In a smoke filled back alley of Chinatown, there sits a pet shop like no other. People pass the steps by, but as the holidays approach, many of their minds turn to wishes and wants. All of which, to the curious, to the lucky, to the ambitious, could be granted here. Past the silk curtains and down the stairs, the owner, Count D, contemplated a wish of his own.
“Detective Orcot,” he muttered soberly, eyes narrowed at the state of his front parlor. The Count let out a high, vexed noise. “What a slob!”
Every time the Detective came, he left a mess. Clothes, everywhere! And this chair, how was it overturned? It’d been upright when he’d left the drunk and snoring bore on his couch for the night.
One of his dear pets regarded him with leisurely amusement, stretching out from under a heap of pillows. Someone snickered in the wings, but the Count didn’t hear them. A common occurrence, now, that a certain visitor occupied most of his attention, and more and more, his time.
The Count sniffed in disdain. “Really, my dear detective, what example are you setting for young Chris.”
He had barely tied up his hair in a kerchief and begun to set the room to rights (pile of laundry, things to move to the back before customers arrived, discarded bottles and a tea cup...) when a loud slamming of a door startled him to attention, followed by the heavy footfalls of a human child and the softer pit-pats of paws as they tried to keep up with a determined, desperate stride.
Chris rounded on D from the back of the shop with a frightful look on his face. ‘ Count! Count, is it true? ’
“Is what true, my dear?” he asked, putting his task aside to lean down and meet Chris eye to eye. He felt a tightness clench in his chest, and wondered what the boy had realized.
The boy’s eyes were wide and wobbly, fists clenched at his sides. Pon-chan caught up to stand behind him, small hands gripping tightly to the back of his shirt in either support or reassurance. Anxiety pooled from them, spreading out through the edges of the shop.
‘ My friends! Shuko, and her sisters, Kanan and Junrei. Is it true their birthday is Christmas? ’ Chris demanded.
Tension melting to a faint bemusement, Count D nodded. “Yes, Chris. They did come to be around that time of year.”
‘ But that’s so close! ’ Chris’s distress increased into babbling desperation. ‘ I haven’t gotten her anything. What do you get someone on Christmas, Count? It can’t be just a regular present. Is it two? Should I get two things each? That’s so much... ’
“Now now, I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
‘ But I only have a week!'
Pon-chan tugged firmly at his sleeve before his frown could deepen into a frightening furrow; as the humans said, ‘your face will get stuck that way.’ "Don’t worry, Chris. I’ll help!”
“Yeah, squirt,” laughed Tetsu, appearing on his other side to use Chris’s head as an armrest. “You’re going to have to go pretty far, right? I’ll help you out.”
Chris looked between them, on the edge of tears. Pon-chan smiled back sweetly, and Tetsu nodded with smug satisfaction. He patted his friend’s back hard twice, and, in the moment it took Chris to catch his bearing from surprise, grabbed the back of his shirt and dragged him by the collar towards the exit.
“Count, we’re going out!” Tetsu announced over his shoulder.
‘ Huh? ’ Chris thought, craning his neck around. ‘ Wait, where are we going? ’
Flustered, Pon-chan rushed after them. “Hey, wait for me!”
“Be back by dinner!” Count D called after the departing group. Who knew what they would get up to? But with Tetsu, Chris was safe. He would never take them too far afield.
How curious, though, that Chris was so concerned about gifts for his friend. It was not uncommon for sharing among the pets, but celebrating the day of one’s birth was a uniquely human quality. Count D remembered watching HonLon soar free over the ocean like it was yesterday. In all his years, that was the first and only dragon birth he had been fortunate enough to witness. To have a long and lasting part in her was, however misguided the evening had been, the highest honor.
As her parent, should he perhaps give her a gift as well? But, in that case, what of the detective? Imagine trying to explain: your dear daughter, the dragon with your hot temper and unreasonable attitude, requires a gift from you, her parent. No, my dear detective, you can’t get a dragon fireworks or something equally as dangerous. Of course this is serious.
Count D came back to himself holding a cleaning cloth he’d wrung into a ropy coil.
Well, with Chris sorted, he supposed it was time to tackle what was in front of him before opening hours. He’d already wasted enough time lost in thought.
With a huff, D surveyed the remaining task before him with intense focus.
Lingering pets melted back into the shadows, leaving the shop owner to a deep and aggravated cleaning session of the front room. No one wanted to accidentally get slapped with his dust mop again.
Leon clicked his lighter in irritation, but again, no flame stroked his cigarette. God, it was probably out of oil, huh. He’d need a new one. Again, second time this month.
What a lousy day. Too warm for snow, drizzling and rainy the week before Christmas, and not even a lead to follow to get himself a holiday bonus. What kind of informant says they know a big secret, then fucks off about some gossip rag BS. Who cares about some foreign royalty who left everything to a pet - again? A llama, or whatever the hell it was, was no better than a cat.
With a huff, Leon put his damp cigarette back in his packet and tossed the broken lighter into a trashcan. It bounced off the edge. Dang.
Bend half over from picking it up, he came face to face with the expectant eyes of a kid. “Whuh-?”
“You’re an officer, right?”
“Uh.” Well, he wasn’t in uniform but he did kind of look like one, he guessed.
“I need your help, mister! She’s stuck!”
“Up there!” The kid pointed down the residential block of brownstones to a row of tall trees at the end. “She can’t get down, officer. I think she’s really scared.”
God damn it. Leon ran a hand through his hair, and started down the block with a driving sense of urgency.
“This one?” he called back to the kid, who had stayed down at the corner. Even squinting his eyes, he couldn't see anything unusual. The kid pointed insistently further down, face shadowed by the hood of a raincoat. Then, he heard it; a faint, distressed sound from above.
Leon stared up. A cat stared back.
For fuck’s sake.
