”Starting to look familiar?” The tiger asked, as they walked down the streets.
”Yup,” the tigress replied, spotting familiar landmarks she knew from when they went to and from the park. “So that was the way you used to go home?”
”Yeah,” the tiger replied.
”It is a nice walk,” she remarked. “Gives you plenty of time to kinda think, and wind-down from the day.”
”Yup,” he agreed. “Actually, it's been so long, kinda felt like it would never end.”
She smiled. “Swinging by my house is better, anyway,” she teased.
”So... Now that we're almost there,” he said, as they turned onto Raspberry Line, “Why'd you wanna walk to my house today? We've never done this before...”
”That's kinda why,” she answered, referring to his last-minute observation. “But, also... Y'know...” She reached out and touched his hand.
He hooked it into hers.
”We've only got five days of school left,” she told him, in a lamenting tone. “We won't be able to walk home from Redcliff. So...” She let her words trail, and slowed down in her pace.
When there was tension between them at their hands, he took the hint, and slowed down with her.
”I'm probably gonna have to take the bus,” he mentioned.
”Let's not talk about it, right now,” she said. “Let's enjoy the walk till we get inside,” she let out a breath, looking up at the nearly cloudless sky.
They approached his door, and he had the key already in his hand. It slid in smoothly, and the door opened, letting out gentle draft of cooler air.
She let out a more relaxed sigh when they were both inside, the conditioned air tickling over her neck, arms, and legs.
Their backpacks were dropped at the door, and he made his way to the cupboard to get them drinks: ice for her, none for him.
She gulped down the water, and chewed a few of the crushed cubes. “I wanna dump this on my head,” she giggled, holding the frosted plastic glass against her temple.
”I think the weather said it would rain this weekend,” he mentioned, flipping over the page of the paper still left on the table.
”Then another heat-wave will come in and make it all hot and steamy,” the tigress gave her own forecast. “Maybe we should wait a while before our at-least-five-minute-hug,” she mentioned. “I'm all sweaty.”
”I don't care,” he told her.
”Well, not that,” she explained. “It just doesn't feel that great when you're all sweaty.”
”C'mon, let's go up,” she beckoned, snagging her backpack and heading to the stairs. “You finish all your hieroglyphics?” She asked, her footfalls nearing his den.
”I have a few more slates I wanna try to get done, but if I don't I have enough.” He replied. “How 'bout you?”
The tigress huffed as she dove onto the couch, cushions bouncing a few times from her landing. “I wish I coulda done the first-aide kits like I wanted,” she grumbled. “But I think I'll be okay.”
He sat at the end of the couch by her feet, and started to untie her shoes.
”I'm trusting you on the fake-jewelry idea,” she lightly warned him. “I don't wanna hafta spend my whole summer doing chores to make up for not being able to sell anything.”
”The idea sold really well last year,” he reassured, pulling off her other shoe and letting it drop to the carpet.
She turned over and pulled her feet to sit cross-legged. Her socks were peeled off, and joined her shoes on the floor. She stretched her heels out, her toes curling and flexing. “I'm gonna be fare-booted every day this summer,” she vowed. Glancing at him as he started to take his shoes off, she smirked. “Don't you say it.”
”Say what?” He asked, innocently, prying his shoes from his feet.
”What you were gonna say about my feet.”
”...I wasn't gonna say anything about your feet,” he replied, almost in a defensive grumble. His other shoe thumped to the ground, and he stuffed his sock into it. Holding his feet out, he curled his toes, and a satisfying set of pops came from each toe-knuckle.
”Showoff,” she grumbled. “I wish I could do that.”
Setting the tips of his big toes on the carpet, he made them angle outward sideways, and they popped as well, with a low, hollow thck.
”Oh yeah?” She said, planting her feet on the carpet. “Well, can you do this?” She held her hand in front of her, flat, and used her other hand to slowly push down into an Ikyo-style hold. A hearty pop came from her wrist.
He winced. “Doesn't that hurt?”
”Nope,” she said, beginning to pop all her fingers. “Actually, it feels pretty good.” She popped each of her knuckles in all four directions: down, up, and from side to side. Not all of them popped each way, but for several seconds there was the sound of her knuckles loosening.
