Three's a Crowd

by Stealthcat

It was that time of the year again when people got together and celebrated at oddly the most bitter and barren time of the year. But those celebrations helped people warm up by giving them a distraction from the winter gloom. Stealth travelled quickly through the chilly halls, like three months prior he’d been invited to Misha’s party but he had an important stop to make first. Unlike the prior party, the offer came directly from Misha’s muzzle when Stealth had last completed a task for the fox.

At the time the cheetah didn’t feel as grateful as he should have given that the errand required him to run through a hail storm in the snow and then through a tunnel full of slippery silt, then up a slope to reach some kook’s hut in the mountains near Ellingham.

He shook his head from the memory of what he saw in that house when he arrived at the first destination. Stealth knocked on the door, perhaps louder then he intended.

“Who is it?” A voice demanded from within.

“It is Stealth!” The courier said with some fleeting vigour.

“Come in!” The voice said more cheerfully.

The cheetah opened the door and closed it quickly behind him. He gagged upon seeing that he’d walked in on Edmund half dressed, “Ed... you’re...” Stealth blushed.

“You’ve seen me wearing less then this.” The paladin pointed out as he fluffed his tunic.

“I know but Bridgette might enter.”

“And? I’ll actually head off to retrieve her.” Edmund soon donned the rest of his attire and made adjustments in the mirror.

Stealth waited patiently near the door, he turned his attention to the fire and admired its warmth.

“How do I look?” He asked the courier.

Edmund was wearing a tunic and pants both of fine wool. They were coloured dark blue with a green strip running along the edge. His boots were of a light coloured leather and highly polished. “Striking, very smart indeed.”

The cheetah paladin had a big grin then he looked at his friend’s attire, “Stealth your doublet is on wrong.”

“Huh?” He looked down at his chest.

Edmund approached and unbuttoned some of the top buttons, “You missed a button here, now all the rest up from that one is uneven.”

Stealth’s ears folded, he wondered if anyone else had noticed it.

“There, now you’re ready for the party!” Edmund said and patted him on the shoulder. The knight soon walked toward the door.

Stealth just stood there for a moment, “Edmund... wait.”

Edmund stopped then turned around, “What’s wrong?”

“I came here to give you... this.” He answered and held up a package in his hand.

“A gift? I haven’t even wrapped yours yet; Yule eve is tomorrow.”

“I know but I thought this might be the last time I can catch you between now and next week.”

When the paladin approached, Stealth held out the object. It was wrapped in parchment with a basic decoration. Edmund took it and gently removed the wrapping. Inside he found a figurine. It was immaculately painted and detailed with a lot of care and consideration. The character looked like a fearsome warrior. It was a knight in shining armour with a long sword. The sword had an elaborate and beautiful hilt. The armour had small dents telling of usage in battles. The figure even had a Follower cross imprinted on the breast plate. The holy warrior stood on digitgrade foot paws covered with boots though the suit did not conceal his long, proud tail.

“It’s you.” Stealth said simply.

Edmund looked at the figure in awe, “I’m . . . I’m touched. It’s beautiful!”

“I bought it at a store and painted it.” Stealth said.

“This kind of work requires great attention to detail...” The knight answered as he scrutinised the figure. “The pattern on the tail matches that of my own!” He said impressed. Despite being covered in generic black spots, both of them had distinctly different patterns and the tail was the most obvious sign of their individuality.

“Ed...” Stealth began.

“What’s wrong?” He asked, “I like this very much!”

“Thanks, I meant... I just wanted to do something because you’ve done so much for me and all I’ve ever done is complain.” He said shyly. Stealth reached into his pocket and pulled out a small object. His fingers uncurled revealing a small Yule tree – the one the paladin gave him in the Haunted Woods. “I like to give gifts to my friends too...”

Edmund hugged the timid cat, “You’ve done more for me then you realise.”

The two cheetahs split up and made their own way to the party. The knight travelled the entire stretch of a few feet to the next apartment down from his where he picked up Bridgette. The canine wore the dress Edmund had bought for her, a long, flowing dress of the finest silk coloured purple with white brocade trim and with silver and gold thread woven into it. They headed to Long Hall through large halls lined with statues and tapestries but they only noticed each other the whole time.

It was some time before Edmund was able to find Stealth again. When he did he saw the feline talking to several other people of various forms. Stealth looked happy and he was having a lot of fun like the others but when he saw the paladin he almost seemed to flinch.

Edmund left him to his fun and turned back to Bridgette. The two talked and ate snacks and occasionally shared a dance.

After the last dance ended the feline and canine purred and tail wagged respectfully as they talked and headed to the tables. Edmund finally saw Stealth again; the cheetah was by himself and idly eating sweet pastries.

“Why is your friend alone?” The maned wolf asked.

The cheetah paladin shrugged, “He doesn’t have a date.”

Bridgette led her tutor over to the feline by the snack tables, weaving past other party goers.

“Stealth?” The maned wolf asked.

The cheetah paused in gobbling his custard tart and looked at her with wide eyes and erect ears, he quickly swallowed the treat, “Yes, milady?”

Bridgette held out her paw, “Would you like to dance?”

Edmund’s eyes widened in surprise!

Stealth looked at his friend then back to the wolf, “I... I, I don’t know how to.” He stuttered.

“I’ll teach you.” Bridgette said with a warm smile.

Not knowing quite what to do, Stealth took her hand and allowed himself to be led to the centre of the room where another dance was starting. Edmund just looked on not knowing what to think.

As the music started Stealth’s fear and inexperience showed but the wolf easily guided him through it. She gently took his hands in hers and they slowly started to move about to the rhythm. The feline eventually got the hang of it and began to smile though his tail swayed about.

“See? Easy!” Bridgette said.

Stealth chuckled nervously and just tried to concentrate on his footing and keeping up.

Edmund stood back near the tables and watched the pair dance. They were having fun together... his girlfriend and his best friend. The paladin’s tail began to sway back and forth, brushing the table cloths and marring them with his shed fur. He frowned and began to glower when his eyes widened in surprise; Edmund... jealous? Sir Edmund the Follower Paladin JEALOUS?

He is supposed to be above such feelings. He didn’t even have strong feelings for Bridgette; he’s just her tutor... Edmund scolded himself for the thought when he noticed the cheetah and maned wolf returning. They bantered and joked warmly as they approached the knight.

“A deer attacked you?” Bridgette asked in awe.

“Oh that’s nothing, I had to walk behind Ed and his tail was sticking up the whole time.” Stealth joked.

Edmund shook his head, “Please don’t bring that up again.”

“But I had nothing to look at but your butt for several hours.”

Edmund sighed and grumbled.

“You’re cute when you’re grumpy!” Bridgette teased.

“I am not cute or grumpy!” Edmund responded.

She licked him on the muzzle gently.

“All right. Maybe cute but not the grumpy part.” He said quietly.

“He likes being petted too!” Stealth added.

“I do not!” Edmund countered and was silent for a moment. “Well, at least not by YOU Stealth!”

“Nope, you just like it when I look at your butt.” The cheetah answered and hid behind Bridgette.

Edmund stuttered until Bridgette put a finger to his nose.

“You two have fun.” Stealth said with a kind smile and promptly fled leaving the couple alone.

For a moment Edmund glanced off to his side but his friend was already gone. He turned his attention fully to the maned wolf and beamed as they began to slowly move in beat to the music for the next dance.