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There's a Honey

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Andrew’s life is complicated.

They’re on their way back from Columbia’s discount theatre, because nothing says Friday Night like watching Mamma Mia! for the eighth time. And yes, Andrew could have stayed home with a cup of microwaved noodles and a bottle of watered-down vodka, but Renee, in all her innate goodness, is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to Andrew bailing on their friend dates.

Or rather, Renee’s girlfriend’s friend dates.

It started when Renee met Allison. Which, fine. Andrew was more than prepared for the day Andrew and Renee became Renee and Someone Else. Playground blood-pacts weren’t forever. Besides, Andrew knows his best friend, and he especially knows when she’s making eyes at their university’s It Girl.

Needless to say, he was less prepared for the evolution that was Andrew and Renee and Allison.

And Allison’s annoying ass friends.

Suddenly, Andrew’s time off work became Movie Nights and Lazy Sunday Brunches, interspersed with frequent, “be friendly” and, “these are the last remaining people you haven’t thrown knives at, Drew.”

Currently, Matt and Dan are stinking up the front of Renee’s black-blue Honda, affectionately dubbed The Bruise, with their flagrant, nauseating feelings. Allison’s casually draped across Neil and Renee, her ratty vans a stark contrast to her designer perfume. Nicky’s leaning over the backseat, spraying bits of Doritos with every word, and Andrew’s pinned between the door and Neil, which he hates a lot less than he should.

Andrew’s life is very complicated.

City lights spill into the backseat, staining Neil’s teeth neon and Andrew has to look away. It’s one of those nights where everything feels ethereal, untouchable, and yet if he sticks his hand out far enough he’ll catch the soft knit of Allison’s sweater, the start of Neil’s frame, flush against him.

Neil shifts beside him, and Andrew’s hit with lemongrass and sage. No doubt that organic detergent Dan buys. Debating opening the door and rolling down the highway, Andrew sticks his head out the window and lets the cold midnight air wash away the smell of spring and his dumb, dumb feelings.

The sky is smeared dark purple, softened by the wind in his face. Andrew turns back inside and rests his head on his forearms, listening as the conversation blurs into unintelligible hums. Neil says something, and the flash of berry-stained lips brings Andrew back to that summer night in Columbia, where they sat in a cloud of cigarettes and bug-spray, disregarding the chaos around them in favor of talking on Nicky’s porch until the sky ripened.

Andrew figures Neil doesn’t remember that night. The problem is, Andrew can’t seem to forget it.

“Can we stop by McDonalds?” Nicky asks, tucking his empty chip bag into the crease in the seat. Still focused on Neil, Andrew removes the bag and stuffs it down Nicky’s shirt.

Renee’s glare is insufferable, so Andrew turns his head.

“I want waffles,” Neil says, decisive.

Untangling her hand from Renee’s, Allison tugs a wayward curl from Neil’s forehead. “First the AUX, now you’re picking second dinner? We’ve suffered enough, thanks.”

Neil gives Allison a cool once-over. “And how many Nickelback songs do you own?” He turns his head to wink at Andrew, as if he’s in on the punchline.

This night’s a joke, does that count?

“One,” Dan shifts in her seat and holds up a ring-clad index finger. “Nickelback is pivotal to 2000s culture, whether you like it or not. Two, we don’t need to explain ourselves to someone who can’t tie their own shoes.”

Nicky’s laugh reverberates in Andrew’s ear and he’s two seconds from sticking a blade down his throat when Renee catches on and casually pulls Nicky toward her, all while not taking her eyes off Allison.

“That’s not what Matt said last night.”  

“Do you even know what that means?” Dan snorts as Matt spits out his nearly-water slushy.

Neil, ignoring his friends, shifts to give Andrew a proper look. “You want waffles, right, Andrew?” And Andrew definitely gets a proper look. Dressed in ripped tights and Matt’s old letterman, Neil looks every bit something out of Andrew’s wildest dreams, and judging by the playful tilt to his mouth, he knows it too.

“Yeah, cause that’s fair,” Allison whispers and Renee pokes her in the stomach, shushing her.

Andrew responds a beat late. “Waffles sound good.” He tries for nonchalance, hoping it doesn’t sound as gay as he thinks it does.

Allison’s choking laugh confirms his suspicion.

“Can someone roll up the windows? I’m getting snowflakes in my teeth,” Nicky whines.

“Good, shut the fuck up,” Neil says, casual, and Andrew’s heart leaps in his throat.

The car ebbs and flows with waves of conversation. School and work, but mostly nonsense. At some point, Dan sticks her feet out of her window, and the backseat places a 3/4 bet on the likelihood of a semi-truck slicing them off. Andrew doesn’t care either way.

Eventually, Matt pulls into the nearly-vacant parking lot of a local diner, with D I E R spelled in tacky yellow fluorescent lettering that resonates well with Andrew.

They tumble out of the car, pulling on jackets and remembering wallets. Andrew stands by the sidewalk, stepping around the snow that’s receded to the edge of the curb. Allison hangs by the passenger mirror while Dan and Nicky play with Snapchat filters.

The night has a filter of its own, thin and flimsy, ready to break and bring Andrew back to reality. Neil’s the last out of the car, and Andrew remembers Dan mentioning Neil’s way of taking off his shoes if he’s sitting for more than five minutes.

“Grandmother.” Allison takes one last glance at herself and rolls her eyes. “We’re waiting.”

A pair of Doc Martens are thrown from the backseat and land onto the sidewalk, followed by Neil stuffing mismatched socks into his boots. Glancing up from his phone, Neil lifts his foot, laces hanging, and smiles at Andrew.

Despite the grumbles around him, Andrew walks over and pats his thigh. Neil, now arguing with Allison, rests his foot against Andrew, threading his fingers through Andrew’s hair, just enough to keep balance. Andrew swallows around the shiver that rattles his chest and tries not to mess up the loop de loop and pull.

Tying Neil’s shoes has become one of those accidents Andrew can’t seem to get away from. Like when someone calls you by the wrong name, but you don’t have the heart to correct them.

Thankfully, Andrew finishes without incident. Neil flashes him a smile and they stumble in.

***

Inside, Matt and Nicky drag tables together, ignoring the rows of unoccupied booths and the glares of their fellow patrons. Secretly, Andrew’s relieved he’ll have his own seat, and figures, if anything, he can always inch away from the table until he’s far enough to make a run for it.

They settle around the tables, with Allison complaining about the quality of the silverware and Nicky playing with the metal napkin holder when the waitress arrives. Her apron is covered in grease and she eyes their table with a disdain that can only come from 12-hour shifts.

She gets out a notepad. “Sweet tea, Coke, or water.”

Nicky fixes her with a grin. “Hey, uh, you wouldn’t happen to have any,” he lowers his voice, “adult beverages in the back, would you? It’s our friend’s birthday here,” he gestures vaguely at the table, “and we were hoping to celebrate a bit.”

“Sweet tea, Coke, or water.”

There’s a round of snickers, and Nicky sniffs and mutters his order.

After the waitress collects their orders, a peanut butter and chocolate milkshake for Andrew, the table picks up a new conversation. Across from him, Neil slumps in his chair, resting his head against Allison’s shoulder. He must feel Andrew’s eyes because he glances up and gives him a sleepy shrug.

