Nick awoke to the low hissing zither of the wheel. Blinking, he found it was full daylight, and he was alone in the nest.
He stretched and cautiously thrust his head out into the sunlight. Their cage was under a window. It was a spacious affair, big enough to house all Cody's beloved gym equipment, one comfy set of lounge furniture and a dining area. To Nick's chagrin, no-one had thought of installing a kitchenette.
Yawning, Nick moseyed over to the green velveteen couch and climbed onto the seat. Cody was setting a fast pace on the wheel, puffing slightly, strong legs pumping. Nick leaned sideways for a better view of his ass.
"Stop perving and join me," Cody squeaked breathlessly.
"Not before breakfast." Nick yawned again. "I'll get indigestion."
"You'll get tighter abs. I saw you chowing down on that cookie yesterday afternoon. It had choc chips! No self-respecting hamster would touch that!"
"You musta been dreaming." Nick licked his lips reflectively. Chocolate was an acquired taste, but the cookie had been good, that was for sure. Especially the chunks of apricot. "What's for breakfast?"
"Room service hasn't come yet." Cody slowed to a walk, stretched each leg in turn, then jumped off the wheel. "You thought any more about getting a condo?"
"Yeah." Nick sat up on his haunches and started washing his face. "But rent's kinda high, and who knows what the neighbors would be like? Least it's quiet here."
At the beginning, Nick had thought a lot about moving on. But that was before he'd really gotten to know his new roommate - roommate, and best friend. Nick had been on the streets before, and knew exactly how hard and how dangerous the life was.
Cody would never survive. And to keep Cody safe and happy, Nick would give up anything - even his long-wished-for kitchenette, and bathroom facilities that didn't depend on daily manual cleaning.
A shadow fell across the cage, followed by the rattle of the main door. "Breakfast!" Nick said with satisfaction.
A plate of food landed in the middle of the dining room, and a round bespectacled face peered through the bars. "Hey guys! How you doing this morning?"
Cody sat up on his hind legs, chirruping back, but Nick prowled around the plate of food, inspecting the fare. "Fruit and muesli. What's a guy gotta do to get bacon and eggs around here?"
"Stop being so rude, Nick." Cody joined him at the plate. "You wouldn't eat eggs anyhow."
"Try me," Nick said, reflecting that in his time on the streets he'd eaten a lot worse than eggs. "And where's my coffee?" He strolled casually to the cage door, reached up and sniffed the hand resting against the bars.
"Don't tell," the boy whispered. "Mom'll kill me if she knows." Furtively, he passed in a bottle-cap half-filled with black liquid.
Nick gave a satisfied grunt, lowered his head to the treat and dispatched half the coffee in one go. "That's better."
"That stuff'll poison you, Nick," Cody said around a mouthful of apple. "C'mon, fruit and grain's what you need."
Nick finished his coffee more slowly, watching Cody eat. When he was sure Cody had made a good meal, he joined him at the plate and chose a chunky slice of banana. "Yummy."
Nick loved coffee, he'd gotten a taste for the stuff when he'd lived aboard a river barge in the captain's quarters. But one of the main reasons he kept his coffee ritual alive was that if he started on breakfast first, Cody picked at the food, leaving the choicest morsels for Nick.
If he let Cody have first go at the breakfast table, pretending disinterest himself, Cody ate a hearty meal.
Nick followed his banana with a couple of pellets and a serving of muesli. Cody had eaten almost all the apple and a big helping of pellets - iron hamster food, Cody called it. Muscle-building.
Nick had no idea if it was muscle-building or not, but he did know they were being fed a scientifically balanced diet. He'd heard the boy, Murray, talking about it with his mother. Nick hadn't understood every word that had been said, but he'd heard enough to know that he and Cody were receiving 5-star luxury food and accommodation.
It wasn't a bad life, even if the cage became kind of boring, day after day. And Cody was safe, with nothing to worry about save his pale gold fur, his luxuriant mustache and how tight his glutes were on a daily basis.
Nick was more than happy to help him with the last part. And knowing Cody was safe was worth more than the exhilarating highs of an adventurer's life. Working for a living was all well and good, but for now, Nick was content.
He finished his breakfast and followed Cody over to the bathroom. The cage didn't run to a shower - the best they had was a shallow bath, nice and clean, but the water was only ever cold. Whistling softly through his teeth, Nick joined Cody and started his morning bath.
Cody was washing behind his ears, fluffing up his long golden coat and preening in the low-hung mirror. Nick dropped a quick kiss on the top of his head and plunged his own black nose underwater. He came up, shaking droplets from his fur.
"Stop it, Nick!" Cody elbowed him in the ribs, standing up to show off his white tummy.
