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Such a Simple Thing

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Neil waited until the light of his last cigarette had finally gone out without a drag before he took his duffel and headed towards the park. The wooden bench under an oak had become a fixed constant over the past weeks, but tonight someone else was already sleeping on it. Neil sighed before heading towards an unsheltered bench next to a waste bin and settled down for another night in the cold.

Autumn was slowly transitioning into winter. He used to like the snow, but since he lived on the streets winter meant cold nights on even colder benches. He’d caught a heavy cold two weeks ago and the chill didn’t make for a rapid recovery. Muffled up in his bedroll he watched the star-covered ceiling, shivering until exhaustion deadened him.

~~~~~~

Andrew didn’t exactly oppose being on early shift. After the first rush, he mostly had enough time to refill the displays and smoke a cigarette in the staff room. In addition, Aaron had taken his last two early shifts for him. Taking today’s seemed fair, although Katelyn‘s annoyed face for throwing Aaron out of her bed would have been worth the waiver of some extra money.

At sunrise, the first rush was gone and Andrew started filling the display with several pastries and rolls. Dead on time, the familiar face of a disheveled guy appeared in the shop window. He‘d been showing up every morning for the last few weeks but had never come in to buy something. Most of the time, he spent some minutes studying the different pastries with his blue eyes, that looked way too gorgeous for someone seemingly homeless, before dropping his head and moving on. Pathetic.

When Nicky finally arrived in the afternoon, Andrew took off his apron and changed into his black hoodie.

“Bye, Andrew! Thanks for helping out.” Nicky gave him a wide smile that made Andrew ask himself how someone could be this positive all the time.

“Bye,” he muttered and went down the alley to the bookstore.

The bookstore was Andrew’s favorite place, if he ever had to pick one. The mahogany shelves covered the walls and seemed to reach for the ceiling. A winding stair with creaking steps led upstairs where several armchairs were gathered around a fireplace, inviting customers to browse books or magazines, while having some tea or hot chocolate, which Renee provided for free. It was Andrew’s best place to go to when old ghosts haunted him once again and socializing was even harder than usual.

“Andrew, good to see you. Your books arrived.” Renee was as positive as Nicky but at least not that overly enthusiastic when it came to conversations.

“Thanks. I’ll flip through them later.”

He went upstairs and scanned the new arrivals in the poetry section. Just as he wanted to leave for the register, he spotted a familiar auburn thatch poring over a book. Andrew stopped dead in his tracks and stared at the haggard guy.

“He’s been coming every day for the last four weeks, sitting in this corner and reading.” Renee jolted Andrew out of his thoughts. “He never buys anything, he just waits for the day to pass I guess and drinks a hot chocolate from time to time. Well, he mostly refuses to take them, but I give him some anyway.”

Andrew remained silent for a while, his eyes scanning the threadbare clothes of the young man, before answering. “He stops by the shop every morning, looks at the pastries, but never comes in to buy some.”

“Seems like he’s living on the streets. Have you seen the scars on his face? He’s always carrying this duffel around and yesterday he had a leaf in his hair. I don’t want to throw him out. He’s coughing and I guess he’s caught a bad flu.”

Renee - worried as always and way too caring for strangers. Andrew left without another comment and paid for his books at the register before leaving for some grocery shopping.

When all the groceries were stuffed into Andrew’s car, he drove home where Aaron and Katelyn were waiting to prepare dinner. He’d somehow gotten used to Katelyn being around in their house although he’d rather put up with her than like her. Living with Nicky and Erik was hard enough to be fair and when Katelyn moved in too, he had tried to avoid the living room full of lovebirds most of the time. Aaron filled up the fridge and stared at his twin. It took a moment before the same set of hazel eyes stared back at him.

“What,” Andrew asked with his blank expression that was so familiar to Aaron.

“Thanks for switching shifts,” Aaron said and turned away to chop some vegetables and cook spaghetti.

Andrew shrugged and went into his bedroom. He sat down at his desk, reading one of his new poetry books while smoking a cigarette.

the irony of loneliness

is we all feel it

at the same time

together - Rupi Kaur

He shut the book and stared at the ceiling until Aaron called for dinner.

~~~~~~

Neil woke up with a fever. He’d hoped that his cold would subside, instead it’d worsened. He’d run out of money two weeks ago, but couldn’t risk moving on to get some more since the FBI was still tracking him. No money, no doctor - he’d have to make it on his own.

After rolling up his bedroll and stuffing it into his duffel, he slogged along the path by the pond, heading for the book shop. As always, he stopped at the bakery, looking at the rolls, croissants and pastries. He hadn’t eaten some proper food in a long time, surviving on leftovers or handouts at the warm room. When the staff met his eyes, he quickly headed towards the bookstore. At least he would get some hot chocolate there, although that couldn’t put a stop to his progressing weight loss.

The bell over the grating door rang as he entered the book shop. The scent of chocolate and cinnamon enveloped Neil and drew him upstairs to the fireplace.

“Hi.”

Neil winced at the unexpected greeting by the girl who must be working at the shop as a regular because she greeted him every morning.

“Hi,” he answered hoarsely, coughing while mounting the steps. He took the novel he’d started the other day and sat down in an armchair by the chimney to warm himself.

“Hot chocolate?”

Another scare. “Don’t bother, I’m fine.” Now he would have to go without it. He probably should leave before she could bombard him with more questions.

“Are you from Ithaca?”

And there it was. “No, just moved here recently.”

“I see.” She grabbed herself a cup of tea and started sorting books and magazines. Neil relaxed when she finally vanished and tried to concentrate on his book, but all the letters just seemed to dance around. His head pounded, his skin burned and he felt a flush of cold sweat on his nape. The cushions were alluring, tempting his tired body to give in and fall asleep. He had barely slept last night and had been yawning all morning. His head fell against the backrest, blackness surrounding him and pulling him into a weird hallucination about that  night in Baltimore. He suddenly felt Lola’s hands on his cheek, pressing the dashboard lighter into his arm and face. His face burned when his father cut and burnt him even further, threatening to cut off his legs. Neil tried to escape, but he couldn’t. His father was getting closer, almost near enough to take away his legs.

“Hey, wake up. Are you alright?”

Neil’s eyes fluttered open as he felt a grip on his arm. He saw the familiar rainbow colored hair tips and remembered being at the bookstore. “I’m sorry,” he slurred, his head pounding. When he realized that he must have been passed out in the armchair, he quickly gathered his stuff and slung his duffel over his shoulder.

“You muttered words and made some agonized noises and really look feverish. Don’t you want to see a doctor?”

“No, I’m fine, thanks. Sorry again for disturbing.” Neil got up and stumbled downstairs and out of the door before the employee could stop him. A quick glance at the clock behind the register revealed that he’d slept for almost five hours, which made him scold himself for being so incautious. He could already feel his mother’s hand hitting his cheek for that. It took a moment to realize that cold drops were hitting his face, cooling his feverish head down. When he held out his hand and looked at his palm, tiny snowflakes were melting in it. The first snow had arrived.

Chapter Text

Andrew’s shift ended at 6 pm which meant he had to check the register and close the shop. After turning all the lights off and taking the daily turnover out of the cash till, he strode towards the bookstore and rolled a cigarette. His hands were shaking - Andrew blamed the cold instead of the withdrawal.

Renee was just locking the entrance when Andrew arrived.

“Hey Drew, ready for sparring?”

Andrew just nodded and took another drag, feeling the comforting burn of smoke in his lungs. Don’t ask, you’ll regret it. “Has I-don’t-buy-anything-wherever-I-go guy showed up today?”

“Yeah.” Renee gave him a quick smile followed by a concerned look. “He came in as always right after I had opened the shop and strode upstairs. And of course he refused to take a hot chocolate when I offered it.” She remained silent for a while before glancing at Andrew. “Why would you ask?”

Andrew just shrugged. “Don’t know, he’d just almost pressed his pathetic face onto the shop window this morning.”

“His condition was even worse today; he was sweaty and looked like death. At around noon I went upstairs and he had passed out in the armchair.”

Pathetic. What was wrong with that tramp.

“I mean, I suggested seeing a doctor but all he did was run off.” Renee looked angry and worried at once, staring at Andrew who still didn’t show any reaction. “Oh come on, Drew. You weren’t asking for nothing.”

Andrew stubbed his cigarette out and started for the gym. “I was just - interested.”

“Sure, just interested.”

Andrew glared at her for the insinuation and shrugged.

“Have you seen him, too?”

“Same pathetic stare, same pathetic face, same as everyday.”

Before Renee could answer, he went into the changing room. The sparring session was rougher than usual, but at least it kept the itch for some pills at bay. Afterwards, Andrew let the hot shower wash away the tension from his sore muscles.

When he closed his eyes, a pair of blue ones suddenly stared at him the same way they used to scan the pastries every morning. It wasn’t the first time they had haunted him. It had started last week as he was picking up a box from the floor to move it into the storehouse. When he had finally lifted the monstrosity of a box full of Christmas decorations, he didn’t see the familiar face staring at pastries, but directly at him. Sure, he’d seen the guy a dozen times before by then, but on that day, something changed. The way he saw him changed. No matter how fucked up this guy seemed to him before, those eyes had a pull he had never felt before. Once he’d looked into them, he veritably had to force himself to avert the dark, deep blue ocean he was about to drown in.

He quickly lowered the water temperature to wash the gaze from his brain before getting dressed. Renee was already waiting for him when he finally reached the studio hall.

“Matt and Dan are celebrating their moving into the new house tomorrow. You’ll come, won’t you?” Renee inquired.

“Sure,” Andrew muttered while he got into his car. After dropping Renee off at her apartment, Andrew drove to the park and took a walk alone to smoke a cigarette. He’d forgotten his scarf and gloves, so the coldness crept into his bones within a few minutes. Suddenly, his thoughts wandered to Matt and Dan, Dan being pregnant with their first child. Andrew was still single, the only one of his “family” to not have found a partner yet. The whole thing with Roland was never made for a relationship at all. Not that Andrew cared - he never felt a need to marry or have someone to hang around with him all the time, exactly like he never felt a need for anything. He wanted nothing and life had taught him to better expect no more than this.

He stubbed the cigarette out and walked back towards the car. Aaron would probably scowl at him for being too late for dinner, but he really didn’t care. He detoured to stall and spotted an already way too familiar man in his bedroll beneath a tree. What - an - idiot. I should let him freeze there.

“Hey dumbass, there are easier ways to end your life than dying from pneumonia,” Andrew said in an amused tone while walking towards the bundle. A set of tired, reddened eyes met his, the guy’s forehead sweaty, his body shivering like a worm on a rod right before being thrown into the lake, and yet there it was again: the blue ocean he’d gotten so afraid of recently.

“I’m fine and didn’t ask for your help. Anything else you have to say?” the guy retorted when Andrew didn’t react and did his best to raise an eyebrow and frown.

“You’re fine, sure,” Andrew huffed. “If you want to die in the cold, I really don’t care, but the last time I checked denial of assistance was a crime so I don’t wanna end up in jail.” Again. Andrew kicked a stone and then another along the way while the bundle seemed to try to sit up. “I guess you would have visited a doctor if it wasn’t for you being broke or on the run. Maybe you’re both, I don’t care, but my brother is in med school and a nurse and won’t charge anything.” The cold had forced him to stuff his hands into his coat. It was impossible that this moron would survive another night with such an infection in the snow - not in Ithaca.

“As I said, I’m fine.” With that he laid back down, propped his head against his arms and started coughing.

“Your decision.” Andrew shrugged and left for his car. He started the engine and the car heater, warming his hands at the fan before throwing his head back against the headrest, groaning. With still frozen hands he dialed Aaron’s number.

“Where are you,” Aaron growled. “Katelyn and I have been waiting for you for over 45 minutes and now the meat is rubbery. Next ti-“

“Come down south to Sunset Park and bring your black bag. I’ll wait by the entrance.”

Andrew could hear Aaron’s groan, pretty similar to his own a few seconds before. “What did you do this time,” he asked, not able to hide how annoyed he was, but also letting slip through a hint of worry.

“Nothing, just trying to save a dork with an attitude problem from killing himself with an infection in the cold.” He could hear Aaron’s sharp breathing that turned into rustle which meant he was most likely pressing his phone to his chest to discuss with Katelyn as he always did. About thirty seconds later, he finally muttered “I’ll be around in ten minutes.” Andrew pocketed his phone away and lit another cigarette, waiting for his brother.

~~~~~~

“You better not have called me for nothing,” Aaron greeted Andrew grouchily, his medkit in tow.

“You wanted to be the life saver, I’ll give you a life to save,” Andrew retorted undazzled and shrugged. Aaron just sighed and followed Andrew through the park.

“Since when do you care for strangers who caught a cold?” Aaron raised an eyebrow provocatively, trying to make Andrew let his guard down.

“I don’t care about him, I just don’t want him to die from a cold ‘cause Renee would kill me. He’d passed out in the bookstore today. I know you don’t recognize his face in the shop window every fucking morning, but I do.”

“At the bakery?”

“Are you working in any other shops I don’t know about?” Andrew asked flatly.

Aaron just shot him a glare and stopped dead in his tracks before he could bump into Andrew who had come to an abrupt halt.

“Can’t you say anything, goddamn Andrew! I almost ran into —“

Aaron stopped when Andrew just raised his right hand, clenching his left into a fist, turned around and trotted back towards the exit. The pit beneath the tree was empty; the bundle had obviously found its legs.

“Andrew? What the hell- Andrew? Andrew!” he heard Aaron behind him but didn’t even care to answer. Aaron gave up after shouting his name five times, just pacing behind him until they reached their cars and Andrew shot off.

Chapter Text

At home, Andrew picked at his food, the meat definitely rubbery. Katelyn glared at him for messing up her dinner. He couldn’t have cared less. Aaron didn’t say anything and neither did Andrew.

After loading the dishwasher, Andrew took a huge ice cream tub out of the freezer and strode into the bathroom, locking himself in. The bathtub was filling up while he sat on the toilet lid and ate ice cream.

“Hey, why are you locking yourself in?”.

“Is taking a bath and eating ice cream while having some privacy forbidden or what?”

“For you, it is.”

“Stop pretending to care, Aaron. I’ll just have a bath, nothing more, nothing less.” Andrew kept the door locked. He could hear Aaron exhale sharply before trotting away. The tub was almost full, which made him switch the faucet off and quickly undress before letting himself sink into the hot water. After soaking for half an hour, he had finished his ice cream. He reheated the tub, lit another cigarette and took the poetry book from the rack.

Let’s get lost in each other’s soul,
For there’s just you and me
and the endless sea of broken dreams.

-blackbird-

Why did I even buy this?!

He doused his head and felt his blood rushing through his body, all noises drowned out. When he came up again, he put the cigarette aside, unplugged the drain and got out of the tub. He walked straight into his bedroom without even greeting Nicky - who’d just come in - threw himself into the cushions and only fell asleep when the morning sun’s first rays hit his face through the chinks in the shutter.

~~~~~~

Neil woke up on a sofa, late into midday, his chest burning like a bonfire was trapped in his lungs. The pain was almost impossible to bear, his ribs aching at every move, and his head was spinning. He had broken into the house after this annoying guy had made it impossible to stay in the park. Luckily, the owners didn’t have an alarm and were on a long trip - at least that’s what the note for the cleaner on the kitchen counter stated.

He staggered towards the bathroom, avoiding his patched up face in the mirror and took a quick shower as long as he’d be alone and relatively safe.

I will have to see a doc. Otherwise it’s not my father’s people or the FBI who will kill me.

His stomach growled; he hadn’t eaten since yesterday afternoon when he had found some abandoned chicken and rice next to a food stall.

An overwhelming feeling of being tired hit him hard when he was enclosed by steam and water. He wasn’t just sleep deprived, he was tired of running, of all this insecurity, of all the pain. Neil knew better than to think about suicide - he’d been on the run his entire life because his mother had wanted him to live - he had wanted to live. But what kind of life was one where there was nothing to fight for anymore, when his mother’s burned body was buried under Californian sand, when there would never be a future for himself.

He sighed heavily and turned the spray off, toweling himself as quickly as possible and got into his threadbare clothes. He couldn’t even get money for the laundromat which made him walk around in his sticky clothes all the time. Maybe he could wash them here tonight. He took his duffel and left for the city.

~~~~~~

The city was buzzing with Christmas right around the corner. Neil usually liked the commotion - it helped him to get lost in the shuffle - but today he felt overwhelmed by all the foreign faces and streams of people bumping into him. His wardrobe wasn’t really suitable for a winter in Ithaca, which he only realized now that he was trembling like a leaf.

On his way to the bakery he passed the stalls of the Christmas market, his head dizzy from all the odors and Christmas music roaring from the speakers. He hadn’t celebrated Christmas ever since he and his mother had left. Even before that, Christmas had always been just another day on the calendar. The one time they had celebrated Christmas when he was a child and still in Baltimore ended with one of the first scars that he kept hidden underneath his oversized shirt. All the jingle and gaudy trees, the sweets and faked kindness that surrounded him made him nauseous.

The bakery shop window was decorated with small Santas, fake snow and snowflakes. It almost seemed like Santa’s elves had magically decorated the whole shop within one night and had turned it into a winter wonderland. Even the pastries and cupcakes had a Christmas decor today. The owner must really be a sucker for Christmas stuff. The familiar set of hazel eyes met his, although the blond guy seemed to look different today. His hair was slightly longer than usual and his body seemed less firm. Maybe he was just hallucinating due to his fever or it was due to the fact that for the first time he saw him in daylight.

While Neil considered entering the bakery to warm himself for a moment, he felt an odd flush of heat in his head, making him all the more nauseous. Suddenly, everything went blank. He tried to support himself against the window, but his legs gave way. The last thing he felt was his body hitting the ground before everything went black.

~~~~~~

“Nicky, call an ambulance,” Aaron demanded while heading outside where he found a sweat-soaked guy who’d just bumped against the shop window lying in the snow. He took his pulse before dragging him inside the shop.

Nicky darted for the stranger on the floor, almost hysterical. “What happened?” Nicky inquired with a shaky voice.

“Seems like he passed out, doesn’t it?” he mocked and concentrated on taking his pulse. “He’s pretty sweaty, pale and feverish. Hand me the thermometer. It’s in the kit.”

Nicky came back with it within a second, scrunched up a blanket and bedded the sick man’s head on it.

“How bad is it?”

“It’s not good at least. 106 °F. Give me the stethoscope and bring that damn kit with you.”

Nicky sprinted off, almost tripping while heading back with the kit.

“Watch out! I don’t need another invalid over here,” Aaron hissed. “His blood pressure is low. His lungs sound coated. He probably has a pneumonia,” he diagnosed, the bluntness in his voice reminding Nicky of Aaron’s resemblance to Andrew. Nicky would have gone crazy, unable to concentrate, but Aaron was almost eerily on an even keel.

Aaron tried to stabilize the passed out stranger as effectively as possible and informed the just arrived paramedics about what he’d seen and already done. When the paramedics had consigned him they asked if Aaron or Nicky knew a contact person or if Aaron would like to join them.

“Go go,” Nicky ushered him outside. “I’ll handle this. Make sure he’s safe.”

“Nicky, stop the drama,” Aaron said while he hopped into the ambulance and shut the door.

~~~~~~

Neil’s eyes fluttered open and were blinded by neon-lights from above. He still felt dizzy and tired, but most unsettling was the fact that he didn’t know where he was. Just when he was about to give in to the comforting blankness again, panic crawled through his veins.

Every move hurt as he tried to sit upright. A hospital. He was in a fucking hospital. The panic clouded his mind. He started to rummage around, ignoring the tubes and cables connected to his aching body.

Where is my duffel?

When his machines started beeping, a nurse quickly entered and tried to calm him down.

“Sir, you’ve been admitted to our hospital because you passed out on the street. Everything will be alright, but please try to stay calm.”

“Where is it,” Neil mumbled before raising his voice, “where is my duffel? I need my duffel.”

“It’s in the closet, I can get it. Please calm down.” The nurse handed him his duffel that he immediately checked. His binder had been opened, but nothing was missing. “We were just looking for your passport or a health insurance ID. Don’t worry about that though for now. The doctor will see you in a moment.”

The young man quickly checked Neil’s machines, tubes and infusion bag before leaving again.

Neil considered ripping the tubes out and leaving this city instantly for good, but his chest was burning and he could barely breathe. A minute later, a tall man in a white robe and with a stethoscope around his neck approached Neil.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Boyd. Can you tell me what’s today’s date?” His voice was dark but warm like one of the firm and steadying voices people discussed their problems with on a midnight radio show.

“The 1st of December I suppose.”

“Today is the 2nd of December. You were admitted yesterday. Can you remember what happened yesterday?”

“I barely remember. I walked through the city and felt nauseous. Last thing I remember is that I tried to get a hold on a shop window.”

“That’s quite a lot. You passed out at a bakery. It was quite a close call. You can be lucky that the guy working there is a nurse and in med school. One more day without medical treatment and you could have died.”

Neil didn’t even know if he hated the blond bakery guy for saving him or if he was grateful. “I can’t afford your treatment. I have no insurance, so I should leave now.”

“Don’t worry about that. It’s covered for now by our Invalids are valid program.” Neil stared at the doctor, his eyes showing the marks left by sleep deprivation, starvation and a life on the run. “I’ll have a few more questions, but they can wait. For now, get some rest,” the doctor commanded.

“No one told me yet what caused my faint?”

“Oh, I thought the nurse had told you. Pneumonia, most likely caused by a cold. Your bad condition cleared the way for a superinfection. You’re aware of your short weight?”

“I’m fine.”

“Well, the scale says something different but I’ll leave it at that for now. Food will be delivered in an hour so we’ll work on this anyway. One last question for today. Can you tell me your name and if there’s anyone we could call?”

Neil considered for a moment which identity seemed safe enough for this situation. He had kept back exactly one identity he had wanted to use for his new life, a better one, a restart, but he was tired of lying and pretending. It wasn’t even certain that he would ever leave this town again. Maybe the FBI was already informed and would drag him into jail anyway.

“Neil. Neil Josten. I’m on my own,” he whispered, sinking back into the cushions, hoping for the ground to open up and swallow him.

~~~~~~

At next day’s dinner, Nicky seemed to be kind of nervous and agitated when Aaron served spaghetti. Again, Andrew huffed to himself when his plate was served.

“Can’t you cook anything else from time to time. I’m stuffed to my ears with your pasta,” Andrew grumbled.

“Why don’t you fucking cook your stuff yourself next time?” Aaron hissed back which only earned him a glare. “And by the way, I didn’t mess up the last proper dinner by summoning someone for nothing.”

“Guys, no bad mood. Let’s eat,” Nicky tried to remedy the situation. Even Katelyn was all tensed despite her usual cheerful nature.

“I was not the one spoiling dinner,” Aaron muttered through gritted teeth.

“How about you tell us more about the guy from yesterday. How did he end up?” Nicky asked.

“Well, he had pneumonia. Quite bad. Scarcely snatched from death’s jaws,” Aaron explained bluntly, picking at his food.

“He really had looked like the walking dead. Hope he’ll be better soon. He’ll make it, won’t he?”

Nicky really seemed to be affected by some stranger’s condition, which didn’t only surprise Aaron but also Andrew who stared at him now.

“Not sure. Guess we’ll never find out anyway.”

“But you left our phone number?”

Aaron rolled his eyes. “For the hundredth time, yeah.”

“Well, guess you’re all about helping strangers yourself,” Andrew retorted, gobbling his food and downing his wine before getting up, “as long as they faint in front of you, I suppose. The rest isn’t even worth your while, right. As selfless as we know him.”

“Andrew Joseph Minyard. Don’t take that tone at my table. You can’t leave before everyone has finished,” Nicky commanded.

“Guess what: I don’t care.” Andrew left and slammed the door shut with a bang so loud that even the plates on the table seemed to vibrate.

“You still try,” Aaron hissed. “It isn’t worth the hassle.”

“Don’t give up on him so easily,” Nicky scolded his younger cousin.

“You thought you could help him by sending him into rehab. He’s even worse now.” Aaron cleared the table, putting the barely touched food into the fridge and plates into the dishwasher and leaned against the countertop. “He’s done in, Nicky. He won’t ever change nor be what you desire so ardently.”

Nicky let his chin fall onto his chest, avoiding Aaron’s gaze. “Why,” he murmured after minutes of eerie silence. “Why do you both look the same, but are still so different.”

“I managed to see a purpose in living, Andrew just sees a purpose in hurting himself.”

Aaron looked at Katelyn intimating that it was time to go upstairs. Nicky remained sat at the table and if Andrew’s speakers hadn’t roared and the TV in Aaron’s and Katelyn’s bedroom hadn’t drowned the noise, maybe they could have heard their cousin‘s desperated tears streaming down his cheeks until the sun was rising.

Chapter Text

One week before Christmas, Neil got discharged. Matt Boyd, his doctor in charge, had asked him several times if he had wanted to stay over Christmas, so that he wouldn’t have to be on his own over the holidays. Neil had turned him down several times, telling him that he’d be fine and that he’d visit his uncle. Another lie added up to his impressive account, inflated not least due to his time spent on this ward.