He hung his head for a minute, contemplating just how fucked up his day could get (cat stuck in a tree, come on!), before eyeing the surrounding area. All that hanging out in the pet shop had better count for something.
Ah ha! He had an idea that would definitely work.
“Come on, kitty kitty.” He waved a thin branch with one sad little leaf still attached back and forth at the tree’s base. “Who’s a playful little guy, huh?”
The cat looked at him blankly, paying the improvised toy no mind.
Okay, Plan B it was. Leon rolled up his sleeves; time to get the little guy himself.
‘ T-chan, why’d we leave so quick? ’ asked Chris once they’d gotten out into the street and his collar was no longer choking him.
Hands laced behind his head, T-chan glanced at him in disbelief. “Come on, didn’t you see how distracted the Count was? He wouldn’t have let us out nearly as easily. Plus,” he leaned in close with a sharp toothed grin, hands on his hips, “now we have the whole day out here.”
Chris supposed that was true. The Count had gotten a little stricter about Chris wandering around without him recently. Not that he wanted to be on his own, really, with all the people that couldn’t hear him out here.
“I want to go over there,” announced Pon-chan, pouting. She hated running after them and almost getting left behind.
‘Over there’ was a sparkly store that nearly blinded Chris with its trinkets. It looked girly enough, though, that yeah, maybe he could get something for one of the sisters there.
‘ Okay .’
T-chan snorted, but followed them anyway.
It was an art shop that sold painted objects the owner, an older woman with bleached blond hair and mirrored sunglasses, made in her at-home studio. Most of the trinkets outside are there to draw people in (“tacky stays in business,” T-chan muttered, browsing shelves behind him); like Pon-chan, who couldn’t keep her hands off the bobbles.
“Look, Chris, this one!” She held up a round ball with a ribbon attached. It was shiny enough to see his reflection. “Who wouldn’t love this?”
“A lot of people,” T-chan muttered. Pon-chan stuck her tongue out at him, and the shop owner laughed.
“You have rambunctious friends, young man,” she said.
‘ Uh, thanks… ’ He’s not sure if that’s a complement or not.
Chris starts when she smiles. “You’re welcome.”
Not many people can hear him, but, as he looked closer, he noticed her eyes behind her glasses. ‘ You’re, uh… ’
“Blind as a bat? Ho ho, nearly, yes, but that doesn’t stop me from much.” She lifted her glasses and winked at him with one milky eye.
‘ Can I ask you… ’ he paused, wondering if she expected him to ask about her personal life or something. But if someone could hear him, maybe they could help. ‘ What do you get someone born on Christmas? ’
“Hmm….” she thought for a moment. “A birthday and Christmas gift, that’s special, so…”
He leaned in, anticipation clear.
“One of my paintings ought to do!”
She slapped her leg and laughed at his disgruntled expression.
“Come on, kid.” T-chan put a hand on his head in a faint hair ruffle. “Let’s leave this old bat, I know a better place to look.”
It was hard separating Pon-chan from the pile of shiny ornaments she’d found, but T-chan dragged them both deeper into Chinatown. They ended up at a signless shop next to a restaurant Count D had taken them a few times. T-chan always got extra smug around here, like he was now.
“This is the place,” T-chan said, slamming the door open like he owned the place. Chris followed tentatively, hoping they weren’t in trouble for making too much noise.
A Chinese man dressed as rich as D greeted them from behind a low counter. The walls were stacked floor to ceiling with cubbies and drawers full of powders, pots, and unmarked boxes.
“Ah, Count D’s young charge. How can I help you today, young sir?”
Chris stuttered, not sure how to answer. T-chan came to his rescue: “We want something special. Something you can’t find anywhere else.”
The man seemed to understand, because he nodded and left for a back room.
‘ What is this place? ’ Chris asked. In the background, Pon-chan sniffed at a container and sneezed.
“The best, " T-chan insisted. Chris only saw him this excited when he got to bite someone. "You can get anything here.”
Chris was still stewing in confusion when the man returned with two carefully wrapped containers, one the size of a mouse and the other a large-ish cat. “Here we are,” he said, unwrapping the first. A slim jar of powder lay within an ornamental box. “Saffron from the finest fields.” He unwrapped the second; a chunk of dried meat. “And an ancient lamb leg, preserved for medicinal purposes.” They both looked unique, sure, and super expensive. Neither of which the sisters would find useful.
T-chan was salivating. “We’ll take it!”
‘ T-chan! ’ Chris clung to his sleeve. ‘ I don’t have that much money with me! ’
“On the Count’s tab, I assume?” the shopkeeper said with a knowing smile.
T-chan was all teeth. “Yup.”
They end up leaving with both parcels, T-chan clutching them happily to his chest while laughing at Pon-chan’s struggle to get the powder off her nose. Between the first two shops, the few after that chase them away, or stare at them until Chris is too uncomfortable to stay, he was almost ready to call it a day. Then, at the edge of the neighborhood, he noticed a bodega. They had everything you could need, according to his brother, so they could totally have a gift for his friends, right?
He entered the bodega, slipping away from a distracted T-chan and Pon-chan without thinking about it. There was a stern looking man behind the register, who gave him the stink eye, and his son, about Chris’s age with long, loose hair he kept pushing out of his eyes. The movement reminded Chris of some of his friends back at the pet shop.
The boy met his eyes and smiled. Chris automatically smiled back and greeted him; then kicked himself. It’s different out here, he’s reminded again, where most people can’t hear him.
Unexpectedly, the boy’s smile widened, and he leapt over to box Chris back into a narrow aisle. A harried woman in a business suit pushed past where he had been standing. The boy stared at him with wide, encompassing eyes, a gaze he couldn't look away from. The boy does hit himself, spinning Chris around by the shoulders and pressing close to his back. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to be looking at, but a hand from behind points up, and he sees it. Up on the top shelf, out of his reach, but there.
