my memories came back in the form of someone else

Iago, this is strange.

Those were words said to him once. Not that long ago. They were words they'd fenced with for only a moment before they had swiftly buried them under mutual agreement to forget about it. At that point it hadn't been clear if that grave was permanent or temporary.

Iago was willing to now call that a temporary abandonment, as the feeling here was much the same, and that feeling was what really clued him into what was going on. Grateful in a way, because with that little bit of familiarity he didn't have to continue to pepper Sokol with demands for context, inevitably just making everything worse. They'd already fought very recently over matters of feelings. Maybe not these feelings, but they were all connected in the end, weren't they. Iago wasn't looking to repeat any of that so soon.

So, lessons learned last time. Step one: say honest things, even if you aren't sure how they'll be received.

The vague use of 'this' made him anxious in answering, but he imagined that if Sokol was in a state for meaningful body language, he would have gestured at the room. At them. This. Tension in his shoulders to keep himself from shrugging, wound up but keeping that contact between them because somehow the cats kept him on target.

"Not sure, yet. Not... I mean." He really hoped that Sokol took some solace in his fumbling. Was that better or worse for him than if Iago knew exactly what to say? "I feel a lot of things but I don't... boxing them into something is a whole thing that--there's a reason I'm here tonight and not just doing all this alone but. I don't... feels weird to call it anything when we haven't talked about it."

Was this them talking about it or was this about to get shut down?

He couldn't take his hands off of his eyes. He was going to have a mental breakdown about two separate things at once.

Iago didn't deny anything, although his words were so vague that they didn't amount to much by the time Sokol translated them. What answer had he wanted? Yes, Sokol, I've been trying to get into your pants this whole time and that's why you're gay now, I did it all!

He stewed in Iago's words for a while. Felt, miserably, some amount of comfort at having him there with a hand on his arm. The words he had to say eventually arrived, and he had to uncover his face to say them. Had to communicate that. That he was helpless here, and not simply being a dick.

His hands left his face and one moved to grab, confusingly, at Iago's. He had very few words he was able to use, so he tried to pack it into his expression: he did like Iago, too much really, and no matter how he might feel about it it was a huge problem. "I can't be gay."

Really. He couldn't. And he hadn't been, also, ever, so why was this happening to him now.

Iago was reminded suddenly of a time decades ago when he had been young and he had gone to see horses for the first time. He had anticipated it with such daydreamy enthusiasm, with some idea of what he was getting into. But out in there, when his first ever real life horse had come up beside him, he'd realized how truly unprepared he was for the size and weight of it. The presence that had been felt before it had been seen.

This moment was very much a horse in that way. Gentle enough that the reflex to shy away was ridiculous, especially with all the feelings leading up to it, but inevitable anyway. A difficult thing to truly mentally prepare for.

Because, yeah, holy shit, they really were talking about this.

The hand that found his was held firm and fast, taken as a good gesture as Sokol otherwise contended with himself. The protest felt like something other than the beginning of another fight, and while Iago didn't really understand the whole of it, he wanted to. It would have been a lie to say he was completely at ease with this, either. He was just better at pretending. Or adapting, maybe.

But Sokol was so very easy to like. Had been from the start. Iago wasn't the sort of person to deny himself for the sake of denial or expectation. But the last thing he wanted to do was chase this frustratingly fantastic man away entirely.

"What makes you say that?" he asked, sincere and in a lifted tone that wasn't mean to raise Sokol to self-defense. If they could just have... a conversation. If Sokol could just allow him that much without either of them closing down.

Where had this come from. Why did this keep happening. He had been fine ten minutes ago and now he was laid out on the floor saying whatever came into his head, feeling like his heart was going to jump out of his body. He hadn't...thought about this. There was almost nothing to share, except that no, it was not a thing he was able to do, never mind that he hadn't even known he...he didn't even know what this was, this knot of hands over his chest. God, why was this happening??

Even just answering the question, even knowing how silly it sounded, Sokol felt his heart pitch into a panicked sprint at putting it out there. He tried to smile around it. "My family would kill me."