Despite the obvious reasons as to why Andrew can’t stand Allison’s friends, he settles into the moment and joins the debate on whether Bon Jovi would make a better president than The Rock.

And so what he gets an extra smile out of Neil. So what.  

***

After dinner, Neil spots a Dollar Tree sign and mentions something about Thrifty Christmas. Translation: let's leave Andrew shivering underneath a single parking lot light while everyone goes inside to check out the Nutcracker themed shot glasses.

Neil wanders toward the cart return. “Hey, DW, can I get a ride?”

“Don’t wink at me while making a reference to a children’s show,” Dan says. “And no. Go ask your boyfriend.”

And Andrew knows she means Matt. He knows this, and yet he meets Neil’s eyes for a second and before he can do anything about it, Allison stumbles over, taking the cart and Neil’s attention with her.

As the rest of them walk inside, Renee shoots him a knowing look and whispers something about Uber not working out here.

Fuck. Andrew swipes away the Uber app and stuffs his hands deep in his pockets. The wind picks up, slight but sharp against his uncovered face. He takes a seat on the damp concrete and waits for hypothermia to set in because there's no way he's leaving this parking lot with all ten toes.

A few minutes pass and the doors slide open, revealing Renee waving to her friends, “Hey, I think I left something in the car.”

Andrew gets up from the sidewalk and brushes away stray snow. “Are we sneaking off? If so that’s the best idea you’ve had all night—”

“I know you like Neil.”

Andrew, to his effort, tries to look surprised, but Renee doesn’t buy it. Instead, she leans against her car door and gives him an appraising look. “Allison wanted me to make sure you know it’s okay, and I agree because you can be a little—”

“I don’t remember needing the Princess’ permission to feel, or not feel in my case, something.”

“—self-destructive.”

“Yeah, and you have bad taste in girls.”

Renee brushes away the flurries from his shoulder. “I think you need to stop being so edgy.”

“And since we’re butting into everyone’s business, I think you need to find a girl with less obnoxious friends.”

“Alright,” Renee laughs, and Andrew leans back and lets the bitter bite of snow numb him.

Chapter Text

Moonlight spills from the evening sky, fizzy and bright like popped champagne, and Andrew slouches into the soft cushions of Allison and Renee’s backyard swing and wishes for something—a loose brick, maybe—to take him out of his misery.

He should’ve expected it, really. Finals came and went and after a week of radio-silence from Renee’s Breakfast Club, Andrew felt bold enough to start planning his days again, going as far as to set the week’s schedule for his automatic coffee maker. He definitely didn’t miss the impromptu brunches—though something could be said for those bottomless mimosas, in that he never could quite find that bottom.

It was day five, and Andrew was in the process of reheating leftover lasagna—okay, Chef Boyardee—when Renee called with a proposition: an invitation to Allison’s dinner party. Andrew almost laughed, as bargaining Neil’s attendance with Andrew’s was an evil, diabolical, ridiculously brilliant scheme.

Andrew’s initial rejection was met with a dismissive, “My only joy in life is knowing my two favorite people get along, so come and get along. ” It wasn’t quite a threat, but it had Andrew in his second-best sweater, grabbing a bottle of Korbel from Walmart’s discount bin, and ringing their tinsel-covered doorbell.

After an awkward hello—Neil hadn’t arrived yet, and Andrew was forced to stumble through a conversation with Matt about the weather—he gave a customary offer to help in the kitchen. Renee, preoccupied with making dinner, waved him into the living room, where he walked in front of an ongoing game of Dance Dance Revolution and out the back door, ignoring the pleas to join. He told Renee he’d be here. He didn’t say anything about interacting with people.

Now, he’s underneath a single porch light, wishing he’d picked a thicker jacket over the more fashionable turtleneck, because tonight’s high is a whopping 49 degrees and he’s an idiot. He kicks his feet out to keep his blood from congealing, nosing his boots into a soft pile of snow, slushy from the day’s warmth.

The smell of spiced chicken and herbs seeps outside and coaxes Andrew’s stomach into a deep growl. He’s considers putting his pride aside and slipping back inside when the back door slides open, revealing Neil and two red solo cups.

The sudden warmth in his toes—from the open door, Andrew’s sure of it—is enough to ward away the night’s chill.

Neil turns his head back, saying something to Nicky before sliding the door closed with his boot and motioning for Andrew to scoot over. Andrew tries and fails to keep his gaze casual. Neil’s hair is slicked back and underneath his jean jacket is a heavy looking cable-knit sweater that Andrew wants to dig his fingers into.

“Here,” Neil says, handing Andrew a cup. “Tell me which one you get.”

Andrew takes the drink, careful not to let their fingers touch, and takes a tentative sip. It’s a syrupy mix of vodka and Lacroix and tastes too much like Pinterest.

“Vodka Soda,” Andrew says.

Nodding, Neil takes a swig of his own. “That means this is the Shocktail.”

“Excuse me?”

Neil snorts. “Here.” He offers the drink, and Andrew, being very, very gay, grabs it and sniffs before taking a sip and immediately spilling it back into the plastic cup.

“It’s essentially chicken broth and gin,” Neil says, laughing. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“I can’t believe you let me do that,” Andrew says, disgusted. He stands up to get Neil another drink when Neil plucks it out his hand and takes a swig.

“Maybe a little pineapple,” Neil muses. Andrew stills, dumbfounded, as Neil continues to drink what is essentially Andrew’s backwash.

Andrew finds it much hotter than he should.

Settling back down and into the idea of having Neil so close, Andrew relaxes into the cushions and pats himself for a cigarette, lighting two. Neil takes the other, slightly amused.

“How come you’re not in there?” Neil asks, letting the cigarette burn. “Renee’s constantly bragging about your skills in the kitchen.”

Andrew snorts. “I doubt I’d be much help in there. I haven’t quite mastered the art of polenta.”

Neil smirks. “I’ve just learned what polenta is. Imagine Allison’s horror when I asked why we were having grits for dinner.”

A smile simmers at the corners of Andrew’s mouth, but he rubs it away. The conversation inside picks up, and Andrew can feel the vibrations of the music against his back, but it doesn’t draw him out of the little cocoon he and Neil have created. In fact, he feels himself shift closer, curling toward Neil’s warmth.

“Are you going to the Festival?” Andrew asks, a little too breathy. The university’s annual Winter Festival is next weekend. The event of the season, or so Andrew’s heard, as he usually steers clear of all things Merry and Bright.  

That doesn’t stop him from imagining Neil with a mouthful of cotton candy, sticky and bright, bundled in Andrew’s jacket.

Neil makes a face, pushing off the ground so they’re swinging again. “Can’t. I promised another festival I’d go. You don’t know her, she goes to a different school.” The façade cracks, and Neil’s laugh feels like velvet against Andrew’s cheek.

“There’s no getting out of it, anyway. Nicky’s president of the debate club and they’ve got a booth,” Neil shrugs. “He’s paying us to make the booth look busy. Are you going? I could probably get you in on some of that action.”

