Newt shook out a towel and swung the cage door open. The squirrel kits began squeaking at the sound of the door.
“Not yet. We’re just making you more comfortable. You’ve just had dinner. You’ll be full in a minute.” Newt slid the old towel out from under them and began working the new one in. “Alright, Mummy’s here. Mummy’s here. Look at you! Already opening your eyes, you clever thing. Take a nap now. You’ll get another meal later.”
There was a squawk and feathers brushed his ear and Newt tilted his head to allow Pickett to land on his shoulder. The young crow reached over and began delicately biting Newt’s ear as he picked up the last two squirrel kits and settled them on the new blanket, then removed the old blanket and tossed it into the dirty laundry in the corner.
Newt gathered the used feeding tubes and the laundry and carried them to the back of the rescue, Pickett still on his shoulder.
Percival Graves glanced around the empty room again, and then inched towards the half-door that must lead to the rest of the animals and tried calling.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
In spite of the need to get someone’s attention, Percival couldn’t convince himself to break the silence with more than a loud whisper. A moment later, there was a rustling and a mumble. Percival couldn’t make out the words.
He glanced around the room again, and then at the bundled pocket square on the counter next to him. Whoever it was wasn’t coming in. He hesitated, then rang the bell again. There was another rustle and then a very slow shuffle coming closer. Percival looked at the sleeping chicks he’d carried in (he thought they were starlings, but he couldn’t say for sure) and wondered why she (he supposed the unseen person could have any gender, but for some reason wildlife rescues felt like a thing women did) hadn’t yelled to let him know that she was on her way. How slowly she was walking too! He suppressed a sigh.
There was another loud grunt and something appeared over the top of the half door. By the time Percival processed what he was seeing the raccoon was halfway down his side of the door. He flinched and then scolded himself. If there was anywhere that they wouldn’t allow possibly rabid animals to roam freely, it was inside of an animal rescue. He noticed now the mesh covering the wooden door that the raccoon was holding onto. That had to be on purpose. The raccoon bustled around the edge of the counter and paused to take him in. Percival supposed he was tall for a raccoon.
With some idea that you shouldn’t frighten wild animals he stooped a little and spoke, “Hello there. Are you in charge of intakes?”
The raccoon moved forward again and plopped itself down beside his shoe, reached over, and began playing with his shoelace.
Percival took an involuntary step back.
The raccoon muttered, stood up, waddled forward, and sat again, retaking possession.
Percival sighed this time. “Well then. I suppose I should explain to you why I’m here. There are nests all over the garage at work. Usually there’s some peeping as we leave, but they were screaming today.”
The raccoon made a considering noise and looked at him, fingers still busy undoing the knot on his shoe.
“They were on the ground right in front of my car! I googled it, and I don’t think the mother can do anything to get them back into the nest from the ground, and look how small they are!” He gestured at the three chicks in his pocket square.
The raccoon stood up and began climbing the chicken wire stapled to the counter.
“Google said that they should have feathers if they are supposed to be out of the nest, and it did say to put them back in the nest, but,” he pulled a face, “I couldn’t figure out how to get up to the nest. I’m in dress shoes and a suit. They aren’t made for climbing on top of cars.”
The raccoon made a triumphant noise and reached into Percival’s pants pocket to tug at the pen clipped into it.
“Sorry,” the voice was light and of some unspecified accent that Percival couldn’t quite place, “but who are you talking to?”
Percival looked up. There was a man in the doorway, a thin redhead with a shy smile lurking in the corners of his mouth.
Percival blushed and blurted out his first thought. “I did ring the bell but the raccoon was the only one who answered.”
Newt had heard the voice as soon as he left the laundry room, but it wasn’t until he came around the corner of the counter that he really looked at the man. He was in a grey suit and brown dress shoes, with not a hair out of place, patiently allowing Newt’s raccoon to go through his pockets. He looked dreadfully out of place, Newt told himself firmly.
“Oh, dear.” He hurried forward to stop the raccoon molesting him, “I’m so sorry about the raccoon, he gets a little handsy, but you can just tell him no.” He scooped the raccoon off of the side of the counter and slipped the pen out of its hands. “Take your grubby little paws off of the nice man’s pen now.”
He offered the pen back, ducking his head to avoid meeting the other man’s eyes.
“That was very nice of you. He’s a dreadful pain I’m afraid, but he has a bad leg,” Newt gestured at his armful of raccoon and offered the pest a pen from the countertop, “so we can’t release him. He’d never survive.” He huffed at the creature and tapped his nose gently with the pen before handing it over. “How can I help you?”
