Time Off

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“You’re fired Zeich, clear out your locker and get out of here before I decide to call the cops.”

“But boss, I swe-“

“You have 5 minutes to get your lard ass out of here before I have Lt. Harris come here and do it for you, and you know how much he’d love to do that.” Those words were all it took to shut Zeich’s muzzle and get him moving towards the door to the office. He paused to say something to the smug lynx behind the desk that had just ended his career, but stopped himself and simply waddled over to the door and opened it carefully. He knew there would be at least one or two furs listening in on the other side, but upon finding nearly the entire office either looking at him or near the door trying to hear what had happened as best they could, it only made things worse. He didn’t have time to react to or concentrate on them though, as he just needed to get his things and get out with at least a single shred of dignity intact. That was a lot easier said than done, considering exactly what had gotten him fired, but it was all that he could do at that point; nothing else could be said to his now-former boss.

Zeich made his way down the aisles of the warehouse where he worked, passing by his old places of work and just keeping his gaze focused on the ground. It wasn’t going to be a long walk to his locker in order to get his things so that. The walk was past a lot of his former friends and co-workers though, and the humiliation that entailed was enough to make him almost give on everything which was in the metal box. He did need his phone, and taking work clothing would inevitably lead to some sort of a call from collectors, so he needed to go back to his locker and change whether he wanted to or not. The lockers were at least somewhat secluded, so there was that bit of solace that Zeich could take in, but it wasn’t much. He also would need to change too, and having to strip down to bare fur around a crew which now saw him as… Well, what he essentially was… It wasn’t going to be the highlight of his day by any stretch of the imagination. He just kept reminding himself that he needed to do it though, and trudged along towards the back of the warehouse towards the locker area.

Once there, he quickly got about changing his pants first. He didn’t even bother to look around to see if he was alone; it wouldn’t have mattered either way, since he knew it was going to be seen by someone inevitably. Zeich simply opened his locker, undid the pants he was wearing, and dropped them. A few taunting catcalls and groans came his way, but he ignored it as he stepped out of the work pants and then began to fumble with his own. He always had a bit of a time getting into pants, as seeing over his gut was an impossibility, and thusly he more had to stab blindly at the leg holes in order to get them on. Rushing through that action wasn’t making it easier either, as he missed several times. More catcalls came his way as a result of that, a couple even going so far as to taunt him; ‘Watch that ass shake!’ being the most laugh-inducing. It was utterly humiliating for him, and even once he had gotten his pants on, he still needed to get through changing his shirt.

That took less effort, but got a lot more chuckling and taunting. His gut literally rolled out of the tight shirt which had been holding it in, sagging like the huge mass of fat it once freed from those confines. It drooped heavily over his crotch, pouring over the waistband of his pants by several inches. Even his lovehandles were spilling over the top of those poor blue jeans, obscuring his pockets somewhat and only further accentuating his mass. A big part of Zeich loved that feeling, but it was when he was in private; when he was out in the open, he resented being seen without a shirt on. It was a necessary evil at that moment though, so there was nothing that he could do other than suck it up and try to make it end as fast as he could. He quickly threw on his own black shirt as soon as the other was off, not even bothering to hang the thing up or fold it; it just got tossed on the floor. His shirt did a far better job covering him and leaving room to breathe when compared to the shirt provided by his work, but it still did accentuate his mass somewhat. That was a hard task to not do though, so he didn’t think of it as much; he was just glad to be covered up again.

A few sighs and ‘boos’ came his way as the show ended for his co-workers, but Zeich couldn’t have been more relieved. He bent down, or more crouched as bending with his abdomen the size it was got tricky, and picked up his work shirt from the floor. Once it was in-paw, he stood and tossed it into his locker. He then nabbed his bag, and slammed the thing shut. The wolf stared at the locker for a long moment, just thinking about how he was going to pay his bills now, and how he could afford to eat, and a whole mess of other thoughts that come flooding in once someone loses their job. He was fighting tears as those thoughts came flooding in, but one last taunt aimed at him by one of his crueler former co-workers was just enough to turn that sadness into rage. He knew he couldn’t fight, nor could he afford to have an assault on his record, so he simply turned around and flipped off the offending beast. He held up his paw, along with the gesture, for a long moment as he got his back on, and then stormed off out the back entrance.

