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As Fine a Fellow as he Looks

Chapter Text

Raymond Holt could not fully picture Kevin Cozner without a dog.

His husband always had a dog, as long as Raymond had known him. When they’d met, Kevin introduced him to an elderly papillon named Isabelle, whom he’d had since he was a teenager. Despite her tiny stature and demure behaviour, Kevin sometimes called her Isabella the She-Wolf, for she was “beautiful, regal, and married to a gay man.”

Raymond chased Kevin for weeks before they officially became a thing. Then, only a month into their relationship, Raymond was there when Kevin had to make the difficult decision to let Isabelle pass. It was the first time Raymond saw Kevin cry, or lose composure in any way.

It was a bit of a trial, to be honest. Kevin pushed Raymond away after that, needing space to grieve, not ready to allow anything else into his heart lest he suffer the sting of loss once more. He did Raymond the kindness of writing a letter explaining his decision to end their courtship, and giving Raymond his blessing to pursue other men. They had not been courting for very long, after all. They hadn’t even fallen into bed with each other yet, which was almost unheard of for gay men their age, if they were to believe the gossip amongst their peers.

But Raymond had found himself unwilling to return to his pre-Kevin life so soon. He was not oblivious to his many options. Despite being a police officer, an occupation seemingly at war with the gay community of the ‘90s, he knew he was, as the kids would say, a catch. But he was picky. He wanted Kevin.

Raymond had grown up showing and receiving almost no outward affection to or from his mother. He knew, of course, that she loved him deeply. It just wasn’t their way to show it to each other in things like words or hugs or laughter or tears. That burden fell exclusively to his younger sister, Debbie.

Mother hadn’t even cried when Father died, and neither had Raymond. At least, not where the other could see. Debbie cried, wailing loudly, beating her little fists on the floor and demanding Daddy’s return. But she was only three at the time. When she got older, she barely remembered the tragedy at all.

Kevin was a grown man. Raymond had never had a connection with another man like that, especially not so fast. Accompanying a lover to a veterinarian’s office and holding him while he sobbed in anguish was not something for which Raymond had any applicable skills. But, to his surprise, he did not mind doing it. He got a glimpse of just how deep and strong a grown man’s love could be. He wanted to feel that way.

So he promptly wrote Kevin back, indicating that he would wait as long as Kevin wanted, and that Kevin should feel no pressure in responding.

“You should get him a new dog!!!” Debbie shouted excitedly on one of her wine-soaked city-and-brother visits. She was 21, and she lived like it. Down from Sarah Lawrence for the weekend, which usually meant one night of wild carousing with her high school girlfriends, one night of gay bars and heavy drinking with Ray, and one quiet, hungover Sunday lunch with Mother.

But there were no gays bars that night. Ray was too morose. “I absolutely will not give him another dog,” he slurred, addled from Debbie’s regrettably cheap wine. So addled he sat directly on the floor, in fact, decorum completely abandoned to the wind. He was 27 and depressingly single, and worst, pining for a man he’d only dated briefly.

“Why noooooot,” Debbie whined, rolling about dramatically and drunkenly on the floor.

“He is in mourning,” said Raymond. “He is not even ready to court, much less have another canine companion.”

“Maybe that’s just what he told you,” Debbie said into the floorboards. “So he wouldn’t have to dump you for real.”

Raymond said nothing.

“And it would be sooooo cute,” Debbie went on. “And romantic! Put a big velvet bow on a puppy. It’ll be like a Kay’s commercial! Every kiss begins with Kaaaay.

Then she got up, sprinted to his bathroom, and vomited.

The next morning, she sheepishly apologized for her drunken words, which was a worryingly common occurrence for Debbie. “I’m sure he wasn’t just saying that. You’re right. He probably does need space.”

Raymond, aching in the head, just stared at his plain toast, with no appetite to eat it.

Debbie bit into cold pizza she had ordered the night before and left open on the counter. “Definitely don’t get him a dog. That would be some insane romcom stalker shit.”

“I was not planning on it,” said Raymond. “I am quite inured to your disastrous romantic advice while intoxicated.”

Debbie barked a laugh. She leaned her elbows on the counter and eyed him while she ate more pizza. “You don’t have to wait, though,” she finally said. “You’ve still got your life to live. Get out there, get down with your bad self.”

Her sober romantic advice was always better than her intoxicated romantic advice, so he took it. He took his bad self on several dates, but they were all, regrettably, as Debbie would put it, duds. At least when Raymond compared them to Kevin, which he did, frequently and unfavourably.

About three months after he last saw Kevin, Raymond sat down to do the New York Times crossword puzzle, and soon realized all the answers were dog-themed. Star on the heels of Orion (Sirius,) and The most loyal in all Shibuya (Hachiko,) and Welsh guardian of babes (Gelert.) When Raymond got stuck on a clue— as fine a fellow as he looks— Raymond picked up the phone and called Kevin, without even realizing it.

It was the first of several embarrassments of knowledge when Kevin informed him that as fine a fellow as he looks meant Odysseus’ loyal dog Argos— obviously! Together, they worked out the rest of the puzzle in roughly twelve minutes before broaching the elephant in the room.

“I wasn’t ready to call you, and I was certain you’d have moved on,” said Kevin. “But I’m very glad you called me instead.”

Chapter Text

Kevin, while perhaps quick let Raymond back into his life, was still guarded about another dog. He looked after friends’ and colleagues’ dogs when they were away, which gave Raymond, hitherto a dog novice, a good crash course in how to care for them.

Raymond was surprised to learn, for instance, just how very unique and rich in personality each dog could be, even if they were all similar in so many ways.

It was in this period when Raymond’s perception of Kevin as “always with a dog” fully solidified. He was so much happier when taking care of a dog, as if that were his natural state of being.

They moved in together after about a year of courtship. Shortly thereafter, they got an unexpected roommate in the form of Kevin’s younger brother. Raymond and Kevin had bonded over both being older brothers to significantly younger siblings, but the facts of their families were otherwise very dissimilar.

Kevin’s relationship with his WASPy Connecticut parents was contentious, to say the least. They were still in regular contact with each other, but the only real safe topic of discussion was “the pups.” Kevin’s family were firmly dog people, with always at least two or three at the house, and why should their sons be any different? They had a veritable cottage industry of Scottish terriers on the go, perpetuating the next generation. When sixteen-year-old Kevin adopted his friend’s papillon puppy, Isabelle, it was his first real act of rebellion.

Kevin’s younger brother Martin, while wholly supportive of Kevin’s lifestyle, had been given a unique burden in the past years. He’d always been the overprotected baby of the family, and was made to endure living at home to receive his parents’ financial support for dentist school, which was one of the most expensive types of education, and apparently not really Martin’s idea to begin with.

When Kevin came out as gay to his already-critical parents, disastrously, with Raymond by his side, Martin took on the additional burden of now having to fulfill everything his parents had wanted out of both sons. To their view, Kevin’s corruption in the city was just further proof that Martin needed to be even more constrained.

Perhaps that’s why, when Martin saw the news story that a veritable hoard of dogs had been seized from some decrepit house, he rushed out and adopted one. Ginsberg (the name itself another dig at his parents) was a traumatized, mixed-breed, not terribly attractive behemoth, the antithesis of the refined terriers the family had kept. And he was entirely too much dog for Martin to handle.

Several fights later, many of which were surrogate fights for the bigger, ongoing fight about Martin’s lack of control in his life, and resentment for how they’d treated Kevin, Martin packed his things, muzzled his dog, and got on a train to the city.

That’s how Martin landed on their doorstep in the rain, with a dog of indeterminate breed that was almost as big as he was.

Kevin didn’t even balk. He lit up at the sight of Ginsberg. If Raymond wasn’t already sure Kevin had fallen in love with him, he’d be a little jealous.

Ginsberg needed a lot of work. He was anxious, which made him seem angry. The sight of other dogs made him furious/frightened, he was bitterly jealous of his food to the point of making himself sick, and he was wary of every new person he met. Spending the first year of his life in an unhygienic, crowded hoarder house, and the next four months of life in a house with three argumentative, if well-spoken, redheads, had not been beneficial for his young dog brain.

Kevin was a paragon of patience. He worked miracles with that dog, until no one would have even guessed that Ginsberg had ever been mistreated.

The behemoth started sleeping in their room, on his own bed. He went to work with Kevin, who positively glowed with love.

Kevin’s patience rubbed off on Raymond as well. He’d been a brash young detective, more than once disciplined for his recklessness, driven by a double hit of insecurity that made him feel the need to be the best, the fastest, the most, unquestionably flawless.

Raymond despaired of Ginsberg at first, at this slobbering beast in their home. It was up to Kevin to show him how to listen, and how to see that this aggressive, sometimes destructive living creature was really just scared and overwhelmed, had really just been made to endure too much.

Raymond wouldn’t admit it, but he took this to heart and took it work. He slowed down, reacted less, and listened more. It made him a better detective.

Martin lived with them for almost an entire year until he sorted himself out. By then, Ginsberg was thoroughly Kevin’s dog. He had long since stopped needing a muzzle, though he almost always wore the harness attached to a short handle to be quickly guided by Kevin. He tolerated other dogs enough to be able to have a dog walker when Kevin couldn’t take him to work.

When they bought their house in Park Slope, with the little back garden, Ginsberg was already well past middle aged. He was overjoyed to have a private outdoor space without any other dogs around to bother him. Kevin, in turn, was overjoyed for Ginsberg, and Raymond was happy when Kevin was happy.

To their surprise, Ginsberg made friends with the neighbour’s fluffy, imperial cat, Sonja. She made the first overtures by sitting on their shared fence at dusk and dawn, cleaning her face and taking no notice of Ginsberg as he stared up at her, enthralled. Once or twice he would make inquisitive not-quite-barking noises, and she would pointedly ignore him. Notably, Raymond thought, she never just left. It was a little like the way Kevin had made Raymond chase him during their courtship.

After a week or two, Sonja finally deigned to emerge from a hole in the fence. Ginsberg treated her with total deference, and soon the two would curl up together on hot days in the sun. In the winter, their visits were briefer, but most days still included at least one.

Over eight years after getting Ginsberg, Raymond met a six-month-old child named Jacob Peralta, who was about to become a ward of the state.

Nine years old is a respectable age for Rottweilers, which is what Ginsberg looked the most like, Raymond came to understand. Especially if they had such a hard start, like Ginsberg did. He was clearly a senior dog, visibly old and droopy and shuffling, but not suffering from any particular ailment with any particular treatment.

After much talk, Raymond and Kevin officially put in their application to adopt Jacob. It was a Saturday afternoon, and they had just sent off the paperwork. They decided to celebrate with brandy in their garden, giddy with excitement and apprehension. Ginsberg was out there, curled up with Sonja in their customary spot in the sun.

They drank and cuddled and talked and made plans, imagining what it would be like to have a child. Sonja soon went back through her hole in the fence, and Ginsberg shuffled over to them, settling himself down and crossing his paws in front of him.

After some more idle talk, Ginsberg yawned, making one of his happy, squeaky yawn sounds. They looked at him, and he stared back at them, panting happily, mouth open wide as if he was smiling.

Then he had a seizure, and died.

--

Kevin handled himself well in a crisis. He knew Ginsberg was dead. He didn't do anything drastic. They wrapped Ginsberg in his favourite dog blanket and Raymond drove them to the vet. Kevin was already crying, but it was the resigned sort of crying that Raymond had seen often at trials. Family members had a way of sniffling quietly, especially the mothers, already accepting the fate of their loved one, if not with a little resentment.

It was afterwards that it hit Kevin hard. He spent all Sunday in the back garden, staring at the spot where Ginsberg used to sleep, weeping intermittently. Sonja came out through her hole, and looked around curiously. She sat in the spot Kevin was staring at. They just looked at each other for a few minutes, and then Sonja went back to her own garden.

Raymond didn't say anything. He just sat with Kevin and replenished his tea every now and then.

"I think he knew," Kevin finally said. "He made room for us." His voice broke, and he covered his face with his hands, sobbing freely.

Raymond gathered Kevin in his arms and hugged him, far more demonstrative than they ever were in public, even in the back garden. He said nothing, because he couldn't find himself in agreement with Kevin. Ginsberg was just a dog, who had had a hard life, and was fairly old.

--

Raymond did not cry.

--

Mrs. Larson, the self-proclaimed cat lady and widow next door, Sonja's owner, treated it as if a person had died. She brought over home-made casseroles in tinfoil containers, and stayed for an hour, having tea with Kevin.

"You cry as much as you need to cry," she said, while Kevin sniffled. "I know exactly how it feels."

"It's like each one gets harder," Kevin mumbled, his voice strained. He'd lost at least three childhood terriers growing up, unless Raymond was forgetting another one.

"Oh, honey, I know," said Mrs. Larson. "It hurts so much each time. And we all loved Ginsberg. Sonja's been depressed, too."

Raymond, of course, could scarcely believe that. Sonja was a cat, and from where Raymond was standing, cats cared little for anyone but themselves.

Kevin also had Martin to lean on. Martin came over for dinner, and after the meal, Raymond quietly excused himself, letting the brothers drink and talk late into the night. They had a lot to talk about, Raymond knew. Ginsberg had been Martin's dog, too, and there was so much baggage in their family in regards to dogs and their parents and each other. Kevin never came to bed, and in the morning Raymond found them both asleep in the parlour, Kevin primly slumped on the couch, Martin sprawled out on the floor.

Raymond was still sure Ginsberg hadn't known the hour of his death.

But he would concede that it was better that this sort of thing wasn't happening when the baby was here.

--

After two months without Ginsberg, Raymond and Kevin were consumed with preparations for bringing Jacob home. There were more hoops they had to jump through than they anticipated, through their regular visits with Jacob in his foster home certainly helped with the ever-present anxiety.

Debbie came in from the Bronx one weekend, with what she called a butt-load of nursery planning materials. She screamed when they opened the door for her, and she threw her arms around both of them in succession.

"I can't believe my big brother is having a bay-beeeee!" she shouted, a wall of happy noise, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. "Oh my gaaaaaaahd! I have SO many ideas for the nursery!! I brought all those onesies I made for my baby clothes business. Ugh, Ray, I have so much to tell you about my so-called business partner Louise. Girl loves her draaaama.” Debbie stopped short, already halfway down the hall to the kitchen. "Where's Ginsy?!"

Kevin coughed uncomfortably. "I'm afraid Ginsberg passed away."

"Whaaat? KEVIN!" Debbie looked absolutely distraught, eyes already wide and wet with tears. She rushed back and threw her arms around Kevin again, squeezing him tight. "Baby, I am so sorry!"

Kevin didn't shrug his way out of her embrace. He just lowered his head.

"When did this happen?"

Now it was Raymond's turn to cough uncomfortably. "Two months ago."

Debbie turned on him sharply. "What?"

Kevin swiped his arm across his eyes.

"Ray, can I talk to you?" Debbie didn't wait for an answer, flouncing into the parlour.

"I'll take your bags to the guest room," said Kevin.

In the parlour, Debbie put her hands on his hips and stared Raymond down. “Why didn’t you tell me about Ginsy?”

Raymond, for once, was at a loss for words. He hadn’t thought Debbie and Ginsberg were that close?

“I did not think it was a pressing matter,” he decided to say.

Debbie recoiled. “Not a pressing matter? Raymond Jacob Holt, did you just try and tell me that your dog dying isn’t that big of a deal?

She stared at him. He dropped his gaze.

“You loved that dog,” she said. “Ray. Aren’t you sad?”

“Of course I’m sad,” he snapped.

Debbie looked at him mournfully. “It’s Dad all over again, isn’t it?” She sniffled, and got close to him, wrapping her arms around him and laying her head on his shoulder.

Raymond stiffened, and frowned. He thought Debbie couldn’t remember their father.

That night, Raymond sat up in bed with one of the books from their extensive pre-adoption reading list. Their adoption binder sat neatly on the side table, the day’s tasks having been dutifully checked off.

