“You’re such a little traitor,” Raymond muttered as Pandemonium wound her way around Kevin’s ankles, scenting him as he stepped barely two yards inside Raymond’s apartment. “Keep it up and you’ll get coal instead of catnip in your stocking this year.”
Kevin squatted and lightly brushed his fingertips along the back of the cat’s neck. “Who’s a good girl, huh? Who’s a good girl?” he sing-songed as if he were talking to a dog. Pandy loved it, though, judging by the way she lightly nipped and tongued Kevin’s hand.
“Bet she smells Corky and Isabelle on you.” Raymond’s grin contradicted the snark lurking in his words, just as the fresh whiff of berry scented shampoo wafting from Kevin’s damp hair gave lie to them. Doubtful that Kevin had handled his pet mice between stepping out of the shower and walking down the hall to Raymond’s apartment.
But, Kevin didn’t refute him. Not with words anyway, although the cockily raised eyebrow probably meant to. Instead, he stood with a beaming smile and handed Raymond a red, heart-shaped candy box. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” Kevin gave Raymond a light peck on the corner of his mouth as he relinquished the package. An ABO package. Already-Been-Opened.
“Thanks!” Raymond spun before his eyes could divulge his mixed emotions regarding the pre-opened candy box. His hand wobbled as he placed it on the countertop.
Sure, he and Kevin had been together only a few months, so it wasn’t like they had a whole lot of emotion invested in their fledgling relationship, but Valentine’s Day gifts weren’t supposed to be like bringing over whatever snacks you had on hand when getting together to watch videos.
Raymond had agonized over the decision of what to give Kevin. A three-month-old relationship was tricky. Risky, even. Doing too much and scaring away the boyfriend he was falling hard for worried the crap out of him. So did doing too little.
In the end, Raymond had also purchased a red, heart-shaped box. He sighed, picked it up, and turned back to Kevin with a smile pasted on his face. “Don’t worry, it’s not candy.” Unlike Raymond, Kevin didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, which made that opened candy box all the more inexplicable.
“Thanks!” Kevin’s word mirrored Raymond’s own from moments earlier as he took the proffered box. “So what is it, then?” The question in Kevin’s eyes seemed more concerned than curious as to the contents. Probably concerned about Raymond’s total inability to hide his emotions, damn it. Raymond had never been able to cover his feelings and was probably reading too much into the stupid unwrapped box anyway.
“Go ahead, open it.” Raymond’s smile was more authentic as Kevin peeled off the cellophane. Beef jerky was one of Kevin’s favorite snacks, so when Raymond had found a Valentine’s sampler of the nasty stuff, he’d known he’d found the perfect balance between thoughtfulness showing that he knew what his boyfriend would appreciate and going overboard into the scaring-him-off zone. He bounced on the balls of his feet as Kevin lifted the lid.
“Fantastic!” The unaffected delight in Kevin’s tone washed away the last of Raymond’s qualms about his decision. Kevin looked up with a smile. “Thank you! Open yours.”
Raymond’s eyes widened when he raised the lid. Every spot in the interior organizing form was occupied, but obviously not with the candy that had come with the box. The pieces were all square, but many of the spaces were meant for round confections.
“It’s caramels,” Kevin said quickly. “I know they’re your favorite, but I couldn’t find a heart-shaped box of them, so I bought an assortment for the box and substituted them. Sorry,” he bit his lip and rushed on. “I only just switched them and didn’t know how bad the fit would be.”
In that moment, Raymond knew exactly how the Grinch had felt when his heart had grown three sizes that day. He sniffed and threw his arms around Kevin’s neck. “They’re perfect.”
Before even opening his eyes, Kevin recognized that he was in his own bed, but he grimaced as he remembered he wasn’t “home.” The sounds surrounding him were unfamiliar. Water swooshing through pipes coming from directions and with a tonality that were not what he’d been used to hearing at home. He’d never paid deliberate attention to such things, but his subconscious mind recognized that it was somehow…different. So were the smells.
The thwump of a heavy Sunday newspaper hitting the floor outside his apartment door as the delivery person’s rattling 2-wheeler proceeded down the outer hallway had been the clincher.
No. He blinked a few times and rubbed the sleep from his eyes before focusing on the unfamiliar ceiling fixture. This was home now. Then again, maybe he would forever refer to his parents’ house as “home” in that casual way people did. When someone said, “I’m going home for Christmas,” everyone knew they weren’t referring to their own place of residence.
Even the scritch, scritch coming from the mouse cages sounded different. Poor Corky and Isabelle; their habitat’s screen had been damaged in the move. He really should have finished that repair before going to bed, exhaustion be damned. But he hadn’t wanted his final safety check of the elaborate structure to be made while he was having trouble focusing. Still, he hated that “his girls” had spent the night in their little traveling cages.
The angle of the light slanting through the blinds told him it was still early, but the tightness in his belly told him it was time to get up anyway. “Hang in there, girls,” he sing-songed in a manner that should be familiar and comforting to them. “You’ll be back home in no time.”
