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The Pet Shop

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It’s hard to walk a dog with one arm. No surprise, or anything. There’s plenty things that are hard to do with one arm. It's just that walking a dog isn’t one of those normal everyday tasks that counselors tell you to prepare for.

Bucky’s mom thought of it. When he told her he was getting a dog, she was thrilled at first, because when an amputee soldier with PTSD says he’s getting a dog, the first thing that comes to mind is one of those super-good-pre-trained service dogs, right? Then he told her it was a shelter dog who had never been trained to live in an apartment, and her half-smile kind of froze in place. And she was like, “Do you know how hard it will be to walk your dog in the city, Bucky?” She didn’t say, “Do you know how hard it will be to walk a dog with one arm?” but it was implied.

It wasn’t really up for debate, though. As soon as he saw the dog, he had to have her. She had three legs, for crying out loud. In a world where Bucky had totally given up on soul mates, Captain was gonna be his soul mate.

His mom was right, though. It’s hard to walk a dog with one arm.

It doesn’t help that Captain is a hard dog to walk in the first place. She pulls on the leash, tries to hug every person she sees, barks at pigeons, trips Bucky every time she sees a bird she wants to bark at, and in the summer she walks really fast to get from one shady patch to the next. He doesn’t blame her for that, so much. It’s no desert, but the big city has its own way of baking heat into the concrete until it’s permanent.

Anyway, Captain is a mess.

Which is why he’s walking her to the corner pet store, or more specifically, why she’s dragging him down the block to the corner pet store. Bucky’s not even that slow, but somehow Captain gets to the end of that leash and just thinks she’s gotta pull him like they’re coming up second in the Iditarod.

When they’re a block away, he can see the pet store. Big colorful fantasy illustrations splash across the windows in rainbow chalk, lighting up the brick building like a flower bush bursting through the corner windows. As they draw closer, the artwork comes to life: a pack of puppies chasing a butterfly; a mouse poking her head from a piece of Swiss cheese; two cats curled into the shape of a heart; a fat green frog with his long tongue stretched toward the front door; a big three-colored dog covered in sudsy bubbles that look like they’re actually shining in the sun. And the most impressive illustration, a particolored parrot whose wings fan across an entire window pane, little music notes drifting from its beak.

Bucky overhears a girl in a Yankee cap when she turns to her friend and says, “Wow, they must have a really good artist working at that pet store.”

They do have a good artist, Bucky thinks, and he smiles to himself.

Then Captain tries to leap into some other stranger’s lap and snag his hot dog. It feels like the leash yanks on Bucky’s heart. “Captain, no!” He says, jerking the leash and wrapping it around his hand a dozen times so he can tug her away.

“Damn dog!”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”

“He tried to bite me!”

“Captain, come on!”

“Hey, what happened to his leg?”

“She’s just—I mean—I’m sorry,” Bucky stammers, dragging Captain around the corner, because getting out of there is probably better and easier than trying to come up with excuses.

Yeah, his dog’s a mess. Especially when New York dogs are involved.

After a small, melodramatic scuffle involving a little bit of dog claws and a lot of slobber, Bucky gets her around the corner to the front door. Which is the next obstacle. Bucky heaves on the leash, pulls Captain close, and wedges her between his legs, staring longingly at the little “OPEN” sign over the door handle.

“Gotta teach you how to open doors, Cap.”

She squirms, tongue flailing, wagging not only her little half-tail but also her entire butt. Bucky’s still in good shape or she could probably topple him over.

While Bucky is gauging his ability to restrain his dog and open a door at the same time, the door opens on its own. Actually, somebody opens it from the inside.

“Bucky!”

Two hundred pounds of All-American muscle and clean-cut blond hair kick the door open and engulf Bucky in a hug.

“Hey, Steve.”

“I’m so glad you made it!”

“Well, you know,” Bucky says. He wobbles a little in Steve’s grip. He’s used to one-armed balance by now, but you try standing up straight with the American Dream tackling you and a lunatic Australian shepherd flailing between your knees. Bucky plants his feet. “You threatened to abduct my dog if I didn’t show up. So. Here I am.”

