“I’m getting it removed. I suppose you have a right to know.”
Before Nino had the chance to look up at the owner of the voice, a stack of books dropped onto the table where he sat, barely missing his brand-new headphones he’d been mysteriously gifted only the day before. He grabbed them quickly and scowled up at the person responsible for their almost demise when his heart leapt into his throat. Felix Agreste glared at him as he stood on the opposite side of the table, his chin lifted defiantly.
“I don’t need a soulmate and I certainly don’t want a soulmate. The only reason I’m telling you is because I need you to sign these.” He dropped a packet of paper across the table, just beyond his books. “I’ve flagged each place you need to sign or initial. It should be simple enough for you to understand. Please don’t make a mistake. It was a headache getting a copy of the form.”
Nino looked at the papers and then back up at Felix. “What the hell are you talking about, Sir Scowls-A-Lot? What are these?”
Felix’s brow furrowed. “You’re my soulmate and I don’t want a soulmate so I need you to relinquish your claim. What do you not understand about that?”
“The part where you’re my soulmate.” Nino grimaced as if the words tasted sour. “There must be some mistake.”
“Alas, I was hopeful at first too. There’s no mistake, except on the cosmic scale. We’ve been registered since birth.”
“You’re almost two years older than me; that’s not how it works.”
“Twisted, isn’t it? Do you own a pen? These aren’t going to sign themselves.”
Nino brought the document closer with a frown. “Can you try to act like a human being for a second and explain this to me?”
Felix sighed heavily and glanced around the university courtyard before pulling the other iron chair away from the table. The legs protested loudly against the cobblestone and pink bloomed on Felix’s cheeks as he slumped down in it sullenly. “You understand that this whole soulmate fascination that our society has created is completely false and inaccurate, right?”
“You should be careful who you say that around.”
“I’m saying it to you,” Felix shot back. “Are you going to turn me in for brainwashing or something?”
“No, but…” Nino shrugged but still glanced around uneasily. “I guess it all seems a little too…neat and tidy.”
“Except it isn’t. We still have adultery and murders of passion and unsanctioned pregnancies. All the stuff they were trying to get rid of by implementing this moronic program decades ago is still here. Probably even worse if I cared enough to go through the statistics.” Felix leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table. “Not only that, but they only call it the soulmate program to make it sound romantic. Parents are the ones who decide what kind of person to pair you with when you’re born and if they don’t decide, the government does.”
“But some soulmates fall in love,” Nino argued. “Most do.”
“Well, if you thought you were stuck with one person for the rest of your life for legal reasons and most likely had no other options, wouldn’t you try to make the best of it?”
“Yes, that’s why I said you and not me,” Felix clarified. “I was able to get the file my father filled out when requesting my soulmate the day I was born. Would you like to know what it said?”
Nino had a feeling he very much did not want to know what it said from the angry, pained look that leaked from Felix’s eyes but he gave a stiff nod.
“A male soulmate so biological reproduction wouldn’t be possible. His first request.”
Nino paled. “Oh, I…I’m sorry. That’s…if you aren’t….you could still try to adopt or–”
“I don’t want to be a father,” he snapped. “But that’s what this all is, isn’t it? I’m apparently gay because my father said I should be. Adrien’s straight because that’s what dear old dad chose for him so he can carry on the Agreste line with his own little brat when the times comes. Nevermind how either of us feels in the matter.”
“I can sign–”
“I’m not finished,” Felix interjected. “He also requested I be paired with someone at least a year younger from a lower income home, preferably a government-chosen male. Would you like to know why?”
“Even if I say no, are you going to tell me anyway?” Nino regretted the question as soon as the words left his lips. Felix’s mouth snapped closed and an invisible wall slid between them.
“If you’ll just sign where I’ve marked.”
“I’m sorry. Please tell me why your father is an even bigger asshole than I already thought he was.”
The hint of a small smile flickered across Felix’s lips and was just as quickly gone. “My mother was my father’s soulmate and he hated her for it. Or maybe she hated him. I’ll never really know. When she had me, he wanted to make sure I was the end of that line. Gabriel grew up poor and inherited my mother’s family’s money with her death. I guess he wanted a fresh start as if the Agrestes have been old money all along.” His voice was quiet as he spoke. “My mother died giving birth to me. It freed my father to move on. He met Emilie and married her immediately when her soulmate mysteriously disappeared. He chose her and he chose to have Adrien. I was just a mistake he hopes will fall off the family tree soon.”