Dr. Boyd had asked him several awkward queries, usually demanding uncomfortable truths Neil couldn’t give away, which led to a plethora of small and bigger lies about his scars, his condition, his several passports and his lack of money and health insurance. In the end he hoped that Boyd would believe him that he was just another young man running away from his life, ruined by abusive foster families and rough times on the streets. Still better than telling him that he was fleeing from the entourage of an abusive, notorious serial killer connected to the mafia that happened to be his father.

“Neil, good to see you with those rosy cheeks,” Boyd said, visiting Neil on his last round. “I just wanted to wish you a merry Christmas.”

“Thank you, the same to you.” Neil hoped that this was the last time he’d ever have to see him, although he had somehow grown fond of him. He had never seemed to judge him in all those weeks, had never insisted on reporting anyone to the police, had never questioned anything Neil had told him. His mother would beat the daylights out of him for his unfounded trust.

“I just wanted to let you know that my fiancée Dan orders a great buffet every Christmas and that you’re welcome if your uncle hasn’t the time to host you. No one should spend Christmas alone,” he halted for a moment as if he was hesitating to continue before adding “especially no one with your past.”

“Thank you, Doctor, but my uncle is expecting me,” Neil told him hastily before strapping his packed duffle on his shoulder.

“Oh, just call me Matt. I’m not THAT old,” he laughed out. “Please, take my card. You’ll find our private number on it and the address. We have a guest house where you could stay as long as you want to. Just give me a call, you don’t have to be on your own any longer.” He handed him his business card, a phone number and address handwritten on the back of it, the script revealing that it wasn’t Boyd who’d written it down.

“Goodbye, Dr. Boyd. I guess I’ve already wore out your welcome.”

“Bye, Neil. Take care!” He showed Neil the door, scribbling things onto his clipboard, but when Neil looked back one last time, he saw in his tensed face that he already knew the answer to his offering.

~~~~~~

19 days , Andrew thought to himself, for 19 days I-just-stare-guy hadn’t shown up anymore. He thought back to the night in the park, this idiot wrapped up in his bedroll, rather bumping into death than asking for help.

He’d done the same.

“Andrew?” Nicky asked, obviously not for the first time because he was waving with his arms to get Andrew’s attention.

“What?” he hissed back, filling up the displays. The last thing he needed today was a nice chat with Nicky.

“You know that you can talk to me about everything right?”

Not this again. “That’s what you’re interrupting me for? For the last time, I have nothing to say to you and honestly, even if I had, I wouldn’t.”

“Then talk to Bee at least. You seem more pensive than usual. Even Aaron is worrying.”

“As if Aaron would care about anything but himself,” Andrew huffed, wiping his hands on his apron. “I’ll take five,” he grunted, took his tobacco, filters and papers and left through the side entrance towards the dumpsters, leaving a sighing Nicky behind.

The rush of nicotine crawled through his bloodstream into his head, at least numbing his arising anger a tad. When he was about to reach the filter, he crouched down to stub the cigarette out, watching the jumble of legs rushing through the alley.

He’d never understand why people kept running from shop to shop every year, bumping into each other all the time just to gather a bunch of unnecessary trash, causing people to fake gratitude and excitement before putting themselves through the same procedure once more after the holidays to change the accursed crap for something appropriate.

When he raised his head to go back inside, a familiar set of ice-blue eyes stared at him. He’d seen these eyes a hundred times in the last two weeks, haunting him like the past, present and future haunted Ebenezer Scrooge.

Andrew held his gaze for a bit too long, at least longer than he intended to, before flicking the cigarette butt away and turning on his heel, heading for the counter.

“I’m sorry, Drew. I didn’t want to rile you up. I just wanted to help you,” Nicky blabbered from the kitchen, jolting Andrew out of his thoughts. Missed your chance a long while ago.

Pretty face appeared behind the shop window, gazing at the pastries like he’d never been away. Andrew almost felt mocked by his nonchalance, as if he wanted to tease him about the sense of guilt for probably having let this fool die in the cold of Ithaca.

As usual, he didn’t come in. Andrew turned around to the coffee machine, brewing two milk coffees, before stuffing some of the pastries from the display into a paper bag and stepping out into the cold. The freckle-faced guy turned his head towards Andrew, looking at him as if he could be the answer to all questions the universe held.

“Here you go, can’t stand this pathetic stare any longer.” He shoved a coffee cup and the bag with pastries at the guy, took a sip from his own coffee and went back inside as he couldn’t stand the oppressive silence anymore.

When he finally managed to turn around and face the windows, the stranger was gone. He sipped his hot coffee trying to swallow the twinge of disappointment arising in his guts but could hear his inner voice reciting yet another quote from the collection he’d have been better off throwing out of the window the moment he’d read it.

“Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it's not because they enjoy solitude. It's because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.”

- Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Maybe they had more in common than he prefered.

~~~~~~

Thank you. It could have been so easy, but the two simple words didn’t find their way out of his mouth. Now Neil was sitting on a bench by the Ithaca falls, staring at some pastries in a brown paper bag, a gaudy logo he knew too well from the sign above the bakery’s entrance printed on both sides, while he warmed his hands with the coffee cup.

This blond guy had saved his life and he couldn’t even bring out a fucking thank you. Pathetic he’d said and it felt like no one had ever said something truer about him. His voice had been firm, indifferent but somehow warm - darker than his physique suggested. Neil wasn’t exactly what one would call a giant - he was rather the opposite - but his self-proclaimed savior was even smaller than him, if at all about five feet tall.

Attractiveness wasn’t something Neil had ever cared or thought about; he didn’t swing either way. He simply didn’t see people that way.

His mother’s fists had taught him that love was dangerous when he had kissed a girl for the first time - her love for his father was responsible for him living on the streets and her ashes being buried somewhere on a beach in California. Her violent outbursts had made him insensitive over the years to any feelings that weren’t necessary in order to survive.

He used to handle his sexual needs by not giving weight to them at all - as if he ever had the time for this stuff anyway - but this raspy voice and the set of hazel eyes staring into his made something in his chest thaw as if an ever frozen landscape suddenly got hit by a ray of light, baring a single, tiny, long abandoned flower.

Neil tried to swallow the sensation down by eating two of the pastries and keeping the rest for dinner. When the coffee cup was empty, he rose from the bank, dumped the cup and made his way through the buzzing city to the bookstore.

The girl behind the counter greeted him with a gentle smile. She could have bombarded him with a thousand questions; instead she just said her usual welcome and went back to decorating a new display with crime novels.

Neil went upstairs and enjoyed sitting in front of the fireplace. Today he even took a hot chocolate and a handful of chocolate-cinnamon cookies the owner provided next to the Thermos bottle.

His heart twitched when he saw that the whole table by the fireplace had been rearranged but for the one book which still lay on the same spot where he had left it before he got admitted to the hospital. The turquoise cover with its embossed black letters felt so familiar as he let his fingers wander across it. Even the bookmark was at the same spot where he had left it. In the comfort of the cushions he continued where he had left off.

Neil had refused to take money from Matt Boyd several times, but when he had opened the side bags of his duffle this morning he had spotted 500 dollars in small notes and a notepad with “Merry Christmas” on it. Today, he would spend the first fifteen on something his mother would have killed him for - he couldn’t care less.

~~~~~~

Andrew’s phone buzzed at least twenty times before he could answer it. His anger vanished when he spotted Renee’s name on the display. She only called when it was important. He shoved Nicky behind the counter, took his cigarette and settled down on the stairs by the side entrance.

“What’s up?” he answered lighting the cigarette between his lips.

“Hi, are you okay?”

“As okay as one can be after spending a whole day with Nicky’s chit-chat. That’s not why you’re calling though.”

“Nicky can’t stop himself, don’t be too hard on him. I’m calling because he’s here.”

“Who? Voldemort?”

“Oh Drew.” Renee couldn’t hold back a chuckle despite Andrew’s indifferent silence. “Lost boy. The one who’s name is unknown.”

“And why do I care?”

“Because he has a paper bag from your bakery in his hand and I suppose he didn’t buy anything there.”

“First, it’s not mine, it’s Nicky’s. Second, couldn’t stand his pathetic stare anymore. Anything else or can I go back into Winter Wonderland? Last Christmas just started and I can’t miss that one,” Andrew cut her off, not letting Renee miss the obnoxity he felt.

“Oh, don’t want to hold you back. See you tonight?”

“6.30. Bookstore.”

With that Andrew hung up and went inside where George Michael was crooning about his heartbreak from the speakers.

Once bitten and twice shy
I keep my distance
But you still catch my eye .

He hated that song. Nicky swayed to it while ordering stuff to prepare the christmas orders. He looked up as Andrew approached.

“You seem absent-minded today, everything alright?”

Andrew pushed Nicky’s face away, sitting down behind the cash till.

“Don’t look at me like that!”

“Like what?”

“Like I need your pity.”

Nicky shrugged, finished his order, strode into the kitchen and started packing cookies into plastic bags, sealing them with red ribbon with small golden reindeers on. Andrew sighed and followed his cousin a few minutes later. He grabbed a pile of bags and ribbon and packed the snowman cookies, leaving the Santas to Nicky, who looked at him as if Jesus in the flesh had just appeared before his eyes.

“You can leave,” Andrew said bluntly when Nicky’s cookies drew to a close. Nicky just gave him a stunned look, his eyes demanding a solving. “To pick up Erik,” Andrew added.

“Really?”

“Just go. I’ll get along.”

“But there’s the whole box of Christmas trees and reindeers and snowflakes and they all need to be packed by tomorrow.”

“As I said, I’ll get along.”

Nicky’s eyes grew wide and filled with tears. “Thank you, Drew.” His voice was shaky and overly cheerful at the same time, making Andrew ask himself how they could be relatives at all, while Nicky grabbed his parka and satchel.

“No bother,” Andrew muttered while pushing an excited Nicky out of the bakery before he continued packing his pile of cookies, being all hazy by the time he packed the last cookie at 6.30.

Several interruptions by annoyingly friendly customers had kept him busy all day, forcing him to switch from the kitchen to the counter every few minutes. Nicky would have killed him if he knew that Andrew had turned off the Christmas music minutes after he had left for the airport, but he hadn’t been able to deal with it any longer without killing the next customer walking in through the door, causing the stupid bell to ring again.

His body was craving a cigarette and a drink. He pulled off his dirty apron and stuffed it into the laundry bag, before letting Renee know that he’d be a few minutes late. After locking the shop and depositing the daily turnover at the bank, he lit a cigarette and walked to the bookstore, where Renee was already waiting for him, two hot chocolates in her gloved hands.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“You look exhausted.”

“Just going to kill someone if I have to listen to another Christmas song today.” He grabbed one of the cups and let the hot liquid rush down his throat. “You could have added some rum or amaretto at least.”

“Got nothing like that at the bookstore, plus chocolate sets free endorphins.”

“Now you sound like Aaron and that doesn’t make it better.”

Renee smiled at him, licking the cream off her chocolate. “He actually bought something today.”

“Maybe I should have waited before shoving my pastries at him this morning for free.”

“You know what, Drew?” Renee said when they had reached Andrew’s Maserati. “Deep inside, you’re the kindest person alive. You just don’t know it yet.”

“Get inside before I can knock you down.” Renee sat down in the passenger seat and smiled, remaining silent until they reached the boxing club.

Their sparring session was rough - again. Andrew’s swings revealed his anger, all exhaustion swapped away immediately. Renee was the only one who knew how to handle him and stop him if she needed to. When they left it was almost midnight, but Andrew had finally stifled his urge to get drunk. Andrew stopped by the curb in front of Renee’s house, cut off the engine and carried her duffel to the front door.

“Good night.”

“Night,” he answered, turned on his heel and walked towards the car. As he was about to get in, Renee called his name so he turned his head back to face her.

“He reminds me of you,” she said barely audible before unlocking the door without averting her eyes from Andrew’s. “He bought the novel you bought a few weeks ago. Seems like you’re both suckers for drama.”

Andrew stared at her for a moment, heat rushing through his veins and pounding in his head. “Good night, Renee,” he retorted turning his face around and got into the driver’s seat, knowing that her sentence intended more than to compare their reading habits. When he looked back through the window, Renee was still standing on the porch, smiling. As his body finally sank into the mattress that night, he got pulled into sleep right away, dreaming of blue-eyes, flushed, freckled cheeks and scarred hands leaving hot trails on his body.

Chapter Text

It was Christmas Eve and Neil was wandering the crowded streets, full of people who needed a gift at the last moment or picked up food for tonight’s dinner.

The house he’d resided in for the last week wasn’t an option anymore - the owners would be back by this afternoon, according to their flight schedule - so Neil prepared for another Christmas Eve on the streets. He’d already spent the last one on the streets, but Nevada had definitely been warmer than New York.

As usual, he first stopped at the bakery, but since the last incident the blond guy behind the counter seemed to be ignoring him and he blamed no one else but himself for it. A big sign on the door declared that the bakery was going to be closed from today’s afternoon to the 28th of December and Neil could feel an odd sting in his heart at the thought of not seeing the familiar face he somehow had gotten attached to over the weeks for the next three days.

“Hey Neil, good to see you,” a baritone voice jolted him out of his thoughts and made him jump into two women who were leaving the bakery.

“Dr. Boyd. I- I wanted to-“

“Don’t! See it as an early Christmas gift from me and my fiancée. You really deserve it.”

Neil blushed slightly before giving the doctor a firm look.

“Thank you very much, but I really can’t accept that. I have spent about fifty dollars so far and will pay them back, so please take the rest back.” He held out his hand with the envelope, waiting for Matt to take it.

“Really, Neil, you definitely have an issue with people helping you. Keep - that - money.” Matt kept his hands in his pockets, watching Neil stuffing the envelope back into his binder with an eye roll.

“My offer still holds. Could you think about it again? I recall you telling me that you’d be flown out by now but here you’re standing so I suppose your uncle’s busy.”

Shit. Neil had completely forgotten that detail, but he also knew that another lie wouldn’t make sense.

“I found a different option.”

“Hopefully you don’t consider sleeping next to a dumpster on Christmas an option.”

Neil was dumbfounded not only by Matt’s outspokenness but also by the realization that he’d nailed it by knowing him for two weeks.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t judge you.” Matt looked at his watch, then to the sign at the bakery. “Sorry Champ, I have to get the pastries and bread for dinner and the buffet. Do you want anything? I’ll be back in a sec.”

“No, thank you.” Neil looked at the guy at the counter, again wondering if these features belonged to the same face he’d memorized looking at him so intensely while providing him with his first proper breakfast after being discharged, the pair of hazel eyes with golden spots in the iris as if they were placed by the hand of a figure painter to add some vividness to the otherwise dull expression. Something felt different but he couldn’t grab it. Maybe that this guy’s eyes seemed more determined and his face lacked the often present tension.

“Hi Matt, here’s your order,” he could hear an older guy with darker skin, most likely the shop owner, say to Boyd. His Christmas sweater somehow even managed to stand out from the plethora of decoration scattered across the room with all the flashing LED lights and bells and gaudy Christmas balls on it and someone with such a sweater could only be the owner because no boss would permit something like that at work.

“Thank you, Nicky. Dan will love them. You really surpassed yourself.”

“I had some eager extra hands at hand.” The mexican guy cocked his head towards Neil’s lifesaver. “Aaron and Andrew were really great this season. Andrew even managed to pack all cookies a few days ago so I could pick up Erik.”

“That really doesn’t sound like our monster,” Matt laughed out, before striding over to the cash desk.

“He seemed a bit absent-minded throughout the last few weeks but I really think he’s getting better.”

“Good to hear that. Aaron, how much is it?”

“125.60 dollars.”

“You’re not exactly what I’d call a cheap Johnny.” Matt shoved his credit card across the counter, signed and grabbed his bags.

“See you tomorrow, right?”

“Sure,” Nicky answered, giving the doctor an extra bag, whispering something into his ear which Neil couldn’t understand.

Neil had to acknowledge that his lip reading ability was a bit rusty and reminded himself to polish it up as soon as possible.

“Bye Aaron, see you tomorrow?”

Aaron. Not a name Neil would have thought of.

“Yeah.”

“Is Andrew coming, too?”

“If you think that he’s coming for you, I have to disappoint you, but the free booze should convince him.”

That didn’t really sound like the voice that had brought this weird sensation to life - its rasp was missing - but then again, maybe he’d caught a cold himself when he didn’t put on a jacket in his smoking breaks all the time. The ugly Christmas sweater guy seemed to scold the cashier with a glare that he didn’t seem to notice.

“Better for that than not at all,” Matt said and walked out the door to eager waves from the darker skinned guy by the kitchen entrance.

“Did you talk to him about what happened, yet?”

Neil felt caught in the act so he put his hands into his pockets and started walking towards the book shop, Matt in tow.

“No, not yet.”

“He’s okay, really. He’s got his issues but who hasn’t.” He gave Neil an understanding and knowing look, before coming to a halt in front of a jeweler. “That’s my next station. Happy wife, happy life, you know?”

Neil didn’t, how could he have. Having a relationship was as appealing to him as having the flu, never being able to maintain one anyway with a life on the run and the lingering danger of being killed or caught always in the back, and as familiar as living a boring, happy life with caring parents in a nice suburban mansion, decorating Christmas trees with a supportive dad while a loving mum prepared some turkey for the family.

“Yeah, I see,” he said instead, pushing his train of thoughts away. “Goodbye then.”

“Neil, you neither need to stay until tomorrow nor eat with us at the buffet, but please join Dan and me tonight. It’d be just the three of us and I can drive you to wherever you need me to afterwards.”

Neil traded off spending the evening in a fast food diner before camping next to an improvised campfire near a dumpster against some nice warm food in a comfy living room, a bed he probably hadn’t slept in for years and the possibility to meet Aaron to thank him before leaving this city for good and came to the conclusion that in every universe the latter was unrivaled.

“When?” he sighed eventually.

“Whenever you want to show up, but dinner is ready at seven,” Matt answered not even trying to hide his wide grin spreading across his face.

“Seven it is.” With that Neil was off to the bookstore hating himself for giving in so easily and catching himself smiling at the thought of seeing Aaron at least tomorrow morning for one last time.

~~~~~~

Andrew woke up from his nap and strode downstairs into the living room where Nicky and Erik were sitting on the sofa next to the Christmas tree, flipping through a picture album of the twins while sipping hot wine. Of course Erik was wearing one of these ugly sweaters Nicky had bought for all of them. How the hell could they even concentrate next to this flashing mess of fairy lights making him feel like he was standing at Times Square, his headache getting worse and worse.

“Hey Andrew,” Erik greeted him with a nod and turned back to the pictures while Nicky stared at him.

“Could you sleep a bit?” Nicky asked in a way too merciful tone.

“A bit nails it.”

“How’s your headache?”

“Still feels like a bunch of jackhammers gone wild.” He tried to cover his eyes with his arm pressed against his forehead. “If you don’t stop this blinking, I throw the fucking tree out of the window.”

Nicky got up and switched the fairy lights from blinking to just burning. Andrew passed the kitchen on his way to the bathroom to get away from another Christmas music bombardment and spotted Aaron and Katelyn cooking together - well, Katelyn was drooling over Aaron while he prepared the mashed potatoes. Nausea joined his headache and he made it to the bathroom just in time, saving him from puking right into the hallway.

When the gagging and nausea subsided, he splashed cold water into his face and looked into the mirror above the sink. His eyes were surrounded by dark circles, his face pale, his hair greasy. He undressed and stepped into the shower, just letting water run down his body without actually showering, trying to forget the feeling of Drake’s hand around his neck and his body pressing him into the mattress. Only when Nicky knocked to ask if anything was wrong because he’d been in there for over thirty minutes by now, he started shampooing his hair and harshly soaping, before cutting the spray off, quickly toweling himself and getting dressed.

Andrew had always wanted to go without his meds, but now that he finally was sober, he longed for them more often than he had ever thought he would. Being on meds meant being beyond good and evil, just on an all time high. He couldn’t connect to anything at all, but then again he didn’t need to feel either. Being sober meant dealing with nightmares and his past, with all the boredom and bluntness and cruelty this world had to offer, with seeing no purpose in living at all and worst of all with having feelings he just wanted to push aside and couldn’t.

“Andrew, open the door,” Aaron said, knocking fiercely at the door.

“Get the fuck away.”

Andrew could hear his brother and Nicky murmuring outside the door, obviously Nicky pressuring Aaron to try again.

“Andrew, here’s Nicky. Please let me in or come out.”

“Andrew, get out of there. It’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake!” Aaron hammered against the door once more, this time so eagerly that even Andrew thought that it wouldn’t have taken much more to punch a hole in it, not exactly contributing much to easing his headache.

Andrew pulled his black wristbands over his scarred arms and pulled the door open. He grabbed Aaron by his collar, shoved him out of the door and pinned him to the wall.

“Are you deaf? When I tell you to get the fuck away, get the fuck away. Otherwise I’ll not be the only one with this headache.” He loosened his grip, stopped briefly in front of Nicky to give him a glare and walked upstairs. Before he entered his bedroom, he yelled just a “Nicky”, waited until the Christmas music subsided and plunked himself down into the mattress where sleep dragged him into another nightmare.

~~~~~~

Neil reached Matt’s house at ten to seven, but decided to inspect the front yard and the porch before being too early. A fox statue was sitting next to the door mat, that was covered with an orange fox print itself. The fox reminded him of the one in the bakery logo, although that one had been eating a bunch of donuts with sprinkles. Even the golden plate next to the bell had an engraved fox next to the cursive lettering revealing the residents to be Matt Boyd and Dan Wilds.

One minute before seven, he brought himself to ring the bell. A woman about his size but with a darker complexion and brown, curly hair opened the door and gave him a bright smile.

“You must be Neil. Nice to meet you.” She stepped out of the doorway - an invitation for Neil to enter - and Neil was baffled by such a credit of trust to a completely unfamiliar person.

“Hi, thank you for the invitation.”

“Oh Matt has told me everything about you.”

Neil knew that it was mostly just a saying and that it was connotated with excitement and positivity, yet this idea made him feel uncomfortable.

“Hey Neil,” Matt exclaimed and jumped from the sofa, stopping himself from pulling him into a hug by attenuating it to a pat on the back. “Good to see you. Give me your jacket and the bag, I’ll put them into the wardrobe.”

“I’m fine. Just the jacket, I’ll keep the bag.”

Matt took Neil’s jacket and stuffed it into the wardrobe, ushering Neil into the dining room where the smell of turkey, potatoes and vegetables made his stomach grumble even more. He’d invested another twenty-five dollars for this jacket in a thrift shop to avoid another stop on a ward but didn’t see the point in spending money on proper food.

“Hungry? Dan makes the best turkey. You’ll love it.”

“I really don’t want to bother you.”

“Oh you don’t,” Dan said and served several pots of gravy, vegetables, fruit, potatoes and much more,  making Neil start to wonder if they’d really just be three people tonight.

“I guess I have to confess something,” Matt whispered towards Neil. “Not that I wouldn’t have asked you anyway, but it was Dan’s idea to invite you.” Matt gave him a wink and started to shovel way too much food onto his plate, until Dan glared at him and he held the spoon out to Neil.

“Oh no, please, take your share first.”

“You’re our guest,” Dan responded, not only glaring at Matt but also stressing the last word, before continuing “so please feel free to take whatever you like and excuse this ogre over here.”

Matt just shrugged and gave Dan an apologizing look, puckering his lips. Obviously, Dan couldn’t resist that and gave him a peck in return, making Neil even more uncomfortable.

“So could you already think about our offer to take the guest house for a few nights?” Dan asked when all plates were filled up and Dan had given her okay to start.

“As I said, I’m fine and I don’t want to overstay your welcome. You’ve really done enough by now.”

“Did Matt tell you that I work as a social worker? I often see young people I can’t help, so sometimes it’s really nice to be able to actually offer somebody a chance to ease down for a while.”

“You’ll love it Neil, the house is perfect. Allison designed and equipped it. I’m even no longer afraid of Dan kicking me out of the bedroom, because that’ll be my chance to crush in there.” Matt chuckled and stuffed some more food into his mouth.

Even Neil had almost let his guard down and smirked if it wasn’t for Dan.

The emptier their plates, the more Neil felt at ease and after a hot chocolate with mini marshmallows, ice cream and chocolate cake, he even couldn’t have ran away if his father’s guys had shown up at the door with the FBI in tow.

“What did I say? Dan’s the best in the kitchen!”

“Just in the kitchen?” Dan asked laughingly and helped Matt clear the table.

“I didn’t say that, you did and Neil was my witness,” Matt shouted from the kitchen and laughed but seemed to have stopped once Dan had joined him. Eventually, Neil could only hear whispers and smooches, so he got up and viewed the pictures on the wall and the mantle.

One picture caught his eye immediately. It showed the bakery owner and Aaron when they were a lot younger but the eyes were still the same. There was a huge difference from back then to today, since his face seemed lined with stress and exhaustion now, making him look significantly older than on this picture where the latino was giving him a piggyback ride.

“Snooping?”

Neil almost jumped into Matt who suddenly stood behind him.

“No, I just- I noticed his face.”

“Aaron’s or Nicky’s?”

“Both.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, but not exactly what he meant either.

“That was when Aaron visited Nicky’s family. I spotted it at one of our picture album pajama party sessions and asked Nicky for it so I would have at least one picture of one happy monster.” Matt smiled but this smile wasn’t entirely happy but rather bore a tad of sadness.

“Monster?”

“He has a brother and honestly, they are unbearable most of the time. Well, at least Andrew. Wanna drown in these pictures or drown your problems in some hot wine in front of the TV?” Matt finished the conversation and strode over to the TV, settling on the couch next to Dan.

Neil sat down in an armchair, watching the Grinch but rejecting the wine, feeling some of his tension subside for the first time in years. When he yawned for the fifth time, Dan cut off the TV and offered to show him the cabin. Since he saw no reason in sleeping on the streets instead, he agreed by nodding briefly.

A small path led through the garden to a small pond where a white cabin spread out in front of Neil.

“Here we are. That’s the key for the cabin and that one is for the main house if you feel uncomfortable and need us. We also have a direct call line so if you feel like it, hit us up.”

Neil trailed the bit of the keys, being the first ones he held in his hands for months.

“Why?” Neil asked after a while not averting his eyes from the keys.

“Why not,” she said, patted Neil on the shoulder and went inside.

Neil opened the cabin door and entered, smelling cinnamon and anise. It reminded him of the cinnamon rolls he’d enjoyed by the Ithaca falls.

A king-size box spring covered with artificial furs and a plethora of pillows invited Neil to finally catch up on some long needed sleep, although he chose to take a shower first in the marble bathroom. Everything screamed fancy, from the golden kitchen to the golden faucets, the ceiling-high windows to the golden fireplace surrounded by fancy sofas and the TV integrated into the wall, but this place radiated a warmth he’d barely experienced before.

For the first time he felt a hint of security, got an imagination of how home must feel and when his fresh showered body sank into the cushions, he dreamed of eating cinnamon rolls by the fireplace and maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t alone.

