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Scarlet Fever

Chapter Text

You’d never understand why your grandparents built the shop where they had. Maybe once upon a time, this particular street had been prime real estate that helped to ensure the business’ livelihood, but nowadays the town was a bit of a dump. They had to have been onto something though. Even after a recession hit, and shops that had been around for decades went up in smoke, the pawn business stayed strong. If anything, you found that business was even more steady with the decline in the neighborhood.

Then again, you’d only been running the place for three months since your grandad passed. Gramma was too frail to man the shop (not to mention it hurt too much for her to be there, where her beloved had built a life for her), and neither of your parents had wanted it, so the responsibility fell to you. In all honesty, it would’ve been an easy thing to just sell the place, but you didn’t have the heart to do it. Kingsley's Pawn Shop had been grandad’s pride and joy. Besides, the store had a fully functional apartment upstairs, making it a perfect place for a do-over life.

It felt like every avenue you’d pursued in life had gone sour. Enchanted by the promise of stardom, you’d given a go at music early on, but both your time and youth had been squandered on those nowhere-dreams before you knew it. All you were left with was a badly-tuned Gibson Les Paul guitar and a broken heart. You’d tried normal jobs too, anything to pay the bills, but they were soul-crushing and you’d been stuck in what felt like a decade of depression as a result. You didn’t exactly have many prospects or anything to lose by the time the shop fell into your care.

In the end, it had honestly all worked out a little too perfectly. In the little time you’d been there, you picked up on the ins and outs of the job like you’d been doing it for years. Technically, you supposed that was true to a degree. Childhood summers at your grandad’s side had ingrained a basic knowledge of the business at a young age, knowledge that served you well when you started out. Thanks to the good practices put into place years and years ago, you enjoyed low-rated utilities and rarely found your refrigerator empty.

It was an easy job that paid well enough to live comfortably, and you didn’t have to make a commute across town seeing as you lived right above the shop. Grandad had interesting taste, too, decorating the walls with Grateful Dead posters and t-shirts. Over time, it really felt like it contributed to your own tastes. Finding the combination of macabre imagery and bright psychedelic colors to be oddly charming, you found yourself adding to the decor with framed oddities you sometimes took in from customers. All in all, you didn’t really have much to complain about with your arrangement.

But you did live in a crappier part of the neighborhood. That meant that the roads were all cracked to hell, pitted with potholes and crumbled sidewalks that certainly wouldn’t make for ideal greeting card pictures. The streets were flat-out ugly, even just in passing.

And crappy neighborhood sometimes meant crappy customers. Junkies high out of their minds, wannabe thugs, the occasional strung-out twenty something trying to sell their mother’s jewelry for drug money; you’d seen and dealt with them all, and none were ever very pleasant. It was because of them that you kept a loaded gun behind the counter. You had a permit for it, you took it out to the shooting range every weekend, and if push came to shove, you felt confident you could use it.

Not all of your customers were bad news, though. Indeed, the good mostly outnumbered the bad. From old hobbyists looking for hidden treasures to young budding musicians who reminded you way too much of yourself, you soon learned that nearly every customer had an interesting story to tell. Favorites tended to be those who would try selling you oddities and unique trinkets, things that they knew in their heart of hearts would never sell. You accepted them anyway, as long as they were legal, and often got to hear the stories behind how they got said items in the first place, having a particular soft spot for creepy things preserved in formaldehyde. Sure, they’d never sell, but you liked how they made for interesting conversation pieces, both with customers old and new.

And maybe, just maybe you legitimately thought the little mouse skeletons in amber vials were kind of charming.

Thankfully, if anybody had caught onto your little morbid fascination yet, they didn’t say so. If they did, you’d probably be bankrupt from all the weird things they’d bring in to take advantage of that. Lucky then that nobody seemed to have any sort of surplus on oddities--except for one guy.

He was kind of in a realm all his own though.

From the very first day you’d taken over the store, he held onto the title of “weirdest customer” without contention. He’d brought in a whole box of firearms you knew on sight were illegal, asking how much he could get for them.

You’d learn later that he was always struggling to pay his bills, and that the guns were customs from a friend of his. But you didn’t know that then. What you knew then was the fact that the man in front of you looked like he hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in months , and that only made you feel more suspicious.

