He wakes up at the crack of two the next day and gets dressed even though they've never done anything earlier than yesterday's four. Courtland finds him in the kitchen, sitting on one of the stools with his chin in his hands, staring at the phone on the wall.

"Good date?" she asks.

"No," Felix replies. He reaches out and prods the phone with one wary finger.

"Oh, that's too bad." When he looks up, she's frowning, not teasing. "I liked him. He seemed nice."

"We're still dating," he says firmly. "It just wasn't a good date. And therefore." Felix spreads his hand at the phone, then tucks it under his chin again with a sigh.

"Uh," Courtland says. "Not following. Speak earth, brother."

Felix rolls his eyes. "Therefore, Niko probably didn't get any sleep and isn't eating right. And he lives alone, so no one is there to tell him to do better."

"So…" Her brows raise. "Oh my god. You're thinking of calling him."

"Just thinking," Felix grumbles. He pokes the phone again, morosely, then brightens. "You could call him. About the mulch."

Her grin is too evil to take pity on him. "You're going to call him. Little brother's got a crush."

"You're supposed to like the person you're dating," he growls at her, and snarls more loudly when she ruffles his hair.

"Oh, there's liking, and then there's Felix-calling-someone-on-the-phone," she crows, ducking when he swipes her direction. "I'd tell Niko what an impression he's made on you-but then I'd have to call him, and spare you the pleasure!"

"Eat worms!"

When she leaves him alone at last, Felix turns back to the phone. He draws in a deep breath, in case that helps. He knows the number, but he takes out a pen and paper from the drawer and writes it down again, just in case. That way when he takes the phone off the charging dock he can press each number one at a time, comparing each mark carefully to the one he'd made on the paper so there aren't any mistakes. If he calls the wrong number, that will be— Felix squeezes his eyes shut tightly.

Maybe Niko will just pull up in his truck, and there won't need to be any calls at all. In fact, a call would be bad, would distract him while he was driving. He waits a few minutes, hopeful. But — no. Even Felix knows that isn't going to happen, after a night like the last one. If someone is going to talk to someone else, it's going to be him, calling Niko.

He eases the phone off the dock. Hello, this is Felix, he thinks. Hello, this is Felix. He dials the first two numbers, slowly, carefully checking between his finger and the paper. Hello, my name is Felix. Wait, shit — That wasn't right, if he said that to Niko was going to die, and — what number was he on? Felix frantically stabs the OFF button and sits there for a few seconds, clutching the phone and panting.

Right. He can just run over to Niko's house and knock on the door. That will be better anyway, because Niko will be able to see that Felix wants to be there.

Of course, he'd known that the night before too. Felix had told him so. Of course, Niko hadn't really seemed to believe him. Which was very frustrating. Wolves don't lie, and they hate it when people accuse them of lying. Felix really, really hates it.

Almost, but not quite, as much as he hates phones.

He takes another breath, and dials the number quickly this time, no distractions. When he pushes the final number, he knows that he's made a mistake. He wrote the number down wrong, or his finger slipped and he hit two buttons and he's put in too many, or someone else is going to answer. In fact, he's confident of it. It will be the right number, but someone else will answer Niko's phone, and say, in a sultry voice from a movie, "Niko is busy right now," before throwing the phone out the window.

It's a shock to hear a voice on the line say, "Hey, you've reached Niko."

Felix waits a beat, in case, in hopes, it's an answering machine. "H-hello," he says when the voice doesn't continue. Wait, that's not right. He's supposed to — "It's me," he adds. "Felix?"

"Felix?" the voice echoes. "Wha-How did you know my number?"

He blinks, narrowing his eyes accusingly at the phone. "You gave it to me at the bar," he says.

"I did? Wait, I remember. It was a month ago, and you gave me back the paper. Shit, that was before you even knew my name."

And is this good? Bad? This is one of the many, many reasons Felix hates phones. He can't understand anything. There are no scents, no body language. Even wolf hearing can't help the sounds, because the phone mutes most of the voice timbres.

"Okay," he says.

"Sorry, I just — I didn't expect to hear from you. At all, really. It's good to hear your voice."

That seems alright. Felix's shoulders stop hunching up near his ears, and he slides off the stool to sit on the floor with his back to the wall, bracing the phone on his shoulder. "I'm calling you," he says, aware that's a little inane. "Hi."

"Hi yourself." Now he can hear the warmth curling through the words, and he has to curl up more himself, to stop his insides from moving around. There are shuffling noises on the line, like Niko is moving things — unpacking at last, maybe. "Did you sleep well?"

"No," Felix says. "You were unhappy."

There's a pause on the line. "I wasn't angry at you," Niko says, and now he sounds horrified. "Shit, Fi, I'm sorry. If I'd known you would think that—"

"When you're unhappy," Felix interrupts him, before Niko can go from wrong to wronger, "then you don't sleep."


"So I'm calling to tell you," he says when Niko doesn't go on, "that if you don't sleep then I won't either."