Chris tried to look over his shoulder to thank him, but instead meets the angry faces of Pon-chan and T-chan. He broke out in a cold sweat; what did he do wrong?
The boy let him go and held up his hands as a peace offering - to what, Chris isn’t sure - as his friends descent in an instant. T-chan slung an arm around his shoulders and held on too tightly while Pon-chan wrapped herself entirely around his arm. They both glared at the shopkeeper's son.
Chris isn’t sure if he should apologize or not, but the boy doesn’t seem angry, just amused. Before he’s dragged back home he insists they make a purchase, though. (The man isn’t glaring at him so much, getting it down and ringing it up. His son gives a thumbs up from his spot perched on a stack of boxes behind the counter. Chris’s smile is shy, but he leaves feeling a little better about the day.)
“Come, huff, on,” Leon mutters to himself, halfway up a tree. The cat hadn't budged, but he swears the thing was lower down when he started. Whatever, he’s almost there.
The cat surveyed his struggles with a slow blink of stupid cat expression.
It took ten more minutes and a few close calls before he’s close enough to reach the thing. Is it too much to ask for it to come closer? Seriously, cat, just come when you’re called. This is why he prefers dogs.
It's fluffy and not dirty at all, despite being up in the rain and the wind for who knows how long. In fact, it looks well cared for; no collar or harness, though. Where did this guy come from? It looks like spoiled royalty that eats kibble as expensive as human food, not some stray.
Okay, well, the important part after all this is that he gets it down.
It doesn’t struggle when he reaches for it, pressing his weight into the trunk for balance and upper-body half hanging over a support branch. It’s as limp as a noodle. Somehow, someway, they make it safely back to the ground. Leon feels grateful to have his face intact. The last cat he’d rescued (at D’s, it was his fault, he admits that now) had given him a good swat.
The kid… is gone. Okay, weird but whatever. The cat was safe, looked a little hungry, but that was it. Maybe he should grab some food from the bodega around the corner?
Rescuing a cat from a tree is not the weirdest thing that has happened to Leon recently. Heck, there was that one guy from a few days ago in a billion coats and a feather boa (he gets it, it’s cold, but after four layers that’s just excessive), who’d been busking on the street corner, ignored by everyone. He’d felt bad for the guy; with some time to kill he’d stayed around and given him a fiver. The guy followed him ten blocks personally serenading him after that with opera junk. At one point it even sounded like bird calls. Weird guy, but you know, living in a city this size, part of everyday life.
When Leon came back from the bodega, the cat was gone, only four perfect little paw prints in the mud to show it had ever been there.
Okay. Again, weird. Just plain old weird. He took the hint that today was, and would remain, a shit day.
At least he had a place to donate this cat of pet food.
Time to head to D’s.
Chris returned triumphant and went directly to his room to wrap whatever he had gotten, the Count assumed. Tetsu tried to sneak in with what was considered contraband yet again. The Count had to confiscate the parcel, unsure what he could do but return the leg of meat to Mr. Lin the next morning. That sort of thing was not good for Tetsu's stomach, and he knew it.
D was just settling in for tea in the front parlor when he heard the tell-tale footprints of an uninvited guest.
“Hey D!” called the Detective, bursting into the room like a boar. “You’ll never guess what I did today.”
“I can only image the service you’ve been providing to our city,” D replied, taking a sip of his tea.
Leon threw himself down on the opposite couch in a sprawl of limps. “Yeah, yeah. But hey, I rescued someone today.” He smirked. “Maybe you know them?”
“Oh?” D raised an eyebrow.
“Cute, long hair, probably purebred.”
His eyebrow began to twitch. “I see.”
“A cat, D. I rescued a cat from a tree.”
“So I gathered, Detective. Truly, there was no better use of your time.”
“Hey!” Leon exclaimed, leaning forward across the table, nearly into D’s space. “It was a request from a citizen! Serving the people, you know, like you said.” He slumped back into the couch as he thought back to the encounter. “Weird, though; they both vanished.”
“The kid and the cat. Into thin air; weren’t there when I got back.” Leon reach into his pocket and slid a tin across the table. “Oh, yeah, here. Consider it a donation.”
Count D set down his tea and picked up the tin of extremely cheap cat food with a considering expression. “While I do appreciate the gesture...” He trailed off, eyes shadows by his bangs. “I would never, absolutely never in all my days, feed this to anyone.”
“Hey, hey!” protested Leon. “It was what they had, okay?”
D put the tin down on the table with a snort of disgust. One of the pets batted at it experimentally; he made a note to dispose of it somewhere no one would attempt something awful in their curiosity. “I can only thank the creature’s good sense to leave before it would suffer through such a thing.”
Leon grumbled to himself, and took a long sip from his drink. Someone, at some point, had put an open bottle of cold beer on the table for him.
The first time he’d shown up after hours to the shop with a six pack and a smile, Count D had nearly banished him right then and there. Only the thought of Chris had stayed his hand. If the Detective drank here, D would moderate the intake, prevent excessively inebriation that showed up at his shop every other night smelling of smoke and cheap booze and reeking human interest. Now, there came a frequently replenished stock of the man’s favorite swill in the cold-room. At least today the pet in question had put down a coaster for the human; if only he could train this man to keep using it.
They spend evenings this way, often. The detective sits across from him after a shift and spews an account of his day while the pets listen. Count D sips his tea in silence. It’s almost companionable, in its own way.
Leon shared an anecdote about some colleague that D knows from context, and chuckles despite himself.
Humans live short lives.
Count D knows this intimately, having watched the passage of so many, blinking out like candle flames. Their desires are fascinating and bright and horrible in turn, rending an impression of their likeness into the earth that stays long after their tenure.
A heavy weight settles in his chest. This man he sits with, in the presence of someone who seems to know him, shall too pass to memory. The future is laid out before him: a short life; a constant struggle; an end. Perhaps with a mighty roar, as his namesake, or a whimper in a quiet place, but an end nonetheless.
