"Are you eating all right?" his mother asks, during one of their phone calls. "You can't live on takeout." So he shuffles the delivery menus back into the drawer where they always lived, and takes down one of the cookbooks that they'd been given — to warm their house, to make a home, for all those reasons, and he tries not to read to much into the fact it was left behind — and he finds a recipe, and he makes a list.
When he was little, when he had only had one brother, his mom had made cookies at Christmas. Nothing fancy, just sugar cookies, but she had cut them into shapes, of stars and trees and angels, and she'd mixed up coloured icing and let him decorate them with unsteady swirls and lines, and even baby Joe had made splodges on a few of them. Their mom had told Kevin he was doing really well, and her warm voice had mixed up together with the lights of the small kitchen, and the smells of vanilla and sugar — and Kevin thinks he could do with some of that warm, safe feeling right now.
That probably isn't what his mom meant by eating right, though, so he writes down the ingredients for what the book called "real" macaroni and cheese, with bacon and tomatoes in it, too. Then he takes a deep breath, finds a baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses (the movers didn't take those), and goes to the grocery store.
He finds butter, and eggs and pasta and bacon, and after standing bewildered in the baking aisle for a few minutes he finds plain white sugar and a bag of flour that says 'pastry' on it — cookies are like pastry, right? He tries to remember what his mom did for the icing, but he was only four years old and the cookbook didn't include that part in the recipe, so he finally grabs a can of vanilla frosting and some food colouring and escapes.
When he lines up the ingredients on the kitchen counter, they don't look like much; he's suddenly unsure that he can really turn them into food to eat. He only ever helped his mom a little, and then Da — she always said she liked to cook, and it was her job to provide for her husband and, someday, family — he shuts that thought down before it gets too far. Point is, he's never done anything like this all by himself before, and these days, he's not sure he can do anything right.
But the cookbook has instructions, really simple ones like they knew he was going to be helpless, so he fries bacon and cuts it up, and cooks macaroni elbows, and butters the dish just like the book says to do, and when he slides the pan into the oven it looks a lot like the picture in the book, only not cooked yet and not arranged on a table with flowers and a napkin. He sets the timer on the oven, puts away the leftover macaroni, and looks at the remaining pile of ingredients.
He almost calls his mom for advice, but if he does that, he's going to have to explain why he's making sugar cookies, and her voice will get all soft and worried. So he decides he can do this on his own, and if he's lucky, the book will have more really easy instructions.
It turns out the sugar cookies are even easier than the macaroni, and it isn't long before Kevin has a bowl full of pale, sticky dough. He rolls spoonfuls of it between his hands and lays them out in the high-edged pan he found under the stove. When the timer goes off to tell him the mac and cheese is done, he puts the cookies in and hopes.
The mac and cheese is good. The sugar cookies are even better, crackled around the edges, even though the frosting isn't at all like what he remembers his mom's tasting like.
He eats the mac and cheese and sugar cookies until they're gone. He almost opens the drawer with the takeout menus, but he thinks of his mom's voice, and how happy she'd sounded when he'd said he made dinner, and he goes to find his disguise hat and sunglasses again, instead.
He writes down the ingredients for chili from the cookbook, and flips back to the dessert section to see if there's another kind of cookie that sounds good. He thinks about gingerbread houses, and gingerbread men, and the crunchy, spicy cookies his grandmother gave him years and years ago, and he adds cinnamon and ginger and molasses to the list he takes to the grocery store.
When he's looking for the molasses, he spots a box on a low shelf in the baking aisle. It's a set of cookie cutters, about ten different ones, all packaged up together. He doesn't think about it for more than a second, just grabs them and puts them in the cart.
He mixes up the gingerbread as soon as the chili is simmering, and lets it chill in the fridge until after he's eaten. He rolls out about half the dough and uses his new cutters — stars, flowers, and one shape that he has to try several different ways around before he figures out it's a butterfly. He thinks again of gingerbread men — there's a cutter for them — but there's only a little corner of the dough left, and the cutter won't fit. He searches through the rest of the cutters and finds one that looks like a sitting cat, and squeezes that onto the very edge of the dough. When he's laid out the shaped cookies, he scoops the scraps back up and flattens them out again, cutting the dough into simple diamond shapes with a long knife. He thinks again about the gingerbread man, but he doesn't really feel like rolling out more dough — it's still tricky to get it all the same thickness. He'll do it tomorrow.
He puts the unrolled dough back in the fridge and waits for the timer to go. The cookies come out dark and shiny on top; he puts them all on the rack, and he's about to sample one still warm when the phone rings. He wanders through the living room and upstairs while Joe's telling him about this new project he's interested in, and the people he's hoping to work with, and the girl he's met who he thinks is wonderful, and by the time they hang up, Kevin's stretched out on his bed and already half-asleep. He spares a thought for the cookies, but getting up just feels like too much effort, and he decides they can wait until morning.
"Where did you come from?" Kevin asks — well, anybody, but it's the kitten who looks around and mews at him, like it's instructing him to make this silly insect hold still.
"No, not for you," Kevin says, and manages to cup his hand over the butterfly after several failed attempts. He opens the back door to release it; it flits away through the air, looking none the worse for being stuck in his kitchen with a bloodthirsty feline. Before Kevin can shut the door, another butterfly flaps past him, so close he can hear the rustle it makes right by his ear. He looks around before he closes the door, but there don't seem to be any more, so he latches it and turns to the kitten.
"How did you get in?"
It yowls again, showing all its tiny needle teeth, and doesn't give him any answers. Well, it's a kitten.
"Fine," he mutters, and finds a small bowl to warm up a little bit of milk. The kitten dives in whiskers-first, and Kevin takes the opportunity to pack up the cooled cookies.
Only — the rack was full last night, he's sure of it. Now there are gaps in the cookies; he's not sure, but he thinks some of the butterflies and some of the stars are missing, and the single cat-shaped cookie is definitely not there.
"Did you eat them?" he asks the kitten, but it's lapping up milk like it hasn't eaten in weeks. It certainly — Kevin doesn't know how to tell, but he thinks it looks like a girl — she certainly isn't acting like she's eaten multiple gingerbread cookies almost as big as she is.
He samples one of the ones he cut with a knife, that isn't any particular shape. It tastes good, like gingerbread is supposed to: spices and dark sugar and nothing peculiar at all. He shrugs and packs the rest of them into a Tupperware box, and brushes up the crumbs from under the rack.
The kitten mews at him and licks her whiskers, then comes over and butts her head against his arm, like she's trying to tell him something. Her fur is warm, and cloud-soft against his skin. "What do you want?" Kevin asks. She butts his arm again, and when he fails to get the hint, stretches up and digs her tiny claws into his arm. "Ow! Okay, I'll pick you up."
She settles into the crook of his arm as soon as Kevin lifts her up, and looks towards the living room. "What, we're going out there now?" Kevin takes her to the doorway, and she looks around at the couch, the rug, the bookcase, and purrs approvingly. There's another butterfly in the front window; Kevin lets it out too.