It took some swift and certain self restraint for Iago to not immediately scoff. Not like... at Sokol. Iago had already long since gotten the gist that Sokol's family life and his own and their respective interactions with them were utterly different.

But the fact that an apparent attraction--even indirectly that thought put a sparkler through Iago's chest--had laid Sokol out on his own kitchen floor to make unhappy declarative statements...

Silent for a moment only to keep himself from saying something alienating, he clung a little tighter to Sokol's hand and sincerely began to consider gravitating into the floor as well. Just the tempo of Sokol's heart was somehow exhausting--emotionally and on the other's behalf.

"Maybe I'm missing something but... it doesn't sound like their business?"


He tried to picture it, going against his father's expectations in such a spectacular way, and the wall of, of panic was so overwhelming that he had to close his eyes, found himself short of breath. That one got him so badly that even the lion, who seemed to have decided that this hissy fit was not worth interference, paused in its grooming and rumbled ominously inside Sokol instead. This, this...this was very terrible.

Maybe he needed to get off the floor, and to stop clutching at Iago like he was drowning, and just. And just get some space. Except he couldn't get up. He couldn't let go. All he could do was lie there gasping and trying to shut down a panic attack. It was fucking miserable!

They were in very deep water here. Even Iago couldn't ignore that now--not that he was trying to. It had just become suddenly a lot more evident that Sokol was in a bad place and Iago might have been in over his head on this one.

But it wasn't something he could walk away from, even if he was willing to--and he most certainly was not.

What he was meant to do while Sokol was losing himself to distress, though. Talk him through it? He could see that making things worse. Or not. Same with just sitting here quietly. All he knew for sure was he wasn't going to leave this spot. And being at a loss was doing no one any favors.

"Sokol..." he said, edging into a plea, shifting where he was to lay on his side, propped on an elbow so he could still watch Sokol without feeling like he was sitting at the bedside of a dying man. He didn't even try to remove his hand otherwise. "No one's here. No one knows anything. Okay? They're not here and you don't have to..." What, punish himself when they couldn't? It was a very disturbing notion to a rule breaker like Iago. "It's your life."

Which, all of this was very hard to build up the words for, because it felt like a large part of a very important conversation between them was being skipped in favor of dealing with theoretical consequences.

God shit shit shit this was awful! This never happened to him. Even calming down slightly was still awful because it allowed him to see what a fool he was making of himself.

There was really no dignified way to recover. He tried to slow down his breathing, became aware of the sweaty death-grip he had on Iago's hand and unclenched there, slightly. He shut his stupid mouth and forced the breath in and out through his nose. His eyes stayed shut, and he felt the floor against his back and under his feet.

It took a few slow, awkward, horrible minutes for him to calm down enough to talk. He still didn't want to open his eyes. Maybe if he kept them shut he would not have to move, and they could stay in this slightly-less-threatening moment eternally. "I'm sorry."

In spite of how many times Iago had seen Sokol fall apart to one degree or another, he did think of this man as being remarkably composed compared to most. It did make it a little hard to watch and wait with measured patience for this particularly bad moment to pass. But even so... Iago didn't feel put out or put off.

He wouldn't say it now, but more than anything he was feeling resentful of people he didn't know that apparently had their hands on Sokol's strings. Made more irksome by the collective being an opponent he had no means of sizing up against.

Having taken to laying down completely, head on the tile as he watched Sokol quietly but without staring. He felt the shift as the grip on his hand eased off enough for Iago to realize he'd temporarily lost a bit of feeling there, but still he didn't move. And when Sokol finally could speak, Iago frowned while Sokol still couldn't see him, gutted by the fact that Sokol felt like he needed to apologize for anything at all.

Instead of telling him he didn't need to say that, or telling him it was okay, or really saying anything at all, he tried to wriggle his hand from that loosened grip so he could get his arm around Sokol and, with or without that gesture in tandem, quietly scoot to bury his face into the outward curve of Sokol's shoulder.

Iago wrapped an arm around him, and Sokol kept lying there feeling his heart lurch around inside his chest like a trapped animal.

He was stuck.