“You aren’t a mistake. No one is a mistake.”
“Nino, I’m well aware of what people think of me. You don’t even like me. I’m not someone who needs his hand held and told he’s special. I know what I am.”
“Adrien loves you.”
“Adrien loves everyone,” he replied flippantly. “But since he is one of the few sincere people in this world, I’ll take it.” He studied Nino for a moment. “Have you never wondered who your soulmate was?”
“I’ve asked before but my parents never wanted to talk about it. I thought maybe they were embarrassed. I know they couldn’t afford one of the big agencies when I was born but most people seem so happy with who they have. I guess I just thought…”
“You thought you’d be happy too,” Felix finished.
“It sounds naïve, I know.”
“That’s because it is.”
“How did you find out about all of this anyway?”
“I turned twenty-one last week and my official records were released to me.”
“Oh. Happy Belated Birthday then.”
“I don’t celebrate my birthday,” Felix muttered. “What would be the point?”
“Why someone younger?”
“Why did Gabriel specify someone younger than you?” Nino asked.
Felix frowned. “It’s just a theory but I think so I would be forced into finding a way to support my soulmate until he was old enough to have his files released and then I would be legally stuck.”
“My father’s forte.”
“Does he know it’s me? You know he hates me, right?”
Another flicker of a smile touched Felix’s lips. “The thought of staying with you for that reason alone was tempting but no, I don’t believe he knows. Honestly, I’m not sure he cares.”
“You know I think Gabriel is the worst but that seems cold, even for him.”
Felix sat back in his chair. “I think…I think that perhaps to the rest of the world, my father isn’t so bad a person. He dotes on Emilie and Adrien, though his affection for Adrien has lessened over the years for his own unfathomable reasons.” He looked down at his hands. “But I’m something that reminds him that his perfect life isn’t real. He was forced into a marriage he didn’t want and fathered a child he didn’t want. The marriage is over and his wife buried, but I’m still here. I’m the reminder of where he came from and he hates me for it. I’m not even sure I blame him.”
“Dude, he really needs a therapist.”
A bark of surprised laughter passed Felix’s lips. “Don’t we all.”
Nino looked down at the papers. “What happens to us if we sign this?”
“You’re still young enough to be up for reassignment. Things happen, people die. I’m sure there are people your age, men and women, who are hoping to get a new soulmate before they’re legal. I assume you would be paired off with one of them.”
“And what about you?”
“I suppose I’ll be a social pariah but that’s nothing I can’t handle. I’m not the first person to relinquish my soulmate claim, though they do make it infuriatingly difficult.”
Nino nodded thoughtfully. “I guess I never gave much thought to if my soulmate disliked me enough to legally null our pairing.”
“This isn’t about you, Lahiffe.”
“I mean, it kinda is.”
Felix huffed. “No, it’s about me.”
“Not according to these papers, it isn’t. It’s about both of us.”
“You can’t honestly think this is a good idea. You don’t like me and if you’re thinking about my family money, my father has already given me my trust and sent me on my way. It won’t last long once I pay the fee for breaking this claim and find a place to live.”
“Gabriel kicked you out?”
“For my own well-being, naturally,” Felix replied dryly. “I’m fine.”
“Where are you staying?”
“You’re not signing these today, are you?”
“It’s kind of a lot to dump on me when I was just sitting here before my next class, thinking the weirdest thing to happen this week was getting these from a secret admirer.” Nino picked up the headphones and held them aloft. “They’ve been on my wishlist forever but they’re hella expensive. I already interrogated Adrien and he swears it wasn’t him.”
Felix flushed. “They’re from me. It seemed right to at least gift you something you would enjoy before I did this.”
Nino blinked, looking back down at the headphones. “How did you know I wanted them?”
“Because I pay attention.”
“You have to order them overseas.”
“But you just got your soulmate file last week. That wouldn’t have been enough time to order them and get them here.” Nino continued to talk as a theory unfolded in his mind. “You already knew I was your soulmate. You were just waiting for the paperwork to be released.”