Andrew swallows hard, ignoring most of that sentence in the name of his sanity. He’s not sure if Neil’s asking if Andrew’s going or asking if Andrew’s going, but he does know that Renee better pick him up first.

Andrew’s still thinking of something quick-witted to say when Neil interrupts him.

“You don’t like us, do you?”

The accusation startles him and he imagines their cocoon unraveling, leaving Andrew exposed to the winter wind.

Neil shifts so that he’s facing Andrew. “You miss her.”

It’s not a question, but Andrew answers it anyway. “I mean, sometimes.” The clouds shift, and the moon paints them silver, shining a light on Andrew’s white lie.

Neil picks at his socks. “That’s nice, Missing someone, I mean. She said you’ve been friends since 4th grade. I promise we aren’t stealing her from you.”

Third grade, actually. A group of boys had buried Andrew’s M&Ms in the sandbox because when given the choice to kiss anyone in their class, Andrew had chosen Jimmy Sanders, who wrote in cursive and always packed a ham and cheese for lunch. Andrew began scooping out his M&M’s when Renee walked over with a pale blue thermos. She started pulling out the pieces of candy she could find and washing away the sand.

When Andrew had told her he didn’t like girls, and certainly wouldn’t like her, Renee smiled and told him she’d like girls for the both of them.

“You say that as though you’ve never missed someone before,” Andrew notes, deliberately ignoring Neil’s tacked on reassurance.

“I’ve never been given the opportunity to miss anyone.” Neil gives him a soft smile, and Andrew’s surprised by how transparent he finds it. He wants to say something, but nothing feels right.

It’s then that Nicky stumbles outside, already tipsy, and tells them dinner’s ready. They toss their unused cigarettes away and walk back into the chaos.

Inside, Allison puts Andrew and Neil in charge of setting the table, which proves difficult when Neil starts tossing embroidered napkins at him, making fun of the design, much to Allison’s chagrin.

Neil seems keen on forgetting their conversation and Andrew plays along, but there’s something about the set of Neil’s shoulders that has him wondering if he’ll get another opportunity to unravel Neil Josten.  

Chapter Text


Andrew takes a handful of honeyed nuts from Renee’s paper bag, coating his fingers in the sweetness, and shoves them into his mouth. Festival lights spill onto the snow, and children with fistfuls of cotton candy stumble past, filling the air with sticky laughter.

In the twenty-seven minutes they’ve been here, Andrew’s eaten through an entire bag of churros, Allison’s managed to limit her complaints to three an hour—all of which orbit around the damp state of her velvet sneakers, Matt and Dan are searching for the ticket-booth, which Andrew assumes is code for fucking, and Neil is nowhere to be found.

Andrew’s having a great time.

“He said he’d meet us around here,” Renee says, motioning to the row of multicolored game booths. She offers him her lemonade, which he takes, sipping petulantly.

“Pathetic much?” Allison sneers, sliding an arm around Renee’s shoulders. “As entertaining as this is, watching you lament over someone so obviously out of your league is getting kind of boring.”

“Call me when you can spell lament,” is Andrew’s only reply. He’s not pining, and despite the fact he’d spent most of the afternoon searching for his current sweater, the one that accentuates his collar bones, and has a travel-size bottle of Listerine tucked into his waistband, there’s nothing that can prove otherwise.

Allison flips her hair, unfazed. “Whatever. Piss or get off the pot.”

“Aw, did your au pair teach you that, or did you happen to take a How to Relate to Poor People class?”

“Hey now,” Renee chides, grabbing both of their hands. “Be nice, please.”

They flick each other off for good measure, and eventually, Matt and Dan find the group, if a bit more distracted, wearing ribbons of neon-colored tickets around their necks. Allison and Dan make plans to support Nicky’s booth, and Andrew debates another round of churros before the crowd thickens. He’s about to tell Renee as much when a hand threads through his.

“Hey, sorry,” Neil whispers in his ear, pressing against him as an obnoxious group of teens race past. Andrew’s breath catches in his throat, and he forces himself to conjure up the strangest, most unarousing mental image in hopes of taming his overactive imagination.

Neil pulls away, and Andrew keeps his gaze light, taking in the rolled-up corduroy pants with minimal reaction. Andrew grabs Renee's watered-down lemonade and gives his mouth something to do.

“Where were you?” Dan asks, wrapping an arm around Neil.

“Sucking dick behind the ring toss.”

Andrew chokes on Renee's lemonade, coughing up bits of ice as Neil's laughter pulls a shiver down his spine.

“Josten, my man,” Matt says, clapping him on the back.

"Just kidding," Neil sing-songs right as Dan shoves him into a nearby couple.

Andrew straightens up and they begin walking toward the stalls and booths, but between the lemon seed stuck in his throat, and the way Neil’s looking at him, Andrew might not survive the night.

Chapter Text

The tension, Andrew finds, doesn’t fade.

It lingers as they leave the festival, igniting a slow heat at the base of his spine; his self-control begins to disintegrate into loose, powdered ashes at his feet, and as Neil smiles and tugs him forward, Andrew can still feel the bite of plastic against his hip.

After finding Nicky, and his secret stash of vodka, Matt, Neil, and the girls decided that no amount of money was worth the torment of recruiting for the debate team, and spent the better part of an hour pooling their game tickets for an oversized, plush banana.

Now, with the promise of lukewarm McDonald’s keeping them upright, they stumble down the dimly-lit street. Dan, Matt, and Nicky are huddled together, their raucous laughter keeping them warm. Tucked under Nicky’s arm is the banana, which Allison tries to steal, but Nicky slurs that her attempts are, in fact, fruitless.

Neil brushes against him, and Andrew welcomes the shiver like static against his skin. Neil tells them about the time he entered a cereal box contest and won a year’s supply of Lucky Charms, but Andrew’s eyes are fixed on the curve of his mouth, full and ripe with mischief.

It reminds Andrew of that night in Columbia, when the air was sticky and bright with fireworks, and he still couldn’t keep his eyes off Neil. Even now, Neil’s cheeks darken, a splash of color in the frost, and Andrew is just as breathless.


McDonald's is crowded, which Andrew finds almost as distasteful as the fact that Neil’s ordered himself enough McNuggets to feed a small army—honey mustard included.  It doesn’t stop Andrew’s lingering stare though, or Allison and Nicky from making kissing sounds as Andrew passes.

Andrew takes his Oreo McFlurry and sits at the edge of the booth, angling himself so as to not let anyone—mainly Nicky—sit next to him. He steals one of Renee’s fries while the others play with the soda machine, mixing awful flavors and daring the other to drink it.

“Is tonight the night?” Renee asks, and even though they’re the only two at the table, he still kicks her shin.

“If by the night, you mean the night I die a slow, painful death, then yes.”

Renee raises an eyebrow, but says nothing and eventually, Andrew gives in. “And what, pray tell, do you think would change if I told him anyway? ‘I know we only hang out because our mutual friends are fucking, but hey, wanna go see a movie some time?’”

Renee dips a fry into her milkshake. “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

“That’s nice,” Andrew mutters, taking a bite of his McFlurry and welcoming the surge of brain freeze.

“I wouldn’t be your best friend if I didn’t encourage you to follow your heart—and yes, even if it leads you to a slow, painful death.” Renee shrugs, going back to her drink.

