When jae_w asked for pinch hitters I got a rush of blood to the head and volunteered. I'm glad that I did because I had fun writing this. Huge thanks go to sperrywink who was reading along as I wrote and cynthia_arrow who did an amazing overnight beta.
Title: Walking By His Wild Lone
Word Count: 7616
Summary: Bob, a pet shop, four tiny kittens.
"I'm just saying," Ray says. "If you moved the fish tanks it would free up space against the back wall. You could extend the kitten cage."
Bob looks up from the forms he's filling in -- the very boring, tedious, annoying-as-fuck forms -- and watches as Ray attempts to wedge himself into the gap between the fish tanks and the shelf of pet food. "If you get stuck I'm not pulling you out."
Ray takes in an audible breath and wiggles sideways, looking behind the tanks. "They're attached with screws. You could move them all in a day, tops."
Bob sets down his pen and straightens, wincing a little as he stretches the kinks out of his back. "And who'd watch the shop while I did that? I can't afford to close for the day."
"I..." Ray hesitates and blows a strand of hair out of his face, his cheeks puffed out and his hand flat against the side of the tanks. "No, that won't work, but you could.... No, that won't do either."
Bob leaves Ray to his one-sided conversation and slides off the stool, making his way around the counter. Straightening the display of pet vitamins, he heads to the kitten cage, hooking his fingers through the wire. There are only four kittens in there today, all black with wide green eyes, and Bob isn't even a cat person, but he can't help smiling when one stands, clambering over his brothers and sister to swipe at Bob's hands.
"You're not even close, moronic cat," Bob says, and crouches so he can wiggle his fingers near the kitten's face. It mews, mouth wide before toppling onto its back.
Ray worms his way free of the shelf and his t-shirt is dusty across his belly. Wiping ineffectively at the mark he stands next to Bob. "They're cute."
"Want one?" Bob asks, tapping at the notice that's attached to the side of the cage. "The price includes inoculations and getting them fixed."
"I know that, dickwad," Ray says. He kneels and puts his fingers in the cage, laughing when the kitten bites at his thumb. "You need to try that spiel on actual customers."
"What customers?" Bob says shortly, pushing himself away from the cage.
Ray looks up, the kitten still attached to his thumb. "They'll come. You haven't been re-opened that long."
"Right, months isn't long at all," Bob says, and goes back to his forms.
"What the fuck are you looking at?" Bob asks as he gently scoops up the dwarf hamster, placing it in the deep tank with the others. He can hear their claws skittering against the glass as he cleans out their cage, sweeping out the dirty sawdust and replacing it with new. Putting in a last scoop, he yawns and rubs at his eyes with the back of his hands. It's late, heading toward nine, but he'd needed to clean out the cages and play with the kittens and do the thousand and one other things he had no idea about when he took this shop on.
"You're all demanding fuckers," Bob says and carefully picks up a hamster from the tank on the floor. The hamster is tiny, its coat glossy brown, and Bob strokes his thumb over its head before putting it back in the clean cage. "I should just let you all go. Go all born free on your asses." Bob picks up another hamster, its whiskers tickling against the palm of his hand. "You hear me? I'll put you all outside and sell this place."
Of course Bob won't. He'd promised his granddad that he'd keep the shop going, but he has to admit it's tempting, especially when he's putting in all the work for so little return. "Because you're all fucking animals," Bob says and puts his hand in the cage, patiently waiting until the hamster scuttles off and joins the others. Five more hamsters transferred and Bob shuts the cage door and ensures that it's locked. He picks up the glass tank, taking it to the compact storeroom at the back of the shop. There's barely room to move back there and Bob steps past bags of cat litter and stacks of tinned dog food as he puts the tank in the sink. Efficiently, he washes it out, careful to scrub every corner before setting it on the drainer to dry.
A quick wash of his hands and Bob goes back into the main shop for a final check of each tank and cage. He lingers for a moment next to the kittens, who're nothing but a joined mound of black fur. "I'm going home now, hell-beasts. I'll see you in the morning."
Bob switches off the main lights and makes his way to the storeroom, pulling back the curtain that hides the stairs to his tiny apartment. Hand against the wall he goes upstairs, stomach growling but so tired he knows all he'll do is throw a frozen pizza in the oven and watch TV for all of an hour before going to sleep. This isn't the life Bob expected -- he can remember when he actually saw friends and went to gigs and didn't smell like sawdust and piss -- but he didn't expect his wrists to fuck up so spectacularly either, or his granddad to drop dead of a heart-attack on the pet shop floor.
So yeah, this isn't the life Bob expected, but that's okay. Even if he is constantly juggling bills and making cut-backs, he's got a place to sleep and food in the fridge and the animals don't care if he sometimes needs to wear wrist braces or rely on pain killers to get through the day.