~~~~~~

“I’m sorry,” Nicky apologized at the dinner table, filling up the plates except for one.

“Don’t worry, babe. Tomorrow’s another day.”

“I just never know when it’s too much for him, when he’s too much for him.”

“Have you tried calling his therapist?”

“Bee? I wanted to after dinner.”

“Seems like even she can’t help him anymore,” Aaron barged in from the head of the table.

“What did I say about giving up on him?” Nicky retorted, anger in his voice.

“What did I say about rehab helping him?” Aaron retaliated bluntly, leaving it at that when he saw how uncomfortable Katelyn seemed.

“You know how hard Christmas is for him and it’s his first without being high enough to make him forget that it’s Christmas at all.”

“He calls me selfish and that isn’t?”

“Is it selfish to hate Christmas when it made you hate yourself for the rest of your life? Is it selfish when this is the reason why he’s the only one alone while we have someone around to support us?” Nicky blurted out and silenced the room, having a stare down with Aaron until Aaron averted his eyes to his plate.

When all plates were filled up, Nicky sat down next to a quite surprised Erik, read his Christmas poem and started off dinner. The awkward silence was palpable in every corner of the room, just drowned out by the clattering of silverware, plates and glasses as well as several Christmas classics such as Jingle Bells or Coming Home For Christmas.

An hour later Katelyn and Erik cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher while Aaron and Nicky served dessert. Nicky walked upstairs, softly knocking at Andrew’s door, balancing the tray with food.

“Drew?” he asked without being too noisy. When no answer came, he knocked a bit louder and asked again “Drew, are you awake? We’re having dessert and I bought your favorite ice cream,” but all he heard was silence.

He turned the doorknob and cautiously stuck his head through the door crack, only to see a trembling, sweaty, all-tensed Andrew pressing his back against the wall. Nicky entered, took one of the stress balls from the desk and threw it against his thigh. Andrew started from his sleep, lashing out immediately, before he had even opened his eyes to realize that it was just Nicky.

“Hey,” Nicky mumbled, letting Andrew adjust. “We’re having dessert and I bought your favorite ice cream. I also brought some turkey and potatoes with gravy, in case you’re hungry.”

“Just set it down on the desk,” Andrew groaned rubbing his face.

“It’s Boom Chocolatta Cookie Core by Ben & Jerry’s. Wanna come downstairs?” Nicky asked, not hiding his anticipation.

“Will you leave me alone for the rest of Christmas if I come?”

“I swear,” Nicky blurted out, followed by an immediate excuse as he remembered Andrew’s headache. “We’re waiting,” he whispered and jumped down the stairs, happily informing the rest of them that Andrew would join them for dessert.

Andrew pulled on his sweatpants and looked out of the window. Thousands of tiny snowflakes were dancing in front of his window, the whole street already covered under a white layer of powdery snow that reminded him of the one night so many years ago that marked the start of this whole race to the bottom. He closed his eyes, blinked a few times and closed the curtains.

After changing his sweat-soaked shirt, he swallowed some painkillers and picked at the turkey and the potatoes a few times before making his way downstairs. Nicky kept the volume of the stereo at an all-time low and had dimmed the lights down so that he didn’t need to squint too hard.

“Good to see you,” Erik said and gave him a short smile.

Aaron said nothing and didn’t even look at his brother; Katelyn gave him a pitying glance and Nicky was grinning widely and fidgeting on his chair. Andrew sat down and started to spoon up his ice cream, remaining silent.

When everyone was done with dessert, Aaron carried everything into the kitchen, letting Katelyn know to better follow him so that Andrew was left alone with Erik and Nicky who were all cuddly, obviously still love-deprived from Erik’s trip to Germany.

“Let’s watch a movie,” Nicky suddenly exclaimed, already jumping towards the TV. “Harry Potter, Drew?”

Harry Potter was at least better than anything Christmas related so he just nodded and plunked down into the armchair, pulling his legs to his chest. He didn’t even know why he liked Harry Potter - maybe because he could somehow relate to the abandoned guy - but now another thing about him caught his attention.

These blue eyes suddenly carried him back to his encounter with the homeless pretty face a few days ago; the way he looked like handing out food had been the kindest gesture anyone had ever showed him.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Nicky’s head resting in Erik’s lap, Erik gently raking through Nicky’s hair, both so used to each other’s touches that Andrew asked himself if he could have had this too. If he could ever had let his head rest in someone’s lap, hands raking through his hair without him tensing up. If he could had raked through an auburn thatch, these gentle, honest ice-blue eyes looking into his, brimming with appreciation and affection that transcended their physicality, chapped lips meeting his, making his heart race not from fear or disgust but trust and desire, if he just hadn’t been to all those families where obeying and bearing the insufferable meant a few precious seconds of feeling loved and worthy just to forget the obnoxity of sweaty hands all over his body.

He thought about how it must feel to have sex - not born from hatred or brutality, but love - with someone; to trust a person so entirely that all his scars - visible and invisible - wouldn’t matter anymore, to grasp that moment of complete surrender he’d felt in his dream a few days ago when he looked into this flushed freckled face, the guy’s skin radiating a heat he’d never felt before, but all he felt now was a lump in his throat and the certainty, that all he would be to any other man by his side would be an unbearable mess and that was certainly the last thing this boy needed right now, even if this stranger’s warm breath against his neck tried to convince him of the contrary once he’d fallen asleep.

Chapter Text

When Neil woke up the next morning, the snow in the garden was so high that he almost sunk in to his knees as he made his way to the main house. Of course he had strapped his duffel across his body which just earned him a puzzled look from Dan when she opened the door.

“Good morning,” she said, letting Neil in with the same gesture as yesterday and Neil was still mesmerized to the same extent. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah,” Neil briefly answered and spotted Matt rummaging around in the dining room for the buffet, a fancy looking blonde helping him with arranging decoration on the tables.

“Hey,” a familiar voice sounded behind him and made him spin on his heel, seeing the familiar rainbow colored hair tips and the silver cross around her neck. The girl from the bookstore.

“Hey,” Neil croaked out, heat rushing to his head and flushing his cheeks.

“I’m Renee. I didn’t know that you’re a friend of Dan and Matt.”

“Well, I’m not.”

“Oh. Well, still nice to see you. Good to see that you’re feeling better.”

“Bad flu.”

Matt approached, flashing a wide grin at the sight of Renee and Neil and wrapped his arm around Neil’s shoulder making him tense up.

“Oh sorry, bud. I see you met our secret angel, Renee.”

“Matt, stop it,” Renee laughed out and walked into the dining room to help the blonde.

“Who’s that?” Neil asked frowning.

“That’s Allison, the one who designed the cabin. She’s a fashion and interior designer and Renee’s girlfriend, but I didn’t tell you.”

Neil mustered Renee and Allison, thinking about Matt calling Renee an angel. The way she provided hot chocolate and tea, cookies and an open door for everyone at the bookstore seemed to be responsible for the nickname.

“Why did you call her secret angel?”

“Because no one’s heart is as big as Renee’s, except for Dan’s, maybe.” Neil just nodded and saw no necessity in commenting further. “She’s the only one to even melt a monster’s heart.”

“Stop calling him like that,” Dan suddenly scolded Matt with a hit to the back of his head out of the blue. “He’s no monster, the people around him are.”

Neil had to think about his conversation with Matt the night before at the mantle and how he had said that Aaron and his brother were the monsters, but at least Aaron was bearable so he seemed to be referring to Aaron’s brother.

“Get your asses into the kitchen, well, at least you, Matt. No one needs your stupid chatter. Neil, feel free to help or just sit down; buffet starts at 6,” and with that, Dan was gone again. A moment later she came back and asked Neil to follow her into the living room.

“I love that woman,” Matt cooed and made his way into the kitchen, leaving Neil to Dan. They stopped at the Christmas tree, where Neil realized that he had totally forgotten that it was Christmas morning. A few presents were left beneath the tree, all having small tags in the shape of a fox. Dan bent down to pick one up and gave it to Neil.

“That one’s for you from Matt and me.”

Neil didn’t know what to say or what to do so he just stood there, frozen.

“It’s okay. Open it.”

“But-, I can’t take this, seriously. I don’t even have anything for you.”

“You are good company, that’s enough. So, yes you can. Matt told me you caught this bad flu because you’re mostly on the streets so, maybe this keeps you from getting another one.” Dan gave him a smile and left him to himself.

When he opened the box, a white knitted sweater with an orange fox awaited him together with a set of gloves, a scarf and a beanie. He closed the lid before he couldn’t suppress his urge to run any longer, stuffed the box into his duffel and looked for Matt.

He had to do something before he could rethink his idea and run away again, but this time he wouldn’t. He’d say thank you to Matt and Dan and the guy who’d appeared in his sleep a million times and drew him to the bakery every day since he’d rescued him before he left Ithaca for good.

~~~~~~

Nicky was driving since Andrew’s headache wasn’t gone when he’d woken up this morning. The last thing he needed right now was a bunch of people, clattering dishes and another round of Christmas music. The discussion about him coming along or not had them running an hour later than originally planned. He kept his forehead pressed against the cool window, the cold making his headache not a bit easier to bear.

“I hate you,” he gritted out and glared at Nicky, who obviously didn’t even care, because he kept grinning and chatting with Erik, who was seated in the back seat next to a cheery Katelyn and a pissed Aaron.

When they approached the doorstep, loud Christmas music played on a piano and the agonizing chit-chat of at least fifty people stifled the ring of the bell. Matt opened a few seconds later, a santa hat on and some Christmas punch in his hand.

“Nicky, Erik, Katelyn, Aaron and Andrew,” he cheered the group on, holding his hand out for a high five only Nicky, Erik and Katelyn reciprocated. Aaron just passed by; Andrew was about to stab him.

“Andrew’s got a bad headache so try to not scream at him if you want to live to see New Year’s Eve or the birth of your child,” Erik quickly explained before mingling with the rest. Aaron and Katelyn filled up their plates and sat down at their table, waiting for Nicky and Erik to follow.

Andrew didn’t even try. His head was throbbing and felt like someone had emptied a bucket of razor blades into his skull. The moment he had grabbed some punch and filled it up with whiskey, he had made his way onto the porch, where he lit his cigarette, just now recognizing that he wasn’t alone.

When he realized who was standing at the rail, he didn’t know if his headache got worse because of the alcohol or the sight of this idiot, who didn’t even recognize how good he looked in these skinny jeans and this parka that accentuated his slender but muscular figure.

“Hey lowlife,” he threw at him, taking a deep drag and propping himself against the rail on the other side of the porch. The guy’s head flashed around, his expression changing quickly from tired to something unreadable. Pretty boy’s eyes met his own, leading to a weird stare down Andrew didn’t know how to pin down, so he just turned his head to the sky and watched the stars before those eyes would never fade from his memory again.

“Hey,” he heard a response when he was about to reach the butt with his last drag.

“Congrats, you found your voice.”

“Can’t stand the commotion?”

“From complete silence to smalltalk. Boring.”

Andrew looked at him, holding his gaze, his blue eyes radiating darkness and an intensity that made him feel unsettled. He let his eyes wander to the guy’s chapped lips and tried to push aside the images of a million ways to shut him up rushing through his head.

“I was looking for you,” the lips seemed to form but Andrew couldn’t hear the words, his pulse drowning out all noises.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Andrew deadpanned, stubbing out the hot butt in the line of snow on the rail, keeping his eyes on his hands to avoid this stare.

“Like what?”

“Like I’m your answer.”

“I just wanted to thank you,” he retaliated, kicking snow around with his foot, his eyes pinned to the ground.

“It was just food and not even mine, so make no bones about it.” He should have given him a one-way ticket out of here instead and asked himself when this had happened. He couldn’t even tell what it was that made him be drawn to that nobody; - maybe the scars, maybe the fact that he was still standing here despite them - he only knew that he wanted it to end.

“No, I mean for everything.” He seemed to hesitate for a moment, before pushing himself away from the rail and walking down the steps towards the garden, only to turn around when he reached the last one. “Thanks for saving me.” He turned away and Andrew watched him walk the path until he couldn’t spot him any longer in the dark, not able to make sense of this walking conundrum.

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community,” he heard a familiar voice reciting Dorothy Day from the door.

“I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions,” he responded while turning around, looking at Betsy Dobson.

“Touché, Ms. Day would have been proud,” she said and gave him a warm smile. “Wanna tell me more about that guy?”

“Once you find a way to talk me into it, maybe?” he said and followed Bee, not sure if this warmth in his chest sprang from the heat in the house or just a bunch of words he’d heard from an idiot on a porch. He just knew that he was feeling and that it felt like falling and that was the last one someone so afraid of heights wanted to experience.

Chapter Text

Andrew couldn’t believe that Bee had made it; that he had let her. Nonchalantly, she had brought two punches along and Andrew had felt his headache subside. Now he was leaning against the countertop in the kitchen, Bee’s eyes not able to completely hide a tad of joy as Andrew reveals how he and pretty boy got to know each other.

“So you gave him the pastries out of pity?”

“No.”

“Because you care about him?”

“I hate him.”

“To hate someone means caring, too. Just in a self-destructive way.”

“I don’t care about him. I don’t care about anyone.”

“And yet you called Aaron when you felt he was in danger.”

“Should have let him die,” he said, slightly raising his voice at the end as if he was posing a question instead of giving facts.

Bee just sipped her punch and gave him one of her brief, but still unreadable, smiles he got so used to over the years.

“It’s not wrong to show compassion, Andrew. Maybe it just feels wrong to you because people barely ever showed some for you.”

Andrew thought about Bee’s words. The point wasn’t that no one showed compassion for him; they did and they did too much. The point was that nothing had ever come of it. It was a way to get rid of a bad conscience that stemmed from not preventing the cause for compassion in advance.

“Nothing ever comes of it.”

“What’s nothing to you, can be everything to someone else, Andrew,” she said and put her cup into the dishwasher. “Is this nothing to you?”

“It’s one way of many to do my time.”

“And yet to many this means everything.”

“Therapy?”

“Your company,” she answered and gave Andrew a smile, before turning around to hand him a neatly wrapped Christmas present. “Let’s leave it at that for today. Merry Christmas, Andrew.”

He stared at Bee, took the present and unwrapped a bunch of sweets and a small booklet with poems and blank pages to be filled with his own. “Thanks.”

“I really like the cat glass figure, so it’s my turn to thank,” she said and gave him a last smile before she left for the living room to mingle.

When Andrew sat down at the table next to Nicky, who gave Andrew his foolish exaggerated smile, he almost understood what Bee had been talking about, although it remained a secret to him why anyone would enjoy his company. His headache came back.

 

~~~~~~

 

The best part of the dinner was about to arrive - the opening of the dessert buffet. Andrew followed Nicky to the line and scooped every single kind of dessert, from Tiramisu to ice cream to cake and mousse au chocolat onto his plate and topped it with whipped cream at the end of the table.

“Guess if I’ll ever need a diabetes patient for pharmaceutical studies, I can take my own brother and my cousin” a slightly drunk Aaron said to Katelyn, still loud enough for Andrew and Nicky to hear it.

“At least Andrew won’t judge all our customers when they buy our pastries and look at them like they are a fat mess.”

“Right, just one wrong glance and he’ll stab them so they’ll never have a chance to reach adipositas at all,” Aaron grunted back, eating his piece of Tiramisu and ignoring Andrew’s glare.

Nicky seemed to be about to defend Andrew once again as he suddenly cocked his head towards the buffet and elbowed Aaron.

“Damn Nicky,” he gritted as wine spilled over his jeans and glared at his cousin.

“Sorry but isn’t that the guy who fainted the other day?”

“Where?”

“Over there, the ginger at the buffet. What kind of man stands at a dessert buffet and takes an apple?” Nicky asked, as shocked as a kid that just learned that Santa Claus doesn’t exist at all.

“That’s probably the only thing that saved him,” Aaron responded bluntly, looking back at his plate.

“So it’s him?”

“Think so.”

“Don’t you wanna go over and ask him how he is?”

“Why the hell should I, Nicky? He fainted, we called an ambulance, he was on Matt’s ward, he seems pretty alive, so no need to bother him further.”

“But-”

“Nicky, stop it and eat. I guess he’s not exactly a big talker, considering he didn’t even talk to a doc when he was about to die. Reminds me of someone else here in the room, by the way.” Aaron just glared at Andrew who kept gobbling his dessert and downing another Christmas punch with whiskey.

“Ever considered that he didn’t want any help?” Andrew asked not even averting his eyes from his plate.

“Then he shouldn’t have fainted in front of my workplace.”

“Maybe I can talk to him,” Nicky said and put his tissue aside.

“Too late,” Andrew just said, rose from his chair and stuffed his cigarettes into the breast pocket of his leather jacket. When Nicky turned around to the buffet, all he could see were empty plates and dirty tablecloths and when he turned back to Andrew‘s seat, the same sight awaited him.

Chapter Text

“Thank you for hosting me,” Neil said as he sat at Matt’s and Dan’s kitchen table, eating his muesli and the rest of the fruit salad from the evening before.

“No bother,” Matt mumbled, stuffing his nutella toast into his mouth and flushing it down with a huge sip of coffee. “You can stay as long as you want. Maybe even come to the big New Year’s Eve party?”

“I want to leave on New Year’s Day and I don’t like parties.”

“It’s not exactly a big deal,” Dan explained, Matt’s mouth occupied with a spoon of cereal. “We’re invited at Allison’s and Renee’s. They surely won’t mind if you come as well.”

“Thank you, but I’m fine.”

“We should have gotten you a sweater with ‘I’m fine’ instead of a fox,” Dan laughed out. “Mr. I’m fine.”

Neil frowned, not really getting what was so funny about that. “What’s the deal with the foxes?”

“The foxes?” Matt asked, almost spilling some cereal across the table which earned him a disgusted look from Dan.

“Yeah. You gave me a sweater with one, at your doorstep is one, the bakery has the fox logo.”

“It’s how we got to know each other. A youth program lead by David Wymack,” Dan explained, preventing Matt from speaking up with a full mouth again. “He developed a program for youths with a messed up background. It’s meant to direct them back into the right channels by sports, free therapy and an attempt to replace the family they don’t have anymore. Our mascot is a fox.”

Neil thought about how he might have ended if he’d had the possibility to join such a program. He could have become an athlete, maybe even a good one. He’d always been an excellent runner, helping him to compensate his shortness which was definitely an impediment for a life on the run. Maybe he couldn’t fight back, but at least he could dodge. It made him feel more like a rabbit than a fox; his only asset being the ability to run and hide away instead of standing his ground.

“I started there as a teenager; now I’m working there. That’s where we met the rest of our group - even Allison. Oh, while we’re on it, Renee is looking for a temp for the bookstore to handle the big change-back-wave in the next three days, so if you could need some money-.”

“I guess the last one she can need there is me.”

“Here we go again,” she laughed, sipping the rest of her coffee. „She explicitly asked for you, so why don’t you pay her a visit later?“

Sure. I just give her my non-existent social security number and let her print out a nice staff tag with Nathaniel Wesninski on so that everyone can buy a book from The Butcher’s son.

Best put him into the crime section, at least he can give some recommendations on realistic murders and unsell the polished versions. Not to forget that the FBI would recognize his name the moment Renee would register him.

“Yeah, why not,” he said instead and put his stuff into the dishwasher. “I have some clothes in the tumbler, so I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

“In the cabin?”

“Uh, yes.”

“That’s your place anyway at the moment. Good to see you relax.”

Relax. Would he ever be able to do this? Sit back and unbend in front of a fireplace, not fear that he could be killed any moment or tracked down by the FBI? Live in an own apartment he belonged to, two cats waiting for him until he came home from a normal nine-to-five? Get up and go to bed alone day by day until he took his last breath?

Would he need to be alone or could he maybe share this nothing with someone? Someone he had met in his dreams several times, his hazel eyes wandering his body? Someone who hadn’t flinched once at the sight of his scars, who hadn’t even hesitated for a single moment to save him when he fainted the other day? It was so far away from reality that he shook the thought off.

“Thanks for breakfast. I’ll go for a run.”

“Sure! Have a good day,” Matt and Dan said at the same time, reminding Neil of how well attuned they were to each other. Not that he cared about relationships or the associated stuff at all, but sometimes he asked himself if he could simply enjoy somebody’s company, a shoulder to lean on, someone who was there to tell him it was just a dream when he started awake in the middle of the night from another nightmare; when he could feel the dashboard lighter being pressed into his face and the tip of a knife being pushed under his skin.

“Same to you,” he said and jogged towards the park.

~~~~~~

The warmth in the bookstore engulfed Neil as he opened the door, the calming and familiar scent of books, hot chocolate and cinnamon helping him to stay grounded. He’d considered just leaving Ithaca on New Year’s Day with the rest of Matt’s money that could at least take him to the next bigger city. Yet, he was standing here, knowing that Renee would probably ask him to help her out, not being completely sure anymore if he’d reject the offer or go for it.

“Hey Neil. Did you run?”

Neil realized just then that his clothes were sweaty from the run, his cheeks flushed from the heat of exhaustion from a still weakened body.

“Yeah, I went for a quick run.”

“Nice to see you’re obviously fit again.”

“I really missed running.”

“Seeking anything special? Based on what you bought the last time I can recommend some stuff.”

“Oh, I just passed by and wanted to browse a bit.”

“Sure,” she said and went back to the counter where a mother with her child was waiting with a bunch of books scooped up in her arms. Neil strode upstairs, browsing book titles that he didn’t catch anyway, his mind occupied with a stupid idea.

Matt had said that Renee could make a monster’s heart melt. If so, she would be close to Aaron or his brother and could probably give him a hint on what he liked. The idea came to him on the run - Aaron had given him something so he wanted to give something back before he left.

When he still hadn’t found something half an hour later, he walked downstairs where Renee was just showing a customer the door. Neil scratched the back of his head, not exactly knowing how to address this topic without making her suspicious.

“Need my help?”

“Somehow, yeah.”

“Looking for something specific?”

“A gift.”

“What do they read normally?”

“That’s the problem. I have no idea,” he sighed, rubbing his hairline above the nape of his neck while Renee leaned forward to prop her elbows against the counter.

“Do I know them?”

“I think so.”

“Dan or Matt?”

“Not exactly.”

Renee frowned and laughed at once. “So who then?”

“Do you know the guy working at the bakery?”

“Nicky?”

“No, I think his name is Aaron.”

“Aaron? Sure, but why?”

Neil hesitated for a moment, hemming and hawing while fiddling with a loose thread on his sleeve. “I- well,” he panted, slightly flushing. “He saved me when I fainted a few weeks ago.” And gave me food which was the nicest thing someone had done for me in years , but he couldn’t let that slip.

“Oh yeah, I heard of that. Well, Aaron likes novels, but mostly non-fiction. Sometimes he buys criminology stuff.”

“Criminology?”

“It’s like Forensic Files but mostly written by one investigator. I can show you some.”

“Sure.” Neil followed her upstairs, still trying to make sense of this guy. When he’d seen him on the porch yesterday, he’d had this undertone in his voice making it unimaginable to Neil that someone being so indifferent and insensitive could work with patients or people at all. He even wondered why on earth he’d saved him since he really hadn’t seemed to care.

If he really liked forensics and criminology, he’d better stick to this field.

“Here we are; I rec this one. His girlfriend Katelyn just got him the first volume so I’m sure he’d appreciate getting the second.”

Girlfriend . Of course there was one. There had to be. Neil didn’t know a lot about attractiveness, but even he could see that the blond hair and the hazel eyes and the firm muscular body were made to be called attractive. It just felt odd to imagine him with a girlfriend, but who was he to judge and guess, having no experience at all when it came to swinging.

“If you say so.”

“Trust me. Aaron is simple when it comes to books.”

Neil just nodded his approval and jogged downstairs to the counter. He paid and asked Renee to wrap it, standing at the counter a bit longer than necessary.

“Neil, I could need some help and Dan told me you have some spare time until New Year’s. Would you mind helping out for a few days?”

There it was. The question he was fearing and yet anticipating. He could really need the money but didn’t know if it was too risky to use a fake social security number.

“I- I guess I couldn’t do a lot here. I just started reading a few months ago so-”

“You don’t have to work with customers if you’re fearing something like that. You can also just help me with the displays, control the tea and hot chocolate or do the cash counter.”

The cash counter. As if someone would like to be served by a face with his scars. He touched the mess of carved-in lines on his right cheek, trying to hide what wasn’t concealable; what would never be concealable. Renee’s glance revealed that she understood his concerns.

“I’ll pay you of course. A hundred dollars a day plus tip?”

Must be her way of reassuring him that his past wouldn’t be a problem for her. He knew that he’d have to turn her down.

“Sure, why not,” he said instead and grabbed the wrapped book from the counter.

“10 a.m. tomorrow?

Neil gave a brief nod and made his way back into the cold of Ithaca, running until the burn in his lungs drowned out the evolving panic and all he could hear was the pounding of his blood in his head.