Andrew’s just glad they’ve confirmed that he will, in fact, die.

“You really think Neil Josten’s interested in me?” Andrew lowers his voice. “I have never seen Neil so much as blink twice at someone. Have you?”

“That’s not a case against you,” Renee says.

“It’s certainly not for me.”

“Instead of speculating about someone’s sexuality, how about you go the ol’ fashioned route and ask him.”

“Curiosity killed the cat,” Andrew growls.

“And satisfaction brought his ass back,” she hisses the last part, and Andrew would’ve kicked her again, but Allison slides into the booth, followed by Dan, Matt, Neil, and Nicky, who pulls up a chair.

“So, what are we talking about?” Allison asks, voice laced with a faux-curiosity that has Andrew itching to coat her face in McFlurry.

“Just wondering when you were going to buy a new group of friends. Surely you must be tired of us,” Andrew spits.

Allison’s, “That’s cute that you think we’re friends,” is overshadowed by Neil’s indignant, “Hey!”

Renee sits back, and Andrew sends her a pleading look, but she looks away, effectively taking Allison’s side. Which is the least of Andrew’s worries, as Neil’s mouth pulls into a pretty pout. “That’s not nice. I thought we were friends.” Something playful brews at the end of ‘friends’, and if Andrew were a betting man, he’d swear Neil was mocking him.

“Yeah,” Allison furrows her perfectly-threaded brows, a pathetic attempt at innocence. “I thought you were friends.”

Fuck. Fuck. “Oh,” Andrew says, desperate to derail the conversation. “Who knew you were capable of non-designer thoughts.  Praise be to god.”

Dan snorts and introduces a new topic, something about upcoming birthdays, and Andrew goes back to shoveling in his ice cream and wonders if Neil’s still staring at him.

“Nothing tops my seventeenth birthday,” Neil says suddenly, and Andrew’s eyes shoot up to meet his.

“It was a Tuesday, right, and so a few friends and I go back to mine for fuckin’ wine coolers, and I get a phone call from my history teacher, who says—”

“Your history teacher had your number?” Matt asks.

“Shh, yeah, so anyway he says,” Neil deepens his voice, “Josten, I don’t know how, or why, you’ve done it, and frankly I don’t give a shit, just have my fourth period class here before I drive over and drag you all out.”

The table laughs, including Andrew, who says, “I thought you said a few friends.”

“Word gets around fast.”

“And the word was what, come over for shitty Seagrams?” Andrew teases.

Neil shrugs. “What can I say? Anyway, it’s safe to say I’ve caused my fair share of trouble for Wymack.”

“When are you not causing trouble,” Dan says, ruffling Neil’s hair.

“Were you crowned prom king too? I bet corduroy suits were all the rage,” Nicky snorts into his soda. 

“No, but I did make court,” Neil says. “And my tux was velvet, actually.”

It’s then, watching as Neil struggles to lick up stray mustard that Andrew is filled with the overwhelming desire to tell Neil how he feels. It shouldn't feel like a revelation, but it does, and as the birthday conversation is picked up again and everyone finishes eating, Andrew struggles under the weight of his feelings, pressing close and pushing him under a wave of longing.

Their table is a sticky mess of wrappers and spilled soda, and as Dan and Matt begin cleaning, Andrew shoves his way out of the booth, tossing his half-eaten McFlurry into the trash. He walks outside, half-expecting Renee to follow him out, but is surprised to find a pair of bright corduroy pants.

Neil lowers himself down to the concrete, and Andrew follows suit, mimicking Neil’s criss-crossed position.

This is Andrew’s moment.

“Hey, can we talk?”

Chapter Text

“Hey, can we talk?”

The words are hardly out of Andrew’s mouth when Nicky and Matt stumble out, laughing and dropping ice from their cups down each other’s shirts.

“Nicky, wait.” Matt grabs onto Nicky as he wobbles down the concrete steps. “Dude, watch your—” Neil jumps up and out of the way just in time for Nicky to misstep and spill the rest of his Fanta orange on Andrew’s head.

“Fuck, Andrew! I’m so sorry! Guys tell him I didn’t mean it. Tell him before he kills me—come on, look at his face,” Nicky sobs, ducking behind Neil’s laughing frame.

Andrew doesn’t have time to process the shock of liquid down his back, or how long it would take for Nicky to appear on a missing persons’ list. He barely registers that Neil has moved again until they are at eye-level, and can only stare as Neil reaches out and swipes his fingers through the trail of soda and brings them to his mouth.

“At least you taste good,” Neil smirks, fingers leaving his mouth with a pop.

Andrew can live with that.


Andrew’s not a morning person.

Still, Renee wakes him well before dawn for sun salutations and, as promised, Count Chocula infused pancakes. It’s a thinly-veiled pity party, but Andrew’s takes it, if begrudgingly, and allows Renee to guide him into downward dog.

He’s fine, even though he had been up ‘til two scrubbing high fructose corn syrup out of his ass crack. Last night wasn’t a matter of rejection—Andrew hopes—but a matter of being at the right place at the right time. And if Andrew’s being honest, attempting to confess his not-so-secret crush in a McDonald’s parking lot isn’t ideal.

So, Andrew will try again. Maybe. Eventually. When there is less soda, less Nicky, and a lot more gin in Andrew’s juice.

His stomach twists with hunger, and he imagines pancakes, hot and dripping with syrup and honey—

Andrew falls over, rolling onto his back. Allison barks a laugh from the porch swing, saluting him with her cup of organic and, frankly, overpriced coffee.

“If your pick-up game is anything like your posture, I feel bad for your dick and your back,” Allison says, untangling herself from a heavy-looking afghan. Suddenly, Andrew doesn’t feel bad for making Renee kick Allison out of the master suite for a Cupcake Wars marathon last night.

“When will you learn that I don’t give a fuck about anything you have to say?” Andrew tosses back, turning onto his front and pushing himself to stand.

Renee, who’s facing him with hands pressed together, says, “Uh uh, I taught you better than that.”

Andrew’s resounding glare is no match for Renee’s infinite patience, and after a few seconds he settles back on his mat and mutters quickly, “The light in me honors the light in you.”

“Don’t worry,” Allison says, and Andrew turns to watch her stride toward them, her faux-mink lined robe grazing wet grass. Andrew moves to whisper in Renee’s ear about hiding their Tide pens when Allison leans down to smirk at Andrew. “When you find yourself alone and decrepit, which you inevitably will, you can always have the guesthouse.”

“‘You can always have the guesthouse’,” Andrew mocks. “Fuck you. You’re the one who’s known Neil longer. You should know who he likes to fuck.”

“Not you. That I can say with confidence,” Allison says, bristling only when Renee pokes her side. “Not that I know his type. Believe me, I’ve asked. Maybe he’s just picky.” Allison looks him up and down. “As he should be.”

Andrew can’t believe it, but Allison might be on to something. Neil’s too hard to read, especially when he gives an equal—if questionable—amount of attention to everyone he meets. Besides, maybe Neil is out of his league.

“Your best bet is asking him, though I doubt he’d give you a straight answer,” Allison gives Renee a hand, easing her up, “or a gay one at that.”