Felix sat back in his chair stiffly. “You’re smarter than most people give you credit for.”
“It isn’t personal, this decision,” he said quietly. “I’ve been watching you since I found out a couple of years ago by paying off the right clerk. You’re a wonderful person and if I could–”
“If you would,” Nino interjected.
Felix scowled. “You don’t want me either so don’t pretend to be the hurt party here.”
“I didn’t know what I wanted for lunch today, Felix.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Exactly what it means. I didn’t know what I wanted for lunch when I went into the cafeteria but then I saw my options and I’m happy with what I had.”
“So I’m a cafeteria option?”
Nino sat on the edge of his seat, leaning forward slightly. “Where are you staying?”
All the fight seemed to leak out of Felix and he deflated, sagging in the chair. “A hostel five stops away. I’ve been lucky enough to have my own room and moving furniture in front of the door at night has deterred hopeful looters.”
“Do you have anything there?”
“Do I look like a fool? Most of my things are in a storage building. I slept there the first night, but the manager made me leave.”
Nino stood. “Come on then.”
“Take me to your storage unit. We’ll get anything you need immediately and move it into my studio.”
“That tiny place above your family’s restaurant?”
“Are you really going to be a picky homeless guy, Felix?” Nino shot back, amusement twinkling in his eyes. “I moved in last year after I got it cleaned out and half of it is still storage and yeah, it’s cramped, but there’s space for you if you want it.”
“Just sign the papers, Nino. Please.”
“No. Give me a year.”
“Why, so I’ll fall in love with you? Surely you aren’t so idiotic.”
“I have a year and a few months until I’m twenty-one, right? Let’s take a year and see if we can figure things out. We both know it’ll be easier if we don’t rock the boat.”
“And if you realize two days in that you can’t stand me?” Felix challenged.
“Then in a year, I’ll sign your papers and still have time to be reassigned.”
“Do you even like men?”
“I don’t think gender has much to do with anything.”
Felix scowled. “You’re impossible.”
“And you’re like an angry kitten, lots of hissing but no real danger.”
“This is not a good start,” Felix growled.
Nino held up his hands. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Now, really, let’s go get your stuff.” For a tense moment, he thought perhaps Felix wouldn’t comply with his request and then the other man was standing and adjusting the strap of his messenger bag.
“Fine. Lead the way.”
They walked towards the bus in silence and rode to the storage unit in a similar fashion. Felix was making a small pile in the middle of the room as Nino leaned against the open door when he finally spoke.
“I told Adrien it was you.”
Nino straightened and felt his cheeks warm. “Oh?”
“He’s the only other person who knows and I swore him to secrecy.” Felix paused in placing a picture frame of him and his brother in a box. “He said he was really happy for me, for us. I think he actually meant it. He cares for you a lot so somehow it felt like it meant more.”
“Adrien usually means what he says,” Nino agreed, an unfamiliar nervous sensation beginning in his gut. “It makes being his friend easy.”
Felix half-turned towards Nino and hesitantly met his eyes. “Do you really think we can make this work?”
Nino thought about what his mother had once told him about meeting his father for the first time. She said she was nervous and upset and an anxious mess and then he looked at her as if for the first time someone was really seeing her for the person she was, and everything fell into place. Maybe some soulmates weren’t completely accidental in assignment. Maybe…
Nino took in Felix’s anxious expression and flipped it in what he hoped was a calm one on his own face. “Yeah, I really do.”
As if his answer was too much to handle, Felix returned his attention to his work. “I don’t understand how you can be so casual about this.”
“I don’t feel very casual right now. I did just ask a relative stranger to join me in my very small living space.”
“I suppose that’s true. I don’t think I’m a stranger though. You’ve known me as long as you’ve known Adrien.”
Nino shifted away from the doorway and moved to one of the stacks of boxes. “Yeah, but Adrien and I have hung out for years and learned stuff about each other. You and I never had that kind of relationship.” He caught the tension radiating off the other man and quickly continued. “But this will give us time to get to know each other.”
“It’s not too late to simply sign the papers,” Felix reminded him without turning around.
“Would it help you if I went through some of these boxes or do you need to do them all on your own?” Nino ignored his comment and moved to a box labeled “kitchen”. “Since we’ll be living above a restaurant and I already get all the secondhand stuff, I don’t think you’ll need anything from here unless there’s something you really want.”
