Donnie loved the surgery job from the first minute he opened the reception desk drawer and found a horrible mess of half-used sticky note pads, a scribbled password to a PC the previous vet had taken away with him, ten unsharpened pencils, and a chain of paperclips stuffed half-heartedly into a torn baggie. So much to work with!

Will poked his head out of the door after every appointment, though Donnie didn’t think he needed to. He’d quickly discovered where everything was, and thought he was handling the clients pretty well. Then, on the latest occasion, Will winked at him and his cheeks went red, and Donnie realised Will maybe wasn’t checking up on him, just looking. Smiling. Allowing his gaze to linger on Donnie’s mouth for a second too long.

Wow. Donnie had to turn away in case he got a hard-on from that look. One glance around the waiting area—at a German Shepherd with toothache and a hamster with bald patches—set him back on track.

Will’s confidence in him reassured Donnie he’d been right to take the job. Though it had been a close thing when Will started all that shit about the hourly pay. Donnie was worried he’d been silly to take offence when obviously none was meant. Will had been trying to help. But Donnie was starting to second guess how people saw him.

Why was that? Maybe it was because of dating Will. Maybe because of losing his job. Donnie had felt restless ever since the Easter incident. He’d assumed it was because of the excitement of meeting Will. But maybe it was a symptom of something else.

He didn’t have time to navel-gaze, he realised, as a trio of yapping chihuahuas came through the door, trying to wrap themselves around their harassed owner’s ankles. Donnie had needed a job and, as Henry had often said in the past, it wasn’t like they grew on trees. Henry had implied that Donnie didn’t have a lot of choice. Even Maisie had the occasional scold that Donnie should go back to college and finish his catering course, else he’d never get anywhere. Seemed everyone had an opinion on Donnie’s life nowadays.

Will hadn’t meant to piss Donnie off, trying to artificially boost his salary, just because… what? Because they were fucking now? No, Will genuinely wanted him at the surgery, and he definitely needed help! Will didn’t seem to be on top of the admin side of things at all. Donnie sat at the desk, adjusting the chair to suit him, dragging over the wastepaper bin as he briskly began to sort through the messy drawers. He could see so much he could contribute, organising the records, streamlining the diary, setting up a text reminder process, moving the manual accounts records onto a spreadsheet. That was before he’d even got to interact with the clients. There was so much that suited him here.

And being with Will. There was always that, best of all.

Yes, he’d definitely made the right decision.

Maisie wandered in at lunchtime. Will looked a bit disappointed—Donnie suspected he’d wanted to have his lunch with Donnie—but he smiled and nodded at the pair of them as they left to go and sit on the green across the road with their sandwiches.

“So, tell all,” Maisie said, eyes sparkling with curiosity. “He’s really cute. How’s it going?”

“It’s early days,” Donnie said cautiously. He wasn’t usually so coy about sharing news with Maisie, even about his love life.

“Sez you, grinning all over your face!” Maisie almost clapped her hands with glee.

“You’re like a kid.” Donnie laughed. “Like your friend Cara’s twins.” They were boisterous little boys: Donnie had babysat them several times. Cara and Christopher seemed to have problems keeping any other sitters

Maisie sobered for a moment. “It’s only because I’m happy for you. Things haven’t been great for a while, have they?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Maisie shifted to get more comfortable, using her sweater as a blanket, and munched into her egg salad sandwich. “The months it took before you could peel yourself away from all your family obligations, to start your own damn life. That shitty job with that pig of a manager you’ve put up with for months. All that work you did on Uncle Rick’s halfway house project, at all hours of the day and night.”

“It was worth it.” The property had been abandoned for months until the community turned it into a shelter for young adults who were, for some reason, temporarily homeless, or in need of a sanctuary before they found their way in the world. Rick wasn’t qualified to offer medical or psychiatric help, but he was the kind of man who got things done. He set up a network with health professionals, local businesses looking for employees, sponsors for the everyday living essentials that the young people needed to get back on their feet. The conversion hadn’t been one of those like-magic, well-funded projects you see on the TV: it had taken months of work, begging and borrowing help from local tradesmen, seemingly endless cake sales and raffles run to raise funds, hours of volunteer work to decorate and furnish, to make the building a proper home. Donnie had been happy to give his time and effort, but Maisie was right—it had been exhausting.

“Remember launch day?” Maisie’s eyes were a little damp. She wasn’t usually sentimental, yet neither of them could think about the day the first kids moved in without getting choked up. There’d been so many smiles, cries of pleasure, and hugs that day. “Rick put up that daft sign he’d made with wood and a blow torch, scorching the name Handfast House.”

“But he mis-spelled it.” Donnie chuckled. Maisie had begged some bites of his cheese and pickle wrap and he was still a bit hungry. He wondered if she’d share her choc chip cookie with him in return, but valued his balls too much to ask.

“Or slipped with the blowtorch,” Maisie scoffed.

Donnie didn’t scold her: really, he knew she was fiercely proud of her uncle’s work. “Handfart, it looked like.”

They glanced at each other, then bumped shoulders and snorted with laughter. A small terrier, racing past them after a ball, checked its stride and snuffled its nose in interest.

“He wants to convert another one,” Maisie said, a little quickly, as if she was worried about raising the subject with Donnie. “Uncle Rick, you know? He’s found another property on the other side of the community centre. He’s with estate agents now, and looking to raise the funds for another shelter.”

Donnie lay back on his jacket, sighed, and smiled. “That’s brilliant. There should be more of those places, everywhere. Count me in, whatever he needs.” He expected Maisie to whip out her phone and start listing out what she needed from him but, unusually, she was quiet for a moment.

“You’ve got a new job, Donnie. And a new boyfriend. Maybe you should take more time for yourself now.”

“You don’t need me?”

“Jesus, you berk, of course we do!” Maisie thumped him on the shoulder so he half spilled his crisps on the grass. He wondered how long it’d be before the terrier came racing back their way. He’d have to scoop them up quickly: they were chilli flavoured.

“If it wasn’t for your persistence,” she continued, “we’d never have got discount on the paint from the DIY store. And you persuaded the builder to donate extra hardcore for the garden rockery. And, of course, you kept everyone in cake, all through the project!”

Yes, Donnie suddenly recalled more clearly, with a sinking heart. It had been exhausting.

Maisie was chatting on, energised by the call to action. “I’m going to resurrect the project planning committee from last time. We all still live locally. Maybe we can use your place for meetings? We should start taking names for who can do what to help.”

Yes, she was back on bossy track. Maisie would make a marvellous Prime Minister, Donnie thought. She’d probably offend every diplomat within a thousand miles with her dogged determination in the face of anyone’s opposition, but she’d get things done.

Beside him, Maisie stood, brushing grass flakes off her jeans. “Anyway, it’s time to get back. I think your Will was sorry to let you out of his sight.”

“Don’t be daft.”

“Seriously, Donnie.” She gave him a sudden, awkward little hug. “I’m so pleased for you, you deserve some fun and true love at last.” Donnie hugged her back. But he wasn’t sure what to say about the love comment.

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