sparsenicjade
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Author's Notes: Um, this is a fair bit of crack. Funnily enough, the most OOT part of it that isn’t the basic premise is actualfax a true story that I totally stole from a classmate. But yes, crack.

Thank you: To octette for the beta, and for her encouragement, and to foxxcub, for running this exchange again.

***


anna_luna made pitch perfect, absolutely faboo cover art for this, and I kind of owe her my soul. Really.

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***


"Are you sure you're a lawyer?" Mikey realized, a second after the words came out of his mouth, that he'd actually said them.

Luckily, the guy on the other side of the desk didn't seem offended. In fact, he was laughing. He held out a hand--black and white ink peering out from his rolled up shirtsleeves to his wrists. "Pete Wentz. If it makes you feel better about my qualifications, it's actually Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III."

Mikey had the grace to blush, or, well, feel slightly hot around the area of his cheeks. Gee said Mikey never visibly blushed. "Sorry, I just-- Yeah, okay. I'm Mikey Way. And I'm not generally an asshole."

"Eh, you're hot enough to get away with it, Mikeyway."

Mikey blinked. Pete ran a hand through his hair. "Oh, and if you could not mention I said that? It's not very ethical to sexually harass our client base. I mean, not that it's super ethical to sexually harass anyone, obviously, but most of our clients can't afford fancy lawyers or even mildly shiny ones, so, uh, yeah. It's totally not right to run them off."

Mikey asked, "Will you help me get my heat turned back on?"

Pete stared at Mikey for a second. "It's below freezing out there."

"Yeah, um. We have gas, and the payments have been a little...exorbitant. I was trying to pay some of it for a while, but then the mortgage payment was due, and Gee lost his job, again and--" Mikey bit the inside of cheek. This was all unimportant. "I'll pay. I just need some time, is all."

"Right, no, I meant that it's completely illegal for them to have turned off your heat at this time of year."

"Oh," Mikey said, feeling pretty stupid.

Pete nodded. "It'll take a couple of days, it always does with the utility companies. You would think, given the dire nature of the problem, that there would be a way to cut through all the red tape, but there isn't, I'm sorry. I can see if maybe we can find you and your roommate?" Pete looked hopeful. "Somewhere to stay."

"Brother," Mikey said absently. "No, that's… That's nice of you, but we have pets."

"We can find somewhere--"

Mikey bit back a sigh before interrupting. "Lots of pets."

Pete's forehead furrowed a bit. "How many is a lot?"

Without counting the indigents? Mikey counted silently under his breath. There were the dogs, Piglet, Edgar, Winston, Angelica, and Tintin; the cats, Bunny, Sundae, Maple, Caligula, Mopsy, and Gibson; the rabbits, Anya, Armand, and Hans Christian; the geckos, Slinky and Crackerjack; the lizard, Lucky; the turtles, Molasses and Harry; the guinea pig, Lite Brite, and his friends the mice, Steinbeck and Madeleine, plus the rats, Nimh, Sasha, Peter, and Edvard; the canary, Billie, and the parrot, Elton. "Twenty-eight."

"I really, really don't want to know if that's legal in your housing development, or if you've gotten a state permit for them," Pete said decisively.

Mikey didn't either. The last thing he and Gerard needed was to lose the house. He didn't have a fucking clue what they'd do in that situation. "Is that going to be a problem?"

"Between worrying that you might be exposing some of your neighbors to fleas and leaving you guys to freeze to death, I'm thinking I'm going to just pretend I don't know."

Mikey frowned. "We take care of our fr--pets."

Pete considered Mikey for a moment, clearly having noticed the slip. "Hey, I didn't mean that you would, I don't know, abuse them, or anything. It's just, there's a reason for those statutes, you know? Most people with that many animals--"

"We aren't most people," Mikey told him. Mikey knew exactly how most people treated animals. The knowledge made him cold inside, angry in a way that was unsettling.

Pete tilted his head, but then smiled. "That's cool. I don't really like most people, anyway."

The statement surprised a laugh out of Mikey. He asked, "So, what do I need to do, to help with the heat problem?"

Pete pulled a form out of his desk and said, "I'm gonna need all this info, and, since I sort of hit on you back there, just so you know, it's totally against my professional code of conduct to use any of this information to get in touch with you any manner but professionally, so you don't need to worry about opening yourself up to a stalker."

"You get the heat back on, you can stalk me all you want," Mikey said, without really thinking about it. And, jesus, what was it with him and the lack of filter today? "Um."

Pete grinned. "Way to motivate a guy."

Pete's grin was nice. It was better than nice, Mikey knew, but he was staying with nice. "Well, you work for the Public Interest Law Clinic. And I'm asking you for a basic life necessity. You know I haven't got anything else."

Pete snorted. "Trust me when I tell you that prostitution, even when bargained for, is still illegal in New Jersey. Sucks, but there you have it."

"Then I guess it'll just have to be pro-bono on my end as well."

Pete started to smile and then asked, "Wait, are you serious?"

Mikey signed his name to the bottom of the form. "Only if you like animals."

Pete bounced in his seat. "All shapes and sizes."

*


When Mikey got home, he found Gerard in a blanket fort with the space heaters inside. He would have lectured, only Mikey had been so exhausted and cold that morning, he'd forgotten that space heaters ran on electricity and had taken one in the shower with him to help with the cold water. Thankfully, Frank had been over at the time and pulled the heater out before Mikey could kill himself--or Caligula, who'd been perched on the edge of the tub. Actually, Frank had taken it out and gotten in the shower with Mikey, who asked, "Does your boyfriend know you shower with your ex?"

Frank said, "Shuddup," and washed Mikey's hair for him, called him in sick, then gave him a ride to the Clinic's offices with a pep-talk about getting their heat turned back on.

Mikey climbed in the fort and was greeted by Slinky, who peered out of the tufts of Gerard's hair and said, "Hello."

"Hey, Slink," Mikey said.

Maple opened her eyes from where she was curled on Gerard's lap and said, "Oh, you're home," then fell back asleep. Maple was all heart.

Gerard looked up from his sketch and said, "Hey, Mikes."

Mikey scooted in until he was sitting right next to Gerard. "We're gonna get our heat back."

Gerard bit his lip. He said, "I maybe got an interview today. I don't know. They said they'd call."

Mikey said softly, "It wasn't your fault, Gee."

Gerard looked doubtful. "You never lose your job."

True, and this had been the fifth time Gerard had lost one in two years, but Mikey still subscribed to the no-fault philosophy. Gerard just didn't think about the fact that other people couldn't understand animals. It didn't occur to him that walking into an office while talking with a pigeon who had perched on his shoulder was bound to set off alarms. He always felt stupid after the fact, but he just didn't give thought to people disliking differences. Mikey liked him that way, far more than any paycheck Gerard could bring in. "Yeah, well, people expect guys who hang out with dogs all day to be a little odd."

It was true. Mikey trained companion dogs and took them into nursing homes. Older people rarely recognized what the mainstream classified as insanity, and when they did, they just thought it was because Mikey's job was to make the dogs more "human"-like. Gerard made a noise that might have been agreement, but was more likely just an unwillingness to pursue the subject any further. Mikey pulled the sketch out of Gerard's hands to look at it. Gerard had been working on a really awesome comic that involved animal superheroes. Only, they weren't like the Disney or Warner Brothers animals, with special skills and weird abilities--they were just your everyday mutts, that sort of thing, and they used their senses and intelligence to fight human crimes against animals.

Mikey doubted it had any marketability, but he didn't really give a shit. He loved every panel. He looked at the new ones and asked, "Did Chrysalis get a grooming?"

Chrysalis was a German Shepherd/Doberman mix, and one of the heroes of the comic. He was usually a little unkempt looking. Gerard grinned. "He's trying to get Jackson to notice him."


Jackson was a female cat. Her one-time humans had mistaken her sex when naming her. She was another of the cadre of problem-solvers that made up the characters in the series. Mikey asked philosophically, "A dog and a cat may fall in love, but how would they fuck?"

Maple muttered, "With the cat on top."

From outside the blanket fort, Winston snorted. "You wish."

Edgar said, "I wouldn't mind."

Mikey politely refrained from reminding them that they were all fixed. He had manners.

*


Mikey woke up the next morning plastered to Gerard, both of them under four layers of comforters--Jepha, Bob, Ray, and Frank had all contributed to the cause. Piglet was curled up against Mikey's back, Sundae had wormed her way between Pig and the backs of Mikey's knees, and Anya and Hans were down by his heavily-stockinged feet. (He knew, because that was where they always slept in the winter, heat or no.) He was still freezing. And he really needed to get out from under the covers and get to work. One sick day when he wasn't truly sick was all he could really afford. He couldn't take the chance of him or Gerard actually getting sick and him not having any more paid days.

Also, Hunter and Daisy, the elderly-care corgis, got really standoffish when he missed more than a day without telling them. They tended to take things a little personally.

Mikey started to move. Pig made a disgruntled noise and something that sounded like, "Too early."

Mikey sighed. "I warmed Gee up for you." Then he made himself move. Pig pretty immediately shifted closer to Gerard, who curled further into the warmth. Mikey didn't even pretend like he didn't hate everyone in the world for a tiny moment. Then Billie fluttered down onto his shoulder and started grooming his hair. It was hard to stay pissed off at that point.

He found a decently clean pair of jeans and a button-down shirt. It needed ironing, but Mikey was trying to keep down their electricity bill so that that didn't get shut off as well. He pulled himself into his parka and went about setting out animal food for everyone. Since the huge recall on dog and cat foods, the amount of money they spent on keeping the animals fed had gone up a nearly unsustainable amount, but Mikey would starve himself before he fed poison to a friend. As it was, Mikey rifled through the cabinets for breakfast and decided against. They had cereal, but they'd given milk up toward the heat fund, and Mikey couldn't stomach the thought of ramen as breakfast as well as lunch and dinner. His stomach growled reproachfully, but Mikey ignored it. Maybe he could get Bob to go halfsies on something from the vending machine once he got to work.

Bunny hopped onto the counter and said, "I could kill some meese."

"Mice," Mikey said absently, and, "You know the rule."

Bunny looked at him like he was stupid. Mikey imagined that to a cat, he probably seemed that way. Bunny explained, "Meese are food."

"Not Steinbeck and Maddy," Mikey reminded her.

She licked at her paw. "Different."

Honestly, if Mikey hadn't had hours of conversation with field mice who'd gotten lost and burrowed their way into the house just to escape the cold (back when the house was an escape) he might have let Bunny, social
norms be damned, but he had. "Bun."

Bunny stalked off with a rather disgusted, "Humans."

Mikey nodded understandingly at her receding back. "A constant source of trouble, definitely."

Mikey reached out to where Elton was perched on one of the bird swings around the house. He stroked lightly at a feather and let himself get lost in the parrot's colors. Elton said, "Humans," but he sounded less put out than Bunny.

Mikey smiled, called, "Have a good day!" and got his ass out of the apartment before the covers became too much of a draw. At least work was warm.

*


When Mikey arrived at the office and set his keys and wallet in his cubby, Bob handed him a cup of coffee. Mikey and Gerard had run out three days earlier. Coffee wasn't even that expensive, not in the big tins like they were always getting, but enough so that Mikey had made himself rule it not one hundred percent necessary. Just the smell of the cup that Bob was holding out was making Mikey's head feel better. He took the offering with a look of abject thanks and held it between his hands for a bit, letting the warmth sink into his fingers.

Bob asked, "You got your heat back yet?"

Mikey shook his head. "Working on it."

"It was seven below last night. Without windchill."

Bob wasn't really much of one for stating the obvious, except when he felt it really needed to be said. Mikey blew on his coffee and took a sip. Best breakfast ever. "I've got a lawyer on it. Frank took me to that Clinic, the one that helps assholes who can't pay their heating bill."

"I'm just saying, maybe until they get it on, you could stay with us. Victoria wouldn't mind at all, swear. I think she thinks Gee's her long lost sister."

"Hellions don't have sisters. They have co-conspirators."

Bob didn't take the insult to his wife personally. "Well, whatever. I'm just saying--"

Mikey smiled lopsidedly, more for Bob than because he felt like it. "But who'd take care of the kids, honey?"

"Most of them have fur, Mikey."

"Most. But Slink and Crackerjack won't leave the heat lamp, unless it's to suck all the heat out of Gerard's head. What if there was a storm and the electricity went out?"

"What if you and Gee freeze to death?" Bob countered. "Sure, the dogs could eat you for a while, but what then?"

