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“I may have accidentally adopted five cats.”

You look up from the paperwork in front of you to take in the woman speaking. She’s got an odd smile on her face, as though what she’s claiming to have done is more endearing than crazy. You blink slowly and stand up straight.

“Excuse me?”

“Well, see, my daughter recently moved away from home, and the house has been so lonely since. I mean, Frank’s around every other day, but that’s just not the same, you know? Plus I’m thinking about kicking him to the curb, so clearly what I need is a companion! A loyal companion. Someone to take home and look after and, well, I might have fallen in love with five of them.”

“Falling in love isn’t the same thing as adopting.”

“I also filled out all the appropriate paperwork.”

“For all five?”

“For all five.”

You lick at the backs of your teeth. “Lady, I appreciate that you wanna help all these animals, but you know I can’t let you take five cats home with you, right?”

“I - I suppose I’m going to have to choose just one, then aren’t I?”

You sigh. You really need to get back to the paperwork in front of you, but this woman seems one bad day away from becoming another crazy cat lady, and you can’t let that happen. Again.

But this lady … she looks so earnest, so eager, and you can’t say no to her. You know how to weed out the good from the bad, and though she might seem a little batty, she’s clearly a good person.

You take a look around the reception area of the shelter. The only other people hanging around are the two redheads by the fish tank - the hot guy and the younger girl - so you’ve got a few minutes to spare.

“Okay, Miss -”

“Oh! Call me Sheila.”

“Right, Sheila. You got the adoption papers with you?” She hands them over with a crooked smile, and you take them, flipping through them. “You say your kid just left town?”

“That’s right. I mean, she was only around for the summer, you know? Now she’s back off to college.”

“Uh-huh. And you got some guy living with you?”

“Frank’s around every now and then. He doesn’t really keep to a schedule. He’s in and out as he pleases.”

“Right.” That takes Mitsy and JoJo out of the list, then; Misty can’t be around men and JoJo is a strictly indoor cat. “You got any other pets?”

“No, sir!” she says, bouncing a little.

“You ever had a pet before?”

“Well. No.”

You look up and hand back the three files still available to her. “That’s okay. Here, you got any preference?”

She looks down at the files and smiles. “They’re all so lovely.”

“They are.”

“And they all deserve such nice homes.”

“They do.”

“And - and I’m sure whatever ones I don’t take will be adopted out eventually, right?”

“They will.”

She pauses. “What one do you think I should take?”

You sigh. “This Frank dude, he doesn’t sound like a reliable kind of guy.”

Someone snorts behind her and you look to see the two redheads watching you. Both their faces are perfectly composed as they quickly turn away, though, so you narrow your eyes and look back at Sheila.

She makes a face. “Well, just between you and me, he’s kind of useless.”

You want to ask why she keeps him around, then, but you’ve learned from that mistake. “And you’re thinking about getting rid of him, right?”

She leans close to stage-whisper. “Yes.”

“Get a dog,” you tell her. “Lucy’s a Doberman-cross whose litter was recently adopted out. She’s feisty but loyal, and she’s still got her protective motherly instinct. You take her home, give her the love she deserves, and she’ll have your back no matter what.”

“Oh.” Sheila nods. “A dog. I hadn’t thought of that.”

“You wanna take a look at her? She’s mean looking, but she’s a big softie.”

Sheila nods seriously. “I think she sounds wonderful.”

You grin and make the quick call out back. Once Sheila’s set up with Jasmine, ready to learn the essentials of dog-owning, you turn back to the reception area. The two redheads are still there, crouched down by the entrance, petting Samson.

You walk over to them, not even pretending that you’re not checking out the guy’s ass. Once you’re right behind them you clear your throat.

“Please stop petting the test subjects.”

The both jump to their feet and the girl looks so indignant that you have to fight a smirk. You look at the guy, hoping to share your amusement, but he just looks concerned.

“That’s not funny,” the girl snaps.

“Who’s joking?”

“You better be joking. Did you know that over one-hundred million animals are burned, crippled, poisoned, and abused in American labs every year?”

“I did, but thanks, Google.”

She blushes and the guy wraps an arm around her shoulder. “Don’t mind Debbie. She’s been on a bit of an animal rights kick lately.”

You nod. “It’s a good kick to be on.”

“Says the guy calling his dog a test subject.”

“Maybe I’m callin’ you two the test subjects, ever think of that?”

“Oh yeah?” She crosses her arms in front of her and cocks her hips. “How exactly does that work?”

You nod at Samson. “You think we placed a beagle right in front of the door by accident? This boy is a fucking pro at keeping out the assholes. He’s got a good nose on him.”

The guy cracks his first smile since you arrived. “Really? He’s good at sniffing out the assholes.”

You grin. “Exactly.”

“You two are gross,” Debbie grumbles.

“Hey, are you two assholes?”

“Of course not.”

“Then he’s doing his job, ain’t he?”

Debbie huffs and pushes her hair away from her face. “Look, I called yesterday and spoke to a girl named Mandy about coming in and talking to someone. I’m doing an article for my school newspaper.”

“Mandy never mentioned anything about that.”

“Well, is she here?”

“Nope. But I can show you around if you want.”

“I don’t know. I mean, Mandy’s the one I talked to on the phone, so -”

“Mandy doesn’t even work here, kid. She’s a volunteer, and she only volunteers because it goes towards the community service hours she owes.”

“Oh.”

You shrug. “I probably spend more time here than at my own place. C’mon, let me show you guys around.”

She looks at the guy she’s with. You do the same. He’s frowning, looking agitated, and you don’t know his name, let alone anything about him, but there’s something about him and you really want to introduce him to the kids. You want the smile that graces everyone’s face when they see them to appear on his.

“Hey.” You reach forward and slightly nudge his arm with your knuckles. “C’mon, I wanna show you something.”

He looks at you and you smile easily at him. It takes him a few moments to smile back, but when he does it’s small and beautiful and surrounded by a perfect blush.

Debbie steps forward, suddenly all smiles towards you. “This is Ian, my older brother. He just got back from the army!”

“Debs,” Ian says, his blush spreading down his neck.

“Military man, huh?”

“Let me guess,” Debbie intercepts, “you’ve always had a thing for guys in uniform.”

Instead of replying you just smirk at Ian. He snorts and looks away, and Debbie looks like she’s trying her best not to jump up and down in excitement.

“C’mon, the kids are this way.”

“Kids?” they both ask.

You lead them past the counter and out of the large foyer. Through the swing door you take them past the room with the cats, past Sheila and Lucy and the other dogs, and into the spacious backyard. Once out the backdoor you make them sanitise their hands before leading them over to a back corner of the yard.

“This place is surprisingly huge,” Debbie says.

“Yeah. Can’t have a small backyard for big dogs, you know?”

“You let them out here?”

“Of course. Not all at once, but they all get their turn.”

She nods and writes something down in her notebooks.

“Here,” you say, and crouch down to the baby goats, “are the kids. Their mother was brought in a couple of months back, heavily pregnant. She didn’t make it, but these guys are doing okay.”

“Where the hell did someone find a goat in the middle of the city?” Ian asks, crouching down next to you.

“You’d be surprised by the animals we get brought here.”

Debbie drops to her knees right next to Ian. “Oh my God, they’re so cute! Can I pat them?”

You cock an eyebrow; both kids are already pushing at the fence, waiting to be fed or petted or paid any kind of attention. “Go for it.”

“I should question every past use of kid in reference to me,” she tells Ian, “but they’re just so adorable that I don’t even care.”

You get to your feet and watch them both, feeling pretty fucking good about yourself. They’re both grinning like idiots, and Ian’s got this soft look in his eyes that you’re already far too fond of.

“This is really cool of you,” he says, and looks up at you. “I get the feeling this isn’t standard procedure? Letting the locals in to look at the babies?”

You shrug. “Dude, your sister’s writing an article about the place; I want it to sound as amazing as possible.”

“You’re doing a great job so far!” Debbie calls up, arms thrust through the gaps in the fence to get closer to the kids. “But please pull me away from these guys eventually; I do have actual questions to ask before I can write my article.”

You thumb at your bottom lip. “Hey, you guys should come back tomorrow. We’re having an open day for the public; wouldn’t that make a better article than the boring day-to-day shit I do here?”

“What happens at an open day?”

“The public gets all access to the entire shelter. They get to look around, see how things work here and how the animals live - it’s mostly a ploy to get people in here, get them feeling guilty enough to adopt or donate, but it helps in the long run. The more people who know about us, the less people who just dump their pets in a gutter somewhere.”

Ian stands. “That sounds amazing. Everything here is amazing.”

“Amazing, huh? And all you’ve seen so far are the kids.”

“I don’t think he’s talking about the kids,” Debbie says.

You grin, but Ian just scowls down at her and shoves his hands in his pockets. You don’t know if it’s because Debbie’s embarrassed him or because she’s way off base, but you take a step back anyway, just as your phone dings.

You quickly check it and slide the reminder closed. When you look back up at Ian, he’s staring at you with an odd expression on his face. You cock an eyebrow and he looks away. You lick your lips, unsure if he’s playing some kind of game with you, but willing to try a little harder.

“It’s a fun day. Lots of cool stuff for younger kids if you know any, and there’s a raffle or two, and pretty decent food.”

Debbie stands. “Liam would love it.”

“Yeah,” Ian says. “You want to come back tomorrow?”

She looks at you. “All access, you say?”

“Yeah … but stop giving me that look. You’re not gonna find anything shady here.”

She sighs. “I just want one Deep Throat in my career as a journalist! Is that too much to ask?”

“Yes!” Ian insists. “Yes it is.”

You cough. “Uh, anyway. You guys should definitely come back tomorrow. It’s getting late in the day now, and I don’t know if I’ll have much time to show you around before close up procedure begins, but … uh, you guys wanna help me feed the kids? It’s their dinner time, and they’re still getting bottles, so it’s pretty fucking cool.”

The smiles they give you are identical and you can’t help but grin back.

-----

Open Day is just as fun as you told Ian and Debbie it was, but it’s also fucking insane. It’s your favourite and least favourite day of every three months. You look forward to it and you dread it. You have cool dreams about it in the nights after it, and fucking nightmares about it in the days leading up to it.

You don’t get paid enough for this shit.

The parking lot is packed full; face-painters, balloon makers, bouncy castles, food stalls, everything the public could need or want to entice them in. Inside is the complete opposite. When you head back inside after helping a family with their newly adopted puppy, you’re able to take a much needed breather.

Other than the few people walking in and out, stopping to pet Samson, or filling out adoption applications at the counter, inside is clean and clear of any of the outside hustle. There are still too many people around for your liking - there’s a reason you work with animals and not humans - but it’s okay. It’s good, even. Good for the animals.

You like how busy it is, though. You like that it’s been so damn busy all fucking morning that you haven’t had a second to think about Ian and his soft eyes and his slow smile. You haven’t had a second to think about his almost shy wave when they left the evening before, about his throaty chuckle when you told him the kid’s were called Jules and Vincent, and they way he licked his lips when he caught you staring.

You haven’t had a chance to think about how much you’ve been thinking about him and about how much you shouldn’t be thinking about him.

Stupid good-looking fucker.

“Mickey!” Jasmine calls, thankfully ending the thirty second break of not thinking about Ian. “Herb’s limping again. You want me to call the doc?”

“Which leg?” Herb’s only two, but he has early onset arthritis in two legs, one much worse than the other. You know how to treat his left leg, but when Jasmine tells you it’s his right leg, you nod. “Yeah, call the doc. He’ll come by and take Herb down to the clinic.”

“Okay. Also Mandy called, said she’s running late.”

“Yeah, I figured that when she didn’t show up three hours ago.”

She snorts. “Yeah, well, we’re lucky she’s so good with the animals. One last thing - there’s a guy back there who’s been asking for you.”

She points behind you and you turn to find Ian looking at the fish tank again. Your heart thuds stupidly in your chest, but you fight the dumb grin that wants to appear. You thank Jasmine, tell her you’ve got your cell on you if an emergency comes up, and head over to Ian.

“Hey,” you say when you reach him. “All alone today?”

He turns and smiles. “Nah, Debbie’s outside with Carl and Liam.”

“Carl and Liam. Both brothers?” you ask, way too obvious, but he just continues to smile.

“Yeah, both younger. Liam’s fucking loving the balloons and shit, and Carl’s pretending he’s just here for the food we promised, but I know he’s desperate to get out there and see the kids.”

Your heart sinks. “Uh, the kids aren’t here. It’s just - it’s such a huge day, you know? And they’re still so young that they tend to panic with too many dogs and people around. We’ve sent them to a foster home for the day.”

Ian’s smile falls. “Oh. Well, that’s okay. We like all animals, not just goats.”

“You guys could always come back and see them another day,” you push. “We’re not open tomorrow, but anytime next week is cool.”

“We’ll see.”

He doesn’t say anything else for a while, and you’re left standing next to him, confused. You don’t know if he’s pissed about the goats not being there, or if he’s just run out of words. You’re also not sure if you should leave. You bite your lip and look around the room. When you look back at Ian, he’s watching you.

You smirk. “You wanna take a look around?”

“Sure, man.”

You push past the crowd of people milling about the front counter and take him out the back. “Cats or dogs?”

He shrugs. “Never really had a preference.”

“Really? Everyone has a preference.”

“They do?”

“Sure. Everyone’s either a cat person or a dog person.”

“Which are you?”

You open your mouth to reply, but pause when you realise you can’t. “Shit.”

“No preference?”

You glare at him. “It’s not that I don’t have a preference, I just … I love all animals equally.”

“I can tell.”

“What do you mean?”

He shrugs, hands buried deep in his jeans pockets. “I dunno. You just seem really into your job. It’s nice.”

You don’t know what to say and you can fucking feel yourself blushing, so you turn away and open the door to the dogs room. Most of the dogs who haven’t had to go into foster care for the day are outside, but there’s still a couple inside. Including Tinkerbelle.

You slowly make your way down the room, past the cages, and point out each dog as you go.

“This is Conan. He’s been in and out of here for months now. People adopt him and then bring him back because he’s too boisterous for them.”

“You don’t believe them?”

“Oh, I believe them, but he’s not even two years old! He’s still a goddamn puppy. As far as I’m concerned, if people don’t want a boisterous dog, then they should adopt fucking Lassie.”

Ian grins. “I’d like a Lassie. You got one up for adoption?”

You glance back at him, happy to see his amused expression. “You’re a dick.”

He laughs and it’s loud and dumb and you’re totally into it. You shake your head at yourself and continue with the dogs.

“This is Millie. She just came in a few days ago, but she’s a little more aggressive than I’d like. We’re working on that. I’m totally confident she’ll come around, but I don’t trust her out with the public yet.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Sure. Just don’t look at her when she’s eating.” You point to the two mongrel pups up in a higher cage. “Check out these guys, they’re only six weeks old.”

Ian’s entire face lights up. “Holy shit.”