Kevin ends up taking the kitten on a whole tour of the house, because it's just too funny when she looks at a room and makes little purring, chirping comments on it, or when she wrinkles her nose at the overstuffed orange chair Joe convinced him was a "perfect accent piece." Kevin starts commenting back to her, telling her about how this is the master bath and she shouldn't try to climb into the tub, and this is the carpet he's always thought looked like oatmeal, but it feels nice on bare feet, and this is the window where you can watch the man who lives in the next house pruning his roses, which Kevin thinks he must do a lot more than he needs to, because he's out there every week. Finally she settles down and starts blinking more slowly, and Kevin takes her back to the kitchen, because he forgot to get breakfast.
He ends up spending the whole day hanging out with the kitten. She likes the name Nutmeg, and she is a vicious conquerer of shoelaces. She naps on the sofa, she uses the box of torn-up newspaper Kevin puts in the corner of the downstairs bathroom after some emergency googling, she keeps exploring on her own. She complains loudly when Kevin goes to the pet store and leaves her all alone to get bored, but she seems pretty happy eating her kitten food on the coffee table while Kevin eats his leftover chili on the couch.
When they're both done, she follows him into the kitchen and gets under his feet while he rolls out the other half of the gingerbread dough on the counter. This time he remembers the gingerbread man-shaped cutter while he still has enough space to fit it, but now he's not sure he actually wants cookies he has to bite the heads off, so he just cuts out one, sort of symbolically, and then fills the rest of the dough with stars and hearts and something that he's not sure about, but he thinks it's meant to be a pumpkin, maybe.
The second batch comes out as smooth and dark and perfect as the first one, and Kevin hopes Nutmeg can't get onto the counter to bother them. "You leave them alone," he tells her firmly, and she just blinks her big yellow eyes at him from the floor, like she'd never think of such a thing.
They go back to the living room to watch a movie, and Nutmeg tromps all over Kevin on the sofa. She hisses at the Rodents of Unusual Size, and purrs at Inigo Montoya, and when the movie ends, she follows Kevin up the stairs to bed, and tramples all over his pillow before settling down, curled up against his shoulder.
Kevin's rubbing his eyes the next morning, because Nutmeg had to go on some exploratory missions in the middle of the night, and for a small cat she makes a lot of disturbance climbing over the bed. That's his excuse for why it takes him several minutes — starting the coffeemaker, finding food for Nutmeg, stubbing his toes on a chair — before he looks out the window onto the back porch.
There's someone sitting on the steps.
Kevin peers through the window at him. He doesn't seem to be doing anything — just sitting there, leaning against the pillar of the porch steps. He doesn't look like a crazed axe-murderer? Though Kevin wouldn't really know what one of those looked like anyway. He eyes the cooling rack of cookies. There's no sign of the gingerbread-man shaped cookie that he knows was there last night. He hadn't let himself think about it much, but — he looks at Nutmeg. She blinks back at him.
"Is he like you?" Kevin asks her. He bites his lip and looks out the window at the man on the porch again. Now what?
A loud mew interrupts him, and he looks down to see Nutmeg sitting by the door, staring out.
"You're right," he says. "I can't just leave him out there."
He crosses to the back door and opens it, pushing Nutmeg gently out of the way with one foot as he does. She ignores him and jumps over his foot instead, bouncing out onto the porch and right over to the strange man. She rubs her head against his elbow like she's never met anyone better, and the man jerks and almost slides off the edge of the porch.
He wasn't just leaning there — he was asleep.
"Um, are you okay?" Kevin asks. There's probably some rule about not letting people injure themselves on your porch, even if they did originally maybe come out of the oven.
The man startles again, and turns around. "Oh, hey, sorry," he says. "I didn't mean to — fall asleep out here, or whatever."
"That's okay," Kevin says. His heart's beating high up in his throat, bird-fast and light. "Um, would you like some breakfast?"
The guy blinks at him. "Sure," he says slowly. "Um, I'm Mike."
"I'm Kevin," Kevin says. "Come on in?"
Kevin makes scrambled eggs and toast; Mike leans against the counter and watches him, moving out of the way when Kevin needs something from the cupboard behind him.
Kevin's not really sure what to say to someone he may have just baked last night, so he just keeps busy at the stove, puttering around and getting plates and butter and all of that, and putting it on the table. Mike seems equally at a loose end, but he eats scrambled eggs like he hasn't seen food in hours, at least.
"So, um," he says when he finishes the last corner of toast, "I should probably go, I guess." He pulls a phone out of his pocket and starts dialing, then looks at Kevin. "Sorry, where is this?"
Kevin gives him the address, and follows it up with, "You don't have to go." He tries not to sound desperate, but he was kind of hoping Mike would stay, like Nutmeg. Kevin's willing to admit he's been kind of lonely, even though his mom calls. And what if Mike melts in the rain? Nutmeg hasn't had any trouble playing with the bathroom faucet, but Kevin worries.
"Thanks — I mean, really, thanks — but I have friends I need to check in with, and — stuff." Mike stands up from the table and takes his plate over to the sink. "I should probably go wait for my cab. Sorry again about falling asleep on your porch."
"That's okay," Kevin tells him. He puts his own plate in the sink and then isn't sure what to do with his hands. He stuffs them in his pockets and tries not to hunch up. "I guess I'll show you out."
Mike says, "Thanks for breakfast," again, and "I guess I'll see you around, or, uh, not," and steps out the door. Then he stops and looks down. "Uh — could I maybe borrow a pair of flipflops or something?"
Kevin looks down, too. Mike's wearing socks, kind of grubby around the toes but they definitely used to be white — but no shoes.
"What happened to your shoes?" Kevin asks.
Mike shrugs awkwardly. "I'm not sure," he says. "I don't really remember all of last night real well."
"Right, sorry." He just appeared in Kevin's house; last night may not have happened for him at all, really. "Yeah, I think I have some you can borrow."
The beach sandals he finds are Nick's, actually, but Nick has bigger feet than Kevin, so they fit Mike all right, even if they look a little weird with the white socks.
"Can I have your number?" Mike asks, just as a cab pulls up in front of the house. "Not that, um," he adds when Kevin blinks at him. "Just, so I can bring these back, maybe."
"They're no big deal," Kevin says. "But yeah, okay." He gives Mike his number, Mike thanks him again, and then he gets into the cab and he's gone.
Kevin closes the door gently and thunks his head against it. Maybe he'll be back, but Kevin's not counting on it. Well, the gingerbread man in the story ran away, right? Kevin tries not to think too hard about what happened to him in the end.
He goes back into the kitchen to clean up and Nutmeg glares at him from a corner, where she's crouched over something. "What've you got?" He goes over to see. She's licking at — a cookie. A broken piece of cookie, in fact, that's pretty identifiable as one leg of a kind of small-sized gingerbread man.
