Mating Habits - Part B (Part I/II)
Warnings: Mentions of insects and creepy crawlies. Minor references to violence. Light angst.
Notes: Zoo AU: Peter and Carl are Head Keepers in different sections of a zoo. Peter is Head of Insects and Reptiles, Carl is a specialist in panda mating habits. They meet when Peter needs a new lodger, and Carl needs somewhere to live...
For plastic_beads - this is based on her idea for a zoo setting, particularly the characters of Peter and Carl.
Beta-ed by the ever-lovely mimioomin :)
B IS FOR BEARS
Bears spend time courting before mating. A suitor may trail his prospective mate from a distance to analyse how receptive they are: this can include a series of ‘tests’ such as smelling daybeds and urine. There may be a period of ‘playing hard to get’, and if a mate appears threatening they might be charged or swatted. Males rarely retaliate, but bide their time. A new partner is gradually allowed closer and closer.
When contact is made, the bears nuzzle and chew on each other’s head and neck and may even wrestle a little. Couples are almost inseparable during mating periods. Copulation is repeated many times, but the pairs stay locked together (sometimes breaking for a nuzzle or bite on the neck) until the next bout.
By the end of the second week, it has become obvious that Peter has no idea what Carl does at the zoo. He won’t ask, of course. But is trying to trick and test the information out of him. It has become the highlight of Carl’s day.
‘Did you have pets as a child?’ That’s Peter’s opening gambit, over breakfast. If burnt toast (made badly, under the grill, because Peter’s done something appalling to the toaster), and Lucozade (because the kettle has met a similarly unfortunate fate and that was the only sealed container in the fridge) qualify as breakfast.
No, says Carl. Too much moving around. And he scrapes some of the black off his toast.
‘And if you could’ve had a pet,’ Peter presses on. ‘Would you have wanted… the kind of animals you work with now?’
Carl scoffs, and says that he doubts his parents would have been too keen. Besides, you don’t get too many of them around Basingstoke. Which, he supposes, doesn’t narrow it down at all. Peter just nods. Blinks. And steals Carl’s butter knife.
At dinner, Peter tries again. He bangs down their plates with a flourish and Carl tries to ignore the pervasive smell of burning.
‘Tell me, Carlos, what will you miss least about your last zoo?’
Angry birds, he mutters, and wonders how anyone could possibly fuck up spaghetti hoops. Carl supposes it was his own fault. He had worked his way through most of the roster in a series of drunken Friday nights, and the staff room had become an uneasy balance of women who were furious because he’d slept with them, and women who were furious that he hadn’t. Oddly, the men made much less fuss either way.
Is this one, he pokes curiously at a bit of hard hoop with his fork, is this actually frozen and burned? Peter leans over to peer at it. Entirely possible, he nods. Carl thinks they should probably get more take-aways, for the good of his health.
Later, in the keepers hut, Colin, Head of Aviary, tells him that Peter has been hanging around the bird enclosure. Asking people if they’ve seen a man who looks like thunder. Colin says he’s putting off the school children. Carl nods and makes a serious face, and tries very hard not to laugh.
‘Caaarl,’ Peter accosts him after dinner, in that wheedling tone that Carl’s come to rather enjoy. ‘Carl, do you identify with the, erm, the animals you work with?’ Carl sighs and stretches. He is warm and sleepy, and pleasantly full of Chinese food, and inclined to be generous. Yeah, I s’pose, he nudges Peter’s hip out of his way, and tries to re-colonise the vital inches of sofa that Peter’s excessive legs have stolen. I mean… I had quite a lot of black eyes as a kid. And I do really like spring rolls, so, yeah.
‘Are you Carl Barat?’ demands a very cross-looking woman, the next afternoon. She is tiny and twitchy, and Carl doesn’t really need to check her ID badge to guess that she’s come from rodents. He seriously considers saying no, and makes a mental note to start hiding his own badge. She informs Carl, crossly, that Peter has been bothering the racoons and she’d very much appreciate it if he could make him stop.
That’s how his days tend to go, and Carl is struggling to make himself mind.
Try it and find out.
That is very much Peter’s approach to life.
It is, in all regards, a brilliant answer. Yes would have been desirable. In the short term, at least. The trouble with sex, is that Peter finds too many people are even duller out of their clothes. Had Carl said yes, they would have had dinner, and Peter would have charmed Carl into his bed. But come the next morning, he worries that some of the exciting shine of his new lodger might have tarnished. And then there would be awkwardness and difficult conversation in front of the toaster.
No would have been tedious. Interesting, for about five seconds. Peter relishes the challenge of dazzling and bamboozling people into submission, once he’s decided he wants them. But too often, they actually mean it. Or, worse, they really mean yes and it turns out there’s nothing interesting about them at all.
