5: “Pandas?”

Bear had become interested in a woman from his office. Technically, she didn’t actually work for the company. She was part of the staff that they outsourced to care for the office plants. Her name was Willa and she was a little strange. She had shoulder-length blonde hair that was wild a lot of the time and piercing blue eyes. Bear had never understood what people meant when they said someone’s eyes were piercing until he’d met Willa. Then he understood. She had a way of looking at someone like she was seeing all of them, like she could see deep into the core of their being at all the stuff they normally kept hidden. It was actually quite unnerving, but Bear, nevertheless, was fascinated.

Bear learned, over the course of a conversation with her, that she and her friends were going to a club on Saturday night that upcoming weekend. Bear rounded up his friends and took them with him so that he could casually bump into her there. He wasn’t quite sure it had been an open invitation, more likely just an offering of information in casual conversation, but he was bound and determined to take all the opportunities he could get.

“I thought you said she invited you out tonight,” his friend Ward said as they walked toward the club. “But this is basically just stalking.”

Ward worked with Bear and Bill so he knew who Willa was. He had already made his feelings quite clear about her and Bear’s feelings toward her in general. Ward said Bear only like weird women, which was admittedly true, but a rather bold statement from a man who had the worst track record with personal relationships Bear had ever encountered. Ward had major commitment issues, for reasons unclear even to himself, which meant that he was constantly dating the wrong people so that he wouldn’t ever run the risk of ending up in a long-term, fully committed relationship with any of them. Ward was currently dating a man named Tre, by far the best human being he’d ever been with, but had still managed to make a mess of it by claiming that he didn’t want to be exclusive. He was, in fact, on the pull tonight, which Bear knew because he had dressed up.

“I don’t think it’s stalking,” Bear protested mildly as they joined the line to get inside.

“Well, it is a little bit,” Griffin argued. It also felt like a bold statement from a man actively pursuing his roommate’s girlfriend.

“You’re definitely wrong,” Bear told Griffin.

“I think you’re all wrong,” Luke cut in, grumpy as usual. Dylan laughed and then smacked him across the side of the head. Luke didn’t like that, for obvious reasons, and elbowed Dylan in the stomach. Dylan laughed the entire time it was happening so there was a strong chance it wasn’t nearly as effective as Luke was hoping it would be at deterring Dylan from hitting him again.

By the time they finally entered the club, Ward left them immediately, following a group of women he found alluring into the middle of the crowded dance floor. Bear figured that was also a bit creepy, but kept it to himself, not least of all because Ward was no longer around to hear him. Luke went straight to the bar, Dylan following behind, which left Bear with Godfrey, Bill, and Griffin to help him search for Willa and her friends so that he could casually run into her.

“This plan does require an almost alarming amount of forethought,” Godfrey remarked.

“Yeah, I’m probably not going to help you with that,” Bill added, hooking his thumb in the direction of the dance floor. “I’m going to go find a woman to take back to the condo I share with my ex-girlfriend.”

“That’s so stupid,” Griffin shook his head, but he followed after Bill nonetheless. And that left Bear with only Godfrey, who grinned at him.

“Come on, bud,” Godfrey said, clapping him on the shoulder and turning to scan the bar. “Let’s go stalk your new lady friend.”

Bear resented the phrasing, but appreciated the enthusiasm.

In the end, they found Willa on the edge of the dance floor with a couple of her friends. They were all quite attractive and Bear could sense himself losing Godfrey to their feminine wiles even as they approached. Willa looked surprised to see him, but genuinely pleased, which Bear was taking as a very good sign. Godfrey, meanwhile, introduced himself to her two friends and had them both dancing with him in minutes. Godfrey was remarkably charming. It didn’t hurt that he was very handsome. He was also quite smart, athletic, kind, and a surprisingly good dancer. Bear felt like, in the universal scheme of things, Godfrey had gotten all of the desirable traits and that, somewhere, there was someone who had been robbed of any nice characteristic and was living their life as a hunchbacked hermit in an abandoned opera house.

Bear and Godfrey hung around with Willa and her friends for most of the night. Bear bought them a couple rounds of drinks, which were not cheap, and charmed Willa with delightful anecdotes about his co-workers. It was going really well. Godfrey seemed to have hit it off with both of her friends. They caught sight of Ward on the dance floor every little while, seemingly with a different person every time. Luke and Dylan had presumably stayed by the bar. Drinking was Luke’s third favourite past-time, right after cooking and spending time with his dog. They hadn’t seen Bill and Griffin, but Bear wasn’t optimistic enough to think that was because Bill had managed to convince a woman to come home with him to the condo he shared with his ex-girlfriend. More likely he was crying in the bathroom, as he did every time he got senselessly drunk, like a nineteen year old girl at her friend’s birthday party, as Griffin stood about, powerless to help him.