"Oh." Kevin sits back on his heels. Nutmeg growls quietly and crouches closer over her piece of cookie.
"Nutmeg, no, that's not for you." Kevin absently pushes her away, and she glares at him, then picks up the piece of cookie and carries it off somewhere. Kevin goes to find the dustpan and brush, and sweeps up the crumbs, and a corner of cookie that Nutmeg missed. He dumps them all into the trash and leans back against the counter.
Well, at least he didn't make too much of an idiot of himself and tell Mike he thought he was a gingerbread man. No wonder he didn't want to stick around, though — real people have other things to do, and no one wants to hang around with Kevin these days.
Nutmeg wanders back into the kitchen, sits at his feet, and yells at him.
She yells again.
"No more gingerbread for you."
She gives him a filthy look and stretches up as high as she can against the cabinet fronts — which isn't very far, but points for effort. Kevin scritches between her ears, then pushes off the counter and puts the brush away.
"You're right. Enough self-pity." She squeaks at his back. He can't help but think she sounds smug. Silly cat.
He can't quite figure out what to do with himself after he cleans up the breakast dishes. He flips through the cookbook and picks out a pasta bake to make for dinner; he's tired of chili. He's going to have to go to the store again for ingredients — does he need anything more for cookies? He pages through those recipes — he doesn't want to make more gingerbread after this morning, and nothing else is catching his eye. He finally settles on a plain chocolate-chip cookie dough, and writes down the things he needs — how does he not have chocolate chips? Well, that at least is a problem he can fix.
"Nutmeg, be good," he calls, and he thinks he hears an answering "Yow!" from somewhere in the house before he shuts the door behind him.
By this time, he's a pro at navigating the supermarket, and it only takes him about fifteen minutes to find everything he needs. The line to check out takes another ten minutes, though, or it feels like it — there's a tabloid in the rack right there that has a front page all about Joe's inevitable breakdown, and Kevin spends the whole time in line with his head ducked, trying not to look at it or let anyone see him. He pays without looking up, and shuffles his groceries out to the car without anyone stopping him or trying to talk to him.
So Kevin goes home, he makes dinner (Nutmeg begs for bits while he's eating, and sits on his lap to do it more cutely), he mixes up the chocolate chip cookies and puts them on trays, just cutting them off a log of dough, not cutters or anything. While he's cleaning up the kitchen afterwards, he puts the box of cutters way into the back of one of the lower cabinets, closed up carefully. He doesn't think he'll be using them again.
The cookies just taste like cookies, and they don't do anything strange.
So Nutmeg and Kevin play some videogames (he's sure she's starting to pat at the screen in the direction he needs to go; he's gonna have the first-ever cat to play World of Warcraft) and he goes to bed. Nutmeg patrols the downstairs for a while, and then jumps on his head to make sure he knows she's come upstairs. It wakes him up, but it's nice she cares.
He feeds Nutmeg a sliver of egg while he thinks about it. Yeah, he's going to rearrange the back yard.
It gets more involved than that very quickly — when he pulls the bench away from the tree, there's a bunch of lanky old grass wrapped around the legs, and he has to pull that free. Then the spot where he thinks he wants to put it — near the back porch, where he can watch Nutmeg climbing on the railing — is already occupied, as it turns out, by some decorative rocks that were also overgrown. When Kevin gets them into sight by pulling off more junky vegetation, he tries to move them, but they're really heavy as well as decorative, and all he does is scrape his hands. He's in the middle of asking them loudly why they have to be right there, when he hears someone behind him say "Scuse me?" and he nearly jumps straight up into the tree.
Kevin whips around, and — it's Mike, standing on the other side of the gate to the back yard, holding up Nick's sandals.
Kevin gapes at him for a second, then winces, because he didn't actually mean anyone who understood words to hear his rant at the stupid rocks.
"What are — you?" he manages to say after a few seconds.
"I tried calling but you didn't answer your phone, so I thought I'd just leave these by the door," Mike says. "But then I heard you — um. You want some help?" He looks down at the latch of the gate. "Can I come in?"
"Oh! Of course," Kevin says, and hurries over to unlatch the tricky bit that only works from inside. "Thanks for bringing the shoes back. Um, you don't have to help or anything."
Mike shrugs. "I'm not doing anything else." He puts the sandals on the porch and strolls over to where Kevin had been yelling at the rocks. "What's wrong?"
"I wanted to put the bench there," Kevin explains. "But I can't move the rocks, and I don't want to put the bench back where it was. I don't even know if I can get it back there."
"Okay," Mike says.
With two of them shoving, they manage to get one rock to wobble, but that's all.
Mike sits down on the grass and leans back against the wobbly (but not really) rock. "Is there anywhere else you could put the bench?"
Kevin considers. "I guess so." He flops down against the other side of the rock Mike's leaning against, and rubs at his face. "I think I have to."
"Lemme just catch my breath, and I'll help."
They sit there for a few minutes, breathing. There's a mmrp! and Nutmeg hops down from the deck, hustling over to them through the overgrown grass. She hops up on Kevin's knees and demands pets.
"Where'd you come from?" he asks her. "You're not supposed to be out."
"Maybe she teleported," Mike suggests. He reaches over and scratches between Nutmeg's ears. "Cats do that. Sis — someone told me that."
"She must have," Kevin agrees. He tickles under her ear for a few more seconds, then — "I guess we'd better move the bench."
"Okay." Mike hauls himself up, and Kevin puts Nutmeg on the grass and then follows. "So where's it going?"
Kevin looks around again. "I guess in front of the rocks?"
There are a few moments of confusion about which way they're going, but with two people, it's easy to carry the bench around the rocks and put it in its new place. Nutmeg hops up on in as soon as it's standing on the grass, and Kevin steps back to take a look at it.
"I think we should move it a little bit that way," Mike says, gesturing.
Kevin studies it, then agrees. This time, Nutmeg doesn't bother hopping off while they move the bench.
"That looks good," Kevin says, when he stands back.
Mike nods, and wipes his hands on his jeans. "So I guess I'll—"
"Don't go!" Kevin cuts him off. "I mean. You don't have to go. You could come in for something to drink? And I have cookies," he adds.
"That sounds good."
Nutmeg leads the parade inside, and hops up on the counter while Kevin gets the cookie box. "What would you like to drink? There's, um —" Kevin flounders for a second. "Lots of things."
Mike looks into the cookie box. "If we're having cookies, shouldn't there be milk to go with them?"
"Yes!" Kevin exclaims in relief. He gets two big glasses down and pulls the milk out of the fridge. "Go ahead—" he starts, but Mike is already chewing, half a chocolate chip cookie in one hand. "Oh good."
"These are really good," Mike says, before he bites into his second cookie.
"Um, thank you."
Mike blinks at him, and has to finish chewing before he can talk clearly. "Wait." He takes a gulp of milk. "You made these?"