"Is… this blackmail?"

Felix frowns at the phone. "It's common sense."

"It doesn't make sense to me."

He's either amused or angry, and it's deeply frustrating to Felix that he can't tell which. "I hate phones," he says. "I want to see you."

"Do you?" That one is amusement — he thinks. "After last night, and apparently no sleep, are you sure?"

"Yes." Felix jumps to his feet and starts walking laps of the kitchen, trying to get there faster. "We could go to your apartment, or the bar. Or—" He stops pacing in sudden inspiration. "Is it public if it's not your apartment, but no one is there?"

"Uh. Probably?"

"There's a dollar theatre down the street from the bar," Felix says. "My dad takes us there sometimes. There's almost never anyone there, especially if you pick a movie that isn't any good. It doesn't have any bedrooms."

There's another pause. "Fuck, yeah," the voice on the line breathes. "When do you want to go?"

"When can you get here?" Felix asks.

When Niko pulls up in his truck, he looks as bad as Felix suspected, but his smile is brilliant. "Hey there," he says when Felix jumps in. "Thanks, um, thanks for calling."

"Yes," Felix sighs, slumping into his seat.

They pick the movie with the worst poster. There is indeed no one in the flat, sticky theatre. Niko must know what they're there for, because he was the one who pointed out the worst poster. They sit in the back.

But there's something about going to a place just to make out that gives Felix an awful and untimely case of shyness. As pre-movie screen shows rotating bags of popcorn and soda, he fiddles with Niko's jacket instead. Niko's jacket has a lot of zippers. Nice ones, too, the kind that gently whisper instead of rattling when Felix tugs the tab back and forth.

"Why do you always wear this?" he asks.

"You dissing my favorite jacket? I haven't unpacked anything else with sleeves, and I—" Niko pauses overly long, "get cold. I mean… ah, shit. Please don't laugh, okay? I've got a reason for it. I promised my sister she could test out her skills on me when she was first starting out, and I can't get them lased without hurting her feelings..."

He pulls off his jacket awkwardly in the space between Felix and chair arm, left arm then right, and holds them out to the light of the screen, grinning even though his gaze is on the floor. There are flowers everywhere, all up and down his skin, and Felix pounces on one arm with a yelp of excitement, twisting it up to better light. Roses, mostly, and the little bundle-y stick ones that smell fantastic, and white bell droopy ones, all peeking between long grasses and dark forest greens. "There's a frog on your elbow!" Felix exclaims, twirling about Niko's arm to see to the other side. "On a leaf!"

Niko's eyes shut. "You like my girly tattoos," he mutters.

"Yes!" Felix replies happily. "Are there more frogs? Oh, here's a butterfly!"

He's halted in his hunt by Niko kissing him. Finally. One hand twines into hair, the other — Felix thinks he might be going for a thigh, and spreads them more invitingly, but Niko takes up his hand instead. That's fine, too. "You," Niko murmurs against him. "This is going to hurt like a fucking brand."

Felix wishes that he didn't understand that, or, since he can't fault any knowledge, that he didn't agree. If someone else had answered Niko's phone, even to say a stupid movie line, he doesn't know what he would have done. It makes him angry now just to think about.

Better to kiss than to think. Niko's kisses are light and little, gentle, not the kind that Felix likes. "Kiss me like you mean it," he demands.

Niko blinks and murmurs, "Yes, sir."

Felix has wanted to kiss Niko for some time now, but he didn't expect to like it. In his experience that's not what kissing is for. This is different. He kisses until his side burns from twisting, his arm aches from being squashed against the drink holder, his neck is kinked from craning upwards. Still he doesn't want to stop. Niko is gasping, "fuck, fuck, fuck," against his mouth and it's awesome.

And Niko has bare arms now, too. Felix trails his fingers up and down them, feeling warm skin cooling under the theatre's air conditioning, tracing leaves and vines. Goosebumps raise under his touch, and Niko's swearing sharpens.

Felix pulls back to say, "We aren't going to your apartment, because I say 'no'."

Niko's eyes are wild, lit by the screen of cars and explosions, as he stares down at him and pants. "Glad to hear it," he rasps. "Fuck, I am the stupidest man on earth."

"Actually…" Felix hums, thinking. "I like this. It's different. Not forever, but right now." He strokes his palm along Niko's throat, feeling the prickle of stubble, the rough noises. "Oh!" he says. "Are you saving yourself for marriage?"

Niko's eyes shut. "That boat sailed a long time ago," he mutters. "No, I am not saving myself for marriage. I'm just trying to save myself."

"...through religion?" Felix hazards.

"No," Niko says. "Can we drop this?" He winces, pulling away. "Sorry. Habit. Gotta have answers if I want to date you, right."

His long moment of hesitation is out of kissing range, so Felix goes back to the zippers on the now partially discarded coat. There's a receipt in one, for something Felix can't make out in the movie theatre light. He folds it neatly and replaces it, zipping the paper safely back up.

