There was a weight, like an invisible heavy black blanket, dampening the mood in the cozy booth at the back of the café. The startling blue eyes of one of the two people at the table, a seal-point shorthair cat, were fixed on the steaming mug clutched in both her hands. Her fingers flexed slightly in time with her breaths, claws extending and retracting with each such small movement, the sharp tips tapping the glazed-black china. Her companion, a chocolate-black pony with snowflake-like dapples, whose neck and face were half hidden under a shaggy cloud of silver-white mane, tentatively reached across the table and brushed the hard, hoof-like tips of his fingers against the back of her hand.
She jerked back, some of her hot mocha sloshing over the edge of her cup, and the pony hastily withdrew his hand.
“Kelly…” The pony’s tone was gentle, level. “Talk to me. Please?”
She glanced up, just a split second, and sighed into her cup. “There’s nothing to talk about, Evan.”
For several long moments, endless seconds crowding together into minutes, he just looked at his friend from under his unruly forelock, the lie hanging in the air between them like a particularly loud pink elephant. The tip of Kelly’s tail twitched, betraying her awareness of the pony’s gaze on her even if she still didn’t look up. Slowly, Evan slid his hand across the tabletop, stopping just short of touching her again.
“I already know what happened, Kel. Sasha told me. You can’t ignore it out of existence.” There was no hint of a smile, much less pity, in the pony’s large, heavily-lashed brown eyes, just the boundless compassion that came with Evan’s friendship. “Kelly, please… Bottling it up won’t change anything in the past, but it’s eating you up. I can see it.”
“Just… leave it.” Her voice was weak, thin, crawling across her lips. “If I’m miserable, it’s my own fault for letting it happen, isn’t it?”
Now there was a little bit of an edge to Evan’s voice, but even that edge was only no-nonsense firmness, nothing more. “What that man did is not your fault, Kel. You can’t blame yourself.”
“I should have…”
“Kel. No.” The pony’s fuzzy ears tilted back just a touch, his tail swishing across the floor once. “You’ve done everything you could. Please don’t blame yourself. Sasha doesn’t think it’s your fault.”
“If I only had…” She glanced up, and bit her lip when she saw Evan shaking his blocky head. “I should’ve walked with Sasha from the library when he left.”
“Neither you nor Sasha knew what was going to happen. It was nothing you did, Kel. The only one who’s to blame here is already in jail. He wronged, not you, not Sasha.”
Her dark brown ears flattened, and her top lip twitched, baring sharp canine teeth for a moment. “You don’t get it.”
“So talk to me.” Now Evan did smile, a subtle, inviting smile that so many times before had encouraged Kelly to unload all of her troubles before she’d really realized it. But that had been then – those troubles all seemed petty compared to the situation she now faced. “It’s not just concern for Sasha, I know you better than that.”
Again silence fell over them.
“I should have been there,” she finally whispered to her cooling beverage. “I should have been there, and protected Sasha. But I wasn’t. And now… It didn’t happen to me. What right do I have to feel bad? I should be strong, for his sake, but I can’t even… I don’t feel right holding him. I failed him, Evan. I let him get hurt.”
“Kelly.” The pony waited until the cat met his gaze before continuing. “You want to protect and take care of Sasha. That’s admirable. He was attacked. It’s okay to feel bad. You don’t need to be a rock. Your boyfriend was assaulted and that’s traumatic. Stop telling yourself you’re not allowed to be affected by that.”
“You help Sasha best by helping yourself, Kel. And if you need it… you’ve both got me.” This time, when he reached out to squeeze her hand, she didn’t pull away. “I’ll be your rock.”
For the first time in the entire conversation, the corner of Kelly’s mouth twitched, ever so little, in the shadow of a smile.
Maybe there was a way to work through all this, yet.