“Percival Graves.” The man offered a hand to Newt.
“Oh!” Newt let of the pen and transferred the raccoon into his other arm. “Newt Scamander.” Mr. Graves had warm dry palms. Probably got manicures. It was even clean under his fingernails. Newt let go of the other man’s hand and frowned at the dust and grime on his own hand.
“I’ve got this pair of baby birds, they were on the ground in front of my car,” he gestured at the counter and then at the raccoon Newt was still cradling, “and as I was telling your official greeter here, I couldn’t get them back into the nest the way google recommended.” He pulled a face and waved a hand at his clothes.
“Ah,” Newt smiled awkwardly, “Yes, I can see how those clothes might not let you be very useful… For climbing! I meant that, for climbing into-”
“Oh no, guilty as charged,” Mr. Graves ducked his head. “I’m not very useful at all...” He trailed off, and Newt realized with a dawning horror that Pickett had just flown into the room and was circling to get a better view of what Newt was up to and what sort of trouble he could get into. Newt winced.
“But especially not at climbing up to bird’s nests- What’s this one doing? It’s a regular menagerie around here, isn’t it?”
Newt deposited the raccoon on the chair behind the counter and frowned at his friend. “That’s enough now, Pickett. Come down from there!” He lifted his forearm and Pickett cawed and flew once more around the room just to show he was his own boss before landing and reaching up to tweak Newt’s nose. Newt sighed and transferred the bird to his shoulder again. The raccoon was climbing up his back to the other shoulder. “Alright Pick, let’s see to your cousins here. Hello there, look at you.” Absently, he reached back to shift the raccoon’s grip on his shirt so it could look but wasn’t gripping his skin.
“So, umm. Do you… Can I do anything else?”
Newt was absorbed in examining the pair of chicks now and hardly registered the other man’s voice except as a grumbling noise in the background. It was soothing. He drew a wing out and studied the sheathed feathers along it.
The bird opened its mouth and screamed at him and Newt chuckled. “Well, I guess we can do something for that, at least. Alright, Pick, when is Jacob getting here?” He worked the fabric of his shirt away from all four paws and replaced the raccoon in the chair.
The crow cawed at him and Newt frowned. “No wait, he doesn’t come in today, you’re right.” He began gathering the chicks carefully, then paused in working his hand under the fabric they rested on when he registered the texture. “Oh, uh, Mr. Graves, if you’ll follow me I can give you your handkerchief back in a moment. Mind the counter while I’m gone, you rascal.”
Pickett stayed on his shoulder as Newt ducked back through the door and held it open for Mr. Graves behind him.
“Please, call me Percival.”
Newt ducked his head again and turned into the bird room. “Here we are. Just a few more minutes. Yes, yes, I know, mummy’s here. Calm down everybody. Yes, you too, I won’t forget about you.”
The vulture with the broken wing mantled as best she could and hissed at him anyway.
“Doesn’t it know that you’re the one helping it?”
Newt prepared the mash for the nestlings as he spoke to keep his hands and voice steady. “It was humans who broke her wing. Probably a baseball bat. And a human who was ready to kill her when I showed up, to ‘put her out of her misery’. Now I’m holding her in a cage, and if she doesn’t heal right and she can’t fly again she’ll probably have to be in one the rest of her life.”
He dipped an eyedropper in the concoction and began feeding the quieter nestling.
“What reason does she have to thank any human? What have we done for her?”
He blushed and ducked his head again, feeding the nestlings with one hand while he prepped a new cage for them with the other. He didn’t want to look at the other man. Not after his second faux paus in as many minutes. People didn’t like it when Newt pointed out the ways humans were less humane than many animal species.
Even so, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. “Vultures are generally very peaceful birds,” he mumbled. “They just want to be left alone.”
The new starlings peeped and settled into their new home and Newt snapped out the handkerchief before handing it back to Percival.
“There you are. Thank you for bringing them to us, and please feel free to drop by again. If you find any more creatures in need of help, I mean. The handkerchief should clean itself in the wash. Do you need help finding the way out?”
He pulled a face at the nestlings next to the new birds. They peeped again, louder. “It’s just that I-”
“Of course. Far be it from me to stand between baby birds and their dinner. Do you need anything else from me? Information, or- ?”
“No, thank you,” Newt turned and forced himself to look into the other man’s face for a minute (at his forehead and nose, not his eyes, but no one ever noticed that) and said firmly, “I do appreciate your help. For them, since they won’t.”