"Can we," Niko says. "Can we talk at my apartment? This place isn't very, uh. Great for talking in."

Felix could agree with that. "Now?"

"Well, we should probably…" He looks at the screen for a long moment. "I have no idea what's going on in this movie. Fuck it, let's go."

The ride back is quiet. Niko reaches over halfway through the drive and puts his hand over Felix's, eyes still on the road. He likes Niko's hands. He likes all of Niko's parts. This is going to hurt like a brand, he thinks.

Just inside Niko's doorway, he stops, sniffing. "Someone is here," he says.

Niko freezes in the act of taking off his shoes and says, "Huh?"

It's that same smell he had smelled the first time, except thick and cloying now, crowding out Niko's much better scent. Felix sniffs again. Down the hall.

"Oh, shit," Niko says.

A man comes out of one of the doors, toweling his hair. He's tall, muscled, and pale haired - all over, clearly, because he isn't wearing anything to block the view. "You're out of soap, Nik," he says. "And beer, what the hell. Who's this, the neighbor?"

"What are you doing here, Joey," Niko asks, his mouth a thin tight line.

"What, now I can't come over? Stop staring, creepy neighbor." The man frowns at Felix, tying the towel around his waist. "Get rid of him and we can talk. And then we can do something else, yeah? I'm bored. The club sucks this week. All uggos."

"You can't be here," Niko says. If he was a wolf, it sounds like all his hair would be on end. He steps forward, not close enough to grab, but enough, Felix thinks a little sourly, to block his view. "Get out."

"Get out," the man mimics, grinning. "Getting mad, are we? Aren't you cute. Why don't you get out and go buy beer. Get Heinekens. And bread, and hurry it up, will you? Someone's gotta suck some cocks around here and it ain't gonna be me." He waves and disappears into another room down the hall.

Niko is a live wire, taut and twitching, hissing breath in through clenched teeth. "Fucking. Shit."

"Will he go away if you don't feed him?" Felix asks doubtfully.

His date barks out a short laugh. "Wouldn't that be great. No. I don't know. Hell, Felix, I'm sorry. I think I'll have to call the cops, except he's." He shuts his eyes. "On the lease."

Felix blinks. "Why?"

"Because I am a colossal idiot," Niko mutters. "Listen, I hate to do this, but I really should take care of this. I can call you an Uber. Or I think my old bus pass is around here somewhere."

"It's fine," Felix says. He could use a run. "I'll call my sister."

"Okay. Good. That's — good. I'll call you in the morning, when I've taken care of this mess."

Felix has seen Niko sad, and tired, and now he guesses he's seen him angry, but he's never seen him this far away. "Okay," he says, and leaves.

But not very far. In the parking lot, he jumps into the back of Niko's truck and goes wolf, turns around three times in a tarp back there and lays down. With wolf ears and nose, he can hear every sound in the apartment, the creak of a door opening, the start of raised voices. He can listen in on everything, if he wants to.

Felix doesn't want to. If they start having sex, he might eat through the side of the truck. But if he puts his paws over his ears, he'll only be able to hear louder noises. Shouts, screams, anything that says Niko is in danger. That, if nothing else, Felix can help with.

The pups know he's in a mood. They crawl all over Felix as he lays on the living room floor, staring up at the beams on the ceiling. One starts chewing on his sweatshirt hood cord. He rescues the cord, which is a choking hazard, and offers his sleeve in its place.

"Maybe some people aren't meant to date," he tells the ceiling. "Of course, some people don't like each other. And some are bad people. But I've always heard that two people who are good people and like each other, without opposing worldviews or obvious fatal flaws, should be able to date."

Another pup starts chewing on his ear, which gives Filex a much more urgent problem to deal with. That concluded, he adds, "Niko was much happier when we weren't dating." He was pretty sure of that, at least.

It was three in the afternoon, and Niko hasn't called yet. Felix had raced home from the truck at six that morning, every bound confident that Niko was just at that very moment picking up the phone and he would miss the call and have to call Niko back. But Niko hadn't called then, or since. He had said he would call in the morning, and even Felix was not tempted to call 3:00 PM morning.

Of course, when the phone does ring — at 4:27 — the last thing he wants to do is answer it. "Courtland!" he shouts at the stairs, tumbling puppies as he rolls to his feet.

"Not your therapist!" she shouts back from her room.

"Therapists don't answer phones either," he grumbles, skidding across the kitchen tile. It's going to be a telemarketer, or whoever it is that calls house lines. His parents, maybe. Lifting the receiver, he stabs at a button and says, "Hello this is Felix."

"I've thrown his fucking corpse out," the voice on the line replies. "He's off the lease, which was a fine and a half, and the landlord now knows that he's absolutely not to be let in again. And I've changed the locks and hidden the spare key in a different place this time. If I never see him again it'll be a day too soon."

After a minute, he adds, "It's Niko."

"I got that," Felix says.