Kevin nods, a little shyly.
"That's awesome," Mike declares, and selects another cookie — a sugar one, this time. He breaks it in half and examines the inside like it'll tell him something, before dunking it in his milk. "So you're a secret baker as well as a furniture-mover and guy who gives breakfast to hungover assholes on his porch."
Kevin shrugs uncomfortably. "What happened that night, anyway?"
"I'm not really sure." Mike bites off the milk-dipped end of his cookie and chews contemplatively. "I was — I came out to visit some friends, and — there was an argument, and I left, and I guess I got lost." He shakes his head. "And I guess I was drunk enough that falling asleep on someone's back porch made sense."
"How were you in the back yard in the first place?" Kevin wonders. All the yards are fenced — is Mike some kind of cat burglar or something? He can't help glancing over at Nutmeg, but she's just hunkered down on the counter watching the cookies and purring.
"I— think I climbed over a wall some time?" Mike says. "I must have." He breaks his cookie into smaller pieces. "It's kind of a blur."
"Oh." Kevin can't see the appeal of drinking so much you don't even remember if you were having fun, but then he guesses Mike wasn't having fun, which was the point. "I'm sorry you argued with your friends?"
Mike shrugs and makes a face. "It wasn't — it's kind of been waiting to happen for a while." He makes a sound that's sort of like a laugh. "You know, they talk about moving in different directions and growing apart and all of that, but then you try to talk to them, and it's like you never spent years of your life together, you know?"
Kevin nods, even though he isn't sure he understands. But last time he talked to Nick, Nick was "too busy" and had to hang up after about five minutes to go do something he wouldn't explain, so maybe it's something like that.
Mike seems glad of the distraction. "So how'd you learn to bake?" he asks. "Was there, like, a secret baking ninja guru on a mountain somewhere?" He grins at Kevin and Kevin can feel himself blush a little.
"No, I just — I had a cookbook, and it had recipes, and I followed them?" he explains. He wishes his voice didn't squeak up like that, but Mike already probably thinks he's a dork, so what harm. He pulls the cookbook off the shelf to cover his dithering, and opens it to the baking section. "See? It's nothing special."
"No, that's something," Mike argues. "My aunt, I remember she always used to try to bake cookies for Thanksgiving and things, and they never quite turned out right unless she just went ahead and bought the dough, you know, the kind in tubes." He holds up a chocolate chip cookie. "Not like these."
"Oh, well, thanks," Kevin says. He shuffles with the cookbook for a second, and he's not sure what makes him say, "I could show you how, if you like?"
Nutmeg purrs into the silence. Kevin bites his lip to keep from taking that back.
Then, "Really?" Mike says. "That'd be cool. Um. I'd like that. But — I have to get back, because I was just planning on dropping off the shoes. Can I come back?"
"If you want to, sure."
Mike ducks his head a little. "I'm not trying to get out of it, I swear. Just — yeah." He looks up at Kevin. "Would tomorrow be okay?"
Kevin shrugs. "I'll be here."
"Okay." Mike grabs one last cookie from the tin and tickles Nutmeg's ear. "I guess I have to go now, though. I'll see you soon?"
Kevin smiles at him. "I'd like that."
When Mike has left — through the front door — Kevin leans back against it and stares at the ceiling again. "It was easier to deal with him when I thought he was made out of gingerbread," he tells Nutmeg.
Nutmeg makes a dismissive noise.
"Sure, but I didn't have to worry about taking up his time, or if he had friends he'd rather be talking to," Kevin argues.
Nutmeg just flicks her tail at him and stalks back into the kitchen. When Kevin follows, she's sitting on top of the closed cookbook on the table, swinging her tail back and forth in 3/4 time.
"You're right, I should see what recipes he might like, and check I have the stuff for them."
Nutmeg moves aside when he reaches for the cookbook, and peers over the pages with him, occasionally patting at one with the edge of a paw. Kevin pets her absently. Between them — and Kevin will never tell anyone how much of a vote the cat got — they settle on a chocolate drop cookie for Mike's first recipe. Unlike a lot of the others, it doesn't need to spend time in the fridge, so they won't have to wait, and it looks good.
Provided Mike shows up. Kevin forces that bubble of apprehension down, and starts checking the cupboards for ingredients. He doesn't have baking chocolate — how did that happen? — so he writes that down, and another few things, and goes to the store again. He thinks the cashier smiles at him as he's checking out, but he doesn't have long to think about it, because his phone rings just as he's putting his bag of groceries in the car.
It's his mom. She asks how he is, he asks how she and his dad and Frankie are, she tells him about the potluck at the church and how five people got food poisoning from Mrs. Auerbach's pickle salad, and then there's an unusual pause.
"You sound better, honey," she says. "More — cheerful, I guess."
"Mom," he starts, "I've been—"
"Fine, I know," she interrupts him. "But you sound like you're more than fine; you sound happier. Did something happen?"
"Not really?" Kevin says. "I guess — well, I told you I'd started cooking. I met someone, and — we're going to try baking cookies. He never has."
"Where did you meet her?" His mom must have misheard.
"He just — um, he sort of turned up on my back porch," Kevin admits. He starts wincing as soon as he's finished the sentence, because he just knows how well that's going to go over.
His mom doesn't disappoint. "Kevin! He could be anybody. How do you know he's not — oh, some kind of criminal?"
"He seems nice," Kevin offers, feebly. He doesn't mention how Mike looked that first morning, rough and slightly dangerous, but with such warm eyes when he looked at Kevin over his coffee cup.
"Oh, honey," his mom sighs. "Your heart's going to get you in trouble some day." There's an awkward pause.
"Yeah, I know," Kevin says past the lump in his throat.
"Oh, I'm sorry." She sounds sincere and probably is, even. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't help all that much. "I didn't mean it that way. Just — you have to be careful, Kevin."
"I will be," he promises.
"Please do. You — when did you say you're going to be baking?"
"Tomorrow, I think. I'm not sure when, exactly."
"All right. Can you — please call me when he arrives, or when you get there, or whatever, and again when you're done? Just so I know you're all right."
"Yes, Mom." Kevin tries not to let too much of his eyeroll come through in his voice, but he's not all that successful.
"I'm your mother. Let me worry," she admonishes him.
She tells him about Frankie's new band project, and he tells her about Nutmeg — without mentioning the gingerbread part of the story — and then someone's knocking on the door, and she has to go deal with something. She hangs up with a final admonition to take care of himself, and a reminder that, "You know we love you, Kevin. No matter what."
"I love you too," he says quietly.
After he hangs up, he has to sit for a few minutes with his head tipped forward against the steering wheel. Maybe she's right. Maybe Mike is just — Kevin doesn't even know. Trying to get close to him so he can sell the story to the tabloids to match Joe's. Casing the joint so he can steal the silver — in which case, Kevin thinks a little wildly, he's going to be sadly disappointed, because Kevin didn't keep that. Maybe he's a crazed fan, and he's going to knife Kevin in his sleep and then turn his skin into a suit.