“There’s nothing of importance to me, no. I’m not very good with cooking, so you’re aware.”
“You’re in luck then because I am.” Nino took his answer as permission to keep moving along the labels. “I have bedding, of course, and one extra set of sheets, but if you like yours more, we can bring them with us and change them out.”
Felix half-turned in his crouched position. “The sheets are practically new and a high thread count. They’re king sized.”
“Your bedding it is then. Uh, I only have the one bed. It’s a queen so…I mean, there is a couch but it’s kind of old and I’m not sure…” Nino struggled to get his point across and kept his back to Felix. He knew he was blushing but couldn’t seem to stop. He hadn’t fully considered what bringing Felix into his small apartment meant.
“How much closet space am I going to have?”
Nino winced but was grateful not to have to concentrate on the sleeping situation for the moment. “There isn’t a closet really, but I use a makeshift wardrobe thing I bought for a decent price at a thrift store. We could probably find another one similar to it. I can make some room in mine until we find one though.”
“I told you it wasn’t much.”
Felix finally looked back at Nino. “Sorry. I do appreciate this gesture since you’re being so stubborn about signing the papers.”
“Somehow you’re the homeless one and it still sounds like you’re the one doing me a favor by waiting on nulling our soulmate agreement.”
“An agreement is something the people involved actually agree on,” Felix corrected. “This is a decree that was made without input from either of us.”
“Yeah, yeah. Do you need any of these boxes of books?”
“Which ones?” When he didn’t receive an answer, Nino turned back to look at Felix and was surprised to see a slightly panicked look in his eyes. “All of them?” he prodded.
“If there’s room…”
His resolve crumbled. “But we can take them with us a few at a time and fit them where we can.”
Felix ducked his head shyly. “Thank you. That’s very…nice.”
“I’m a nice guy.”
Felix walked around the small apartment and wasn’t sure how to feel. A third of the area was filled with neatly stacked shelves and boxes of supplies for the restaurant below. A messy bed was pushed against one wall with an ancient nightstand and lamp by one side. The couch looked as if its springs would stab anyone brave enough to sit on it and the kitchenette was small and dated. There was a desk shoved against the one window and held a laptop and various bits of speakers and recording equipment. It was obvious what any of Nino’s extra money went towards.
They’d been stopped on their last trip up the stairs by a large man Felix assumed was Nino’s father. They traded introductions and he saw the pained look in the man’s eyes when Nino explained that Felix was his soulmate. He’d probably wished for better for his son but hadn’t been able to pay for it, while Gabriel had used his money to do the opposite. Once they’d finished bringing the boxes in, Nino disappeared back down the stairs to talk to his parents. Felix was relieved he wasn’t asked to join them.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and it sank only slightly under his weight. Perhaps he was thinking about this all wrong. Nino was taking him in because he was a good person after all and surely he would give in and sign the papers once he saw Felix up and on his feet. Maybe he could find a decent job and start looking for his own place soon after. Nino wouldn’t feel guilted into asking him to stay around and he would sign the papers and they’d both be better off.
He was startled from his thoughts when the apartment door opened, and Nino appeared with a casserole dish. “I hope you’re hungry,” he announced in greeting. “Mom made too much of the special today so she told me to go ahead and bring this up for our dinner.”
“That’s very kind.”
“You say that now because you haven’t eaten this same dish every Thursday for your entire life,” Nino laughed. He busied himself with pulling down plates and gathering utensils. “It’s good but can be a little monotonous.”
“But at least it’s food.”
“At least that,” Nino agreed. He gestured to the tiny two-seater table Felix had missed on his first look around and Felix graciously took one of the rickety chairs. “I did warn you the place isn’t much.” He spooned out a large section of casserole onto a plate and offered it to his guest.
“It’s your own space though. That’s really nice.”
Nino looked relieved. “Yeah, it is. I love my family, but I needed this, especially since my mom is pregnant again.”
“Really? Aren’t there three of you already?”
“Yeah. It, uh, it wasn’t exactly planned.”
An awkward silence fell over the table and Felix cleared his throat. “Are your parents in trouble?”
