The mother tigress stood in the kitchen, pulling her hair into a pony-tail as she watched the coffee pot begin to gurgle. Oh how she needed the caffeine this morning. Allergies were terrible; why-ever they still existed she couldn't understand. As far as she was concerned, they could go away.
But, just as she hooked her fingers into the handle of her mug, there was a knock at the door. At six-thirty on a Friday morning, there was little chance that the person behind the door was not the little boy who had walked her daughter to school every day since January.
”Good morning, Ket,” She greeted him.
”M'rnin' Momh' B.” He greeted with a weary slur, and after gave a great big yawn.
Inside, she was tickled that, even after the trip almost a month ago, he still took to calling her by that name. She noticed his shoulders were slouched and his feet were a bit heavy as he clomped into the house. “You're looking a bit like a zombie this morning,” she told him.
”H'm really tire',” he replied. “Was tossin'n'turnin' all night.”
”Me too!” She told him, parting away as he went to the table and she went back to the coffee pot. “I hope it rains soon so all the pollen gets pushed down.” As if to emphasize her statement, she sniffled. “I'm sure Emmy is going to be ready soon. I'm sorry you have to wait for her sometimes, it's really rude of her to do that to you.”
He shrugged. “I'ss'kay.” He rubbed his face and muzzle, smearing the haziness in his head. “I'as late this morn'n', too.”
”You're on time to me.” She praised him, sipping her coffee cautiously.
”I kin'na rush't my shower,” he admitted. “I us'ally take m' time.”
”Well,” Momma B. chuckled, “Y'know how us girls can't rush our routines.”
He responded with a chuckle back. Inside, he knew it was probably because of just a couple hours before, when he woke her up.
The mother tigress cleared her throat. ”I know you always shoot me down, but... You want anything to snack on or drink?”
She expected his response to be immediate, but he paused for a few seconds. In that moment, she found that he genuinely considered her offer.
”Maybe... could I'ave some water, please?”
A corner of her mouth lifted. “Well, sure,” she set her mug down and grasped a glass out of the cupboard just above her head.
”An'... can ya put lah'sa ice in'nit, please?”
”Absolutely.” She went to the fridge. “Crushed or cubed?”
”Umm... Crush, please.”
She popped the button and pushed the cup into the catch. The fridge grumbled as it churned and chopped the ice, coughing it out the dispenser like it was upset it had to do work. The cup was filled nearly to the brim with ice, and then filled with water after another button press.
”One water with 'lah'sa ice in'nit.'”
He thanked her as the proffered cup exchanged hands. He immediately took a few gulps of it, lifting the glass with both hands. Just as he set it down, the late-bird came out to join them.
”Morning mom,” she said, seeing her mother first-thing.
”Morning, kiddo. Ket's here.”
She sighed, just under flustered. “I know, I heard the door.” She looked over at him. “Sorry, my hair decided to be all floofy this morning.” She fluffed it out with her hands a bit. “It never does that.”
”Except when it does,” her mom pointed out.
She stuck her tongue out. “I just have to get my backpack ready and we can go.”
”Well hang on now,” Momma B. interjected. “He just got here, and for once he actually asked for some water, so let him finish it if he wants to. Besides, he's still sleepy so maybe give him a minute.”
”Some water?” Emeral looked back at her secret boyfriend.
He sat at the table, leaning on it with both elbows. If he leaned over any further he would probably get told to wake up by Ms. Hupp, were he in his desk at school.
But that was not what caught the tigress's attention. She eyed the glass upon the table, clearly in his possession.
His fingers wrapped about the bottom, warped and distorted behind the bend of the glass and the translucent ice.
She walked more between her mother and friend, eyes locked onto the glass for a few seconds. ”Sorry,” she apologized to him, “I guess mom didn't know.”
”I didn't know what?” Momma B. spoke defensively.
”Ket doesn't like ice,” her daughter turned to say. “It's no big deal—sometimes it's even hard for me to remem—”
”He asked for lots of ice, though.”
Emeral's left ear twitched, as if her mom's words physically disturbed it. She turned back to the tiger, and then stepped up close to him.
Momma B. watched as her daughter approached her friend in silence. She wondered what was going on—it looked almost like Emmy was mad or something.
The young tigress looked at the glass, as if it wasn't real, and then very abruptly leaned toward him, looking him in the eyes, resting her hand on his shoulder.
“Oh, Emmy,” her mom scolded. “Haven't you learned about personal space at all, yet?”
Emeral ignored her mom. She looked at him, examining his face. He looked back at her, his expression showing that he was not used to being observed like this. She squeezed his shoulder, comfortingly.
He watched as her pupils flit about, focusing on different things. Then, their eyes matched, and she flicked them quickly left and right. He sluggishly followed them, his lids squinting and wincing as his eyeballs felt uncomfortable at the rapid motions.
”Honey, give the boy his space already!” Her mom snapped, losing her patience.
Emeral's eyes relaxed, and she turned away, taking a few steps. “He has a fever.” She announced.
The mother tigress lost her maternal terseness, “What?” She questioned. “He looks fine to me.” She began to walk to him, passing her daughter walking the other direction. “You feel like you have a fever?”
”I'unno,” he replied with a shrug. “I don' feel a'sick as I did a couple'a days ago...”
Momma B. turned her head a bit as she spoke, reaching out to put the back of her hand against the tiger's cheek. “I think somebody has been watching Mystery Diagnosis again, and they just think—” Her words cut off, and she looked back at the boy. “Oh my goodness.” Her hand went from his cheek to his forehead, then to below his cheek, snuggling against his neck. “Honey, I could roast a marshmallow on you! Are you sure you feel okay?”