“Point is, you won’t know unless you try,” Renee says, pulling Andrew into her embrace. He tries not to grimace when he brushes against Allison, but it’s a near thing.

“So you better try again,” Renee adds, pinching his arm.

“It’s not nice to set your friends up for failure, babe,” Allison says. They shuffle up the porch steps, Renee more or less dragging her girlfriend and best friend into the kitchen.

“You’ll be eating shit when he ends up saying yes,” Andrew spits. He pulls open the fridge with more force than necessary and throws a carton of eggs onto the counter.

Allison laughs. “Bold words, Minyard. Wanna bet? I’ll even make it interesting: You get Neil Josten out on a date—a real date, with a kiss at the end, and I’ll admit I was wrong.”

“Fuck no, I want the Maserati,” Andrew growls.

“Guys—” Renee interjects, but Allison and Andrew ignore her.

“You’re on.”

Chapter Text

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Andrew Minyard is a dumbass.

After shoving forkfuls of pancakes into his mouth and offering Renee a half-assed homework excuse, Andrew rushes home, strips, and collapses face-down onto his unmade bed. An hour later, he’s covered in a slew of Cheez-It crumbs, wondering just how many lines his brand of stupid crosses.

Many, probably.

His options, however, are limited being as one thing’s clear: there’s no fucking way Andrew’s telling Neil anything. Andrew’s pretty sure Lizzie would’ve kicked Darcy’s ass if he had propositioned her over a bet, and not for nothing, but Andrew’s attempting, at the very least, to score a second date.

Andrew flips onto his stomach and burrows further into his stained comforter. It’s not like he’s lying about his feelings, right? If anything, the bet would motivate him to do something he should’ve done months ago.

Then again, there’s always the risk that Neil isn’t into him, that Andrew is going to make a fool out of himself, but what if—and it’s a big what if—Neil wants him too?

He’ll just need a way to explain that god-damned Maserati.


Christmas is next week and between work, studying for finals, and avoiding his brother’s awkward dinner invitations, Andrew’s thoughts of the bet slide somewhere between out of sight and out of mind.

That is, until Andrew gets a text.

He’s in the kitchen, poking at the questionable contents in his fridge and making plans for a grocery store trip when his phone lights up.

It’s a text from the stupid group chat Renee added him to a few months back. Normally, Andrew mutes the messages, only opening them to remove the app notification, but last week while playing with his phone, Renee unmuted the conversation, and Andrew never got around to changing it back.

He opens the chat to mute again when Neil’s name catches his eye. Anyone down for a free lunch?

Andrew bites his lip, contemplating whether the message was meant for him, or rather, meant for his reply, when another message pops up. The correct response was ‘yes, tell me more!’

Apologies and excuses flood in, mainly from Dan and Matt, and after hovering over his phone, Andrew opens a new message and types in Neil’s name.

Now or never, right?

What’s up? Andrew quickly presses send and exits the app, ignoring the slight tremble in his hand.

His phone lights up again. I need someone to accompany me on a high-stakes mission. You game?

Oh, Andrew’s so game.


Neil’s high-stakes mission is, as it turns out, a trip to Goodwill.

Andrew doesn’t remember the last time he’d been in a Goodwill, but still, he’s hit with a wave of familiarity as he walks through the doors. Childhood memories, warped by ramen noodles and feelings of financial uncertainty buzz near the edge of his mind, but Andrew swats it away.

He finds Neil easily enough, picking through a color-coded rack of awfully-patterned sweaters and shirts.

“Excuse me, sir, but would you happen to carry this in my size?” Neil lifts up a hideous fuchsia pullover, grinning.

“Not sure. Might I suggest looking in our dumpster?” Andrew gestures vaguely behind him.

Neil hums, pushing the sweater into Andrew’s chest to hold. He meanders down the aisle, running his hand along the tops of the sweaters, as if feeling out their potential. “I need something for Dan, something that says, Merry Christmas and I love everything about you.”

Andrew looks around before picking up a disturbing looking cat figurine. “Like this?”

Eyeing the cat, then Andrew, Neil says, “I would yell at you for not being helpful, but I really only asked you here to carry my bags so—“

Andrew lobs a dirty stuffed Elmo at Neil’s head, which only serves to make Neil laugh and throw back a one-eared bunny. Neil misses, almost hitting a middle-aged women in the back.  

The store busies, and as they wander down the aisles, separate but not apart, Andrew picks through a basket of odd items, frowning at a greasy Barbie head. “This isn’t even secondhand, these are things nobody should ever, ever own.”

“That’s an awful thing to say,” Neil raises an eyebrow, but his mouth softens into a grin. “Most of my formative years were spent in a Goodwill, and no, not for the aesthetic.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Andrew mutters, but his ears prickle at the new information.

“I’m more offended that you don’t like the way I dress.”

“No, I do, I—you, you always look good. Real good.” Andrew needs to stop speaking. Immediately. He fumbles with an antique doorknob, looking for anything to distract his brain from interacting with his mouth. Fortunately, Neil just smiles and tugs him toward a fur-covered flatware set.

At some point, an old Shania Twain song comes on, and Neil starts mouthing the words. “What’s this? A Shania fan?” Andrew asks, biting his lip to keep from smiling.

“Never that,” Neil says, trying on a pair of military-grade boots. “I am, however, an early 2000s enthusiast.”

Andrew’s snort is muffled as Neil starts singing, grabbing an old candlestick to use as a microphone. Andrew’s face must’ve said it all, because Neil laughs and says, even louder, “Oh, I’m sorry. Is this embarrassing? Am I embarrassing you, Andrew Minyard?”

Trying to grab Neil’s candlestick, Andrew miscalculates and stumbles into Neil, who grabs his shirt to steady himself and misses by a long shot, pulling Andrew down with him.

And there ain't no way,

I'm lettin' you go now.

Giggling, they spread out on the floor, mindless of the customers around them, and as Neil continues to whisper lyrics in his ear, Andrew can’t help but agree with Shania.

Chapter Text

“So, how’s that coming along?”

Distracted, and a bit startled, Andrew looks up from his phone to Renee’s raised eyebrow. Her pale hair is tied up with a bright-blue ribbon, a present from two or three Christmases ago. She stirs her tea deliberately slow, tapping her spoon against the rim, and Andrew knows she’s imagining smacking him upside the head with it.

“Mmph,” Andrew grunts over a sticky bite of pastry. “Sorry.”

Renee offers him a smile, playful, just shy of a smirk, and Andrew slides his phone under his thigh and shows her empty hands.

“What?” he huffs, laughing when the smug-smile stays.

“Nothing,” Renee replies. “It’s just, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you like this. That’s all.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Andrew says, knowing exactly what she’s talking about. He’s been glued to his phone all day—all week, really, and it has everything to do with a certain Neil Josten.

It started when Neil texted him after their Goodwill escapade. Initially, Neil had asked Andrew for the whereabouts of his scarf—he found it, minutes later, underneath his bed—there, the conversation eased into recommendations for a new breakfast hangout and their mutual revulsion toward Trump politics. Hours went by, and when Andrew had expected Neil to stop replying, he didn’t.