“Yeah...no.”

Your answer, blunt, flat, and lacking in finesse had the man barking out a laugh of surprise.

“If it's about the quality, I can assure you that you’ll not find better--”

“Not about the quality,” you cut him off. “It’s about the fact that I cannot legally accept any firearms that are unregistered or that have such ah..unique additions that would make them unsuitable for resale.”

It was a song and dance you’d learned early on. It was honestly laughable how many people tried to sell such things, or grenade casings they’d bought at an army surplus store, or boxes of various parts you couldn't identify. You’d lost count after a while, and there was even a closet stacked high with boxes of random crap that people had just left behind after it became clear you weren’t going to bite. Those particular boxes were usually attempts to get rid of incriminating evidence, but more often than not were just full of junk. And well, the police in the area were completely useless, so you just kept them in storage. It wasn’t as though anyone would do anything about them, but you weren't about to sully your grandad’s reputation by selling them.

So yeah, you were a stickler for your rules. After the first and only time you’d willingly accepted a bad gun, you made sure that it would never happen again, woken from a nightmare of grandad staring disapprovingly at you from the foot of your bed.

The man had the decency to look sheepish about it, at least. He took the box down from the counter and balanced it with one arm while he worked to rummage around in his pocket for something.

“This place sure has changed since the last time I was here,” he remarked.

His eyes were taking in the decor you’d put up, darting around leisurely before settling on you once more. Already a bit suspicious of the man, you reached slowly for the gun strapped under the counter.

“It’s under new management now,” you answered, trying to sound nonchalant. “Gramps died earlier this year, so I’m running the joint.”

He grinned at you, the expression morphing his features into something rakish and disarmingly playful. You knew you weren’t the most intimidating creature in the universe, barely passing five feet in height and wearing a band t-shirt, lacking in bulk or a mean enough face to really pull it off, but you liked to think the professionalism you carried, along with your sharp tone made you at least a little bit respectable. That smile was just...patronizing.

You were half tempted to shoot him just for that.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that, little lady. You seem to be holding up well though.”

Ugh, yep. Definitely patronizing. Your fingers just brushed over the body of the gun when the man pulled something out of his pocket to lay on the top of the glass jewelry displays. Blinking, curiosity got the best of you and you gazed down at the object, hand still warily poised for the gun.

“Since the guns are ah...a no-go, does this strike your fancy a little better?”

Chancing a glance at his face, you saw that he still had that crooked grin. Was he trying to be reassuring? You rolled your eyes a little, but decided to humor him at least.

The object turned out to be several, an assortment of small pocket fillers that ran the gamut from pizza receipts to odd bits of stone and coins. Raising an eyebrow, you decided then and there that this man hardly posed a thread. The hand resting so close to your gun now relaxed a bit, and you couldn’t resist a chuckle.

No, this man was desperate, but not dangerous.

“Love Planet, huh?”

You flicked a balled-up flyer off the counter, more than familiar with the trashy strip joint it came from. Looking up at the man, you finally cracked a smile of your own. He chuckled in turn, giving you a shrug as it fo say ‘what are you gonna do?’ Shaking your head, you returned to sorting through the junk. After a bit, you stopped, looking directly at the man with your hands on your hips.

“You know, if you’re that desperate for cash, you’ve got something a lot more valuable than pocket lint to offer.”

You knew your tone, the lilt of your voice, and the sweeping motion you made towards him could all be taken to be flirtatious. And sure enough, his grin turned to wolfish amusement.

“Well, I’m flattered little lady, but I’m not really an easy kind of guy.”

“Your coat, doofus,” you answered, still grinning.

His eyebrows shot up in surprise, giving you a look of mild offense. You found yourself giving another easy chuckle, by now totally relaxed. It really was a lovely coat. Deep, merlot-shaded red, custom made, perfectly fitted. The leather looked real too, heavy and buttery and warm. A coat like that would fetch a pretty penny if he decided to sell it to you.

(Not that you’d sell it. You could easily see yourself wearing it all on your own, self-indulgently wrapped up in the old worn leather.)