Mikey just rolled his eyes and had some more coffee. Everything would be better after the coffee. "I'm pretty sure we've trained the cats to dial 911."

Bob huffed in amusement, but his expression was more glare than anything. Mikey said, "I mean it, I met with a lawyer yesterday. He said it would be maybe a few days, but then we'd have heat. We can manage another couple nights."

"Two, Mikey. Two nights. Then I set Moxie and Kirk on you." Bob trained K-9 dogs.

Mikey looked at him, thoroughly unimpressed. "Moxie and Kirk love me more than you."

"That's just because I'm their boss and you're not. They listen to me over you."

Mikey wasn't sure if that was true. He didn't say anything to Bob. A man had to have some professional pride left to him. Instead Mikey nodded. "Two nights is all it's gonna be."

Bob looked doubtful, but he let it go. "In the meantime, come to dinner at Jeph's? Brian said he's bringing his new girl."

The carrot had been dangled, no doubt about that. Mikey perked up. "Maja? Really?"

"I've been told if I'm not on my best behavior, she'll kick my ass and then deal with the Victoria-laden consequences. Direct Schechter quote."

Brian wasn't really one to just fling words like that around. Mikey was pretty sure he could get even Gerard to leave the house to check the situation out. "Dinner, sure. Think she'll freak if we bring the reptiles?"

Bob smiled. "Victoria won't."

*


There were messages on his work phone when Mikey got back to the office from the elderly care center. One of them was from Pete. "Hi, this is Pete. Sorry to call this number, but your cell isn't picking up, not even the voicemail. Is it a minutes-based plan? Because sometimes they do that. That's not really important, though, I mean--um, just call me back, okay? I have news."

Another was from Gerard. "Maja? I thought she was imaginary. I'm so there."

Mikey snorted and erased both messages, then called Pete. "Hi, is Pete there? This is Mikey Way, the one without heat?"

"Mikeyway. I think you have a bizarre misconception that either I, a) hit on every client who walks through the door, or b) easily forget the people I hit on."

Mikey smiled and rubbed a hand over his face. "Didn't mean to suggest you were easy."

"Cheap, probably, but not easy. Anyway, your heat."

"Yeah. Um, good news?"

"Good and bad. What do you want first?"

"Bad." Mikey never quibbled about that.

"They're not being awesome about working with me on the issue of bills. You guys already have your billing
structure set up so that it's spread out over the year, and they're not being great about trying subsidization, since you don't fit in the category of people they do that for. I'm still working on it, but I think we might have to look into alternate sources as far as the money's concerned."

"Okay." Mikey leaned back against his desk. "I'll figure something out. Some of my friends might be able to help. There's good news?" He hoped he didn't sound completely desperate.

"You should have heat by tomorrow evening."

Mikey hadn't been aware that he'd been holding his breath, but evidently he had, because he exhaled on a cough. He pressed his hand to his mouth and did his best to breathe.

Pete asked, "You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah. Just swallowed wrong." Mikey hadn't, but he wasn't going to admit that his throat had been tickling the better part of the day. "Thanks. That's great, I really… Thanks."

"Well, not to discount my awesomeness, or anything, but that actually is my job."

Mikey laughed a little. "Yeah, well, I know lots of people who slack off at their job."

"My job kinda involves people's lives, you know? Like, saving them, kinda."

Mikey thought about the animals in Gerard's comics, the ones that Mikey could tell were self-representations. They were always the ones carrying kids out of burning buildings and shit. Mikey said, "There's a thing, at my friend's tonight. You wanna--I mean, if you think that's weird--"

"I like weird. I love weird. This is a date, right? I mean, just to be clear, you're asking me on a date? Not some gratitude thing that's gonna bite me on the ass when I try to kiss you goodnight?"

"I never bite asses on first dates," Mikey said primly.

Pete laughed, long and hard. It was loud, too loud, but Mikey liked it. Pete asked, "Where're we meeting?"

*


By the time Mikey got off work, he wore his t-shirt outside because he was burning up, but when Bob gave him a look he just said, "It was hot in there."

Bob rolled his eyes. "I don't give a fuck. It's not out here. Coat on."

Mikey grumbled, but listened, mostly because he was pretty certain Bob could--and would--kick his ass. He was sweating inside his parka and it felt gross, but Bob had the decency not to turn the heat on high, even though he looked seriously chilled. Mikey pressed his cheek against the glass. "Think Jeph'll be pissed I asked someone without telling him?"

"When was the last time Jeph got pissed about anything?"

"Yeah, fair." Milkey closed his eyes. Bob might have said something else, but he missed it, only waking when the car shut off.

Bob said, "We're there, sleepyhead."

Mikey trekked up the three flights of stairs behind Bob and pretended like he was breathing completely fine when they got to the top. Bob threw him a look of concern, but Mikey glared in response, so Bob just knocked on the door. Jepha opened up and said, "Hey, your brother's already here. Also, a short dude named Pete who swears you invited him."

Lucky, who was draped over Jepha's shoulders, blinked lazily. "Warm here."

Mikey reached up and ran his fingers over Lucky's scales. "I know. But the short guy who's new is getting us our heat back. Swear."

"He should've said that. I probably would have let him in quicker," Jepha said, stepping back to let them in the house.

Mikey made a face. "Sorry, I should've called."

"Yep," Jepha agreed. "Luckily, I know you of old."

Mikey smiled ruefully and followed him into the living room, where Brian and an incredibly blonde woman were sitting on sofa across from Gerard, who was sitting on the floor, and Pete, who was standing next to him, clearly pretending not to be checking out Slinky and Crackerjack. Both geckos had claimed a shoulder and were sprawled out, happy in the heat of Jepha's apartment. Pete looked up when Mikey walked in and said, "Dude. You have geckos."

Mikey started to laugh at that, but it ended up being more of a sneeze. When he'd recovered, he asked, "Did Gee introduce you?"

Pete grinned. "One of them got in my hair. Oh, and, and hey, that's Maja. Evidently she's new, too. We bonded."

Despite not being much larger than Pete, Maja looked like she could eat Pete if the desire came upon her. Mikey wasn't surprised. Brian always dated women who could survive pits at shows and probably win at roller derby. Mikey said, "Hi, Maja, I'm Mikey."

Maja said, "Nice to meet you. I've heard stories."

Mikey could only imagine. "Uh."

Brian flipped him the finger, and Gerard said, "Careful, I have geckos. And I know how to sic them on a person."

"Do geckos even have teeth?" Maja asked, seeming pretty curious.

"Geckos!" A voice came from the hall. "Are Slink and Jack here?"

Slink's eyes opened at the sound and he looked at Mikey. "Ladyfriend?"

Victoria came in and kissed Bob hello. She glanced past Brian and said, "Finally, someone else who might be sane."

Maja laughed shortly. Victoria went and stole Slinky and Crackerjack from Gerard who looked after them dolefully. "Traitors."

They refused to comment, curling up in her hands. She looked at Pete and asked, "Where do I know you from?"

Pete looked equally curious. He tilted his head and then his eyes widened. "Oh, hey! You work for Gabe, right?"

"Guilty," she admitted. "So guilty. At least of some freelancing."

"You know Gabe?" Mikey asked.

"He runs the largest NPO for supplying musical instruments to kids in the region. Yeah, he comes in handy
sometimes." Pete nodded. "Why?"

Gerard held out for all of a second before laughing into his hands. Mikey sighed. Older brothers were a pain in the ass. Jepha came back in the room and asked, "Why's Gee laughing at Mikey?"

"Hey! You don't know he's--" Mikey looked over. Gerard only ever laughed that hard when it was about or involving Mikey. "I hate all of you."

"Gabe is Mikey's ex," Bob said.

"So am I," Jepha said. "So?"

"Too bad Frank had a thing with Ray tonight," Brian said. "Or he could have been up to date on your entire dating history."

"Hate like burning," Mikey said.

"You stay friends with all your exes?" Pete asked softly.

Mikey shrugged. "I date nice guys."

Pete's smile in response to that was lopsided, edged. "I haven't got a chance."

*


Pete drove Mikey and Gerard home. Slinky told Mikey very solemnly, "His hair is soft."

Mikey knew that was gecko for "he's good, make babies." Would that human relationships were so uncomplicated. When they arrived at Mikey's place, Gerard looked at the two of them for a moment and then said, "I'll, uh, go turn the lights on."

Lucky tried to stay, but Gerard just hauled him out from between Mikey's parka and his chest and trudged up the steps to the front door. Gerard was an awesome brother. When Mikey looked over at Pete, he was fidgeting with the steering wheel. Mikey said, "I'd totally ask you in, but you probably value your testicles, so, raincheck?"

Pete looked a little alarmed. Mikey reminded him, "No heat."

"Right," Pete said, smiling sheepishly. Then, "You sure you're all right?"

"Yeah, yeah. Just one more night, right?" Mikey wasn't lingering in the car because it was warm, or anything.

Pete asked, "How long was it off, before you came?"

Mikey shrugged. He didn't want to admit that he'd begged the company to turn it back on for a full week before Frank had convinced him to get help. It seemed kind of stupid, now, but every once in a while, Mikey liked to feel that he could actually do things on his own. "Anyway, thanks."

"Mikey--" Pete leaned over the emergency brake and pressed his mouth to Mikey's. He tasted like the peanut butter brownies Jepha had served as dessert.

Mikey was pretty sure this was a bad idea. Pete was a) hot, b) smart, c) an adult with a real job, and d) relatively normal, or at least, only the regular variant of crazy, rather than the talking to animals variant. Those types always eventually became overwhelmed by the search and rescue effort that was Mikey and Gerard's life--even Frank, who worked for fucking animal rescue, and had six dogs himself.

But Pete had slid the fingers of one hand around Mikey's neck, and they were strong, like--like he played, Mikey realized, the echo of Gabe's touch in the pressure, but not in a bad way. Mikey moaned a little. His chest hurt, which was maybe the cold he didn't have or maybe his common sense, or maybe just his reaction to Pete's eagerness.

Mikey kissed until he had to pull away to cough a bit. Pete asked, "Are you sure you shouldn't stay somewhere else tonight? Like you said, it is just one night."

Mikey wasn't leaving Gerard in the cold by himself, that just wasn't happening. "Yeah, it's just a cold. Nothing some ramen and tea won't fix." He made a face. "Sorry if I already gave you it."

Pete's smile was back at that. "Worth it."

Mikey's heart did this stupid stutter thing that almost made him roll his eyes at himself. He managed not to, but only just. He asked, "My friend Ray, he runs The Metal Jar, I don't know if you've--"

"The club on Merser? Yeah, they have some great shows."

Good taste in music, too. Mikey was doomed. "I could get us in. Friday night."

"As long as you don't have to put out. Because it kinda puts a damper on things, when guys I'm on a date with put out elsewhere."

"That happen to you a lot?"

"You'd be amazed." Pete sounded pretty serious. The thought made Mikey wince.

"Well, Ray dates one of my exes, so I think it's best if there's no putting out for everyone involved."

"You really are friends with all of your exes, aren't you?"

I take what I can get. Mikey sighed and leaned in for another kiss. He made this one quicker. He was halfway out the door of the car when he called, "'Night!"

*


Mikey woke up the next morning and thought, Mmm, heat, before he realized that all the animals who could fit were still in the bed and the inside of the windows had a layer of frost on them. Then he thought, Fuck, and woke Gerard up.

Gerard grumbled at him and swatted wildly with his hands, but after a few minutes, Mikey managed to shove him into wakefulness. Mikey asked, "You have any minutes left on your phone?"

"Um," Gerard said. "I don't know."

Right. Mikey rooted around in the bed until he found Gerard's phone and called Frank. He got Ray, who said, "It's ass o'clock in the morning, Way."

Mikey coughed harshly and then said, "Hey, Ray, yeah, sorry--"

"Mikey?" Ray asked.

"Oh, uh, yeah, my phone's out of minutes. I hate to ask, but is there a chance Frank could give me a ride? I know it's kinda out of the way." Mikey bit the inside of his cheek and swallowed down the cough that wanted out.

"Oh, huh. I answered his phone again." There was a bit of rustling on Ray's end.

Frank said, "Gee?"

"Mikey," Mikey corrected. Then, "Can I get a ride?" The last word came out mangled, due to Mikey being unable to suppress the cough any longer.

Frank said, "How long you had that thing?"