But maybe is Peter’s very favourite answer to almost any question. Maybe and all the delicious possibilities it contains.
Try it and find out. Brilliant. So Peter does. He tries all the different ways he can think of, to ask Carl Barat to go out with him. Carefully changing each variable in turn – method, location, audience (Carl does not appreciate being serenaded or asked out in front of a staff room full of zoo keepers, and finds the combination particularly irksome), time of day (he’s more inclined to amusement in the evenings, sulky first thing in the morning and absolutely livid at three am), frequency (once a day seems acceptable, two irritating, the maximum of five results in being told to f’fucks sake Peter fuck off, at significant volume).
After ten days, Peter is forced to conclude that his methodology is not working. Which is vexing. And unexpected.
Peter is used to people saying yes. Eventually. The more intriguing ones say other things first, of course. All the more enjoyable for a spot of kiss-chase. Despite the mutterings and the knowing smirks that follow him, Peter’s never experienced a shortage of dinner companions when he desires one. He still has some outliers to test: jealousy is a powerful motivator, and Peter knows that competition encourages animals to raise their game. But he doesn’t want to cloud the clarity of Carl’s reactions.
He wants to know exactly what he has to do, to make Carl want him.
The notebook is lying on the kitchen table. It’s in good company: yesterday’s newspaper with all the good bits cut out, the usual avalanche of post and assorted papers, a bundle of chicken wire, a cup that’s starting to grow new life forms; half a slice of toast, buttered, upside down, with a single neat crescent bitten out of it.
All Carl wants is somewhere to put his cereal bowl down. A few squared inches. Surely that isn’t too much to ask. On a morning when Carl has already had to endure yet another cold shower, a worrying number of his socks having gone missing, and dry cereal because the milk has become a solid object.
The notebook is open. Its pages folded back, a pen propped between them. Filled with the scrawled, loopy writing, its florid embellishments more befitting an artist than a scientist, that Carl is rapidly learning to decipher: shopping lists (with items such as milk, bread, bleach - 10 bottles, acid - any form available in supermarket… oh, & stuff people eat for dinner), and helpful notes that say things like “Do NOT open the washing machine”.
Carl reads it more out of habit than intention. He glances his name at the top of the page and doesn’t pause to think about it – Carl Ashley Raphael Barat – condition 3: outdoors, afternoon, control question – response 2/5. Some swearing, threats of violence nil.
Pages and pages of the same: test conditions, scoring, observations scratched carelessly in the margins. The notebook is a lab book. And his insane fucking housemate is running tests on Carl, like a fucking lab rat.
That isn’t, unsurprisingly, exactly how Peter sees it. He expresses bafflement when Carl storms into the insect house, flapping his own notebook at him and vocalising his disapproval, loudly. With some swearing and many threats of violence thrown in for good measure.
It’s very convincing really, Peter’s little boy lost routine. Dark chocolate-button eyes as round and melting as can be. Face crumpled in confusion, as if he’s trying to calculate an impossible equation. But Carlos… all soft and helpless on pouting lips. Irresistible. Infuriating.
The notebook stays on the floor where Carl has flung it. Together with Peter’s coffee cup, a stack of papers from his desk and his suit jacket. He narrowly avoids flinging Peter onto the ground to join them, but he’s not entirely sure what that might lead to. Carl is aware that casual onlookers might define this as a temper tantrum. But they have no fucking idea.
Carl has put up with a lot. Most sane people would have run at the lack of a working front door, massive spiders invading his bedroom, the shortage of edible meals, having to wash his smalls in the bathroom sink because the washing machine is perpetually unusable (for reasons Carl is determined never to find out). But Carl has tolerated his housemate’s quirks. Found them amusing, endearing, even. He has come to terms with Peter hounding him around the house, zoo and, on one unfortunate evening, supermarket. Professing his devotion and courting Carl like a deranged big cat in heat. Which Carl had decided to find flattering, rather than absolutely bloody terrifying. Bewitched enough to imagine that someone like Peter Doherty could actually be interested in someone like him.
Clearly, that was very stupid.
‘You’re not stupid.’
Carl doesn’t look up when Peter comes in (tumbles in, technically, in an untidy heap through the living room window that makes all his joints groan in protest). He maintains eye contact with his cigarette as Peter straightens up and dusts himself off. Watching it burn steadily down between his fingers.
Peter doesn’t say anything about the fresh grazing on his knuckles, dark and red. Or the newspaper folded open at the rooms to let section.
This, thinks Peter, is why he doesn’t like humans. Messy and fragile. Too easy to hurt with a careless gesture or some imagined injury. Impossible to understand. Carl had burst into his office (wrecking his study of the effects of noise stimuli on aphids), raging and shouting about rats. For the first couple of minutes, Peter had been thoroughly distracted by the spectacle of Carl enraged – dark hair tossing like the current of a stormy sea, lightning flashing in the blue of his eyes, fury rolling off him in heavy, dangerous waves that make Peter’s skin prickle in anticipation.
