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oh your love is sunlight

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Scooter is, objectively, an asshole; seven pounds, three ounces of pure, concentrated virulence. Nix has a theory that that the size of a dog is indirectly proportional to the size of its anger. So far as evidence goes, his chihuahua is a pretty prime example. If he’s being honest, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves the adorable little bastard, and by some miracle the adorable little bastard had decided that Nix was the one person on Earth that he could stand and came back with him from the pound without even putting up a fight. Nix is pretty sure he even saw his tail wagging.

Lewis Nixon is also, objectively, an asshole. They’re kind of a perfect match.

Perfect as the match is, however, Nix would like it if the little shit would at least stop screaming at the top of his lungs every time the mailman so much as breathed in their house’s direction. Being violently jerked out of his mid-afternoon nap on his days off because Scooter couldn’t remember that the mailman was supposed to be there because that was their job isn’t exactly Nix’s idea of relaxation. It would be nice if the only sound he heard while he was dozing on the couch was the dulcet tones of Josh Gates, like God intended.

So, there’s only one solution: Scooter needs socialization. And that means the dog park.

Nix probably needs the socialization just as much, but that is neither here nor there. He totally already has enough friends and he’s not at all upset that he’s been single for three years now, shut up Ron. He’s fine. He doesn’t care at all that he lives in a three-bedroom house all by himself with no one else but his chihuahua—and Ron or Harry on the weekends—to keep him company. He considers it catching up on tragically lost life experiences, actually, because he never got to live by himself after deciding to marry his high school sweetheart right after graduation. He won’t go into detail, but what it boils down to is this: don’t marry your high school sweetheart right after graduation. Cory and Topanga Matthews are a daydream, not an example.

But anyway. The dog park.

Nix isn’t too sure that it’s going to go all that well, but it’s not like he has anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon except pretend to read the book he’s had on his coffee table for three years while he watches re-runs of Finding Bigfoot, and Scooter really does need to learn how to act like a somewhat functional dog when he’s around other people. He figures if it all goes south on him and Scooter ends up starting a doggy fight club—or worse, ends up trying to attack someone—he can at least say he gave it a shot and then move into some remote wilderness location up in Canada and live out the rest of his days as that grumpy old guy up the hill who warns people about the apocalypse but can’t actually be all that bad because he gives out full-sized candy bars on Halloween.

You know, the American dream.

Scooter does well enough in the car, but then again, he always has. Scooter loves car rides, spends the whole time in the passenger seat with his paws pressed up against the window and slobbering a mess onto the glass because he tends to drool when he’s excited. It isn’t until he’s out of the car that he has a problem.

Once they’re parked, Nix gives him The Talk.

“Listen, Scoots, you have to behave yourself in there,” he says, holding Scooter’s chin up so he makes eye contact. Scooter stops panting for a minute, like he’s listening. “There’s going to be other dogs and other people. They’re not out to get you, and you might actually make some friends if you stop snarling long enough for them to introduce themselves. I might even let you chase a squirrel or two if you can go more than three seconds without growling like someone stole your favorite Nylabone. Are we clear?”

Scooter sneezes with his whole body.

“Alright. Let’s get out there.”

Nix tries not to think about how ridiculous he looks hooking the leash onto Scooter’s collar when he knows he’s just going to carry him through the parking lot into the dog park itself before unhooking the leash again as soon as he’s sure Scooter won’t try to kill anyone. Dogs are supposed to know how to walk on leashes, Scooter is just contrary. At the very least, it serves as a precaution for if he tries to run off and snap at the heels of some poor sixteen-year-old who’s only there to get some extra cash by walking their neighbors’ dogs once a week.

Not that he’s done that before. He can’t have done that before, because Nix had his front yard fenced in specifically for that reason. It was a near thing, though.

The first few minutes are uneventful. Nix holds himself tight as a spring as he drags Scooter towards a bench in the middle of the park. Scooter is probably too preoccupied with not wanting to walk on a leash to be aware of his surroundings, and Nix takes that as the blessing that he knows it is. Scooter does take a minute once Nix is seated at the bench, though, to try and turn his head around enough to chew through the end of his leash. He has the decency to stop when Nix whistles in warning.

That doesn’t usually happen often, Scooter heeding warnings—Nix is pretty sure he’s only listening so he doesn’t embarrass him in front of so many people. He’ll take it.

Scooter stretches out as far as the leash will let him. He sniffs at a rock nearby. He pees on a rock nearby. He shakes himself out and trots back over to stretch out on Nix’s leg. He hasn’t barked yet, but it could be a clever ploy to get Nix to trust him.

Nix scratches the little guy behind the ears and hovers his fingers over the latch on the leash. “You gonna behave today? Can I trust you?” Scooter squints his eyes as he lifts his head towards the sun. It’s as good an answer as any, Nix supposes. He releases the leash.

For a minute, Scooter doesn’t do anything, too busy blinking the sun out of his eyes to notice that anything has changed. Then he realizes he can turn around in a full circle without getting twisted up in his leash, and he freezes. It’s now or never. Nix is either going to come out of this park with a slightly more well adjusted chihuahua or a cease and desist order.

He takes a deep breath as Scooter trots over to a tree and sniffs at a grasshopper. He doesn’t release it until a German shepherd trots up to sniff at him and Scooter just turns around to return the favor. When Scooter starts wagging his tail and pouncing playfully at the German shepherd, Nix almost cries.

“Thank God,” he says under his breath. As appealing as the whole hermit-in-the-Canadian-wilderness plan is, he really doesn’t think he can handle that much cold that much of the time. And he’d probably miss Harry and Ron, just a little bit, although he would never, ever tell Ron that.

Nix hears a chuckle near his shoulder and turns in time to see a man coming to sit on the other end of the bench.

“First time here?” the man asks, a hint of amusement in his voice.

It takes Nix a minute to answer because, well, he may not be looking for love, and it may be incredibly creepy to be using the word love after knowing this man for all of five seconds, but it has, in all fairness, been three years, and also: holy shit. There was no two ways about it, the man was beautiful. Not just GQ cover model hot, either, but straight up Disney prince gorgeous.  His hair looks soft, his clothes fit well, and he has these faint lines at the corner of his mouth that make it look like smiling at people is his job. Nix remembers he’s wearing his laundry day sweatshirt with the holes in all the seams and kind of wants to die a little.

He snaps out of it, thankfully before he ends up making himself look like an idiot.

“Yeah,” he answers. “What gave it away?”

The man tilts his head in the direction of Scooter and his new playmate. “Looked like you were waiting for disaster to strike. Your shoulders were practically near your ears.”

Nix laughs slightly. “Yeah, he’s not usually good with any kind of outside contact. According to the shelter I got him from, I’m the only one he’s let get near him since they’d had him.”

“Circe always has been good at befriending the problem cases,” the man says, but there’s no derision in his voice, just a touch of affection. If he thinks Nix is a horrible person with an even worse chihuahua as a pet, he doesn’t show it.

“Circe?” Nix asks. The mad raises his eyebrows towards the German shepherd, lips twisting up slightly at the corners. “Oh, the shepherd! Is she yours?”

Lewis Nixon you absolute idiot, he thinks. Of course the shepherd is his dog, why else would he be bringing it up? He’s going to laugh in your face.

The man doesn’t laugh in his face. “She is, yeah. Got her as a pup about two years ago.”

“That’s about the same time I got Scooter,” Nix replies, “but I have no clue how old he was. Probably about one or so, he was already full grown and had his adult teeth.”

“Scooter?”

Right. Normal, adult men don’t usually name their dogs after side characters from The Muppet Show. He knows that. He decides to own it, if not outright admit that that’s who Scooter is named after.

“Scooter.” He nods. “Named him myself, even. It was between that and Montague, but Montague seemed to give him too much dignity.” Next to him, the man laughs.

They talk for a while after that, just the idle chatter that comes with passing the time. He learns the man’s name (Dick Winters), what he does for a living (teaches history to high school kids), and where he grew up (Pennsylvania). Nix responds in kind (Lewis Nixon, romance novel editor, New Jersey). Any time Nix tells a story that gets Dick to laugh, he fumbles around for another that might garner the same reaction. Ten minutes with the guy, and Nix is already whipped. Good lord.

Scooter and Circe seem to remember that their respective humans exist and manage to find the time to take a break from chasing each other in circles to come bouncing back to the bench where Nix and Dick are still sitting. When the dogs are halfway back to them, Nix notices a little girl, maybe six or seven, following behind them with a wide smile on her face. Nix is about ready to bolt before he hears Dick speak up next to him.

“Hey Maggie, did you take good care of Circe and her new friend out there?”

Maggie. Maggie. Christ. Of course the really attractive man with the one dog that Scooter seemed to immediately like had a kid. He was probably even married, too, why wouldn’t he be with a face like that—with a personality like that. Not that Nix was planning anything long term, they had barely spoken for half an hour and none of it was of much substance, but. Christ.

The little girl—Maggie, Dick has a kid, Jesus Christ—hops onto Dick’s lap and starts telling him all about how she made sure Circe didn’t run him over, because she knows he’s small and Circe forgets how big she is sometimes, and she even threw a tennis ball for them once but Scooter just stared at her and when Circe realized her friend wasn’t interested she went right back to chasing him back and forth across the park. The kid doesn’t seem to breathe once the whole time she talks.

It's kind of cute, but also Nix isn’t sure what to do with himself. Does he talk back? Does he ask questions? What’s the protocol in interacting with a kid whose dad you’ve known for about ten or fifteen minutes? He thinks the best course of action is for him to make a hasty, but polite, retreat.

The kid doesn’t let him do that though. She seems to have no problem talking to people that her dad has only known for about ten or fifteen minutes.

“Is Scooter your dog, mister?”

Nix blinks. He has no idea how to talk to kids. Do you talk to them like dogs? Or just like regular people? But surely you’d have to talk to them differently than regular people, because if you had to make the distinction between children and regular people, then there had to be a distinct way to interact with them…right?

Honestly, it’s not like he’s never talked to children before, but he’s never talked to a child he didn’t already know. That, coupled with the fact that it feels like he has to impress this one, somehow, has him scrambling just a little.

Jesus Christ, Lewis, she asked you a question. You just have to answer it.

“Yes.”

Jesus. Christ.

The kid doesn’t notice his awkwardness. He thinks that’s probably one of the most redeeming qualities of young children; they’re too young to have any reason to feel awkward about anything, so they don’t assume anyone else has any reason either. Oh, to have the confidence of a six-year-old child again.

“He’s very nice!” Maggie says. “He doesn’t know how to fetch though. Maybe Circe can teach him!”

Her enthusiasm is catching and somehow Nix feels more at ease. He smiles despite himself. “Yeah, maybe she can.” The irony of Maggie calling Scooter “very nice,” doesn’t escape him, but he doesn’t comment on it.

She turns back to her dad. “Daddy, I think I’m tired,” she says matter-of-factly, mood turning from bubbly to worn-out in an instant. Nix would laugh if he knew the pair any better.

“Oh really, you think?” Dick asks, laughter clear in his voice. Maggie nods, looking like her head must suddenly way a hundred pounds. “Alright, let’s get you home then kiddo.” He wraps Circe’s leash tight around one hand and lifts Maggie up with the other, holding her securely against his side with an arm around her waist.

“We’ll see you around, Lew,” he says as he gets up from the bench. With a slightly awkward wave and a quick smile over his shoulder, he leaves.

