Simon Snow spent the better part of our childhood arguing that I was plotting against him. He was categorically wrong about that ninety-nine percent of the time, but if he accused me of it today, he'd be absolutely correct.
"C'mon, Snow. I just want to look," I insist as Snow follows me to the front entrance of the pet pound.
"Since when have you been an animal person?" Snow asks apprehensively.
"Always," I lie.
"Rubbish. When Agatha came over with Lucy, you practically jumped on top of the couch in your rush to get away from her."
"Agatha doesn't own a dog. That thing is tiny; it's practically a rat."
"Is that why you made that joke about eating it? Wait a minute—" he stops me in my tracks, grabbing my forearm. "Are you going to try and eat the dogs at the shelter?"
I roll my eyes. "No, Snow. I—unlike you—can resist the temptation of food."
He narrows his eyes but doesn't protest further. He's been suspicious of me since last week, when he caught me tearing up looking at videos of dogs greeting their army owners home from war. (To be fair, I'm not usually one for such blatant sentimentality, but those videos really get to me.) Since then, I've looked into emotional support animals for PTSD victims, and I've realized that Simon's the perfect candidate. I've spoken to his therapist about it, and she agrees that it could be helpful.
But Simon doesn't like admitting he needs other people. He's just barely started to let me in, after America, after everything that happened afterwards at Watford. So I need to be delicate about this. I need to ease him into it.
Thus, my plan to suggest a Thai food restaurant that just so happens to be next to an animal shelter formed.
I forgot that Snow's assumptions about my plotting tendencies are still somewhat ingrained in him, even if he will admit that my plots now are ones that are largely borne out of love.
We make our way through the hallways of floor to ceiling cages, all containing orphaned dogs. They've all got identical spaces: same brown bed, same metal water and food bowls, same singular rope toy. Even the way all of the toys are nearly torn apart, a symbol of a well-loved possession, is the same. It reminds me inexplicably of Snow and his infernal red ball, and I feel a pang of regret for all the times I teased him for his obsession with it when we were kids.
"Want to play with any of them?" I ask Snow, taking care to make my voice softer (but not too soft, lest he thinks I'm coddling him.) (He hates that.)
He shrugs, so I have the secondary school-aged volunteer let us into a few cages. Snow seems disengaged, and I begin to worry this idea is just a misplaced whim, a fruitless idea.
That all changes when we see her.
She's beautiful, with a dark golden brown coat and a great thumping tail. She's got her entire muzzle in her food bowl, eating with a wild glee I recognize immediately.
"Hey," I say as I pull gently on Snow's hand. "That one reminds me of you."
"Fuck off, Baz," he says to me. But his eyes are on the dog, and he walks toward the front of the cage, his expression soft and admiring.
I look at the dog's identifying information pinned to the cage's gate on a laminated page reading: 'Buttercup. Golden Retriever. Two years old. Loves breakfast and tug of war.'
The teenage volunteer lets me and Snow into the dog's cage. Buttercup seems a bit wary of me (most animals are; I think they can sense I'm more of a predator than humans are), but she is clearly delighted by Snow. Simon looks a bit taken aback by the dog's enthusiasm as she crashes overzealously onto him.
"Oomph!" he exclaims, as the beast attacks his hand with kisses. Then, as he sits onto the floor, she scrambles onto his lap and moves on to licking his cheek with singular focus and enthusiasm. (I've never related more to a dog.)
"I think she likes you, Snow," I tease, with only a tinge of smugness in my voice.
Simon is trying not to show how pleased he is with the dog’s affection, but it’s not working. His ears are going pink and there’s a brightness in his eyes I recognize as wonder.
I sit beside Snow, slowly, as to not startle Buttercup. Snow grabs my hand, and Buttercup takes this as a sign that I am trustworthy, and goes to lick our clasped hands. My heart squeezes at the tenderness of it.
“We should get her,” I murmur.
Snow narrows his eyes. “I thought we were ' just looking',” he responds in a poor imitation of my accent.
"Well. I thought..." I clear my voice to give myself time to find the right words—the ones that won't set Simon off. "Wouldn't it be nice to get a dog?"
Snow frowns. "Like, split custody? One week at yours and one at mine?"
"No…" I pull the Emotional Support Animal paperwork out of my leather satchel. Might as well get it over with. "I thought you could adopt her."
Snow takes the forms from me and begins reading, his frown deepening with every second that passes by. Nerves coil in my stomach, remembering fights where he's claimed I've overstepped in my involvement with his mental health. He always takes it back later, but the memories are an unpleasant deterrence nonetheless.