~~~~~~

Andrew threw the rest of his cigarette out of the window, jumped off his desk and answered the door. He’d slept all day, only getting up when Nicky knocked at his door to bring him dinner, before leaving him alone again. He would have to leave the house tomorrow to help Nicky at the bakery for the New Year’s Eve orders and that alone sufficed to make his head burst.

Renee entered and settled on his bed, propping her back against a pillow. A minute later, Andrew sat down next to her and handed her a tub of ice cream with two spoons in.

“How are you feeling today?”

He just stared at the wall, scooping some cookie dough pieces out of the tub.

“Like I got hit by a bus.”

“Head still pounding?”

“Can’t name a day when it doesn’t.”

Renee threw a glance his way, her always comforting smile on her lips. She remained silent for a moment before cocking her head aside.

“Could you talk to Bee about it, yet?”

“Called her. Says it’s normal. At least one thing about me is.”

Renee just nodded and ate her fair share of ice cream, leaving the rest to Andrew who threw the empty tub towards the trash can. It hit the edge and fell to the floor. Another failure. He pulled his legs to his chest and propped his forehead onto his knees.

“Drew, I know that this is Bee’s thing but you can talk to me.”

He felt the hollowness in his chest consuming him, eating him slowly up, enveloping his brain in a black mass that was as impenetrable as a black hole, consuming all light and never setting it free again. He had thought he hated Christmas before he knew how it felt without drugs. Now he knew he didn’t hate Christmas, he detested it.

“What’s there to talk about?”

“Even you can’t carry all of this alone.”

“I just never thought that it would be like this. All the time.”

“So hard?”

“So empty.”

Talking to Renee wasn’t the same as talking to Bee. He’d never told her why he had been on drugs or sought highs by tempting fate when he leaned a bit too much over the edge of a roof or why he hated Christmas. He had just told her that he did and that he had his reasons and she had accepted it right from the start, never pushing him to reveal more than he was willing to give. Over the years he realized that she needed no explanation for his aversion for non-approved touches or his violent outlashes. She understood him anyway.

“It takes time, Drew, and even if it takes an eternity, I’ll still be here and got your back. Everyone gets tired of fighting sometimes, you just have to think about the feeling of throwing the last punch and winning in the end.”

He let his head fall back against the wall, staring at the ceiling, none of them speaking for quite a while. What was left to be worth the fight? Had there ever been anything worth it at all? His cousin was safe, happy and married and his brother was just one step behind. Not long and he‘d marry Katelyn and there was nothing left to do, nothing left to care about, no one to watch, no one to keep safe.

“Wanna hear the news?” Renee interrupted the silence, turning her head to the left to face Andrew, who just gave a small nod.

“Guess whom I hired.”

“I said yes to hearing the news, not playing the guessing game.”

Renee smiled at the familiar cynical remark.

“Pastry guy.”

Andrew’s skin crawled at the revelation although his posture didn’t respond to the storm rising in his guts. He could have sworn that Renee still recognized his sudden stillness the way she tilted her head and focused on his face. When he had recollected himself, he turned his head to the right to face her with blank eyes.

“Don’t get your hopes up. He’s a runaway. Better keep looking for another one to put your clients off.”

“He’ll work at the store for four days only and my customers actually like him. At least most of them, although one has been missing for quite a while”

“Must be a lucky one.”

Her eyes looked into his intently, before she turned her face to the window next to the bed. Andrew followed her gaze, watching snowflakes land on the windowsill and slowly turning into water.

“I guess this particular customer could like him as well.”

“Guessing wrong.”

“Guess pastry guy’s already using his paycheck on more important things than books. Yesterday, he came in with a very familiar paper bag, eating some very familiar pastries for lunch. Same today.”

“Guess this headache came around seasonable, then.”

“Guess this turned into a guessing game very quickly.”

Renee smirked and even though Andrew wouldn’t let his mouth win and let it twitch, he had to admit that this conversation was the closest thing to humorous in months. As always with Renee, no words were needed for her to see through him.

“Maybe your headache would subside once you get your ass out of that room and have a sparring session with me. I won’t hit your head, I promise.”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

Both their heads shot around at the same time, Renee giving him a mischievous smile as she recognized the fleeting twitch of Andrew’s lips. Five minutes later, they were on the road.

Chapter Text

The past three days had been a single mess with several clients changing gifts to things they really liked, keeping Renee and Neil busy, but today was New Year’s Eve and the bookstore was mostly empty.

In one corner sat a boy, alternating between checking his phone and flipping through a new fantasy series; upstairs were two other customers, most likely enjoying one of Renee’s cups of tea while browsing the romance section Neil couldn’t get attached to.

A few clients had asked for his advice the last days, looking for a good new romance novel and revealing more information about their sexual preferences and kinks than he ever wished to hear, so all he could do was give them a gentle smile and send them over to Renee who handled them easily.

Now there were only fifteen minutes left before Renee would call it a day and Neil would be without a job again. He’d gotten used to work with Renee pretty quickly, appreciating her way of avoiding putting him under pressure when he felt overwhelmed by the crammed aisles or people staring at the scars on his face. It seemed like she could feel his tension and never hesitated to give him a way out by sending him to the storage, although the displays were still stacked or making him go to the post office to send out some orders from the online shop.

The hardest thing about it was that he had to admit that he liked it. That he liked working at the store, sharing tea or hot chocolate with Renee during lunch break, even ordering pizza yesterday, Renee never asking questions Neil wouldn’t want to answer as if she knew what was safe to ask and what was made to stay buried deep down, never coming back to light again.

Just as the clock turned 2 pm, Renee jumped off the counter, took her bag and the keys and walked Neil to the door, a soft smile on her face somehow making the cross she wears around her neck seem more prominent.

“Guess we made it, Neil. You’re free again. That’s for you.” She held out an envelope, Neil’s name written on the front in a straight but still cursive handwriting.

“Thank you.”

“No, I have to thank you. It’s much easier to control these sharks with someone like you by my side. Usually, Andrew helps out, but well, this year everything seems to be different.”

“So Andrew is Aaron’s brother, right? Matt calls them the monsters. Why is that?”

“Just a stupid nickname Matt came up with years ago. Aaron and Andrew had a complicated past, like all the foxes. They’re not always easy, but their bark is worse than their bites. Aaron found a way to get rid of it. Andrew simply doesn’t make it easy for anyone to see behind the curtain.” The soft smile on her face turns into something Neil can’t name. The term that comes closest to it is mischief, something that doesn’t match with Renee’s attitude and then again it does, considering that she’s a fox. “Does Aaron like the book?”

“The book?”

“The book you bought for him? The one I recommended?”

“Oh-” he just stuttered, feeling heat rise to his head. He had avoided the bakery for the last four days, not knowing how to face Aaron or what to say to him. He didn’t seem like the type for normal conversations and his snarl at him for trying to do some chit-chat at Matt’s Christmas buffet only confirmed that.

Not that Neil felt bothered by it, quite the contrary. He didn’t mind skipping small talk and cutting to the chase, but somehow he had wanted Aaron to answer his question, had wanted to know if Aaron had fled the party for the same reasons. Aaron’s presence had been utterly palpable when he had walked out into the cold, lighting his cigarette, radiating a heat that almost made Neil’s skin burn. He had felt him before he’d seen him and that was something utterly new to him because he’d never felt something like this before. He thought about the tug at his stomach he’d felt as their eyes had met and Aaron had held his gaze for a moment longer than needed. “No, I haven’t yet. I haven’t met him yet.”

“Well, I wanted to ask you anyway. Allison and I are giving a small New Year’s Eve party tonight and you’re more than welcome. Aaron and Andrew will be there, too, so you could give it to him right there.”

Neil hesitated, thinking about the consequences of his decision, thinking about the consequences of looking into hazel eyes once more, smelling cigarette smoke, watching hands finding their way up to a set of lips Neil couldn’t tear his eyes away from, watching his lungs being filled with another drag and exhaling smoke into the dark night.

And then he reminded himself that nothing would ever come of it anyway, that he would be on the bus at this time tomorrow, running away like he was used to it, like his mother had taught him, like he would need to until there’d be no air in his lungs left to be breathed, his heart stopping dead in his chest, a heart that would never have felt what most people live for, long for and he didn’t understand anyway. At least that’s what he’d thought for most of his life.

“I’m not sure. I want to leave early tomorrow.”

“How about that? You come over and when you feel like it, I can drive you back to Matt’s, no matter when you wanna leave.”

Neil raked a hand through his hair, releasing a brief sigh. “Okay.” What could happen anyway? He could just leave whenever he wanted to and he’d be alone again by tomorrow, so why not stop his mother’s screaming voice to run for one night longer. “When does it start?”

“Six. You can come with Matt and Dan though. They’ll be a bit earlier and help preparing the finger food.”

“Alright.” He stuffed the envelope into his duffel, nodded, looked at the bakery sign in the middle of the alley, barely visible and yet recognizable by the orange fox, and walked into the opposite direction, resisting the pull, the urge to look. He’d see him tonight.

~~~~~~

Neil was met with R&B music as he entered the sticky apartment, the basses vibrating in his chest, drowning out his wildly drumming heartbeat. Matt and Dan cut their way through the dancing masses in the spacious living room to the kitchen island where Renee was stocking up the buffet and Allison popped another bottle of what - according to the golden tag - seemed to be a very expensive champagne.

“Neil,” Renee said and smiled, putting down another tray of shrimps before striding over. “How nice that you could make it.”

His mind jumped back to the conversation at Matt’s house earlier, Matt fussing about Renee’s invitation and how much he would appreciate Neil’s attendance and that he could even manage to get some proper clothes for him last minute and that he wouldn’t accept a no just because Neil had to leave tomorrow because in his opinion he wouldn’t even have to and that  ̶

Long story short, Neil had given in, even if it had just served to shut Matt up. Now he was standing in Renee’s and Allison’s luxurious penthouse, dressed in too tight black jeans, a light-blue button-up - according to Matt resembling and emphasizing the blue of his eyes ; Neil had no idea why he needed to emphasize them at all - and a leather jacket - all things Matt had brought him to the cabin. He didn’t know where Matt had gotten them from; he’d just known that protesting would have been pointless. At least he could convince them that he’d come on his own and a bit later.

“Thanks for the invitation,” he said and asked himself when he could ask for a ride home without coming across as an ungrateful ass. “Nice apartment.” Another desperate attempt at small talk; a special someone would mock him for it.

“Oh thank you, but most of its beauty comes from Allison’s good sense of interior design.”

“Are you bragging about me, Renee? Neil, did you know that they built this apartment building just a year ago? It’s the tallest building in Ithaca and its environs, that’s why the view is so incredible. Champagne?” Allison asked, shoving a champagne flute into his right hand, his left occupied with Aaron’s book. It seemed like it wasn’t the first bottle of the night to be opened.

“Well, actually-”

“Yeah, yeah, you don’t drink, I know, but not tonight, Neil,” Allison chanted. “It’s New Year’s Eve and no year can be a good one if you don’t start it with a huge glass of champagne - except for Dan. No alcohol for the mum-to-be.”

That must have been the reason why his life had been shitty so far - he’d never started a new year off with champagne. “She’s pregnant?”

“Sharp cookie, aren’t you? And we dumped our thrift shop look.”

The voice was familiar, too familiar to not shoot his head around. Neil had never cared for looks but even he had to admit that the blond looked like what other people would call attractive. He wore a black leather jacket, a black shirt and black tight jeans very similar to Neil’s. It could have been an illusion but he could have sworn that his own suddenly felt a bit tighter than before.

“Uhm, I- hey.” Neil felt heat rushing from his guts to his face until his head was burning.

“And a master of conversation. Any more hidden talents?” the raspy voice asked and yet its owner didn’t even wait for an answer. He was out on the terrace before Neil could even make a sound.

“Not surprising that Matt calls him monster,” Neil said to Dan. “Congrats.”

“Minyard number one,” Matt laughed out, obviously very amused by Neil’s facial expression. “I may call him monster, but he’s a good guy. He just never shows it.”

Dan took a glass from the tray Allison was carrying towards the dance floor and pushed it at Neil. “Give him something to drink and he’ll be nicer,” she said with a wink and grabbed Matt to drag him after, leaving Neil standing at the kitchen island, the wrapped book tucked under his arm and two full glasses of champagne in his hands. Well, if he already held it, he could as well drink it.

He strode towards the window facade and was struck by an incredible view over Ithaca. To his left he could see the lights of the town, the green of the trees and the Cornell campus. Right in front of him, Cayuga Lake stretched out into the landscape up to the far right, the water glistering and reflecting the moonlight coming from above. A dark silhouette was propped against the terrace rail, a thin line of smoke illuminated by a single terrace light cutting through the black of the night.

Neil walked to the sliding door and pushed it open with his foot, trying to keep his balance to not spill all the champagne onto the floor. Aaron didn’t turn around as Neil approached the rail but it felt like he had sensed him once Neil had opened the door. He positioned himself at the rail and let his eyes drift back to the water beneath them, trying to push away the thought of looking like a fool with two glasses in his hands and no one following him.

“That’s from Dan,” he said after the cigarette between Aaron’s lips was nearing it’s butt, holding one glass out. After what felt like an eternity, he was met with the familiar dark hazel eyes, a hand reaching out for the glass. He downed it as if he didn’t know that it must have been a small fortune he was chasing down his throat, before he stubbed the rest of his cigarette out on the ground and retook his former position.

When he didn’t make another move, Neil propped his elbows onto the rail, smelled at the acidulous drink and screwed up his nose before downing it. It burnt in his throat but rewarded him with a comfortable warmth in his gut.

The smell of smoke, the glistering water and the taste of alcohol on his tongue carried him back to the beach in California. Neil thought that they had made it, that they could have stayed there for a while after they had tricked his father’s men, but once they had reached the beach his mother had already begun to pant, her hands pressed onto her flank, trying to dry up the well of gushing blood.

They had always found solutions, no matter how painful they had been; at least they’d kept them alive. In that night, Neil had known that there had been nothing he could have done to save her, all needles or gauze bandages useless when she had lost more blood than a body could handle. He had kept his hands pressed onto hers, watching her take her last breaths before he had spilled the last bottles of alcohol and a canister with gasoline over her body and the car, choosing burning her to ashes over numbing his pain with it. He had never again had a single drop of alcohol since that day. Feeling it burn in his throat now made him nauseous, especially when he looked down and saw nothing but emptiness.

“Got lost?”

Not just now but a long time ago Neil thought to himself, his eyes focused on the water and yet not seeing anything but a blur.

“Can you get lost when you didn’t even know where to go when you set off?”

Silence wafted between them until Neil heard the flick of a switch, a flame dancing on Aaron’s lighter as he lit another cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.

“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”

The words settled in his ears, rushed right into his brain and he could feel a sting in his chest at the truth that tumbled out of this mouth so easily, bluntly, as sharp as razor blades, sharper than all the knives that’d cut him open a hundred times.

“Is that yours?”

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s.”

Neil had never heard of him, but something about it made him wonder. Renee had told him that Aaron was simple when it came to literature, but all his utterances didn’t sound simple.

“Well, guess I’m on a train without stopovers then.”

“Aren’t we all, Neil Josten?”

Neil stilled at the sound of his name. It wasn’t his real name and yet he felt like this was the name that had led him closest to a real life. People had offered Neil Josten a place to stay, had offered Neil Josten a job, had invited Neil Josten to not only stay for Christmas but also for tonight and sometimes Matt had sounded as if Neil Josten could easily stay forever and become more than a pipe dream, more than a name on a forged passport.

Just another spark of hope his father’s legacy would crush sooner or later.

“Why do you know my name? Did Renee give it to you?”

“A lot of questions from a man being nothing but one himself.” He took a deep drag from his cigarette and exhaled the smoke straight into Neil’s face, his hand giving away a slight tremble.

“I got you something,” Neil said into the night, his eyes and heart burning from the smoke, his hands starting to freeze from the cold, his breath evaporating. He had lost track of time the moment he had stepped out onto this terrace and only his quivering red hands reminded him now of how long he must have been standing here.

He took the book and held it out, suddenly feeling more pressure and nervousness than in a passport control with a forged passport in his hand and four others in his duffel.

Aaron’s stare was blank as it met his eyes as if he wanted to pierce through him. A few seconds longer and his fingers would be dead.

Eventually, he reached out and took the present, turning it to and fro before sticking the cigarette between his lips and tearing the gift wrap apart.

Neil watched his face intensely, not wanting to miss a hint of a reaction, but it stayed as indifferent as always except for the slightly tensed muscles around his jaw.

„Renee said you would like it and that you already got the first one from your girlfriend. It’s just for everything you’ve done for me and —”

„Wrong twin, Josten,“ he heard and at the same time a voice called „Andrew?“, the familiar name cutting through the air and Neil’s words on his tongue as footsteps came closer. Neil had to blink several times to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating as a second set of hazel eyes surveyed his shocked face, his still open mouth, his blinking eyes.

„Andrew?“ Neil repeated the words he had heard, confusion with a wave of embarrassment crashing in on him as he looked back and forth between Aaron - or was that Andrew? - and an exact copy of Aaron - or was that Aaron? - his hand clenching around his empty glass as if he could stop the world from shaking by just not letting go.

„Renee is looking for you,“ the new blond said, clearly addressing what must be his identical twin, before turning to Neil. Obviously with nothing to add, he glanced at the book, then at Neil and Andrew before he shook his head and turned around, only stopped by a sudden tight grip on his arm.

„Neil got you something. For your generosity,“ the other huffed, pushing the book into his brother‘s chest before loosening his grip and getting back to his smoke. „Last time I saw her, Renee had legs and a mouth so she can tell me that herself.“

„I— What?“ Neil pressed out, trying to hide the shock in his voice.

„What? Never seen twins?“ the real Aaron said before turning again. „Don’t think we‘re the same just because we look alike. You should get inside, at least until you don’t want to spend a few other weeks on a ward. Andrew here can’t save you when you faint and I don’t want to spend another night in a hospital for someone with a dozen names and yet so nameless. Thanks for the book.“ He held the book up and waved it before stepping inside through the sliding door.

Neil felt like he got hit by a bus. What did Aaron know? Had he thanked the wrong twin on Matt’s porch? At least it was an explanation for the little differences he had spotted over the weeks, like a slightly different hair style and Andrew’s darker eyes but they were barely noticeable unless one looked closely. Seemed like he had. At least he did now, Andrew standing barely three feet away from him.

“No gift for me? I’m devastated,” Andrew said bluntly, stepping closer into Neil’s space until Neil could feel Andrew’s breath on his skin, his face calm but his eyes vivid, a dancing flame from one of the torches on the terrace reflecting in his pupils. Neil should have felt the urge to recoil, but all he felt was a pull, the incapability of averting his eyes from Andrew’s thin lips. He’d never felt this feeling before; he just knew that it didn’t bode well.

“I didn’t know  ̶ You never said something. It wasn’t you  ̶ “

“No, it wasn’t me who saved your pathetic ass. Yes, it was me who couldn’t stand your pathetic stare any longer. Are you done bombarding me with questions and ready to share some answers instead?”

“Andrew? Oh sorry, Aaron didn’t tell me about this,” Renee said and stopped dead in her tracks.

“There’s no this, right Neil? I guess we’re done here, anyway,” Andrew said into Neil’s face before he pulled back, tipped two fingers to his head in a salute and walked towards Renee.

It wasn’t until Neil heard the thump of the sliding door falling shut that he recognized that he had held his breath for an eternity. The smell of alcohol and smoke was stuck in his nose, mixed with a picture of dancing flames and brown eyes looking into his. Yet, this time he wasn’t at a beach, the flames were not burning flesh and bones to ashes, the eyes were not his mother’s but Andrew’s and the tug in his heart didn’t feel like grief, but something much worse.

Chapter Text

Neil was boring his way through the crowd, his plate filled with several kinds of finger food from the buffet and a chattering Nicky in tow. After he had spent a full hour in the bathroom to let his nausea subside, he had run into Nicky who’d immediately bombarded him with tons of questions about his health condition and how long he’d been in town already and reassured him that he was really happy that Neil had fainted during Aaron’s shift and not during Andrew’s.

He had made him shake hands with Erik, his boyfriend or husband - Neil hadn’t exactly listened once Nicky had mentioned Andrew - and now they were sitting down on two bar stools at a bar table, Neil rather picking at his food than eating it while Nicky shoved it down like a starved animal devouring his first prey in weeks.

Neil could definitely draw a line from the extensive Christmas decor in the shop to this overly cheerful man, who was older than himself and yet seemed to be much younger.

“I’ve seen you outside with Andrew. Anything special you two had to talk about?” Nicky raised his eyebrow, obviously in anticipation of a groundbreaking revelation, but what was there to reveal?

“No, not exactly.”

“Well, for nothing you two have been out there quite long.”

“I just wanted to thank him before I leave tomorrow.”

“Thank him? What for? Leave tomorrow? Why?”

“I thought it was him who had saved me the other day.” Neil’s eyes wandered over to the kitchen where Andrew was leaning against the kitchen counter, chatting with Renee. It seemed so different; Andrew seemed so different. The way he talked to Renee indicated that he was more relaxed than during their nothing outside on the terrace and Neil still asked himself if they shared a deeper connection, something that transcended the meaning of the word friendship.

Naturally, Nicky hadn’t missed Neil’s moment of weakness and was now looking at him with a certain sparkle in his eyes and a sly smile on his lips.

“Seems like I mistook him for Aaron.”

Nicky bursted into laughter next to him, saving his toppling plate in the last nick of time from spilling his leftovers over the carpet. “Oh, that happens so often. I still don’t get why it happens though. Andrew and Aaron look the same but are still different. Even in their looks.”

“That’s what Aaron explained outside.”

“I can’t blame him for making it clear whenever someone new learns about their twinship. He’d rather die than be mistaken for Andrew.”

“Why?” Neil asked and frowned, his eyes still on Andrew who was sharing whispers with Renee.

“Because Aaron thinks he and Andrew are miles apart, but in fact, they aren’t. Aaron was just the lucky one. They’re both pretty similar sometimes. Enough about Andrew and Aaron. What about you, Neil? Such a handsome young man and all alone? Living on the streets? You want to leave tomorrow? Where to? Why?”

“Nicky, you’re a bit overwhelming, don’t you think?” Matt asked from behind, leaning against the bar table, squeezing Neil’s shoulder while picking a shrimp from his plate.

“No, I’m not, but I need to worm everything out of him. Neil won’t reveal a lot about himself.”

“And probably that’s because he doesn’t want you to know anything about himself. Ever taken that into consideration?”

“You’re such a sport! He’s too handsome to be alone not to mention to live on the streets. He could work for me. Aaron is consumed by med school so some help in the kitchen would be nice for Drew.”

Neil’s eyes had long wandered away from Andrew and were now flicking back and forth between Nicky and Matt, his cheeks slightly flushed at Nicky’s compliment.

“He doesn’t live on the streets anymore; he lives with us and I don’t think he would make a good baker. Ask Dan what happened as he just had to take the potato casserole out of the oven on Christmas.” Matt chuckled at the memory of Neil burning himself on the casserole because the towel had shifted. “I’m with Nicky though, Neil. You don’t have to leave. You could work with Dan for Wymack.”

“Thank you but I’m fine. I’ve stayed too long already.”

“Too long for what?” Matt and Nicky asked in unison, both frowning at him.

“Maybe too long to cope with you guys. Neil, don’t listen to them. You don’t have to let them pressure you into something you don’t like,” Dan said, patting him on the back before slapping Matt and Nicky. “Matt’s right though. You could work at the center for a while. We could need someone for the sports lessons, especially on weekends. Just know that you could have a place here, if you’d like to have one. Come on, Matt. I wanna dance before I’m an overtired mum.” Matt shrugged, scooped her up and carried her over to the dance floor, leaving Neil with Nicky behind. Again.

“Why are you even single?”

“I don’t care about relationships?”

“Such a waste. You could have anyone.”

“Sure,” Neil mocked and even chuckled, considering the abstrusity of Nicky’s utterance when his scars lay open for everyone to see what his past had done to him.

“What? You don’t believe me? Even Andrew looks at you and that’s a novelty, I promise.”

“Thanks for the chat, Nicky,” Neil said and got up from his stool, “but I guess the last thing Andrew wants is someone like me.”

“Good that you’re not into bets, Neil. My offer stands. My clients would love a cutie like you.”

Neil just gave him a quick nod before scrounging a cigarette from an older guy whose arms were covered with flame tattoos, before he slouched onto the terrace to skip the ball drop in a few minutes. There was nothing to be celebrated. At this time tomorrow he would be in a different city, hundreds of miles away from Ithaca, from Andrew, from an impossible future.

A torch served as the perfect lighter for the cigarette in his hand. He took a deep drag to get it glow, exhaling the smoke that burned in his lungs and walked over to the conversant spot at the rail, just inhaling the smell instead of filling his lungs with another drag.

“Blocking my view, Josten.”

It was the second time tonight that Andrew could jolt him out of his thoughts and catch him off guard without making a sound betraying him.

“Anything interesting out there?” Neil retorted, slightly unnerved by the other’s presence for several reasons.

“Obviously enough for you to look for it all night.” Andrew took a spot next to him and swiped his cigarette before Neil’s muscles could even react in protest. Neil just stared at Andrew, startled by his audacity. “Staring. You would have wasted it anyway.” The cigarette wandered to Andrew’s lips and glimmered at the drag.

“You can know that because-?”

“Because you haven’t taken a single drag since you lit it.”

Seemed like Neil hadn’t been the only one observing. Andrew held his hand out, offering the cigarette back, his blank stare focused on the moon. Neil took it back, cupped it and took a sniff.

“Why aren’t you with your friends and family? Nicky doesn’t seem to be the worst company.”

“Why aren’t you in there then?”

Nailed it. Again. Neil started fumbling with the hem of his sleeve and bit his lip. “Don’t like company?” he asked, although it came out shakier than he had intended it to.

“Not everyone’s.”

“So it’s mine you’re seeking?” A smile slipped over Neil’s face at the thought of someone - no, Andrew - seeking his presence. He quickly hid it by finally taking another drag.

“Do you like playing games, Neil Josten?” Andrew asked, took the cigarette back and blew the smoke into his face.

“Depends on the pot.”

“How about a truth for a truth?”

Andrew turned his head to face Neil, the proximity reminding him of the situation a few hours ago. It had been clear that they’d been done and yet they were both standing there again.

Neil felt the heat creeping back into his face although it had just started to snow. He had no truths to share and something inside his chest made him feel like sharing lies with someone like Andrew wouldn’t be fair when he would go for the truth. Then again, there were too many questions on his mind to deny this chance of getting some answers before he’d never see him again, before Andrew would turn into a memory that’d only come back to life in his dreams.

“What’s in for me?”

“Nothing but the truth.”

More than Neil had ever gotten from anyone else. “You start,” he said and took another drag from the cigarette Andrew was holding out for him.

“Is Neil Josten your real name?”

No lies. “No.” Andrew just nodded and took his turn at smoking.

“Your turn.”

“What’s your last name? It’s only fair since you know mine.”

“I don’t even know your real last name,” Andrew huffed, words like punches to Neil’s guts. “Minyard,” he added, averting his gaze again. “My turn. Why are you out here instead of watching the ball drop?”

“I just never understood why people look forward to a new year as if everything can change within this single night. It all stays the same anyway. There’s nothing to celebrate.”

“Then why are you here at all? Not a big fan of parties, are you?”

“Isn’t that a second question already?” Neil said and smiled, stalling because he couldn’t say because of you . “I don’t know. Renee invited me. I wasn’t the best help at the bookstore so that was all I could do. Can I have two questions now, too?”

“I just had one.”

“Two,” Neil grinned, seeing a silent confirmation in Andrew’s clenched jaw.

“Should have specified your answer. Your turn.”

“Why are you so different with Renee?”

“Am I?”

“It’s my turn, forgot that?” Neil nudged him with his shoulder which earned him a deadly glare that made him think of his mother for a moment.

“Renee doesn’t ask unnecessary questions. She understands me in a way others can’t.”

“She doesn’t call you monster. Is that what you mean?”

The nickname seemed to evoke something in Andrew that Neil hadn’t seen before. If he hadn’t memorized this indifferent face so well, he’d say that something in Andrew stung. A second later it was gone again.

“Sometimes human places create inhuman monsters. Ever read The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There ?”

“No? Is it a quote from this book?”

“No, it’s from The Shining ,” Andrew said and turned his head to look into Neil’s eyes. Neil felt a shiver running down his spine, not because he was afraid but because Andrew’s gaze was so intense. He seemed to be more vivid than ever before.

“Listen. ‘I’m a monster,’ said the shadow of the Marquess suddenly. ‘Everyone says so.’ The Minotaur glanced up at her. ‘So are we all, dear,’ said the Minotaur kindly. ‘The thing to decide is what kind of monster to be. The kind who builds towns or the kind who breaks them.’ Matt has made his decision long ago. He calls Aaron and me monster . Guess who he thinks builds towns and who destroys them.”

“Why is that?” Did he recite that by heart?

“You had two questions, Josten. Can’t even stick to simple rules, huh? My turn.” He turned his face away again and looked into the night. “Are you running away from the new year?”

Neil’s heart stumbled at the unexpected question. Sure he was running away from a lot, but running away from a new year wasn’t a thing he’d ever considered. It wasn’t a date or season who was trying to kill him.

“Who said that I’m running at all?”

“You scream running for a thousand miles to hear. You never abandon this stupid duffel, you’re living on the streets and yet you don’t seem like a boy who grew up in poverty. You check the rooms you enter for exits and listen to every sound behind you. You’ve turned your head to the door at least twenty times since we’ve been standing here. Stop being a rabbit, Josten.”

Wow. Someone has really been watching. “It’s not the new year that makes me run. I just don’t see a sense in celebrating it. I had never known if I would live to see a new year starting off. I learned to focus on the present.”

“Then stop living in the past. Switch trains.”

Andrew said it as if it was possible, but it never would be. He’d never be Neil Josten, live in a town with friends that invited him to parties, with a job he liked and that earned him real money, with Andrew Minyard who could probably made him swing.

“If it’s that easy, why don’t you start building towns?” He took the last drag of his cigarette and stubbed it out, crashing it with the sole of his boot. Inside, he could hear the last seconds of the countdown before everyone erupted into cheers. “Happy New Year, Andrew,” he said and turned around, memorizing the shape of Andrew’s body one last time before he headed for the door, ran down the stairs and into the night. His body was running; his mind whispered stay.

