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“It’s not that I mind you coming here while I work,” says Howard, and he puts a pint glass down in front of Gary, “but it’s the fourth night this week.”

Gary sighs as he sits at the bar. “Yeah, I know, but it’s just…I needed to get out of the house.”

Howard eyes him. “Too quiet?”

“A bit, yes.” They don’t talk too much about Gary’s break-up, having done the most important bit – swearing at his ex a lot over a bottle of whiskey – on the first evening after it was over, but it still comes up sometimes.

“Have you thought about –”

“No Tinder, no Grindr, and definitely no OKCupid,” Gary tells his friend.

Howard snorts. “I still say you should just give it another go. No, have you thought about getting a pet?”

Gary takes a sip, and considers it. It’s not a bad idea, he supposes. He grew up with a family dog, but his ex didn't like pets, and Gary didn't mind. But Howard’s got a point. Having a pet would make the house feel less empty. “You know, I always did like dogs,” he muses.

“A dog? Really?” Howard replies, frowning slightly. “I mean, if you get a dog you’re gonna have to pick up its shit all the time, and go for it with walks in the rain. You should get a better pet than that.”

“Oh, right.” Gary lets out a laugh. “You’re the pet expert, of course, with that tortoise your parents foisted off onto you.”

“Yes, and it’s great. Winston hibernates for half the year, stays in a terrarium and doesn’t make any noise. Perfect pet!”

Gary shakes his head. “I’d rather have a dog, thanks. Even with the walks in the rain.”

“And the shit.”

“And the shit.”

***

Gary does a bit of research and asks a few colleagues who have dogs where they got theirs, and after a few weeks he figures that his best bet is the local animal shelter. He doesn’t want or need a hyperactive puppy, and when it comes to companionship, a mutt is just as good as a pedigree dog.

It still takes a bit of searching, since it’ll have to be a dog that can handle being alone for longer periods, but on the other hand, that still leaves various dogs that don’t want to be around kids or other animals, and don’t require an experienced owner.

In the end, he checks out the website of his local shelter, and sends them the online application form. Some of the questions are easy, since the family section is just a bunch of ‘not applicable’, but the lifestyle section is trickier. How much time does he really have for his hypothetical dog? He also adds the name of three dogs he found on the website that he thinks might be suitable, but adds that he’s fine with a different dog if they think that’s a better fit. 

He submits the form on Thursday evening, not expecting to hear back from the shelter before the weekend. Which is fine, it’ll give him time to figure out what else he needs to be a dog owner besides, well, a dog.

***

“Someone’s interested in Cookie!” Jason bursts into their little kitchen with a big smile on his face and an A4 sheet in his hand. “Look!” He thrusts the piece of paper at Mark, then disappears down the hallway again.

Mark passes the printed form to Robbie, and goes back to pouring cups of tea for the both of them.

Robbie frowns as he scans the form. Well, Jason’s not wrong to be happy that someone’s interested in adopting one of the dogs that’s been here for a while, especially since Cookie has already been adopted once and was brought back when it turned out that she couldn’t get along with the other dog in the household after all.

Secretly, Robbie was pleased to see her again, since he likes Cookie more than most of the other dogs and cats in the shelter, although Jason frequently reminds him he’s not supposed to play favourites.

But Cookie, well, she’s the sweetest little mutt, and she loves running after a tennis ball, even if she never bothers to bring it back.

He has been trying to figure out a way to butter up his landlord and convince him to scrap the ‘no pets allowed’ rule, but so far he hasn’t had any luck. One day, though. One day.

Robbie narrows his eyes as he reads the form. The guy isn’t interested in Cookie in particular, but in any dog that’s a good fit. He’s also a first-time dog owner, and works five days a week.

“Well?” Mark asks, putting the mug down on the table in front of Robbie, before sitting down on one of the plastic chairs. “Are they worthy of her?”

“Shut up,” Robbie grumbles, glancing at Mark before returning to the form.

“Ah, c’mon, you know you’re never gonna get your landlord to let you bring her home, she might as well get adopted. She’s been here how long, three months?” Mark smiles at him. “She deserves a good home.”

“A good home, yes,” Robbie replies pointedly. “Not so sure about this guy. He works full-time, and no mention of a partner.”

Mark shrugs. “That doesn’t need to be a problem. Cookie can handle being left alone for a long time. If he can get someone to walk her around noon, or if he works close to home, that could work. Provided he can give her plenty of attention and a walk in the evening and morning, obviously.” He sips his tea. “No other pets?”

“And no kids,” Robbie says, which is another plus. “First-time owner, though.”

Mark looks thoughtful at that. “Well, she’s well-behaved enough and clever, if he’s willing to put some work in, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“Maybe.” Robbie passes Mark the form, and takes his tea. “I want to meet him, though, see if Cookie likes him.”

Jason wanders back in again, still looking pleased as he pours himself a cup of tea. “I’ve emailed him back, asking if he can come down today or tomorrow morning.” He sits down with a satisfied sigh. “I was wondering if she was ever gonna find a nice home, poor thing. Not a lot of people are interested in a six-year-old dog who can’t be around kids or other animals.”

Robbie coughs pointedly.

“I’m not helping you smuggle Cookie into your apartment, Rob, we’ve discussed this.”

“It’ll be good for her,” Mark adds, “you know she doesn’t like being around other dogs too much. She’ll probably like being alone for most of the day after staying here for three months.”

“Exactly,” Jason tells him, “we have to do what’s best for the dogs, don’t we?”

He knows that, and he knows that Cookie’ll be happier living in a home rather than a shelter, but still. “If he’s an asshole, he can’t have her.” Robbie smirks. “He can have Captain, though.”

“Oh God, don’t mention him.” Mark groans at the mere mention of the Border Collie’s name. “He’s eight years old, he’s not supposed to be a hyperactive whirlwind anymore!”

“Captain’s just very energetic, and I’m sure there’s someone out there who’ll take a shine to him,” Jason says. “Maybe we should add that he likes gardening in his description?”

“I’m not sure if digging up plants and then rolling around in them counts as gardening,” Mark muses, “but it’s worth a shot.” 

***

Gary is surprised to get a quick email from the shelter, and replies that he’ll be round on Saturday morning.

Will the rescue centre immediately demand a decision from him? He can’t do that, he wants to ask them questions about the dogs he’s interested in, and if they have any tips for people who haven’t owned a dog in, well, forever.

And going by the website and how much they stressed that adopting a pet shouldn’t be a spur of the moment decision, surely the rescue centre wants him to be absolutely sure?

He’s actually feeling nervous by the time he parks outside the rescue centre the next day. It’s on the other side of the city, on an old farm. There’re five other cars parked in front of the old farmhouse, and as he walks around the house, the sound of barking dogs grows louder.

Gary pauses for a moment, looking around. He spots a volunteer, a man with floppy brown hair sticking out underneath a hat, wearing a body warmer with the rescue centre’s logo on it, but the man is busy talking to a family with two small boys, and he’s got a small terrier on a lead. The dog is sitting by the volunteer’s feet, letting itself be petted by the two kids as the parents talk to the volunteer.

He wonders if he’s supposed to wait until another volunteer comes and talks to him, or if there is some reception area he hasn’t spotted yet. He pulls his phone from his jacket, checking the email from the rescue centre again. Jason, the one who replied to his application form, hasn’t given him any further instructions apart from coming over on Saturday morning after nine, and it was now ten.

“Can I help you?”

Gary starts, nearly dropping his phone. “Sorry!”

The volunteer, a tall man with black hair and startlingly bright eyes, just smiles at him. “You here to look around or for a particular animal?”

“Oh, uhm, I emailed on Thursday,” Gary replies. “Are you Jason?”

The man shakes his head. “Nah, I’m Robbie.”

“Gary. I emailed about a few dogs and Jason said I should come over today to meet them.” They shake hands, and Gary watches Robbie’s smile fall. “Is something wrong?”

“You’re here for Cookie,” Robbie says, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his body warmer.

Cookie is one of the dogs Gary thinks might be a good match for him. “Sort of,” he replies, wondering why Robbie’s stopped smiling. “Is she sick?”

Robbie is quiet for a moment, eyeing Gary. “She’s fine,” he says, but his tone is clipped.

Gary does not feel reassured. “Is something wrong with her?” he asks.

“Wait here, I’ll have a chat with Jason.” Without waiting for a reply, Robbie stalks off towards the farmhouse, entering through a door that says VOLUNTEERS ONLY.

Gary waits, a little taken aback at Robbie’s demeanour. If he didn’t know better, he’d think Robbie was being unfriendly, but what animal rescue volunteer would be rude to someone who was looking to adopt one of their dogs?

Or is there something they aren’t telling him? Maybe someone else adopted her yesterday, and Robbie’s worried Gary might get angry over it.

Even if that is the case, Gary will happily adopt one of the other dogs that meet his criteria, provided he meets theirs.

What kind of criteria could dogs have for owners? Ability to throw a ball far enough?

After a few minutes, Robbie walks back out. He still doesn’t look happy, a forced smile on his face. “I’ll take you to meet Cookie, shall I?”

“Oh, great.” Gary follows him to the back of the farmhouse, where the dog kennels are. There’re two long rows, stretching further back, and behind the chain-link fences of the kennels are various dogs.

Robbie walks past them all, but Gary looks at them, wondering how they ended up at the centre and how long they’ve been here. A few are excitable, wagging their tails at him or at Robbie, but some lie on the ground, head resting on their paws, watching the two of them walk by.

“How long do dogs stay here?” he asks, watching two dogs sniff at each other through the fence connecting their kennels. “On average.”

“Oh, about a month,” Robbie replies, turning his head a little as he walks. “The younger they are, the shorter the stay, usually. Depending on health problems or known behavioural issues. We get some animals here from negligent owners. It can take a while to get them to the point where they can even be put up for adoption.”

“Right,” Gary says. There’s a hint of anger in Robbie’s voice, but at least Gary understands where it’s coming from. “That’s terrible. But Cookie doesn’t have those, right? Or at least, none that are an issue for me,” he adds, remembering that Cookie’s description mentioned that she doesn’t get along well with other dogs.

“Cookie is a sweetheart,” Robbie says, but it sounds like an admonishment. He stops at one of the last kennels. There’re three more dogs, one of them a Labrador that lets out a pitiful whine when Robbie doesn’t walk towards it.

Robbie is kneeling down in front of Cookie’s kennel. Gary recognizes her from the pictures. Standing up, she comes to just above Gary’s knees, and there’s black spots covering the white fur of her body, with two big black splashes across her eyes and ears.

“Hey girl,” Robbie says, his voice soft as he looks at the dog, who comes padding over to him. “Hey there, sweetheart.”

Gary waits behind Robbie, letting Cookie sniff Robbie’s hand and lean in for some petting through the fence. “So, what happens now?” he asks.

Robbie pulls his hand back, and sighs. “Now you let her sniff you, for one.”

“Right, yeah.” He kneels down next to Robbie, looking at Cookie. “Hey there,” he says, and presses his hand against the fence so she can sniff him. “Good morning.” What the hell do you say to a dog? He feels a warm huff of breath against the palm of his hand, but the dog doesn’t do anything apart from sniff. “Is that good?”

“We’ll see,” Robbie says, and he gets up. “We can take her for a walk, if you want. A short one,” he quickly adds.

“That’s a good idea, yeah.” Gary stays on his knees for a little longer, looking at Cookie and wondering what she thinks of him. “I’m sorry, this is my first time adopting a dog, I don’t know what’s normal.”

Robbie takes a lead from the pocket of his body warmer, and opens the latch to let Cookie out. While she butts her head against his leg, he clips the lead to her collar. “But you have owned a dog before?”

“We had a family dog when I was young,” he replies. It’s not the same as owning a dog, but it’s something, right?

Robbie is still holding the lead as he walks back to the entrance. “Well, we all have to start somewhere. You coming on this walk or what?”

***

Robbie passes him the lead about a hundred yards down the road from the old farm, and only after Gary asks him for it. Cookie barely even notices, her tail wagging as she walks in between them. “So, what’s Cookie’s story? How did she end up here?”

“Usual story.” Robbie stuffs his hands in his pockets. “A couple bought her as a puppy, and then they had a baby, and decided Cookie wasn’t good with babies.”

“Did something happen?” Gary looks down at the dog, who looks as sweet as can be.

“Nah, just two people who didn’t have the time or energy to prepare a dog for the new arrival, or the time and energy to deal with Cookie once the baby was there,” Robbie explains. He doesn’t sound angry, just matter-of-fact. “Turns out Cookie doesn’t deal well with change, and new parents don’t deal well with a dog that’s decided she’s no longer house-trained and tears apart the sofa cushions.”

“But she wasn’t aggressive?” Gary asks, wanting to make sure. “Towards the baby?”

Robbie shakes his head. “No, not at all. Her owners were pretty cut up about it,” he adds, “admitted they had underestimated the effect the whole thing would have on their dog. But they couldn’t handle Cookie acting out and the baby.” He lets out a snort and smile a little. “Turns out they don’t have rescue centres for babies.” 

Gary smiles as well, and pauses while Cookie does a wee against a lamppost. “And how long has she been at the centre?” Cookie’s description didn’t mention it.

Robbie was silent for short moment. “About three months.”

“Longer than average, then. Any reason why?” Gary asks, keeping his tone light. He remembers what Robbie said about puppies getting adopted before adult dogs did, but he still doesn’t get why Cookie hasn’t already found a new home. She does seem like a sweetheart, and well-behaved. She hasn’t tugged on the lead once, content to let Robbie and Gary set the pace.

“She did get adopted about five weeks ago,” Robbie replies, “but they had to bring her back. Cookie didn’t get along with the other dog. They tried for about a week, but the poor girl wasn’t eating and far too stressed.” He smiles down at Cookie, leaning down to stroke her neck.

“The description said she needed a home with no other pets.” Gary remembers thinking that was one of the things that made her perfect for him. “To be on the safe side?”

“Yeah, she gets along decently with her neighbours here, but it’s different in a home where she’s the newcomer,” Robbie tells him. “Anyway, what made you decide to adopt a dog?”

Gary gets the feeling Robbie’s been wanting to ask him that since he got here. “Oh, a friend of mine suggested it, actually. He figured I could do with the companionship, and he had a point.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, the house is too quiet with just me living there, and my ex wasn’t a dog fan,” he says, “or a fan of any pet, really. Thought they all smelled, even the ones you keep in a cage.” 

Robbie eyes him. “Recent break-up?”

“About…three weeks now,” Gary replies, after thinking it over. “Yeah, three and a half.”

Robbie looks down at Cookie, who has wandered off into the grass on Gary’s other side as they walk. “Adopting a dog isn’t something to do lightly on an impulse,” he says, his bright eyes meeting Gary’s. “She’s six years old; she’s easily got another five, maybe ten years in her.”

“That’s good,” Gary replies, a little surprised when Robbie narrows his eyes. “Isn’t it?”

“She’s also not an instant cure for loneliness, and she’ll still be around once you meet someone new, and she’s not just there to suit your needs, you have to suit hers, even if it’s inconvenient,” Robbie continues, and he’s stopped walking now.

Gary takes a few more steps, but Cookie stops walking too, looking up at Robbie and then at Gary, and she sits down in the grass. “I know that,” he replies, taken aback at Robbie’s words and the almost angry look in his eyes. “I’m not – this isn’t something I’m taking lightly. I told you, I’m new to this whole dog owning thing, but I’m not an idiot.” He’s starting to feel a little insulted. “I know Cookie’s got her needs, why do you think I’m asking how and why she ended up here? If what she needs is, I don’t know, someone who’s home all day, I’m not gonna adopt her, am I? What’s the point of adopting a dog if it’s gonna end up miserable because I work full-time?”

Robbie looks a little shame-faced at Gary’s admonishment, but he lifts his chin. “Just making sure.” He strides past Gary, and Cookie stands up to go after him. “And for your information, Cookie can handle being by herself for most of the day.”

Gary sighs, walking after Robbie with Cookie leading the way. “Good.” Is Robbie having a bad day? One moment he’s being very helpful, the next he seems annoyed with Gary for no particular reason. “Any other tips?” he asks, since Robbie doesn’t seem like the type who’ll apologise for being rude. 

Robbie gives him a look over his shoulder. “Always carry plastic bags with you.” He nods down at Cookie, who is now squatting underneath a tree.

Gary stares at the dog, and misses Robbie throwing him a roll of plastic bags. He sighs as he picks them up. Howard’s gonna laugh at him so hard over this.

***

They walk back to the farm after that, and Robbie has to admit to himself, Gary handled the dog shit situation surprisingly well. “Still looking to adopt a dog?” he asks.