Nick considered pouncing him then and there, but he was full from breakfast and Murray was still near the cage. Instead he gave Cody a cheeky grin and concentrated on washing his one white hind leg, the only variation in his sleek black coat.
Eventually he left Cody drying his fur and mooched back to the couch. He'd long since finished reading the article on space exploration which currently lined their cage. Moodily he eyed the water-dish, wondering about overturning it. That was a surefire way to gain a new topic. Hopefully this time it'd be something interesting, like planes or helicopters. Or guns.
Before he could put his plan into action, there was a high-pitched shout from outside the cage. Nick came to attention, sniffing the air, hurriedly signaling Cody.
"That's mine! I never said you could have it!"
Nick grabbed for support as the cage rocked. "Cody! Get down!"
There was a splash as Cody obeyed, belly-flopping in the shallow bath. Nick dived and rolled, ending up in a crouch at Cody's side, a sharp-edged chunk of bark clutched in a paw. Whenever their shavings were changed, Nick combed through them for the biggest chunks. He had quite a stash hidden around the cage, gnawed to four-pointed throwing stars.
He was just in time. The cage door rattled and a hand thrust inside. The couch overturned, and one of the armchairs was whisked out of sight.
"Hey! That's my favorite chair!"
Nick stilled Cody's protests with a hand on his back. "Easy, big guy. If we get outta this with nothing more than a chair gone south, we'll be doing well."
"Melba! Stop it, you're scaring them! Look, Cody's all wet."
"I don't care about your stupid Cory! You've stolen the furniture from the green parlor!"
"But Baba, Aunt Hortense gave the dollhouse to us both. And it's at least five years since you even opened it, be reasonable! Nick and Cody have a greater need!"
"She might have given it to us both, but she didn't give it to your stupid hamsters!"
The ground heaved. Nick barely had time to grab Cody with both paws before they were flung against the side of the cage. Nick landed hard with Cody on top of him, all the breath knocked out of him.
"Nick! Cody!" The boy's plaintive wail barely reached Nick's ears. Melba's triumphant shouts were forgotten. The cage had fallen to the floor, and inches away, just on the other side of the bars, stood a white fluffy dog.
"Get in the nest," Nick barked, giving Cody a shove, struggling to breathe and get up in the same instant. Thank goodness he still had his throwing star.
"Not leaving you," Cody said shortly. He jumped up, teeth bared - just as the side of the cage fell away with a clang. The dog gave a shrill bark, leaped forward and grabbed Cody by the shoulders.
"Noooooooooooooo!" Nick roared. The dog was backing away, trying to shake Cody but limited by the confines of the broken cage. Cody squeaked once, then was silent.
"Fluffy! No, Fluffy, drop him!" The boy grabbed the dog's collar just as Nick flung his throwing star straight into the mutt's face.
He scored a direct hit on the shiny black nose and the dog gave a startled yelp. Cody tumbled to the ground, and lay still.
Murray dragged the dog out of the ruins of the cage as Nick reached his best friend's side. Cody was breathing - that was the first hurdle. He was lying in a heap, blue eyes wide and terrified, his whole body shaking with the pounding of his heart.
Nick hunkered down beside him, warily scanning the area. "Babe? Baby, can you hear me?"
Cody licked his lips, then gave a slight nod. "I - I don't know if I can move," he whispered.
Nick's heart bled, but there was no choice. They had to get to safety. "I can give you thirty seconds. Then we gotta go. Think you can get on my back?"
"I'll try." Cody gingerly tested each limb, then pushed himself to all fours. "I think I can walk, if we go slow."
"Not too slow. Lean on me, buddy." Nick hustled, half-carrying Cody, making for the shadowy cavern under the boy's bed. As cover went it was inadequate, but it beat being trodden on every time.
Nick had been loose in the room a time or two, but hadn't explored this way before. At the time, his efforts had been concentrated on the windows and possible escape. Now, though, escape was the last thing on his mind. What he needed was somewhere safe where he could assess Cody's injuries, and access to food and water while Cody recovered.
The carpet underfoot smelled unpleasantly of mice. And dog. Nick quickened his pace, taking shelter behind a dusty cardboard box. His eyes lit up as he found a gap in the wainscoting big enough to squeeze through. Maybe it was mouse territory, but Nick outweighed most mice he'd ever met by half.
Normally, he'd hesitate to trespass in someone else's home, even when that someone was a no-account transient mouse. But for Cody, he'd have thrown Fluffy out of his own kennel or set up house with a cat.
The space inside the wall was small, hardly as big as the nest-box in their cage. Even better, it was unoccupied, and there was no fresh scent. Fluffy lurking in the room had likely sent the mouse in search of greener pastures.