Steve pulls away, laughing and avoiding eye contact. “I was joking.”

“Sure, Steve.”

“So, this is the shop!” Steve says, ignoring Bucky’s perfectly valid implications of dognapping.

Steve steps aside, and Bucky gets his first look at the pet store. His best friend has worked here over a year, but Bucky spent half that year in a hospital and half that year in rehab and half that year apartment hunting.

Maybe Steve has been here longer than a year. Has it been that many half-years?

To be honest, Bucky can’t keep track of how long he’s been back. It feels like his arm got blew off yesterday, but it also feels like it happened a century ago to another person entirely. And technically his arm didn’t get blew off. Blood loss and infection and amputation just sounds so much less glamorous, and he did save six people, so he figures he can tell the story however he likes.

Anyway, this is officially the first time Bucky has visited Steve’s pet store. He’s heard a lot about it, but that didn’t prepare him for the onslaught of color.

“You sure pack a lot of stuff in here,” Bucky blurts.

“Well, you know, we are trying to sell most of it,” Steve says with a wink.

Bucky scoffs, but his eyes are already zeroing in on each detail. A counter, a cash register, a camera mounted discreetly overhead. Flea and tick treatment behind the counter. A wall of leashes and collars arranged by colors of the rainbow, and behind the rainbow display, the rest of the store. Bird cages hanging from the ceiling, holding not birds, but fake vines and colorful florals. Bucky can hear birds, though, screeching deep inside the shop.

That’s his second impression: the store is loud.

Birds shrieking, dogs barking, people talking, and background music tinkling through the overhead speakers. Bucky tilts his head and recognizes 70s soul.

“I like it,” he declares.

Steve smiles.

Bucky tries to step inside, but the leash goes taut and he stops in his tracks.

He and Steve turn around and face the sidewalk.

“What—oh, come on, are you kidding me, Cap?” Bucky sighs. His dog is stock still, digging her heels into the welcome mat and eyeing the storefront with fear. Bucky tugs on the leash, and she lowers her ears. “Cap, it’s fine. You’re fine.”

The girl at the animal shelter told him Aussies don’t have tails. Whatever Captain is mixed with must have had a tail, because she has four inches of fluff that never seems to stop wagging. Except now. Now it’s between her legs.

Steve gets down on one knee and coos. “Come here, Captain! It’s okay, I promise!”

Captain tries to back up, but she’s at the end of the leash.

“Oh my god,” Bucky heaves a sigh. “Captain, it’s just Steve, you know Steve.”

She whines.

“You’re fucking ridiculous.”

“It’s okay,” Steve insists. “Look, I have treats.”

After a little force and a lot of bribery, they get Captain’s stubborn butt inside the store and close the door. She’s timid at first, but then she gets ten feet inside and it’s like nothing bad has ever happened in her life. She springs up onto Steve, lunging for the Milk Bone in his hand.

Steve stretches his arm up and laughs. “Sit. Sit! You gotta sit, Cap!”

Captain’s butt hits the ground for like 0.7 seconds and then she’s spinning around Steve’s feet again, twisting him up and trying to trip him. He’s built like an MMA fighter, so he’s hard to trip up, but if anyone could do it, it would be Bucky’s maniac dog.

“Don’t encourage her,” Bucky grumbles, even as he tries not to smile. “Sit, girl.”

She sits. Her little turbo-tail dusts the floor. Steve giggles. “There you go!” When he tries to give Captain the treat, she jumps on him again.

Bucky drops his head back and sighs. “This is exactly why we’re here.”

“Yeah, man!” Steve says, eyes bright. “Sam is probably at the back of the store. I’m waiting for a customer, so I gotta stay up here.”

Steve is a dog groomer. Or bather. Or both. He spends all day elbow deep in dog baths and then cuts their hair and sends them home; that's how he explains it, at least.

“Are you sure this is okay?” Bucky asks. He kneels next to Captain, who squirms into his arms and kisses his ear.