“They don’t know yet. Mom refused an abortion when the county rep came to visit after her doctor’s appointment. She was able to claim religious right for me and my younger brother but I think that’s not going to fly anymore. They were already only supposed to have my older brother and my dad was forced to have a vasectomy after Chris came along, but apparently it didn’t take completely.”
“This is such a fucked-up world,” Felix muttered and stabbed the casserole with his fork. “The government shouldn’t be able to make people have surgeries and determine how big families can be and control who you end up with.”
“It’s supposed to be for the better,” Nino answered quietly.
“Do you believe it is?”
He took a long moment to consider his answer. “No.”
“So you agree with me.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m signing the papers right now.”
“But I bet you’re a little tempted to.”
Nino didn’t respond and the rest of the dinner was spent in awkward silence. Nino cleared the table without a word and moved onto the sink to take care of the dishes. Unsure of how to react, Felix went to the one box of books he’d been able to bring with him and dragged it over to the couch. He warily sat down and found it worn in and comfortable and not at all what he was expecting. He tried to force himself to concentrate on the lawbook he’d been studying more recently but his focus kept straying as Nino began to hum while he moved around the kitchen.
Felix found himself watching the other man’s back while he washed their dishes. His humming was low and melodic and once he was finished at the sink, he wiped his hands and forearms and grabbed his messenger bag from the place by the door where he’d dropped it at arrival. Apparently, he was ignoring Felix but Felix found it didn’t bother him. It gave him a chance to watch Nino, to learn more about him.
Nino went to the cluttered desk and moved a few things around so he could pull out a tablet. He woke his computer up and after a moment, a thumping but soft tune flowed out of the speakers. Nino sat back in his chair until it creaked and then began to read on his tablet. Felix assumed he was doing homework for one of his classes, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask. His eyes kept flicking from his book to the profile view he had of Nino and he found his mind wandering.
Here was a poorer family who loved each other, and they could be in trouble for adding another member. A little over a century ago, people were free to marry or not and bear as many or as few children as they pleased. And while there were parents who had too many children they didn’t care for, that wasn’t the majority, was it? How had things changed in such a short time period? Why had they? He could find no event that prompted it.
And while Felix preferred the company of other men if he had to be around anyone else at all, that wouldn’t have changed if his father had paid for his soulmate to be a woman. Gabriel wasn’t even aware of his son’s preferences. How many more people were out there just like him, forced into roles they didn’t want and weren’t prepared for? He was the older mate and was meant to be caring for Nino and here he was, sitting on his soulmate’s couch with his things in boxes because he had nothing to his name but his possessions and a small trust fund that would be all but drained in a few months.
It wasn’t fair and he wasn’t the only one hurting from it, he couldn’t be.
“I’ve been selfish.”
Nino’s chair squeaked as he turned to face Felix. “What?”
Felix lifted the law book. “I’ve been so worried about my situation but I’m not the only one dealing with this.”
“I’m still not following, man.”
“Your family shouldn’t be in trouble and you and I shouldn’t be forced together and there have to be hundreds, no, thousands, of others just like us.”
“You’re going to be some kind of revolutionary hero now, is that it?”
The wind left Felix’s sails and he sagged slightly. “It’s a thought.”
“There are protestors all the time. They usually go to jail.”
“But we could figure out a better way, a more efficient way, to make things change.”
Nino eyed him warily. “I think maybe we should both get some sleep. It’s been a long day.” He stood and stretched. “The bathroom is that door over there if you need it. I’m going to get changed.” He didn’t wait for a response as he went over to the bed and lifted a pair of lounge pants out of the mass of twisted sheets.
Feeling out of his element, Felix dropped his book to the couch and escaped to the bathroom. He wasted time snooping in the cabinets and noted how clean the shower was despite its obvious age. When he finally thought the coast was clear, he crept out of the bathroom and used the dim light from the oven hood to go back to the couch. Once he’d gotten his phone to use as a flashlight, he turned out the hood light and halted between the couch and the bed. Nino was on one side with the covers pulled up to his middle. It would’ve been easy enough to slide in on the other side, but Felix felt his stomach bubble with anxiety and he went to the couch and curled up since he was too tall to sleep on it any other way.
Perhaps tomorrow he could look for another place to stay and spend the rest of the year trying to perfect Nino’s signature for a forgery. This wasn’t going to work.