Count D feels sorrow expand through him in a sudden pervasive burst. His left eye prickles, tears up; he wipes it away with a choked sound, staring at the droplets on his fingertips in surprise. How can this affect him so deeply?
“--hey, D, you okay?” He heard the detective finally, an edge of desperation to his voice. Leon was reaching out to him, hoovering out of his seat, at a loss for what to do.
The ensuing swell of irritation at the man’s uselessness (and a small warmth at his concern) was a welcome distraction. It burned away some of the feeling from his head; the rest settled in his chest like fist ready to tighten and choke.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
Leon didn't look like he believed him, but retreated back into the gruff shell of masculine American culture that sat around him most in moments of insecurity.
They changed the subject to a story involving one of his clients, and shockingly, the detective does not accuse him of a crime for the next half hour. Count D was distracted and subdued throughout the conversation.
After a full day out and some time with his friends in the back of the shop, Chris changed into pajamas and was ready for bed before his usual bedtime. T-chan had gone off to sulk somewhere, disappointed he didn’t have his weird animal leg. Pon-chan had talked really fast about needing to do something before disappearing, too. Chris thought she was probably hiding whatever she’d picked up on the street. It didn’t count as stealing if it was garbage, right? At least, he didn’t think so.
A wide yawn made his jaw creak as he entered the front room. His brother was making a lot of noise with Pamela’s dad and Junpei’s sisters on the couch again while Count D cleaned up the tea from earlier.
“Hello, Chris.” D greeted him with a smile that looked a little less strained than usual. Maybe his brother was behaving?
“Hahaha!” Uproarious laughter burst from behind D. Chris could see Leon throwing his head back over the edge of the couch, hair sticking up all over the place.
D’s eyebrow twitched, and Chris was surprised the teacup wasn’t clattering around from the tight grip he had on it. So maybe not.
“Hey, lil'man,” his brother called out to him, gesturing for him to come over. Chris approached cautiously. He didn’t like the smell of beer that much. At least there were only a few bottles he had to step over this time. “How was your day, huh?”
‘ Uh, it was fine. ’ Chris scratched his cheek with a finger.
“Nothing exciting? Didn’t meet any new people?” Leon leaned forwards onto his knees, separating himself partially from the people on either side. They were laughing; Pamela’s dad kept petting his hair.
‘ Well, kind of. But not really .’ Chris didn’t count shopkeepers, because he knew his brother meant all the customers and other people that came into the shop.
A thought popped into his head. When his brother was like this, he could hear him better. Maybe…
‘ Hey, bro, uh. Can I ask you a question? ’
“Yeah, sure. What’s up?”
Chris fidgeted nervously with his hands. ‘ What do you get someone who’s birthday is Christmas? ’
Leon took a long drink of his beer and sprawled back into the couch, quiet like he was thinking about it a lot. Even Count D’s friends were quiet on either side of him, watching this unusual exchange.
The mood had shifted to something still. Chris felt a vague sense of unease; he’d expected a quick answer from his brother, teasing, easygoing laughter at his own jokes. Leon was different like this. The way he looked at Chris now, seeing but not really seeing, reminded him a little of the old woman he’d met when he first came to the pet shop, the one who was gone now but he still dreamed about sometimes.
“It’s gotta be something special,” Leon said at length. “Something that means a lot to them. Like, something you can show them, you know? About how well you get them.”
After a moment, Leon leaned forward with a toothy grin. “Is it for a girl?”
He was back to being his brother again.
Chris sputtered as everyone on the couch laughed and jeered, feeling lost. He looked around for reassurance. Count D came up behind him, gently smoothing both hands across his shoulders. “I believe it’s time for bed. Say goodnight to your brother.”
As if remembering how late it was had summoned it, tiredness washed over Chris like a warm blanket. He waved to his brother with bleary eyes and let D tuck him in to the back, into bed.
Leon put down what should probably be his last beer of the night, feeling that good edge of a buzz make his mood light and happy. D had the kind of friends who knew how to party. Even that sneezy incense smell was growing on him. Nothing could ruin his mood.
Even thinking about the holidays wasn’t too hard right now. Come to think of it…
“Hey, D,” Leon called, swinging his head over the couch to look at him upside down. He was tucked into his bedtime robe already. “What are you doing for Christmas?”
The Count smiled at him, sharp and crispy. “As I do not celebrate the holiday, my dear, I cannot say.”
“Come on, you’ve gotta do something for Chris. Look at all this room!” He gestured to the empty corners and crannies not full of vases and shiny artifacts, barely missing the lady snuggled up beside him. “At least put up a tree.”
D came around to lean a hip against the sofa’s edge; he stroked the cheek of one of the girls with a free hand, who welcomed the touch with a relaxed expression. Leon felt something twist in his gut; which, with all he’d had tonight, probably meant he needed Pepto Bismol.
“I suppose I could,” D demurred, looking up from beneath his lashes and oozing the sort of smugness that he carried like cologne.
“I’ll get you a tree if you put it up,” Leon wheedled. “We could decorate it and put lights up and stuff. Lotsa red, I bet you’d like that, huh?”
“I have no decorations for such a thing.”
“Hey, no worries, you know? I got that too. We can use my mom’s.” Leon smiled at the thought. “Chris ought to see them.”
He’s trying to do his best by that kid. After all the struggle with his family, and the decision not to put him into that facility, he’s gotta. He’s responsible. But hell if he knows anything about kids. Thank god D seems to know a thing or two. Raising puppies ain't exactly the same, but it’s a start. Kid was doing better than if he was on his own with him, that’s for sure.
D had gone quiet; Leon looked at him inquisitively.
“I was unaware you had anything of hers.” The Count’s voice was low, and in the soft light of the remaining lanterns, expression masked.
“Yeah, somewhere back at my place. Closet or something.” Leon hiccups. “We can get it tomorrow. How about that? I’m off duty.”