Nick eased Cody down against the wall, nuzzling him gently. There was no bed - bachelor mice were lazy bastards, too lazy even to see to their own comfort - but there was a small stash of grain and cookie crumbs in the corner. "At least we won't starve."
Cody whimpered in reply.
Nick hesitated. He wanted to make Cody more comfortable, but Cody was in no state to leave on his own.
"Nick?" Cody whispered.
That decided him. Stretching out between Cody and the entrance to their hiding place, Nick eased his friend's head back against his chest. "I'm here, buddy. I got you. We're safe here, okay?"
Cody mumbled unintelligibly, burrowing his nose into Nick's chest-fur. Nick stroked him lightly under the chin, feeling his breathing even out and deepen, the pounding of his heart steadying back to normal.
Once Cody was relaxed, Nick started a gentle, thorough assessment of his injuries. As far as Nick could tell, Cody was bruised and shaken, but not seriously injured. "Maybe a couple broken ribs," he said softly as Cody gave a plaintive cry when Nick probed his side.
"My right foreleg," Cody said shakily, holding up the limb. "I can hardly move my paw."
Nick inspected it carefully. He'd had no medical training, but he'd been born in a veterinary hospital, and when you were a quick study like Nick that was all you needed. "It's not broken. I think you've sprained it, babe."
Cody gave a soft sigh. "The day started out so well... I did a personal best on the wheel and everything - "
"You'll be doing another in no time," Nick lied comfortingly. He had no idea if they'd ever see their 5-star cage again, or if Melba the intruder had upset their lives for good. Later, once Cody was sleeping, there'd be time for reconnaissance. For now, all Nick was interested in was making Cody as comfortable as possible.
"Hope so," Cody murmured, settling more comfortably against Nick.
"Y'know you will." Nick kissed the back of his neck, then started grooming gently, teasing at the damp, matted fur where the dog had done its harm.
Cody relaxed under Nick's paws, allowing himself to be soothed into sleep.
Nick took his time, parting the golden fur, working until Cody's beautiful coat was fluffy and immaculate. He loved to groom Cody, would've done it every day if he'd had the chance, but Cody preferred to take care of his own grooming. Except when he was hurt or shaken, that was.
Nick had an idea being groomed left Cody feeling open and vulnerable. And even with Nick, Cody wasn't good at letting his barriers down. At least not yet - Nick was still working on that.
Once Nick was sure Cody was sleeping deeply, he slipped back through the gap in the wall and sniffed the air. Keeping his ears open for any sound from Cody, he made a careful exploration of the area beneath the bed.
There was a good deal of dust, and a good deal of coarse white dog hair. Nick bared his teeth, almost hoping he'd meet Fluffy. He'd teach the dog to mess with Cody, ten times bigger than him or not.
But there was no sign of the actual dog, nor of anybody else. Nick could hear the boy's voice, high and upset, but he wasn't in the room. The door was closed, and the sound came from the other side.
Nick frowned briefly. He and Cody were still prisoners. But with Cody injured, escape was impossible anyway - and worse things than Fluffy lurked on the streets.
High up near the window, Nick could see their cage. He scurried up the curtain for a closer look.
One side of the cage hung askew, the nest-box was missing and so was the comfortable green lounge suite. The bark was sodden and banked against the rear. Even if Cody was up to the climb, there was no question of returning home yet.
Nick gave an annoyed squeak and climbed to the windowsill to think. The morning's sun had disappeared and rain beat steadily down. Nick surveyed the damp landscape glumly, realizing for the first time the day was growing steadily colder.
First, they needed a bed. Cody hated to be cold, and a bed would provide both warmth and comfort. Second, they needed food - the grain and cookie store would see them through til morning, but no longer.
And third, they needed a plan. Absently, Nick licked his wrist and started washing his ears. That was the hard part. He couldn't in good conscience take Cody out on the streets; Cody who would follow him anywhere. Cody who had no idea of anything other than pet life - whose ideas of the outside world were based on Fortune magazine and the occasional copy of Time.
"Nick! Nick!" The boy cannoned in the door, slamming it behind him. He came slowly toward the window, reaching out. "Nick, you're okay! Where's Cody?"
Nick chirruped and retreated. He wasn't afraid of Murray, although he rarely allowed himself to be handled on principle. Right now, he couldn't afford to be captured and kept away from Cody. But by the same token, the boy could help.
Making a decision, he swarmed down the curtain and dived under the dresser.
"Nick!" Murray sounded frantic. "Nick, come back! I won't hurt you!"
Nick took up a strategic position beneath the corner and stuck his nose out. Murray was over the other side, peering about, and Nick gave an authoritative chirp.
