Park Bench

Jun. 14th, 2013 01:43 am
madra_liath: (Godot)
[personal profile] madra_liath
Summary: Homeless Diego meets a kindly artist. Written for the Phoenix Wright Kink Meme.

***

It was still early, but the milk was already warm. He’d stolen it off the truck, not a doorstep, but it still tasted like guilt. Diego drank it down anyway. Beside him on the park bench, Mia lapped up her share from an empty margarine tub. Diego let his fingers trail through her black and white fur as she drank. She didn’t shy away from his touch any more, and it made him smile.

He dropped the empty milk bottle into the trash can next to the bench, and heaved a sigh. It was funny – days like this, when he had some food hoarded up and it wasn’t raining, should be good ones. And yet the boredom, more than anything, was eating away at his soul. Too much time to sit and think. At least scavenging and searching for shelter gave him something to do.

Diego shifted on the bench and slipped his hand into his pocket. He took out his watch and sighed again when he saw how early it was. The shelter didn’t open for another seven hours. He could camp outside till it did, maybe get a place for the night. There was supposed to be a squat on Factory Row – he could check that out. See if it was a suitable place for an impressionable little kitten. Diego smirked to himself and leaned back against the bench. This is your life, amigo. This is how it’s ending.

He closed the watch and gazed at its surface. It was a fob, silver – so his father had always said. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t pawned it yet. Maybe because it was the last thing of value he had left. Pride, integrity, character – they were all gone. A man has to have something to hold onto.

The thump of paws on the bench beside him caught Diego’s attention. Mia had pounced on the reflection the watch was casting on the wood. Diego smirked. He moved the watch slightly, watching as Mia followed the reflection intently before pouncing again. Soon Diego had her running up and down the bench after it, pouncing and then looking around in confusion for her prey. Eventually she tired of the game and stretched out on the sun-warmed wood beside him.

Diego’s smirk faded as he put the watch away. Mia wasn’t as playful as she had been, and it wasn’t just because she was growing up. Milk was all very well, but she needed meat. He set her free to forage whenever he went dumpster diving, and she was a good scavenger, but it wasn’t the same as clean food twice a day. He should turn her into the animal shelter while she was still young and cute enough to be adopted.

He stroked the white fur on her belly, looked up, and froze.

A young woman with long, blue hair was sitting on the bench opposite him. She had some kind of book on her knees, and she was staring at him.

Diego gazed back at her, starting to feel nervous. Somebody staring was always bad. Cops and store owners staring at him, little bastards with firecrackers staring at Mia. Maybe she recognised his coat. He’d taken it from the bus terminal a few weeks earlier. He was all alone in the waiting room, trying to look like a commuter, and it was just lying there – nothing in the pockets, no nametag in the lining, and he was so cold. Diego didn’t care about going to jail, but he didn’t want them to take the coat away. It covered four layers of rags and he looked almost respectable with it on. She was still staring. It was the coat, it had to be. Diego picked Mia up and began to rise.

“W-wait!”

The speed at which she moved caught Diego off-guard. He froze in place, the woman now only a few feet from him. She was clutching the book to her chest.

They stared at each other for a few seconds. Then the woman thrust a hand towards him.

“Please stay.”

She had a handful of crumpled, sweaty bills clenched in her outstretched fist. Diego wet his lips – there was a five in amongst the ones. Clean food for Mia. A cup of coffee. Change for the laundrette.

Nobody just gave a homeless guy that much money.

Diego slowly sat back down, keeping a tight hold on Mia, and eyed the woman suspiciously. The woman fumbled with her book with her free hand, and clumsily flipped it around.

“I’m – I’m drawing you,” she stammered. “See?”

Diego leaned forward slightly as she held out the sketchbook. The page was covered with charcoal drawings. Him sitting on the bench. Mia pouncing. His fingers in Mia’s fur. His watch in the palm of his hand. His visor.

The woman offered him the cash again. Her whole arm was trembling.

“…please?”

He’d done worse things for less money.

Diego smirked at her as he accepted the cash. “You got yourself a model, kid.”

A shy smile spread across the woman’s face.

She spent most of the morning sketching him in silence while he sat on the bench with Mia. Occasionally she asked him to change position, or play with Mia. Once she asked him to open his coat. He couldn’t refuse – it was her money. He undid the buttons hesitantly, wary of her reaction. But there was no sign of shock or pity; only the keen eye of an artist as she sketched and shaded every tatter, every hole, every stain.

When the cathedral bells tolled for twelve o’clock Mass, the woman stood up and asked him quietly to please stay, she would be back. Diego took the opportunity to relieve himself behind a tree while she was gone. About half an hour later she returned, with a sandwich and a coffee and a tin of kitten food for Mia.