"Okay. Good. So… you sound angry. Which is really reasonable. I don't blame you one bit. I'd hate me too, after that."

Apparently Felix isn't the only one who has trouble hearing on the phone. "I don't hate you," he says. "And I'm not angry. I'm very tired. And hungry. I haven't had breakfast yet."

There's silence for a beat. "Do you. Want me to pick you up something?"

"You could make me breakfast," Felix suggests, brightening.

"I… could do that. Shit, I don't have any bread for toast."

"I'll bring bread," Felix declares. "You bring your truck."

Niko looks even worse than ever when he stops by. If they keep dating, Felix thinks mournfully, by the end of the week he'll be dead. "Hey," Niko says, leaning across the cabin to open the passenger door for him. "So, I didn't realize it was almost five. Do you really want—"

"Yes," Felix says, and shoves the bread into his hands.

"Breakfast it is. Thanks. I've got some—"

"Do you want to keep dating?" Felix demands, twisting in his seat to sink both hands into Niko's jacket, in case the man is thinking of escaping.

Niko's eyes go wide, then shut. "I could see where the last few days would cause a reasonable person to ask that," he mutters. "Scared you off, have I?"

"That's not what I asked," Felix points out, annoyed. "I asked if you want to keep dating. Because what we were doing before, with poker and the bars, that was fine. You seemed to like that. Also, you sometimes ate and slept."

The man's shoulders raise. "If you want to. I could — manage that."

"Not." Felix pokes his chest, hard. "What. I. Asked. What do you want."


Felix's eyes go wide, and Niko jerks back and away, ending up pressed against his truck door, his hands tight on his steering wheel. "Sorry," he says gruffly. "I know that's a lot. After a few days, and all this crap. I, shit, I really thought…" Niko laughs, his head thunking forward to rest on the wheel between his hands. "I really thought that as long as we didn't actually have sex that I would be less — stupid."

"Osmosis," Felix says slowly. Niko doesn't ask for an explanation, but he doesn't say anything else, either, so he adds, "If most of your exes are like the one last night, then their stupidness might have osmosed to you during sex."

The corner of Niko's mouth twitches, at least. "That explains it."

"I'm rather smart," Felix offers.

"You are." Niko turns his head enough to look at him through one eye over a leather covered arm. "What do you want?" he asks. "I just realized that you didn't say."

"You didn't ask," Felix points out.

"Consider yourself asked now."

It's an interesting question. "I don't want you to make yourself sick," he says. "I don't like making mistakes and doing the, the wrong thing." Felix makes a face. He really hates that. "But I don't think I'd be happier if we weren't dating."

"That's an appropriate amount of enthusiasm," Niko mutters.

"I don't like having to do very hard work," Felix goes on, ignoring him. "But I also like a challenge. And I want. You."

Niko raises his head. "You still want to sleep with me, even knowing Joey has been on my bed? Sleeping, I swear, and not with me, the fucker passed out on the bed and he's too heavy to shove, and I swear on my life that I slept in the tub last night. I would never — not even if you and I weren't dating. If you want to go back to how things were before, I would still be, uh," his voice drops to a mutter, "faithful. Couldn't not be."

"No," Felix says. "That is, yes, I want to sleep with you. But I also." He waves a hand to encompass Niko's general direction. "The rest."

"The…" Niko reaches out, brushing his thumb along the edge of Felix's jaw. "Are you serious?"

His tone makes Felix frown and squirm. "I'm always serious," he grumbles.

Niko kisses him for it, which is a good incentive as any to stay that way.

They have to stop kissing so Niko can drive, which he does with more speed than his usual caution permits. The apartment is empty as promised, though stinking. Felix opens a few windows to let the air in, leaning carefully over boxes. He's not trying to spy, but Niko was telling the truth — there's no smell of sex here. Although. Nose wrinkling, he says, "You should change your sheets."

"Good idea," Niko says. He goes to strip the bed. Felix follows after. Changing sheets is one of his least favorite chores — wolves hate to lose their bedding — but he wants to see Niko's room. It's bare of anything but a low-slung bed and a decorative line of cardboard against one wall, and a lamp set at a careful angle on one of boxes. Niko moves aside the lamp to pull out some sheets, and at Felix's gesture, tosses him a corner.

As they make the bed, Niko says, "Sorry. He's a smoker. I always hated that."

"Stinks," Felix agrees. "You're better off without him."

"I guess I am," Niko says, his mouth quirking.

They get the stupid fitted sheet on, and a more cooperative upper sheet, which Felix feels is plenty. "Osmosis," he reminds Niko.

"What about it? Reminding me of all the times I've lost brain cells?"

"No," Felix says, rolling his eyes. "I'm reminding you that if you want to be smarter, you would sleep with me."

Niko has to stop fussing with the sheets, he's laughing so hard. Felix does not feel he deserves this, but he's glad to hear Niko laugh again. "Really?" Niko manages to gasp. "That's all it takes?"

"Not all," Felix corrects. "But it's a good start."