Lew, he thinks. That’s nice.

*

When he comes back the next weekend, Dick is already there. It’s not that Nix was hoping he would see him there, but he wasn’t actively wishing he wouldn’t, either. In any case, Nix is disgustingly happy when Dick happens to catch his eye as he walks in the gate. He can hear the rational part of his brain saying “Lewis Nixon you’ve known him for, like, a day, please calm down,” but the larger, irrational part of his brain that is already halfway in love with this man that he has only known for, like, a day, is incoherently screaming at the smile Dick gives him when he waves him over to the bench he’s sitting at.

He probably has a wife, idiot, he thinks.

Shut up, idiot, he thinks back.

He should probably stop arguing with himself in his head and actually start walking instead of standing in the entranceway to the park like an idiot. But just for the record he has no reason to be mad if Dick has a wife and he doesn’t necessarily need to be married to have a kid, it’s fine. Nix may or may not hold on a little tighter to one of those thoughts than the other. It’s anyone’s guess which one it is.

(It’s not really a hard guess.)

(It’s the second one.)

Anyway, it’s not like infatuation is at all out of the ordinary for him. He’s gay, he’s fallen in love with Target cashiers faster than this just for smiling at him when they handed his card back. It’ll pass at some point. Likely, they won’t even see each other much outside of these weekly meetings where they both let their dogs run around in circles and Maggie tries to get Circe to teach Scooter how to fetch. They will become acquaintances, and no, Nix isn’t thinking of the word with a slight note of derision. He has no right to.

He manages to remember how to be a normal, regular human being for long enough to make his way to the bench. And without even tripping over a tree root, too. It’s a miracle. Usually by now, he’d have made a fool of himself. Character growth.

“Hey,” he says, sitting down in the space Dick makes by sliding to the side.

Dick whistles once in the other direction and Circe comes running, Maggie not far behind. Maggie looks a little disgruntled at being interrupted but then Circe perks up at the sight of Scooter and Maggie notices and suddenly she doesn’t look so put out. Nix nearly has a heart attack when Maggie immediately drops to the ground and reaches out to scratch Scooter behind the ears in the quick, affectionate way that only kids can manage. She may have done well enough with him yesterday, but Scooter generally didn’t do well with…well, anyone, really, so far as Nix knows. He’s never had Scooter around children, specifically, but he’s not too excited at the prospect of seeing what happens with that now, in the middle of a populated dog park, next to the man who may or may not be the love of his life (he still hasn’t put that one to bed where it belongs quite yet). Especially not if it ends up with a six-year-old losing a hand. He’ll die.

To his surprise, Scooter just flops over on his back on the ground and wiggles around in the dirt like he’s trying to do his very best impression of a beetle that got turned over. Nix is pretty sure he even sees Scooter’s tail wagging, and if that isn’t a trick. Huh.

“Not usually good with kids?” Dick asks.

“Not usually good with anyone,” Nix corrects. “Haven’t really tested him out with children too much, I usually keep him locked in the room when I have guests over. Then again, you all already seem to be exceptions to Scooter’s very strict set of rules. Don’t know why I’m surprised.”

“Which are?”

What aren’t Scooter’s rules. “No other pets, no other people, no loud noises. You know, the usual things.”

Dick laughs. “Oh, of course. Very reasonable.”

Circe seems to notice something across the park and goes bounding after it. Scooter tries to follow immediately but is stopped by the leash very much still attached to his harness. He turns around and looks at Nix with his head cocked to the side, looking very much like he’s wondering how, exactly, Nix could ever have the audacity to do this to him. If dogs could talk, he likely would’ve said, “what the hell?”

“Yeah, alright, I get it,” Nix says, unhooking the leash. “Get out of here.” Scooter doesn’t need to be told twice. He joins Circe by a tree, where she’s sitting patiently at the base of the trunk, staring upwards at the branches. Probably a squirrel.

“Circe no squirrels!” Maggie’s voice is small and she doesn’t quite have the Q sound down yet, but at a yell, it’s high pitched enough to make his ears ring. She runs after the dogs, light up shoes blinking with every step. She trips over her own feet and lands on her butt in the dirt. Nix notices Dick tense up slightly beside him, but she stands quickly and offers up an “I’m okay!” before returning to her job of protecting squirrels from her dog.

“She has…a lot of energy,” Nix says. It gets Dick to crack a wry smile.

“You think she has energy here. She’s worse at home. I can’t sit still for more than five minutes before she knocks something over or has to yell for me to get something that she can’t reach because she needs it right now.”

Nix decides to go for it. “Just you at home?”

“Yeah.”

It’s a casual answer, no hard feelings behind it. It’s clear it isn’t a question he minds answering, but even so Dick doesn’t elaborate. Nix doesn’t ask. He’s not sure if he gets to be glad Dick isn’t married, considering he doesn’t know the circumstances, but there’s a reflexive part of him that still is. He tries to tell it to be quiet. It only works a little bit.

The silence that ensues doesn’t feel awkward, but Nix thinks it probably should. Luckily, it’s short lived.

“You said you had that manuscript with the pirates you were working on,” Dick says. “How’s that going?” The look on his face says he’s trying to change the subject to save Nix from potential embarrassment or regret, but Nix doesn’t see anything there about being annoyed or irritated at his question. It really looks like Dick would’ve answered if Nix had pushed but decided instead to talk about something else entirely for the sake of Nix’s comfort, not his own. And if that wasn’t something.

It certainly doesn’t help Nix’s ability to quash his stupid, impulsive crush on a man he barely knows at all, just because he’s pretty and nice and his dog actually gets Scooter to behave, somehow. Not in the slightest.

*

It becomes something of a routine. And it’s not really much of a deviation from his regular routine, if he’s being honest, but it is better.

Nix goes to work every weekday, goes to the dog park every Saturday afternoon, and spends the rest of his weekends watching re-runs of Supernanny on TLC and losing spectacularly to his friends at weekly poker night before complaining enough that they all take pity on him and stop raising the ante so high just because they know he’s good for it and he’ll lose anyway. The complaining is mostly for show, because he doesn’t particularly care about the money, but all that losing would be hell on anyone’s ego.

So far, Dick has been at the dog park every time Nix shows up. They spend their time laughing when Circe lets Scooter think he’s capable of knocking her over, making sure Maggie doesn’t let either of the dogs bowl her over, and trading stories about childhood, work, and nothing at all. Dick has a lot of stories about the kids he teaches, and none of them ever fail to entertain; a mutiny in US history over whether or not the student teacher should be allowed to stay, two friends that are clearly in love but do nothing but fight about it, and a particularly interesting moment during senior debates where a student interrupted his opponent’s rebuttal by flying over the audience in a harness attached to the ceiling being the most notable. You can tell by the way he talks that he adores them just as much as they frustrate him.

Nothing much beyond that changes, though.

Nix tries not to be disappointed about that fact. He’s almost used to the word acquaintances now, even if he only finds himself falling in love more and more the longer they know each other. It’s not his fault the man is so goddamn sincere and decent in everything he does. If he was more of an asshole, like Nix, maybe he wouldn’t be having this problem.

Then again, maybe he would be. It’s not like marrying right out of high school and getting divorced before you can even celebrate a milestone anniversary lends him any credibility to having good taste or making good choices.

Anyway. That’s beside the point, probably. Nix doesn’t have time to have relationship woes—especially not any pertaining to his most decidedly necessary divorce—when he’s busy trying to find even one tie that doesn’t have some sort of weird stain on it to wear to Harry and Kitty’s rehearsal dinner.

Seriously, how, out of all the ties he owns, does he not have a single one that doesn’t have coffee or hot sauce or something else on it? Kitty’s going to kill him.

He looks at the clock—six thirty-seven. “Shit,” he mutters under his breath. The rehearsal dinner is at seven.

Nix sighs, grabs a dark blue tie that matches his suit well enough and looks the least like he left it in a grease pit overnight, and heads downstairs. Kitty will kill him for wearing a dirty tie, sure, but she’ll kill him even harder if he’s late. If he dies tonight, he wants people to at least be able to find the body, you know?

Scooter watches him from the couch on his way out the door. His tail thumps softly against its cushions.

“Alright Scoots,” Nix says, buttoning up the cuffs on his dress shirt. “Behave yourself please, no barking at the neighbors when they come home.”

Scooter turns his head from side to side as Nix talks. It looks like he’s listening, but Nix knows it really means that he’s pretending to pay attention and will absolutely ignore everything he’s been told the minute Nix leaves.

“Food’s on the floor in the kitchen,” he continues, “and your water dish is in the hallway. You know how the doggy door works. Take care of the house.” Scooter barks and begins to wag his tail in earnest. Nix smiles. It always looks like Scooter takes his responsibility as caretaker of the house very seriously, even though he’s all of seven pounds and refuses to put weight on his back leg half the time when he walks. At the very least, though, he is a good alarm system.

Nix leaves the lights in the from room on, turns the television to Scooter’s favorite channel, and leaves. He hears a small yip from inside the house and turns his head to see Scooter standing with his front paws on the windowsill, nose pressed up against the glass.

Nix taps the glass gently with an index finger. “You be good in there, I’ll be back soon.” Another yip, and Scooter disappears from the window, presumably to curl back up on the couch and then fall asleep until Nix returns home.

The drive isn’t that bad, considering the time of night. Usually at six thirty on a Friday night, the streets were full of cars driving back and forth from work to home and from home out on the town. It was as if everyone knew the Grogan-Welsh wedding was in full swing this weekend and decided to stay off the streets out of respect. Hell, maybe Kitty paid them all off. He wouldn’t exactly put it past her.

Whatever the case, he gets to the venue with minutes to spare. And is promptly manhandled by Harry the minute he walks into the door.

“You made it! We didn’t think you were gonna make it.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course I made it,” Nix says, shoving his friend off of him. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world, had to make sure you’d go through with it. Kitty would never tell you this but it was my job to knock you out if you tried to bail.”

Harry rolls his eyes. There was never any question that he would go through with it—he knows that, everyone knows that. Anyone who spent more than five minutes with the two of them would think that they had been together—and married—their whole lives. If there was anything in the world that remained constant, it would be the two of them.

Harry’s eyes light up suddenly, as if he remembered something. “Oh hey, I almost forgot! You remember that guy I was telling you about? You’re sitting next to each other tonight and tomorrow for the reception. I think you’ll really like him.”

Nix groans. For the past month and a half, all that Harry had been able to talk about—besides the wedding—was this guy that Nix just had to meet. And that was all he got on it. No name, no personality traits, no frame of reference for who he was, just “I’m inviting one of my old friends from college to the wedding, I think you might really hit it off.” It was exhausting.

“Harry, how many times have I told you, I don’t want you to set me up with anyone,” Nix says. “It’s your wedding, for Christ’s sake, can’t you focus on your own relationship?”

“My own relationship is rock solid,” Harry responds, “hence the wedding tomorrow. I’m worried about you.”

You don’t need to worry about me, Nix wants to say, but he’s had this conversation with Harry what seems like a million times, and each time ends no different. He’ll protest, Harry will wave him off and say “think about it,” and they’ll pretend the conversation never happened until the next time they have it. There’s no point in arguing.

Thankfully, Kitty comes to his rescue. “Oh, Harry, leave him alone,” she says. “You already strong-armed him into meeting the man whether he likes it or not, leave the rest up to him.”