“Yeah, pretty cute, huh?”

He glances at you then looks right back at the puppies. “Didn’t take you for the kind of guy who uses the word cute.”

“Oh?”

“The knuckle tattoos don’t exactly scream cute.”

You pout. “You don’t think I’m cute?”

Ian shrugs. “Didn’t say that.”

“So you do think I’m cute?”

“Didn’t say that, either.”

You don’t respond. You reach up and unlatch the door to the puppies’ cage, allowing Ian to reach in his hand and pet them. You stand to the side, leaning against an empty cage, and watch him; his hair is long, ears lightly sunburned, and he’s got a five o’clock shadow that you kind of want to rub your mouth over, but whatever. It’s cool. He’s just another guy. Just a guy whose shirt shows off his clavicle.

Fuck.

You clear your throat. “So you were in the army, huh?”

He pulls his hand out of the cage. “Yeah.”

“That’s pretty intense, man.”

He shrugs and slips his hands back into his jeans pockets. He leans back against the empty cages, looking dejected. “It’s nothing.”

“I know a lot of people who would disagree.”

“Yeah, well, a lot of people don’t know shit.”

You suck your bottom lip into your mouth for a moment. You want to say something encouraging, but you know he’s right. Hell, you don’t know shit, but you do know that Joey came back from Afghanistan three years ago a completely different person with a growing alcohol addiction and missing one arm.

“How long are you back for?” you ask, knowing you should change the subject but unable to do so completely.

“For good.”

“Oh yeah? What’s the plan next?”

He frowns at you. “What do you mean?”

“Just, you know - work, school, the future.”

“You sound like Lip and Fiona,” he says, scoffing and looking away.

You don’t know who Lip and Fiona are, but you don’t think you want to sound like them. Or that you have any right to sound like them.

“Sorry, man, didn’t mean anything by it.”

“It’s fine.”

It doesn’t sound fine. You rub a hand over your mouth. “C’mon, there’s one dog in particular I wanna introduce you to.”

He pushes himself off the cages. “Is that how you talk about all the animals?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like they’re people.”

This isn’t the first time you’ve been accused of doing this, so you just shrug and head further into the room.

“I like it,” he says, following you.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. It reminds me of being a teenager.”

You glance back at him. “I don’t get it.”

“Just … remember being a kid and surrounded by adults who treat like you like a kid? When all you wanted was to be treated like a grown up?”

“I guess?” Honestly, you don’t remember ever being treated like a real kid. “Wouldn’t that be a bad thing to be reminded of?”

“Yeah, I’m not really making a lot of sense, am I?”

You begin walking backwards so you can watch him. “Not so much.”

He grins. “What I’m trying to say is that you treat these animals better than most people I know treat other people, and that’s awesome. It’s just sad not everyone’s like that, you know? Pretty sure all the animals in here deserve to be treated better than half the people I know.”

A smile pulls at your lips. “You joining your sister on this animal rights kick?”

He shrugs. “Guess I just didn’t realise how bad they had it until she started. And until we came here.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, man, did you know there are fifteen animal shelters in the south and west of Chicago alone?”

“I did.”

“Me and Debs checked out their websites before coming here, and they’re full. Like, maybe not completely, but there are a lot of animals up for adoption.”

You stop a few feet away from Tinkerbelle. “Sucks, huh?”

“Yeah.” He crouches low, eyes on Tinkerbelle. “Who’s this?”

“This is Tinkerbelle. She’s my girl.”

He’s silent for a moment, and you use that time to get down on your knees next to Tinkerbelle’s cage. You open the door to pat her.

“I honestly don’t know what to ask you about first,” he says. “I mean, there’s the obvious scars on her face, but there’s also the fact that you own a dog - a really mean looking dog - and her name is Tinkerbelle.”

He’s smirking at you but his gaze hasn’t left Tink. You reach out and rub her head while she looks warily up at Ian. She’s not mean looking, not even in the slightest. Her face is covered in angry scars, but one look into her eyes and it’s nothing but love.

“Dude, there’s nothing wrong with her name.”

He looks at you. “Mickey. Her name is Tinkerbelle! You’re just - you’re not living up to the Southside thug image I’ve created in my head.”

“Southside thug, huh?”

“It’s the knuckle tattoos.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And the reputation.”

You cock an eyebrow. “Reputation?”

“Milkovich, right?”

Your heart sinks and you turn to face Tinkerbelle. “How’d you figure that one out?”

“The tats. Everyone on the south side knows all Milkoviches have fuck u-up inked on them somewhere.”

You say nothing. You only met this guy yesterday, but you hate that he already knows you’re a Milkovich, hate that he knows the reputation of all Milkoviches. It’s not a good reputation; never has been and never will be. It doesn’t matter how much good you do with these animals, all people care about is your last name and the letters on your knuckles.

You lean closer to Tinkerbelle and she reaches up to lick at your face. You grimace slightly, but it’s only out of habit; affection from Tinkerbelle is a fucking gift and you’re the only one who’s ever received it. You’ll take it in whatever form she’s willing to give it.

“How’d you get her?” Ian asks.

You grit your teeth before answering. “You sure you wanna know? It’s not a nice story.”

“I’m not going to break.”

“She was bait for a dog fighting ring. I got to this abandoned building a couple of blocks away, no idea what I was walking into, and just …” You pause, anger making your entire hands shake, unable to tell him the entire story. “Once the fight was over they just threw her outside, not giving a fuck. So I got up and took her. Called the cops on my way out and brought Tink here.”

“Fuck.”

You shrug. “It was a lot worse than it sounds, man. It was fucking awful. I’ve seen a lot of shit growing up - being a Milkovich, you know? - but this was something else.”

“And she’s been yours ever since?”

“Once they patched her up. They weren’t going to. The place was under different management then, and they thought she was too far gone - both physically and mentally - but I insisted.” You look at Ian. “That’s how I ended up working here - volunteering my ass off every evening and weekend just to pay for everything they did for this girl.”

“Jesus, Mick.”

You look away. You don’t know if it’s the way he says your name or the utter admiration in his eyes that fills your stomach with the kind of butterflies you’re pretty sure only twelve-year-old girls get, but it’s something. And you like it. You like the way he says your name, the way he looks at you … you even like the way he looks at Tinkerbelle.

“She’s beautiful, though. You think she’ll let me pat her?” he asks.

You rub her head. “I doubt it. She doesn’t trust very easily. Hell, the only other person she’ll let touch her if I’m not around is Mandy, and that’s only because Mandy lived with us for a while.”

“You bring her in with you quite often?”

“Most days.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to keep coming in to gain her trust.”

When you look back at him he’s smiling that soft smile and it’s directed at you. You grin back, but the door opens before you can say anything.

“There you two are!” Debbie calls, coming down the aisle. Tinkerbelle cowers slightly as Ian stands and moves a few steps back.

“Give us a second, Debs.”

She stops and you mutter a bunch of reassuring things into Tink’s ear and until her tail begins wagging again. You get her back into her cage, dig a treat out of your pocket for her, and stand.

“Cute dog,” Debbie says, staring at Tink cautiously.

“Relax,” you say. “She’s anything but vicious and definitely more scared of you than you are of her.”

“What happened to her?”

“Dog fighting ring.”

Her eyes widen. “Holy shit, seriously?” She grabs her pen and paper out of her bag, but you quickly interject.

“Yeah, but she’s off limits. She’s not up for adoption so she doesn’t need to be in your story.”

“Sure, but can you tell me a bit more about the dog fighting rings? Not for this article, but for a future one. I knew they existed, but, shit, they’re actually going on in our backyard? That’s fucking bullshit.”

Ian frowns. “Language, Debs.”

“Seriously,” she continues, looking at you. “Would that be okay? If I came back another time and talked to you about that? It’s such a horrible thing, but people need to know about it! People need to know that it’s happening right in front of them.”

“You sure you want to write about that? It’s a nice thought, educating people about the shit that goes down with these breeds and others like them, but the gritty details aren’t for the weak. And they’re not easily forgotten.”

“I’m sure.”

You shrug. “Okay. You can come back if you really want to.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but only if you drag your brother along with you,” you say, throwing a smirk at Ian.

He blushes again and Debbie laughs. “Oh, I don’t think that will be a problem,” she says, and Ian’s hand reaches out to shove her before either of you see it.

-----

“I really like orange cats,” Liam says as you lead Ian and his family into the cat’s room. “Like Puss in Boots. He’s cool.”

“Puss in Boots is pretty badass,” you agree.

“But I like lions, too. Like Simba.”

“Simba’s cool, but we don’t have any lions here.”

He looks up at you like you’re an idiot. “Lions only live in Africa or the zoo. This isn’t Africa or the zoo.”

“Hey, Liam, this cat’s only got three legs!” Carl calls out before you can answer.

You turn to Ian and Debbie, but Ian’s already making his way down the row of cages full of cats, so you’re left alone with Debbie. She looks at you very seriously, pen poised.

“Tell me about what happens when it’s not open day. Do the dogs get to go outside? How many go out at once? When do their cages get cleaned? What about the cats? Do you let them outside, too?”

It’s dumb, so fucking dumb, how excited you are to have someone ask you questions about your job and seem genuinely interested. Even interested in when the cages get cleaned. You open your mouth to start rattling off facts, but she holds her pen up to stop you.

“Wait. Let me start again with one question at a time. Let’s start with the cats. Is there any specific setup you have going on here?”

You take a look around; Liam seems fascinated with Jerry, the three legged cat Carl had shown him; Carl had made the most of the notice that welcomes visitors to open the kitten cage and cuddle the hoard of kittens inside; and Ian was right down the other end, staring intently into one cage in particular.

Your heart pounds at the sight. You’re pretty sure that’s where Ella is being kept, cage locked.

“Mickey?”

You look back at Debbie, and there’s a knowing grin on her face. You ignore it and begin talking. “All cats get their own cages, except kittens, unless the situation is dire and we’re getting overcrowded. Sometimes things just can’t be helped and we’ll have to place some cats together, but it’s always ones we know are good with other cats.”

“Does that happen often? The overcrowding?”

“More often than I’d like.”

“What happens then? The website said this is a no-kill shelter, but -”

“No buts. The only animals who don’t get adopted out are the ones we keep living here, like Samson, or the ones who are too ill or injured to be kept alive.”

She nods, quickly scribbling in her notebook. “I noticed one door that was locked despite you telling me the public would have access to everything. Can you tell me about that?”

“That’s for the sick animals who need to be isolated. A lot of cats come in with upper respiratory infections, even in summer, and they need to be kept completely separate from the others.”

“Right, right.”

She continues writing and you look back at Ian. He’s got one finger between the bars of the cage, trying to coax Ella closer. You want to tell him to give up, that it won’t happen, but you can’t bring yourself to do so.

“He’s been through a hard time,” Debbie says, and you look back at her.

“What?”

“Ian. Don’t take it personally if he doesn’t respond to your flirting the way you want him to. He’s … adjusting.”

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talkin’ about.”

She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, okay. What about the dogs? Do they get walked often?”

“Twice a day.”

“Oh yeah? Who does that? You or the volunteers?”

You answer that question and all her ones that follow, but your mind is still on Ian and whatever the hell she was talking about. Yeah, you’ve been flirting your ass off with the guy, and yes, he hasn’t exactly reciprocated to your flirting as much as you would have liked, but … he’s adjusting? What does that even mean?

Adjusting to being home? Adjusting to being flirted with? Adjusting to being recently out? You have no fucking clue, but it feel just like when you had no right to sound like Lip or Fiona - you have no right to ask what he’s adjusting to.

You take another look at him, and this time your heart fucking pounds at the sight before you; Ella’s at the front of the cage, cautiously sniffing Ian’s offered hand. Ella, the cat who came in hissing and clawing at everyone, drawing blood on every available piece of skin she came in contact with. Ella, the cat who’s been here over two months and still won’t let anyone touch her without one hell of a fight. Ella, the cat you have to wear gloves around when the vet comes to check up on her.

Ella, the cat who is afraid of her own fucking shadow, has moved from her corner in her cage to willingly interact with a human.

You leave Debbie without another word, barely hearing her call of protest, and walk straight up to Ian. Ella slinks away the moment she senses you and Ian turns to you, eyes wide.

“She’s beautiful,” he says, and he said the same thing about Tinkerbelle and Millie, but when he says it about Ella there’s something in his voice that makes you smile.

“You like her, huh?”

“She’s amazing.”

“She seems to like you, too.”

He smiles. “Yeah? You think?”

You lean against the empty cage next to Ella’s and cross your arms. “She came in over two months ago - hurt, violent, fucking terrified - and you’re the only person she’s allowed near her.”

“What?”

“We don’t know her whole story,” you tell him, “but she shows definite signs of abuse and neglect. There were some scars and injuries on her that I simply won’t tell you about, and the only way we can move her is with those.” You point to the Kevlar-lined gloves on the shelf behind him, the ones used for the more violent animals.

“But - but why? Why would anyone do that to her?”

“Dude, I ask myself that same question everyday about almost every animal we get.”

He swallows and looks back at Ella. He slips his fingers into the cage again, gently trying to coax her closer, but she doesn’t move. She’s got that look on her face now that you’re there, the one she reserves for everyone. Everyone except Ian, apparently.

“She’s had a tough life,” he says, and you nod. “I guess they all have, really.”

You shrug. “Not all of them. Some just need to be re-homed, some are just babies, like the pups we saw before.”

“I wish I could take them all home,” Carl says, and you turn to face him. “I wish I could take them all some place safe and kill the fuckers who hurt them.”

“Me too,” Debbie says, and Liam nods in agreement.

Ian frowns at his siblings, so you do the same.

“I get where you guys are comin’ from, but I bet these guys would prefer you to come visit them again than to end up in juvie because of them.”

Liam’s eyes widen. “Really? We can come again?”

“Anytime you like,” you tell him, but it’s directed at Ian.

-----

Once open day is over and the public have left, you let Tinkerbelle out of her cage. She stays at your heels as you sort out the day’s paperwork, but looks around calmly at the volunteers, even wags her tail and allows a couple of them to reach down and pet her.

“She’s getting so good,” Mandy says, sweeping the reception area, teasing Samson with her broom.

“She’s taking her time with it.” You’ve had Tinkerbelle for nearly four years now, and though her physical recovery went well, her mental and emotional recovery is ongoing. She’s not violent or dangerous, just scared. Shit, she fucking crawls into bed with you when there’s a storm out.

“But remember how she was when you first brought her in? Once she was all patched up? It even took you weeks to get near her without her freaking out.”

“That’s true.”

“You’ve done real well with her, Mick.”

“Uh, thanks?”

“I bet Ian thinks so, too.”

Your head snaps up. “The fuck did you just say?”

She grins. “Ian. You know, the dead sexy redhead you were hanging out with all day?”

“I … it wasn’t all day,” you mutter, and you can fucking feel your face heat up.