Murray nearly fell on his face crawling over. "Please, buddy, let me catch you. But where's Cody? C'mon, boy, tell me!"
Nick wiggled his nose and withdrew. To his satisfaction, Murray went straight to the hamster pellets and served out a dish. That takes care of the food situation. Now for a bed.
Their nest-box lay upside down, half-behind the dresser. Nick struggled with it, finally managing to drag out Cody's favorite cotton comforter. He couldn't carry their straw mattress or the pillows Cody had made by stuffing pieces of dried corn-husk with their last moult. But the comforter was thick and soft, pale peach with a picture of a white mouse on the front.
Murray had given it to them right after he'd installed their stolen green furniture.
Nick rolled it up, swearing under his breath, then dragged it under the dresser. Murray had put the food down near the corner where he'd last seen Nick. Nick watched until he looked the other way, then shot out to the dish and stuffed his cheek-pouches as full as they'd hold. Draping the rolled comforter around his neck, he sprinted for the bed.
He only just made it. A plastic wall slammed down on his tail-fur. With a squeal, Nick dropped and rolled, coming up growling.
Murray's bespectacled face stared beseechingly under the bed at him. In one hand he clutched a small plastic cup which he'd just tried to slam down over Nick.
"You could have killed me!" Nick yelled around the food he was carrying, outraged. He took a step forward, baring his teeth.
"Nick?" Cody's voice came faintly from behind, and Nick forgot his fury and Murray's ill-advised attempt to capture him. He swung around and scurried toward the sound.
"Cody! What you doing up?"
"Heard you yelling. Woke me up." Bleary-eyed, Cody met him at the crack in the wainscoting. "Are you okay?"
Nick nodded, went to the food-store and emptied out his cheek-pouches. "That's better."
"Iron hamster food! Nick! Where'd you get it?"
"The boy gave it to me. He was trying to catch me." Nick rolled his shoulders and handed over the comforter. "Here."
Cody's eyes grew round. "My comforter! But... aren't we going home?"
Nick sat down, leaning against the wall, and patted the space beside him. Cody limped over and snuggled up. "We can't go home right now, big guy. One, you're in no shape to travel. Two, our cage is badly messed up. Three, I wanna see how the Melba-and-Fluffy situation is gonna play before we make any decisions, you know? I ain't taking you back there if there's any chance of you getting eaten, all right?"
Cody ducked his head and nodded. "Yeah, I see. Only, don't you get eaten while we're figuring it out, okay? Be careful."
"I'm always careful, babe. Now c'mon. Snuggle up to me, and I'll give you a backrub before dinner, okay? And maybe we might take another little nap."
Two days in their hideaway saw Cody restored, if not to full health, at least to partial fitness. He still favored his foreleg slightly, and Nick took extra care not to jostle his ribs, but the exhaustion and the breathlessness that had concerned Nick so much were things of the past.
"Maybe it really is iron hamster food," Nick said, standing watch while Cody snarfed an ample breakfast from the plate beside the dresser.
"Enriched with seven different vitamins and minerals," Cody told him, "and with added glucose and milk powder for high energy and bone density. This stuff's the real deal, Nick."
'The stuff' was all right for a bit of variety, in Nick's opinion, but if he'd had to live on it exclusively, it would have gotten old fast. Two days without his coffee and with no fresh fruit had left him scratchy and short on sleep.
He'd thought of escape a time or two, remembered the freedom of barge life. But when he compared the hardships of what he'd used to think of as the good life to their comfortable cage, he'd known there was no contest.
Maybe he was going soft in his old age, but Nick knew: He wanted to go home.
After breakfast, they climbed the curtain together and surveyed their home. It still bore signs of the calamity that had befallen them; one corner was bent out of shape.
"Look!" Cody leaped lightly from the curtain to the top of the dresser, inspecting the damage. "We can put in a bay window, Nick. A window seat would go beautifully in here. I wonder if Murray would get me some flowering plants?"
Mentally cursing the day their cage had been lined with the latest copy of Home and Garden, Nick jumped down to join Cody. "I dunno about horticulture, big guy. We got enough going on, doncha think?"
Cody rolled his eyes. "I like trying new things. But maybe I should go back to music - I was making great strides there."
It was Nick's turn to roll his eyes. For a short while, Cody had tried playing a harmonica made of wheat husks. The only good thing about that, in Nick's opinion, was that while he was playing the wheat-harp he wasn't singing.
"Music-wise, I think you're ahead of your time," was all he said. "What color flowers you gonna get, babe?"
"Blues and yellows would contrast nicely." Cody sighed and kept walking. "Still no sign of our furniture."
