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Andrew sends him a picture of a cat.

Aaron spends four minutes looking at his phone screen, squinting at the photo and trying to figure out what the fuck it means before chalking it up to an accident.

Aaron types out, Wrong person? before thinking twice about it and deleting the draft.

His brother has never sent him an accidental text in his life. A photo of some cat isn’t going to be the exception. 

So, he spends another two minutes looking at this stupid photo, and god, why the fuck can’t his family be normal? He doesn’t have the time to sit around analyzing a cat sitting in a shoe box and his brother’s bimonthly messages. 

(Which isn't quite accurate. It’s usually Aaron who sends the bimonthly message. Andrew rarely takes that step himself, and Aaron tries not to hate him and himself for it.)

In the end, Aaron has spent about six minutes or so over this stupid cat, and settles on sending back a quick, cute, and leaving it at that.

He decides he won’t think about it again, and gets off the sofa to put his scrubs into the dryer.

 


 

The Minyard brothers don’t talk regularly, they rarely see each other with the exception of perhaps one to three times a year. 

The Minyard brothers used to live together in a shitty college dorm, occupying the same space every day, and that still felt like more distance than now.

 


 

He inevitably thinks about the message three days later, while Katelyn and him are walking Puggles around the neighborhood.

Puggles is their pug. The name was Nicky’s idea, about four months ago, when Katelyn told him over the phone that Aaron had surprised her with the dog for Valentine’s Day.

“You have to name him Puggles,” Nicky’s voice chirped over the speaker, and then with a cackle, “Oh my god, I’m so funny. Puggles.”

Aaron opened his mouth to tell Nicky how dumb the name was, but Katelyn — who was still teary-eyed from the surprise and stroking the dog’s ears — gave a large, watery grin.

“Snuggles with Puggles,” she said, and Aaron knew there was no way the name was changing.

It’s four months later, Puggles tugs on his leash and breathes like he’s having a cardiac arrest because pugs are not designed for physical exercise in June, (and Aaron knows he’ll probably end up having to carry the damn dog home), when he remembers Andrew’s text.

A few years ago, Aaron would have done anything to avoid bringing up Andrew to Katelyn. Now, it’s like talking about some obscure story someone may have seen on the news.

“Andrew texted me the other day,” Aaron starts, and Katelyn instantly cools her expression into something neutral.

“Oh, that’s good,” she says, and god, he loves her so much.

He knows she’s never quite got over her fear of Andrew. It’s not as strong as it may have been in college, but some things you never grow out of.

Despite it, Katelyn has always been firm in trying to push Aaron towards maintaining some sense of family with his brother. A casual mention of inviting Andrew and Neil to Christmas, suggesting going to a Rockets game the next time they’re playing in the city, sending a gift to Colorado on the twins’ birthday.

“You don’t have to do this,” Aaron told her one Thanksgiving, both of them on the couch; him watching her bite her nails and looking at the clock too intensely.

“They’re already on the plane, Aaron,” Katelyn told him, dropping her hand from her mouth and rolling her eyes. “What are we going to do when they land? Tell them we changed their mind? Thanksgiving’s cancelled? Go back to Colorado?”

Yes.” If it meant she’d stop working herself into a frenzy.

But all she did was turn and give him a firm look, steel in her eyes. “Don’t be a coward, Aaron.”

Katelyn is unreal and amazing and Aaron loves her so much.

Today she’s still unreal, with her hair up and circles under her eyes from a late shift at the hospital, and Aaron counts the freckles on her nose when he says, “It was a picture of some random cat.”

Her nose curls up in confusion. “A cat?”

Aaron switches Puggles’ leash to his left hand and uses his right to dig his phone out of his jeans. He hands it over wordlessly and she unlocks it, going to his messages and pulling the photo up.

“Oh,” Katelyn says, after a second. “That’s not a random cat, it’s Neil and Andrew’s.”

Aaron stares, and he debates which question he wants to ask first, because what.

His brother owns a cat? For how long? Does he even know how to care for a cat? Does his idiotic, exy-obsessed boyfriend?

He settles for, “How do you know?”

Katelyn hands his phone back. “Nicky told me when they got the second one. He was upset he wasn’t made that one’s ‘catfather.’ Evidently, Matt got the privilege.”

Aaron goes to ask what the hell that means when he blinks, remembering Nicky’s call from the day they got Snuggles.

Nicky insisted on being the “dogfather.”