“Sure it wasn’t. I totally didn’t spend an hour talking to his sister about how to clean the cages out while you introduced Ian to your child.”

You flip her off, knowing that she’s referring to Tink. “Shut the fuck up.”

“He’s hot,” she says, as if you weren’t utterly aware of this. “Bet he’d look fucking good in that army uniform of his.”

You bristle at that and you’re not sure why. “Leave it alone, yeah?”

“Leave what alone?”

“Ian and … just, everything. He’s hot, but that’s it. I doubt I’ll ever see the guy again.”

“Bullshit.” She strings the words out to sing them like an idiot. “If you didn’t see the way that guy looked at you then you’re fucking blind.”

You don’t reply and Mandy, thankfully, doesn’t say anything else about it. You frown down at the papers in front of you, though, your spare hand going down to rest on Tinkerbelle’s head. You didn’t see the way Ian looked at you, the way Mandy claimed he had looked at you, but you’re sure it has nothing to do with your eyesight.

Adjusting or not, you get the distinct impression that Ian’s not into you.

-----

That impression evaporates three days later when Ian turns up at the shelter, mid-morning, alone and soaked through. You stare at him when he comes through the door, unable to stop looking at the way his t-shirt clings to his body, and for the first time that day, you thank everyone you can think of for the downpour.

You get to your feet as he makes his way towards you, but don’t say anything. You’re not really sure what to say, so you stand there and watch as he stops in front of you and places a box and a cup on the counter.

Your mouth opens a couple of times before you finally settle on: “What’s that?”

“Pie.”

“Pie?”

“Pie.”

“Okay.”

“And coffee.”

“Coffee?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

He shrugs. You bite at your lip. He looks so fucking sexy, and all you really want to do is peel his wet t-shirt off his skin and lick up every droplet of water you can see …

“You’re soaked.”

He waves an arm towards the door. “It’s raining.”

“True.” He’s silent and you’re silent and behind the counter Tink presses her body closer to your leg. You sigh. “This might be the most detached conversation I’ve ever had in my life.”

His eyebrows are furrowed when he looks up at you, but he relaxes into a smile when he sees you’re teasing.

“I work casual shifts at Patsy’s Pies,” he explains. “I just finished the night shift and I thought …”

Something in your chest skips a little. “You thought?”

“I hope you like blueberry,” he says. “That’s all that was left, but the coffee’s fresh.”

“I’m definitely not opposed to blueberry.” You reach for the coffee and it smells fucking amazing. “So, what? You just finished the night shift and thought you would …”

“I wanted to see Ella again.”

It should be disappointment that floods through you when he says nothing about you, but all you feel is somewhat amazed. “You do?”

“Yeah. Would that be okay?”

“Yeah, man, of course.” You leave the pie where it is but keep the coffee with you. You lure Tinkerbelle into her bed beneath the counter and instruct her not to move until you’re back. Once she’s gnawing gently at her favourite toy - an old squeaky bone that lost its squeak years ago - you lead Ian out back.

“She won’t freak out if someone comes in?” he asks.

“Nah. She’ll stay where she is, unseen and unnoticed. Jasmine’s the only other person here, but Tink likes her enough … well, enough to sit and watch her without fear.” Ian frowns, but you ignore it and grab an old towel for him. “Yeah, they’re for the animals, but it’s clean, I swear.”

He grins and pats himself dry while you make a note in the clipboard next to the door, and then let him inside.

The room is seven cats emptier than it was when Ian was here last, and you put that entirely down to the open day. You’re still more full than you would like, which is always the case at the end of summer, but open day was a fucking success and you’re already planning the next one.

You take another sip of your coffee and head to the end of the cages. Ella is in her usual spot at the back of her cage, huddled in the corner, eyes open. Ian smiles as soon as he sees her.

“She really is beautiful,” he says.

The disappointment that he’s not there for you only hits you then. You want him to look at you the way he looks at Ella, but you’re not sure it will ever happen and you’re not sure why it’s so important to you that he does. He’s clearly there to see Ella, though, and you feel like you should leave him alone with her. There aren’t a lot of people you happily leave alone with the animals, but with Ian and Ella it just feels right.

You’re willing to leave him alone with her, you’re just not willing to leave him.

“I’m gonna do a bit of spot cleaning while we’re in here,” you tell him. “That cool?”

“Uh-huh.” He doesn’t even look at you.

The cages were thoroughly cleaned not even an hour ago, but you grab the disinfectant and make a point of cleaning the sink and bench at the other end of the room. You can hear Ian behind you, talking to Ella in a soft voice, and you hate the way it makes you smile. You hate the way he makes you smile. You’re so dumb over him already.

You’ve never been like this over a guy. Cats, dogs, that one litter of sick kittens that made you quietly lose it in the bathroom when none of them made it … but not a guy, never a guy.

“Hey, Mick?” Ian’s voice cuts in just as you’re beginning to think about how lucky it is you never got invested in a guy while your dad was around. You turn, eyebrows cocked, and he continues. “What happened to the people at the dog fighting ring? You said you called the police, but …”

“Most of them are locked up. A lot of them had outstanding warrants, a couple of them were even wanted for some pretty serious charges - drugs, assault. One guy was even wanted for attempted murder.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah”

“You didn’t get into any trouble?”

“For what? Narking?” You shake your head. “I was gone before the cops turned up. They don’t know who called them that day.”

“I bet they’d thank you if they did.”

You can tell if he’s being serious or really fucking naïve, so you shrug. “Doesn’t matter. Six dogs were found and rescued that day; that’s all that matters.”

He smiles, and you realise for the first time that it’s a smile you’ve only seen directed at you when you talk about the animals. “Nah, Mickey, you’re a hero.”

You grin and put the cleaning equipment down. “Shut the fuck up.”

“You did something really amazing.”

“You’re the one who went to war, man.”

He hunches in on himself immediately. “That’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing.”

“It’s nothing I want to talk about.” He turns to face Ella again.

You stay silent for a long while, hating that you can’t quite figure out a way to talk to this guy without sticking your foot in it. You bite your lip as you watch him with Ella, and figure it’s best if you just stay away from any subject that could lead back to the army.

Which leaves every other subject in the world being that you barely know the guy, but you just don’t know where to begin. Flirting you can do, but getting to know someone? That’s not something you do, not something you’ve ever done, or something you’ve ever wanted to do. So you stay where you are and keep your trap shut.

Ten minutes later - ten glorious minutes of doing nothing but watching Ian try to interact with Ella - he finally has Ella in front of him, rubbing her head affectionately against his fingers. He turns to you with a genuinely happy smile that renders you speechless.

-----

He turns up again the next three days, an hour before closing, coffee always in hand. And every day he heads to the cat’s room and spends time with Ella. You leave him to it for the most part, only seeing him when he arrives and when he leaves while popping in once or twice to see if he needs anything.

On the Friday, one week after you first met him, he comes back into the reception area after being in with Ella for only ten minutes. You look up, eyebrows lifted in surprise, and he smiles nervously.

“Uh, I - can I open her cage?”

“Ella’s?”

“Yeah.”

You lick your lips and look away. There’s no rule stating that you can’t open her cage for him, but you also know that, technically, you shouldn’t. But, technically, cats don’t usually respond better to someone from the public than they do the workers and volunteers trained to help them. You rub your hands up and down your thighs and nod.

“Okay, but I have to be in there with you.”

He fucking beams at you and you roll your eyes, trying to hide your smile.

This time you follow him into the cat’s room and it doesn’t escape your notice how at home he’s made himself; he strolls down to Ella’s cage as though he’s been heading in that direction his entire life. You watch him smile at her, think about Tinkerbelle, and wonder if maybe he has.

“You - you should probably do this, right?”

“You want to put the gloves on?” you offer, but he just shakes his head. You reach past him, definitely standing closer than necessary, and unlatch the door to the cage.

Ian does nothing for a few moments, and you almost feel like you’re intruding, as though he’s waiting for you to leave before he makes any kind of move. You take a step back, but that’s as far as you’re willing to go. It’s still about a minute before he slowly reaches up and opens the cage door.

Ella watches everything with narrowed eyes, pulling further back into the cage with every second that passes. Concerned, your gaze flits between her and Ian, waiting, unsure which of them will make the first move.

It’s Ian. He lifts his hand, ever so slowly, and reaches it into the cage. Ella strikes immediately.

“Fuck,” he hisses, yanking his hand back.

You move forward to close and lock the cage door. Eyes on Ella, you reach for the treats on the shelf next to her and scatter a few through the open slot on the plastic roof of her cage. She’s trembling with fear and anger, and you need something to take her mind off it. Then you turn to Ian.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

He’s got three long scratches running from his arm to the back of his hand, droplets of blood beading all over them. “Ian -”

“I’m fine. I have to go.”

He turns to leave and you don’t follow him. You figure you should, but you don’t, you can’t, and you don’t know if it’s just because you need to make sure Ella doesn’t fret herself into a state or because you think you might know Ian well enough already to understand that he needs to be alone.

-----

Ian doesn’t come back the next day. You put it down to it being the weekend, but you’re still disappointed, and you snap at the volunteers way too much. In the end you leave the paperwork to Jasmine, the front desk to Mandy, and take over cleaning the cages. You don’t want to deal with people or anything people do, so you immerse yourself into cleaning cat shit and dog slobber.

You head back out front once the day comes to an end and Mandy speaks up without you having to ask.

“He didn’t come in.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I would have come to get you if he had.”

You ignore her. She had been here during Ian’s visits on Wednesday and Thursday, but had thankfully kept her trap shut around him, treated him like any other potential adopter.

“How’re the babies doing?” you ask. Seven kittens had been brought in early that morning, no mother in sight. Two of the kittens didn’t make it, one is being kept at the vets and the other four are in a cage with Roxy, whose own litter had just finished being weaned.

You had put Mandy on bonding duty because, whether she likes to admit it or not, that’s what she’s good at. She’s only there to clean shit, walk dogs, and get her community service card signed, but you and she both know that she catches every word the vets and vet nurses say and applies them to perfection.

She smiles. “I checked half an hour ago and they were feeding.”

“All four?”

“All four.”

She takes the kittens and Roxy home with her over the weekend while the shelter is closed, and call you in tears Sunday night to say one of the kittens isn’t waking up.

-----

You give Mandy Monday off, but sign her community service card anyway. The vet said there wasn’t anything that could have been done about the kitten, gave the other three another check over, and assured both you and Mandy that they would be okay. Mandy refused to take them back home, though, and you don’t blame her. The animals dying never gets easier.

So you get to work early on Monday with one mother cat and three kittens in tow. Less than an hour after unlocking the front doors and putting the open sign out, Ian turns up.

You grin when you see him, but quickly push it away. He’s here’s there to see Ella. You don’t doubt that one bit.

“Hey,” you say when comes inside.

“I’ve been doing some research.”

“Uh, okay? How’s the hand?”

“What? Oh.” He looks at his arm. “Fine. Just a couple of scratches. Anyway, I’ve been doing some research.”

He seems different. Odd. Still agitated, but excited, too. “Okay. I’ll bite. What have you been researching?”

“How to calm scared and abused animals.”

You jerk your thumb behind you. “I’ve got folders upon folders back here that I could have given you for that.”

He ignores you and pulls his backpack off his shoulder. He sits it on the counter and begins pulling things out. “I’ve got all this information - so much information, man, it’s insane what you can find online - a bag of treats, and tongs. I don’t - I don’t know if you guys have something more appropriate than tongs, you probably do, but I figured I’d bring them along anyway.”

You stare at the equipment he’s laying out in front of you - treats, tongs, and a giant-ass pile of paper, information that’s he’s clearly printed off the internet, and you wonder if he actually read it all. You pick it up and flip through it, only somewhat surprised to see paragraphs highlighted in pink and yellow.

“This is a lot of stuff, man.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t have work so I was hoping you’d let me try some of it out? I know I don’t work here or anything, but I’d really like to try and help Ella.”

You swipe at your nose with your thumb. “This is a lot of work, Ian. You spend the whole weekend doing this?”

“So?”

He sounds defensive, and when you look up at him, it’s clear he is. You let your face soften.

“I’m not judging, it’s just … this is pretty intense.”

His entire body goes rigid. “You sound just like Lip.”

“I don’t know who Lip is.”

“My brother.”

“Okay. Well this isn’t the first time you’ve told me I sound like him, and I’m beginning to think it isn’t a good thing.” You try to make a joke out of it, but he just glares. You sigh. “Look, I’m not having a go, okay? This, what you’ve done, is amazing. I love that you’ve put so much effort into it, it’s just …”

“Just what?”

“Surprising,” you say honestly. “Even the people who plan on adopting don’t put this much effort into their animals until they become their pets.”

“I just want to help her.” His voice is soft, sad. You give in completely.

“Okay. Let’s go then.”

His eyes widen in surprise, but he doesn’t question your decision.

Once you’re standing in front of Ella’s cage, you bite your lip and hate what you’re about to say.

“You can’t open the cage. Not yet.”

“Yeah, of course. She needs to know she can trust me again.”

You lick at the backs of your teeth, trying not to smile. “Right.”

“That’s what I brought the tongs for.”

“I, uh … I - nope. Sorry, man, I don’t get it. Why did you bring the tongs?”

He grins. “To give her treats without sticking my hand in the cage and without forcing her to come close to me.”

“Really? You’re going to lure her out with treats?”

“You don’t think it’ll work?”

You honestly don’t know. Any other animal in the place and you’d have the answer, but Ian seems to know Ella better than you do. Better than anyone does.

“I need to get back out the front and finish sending some emails. You going to be okay in here?”

“I’ll be great.”

“Let me know if you need anything.”

He nods, but doesn’t speak again until you reach the door. “Hey, Mick?”

“Yeah?”

“What time do you have lunch?”

“Uh, twelve-thirty.”

He smiles. “Cool. I bought some donuts at that bakery down the road for us to share.”

He turns back to Ella before you can say anything else, but you definitely consider it to be progress as you return to your desk and gently pet Tinkerbelle’s head.

But sitting at the desk, replying to emails, answering phone calls, and waiting for Jasmine to turn up, all you can think about is how it’s definitely not progress. He’s not there to see you. You’re the person who lets him in to see Ella, and that’s probably all you are to him. And it sucks. You kind of like this guy. You want him to like you back.

So you spend your morning sulking about Ian not liking you back and then scowling at yourself for sulking over some guy. Some really hot, undoubtedly nice, definitely gay guy.

When Ian comes out to the reception area a little before midday, you force yourself to smile. You want him to be there to see you, but you don’t want him to stop visiting Ella because you’re being a little bitch.

“How’s it going?” you ask.

“Great.” He takes the second seat behind the desk and you’re surprised when Tinkerbelle doesn’t even flinch at his closeness. You’re still between the two of them, but it’s huge for her. You want to take it as a sign of some kind. “I got her back up to the front of the cage.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, it took a while, but she was pretty fucking affectionate once I got her there.” He grins, eyes fucking sparkling when he looks at you. “Don’t think I’ll attempt opening the cage for a few more days, though.”

