Although they had progressively changed with time, growing with him as he slowly turned from small and insecure leveret to full-fledged hare, his steps had always been familiar to him. Sometimes, he would detest them because they were weak; sometimes, he would thank them because they were fast. Regardless of the case, they were unmistakably his, and he knew all about them, for better or worse.
But he didn’t know whom those present steps belonged to. The weight of the life he had stubbornly chosen to lead that day of fifteen years ago, against all odds and his father’s wants, wasn’t burdening on him anymore. His legs, accustomed to move forward in spite of carrying it, were light now. So light he could hardly recognize them; so light it was almost unbearable.
“You’ll get a headache, if you keep frowning like that.” In some strange, perhaps a bit cruel, trick of events, the voice unmistakably coming from behind him sounded like it was reverberating right inside his head, as though his very conscience had just spoken.
In fact, Jack considered with a bitter smile – which, lucky for him, couldn’t be seen at the time – it wouldn’t have been so odd if the will of his heart was voiced by Cynthia Walker. “How can you possibly know that I’m frowning, if all you have access to from that position is my back?”
“Because, when you’re in a mood, every part of your body works together so that this fact is perfectly apparent to whoever gets to interact with you.” A feather-like touch reached him between his shoulder blades, one that made his guts silently twist in a sailor’s knot. “Here,” she tapped twice, “you’re stiff as a board. I highly doubt your face is any better.”
Despite the thickness of his hoodie, the soft rocking motion of Cynthia’s finger felt very much distinct – and very much terrifying – to the hare, who barely suppressed the urge to shy away from it by distracting himself with a sharp retort: “There is a variety of reasons to explain why I would be in a mood, and you should already be informed of many of them, Cynthia.”
“It bothers you that your private life is not private anymore?” She asked, her tone just a little bit flippant, “Well, look at the bright side: the GSD could have had a much more annoying shadow trail you day and night. They had plenty to choose from the pool of Agents considered suitable for the task.”
“A pool that you’ve arranged to drain in no time,” Jack punctuated, “thanks to your readiness to claim the role of my shadow as yours.” He picked up the pace in order to break physical contact with Cynthia; she did nothing to recover it, and Jack entrusted his senseless disappointment to an equally senseless grunt.
“Objectively speaking, I was the best choice in all respects,” she stated, calmly. Professionally, almost, like it was the Agent inside her talking. But Jack knew there was more than just duty behind her actions. Oh, he knew so well. Maybe that was why he was always so distressed around her. That, and… a couple of seasonal factors. “You should be grateful for my readiness, not making fun of it.”
“I am,” Jack assured, softening his temper, not because he wanted to appease Cynthia, but because he really was. He just hoped the vixen would take his word for it. “Although, that doesn’t detract from the overall problematic situation.”
An amused chuckle tickled the back of his head. “Well, you’ve always been kind of problematic, Jack.”
“I was one of the most efficient Agents of GSD,” he sorely retorted.
Jack groaned. “Whose side are you on, anyway?” He inquired as he rolled his eyes to the sky, which was tinged red by the setting sun gradually disappearing behind the city’s horizon. Those shades made him heavy-hearted, as though he was looking directly at his true colors.
Jack almost didn’t notice when a new utterance resonated in the air. “I do realize it’s hard for an outsider to understand,” he started, “but I am at an impasse. It’s like being tethered to a fence.” His pride was bent so that Jack could pronounce the sentence aloud and, above all, in the presence of Cynthia. And yet, he could tell, it bent way lesser than expected. Maybe there was no ego to protect anymore, or maybe he was just getting used to tossing it in the trash; whatever the case might be, Jack didn’t feel shame over his own admission, nor did he feel it when more of his emotions were exposed: “I’ve always lived on my own, accounting for my actions only if absolutely necessary. And now… I am but a blip on the radar of that very Agency I’ve worked for since I was eighteen. Can you barely conceive the misery of my current condition?”
Cynthia didn’t say a word. Which was fine, since the only acceptable answer to his question was ‘no’ either way.
But then, why was that silence so disappointing? It didn’t make any sense for Jack… unless, of course, he was willing to admit his own idiocy. Too bad he had already done it so many times in the past month, that his mind had basically gotten fed up with the insult. “Don’t bother responding to me,” Jack preempted, “it was an allegorical statement. I’m perfectly aware no one would be able to walk in my hind paws. I am not so naive as to seek sympathy for my circumstances.”