Instead of arguing about customers and holiday hours, D said, as softly as before, “I suppose that is possible.”
“Hmm.” Leon lolled his head back against the backrest. There’s a missing warmth at his sides, and it took him a minute to realize that he and D are now alone. D stood above him, blocking out the light.
“It is time to retire, my dear detective.” He leaned forwards, and like this, Leon can meet both eyes through the fall of his hair. The intense look warms his insides, like D can see him and only him.
He doesn’t remember much the next morning, but he woke in a warm, clean bed instead of the couch, and there’s a looseness in his chest he doesn’t try to dissect.
It’s weird having breakfast with his brother.
Chris blinked at Leon and D as they argue over how to cook eggs and went back to eating his oatmeal. It wasn’t as exciting as the colorful cereal his brother snuck him sometimes, but it was supposed to be healthy, and his friends helped him add lots of sugar and fruit and nuts.
Usually when Leon was over he was out before Chris woke up, on shift, or snoring in the front room, waiting to go on shift. He could tell how much trouble had happened the night before by how much D was muttering to himself as he set the breakfast table.
“We’ll go soon, of course,” D cut in.
“Go where?” Leon mumbled through a mouthful of toast.
D wrinkled his nose. “Goodness. Eat with your mouth closed.”
Leon swallowed, and tried again. “Where are we going now?”
D let out a long sigh, exasperated. “Your apartment, my dear detective.”
Leon was hunkered over his plate with food in his mouth again, but Chris thought he was asking ‘why’ mid-chew.
“You have promised young Chris a holiday this year, haven’t you?” D continued, primly sipping his tea.
Chris’s head shot up, eyes wide. They were… doing holiday stuff? Together? Like a f-family??
Leon looked back with a piece of egg hanging out of his mouth, caught off guard. The adults exchanged a glance over Chris’s head.
Leon slurped up the rest of his breakfast, ignoring D’s wince, and stood up with a clatter of silverware against china. “Let’s get going!” he exclaimed, pointed towards the door in a superhero power pose.
Chris scrambled to finish and go get his things.
As he leaves, he caught D admonishing his brother for foolishness, and instead of sparking an argument, heard his brother’s sheepish laugh.
Chris ends up bringing the raccoon and the goat, who only bit Leon’s leg once on the way over which he counts as progress. They ended up passing a department store around the corner from his walk-up when Chris’s eyes went all shiny again. D had to remind Leon about the gift thing from last night that probably sparked this ‘Christmas for Chris’ thing being a Bigger than Big Deal. Chris and his little pet shadows alternated: stare at the building, stare at Leon, stare at the building, and somehow weaponized puppy eyes because otherwise hell no would he have agreed to let the kid separate.
“You sure they’ll be okay?” Leon muttered to D as they reach the landing of his floor. “City can be dangerous, you know.”
“It’s hardly far.” Count D glanced at expectantly, and Leon fumbled for his keys. “They will be fine. T-chan will ensure it.”
“Yeah, that goat thing does have a fierce bite,” Leon allowed. The lock turned when he flicked his wrist and jiggled just the right way. “Good thing he’s with them, I guess. Ha! Never thought I’d say that.”
His apartment is looking pretty clean, if he does say so himself, only one corner piled with laundry and no pin up posters in sight. He’d learned his lesson last time the Count had come over. Some of that stuff was classic, okay? D didn’t have to go ripping everything apart.
Looking at it with D by his side put a new perspective on the cracks in the walls and dented furniture, though. D’s place was immaculate and full of wonder and junk. Compared to that, this was a bachelor pad of epic proportions.
“Uh, it’s gotta be in the back of the closet.” Where he kept all the stuff he didn’t want to look at.
“Oh?” The Count looked up from judging the worth of bulldozing the place, distracted for whatever reason. Don’t judge, man, he worked long hours. Not everyone could afford to be mystic pet psychics with connections and money.
He ran a hand through his hair. “We’re here for the ornaments, right?”
“Yes,” the Count confirmed.
“I remember that much, okay?” Leon sighed. “I’ll get them, you just, you know, sit tight.”
He can’t believe he’d been drunk enough to even mention that. It brought back memories he tried not to think about this time of year, of time with his family in a small dinky apartment like this and how much the little things his mom did had meant.
When he was little, he and his mom (and sometimes, later, his mom’s sister and her kids, depending on the year and if they had enough money and space to host or not) would put up cheap lights on the window sills and all around the living room. They’d turn off the overheads and keep on the soft twinkling bulbs while they decorated the rest of the house. He had a stocking with his name on it; one year, they’d hung it from a water pipe because that was the only space left.
The ornaments were special. She’d kept what she could in an old wooden box with the name of some out of business company embossed on the lid. He wasn’t sure if they were her parents’, or a boyfriend’s, or what, but the little creatures and china and glass inside were special. Each had a story she’d told him, that changed every year.
It was rough the first year after, when his mom wasn’t around to tease him about putting them in the wrong place. Chris was with his relatives and Leon couldn’t bring himself to witness that, the small bundle of joy that had taken away the person he loved most in his life.
He didn’t hate his brother; he had complicated feelings when he saw him. Sometimes, still, he dreaded coming to the pet shop to see those sparkly eyes looking at him with awe. He might fail the kid someday, but that didn’t matter, because not doing his best by his little bro would fail his mother instead.
He dusted off the top of a cardboard box, buried in the back under a bag of gym clothes and books he hadn’t opened since high school. There were doodles on the outside, from when he was a kid and couldn’t sit still, and her familiar handwriting on the center, reading, Family Memories.
Inside, he unearthed a stack of photo albums, one of his mother’s failed attempts at parental journaling, and a stack of postcards from ages ago. At the bottom lay a familiar box. It was as solid as he remembered, pulling it out, but not nearly as heavy. They were all there, inside, each the way he remembered it, even the crooked neck of the giraffe ornament he’d broken at eight and his mom had super glued back together.