”You started it,” she said, as she continued to pop more things. She twisted to either side, popping her lower back. She held her arm across her clavicle and used the other to pull it from the shoulder, letting out a soft pop, which only worked on her left arm.
Finally, she took her chin in one hand, and the back of her head in the other. Twisting her head, she turned her head left, popping her neck. She repeated again, twisting the other way. She smiled when she finished. “That one's the best one,” she said. “Mom gets nervous when I do that, but it doesn't hurt at all.”
He smirked. “You're like a roll of bubble-wrap.”
She swiped at his foot with hers. “Least I'm not a pile of packing-peanuts like you,” she teased, sticking her tongue out.
He glared at her, though his meek smile betrayed his eyes; their roles in rare reversal.
For a brief moment, she had the feeling that her mouth had gone ahead of her, but with the smile she felt better. Though, she noticed, it was quick to fade.
They were silent for just a few moments, the light in the room dimming as a cloud passed under the sun.
She threw her head back. “Ugh, I just keep thinking about how close the end of the year is,” she grumbled. “I need something to distract me.”
”I've still got a pretty big yarn-ball left over,” he mentioned.
She chuckled. “I shouldn't, but I'll give you a free pass for that one.” She hopped off the couch. “Wanna practice some grapples?”
He held his left wrist in his right. “Maybe give it a bit,” he replied. “I'm still a little tender.”
”But you been doing the stretches?” She asked.
She paced about. “What to do... What to do...”
”Could watch TV.”
She sighed. “That's what I do to pass the time at my house,” she rejected. “So I need something different.”
”Probly don't wanna read a book,” he crossed off the list for posterity.
”Nyope,” she agreed.
”Probly don't wanna do a puzzle,” he also listed, counting it on his second finger of things he wanted to eliminate.
She paused in her paces. “Hm...” Her foot tapped upon the carpet. “Maybe not a puzzle, but... How about a board game?”
”We could...” The tiger looked over to the shut closet door. “But, now that I think about it, all the puzzles and board games probably have a ton of missing pieces.”
”I know a whittler who could probably carve some pieces out of wood,” she said, playfully. She saw the change in his expression right away; she had said something that sparked a thought in him. “What popped in your head?” She asked.
”Well,” he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “There is one board game we could play; it's not missing any pieces, for sure. I dunno if you'd like it, though.”
Her ears flattened. “Why you think I won't like it?” She questioned.
”It's kinda... It's not like Chutes And Ladders or Trouble; it's more like Chess where there's a lot of strategy and stuff.”
”Oh well I guess I can't handle it then,” she said, with a doofus-inflection in her voice. “Too much sturdegy for me.”
”No, that's—” He started to say, but let the thought cut short while his body deflated in frustrated regret.
She stood up. “Now I'm curious, and I have to destroy you at it. Let's play; where is it?” She looked at him, awaiting a response, but he stayed slumped like he was made of packing-peanuts for a moment. She reached for, and took, his hand, pulling him up.
With a sigh, he stood, and paced toward the wooden display. It was where some old-looking artifacts and things had been, gathering dust.
It was mostly empty, save for a few knick-knacks. When his home was trashed, some of the pots and things had been pulled off the bottom few shelves. Nothing had been too damaged, the only thing utterly broken a vase that wasn't anything special.
She had sort of treated it as an off-limits zone. Occasionally she looked at the pots, wooden models, and brass trinkets that decorated it; but certainly never touched.
Tutty stood guard to the left of it. He was coaxed aside by the tiger, and happily took charge of now guarding the closet door, which he was placed in front of.
The tigress watched as he squatted down where Tutty had been.
His knuckles rested upon the carpet, and his finger wiggled into a small gap that lifted up from the base. He moved his hand toward the front-left leg.
She heard a soft click, and noticed the panels of wood that lined the foot-high base before the first shelf twitch.
The tiger went to the panel, and very carefully touched it with the palm of his hand. He gently pushed on the top, and the panel began to swivel up, revealing a compartment within the base.
”Is that where you keep the treasure map of the school?” She chuckled.
”Huh?” He asked.
”Nothing,” she waved, dismissing her joke. “It's just... That's like a secret compartment.”
”It's not that secret,” he replied, reaching into the cubbyhole with both hands, and pulling out a fairly sizable block of wood, which he set upon the carpet toward the middle of the room, where she joined him.