“Yes,” Gary replies, Cookie’s lead in one hand and the filled plastic bag in the other. He gives Robbie a slightly defiant look. “If the idea of having to deal with dog poo would’ve scared me off, I’d’ve gone for a cat.”

“Wouldn’t have been a bad idea in your situation,” Robbie tells him, “I mean, working full-time and all. We’ve got several cats who can stay home alone all day just fine, if you’re interested.” He tries to keep his tone casual and friendly, but he’s sure Jason wouldn’t give him a bollocking for steering Gary towards a cat. After all, the rescue centre has a few cats who’ve been there longer than Cookie.

“No, I’m more of a dog person,” Gary replies, smiling down at Cookie. “With cats I’m never sure if they want you to live there too.”

Robbie laughs at that. “Fair point! Mind, we’ve got a couple of very affectionate lap cats.”

“I’ll pass, thanks.” Gary looks down at Cookie. “It’ll be weird, though, owning a dog by myself.” He sounds almost wistful.

Despite Gary’s vehement insistence that this isn’t some spur of the moment thing, Robbie still has his reservations. “Never considered adopting a pet before, then?” he asks.

Gary shrugs. “Didn’t get round to it while I was living by myself; never had the time to look into it properly, and then my ex moved in and like I said, he didn’t like any kind of pet, even vetoed a goldfish.” His eyes widen and he looks down at Cookie.

Robbie just shrugs. Does Gary think the centre won't let gay people adopt pets or something? “He sounds like an idiot.” What kind of a person doesn’t like pets? He can understand not liking dogs or cats in particular, and there’re good arguments to be made against keeping goldfish, but somehow Robbie doesn’t think Gary’s ex was thinking about animal welfare.

“Yeah, I suppose he was,” Gary says, and laughs.

By the time they get back to the kennels, Robbie has to reluctantly admit that Gary could very well be a good owner for Cookie. She seems to like him just fine, and Gary is interested in learning what he needs to know to take good care of her. Robbie’s still a little worried about Cookie being alone all day, but after staying here, she might welcome the peace and quiet.

Gary passes the lead to Robbie as they stop in front of Cookie’s kennel. “So, what happens now?”

Robbie knows what Jason would like to happen, namely for Gary to decide there and then that he wants to take Cookie home with him forever, so that they can start planning the home visit and discuss other preparations. “Now we have a chat with Jason.”

***

Jason leads the way into the little kitchen, Cookie’s folder in hand as he sits down. He beams at Gary. “And?”

Gary throws Robbie a confused look. “Cookie seems like a lovely dog,” he says.

“Excellent. So, do you want to adopt her, then?” Jason asks, already opening the folder. “Because then we need to go over a few things.”

“Wait, you want me to adopt her right now?” Gary asks, looking panicked. “I can’t, I haven’t got anything at home for her; I’d need to do some shopping first and I don’t even know what to get her!”

Jason shakes his head with a laugh. “No, you don’t have to take her home immediately, and if you haven’t got the basics at home, you’d better get those first. We can plan the home visit once you’re ready.”

“Take your time,” Robbie says immediately, trying not to get his hopes up too much. “I mean, you wanna get it right, and there’s a lot of things you need to buy.”

“You don’t want to take too long.” Jason gives Robbie a sharp look. “If someone else shows up who is a good match and wants to adopt her, well, we wouldn’t want to stand in the way of a suitable re-homing.” He smiles apologetically at Gary. “I’m sorry, but we try to do what’s best for the dog.”

“No, I understand. And I am interested in Cookie, I really am.” Gary shrugs, still looking a little panicked. “I didn’t expect you guys to reply to my email so soon; I thought I’d have this weekend to figure things out. Where am I even supposed to start?”

“Oh, we have brochures and leaflets for that,” Jason tells him, gesturing at the folder on the table. “All to make the re-homing go as smoothly as possible!”

“That’d be great,” Gary replied, sounding deeply grateful. “I don’t want to forget anything.”

Jason stands up. “All right, I’ll get you some as I show you out, I can answer any more questions you might have right now, and we can set up an appointment for that home visit.” Jason opens the door, and waits for Gary to join him.

Robbie is feeling a little stunned. He knows it’s all about doing what’s best for Cookie, and Gary seems like a nice guy, but it’s also going very fast. “How about he comes back next week for another walk first?” he says. “A longer one, so he and Cookie can get to know each other better.”

Jason frowns at him. “Get to know each other better? Rob, this isn’t a dating service.”

“It’s not a bad idea, though,” Gary muses. “I mean, we went for what, a five minute walk? Cookie was probably relieved to get out at all.”

“Exactly!” Robbie grins at Jason, who is glaring at him. “It makes sense for them to spend more time together, to see if they really are a good match. After all, Cookie’s last re-homing didn’t go too well, did it?” He hates pushing Jason’s guilt buttons like that, but he tells himself that it is in Cookie’s and Gary’s best interest not to rush this decision.

“I’d hate to have to bring her back after a week.” Gary frowns, and he looks at Jason. “Is that all right? I can come by in the evening next week, if you’re open.”

“We are open in the evening on Tuesday once every two or three weeks,” Jason says, and he’s looking at Robbie. “If we can get the volunteers to cover that shift. It’s a bit of a bugger to find someone willing to come out here in the evening, so half the time we have the cancel it.” He smiles. “But as it happens, we’re having one next Tuesday and we got that one covered, don’t we, Rob?”

Well, he walked into that one. “Yes, we do.” It’s not like he has anything else on that Tuesday, but it’s still annoying to have to come here in the evening when he’s already volunteering in the afternoon.

“That’s settled, then,” Jason tells him firmly. “Come on, Gary, let’s get you those brochures.”

As Gary follows Jason down the hallway, asking him about opening times on Tuesday evening, Mark wanders back in. He takes one look at Robbie’s expression, then down the hallway. “Oh, was he the one who’s here for –”

“Cookie, yes,” Robbie tells him, sitting back in his chair and folding his arms. “He’s coming back on Tuesday evening.”

“I thought we were gonna cancel that since no one was available for that shift?” Mark asks, grabbing a packet of biscuits from the cupboard.

Robbie watches his friend open the packet, and takes one when offered. “Well, Jay’s found himself a volunteer.” He gives Mark an overly cheery smile before biting the biscuit in half.

Mark laughs. “Did you piss him off?”

“No!” Robbie replies, spraying bits of biscuits everywhere. He chews, then swallows. “I mean, not really.”

Mark just gives him a knowing look. “Sure. So, how did the walk go?”

“All right,” Robbie says begrudgingly. “I mean, he dealt with the poo with very little complaining.”

“That’s good!” Mark smiles. “And how did Cookie like him?”

“Just fine, I think.” The dog seemed relaxed and comfortable around Gary as they walked, although Cookie is easy-going around humans, and she likes Robbie. The true test will be next Tuesday, when he’ll have to let Gary walk around with Cookie alone for a while.

Mark grabs another biscuit. “Then where’s the problem? Because he sounds like he’d be a good new owner.” He gives Robbie a serious look. “You know Jason won’t let Gary adopt Cookie if there’s a problem, but it’s got to be an actual problem.”

Robbie sits back. Mark is right, Gary does sound like he could be a decent owner, but Robbie can think of a few reasons. “Okay, one, I’m not sure if Cookie being left alone all day is a great idea, he should get someone to visit to walk her. Get a friend or neighbour, something at least.”

“You can tell him that on Tuesday.”

Robbie’s certainly planning on it. “And I think it may be an impulsive decision. He just got dumped, so now he’s feeling lonely.” He doesn’t mention Gary defending himself from that earlier, and how Gary seems to understand that Cookie has needs too.

Mark nods and gestures with a biscuit. “That could be an issue, but we’re never gonna be 100% sure it’s not a decision someone’s gonna regret somewhere down the line. Anything else?”

Robbie sighed, slumping down in his chair. “Not really. He seems like a nice, decent guy who wants to learn how to be a good dog owner. Cookie’ll probably get spoiled rotten.” If Gary wanted to adopt any other dog, Robbie would be ecstatic.

“Poor Cookie,” Mark replies with a smile, and he leans forward. “You’ll have to tell Jason it’s looking good, though. Gary coming back on Tuesday is just being thorough and double-checking, both for us and for him, and to give him time to prepare. But after that’s it a home visit and then…” His eyes soften as he looks at Robbie. “You’ll probably have to say goodbye to her.”

“I don’t want to!” Robbie knows he’s being childish and sulky, but he loves Cookie. She’s sweet, adorable, loves attention and being petted, and clever and obedient when she wants to be. It’s not that the other dogs aren’t sweet too, but he clicked with Cookie.

Mark watches him with a smile. “Makes you wonder why he hasn’t adopted a pet before, though.”

“Oh, he said his ex wasn’t into pets,” Robbie explains. “The usual bullshit that they all smell.” He knows all about how much a pet can stink, and most of the time it’s down to regular cleaning up after it. Of course a hamster cage is gonna smell if you just leave it for two weeks. “I don’t know why Gary is upset that guy left him, sounds like good riddance if you ask me.”

“So an ex-boyfriend, hm?” Mark smirks. “Have fun chaperoning him and Cookie next week!”

Robbie is tempted to throw a biscuit at Mark. “He’s not my type.”

“He’s into guys and he likes dogs; he’s exactly your type,” Mark informs him. “Last guy you went out with, you met via Tinder and you only liked his profile because he had a picture of himself cuddling a cute dog.”

“It was a cute dog,” Robbie grumbles. It just didn’t belong to the guy, but he isn’t gonna tell Mark that.

“Exactly.” Mark gestures at him with a half-eaten biscuit. “And Gary’s way more attractive than that guy.”

“You aren’t even into men!” 

“No,” Mark replies calmly, “but I’ve still got better taste in ‘em than you do.”

Robbie glares at him. “I’m not interested.”

Just then, Jason bursts in, still holding Cookie’s folder. “He’s definitely interested.” He pumps his fists in the air. “Thank God.” He drops the folder down on the table, and looks at Robbie. “Best behaviour on Tuesday, Rob, unless you spot a real problem with Gary.”

There are no real problems, though, not that Robbie can see. “It might be a spur of the moment decision,” he tries, but even he can’t convince himself. “Recent break-up, and now he’s lonely.”

“Ex-boyfriend who hated pets,” Mark adds, pushing the biscuits over to Jason.

Jason considers it as he takes one of them. “All right, he’ll have the weekend to think it over, then, so it won’t be a spur of the moment decision by Tuesday.” He sits down and looks at Robbie. “I mean it. Best behaviour. If he’s ready to adopt by Tuesday, you make an appointment for a home visit as soon as possible.”

“I know.” Robbie sighs, and smiles when Jason slides the biscuits over to him. “It’s Cookie, though.”

“There’re plenty of other dogs, Rob,” Mark tells him.

“Yes,” Jason says, “like Captain, who really could do with some exercise.”

Robbie gets up. “Fine. But if he’s not ready by Tuesday, we’re not moving forward.”

Jason eyes him. “Only if there’s a genuine problem.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Robbie grumbles, and heads out, mentally steeling himself to deal with the energetic Border Collie.

*

Gary spends most of the weekend reading the brochures Jason gave him, and researching dog leads, dog toys, dog food, dog harnesses for in the car, and everything else he’ll need. There are plenty of different opinions online, but at least Gary feels a lot more prepared for his planned shopping sprees.

He has also managed to convince Howard to visit a few times a week during the day and take Cookie for a walk. Well, not so much ‘convince’ as ‘bribe via home-made banoffee pie’, but it’ll be worth it. He’s sure that Cookie is adorable and sweet enough to convince Howard by herself, once they get to know each other.

That Tuesday, he’s feeling a little nervous as he drives up to the farmhouse, which is ridiculous. He’s here for Cookie, to ask a few more questions, and to make sure that they’re well-suited. He briefly wonders if Howard and Cookie will be well-suited. He’ll have to figure out a way to introduce them to one another soon.

It’s drizzling as he steps out of the car, and he isn’t surprised there’s nobody outside. The door with the VOLUNTEERS ONLY sign is open, though, and Gary walks over to it. He knocks on door. “Hello?” he calls down the hallway.

“Hello!” comes the reply, and Robbie steps out of one of the doors down the hallway. He looks at Gary. “Ah, you’re here.” He actually sounds surprised.

“Of course. I said I would be, didn’t I?” Gary replies.

Robbie shrugs as he walks towards Gary. “Thought the weather might put you off.” He steps outside, closing and locking the door behind him.

“It’s not so bad,” Gary replies. “Oh, I brought an old t-shirt of mine with me.” He pulls it out of a plastic bag. “One of the brochures said it might help Cookie settle in if she’s already familiar with some of the smells at her new home?”

Robbie looks at the t-shirt, then at him, a little surprised. “Sure, yeah,” he says. “We’ll put it her kennel. Do you want to take her for a walk right now, then, or wait and see if it gets dry?”

He looks up at the cloudy sky. It doesn’t look like it’ll be dry any time soon. “Eh, I’ll consider it practice for all those walks in the rain I’ve still got coming.” He smiles at Robbie.

There’s a slight smile back, and Gary feels like he’s just won a major victory. “Let’s get your practice walk started, shall we?” Robbie tells him, and leads him over to the kennels.

*

Robbie watches Gary walk off the terrain with some trepidation. Cookie looks happy enough, even if she seemed a little confused at Robbie not joining them when he let her out of her kennel. He supposes that’s to be expected, since he’s usually the one to take her for her walks, and it makes his heart ache a little to watch her go with Gary.

He heads back inside, and puts the kettle on. When it started raining earlier, he hoped that it would put Gary off, but of course it hasn’t.

Gary’s the only visitor Robbie’s expecting that evening, and he’s pretty sure anyone who hasn’t emailed or called them will be put off by the rain. The only thing left for Robbie to do is wait for Gary to come back from his walk, which probably won’t take long, and deal with some of the forms from other people interested in adopting or volunteering.

Once he’s answered the emails he can answer, fifteen minutes have passed and Gary still hasn't returned.

Robbie looks out the window, and even goes outside to look down the road, but there’s no sign of Gary or Cookie anywhere. For a brief moment, he thinks Gary has kidnapped Cookie, but that would be ridiculous, and Gary’s car is still parked by the side of the farmhouse. He goes back inside, feeling a little worried. It’s raining properly now, and he never even offered Gary an umbrella.

So much for ‘best behaviour’.

He goes back inside, sits down behind the computer and spends some time updating the listings on the website, removing the animals who’ve been adopted over the past week. Jason’s on top of a lot of things at the shelter, but he hates everything about keeping the website up to date, and Robbie has heard a lot of creative swearing over the past few years.

It’s been thirty minutes now, and he wonders if he should be going out there as well. It’s still raining, and the sky is turning darker. “For fuck’s sake,” he mutters. He’s got no idea where Gary and Cookie went, so there’s no point in going after them.

Fortunately there’s a knock on the door a few minutes later, when Robbie is in the kitchen, tidying up. He runs to the door, and opens it to find a soaked Gary and Cookie on the doorstep. “What took you so long?” He gestures for Gary and Cookie to come inside. “Let me find you a towel.”

“That’d be great,” Gary says, following Robbie into the little kitchen. He shrugs off his jacket and hangs it over the back of the chair. Raindrops are running from his hair down his cheek, and he shivers. “I think we got turned around somewhere, didn’t we, girl?”

Cookie shakes herself dry next to Gary, then walks over to Robbie and sits down. He tries not to laugh at the disgruntled look on Gary’s face.

Robbie puts the kettle on. “Thought you’d know the way back here by now,” he tells the dog, patting her on the head. “I’ve taken you on enough walks, Cooks.”

Cookie just lies down at his feet, her tail thumping against the floor.

Robbie sighs, and he knows he’s gonna get a bollocking from Jason for letting a wet dog in here. “Right, towel,” he says, stepping over Cookie and rifling through one of the cupboards. “You won’t be surprised to know we’ve got plenty of those around, in case of accidents.” He throws Gary a dark blue towel.

Gary eyes the towel suspiciously. “You guys do wash ‘em regularly, right?”

“Of course!” Robbie grins while Gary starts towelling his hair dry. “Are you all right on your own here? I’ve put the kettle on, there’s mugs in the top cupboard on the left and teabags on the counter. Help yourself to some biscuits as well, I’ve got to get Cookie back to her kennel.”

Gary wipes his face dry, and his hair is sticking out in all directions. He frowns at Robbie. “You wanna go out there?”

Robbie nods at Cookie. “She can’t stay here,” he says, picking up her lead. “Or do you want to take her home?”

Gary shudders at that. “Oh God, no. Cookie seems lovely, but I’m not taking home a wet dog.”

