"So let me get this straight."
Dustin waved the half eaten pizza slice around in front of Mike's face. Lucas was down at the other end of the barcade fighting a losing battle with the pinball machine.
Dustin took another bite of the pizza, the sauce smearing on one side of his mouth. "You ditched your date for your cat? Are you purposefully trying to remain celibate or something?"
"No, it wasn't like that." Mike took a sip of his soda. " l thought that something was seriously wrong with Paladin. I have never heard him yowl like that before. I thought that he had hurt himself."
"And then you got inside, realized that was nothing was wrong and yet insisted on playing with him until you realized that your date was gone." Dustin said swallowing the last of his slice before licking his fingers clean and picking up another one. "I'm beginning to think that you're doing it on purpose."
"I'm not." Mike responded defensively. "And it wasn't a date."
"Oh so you didn't go over to her place, ask her out, she accepted, then you guys went to a bar for drinks and then hung out in a park afterwards?" Dustin smirked. "Sounds like a date to me."
"Well you asked me out to this bar and picked me up as well," Mike smiled. "Is this a date too?"
"Nope." Dustin bit into another piece of pizza. "Because I'm not trying to fuck you."
Dustin laughed at the scowl on Mike's face.
"Well don't you want to fuck her?" Dustin asked as he winked at an attractive blonde who walked by the table.
"Yeah I guess," Mike swirled his straw around in his glass. "But like, I want to get to know her better first. But she's so guarded. It's like she can talk about every thing but herself."
"I see what the problem is," Dustin dabbed the napkin around his mouth, removing the sauce. "You just don't want to fuck her. You wanna date her and hope that more comes out of it."
"Yeah, what's so wrong with that?" Mike inquired.
"Nothing really," Dustin shrugged. "If she wants the same thing that you do. You don't even know if she likes men or not."
He noticed the crest fallen look on Mike's face. " Look Mikey, all I'm saying is don't put all of your eggs in one basket. If you want El to open up to you, you can't push it. And she definitely won't do it if you continue to ignore her for a cat."
Dustin slid out of the booth and patted Mike on the shoulder. "Just something to think about my friend. Now if you'll excuse me." Dustin put on his best smile and strolled towards the redhead that he had been eyeing at the bar.
"No! We're not putting both anchovies and pepperoni on a pizza."
"Why not?" El whined.
"Because it's disgusting." Mike responded wondering where in the world El came up with these weird combinations.
"Have you ever tried it?" El tried to lean over the counter and grab the phone out of Mike's hand but Mike backed away.
"Then how do you know that it's disgusting then?" El cocked an eyebrow.
"I just know that it is." He looked at the flier in his hand and started to dial the number.
"Well since I'm paying for half of his pizza then I should have a say." El folded her arms across her chest, which reminded Mike of the tight sports bra that had been plaguing his thoughts.
Swallowing deeply Mike sighed. "Fine. We'll put the anchovies on half of the pizza."
El walked around the counter and plucked the flier out of Mike's hand.
"How about habaneros?" She looked at Mike wide eyed and hopeful.
"I can't believe that you're actually eating that." Mike watched in disgust as El took a huge bite of the pepperoni and anchovy laden slice.
"You don't know what you're missing." El smacked her lips together as she chewed.
El looked down at her bare feet and surprisingly, Paladin was there, watching her intently as she ate. "See, even Paladin wants to try it."
She plucked an anchovy off and held it in front of Paladin and the cat gobbled it greedily down.
El threw a triumphant grin at Mike. "He likes it."
Mike rolled his eyes and resumed watching the television. "What ever."
Before El could take another bite, Paladin meowed again.
"Okay here's another one."
Paladin ate the offerring quite happily.
"I think your cat ate more of my pizza than I did." El said as she walked back into the living room after cleaning up.
"Well you kept on feeding him."
"You think that he likes me now?" El approached Paladin who was curled up in the single seater.
