexcited.”
The mouse eyed him. He could swear she rolled her eyes at him.
“Okay,” he said with a shrug. “She gets bossy and interferes a lot. The good news is that once we're mated, she'll go home and pick on my brother.”
The mouse snorted at him and ran off to play in her wheel.
“So, you have one of those overbearing mothers?” Sara asked. “Pun intended.”
“It's a bear thing,” he said, shrugging.
“Do you think maybe you could set her on Barry?” Sara asked hopefully. “Might keep them both out of the way for a while. I'd do it myself, but I have anger issues. It'd get messy.”
That would be a truly evil thing to do, and yet totally brilliant. He was really going to like his mate's sister.
The wheel stopped spinning and Tara scurried over and looked at him, eyes narrowed.
“What?” he asked her. “My mother will enjoy it, Barry won't, and it'll keep both of them away from us. It's a plan with no downside.”
A little mouse paw opened the latch on the cage and the mouse came out. She looked at him and took a few steps toward him. He put his hand down and the mouse climbed onto it, her little feet tickling the palms of his hand. He gently stroked her head with one finger. She looked at the door and then back at him.
“You want me to take you upstairs?” he guessed. The little mouse nodded at him.
He carefully got to his feet and carried her to her bedroom. She was so tiny in this form, it made him feel like a giant. If they had kids that turned out to be bears, he'd have to watch none of them accidentally squished her. Maybe he could get her one of those plastic balls to run around in.
He set her down on the bed and she squeaked at him.
“Okay, I'll be downstairs,” he said, walking to the door. He'd love to stay, but she'd been freaked out enough for one night. For now, he could give her space.
Back downstairs, he sat down to wait with Sara.
“So how big a threat is this Barry?” he asked her.
“I don't know,” she answered, frowning. “Tara kept what was happening from me, from the whole family. We didn't hear from her much, she never let on how bad things were. Not until recently. I never liked him, I always thought he was a slimeball, but I had no idea what she went through. I suspect she still hasn't told us everything. If I'd known, I'd have dealt with him years ago.”
Alex nodded. “So, it was bad enough to have her move here to get away from him. She seems scared of him. I don't like that.”
“Me neither,” she agreed. “Tara's braver than most people realize, braver than even she knows. She just gets overwhelmed sometimes, and Barry can get to her more than most. The excessive running away is a symptom of Barry.”
“You make him sound like a disease,” he said, smiling.
“Yeah, you don't want to come down with a bad case of Barry,” she drawled. “May cause excessive running, vomiting, and homicidal rages.”
“I'm not going to let him get to her,” he said. No matter what he had to do, Tara was his mate and nobody was going to upset her.
“Neither am I,” Sara answered.
At that, the door opened and Tara came in. She made straight for the box of cheesecake, picking it up and examining the contents. A smile spread across her face.
“That is a lot of cheesecake,” she said, looking at him.
“I wasn't sure what kind you preferred, so I got a selection,” he answered. He got up and walked towards her. “I should get going. Can I see you tomorrow?”
She nodded, her eyes back on the cheesecake. A lesser man might take that personally. His bear, however, was delighted that she liked their gift and that they had provided for their mate.
“I'll pick you up from work,” he said.
“Uh, no,” she said, looking up at him. “You've seen the monstrosity of a uniform they make us wear. I'm going nowhere until I've been home to change.”
He snorted. “Yeah, fair enough.”
She walked him to the front door. Stepping outside, he turned back to her. “I'll see you tomorrow.”
“Thanks Alex,” she said. Standing on the top step, she was almost level with him. She leaned over and kissed him lightly. He grabbed her hips to make sure she didn't topple down the stairs. Her lips were soft and the kiss light, yet it was the most amazing thing he had ever felt. In his mind, his bear was flat on its back, legs in the air, and tongue rolling out of its mouth, totally blissed out.
She pulled back and he reluctantly let her go. “Until tomorrow,” she said shyly.
Yeah, tomorrow better come soon.
What had woken her? Tara lay in bed, trying to work out what had disturbed her sleep and her awesome dream about hot bear dude. Dammit, she really had to start calling him Alex. The house seemed quiet, but she still felt uneasy.
She sat up in bed, listening intently. Still nothing. She snuggled back into her pillow, pulling the covers over herself. Maybe if she went back to sleep, she could get back to the dream of a naked Alex feeding her chocolate cheesecake.
A noise came from outside. Her eyes opened wide and she listened, waiting to hear another sound. Definitely outside, but very close. Tara sat up slowly, pushing back her quilt and edging to the side of the bed. She stood up and padded silently over to the window. Reaching out, she slowly raised one slat of the blinds, leaving herself a space to peek through. It was dark outside but the street lights let her see a little. There. Something was moving under the bush where she'd hidden earlier. She couldn't make out its form but it was maybe the size of a small dog. Or maybe a fox. Barry.
Her hand shook a little as she watched the dark shape under the bush. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the shadows. Her heart beat faster and she felt paralysed with fear. She was being ridiculous. Being aware of that didn’t make her feel any better. In the dark, from a distance, she couldn't be sure it was Barry. Maybe it was an actual fox, or a dog, maybe even a cat. She just couldn't get a good enough look. Even if it was Barry, he couldn't get in the house. If he did, he'd have Sara to deal with. She was safe, she knew she was. She just didn't feel it.
Should she call someone? Sara was in the next room. She was tempted. Sara was always the braver twin who could cope with anything. Or she could call Alex... and tell him what? That there might possibly be an animal in her garden? Overreaction much?
She forced air into her lungs, concentrating on taking steady breaths, as she stepped slowly away from the window and sank down onto her bed. She sat there for a while, unable to persuade herself to lie down, sure that there was a threat nearby. Her eyes were glued to the window, even though she could see nothing from her position.
A high-pitched scream sounded, making her jump. The first time she'd ever heard that sound, she'd been sure a woman was being murdered right outside her window. She knew better now. She knew it was the call of a fox. Oddly, the knowledge did not comfort her.
The screech was answered by a loud bark, then the rustling of leaves. As the barking continued, Tara got up and walked to the window, curious now. Peeking out, she could see the neighbours' Alsatian dog, Rocky, chasing a smaller animal down the street. It was too far away to be certain, but she knew anyway. It was a fox.
The day was not going at all well. Tara sighed as she cleaned up the broken cup that she'd knocked onto the floor. Her brain felt sluggish and uncooperative, probably from lack of sleep. Her reflection that morning had been more raccoon than mouse, her skin pale, dark circles appearing under her eyes. Work had been a disaster from start to finish. Her baking was burnt, misshapen, contained the wrong ingredients, or had been dropped on the floor. Her colleagues had given her strange looks, clearly unconvinced when she insisted that she was fine. Dana had watched her carefully, her expression concerned. She should have stayed home, but she’d missed so many days lately, it had been time to get back to work.
Late afternoon, Barry had shown up. She'd known he would, had spent the day sneaking furtive glances through the kitchen door, waiting for him to show. He'd sat there, drinking his coffee, facing the kitchen door. Dana had spotted him and looked to her for confirmation that he was her ex. When she'd nodded, Dana had 'accidentally' dropped a glass of orange as she passed, soaking him. She had batted at him, apologising enthusiastically while he stood there, face like thunder, fists clenched. Tara knew from experience that he was suppressing the urge to strike out. He couldn't hit Dana, not in public. During the confusion, Tara had slipped out the back door and made her way home.