“You heard him, Cookie, you gotta get dry first. C’mon, up you get.”

Cookie gets up slowly, butting her head against Robbie’s knee, then moving over to Gary. She looks up at him, and Gary reaches down to pat her damp head. The towel is slung over his shoulder. “See you another time, Cookie.”

Robbie gives the lead a gentle tug, and she’s following him. Before heading out, he puts his hoodie up, and walks through the mud with her. “Did you enjoy your walk, then?” he looks down at the dog. “You think Gary’s a good owner for you?”

Cookie trots along with him, every inch a happy dog.

“Yeah,” Robbie says, smiling down at her fondly. “Yeah, I bet you think so.” He sighs. Tonight cinches it. Taking Cookie for a long walk in the rain, even if it was by accident… yeah, Gary’s definitely gonna take Cookie home with him soon. Time for his best behaviour.

*

The radiator is on in the tiny kitchen, and Gary’s moved his chair so the back of it is facing the radiator. He hopes his jacket will be a little bit drier by the time he’s going home.

He takes his shoes off to wring out his socks over the sink, and pulls a face at the muddy prints across the floor, both from him and from Cookie. Great, he’s only been here for five minutes and there’s already mud everywhere.

He hangs his socks on the radiator, and puts his shoes underneath. His jeans are sticking to his legs, cold and clammy, and he wraps his hands around the steaming mug of tea he's made.

He still isn’t sure how he got so turned around, it’s nothing but fields with the occasional copse of trees for miles around here, but Cookie seemed to know where to go, and Gary just followed her. Robbie probably thinks he’s a right idiot. Gary definitely thinks he’s a right idiot, trusting a dog to lead him around.

Robbie comes back, shrugging off the body warmer and pouring himself a cup. He grabs a packet of biscuits from the cupboard. “So,” he says, sitting down at the table and re-using the teabag Gary left in an empty mug for his own tea. “How did your walk go?” He pushes the biscuits over to Gary.

“Uhm, all right? Apart from the rain and getting a bit lost. We went through this copse of trees further down the road and I wasn’t really paying attention to where she was going, I guess,” he explains.

Robbie nods at that. “She was going for the long way round. I have a couple of standard routes for the dogs,” he says, “depending on how much time I have. Sounds like Cookie was aiming for one of my longer ones.”

That explains why Cookie knew where to go whenever they got to a crossroads. “All the farms around here look alike from a distance,” Gary says, “I wasn’t sure which one was the rescue centre.” He takes a sip from his tea, sighing happily at the warmth.

“I, er, expect you’ll still want to be adopting Cookie, then?”

“Of course!”

Robbie looks at him, then nods and glances down at his tea. He removes the teabag and throws it in the bin behind him. “Great. We’ll have to set up an appointment for a home visit, then.” He gives Gary a smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Great,” Gary says, wondering why Robbie seems disappointed. “I’m still working on getting all the necessities. There’s so much of it.” He mentions a few things he still needs to get, asking Robbie’s opinions on collars and leads and dog beds and toys and food, but rather annoyingly, Robbie’s opinion mostly boils down to ‘it depends on the dog and you might have to try different things before you find something works for you both’. “I would’ve preferred a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer,” he grumbles.

“If you want simple, don’t get a dog,” Robbie tells him. “Have you considered a gerbil instead?”

“A gerbil would definitely be easier,” he mutters, then shakes his head. “No, I’m sticking with Cookie.” He doesn’t want to disappoint her. “I just can’t believe you need so many things for one dog.”

“You don’t have to have absolutely everything before you can take her home,” Robbie assures him, “but you will need to have the basics.”

“Oh, good, because I know exactly what the basics are,” Gary says drily. “Due to my years of experience at not owning any dogs or pets whatsoever.”

“All right, good point!” Robbie drinks from his tea. “I thought Jason had given you those brochures?”

Gary shrugs. Those brochures are helpful, but they still leave him with questions about the details. “Oh, he has, and they’re great. I just…I don’t want to get anything wrong. There’s a lot to think about.”

Robbie gets up and rifles through the kitchen drawer until he has a few of the brochures Jason gave Gary that weekend. “Right, we can go through it, then.”

Gary scoots his chair closer to Robbie. “Yeah, ‘cause I definitely have questions about some the things in there.”

They go through the brochures page by page, some of it completely irrelevant to Gary’s situation since there aren’t any other family members or pets, but it is very helpful.

“So, feeling ready for the rest of your shopping?” Robbie asks, when he tidies the brochures away again.

“Definitely.” He feels a lot more prepared now. “I want to make sure Cookie feels at home as soon as possible.”

“It sounds like she’ll be very happy with you.” He smiles again, a lot more genuine this time.

Gary is relieved to see it. “I hope she will be,” he says, glancing down at his empty mug. “But what if there’s something I’m overlooking? Something about me, or my house, or her?”

“That’s what the home visit is for,” Robbie tells him, “to make sure everything is ready.” 

“Oh, right, yeah.” He has completely forgotten about the home visit. “So when will that be?” He hopes it’s not tomorrow, because he wants to tidy things up first. “Will you do the visit or someone else?” He’s not entirely sure what to make of Robbie, but the other man definitely has Cookie’s best interests at heart.

“I could do it, yes. How about Thursday evening? That’ll give you some time to get things ready.” He gestures at Gary’s mug. “Another cuppa while you warm up? Or another towel?”

“Yes please. To both of those.” Gary pushes his mug over to Robbie. “So, a home visit on Thursday and then I can pick her up on…”

“The next day,” Robbie says. “Friday would be good, since it means you’ll have a full weekend with her. The first few days will be important.”

“No pressure there, then,” he mutters. In three days he’ll have a dog. His own dog. He can’t wait and feels shit-scared at the same time. The last time he owned a pet that he actually took care of himself rather than have his parents do it is well over ten years ago, and that was a hamster. “But what if Cookie – what if she can’t get settled in?”

Robbie puts the mug down in front of him and slides the tin with teabags over to Gary. Then he gets him another towel. “You have to give it time. Especially with an older dog like Cookie. She might be timid at first, or shy, or act out.”

“Hmm.” While the tea steeps, he uses the towel on his feet. “Do you own any dogs yourself?”

“Nah, landlord won’t let me. Hence why I volunteer at this place,” Robbie explains. “Besides, if I were allowed dogs, I’d want to adopt them all. Become one of those crazy cat ladies but with a herd of dogs. Big ones, small ones…”

“Some as big as your head?”

“Exactly! A welcoming home for dogs of all sizes.” Robbie grins, spreading his arms wide for a moment. “Until I have that, here’ll do.”

“I think I’ll just stick to Cookie, if you don’t mind,” he says, removing his teabag. “One dog is more than enough to start with.” He drops the towel on the floor, putting his feet on it. 

Robbie nods in understanding. “So did he really not like any pet, then? Your ex?”

His ex is still something of a sore subject, but it’s become a lot easier to talk about as time goes by. “Nope.” He sits back in his chair. “Let’s see, cats and dogs were smelly, noisy, and require too much care. Hamsters and guinea pigs were smelly, noisy and require too much care. Pet birds were…”

“Smelly, noisy and require too much care?”

“Got it in one.” He raises his mug to Robbie, and takes a sip.

Robbie just shakes his head. “That level of disliking pets is a warning sign, seriously. I’ve dated guys like that.”

Gary nearly chokes on his tea. He knows his gaydar isn’t the greatest, but Robbie hasn’t pinged him as gay at all. Although to be fair, 99% of his conversations with Robbie have been about Cookie. It’s not like Gary has had anything to go on.

“Only briefly!” Robbie says, a little defensive, clearly having misinterpreted Gary's reaction. “One or two dates at the most.” He leans forward. “Here’s a tip, if some guy on Tinder is holding a cute dog in one of the photos and you’re a match, ask him if it’s actually his dog.”

Gary stares at Robbie, still slightly stunned by the revelation. “I’ll keep it in mind? You, er, sound like you’re speaking from experience there.”

“I might be,” Robbie mutters, shifting in his seat. “It was an adorable dog, though.”

Gary can’t help but laugh. “Oh, is that what you’re looking for in a man? Must have a cute dog?”

“What can I say, I have a type.” Robbie sips his tea.

“Yes, and it sounds like they should be furry and into belly rubs.”

“And long walks on the beach.”

“And obedient?”

Robbie shakes his head at that. “Nah, it’s more fun if they push back, you know, make you work for it.”

“Really?” Gary asks, raising an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you’re having trouble on Tinder, then.”

“I meant the dogs!”

They both laugh at that. “Sure you did,” Gary tells him.

Robbie just huffs. “You know, you technically haven’t adopted Cookie yet…” But he smiles, and there’s a spark in his eyes that show he’s teasing.

“I took her out for a walk in the rain, we’ve definitely bonded now,” Gary insists, still smiling. “How often have you done that?”

“Plenty of times,” Robbie tells him. “Please, I’ve been volunteering here for a couple of years now, you think I’ve never had to suffer like you did?”

Robbie then talks about the rescue centre, the dogs, and the other animals after that, and Gary grumbles about his ex and his dislike of pets, and they end up sharing embarrassing and awkward dating stories while eating biscuits, although Gary has to give it to Robbie that his are clearly worse.

“I’m starting to see why you prefer dogs,” he says, after Robbie finishes talking about a guy who ditched him halfway through the evening for someone else. “Definitely more reliable.”

“To dogs,” Robbie says, lifting his mug.

Gary rolls his eyes, but lifts his mug to clink it against Robbie’s. “To dogs.” He takes a sip, then realises his tea’s gone cold, and he pulls a face. That’s ridiculous, he can’t have been here long enough for his tea to have gone cold. He glances at the clock hanging next to the dog calendar on the wall, and is surprised to find that he’s been here for nearly an hour. How did that happen? “You know, I should probably get going now. It’s getting pretty late.”

Robbie looks at his watch, and his eyes widen. “You’re not wrong! Are your things dry, then?” he asks, gesturing at the radiator.

“Near as,” Gary replies, getting his socks. He can’t believe he’s been here that long. He’s usually better at keeping track of time. “So, I’ll see you on Thursday, then, to see if my place passes muster.” He snorts. “You should bring Cookie with you, maybe she doesn’t like it at all.” He really shouldn’t be this worried about what a dog thinks of his home, but he is. He wants Cookie to like it, to settle in with a minimum of trouble.

Robbie laughs at that. “You’re serious?”

Gary remains quiet, but shrugs.

“Well, the dog isn’t usually part of the home visit, unless there are, I don’t know, other pets at home and we want to double-check how they get along with the newcomer,” Robbie says, leaning back. He sighs. “But if it sets your mind at ease, I guess I can bring her along.”

“Thanks,” Gary mutters, feeling a little embarrassed. Loads of people adopt dogs every day, he’s probably worrying over nothing. “I just… I want to make sure it’s a good fit for her.”

“For what it’s worth, I think any dog would be lucky to have you as an owner,” Robbie says, having clearly noticed Gary’s worrying showing on his face. He gives Gary a reassuring smile.

Gary feels something warm unfurl inside of him that has very little to do with all the tea he’s had that evening. “So, is there anything I need to keep in mind for that visit?” he says, shoving his chair back so he can put on his shoes.

Robbie shakes his head. “No, not really. Just make sure you have all the things you need to bring her home on Friday, and we can go over it.” 

*

Robbie’s next shift at the rescue centre isn’t until Thursday afternoon, and he’s not surprised that Jason immediately corners him as soon as he sets foot on the terrain.

“How did things go?” Jason asks, walking alongside Robbie as they head for the building the cats are kept in. “I saw a note in the logbook about a scheduled home visit?”

“Things went fine,” Robbie tells him, walking down the hallway, Jason behind him. “Gary turned up, took Cookie for a long walk in the rain, and we made an appointment for tonight. I’m, er, taking Cookie with me.”

“Hmm,” is all Jason has to say as they enter the first room on the right. There are twelve metal cages alongside the wall on the left, and twelve cats in the room, although Robbie only spots five of them. There’s always a few who like to roam the fenced off outside area, and one or two who like to hide inside their cage.

Robbie checks the water and food bowls in the cages, then the various bowls around the room. He’s sure that Jason will say something when he wants to. He absent-mindedly pets one of the cats lounging in the basket on the middle section of the cat tree. “And how’re you today?” he asks the sleek, grey cat. “Busy schedule of napping ahead of you?”

The cat yawns as if it actually understands him, then turns to lie on its side.

“Thought so,” Robbie says, giving it a final pat. He opens the door to the outside area, making sure there’s enough food and water in the bowls there, and that all cats are accounted for. He heads back in, and Jason is crouched down to peer inside of the cages on the bottom row. “Something wrong with that one?”

“That tabby that got brought in yesterday is still in here,” Jason says, his eyes on the cat. “I don’t think she’s come out at all. She looks terrified.”

“I’ll tell Mark to come in here and do his cat whisperer thing.” Mark’s good with the newcomers, and he has the patience to deal with the frightened or timid ones, a quality Robbie lacks. He likes petting and playing with the cats well enough, but it can takes ages for a scared cat to do anything but crawl away in a corner. “Or maybe she’s just scared of you.”

Jason sits up to glare at him. “We don’t usually drag dogs around for home visits unless it’s necessary. You know that.”

Ah, they’re back to Gary and Cookie. “He seemed worried about his house being ready,” Robbie tells him. “It's daft, but I figured I’d offer to bring her along to set his mind at ease” He’s pretty certain that Gary’s house will be perfect for Cookie, since Gary doesn’t seem like the type to do things by half, even if he’s insecure about it. “It’ll be fine.”

“Hmm,” Jason says, then he gets up. “Right, let’s get Mark in here.” 

*

Robbie spends the rest of the afternoon cleaning out the dog kennels, and taking several dogs for a walk, Cookie amongst them. He figures it’ll be good if she’s tired by the time they visit Gary, since the last thing they need is a dog full of energy.

He finishes with a cup of tea in the kitchen with Mark, who tells him that the tabby hasn’t left her cage, but she let Mark pet her two times before hissing at him, so that was something.

“But more importantly,” Mark says, sitting back, “what happened on Tuesday?”

“Rain happened,” Robbie replies. “Gary got soaked, Cookie got soaked, nobody else showed up looking for a pet, so I spent most of the evening talking to Gary.”

“Did you now?” There’s a slight smirk on Mark’s face.

“I couldn’t exactly kick him back out into the rain, could I?” Robbie argues. “Jason told me to be on my best behaviour. I offered him tea and biscuits.”

Mark makes an impressed noise. “Biscuits, even!”

“Yeah, we chatted for about an hour. He seems all right.” More than all right, if Robbie's honest. He told Gary any dog would be lucky to have him for an owner, and Robbie meant it. Cookie will definitely get spoiled rotten. It's why he's going through the trouble of bringing her with him for the home visit. If Gary needs the extra reassurance before taking the plunge, Robbie can provide.

“An hour?” Mark raises an eyebrow at that. “Well, well, well. And now you’re going over to his place…”

“To do a final house check with Cookie.” Robbie shakes his head. “I told you, he’s not my type.” Gary seems the type to worry over every little detail, second-guessing himself, and constantly looking to Robbie for advice. Robbie isn’t into that, and that’s ignoring the fact that he probably isn’t Gary’s type.

“He’s attractive,” Mark says, counting on his fingers, “he owns a cute dog – or will own one, soon enough, and the two of you chatted for an hour without pissing each other off! That’s already a more successful date than you’ve had in months.”

Robbie opens his mouth to protest, but Mark’s right, except for the bit where it wasn’t a date. “There was that ginger guy,” he says, trying to remember the guy’s face. “A month ago. He was all right.”

“Wasn’t he the one who started flirting with the bartender as he got the two of you drinks?” Mark frowns, trying to remember. “Or was he the one who complained you smelled like dog?”

“No, he flirted with the bartender.” Robbie hangs his head. He really has the worst luck dating.

“I’m not saying you and Gary should shack up and adopt a small pack of dogs together immediately,” Mark tells him. “But you could definitely do a lot worse.”

Robbie gets up. “You need to find yourself a better hobby, Mark. Have you considered knitting?”

“Too fiddly for me.” Mark eyes him. “You gonna go now?”

“Yeah.” It’s nearly six o’clock now, and he still has to get Cookie ready. “Might as well. I can’t get back too late.”

*

Gary’s feeling ridiculously nervous by the time the doorbells rings. He jumps up to walk down the hallway to his front door. He recognises the blurry outline as Robbie, and he grins at the Cookie-shaped blur. “Cookie!” He smiles down as he opens the door.

