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In The Middle (Before I Knew I Had Begun)

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All Mike really wants to do, when he comes back into work on Monday, is yell at Harvey to look at him. Because, really, this is fucking ridiculous. It was an accident, and it won’t ever happen again, and is he to be blamed for an accident?

 

Rhian perches on his shoulder for the entire day, instead of finding the highest possible vantage point like she usually does, and she doesn’t even come close to Lyla. Which, in hindsight, is probably why she stays on Mike’s shoulder or curled in his lap all day. She's used to the bigger daemon's warmth by now.

 

He barely gets anything done, cursing his memory once again - a photographic memory is an excellent tool, but it has its downsides and Mike knows every single one by now - because all he can think about is Friday night. He and Harvey had a case, and they were staying late because it’d all gone to hell, papers spread out over half the room, and Rhi sitting on Lyla’s head the way she likes to do sometimes, the way Lyla used to grumble about at first.

 

And Mike had gone to reach for her, but he hadn’t been looking, so he didn’t realize the margay had jumped away, leaping up to stretch her legs. He didn’t realize, that is, until he felt warm fur under his hand but it wasn’t the right texture, the right length, it just felt different in a way that there were no words for. He looked up to realize his hand was on Lyla’s head, the golden tiger watching him with inscrutable yellow eyes.

 

He’d dropped his hand immediately, of course, looking over to meet Harvey’s wide, stunned eyes - he would have been thrilled to see Harvey dropping that mask of his, it’s been rare since the merger mess nearly torpedoed them for good - except Mike knew he looked just the same. Pale and shocked and uncertain, as Rhi leapt down onto his shoulder. Then Harvey’s face closed down into that unreadable expression he does so well, and Mike panicked. He stammered something, or maybe it was Rhi, speaking for them, about going home and seeing Harvey and Lyla on Monday, and he fled.

 

And now Harvey won’t look at him.

 

---

 

The thing about Mike and Rhi is that Rhi’s the more dangerous one, because she’s the one who sees everything, the lookout for them both. For all that she’s a constant whir of energy, climbing and leaping about every space she’s in, for all that she’s tiny (the margay is one of the smallest wild cats, after all), she is still a cat and cats are hunters. She can climb and leap higher than most animals, so even large daemons don’t scare her. One well-aimed leap and she’s beyond them.

 

In strange places, she rides on Mike’s shoulder. In familiar places, she finds the highest perch. And always, like any good hunter, she watches. So that day, when they let Trevor and Iriena talk them into the drop, Mike thinks and Rhi watches. She knows the moment he remembers the interviews, and it’s Rhi’s idea to duck into them, because Mike thinks there’s no way he blends in.

 

“Just try it,” Rhi murmurs, soft and lilting in her human’s ear, and he does. And Rhi purrs a little, amused and pleased when the entire room is filled with men dressed in suits like his, mostly in the same age group, their daemons close at hand. And each daemon, each human, fidgeting under matching sharp gazes.

 

The woman is pretty, but it’s the red hair that draws Rhi’s eyes first; she imagines that’s what draws most eyes. The barn owl on the woman’s shoulder, though… It’s clever, that upside-down stare, and it seems to work on most of the daemons in the room. Rhi, though, cocks her head and flicks her ears. She’s a little creeped out, but not very, and besides, showing fear is how a hunter becomes prey. “They’re testing us, I don’t know why but pass it like we really care,” she murmurs in Mike’s ear. Too late, because he blurts out the truth anyway, and Rhi’s tail twitches in frustration. Granted, they don’t need to pass it, not really, they just need to play the game of being here for a little longer, but it’s a pride thing.

 

Except… Except, wait. The owl’s head rotates back to a normal position, and the woman’s sharp attitude eases a little. Apparently someone named Mr. Specter will be with them in a minute.

 

Rhi would laugh, a moment later, when the door opens and a cat much, much larger than she is stalks out ahead of her tall human, but she’s too busy looking at the tiger’s golden fur, until she meets a pair of yellow-amber eyes.

 

Rhi’s habit, all her and Mike’s shared life, has been to make a snap judgment on a daemon. Like the owl; likes to poke at people, play with them. Why, then, is her first thought about the tiger not how obvious an intimidation move it is for her to come first, but the fact that she’s absolutely breathtaking?