The other man laughed warmly and his eyes crinkled up, and Newt caught himself thinking that strangers and eye contact might not bother him so much if they all folded their eyes away in amusement that way. He turned back to his birds resolutely and didn’t lift his head until the sound of Mr. Graves’s footsteps faded away.
It was nearly two weeks later that Newt saw him again. Newt had Jacob with him this time. They had come after a call about an injured goose and they were parked in a pull-off along the canal. The goose was on the road and angry, and Newt and Jacob were conferring with the woman who had called. Her Labrador was straining to get to the goose, and Newt had already found himself wishing her away. Her and her dog.
“And then he came right at us, and I would have tried to catch him myself, but Bandit…” she trailed off and gestured at the straining dog. “It looks to me like something got his wing though, you can see it’s bloody when he turns,” she gestured as the goose turned to his at a passing vehicle. The wing was bloody, but more importantly, it stuck out at an angle that it shouldn’t.
“He’s probably been hit by a car. Come on, Jacob, let’s see if we can get him out of the road.”
Behind him he heard Jacob doing damage control (“Yes, thank you for calling us ma’am, no, there’s not really anything else you can- oh, but moving your dog might help, yes, thank you, we really appreciate it.”)
Newt had tuned Jacob out, concentrating on where to aim the goose and how to catch it, when the SUV rolled back and stopped in front of him.
“Newt Scamander, right?”
Newt blinked at the man in front of him for a long moment before it registered where he had seen him before. “Oh, with the starlings.”
He watched the other man’s mouth as it pursed, amused. “Can I be of any assistance? You’re trying to catch the goose, right?”
Newt turned to study the escape routes for the goose again. He could really use a third person, but… “If I tell you how to safely capture it, will you listen to me? It can break your arm if you aren’t careful, but you’re more of a danger to the goose too if you don’t listen.”
Mr. Graves considered him. “Then I will be guided by you.”
Newt nodded. “Pull in and park next to me.”
Percival bent his knees just a little and stood at the edge of the path like he was blocking a soccer goal on a weekend somewhere. (When was the last time he had played a game of soccer? His niece had talked him into it, last fourth of July – or maybe the one before that?) His suit jacket was too tight around his shoulders. He had just begun to shrug it off when the goose beat its wings and began running at him. Panicked, he glanced at Newt and then threw his arms open to look bigger. The jacket swung off of his other arm and dropped over the goose’s head. Newt dove in and grabbed the neck with one hand and wrapped the other arm around the goose’s wings and body. Percival retrieved the jacket from the ground.
He tried not to stare at Newt as he wrapped an arm around the body of the goose and brought the beast under control. “Thank you. Sorry about dropping the ball there.”
“Or the jacket, hey?” The other man grinned at him. “I’m Jacob. I help Newt out a couple days a week.”
“Percival. I dropped off some baby birds the other day.”
Newt was… zipping the goose’s body into a bag. The goose was hissing, but Newt seemed unconcerned. Percival took another breath.
Jacob offered a hand. “Nice to meet you, Percival.”
Percival cast around desperately for a topic that might involve Newt in their conversation too. “So how did you get into this? Wildlife rescue? Do you need like, licenses and things? What’s it like, working there? Do you make friends with the animals?”
Jacob frowned. “Most of the animals are going to be released. You can’t make friends with them. They need to be wary around people. But we have a couple of loyal hangers-on. Newt, where’s Pickett?”
Newt turned and offered the sweetest smile to the pair of them as he held up his forearm. His crow immediately appeared out of the sky and landed on his arm.
“Pickett was hatched in captivity and he’s far too people-friendly now. It’s not safe to let him go. Animal control brought him to us, but he’s too clingy and high-strung for the outreach program so mostly he just sticks with Newt.”
Newt pulled a face. “He’s not clingy. He’s just friendly. But he doesn’t like too much hustle and bustle and children screaming. Which is really very reasonable of him.” He ran a hand down the crow’s back as the crow sidled up his arm.
“Eminently.” Percival tried to hide a smile.
The crow nipped at Newt’s ear and Newt’s face scrunched and Percival completely lost track of the conversation until they were climbing in their respective vehicles.
“It was nice running into you! Let me know if you ever want a third person again,” Percival called out his window and then pulled a face at himself. It wasn’t like Newt had his number. He could only hope he’d been less weird in the rest of the conversation.
It was just two days later that Percival heard a ruckus in the parking area as he finished putting gas in his car. He took back his credit card and followed the noise. Someone sounded very upset.