“Hi,” Robbie says drily, waving a hand. “Special delivery for a Gary Barlow? This what you ordered?” He gestures at Cookie, who is sitting at his feet.

Gary crouches down to hold his hand out for Cookie to sniff. “Hey girl,” he says, his voice soft as he looks at her. “Ready to see your potential new home?” She leans into his hand as he pets the side of her head. That’s good. He gets up and holds out his hand to Robbie with an expectant look.

After a moment or two, Robbie hands the lead over to Gary. “Right, you can give us the tour.”

Gary watches the dog as she walks down the hallway alongside him, her tail low and her body brushing against his legs. “No need to be nervous, girl.” It’s clear that she is, though. “How about we start with the backyard, hmm?”

“I took her for a walk this afternoon, there shouldn’t be any accidents,” Robbie calls out from behind him.

“Still.” Gary leads her through the living room, and her tail remains low as they walk. She perks up as Gary opens the sliding door that leads outside, and they step onto the tiles. “See, she likes a bit of fresh air.” Cookie starts sniffing around, and Gary takes a few more steps.

Robbie joins them, and he nods as he looks around. “This looks fine,” he says. “But you’ll want to watch it with that fence, she could dig out under that. So don’t let her out here without supervision.”

Gary nods, still looking at Cookie as she sniffs the grass and wanders further away from him to sniff at the bushes. “I wasn’t planning on letting her out here on her own, but I’ll take care of it.” He looks over at Robbie. “She seems to be doing well so far.”

Robbie smiles. “I’d say she’s feeling right at home, actually.”

Gary doesn’t even have to look at Cookie to know she’s peeing. “As she should be. So much for taking her for a walk, eh?”

“She wouldn’t have done that inside your house,” Robbie tells him. “But yes, good call on doing the backyard first.”

Gary tries not to look too smug, and turns to Cookie. “C’mon, let’s explore further.” He takes her for a brief walk around his backyard, letting her sniff the bushes and the fence, and then they head back inside.

“So, uhm, where are you keeping her during the day? A spare room?” Robbie asks, following him in.

He looks up from Cookie to Robbie. “What? Oh, yeah, in the hallway. I’ve been using it for storage.”

“Well, I hope you aren’t storing anything in there you don’t want broken,” Robbie tells him.

“No, I put everything on the highest shelves.” He looks down at Cookie, wondering if she’ll be able to get to those shelves anyway. She’s not that big, but maybe if she got her on hind legs? “But I’ll have to start moving everything out, though, to be on the safe side.”

“I wouldn’t risk it.” Robbie waits for Gary to open the spare room.

“It isn’t much,” Gary says. It’s barely even a room at all, nine by six feet, and the previous owners also used it for storage. Five shelves line the wall, starting two feet from the floor. “But I figure big enough for her.”

Robbie nods. “I’d say so, yes, but you’ll definitely want to clear out those shelves and get rid of the lowest ones. She might destroy them in a fit of boredom. Toys are good for that, like –”

“The puzzle ones with food in?” Gary asks. He read about that in the brochure Jason gave him. “I bought two of those, I figure I can experiment and see whichever one keeps her occupied the longest.”

“Just switch ‘em every now and then,” Robbie tells him. “You really don’t want her getting bored, and Cookie’s a clever girl.” As he says it, he smiles down at her.

“I don’t want her barking for half the day. I like my neighbours,” Gary says, a little worried. How clever is clever? “Or are you talking about her opening the door or something?”

Robbie laughs, and wanders into the kitchen. “I wouldn’t put it past her… as for the barking, Cookie is one of the quieter dogs we have, but there’s no telling what she’ll be like for the first few days or even weeks in a new home.” He looks at Gary. “It’s important to establish a routine from the start. Regular feeding time, walking time, other rules… If there are no-go areas for her in the house, you want to start establishing those now.”

“The bedroom, definitely,” he says. The idea of Cookie sleeping at the foot of his bed is a nice one, but not very practical. “Sorry, Cookie.” Cookie is too busy sniffing the trashcan to pay him any mind. Then he remembers something he read in the brochure. “Although apparently I should be around for the first nights, so she can get used to me and the new environment?”

“That is best, yeah. You can train her to get used to sleeping her own down here, in that dog bed in your living room once she’s settled in,” Robbie explains.

Gary nods, and heads towards the living room. “I’m also veto’ing the bathroom, since that’s where the cleaning supplies are. As for the other rooms… that’ll depend on whether or not she can figure out door handles.” If she starts opening his kitchen cabinets, he’ll definitely have to ban her from the kitchen. “Shall we go and check your new toys, Cookie? See if you like ‘em?” They’re already heading for the living room when Gary glances at Robbie. “Assuming that’s all right.”

“Right behind you,” Robbie says, smiling a little.

*

Robbie watches as Cookie follows Gary into the living room, more at ease now than she was earlier. She still presses close to Gary, and occasionally looks behind her, as if to make sure Robbie is there.

So far, Gary’s home is what Robbie expected. The house is fine and the backyard is a bit on the small side, but suitable for a dog like Cookie. There are a few things Gary will need to fix, like cables running across the floor and some small items lying around that Cookie could decide to use as chew toys.

Gary himself isn’t exactly what Robbie expected. There’s a lot less insecurity than there was on Tuesday, and Gary’s pretty much giving Cookie the tour, with Robbie an afterthought. He’s a lot more interested in Cookie’s opinion than in Robbie’s.

He enters the living room, watching as Gary is down by Cookie’s side, searching through a pile of things he must’ve bought earlier that week.

Cookie is sniffing at the pile, her tail wagging, and Gary shows her various toys and some food bowls, talking to her quietly.

“I can tell you which food bowl she prefers,” Robbie says, walking closer.

Gary looks up at him, one metal bowl in hand. “Oh?”

He smiles. “Ones with food in.”

Gary snorts, and drops the bowl back on the dog bed. “Oh, thanks. That’s very helpful.”

“It’s what I’m here for.” He looks at the pile, and kneels by Cookie’s other side. “It looks like you have enough for three dogs here.”

 “Cookie is more than enough for me.” Gary strokes her back, looking down at the dog bed. “Besides, you said she doesn’t do well with other dogs.”

“Fair point.” He searches through the pile himself, nodding at the various items. “Yeah, all of this is fine. Cookie might not like everything, but this is good. Plenty of variety.” He’s a little impressed by how thorough Gary has been.

Cookie has tugged one of the rope toys out of the pile. She lies down to chew on it, and Gary keeps stroking her back.

“That figures,” Robbie says, reaching out to stroke her side. “She always did like rope toys at the rescue centre too, so I’m not surprised she went for that. Good choice, she seems very comfortable.”

“Great,” Gary says, and smiles at Robbie.

Robbie smiles back, and his fingers brush against Gary’s hand as they both pet Cookie. He pulls his hand back, and gets up. “Well, you seem to have everything well in hand.” Very well in hand, and with very few questions. “Anything else you want to know?”  There must be something he can still help with.

Gary looks thoughtful. “Yeah, I’ve been looking at training classes in the area, but I’m guessing those are better once she gets settled in?”

“Oh, definitely,” Robbie agrees, pleased Gary’s already thinking of those. “A training class like that… all those new dogs, all those new people, no, you’ll want to work up to that,” he explains, gesturing at Cookie. “Let her get used to you first, to any friends you might have. Visit a dog park to see how she behaves around strange dogs. Seriously, imagine if you’d just been dropped off into a strange new home with all these strange smells, and the next day you’re immediately dragged off to hang around strange new humans.”

“Well, if you put it like that…” Gary nods. “Give her some peace and quiet first. Right, what else do you need to see?” he asks, getting up as well.

The home visit concludes pretty quickly after that. They briefly go through the rest of the house, excluding the bedroom and the bathroom, and there’re a few things Robbie suggests Gary should sort out, but they’re all minor things.

“So, did I pass?” Gary asks, when they’re back in the living room and Robbie asks for the lead back.

“I’d give you a gold star if I had any,” Robbie tells him. If only every home visit were as simple as this one. “You’re definitely ready to adopt.” He’s still a little annoyed that, out of all the dogs at the rescue centre, it’s Cookie that Gary wants, but on the other hand, Cookie deserves the best owner she could possibly get, and Robbie is willing to admit that that might be Gary. But only because his own landlord doesn’t allow pets.

Cookie gives a tail wag, butting her head against Gary’s knee. “I think she agrees,” Gary says, leaning down to pet her. “Was this it, then?”

“Unless you want the pleasure of our company, yeah.” Robbie nods at Cookie. “I’ll still need to bring her back, after all.”

Gary is still stroking Cookie. “Well, I’ll have the pleasure of your company tomorrow evening, won’t I?” he tells her. “And you’re the sweet one anyway.”

“I can be sweet!” Robbie protests, then huffs and looks away. Why did he even say that?

Gary lets out a snort. “Right, so what time can I come by to pick her up?” He gets up again, letting one hand linger on Cookie’s head. “Five o’clock?”

“Uhm, yeah, around five’s good. We close at six, usually,” Robbie replies, glad Gary is happy to switch the subject. “Not that we’re kicking you out if it’s not finished by then.”

“Five o’clock it is.” He walks with Robbie to the front door. “Thanks,” Gary says, “for bringing her with you. I know it’s daft, but…” He shrugs. “I want to make sure I’m doing it properly.”

“You are,” Robbie replies. He glances down at Cookie. “You’re definitely doing it properly.”

And now he’ll have to say goodbye to her.

*

“Was it really necessary for me to come with?”

It’s drizzling again as they park outside the rescue centre. “Yes,” Gary tells Howard. “I want you to meet Cookie.”

Howard shakes his head. “I could’ve just met her at your place,” he grumbles, and gets out of the car. “Once she was settled in.”

“I want to make sure you two get along, and if Robbie has any tips for you as my dog walker,” Gary says.

“Oh yes,” Howard replies, smiling now. “Robbie. I wonder if he’ll make me loads of tea if I take Cookie for a walk tonight?”

Gary snorts. For some reason, Howard has got it into his head that Robbie has taken a liking to Gary, and Gary knows it’s useless to argue. “I’ll make you banoffee pie if you behave.”

Howard promptly shuts up, and gestures for Gary to lead the way.

Gary knocks on the door to the volunteers’ area, and enters when he hears someone yell at him to come in.

He’s greeted by a young man he's seen around the centre before. “Hello, I'm Gary. We're here for Cookie.”

“Hi, I'm Mark,” he says, shaking Gary's hand, then he looks at Howard. “And you are?”

“Howard, Gary’s new dog walker,” Howard explains, shaking Mark's hand too. “He insisted I have to be approved by Cookie.”

Mark laughs at that. “Well, it’s good to be thorough. Come on, let’s get Cookie, Robbie’s at her kennel, I think.” His smile turns soft. “He's saying goodbye to her. Don't tell him I told you, but Cookie is Rob's favourite.”

“His favourite?” Gary asks. “So he's, er, very attached to her?”

“Robbie always takes a shine to the ones that take longer to adopt,” Mark explains. “You know, the underdogs.”

“Of course he does,” Gary mutters. He might not know Robbie very well, but the other man seems exactly the type to do that. He supposes that explains a few things, like the way Robbie's been glaring at him like he has personally offended Robbie in some way.

“Shall we go and get her, then?” Mark asks.

They all trudge back out into the rain. “Is there anything I need to look out for?” Gary asks. “On her first night?”

“She’ll probably be timid and shy,” Mark tells him, “so just let her explore her new home in her own pace. Don’t be alarmed if she ignores you, or finds a quiet corner somewhere.” 

Robbie is kneeling down by Cookie’s kennel, chatting to her quietly, and when he sees Mark, Gary and Howard, he frowns for a moment, then opens the kennel and lets Cookie out. He clips a lead to her collar.

Cookie stands next to Robbie, moving forward when Gary crouches down in front of her. “Hey girl,” he says, stroking her damp fur. “Guess what, you’re getting a new home.” Some of his nerves settle when he notices that she’s pressing back against his hand. Cookie liked his place well enough, and he had everything he needed to take care of her.

“Right, do I introduce myself now, then?” Howard asks.

Gary turns his head and gestures for Howard to crouch down next to him. “Just let her sniff your hand, then pet her sides.”

Howard sighs as he holds his hand out. “Nice to meet you, Cookie,” he says, as she sniffs his hand. “Here’s hoping I won’t need to pick your shit up very often.”

Gary gives him a look, one hand still on Cookie’s back. “Oh yeah, she’s definitely gonna take to you.”

“Oh, come on, it’s not like she can understand me.” Howard gives her two pats on her side, then gets up. “There, I’ve met her, and she doesn’t hate my guts. Can you go and adopt her now?”

“I'll go and get Jason; he has to deal with the papers,” Mark tells them, smiling down at Gary. “And Robbie, you said everything was ready at Gary’s place too, right?”

Robbie nods, although he’s frowning a little. “Yeah,” he says, and looks from Gary to Howard and back. “Yeah, everything seemed to be in order.”

Gary gets up too. “Right.” He smiles down at Cookie. “Let’s make it official, then.” He looks at Robbie expectantly. “Can I have the lead?”

Robbie nods, and passes it to him. His jaw is clenched, and Gary doesn’t get why Robbie seems angry. He was happy last night, so what’s changed? Is he having trouble saying goodbye to her?

“Shall we all go back inside?” Mark's voice is cheerful. “You can wait there while I get Jason. Then you can finish up the papers and the payment, and she’s officially yours.” He sets off back towards the farmhouse, Howard following him quickly.

Gary looks at Robbie. “Is something wrong with her?”

“Oh no, she’s fine,” Robbie replies, and he snorts. “But you do know how to pick ‘em, don’t you?” He nods at Howard’s retreating back. “Another pet-hater, or does this one just hate dogs?”

Gary blinks, and it takes him a few seconds to realise what conclusion Robbie has jumped to. “Oh no, Howard’s not – he’s gonna take Cookie for walks when I’m at work! He’s a friend of mine. That’s why I invited him over, so he could meet Cookie as well.”

“Oh, right!” Robbie says, and he looks down at Cookie, a little flustered. “That’s, uhm, good. I should’ve brought that up earlier, so, yeah, good that you’ve already got someone to take her for walks.”

“Howard’s not a big fan of dog shit,” Gary says, knowing that that doesn’t explain very much, since who is? “But I’m bribing him with my banoffee pie so he’ll pick up after her when he walks her. Anyway, that’s why I asked him to come with. I figured it’d be good for him to meet Cookie already, just in case you guys had any tips for him.” Oh shit, he’s rambling, isn’t he?

“That’s, uhm, very thorough of you,” Robbie replies, looking surprised. “I don’t really think I have any tips besides making sure he brings plenty of plastic bags with him for his walks, and that he sticks to the same route you use for the first month or so.”

“Right. That’s good advice.” Gary feels slightly stupid now for having dragged Howard with him. He could’ve just passed this on himself. Still, at least Howard has met her and Cookie doesn’t hate him on sight. That’s good.

“No problem.” Robbie gives him a friendly smile.

Gary’s about to say that he’ll be sure to tell Howard, when he hears Howard shout his name.

“Did you want to adopt a dog or not?” he calls out, from the doorway to the farmhouse.

Oh, right, the papers! “Yes!” Gary shouts back, and smiles apologetically at Robbie. “We should get going.”

“We better had,” Robbie replies, “before Mark tries to convince your friend to adopt a pet as well.”

*

Robbie watches as Jason goes through the papers with Gary and the final steps of the adoption process. Mark has already left to take care of some of the cats. Cookie sits neatly on the floor, right next to Gary’s chair, and occasionally Gary’s hand drifts down to pet her on the head.

It’s adorable and heart-warming, and a part of him is gutted to see Cookie go, but mostly he’s happy she’ll be going with someone like Gary.

He’s less happy that someone like Howard will be taking Cookie for walks, but then, Cookie is a sweetie and can probably win Howard over.

He tries not to think too hard about why he was so relieved when Gary told him Howard wasn’t some idiot new boyfriend, but the idiot new dog walker instead. It’s only because he’s looking out for Cookie’s best interest, and Gary’s new boyfriend hating dogs would definitely not be in her best interest. That’s all it is.

Gary pays, and Jason hands him a bag with some brochures and flyers in, as well as a bag of the dog food they use at the rescue centre, to help Cookie get settled in.

“Congratulations,” Jason tells him as he hands the bag over. “You’re a dog-owner now.”

“Thanks,” Gary replies, and for a brief moment he looks completely out of his depth. Then he looks down at Cookie and smiles. “Time to get you to your new home!”

Robbie walks them back out to Gary’s car, and offers to help get Cookie settled in with the car harness.