The block of wood was about a foot or so long, half as wide, and a quarter as tall. On the top was a grid; three rows of ten. The corner at the tigress's right had symbols etched and painted into the squares. They went in an L-shape, five going from the corner along the row to the middle, and the sixth symbol set oddly alone in the middle row.
The tiger's finger found a small ridge cut into the end of the box to her right. Gently letting his claw catch the lip, he revealed the box also had a compartment; underneath the grid was where several stone and wooden pieces were stored.
”This game,” he said, as he slid open the compartment and began gingerly plucking the pieces from within, “is called Senet. It's one of the oldest known games, and was played by the ancient Egyptians.”
”Is... Did this set come from Egypt?” She asked, with a bit of trepidation in her voice.
He shook his head. “No.”
She sort of relaxed, now that she knew she wasn't about to get her grubby fingers all over some authentic, thousand-year-old board.
”Grandpa made this board and the pieces,” the tiger said. “He made a few sets, actually. But, this is the one he and I used to play with.”
Just like that, the tension came back; arguably, even more so. “Are you sure... You wanna play using this set?”
He placed the last piece onto the carpet, and closed the drawer. “Yeah,” he replied. “It's... Been a while, since I last took it out,” he picked it up to brush some of the dust that had collected on the squares, getting it out of the shallow grooves between. “If you still wanna play, that is.”
She swallowed nervously, but nodded.
”We each have five pawns,” he said, motioning to the small cylinders that were carved of some kind of stone. “You can be the tall ones,” he said, picking up one of the pink-tinted, taller pieces, and placing it in the corner square opposite the one that started the row of symbols.
He then took just a moment to set up the pawns, alternating between hers, and his short, black ones, all down the row, until all ten were placed.
”Each of the spaces is called a House,” he explained, pointing to an empty square in the grid. “These six houses are special,” he said, tracing the L-shape of symbols by her right knee, “but I'll talk about them in a sec.”
He collected four small, thin pieces of wood that were about half the length of a tongue-depressor, so she estimated. He took one, holding it up. “This is a Paddle,” he explained. “Each paddle has two sides: the Stroke,” he showed her the flat, pale side, “and the Draw,” he flipped the paddle over, showing the stained, slightly rounded side.
”Paddle, like for a boat?” She asked.
He nodded, closing his hand around the paddles. “You toss the paddles, which is just like rolling dice.”
To her surprise, considering this was a set that his grandfather made by hand, he let the paddles fly up into the air. They landed upon the soft carpet after having flipped and twirled a few times; three of the smooth, white sides faced upward.
”Three strokes, one draw,” he announced. “That means, if we were playing, I could move up three houses.”
”So, each stroke is a space to move?” She asked.
He nodded. “But, if you get one, or four, strokes, you get to toss again.”
”And all draws you lose a turn,” she predicted.
He shook his head, and flipped over the three strokes so that each paddle was a draw. “Four draws means you get to move six spaces, and toss again.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
”But, we can play where you lose your turn, if you want,” the tiger said. “To be honest, no one really knows exactly how the game is supposed to be played.”
”Then... How do you know the rules?”
”A few archaeologists did a lot of researching and guessing,” he explained. “So, if it makes more sense to lose your turn on all-draws, we can play that way.”
”Nah,” she shook her head. “We'll play with your rules. So... What's with these houses?” She asked, her finger hovering over the symbols.
”Right... So, let's start here,” he pointed to the house in the very corner, which had a symbol that looked a bit like a leaf. “This is The House of Horacti-Ra, or of The Rising Spirit.”
He moved his finger to the next symbol, which appeared to be of two stick-people sitting, holding hands. “This is The House of Atum-Ra, or of The Setting Sun.”
Then, came the next symbol, of three birds appearing to stand next to each other, overlaying one another. “This is The House of Thoth, or of Three Truths.”
His finger pointed to the next symbol in line, which was clearly a depiction of water, with five wavy lines taking up the entire square. “This is The House of Nun,” he said, separating the u into two, “or of The Waters of Chaos.”
His finger arrived at the last symbol of the row, which appeared to be a circle, but it looked like it was made of a snake biting at its own tail. “This is The House of Kebechet, or of Rejuvenation.”