“Family memories, huh.” He chuckled to himself; guess it was time to make some new ones.
Chris was overwhelmed from the instant he stepped inside the department store. There were lights and people and music and decorations and so many places to go. He’d been in places like this a few times with Sam and Josie and mom - their mom, he mentally corrected - but never alone, and not on a mission.
Pon-chan wanted to try the jewelry part first, but was automatically vetoed by T-chan, who pointed out that it was all way too expensive, that she’d try to take something again, anyway, and this place wouldn’t just write it off.
So they tried the toy part first, which was a safe bet and close to the entrance, but all the stuff looked cheap and unimpressive. A pimply teen watched them from over the counter with the most bored expression Chris had ever seen. The look in her eyes creeped him out; they had to sneak past under view of the counter like spies to get away.
Next was the cheap jewelry section of the girly part of the store that gave Chris the hives just standing in; Pon-chan had worn down T-chan and him by then. They don't last long in there, though, since the helper couldn’t hear to help him and got watery eyes whenever T-chan came close. Trying to back away failed; Chris had to awkwardly return a bracelet Pon-chan tearfully offered him. It wouldn't have suited any of the sisters, no matter what Pon-chan thought.
They made a break for it after the Pon-chan knocked over an entire perfume display in the beauty section. Chris might still have glass in his hair; T-chan could only stay close for less than a minute before sneezing up a storm.
The apartment was more bare than he remembered it being, and hadn’t been cleaned in a good while. Living room messy and couch strewn with empty beer bottles and pizza boxes, the tiny kitchenette held a stained stove-top and sticky counters. A single mug waited in the sink to be washed at some indeterminate point the Detective developed a domestic sense.
The Count sniffed, but there was a distinct lack of smell; so there is that, at least.
Nothing so much had changed in the physical, D realized, left alone in the living room without the heavy presence of Leon beside him. It felt bare, and absent.
Leon’s scent clung stronger to the pet shop than it did to his own residence.
It makes a certain amount of sense, D reasoned. The man was away long hours, entering only to sleep and eat. And sometimes not even that; to choose between a trek across town to see his brother or return to an empty apartment hardly seemed a difficult choice. There had been a snoring human in his front room three to four days out of the week for some time now, appearing at odd hours and only so often with welcoming treats to bribe him. He arrived with only himself, and D accepted his presence. Even the pets have come to expect it.
A thought strikes him, as loud and resounding as a tolling bell.
The Detective reentered the front room with his possessions in grasp to find the Count staring out the tiny corner window. Whatever he had to say is halted by a sudden shift in climate.
Leon tilted his head like a curious dog as an odd expression crossed the Count’s face.
“My dear detective, have you considered…” and he stopped, something hard twisting his vocal cords. His right eye prickled.
“Yeah?” The human’s eyebrows creased, making the wrinkles in his forehead more pronounced.
“...it’s nothing.” The Count took a ragged breath and composed himself from the mistake he was about to make. Leon’s concern is touching, but unneeded. He pushed forward, toward the exit. “Shall we gather Chris, and return home?”
He could feel the warmth of Leon’s smile like the sun at his back.
Okay, so the Count was acting weird. Like, weirder than usual. First, he was smiling all small, softer than smug with that twinkly friendliness that meant he was about to invade Leon’s space. A shift in temperature, and his heterochromatic eyes had drawn Leon in to devour his whole attention. Then, snap, like a tornado pulled back up into the sky, D got all closed off and basically ignored him all the way down the block.
At least he acted more like himself when little bro came up smelling like a flower shop on steroids. D got all sneezy and had a handkerchief over his nose the whole subway ride, insisting on a bath for Chris as soon as they entered the shop. Which, yeah, okay, the pets rushed them like usual but back off immediately within range of the kid. Then it was like watching the worst, most contagious case of hay fever ever. (Yeah, he was laughing. Who wouldn’t?)
Then D sent him off to search for a tree or whatever. He’d promised it last night or something? Well, it’s gotta be easy to find something this time of year, right?
Wrong. So wrong.
Leon searched high and low for somebody, anybody, that had a decent live tree still. Most everyone was out or had the dregs left over. He was halfway to falling it quits and buying a fake tree; only imagining the disgusted look on D’s face stopped him.
He came back to the shop that night downtrodden and sorrowful, ready to go out before his shift tomorrow. Apparently the Count had been holding out on them, though, because he’d talked to his network (half the city that had a dog or cat or chinchilla with a Count D pedigree) to magic up a lead. Which he immediately sent Leon on with a letter and a bag of ‘special carrots’.
Of course, it was late at this point. Who was open for business right now? Count D’s friend, who dressed like an elf and had a pet reindeer, is who. Mr. Cheery Bright Tis the Season had Leon feed Pluto (what the heck kind of name for a reindeer, at least have it be Cupid or Donner or something classic) those special carrots before loading up the tree on a sled and traipsing back to the pet shop in a blur.
(Reindeer can’t fly, okay? That was all a hallucination. He was tired, it was a long day, he’d seen weirder things with D. Moving on.)
They had a tree set up for the next morning. Chris was elated, and turned those big shiny eyes at Leon like a weapon of gratitude.
They didn’t get to decorate it til two days out from Christmas, though, with Leon’s shift schedule and D getting caught up in some big pet thing again. No one died; a missing amnesiac showed up with an ugly sweater made of some special llama hair that let them be king of some backwater country for a day. Weird, but the expected sort.
While D was explaining all the mumbojumbo (blah blah llama fur equals royalty) at the station, he got roped into attending the district holiday party. While he was distracted by all the “noise and vulgarity,” Leon took the liberty of jump starting his friend’s holiday spirited and snuck a Santa hat on him. The Count sputtered and glared but ended up keeping it on for longer than he’d expected (you know, taking it right off and tossing it at him in rage.) The guys ribbed him good for that one. Even Jill elbowed him with a wink and lifted her glass.