Gary, whose hands are full, looks relieved, and passes the bag over to Howard. Cookie sniffs the car, and already has her front paws on the backseat. “Not yet, girl,” Gary tells her.

Robbie takes her lead and pulls Cookie back. “Those harnesses are always a bit fiddly,” he tells Gary, who is frowning at the clasps.

“How is this even supposed to work?” he grumbles, but he figures it out eventually and they get Cookie strapped in, with exactly zero help from Howard, who insists he’s only the dog walker, not the dog-in-the-car-getter.

“Besides, I’m catching up on my reading.” Howard pointedly holds up one of the brochures from the bag. “Gotta be well-prepared when I take her for a walk, right?”

Gary shares an exasperated look with Robbie. “He’s usually a lot less annoying, honest.”

“I’m sure he’ll take Cookie for great walks,” Robbie says. “Really long ones. Right after she’s had a big meal.” He looks at Cookie, checking the harness one last time. “There, this should be fine. It’s not a long ride, is it?”

“Shouldn’t be, no.” Gary steps back and closes the door. Cookie remains quiet, but her ears twitch at the sound of the door shutting.

“Right. Well, I hope she gets settled in fast,” Robbie tells him, trying not to feel too sad.

“Me too,” Gary says. “Thanks for your help. And, y’know, Jason as well.” He looks at Cookie. “But about her settling in… How do I know what’s normal for her in those first few days and what isn’t? What are signs to look out for?”

“Well, you can always email or call us if you have any questions about Cookie or her behaviour. Or,” Robbie adds, “if you have any cute pictures to share!”

Gary laughs at that. “I’ll be sure to spam you with them.” He walks around Robbie and over to driver’s side. Howard is already opening the passenger door.

Robbie hesitates before opening his mouth again. What he’s about to say is almost certainly a terrible idea. “I spent most time with her,” he says, his eyes darting over to Cookie, who is still sitting quietly. “I can give you my number, if you want. For questions about Cookie,” he adds quickly. He doesn’t want Gary getting the wrong idea.

Gary blinks in surprise. “Oh. Uhm, yeah, sure, that’d be useful.” He takes his phone from his pocket, and Robbie recites his number. “Right, be prepared for adorable pictures of Cookie.”

“Looking forward to it.” Robbie grins at him, then walks back to the driveway so he watch them drive off, waving after them.

He’s really not supposed to give out his personal number to people who adopt pets, but well, it’s Cookie.

It’s definitely just because of Cookie.

*

His next shift isn't until two days later, and he's received one picture from Gary, one of Cookie asleep in her dogbed.

She looked happy, and relaxed, and Robbie is relieved it's been going so well. His reply was short, a quick 'going well so far!' because he didn't know what else to say. Part of him is still a little jealous Gary got to take Cookie home.

He shows the picture to Mark when he gets into kitchen. Mark is just pouring himself some tea, and leans in. “Aww, she looks like she's settled in already!”

“Who's settled in?” Jason asks, who has also come in.

Robbie shows him the picture. “Cookie.”

“Oh, that's good!” Jason says, smiling for a moment, then he frowns. “Hang on, did you give Gary your personal number?”

“Yeah? You know, in case he had any questions,” Robbie says. He knows it's the wrong reply when he looks up from his phone to see Jason's glare.

“You know you're not supposed to give your personal numbers to people,” Jason admonishes him. “It's supposed to go via our official email or phone number, so we can keep track of any problems!” He sighs. “Honestly, Rob, can you just once do things properly?”

“I am doing things properly! I am helping Gary to make sure Cookie gets settled in!” Robbie argues. “I thought you'd be happy I was helping him.”

“Not like this,” Jason tells him firmly. “You're supposed to let go of her.” He turns around and stomps off, still grumbling under his breath.

“I am letting go of her!” Robbie yells after Jason, then he turns to Mark. “What's wrong with him? He's more annoyed with me than usual.”

Mark sighs, and slides a cup of tea over to Robbie. “There was a cardboard box at the gate this morning when Jason opened up.”

“Bastards,” Robbie says, without a second thought. “How many?”

“Five puppies.” Mark leans against the counter. “They seem to be old enough not to need bottle-feeding, but the vet's looking them over now.”

“Bastards.” It's been a while since some asshole dumped a bunch of unwanted puppies or kittens on their doorstep, but it happens regularly and every time it pisses Robbie off all over again. “Why can't people just get their pets neutered or spayed? Or at least keep a close eye on them?”

Mark shrugs. “Because people are idiots?” he offers.

“True,” Robbie says. He takes a sip from his tea. “But Jason's got no business taking his mood out on me.”

“No, he doesn't,” Mark agrees, and eyes Robbie. “But I can't believe you gave Gary your number,” he adds. “Unless...”

“Look, I just want to make sure Cookie is in a good home, with someone who takes good care of her, and loves her,” Robbie tells him. He already knows what Mark is thinking. “Besides, you were cooing over the picture earlier.”

Mark looks a little embarrassed. “Jason has a point, though. You should let go of her.” He smiles at Robbie. “You know what's good for that?”

“It better not be cleaning out the litter boxes,” Robbie warns him. “Seriously, whichever litter box I decide to clean, there's always some cat who insists on taking a great big shit just before I take it out.”

Mark snorts. “That happened once, Rob. Come on, this is definitely better than cleaning litter boxes.”

*

Robbie has to admit, cradling a tiny ball of fluff to his chest is better than cleaning litter boxes. “They're tiny! Are you sure they don't need bottle-feeding?”

Mark, holding one of the other puppies, nods. “Vet said they were old enough to eat solid food. Hang on, I'll give them some more.” He hands Robbie the puppy, then takes the bowl from the box.

They're in one of the rooms they usually leave empty for sick or possibly-sick pets. The puppies are all healthy, and now it's just a matter of finding space for them. Until then, they can stay in the cardboard box they were dropped off in, but with an old towel on the bottom to make them more comfortable.

The three remaining puppies head for the bowl as soon as Mark puts it  back in the box, and the two puppies Robbie's been holding start squirming. They're surprisingly strong, and Robbie puts them back in with the rest of the litter.

He smiles as he runs his finger down the back of one of the puppies as it eats. “So, what are they? Definitely some Pomerian in there.” He's not that great at identifying small dogs, but there's no mistaking that amount of fluff.

“And some Maltese too, I think,” Mark says, leaning over the cardboard box. “Hey sweetie!” he says, as one of the puppies looks up at him.

“Proper mutts,” Robbie agrees. “You'll be all right,” he tells the puppies. “You'll fit in with the rest of us.”

He strokes one of the puppies, one of the two that're entirely white. “Shouldn't be too long before these get adopted, at least.” The other three have small splashes of brown and black across their ears and paws.

Mark smiles at him. “Exactly. So we should make sure they're socialised and used to humans.” He looks down, and gently picks up one of the puppies that has finished eating.  It's one with black splashes on its ears.“Here, Rob. Socialise.”

Robbie sighs and takes the dog. “Hello you,” he tells the dog, his voice soft. “You're much better than cat litter, aren't you?”

“To be fair,” Mark says, stroking one of the puppies in the box, “most things are better than a cat's litter box.”

He can't argue with that. “I hope you find a great home,” he tells the puppy he's cuddling. “You'll definitely find one soon, yes, you will, with your cute little face.”  He smiles down at it.

“See, told you I could cheer you up,” Mark tells him, sounding pleased. “Puppies make everything better.”

“Obviously,” Robbie says, putting the puppy back with its siblings. It curls up in a corner, along with one of the others. “But it'd be even better if there weren't any unwanted puppies like this lot.” As adorable as they are, it breaks his heart every time a litter like this ends up with them.

Mark nods solemnly at that. “C'mon, let's go and take care of the other animals. I promise, no litter boxes.”

“Hang on,” Robbie says, and takes a few pictures of the puppies. He always likes taking pictures of the various dogs, cats and other animals that end up at the shelter, even if they don't get used for the website. He hesitates, then sends one of the pictures to Gary, along with the message 'got some new arrivals today'. He puts his phone in his pocket, then follows Mark.

*

They spend the rest of the morning cleaning up the dog kennels, and when it's noon, Robbie takes several of them out for a walk. The weather's good enough for a couple of long walks, and it's nice to be out with the bigger dogs.

Captain is walking ahead of him, as far as his lead can go, while the other two dogs stay by Robbie's side. One is a mutt with a lot of poodle in her named Candy, and she likes pausing to sniff at every bush or lamp post they pass. Every time Robbie tells her to come along, she gives him an incredibly unimpressed look, then trots alongside him until she passes another lamp post.

“That's the last time I'm taking you out at the same time as Captain,” Robbie tells her, as he pauses to let her sniff a tree. “Look at the poor guy, he just wants to get going!”

Candy ignores him, and he feels something press against his leg.

It's Babe, who is a little bit German Shepherd, a little bit Bernese Mountain Dog, and one hundred percent convinced he's a lapdog. Babe lets out a soft whine, looking up at Robbie dolefully.

He reaches out to pet the dog. “I'll cuddle you later once we get back,” he promises. Once he's put Candy back in her kennel and has tired out Captain by playing fetch with him.

They're on the move again when he feels something buzz in his trouser pocket, and he shifts the leads to his left hand to take out his phone. He smiles when he sees it's a message from Gary.

'They look adorable! Still not adopting more than one dog though'.

He snorts, and types a reply. 'Not trying to get you to adopt. Cute pups like that will find a new owner quickly enough'. He takes a picture of Captain who is once again straining at his lead, wagging his tail wildly. 'But can I interest you in a hyperactive probably-mostly-a-Border-Collie?'

Gary takes a little longer to reply. 'Oh please no. Cookie is active enough for me, thx!'

Robbie shakes his head, and puts his phone away. It's annoying enough typing one-handed, and he's got to keep an eye on the dogs.

When he gets back, Jason is in a much better mood, and he takes Candy's lead from Robbie.  “Sorry about this morning,” he says, leaning down to pet Candy, who presses against his hand eagerly in a way she never does with Robbie. “You know how it is when animals get dumped here.”

“Yeah,” Robbie says, and smiles. “She really likes you, doesn't she?” Candy's tail is wagging as she presses against Jason's legs.

Jason smiles as well. “You're not supposed to have favourites, you know,” he tells the dog, and then scritches her behind her ears. “Speaking of, I still think you giving your personal number to Gary was a bad idea, but it's your bad idea to have.”

Robbie sighs. “Thanks, I guess.” He should've known that even with an apology, Jason still wouldn't be pleased. “Can you take Candy back to her kennel? I'll try and tire Captain out some more.”

“Good luck with that,” Jason mutters, and stands up. He only has to take one step before Candy's by his side, following him happily.

“Can't believe she likes him better than she likes me,” he tells Babe, who has been sitting next to him. “Can you?”

Babe just looks up at him and nuzzles the back of his knee.

*

When Gary's phone buzzes after lunch, he looks around the office before picking it up. It's not like anyone will tell him off for looking at his phone during work, but he’s got better things to do than this.

It's another picture from Robbie. It's the same hyperactive dog he sent a picture of earlier, but it's lying on the grass now, a chewtoy in its mouth. 'Not so hyperactive now!' 

Gary smiles. The dog definitely looks happy, and he immediately thinks of Cookie, who is all alone at home. Well, Howard took her for a walk today, at least, and Gary got updates on that too.

Well, they were mostly pictures of the shits Cookie has taken, along with a pie emoji. Gary just hopes Howard kept up his end of the bargain and has picked up after her.

'How long does the lying down last? A few minutes?' he sends back.

Robbie's reply is quick. 'Hah! More like a few seconds'.

Sure enough, Robbie's next message is a picture of a field, with a dog-shaped blur running around. Gary stifles a laugh. 'That box of puppies was better', he sends back, and then goes back to work. His phone buzzes again, but he ignores it for now.

*

He and Robbie keep sending pictures back and forth that week. Gary sends him pictures of taking Cookie for a walk in a nearby park, or Cookie lying down in her dog bed, or Cookie lying on the sofa with him, her head resting on his thigh.

In return, he gets more pictures of the adorable tiny puppies, another one of the hyperactive Border Collie in its kennel, and one of a cat with its eyes narrowed at the camera, lying on a top of a cat tree.

'This is the thanks I get for cleaning out litterboxes. No appreciation' is the message that comes with the cat picture.

'Did you do a good job of it?' Gary sends back, his other hand stroking Cookie's back as she's curled up on the sofa next to him.

'Do you REALLY want a picture of a cat's litterbox?'

'I already get pictures of dog shit from Howard, I'm good!' he sends back.

When he asked Howard about the dog shit pictures, Howard just insisted he thought it was important that Gary be kept updated about Cookie's bowel movements.

“Look,” he said, “her shit looking weird can be a sign of her being sick. Don't you want to know if she gets sick?”

“Yes, but I'm still deducting one banoffee pie for every picture of dog shit you send me from now on,” Gary replied.

There haven't been any pictures of dog shit since, but Gary suspects Howard is just biding his time.

'Have you considered getting a different dog walker?' Robbie sends back.

'What, you offering?' Gary replies, and sends it before he has a chance to reconsider.

There's no reply, and Gary looks down at Cookie. “He gets that it's a joke, right?” he asks her, and she briefly opens her eyes to look up at him. “And that I'm not some presumptuous asshole who thinks that those volunteers don't have anything better to do than help out clueless dog-owners.”

Cookie lets out a soft whine, but that could mean anything from 'yes, Robbie thinks you're a presumptuous asshole' to 'Go back to petting me'.

“You're no help,” he tells her. “You already know that Robbie likes you.”

Not that that matters. That's not what their messaging back and forth is about. Gary just wants Robbie to know that Cookie is happy with him, since Cookie was Robbie's favourite. He doesn't need Robbie to approve.

Although it'd be nice if he did.

“You don't miss him, do you?” he asks, and Cookie just closes her eyes, turning her head a little so he can scratch her behind her ears. “No, that'd be daft. I'm being daft.” He sighs. He needs something to distract him, something to keep him from looking at his phone. “Right, Cookie? Have you ever watched a Star Wars movie?”

*

To Gary's surprise, Cookie actually takes an interest. At least, she's got her eyes open and is looking at the screen. Occasionally her ears perk up, usually whenever R2-D2 or the Jawas make a noise. “If you like them,” he tells her, petting her, “wait until you hear the light sabre noise. You're gonna love that.”

He ends up taking a picture at a slightly odd angle of Cookie watching the screen just as Luke is waving his light sabre around for the first time. Cookie definitely seems intrigued by the noise. “You know,” he tells her, “if you hadn't liked Star Wars, I would've taken you back to the shelter immediately.”

He's about to put his phone away again when he sees there's a message from Robbie. He's a little nervous as he opens, but the reply is brief. 'Depends. Do I get banoffee pie if I do?'

Oh God, he forgot he told Robbie about that. 'Only if you pick up her shit'.

'I've picked up her shit for weeks already and Jason never got me any pie for it! Clearly I'm owed'.

'Clearly you'll have to discuss that with Jason'.

Robbie takes a little longer to reply this time, and Gary watches the movie in between glancing at his phone.

'I would like to see Cookie again, pie or no pie.'

There's another message soon after it.

'Although preferably with pie'.

Gary snorts. “Robbie's an idiot,” he tells Cookie. “But you probably knew that already.”

Cookie briefly looks at him, then settles down again to watch the movie.

“Complete idiot,” he mutters to himself, smiling as he replies that Robbie will have to wait to see Cookie until they've finished watching all available Star Wars movies. He adds the picture of Cookie watching the movie intently.

'Star Trek's better' comes the quick reply.

Gary makes a disgusted noise. “Definitely an idiot. I bet you prefer Star Wars over Star Trek, eh, girl?”

Cookie remains quiet as Gary types his reply, graciously inviting Robbie to join them for a walk that Saturday afternoon, although there definitely won't be any pie involved.

*

“You're cheerful,” Mark says that Saturday morning. It's eight o'clock, and it's an hour before they're open for visitors. “You're never cheerful in the morning.”

Robbie smiles. “Yeah, but today's different. I'm seeing Cookie again. Gary's idea,” he adds, when Mark frowns. “He kept in touch about her, sending me pictures, and he asked me if I wanted to join them for a walk.”

“That's nice,” Mark says, but his tone is hesitant. “Is there a problem with Cookie?”

“No, no, she's fine. Definitely settling in well.” He shows Mark a few of the pictures Gary has sent him. “See? Two nights ago they were watching A New Hope.” He tuts disapprovingly. “Should've been Star Trek.”

“I'm guessing you told him that?”

“Of course.”

Mark raises an eyebrow. “And he still asked you to come for a walk? With Cookie?”