That suits Bob just fine.
When Bob wakes it feels like only seconds since he closed his eyes. Blinking, he stares up at the ceiling and gropes for his alarm, swatting at it until it tumbles to the floor. Then grimaces, tucking his wrist against his chest. Hitting his alarm like that was a stupid idea and Bob's wrist is throbbing as he grits his teeth and kicks away the blankets that are twisted around his feet. Indulging himself, he momentarily palms his dick with his free hand before reluctantly swinging his legs to the side, using momentum to sit upright without using his arms. Hunched over slightly, he rubs at the scar on his wrist, fingers over the shiny and still reddened skin.
The clock changes from 7:02 to 7:05 before Bob stands. He leaves the alarm on the floor and tugs off his boxers, making his way to the bathroom, which is more a glorified closet than an actual room. There's just enough space for a toilet and small sink, a shower squashed in the corner. There are stick-on yellow duck grips on the cubical floor and a handle attached to the wall. It was put there for his granddad and Bob rests his hand on the plastic as he turns on the water that cascades down against his shoulders and chest. A few moments and Bob tilts his head forward, drenching his hair. It clings against his face and he screws shut his eyes as he reaches for the shampoo, squirting some onto his palm.
Rubbing it in, he can't help wishing he'd taken his pills before getting in the shower, but it's too late now and Bob breathes through the pain as he rinses his hair and body. Turning off the water, he steps out of the shower, steam escaping and filling the apartment, making the extractor start with a whir. Taking a towel off the rack, Bob wraps it around his waist and goes back to his bed. Sitting, he turns on the TV, watching the news as he eats cold pizza, swallowing it along with the painkillers he shakes out from the bottle he keeps next to his bed.
Bob looks at his splints but doesn't put them on. Not yet. Not until he's got no choice.
Dressed, his still-damp hair curling against his neck, Bob goes downstairs. When he pushes aside the curtain he hears the budgies chirping and the soft tinkle of a bell. Going into the main shop, he sees that two of the kittens are batting a ball across the cage while another hangs from the sleeping shelf that's covered with a soft checked blanket, the edges ragged and frayed. "Morning, hell-beasts," Bob says, and checks all the other animals before making his way to the kittens. "You're still here? I'd hoped your witch had come and taken you all back." The kittens scramble toward the side of the cage, mewing hungrily. When one falls, tumbling onto its back, Bob isn't charmed at all.
"Dogs don't fall over like that," he says, his mouth twitching as the kitten stands, its eyes wide and astonished. "You're all pathetic. Every single one of you." The kittens mew in unison and this time Bob doesn't even try to stop his grin. "Okay, fine. I'll feed you. But don't think I'll make a habit of it."
Bob keeps special kitten food in the back. Holding the food and water bowls he switches on the radio before filling the sink with hot soapy water. Rubbing a cloth over the red plastic bowls, he listens to the local news, about how it's unseasonably cold and how the economy is still taking a dive. Which is nothing Bob didn't already know.
'And finally," the newscaster says, 'there's a battle of the bands on at The Coaches this Friday. Entry forms are available now. Or turn up on the night to listen, only $5 at the door.'
"Sure, I'll do that," Bob says, scrubbing the bowls dry with a towel. It's an effort to distract himself from the fact that in years past he'd have been there. Drumming or doing tech or at the very least drinking watery beer while heckling the bands. Now he'll be watching re-runs of CSI while tucked up in bed. "Fuck," Bob hisses, when he manages to hit his wrist against the side of the sink. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck." Pulling out the plug, Bob fills one bowl with kitten food and the other with fresh water, then he goes back to the kitten cage and kneels on the floor.
Hand outstretched and ready for darting escapee kittens, he opens the door and puts both bowls inside. Immediately the food bowl is surrounded by four kittens and Bob watches them eat. "You're pigs, all of you."
None of them take any notice at all.
Standing, Bob gets to work feeding the other animals. Pinches of flakes for the fish, bowls of food for the rabbits, mice, hamsters, rats and birds. He re-stocks the shelves with new cans of food and dog treats, straightens the display of leads and collars and then finally, at 8:30 exactly, turns the sign on the door. Then steps back, his heart racing when immediately someone rushes inside, making the bell over the door jangle.
"Sorry, sorry," the man says, and makes a grab for one of his scarves that starts to slither to the floor. Re-wrapping it around his neck he tries to flatten down his hair that's sticking out in clumps from his head. "I'm on the way to work and saw the shop and thought that, fuck, I needed a gift and this would be perfect. Because, hello, pet shop, they'd have to have something."