He conceded, eventually, that there was no way off of this floor. He closed his hand over Iago's arm and allowed himself to turn his head and nose miserably at the ends of Iago's hair. It was very nice, and he was suffused completely with the feeling of how awful it was, that he found it so comforting. He wriggled slightly, so his cheek could make contact with the top of Iago's head.

Well, no one was here. He supposed he might as well enjoy it while he could.

There were a lot of thoughts in Iago's head right now. They ran the gamut from furious advice he could give to sheer blather of feelings that seemed to be more mutual than he'd realized before now. It was too much, though, for all he wanted to share every single note of it. It became a matter of debate about what was useful right now and what wasn't. Did Sokol need to hear right now that Iago wasn't here with him because of some deep, instinctual desire for a pride? Would it be too much to tell him that allowing someone else to choose your life for you in any respect was just asking for misery? What about admitting to the fact that Iago thought about him every day, whether or not he found a reason to reach out?

The debate between what would be helpful on these and a dozen other points and what would simply be adding to Sokol's burden left him with enough uncertainty to keep his mouth closed at least a little longer.

The contact they had right now was simple, but it felt like everything. Gingerly, but with great purpose, Iago slipped his arm from around Sokol's chest and blindly reached up instead, to touch his hand to the cheek not resting against him already. To cup against the curve of groomed jawline and silently confess that he did like this. Needed it, really, for all this moment was meant to comfort Sokol.

Maybe it looked like a sweet moment, from the outside. Sokol mostly just felt himself stuck in a feedback loop of tenderness and dread, and tried to think, what could he do? Even imagining some option that would get him back to a seated position seemed impossible. But he was drowning.

His voice was quiet, sent into Iago's hair. "We should get up."

Iago heard him. Iago didn't... want to. But he knew they should. He could tell, by the fact that Sokol said it, that he probably needed it. The unspoken request for assistance. So--a breath. His own heart felt flippy, a little too tangible against the inside of his chest as he let his hand slip down from where it rested. To find the floor with his palm and ease himself up.

Offering his hand to Sokol to pull him upright, to sit. To reorient the world.

Upright was better. A little. Still he felt overwrought and exhausted, all of it just. Too much and too fast. What a relief to sit with his back against the counters, to feel like his own separate person again.

He knew Iago was being kind to him. Patient. He knew that Iago had always been willing to let Sokol take the lead and set all the boundaries, however arbitrary; there was no reason to expect anything to change after yet another meltdown. Not trusting himself to look the other man in the eyes, he settled for his hands, although. As soon as he did it that did not feel much safer.

"I need some time to think, before." Ha. "Before I about it."

Iago sat, legs crossed and hands there in his lap, as they often were at times like these. A cautious sort of holding position for a man who was prone to act more than he was to wait. The personal reminder that not everything in the world could be solved by doing--at least not right now.

"It's okay. Me too." Probably. Iago was fairly certain that if he turned off certain portions of thinking and just said what was on his mind right now with no filter he could have gotten somewhere. But the cost to Sokol might have been... unacceptable.

He couldn't remember why he'd come here in the first place, tonight. The subject of Mateo had fled so completely from his mind it was likely to bewilder him later when he did remember it.

Sokol managed a dry swallow and an expression meant to look like a smile. He felt very, very grateful for that answer. "You can still shift here, if you want to." Remember that??

Maybe it was telling about this whole thing that... even after all of this, Iago didn't want to leave. And Sokol wasn't begging him out of here. They didn't need to talk--and a lion wouldn't want to, anyway.

Shifting was a good idea. Sokol had been right. Iago had needed it. So he didn't have to think. Working backwards from here to there, the need to abandon stressing himself to death over things that couldn't be handled tonight had compounded.

"I think it would help. If you're sure."

He looked down at his own hands and nodded. It was fine. Having one less human brain in the apartment had to be a good thing.

His own soul twittered uneasily for reasons unknown, but it was clear to him that that wasn't going to be changed by any of the options immediately available to him.

He nodded, moved to stand.

"I can probably go to the bathroom to change out or..." Whatever Sokol would prefer. Frankly, it all felt like too much of and acknowledgement of the subject just behind them, but he couldn't pretend either of them were nonchalant right now either. This felt the more considerate of discomforts.