Maybe he's just a guy who arrived in Kevin's life without planning it. Maybe he doesn't have an ulterior motive. Kevin could be that lucky.
Kevin talks himself down off the ledge he was on, and drives home carefully, paying attention to all the signs and lines and cars. Nutmeg meets him at the door, mewing anxiously, and he scoops her up in his free arm and carries her to the kitchen along with the groceries. She paces back and forth around his feet while he unloads groceries.
"Do you think this is a mistake?" Kevin asks her, but she just chirps at him. She thinks it's a great idea, clearly, but she's a cat. What does she know?
Still, Kevin takes the encouragement, and lets her help with making chicken parmesan, which is the next recipe in the cookbok he wanted to try.
Fortunately Mike arrives before he can get himself too worked up.
"It seems a little weird to knock at the front door," Mike jokes when Kevin opens the door for him. He rubs at the back of his neck. "I mean, hi."
"Hi!" Kevin tries to tone down his smile. "Come on in. I was heating lunch, you want some?"
"Sure, that would be good.."
Kevin hands him the plate of leftover chicken from the microwave and fixes another one, then grabs forks for both of them. "Go ahead and sit down," he tells Mike.
Mike does as he's told, and he's making appreciative noises even before Kevin's food is hot. He just pauses long enough to say, "This is really good," before he grabs another bite.
"It isn't that difficult."
"Maybe you don't think so, but I never learned to cook," Mike says. "This beats ramen noodles by miles."
"I started cooking because my mom was worried I was living on takeout," Kevin confesses.
"I don't think she needs to worry any more." Mike scrapes a last bit of sauce off his plate. "I swear I'm not just here for the food," he says.
"It's okay, I always cook more than I can eat anyway." Kevin finishes his food and takes Mike's plate to the sink as well. "Okay, so. Cookies? I found a recipe for a chocolate one that doesn't need to sit overnight or anything."
"What do I need to do?"
"Well, start by washing your hands."
It's hard not to take over doing things, but Kevin walks Mike through the recipe. It's simple — the hardest part is melting the chocolate and butter without scorching them. After that, it's just mixing it all up and putting the sticky dough in lumps on the roasting pan.
Both of them hover over the oven until the timer goes, and Kevin hands Mike the hot pads. "Here, you do the honors."
Mike pulls the pan out, excited, but then his face falls. "Uh, should they look like this?"
Kevin looks into the pan. It's not so much cookies in there, as a sheet of cookie with occasional gaps in it. "Uh, I don't think so."
Getting the cookie-layer out of the pan is tricky, and it breaks up into several pieces, but that's probably just as well, really. Mike studies the pieces on the cooling rack. "I think we need a smaller spoon to make the cookies."
Kevin finds a really small teaspoon, and they get their hands all sticky coaxing dough into more-or-less round lumps on the re-greased pan. Then they hover again, waiting for the timer. This time, when Mike pulls the pan out of the oven, he smiles and turns to Kevin.
The cookies look perfect: slightly irregular, just a little crisp around the edges, domed in the middle — and not all melted together. Kevin lets Mike get them out of the pan and set them out in rows on the rack, then help re-fill the pan. When it's back in the oven, he gestures at the cooling cookies. "You baked them; you first."
Mike picks up a cookie and bites into it carefully. A smile spreads over his face and he picks up another to hold out to Kevin.
"Good," he says.
Kevin takes the cookie from his hand and tries it. A little crunchy, a little soft, sweet but not too sweet. He takes the second bite and licks the crumbs off his thumb.
"Yeah, they're good," he agrees. "Uh, Mike?"
Mike blinks back to awareness from where he'd blanked out on something, and shakes his head. "They taste like the top of brownies," he says. "The crispy bit right on top."
They do. Kevin reaches for another one, but stops himself. "Sorry," he says. "They're your cookies."
"I think they're our cookies." Mike picks up another one to hand to him, and another for himself. Then he puts his back down. "Look, you've got—" He reaches out to Kevin's face, and his thumb gently brushes crumbs from the corner of Kevin's mouth.
"They gone?" Kevin asks, frozen in place. No, not frozen — poised.
Mike's eyes flick up to his, then back down to his mouth. "No?"
"Better get them, then." Kevin sways forward a tiny inch.
"Guess I had," Mike says, and strokes his thumb along Kevin's lip again, even more slowly. Kevin can feel his eyes tracking the movement, and he can't stand it any longer.
"Tell me if I have this wrong," he says, and takes the last step forward, lifting his chin just enough to brush his lips against Mike's. Mike doesn't recoil, doesn't tell him to stop, so Kevin tries again, bolder, tilting his head to the side and flicking his tongue against Mike's lip. Mike settles his hand on the back of Kevin's hip gently, like — like he's trying not to crush a cookie, Kevin thinks, and has to fight down a bout of inappropriate giggles — and pulls him in closer. He smells like sugar and cocoa, and a little like lime. His mouth is sweet from the cookies, and he kisses like he's trying to say something. It's not — it's different, and Kevin tries to communicate back without words, saying Yes and Me too.
The noise of the oven timer breaks them apart, and Mike leans his forehead against Kevin's. "You really, really didn't have it wrong," he says.
"Good," Kevin agrees. "Though, um…"
"Yeah?" Mike prompts him.
"I don't know." Kevin's pretty sure this is a bad idea, but he also feels like it's a really good idea. "Complicated."
"Okay." Mike sniffs. "Do I smell burning?"
The cookies aren't really burned, just a little bit over-crispy around the edges. Mike thinks it adds a certain something to the flavour. Kevin thinks it's a good excuse to eat them all quickly and destroy the evidence.
"So, um," Kevin says, breaking a cookie in half and fiddling with the pieces, "I don't usually hit on people I make cookies with. I mean, I don't usually make cookies with people, so I don't — what are we doing here?" He pops one half of the cookie in his mouth and looks at Mike as he chews.
"Well, we're making cookies," Mike starts. The edges of his mouth are curling.
"Mmm," Kevin says around the cookie.
"And we were making out."
"And I kind of liked both of those things, even though I don't usually make out with people I make cookies with, since I've never made cookies before," Mike finishes.
Kevin bobs his head. "Okay. And we are..." He gestures back and forth between them.
Mike reaches over and makes sure the oven is turned off. "Well, we could try kissing again," he says. "Somewhere more comfortable than against the counter?"
Kevin's pretty sure he likes that idea. "I have a couch," he says, but he's only taken a couple of steps into the living room when his phone rings. He looks at the screen and winces. "Um, I'd better take this."
"Paul Kevin Jonas the second," his mother says. "Did you forget something?"
"I'm sorry, I meant to call you!" he babbles. "I just — forgot."
"I guessed," she says, dry as dust.