His finger then moved toward him to the next row, to the symbol that she most immediately recognized: a frog. “And, finally, The House of Hecket, or of Rebirth.”
After listing the symboled houses, he settled onto his knees. “These houses tell the story of the passage into the afterlife,” he explained, taking a pawn and placing it on the snake. He moved it along each space as he explained the journey.
“You are mummified in The House of Rejuvenation, and then you have to cross The House of The Waters of Chaos to The House of Three Truths, where you gain wisdom and are judged, until you arrive at The House of The Setting Sun, where you await for your time to rise with it the next morning, in The House of The Rising Spirit; from there,” he said, picking the pawn up, “you ascend to the afterlife.”
He placed the pawn on the carpet.
”When all five pawns ascend, you win the game.” He placed the pawn back where it started.
”Okay, sounds easy enough.” She smiled. “Where's the sturdegy come into play?”
He briefly winced at her doofus-use of the word strategy, hearkening back to his regretted comment earlier. “Well, a few things. First, if you land on The House of The Waters of Chaos, then you have to go back to The House of Rebirth, because you didn't cross the waters,” he explained.
”Second, in order to leave the board, you have to get exactly the number of spaces needed. So...” He took a pawn, and set it on The House of Three Truths. “If I'm here, I have to get exactly three strokes, in order for this pawn to ascend. If I get one stroke, I can move to The House of The Setting Sun, but then I need to get exactly two strokes to move forward.”
”What happens if you get more?” She asked.
”So, let's say instead of getting two strokes, I got three. I would move up one,” he did so, putting the pawn at The House of The Rising Spirit, “and then back two.” He moved it back to The House of Three Truths.
”Or, if I was really unlucky and got four strokes on instead of just three,” he moved the pawn up one from The House Of The Setting Sun, and then back three, landing on The House of The Waters of Chaos. “Then, I'm back to The House of Rebirth.”
”Sorry!,” she said, referencing how those rules were similar to the game of the same name. “What else?” She asked, now getting eager to play.
”Last thing, at least... Last thing about the way grandpa and I played.” He set one of her pawns two spaces behind his. “Let's say we're like this, and you get two strokes,” he described. “You could move your pawn to where my pawn is, and swap places, setting me back.”
”Ha!” She remarked with triumph. “No mummification for you.”
He shook his head. “Well, you can't do that, if...” He took one of his pawns, and set it in the space right behind his pawn. “If I have two pawns in a row, you can't swap either of them. And, if you can't move, then you lose your turn.”
”...Still no mummification,” she said, more softly.
He set the pawns back in their proper place. “That's about it. There are other rules, but this is the way I always played.”
”Not nearly as complicated as Chess,” she pointed out.
”Well, the other rules can make it trickier. So,” he picked up the paddles, proffering them to her. “You get to go first.”
She looked at the paddles in his hand. “Um... Maybe you wanna throw them?” She said, still a bit scared that when she tossed them they would burst into flames on the way down.
”No, you toss,” he insisted.
The paddles exchanged hands. They were surprisingly heavy for their size; not tremendously, but just enough that she noticed they weighed more than the tongue-depressor estimates she held in her head.
Unsure of whether it was okay to rattle them like dice, she flatly tossed them up, and they fell back down. Not an elegant fall like when he had tossed them before, but a dead, graceless drop into a small pile, the top one bouncing off and flipping over.
”Three strokes,” he announced. “Move up three houses, then it's my turn.”
She took hold of the first pawn in line. When he had walked the pawns along the board, he clued her in on the direction she was supposed to go; an S-like pattern.
The stone pawn was lighter than it looked, in the opposite manner as the paddles. Lifting it carefully, she tapped the bottom of the pawn against the squares as she counted the spaces.
Just as her fingertips popped off the head of the pawn, a thought crossed her mind. “Wai—oh... Shoot,” she grumbled.
”huh?” He asked.
”Nothing,” she said. “I just... Think I had a better move, but it came too late. Chess rules: once you lift your fingers.”
”Go ahead,” he offered.
”Nah, I shoulda thought first.”
”No, really,” he took her pawn and set it back at the start. “It's your first game. Make the moves you want to make.”