So, after all the business and the distraction, he got to come back and show Chris how to decorate properly. Even the pets were into it. No way was he letting the raccoon or goat thing put their slobbery mouth on the ornaments, but they were okay with the lights and tinsel.
Leon showed Chris where each ornament went, just like his mom had for him. Kneeling down, he pulled the box in close for his little bro to see. “These guys, the African animals, go together down here, but these ones, see how they’re made of different stuff? They go up higher. Cause birds soar and all that.”
The Count was there, somewhere, watching. He could feel the prickle on the back of his neck. It was always like that in the shop - cats in the rafters - but now it didn’t bring up goosebumps so bad. This was kind of nice, like being watched over by a family dog instead of a wolf.
When the last ornament (a flying pig that went on the mythical creatures side) was hung, Leon set Chris down to survey the tree together. It took him a minute, but he cursed under his breath. Ah, man, at the top- it was missing something.
“Will this suffice, my dear detective?” D slid up beside them and offered a long strip of red cloth.
“Uh.” Leon exchanged a glance with Chris. “What are we supposed to do with that?”
Chris seemed to have an idea, make complicated motions with his hands.
“Aren’t bows a customary part of this tradition?” D asked with false innocence.
“Oh, right.” That’s not something he’d ever done with his mom, but, “that could work.”
How are we going to get it up there, he almost asked, but D was already on it, perching himself precariously near the top without a ladder and tying it on (floating or not floating, Leon rubs his eyes but can’t tell.)
It looks really nice, in the end. Bright, nostalgic, original. Something they’d made, together.
“Hey, Count,” he got the guy’s attention but didn’t give him time to react before he was hugging the daylights out of him.
D is a tiny thing for all his big personality; Leon can wrap both arms around him easy. He can feel D’s hands pressed into his chest, long nails close to his throat. A small creature is dangerous if cornered, some would say, but to Leon in that moment he feels instinctively protective of this man and this moment in time.
He only lets go when he feels a tug at the back of his coat; Chris stared up at them with an impatient frown, surrounded by his pet friends and a mountain of red and gold glittered decorations. It took D a moment, leaning into Leon’s chest, to push back and stand up on his own.
They end up decorating the whole pet shop in one night, vases covered in bows (carefully by D, who wouldn’t let Leon within ten feet of the antiques), garlands on the walls, gold dust covering every corner and some animals. By the time Leon and Chris let out earth shattering yawns in union they barely recognized the place.
Leon could hear muttering in the corners, a few snickers, but paid it no mind. Tiredness lead to hallucinations, and he was no stranger to that after long stakeouts.
D put them to bed in a Chris’s room, sprawled across his bed in identical starfish positions. If Leon felt something a gentle press of a hand stroking across his forehead, he chalked it up to dreams of family that followed soon after.
D woke to the sound of celebration.
He pulled on a robe and went to investigate; the light of his lantern revealed nothing by empty halls as he chased the echoing voices of his dear creatures. He came, eventually, to a cracked door. Through the narrow slit he saw a receiving room, thick with incense and the cheer of many creatures, a feast laid out, steaming and fresh. Tetsu, in a chef’s apron, was scolding Pon-chan, hand covered in frosting and on the edge of tears. Lights sparkled in this place, and he noticed, aghast, that the tree had been moved to a place of honor.
“What is going on?” cried D, throwing the doors open with a jarring sound. Everyone’s attention turned toward him, and silence reigned.
“It’s a party,” Kanan said huffily, delicately crouching to the side as Shuko and Junrei tried to hang streamers from the ceiling without tearing the paper..
“We’re celebrating,” Ten-chan chirped up with a fox-like grin, chewing on an uncountable number of secrets.
“We got it all ready just for you, D!”
Ready for what, he wasn’t sure. This time of year was usually a quiet, sleepy one as creatures rested around the year’s longest day, hardly the time for uproarious celebration. No one had had children, or passed to a new stage, or joined together with others in a way that would necessitate the extravagance they had gone to.
The Count felt his confusion turn into further questions, but was interrupted by a hand squeezing his shoulder in a sure, tight grip. One of the older pets, who had been with the shop since his grandfather before him, smiled gently with a sense of ease. This one had advised him much when he was younger.
“Go prepare yourself,” he was instructed, urged careful back towards the door. “It is a celebration of all you have done that we make for you.”
The Count thought to argue further, but with all eyes on him, expectant and hopeful, he feels himself give in to his charges.
“I will return shortly,” he says, snuffing the lantern. “Do make sure the kitchen is cleaned afterwards.”
The pets exchange a glance and grin among st themselves. As he exits, he presses his back against the door and sighs, feeling a weight on his shoulders.
He knows his request will go unanswered. When they take charge like this is it always falls to him to clean up the mess.
Of course Chris knew about the party. Why was his brother freaking out? Everyone had been talking about it while they decorated last night.
He put his fancy chángpáo on and helped his brother, who was making faces over the unfamiliar fastenings, into his. Chris usually wore stuff like D when he helped with the customers. He was getting pretty good at dressing himself in them; it felt more and more comfortable every time.
They entered to a hubbub of activity. Chris immediately went in search of the friends who had been on his mind the whole week.
The sisters were standing at the edge of the gathering, Junrei taking front to shyly watch everyone. She lit up enthusiastically at the sight of him.
‘ Hi, Junrei ,’ he said, hiding the big bag of their presents behind him as best he could.
Sharp hands pulled at his ears as Kanan took over. “Where have you been!” she demanded.
‘ I’m sorry! ’ He gasped, eyes tearing up. ‘ I was doing something important .’
“What was that?” she asked, switching to the bashful Junrei as Kanan sulked.
Chris grinned, ‘ Getting you a gift ,’ and brandished the bag with a flourish.