"We just kind of got — caught up and lost track of time," Kevin says. He chances a look sideways at Mike, who points towards the kitchen and then disappears back through the door.
"I don't remember baking cookies being that distracting," his mom says.
"Um, yeah. It's amazing how absorbing it can be." Kevin takes a deep breath and his heartrate starts to settle down. "I'm sorry I forgot. I'm fine, and you don't need to worry."
"Kevin, the day I don't worry is the day the lord takes me up," his mom sighs, but he can hear her smile. "So what kind of cookies did you bake?"
"Uh, chocolate drop?" Kevin says.
"And this person you were baking with? What's his name?"
"Mike," Kevin admits. Mike sticks his head back around the doorway of the kitchen, but when Kevin just waves at him, he ducks back again.
"Hmm." Does that sound mean his mom — approves of the name, or what? "Mike what, dear?"
Kevin's thoughts lurch to a stop. "I — don't know?"
"Kevin!" Kevin winces. Oops.
He can hear his mom take a deep breath on the other end of the phone line. "You're a grown-up — as I'm trying hard to remind myself — and you can take care of yourself. But please do take care of yourself? I already have one son mixed up with fame-seekers."
Kevin has an uncomfortable feeling his mom knows what he was planning on doing on the couch with Mike. He clears his throat. "Yes, Mom."
"Go find out exactly who this is you're — baking cookies with."
Now Kevin's sure his mom knows what he was just doing, and cookies have just become a euphemism. Kevin's never going to be able to bake again.
"And don't forget to give me details." His mom pauses. "On the cookies, I mean. Bye, kiddo."
"Bye, mom," Kevin chokes out, and then has to bury his face in his hands and giggle helplessly. It's that or hide in a closet and never come out, because his Mom just used cookies as a euphemism, and she wants details, and — Kevin remembers breathing is usually a good idea, and drags in a lungful of air.
"You okay?" Mike's back, standing in front of the couch looking bemused. He holds a mug out to Kevin, who takes it when he's stopped shaking with laugh-or-cry nerves.
"I'm fine," he says. "I'm — fine, really. Thank you," he adds, because his mom raised him right. His mom — he feels the giggles threatening again, and takes a deep breath.
Mike sits down on the other end of the couch and studies him. "You sure?"
Kevin shakes his head. "What's your last name?" he asks. "My mom's worried that I don't know."
Mike blinks at him. "Carden," he says. "Sorry, I guess we never really did do introductions."
Kevin holds out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Mike Carden," he says. "I'm Kevin Jonas."
Mike shakes his hand. "I know," he says, sounding a little apologetic. "I, um, watched some of your TV show. Long story."
Kevin's heart sinks a little; he can't help it. "So you knew who I was that first day?"
"No!" Mike waves a hand. "No, that was — I didn't know where I was. You looked familiar, but I didn't work it out until I got back to Gabe's and had a nap."
"Okay," Kevin calms down a little. "Just — we've had some problems."
"Yeah, I bet." Mike twists the coffee mug in his hands. "But this wasn't — I'm not stalking you or anything, and I didn't mean to, like, infiltrate your life and seduce you or anything."
Kevin coughs. "Just a side-effect, then?"
Mike grins at him. "Well, I sorta like it," he admits.
Kevin can't help but smile back. "Me too."
"You were just — so nice, and I haven't had all that much of people wanting me around, lately, and I guess — I came back."
"I was glad you did," Kevin says. "I was lonely."
Mike nods. "Yeah."
"And I know I don't really know you, and you don't really know me, but — I'd like to get to know you?" Kevin says. He can't help hoping.
"Me too," Mike says, and he smiles again.
"We should go out somewhere," Kevin decides. "Not, like, to dinner — or, well, for food if we get hungry. But just to do something. I don't think I've left the house except to get groceries in — a long time."
Mike shrugs and drains his coffee. "Okay. Where to?"
Kevin deflates. "I don't know." He doesn't really want to go someplace crowded, and he doesn't need anything, so not the mall or shops. They could go into the city, but it's already afternoon.
He doesn't even know what's around his own house. Maybe he's been hiding for longer than he realised.
"There's a park not too far away," Mike suggests. "I passed it on the way here. We could go there."
"We could take a picnic!" Kevin says, and that sounds like a great idea. He hops off the couch and buzzes into the kitchen, busy with ideas. There's cheese and turkey in the fridge, and he remembered to get bread along with all the cookie ingredients, so he puts some sandwiches together — and a box of cookies, of course — and looks around for something to hold it all.
Nutmeg meows at him from a stool by the counter.
"Hey, do you think we could take Nutmeg?" he calls to Mike.
"I think you need a harness or something to walk cats," Mike says, from much closer than Kevin was expecting. He jumps a little and turns around, and Mike's in the doorway, not still out on the couch. "It wouldn't be safe."
"Yeah, probably not," Kevin agrees. "Next time," he promises Nutmeg, who yowls again but then settles down on the stool. "I need something to put all this in."
"You have a backpack?"
Kevin thinks about it. "Probably." He goes and rummages in the closet by the door, and sure enough, there's a backpack in there. It's bright red, and not that big, but it's big enough for sandwiches and cookies and a bottle of juice.
"Um, you like juice, right?"
Mike looks like he's trying to fight down a smile. "Sure."
"You've never been here before?" Mike asks, tipping his head back to look into the tree above them.
Kevin shakes his head. "I've been spending a lot of time at home, I guess."
"Yeah, I get that."
"It's why I started baking," Kevin blurts. "I needed something to do, and my mom was worried, and — well, cookies."
"I'm glad you did," Mike says. He digs into the backpack and pulls out the cookies. "It's a pretty tasty way to spend time."
Kevin takes a cookie — chocolate chip, he packed different kinds — and looks at both sides of it. "I thought I baked you, you know."
"Yeah, I know, it's stupid." Kevin stuffs the entire cookie in his mouth and crunches, looking over at the trees to their right so he doesn't have to look at Mike.
"No, it's — okay, back up. Why would you think you baked me?"
Kevin chews, swallows, and says, "I made a gingerbread man."
Kevin risks a look back at Mike. He doesn't look like he thinks Kevin's crazy, or like he's about to leave — he just looks confused. Kevin sighs.
"I made gingerbread, right? From that book, and I bought some cutters to cut it out, and some of the ones I cut out like butterflies — I think they flew away."
"You made gingerbread butterflies?" Mike's smiling, Kevin can tell without looking.
"No, that's kind of perfect. So okay, the butterflies flew away. What then?"
Kevin has a horrible feeling Mike's humouring him. But he's started telling this story, so. "Then there was Nutmeg."
"Nutmeg — wait, your cat? Really?" Mike looks more confused, now.
"I used a cat-shaped cutter, and the next morning, there she was in the kitchen."
Kevin shrugs. "You've met her."
"So when I cut out a gingerbread man the next night, and you were on the porch in the morning — well, you can see, right? But it turned out Nutmeg had sort of chewed at the gingerbread man, and it was just a cookie."