"I dunno. Maybe." Mike watched with curiosity as El slowly stuck out her hand to pet Paladin.
However, the cat sensing this turned around and hissed at El who immediately withdrew her hand.
Mike laughed loudly at El's puzzled face.
"But you ate my pizza." El said to Paladin who just narrowed his eyes at him and turned away. " I thought that you liked me. You used me."
Mike chuckled. "Come here and leave Pal alone." He held out his hand to El who took it and then plopped down defeated next to Mike on the couch.
She released Mike's hand and turned herself around and rested her head in Mike's lap with her feet hanging over the arm of the couch. "Your cat used me."
"Is that why you're using me as your bed?"
"It's the least you could do. My feelings are hurt." El pouted.
Mike laughed softly. El looked different in this position as Mike looked down at her. So much softer and younger. He knew that he shouldn't be letting himself get so attracted to El in case it wasn't reciprocated but he couldn't help it.
"Did you have any pets as a kid?" Mike found himself softly stroking El's long hair. His fingers lightly pressing against El's scalp. He glanced at Paladin and found that the cat had fallen asleep in the chair. No wonder El was allowed to be this close to him.
"No. I was always told that they were messy." El said picking at a thread on her t-shirt. "I always wanted a dog though."
"I had three cats, a dog and a goldfish when I was a kid." Mike shared.
" Your parents allowed you to keep all of those?" El looked up at him in amazement.
Roman laughed. "Well I have two sisters one older, one younger. So it wasn't just me." He twirled a lock of El's hair over his index finger. "You have any brothers or sisters?"
"Nope. Just me."
"You must have been a handful." Mike joked.
" I, uh, guess." El noticeably became a lot less interested in the conversation as if she was trying to avoid talking about her family. "So how did you get Paladin?"
Now it was his turn to become uncomfortable. He turned his attention to his window, seeing nothing but the glow of the street light in the darkness. "I took him from my ex." He said quietly.
El sat up and stared at him. "You stole your ex's cat? That's cold."
Mike turned to face her. "My ex was selfish. She was always work focused and she went to a work retreat for a couple of weeks to try and make partner at her firm when her female cat was pregnant. This was after we had broken up and I didn't know that she had left. Anyway she called me one night whilst she was away, telling me that her neighbour had called telling her that there was a scent coming from her apartment and she wanted me to go and check it out. I wasn't going to until she said that she had left the cat in there. The selfish bitch didn't even think to put her up at pet hospice while she was away. So I went over there." At this point Mike stopped talking and just continued to stare out the window.
El could see that Mike's mind was far away and he was reliving that day in his head. His jaw was set tight and his eyes were glassy. Fuck. If she knew that the question would've upset him, she wouldn't have asked. She slid her hand over Mike's, lacing their fingers together. "You don't have to continue Mike."
"No, it's okay." He said rubbing his eyes vigorously. "I didn't realize that it still upset me this much." Mike took in a deep breath and then continued. "So I went over there and the stench coming from her apartment was awful. I was surprised that her super hadn't gone in. So I went in and..." Mike's voice dropped. "The cat was dead and so was the litter of her newborns. They were starting to decompose. It was awful."
El felt Mike squeezing her hand and she let him. She was getting upset herself. His ex had to be one heartless bitch.
"I was about to leave when I heard this tiny meow. I thought that my mind was playing tricks on me but I heard it again. It sounded as if it was coming from the kitchen. Sure enough that's where I found Paladin. He was curled up on the mat by the kitchen sink. He was so tiny El." His voice broke a little. "I picked him up and he was smaller than the palm of my hand. He was the only one that survived. So I took him and carried him straight to a veterinary hospital. He was really weak and malnourished. The vet said that I got there just in time. He stayed there for a week and then he came home with me."
"So what happened to your ex?" El knew that she shouldn't prod but she really did want to know.