“Possibly a good idea.”

He leans back in the chair, hands resting on his stomach, and it’s the most relaxed you’ve ever seen him. He seems happy, and the lingering smile on his face is almost proud. You look away and silently scold yourself; who cares if he’s not there to see you when he walks out smiling like that?

“Tell me more about Tinkerbelle,” he says, and you look down to where his gaze is fixed on Tink chewing at your shoelaces.

“What else is there to tell?”

“I dunno, but … I feel like you know everything about me and I know nothing about you.”

You know fuck all about him and the way he avoids your gaze makes you wonder if he knew this even as he said it.

“You know plenty about me,” you say. “You know how I got Tink, how I got my job. You know my last fucking name, which should give you everything you need to know.”

He meets your gaze and shrugs. “I want to know more.”

And his eyes are so blue and so clear and so goddamn honest that you can’t turn him down. You’ll tell him whatever the fuck he wants to know if he keeps looking at you like that.

You begin with, “The dog fighting ring -” and then stop, anger that you haven’t felt in years coursing through you. Anger at people in this job is inevitable with the neglected animals you see on a daily basis, but anger at what happened to Tinkerbelle and the people who did that to her is something you’ve managed to push away, knowing it’s not healthy. You swallow and start again. “A bunch of the people there that day were family.”

“Your family?”

“Yep. Cousins and uncles … my old man.”

“Shit, Mick, you ratted out your own dad?”

You look up at him, eyes hard and angry, but he just looks impressed. “So?”

“That’s fucking amazing!” He sits up in his chair and grins. “I fucking wish I had the guts to do that to Frank.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, but, I mean, none of us do. The guy’s a lowlife, but we can’t seem to shake him.” He’s clearly trying to make it sound like a joke, but there’s a sadness to his tone that you hate.

“Your old man sounds like a piece of shit,” you say.

“Yeah.” He smiles again, but it’s that old small smile that makes something inside you hurt a little. “But at least he’s kind to dogs.”

“Hey, Terry doing that shit was the best thing that could have happened to me. I got Tink, he got twenty-plus in prison. Win-fucking-win, man.”

Ian lets out a low whistle. “Twenty-plus? Damn.”

“Yeah. Remember the guy I said was wanted for attempted murder?”

“Shit. Shit.”

“Best thing to ever happen to me, really,” you say, and it’s the fucking truth. “Guy was a fucking asshole. A homophobic one, at that.”

“So he never knew about …”

“Nope.”

He nods. “Probably for the best.”

And it’s such a stupid thing to say, such a fucking understatement that he says with such seriousness, that you laugh, loud and hard, until Ian’s laughing along with you and your stomach hurts.

----------

He comes along the next morning and the one after that and the morning after that. He arrives about an hour after you do, spends the morning with Ella, and then, as each day passes, spends more and more of his afternoon with you.

It started on Monday when he came out half an hour before closing time and swept the floor for you. On Tuesday he came out a full hour before closing time and just followed you around, handing you items while you cleaned the dog cages. On Wednesday and Thursday, after a particularly productive morning of giving Ella treats through her open cage door, he came out two and a half hours before closing time, sat on the floor next to you while you sorted through some new adoption papers, and quietly talked to Tinkerbelle.

And now it’s Friday afternoon, lunch ended almost an hour ago, and he hasn’t left your side. You don’t want him to leave your side. You want him to stay in that seat next to you, going through the music on your phone, and trying to make you guess each song after only a split second of playing.

“This is a dumb game,” you mutter.

“Please. You’re only sad because you’re losing.”

It’s not that you’re losing on purpose, exactly, but Ian does hold the phone that little bit closer to you, move that little bit closer to you every time you do lose, and it’s fucking awesome. The whole thing is fucking awesome; Tink doesn’t move an inch despite how close Ian’s getting, every now and then he’ll outright laugh at a song he finds - ‘Son of a Preacher man,’ Mick, really? - and occasionally he’ll come across a song he likes enough to keep playing, murmuring along in a soft voice.

“Laugh it up,” you tell him when he teases your choice in songs, “but Pulp Fiction has one of the best movie soundtracks ever. And I’m not sad. Or losing. How can I be losing if I’m playing against myself?”

“You’re playing against me,” he insists.

“You haven’t had to guess a single song yet!”

“Fine. Here. You do me then.”

You narrow your eyes and slowly look at him out of the corner of your eye. You know he got the double entendre by the blush on his cheeks and the small smirk on his lips, but you don’t know if it was deliberate. You lick your dry lips, pulling your bottom one between your teeth for a moment, and Ian’s gaze definitely follows the movement.

He holds your phone out to you in the palm of his hand when he could just as easily slide it across the table, hand it over without a glance, but you’re not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. You quickly look from his eyes to his hand and back again, tongue shoved into your cheek as you reach out for your phone. You take hold of it gently, letting your fingers glide over Ian’s skin as you do.

He says nothing, but you see his Adam’s apple bob and you’re not sure how long you can drag out the simple act of taking your phone out of his hands without it turning weird. You drag your hand away slowly, though, finally fucking secure in the fact that he’s, at the very least, attracted to you.

“That a blush I see on your cheeks, Gallagher?” you ask, smirk firmly in place.

He flips you off. “Please. I don’t blush.”

“I touched your hand and your face is as red as your hair.”

“You only know that because you keep staring at me.”

You grin. “Touché.”

He slowly smiles and meets your gaze. He’s close enough that when he moves his chair forwards an inch his knee brushes yours. “I seem to be spending more and more time out here with you lately.”

“Yes you do.”

“You mind?”

You’re surprised by the question, but you try not to show it. “Nah, man, not at all.”

“Good.” He looks away and grabs out his own phone. “Here, your turn to pick on my musical taste.”

He holds his phone out just like he did with yours, his eyes dark and serious, and you’re so fucking confused by how touching his hand can be such a fucking turn on, but you reach out to do so anyway. And maybe your mind plays with the idea of grabbing his hand and pulling him to you, but you don’t get the chance to see how serious you are about that.

The front doors slide open and you quickly pull your hand away, Ian doing the same. You look up to find a man and a young girl enter the shelter and quickly get to your feet.

“How’s it going?”

The man smiles, the girl stares at her shoes. “Fine, thank you. My name’s John, and we … we were hoping to adopt a pet today.”

You put on your customer-friendly smile and walk around the counter, heart sinking when Ian gets up and heads out back. “Sure, did you have anything specific in mind?”

John crouches down to the little girl and asks, “What do you think, Louie? A dog or a cat?” She just shrugs, still staring at her feet. He stands and sighs. “Maybe you could show us what you’ve got? See if anyone stands out?”

“Yeah, man, sure.”

You take him into the dog’s room first and you’re surprised to find Ian in there, filling up the water bowls. You fight the smile that the sight brings and lead John and Louie over to the pups. The pups aren’t up for adoption yet, but kids fucking love puppies. This kid doesn’t seem thrilled at being here, but if you can get the usual reaction out of her with the pups then you might have a better idea of which pet she might like.

Her reaction is underwhelming, to say the least. She looks at the pups, looks around the room, and then stares up at you. “Where is their mother?”

You open your mouth to lie, but John cuts in.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “She - we lost her mother not long ago. I thought a pet might help, might bring some happiness to her life again, but …”

You nod slowly, putting the pups away and thinking over his words. It doesn’t take long. “I think I have the perfect pet for you. C’mon, this way.”

You take them to Jerry, the three-legged cat Liam had been fond of. Louie frowns at him.

“He’s missing a leg.”

“He is.”

“What happened to him?”

That’s always a tough question, but you decide to answer honestly. “He was hit by a car.”

She stares at him for a long while. Jerry’s a cool cat, but nothing special to look at. He’s a tabby with no hints of any purebred in him, no special markings, and without the fluffy coat that most young girls love. The only distinct thing about him is his missing leg.

“Can I pet him?” she asks.

“Hell, you can hold him if ya want.” You reach forward to open his cage, and he’s already right there waiting. He stands at the open door but doesn’t attempt to leave his cage, and Louie gets to her knees in front of him. You watch. Beside you, her dad practically holds his breath waiting for Louie’s reaction.

She reaches out and Louie attaches himself to her immediately, smooching at her fingers, head butting her hand, purring louder than you’ve ever heard him purr before. And Louie giggles. She fucking giggles and it’s fucking perfect.

“I love him!” she says, and beams up at her dad. “Can we get him, Daddy?”

“Oh, well -” John flusters a moment, but you can tell it’s surprise at his daughter’s happiness. “Of course.”

Twenty minutes and a constant smile on Louie’s face later, Jerry leaves with his new family. You turn away from the front door to dig out the rest of Jerry’s paperwork, completely ignoring Ian. He’s standing at the edge the desk, not quite behind it, staring at you. He had followed you into the cat’s room, watched you show Louie and John Jerry, and your entire face had flushed the second you turned around and realised that.

It’s your job to play nice, and you’re not ashamed of it. But the look on Ian’s face when you turned and found him standing there, watching you introduce a kid to her new pet, had been nothing but fucking awe.

“Mick.” His voice is low, almost a whisper. You grunt in response, your whole body acutely aware of him moving behind you. He tries again, voice stronger. “Mickey.”

You turn. “What?”

“That was amazing.”

You meet his gaze for the first time since seeing him standing behind John. You shrug and blow it off. “It’s a gift.”

“I’m not kidding, man. Do you - do you do that a lot? Just … shit, find the right pet for the right person?”

“What, like it’s hard?”

“Mickey.”

You sigh. “I know these animals better than I know most people, okay? Shit, the only person I know better than those animals back there is Mandy, so yeah, it’s not hard.”

He frowns slightly. “You know me.”

“Do I?” His whole face flushes at your words, but it’s not the good kind of blushing like before. You sigh. “I just mean that … I’ve spent a bunch of time with you lately, but I still know these animals better than I know you. It doesn’t take much for me to figure out what animals should go home with which person once I’ve spent a few minutes talking to people.”

He lets your dig at him slide. “It really is a gift.”

“Fuck off, man.”

“You’re like the fucking rescued-animals whisperer.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“Holy fuck. You’re the Jackson Galaxy of Chicago.”

You glare. “Do you want me to ban you from the shelter? Because I can do that. I have that power.”

He outright fucking grins. “Hmmm. That sounds far too sexy to have the desired effect.”

“Maybe that was the desired effect.”

He laughs, and you can’t help but grin. When he pulls out his phone again and hands it to you, he drags as many fingers from each hand over yours in the process, gaze never leaving yours.

-----

You weren’t expecting to see Ian on Saturday, but he turns up not long before closing.

“Thought you were working today?” you ask, unable to keep the grin off your face.

“I was. Boss let me go early,” he says, hands in his pockets, body looking longer than usual in his skinny jeans.

“Cool. I’m glad.”

He grins, but quickly glances at Mandy behind you before continuing. “Think I could go see Ella?”

“Of course, man. Anytime.”

You watch him go, not even pretending otherwise, and as soon as the door to the cat’s room closes behind him Mandy starts.

“Mickey and Ian sitting in a tree -”

“Shut up.”

“K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”

You spin in your chair to face her. “Bitch.”

“You’re so into him. It’s adorable.”

“I’m not adorable.”

She makes a face. “On your own? Fuck no. But when you’re into a gorgeous specimen like that you can pass as adorable.”

“Why are you even here. Your shift finished an hour ago.”

“Roxy and the kittens were still feeding when I went to check on them. Didn’t want to disturb them.”

You nod and run a hand over your mouth. “You doin’ okay with them?”

“Fuck you, I’m doing great with them.”

“I just meant -”

“I know what you mean, dickwad.” She pauses and her face softens. “It just sucks when they die.”

“Yep.”

“But I guess it’s something I’m going to have to get used to if I plan on becoming a vet nurse.”

You can’t help the stupid grin that forms. “Really? You’re gonna do it?”

“Maybe? My parole officer’s helping me figure some stuff out - school, my record, fucking tuition.”

“Your record won’t mean shit,” you insist. “You kicked the shit out of that fucker because of what he was doing to his dog, and there’s video footage to prove it.”

She smiles. “I know, but it still resulted in community service and anger management classes. But like you said, I did it for the dog, and considering what I’m planning on studying, that can’t be a bad thing.”

“Damn right.”

She picks up her bag. “I’m gonna go get the kittens and hound Ian for details. Later!”

She’s gone before you can do much more than scowl at her, and it’s at least twenty minutes before you hear her call out a goodbye and the back door close behind her. You sigh, part in dread of what Mandy told Ian and part in fucking excitement that you and Ian are alone. It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours since you last saw him, but it feels like twenty-four hours too many.

You clear up the front desk a little more, give Tink a treat from out of your pocket, and wonder how long you can wait before going back to see Ian. It takes you all of ten seconds to decide fuck it. You quickly go to pull in the open sign and close the front door, take Samson back to his cage for the night, and then you hurry out to Ian.

He has Ella’s cage door open, but isn’t doing anything but standing close and talking to her. He turns to face you when you walk in and smiles as he closes the cage door.

“How’s it going?” you ask.

“Really good.”

“Good.”

You’re silent and he’s silent. You walk halfway down the aisle and he comes to meet you halfway.

“Mandy’s trying to play cupid,” he says, staring intently down at you.

“Yeah, well, Mandy’s a pain in my ass.”

“I like her.”

“Of course you do.”

“I think she has good intentions.”

“You do, huh?”

He nods and steps closer. “Yeah. And I think I like her intentions.”

“Yeah?”

“I …” He pauses to take a deep breath. “I think you like her intentions, too.”

You suck in a deep breath. This entire conversation has come out of nowhere for you and you have to wonder what exactly Mandy said to him for him to bring it up. You also have to wonder if maybe you owe her big time. This is probably the most open Ian’s ever been with you, and it’s definitely the biggest sign of reciprocation you’ve seen.

“I don’t like her sticking her nose in, but I like that you like her intentions.”

His mouth tugs up into a small smile. “This conversation is more high school than if you had asked Mandy to ask me if I liked you.”

“I didn’t ask Mandy to do anything.”

“I know.”

He steps closer again. Your eyes flit down to his mouth and back up. He moves until he’s right in front of you and then stops, shoves his hands into his pockets. The agitation that’s slowly been fading away the more time he spends here is slowly crawling its way back in, and you quickly decide it’s up to you to stop it.

You lift your hand, thinking of nothing but touch, and press the fingertips of three fingers to Ian’s jaw. His eyes close and you can feel his warm breath on your face as he slowly lets it out. You lick your lips and move your fingers a little higher, loving the feel of skin and stubble beneath your touch - of Ian’s skin and stubble beneath your touch - and wanting nothing but more.

He’s so fucking gorgeous with his smattering of freckles, his red lashes and his chapped lips, and you just want to fucking touch everything all the time. So you continue to not think and you continue to touch and you brush your fingers across his lips.