"Right," Bob says, and tries to school his expression so his thoughts of 'the fuck!?' aren't showing, because a customer is a customer even if they do look slightly deranged. "Is there something in particular you were after?"
The man shakes his head, frowning as he looks around the shop. "I haven't really thought about it. Just, Mikey loves animals. Mikey's my brother. I wanted to get him a gift."
Bob watches as the man fingers the studded black collars with a thoughtful expression. "He's got a dog?"
"Oh, no, sorry," the man says, flashing a grin. "Just thinking, but no."
"Okay then," Bob says, drawing on his meagre customer service skills. "How old will he be? We've a goldfish starter-kit."
"I don't know," the man says and looks past the shelves to the fish tanks. "Do you have any that look like sharks? He likes sharks."
"We've got silver fin sharks." Bob heads for the fish and points to the tank containing the silver sharks that are leisurely swimming around a sunken galleon.
The man peers through the glass. "They're not exactly mega shark."
"They get bigger," Bob says. "But if you get one of those you'll need a tropical set-up. We sell a starter kit for that, too." The man looks unsure, and Bob thinks of profits and the tropical fish tank set-ups that are taking up room at the back. He hasn't sold one of those since he took over, but at the same time, the man doesn't look certain at all and no way will Bob sell anything that people don't actually want, even if it is only a fish. "Look, why don't you think about it."
The man nods, sending his scarf sliding to the floor again. Grabbing it, he winds it around his neck, says, "Good idea, I'll come back later," as he heads for the door.
Bob knows he won't. They never do.
The girl is small and dark-haired and utterly incapable of picking which kitten she wants to take home. She's sitting in front of the kitten cage, legs crossed and face pressed against the metal bars, giggling as two of the kittens jump for a fluffy blue ball.
"Our cat died last month," the girl's mother says, and for a moment her composed expression falters, displaying real grief. "He was old, older than Sophie. We weren't even going to get another cat, not yet. But it feels like the right time."
Bob nods and keeps filling in forms. He knows all about losing pets, his own grief about the death of his dog a constant background burr. Signing his name, he pushes the vouchers for inoculations and a spay/neuter across the counter. "All your information is here."
"Thank you." She tucks the forms into her purse and then says, "Sophie, honey, have you picked yet?"
Sophie shakes her head and looks over her shoulder. "They're all so cute."
"How about I tell you about them?" Bob heads for the kitten cage and crouches, pointing inside. "That one batting at the ball? He likes eating, a lot. The one lying down in the corner loves to sleep and that one there, hanging off the shelf. She's got a really loud meow."
"What about that one?" Sophie asks, pointing at the kitten which is chewing on its own toes.
Bob could say how that one is so stupid it keeps falling over its own feet, or how he found her with the food bowl on her head or the time she climbed to the top of the cage and got stuck. What he does say is, "She's lively."
Sophie grins when the kitten jumps for the ball and lands on her back. "I like that one. I want her."
Bob looks back at Sophie's mom, checking it's okay.
"That's a good choice, sweetheart," she says, moving to stand next to Sophie. "Come help me get the carrier out of the car." She looks at Bob. "We're parked right outside."
Reluctantly Sophie stands, holding her mom's hand.
"I'll get your kitten ready," Bob says, waiting until the bell over the door jingles before he opens the cage. Reaching inside he takes hold of Moonlight, cradling her in his hand. "Looks like you got lucky and some sucker is taking you home." Kitten against his chest, he locks the cage and stands, running his hand over Moonlight's downy head. "Your new family sounds nice, even if they're stupid taking on an idiot like you." Whiskers twitch against his hand as Moonlight purrs, butting her head against Bob's chest. "Fucking hell-beast that you are. I'm glad to see you go."
Moonlight purrs in reply.
"I sold a kitten today," Bob says, picking at his sandwich. He peels off the pickles, making a mound on the wax paper. "Three more and I'll be cat free. Finally."
"Until you take the next lot from the shelter," Ray says, sauce dribbling out the sides of his mouth as he bites down on his sandwich. He wipes at his face with a napkin. "You'll never be cat free."
"Fucking cats," Bob mutters. "I should go throw them all in the alley."
"Right," Ray says, distracted as he looks around the shop. "I know you haven't got time for changing things around, but what about paint?
Bob chews a mouthful of bread and chicken. "What about it?"
"You could paint the walls. They look like they haven't been touched in years."
Truthfully, they probably haven't. Bob can remember them being a cheerful yellow, back when he was a kid and visiting his granddad on vacation. In fact, the whole shop looks like it hasn't been touched since then. The animal cages are always kept clean and safe, but the rest, the dingy walls and curling posters haven't changed at all. The problem is, Bob just doesn't have the time or energy to make those changes. Not on his own.