Mikey said, "Frank." Because, sure, he was asking for a ride, but Mikey needed to hold himself together right now and Frank being all solicitous and boyfriend-like wasn't going to help with that. Ray had picked up the fucking phone. Probably because Frank was forever leaving his phone on the wrong side of the bed. Mikey smacked his forehead, which caused Gerard to frown at him. Mikey shook his head.

Frank said, "Yeah, okay, but I'm giving you a thing of Nyquil, not even the generic, the real shit, and you're taking it."

There was mumbling in the background. Frank sighed. "Ray says I have to wear a mask."

"Probably a good idea." Mikey would have thought of it if he'd been thinking much at all. His chest hurt and it was fucking cold. He felt these were solid excuses for totally forgetting how Frank could catch the flu just from other people looking at him.

"Ten minutes?" Frank asked.

"Thanks," Mikey said, meaning every last syllable, and a few that were silent.

"I'll bring coffee," Frank said.

Mikey figured that was okay, he'd hit Frank back at some point, when he could. He started coughing again, and Frank said, "Tea, maybe."

Mikey growled, or tried, as best he could. It was more kitten-like, and Bunny looked at him in confusion. Mikey gave in gracefully. "It had better have caffeine in it."

"I'm not cruel, Mikeyway," Frank protested.

"Bullshit," Mikeyway accused.

"Yeah," Gerard said from under the blankets, clearly having no idea what he was supporting Mikey about, but willing to go there anyway. Mikey would have kissed him if Mikey weren't probably contagious.

There was a chorus of, "That's right," from the various creatures in the bed.

Frank said, "Tell your harem to stop mocking my generous and kind nature."

Mikey snorted. "Just because they can understand me doesn't mean they listen."

*


Mikey was willing to admit that he made shitty decisions when a) sick, b) at work, and c) unable to remember why Frank and he had broken up. (Horrible difference in habits, life philosophy, and other serious issues, but sometimes those memories got fuzzy.) Texting Pete, "sick as fuck. lunch?" probably ranked in the top five of pretty stupid decisions.

Bob saw Pete first, having been up by the reception desk and said, "Mikey, your boy toy's out there waiting for you."

Mikey threw Bob a clear, "shut the fuck up," look and asked, "How do I look?"

"Like dog vomit," Bob said. He relented after a second. "You look fine, go...do whatever it is you do with boys like that."

"He's a lawyer," Mikey said.

"Victoria has her law degree," Bob said, clearly unswayed by this argument.

"Yeah, but she's an agent, except for the pro-bono stuff with Gabe. Pete does, um, lawyer things."

Bob frowned at that. "Mikey, don't take this the wrong way, but--"

"Don't get my heart broken. I know. Frank gave me the lecture this morning, Jeph and Brian double-teamed me
last night, and Gee's just waiting until I feel better. Scout's honor, I'll take care." The declaration was somewhat lessened in strength by the lengthy coughing jag in the middle of it. Bob rubbed Mikey's back and Hunter trotted over to nose at him and say things like, "That's not a very good sound."

Mikey sighed when he could and said, "I'm just gonna--" and walked out to the front before anyone could say anything to keep him there.

Pete was on his knees, playing with a large golden retriever. Mikey said, "Seashell, what are you doing out here?"

Seashell, whom Mikey was pretty sure was going to fail the training program for seeing-eye dogs, panted up at him happily. She said, "Friend, Mikey, frieeend."

Mikey looked down, and sure enough, Pete had found her spot, right under her ribs, left side. Pete looked up at him and asked sheepishly, "Um, is she not supposed to be out here?"

Mikey got down to where Pete was and rubbed at Seashell's belly. He said, "It's all right. She's a regular escape artist. Happens all the time. I bet Matt'll--"

Just then Matt rounded the corner and rolled his eyes. "Seriously, Sea, I'm gonna have to nail you to the ground."

He said to Mikey, "Thanks for catching her."

Mikey shook his head. "Not me. Matt, this is Pete, Pete, Matt. Pete got my heat back for me."

"It's back on?" Pete asked.

"Well, um, not yet, I don't think, but maybe when I get home?" Mikey really fucking hoped so.

Matt said, "Well, all the same, thanks for the apprehension." He dragged a rather vocally disappointed Seashell back to the training room.

"Sure," Pete said, and waved. He looked at Mikey. "Hey, I brought soup."

Mikey perked up. "Soup sounds awesome."

Pete grinned. "There's this mom and pop place over by where I work. They make chicken noodle soup all winter long. With real chickens. I usually pretend to be a vegetarian in the office, because some of my coworkers come out of environmental law and they can be a little intense, but I figured you wouldn't rat me out."

"Your secret is so, so safe with me," Mikey said fervently as Pete took the tops off the plastic bowls. Just the smell was divine. He said, "At least the containers are recyclable."

"Oh, well, I found them a deal on a distributor. The styrofoam was making me sad. Now they give me ten percent off, it's the shit."

Mikey looked at Pete. "Seriously?"

"Look, I know I'm a lawyer and all, but the center--"

"No, I meant, about the containers?"

"Dude, I might never have blown up a whaler or anything, but I like Mother Earth too, okay? I'm just weirdly law-abiding. Or at least, I have been since I went to law school. And mostly everything before that was as a minor. Mostly." Pete took a quick bite of his soup and winced. "Ow. Hot."

Mikey bit his lip so as not to laugh. Then he asked, "Have any ideas how I could make a few bajillion dollars and set up an NPO?"

Instead of laughing it off, Pete cocked his head. "Depends. What kind of NPO?"

Mikey blew gently on his soup, and took a sip. It was probably the best thing he'd ever tasted. Ever. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, Pete was attempting the soup again, still waiting. Mikey said, "Nothing, it was a joke."

There was something Mikey couldn't interpret in Pete's smile when he said, "Tell me anyway. I could use a laugh."

Mikey hadn't known Pete very long and he wasn't the kind of guy who went around just sharing his dreams. Something in Pete's expression made him say. "I think my brother would run the best animal shelter ever. He'd be really good at outreach to kids, teaching them how to care for pets, and saving the kinds of pets that are usually just put down. I just… It looks bad, because he can't keep a job, but mostly his skills are just different from other people's. He's brilliant."

"Gee? That brother?"

"All my life," Mikey said.

Pete laughed. "Well, I'm not sure about the money; I need to find out what kind of grants are available. But setting up an NPO? That I can totally do."

"Pete, I was just--"

Pete pinned Mikey with a look and said, "You know the kinds of people who come to see me every day?"
He seemed to be waiting for an answer, so Mikey shook his head. Pete said, "People who don't have heat, or who can't get the government to send food stamps despite really needing the extra help because their minimum wage job doesn't cover their expenses. Women whose babies are being taken away from them because they can't get off coke. Teens who are trying to gain legal independence from parents who are beating them, or worse."
Pete stabbed his spoon into his soup carton. "What I don't see, Mikeyway, are people with dreams. That happens pretty much once in never. So, can I promise you I can help your brother save the cats and dogs and hamsters of the world? No. But will I try? Darn tooting."

Mikey blinked. "Darn tooting?"

Pete cracked up. "Spent all morning with a welfare mom and her two kids. I was trying my hardest not to--"

"If I didn't have a fever, and we weren't at my work, I would probably kiss you now," Mikey admitted.

"I could faux-swear some more. See if I can get you to forget both those things." Pete batted his eyelashes.
Then, "Oh, hey, I forgot, I brought orange juice, too."

Mikey snorted, "Loser," and ate some more soup, like he wasn't charmed at all.

*


Bob took Mikey home. He came inside because he didn't trust Mikey to collect Gerard and the hordes and get back in the car if there wasn't heat yet. But when Mikey opened the door, the first thing that greeted him was a blast of warm air. The second was Maddy, who scrambled up to his shoulder and nipped at his ear. He petted her, taking a deep breath of warmth in and coughing it back out. When he could he said, "Hey, Mads."

Gerard was standing in the hall by that time, squinting at Mikey. "You look like death. Carnivorous death that hasn't been fed in weeks."

Bob laughed and messed with Mikey's hair. "Get some sleep. You need a ride tomorrow?"

Mikey rubbed at the back of his neck. "Um."

"Yeah, okay, see you at seven."

Mikey locked the door behind Bob once he'd left and turned back to Gerard, who was looking uneasy. Lite Brite was perched on his shoulder, and Winston was walking in circles around him. Mikey asked, "Anyone gonna say anything?"

Gerard said, "Um. I left you the last ramen."

And yeah, fuck, Mikey had kind of forgotten that they were down to that and crackers. "Did you eat anything today? Because Pete treated me to lunch, so--"

"I had the crackers. And I'm not sick." Gerard was going to be stubborn about this, Mikey could tell.

"Being sick, I'm not that hungry." Mikey wasn't, either. He had a feeling he'd get that way, but if he went another couple of weeks with no cell minutes, he could get some food tomorrow, even with the mortgage and his school loan payments coming due the middle of next week. (Elena had mortgaged the house in the first place so Gerard could go to school. At this point, he was just glad she hadn’t taken out a second mortgage to get them a car, like she’d thought about.) He could probably convince his boss to let him work some overtime until Gerard could find a job again, and so long as the electricity bill wasn't crazy high and Pete had worked out something with the heat company, they'd be set. As long as none of the animals got sick, anyway. Not for the first time, Mikey really wished the thought of vet school hadn't made him sick to his stomach.

Brite said, "We have food."

Gerard stroked her head. "Thanks, sweets, but humans don't eat pellets, remember?"

Brite didn't have a very long memory. "Pellets is goooood."

It got a small smile from Gerard, and something eased inside Mikey's chest. Mikey said, "Seriously, Gee. I just want some hot water for my throat. Then it's bedtime. It's awesomely warm in here, it's going to be the best night ever."

Gerard said, "I can go shopping, tomorrow. Just tell me how much I can spend, and I'll--"

"Gee," Mikey said, because it wasn't exactly Gerard's fault, but last time he'd gone to the grocery store by himself he'd taken Piglet with him and gotten thrown out. Dogs weren't allowed. The time before that, he'd gotten distracted by the flavored coffees.

"Mikey, I got it. No pets, nothing but what's on the list. Seriously, I'm--I was drunk both those times." Gerard looked to the side as he said it, which hurt, because it wasn't as though Mikey had a leg to stand on. After Elena had died, they'd both done their own flirting with disaster, which was part of why things were such a mess now.

"Ramen and Folgers and maybe some eggs and milk and bread, but only if that stuff is on sale. Okay?"
Gerard held up three fingers. "Scout’s honor."

"You were never any kind of scout," Mikey reminded him.

Winston stopped in his tracks. "I can scout. What do you need scouted?"

Mikey said, "Bed. Find me the bed, my man."

Winston led him right there.

*


By Friday, Mikey had limited himself to liquids--so, water, hot or cold, with the occasional ramen thrown in there--and the bottle of Nyquil Frank had provided. He couldn't keep anything else down, not even the white bread Gerard had bought. He was still running a fever, and Gerard, who had a mortal fear of all things medical ever since some childhood trauma with needles that Mikey was pretty sure Gerard had imagined up, was starting to make noises about Urgent Care.

Mikey blew his nose for the eight millionth time that minute and said, with as much grace as he could manage, "I have a date."

He'd given up his weekend when he'd managed to get a couple of shifts taking Hunter and Daisy into the elder care wards this weekend. He had a niggling awareness that going in there sick probably made him criminally liable, or something else that Pete would understand and Mikey wouldn't, but the thought of giving up two shifts of pay-and-a-half was a little too much for Mikey to handle at the moment. He told Gerard determinedly, "I am going to have fun."

Gerard looked doubtful, but to his credit, didn't say anything. Gibson had no such compunction. "I would not mate with you."

Armand hopped over to groom Gibson and said sagely--for a Holland lop, in any case, "Humans are odd about mating."

Mikey wasn't entirely sure how he managed to keep a straight face, given that Armand the rabbit had been trying to seduce the decidedly feline Gibson ever since the latter had reluctantly granted that domesticated living had its perks over a feral existence. Gerard failed completely. Armand sniffed, thumped rather loudly, and hopped away. Gibson stood haughtily and said, "I don't interfere when you're bathing."

Gerard didn't look half as repentant as he probably should have as Gibson stalked off. Then he got a wistful look. "I don't even remember the last time someone cleaned my ears for me."
Mikey pinned Gerard with a look. "If you make me emotionally incapable of getting laid by our very hot lawyer tonight, I will end you."

"Think he has a brother?" Gerard asked almost meditatively.

"I think it's seriously fucking time you got over Bert and got your ass back on the market. Either that, or take Brian up on his offer of a threesome."