His eyes fly open, dark and filled with lust as he gasps your name against your fingers, “Mick.”

You swallow heavily, opening your mouth, unsure of what you’re about to say -

Banging from the reception area fills the room and Ian hurriedly backs away. You slowly lower your hand, watching him rub at his mouth and turn back towards Ella. You sigh, pretty sure all the progress you just made is already gone.

You grudgingly head into the foyer, surprised see Ian’s sister knocking on the glass door. You hurry to open it for her.

“Uh, hey,” you say. She comes in and you close the door behind her while she takes a minute to catch her breath.

“Ian here?” she finally asks.

“Yeah, come on.” You pull the doors closed, lock them again, and lead her back to where you just left Ian. You stop as soon as you open the door, though, and your heart jumps into your mouth.

“Shhh,” Ian whispers. You think he’s talking to you, but you can’t be sure. Not when Ella’s cage door is back open and she’s pushing her head into Ian’s palm.

“Holy fuck,” you breathe.

He continues whispering, this time to Ella as he pulls his hand away and slowly closes the cage door. Before he turns to you and Debbie, though, he scoops a handful of treats down the shaft at the roof of her cage. Then he turns to you with the most beautiful smile you’ve ever seen.

“Did you see that?”

You can’t help but beam back. “Ian … Ian, that was amazing.”

He laughs and he looks so fucking happy, so fucking proud of himself … until his gaze reaches Debbie. His whole demeanour changes at the sight of her, and he becomes that same withdrawn, agitated man he was on his first visit.

“Debs. What are you doing here?”

She plants her hands on her hips. “Ian, you need to come home.”

“Why? What’s happened?”

She flounders for a moment. “What happ - I don’t know, Ian, why don’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“We haven’t seen you all week,” she says, voice rising, and from your vantage point you see Ella inch toward the back of her cage. Ian sees it, too, if the concerned look he throws the cat is anything to go by. He quickly turns back to Debbie, though, face hard.

“Look, I’m fine, okay? I don’t live with you guys, so it’s not actually surprising that you haven’t seen me much.”

“That’s not the point and you know it. You promised us dinner three times a week, you promised us phone calls every night, and you promised us you would try -”

“I am trying!” he yells, stepping forward. “I’m trying so fucking hard but you all just keep treating me like -”

And as if you weren’t feeling like an intruder as it was, he looks at you, shame evident on his face. You make a face, but you’re not even sure what kind of face it is. You go for encouraging, but it’s probably an awkwardly painful grimace.

“Like what?” Debbie asks, and then, “Oh. Like Monica?”

“Shut up,” Ian hisses.

You rub at the back of your head, glancing between the two of them as Debbie does the same, looking from Ian to you and back again. Finally, her jaw drops open.

“You haven’t told him?”

“No.”

You frown. “Told me what?”

“Ian!”

“Shut the fuck up, Debbie.”

“I can’t believe you haven’t told him!”

“Why would I tell him?”

“Um, how about because you’re practically in a relationship with him?”

Ian pales. You would have preferred a blush. Especially after … well.

Debbie turns to you. “You can’t tell me you’re okay with this? You’re obviously into him and he’s keeping you in the dark about everything!”

“Debbie, that’s enough,” Ian says before you even have time to open your mouth. “C’mon, let’s go.”

All you can do is watch with wide eyes as he storms past you and drags his sister out with him. You follow them into the reception area, silently begging yourself to figure out what to say to make him stay.

In the end all you can come up with is, “Ian.” He pauses but doesn’t turn to face you. His entire body is rigid with tension and you don’t know if it’s because of you or Debbie or the things Debbie was saying about you. You shove your hands into your pockets. “Look, man, I don’t know what all that was about, but I can tell you hate how much I saw. Just … make sure you come back, okay? If not to see me, then for Ella. You’ve made some great progress with her.”

He says nothing and you’re well aware of Debbie’s gaze switching from you to Ian and back again. Finally, Ian gives one small nod and leaves.

-----

You have inventory on Sunday. You offered your help weeks ago - because what the fuck else were you going to do? - and now you’re fucking thrilled for the distraction. As monotonous as it is, counting boxes of post-its and writing down how many there are in the corresponding box is fucking great for taking your mind off things.

You barely slept the night before, Debbie’s words - every single one of them - running through your head, and Ian’s silence causing them to echo. The memory of whatever the fuck happened between you and Ian prior to whatever the fuck happened between him and Debbie didn’t help at all. You lay in bed, Tinkerbelle curled against you, and tried to figure out a way to make sense of Debbie’s words, of her argument with Ian, of everything Ian isn’t telling you.

And every moment of that moment.

You’re halfway through counting the boxes of staples in the reception when there’s a knock on the front door. You look up to see Ian. He’s staring at the ground, hands in his pockets, shuffling his feet, and shit. You’ve seen this guy look nervous and anxious a few times now, but never like this.

You hurry over to unlock the door for him and make sure your voice is light when you speak.

“Hey, man, what’re you doin’ here?”

“You said I should come back.”

“Well, yeah, but it’s Sunday.”

He shrugs, flicks his eyes up to meet yours and then away again. “I remembered you saying something about inventory. Thought you might like some company.”

You sigh and lick at the backs of your teeth. You do want some company. You specifically want Ian’s company, but Debbie’s words continue to rattle through your head.

He’s keeping you in the dark about everything.

You don’t want to be kept in the dark.

You take a step back. “Come on in, man.”

He looks relieved, but once he’s there, inside the place you consider home more than your own apartment, you feel weird and awkward. You don’t know if it’s him or you or what happened yesterday with Debbie, but something is off and you’re irritated by him. You’re irritated that you don’t know more about him.

You’re irritated that he won’t tell you more about him.

You sigh. “Look, I’m kind of behind on the whole counting thing. You mind hanging out with Ella while I get out here done? I’ll come and get you once I’m finished and we can order a pizza or something.”

His entire face falls, but he nods anyway. “Of course.”

You watch him go, your heart sinking more and more with every step he takes, but you can’t bring yourself to call him back.

It’s dumb. So fucking dumb. The guy’s only been turning up for a few weeks now - of course you don’t know much about him. You’re not his boyfriend, possibly not even his love interest. Shit, he probably doesn’t even consider you a friend. Rubbing a hand over your face, you push those stupid thoughts away. You and Ian are clearly friends. He wouldn’t spend as much time out here with you as he does in there with Ella if you weren’t.

None of that changes the fact that you want to be more than friends.

You feel twitchy and paranoid when you go back to the counting, worried that sending Ian out the back will send him away completely and that’s the last thing you want. You just need a moment. Or ten. You need to figure out what it is you want from this guy and what it is you have. And, more specifically, what it is he wants from you.

Because that’s something you’re still not sure about. He visits and he hangs out and he smiles, and more and more that’s happening with you as well as Ella, and with what happened yesterday …

But. But he doesn’t talk about himself. But he doesn’t let himself get too close. But he often shuts down when you flirt.

By the time you’ve finished in the reception area year head is so full of Ian that you’re pretty sure you’ve miscounted at least half the office supplies. You lean back against the drawers behind you and sigh.

“Fuck it.”

You make sure the door is locked, turn the lights off, and go find Ian.

He’s exactly where he was when you and Debbie walked in on him yesterday - standing in front of Ella’s open cage with his hand pressed to her face. Your heart fucking leaps at the sight, so glad it wasn’t just a one time thing. You stop a decent distance away, not wanting to scare Ella, and lean against an empty cage to watch them.

“She’s amazing,” Ian says, voice low.

“You did that.”

He pauses in his rubbing of her ears and turns slightly to look at her. “You really think so?”

“We have photos,” you tell him, “of her from when she first arrived. I won’t show them to you - trust me, you don’t want to see them - but the difference in her from those photos to now is unbelievable.”

“She’s had time to heal.”

“I’m not talking about her physical injuries.” He slowly turns to face you, eyes wide and unsure, but focused intently on you. “You’ve helped her, like, emotionally, you know?”

His only response to that is a soft smile that you fall for even more.

“You ever had a pet?” you ask. You slowly move to sit on the floor, your back against the cage behind you. Turning slightly, you slip your finger into the next cage and give the sleeping Tyrion a pat. Poor thing just got his balls chopped a couple of days ago, and he still isn’t in the mood to pay you any attention.

“Nah. Debbie and Carl had a turtle once, but pets were never a thing in the Gallagher family.”

“Yeah, we had a cat hanging around our place for a while, but it learned pretty quick that nothing good comes from staying at House of Milkovich.”

“You did.”

“I did what?”

He looks over at you with wide, honest eyes, and smiles. “You came from the Milkovich house, and you’re one of the best people I know.”

“Bullshit.”

“Nope. Doesn’t matter what your last name is; you’re a good person, Mick.”

You stare at the ground, but you can hear the grin in his voice. You fight a smile of your own. “You’re a dick.”

“And you’re a good person. These animals are lucky to have you.”

“Seems to me that Ella’s pretty lucky to have you.” You frown at him when he does nothing but shrug. “Why do you always do that?”

“Do what?”

“Literally shrug off anything positive I say about you. Whenever I bring up the army or how well you’re doing with Ella, you just pretend like it’s nothing.”

“It is nothing.”

“It’s not nothing, man. Do - do you not realise that you’re a good person?”

He slowly removes his hand from the cage and closes the door. “You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“I know enough to know you’re a good person; I see how you are with Ella, I know you fucking adore your siblings, and if you think I haven’t noticed you sneaking treats to Tink when I’m not looking … well, I have.”

He crosses his arms over his chest. “None of that means anything.”

“Actually, some of that kind of means everything.”

And you hate how fucking true that is. You probably wouldn’t give two shits if Ian was a crappy brother, but the way he treats Ella and Tinkerbelle have caused havoc on your heart, just like the way he smiles at you has.

“You don’t know me,” he says again.

You sigh. “Yeah, and whose fault is that?”

He’s quiet for a long moment before sliding down to sit on the floor, back against the wall to your left.

“There was a dog in my unit,” he finally says. “A German Shepherd named Lady.”

“What happened to her?”

“She got sent back here. After her handler was killed … I mean, the plan for when that happens is to send the dogs back to base camp and train them up with another handler, you know? But she - they couldn’t. The night after her handler died we woke up to see she had bit and licked at her tail until it was nothing but a bloody stump.”

You swallow heavily. “Fuck.”

“Yeah. I asked about her when I got home and they told me she was too emotionally unstable to go back.”

“Grief,” you say, and Ian looks up at you sharply. “She was grieving for her handler. We’ve never had a service dog here, but I’ve read about grief in animals; some act out, some over groom - like Lady, from the sounds of it - and some get heartsick and don’t make it.”

“They die? That actually happens?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” he says, looking away again. “About waking up to Lady’s whining that day, seeing what she had done to herself. This was, I don’t know, at least two months before I was sent home, and I’ve thought about it a lot since.”

“Thought about it how?”

“Just thought about it. Just trying to wrap my head around her being emotionally unable to go back to active duty.”

You lick your lips and say nothing, but you think you finally get it. You might be way off, but you think you finally understand why he’s home, why he’s not going back, why he doesn’t like talking about the army.

“It happens to the best of ‘em,” you finally say.

He doesn’t reply and you figure that’s all you’re going to get out of him. It’s more than you ever expected, though, so you’re not about to complain. You’ll take any piece of Ian he’s willing to give, even if it is just you jumping to conclusions from the possible hints he’s thrown your way.

“Listen, I really need to get back to the inventory, but how about you stick around and I’ll order us some pizza in a bit?”

His eyes are hopeful when he looks at you. “How about you order us a pizza in a bit, and then I’ll help you with your inventory.”

“Ay, you don’t have to do that, man.”

“I know, but I want to.”

“It’s boring as fuck.”

He shrugs. “I don’t care.”

You get to your feet and wipe your suddenly sweaty palms on your jeans. “How about I order a pizza, and if you get bored hanging out with Ella, then you can help me count.”

“I came to hang out with you today, Mick, not Ella.” He stands and you stare at him, too many terrifying words caught in the back of your throat. “Unless you order your pizza with pepperoni, that is. That’s a deal breaker.”

“That’s the deal breaker, huh?”

He grins and opens Ella’s cage back up. “Yep. Now get counting. You’ve still got an hour before it’s even remotely close to dinner time.”

You leave the cat’s room with a stupid smile on your face. The kind of smile that’s only existed since Ian.

-----

You finish up inventory in the reception area only minutes before the pizza arrives. You pay the delivery guy, relock the front door, then head back out to Ian, hoping he’s okay with eating in the supply room while you keep counting.

Ian has Ella in his arms when you enter the cat’s room. Literally out of the cage and in his long arms and it makes your breath catch in your throat, your steps halt, and your heart seize at just how fucking beautiful it is.

“Oh, shit.”

He looks at you with eyes wide and … something else you can’t quite name, but it’s deep and it’s intense and it makes you grit your teeth to keep from saying something really fucking stupid.

“I just - I just tried it and she let me.”

There’s nothing you can say to that so you say nothing at all. You stand, hot pizza in hand, and watch Ian cuddle the one cat you have never been able to make progress with, and you think that, if it were anyone else, you might be a little jealous. Helping these animals, getting through to them, finding them the perfect home … that’s your thing, that’s the one thing in this world you’re good at.

But this is Ian. This is Ian and Ella. Nothing about it feels wrong.

So you just keep watching. You watch him stroke her back, you watch her move into his touch, you watch the utter calmness on both their faces. And it feels good. You didn’t make Ian relax like that, and you definitely didn’t manage to do much of anything to help Ella, but you still like the look of peace they both have.

After a minute of silence, Ian looks up at you sheepishly. He turns and places Ella back in her cage with a larger-than-usual handful of treats, closes the door, then makes his way over to you.

“Was that okay?”

You want to kiss the apprehension off his face. “That was amazing.”

He beams. You wait for him to wash his hand before leading him into the supply room. It’s a simple room - shelves lining three of the walls, and a bench along the other. You’re not sure Ian’s ever been in here, but it’s nothing exciting. If you were a better host you’d take him into the staffroom to eat, but you need to get this counting done.

You sit cross-legged on the floor and start on the pizza and the inventory. Ian, sitting opposite you, grabs a slice of pizza and quietly watches you count and eat.

You try not to notice it, not to notice the way his gaze lingers on your face or your hands for far too long, but you do notice it - oh how you notice it - and you really fucking like it. You want this. You want Ian watching you and staring at you and being too distracted by you to eat his pizza.

“Hey,” he finally says, tossing that first, barely-touched slice back into the box. “Let me help. Show me what to do.”

“You don’t like the pizza?”

“What? No, man, the pizza’s great, but I want to help.”

You shrug and hand him one of the many lists in front of you. “Every item has a six-digit code stamped on it, all of which either start with J or K. Count the items, find the code on the check list, and write down how many there are.”