Kevin was quiet, and got into bed with his own bit of required reading.

"Are you disappointed with my response to Ginsberg's death?" Raymond asked.

Kevin looked surprised. "Heavens, no," he said. "Everyone grieves in their own way."

"Debbie seems to think I should be more demonstrative,” said Raymond.

“Well, I imagine Debbie would expect nothing less than torn garments and wailing at a tomb with ashes in your hair,” Kevin said dryly. He put his book aside, and lay down fully, smoothing the blanket over himself.

For a long time, the room was silent.

“The list of things in my life that I love is very short,” Raymond said, hesitantly. “Despite how it may seem, Ginsberg was on that list.”

“Oh, Raymond,” Kevin sighed. He patted Raymond’s hand. Took a long pause. “Ginsberg wasn’t really yours. You just lived with him. He was mine. And Martin’s, in quite an important way. But mostly mine. I loved him the most, so the weight of grief will be mostly mine. That’s the way love works.”

Raymond woke before anyone else the next morning, and had his coffee alone in the back garden.

Sonja sat on her spot on the fence, hunched over, her fluffy tail hanging down listlessly. She ignored him until he stood quite close to her. He wasn’t the type to make inane noises at an animal, so instead he said, “Good morning, Sonja.”

She looked over at him. He held out his hand for her to sniff.

Her eyes flicked down to his hand, then up at his face. Then she turned away, with the general air of someone rolling their eyes. She showed him her bottom, and hopped down the fence into her own back garden.

Chapter Text

It was almost spring when they finally brought Jacob home, and he was almost a whole year old. The adoption process was long and arduous. Karen Peralta was on board with the adoption, in the end, but she took a while to make up her mind about it, which was to be expected, Raymond supposed.

This meant that Jacob lived in a foster home for several months. It was, as these things go, a pretty fantastic foster home. The parents were experienced and committed and knew exactly what they were doing. But Jacob, barely a year old, didn't know anything.

He cried and wailed for three nights straight.

The fact that they had visited him so frequently and spent so much time with him helped, certainly. They weren't total strangers. But Jacob had gotten used to his foster home, and attached to his foster mother, and threw tantrums that Raymond hadn’t even been aware toddlers were capable of throwing.

Kevin and Raymond had prepared rigorously. They had read every book that existed on the subject, had made countless footnotes and annotations, had spoken to any knowledgable person they could find. And they had argued, a lot, about which of these theoretical parenting methods would be best.

What it came down to, in the end, was their instincts. All they could do was give Jacob attention, and affection, and hold him when he needed it, which was not as easy a condition to parse out as it seemed.

On the fourth day, after Jacob had finally, finally drifted off to sleep, Raymond found Kevin slumped in the kitchen, head in hand, not even a glass of wine at his elbow.

Kevin looked up when Raymond came in, and wiped at his face.

“You’re crying,” said Raymond, taken back.

Kevin only sighed. He had been at once so elated when Jacob finally came home, but the busyness of the past few months had not diluted his grief for Ginsberg. And now he was sleep-deprived, with a child who seemed to not want him.

"He's confused," Kevin finally said, with a resigned little shrug. “He misses his foster mother, and he probably misses his biological mother. He's grieving."

"Is this about Jacob, or is this about Ginsberg?" asked Raymond.

Kevin looked away, and was quiet a moment. “I love Jacob,” he said, his voice low. “I know the love is there. But it’s raw, and it hurts. I think it hurts for him, too.” He gazed up at Raymond forlornly. “Unfortunately, I do not know where that leaves you.”

Raymond knelt before his husband, and put his hands on Kevin’s dear waist. “It leaves me with the honour of supporting you in whatever way you need me.”

Weary as they were, they kissed.

Despite Kevin’s fear, despite the rawness of his love, Jacob attached to him a lot faster than he did to Raymond. He was still wary of Raymond, often wailing in the exact same way he had when Raymond first held him at the crime scene where they'd met.

"Make eye contact with him," Kevin would advise, when it was Raymond's turn to change the toddler's diaper.

And while Jacob was very much a toddler, crawling fast and sometimes even walking-- walking as far away from Raymond as he could get-- he acted in a lot of ways like he was younger. They had read about this, and were academically prepared for it, and knew that it might persist for a long time.

He had been hitting all his milestones at the foster family, and had a respectable vocabulary of about eight distinct words. But he wouldn’t say as many as eight words in his new home, not at first. He said mostly things like “Up,” and “Play!” But mostly "NOOOOOO!!!!" in an ear-piercing shriek.

Kevin's parental leave was longer than Raymond's, which was, to put it mildly, pathetically short. But part of Raymond was relieved to get back to work, to get away from what now seemed like a too-small house with a too-small child and a perpetual mess.

This new form of separation, however, set Jacob back again. He lost his paltry words, and would wail in seeming unending anguish. He was fickle, sometimes reaching out to Raymond to be held and bounced and cuddled, and soon again struggling and pushing away. It took him another two weeks to get used to the fact that Raymond would go away for long stretches of the day.

Raymond found himself, sometimes, getting irrationally irate. This would’ve been easier if they hadn’t had to wait so long. Jacob wouldn’t have gotten so attached to a family in-between, wouldn’t have to have been so disrupted and confused. And he found that, as a new father, this feeling of righteous resentment was stronger than anything he’d felt remotely like it.

But the resentment wouldn’t help him achieve anything, would it?

It was like Ginsberg, Raymond had to tell himself. It had taken over six months for Ginsberg to entirely adjust to his new life, to trust them, and to know he wasn't in danger. He could hardly expect a child to adjust as quickly as a dog, could he?

Jacob did adjust quickly, though, quicker than six months. He was full of love and eager to give it, once he'd finished grieving for his foster home. He was still behind in some ways, and when it came to affection and discipline, they almost treated him as if he were still a newborn, with nothing but gentle tones, and gentle touch, and lots and lots of cuddling.

Cuddling didn't come naturally to Raymond. Kevin wasn't the most exuberantly affectionate person around, either, which is one of the things Raymond initially liked about him, but it was, for whatever reason, easier for him to be physically affectionate towards Jacob.

Kevin encouraged Raymond. Eye contact whenever they interacted, lots of gentle touches on the arm and back and head, and holding and hugging whenever Jacob was receptive. It was Raymond's nature to resist such directives, but given that Kevin's advice was backed up by all the reading they both had done, he put in the effort.

He was rewarded when Jacob started warming up to him, too. Soon they had a morning routine whereby Raymond would feed Jacob in the early morning before work. They still sometimes bottle fed him in their arms as if he was a baby, as their adoption books had advised for a toddler with prior attachment disruptions, though he was more frequently tolerant of holding the bottle and feeding himself. Raymond would feed Jacob, and then carry him downstairs and out into the garden.

Jacob would babble contentedly, enjoying the affection. He'd reach out and touch whatever he could touch, talking all the while. He was up to roughly thirty distinct words now, which was, according to Raymond's understanding, a superior vocabulary.

(Though Debbie said she thought Raymond was hearing words where there was just babble. She especially disagreed that Jacob had ever said "Haydn" when they were enjoying some music in the parlour one evening while she was visiting. But Raymond, hearing the request, had put on Haydn's Oboe Concerto in C Major, and Jacob had toddled about the room, babbling excitedly at Debbie as if telling her all about the piece.

"He likes the oboe," said Raymond.

Debbie didn't even respond, just giving him a dramatic eye roll and a flick of her hand. She was obviously silenced by the truth of his statement.)

One morning in the garden, Sonja was back on her perch on the fence. She had been scarce during the winter, after Ginsberg's death, with little to attract her to visit the Cozner-Holt family. Now, she had the same disinterested look on her face as usual as she watched Raymond carry his son around the garden.

When Jacob saw her, he reached out, flexing both hands. "Caa, caa!"

"Yes, Jacob, that's a cat." Raymond brought Jacob over, stepping slowly, giving the cat a lot of time to retreat. "Her name is Sonja."

"Caaaa," Jacob grinned.

"Gently now," Raymond cautioned.

He eased Jacob just close enough that the toddler could barely touch her fur. Sonja didn't even twitch, looking at Jacob curiously.

Jacob giggled at the feeling of soft fur. Raymond brought him another half inch closer, reaching out to pet Sonja himself, to show Jacob how to do it. “You see? Gently."

Sonja sat up and pushed her nose into Raymond's palm, purring.

Jacob mimicked Raymond closely, putting his tiny hand against Sonja's fur for a pet.

Sonja watched him stroke her clumsily, and probably ineffectually. She leaned down to sniff at his hand, and then gave it a little lick.

Jacob shrieked with delighted laughter. Sonja put her ears back and scurried a few feet away from them, still on the fence, but out of reach. She hurriedly cleaned the spot where Jacob had petted her.

Jacob babbled something that had the cadence of a sentence, but wasn’t quite words. He clutched at Raymond’s shoulders, and ended the sentence with a repetition of “Da, Da, Da, Da!”

The boy’s laughter was infectious. And Raymond had heard so many anguished, fearful sobs from him in the past few months, that the sound of such unbridled joy almost undid him.

Sometimes in the evenings, Kevin and Raymond, weary as they were, would stand over their son’s crib and watch him sleep.

“Raymond,” Kevin breathed one night. “His little curls just murder me.”

Raymond chuckled. “Me, as well.”

Kevin leaned over the cradle and brushed Jacob’s curls back, giving him a gentle kiss on the forehead. “You may blame Aphrodite, soft as she is,” he whispered. “She has almost killed me with love for that boy.”

“Sappho,” said Raymond, as they left Jacob’s room. “Interesting choice.”

Kevin lay his head on Raymond’s shoulder. “I am too tired of think of anything else.”

It was easy for others to tell how their family came to be, when they were out and about with each other. Kevin and Raymond were well-known in the neighbourhood, and Jacob looked not a whit like either of them. Kevin had no problems when he was out alone with Jacob. Raymond didn’t have any problems, per se, but he caught the odd look. Even then, there were more unfamiliar sights to see in Park Slope, and they were left alone.

While Jacob kept finding new ways to disrupt the routine they stubbornly tried to adhere to— a sudden appearance of night terrors, a sudden fear of the bath tub, a sudden dislike of any fruits or vegetables— they did their best to make daily moments of family time a priority, and on Sundays, to take a family day out.

Jacob was a charmer, and easily won the hearts of all the neighbourhood ladies. His curls and long lashes were oft complimented, and his eagerness to engage in babbling play conversations with everyone and anyone was always well received.

To Kevin’s delight, he was naturally good with animals.

There were friendly dogs and friendly dog owners in the park on Sundays, and over several weekends, Kevin introduced Jacob to many dogs. Jacob, by now an old hand at gently petting Sonja, who had resumed her visits to their back garden when the sun was in the right spot, was just as gentle with the new dogs. But when they showed an eagerness to run and play with him, he was overjoyed, and so was Kevin.

One such afternoon, when Jacob was all tuckered out after an afternoon in the park and sleeping soundly in his stroller as they walked back home, Kevin smiled coquettishly and suggested they get tea at one of their favourite bistros. They hadn’t had such a date-like encounter since they had brought Jacob home, and the bistro had their patio out, complete with flowers on the table, and a bowl of water on the ground for the dogs.

Jacob napped right through it, even after Kevin fussed about with the stroller to make sure he was in the shade.

“Martin’s new girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend’s dog had puppies a few weeks ago,” he said, after some very pleasant small talk about things that weren’t Jacob.

“Oh?”

“They’re corgis,” said Kevin. “You like corgis.”

“Do I?” Raymond sat back and studied Kevin’s face, which was lighting up in a way it hadn’t in a long time, because it only lit up that way when dogs were involved.

“Yes, you said to me in Paris that you liked their fluffy bottoms.”

“I am quite sure I said no such thing.”

“I'm quite sure you did,” said Kevin, crossing one leg over the other with distinction. “They’re about five weeks old. In a few weeks they’ll be ready to leave their mother.”

“So you think we should adopt a puppy?” Raymond clarified. “But surely Jacob is a bit young.”

“Jacob is already good with animals,” said Kevin. “And I had dogs at his age. Younger, even. Pets are good for children.”

“Sometimes,” said Raymond.

“Sometimes,” conceded Kevin. “But I’m more than experienced in raising puppies. And our once-beautiful house is already a mess, so we might as well have a puppy now.” He looked down at their son, smiling softly.

“I just worry,” said Raymond, “that it’s a bit fast. After Ginsberg. For you.”

Kevin blinked, and kept his gaze on Jacob, as his smile faded. He said nothing for a while, but he swallowed, and Raymond knew. He knew how grief was like a sore in one’s mouth, forgotten for a time, then remembered with a searing stab. It came unannounced, then left again, unpredictable in all ways except its misery.

“Jacob met you when he needed you,” Kevin said, with a refined little sniffle. “And Ginsberg arrived when he needed us. Now there’s puppies. Families do not tend to happen on a timeline, do they?”

Kevin put his hand on the table, and Raymond put his next to it, almost touching, a rare public display of affection.

Kevin didn’t have to give it such a hard sell. Raymond would do anything for Kevin. And he knew that for Kevin, their family would only really be complete if they had a dog.

Chapter Text

Martin’s new girlfriend was an idiot, and the look on Kevin’s face indicated that he agreed, but Raymond still kept the sentiment to himself.

Her ex-boyfriend’s corgi, Blossom, was a dog they had adopted and raised together, so it was still sort of her dog. This made Martin a step-father, of sorts, and all three had been involved in watching over Blossom’s pregnancy like one of these new-age triad families that were springing up all over Brooklyn.

In the last two weeks, between work and Jacob, Raymond had scarcely any time to research corgis as much as he would have liked. But his speed reading had come in handy, at least a little. He saw immediately that Blossom was a "mis-mark," with too much white in her coat, unsuitable for showing, and that a serious breeder would not have bred her. But Martin's ex-girlfriend's old boyfriend wasn’t a breeder. He had simply allowed her to have relations with a neighbour's corgi, and her puppies were all healthy and beautiful, if not themselves show-worthy.

Blossom had a litter of four. Four red/yellow/white, fluffy, wriggling, yipping little things, who, to an unread simpleton, might all look alike. But Raymond could tell the differences.

There was the first born, Brie, who took after her mother in her classic red, yellow, and white colouring, but with a few too many splotches of white for her to compete on the dog show circuit. Then there was her brother Brioche, the only male in the litter, whose slight smoky overtones to his red markings indicated that his father may have been just as "mis-marked" as his mother, though he was certainly a handsome little fellow.

The runt of the litter was Crouton, a very excitable and yippy female who had almost perfect colour patterns... but not compared to Cheddar, the third-delivered puppy, and in Raymond's view, the closest that any of these puppies got to corgi perfection.

Martin's new girlfriend didn't seem to care about any of these variations. "Aren't they, like, soooo cute, Kevin?" She fairly screeched. "Here!" She grabbed one seemingly at random, and plopped the poor thing into Kevin's hands.

The puppy, who had as good-natured a smile on her face as any puppy has had, gave Kevin some affectionate licks. "She is quite cute," Kevin agreed.

"Pup! Pup!" Jacob cried, trying to reach up from his stroller.

"That one's Cheddar," said the new girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. He knelt by Blossom's side, while Blossom watched her puppies frolic and thumped her tail contentedly, but he kept a wary eye on Martin and the girlfriend. They were cooing over Brie, and making rather insipid noises at her.

"Daaaaa," Jacob whined. "Pup!!!!"

"Yes, Jacob," Raymond said. He didn't wish to let Jacob run amok in a stranger's apartment, no matter how clean and well-appointed it was. There were simply too many unknown unknowns.

So he and Kevin knelt by Jacob's stroller, and Kevin set Cheddar on the ground. She snuffled around the stroller while Jacob wriggled and babbled. Then she propped herself up on his legs and sniffed at his face. Jacob laughed, and something in Raymond's chest surged.

Kevin gave Cheddar a gentle pat. "Well, Raymond," he said. "I think we've found the one."