Steve laughs. “I set everything up for you. Sam is really cool, and he’s a really good trainer. Trust me, Captain’s gonna love it.”

Bucky hugs his dog. “He’s gonna have to be good.”

Captain snorts.

“Thanks, Cap.”

“Go ahead,” Steve laughs. “He knows you’re coming.”

The shop is comfortably humid, not only because old brick buildings only partly hold off the New York Summer, but also because it looks humid, washed in the mottled shade of Steve’s chalk-drawings, a living photo filter.

“Let’s go, Captain.” Bucky lets her sniff and follows her into the store. They pass the rainbow of leashes and collars and find more aisles packed with merchandise. Dog treats and rawhides, then another rainbow of dog toys. Ropes, Frisbees, tennis balls, stuffed cartoon animals, squeaky toys shaped like fruits and veggies, a six-foot caterpillar with a squeaker in every single body segment. Captain seems to have recovered from her weird doorway anxiety attack, and now she wants to sniff every item she can get her nose on. She seems mesmerized by a realistic stuffed rabbit on an end-display, and it takes a lot of coaxing to lead her away. After the toys, there are several aisles of dog food. The other half of the store mirrors this half, only the opposite aisles are packed with corresponding cat products.

Captain wants to smell all of that, too, of course. “Maybe next time, baby,” Bucky says, leading her away before she can get too engrossed.

They reach a big double doorway with no door and find a whole other room, so big that it’s practically another store.

Captain’s nose goes haywire. Bucky doesn’t blame her. This half of the store is filled with strange, exotic products for strange, exotic animals. There are bags of mulch and hay and bird seed. An entire aisle blooming with fake plants and natural décor. Stacks of glass tanks, acrylic tanks, terrariums, and more birdcages of all sizes. Absently following her nose, Captain drifts down the plant aisle, and before Bucky realizes what’s happening, her little half-tail snags a fake vine and drags it onto the floor. Captain flails.

“No, sweetie!” Bucky cries. “No, you’re fine!” He stomps a foot onto her leash and feverishly tries to detangle the plastic from her fluffy tail. “It’s fine, it’s not gonna get you, you’re fine!”

Another plant leaps onto the ground and Captain does a barrel roll. “No—” Bucky cries, but then realizes the maneuver has freed her from the plastic vine. “Okay, easy, easy now, shh, you’re fine.”

Before Bucky even replaces the decorations on the shelf, Captain has moved on, happy as can be. “You’re ridiculous,” he declares, and follows her gaze down to the end of the aisle.

A wall of glass squares lines the inner wall. Bucky squints. Something moves inside, and he realizes there are actual snakes in the tanks.

“Nope,” he says, “absolutely not, let’s go, we don’t need to go that way. Let’s go, Cap.”

Bucky turns a corner and Captain’s ears flick up. She boofs. Bucky’s stomach crinkles. She probably saw a dog, dammit; she’s friendly, but she’s just so barky , it always makes other dogs tense, and—

Someone whistles.

Bucky darts around the corner.

There is no dog, and no people either, for that matter.

“Pretty bird!”

Bucky blinks. “What?”

“Pretty bird!”

There’s a bird standing in front of him, perched on a fake tree branch about five feet off the ground. It bobs its head and whistles again.

“Hello?” Bucky says.

The bird fluffs its feathers. Captain darts to the end of the leash and releases a sharp whine.

“Bad dog!” the bird says.

Captain barks. Like, all-out barks, not a little boof under her breath.

“Bad dog!”

And now the bird has Captain’s full attention, which means she’s barking full-tilt, and the bird starts flapping and screaming.

Bucky clutches Captain’s leash and sucks air. “No—what?!”

The bird screams.

Captain barks.

“Okay—stop, no, Cap, no—okay—fuck—” Bucky tugs on the leash, heart pounding. There’s an aisle nearby, if he can just get Captain out of sight of this stupid bird—

“Hey!” a voice sounds nearby.

Captain barks.

“We’re going, we’re going!” Bucky exclaims.

“Hey, what did you do to my bird?!”

Bucky whirls. It’s not the bird talking. “Holy shit,” he says.