Once he managed to focus on the threats of physical harm and slurs upon his character, he’d worked out that Carl was upset about the contents of his notebook. Peter had tried to explain that it was an experiment, that he was just testing for the optimum conditions, completely harmless. But that had only made Carl resort to throwing things. Before storming out. The air crackling behind him like the aftermath of a thunderstorm.
Drew had explained that it might appear to be a bit… unkind. Unfeeling, he said. Using someone as material for his work, probing and exposing their reactions and emotions. Making Carl a test subject and pretending to seduce him. Some people, he says, might get a bit pissed off about that kind of thing.
‘But I wasn’t pretending!’ Peter had insisted. Baffled. Bewildered. Bamboozled. And, frankly, painfully turned on. All that bluster and downpour of rage has done terrible things to Peter’s imagination, which his suit trousers definitely weren’t designed to accommodate.
Well, Drew had shrugged, if you weren’t pretending, tell him.
Peter wonders if he’s going to spend the rest of his natural life apologising to Carl Barat. He doesn’t make a habit of it, in general – reserved mainly for when he sets people alight, assuming it isn’t their own fault, which it tends to be – yet when it comes to Carl, he’s considering having sorry tattooed on his forehead just to save time.
He sighs. He shuffles awkwardly on the spot. He rakes his hair, he tries to ease the crick out of his neck. He seriously considers tap dancing.
Carl ignores him entirely, maintaining eye contact with the table.
‘Carl, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Please stay.’
‘Why, so you can analyse me in your lab book?’
‘Carl, it’s just a notebook. Somewhere I write about the things that… interest me.’
Carl twists his face into a smile, which contains no mirth or pleasure whatsoever.
‘Ah, yes. Your specimens. Anomalies and unclassifiable mysteries. Puzzles for clever Peter to solve.’ He stubs out the butt of his cigarette. A single, brutal twist, grinding out the light. ‘Go and use someone else to prove your misunderstood genius.’
Peter would rank that as amongst his top three least successful apologies ever. Although, the lack of combustion is a bonus.
Peter turns out to be very difficult to ignore.
He insists on bringing Carl breakfast: eggs burned to buggery, and coffee like silt, a wilting flower tucked beneath his plate. It’s an act of war on a tray. Carl finds it delightful, and then forces himself not to. Peter walks to work at his heel, keeping up a one-man running commentary on the weather, the likelihood of rain, which widows and cats in the neighbourhood are having affairs with whom, every formation in the history of QPR, and patterns in the clouds – don’t you think, Carlos, that one looks like Morrissey – until Carl wants to throttle the man just to make him stop.
The rest of the time, he lurks about the house like a kicked puppy. Turning dark, baleful eyes on Carl as he circles room-to-let ads in the paper.
But Carl is determined. He isn’t angry. Anymore. He’s raged at the walls, and punched one or two, and talked himself down again. It’s his own fault. Letting his own stupid desire fog his vision, making him see things that weren’t there, in Peter’s intense, flitting academic interest.
Peter wants a friend. And a test subject. Maybe a pet. Carl is none of those things. So he makes himself stay away.
After work, he stays late at the pub, until only Colin remains. Although, Carl fears there are only so many times he can listen to the woes of Colin’s third divorce before doing the decent thing, and putting the man permanently out of his misery.
Even Shi Jing is sick of the sight of him. She frowns and turns over huffily when Carl disturbs her early in the morning. He changes all her bedding, gives her fresh bamboo and water, twice. He constructs an elaborate game out of sticks and coloured balls, binding bright twine between the bars of her enclosure in a giant cat’s cradle, pulling it taut and twisting sharp, satisfying knots. Shi Jing surveys it carefully. She looks at the coloured ropes, nuzzles the line of one with her nose, bats at a ball with one paw. She looks at Carl, and then sighs and retreats inside her hut. Carl leaves, finally, after being pelted relentlessly and accurately with bamboo.
Carl phones up about a dozen different rooms to let. All ‘sorry mate, just gone’ or suddenly ‘unavailable’ or ‘oh dear, we’ve just had a terrible flood, ssssh Susie, yes we have!’
If he didn’t know better, he’d suspect that someone was bribing or blackmailing everyone in the local area not to rent him a room.
Sometimes Peter needs to feel ordinary. Just to remember how fucking terrible it must be. So he goes to the zoo, like everyone else. Leaves the sanctuary of his insect house, its carefully managed shade and temperature, all its dark corners and surprises, and wanders over to see something else.