“Do you know the sort of lives exotic pets lead? And how dangerous it is for a half-trained human to work with a wolf? They aren’t dogs, you know!”
Percival turned the corner to find Newt glaring up at a stranger.
“Hey, I can make real money on these. I’m not handing them over to you.”
Percival was about to insert himself into the conversation when Newt’s whole self-alignment changed. Percival couldn’t put his finger on the difference – it still wasn’t a matter of towering over the man or of leaning into his personal space – but the man’s posture went on the defensive all the same.
“Do you know what the penalties look like for illegal trafficking of exotic endangered species? Better to hand them over to me. I have the proper credentials to return them to their natural habitat.”
The man hesitated for another minute, glanced up, saw Percival behind him, and gave in. “You’d better hope you aren’t bluffing. I think that’s the law behind you.”
“Newt,” Percival spoke before Newt could turn, “can I be of any assistance?”
Newt hadn’t started to turn, but Percival saw his shoulders relax. He didn’t kid himself that Newt had recognized his voice. They’d barely met twice. How many people must drop off animals to the rescue every day? But he had at least succeeded in communicating that he was on Newt’s side.
“One moment. Let me just…” Newt trailed off and Percival, curious about the animals they had been fighting over, moved close enough to peer over Newt’s shoulder.
Four puppies played in a dirty dog crate in the back of the man’s pickup, while a fifth sat and watched.
“Do you have a crate to put them in?”
Newt jumped (maybe Percival had gotten too close) and turned. Percival stepped back. “Bugger. Not with me.” He looked up at Percival and Percival watched recognition pass over his face. “Do you have your SUV?”
Percival nodded but couldn’t resist asking, “You don’t have the jeep today?”
Newt pulled a face. “That’s Jacob’s. I have my bike.” He gestured to the side, where a bicycle leaned against the corner of the building. Percival ducked his head to hide a smile. “I have my SUV. Should I bring it ‘round?”
“If you wouldn’t mind?” Newt was already turning back to the pups. Percival gave himself a moment to appreciate Newt’s focus, somehow visible even in the lines of his back as he turned.
They carefully transferred the pups out of the crate and into the back of Percival’s vehicle. Percival had rummaged through his backseat until he found a towel and threw it over the plastic. (He’d taken his nephew to the beach last summer. He ought to call his sister.)
“Oh dear. Look at you. Alright, mummy’s here. Percival, this one shouldn’t ride in the back with them. She’ll just get stepped on. Look at her.” He tipped up her chin with a slender pointer finger and Percival watched as the puppy obediently tilted her head. She looked like a doll.
“Would it help if you held her? I can put your bike in the backseat, I’ve done it with mine, and you can ride with me. That’s better anyway because that way I don’t arrive before you.” Newt nodded and stepped back. Percival shut the door on the other four pups and opened the passenger seat door for Newt before going back for the bike.
Newt tried to protest, but Percival pretended not to notice and Newt couldn’t really do anything without putting the puppy down, so he finally climbed in once Percival had gotten the front wheel and handlebars into the door. (He could lie and claim that he wasn’t pleased to have managed it on the first try in front of Newt – bikes were so wobbly sometimes – but he didn’t see the point in lying to himself.)
Newt directed Percival to pull around back when they got to the rescue. He’d already been on the phone three times. From what Percival had overheard, at least two of them were vets (or knowledgeable about animal health) and someone was going to be at the rescue soon.
Percival hesitated and then followed Newt out of the car. “How can I help?”
Newt adjusted his hold as he cradled the pup and nodded towards a shed. “In there are… Actually, hold her.” He offered the pup to Percival. “Just make sure that you wash that shirt when you get home. Do you have pets?” He shouted the last question over his shoulder as he disappeared into the shed.
“I had a German Shepherd. She died in March. She was old though. Liver cancer.”
“I’m sorry.” Newt emerged with a big wicker laundry basket. “It’s rough, losing them.”
“She was a good dog.” Percival shrugged. “I wouldn’t have wanted to miss knowing her altogether just to avoid the hurt when she died.”
Newt opened Percival’s trunk and began scooping pups into the basket briskly. “I’m going to try to get some formula into them before the woman from the wolf preserve shows up. There’s a sink right in that door. I’ll take her back from you in a minute and-”
Percival had known that he was only offering to be useful, but somehow he’d thought he could be useful a little bit longer. He opened his mouth to ask where he could put Newt’s bike and stopped himself. There was only one way to make himself more useful.
“What else can I do to help?”
Newt blinked at him. “You don’t have anywhere else to be?”