The man folds his arms and frowns at Bucky, then at Captain. “Are you messing with my bird?”

“She started it!” Bucky says automatically.

The stranger tilts his head. “She weighs two ounces, she didn’t start nothing.”

“Pretty bird!”

He turns to face the parrot. “Yes you are!” he says. He pulls something out of his pocket and feeds it. “Who’s a pretty bird?”

“Pretty bird!”

Captain barks.

“Hush,” Bucky says, gently tugging the leash. “I’m sorry, she’s really excited.”

The guy turns back and gets a good look at them. Actually, he gives Bucky a cursory glance, and then all his attention falls on Captain. “Oh, look at you. You’re beautiful! What’s her name?”

“Captain.”

The dog looks at Bucky when he says her name, then back at the stranger. Her tongue flops back and forth as she turns.

“Captain!” the stranger says. “That’s an awesome name. Can I pet her?”

“Um. Yeah, yeah, of course,” Bucky says, and even as he says it, Cap shoves her face into the employee’s outstretched hands.

“Oh, you’re a lover. You’re a lover, aren’t you, Captain?” he says.

As if agreeing, Captain gently squirms onto her hind legs and hugs him.

“Captain, down!” Bucky says. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”

“Pretty bird!”

The stranger laughs. “Oh, stop,” he says. He tilts his hips so Captain drops back onto the floor, then digs in his pockets for another bird treat. “Redwing always wants to be the center of attention.”

The bird whistles. “Bad dog!”

“Oh, don’t say that!” the employee says. “She’s not bad.”

“Bad dog!”

“Who’s a pretty bird?”

“Pretty bird!”

“That’s better.” He relinquishes a sunflower seed. “You’re okay, the dog’s not gonna get you.”

“Sorry,” Bucky says automatically. “We didn’t mean to freak her out.”

Bucky watches as the bird takes the seed from the employee’s hand. It has a fat, grey beak and beautiful fiery feathers, bright oranges and yellows cooling to a long blue-green tail. She’s a parrot, but not the big tropical pterodactyl kind. She’s about a foot long, about the size of Bucky’s fist.

“You said her name is Redwing?” Bucky asks.

“Mm-hm.”

“But she has blue wings.”

The stranger levels him with a flat stare. “So when did Captain here get her commission?” he asks drily.

At the sound of her name, Captain promptly sits.

“Oh, you want a treat, too?” the employee is instantly all charm, again. “Jealous.” He scratches her ear.

While he’s distracted, Bucky gets a better look at him. Bucky can tell he’s an employee because he’s got on the official red polo, just like Steve. It stretches over broad shoulders, and Bucky stares a little too long while his dog gets head-scratches. Then his eyes drift to the stranger’s chest and his name tag.

His stomach crumples. “Oh,” he says, clearing his throat. “Are you Sam?”

Sam looks up, blinking rapidly. Shock splashes across his face, just for a split second. Then he shows a toothy smile. “That’s me. You're my two o'clock, right?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, ducking his head and clenching his jaw like that could stop him from blushing. “We’re here for training.”

Sam straightens up and wipes his hands on his jeans. “So this is Captain, and …?”

“And … and she’s terrible?”

Sam blinks. He sort of smiles in a bemused way. “I meant, what’s your name?”

“Oh.” Bucky processes the last 10 seconds of conversation, blushes harder, and pretends not to stare at the gap between Sam’s front teeth. “Sorry.”

Sam tilts his head expectantly.

“Oh, right. I’m Bucky.”

“Nice to meet you, Bucky.” Sam holds out a hand.

Bucky shifts his grip on the leash so the loop falls around his wrist, and he shakes Sam’s hand. “You, too.”

Sam separates the handshake in about a split-second. He clears his throat and runs a hand over his hair, ducks his head, doesn’t look at Bucky. He looks down instead. “So, Captain,” Sam says, propping his hands on his hips. “Let’s get started.”

Great, Bucky thinks. He thinks I’m a dick.

Steve signed him up for 5 training classes. This is gonna be a long-ass month.