The bark and flooding had been cleared away, replaced with a fresh copy of - Nick grimaced - Dogworld. Their nest-box had been returned to its place and filled with fresh straw, but there was no sign of their pillows, nor of the fluffy dark down Nick had saved specially from his last moult to make a wool underlay for Cody.
"Too clean," Nick groused.
"I know. Still looks like home, though." Cody gripped a bar with one paw and leaned his forehead against the cage, staring inside. "My wheel looks good as new. But some of my weights are missing, and the climbing gym looks kinda rickety."
Nick rested a paw on Cody's back. The eviction, the damage, was tougher on his friend - born in a pet store, Cody had never had the luxury of a family to care for him, nor even a cage to call his own. Until he'd come here, to the big empty cage, to live alone and afraid until Nick, fresh from the nets and authority of the SPCA who'd taken him in for loitering, had been thrust into his domain without introduction or by your leave.
At first Nick had paid little attention to his shy cagemate. But there was something about the guy, something that nagged at Nick's gut, made him go the extra mile.
Before Nick had been there a week, they were friends. At the end of a month, Nick knew, whatever life held for him from now on, he would have Cody at his side.
"When we get back in there, I'll fix it for you," Nick said quietly. "And we can replace those weights - acorns'll be on the menu soon, and we can fill the shells with wet sawdust. That iron hamster food'll make great glue."
"Yeah!" Cody brightened. "But I really want my couch back, Nick."
Nick licked his lips. "Maybe Murray'll bring it tomrrow."
"Yeah, maybe. But... hey. Why should we wait for Murray, big guy? Why don't we just get it ourselves?"
"Get it? Whaddaya mean, Cody? Get it from where?"
"The dolls' house. Easy."
"Easy? I don't even know what a doll's house is."
"But I do." Cody smirked. "See, back before you came, the girl, Melba, she used to play with me when Murray wasn't around. She kinda liked me, if do say so myself."
"I bet she did, Cory," Nick said wryly.
Cody flushed. "Shut up. Anyhow, the doll's house is in the next room. It's nice - it has a pool, and a great games room. I really used to enjoy hanging out over there."
"The doll's house, huh? What is it, some kind of holiday home?"
"I guess. No-one lives there, anyhow. If we go over, we can get our couch back easy."
Easy, Nick reflected, was not exactly how he would have described the undertaking. First had come getting out of the room - while Cody scratched futilely at the door, Nick had shimmied up a scarf draped over the doorknob with a paperclip in his teeth, and forced the latch. Which was easy for a black bear grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, but came with certain pitfalls.
Nick knew them, was prepared, but no amount of preparation made falling from the doorknob anything other than bruising.
They'd made it down the cavernous echoing hallway. The room was where Cody said, and this time the door was ajar. Thanking his lucky stars and rubbing his bruised ass, Nick made his way inside.
"There!" Cody pointed to a huge structure against the back wall. "The doll's house!"
Nick surveyed it in wonder. It was as big as their dresser and cage together, three stories high - four, Nick corrected, counting attic windows - and three wide steps led up to its front. At one side, a small indoor fountain tinkled pleasantly into an earthenware bowl, piled with wet stones and ringed with ferns.
"There really is a pool," Nick said, eyebrows shooting up. "I thought you were joking."
"Nah, this place is the real deal." Cody sat up on his haunches and gnawed at a front claw. "Nice to visit."
"Yeah, I wouldn't want to live here full time," Nick reassured him quickly. "Fancy's great for a good time, but it ain't home."
Cody grinned and dropped back to all fours. "What are we waiting for? C'mon!"
Nick went straight to the front door but Cody scampered down the patio to the fountain. "We're not in a hurry, right, Nick?"
"Guess not." Nick followed more slowly. "What, you want to stop for a swim?"
"It's two days since I had a bath. And the doll's house may look like a palace, but it doesn't have running water."
"What do you call that?" Nick pointed at the fountain.
"I mean inside." Cody took a long drink from the pool, then started on his bath. "Oh my goodness, it's so nice to feel clean!"
Reflecting that he had no complaints about how Cody felt, Nick joined him.
Once Cody's fur was slicked back and his whiskers scrubbed to his satisfaction, they headed inside. Nick's eyes shot up at the ostentatious, wood-paneled hallway with its spindly, rickety furniture and highbrow art on the wall.
"You know what, man, maybe this place isn't my scene. Maybe we can get a couch from a thrift store, you know, or convert a couple matchboxes-"
"Take it easy, Nick." Cody put a comforting hand on his back. "I know its kinda overwhelming at first, but we can play at being movie stars. Pretend its our summer home."
Nick shuddered at the thought and ducked his head. He'd never realized Cody's taste ran to this kind of place. He'd always thought of their own cage as five-star, their own life as the lap of luxury. "Y'know, I used to have some contacts in stunt work, back in the day. I could get us some movie work easy enough. Although -" he looked around at the high ceilings and the grand staircase. "It'll take a few years until I can get you a place like this, bug guy."