“Yeah.” Robbie puts his phone away. “I can't wait to see her again. I know what you're thinking,” he tells Mark, who is still eyeing him suspiciously. “I'm not jealous or anything. She's clearly happy with him, and he's been good to her so far. I'm not plotting to knock him out during our walk to kidnap her.”

“That's not what I was thinking,” Mark says, sniggering a little.

“Oh?”

Mark smiles at him. “I was thinking that it's nice for you to go on a date with someone you didn't meet through some dating app.”

Robbie stares at him. “It's not a date!” he manages. “It's not! It's just – he started it by talking about dog shit and banoffee pie! It wasn't my idea!”

Mark lets out a laugh. “Sounds like you'll have plenty to talk about on your walk, then.”

Robbie snorts. “It's not a date,” he insists.

“Sure, mate.”

“It's not!”

“Hm-mm.” Mark's still smiling. “Shall we go and check on the puppies?”

*

Robbie's already waiting at one of the entrances to the park when Gary comes walking up. The park's on his route from the shelter to his home, so it's a convenient place to meet. He smiles automatically when he spots Cookie trotting alongside Gary. She really does look happy and relaxed, and he's got that satisfied, warm feeling inside he always has when he sees a former shelter-dog with their new owner.

“Hey,” Gary says, smiling as he walks up to Robbie.

Robbie nods at him, then crouches down to pet Cookie. “Hey girl,” he says, petting her. Cookie's tail is wagging, clearly she still remembers him. “Have you been a good girl to your new owner, then? I bet you have.” He glances up at Gary, who looks amused. “Hello to you too, by the way.”

“Mark wasn't kidding when he said she was your favourite, was he?” Gary replies, shaking his head. “Not that I blame you. She's been a very good girl.”

Robbie's eyes widen, and he looks at Cookie instead. “He, er, told you that?” he asks. Bloody Mark.

“Yeah, he mentioned it last week, when I adopted her. You were attached to her.”

He glances up at Gary, then at Cookie again. There's some pity in Gary's eyes, and Robbie finds himself bristling at it. He doesn't need pity. “Well, as you must've noticed, she is a sweetheart.” He stands up, looking Gary in the eye. “Very easy to love.”

“Is that why you were being... overprotective of her?” Gary asks. Cookie sits down in between them as they stand across from each other. “Every time I came by?”

Robbie stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Maybe,” he says. “Maybe I was being a bit overprotective.” He hates that Gary has a point in bringing it up. His behaviour over the past few weeks has been a bit much, and as he looks down at Cookie, he definitely regrets some of it. “And a little grumpy.”

“A little?”

Robbie narrows his eyes. “A lot.”

Gary nods at that, and looks at his dog. “I don't blame you for wanting to be sure. For being protective. But next time... maybe tone it down on the murderous glaring.”

“I wasn't doing any murderous glaring!” Robbie protests.

Gary just looks at him.

“I wasn't doing a lot of murderous glaring?” he tries. “Fine. I'm sorry for being a grumpy arse at you.”

“I'm sorry for adopting your favourite,” Gary replies, and he holds out his hand.

Robbie shakes it. He feels relieved. His own behaviour hasn't exactly been sitting well with him, and he didn't know how to bring it up himself. Gary's got some guts doing that. And to think, Robbie's first impression of Gary was that the other man would require constant reassurance and hand-holding through every step of the dog-owning process. He's never been more glad to be wrong about someone.

“So,” Robbie says, pulling his hand back. “Did you ask me to meet you just for that, or am I really invited to come for a walk?”

Gary pulls an overly thoughtful face. “I don't know,” he muses, looking at Cookie. “What do you think, girl? Is Robbie allowed to join us?”

Cookie gets up, and heads for the path. She gives Gary a doleful look when he doesn't immediately follow.

Gary looks at Robbie. “I think that means she doesn't really care so long as she gets to go for a walk.”

“I always thought she had great priorities,” Robbie replies.

Gary walks after her, and he gestures for Robbie to join him. “So,” he says, as they walk into the park, “you prefer Star Trek over Star Wars?”

“Yes,” Robbie replies immediately, smiling. “Because it's better.”

They spend the rest of their walk bickering good-naturedly over Star Wars and Star Trek, with Robbie pointing out that the prequel movies are shit, and Gary pointing out that Star Trek has had some real stinkers as well.

“I'll tell you why Star Trek is better than Star Wars,” Robbie says, as they're about to leave the park.

“Oh?” Gary asks, sounding doubtful.

“Star Trek,” Robbie tells him triumphantly, “has dogs.”

“What?” Gary splutters. “No, it doesn't.”

“Yes, it does! Enterprise. Archer owns a Beagle, Porthos.” Robbie smirks triumphantly as Gary stares at him. “Star Trek has dogs, therefore it's better.”

“Yes, well, Star Wars has...” Gary trails off, thinking. “Droids?”

“Not nearly as cute as dogs.”

“You can't judge movies by whether or not they have dogs in them,” Gary tells him firmly.

“No, but they definitely help.”

Gary hesitates for a moment. “Yeah, all right. Fair point.”

They're back where they started their walk, and Robbie realises that most of his attention has been on Gary rather than Cookie. They barely even talked about dogs at all, never mind about her. “So, uhm, things have been going well with Cookie, then?”

Gary looks surprised for a moment. “Er, yeah. I mean, you saw the pictures, right?”

“Yeah. She looks settled in and happy,” he replies.

Gary smiles. “Yeah, the first two nights were a bit rough,” he admits. “She wouldn't go to sleep, kept wandering around and whining, but she's fine now.”

“Poor thing,” he tells Cookie, who is wagging her tail as she butts her head against his head. He leans down to pet her. “It's a good thing you're cute, you know.”

“How're things at the shelters? Those puppies doing all right?”

“Oh, yeah. They've had their jabs, and they still need spaying and neutering before we can put them up for adoption. I reckon it won't be long until they find a new home,” Robbie replies.

“Remember, no murderous glaring at would-be adopters,” Gary warns him, then smiles.

Robbie snorts. “I will if they're gits who underestimate the puppies just because they're small. Sometimes, small dogs are more work than the big ones.”

“Fair enough,” Gary says. “Anyway, Cookie and I must be off, we've got other things to do today.”

“Like watching Star Wars?”

“Amongst others. We still need to watch Return of the Jedi, don't we?” Gary tells Cookie.

“And then the prequels?” Robbie asks.

“No, that's for when she's been a bad dog.”

Robbie smiles. “So, never, then.”

They stand around for a bit, Gary still making no move to leave, and Robbie reaches down to stroke the back of Cookie's head. She tilts her head back, closing her eyes as he keeps petting her.

“We should do this again some time,” Gary says, “I mean, if you want to.”

“Sure,” Robbie replies, glancing up at him after watching Cookie. “If it's no bother.”

“Not at all.”

Robbie gives Cookie on last pat on the head. “I'll, er, message you, then. I'll have to check my schedule for work and the shelter and other stuff.” He doesn't want Gary to think he's some loser without a social life.

Not that he cares what Gary thinks of him, obviously.

“All right.” Gary looks down at Cookie. “C'mon, we've got to get going now.”

Robbie waves after them for a bit, then heads home, still wondering who he enjoyed spending time with more just then, Cookie or Gary.

*

Before he heads home, Gary swings by the pub. Howard's behind the bar, and he sighs when he sees Cookie trail in behind Gary.

“It's a dog-friendly pub,” Gary reminds him.

Howard sighs again. “So, bowl of water for her, then?”

“I'll have a coffee, by the way,” Gary tells him, as he sits down on one of the bar stools. It's pretty empty, although there're some people sitting outside.

He wasn't sure how Robbie would take his offer to go for a walk with Cookie, but he's glad the other man took him up on it. It was fun to talk to him outside of the shelter, about things that weren't dogs or adoption procedures, and Robbie's definitely a lot nicer when he isn't glaring daggers.

He was a little nervous bringing up Robbie's behaviour, but relieved when Robbie acknowledged it. He can definitely see why Robbie was so attached to her. He's only had Cookie around for about a week, and he already doesn't want to let her go.

Howard puts the cup of coffee down in front of Gary, and gives him a metal bowl. Gary leans down to put it down in front of Cookie, who starts drinking.

“So, took her for a nice walk, then?” Howard asks.

“Yeah, through the park, same as usual.” He stirs his coffee. “I invited Robbie.”

“Robbie? The guy from the shelter? The one you thought was acting all weird?”

Gary shrugs. “Well, Cookie was his favourite.”

Howard eyes him, and starts washing some pint glasses. “So you asked him to come with you for a walk? In the park?”

“Yeah.” It wasn't that weird, was it? He was just being friendly, and showing Robbie that Cookie was happy. If Robbie thought it was weird, he didn't mention it.

“Isn't that a bit shit for a first date?”

“It wasn't a date!” Gary splutters, just as he's about to take a sip from his coffee. “It was just – I wanted him to know Cookie was fine!”

“You could've done that by sending 'em a picture.”

“I did that too, obviously. Several times,” Gary replies. “I didn't invite him out of nowhere. Look, he's a nice guy, and he cares a great deal about Cookie.”

“Hm-mm,” is all Howard has to say.

Gary drinks his coffee. “I don't fancy him.”

“Hm-mm.”

“I don't. And anyway, he thinks Star Trek is better than Star Wars.”

“Did he say that before or after your walk?” Howard asks, polishing the glasses.

“Before,” Gary replies, “and, uhm, during. He was very insistent.” And wrong.

Howard holds the pint glass up to the light. “So some guy tells you he prefers something else over Star Wars, repeatedly, and he's been acting weird, but you still think he's a nice guy?” He polishes one spot again. “Gaz, come on.”

“He was acting weird because of Cookie, but that's fine now!” Gary replies, a tad defensive. “He just wants her to be happy.”

Howard puts the glass away. “So, now that he knows she's happy, you won't be going for walks with him again?”

“Uhm,” Gary says, and finishes his coffee. “So, what do I owe you?”

Howard just grins. “I knew it.”

Gary feels his cheek heat up. “I don't fancy him!” he hisses. He doesn't.

“Hm-mm.”

*

Once he's back home from doing groceries – only a few items, since he's still trying to get Cookie to get used to being left alone outside the supermarket – and has sat down on the sofa with Cookie settling in her dog bed in the corner, he tries not to think of what Howard has said.

Because it means thinking about the possibility that Howard might have a point.

Robbie is a nice guy, and attractive, when he's smiling rather than scowling, and Gary already knows Robbie is into guys. And Robbie knows Gary is into guys.

But doesn't mean they're into each other, obviously.

He buries his head in his hands, and wishes he never mentioned the walk to Howard.

His phone buzzes, and he grabs it, glad for the distraction. It's a message from Robbie, and his stomach squirms.

'When you finish with Return of the Jedi, you two should watch First Contact next!'

Gary laughs, then sighs. He tosses his phone aside before he can do something as stupid as suggest Robbie come over to watch it with them.

Dammit, Howard is right.

He does fancy Robbie.

He wants Robbie to like him for him, not just for Cookie's sake. He wants to have more dumb arguments over movies, and TV shows. He wants to have more than that.

“I'm an idiot,” he tells Cookie, who perks up at his voice and looks at him. “A massive idiot.”

*

Gary doesn't bring up going for another walk in the following week, and neither does Robbie, although they exchange pictures more than texts. Gary's pictures are all of Cookie, while Robbie continues to send pictures of the puppies, which seem to be growing and are doing fine, along with a few pictures of the hyperactive Border Collie, a couple of other dogs, and, much to Gary's surprise, one of a rabbit.

'That's a funny-looking dog', he replies, after Robbie sent the picture of a lop-eared rabbit with black and orange fur.

'I said that! Jason told me not everything is about dogs, but he's been wrong more often. We don't get rabbits in a lot, and she's been very shy so far. Mark gets along famously with her, of course'.

Gary smiles. 'Does he take her out for walks?'

He doesn't expect Robbie to answer in the affirmative. 'Pretty slow walks, but yeah!'

'How does that even work???' he asks. He tries to imagine a lead and collar on a rabbit, and falls short. Rabbits stay in pens and cages, or maybe wander around the living room. You don't take them for walks.

'There's a harness involved. I can show you if you like, if you wanna come down some time.'

His stomach squirms again, and he tells himself Robbie is just being enthusiastic or trying to rope him into becoming a volunteer. 'I've got enough trouble walking my dog, never mind a rabbit!' he replies, and puts his phone away to focus on his work.

He picks up his phone five minutes later, to send another message, because what if Robbie now thinks Gary doesn't want to spend time with him? 'You can send me pictures though!'

He puts the phone away, and grumbles to himself. He's overthinking this, and his replies to Robbie. Definitely time to focus on his work again.

*

“Mark, hang on,” Robbie runs up to Mark in the field behind the shelter. “Do you still have Patience on that harness?”

“Yeah,” Mark replies, frowning. “Why?”

Robbie stops beside him, and follows the lead in Mark's hand to the pile of fluff on the other end of it. Patience takes one hop away from him, and starts eating the grass. “I just wanted to take a picture of her.” He crouches down, and moves closer to get a good shot of the harness.

“Oh, for the website?”

Robbie takes a few pictures of the rabbit as she eats. “No, for Gary.”

“Is he thinking of adopting her?” Mark asks. “I'm not sure if that's a good idea.”

“No, no, he was just curious about how you take a rabbit out for a walk,” Robbie replies. He gets up again, and scrolls through the pictures. “Actually, a few of these might work for the website too.” They're not half-bad, and Patience looks a lot happier here than inside her cage.

Mark follows the rabbit as she hops a few more feet away from Robbie. “You're still messaging him?”

“Yeah?” Robbie looks up. Why does Mark sound surprised. “Hey, he's still sending me pictures of Cookie.” It's not like he's bothering Gary, and besides, Gary asked for pictures of the rabbit.

“And you're keeping him up to date about things around here?” Mark's smiling now. “Have you two set up another walk yet?”

“No. He hasn't mentioned it.” Which hasn't been bothering Robbie at all. He has definitely not been wondering if there was something he said or did during the walk to make Gary reconsider his offer. He thought the walk had gone well. The bickering had been good-natured, or at least, he intended it to be good-natured. Shit, maybe some of it had been too much? He does have a habit of sticking his foot in.

Mark watches him, and takes a few more steps to follow Patience around. “That bothers you, doesn't it?”

“No!” he immediately replies, stuffing his phone back in his pocket. “Why would it? The point of that walk was just him showing that Cookie was happy. That's all.” Maybe that was all it was. Maybe Gary just offered to go for a walk again out of politeness.

“Well, if it does bother you, maybe you should bring it up,” Mark says. He takes a few big steps over to Patience, crouching down besides her to pick her up gently. “C'mon, let's put you back into your cage. Might be some nice leaves in it for you.” He strokes her back as she settles in his arms. “There's a good girl.” He walks past Robbie, and pauses. “Well?”

“Well, what? You can handle a rabbit on your own, right?” Robbie replies.

Mark sighs. “Do you want to go for another walk with Gary or not?”

“Yeah, of course,” Robbie says, then wonders if that sounds too enthusiastic and gives Mark the wrong idea. “I mean, it was all right.”

Mark raises an eyebrow. “Then maybe you should bring it up when you send him a picture of Patience here.” He strokes her between her ears. “Just ask him about it. Honestly, you've never had any problems asking those Tinder guys out for dates.”

“That's different,” Robbie insists, “and it's not a date.” Those Tinder guys were matches. He already knew those guys were interested in him the way he was in them. With Gary he's got no idea. His first impression with Gary wasn't exactly the greatest.

“If you say so,” Mark says, then walks off with the rabbit.

Robbie watches him go. Mark's got a point. There's no reason why Robbie can't bring it up himself, and there's no reason for him to feel nervous about it. If Gary's changed his mind, that's fair. He doesn't need to keep letting Robbie see Cookie, after all, and he also doesn't need Robbie's help dealing with her.

He walks around the kennels and back to the farmhouse, and once he's sat inside the kitchen, he pulls out his phone again. He scrolls through the pictures of Mark with Patience, and sends one to Gary. 'That's how you take a rabbit out for a walk!'

Then, before he can talk himself out of it, he sends another message. 'Speaking of, how about another walk with Cookie? You offered, right?'

He puts his phone down on the table and gets up to make himself a cup of tea, eyeing his phone as he waits for the water to boil.

It's ridiculous. His stomach shouldn't be squirming just at the thought of Gary turning him down. It shouldn't matter. He knows Cookie is happy, and that's the most important part. He's got other things to worry about.

His phone buzzes, and he immediately lunges for it, snatching it off the table.

Okay, maybe he doesn't have other things to worry about.