Instead, they exchanged embarrassing middle-school stories and silly Snapchat filters that, after a few days, morphed into late-night calls that had Andrew yawning through his day shift, happier than he’d ever been. Or happier than Renee’s seen him, at least.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen Smitten Andrew since Brady Jenkins’ debut in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in tenth grade.”

Okay, maybe Andrew’s a little bit smitten.

As if on cue, his phone vibrates his thigh, and it takes every ounce of Andrew’s self-control not to look down. Neil’s recent text, I’d like to think my soulmate was a sperm that wasn’t quick enough. Forever lost to oblivion, has gone unreplied, and as much as Andrew doesn’t want to dignify that text with a response, his fingers itch with a rebuttal that’s equal parts weird and flirty.

Renee, sensing his distress, rolls her eyes and waves a relenting hand toward his phone. “Maybe you’re going to win this bet after all. Allison will be quite hard to console,” she says, sipping her tea. Usually, Andrew would take the opportunity to throw any and all cheap shots at Allison, but mention of the bet is like a shock of ice water down his back.

“Oh, God,” Andrew says, then louder, “Oh, God.”  

Smug-smile is back. “Ah. I was wondering if you had forgotten,” Renee says.

Andrew’s forehead hits the table. “Of course I forgot about it. Fuck’s sake, Renee. Now what am I going to do?” Of all Andrew’s bad ideas, going the She’s All That route is the absolute worst.

She considers that for a moment. “Ask him to the New Year’s party.”

“Renee,” Andrew lifts his head, unimpressed. “You can’t just ask someone to a party they’re already invited to, that’s like—”

“Asking someone to a party they’re already invited to?” Renee guesses, equally unimpressed.

Sighing, Andrew shrugs off his leather jacket, suddenly warm. “I’ll figure it out.”

Renee doesn’t object, and they drop it. He’s grateful, he tells himself, putting his phone away, unanswered.


It’s half-past ten when Renee comes over and all but shoves Andrew into the shower, displaying potential outfits through the opaque curtain as he brushes his teeth vigorously.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Andrew slurs around a mouthful of Colgate. He spits, narrowly missing his thigh, and cuts the water off. He bumps hips with Renee as he wraps himself in a towel and pads into his bedroom.

“Then why are you applying an insane amount of deodorant?” Renee asks, pushing a stack of newly-washed clothes off his bed to sit.

Andrew frowns at the pile. “First of all, rude.” Picking up a wrinkled button-up, he slides it on before immediately discarding it. It’s like all of his clothes called a meeting and made the executive decision to look like shit.

Renee starts looking through the pile. She eyes a pair of dark jeans, considering, before shaking her head and tossing it back.“I don’t care. No more nice Renee.”

That was nice Renee? Andrew says as much, earning two handfuls of clothes to the face.

“Can you like, help me?” Andrew says, sobering up. “I have to make tonight count.”

“Don’t worry, Cinderella. Only good things after midnight.” Renee smiles, coming up behind him to rest her chin on his shoulder.

Andrew snorts, but pulls her in. They pop a bottle of champagne, laughing as it spills over the top, bubbly and bright. They toast to good friends, good fortune, and plenty of fucks to give—or receive, Renee inserts—in 2019.

Andrew’s ready to drink in the new year. 

Chapter Text

There's a small, slight, totally insignificant possibility that Andrew is having a good time.

He tries to think of a complaint, something to maintain his reputation, but the urge drifts away as Renee refills his cup. Before he knows it, she's pulling toward the dance floor, a sticky mess of alcohol and confetti, and Andrew goes willingly.

Noisemakers mix with Billboard's Hot 100 and usually Andrew would cringe, but this Andrew, tipsy Andrew, doesn't mind. In fact, he finds himself in the thick of the crowd, enjoying the bubbly, lighthearted feeling that's settled in his throat.

Andrew moves around—he wouldn't dare call it dancing—and doesn't realize he's stumbled into a new group until Renee and Nicky, who comes out of nowhere, grab his hands, twirling him back to where Dan, Matt, and Allison have also materialized.

"Having fun, Minyard?" Allison asks, her condescending tone carrying over the music. Her rhinestone choker catches in the disco light, blinding Andrew momentarily.

Finishing his drink, Andrew hands the empty cup to Allison and says, "Yeah, it's almost like someone cool threw this party."

Dan and Matt wrap a feather boa around Andrew's neck before dragging a disgruntled Allison toward the photo booth. Renee takes a feathery end, Nicky the other, and they trap Andrew in their dancing circle.

It's here, underneath the neon glow of the New Year's sign, that Andrew catches the night's first glimpse of Neil.

A flash of tight jeans. An open-buttoned shirt. A considerable amount of glitter.

Oh boy.

Andrew's not the only one to notice. The crowd vibrates with new energy, gravitating toward Neil as he perches onto the kitchen counter. Andrew's heart clenches as laughter spills from the kitchen. It's nights like these when Andrew realizes just how different he and Neil are.

“You guys,” Nicky slurs, wrapping his arms around Andrew’s and Renee’s shoulders.“This is the best, okay? I love you guys so much. Even you, ‘ndrew, cause at first I was suspect, and then I spilled soda on you and I thought you were ‘onna kill me, you know, but you’re a good guy and, and if anyone should be with Neil, it’s you, man. You deserve him. I want to—Promise me I can be a bridesmaid, okay?”

Nicky's words circle Andrew's alcohol-soaked brain, and he has a hard time wrapping his head around what the fuck Nicky just said. Luckily, Renee just shakes her head and ushers Nicky, and his snot-covered feather boa, into the bathroom, leaving Andrew's attention to drift back to the kitchen.

Before he knows it, Andrew's stepping on broken pairs of 2019 glasses and pushing past thrashing bodies.

The kitchen crowd has thinned like smoke, and with no Neil in sight, Andrew wanders the row of artfully assembled drink crates. He sticks his hand into the ice and is pulling out a beer when someone waves an empty, lipstick-stained cup in his face. Thinking it's Allison, Andrew's seconds from knocking the cup across the floor.

He straightens up to find Neil smiling at him.

"Corona, please," Neil says, and immediately turns to greet a passerby.

Andrew picks through the ice. He wonders if their friendship is one that doesn't translate well in person. No, that doesn't make sense. Maybe he should mention one of their text conversations—there's that really funny one where—or, you could start with hi.

"Hi," Andrew blurts, the icy water no match for the rosy flush that spreads down his neck.

Neil says something to his friend, who waves at them before walking away. Neil turns again, and Andrew lets his eyes drift for a moment, running along the pools of glitter in the dips of Neil's collarbone before meeting Neil's amused gaze.

"Hi. Right," Andrew says and sinks back into the ice. "One Corona coming right up." He manages to pull out a bottle and pop the cap without further embarrassment. Neil's eyes don't leave his as he lifts the beer and takes a drink.

Andrew looks down. Which is a terrible, no good, very bad idea as the curve of Neil's calves is enough to leave his mouth wordlessly dry.

"No...laces?" Andrew spits out, his mouth-to-brain connection obviously severed.

"Nope. Thought I'd give you the night off," Neil grins, wiggling his slip-on boot.