Percival shook his head. “It’s the weekend. We’re not allowed to work overtime at the state.”
Even Newt’s laughter was muted. Percival wondered if it was a habit from working with wild animals. He’d read something somewhere about eye contact, so maybe that part was. Or maybe Newt had gone in for wild animals because he was shy with people anyway. He’d seemed to be comfortable with Jacob the other day, but not what Percival would call effusive.
Newt huffed at the end of his laugh and ducked his head so that his hair hid his eyes. It did nothing to hide his smile. “Right then. Let’s move inside and I’ll get us set up with some formula for the little ones.”
A crackle sounded from the main building, followed by a loud radio ad that cut in mid-word and Newt froze and then changed directions. “This way,” his voice was softer, “and quiet. We don’t want to tip-”
The door crashed open and water splattered on the gravel. Jacob was already turning to go inside when he noticed them and frowned disapprovingly. Percival squashed the feeling that he shouldn’t be there. He wasn’t sneaking into a boyfriend’s house in the middle of the night here.
“Newt Scamander.” Jacob didn’t sound angry or shocked, just tired. Percival didn’t seem to be part of the problem. At least, Jacob wasn’t frowning at him. (Which didn’t matter. It wasn’t like he was trying to make a good impression on Newt’s friend. He barely knew Newt. Newt didn’t want to date some guy he barely knew.)
“Ah, Jacob. I was just-”
“Newt, I sent you home less than an hour ago. It’s your day off. Surely you-” Jacob cut himself off as he changed his focus to Percival. “We don’t- Those aren’t dogs.”
“No, well. On my way- You see,” Newt paused and Percival sailed in.
“I ran into Newt at the gas station where he was rescuing these little guys from an unsavory type. Since he was on his bicycle, I offered the use of my vehicle to get them back here.” Newt stood with his lips parted as if he was about to talk. Percival could claim he hadn’t noticed, but he might as well be honest now that he was this far gone.
Jacob shook his head and muttered something. It was only wishful thinking that made Percival hear the word ‘date’. “Alright. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to hand these fellas over to me and take – Was it Galahad?”
“Percival.” Newt answered first, leaving Percival to blink. He hadn’t been at all sure that Newt remembered his name.
“Right, Percival – Take Percival out to dinner as a thank you for his help?” Jacob raised his eyebrows at Newt and to avoid giving himself ideas Percival looked down at his tiny wolf pup. It was a marvel to think that she was going to end so much bigger than a dog when she was done growing. She was so much smaller than Bella had ever been; he’d gotten his dog at an adoption event after she’d failed as a police dog (too friendly) when she was already an adult.
This pup felt loose and fragile. He could hear her every breath, and that couldn’t be good. He cuddled her closer and only half heard Newt saying something about a wolf rescue and a queen and maybe Jacob would take the night off and trade with him later in the week.
Percival, distracted, followed them through a door and sat where Newt pointed. Half his attention was on the pup and the other half on Newt as the other man worked at the counter. Percival had always been attracted to men who were good at what they did. He barely noticed that Jacob was still there until one of the other pups let out a yelp and snapped loudly.
Jacob chuckled and reached in again. “Alright, you’re pretty rough and tough aren’t you? Let me see – Here, look at this. It doesn’t even hurt a bit, does it? You just don’t like me touching your toes, huh?”
He put one hand over the pup’s nose and ran the other down his legs.
“What a smart little man you are, to not trust me. You’re going far in life, aren’t you?”
Newt was suddenly beside Percival leaning over him. It took Percival a moment to notice the bottle in Newt’s hand.
“Here, umm,” Newt’s head was ducked so far down that even seated, Percival still could barely see his eyes. “I can take her if you want.” Percival’s eyes dropped to the pup on his chest. She took another rattling breath.
“Would it be better for you to take her? For her?” He sighed and began to gather her up the loose limbs. She rested the side of her head against his chest and it flopped down as he lifted her towards Newt. Newt took her and his face went soft.
“Hello little one. Alright, come and have some milk for mummy, won’t you?” Newt cuddled her and sank onto the chair beside him.
Newt settled into the chair and tried to concentrate on convincing the pup to take a full bottle. Surely, allowing Percival the space to announce his departure would only be polite.
The pup required all of his concentration for a few minutes, and by the time that she was actually drinking, Percival had somehow been installed with a pair of bottles and two pups in his lap on the chair beside Newt. Newt shot Jacob a glance. Jacob was feeding the other two and talking to them quietly.
Newt’s pup whined and Newt refocused back to her.