"Then—" Niko stretches out one long arm and catches him with it, throwing them both onto the bed.

Finally. Felix twists in his grip so he can get a good handhold, both hands in Niko's jacket and a leg over his hips as he kisses and kisses the man, his grinning mouth, the sides of his jaw, his brow. His neck. Felix will never admit that cliche. Niko, in turn, gets both his hands in Felix's long curls and holds him close.

"All this time, and I don't really know what you like," the man breathes against him. "Am I even your type?"

"You have too many clothes on," Felix observes. He realizes his own boots can't be comfortable and leans up to swing them over the side of the bed, bending to tug at the laces. "Pants and shirt off," he orders. "And jacket. Keep anything else you have on."

Niko's eyes widen. "Yes, sir."

Anything else ends up being just a pair of boxers. Felix flicks his gaze up and down contemplatively. Niko is long and lean, skin bare of any marks save the ink that covers his arms and shoulders. Sparsely haired and Mediterranean tan. Best of all, his chest is heaving, his head bent forward as if he can't bear to have every part of him so far away. "On the bed, on your back."

This time Niko just obeys, which pleases him. Felix reaches up and undoes the clip on his hair, shaking his head until it tumbles down his back in a waterfall of red curls, then slides onto the bed himself, swinging a leg over Niko's hips to straddle him. "You asked what I like." Thinking a moment, he corrects, "You implied that you wanted to know what I like. I like doing what I want. I'm going to tell you want I want, and if that sounds like something you want to do, then you should do it. If you don't want to do it, then I'll tell you something else that I like. I like more than one thing. If you decide you don't like something, then any combination of no, stop, and don't do that are sufficient. Does this make sense?"

"It sounds suspiciously easy," Niko croaks, staring up at him. "But, uh. Yeah, I'm all good with that."

"Good." Felix eases his weight back, slipping down the bed. "I'm going to suck your cock for awhile now. But don't come in my mouth, because I don't like that."

"O-okay — Christ."

Wolves are very good with their mouths.

When Niko is whining with each breath, a small, helpless sound pulled from his throat, Felix pulls his head back and switches to stroking with his hand, long, easy pets that make Niko's fingers clench into the mattress. "You're a very patient person," he notes, leaning his head down to lick absently along the slit and pulling another whine from Niko. "I've noticed that, when you play poker. I don't want you to come yet."

Niko, sweat on his brow and jaw clenched shut, just nods. Felix rewards him with a smile.

"Good." With a parting lick, he slides up the man's body again, arching up to pull of his shirt and undo the button on his jeans, tossing the cloth aside.

"Fuck," Niko murmurs. "That's all between you and the world, a little piece of metal?"

"Not always." Felix hums a little, sniffing the air. That box, there. He goes and collects the lube, then climbs back onto his former position. Niko makes a soft, almost wounded noise when he scoops some out of the jar and starts to open himself up. "Hands back down," he orders, and Niko obeys even though he looks pained to do it. "You can touch later."

"Fucking hell." Niko whimpers, fingers flexing again. "Condoms are. In the box beneath the lamp."

Felix pauses. "Do we have to?"

"Uh." The man's forehead wrinkles as he forces its contents to work again. "I'm clean. You?"

"Yes." He wouldn't be, but for being immune. Felix likes being a wolf.

"Jesus. Carry on, then."

He does a rough job of it, half out of a careless regard for pain and half for urgency, and sighs his pleasure to Niko's groan when he sinks down at last. "How long can you last?" he asks, adjusting his position for comfort.

"I think I'm numb," the man says through gritted teeth.

"Really?" He wriggles his way down until Niko's back arches, his breath a harsh rasp. "That doesn't sound numb to me."

"You're fucking maddening," Niko gasps. "Are you going to move or just kill me?"

"Haven't decided yet," Felix says. "You can touch me now if you'd like."

Niko does better than that, curling up to near sitting, where he can grab Felix's waist with one arm and clench a fist into his hair with the other. They can't quite kiss, but Felix can guess from the wild black eyes that he wants to. He wants to, he realizes in some surprise. To kiss even when they could be doing something more interesting.

"How about we move yet," Niko says.

Felix orders, "Make me."

For all that he wants to join Felix's gym, which is of course just being a wolf, Niko is plenty strong. He's good at this too, attentive to Felix's pleasure even half out of his head with need. He doesn't need to be. Felix can see to his own self, is used to it — prefers it sometimes — but Niko touches him like this is what he wants.

He comes under Niko's hand somewhere along the way, but that's not what he's here for, not the interesting bit. It's the clench and pull of Niko's hips, the way his sides heave. How he lifts up in desperation, seeking something in Felix more perfectly than anyone else has. Or maybe it's just that it's Niko. He likes this face, sweat-sheened, lip-bitten. He takes Niko's jaw between his fingertips and dares to meet his gaze full-on, even though both their faces warm for it. Even though it's almost too much.

"Please," Niko whispers.

"Go on," Felix says.