Andrew doesn't know what possesses him to say, “You wanna head outside? I’ll sneak a bowl of Chex Mix if you steal a bottle from Allison’s cabinet," but the words leave his mouth burning. Andrew feels dangerous.

Neil stares at him long enough for Andrew to think he'll say no, but then his mouth curls into a wicked grin. “I know just the place.”


They end up on Allison's and Renee's bedroom balcony, the music fading into the quiet of the night as they situate themselves on the ledge. Their feet dangle off the edge, and Andrew imagines squishing the people lingering on the patio with his boot.

Their silence is comfortable, not forced, and even though the cold nips at his uncovered fingers, Andrew feels like he can sit out here for forever.

“You have any cigarettes on you?”

Andrew shakes his head. “Renee hid them. She wants quitting to be my New Year’s resolution.”

Laughing, Neil takes a swig of their wine and passes it to Andrew, who imagines rubbing his thumb into the red until Neil’s lips bloom scarlet. “Are you going to stick with it?”

“I’ve already made a resolution.”

“Ohh, do tell,” Neil says, licking Chex Mix from his fingers.

Andrew takes a breath, letting it out slow and watching the air around him fog. “Being more honest. I want to be more honest with myself. And others.”

Tilting his head, Neil shifts toward him, tossing their empty snack bowl somewhere behind him. “That’s so interesting because mine is to collect more people’s secrets.”

“How convenient.” Andrew’s lips twist, wry. Neil’s close enough now that Andrew can see the dusting of freckles and glitter along his cheekbones.

“I’m serious. I want a secret. Now,” but he’s smiling, and Andrew wants to swallow his laugh.

"The first CD I owned was Hilary Duff's Metamorphosis."

Neil’s snort is justified, Andrew thinks, but the giggle that follows is incredibly, extremely, remarkably uncalled for. He’s never tried to recreate moments. Once they’re gone, there’s no point in trying to replicate something lost to time, but here, right now, Andrew wouldn’t mind if his whole life was this moment.

He goes to say as much, or some variant of it, when Neil’s phone rings.

“I have to go find someone, I’ll see you later though, right? Neil says, hopping down.

“Yeah, yes, definitely,” Andrew says, swallowing his disappointment. He watches Neil leave, waiting a minute before heading downstairs.

The roar of the crowd is deafening, and only then does Andrew realize it’s 11:59. Allison has the countdown projected on the living room’s main wall, and Andrew has to shove past drunken party-goers to reach the middle.

Ten, nine, eight.

He spies Nicky near the back and hopes he doesn't notice him. 

Seven, six, five.

It only takes a few seconds to make a moment.

Four, three, two.

And even less for it to fall apart. 

One.

Finally, Andrew spots Neil and follows him into the kitchen. He lingers near the entryway, frozen as a dark-haired man lifts Neil onto the countertop. Neil laughs, but it sounds distant, like Andrew's listening from another room. Andrew watches, helpless, as Neil tugs his shirt, pulling the man closer, and kisses him. 

Happy New Year!

Chapter Text

As midnight blurs into 12:01, partiers toss their cups into the air, effectively soaking Andrew in lukewarm booze and confetti. He turns out of the walkway, pushing past bodies until his back hits an unclaimed wall. He breaths around the alcohol, around the embarrassment that rattles his chest like a bad cold and waits for his world to stop spinning. 

It doesn’t. 


“Sorry we’re late,” Renee says, slipping into the booth where Matt, Dan, Nicky, and Allison are playing a bastardized version of paper football with salt and sugar packets. Andrew’s mind doesn’t drift too far down the river of Neil’s whereabouts, but that’s mostly due to the hand that yanks him into a seat.

The sky is stained gray with snow, and Andrew’s thoughts are free to wander as the waitress comes to take their order. His mouth softens a little as Renee orders him a large milkshake with chocolate shavings. After a week of dodging calls, working late-shifts, and overindulging in an undisclosed amount of Taco Bell Chalupa Boxes, Renee finally called Andrew out on his shit, taking one look at his apartment and all but throwing him into the passenger seat of her car. He could’ve struggled, but there was a good chance Renee would’ve tossed  him over her shoulder—she spars like, three times a week. 

He doesn’t care—even if he spent the last seven nights staring at his phone until he fell asleep. The idea of not speaking to Neil, intentionally or otherwise, has Andrew lopsided and fumbling through his days, yet Neil’s sloppy Happyyyy New Yearss :) is still sitting unanswered in Andrew’s inbox. He just needs to figure out how he feels, felt, still feels—

 “Hey man,” Nicky gives what Andrew assumes is his best smile. “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be a fun, chill night.” Nicky leans over and cups a hand over his mouth. “We didn’t invite Neil.” 

Normally, Andrew wouldn’t indulge Nicky in this, or any, conversation, but the idea of Andrew’s stupid feelings  being the reason for Neil’s absence has him curling his fists. “What the fuck did you tell him?”

“You didn’t invite Neil?” The girls echo at the same time. 

Matt’s taking a bite of his burger when Dan elbows him. “Donmm’t look ahh me, I didm’t know.”

Nicky shrugs. “I didn’t tell him anything, I thought it’d be awkwar—OW, fuck, Dan!”

“You shouldn’t have done that, Nicky,” Renee chides, putting down her menu. 

“It wasn’t like I didn’t purposefully not invite him, I just...withheld information.” Nicky looks at Andrew pointedly. “And here I thought I was being nice.” 

In another timeline, Andrew’s secure enough in his feelings and passes on the excuse to punch Nicky in the throat. Unfortunately for Andrew— and Nicky—this universe has Andrew violently flicking sugar packets between his fingers, just enough that Nicky visibly sinks back into the vinyl and Andrew feels the warning weight of Renee’s hand on his wrist. 

“God, Nicky, whose side are you on, anyway?” Allison asks, not looking up from her phone.

Andrew turns to sneer at her. “There are no sides, Reynolds. It was a stupid crush. Not even that. It didn’t mean anything.” 

It’s almost funny how easily the lie splinters his tongue. Stupid crush. Stupid crush. Stupid crush. The words begin to crack under the weight of a truth Andrew’s not ready to face. 

Allison continues,  “I just think it’s funny you’re accommodating Mr. Sunshine over here, who you’ve known for like three months, over—”

“I wouldn’t even be here anyway if it weren’t for the fact that a literal demon tricked my best friend into dating her. You can’t tell me she hasn’t seen your claws.”

Allison smirks, waving freshly-manicured nails. “She sure has.” 

“Allison,” Renee sighs, though it sounds more like a laugh than a reprimand, and Andrew’s side-eye is extinguished as her arm wraps around his shoulder. 

“Guys,” Nicky whines, bringing Andrew and Allison to a stalemate. “Now I feel bad. Worse than the time I lost the communal turtle in second grade.” Nicky takes a mournful sip of soda. 

“You’re the one who lost Shelly?” Matt asks, still chewing as Dan squints and says, “I think you mean classroom turtle.”

Allison slants her head, looking up from her phone for the first time since Andrew sat down. “What the fuck are you on, Nicky. Really, indulge us—”

It’s then that the group’s phones go off, with Andrew’s buzzing forcefully in his pocket. “Oh, shit, Neil wants to know what we’re doing!” Nicky screeches, dropping his phone and pushing it, along with their trash, to the middle of the table. 