By the time that she fell asleep Percival’s pair had already curled up in his lap and he was watching them, wide-eyed. Newt’s pup hadn’t finished her bottle. Jacob had disappeared; from the noise, he was feeding the birds.
He shifted the pup gently and lay her into the basket with Jacob’s pair and then turned to Percival. “May I?”
There was a pause before Percival nodded. Newt told himself it was just wishful thinking to think- Well. Anyone might enjoy the chance to be slept on by young wolves.
As he lowered the second pup into the basket there was a sound of tires on gravel.
He straightened as they heard the slam of the door. “Fancy wheels! Newt? Did you finally ditch the bicycle?”
Queenie poked her head around the door and Newt lifted his chin and made an effort to meet her eyes as he smiled. “The bike is in the backseat. Jacob’s just finishing feeding the bird room. I thought maybe you’d like to take him in case you need a second person on the way back?”
Queenie looked at Newt and smirked. Newt felt himself flush and dropped his eyes again.
“Hello there.” She offered a hand to Percival. “I’m Queenie. My sister and I run the wolf preserve and trade animals back and forth with Newt and Jacob here. Are you a new worker?”
Percival stood and wiped his hand on his pants before taking hers. “I’m Percival. And no, I just saw a chance to help a friend.”
The pup Newt had already begun to think of as his (a dangerous way to think, but he was used to breaking his heart working here) was snuffling her nose. Queenie stepped up beside him and elbowed him as they looked down into the basket.
“That’s a good friend you’ve got there. It’s not everyone will put your muddy old bike in the backseat of their fancy vehicle you know.”
Newt made a noise that he hoped worked as a response, attention all on the pup who had just started to shiver.
Queenie frowned down too. “That small one…”
“In the cupboard over the sink there’s a thermometer and casings. Snap a clean one on in the box and hand it to me without touching the covering.” He held one hand out behind him for the thermometer and reached the other hand in to scoop the pup out. The thermometer was in his hand by the time he had her restrained against his chest.
Queenie smirked at him again and Newt remembered that Jacob wasn’t in the room. He looked over at Percival, who was seating himself out of the way again, (at least he was dressed more appropriately today, in a pair of worn blue jeans and a hoodie just baggy eno- and how had he managed to be mistaken for bad legal news dressed like that anyway? Newt guessed it had something to do with the other man's steady presence) and allowed himself a smile. “Thank you.”
“Time.” Queenie touched his wrist and Newt pulled the thermometer back out and flicked the casing into the trash before tilting it so he and Queenie could both see. She frowned. “Not awful, but she’s going to need care and Tina’s off to the research site next week. I don’t want to make her drop out of the program.”
There was a long blank moment where Newt was already rearranging the schedule in his mind so that Jacob could spend the week at the preserve when she tilted her head at Percival. “Maybe you could spare her a little extra TLC around here?”
Newt awarded her a flat look. “Jacob works thirty hours a week at the bakery. I can’t watch her and work here, and it sounds to me like you’re talking 24-hour care.”
Queenie sighed delicately and darted another glance at Percival. “I am, at least at first.”
Percival stood and looked Newt square in the face. “If I offered my assistance, would I be useful or in the way?”
“Newt could easily show you what to do.” Newt was going to need to have a word with Queenie about meddling again.
Percival continued to look at him steadily. “Newt? I don’t want to get in your way.”
Newt ducked his head. “You would be helpful. If you’re sure that you wouldn’t mind?” He turned so he wouldn't stare at Percival.
Queenie shook her head and patted Newt’s shoulder. “Do you think you and your friend can finish up here if I steal Jacob away?”
Percival held his arms out for the pup in answer.
Newt flipped the light on as he led the way into his flat. Pickett cawed and flapped over onto his shoulder as Percival followed him in. “Alright Pick, I’m home.” He led the way through to his living room. “Here, if you would just have a seat, I’ll heat up some more formula for her and mix in the meds.” He gestured at the couch and retreated to the kitchen with Pickett. Between thuds as he crushed the antibiotic he could hear Percival’s low murmur to the pup in the other room. Pickett flapped over to the faucet in protest until he was done, then stepped up his arm when he ran water for the formula. He tipped the pill in as well, shook everything together, and returned to find Percival holding the pup up so they could look each other in the eye.
“Having a heart-to-heart there?” Newt stepped around and offered him the bottle. “I didn’t fill it all the way, but she can have more formula if she finishes all of this. I just don’t want her to give up before she finished the antibiotic.” He shook out an old holey quilt and folded it into a basket. “Do you have any dietary restrictions or preferences for dinner?” He hurried on before Percival could protest. “I’m taking advantage of your help. The least I can do it make you dinner. I promise not to put anything in the baggie I had the antibiotic in.”