Ray sets down his half-eaten sandwich, looking determined. "I'm off this weekend. I can help you paint."
"I don't need your help," Bob says tersely, and doesn't add that he can't afford paint anyway. Ignoring the awkward silence he finishes eating his sandwich and crumples up the paper as Ray does the same before heading for the door.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
Bob nods and drains the last of his soda. He feels bad about rejecting Ray's offer but it was all he could do. Even with the sale of Moonlight there's no money for paint or extra cleaning supplies, not if Bob wants to feed the animals and pay his rent. Sighing, he pushes himself up, throwing the sandwich wrapper in the trash.
Which is when the bell over the door jingles and someone comes into the shop. Expecting Ray, who always seems to leave something behind on his visits to the shop, Bob's surprised when it's not him at all. "Mikey's brother."
The man grins. In addition to the scarves today he's wearing a black woollen hat, his hair curling from underneath. "Well my friends call me Gerard, but that'll do I guess." He comes closer to the counter, hands braced against the edge as he looks at Bob. "Mikey said no to the fish. He thinks they're boring, which, he's got a point. Unless you sell mini octopuses so he could recreate Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. Or is that octopi?"
"People use both," Bob says, and due to an unhealthy wikipedia obsession, adds. "And octopodes for the rare option. But I don't sell them anyway."
"Probably just as well," Gerard says. "Mikey likes sushi too much."
Which is so out of left field that all Bob can do is stare. "You expected him to scoop out the octopus and eat it?"
Gerard shakes his head, looking alarmed. "He doesn't eat his pets. So I was thinking a hamster."
"A hamster," Bob repeats and rubs at his mouth, hoping it's not ringed with sauce. "They're good starter pets. We've got the dwarf and Syrian kinds." He leads the way to the hamster cages, indicating the two breeds. "The dwarfs stay small, four inches tops. The Syrians get bigger but you can only keep one in a cage or they'll fight."
"Right," Gerard says, and he seems to have no concept of personal space, his coat cold and damp as he crowds close to Bob and peers in at the hamsters. "The white one looks like it belongs in the X Men."
"Remy?" Bob looks for the hamster with the bright red eyes, finding him on top of the coconut house.
Gerard turns, his mouth curling into a smile. "You name all the pets?"
"No," Bob says, and takes a step to the side. "They're merchandise, they doesn't need names."
"Except Remy," Gerard says, and pushes his finger through the bars, close to the huddle of dwarf hamsters.
"No, don't... they bite," Bob trails off, when one of the hamsters latches onto Gerard's finger before letting go and running away. "I'll get you a band-aid."
Gerard sucks his finger into his mouth, following Bob back to the counter. "Are they always that vicious?"
"Only if people poke at them," Bob says pointedly, grabbing the first-aid kit he keeps in the storeroom. He opens it on the counter, taking out an antiseptic wipe and a band-aid which he hands over to Gerard. "Here."
"Thanks." Ripping open the wipe with his teeth, Gerard rubs it over the puncture marks on the end of his finger and then wraps around the band-aid. He wiggles his fingers, says, "I think I'll live."
Bob gives him a look. "It was touch and go, but I think so, too."
"Awesome." Gerard keeps wiggling his fingers until it looks like he's doing some kind of insane one-handed jazz hand routine in the middle of Bob's shop. "I have to go or I'll be late getting back to work." Finally dropping his hand he makes for the door but pauses next to the cat scratching posts. "I'll think about the hamsters."
He leaves with a last smile and a wave.
Bob's painkillers start to wear off a little after five.
Pushing aside the pain, he closes up and checks all the cages. Refills water bottles and hauls in trays of dog and cat food and bags of cat litter which he hefts onto the shelves. By the time he's finished, his wrists are agony, enough that when he tries to pick up a small box of cat toys it slips out of his grasp and falls to the floor. Plastic balls roll everywhere, their bells tinkling as they become lodged under the shelves and collide against the walls and door.
Hand against his chest and back against the wall Bob slides to the floor.
He'll get up in a minute. Right now he needs to sit and just breathe.
Bob goes to bed in his clothes that night, drugged but still hurting, wrists resting on ice packs as he watches CSI re-runs well into the night.
It's the next morning and Bob's tired, feels grungy and is wearing splints on both of his wrists. He's struggling to attach a water bottle to the rat cage when the door opens and Gerard walks in, head bent against the wind.
"Hi." Gerard's clutching a Starbuck's cup in both hands, his fingers bright red with the cold. He sets one of the cups on the counter. "I brought you coffee."
"Okay," Bob says, not sure why he's been brought coffee. He tugs at his hoodie sleeves so they're covering the splints and then stands. "Thanks."