 

---

 

Touching a daemon is different than touching an animal. When you touch your own daemon there’s a sense of safety, of never being alone, not ever. Mike’s touched other daemons before, too. It happens, when you’re kids messing around, and it’s taboo, everyone knows that to touch someone else’s daemon is almost always a gross invasion of privacy. But that’s when you do it on purpose. Accidents happen when you’re kids, and you learn that the feel of another daemon is almost always wrong. Like the sting of static electricity, it’s something you know better than to do.

 

But it’s also known that in private, for some people, sometimes the taboo doesn’t apply.

 

What Mike knows is this: it felt different, touching Lyla, but not like static electricity. It felt like coming home, it felt like something missing he hadn’t even noticed until that very moment.

 

It didn’t feel wrong. And if that’s true for him, then maybe…

 

But if Harvey won’t even look at him, how can he know? Lyla looks at him, at him and Rhi, but she’s looking at them like she looked at Rhi when Rhi first started talking to her and then jumping on her back or her head. Like she can’t quite puzzle them out.

 

The truth is, Mike doesn’t even care about what it means, that touching Lyla didn’t feel wrong. He just wants things to go back to normal.

 

Or, no, that’s not true. He cares, of course he cares. “You know what it means,” Rhi says when they’re back in the apartment that night, her tail lashing the air angrily as she glares at him from one of her various perches.

 

“Are we actually going to talk about this now? Really?”

 

“Well, I’m not the one who keeps pursuing people I like but I’m not in love with because I’m trying to pretend I’m not in love with someone else.”

 

“Jenny wasn’t like th-”

 

“And Rachel? Tess?”

 

Mike glares at her. “I cared about Rachel, I liked her a lot and I think it could have ended up love if you and Daven hadn’t been so damn picky. Like the awkwardness wouldn’t have gone away eventually.” Granted, that awkwardness is why Mike stopped just short - twice - of telling Rachel his secret, because Rhi and Rachel’s daemon liked each other okay, but they didn’t feel comfortable together. “And Tess was… You know what that was.”

 

Rhi jumps down, curling up on his lap and nudging his hand with her small head. “I know. I missed Gram and Aron too, still do, but you know that was a terrible decision. And, Mike? I think we’re gonna have to face facts now.”

 

Facts. Yeah. Like how Mike’s completely, irrevocably in love with his boss. Who won’t even look at him.

 

This isn’t a problem at all, now is it?

 

---

 

The thing is, that it wasn’t just Mike and Trevor who were inseparable. Rhi and Iriena were too, and much more physically in their case. Iri settles as a pine marten when they’re all thirteen, a shape that seems made for curling around a small cat form like Rhi’s. So that’s what they do when the boys are hanging out, doing bits of homework while mostly playing Nintendo, in their younger years, and smoking pot late in high school and in college. Sometimes still with video games included, of course. They twine around each other until they almost don’t know where one of them ends and the other begins. So once they agree to Harvey’s plan to send Trevor to rehab, and Lyla’s finishing touch to send him all the way to Montana for that rehab, Mike and Rhi are left feeling a little lost.

 

Mike’s the touchy one, not Rhi, but the weather’s changing and she’s a jungle cat. She was never meant for the East Coast, at least not the northern part, she’s grumbled more than once. It’s just too cold for her here sometimes. Before, she’d just curl up with Iri and their shared warmth would be enough to make her feel better. But now…

 

Oh, who is she kidding, she just misses Iri. As much as Mike misses Trevor, and it hurts that, even though they know Harvey and Lyla are right, that they don’t see that. It makes it hard to decide - Trevor said Harvey was a better friend than he was, Mike said Harvey wasn’t his friend, and he and Rhi genuinely don’t know if Harvey and Lyla stepped in because they care about them or because Trevor and Iri were a nuisance that needed direct handling. They want to believe the first, but the way that the words “oldest friend” seem to mean nothing, the implication that they should be glad to lose one of only two people they had left, makes them wonder.

 

And that wondering hurts too.

 

But the weather is still changing, and Rhi still shivers her way to work, even tucked inside Mike’s jacket, and she’s going stir-crazy from what she knows deep down is a need for touch. Mike does a little better than her, here. Which is weird. But he’s gotten used to less physical contact and anyway, the way he and Harvey seem to have totally forgotten all they ever knew of personal space bubbles seems to be enough for him. Even with the wondering. But Rhi rarely touched any other daemons, usually too busy being out of reach on the high ground. So losing Iri means losing contact completely.