~~~~~~

“Hey, Drew. Happy New Year!” Renee said when she stepped out onto the terrace where Andrew was still leaning over the rail, his eyes watching the night sky. His body felt the urge to shiver. He had been out there for at least one hour, nothing more than his leather jacket and a beanie on. The snowfall had covered him with a white layer and his fingers clinging to a cigarette were more blue than red by now.

“New Year, Renee,” he gave back and couldn’t completely swallow back the absent-mindedness that caused a little crack in his voice.

“Where’s Neil?” she asked as she propped her elbows onto the rail next to him, looking into the distance.

“The rabbit got stricken by it’s flight instinct and ran.”

Renee just nodded and wrapped a blanket around Andrew’s shoulders. “You should come in, soon. Otherwise you’ll end like him and do you really want to be saved by Aaron?”

“Guess I shouldn’t contribute to his hero syndrome.”

Renee smiled at him before she turned around and left for the living room, Andrew in tow.

“Drew, Drew, Drew, Happy New Year,” Nicky shouted into his ear, luckily refraining from hugging him in the nick of time. “Where’s pretty boy? You didn’t shy him away, did you?”

Andrew just looked at him for a moment before he went over to the kitchen counter, leaving Nicky behind and pouring himself a glass of whiskey before he could stab his cousin to death.

Most people who came across the kitchen counter - mostly Allison’s designer friends - didn’t even recognize him or simply gave him a wide berth. It had never bothered him that people shied away from him or ignored him. It’s not like he hadn’t done everything he could to be left alone, but tonight, something about it made him feel uncomfortable. Monster.

Katelyn had wished him a Happy New Year, as well as Dan, Matt, Allison and Erik and all he could think about was this idiot Neil Josten telling him to build towns and leaving with a Happy New Year as if he could simply get away with that.

It had sounded like a farewell, but something inside of him told him that this fucking gorgeous walking dumbass would be trouble and maybe, he was looking forward to that.

Chapter Text

The hangover kept within a more reasonable limit than Andrew had thought when he finally had sunken into the cushions in the early morning. A glimpse at his alarm clock on the nightstand revealed that he was already too late. He pressed the heels of his hand onto his closed eyes and sighed heavily before he pushed the blanket aside and got out of bed.

“Morning, Drew,” Erik greeted briefly when Andrew met him at the percolator and held out a mug with freshly brewed coffee for him. Andrew just gave him a quick nod and a brief once-over, his eyes quickly stumbling over Erik’s firm chest and abs before the rest was hidden underneath the waistband of his short black briefs. At least, Nicky’s taste in men wasn’t as bad as his chit-chat.

“Hey, that’s my breakfast,” Nicky croaked out from the doorframe. Great. Seems like his once-over wasn’t as surreptitious as he wanted it to be. “Nothing that fits my taste anyway,” he deadpanned and downed his perfectly sweetened sugar-coffee-mix - that Erik knew how to hit the nail right on the head surprised him - before he quickly jumped under the shower.

When he was back in his bedroom and just about to pull his wristbands on, his phone rang.

“I’m late, I know.”

“Happy New Year, first. Don’t worry, long night?” Bee asked from the other end of the phone.

“Can say that.”

“Food will be ready in twenty minutes. Will you make it?”

“Yes.”

“See you in twenty minutes, Andrew,” she said and Andrew could hear her smile through the line before he hung up. He wasn’t hungry at all but New Year’s dinner with Bee was a tradition he liked to follow, even if it was just for the hot chocolate with marshmallows at the end of it.

“Are you off to Bee’s?” Katelyn asked when he grabbed his wallet and keys from the sideboard next to the wardrobe in the hallway, halting for a minute because Katelyn mostly ignored him the way he ignored her.

“Any other appointments in my calendar?”

“I just wanted to ask for you to give me a ride to Allison?”

“And your car is?”

“Aaron took it to drive to the gym.”

It was the last thing he wanted to do and yet Katelyn had been the nicest person in this house within the last weeks and never bothered him so why not for once. He started to ask himself if it was a side effect of his conversation with smart mouth Josten yesterday. Maybe, maybe not.

He nodded towards the door and went outside, not even waiting for Katelyn to follow. She’d either be in the car in a few seconds or not at all. A sigh escaped his mouth when she opened the passenger door of the maserati. Hopefully, she would stick to her non-bothering attitude for a bit longer.

~~~~~~

“Andrew, twenty minutes. The alarm for the roast just went off.” Bee pushed the glasses on her nose to her forehead and let Andrew in. It smelled like roast and rosemary potatoes and gravy and suddenly he felt more hungry than when he’d left off.

“Here, for you,” Andrew said pushing a bottle of wine and some cupcakes at Bee, not mentioning that it were leftovers from the bakery because Andrew knew that they still tasted adequate a day later.

“Thank you,” Bee said in her always friendly but not exaggeratingly tone before she strode into the kitchen, finishing the setting of the table. “Would you mind taking the potatoes out of the oven?”

Andrew just pulled on the gloves and pulled the tray with the potatoes out of the oven. Bee carved the roast and spreaded some on each plate with dark gravy on top of it.

“Thanks for dinner, Bee.”

“Thank you for your company. You know I always like having you around.”

Andrew nodded and sat down, waiting for Bee to fill her plate with potatoes and vegetables before they started to eat in silence. Bee was the only person he could sit with in complete silence and not feel uncomfortable. Not saying a thing mostly earned him a pitying glance from Nicky or a glare from Aaron, but Bee just accepted their silence. It sometimes felt like they had shared hundreds of stories by saying nothing when a session was over. Something only Renee could come close to.

“You know it’s just a private meeting today and I usually am not your therapist on these days, but you seem pensive today. Anything happened last night you want to share with me?”

For once he was almost relieved that Bee asked. He wouldn’t share this if she hadn’t.

“This idiot was at the party. Yesterday.”

“The boy that always stares?”

“Yea.”

Bee repositioned herself in her chair, reclining a bit for more comfort.

“Hot chocolate first? We can sit in the living room if you feel more comfortable there.”

Andrew just nodded again and got up, clearing the table and stacking the dishwasher while the therapist prepared two mugs with hot chocolate, not forgetting to add a handful of tiny marshmallows to Andrew’s.

Bee’s living room held a nice fireplace and some pictures on the mantle together with some of the glass figurines Andrew had bought her throughout the years. Two armchairs were arranged in front of it, each one with a stool to comfortably prop one’s feet onto. Everything was in place - Bee wouldn’t allow it to be any different.

Andrew got into the right armchair with his mug and stared into the fire, watching the crimson and orange flames devour all oxygen like insatiable tongues lunging out into the air. The red and blue of the flames carried his thoughts back to the terrace, red hair and red lips and blue eyes seeing right through him, making his skin crawl and his blood boil like they were flames themselves.

Before he could lose himself too much, Bee sat down in the armchair next to his and looked at him, a brief smile on her lips - her typical way to show that he could start.

“I don’t want to talk about him,” Andrew started right away with a lie. Of course he wanted to talk about Neil. There wasn’t anything else on his mind recently. Yet, that was the reason why he didn’t want to talk about him. Neil, Neil, Neil. He needed to put a stop to this.

“That’s okay but then why mention him at all?”

“I want to talk about what he said, not him.”

Bee moved in her armchair, straightening her skirt and pushing up her glasses.

“That’s valid. What happened then?”

Andrew’s knee started to jolt, finding a steady rhythm.

“He baffled me.”

“With what?”

“Telling the truth.”

“The truth?”

Andrew’s eyes didn’t avert from the fire place once as he thought about Neil’s stupid face making the feeling of falling so small in comparison to the twisting of his guts he’d felt yesterday. All he could think about was kissing this damn smart mouth, stopping all the words from tumbling out of it by making them tumble right into his.

“Maybe Aaron and Matt are right.”

“About what, Andrew?”

“Maybe I’m a monster and that’s all I can be.” His fingers started fiddling with a loose thread on his wristband, his eyes still fixed onto the fire.

“Did he-”

“Neil,” Andrew interrupted her and regretted it a second later that he wanted her to know a name which wasn’t even his name at all and wouldn’t ever matter.

“Neil?”

“His name is Neil.”

“Neil,” Bee repeated stating the facts one more time before continuing “did he say that?”

“He didn’t need to voice it to make me-” he halted for a moment before a word slipped out of his mouth that he would regret because he had sworn to himself that he’d never do it again “realize it. Aaron just emphasized it afterwards”

“You never seemed to care about what others think about you. Why now?”

It weren’t others’ thoughts that bothered him. Just one specific person’s thoughts that shouldn’t consider him that. “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”

“As much as I appreciate Mr. King, I have to disagree, Andrew. If they had won, you wouldn’t help Nicky at the bakery or let him go a bit earlier to pick up Erik. You wouldn’t help Renee whenever she needs you. You wouldn’t sit here and talk to me about being afraid of becoming one. Sometimes they win but you proved that you’re stronger than them.” Wrinkles carved Bee’s forehead. Andrew didn’t know if she was upset or just worried. “Let me give you a quote by Douglas Preston: We all have a Monster within; the difference is in degree, not in kind. If Neil said something that made you feel this way, just remember that he has his own monster inside.”

Andrew remained silent for a moment, letting the thought sink in and spread out in his brain like ink on wet paper.

“What are you feeling right now?” Bee asked after a while, sipping her hot chocolate. Andrew finally looked at her face, studying the wrinkles carving it.

“I don’t feel anything. I never do.”

Bee’s eyes suddenly radiated a certain intensity, something Andrew only spotted seldom.

“You think you never feel, Andrew, but feeling is not bad. I think you’re mostly telling yourself that you don’t feel to shut all feelings out immediately. Don’t you think you sitting here thinking about what Neil said is a sign that you’re betraying yourself?”

Andrew hated her for seeing what was behind the curtain, for knowing that he - was feeling. He didn’t want to feel. All feeling had ever done to him was making him left behind hurt and broken. The closest he came to feeling was when he wandered on the edge of Cornell Tower’s roof, imagining falling down, his skull crashing on the concrete, taking all of his problems with him into the everlasting darkness. He had sworn to himself that he’d never let himself get into such a vulnerable situation again and yet Neil was obviously doing this to him. When did that even happen? His hands felt sweaty as he rubbed them over the ripped parts of his jeans partly covering his knees. “Very subtle, Bee.”

“I never said I’m going after subtlety today,” she gave back, a smile crossing her face as she shifted again in her armchair, sipping her hot chocolate. “You said Aaron emphasized it afterwards. What did he say?”

Andrew huffed. “That’s the thing. He did say nothing at all.”

“He didn’t wish you a Happy New Year.”

Andrew propped his elbow onto the the arm rest, his knee still jolting in his steady rhythm.

“Andrew, I know you might not see it because Aaron doesn’t tend to show it, but he loves you. He cares for you. How would you feel if you two would come to a session together?”

“No way.” It came out faster than he anticipated.

Bee nodded and got up, walking into the kitchen to refill her cup and bringing some additional marshmallows for Andrew. “Let me get back to what Neil told you. What exactly did he say?” she asked as she retook her prior position.

Andrew went on to tell Bee how their conversation had started, how they talked about Neil running away from his responsibilities and how Andrew thought he could as well switch trains instead of running away into the wrong direction. “We were talking about The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There . The part with the monster. He was right, that’s all.”

“As far as I remember the book does state that we’re all monsters.”

“He asked me why I don’t start building towns.”

“If you ask me, I’d say you already started,” she said and smiled, her eyes brimming with a kindness and honesty Andrew couldn’t bear.

“Sure.”

“Look Andrew, I don’t think he wanted to say you’re a monster. As far as I’m concerned, I’d say he just wanted to demonstrate you that it’s just as difficult for him to stop running as it is for you to change your image. He doesn’t think you’re a monster. He just wants you to stop from conveying the image of you being one.”

Andrew thought about it for a while but didn’t give an answer, just staring back into the flames. Eventually, he wished they would just devour him like all the oxygen around them. Bee must have recognized his mood swing for she took a book from the shelf and started reading aloud from where they’d left off last time. Obviously, the not-session was over and maybe Andrew was thankful for this.

Chapter Text

Neil scanned the destination board for a few minutes or hours - he really didn’t know how long he’d been looking at names of cities he didn’t want to leave for as he finally settled for Chicago. He’d been to Chicago two times before. It was a city packed with people who didn’t pay attention to people like him, to maimed faces and black hoodies tugged into one’s face.

The old lady at the counter sold him his ticket for 55 dollars, which was a huge sum regarding what he had left in his pockets, but what was the use of complaining if he had no other choice anyway.

The station wasn’t exactly busy, reminding him of how small Ithaca was and how few people wanted to leave this town for good. He sat down on a wooden bench, listening to the monotonous voice announcing the different bus lines, waiting for his bus to be called out while he sipped his black coffee he had grabbed together with a pack of crackers at one of the vending machines.

After waiting for about half an hour, a brown paper bag drifted along the concrete, sticking to his shoes as if it wanted to hold him tight in this place. His eyes flicked to the familiar gaudy fox logo - Sweet Dreams bakery.

His chest tightened at the thought of not ambulating through the alleyway anymore, not taking in the sight and smell of several pastries anymore, not seeing Andrew anymore - a man he didn’t know but still felt so familiar as if he’d known him for years. It was a pull he couldn’t allocate, a feeling he’d never felt before. Everyone called Andrew a monster but all he could feel when he had been standing next to him on the terrace, taking turns at smoking cigarette after cigarette, was stability, gravity - safety.

His bus stopped in front of him. The busdriver let two other passengers in and looked at Neil, waiting for him to finally get on the Greyhound. Neil looked at his ticket saying Ithaca - Chicago, heard his mother’s voice scolding him for even thinking about casting his plan off and gave the busdriver one last glance before he tore the ticket in two, flicked his duffel over his shoulder and left for the North. If he had to die anyway, he could as well try to have a life until he had to leave forever.

~~~~~~

“Neil?” Matt said, visibly astounded. “How-”

“Hey, Matt.”

“We thought you were gone. We found your letter and didn’t really understand and you handed us money back we had gifted you so- What happened?”

Neil looked to the floor, unable to look into Matt’s eyes that were filled with a mixture of worry, anger and relief. “I’m sorry, I wanted to catch the earliest bus.”

Matt just looked at him, not saying a thing. An explanation, then.

“I wanted to leave, but then I thought about the time I spent here and that I liked it and about Nicky’s and Dan’s job offer so - Matt, I’d like to stay for a bit longer.”

“Hey, Neil,” Dan said as she hugged Matt from behind, giving him a warm smile. “Don’t you want to come in so we can talk about it?” She pulled at Matt’s shirt and tugged him out of the doorway for a visibly uncomfortable Neil to enter. “Coffee?”

“Yea, coffee’d be great.”

Dan nodded and went off to the kitchen, leaving Neil and Matt to the dining room.

“You know that you can stay, right? I told you several times and Dan as well,” Matt said, plunging onto a chair.

“I know,” Neil muttered, barely audible as he felt his cheeks flush.

“Neil, I don’t know what you’re running away from or what exactly happened to you, but you have to stop thinking you’re a nuisance. Just because all your foster families thought you were one doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to have a home and friends, even a family.”

Matt was smiling his warmest smile and Neil had to think about Dan being pregnant and how lucky this kid will be with a father like Matt. Neil really thought for a moment that maybe Matt had missed his profession, sounding more like a therapist than an internist. And then again, he only knew half of the story, still thought that he’d gone through foster families, not knowing a damn about his murderous father and his plans to erase all evidence of his son.

Dan came in with three mugs and placed one in front of Neil, steaming coffee slowly grounding him. “Thanks.”

“No bother, Neil, no bother, but Matt is right you know? You can stay as long as you wish and we can help you get a job if you’d like to.”

This all should have felt suffocating, but all Neil could feel was being in the right place for once. For the first time in his life there were people telling him to stay instead of to leave and it went against everything his mother told him as she died. Never look back. Trust no one. He wanted to stay, wanted to trust and for the first time he hated his fate. He’d never had the time to think about it much, but the past days with welcoming smiles and Christmas presents and shared cigarettes with hazel eyes staring into his and making him feel centered made him grieve.

“You’re really okay with me staying a night longer?” Neil asked, his voice saturated with hesitance.

“A night, two, a week, a year, Neil. Take your time to find a job and then we can help you look for an apartment, but as long as you need to and want to, you can stay in the cabin.” Dan’s voice sounded considerate and it was this special strain of deliberation and determination that made Neil succumb.

“Okay, then I’ll stay.” Neil could see all anger and worry wash away from Matt’s face, being replaced by contentment and a huge grin.

“Great, bud, here are your keys then. Nicky and Erik come around for dinner later so maybe you can talk to him about the job in the bakery?”

“Sure.” Neil emphasized his answer with a firm nod and drank his coffee, making him slowly feel more comfortable in his place.

Matt stood up and went to the hall, coming back with the familiar envelope Neil had left there in the morning when he’d headed off. “Here, you forgot something.”

Neil opened the envelope and found everything he’d put into it the evening before. His note, the money and a set of keys - the first ones that belonged to him in a long time, the first ones promising a future he knew he couldn’t have, but who could blame him for pretending for a while? He shouldered his bag and went off to his cabin - his cabin - and felt at ease.

Chapter Text

3 am. Who liked to work around sugar and heat at 3 am? Neil’s first day at the bakery had started completely different than he’d expected. He’d gotten out of bed at 2, had quickly stepped under the shower and downed a coffee and had run the four miles to the bakery in less than thirty minutes. Andrew had given him nothing but a quick once over when Neil had arrived, seemingly not affected in the slightest by Neil’s presence. It had seemed like Nicky had warned him in advance.