But I really think he needs this—that it would help. All my research suggests it's a great coping mechanism for PTSD, and that someone like Simon, who struggles so much to express himself verbally, would benefit from a companion that doesn't expect him to say much of anything.
When Snow looks up at me, he's not angry; worse, he looks frightened.
"I'm going to end up killing her; I can't even keep a plant alive," Snow says with earnest concern. “What if she startles me and I’ve got a knife in my hand?”
It is a testament of how much I've improved as a partner that I don't bring up that Husky Simon killed back in sixth year. (It was absolutely not were.)
“Come off it. She’s a dog, not a dark creature. You’re not going to slaughter her.”
“I don’t kill dark creatures,” he responds defensively.
“Exactly. So you won’t kill fluffy ones.”
He bites his bottom lip and looks back at Buttercup. I can tell he wants to say yes, that he likes her. He just needs another little push.
“Simon,” I whisper, foregoing all efforts to hide the softness—a tone I save just for him. “I trust you. You’d be a great dog dad.”
Simon flashes me his blue eyes, a shade of sky I’ll never tire of. His apprehension seems to slip from his face, encouraged by my earnestness. By the time he looks back to Buttercup, his face is resolute in a way I recognize from his days as the Chosen One. (And from America, and from the situation at Watford.)
“Alright, then. But you’ll be the one dealing with Penny if Buttercup tears up our furniture.”
"Buttercup, please, please, please ," I beg to no avail. Buttercup knocks over a cup of tea with her wagging tail and the mug shatters on the ground.
She mistakes my pleading as playing and cheerily jumps atop me. I forgot to go to the groomers and get her nails clipped—even though Baz reminded me twice — so in the process of tackling me, she rips a hole in my already tattered trackies.
I'm trying to decide whether to just lock her into my room to quarantine her destruction when I hear the front door handle jostling.
Baz opens the front door, and meaningfully pauses to take in the situation that is the living room.
"I…" he starts, and stops. He's at a loss for words.
The living room is in a state of complete chaos; in the fight between me and Buttercup, she's won. In the three hours since Baz went to class, in addition to the tea stain on the rug, she's torn apart several throw pillows, and the carpet and couch are covered in muddy tracks from her paws.
"Clean As A Whistle. Good as New," Baz casts, and everything magically flies back to its place.
This should make me feel better, him fixing everything with a wave of his hand. Instead, it enrages me.
"I can't do this! I'm done!" I yell, and throw my hands up. My sudden movement startles Buttercup, who was previously nipping at my toes. "She's too much! I can't train her! She doesn't listen to me! Ever! She's rowdy, messy, stubborn, and too headstrong for her own good!"
She's been a hurricane since we brought her home two weeks ago. I don't know why I expected anything different from her—she introduced herself to me by knocking her body into mine. On the walk home she was tugging at me, wanting to sniff everything, wanting to see everything. It was sweetly endearing, and it made my heart ache. But she hasn't gotten better behaved since. I just thought—I mean— don't dogs calm down? Eventually?
Baz and Buttercup are looking at me with matching wide eyes. Then, Baz starts to laugh. A full-bodied, loud, unselfconscious laugh that I'd love in any other circumstance.
"What the bloody hell are you laughing at? "
"I'm sorry," he says through his chuckles as he wipes the tears at the corner of his eye. Buttercup has gravitated towards his joy, and he sets a hand on the top of her head and pets her ear. "Were you describing the dog or yourself?"
I growl, and it makes him laugh even harder.
"Snow—" he starts but I take a step back from him.
"No." I know I'm being irrational. But I'm just so frustrated . I can't manage to do anything right. I can't even take care of a fucking dog. I plop down on the couch in defeat and press my palms to the back of my eyelids, trying to push the angry tears back into my head.
The tension is palpable. I can feel Baz's anxious energy even from across the room, even with my eyes closed. I can feel him holding himself back the way he never used to when we were at school, back when I was fiery and powerful and whole. I want him to come over and put his arms around me. I want him to turn around and leave out the front door. I want to scream at the duality of my wishes, at the way that I can never seem to manage to get what I want either way.
I'm about to start sobbing or screaming, when I feel a wet lick on my knee.
I lower my damp hands to my lap and look into Buttercup's soft brown eyes. She's got her head cocked and her puppy dog eyes on in full force as she nudges my fingers with her nose. I move my hands to my sides and she crawls into my lap.
My heart twists as she nuzzles against my chest. I let out a breath at the affectionate contact; I run my hands through her fur and it makes her tail wag contentedly.
I stay like that for several moments, letting her lick my hand and returning her concerned gazes with my own looks of bewilderment. The tears dry on my cheeks; though, I don't even realize they're there until she licks them away.