Nix smiles. “Thanks Kitty. You look great, by the way.”

Kitty beams at the compliment but there’s a look in her eyes that makes him think he’s still, somehow, in trouble. “You were almost late,” she says. “And don’t give me any excuses! I’ve known you for years, I know you were just hanging out in your dress shirt in your living room for an hour.”

“But I’m here?” he tries. “Come on, Kitty, you know I’d be here. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, I’m not gonna skip out on you like that.”

Her eyes narrow, just a little, but she seems to accept it, if only because the dinner is supposed to start at any time now.

“You’re off the hook for now,” she says, confirming his suspicions. “But only because I have better things to worry about.”

“Am I off the hook enough to get moved to a different table where I won’t be harassed into a blind date?”

She laughs. “Not a chance, Nixon. Go sit.”

Well, it was worth a shot.

“Come on,” Harry says, clapping him on the shoulder. “I’ll introduce you real quick before the party starts.”

It’s not like he can skip out, Nix supposes. Might as well get it over with.

Only on the way to his assigned table, Nix starts getting hit with this weird wave of familiarity. The stories Harry tells conjure up a vague feeling that Nix has heard them before, like maybe Harry has told them once or twice. But that doesn’t make any sense because Harry had never told Nix anything about the man until today, except for the fact that “you’ll love him Nix, I promise, would I lie to you?”

And as he gets closer the familiarity grows larger. The man is facing away from him, but he knows that outline. He hasn’t known it long, but he’d be able to pick it out anywhere. Finally, the feeling that he’s heard all these stories before starts to make sense. He feels himself start to smile. Harry must notice.

“Hey, alright! See, I told you, you love him already and you haven’t even met him yet.” Love him already, yes. Haven’t met him yet, not so much.

“Yeah, you may have been right on this one, I’ll give you that.”

Harry doesn’t need to get an ego about his matchmaking skills, but, for once, he wouldn’t be wrong if he did.

They reach the table and Harry goes to make introductions. “Nix, this is—”

“Dick?” Nix finishes.

The man in question turns around, confusion visible on his face for a minute before a wide smile takes over his face. “Lew! What are you doing here?”

“Hold on,” Harry says. “You two know each other already?”

“Yeah, kind of,” Nix answers. “We go to the same dog park. His dog is teaching Scooter how not to be such an asshole.” And that, as it turns out, was the wrong thing to say.

Harry’s confusion turns into an all-knowing, shit-eating grin. Right. Nix had told him once or twice before, to get him off his back, about the man he’d met at the dog park a couple weeks ago. This is precisely why Nix never tells Harry anything. At least if he tells Ron about his love life, he gets tormented about it in peace and not in front of an entire wedding party.

“So this is who you’ve—”

Nix cuts him off before he can make a big deal about it. “Harry, don’t you have a fiancée to practice getting married to? If she blames me for keeping you too long, it’s your ass.” As always, mentioning Kitty gets Harry off his back, at least for now.

Harry runs off to find Kitty so they can get everything started, and Dick appears to valiantly decide to ignore what Harry had been about to say, instead opting to make small talk. “You know Harry?”

“Yeah,” Nix answers as he takes a seat. He offers a quick nod to the others at the table, Ron and Lip among them. “Kitty and I lived on the same street growing up. And I’m sure you know by now that if you know one of them, you know both. Trust me, it’s true when they say they’ve been dating since they were in elementary school, I was there for the playground wedding.”

Dick laughs at that, and before the conversation can continue microphone feedback rings through the room.

“Way to go Harry!” someone yells from the other side of the room.

Nix shakes his head. “Harry’s really going to regret inviting this many of his friends. My guess is he won’t be able to get more than three words in at any given point before someone starts ribbing him about it.”

“You’re probably right on that,” Lip comments. “And I’m sure it’ll be even worse tomorrow.”

A fair point. The rehearsal dinner was one thing, but the wedding reception? Where everyone was bound to be three sheets to the wind? Not to mention how eager everyone would be to start cracking jokes about how they were finally married, after hearing Harry go on and on about how he would marry Kitty one day, he swore it, since he was seven years old.

As the night moves on, Nix is proved right. If Harry so much as looks like he might be about to stand up to make a toast of some sort, the jokes come out in full force. Normally, he’d be right there with the rest of them, but as it is he barely has enough in him to join in on the loud cheers whenever someone lands a particularly good jab about how they can’t believe Kitty has known Harry since he was seven and she still wants to marry him, even after living through the his phase where all he wore for a year and a half was the same six basketball jerseys on rotation.

So sue him if he’s not paying everything his full attention, Dick is right there, and every so often his arm brushes against Nix’s and Nix kind of forgets to breathe let alone process words. Harry had to have known what he was doing.

And besides, it’s not like Harry and Kitty have much time to pay attention to anyone but each other at the moment, anyway. As long as Nix doesn’t make a capital-S Scene, he’ll be fine. Of course, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not he will make a scene, but he’s pretty confident he can make it until the end of the night. He figures he’s doing pretty well already, considering, and that ought to be a ringing enough endorsement.

“You know, I’m kind of glad you’re here,” he tells Dick during a lull in the night. “Didn’t know how to tell you I wouldn’t be at the park tomorrow because of the wedding. I know how you don’t know what to do with yourself without me there.”

Anyone else would have called him out, told him “really? It sounds like you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself without me,” but Dick, the gentleman he is, just smiles.

“You know I think you might be right,” he says. “I’ve gotten so used to you already, would be a shame to be thrown to the wind without an explanation.” And if Nix weren’t so self-aware, he could almost tell himself that he meant it.

Dick gestures for Nix to hand him his phone. And, well. Nix hadn’t quite been expecting that. He had been joking, mostly, hoping, maybe, but he wasn’t expecting it.

What’s he going to do, though, say no? He keys in his passcode and hands Dick his phone. Next to him, Ron makes a face like he wants to make a crack about Nix suddenly looking nervous, but he doesn’t say anything. Nix is sure he’ll hear about it at next week’s poker game. Anyway, like he has room to talk, it took him nearly four years to finally ask Lip to go out with him, and Nix knows it wasn’t about Olive like he likes to pretend it was. Scared of getting involved when there was a kid on the line his ass, Ron had practically raised Olive right along with Lip the entire time. No, Ron had simply been nervous, as if he somehow didn’t know that Lip already thought the sun practically shined out of his ass.

And that was a miracle in and of itself, considering everyone else they knew had already known for a while, even before Olive came around and Ron offered them a place to stay in his house.

But that’s a card for him to pull when Ron inevitably tries to embarrass the hell out of him at poker night. He’s not quite enough of an asshole to do it in the middle of a ballroom during someone else’s rehearsal dinner.

“There,” Dick says, handing Nix his phone back. “Now you’ll be able to tell me if you have to miss a Saturday in the future, you know, so I’m not stuck waiting for you.”

You would wait for me? Nix wants to ask, but he stops himself. It’s too sincere a question for him to play it off if it ends up being a joke. Instead he smiles and says thanks and tries to ignore the fact that his heart is in his throat.

*

The wedding the next day goes no different, except for the fact that everyone cries during the ceremony and everyone laughs at Harry twice as hard when he messes something up at the reception because they’re all stupid drunk and will probably stay that way through the whole next day.

And let Nix be the first to say, sitting next to someone you think is extremely attractive, and likeable—and who you would very much like to date at some point in the near future, thank you—while drunk is an incredibly taxing experience. He likes to think he can mostly handle himself after a few drinks, that he couldn’t possibly lose any sense of his filter over the course of one night, but judging by the way Ron and Lip keep looking at him like they’re just barely containing their instinct to laugh right in his face, he’s not doing quite as well as he thinks.

It starts innocently enough. Champagne is passed around just before the speeches are made by the best man and the maid of honor, and a toast is had after each one. Nix notices that Dick doesn’t really touch his glass but for the sip he has following each toast. It looks like it’s more out of politeness for routine than any actual desire to drink.

“Not one for spirits?” he asks.

Dick smiles. “Never have been much of a fan, really.”

“Well,” Nix says, reaching across him to switch the champagne flute with his own water glass. “Cheers.”

It’s not a monumental gesture, but Dick seems to think it is. The look he gives Nix seems to light Nix up from the inside out and suddenly he’s downing the glass of champagne in one long swallow and reaching for another. He’d had no intentions of really drinking tonight, but suddenly it feels like his nerves are on fire and this might be the only thing that keeps him sane. He will not make a fool of himself at his best friend’s wedding.

Some people might say that getting incredibly drunk off of champagne, of all things, and running your mouth at the object of your affections all night is quite the opposite of not making a fool of yourself, but in all honesty, it’s the course of action that leaves him feeling the most in control of his image by the end of the night. If you can believe that.

In any case, rambling all night long about nothing and looking like an absolute disaster is a lot better than jumping in your seat every time your arm brushes against his and you feel like the lovesick school child you never really were. The lesser of two evils.

So, one glass to save Dick from having to pretend to be nursing a drink all night long turns into two glasses to keep his skin from buzzing every time Dick so much as looks in his direction becomes five glasses to dull the lightheadedness he feels whenever Dick puts a hand on his elbow or shoulder to keep him steady because, despite his better judgement, he is now quite intoxicated, and the more he drinks the more he talks with his hands, and all the hand-waving he does keeps throwing him off balance.

This is about the time when Ron and Lip excuse themselves from the table, presumably so they can laugh at him without having to do it directly in his face. Nice of them.

Nix blames the fact that he’s more than a little drunk for what he says next. “So Maggie,” he starts. “Were you always a single dad? What happened there.”

He regrets it a little, right after he says it, but he doesn’t have enough time to backtrack before Dick is laughing and answering him anyway. “Was wondering how long it would take you to ask. You’ve done a fine job avoiding it, so far.”

Nix shrugs. “I may be slightly drunk and prone to making stupid decisions. Sorry.”

“Hey, no, it’s fine,” Dick rushes to add. “Really. I’m technically her godfather, but she doesn’t remember enough of her parents to understand the difference. She was really young when it happened.”

“When what happened?” Nix asks, and then immediately feels like an idiot. Stop talking, he thinks, for the love of God stop talking.

This time, there’s a hint of sadness in Dick’s voice when he responds. “Car accident.”

Nix rushes to say something, to apologize maybe, but Dick cuts him off. “It’s been a long time,” he says. There’s a kindness in his voice, and Nix knows he means it, but he still feels like a complete asshole for saying anything. “It’s fine. We’re fine.”

“Still,” Nix responds, “this isn’t really any of my business. Sorry for making you explain that.”

“If I didn’t want to tell you I wouldn’t,” Dick assures him. “But it’s a question I get often enough and I don’t mind answering it, especially not for you.”

Huh. Isn’t that something.

Before he makes a fool out of himself asking after that particular statement, Nix decides to change the subject, however minimally. “Where is she tonight? I noticed she wasn’t here yesterday either.”

And maybe people just don’t ask after his daughter much, because there’s no other good explanation for the way Dick’s face seems to light up at the observation. A shame, if you ask him. She’s a good kid. Anyone who can get Scooter to behave has to be nothing less than a real-life superhero. He supposes it has something to do with how weirdly antsy people get around single parents, but he never really understood that, either. Like sure, maybe he doesn’t know how to talk to most children, but he at least knows enough to try. And it seems to him that for people like Dick and Maggie Winters, you sort of have to try extra hard.

