The Babe Magnet
by D.C. Logan
Monday morning, the nudge at his elbow wasn't just unexpected, it was, quite literally, damaging. Forgoing a towel, he pressed fingers hard against the razor nick and looked down at his dog accusingly. "Just how the hell did you get out, hmm?" He gave up on the cut and followed her out to the living room, but her crate looked normal aside from the open door. Perhaps he'd just forgotten to latch it properly. She waved her tail encouragingly at him and pawed at her food dish.
"You're shameless, you know that? Simply shameless."
He hadn't forgotten to latch the crate, but he did figure out that she'd managed to puzzle out the workings of the door catch on her own. She demonstrated this fact again for him by the time he returned from work that afternoon to take her for her lunch-time walk by meeting him at the door, whining and dancing and trying to wedge her head between the door and the frame. Only Heero's quick reflexes saved her from escape through the narrow opening. "I don't think so." He dropped his briefcase on the sofa and clipped her new leash to her collar before walking her through the patio area and into the miniscule fenced back yard behind his unit; and then picking up after her by using a plastic baggie as a glove for his hand and then inverting it over her offering as Trowa had efficiently demonstrated the night before. Heero's technique lacked Trowa's practiced efficiency, but got the job done just the same.
He latched her in her crate with careful precision as he left for the office, and then waited outside of the front door and watched her through the door's sidelights, mentally counting down the minutes he was running late to work. For her part, she simply settled down on her blankets, seemed to rise and fall once on a mighty sigh, and then fall deep into her bedding. However she was breaking out, she was too smart to allow him to catch her doing it.
She was loose again by the time he came home from work for the day, and this time she'd collected some distractions to occupy herself until Heero arrived. Unfortunately, said items included most of the contents of the bathroom laundry basket. She seemed to have a preference for his underwear, and, he noted with some resignation, he was going to have to go buy some more.
"Your time is running out, Little Girl. You're cute, but I'm not entirely sure you're cute enough to deal with all of this." He sat back on his heels and considered her. She looked up at him entreatingly before edging closer and licking at his chin.
He rolled his eyes at her. "Fine. You win. I'll go and see Duo and find out how much a different crate costs."
He walked her, latched her in her crate, and watched from the front door again. This time he got in the car, opened and shut the door and returned to peer through the glass before giving up and driving towards a destination he'd been both avoiding and heading inevitably towards for three days now.
This time the older man was reading a new magazine and wearing a shirt that was, if possible, even brighter than the last one and rivaled the dog toys in color combinations and patterns. Which was saying something, given the wide selection the store offered.
Heero nodded towards the rear of the store. "Is he in the back?"
"Duo? Nah. He's not here right now." Howard lowered the page and peered at Heero over the top edge of Cichlid World in order to see what his reaction would be to that bit of news. It would be worth it in order to report back to Duo, as his nephew had been working on a grade-ten obsession over Mustang Boy. Lately he'd been doing the head-swivel thing every time the door chime rang. It had been pitiful to watch. Thankfully, Mustang Boy was looking suitably stupefied by the news that the object of his quest was out of the building. Good. Duo was a better than average kid and he didn't want his nephew hurt. He shrugged and returned to the article on combining Mbuna varieties that had interested him in the first place. "He's across the street picking up my latte; he should be back in a few minutes depending on how many local caffeine addicts are ahead of him in line. Anything I can help you with?"
"That's okay, I'll wait." Heero edged away and pretended to look at the dog toys, stalling for time.
Howard smiled into his magazine. Mission accomplished.
Duo strolled in a few minutes later with an eager look in his eyes and a deceptively casual glance around the front of the store. He slid Howard's latte across the counter with a whispered, "So, where is he?"
Howard accepted his bribe with an equally quiet, "Currently wandering in small mammal territory. Unless he has a hamster or gerbil at home waiting for him, he's stalling and waiting for you to show up."
Duo slid his own latte over the counter, tugged his shirt down, flipped his braid to the back, winked at his uncle who winked back in return, and went Heero hunting. He found his prey reading the label on a VariKennel dog crate. "So, what's up? You find another stray you need a home for?"