"I don't need a place like this." Cody nuzzled him affectionately. "I like our life, Nick. Just sometimes it's nice to pretend, you know?"
Nick nuzzled Cody back. He didn't know, not in the least - provided he had Cody, he didn't want to think about anything else, let alone pretend to be someone else. But whatever Cody wanted, Nick would go along with.
"C'mon." Cody nuzzled him one more time. "I'll show you around."
The doll's house was certainly flash, but in Nick's opinion it was also poorly planned. The kitchen was in the rear, far too small to properly service a place this size, and with no back door. None of the appliances worked, and as Cody had told him, there was no running water.
"What's the point?" Nick walked around the tiled room, touching the inferior surface on the counters and frowning at the old-fashioned, and unusable, coal range. "If you're gonna kit out a place like this, you gotta do it right."
"I love the colors, though." Cody grinned and helped himself to a sesame-seed roll from a basket on the bench. "Want one?"
Nick sniffed suspiciously. "Is it fresh?"
"Nah, dried. Like biscotti."
"What do you know about biscotti?"
"I read a great article in Woman's Day." Cody gave Nick a dirty look. "Recipes, too."
"Great. But I'll pass on the roll."
Munching, Cody led the way through the formal dining (rich in gray and burgundy, but far too dark) to a palatial cream drawing room. The furniture looked so clean Nick knew he'd live in terror of putting a mark on it.
"I don't like this place, pal," he said quietly.
"Yeah? It reminds me of the pet store some... all clean and shiny." Cody shivered. "They used to get real mad if we made a mess... and no shavings, not even shredded paper. At least there's carpet here."
Nick flexed his claws in the pale shagpile. "Won't it catch on your nails?"
Cody glared, then grinned. "You're just sore because you can't gnaw the rug into throwing stars. C'mon next door, I'll show you something better."
Reluctantly, Nick followed Cody into the next room. He was expecting more of the same, but instead found a masculine games room complete with billiard table. And on the wall hung a dartboard, with a set of real, sharp darts.
"Now you're talking." Nick extracted each one, testing it gently against a paw. "You think anyone'll notice if I take them?"
"Yes," Cody warned. "But if you take just one..."
"Yeah, okay." Nick reflected that one ought to do it. He sunk the others back into the board and stroked his selected weapon lovingly. It was nicely balanced with a brass shaft and red feathers. Nick almost hoped they met Fluffy on the return trip.
Upstairs, Cody stopped in the doorway of an empty room. The hackles on the back of his neck rose. "It's gone! Nick, our couch is gone!"
"Are you sure you have the right room?"
"Of course I'm sure. This is the green parlor... the side tables are still here, and the footstools, but our furniture's missing!"
Nick looked again. The room wasn't as empty as he'd thought, but the pale green and white furniture had blended in with the walls. He supposed their own emerald lounge suite would look striking against this decor. "I guess Murray's got it in storage, huh?"
"Maybe." Cody chittered in agitation. "Nick, I wanted that couch. I wanna move back into our cage. I spent a lot of time on the interior, our wheel's there... Nick, we gotta find it!"
"Take it easy, big guy. It's just a crummy couch, okay? We can get another. We can take that white one from downstairs if you want-"
"It's leather. Cold and slippery." Cody waved a paw. "It's gotta be around here somewhere. We just have to find it."
Cody led Nick on a frantic tour of the house, scampering from room to room, doubling back on himself. He was getting more and more upset, and as time went on Nick could see his injuries were starting to bother him. The next time Cody ran downstairs - "I didn't check under the dining-room table!" - Nick waited at the head of the stairs, sitting back on his haunches.
"Nick! Nick, where are you?" Cody's frantic squeak was followed by Cody bursting out into the hall, looking around wildly.
"I'm up here, man." Nick folded his arms. "And we're done hunting. C'mon up here and sit down, and then you can tell me what all this is really about, okay?"
Cody got small, scrunching in on himself. He slunk forward up the stairs and dropped down next to Nick.
"What is it?" Nick nosed him gently. "We don't need that couch, you know? Hell, we don't even need our cage. We've been just fine in a mousehole the last two days, babe."
"You were fine. You made me fine. But... but..."
"Baby, what's wrong?" Nick snuggled as close as he could get to Cody, suddenly realizing the golden hamster was really upset. "Tell me."
"I wanna go home," Cody whispered. "I love our cage. I wanna go home."
"Aw, Cody." Nick sat back against the wall and pulled his partner into his arms. "Whyn't you just say so, man?"