Oh no! That was so absurdly awkward that it tricked a real smile out of him, embarrassed but amused. He shook his head. "Do it wherever you want, I can...I can occupy myself." There was food to be put away. Other food to be brought out. And anyway he had worn himself out too much to be frightened of Iago's tiny ass making an appearance in his home before a shift.

Iago felt an unexpected measure of relieved for that response.

"Alright." His own smile was fleeting, mentally considering his options even as the lion stretched, sensing its pending autonomy.

And, honest, it was mostly a reason of space that he then slipped off toward the living room, pulling his already abused shirt off over his head.

Iago made his way out of the room, and Sokol indulged himself in a very, very reserved sigh before he finally left the cursed realm of the kitchen floor. The world looked...really normal up here, at human height.

He tried not to think too much, covering the bowl of chicken in plastic wrap and placing it in the refrigerator.

Iago wasn't even sure how long it had been, since that point where Sokol had first suggested the shift for mental health, and this moment. A while. Long enough that it had begun to feel on the later side of the day. If he were at his own home he probably would have just tossed clothing aside and worried about it later. But. He wasn't. And he was feeling very mindful of everything, so he sorta-folded his tattered t-shirt and the rest as he took them off, piling them with an imperfect neatness near his shoes by the door.

Then, well. One glance, back the way he'd come, his brain still full of a whole lot, and then he set that aside as well, letting the lion bound blissfully up to take him out.

The breaking and reforming was never fun. Or quiet. But at least it was familiar.

He didn't have any beer in the fridge. This was a disappointment, as even with a metabolism that chewed through alcohol, there was a psychological comfort in applying a drink to the aftermath of a very hard day. With that in mind he moved to look into the liquor cabinet, ignoring the ghastly sounds coming from the living room and bringing out the plum brandy he kept around for occasional fits of nostalgia and national pride. Maybe a strange choice for this exact moment, but if he questioned any more of his motives tonight he would fall over dead.

He poured himself a tumbler and held the glass to his nose, inhaling. Feeling equal parts comforted and unnerved. Then he took quite a large drink and wandered over to the living room.

Benefits of being stronger: there was a whole cat waiting for Sokol when he was done getting his drink, the shift not taking long at all. The cat was sprawled on the rug in the most open spot of the room, his skin and fur twitching as he escaped the horror of shapeshifting and started to feel closer to 100% perfect. Because lions were perfect creatures, everyone knew that.

Catching sight of the movement of the man, the shaggy head of the lion lifted with a grunt of familiarity, nose lifted to sniff comfortably at the air, picking up on the alcohol more than the bitter notes of human stress.

Even in a human body, that was still his lion he saw there, and he lifted heftily to his paws, slow in closing the distance but with intent clear in his gaze regardless.

A lion in his living room!

It was nonsensical, but also, how could you not feel a thrill (of fear, of delight) at the sight of that magnificent animal locking eyes with you and approaching? It made his heart skitter again, only somehow it was fine this way, a good scare and not a traumatic one. He watched the cat with a wary, expectant smile and realized that perhaps he shouldn't be holding a drink.

The lion puffed as he approached. Still slow and thoughtful rather than making aims to pounce the man to the ground like he had the very first time they'd met like this. There was no need to make claim to what was already his, after all! And maybe it was the mood that put him into this one, where even with a lion's brain (mostly, Iago was a far back seat in tonight's lion minivan mindscape, but not completely absent) he was starting off gentle.

The glass held by his target was offered a single sniff before it was deemed Less Important than merely shoving his entire head directly into the center of Sokol's chest with a throaty groan. A strong gesture from a cat who didn't quite fathom his own size at times.

Apparently Sokol was scheduled to experience just every feeling imaginable tonight, because now, grunting and laughing and stumbling backwards, spilling slivovice into lion mane, he was feeling a very great deal of fondness. Who knew what to make of it — what he felt for Iago versus the lion, and which part of the feelings belonged to which part of himself — lion and human together felt special, and it was a great relief just to feel happy.

He pushed his hand over the animal's forehead and scratched him behind the ears. "Hi. Let me set my drink down."