Again, what came through was the perfect absence of any sound. This time, there was more than simple disappointment when Jack turned around to see what kind of expression – if any – Cynthia was making…
But she wasn’t where Jack expected her to be.
“... I can’t believe that.” The hare shoved half of his face in one paw as the other half watched Cynthia Walker gaily toddling toward a food truck. A defeated sigh escaped his lips, turning into a snort midway. It was so absurd he couldn’t even be properly indignant. “I’ll tell your superiors you lost sight of your target to feed your stomach,” Jack shouted from the distance, “exposing your back to me like an amateur.”
“And I’ll deny everything,” she quipped with a shrug. “By the way, it’s not like you’d become a threat just because I’m not looking at you, Jack. After all, I am not an amateur.” With the same nonchalance, Cynthia turned her attention to the llama inside the truck and asked: “Good afternoon, I’d like that bar in the upper right corner… no, not that one… yes, the one without caramel. Thank you very much.” She paid for it, and then went back to him with the loot firmly clenched in her fist. “Huh, you’re still here? I thought you wanted to take advantage of my inexcusable distraction and prove that I’m an incompetent. Glad that you’ve spared me the humiliation,” Cynthia thanked him with a polite bow.
Jack shook his head, utterly defeated. “You’re impossible,” he exhaled, compelling himself to keep a hard-faced attitude, “and you shouldn’t consume sugar at 6 p.m., if you value your waistline.”
“Oh, c’mon, it’s just a scant bar! And also, I do not intend to eat this alone,” Cynthia added, wearing an ambiguous smirk. “Jack, do you know what today is?”
“No, I mean, the number.”
“Yes, but which month?”
“...” Jack held Cynthia’s defiant stare, years of unimaginable training preventing him from melting into a miserable puddle of murkiness before her vintage sunglasses, with golden eyes peeping from above. Until the last moment he had hoped not to pull at that thread, but, in the end, the frivolity of the subject was too luscious, too enticing to be dodged for the whole day. “Okay, fine,” Jack grumbled, deciding that if they couldn’t avoid addressing the elephant in the room, at least he’d contribute to the discussion in the coolest and detached way his lying skills would provide him with, “it’s Valentine’s Day, so what?”
“‘So what?’” she mocked him with unabashed theatricality, “‘Ah, Valentine’s Day, the holiday of the fools and the vilification of common sense!’”
‘Keep it cool, Jack, keep it cool…’ He bit his bottom lip to thwart the not cool, and even less detached, prickle bursting in the back of his throat. He wouldn’t laugh in the face of such a discourteous imitation of himself; he wouldn’t sink this low, even if it was Cynthia who invited him into the depths… probably. “It was a serious question. How does the holiday excuse the purchase and consumption of glucose at this time of the day?”
“That’s an awfully rhetorical question, even by your standard, Jack.” Cynthia quickly got back into her character, a smile of tepid condescension spreading on those dark as night lips of hers as she gazed down at him like you would with a problematic kit. It made Jack want to grunt again. “Isn’t today perhaps the day couples show reciprocal affection by exchanging sweets?”
Jack’s ears perked high, like two splendid Apollo 11’s about to take off towards the unknown. “Number one, you don’t exchange plain ‘sweets’ on Valentine’s Day, but a very specific one, that is, chocolate. And a chocoholic like you should know better.”
Cynthia nodded. “I agree. In fact, the bar I bought is made of chocolate.”
“Oh, please,” Jack said, scoffing, “that thing is anything but chocolate.”
“Arguable. Number two?”
“Number two…” Suddenly, a sponge-like object seemed to materialize in his esophagus. Jack tried to swallow it, but to no avail. “A-as you said, the aforementioned practice is common between couples. Don’t you think we lack something, here?”
“Well, there are two of us,” Cynthia pointed out. “It should be the minimum required for talking about couples…”
“Number three!” His voice cracked like a stoned glass. Jack faltered, his soul writhed in a vacuum of embarrassment, his vocal chords became pillars of fire as he found himself averting Cynthia’s curious look. “Number three…” The hare strove to finish the sentence, but there was no way the thought he had in mind would fit in his mouth. Merely contemplating it was already enough to have his latent anxiety surging like crazy. “That… should go without saying, actually,” he improvised, turning his back as he started walking away from her.
“And what is that?” Cynthia pressed, rubbing salt in his wounded spirit. “I can’t contest your logic if you keep it to yourself.”