Gerard's got his scarves wrapped around the lower part of his face but his eyes are bright and Bob knows he's grinning. "No worries. I wasn't sure if you actually like coffee but I called Mikey and he said everyone likes coffee and even if you didn't I could drink both, which is true." All the time Gerard's been unwrapping the scarves, draping them over his shoulders. "Do you like coffee?"
"I do," Bob says, steeling himself before he picks up the cup and takes a drink.
Gerard takes a long drink of his own coffee, sighing contentedly before he says, "No go on the hamster. I told Mikey those stories are urban myths but he's having none of it."
Bob gets the feeling he knows where this is going. "If you mention tubes...."
"Wouldn't think of it," Gerard says, and hides his smile behind his coffee cup as he takes another long drink before looking directly at Bob. "What about rabbits?"
"They're nice in pies," Bob says, and has to bite back a smile when Gerard laughs and flails.
"Not to eat, as a pet. Bunnies are nice, right?"
"They are." Clicking into professional mode, Bob leads Gerard to the rabbit cages. "We've only got lops right now but they're good pets. Able to be house trained if that's what you want. You'll need a hutch or a cage, but I sell both."
"Good," Gerard says, and kneels so he can look down at the rabbits. There's three right now, two white and one chocolate, their noses twitching as they wander around the cage. "They're cute."
Uncomfortably aware of how close Gerard's head is to his groin, Bob takes a side step away. "They are, but they're still a solid commitment. You can't just shove them in a hutch and forget about them."
"He wouldn't," Gerard says. Standing, he accidentally elbows Bob's wrist and Bob inhales sharply, glad Gerard's still distracted by the rabbits. "I'll ask Mikey about them." Gerard starts to re-wrap the scarves. "I'll tell you what he says."
He leaves with a smile, the bell jangling behind him.
Ray's busy filling food bowls when he says, "So you're telling me this guy has come here for the last three days and hasn't bought a thing?"
"Gerard. His name's Gerard," Bob says, pulling apart the sandwich Ray has brought from his shop. "I told you, he's looking for a gift for his brother."
"Which has taken three days so far," Ray says, sounding skeptical. He reaches in the kitten cage, stroking one of the two remaining kittens. "I'm wondering if he even has a brother. Because I'm thinking he's got an ulterior motive."
"Like what?" Bob says, indicating the shop with his hand. "He wants to buy this place so is checking it out? He's a tax inspector seeing how much I'm not earning? Casing the joint for a daring robbery of cat litter?"
"I was more thinking he was checking you out," Ray says, laughing when one of the kittens tries to swipe at his hair.
Bob looks down at his old hoodie and the splints the poke out of the end of his sleeves. "Because I'm such a draw."
"Yeah, because you're hideously deformed. Jesus fuck, Bob." Ray shuts the door of the kitten cage and turns so he can look at Bob. "I know things haven't gone well lately, but you're not made for self-pity."
"Self-pity?" Angry, Bob pushes away the sandwich. "Last night I about pissed myself because I couldn't unfasten my jeans. The only people I've talked to in months are you, the rare customers and store cashiers. I own a shop that's barely keeping afloat. That's not self-pity, it's reality."
"You own a shop that you love," Ray corrects. "It sucks about your wrists, but they're getting better, and the only reason you don't go out is because you don't want to."
"Because I can't afford to," Bob says, but Ray shakes his head.
"Because you don't want to. You had to be there for your granddad, I get that. I get that you needed to re-open the shop, and you have. Now it's time to climb out of your rut."
Bob glares at Ray. "Who says I'm in a rut?"
"Tell me you don't know what episodes of CSI were on last night? Original series, New York and Miami."
Bob wants to say he doesn't, but he's never lied to Ray and isn't about to start now. He drops his gaze, looking at the fish catalogue he's got open in front of him.
Ray steps forward so he's close to the counter. "You'd rather watch Horatio Crane every night than go out. That's a rut."
Bob knows that Ray's right. He also knows it's beyond time that things changed. "I can't go out early. I still have to close the shop."
"That's okay," Ray says, sounding satisfied. "I'm going to the Battle of the Bands tomorrow. Doors open at eight."
Bob looks up. "I'll be there."
Before he turns off the lights in the shop Bob stands by the kitten cage, watching as the two kittens lock themselves together and roll around the floor. "Stupid cats, you're both fucking morons," he says. "No wonder I couldn't go out. I had to stay and watch you idiots."
The kittens mew and start eating their food. They obviously don't believe it either.
"So, I asked Mikey," Gerard says loudly, pitching his voice over the sound of the bell. Bob jumps, spilling chocolate-coated dog treats on the floor.
"Fuck, you took about ten years off my life."