The door to the back entrance hadn’t even shut before Zeich’s anger had ebbed and devolved into complete sorrow. How could he have screwed up that badly? It just didn’t seem possible for him to have made such a mistake, yet here he was slumped against a wall and crying in the back alley beyond what used to be his employer. He knew working around food with his appetite was not his best idea ever, but he had never thought he would lose control like he had… And that he would get caught to boot. If only he had eaten like he needed to before that shift, none of this would have happened. Sure, he would have been on very thin ice for being late to work yet again, but he would have at least still been employed and not slumped over trying desperately to figure out how he was going to survive. He couldn’t find a new job; there were none in the city that would hire someone like him. He didn’t have much saved up either, maybe enough for one month’s rent at his tiny apartment and a few weeks of food… But he still had his cable bill, electricity bill, phone bill; it was just too much for him to even comprehend at that moment.

Instead of trying to wrap his head around what had just happened to him, he instead just settled on doing the one thing that he never needed to think about: eating. The numbing act of just stuffing food into his muzzle over and over again, and how it just cleared his head… He needed that right away in his current state. He didn’t know the area around his old job very well, but he did remember a couple of his friends mentioning a sushi bar on the same road. He had never been, nor had he ever been one for sushi, but food was food to him at that point. All that he wanted was to just sit, clear his mind, and fill his belly to the point where even moving was just a strain; maybe then he would at least get a little bit of contentment. It would be his final indulgence before clamping down and really starting to look for a new job, but it would be a good one if he had anything to do with it. So, with the prospect of food on his mind, he stood back up and wiped off his face, still bordering on crying but somehow managing to maintain control of himself. He then started slowly trudging down the alleyway towards the main road, hoping to get a grip and stop sobbing before he got out on the road.

He did get a grip again, wiping his face off a few more times before stepping out into the general traffic of furs walking along the sidewalk. He kept his eyes trained at the ground as he walked along in order to avoid anyone seeing his still-bloodshot eyes. It wasn’t that he cared who saw him in this state, but rather that he didn’t want anyone to have pity on him right then; he didn’t need it. He also didn’t want to explain exactly why he was upset right then, as even thinking about it again for the moment would bring up all his worries and fears and everything that came along with them back to the surface and that would start him crying again. Zeich didn’t want that to happen, and with just a couple blocks to waddle along until he got to the sushi bar he was headed towards, he saw little chance that it could happen. He just needed to be careful, quiet, and keep anyone from noticing just how upset he was at that moment in time. That way he wouldn’t get stopped and have to uphold a conversation with anyone, which would impede his progress on his mission for food.

**********

The walk was over after about five minutes, only having taken so long to traverse a few short blocks thanks to having fought the flow of pedestrians the entire way there. Zeich knew that he could have crossed the street, but he just didn’t want to make the trip any farther than it had to be. There was a part of him that enjoyed having the contact with others too, even if it was just gentle nudges and shoves aside so that they could all get on with their mundane lives. It wasn’t much, but considering how ‘lucky’ he had been in the past few months, any touch was comforting to him in some capacity. That said a lot about the state he was in, but he did his utmost to not think about it and simply reached out to grip the handle to the sushi bar. Once he was inside, he could stop thinking about his problems, about how lonely he was, about how he was now unemployed and already hemorrhaging money, about how he was trying to stuff his face to feel comfortable… All of those things would be gone to him, or at least he hoped.

The door was pushed open right into him as he stood there thinking, taking him by surprise as it did. He let out a yelp, stumbled back and rubbed his belly lightly, the door having struck him there roughly when it had been shoved open. “Hey buddy, wa-,” Zeich started, and then stopped as he saw the beast that had nearly knocked him over: a panda that loomed over him. Looming was almost an understatement too for what the bear did as he looked down at Zeich with a startled expression; apparently he hadn’t seen the pudgy wolf when he opened the door. The panda had to be at least 500 pounds of both muscles and lard, combined into a look of a former lineman on his seven-some-odd foot tall frame, and that was far larger than Zeich. They both stood there for a moment, Zeich a bit too intimidated to respond and the panda looking almost too shocked to say anything.