Percival laughed, as Newt had meant him to, and shook his head. “No, I’m easy. Please don’t go to any trouble on my account.”
Newt opened his mouth to protest and then realized. “I never went to the store. I was going to go after I put air- I never even put air in my tire.” This was the exact opposite of the impressive home-cooked meal he had imagined a moment ago.
Percival rumbled a laugh again and shifted. “Here, I have the number for the Peruvian place in my phone. One of us can run down the street and pick it up, it’s not that far away.” He pulled his phone out and unlocked it. “I can pull up the menu if you want?”
Newt shook his head. “No, I’m good. What do you want?”
Newt brought the bottle into the kitchen and stashed the little she had left in the refrigerator with their leftovers. Pickett had retreated into Newt’s bedroom nearly an hour ago in a firm statement of his own boundaries. Newt should really let Percival take the pup and go home. Her fever had broken and if it returned even with the antibiotics, Percival was as capable of calling a vet as Newt was. What was Newt’s other option, he scolded himself. The couch was short and uncomfortable and Percival probably had work in the morning.
He squared his shoulders and stepped out into the living room to find Percival’s head tilting sideways, the pup cuddled up against his chest securely. His mouth had relaxed out of his perpetual easy smile into something softer that tugged at Newt’s heart.
“Percival?” Newt pitched his voice soft.
The other man didn’t stir.
“Percival?” he tried a normal volume next. When that didn’t get a response either he sighed and turned to the armchair.
There was an ugly knitted blanket hanging over the back of it, the lumpy result of Newt’s first foray into knitting. His great-aunt hadn’t seemed to mind. She’d brought it with her to the nursing home and Newt had snagged it out of the bags for donation when his first apartment turned out to be a little colder than he’d thought.
He lifted the blanket and shook it carefully over Percival and the pup. He hesitated, then sat down in the armchair. Just in case they needed him.
Percival’s days took on a new pattern. He would rise at five and drive to Newt’s place, pick up Newt and drive him and the puppy to the rescue. Newt would feed while Percival cuddled or played with the wolf pup in the back. Then Percival would duck into the employee bathroom and change into his button down and slacks and drive to work. He would work like a madman until five and drive back to the rescue like there was someone chasing him and entertain the pup again (“No names,” Newt had cautioned, although Percival knew Newt was cheating) until Newt was done feeding, and then one of them would accidentally have made too much food or ordered enough dinner for two and they would both end up at one home or the other and then Percival would drive Newt or himself home, feed the pup again, and let her curl up at the end of his bed.
Newt took him to walk down by the river one night, the pup gamboling around their feet and tangling them up in her leash, and Percival found himself laughing as Newt bounced and then raced off down the path with her. Newt disappeared into the dusk, though Percival could still hear him and see the silvery outline of the pup, and Percival’s heart ached preemptively for the shock it was going to be to lose them. He knew in his head that he and Newt were friends now. He had Newt’s phone number, and Newt had his. He could just call with the same flimsy excuse of having ordered too much and invite Newt over for dinner, but part of him couldn’t help but feel like they would lose this when their girl was old enough to return to her siblings, a day that was fast approaching.
The water chuckled as it rushed past and Newt reappeared suddenly out of the gathering darkness, laughter written across his face as he chased the pup.
The drive up to the preserve was quiet. Newt was never what Percival would call loud, but he usually kept up a patter for the animals. Instead, he sat silent in the passenger seat while Pickett preened at Newt’s hair and the pup moaned in the backseat.
Percival himself couldn’t come up with a topic of conversation. He had turned on music at first, but quickly turned it back off. Opened his window and propped his elbow out of it. Closed the window again. Cracked a window for the puppy. Cracked the other window for her so there would be a cross-breeze. Closed one again. Cracked the one left open a little further.
He was just considering opening the window again when Newt spoke, his voice low and miserable. “Percival, for the love of everything you hold dear, please please stop playing with the windows. I can’t.”
Percival winced. “Sorry.” He stared out the windshield again for a long moment and then asked, “Will it be a big adjustment for her? To be back with her siblings?”
Newt cleared his throat. “She’s only been away from them for two weeks. She’ll be fine.”
“How- how do you do it? How can you- You must do this all the time, right? With the rescue?”