"Sorry." Gerard kneels and looks apologetic as he pats Bob's leg with his hand. He starts to gather up the treats. "Like I was saying, I asked Mikey and rabbits are no good. Apparently he's got some deep-rooted Bugs Bunny trauma."
"Bugs Bunny, really?"
Gerard shrugs and puts the treats on the shelf. "That's what I said, I mean, you'd think I'd have known if he'd had a Bugs Bunny trauma but he insists it happened. Something about a late night and a story I told that included Bugs Bunny with mean eyes. He said he'd never be able to sleep knowing a rabbit was just outside."
Bob starts to stock the remaining treats from the box. "You told your brother stories about bunnies with mean eyes?"
"Apparently," Gerard says, rocking back on his heels. His coat is brushing against the floor and his hair is damp, curling against his neck. Deliberately, Bob keeps stacking treats, telling himself he really doesn't want to touch those curls as Gerard continues, "It sounds like something I'd do but I can't remember Bugs Bunny specifically."
"Sucks to be you, and him," Bob says, fitting in the last treat. Holding the empty box, he sets it on the counter. "Maybe you should get him something that isn't animal related?"
Gerard shakes his head as he stands. "No, I just need to pick the right thing." He looks around the shop, his hands pushed into his coat pockets. "He likes unicorns."
"We don't sell unicorns," Bob says, beginning to suspect that Ray might be right while resisting the urge to roll his eyes, because, unicorns. "How about a bird? Budgies are easy to look after."
"I don't know." Gerard's mouth is turned down as he looks at the birds in the aviary. "I just think birds are meant to fly, you know. Not be stuck in cages."
It's nothing Bob hasn't heard before, but it still feels like a slam, especially when he's enjoyed the other times he's talked to Gerard. "They're domesticated birds, they'd die in the wild."
"I know," Gerard says. "It's just. It doesn't seem right." He starts to back away, but as he does so he takes something out of his pocket, holding out his hand. "I got you this. Your stomach was rumbling the other day and I thought, well.... I have to go."
Taking the candy bar Gerard's thrust into his hand, Bob watches him almost run out of the shop. This time Gerard never looks back.
Bob leaves his splints off. He only really needs them on the bad days, and apart from that weird thing earlier with Gerard, today hasn't been bad at all. Bob even managed to sell one of the two-story rabbit hutches that have been stuck in the back for months. Humming under his breath, he finger combs his hair and changes his dirty black hoodie for a clean black hoodie, splashes on a bit of aftershave and then heads for the stairs.
Checking his watch he pushes aside the curtain and goes into the main shop, giving all the cages a last look over, as always ending up at the kitten cage. "I'm going out tonight, so I don't want any trouble out of either of you. Hear that, you psychotic bastards."
One of the kittens rolls on its back while the other chews at its tail. Bob laughs, says, "Morons," before he heads out of the door.
Bob finds Ray standing under the awning outside of the The Coaches, his shoulders hunched against the cold. When Bob gets close Ray straightens and smiles. "I wasn't sure if you'd come."
"I said I would, didn't I?" Bob says, pulling out his wallet.
Ray reaches out, his hand over Bob's. "I've got this."
"Yeah, no." Bob opens his wallet, taking out a five. "Unless you're thinking about putting out later, this is no date. I'll pay my own way."
Ray rolls his eyes but also backs off, dropping his hand as they both go inside. It's much warmer in there, and Bob inhales deeply, taking in the smell of dive clubs everywhere. Alcohol, sweat and vomit, a stench that's ingrained in the sticky carpets. He breathes in again, listening to the deep throb of bass and a badly tuned guitar as he hands over his cover and gets his hand stamped with a green eagle. Eager to get inside, he pushes his way through the inner door. He's missed places like this, the way there's always someone standing at the bar nursing a beer. How the stage is always tiny and covered in remnants of duct tape. How the tables are always scarred.
"I'll get the beers," Ray says, and at Bob's look adds, "You can get the next round."
That's fine with Bob and he makes his way to a table that's close to the bar but away from the amps that are being set up on stage. Sitting, Bob watches as they're connected by a short tattooed man who fixes a loose connection by kicking at the lead.
"That's Frank," Ray says, handing over a beer. He sits, looking at Frank as he fiddles with more leads. "He'll be playing with one of the bands tonight, fuck knows which one."
"I hope he's a better player than he is at tech," Bob says, wincing when Frank sloppily tapes a lead.
"Much," Ray says, and takes a long drink of his beer. "He's brutal on guitar. Not so much on the singing, but he enjoys it."
Which for Ray is a damning insult, so Bob has to hope this Frank doesn't sing. He takes a drink of beer and uses his bottle to point at the stage, where some skinny kid with messy hair and glasses has wandered to the front, a coiled lead over one arm. "He from the bands, too?"