--

There had never been any question about whose dog Ginsberg really was. He was Kevin's, entirely. With Cheddar it wasn't quite like that.

It was Kevin that made the arrangements with his brother's new girlfriend's ex-boyfriend, certainly; it was Kevin that found the vet to bring Cheddar for her first check-ups and vaccinations. It was he who decided on the best dog foods, who purchased all the beds and crates and toys and anything else she might need (the things they had left over from Ginsberg were often not the appropriate size, and it was Kevin who donated those.)

It was also Kevin who made sure that Cheddar got all the training and attention and exercise she needed, and Cheddar, in turn, adored Kevin. Like Jacob, it took her longer to come around to Raymond. If he'd been unprepared for a small child, he was just as unprepared for a small puppy, and often the noise undid him, driving him to take long walks by himself for solace.

So for the first few months, or even the first year, it seemed that Cheddar, too, would be primarily Kevin's dog, and not Raymond's.

But of course the truth was that she was really Jacob's.

The two soon became inseparable. They both had inexhaustible energy, and would spend vast amounts of time chasing each other in the back garden. When Sonja came by for her infrequent visits, she was bombarded by an exuberant ball of youthful energy on two sides, and she didn't often stay very long.

Because of Jacob’s chaotic early life, and of the slight delays he'd experienced, Raymond and Kevin had kept him at home for longer than was considered normal in their peer group. They had tried to bring him to daycare when he was two, but it didn’t work out. At three, he was still at home all day. They had to make an effort to socialize him to other young children via play dates set up through their work colleagues. (Well, Kevin's work colleagues, primarily. Raymond's colleagues were certainly kinder towards his personal life than they had been in previous years, but Kevin was still largely... uncomfortable with them.)

Mostly, Kevin worked from home, on a reduced schedule, so Jacob could get the extra attention he needed. This meant Cheddar also grew up to be incredibly well-trained, and with her around to entertain their son, Kevin had a bit more time to work.

They all really got along without Raymond there most of the time, to be completely honest.

Eventually, the privilege afforded to Kevin through his work ran out, and he was obliged to return to longer hours in the office. This led to a terse and difficult discussion where it was agreed, grudgingly on Raymond's part, that he would work the night shift until Jacob was "caught up" enough that they could put him in daycare.

They had a specialist that the pediatrician had recommended. She agreed that waiting two months until a new daycare cohort started was the best thing, with therapeutic playgroups in the meantime, but mostly lots of one-on-one at home with his fathers.

While Raymond was hesitant about this temporary shift, his superiors were quite pleased with it. They always needed good officers for night shift, and they all wanted to see less of Raymond.

He vociferously resented this turn of events. He'd toiled ceaselessly over the years to build a career in a field where nobody wanted him, and making himself less visible to his superiors for the sake of his child was a hard pill to swallow. He was trepidatious of a spiralling career.

Raymond took pride, however, in keeping his cards close to his chest, and hardly anyone at work would have noticed. But some people did have a way of reading him. Especially noxious, slimy toads like Madeleine Wuntch.

"You're like a whining little weasel,” she sneered. “A face like the ass-end of a jackass. Too hard to choose between work and family? Maybe you aren't cut out for this, toots. But thanks for handing me all that plum face time with the boss.” What a noxious, slimy toad.

On the specialist’s advice, Jacob was in a twice-weekly playgroup facilitated by the Columbia University daycare, but rather counterintuitively, those two days were about all he could take of other children at this age.

While Jacob had an impressive vocabulary, and charmed every adult around him, when he was with other children his own age, his developmental delays became more apparent. Much as Jacob loved meeting new people, and making new friends, and talking, and playing, he could quite easily turn on a dime and become overwhelmed. He could throw massive, sometimes destructive tantrums. Sharing and taking turns were also problems for him— perhaps a rational response after losing his original home, and then his caring foster home, all before he was twelve months old.

The two days he was at playgroup are the two days Ray would catch up on sleep and exercise. He'd come home from work just as Kevin was leaving with Jacob and Cheddar, as the dog would stay at Kevin’s office with him on those days. Raymond would eat the breakfast Kevin had left for him, and enjoy precious, quiet alone time. Later, he’d pick Jacob up from the playgroup, and they'd both sleep until Kevin came home. Then Raymond would keep sleeping until it was time for a nutrient bar, and work.

The days Jacob wasn't in his playgroup, Raymond would come home from a long night of work, eat the meal Kevin had prepared for him, and then spend the next eight hours entertaining a very exhausting child who was the textbook defintion of the terrible twos, even though he was three.

Jacob had grown exponentially in size. So had Cheddar, though they were both still small enough to hold— and luckily, Cheddar always would be. She was an adult now, if still young and playful and outright silly. She had naughty little habits involving sneaking food, and getting into Kevin's sweaters when she felt he wasn't paying her enough attention.

But compared to Jacob, she was the very model of good behaviour. And, as a herding dog, she was protective and watchful of him, always nearby to herd him away from danger. So it wasn’t dealing with the dog that wore Raymond out when he was on night shift.

Mostly what Raymond found exhausting was that Jacob didn't enjoy any kind of quiet, sedentary types of play. He mostly loved to play make-believe, acting out elaborate scenarios that made little sense to any adult listening. Cheddar was always an eager participant, tolerating it when Jacob would try to dress her up.

"Jakey is knight," Jacob proclaimed one afternoon. He wore a little plastic knight’s helm, and waved a rubber toy sword. Both were from a cheap set that Debbie had purchased for him, despite Raymond's deliberately stated rule that there would be no petroleum by-products in his child's toy chest. Jacob pointed at Cheddar, who had one of Kevin's pink pashmina scarves draped loosely around her. "Prin-thess Cheddar." Brandished his sword at Raymond. "Daddy ogre."

"An ogre?" Raymond asked, astonished.

Jacob nodded emphatically.

"Why aren't I the king? Or at the very least, some kind of vizier?" Raymond asked in mock offense.

Jacob shook his head, which meant he swivelled his entire body from side to side. "Ogre!"

"Very well," Raymond sighed. "I suppose I have captured the fair Princess Cheddar?" He sat on the floor in front of Cheddar, still fairly towering over his son.

"Uh-huh," said Jacob.

"And how do you plan on rescuing her?"

"Jakey slay ogre!" Jacob shouted. He rushed at Raymond.

Raymond let Jacob collide into him, then very gently pushed him back.

Jacob flailed. "Jakey slay ogre!" he shouted.

"But I am a very mighty ogre," Raymond intoned. "I'm impervious to little boys with little swords."

Jacob's jaw dropped, and Raymond tensed for a tantrum.

Their specialist had said they should encourage more collaborative play in Jacob. While he was incredibly creative and inventive, he was also inordinately bossy, and at his playgroup, this inability to let other children have their say in their play sessions sometimes ended in disaster. Raymond and Kevin were supposed to gently encourage Jacob to have more give and take.

Mostly, Raymond had been too tired on his days with Jacob to do anything besides half-heartedly let Jacob play out his make believe games around him, and do whatever Jacob said. But, though it hurt to essentially deny Jacob's wishes like this, he knew he had to try at least once this week.

"Perhaps," Raymond said, softening his tone a bit, “brave Sir Jacob can find a different way to defeat the ogre."

Jacob's brow furrowed. He bit his lip. "Ummmmmm," he hummed loudly.

At Raymond's elbow, Cheddar nuzzled up against him, and gave him a lick.

"Ah!" Raymond startled, pulling his arm away.

Jacob lit up. "Daddy ogre ticklish!"

"No, no," Raymond put on airs. "Please, whatever you do, do not tickle the ogre!"

Jacob tossed his sword to the floor and lunged at Raymond, tickling him with his tiny, sticky hands.

"Aaahhh," Raymond said. He gently leaned back, and Cheddar wriggled out from under him. "Not the tickling.”

Jacob giggled madly as Cheddar crawled up on top of Raymond and licked his face.

"Not the princess, too," said Raymond. "Ah. I have lost control of the situation. You have vanquished me."

Jacob fairly wore himself out from laughing. When Raymond gathered him in a hug and kissed his cheek, Jacob squeezed back.

Later, after Jacob went down for his nap, Raymond tidied up, and took some time for himself. He let Cheddar into the garden and had a bite to eat, then went upstairs to sleep.

At some point, Cheddar nosed her way past the door. She had her own little bed in the master bedroom, and Kevin usually did not allow her in their marriage bed. But into their marriage bed she crept, snuggling up close to Raymond, and he was too tired to shoo her away.

"Mmm," he said instead. "Hey, girl."

He heard Kevin arrive home. Heard him and Jacob in Jacob's room. Heard the door creak open as he knew Kevin, with Jacob on his hip, was looking in on him.

"Look," Kevin said. “See how much Daddy loves Cheddar?”

Raymond, still too tired to move or respond or open his eyes, realized that he'd put his arm around Cheddar as she slept beside him.

--

When Jacob was four years old, he attended a nursery school at the university’s teaching college regularly. He didn't have his world-ending tantrums nearly so often, enjoyed increasingly challenging puzzles and also, to his father's consternation, "pranks." Pranks is in quotation marks because a four-year-old’s prank was, in Raymond’s experience, nonsensical more than anything else.

Jacob ate dinner with them in the early evenings, though still usually some scaled down kid-sized version of it. He didn't even have a booster seat, just sat in a regular chair (with some rubber attachments on the legs to make it less likely to fall over) like a "big kid." Though watching him climb up and down from it was thoroughly heartbreaking.

"Where do I come from?" he asked one night.

Kevin and Raymond looked at each other. They had a policy, from early on, to answer any questions Jacob had, about anything, as truthfully as possible. In that light, he already knew the basics of where babies come from. They hadn't elaborated much further, waiting for him to figure out if he wanted to know more details.

Hedging his bets, Raymond said, "You come from Brooklyn," which earned him a terse look from Kevin.

Jacob had inherited Kevin’s terse looks, but his version was a dramatic eye-roll worthy of a child ten years his senior. "I know," he huffed. "Where's my mommy?"

Kevin and Raymond shared another quick, speechless glance. They had talked about this. Frequently. Raymond supposed they'd rather hoped it simply... wouldn't come up?

"Babies come from mommies," Jacob said. "You're both daddies."

"Yes," said Kevin. "That's correct." He glanced up at Raymond again.

Raymond knew exactly where Karen Peralta was, at that very moment: rehab. It was not her first attempt.

However, honesty.

"Your mother was very young when she had you," he said. "And she loves you very much, but she was not ready to be a mother."

"And we wanted a child very badly," Kevin jumped in. "So we adopted you."

"Like we adopted Cheddar?" asked Jacob.

"Yes," said Kevin.

“I didn’t grow in your belly,” Jacob clarified.

“No,” said Kevin. “But you grew in our hearts.”

"Okay." Jacob dug back into his food, seemingly satisfied, and not at all touched by Kevin’s poeticism.

--

They had discussed whether to spay Cheddar at the outset, and had decided to let her have the chance at one litter. They had gotten so much fulfilment from being parents, after all, why would they deny her the same?

Raymond didn't notice much of Cheddar’s first heat. It was around the time he was studying for (and passing) the lieutenant’s exam, shortly after his tenure on the night shift. (His consideration was bolstered by some night shift heroics he had performed, with the grudging help of Madeleine Wuntch, the details of which are the stuff of legends and outside the scope of this telling.)

During Cheddar’s second heat, she received a lot of attention from males, so they had to keep her inside. When they did take her out to do her business, and the local boys lost their minds, Raymond realized that the phrase cat calling was entirely inaccurate.

Kevin said it was best practice to wait for at least two heats to pass. "Then if she has a suitor she's interested in, we'll let her have a chance. And after that, we'll spay her." Kevin had no interest in being some kind of backyard breeder. He wouldn't go out and find a gentleman caller for Cheddar, as there were plenty of well-kept dogs in the neighbourhood. He'd simply only allow the ones that were in good health, and were at least compatible breeds, if not corgis themselves.

Eventually, on Cheddar's third heat, when Jacob was four years old, she found herself a suitor in a neighbour's dog, Karate, a toy Australian Shepherd. He was a handsome fellow, with dashing black spots and piercing blue eyes, just like Kevin’s.

Karate was a little younger than Cheddar, and just as playful and careful with Jacob when they encountered each other on walks. At the dog park, Karate and Cheddar had become fast friends, and clearly enjoyed each other’s company.

When Cheddar’s heat progressed to the appropriate stage, Karate's owner brought him over, and he wasted no time with pleasantries. He was all over her, like the dog he was.

Luckily this happened while Jacob was napping. The first time Raymond had seen dogs mating, he was about ten years old, and they were street dogs. It was neither romantic or pleasant to witness, and quite honestly, neither was this.

Cheddar was confirmed to be pregnant within a few weeks, and a month after her relations with Karate, Kevin was able to feel the puppies in her belly.

"Here, Jacob," he said. "Do you want to feel the puppies? Gently."

Jacob, wide-eyed, palpated Cheddar's belly, while she gazed up at him good-naturedly. "They're moving!"

"Yes," Kevin said proudly. "I think there's two."

"How will they get out?" Jacob wondered.

When she's ready, she'll push them out,” said Kevin.

"Like a poop?" Jacob talked a lot about poop since he had been toilet trained, as he talked a lot about everything he learned or heard about.

"No," Kevin said. A brief glance at Raymond. Jacob knew that babies grew inside mommies, but not any other details.

So, concisely and gently, and using real terms instead of euphemisms, Kevin explained that Cheddar had a pouch inside her tummy called a womb, and a hole called a vagina, and when she was ready, the puppies would come out of her vagina.

Jacob lost interest pretty early on in this sparse explanation, opting instead to give Cheddar a hug and sing "Puppies, puppies, puppies!"

--

Cheddar selected the kitchen pantry as her den, and Kevin, with Jacob’s “help,” constructed a whelping box to keep the puppies contained, utilizing a baby gate behind the door of the pantry.

As Cheddar’s pregnancy continued and it was no longer feasible for her to go to work with Kevin, and when she needed to be kept away from other dogs, she spent her days with Mrs. Larson. Sonja the cat was less wary of Cheddar now, as Cheddar was no longer the exuberant puppy she once was, and Mrs. Larson reported that once she even helped clean behind Cheddar’s ears for her.

Soon Cheddar was too pregnant to even go next door, so Mrs. Larson would check in on her throughout the day while the family was at work and nursery school. Cheddar, at this point, was not much in the mood for visitors, and liked to stay in her pantry den by herself.

Kevin observed that Cheddar was very close one night, after taking her temperature. But with his office hours already booked up with appointments, as important thesis check-in deadlines were looming, he could not stay home from work.

Sure enough, Mrs. Larson called him in the late Friday morning that Cheddar was fully in labour. She knew enough to confidently look after Cheddar during her delivery, but Kevin, he expressed later to Raymond, was wracked with guilt that he was missing it.

Luckily, by the time Kevin was home, no puppies had actually made an appearance.

Raymond went to pick up Jacob from daycare.

“Where’s Papa?” Jacob asked curiously as Raymond strapped him into his carseat. The boy was very, very sensitive to changes in routine.

“He is with Cheddar,” said Raymond. He knelt down and caught Jacob’s eye. “The puppies are coming.”

Jacob gasped. “Puppies!!! Puppies!!” He chattered and exclaimed his excitement for the entire drive.

One of the puppies was out when they got home, already cleared of his amniotic sac and placenta. The wriggling, wet, blind thing snuffled around near Cheddar’s teat. For her part, Cheddar lay on her side, panting.

Jacob squealed, running up to the gate in the front of the pantry. “Cheddar!”

“Shh, Jacob,” Kevin shushed, gently drawing the boy back. “Don’t touch. We have to be quiet and give her space.”

“But,” Jacob whined. “Puppies!”

They sat at the kitchen table, Jacob on Kevin’s knee and straining to get to Cheddar. Kevin and Raymond spoke about their days, and about the potential adoptive families they had found for the puppies.