He’s fond of giraffes. Long necks and dreamy stares, spending all day gazing into the clouds. Whilst the world scuttles about at their feet. He sympathises. But today, Peter needs to stay close to the ground. Elephants, then. Vast, unknowable beasts. Time and space in the globes of their eyes. But. No. Too big. Too lost in ancient things, all the stories they’ve seen written in the dark folds of their skin.
Pandas, he decides. Big and warm and fluffy. Lying on their backs and merrily chomping their way through the hours. That’s what the ordinary people like.
She’s rather beautiful, this creature. Black and white. A huge tumble of fur and sloth. Sunshine. Slumber. Sticks of bamboo to idle away the day. Simple. She’s busy resolutely ignoring a gang of school children, shouting for her attention and flashing their mobile phones, until a teacher bustles them away. She winks at their retreating backs. And makes what Peter fancies is rather a rude paw gesture.
‘Were they bothering you, sweetheart? I’m sorry.’ The bear looks up as a shadow covers her, fluttering her lashes at the man who bends to croon at her softly. ‘Don’t worry, one more selfie and I’ll shove the phone down their stupid fucking throats.’
Carlos. Glorious with the sun at his back like fire, blazing at the dark tips of his hair, sparking off bronze skin and the gemstones in his eyes.
He watches. In all his playing guess-the-animal, Peter realises he hasn’t properly thought about what Carl does at the zoo. All that compact, contained power, at work. He is hard beneath that golden skin; muscle that moves and stretches like steel springs sheathed in silk. Carl is gentle, careful, as he attends his lady friend. Rearranging bundles of bamboo, bedding, as if they’re for his own comfort. He holds up something leafy and green, produced from his jacket. Holds it out in his fingers, surprisingly delicate, elegant. A grin spreads over his face – sudden, vivid, like a rainbow – when she reaches out and takes it from his hand. Peter watches his absorption, jealous. Transfixed. Can’t help grinning at the way Carl moves gracefully out of the arc of her claws, swiping softly at empty air, with a gentle smirk. Almost, darling.
And Peter understands that there is nothing ordinary about this man.
Carl looks startled. He pauses, mid-sip, glass stilled at his mouth.
‘Most people are terrible. Boring and tedious and I want to pull my own eyes out after talking to them for ten minutes. But you fascinate me. Once, I spent three hours just looking at your face, and I wasn’t even starting to get bored. I don’t know what you are. And I don’t mean I want to pin you down and study you under bright lights. I mean, I do, a lot, but not just that. You’re interesting and funny and clever and terrifying. I really don’t want you to move out and I’m sorry I tried to experiment on you. I want you.’
There are, Peter realises, rather more people here than he’d imagined. Now that his field of vision widens beyond Carl. Like taking a telescope away from his eye, and watching the world spill back into focus.
Pub. Friday night. And it’s all starting to tug at an unpleasant thread of memory. After-work drinks. Come, Carl had said, in that way Peter has decided means he felt obligated to ask, hoping he’ll say no.
It’s very quiet, he thinks. Suddenly. All the easy background chatter and laughing evaporated, taking all the oxygen with them.
Carl stands up. Without speaking or finishing his drink. Peter has a horrible feeling he’s about to be asked to step outside. He flinches at the sharp swish of metal as Carl zips his jacket.
‘I think,’ says Carl, ‘we’re going home.’
Peter lets himself be guided out of the pub, away from the gentle murmur of goodbyes and Carl’s quiet, blank night all, out through the cluster of smokers outside, and into the heavy silence of the streets.
Carl says nothing. His expression is blank, eyes fixed straight ahead. He doesn’t take away the steady, gentle pressure of his hand on Peter’s wrist, until they are almost home.
Peter counts backwards from one hundred, in French and German and Greek. He recites the planets in the order of their discovery. He lists all the Sugar Babes, past and present. Finally, he can take the fizzing anticipation no more.
‘You said home. Does that mean you’re staying?’
Carl doesn’t look at him; his pace doesn’t falter.
‘Maybe.’ Peter only just catches the soft twerk of his lips, peeking in a sideways glance. Watches Carl fiddle with cigarettes, propping two between his lips.
‘Peter, when did you look at my face for three hours?’
‘Don’t worry, you were asleep.’
Jesus. Carl snorts, concealing it in the cup of his palms, as his lighter flares. Gold light touches the sharp points of his face. Peter wants to drag the pads of his fingers over the same places.
‘Carlos… are you a religious man?’
He sighs and passes a cigarette to Peter, fingers placing it directly in his mouth. The light kiss of his fingertips makes Peter shiver. He memorises it: the soft, velvet pressure.
‘Oh, I’m starting to consider it.’
We love dramarama, right
- Mating Habits - Part B (I of II)