Niko comes with a throaty growl, eyes half-shutting, and Felix can feel it. This is what he wants. What he goes home with strangers in bars for. It's just distracting how Niko falls back down to the pillows with a groan, so that what he wants to do is pull off instead of luxuriating in the feeling and curl up at his side. He does that. It's good.

He wakes to a room just lit with setting sunlight. Niko is crouched over him, head by his groin. "Morning," his partner rumbles. "May I?"

Felix thinks about this. "In the shower," he decides. "Up."

Under the spray of water, after the requisite scrubbing Felix insisted on, Niko makes good on his word. On his knees, looking up at Felix like— He threads the man's short dark hair through his fingers and thinks, okay. Yes. This.

The rest of the evening goes much the same, and then night, and the next morning. They have breakfast three separate times, since eggs and toast is about all either will make time for. Eventually — reluctantly — Felix insists on being driven home, because he has a few creeping deadlines and a howl in the distance implies a search party is about to be sent out for him.

His mother is home, back from the law office early. She and Courtland are waiting in the kitchen with identical grins. "Have a good time?" she asks dryly when Felix shuffles in, blinking exhaustion and reeking a hundred different scents.

"Tolerable," he replies, drags himself upstairs for his fourth shower of the day, and falls onto his bed in instant sleep.

Only to be awoken, not — he glances at the clock with a groan — four hours later, by the familiar chirp of a truck locking outside. It can't be sex again, he's not even sure when he can have sex again, and they don't have a poker game that he knows of. He should just go back to bed.

Except, he's out of bed and pulling on a shirt before he even makes sure the truck is Niko's and not just a neighbor's new purchase. And he hurries going down the stairs, just a little.

It is Niko, of course, standing with his shoulders set so submissively that he might roll over soon to show his belly, as he talks to Felix's mother. "I am very sorry about any worry I might have caused you, ma'am," he's saying. "I'll be sure to have him call next time — oh, hi, Fi."

Felix shouldn't like Niko's grin this much. It's an entirely embarrassing grin.

"Hi," he says. "You can call."

"I'll call, sure," Niko says, grin widening even further. "Sorry for getting you out of bed. Only, I've got a surprise for you, and I couldn't just drive around all day with it."

"Surprise?" It doesn't seem to be a big mug of tea, which would be a big help about now.

"In the truck. Come and see? It was very nice to meet you, ma'am," he says earnestly, to which Felix's mother says with a particularly toothy smile, "You can call me Sheila."

Soon they would be exchanging numbers instead of giving Felix presents. Groaning, he leaps for Niko's hand and drags him outside.

"What is it?" he demands to know. There's something in Niko's scent, but that might just be — well, it seems Niko hadn't gone for his fourth shower. Maybe Felix can manage more sex after all.

His boyfriend rubs the back of his neck. "Well, I promised you a reward for being my poker partner, right? And I guess I should have held out until the very end, but if we're going to be dating, then I figured I could extend you the loan—"

Now Felix can place that smell. He should have known it at once. He spins like a dancer, rushing to the truck parked in the driveway, and flings open the door.

In a shallow box on the passenger seat, his seat, is the tiniest, blackest ball of fur. She blinks up at him and makes a little sound, wobbling on clumsy legs across the cardboard.

"Oh," Felix whispers, and picks up the kitten with gentle hands. "Hello there. Hello."

She has a little curly tail, and four little knife-tipped paws, and two ears that stick up at just the right angle. Felix has never seen anything more perfect.

"She's so soft," he tells Niko, who had followed at a more sedate pace. "She's purring!"

"I've heard cats do that," Niko replies. His smile is almost as warm as the kitten. "She, huh?" he muses. "I don't know how to tell on one that litte. The lady's going to need her shots. Oh, uh, and maybe a flea shot, or whatever they do to fleas. I'll pay of course, since that'd be a lousy gift otherwise. I found her outside when I went to get lunch, and figured it must be fate, you know? Do you like her?"

"Yes," Felix says at once. "I will need to get food, and a bed, and bowls. And an apartment."

He frowns, twisting back to look at the house. Both Courtland and his mother are spying through his window, Courtland still in fur. Her excited barking has set off the puppies, who are now starting a howl downstairs. "Definitely an apartment," he decides.

"Woah, hold on there." Niko is staring at him, one hand buried in his hair. "You asked for a cat when you couldn't have one?"

"It won't take long to get an apartment," Felix insists, frowning at him. "I just didn't expect to need to get one so soon. And until then, she can… she can live at the bar. Probably. Or somewhere else. I'll figure it out."

"Uh huh." Niko sighs, rolling his eyes skyward. "Don't sweat it. She can stay with me until you think of something."

"Really?" That's cheering news. The kitten, now chewing on Felix's thumb, hopefully agrees. "Then I'll get to see your house when I visit her!"

Niko huffs out a laugh. "You don't need a gold plated invitation to visit, Fi, you can just ask."