Their home—habitat—would be the same, but they’d probably be able to pick up on the fact that their world had moved for the same reasons Kevin had when he’d awaken. He rolled out of bed. They’d be hungry, too, and there was no sense disrupting their routine any more than necessary.
Kevin washed up, then fed and watered his mice. He’d shred some carrot for them later as a treat to help offset the disruption in their lives.
A grin spread across his face when he opened the refrigerator. His mom had bought groceries, making sure to pick up the ingredients for his favorite casseroles, the recipes for which she’d left in a neat stack on the countertop.
Yeah, her fabulous breakfast casserole was just what he needed to chase away that touch of homesickness pulling at his heartstrings. Either that or it would exasperate it. Regardless, he was hungry, so he pulled out the eggs, sausage, hash browns, chives, and shredded cheese, and got to work.
Once that was in the oven, he rummaged through his toolbox for pliers and screws, then pulled his drill off the charger. Everything seemed so much easier this morning. It was amazing what a difference a good night’s sleep could make. In no time at all, the habitat was complete and secure to his satisfaction.
A noise out in the hall reminded him of his newspaper. It sounded like another door opening. A door just down the hall in the direction of the cute guy he’d noticed during a couple of his box-hauling trips. Maybe he could catch another glimpse and maybe sneak in a “hi” and a wave? The guy was flaming—obviously gay—which considering Kevin’s faulty gaydar, was points in the guy’s favor because after a bad experience with a straight guy who’d turned out to also be a raging homophobe, he was always reluctant to ask a guy out if he was unsure of his sexuality.
Kevin quickly opened his door to retrieve the newspaper. Something flashed in his peripheral vision, and he froze, then relaxed. No, it couldn’t be—
Kevin jumped when the man down the hall let out a high-pitched yelp. He looked up in time to see the man hop from foot to foot and shriek, “Rat!” as a pale streak detoured into the man’s apartment.
“Shit,” Kevin muttered. He spun to check the travel cages and his heart leapt into his throat. Corky’s door was ajar. He closed his apartment door and took off running down the hall.
Kevin skidded to a stop outside his new neighbor’s apartment just as the man inside—channeling Jennifer Beals frenetically dancing to “She’s a Maniac” in Flash-dance on a loveseat—shrieked “Get it, Pandy! Get it!”
Any instinctual etiquette rules that would have kept him from dashing into a stranger’s open apartment door flew out the window as a cat—Pandy, apparently—bounded after poor Corky.
“No!” Kevin shouted as he rushed into the apartment. He put up a hand and added, “Sorry, sorry.” Because some conventions were just too deeply seated to suppress altogether regardless of the seriousness of the situation. “I’ll take care of it.”
Kevin dashed after the cat, which zipped after Corky as she darted under an unmade bed. His baseball diving-slide skills came in handy as he lunged after the animals and flailed his arms around like Kermit the frog doing…well…whatever it was that caused Kermit to do his arm flail thing. Hell if he could remember.
Point being, he didn’t want to hurt the cat, it was just doing what cats instinctively did. He just didn’t want it to get to Corky.
Corky scurried behind a shoebox, and the cat pounced. Kevin frantically slapped the box away as Corky bolted, this time trying to make an end run around Kevin’s arm, darn it, letting terror overtake her. His own fear wasn’t helping. No doubt she could sense it. And that incessant tea kettle whistling in the background wasn’t helping anything.
At this point, attempting to grab Corky would probably be counter-productive. She was in full on panic mode and would probably be best off in any enclosed safe space where she could calm down enough to trust him to carry her back to safety.
The mouse made it around him, and Kevin scrambled out faster than…well…a cat on a mouse, managing to block the cat in the process. A closet door was cracked open, and Corky dashed toward it, leaping over a blur of stuff he’d sent flying out of that shoe box. And was Cute Neighbor Guy deaf? Because damn, that freaking tea kettle was getting on his last—
Kevin gasped when the cat bounced itself off the back wall and tore out from under the bed, and he snapped back into action in time to grab it mid-pounce as Corky sprinted the final stretch into the open closet. He shoved the door closed and collapsed against it as he caught his breath.
He stared up at Cute Neighbor Guy who was still quivering on the love seat, but instead of looking relieved, the guy seemed…upset?
“She almost had it!” Cute Neighbor Guy wailed. “Now that rat’s infecting my…” He flinched and finished the sentence with a warbled, “Stuff.”
Rat? Seriously? Kevin sighed and petted the cat, Pandy. “She’s not a rat.”
The guy opened his mouth as if he was going to argue that point. Honestly, was he blind as well as deaf?
Kevin blinked and turned to see what was making that buzzing and thumping noise competing with the shrieking tea kettle. His eyes bugged. Was that a dildo cartwheeling across the floor? Living in his parents’ house he’d obviously had no opportunity to become a dildo expert, but still, he’d never heard of one that moved with that kind of thrusting motion.