She chuckled. “Fine... But don't go easy on me,” she insisted. She picked up her second pawn in line, moving it up ahead of the first.
”Good move,” the tiger said. “Okay, my turn.” He picked up the paddles, and rolled them by holding his hand loose and using a particular flicking motion that looked similar to a come-hither gesture. He tossed the paddles up, and they tinkered as they hit the carpet.
”One stroke,” he said. “I move once, and then I toss again.” Even as he made his announcement, he moved his second pawn up one house: now both their first two pawns were lined up together around the corner.
He gathered up the paddles, and tossed them again. Two strokes looked up at them, and so he could move two spaces and it was her turn again.
”See, I can't move this one,” he said, his fingertip hovering over his second pawn he had just moved, “because your two are keeping me from swapping. So, I can only move this one,” he moved his third pawn ahead of hers.
She grinned at first, but then she realized. “Hey... But, now your guys are all in a row...”
He looked a bit guilty. “It's the only move I could make,” he replied.
She wrinkled her nose. “Hrmph.” She collected the paddles, and did the rolling motion he had done. His wrist was still a bit sore from the last time they had practiced grapples, so her motion was much more fluid. She tossed them up, and this time they were graceful.
”One space,” he said.
”Ugh,” she huffed in dismay.
”You get to toss again,” he reminded her.
She looked at the pawn at the head of the long line they had. Her impulse was to move that one, but then he had three waiting. She needed to get more of hers up, so she took the only other move she had: her fourth pawn stepped up behind her third. “The train just keeps choo-chooing along.”
The paddles tossed up once again, and one stroke looked at her. “Again!?” She questioned the air.
”The paddles usually tend to fall draw-side down,” the tiger thought. “It's rounded, so it's a bit heavier.”
”They hate me,” she grumbled.
”Lalala,” she covered her ears. “Don't help me, must destroy you on my own.”
He cracked a smile that was quick to fade. “Okay, okay.”
She looked at the board for a few seconds, and then finally decided on what she wanted to do. It wasn't much, but she could swap her last pawn with his second-to-last; it wasn't like his last two pawns being together mattered.
”First swap of the game,” he announced.
She made a party-buzzer sound out of the side of her muzzle.
”Your toss again,” he reminded her.
This time, without rolling them, she tossed them up. They landed, all face-up, giving her four strokes.
”Finally!” She said. Then, she looked at the board. After a few moments, she realized she couldn't bring anyone up: his three-pawn blockade made it so her only move was her first or second pawn.
After a few moments of thought, she committed to moving her very first pawn up as far as she could.
”Toss again,” he told her.
”Again?” She asked. “When is it your turn?”
”Once you get two or three strokes.”
Just as he said that, on her next toss three flat faces looked up at the ceiling. She got her first pawn as far into the lead as she could. “Go little guy, be mummified and ascend!” She said, in an off-pitch voice of encouragement.
Taking the paddles, the tiger tossed them up. The paddles spread out a bit as they landed, all showing strokes. Again, very quickly, he picked the middle pawn up from their long line of pawns, and moved it to the next row, in the space adjacent to the first of his pawns in that old line of three.
”Wait, does it mean I can't swap with this one,” she pointed at the pawn that used to be the first in line, “because this guy's here?” She pointed to the one he had just moved.
”No, you can still swap; it's only if they're next to each other on the same line, or at the turn,” he clarified.
She let out a quiet sigh of relief, reaching for the paddles.
”But... But...” He said.
She looked at him.
”I got four strokes,” he told her.
”Oh, right... Sorry,” she gave him the paddles. “The roll-again thing is confusing...”
”Toss a six, four, or one; sorry, kid, my turn ain't done,” he said, tossing them up. “If I toss three, or two, I pass the paddles over to you.” He let the expression hang in the air a bit longer than the sticks, as three strokes were the result.
At first, he started to go for the pawn that had been in the third spot of their little line. But, then, he moved to his very last pawn, and moved it up to the empty space between her last two.
”Why didn't you move from here to here,” she asked, pointing to the pawn it looked like he was originally going to move, which would have swapped with her pawn.
He looked to her for a second, and then shrugged, gathering the paddles to hand to her.
”I told you,” she reminded him: “don't go easy on me.” She tossed the paddles into the air.