“She’s at my parents’ place,” Dick answers. “She gets a little restless at parties, especially when they run late, so I thought it was best if I leave her at home.”

“That’s a shame,” Nix says. “She’s such better conversation than you.”

It pulls a laugh out of Dick, which is why Nix said it. Since around drink three, he’s decided to make it his own personal mission to make Dick laugh as much as possible. He’s not sure why, but his brain seems to insist that it’s important. And anyway, the way Dick’s eyes flash and he seems to look almost surprised every time it happens is enough to keep Nix at it for at least until the night is over. Probably even for much longer than that.

*

And so, what once was nothing more than an acquaintanceship becomes a tentative friendship. Predictably, Dick takes to it easily. Also predictably, Nix has to flail around like an idiot for a little while before he settles in. The first time Dick texts him—for no discernable reason other than that Nix seems to be the first person he thought to come to with his question—it takes Nix about twenty minutes to figure out how to respond. He seriously considers calling Lip to ask for advice at one point, but Lip tells Ron everything and Ron would absolutely never let it go.

So he takes care of it himself. And it takes him twenty minutes to text back the words “lemon and soda water” to Dick’s question about getting stains out of laundry.

Well, it takes him thirty minutes. He doesn’t really know how to get stains out of clothing, hence his extremely dirty collection of ties, but he doesn’t quite have the heart to tell Dick about that so he spends about ten minutes googling the answer first. Dick texts back almost immediately, and it’s only a “thanks” and an incredibly endearing smiley face emoticon, but Nix is pretty sure he dies for a second.

He gets better with it, eventually. In fact, it only takes him three weeks before he stops jumping every time his phone rings and he feels like he can look Dick in the eyes at the dog park on Saturdays without his palms getting sweaty because that morning he had gotten a text that said “2 o’clock today?” as if it was important that they formally synced their schedules. As if, had 2 o’clock not been good for him, it would have been easily moved.

When he gets a gets a text one Sunday afternoon asking if he’s free for coffee or “whatever else works for you,” his heart only stutters once. And he makes himself wait two whole minutes before saying yes. He had thought about taking longer, making it look like maybe he was actually doing something with his Sunday other than watching the same episode of Mountain Monsters that had been on every night for the past week and waiting for dinner time to roll around, but who is he kidding.

And anyway, lately he’d been paying way more attention to his phone than whether or not this group of men in grisly white beards were about to get hunted down and eaten by Bigfoot, so it isn’t like he was even doing that.

He stretches and the movement causes Scooter to poke his head out from where he had hidden himself under Nix’s arms. “Well Scooter,” he says, “it looks like you’ll be on your own for a bit. Think you can manage?”

Scooter cocks his head to the side, looking offended at the change in routine. Usually, Nix would’ve been right where he was for at least another hour or two before heading off to get some last-minute ingredients for dinner and waiting for his friends to come around knocking on his door. The dog gets over it well enough, though, and simply shakes himself out and curls up in the warmth Nix leaves behind when he gets up.

It’s a five-minute drive to the café he’s meeting Dick at, and that’s both entirely too long and not long enough. This isn’t the first time he’s hung out with Dick by himself, and he’s certainly known Dick on his own longer than he’s known Dick around other people, but it is the first time he’s hung out with Dick with no other pretenses about it—no dog park, no wedding between mutual friends—and the distinction is enough to make him nervous. Everything has shifted now, and it’s something that leaves his limbs bubbling just beneath his skin.

It’s not a date, he thinks, it can’t be a date, it would have been more obvious if that was the case. But it feels like it could be. Maybe not now, but eventually. In any case, it’s Nix meeting a man that he likes, someone he can see himself with, for the first time in years, without anything else behind it. It’s him meeting a man that he likes because he wants to. Because Dick wants to.

And isn’t that something?

Nix is the first one to arrive, and for a moment he considers ordering a double shot of espresso while he waits.

Chandler Bing, he reminds himself. A double shot of espresso is probably not what he needs when he already feels this close to vibrating right out of his body. He orders a cappuccino instead.

He’s only waiting for about ten minutes when the front door of the café jingles and this time, when he turns his head to look, Dick is walking through the door. He let’s out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. It isn’t as if he thought Dick would leave him hanging like that, but it is as if he thought if he had been left to his own devices any longer, he would have thrown up at least twice and then left by himself before Dick got there.

Not that he’s being dramatic, or anything. But he knows himself and it’s been at least ten years since he’s felt like this—this nervous, in the best possible way, about being alone with someone. So yeah, it would have ended with him throwing up at least twice and leaving by himself before Dick got there. He’s not proud of it, but it’s true.

Dick stands in the entrance of the shop for a minute, looking around for Nix before he catches his eye. A soft smile graces his lips as he makes his way to the table Nix has chosen in the back of the shop, and Nix feels his own mouth turning up at the corners without any conscious thought from him. The voice in his head that sounds suspiciously like Ron Speirs tells him he looks disgusting, and also highly obvious. He ignores the voice, just like he would the real man.

When Dick takes a seat, Nix notices there’s no Maggie trailing behind him. “Where’s Maggie?” he asks, and just like every other time he asks after her, Dick’s face lights up. God, that face is going to be the death of him someday.

“She’s at a friend’s this afternoon,” Dick answers. “Had the day to myself for once, that’s why I figured I’d see what you were up to.”

It sends a thrill through his heart, hearing that Dick’s first idea of what to do with a rare day off for himself is to ask after him, but. Well, Nix is no expert on this, but it feels like there’s something there that Dick isn’t quite saying. He takes a stab at it. “You know, you don’t have to wait for her to be gone to ask me for coffee. She’s great. I like her more than you, even.”

Even with the joke to break the tension from the statement, Dick’s eyes soften further and, if possible, his face grows even brighter. “I’ll uh—I’ll try to remember that next time. Thanks.”

And wow if that doesn’t just make Nix want to find everyone who had ever made Dick feel like he had to hide Maggie away from them and strangle them. He knows people have an oddly high number of hang-ups over dating people with children—not that this is a date, it’s not a date, he knows that—but really? With them? There isn’t a single person on this earth, he’s sure, that Maggie couldn’t charm within minutes. Sure, it had taken him a bit to figure out how to talk to her, and he still isn’t sure at times, but it isn’t like he’s going to pretend she doesn’t have the sparkling personality he knows she does just because he has no idea how to interact with children.

Olive doesn’t count. Nix has known her since she was barely a wailing little worm of a person, and he’s watched her grow up since. She knows her uncle is a little weird, and he knows she loves him all the more for it. Maggie, however, is already a mostly-grown person with likes and dislikes and a brain that can think for itself. And a dad that’s pretty and kind in equal measure, more so than he has any right to be. Nix has to try a lot harder here. It’s terrifying.

“Don’t mention it,” Nix says. “Really.” And at that point, the conversation is starting to get too serious for him. If he has to see Dick look at him like that for even ten more seconds he will explode and he will propose right there in the middle of the coffee shop.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks. “Sorry, I should’ve let you order something before you sat down.”

Dick waves him off as he goes to pull out his wallet. “Don’t worry about it, I came here more for you than the coffee, anyway.” Oh, God. “Would’ve invited you over to my place but I haven’t had time to clean yet.” Jesus Christ on a corndog.

Nix all but shoves Dick’s wallet back into his pocket. “Hey, no, I got it.” He can see Dick gearing up to argue about paying for his own coffee but stops him before he can get there. “No worries. Was gonna order for you before you got here, but I didn’t know what you would want. You can get me back some other time.”

Dick takes the I-owe-you for what it is and concedes to having his coffee bought for him. He asks for an Americano, arguably the cheapest thing on the menu, but Nix decides not to push it. That very well could just be what he likes.

Five minutes later, when Nix sees him pull a face at it after taking one sip, he realizes that’s not true. He lets him sweat it out for a couple more sips before he says anything.

“You know, you could’ve ordered something else. Something you actually even liked, maybe.”

Dick tries to brush it off. “No, it’s great, just hot. Don’t worry about it.”

Yeah. And Nix loved it when they decided to switch out Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for The Office on the nightly television rotation. The thing these two statements have in common is that they are both blatant lies.

“Sure,” he says, switching his cup with Dick’s. He’s taken a couple drinks here and there since he arrived, and it’s mostly room temperature now, but he’s not going to watch Dick suffer through drinking something he obviously doesn’t have the taste for. “It’s not much,” he says over Dick’s protest, “but it at the very least has milk and sugar in it. Don’t argue.”

If Nix didn’t know any better, he’d say that maybe Dick looks just a little bit flushed in the cheeks when he ducks his head to take a sip of the cappuccino now in front of him. “Thanks,” he says, clearing his throat a little. “It is better.”

Nix rolls his eyes. “Really, I told you that you could get me back. It’s like a dollar’s difference, don’t sweat it. I can get you something else if you’d rather not have a lukewarm, already drunk from cappuccino, too.”

Dick shakes his head. “No, this is great,” he says, and this time it sounds a little more truthful. Nix wants to push it a bit, just to see what kind of sugar-filled abomination Dick Winters would order for himself if it were up to him, but he doesn’t. Maybe next time.

Next time. When would that be?

Christ, twenty minutes at a coffeeshop by himself with Dick and he’s already wondering when next time is. Could he be any more desperate? He could at least have the common decency to wait until the day is even over before he decides to start losing his mind over when he’ll be able to see him again.

God, was he like this back when it was just the dog park every Saturday? He was, wasn’t he. How did he ever survive this long?

“Hey so I was thinking,” Nix says suddenly, before he can stop himself. “It’s my turn to host dinner and poker tonight, you want to come?” Before he can even hear the beginnings of an answer, he starts to make clarifications, just in case. “I know it’s kind of last minute but trust me Maggie is more than welcome. Circe too, if you feel weird about leaving her alone at night. They can keep Scooter and Olive company.” And maybe keep Scooter from trying to eat everyone as soon as they walk through the door, too.

“Lew.” Dick stops him before he can ramble further. “I’d love to. What time?”

*

At a quarter to six, Nix is scrambling. He’s never really had a problem cooking, before, but that was when the only people he had to cook for was his friends. And sure, this is only an extra two people on top of the five he already cooks for once every three weeks, but it’s different. He tries to explain that to Lip, when he calls him freaking out, but Lip just laughs at him and when Ron takes the phone to see what’s going on, he isn’t much better.

So, he scrambles. And it’s fine! He makes one of the standard adult-and-child approved meals he normally rotates between, and only has to stop himself from texting Dick to see if spaghetti is okay—no really, are you absolutely sure?—four whole times.

And then his phone goes off and he jumps, because he hasn’t had time to clean yet, and he still has fifteen minutes why is anyone here right now, but then he realizes that, while it is Dick, he isn’t here yet, he’s just asking to see if there’s anything he needs to bring. Nix says no, just yourself and the kids, but Dick insists he’s at least bringing something, Nix, I’m not letting you buy me coffee and cook me dinner all in the same day without doing anything, and Nix is pretty sure that if he doesn’t tell him what to bring, Dick is going to find something himself.

He settles at “bread? But you really don’t have to” even though he already has a loaf of French bread in the fridge that he bought earlier and is met with a “nice try but I really do.” It makes him smile, a little bit, even though it is still slightly frustrating and he is still more than a little nervous.