Mike squints over at the edge of the park, and kicks one foot. "Well, that explains why you didn't call the police on me, but I've got royalty payments and a transcript that says — I hope it says — that I existed before you made gingerbread. I'm pretty sure you couldn't have baked my memories." He snorts. "They wouldn't taste good."
"I know, it was just—" Kevin starts.
"But," Mike continues like Kevin never said anything, "I'm also pretty sure that — okay, I'm not sure where I started out the night before I turned up on your porch, but I am pretty sure it wasn't near your house. Like, not anywhere near."
"So — wait." Kevin looks at him. "How'd you get there, then?"
Mike shrugs. "Beats me." He turns a half-smile to Kevin. "Maybe gingerbread's trickier than you thought."
Kevin flushes. He bites his lip and turns away. "You don't have to make fun," he says. "I know it's stupid. I was just—" lonely, he doesn't say.
"Hey, no." Mike shakes his shoulder gently. "I'm serious." He pulls Kevin around to face him. "You baked yourself a kitten. Teleportation should be easy after that."
"I guess," Kevin allows.
"Anyway, I'm here now," Mike says, opening the bag of sandwiches. "Maybe we shouldn't worry too much about how."
Kevin takes a sandwich and looks at him. "You're okay with that?"
Mike shrugs. "I'm pretty happy with how it turned out."
Kevin chews his sandwich and looks up at the sky. "This is probably a bad idea," he says.
Mike makes a questioning noise. "Hanging out with you, I mean," Kevin clarifies. "I'm pretty sure —" He swallows. "I'm pretty sure I'm falling for you, or I could, and that's just — it's such a bad idea," he repeats.
Kevin turns around to stare at Mike. "Because — I just got divorced, and I've barely been out of the house in weeks! I'm a mess, and I think the tabloids are just waiting to tell everyone about it!" He gestures sharply, and a piece of cheese falls out of his sandwich. "It could never work out in the long term!"
Mike shrugs. "I've seen worse."
"That's all you can say?"
Mike makes a face at him. "What, you think I'm not fucked-up? I spent the last two years pretending I belong in California, and now I'm twenty-eight years old with no idea what to do with myself. I came to Jersey because I couldn't think of anything else to do."
"But you're not — you didn't mess up like I did."
"I think I have some former band mates would argue that," Mike says. "Anyway, if I'm not a failure, neither are you. Fine, you have baggage. So do I. It's not the end of the world."
"Don't guess, be sure," Mike snaps. "It's not the end of the world, I told you."
They sit in silence for a while, and Kevin finishes the crust of his sandwich.
"I liked California," he says finally. "When I was there."
Mike shrugs. "It's not so bad," he says. "I don't miss Chicago winters, for sure. It's just — there's so much of it, you know? So many kids wanting to make it, and I want to help them, but there's just so much crap to wade through."
"That's probably true anywhere," Kevin says, thinking of their first record contract — and their second — and what he was just aware enough to pick up on with those.
"Probably," Mike agrees.
Kevin takes another sandwich and they're quiet for another few minutes.
"My brother lives in LA," Kevin offers.
"Joe, right? Yeah, I've seen that. Not—" Mike waves a hand. "Not that I'm reading tabloids, you just — see stuff. You know."
"Yeah. I visited him a couple of times."
Mike squints into the middle distance again. There's a woman running along the treeline with a dog on a leash, and he turns his head to watch her around a corner. "Are you trying to make a case for moving to California?" he asks at last.
Kevin lets himself think about it for real. "Maybe. I mean, I have the house here, and I like it, but it was our house. Maybe it's time to get out of there."
"Well, you know," Mike says, "I do have an apartment near Santa Monica. I mean, it's shitty, but I have a couch." He tips his chin up, stares over the tops of the skinny trees like he's not saying anything particularly important.
"Maybe," Kevin says, testing the idea out on his tongue, "Maybe I could come visit, see if I want to live there again."
"You could do that," Mike agrees.
"Wait, what about Nutmeg?" Kevin can't believe he didn't think of that.
Now Mike looks at him again. "I'm pretty sure they have boarding kennels even in New Jersey. She'd be fine for a week or whatever. And if you decided you wanted to stay—" He clears his throat. "I know you can have pets in California. There's a little white dog that tries to piss on my running shoes every time I'm stretching on the boardwalk."
Kevin snickers, he can't help it.
"So if you wanted to," Mike continues, "Like, hypothetically, you could do it."
"Yeah," Kevin says, because he can't really find words to express the feeling inside him, like things are opening up that he'd thought couldn't do that, like there are possibilities he hasn't even thought of yet. "Yeah, I could, couldn't I?"
"Congratulations," Mike says, holding out the ziploc bag. "Right answer. Have a cookie."
It shouldn't be as funny as it is, but Kevin busts up laughing and the two of them have to lean against each other to keep from sliding right off the bench.
They turn to walk back to Kevin's house and, on an impulse, Kevin reaches out and snags Mike's hand.
"Hey," he says, when Mike turns to look at him. "Thanks for bringing me out here."
Mike just grins back and squeezes his fingers. "Next time we'll get Nutmeg a cat harness so she can come too."
It's still several blocks to home, but Mike doesn't let go of his hand. Kevin fights down the warm, bubbly feeling in his chest so he doesn't do something embarrassing like break into song or start skipping.
They're almost back to the house when they encounter a woman stapling a poster to a telephone pole. There's a stack of several more clamped under her arm, and she's having trouble keeping hold of them in the light breeze.
Kevin grips Mike's hand a little tighter for a second, then drops it to hurry forward. "Here, can I help?" he asks.
She smiles at him gratefully. "If you could just hold it up," she says, and hands him the poster. MISSING KITTEN, it says, with a date and a street — and a picture of Nutmeg.
"Um," Kevin says, and doesn't hold it up against the pole at all.
"Sorry?" the woman says, sounding a little put out.
"Mike?" Kevin turns the poster around and shows it to him.
They both stare at the poster for a second. "Looks like her," Mike says.
"Look, it's fine, I can put them up—" the woman starts, and Kevin hands the poster back to her.
"I'm pretty sure I have your kitten," he says.
He and Mike wait while the woman calls someone to tell them where she's going, and then they all walk the last distance to Kevin's house. Nutmeg's right inside as soon as Kevin opens the door, complaining loudly about how bored she is and how they left her all alone, and they're going to have to make it up to her with all the petting ever.
"Nutmeg, look who's here," Kevin says gently.
The woman with the posters crouches down on the doorstep. "Hey, sweetie," she says, and Nutmeg runs forward to her. "I was worried about you." She looks up at Kevin. "Where did you find her?"
Kevin swallows. "She just turned up in my kitchen one morning. I guess — she must have gotten in a window."
"You're a silly girl," the woman croons, and stands up holding Nutmeg. "I'm so glad you found her. Would you like to keep her?"