'Sure! But I thought you had to check your schedule? What day is convenient for you?'

Robbie glances at the whiteboard on the wall, where there's the schedule for that week and the next that Jason tries to keep up to date as much as possible. It's Thursday, and Robbie's not scheduled again until Saturday afternoon. That leaves them with the evenings, Saturday morning, or Sunday.

'Could do tomorrow evening after seven or Saturday before noon' he sends back. He finally gets round to making his tea, feeling a lot more settled. He'll see Gary again soon enough.

And Cookie, obviously.

Mark walks in too. “Oh, make me one?” he asks, gesturing at the kettle as he sits down.

Robbie pours him a mug of hot water too, puts it down on the table and slides the box of teabags over to him. “Help yourself.”

“So, asked Gary about that walk yet?” Mark asks, rifling through the box.

Robbie joins him at the table. “Yes, and he's still up for it.” He smiles. “Not sure about when, though, but some time in the next few days.”

“That's good,” Mark says, dunking his teabag in his mug. He smiles at Robbie. “Told you you should just ask. What did he think of Patience?”

Robbie takes out his phone. There's been no reply from Gary. “He didn't mention her,” he replies. “He definitely received the picture, though.”

“So much for being curious about rabbits,” Mark says, and snorts. He eyes Robbie. “I guess he thought other things were more important.”

“It's not a date,” Robbie tells him, although he feels a little pleased at Mark's words.

Mark shrugs and sits back with his tea. “If you say so.”

*

Gary agrees to Friday at eight, at the same park as their previous walk. He wonders if Robbie would've liked a different location. 'Still making sure she's used to that park before I start changing things up' he sends, after letting Robbie know to meet him at the same entrance.

Robbie's reply is a cheerful 'makes sense! See you there!' and the next message is a picture of one of the five puppies.

It's hard to tell from a picture, but Gary is pretty sure they are getting bigger, and he smiles, glad to know those puppies will be all right.

He's already feeling jittery around dinner time, and Cookie seems confused when he only takes her for a quick walk around the block rather than their usual after-dinner stroll around the neighbourhood. “You'll get a proper walk later, Cookie,” he tells her, as she lies in her dog bed and eyes him pleadingly.

He takes a picture of her impressively sad expression and sends it Robbie. 'Did she do this at the shelter too? Is she trying to guilt-trip me?' He looks at her, and reaches out to stroke the back of her head. She eyes him dolefully, then turns her head away. He snorts, and keeps stroking her back. 'It's working'.

Robbie's reply comes after a few minutes. 'Yep that's her Sad Puppy Eyes. You'll be seeing them A LOT.'

“Now he tells me,” he says to Cookie, whose ears twitch, but she still isn't looking at him. He's glad for the distraction of Cookie having a sulk, though, because at least it means he's not thinking too much about seeing Robbie again, and whether or not he should mention that he'd like to keep seeing him, occasionally without Cookie. He's not good at asking people out on dates; his ex-boyfriend asked him out first, and Gary didn't even realise his ex was interested in him in the first place.

“You have it easy, girl,” he tells Cookie. “You've been spayed. You don't need to worry about any of that.”

*

He's at the park entrance ten minutes early, having left the home because walking was better than sitting around, and Cookie seems a lot more pleased with him. Her tail's wagging and she following alongside him happily, thrilled to be out.

She lets out a whine when he makes her sit next to him at the park entrance. “Stay, Cookie,” he tells her firmly.

After about five minutes, Robbie comes walking up to them, his smile widening when he sees Cookie. Cookie gets up too, her tail wagging again as she sniffs his knees before letting him pet her. “Who's been guilt-tripping her new owner, then?” he tells her, grinning down at her.

Gary smiles as he watches them. Robbie's voice has gone softer, and his entire face lights up as he pets her. It's so different from the grumpy and murderous glares. He definitely prefers this Robbie. “She's been sulking all evening,” he says. “At least, she did until we left.”

“I bet she did,” Robbie says, still addressing Cookie. “I bet you did those sad whimpers too, right?” He grins, giving her one final pat on the head, then gets up. “But seriously,” he tells Gary, his voice back to normal, “she'll do it more often. It's important you don't always give in to it. She's got to know who's boss.”

Gary nods. Robbie's still smiling, and it's not quite the way he beamed at Cookie earlier, but it's enough to send his thoughts scattering.

“Shall we go, then?” Robbie asks, looking down at Cookie again.

Cookie's already taken a few steps away from them, pulling on the lead a little.

“Yeah, sure,” Gary replies, his eyes on Cookie. It's just a walk, he tells himself. He's got nothing to be nervous about.

“So,” Robbie says, his shoulder bumping against Gary's, “seen any good movies lately?” Gary looks at him, and Robbie smirks. “By which I mean, have you two finally watched First Contact?”

“We've been busy with Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens,” Gary replies, and like that, some of his nerves ease. This is familiar territory, bickering again over movies and TV shows, and Robbie showing him more pictures of the adorable puppies.

“They have been growing, haven't they?” Gary comments, as Robbie scrolls through several pictures of an adorable puppy pile.

“Yeah, they've been doing really well,” Robbie says, sounding fond. “We've already got a few interested people coming in next week to check them out.” He smiles at Gary. “I'll keep the murderous glaring to a minimum.”

Gary laughs. “Good, you don't want to scare anyone off.”

“Hey, I didn't scare you off, did I?”

He certainly hasn't. “Only because Cookie is that adorable.”

“Lucky her,” Robbie says, looking at the dog, who is walking ahead of them. He looks pensive, and Gary wants to ask him what he's worried about. It can't be that the five puppies won't find new owners, because Robbie already said it's easier to find someone willing to adopt a puppy than a grown dog. “So, I know you said she's settling in, but how are you taking to it? To being a dog-owner?”

He's thrown slightly by the question. “Oh, uhm, fine. It has been an adjustment, but it's been great mostly,” he replies. “It's just what I needed. Company, a good excuse to get out of the house for some fresh air.” His house is definitely less quiet with Cookie around, even if she's just lying in her dog bed and sleeping. “Should've done it years ago. Well, except for, y'know, my ex hating pets.” It's weird, only a month ago he was moping over the break-up, now he's wondering why he was so gutted.

“Unless you’d adopted the dog before you ever met him. Then he would never have gone out with you in the first place,” Robbie says.

“Right, I'll get my DeLorean and tell my past self to adopt a dog as soon as possible,” Gary replies, laughing. “Rather than say 'hey, that guy's an asshole, just don't go out with him'.

“But in one scenario you get a dog out of it!”

Gary can't fault his logic. “A huge bonus.” He takes a deep breath, wondering if it isn't better to change the topic to something that isn't relationships and dating and boyfriends. Then again, if Robbie is dating someone, he wants to know before he lets himself get carried away. “Anyway, how's that been going for you?”

Robbie frowns at him. “What, time-travel?”

“No! I mean, you mentioned it when I was at the shelter, after that walk in the rain. You mentioned Tinder,” Gary explains. He feels his cheeks redden, and hopes that it's not too noticeable in the shadows of the trees above them. He should never have asked.

“Oh, right,” Robbie replies, sounding confused. “Right, yeah. Uhm, no, I haven't really been – I've been busy.”

“Of course,” Gary says, nodding quickly. It's none of his business. “The puppies and the, er, rabbit.” Much safer topic.

“No, Mark's mostly taking care of the rabbit,” Robbie replies.

“Right, yeah, the walking. I didn't know you could do that with rabbits.” He should never have mentioned Tinder. He should've stuck with the time-travel and mentioned Back to the Future instead.

“Oh yeah, we keep a few of those harnesses around. Sometimes we get a cat in that likes a walk,” Robbie explains. “This one time, we had two ferrets.” He shakes his head. “Glad they got adopted pretty quickly.”

“You guys really do get all sorts, don't you?” Gary asks. He shouldn't be surprised that the shelter gets more than just dogs and cats, but ferrets?

Robbie nods, and smiles. “Keeps it interesting! But yeah, some idiots just see us as a prime dumping ground for unwanted pets, not thinking about whether we can take care of it. We've got good contacts in the area, though, for pets that require more specialist care, like snakes.”

“Snakes?!” Gary stares at him. “You don't – you've had snakes left with you?”

“Yeah, a couple of times,” Robbie replies, like it's nothing. “Better with us than dumped into a park, I suppose, but still.”

Gary can't help but eye the trees suspiciously. He doesn't have a phobia, but definitely a healthy fear. “I am definitely sticking to dogs,” he mutters.

“They are cuddlier,” Robbie agrees. “Although apparently some snakes are pretty friendly, and you get used to the scales.”

Gary just looks at him, hoping his expression conveys how much he does not want to experience a snake being friendly or get used to scales.

“So, yeah, we definitely get all sorts,” Robbie says. He eyes Gary. “You could volunteer, y'know. If you wanted. Wouldn't have to be every week.”

“Maybe if you want to convince people to volunteer, you shouldn't mention the possibility of snakes,” Gary replies,smiling .

Robbie snorts. “Oh, because being surprised by snakes is much better? Nobody likes a surprise snake.”

“Said the actress to the bishop,” Gary mutters immediately.

Robbie sniggers at that. “So that's a 'no' on volunteering, then?”

“Well, it's definitely not a 'yes'.” He doesn't want to rule it out, but he also doesn't want to commit to volunteering just because he fancies Robbie. It'd be weird.

“I'll take a 'maybe',” Robbie says cheerfully.

They go back to talking about movies again, and the snakes segue nicely into talking about Indiana Jones, and from there back to Star Wars, with Robbie still insisting Star Trek is better.

After a while, they reach the entrance again. “This was fun,” Gary says. Except for the bit where he mentioned Tinder. He'd quite like to travel back in time and shut himself up. “It was nice of you to come out.”

“We could go for a drink,” Robbie says, then he looks down at Cookie. “I mean, it's not that late. If you'd like.”

“Yeah, sure,” Gary replies, smiling and trying not to feel too hopeful. “I know a dog-friendly pub nearby.” He's trying to remember if Howard's working or not. The last thing he needs is Howard seeing him bring Robbie to the pub with him.

*

Howard is, of course, behind the bar and smiling smugly when he sees Gary walk in with Robbie behind him. Not even the sight of Cookie breaks that pleased expression.

“Over there,” Gary says, pointing to one of the corners in the back, furthest away from the bar.

“There's an empty table over – okay, sure,” Robbie says, pointing at one of the tables in the front, then follows Gary. “Hey, I just need the toilets, I'll find you.”

Gary points the toilets out, then takes a seat. He tells Cookie to lie down, and she scurries underneath the table. She's curled up, looking a little nervous. The pub's pleasantly busy, and she's not that used to lots of strangers. “Good girl,” he tells her, leaning down to scratch her behind her ears.

Howard comes walking up to them. “Good evening,” he says, still smiling.

“Oh, are you here to take my order?” Gary asks. “Two beers.”

Howard snorts. “Shouldn't you wait for your date to come back? He might not want a beer.”

“It's not a date,” Gary insists. “We're out having a drink after taking Cookie for a walk.”

Howard just looks at him.

“It's not a date.”

“Gary,” Howard tells him, leaning closer. “You're on a date. You went out for a walk with another bloke on a Friday night and now you're in the pub together. It's a date.”

“We were walking Cookie, and besides,” he argues, “lots of people go on walks together.”

“Yes,” Howard says, nodding slowly. “Lots of couples.”

“What? Couples? I thought you said we were just dating!” Gary protests. What is Howard talking about? “I mean, we're not, obviously, but –“

Howard lets out a sigh and gives Gary his most unimpressed look. “Gary, you and Robbie are the only ones who think it's not a date. It's a date.” He gestures at Cookie underneath the table. “Even the bloody dog knows it's a date.”

As if on cue, Cookie's tail thumps against the floor.

“See?” Howard says, looking pleased. “She knows, Gary. Listen to your dog. She's a lot smarter than you are.” He wanders back to the bar, bumping into Robbie on the way.

Robbie glances at Howard, then sits down. “Isn't that your dog-walking friend?” He shrugs off his coat.

“Yeah,” Gary replies, still a little stunned. “He works here.”

“Ooh, did he take our orders? Did you order me a beer? I'd like a beer.”

“No, he, er, he just came over to tell me Cookie is smarter than I am.” His mouth feels dry. Are they on a date? Should he ask? Shouldn't he know whether or not he's on a date?

Robbie sits back. “So he's come round to dogs, then?”

“Yeah,” Gary replies, watching Howard get back behind the bar. “He's getting along well enough with Cookie.” That whole thing has been working out better than he expected.

“You are bribing him with banoffee pie.” Robbie raises an eyebrow. “I've been on two walks with you now, so I'm definitely owed.”

Gary laughs. He can't believe Robbie still remembers about the pie, never mind that he wants some. “Did you pick up after Cookie?”

“No, but –“

“Then you don't get any pie,” Gary says firmly.

Robbie huffs. “She didn't even need picking up after her just then, so that's unfair.”

Gary shakes his head. “I'll buy you a pint instead, will that do?”

“Ooh, yes, thanks!”

Gary gets up and makes his way to the bar. He has to wait a few minutes before Howard takes his order. “How's the date going?” Howard asks.

“Two pints, and it's still not a date.”

“Sure.”

“Besides, he wants me to bribe him with banoffee pie like I do with you,” Gary tells him, then smirks. “You've got competition for your dog-walking gig there. He's more experienced for one, so I might take him up on it.”

Howard glares at him, then goes off to get him his pints. When he comes back, he's smiling again. “So what you're telling me,” he says, sliding the glasses over, “is that he wants to try your home-baking. That's very sweet, and he's clearly angling for a third date at your place.”

Gary raises an eyebrow. “You are after my home-baking, and I'm pretty sure you're not angling for a date with me.”

“That's different,” Howard insists. “We're friends. We do each other favours. I walk your dog; you feed me pie.” He nods at Robbie. “He clearly wants to spend more time with you.”

Gary sighs and pays for the drinks. He shouldn't feel hopeful at Howard's words, because what does Howard know? He's barely exchanged more than two words with Robbie. “Right now, I definitely want to spend more time with him too,” he grumbles, glaring at Howard as he picks up the glasses.

“That's the spirit!” Howard tells him, shooing him off.

*

Robbie can't stop his foot from bouncing as he waits for Gary to return. He's still surprised Gary agreed to go for a drink with him. He's also still surprised at himself for asking. It was just supposed to be a walk, after all, but then it was over and Robbie didn't want it to be over yet, so the offer slipped out.

And then Gary agreed.

And now here they are, and Robbie is pretty sure that he does want this to be a date. It's easy, talking to Gary, even if it's about rubbish, and he would've liked the walk to have been longer for reasons that have nothing to do with Cookie and more with how pleased Robbie feels when he makes Gary laugh.

They're halfway through their pints, talking about this and that, when Gary's dog-walking friend passes them by to pick up the empty wine glasses left behind by three young women on the table behind them. He gives Robbie a look, then looks at Gary and raises his eyebrow. Gary, in return, glares up at him and takes a sip from his beer.

Robbie's frowning, wondering if he should ask what that was about. He's about to when Gary puts his glass back down, sighs, and says, “Robbie, is this a date?”

Robbie stares at him, mouth open to ask his own question. “Uhm,” he says, shifting in his seat. Gary looks annoyed more than anything, which isn't helping. “...Do you want it to be?” he tries, and he hopes he isn't actually blushing.

Gary's scowl turns into wide-eyed surprise, and then he coughs and sits up straighter. “Maybe?”

They stare at each other for a long moment, and then Robbie laughs. “We're not very good at this, are we?” he says, taking a sip from his beer.

Gary lets out a sigh. “We're really not.” He eyes Robbie. “So? Is it?”

“A date?” Robbie asks, because he still can't believe it. “Sure. Yeah. Why not?” Then, realising that that probably doesn't sound very enthusiastic, he adds, “or we could make the next time a date? Maybe that's easier?”

“Let's do that, yeah,” Gary replies, smiling. “Something that won't involve Cookie. I want to make sure you're not dating me for my dog.”

For a brief moment Robbie is hurt that Gary would think that of him, but then he sees Gary's grin. “Curses,” Robbie says, “you've seen right through my devious plan!”

Gary shrugs. “Hey, you did say that your type was 'man with cute dog'.”

He can't believe Gary remembers that. “Technically, it's 'cute man with dog'.” Robbie looks at Gary meaningfully, and feels smug when Gary splutters, his face flustered as he drinks his beer. Making Gary flustered turns out to be even more fun than making him laugh.

“So, uhm, what do you want to do for our date?”

It doesn't take Robbie long to think of something. “We're watching First Contact.”