The cooking is done by five fifty-eight, and Nix curses himself for not starting earlier, because now he only has two minutes to get his house looking like he picks up a duster more than once a month. Not that Ron or Lip or Harry or Kitty or Olive particularly care—they’ve seen his house in much worse states than this—but this isn’t just for them. There’s more weight to it now, even though he knows Dick won’t fault him for it, probably won’t even notice, because he isn’t the type of guy to look for it, and even if he did, he’d forget about it as soon as he saw it.

Nix hears the doorbell ring and settles for swiping the washcloth from the sink over a couple of the bookshelves in his living room and hoping the water droplets dry before anyone can notice them. It’s going to have to do.

He hopes Dick has gotten here with Maggie and Circe first, not because of that—maybe a little bit because of that—but because he’s trying to get Scooter more accustomed to being around people, and the last few tries at keeping him out during dinner and poker have been massive shit shows. He doesn’t quite try to bite anymore, but he does still bark. In fact, the barking might have increased proportionally with respect to the decrease in biting attempts. He barks and barks and barks and won’t shut up until everyone has been seated for at least fifteen minutes. And even then, as soon as someone gets up, he starts all over again.

Nix’s friends have been more than charitable about it, but he knows it must bother them. Even if it doesn’t, it bothers him. His hope is that, so long as Maggie and Circe are here, Scooter will calm down enough to realize he doesn’t need to bark at the people that Nix has over at his house at least twice a month.

Scooter is still dutifully making a ruckus about the doorbell ringing, as if Nix isn’t fully capable of realizing someone is at the door on his own, and Nix can’t really hear well enough to ask who’s there with a seven-pound chihuahua screaming into his ear, so he takes a chance. He scoops Scooter off the floor and opens the door, trying to hold Scooter far enough away from him that he won’t get permanent hearing damage.

He can’t help the grin that takes over when he sees that it is Dick at his front door, with Maggie and Circe in tow. It only dims a little when he notices the rest of his friends coming up the walkway behind him. He’s not proud of it, but he does know his friends. They won’t say anything while Dick is here, but they will never let him hear the end of it later.

“Wow, what a warm welcome, Nix,” Harry says, shouldering past him into the door. “Don’t get all excited on our account.” Nix is starting to think that he’s not the token asshole of the friend group anymore.

He snaps himself out of it and swings the door open wide to let everyone in. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Come on in you ungrateful heathens.”

Olive runs straight into his legs as soon as she’s through the door. “Hey kiddo,” he says, letting Scooter down on the floor so he can swing her up into his arms. He makes a show of how hard it is to lift her now, but it’s only a little exaggerated. She really is getting too big for this, and he doesn’t quite know how to feel about that. It seems like she should be little forever. He figures Lip and Ron are probably struggling with that more than he is.

“Wow,” he hears behind him. “You must be magic.”

Who? He’s lifting a child, it’s not like it’s that—oh. The barking stopped. He’d hardly noticed.

When he turns to face the rest of the room, Kitty is crouched in front of Scooter and Scooter is actually letting her scratch behind his ears. He doesn’t even make her chase him down to be able to do it. He even wags his tail.

Well, it worked. Thank god.

“Scooter’s always a good boy,” Maggie says, sitting cross legged on the floor next to him. He crawls into her lap. “Circe loves him.”

Everyone laughs at that, but Kitty is more gracious than most. “Sure he is,” she agrees. “But he’s usually just a little…antsy. He seems to feel better with you here, though.”

Across the room, Lip gives him a look. He’s not really worried about Lip saying anything, because Lip never really does, but if Ron is here that doesn’t matter. Ron has no such reservations, and he and Lip are scarily in sync sometimes. If there’s something Lip wants to say but is too nice to make a note of out loud, Ron will do it for him. Generally without prompting.

It’s what he does now. “You know, I think there’s a symbolism here.”

Oh, funny. A symbolism between them and the dogs. Because Circe apparently loves Scooter and Nix is clearly six steps from falling fully in love with Dick, and because Scooter is obviously enamored with all of them just the same as Nix is. Ron Speirs is a regular old comedian.

The rest of his friends get the meaning, he’s sure, and the kids don’t really care what they’re talking about one way or the other, but Dick at least looks confused.

“Don’t worry about it,” Nix says before anyone can make it any worse. “He’s an English major, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.” Nix is an English major, too, and they all know it, but no one comments on it and the conversation moves on to other things as they make their way to the kitchen for dinner.

Dick seems to remember the bread in his hands just before he takes a seat. “Oh hey, is there a place you want me to put this?”

“Yeah, I’ll take it, here.” Nix takes the bread from him and their fingers brush just a little bit and he feels at least two different sets of eyes on him at that moment.

Not a word, he wills, but the conversation doesn’t even skip a beat as he goes about slicing the bread and putting together a couple bowls of olive oil and pepper to set out on the table. Small mercies.

Dinner goes off without a hitch, surprisingly. Conversation flows naturally from topic to topic, Olive and Maggie don’t seem to mind sharing the ice chest as a chair at the end of the table at all—he only has enough chairs for six people to use at once—and Scooter even goes so far as to stand up on his hind legs so he can rest his head on peoples’ laps and beg for food. It’s the most behaved he’s ever been. Circe dutifully follows him around as he moves from person to person, as if it’s her job to keep him in line. Nix is grateful for it.

He’s not grateful for the look each and every one of his friends gives him whenever Scooter nudges his head underneath their hands and demands to be scratched, but you win some and you lose some he supposes. In any case, he manages to survive with minimal harassment, which is really more than he could ask for.

After the dishes get squared away—Dick insists on helping him dry, much to everyone else’s ever-present amusement—Olive drags Maggie into the living room to play with the dogs and Harry goes rifling through Nix’s cabinets to find the cards and the poker chips.

“Harry, how many times do I have to tell you the stuff is in the linen closet in the hallway?” Nix asks.

“Oh, at least fourteen more Nix,” Harry replies without missing a beat. Kitty groans. It’s a popular refrain whenever Nix hosts dinner and poker at his own place. He knows Harry just likes to rifle through his junk drawers to see if there’s anything in there he wants. Sometimes Nix throws him a bone and leaves a lighter or a few loose gel pens scattered in there just so he’ll take something and move on sooner.

“You know what I don’t get?” Harry says, once they’ve all been seated and they’ve started placing their bets. “We’ve asked Dick to come along hundreds of times before, how come Nix asks him once and that’s all it takes.”

“Never really was one for poker,” Dick responds. “But maybe I just never had the right incentive before.” And Nix could swear Dick is looking right at him when he says it, if even just for a moment. He wills himself not to burst into flames right there at the table. It’s a near thing.

Next to him, Ron coughs. “Excuse me,” he says. It’s innocent enough, but Nix knows better. The slight twist of his lips is easy to miss, but Nix knows what to look for, and he knows it’s a look that says as soon he can do it without embarrassing him in front of everyone, he’s going to laugh in Nix’s face. His friends are great, really.

Then Harry raises the current bet and he has to fold because there’s no way in hell he can win anything with this hand. He’s pretended long enough, and at this point everyone at the table knows him to well to believe he has anything better than a run of two consecutive cards.

He’d figured that at least Dick would be naïve enough to his awful poker skills that he’d be able to win maybe one hand before people started taking pity on him, but no dice. Actually, Dick seems to be better at it than most of them, which is odd considering how not long ago he’d commented on poker not quite being his thing.

He groans when Dick ends up winning the hand. “Look, these assholes regularly clean me out for everything I’m worth, but you literally just said you weren’t one for poker, why are you kicking my ass right now?”

Dick gets this knowing little grin on his face and Nix gasps before he can say anything. “Oh my God, I’m being hustled!” he says. “You absolute liar.”

The grin on Dick’s face just gets wider. “I never said I wasn’t any good, I just said I wasn’t for it.”

Ron claps a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Nix, a couple more rounds and we’ll let you win one or two.”

True to his word, a couple more rounds later and Nix finally wins his first hand. It’s not much, especially considering his friends have cleaned him out enough for it to barely make a difference, but it’s not like he’s missing anything and it’s the thought that counts.

A couple hands after that, and Maggie and Olive come walking back into the kitchen, listing into each other’s sides. Circe stands right up next to them, doing a great job of making sure they don’t fall to the ground. Scooter tries to do the same on their other side, but he’s not quite big enough for it to make a difference. You can tell he feels like he’s doing something important, though.

“Looks like it’s time to head out,” Lip says, reaching out to pull Olive into his arms. “Thanks, Nix, see you next week!” Olive is fully unconscious before Ron even starts the car.

“Yeah, we should probably get going, too,” Dick says. Maggie leans heavily against his side when he stands and he rests a hand on top of her head. “Thanks, Lew, dinner was great. You have a really nice house.”

I really don’t, Nix thinks, but for the first time he thinks maybe it must not be so bad. It certainly feels warmer with Dick there. Then again, most everything feels warmer with Dick there.

“Hey, no problem,” Nix responds. “You’re welcome any time. You and Maggie both, whenever you want.”

It’s maybe a little too much, but it strikes him as something important. He wants them to know that they’re welcome any time, needs Dick to know that this standing invitation will always include Maggie. If he has to lay it on a little thick to get his point across, then that’s the risk he has to take.

Dick doesn’t seem to notice the weight behind his words, though, and if he does, it looks like he may appreciate them all the more because of it. Whatever the case, he smiles warmly and says “I’ll keep that in mind. We may have to take you up on that.”

Maggie insists that she’s okay to walk to the car by herself, but Dick keeps a hand on her shoulder and Circe nudges her head against Maggie’s legs to keep her upright as she goes, and she doesn’t remark on it. Harry and Kitty stay behind for a minute, under the pretense of helping Nix clean things up, but he knows them better than that. If Ron and Lip didn’t have a kid to think of, they’d still be here doing the same thing.

“Okay,” he says, “get it over with. You’ve all been watching me all night just waiting to say something. What do you got?”

To his surprise, it’s not the gentle ribbing he was expecting. “Nothing,” Harry says instead, a warm smile settled on his lips. “He’s good for you, I think. You’re good for him, too.” Nix blinks. It’s more heartwarming than any of his friends are usually capable of being, and he’s not exactly used to it, but it’s nice.

“I did tell you so,” Harry finishes. There it is.

Nix rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I get it, I should listen to you more,” he says. And then, because he feels Harry’s previous words at least deserve a matching level of sincerity and juxtaposed levity, “thanks, Harry. I think you may have really been right for once.”

*

It’s a normal, sunny, Friday afternoon the first time Dick actually calls him. He’s not going to embarrass himself by going into detail on how his body reacted to that specific occurrence, but suffice it to say it’s a little exciting for him. It’s a little less exciting, once he realizes what it’s for, but he has to say, he’s still a little thrilled that Dick thought to call him first.

“Dick?”

“Lew, thank God,” Dick breathes, and really, his voice in Nix’s ear shouldn’t have that much of an effect on him.

“Hey, are you okay? You sound kinda off.”

Nix’s heart stutters in his chest as he thinks about all the different things that could have gone wrong between the night before, when he had last texted him, and now. Car accidents were quick and unpredictable. Children were prone to accidents. Oh shit, Maggie, is she okay? He’s near ready to hyperventilate before Dick answers.