“What if I find more later?”

You shrug. “It’s fine. Just write it in. This is just the hard copy before I put everything into the computer.”

“Sounds like a lot of work.”

“Good thing you’re here to help me, then.”

He grins and takes a box from the bottom shelf. You watch him for a moment, bottom lip stuck firmly between your teeth, then get back to your own work. Finally, though, after a solid ten minutes of counting, you blurt out something possibly stupid.

“You ever thought about adopting?”

He looks up from the bottles of pills he’s counting. “Like a baby, or …”

You throw your pizza crust at him and he grins. “A pet, you tool.”

“Nah, not really. Why? You think I should?”

“I think you should adopt Ella.”

“What?”

“I think you should adopt Ella.”

“I … really?”

“Well, yeah.”

“But - but I just told you; I’ve never had a pet. I wouldn’t know the first thing about looking after one.”

“Well, feeding them is important.”

He rolls his eyes. “No. Really?”

“Water,” you continue, “affection, attention, vet visits when necessary … you know, the basics.”

“You make it sound easy.”

“It is. That’s why it’s so fucked up that people just don’t do it.”

He doesn’t reply. You wait, but he goes back to counting and says nothing. You do the same. You grab another slice of pizza, shove the box towards him, and continue counting. It feels like a triumph when he reaches out for a piece of pizza.

“Hey, Mickey?”

You glance up to see him staring at you again, pizza in one hand, pen in the other. “Yeah?”

“You really think I could do it?”

“Do what?”

“Look after a pet?”

You grit your teeth again, and there’s this awful feeling inside of you that just fucking hurts at how unsure of himself he is. “Yeah, Ian, I really do.”

“Even Ella?”

“Especially Ella.”

“But you said she had been through some shit - like, some serious shit.” He drops his pen and runs his fingers through his hair. “You really want a cat that’s been through so much bad stuff that you’re not even willing to tell me about it to go home with me?”

“I wouldn’t want her to go home with anyone else.”

“Shit, Mickey,” he says, eyes wide.

You sigh and drop your own pizza and pen. You shove the box of pizza away and scoot closer to Ian. Close enough that your knees are touching his. “Dude, you need to fucking realise what good you’ve done with her. She’s a different fucking cat since you turned up. You … you’ve really fucking helped her, Ian, in a way no one else has been able to.”

He stares at you, blue eyes so fucking wide and enthralled, and then he kisses you. He leans forward and presses his lips firmly against yours, and you immediately groan at the contact, unable to help yourself. You kiss him back, one hand going straight to his face, cupping his jaw, the other threading fingers through the hair on his neck, bringing him closer and closer and closer until his tongue is in your mouth and all you can taste is him.

Ian kisses with the kind of confidence you’ve never seen in him before. He tilts your head this way so he can run his tongue along yours that way. He presses his fingers into your scalp and demands you kiss him harder. He takes over the kiss and kisses you like he knows exactly what he wants and plans on getting it, and you’re so fucking down to let that happen, so fucking okay and willing to let him have everything he wants, everything you’ve got.

But he pulls away and looks at you like he has no idea what he wants, no idea what he’s doing. He looks fucking horrified, and the warmth that flooded you at the first touch of his lips seeps away.

“Ian -”

He jumps to his feet and runs, literally fucking runs, away from you. But you follow, even if it just ends up being to agree with him that it was a stupid mistake, you follow because you need to make sure he’s okay.

You try again when he reaches the front doors. “Ian, wait -”

“Let me out.”

He won’t look at you, his entire body shakes, and his voice holds a tone you’ve never heard from him before. You swallow heavily and unlock the door, not wanting to scare him anymore than he visibly is. You’ve worked with plenty of scared animals in your years here - you know better than to push.

You watch him leave - once again literally running from you - and your lips still fucking tingle.

-----

Ian doesn’t come back on Monday. Honestly, you’re not expecting him to, but it still sucks. Especially when all you can think about is the taste and feel of his lips against yours. You push it away and do your job, though, letting Mandy take over the front desk while you recount the items you miscounted after Ian left.

Your mind was just too fuzzy, too busy, too Ian to take proper note of what you were counting, so you shut yourself in the supply room with Tinkerbelle and get to work. And Tink, God fucking bless her heart, lies with her head in your lap the entire time.

You wonder about her sometimes, about how she can be so fucking good, so goddamn affectionate with you - and even Mandy - after all the shit she went through. Hell, she was even getting to the stage where she would allow Ian to pet her as soon as he arrived. This animal, this dog, who was used as bait for dog fights, is so fucking grateful and loving and it makes your head spin.

It always does, though. Every time a hurt or abused animal comes in and leaves again, you find yourself watching it leave with its new family, in fucking awe of how well most animals adapt, of how willing they are to trust again.

Ian doesn’t trust. At least, he doesn’t trust you.

You think it might have something to do with his time in the army, but you don’t know. Maybe it’s a past relationship, maybe it’s something else entirely, but Ian’s more like Tinkerbelle and Ella than the other pets you’ve seen brought in hurt and adopted out happy.

And now you’re comparing him to animals. Awesome.

You sigh and rub a hand over your face. Tink presses her face into your free hand and licks at your palm. You smile down at her and get back to the counting.

-----

Mandy corners you on Friday. The entire week has been a bust and your mood just gets worse and worse with every passing day that Ian doesn’t turn up. You can’t help it - you can’t help the way you feel about him, you can’t help how much it sucks that he’s stopped visiting, and you can’t fucking help that you can’t stop thinking about him.

Everything is Ian. You go to work; you think about Ian. You go home; you think about Ian. You take the dogs for their walks; you think about Ian. You shower and Jesus Christ do you think about Ian; about his hands, his shoulders, his lips. You get yourself so fucking worked up that you jerk off thinking about him. Not for the first time, but definitely the first time it’s left a blanket of self-loathing covering you.

“The fuck’s up with you?” Mandy asks. She’s standing behind you as you scrub and scrub at one of the dog cages, and you can tells she’s doing that thing she does - hand on hip, hip cocked, eyebrow raised. You pull your head out of the cage and sigh.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about you snapping at Jasmine earlier and making her cry.”

“I didn’t make her -” You stop and look up at Mandy. “Shit. I made her cry?”

“You told her she was the reason the pups ended up at the vets.”

The pups. Shit. You yank at the rubber gloves until they’re off and press the heels of your hands into your eyes. The pups - the same pups you showed Ian his second visit - are both at the vets being treated for anaphylaxis. Only one of the pups showed symptoms after being in the back yard with Jasmine that morning, but the symptoms were so severe that you genuinely don’t think she’s going to make it.

“I’ll apologise,” you finally say.

“You better. Jasmine can’t keep an eye on every goddamn bee in that backyard.”

“I know. I will.”

“Good.” Mandy sits down and faces you. “Tell me what happened with Ian.”

You don’t even bother asking her how she knows. How she figured it out. It’s pretty fucking obvious - Ian hasn’t been here and your mood has been shit. You sigh again and push your hair away from your face.

“We kissed. He kissed me.”

“And then?”

You shrug. “And then he left. Took off running and I ain’t seen him since.”

“Shit, Mick, I’m sorry.”

“Whatever. Doesn’t matter.”

“Bullshit it doesn’t matter. You’re a fucking mess over this guy and it’s only been, what, three days?”

You sniff indignantly. “Four.”

“Four days. Shit, you are fucking gone on this guy.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

She’s silent for a long moment, and you consider putting the gloves back on and getting back to work, but not only do you know that the conversation is nowhere near over, you just don’t have the energy.

“Maybe he’s not out,” Mandy finally says.

“His sister definitely knows,” you say, thinking about far too many of Debbie’s words. “And he’s never exactly seemed closeted.”

“And you never exactly seemed gay. That doesn’t mean shit.”

“I guess.”

“Maybe he has a boyfriend?”

You stare at your own fucking sister, eyes wide, and try to figure out why the fuck she would even say something like that. Jesus Christ, that’s one thought that hadn’t occurred to you, but now that it’s there it’s pretty much all you can fucking think about.

“Although,” she continues, “I think Debbie would mentioned something that first day, you know? She talked about Ian checking you out, so I think you’re clear there.”

Again, Debbie’s words float through your mind and your entire body relaxes. Debbie had said Ian was pretty much in a relationship with you, so the chance he’s in a relationship with anyone else is pretty slim … unless his family doesn’t know about it.

You push those thoughts away, though. Ian doesn’t have a boyfriend. You know that’s not the problem.

“It’s not that,” you tell Mandy.

“Commitment issues?”

“That popped up from a kiss?”

“Fine then, ass wipe, you tell me what his problem is.”

You don’t know. You’re almost certain it has something to do with the army and his utter lack of desire to talk about anything to do with it, but you just don’t know. You don’t know if he was injured, you don’t know if he’s got some kind of PTSD, you don’t know if he was kicked out with some kind of dishonourable discharge.

And you want to know. You want to know everything about the guy, especially the hard stuff, the stuff that gives him that agitated, unsure look that slides over his face every now and then. You want to know about it because you want to help him with it, you want him to be able to tell you about it.

Fuck.

You are so fucking gone on this guy.

-----

There’s a knock on the front door less than a minute after you close up on Saturday evening. You pause in the process of shutting down the computer and slowly look up, not entirely surprised to see Ian. Not surprised, but maybe a little bit wary. You lick at the backs of your teeth, sit back in your chair, and lift a hand to indicate that he can come in. The door’s unlocked.

He enters, and all you can think is that he looks terrible. The guy is gorgeous - nothing can take away from that - but he’s paler than usual, his five-o’clock shadow is more like a ten, and he looks like he hasn’t slept in days. You can’t help yourself.

“You look like shit.”

He must recognise something in your tone because he forces a smile. “Thanks - I’ve been working out.”

You roll your eyes. You want to be angry at him for having not turned up in almost a week, but you can’t. You’re frustrated by it, definitely disappointed, and even a little sad … but you can’t be mad at him and it occurs to you that it’s not necessarily a good thing. If anything it seems a little unhealthy.

“What are you doin’ here, Ian?”

He sticks his hands in his pockets and won’t meet your gaze. It hurts.

“I’m not sure.”

You sigh and think of Ella - think of how you’ve only seen her huddled up in the back corner of her cage all week - because that’s what you do now; you put the animals before yourself, always. “Look, man, you can’t just take off like that. Not after everything you’ve done for Ella. You made a hell of a lot of progress with her, Ian, and then you just left.”

“Yeah.”

“She needs stability. She needs someone who’s not going to do stupid things like you did. She needs you.”

“I get it,” he assures you. “And I won’t kiss you again, okay? I swear.”

You stomach turns to ice. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Mick -”

“I don’t want you to not kiss me again.”

“You just said I did something stupid.”

“I was talking about taking off and not coming back for a week!” And then you can’t help yourself. “Shit, man, you kissed me.”

He nods slowly. “I know.”

“And then you left.”

“You didn’t want me to leave.” He doesn’t ask it, but there’s uncertainty in there anyway.

You move from behind the counter to stand in front of him. “Nah, man, I didn’t want you to leave.”

His hands fidget in his pockets for a few seconds before he pulls them out and rubs them over his face. “I like you, Mickey, I really do, but …”

“But?”

“I just … I didn’t come back okay. I went to Afghanistan okay and I came back … not.”

“You get hurt over there?”

“No. Not exactly.”

You lick your lips and think of Joey. “You got that PTSD thing?”

His gaze barely touches you before he’s looking at the ground again. “You know about PTSD?”

“A little. Got a brother who came home three years ago who’s still not doing so good.”

He nods. “Sometimes I wonder how anyone can come back without it, but they do. Some people come home and they just … they just keep going like it was nothing. And then they willingly go back, and -” He stops and wipes his face with his hands again.

“Ian, whatever you’re going through -”

He interrupts you and you’re really fucking glad for it because you don’t even know what you were about to say. Ian, whatever you’re going through, I understand? Ian, whatever you’re going through, I’m not going to judge you? Ian, whatever you’re going through, I want to help you? Fuck, it all sounds like utter bullshit when you think about it.

“Too much,” he says. “I‘m going through too much, and the PTSD is only the beginning of it.”

“You came back with some serious weight on your shoulders, huh?”

“I can’t do a relationship, Mickey. I can’t even do anything close to a relationship or anything that has similar aspects to a relationship. This - this friendship we’ve got going on? I’ve already fucked that up because of my own personal fuck ups -”

“Ian -”

“And I won’t - I can’t. I can’t, Mick.”

You want to push. You want to tell him it’s okay, you’ll help him, you’ll wait, but you can’t do it. You can’t do it because a part of you genuinely doesn’t think he wants you to. He likes you, sure, but he won’t do this with you. And you won’t push it.

You swallow back the heaviness in your throat and nod. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“If not doing this is what you need to do, then okay.”

“Okay.” He looks around the entire front room for a moment before taking a step back. “Okay. I’m - I’m gonna go then -”

“Ella.”

“What?”

You sigh. “I don’t want to sound like a bitter single parent, but you need to decide if avoiding me is the same as avoiding Ella. You can take off on me all you want, but she - she needs consistency, so at least make sure you come back for her.”

“I - I’m sorry. I can’t”

“What? Ian -”

“She’ll be better off without me,” he says, and you don’t miss the way his lip trembles when he continues. “You both will.”

You watch him leave, too shocked to say anything.

-----

The vet calls you on Monday morning to tell you that the pup who had suffered from anaphylaxis on Friday has passed away.

Mandy calls on Monday afternoon to tell you Joey’s started using again and not to go near him. You hang up on her when she asks about Ian.

You get drunk on Monday night. It’s a dumb thing to do - you have to be back at the shelter first thing tomorrow morning - but you get the kind of drunk you haven’t gotten since before you found Tink. You drink and you drink until drinking turns to throwing things and throwing things turns to outright smashing things. You punch a wall in a fit of rage before passing out next to Tink’s water bowl.

-----

You push away Tuesday’s hangover because it was an idiotic thing to do and you don’t deserve to take the day to nurse your hangover. You don’t do this shit anymore - you don’t drink to get drunk to forget everything, not anymore.

So on Tuesday morning you stand in front of Ella’s cage and stare at her. She stares back, moody and untrusting, but it doesn’t deter you. You continue to stand there, letting her get used to your presence as you tell her about the cats she’s sharing the room with, and then you drop a couple of treats into her cage.

You do the same thing on hour later. And an hour after that. By the end of the day you’ve spent more time standing in front of Ella’s cage than you have doing anything else.

You spend all of Wednesday morning doing the same thing. You stand in front of Ella’s cage and you watch her. And she watches you. You mutter things to her about Mandy and Tinkerbelle, you tell her about Mandy’s plans to go back to school and about Tinkerbelle chasing a goddamn duck on the walk to work that morning.

On Wednesday afternoon you slip your fingers through the holes in Ella’s cage and try desperately to coax her out of her corner. She doesn’t move, but instead of sitting crouched and scared, she lies there and washes her paws while you talk to her.