Gerard looked horrified. "Mikey. Mikey, you saw Maja. She'd strangle me with her thighs, like Famke Janssen."

Mikey considered this possibility. "On the upside, you'd get to go out like James Bond. And you'd be having sex with two hot people at the time."

Nimh climbed up Mikey's side and perched on his head. "You should do the sex."

The rats were sometimes most like the humans in the way they thought. That had bothered Mikey a little at first, but now he was just used to it. He said, "Yeah, even Nimh thinks it's a good idea."

"Nimh, we talked about you taking sides," Gerard said. Gerard sometimes had a hard time not listening to rat advice. Well, Gerard sometimes had a hard time not listening to animal advice in general, which was what caused about half his problems. Mikey understood the urge, but he'd gotten past it in his teens. It was, in some ways, the best part of Gerard ever. In other ways… well, it could be a little wearing. Mikey wouldn't have traded it, though, so most of the time he just shrugged it off when it did bother him.

Nimh said, "But I'm right," just as the doorbell sounded.

Mikey said, "Oh," and went to go answer.

Pete was standing on the porch with a green carnation pinned in the button hole of his sports jacket, which was worn over a t-shirt that Mikey was pretty sure had at one time advertised for Rage Against the Machine, before all the letters wore off. Mikey blinked. "They make green carnations?"

Pete responded, "You have a rat on your head."

And, right, glass houses. Mikey said, "That's Nimh. He's nice and smart and the most handsome man in the house."

"Liar," Caligula said from somewhere just out of sight and Gerard snorted with laughter. Mikey coughed to hide his, but then ended up really coughing.

Pete came inside and closed the door. He put his hand to Mikey's back, rubbing in slow circles and said, "Uh, I just invited myself in, there."

"Sorry," Mikey said, in between bouts of ridding himself of his pulmonary system.

Pete played a little with the hair on the back of Mikey's neck. "Hey. You wanna--I mean, we can just get some coffee or something. Stay in. Get you to bed early."

Mikey had managed to get the coughing under control, but his head hurt something fierce from the effort. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Gerard standing in the doorway to the entry hall, trying not to look worried. Edgar had made his way over and was standing in front of Mikey, like Mikey wouldn't knock them both down if he fell. Both Elton and Billie were hovering, flitting around the hallway much more frantically than usual.

What Mikey wanted was to not feel like his lungs were more mucus than air, his throat more sandpaper than saliva, his head more raging agony than brain, and his skin more Sahara desert than epidermis. He wanted to go to the damn club, and make out with this guy with the fucking smile who didn't know who Mikey was yet, and didn't need anything that Mikey couldn't give. But Mikey was pretty sure that plan would end with him passing out, or possibly vomiting and then passing out in the club, so he smiled weakly and said, "That's all right. You can have a raincheck."

"No, I mean, um, I mean, my place isn't the total awesome that yours is--" Bizarrely, Pete seemed like he meant it, despite the lack of cleanliness and mishmosh of completely different periods and genres of art and the slightly old-woman-taken-over-by-goths feel the house had. "But it's okay. I have heat and tea and I can get anything else, there's a bodega down the corner from me. And it's usually pretty quiet on the weekends, because the oompah band that practices above me has gigs, so, yeah. It's nice." Pete flushed.

Gerard got all excited. "You have an oompah band in your building?"

Normally, Mikey totally would have let him have his moment, but he was currently dying, and he really didn't want his last moments on earth to involve Gerard's weird obsession with leiderhosen and accordians. He said, "Your place sounds great."

"Um, you have a phone, right?" Gerard asked Pete.

Pete fished it out of his pocket. Gerard said, "Great, just have him call when he realizes he's staying the night."

Mikey herded Pete out of the house before Mikey could die of embarrassment, rather than flu. He made it to the car before having to go back in and pry Nimh from his head. Nimh called, "Good mating!"

*


Pete's place was in a pretty artsy, high-rent-but-scene area. The kind of place where the apartment probably came with modern appliances, but you'd never know it from the rag-tag bunch of restaurants it was housed above. Pete had a deeded parking space, which meant they didn't have to walk far, something Mikey really appreciated. Pete's place was on the third floor, but there was an old elevator he had the key to, so Mikey didn't have to drag himself up the stairs, huffing and puffing. He said, "Normally, I have the lung capacity of someone my age."

Pete laughed and let them into his place. The entry hall was filled with skylines of a city that wasn't New York, but didn't look much like anywhere in Jersey, either. Mikey stared for a bit and Pete said, "Chicago. Home. I have a couple of friends back there who are photographers for papers or teach it in art schools, but that's the kind of stuff they do in their spare time."

"I know shit about photography," Mikey told him.

"Yeah, me too. But I know Chicago."

"I've never been," Mikey admitted. "Farthest I've gotten is Ohio. There was a fest down there a few years back. Frank, Gee and I drove out for it." Mikey remembered how hot Frank's car had been, the air-conditioning not working. Gerard had been in his first few months of having dried out, and both Frank and Mikey were concerned about taking him somewhere with so much alcohol around, but he'd insisted.

"Oh, you're home," a third voice said, interrupting the train of memories.

Mikey didn't see anyone. He followed Pete into the living area. "Is someone else here?"

"Just Hemmy, he's around some--" A bulldog made itself known by way of running straight into Pete's legs. Pete grinned. "Somewhere around here." He picked Hemmy up, despite Hemmy probably being half his weight, and said, "Hey, buddy."

"Let me down," Hemmy said. "New person."

Mikey flushed. Normally he could tell the difference between animal voices and people ones, but his ears were all clogged and he was having a hard time concentrating. He knelt down and said, "Hey there."

That brought Hemmy up short. He licked cautiously at Mikey's hand. "You speak dog."

"Mm," Mikey said, because Pete was still watching them. He scritched at the soft place on the back of Hemmy's neck.

Pete said, "Okay, now that you've met your favorite inhabitant of the house, I'm going to run down and get us some food. You eat spicy stuff?"

"Love it," Mikey said.

"Great, because the place down the block makes some tortilla soup that'll clear your congestion right up."

"How much?" Mikey asked, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet. Okay, so he couldn't really afford soup from a restaurant, but he also wasn't the kind of guy who took over another guy's house and then didn't even pay for his own dinner.

"Nah," Pete said, "on me. You can get us into the club sometime when you're feeling up to it and that'll more than even things out."

"If you're sure," Mikey said.

"Absolutely." He reached down to pet Hemmy and said, "Take care of him while I'm gone." Hemmy looked politely agreeable to whatever the hell it was Pete had just told him.

Once Pete was out the door, Mikey said, "It's kind of a secret."

"Pete won't care. Pete talks to everything."

Mikey was pretty certain it was more that not everything probably understood Pete, or talked back, for that matter. He laid on the floor, too tired to go anywhere, even the couch. Hemmy took it upon himself to use Mikey's stomach as a pillow. Mikey lazily stroked Hemmy's head. He asked, "You love Pete?"

Hemmy just snorted, not the breath-snort that bulldogs made, but an actual snort. Mikey said, "Fuck."

*


Mikey woke up to the door opening back up. He startled awake at the feel of Hemmy's head lifting from him. After a second, Pete was standing above him, looking concerned. "You okay?"

Mikey was cold, but he was pretty sure that was just a case of the chills. "Soup?" he asked, feeling pitiful, but unable, for the moment, to care.

"And black bean tostadas," Pete said with a Grin of Triumph. "These things are bitchin’."

He held out a hand and helped Mikey to his feet. Mikey followed him and Hemmy into the kitchen, which was small, but not crowded, just kind of relaxed-feeling. Pete said, "Sit," and took care of all the preparations. He put a glass of orange juice in front of Mikey along with the soup and said, "That's the good stuff, not concentrate or anything."

Mikey took a sip and let it slide down over his sore throat. "You're a saint."

"Who've you been talking to?" Pete asked, and sat down across from Mikey with his own bowl, piping steam.
Mikey laughed a bit, but then made himself eat, still not hungry, but cold enough that the bowl seemed to offer a few spoonfuls of heaven. He was a couple of swallows in when the burn hit, and it made him cough, which only made him really cough, from his lungs rather than his throat, and before he knew it he was bent over his knees, just trying to breathe. Pete, who had evidently come over to him at some point, rubbed up and down his back, the touch firm and sure. He said, "Hey, hey, relax, just relax, it'll happen."

Mikey tried. It was hard when his body was panicking, but he listened to Pete's voice, not terribly steady, but grounding all the same. Slowly, he managed to get some air. Pete said, "Yeah, okay," and handed him a box of tissues. Mikey went through about six before going to Pete's sink and splashing his face several times.

He leaned over the sink for a minute, then said, "So, uh, probably not what you were thinking your evening was gonna be like."

Mikey hadn't thought Pete was standing all that close, so it was a bit of a shock when his hand slid over one of Mikey's. Pete threaded their fingers together and then pulled slightly at Mikey. "C'mon, you should at least eat the rest of the soup."

He lead Mikey back to the table and then sat down in the chair Mikey had been in. Mikey was about to go sit in the other, but Pete pulled him down onto his lap. It was a bit awkward, because Pete was tiny, and Mikey was skinny, but long. Pete slid his fingers underneath the hem of Mikey's shirt, cool against Mikey's heated skin. Somewhere in the middle of the cough, Mikey's fever had seen its way back to him, full force. Pete asked, "This okay?"

Mikey said, "Nice," before he could stop himself.

Pete said, "Eat."

Mikey took it slowly this time, taking advantage of the box of Kleenex until he had used the last of them up. Luckily, that was around the time he had finished with the soup. Pete stood him up, and said, "I think I've got some cough syrup and cold stuff in my bathroom."

He once again lead Mikey by the hand, until they were in his bathroom. He found the medicine and gave it over, disappearing for a moment to get Mikey a glass of water. Mikey swallowed it all down and said, "I can call a friend, if I can borrow your phone. To come get me." He felt like every thought was taking forever.
Pete said, "Nah. I can sleep on the couch."

"Pete--"

"Seriously, you should sleep." He was already drawing Mikey's shirt over his head, Mikey at once surprised by the action, and seemingly unable to stop him.

"Don't wanna take your bed."

"I'll wake you if we share," Pete told him. "You need your rest."

"Wake me?"

Pete pressed a kiss to Mikey's shoulder. "Jeans," he said. "And shoes."

Mikey complied, thinking vaguely that he should probably fight, but not really having the energy. He thought hard enough to manage to make the one important thought break through his confusion. "Wake me?" he repeated.

Pete ushered him into the bed and pulled clean-smelling sheets over him. Mikey inhaled. He hadn't done laundry in forever. Mikey totally would have gotten lucky if not for his death flu. He told Pete earnestly, and possibly, somewhat too-honestly, "My life sucks."

Pete kissed his forehead. "See how you feel in the morning."

Mikey really wanted to have a smart response to that, but the pillow beneath his head was really fucking soft.

*


Mikey woke up to a bed that wasn't his in a room he didn't recognize and a clock that was telling him it was way past time for his extra shift, the one he'd begged to have. "Fuck."

He got halfway up before he was coughing. The bout was long enough that he was dizzy by the end of it. More softly, he said, "Fuck," again. No way were they going to let him anywhere near the old folks. From the doorway to the room, Pete said, "Hey. Morning."

Hemmy jumped up and put his paws on Mikey's knees. He said, "You slept like a cat."

Mikey knew that in dog-terms, that meant when somebody slept like the dead. Mikey buried his face against Hemmy's, taking in as deep a breath as he could manage. Then he made himself look up at Pete. "Um. Can I borrow a phone?"

"Sure, but if you were planning on calling work, don't bother. I called your brother when you fell asleep last night and he said to tell you he'd call Bob and get things straightened out. I told him I was taking you to Urgent Care when you woke up and he approved of that idea, so that's our plan for the day. You have insurance through your job, right?"

"Yeah, but, um. I really can't."

Pete cocked his head. "Bad insurance?"

"It's not the worst, but Urgent Care isn't covered, just in network stuff, and I was supposed to work this weekend so that we make the mortgage payment. We missed a couple of months ago. I worked it out with the bank, but they weren't thrilled, and I think if I miss again, um. So, yeah, this is probably just a flu." And if it wasn't, Mikey would make it be, with the power of his mind. Gerard would be so impressed.
Pete scuffed a toe into his carpet. "Look, I don't mean to be an asshole, really. I know I'm just a guy who helped you out with your heat, and stuff, but I mean. You guys could find a nice apartment that wouldn't be nearly as much money as the monthly payments on a house."