 

One October day it is just awful. Cold and damp and windy, and Rhi is shaking even after they’ve been inside ten minutes. That doesn’t mean she huddles inside Mike’s clothes like she used to do; they have their pride so she’s on his shoulder as soon as he takes his coat off. They head for Harvey’s office with the briefs they finished proofing last night, and Lyla is lazing on the floor by the desk, the way she often does when Harvey’s working. And Rhi acts on impulse, leaping from Mike’s shoulder to land on Lyla’s back.

 

Mike and Harvey stop their banter, and Lyla turns her head to eye Rhi suspiciously. Rhi huffs. “It’s cold out and you’re warm,” she says by way of explanation. Lyla blinks those yellow-gold eyes at her, and then settles back again, clearly deciding to tolerate the small presence on her back.

 

And after that, it’s just their thing. Not always, of course, but it becomes normal enough to see Rhi on Lyla’s back instead of Mike’s shoulder if all four of them are in the hallway together. It happens a lot when they’re in Harvey’s office, too. Occasionally Rhi jumps onto Lyla’s head first, just to see the reaction. For the record, said reaction was Lyla huffing, Mike laughing so hard he nearly fell off the office couch, and Harvey rolling his eyes.

 

It isn’t the same. Rhi won’t call it better, but it’s certainly not worse, either. It’s just… different, is all.

 

---

 

Tuesday is, Mike guesses, a little better. Harvey’s looking at him again, anyway.

 

When Rhi says he’s kidding himself, Mike ignores her. He is, and they both know it, but he doesn’t know how to fix it yet, so what good does it do?

 

---

 

The time immediately following the merger is… Awful. They’ve lost everyone now, except each other. Harvey and Lyla hate them, Donna and Caledon feel the same, Rachel and Daven the lemur aren’t speaking to them except on rare, rare occasions. Gram and Aron are dead, Trevor and Iriena, Jenny and Iain are gone.

 

The only thing Rhi and Mike don’t regret is Mike telling Rachel he couldn’t tell her his secret because “It’s not just mine, I’m sorry.”

 

That had been enough that Rachel and Daven aren’t totally ignoring them. Rhi, of course, knows why; Mike wants to tell Rachel the truth, but won’t because of how Rhi and Daven never got comfortable with each other. It’s a signal he can’t ignore even at his most optimistically clueless. He adores Rachel - and Rhi, don’t misunderstand, is fond of Daven - but the not-quite-right feeling means they’re just not suited.

 

Weirdly, the only ones they don’t feel awful around are Louis and his badger daemon Rebakah, because they at least seem to know there was a reason for their betrayal. Of all the people to realize, Mike and Rhi both think, but it all sucks so much they can’t even laugh about it. Because, of course, there was a reason. Rhi can’t stop thinking about it, about how Jessica laid it all out for Mike, what she’d do unless he did exactly as she wanted, and then it got worse. Because that damned snake, the one everyone calls Blue for the color of his scales since the name of Jessica’s daemon is mostly a secret, spoke up as they were heading for the door. “And don’t forget, if you two go down, do you do it alone?”

 

They’re not sure if Jessica would have let Harvey and Lyla go down with them, but they were wavering. Wondered if they’d risk jail to tell Harvey anyway, and hope he or Lyla had a plan. But when Blue said that… They couldn’t take the chance, could they?

 

The worst part, the very worst, is the confrontation in the lobby. “I was doing this before you and I’ll be doing it long after I’ve forgotten all about you,” Harvey tells Mike, voice cold and eyes even colder. Rhi sees it from her place on Mike’s shoulder and she can’t help it. She jumps to the ground, reaching out to touch Lyla’s paw in a silent plea for them to just listen, to let her and Mike explain.

 

All she gets is a snarl and bared teeth, and Rhi doesn’t even remember leaping back onto Mike’s shoulder. She just remembers Harvey shouting “Someone comes at you with any threat at all you tell me. You tell me everything!” and Lyla’s soft growl before they’re both gone. She just remembers pressing her small head into Mike’s neck for a moment.

 

Then, later, when they’re in Louis’ office and Harvey shows up with Lyla padding along at his heels, the two of them so confident as they take Mike and Rhi back, Mike grins at the offered high five. Rhi, though, Rhi doesn’t trust it, and later she finds out Mike doesn’t really either. In the moment he did, but at home that night they wonder again.