"Can we visit now?" Felix holds the kitten out towards him. "She wants us to go."

"Does she." Niko's grin is soft, his eyes softer, even though Felix knows he's being rude. "Get in the truck then, both of you."

Felix looks on delightedly as the kitten crawls all over him during the car ride. "What's her name?" he asks.

"Shit, you're asking me? She didn't exactly have a collar."

"But…" Felix curls her tail about his fingers. "Some people aren't good at names. She's got to have the right one."

"Give it some time and maybe it will come to you." Niko gives him a sidelong look as he drives. "How come I'm always getting you out of bed? You work night shifts or something?"

Felix shrugs. "There's not a shift," he says. "There's just math."

"Uh huh. There's a name for you. Math the cat."

"That's an awful name," says Felix.

"So, poker," he says and Felix rolls his eyes, petting the kitten's soft fur as she nibbles on his fingers. "Not as a name. I was just thinking we should play soon. I've got almost enough…" He goes quiet for long enough that he has to tear his gaze away from the cat's adorable face to look at Niko's instead.

"Poker," Niko repeats, eyes not leaving the road. "We're quite a pair, you and I. You have fun playing, right?"

That's an odd question. "It's a job," Felix says.

"One you insist on not getting paid for." Felix lifts the kitten up meaningfully, and Niko's expression cracks a little into a smile. "A stray cat's not payment. I'm just wondering if you like it. Poker, not the cat."

Felix's brow furrows. "It doesn't matter if I like it," he says. "It's a…" Duty. Obligation. Pact? "It's what we do."

"Right," Niko says. He doesn't sound like he likes this answer, and Felix slides down a little in his seat. "I've just been thinking that we've been doing other things together lately."

"You want me to pick between poker and sex?" Felix asks. "Sex."

Niko grins this time. "That's what I'd pick too," he says, "if that was the choice. But people who are dating usually do something else aside from sex."

"We drive around in your truck," Felix points out.

"That's not really — Actually… sure. If you had to pick between poker, and driving around in my truck. Which doesn't even make sense, because we drive to poker in my truck, but, uh, it doesn't matter. Which one?"

"That's a weird question," Felix says. "Your truck. We can talk more here."

Niko huffs out a laugh, reaching over to squeeze Felix's hand. "I like this too," he says. "Listen, what I'm really trying to say is, we might be winning a little too much poker. People are starting to get, uh, suspicious. And I only really need one last hand, as far as money is concerned. But if it's what you really want to do, if you want to have me as your poker partner, I'll figure something out. We can take a trip out to Vegas, or something."

"But if you want to maybe do something else," he adds, "with me, then we could take a trip anywhere else. Or hell, to Vegas, but just to have fun, not to work."

"You're bored with poker?" Felix guesses.

"I'm not bored with you," Niko says firmly.

"Good," he replies. "I like trips." Felix brightens. "We could go to the mall!"

Niko's grin is blinding. "Sure, the mall," he says. "Why the hell not. Or maybe — hell."

The stupid man from the shower is leaning against Niko's apartment door, smoking a cigarette. Niko goes rigid, his knuckles white when he puts his truck in park. Felix tucks the kitten carefully into one of his pockets as they get out.

"Your door is locked," the man announces when they're close enough. "The hell, Nik. I thought you had a bigger heart than this."

"You are not coming in."

"Not like I wanted to stay," Joey says, sneering. "I'm just here for my money. You owe me."

Felix doesn't know what to make of this, but Niko apparently does, is already reaching for his wallet as if he'd been waiting for just that. He pulls out a startling fistful of bills. They smell like alcohol and old wood, sweat and smoke. Like poker, Felix realizes. And something else, that smells even more of lumber and stone, maybe another job. He's never thought to ask Niko what he does when they aren't playing cards. Maybe soon he'll find out.

"It's all there," Niko says, as coldly as Felix has ever heard him.

He thrusts the bundle forward into his ex's waiting hand. The man starts flipping through them, taking his time. He seems glad to make them wait. Felix could have counted them in the time it takes him to flip one bill to another.

"Look at that," Joey says. "You're a Benny short."

Niko goes white, then red. "You fucking—"

"I've got it," Felix says. He pulls out his checkbook and, patting around his kitten-less pockets, a pen, then crouches on the ground to fill out the check on the sidewalk. Finished, he hands it over.

"A check," the man said. "What year are you from, creepy neighbor?" He peers at the check to check the amount, then jerks his head up with a flush to his cheeks. "What the fuck? I can't cash this, not when it's addressed to—"

"You can," Felix says primly. "It won't be easy, but you can cash checks with names that are just a bit wrong."

"Some people need lessons," the man growls, only to start walking very quickly as Niko more or less bodily propels him towards the parking lot.

"You're leaving now," he says pleasantly, "and if you ever touch Felix, remember that I know where you live."

Joey goes pale at the threat. Felix suspects that Niko might follow his statement, if prompted, with so I will come and frown at it in a very heartfelt manner, so he doesn't prompt him.