Newt ran his fingers down Pickett’s back. “Pick is the only one who comes home with me. Usually they aren’t- If I got attached like this to every one I’d have had to quit long ago. But she’ll be happier with her siblings, you know? Wolves in the wild travel up to thirty miles in a day. We both work. Who would take her for a nice twenty mile run every day?”
Percival bit his lip and didn’t argue. They hadn’t been covering that sort of ground, but they had done a lot of walking. He thought about mentioning the papers he’d folded into the back of his seat and decided again not to mention them. He wasn’t going to make this any harder on Newt. They were just in case.
The woman who met them was not Queenie. She looked into the backseat as soon as they parked and frowned. “You had her loose in the car? She’s a wild animal.”
Newt got out and ducked his head. “Hello Tina. This is Percival, he helped us with the little one. How was your research program?”
She ducked her head in what wasn’t quite an allowance of the change in topic and admitted, “It was interesting. How much have you been handling her?”
Percival frowned. “Newt doesn’t exactly have the fenced in acreage you’ve got here. What sort of research program was it?”
Tina pressed her lips together but allowed the topic change this time. She watched as they took the pup out of the car and led them to the enclosure where her siblings played. Percival had forgotten how much smaller she was than the rest of them. One of them caught sight of the people and within moments all four had disappeared into the underbrush.
Percival glanced at their pup with a sinking feeling. Tina paused in her story – something about the way wolves oriented themselves in an unfamiliar space, Percival thought – and darted a sideways glance at Newt.
“The preserve is currently above capacity, but these guys are on track to be releasable. Newt, do you-”
Newt shook his head. “She’s a pack animal, Tina. Neither one of us had so much as a dog for her to bond with, and we’ve been doing a lot of checking her temperature, we needed to make sure she was exercising… Queenie consulted several times. The idea was that it was more important to keep her alive and build her strength than to keep our distance.”
Tina nodded, lips pursed. “And that was why she left it with you, from what she said. I just… If this one doesn’t integrate with them, or she’s too people friendly…” She opened the gate and pushed the pup through. Their pup immediately turned back to the gate and whined.
Tina frowned, “Go on, scat.” She glanced at Percival. “It’s nothing personal. I just hate to see another failed reintroduction. They’re better off in the wild. Wolves make poor housepets.”
Percival nodded. “I had a neighbor growing up who had a wolf. She wasn’t like dogs. She was possessive, and she’d sulk about it when her owner talked to other animals. They used to go on huge long weekend hikes every weekend. If the owner was sick or missed a weekend he was in trouble. He used to say, after she died, that it was like losing a partner. That so much of what went on in the house was about treating her as a fellow adult in the household without letting her run the show.”
Their pup had given up on the gate for the moment and was cautiously exploring the enclosure. She sniffed at one of the sticks the others had been playing with and one of the others burst into view, snarling. She flew back to the gate, whining and looking at Percival and Newt to rescue her.
The other pup barreled into her and she yelped.
Percival bit his lip. Newt’s hands had balled into fists. Percival felt a moment of longing in the midst of his fear for their pup, for the right to be the one to unclench Newt’s hands and rub away the marks where his nails had surely dug little crescents into his palms.
Tina waved something in to separate the pups and opened the gate just far enough for their girl to shoot out and cower behind Newt, tail between her legs.
Newt offered her a flat palm and murmured to her. “Alright, little cinnamon bun. You’re alright.”
Tina frowned at the three of them. “Do you know what sort of paperwork you have to fill out for this?”
Percival nodded, then glanced at Newt. “I have a friend who found me copies of the paperwork we’d need to fill out.”
Newt straightened, looking happier than he had since Percival had dropped him off the night before. “I think you should take her, Percival. You’re the one with the yard, and I’ll be a text message away if you want anything- You never said you had a neighbor with a wolf.”
Percival smiled at him. “I grew up in western Pennsylvania. The neighbor with the wolf was practically normal.”
Newt’s smile spread across his face.
Percival swallowed and kept going before he could think better of it. “If we put my name on the paperwork, then you have to let me take you out to dinner. On a date.”
He could see Tina rolling her eyes but kept his gaze on Newt. Newt, who swallowed in response, and ducked his head to address the pup. Percival felt his heart drop.
“Unless I’ve been totally misreading things, in which case please pretend I never said that, but which does make the argument stronger for you being the one to have your name on her papers.”
Newt lifted his gaze to meet Percival’s. “No, Percival. I think I’d quite like that, if you’re sure you would as well.”
Tina huffed loudly and spoke to their pup. “Men. Even your dads are only so bright. My condolences, kiddo.”
Percival watched Newt try not to smile and laughed.