Soon the panting turned to more hard labour, however, and the second puppy started to make his appearance.

“Ew!” Jacob cried.

“All right,” said Raymond, taking his son from Kevin. “Let’s go eat a snack in the living room, and then have a bath.”

“Why aren’t they cuuuuute?” Jacob implored.

The two male puppies were delivered without complication. The next day, when the puppies looked much cleaner after a thorough cleaning from Cheddar, and Cheddar was well-rested and well-fed, their family watched them suckle in their warm little den. Raymond held Jacob to keep him from leaning on the whelping gate, or getting too close.

“What are their names?” Jacob asked.

Raymond looked over at Kevin.

“Well, there’s two,” said Kevin. “Why don’t you each name one?”

Jacob gasped in excitement.

“Very well,” said Raymond. “I shall name mine Richard, after the great Richard Harris.”

Jacob squirmed.

“That’s a good name,” said Kevin. “Which one’s Richard?”

“I don’t know,” said Raymond. “The one on the left.”

“What about yours, Jacob?”

“I don’t know yet!” Jacob cried in a panic.

It took him a full 24 hours to name his puppy. Raymond was prepared for something ridiculous like Batman or Super Dog, and indeed Jacob did have a very poorly scrawled list of names that included both Batman and Super Dog, and Jake Junior. But Kevin and Raymond were surprised when Jacob settled on Daniel Striped Tiger.

“Like Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood!” Jacob explained, needlessly.

Raymond’s mother had dropped off a box of old VHS tapes from his childhood, when she had taped countless hours of Mr. Rogers and other children’s shows. He later utilized these tapes when looking after Debbie, in the wake of their father’s death, when their mother was working and studying long hours. He hadn’t realized Her Honour had kept them, until she dropped them off.

They had to buy a VCR, and the whole show was very slow for Jacob, but he adored the parts with Daniel Striped Tiger. “Papaaaa,” he’d often whine, or “Daaadddyy! Go to the cat!”

“All right then,” said Kevin. “A dog named after a cat. Daniel it is.”

The puppies cried a lot until they got the temperature in the pantry just right, by adjusting the thermostat and the amount of time they left the pantry door wide open.

"Did I cry a lot?" Jacob inquired.

"You cried like the dickens," said Raymond, which made Jacob laugh.

They spent a lot of time those first few days just watching the puppies, before it was safe for humans to touch them.

"Did I do that with my mommy?" Jacob asked. Richard and Daniel were both enthusiastically suckling, as Cheddar licked them clean.

"Yes," said Raymond. "I believe so." He actually didn't know, but it felt like an inconsequential detail. Jacob's question seemed a bit bigger than wanting to know the bare facts, but Raymond wasn't entirely sure in what way.

Jacob shifted a bit, and then leaned against Raymond for a cuddle. "Will she miss her puppies when they go?" He’d heard Raymond and Kevin speak often about the puppies’ forever homes.

“I am honestly not sure," said Raymond. "Maybe a little. But her puppies will be grown up. When babies grow up, they move away from their parents and to their own families."

Jacob seemed to consider this. "I don't wanna move 'way," he declared.

Raymond couldn't help a wry smile. "Well that won't be for many, many years. You're still very small."

"No 'm not," Jacob pouted. Lately he had been insisting very loudly that he was a big kid.

Raymond didn't argue.

The puppies grew up regrettably fast. They were exceedingly beautiful puppies, a perfect blend of Cheddar’s corgi shape— with her quizzical face, triangular ears and exquisitely fluffy bottom— and Karate’s dashing white coat with black splotches and dots, and his piercing blue eyes.

Jacob spent a lot of time with Richard and Dan. Ever mindful of Kevin's instructions, he was unceasingly gentle and considerate of them. Any issues he might have had sharing or taking turns with other children seemed nonexistent now, as the puppies’ needs always came first, even if it was only after a gentle reminder from his fathers. Jacob would often crawl around with them on the floor, mimicking their whining and barking, and occasionally meowing for some reason. He even tried to get into their crates with them, but Kevin soon put a stop to that.

Richard and Dan started getting vaccinated at six weeks, so they could be in the garden, and Sonja could come over and tentatively sniff at them.

Cheddar was excited to see her feline friend after her maternity leave, and so was Jacob. But Sonja, who wasn't exactly a spring chicken herself at this point, didn't have much time for them. She leapt back up on the garden fence, and watched the puppies and Jacob playing in the garden. Most afternoons when they were outside, she would be up there, watching them, her tail gently swishing back and forth.

Around the same time as Sonja’s visits resumed, Karate’s owner brought him over. This was to start a cautious puppy socialization, but Karate didn't seem interested in them. He might've been able to tell by smell that they were his offspring, but they were still too little for boisterous play, and Cheddar still too tired and watchful of her puppies for much roughhousing with Karate. He seemed put out at this turn of events, and wasn’t interested in adjusting his behaviour.

(Later, after Cheddar was spayed, Karate lost all interest in her wholesale. At the dog park he would instead sniff around some other basic bitch. Typical straight man, thought Raymond.)

--

Kevin opted to keep the puppies for ten weeks instead of eight. It was a fine line, he said, between keeping them too briefly and failing to socialize them, but their father was a toy breed, and they tended to do better with some more time with mother.

"But I'll listen to Cheddar, as well," he said. "Surely she'll have something to say about the matter."

Since the puppies had been born, they had been looking for prospective families for them. Raymond said he would inquire at work, but soon found himself judging everybody he spoke to about the puppies and finding them wanting. Puppies had, at first, been an abstract idea, a fact of biology that would happen to Cheddar eventually. But now that the puppies were here, and he had held them in his arms and felt their warmth, and had seen Jacob delightedly chase after them in the garden, he was hesitant to send them away. He knew that the whole point of having puppies was to give them away, but he did not find himself eager to do it.

Kevin was more pragmatic, even while his love for dogs had always been greater and more obvious than Raymond's. "It will hurt, certainly," he said. "But they can't stay here. We don't have room for three dogs, and I have a feeling Cheddar is going to start resenting them. She's used to being the centre of attention. After Jacob, of course."

Through his extensive network of dog people, Kevin found a suitable prospective family interested in adopting the unusual breed of Australian Shephard and Corgi. It was a couple with one child about Jacob's age, who were experienced with dogs, and had a young adult dog of indeterminate mutt background who they thought would be a good "mentor" to a puppy.

Plus, they had a cousin upstate who was interested as well, which meant they would take both puppies and deliver one upstate for them. Jacob, regardless of Kevin’s explanations, was insistent that the puppies should stay together, and this cousin solution seemed to placate him. (Though quietly, Raymond doubted that the upstate cousins would be seeing the city cousins often enough for the puppies to actually remember each other.)

Mr. Boyle brought over the dog, Molly, and his young son, Charles, to meet the puppies before deciding. Boyle was a fairly doughy and charmless man, and not much of a conversationalist. But he was certainly dog competent, and very dog knowledgeable. He even made his own dog food, which Kevin really liked.

They talked for an interminably long time about how Mr. Boyle sourced organic organ meats at the farmer’s market for his homemade dog foods. “Of course I use them myself, too! Little Chuckie loves liver.”

Molly was a well-trained dog who was friendly and deferential to Cheddar in her home territory. She took great interest in the puppies, and was very gentle with them.

It certainly didn't hurt that Charles and Jacob got along so well, either.

At this point, after learning to share and play better with other children, Jacob had many "friends" at his daycare. But they were really just people he talked to every day, much in the same way a colleague at work would be one's "friend."

Raymond, of course, couldn't remember being four years old, but he never had anything like a childhood "best" friend. He made friends slowly and rarely and, honestly, didn't often feel the need to do it. He didn't care to recall if he ever felt left out or alienated, and he did not feel that this lack of childhood friends hurt his general outcome.

Jacob, on the other hand, thrived off interactions with other children, and actively sought them out, which was one of the reasons his previous problems with collaborative play caused him such distress. He would get so lonely if forced to play by himself.

When at the playground, or any other function with strange children, he made it a point to try and talk to every child there, which was, as far as Raymond knew, not exactly normal for a child his age. He was certainly not trying to do it out of kindness or politeness. He simply couldn't fathom the idea of being around another child and not playing with them. It was hard for him to comprehend when other children would ignore him and wander away, though it only took once or twice for his fathers to tell him to leave another child alone for Jacob to learn to respect their boundaries.

Jacob had never met another pre-schooler as easily charmed and biddable as Charles. He let Jacob show him the puppies, and the garden, and Sonja, and his toys, often exclaiming "Wow!" with genuine, wide-eyed wonder. He probably got in about three words to Jacob's several dozen, but he was smiling the entire time.

Jacob bossed him about how to play with the puppies. Charles loved it, plopping himself down on the grass and letting the puppies crawl all over him and lick him, laughing. “Daddy!” he cried. “They like me!”

So it was a done deal, and the Boyles would take the puppies.

"We can't wait!" Mr. Boyle exclaimed. "Bye, Dickie! Bye, Danny! Bye, Jakey!"

"Bye!" Charles echoed, skipping out after his dad.

The giddiness of making a new friend soon wore off for Jacob. He seemed sad later, sitting with Cheddar and the puppies and frowning.

Kevin gave him a hug. "What's wrong, darling?"

Jacob sniffled. He made a few sounds like he did when he wanted to express something but didn't have the words yet.

"Can they stay?" he finally asked.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," said Kevin. "But they're growing up."

Jacob struggled with his words again.

Kevin picked Jacob up and cuddled him.

"I love puppies," Jacob said. "Puppies love Cheddar." Then, inexplicably, he burst into tears.

It took the better part of fifteen minutes for Kevin to soothe Jacob, while Raymond tidied the kitchen, and the puppies' den. Afterwards, Jacob was all cried out, and went to sleep for a long nap.

--

As time went on, Cheddar indeed had feelings about the puppies leaving.

Motherly fulfillment had apparently worn off, and she lost interest in them. They had been weaned off her teat for over a month, and were getting fairly large. They monopolized garden time, and play time, and lap time, and Jacob time. When right on the eve of their tenth week, Cheddar snapped at them, and they went to find refuge in their own crates, Kevin said it was time to say goodbye.

Jacob handled it with grace. He had been prepared to say goodbye, and the morning they were expected to go, he spent a lot of time doing it, holding either Richard or Dan close in succession and repeating “Goodbye, I love you!” over and over.

Mr. Boyle came by during the day, when Raymond took a long lunch break to return home and hand off the puppies. Jacob was at daycare.

When Jacob came home, he cried as hard as he had when he first arrived, even though he had known that morning that the puppies were leaving.

Cheddar herself seemed perfectly fine after the puppies were gone. She walked around sniffing a lot, perhaps still processing what had happened, but she also seemed happy to have all the attention back to herself. If anything, she seemed to be the one comforting Jacob, rubbing her head affectionately against him, and letting him cry into her fur.

“She misses them,” he sobbed.

Jacob didn't ask about mothers again for quite some time.

Chapter Text

It was another two years before Jacob, at six years old, officially met his mother. As always for the momentous occasions of his life, Cheddar played a role.

At first, it was scheduled to take place in an impersonal meeting room at the social worker’s office. Kevin and Raymond had spent a lot of time in that room years earlier, when they were figuring out all the details of Jacob’s adoption, and it looked rather like the soft interview room at the precinct— cheap motel art, cheap motel furniture, ragged old carpeting. But after they told Jacob he would be meeting his mother, Jacob got clingier and clingier with Cheddar, quite literally clinging to her with both arms around her neck much of the time.

“We don’t allow dogs in the office,” said the social worker. As one civil servant to another, it truly pained Raymond to ask for any kind of accommodations— rules are rules for a reason, and dogs categorically do not belong in offices. On the other hand, his child was obviously frightened about meeting his mother, and Raymond wanted more than anything to help.

In the end, they were able to come to a compromise to meet Jacob’s biological mother in a public park. They sat on a bench, Jacob in Kevin’s lap as Cheddar snuffled around the grass, when the social worker walked up to them with a woman.

“Karen,” Raymond stood, allowing a polite smile. It had been a long time since he’d seen her in person.

All their communications were facilitated through the social worker. After the adoption was final, Karen was given conditions she had to meet to be able to enjoy visitation, most notably around her sobriety. When Jacob had first started asking about her, she hadn’t been in a position to meet him.

She looked well. Taller than Raymond had remembered. She’d be about 20, and she was slender and nervous, with long, tangled brown hair.

“Hi, Ray,” she said, her shoulders going up nervously. “Hi, Kevin. Um…” her gaze fell on Jacob, and her face broke into something that was half a smile and half a grimace.

Kevin gently put Jacob on the ground and nudged him forward. “Jacob, this is your mother, Karen.”

“Hi Jakey!” She crouched, and started to reach out her arms, but stopped the gesture.

Jacob didn’t move, staring at his shoes. Cheddar stayed close to his side, and he put a hand on her, as if steadying himself.

“I’m really happy to meet you,” Karen said weakly, still smiling, gazing at Jacob like he was the most important thing in the world.

Jacob looked between his shoes and Cheddar, his shoulders going up nervously, just the same as his mother’s. “You’re my mom?” he asked, his voice heartbreakingly small.

“Yes! Yes, I’m your mom!” Karen sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “I’ve missed you so much.” She didn’t know what to do with her hands, and settled on pulling at her own sleeves, obviously wanting to reach out and grab him, but knowing that she couldn’t.

Jacob put his arms around Cheddar’s neck and turned away from Karen, his body language looking confused.

Raymond and Kevin exchanged a glance, neither knowing what, if anything, they were supposed to do. The social worker, sitting nearby on another bench, didn’t intervene, just watched them all with a detached look.

Cheddar snuffled at Jacob’s hair, then grinned in that doggie way at Karen, tongue lolling out happily. Karen reached out a hesitant hand. Cheddar sniffed at her, then stepped forward, allowing Karen to gently stroke her head.

“Who’s this?” Karen asked.

“Cheddar,” Jacob said, releasing his grip on Cheddar’s neck and stepping back slightly.

“Hi, Cheddar,” said Karen. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Cheddar apparently enjoyed Karen’s pets very much, as she suddenly leapt into Karen’s arms, knocking her over. Karen laughed in surprise as the dog licked at her face.

Jacob laughed, too. “Cheddar likes you,” he said.

“She does!” Karen righted herself, now sitting entirely on the ground with Cheddar on her lap. “I like her, too.”

The rest of the visit was short, and mostly awkward. Jacob tolerated a quick hug. But when their time was up, Karen walked away with the social worker, glancing back over her shoulder, while Jacob ran off with Cheddar and didn’t spare his mother another look.

In 2011, New York legalized same-sex marriage. Unsure how long this state of affairs would last, Raymond and Kevin got dressed, bundled up their son and their dog, and went to city hall. They would have been first in line, Raymond thought, if their seven-year-old son had cooperated with getting dressed. Cheddar had accepted wearing a little bowtie with immense grace in comparison. But it was a petty thing to complain about on such a momentous day, and Raymond put it out of his mind.

On the courthouse steps, Jacob fidgeted in his little suit, which he had only worn once before, to an event at Kevin’s university. Raymond felt like fidgeting himself, waiting behind a dozen other couples in various degrees of formal wear.

He nodded in approval at a mature lesbian couple in elegant white pant suits. This is the dress code they should have at Pride, he decided. Then he spotted a pair of young men in shorts and tuxedo-patterned t-shirts, and turned away so he could roll his eyes with impunity.

“When’s the wedding?” Jacob whined. Everything happened so quickly that he was alternately bored or confused by what was going on.

“It’s right now,” Kevin said. “See all the couples in line in front of us? They’re all getting married.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re in love,” Kevin said, obviously impatient.

“Yeah but weren’t you in love? Before you got me?”

“Yes, very,” Kevin said.

Raymond checked his watch. The most recently married couple were kissing while their unnecessarily large entourage of friends cheered and took pictures. He mentally calculated how long it would take them to clear off the steps so the next couple could approach. The next couple, he realized, were two shuffling old ladies, one of which had an oxygen tank. Great.

“How come you didn’t get married before?” Jacob asked.

“Because they didn’t let boys marry other boys before today,” said Kevin.

“That’s stupid,” said Jacob, bending down to play with Cheddar’s ears.

“Yes,” Raymond said, resisting the urge to tap his foot. “It is very stupid.”

They finally got their turn, and were married in a burst of relief. Raymond found himself so overcome with feeling he even gave Kevin a quick kiss on the mouth.

The couples behind them cheered, and Jacob gagged loudly.

“This cat is the most majestic thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” declared Debbie. She was heavily pregnant, and sat inelegantly on one of their benches in the garden, as Sonja paraded in front of her.

“She’s super pretty,” Jacob agreed. “Come on Sonja, let Auntie Debbie pet you.” He patted the bench until Sonja jumped up. Debbie and Jacob started petting Sonja in tandem. She rubbed her face into Debbie’s hand, and lifted her behind for Jacob. Cheddar paced in front of the bench, trying to get her own share of attention.

“This is exactly the kind of cat I want,” Debbie said. “Except I’m not sure about long hair or short. And I’d want at least two. Gary said we’d wait until we were in the new place, and now he says we have to wait until the baby is older. Ray, have you heard this business about pregnant women and cats? I think it’s nonsense. Jackie had four cats through her pregnancies and they all turned out fine. Of course, she’s crazy in her own way. Wait until you hear this!”

And she kept on with her story while Raymond, as poorly mannered as it was, tuned her out. He and Raymond sat across from her at the patio dining set, enjoying a digestif after their dinner. Debbie had thankfully not brought her lout of a husband, Gary, whose loutish behaviour often spoiled pleasant evenings. The trade off was no one was there to tell her to stop gossiping as the night wore on, as both Kevin and Raymond were far too polite to ever say such a thing.

Instead he gave Kevin a little smile, and Kevin returned it. They were so wrapped up their sickeningly love-drunk newlywed haze that they didn’t catch any of the conversation between Debbie and Jacob.

“YOU GOT MARRIED AND YOU DIDN’T TELL ME?”

Raymond and Kevin almost jumped. Debbie glowered at them, while Sonja scurried up the fence.

Jacob grinned. When did he get so sophisticated? Raymond thought. They hadn’t expressly forbidden him from telling anybody about their wedding. But that cheeky grin meant he knew he'd done something naughty and gotten away with it. He knew Debbie required a soft hand, and he knew what kind of commotion he’d cause by just saying it. And so far, Jacob Cozner-Holt had not found a commotion he did not want to cause.

“Time was of the essence,” explained Kevin.

“You didn’t even have a ceremony? Or a reception? Or a party?” Debbie’s voice rose higher and higher and higher.

“To be honest, Debbie,” said Raymond. “Mother and I agreed that your wedding celebrations were enough for the two of us.”

She screeched so loud that Cheddar folded her ears back and ran inside.

A year after their marriage, Raymond, Jacob, and Cheddar went out in the garden one summer Saturday morning, and were greeted with the usual sight of Sonja perched on her fence.

“Hi Sonja!” Jacob bounded over, reaching up to just barely touch her fluffy tail, which hung straight down the fence, no saucy swish or evocative twitching that morning.

Raymond gave her his usual gentle pat. She purred, blinking her big, wet, dark eyes, but something was different about her. She stayed hunched down, and didn’t lift her head to push her face into his hand. She looked smaller than usual, almost hidden inside herself. Like she was all fur.

Sonja remained in her spot as Jacob played with Cheddar and Raymond read his newspaper. Eventually the neighbour, Mrs. Larson, came to the fence.

“Hey Raymond,” she said.

“Good morning,” he replied.

Mrs. Larson petted Sonja gently. “Come on sweetie, come get some breakfast.” She stroked all the way down the cat’s back, but Sonja didn’t lift her behind as she usually did. Mrs. Larson sighed. “Sonja’s getting weak. She can get up on the fence, but she can’t get down again.”

“Oh, yes,” said Raymond. “I thought she was not looking like herself.”

Mrs. Larson cradled her cat, and cast a quick glance at Jacob and Cheddar, obliviously chasing each other around the garden. “I don’t think she has very much time left. Would you let Kevin know? I’d like it if he could come visit with her. Cheddar and Jakey, too. She loves them.”

“Alright,” said Raymond. “When should I send them over?”

She thought for a moment. “Today,” she said, and then took her cat inside.

That fast? thought Raymond. If he was still able to climb a fence, but unable to climb back down… well, to be honest, he didn’t really want to think about it.

Kevin, Jacob and Cheddar went over to Mrs. Larson’s later that day for a few hours, while Raymond went out running errands.

That night, at dinner, Jacob fidgeted and fiddled with his food, while his parents talked about mundane things like taxes and utilities, and the intricate internal politics at Kevin’s faculty. (Raymond was of the opinion that they were all pedantic, pretentious fops, but he was also terrified of their intellectual superiority over him. Supporting Kevin in these situations was sometimes a complicated dance.)

Jacob knew about death, Raymond was sure, at least academically. Besides the staggering amounts of pop culture he absorbed, Jacob knew that Raymond’s father was dead. So Raymond didn’t expect him to be unduly upset by the inevitable death of the neighbour’s old cat.

“Jacob was very good today with Mrs. Larson,” Kevin praised. “He was nice and polite, and he didn’t even fidget. And he was very gentle with Sonja.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Raymond.

“Sonja’s super old,” said Jacob. “She looked so… scrunchy.”

“Sonja is very old,” Kevin said. “She has lived a long and full life.”

“Grandma and Grandpa are old,” Jacob said.

“Yes.” Kevin nodded. “But if they were cats, they would not be as old as Sonja.”

Jacob turned to Raymond. “Her Honor is old, too.”

“Yes,” agreed Raymond. “But she’s younger than Kevin’s parents.”

Jacob chewed his food thoughtfully. “Sonja kind of reminded me of Her Honor today.”

Raymond furrowed his brow. “Oh? How so?”

Jacob shrugged. “She’s just so… small now. And you know how sometimes when we’re with Her Honor, and we all have to walk kind of slow? That’s how it sort of felt with Sonja.”

Raymond frowned. His mother was not that old, and she was certainly not frail. Though she was, he supposed, smaller than she used to be— smaller than the stoic, strong, straight-backed young woman he remembered from his childhood. He always chalked that up to the fact that he’d grown to be so much taller than her.

And to a hyperactive seven-year-old like Jacob, he supposed anybody over 40 would be considered slow.

“When did your dad die?” Jacob asked Raymond, his tone light and conversational.

“Oh,” said Raymond. “I was a few years older than you are now.”

“Really?” Jacob looked up at him, eyes wide. “So he wasn’t old.”

“No.” Raymond cleared his throat. “He was quite young.”

Jacob started talking about some superhero or another, and Raymond didn’t have to dwell on that strange feeling creeping up the back of his head.

The next morning, Sunday, Raymond went out to the garden with his coffee and his paper, and Sonja was not on her spot on the fence. He peered into Mrs. Larson’s garden and saw the old cat lying in the grass, in a patch of sunshine. Sonja looked smaller than ever, just a pair of bony hips sticking out of the grass, and slightly scraggly fur. Even a month earlier, she’d never allow her fur to look scraggly.

“Good morning, Sonja,” he said. Her little faced turned to him, and though he could not see her clearly through the grass, he imagined he could hear her purring.

Kevin agreed to accompany Mrs. Larson and Sonja to the vet, while Raymond was due to perform parental duties at Jacob’s Brooklyn Scouts meeting.

Afterward, Raymond prepared him a snack, and brought it out to the garden. Jacob was a bit morose, making for a heartbreaking sight in his little red Scouts uniform. He sat on the grass, sulking, while Cheddar sniffed around at the fence.

“Cheddar’s confused,” Jacob said.

“Perhaps,” said Raymond. “Come and have your snack, Jacob.”

“She misses her friend,” Jacob said. He huffed, a more dramatic version of one of Kevin’s world-weary huffs. “Everything sucks.”

“Don’t say sucks,” said Raymond.

“Cheddar is sad,” Jacob said, his voice getting harder. “Sonja is dead.” His face crumpled up, and suddenly he curled in on himself, hugging his knees and crying.

Raymond was always at a loss for words when Jacob cried. At eight years old, those moments were fewer and further between, but the boy was still incredibly sensitive, especially if Raymond compared him to his own childhood.

Cheddar finished sniffing around the fence and walked up to Jake. She sniffed at him, nuzzled his hair, and then flopped beside him.

“I know,” Raymond said, gently. “It is sad. Sonja was your first friend, even before Cheddar.”

“I don’t wanna go back to school,” Jacob suddenly whined.

“Excuse me?” Raymond asked, feeling fairly blind sided. “Why ever not?”

Jacob was scheduled to start second grade at his private school in two short weeks. Kevin had been positively giddy with all the preparation, and Raymond had to admit, there was something about the sheer potential of brand new school supplies that was immensely satisfying. This was the first time Jacob had expressed any opinion about returning to school — which, in hindsight, was concerning. He hadn’t expressed any excitement, which usually came very easy to him.

“I hate it there,” Jacob sobbed.

“I’m afraid that school is mandatory, Jacob.”

“It’s not school,” Jacob cried, flopping over onto the grass. Cheddar climbed on top of him and sat. “It’s that school. Everyone’s mean. I don’t have any friends!”

“You have plenty of friends,” said Raymond. “You have Charles, and all your Scout friends.”

“No friends at school.” Jacob was a bit harder to hear now, face pressed almost entirely into the ground.

Raymond sighed. They had worked very hard to get Jacob caught up to his peers in school, and Raymond had always suspected Jacob’s precarious social and emotional skills would set him back again. “I’m sorry you don’t like it there, Jacob. We’ll discuss it later, with Kevin.”

“When can I see my mom?” Jacob sniffled.

Raymond was once again blindsided. “Would you like to see her again? You have not asked since the first time.”

“I don’t even remember the first time.”

“It was only two years ago.”

Jacob heaved one of those big childish sighs. “I remember but only kind of.

“I see,” said Raymond, completely baffled. What did this have to do with school, or Sonja, or anything? “Well, if you would like to see her again, we can arrange that.”

Jacob sat up, Cheddar sliding off him in confusion. He wiped at his face. “Is she still alive?”

“Pardon me?” Raymond’s eyes went wide. “Yes, your mother is still alive. Whatever gave you the impression she wasn’t?”

Jacob blinked a few times. “I dunno. Just wondered.”

Raymond reached out for Jacob. The boy reluctantly went to him, reluctantly permitted Raymond to scoop him in a hug, shoulders going up defensively. “Oh, Jacob. Your mother is alive and well, and of course you can see her again. What brought all this on, hmm?”

Jacob gave in to the affection, and wrapped his little arms around his father’s shoulders. “I dunno.”

Kevin returned from Mrs. Larson’s house after dinner, in time to help Jacob wash up for bed. After Jacob had done to sleep, Cheddar curled up on the foot of his bed, Kevin and Raymond enjoyed their nightcap in the parlour.

“How is Mrs. Larson taking it?” Raymond asked.

“She feels terribly guilty,” Kevin said, his voice soft and lovely. “It’s hitting her very hard.”

“Guilty? Whatever for?”

Kevin sighed. “A lot of times people feel guilty about euthanasia. It’s…” he shook his head. “It’s hard to explain.”

“Ginsberg was a very good dog, then,” said Raymond. “For not giving us any reason to feel guilty.”

Kevin glanced over at him, held his eye for a moment. He looked like he might say something, but whatever he was going to say, he turned away, and kept it to himself.

On Monday morning, Raymond once again went out in the garden with his coffee and his newspaper. He found himself wandering towards the fence before he even knew he was doing it, found himself looking at the bare fence in slight confusion. Of course. Sonja was not there. He would never again greet her or be greeted by her, never again touch her soft fur, never again hear her purr.

Even though he had known the last time he saw her would be the last time he saw her, it still left something small and empty and hard in his gut, knowing those moments were gone forever.

Chapter Text

An appropriate time after Sonja had passed, Mrs. Larson adopted a pair of slinky grey tabby kittens. Now the roles had reversed, and Cheddar endured the indignity of two kittens climbing all over her, chasing her tail, and licking her fur.

Until then, no one would ever have guessed that Cheddar was getting on in years. She was still full of energy, as corgis often are, still clever and crafty and bright-eyed. But when the tabbies came to visit, Raymond noticed the difference. She just wasn’t as fast or spry as she used to be.

But perhaps none of us are, he reflected, when he finally acknowledged some hard facts about biology and ordered a new set of suits in a bigger pant size. This was the only concession he would make in his war against his own mortality, he stubbornly decided, steadfastly not thinking about how he was now older than his father ever lived to be.

The summer after Jacob turned 12, the family went on a trip to Paris, leaving Cheddar with Martin, who still had her sister, Brie, even though that girlfriend was long gone. Towards the end of their trip, Kevin received some distressing messages from Martin that he and Raymond ultimately decided to keep from Jacob for the time being.

One morning Martin had noticed a strange bump growing on Cheddar’s belly, that had appeared out of nowhere. It didn’t bother Cheddar, but Martin knew dogs and Kevin enough to just go ahead and take Cheddar to the vet.

By the time they returned home a few days later, the bump was totally gone— the vet had aspirated it completely to test the fluid. It was a mast cell tumour. When Jacob was on a weekend visit with his mother, Kevin took Cheddar in to get more scans, to make sure it had been totally excised.

Later, they told Jacob everything that had happened.

“What does that mean?” Jacob asked, brows furrowed. “Does she have cancer?” The family sat in the parlour, Raymond and Kevin having their digestifs while Jacob sat on the floor with Cheddar.

“No,” said Kevin. “It was just an outgrowth of white blood cells. It’s gone now, and they gave her a good scan to make sure there aren’t any more inside her.”

“We don’t have to put her down, do we?”

“No, no,” Kevin assured. “She’s fine.”

“Will it come back?” Jacob asked.

“It might,” Kevin said. “But this is one of those things that happens to older dogs.”

“But won’t it come back as cancer?” Jacob fretted.

“Cheddar is getting old,” Kevin said, very softly. “She won’t be with us forever. And she will probably get more lumps. They could, potentially, come back one day as cancer. But there’s no point in worrying over it, Jacob. This is just a new phase of life for her. A phase of life that might require more care and vet visits than before.”

“A lumpier phase of life,” said Jacob.

“If you like,” Kevin said. “But even if it did come back as cancer, that doesn’t mean we’d have to put her down. It depends on a lot of factors.”

“Like what?”

“Well, some cancers are treatable. So it depends on how old she is, and her state of health, and whether she’d be able to tolerate the treatment.” Kevin did enjoy shifting into lecture mode, and Raymond did enjoy being there for it. “Ultimately, there’s three factors you have to consider when it looks like you might have to put a pet down. The first is whether they are eating and drinking, the second is whether they can still get around on their own, and the third is whether they can clean themselves. If they can’t do one of those things, they can still have good quality of life. If they can’t do two out of three, it is time to start thinking about euthanasia. And if they can’t do three out of three, well, things are quite dire at that point.”

“Huh,” said Jacob. He looked the way he always did whenever one of his parents got lecturey— like he had zoned out and half of it went over his head— but he nodded as though he was satisfied.

He didn’t fret about Cheddar’s health after that. He treated her the same as always, even going so far as to tease her about her “lovely lady lumps.” Kevin and Raymond did not recognize this unsavoury reference, and by the time Raymond did figure it out, years had passed and it was too late to be outraged or demand to know how Jacob had heard it.

“Hey Lieutenant,” Detective Jeffords said to him a few months after the Paris trip. “A bunch of us are doing Movember, wanna join in?”

“What on earth is mow-vember?” he asked.

“It’s this great event where you stop shaving and grow out a beard, to raise money for prostate cancer.”

“Facial hair is for men who have something to hide,” said Raymond. “Like a parrot-shouldered pirate captain, or a picaresque villain, twirling his moustache so. Or William Howard Taft.”

“Taft??”

“He was an indecisive slugabed.”

“Okay, well… I’ve seen pictures of you as an officer,” said Jeffords. “You had a mustache back in the day.”

“That was before I realized the inherent untrustworthiness of men with facial hair.” (Raymond dated Frederick when he was an officer.) “But I will contribute to your cause. Though I fail to see the connection between looking like a heroin-addled beat poet and raising funds for prostate cancer.” (Years after this conversation, Kevin would experiment with facial hair, prompting Raymond to revise his stance.)

“Great!” Jeffords said, after a moment to parse Raymond’s meaning. “I guess it’s more of an awareness thing. Here.” He handed Raymond a flyer. “You know, Black men get prostate cancer more often than white guys. For… whatever reason. You’ve been getting screened, right? I mean, I don’t think— you’re over 40, right? Not that you look like it, Lieutenant. You look great. Are you even old enough to be a lieutenant? Maybe you don’t need this after all.”

“Thank you, Jeffords.” Raymond narrowed his eyes slightly, just to put an end to the detective’s misery. “Tell me where to send a donation and I will do so.”

“Your Honour,” he greeted his mother when she answered the phone. They weren’t phone people— at least not compared to Debbie— but he didn’t want to have this conversation with her around Jacob at their once-monthly dinner.

“Raymond,” she said. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected telephonic salutation?”

“I had a question about Father,” he got right to the point. His mother and Kevin were among the very few people on earth who understood the meaninglessness of small talk.

“Oh.” They hadn’t spoken of his father since Raymond was a child. “I will endeavour to answer to the best of my ability.”

“Thank you. I remember that Father died of cancer, but I realized recently that I do not know what kind of cancer.”

“I suppose we did not share very much about his diagnosis with you children,” said Her Honour. “He did not want to sadden you, and I think his pride was hurt, too.”

“He was young,” Raymond stated.

“Yes,” said Her Honor. “What brought about this sudden curiosity?”

“I am of an age now where I require regular screenings for… … …male cancers.”

“I see,” said his mother.

“I need a more complete family medical history than I have,” said Raymond. Doctors had asked him before, of course. What type of cancer? they’d always ask, and he’d always say he would find out and get back to them, but he never got around to it. It was unusual for him, to be anything less than thorough, but he was young and foolish, he supposed. Perhaps part of him thought if he could outlive his father, he could outlive whatever it was that killed him.

“Well, you do not have to worry,” said Her Honor. “It was pancreatic cancer.”

“Oh,” said Raymond. “That is not what I was expecting.”

“Nobody was expecting it,” she said. “It is vanishingly rare in people under 40.”

“Were there not any warning signs?” he asked.

“By the time he had any symptoms it was already too late,” she said. Raymond did remember that— his father being tall and strong and solid. Then one day, his father not having the appetite for a meal. Then two months later, his father was gone forever.

“It happened swiftly."

“It happened very swiftly,” said Her Honor, with a slight waver in her voice that Raymond had never before heard in his entire life. “He was very young, and it was very, very swift.” She made a sound that was almost like a sniffle.

Raymond coughed uncomfortably.

“Have I answered your question to your satisfaction, Raymond?”

“Yes, Your Honor. I look forward to seeing you at dinner next week. Goodbye.”

Raymond looked up pancreatic cancer. He was disappointed in the state of medical research when he learned the following: that pancreatic cancer had no symptoms until it was already advanced, and that there were no screening methods for early detection.

His father had died over thirty years ago, and they still didn’t know how to find it with some warning?

While Jacob and Kevin never seemed trepidatious by the prospect of an aging Cheddar, Raymond took to giving her a thorough manual exam almost daily.

When Jacob went to bed, Cheddar generally accompanied him. They could always tell when Jacob had fallen asleep, because Cheddar would wander back downstairs into the parlour, where the two of them enjoyed a nightcap after all the chores of the day were complete.

She always enjoyed a good petting, and she enjoyed Raymond’s thorough full-body massages even better.

“You have been positively neurotic about these nightly petting sessions with Cheddar,” Kevin observed. “What’s going on?”

“I am checking her for lumps,” he said. “Is that not what we’re supposed to do?”

“Yes, but it doesn’t have to be so… deliberate,” said Kevin. “Between the three of us, if there are any, we’ll find them.”

“Early detection is key against cancer of all types,” said Raymond.

“Yes, well, the best we can do to detect them is to pet her normally.”

“That was Martin’s best, perhaps,” Raymond scoffed.

“You believe my brother didn’t detect the lump early enough?” Kevin asked, like he could scarcely believe his ears.

“Who knows,” said Raymond. “Maybe it had been there the entire week before he bothered to notice it.”

“Martin is not stupid,” Kevin bristled slightly. “And in any case, it was benign. I don’t see that you have anything to be so tetchy about.”

“I am not tetchy,” said Raymond. He turned a boneless and languid Cheddar over on her other side. She stretched as he rubbed her down, and her tongue lolled out. She yawned that doggie yawn where it turns into a contented whine. If she was a cat, she’d be purring.

After a thoughtful pause, Kevin said. “Oh, I see. You haven’t done this before.”

“Haven’t done what?”

Kevin sighed. “I thought Jacob would be the one I’d have to cosset. Raymond. Cheddar is 12 years old. Corgis usually only live to about 14 or so.”

“Cheddar is not like other corgis,” said Raymond.

“I agree,” said Kevin. “But she’s not immortal. She’s getting older, and things like lumps and health scares are just going to keep happening.” He walked over and patted Raymond’s head fondly. “Oh, my love. It’s silly to worry about an inevitability. It’s like mourning something that hasn’t happened yet. But Cheddar is enjoying this attention, so I suppose it doesn’t hurt anything.”

Cheddar experienced a few more random lumps over the years, all of which were benign and easily drained. As time went on she also accumulated a standard set of elderly ailments. She had arthritis in her joints, which was eased by some supplements in her diet. With the exception of their beds, they had never allowed Cheddar on the furniture, so she wasn’t at great risk of injuring herself in a jump, either. Kevin arranged for two small sets of steps, so she could climb into their or Jacob’s bed without straining.

At some point her kidneys started to, as Jacob put it, “crap out.” Raymond wasn’t present at that vet check-up, but another change to her diet was apparently all that was necessary to keep her going.

Besides her bones and her kidneys, she seemed perfectly spry and healthy. Her coat was shiny and fluffy, her temperament as sweet as ever. The family were all lulled into a sense of security. Maybe she’ll live longer than other corgis. Maybe she’ll be one of those anomalies that lives for decades. Maybe she just won’t ever die at all.

One day, just before Jacob turned 15, he took Cheddar out for her morning walk.

Raymond was getting ready to leave for work, and Kevin was cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast, when Jacob came back into the house with Cheddar.

“Hey,” he said. “Does it look like Cheddar is having trouble breathing to you?”

Kevin was crouched in front of Cheddar in an instant. “Perhaps,” he said. “Oh, darling. Are you feeling well?”

He watched the dog breathing for a moment. Jacob crouched down, too, and petted Cheddar’s back.

“She looks a little laboured,” said Kevin. “When did you notice this?”

Jacob shrugged, his brow furrowed, his eyes big. “On the walk. She was kind of slow and like… blinky? That’s when I noticed it. I think?”

“Just this morning?” Kevin petted Cheddar’s head. She gazed up at him lovingly, tongue out.

“Well…” Jacob chewed at his lip. “I don’t know. Maybe a little last night. I don’t know. It was hard to tell.” Cheddar no longer did her little rounds of the house after Jacob fell asleep. The past few weeks she had been staying at his feet until he woke up and took her out in the mornings. “But then this morning she seemed okay, until I noticed just now…”

“Is she all right?” Raymond asked. Cheddar looked happy enough, though her breathing did appear a little shallow. It didn’t seem to bother her.

“I don’t have classes until the afternoon,” said Kevin. “I’ll call the vet now. You two go on with your day.”

“I want to come too,” said Jacob.

“No, you have school. Go.” Kevin was firm, and Jacob glared at him.

“Come on, Jacob,” Raymond said gently. He put a hand on Jacob’s shoulder, and the boy jerked it out of his grasp and turned away. He was almost 15, and this sort of thing happened all the time now.

In the afternoon, Kevin called Raymond at work.

“She has pleural effusion,” Kevin said. “There was fluid in her chest cavity, which is why her breathing was so shallow. They drained the fluid and put her in an oxygen tent for a while.”

“And she’s feeling better now?” asked Raymond.

“Very much so,” said Kevin. “She’s with me in my office. She’s sound asleep.”

“What caused the fluid?” asked Raymond. “Will it come back?”

“There’s lasix. It’s a diuretic. It can help keep the fluid from building up.”

“But what caused it?”

Kevin was quiet a moment. “They x-rayed her. She has some masses.”

“Masses?”

“Tumours.”

“Tumours.” Raymond felt bitter. A little angry. “Cancer.”

“Possibly,” said Kevin.

“Possibly? Well, we’ll find out.”

“Raymond, she’s 14 years old. She has bad kidneys. The only thing they can do for this is surgery, a quite invasive one. It would be too hard on her.”

“There’s radiation treatment,” Raymond offered.

“They have to do surgery to get the biopsy to begin with,” said Kevin. “And she wouldn’t survive radiation, not with her kidneys. Even if she did survive all that, and even if they managed to get all the cancer… it would only buy her half a year. Maybe a bit more. A half a year with failing kidneys, recovering from surgery, and the cancer could still come back…”

Raymond’s heart sank, and then settled in his stomach. He saw the writing on the wall. He wasn’t a fool.

“She’s 14,” Kevin said again.

“What about Jacob?”

Kevin sighed. “Well, he’s 14, too. He’s old enough to be involved in the decision making process.”

“He’s not going to like this,” said Raymond. “He’s not going to agree to it.”

Kevin went quiet again, and Raymond could imagine him nodding thoughtfully. “If we decide as a family, if we include him in this… can I count on you to support my side in it? Do you trust me to know what’s best for Cheddar?”

Raymond found himself swallowing down a hard lump. “Yes, I trust you,” he said. With Cheddar’s life. With my life. With all our lives.

That afternoon, Jacob sat in the parlour and played with Cheddar. He hadn’t sat with them in the parlour for quite a long time now, too busy with teenaged pursuits on the internet or in his room or with his friends. But that day was all about giving attention to Cheddar.

At dinner, Kevin explained the situation to him. Jacob sat quietly, scowling, and said very little.

“This is a family decision?” Jacob asked. “A unanimous thing?”

Kevin glanced at Raymond, and shifted uncomfortably. “Yes,” Kevin said.

“Well, I vote no,” said Jacob. “So it’s not unanimous, so we’re not gonna put her own.”

“She’s 14, Jacob,” Kevin said gently.

“She could still get better, though,” Jacob said, phrasing it like a statement instead of a question.

Kevin looked to be biting back a sigh. “It’s very unlikely.”

“It’s not impossible.”

“I suppose not,” said Kevin.

Jacob shrugged, slumped sulkily in his seat.

Raymond tried to break the mood by inquiring about Kevin’s work, latching onto the normalcy of the familiar conversation like a lifeline. But they all looked up when Cheddar shuffled into the kitchen and over to her food bowl.

Jacob in particular watched with great interest. Cheddar sniffed at her food bowl, then declined to eat. She sniffed at her water bowl, but then didn’t bother taking a drink. She turned to walk away.

“Cheddar, come eat,” Jacob said. “Hey, Cheddar. Come.”

Cheddar turned back to look at him, but didn’t return to her bowl.

Jacob got up and went to the counter, to the elegant glass jar in which they kept Cheddar’s fanciest biscuits. “Come on, Cheddar. Come get a cookie.”

He crouched down, holding out the treat. Cheddar shuffled over and sniffed at it with great interest, for a long time.

Kevin discreetly cleared his throat. With another glance at Raymond, he stood, and started clearing dishes off the table.

“Go on, Cheddar,” said Jacob. “Have a treat.”

She didn’t take the treat. She shuffled away, and went upstairs.

Jacob stared after her, but when she started climbing the steps, he beamed in triumph. "See! She's fine. She can go up the stairs and everything."

“She’s not eating,” said Kevin.

“She sniffed at her cookie,” said Jacob. “She’ll probably want it later.”

“Do you remember what I said about the conditions for euthanasia?”

“What, the two out of three?” Jacob scowled. “Yeah, I know. But she can go up the stairs, and she was interested in her cookie. And she’s not messing herself, either.”

“Not yet,” Kevin said softly.

Jacob glared at Kevin’s back. Raymond watched from the table, feeling ignored and at a loss.

“I don’t want to put her down,” Jacob said firmly.

"If you wait long enough," said Kevin. "She won't give you a choice."

"Then let's do that! Let her go naturally, the way she’s supposed to go. The way she wants to go.”

Kevin’s lip twitched like it did when he was exasperated with a poor student argument. “There is something to be said for a natural death. To let a creature embrace it and come to it in their own time. Believe me, I’ve thought about it. The Buddhists, for instance, hold that a living being must have the chance to contemplate their own death, to have time to detach themselves from the state of being alive.”

“Yeah!” cried Jacob. “Or else you get ghosts! So let’s do that! Let’s be Buddhists now.”

Kevin suppressed a sigh. “It’s not that easy, Jacob. It won’t be an painless death. Animals can linger for days, weeks sometimes. And she won’t really be able to contemplate her death, she’ll just know that it’s getting harder to live.”

Jacob bristled. “You wouldn’t just kill a person after one bad day.”

“A person can tell you what they need!” Kevin turned and, uncharacteristically, raised his voice. Jacob took a step back, as shocked as Raymond. “They can tell you that they’re in pain, and you can give them something to make it better. A human can understand what’s going on. A human can contemplate their death and embrace it. A dog only knows what’s happening in the moment. A dog can only know that it’s suffering, but it can’t tell you. Can you imagine what that’s like, Jacob? To suffer and never be able to say it?”

Jacob stared up at him, stricken.

“Once a dog can show you he’s suffering, it means he’s been suffering ten times worse for ten times as long.” Kevin held Jacob’s gaze. “They trust us to take care of them, Jacob. This is part of it. To not make them linger when they don’t have to.”

“It’s not— she’s happy. She wants to live as long as she can!” Jacob cried.

He was so tall now, Raymond though. Small for his age, perhaps, small compared to his peers. But far too big to call him a child, too big to be the small helpless babe that Raymond held in his arms not that long ago.

"You don’t know that,” Kevin said, not quite shouting, but firm, as firm as he ever got. "Jacob, I've done this five times. I've hated myself for doing it too early, and I hated myself for doing it too late. There is no way to win. My dog Isabelle suffered so much. I just wanted to end it, I wanted her to be at peace. And afterward I felt like I had done it too soon. I felt like I had murdered her."

Raymond was taken aback. Kevin had never spoken of this-- after they had resumed their courtship, they simply never spoke about Isabelle.

“And later, I thought Ginsberg wanted to live," Kevin said, his eyes hard. “I thought we should let him go on as long as he needed. I didn’t realize how much he had been ailing. It wasn’t a gift, in the end, to let him die like that. His last memory of us was seeing us in a panic. That’s frightening for a dog. I’d give anything to change it, but I don’t know how I could have. Each time, I feel like I’ve done the wrong thing. There’s only two options, and they’re both somehow wrong.”

Jacob shook his head, lip trembling. “There’s a third option,” he said weakly. “Maybe it’s not cancer. Maybe she’ll get better.”

“I’m sorry Jacob,” said Kevin. “I know it’s hard. The third option is to make her endure surgery, and that’s the cruelest one. We have to pick what we think is kindest.”

Jacob turned to Raymond. “Please don’t let him do this, Dad,” he said, his voice breaking.

"This is what happens when you love something," Kevin said, bitterly, before Raymond could respond. “I know it hurts, and I wish it didn't. But you only feel this way because you love her. Jacob, this is a lesson nobody wants to teach their child, but it's important. Love always ends in separation. Love ends in someone’s death.”

"Kevin," Raymond cautioned, so shocked he almost put an exclamation point on it.

Jacob's jaw dropped. Stunned into silence for once, he stared up at Kevin in utter hurt.

"Then what's the point?" he finally asked. "Why would-- why bother loving anything?"

Kevin, it seemed, didn't have an answer to that. He turned back to the dishes, back straight, head bowed.

Jacob wiped angrily at his eyes. "Cheddar is my dog," he declared. “I vote no. And if you kill her, I'll hate you forever!" He ran upstairs.

Kevin flinched, but he didn't turn away from the dishes.

Raymond, feeling numb and far away, reached out and touched Kevin's shoulder. "He does not mean it."

"Please," Kevin scoffed. He shrugged off Raymond's hand, and curtly walked off to the garden.

Raymond finished the dishes. Then he went upstairs to Jacob’s room.

Cheddar lay on her side on Jacob's floor, in front of her bed, within which it seemed she was unable to curl up comfortably. She didn't look up when Raymond came in, like she usually did. Her tail thumped gently and listlessly against the floor, and when she saw (or smelled) Raymond, her ears perked slightly, and she thumped her tail a little harder.

Jacob lay next to her, spooning her, his face buried in the back of her neck. "I don't know what she wants," he sobbed. "I can't tell."

Raymond crouched on the floor across from his son. "Cheddar is a dog. She doesn’t know what want is, unless it is something right in front of her, because she cannot comprehend the future. All she understands is the current moment."

“All she understands is that she’s in pain,” Jacob said, voice low and wet, repeating Kevin’s earlier words. “But… she seems happy…”

“I know,” said Raymond. “I find it very confusing as well.”

That didn't placate Jacob at all. He just sobbed and sobbed.

"Jacob," Raymond started, his voice strained. He cleared his throat, but that didn't alleviate the tightness there. "This is a hard decision. It's not one you have to make. There is a lot of responsibility here. You don't have to make this choice."

"She's my dog," Jacob said miserably.

"She's not just your dog," said Raymond. "We got her for you, but she's not anybody's dog. She's a member of the family. She doesn't belong to any of us.”

"Is it true what Papa said?" Jacob asked after a long, tearful pause. "About how if you can tell that a dog is suffering, it's ten time worse than it looks?”

“I do not know,” Raymond said truthfully. “But Kevin knows a lot about dogs. I’m inclined to trust him.”

Jacob sniffled, and hugged Cheddar harder. "Can I spend some time alone with her, please?" he mumbled.

Raymond took his leave. He found Kevin in the parlour, sitting tensely in the dark. Raymond poured them both a drink and sat.

Kevin leaned his head on Raymond's shoulder. Raymond put his arm around his husband. They said nothing, and nothing needed to be said. The room felt as large and cold and still as a tomb.

"Papa," they finally heard Jacob call out.

Kevin sprang to his feet, insomuch as the man would ever do such a thing, and took the stairs two at a time. Raymond followed at a slower pace.

In Jacob's room, the boy sat cross-legged. Cheddar had managed to lift her head, or he had helped her, and rested it in his lap. She really did seem happy, in the way that dogs sometimes to, letting him pet her, enjoying his attention. But she wasn't herself.

Kevin sat next to Jacob, and gave Cheddar a gentle pet.

“How do they do it?” Jacob asked, his voice very quiet and nasal.

Kevin didn't answer right away, which Raymond knew meant he was suffering very, very much. "They'll put her to sleep."

"No, I mean," Jacob fidgeted, and sniffled. "What-- how-- how exactly? How do they do it? What do they do?"

Kevin sighed the smallest of sighs. He glanced over at Raymond, who gave him a supportive gaze back.

"They'll give her a shot that will make her fall asleep," said Kevin. "And then another shot that will... that will stop her heart."

Jacob's face broke. "Will it hurt?"

"No. She'll be asleep."

"But... won't she wake up? In the movies, when people have heart attacks, they always..."

"No, no," Kevin said. He stroked Jacob's head gently. "The first shot is a mix of... well, there are a couple different drugs they could use. But it will make her fall asleep completely. She won't feel a single thing."

"Will she dream?"

Kevin smiled ruefully. "Maybe. But it will certainly be a pleasant dream."

Jacob looked skeptical.

Kevin cleared his throat. "Do you remember when your tooth cracked, and you had to get surgery at the dentist?"

"Yeah," Jacob said warily. "Sort of."

"Yes, sort of. The dentist gave us that pill for you to take. You weren't scared at all. You were rather having a good time."

"I remember you showing me the video," Jacob grudgingly mumbled.

"Yes," Kevin couldn't help a smile. Jacob, at 13 years old, had been lolling drunkenly and adorably. Raymond still had the video on his phone. “And do you remember how they put a shot in your mouth?"

"Sort of," said Jacob. "I remember that for fillings. It was a pinch, and then I didn't feel anything they were doing."

"It's similar to that," said Kevin. "It's a mixture of the anesthetic, that makes you not feel anything, and the pill that made you calm and sleepy and happy. Only it's a far, far bigger dose. She won't feel a single thing, and she'll be having such a good dream."

"And then..." Jacob sniffled.

"And then," Kevin nodded. "They'll give her another shot, of a different drug."

"And it will stop her heart," Jacob's voice cracked.

"Yes," said Kevin. He stroked the boy's head and let him cry some more. "It's the kindest way we have to do it. Otherwise we would just have to wait, and every day is another day she would be in pain."

Jacob petted Cheddar's ears. Cheddar whined.

"Can we at least wait until tomorrow?" he asked. "Maybe she'll get better." Every time he said that, he sounded like he believed it a little less.

--

Cheddar did not get better the next day. It was, as ever, mixed signals. She had wet herself lying on Jacob's floor, but she was also managed to get up on Jacob's bed and give him some good morning licks to the face.

"See!" he laughed. "She's getting better!"

None of them mentioned the puddle Cheddar had left on the floor, or that her bottom was sopping wet, like she hadn't bothered to clean it herself, or wasn't able to.

"Come on Cheddar," Jacob said proudly. "Let's get some breakfast!"

Jacob bounded down the stairs, and Cheddar tried to bound after him. But at the top of the stairs, she stopped. She turned left and right, and looked confused.

Jacob realized she wasn't following him. He came back to the stairs, and called up to her. "Come on, Cheddar!"

Cheddar lifted one paw, then dropped it, as if it was too heavy. She lowered her head, and whimpered.

Jacob's face fell. Raymond could see the exact moment it hit him. Two out of three.

"Cheddar, please," he whined. He went halfway up the staircase, staring at her imploringly. "Come on.”

"All right," Kevin said gently. He wiped off Cheddar's bottom with a wet rag. He picked her up and carried her downstairs. "Let's go to the garden."

Kevin and Jacob sat in the garden with Cheddar while Raymond prepared some boiled eggs, toast, and coffee for breakfast. He warmed up a blueberry muffin and got some orange juice for Jacob.

When he brought their breakfast outside, Cheddar was once again lying on her side in the grass. Kevin sat in his favourite patio chair, his arms around Jacob, who cried into his shoulder.

"I don't want to decide," Jacob sobbed. "You decide."

"All right," Kevin said gently, rubbing their son's back.

"Can-- can they do it here?" Jacob asked.

Kevin heaved another long breath. "I'll try. But they would need to book that in advance, and... there might not be any room today. We might have to wait a few more days, and I don't think that's fair to her.”

"But--" Jacob cut himself off, sobbing freely.

Raymond thought, perhaps, he knew what Jacob might say, as he put their breakfast tray on the garden table, and took in Kevin's weary, grateful little smile. Jacob was worried that Cheddar would be more scared at the veterinarian's office than at home. But he had relinquished the decision to his father, and he would not argue anymore.

Kevin made the call, and Jacob ate one or two bites of his muffin. They had four hours left to spend with Cheddar.

Kevin didn't bother giving her the diuretic pill. She wasn't drinking any water, anyway. When Jacob tried to give her one of her favourite treats, she lifted her head slightly and looked at it, nose twitching at the scent, but then lay her head back down, too exhausted to eat.

Three out of three.

--

They had enough time for brief goodbyes. Mrs Larson came over soon after Kevin made the call to the vet.

“Goodnight, Cheddar,” she said, petting the dog softly. “Sleep well. Sonja will be so happy to see you. Give her my love.”

Martin and Debbie did not have time to come in from their various locations. Martin, having lost Cheddar’s sister Brie about a year earlier, spoke to her while Jacob held the phone up for her. Debbie and her seven year old, Marcus, connected via video call. They paid their respects, each of them weeping freely and clutching one of the two elegant long-haired cats Debbie had adopted after her lout of a husband finally left the marriage.

When the time came, Raymond drove. Kevin rested his head directly against the passenger side window, which was wildly out of character for him. Jacob sniffled loudly in the backseat, cuddling Cheddar, wrapped up in her favourite dog blanket.

"I wanna go in with you,” said Jacob. "She needs me."

Raymond shook his head. "This doesn't seem necessary," he said, quietly, to Kevin.

Kevin sighed. "Seeing it... helps... it can help you understand that it happened.”

Raymond was under no illusions about the sanctity of animal life. He’d seen plenty of dead animals when he was much younger than Jacob. While he hadn’t been present for his father’s death, he’d seen him only hours earlier in his hospital bed, looking weak and frail and half his size.

Raymond had stayed strong for his mother, and for Debbie. The illness happened so swiftly, he couldn’t worry about it, and then Father was gone, and there wasn’t anything to be done. Raymond had been, well… fine.

And yet he found himself worrying about Jacob seeing Cheddar’s death. The boy was just so sensitive.

“It will be fine,” said Kevin. “He’s old enough. If he wants to come in, he can come in.”

The vet’s office was quiet, at least, only two other people waiting with empty carriers. That distinctive, unpleasant smell hit Raymond when they walked in, that unique blend of a horse’s stable and a human hospital. They were ushered into a small treatment room, where Kevin lay Cheddar down on the examination table. They were told the vet would be another ten minutes or so, and they could stay with Cheddar in the meantime.

“I’ll go settle things at the front desk,” Raymond said quietly to Kevin.

“Alright,” said Kevin. “Will you be here? With us?”

Raymond thought about it, but the idea made him feel curiously numb. “No,” he said. “I think… you and Jacob should…”

“It’s fine.” Kevin gave him a weak smile. Perhaps, like Raymond, he was remembering their courtship, when Raymond had accompanied him to Isabelle’s final moments, and been wholly useless. At least, Raymond felt useless now.

Raymond bent to give Cheddar a gentle stroke on her nose. “Farewell, Cheddar. It was an honour to know you.”

Cheddar blinked, and nothing else.

Raymond went and settled the bill, then sat in the hall. He got out his phone and checked in with work.

Aye-aye, Detective Jeffords texted back in regards to Raymond’s instructions on a burglary case. How's Cheddar feeling? Raymond had told him about Cheddar’s impromptu vet visit the other day, but not much.

She's dying, Raymond texted back, dispensing with his usual salutations and valedictions. We're at the vet's office, waiting to euthanize her.

OH MY GOD OH NO!!!! Jeffords texted back.

Then there was nothing for a few moments.

I'm sorry sir, Jeffords texted again. I had a bunch of sad hugging gifs lined up but I don't think you'd want to see it in a work text. I'm really sorry, though.

Raymond didn't respond.

If you want to talk or anything, I'm here, texted Jeffords.

No need, texted Raymond.

Another pause of a few moments.

Okay sir, texted Jeffords. I'm gonna miss that little fuzzbutt. Poor Jake.

Raymond didn't feel anything.

Indeed, he finally texted back.

The veterinarian went into the treatment room. After a while, Raymond thought he could hear Jacob crying. The veterinarian came out again, and he asked her if it was finished.

She gave him one of those terse, handling smiles. "She's sedated. I'll give them a few more minutes with her.”

Raymond sighed. He was never one to handle liminal states very well. They raised too many questions.

Finally, after what seemed like forever (but Raymond’s impeccable internal clock told him was only about eight minutes,) the veterinarian went back into Cheddar's room. Things were quiet again, except for a brief audible sob from Jacob here or there.

Another few minutes, and the veterinarian came back out.

"She's gone?" asked Raymond.

"She's gone."

Raymond stood. "We should go."

"We usually give the owners some time with the body."

"How much time?" asked Raymond.

"As long as they need." She eyed Raymond warily. "Do you want to see her?"

"No." Raymond sat back down.

--

After about fifteen minutes, Kevin ushered Jacob out. Both were red-eyed and sniffling. Behind them on the treatment table lay a heap wrapped in a towel.

Nobody said anything.

In the car, Raymond turned back to look at Jacob as they all buckled in. "Are you all right?"

Jacob shrugged, and wouldn't look him in the face.

"He handled it well," Kevin said, listless.

Jacob sniffled.

Raymond still couldn't quite shake the feeling that Jacob being in the room wasn't a good idea. However, when they were about halfway home, stopped at a red light, Jacob suddenly spoke.

"I'm glad I was there for her," he said. "I held her paw, and she looked at me. Before she fell asleep." His voice wobbled as he started weeping anew. "I told her that I loved her and I said thank you for being my friend."

“I see,” said Raymond.

“Her eyes were open,” Jacob said, wondering, his voice wavering a little. “Pop quoted Byron for her.”

“Oh?” Raymond snuck a quick glance over at Kevin, who was once again leaning his head against the window.

Kevin remained quiet a moment. “So we’ll go no more a-roving so late into the night,” he recited. “Though the heart be still as loving, and the moon be still as bright. For the sword outwears its sheath, and the soul wears out the breast, and the heart must pause to breathe, and love itself have rest.”

It all happened so swiftly.

Raymond did not cry.

The rest of the day was predictably quiet and sad. They’d agreed that they’d put their focus on Jacob, and making sure he was supported. They cleaned the spot Cheddar had left on his bedroom floor, but otherwise didn’t disturb her bed or toys there.

When Jacob asked for Pizza Hut, of all things, they didn’t deny him or make a fuss. And when he wanted to be left alone in his room so he could talk on the phone with Charles, they let him.

So Raymond, after checking in with his detectives again, found Kevin out in the garden as the sun was setting. He was in his favourite chair, facing the spot where Cheddar and Ginsberg before her had basked in the sun, holding Cheddar’s favourite toy, Mr. Hootsworth.

Raymond brought him a drink. They sat in companionable silence for quite some time.

Eventually Raymond cleared his throat. “Is this one of those times where you would like me to ask after your emotions, or would you prefer the silence?”

Kevin didn’t answer right away. Finally, when he was ready, his voice wavered and his eyes got wet. “I feel a tremendous amount of guilt.”

Raymond almost startled, and something in his chest tightened. “About Cheddar or about Jacob?”

“Cheddar,” Kevin said, without even hesitating. Ever the pragmatist. They both knew Jacob would, in time, be fine.

“You have nothing to feel guilty about,” Raymond declared. “You did everything right. You gave that dog the best home you possibly could have, and the best end. You treated her so very well. Better than anyone could have.”

Kevin just stared miserably at Mr. Hootsworth. “Frequently for those I treat well are the ones who most of all harm me,” he intoned.

Sappho. His standard for when he was exhausted and overwhelmed.

Chapter Text

Jacob slept all through the next day, and wanted to sleep through Monday, and became quite intransigent when told he could not.

“You have to go to school, Jacob,” Kevin said.

“My dog just died,” Jacob rebutted.

“I know that,” Kevin said tersely. “Unfortunately institutions do not recognize pets for bereavement days. Do you think I have not asked before? Raymond and I both have to attend work, so you have to attend school.”

“I don’t need you to stay home with me,” said Jacob. “I’m almost fifteen! I can call in sick.”

“What good would that do?” asked Kevin. “You’ll just wallow here all day. You’ll end up feeling worse.”

Jacob, peeking out from blankets pulled over his head, didn’t respond right away. “I’m sad,” he finally said.