And then it all went to shit. Bear told an innocuous story about his co-worker’s love of tinned salmon sandwiches, to riotous laughter from Willa. She put her delicate hand on his forearm and leaned into him as she laughed pleasantly. Bear bristled with pride and delight.

“Oh, Bear, you’re so funny!” She told him and he, pleased that she had noticed, didn’t bother arguing. “You remind me of my brother.”

Time stopped. Godfrey, who had clearly heard as well, looked over in stunned silence. Bear forced himself to continue laughing along with Willa so that he wouldn’t look weird and then politely excused himself under the guise of buying another drink. Godfrey did the same and slipped off behind him.

“That wasn’t great, was it?” He asked as they walked toward the bar.

“No…,” Bear agreed slowly. They reached the bar and ran into Luke and Dylan, who appeared not to have left as Bear expected.

“Did you get the girl yet?” Luke asked, beer in his hand. The question was probably derived less from genuine interest in Bear’s life and more from a desire to leave. To be fair, he had spent most of the night drinking with Dylan, which he could’ve done in the comfort of the home he shared with Dylan. And then at least his dog would’ve been there as well. Luke loved Gus more than almost all humans.

“He did not,” Godfrey answered before Bear could. “She told him he reminded her of her brother.”

“Oh fuck, that is not good,” Dylan said, laughing. “But, if it makes you feel better, Griffin has been trapped in the bathroom with Bill for like forty minutes because Bill is crying about Gillian and pandas.”

“Pandas?” Bear questioned, confused.

“Yeah, not sure about that one either,” Dylan replied. “Griffin texted me thirty minutes ago. He’s actually texted me twenty-seven times. He keeps asking me to come save him, but he has to know I’m not going to do that, right? Why would I do that? Does that seem like something I would do?”

“No,” Luke answered, sounding bored. Bear, resigning himself to being the nice one in the group as per usual, took off for the bathroom to help Griffin with Bill and his emotions. Griffin would be having a terrible time with it. He was awful with other people’s emotions, unless it had anything to do with sports. Then Griffin would be the most supportive person on the planet.

When Bear entered the bathroom, he found Griffin standing outside of an open stall door. Bill was sitting on the toilet, fully clothed, crying into his hands. There were other men around, casting annoyed, concerned, and pitying looks in Bill’s direction. Griffin looked particularly uncomfortable with this. He was visibly relieved when he saw Bear.

“Oh thank God,” he said immediately. “I texted Dylan like thirty times, but he never came to help me.”

Bear wondered why Griffin was surprised by this. Dylan was probably the last person he would contact for help. He’d have an easier time coaxing a feral dog into helping him soothe Bill.

“Bill, what’s the matter, buddy?” Bear asked gently.

“I just can’t believe I’m so stupid,” he said wetly in response, not looking up from his hands. “How could I think living with Gillian is a good idea?”

Bear was a little lost on that one as well. As far as he could tell, it was a really bad plan.

“And something about pandas?” Bear prompted instead of directly responding.

“Why won’t they love each other?” Bill wailed in reply. “They’re going extinct!”

“Well, I just don’t think we’re in any state to solve that particular crisis tonight,” Bear said, looking to Griffin for confirmation as well. Griffin nodded instantly. Bill looked up from his hands.

“I think I’m a mess,” he admitted.

“Yes,” Bear agreed, which surely wasn’t very comforting. “But think about why we’re here right now. I’m not sure I’m doing much better than you are. Griffin certainly isn’t.”

“Hey!” Griffin interjected indignantly. But the damage was done. Bill started humming “Jesse’s Girl” under his breath as Bear reached out a hand to help him to his feet. The three of them exited the bathroom, Griffin taking up the lead in a solid sulk. They met up with Godfrey, Luke, and Dylan at the bar.

“Thanks for responding to my texts, dickhead,” Griffin said to Dylan, who just laughed at him.

“Should we wait for Ward or just leave without him?” Godfrey asked.

“Definitely leave without him,” Luke answered immediately, most likely because he hadn’t even wanted to come in the first place. Nevertheless, when they found Ward in the middle of the dance floor with a very attractive blonde woman, Bear told him they were going home and Ward waved them off dismissively. They got street meat on the way home and Bear made a solemn vow to himself that he wouldn’t chase after Willa any longer. He was almost definitely going to break that promise to himself, but he thought it was good of him to even put in the effort to pretend in the first place.

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