"Because I'm scared." Cody's voice broke. "I know you want a condo... I know this is a perfect opportunity for you to move... I know a condo's more practical, I know we got no kitchen, no bathroom. I know all that. I just thought if we got your couch back... we'd move back in, it'd be kinda like we never left. Maybe you'd stop thinking about condos. Maybe... maybe..." Cody choked and broke off.
"Maybe what?" Nick nuzzled Cody's throat until his partner lifted his chin. Cody's eyes were huge and wet with tears.
"Maybe you wouldn't move out. Maybe you'd forget about all those fine condos out there. If I'd only found that couch, maybe it would've been enough... maybe the cage'd be nice enough that you'd stay a while longer."
"Wait a minute." Nick swallowed a lump in his throat. "Are you saying what I think you're saying? You think I stay in our cage because of the furniture?"
"Well, sure." Cody sniffled then looked away. "You were always talking about moving out. Then Murray got us the furniture. You liked that couch from the start, and... " Cody licked his lips. "You stopped talking about condos so much. I started thinking maybe you'd stay. And now it's gone for good and-and-and-" Cody's voice rose, and he broke off.
"Let's get one thing straight," Nick said grimly. "I couldn't give a rat's ass about that couch, or about our chairs, or about any single stick of furniture in our cage."
"Oh." Cody hung his head. "Sorry. I didn't mean - look, just forget all this. I'm still kinda shaken up, with Fluffy and - and everything. You're gonna find a great condo, I know you are, with a kitchen with a back door and maybe even a microwave."
Nick grabbed Cody's shoulders and pushed him gently against the wall. "Look at me."
Cody did as he was told, huge blue eyes miserable despite the fake smile he was wearing. As Nick watched, two large tears rolled down his cheeks.
"Cody... don't, Cody. Baby, you don't get it."
Cody dashed a paw across his eyes. "It's okay, Nick. I do get it. I'm sorry I made a big deal out of the couch. Look, let's just go on home - to the mousehole, I mean, it's kinda cozy in there, don't you think?"
"Forget the couch. Forget the mousehole. Cody, you idiot. Every time - every time! - I talked about moving into a condo, I didn't mean me. I meant us. You and me, together. I'm not leaving you, Cody, not ever. And I don't care if we never see that couch again - I don't care if we end up living in a birdcage and eating birdseed. Long as I got you, I'll even live in a fishtank and like it, stinky pebbles and slimy old weed and all. Hell, I'll eat fishfood and call it marine surprise." Nick broke off, panting, then kissed Cody hard. "Now do you get it?"
Cody gave a confused squeak. "Us? You mean... you want to get a condo with me? You want to move in with me?"
"Of course I wanna move in with you, genius. Why else you think I been living with you all this time? I'd'a split way back the first time I popped the cage door, if that's what I wanted."
"Oh." Cody gulped. "I... I thought you couldn't get out. You said the windows were too tight..."
Nick smiled fondly. "Sure, I said that. Had to have an excuse, right? You went back in the cage... I didn't know if you'd follow me, Cody. I figured you wanted to stay. And that day, that was when I found out that if you wanted to stay, I was staying right along with you."
"You're staying with me." The tight, tense expression on Cody's face relaxed into a broad smile. "Nick! You really mean it?"
"Of course I mean it. So how about we forget about the couch and head on back for dinner?"
"Dinner sounds good." Cody bumped Nick's shoulder affectionately and started down the stairs. "But we don't have to go home. We can head on out, find a condo. You know any good realtors?"
Nick blinked. He'd lived in a lot of different accommodation over his life, but he'd been more in the habit of finding it himself, and fighting for the right to occupancy.
"You know what, big guy? There's no rush. We got a fine mousehole right now. And you know our cage?" Nick caught up to Cody and slung an arm around his shoulders. "I was thinking about renovating. We could rig a shower back behind the nest easy enough and once we got indoor plumbing, the kitchen's easy."
"Nick... but how? We'll need a plumber, and an electrician, and -"
Nick grinned, reflecting that the trades manual he'd devoured as a kit (in a tasty leather binding) would come in handy after all. "Taken care of, baby. All you gotta worry about is choosing the colors. Whaddaya say to blue in the bathroom?"
Cody pushed Nick against the wall and kissed him. Panting softly, he rested his nose against Nick's neck and smiled. "I say you're the best friend I got."
The trip down the corridor was uneventful. Once, loud footfalls scared them into hiding beneath a curtain, but the door to Murray's room was ajar as they had left it. Nick led the way, pausing every few steps to sniff the air, but there was no sign of Fluffy.