“Yeah, I’m fine, I promise,” he says. “We’re fine. I’m just a little stressed right now, I guess. I have an emergency meeting tonight at the school because some kid set off the fire alarm in the bathroom again, and I have to talk to his parents because he’s this close to getting expelled, and normally I’d take Maggie with me and have her wait with Lena in her office but she’s got some sort of stomach bug just starting to settle in. I really hate to ask this from you, but my parents are out of town for the weekend, and you were the first other person I thought of. Can you watch her for a while?”

Nix’s response is immediate. “Of course. It’s no problem at all.”

On the other end of the receiver, he can hear Dick sigh in relief. “Thanks, Lew, you have no idea. I’ll make it up to you sometime, okay?”

“Hey, none of that,” Nix says. “I didn’t exactly have this in mind when I said it, but I meant it when I said you guys were welcome here any time. I really don’t mind. You don’t have to do anything.” Dick’s voice is softer, somehow, when he thanks him the second time. Nix tries not to think too much into it.

And that’s how, two hours later, he’s left in charge of two dogs, one sick, complaining Maggie Winters, and a reassurance that Dick should be back no later than six-thirty. Nix has to practically shove him out the door before Dick decides he’s taking too much of Nix’s hospitality without giving anything in return and takes his chances with Maggie throwing up in Lena’s office.

It’s not hospitality, you idiot, he wants to say. In case you haven’t noticed, I’d do just about anything either of you two asked me to. He doesn’t say it, figures it would be too much, but he hopes Dick knows he means it when he says, “trust me, if you hadn’t asked me to watch her and just told me about it later, I’d be wondering why you didn’t call me.”

Maggie pretty much falls asleep as soon as she crawls onto the couch and curls up into a miserable little ball. Nix covers her with a couple blankets and makes sure the dogs don’t crush her when they lay down on either side of her to keep her company. Scooter sits right up against her stomach and she curls her arm around him in her sleep.

Nix thinks he’s probably good to leave her there for a while in their protection while he goes to quietly freak out in the kitchen over how to take care of a sick child.

Sure, he’s watched children before, but it was more like the same child three or four different times, and always when she was healthy. He hadn’t been lying when he said he was glad Dick called him, and he hadn’t been lying when he said it wasn’t a problem. He just doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing, not in the slightest. So he does what any person in his situation would do. He calls Lip.

“You’ve watched Liv like, a hundred times before,” Lip says when he picks up. “What’s the problem?”

“First of all, I’ve watched Liv like, five times,” Nix replies. The distinction is important. “But that’s not the point. Maggie is sick and I’m not exactly a nurse.”

Lip sighs on the other side of the phone. “Did Dick say what it was?”

“Yeah, some kind of stomach bug I think.” He hears Lip laugh in response. “Hey! What’s that for?”

Lip ignores him. “How is she right now?”

“She’s sleeping.”

“So then she’s fine,” Lip assures him. “It’s a stomach bug, not the consumption. She might throw up once or twice, but there’s nothing you have to do besides make sure she’s comfortable. Maybe try to get her to eat something small, but that’s it. She’s not going to die or anything, Nix.”

Very reassuring. Nix tells him as much before he hangs up, but, well. He isn’t so sure what sort of advice he’d expected to get in the first place. She’s asleep, anyway, and she doesn’t look likely to do much else for the next two hours.

He decides he could at least be productive with his worrying, if he insists on it. There should be enough in his kitchen for him to be able to muster up a light soup for Maggie to try eating when she wakes up, he thinks.

It doesn’t take much to get the ingredients together and allow them to simmer on the stove—bland chicken noodle isn’t exactly a dish that’s particularly hard to cook. Nix does have to concede on using bouillon instead of chicken stock, like he’d prefer, but it gets the job done at least. He’s sure Maggie won’t complain one way or the other.

He’s been ducking his head into the living room every now and again in between mixing the soup and checking its temperature, but it’s when he’s removing the pot from the heat and turning the burner off that he hears a rustling from the living room and a small little groan to alert him to the fact that Maggie is awake. When Nix goes to check on her, she’s leaning heavily against Circe and there’s a little wrinkle between her brows.

“Hey, Maggie,” he says, voice soft. “How you feeling?”

Maggie shakes her head. “I don’t feel so good.”

“I know, kid.” He rests a hand on her shoulder. “You feel like you could try eating something? It might help settle you down a little bit.”

She shrugs. “Maybe.”

“Alright, come on,” he says, helping her off the couch, Circe follows closely behind, worriedly sniffing at Maggie’s heels as she does so. Scooter walks ahead of them, looking over his shoulders every now and again to make sure they’re following him.

The chairs at his table are a little high for her to climb into by herself, even if she was feeling fine, so he helps her up. She smiles a little when she realizes she can freely kick her legs underneath the table. Nix feels a little bit of his worry ebb away, then. She can’t be doing all that terribly if she still finds the energy to get excited about something as simple as swinging her legs back and forth while she sits in a tall chair.

She manages a spoonful or two of just the broth before she pushes the bowl to the side and leans her forehead against the cool surface of the kitchen table. “It’s good,” she says, voice muffled from where her face is pressed into her arm. “Thank you.”

Nix wants to laugh a little bit at the whole thing. Here she is, probably seconds away from throwing up on his kitchen floor, and she finds it important to make sure he knows that the reason she doesn’t want to eat anymore isn’t because it doesn’t taste good. The politeness strikes him as something Dick probably made sure she knew was important very early on. She’s every bit Dick’s kid.

He gives it a few minutes before giving up on eating entirely, but she doesn’t seem to want to try anymore. Probably for the best, given the way her arm curls over her middle and her fingers tighten their grip around the hem of her shirt every so often.

“Okay, Maggie,” he says, moving her bowl to the kitchen counter. “We’ll try again later. Maybe you want to go lay down again?” He may or may not be trying to make it through the night without having to clean vomit off his floors. He will if he has to, of course, and he won’t begrudge her if she does, but cleaning up dog vomit is bad enough, and Scooter doesn’t really eat the same as a human person. He’s not so sure he has the stomach for anything more than that.

“Yeah,” she agrees, but she makes no move to get up. Nix’s heart seizes in his chest. She looks like she could fall asleep right there, if left to her own devices.

He reaches out to help her off the chair, and she reaches out in kind, looping one of her arms around his neck. She leans against his shoulder with her whole weight and it makes him oddly proud that she trusts him enough to let him carry her into the living room. Maybe he isn’t that bad with children.

One of Nix’s arms come underneath Maggie’s knees while the other wraps securely around her waist, lifting her out of the seat and into the living room. As soon as he deposits her on the couch, she curls around a pillow and Circe is there wedging herself underneath Maggie’s head to act as extra cushion. Scooter keeps his place up against Maggie’s stomach. Nix is pretty sure he’s attempting to act as a living heating pad. With the way Maggie pats Scooter’s head lightly and says “good boy,” he figures it must at least be working a little bit.

“I like you,” Maggie says to him as she starts drifting off, voice small. “You’re nice. Daddy likes you too, you know.”

It makes Nix laugh, even as his heart starts to beat irregularly in his chest. “Of course he does, Maggie, we’re friends.” Friends. When did the word start sounding like it wasn’t enough?

But Maggie shakes her head. “No, s’different,” she insists. Her words start to mix together a little. He can tell she’s trying to fight off sleep and losing terribly. “S’like how Uncle Harry likes Aunt Kitty.”

Oh. Oh.

Oh.

He’d considered it. Hoped, mostly. There were a few times, when they had met up for coffee and Dick had let his fingers linger just a little too long on Nix’s as he handed him a cup, or when Nix had made an offhand comment about how “why do you want to hang out with me so much, Dick, I’m not really much to shake a stick at,” and he’d meant it as a joke, but Dick had responded with “Lew, there’s really no one else I’d rather talk to,” and there hadn’t even been a hint of teasing in his words. It got him thinking, sometimes. But then, he didn’t have the nerve to bring it up, and Dick never said anything either, so he just chalked it up to wishful thinking.

What could a divorced romance novel editor who spent half his time sitting around on the couch with his dog while he watched re-runs of the same two seasons of Fact or Faked every night possibly have to offer to someone like Dick Winters?

But according to Maggie…

He wants to ask her more about it, but she’s already out cold against the couch cushions, cheek smushed where her head is resting on Circe’s belly, and besides, how much can you get out of interrogating a six-year-old, anyway? He supposes it’ll have to wait. He lets himself pretend his hands aren’t shaking as he waits for Dick to come back for his daughter.

*

True to his word, Dick shows up at six-thirty on the dot. Nix has already moved the soup back onto the stove and turned the burner on, ladling out a new bowl for Maggie in case she wakes up and adding a little more flavor to the rest. Dick might try to protest, but Nix figures that he wouldn’t really have a leg to stand on, anyway. It’s six-thirty in the evening and Nix knows he hasn’t eaten yet. There’s not really much room for argument.

“She’s still asleep,” he tells Dick when he lets him in. “I got her to eat a little bit earlier, but not much. She’s mostly just been curled around the dogs on the couch all afternoon.”

Dick cranes his head a little to get a good look at her, and a soft, sad smile comes across his face when he sees her pressed between Scooter and Circe on the couch. There’s a slight frown on her face, and her eyebrows are still drawn together, but she’s stopped tossing back and forth like she had been earlier. The virus might well be on its way out already.

“Thanks, Lew,” Dick says. “Really, it means a lot, I know this probably wasn’t how you wanted to spend a Friday night.”

No less than he wants to spend it sitting in his living room alone watching the travel channel, Nix thinks. It’s not quite an improvement on his regular routine, but it is still better, somehow. At the very least, it’s not like he’s ever going to turn either of them away, even if what they want him for is to keep watch while one of them struggles against a violent immune response. Especially not then.

“Come on,” Nix says, ushering Dick into the kitchen. “Let her rest a little longer, she’s just finally gotten settled. I have food on the stove, you can take her home after you get something to eat.”

Dick tries to protest, as Nix suspected, but he doesn’t let him get very far. “You’re exhausted,” he insists, “I can tell. Get some food, sit down for a minute, tell me about your day. Don’t argue with me.”

It kind of looks like Dick still wants to argue, a little bit, but he doesn’t. Instead, he lets Nix lead the way into the kitchen and settles into a chair with a heavy sigh, dragging his hands over his face as he does so.

“So, I take it it wasn’t a very productive parent meeting?” Nix asks.

Dick laughs a little, and this is the first time Nix has ever heard the noise paired with a hint of sarcasm, coming from him. Even Dick Winters has something of a mean streak in him, it seems. Nix finds it incredibly endearing.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Dick responds, pausing to thank Nix when a bowl is set in front of him. Nix takes a seat across from him at the table. “If you consider a mom yelling at me for two hours about how it couldn’t have possibly been her son who set the fire because she knew him and he was such a nice boy that would never do such a thing while I kept insisting that he was going to be expelled if it happened again productive, then we made a lot of headway.”

Nix winces. “That bad?”

Dick nods. “Wasn’t expecting much more than that, to be honest. I’ve tried to have the same conversation before and it always ends with it being my fault, somehow. Can’t blame them, I suppose, I’d believe Maggie over just about anyone, too.” Nix has to hide his smile around a spoonful of chicken. Trust Dick Winters to find a way to make sure nobody came out at fault, even when there was clearly a guilty party involved. He bets the court never sends notices for jury duty to Dick’s house.