"Animals," was all Mikey felt the need to respond.

"Okay, so, townhouse. People do this shit all the time. I'm probably not supposed to advocate it or anything, but whatever, I'd rather you be keeping puppies than killing them."

Mikey dug the palms of his hand into his eyes. His face hurt, his skull hurt. "We can't. We just--"
After a moment, Mikey felt a dip in the mattress next to him. Pete said, "Okay. It's… Sorry, I didn't mean to upset you."

"It was my grandmother's. The house." The words hurt coming up. "It's all we have left."

"Oh." Pete whispered, "Okay."

"I know it sounds stupid." Mikey did. That didn't really change anything.

"No." Pete's voice was strangled, the word cut short. "No. It doesn't."

Mikey looked over at him. Pete shook his head. "It's stupid."

"I think I kinda like stupid," Mikey admitted. He had extended conversations with geckos, so it was probably true.

Pete was quiet for a moment, but then he said, "My first tattoo. People look at me and they always think I must have been one of those kids who started at sixteen and just kept going, but I was in college when I got the first one."

"Which one?" Mikey asked softly.

Pete rolled up the sleeve of his t-shirt to where Mikey could see the coffin with its wings, the locked away heart, the scroll reading "unlovable." Mikey touched it gently. Pete said, "I was kind of, well, I was the kind of kid you didn't take home to your mom in high school. And one of my counselors, she decided I had promise, or something, talked my parents into sending me away to boot camp."

Mikey blinked. "Boot--like, military school?"

"Not as permanent, but yeah."

"That, uh--"

"I was fucking miserable. Most of the kids were bigger and way fucking meaner than I was, and I couldn't keep my damn mouth shut, and it was just a disaster waiting to happen."

After a moment, when Mikey suspected Pete had gotten lost in his thoughts, Mikey asked, "But?"

Pete smiled, bittersweet and sharp. "But I met Trent." Pete took a deep breath. "Fuck, I haven't talked about this since--since I stopped seeing a therapist."

Mikey bit his cheek. "You don't have--"

"He was a football player. Built like one, too. I was a soccer kind of guy, small and fast, but Trent, he could fuck you up. His parents had sent him because they'd found him making out with a guy from the tennis team. They figured a bit of army discipline would straighten him right out, literally."

Pete laughed, but it sounded torn, like a sob trying to be something else. "We were fucking nothing alike, but we got each other, you know?"

Mikey thought of Gabe and Bob and even Gerard, a bit. "Yeah. Yeah, I know."

"He loved football. He liked the tactics and the violence and the movement, but he wasn't in to all that shit once the uniform was off. He liked music and swimming and cartoons, and I was so in love, I think from the first time he ever talked to me. He was--he would get all protective, and I mean, he got in trouble more times than I could count, for me.

"He got a scholarship to U of Illinois, to play. He was a year older than me and I just followed him out there, as soon as I could. Trent, he was always kind of na´ve about other people; he always thought, given a chance, they'd be decent. And me, I was just young and stupid and too much of a rebel without a cause. We were gonna make people see that guys who played football could be gay, too, that it was totally cool."

Mikey swallowed hard. Pete opened his mouth, but it was a while before he could manage, "The team, they didn't react so well. We'd end up in the school health clinic more often than not, and the administration just ignored us. Then, his junior year, they--they made all this noise about how rescinding the scholarship wasn't about his sexual orientation, team dynamics and blahblahblah, but it was pretty obvious."

Pete brought his hand up to the tattoo, rubbing at it. "I kept telling him it'd be okay, we'd make things work. My parents were actually pretty chill about the gay thing, despite earlier misgivings, and they helped us get an apartment, and I had been helping him apply for loans, because his family wouldn't help him out, and I really thought, you know, if we could just hold it together, get the word out, that maybe he could get accepted to another school, maybe if we got out of the midwest, or, just, I don't know, I was nineteen, and I was in love, honestly in love."

Pete was crying. It wasn't obvious, just small breaths between his words, the silent roll of tears down his cheeks. Mikey said, "Pete--"

"I came back to the apartment one day, came home from this part time job I had, and I was calling for him and he wasn't answering. The door to the bathroom was closed, so I knocked, and I called and he… I was kind of freaked out, so I opened it up and he was in the shower, the fucking four-by-four corner shower in our place and the blood was everywhere--"

"Pete," Mikey said, because Pete was breathing too fast, too hard.

Pete took a couple of deep breaths. "There was a note. It said, 'I love you, that's the problem.'"

"Jesus," Mikey hissed.

Pete laughed, but he clearly wasn't amused. "I flunked out that next semester, and my parents brought me home. I couldn't hold a job, I only made it to therapy if one of them drove me. I toyed with the idea of committing suicide myself, but every time I felt ready, my mom would stroke my hair or my dad would try to talk to me and I couldn't, I couldn't do that to someone else." Pete rubbed at his face. "Eventually, one of the docs got me on some stuff to help with the immediate depression. One of my therapists actually went with me to get the tattoo. She didn't approve of the message, but she thought it was good, that I was finding ways to visualize it, to keep it with me without having it be all of me. It helped, too, pain that wasn't inside, pain that had something to show for it. It helped. I managed to get myself to start volunteering at this queer youth center, and they always needed lawyers and I thought, yeah, I could probably do that. So, um." Pete flushed. "Now you know my life story. Also, by inference, that I'm pretty fucked up about relationships."

"I'm just starting to get over my ex. And he left me for one of our best friends almost two years ago," Mikey offered.

"Oh. Um, am I a rebound?" Pete didn't look at Mikey.

Mikey touched Pete's face, made him look. "I don't know. I can't--I don't want to lie. I don't know. But I don't want you to be."

Pete said, "Lemme pay for Urgent Care. Like a date. We'll probably spend most of the day in the waiting room anyway, so it's kinda the same."

Mikey was able to laugh for all of a second before it turned into a cough.

*


Pete's prediction of a day-long wait turned out to be entirely true. To add insult to injury, the diagnosis was an upper respiratory infection with a side of bronchitis, which meant there were scripts that had to be filled. Mikey paid for those. They were on the Walgreen’s $5 list, in any case. Afterward, Pete took Mikey back home.

Mikey said, "Come in for a bit?"

Pete asked, "You sure? I mean, you're probably pretty ready to pass out."

"I'll make it another ten minutes. Promise."

Pete laughed. "Just long enough for me to tuck you in."

Mikey opened the door only to be bombarded by Piglet who was Not Happy. "You didn't come back."

Mikey knelt down to give her a hug. "I had to sleep, Pig."

She huffed into his hair, but seemed to take the excuse, since she licked his face. He stood and she traveled alongside him. Mikey pulled Pete into the main part of the house, where Frank and Ray were sitting with Gerard. Mikey hadn't seen their car, but that didn't mean anything, since sometimes parking was bad enough that people had to park down the street, and Gerard would have told them to save the driveway in case Pete brought Mikey back. It was pretty normal for them to come over on Saturday afternoon. Mikey said, "Hey."

"Hey," Ray said, and got up to hug Mikey. Mikey accepted the hug, melted into it. Ray was always so fucking solid feeling, like the earth couldn't move so long as he had his feet planted.

Mikey muttered, "I probably just gave you typhus."

Ray said, "Nah, other than Frank cooking, I'm pretty impervious to assassination by death."

Frank glowered. "That was an accident."

Gerard snorted. "Sez you."

Mikey smiled, but made himself not laugh. Laughing equaled coughing, he knew. He pulled Pete to his side and said, "Pete, this is Ray and that's Frank. Guys, this is Pete. He probably saved my life, so you should be nice."

"Pete," Frank said. Then it hit: "Bring-back-the-heat-Pete?"

"I'm putting that on my card," Pete said calmly. He held out his hand and shook with both men. "Nice to meet you."

"Nice job on pulling this place back from the ninth level of hell," Ray said sincerely.

"I had ulterior motives," Pete said, going to his tiptoes to put his chin on Mikey's shoulder. The heat of his body was nice against Mikey's back. Mikey didn't look at Frank, didn't need to see what he was thinking. It didn't matter.

Ray said, "Well, as long as it keeps the geckos living in the manner to which they've become accustomed."

Gerard said, "Oh, I see how it is."

Mikey yawned. Pete said, "Hey, c'mon. The doctor'd be pissed that I haven't gotten you horizontal."

Frank choked on a sip of water. Gerard and Ray both laughed. Caligula and Maple tried to crawl up Pete and school him on what was allowed in the house.

"Um," Pete said, trying his best not to dislodge a cat. "I meant--"

Mikey rescued Pete from the cats, by taking one with each hand and saying, "Sleep, kittens, he meant sleep."

Maple said, "Not a kitten," leaped from Mikey's grasp and stalked off. Caligula looked very dubious about the whole thing, but didn't attempt to leap from Mikey onto Pete and claw out his eyes, so all was probably well.

"Cats hate me," Pete said miserably.

"Cats take a while," Mikey reassured him. He looked over at Ray and Frank. "You guys staying for a bit?"

"Zombiefest in a few hours, Mikeyway," Ray said very solemnly.

"Oh, shit. That was tonight?"

"We brought it to you," Frank said, pointing to the DVD case sitting on the TV.

Mikey looked at Pete. "Can you stay? Uh, do you like zombies?"

"Well, not personally, but in the movies they're pretty cool."

Mikey said, "Ha ha. Hahahaha." Evidently fake-laughing meant coughing, too.

*


Pete took a nap with Mikey. Mikey said, "You don't have to, you can go hang," but Pete just said, "I sleep better during the day, anyway."

It was late afternoon, and due the time of year, pretty dark out. Mikey didn’t argue. Even in the newly re-established warmth of the house, it was nice having Pete there. Pete's heat was different from Gerard's, which kind of sprawled with Gerard, like energy from a superhero. With Pete it was more concentrated, focused, but Mikey didn't mind, because it seemed to be focused on him.

Mikey woke up without said heat anywhere nearby, but to the feeling of Gerard carding fingers through Mikey's hair, and someone on his chest. He peeked. Tintin. "Hey. Have you been hiding?"

Tintin was mostly Bichon Frise with a side of fuck-only-knows. He made his way up Mikey's chest and sniffed at him. "Next door, under the porch. Warm."

"Great," Mikey said, and pulled his arm out from under the blanket to pet Tintin. He curled up at the touch.
Gerard asked, "How're you feeling?"

Mikey moved over, careful not to dump Tintin, and ran into Mopsy. "Were you under the porch, too?"

Mopsy gave him what could only be described as a Look. "I find stupid dogs under porches."

Mikey waited. Mopsy gave the cat equivalent of a shrug. "Next door people have cat door and water heater in basement. Niiiiice."

Gerard laid down in the space Mikey had made for him. "We've been thrown over for appliances, Mikeyway."

"Women," Mikey said.

"I'm not a woman," Tintin said, trying to squirm away from Mopsy's grooming without getting too far away from where Mikey could pet him.

"Nope, Tin," Mikey agreed. No women that he knew would stay under a porch in search of warmth. He didn't feel the need to add that.

Gerard asked, "Um, so, Pete?"

"Pete," Mikey agreed.

Gerard was silent for a long time. "Frank thinks he has good taste in shoes."

"Shoes are tasty," Tintin said earnestly.

Mikey asked, "Frank behaving himself?"

"He worries."

"So do you," Mikey said. "Doesn't entail being an asshole."

Gerard didn't say anything and they both laughed. Mikey said, "Yeah, okay, Frank." It was said with
fondness.

"He's mostly been good. There was a bit of a knock-down over which Tim Burton film is the best, but Ray managed to head off any death matches by throwing James and the Giant Peach into the mix and throwing them both off their game."

"Why isn't Ray the love of my life, again?" Mikey asked matter-of-factly.

"I'm guessing it's because James and the Giant Peach is his favorite Tim Burton," Gerard said, completely serious.

"Tragic," Mikey said, only half-kidding.

"Yeah," Gerard agreed.

"Gee?"

"Mm?"

"If a guy is a lawyer, who likes your friends, and got your heat turned back on, and paid for you to see a doctor, and likes to nap with you, and is really kind of ridiculously hot, but still has massive emotional issues, does that fall under too good to be true, get out, or why-do-I-always-find-the-ones-with-emotional-issues, get out?"

Gerard said, "Mikes, um. I'm not sure you and I have any call to be talking about other people's emotional issues."