It’s improvement.

-----

It takes ten days of working harder with Ella than you have with any animal - other than Tink - for her to finally let you pet her with the cage door open. Ten days feels like a lifetime compared to how quickly she took to Ian, but you’ve come to obsess over every little Ian-related thing that’s ever happened lately and you know it was twelve days of working with Ella before she let him hold her.

So you’re not doing too bad. At least not when it comes to Ella. When it comes to Ian, you’re trying to remember every detail of every memory you have of him, all the while trying to make memories of him bringing you coffee into something more. It’s dumb. So dumb. You are so fucking dumb over this kid and you haven’t seen him in eleven days.

Eleven days. Two-hundred and sixty-four hours. Fifteen-thousand, eight-hundred and forty minutes.

You feel every single one of them deep in your bones.

Fuck.

Carefully reaching out with your free hand, you grab a handful of treats for Ella and scatter them in her food bowl. She leaves you right away, but you don’t mind - the fact that she was there in the first place, that she’s not waiting until you leave her line of vision before going to the treats, is really fucking amazing.

You wash your hands and head back into the reception area just as the front doors slide open and Debbie walks in. You pause at the sight of her stooping to pet Samson, but she gives you a forced smile and strides over to stand in front of the desk.

“Hey,” you says, moving to stand behind the desk, taking that small barrier as a bit of distance between yourself and Ian’s little sister.

“Hi, Mickey. How are you?”

“Just peachy, kid. What’re you doin’ here?”

She reaches into her back and pulls something out. A newspaper. You cock an eyebrow as she passes it to you.

“This got your story in it?”

“Yep. I thought you might like to read it.”

“Yeah, definitely. Thanks, kid.”

She bites her lip as you place the paper on the desk, looking nervous for all of three seconds. “Can I still do the article about the dog fights?”

You want to say no. It has nothing to do with Ian, either, you just don’t want Debbie knowing all the shitty details she’s going to ask for. You don’t want any kid knowing about that stuff, despite the way it might help in the long run. There’s nothing nice about it, and there are too few happy endings. Tink was one hell of an exception.

“My editor thinks it’s a great idea,” she continues. “And she also wants to do biweekly pieces on the shelter, with photos and descriptions of some of the animals here to be adopted. She thought it might help, you know?”

You give Debbie a sceptical look. “That’s basically free advertising, you know that, right?”

“I know.”

“Then why would you -”

“It’s a good cause and I want the dog fighting story.”

You huff out a sigh. “You don’t beat around the bush, do ya?”

“Nope.” She eyes you a moment. “Unlike some Gallaghers, I do not piss around in getting the things I want.”

“Is that right?”

“Uh-huh.”

She waits and you wait, and you finally frown at her. “That’s it? That’s all you’re going to say.”

“I’m just waiting for you to bring him up first.”

“Isn’t that technically beating around the bush?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She has the innocent thing down, you’ll give her that. You sigh and stare down at the counter, and you hate the way your fingers fiddle with the edge of the newspaper she gave you, as though you’re fucking nervous or some shit. You sigh again and look up.

“How is he?”

Her face drops slightly. “Quiet. He hasn’t said anything, but he’s been spending more and more time at home with us rather than at his apartment.”

You remember that the last time you saw Debbie she was complaining to Ian about never seeing him. You don’t know what it means that he’s spending so much time with his family, but you’re glad he’s not alone.

And, just like that, you get realise just how much you’ve come to care about him. It doesn’t matter that he kissed you then left. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t want a relationship - or anything close to one - with you. It doesn’t even matter that he gave up on Ella. All that matters is that he’s okay, because although you know you don’t know much, you do know he’s hurting. PTSD or something else entirely, the guy’s got some stuff he needs to work through, and you want him to have his family around for that.

You rub your hand over your mouth and look at Debbie. “Think you can pass along a message for me?”

She fucking beams. “Yes! Of course; anything you need.”

“Just - just tell him that Ella’s doing okay. Tell him she’s letting me pet her.”

Debbie’s huge smile immediately falls. “That’s it? That’s all you want me to tell him?”

“Yeah, kid. Just that.”

“Nothing else? Nothing about you? Or the two of you? Or maybe how you feel about -”

“Nope. Just that. It’ll be enough.”

Because he left. He kissed you and he left. He told you he can’t be anything with you and he didn’t come back. He helped Ella trust humans again and he didn’t come back.

But you know he cares. You just fucking know it.

-----

You spend Monday walking the dogs and texting back and forth with Debbie. She doesn’t say a single thing about Ian and you’re fucking grateful for it. You’ll give her every bit of information she needs for her article - especially after how amazing her last one was - and even reply to her texts about your own experience with dogs from dog fights brought in, but you don’t need her on your case about Ian, or digging for details about what went down.

The kid is fucking persistent, but you can’t bring yourself to tell her you still haven’t heard from Ian.

You arrive back from the last walk just after closing time and put Millie back in her cage. You leave it unlocked, though. All the other dogs were fed before you got back, so you take a moment to sort out her dinner, then slowly place the full bowl in her cage. She hurries forward, but there’s no growling or snapping of teeth anymore. All of the aggression this girl came in with is gone, and you think you might be able to put her up for adoption by the end of the week.

Double checking all cages are locked on your way out, you leave the dog’s room, quickly check on the cat’s, then head to the front room to let Jasmine know she can leave. You type out one last text to Debbie, telling her you’ll finish this conversation tomorrow, then shove your phone in your pocket and wave Jasmine off with a brighter-than-usual smile. You still feel like shit for making her cry, for blaming her for the pup ending up in the hospital, especially since the pup didn’t make it.

She seems to be over it, though. She chats away as she picks up her bag and doesn’t stop until she reaches the front door and lets out an: “Uh, Mickey?”

You look up from the computer, eyes widening when you see Ian stepping towards her. He’s slightly hunched over, his arms curled around his stomach, and his entire body seems to be wracked with shudders.

You jump to your feet and run to him, reaching him as he enters the building. “Ian? Shit, man, what’s wrong?”

He looks at you with wide, dazed eyes, and shakes his head. “I - I need -” He breaks off and tears pool in his red-rimmed eyes, his body shaking harder, his breathing becoming erratic.

“Fuck.” You quickly look at Jasmine. “I got it, thanks.”

You don’t wait for her nod. You slip an arm around Ian’s waist and lead him out the back and into the staffroom. It briefly crosses your mind to take him into see Ella, but you immediately dismiss it - he’s not in any state to be in a room with a concrete floor and cages as walls, and Ella doesn’t need to see him like this.

You push open the staffroom door and sit him down on the couch against the wall. You hurry to the small refrigerator and grab out a can of Coke. You don’t know what this is or what to do about it, but you’ve got to do something and sugar seems like a good idea.

Hand pressed gently to the back of his head, you tilt the can up for him to take a few sips. He pulls away after only one, and the soda dribbles down his chin. You don’t think twice about using the bottom of your shirt to wipe it away.

You crouch in front of him, hands pressed to either side of his face, and force him to look at you. “Hey, just breathe, okay? Just - just try and breathe.”

He nods, doesn’t take his eyes off you. You hold tight to him, gently stroking your thumbs over his cheekbones as his breathing begins to settle. The tears are gone, but every now and then his breath will hitch like there’s a sob stuck in the back of his throat and fuck if it doesn’t break your heart.

You move your hands once his breathing has calmed, but don’t stop touching him. You press your hands into his thighs and use your fingers to rub at the muscles there, doing whatever you can to ease his trembling, to get him to relax his tense body. It takes a while - so long that you begin to genuinely consider calling or texting Debbie - but he finally calms down, his entire body slumping into the couch.

“Can I get you anything?” you ask.

“Water.” His voice is raw and hoarse, and you think he might have spent a long time crying before coming to you.

You get up and grab him some water, sitting beside him when you offer him the cup. He takes a few mouthfuls and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Thanks.”

“Sure. You okay?”

“No.”

Breathing begins to hurt.

“Do - do you wanna see Ella?”

He shakes his head and looks at you. “I just want to see you.”

“Okay.” You nod and you keep on nodding as you pull one leg up on the couch so you can sit facing him. You reach out and grasp his free hand in one of your own, and he squeezes so fucking tight that you know you’ve done the right thing. You let your other hand drift up, let your fingers run through the hair at the back of his neck, do whatever you can and to soothe him.

And he closes his eyes and relaxes into all of it.

You don’t know much, but you know you can’t just let him go again, not after this.

“It’s all so fucked up,” he says. You’ve both been silent for at least twenty minutes, with Ian’s eyes closed while you stroked his head, and you had begun to wonder if he was asleep.

You shuffle closer. Just a little. “What’s that?”

“Everything. This place.” He opens his eyes and lazily turns his head to look at you. “This is the only place I’ve felt genuinely safe and - and like myself since I arrived home. You’re - you’re the only person I’ve felt comfortable around since getting back.”

“Yeah?”

He sniffs and looks away. “Sometimes I just feel like I could tell you everything. Fucking everything, Mickey. And you wouldn’t judge me, not for any of it. Which is dumb, right? Because I haven’t told you anything. How can I trust you that much, have that much faith in you, when I’ve told you nothing?”

“You’ve told me enough, man,” you assure him, and he gives you a look. “Okay, you haven’t told me much, but I get it. I get that you’re going through some stuff and I’m not about to judge you for it. Not any of it.”

Some stuff. Yeah, well, that’s one way to put it.”

You remove your hand from his hair but don’t let go of his hand. “I’m all ears if you’ve got another way of putting it.”

He stares at you silently and you stare right back.

“I’m falling apart,” he finally says. You want to tell him that’s not true, that he’s going to be just fine, but you stay silent. “PTSD is … fuck, just one of many, man. One of the many fucking reasons you shouldn’t want anything to do with me.”

“Well, I guess it’s not a good enough reason.”

“I have plenty more. Panic attacks, anxiety, social anxiety, depersonalisation disorder, then there’s everything that comes with the PTSD - nightmares, flashbacks, some serious avoidance of things that went on over there. This?” He waves a hand up and down his body. “What just happened here wasn’t a once-off thing, Mick.”

You lick at your dry lips. “If you’re trying to scare me off it’s not working.”

“I’m bipolar,” he says, and there’s such fear in his eyes that all you can do is be honest.

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It - it’s a lot. Depressive episodes, manic episodes - sometimes I can’t get out of bed for a week, maybe longer; other times I don’t sleep for days, I just party and work out and never shut the fuck up.”

“And these days? You don’t seem to be doing either of those things at the moment.”

“At the moment I’m medicated. I’m steady, I’m stable … for the most part. I don’t know.” He pauses and leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and rubbing his face in his hands. “I have good days and bad days, but I’m better than I was.”

“Good.”

He looks at you. “But things like today? They still happen, even with my meds. A fucking car backfired outside of work and I completely lost it. The flashbacks and nightmares, the fucking anxiety attacks that leave me completely fucked up -”

“You’re not fucked up.”

He ignores you. “None of that’s going away. Not any time soon.”

“Okay.”

“Mickey -”

“What do you want me to say, Ian? That it changes things? That is makes me like you less? Because it fuckin’ doesn’t, okay?”

His lip trembles and he looks away for a long time. “I’m not in a good place. I’m not - I can’t be in a relationship with you.”

“And yet here you are.”

He stares at you with wide eyes, his mouth opening and closing a few times before he finally speaks. “I won’t put you in that position. You barely know me; I won’t put you in a place where you get stuck with someone who’s so emotionally unstable before the relationship even begins.”

“I dunno, man.” You look away and rub your hand over your mouth before replying. You meet his gaze head on. “Shouldn’t I get to decide that for myself?”

“What if you decide in two months that it’s all too much for you?”

“I dunno. What if you decide in two months that you just don’t like me anymore? There’s always going to be risk, no matter what extenuating circumstances there are.”

“Mickey …”

“C’mon, Ian. In case I haven’t made it perfectly clear I’m pretty fucking into you. I’m - I’m all in, man.”

He swallows heavily and just fucking stares at you. You stare back, but you bite your lip and try to stay calm. You don’t know what his reaction to that admission could possibly be, and you also don’t know why the fuck you would say something so goddamn stupid -

Ian kisses you. Not for the first time, he takes you by surprise by pressing his lips against yours. You surge forward into it, into him - hands at his face, grasping tight, not willing to let go this time, not willing to let him leave after the barest touch of his mouth to yours. You keep him in place and you push your tongue into his mouth, eager and desperate to taste. Desperate for this side of him.

And he lets you. In the back of your head all you have is the worry that he’ll up and leave again, but his strong hands grip your waist, his teeth nip at your lips, and he tugs you close, close, so fucking close until he’s pushing you back against the couch and lying over you, his entire body covering yours, pressing down into you.

You pull away, gasping for air. “Fuck.”

He growls low in his throat and scatters kisses and bites along your jaw, down your neck, up to your ear, and you thread your fingers into his hair and rut against him like a horny teenager. But he moans at your movements so you just don’t care. He buries his face into your neck and makes the most gorgeous sounds, shifting his hips down to meet yours, thrusting against you until yes.

You groan, long and low, and he pulls back to smirk at you. It’s something you’ve never seen on him before - something filthy and sexy and so fucking hot it makes you blush all over - and you fucking love it. You love the way his eyes darken as he aligns his cock to yours, the way he stares down at you as he slowly moves against you, the way he whispers how fucking good you feel when you push up against him again and again and again.

“Fuck, Mick. Yeah.”

You pull him down for another kiss and he fucks his tongue into your mouth, kisses you like you’re the goddamn air he needs to survive, and it’s intoxicating and beautiful and it takes your breath away.

You pull away to mutter nonsense, spread your legs to give him more leeway, and he presses in even harder.

“C’mon, Mick, wanna watch you come.”

Fuck.

Fuck.

His hard dick against your own is amazing, his fingers digging into the skin of your hips drives you insane, and his hot breath ghosting over your goose pimpled skin makes you shudder.

But it’s the look in his eyes that makes your heart stutter. He’s flushed and panting, his bottom lip caught between his teeth and his hair falling over his forehead. But it’s panic in his eyes. Behind the need and want, behind the dark lust, behind the confidence you’ve never seen from him before, is worry and uncertainty.

You slowly lift a hand to rub at his cheekbone and he closes his eyes, loses his rhythm.

“Ian,” you breathe, with maybe, possibly, definitely far too much meaning behind it.

He pulls away and gets up. “I have to go.”

“No you don’t.”

“This was a mistake.”

You get up and grab his by the arms to keep him from leaving. “No it fucking wasn’t.”

“I can’t be what you need me to be, Mickey.”

“The fuck does that even mean?”

“Fuck!” He pulls away and begins to pace, running a hand through his hair. “It means I don’t think I can do this. I’m not good, Mickey. I’m not the kind of person who will be there for you when you need me to, and, shit, I can’t even do this -” He throws a hand towards the couch he had just been dry humping you on. “- when my meds fuck up and I have to start over. I can’t give you what you want. I just can’t.”