“It’s my right, after all,” Nicky had said. “If neither of my cousins are going to have children, I reserve the right to being godfather to any and all pets.”

Aaron feels a little bit like the world has gone sideways.

Katelyn leaves him in silence to mull over the news of Andrew Minyard and Neil Josten owning a cat, of Andrew sending a picture of said cat to Aaron, of Nicky being the godfather to the Minyard’s pets.

And then —

“Wait,” Aaron says. “‘Second one?’ How many cats does my brother have?”

Katelyn laughs and laughs and Puggles gasps his way along.

 


 

 So, his brother has cats.

Aaron is told by Katelyn that he would have known earlier if he ever checked Neil’s Instagram, because evidently all of Neil’s posts are exy-related or cat-related, but Aaron made an expression that summed up pretty well how he feels about looking at Neil’s Instagram, and she laughed in his face. 

It’s not even the cats themselves that bother Aaron. It’s the fact that Andrew, entirely unprompted, sent Aaron a photo of one of them.

Andrew never responded to Aaron’s reply, either — not that Aaron expected him to.

So, again, after an hour of mulling it over, Aaron decides to not think about it again.

 


 

The universe — or Andrew Minyard, one of the two — refuses to let the cat thing go. 

Because not even three weeks after the text, Andrew sends another photo.

This time, it’s a different cat. A dark spotted, scrappy thing. In the photo, its fur is plastered to its skin, its eyes are dilated to black orbs, and it’s clawing desperately out of a sink. The faucet is on, and the cat’s own paw is pushing the faucet lever up.

It’d be a funny picture, if it was from anyone else.

Aaron is in bed, Katelyn beside him with her tablet. She notices him going still beside her and glances over.

“Oh my god,” she says, laughing a little. “Which cat is that? Sir or King?”

Aaron stares at his phone. “Sir? King?”

“Sir Fat Cat McCatterson and King Fluffkins.”

He looks at her. She meets his gaze and holds it, not giving anything away.

Aaron caves. “What kind of dumbass names are those?”

Katelyn raises an eyebrow. “Ask your son.”

At the end of the bed, Puggles is snoring on Aaron’s left foot.

“Nicky,” Aaron says, tone accusing for some unknown reason.

Katelyn nods, and she looks at his phone screen again. “What are you going to say back?”

He doesn’t even know. Doesn’t know what’s the point if Andrew rarely answers half the time.

But then again, Andrew texted him twice within a span of three weeks. His brother doesn’t have many tells, but Aaron’s sure this might be one.

He puts together, dumbass, because he likes to push sometimes, and sends it.

He closes his messages to go back to scrolling Twitter when Andrew responds.

“Huh,” Aaron says, because Andrew doesn’t answer that quickly, if at all.

Katelyn peers over his shoulder, watching as Aaron clicks on the notification.

All Andrew wrote back is, yes.

But then, a second later —

still better than yours.

“What the fuck,” Aaron says.

He looks at Katelyn, like she’d have any idea of what Andrew’s point is, but her face is furrowed in thought.

She hums, looking away from his phone and opening Twitter on her tablet. “Give me a minute.”

He doesn’t know what he expects really, because Andrew’s Twitter is one that has random spouts of activity only to go cold for months. He’s on one of his cold stretches, with the last tweet being the single number “8” from a Friday back in April. Coincidently, the night of that tweet, Andrew only let eight shots past his goal during the Rocket’s game. It was all the media talked about for days.

Katelyn doesn’t go to Andrew’s profile, and she doesn’t go to Neil’s — who is just as useless for information that isn’t exy bullshit. No, instead, she goes to Aaron’s.

Aaron’s eyebrows pinch together as he watches her scroll past his tweets and retweets. Most of his are about television series, stories about his coworkers, or Katelyn. Nothing substantial to Andrew, and definitely nothing to spur whatever these cat photos are.

Katelyn goes through his profile long enough that Aaron loses interest and goes back to his phone. He’s half-tempted to check Neil’s Instagram, but he’s not pathetic enough to stoop that low yet. Instead, he goes onto YouTube.

About fifteen minutes later, Katelyn gives a soft, “Oh.”

Aaron pauses his video and glances over at her screen. “What?”

She has one of his tweets pulled up, one from about four weeks ago.

He reads it, and then —

“Are you fucking serious?”

