Miraculously I was back to training the next day. As always I was last to finish but I had steadily improved, I was not only faster but less exhausted whenever training was over.
I went into the shower room just as Kenzie was coming out. I washed up quickly and when I was done, Victoria was still there as usual.
She had her own corner in the shower room, rather than a stall, it was a large tub that could fit her. Like every day after training, she was meticulously washing her coat. She was naked but it didn’t make me feel awkward or shy, clothed or not, she had a few inches of fur to make herself seem more decent.
As I passed by she moved out of the tub and did that hair-whipping thing that dogs do when wet, sending water everywhere, including on me. Thankfully the ceramic of the room’s flooring was coated with a no slip chemical to prevent it from becoming a deathtrap when wet.
“Oh hey Paige. Did I splash you? I’m so sorry... I was kind of lost in my own thoughts. I didn’t notice you were there.”
“It’s okay, I needed to change anyway. I see you’re hard at work like usual with post training clean up.”
“Oh yeah… It always takes forever to wash up human-style; shampoo it, make it all foamy and then rinse my hair off, then I need to remove the water from it and finally I have to unknot my fur with a brush.”
“Wash up human style?”
“Well… I can lick myself clean if I need to but it’s really gross. However, it cleans and untangle my fur at the same time so it’s a lot less work.”
“Well, Do you want some help?”
“Sure.” She said after a pause, breaking eye contact for a second. “There’s a spare brush in the basket there.” She pointed at it with her snout.
I walked to the basket and took the spare brush, it was rather large for my hands, but it would do. Victoria pointed me to where she wanted me to brush and I got down to it, thankfully she wasn’t sensitive, her knotted fur took a lot of strength to untangle, one hand dragging the brush through while the other rested on her coat.
“Does it take a long time to dry out?”
“Nah, What’s nice is that my fur doesn’t absorb a lot of water, it mostly just hangs onto it, but it’s easy to remove, I don’t get much heavier when wet. The doc thinks that it’s because I’m supposed to be aquatic or amphibious in lifestyle, kind of like a polar bear. Not only is my fur is waterproof and I have a layer of blubber that keeps me warm and make me float more easily. Plus I’m a super good swimmer, you should see me in the pool.
The doc has a theory that protean biological transformations aren’t random, that we’re all transformed into a creature that exist somewhere out there; on another planet or maybe another parallel world and that understanding our needs will teach us about our ecological niche.”
“That sounds pretty cool.”
We hadn’t gotten to deep space travel or jumping to alternate world, but when you had giant sea monsters, a slowly progressing martian and lunar colony, people who could control your minds and other superpowers part of your daily reality, very few thing were preposterous anymore.
“She’s always running tests, taking samples of fur and everything.”
“Definitely less cool.”
“I guess I got used to it and she’s not bad… It just feels scary being a test subject… Even if I know it’s necessary and it will save my life one day.” Her voice had changed tone and I could feel the sadness.
“I kind of want to give you a hug right now.”
She opened her arms and squeezed me against her now dry fur. I did the same but only managing to get my arms around a tiny fraction of her massive body.
“Thanks for being there Paige.”
“Anytime Victoria.” I said picking up the brush again.
When we were done, Victoria’s fur looked great and fluffy. We walked out of the room together and I went over to Kenzie.
“Are you okay? That took a while.” Kenzie asked.
“Yeah, I was helping Victoria brush her fur, I proposed to help, she accepted and we started talking.”
I noticed that Kickback was waiting in the lounge, probably for our cooking lesson.
“Sorry for making you wait. I’m ready for my lesson now.” I told her.
“Actually, you know what? You did good today, what do you say I take you out for dinner at my place as a little reward?”
“Sure, that would be nice.”
We went down and she drove us there. Kickback’s home was a nice third floor condo with a large terrace and a view on the nearby park. The inside was warmly decorated with plants in every nook and cranny to add to that welcoming atmosphere.
“Would you like something to drink? I have cranberry, orange or carrot juice, ginger ale, cactus cooler, green tea, coffee or milk.” She asked me as we went into the kitchen.
“Cactus cooler? You mean like cactus juice?”
“No, it’s just the name, in reality It’s an orange and pineapple soft drink. Most people haven’t heard of it because you can’t really get it outside of california and the southern states surrounding it unless you mail order it.”
“Oh. I don’t like pineapple. I guess I’ll have some OJ please.”
She poured me a tall glass and set it down.
“Do you have anything against fish curry for dinner?”
“That sounds delicious.”