"Well I called her super, who in turn called the police. The super kicked my ex out and the police charged her with negligence and animal cruelty and a whole host of other charges. But my ex knows a lot of people in high places and got off with community service for six weeks. Of course she blamed me for everything, said that I should've taken care of the bodies. Asshole."
"Yeah she was a douche supreme." El agreed.
"So yeah I know that I sometimes, well almost all of the time, I spoil Pal but I can't help it." Mike looked at the sleeping cat. "He's a tough little guy."
El nodded. "He is."
"So um," Mike tried to smile. "You have any bad ex stories?"
El shook her head regretfully. "I haven't really, I mean I don't really do relationships."
Mike snorted. "You sound just like Dustin."
"Who's Dustin?" Immediately El sounded wary and she held Mike's hand a bit tighter but as usual the raven haired man didn't notice.
"Oh he's a good friend of mine we work at the same office." Mike laughed when he remembered Dustin trying to pick up the redhead at bar. "A different day, a different girl is his motto."
"So what's your excuse?" He couldn't help but notice that El was rather close to him. He lightly stroked the area between El's thumb and index finger a few times with his thumb. "Why don't you do relationships?"
"l don't know." El shrugged. "I guess I've never really been comfortable with the whole notion of putting all of your trust and energy into one person, only to have them betray you in the end."
"They all don't end like that." Mike pointed out.
"But most of them do. I mean it just seems as if you're setting yourself up for failure. I don't see the point in that." El rested her head against Mike's shoulder, keeping that one hand firmly grasped with Mike's.
"But what if you meet someone and fall in love with them? What then?" Mike actually broke the hold that El had on his hand and placed his arm around El's waist instead.
"That isn't going to happen." She responded knowingly.
"But it can," Mike insisted. "Sometimes you can't help who you fall in love with."
El turned to face him. "Yeah you can. It's a choice to love someone and I choose not to. We can have a good time together but that's it. None of that love crap."
"Why?" Mike just couldn't understand this way of thinking at all. Why would a person want to deny themselves something like love? Sure he had experienced his share of heartbreaks but being in love made it worth it.
"Well one of the first reasons being, is that I hardly stay in any place long enough to fall in love with anyone anyway. I normally spend about three to six months in a place, a year tops and I'm out. I like a change of pace and scenery. I don't like the feeling of being tied to one person. Besides it wouldn't be fair of me to ask a person to uproot their life to move with me just for the hell of it, would it?"
"I guess not." Mike said thoughtfully although he felt that there was more to it than what El was telling him.
El's face was only a foot away from his own and Mike wanted to lean over and kiss her just because he felt like it. But he didn't think that El would approve or even appreciate it. So he tried to redirect his gaze away from El's pretty honey brown hair, which constantly fell into her beautiful eyes which shared her face with that perfect mouth.7
He focused on the cop show on the television that El had decided. "So how long do you plan on staying in New York?"
"Maybe six months, I guess. A year tops. It really isn't my favourite place."
So in less than a year El would be out of his life. Crap. It really didn't make any sense for him to develop his feelings for her any further. It wouldn't work out anyway. "Okay."
El remained in Mike's embrace for a few minutes more savouring the feeling of closeness. She could tell that Mike was thinking about something but he didn't share it with her. She observed the sleeping Paladin and she figured that it was time that she called it a night as well.
She removed Mike's hand from around her waist and placed it on the couch. She then stood up and stretched. "I guess it's time that I turn in for the night."
Mike looked up at her.."Yeah I guess, it is getting late." He wondered if he should walk El to his door but then changed his mind. He would be too tempted to try to steal a kiss and might end up ruining this new fragile friendship.
"Well see ya." El walked off to the front door and Mike watched her go.
When the door closed, Mike picked up his remote and turned off the television. He sighed and and rested his head back on the couch. He had to get all of this nonsense of him and El ever dating out of his head now. The woman said it herself. She doesn't do relationships and she doesn't plan on staying long in New York. Mike wished that he could change El's mind, on one of those things at least.