After a trip to the mousehole for the comforter and a hearty meal at the dish on the floor, Nick led the way back up the curtain. The cage door was propped open, and Nick boosted Cody in then clambered through himself. Leaning out, he knocked away the support and clicked the latch behind them.
"There. That takes care of Fluffy."
Cody shuddered. "Don't even mention its name. C'mon, man. Let's get started cleaning this place up."
The spilled, soaked shavings had been removed from the living and dining areas, replaced with curly, pine-scented sawdust. Nick wrinkled his nose appreciatively. "This is nice. Not so good for throwing stars, but it smells good."
"You have your dart, now."
"Sure do." Nick tucked the weapon into his favorite hiding place behind the water-cooler, inspecting the large plastic cylinder closely. A short rubber hose led down to the drinking-fountain, keeping it supplied with cool, clear water. There was plenty of scope for plumbing.
Cody had disappeared into the nest-box, so Nick turned his attention to the gym. Initially the wheel refused to spin, but Nick found Cody's missing weights jammed in the mechanism. It was the work of a few moments to prise them loose and restore them to their stand, and a little spit and polish got the wheel shimmying away as smooth as ever.
Despite Cody's concerns, Nick could see nothing wrong with the climbing gym. The red and green blocks forming its base were as unmoving as ever. Nick shinned up the first ladder and tried the balancing pole, then swung across the climbing bars. Everything was solid, which was just as well. He'd lost his toolbox in a barfight back on the riverboat, and handy though he was, there was only so much a guy could do with wood shavings and hamster pellets.
Bouncing back to the ground, he cast a rueful glance at the empty living room, stopped at the water fountain for a drink then ambled to the nest box. Cody sure was taking a long time making the bed.
The rattle of the cage door brought Nick awake on high alert, leaping to his feet almost before he was awake. Living in the mousehole had brought all his old awareness to the fore. Nick relaxed as he clocked their nestbox, Cody sprawled on his back across the bed, the comforter fallen to the straw.
Nick nuzzled him softly, breathing returning to normal, and pulled the comforter over his belly. Then he stuck his head out into the cage to see what all the commotion was about.
There were four packing cases outside the cage door. Nick's eyebrows shot up and he scampered out, chirruping a question.
"Nick!" Murray dropped the case he was holding. "Nick, you came home!"
"Of course I came home," Nick squeaked. "What's that? And where's my damn coffee?"
Murray, unfortunately, showed no sign of getting Nick's coffee. He made one abortive attempt to catch Nick, discouraged with a sharp nip, then started on the cases, muttering to himself.
"Maybe Cody's in the nestbox... I don't think Nick would leave him..."
Nick frowned. He'd no sooner leave Cody than open a hair salon in the High Street, or voluntarily return to the SPCA.
But what Murray pulled out of the case sent Nick's eyebrows shooting up into his hairline, all thoughts of the SPCA banished. "Cody! Cody, wake up!" He sprinted for the nest box, casting one glance over his shoulder as he went.
The picture hadn't changed.
"Nick! Nick, what?" Cody stumbled to the door, comforter dragging behind him. "Is it Fluffy?"
"Not Fluffy. Look." Nick grabbed Cody's paw, drawing him against his side, and pointed.
Cody gasped, leaning into Nick. "Is that what I think it is?"
"It sure is, buddy."
The two hamsters watched as a green and red plaid lounge suite appeared out of the cases. The lounge filled with furniture again - a three seater couch complemented by a loveseat, an armchair and an ottoman. Giving little trills of delight, Cody ran over, bouncing on the loveseat.
"Cody! Cody!" Murray reached into the cage, engulfing the golden hamster in a large hand. Nick tensed, but this once, forbore to bite as his partner nuzzled Murray's fingers, squeaking his thanks.
As Cody jumped back into the cage, Nick sat up on his hind legs and calmly allowed Murray to stroke the side of his face.
"Wow," Murray breathed, drawing back his hand. "I guess you really like it, huh, Nick?"
"I'll like it better after my coffee."
"You do like it, right, Nick?" Cody bounced from the ottoman to the armchair, then jumped to Nick's side. "Right?"
Nick grinned and ambled over to the loveseat. It was small and cosy, just right for two good-size hamsters to get up close and personal. He climbed up, appreciating the depth of stuffing and the smooth wool upholstery.
"Can't tell yet, Cody." Nick settled into the corner. "C'mon up here with me and help me try it out."
With a happy squeak, Cody jumped up beside him. As Nick had anticipated, it was a tight fit. He pulled Cody more closely against him. Perfect.
"I love the fabric. The pattern's not what I'd have chosen, but I can make it work. Some geraniums perhaps, or an orchid - what do you think, Nick?"
Nick nuzzled Cody's ear reflectively. "Me, pal? The way I see it, it's gonna work out just fine."