"Right, but, like, if we're both--"

"I don't know. I don't--all I know is that you shouldn't become like me."

Mikey blinked at that and rolled over to look at Gerard. Tintin made a startled sound, but then settled between them. Mopsy perched on Mikey's side. Mikey asked, "What does that mean?"

Gerard rolled his eyes. "Mikey. Other than the other night at Jeph's and the grocery shopping expedition, I haven't left the house since I got fired. I haven't met anyone new who didn't work with me or wasn't your friend in… Um, since school, I guess. All my friends are your friends, people you found."
Mikey shrugged. "You take a while. Like a cat."

"People don't wait."

"People suck," Mikey opined.

"I never wait," Gerard said softly. "I get scared."

Mikey knew. It was why he always shared his friends. Not that he wouldn't have otherwise, but it made it more important, since Gerard wasn't scared of Mikey, would never go away because of that. Gerard said, "You wait. It's good, good that you do that."

"It sucks, sometimes," Mikey said, feeling empty and heavy and terrified.

Gerard curled in closer, and it eased the worst of it. Gerard said, "Yeah, but better than sucking all the time."

"Make you a deal," Mikey mumbled.

"Tell first." They both knew each other too well.

"I'll give Pete a chance, a real one, no keeping myself to myself, if you'll go to the club with us Friday and talk to people you don't know."

"Mikey--"

"Deal or no deal."

Gerard made a noise. "I hate you."

The bed moved as Anya hopped onto it. She said, "Not nice."

Mikey said, "I know," to both of them.

*


It was early evening, and Bob and Victoria were at the house by the time Gerard dragged Mikey out of the warm, warm bed and into the main area. Victoria said, "You look like something a dog shat in the street."

Gerard smiled, "Thanks."

Victoria rolled her eyes. Mikey stumbled to where Pete was in the big cushion-chair and all-but collapsed on top of him. He mumbled, "If I get you dead, I'm really sorry."

Pete brushed the hair from Mikey's eyes with his fingers and said, "I have a feeling I'll forgive you, sadly."

Bob said, "We brought soup for you, Mikey."

Mikey made a vague gesture with his hand that was meant as a "thanks," but probably came out more as a suggestion of deviant copulation. Bob evidently took it in stride, because all he said was, "I'll get you a bowl."

Pete manhandled Mikey until he was sitting in a position where he could eat, once Bob had returned. Pete was stronger than he looked. Mikey filed that away for later, when he could think about things like being held down and someone making it good. Bob came back after a moment, a bowl in his hands, steam issuing from it. He gave it to Mikey carefully. "Careful, it's hot."

Pete grabbed a cushion from behind him and put it on Mikey's lap, like a table. Mikey tried to smell the soup, but that just ended in him turning his head for a coughing jag. Bob waited until he was finished to say, "It's wonton. Thought I remembered you liking that."

Mikey said, "You're my favorite, Bob Bryar."

"I paid," Victoria said.

"My other favorite," Mikey said.

Pete bit at Mikey's shoulder through his sweatshirt. He said, "Eat."

"Platonic favorites," Mikey clarified.

Pete's laugh was nervous, but it was a laugh. "Eat."

Mikey ate. It took some work, since he had to stop to breathe--cough--after every bite, but the soup did
taste good going down. It somehow made his chest hurt less, too.

Frank and Gerard had a fight over which zombie movie to start with that reached the point where they were actually pulling each other's hair. Mikey was pretty sure any of them could have stopped it at any time, but realistically, it was just too fucking entertaining. In the end, Frank won, but only because the shenanigans were scaring the shit out of pretty much all the pets excepting the cats and Piglet, who was pretty zen.

Frank, gracious in his victory, let Gerard work the remote. Just for that, Gerard put on the French subtitles. Gerard didn't even speak French. Pete, though, thought it was the greatest thing ever, and about ten minutes in, Gerard turned off the sound and let Pete read in French for a while. Mikey asked, "Do you know what the hell you're saying?"

"Nah," Pete admitted. "But three years of high school French was enough that I can read it and sound like I do."

They'd all seen the movie roughly two billion times, so it wasn't that big a deal for Pete to turn the whole soundtrack into a foreign language. Mikey was laughing almost as much as he was coughing, which is why he was surprised when he suddenly woke up in Ray's arms. He didn't even remember falling asleep. He asked, "Ray?"

"Hey. Bedtime, Mikes."

Mikey closed his eyes again, leaning against Ray's chest. "Pete?"

"I'm here," a voice slightly to his left said. "I'm gonna stay here tonight, if that's cool."

"My bed isn't as big as yours," Mikey warned.

Pete sounded positively delighted when he said, "Somehow, we'll make do."

*


Pete ended up staying a week. As far as Mikey could tell, nobody suggested it--although Gerard could have when Mikey was sleeping, which was a lot, and Gerard had been known to take advantage of things like that, the bastard. It was just that Mikey was loopy, and sick as hell, and when Pete brought Hemmy back, Winston fell in gay, gay love, and the rest of the pets accepted Pete for his sake. Well, except Piglet, but she was just annoyed because she had to "teach stupid boys that mice are friends. And rabbits. And furry pigs."

(Gerard was still trying to teach the dogs the word "Guinea." Mikey really did love him for his "can do" spirit.)

By the end of five days, Mikey had made his way through the antibiotics and was starting to feel vaguely human again, if completely and utterly freaked out by how much work he'd missed. He was fairly certain he’d had four sick days left--but that still meant he'd taken an unpaid day, and had missed out on all the overtime he'd been gunning for.

Gerard and Pete, though, had evidently been busy. For one thing, the first day Mikey woke up and didn't immediately burst into a coughing jag that continued until they could get some medication in him, Gerard whispered, "I have a job."

Mikey almost fell off the bed. Gerard never got jobs this quickly. "Oh. Um. What is it?"

"It's a PR job." Gerard sounded as surprised as Mikey felt. "Pete knew this guy, Patrick, from law school. I think they're close, because Patrick works in house for Shark Meat and Pete asked if they needed an artist for anything and the next thing I know, job."

"Shark Meat Records, Shark Meat?"

Gerard looked confused, as if Mikey had been the one that came up with the story. He said, "I met a girl. At the job. Actually, um. They wanted me to talk to her because, I guess, I'd be helping design a lot of the stuff for her tour?"

Sundae made a less-than-pleased sound and used Gerard as a scratching post. Mikey said, "Jealousy is unbecoming."

"Humans are stupid," she replied cleverly.

"You'll get no argument from me," Gerard told her.

Mikey asked, "So, you met an indie chick?"

"Um, she's more rock than indie. Kind of a one-off for the label. They're trying to expand."

Mikey hid his smile. "You talk music?"

"And stuff," Gerard said. Mikey waited a second, then another. Gerard exploded. "She has legs, Mikey."

"So do you. Something in common already."

"Stop quoting Eddie Izzard, I'm serious."

"You brought up the reference."

"No, I said the girl of my dreams has the world's greatest thighs. There's a difference, Mikey, you're just not listening to me."

Mikey was listening. "You talked to a real live girl."

"I did. And got a job."

Mikey was going to have to polish up his blowjob skills for Pete, ‘til they shined.

Gerard said, "He thinks he can get the house zoned as a shelter. Did you give him that idea?"

"Not exactly," Mikey said, his head swimming a bit. Maybe he should get his tongue pierced, or something--double the pleasure.

Gerard said, "He's kind of, um, eager to please."

Mikey couldn't tell what Gerard thought about that. He figured that was fair, since he wasn't really sure what he thought about it. Mikey asked, "Is he coming back here tonight?"

"Haven't heard anything to the contrary."

"'Kay. I'm gonna try and actually stay awake for a little while when that happens."

"Dream big, little brother, dream big."

*


Pete drove Mikey into work on his first day back. Mikey said, "I really should contribute gas money."

Pete said, "At the risk of sounding like an asshole, how about after Gee gets his first paycheck and you guys get the electricity paid?"

"Realist," Mikey accused.

Pete laughed. "That's honestly the first time anyone has ever called me that."

"You do hide your candy," Mikey agreed.

"I don't think that means what you think it means," Pete said, in a really horrible imitation of Mandy Patinkin.

Mikey rolled his eyes and leaned in to kiss Pete. "You want me to come to your place tonight?"

Pete stole another kiss. "That all right?"

"Gee has managed without burning the house down or inviting any potentially-lethal forms of wildlife in before."

"I got your brother a job. Can we assume that was me voting in favor of his competency? I was asking if you were comfortable with that, now that you're not dying."

"Peace and quiet, no cats finding a way to open bedroom doors...what's not to be comfortable with?"

"Peace and quiet," Pete said.

Mikey rolled his eyes. "Your place, sixish."

"Go to work, lazy," Pete said, mock-pushing him out the door. Mikey laughed and made his way into the building.

Matt was up at reception, checking messages. He said, "Hunter and Daisy have staged a not-so-peaceful protest."

Mikey said, "Great. I'll clean up."

He went to the break room, where Bob was pouring himself some coffee. He reached up and got a second cup for Mikey. Mikey said, "You're my hero."

Bob said, "And I'm probably only the second person you've said that to today."

Mikey looked at him impassively. "Gee tell you about the job?"

"About six times."

Mikey smiled into his coffee.

"To be fair, that includes the two times he told Victoria."

"Yeah," Mikey wasn't surprised. He loved that Gerard was so excited. He hadn't been in forever. "He tell you he flirted?"

Bob nodded. "Victoria knows her. The girl, Lyn? Vic used to represent a band she was in. Lyn went solo since, but Vic says she was good people."

"I can't decide if it's a good or bad thing that our world is the size of Frank."

"Better than being the size of Pete. Is that, like, your type?"

"Gabe wasn't tiny," Mikey pointed out.

"Exception that proved the rule?"

"Or just an exception. Being that he's Gabe."

Bob said, "Yeah, there's that. Ready to brave the hounds of hell?"

Mikey held out his cup. "More coffee, please?"

"Pussy," Bob said mildly.

"Meow," Mikey affirmed.

*


Mikey made it back to Pete's place before Pete was home. Luckily, someone else came and let him follow them into the building. He went up and sat outside Pete's door, his head resting against the wall. He must have fallen asleep, because he felt something tapping on his knee and opened his eyes to see Pete kneeling in front of him. Mikey said, "Oh, hey."

Pete grinned. "Wanna come in, or are you good out here?"

Mikey pushed at Pete, who fell back into a sitting position. Then he used Pete's knees to lever himself off the ground. "You coming?"

Pete scrambled up and unlocked the door to let them inside. Hemmy, whom Pete had taken home the day before, trotted up and gave Pete all kinds of welcoming attention. He butted Mikey's leg with his head and said, "Homehome."

Mikey reached down to pet him, his fingers bumping into Pete's. Pete followed the fingers when they retreated and caught them up in his own, pulling Mikey to him. Mikey's weight brought them both to the floor, Mikey atop Pete, who just laughed and said, "Finally."

Mikey let himself be drawn into a kiss, into making out, despite Hemmy, who was pretty disgruntled by his human's behavior. Pete murmured, "How hungry are you?"

Mikey responded by bringing his hands between them and unzipping Pete's work pants. Pete didn't wear suits, but he dressed professionally enough--nice pants, button-down shirts, ties. Mikey hadn't ever dated someone who had to dress like a grown-up at work. It was a bizarre turn-on, but he wasn't going to question it. Instead he grabbed Pete's hips and said, "Up."

Pete didn't hesitate. He did say, "I meant in the non-metaphoric--" but by then Mikey had gotten Pete's pants and briefs down and swirled his tongue around the head of Pete's cock. Pete stopped talking. Or, well, he didn't, but most of what he said after that was completely incoherent.

Mikey didn't do anything too fancy. For one thing, his throat was still a little sensitive after doing nothing but coughing for the better part of nearly two weeks. For another thing, he was distracted by how vocal and sweet and hot Pete was. It didn't really take long, which Mikey figured was probably due to Pete having been at work all day and having waited for Mikey to get well.

Pete looked up at him with glazed eyes and asked, "Um, can I. You're not gonna complain if I--" Pete pushed Mikey to the ground with his feet, then rolled onto his side, languid in his post-coital state. He got Mikey's pants down with some effort and fumbling, which Mikey found oddly endearing. Then Pete looked at him and said, earnestly, "You should know that I'm awesome at this."