The sisters cycled through exclamations of excitement, but it was Kanan who tore the bag apart. Inside were three separate small boxes each with a bow of a different color.
‘ The yellow one is for Junrei, and the red one is for Shuko, and the green one is for you, Kanan ,’ Chris said, feeling slightly self conscious.
Kanan stayed out to unwrap her gift first, shoving the others at Chris to hold.
Inside was a toy gun that shot plastic darts with suction cups on the ends. She immediately pointed it at him; Chris had barely time to duck as a dart barrelling over his head. There was a faint cry and clatter in the background. With how much she was laughing, he assumed she loved it.
Shuko was next. He handed her the red present tentatively. “Thank you,” she smiled gently, and he blushed. Of all of them, he was least sure about hers.
Shuko got a hair ornament made of red tassels and distinctive embroidery. He knew she was the one who appreciated their fancy clothes and accessories the most. The twinkled in her eye, and how careful she was as she immediately put it on, were thanks enough.
Junpei took hers with a shy, pleased expression. Chris thought she would be happy with anything, probably, but hers had been the first and easiest (and most thoughtful, according to the Count).
Junpei got a music box. It played a common lullaby he heard hummed around Chinatown and the pet shop. On the top, painted on the black laquer, was an ocean wave frozen mid-crest. Inside, two turtles danced in a slow circle. It was small enough to fit a few trinkets, and was maybe kind of cheap, but as soon as he’d seen it with that boy’s help he’d known he needed it for her.
She bowed her head over the music box as the final notes died down, chin wobbling. Oh, shoot, had he messed up?
She launched herself at him in a tearful hug. Rubbing her back awkwardly, Chris felt pride swell in his chest. He’d done good!
D hasn’t noticed at first, so distracted by the pets and some few guests who had appeared, unexpectedly, but demanding his attention, like the circle of court ladies he was now entertaining. Out of the periphery, a sweep of blonde hair that sat one-dimensional without an underlay of a natural form drew his eyes.
Leon Orcot stood amongst creatures not of his kind, at ease as he might please, in clothing from D’s own stores. The cut of the silk hardly suited him, he decided, taking a long drink to quell the scream of outrage bubbling in his throat.
Leon conversed with a man in a cape with surprising familiarity, laughing and elbowing him. The vampire accepted this ribbing with a joke of his own. Count D thought back to one fraught day and the flash of fangs. Perhaps, he considered, he was not as ill equipped in all areas, but this was unprecedented, to invite a human into a gathering of their kind.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” says a matronly voice from the circle of peers surrounding him.
Centering himself from the distraction, D gave his attention back to the group. “Oh?”
“Oh yes,” laughed another. “Congratulations for all you’ve done, Count D.”
“Congratulations,” chorused the rest.
“My thanks,” he said at length.
The ladies tittered, and he kept his smile until they found other, more amusing gossips to distract themselves with
He had greeted his guests as they entered, some from near (a mermaid gave him a sharp tooth smile and pressed webbed fingers into his) and some from afar (a kappa, who wore an ill-fitting cap, gave him a bow). Others, from his own shop, gave him knowing looks in passing. It seemed as if everyone were sharing certain information with everyone but him.
“We value your family’s achievements,” said a soft voice next to him. The cherubim face of an older dragon smiled up at him. He knelt reflectively, but she gestured for him to rise and discard ceremony. “Especially yours, Count D.”
“I’m unworthy of your praise, but thankful nonetheless,” the Count said, at a loss. The dragon court was highly regarded, and this one held special significance as she had governed high areas of the sky for more than a century.
“We are here to celebrate. Please, be at ease.” She lay a small hand on his arm. “The union of you and your consort is welcomed.”
D felt heat rise in his cheeks in indignation. “We are no such thing-”
She turned her gaze to regard the human in question. Leon was making a group of birds in bright boas laugh. “You allow him leniency in your domain, so much that it smells of him.” She turned to look at a smaller blond head; Chris spoke animatedly with Testu and Pon-chan and HonLon. “You care for his young. Is this not the case?”
It was, but D had no time to comment as she continued. “We are in debt to you, Count, for your gracious service. You have our support.”
Leon chose that moment to throw his head back in laughter, throat exposed, and Count D looked at him, past the irritation and the gut reaction, with the unique consideration he has in times when the man surprises him. That urge to keep him close D had always considered his more human side, leftover from an ill-gotten past. This feeling has crept deeper until even the reality had shifted before he realized.
He loves Chris like one of his own. Has raised him, even, alongside the others as a packmate. He allows the boy to help with the shop, to tend to the human customers, to pick the animals (but not the contracts, and even that is shifting, as the boy notices and comments and considers with clear sight pitfalls that may cause harm to the beloved pets). He had always assumed the boy would outgrow this place, as most humans did, to shed his youth and continue into the human work as an adult. But he had built himself a space in this place much like his brother had.
Leon has a room here now. The shop does not change itself for just anyone.
There is a spot of weakness in every entity; Leon had found that place in him and built his home there.
D had realized not long ago deep sorrow and unease at the thought of releasing him, letting go of this routine. The thought that this could continues, this precious time, eases tension towards relief.
“A union,” he murmurs. It does not dispel harsh reality. But for now, perhaps, with the support of all those here, a room full of those he had helped, those who knew him, and the man he would, perhaps, come to know truly for all sides of himself, he could create a dream like those he sold his customers. A life of wonder and heart’s desire.
But, there lay a sense of dawning horror the longer he watched Leon from afar.
“Leon!” D exclaimed, rushing towards the other side of the room. “Put him down immediately!”
“C’mon, D, I’m just showing your rocker friends a thing or two.” Leon had a Bird of Paradise raised over his head. “He was talking about body surfing-”
The pets, and the guests, watched the ensuing argument with rapt attention. And in the smoke filled back rooms of a pet shop, a new chapter opened.