Ex deposited in the lot, Niko stalks back Felix's way, passing him to unlock the apartment door. Joey glares their way as he pockets the money and just a bit profane check. When he sees Felix watching him, he gives him the finger.

Felix just smiles widely, very widely, showing every one of his teeth. The man lets out a very gratifying "What the fuck" and leaves with speed.

"Good riddance," Niko mutters, and ushers them both inside.

The cat loves the apartment and all its boxes, thunking around inside one with excited leaps. They stand in the front hall and watch her for a few therapeutic minutes.

"Hair is going to get on everything," Niko says, sounding a good deal better. "I'll find a place for her. Why don't you put Math in the bathroom there in the meanwhile."

"Her name isn't Math," Felix sighs. He scoops her up, untangles her from a shoelace, and carries her into the room Niko points at. Felix loves other people's bathrooms. Well, not the smells — too much mildew and wet, like a swamp not safe for a den — but everything else, the nooks and drawers, the soaps and shampoos, the odds and ends unique to every owner. Niko has mint toothpaste, a rust-speckled blowdryer, and five combs on the counter. The cat knocks all of the combs onto the floor. She seems to like bathrooms, too.

When Felix finishes picking those up and turns, Niko is behind him, arms full balancing a bowl, a can of tunafish, and a cookie sheet covered in cat litter. "Luckily I had some for getting the car out of ice," he says, his grin sheepish. "What about the name Algebra? Or, what's-it, Calculus. Calcula?"

Felix takes the bowl from him, fills it carefully with water and sets it on the floor; pulls the tab off the tuna and puts it beside the bowl; moves the tray over beside the shower door, just avoiding clocking the cat as she makes a mad scramble for the fish. Then he reaches up to put his hands on Niko's stubble-roughed cheeks, rises up on tiptoe and presses a kiss against his mouth.

"Thank you," he says. He then thanks him for several minutes more.

When he pulls back, Niko's eyes are algow, and he looks so happy. Felix has to squash down a reflex to tell him not to be. Not because he doesn't want Niko to be happy, but because he looks so vulnerable, and Felix has complete confidence that he will ruin it. This, the happiness, Niko. He may be feeling vulnerable himself.

He says, "Do you have any food?"

Niko has a fridge full of meats and cheeses and vegetables, and a bag of pretzels in the cupboard, which he gives to Felix to crunch on as he pulls out this and that and begins chopping them. "What do you want this time?" he asks as Felix hops up on an unused bit of counter, legs swinging. "We ran us out of eggs. I'm going to have to start buying them in bulk if you stick around."

Felix crunches down another pretzel and says, "Bacon?"

"Traditionally a breakfast food," Niko says. "Aren't you sick of breakfast yet?"

"I like breakfast," Felix says.

"So do I," Niko admits, grinning. "Bacon and potatoes, then. And you like mushrooms."

"How do you know that?" They haven't had any yet.

"You ordered them at the bingo parlor once, remember? I know you."

"Oh," says Felix. He's just realized that he's in love. This vexes him. He crunches through three pretzels in quick succession, and then has to dive for the sink and water.

When the potatoes are in the oven and the bacon is cooking under a lid, Niko comes over to stand beside him. His hair has gotten mussed, probably when they were in the bathroom, so Felix fixes it, brushing with his fingers first this way and then that, unable to determine whether he likes it better when it's framing the man's eyes or slicked back. Niko, who clearly cares about its styling, just smiles at him. He should tell me to stop, Felix thinks.

Niko just leans against him.

Breakfast is great for yet another time that day. The cat — who will not be called Math, or Cosine, or Y-Axis, even though Felix can't think of anything better right now — is fast asleep when Felix goes to check on her. He and Niko go to the bedroom, the only box-free surface in the house, and lay down on the bed, his head against Niko's shoulder, the man's arm around him.

"I think I've been waiting for that," Niko murmurs into his hair. "Getting rid of Joey, I mean. I can move in, now that's I'm pretty sure I won't have to pack up and get out of town again."

Felix has never had to move because an enemy is behind him. He shivers. "You're safe," he says.

"That's a way to put it," Niko mutters, ears reddening, but he looks pleased.

"So, you know all my secrets now," he says. "And my bad habits. Getting in debt, my messy apartment, my absolutely godawful taste in boyfriends — everyone but you of course. My girly tattoos. My weakness for breakfast."

Felix hums happily. "I like knowing things," he says. "I like knowing you."

Niko, alone of anyone he knows, seems to understand how much that means. His kiss is delightful. "Thank you," he murmurs after. "I like knowing you. That you like mushrooms and kittens. Crunchy foods. But that's not really a secret. What have you got left for me, hmm? Any vices? Horrible exes? The dark family past?"

Felix says, "I can think of one thing."


A/N: I hope you enjoyed this story! I loved writing it. For more information and rambling about the themes, characters, etc, I posted information on my LJ (search for iceramyst and LJ).