She took out her phone and sent a message for someone. Before preparing a coffee for herself. We exchanged a few pleasantries for a few minutes; she inquired about my parents, I told her I liked her apartment and et cetera.
Until I heard Molecular’s voice come from the entrance. ““I’m back. I got what you asked for.” He said before coming in with some grocery bags in hand which he put down and then he came forward and kissed Kickback, they shared an intimate moment for a few seconds and I felt very awkward sitting there and watching so instead I focused on the table, which was very woody...
“Oh hello, Paige, I didn’t notice you there. Are you okay?” He asked.
“Hi. Eh, yeah, just a little surprised… I didn’t know you two were a thing.”
“Kurt and I have been married for three years.” Kickback explained as the two of them started unpacking the bags and I sat there uselessly.
Kickback began cooking, I proposed to help but she said to just watch. To occupy my mind, I memorized everything she did, preparing a tray baked vegetable and fish curry along with steamed basmati rice.
“This is one of my favorite meal.” She said as she plated three portions, putting the curry on a small hill of rice, leaving plenty of leftovers in the tray and pot. “I prepare it fairly spicy, so I hope that’s alright with you.”
She put my plate down first, it smelled amazing, the mix of vegetable, coconut milk and indian spice blend. I took my fork and dug out a piece of salmon, putting it in my mouth, the taste of the fish and the mixed spices were delicious but it was soon followed by the burning sensation of spicy food, something I rarely partook in, my eyes teared up.
When it came to spiciness; Kickback was the queen of understatements.
“It’s too spicy, isn’t it?” Kickback asked, probably seeing my face.
“I’m just not used to it.”
She got up and served me a glass of milk, I took a strong shot and it helped wash away the burning sensation.
“It really is delicious though. Just sort of the after taste.”
“You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to. We can get you something else.”
“I’ll be alright. As I said, it’s really delicious and the milk helps.”
She opened the fridge again and put the pint of skim milk right next to my glass.
“Try mixing it and the rice, it’ll help dilute the hotness of it, even if it will look less appetizing.” Molecular said.
“So, how are things going with Kenzie?” Molecular asked after a minute.
“Okay…” The question took me by surprise and my heart skipped a beat, I wasn’t quite sure of how he’d meant it and that sent a pang of anxiety through my chest.
“Are you uncomfortable talking about your girlfriend? I can drop it. I just wanted to know if things were alright.”
“So… You know about that.”
“I generally keep track of what’s happening with both teams, also Chuan is the world’s biggest tattletale, he couldn’t resist telling me that he thinks you’re very cute. Not that I really needed him, you two were pretty obvious, I’m surprised it took you two this long to get together, you’ve been practically clinging to each other since day one.”
“So, like there’s no problem with you that I’m gay?”
“Of course not, Paige.” Kickback said. “We’re very open to LGBT people, some of our oldest friends are, we even were the best man and woman at Artillery and Gunk’s wedding last year. We believe that love is a beautiful things, regardless of who it is experienced between, so long as it is expressed in a healthy and consensual manner.”
“Also, you’re not the first girl Kenzie brought over without permission that she ended up dating.” Molecular added.
“Kenzie had a girlfriend before me?”
“Yes, I don’t remember her name but she was a biotypical girl she went to school with, they were together in late spring last year for a few weeks.”
Kenzie hadn’t told me that, but I hadn’t asked if she had ever been in a relationship either.
“So, you won’t like tell anyone, right? Because I’m not out with my parents yet…”
“Don’t worry, your ‘secret’ is safe with us.” Molecular said.
“Are you scared of coming out at home?” Kickback asked.
“A bit, I don’t know how my mom would react. She’s kind of conservative and religious which doesn’t make for a very welcome environment to be gay.”
“Well, the Guardians HQ and our house is a safe space, if you feel threatened or scared, you can come at any time. There’s a spare key in the furthermost planter.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
We ate for a while and I let them carry most of the conversation. I’d either gotten used to the spiciness or lost all sensation in my mouth so I took a second plate.
“Can I ask something? Why did Gunk choose than name?”
“Actually, she didn’t choose it.” Kickback said. “It was one of those times when someone said something and it just sort of stuck; when she was starting, someone called her ability a disgusting gunk and people started calling her the Gunk girl, which was eventually shortened to just Gunk. She tried to change name a few times, but it never worked.”
It had to be hard to find a snazzy name that worked when your power was covering people in dark, greasy looking foam.
After dinner was over, Molecular drove me home and I settled down for an evening of catching up on the classes I’d missed yesterday with the help of Kenzie’s notes she had given me at school.