“We are not,” Gary immediately replies, narrowing his eyes, all traces of having been flustered gone.

“Okay, we'll watch the fifth one, Final Frontier,” Robbie replies, smirking.

“Isn't that one considered one of the worst?” Gary's tone is incredulous.

“Look, we're gonna watch a Star Trek movie either way,” Robbie insists. “I guess I can let you choose which one. I've got all of them on DVD at my place anyway.”

“All right,” Gary says eventually. “Star Trek it is. But you'll never convince me they're better than Star Wars.”

“Eh, gotta leave something for the second date,” Robbie replies, sitting back. “And the third. There are thirteen movies, you know, if we're including the reboots.”

Gary puts his face in his hand, then looks up at Robbie. “I suppose I should be glad you're planning thirteen dates ahead, at least,” he says drily.

Robbie leans forward. “You know what we can do once we've finished the movies, though?”

“What?”

“Watch the TV series.”

Gary just facepalms again.

Robbie sits back, drinking his beer. It's fun teasing Gary, and he knows Gary'll do the same to him soon enough. There are definitely worse dates than marathonning Star Trek and Star Wars movies and bickering over which one is better in between snogging on the couch.

He definitely hopes there'll be snogging on the couch.

Or maybe, since they have established that this is sort of kind of maybe a date, there'll be some kissing tonight.

“Finish your beer,” Robbie tells him, “then I can walk you home.”

“Such a gentleman,” Gary replies drily, but he does lift his pint to his mouth.

Robbie shrugs, and finishes his own beer, mostly to stop himself from saying something dumb about being gentle.

*

They walk out of the pub, Howard giving Gary a wide grin when they leave, with Gary shaking his head at his friend.

“What's that about?” Robbie asks, as they step outside. It's a little chilly, so he zips up his coat.

“Oh, Howard?” Gary leans down to pet Cookie, who lets out a soft whine. “He was just being an idiot. He insisted we've been dating ever since that first walk.”

Robbie laughs at that. “Well, maybe he's not that much of an idiot?”

“You can't retroactively decide something was a date,” Gary tells him firmly. “That's not how dating works.”

Robbie walks alongside him, Cookie on Gary's other side. “Someone's an expert!”

“Well, one of us'll have to be. You think watching Star Trek is a good idea for a date.”

“Because it is! Watching a movie you've already seen is a great idea for a date, because you know where all the boring bits are.” Robbie nudges Gary's shoulder with his own. “So you can do other things rather than watch the movie.”

Gary snorts at his suggestive tone. “Well, that explains why you suggested Star Trek, then.” He glances up at Robbie. “That's all boring bits.”

Robbie's torn between defending Star Trek and feeling pleased that Gary's on-board with the snogging plan. “I'll give you Final Frontier,” he says eventually. There are definitely some terrible scenes in there.

“Thank you.” Then Gary looks horrified. “Wait, does that mean we're gonna watch that next time?”

He reaches out to squeeze Gary's shoulder. “Don't worry, I'll help you make it through.” He lets his hand linger for a moment, then puts it back in his pocket.

Gary just smiles. “Maybe I can help you make it through the Star Wars prequels.”

“Excellent idea!”

They keep chatting as they walk, and after about ten minutes Gary looks down the street to their left. “That's mine,” he says, pointing at one of the houses.

“I know,” Robbie replies, although if he's honest, he wouldn't have been able to pick it out in the dark.

They've stopped walking, and Robbie wonders what he should do now. A kiss under the streetlights seems a bit much, but he would definitely like to kiss Gary, now that he knows Gary's interested in him.

Gary looks at him, then down at Cookie, and then he grabs Robbie's hand and pulls him along as he walks onto the verge alongside the pavement. There's a large oak tree that casts them in shadows, and Robbie suddenly feels very nervous.

Gary's still holding Robbie's hand, and tugs him closer. He looks a little nervous too as he closes the distance between them and kisses Robbie.

It's a little awkward, with some bumping of noses, but the second one goes better and Robbie moves closer, his jacket rustling against Gary's. He's about to deepen the kiss when he feels something press against his knee and he jerks back, startled.

Cookie looks up at him, still pressing her head against his knee, clearly wanting to be petted.

Gary lets out a laugh. “I think she might be jealous.”

“I'm not snogging her,” Robbie says, but leans down to pet Cookie. “Sorry, girl, I think I might prefer your owner over you.”

Gary looks pleased when Robbie stands up again. “That's very high praise, and you haven't even had my banoffee pie yet.”

“Does that mean you'll bring it over when we're watching Final Frontier?”

“Yeah, all right.” Gary smiles. “You know what I just realised?”

“What?” Robbie asks, leaning closer.

“This strip of grass is pretty popular with dog-owners.”

Robbie closes his eyes. All desire to kiss Gary again has been washed away, just like that. “Thanks,” he says. “Really wanted to know that.”

“Just saying.”

“You sure know how to set the mood, don't you?” Robbie opens his eyes to see Gary grinning at him.

“Hey, I am a dating expert!” Gary walks back to the pavement.

Robbie glances down at the grass, hoping he's only stepped into dead leaves rather than shit owners haven't picked up. “You're definitely an expert in something.”

*

“You're in a good mood,” Mark tells him the next day when Robbie's cleaning out the dog kennels. It's no one's favourite job, since it usually involves shit or pee, but it needs doing.

“I've got a date with Gary tonight,” Robbie replies, scrubbing the floor. They compared schedules yesterday, and it was either tonight or wait a week, and neither of them wanted to do that.

“I knew it!” Mark yells, pumping his hands in the air. “Jason!” he shouts. “Robbie's finally got his date with Gary!”

Jason looks up from a few kennels away from them, where he's putting Candy back after her walk. “About time,” he shouts back.

Robbie sits up. “You've been talking about this behind my back?”

“Of course,” Mark says, shrugging casually. “It was pretty obvious. I told you he was your type.”

“I hated him for trying to adopt Cookie!”

“But you got over that.”

Robbie huffs. “Well, yes, but it took time.”

“Either way, I'm glad you two sorted it out.” Mark smiles at him.

Jason finally joins them. “Just because you were right about this,” he tells Mark, “does not mean you're right about that speed-dating idea of yours.”

“What speed-dating idea?” Robbie asks, just as Mark insists that it's a great idea.

“It'll get people down here! Trust me!”

Jason shakes his head. “It's not practical to make them switch dogs every three minutes, or whatever the time limit is with speed-dating.”

Mark sighs, hanging his head for a moment. “They don't need to switch dogs, Jay, it's not speed-dating for people who want to meet dogs. It's speed-dating for people who want to meet other people.”

Jason still looks slightly baffled. “But how are the dogs involved?” he asks, and Robbie nods.

“Easy!” Mark beams at them. “Half the people get a dog and stay in one place, and the other half rotate every three minutes!”

Jason exchanges a look with Robbie. “I still don't see why that would have to be done here, or with dogs.”

“Because the dogs break the ice!” Mark explains. “Usually with speed-dating it's awkward questions about work and hobbies, and here you can just start chatting about the dog instead. And you know you already have one thing in common with the other person, which is that you like dogs, otherwise you wouldn't come to a Speed-dating With Dogs event.” He smiles at Jason at Robbie. “If it's a success, I guess we could do Speed-dating With Cats too.”

“But we're an animal shelter,” Jason says, “not – not a dating service for socially awkward people.” He shares another look with Robbie.

“Why are you looking at me when you say that?” Robbie protests, folding his arms.

“Well...” Jason trails, then shrugs.

Robbie lets out a huff. “I think Mark's idea has merit,” he says. “It just needs thinking through. Maybe the two of you should do some speed-dating as research.”

Jason splutters as Mark nods. “Great idea! We can talk to the organisers how they went about it.”

“Why can't Robbie come with you?” Jason asks.

“Didn't you hear?” Robbie replies, feeling smug. “I'm already dating someone.”

“Come on, let's see if there's speed-dating going on any time soon,” Mark tells Jason, then walks off.

Jason glares at Robbie, then follows Mark.

Robbie waves them off cheerfully, then goes back to his cleaning. If he wasn't already happy about his planned date, he definitely would be now.

*

A year later

Gary's about to take Cookie for a walk when Robbie calls him.

“How do you feel about Pomeranians?”

“What?” It's not the weirdest thing Robbie has asked him, but it's definitely up there. “What's a Pomeranian?”

“An adorable tiny dog made from pure fluff.”

“Oh, right.” He thinks he knows what type of dog Robbie is talking about now. “They're cute?”

“Great! Then how do you feel about taking one in for a week or so?”

Gary closes his eyes and sighs. “One dog. We agreed.” They've had this discussion before, more often since Robbie moved in with him a month ago, but he thought Robbie accepted him drawing the line at one dog.

“It's only for a week!” Robbie insists. “We've had to take in half a dozen dogs found in some hoarder's house. They're all fine, perfectly healthy, except Hugo has been really stressed in the shelter.”

“Hugo?”

“The dog. The Pomeranian. He's barely been eating and huddles in a corner, growling at anyone who tries to pet him.”

Gary frowns. “...That's not really convincing me to take him in, if I'm honest.” He doesn't want a small, yappy dog around, especially not with Cookie. Hang on, Cookie.

“He's just acting out because of stress. He'll be much better behaved in a calmer environment.”

“What about Cookie?” Gary says, looking down at her. She's sitting in the hallway, tilting her head at him. “She's not good sharing a home with another dog.” She's all right with other dogs in the park or on their walk, although Cookie is hesitant around the ones her own size or bigger, or if they're especially playful.

“Ah, yes, well. Good point.” Robbie is quiet, and Gary waits for him to give up or come up with another argument. “Technically, she's not good at being the new dog. With us, she's got the home advantage! I know how you're supposed to introduce a new dog to a household that already has a dog. It'll be fine. Come on, Gary, Hugo is miserable in this place. He needs a place to calm down for a week or so, and he's never gonna get adopted like this.”

Gary finds himself wavering. Every dog in that shelter deserves a good home. “I get that, but Cookie does come first.”

“Obviously. Wait, why don't you bring her down, I can get Hugo and we can see if they at least don't immediately hate each other?”

“Didn't you just say that Hugo growls at anyone who comes near him?” Gary asks.

“He probably won't actually bite, and I'll wear special gloves. He'll be fine once he's away from the other dogs for a bit and out his kennel.”

“This is a terrible idea,” Gary says, as much to Robbie as to himself.

“I've dealt with stressed dogs before,” Robbie assures him. “I know what I'm doing. Hugo needs a walk anyway, that usually helps a lot if they're stressed.”

Gary sighs. “Fine, I'll come over. But if Cookie doesn't like him, you'll have to find someone else.”

“Sure! See you, love you, bye!”

Gary looks at Cookie as he puts his phone in his pocket. “Let's see how we feel about Pomeranians, girl.”

*

When he arrives at the shelter, Robbie is waiting at the driveway with a tiny black ball of fluff at his feet. The ball of fluff starts barking as Gary parks the car, and he can hear Robbie tell the dog firmly to keep quiet. It takes a couple of attempts, but Hugo does stop barking.

Gary gets Cookie out of the car and she trots alongside him as he walks over to Robbie. He stops about ten feet away, and watches Cookie's reaction.

She's still standing next to him, but her tail is low and she seems anxious. That's not a great sign. “Rob?”

Robbie's crouched down, and Hugo's growling. “Hugo,” he says, his voice quiet. “Come on, that's no way to treat a lady.” He looks up at Gary. “Try coming closer.”

Gary's not eager to, but he takes a few steps forward. Hugo doesn't move, and Cookie doesn't seem to be getting any less anxious. “Rob, look at Cookie,” he says, gesturing. “She's not exactly thrilled to be here.”

“Yeah, but –” Robbie's eyes widen, and he looks at the farmhouse. “She probably remembers this place. Maybe she thinks she's being brought back.” He gets up. “Come on, let's go for a walk.”

Gary sighs, and walks down the road he came from. The further he gets from the driveway, the more Cookie perks up. “I prefer our usual walks,” he tells Robbie over his shoulder. “You know, where you're not ten feet away from me.”

“Give it time!” Robbie calls out from behind him.

“This is ridiculous,” he tells Cookie, who is at least looking more relaxed and happy.

They walk further down the road, and after ten minutes, Robbie calls out for Gary to try again. “Come on, Hugo seems calmer.”

Gary turns around, switching the lead from one hand to the other. It's difficult to tell whether Hugo has relaxed or not, but he'll take Robbie's word from it. “Right,” he says, taking a step forward with Cookie, and then another.

When Hugo doesn't move or start growling, he takes another two steps, still feeling like an idiot. Cookie keeps moving forward, but stops one foot away from Hugo. She seems curious about him, though.

“See,” Robbie says, grinning. “They don't hate each other.”

“Hmm,” is all Gary says, moving to stand alongside Cookie. That makes Hugo cower and move backwards. “Oh, good, he just hates me.”

“Just let him get to know Cookie first,” Robbie tells him, and shoos Gary away.

Gary sighs, and steps back. He watches as Hugo slowly moves closer to Cookie, who lowers her head to sniff him. Hugo barks, just once, and she jerks her head back. Gary's about to call the whole thing off when she sniffs at him again and Hugo lets her.

“That's better than I expected,” Robbie admits. “Cookie is clearly a good influence on him.”

Gary knows where that train of thought is gonna lead. “He better not be a bad influence on her.”

“Trust me, he won't. He's just stressed, and scared, and the shelter's really not helping with that,” Robbie assures him. “He needs one-on-one attention, along with some peace and quiet.”

The dogs sniff each other for a little longer, then Cookie moves away to sniff at the grass. Hugo stays put, standing next to Robbie, and he's still looking at Cookie.

“Well?” Gary asks. “What happens now?”

Robbie crouches down, and lets Hugo sniff his hand before stroking his back. “Now we introduce Hugo to you,” he says quietly. “Come here.”

Gary grumbles under his breath as he crouches down in the grass. “Hey there,” he says, and hesitates before holding out his hand to Hugo. The dog doesn't growl, he just sniffs it and then pushes back against Robbie's hand.

“Try petting him,” Robbie suggests, taking his hand off of Hugo.

Gary does, and he's surprised at how tiny Hugo really is underneath all that fur. “You need feeding up, boy.”

Hugo looks up at him, dark eyes amongst dark fur, and he moves closer, leaning into Gary's hand, and just like that, Gary knows he's a goner.

He blinks, pulling his hand back. “So, uhm, a week you said?” He's being an idiot, feeling like that when only seconds ago he was still worrying over whether or not Hugo would snap at him.

“Yeah, give or take a few days,” Robbie says, stroking Hugo's back now. “Depending on how he reacts, and how Cookie reacts, obviously.” He glances at Gary. “What do you think?”

“Let's give it a go,” Gary says, smiling down at the dog.

“Great!” Robbie is grinning. “He's only tiny, you'll hardly even know he's there!”

Somehow, Gary doubts it. “Do we go back now to let Jason know?”

“Yeah, probably for the best.”

They get up, and finish their walk, Cookie and Hugo mostly keeping their distance, but they don't seem anxious around each other.

“Jason'll be glad to have Hugo out of his hair for tonight,” Robbie says, walking next to Gary now.

“What's going on tonight, then?”

Robbie grins. “Speed-dating With Dogs. Mark's idea. Remember, I told you about that?”

“Oh God, yes. Wasn't it a bit of a disaster last time?”

“Yeah. We didn't have nearly enough guys turning up, but I don't think most of the women minded. They seemed more interested in the dogs anyway,” Robbie says, sniggering. “Still, he's convinced Jason to give it another go.”

“I hope it works out,” Gary replies. “At least the dogs'll be out, having a good time.”

“Exactly, and that's the most important bit!”

Jason is indeed relieved to hear that Gary'll take Hugo home, along with instructions on how to introduce Hugo into the home properly. He drives home with Hugo in a pet carrier usually reserved for cats, and Hugo is letting out sad whimpers and the occasional angry bark the entire ride home.

“You're lucky you're cute,” Gary tells him.

Hugo just looks at him from behind the door of the carrier, and lets out another whimper.

Gary forces himself to keep his eyes on the road. “We'll be home soon, Hugo. Soon.”

Before the week is even over, Hugo's temporary home has become his forever home, and Gary isn't sure who is more pleased about that, Robbie, himself, or Hugo. Cookie gets along well enough with Hugo, after the initial tense few days where she was defensive over her toys, her food, her drinking bowl, and Gary.

It's a few months after that that Gary gets a call from Robbie.

“How do you feel about Dachshunds?”

“Two dogs,” Gary tells him firmly. “We agreed. Two dogs.”

“It'll only be temporary!”