“I’m so sorry! I didn’t even notice you there! Are you alright?” The panda exclaimed finally, having gotten over the initial surprise of ramming Zeich with the door. Zeich nodded his response, still a bit too unnerved by the wall of panda nearly filling the doorframe in front of him to speak. The bear quickly stepped back inside and held the door open, beckoning the wolf inside with his free paw. “Please, come in, I’ll whip you up something to apologize for that.” Free food for an accident? It was almost too good to be true for Zeich, who immediately squeezed by the chubby bear into the restaurant.

“I’m alright, really… But I would appreciate something to eat.”

“Of course, whatever you want on the house… Just do try and not eat everything in here huh?” The panda smiled and poked the wolf’s belly upon finishing that sentence, making sure to show just how much he was jesting. Zeich grinned and patted his large table muscle proudly, already becoming more at ease with the hulking bear which had let him in.

“I’ll try not to, but from what I’ve heard about how tasty this place is I may have a bit of a hard time holding back.”

“I’ll let you judge that, but from what I’ve heard… I think I can at least cook alright.” Zeich’s eyes went just a bit wider as he realized who he was talking to: the head chef of the restaurant. According to what he had heard of the place, the head chef was an utter maestro with knives, and could make great-tasting food from fish found on the side of the road if need be. To think that it could be this massive, yet very affable panda absolutely stunned the wolf. He was expecting a fat feline or muskrat or something along those lines, not a panda… But then he thought about how speciest that made him sound and cursed himself for even letting his brain go there. He wasn’t normally a speciest, but the rumors had made him jump to conclusions, and seeing those conclusions proved so incredibly wrong could not have surprised him more.

He took a seat at the bar and smiled at the panda, who returned the smile before setting to work at preparing a swordfish for some rolls. Zeich was immediately taken aback, as he had heard before that swordfish was not a good fish to use for sushi. The panda didn’t seem to think of that though as he sliced and chopped away at the fish’s carcass to get the cuts of meat that he needed. The sea creature did look fresh enough to Zeich, but the wolf didn’t really know what to look for in a fresh or bad fish when it came to making sushi, so he simply decided to trust the chef on this one. The bear did look like he knew what he was doing too, as what had been a whole swordfish steak just a few moments before was already sliced into a few strips and had one particular strip being turned into a swordfish roll. A little bit of rice sprinkled with avocado, a chunk of cucumber, a very fine dusting of ginger on top once it was wrapped, and the roll was in front of Zeich before the wolf had even gotten truly comfortable on the slightly-too-small stool his wide rump was parked in.

The wolf took the roll off the knife it was being offered to him on with his fingers and brought it to his nose, taking an experimental sniff of it first. He didn’t smell anything off, so he popped the whole thing into his cavernous muzzle. The roll met his tongue, and then something happened; something unexplainable to the wolf. The flavor and texture and consistency and complexity and… It was just everything about that roll that was perfect to him: there were no flaws whatsoever. The rice was done perfectly. The fish was just salted enough from its natural environment to not overpower anything whatsoever. The vegetables were ripened and prepared to absolute perfection. The whole roll was just warm enough to still feel fresh, yet cold enough to not hinder any of the flavors. It was a rapturous experience for the wolf’s taste buds, and to think that it had been prepared in less than a minute right before his eyes just boggled his mind. He wanted, no, needed more of that fish right away, and his blindingly-fast wagging tail gave that away even before his voice box could. “Wow… More of that please.”

The panda simply laughed, and started at making another few rolls. He chatted idly with Zeich as he cooked, since the place was empty and not chatting would just feel awkward. The wolf found out that the panda’s name was Hyede, and that he was not only the head chef, but owner as well. Hyede had bought the restaurant a few years prior from a retiring chef, and within six months had made back his initial investment into buying it. His impressive size came from a love of indulging in what he made, and fairly regular trips to the gym, which he admitted he had been missing lately thanks to working and just not feeling motivated. He was quite amiable as he talked, always polite and never talking for very long about himself before asking Zeich something about himself. Zeich gave his answers in turn, explaining how he had heard about Hyede’s restaurant from a few friends who had strongly recommended it. He also explained his love of sushi back to his mother and how she could make a mean tuna roll, which Hyede seemed to make a mental note of.