Two weeks ago, Neil had accepted Matt’s invitation to attend their dinner with Erik and Nicky and Nicky had stuck to his guns until Neil had given in to accepting the job at the bakery.

Nicky had whined about Aaron not having enough time anymore due to his studies and that he’d be alone with Andrew and that Andrew would have to deal with all the baking alone from now on. Neil wouldn’t say he’d given in because he wanted to do this job but rather that he’d just agreed to this for the money and for Nicky to stop complaining. And then again, this would just be another lie he’d tell himself. He mostly wanted to challenge himself by working around a certain blond.

Nicky had beamed at him for the rest of the evening and Neil’s plan to shut him up by taking his offer failed tremendously since once dinner had been finished, Nicky had started to bother Neil with several questions regarding his kitchen and baking experience before gushing about Andrew’s talent and how proud he was that the man stuck to his family business.

Neil had asked himself what Andrew would have said to this if he’d been around to watch his cousin spill information about him so carelessly. As far as he knew Andrew and his aggressive aura, he’d most likely stabbed Nicky or had at least choked him to death.

Andrew had clarified on day one that Neil’s job consisted of mopping and sweeping during the baking, cleaning the whole kitchen after the bakery closed and cleaning everything else from tables to displays and countertops in between, leaving Neil more than exhausted every time he had entered his cabin in Matt’s and Dan’s garden, quickly gobbling some leftovers before a deep sleep had pulled him under.

His conversations with Nicky had been exhausting; with Andrew one couldn’t call it a conversation. They’d mostly exchanged some blank glances, Andrew working around Neil and Neil working around Andrew, meeting each other at the dumpsters when they found the time for a cigarette in between all hectic and chaos, exchanging nothing but silence.

Long story short, his first week had felt like hell and Neil couldn’t understand how Andrew regularly found the time or even the energy for sparring sessions with Renee after work. Whenever Neil had found the possibility to get some sleep, he’d used it and had still felt damn tired.

Now, on his second Monday at the bakery, Neil was standing in the kitchen in his work coat and hair net, a broom and mop by his side, cleaning the kitchen floor whenever Andrew finished a dough or batter in quite a professional manner. If Neil watched Andrew’s muscular hands work the dough and Andrew recognized it, he hid it pretty well and didn’t call him out once.

It had become a habit over the past days, Neil watching Andrew work around in the kitchen as if he’d been born for this, kneading dough, two at a time for rolls and breads or piping cream. He coated petits fours and glazed wedding cakes with mirror glaze, his whole work a stark contrast to his indifferent mask he wore around all day.

As Neil made a move to wipe the floor once more, Andrew exhaled sharply and ripped the broom out of Neil’s arms. “Stop it.”

“What? I’m just doing my job.”

“No, you’re hindering me in my job. You don’t need to wipe away every single grain.” Andrew shook his head before he took a tray with tarts out of the fridge to decorate them.

“What shall I do then?”

Andrew raised his eyes, gazing at Neil over the rim of his glasses before he shrugged and went back to the tarts. Neil had never seen him with his glasses before and he had to admit that they added a certain softness to the otherwise edgy face. “Have you ever baked cupcakes?” Andrew asked, not bothering to look up from his work.

“Do I look like I ever had the time for baking sessions?” Neil gave back, more harshly than he intended to.

“Do I look like I ever had the time for baking sessions?”

Neil just gave him a questioning look at that, waiting for his reaction.

“Right. Yet, I’m standing here. You can’t bake, you can’t clean, I guess I have to have a talk with Nicky,” Andrew grumbled into his chest, quickly and meticulously piping small swirls of cream onto the tarts.

“How about you teach me?” Neil asked quietly, immediately regretting that the question actually had slipped from his mouth.

Andrew’s eyes flew back to his, staring at him as if he was the biggest conundrum walking the planet before he wiped his hands on his apron and pushed another one at Neil. “Get changed then.”

Neil looked at him with awe, dumbstruck by the easy assent he’d just been trusted with. “Just like that?”

“You wanna get started sometime or just waste my patience?” Andrew gave back, finishing the tray and preparing everything for another batter. When Neil didn’t move, Andrew turned around, looking at him. “Josten, the bakery opens at 6 and you’ve been late so get your ass moving or I’ll throw you out.”

That was enough to get Neil’s brain working, quickly storing away mop and broom and hanging up his work coat to change into an all orange apron. Orange was somehow a signature colour for the bakery, even the paper bags being orange.

“See who’s managed to change. Get over here.” Andrew was the only person Neil knew who sounded indifferent and bossy at the same time. He moved over to the counter were Andrew had set up the machine and several ingredients, waiting for Neil while leaning against the stainless steel countertop. “What’s your favorite cupcake?”

Neil was a bit bewildered by Andrew’s question, not really knowing why his taste mattered. “Why does it matter what I like?”

“Because you’re best at baking what you like to eat in the end.”

“That means you like all the stuff you bake for this shop?” Neil said with a chuckle, his smile being wiped away immediately when Andrew deadpanned “Sure.”

“Oh,” was all that slipped Neil, earning him another blank stare from Andrew. His shoulders seemed to tense up which probably meant that Neil was using up his energy and patience - at least that’s what his father’s shoulders looked like when Neil used up his patience. “I like your lemon cream cheese cupcakes.”

“Good.” Andrew moved around, storing away some of the ingredients like chocolate chips and fruits. He stuffed some of the chocolate chunks into his mouth while taking out lemons and cream cheese, before he walked back to Neil and started the machine. “First, you got to grate the lemon zest.” Andrew pushed a grater into Neil’s chest, watching as Neil worked the lemon.

“Stop.” Neil let go immediately, watching Andrew. “This is not a fight you have to win. The lemon didn’t harm you. More gentle. You mustn’t grate the white coat beneath the zest, it’s bitter.” There was no anger in Andrew’s voice, only a clear guidance.

Neil restarted, this time grating the lemon with more gentleness even though that was a strange concept to him. He had to smile at the thought of Andrew, all muscular and always grumpy, caring about gentleness when it came to a lemon or his tarts.

“What’s funny, Josten?” Neil blushed at Andrew calling him out.

“Nothing.”

“Good, now squeeze the lemon for the juice, then we can start the batter. First, we need to measure everything. Then you can just add it when it’s required and you don’t have to jump around while the batter goes down the chute.”

“How can you mix something too long?”

“Oh Neil, I don’t get paid enough for your questions. I don’t even get paid enough for teaching you.” Andrew rubbed his temples, guiding Neil’s eyes to the big dark under eye circles. He didn’t know how old Andrew was, but he looked much older than Aaron right now. “You can overmix batter, then it won’t rise. You can undermix batter and it will rise in some parts and not in others,” Andrew interrupted his thoughts. “En clair, yes, there’s a rule to how long you can mix a batter before you mess it up. Can we go on now with measuring or shall I ask the clients to bake the stuff themselves when they kick in the doors in two and a half hours?”

Neil went on measuring butter, sugar and more, following Andrew’s instructions when it came to mixing everything together. He dipped a spoon into the batter and tasted it. He’d never been a sweet tooth but this tasted heavenly. It was sweet and soft, moist and fresh from the lemon juice and zest, gently melting on his tongue. “It’s so good.”

Andrew took a spoon himself and spooned up some batter, eating it and nodding his approval. “It’s okay. Now fill the batter equally into the forms and put it into the oven for fifteen minutes. We’ll prepare the topping.”

Neil smiled at Andrew’s approval and put the trays into the oven, walking over to mix the frosting. Andrew explained how he had to mix sugar and cream cheese and add lemon juice, showing him how to pipe a swirl and leaving Neil to exercising while he stacked up the oven with a dozen breads. When the cupcakes had cooled down, Neil tried to pipe swirls onto them, still failing miserably with the first two.

Andrew stepped a bit closer, watching Neil fail miserably on the third swirl as well. “I’ll show you,” he said and held his hand out for the piping bag which Neil gave away within a sec. “You gotta hold it like this. Twist and hold the end with one hand, you’re right handed so hold it with the right hand and rest the tip of the bag in your left hand. Squeeze the icing from the top of the bag to make it flow through evenly, like this.” Andrew piped a perfect swirl onto a cupcake, decorating it with a lemon slice and some zests. “Now you.”

He held the piping bag out for Neil who grabbed it and tried, the swirl turning out better than before, yet not well enough to sell it. “It doesn’t work,” Neil sighed, being frustrated.

“You’re always giving up so fast?”

“I just hate it when I’m bad at something that looks so easy when you do it.”

“My first ones didn’t look any better. It’s practice,” Andrew said and shrugged, pulling out a cigarette and his lighter as he walked over to the backdoor. “Keep on trying, we don’t have to sell them.” He gave his already familiar salute and stepped out into the cold night, leaving Neil alone to the warm bakehouse.

Neil pulled out his phone and googled piping swirls, watching a video and trying to reproduce what he’d seen, each one getting a little better, but still looking like shit compared to Andrew’s perfect swirls on dozens of cupcakes he’d prepared within a single hour.

“You’re still too uptight,” he heard Andrew’s voice from behind, no wit or mockery to it, just stating the facts.

“Can you-,” Neil started but refrained the second he realized who he was asking.

“Yes?”

“Forget it.”

“Spit it out, Josten, or keep it until you’re six feet under.” Andrew raised an eyebrow, being the farthest from indifferent Neil had ever seen him. Neil sighed, frowning.

“Okay, can you show me?”

“I already did that.”

“I mean-” Neil hesitated before continuing “can you show me by leading me?”. He’d panted it out so quickly, just to get over with it. Now it was Andrew who frowned at him, obviously considering what to answer to Neil’s dumb question for which he was scolding himself the moment he’d let it slip.

“Yes,” Andrew answered firmly, looking fiercely. “One rule: I take your hands into mine. You’re not allowed to touch and try to stay away from my body unless I lean into you.”

Andrew looked at him as if he was expecting rejection, but all Neil did was nod and making way for the blond to settle in next to him at the countertop. Andrew covered Neil’s cold hands with his warm ones, almost burning the scarred skin to his bones. He could feel his boiling blood rushing to his face when Andrew started squeezing his hands, piping an almost perfect swirl onto the yellow cupcake sitting in front of them, only sabotaged by Neil’s stiffness, caused by Andrew’s closeness to his body that reacted in ways completely new to him. Andrew smelled after cold smoke and pines, leaving a familiar feeling in Neil’s chest: I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m safe .

“Still yes?” Andrew asked and jolted him out of his heated mind.

“Yes,” Neil answered, voice shaky and coarse. Andrew must have recognized it, since he pulled his hands away and mustered him firmly.

“Don’t ever lie to me again. I recognize a liar when I see one,” Andrew answered, demonstratively taking a step back to give Neil more space. Sure, Neil was tense, but the reason certainly wasn’t that Andrew made him feel uncomfortable or cornered and he was relieved that his front was still pressed to the countertop. Maybe, his words could be convincing, but his body betrayed him right now and he didn’t understand it at all. That had never happened to him because of someone else, before.

“I didn’t lie,” Neil said, trying to keep his voice steady.

“We’re over with this for now,” Andrew said and turned away, going back to baking bread and several pastries. Neil continued his work in the kitchen while Andrew left to the front to fill up the displays. The kitchen was filled with an enormous heat from all the ovens, but all Neil felt since Andrew had withdrawn, was cold.

Chapter Text

Andrew was back to a headache. Another day, another migraine. Teaching dumbass Josten in the middle of the night - a too gorgeous dumbass Josten, he had to admit - took its toll on him. Even the last twenty cigarettes he’d smoked in too many breaks for Nicky to be happy couldn’t ease the tension.

Their little incident at the countertop this morning hadn’t left his mind all day. To him it was clear that he had to draw the line there. He hadn’t spent most of last year in psychiatry just to throw all his pathetic remains of trust at that pretty little liar.

“You can lock the door,” he called, making Neil stop cleaning the thousandth table and look out of the window, evoking a barely audible sigh. Andrew let his gaze follow Neil’s, observing snowflakes lashing the icy air. Blizzards weren’t new to Andrew - living in Ithaca had had him experience worse than a few snowflakes - but obviously they were completely new to Neil. “Forgot a coat?”

“No, not exactly,” Neil answered absentmindedly, hesitating for a moment before continuing, “but walking home in a blizzard is never a fun experience.” A laugh escaped his mouth, mocking, most likely himself for thinking he could live in Ithaca in January and be shielded from heavy winters.

Andrew’s eyes lingered on Neil’s lips longer than he’d intended to. They were not too thin and not too thick, a vivid red, his lower lip mostly a bit swollen from a habit of biting it whenever he thought too much or was concentrated. The rims were a bit chapped and Andrew asked himself how Neil’s lips would feel on his own, on his skin, on parts Neil would never get to see no matter what because Andrew couldn’t do this, couldn’t let someone in for the rest of his life. Most of the time, he didn’t care about his boundaries, the limits he’d set himself, but with Neil’s blue eyes wandering Andrew’s lips in return, he wanted to erase them, even if it was just for one night.

He tore his gaze away and walked into the office, dumping his apron in the laundry and checking the fridges once more before he lit a cigarette and stepped out of the backdoor, the cold wind immediately making his skin sting. Okay, it was more than just a few snowflakes and a bit of wind. It was freezing . If this idiot really wanted to walk home, he’d end up with another pneumonia in Aaron’s ward tomorrow.

“Can I have a drag?” He hadn’t heard Neil coming closer, not even felt it. He hated Neil for his ability to do this to him, to make him let his guard down. Instead of an answer, he held out the cigarette, waiting for Neil to take a drag, but all he did was cup it with his hands and inhale the smoke.

“Stop wasting my tobacco. What’s that about anyway?”

“Is it your turn?” Neil answered, releasing the cigarette. His body was already shivering, the apron covering his chest so tightly that Andrew could see his nipples.

“Yes.”

“I’m pretty sure you didn’t answer my last question.” Neil’s eyes were seeking Andrew’s, the blue irises already pulling Andrew into an endless ocean once more.

“I’m pretty sure you ran away before I even had a chance. Not my fault. Take it or leave it.”

“My mother. The smell of smoke reminds me of her.”

Andrew just nodded, not really wanting to dig deeper since Neil’s expression had turned from tired to tormented. “Your turn.”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

“Hm.” Andrew held the rest of his cigarette out for Neil who took it into his already reddened hands. This time he took a deep drag before he stubbed the butt out on the concrete and walked back into the bakery, exchanging his gaudy orange apron for his coat and his working shoes for brown boots. He looked every inch a model; he just didn’t know it and that made it even worse.

Andrew followed him inside, locking the backdoor and gathering his stuff, before he strode over to the main entrance and waited for Neil to come out of the staff room. They walked out into the snow storm, skin stinging. Andrew’s coat was double-lined and therefore twice as warm as Neil’s, but even he shivered within a second. Josten the sucker would definitely die from the four mile walk to Matt’s and didn’t even flinch at the prospect.

The silence between them, both standing under the shop’s orange awning, weighed heavier with every second, slowly drifting into awkwardness. “Well, see you tomorrow then,” Neil finally said, but didn’t move. Andrew didn’t know if he was just preparing for the snow to freeze him or for a reaction to his poorly goodbye.

“Really seems like your learning curve is a horizontal line. You wanna end up in a coffin?” Andrew asked, eyes not on Neil but the snowed-in alley.

“I don’t have a car, buses and taxis most likely aren’t running, and I’ve survived worse I guess.”

“I have a deal to offer. You stop giving me your bullshit about how well your survival instincts function and I give you a ride home. Take it or leave it.”

Andrew watched Neil’s eyes drift into the night, the guy shivering once more as a strong draft crawled beneath their coats. He’d accept a ‘no’, of course he would, what else was the purpose of consent if not for accepting boundaries, but deep inside he felt that this was about more than just offering a ride and a ‘no’ from Neil would mean he wasn’t in for it. Andrew pushed the thought of being disappointed by this possible outcome back, deep down into the big hole of indifference he’d excavated a long, long time ago.

“You sure you don’t mind the detour?”

“I wouldn’t have offered if that was the case. It’s no detour anyway,” Andrew said and shrugged, “since we’re sharing the same neighborhood.”

“Why not,” Neil eventually decided and shrugged as well, following Andrew down the alley to his car. Andrew freed the windshield and windows from ice and snow before he climbed into the driver’s seat. He turned the car heater on max and the seat heaters, too, his whole body already ice cold from the five minute walk. Neil climbed in next to him, shuddering and pressing his body into the heated seat, rubbing his arms and chest over his coat.

A few snowflakes still sat in his auburn curls. Andrew suppressed the stupid urge to brush them out, stifling the feeling along with a million ideas of how he could warm him up much faster than the heater.

The car was filled with silence except for the blowing heater, Neil’s face mostly turned to the window. Whatever he was running away from, he seemed a bit calmer lately, and Andrew didn’t know if this should worry him or calm him down.

He didn’t get Neil’s decision to work at Nicky’s in the first place, but it had certainly made Neil Josten more interesting and an even bigger conundrum than when Andrew’d first met him.

Andrew wished he could have driven faster, but the falling snow and icy streets provided a death route so he took it slower than usual. When his phone rang, he only picked up because it was Renee. They quickly agreed to cancel their sparring session since neither of them wanted to drive more than necessary, even though Andrew felt more tense at the prospect of not getting some of his agitation out tonight.

“Are you a real baker? Like, did you do an apprenticeship or something?”

Neil’s question had Andrew speechless for a moment. He’d never heard this question before and certainly hadn’t expected it to be asked by Neil.

“Tomorrow, huh? You’re taking your turn?”

“If you say so, yes.”

That Neil used his question to get to know a bit more about the most boring part of Andrew’s life startled him much more than the question itself. This was definitely something he would have to talk about with Bee.

When he averted his eyes from the street for a quick glance, he was trapped once more in the deep blue ocean that was Neil’s eyes, and if he wouldn’t find dying even more boring than living, he’d just kept them there until he’d hit a tree in the next curve.

“Kind of. I chose baking in juvie,” he finally answered once his eyes were back on the road.

“You were in juvie?”

“Surprise, surprise: a criminal baking the best cakes in town.”

“Being in jail doesn’t make you a criminal. Not always,” Neil said and frowned, even though his face was turned to the window again. The reflection betrayed him anyway.

“Speaking from experience? Matt said something about you being in a gang,” Andrew huffed and raised an eyebrow.

“I was part of a gang but never in jail, if that’s your question. Why baking?”

Andrew didn’t react for a few minutes before he shrugged. “I like working with my hands, pastries don’t ask stupid questions, and it’s always warm. Plus, I eat sweets, so why not make them?”

“So you didn’t choose it for Nicky, huh?”

Andrew slammed on the brakes, causing them both to get gripped by the seat belt. “It wasn’t like I really had a choice. Life is no picnic, Neil, you should know that with these scars all over your face. It was the least unpleasant thing to do and got me a job. My family is not. Your. Business.” He went on, driving a bit quicker just so he could throw this damn idiot out of his car as quickly as possible.

Neil held Andrew’s stare for a second, seeming pretty determined to not give in. Interesting. Neil was interesting. Neil was a pest—no matter what Andrew did, he couldn’t ignore him, and Andrew wasn’t amused about his whole body reacting to this stupid walking mystery in ways he didn’t want it to. It came in a racing heartbeat whenever Neil’s eyes bore through his face, feeling as if he had been pushed over the edge into an endless abyss. Neil felt like something Andrew wanted to have, for the first time in years. The first thing he ever really wanted— was a lie.

Andrew watched Neil’s scarred fingers tap a quick rhythm on his jolting knee. Neil always did this when he got stressed. Another thing Andrew didn’t like: he’d recognized things in Neil’s behaviour he shouldn’t even have noticed at all.

Ten minutes later, Andrew pulled up at the curb in front of Matt’s house. Neil unfastened his seat belt, but remained sitting for a moment longer, hesitating. Andrew rolled down the window, leaving it ajar for the cigarette smoke to get sucked into the black mass outside.

Neil shifted in his seat, opening the door and scrambling out into the cold. Once out he turned around and stuck his head back into the car. “Thanks for the ride,” Neil finally said, grabbing the ridiculous duffel he’d been carrying around for the last weeks as if it were physically attached to him. Andrew turned his head to face him, just looking. “Goodnight, Andrew,” he added and Andrew hated him, hated him, hated him, because Neil made him want to say “goodnight, Neil,” but he refrained and gave his salute instead.

Neil shut the door with a soft bang. Andrew wasn’t waiting until Neil was on the porch, he was just checking his phone a bit longer than usual. The soft light from Matt’s hallway flooded the porch as Andrew took one last quick glance. He expected the porch to be empty, but Neil stood in the doorframe, his lips curled into a smile, before he closed the door, and Andrew knew that there was no safety bond left to catch him from falling.

Chapter Text

Nicky stuck his head out of the kitchen door as the main door fell into the lock with a loud thud behind Andrew. The cold seeped into the hallway, immediately engaging in a fight with the radiating heat from the lit fireplace which ate it up within seconds. Andrew couldn’t ignore the resemblance to his own misery. He didn’t know why, but he knew that he’d already lost the fight against Neil’s devouring flames, which ate up all the oxygen and thawed the thick layers of ice in Andrew’s chest whenever Neil stepped into his space.

“Are you okay?” Nicky asked tentatively, eerily quiet for his usual demeanor.

“You mean except for the blizzard not killing me?”

“I know that that was is a joke, so I’ll laugh and pretend I never heard it,” Nicky said and laughed, wheeling around and yelping. Andrew could hear a low “Erik, stop that, Andrew’s in the hallway,” but didn’t miss the lewd undertone. A horny cousin was the last thing Andrew needed right now, especially not when his own skin was still buzzing from his fatal car ride with Neil.

“Keep your dicks in your pants until I’m upstairs. I just had a burrito and want to keep it down.”

Andrew recognized too late that his utterance was almost funny and quickly went upstairs to avert Nicky’s baffled gaze, exactly knowing that his cousin’s eyes were back on him. He shrugged his clothes off and slipped into warm, comfy sweatpants and a hoodie, then he plunged into his bed with a book and headphones.

Renee had gotten Andrew the new Rupi Kaur. He liked the wilting part because he felt her pain and abuse, and even though reading about experiences they shared triggered memories, it also soothed his pain.

What he didn’t like were the parts about falling in love. A broken woman talking about falling in love with someone who didn’t share those experiences. The abuse. The hands roaming bodies without permission. Taking. Taking. Taking. He’d always been sure that he would never fall in love, but that was before he met the walking disaster that was Neil Josten. Not that he’d fallen in love with him, but he couldn’t deny that Neil Josten was interesting. Some guys had been interesting before, but none of them could keep his attention except for Neil.

What if the gnawing feeling in his chest made him give in? Made him allow calloused hands to map out his body? Made him open up and expose all his weak spots to a stranger with ocean-blue eyes and red curls and freckles and a sheepish smile whenever that stranger elicited a twitch from Andrew’s lips, as if that was all he needed?

how do i welcome in kindness

when i have only practiced

spreading my legs for the terrifying

what am i to do with you

if my idea of love is violence

but you are sweet

if your concept of passion is eye contact

but mine is rage

how can i call this intimacy

if i crave sharp edges

but your edges aren't even edges

they are soft landings

how do i teach myself

to accept a healthy love

if all i've ever known is pain

Andrew didn’t ever want to act on his urge to kiss Neil’s lips numb, to rake his fingers over his scalp, to leave marks on every single part of Neil’s scarred body, to take Neil apart until all he could hear were moans, and Neil couldn’t use his pretty mouth to say stupid things anymore. Things like “you look better today,” as if he could know that, and yet, he had been right.

Nothing would ever come of it, for a dozen hands had ruined Andrew, had turned him into someone who couldn’t share love, who couldn’t stand touch, who had boundaries higher and longer than the Great Wall of China.

What had happened in the kitchen that morning would remain a one-time accident. He would never have Neil Josten. Neil deserved more than a fucked up jailbird with a million hang ups, but what were dreams for if not for getting things one couldn’t have, Andrew convinced himself as his hand slipped into his briefs until he came into the heat of Neil’s mouth, dilated pupils looking at him through lidded lashes, dragging him down into a nightmare.

Chapter Text

Neil woke up to a soft knock on his cabin door, quickly chasing away the still present images of a heated dream that still showed in the flush on his cheeks. He didn’t exactly know when Andrew had started to become a part of dreams he barely had had before, but he didn’t mind it. The knock came a second time before Neil clawed his way out of the pile of blankets and made it to the door. Matt’s soft brown eyes were beaming as he held a tray with breakfast out and gave Neil a big grin.

“Breakfast, bud. I see you slept well,” Matt teased with a very obvious glance to Neil’s still lightly tented sweatpants.

“Thanks, Matt,” Neil deadpanned and yawned, leaving the door open for Matt to follow inside.

“Any plans for your second day off?”

“Not really. It’s still snowing so running is off.” Neil looked out of the window where a constant stream of white flakes snowed them in a bit more every hour.

“Wanna come to the mall with Dan and me? I installed the snow chains, so that should work.”