It was said with a warm chuckle and a hopeful smile that had Heero turning and offering one in turn. "No. Still the same one. But she's turned out to be a regular Houdini with the crate I brought home, so I'm looking for a new one to replace the one you sold me."
Duo nodded with instant understanding. "Right. I've got just the thing for you over here then."
He waved Heero over to the front of the store, and Heero followed obligingly along, watching as the long rope of Duo's braid moved smoothly over work-faded denim, wondering idly when the curve of black jeans over a man's ass had become so attractive to him. Heero fought hard to not read a double meaning into Duo's words. He wondered how long Duo's hair would be when unbound, preferably in his company. Clothes optional. Dog crated. Dog. Crate. He blinked, realizing suddenly that they'd stopped, that Duo was facing him, and that Heero was still--fortunately or unfortunately--staring in the general region of the man's ass, which was now his crotch, and that Duo had apparently just said something to him. "Hmm?" Oh, right. That was eloquent, Yuy. He should probably try looking the man in the face to see if he had any better luck on the second try. God, now he knew firsthand what Trowa had felt like when he'd caught him staring at the damn door at the clinic. Thought processes were suddenly optional.
"I said, that will be twenty-five cents." Duo was looking at him and apparently expecting some sort of response.
Heero shook his head slightly to clear it. "What?"
Duo gave a sharp bark of laughter. "No use buying a new crate until you try this first. Trust me, okay?" He looked at Heero's face, and Heero felt himself nodding; and the odd thing was, he really did feel like he trusted this man's word. Which was unusual for him--especially after such a short period of time. Duo reached out and tugged his sleeve, pulling him in the direction of the crates again, and then pointing towards the model he already had at home. "Snap." He held the snap in front of Heero's face and pulled back the spring with a sharp click and release. "Crate door." And he demonstrated where it should be used to secure the door of the crate to the framework of the crate. "That should keep your crafty little escape artist where she belongs." Duo rocked back on his heels and leaned against an aquarium display to better appreciate the scenery in front of him. "So, what did she get into?" His eyes were laughing, and Heero found himself smiling back.
"The laundry hamper..." A slow look of dawning horror grew and took hold of his features. "And she's probably loose again by now. Hell... I..." He dug in his pocket for the money, but Duo, seeing the genuine panic in his face, just waved him off.
"Go. Worry about that later. I think you're good for it."
Heero tossed him a look of grateful understanding and bolted for his car.
Duo walked slowly back to the front service counter to retrieve his latte, pleased both with the unexpected visit and the promise of seeing Heero again.
Treize leaned over the low cubicle wall and looked at the image on Heero's monitor. "So that's your babe magnet, hmm?"
"Wufei's been opening his mouth again, hasn't he?"
Treize chuckled. "Relena, this time. Apparently Wufei mentioned it to her and she found the idea charming for some reason." Treize shrugged with his usual brand of casual elegance. "It makes sense to me; I myself will approach a person out with a dog before I'll walk up to person on their own, and dogs are reportedly excellent judges of character, correct?" Heero frowned while his boss moved until he was standing directly behind the monitor, still studying the desktop wallpaper image carefully. "You know, Heero, that's a very nice dog. I'm very surprised that her owner hasn't turned up yet. Still..." He looked off to the left as if trying to remember something, then shook his head. "How's the Motorola project proposal work coming along?"
It wasn't until their lunch break that Heero thought to mention Treize's comments to Wufei.
Wufei tucked a piece of lettuce back into the side of his sandwich before responding. "You know something? Trieze is right."
"About it being odd that no one has come forward yet to claim your puppy. Outside of a larger city that wouldn't be so unusual, but here? Population never changing? What are the odds that someone would lose a pretty dog like that and not try to find her? I mean, other than eating holes in all of your underwear, what other bad habits does she have?"
Heero glared back at Wufei, trying to impart dire threats behind the look. "If Treize brings up the underwear thing during my next performance review, I will never help move furniture for you ever again."
But the comments got him thinking, and worrying about just how long his new dog would remain "his."