 

Because they’re useful, right? Their memory, anyway. Which would make it worth getting them back, even if it meant playing nice. Mike doesn’t want to believe it, Rhi can’t help but worry about it, so instead of returning to her explorations, perching on top of Harvey’s record shelf or on Lyla, she stays firmly attached to his shoulder like she has since they were left alone. Because she thinks, and Mike can’t pretend he doesn’t, that maybe they still are, whatever they’ve been told.

 

---

 

“What the hell happened?” Donna demands on Thursday. Wednesday had found Mike hiding in the file room and Harvey letting him, so he’s really not surprised to be confronted by Donna now. Her owl daemon, soars angrily around her, and Rhi watches from her perch high on one of the file cabinets.

 

“I… I touched Lyla,” Mike says, looking at his hands. “I didn’t mean to! It’s just, you know how Rhi sits on Lyla’s head all the time? Well, I went to reach out to her, but I didn’t look up, and she moved, so I ended up petting Lyla’s head. And I stopped the second I realized, but… It was already too late.”

 

Donna is silent for a long moment, Caledon preening her hair. Rhi leaps down from the file cabinet to sit on Mike’s shoulder, pressing her face into his neck like she always does when they’re upset. Mike can’t meet Donna’s eyes, sharp and assessing, and Caledon is, if anything, worse. So he averts his gaze, reaching up to pet Rhi in a vain attempt to soothe them both.

 

“You need to talk to him, Mike.”

 

“Donna, he won’t even look at me. Things just got back to normal and I - I’ve ruined it again. If I talk to him now, I’ll just make it worse. I’m waiting until he calms down, and then, maybe…” Maybe what? Mike tries to ignore the part of him that asks that, bitter and vicious in the back of his mind, but he can’t help it. He has no idea what might change.

 

“He’s not angry with you, Mike.”

 

“Then why won’t he look at me?”

 

Donna shakes her head. “I’m not going to be the one to explain this to you, Mike. Not this time. You’re going to have to work it out for yourself - or better yet, ask Harvey.”

 

---

 

For a while, nothing is said about Rhi’s new tendency to stay on Mike’s shoulder, despite it being out of character. Even in their first days, she was climbing all over the place even when Mike told her not to. Now she stays firmly in place, like she's afraid of being anywhere else.

 

She is afraid of being anywhere else.

 

They get back to work, helping Harvey and Lyla with the Hessington case. Ava Hessington is an impressive woman, her sleek greyhound daemon watching them impassively even when Ava loses her temper. And then there’s Stephen Huntley, black-backed jackal at his side. The jackal is the first clue he’s not as much like Harvey as he seems - take Scottie, for example, who is also a similar personality, but has a similar daemon too, a black panther.

 

Tanner has a grey fox, but hopefully they won’t be seeing him again.

 

It’s not the jackal that tips them off; they haven’t made a study of daemonology so they only know the basics of what other people’s daemons can mean about them. It really is only just luck and Mike’s boredom that has them reading Huntley’s profile on the Darby International website, the faint humor in less than polished college photos that has them seeking out the man’s rugby teams.

 

Everything happens so fast after that, and Mike’s packing up in Harvey’s office the day they end the merger when Rhi hops off his shoulder to stretch out on the floor by Mike’s foot. She’s just working the kinks out of her spine and legs, but it’s enough for Lyla to cross the distance from her spot next to Harvey’s desk. Rhi, startled, leaps away - but further from Mike.

 

Lyla freezes, whiskers drooping. “Rhian… I’m not going to hurt you.” Rhi doesn’t move, but she does relax a little.

 

“What did you want?”

 

“You haven’t come near me since we took you back,” Lyla says, and she sounds hurt. “I just wanted… I miss you, little one.” Lyla takes a careful step forward and Rhi doesn’t back away, not sure yet she believes the other daemon but not wanting to move.

 

“We thought… We thought maybe you just wanted us because we were useful,” she hears Mike admit as she watches Lyla continue to approach carefully. She glances away just long enough to see Harvey’s expression, as hurt as Lyla’s.

 

“Mike, no. We took you back because we wanted you. We wouldn’t play you like that.”

 

Rhi doesn’t really catch what happens after that, because Lyla’s paw curls around her, pulling her in, and she cuddles against the tiger’s large, warm frame, submitting to being washed with a tongue rougher than her own. She knows the boys are making up in their own way, though.

 

---

 

Finally, a week after the office incident, Mike can’t take it anymore. This entire week has been horrible, and he needs to fix it. So far, he’s been assuming that pretending it never happened is the best bet, because pretending emotional-type things didn’t happen tends to be one of Harvey’s favorite things. But that hasn’t done a damn bit of good, and it’s not one of Mike’s favorite things anyway.