“No way,” he answered. “Sorry, but I can’t just go giving you a big part of my signature look.”

You snorted at that. Signature look? Yeah, honestly it was easy to see. The man didn’t seem like he went anywhere without it. Not to say you’d thought it would be so easy to convince him to part with it, but it had been worth a shot. The doofy smile couldn’t seem to leave your face.

“It’s a good coat,” you said.

He propped his elbows up on your counter thoughtfully, leaning forward in what he must have considered was a convincing manner.

“Come on, there’s got to be something here you like.”

You stared at him again,and it struck you just how powerful his forearms looked. That muscular bulk definitely looked like it extended to the rest of him, like he’d have zero issues in picking you up and...oh yeah, there was something there you liked, alright.

No, bad thoughts! Sure, he was roguishly hot at a glance, but where in the hell had that train of thought come from? You shrugged, both at the man and at the intrusive thought.

“I saw the stuff you have hanging up,” he pointed out, picking up an item from the pile. “What about this?”

That startled a genuine laugh out of you. No one really ever remarked on the framed and preserved pheasant, or the fake taxidermy “chimera” you had on the counter, or the little jousting frogs on a shelf above the register, at least not to try to make a sale. Leave it to this guy to be the first.

Looking down at the object, it looked like an eyeball, something carved out of a smooth metal with a shifting color surface, like bismuth but sturdier, shinier. It would make an interesting pendant, you thought.

(Actually, your real thought was ‘aesthetic,’ but the thought made you want to slap yourself.)

Eyeing the man, you saw him wink. He had you and he knew it. You grit your teeth, fighting an exasperated groan.

“...alright, let me get my magnifiers.”

Turning around to fetch the object in question gave you a good opportunity to collect yourself. It was rare, very rare for you to feel thrown off like this. Most people came in with explicit intent to pawn or sell, knew exactly what they wanted for their goods, and knew exactly what it was they were selling. It wasn’t even close to common for people to offer you pocket junk like he had, and even less common than that to find yourself legitimately charmed by it.

Really though, if it was any old chump who tried it, you knew you’d have laughed them out of your store. You’d only allowed it because of how handsome you thought he was, how casually he wore his good looks. Sure, he was a bit scruffy, and his hair was as white as snow, as if he were pushing sixty. But he didn’t look old, not nearly, and if you were being honest with yourself he hit all of your buttons. Not that you were about to say that to him.

Or to anyone, for that matter.

Turning with the magnifiers, you picked up the metal eye and examined it in complete silence, willing yourself to stay professional. Finally, after the man started to tap his fingers on the counter, you put the tool down.

“I’ll give you a hundred fifty for it.”

“You’re for real?”
The man looked genuinely surprised, and you weren't sure if it was because of the price or your willingness to actually take the thing.

“I can’t offer any more than that,” you answered, scratching awkwardly at the base of your ponytail. “It’s an unknown metal, and if I’m being perfectly honest not likely to sell. If you’re looking to pawn it’d be a little more, but outright I’d just be keeping it for myself.”

“No, no. I mean, I’m surprised it’s even worth that much. A hundred fifty is good. More than good.” The man huffed out a laugh. “Hell, that’s enough to get the lights back on and fill up the fridge for a few days.”

The smile he wore now was genuine, full of warmth that differed from the cocky smirk from before, and this smile had your insides flipping. In reality, the metal eye pendant thing was probably worth less than what you offered, but he was hot and you liked his coat and he was such a nice change from the usual desperate customer that you couldn’t help but offer a little more. Most people tended to get a bit aggressive and try to barter or upsell, and you’d been fully prepared for that tonight. Instead, you’d been treated to a breath of fresh air and some eye candy. That smile alone was worth the extra fifty bucks.

“Really, you saved my ass, little lady.”

You scoffed yet again, rolling your eyes a little.

“Keep calling me that and I’ll knock the price down. I’ve got a name, damnit.” And so you gave it, pleased when he tried it out.

“Yeah, that name suits you well. So, what do we do from here?”

You bent down to reach for a plain folder tucked onto a low shelf behind the counter. Grabbing one of the papers there, along with a pen from a badly-made ceramic cup (which might have been meant to be a cat) beside the register, you slapped the items down on the counter in front of him.