Zeich’s lack of employment came up inevitably, and though Hyede didn’t dwell on it, the concern in his face was evident. The wolf saw at that moment that the panda was not just faking his kindness and sympathy for the sake of being a business owner and operator; Hyede was a genuinely kind fur. Zeich definitely needed one of those right then, and so he started to gush a little more as to what had happened to get him fired from his last job. Hyede listened to the story intently, even going as far as to shut the shop down so that no one would come in and interrupt him and Zeich talking. The wolf objected to that, but all he got in response to his objections was ‘I’m not the only sushi bar in town.’ That was good enough for the wolf, so he just sighed and continued to tell his tale. He made sure to dodge around how he had been fired at first, more explaining why he took the job at the food-packaging factory in the first place than anything else (He had a food-science degree). He told of what he did, of how his co-workers had teased him for his size, of how he had eventually gained respect by simply tolerating it day in and day out for the first few months of his employment. Zeich even went into explaining a crush he had had on a former co-worker for a long time, but never acted on simply out of nervousness.

Hyede was there with kind words and more food throughout the whole story. He didn’t ask many questions about any of the wolf’s tale, only speaking to comment about something he agreed on or to encourage the wolf to go on through the harder-to-talk about parts. The panda had more than once come around to the other side of the counter to sit beside the wolf and wrap a comforting arm around him while Zeich cried or tried to keep himself from crying. Hyede had also delivered a few little cups of green tea and sake, thinking a little bit of alcohol might help calm Zeich’s nerves. The booze did help smooth over some raw nerves, and much to Hyede’s relief, didn’t expose any new ones. The mixture of comfort food, comforting hugs, and the sweet drink while talking out his problems truly put Zeich at ease after a few hours, so much so that he finally was willing to divulge to Hyede how he had been fired. The panda didn’t ever ask for it either, a testament to just how much a little bit of a connection meant to the wolf.

The incident had been a minor one at best, with Zeich having slipped up and eaten a few trays of sweets thanks to not having enough money to eat that week from a surprise bill. There had been no attempt to hide what he had done, nor had he even done it intentionally; he had subconsciously snacked at what he was supposed to be inspecting. He had apologized profusely for it, but because the wolf held a job that his boss’ son wanted, it was all the excuse his boss needed to fire him. It was an honest mistake which put an end to his career and ruined him, and he felt horrible for it. Zeich had wanted to do something more with his life, possibly get a second degree or his master’s, and he had finally been able to start saving to get there when this happened to him. It was just his horrible luck as far as he was concerned, but as Hyede listened to the story and tightened his hug around Zeich, it felt as if the panda saw the whole thing as anything but.

“I am so sorry for all that Zeich, I really and truly am. Isn’t there anything you can do to get back at them for firing you for such a small incident?”

“No, I had one other warning from before about something similar happening. I didn’t do it that time, but I didn’t fight it as that was my first warning and no one can get fired with just one warning. This one was my second though… So I can’t do anything but hope I can collect unemployment now, which I know won’t cover my bills, and food, and…” He trailed off as the tears built up again. Even though he had talked it all out, and had somewhat come to terms with the new reality he was going to have to live in, it was still overwhelming to him by and large because of just how daunting the task he faced was. He had sworn himself that he would eat until he couldn’t think about it anymore, but seeing as that wasn’t happening; he wound up thinking about it again in spite of his best efforts. Hyede’s hugs and burying his head in the panda’s chest only did so much to comfort him thanks to just having known his newfound friend for a few short hours, but it did help enough to quell his tears. He knew that would only work for a little while though, so he needed to come up with something to stop himself from thinking about all his problems.

Hyede came up with something first, standing up and taking Zeich’s paw in his own. “Come on Zeich, I have something you might like to see… And be careful, you’re looking a little rounder already.” Zeich blinked at the comment, taking a moment to ponder its meaning before looking down and gasping slightly at the change he saw in his waistline. When he had first arrived at the restaurant, his pants and shirt were on clear speaking terms and overlapped nearly an inch. Now though, they were separated by a very thin strip of dark grey fur which ran around the wolf’s widening waist. He had noticed his pants feeling a little tighter as he ate too, now that he thought about it, but this much… Just how much of the sushi had he eaten over the past few hours? And why wasn’t he even feeling slightly full from it all? He knew sushi wasn’t too incredibly filling and all, but still… This seemed a little much to not even notice. Zeich had been eating a lot more than normal lately too though, so maybe it was just a side-effect of that?