The dancing dildo wasn’t the only thing scattered across the floor. He’d upended Cute Neighbor Guy’s porn stash and impressively extensive and diverse “toy” collection. Kevin made a false start reaching for the wayward dildo that had turned on but stilled, because what the hell was the proper etiquette in such a situation? It wasn’t his stuff. Did he turn it off? Pretend it wasn’t there rattling loudly enough to wake the neighbors. Although, he supposed that effing tea kettle would already have done that. He grimaced and nodded toward the offending kettle. “Would you mind?”
Cute Neighbor Guy bit his lip and glanced nervously at the crack at the bottom of the closed closet door. Kevin suppressed an eye roll. Corky wasn’t coming out anytime soon, and even if she did, there was no need to act like Godzilla was on the loose.
Apparently common sense made it through the guy’s irrational fear, and he gingerly stepped down from his loveseat stronghold. He turned off the burner, flipped open the spout cover to stop the infernal noise, and moved the kettle to a hot pad. Then he set his jaw and marched into the bedroom area, and unceremoniously scooped up the porn and toy stash into the shoebox, turning off the frolicking dildo in the process.
Should Kevin apologize for upending the shoebox during his foray under the bed, or would that embarrass the guy by calling attention to something that should maybe be left unaddressed? Cute Neighbor Guy kept his chin up as he skated the box across the floor and under the bed.
Out of sight, but not likely to ever be completely out of Kevin’s mind. Oh hell no. Whatever did or didn’t happen friendship-or-otherwise between them, imagining Cute Neighbor Guy using that intriguing bit of silicone was going to bring Kevin delicious inspiration for years to “come.”
The guy squared his shoulders and turned to face Kevin and reach for his cat. “Thank you for your help, but I can sort it out from here.”
Wait. What? Sort what out? No way would Corky willingly come to a total stranger after a fright like that. Was he really trying to boot Kevin out of the apartment while his pet was still cowering in the closet? Cute Neighbor Guy could suck it up and deal if he wanted Kevin gone. Kevin was not leaving without Corky.
Probably best not to take an indignant approach, though. The law would probably be on Cute Neighbor Guy’s side. “Um, I need to get my mouse, first. Sorry.”
“Your…you mean that’s a pet?”
“Right.” Had the guy really thought she was a stray rat? “Corky’s a domestic white mouse. They’re very tame.”
“Sure.” Cute Neighbor Guy’s tone was dubious.
“You’ll hold onto your cat—Pandy, is it?—while I rescue Corky?”
“Yeah, okay.” Now the guy’s tone was reluctant, and he actually quaked before stepping back, clutching Pandy to his chest. Maybe once he saw how sweet and gentle Corky was he’d change his opinion on pet mice. Because it didn’t matter how cute the guy was, hating Kevin’s pets would be a deal breaker.
Kevin opened the closet door and froze. The floor was covered in lacy underwear. Not women’s panties. These were clearly designed to accommodate a man’s package. He swallowed. More imagery to provide inspiration on lonely nights? Or—he gulped and licked his lips—dare he aspire to see Cute Neighbor Guy modeling a pair?
He delicately lifted a pair and shivered at the musky scent that wafted with the disruption and deposited them on the floor behind him. He similarly removed a couple more pairs before Corky peeked out and scrambled toward the closet opening.
“No!” Kevin blocked and tried to grab her, but she was too stressed and was quick to escape his grasp. She dove back into the pile of undies, and he closed the door. Leaning against it, he turned apologetic eyes on Cute Neighbor Guy. “So…um…Corky’s a bit agitated at the mo’. Liable to make another dash for it if I keep trying to get her right away.”
With impeccable timing, the phone alarm he’d set for his breakfast casserole went off in his jeans’ pocket. He quickly pulled it out and silenced the noise before turning back to Cute Neighbor Guy. Or rather to Cute Neighbor Guy’s exposed abdomen where his T-shirt was hiked up over provocatively low pajama pants.
He blinked, shook his head, and closed his slack jaw before lifting his gaze to meet his neighbor’s questioning—and thankfully not affronted—gaze, complete with hiked eyebrow.
Kevin swallowed. “Um…” He lifted the now silent smart phone. “That alarm was for my breakfast casserole. It’s in my oven.” He inclined his head in the direction of his apartment.
“I can make no guarantees as to the ra…mouse’s safety if you abandon it here.”
Kevin’s eyes widened. He put up a hand. “No, no…I don’t want to abandon her. I just need to get that out of the oven, so it doesn’t burn.” His gaze strayed to the kitchen where a sad looking box of Shredded Wheat sat on the counter and couldn’t censor his wince. He turned on his best puppy dog eyes. Maybe… “I could bring it over and share if you’d like. I mean…I don’t want to intrude and I feel really bad about inviting myself over, but…you know.” He gestured toward the closet.