She didn't have any bad habits that he could think of, now that she couldn't escape from the crate, and that had been his reasoning when he had decided not to call Trowa to take him up on his offer to take her off of his hands. She was company, of a sort he'd forgotten he'd a need for. And he'd forgotten, or simply hadn't noticed, or, more likely, hadn't wanted to recognize how very quiet and organized and structured his life had become since graduating and starting work. Wufei's criticism of 'wage drone' was starting to make some sense to him now, not that he'd ever admit it to Wufei in public. At least not in front of witnesses.
All in all, he'd decided, she was nice to have around. It felt surprisingly good to come home and be welcome there instead of opening the door to a dark and quiet house.
Leaving her was another matter altogether though, as she cried and whined whenever he left the room, raking her paws down the wire bars of her crate and digging at the pan at the bottom of it. He remembered the underwear though, and both Duo and Trowa's caution of 'better in her crate and out of trouble until she's older and trained', but didn't like it. He granted her freedom as soon as he got home until the time he went to sleep, and she alternated between pest and delight and quiet unassuming company well enough that he decided to expand her borders into the fenced yard area of his condo as well. Other than chewing on the cover for his electric grill, she seemed to get along well enough, shifting between her slow awkward walking and a faster tripodding gait with her cast leg held high and her tail a flag-like banner behind her.
She was curious, and Heero was enchanted by the way she explored and tested her immediate environment. Nothing was too small to be ignored, too bland to be tasted, too resilient to be pounced on. She chewed on the toys he brought her, and his magazines, and the corner of the end table until he sprayed it with the Bitter Apple, and his hands until he sprayed them as well. She played with her stuffed monkey like an oversized kitten might toy with a stuffed mouse, and Heero couldn't resist taking pictures of her play, snapshot after snapshot of her cavorting and gamboling around his living room. Her cast seemed to not slow her down at all, and in the way of young things, he had more fear for her than she did for herself, fearlessly leaping from the sofa and over the coffee table and causing his heart untold stress.
He decided to not show those pictures to Trowa. He was, after all, her doctor, and had advised Heero to keep her quiet so her injuries could heal properly.
He did, however, stretch the rules enough to leave the patio doors open between his living room and his postage stamp of a yard, so she could wander in and out freely while he sat on the couch and worked on finalizing his presentation for the Motorola project. Every now and then, when she did something particularly cute, he'd set the laptop aside and lift his camera to take an additional picture of her as she watched the birds land on the fence top, or as she napped in a sunbeam, or--and he suddenly felt a kinship to every grandparent advertisement he'd seen--even when she just tilted her head and really looked adoringly at him.
Heero was finishing his work for the evening and getting ready to call her indoors for the night, when she suddenly spied a squirrel dancing along the tree and stood transfixed.
"Got to get a picture of that..." His attention was only diverted for a moment. Just long enough to set his computer down and reach over to collect his camera again, but by the time he lifted the camera to his eye, intending on spying on her play in the yard through the camera lens, all he could see was the end of her tail slipping over the top edge of the four-foot panel fence.
And then she was gone.
Heero bolted out the front door of his unit and around the back of the building at top speed, calling for her as loudly as he could manage. He just managed to catch a glimpse of her running hell-bent for leather, moving much faster than he expected her to be able to move given her injuries and the cast immobilizing her hind leg. He started running after her, knowing full well that he didn't have a chance of catching her, but not knowing what else to do. In his mind, the same mantra kept repeating over and over again: "Please don't get hit baby, please don't get hit again... "
By the time full dark fell over his neighborhood, he had to concede defeat. Yes, people told him, they'd seen a black and brown dog with a bright pink cast on her hind leg. Yes, they said, she ran that way, and they'd pointed. Or was it that way, and they'd pointed again. He walked home, finally, footsore and heart weary, and found his front door standing wide open and welcoming just as he'd left it in his panic. For a moment, hope surged anew, and he approached his home with a hopeful, "Here, Little Girl, here, Little Girl," that had his neighbor, just home from a previously up to that point very normal day, staring at him with open shock and not just a little bit of hesitant reservation.
But the condo was empty. Heero closed the doors before slumping back on the couch in defeat, then he called Trowa and Wufei. "She's gone. What do I do now?" And he prepared for a very long and sleepless night.