"Frank's roommate, Mikey" Ray says. "He plays bass sometimes, depending if Frank can get him in front of an audience."
Bob nods, perfectly relaxed as he leans back in his chair and takes another drink of warm, pissy beer.
It's late when the last band finishes their set. Bob watches as Frank throws himself to the ground, his guitar held aloft in triumph. Mikey's standing close to the front of the stage, and he holds up both arms, mimicking Frank's pose. Bob's just glad Frank's stopped singing; or yelling. Because while he's kick-ass on guitar, he really needs to leave the vocals for others.
"What did I tell you, he's awesome on guitar," Ray says, leaning across the table. Seven bottles in he wavers slightly and when he talks his breath smells of beer. "He's wasted in the store."
"He works in a shop?" Bob can't help being surprised, because Frank doesn't strike him as the kind who'd work in a shop at all. Then again, neither would Ray or Bob himself; once, anyway. "Which one."
Ray shakes his head. "The deli up the street from «I»Pet Pals«/I». You really need to get out more."
Bob would protest, but he knows that it's true. Draining the last of his beer, he stands, one hand braced against the table. "Thinking of, I'd best be getting back."
"If you're going to turn into Cinderella, at least you've got the mice," Ray says, laughing at his own lame joke as he stands. Once he's upright he looks around, and then waves at Frank who's making his way to the bar. "Hey, Frank. Come and meet Bob."
"Coming," Frank yells and pays for two beers before grabbing hold of Mikey's arm and tugging him through the crowd to Bob and Ray. When they get there Frank drains half of his beer, his head tilted back, showing the sweat that glistens on his neck. Pushing back his soaked hair with one hand he says, "What did you think of the set?"
"You play great," Bob says. "But your levels were off. You need someone to adjust them."
"Easier said than done," Frank says, and finishes off the rest of his beer. He looks at Mikey then, poking him in the chest with his finger. "Did you get us a ride? I don't want to walk home."
Mikey looks at his watch which has slid around his wrist. "Gerard'll be here soon. He promised he'd drive us."
"Good," Frank says, and sets the empty beer bottle down with a dull thud. "I need to go piss."
He hurries away, leaving Mikey who sits down and pulls his phone out of his pocket, checking messages and paying no attention to Ray and Bob. Which is fine by Bob who's piecing things together; because surely there can't be that many people called Gerard? Not in this town. Bob stares at Mikey, trying to see any family resemblance. It's a blatant stare and it's no surprise when Mikey looks over the top of his glasses and says, "Yes?"
Bob shakes his head, says, "You're Mikey."
"Always have been," Mikey says, and goes back to looking at his texts.
"And you're getting a ride from Gerard," Bob goes on.
"My brother, yeah," Mikey says, his fingers flying. "He's here now."
Hopeful, Bob looks toward the door and sees Gerard. Gerard of the many scarves. Gerard with the list of pets, walking toward the table. He's not wearing his coat today, or his hat or scarves. Just a plain black t-shirt splattered with paint and black jeans with a hole in the knee. His hair is messy and there's a pencil behind his ear. When he sees Bob he grins, wide at first then faltering a little, as if he'd remembered earlier today.
"Gerard," Bob says, and presses his hands against his thighs, because all he wants to do is touch Gerard, pull him close and talk while they're away from the confines of the shop. "I almost didn't recognise you without the scarves."
Gerard's grin widens again. "I almost didn't recognise you without the animals."
"Hold on." Mikey keeps frantically texting. "This is hot pet shop guy?"
"And you're Gerard's Mikey," Ray says. "We thought you were imaginary."
"He's very real," Gerard says, plucking Mikey's phone out of his hands. "And also going home. Where's Frank?"
"In the bathroom," Mikey says, looking mournfully at his phone. "I was telling him that hot pet shop guy was here."
"Bob," Bob says, looking directly at Gerard, while trying to hide his smile at being called hot, especially by Gerard. "My name's Bob."
Gerard smiles. "I prefer my version, but Bob's good too." He reaches out and rests his hand against Bob's arm, ignoring the way Mikey rolls his eyes. "Do you want a ride back? There's room."
Bob considers for all of a second. "If there's room for Ray...."
There is. Just.
Bob gets to ride shot gun in the car, his feet on take out wrappers and squashed coffee cups that crinkle when he moves. In the back Ray is stuck between Mikey and Frank, both of them asleep on his shoulder. Bob has to smile. He's fucking loved this night.
He doesn't love anything when he wakes up.
Too much of everything means he's hurting. Head, body, his fucking wrists. They're burning, throbbing as he eases on the splints and dry swallows pain killers before going downstairs.
It takes him an hour to feed the animals, and by the time he's finished he's carrying bowls between his forearms, doing anything so he doesn't have to flex his wrists.