His voice wakes Puggles, who shoots his head up. He stretches, yawning and padding over the comforter to squeeze between them. Katelyn tries hiding her smile by tucking her face against Puggles’ neck.

Aaron takes the tablet from her, glaring at his own tweet.

It’s a video of Puggles, from one of his walks a couple of weeks ago. Aaron had started filming to simply send a video to Katelyn during her shift, but mid-video, Puggles lurched off the sidewalk and to a patch of grass. He rolled onto his back and started wiggling around, probably trying to get an itch he couldn’t reach, but his legs were bouncing around and he made these stupid grunting noises and Aaron —

Aaron thought it was hilarious, so he posted the video to Twitter with the caption, my pet is better than yours.

“He’s a child,” Aaron says angrily, opening the likes from the tweet. “He’s a literal child.”

Aaron keeps sliding his thumb up, going through the list of likes, and then sure enough —

@aminyard liked the tweet.

It feels a lot like being marked for a fight.

“I swear to god,” Aaron warns, voice wavering with irritation. “If Neil starts this shit too, I’ll block his number.”

Katelyn’s muffled laughter is very loud. She is not being subtle in the slightest.

 


 

Aaron isn’t going to encourage this. He’s not going to encourage whatever petty, whimsical shit his stupid brother may be trying. He’s not going to fall for some cutest pet competition, he’s an adult. He has a job. A serious job. People’s lives literally depend on him. He doesn’t have time to be a child, and — 

He lasts two days. Two days, and then he gives Puggles an ice cube and films his stupid dog trying to put the thing in his mouth only to keep licking it across the kitchen floor.

“This doesn’t mean anything,” Aaron tells Puggles as he waits for the video to send to Andrew, the ice cube in his palm as he lets Puggles lick it. “You’re a dog. I’m an adult. It doesn’t mean anything.”

 


 

Andrew takes so long to send something back that Aaron almost forgets about the whole ordeal altogether. A month goes by before he begins to wonder if the cat photos were just a way for Andrew to get satisfaction out of riling Aaron up. 

And then six weeks later, Andrew sends him a video.

 


 

“Stop laughing.” 

Katelyn doesn’t stop laughing, her eyes wet. “But it’s funny!”

She reaches over to press play once the video stops, and Aaron has to watch the stupid thing again. 

It’s the cat from the first time, which now that Aaron sees from a different angle is a large, fluffy, sour-faced looking gremlin. Evidently, Neil and Andrew only like ugly cats.

The video plays, the fluffy cat — King Fluffkins, Aaron’s traitorous brain provides — starts sneezing uncontrollably. It does about eight sneezes before the video is cut off. 

Katelyn giggles, wiping at her eyes.

“It’s seriously not that funny,” Aaron tells her.

“Shut up,” she says, without any real heat. “Go get Puggles, we need to top that.”

Katelyn.”

 


 

Puggles looks cute in sweaters.

Aaron will never admit that aloud, but it’s true. He stands in the kitchen doorway, watching Katelyn coo and crouch down to snap some photos of Puggles and his red sweater. 

If he sneaks a few of his own photos of her while she works with their dog, she’s none the wiser.

He doesn’t send any of those photos to Andrew, but he does send the video of Puggles tearing apart the sweater with his teeth five minutes later — Katelyn’s laughter in the background.

 


 

3:00 AM, and Aaron’s trying to squeeze in fifteen minutes of sleep in the break room before doing his rounds on his hospital floor.

He’s just managed to close his eyes when his phone pings. 

Fumbling blindly for his phone, he blearily looks at the notification, sees Andrew’s name, and debates throwing his phone against the wall.

Instead, he opens it to see two ugly cats sitting on a coffee table, both in two ugly bow ties.

Aaron can’t do this right now.

Aaron Minyard (3:02 AM): I thought this was just you being an asshole, but now I’m not so sure. I have Katelyn to blame the sweaters on. What’s your excuse?

Andrew Minyard (3: 10 AM): neil likes the ties

Aaron is going to kill a man. Probably Neil Josten.

 


 

But then;

A video of Puggles sniffing the ground, until he comes across a discarded cigarette pack. Aaron didn’t have the chance to snatch it away because Puggles took one sniff and turned away. He sends it to his brother. 

Aaron Minyard (12:42 PM): Maybe Puggles will come see you in your hospital room when you keel over from smoking.

 


 

A cat toy lies on a bathroom floor. The dark cat walks into the bathroom, goes around the toy, behind the door, and then sticks a paw under it to reach the toy. It’s idiotic.