A single stroke, and she set his last pawn back one by swapping hers with it. Her second toss was two strokes, and she decided to move her lead pawn up to the house just before the final turn.
He also tossed two strokes, and moved his second pawn behind his first.
She moved her lead pawn up two more spaces after her toss.
He moved his lead up three.
She also tossed three, and took a moment to think about her move. She wanted her first pawn to reach the end quickly, but she was worried all her other pawns would get left way in the dust. “What did four draws mean again?” She asked.
”Four draws is six spaces, and another turn,” he reiterated.
She quickly counted the spaces between their two lead pawns. Even if he rolled four draws, her lead was still safe. “Sturdegy,” she said, moving her third-place pawn behind her second, pairing the last four up for safety.
”Don't go easy on me,” he said, tossing the paddles.
With his one stroke, he moved his third pawn up behind hers.
Her heart skipped a beat when the paddles of his next toss were all draws. But, it calmed when she remembered he couldn't swap with her lead pawn.
Instead, he took the same pawn he had moved before, and set it behind his second-place pawn, that was sitting on The House of Rebirth.
With his next toss of two strokes, he moved his third pawn behind his second, once again having a line of three.
There next few moves saw a bit of dancing. They each tossed a two, and moved their last pawns ahead of their second-to-last pawns.
After the dance, she tossed four strokes, and with excitement, she tapped her lead pawn to settle on The House of Rejuvenation. “Mummify me,” she declared.
”Um... I don't think I have enough toilet paper,” he replied.
She giggled. “From now on, when I play Checkers, I'm gonna say mummify me instead of king me.”
”I try to avoid giving people reasons to think I'm weird,” he mentioned.
She picked the paddles up and tossed again, and her lead pawn crossed The House of The Waters of Chaos, and gained wisdom in The House of Three Truths.
”Remember,” the tiger said, “in order for this pawn to ascend, you have to toss exactly three strokes.”
She nodded. “But, I tossed two, so 'I pass the paddles over to you,'” she said with an enchanting tone.
With a flick of his wrist, the paddles lazily flipped over one another in the air for a brief second, before clattering to the carpet. Four draws meant six spaces, so he took the one last in line at The House of Rebirth, and moved it ahead. He moved it again when he came up with two strokes, and gathered the paddles for her.
”Did the Egyptians have a Lady Luck?” The tigress asked.
”Not really,” the tiger replied. “They did have Shai. He's sort of the closest thing; god of fate and destiny.”
She tossed the paddles. When they settled, she had one stroke.
She billowed a breath. “So, if I move this guy up one,” she said, pointing to her lead pawn.
”Then you have to toss exactly two strokes for him to ascend,” he answered.
She thought for a few moments. “Do I have to move him, or can I move someone else?”
”You can move someone else, if you want.”
She took in and let out another breath.
”You get to go again, remember.”
”Okay, then I'll move up one, and...” She set her pawn on The House of The Setting Sun, and rolled the paddles. Closing her eyes, she tossed the paddles up.
She squeaked when the paddles hit her, for she had tossed them up in an arc with her eyes closed and a couple bounced off of her head. Only three were readily visible, with only one being a stroke.
”Oh no...” The tigress said, her white fur even more blanched than usual. “Where'd it go, where'd it go...” She looked about, but didn't see it.
The tiger walked on knees by her as she looked about, and held his hand on her shoulder. “It's behind you, stay still for a sec.”
She froze, as stone-like as the pawns she had been moving over the wooden squares. She listened as he dragged the paddle across the carpet with his finger, and watched it happily join its friends, for that was likely the farthest it had been away from them in who-knows-how-many years.
”Two strokes,” he said, returning to his place opposite her.
She let out her bated breath, and looked at the board. Touching the pawn, she tapped it upon The House of The Rising Spirit, and, with a soft, Gregorian-like chant, she lifted it off of the board.
He flashed another quick smile at her antics. “Okay, you got one pawn ascended,” he admitted. “But, you have to have all of them ascend to win the game,” he reminded her.
”I know,” she said, setting the pawn down on the carpet next to the head of the game board. “I will destroy in due time, but... Before that,” she gathered the paddles, setting them on her side of the board, right up against it.
”I want you to tell me what's been bothering you.”