“You don’t need to,” the hare objected through gritted teeth as he kept marching, head down. Jack knew it wasn’t nice of him, but niceness didn’t exactly belong to him at the time, “And I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Okay, but at least watch where you’re going,” Cynthia warned him, “you aren’t allowed in Oldoor, remember? GSD’s orders.”
“What does Oldoor have to do with…” Jack lifted his gaze to see where he was headed, and the first thing that came into sight was the beginning of a low brick wall, which appeared to delimit the area of a group of neglected town houses. It was covered in loud graffiti, just like the houses themselves and unlike the last street furniture he had paid mind to. They really had walked to the suburbs without Jack being aware of his surroundings. ‘Where have I been in the past hour?’
However, despite the sudden awareness of his own absence of attention disturbing him at first, what he found himself focusing on the most was the wall. Even though its evident ugliness was an eyesore, something about it drew Jack in… notably, the fact that it was higher than ground level.
Which happened to be exactly what his crushed self-confidence needed.
Out of practice, but still strong, thighs lunged, placing the buck over the wall with utmost precision. Jack sat down, legs crossed and paws buried in his hoodie’s pockets, perfectly embodying the rebellious boy grappling with a teenage life crisis. “... Sorry, I got distracted,” he concluded, his nose twitching as he shrank into the folds of his slightly oversized clothes. “I had no intention to enter Oldoor, don’t worry. I know the deal.”
Cynthia perused him for a little while. “So, I gather this is how your hare majesty plans to end the conversation?” She asked at last, tilting her head as she cast a teasing glance upon him. “By looming from the top of a scribbled wall as your snout covers itself in intimidating wrinkles?”
“I’ve already ended it two minutes ago,” Jack muttered, eliminating all risk of eye contact with the vixen by turning 180 degrees around like a compass needle. “I just wanted to sit down a bit, and I apologize on behalf of my surly face.” For some time now he had been under the impression that any form of his behavior was able to rouse befuddlement in Cynthia, but that sensation was especially vivid at that moment. Jack regularly experienced great vulnerability in her company, and he didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
It surely was terrifying.
“Really? Yet you looked like someone who was trying very hard to prove a point…” Cynthia sounded affable, not bothered in the slightest by his lack of manners. “In that case, let’s drop the dissertation and get practical.”
Jack heard her unwrapping the snack, but he dared not show any sign of care for what she was doing. But when he saw Cynthia breaking it in half from the corner of his eye – actually, he was pretty sure one piece was slightly longer than the other – and passing one piece to him, he couldn’t help but turn to her again, his expression bewildered.
“Here you go, Mr. Turner,” she said, “happy silly holiday.”
The hare didn’t move a muscle, although his body did want to pounce on Cynthia’s offer the instant she had stretched out her arm towards him, and not because he was hungry. “... What’s the meaning of this?” Jack inquired, inflecting his voice as though he was questioning a witness; except he was the one feeling under indictment.
“Oh, stop being a grouch and take it,” she ordered, frowning just long enough to make it abundantly clear that she wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer.
So, Jack had no other choice but to accept the food Cynthia was forcing on him… or, at least, that was the excuse he told himself to lay aside the relief flooding him when one paw resurfaced from the pocket to reach the bar. She nodded encouragingly, and Jack brought it under his nose to sniff it cautiously. It smelled sweet, indeed, but less sweet compared to the sugary menu Cynthia usually had. He gave the chocolate a tentative lick. “It tastes almost edible,” he admitted, before nibbling at it with suspicion. Much to his surprise, the bar really was edible. “I thought you were used to another level of horror.”
“I ache to take a picture of you right now,” the vixen chirped, flagrantly ignoring Jack’s remark. Her tone was so affectionate that he choked on his bite. “I can give you my half, too, if you ask nicely.”
“I – cough – don’t want your half!” Jack screeched, in the process of suffocating, “I didn’t even want – cough – mine!”
“But you took it~!”
“Because you threat–cough–ened me!” Jack punched his chest to choke the bar down, and then confronted Cynthia with absolute fury… that lasted until she started giggling. “Don’t… make fun of me,” he tried to articulate, but honestly, on no account could he spoil her humor.
Especially not when she looked so damn adorable. “S-sorry, but… you’re just too…” The rest of her sentence drowned in more delicious chirps, and this time not just his steps, but also his heart seemed to become lighter.
He didn’t feel too much like complaining, though.