 

So fuck it. Fuck it.

 

Rhi, for once in regards to handling Harvey and Lyla, is in complete agreement with him. Probably because she’s thought they should make some kind of move for ages now. Ever since they broke up with Rachel and Daven.

 

Harvey stares at Mike for a long, long moment, and then shakes his head. “You’re complaining to me about not looking at you, about being too professional - you do remember I’m your boss, correct, Michael?”

 

Mike bristles. “I know that, but you and I - it’s never been like that.” Even right after Harvey’d taken him back, it hadn’t been that stilted between them. Only time it’s ever been worse than it’s been this past week was when they were completely on the outs. “And I just wanted to fix it, that’s all. Do - do you want a better apology? I can do that, I can do -” Anything you want, just tell me how to fix this.

 

“The last thing I want is an apology, Mike,” Harvey all but hisses the words at him and Mike’s taken aback, because he doesn’t understand. Rhi, who’d leapt onto the arm of the couch near where Harvey’s standing, tenses and makes to jump back, but then Harvey’s hand comes to rest just next to her. He lifts it again, slowly, slow enough she could move or Mike could tell him to stop, but neither of them do that and so a terribly long moment later, Harvey’s fingers trail lightly over Rhi’s back, petting her gently.

 

Touching Lyla had felt like coming home. This - Mike feels the light touch everywhere, careful and warm and safe. Like an intangible sort of, of hug or something, only so much more than that. He can’t find words for it, he just knows it takes his breath away and when Harvey drops his hand, everything in Mike goes cold. Oh. Oh… Had he done that to Harvey, when he touched Lyla? But if he had, why had Harvey gone so blank, why…

 

“I - I still don’t -”

 

“Imagine if I started making terrified, half-formed apologies, right now,” Harvey says, voice low and gaze intent on Mike. Lyla, sitting within arm’s reach of Mike, is watching him the same way. "Imagine if, then, Lyla and I fled. Would you be able to act the same way on Monday?"

 

Mike goes still. Rhi looks at him, and the look says it all. They've fucked up, and they both know it. It doesn't matter that they read things wrong. They should have known however Harvey and Lyla felt, it wasn't bad. Lyla had let him touch her; Mike had been the one to draw back. They should have realized, instead of panicking.

 

"I'm sorry," Mike says quietly, walking forward slowly. Harvey raises an eyebrow but doesn't indicate Mike should stop moving. "I should have known better, should have known you better. I panicked - you know me, I've got a history of it, right?" The joke gets no response, but it isn’t really meant to. He keeps walking until he’s right in front of Harvey, in his space, and Harvey doesn’t move back, just watches him, a clear challenge. “I should have done something else.”

 

“Oh?” Harvey asks, careless and sarcastic like they’re at work and this is a normal, everyday conversation between them. “And what exactly should you have done?”

 

“Well, not what I’m about to do, because it’s a little crazy and probably stupid, but…” Mike takes one more step, then leans in, brushing his lips over Harvey’s. Harvey stills and Mike goes to pull away, panicking, but Harvey’s hand slides around the back of his neck, pulling him in again.

 

There’s nothing tentative about this kiss; it’s hard and demanding, and Harvey gets his other arm around Mike’s waist, pulling him close. Mike curls his fingers in Harvey’s shirt, pressing even closer, and it should feel new but it doesn’t. It feels like touching Lyla had, like it felt when Harvey touched Rhi. It feels right.

 

Harvey’s pushing him backward, presumably toward the bedroom, but Mike can’t really be bothered to look. He does briefly see Lyla curling around Rhi over Harvey’s shoulder, but then Harvey kisses him again, warm fingers sliding under his shirt, and Mike decides to think about it later.

 

The next morning, Mike wakes up to find himself with a golden tiger daemon half wrapped around him. It’s the kind of thing that isn’t supposed to happen until a couple’s been together a long time, not the morning after their first time, but then he and Harvey have never been typical. It’s not like they’re new, it’s just… another dimension.

 

So he’s not as surprised as he should be to find Lyla with him. He’s even less surprised to find, when Lyla lets him up and he wanders into the kitchen (following the smell of coffee) that Rhi has taken up a perch on Harvey’s shoulder.

 

Lyla pads up behind him, butting his hand. Mike scratches between her ears and Harvey glances over their way, reaching up to pet Rhi.


It turns out nothing is wrong after all.