Mia was wary of the stranger at first, but as soon as the woman opened the tin and set it on the bench, she darted forward and began to devour the food. Diego smirked as he bit into the sandwich – chicken and tomato and cheese. He ate half, then wrapped the rest back up and slipped it into his tatty backpack for later. The coffee was a frothy, creamy, sugary abomination, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, and enough of the rich bitter darkness cut through the treacle to satisfy his cravings.

Mia licked the tin clean and promptly padded over to the young woman, rubbing her head against her arm and purring loudly. The woman smiled and tentatively stroked Mia between her ears. Mia rolled on her back and batted at the woman’s fingers.

“She likes you,” Diego remarked.

The woman ducked her head shyly.

“I’m almost finished,” she said quietly. “Maybe another hour?”

“Fine by me,” Diego replied. He stretched and leaned back against the bench. “I don’t have any board meetings today.”

The woman gave a nervous, awkward chuckle and moved back to her own bench. Diego closed his eyes and sipped his coffee. Mia climbed onto his lap and cuddled up against his chest. Diego idly ran his fingers through her fur and watched the young artist as she worked. At last she began to pack up her pencils. Diego stayed where he was as she stood up and came towards him.

“Thank you.” She offered him her hand.

Diego moved to take it, then looked at the grime on his palm and grimaced. He brushed his hand against the cleanest spot on his grubby sweatpants, then shook her hand.

“You’re welcome.”

Diego watched her go, sketchbook and materials tucked securely under one arm. Once she was out of sight, he picked Mia up and went to stretch his legs.

***

The squat on Factory Row was full of drug addicts. It was no place for Mia. Diego found a spot in an alley under a fire escape, across and down a block from the Kitaki’s bakery. He could watch the big grandma and her fat son coming and going, and steal day-olds from their dumpster when the place was locked up.

Sometimes they had meat pies or sausage rolls. But not often enough for Mia.

***

He was sitting near the entrance to his alley, Mia huddled against him for warmth. The big electronics store across the street was still open, the TVs in the window showing a PSA for an animal rescue charity. Before and after pictures flashed across the screens – starving dogs with matted fur staring sadly at the camera in the rain, then the same dogs clean and well-fed, with loving owners. Diego looked down at Mia, curled up on his lap. It was selfish to keep her when he couldn’t care for her. She deserved to be some little girl’s cat, always up on her bed, getting fed people-food from the table, chasing jingly balls and mice full of catnip across the kitchen floor.

“E-excuse me.”

The soft voice startled him a little, and he curled a protective hand around Mia as he looked up. The woman from the park was standing over him. Diego relaxed, letting out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding.

“Hey there, kiddo.”

The woman shifted her weight nervously.

“I…I sold a picture of you,” she said. She fished in her back pocket. “And – I thought you should have… because you were the subject and the buyer –” The woman held out a few bills. “ – the buyer really liked it and…”

She trailed off. Diego looked at the cash clenched in her fist. It wasn’t life-changing money, not for him. But for someone with rent and electricity and water bills to pay, it was a pretty nice bonus.

“What’s your dayjob, kiddo?”

The woman swallowed. “I clean offices.”

Diego gave her a rueful smile.

“Keep your money, kid,” he told her. She tried to protest and he shook his head. “You paid me already. Buy yourself some new paints.”

The woman reluctantly put the money away. “But I want to help you,” she murmured. “Isn’t there anything I can do?”

Abruptly Mia got off Diego’s lap and went to the woman, winding herself around her legs and mewing for attention. The woman smiled and leaned down to pet her.

“Hey kitty,” she said, stroking Mia between her ears. “Remember me?”

Diego’s heart sank. He knew what he had to do.

“She really likes you.”

The woman smiled at him. “She’s a cutie.”

Diego wet his lips.

“She – she’s not gonna make it out here with me,” he said quietly. “She’ll get hit by a car or bit by a dog…or some punk’ll take her and torture her just to make me mad.” The woman looked up at him, appalled. Diego swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. The worst part was that he wasn’t exaggerating. All three scenarios had become his special nightmares ever since he’d found Mia. “Would you take her to the shelter for me?”

The woman shook her head and gathered Mia up in her arms. “I’ll take her home with me.”

Diego had known she would say that, but didn’t let it show. “Are you sure?”

The woman nodded. Mia snuggled against her chest and rubbed her head along the woman’s jaw.

“She’s not housebroken,” Diego warned. “And she needs her shots. And you should worm her right away.”

The woman nodded. “I will.” She smiled at him. “I’ll take care of her.”

Diego smiled back. “Thank you.”

The woman gave him one last smile, then turned and walked away. Diego watched her disappear down the street and into the night. Mia was already forgetting him. She’d sleep indoors tonight, in a cardboard box on an old blanket. She’d have clean food and water and someone taking care of her for the rest of her life.

He pulled his coat tighter around him, and tried to get warm.

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