Bob goes back to bed, for the first time ever leaves the sign on the door saying closed.
Bob feels better the next day. His wrists still hurt but nowhere near as bad, and he's able to eat breakfast and get showered before going downstairs.
Feeding the animals, he remembers what Ray said, how he'd enjoyed his night away from the shop. It's enough to prompt more thoughts of change, and he thinks that maybe he could paint the walls, take down the curling animal posters, at least. Small steps to finally make the shop totally his. "What do you think, hell-beasts? Blue or beige?" The kittens mew, and one of them climbs up the side of the cage. "Okay then, beige it is, you boring fucks." Sitting, Bob takes a notebook out of the drawer and starts to list the things he can afford on his limited budget. Paint for sure. Maybe new prints for the walls. Busy writing the list, he looks up when he hears the bell, unsurprised to see it's Gerard.
He's wearing his scarves, his black woollen hat and a coat that hangs to his knees. He's also with Mikey, and Bob can't help a pang of disappointment.
"Mikey said no to the birds," Gerard says, making his way to the counter.
"Some kind of Big Bird trauma?" Bob suggests, suppressing a smile when Mikey rolls his eyes and goes to wander around the shop, pausing to look at the display of studded dog collars.
Gerard leans over the counter, says softly, "It's the legs and gnarly toes. It would be like looking in a mirror for him."
"I heard that," Mikey says levelly, not looking up from the display of collars.
"You were meant to," Gerard replies, and looks down at Bob's list. "You're going to paint?" Then frowns, says, "Shit, sorry. I shouldn't have read that."
"You shouldn't have," Bob agrees, but he can't bring himself to mind. Instead he pulls back one of the sleeves of his hoodie, exposing the splint strapped to his wrist. "But yeah, I am, when these feel a little better."
Bob watches for the first hint of pity, some sign that Gerard's going to be like all the others who hadn't thought Bob could manage on his own. There's none of that. Instead Gerard rests his fingers gently on Bob's wrist, the briefest of touches before he says, "Yeah, good idea. Painting with fucked wrists would suck." He swallows then and glances at Mikey before saying quickly. "If you like, when you're ready I could help. It's kinda what I do."
Bob frowns. "You're a decorator?"
"No," Gerard says. "An artist. I draw storyboards."
"Tell me you haven't got a studio up the street," Bob says, and Gerard laughs.
"I wish. No. I work in the city."
Confused, Bob pulls down his hoodie sleeve and scratches under the splint with one finger. "But I thought you worked close? You've been calling in every day."
"I'd been visiting Mikey and Frank that first day," Gerard says. "They live close by."
"And the times after that he travelled here especially," Mikey puts in, ducking when Gerard picks up a dog chew and throws it at his head.
"Ignore him, he's an idiot," Gerard says, his cheeks flushed. "And he's not getting a present now."
"Shame," Bob says, and if he wasn't so cool and collected he'd be dancing around the room that Gerard travelled especially to see him. Bob indicates the kitten cage, where Mikey's kneeling and looking rapturous as he stares at the kittens. "Because I think I know what pet he'd like."
Gerard sighs his expression fond as he looks at Mikey. "Figures."
Bob looks at Gerard, seeing how his eyelashes have spiked due to the damp, how his nose is red and hair flattened to his head from where he's tugged off his hat. Making a quick decision, he says to Mikey. "You can go in if you want. The lock's at the top of the door." It's something that usually Bob doesn't allow, but as he watches Mikey crawl inside, laughing as a kitten crawls onto his back and another bats at his glasses, he's glad he's bent his own rules.
"You're a soft touch," Gerard says, and he looks away from Mikey to Bob. "I knew that the first time I saw you."
"Yeah?" Bob questions, remembering that first meeting and how he thought Gerard looked deranged.
"Yeah," Gerard replies. He bites at his bottom lip, opens his mouth and closes it again when Mikey groans, head close to the kitten he's holding against his chest.
"Oh my god, if you don't ask him out I will."
"Mikey," Gerard protests and runs his hand through his hair. "Little fucking brothers. Can you lock him in there?"
"I could," Bob says. "But I think a better idea would be send him home with a kitten then I can take you out for lunch."
Gerard smiles. "Great idea, but I think it might have to be two kittens."
Bob has to agree. Already Mikey looks attached to both kittens, one of them snuggling against his neck while the other chews on the toe of his shoe. "His roomie won't mind?"
"He'll be fine," Gerard says and leans over the counter, moving his hands so his fingertips are touching Bob's. "Now about that lunch?"
"Pizza do?" Bob asks, unable to stop his smile.
Gerard nods. "Pizza sounds fine."
Tags: my stories:bandom