Mikey laughed, not meanly, he'd just never had anyone who wasn't Gabe announce his sexual prowess to Mikey, and Gabe announced everything. Only, as it turned out, Pete really was awesome, which Mikey knew the second Pete bent down and didn't even take a moment before deep-throating. Mikey'd kind of thought deep-throating was a porn myth until that moment, and his brain stopped working, incapable of recognizing that the fucking tooth fairy actually existed.

"Pete," Mikey groaned, when Pete stopped for a moment.

Pete said, "Just, you can like, pull my hair. I kind of, um, it's hot?"

Mikey scrabbled to find Pete's hair and pull his mouth back onto Mikey's cock by way of it. Pete grinned, and returned to doing his absolute best to drive Mikey completely insane. Mikey wasn't very vocal during sex, but he ran his fingers through Pete's hair, caressed at his scalp, gasped and even whimpered a little bit when Pete decided to show off the things he could do with his tongue. Pete would get him just to the edge and then taper off, time and again, until Mikey found himself validly pulling at Pete's hair, breathlessly saying, "Please, please."

Pete evidently responded to begging.

When Mikey had finished, and was lying on Pete's entryway floor like a dead invertebrate, Pete collapsed next to him, both of them panting a little. Pete asked, "So, what are you in the mood to eat?"

Mikey blinked patiently at the white spots still flooding his eyes. "Uh."

"Oh, it's up to me? That's sweet of you. I say we make Manwiches."

Mikey rolled onto his side, trying to see if Pete was being serious. It took a moment to get his muscles to cooperate. Pete let his head roll to the side and said, quite innocently, "You don't have to be a man to love a Manwich, Mikeyway."

Mikey said, "I'm pretty sure we both just proved our manhood. Or something. Also, there is something wrong with you."

Hemmy grunted. "Both of you, if you ask me."

Mikey hadn't, but yeah, fair enough.

*


Gerard came with Mikey and Pete to Ray's club on Friday night, despite his contention that he'd been at work all day and should be allowed to hide in bed. Mikey just rolled his eyes and pulled out his best, "But you promised, Gee," and it was a done deal.

When Gerard had gone to change, Pete said, "You know, you really have to be careful to only use your powers for good."

"Good schmood," Mikey said, and went to go feed Molasses and Harry. Slinky had managed to get himself into their pond again, and they were both hiding in their shells. Slinky could be a little bit overwhelming. Mikey fished him out and set him under the heat lamp next to Lucky, who cracked open an eye, but was otherwise silent. Slinky draped himself over Lucky and basked. He was a pretty easy guy to please.

By the time Mikey made it back to the turtle habitat, Molasses was starting to poke her head out. Mikey ran a finger over it gently. "I got rid of him for you."

She pushed her head into his hand, and he gave her some food. The turtles weren't really that verbal. They mostly spoke in gestures. Mikey liked it, the quietness of it. He was still just spending some time with the two of them when he felt Pete at his side. Mikey looked over and saw Pete staring like a kid at a fishing hole. Mikey asked, "Never seen a turtle?"

"Sure, no, I've--yeah." Pete still looked pretty interested. "Can I touch?"

Mikey took Pete's hand in his and ran Pete's fingers over Harry's shell, gently, again and again until Harry decided it was safe to come out. Then Mikey said, "Hey there, Har," and helped Pete slide a finger over the head. Harry complacently leaned into the touch and said, "Mikey. Mikey, the gecko was here."

"I know," Mikey said, and almost missed the look Pete flashed him. Mikey ducked his head and was rescued by Gerard reappearing, dressed to go out.

Mikey asked, "Is that a new shirt?"

"No, just haven't worn it in forever. Should I change?"

"You look good," Mikey told him honestly. "C'mon, Ray's probably wondering if we got lost."

Mikey ushered Gerard outside behind Pete, and locked up. Pete drove them to the club, which was only really just starting its night. Mikey enjoyed this part of the evening, though, when Ray was still on the main floor, Frank with him if it was a weekend night. A band might be warming up, or there might be a background of tracks playing. The club had a kitchen, mostly just fried foods that always sounded good with beer, but Ray's chef was from somewhere out west and made the best Texas fries ever, so Mikey never went without an order.

When they arrived, Ray had three baskets of fries set out and said, "Jesus, any longer and they would have gotten cold."

"Gee was primping," Mikey said just as Gerard said, "Mikey was communing with the turtles."

Frank asked, "Is that what the kids are calling it these days?"

Pete choked on a bite of fries, and Mikey flipped Frank off, more affectionately than he really felt was appropriate. When he could breathe, Pete said, "Sorry, got a visual there."

For a moment, both Frank and Ray looked completely bamboozled by that. Then Ray doubled over in laughter. Frank said, "All right, you win. But only this round."

"What do I win?" Pete asked casually, but with a slight edge to the inquiry.

Frank smiled ferally and said, "First dance."

Mikey swallowed his fry and said, in a tone that he hoped would brook no argument, "I expect him back in the shape I brought him in."

Frank and Pete both pouted and said, in tandem, "No fun, Mikeyway, no fun."

Ray, who had just managed to get himself under control, burst into laughter all over again. If it had been anyone else--anyone who wasn't dating Frank--Mikey might have killed him with his eyes. As it was, he just took another fry.

*


Gerard said, "Oh shit." Then, "Oh shit oh shit oh shit."

Pete smiled. "Oh, hey. I didn't know if she'd make it or not."

Gerard turned panic-stricken eyes on Pete. "You invited her?"

"You liked her, right?"

Gerard was about to answer when a woman sidled up to their table and said, "Hey, Gee. Pete mentioned you might be here tonight."

"Um. Hi. Hi, Lyn."

Mikey wasn't ashamed to admit that his first thought was, "Wow, go Gee." His second thought was probably more significant, though. He tugged Pete to him and said that one aloud, "You played matchmaker?"

Pete shrugged, looking uncertain. "I thought he'd be more comfortable on a double date than just out with us."

Mikey wasn't sure he could say where along the line Gerard might have given that impression, but the fact that Pete had actually done something productive about it was sweet in a way that Mikey was totally doomed in the face of. "Oh."

"Mikey!" Gerard said, clearly not his first time having said it.

Mikey snapped to attention, "Yeah, Gee?"

"I want you to meet Lyn. She's--I do mock-ups for her."

Etchings, Mikey's mind supplied. And that was a thought he really didn't need. He held out his hand to Lyn, "Hey, I've heard good stuff about your music."

She grinned, and wow, yeah, she had a nice grin. "I've heard good things about...pretty much everything you do."

Mikey laughed and didn't tell her that Gerard didn't get out much. Instead he said, "I'm gonna go dance."

Pete said, "Me too," and followed Mikey. Gerard looked mildly betrayed, but Mikey was entirely certain he'd get over it within minutes. Mikey took Pete's hand and pulled them into the crowd. Victoria was on the floor with Gabe, who'd ostensibly shown up for the band, but Mikey had seen him and Frank conferencing. Mikey stopped when he found a spot that was just open enough, and decently far away from where Gabe was making signals with his eyebrows that Mikey understood all too well.

Mikey let himself concentrate on the music, the beat and sometimes the words, though mostly just the instruments beneath them. At some point, he got closer to Pete, or Pete to him, it didn't really matter. It was a little too warm, and they were both slick with sweat and Mikey didn't mind, wanted more. He brushed his lips over Pete's ear. "That was sweet. What you did for Gee. All of it."

"You love your brother," Pete said simply.

Yeah, Mikey did, but there were plenty of people who didn't really get it. Gabe, Jeph, and Frank all had, even if it had taken a while, but there had been scores of others who'd disappeared after the first few dates, tired of Mikey's codependency on someone who wasn't them.

"Still. It was sweet."

Pete twirled, honestly twirled and when he was facing Mikey again, asked, "What's your opinion of sweet, Mikeyway?"

Pete's hair was in his face, his eyes were dark, curious. Mikey said, "Getting better all the time."

*


Mikey knew he should tell Pete about the whole animals and talking and understanding thing, and he was going to, it was just that the right time to say, "So, um, I speak several non-human languages" never exactly came up. Which was why everything came to a head the day Frank got called in on an unusual rescue in the city.

Frank called Mikey and said, "Um, I know you're at work, but I really need some help."

Frank sounded pretty freaked, which wasn't at all normal, so Mikey asked, "Where are you?"

"Not that far, um, give the phone to Bob, I'll give him the address, have him give you a ride."

Mikey didn't hesitate, just handed the phone over to Bob, who must have heard Frank's tone as well, because after his initial, annoyed, "The fuck, Iero?" he quieted down, and took the address. Then he grabbed Mikey by his shirt and said, "I think we'd better get over there."

It took fifteen minutes. It should have been more, but Bob was kind of a maniac when he was worried, in a quiet, deathly sort of way. Mikey and he ran up the stairs of the apartment building, four floors up and it was there that they found Frank in the doorway. Mikey said, "You're bleeding," at the same time that Bob asked, "Is that a cougar?"

Mikey said, "What?" but then looked up, and sure enough, in the corner of the apartment was what appeared to be a semi-starved cougar. "Oh fuck."

Frank said, "We got this call, from the State's Attorney. All they said was that they'd found a wild cat. I thought it was, y'know, a feral tom, or something." He sounded shaky.

"Okay," Mikey said, and took a deep breath. "Frank, go with Bob, go get cleaned up."

"We're not fucking leaving you alone with a cougar," Bob said. He made "cougar" sound like "blood-sucking parasite."

Mikey wasn't really fond of the idea of having other people around when he wasn't entirely sure he could reach the cougar--she was clearly hungry, possibly sick, and definitely scared. But Bob and Frank weren't going to leave, and he didn't want to wait for her to act on her fear. Instead, he sat down on his knees and said, "Hi, pretty girl."

Even with the ability to understand, her response was more of a snarl than anything else. Mikey said, "I know, I know, things are really bad. But me and my friends, we just want to help you."

She growled, "Human," low and dirty and mad.

Mikey nodded, feeling for her. If he were in her place, he wouldn't trust a human, either. "Yes, human. But I want to unchain you and get you some food."

"Lies," she hissed.

"No." Mikey shook his head. "No, I promise. Food, and somewhere to run."

"He'll find me," she said, and now the fear was evident. Mikey wanted to tear whomever had done this apart with his bare hands. In his anger, he forgot caution, and took a step too close. She struck out and bit, drawing a fair amount of blood from his arm. Mikey stumbled back just beyond her reach and she stood shakily on her legs, growling.

Mikey blinked a few times. His arm was burning, but he needed to not concentrate on that now. Bob was calling his name, but Mikey just said, "Um, can one of you walk to the nearest corner store and get some meat?"

Bob swore like an eighteenth century sailor, but he also left at Mikey's request. Frank looked at Mikey's arm and said, "Mikey--"

"I'm okay. Just moved too fast."

She had laid back down, too weak to put up that much of a stand. He asked, "How did you get here?" not so much because he needed to know, but it just came out.

"Humans put me in dark. Dark and dark and side to side to side and then here. Here with powder. Powder smells bad."

Mikey chanced a glance at Frank. "She's guarding a stash?"

"And evidently some asshole had her flown or shipped over from wherever the fuck she should be to do it," Frank confirmed. "I hate people."

Mikey knew the feeling. He hummed a song that Gerard always used to help Mikey sleep when he was having nightmares, mostly just to kill time. Her eyes started drooping and she laid her head on her leg. She was nearly asleep when Bob came back up the stairs. She startled awake at that, trying to get to her feet again. Bob handed Mikey the goods.

Mikey said, "Here, food, like I promised," and held it out cautiously to her.

She took it and dug in, ravenously. When she was finished, she asked, warily, "More?"

Mikey nodded. "More. But you have to come with us."

She eyed him. "With you."

Mikey sighed. Evidently he wasn't going into work today.

*


It was only after the ride to the central shelter and once Mikey'd been given a room of his own to sit with her while Frank made calls to local wildlife organizations and the zoo to figure out a next step that the cougar relented and let Mikey call her She-Ra. She didn't really see the point, but Mikey insisted, "It's a princess name."

She didn't so much relent as begin to ignore Mikey once he gave her more meat. They'd called ahead and the shelter had taken care of the need. Mikey's arm was pretty sore where she'd bitten it, but he didn't really feel comfortable leaving her alone in the room, either for her safety or anyone else's.

Once she'd finally eaten and drank her fill, she relaxed a little, pacing the room to check it out, but not snarling at Mikey so much anymore. He said, "You could sleep. I won't let anyone hurt you."

"You don't have teeth," she said dismissively.