"She loves you so much," Baz murmurs. I can't look at him quite yet—it's still hard sometimes, to make eye contact— so I just look at her. It's not as hard having Buttercup touch and look at me as it is to have other people touch and look at me. She's a good compromise between my two opposite desires, the need for physical affection and the aversion to it. I let myself calm down with her in my arms.
Baz breaks the silence with a tentative, "Fancy a walk to the park?" At the word 'walk', Buttercup's tail starts thumping against the couch. Her enthusiasm makes me smile, and I gently push her off my lap so I can change into something decent. Buttercup follows me into my bedroom and jumps around my ankles as I pull some jeans and Baz's football hoodie on. (I catch a glimpse of the way he lights up at my choice of attire, though I'm still not ready to look him in the eye quite yet.)
We make our way to Brockley Park in silence. Baz has grabbed a football from his car, so when we get to an open field, we let Buttercup off the lead to run around while Baz and I kick the ball back and forth. He's going easy on me—way too easy, from what I remember from the countless times I watched him play at Watford. I hate when he babies me, so I purposely kick the ball too far to the left and too far to the right so he has to go running after it.
After I've done this a half dozen times, he finally says something about it.
"We're not playing fetch, Snow." His voice is an attempt at lightness, but there's a tension thrumming underneath it. I kick the ball hard and it goes flying into a tree.
He huffs out a noise of protest. Good, I think. He's more honest when he's annoyed.
"Admit you're mad." He looks shocked by my outburst, and it nettles me. "I'm rubbish at taking care of Buttercup, because I can barely take care of myself, and it bothers you."
"Don't lie ," I run an agitated hand through my hair. "I can feel you holding back. You're always walking on eggshells with me."
"I just. I don't know what to say." (Sometimes I wonder if too much of me is rubbing off on him.) (Then I hear him rant about the value of Oscar Wilde spells and I'm reassured he's still very Baz.) But I growl in annoyance at this response, so he proceeds with, "I don't want to overstep. You don't like it when I'm too… involved."
He's trying to hide his hurt, but he's not very good at that. (At least, not with me, not any more.)
"I'm sorry," I say, and hope he hears all the apologies behind it. I'm sorry I've pushed you away. I'm sorry I haven't made things easy on you. I'm sorry I can be moody and petulant and I do stupid things like kick your football into a tree when I'm mad.
I think he hears me, hears what I'm really trying to say. Because when he responds, there's a fierce, determined love in his voice. "You have nothing to be sorry for."
I smile and he returns it, and the sight of him happy is so beautiful it's nearly blinding. Sometimes (most of the time), when I look at him, it's hard to believe he's really mine. Times like this, when I realize how much we had to go through to get to this place. Where we still mess up and fight, but at the end of the day, we're still here for each other.
Maybe it's not the ending I always anticipated—the ride off into the sunset after defeating the Humdrum. Maybe it's harder. But it's better. It's better because it's Baz, and he can make the darkest day brighter with his smile.
"I love you." I say it fast, so it comes out as one word. Iloveyou. I've been making myself say it out loud to his face, though it doesn't ever get less scary.
But there is a cure: the fear begins to dissipate from my chest when he responds, "I love you too."
Baz casts a spell to get the football down, and we go back to passing it back and forth (this time, I'm playing for real, not being petty to spite him). Buttercup joins in, chasing the football back and forth between us, and then it really does turn into a game of fetch. By the time the sun sets over the trees in the horizon, I've all but forgotten the stress of the morning.
I wake to the quiet clicks of Penny's boots in the kitchen. The television has the "Are you still watching The Great British Bake Off?" screen on, and Baz is laying between my legs, asleep on my chest with Buttercup on his lap. The touching started slowly tonight; we grew together like vines from episode to episode. It's easier like this; me touching him rather than the other way around. It's not as scary, especially with Buttercup's sweetness to ease the tension.
"Hey," Penny whispers, taking a seat on the arm of the couch. "I tried to be quiet coming in. You looked tired."
"Long day," I say with a crooked smile.
"Did Buttercup behave herself?"
I snort a small laugh; it's almost funny now, in hindsight. "Of course not."
"She wear you guys out?"
I look down at Baz. It's my favorite time to look at him, when he's asleep. He looks so young and peaceful.
"Can you believe we used to think he was a super villain?"
My question causes Penny to let out a loud laugh, and Baz stirs in my lap and opens one eye.
"I could've been, Snow," he grumbles.
I brush a lock of his hair behind his ear, and he sighs. I can tell he's trying not to smile.
"Sure, Baz," I murmur. I see Buttercup squirm in Baz's lap; then, he grins for real at her.
Watching them, I realize: this isn't a happily ever after—it's the messy, lovely middle.
And that's all the much better.