“You’ll be sad either way. You might as well be sad at school.” Kevin looked at their son with fond, weary indulgence. “Don’t you want to see your friends?”

Jacob held his gaze a while, calculating. Then he got out of bed.

When Raymond returned home from work that afternoon, Jacob was in the back garden with his friends Charles and Regina. Charles had brought over Richard, one of Cheddar’s pups, whom Jacob held to his chest in a cradling motion. “Dog bra,” he sang, Raymond’s least favourite of his Cheddar-related amusements. “Dog braaaaa.”

Raymond said hello to the children and then left them to their own devices, figuratively or literally, finding the company of teenagers to be especially trying. He stayed nearby in the kitchen, going over the family’s weekly budget. He wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, necessarily, so he mostly only heard the tone of their conversation rather than the substance.

Throughout their talk, though, Jacob’s voice got progressively sadder, and wetter, and louder, culminating in a pained sigh.

“Come here, Dickie,” said Charles, after the dog made a squeaking noise. He had probably wriggled out of Jacob’s grasp, prompting the sigh.

“Everything sucks,” Jacob proclaimed.

“I know how you feel, buddy,” said Charles. “After Molly died, I was crushed.”

“Pop says that love always ends in separation,” said Jacob. “And the more you love something, the more it hurts when you lose it.”

“Ew,” said Regina. “Guess I’m never falling in love, then. Sounds like a fool’s game.”

“But…” Jacob’s voice hitched. “I can’t imagine not having her. I miss her so much.”

“Oh, no, Jake,” Charles said, clearly already crying.

“Cheddar!” Jacob sobbed.

Molly!” Charles sobbed.

“Meeengnggghh!!!” Regina sobbed.

“Why are you crying,” Jacob said, sniffling heavily.

“BECAUSE MY FRIENDS ARE SAD AND I’M SAD!” Regina wailed. “Don’t point it out, it’s embarrassing! Don’t look at me! DON’T LOOK AT ME!”

Raymond took himself to the parlour.

Despite any opinions they had on the subject, time continued to pass. Mrs. Larson brought over a casserole. The sun rose, and set, and rose again. Kevin shed his tears in the evenings, by himself or only in Raymond’s company. Otherwise he quietly held his grief to his chest, cooking and tidying and carrying on.

Raymond went to work, and stoically endured a hug from Detective Jeffords.

Jacob barely spoke to his fathers. He’d come home from school, and besides that one day when his friends were with him, he’d immediately shut himself up in his room. Some of this was normal teenage moodiness, to be sure. Jacob had cloistered himself in his room before, stormed off from dinner in a fit of rage once or twice. But while puberty was as hard on Jacob as it is on anyone, he was still his mischievous, cheerful self underneath it all. He always went sweet again. His bad moods rarely lasted a full day, if even that. This time, it lingered.

If Kevin tucked his feelings in neatly, Jacob wore all his loudly and raggedly upon his sleeve. He shouted them from the rooftops. If he could be said to take after anyone in the extended Cozner-Holt family, he somehow took after Debbie.

Four days after Cheddar’s death, Jacob deigned to join them for dinner, after being called down several times. He picked at his food sulkily while his fathers discussed the business of the day.

“How was school today, Jacob?” Raymond asked.

“I don’t know,” Jacob mumbled. “Fine.”

“I hope they’ve found whoever was vandalizing teachers’ cars,” said Kevin.

Raymond played a rare gambit to get a reaction out of Jacob. “Imagine painting phalluses on vehicles to get attention.” When there was no response, Raymond went a step further. “Of course, a phallus is a penis.”

Jacob didn’t react, staring down at his plate. When he realized his fathers were waiting for a response, he looked between them suspiciously.

“Jacob, you look like you have something to say,” Kevin prodded.

Jacob scowled. “I wanna stay at my mom’s this weekend,” he mumbled.

Kevin blinked. “You usually stay with your mother on the third weekend of the month. Though I— I’m sure, if we ask, she might not mind switching it.”

Jacob huffed an impatient sigh. “Yeah, I know she won’t mind. She never minds.”

“It’s simply that I thought we could go drive through the pines this weekend,” said Kevin. “Get away from the city for a bit.”

“Why would I want to go for a drive with you guys?” Jacob sneered. “So we can all sit in silence and pretend nothing happened?”

“Excuse me,” Kevin warned.

“You’re excused!” Jacob shot back. “I’m sick of pretending I’m not sad all the time. Why can’t we all just be sad?”

“Jacob, you will keep a civil tongue in your mouth if you’re going to eat at our table,” Raymond scolded.

“Oh yeah, civility is the most important thing,” Jacob cried. “If it wasn’t for civility we might actually share an emotion!” He stood and tossed his cutlery upon the table. “I’ll send myself to my room. I don’t wanna have dinner with a couple of robots anyway.”

Jacob stormed off from the table and ran upstairs. The absence of little dog claws skittering on the floor after him was notable.

Kevin was upset, of course, but he told Raymond not to punish Jacob. “Of course he’s angry,” he said, while they were cleaning up the kitchen. “Nothing we can do will make him stop being angry. And he has nowhere to send that anger except towards us.”

“He crossed the line,” said Raymond.

“I agree,” said Kevin. “And if he does not apologize in the morning, we can talk about it then.” Then he paused, because he had opened the pantry and espied a bag of dog food left untouched for a week, and after that he seemed to not want to talk about anything.

Jacob did apologize to them in the morning, a sullen, token teenage version of an apology, scowling and mumbling at the floor. But it was an apology unprompted, so they knew it was the best they were going to get.

That evening, Raymond drove him to Karen’s house. They said very little, though Jacob now seemed more like a resigned, wet rag than a coiled ball of fury.

Karen answered the door, smiling widely as usual, and was surprised when Jacob, now almost as tall as she was, barrelled into her for a hug.

“Oh, Jakey,” she said. “What’s wrong?”

“Cheddar’s dead,” he sobbed.

She gasped. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.” She hugged Jacob close and they both sobbed.

Raymond was certain that Karen had only met Cheddar a handful of times. Their relationship with her was very strict, laid out under tight guidelines, and extremely appropriate. Jacob was Kevin and Raymond’s son, and he visited her for one weekend a month. Outside of Jacob’s birthdays, and two Passovers so far where Karen and her mother felt observant enough to host, the families did not spend a lot of time together.

And yet here she was, sobbing for a small dog she barely knew.

“Raymond,” she said. “I’m sorry. Come here.” She gestured him into the hug.

Raymond demurred. “I’m quite all right. Enjoy your weekend.”

Raymond and Kevin went for that drive by themselves, and Kevin was right. It was a massive relief to be out of the city at a time like that. Although they found Cheddar missing there as much as she was missing at home. That’s the problem with dogs. They go almost everywhere their owners do, so nowhere was untouched.

Jacob was softer the next week, as he always was after a weekend with his mother. On Wednesday night, when Raymond was held at work late and missed dinner, he arrived to find Kevin and Jacob sitting together in the living room, watching a movie.

“Hey Dad,” said Jacob. “We’re watching Bourne.”

“It’s actually not that bad,” said Kevin.

They were sitting very close. Jacob was generally too big for this sort of thing, and had been claiming he was too big for years. But he sat with his head on Kevin’s shoulder. There was a box of tissues on the coffee table.

Perhaps the reason Kevin felt the movie was not that bad was because they were barely watching. They talked through it, sometimes catching up on what happened in the film, more often reminiscing about some memorable thing Cheddar had done.

“I will have some food, and then join you,” said Raymond. He bent down to kiss them both on the forehead.

Three weeks after Cheddar had passed, Raymond was starting to get concerned about Jacob. This seemed a long time to be so actively distraught by the death of a pet. Kevin still carried grief, he knew, but it came and went in gentle waves. Jacob seemed like he was still a raw wound— scabbing over, maybe, but bleeding anew each time the scab was torn.

One afternoon after work and school, Raymond came home to find Jacob sitting in the back garden, making kissy noises at one of Mrs. Larson’s grey tabby cats. Raymond got himself a glass of water, and after some consideration, decided it would be acceptable for Jacob to have some orange soda.

“Thanks,” Jacob said, surprised, when Raymond gave him the orange soda. He looked even more surprised when Raymond sat on the ground next to him.

Raymond looked at his son. He resisted the urge to run his hand through Jacob’s hair, as Jacob would only push him away because he was almost fifteen now and he hated that, jeez!.

“You seemed morose,” Raymond decided to say. “Is everything okay?”

Jacob avoided his gaze, staring down at his lap. After a long pause, he opened his can of orange soda. “I’m tired of being sad. But then I feel guilty for that, because I should be sad, because Cheddar’s gone. Like today I felt okay in the morning. And then after lunch I remembered, and I felt like a jerk. So now I’m sad and I feel like a jerk for not being sad, and I don’t know what to do. But I can’t not be sad, or not not be sad. I hate it.”

Raymond, after sorting through the negatives to find the meaning, considered his response carefully. What Jacob felt was not something Raymond was used to. He had so many feelings wrapped in layers. Helping Jacob sort through them was a difficult challenge for Raymond, and something he honestly usually left to Kevin. But Kevin had been taking extra office hours lately. Perhaps, Raymond realized belatedly, to distract himself from Jacob’s grief, and his own.

“You feel emotions very strongly,” Raymond said. “They’re always there, on the top, and you always express them. Sometimes I think you feel them so strongly you cannot help but express them. And that’s a gift, really. You get it from your mother, you didn’t get that from us. Kevin uses words to express how he feels. They are not always his own words, but he found a way to… he had to teach me to talk about feelings, you know. Before we met, I truly was a robot.”

Jacob snorted, like he couldn’t imagine Raymond as even more robotic than he was.

“And somehow, despite that, you’re still so open,” Raymond continued. Which we love. It’s a gift. It’s a good thing. But that also means you’re going to feel these unpleasant feelings very strongly.”

Jacob looked troubled. “I like feeling things. Usually. But this is just…” He sighed miserably, petting the tabby in his lap.

“It will fade,” said Raymond. “I promise. It will get easier, and one day you’ll be able to think about her without feeling so sad. And that sense of guilt for not feeling sad— that is only there because you loved her so much. You want her to be properly honoured. That will fade, too.”

Jacob hung his head, listening intently. After a long while, he sniffled. “Why don’t you ever cry? Even Pop cried. With you it’s like…” Jacob scowled and looked away. “Don’t you ever feel anything?”

“I have many emotions,” said Raymond.

“Like what?” Jacob scoffed.

“Like trepidation, and anger,” Raymond admitted. “A lot of trepidation and a lot of anger, about things you haven’t yet had cause to think about. I experience the emotions of regret, and envy. And pride. You know that. I am simply not as demonstrative with my feelings as you are.”

“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean,” said Jacob. “I know you’re a robot. But this was Cheddar.” Even now, three weeks out, he could not say her name without his voice breaking and tears threatening. “Why aren’t you sad?”

Raymond fell silent for a moment, watching the rise and fall of the tabby cat’s little chest as she slept, draped across Jacob’s leg.

“When I was young, younger than you, my father died. It was an unexpected illness, and it happened very fast. Debbie was a toddler, and Mother had to care of her, and work, and stay on top of her studies. So I had to be strong. For Mother and for Debbie. I had to be the protector that my father had been. So I had no time to sit and cry. But more than that…”

More than that, it hurt so impossibly bad that he could not stand it.

“Even now, if I try to think about my father…” Raymond gestured vaguely at his own torso. “I can feel it there. Near my diaphragm. If I pay attention to it, it impedes my ability to breathe. So from the time I was eight or nine, I decided it would be best to simply not look at it.”

Jacob stared at him, brows furrowed.

“Love is… frightening for me,” Raymond admitted. “Because of how my father died. I was preoccupied, I think, compared to other children. Preoccupied with the prospect of being left alone. So I became very choosy about who I let in. The list of people I love is small. There’s you and your father. My mother, and my sister. And then there was Ch…”

His voice caught in his throat. He coughed uncomfortably, and looked anywhere but at his son. Jacob only kept gazing back at him, lashes wet.

“It’s hard for me to look at these feelings, because it’s not just Cheddar. It’s not just that she’s gone. It’s also that you aren’t a small child anymore. Your father and I are not young anymore. And it’s frightening to think that…”

Jacob nodded. “That everybody goes away eventually. And nothing ever stays. Like Pop said. Love always ends in separation.”

Raymond nodded.

“So you do miss her,” said Jacob.

“Of course,” said Raymond. “Cheddar was my fluffy—”

His voice broke almost in half. It was like all at once the dam fell apart, and for the first time in years, decades, possibly even since his father had died, Raymond wept.

“Oh, Dad,” Jacob said, crying anew himself. “No, please don’t cry. I’m sorry. This isn’t what I wanted. I’m sorry.” He gently set the confused and sleepy tabby cat aside, got up on his knees, and wrapped his arms around Raymond’s shoulders.

Raymond, foolish beyond words, clutched at his son. It was overwhelming, this disorienting flood of grief and sadness that rushed out of him, overriding any other thought or feeling he might have. He just held Jacob, and wept.

“I miss her, too,” Jacob said, sobbing into Raymond’s shoulder.

After a few minutes— a surprisingly small amount of time, Raymond thought, given how long he had been bottling all that up for fear it would destroy him— they calmed themselves, and sat side by side on the g round. Raymond fished out his handkerchief to dry his eyes, tutting while Jacob wiped his face with the sleeves of his sweat shirt.

“I’m trying to say something to cheer you up,” said Jacob. “But I can’t think of anything.”

“It is certainly not your job to cheer me up,” said Raymond.

“Yeah,” said Jacob, lifting the tabby cat so he could kiss her face. “I guess we just have to feel what we feel, huh?”

Raymond stayed silent a moment, his mind curiously numb and calm after all that crying, like a raging river smoothing out into a placid, still lake.

“Thank you for acknowledging my feelings,” he said.

Jacob smiled up at him. “Thank you for acknowledging mine.”

Half a decade later, while a few archaic strictures remained in place, Jacob could no longer legally or colloquially be called a child.

They had acquired new dogs as time went on: a pair of non-related corgis adopted separately, with two years between them. Haydn and Sakamoto. They were, Raymond had admitted while Kevin smiled at him smugly, a corgi family now— though Jacob declared that when he settled down, he’d probably get cats. (Debbie, who was present at the time, opined that this made sense— Jacob was too much like a dog himself to actually have a dog, and he needed a cat to “balance out his energy.” Raymond refrained from making any statements about Debbie’s “energy,” or her egregiously aloof cats.)

Jacob graduated high school no later than his peers, firmly on the average side of accomplishments and grades, but no less a pride to his fathers. At 18, before leaving for college at Ithaca, Jacob and his friend Regina decided to do a traditional grand tour and backpack throughout Europe. Charles, of course, wanted desperately to go, but was already obliged to work on a cousin’s farm in Iowa for the summer.

Kevin drew up a detailed travel itinerary, and he and Raymond debated the merits of specific cultural sights, both of them choosing to pretend that Jacob and Regina weren’t just going to spend three months sampling various alcohols and flirting with the locals.

It was the first time Jacob would be away from them for more than a week or two. Even then, he’d been at CSI Camp, a short drive upstate. Now he’d be an ocean away, a day’s travel in the event of any catastrophe. He was tall, and his voice had deepened, and he was not a child, though he was somehow still the same tiny helpless babe that Raymond had carried in the crook of his arm on the day they first met. Raymond felt a lot of emotions when he drove them to the airport. Trepidation, and pride, and some other hesitant, small, bittersweet hurt that he could not classify.

After they had checked in and dropped their baggage, Kevin gave Jacob and Regina both a hug. He patted Jacob on the back, and reminded him to text as soon as his flight landed safely in Paris.

Then it was Raymond’s turn for farewells. “Jacob.”

“Sir,” Jacob said, smiling that irrepressible smile of his. He held out his hand for a firm shake.

Up. Down. Separation.

THE END.