Andrew Minyard (7:27 AM): you

 


 

There’s a long hiatus between the messages. A few months, because autumn brings an onslaught of patients to the hospital for a variety of reasons, and exy season is in full swing. 

But one day Puggles finds a hole in the fence and tries escaping, only to get stuck. Aaron snaps a quick photo before helping him get loose. He sends it to Katelyn later, after he’s patched up the fence, and then to Andrew as an after-thought.

Two weeks later he receives a nearly pitch-black photo of a hallway, with two reflective eyes in the corner. There’s no text along with it, but Aaron can make out the cat’s figure if he squints enough.

 


 

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you? I could use some of my vacation days,” Katelyn tells him, for the second time.

It rightfully grates on Aaron’s nerves. Not Katelyn, but the fact that she evaluated the Minyard’s relationship and deems Aaron as the one in need of support.

 He zips his suitcase closed and pecks her on the mouth, quick. “I’m a grown man, Katelyn. I can handle Andrew.”

 It sounds like a lie, and Aaron viciously reminds himself of his second year at university, cornering Andrew in their dorm and making him choose Neil or their deal.

 It’s been a lifetime since then.

Besides, Aaron won’t even be spending most of the weekend with Andrew. There’s a seminar in Boulder on patient and professional relationships, and the hospital Aaron works for has willingly paid for his flight and hotel. His three days are going to be filled with featured speakers and complimentary bagels and exploring bar street with fellow residents and doctors come nighttime. 

But it doesn’t change the fact that Aaron was undecided on attending until he snapped a photo of Puggles half-buried in their sofa cushions and sent it to Andrew with a, Will be in Boulder in three weeks.

Andrew, predictably, answered with nothing more than, ok.

Which Aaron figured was another dead-end, another conversation that he’d have to go more than halfway for, so he let it drop.

But then a moment later, Andrew sent a photo of Neil Josten on a nice-looking sofa, face illuminated by a laptop screen, one hand on the spine of that dark spotted cat, and said, I’ll send our address when your flight lands.

So, it’s three weeks later, Katelyn’s helping him pack his bags, and he’s wondering what the hell he’s gotten himself into.

 


 

The first day at the seminar lasts until four in the afternoon. Aaron spends the following hour and a half recuperating in his hotel room, and then eventually orders an Uber to the address Andrew sent him earlier that day. 

The apartment complex his driver pulls up to isn’t an Allison Reynolds standard, but it’s definitely not obscure enough to be Neil Josten’s first choice.

Aaron exits the car and walks up to the gate, where a bored security guard buzzes him through without a word. It’s a little too lax of security to make sense until Aaron goes to the building's doors and sees that he needs a key card to get in.

Here, Aaron texts Andrew, and then he waits about seven minutes half-wondering if Andrew bothers to check his phone when a side-door to his right opens.

Neil Josten steps halfway out, leaning against the door to prop it open. He searches the sidewalk until he catches sight of Aaron.

“Hey,” he says, watching Aaron walk over. “Andrew had a PR meeting. He’ll meet us for dinner.”

Aaron doesn’t respond, because nothing Neil said required a response, but Neil doesn’t seem to care. He waits for Aaron to step through before closing the door and leading them to an elevator. They ride up to the thirteenth floor, a number and height that makes Aaron wonder how much Andrew lives to be contrary, and Neil lets them into an apartment by the stairwell.

Aaron had been to their first apartment for a Fox reunion — rather, Neil’s apartment from when him and Andrew played on different teams, but he hasn’t been to this one since Neil’s transfer.

It’s homely, but the decor is ugly and contrasting, with orange pillows and black blankets and grey chairs and quite a few blue picture frames. The coffee table may be the only neutral color in the room, being an egg-shell white.

There’s a video game system Aaron would kill to have below an enormous television, some miscellaneous sports equipment scattered in the corner, and a few books stacked on a recliner.

The apartment is a whole life that no one knows about, and Aaron is a complete foreigner in a new land.

He takes it all in, and that’s when he notices a bowl of hard candies and lollipops on the table. Neil follows his gaze.

“We’ve been trying to get rid of the smoking,” Neil provides, but doesn’t elaborate further on the subject. “How’s Mexican sound?”

Aaron wants to ask how long has this lollipop crutch has been happening, if Kevin Day or the Rockets’ physician or even Neil had anything to do with it.