By the time the soup is gone, conversation has petered out comfortably, and sun is beginning to sink lower in the sky. The light cast shadows across his kitchen from the tree just outside the window.

Dick insists on helping him dry, again, despite Nix’s insistence that he doesn’t have to. It’s a poor tactic to try and get out of the conversation he’s been working up the nerve to have, but he has to try it anyway, coward that he is.

Nix’s heart is hammering in his chest when he says, “hey, so your daughter told me something interesting today.”

Dick’s reply is absentminded as he focuses on drying off the plate in his hands. He doesn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary, which is a miracle considering Nix is pretty sure his heart is beating hard enough to cause a small earthquake in several separate cities right now. “Oh yeah?” he asks. “What’s that?”

Nix clears his throat, turns to look at Dick. “She said you like me.”

If he wasn’t looking for it, he might have missed it. But he knows better. He’s paying attention, for once in his life, and so he can see the barely perceptible tightening of Dick’s fingers around the rag in his hand. When he speaks, it doesn’t portray how tense he is. “Yeah, well, we are friends. She knows that.” It’s supposed to sound easy, nonchalant—something they’re supposed to laugh off later.

Normally, Nix would take the out where he found it. He’s tired of that.

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Nix says. “But she said it was more than that.”

It’s on the tip of his tongue. She’s only six though, right? Probably just putting things together where there are none, and she was pretty out of it, too. How would she know anyway? You don’t have to yell at her or anything, just thought you should know. Maybe you wanna explain it to her.

And maybe in another time he would have said it. Maybe two months ago—hell, maybe even one week ago—he would have brushed it off like that. It’s enough to be friends, it’s enough to have him there, half of it is probably all in his head anyway. Don’t ruin things when they’re already fine, Nix, you haven’t been this happy in a while, why would you risk it?

He could be happier, if he risks it. He’s starting to realize he deserves that.

“Was she right?” he asks, and for as steady as his voice is, he doesn’t feel half as calm as he sounds.

It doesn’t take long for Dick to answer, but it feels like years as far as Nix is concerned. As it is, he can barely hear the answer with how loud his heartbeat sounds in his ears, but he’s straining to parse it out, and he manages to catch it.

“Yeah.” Dick looks him dead in the eyes as he says it, and Nix maybe stops breathing for a minute. It’s just a word, barely a breath, but it feels like the sweetest thing he’s ever heard.

“Holy shit.” It comes out before he can stop himself. Dick laughs at him, but it’s not unkind. It’s soft, softer than he’s ever heard it, even, a small sound full of something like wonder, maybe. Nix hesitates to call it that, still feels like he’s flailing in between two realities, the one where he and Dick are just friends, nothing else, and the one where they get to be something more than that, but it’s the only word he has.

The thought warms him from head to toe, settles deep into his bones. How odd, how exhilarating, that someone could think of him like that, with wonder in their voice and love in their eyes, nothing but sincerity written in the lines of their body, in the way that they hold themselves. He’s not really used to that. He thinks he could get used to it, though.

He has to make sure first. “Are you sure?”

“About you?” Dick asks, and isn’t it amazing how he sounds incredulous, how his eyebrows raise and his forehead scrunches together, as if he finds the very idea that anyone couldn’t be sure about Lewis Nixon to be impossible. It hits him right in the chest. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more sure about anything.”

Jesus, he thinks. “Jesus, Dick,” he says. Dick’s answering smile is blinding. He reaches out a hand to slide his fingers gently across the side of Nix’s face, hand coming to rest on his neck just below his jaw, thumb absentmindedly caressing the skin over the joint beneath his ear. Nix feels that warm feeling in his bones coalesce until it’s fully focused right where they’re touching. The whole world seems like it concentrates down to that one finite point in space. Was casual touch supposed to feel like this, like there was something buzzing just beneath the surface?

There’s a moment where everything feels like its suspended in midair. The whole thing feels so fragile, somehow, like it must be seconds away from shattering to pieces if either one of them moves too fast or talks too loudly. Neither of them seems to want to break it, least of all Nix, but he also feels like if Dick doesn’t kiss him soon, he might actually die. Then the moment would really be broken. And he’s sure neither of them wants that.

“Now I don’t want to be rude here,” he says. His voice is soft, barely a whisper. He doesn’t quite recognize it as his own. “But as nice as this is, it feels like we’re missing something.”

The smile on Dick’s face takes on a teasing edge. “Yeah? Like what?” He’s moves closer by just the slightest fraction. It’s not quite enough.

Nix can’t help the hysterical cough of a laugh that escapes him. It seems to ring through the room, and he hesitates for a moment, but the invisible bubble they’ve created around themselves remains intact. “I swear to God, Dick Winters, if you don’t kiss me right now.” He lets himself trail off, consequence unspoken. He’s not sure what he would have said, anyway.

I swear to God, Dick Winters, if you don’t kiss me right now, I’ll probably start crying.

It takes forever. Nix’s breath catches in his throat. It’s then that he remembers the one thing he can recall learning in math class: there is no physical distance which cannot be divided in half. Nothing every technically touches. The limit does not exist.

They’re never going to close the distance between them and Nix is going to die with his heart in his throat and a permanent brand on his jaw where Dick is touching him.

He’s just about to curse Newton, or Euler, or Descartes, or whoever the hell came up with that theory when everything stops. Dick’s lips meet his, and Nix feels a certain rush of victory fill his chest. Take that, Pythagoras, he thinks. He always knew that theory was a load of shit.

The kiss is soft, fleeting. It only lasts a second or two, and it should hardly be considered something to write home about, except that Nix considers it to be everything to write home about. There’s a sonnet to be written, somewhere, about the way Dick’s hand curves around his jaw and uses the gentle pressure there to guide the angle of the kiss; a certain poetry about the hitch in Dick’s breath when Nix brings up a hand to curl his fingers in his hair; a quiet sort of elegance in the way they both sharply inhale when they part, as if they had just then realized what had happened.

There’s a shift, then. Not a bad one, not a harsh one, but a shift just the same. A soft snapping together, like the click of a deadbolt sliding home. And it feels so monumental, so important, it’s a shame that nobody else outside the few square feet they occupy in the kitchen can feel it.

Dick rests his forehead against Nix’s for a minute, afterwards. There’s no need to fill the silence that ensues, but they try anyway. It’s as if they think the moment will run away from them, disappear, if they don’t keep it moving.

If you were to ask Nix later what they talked about, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. Something about thank God for emergency parent-teacher meetings, huh? he thinks, but it had really been mostly filler. Something to keep the moment alive. Cheesy grins at terrible lines. Trying to coax a laugh out of each other with ridiculous non-sequiturs.

Nix remembers all the times he’d walked past Ron and Lip’s kitchen on poker night and seen them standing exactly like he is now, with Dick. Just existing with each other, talking in hushed voices and laughing at nothing. His heart had clenched every time. This wasn’t something he’d ever seen himself having, and now that he does it feels softer and warmer than he had ever pictured it to.

There’s nothing else beyond them, it seems. The last rays of sunlight filter through the kitchen window, the bubbles of the dish soap quietly pop in the sink behind them, the blanket covering Maggie rustles in the living room as she shifts in her sleep. He waits for her to make a sound, to see if she needs anything, but she doesn’t. Time stretches on. Nix is pretty sure he could stay like that forever.

Chapter Text

It’s a perfectly regular, routine day when he decides to ask. “Hey, do you think we should move in together?”

They’re crowded together on the couch, Scooter and Circe on the floor beside them. Maggie’s out at a friend’s house for a birthday party, and they told themselves they’d take the time to clean up a little, but so far all they’ve done is clear the coffee table of magazines and sit down to watch an old episode of The Voice, just for a minute and then they’d get back to work. That was around three episodes ago.

Dick is half asleep with his head in Nix’s lap when he answers. “What was that?”

Nix flicks at his ear. “You, me, the kids. Living together. What do you think?” Over the course of two years, Nix has gotten a lot better at asking about things like this. He doesn’t even start panicking in the ensuing silence after his question. It always takes Dick a minute to register words on lazy afternoons like this.

A few more seconds pass, and Nix is about to whack Dick in the chest with the newspaper to wake him up when Dick pulls himself upright to look at Nix with warmth in his eyes and a relaxed smile on his lips. “You want to?”

“No,” Nix answers, “just thought I’d bring it up for no reason. Yeah, of course I want to.”

Dick rolls his eyes. “You’re impossible, you know,” he remarks. And, before Nix can respond, “your place or mine?”

Nix snorts. To him, the answer is obvious. “Are you kidding? I hate my place. I’m here with you more often than not, anyway.”

“Your house is bigger,” Dick points out.

“Yeah, but it’s just a house. It never felt like home. I’ve never felt at home, not until I met you.”

*

It takes two trips, using just his own car, to get the boxes of Nix’s stuff from his old house to his new one. He didn’t have much at the old place in the way of belongings that he had a special connection to, not since the divorce, and the stuff that he does have a special connection to are, for the most part, already at Dick’s place anyway. It’s easy enough to throw the rest of his clothes, Scooter’s stuff, his cookbook collection, and his other remaining odds and ends into a few boxes and pack them up to drive a few streets down to Dick’s house—his house—and unpack. He leaves the furniture for whoever lands there next. Everything from his junk drawer gets thrown haphazardly into a tote bag and left on Harry’s doorstep.

With the last box unloaded, Nix locks up his car and closes the front door. Dick is there to take the box from him and move it into the kitchen, where he’s already started opening everything and getting it all sorted into different areas of the house.

“Welcome home,” he says. It’s been about a month since they’d decided to move in together, and in that time Nix has heard Dick greet him like that at the door what must be upwards of a hundred times, but it doesn’t stop the warmth he feels spreading through his chest.

Home. Dick’s house has been his home in all but name since about three months in their relationship, but he still isn’t quite used to the feeling of belonging somewhere so fully. Hearing it, the verbal acknowledgement that this is all really his now and that fact isn’t likely to change any time soon, is on another level entirely.

In the kitchen, Dick has coffee mugs lined up on the counter, cookbooks stacked precariously on the table, and a pile of old movie tickets and photographs that Nix hasn’t found frames for yet resting on the seat of a chair. There’s a ticket on the top of the pile that’s a little newer looking than the others. Dick holds it up with a smile. “You kept it?”

Nix feels his cheeks burning, just a little. “Yeah, well. I did have kind of a good time with a couple of people I knew, thought it would be fun to remember it.” He tries to deflect, nodding at the different piles of things grappling for space on the table. “You know, you’re gonna have to get a bigger table. Four chairs won’t hold everyone for poker night, and you have to host now.”

He knows Dick sees what he’s doing, but Dick doesn’t push it. He’ll tease him relentlessly for it later, Nix is sure, but for now Dick is content to let him redirect the conversation. “You could’ve brought your table, you know.”

“Nah, it would’ve been a pain to move. Besides, it was a chair short. I’ll order a new one soon.”

*

He refuses to consider the time they met for coffee as their first date, even though Dick insists that it was supposed to be, he just chickened out of calling it a date at the last minute. No, their first date doesn’t come until months later, after an emergency parent-teacher meeting knocks some sense into their heads and they can finally see what’s right in front of them.

It comes in the form of a sunny, springtime afternoon, sitting in hot, plastic chairs surrounding a diamond-shaped field as John Fogerty plays over the speaker system. Maggie sits between the two of them, waving a small team flag in the air. Both of them have an arm slung over the back of her seat.