The cat stomped gently in place, a restless foot pattern as he leaned hard into that affection, breathing deep again, smelling that terror that wasn't fresh at all but still clung to the man in the sweat and science words that a cat would never think of. He wanted to groom him rather aggressively, but he did hear the plea for putting his drink down.

So, first. Rub his cheek into Sokol's chest, then twist away without breaking contact, opening a path to the coffee table.

So, so strong. Even with the cat being gentle, he had to try to anticipate the points of contact and brace against them. But what a giddy thing, to skate his fingertips against the grain of the lion's fur, squeezing by leg and flank to set down the glass (right on the table!).

There was very little room to work with here, so he tried to move around the lion to scoot the couch backwards, away from the coffee table. Normally he wouldn't mind getting squashed on the floor by a lion, but there had been enough floor time tonight, so he utilized furniture instead. He sat down, never mind that it was half the length of the lion.

What the world really needed were couches and beds and all of those things suited for lions. Iago wanted nothing more than to be a perfect lap cat right now--ignoring the fact that even with a suitable couch at hand, crawling into any human's lap sufficiently was out of the question. Still, this would not stop him from trying! With the drink out of danger and the man sitting down, he kept one front paw on the floor as a balance point for his weight as he put the other on the couch. This gave him the means with which to put a good portion of his head and neck into Sokol's lap.

And then, to make it clear he was very serious about this, he made the effort to bunch his hind end up and tried to find space for his back paws on the further cushion. Maybe if he just curled up a little this would be fine! (The actual act of curling up on a narrow couch proved more difficult than it sounded.)

Sokol was at first very occupied by the massive lion head in his lap. He eyed the paw pressing heavily into the cushion beside him and, scratching his fingers under the animal's cheekbones, he noticed a little too late that the latter portion of lion was twisting to get itself onto the sofa, too, and he was really not sure of how much weight it could hold. It ought to have concerned him more.

Instead he just grabbed onto lion cheeks. "You're too big, kočička."

It was half divine, half a struggle. The scratches were going straight to his very large heart, warming him from the inside out. But his tail end just wouldn't fit!

Sokol said as much and the lion's velvet furred face scrunched in defiance. Maybe if he just twisted his hips liiike this!!

Or not. The whole cat rolled as if the creaking couch had pitched, flipping not only the back half off, but dragging the front half with it. Puddling to the ground, Iago made a big cat muh of unhappiness.

His head was still very much within Sokol's grasp, so... complaints were minimal. Demanding, he shoved his face in for more scratches.

He smoothed his hands over the wrinkles in Iago's face, snickering as around 400 pounds of lion crashed back onto the floor. Sad cat breath erupted in a grunt from the head in his lap, and then it was his turn to make an uncomfortable face, a great lion nose pressing under his ribcage. He tried to squirm into a less painful position. "Feel better?"

Sokol certainly did. Which seemed like it should be impossible.

He did feel SO much better. He wasn't going to say as much because that would require a little bit more of the thinking and such, and human Iago was actually very content to lounge in the far back portion of the marbled consciousness, letting this all be quite simple.

Trying not to crush Sokol, he would show him just how fine they both were in action. Moving his hind again, this time to try and take up the space immediately at Sokol's feet instead, tail sweeping below the coffee table as he bumped in the confined area, he snuffled loudly as he sat up, shoulders hunched. Then, bringing a paw to the back of the couch beside Sokol's head, he rubbed his whisker's into Sokol's face before dragging his tongue up the side of the man's head and into his pale hair.

Grooming time was essential for showing someone that you loved them. And boy, he did love Sokol. So unbearably much. So much so that only a lion was brave enough to think it so boldly.

Iago was better. He transmitted this information by closing in and getting lion-scent all over his face, and if that wasn't an obvious enough sign, he proceeded with a tongue bath. Which was very painful. Sokol had to work hard to stay still, hunkered between the back of the couch and a wall of dark, shaggy lion's mane, hard to keep his hands out of.

Lucky Sokol: it was too much work to concentrate on not squirming away, on not getting crushed, to wonder how exactly fooling around with a giant lion on the couch was appropriate behavior. Lucky Sokol, to be able to just enjoy it instead.

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