Instead, “OK.”

Neil nods and goes into the bedroom to grab a jacket. He comes back with one frowning, picking off small grey hairs.

Aaron sympathizes. Him and Katelyn had to invest in about fifty lint rollers for Puggles’ hair. It still doesn’t help much. Which is why they started using wet rubber gloves from work.

Aaron tells Neil as much, and Neil stops plucking at the hairs to look at him.

“I didn’t know you have a dog,” Neil says.

Aaron squints at him.

“What?” Neil asks, and he looks at Aaron in that annoying way, where his eyes narrow and something sharp enters his expression.

It makes Aaron want to say, you don’t know me, stop acting like you can figure me out, but this is Neil Josten, who is too nosey and always figuring out shit he shouldn’t. It doesn’t really piss Aaron off like it used to, when he had to deal with Neil meddling in another person’s shit when he wouldn’t let anyone into his own, but Aaron will probably find it irritating for as long as he knows Neil Josten.

And he thinks he’ll know Neil Josten for a long time, just like Andrew will know Katelyn a long time.

Aaron thinks for a moment, and then he says, “Where’d you get the bow ties for your cats?”

Neil blinks. “How’d you know about those?”

Hm. “I saw a photo. Where’d you get them?”

The look on Neil’s face as he tries to figure out how Aaron knows about the bow ties, and why Aaron wants to know, should be funny. It’s not. Neil Josten isn’t funny.

“I don’t know,” Neil admits, finally. “Andrew bought them.”

Aaron nods, and Neil’s eyes narrow in suspicion.

“OK,” Aaron says. “Are we going to this restaurant or not?”

Neil gives him another long stare, but then his shoulders drop and he gets that blank-faced look that means the conversation is over. He grabs car keys off the hook on the wall and holds the door open, letting Aaron walk out first.

Aaron catches a blur of movement out of the corner of his eye; something dark with a tail, but it’s out of sight before he really sees the cat for what it is.

 


 

Andrew meets them at the restaurant, which means Neil texted him the address while he drove Aaron and himself over. 

There’s no greeting, which Aaron expects. It’s just Andrew outside the restaurant with a lollipop in his mouth, watching Aaron and Neil walk across the parking lot. He looks both of them over when they’re close enough, which Neil stops to let him do. It’s fucking annoying.

Andrew stops looking at Neil and turns to Aaron, which Neil takes as a cue to open the restaurant doors and head inside without them.

Andrew pushes the lollipop to one side of his mouth and asks Aaron, “Shitty flight?”

Perhaps ask is too strong a word, because Andrew doesn’t sound curious, and Andrew isn’t really the asking type. It’s an observation, and Aaron has no doubt that he looks as jet-lagged as he feels. His flight had gotten in at about six in the morning, and he feels each hour awake like a needle in skin.

Aaron says, “Yeah,” and Andrew nods before pulling his lollipop out of his mouth and dropping it on the ground, heading for the doors.

It’s a nice enough restaurant, and they’re arriving just a half hour past the rush, so Neil already has a table on the far side of the room. They head over and take their seats.

A waiter takes their drink orders and leaves some chips and salsa on the table. Aaron hasn’t realized how hungry he is until he eats one.

They sit quietly for a bit longer. Aaron would be fine with silence, if incredibly awkward, but Neil seems to be making some internal decision, expression sharpened, when he finally tells Andrew, “I didn’t know Aaron has a dog.”

Something in Aaron bristles. He’s not sure if this is Neil trying to get back at him for the bow tie thing, if it’s his usual venture into Aaron’s business, or if it has nothing to do with Aaron at all. The last option is the most irritating — being chosen as dinner table conversation while he’s sitting right there.

Andrew gives a small breath of air that could be a sigh on someone else, and he pulls his phone out of his pocket. He taps a few things with his thumb, then shoves the phone across the table towards Neil. Both Neil and Aaron move forward to look at the image on the screen.

Aaron blinks at the picture of Puggles on Andrew’s phone. It’s one Aaron sent back in July. That was months ago.

“Oh,” Neil says, in that annoyingly uninterested way that is his default tone of conversation. “What kind of dog is that? A bulldog?”

“Pug,” Andrew and Aaron say simultaneously.

Neil looks at both of them with that narrow-eyed look, but then his gaze settles on Andrew and his mouth quirks. It makes his whole face go soft and Aaron feels uncomfortable just from witnessing it.