Neil considered turning Matt down, but then again, why not? Neil didn’t have any plans and staying inside all day seemed boring. With his first paycheck from Nicky, he could as well buy a second pair of boots to get through the winter that obviously wasn’t a quick affair in Ithaca. “Sure.”

Matt beamed even more at Neil’s assent, brewing some coffee in the cabin’s kitchen and adding more firewood to the fireplace. “We’ll head out in an hour. Is that okay?” Matt asked, biting his stuck-out tongue as he burned it on too hot coffee.

“That’s fine. Let me shower and get into fresh clothes.”

“Just knock when you’re ready.” Matt squeezed Neil’s shoulder in passing, leaving Neil to himself for a bit longer. Matt mostly knew that Neil felt more comfortable when he wasn’t pushed, and Matt and Dan seemed to have accepted that without ever questioning it. It was a trait Neil deeply appreciated.

After finishing his breakfast, Neil jumped into the shower, his tense muscles relaxing under the hot water. Working at the bakery took its toll on him. Valentine’s Day was only two days away. Nicky said there would be calmer periods to come, especially in summer, but around Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter, the shop was very busy. These were Neil’s first two days off in a row after multiple 16-hour shifts.

He didn’t really mind working all day at Sweet Dreams. Nicky was too excited and chatty most of the time, but Neil could always slip into the kitchen where Andrew would teach him to bake something and he could get rid off prying eyes scanning his scarred face.

Every now and then, Andrew would invite him to share a cigarette by the dumpsters and maybe even a truth. Neil knew that he couldn’t tell Andrew everything, but he’d made up a story that came very close, and Andrew had told him more about his living situation with Nicky, Erik, Aaron, and Katelyn. Neil also knew by now that Renee had been Andrew’s best friend since they met each other at Wymack’s youth center, and that Andrew had been in juvie for breaking and entering, leaving his foster family behind, but that he had to do it. Andrew obviously couldn’t or didn’t want to tell why so Neil didn’t press.

When Neil stepped out of the shower, he had about forty five minutes left to prepare a batter and bake some cupcakes he’d recently learned how to make. They were Andrew’s favorites. Andrew hadn’t told Neil that, but he did eat at least three of them every day, and it showed in the soft layer over the otherwise muscular belly Neil had tumbled into by accident two days ago.

Neil didn’t like salted caramel cupcakes himself. They were much too sweet. But he could share with Dan and Matt and bring the rest to the bakery tonight where he would bake a million pastries for lovebirds. The batter was quickly done and in the oven, so Neil had enough time to mix the caramel frosting and scrape it into a piping bag. Once the cupcakes were out and cooled, he piped caramel roses onto them like Andrew had taught him a week ago.

Neil stowed the cupcakes in the fridge, then halted for a moment. He’d never brought his practice bakes over for Andrew before. It was almost Valentine’s Day. Neil had piped roses onto the cupcakes. They were Andrew’s favorite. Andrew would clearly see that this was practice and nothing more, right? Neil certainly hadn’t made them to surprise Andrew with something he liked to make him feel better after another heavy migraine or because it was Valentine’s Day or because he felt safe with Andrew around or because Andrew was the closest thing to a friend he’d ever had. Certainly not.

Neil closed the door to the fridge, pulled on his parka and grabbed his wallet and keys, stepping into the freezing hell that was Matt’s backyard, shaking off all images of Andrew’s reactions to the cupcakes that definitely weren’t meant as a Valentine’s gift. Well, even Neil wasn’t so oblivious to believe that.

~~~~~~

The mall was crowded with people, all crammed into the aisles or shops to warm themselves from the nipping air outside. Dan and Matt dragged Neil from shop to shop, even finding some boots for an adequate price Neil was willing to pay.

Crowded places with only a few emergency exits weren’t Neil’s favorites. Crowded streets meant safety, a possibility to hide from prying eyes and clawing hands, but buildings felt more like a cage than a safe space. Neil couldn’t shake off the feeling that a set of eyes had been following him since he’d entered the mall two hours ago. No matter how often he swiveled his head around to get a glimpse at an impending threat, he couldn’t make one out.

“Neil, is everything okay?” Dan asked when they sat down in a cafe, Matt ordering snacks and drinks at the counter. Neil frowned for a moment before he sighed.

“Sure, why not?”

“You seem a bit distracted, even nervous. Is anything bothering you?” Dan‘s eyes were full of concern; something that made Neil only feel more uncomfortable. The last thing he wanted was for others, for his friends, to worry about him.

“I’m just tired? The job at Nicky’s is exhausting, I guess.”

“But you’ll tell us if something is off, right? You know that we’ll do everything to help you?”

“Sure, Dan. Thanks.” He gave her a small forced smile and watched Matt striding over with a bunch of donuts and their coffees. Matt sat down next to Dan, kissing her

head and resting his big hand on her ever-growing bump. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” Dan said and Neil was glad that she didn’t call him out. “Neil’s just tired, babe.”

“I’m always tired, but I don’t get the soft pitying look Neil gets,” Matt said and pulled his lips into a pout before he chuckled.

Neil tried to shrug his paranoia off with a big sip of his plain latte and a much too sweet vanilla donut. The taste certainly didn’t remind him of a specific blond with a penchant for sugar.

“How’s it with Andrew at the bakery?” Matt mumbled with a full mouth, interrupting Neil’s racing thoughts before they could head into a direction he would blush about.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it how I asked it. Andrew isn’t talkative, you know, but, I mean you two have that in common, right?” Matt chuckled again, taking a second bite from his donut, practically stuffing the rest of it down his throat.

“It’s okay with him.”

“See, Dan, Neil discovered the monster’s bright side.” Matt and Dan both laughed and Neil didn’t understand why. Andrew wasn’t talkative. That didn’t make him a bad person at all; it made him an even better one. Andrew never pried, never touched without asking, never forced Neil into giving more than he was willing to. Hell, Andrew was much better than most people he’d ever met.

“Don’t call him that.” Neil’s tone was harsh, harsher than he expected it to be.

“Okay, okay, bud,” Matt said and chuckled, exchanging looks with Dan Neil couldn’t evaluate.

They drank their coffees and left for another tour around the mall, consisting of Dan and Matt grabbing baby stuff and being all over each other and Neil trailing behind, and somehow the feeling of eyes on him didn’t leave until they entered the car to drive home.

Chapter Text

The cold stung as Neil ran his way to the bakery, the morning jog of about four miles becoming a routine he liked. Matt had given him a cupcake container so they wouldn’t get mushy as he carried them in his rucksack. By now, he mostly left the duffel at the cabin when he went to work.

The soft, warm light from the kitchen signaled Andrew’s presence, the blond never being too late. It astounded Neil that even though Andrew always refused to admit that he liked the job at the bakery, he was always on time, showing more about his actual feelings than his words could do to deny them.

“G’morning,” Neil mumbled as he entered the bakehouse, nodding in greeting before he slipped into the staff room to change into his white shirt and orange apron with a fox. Of course, Dan had gotten him it and Nicky had screamed when he’d seen it.

When Nicky had quipped that they all could get such aprons and that Andrew would look so cute in a fox apron, Neil had already hidden behind the counter for the storm of rage he’d expected from Andrew to come upon his cousin. Another surprise. Nothing had happened. Nothing but an almost invisible twitch to Andrew’s lips no one would usually have recognized. No one but Neil who’d seen this twitch a few times during one of their smokes. Instead of killing Nicky, he’d just flipped him off and gone back to baking bread.

The familiar scent of baked bread and cake hit his nose as he came back, joining a sneezing Andrew with puffy eyes at the countertop, cupcake container hidden behind his back. Andrew wouldn’t admit it, but even Neil could see Andrew had an allergic reaction to flour dust. Neil had to cover a bubbling laugh with a pretended cough.

“Prepared for Valentine’s Day?” Neil asked and chuckled, knowing too well what someone like Andrew would think of a holiday for lovebirds. As far as Neil could tell, Andrew didn’t date anyone and it was hard to imagine that he’d ever dated anyone before. He wasn’t ugly, no, absolutely not, but his personality seemed to be the best contraceptive one could have asked for. Not that Neil really cared. It wasn’t like he was the number one player in town.

“Josten, if you want to take me on a date, ask me. Otherwise, bake. You’re late by five minutes.” Andrew held his gaze for a bit too long, making Neil ask himself if he was missing something.

“I might be late, but I have my reasons, Mr. Grumpy. Would you say yes, by the way?” Neil grinned and pulled out the container from behind his back, holding it out for Andrew to grab it. Dan and Matt had eaten three cupcakes each and Neil one which left five for Andrew. Andrew stared at him, looking to the container and back to Neil. As he didn’t make a move to take it, Neil pushed it into his arms, blushing slightly as he prepared his bowls and ingredients to bake his set of Valentine’s cookies.

“I-,” Andrew started and stopped again. Neil had never seen Andrew speechless. Not as a reaction, at least.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to thank me. I’ve been practicing your salted caramel cupcakes recipe. Those are left over. Enjoy.” Neil shot Andrew a glance before he switched on the mixing machine, preparing the cookie dough which he’d have to decorate with icing. It would consume most of his work time today.

Andrew shimmied onto the countertop, opening the box with five neatly piped cupcakes in. Neil had added caramelized peanuts when he’d gotten back from the mall, something Andrew had never done, but Neil thought the crunch would make a nice contrast to the otherwise soft cake. From the corner of his eye, Neil could see how the blond eyed the cupcake before stuffing half of it into his mouth, chewing contemplatively. He didn’t utter any base flatteries but seeing the man quickly devouring the other half before taking out a second one was enough. He liked them.

“You added caramelized peanuts. Why?” was all Andrew said when he’d eaten three sugar monstrosities in a row. How he maintained his build was an enigma to Neil.

“I liked the crunch it adds to the otherwise soft texture of cake and frosting.”

Andrew looked at him and closed the box before carrying it over to the fridge. “I’ll teach you strawberry mascarpone cake today. Later. Bake your cookies.” With that he went back to his workplace, baking another set of rolls for the first morning rush. Neil resumed preparing cookies, his lips curled into a smile no one could see but himself. Being taught something new meant he’d passed. When Neil watched Andrew prepare his daily set of salted caramel cupcakes and smelled caramelized peanuts, it was the closest to a praise he could get. It was better than any words.

~~~~~~

Neil worked until six, closing the bakery with Andrew once more who offered him another ride home. Baking strawberry mascarpone cake had gone pretty well, even though Neil’s job was to wash and prepare twelve pounds of strawberries before Andrew let him mix the batter.

He’d decorated more than two-hundred Valentine’s cookies, from hearts with arrows to sappy nicknames to pride cookies in rainbow colors, stating Love is Love . Nicky had expanded the business recently, delivering his goods to cafés and restaurants around Ithaca, which was great for their sales but bad for Neil’s working hours. He almost fell asleep in the warmth of Andrew’s Maserati, the soft rattle lulling him in. When they reached Matt’s house, Andrew handed Neil the empty container.

“The roses could need some more practice.”

Neil grinned at the deadpan voice, being nothing new to him. “You liked them. How about you teach me tomorrow.”

“I taught you last week.”

“Try again.” Neil’s smile was smug, liking that Andrew seemed to be more at ease with him these days.

“Seven. At yours.” Andrew shook a cigarette into his hand, lighting it and exhaling the smoke through his nostrils, the smoke slipping out of the ajar window. His eyes were fixed onto the windshield. Neil knew by now that this was one of Andrew’s avoidance strategies.

“What?”

“I’m sure you got ears, Josten, and I’m sure they work pretty fine.”

“We’ll bake at the cabin?”

“If that’s what you define as yours , I assume you know the answer to your unnecessary question.” Andrew averted his eyes from the middle distance to look at Neil.

“Tomorrow. Seven. Got it. Is that a yes?”

“Get out of here before you’re nothing more than a fake name on a gravestone, Neil.” Andrew reached across the passenger’s seat to open the door, practically kicking Neil out into the cold.

“I see that as one,” Neil cooed, smile growing wider.

“We see what we want to see.“ Andrew took another deep drag before he handed Neil the rest of it, pushing him out of the seat onto his feet. “Get out, rabbit.”

“Fox.”

The raise of Andrew’s brow signaled the second time Neil had caught the man by surprise today.

“Goodnight, Andrew. See you tomorrow.” He pulled his bag out of the car, waving back to Andrew before ringing the bell. He’d forgotten the keys to the main house this morning, but Dan opened anyway. He still grinned when the engine roared and Andrew drove away. Tomorrow was Valentine’s Day. It was a yes. What else could it be?

Chapter Text

Valentine’s Day meant having not a single free minute all day. Andrew was on edge. He’d been at the bakery at about 2am, baking, baking and baking. The silence in the bakehouse had been familiar and new at once, Neil’s shift only starting in the morning and not in the middle of the night.

He didn’t want to admit it, but he somehow missed the too talkative man, getting on his nerves with too many questions, too beautiful eyes, too fucking tasty salted caramel cupcakes with crunchy caramelized peanuts and a delicious caramel peanut butter frosting Andrew himself couldn’t have made any better.

When Andrew could finally leave in the afternoon, Aaron replacing him in the kitchen and Nicky and Neil at the counter, he stepped into buzzing streets, lighting a cigarette and inhaling the cold air. Rays of sun danced over his freckled cheeks, making him bask in the warmth.

He had about three hours left until seven, which definitely wasn’t enough to get prepared. He would have to head home, shower, change clothes, take a nap and get some take-away, and he wasn’t even sure what to order, what Neil would like.

“Hey, Drew.” Renee had one of her too warm smiles on her face as she neared Andrew, accepting her warm cup of hot chocolate with cream and cinnamon.

“Hey,” he answered, grounding his cigarette out and sipping on his own cup of caramel latte. There wouldn’t be a day now when caramel wasn’t linked to Neil Josten. Seemed like he had to switch to carrot cakes. Neil hated vegetables. Seemed like vegetables were linked to Neil, too.

“How was your day?”

“Exhausting. Breaking news, I know.”

“Hopefully your evening will cheer you up.” The way Renee said it made Andrew’s stomach twist. How could someone who’d experienced so much bad be so good?

“You’re going out with Allison?”

“Yes. Alli booked a table.” Another gentle smile. If someone could carry that cross around their neck, it was Renee. Jesus would have been proud if he’d only existed.

“Nice.” Andrew took another sip of his sugar monstrosity, still thinking about dinner. “Do you think Neil likes fish?”

Renee turned her head and looked at him with this knowing gaze, cracking another smile. “You know, he’s good for you.”

“Stop that.”

“I mean it, Drew. I haven’t seen you so at ease in years.” She nudged Andrew with her elbow, being one of the few people able to get away with it. “I think he will like everything you bring.”

“It’s not like that. With him,” Andrew says and sighs. “He’s not interested in anything like that.”

“But you are, right? Did you ask him?”

Andrew gave her a blank look, not even commenting on the innuendo. He’d told Renee. Of course. He’d told Bee. Two people knowing about his feelings about a runaway was more than he’d ever expected to share. “He told me the story himself. Valentine’s Day, you know?”

“Mh.” Renee looked contemplative, obviously waiting for Andrew to continue.

“He doesn’t swing. I won’t push him into anything he doesn’t want.”

“I think he pushed himself into this, you know? Go for the fish, Drew.

Andrew nodded, not knowing if she was referring to Neil or the food, walking down the alley with Renee until she got back into her book store, waving Andrew goodbye. Maybe he should call Bee? The nap was definitely off the table.

~

The cabin sat by the pond, still engulfed by snow and ice despite the sun shining all day. Andrew had put on his best black button-down, black ripped jeans and his favorite boots. His warm parka shielded him from the icy wind that had come up with the sun being gone again. The cigarette still burned between his fingers, waiting for a last drag to make the clump of ash falling to the ground, ready to be grounded out and left to die like Andrew’s heart. He knocked.

The door didn’t open. Instead he heard a loud clatter followed by a few hissed words, were that curses?, and an even louder thud against the door.

“Hey,” Neil said as he opened the door, hair slightly disheveled and head flushed, panting. “Sorry, I stumbled over the rug and fell into the stacks of stainless steel bowls and then I stumbled against the door, but- Here I am. Wanna come in?”

Neil looked every inch gorgeous. He wasn’t one for dressing up - more the contrary - but he’d obviously bought stuff that hadn’t belonged to a thrift shop before. A charcoal shirt emphasized the blue of his eyes and the tight grey jeans his muscular legs. Andrew had to swallow. Keep it cool. It was just baking. He gave Neil another onceover until his eyes were drawn into the blue sea once more. It was not just baking.

“I thought we just stay out here and freeze to death while a bunch of ravens eats our lobster,” he said to stifle his racing thoughts.

“Ha ha, sorry again. Lobster?” Neil stepped aside but smiled, letting Andrew into the warmth of the cabin. In the golden framed fireplace crackled a fire, flames licking into the air and devouring some logs. To Andrew’s surprise, the room was tidied. Almost eerily tidied. Except for the mess of bowls littering the kitchen floor. The spacious boxspring was much too inviting, eliciting thoughts he better kept stowed away.

“I hope you like lobster. Otherwise, I’ll have to eat two. What a shame that would be,” Andrew deadpanned and sat the bag onto the counter, unpacking a bottle of wine and two cartons of lobster and pasta. He switched on the small radio, jazzy tunes filling the air.

“You mean it, right?” Neil suddenly asked him, his look unreadable. Andrew hated it.

“What? That I’ll eat two portions of the best lobster in town? Yea.”

Neil laughed his stupid laugh at that, walking over to the cupboards to grab two wine glasses and fancy plates. “Just keep hedging.” His smirk was much too smug for someone who insisted on not swinging, Andrew recognized. “I guess if you already bring lobster, we can use these plates for once.”

Andrew kept his hands busy with the food containers, putting the lobster and pasta onto the two plates.

“That must have cost a fortune,” Neil startled him, pouring some wine and carrying everything over to the dining table where a bouquet of wilted flowers and a sign with a stupid anti-Valentine’s-Day quote stood.

“I get paid. Really?” Andrew asked and nodded his head to the sign, saying Love sucks. Sometimes it feels good. Sometimes it's just another way to bleed.

“Oh,” Neil remarked, his cheeks reddening a bit more again. “That was not exactly my idea.”

“There’s a bit of truth to it.” Too much truth. Andrew raised his glass and drank a silent toast to his pitiful existence. The pasta and lobster smelled much too good to not be eaten, so Andrew took his fork and coiled up some of it with a huge bite of lobster. Neil still stared at the sign.

“You think so? I mean, I’m the wrong one to ask about… love.”

Andrew looked at him, stopping to chew his food. “Same.” He definitely was the wrong one to be asked about love . Love wasn’t a concept for him, not made for someone so broken, not made for someone so jaded. And here he was, drowning his feelings with wine and lobster together with the man eliciting the storm in his chest who had explicitly told him that he didn’t swing but kept throwing smug smirks like daggers at him anyway. Andrew swallowed it all down with another bite.

“I bought everything for chocolate cupcakes with orange frosting,” Neil said after a few not so uncomfortable minutes of silence and eating, nodding his head to the countertop where a mixing machine, baking trays and several ingredients waited for their awkward It’s-not-a-date-but-we-can-bake session that definitely looked like a fucking date.

“Finally start baking what you like to eat?”

“I learn from the best,” Neil quipped, not being good at hiding the truth behind his words with the blush coming back. Andrew stomped onto the string tugging at his heart, wanting to rip it out once and for all. It didn’t snap. Instead he gave Neil a bored look, for once embracing the ability to make his face nothing more than a blank canvas.

After finishing their anti-Valentine’s-Day dinner that would even have enthralled Allison, Andrew put the plates into the dishwasher and Neil started gauging the ingredients. The wine bottle was half empty by now, Neil’s glass still untouched. The scenery felt so domestic that several stupid scenes of even more stupid romcoms flooded Andrew’s head. He knew he couldn’t have this, no matter how often Bee told him that it was okay to let someone in, to want things and get them.

“It’s starting to snow again,” Neil said, dragging Andrew’s gaze over to the window where white flakes were dancing in the night. “Hopefully not another blizzard.”

“Afraid to share your royal chamber?”

Neil looked at him, wrinkles crossing his forehead and a smile on his lips. “Methinks I could relinquish the sofa to you.”

“How gracious.”

They looked at each other for a few seconds in earnest, before Neil couldn’t hold back any longer and laughed. When had this become the best sound Andrew could listen to? Seeing Neil at ease, laughing so freely, made even his lips twitch.

“Get baking,” Andrew shooed Neil over to the mixing machine, controlling the oven and showing Neil how to fillet oranges. Within twenty minutes of Neil pilfering orange slices and Andrew eating more batter than filling the trays with it, the cupcakes were in the oven. Andrew decided to show Neil an easy to prepare cream cheese frosting, filling up a piping bag for the roses.

“They have to cool down first.”

“I know.”

Andrew took out his cigarettes, offering one to Neil who took it and grabbed their parkas, stepping onto the snow-clad porch. Coming from the heated kitchen, it was even colder and Andrew had to stifle a shiver. He hated Ithaca. He hated Aaron for choosing it.

Neil’s cigarette was hanging between his trembling fingers, his gaze fixed onto the pond. “I’ve never been on a date before,” Neil says, his warm breath evaporating into the night. Andrew had to think about it ghosting over his skin. At least the heat in his stomach kept the cold at bay.

“This isn’t a date.” Andrew took a drag, inhaling deeply while watching the cherry burn its way through the paper and tobacco.

Neil averted his eyes from the pond, looking at him. “Sure.” He finally raised the cigarette to his cherry red lips, not wasting all of the small high. “Have you ever been on one?”

“No.”

“Seems like I found a lost twin. Well better triplet,” Neil quipped and chuckled about his own joke. “Have you ever kissed someone?”

“Neil, not - a - date.”

“I don’t ask you to kiss me,” Neil teased, a smug smirk back on his face. “I just- I kissed people but I never felt a thing. Nothing. I don’t get what makes people go crazy when they think of Valentine’s Day.”

“The human race tends to remember the abuses to which it has been subjected rather than the endearments. What's left of kisses? Wounds, however, leave scars.”

“Guess you just have to find someone who leaves enough endearments. Think anyone can ever outscore your scars?”

You, maybe. “No.”

Neil looked at him before he nodded and looked back at the pond. “We should go back inside. It’s cold,” he said and slipped back into the cabin. All heat within Andrew’s guts was gone, no longer keeping the cold at bay.

~

The whole cabin was filled with the smell of dark chocolate and oranges. Sweets had always been something soothing to Andrew so he relaxed at the odour crawling through his olfactory nerves.

“They look… good?” It came more out as a question than a statement, Neil’s frown emphasizing his uncertainty.

“Let’s pipe the frosting onto them,” Andrew said, taking the tray over to the countertop. Neil knew by now that proceeding to the next step meant he’d done everything right so far. The stupid smile on his face confirmed it. “Show me how you do it.”

Neil looked at him, taking the filled piping bag into his hands which were clearly shaking. Andrew quirked an eyebrow, which made Neil even more nervous. “Like that, right?

“Just how you did it last time, Neil. I’m not a judge putting you to jail.” Andrew had almost rolled his eyes but sticked with indifference.

Neil started piping roses, much better than all his first attempts. The crux was, his hands were shaking too much and his piping angle was too sharp. Andrew stepped a bit closer. Usually he would have felt uncomfortable, but he was used to being close to Neil, both working in the bakehouse at one countertop. “Stop,” Andrew said when Neil had finished a few cupcakes. “Your hands are too shaky.” Can come in handy at other tasks but not here. “Try to hold them still.”

Neil nodded and blushed like a student at the chalkboard, the equation in front of him making no sense while the whole class was watching. He tried once more, better in angle but still too nervous. Andrew really would have to take the sofa if Neil didn’t calm down. “May I?” Andrew asked, earning him a look from Neil who held out the piping bag and nodded, but Andrew shook his head in denial. “I want to show you.”

Of course the idiot nodded. “Say it,” Andrew demanded, preparing internally for the touch. It was different than with others. Usually he didn’t want to touch. Neil though, he wanted to touch and that was all the more dangerous.

“Yes, Andrew.”

Andrew stepped a bit closer, not close enough for their bodies to touch, but still close enough to stand behind Neil and wrap his arms around his front, caging him in between counter and his chest, taking Neil’s hands into his. Neil smelled like the forest, a touch of pines and wet soil clinging to his auburn curls. “You have to squeeze with a bit more pressure and the angle has to be like that.”

Neil nodded, hands limp in Andrew’s, letting Andrew guide his movements without resistance. “How long did you have to practise for them to look so good?”

“There’s time in juvie. A few weeks.” Andrew felt his whole body heating up, being too close, allowing too much. It was him who wanted this. Now he wanted to push Neil away and get away from the gravitational pull trying to suck him out into open space and tear him apart.

“It’s okay. I think I have it now, Andrew. You- You don’t have to, you know?”

Of course Andrew knew. Neil pointing it out, though; Neil recognizing Andrew’s tenseness, that was new and it was fucking annoying, especially when Neil believed he made Andrew uncomfortable. “You want me to let go?” he asked and wanted to regret it.