"Jesus H. tap-dancing Christ." Duo slammed on the brakes and fought for control of the oversized cargo van, chanting "please-oh-please-stop, c'mon, stop-stop-stop-stop..." until the vehicle rocked to an ungainly, brake-squealing halt. He drew a deep breath in, released it slowly, then turned and checked on his uncle--sitting with his arm braced against the dashboard, white and still in the passenger seat. Duo took in a deep breath before attempting speech. "Did you see that?"
Howard readjustested his sunglasses before replying. "One little dog with attitude chasing a bigger dog with something pink on it? Traveling at about twice the speed of sound?"
"Yeah." He slid his uncle a look. "How many dogs do we know of that would fit into a 500 VariKennel, are black and tan, and have a neon-pink pink cast on their hind leg?"
He grinned in disbelief. "You really think that that's Mustang Boy's critter?"
"His name is Heero, and I'd be willing to bet money on it. He claimed that she was a quote-unquote regular Houdini when it came to escaping." Duo checked the street, but this early in the morning, the roads were still clear. Only a paper delivery serviceman was walking the rounds in this part of town, and he was snapping his fingers to the rhythm of his iPod, completely oblivious to his surroundings. "I'm going to go find her. I'll be in later, okay? If I need a lift, I'll call." He didn't wait for Howard's nod, but slid out of the van and jogged off in the general direction he'd last seen the two dogs, whistling and calling out softly after them, cutting across the suburban neighborhoods and criss-crossing where dogs were barking in the back yards and front windows of the houses.
By the time he caught up to her, she'd lost her pursuer and was standing alone in someone's front yard, breathing raggedly, standing splay-legged, and looking very uncertain. When he first saw her, for a brief moment he thought he might have been mistaken, as she looked smaller and not quite as Heero had described her. Though the color was right and there was something a bit collie-ish in her head and face, she looked more like a greyhound in body, with a plush dense coat about two to three inches thick. She turned then, and he saw the cast, which removed all doubt, but started a thread of fear running in him that she might have damaged her leg in her sprinting run across the road and in whatever other adventures she had found herself.
He crouched down near to the ground about thirty feet away, opened his arms to her, and put as much sincerity into his voice as he could muster, given his fear that she would turn and head off into the street at any moment. "C'mere Little Girl, c'mon." She swung her head around to him like a compass needle to magnetic north, wavering briefly, then fixed on him with determination. Past her panic and her run, with a cowering shuffle-footed approach, she walked right into his arms and started licking his face with abandon, pushing him over into the morning-wet grass and climbing directly on top of him in her need for comfort.
Duo enfolded her into his open jacket and kept his arms wrapped tight around her neck and chest to restrain her and hold her close to him as he felt along her leg for any heat and swelling. "Someone's going to be very, very happy to hear that you're safe. Very happy." He eased his belt from the loops of his jeans and slipped it around her neck to serve as a surrogate leash. "I saw you run, Little Girl, and your cast looks fine and I didn't feel any heat along that leg of yours, and you're sure as hell too heavy for me to carry, so you get to walk for another five blocks. We'll call your dad when we get to the Safari, okay?"
She continued to smother him with affection, and he pushed hard against her, not willing to chance another escape but needing the room to climb to his feet. "You certainly are the affectionate one, aren't you?" Standing, she was taller than she looked from a distance, and heavier, he remembered from being under her. "You're a big girl, too. C'mon, let's get you home then. You know about leashes?"
She did. And either her escape and run through the town had given her a healthy respect and fear of traffic, or she knew something about heeling and keeping close to the person holding the other end of the lead as well, for she walked easily on the improvised leash without pulling or tugging in the slightest.
Howard looked up at the electronic chime of the door. "Got her, hmm? Is that his dog?"
Duo cracked a wide grin. "Are you blind? Does this look like a parrot to you?"
Howard lowered his sunglasses along his nose with the shift of a finger and peered over them at his nephew. "Okay genius, how are you going to contact Mustang Boy? Did he give you his number after you drooled over his ride?"
Duo's smile faltered, then recovered. "Yellow pages. Check for Yuy, Heero. That was the name on the charge card."
Howard flipped the directory onto the counter and started scanning through the pages as Duo fit Little Girl with a replacement collar and leash.
"Any luck?" Duo dropped a moving blanket behind the service counter at his uncle's feet, then leaned over to look at the page and ran his index finger down the row of names and numbers along with him.