Andrew holds Neil’s eye for a moment, communicating in that language of his which no one has ever understood, with some notable exceptions. Aaron has only ever managed vague interpretations of Andrew’s language, ones he’s always had to sift through and tear apart over and over in his head, while Neil Josten has always been fucking fluent.

The moment ends, Andrew looks away and begins breaking apart a chip. “Ask him what the stupid mutt’s name is.”

Neil looks at Aaron expectantly. Aaron debates staying silent and making Neil use his goddamn words, and then he debates if he should have just stayed at the hotel.

But he’s an adult, so he says, “Puggles,” and doesn’t even grit his teeth.

Neil doesn’t laugh. Which is more annoying than if he would have, because he just nods like it makes total sense.

“Nicky,” Neil says, poking at the condensation on his glass of water.

Aaron doesn’t answer, but it wasn’t really a question in the first place.

Neil shrugs, unbothered by Aaron’s silence. “Andrew didn’t talk to Nicky for weeks after he named our cats. He had me on litter duty for longer because I kept using the names.”

Aaron doesn’t know how to picture any of that. He can’t imagine Andrew not shutting down the stupid naming process in the first place. He doesn’t know how to process the fact that Andrew talks to Nicky regularly enough for ignoring him to be an actual option. He can’t picture Neil Josten and Andrew Minyard changing cat litter.

Then he thinks of Valentine’s Day, him ready to shut Puggles’ name down until the moment he caught sight of Katelyn’s smile and a wiggling puppy in her hands.

The rest of dinner is largely silent, and Aaron spends most of it forcefully trying not to imagine Andrew having a similar moment with Neil Josten and two cats.

 


 

Andrew takes Aaron to the airport on the last day. He picks him up from the hotel with a silent offering of coffee and a quiet, twenty-minute ride. 

This has happened several times over the last couple of years. Goodbyes missing the words. Aaron has stopped caring a long time ago.

At least, he thought he had. For some reason, it doesn’t feel right this time, and Aaron sits in the passenger seat, thinking of stiff holidays with his brother and Puggles’ pictures on Andrew’s phone, and he keeps alternating between irritation and another emotion that he’ll deny feeling for the rest of his life.

Which is why, about five minutes away from the airport, Aaron says, “Neil didn’t buy your ugly cats those bow ties.”

Andrew slides his gaze over towards him but looks back to the road after a moment, choosing to remain silent.

“I thought you don’t lie,” Aaron accuses, but it’s missing the scathing edge he once had, once upon a time.

Infuriatingly, Andrew simply blinks at him. He doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and then finally, “I don’t. I said Neil likes the bow ties. I didn’t say he bought them.”

Aaron’s brain valiantly tries picturing Andrew in the Petco aisle of cat accessories. It doesn’t succeed.

Aaron tries a different route. “Isn’t omission considered lying? Or after all these years did your boyfriend convince you otherwise?”

“I’d have thought being married would have taught you the importance of communication. I’m not going to play evasion with you. Either say what you want to say or be quiet.”

It’s a lot from Andrew, and it startles Aaron silent. Even after all these years, it’s jolting to see Andrew different from when he was sixteen, from eighteen, from twenty. There were those joint sessions with Betsy, and Aaron could see hints of this Andrew here and there, but Aaron was always unsure of what to do with those hints, of how to feel. Maybe that’s why there’s been so many false starts and steps back over the years.

The stiff holidays and rare dinners and brief meet-ups when one another are in proximity; those were earned. Results of painstaking therapy, forced conversations that would have never happened otherwise, and brittle acknowledgments ready to dissolve into an argument at any moment.

But then Aaron’s residency started and Andrew became a professional athlete and they can’t do all that — that work all the fucking time, not when they have goddamn lives. College made it easy — easy, Aaron thinks bitterly — but the real world separated them as they always knew it would.

But those stupid bow ties, those stupid cats, Puggles and his stupid sweaters — they feel like… like something.

“Why did you start sending me those photos?” Aaron asks, demands, or something.

Andrew takes a fast turn and narrowly misses a red light. “Figure it out yourself.”

“I know it started with my tweet, but I want to know why, not when. You’ve never given a shit about what I post online or what I say beforehand.”

“Maybe you needed an awakening regarding what is considered a good pet.”

“For god’s sake, don’t act like it’s about our pets. Besides, cats shit in a box of sand and you’re obligated to clean it up.”