Convinced with his explanation, Zeich shrugged off his new gain as nothing and got off the stool with a loud thud. When he landed, he had to catch his balance on the counter to keep from tumbling into Hyede. This made the panda laugh before backing up and beckoning the wolf to follow him behind the counter. Zeich was a little reluctant to follow, but did so simply because of how kind and open Hyede had been with him throughout the day. Something about the panda sat well with him though, so trusting that the bear wouldn’t do anything he would regret behind the counter and in the back room didn’t seem like some great leap. So he followed him behind the counter, having to wedge himself in there slightly as the opening was just a little too narrow for him. It had been a bit narrow for Hyede as well, so the panda didn’t chuckle or anything about Zeich’s similar struggles, just simply gave a knowing smile to the wolf before pointing him towards the kitchen doors. Zeich knew he had smelled things beside raw fish in the restaurant as he and Hyede had talked, and if there was a large kitchen for him to go into, it was apparent that the place made more than just sushi.

Pushing open the doors to the kitchen, Zeich saw just how much more than sushi the place made. He had never heard about any of the other dishes Hyede’s restaurant made, but with the sheer amount of tempura bowls and steak platters and bento boxes, it was obvious a lot had been left out. The wolf began to salivate at the thought of getting to eat anything else Hyede could cook, as the revelatory experience he had had with his swordfish sushi was still fresh in his mind. He wanted that experience again with steak, or maybe a bowl of shrimp tempura, or maybe… Hell, he wanted it with everything that he could get into his muzzle that Hyede could cook. His tail was wagging so fast it was a blur behind him, and Hyede couldn’t help but notice it as he stepped past the enraptured wolf to get to the stove. “You look like you want to eat something else. Do you?”

“I… Yes, please.” That was all Zeich could blurt out in response to Hyede’s question. It got a chuckle out of the panda, which then got a knife again and started to cut up his ingredients. He seemed to have been ready for all of this earlier, as everything he needed to cook up a large pot of stew was laid out and ready to go from the get-go. Zeich suddenly felt a small wave of guilt about interrupting the panda’s early-morning preparation work. He hadn’t intended on being a burden to the panda, but he had eaten a great deal from the polite host and taken even more of his time. The wolf knew that if he had been a burden he would have been kicked out a lot sooner, and not even invited to the back for more food, but some part of him worried that the panda was simply being polite and not ushering him along. “I’m not imposing, am I?”

“Oh banish the thought Zeich; it’s nice to have some company in the morning. I rarely get to cook for just one, and have that one appreciate my cooking as much as you do. It’s refreshing and kind of nice… So no, just keep your appetite and keep talking.” Hyede’s words put Zeich at ease, and he pulled up a chair to watch the panda cook. He kept on talking to the bear, just rambling on and on about his former job, delving a bit more into his college years, and his ‘first time’ even somehow came up. Hyede laughed, ‘hmm’d, and gave his own input to every single one of Zeich’s stories, along with sharing some of his own. His own college time and ‘first time’ came up too, as well as his love of sushi. Zeich learned something from Hyede’s explanation about pandas; they loved fish. He hadn’t known that, and it made the bear running a seafood-oriented bar a lot less of an oddity in his mind.

It was about an hour of talking and sampling before the stew was ready to eat. Piping hot and with generous chunks of vegetables, beef, and a couple other things Zeich wasn’t entire sure of. The name of the stew was Ni-something; Zeich was horrible with Japanese names for dishes. Hyede had specifically said it was his own twist on that dish too, so it was sure to be not entirely like the versions Zeich had eaten at other places before. The scents which came from the boiling pot were absolutely delightful though, so Zeich had faith that though this would be a unique dish, it would at least taste incredibly good. Hyede seemed to sense that, and ladled out a healthy amount into a bowl for the wolf, placing it in front of him with a spoon. “Be careful when you eat that, I know it’s still really hot. I have ice cubes if you absolutely want it, but it will water down the sake in there.”