“Paperwork time,” you chuckled. “Boring but necessary.”

You circled a few vital things on the form; name, address, contact number, and the line for a signature.

“Just take care of these parts. I’ll do the rest.”

Pushing the paper towards him, you opened up the register to count out a fifty, a bunch of twenties, and a couple of tens. Once that was done, you picked up the metal eye and plopped it into a small zipper bag for storage. The man quickly finished filling out the form and you gave it a quick once-over while filling out your own portion. Surprise of surprises, the address listed was directly across the street from yours. As in, you could walk thirty steps and be able to knock on his door.

“Heh, you’re the guy who runs the weird shop across the street?” you asked, noting that the name on the form read “Tony Redgrave” in a surprisingly neat hand.

Hm. He didn’t really look like a Tony.

“You’re the one with a set of animal skeletons dressed like they’re about to star in Hamlet and you think my shop’s the weird one?”

“Touche!” You laughed. “Alright, Tony. You’re all set. If you were pawning, there’d be a whole other form to fill and I’d give you the speech about paying me back in thirty days or the item would be put up for sale, but I get the feeling you won’t be back for it.”

You handed him the stack of money with a wink, stashing the form under the counter.

“Be seeing you, neighbor. Take care now.”

Thinking that would be that, you gave little lingering thought to the encounter, unaware that it was only the first of many meetings to be had with your strange neighbor. Rather than being a single encounter and never seeing him again, you saw Tony in your shop every couple of weeks or so. At first, he tried the same tactic with oddities, and for a while you eagerly accepted them. Weird bird talons, something that looked like a large blob of crystallized blood carved into a screaming face, and eventually a really creepy thing that looked like an apple with human teeth; initially you were happy enough to have them, and you knew of course that Tony was happy to be able to pay his utilities. But after a while, you knew you’d have to put a stop to it, and that stop came the day he tried to sell you a large mounted beast head. You sighed when he brought it in, holding up your hands.

“Look, you know I like weird shit, and I’m always happy to help you out, but I’m going to have to cut you off. You’ve brought that thing in eight times this month. And as much as I hate to have to do it, unless you gimme something I can actually resell, I’ve got to tell you no.”

Tony rubbed thoughtfully at his chin, pacing the length of the counter and staring down at the beast head as if it was the thing’s fault, not his. You felt bad, honestly, but the truth of the matter was that if you kept taking every little thing he gave you, you’d incur a loss. You just couldn’t let grandad down like that. It was in your very blood to run the business in an efficient way, to ensure you made ends meet. You just hoped Tony would be understanding about it. It really sucked to have to give him the bad news.

“Something sellable, huh?” He looked at you, and--oh, there was that easy-going grin of his. “Like my coat?”

He spread his arms wide, fanning out the tails of that glorious, glorious coat you had come to covet, and you couldn't even hope to stifle a laugh.

“Baby, if you sold me that coat, I’d just give you the whole goddamn shop and everything in it.”

Your tone was light, despite the flirtatious words and the nickname which only served to incriminate you further. You definitely had a soft spot for the guy. The tone served its purpose though, getting Tony to throw his head back in a laugh.

“Still on about that, huh? I told you before, I can’t just part with my signature look like that.”

He crossed his arms over his chest, and you could only shake your head at him.  You finished counting out the register and moved to flip the ‘open’ sign on the door to closed, all the while shaking your head as he came up with other suggestions.

“Come on, maybe I can talk you into my old jukebox? Only works ten percent of the time and I might have dented it a few years back, but it’s a classic.”

“Good night, Tony,” you said insistently. “I’m sure I’ll see you again soon, hauling in a bunch of obscure-ass records or a box of broken toasters.”

He headed out, knowing when to throw in the towel, a good-natured ruffle of your hair accompanying his departure.

You gave him a friendly smile in turn, waving at him until he was across the street back in his own shop. Locking the door and flipping the lights off, you couldn’t help but think one more time that the business really was perfect for you. So it was in a bit of a crappy part of town. So people tried to sell you more illegal guns than you could count. At least your neighbor wasn’t so bad, and he had a sexy-ass coat to boot.