They’re pulling onto the exit for the airport, a small line of traffic ahead of them.

Andrew taps his index finger on the wheel. “Dogs shit, and you’re obligated to clean it up.”

Aaron bristles. “Yeah, well at least dogs actually interact with you, not ignore your entire existence.”

He didn’t mean to make it sound like some implication, but once it’s out of his mouth the entire conversation stops like there was one. Andrew breaks behind a Corolla, abrupt as he’s always been with his driving, and Aaron’s seatbelt tugs against his chest.

God, if that isn’t his relationship with Andrew summed up perfectly. Too fast and too hard until someone slams the breaks, everything coming to a screeching, disastrous halt.

He should have never come to Boulder.

“I’m seeing a therapist,” Andrew tells him.

“Like that’s new,” Aaron snorts, before he can help himself.

Andrew shoots an unimpressed glare his way before looking back at the idle Corolla in front of them.

“I can’t see Bee when I’m traveling half the year and in Colorado for the rest.” Andrew’s fingers rap against the steering wheel in quick succession, and Aaron instantly zeroes in on the motion. “She referred me to one of her colleagues.”

Andrew’s trust in Betsy is something Aaron will never understand, but he does understand that Andrew’s trust is hard-earned.

“OK,” Aaron says, waiting for the explanation that might never come.

Andrew, predictably, doesn’t say more. By the time the line of traffic in front of them starts moving, the sign for flight departures above their lane, there’s still nothing said.

Aaron clenches a fist in his pocket, swallowing a wave of emotion that simply makes him angrier once he identifies he’s feeling it.

Andrew says, “If I ever meet your stupid dog, I’m not using Nicky’s idiotic name for it.”

Aaron’s stomach twists — not in a bad way, not in a good way. It’s the feeling of being sixteen and hearing he has a brother, sixteen and wondering whether a brother is a good or bad thing. It’s sixteen and Andrew offering him a deal — a contract of clear conditions which left Aaron feeling just as unsure as before.

But then a second passes, the feeling shifts ever so slightly, and Aaron sits on the sentence for a moment longer.

He breathes, and the air doesn’t hurt coming in.

Aaron shakes his head, off-kilter with sudden, overwhelming comprehension. “You will.”

“Don’t count on it.”

“I will,” Aaron presses, determined. “Because your cats’ names are equally ridiculous.”

Andrew gives him an intense stare, and Aaron has to fight the urge to straighten his back and hold still. The car slides up beside one of the airport’s entrances. Aaron’s pretty sure the spot is for buses only.

Ever the uncaring creature, Andrew parks the car and fully turns towards Aaron.  “That implies another trip to Boulder. I don’t believe your hospital is so invested in you that it will pay your way for that many seminars.”

Aaron shakes his head. “They won’t, but I’m an adult with his own bank account.”

“Shocking,” Andrew deadpans, and he reaches for the trunk’s lever. “Do you use that excuse when you’re purchasing those ridiculous dog sweaters?”

“Yeah,” Aaron admits, mouth twitching with the desire to lift up, but he doesn’t find the energy in himself to actually smile. “You probably do, too, when you’re buying stupid bow ties for cats.”

Andrew doesn’t deem the accusation worthy of an answer, instead waving Aaron off and ignoring a honking bus behind him. “I’ve had enough of this conversation. Go away, now. Back to your cheerleader.”

Aaron rolls his eyes, huffing, and opens the door. “Fuck you.”

He’s out on the sidewalk when Andrew absently tells him, “Until New Year’s.”

Aaron stops with his hand on the door frame.

New Year’s isn’t for another two months.

But this is Andrew. Andrew, who has never offered a plan or an invitation for meeting, even one as abrupt as this one, ever before. It’s always been Katelyn or Neil or Nicky or some of the Foxes who put the twins in the same place.

This is Andrew and one of his roundabout promises. Another aspect of his brother which Aaron has misunderstood for too long.

Here’s how the Minyard brothers work; one to three meet-ups a year, irregular messages, and full silences.

This system has been better than the one from college, but it still isn’t good.

And who knows why exactly this whole pet thing started, whether it is a consequence of more therapy or one of Andrew’s nonsensical decisions or perhaps even Neil still being his meddlesome self, but Aaron’s brother says New Year’s and it’s an offering of a different system.

So, Aaron says, “OK,” closes the door, grabs his bag out of the trunk, and thinks about what picture of Puggles he can send when he gets home.