You scoff. “And what? You’re not even willing to try?”

“It’ll just end messily. I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”

You stare at him and he stares back, but it’s not like before when you were terrified of how your words would effect him. This time his words have the desired effect and you take a step back.

“Go then.”

“Mickey.”

“You’re not even willing to fucking try? You know as well as I do that there’s no just friends with us, Ian, but you’re not even going to give it a shot? To try and be something good for me? Then you need to fucking go.”

He blinks quickly before nodding. “Yeah. Yeah, fair enough.”

He leaves without another word, and his willingness to give up just makes you angrier.

-----

You don’t drink yourself stupid this time. You won’t let yourself get back into the habit of drinking until you pass out every time someone fucks with you or your feelings. Instead you put in the extra hours with Ella, you help Mandy study to get her GED, and you make sure Millie’s completely domesticated before going up for adoption next week.

Mandy only asks you once if you’ve seen Ian. She doesn’t bring him up again after the glare you give her.

-----

Debbie turns up again on Thursday and you have to try your hardest not to glare at her.

It’s not her fault her brother isn’t as into you as you had hoped. Or that he isn’t willing to even try something with you. Or that he doesn’t think he’s worth it.

You sigh. Ian never said anything about not being worth it, but it’s there in your head. You think he’s worth it - and then some - but you can read between the fucking lines and you know what he was trying to say.

And it just makes you angrier.

“Hey,” she says, all smiles.

“How’s it going, kid?”

“My journalism teacher loves all the information you’ve given me! She thinks it’s going to be an amazing story, like a deep-dark-secrets story.”

“That’s great.”

“Your enthusiasm astounds me.”

You glare at her. “You realise these things aren’t safe, right? The people who put these dog fights together aren’t good people.”

She actually rolls her eyes at you. “Of course I do. Anything I find will go straight to the police. And then into my article.”

“Just … be careful, okay? Don’t go doing anything stupid.”

“Please. I’m not a complete idiot. I do my research and I anonymously ask questions online. The only person I speak to about it is you and my teacher.”

“Good.”

The last thing you need or want is someone like your old man getting their paws on Debbie, and maybe you’re being a little dramatic, but you were there the day Tinkerbelle was used as bait and you know what it was like. You know the kind of crowds who run this shit.

“So,” she continues, pulling out her phone. “Who’ve you got for me?”

You lead her into the back rooms and take her to see the dogs first. You show her Conan and Millie, tell her a little about both - stipulating that Millie won’t be up for adoption for another week and that she needs patience - before taking her into see the cats.

“Which one’s Ella?” she asks. You cock an eyebrow and she shrugs. “You’re not the only one Ian wouldn’t stop talking about.”

You fight the blush as the knowledge that Ian talked about you, but Debbie’s smirk tells you that you’ve failed. You flip her off and lead her towards Ella.

“She’s really pretty,” she says, but it’s the same way she talked about Conan and Millie. It’s nothing like the way Ian talks about Ella. “She’s not up for adoption, right? Ian said she’s pretty unsociable.”

“That’s right.”

“Do you think she’ll ever be up for adoption?”

You bite your lip and think about that one. You’ve had actual headbutts and face snuggles from the apparently affectionate cat these last two days, but you know she’s not even close to be adopted out yet.

Plus there’s …

“No.”

“Why not?”

You glance at Debbie then back to Ella. “There’s only one person I’ll let her go home with.”

She smiles at you as though you’ve told her you want to marry her fucking brother, not just let him adopt a goddamn cat.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“I didn’t say a word.”

“Keep it that way.”

She doesn’t. “Have you heard from him? Since the last time I was here?”

You tongue your cheek and bite. “Nope.”

“Hm. Well, I wouldn’t take it too personally, okay? He’s … adjusting.”

“So you’ve said.”

She shrugs. “He’s got a lot going on.”

You decide it’s time to change the subject. “This is Kimba. She came in on Tuesday. She’s had her health checks and she’s fully vaccinated. Why don’t you take her picture?”

“You’re so subtle.” Debbie sticks her tongue out at you, but she takes a photo of Kimba anyway. Then she tucks her phone away, crosses her arms over her chest and purses her lips. You cock an eyebrow and wait. “So, uh, I’ve been thinking …”

“You even begin to mention your brother’s name and I’ll stop with the dog fighting information.”

She rolls her eyes. “I was actually hoping I could begin volunteering here.”

“Why?”

“Partly because it’ll look good on my college applications, partly because all animals need to be cared for and loved. I figure the more people caring for them the better.”

You nod. “Still on your animal rights kick, huh?”

“Always.”

“Okay. You can start now by helping me close up.”

“Really?” She says it like it’s the best goddamn thing in the world, and you’re pretty fucking thrilled she’s still into this cause, but you don’t think she’ll be so happy once she realises volunteering is more than just walking dogs and cuddling cats.

-----

Forty minutes later Debbie’s hair is frizzy, her cheeks are flushed, and her fingers are like prunes.

“I told you to wear gloves.”

She blows a stray piece of hair out of her face. “Yeah, well, now I know. Jesus, who knew animals were so disgusting?”

“Seriously?”

“I mean, obviously they shit and they piss, but all that hair? And food everywhere! Oh my God, cat food stinks. Like, is it supposed to smell that bad? Because I almost hurled at one stage.”

You laugh and push her out the front door. “You’ll get used to it,” you say, waiting for Tinkerbelle to follow you and before locking the door behind you. “If you plan on coming back, that is.”

“Oh, I’m coming back. I’m coming back and I’m going to snuggle the shit out of Conan. Why has nobody adopted him yet?”

You shrug, remembering having a similar conversation about Conan when you showed Ian around the shelter on open day.

“Anyway,” she continues, walking across the parking lot. You follow, patting at your thigh for Tink to come along. “I’ll be back. Can you set up some kind of schedule for me? Let me know when you need me and when you don’t?”

“Sure, kid. How many hours you want to do?”

“Hm, let’s start with a full day in the weekend and a couple of days after school? How does that sound?”

“It sounds like a lot.”

She scoffs and stops on the sidewalk, arms crossing her chest once again. “Why? Because I’m a girl?”

“No, because you’re in high school. You have homework and shit, too, right?”

“I’ll make it work.”

You sigh. “If it gets too much -”

“It won’t.”

“Fine. But no taking the animals home when I’m not looking! I saw the way you swooned over the pup.”

“Yeah, well -”

You hear the screeching before anything else, and quicker than your brain can keep up with, you see a car on the road behind Debbie swerving erratically. You act instinctively, yanking on Debbie’s arm to pull her out of the way as the car careens towards you, and you both fall - Debbie screams, you grunt as you land on your hip - but you’re both safe from the idiot driver who’s just driven into the streetlight next to you.

You look into Debbie’s terrified eyes. “You okay?”

She nods and you quickly get to your feet, looking around with a sick, lump-in-throat feeling washing over you. Your breath hitches when you don’t see her, and your voice catches when you call out, “Tink?”

A low whine comes from the road, and your heart jumps into your mouth. No. No, no, no, no, no, no, fucking no. You hurry around the car and find Tinkerbelle, lying on the road, one leg twitching slightly as she cries in pain.

“Fuck.”

“Mickey,” Debbie calls from behind you.

“Call an ambulance for the fucker in the car,” you tell her, slowly reaching down to scoop up your dog. It’s probably the wrong thing to do, the worst thing to do, but you have to do something.

You pick Tink up, wincing at the noise she makes, and hold her to you. Then you run. You fucking run the entire three blocks it takes you to get her to the vet.

-----

There was this moment after the dog fight, this moment where you knew you had to do everything in your power to keep Tinkerbelle alive, this moment where she opened her eyes and looked up at you with nothing but fucking trust in her eyes and it killed you.

You swallow back the heavy feeling in your throat for the umpteenth time and wipe your palms on your jeans, trying to ease the shaking, the anger, the outright fucking fear.

You can’t lose Tinkerbelle. You can’t. You just fucking can’t.

You don’t care how much of a pussy it makes you to be so fucking emotional over a dog - she’s your fucking family, and you can’t fucking lose her.

Footsteps pass you and you quickly look up, disappointed to see one of the nurses walking by. Not your nurse, not your doctor. You haven’t seen either of them since they took Tinkerbelle away and into surgery.

Fuck.

Elbows on your knees, you rest your face in your hands, trying your fucking best to keep it together, terrified of failing miserably.

You hear Ian before you see him. His voice comes from the reception area of the vet and you lift your head to see him arguing with one of the nurses. You stand and he sees you.

“There! See? There’s Mickey, and all I want to do is see him.”

The nurse - you think her name is Jessica? - turns to face you with an arched eyebrow and you nod. Ian pushes past her without another word and hurries to your side.

“What’re you doin’ here?”

“Debbie called me.” His hands grip your arms. “Are you okay? Jesus, Mick, is Tink okay?”

“I - I don’t know.”

His mouth opens a couple of times before he finally pushes you to sit back down. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Water?”

“Nah, man, I’m okay.”

He shits next to you. “You sure?”

“Yeah, I don’t think I could stomach anything anyway.”

“No, I mean are you sure you’re okay?”

You look at him, into his blue eyes that look anything but agitated. “Why are you here?”

“Debbie called me.”

“And?”

“And I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“Ian.”

He shakes his head and reaches for your hand. You let him take it. “We’ll - we can talk about that after, okay? For now just - just concentrate on your girl.”

You nod and quickly look away, not wanting him to see the tears that well in your eyes. He just squeezes your hand tighter, shuffles a little closer on the bench seat, and begins to talk about his day. You have no idea what he’s saying - but you think he must have been working if the amount of times you vaguely hear the word ‘coffee’ is anything to go by - but it’s nice. It’s a nice distraction and it’s nice to have Ian there.

You do as he said, though, and concentrate on Tink. It’s not hard. Even with Ian there, his voice soothing and sweet in your ear, all you can think about it Tinkerbelle and how she looked lying in the middle of the road.

But then your eyes go hot and your breath hitches and Ian grasps your hand tighter, so you take a deep breath, blink quickly, and calm the fuck down.

It’s a long time, literally hours, before the vet comes back out. And Ian hasn’t left your side once.

Your vet’s name is Bill, and he’s one of the best people you know. He’s the guy who worked on Tinkerbelle when you first found her, who let you pay off her treatment in tiny increments over more than a year, the guy who looks after every hurt animal that gets left at the shelter.

You stand as soon as you see him, hand pulling out of Ian’s.

“Is - is she okay?”

“I think she will be,” he says. “She’s got a long way to go, but you’re damn lucky she’s still so young, Mickey. She made it through surgery with no problems.”

“Fuck,” you breath. You press the heels of your hands into your eyes a moment before looking at Bill again. “So she … she’s alive.”

“She is. One of the nurses is getting her settled for the night, and then you can see her.”

Bill leaves after you thank him, but you don’t turn to face Ian. You stand with your back to him and sniff wetly, trying to push away the hot tears that burn the backs of your eyes. You almost succeed, too, but then Ian’s in front of you, pulling against his hard chest and wrapping his strong arms around you and you swear, you swear to fucking God, that’s why you begin to cry.

If he had just kept to his goddamn self you would have been fine, but he takes you into his arms and you can’t stop the tears.

But for the first time you can remember, someone’s there to wipe them away.

You don’t let yourself get too carried away. You feel like a dick - because despite having grown away from your dad you still feel like a fool for crying in front of someone - so you pull your shit together, step away from Ian, and wipe at your eyes.

When you look at him he’s staring at you so fucking intently that you open your mouth to snap at him that you’re fine, that he needs to keep his mouth shut.

“I want to try,” he blurts out.

“The fuck?”

“I want to try. This. Us. You and Me. I’m willing to try - I want to try.”

“Christ, Ian -”

“I know, okay?” He steps close and rests his hands on your hips. You have no will or want to pull away. “I know my timing sucks, and I know I’ve given you sweet fuck all reason to do this with me, but when Debbie told me what happened … all I wanted was to be here with you, Mick. Be here for you. I just want you to know that, to know that I want to try. And, given my life recently, that’s kind of a huge deal.”

You sigh and look around the small hallways before looking back at him. “You really want to do this?”

“More than I’ve wanted anything in a really long time. I can’t guarantee I’ll be good at it, and I know I’ve been anything but reliable lately, but I want to try this with you, Mick. I really do.”

“Okay. Then we’ll try. But no more running away.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

You barely get the word out before he kisses you soundly.

-----

Ian comes into the shelter three weeks later looking nervous and agitated. You frown.

“Don’t.”

“I’m just not sure this is the best idea.”

“It’s not. The best idea was you giving this -” You wave a hand between the two of you. “- a go. This is the second best idea.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.” On the floor next to you Tinkerbelle makes a snort of agreement and Ian’s face lights up.

“You brought her in today?”

“Couldn’t stand leaving her at home again.”

“You big softie” He comes around the counter and completely ignores you for Tink. He crouches next to her, holds out his hand for her to sniff, then scratches at her head. “Hey, girl. You miss me?”

“She didn’t.”

“Bullshit.”

“She can’t stand you.”

Ian stands. “You’re just jealous that she’s starting to like me almost as much as she likes you.”

“Please.”

He leans down to press his lips to your ear. “It’s okay, Mick. I still like you more than I like her.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. A little.”

“Dick.” You shove him away but he just laughs and comes back. His fingers thread through your hair and he kisses you roughly, tongue fucking into your mouth immediately, causing you to groan in the middle of the fucking reception area.

Three weeks. Three weeks of dating and fucking and more dating and even more fucking. And it’s already the best three fucking weeks of your life. Ian’s lips against yours, Ian’s fingers in your ass, Ian’s smile when he wakes up next to you. Ian’s panicked breaths when he wakes from a nightmare, Ian’s overwhelming confidence whenever things get physical, Ian’s soft gaze every time Tink lets him near her.

It’s perfect. Even the bad parts are perfect because they’re with Ian, and those are words you’ll never say aloud because Mandy will somehow find out about them and never let you live them down.

You pull away from Ian, gasping. “Dude. Work.”

“Finish early.”

“You’re trying to distract me.”

He sits in the chair next to you and stares into your eyes. “I’m scared.”

“Don’t be.”

“What if I fuck up?”

“You won’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

You roll forward and grab his hand. “You won’t. But if you do then we’ll work it out, okay?”

“Yeah. Okay.”

You bite your lip. “You don’t have to do this.”

“I know. I want to, I’m just …”

“Scared.”

“Yeah.”

You lean forward and kiss him softly. When you pull back his lips curve into a smile and it’s so fucking beautiful that you can’t help but grin. From behind you Mandy makes fake gagging noises. You hadn’t even heard her arrive, but you just flip her off in reply.

“C’mon,” Ian says. “Let’s go adopt me a cat.”