"But— she's yours," Kevin says.
The woman shakes her head. "Her mom was a stray, and we found her just before she had kittens. We were going to find homes for them, but my daughter was frantic when this one disappeared." She hefts Nutmeg a little bit. "She's old enough to be adopted, though, and she's clearly happy and likes you."
Kevin's had too many ups and downs in the last few minutes. He can't find words.
"Won't your daughter mind?" Mike asks.
"If she can come and see Millie's doing all right and has a family that loves her," the woman smiles at both of them, "She'll be happy. Would that be okay?"
"Then I think she should stay here," the woman says. She starts to hand Nutmeg over, then pauses. "I mean, if you want her."
"Yes!" Kevin almost yelps out. "Um, yes, I'd like to keep her."
The woman smiles. "Okay then." She detaches Nutmeg's claws from her shirt and passes her to Kevin. Nutmeg promptly settles in under his chin and starts to purr. "She's definitely happy here. So I'll call you to see when I can bring my daughter over?"
"Yes, sure," Kevin stammers out. The woman picks up her posters, waves to them both with her free hand, and trots down the steps to the sidewalk. She waves once more before she gets out of sight, and then Mike closes the door behind her.
"So, Millie, huh?" Mike asks, looking down at Nutmeg. She lets out a grouchy little noise, snuggling closer into Kevin's shoulder. "Okay, I get it. Nutmeg it is."
Kevin concentrates on tickling Nutmeg behind one ear. "So I guess those cookie cutters aren't as magic as I thought they were," he says.
He shakes his head, making Nutmeg protest again. "No, I knew it was — it was just a thing I sort of made up."
"Kevin," Mike says again. He tips Kevin's chin up, so he has to see Mike's face. "She came to your kitchen instead of ending up somewhere that wouldn't be a good home. I woke up on your porch even though I probably should walked into traffic or something. However we got here, we're here."
"I know it doesn't change that," Kevin says. He shifts Nutmeg into one arm so he can reach for Mike with the other hand. "I guess I just feel a little silly, telling myself that story."
"Don't. There's nothing wrong with wanting a little magic in your life." Mike squeezes his hand. "Hey, on the bright side, you can use those cookie cutters again. Can we?"
He looks so happy at the idea of baking more cookies that Kevin can't help but laugh. He leans forward and kisses Mike on the cheek. "Sure. I don't think I want to make gingerbread, though."
Mike shrugs. "That's okay. You've gotta have something else in that cookbook." He takes Nutmeg gently off Kevin's shoulder and cuddles her for a second before putting her down. "But we don't have to do that right this minute, do we?"
"Well, if you want — " Kevin starts, and then his brain catches up with how Mike's fingers are wound through his, and how Mike's other hand feels warm and heavy on his waist. "I mean, no, we don't. No."
"Awesome." Mike looks over his shoulder to steer backwards through the doorway and into the living room. "'Cause I think we had some stuff to talk about. Like whether you're really going to be sleeping on my couch."
"I like couches," Kevin offers, pushing Mike gently back onto this one. "But they're not really that comfortable to sleep on."
"Well then." Mike grins up at him. "Good thing I have a big bed, too."
There's a squeaking noise, then a skittering of paws, and Nutmeg comes flying down the stairs, hurtling all the way across the living room and caroming off the wall by Kevin before flying back into the middle of the room. She stops short and stares around her, like she doesn't recognize the place. Maybe she doesn't.
"Empty," Mike comments, when he follows Nutmeg down the stairs.
"Yeah." Kevin looks around and takes it in. It doesn't look like he lives here — it doesn't look like anyone at all lives here, just a few pieces of furniture left in place for "effect," the realtor said, to let people imagine what it would look like as a home.
"You know, you can buy things in California," Mike says. "You don't have to take it all with you."
"I know," Kevin says.
Mike shakes his head. "I just don't get it," he says.
"I spent enough time with the house feeling empty," Kevin explains. He doesn't need to specify when. "And this was — it's my stuff. I want to add it to your stuff, and have it be our stuff."
Mike straightens up from where he's been petting Nutmeg. "I think that's the sappiest thing I've ever heard you say," he says.
Kevin shrugs. "Yeah, well. I get sentimental," he jokes.
Mike comes over and leans up a little to kiss him, reeling him in with fingers through his belt loops. "That's okay. I think I'm sentimental about these boots."
"These — what?" Kevin looks at his own feet. "What about them?"
Mike leans forward and rests his forehead on Kevin's shoulder. "I just like them."
"But what — oh." Kevin leans back in and rests his chin on Mike's head. "You like that."
Mike wiggles his toes against the carpet. "Maybe."
"That's the sappiest thing I've ever heard you say." Mike pokes him in the side but Kevin ignores him. "Shh, just let the sappiness soak in."
About thirty seconds later, there's a clatter from the kitchen, and they both look that way.
"Didn't sound like anything broke."
"Still." Kevin goes to investigate.
He finds Nutmeg sitting on the floor, with a plastic box next to her, knocked over.
"What did she get into?"
"It's the cookie cutters." Kevin picks the box up and checks inside. "I thought I packed those."
"Maybe she thought you'd better have them in your bag."
I guess." Kevin puts the lid back on tightly. "Thank you, Nutmeg."
She waves her tail at him, but keeps staring at them both.
Mike coughs. "Maybe she wants to make sure you take them?"
"You're silly," Kevin tells her. "Let me get my bag."
His bags — and Mike's one bag — are still up in the bedroom. Kevin grabs hold of the least-stuffed one and takes it back downstairs.
"Okay, if I move some things, I think they'll fit." He lays the suitcase down and opens it, then fits the box of cookie cutters carefully into one corner, padding it with rolled-up t-shirts.
Nutmeg comes over and pokes her head over the edge of the bag to inspect it — she's big enough now that she doesn't even have to stand on her hind legs. She mrp's approvingly and rubs her head against Kevin's knee, then trots off towards the living room.
"Your cat's a little weird," Mike says, from his station by the sink.
"Our cat," Kevin corrects. He zips the suitcase shut and smiles up at Mike. "Yeah, she is. So, are we ready?"
Mike holds out a hand to help him up. "You get Nutmeg in her carrier, I'll finish packing the car, we do one last walkthrough?"
"Sounds like a deal."
Mike is finished with the car well before Kevin persuades Nutmeg that she wants to go into the carrier (he finally gives up on logic and wraps her in a towel instead), but it's only half an hour before they're all out on the front porch.
"You ready to go?" Mike asks.
Kevin pulls the door shut and takes one last look around at the neighboring houses, bustling with morning activity. "I think so," he says. He locks the door and drops the house keys through the letterbox. "Time for an adventure."
Mike holds onto Nutmeg's carrier for a second, using it to keep Kevin in place for a kiss, then lets go and smiles back. "Let's go," he agrees.
Nutmeg yowls her opinion, and Kevin leads the way to the car.