"Either he's spelling it differently, or he's got an unlisted number." Howard closed the phonebook and set it aside, tugging the blanket neatly into place as he did so. "You could always call the veterinary clinic or take her over there for them to hold her for him to pick up later." Howard looked over as the dog finished her fourth rotation and settled neatly into a coiled puddle at Duo's feet and dropped her head on the top of his left boot. "Or not."
Duo was eyeing the black book next to the phone with some speculation. "Howard? You need to check the inventory in the back, don't you?"
Howard noted where, exactly, his nephew was looking. "Ah, he ordered identification tags for her?"
Duo beamed and nodded his head. "Yup."
"Right. Definitely need to make sure that the last shipment of aquarium gravel was the correct colors and numbers. Wouldn't want to have anything to do with accessing private customer information, no sir, that wouldn't be ethical..." He leaned down and gave a parting pat on Little Girl's head, who accepted the offering with a tired sigh, but refused to move her head from Duo's foot, enjoying her ad hoc pillow.
Duo ignored Howard's rambling muttering as he picked up the order book and flipped through the more recent pages before finding an entry for, "Aha, here you are. Little Girl, with a home address, home phone, work phone, cell phone..."
He looked down at the dog at his feet, then at the clock. "It's 7:52 in the morning m'dear, is your dad up this early? Or did you keep him up all night looking for you?" She blinked placidly up at him, but otherwise gave no response, not that he'd really expected one. "Well, another few minutes one way or another won't hurt, and you look beat." He scooted his foot out from under her, which caused her to heave to her feet and follow him about as he collected a second of the padded shipping blankets from the stack left near the door and unfolded it at his feet, and added a new ceramic dish for water, which was ignored in favor of the soft blankets as she spun the requisite four times and collapsed with a heartfelt groan that reverberated up his boots. Well, nothing to it, time to call Heero, and yet he hesitated still, nervous about the moment. "Well, girl? Shall we try your home first?"
The phone rang five times before an automated machine picked up the line. "Hello, you've reached 555-8761, please leave a message..." The computerized voice neither confirmed nor denied the fact that the phone number did indeed belong to Heero.
"Let's try his cell phone before leaving a message then, shall we?" Duo had a moment of doubt, however irrational, and tested his faith by whispering 'Little Girl' just loud enough for her to hear. Her head lifted and turned to meet his eyes. "Okay, so I'm an idiot. I'll try the cell number next." He continued speaking out loud, not even thinking about how odd it might sound if his uncle or an unusually early customer found him rationalizing his call strategy with a dog.
Little Girl continued to watch him steadily. "Okay, okay, so I'm dialing already... Sheesh." She dropped her head back onto the top of his foot and waited. This time he got a connection on the first ring.
The voice on the other end of the line was out of breath, obviously rushed, and unmistakably Heero. "Trowa? Thank God you got my message! Little Girl is missing and Wufei and I have been out all night trying to find her but she's just nowhere to be found and we've got a presentation to make to the Motorola people in about thirty minutes and..."
Shit. Should Duo address him as 'Heero' or 'Mr. Yuy'? The title was nearly a requirement for customers, but this wasn't exactly a customer sort of situation and mister sounded pretty damn formal for someone who was nearly, if not exactly, his own age and that he had hopes of seeing naked at some point in the future, near or far, he wasn't being too particular at this point really. "Um..."
The line became very quiet before a hesitant, "Who is this?" trickled over the phone connection.
Duo swallowed hard, took comfort from the heavy weight of Little Girl's head on his foot, and plowed ahead. "Heero? You don't really know me, but this is Duo Maxwell. I'm the guy you met that works at the pet store over on Dublin, Howard's Pet Safari..." There was a long pause where Duo gave Heero a chance to absorb that much information before he went in search for the courage to continue with the rest of it.
Heero made what he hoped sounded like an encouraging sound for Duo to continue, truly not knowing what to expect next from him, and wondering if he was being asked out on a date, as that was oddly what the approach sounded like.
Duo continued in oddly halting words, "...And I... and I think I." He paused to take a deep restorative breath. "I'm pretty sure I have your dog."