“Then tell him, Nicholas,” Allison says, faux-sweet. Part of Andrew wants to know just how many men Allison has buried in her backyard, but the mention of being in the same room as Neil has wiped Andrew of all coherent thought.

An argument arises, mainly on whether Nicky’s ever owned a single brain cell, but between flying used napkins and Nicky’s rising objections, no one notices someone is leaning against an adjacent booth until they slap their hands on the table. 

“God, Nicky. I can hear you from outside.”

The group stills as Neil drags a chair and flips it so the back is against the table.  Andrew tries not to stare, but still manages to take in the patch of damp hair Neil pushes back and the flex of his thighs before looking down at his hands. It’s just a stupid crush.  

“Saw you guys through the window, figured I’d sit until my lab partner showed up,” Neil continues, picking up a menu. “But then, I heard I was banned, and I just can’t believe I missed out on a good roast. Lay it on me, what did the rat bastard do,” Neil laughs, and when no one else does, clarifies, “it’s me, I’m the rat bastard.”

It’s quiet for the first time that night, which should’ve been his first—or  fifth—red flag as the entire table, save for Neil, is staring at him. Allison, Dan, and Nicky’s eyes are expectant, while Renee looks like she wants to bundle him in a blanket and never let him out, and Matt looks like he’s ready to catch him if he faints. 

Andrew’s stomach drops, and it feels like a century passes before Neil looks up from his menu. 

“Oh?” Neil says. it’s casual enough, but Andrew can hear the curiosity pinned between the letters. He almost wants to slip underneath the table and crawl toward the emergency exit, but he’s only marginally convinced that would be more embarrassing. 

“Oh.” Neil says again, more decisive, and Andrew’s ready to slide down to the linoleum. 

“Oh?” Nicky mimics, turning, with the rest of them, to face Neil. 

“Oh,” Neil nods solemnly. “Alright,” he disentangles himself from the chair. “Let’s chat.” Andrew wouldn’t be surprised if the group woke up tomorrow with whiplash with how violently they flick their heads between him and Neil. 

“Come on,” Neil urges, and it’s only then that Andrew realizes he’s speaking to him.

“Me?” Andrew asks numbly.  

Neil only smiles and starts toward the other side of the diner while Andrew, along with the rest of the group, can only stare stupidly after him.   

“Well,” Dan urges, gesturing to where Neil walked off.  “What are you waiting for?”

“Go get your man,” Nicky sighs dreamily. 

Renee pats his leg when he hesitates. “Go on, we’ll be here.” 

Allison huffs but ultimately stays silent, and Andrew would believe in small miracles if he weren’t breathing as though someone just yanked the lungs from his chest. 

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Andrew mutters but pulls himself out of the booth. 

Chapter Text

There’s a basket of greasy fries on the table when Andrew sits down.

“Want one?” Neil asks, grabbing two and pushing the rest toward Andrew, who shakes his head, feeling the weight of their nearing conversation like a lead pipe across his chest. Neil shrugs, his mouth easing into something entirely too soft, and once again Andrew’s left feeling as though the entire world has been reduced to the size of a cheap diner. 

“How’s the new year been treating you?” Neil asks as he sucks ketchup off his finger. His hair is mostly dry now, with a few defiant curls spilling onto his forehead in a way that if Andrew weren’t holding onto his reservations by a single, tattered, emotionally damaged thread, he would twist them back in place. 

“Is that really why you’re here,” Andrew blurts, keeping his eyes on the thick, chocolate swirl of Neil’s milkshake, but the warped glass magnifies the twist in Neil’s brow. 

“I figured you’d say what you needed to say,” Neil pauses, taking another fry. “When you needed to say it.” 

“Really,” Andrew says, more to himself. He’s not an idiot, despite the overwhelming evidence stacked against him. Neil knows, and Andrew knows that Neil knows, and Neil knows that Andrew knows that Neil knows. And it should feel like a bombshell, but the debris settles in the warm spaces between Andrew’s ribs more comfortably than he thought, so much that he almost doesn’t notice the unspoken challenge coiled artfully between each word. 

But he does, and Andrew should take the moment and process the damage, the implications and consequences, and really think about—

“I like you.” 

There’s a revelation tucked between this breath and his next, Andrew’s sure of it, but it falls flat, like the words sat in his head so long they lost momentum. Neil doesn’t pick or poke at them, in fact he doesn’t say anything, but there’s a sharpness in Andrew’s stomach that keeps him from feeling ignored. 

“Look,” Andrew backtracks, similar to using a broom to mop up a spill. “It’s no big deal. Plus the minute I saw you kissing your boyfriend—“ Andrew trails off, feeling infinitely small.

“I don’t think Kevin Day would know what to do with a boyfriend,” Neil snorts, playing with his phone. “I’ll have to text him that.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Andrew mutters, then louder says, “Wait, so you’re not dating that guy?” 

Neil’s mouth curves. “What guy?” 

The omission is neither surprising nor any less alluring, but Andrew’s mind scatters as every single moment he’s wasted resurfaces, met gazes and lingering smiles float around him like driftwood, revealing the briny realization that he’s spent the last six months drowning when he could’ve reached a hand out and touched shore. 

Andrew shakes his head, huffing out an almost-laugh. “I can’t believe… I was so caught up in the idea of not having a chance with you that I made up reasons why you wouldn’t—”

“Oh, you don’t,” Neil interrupts, sipping his shake. 

“Don’t what?” Andrew frowns.

“Have a chance,” Neil says. “But if it makes you feel better, if you did have a chance, you would definitely have a chance.” 

“What the fuck?” 

“I don’t really,” Neil waves a hand, “do that. But I’m flattered.” He drops his chin into waiting palms, still smiling. 

Andrew’s eyebrows shoot up. “I’m...that?” 

Neil looks at him, considering. “No, well, yes. But, I mean dating. Relationships.” Neil raises his palm. “That.”

Of all the disastrous ways Andrew’s imagined this conversation going, he can’t say he expected this… or should he say that . Neil, on the other hand, must have because he shrugs and clarifies, “I’ve just never been into the dating scene.”

“That’s…” Andrew starts, cursing himself for not choosing literally any other word. “Fair, I guess. Most of the time it’s not worth it.” 

It’s not like he can promise Neil he’ll be worth it.  

Neil’s mouth twitches. “Mm, no I mean, it’s me. I’ve never met someone I wanted to date, and I’ve met far too many people in my lifetime.” 

The salty-sharp truth overwhelms Andrew’s senses, leaving him too warm and not enough, and if there was ever a moment where Andrew should walk away, it’s now, but he’s rooted in place, unable to tear himself from Neil’s gaze. 

“So, do you think you’ll ever meet someone you’d want to date?”

Neil shrugs. “I guess technically, though I can't say I’m fond of the blanket’s worth of strings attached to the word either.” 

“If only there was an alternative to dating. Like, Not Dating,” Andrew jokes, hoping to ease the lump in his throat. 

Neil’s eyebrow raises, his smile pulling into something wide and all too familiar. “That’s perfect.”