“I-” Neil started and hesitated before he put the piping bag down and turned around, facing Andrew with his whole body, back pressed against the countertop. Their faces were merely inches apart. If Andrew would have leaned in, he could have pressed his lips onto Neil’s. Maybe he should have done it to finally get over him. He knew better. He wasn’t like them.

So close, Andrew had to revise his memory. Neil’s eyes weren’t exactly ice blue. They were ice blue on the outer rim, becoming a bit gray to the inner rim, with a million tiny speckles, all variations of green and blue, every single one holding Andrew’s gaze as if a life was on the line, about to be lost the moment he looked away.

Neil starting to speak seemed so otherworldly that Andrew didn’t hear him, just watched his full lips moving, forming words he didn’t understand. “-Andrew?”

Fuck . Andrew stepped back, extending the space between their bodies. Was that disappointment in Neil’s eyes? “I think, you’re good now. I should leave,” Andrew said, turning on his heel and grabbing his parka from the coatrack in the hallway. Neil’s arm was still extended when Andrew turned around, about to touch him but coming to a halt before fingers could make contact with fabric.

“Thank you,” Neil said, eyes pinned to the floor, cheeks flushed again. Or still? “That was- the best Valentine’s Day I ever had.” Idiot.

“Still no date, Josten,” Andrew said and grabbed the door handle, not opening it yet. Neil’s smile was so bright, it almost blinded Andrew. He was sure his migraine would come back any second, but he felt like he would endure a million migraines if it meant seeing Neil happy, contented, in all his beauty.

“I know,” Neil replied, coming closer to the door, coming closer to Andrew. “See you tomorrow, Drew.”

Andrew huffed at the nickname, his eyes darting around to seek Neil’s wine glass. Was he really sober?

“Goodnight, Neil,” Andrew said as his hand pushed down the handle, an icy breeze invading the warm cabin. He stepped out into the snow, Neil propped against the door frame, watching Andrew make his way to the gate as he lit a cigarette. He didn’t smell the smoke; all he smelled was chocolate and oranges. And when he closed his eyes to inhale, he could have sworn it smelled like rain in a pine forest.

Chapter Text

Neil woke up from a soft dream, lazily brushing his lips with his fingers, chasing the feeling of Andrew’s mouth. Since Valentine’s Day, his body went crazy whenever Neil was around Andrew. The sensation was completely new, but not daunting.

As Neil pushed away the blanket, he wondered if Andrew woke up from dreams like his from time to time, missing Neil the way he was missing Andrew right now. He didn’t even know in what the feeling was rooted. Maybe it was just him experiencing some physical closeness after some time of loneliness. Maybe it was because Andrew conveyed this unshakeable certainty of security and truthfulness.

The incident at the countertop dated five days back now, Andrew mostly ignoring Neil at the bakery, almost seeming as if he avoided him. Neil didn’t know what to make of it; he only knew that he missed Andrew’s caustic remarks and the smell of cigarettes that usually lingered in his clothes whenever he stepped into Neil’s space.

Neil drew back the curtains. The sun was up, all snow slowly thawing into trickles of clear water. It was still cold, but Neil enjoyed that the grey clouds slowly were replaced by a blue sky, inviting him to run for a bit. He’d pulled an all-nighter last night, helping Nicky and Aaron at the bakery to prepare cakes for a wedding. When he’d come home, dawn had almost fought the night sky away.

Living in this cabin and staying with Matt and Dan had led to Neil having more clothes than ever before, which he realized as he stood in front of his wardrobe, pulling out thick sweatpants, a shirt and a hoodie for a jog in the park. He stepped into his running shoes, grabbed his keys, a beanie from Andrew he’d accidentally pouched two weeks ago and a pair of gloves before he set off south towards Cornell University Botanic Gardens.

The cold air stung in his lungs with every breath he took, jogging along snow covered fields, passing alleys and finally reaching the University after about half an hour. The Gardens were a nice place to be, holding a special calmness with their huge range of plants, from trees to flowers Neil enjoyed memorizing while his feet met the gravel path in a steady rhythm.

Neil had felt observed for a while now, but every time he’d watched out for strangers or suspects, he’d seen nobody there who would want to harm him. Today was one of these days again. He felt eyes on the back of his head, but there was no one behind him. Each furtive glance over his shoulder that met nothing but the path he’d jogged along made him feel paranoid. It was probably better to shake the feeling off and concentrate on his steps.

As he rounded Houston pond to head back towards Lansing, he missed a stone and felt a scorching pain in his ankle. He’d almost lost his balance if it wasn’t for the bench he grabbed in the nick of time to steady himself, sitting down on it to check the damage. The ankle throbbed a bit, but twisting it to the left and to the right worked fine, which meant nothing was broken at least.

Running back wasn’t the best idea. Neil set off limping, already thinking about how long it would take him to get home. He thought about calling Andrew or Matt to pick him up, but then again, Andrew had barely talked to him and Matt was at the hospital anyway. One hour seemed manageable. He’d had worse.

Walking through Cayuga Heights was always something Neil enjoyed, nice houses with nice front yards telling stories of domesticity and family. Neil would never understand it. He still wished he could have had something like this when he was a kid.

A constant set of steps in his back startled him out of his thoughts, never changing in distance or pace which was… not normal at least. Neil risked a glance, seeing two men he didn’t recognize, but who were clearly focused on him. Instead of favoring his ankle, he decided to fall into a jog again, not pushing too hard, but hard enough to see if his pursuers followed him. Lucky as Neil was, they picked up their pace.

He would have another 2 miles to jog until he was in Lansing and his ankle was shooting daggers through his system. Neil could hear his mother’s voice scream at him, letting him not give up but even run faster, telling him that he could make it, that he had to. He had to. Being small and fast had always been his only asset and now, it was probably saving his life.

Trees and houses mixed into a wild smudge of mud brown as he chased down the alley, his chest heaving and skin electrified from all the adrenaline rushing through his veins, blood being pumped into his sore muscles. His pursuers were fast, but not faster than him, allowing for an ever-growing gap that left Neil an advantage as he finally entered Lansing. Running to the cabin and to Matt and Dan probably wasn’t the best idea, so Neil decided for the parallel street, focusing on finding a house where he could hunker down until he had a plan what to do.

A stream of guilt and self-blame flooded his brain. If he only had left at New Year’s, if he only had taken the bus to Chicago, if he only had rejected Nicky’s job offer, if he only had died instead of his mother…

He didn’t know how he got onto that porch, if he even had knocked on that door. All he felt was a hand around his wrist pulling him into a hallway before locking all noise out with the door falling shut.

Neil sank down to his knees, vision going black, ears ringing and no air flooding his lungs anymore. He wanted to cough or draw a breath, but his muscles were paralyzed. Heat rushed over his face, making his skin itch and prickle.

“Breathe, Neil,” he heard as a warm hand settled on the nape of his neck, putting a steadying weight to his shaking frame. Neil concentrated on his lungs, giving his everything to draw in a ragged breath. “Good. Try again. Just like this.” It hit Neil like a bus. The firm, raspy voice, the lingering smell of cigarettes and mint, the fair thatch and bulky frame. He was with Andrew.

“Neil, listen. Five things you can see.”

Neil’s chest relaxed a tad, allowing him to breathe more evenly as he looked around the hallway. “Sideboard, cactus, rug, wardrobe, you.”

“Good, Neil. Keep breathing. Four things you can touch.”

Neil realized that he’d grabbed Andrew’s hoodie, his fingers twisted into the dark purple fabric, holding onto it for dear life. He loosened one hand to pad around. “Your hoodie, the rug, my legs.” He put his hand over Andrew’s resting one around his neck, feeling the man tensing under his touch. “Your skin.”

“Last round, three things you can hear.”

“Your voice, a clock, the TV.” Neil’s breathing had evened out, coming in a steady rhythm. Andrew’s gaze rested on him; he could feel it. Neil avoided looking at him all the more, until he felt Andrew’s thumb and index wrapping around his chin to tilt it up.

“What happened, Neil?” It was the most emotional expression Neil had ever seen on Andrew’s face when he looked at the wrinkled forehead and clenched jaw.

Neil couldn’t answer, still in a state of shock and panic, trembling limbs and heaving chest. All he could do in that moment was to ignore everything he knew about Andrew and let his head sink against the man’s shoulder. To his surprise, Andrew caught him, the firm hand in the nape of his neck steadying him, fingers massaging the base of his skull.

It was such a rare and intimate contact that one of his softest memories about Neil’s childhood came to his mind. It had happened right after the incident that had caused the distorted flatiron scar on his shoulder that licked up over his clavicle to his neck like a huge tongue. He had been a boy, about seven years old, when his father had gotten angry at him for interrupting a “business meeting”. Instead of scolding him, Nathan had grabbed the flatiron his mother was using in the living room and threw it after him.

Sometimes, Neil could still hear the sizzling sound of burning skin in his ears, the smell of burned flesh sticking in his nose, reminding him of his mother’s body burning to ashes at a beach in California.

It had hurt so much and for once he hadn’t been able to hold back the tears, so his mother had scooped him up and comforted him in the bedroom, cooling the fresh wound while humming a lullaby, the boy’s head propped against her shoulder. Mary’s fingers had raked over his skull, gently massaging a bit of the pain away.

Neil couldn’t hold back the tear slipping from the corner of his eye, slowly trickling down his cheek as Andrew held him. “I’m sorry,” Neil whispered after minutes of silence, finally able to pull back and hold himself upright.

“Don’t be. I want to know what happened. Now, Josten, and don’t give me one of your stupid lies.” Andrew got to his feet and offered Neil a hand to pull him with him, guiding both of them to a spacious but comfy living room where a woman Neil had only seen once lay on the sofa, watching TV. “Katelyn, would you be so good?” Andrew asked, obviously not meaning to pose it as a question but rather as a command. Katelyn rolled her eyes and got up, walking into the hallway and disappearing into another room.

“I can’t talk about it, Andrew.”

“You think you can show up on my porch, looking like a bunch of lions chased you through the desert, collapsing in my hallway just to have no answer? Interesting.”

Neil glanced to the hallway, looking for any signs of Katelyn coming back to the living room. “Someone followed me. They are looking for me.”

“What for?” Andrew asked and opened a box of biscuits, offering it first to Neil who declined before sticking a chocolate cookie into his mouth, washing it down with something that looked like hot chocolate but smelled more like a spiced up version.

“I- You won’t understand it. These people are my father’s men. He-” Neil hesitated, unsure about how much he could tell Andrew to not lie to him but also to not tell the whole truth, “was a cruel man. Part of some dark business.”

“The mob, then,” Andrew added, taking another cookie out of the box. The expression on his face was as calm as always, as if he was just watching some documentary about exotic plants on National Geographic he’d seen a million times before.

“If you say so,” Neil replied, shaking his head. “Well, they are looking for me. My mother had left him, taking me with her. I’ve spent most of my life on the run,” he panted out, voice cracking while the words chased up his throat and babbled out.

“And now?” Andrew asked, looking into Neil’s eyes, still no emotion readable. Everything Neil had seen for a short moment in the hallway was long gone, replaced by the familiar indifference.

“My mother had used my father’s money on our lam. I guess they aren’t really looking for me but for it.” Neil sighed, slightly relieved to talk to someone about his burden.

“Where’s your mother now?”

“Dead. She died a year and a half ago.”

Andrew only nodded once and hummed, taking a last cookie before closing the box again. He fetched the mug from the table and made his way over into the room Katelyn had disappeared into a few minutes ago. Neil could hear them talking, their voices low. Andrew came back a minute later, a second steaming mug in hand. He nodded his head toward the stairs, obviously wanting Neil to follow, so he did.

The stairs creaked as Neil climbed them, still a bit shaky on his legs and limping. He was sure his ankle would be a balloon by tomorrow. Andrew disappeared into a room, most likely his room, leaving Neil on the landing. The door next to him opened, a drowsy Aaron sticking his head out of the door. “Josten?”

“Hey,” Neil replied dryly, not really sure what to say to someone he didn’t like. After all the weeks, it was absurd to Neil that he had confused the twins before. Aaron looked like Andrew, yes, but that was everything they had in common. Aaron was usually even grumpier than Andrew, and it seemed at days that he had chosen Neil as his favorite bogeyman.

“What’re you doin’ere?”

“He’s staying here,” Andrew remarked, leaving no doubt that he’d made his decision, startling Neil all the more.

“What?” Neil asked when his stupor subsided, staring at Andrew with his mouth agape.

“What? You wanna go back outside to the gorillas waiting for you?” When Neil didn’t answer, Andrew huffed, “Knew it. Here, get into the shower and get changed. You’re not crashing on my sofa reeking like a men’s locker room after gym closing time. You're crashing here tonight.” A bundle of clothes was pushed into his chest together with a soft towel.

“Wait, Nicky and I have a say in this, too. And Katelyn,” Aaron said and crossed his arms over his chest, cocking an eyebrow.

“Katelyn and Nicky already agreed. Get the stick out of your ass,” Andrew said and shook a cigarette out of the box in his hand, sticking it between his lips. “Your shift starts in two hours,” he mumbled as he lighted the cigarette, the cherry coming to life. He blew the first stream of smoke into Aaron’s face before he turned and left for his room as Aaron flipped him off. Aaron mumbled something like “reckless asshole” before he shut the door with a bang, both brothers leaving Neil to himself.

Neil didn’t know what to make of it, but Andrew was right. Going back out wasn’t an option, not with the henchmen still lingering around the corners, waiting for Neil to step into light. With his sprained ankle, he’d be easy prey and all his mother’s efforts would have been futile. Plus, if he’d go back to the cabin now, they would find out where he resided and could endanger Matt and Dan. It was enough that they probably knew about Andrew and Nicky now.

The shower was a comfortable distraction, hot water massaging his sore body, washing the dirt and fear away, leaving Neil to exhaustion. He skipped drying his hair properly, leaving the wet curls to themselves. Neil had a few inches on Andrew in height, but Andrew was much bulkier, his shirt always slipping over one of Neil’s shoulders. He felt uncomfortable with his scarred skin exposed, but the fabric was soft and warm and the briefs and sweatpants almost the right size, so he didn’t hesitate any longer to step out of the steamy bathroom.

Andrew was sitting on his desk, window ajar and a new cigarette between his lips as his fingers slid over the screen of his smartphone. It was almost an intimate moment. One length of a king-sized bed sat against the wall, books and paper scattered across the mattress and the floor. On the opposite wall stood a love seat, now turned into a makeshift bed. The desk was overflowing with sketches and notes, a closed laptop sitting on another pile of books. The walls were painted in a soft gray, some photographs in black frames showing vineyards or the finger lakes.

Neil knocked on the door frame, waiting for Andrew to beg him inside. Andrew just stared at him, no further reaction coming. Neil assumed this was all he would get so he entered, walking over to the sofa bed. He fumbled with the pile of laundry in his arms, feeling lost. “I- Thank you.”

“For letting you disturb my sleep? No bother.” Andrew’s gaze wandered out of the window, smoke slipping from his nostrils.

“I can take the sofa in the living room,” Neil offered, seeing Andrew’s tense posture.

“What for? To slip out at night and run, rabbit?”

“I told you I’m not running anymore.”

“Aren’t you? Hear ye, hear ye.” Andrew ground out the cigarette and closed the window, slipping from the desk. “You’re limping,” he remarked while he rummaged through his dresser.

“Sprained ankle. I missed a stone.”

A black box flew over and landed next to Neil on the sofa. Andrew strode over and crouched down, looking at Neil. “Let me see it?”

Neil nodded and pulled the sock off, revealing his swollen ankle. “I’m fine, Andrew.”

“Sure. Applying some balm and bandaging it. Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil said and swallowed. Andrew applied some cooling gel onto the skin and bandaged the ankle in a quick and professional manner. “Experience with sprained ankles?”

“Sprained wrists. I box.” Andrew stowed the first aid kit away, sitting down at the edge of his bed. “I’ll get us food. I assume you’re good with pizza.”

Neil nodded again, letting his eyes wander around the room to resist the urge to look at Andrew on his bed. “Can you call Matt and Dan? I don’t want them to worry.”

Andrew stared at him for a moment before he cocked his head, pressing his lips into a thin line. “You don’t add up.”

“I’m no equation to be solved.”

“I still will.” With that Andrew left and if Neil’s eyes followed the movement of his back and backside, no one would be there to call him out for it.

The afternoon slipped into evening, Aaron leaving for his shift at the hospital with Katelyn while Andrew and Neil had the house to themselves, spending some time in front of the TV in the living room. Neil alternated between concentrating on the animation movie and napping in the armchair. When Neil woke up the next time, the TV was off, Andrew sitting on the sofa with glasses on, poring over a book. Neil stretched his stiff body, his spine popping. “Hey,” he said, voice hoarse from non-use.

Andrew stirred and looked up from his book, gazing at Neil over the rim of his glasses. “Hey,” he replied, closing the book in his lap.

“Why are you still here?”

“Keeping you from bolting.”

Neil smiled, pushing the blanket away that clearly hadn’t been there when he’d fallen asleep earlier. He sat on the edge of the sofa, rubbing his face and tired eyes. “Thanks for watching,” Neil said and got up, walking over to the hallway, “I’ll go to bed.” To his surprise, Andrew got up as well and followed Neil, switching off the lights in the living room and leading the way upstairs.

Once in Andrew’s room, Neil slipped under the covers of his sofa bed, staring out of the window into the night sky. He couldn’t explain the feeling that settled in his chest, but it was the best he’d felt in a long time. Andrew plopped down onto his own bed, back pressed against the wall, gaze lingering on Neil. “Thank you, Andrew. For today. For trusting me.”

“I never said I trust you.”

Another smile hushed over Neil’s lips. “You do. You wouldn’t offer me this if you didn’t.”

Andrew remained silent, the darkness and silence engulfing them like a safe cocoon. “Good night, Andrew,” Neil mumbled as his lids got heavy, the softness of the cushions trying to pull him under. For another two minutes, he heard nothing but Andrew’s even breathing, the man probably already asleep. When Neil’s mind started blanking, hanging in the world between sleep and waking, he heard a whisper from the other side of the bed, a barely audible “Goodnight, Neil,” pushing him into a dream where he wouldn’t need to leave; where he could stay forever; where having Andrew was a possibility. It was the opposite of the nightmare Neil’s life had turned into.

Chapter Text

Neil woke up to rustling, eyes opening into a dark room he wasn’t familiar with. It took him a minute to realize that it’s still Andrew’s room, that he had only ditched his father’s men by a hairsbreadth yesterday afternoon and that he was fucked.

With his father’s men having him tracked down, he’d only be a danger to Matt and Dan and their small family. Staying in the cabin wasn’t an option any longer. It was finally time to leave.

He stretched and turned his head to see Andrew walking towards the door. Shit . They had an early shift today and Neil couldn’t just let Andrew down by not coming along. It was a strange feeling - being needed by someone. His mother had tried to protect him all his life, but he never knew why. Why was it worth to live if you had to be on the run for the rest of your life? He wasn’t living anyway - he was existing. But here, for once he felt like he was living, that he belonged.

“Neil.” Andrew’s voice was so familiar, raspy and firm. “You’re staring. Get up!”

Neil stretched once more and took in the room, silently saying goodbye before he got up and got dressed in clothes Andrew had lain out for him. They still were too big for his slender frame, but better than his old running clothes or sweatpants.

Without making a sound, Neil ambulated towards the kitchen where Andrew was brewing coffee and frying bacon and eggs, pushing a plate towards Neil with two slices of toast and butter.

Andrew brought over his own, sitting down to face Neil and sipped his coffee with a bunch of pills Neil couldn’t identify. “Headache?”

Andrew only hummed in response and ate his breakfast, flipping through a magazine. Neil really had to ask himself how Andrew managed to get up in the middle of the night with all the headaches he had to suffer through and his morning grumpiness.

After eating in absolute silence, Neil got up to start his walk to the bakery, but Andrew caught him by the door.

“Where are you going?”

“To work?” Neil said innocently.

“You’re really an idiot. You ride with me.” It left no room for protest.

Neil waited for Andrew to grab his keys and turn everything off before they got into the Maserati, driving to the bakery.

~

Inhaling the smell of the cold and unused bakery was something Neil had grown fond of over the last weeks and today he would do it for the last time. He stepped into the dark kitchen and switched on the lights and ovens, arranging mixers and bowls and ingredients to everything they would need as Andrew smoked his second cigarette of the day in front of the backdoor.

On the list were strawberry cream cheese, double brownie cheese, a lime cheese, lavender peach, and some variations of nuts and chocolate cakes, as well as solely fruit tartes. Neil started washing the fruits, cutting everything and sorting out the bad ones by eating them. He could feel Andrew’s look in his back as Andrew came into the kitchen and put on his apron, preparing the batter.

Going about their routine was a comfortable thing. Neil liked the shared silence and the way Andrew mixed batter and molded dough in such a fond way he was sure no human being would ever experience from the blond.

Four hours later when Nicky stumbled into the bakery and brewed coffee first thing before unlocking the doors, Andrew and Neil had prepared dozens of cakes, cupcakes, biscuits and of course bread and rolls for the morning clients. The rest they could always bake over the day, no one really wanting red velvet cheesecake at six in the morning.

Neil was kneading his yeast dough for their famous cinnamon rolls - a fluffy, moist roll with a fantastic pudding topping - as Andrew propped himself against the countertop next to him, eating a lime cake.

“How can you eat that stuff everyday and still look like you do? Aren’t you afraid over hyperglycemia?”

Andrew forked up an extra big piece and stuffed it into his mouth, chewing delightedly. Neil felt something at the sight he couldn’t make out or name. It was the same thing he’d felt when Andrew and him baked together in the cabin a few days ago and Andrew had been so so close. It wasn’t uncomfortable, it wasn’t frightening, it was rather warm and Neil didn’t mind Andrew’s presence in his space.

“It’s called workout. It usually prevents you from getting fat while you eat tons of cake.”

“You spar, that’s it.” Neil commented, rolling out the dough and filling it with cinnamon butter, quirking a brow at Andrew.

Andrew tsked and stuffed the rest of his cake into his mouth, watching Neil work.

“What was that really about? Yesterday.”

Neil felt as if a bus had hit him. Of course Andrew wouldn’t let him get away with this. “I told you I can’t tell you. It’s not safe and it won’t be your problem any longer.”

“You’re leaving then.”

It wasn’t even a question, it was stating the facts. Why did Andrew know him so well?

“I can’t stay with Matt and Dan. They are getting a baby. My presence would be” he stopped working on his dough and looked into Andrew’s hazel eyes, “too dangerous.”

“Going back into rabbit mode?”

“Andrew,” Neil said and threw the cloth from his shoulders onto the countertop, “this isn’t a fun game, this isn’t something anyone of you can help me with. I won’t endanger the only people I call friends for staying although I could make it anywhere, somehow.”

“Do you want to stay?” Andrew said after some time had passed, Neil forming cinnamon rolls with his shaking hands. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to leave Andrew and that was a realization that frightened him even more, set his body into flight mode even more than the prospect of being killed by a set of knives stabbed into his chest.

“I would want to stay but I can’t. I’m used to not staying, Andrew.”

He rolled the last roll and put the sheet into the oven, watching the yeast dough rise just to look not into hazel eyes staring at him.

“You can’t leave. The bakery needs you. You promised Nicky.”

“Andrew, people quit jobs all the time. I like Nicky and the bakery and all what I’m doing here, and Matt and Dan,” and you “but I can’t stay here if it means losing you.”

Andrew looked at him before he turned around and left through the backdoor. Neil considered following, but didn’t move until Andrew actually poked his head through the door with a glare.

The air smelled incredibly fresh and familiar, Ithaca having this great smell of water and trees, being one of the most beautiful places he’d been to in a long time. The town was famous for its multiple waterfalls and Neil hadn’t seen one yet. He regretted it a bit.

Andrew held out a cigarette for him and he took it between his fingers, not smoking but inhaling.

“If you want to stay, then stay.”

“Are you deaf?” Neil asked and chuckled, although he actually felt like Andrew had some form of selective deafness.

“I mean it. You can stay at ours. Nicky won’t mind at all because he can bother you with his talking all day and night. We have the sofa. I can keep you safe.”

Neil was about to laugh but Andrew’s eyes told him that he wasn’t joking at all. “You aren’t joking,” he slipped and bit his lip.

“Do I look like someone who likes to joke?” Andrew asked, taking a deep drag from his cigarette before he ground it out and took Neil’s chin between his fingers, stepping into his space.

Neil let his unused cigarette fall to the ground and shook his head. “Not really.”

“Yes or no, Neil?”

“Yes, Andrew.” He didn’t know what he was approving of but he didn’t care at all. Whatever Andrew meant, it was a yes.

Andrew’s eyes looked into his for a second too long to still be comfortable, seeming as if they were seeking for an answer Neil couldn’t provide, especially not with his heart racing in his chest at the touch and closeness.

“I hate you,” Andrew finally said and let go of Neil, turning away. “I’ll drive you home tonight.” With that Andrew went inside and went about baking some more cakes.

And Neil? Neil shook his head at his own stupidity for being weak. But when he entered the bake house, he was smiling.