“No, I can wait for it to cool off. But, I have to ask, why the spoon?”

“Oh, because I hate eating stew with chopsticks then drinking the broth… It seems so tacky, and all that slurping is just rude to me. Modern society has invented more efficient ways of eating stew, so why not take advantage of them?” Zeich nodded at that logic, as he couldn’t help but agree with it. Hyede was busy ladling himself out a bowl to eat too, so Zeich began to blow on his stew in an attempt to get it to cool down. The panda chuckled softly upon seeing that, then turned around and started off towards the other side of the kitchen. The wolf stopped blowing on his stew and watched, curious as to what the panda was doing. Hyede rummaged around on the countertop and in a few cupboards before finding what he had been looking for. He produced a bottle of expensive-looking sake, and two bowls of steamed rice, which he brought over with a deftness that could only have been gained from years of working as a server.

Zeich saw how expensive the sake was once it was put on the counter in front of him, and went to object. He was already indebted to the panda enough from the meals; he didn’t need to be even more so by drinking some opulent booze. Hyede stopped him though, holding up a paw as he poured out two small cups of it for him and the wolf. “I have ten bottles of this stuff, and I know the supplier on a very… Personal level, so I can get more whenever I want it. Besides, we have something to celebrate today.” Zeich cocked an eyebrow at that; unsure of what Hyede could possibly find to celebrate. The panda simply smiled though, sliding the glass dish over to the wolf and raising his own as he sat back down in his own stool. “To your time off.”

“Here here,” Zeich said through a small laugh. He hadn’t thought of getting fired like that at all, and yet here this panda was bringing him to that conclusion after mere hours of knowing him. How Hyede could not have been a psychologist of a guru or something was beyond the wolf. The bear knew just what to say, when to say it, and how to listen with such a level of understanding that Zeich daresay he felt more comfortable around Hyede now than most of his friends he had known for years. It boggled the wolf’s mind, but he didn’t have the energy left to question it. “Hyede… Thank you, for everything. Really, if there is anything I can do to make it up to you, just name it.”

“Well… I do want to expand my business somewhat, so I may have some temporary work for you while you look for a new job…” Hyede paused, waiting to see Zeich’s reaction. The wolf looked stunned at his luck for this, to the point where he was rendered speechless. “So, I was wondering,” Hyede continued, “if you would be interested in taking up that spot? The spoiling out front had nothing to do with that, you just looked like you could use a friend. This meal though… Kind of a bribe. I mean, you did just ge-“ Zeich held up a paw to get Hyede to stop his somewhat nervous rambling. The panda did stop, looking at Zeich with a nervous expression and just waiting for a response that took a few seconds to come. The offer most definitely made sense to the wolf once he thought about it, as his food science degree would be very handy to a restaurant owner looking to expand, not to mention to getting a license to distribute one’s foods and all that. The bribing though did become obvious as he thought about it too… Hyede had perked up when he mentioned his degree. A new job this fast though… It was almost too good to be true, and Zeich wanted to pounce on it as fast as he could.

“I’ll gladly take you up on your offer, as long as it is legitimate.”

“Of course, I’ll have the paperwork for you ready tomorrow… All I will really have you doing is taste-te-“

“Wait wait, you mean I get to eat for free?” Zeich exclaimed, looking at the panda wide-eyed as he tried to wrap his mind around that. Hyede simply chuckled and nodded, giving a light pat to the wolf’s stomach as he did.

“All you can stomach, within reason of course… I don’t want to always be cooking just for you.” Zeich nodded fervently, and that made Hyede chuckle again as he gave the tummy beneath his paw one final pat before pulling it back and resting it on the counter. “Well then, I guess that’s that… I’d say another toast is in order?”

“Yes, to the shortest vacation I have ever taken.” Hyede nodded and smiled, filling both their glasses once again with sake once more. He then slid Zeich’s glass back over to the wolf, which took it in his paw and raised it. The panda did the same in return and smiled.

“Here here.” Their glasses clinked together, were brought to their lips, and with that the craziest six hours of Zeich’s life was brought to quite the satisfying end.

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