”Well... I guess I do have kin'na a headache...” The tiger admitted. He raised his hand and pointed at the bridge of his nose, between his eyes. “An'nit feels like I got'a rock right'ere. My nose isn' runny anymore, so I thought it was jus'e cool morning...”
”Hang on, let me check your temperature—oof!” She turned as she took her first step, almost running over her daughter. “Emmy, be careful, watch where you're going.” She got some back-talk that she didn't quite hear. She would have to talk to her kid later, she was being terrible this morning!
Momma B. went to the cabinet that had the thermometer in it. She didn't think much of it having been already open, and started rummaging inside. The thermometer didn't immediately jump out at her, which was annoying. They always kept it right on top—Bery must have moved it somewhere else. She wished he would put things back when he was done with them.
”Emmy have you seen the—”
The rapid noises hit the mother tigress's ears. She looked over at the cubs, and saw her daughter tracing the thermometer across her friend's forehead, toward his right temple. As she slowly shut the cabinet, watching the two, Emeral pulled away after the final long beep, examining the screen.
”One-oh-four-point-six-three.” She announced with a soft concern.
”Okay, hun, hand it over,” her mom said, holding out her hand. Her daughter passed it along, and she pushed the button again, setting off the beeps.
”You think I did it wrong or something?” Her daughter questioned accusingly.
”It's not that,” she spoke, a little too exasperatedly, “I just want to make doubly sure. I do this all the time; after all, I'm the nurse.”
”Fine.” Her daughter grumbled, walking away.
Ket watched as the other tigress in the room reset the thermometer and dragged it across his forehead. It gave the final beep, and she pulled it away.
She looked at the screen, and her muzzle wrinkled with dissatisfaction. She reset it once again, and pressed it squarely to his scalp, very carefully tracing along his scalp to his temple with a firm pressure.
He winced uncomfortably at the pressure as it pushed on his sinuses.
Pulling it away once more, she looked at the screen, and then a few more wrinkles were added to her frown. “This thing is never the same that many times in a row,” she muttered beneath her breath. “Well, Ket... You've got a fever. I can't let you go to school today. I'll have to call your mom and let her know tha—”
”Hi,” Emeral spoke, “Can I talk to Miss Rachaun?”
The other tigers looked at her. She could tell her mom's patience was wearing thin, and Ket was still trying to figure out exactly what he was supposed to think. She smiled at him. He looked so cute that way.
”Hi Momma R.! Guess what? Ket has a feeber. Uh-huh, I think he might have a sinus infection. He was all—hey!”
Mrs. Garne placed her hand on the phone by her daughter's ear and tugged it.
”Ugh. Fine. I guess mom wants to talk to you.” She let the phone go, and went to Ket's side. When her mom turned, she rested her hand on his back, and lightly petted him.
”Hi Micah. Yes, Emeral is telling the truth. Well, he told me he was tired and he does look a bit fatigued, and what with all the coughing and stuff a few days ago—oh, just nurse's instincts, y'know?”
Emeral's brow flattened.
”So, he should stay home today” She said, giving him a wink, as if he should take it as good news. “I can bring him back to your house and wait for you if you'd like. Sure! Okay, we'll be waiting there for you. Bye.”
Mrs. Garne ended the call. She spoke as she set the phone back in the cradle. “Okay here's the plan: Emmy you get ready. I'm going to take you to school and then take Ket home.”
”Can we go to Ket's house, first?” her daughter asked.
The mother tigress rolled her eyes. “Then you'd be really late to school.”
”That's okay,” the tigress said with a shrug. “I'd rather get Ket home first. His mom isn't that far away, we wouldn't be waiting long.”
Mrs. Garne was done with her daughter at this point. “Fine, fine, do what you want.” Her hands slapped against her sides. “I'll be in the car, just hurry up.”
* * *
Emeral felt uneasy as she walked through the silent, empty hallway.
Not because she had kissed him. He questioned it, worried that she would get sick, too. She knew it wouldn't matter; if he had been communicable she would have been showing signs by now. “Sinus infections don't go around,” she assured him.
It wasn't hard to figure out he had a fever. It made sense. Sleeping so early and for so long, slurred speech, sensitivity to light and motion. Plus, the dream he had—it must have been a fever-dream. That's what was causing her unease. Not that in a moment she was about to call attention to herself by opening the classroom door.
She passed the bathrooms. There was a bear on the boy's door.
A shiver ran down her back.
She had managed to avoid using the restrooms at school almost entirely. If she did, she used the third-grade restroom. It was a typical public restroom with stalls and an open doorway, and the classroom nearby always had its door open.
Letting her nerves settle, she went into her classroom.
Ms. Hupp was in the center of the room, in the middle of a discussion. She interrupted herself; “Set the note on my desk and take your seat,” she addressed the tigress.
Emeral hung her backpack up, half-listening as her teacher continued to talk about story structure.
She went toward the desk. As she neared it, tardy-slip in-hand, she saw the lion.
He watched her, his eyes on her like she was bringing the slip to him.
She took care to walk far in front of his desk, approaching Ms. Hupp's desk on the far side. She set the tardy-slip on the edge. She quietly exhaled her held breath as she went across to her seat facing the whiteboard, near the backpacks where she had started.
Her heart calmed as she listened to her teacher talk about plot, flashbacks, and foreshadowing. But much as she tried to pay attention, she couldn't help but see the lion, for he was in her peripheral vision. Her pupil flicked to focus on him.
He was focused on her.
She saw a wicked grin creep upon his muzzle.
This was the first day Ket was absent from school. There was no yin to counter Ritzer's yang; not unless someone would rise to the challenge. The unease in her stomach roared like a fire, fed sawdust.
Today, she would take on that role.