She’s been practically impossible to contain since they arrived, bouncing up and down in her seat more and more as it got closer to game time, but at the mention of “beware of flying bats and baseballs coming into the stands,” she cowers a bit. She tries not to let it show, but Nix notices. She’s exactly like her dad when she’s nervous.

“Hey,” he says, gently squeezing her shoulder with the hand resting on the seat behind her. “Nothing’s gonna hit you, I promise.” He points to the glove sitting in his lap. “What do you think we have these for? I’m not letting that happen.”

He hopes baseball ends up being something she likes—it’s something he holds close to his heart, and she’s never been to a game before and it’s his hope that this is one of those things that they can form a bond over—but he’s not going to make her stay. If she’s scared, they’ll leave. More than he wants her to like the sport, he wants her to be comfortable. Making her power through her nerves isn’t the kind of foundation he’d want to bond with her on.

 Maggie thinks for a minute, turning her head side to side. Eventually, she settles. “Okay,” she says, and that seems to be that. By the time they’re announcing the starting lineup over the field’s speakers, she’s out of her seat cheering with everyone else like she’d never even thought there was a reason to be afraid in the first place.

Dick catches Nix’s eye over the top of Maggie’s head, and the look in his eyes makes Nix feel a little lightheaded. He doesn’t quite know what to do with that much unfiltered love and adoration sent in his direction. He settles for twining their fingers together on top of the seatback.

*

He hears footsteps through the hall outside the kitchen. An accompanying, excited “dad!” follows the noise, and isn’t it amazing—wonderful and terrifying all at once—that Nix reflexively turns his head towards the voice when he hears the word?

Maggie skids into the kitchen, practically crashing into Nix’s legs as she does so. “You’re home!”

“Maggie, no running in the house,” Dick says on a sigh. As Maggie gets older, she gets more energetic instead of less, as most parenting books promised. It’s not a problem except for when she’s running through the house and crashes into the end tables about three separate times in the span of an hour and almost breaks her foot. “No running in the house” is a popular refrain that Nix has heard a million times, and he’s only barely started really living there.

Nix leans over to hug Maggie properly. “C’mon, Dick, just because she doesn’t get this excited when you get home,” he teases.

It makes Maggie laugh. It makes Dick cross his arms and send him a look that says he isn’t very impressed, but it doesn’t stay long. He’s prone to cracking rather quickly when faced with Nix and Maggie laughing together, on the same side of things. Nix wonders how long that’s going to last, now that he’s going to be actively living with the two of them. He figures he should probably take advantage of it as much as he can.

*

The first time it happens, he almost chokes on nothing. He supposes it’s something that happens, when you’re relatively new to the whole school thing, and people don’t quite know who you are yet, and it’s a given that the person who picks you up is probably your parent. Still, when he comes to get Maggie from school one day and one of her friends sees him waiting outside and tells Maggie “your dad is here,” he has a fully contained panic attack in the five minutes it takes for Maggie to come out of her classroom when the bell rings.

She doesn’t say anything about it, not to her friend or to him, and neither does he. He figures he’ll mention it to Dick later, as something to laugh about manically, or perhaps, better yet, he figures he might just not mention it at all. Yeah. Maybe it’s better if he just goes with not saying anything.

So he doesn’t. And it’s fine. The rest of the day is uneventful.

He’s staying over at Dick’s place for the night—something that happens more often than not, even before they had officially agreed to move in together—and he overhears a conversation from Maggie’s bedroom as he walks towards the bathroom to brush his teeth.

“Sarah called Lew my dad today.” Her voice is matter of fact. Nix can’t tell what she’s trying to convey, one way or the other, and he stops dead in the hallway.

He can practically see the look on Dick’s face when he speaks. “Okay. Maggie, —”

“Is he? I didn’t know what to tell her.” And again, Nix can’t tell one way or the other how she feels about it. The tone makes it sound like she could be talking about how her friend told her that the sky was purple, actually, and she didn’t know enough about the sky to say her friend was wrong, so what was the truth? She sounds confused, more than anything, and Nix isn’t quite sure what to make of that.

It’s quiet, for a moment. Nix can tell Dick doesn’t know how to answer that. He doesn’t even know how to answer it himself. He kind of wants to hide, actually. Call him when a decision has been made, thank you, he’d rather not die of a panic-induced heart attack before he’s even forty.

“I think it’d be okay if he was,” Maggie says finally, and her voice has that quality to it that Dick’s gets when he’s trying to tell Maggie that it’s okay to ask for things, because sometimes she doesn’t quite feel comfortable telling people what she wants.

If he weren’t so suddenly full of adrenaline, he might laugh at how well she adopts all of Dick’s paternal mannerisms and turns them around on him. As it is, his hands start shaking. This time it’s not quite panic that makes them do that.

“Well,” Dick says, and this time his voice is softer, less strained then it was before when she first asked. “I guess you’d have to ask him what he thinks.”

Without a doubt, Nix already knows, his answer is yes. There aren’t many more things he can think of that make him feel quite as accomplished as the simple fact that Maggie wants to think of him as a dad.

*

They manage to get the kitchen cleared out before dinner time, by nature of the fact that Nix already knows where most everything goes. The only thing that takes a while is re-organizing the closet, and even then, it’s as simple as folding a few shirts to put on top of the dresser until they can buy more hangers. His cookbooks are the only thing that give him trouble, but it’s a quick enough fix to go looking for shelves at Target over the weekend, so he doesn’t worry about it. The books are safe in their box in the corner of the room for now. It’s something that can wait.

Cooking dinner should be business as usual, because he has done it before, in this kitchen even, but it feels warmer, somehow. The sun streaming through the kitchen window feels brighter.

Maggie sits on the counter on the opposite side of the kitchen from the stove, calling out ingredients stirring various different sauces together after Nix folds the ingredients in and lets them cool for a minute after taking them off the heat. Dick is strictly relegated to a supervisory position that consists of making sure neither of the dogs gets underfoot and ends up tripping Nix so he falls face first into a bowling pot of water. He’s been placed under strict instruction to not mess with anything, and only gets to touch the ingredients if he’s handing them off to either Nix or Maggie, because “I’m sorry, Dick, but I absolutely will not have our Maggie learning bad habits in the kitchen.”

Nix has tried to teach Dick how to cook before. To say it didn’t go as well as he’d hope would be an understatement. Dick likes to pretend to make a big deal out of it, but Nix knows him better than that. He’s absolutely thrilled he doesn’t have to be bothered with cooking meals anymore.

Across the room, Maggie calls out for butter and Dick takes a stick from the fridge. He hands it off to Nix with a kiss on the cheek and, for what seems like no reason other than that he can, says “I love you.”

Nix smiles. “You just love that you don’t have to cook dinner anymore,” he jokes. “I love you, too.”

From her perch on the counter Maggie shouts that they need three eggs.

*

If Nix were going to plan it out, he’s not quite sure what he would do, but he’s sure he would at least try to make it more romantic than this. As it is, it happens when they’re in Dick’s backyard trying to give Scooter and Circe a bath and failing miserably.

Scooter escapes halfway through being rinsed of soap and goes running through the little vegetable garden in the corner of the yard, covering his paws in potting soil. And if that hadn’t been bad enough, he manages to rope Circe into chasing him around the yard, which leads to him getting knocked over into the dirt underneath the picnic table they’d been bathing him on. Which, if it weren’t already obvious, is terribly muddy from the running hose they’d been using to rinse his fur.

Nix manages to chase him down and get him back up on the table for bath time round two, but not without getting mud all over his own clothes in the process. Dick and Maggie seem to think it’s hilarious, but Maggie seems to find it less funny when tries to chase her down for a hug with mud all over his shirt. She manages to outrun him and lock him out of the house.

Dick isn’t quite so lucky.

“Lew, no,” he says around a laugh. “Absolutely not, don’t you dare.”

“Aw, come on, Dick,” Nix says, arms open wide. “You’re really not gonna hug your boyfriend? That’s rude, you know. I’d hug you if you were covered in mud.”

Dick shakes his head and Nix can practically see him contemplating whether or not hopping the fence is worth it. “Not gonna work, Lew.”

“I’m starting to feel incredibly unloved, you know. How is this relationship supposed to work if you don’t love me as much as I love you?” It’s supposed to be a joke. He says it with the tone of a joke, and he hardly even notices he said it at all, until Dick’s face changes a little bit, mellows down into something softer as he drops the fear of being covered in mud.

Oh, shit.

“I didn’t,” he starts. “I mean, I do, but—”

“Nix,” Dick cuts him off. “I love you, too.”

*

It’s amazing how spending one day in what he can officially call his new home changes everything, he thinks, even if he’d been practically living here already for the better part of a year anyway. As he climbs into bed beside Dick at the end of the night, Nix marvels at how much everything has changed and, at the same time, how everything seems to have stayed the same.

He still watches way too much paranormal television during the week, his friends still come around every Sunday night for dinner, and he and Dick still spend an hour or two every weekend at the dog park with Scooter, Circe, and Maggie. Scooter knows how to act around other people now, though, and doesn’t spend half his life growling at anyone who dares to even walk down the street. Nix is happier, now, too.

He reaches across Dick to turn off the bedside light. “I am absolutely not going to fall asleep to you staying up too late reading online essay submissions again,” he says. “Go to sleep, Dick. They can wait until the morning.”

Surprisingly, Dick doesn’t argue. Normally, Nix would’ve woken up groggy an hour later to Dick squinting at his laptop in the dark of the room and he’d have to wrestle the laptop away and move it to the other side of the room before Dick relented to go to bed. As it is, Nix hears the laptop click shut almost immediately after he turns over to fall asleep. Moments later, he feels Dick’s arms come to curl around his waist.

He chalks it up to the novel feeling that seemed to have permeated the air all day, today. Everything, though no different than usual, feels incredibly new and exciting in the light of his official moving in. He revels in the feeling as long as he can before his breath evens out and he falls soundly asleep.

*

Nix holds himself sort of uncomfortably still as he slides underneath the covers of Dick’s bed for the first time. He feels like he’s going to mess something up, somehow. It’s not like it’s even something all that new, or weird. They’ve slept together before, albeit during light naps on the couch in front of afternoon game show television in the living room, but they had.

It was never planned, though. When the spontaneous naps happened, it was always an accident. Never uncomfortable, and always welcome, but accidental just the same. Sleeping together, in the same bed, overnight, was a lot different.

There was a sense of finality to it, and it wasn’t a bad one, but it was there. It said “wow, hey, here’s a pretty big step in your relationship, I wonder if you’ll screw it up?”

Nix isn’t quite sure how he can screw up something as easy as sleeping, but try telling his brain that. Because he’s certainly tried that, and it doesn’t quite work. There’s still a niggling little thought that worms its way into his conscious and won’t shut the hell up. Suddenly, he’s convinced he’s going to do something so horrendous in his sleep that Dick will break up with him on sight and he’ll never get to see him or Maggie or Circe ever again. Scooter will become the terrible menace of a dog that he once was, and Nix will have to go back to spending weekends alone on his couch. Maybe he’ll even take up the hermit-in-the-Canadian-wilderness lifestyle.

But then the lights go out and Dick turns over to circle Nix in his arms, and everything settles. The tension melts away from his bones as his breath leaves his lungs in a shaky exhale, and the voice in his head just shuts up.