Mikey chose to take that literally. He had plenty of metaphorical teeth, thank you very much. Granted, She-Ra's were probably sharper on that front, too, but whatever. He stayed where he was, waiting for her to settle, to feel comfortable enough to stay in one spot. According to his phone, it took nearly two hours. He spent some time texting Pete and Gerard. Gerard, naturally, was jealous.

Pete was a little more, "a cougar??? wtf mway?? dont get eten!!"

Mikey wasn't sure whom he sympathized with more. Then She-Ra edged carefully toward him and curled up next to his leg with a disdainful look and a forceful, "Don't move, human. I sleep."

Mikey told Gerard, "I'll bring pictures," and took as many as he could with his phone until She-Ra nipped his leg. She didn't even rip through his jeans, though, so he took it as a sort of warning and set to stroking her fur, instead. She purred at one point, but he didn't call her on it.

Mikey was drifting in and out of sleep when Frank knocked on the door, peering through the window on it. Mikey murmured, "She-Ra, a friend is coming in."

She-Ra grunted, "Sleeping," and didn't say anything else. Mikey gestured Frank inside.

Frank said, "Hey. So, one of our contacts at the NRDC knows of a habitat we can send her to, but it's gonna take a few days to arrange transport."

"Stateside?" Mikey asked.

"Wyoming. Why, she said anything about home?"

Mikey shook his head. For all he knew, she might have been from Wyoming to begin with. She probably didn't know. Animals didn't have the same geographical sense as humans, their territory was demarcated differently.
Frank said, "Mikey, I think you should probably go wash out your arm."

Mikey looked pointedly at the extensively clawed paw that She-Ra had hooked over his leg. "I don't see that happening."

Frank said, "Yeah, okay, I'll be back in a minute."

Frank returned with Nate, the shelter's on-site vet, and Gabe's current boyfriend. Mikey had to meet some people who didn't all date each other. He said, "Hey, Nate."

The bitch of it was that Nate was a nice guy and a total professional, so Mikey's completely valid claim on disliking him purely because Gabe had sort of kind of dumped Mikey for Nate was hard to hold onto. Nate smiled and said, "Mikey. Can I see the arm?"

Mikey motioned him to the side that She-Ra wasn't sleeping on, and let him have the appendage in question. Nate made a sound. "Um...this happened this morning?"

Mikey looked at Nate. Nate said, "Yeah, okay, this is gonna sting like a motherfucking bitch," and proceeded to flush the worst of the dirt and general atmospheric crap out of the bite. It did a little more than sting, but Mikey did his best to take it like a man, especially since She-Ra had opened one eye lazily and was looking rather displeased about Nate's presence in general. Instead, Mikey just cursed a lot under his breath.

Nate kept saying, "Sorry, sorry," and, "The animals don't really talk, y'know?"

Mikey didn't tell him he just couldn't understand.

*


Pete and Gerard showed up at the same time, which seemed odd until Gerard said, "Pete picked me up from work," and then, "Cougar. Oh, aren't you pretty? Yes, yes you are."

"It's a cougar, Gee, not an infant," Mikey said mildly, largely because She-Ra seemed curious about this second human who was clearly willing to be her slave.

Pete sat down on Mikey's other side and said, "So, um. Frank just called you. Because there was a cougar." He looked at Mikey's arm, bound up in clean, white bandages, and chewed his lip.

And fuck if this wasn't the place that Mikey avoided in most relationships by just not staying in them long enough or, alternatively, having people (Frank and Jepha) find out by accident. (Or, in Gabe's case, never really knowing. It wasn't that Mikey had hidden it; Gabe had just never seemed to really notice.) Mikey considered lying, making up some ridiculous story about Mikey's cat karma and Frank's implicit trust, or just still being the third person on Frank's speed dial--anything that wouldn't cause Pete to look at him like he was crazy and untrustworthy and not the person Pete had thought he was. Mikey rubbed at his face. His arm hurt and he winced at the movement.

Pete took the injured arm in his hands and cradled it carefully. Mikey found himself saying, "I talk to animals. Me and Gee. Always, we just always could."

Pete didn't even look up as he said softly, "Yeah, I'd kinda figured that out."

And, well, not that Mikey'd told many people in his lifetime, but enough to know that that was not the usual response. "Um. What?"

Pete shrugged. "It was kinda the only logical conclusion, with the way you are with all your animals, and Hemmy, and then this cougar thing, and I just, y'know, added two and two. Got four."

Mikey tipped Pete's chin up so that they were looking at each other. "Pete. It's not a logical conclusion at all."

Pete frowned. "Trust me, Mikeyway. I'm a lawyer. I know logic when I see it."

Mikey remembered back to his first impression of Pete and only just managed to ask if Pete was entirely sure he had all the degrees he thought he had. Instead he asked, "Did you call the heat fairy to get our heat turned back on, too?"

"Heating a house is not magical," Pete explained, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world. "But you clearly were. If you consider that magic is part of the equation, the logic becomes unavoidable."

"And I don't suppose it matters that magic doesn't exist? In a logical sense?"

Pete looked at Mikey like he was a little bit special, but Pete could be tolerant. He said slowly, "Mikey. You just told me you talk to animals. In what universe that you live in does magic logically not exist?"

Put like that, it was actually hard to argue with. It occurred to Mikey, for a second, that heating companies aside, Pete might be a really good lawyer. "Huh."

Pete laughed and shook his head. "Look, it's awesome, honestly, but could you maybe not be trying it out on actually wholly wild creatures?"

Mikey blinked. Pete said, "Mikey, she's a fucking cougar. If she's hungry enough, we look like food to one of her kind."

"I didn't do it to scare you," Mikey told him, still a little bit taken aback at that reaction on Pete's part. Most of Mikey's friends were just used to him and Gerard getting themselves into situations like this.

"You did, though," Pete told him.

Mikey sighed. "Pete, I can't just… Whatever it means that Gee and I can do this? We can't just ignore when animals need help. It would be like someone coming in, and asking for help, um, getting away from an abusive husband, and you just saying no."

Pete opened his mouth, then shut it. Finally he said, "Damn you for finding the one argument that makes absolute sense."

"The cougar thing is pretty rare," Mikey said by way of placation, apology. "Really, it's only ever happened this once."

"Well. I guess that's okay, then." Pete made a face.

Mikey laughed and leaned over to kiss him. "Yeah?"

Pete kissed back. "There's not really much point to being magic if you aren't going to use your powers for good."

Mikey didn't voice his concern that he had, to some extent, fallen in love with a more tattooed version of his older brother.

*


It wasn't exactly that Mikey didn't believe that Pete had bizarre powers of completely illogical (no matter what Pete said) deduction, but all the same, he asked Gerard, "You didn't tell Pete about the animal talking thing, right?"

Gerard made a face. They were lying on the bed in Gerard's room, each of them with at least one cat on their chest, Lucky between them, and Mikey definitely had two of the mice burrowed down by his feet. Mikey was watching Gerard though, saw the face, saw him open his mouth to say. "Mikes, I know I can be a little absent-minded and shit, but really? You're asking me that?"

Mikey shrugged. "Just. He claimed to have figured it out on his own."

Gerard said, "That's a first," but he didn't sound surprised, or doubtful.

Mikey tried once more: "Also, kind of unlikely, yeah?"

Gerard shrugged. "I guess, but he's kinda weird, right? So, y'know. It happens."

It really didn't, was the thing, but Mikey understood that, in his own way, Gerard was telling him not to be an over-suspicious asshole who would run everyone who loved him away. Or, well, something like that.
Gerard interrupted his thoughts by asking, "Besides, if you get to talk to animals, why can't he be prescient? You're such a skeptic."

"He didn't claim prescience," Mikey said, but his tone was mild. Gerard had a point.

Gerard didn't bother to respond. He did reach a hand down to Pig, who had her chin resting on the bed, right near Gerard's hip and asked, "What do you think, Pig?"

Pig said, "Hemmy listens well," which Mikey knew was about as much of a blessing as he was going to get from that corner.

Gerard grinned. "See?"

Mikey rolled his eyes. "This isn't a majority vote situation."

"Mm," Gerard agreed. "But you're telling me the fact that he's really smart and pays attention to you goes in the minus column?"

"Don't make it sound dumb."

"I didn't have to make it do anything, it is dumb."

Mikey shoved at Gerard a little. Gibson looked disgruntled by his perch being rocked. Gerard laughed. "What are you, like, three?"

"Don't call me dumb, dickface."

"Don't be dumb, douchenozzle."

"You suck," Mikey said, not unaware of the deep lameness of the comeback.

"Your mom sucks," Gerard said with relish.

"She was your mom, too," Mikey pointed out.

"Nah, you were adopted. Your mom left you with a sign that said, 'free to good home' outside the Wal-Mart off the freeway."

Mikey opened his mouth, then closed it when he realized he was going to laugh. It took him several moments to overcome the need and then he asked, "How long you been working on that one?"

"It came to me in a flash of light and genius," Gerard said.

Mikey waited. Gerard relented, "I thought of it a couple of months ago. I just had to wait for the right opportunity to arise."

"Your patience is godlike," Mikey said dryly.

"You're just jealous," Gerard said with an utter lack of concern.

"Yes, that must be my problem."

Crackerjack crawled out from where he'd been hiding between Gerard's head and the pillow. He scrambled over Gerard's face and said, "Gee's hair better."

And sure, Mikey knew that Gerard's hair was just easier to hide in, which, by gecko standards was all that mattered, but really, "Insult to injury. Thanks, Crack."

*


The day after the town hall meeting where Pete had managed to wrangle permission for a rezoning ordinance out of a very doubtful crowd, he showed up at Mikey's door with the biggest sheet cake Mikey had seen since his kindergarten graduation. Mikey said, "Aren't I supposed to be the one getting the celebratory props?"

Gerard said, "Oh, hey, that's chocolate, right?"

Pete came in the door and said, "I refuse to dignify that query with a response."

Privately, Mikey thought he had the right. He followed Pete into the kitchen, where Pete set the cake down on the table and said, "By the way, we're having a party."

"Um," Mikey said.

Edgar came around the corner and sniffed at the table. "Human sweet food."

"Not for you," Mikey said, but reached up in the cabinets and gave him a doggie treat. Edgar took it complacently.

Pete said, "Bob and Victoria are bringing the pizza, Brian and Maja are in charge of chips and dip, Ray and Frank are in charge of libations, Jeph's bringing plasticware and plates. Lyn said she was bringing something actually healthy and I didn't inquire any further."

"Did we approve having a party at our house?" Gerard asked Mikey curiously.

Mikey was pretty sure they hadn't. He looked at Pete. "You asked Lucky, didn't you?"

Pete was forever asking Lucky for permission to do things, and taking it as a yes when Lucky didn't move. Pete said, "Close. Molasses and Harry."

"Did they even have their heads out of their shells?" Mikey asked, but he kind of felt like smiling.
"Whatever, you talk to them when they're in their shells all the time."

Mikey didn't bring up the whole thing where the turtles understood him. Pete was jealous, and, really, impromptu party at his house or no, Pete had come through, and the rezoning was definitely cause to celebrate. Gerard asked, "Lyn said she was coming?"

Pete rolled his eyes. Mikey saw it and hid a smile. Mikey had tried explaining to Gerard that he and Lyn were dating, but Gerard didn't believe him. Recovering from his fit of pique, Pete said, "Yeah, she promised. With carrots and everything."

Gerard smiled. "The buns'll like that."

"I'm sure that's what she was thinking," Pete said gravely. Mikey swatted him on the arm. Pete smacked him back, for good measure.

Edvard ran out from somewhere and onto Pete, pushing his nose into Pete with an insistent, "No meanness, no meanness to the Mike."

Pete, who couldn't understand, but probably got the whole rat-attacking thing, put his hands up and said, "He started it."

"Losing battle," Gerard informed him. "The rats love Mikey the best ever."

"It's because I feed them."

"And talk to them and pet them and rescue them from death in the winter," Gerard pointed out. But whatever, Gerard was one to talk. Just last week he'd found a kitten. Sundae and Maple had immediately taken over the care and grooming of said kitten, but the fact remained, Gerard was hopeless at resisting the urge to rescue creatures. Then again, now that they were going to be hosting a rescue, that wasn't such a huge issue.
Mikey reached out and plucked Edvard off of Pete, with a murmured, "It's okay." He let Edvard perch on his shoulder as he leaned in to kiss Pete.

Pete said, "Oh."

Mikey said, "Thanks."

Pete grinned. "I get a corner piece."

Mikey said, "You can have all four."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile