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under the kitchen lights (you still look like dynamite)

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Andrew’s new neighbor has loud friends. 

Seven storeys high, their apartment complex has three interconnected buildings that look into a courtyard, essentially forming a blocky U-shape. It means that Andrew’s apartment unit is adjacent to the unit in the next building. It means that his cat can jump from his balcony to the new tenant’s balcony without a hitch, which she does. 

It also means that Andrew won’t have a lot of privacy when he goes out for a smoke now.

The unit has been unoccupied for the past two years that Andrew’s lived there. As of two days ago, it belongs to a man called Neil Josten. 

Andrew didn't even need to snoop around their mailboxes to check the new tenant’s name; Neil’s friends had helped him move in, and their boisterous chatter had accompanied Andrew’s Saturday morning routine of watching reruns of The Nanny while eating a bowl of Froot Loops. He hadn’t closed the balcony door because Bastard had been outside, black tail swishing as she watched the activities transpiring in the adjacent apartment. 

“Neil, don’t pick that up by yourself!”

“Neil, my guy, do you want me to put your kitchen stuff here?”

“Neil, pumpkin, don’t put your kitchen stuff there.”

“Josten, why the fuck is this box labeled ‘Lost Childhood Innocence’?”

Andrew hadn’t been able to hear what responses this Neil had given because unlike his friends, he is capable of speaking at a normal volume. Andrew’s one good ear appreciates that, if nothing else.

The sounds of furniture scraping against the floor and dishware clunking into cabinets had lasted until late afternoon. At that point, Andrew had already taken a nap, a shower, and a light lunch. He had gone outside to smoke before leaving for work, and that had been when he had first seen Neil. 

With blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a wiry body, Neil had held Andrew’s attention for all of a full minute, which is a minute longer than he would have allotted anyone else. 

Neil had a cigarette held up near his scarred face, only taking a couple of drags intermittently to keep it alive. He had glanced at Andrew, nodding in curt greeting. 

When his cigarette had burnt to the filter, Neil grounded it out and ambled back inside, a cane in his right hand to support him. 

The balmy summer air had shivered in Andrew’s vision like a film of heat wave. 

Now, a couple of days after he moved in, Neil’s friends have stopped by again. Andrew hears something about a house-warming party before he shuts the balcony door, Bastard mewling in displeasure.      

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history:  how to install a wi-fi booster, balcony partition prices, how to get cat pee off your carpet, how to potty train your cat, when is the last day of summer

*

Neil has a girlfriend.

She has stayed over a couple of times now, sidling up behind Neil when he’s out on the balcony in the morning. She likes to drape her tanned arms over his shoulders and bury her face in his hair, calling him ‘pumpkin’ and thanking him for letting her stay the night in a saccharine voice. She has blonde hair, a statuesque figure, and a huge rack. 

Andrew thinks Neil has terrible taste. 

They both go outside for a cigarette every morning. Neil doesn’t actually smoke his, and he always nods at Andrew in greeting.

He also always pets Bastard, cooing at her when she hops onto his railing and rubs against whichever part of him she can reach like the shameless creature she is.

It’s only during these times that Andrew sees Neil smile, a tiny quirk to his lips and a crinkle at the corner of his eyes. 

“Morning, pumpkin.”

The girlfriend is here today. She kisses the top of Neil’s head, clad in nothing but a pair of lacy lingerie and an unzipped sweater. 

Neil grunts. Bastard chirrups, bumping her nose against his chest. 

Girlfriend loops her arms around Neil’s neck, looking over his shoulder at the cat. “Who’s the furball?”

“A friend,” Neil answers, smiling.

“Oh, Neil. You are such a cat fanatic,” she says with a sigh. Her gaze scans over the courtyard below them before landing on Andrew, her eyes surprisingly shrewd.

She lifts a perfectly drawn eyebrow - probably a silent demand of who are you and why are you staring at my boyfriend?

Andrew takes a puff from his cigarette without breaking eye contact. Something like vicious protectiveness carves itself around Girlfriend’s mouth. With a haughty sniff, she taps Neil’s shoulder and whirls around.

“Come on, pumpkin. Let’s have breakfast.”  

Neil murmurs a goodbye to Bastard, picks up his cane, and nods at Andrew before disappearing inside. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: can cats sense if a person is good or not, what percent of the population is bisexual, how to cure insomnia, buzzfeed quizzes food

*

Andrew’s first words to Neil are “You don’t look like a dog person.”

It happens like this:

Andrew is lounging on the rattan chair that Nicky bought him when Neil comes out looking like he just went through an emotional wringer, face pale and eyes shadowed. Over his book, Andrew peers at the golden brown Labrador retriever lying near Neil’s feet. 

He wasn’t aware that Neil owned a dog. For one, he hasn’t heard any barking. For another, Bastard seems to like Neil a lot. He recalls how averse she was to Erik and Nicky when they came to visit; the couple has a Boston Terrier and smells like dog most of the time. 

But here she is, leaping onto Neil’s balcony and sniffing his hands like she’s known him all her nine lives. 

“Hey there,” he says gently, like he does every time she comes near him. The Labrador raises its head, but lays it back down on its front paws when the cat only slinks back and forth in front of Neil.

“You don’t look like a dog person.”

Neil’s gaze whips to him, lightning quick like he didn’t expect Andrew to talk to him.  

“What kind of person do I look like, then?”

Damaged, Andrew thinks, like me.

He doesn’t answer. Neil strokes a hand over Bastard’s head, gliding it down to her tail. 

“What’s your cat’s name?”

Andrew snaps his book shut. “Bastard.”

Neil’s lips flatten, a spark of anger igniting his hollow eyes into a bright blue. “Excuse me?”

“Her name,” Andrew explains.

Neil stares at him for a long moment, his blank expression matching Andrew’s.

“I don’t know if you naming her ‘Bastard’ is worse than you calling me that or not.”

“And the dog?”

Neil’s face softens with a nearly imperceptible upward curve of his lips. “This is Boof.”

Andrew is silent for a good minute. “You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m Neil.” 

“Oh, he is a comedian. Wonderful.”

Bastard melts into a puddle of fur when Neil scratches under her chin. “And you are?”

“Unamused.”

“Okay, Mr. Unamused. Nice to meet you.”

Andrew takes a deep breath, summoning all of his patience. “Andrew.”

“Andrew,” Neil says, pleased, “Bastard is a beautiful cat.”

Andrew’s eyes drop to Boof. “He is a well-behaved dog,” he notes.

Neil shrugs. “He’s a service dog. He’s the best, really. Aren’t you, Boof?”

Boof lets out a low woof that really does sound like ‘boof’. 

“A service dog,” Andrew repeats.

“Yup.” Neil jiggles the hand gripping his walking stick, making it rattle against the banister as if to emphasize his point. “He also helps with nightmares and panic attacks.”

“You get a lot of those?” Andrew asks, because he is indubitably a dick.

“Not as much as I used to,” Neil replies, because he is evidently a fool.

Andrew feels an ache somewhere in his chest, pulling at his veins like the claws of a nefarious creature. “Do you always go around telling strangers your issues?”

“I’ve been trying this thing called honesty, since lying hadn’t worked out too well for me in the past. Besides, you’re not a stranger.”

“You did not know my name until a minute ago.” 

“I’ve been petting your cat everyday for the past month, though.”

“That does not make us friends.”

“I didn’t say we were.” Neil tilts his head, the hint of a smirk on his lips. “We’re neighbors.”

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: ambient sounds to help you sleep, what qualifies you for a service dog, why do cats like to sit in boxes, starbucks rewards card 

*

It’s seven in the morning and the cat won’t stop scratching at the door. 

This, Andrew thinks as he rolls onto his back, is why I shouldn’t let her sleep with me. He considers rolling over to lie on his left side so that he can press his ear into the pillow, rendering it as deaf as his other ear. His tinnitus and the urge to pee are the only reasons he decides not to. 

Bastard bolts out of the room as soon as Andrew opens the door. She meows pathetically when she realizes that she also needs help with the balcony door, but Andrew ignores her and cleans up her litter box. He wonders if he should move it to the living room or kitchen, but ultimately decides that he would have to leave it in his room. Bastard spends every night sleeping with him, after all, and she has been getting very good at doing her business where she’s supposed to.  

It isn’t until after he’s used the bathroom, tugged on his armbands, and poured coffee into a mug that he unlocks the balcony door. Bastard rubs against his ankles before zooming outside, hopping onto the railing and walking along it. At the edge, she jumps over to the adjacent balcony. 

Neil is already there with a cigarette in one hand, his red hair still damp from a shower. He scratches the underside of her chin, eliciting a purr.  

“Good morning, little one,” he says. “And good morning to you too, Bastard.”

“He thinks he is so funny,” Andrew drawls, propping his elbows against the railing, a mimic of Neil’s posture. Down below on the courtyard, a girl chases a butterfly around, grubby hands reaching skywards. 

Neil squashes his cigarette onto the ashtray by his elbow. He always does whenever one of the animals is near. 

“Is it animal cruelty, I wonder, to name your cat ‘Bastard’?” 

Andrew takes a tentative sip of his coffee. Still too hot. 

“What is in a name?”

“‘A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet’, huh? That’s your best comeback?”

“Is naming your dog ‘Boof’ a sign of good pet ownership?”

“Technically,” Neil says, chuckling when Bastard clambers up his shoulders, “Boof isn’t a pet. Right, Boof?”

From inside, Boof barks. 

“And I wasn’t the one who named him, so you might want to take your issue up with somebody else.”

“I will keep that in mind.”

Bastard nuzzles against the side of Neil’s face, purring all the while. Clingy cat. 

“Hey, do you eat lasagna?”

“Occasionally.”

“I made some last night and there’s a lot left. Would you like some?”

“Depends. Is it any good?”

“It’s edible.”

Andrew supposes that’s acceptable. At least he won’t have to scavenge his fridge for lunch.  

Neil interprets his silence correctly and says, “I’ll pass it over.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Andrew says, because their balconies are close enough for a cat to jump to and fro, but probably not for them to pass things over.

Neil sighs like he’s supremely inconvenienced. 

“Fine,” he concedes, “I’ll come over in a bit.”

The doorbell rings just as Andrew knocks back the last of his coffee. He swings the door open, and Neil stands in front of him, a Tupperware in one hand. Boof’s leash is coiled around the hand clutching his cane. There is a hair clip in the shape of a lotus flower near his temple, his bangs pushed out of his eyes. 

“Hey, stranger.”

Andrew takes the container from him. Bastard dashes to Neil’s feet, brushing against his ankles. Then she inches towards Boof, and proceeds to sniff him while he remains stoic.

“Let me know how you like it,” Neil says, looking down fondly at the animals. “I always have plenty of leftovers because my cooking is only good when I make big portions.” He meets Andrew’s eyes when he asks, “What are you doing after this?”

“I never plan that far ahead.”

“Come on, humor me. No plans for today?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“It’s neighborly to ask, isn’t it?”

“And you are all about being neighborly.”

“I am if it means I get to play with your cat.”

Andrew doesn’t know why he hasn’t shut the door yet. 

“And you?” he asks tonelessly, because he’s being neighborly. “No plans for today?”

“It’s a Saturday, so I’m taking Boof to the park.” 

Saying that he’s planning to plunk down on the sofa and watch The Nanny while eating children’s cereal sounds sad, so Andrew opts to say, “I have work later.”

“Where do you work?”

Andrew merely stares at him.

“I work at the accounting firm on Fifth and Cherry Avenue,” he supplies. 

Pacified by the information, Andrew says, “Eden’s Lounge.” 

Neil blinks, twice. “Oh. That’s the one on Speedway, isn't it? I’ve passed by it a couple of times but I’ve never been there.” 

Andrew hums, skimming his eyes over Neil from head to toe. “You are an accountant.” 

“Yes, I am.” The knifelike look in Neil’s eyes belies the humorous, droll smile on his lips. “Why, don’t I look like I’d make a great office man who works a 9-to-5 job?”

“You look like someone I do not care about,” Andrew says, brusque. 

He tuts, calling Bastard inside, and she obeys. She has her follies, but at least she’s well-trained.

Neil taps two fingers to his temple in a sarcastic salute, and Andrew slams the door shut. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: good shows to watch on the weekends, what do accountants do, should i buy a grooming kit for my cat, is it bad to return an empty tupperware to your neighbor

*

Neil's plant is dying. 

Andrew is by no means a plant expert, but even he can tell that the plant sitting in a black pot on Neil's balcony is wilting, barely clinging onto the spectre of life. Its leaves are drooping to the floor and yellowed around the edges, some completely brown and shriveled up.

He taps the ash off the end of his cigarette and points it in the general direction of the plant. “You’re not doing anything about that?”

“Hmm?” Neil looks up from Bastard and to where Andrew’s pointing. He rubs the back of his neck, visibly suppressing a wince. “Oh. Yeah. I don’t know how to fix Brunhilde. I water her everyday - I’m not sure why she’s dying on me. I don’t exactly have green thumbs, I guess.”

“Brunhilde,” Andrew repeats.

“I’ve failed her,” Neil says, sighing dramatically.

Andrew decides that he doesn’t want to unpack any of that, so he just hums, contemplative. “What type of plant is she?”

Neil taps a nail against the railing as he thinks. “Matt - my friend - gave her to me as a housewarming gift and said what she was, but I don’t remember.”

“You are hopeless.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Neil resumes bobbing the cat toy dangled above Bastard’s head, just out of her paws’ reach.  

“You have a houseplant?” he asks.

“I don’t,” Andrew answers. 

“I hear it’s a great way to spruce up your apartment,” Neil says, wry.

“Is that so.”

“That is so. Plus, it’ll be a great new toy for your cat.”

“I already have enough household items for her to knock over, thank you.”

“A cactus would suit you, in my opinion.”

“Nobody asked for your opinion.”

“Hey,” Neil says, “do you know if there’s such a thing as a plant doctor I can take her to?”

“That is outside the scope of my knowledge, unfortunately.”

Neil stops playing with Bastard, sighing again. “I just hope she doesn’t die. I’d be pretty bummed out if she does.”

“Not used to death?”

Neil's smile is all teeth, his eyes glinting like the blade of a knife. “You’d be surprised.”

Andrew feels the hair at the back of his neck standing. 

He watches Neil play with his cat, then at the dying plant on Neil's balcony, swiping a thumb over his bottom lip in thought. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: a comprehensive list of houseplants, how to identify houseplants, how to take care of a dying devil’s ivy, cat-safe houseplants

*

Andrew bumps into him in the hallway and lobby sometimes. 

If he times it just right, he would encounter him just as he is entering the building while Neil is exiting the elevator, dressed in a pair of track pants and hoodie. Andrew would have just finished his shift and Neil would be on his way out for a morning walk with Boof. 

“It isn’t even dawn yet,” Andrew had once told him.

“I need to make sure I have enough time to go home and get ready for work. I’m not the fastest walker out there, if you haven’t noticed,” Neil had answered with a careless shrug.

Today, he asks Andrew if he would like to join them.  

Andrew casts him a long, stony stare.

“It’s nice and quiet,” Neil says. 

Today, his fringe is swept to the side and held by a hair clip in the shape of a yellow tulip. It gives Andrew an unobstructed view of his brilliant blue eyes. 

“And we stop by this bodega on the way back. The lady working there gives us free snacks sometimes.”

Andrew joins them.

Orange street lights and lackluster store signs illuminate their path to the neighborhood park. Andrew watches their shadows each time they pass a pocket of light cast by the street lamps - two black figures painted on cement. 

Boof is always by Neil’s side, tongue lolling out and tail wagging. The clack of Neil’s cane against the pavement is a steady rhythm that fills the gaps in Andrew’s hearing like a distant, unrecognizable song. 

They walk around the brightly-lit park, the crisp morning air nipping at Andrew’s cheeks. A few joggers lope past them, earphones plugged in and sweat dripping off their skin. A couple of them raise a hand and smile amiably at Neil. 

Why anyone would want to exercise before six in the morning remains a mystery to Andrew to this very day.

They circuit back towards their block, stopping by a small store with a neon sign that reads Vo and Co hanging above its rickety door. 

Classical rock is playing in a hushed tone, plinking in Andrew’s ear like wind chimes. The shop is clean - albeit a little cramped, the shelves lined densely together. The store attendant - a middle-aged woman with greying hair knotted into a bun - looks up at them from behind the register with daggers for eyes. 

“Good morning, Mrs. Vo,” Neil greets. 

The woman’s stabby facade turns as blunt as a wheel. “Neil! Good to see you. And how’s my little Boof doing?”

Boof sits and lets out a woof.

“He’s so sweet,” Mrs. Vo says. “The usual?”

“Yes.” Neil takes out some money and places it on the counter. “How’s Mr. Vo?”

Mrs. Vo procures a carton of Marlboro for Neil and puts the money into the register. “Another week of bed rest. Did I tell you about how I caught him sneaking downstairs a couple of days ago? Well, I gave him nothing but herbal chicken soup for the next two days. That ought to teach him a lesson.” 

Then she narrows her eyes, all sharp lines again as she appraises Andrew. 

“New friend?” she asks Neil.

“Sort of,” Neil says. “Andrew is my neighbor.”

Mrs. Vo harrumphs, not quite placated. “Alright, then. Oh, and I have some treats for you, Neil.” 

She ducks behind the counter and reemerges with a pack of Tim Tam. 

“I love Tim Tams,” Neil remarks, a winsome smile on his face. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Vo.”

“Oh, don’t you mention it. Come in again soon, okay?” 

“Of course.” 

Neil takes his purchase and gift and exits the bodega, Boof and Andrew on his heels. 

“You look like you have something to say.”

Andrew doubts that very much; he never looks like anything, his face frozen in a marble of indifference. Nicky had once openly admitted to it being disconcerting and nerve-wracking. Andrew had responded with a tear for your discomfort

Still, it is not too far from the truth. So he says what is on his mind, which is: “I take that you are the friendly neighborhood accountant.”

“Not really. I think she took a liking to me after I stopped a robbery at her store.”

Andrew slants him a glance. “You and what army?”   

“Me, myself, and I,” Neil sing-songs. Then, in a smug voice, he says, “People underestimate you when you’re a cripple. I just happen to realize that I can use that to my advantage in any situation.”

“What you are saying is that you beat people up with your stick.”

“Having a third leg has its perks.”

Andrew lets them into their building with his key. In the elevator ride up to the fifth floor, Neil tears open the packet of Tim Tam. He sticks one in his mouth - a type of chocolate-coated biscuit - and offers the rest to Andrew.

He tries one and finds that he likes it. 

“You can have it all if you want,” Neil says as they step out of the elevator. “I’m not a fan of sweets.”

A waste of taste buds, Andrew thinks, accepting the Tim Tam with chocolate-stained fingers. 

“And it’s to thank you for reviving Brunhilde.” 

Andrew looks at the twinkle of joy in Neil’s eyes, then looks away. “It was nothing. You just need to stop drowning your plants.”

Neil rolls his eyes. “Fine, fine, lesson learned. Oh, I just remembered something.” Neil pats down his pockets but comes up empty. “Give me your phone.”

“Don’t have one,” Andrew says.

Neil keeps watching him, undeterred.  

Begrudgingly, Andrew tosses him his phone after unlocking it. Neil taps something into it and hands it back. Andrew inspects it, and isn’t entirely surprised to find Neil’s number in his contacts list, filed under friendly neighborhood accountant. His stomach feels like it’s doing cartwheels, and he squeezes his phone to distract him from the weird sensation. 

“Shoot me a text so I can have your number too,” Neil tells him. “I don’t have mine on me right now.”

“I will block your number.”

“Sure you will.” 

Neil walks down the hallway towards his apartment, darting a final glance at Andrew in goodbye. 

Andrew averts his eyes and goes to his own apartment. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: do they sell tim tam at fry’s, do they sell tim tam at trader joe’s, why doesn't my cat use her bed, how do you know when someone isn’t afraid of you, savory puddings recipe

*

A power surge on a Wednesday evening has the entire complex going pitch black. 

Andrew finishes refilling Bastard’s bowl before he paws along the kitchen cabinets and rifles through one of the drawers, groping for the flashlight. In his pajama pocket, his phone begins to vibrate. 

Andrew finds the flashlight and switches it on. Then he shakes a stick out of his cigarette pack, grabs his lighter, steps out to the balcony, and swipes his thumb over the answer button. Phone wedged between his ear and shoulder, he lights up his cigarette. 

“Hey,” comes Neil’s voice, grainy through the speaker, “are you at home?”

Andrew takes a drag and releases the smoke through his mouth, watching it swirl upward and disappear. The full moon swings low in the sky like a bioluminescent pearl. He turns off his flashlight. 

“I am.”

“So you’ve noticed the power outage, then. I was asking because I have extra candles and torchlights if you need one,” Neil says, followed by a quieter, “Good job, Boof.”

“You do realize that most cell phones come with a flashlight feature,” Andrew points out, as if he wasn’t using a flashlight himself just now.

“Using an actual torchlight would save your phone battery for - I don’t know - when you need to make an emergency phone call or something.”

True, Andrew thinks. 

The complex has these blackouts quite regularly - maybe once every two months or so. Like clockwork, the management will then distribute a note of apology for the inconvenience into their mailboxes the next day. Andrew could tell Neil all this, but he’ll figure it out himself soon enough.

A beam of light pierces through Neil’s closed balcony door. It clatters open a few seconds later, Boof scampering out with a flashlight in his mouth. Neil is right behind him, phone held to his ear.

“Are you outside?” he asks. The glow of the moon reveals Andrew’s figure on the balcony, and he ends the call. 

“No work today?”

“What do you think,” Andrew says, putting his phone away. He feels Bastard’s tail twining around his legs. Since she just ate, she’s probably going to fall asleep soon, laying between Andrew’s feet like she doesn’t have a two-hundred dollar bed in the living room. 

Neil takes the flashlight from Boof and holds it up near his face, right under his chin. It should not be a  flattering angle, but Neil - impossibly - doesn’t look bad at all. 

“Wonder why there’s a blackout,” he says. “Hopefully they’ll fix it soon.”

“Scared of the dark?” Andrew taunts placidly.

Neil’s lips cut into a ferocious grin. The scars on his face, carved even starker by the flashlight, make it all the more menacing.

“The dark can’t harm me. So no, I’m not scared of it.” He directs his light at Andrew next, like a detective interrogating a suspect. “What about you? What is the unmovable Andrew Minyard scared of?”

Andrew takes a puff of his cigarette and holds it in his lungs. The stream of smoke is released on a slow, calculated exhale through his teeth.

“Heights.”

“Heights,” Neil echoes. “Hmm. Makes one wonder why you spend so much time out on your balcony staring down at the ground, doesn’t it?”

“Does it, now?”

Neil turns off his flashlight, planting his elbows on the railing. Boof lays on his belly near the door. Under the silver light of the moon, the symmetrical shape of Neil’s face seems surreal; a trick of the night. His perceptive eyes are the color of a frozen lake, unforgivingly cold.

“When you sleep, do you have nightmares?”

“Everybody has nightmares.”

“Some more often than others,” Neil returns. “I can tell from the circles under your eyes that you don’t sleep very well sometimes.”

“I work all night,” Andrew reminds him. “My deepest apologies for not having a flawless countenance.”

“I have this tea blend that helps me sleep better. I can give you some if you’d like,” Neil says, always so full of surprises.

Andrew taps the ash off his cigarette and hums, not giving a definitive answer. 

“You should teach me how to make the puddings you gave me the other day. I’ve never had savory puddings before.”

Andrew hums again, a part of him silently pleased that Neil liked the Yorkshire puddings he made when he finally gave Neil his Tupperware back. The other part still thinks it is a shame that Neil is an uncivilized heathen who doesn’t like sweet things. 

“What did you do on your day off?” Neil asks. If it were anyone else, Andrew would have ignored them. Unfortunately for Andrew, Neil is not anyone else, and conversations with him have somehow become the most colorful part of Andrew’s days. 

Andrew grounds out his cigarette on the railing and dumps it into the jar by his feet, filled to the neck with cigarette butts. 

“Convert oxygen into carbon dioxide.”

“Don’t we all?” Neil hunches forward, resting his chin on his folded hands. The slashes and burn marks on them match the ones tracing over his face and scaling up his arms. “Tell me, do you like to read? Watch TV? Incite revolutions?”

“Tell me, why are you constantly sticking your nose into other people’s business?”

“I’m just curious.”

“Curiosity killed the cat,” Andrew states.

“And satisfaction brought it back,” Neil retorts smoothly.   

Andrew levels him a flat stare. 

“Why don’t I go first?” he suggests. “I used to jog a lot, but now that I can’t, I find other ways to spend my free time. I play with Boof, for example, or I knit. I cook sometimes but it can be a hassle when you only have one good leg.” He shoots Andrew a brazen look. “Your turn.”

Andrew stays completely silent. Neil stays completely unfazed.

“I read sometimes,” Andrew gives in. “It can be diverting, depending on how good the book is.”

Neil hums. “What did you read today?” 

“A play by Shakespeare.”

“I’ve read two of his sonnets and exactly one play.”

“Let me guess,” Andrew drawls, “‘Romeo and Juliet’?”

“I don’t get why people say it’s a love story when it’s clearly a tragedy.”

“Did you deduce this by reflecting on your own tragic life?”

“Did you?” Neil counters.

“What makes you think I have a tragic life?”

“What are you hiding under your armbands?” Neil asks instead of giving a straightforward answer. 

The question has Andrew feeling like a trapped insect at the center of a spider’s web. He grips the railing with white-knuckled hands, hearing the metal creak. 

“There is such a thing as being intrusive, Three Legs, and I suggest that you look it up. I also suggest that you curb your curiosity before you actually get killed.”

“Was that a threat? Cute.” 

A man comes out to the balcony next to Neil’s. He greets Neil and complains good-naturedly about the blackout. Andrew uses the moment to go back inside, nudging Bastard awake. 

He feels Neil’s piercing gaze following him, blinding and unrelentless like a beacon of light. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: are balcony partitions hard to install, sylvia plath poetry books bargain prices, daily horoscope scorpio, should you move if you're having a disagreement with your neighbor 

*

Renee comes to stay with him sometime before Thanksgiving. 

She’s paying visits to her old college circle and her mother during her limited vacation, and Andrew is her second-last stop. She comes bearing a belated birthday gift - a thousand-page novel set in medieval times - and an offer to make breakfast during the two mornings that she’ll be here by way of thanks. 

On one of the nights of her visit, Andrew comes back from Eden’s Lounge at four and falls asleep after spending a good hour staring at the ceiling. Sleep can still be hard to claim sometimes, especially when he has been working all night, lassitude and exhaustion binding his limbs. Waiting until dawn is approaching usually helps. 

Bastard pounces his foot and he jerks awake, launching her off the side of the bed. 

“I told you not to do that,” he says, voice thick with sleep. She emits a loud meow, drawn-out and despondent. He sighs, getting out of bed and stooping on the floor next to her.

“Sorry,” he says quietly, combing his fingers through her fur. He's used to having her weight on the bed near him, but he still doesn't like it when she springs herself on him when he's asleep.

When he comes out of the bedroom, Renee wishes him a good morning as she stirs rice in a frying pan. She brought a couple of grocery bags with her when she arrived yesterday, because she knows from experience that Andrew’s pantry isn’t exactly a chef’s paradise. 

It’s why she seemed a little stunned when she opened the cupboards yesterday and saw ingredients that weren’t usually there. Andrew doesn’t tell her it’s because he has begun to cook more, so that he won’t be returning empty Tupperware containers to Neil. Neil, much to Andrew’s annoyance, has made it a habit to share most of his food with Andrew. 

Andrew supposes that it will come to a stop now.

“I refilled her bowl, but she still seems unhappy,” she reports in regards to Andrew’s troublesome cat.

“It isn’t the food she is after,” he says. 

Andrew brushes his teeth, washes his face, and takes a piss before putting Bastard out of her misery and unlocking the balcony door. He follows her out for his morning cigarette and finds her already cozying up to Neil on the adjacent balcony. Typical. 

Neil’s eyes flit to him for a split second, then return to Bastard. 

It’s not like they aren’t talking or that they’re arguing. For starters - unless it is a physical altercation, Andrew never quarrels with anybody. Arguing means that he has to dispense a certain amount of energy - energy that he doesn’t have - and that he cares about something enough to fight about it. 

Andrew has stopped caring about anything a long time ago. 

He won’t, however, deny that the silence they share has taken a different shape ever since the night of the blackout; taut and precarious like an arrow nocked on a bowstring. He doesn’t know how long it will last, if it will last for the remainder of their tenancy. 

With nicotine in his bloodstream, he points his gaze towards the ground below them and welcomes the acceleration of his pulse. Unfathomably, it is in that moment he realizes that he hasn’t seen Neil with a cigarette in a while. 

Soon enough, Renee joins him to say that the food is ready. Fingers weaved together in front of her, she glances at Neil, covertly taking stock of him like she does with any stranger. She stands next to Andrew, looking at the busy road beside the courtyard, separated by a chain-link fence. 

The courtyard is supposed to be a tennis court, but it probably hasn’t served its intended purposes since the eighties, with the cracked, uneven ground and the lack of a net. Weeds have sprouted from the crevices, and like everything else about the apartment complex, it is a rather sad sight. 

The drone of the morning traffic buzzes around them, the sunlight a milky haze through the shroud of grey clouds. 

After Andrew stubs out his cigarette, Renee touches her chin with her thumb, her index finger bent twice. He doesn’t look at Neil as he makes a ‘none’ and ‘one’ motion with his hand. 

“Well, that’s just plain rude,” Neil says out of the blue. “Calling me ‘no one’ when I’m clearly your neighbor.” To Renee, he conspiratorially says, “I’m only friendly with him because of Bastard, though.”

Caught red-handed, Renee can only smile sheepishly after the astonishment passes. She looks from Neil to Andrew, but Andrew only has eyes for Neil. 

“You know sign language,” he says, not exactly a question. 

“I do.” Head canted to one side, Neil stares wide-eyed at him, all faux innocence. “Are you disappointed that you can’t gossip about me in front of my face anymore?”

“I have nothing to say about you.”

Neil gestures to Renee like he has a good point to make. “And yet.” 

“Do you want me to go inside and give you some privacy?” Renee offers. The question makes it sound like she has pure motives, but Andrew knows that it is anything but.

“It’s fine,” Neil answers in his stead. “I’m Neil, by the way.”

“Renee. I’m Andrew’s friend.”

“Good to know he has one.”

Renee chuckles. “I think I should apologize. It wasn’t my intention to gossip about you when I asked Andrew who you were.”

Neil flaps his hand in a no-worries motion. “It’s fine. He’s not wrong, anyway.” His eyes, cool and unreadable, rest on Andrew. “We’re neighbors, but I’m just a nobody.” 

Andrew clenches his jaw. Neil looks at Renee again and smiles; Andrew can’t tell if it’s real or fake. “Well, it was nice meeting you. I have to leave for work now. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

He kisses Bastard on the nose and disappears inside, locking the door behind him. 

“‘Nobody’, huh?” Renee muses.

Andrew thrusts a finger at her in warning. “Not a word.”

She smiles, civil as always, but the glint in her eyes says that she knows there is more to it than Andrew lets on. 

Andrew can’t fathom why he is even letting her stay under his roof.

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: how to make sure your cat doesn't overeat, should you tell your therapist about the most annoying person in your life, how to end an argument that isn't actually an argument, how to be neighborly

*

Andrew nearly crashes into him when he exits the elevator on the ground floor. 

In his attempt at avoiding the collision, Neil’s cane gets snagged by the gap between the floor and the elevator. He stumbles, mouth parted in surprise, and Andrew lunges forward, grabbing him by the sleeve. 

It’s unnecessary, in hindsight. Neil has an arm braced against the wall and Boof is already supporting him to keep him from falling. 

Andrew doesn’t let go of his sleeve. 

Neil’s walking stick, laying on the floor, is jammed between the closing doors. Neil rights himself, using his own arm as leverage, and Boof squeezes around them and retrieves the cane for Neil. 

The doors close. Andrew unfurls his fingers from the soft cotton of Neil’s sweater.  

“You look like you have something to say,” Neil says. 

Andrew clamps his jaw to keep his face still. He is not known for his transparency, and he suspects that Neil is just shooting in the dark, leaving trails of gunpowder for Andrew to choke on. It is either that, or he is much, much more astute than Andrew gives him credit for.

When Andrew remains silent, Neil expels a sigh. He cards a hand through his hair, then drops it to the hem of his sweater. His eyelashes, long and thick, sweep against his mangled cheeks each time his gaze flickers to the floor. He’s not wearing any hair clips today.

“Well, I have something to say, even if you don’t.” He pauses, biting his bottom lip. “I’m... sorry, for the other day.” He adjusts his grasp on his walking stick. “I like talking to you, and I also like it when we don't say anything. But I tend to run my mouth sometimes, and - well, I shouldn’t have provoked you.”

“Something tells me that it is in your nature to provoke others.”

The muscle in Neil’s cheek spasms like he’s trying not to laugh. “That something of yours isn’t wrong.”

Andrew clenches and unclenches his hands, looking at Boof instead of Neil. “Ask me something.”

Neil is quiet for a while. The weight of his gaze has Andrew feeling like he’s standing under a spotlight, the hair at the back of his neck standing. 

“Can I take a rain check on that?” Neil says in a light tone. “It’ll give me time to think properly about what to ask without offending you this time.”

Andrew convinces himself that he doesn’t feel any disappointment from the lack of invite to their morning walk. He jerks his head in a nod. “Don’t hurt yourself from thinking too hard.”

“Funny.” Neil presses the button on the control panel so that the doors open. His arm grazes against Andrew’s when he walks out of the elevator, Boof following him. 

“See you soon,” he says. 

Andrew presses the button for the fifth floor so he isn’t tempted to watch Neil leave. 

*

Andrew shivers, pulling his jacket tighter around himself to ward off the chill. Down below, a harried mother pushes her baby stroller across the courtyard and towards the parking lot. 

Neil comes out soon enough, already dressed in his office attire, his hair slicked back. The whole assemble makes him look older; professional and polished. Andrew can’t say he hates the look.  

Bastard makes her way to Neil with a thrilled chirp. 

“Do you have somewhere to be for Thanksgiving?” he asks. 

“Is that your question?”

“It’s an ice breaker.”

“What is it to you?”

“I’m trying to be charitable and say that if you don’t, you’re welcome to join me for the dinner that my friends are hosting.”

“Generous of you, but I’ll pass.” 

Neil gives him a look to prompt him into elaborating.

“My boss has invited me over for the inane holiday.”   

“Okay, then,” Neil says. “Now that the ice has thawed, I can ask you my question.”

Andrew flicks his fingers at him, telling him to proceed. 

“Why did you learn ASL?”

Flexing his fingers, Andrew tracks the movement of Neil’s hand down Bastard’s spine. 

“As a precaution,” he answers, “just in case I lose hearing in my left ear as well.”

Neil’s expression doesn’t change aside from a miniscule rise of his eyebrow. 

“It is also useful,” he continues, injecting as much detachment as he can into his voice, “for when talking feels too much like a chore.”

His therapist had been the one to suggest it. He had scorned the idea at first, just because he could.

Neil continues to watch him, humming. When the scrutiny becomes a serpent that coils around his neck, Andrew decides to dispel the feeling by asking, “What happened to your leg?”

Neil’s expression shutters; a vacant mask counterfeiting a human face. “What happened to ‘you should curb your curiosity before you get killed’?”

“You asked me a question,” Andrew says. “Now it is my turn.”

“You asked me to ask you one.”

Andrew waits, tapping a fingernail against the railing. 

It takes a while for Neil to relent. “I guess we’re doing this whole ‘question for a question’ thing, then.”

He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, then back again. His even tone and composed expression contradict the violent reality of his words. 

“My father tried to hack my legs off.” The mask crumbles, a thin, humorless smile ghosting along his lips. “Nothing says parental love like an axe to your limbs, right?”

Black anger crawls over Andrew’s skin. A deep, slow breath scotches it from spreading further, from consuming his innards like a sickness. 

“My turn to ask a question,” Neil says, like he didn’t just reveal that he had undergone physical torture at the hands of his father. “How did you lose hearing in one ear?”

Andrew lights up a cigarette. After a couple of puffs, he says, “Car accident.”

He takes another drag and blows out a plume of smoke. Neil’s gaze on him remains unwavering.

“Well, then.” Neil raps the end of his cane against the floor, twice. “This has been riveting. Save your turn for our next conversation, yeah? I have to leave for work now.” 

He steps into his apartment, but before he closes the door, he looks over his shoulder at Andrew, lips curved in a microscopic smile. 

“See you tomorrow, Andrew.” 

Andrew tears his eyes away, waving Neil off. Bastard hops back to Andrew’s balcony and prowls inside to eat. 

Instead of smoking his cigarette, Andrew holds it between a thumb and forefinger. Tendrils of smoke lazily waft up towards his face. The smell lingers in the air long after the cigarette has burned down to the filter.  

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: how to quit smoking, desserts that aren’t too sweet, fruit tart recipe, why does my cat jump at nothing, how to grow thyme in your kitchen 

*

Two voices thunder down the corridor when he returns home one rainy night. One of them belongs to Neil. 

He slinks along the wall, footsteps silent so as to not alert them of his presence. If it escalates into a physical brawl and he needs to step in, he would appreciate having the element of surprise on his side. 

From around the corner, he catches a glimpse of a tall man standing in front of Neil’s open door, face contorted in a scowl. 

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Why the fuck would I lie?” Neil snaps. 

“Because that’s what you do!” the man bellows.

Andrew sees an aborted flinch writhe through Neil’s frame. 

“Not anymore,” he says venomously. “You know that.”

“Just tell me where she is.”

Andrew wonders if ‘she’ is referring to Neil’s girlfriend. The thought of it makes his stomach roil like a ship during a storm.

Neil sighs, all the animosity bleeding out of him. “Seth, it’s late. Go home.”

“Not until I see her.”

“You can’t keep doing this. She broke up with you months ago.”

“I don’t care,” the man - Seth - grounds out, growing more agitated by the second. “I just want to talk.”

“Then you’re out of luck, because she’s not here. How many times do I need to say this before you understand?”

“Then tell me where she fucking is!”

“I’m not going to do that,” Neil says, eyes frosty. “You’re drunk. If you don’t want to astronomically fuck things up like you normally do, I suggest you go home and sleep it off.”

With an enraged cry, Seth throws a sloppy punch. From beside Neil, Boof barks, alarmed. Andrew’s shoulders are bunched together, his body tensing as it switches to fight mode. 

Neil swerves right, ducking from the blow the same time he rams the end of his cane into Seth’s stomach. He drives him backwards against the wall and - with a low arc of his cane - whacks Seth against the side of his thigh. 

Seth howls in pain, crumpling to the floor like a sack of laundry. Mercilessly, Neil pokes Seth’s stomach with his walking stick. “Stop being such a baby. I didn’t even smack you that hard.”

Seth stops screaming and hisses out a string of curse words instead.

Huh, the normal part of Andrew thinks. He really does know how to defend himself.  

Hot, the helplessly gay part of Andrew thinks. 

Neil sighs again, favoring his left leg as he leans heavily on his cane. “You really should’ve just gone home when I told you to, Seth.”

“Need me to call a cab?” Andrew interjects, stepping towards them.

Neil wheels in on him, surprise evident on his face. It then morphs into a neutral expression, but the creases at the corners of his eyes denote his amusement.

“Or maybe I should take the trash out myself,” Andrew continues, flicking Seth a disinterested glance.

“Yeah, I might need help getting him downstairs,” Neil says.

“Fuck you, Neil,” Seth groans weakly, letting his head fall to the floor, his eyes drooping. 

“No thanks.” Neil limps back inside for his keys. He comes out into the hallway again, nose scrunched up as he assesses Seth’s prone form.

“Can you help me with him?” Neil requests, even though Andrew has already offered his assistance. 

Seth’s snore precedes Andrew’s answer. “You owe me one.”

Neil shrugs and says, in an undertone, “Better to be indebted to you than to let Mrs. Wilson continue peeking at us from her peephole and call the police.” 

Casting a cordial smile at the door across from his, Neil loudly says, “Sorry about all the commotion, Mrs. Wilson.”

Andrew hears a shuffling from the other side of the door. The old woman must be retreating back to bed or whatever it is that the elderly do at this hour.

Neil calls a cab while Andrew hauls a barely-awake Seth down the elevator to the lobby. Outside, it is still pouring. After dumping Seth into the backseat of the cab and paying the driver, Andrew hurries back inside to avoid getting drenched. 

Sagged against the wall near the mailboxes and phone pressed to his ear, Neil thanks the person on the other end of the line. 

“No, you just need to check on him in the morning.” He winces as the voice drones on. “I just introduced my walking stick to his leg. I didn’t break anything, I promise.”

Boof watches as Andrew takes up post beside Neil. He fiddles with the flint of his lighter, staring at the small flame and trying to stomp out the curiosity throbbing inside him like a burgeoning bruise. 

Neil ends the call with a “Thanks again, Matt, and sorry for the trouble,” and tips his head back against the wall. His eyes are alert but tired, like smoke from a smoldering fire. 

Andrew bites back a hiss; he has let the flame burn for too long. He puts away his lighter, rubbing the smarting pad of his thumb against his forefinger.

“Guess I can’t go out for a walk this morning,” Neil says, gazing at the rain pelting against the front door like a swarm of vengeful wasps. The petrichor suffuses the air and Andrew’s lungs, his head spinning with the moist, sweet scent.

“Not reckless enough to brave the rain?”

“I know how to pick my battles, thank you very much. Mother nature is not to be messed around with.”

But your girlfriend’s ex is an opponent worth battling, Andrew doesn’t say.

“Hey,” Neil says, turning towards Andrew, “come over to my apartment. I have this new blend of tea that I’d like you to try. Maybe this one will actually work for you.”

Andrew is confident that his skepticism is emitted even through his look of apathy.

“Don’t worry,” Neil says blithely, “I won’t try to poison you.”

Containing his eyeroll, Andrew leads the way up to Neil’s apartment. 

Neil unlocks and opens the door, letting Boof in first. There’s a bench in the foyer, two pairs of shoes arranged underneath it, and it gives a little squeal when Neil sits on it. He pries his shoes off and heads down the hallway, beckoning Andrew over with an incline of his head. 

After a pause, Andrew shucks his own shoes off and follows Neil. He’s seen Neil’s apartment, but he’s never actually been inside. He could usually only see the entrance when he stands at the front door to return Neil’s Tupperwares. 

Now, standing in the living room, he can see that the floor is immaculate, free of any clutter. The walls, however, don’t have the same minimalist style. Polaroid photos are taped haphazardly along the hallway and on the wall next to a dismal entertainment center. Most of the photos feature Neil and a ragtag group of grinning people. Others are panoramic views of various places - the spill of a golden sunset on a beach, a bird’s-eye view of a sprawling metropolitan city, the rocky cliffs of a vast ocean coast. 

One is of Neil in a wheelchair, his cheekbones sunlit and his hair wind-tousled. He is looking out into the horizon on a river bank, Boof’s head on his knee. 

Neil catches him staring at it, head cocked to the side and a mordant smile on his lips. “My friends did most of the decorating, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

Internally marshalling his wits, Andrew only says, “Not much of an interior designer yourself, are you?”

It’s drafty inside, but Neil cranks up the heater before Andrew radiates a sign of displeasure. After Neil boils some water and prepares a mug of tea for Andrew - some blend of spearmint, chamomile, St. John’s wort, and nettle leaf, Neil tells him - and coffee for himself, they retreat to the living room. 

Taking up one corner of the room is an extra-long treadmill that must be for Boof, and next to it is a crate full of dog toys. A basket of yarn skeins is stationed underneath the coffee table. A knitted afghan with aberrant geometric patterns and a horrible color scheme is thrown over the back of the couch. 

With a sigh, Neil sinks down onto the cushions, propping his bad leg up on the table. Boof commandeers the rest of the space and rests his head in Neil’s lap. 

Andrew makes himself comfortable on the love seat, steaming mug of tea nestled between his hands. The mug has Obama’s face on it. 

The first blend of tea that Neil had him sample a few weeks ago didn’t help his insomnia; he isn’t optimistic about this one, but he’s willing to try it if it stops Neil from meddling any further. 

A little restlessly, Neil shifts around in his seat. Boof whines, looking up at his face.

“Sorry, Boof.”

Andrew blows over his drink to cool it down, examining Neil all the while. His leg must be giving him some discomfort, judging from the way he is constantly squirming. After another apologetic smile at Boof, he finally settles down, grunting into the cushions behind him. 

Tapping a fingernail against the side of his mug, Andrew pulls his gaze away from Neil and points it towards the windows. He tilts his head, focusing on the incessant sound of raindrops. In the distance, he can hear the crack of thunder. 

“Should I ask?”

“Well, it is your turn, but I don’t know,” Neil says, “should you?”

He shouldn’t. It’s not any of his business. However - 

As much as he is loathe to admit it, Neil has piqued his interest from the very beginning, with his quiet smiles and knowing gazes, things that contradict the rest of him - the him that bears all the serrated edges and harrowing scars. 

As if he could read the hesitance on Andrew’s impassive face, Neil cuts him some slack and offers the information unprompted. 

“He’s sort of a friend. He’s usually harmless, but he does spout a lot of hateful crap. Now that I’ve said this, I’m not sure why I still hang out with him.” 

Andrew looks at Neil again. He’s scratching Boof’s head in repetitive, languid strokes, his coffee abandoned on the table next to the couch. His cup is black, with a print of New York City’s skyline collaring it.

“I am not sure why anyone would want to hang out with other people.”

“To establish an alibi, maybe,” Neil speculates. 

Andrew brings his mug up to his mouth and drinks his tea to hide the treacherous twitch of his lips.

Aside from the table lamp next to the love seat, the rest of the lights in the apartment haven’t been switched on. The glow of the lamp renders Neil’s features into something tender; he looks younger somehow, more open. Maybe it is because he is in his own home, slumped against the cushions with his dog’s head in his lap. All of the harshness in him has faded, leaving nothing but honesty. 

Something in Andrew thrashes, gnaws at his chest like a starved beast. 

“Can I tell you something?” Neil says, his voice a susurration against the sleet of rain. 

“I don’t know,” Andrew says, mouth dry. “Can you?”

One side of Neil’s mouth hitches into the very shape of wryness. “I set myself up for that one.” 

With a distant look in his eyes, he says, “Sometimes I just think that it’d be easier to be on my own. That’s how I used to be, anyway.” 

A tiny wrinkle forms between his brows, eyes glazed over like he is in a faraway place, in a faraway time. “See, the thing is, I was desperate to try and prove my competence and independence after being conditioned to rely on another person my whole life, after being told that I’m incapable of surviving unless I depend wholly on that one person. She -”

Neil inhales a shuddery breath. The wind rattles against the windows.

“My mother had conditioned me really well, so that I would always listen to her without ever questioning her decisions. But you know what I learned after she died?”

He looks at Andrew then, adamantine and true.  

“I learned that I was more than what she made me out to be. I’m my own person, even without her, and I can get by just fine on my own. But the funny thing is, I do better when I stop pushing away the people around me. Boof helped me see that, and before I knew it, I had… friends. People who care about me.”  

His gaze softens; flower petals swaying in a spring breeze. His red hair looks darker in the dimness of the room, black almost, falling over his forehead and ears. 

“I guess that’s why people hang out with other people. Because they like and care about each other.”

Andrew studies the surface of his tea, the stain climbing up one side of the mug’s rim. 

“Why,” he says, “are you telling me this?”

“Because I want to.”

Andrew gnashes his teeth together, then slowly relaxes his jaw. “Why, exactly, do you want to?”

“I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t an exact reason.”

“That is very philosophical of you.”

“I told you before, right? That I don’t want to lie anymore, not if I can help it.” Neil lifts his shoulders in the semblance of a shrug, careful not to move too much lest he jostle a slumbering Boof. “I’ve stopped trying to find a deeper meaning behind every single thing that people do or behind the things that happen in my life. Shit happens, and there’s nothing I can do but try to live, day by day.” 

Absentmindedly, he picks at a fraying thread on one of the pillows. Andrew thinks about how gentle and unguarded he looks in this moment, even when the words that fall out of his mouth are unembellished and heavier than any metal on earth, even when the memory of him incapacitating a man twice his size replays in Andrew’s head. 

You are so intriguing, Andrew can’t help but think. Then, equally unbidden: this is a problem

Even as he thinks it, he does nothing but slide a little further down his seat, spine relaxing. 

“Shit happens, huh,” he murmurs, mostly to himself. 

It is a simple, irrefutable fact. He, of all people, knows it. 

It might be the tea, making his tongue lax and his defenses lowered. It might be the lulling sound of the rain, how it cloaks the sky like it can impede the approach of dawn. It might be Neil, loose-limbed, and how he keeps his focus on Andrew like Andrew is the most enrapturing thing in the room.

It might be this room itself, where it is them and only them; an enclosed space, away from the rest of the world, a place where dishonesty feels impossible. 

Whatever it is, it makes Andrew want to talk about things he has never really wanted to tell anyone else. 

“I grew up in the system,” he says. “My twin brother did not. Our mother chose to keep him, for one reason or another. Guilt, perhaps.” 

Between his hands, he rotates his mug until Obama’s face is on the other side. “Thirteen homes. Statistically, you would think that some of them would be decent.”    

Neil’s gaze is steady on him. “What did they do to you?”

He thinks of the people who starved him and locked him up in dark closets, the ones who slapped him and yanked his hair when he misbehaved, the ones who crept into his bed at night and clamped a hand over his mouth so he couldn’t scream.  

The memories have lost their power to paralyze him, twelve years standing between him and a bleak past like a narrow, winding road. But sometimes he thinks that saying them aloud will transport him back to that time and place, where he is powerless to do anything to protect himself.

“A lot of things,” he responds, barely above a whisper. 

He lets it hang in the air, lets it stew and fester while his brain sifts through the words he wants to say, words that won’t cut his tongue when they tumble through his teeth. 

“The world is cruel. That was the only thing that I learned from my time in the system.”

“It’s not the world that’s cruel,” Neil says, voice bald of any unnecessary pity. “It’s the people in it.”

“You are proving to be quite the philosopher.”

Neil ignores the quip and asks the same thing Andrew did: “Why are you telling me this?”

Why, indeed.

Because he wants to. Because he hasn’t wanted anything in a long, long time - so long that he has forgotten what it felt like, to yearn for something and blindly hope that it won’t kill him. 

Because Neil is the same creature as he is; damaged, but alive.   

“You asked me what I am hiding under my armbands.” 

Neil’s face is unchanged - a tribute to his practiced stoicism - but his arm winds tighter around Boof’s body.

Almost instinctively, Andrew trails a finger down his arm, over his leather jacket, the material cool and sleek, unlike the skin underneath all the layers of fabric. 

“It takes a lot of creativity to survive. You would know all about that, would you not?”  

Neil doesn’t deny it. “You couldn’t have just told me that you keep a knife in there?”

“I suppose I could have. It wouldn’t be a lie if I did.”

Neil’s lips squeeze together, suppressing a smile. “You’re not secretly a serial killer, are you? Don’t make me regret not poisoning your tea.”

And just like that, any doubts about his decision to reveal this part of himself to Neil vanish like smoke in a gust of wind. 

“Do you resent him?” Neil asks, expression sobering a little. “Your brother. For being the one your mother chose to keep.”

Andrew finishes the rest of his tea. He doesn’t know if it will help with his insomnia, but at least it doesn’t taste bad. 

“No. I do not have a reason to.”

Neil nods. “You know,” he says after a while, head falling back against the cushions, “talking out on the balcony is fun, but this is nice, too.”

It is, Andrew thinks. He is not used to having nice things. 

“We can continue with our little question-for-a-question game if that’s what makes you comfortable,” Neil adds, “but just know that if you ask me anything, I’ll try to give you an honest answer, and that if you want to tell me anything, I’ll listen.”

Andrew gazes at the dregs of his tea, resting like river sediment at the bottom of the mug. 

The rain continues to fall. The thrashing, ravenous thing inside of him is quiet and still.

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: effective flirting techniques, how to make your pancakes fluffier, buzzfeed quizzes love, do nicotine patches work, books to read this winter

*

Teeth chattering, Andrew twists the shower knob, cutting the water off. Even though he’s trembling like a leaf caught in a tempest, he takes a moment to plaster his forehead to the wall and close his eyes, counting from one to ten in German. 

When he finally leaves the bathroom, Bastard has already scarfed down her food, laying on the floor in the wan patch of sunlight filtering in through the balcony door as if it is passing through water. 

It’s mostly overcast, the sky murky with fronds of swollen, caliginous clouds. In this type of weather, it’s hard to ignore how desolate his apartment is. 

Andrew rummages through his fridge, extracting the Tupperware of fried noodles Neil gave him yesterday. He wonders if Neil ate breakfast, if he has returned from the park with Boof. Then he slams the fridge door shut, annoyed at himself. 

They saw each other earlier today when they were on their balconies. There is no reason for him to feel this way, like there’s an itch inside of him that can only be alleviated by Neil’s company, by his stupid voice and stupid eyes. 

When there is a knock at the front door, he absolutely does not hope that it’s Neil on the other side, and he absolutely does not feel vindicated when his expectation becomes reality. 

Carrying a flask, Neil flashes a half-smile, a hair clip in the shape of a cherry blossom at his temple, right above his ear. 

“Hey, stranger. May I come in?”

Andrew steps aside to let him in, Boof trotting right behind him into the kitchen. Bastard immediately perks up, climbing the table and trilling for Neil’s attention. 

“I bought some hot chocolate on the way back from the park.” Neil gives the flask a little shake. “Thought it might make you feel a little better, with your boiler being broken and all.”

Andrew unscrews the cap and takes a whiff of the drink. He takes out two mugs from the cupboard when he deems it acceptable. 

“You know, you’re welcome to use my shower if you want to.”

Andrew’s fist tightens around the flask before he forces it to relax. “So you’ve said.”

He finishes pouring the hot chocolate and brings the mugs to the rachitic dining table. Neil is on one of the chairs, Bastard perched on his shoulder. 

It is strange - mystical, almost - how the simple fact of him being here, right in Andrew’s kitchen, has made everything seem less dreary. 

The termite-bitten cabinet beside the sink that’s hanging by a single hinge, the cracked plaster next to the bookshelf that he’s never bothered to fix, the dusty curtains that have faded from a verdant green to a mossy color - they all seem inconsequential in the spectacle of Neil’s vibrant presence. 

It isn’t the first time he’s gone inside Andrew’s apartment - this marks his fourth visit since he invited Andrew over to his place - but the realization that he brings with him a sense of life and color to Andrew’s drab apartment is new. 

“Then why don’t you take me up on my offer? You’re going to give yourself hypothermia at this rate.”

“Is that concern I hear?” Andrew places a hand above his heart, face and voice emotionless. “I am touched.”  

Neil looks like he wants to roll his eyes, but he doesn’t. “I can’t believe maintenance still hasn’t stopped by. You called them - what, a week ago?”

“Do not be so surprised. You have lived here for five months - you should know just how efficient and reliable the management is.”

“Touchẻ.” Neil takes a sip of his hot chocolate, humming. “You have to admit that living here has its upsides. It’s cheap, pet-friendly, comes with a parking space, a working elevator -” Neil lists these advantages off his fingers - “and the previous tenant left me their washing machine and dryer. Can’t get any better than that.” 

“If only they could reliably provide us with hot water throughout winter and didn’t have intermittent blackouts.”

“I’m going to be honest with you and say that after a lifetime of enduring a bunch of terrible things, I’m just glad to have a roof over my head and money to feed my dog.”

“Such is the life of a millenial.”

Bastard catapults off Neil’s shoulder and sprints towards the living room like a cat possessed. Without looking away from the pot of thyme that Andrew began growing last week on the window by the sink, Neil rubs Boof’s ear. He had named the thyme Gertrudis, and Andrew had not had the vitality to dispute the choice.

Neil and Boof smell like freshly cut grass and dewy sunshine, just like they always do after returning from the park. 

“It’d be good though, to move into a nicer place.” 

The fear that grips Andrew is irrational, visceral; the snap of a branch in the dead of night, the creak of the floorboards in an empty house. 

“A house with a backyard, maybe,” Neil continues, voice light and serene; the whisper of a dream. “With enough space to grow flowers, and for Boof to play in.”

Boof nudges Neil’s hand, nosing along his palm. 

“Something entirely my own.” Neil looks at Andrew then, gentle and open. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” 

“Perhaps,” Andrew allows, because what else can he say? Something in him has cracked open, the fissure oozing out pieces of him that he thought had been depleted long ago, and it feels like Neil is the one who has scraped them all out, the only one capable of putting them back together with scarred, tender hands. 

But Andrew doesn’t know if he himself is capable of doing the same for Neil. 

This thing between them - whatever it is - it isn't meant to last. Neil is already with someone else, anyway.

“I’m not that good at gardening though,” Neil says, “as you’ve witnessed with Brunhilde. Oh well -” a shrug - “that’s an issue for future me to deal with.”

“Until then,” Andrew says, tempering his voice into indifference and nothing else, “we will have to deal with a negligent management.”

“Write them a strongly-worded letter,” Neil advises, grim-faced. “Or skip the pleasantries and just slash the manager’s tires. Both methods send a solid, unambiguous message.”

“You should never be allowed to leave your apartment.”

“Not my problem that the world can’t handle me,” Neil says breezily.

Nobody probably can, Andrew thinks, the thought more fond than it is derisive. 

“By the way, have you had breakfast?” Neil checks the time, casting a cursory glance at the clock on the microwave. “Well, it’s a little late for breakfast, I guess.”

“Do you plan on mooching off my meal?”

The corners of Neil’s lips curve upwards in a small, sly smile. “Was I that obvious?”  

“You are the bane of my existence,” Andrew says, blasé. Then: “What do you want to eat.”

Realizing that Andrew has let him win wheedles a broader smile out of Neil. He doesn’t even try to hide it, and Andrew doesn’t even try to pretend that it isn’t satisfaction that is diffusing through his chest at the sight.  

“The pancakes you made last time I was here were really good, but I’ve been craving for some eggs benedict since last night.” Neil tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, glacial eyes thawed by his warm smile. “Can you make some?”

Andrew doesn’t respond. He merely starts working, feeling Neil’s eyes tracking his movements all the while.    

After their brunch, Neil tells Andrew that he is heading to the hardware store. 

“Need me to get you anything?” he asks. “A hammer? Some nails? A shovel to hide a body? A shovel to dig into my business?”

Neil seems very pleased with himself for the horrendous joke. Andrew levels him an unimpressed look, thinking about how he does not need anything from the hardware store.

“I have a couple of things I need to find,” he says, which is not a lie; there are always things in life that he needs to find. Whether or not he might find them in a hardware store is irrelevant. 

“Okay. What are they? I can find them for you if you want,” Neil offers. 

If only you could, Andrew thinks. He thinks a lot of asinine things when he’s with Neil. 

“I don’t trust you to handle my hardware,” Andrew says, instantly regretting his choice of words. “So I will come with you.” 

What am I doing, he thinks.

“Fine. But I’m driving.”

Andrew lifts an eyebrow.

Neil wrenches a ring of keys from out of his pocket, jangling it in the air. Bastard comes charging back into the kitchen at the sound. 

“I have the handicap parking permit. We can get parking more easily.”

Neil is a good driver. Andrew doesn’t know why he had banked on him being a reckless one - maybe it’s because he has seen how brash and antagonistic Neil can be at times. It might also be him projecting his own temerarious driving style onto Neil. 

They park right outside the front door of the store. Boof plods along between them, brushing against Andrew’s leg once in a while as they traverse through the many aisles, Christmas songs tinkling through the speakers. Neil compares the prices of a few different brands of screws and bolts, mumbling something about fixing Andrew’s kitchen cupboard. Andrew feigns looking for a pair of shears when they pass the gardening tools section to pretend that he is not feeling a peculiar sort of contentment at Neil’s attentiveness.

As they continue wandering, Neil provides a detailed analysis on the best lye solution to dissolve a corpse, on the sharpest saw and axe to sever human joints, and on the most durable trash bag to store a body, informing Andrew the locations of these items in the store. 

“It’s handy to carry some gasoline with you at all times, too. You never know when you might need to burn some evidence,” he imparts, tapping his cane for emphasis. 

“Duly noted,” Andrew says, a little distractedly, too absorbed with watching the deliberative tilt of Neil’s eyebrows and the unsure curl of his lips as he ponders the strengths and weaknesses of certain types of  oil. He thinks that he could listen to Neil talk for a long, long time, even after Neil somehow convinces him to crouch into a plastic container to demonstrate which ones are the most suited to hide a body without arousing any suspicion.

“Why do you know so much about this?” Andrew asks, idly curious. 

“Oh, you know how it is.” Neil waves a hand around like he's swatting away a fly, eyeing the light bulbs lined on the shelf in front of him. “When you incapacitate the goons sent by your murderous father - in the name of self-defense, of course - you also learn how to...painstakingly take care of the evidence.”

It’s no wonder Neil has never even been mildly afraid of Andrew, not when he’s dealt with that level of macabre violence.  

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Any gruesome tales to boast about?” Neil asks, selecting a box of light bulbs and placing it in his basket.

“I wouldn’t call them gruesome,” Andrew says. “Just self-persevering.”

Neil looks at him, expectant. 

“I sent three homophobes to the hospital by breaking a few of their bones, and I got rid of the woman who was abusing my brother. Made it look like an accident.”

It’s easy, to tell Neil all this. It’s also amazing, how he can say all this without even batting an eyelash. He wants to say it’s because of the years of therapy, but he has never felt a shred of remorse for his retributive actions in the first place, so it might be that he is just that fucked up.

Miraculously, Neil is too. He whistles, impressed. “How did you do it?”

“Car accident. Tampered with the brakes.”

Neil frowns a little. “This is the accident you told me about?”

Andrew shrugs a confirmation. Neil’s frown intensifies. 

“You could’ve gotten killed too.”

“It would have been worth it.”

“It wouldn’t,” Neil argues, electric blue eyes gleaming with a private fury. “Your life is infinitely more valuable than an abuser’s life.”

It shouldn’t make him feel the way he does to hear this, how it makes his chest constrict, his throat clogged with a knot of contrasting emotions. 

He had made his brother a promise, and he had simply seen it through. Keeping his brother safe had been a priority; his own life, in comparison, had been of less significance. Neil does not understand this, and he has no right to say the things he did. Absolutely no right.

But Andrew can't utter the words to dispute the sentiment. He knows, with unsought clarity, that it is because a part of him has always wanted to hear it - that his life is worth something. It is the part of him that yearns to be wanted and needed, that harbors the old fear of being hurt and abandoned - the part of him that makes him deplorably weak and painfully human.

Neil is a conundrum that glitches up the codes in Andrew’s program, and he is ill-equipped, grappling for a way to set everything back the way it should be, the way it has been for a very long time. 

“Don’t,” he says tersely, nails digging into the meat of his palms.

The frame of Neil’s body goes rigid as if he is about to goad Andrew and turn this conversation into a feud, even if he has to do it through sheer obstinance. But the cord of tension leaves after a moment, water flooding down the drain of a sink. His eyes soften, honesty rounding out the steel edges.

“Okay,” he says, quiet. “But I just want you to know that I’m glad you didn’t die in the car crash.”

Andrew rips his gaze away from Neil’s, his heart pounding. He can’t stand looking at Neil, not in that moment.

“I’m glad you’re alive,” Neil says, as truthful as Andrew has ever heard him. He lingers for a few beats before he starts in the opposite direction, the clack of his cane reverberating in Andrew’s ear.

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: christmas gift ideas for relatives, cat tower prices, good recipes for brunch, indoor tug toy for labradors, christmas gift ideas for someone special

*

It’s Christmas Eve. 

Andrew will drive alone to Columbus later in the day, sitting approximately seven hours in his car with miles and miles of open road in front of him. He will arrive just in time for dinner at his brother’s place, and he will be staying at the same hotel that Nicky and Erik will for the next two nights. 

Christmas dinner is a tradition that they started only a few years ago, more for Nicky’s sake than anyone else’s. The time apart from his brother and cousin, however, has mended their tenuous relationship and stitched up old wounds, and Andrew is - not unhappy about it. 

When he opens the balcony door to let Bastard out, he sees that it is snowing, tufts of white swirling down like feathers. His breaths come out in vapors, vanishing into the air as soon as they appear.  

Bastard paces the balcony, tail grazing against the railing. Intrigued by the fact that she hasn’t sprung onto Neil’s balcony, Andrew shuffles outside, wearing only his hoodie and sweatpants. 

Neil’s balcony is empty, the doors closed and curtains drawn. Andrew squats down and spoons Bastard into his arms to keep himself warm, eyes scouring the ground fifty feet below. 

The spike in his heart rate, he tells himself, is because of his acrophobia, and not because he spots Neil.  

He observes as Neil hobbles to the center of the courtyard, his limp more pronounced in the cold weather. Next to him, Boof sniffs at the accumulating snow, tail wagging animatedly. 

Neil stops. Boof sits, waiting like the good service dog that he is. Tipping his head backwards, Neil stares up at the sky, snow drifting down on him like falling stars. He sticks his tongue out for a while, letting the flakes land on it. Then, he closes his eyes.

Andrew thinks about how stupid it all is - the snow, the cold season, Neil. 

When Neil reopens his eyes, his spins around in a stilted pirouette. He fumbles and almost falls, latching onto Boof just in time to avoid landing on his back. Andrew’s pulse leaps, a lump of fear blocking his windpipe. His pulse only returns to its baseline when Neil properly regains his footing. Bastard meows in his arms as he releases the smallest of sighs. 

As if he heard it, Neil cranes his neck, his gaze flickering upwards. It catches onto Andrew’s like an arrow to its target. 

His eyes are bright, his smile brighter. He fixes his hold on his cane and raises a hand up at Andrew.

“But, soft!” he proclaims at the top of his lungs, arm spread wide. “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Andrew is the sun.”

Andrew’s lips twitch, a spark of warmth kindling in his chest. 

“Idiot,” he mumbles.  

“I’ll come up in a minute,” Neil shouts, eyes scrunched up in mirth. Snow is sprinkled over his head like moon dust, stark against the rich, deep red of his hair. The tail of his green scarf billows behind him as he goes back towards the lobby door.

“Forswear it, sight,” Andrew murmurs, a supplication to the winter sky, “for I never saw true beauty till this night.” 

Andrew never runs. But he does right now, turning back inside and setting his cat down on the kitchen counter. He fills Bastard’s bowl, snatches the tiny box that’s been sitting on his bedside table for the past two weeks, almost trips over a couple of Bastard’s toys - now he knows why Neil’s floor is free of clutter - and shoves his feet into his boots. 

There is something hungry and fathomless inside him, and it calls for Neil, Neil, Neil.

He makes it to Neil’s door a few seconds before Neil trudges around the corner, cheeks ruddy, lips chapped, and boots wet. The unnamable thing inside Andrew goes dormant, instantly mollified. 

“I thought you’d be waiting at your place,” Neil says, long eyelashes clumped together from the wet snow. 

“You were taking too long,” Andrew says, as if he isn’t panting to catch his breath. He really should start quitting smoking in earnest. 

Neil pinches his lips together in the way he likes to do when he is trying not to smile. The crinkle at the corner of his eyes always gives him away, though.

They enter Neil’s apartment, and while Neil takes off and hangs up his coat and scarf, Andrew checks on Brunhilde and her new brother, Buckminster. 

With nothing else to do, Andrew starts rocking on the balls of his heels in the living room until Neil reappears from his bedroom. Boof climbs up the loveseat to lay on it, fur still damp from the snow, tail thumping against the cushions. 

Andrew forces his body to stop transmitting any nervous ticks and stares placidly at the bag Neil is holding out to him. 

“Your Christmas present,” Neil says.

Andrew hums. His hand holds the slightest tremor when he takes the bag from Neil. He unfolds the decorative tissues and pulls the gift out. The blanket in his hand unfurls, two shades of red making up the stripes.

“I made that for Bastard,” Neil says. Then he bows his head a little, chewing on his bottom lip. “There’s something else inside.”

Curious, Andrew rummages around the bag and takes out the second gift. 

It’s a knitted neck-warmer. The wool, a mellow violet color, is soft under his calloused fingers. 

“That one’s for you,” Neil tells him, tucking a strand of hair behind an ear. 

Andrew feels like his lungs and heart are on fire, a roaring inferno that is extinguished and set aflame, again and again in an endless cycle; an ache and a salve, both at once.  

“Do you like it?” Neil asks, uncharacteristically meek. 

“It is adequate,” Andrew responds woodenly, the smoke in his chest making it hard for him to inhale enough oxygen to speak properly. 

Neil fixes him a quizzical gaze. He swallows in a pitiful effort to quench his arid throat, loosens the muscles in his shoulders and back, reminds himself that this is all temporary, that there is no need to be submerged and ensnared by the undertow of Neil’s existence. 

He puts everything back into the bag and takes a neat step away from all the emotions brewing inside him.

“How long did it take you to make these?”

“The blanket took me about ten days. The neck-warmer took me about -” Neil purses his lips in thought - “a week, I think.”

“Such dedication.”

“That’s not a long time at all. It took me six months to finish this one,” Neil says, patting the afghan on the back of the couch, the one with the psychedelic geometric pattern. “My first big project.” He smiles, close-lipped but triumphant. “Never thought I could finish it, especially since I had such a hard time in the beginning.”

“I am surprised you had the patience to learn knitting,” Andrew says dryly, pleating the edge of the afghan, secretly marveling at its softness.

Neil’s smile turns sardonic. “I have physical therapy to thank for my boundless patience.” He leans against the back of the couch, looking relieved to be taking some weight off his left leg. “I’ve been knitting for a few years now. It doesn’t take me long to finish something, especially when I commit an hour or two everyday to do it.” He shrugs, gracing Andrew with a half-smile. “I’m glad I could finish your present before you leave.”

Andrew clutches the handles of the bag. With his other hand, he retrieves the box from the pocket of his hoodie and lobs it at Neil. Expertly, Neil catches it with one hand. 

“For me?”

“No, for Little Bo-Peep.”

Neil rolls his eyes and rests his cane next to him. The white box, adorned with pink roses, sits primly on his palm. He lifts the cover, and doesn’t react beyond a slight widening of his eyes. 

Andrew is beginning to think of it as a mistake when - all at once - everything about Neil melts like snow, from the diminutive upturn of his lips to the gentle set of his eyes and the pliant slope of his shoulders. 

“It’s pretty,” he says, soft. Then, in the voice that he uses when he’s in a playful mood: “It matches the color of your neck-warmer.” 

He plucks the orchid-shaped hair clip from the box and slots it into his hair, his fringe swept to the side. The fall of his eyelashes is almost incongruent with the sharpness of his jawline. Light trickles in through the windows, almost as pale and unobtrusive as the snow that floats down from the sky. It looks like a veil, the way it forms a halo around Neil’s silhouette. 

Forswear it sight, Andrew remembers saying, the frigid air as his witness, for I never saw true beauty till this night

“I have ordered something for your dog,” Andrew says, not knowing what else to do. “But it will not arrive until after New Year’s.”

Neil smiles a little, shaking his head. “That’s fine.” Then he licks his lips. “Let me,” he says, looking at the bag in Andrew’s hand. 

Automatically, Andrew gives it to him. Neil takes out the neck-warmer, holding it up towards Andrew. “May I?” 

What am I doing, Andrew thinks, stepping between Neil’s legs. 

Neil wraps the gift around Andrew’s neck and buttons it up, his fingers grazing Andrew’s collarbones; fleeting, unintentional. The touch sears onto Andrew’s skin like a trail of embers. 

The smile that Neil gives him is different than usual; sweeter, like candy melting in his mouth. 

“Merry Christmas, Andrew.”

*

Later - two hours out of Philadelphia - when Andrew realizes what the unnameable feeling residing in his chest is, he slams his foot on the brake pedal. The tires screech as the car skids to a halt in the middle of the freeway, cars honking past him.

Andrew stares at the steering wheel. 

Eloquently, resignedly - he thinks, fuck.

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: guide to interacting with your toddler nieces, how do i increase my tolerance for my sister-in-law, does quoting romeo and juliet mean you’re being flirted with, how to wash hand-knitted clothing

*

After what feels like an interminable night at the bar, Andrew is ready to be reunited with his bed. 

New Year’s Eve shifts are the worst, but they are also one of the most lucrative nights of the year, so Andrew dutifully slogs through them.

The elevator doors are closing when a familiar voice asks him to wait. Andrew jabs the relevant button, the doors sliding open, and immediately regrets it. 

Neil comes into view, and following him are Boof and the Girlfriend. 

Of course he spent the evening with her. They spent Christmas together too; Neil told him when they were discussing their holiday plans a few weeks back. 

Andrew has made it his prerogative to avoid going out to the balcony whenever she sleeps over at Neil’s place. Luckily for him, her stays are few and far between, around once or twice a month. 

“Thanks,” Neil says, entering the elevator. The rap of his cane is echoed by the click of the Girlfriend’s stilettos. Andrew nods at him, but keeps his gaze fixated on the control panel.

“Watch your step, Allison.”

The Girlfriend - Alyssa or whatever - clucks her tongue in disdain but presses close to him, their bodies flush. “Don’t tell me what to do.” She makes a disgusted noise. “This thing is making me sick.”

“We’re in a lift. Be grateful you don’t have to climb the stairs.”

“A lift,” she mocks, but her voice lacks any real contempt. “I love how you use these non-American slangs sometimes. Like when you call a sweater a ‘jumper’, or a flashlight a ‘torch’.” She rests her cheek on top of his head, closing her eyes. “And it’s cute how you know grams and sentrymeters and whatever the fuck else are used in that other measurement system.”

“Centimeters,” Neil corrects. 

“Like I said - whatever.”

“You reek of booze,” Neil adds, tone flat.

“And you have no tact.” The Girlfriend sniffs, opening her eyes. A little blearily, she squints at Andrew as if just noticing that he is also in the elevator with them. “I know you,” she says, almost accusatory. “The guy with the cat and the stares.”

Andrew internally bristles, but he otherwise ignores her. 

“Talk about rude,” she says hotly, straightening her spine.

Neil scoffs. “You’re not any better.”

“Excuse you,” Girlfriend retorts. “I am always fucking civil.”

Mercifully, the elevator dings, arriving on the fifth floor. Andrew holds the door while Neil and the Girlfriend exit.

Neil tells her to go ahead, passing her his keys.

“Make sure you get the right door,” he calls after her. She flips him the bird, strutting down the hallway without a hitch in her gait. Andrew supposes that's respected in some circles, the ability to maintain a veneer of regality even when one is inebriated. 

Neil rewinds Boof’s leash around his hand. Then he spends the next few moments staring at Andrew in that incomprehensible way of his. 

“Did you have a good night?”

“Don't ask a question you don't actually want to know the answer to.”

“I wouldn't be asking if I didn't actually care.”

Andrew grunts. He doesn't think about how the words make his heart beat a little faster.

“What did you do tonight?”

“I am a bartender,” Andrew reminds him. “I tended the bar, like I always do.”

“Yeah, but it’s New Year’s Eve. Your boss didn’t make you hold hands with the other employees and have you sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ while you reminisce about the things that happened last year?”

“Oh, Neil. Ever the comedian. Have you ever considered a career in stand-up?”

“Maybe I should. It might beat sitting in an office poring over numbers all day,” Neil says, flippant. 

Andrew takes stock of Neil’s disheveled appearance and his clear, lucid eyes. There’s some confetti and glitter stuck in his hair, and the vivid image of Neil staring up at the sky while snow rains down on him skips across Andrew’s mind. 

He banishes the memory, wills it to fade into obscurity even though he knows it is impossible.

“No drinks to celebrate the start of a new year?”

“I’m the DD tonight. Besides, I don’t really drink. Never saw the appeal of getting soused.”

“I did not realize that your spine was the spine of the righteous.”

“It’s not righteousness. It’s called a preference. I don’t need to get drunk to have fun.”

“Ah, yes. You just need to envision ways to hide a body in order to lower your inhibitions.”

Neil’s eyebrows quirk upwards. “Whatever works, right?” He shifts his weight to his right foot, raising the head of his cane like he’s giving a toast. “Here’s to another year on this bitch of an earth.” 

“Cheers,” Andrew deadpans.

Neil holds his gaze for a beat longer. Then he signs a ‘happy new year’ and pivots on his heels, heading towards his apartment. 

Andrew watches him go. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: is it immoral to like someone who isn’t single, what is the metric system, can you impress someone if you show that you know the metric system, nicotine lozenges vs nicotine gum

*

Neil is sick. 

The only reason Andrew was able to surmise this was because Neil didn’t go out to the balcony this morning, or the morning before. When he didn’t answer the two texts that Andrew sent, Andrew called him. He picked up on the fifth ring, croaking out a, “Hey.”

Andrew was already outside his apartment, ready to bash through the door if Neil hadn’t answered. Instead, he calmly and succinctly said, “Open the door.”

Five whole minutes went by before the lock clicked and the door creaked open. Boof greeted him in the foyer when he entered.

“Good boy,” he murmured. 

And now he is in Neil’s kitchen, ladling porridge into a Winnie the Pooh bowl and letting some tea steep in a Captain America mug. He supposes that this is an economical way to repay Neil for helping Andrew with his insomnia. It is merely a prudent way to clear his debt, and nothing more. 

He loads the bowl and mug on a tray with some cutlery and brings them to Neil’s room. 

He had been reluctant to enter when Boof led him there, a vague churning in his guts telling him that he was intruding on someone’s personal space. But the bed had squeaked and Neil - no more than an amorphous blob under the heavy duvet - had told him to come in before he could dwell on it further.

Neil had put a surgical mask on, hazy eyes blinking up at Andrew in the dim room. His forehead had been glistening with sweat, his hair chronically mussed. 

“What are you doing here?” he had asked, his voice raspy like stone abrading against stone.  

Expressionless, Andrew had stared at the wads of tissue littering the floor, at the bottles of medicine and the half-emptied water pitcher on the bedside table, and at the dog pee pad near the bedroom door. 

“How long have you been like this.”

“Like what?”

“Like you are on the verge of death.”

“Don’t be a drama queen. I’m fine.”

“You have a skewed understanding of what it means to be fine.”  

“This is a papercut compared to all the things I’ve been through in the past.” A wet, hacking cough had punctuated Neil’s sentence. “Seriously, this is nothing.”

“Very convincing.” 

With that, Andrew had cleared up the floor while Neil weakly protested. He had told Andrew that he had already brought his fever down, so Andrew should just go home because there was nothing else to be done except wait for the cold to subside. 

Andrew had hooked a finger into the surgical mask, pulling it away and then releasing it, letting it snap against Neil’s nose. Neil had stopped complaining after that. It should be a testament to how out of sorts he was, since he had barely put up a fight. 

After that, Andrew had taken Boof out to the living room and turned on the dog treadmill for him. He had even tried out the tug toy he got Boof for Christmas, and had been secretly glad that it is holding up well. By the time they had returned to the bedroom to check on Neil, he had been fast asleep, the surgical mask crumpled underneath his pillow.

Now, Andrew sets the tray on the bedside table while Neil continues to sleep, Boof taking up post by his legs. His breath comes out a little wheezy and labored, a furrow etched between his brows. 

Andrew glances at the digital clock on the nightstand, contemplating if he should call work and tell Wymack he’s not coming in today.   

He is about to leave the room to make the call when Neil stirs, the bed sheets rustling. 

With a gasp, Neil jolts awake. He sits upright, eyes frantic and knuckles ghostly white as he clutches the duvet. His shoulders rise and fall in tandem with his rapid breathing, and Boof scampers towards him, pressing a paw against his abdomen and whining into his ear. 

Andrew is on his knees by the bed before he can even fully compute the situation. 

“Neil,” he says, monotonous but firm, “breathe.”   

With Boof’s insistent keening and licking, Neil eventually stops hyperventilating. His breathing tapers off into something more subdued, his eyes losing their wild look. He rakes a hand through his sweaty hair, then rubs Boof’s ears, thanking him.  

Andrew sits back on his haunches. He is not one to offer comfort or reassurances, so he merely observes and waits. Neil has an arm around Boof’s neck, cheek smushed against his golden brown fur. 

“I haven’t had that dream in a while,” Neil mumbles, eyes hooded and voice hoarse. His other hand snakes down to his left leg like it has a mind of its own. 

“Do you know it’s my birthday tomorrow?”

Andrew doesn’t, but he remains mum. His words feel superfluous somehow, in this time and space, the same way a thrown pebble would disrupt the eerie tranquility of an untouched pond. 

“I’d never liked the day. There had never been any good memories associated with it, not until I met my friends. But even then…” 

A pregnant silence holds the air captive, broken only by Boof’s small ‘woof’. Neil’s slender fingers flex and choke above the duvet, before he wrenches his hand away from his leg and settles it carefully on Boof’s back. 

“I used to think that being scarred is better than being dead. But sometimes -” his eyes flutter shut - “sometimes I wonder if that’s true.”

Unmoving, Andrew stares at Neil. It is something that he has pondered about, back when his only coping mechanism was to slice a blade through his own skin. He still hasn’t found the answer - but Neil said it himself, didn’t he? 

Shit happens, and the only thing they can do is live, day by day by day. 

“Being dead is easy,” he eventually says, “being alive is not.”

Neil cracks an eye open. He looks exhausted, skin pallid, black shadows under his eyes. Somehow, he scrounges up the strength to give Andrew the phantom of a smile. 

“Are you trying to say that I should stay alive even if it’s out of spite?”

“I thought you would enjoy the challenge.” 

Neil closes his eye again. He continues to hug Boof, running a hand up and down the dog’s back, sluggish like he’s moving through molasses. 

After a while, he lays back down. When Andrew is sure that Neil is asleep, he stands up, knees popping and groaning like rusty metal pipes.

When he is at the door, he hears a quiet, “Andrew?”

He halts, looking over his shoulder.

“Will you stay with me for a while longer?”

I will stay for as long as you want me to, Andrew thinks.

“Yes,” he answers.   

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: how to quickly get rid of a cold, where can i buy fresh turmeric, ginger garlic bone broth recipe, remedies for aching legs, when is the last day of winter

*

Andrew works half-evenings on Wednesdays to accommodate time for his therapy session. He usually drives straight to Eden’s Lounge after leaving Bee’s office, but the bar is closed today for a water leak repair. He only gets an evening off once in a blue moon - because he would rather be working than staring into space at home - so he figures that he should use this opportunity wisely.

He wonders if Neil is home from work.

The last thing he expects to see when he enters the lobby is Kevin Day, hunched in front of the mailboxes and squinting at the names. He has a huge, shapeless package tucked under an arm to complete the ‘overtly suspicious person’ look. Andrew hasn’t seen him since Thanksgiving at Wymack’s place.  

“Kevin.”

Kevin practically leaps. He turns a wide-eyed look on Andrew, palm pressed against his heart. 

“God,” he breathes out. “Andrew. You scared me.” He runs a hand through his dark hair and adjusts his grip on the package. “What are you doing here?”

“I live here,” Andrew replies blandly. “What are you doing here.”

“I’m - looking for my friend’s apartment. I have -” Kevin taps the package - “a gift for him.”

“That does not sound suspicious at all.”

“That’s because it isn’t!” Kevin shakes the package for emphasis. “He gave me this fake Egyptian tablet for Christmas with the note ‘is that what you mean when you said you wanted a new tablet?’” He ducks his head to lean closer, dropping his voice into a whisper. “I don’t think he knows what a tablet or iPad is, so now I’m giving him an actual one for his birthday.” His voice returns to its normal volume. “It was a fortnight ago, but I haven’t had the time to see him until today.”

Andrew is pretty sure that Kevin has been duped into buying an expensive gadget for his friend, but Andrew won’t be the one to tell him that. 

“You are telling me that you have a tablet in that?” Andrew says, eyeing the bulky package.

“I am not good at wrapping presents,” Kevin justifies testily.

Andrew shrugs, making his leave without saying anything further.

“Andrew!” Much to Andrew’s chagrin, Kevin follows him to the elevator. “Can I wait in your apartment? My friend just got out of work, so I still have to wait for a while until he returns.”

Andrew doesn’t even think about it. “No.”

“I really don’t want to loiter around the lobby any longer than I have to.”

“Tell that to someone who cares.”

“I will buy you drinks tonight.”

“Kevin,” Andrew says, matter-of-fact, “I work at a bar. Your father’s bar. Try again.” 

“Nutella,” Kevin says gravely. “I will buy you as many jars of Nutella as you wish.”

Andrew evaluates the costs and benefits. 

“Seven,” he says finally. “Jumbo-sized.”

“Deal.”

“And you will keep your mouth shut. I will not have my peace disturbed.”

Kevin grinds his teeth. “Fine.” 

Andrew holds a finger up in warning. “Not one word.”

Kevin looks like he is about to burst into flames from sheer frustration. 

The ride up the elevator and the walk to Andrew’s apartment are as peaceful as it can get with a six-foot-something man skulking behind him. When they enter his apartment, Bastard perks up from where she’s lying on the top shelf of Andrew’s bookcase, tucked in a small gap between two books. There used to be a tiny trophy there, with the words ‘Ray of Sunshine’ engraved on it - a gag gift from Nicky that came along with the rattan chair. Within the first week that Andrew brought her home, Bastard had toppled it over and claimed the spot for herself. 

“I didn’t know you have a cat,” Kevin remarks.

“Did I hear words coming out of your mouth?” Andrew says.

Kevin takes a deep breath and releases it in a hiss. 

“May I at least use your bathroom?” he bites out.

Andrew waves him away. Bastard winds herself around Andrew’s ankles as Kevin places his package on the couch and stomps off. Rapid footsteps boom down the hallway as Kevin reappears, dashing towards Andrew.

“There’s a spider,” he says, pale as a ghost.

Andrew picks Bastard up and books it out to the balcony, Kevin hot on his heels. They slam the balcony door shut and stand motionless for a few seconds. 

“It was… the size of my hand,” Kevin says, voice shaky.

“Not another word,” Andrew says severely.

What is he supposed to do now? Go back inside and kill the spider with his knife? Out of the question. Send Bastard in and let her eat the spider? Andrew would sooner sacrifice Kevin to a cult than put his cat in danger. 

Kevin’s phone rings. Stiltedly, he answers it. 

“Hello.” A pause. “Yes. I’m upstairs.” A pause. “No, I did no such thing.” A pause. “He is a - an acquaintance.” A pause. “So you’re in your apartment already?” A long pause. “I’m… out on his balcony.” A longer pause. “Because there is something in the bathroom that poses a threat to our lives.” A long, belligerent pause. “I am notbeing dramatic.” 

Andrew drops onto the rattan chair, Bastard kneading his thighs after she climbs up his lap. Neil’s balcony door slides open with a rattle, and he steps outside with a phone against his ear.

“I’m already home so hurry the fuck up, Kevin,” he is saying. He blinks owlishly when he sees Kevin on Andrew’s balcony.

Kevin stares at his phone, then at Neil, then at his phone again. 

“Well then,” Neil says, tapping on his phone, probably to kill the call. “This makes it easier, doesn’t it?”

Andrew watches the unfolding scene with mild interest. 

“Are you two acquainted with each other?” Kevin asks.

Neil’s lips twitch in amusement, his eyes gliding over to Andrew for a moment. “We’re neighbors, if that isn’t obvious enough to you.”

Kevin's face is all stern lines and pursed lips, a lecture on the tip of his tongue.

"How do you two know each other?" Neil asks before Kevin gets a chance to unleash a speech filled with righteous indignation over Neil’s sarcasm.

Kevin narrows his eyes at Neil but answers the question. “He works for my father.”

Neil hitches an eyebrow. “Your dad owns Eden’s Lounge?”

What a small world, Andrew muses derisively.

“You know my father?” Kevin inquires, frowning.

“Not personally,” Neil says. 

Andrew wonders how these two know each other.

As if he read Andrew’s mind, Neil looks at him and explains, “I was his roommate for a few years in Albuquerque, after I graduated college.” He slants Kevin a feigned look of betrayal. “You never told me your dad lives here. I thought we were friends.”

You never actually told me where you moved to!” Kevin makes a wild, angry gesture with his hands. “I didn’t know until you sent me the Christmas gift.”  

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Neil says dryly. “Now, what is it that you wanted to give me? And what exactly is in Andrew’s bathroom that has the both of you cowering out here?”

“A spider,” Kevin says with a tight expression.

Neil stares at them. Then he rolls his eyes and shakes his head, muttering, “For hell’s sake.” 

He disappears inside his apartment. A while later, Andrew hears the faint sound of the unlocked front door opening and clicking shut. He opens the balcony door and peeks through the gap, watching as Neil slips down the hall to the bathroom and comes back out again, a piece of paper held up carefully in his hand. He extends it out the kitchen window, before turning to Andrew.

“All clear now. You wusses can come back inside.”

“You,” Andrew says, parking Bastard on the kitchen table, “are not human.”

“I’ve been called far worse,” Neil replies, sardonic. “I thought heights are the only things you’re afraid of.”

“People who do not fear arachnids are fools.”

“Like I said, I’ve been called far worse.” Neil looks over at Kevin, who is dawdling by the couch as if a spider invasion might begin at any moment. “So?”

Kevin picks up his parcel and brings it over to Neil. “Here. A birthday gift.”

“Aww,” Neil coos mockingly. “How sweet.”

“It is an actual tablet,” Kevin says, close to seething. “I hope you will learn how to use it.”

Neil’s close-lipped smile is slow and cunning, making him look like a cat who caught the canary. “Of course.”

Andrew is a hundred percent sure now that Kevin has been duped into buying an expensive gadget for his friend, but he still won’t be the one to tell him that.

“Oh, I just remembered.” Cane clacking with his eager steps, Neil trots over to the living room. “I found out what that small knobby thing is for on the cat tower.”

Andrew follows him to the big cardboard box shoved into one corner of the living room. He bought the cat tower around Christmas and had Neil help him look over the instructions, but they hit an impasse the last time they tried to build it.

“I have a co-worker who bought the same model,” Neil continues. “She told me how to assemble it.”

Bastard has also followed them, flexing her claws and scratching at the carpet. Neil rubs a finger between her ears. “We’ll set it up today, so she can try it out as soon as possible.” He looks up at Andrew then, eyes dizzyingly blue. “That’s fine, right?”

Andrew bites down on his tongue and nods. Kevin stares between the two of them, the divot between his brows indicating his rumination. 

Let him think whatever he wants. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: cat-safe insect repellent, what does it mean when he sets up your cat tower for you, can rosemary grow next to thyme, how to start planting rosemary indoors

*

“Why did he take it back? Talk about a cop-out.” Neil shakes his head, deprecatory. “Why can’t these people just be honest with each other? This is so stupid.”

“Didn’t you say you were a pathological liar before you decided to turn over a new leaf and start telling strangers your secrets?” Andrew flicks his fingers in the air, uncaring. “Something about trying out this thing called honesty.”

Neil glares at him. “I don’t walk around telling strangers my secrets.” 

“You do not deny having been a pathological liar, though.”

“It’s not that I was,” Neil corrects airily, “it’s just that I was good at lying. I was simply utilizing my skills.”

Andrew shushes him. “Watch this next part.”

Neil huffs, but obediently turns his attention back towards the television. He had arrived at Andrew’s apartment that morning with bags that overflowed with chocolates of various brands, including Tim Tam. 

“February 15th should be declared a holiday,” he had mused, depositing the bags in Andrew’s kitchen.

It really should, Andrew had wordlessly agreed, tearing into a packet of Kit Kats.  

When the ending theme song comes on, Neil slouches against the sofa. “I’ve never seen the whole show. I’ve watched a few episodes of the Spanish dub though, when I was in Mexico. The butler ends up with the business partner or something, right?”

“Spoiler alert.”

“You’ve seen it lots of times. There’s nothing to spoil.” 

“You come into my house, you disrespect my show, you cuddle with my cat.”

“Oh, are you annoyed? Am I bothering you?”

“Beyond the telling.”

Neil’s poker face breaks, a smile playing over his lips. “And here I thought you were unflappable.”

Andrew flips through the channels, watching Neil out of the corner of his eye. Bastard has made a home in Neil’s lap, purring merrily while he scratches her head. She even let him brush her fur earlier; at least the grooming mitt that Andrew bought is finally being put to use.

“What’s your therapist like?” Neil asks, apropos of nothing. But conversations with him are usually like that. Andrew welcomes the distraction, something to deviate him from thinking too much about the curl of his hair around an earshell, or the loose fit of his sweater, or the cupid’s bow of his lips. 

“That is confidential information.”

“I’m just asking what kind of person she is, not what you talk about during your sessions.”

“She is odd,” he decides to say. 

But the good kind of odd, he doesn’t say. She is always patient with him, and she smiles so much that she has laugh lines all over her face and around her eyes. They make her look like she is always happy, like she is very, very kind. Bee is one of the very few people in the world that Andrew can stand to be around. 

“Why the sudden interest?”

“Just wondering what sort of person she is, since you willingly go see her every week and talk to her.” 

“And here I thought you were planning to cure that attitude problem of yours.”


“Pretty sure it’s incurable. Besides, the only therapist I’d ever go see is my physical therapist.”

“That explains your myriad of unresolved psychological issues.”

“Pot, kettle, et cetera.”

Andrew turns off the television, but he doesn’t move his eyes away from the screen. “Why won’t you go see one?” he probes tonelessly.

Neil’s fingers pause, buried in Bastard’s sleek, black fur. From where he is lying beside the coffee table, Boof sneezes.

“I did, in the past. I’m going to be generous and say that it wasn’t exactly a waste of my time, but it just wasn’t for me. Different people have different ways of coping, I guess.”

“Maybe it was because you were too stubborn for the treatment to be effective.”

Neil affects a laugh. “Maybe.”

Andrew drums his fingers against the side of the remote control. Bastard’s tail flicks in his direction. When he gets to his feet, he continues to stare at the blank television screen. Their reflection is shimmery around the edges, a little out of focus. Neil is on the other end of the couch, just within reach. 

“Stay,” he tells Neil.

“For lunch?”

Andrew looks away from their blurry reflection and goes to the kitchen.

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: good shows to binge watch with another person, can i give service dogs snacks, homemade dog snacks recipe, top speed super cars, how to get rid of your emotions

*

One Saturday morning in spring finds Neil standing giddily at Andrew’s doorway, one hand behind his back and the other squeezing the head of his cane.

Andrew had given him a copy of his key about a week ago, but he seems to have some reservations about utilizing it, even though it had been his idea. He had wanted to give Andrew a key to his place but had some scruples about allowing somebody access to his home.

“Is your blood made up entirely of paranoia?” Andrew had asked, rather hypocritically.

Neil had looked at him very pointedly. “No,” he had said. “Like yours, mine is made up of paranoia and spite.”

In the end, they had exchanged keys because they are both stubborn assholes who dislike losing.

“Hey, stranger,” Neil greets, eyes crinkled at the edges. The hair clip he has on today is a forget-me-not, almost as blue and striking as his eyes. 

Andrew lets him in, watching his hidden hand with leery eyes. 

“Hey yourself,” Andrew says. “What are you up to.”

Neil’s mouth twitches; he catches his bottom lip between his teeth to curb himself from smiling.

“I have a surprise for you.”

“I hate surprises.”

“It’s nothing bad,” Neil promises. Boof is sitting by his leg, tail sweeping from side to side on the floor.

Andrew hums, skeptical. 

“Indulge me? Just this once?”

Andrew hums even louder.

“Do you trust me?” Neil asks, the glimmer in his eyes cutting through Andrew’s core like a spear through an armor.

His first thought is: I don’t, instinctive as jerking away from an open flame.

Neil is like a flame himself, incandescent and warm, burning away all the oxygen in Andrew’s lungs -- 

And Andrew is cold, fingers numb and heart frozen, and maybe swallowing a flame whole, keeping it in his ribcage -- 

Maybe it might thaw some of the iciness away.

“I do,” Andrew says. 

The air between them shifts like the words are a magic spell. 

“Okay,” Neil breathes out, blinking like he is surprised by Andrew’s answer. 

“Okay,” he repeats. “Is it alright if I ask you to close your eyes for a few seconds? You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he tacks on.

Andrew looks at Neil for a long time. “Two seconds,” he finally relents, and Neil accepts it with a nod.

When Andrew closes his eyes, he feels Neil placing something on top of his head.

“You can open them.”

Andrew opens his eyes. He reaches up, fingers tracing along the item on his head. He feels something smooth and downy, attached to something that is even smoother but sturdier. 

He knows what it is even before he goes to the bathroom to check the mirror.

He looks at himself, then at Neil, who is standing at the door with that mirthful look in his eyes. 

“There was this girl at the park - she taught me how to do it,” he says, smile barely contained. 

“You are an idiot,” Andrew tells him.

“And you look nice,” Neil says, with no hint of irony.

Andrew works his throat, a gnarl of emotions lodged inside his mouth like a fist. He turns back to the mirror, keeping his eyes on the wreath of flowers and leaves circling his head, trying to see himself the same way that Neil sees him. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: how to preserve flower crowns, can cats get sick from eating flowers, how to repair a flower crown, peach cobbler recipe, can you grow chives next to rosemary and thyme

*

Andrew is having what Bee calls a ‘bad mental health day’.

He hasn’t had one in a while, and he can’t say he misses it. The heaviness pressing in on him, weighing him down like gravity. The distance he feels from everything around him, like he is trapped in a membrane and all the sounds he hears are just shapeless echoes. 

Bastard has been curled up beside him since last night, pawing at his face and the bedsheet. All Andrew can manage to do is crack his bleary eyes open and stare emptily at her, distantly wondering if there is any food left in her bowl. He can’t even remember what day it is. 

What he remembers is that he didn’t go in to work yesterday. He isn’t sure where his phone is, if the battery has run out or if there are any missed calls and unread text messages. He can’t bring himself to care.

The sliver of gap between the curtains tells him that it’s day time now, a stripe of sunlight cleaved across his feet over the blanket. He feels like a kite without a string; adrift, untethered, lost. 

He is one gust away from completely vanishing out of earth’s atmosphere.

There are days where his tinnitus rings loud and clear in his ear like a whistle. And then there are days like this, where everything is soundless and still, suspended in a vacuum. 

Bastard nuzzles against his cheek. Her tenacity, he thinks absently, is rather admirable.

He knows he should get up. She needs to be fed, and her litter box needs to be cleaned. He knows this, but moving even his fingers feels tantamount to moving a boulder.

A few minutes, he promises himself. He needs to do it for Bastard. 

He lets his eyes fall close. 

When he opens them next, crusted and gummy, the sunlight is still a diluted splash across his blanket. Instead of the deafening stillness that pulls a bag over his head and suffocates him, he hears a knock. 

Muffled, from the other side of his door: “Andrew?”    

Neil, he thinks. It is a thought that he latches onto like an anchor, planting him to the seabed, preventing him from drifting into the ocean. 

Bastard hops off the bed, going to the door to scratch and scrabble at it. Slowly, the door snicks open, just enough to let his cat out.

If he concentrates hard enough, he can hear the familiar clack of a cane. 

Some time later - minutes, hours, he isn’t sure - there is a knock again. 

“Hey.” Neil’s voice floats through the air. “Can I come in?”

Andrew moves his lips, parched and chapped, but his throat can produce no words. 

“Andrew?” 

From where he’s lying, he glimpses a flash of blue and red. 

“Andrew.” Neil is standing at the door, unsure if he is welcomed or not. “I used the key you gave me,” he says, like he doesn’t know what else to say. He lets go of the doorknob, taking a step closer to the bed. “I fed Bastard. Do you - need anything?”   

Andrew shifts his head on the pillow. His body still feels numb, as if immersed in a sticky, heavy liquid.

“A drink,” Neil suggests. “You need to at least drink some water.”

Andrew doesn’t move this time. Neil leaves and comes back with a bottle of water. 

Andrew’s muscles heave with the strain of sitting up. He feels a hand on his spine, warm like a hearth, and he gulps when Neil guides the uncapped bottle to his cracked lips.

He half-sits against the pillow after he drinks half the bottle. Neil’s fingers skim through his fringe, brush down his cheek, gentle as a breeze.

“You don’t have a fever,” he concludes. “Do you think you can eat?”

Andrew’s tongue scrapes against the roof of his mouth. He raises a hand and signs a ‘no’.

Neil accepts this with a nod. “A shower?”

This time, Andrew moves his face in the skeleton of a headshake.

Neil’s face is unreadable in the dimness of the room. 

“Should I -” he half-raises his cane, motioning towards the door. “Do you want me to leave?”

Don’t go, Andrew thinks. Stay, stay, stay

“Stay,” he rasps out, reed-thin.

Neil’s shoulders droop as the tension leaves his body. Through the haze of his mind, Andrew finally realizes that it was eating at Neil - how unsure he was about how to help Andrew, if he was capable of it at all.  

“Of course,” Neil says. Andrew imagines that his eyes are as soft as his voice. “I’ll clean out Bastard’s litter box real quick, and then I’ll come back, okay?”

Neil does just that, and soon enough, he is gingerly lowering himself on the edge of the bed. With four fingers, Andrew taps his chin twice, telling Neil to talk.

So Neil talks, about his walk that morning, about his co-workers, about the drive home, about the dream he had last night, about the time he lived with Kevin. Like the earth welcoming the rain after a drought, Andrew lets Neil’s voice soak into him.

Neil soon runs out of things to say. 

“Do you need me to stay the night?” he asks, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. “I can look after Bastard for a while, if that helps.”

Andrew shakes his head. He refuses to be coddled like this, even if it does fill his chest with a strange, syrupy feeling. 

“Andrew,” Neil says, “is it okay if I hold your hand?”

Andrew’s hand twitches. He slides his palm over Neil’s knuckles, feels warmth spreading up all the way to his face. Neil laces their fingers together, looking down at their hands before his eyes flick up to Andrew’s.

“You know that it’s no trouble, right? I’m offering my help not just because we’re neighbors, or because I feel an obligation or anything. I want to help because -” he pauses suddenly, the jagged silence filling the room. 

Andrew hears him suck in a shaky breath. “Because I care about you.”

It feels like Andrew’s windpipe is closing up, the cells swollen and bursting open. He manages a nod, because he doesn’t know how else to stop Neil from looking at him so intently, so openly. 

Neil gives his hand a light squeeze, then lets go. Andrew curls his fingers, digs his nails into the meat of his palm to stop himself from scrambling desperately for Neil’s hand. 

“I’ll make you something. You can eat it whenever you feel like it.” Neil bites his lip. “I’ll leave you for now, but call me, or - or text me if you need anything.”

He doesn’t wait for Andrew’s reply before he makes a beeline for the door. If Andrew didn’t know any better, it almost seemed like Neil was embarrassed. 

The knowledge that Neil cares about him doesn’t come as a surprise - not exactly - but it still feels like a novelty. It is almost like watching the sunset at the beach; despite knowing that the sun will sink into the horizon and take all the light with it, the sight still steals all the air in your lungs and burns the back of your eyes with its resplendence.

It doesn’t fix everything, but -

But it’s something.

 *

Andrew’s recent Google search history: does your cat understand you when you speak to her, easy to prepare meals for bad days, automatic cat feeder, how do you become happy

*

“Good morning,” Renee says, stepping onto the balcony. Andrew is on the rattan chair, toying with an old pack of unopened cigarettes and quickly averting his eyes away from Neil. A book lays face down on his lap; Renee looks at it, then at the adjacent balcony. 

“Hello,” she says to Neil, who looks up from Bastard and nods at her in greeting. “It’s been a while since we last saw each other, hasn’t it?”

“It has.” 

“How are you?”

“Fine.”

Although Neil is rather laconic in his responses, Renee continues to smile.

“Would you like to join us for breakfast? It seems that Andrew has prepared some pancake batter.” 

Andrew gazes out the balcony, ignoring the glance she sends his way. A boy is on his knees at the courtyard, picking at the cracks with a stick like he’s searching for bugs. 

“I’m good, thank you. I have to leave for work in a couple of minutes.” Andrew hears the smile that’s infused into Neil’s voice. “Enjoy your breakfast. I know Andrew makes some mean pancakes.”

“Have a good day,” Renee says in parting. 

“And I’ll see you on Saturday morning,” Neil tells Andrew, “to start the new season of Sabrina.”

After Neil goes inside, Renee turns to Andrew, smile unfailing. “Ready to eat?”

Andrew levers himself off the chair and goes inside. He lets Renee fry the pancakes, since it’s her method of paying Andrew back in exchange for letting her stay at his place. 

“Have you changed your mind about cooking? I remember you saying that it is something you can’t be bothered with.”

There is an amused lilt to Renee’s words. Andrew doesn’t deign her with an answer, giving Bastard her breakfast and starting the coffee machine. 

Renee finishes frying the pancakes soon enough, and they settle down at the dining table to eat. 

“You didn’t smoke just now,” Renee observes. 

Andrew hasn’t smoked in weeks. After he noticed that Neil hadn’t been lighting up a cigarette out on the balcony, he asked him about it and found out that he had quit because he wants to live a healthier lifestyle and that it’s a good idea to start because cigarettes are a waste of money

How pretentious. Andrew can’t believe he has been influenced by such a foolish notion and has begun to quit smoking too. He squirts some whipped cream over his syrup-drenched pancakes. 

“Is that supposed to be a question?”  

Renee laughs lightly. “I was just wondering if you’ve decided to quit. It’d be good if you have.”

“Your approval means nothing to me.”

“I know,” she says agreeably.

After wolfing down her food, Bastard totters off into the living room. Renee watches her go as she cuts a chunk off her pancakes. “By the way, did you get her a new blanket? It’s rare to see her sleeping in her own bed, but I noticed that there’s a blanket on it when I saw her sleeping there yesterday. That’s very sweet of you, Andrew.”

Natalie Renee Walker is perhaps the only person on the planet who thinks Andrew is sweet and is bold enough to say it to his face.

He doesn’t look up from his plate, already bored with this conversation. “Neil made it for her.”

“So he’s Neil now, huh?”

“That is because it is his name.”

Renee raises an eyebrow, lips curled into a sly smile. “He used to be ‘nobody’.”

Andrew drags his fork against his plate to create a jarring, scritching sound. 

“I assume you’re spending a lot of time with him, too,” she adds, “since you’re watching TV shows and having meals together.”

Andrew slams his fork onto the table, completely uninterested in prolonging this topic. “Your point is?”

Her smile takes on a gentler shape. “Does he…?” 

Andrew’s grasp on the fork tightens involuntarily, as if he is bracing for an attack. He keeps his face absolutely still and vacant, but whatever Renee sees through those sharp eyes of hers has her closing her mouth. 

She shakes her head, and there is something about it that makes her seem so full of sorrow, that makes Andrew want to break and destroy something. 

“Never mind,” she says, gentle as rain.

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: capricorn compatibility with scorpio, how to stop thinking about someone, easy to learn hobbies and interests, buzzfeed quizzes disney, this year’s biggest conspiracy theories

*

Andrew is in Neil’s kitchen, putting away the bundle of chives he brought over from his apartment. Sedgewick, Neil calls Andrew's chives, having decided on the name after a deliberative tap to his chin. Andrew doesn't know if he likes it better than Ron, the name Neil assigned to his pot of rosemary.

Andrew is also stealing glimpses at Neil from the corner of his eyes, wondering what the stack of papers in Neil’s hands are. 

“Will you be working next Friday night?” Neil asks from the table.

Andrew closes the fridge with a thump and leans against the sink. “You know that I never plan that far ahead.”

“Uh huh. Sure. So will you or won’t you?”      

“If the Earth is still standing by that time, then yes, I will be working.”

“You couldn’t have just given a simple ‘yes’?”

“Where would the fun be in that?”

Neil picks up the sheaf of papers and taps them onto the table to square out the edges. “My friends told me to choose a place to eat out for next Friday. I was thinking we could go to Eden’s Lounge.”

From the topmost page, Andrew gleans the words ‘lease’ and ‘real estate’. The lurch in his stomach keeps him silent, Neil’s statement unheeded.

Neil goes over to him, ducking his head a little to peer into Andrew’s eyes.

“Hey, will that be okay?”

Andrew turns his face away. “Do whatever you want.”  

He can feel Neil searching his stony expression, but he won’t give in that easily.

“You look like you have something to say,” Neil finally says, because he is predictable. 

There are many things that Andrew wants to say. But he doesn’t know how to say them, how to arrange the words in coherent sentences, how to convey them without letting himself appear weak and vulnerable. The kind of veracity that he is capable of is the vitriolic kind, brutal and crude in its disclosure of the truth. He has been robbed of all his softness a long time ago, and he lacks the earnest honesty that Neil has treated him with. If he knew what was best for him, he would cut off his ties with Neil and stop deluding himself that he can keep any of this.  

Then tell him to leave, a voice in Andrew demands. 

No, another one beseeches, beg him to stay

“By the way, how did you decide to keep a cat?” Neil says, because he isn’t as predictable as Andrew thinks he is. 

Andrew looks at him, assessing his face to find a clue as to where this conversation is heading. 

“You ask a lot of stupid questions.”

“I don’t think questions about you are stupid.”

“I retract my statement, then. The questions aren’t stupid; you are.”

“I’m stupid because I want to know more about you? I don’t see the correlation, to be honest.”

“Haven’t you learned enough?”

Gingerly, Neil reaches out and pinches the zipper on Andrew’s hoodie, right between his thumb and forefinger. 

“Humor me?”

Andrew wonders when he has become this susceptible to Neil’s eyes and the flutter of his lashes. 

“My therapist suggested animal adoption,” he says, “to help moderate my depressive episodes.”

“You get a lot of those?” Neil says, because he is indubitably a dick.

“Not as much as I used to,” Andrew says, because he is evidently a fool.

Neil fidgets with the drawstring next, twisting it around his finger, teeth digging into his bottom lip. 

“Whatever it is you want to say to me, you don’t have to say it now - or ever, if you don’t want to. But I just want you to know that I’m always ready to listen.”

Andrew takes a fortifying breath through his nose. He lets Neil fiddle with his hoodie and disregards their proximity to each other, keeping his voice stainless and clinical as he says, “Are you moving out?”

The question takes Neil a little by surprise, judging from the slight widening of his eyes.

“I’m considering it,” he answers slowly, as if he is treading on thin ice. “My lease is ending soon, and there are a few listings that caught my eye. I’m planning on viewing them some time next month.”

“Finally making your suburban dream of owning a quaint home in an idyllic neighborhood come true?” Andrew asks, bordering on a sneer. He flattens his lips and clenches his hands at the slip.

“Andrew,” Neil says, a small crease between his brows, “what exactly is this about?”

Andrew’s jaw tightens. “Nothing.”

“You can’t expect me to believe that,” Neil says, a little angry now.

“I do not care if you believe it or not.”

“Really?” Neil challenges, letting go of Andrew’s hoodie. “Because it seems like you do.”

Tell him to leave

“You are leaving,” Andrew says, feeling like he is pulling out his own teeth.

“I might be, but what does that have anything to do with -” 

Abruptly, Neil stops talking, blinking at Andrew with dawning comprehension. 

Andrew’s pulse pounds in his face, alive and loud like a thunderstorm. 

“Andrew,” Neil says, softer now, “even if I do move, it doesn’t mean I’ll forget about you.”

But it will change their relationship. The reason they have any basis of a relationship in the first place is because of their proximity, because they are neighbors. Neil going away will mean that they no longer will be. 

When Andrew was young, he hoarded whatever good things he found. The candy he got during the Halloween celebration at school, the shiny quarter he found between the cracks in the sidewalk, the barely functioning fountain pen he unearthed from an abandoned sandbox, the pair of socks one of the more decent foster parents got him from the dollar store. He liked to hide them in a nook or in his pocket or under his pillow so that no one else could ever discover them and take them away from him, snatching them away to punish him like many had done before. 

When they starved him, when they hit him, when they treated him like the dirt beneath their shoes - he would hold on to these things, tuck them close to his chest, whisper reassurances that he now no longer believes in.

He feels this way about Neil sometimes.

Sometimes, he feels like he needs to squirrel Neil away to some unseen place where no one can find them and take Neil away from him. He is not used to getting good things - to keeping them, and Neil is a good thing that will probably disappear if he isn’t careful.

Whenever he sees Neil, he can’t help but wonder what it would take to make him stay. This - all of it - was supposed to be nothing. But Andrew has been careless, swayed and blinded by Neil’s brilliance, and now it is too late to turn back.

Tentatively, Neil grazes his fingers against Andrew’s knuckles; a prelude of a touch that sends a shudder down Andrew’s spine.

“Hey,” Neil says, hushed; clandestine, something that’s only meant for Andrew, “I’ll still care about you, no matter where I end up moving to.”

Andrew feels his throat working, trying to swallow whatever it is he is feeling. He leans in closer, lightly bumping his forehead against Neil’s.  

Beg him to stay.

“I believe you,” he says, louder than a whisper; an admission; a prayer.

 *

Andrew’s recent Google search history: how can you tell if somebody isn’t straight, do cats have elbows or knees, how far is considered a long distance relationship, guidelines on preparing yourself to be introduced to your crush’s friends

*

“So here we were, all ready to haul our asses over to Montana in our rented station wagon, and what did we find out?” the Girlfriend - Alexa or whatever - says.

“Neil didn’t have a license,” Seth, whom Andrew has had the misfortune of meeting one rainy night, reveals. 

“He’d been driving us all over!” the one called Matt proclaims. “Illegally!”

Neil lifts a shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “Nobody got arrested, did they? I didn’t see what the big deal was. Still don’t.”

“Of course you don’t,” Matt says with a roll of his eyes, gathering Neil into his arm in a side hug. 

“Let me just say, for the record, that I passed my test on the first try,” Neil says. 

“Still doesn’t mean you should drive your friends around without a license.”

“It’s not my fault you’re all a bunch of -”

“Okay!” the one called Dan shouts, cutting off Neil’s chance at a scathing remark. “Let’s just all agree that it was a fun trip and change the subject.”

“Smooth one, babe,” Matt says encouragingly, looping his other arm around his girlfriend and side-hugging her.

Andrew, standing at their table after Neil insisted he meet his friends, stares vacantly at the glass of iced oolong tea in front of Neil. Strangely enough, Girlfriend and Seth are sitting amicably beside each other. Andrew had been certain that they had a bitter breakup, made worse by the fact that Girlfriend hooked up with Neil afterwards.  

Maybe it’s because both of them are already halfway drunk. The volume of drinks Andrew has made tonight has been higher than normal. 

While Andrew has been mentally checked out, the conversation has steered towards a different topic that somehow still pertains to Neil and his eccentricities. 

“But it’s not as bad as the time Allison got blackout drunk and stole a bunch of driver’s licenses at a party.” Matt snaps his fingers, looking up at the ceiling. “Where was it again? I can’t remember, since she does shit like that all the time.” 

“And now she just fucks off to Neil’s place whenever she gets shitfaced,” Seth says with an ugly sneer. 

“Jealous, Seth?” Girlfriend says, tone arched. When Seth makes a vehement noise of disagreement and sulkily drinks his beer, she sniffs haughtily and inspects her nails. “Besides, I only go over to Neil’s place to make sure he's feeding himself properly.”

“No,” Neil says blandly, “you come over because you get plastered and you’ve decided it’s easier to crash at my place since it's close to where you work and makes getting up in the morning less of a bitch.”

“You still can’t cook a normal-sized portion and you still think that eating is a chore,” Girlfriend fires back.

“I’m not dead yet, am I?”

Odd, Andrew thinks. They usually seem much more intimate when Andrew sees them together. He can’t detect any semblance of warmth now as they’re sniping at each other like a couple of crabs. 

He feels like there is a missing piece to this puzzle, something that he isn’t seeing.

‘I have to get back to work,’ he tells Neil in sign language.

‘Already?’ Neil signs back, with his big, stupid eyes. 

‘I do not think my boss will be pleased if I extended my break more than I already have.’

Neil’s lips tug downwards a little, making it look like he’s pouting. He is going to kill Andrew one day, if Andrew doesn’t kill him first.

In the end, he nods. ‘I’ll come see you later, when I get more drinks.’

“Hey,” Girlfriend interjects, “what are you two talking about in secret?”

Matt shushes her. “Interrupting people’s conversation is rude, Allison.” Then he giggles, clearly drunk.

Clenching his jaw, Andrew turns away before he says or does anything stupid. 

“It was nice meeting you!” Matt calls out to him as he walks away.

“Even though you barely spoke a word,” he hears Dan muttering.

Andrew ignores them all and returns to the bar, where Wymack is temporarily filling in for him. Roland is wiping down a spill on the other end, while Wymack looks at Andrew with his forehead creased. 

“Your friends are a loud and rowdy bunch,” he comments.

“They are not my friends,” Andrew states.

Wymack crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow, nudging his chin to Andrew’s side. “Aren’t they?”

Andrew looks behind him and sees Neil approaching. Andrew slides an unimpressed stare at Wymack and shoos him away with a flick of his wrist.

Wymack snorts, shaking his head. “Whatever, kid. Just try not to break a bottle over someone’s head tonight, yeah?”

Andrew barely quells an eyeroll. That was one time. 

As Andrew takes orders from a few customers, Neil settles onto one of the stools at the far end. Andrew sees Roland cracking open a can of soda for him and flashing him a sleazy grin.

“How about I make you a drink?” Roland says with a wink. “On the house.”   

Neil slides him a glance, blank and unseeing. “I already have one.”

Roland chuckles like Neil just made a joke. “I meant a real drink.”

“No thanks.”

Throwing his palms up in the air in an easy gesture of surrender, Roland nods, his jovial expression undented. “Okay, then. Let me know if you change your mind.”

Neil continues sipping at his soda. When he notices Andrew staring, he visibly perks up, eyes crinkling at the edges. 

Andrew whips his head away and furiously scrubs the rim of a clean glass with a dishcloth. Out of the corner of his eye, he spots a man nursing a glass of rum at the end of the bar. The man sees Neil, checks his breath against his palm, slicks his dark hair back, and sidles closer.

Andrew slings the dishcloth over his shoulder and marches over to them, standing directly in front of Neil and staring impassively at the other customer.

The man stops approaching, gulps loudly, and returns to his stool. 

Quietly satisfied, Andrew turns his attention to Neil and finds himself being stared at inquisitively. 

“What was that about?”

“I did you a favor,” Andrew says. “And now you owe me.”

“A favor,” Neil repeats, voice flatter than a pita bread. “How so?” 

Andrew cradles his jaw in his hand, thinking. His mind whirs through the events he witnessed at the table with Neil’s friends like a video tape, then through the insipid reaction Neil gave when Roland openly flirted with him. 

Ironing out the sense of mortification creeping up on him, he asks, “What is the nature of your relationship with Allison?”

Neil’s eyebrow jumps up. “With Allison? She’s my friend.” He tilts his head to the side, scrutinizing Andrew. “Why do you ask?” 

Andrew feels like a gigantic fool. He shifts his gaze away, studying the sleek surface of the bar. Heat licks up the back of his neck, scalding hot. 

“Andrew?” Neil prods, annoyingly persistent. 

“Be quiet.”

“Hey, you started it. Seriously, why do you ask?”

“Can’t a man ask a simple question and not be pestered about it afterwards?”

Neil falls silent, which is never a good sign. Andrew hazards a glance at him and finds him looking at Andrew with clever eyes and a tiny curl to his lips.

“Did you think that I was dating Allison this whole time?” he asks, the muscle in his cheek twitching.

Aside from his patented apathetic stare, Andrew doesn’t respond. Despite this, Neil still smiles like he just won something. He has very white teeth.

“Where did you even get the idea?” he says through the amusement, eyebrows pinched together in confusion. 

“I am done with this conversation,” Andrew announces, horrified at being discovered and gratified at discovering that Neil is, in fact, not in a relationship.

Neil shakes his head, eyes dancing with laughter. 

“Okay, okay, just hear me out before you go back to work.” He picks at the metal tab of his soda can, looking at Andrew through his mop of bangs. “I don’t really date people,” he says. “I don’t swing, and I’ve never been interested in anybody before.”

A peculiar type of pain stabs Andrew’s chest, but he waits for the rest of Neil’s explanation. 

Neil gives Andrew a long, inscrutable look. 

“That is, until I met -” He is cut off by Matt magically appearing and greeting out a loud, “Hey!”

“Oh,” Neil says, “Matt. Hey.”

“I was on the way to the restroom and came here to see what you were up to. So -” Matt drops into the stool next to Neil - “what are you up to?”

“Nothing much.” Neil throws Andrew a furtive glance. “We were just talking.”

Matt blinks hard, looking between Andrew and Neil. Andrew is almost thankful for his state of inebriety. “‘Just talking’?” he echoes. Then he shrugs, grinning. “Okay. Let me ‘just talk’ with Andrew too. Do you, by any chance, like cars?”

Andrew locks his sigh behind his teeth and returns to work. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: how to be immune to feelings of embarrassment, weather tomorrow, auto guide new cars, why do some bugs have so many legs, books to read this summer 

*

The elevator is broken.

Andrew lingers by the mailboxes after clearing out a bunch of junk mails from his box, wondering if he wants to go through the trouble of climbing five floors to his apartment. He could always go back to his car and drive around aimlessly for a few hours until the elevator is fixed. He could even crash at Wymack’s place if he wanted to, but he hasn’t really done that since he graduated college. 

The notice tacked on the elevator doors assures the tenants that it will be fixed by the end of the day. He hedges his bets and assumes that it will take longer than that.

He has torn a few of the advertisement fliers into jagged stripes and chucked them onto the lobby floor before the urge to take a shower and get some sleep trumps over the unwillingness to hike up five flights of stairs. 

Some exercise won’t kill him. Probably.

He has made it up the first flight when his ear pricks up; the stairwell reverberates with the familiar clack of a cane, accompanied by the lighter tread of paws. He peeks over the railing and finds Neil going up the steps at a cautious but determined pace. 

Of course.

Andrew doubles his speed, snagging the hem of Neil’s sweatshirt as he reaches the step that Neil is on. 

“Hey,” Neil pants out, visibly trying to control his breathing. A bead of sweat rolls down his temple, trapping Andrew’s attention as it drips off his jaw. 

“What do you think you’re doing,” Andrew asks. It’s rhetorical.

“Well -” Neil tosses his sweaty bangs out of his eyes with a flick of his head - “I’m trying to get to my apartment.”

This man will be the cause of Andrew’s demise. He expels a long, inaudible sigh, wipes his clammy palms against his trousers, and stares at Neil directly in the eyes.  

“I will carry you,” he says. “Yes or no?”

It surprises Neil to a point of reticence, a miracle in itself. Andrew’s palms begin to sweat again as he waits for Neil’s answer.

“Yes,” Neil finally says, with a deliberate, wary nod.

Andrew gives a sharp nod in return, rolling his jaw. 

Neil passes Boof his walking stick before Andrew touches his back to support him, fingers pressed against his wrinkled shirt. Andrew’s hand tingles, skin buzzing like an electric current. 

“Put your arm around my neck,” he instructs.

Mutely, Neil nods. Andrew scoops him up, a hand on his back and the other under his knees.

He’s lighter than he looks. It is easy to forget sometimes, that Neil is breakable. His personality and scars make it seem as if he is invincible, that no power in the world can completely eliminate his spirit and existence. It is almost odd to think about then, how he is made of the same things as Andrew is - flesh and blood and bones. 

Andrew focuses on the steps, focuses on methodically moving his legs, focuses on the beaming fluorescent lights above them. 

He can feel Neil’s gaze on the side of his face, steady and pensive, burning him from the inside. The back of his shirt is damp with sweat.

Andrew’s lungs feel as if they have been incinerated by the time they arrive on the fifth floor. 

“You can let me down now,” Neil says after they exit the fire escape stairwell.

Andrew continues striding towards Neil’s apartment as if he hadn’t heard anything. Out of his periphery, he sees Neil sucking on his bottom lip. His fingers clench around Andrew’s black t-shirt, then gradually loosen. 

Andrew only sets Neil back on his feet once they’re outside his door. He gets his cane back from Boof, but doesn’t let go of Andrew’s shirt. 

“Well,” he says, staring at his shoes, “thank you for transporting me up a few floors.”

Andrew accepts this with a nod, looking at the sunflower hair clip nestled against Neil’s temple, right above his ear. 

“Do you want to come in and have breakfast together?” he asks, eyes flickering up to Andrew’s face. 

“I have to feed Bastard,” Andrew says.

“Right. Of course. My bad.” Neil uncurls his fingers from Andrew’s t-shirt. “Maybe next time, then.”

Andrew catches his hand before he can fully let go. Looking at their linked hands, Andrew strokes his wide thumb across the ridges of Neil’s scarred knuckles. 

He meets Neil’s eyes, takes a slow, deep inhale, and says, “You look like you have something to say.”

Having his words thrown back at him coaxes a huff of laughter out of Neil. 

Andrew’s throat fights for air, his heart somersaulting. He tries to remember if he has ever seen or heard Neil give a genuine laugh before, and decides that no, he hasn’t. 

He would remember it if he had; that small hitch of breath, the silvery sound coming out of the soft shape of his mouth, the scrunch of his bright blue eyes - Andrew would have never forgotten such a thing. 

“I do, actually.” Neil tightens his grip on Andrew’s hand. His eyes are as clear and true as a summer sky. “What do you say about moving in with me?” 

Andrew goes absolutely still. 

“I found this really great place not too far from here. It’s in a good neighborhood, and it’s a one-storey house with three bedrooms, so there’s plenty of space.” 

Neil pauses for a beat, lower lip caught between his teeth. 

“And it has this huge backyard, but I’m not good at gardening, as you very well know. I might need someone to live with me so I’d have someone to take care of the plants I buy, especially Brunhilde and Buckminster. I also don’t think Boof can live without those snacks you make for him.” 

Neil smiles; a quiet, disarming thing. 

“And I need someone to make me brunch on Saturdays, and to pay half the mortgage, of course.”

Andrew presses his lips together to stop them from quivering. The next intake of breath he takes rattles on its way to his lungs. 

“Andrew,” Neil says softly, as if he is afraid, “will you stay with me?”

Andrew closes his eyes, biting back a scoff. 

I will stay for as long as you want me to, he remembers thinking.

He drops his face, pressing his forehead against Neil’s shoulder. Neil tenses, then relaxes. 

He thinks of Neil and all the aspects that make him - unapologetically broken and bent, a sense of perspicacity in his eyes like the edge of a knife, the silver light of a full moon spilling over his scars. 

He thinks of I like talking to you and I’m glad you're alive and I care about you, of flower hair clips and hand-knitted blankets and snowflakes sprinkled across a canvas of red hair like galaxy motes.

He thinks of the impossibility of Neil’s existence in his life and how one word could allow him to keep Neil right there beside him. 

“Yes,” he says, whispered into the cotton of Neil’s sweater. 

He hears the hitch in Neil’s breath, feels the turn of Neil’s face so his cheek rests on top of Andrew’s head. 

Feeling braver than he has ever felt in his life, Andrew wraps his arm around Neil’s waist and twists his fingers at the back of Neil’s sweater. 

He keeps his eyes closed, and he breathes.

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: what you have to know before you buy and own a house, moving companies that don’t suck your wallet dry, marie kondo method, how to decorate your house on a budget, features that make your house more accessible

*

Andrew’s new housemate has loud friends.

They had helped move the furniture, but Andrew had kicked them all out after they had finished carrying all the boxes inside the house.

His housemate had watched with a small smile blooming at the corner of his lips like a flower bud in nascent spring. It is even more eye-catching than the peony-shaped hair clip nestled near his temple, right above his ear.

“Shall we finish unpacking?”

Andrew stares at Neil for a little while longer just because he can, then nods and gets back to the stack of boxes on the kitchen floor. Boof and Bastard are snoozing on the patio, curled around each other like two apostrophes.

When Andrew opens the flaps of the first box, he stops. After establishing that yes, those are a set of pristine, delicate, fine china, he rounds in on Neil.

“You have a china set,” he says, factual.

“Yeah.” Neil places Gertrudis, Sedgewick, and Ron on the windowsill before picking up his cane to shuffle next to Andrew. “Why?”

“Why, he asks.”

Neil peers into the box and shrugs. “I rarely use them.”

“Why,” Andrew parrots.

“Because,” Neil replies, “they’re so fragile. And I have all these other sturdier stuff. I don’t see why I need to substitute them for some dishware that can break so easily.”

Andrew is living with a tasteless barbarian. A pragmatic one, granted, but Andrew is still going to throw out some of the uglier mugs and bowls now that he knows they have better, fancier dishware.

They call it a day after Bastard wakes up and makes a mess of Neil’s yarn collection. While Andrew cleans that up, Neil makes them some tea. Andrew carries the Bananas in Pajamas mugs out to the patio, while Neil settles himself on the steps, Boof taking up residence beside him with his head in his lap. Brunhilde and Buckminster have been positioned near the sliding doors, looking perfectly at home there.      

Something crashes in the living room. Andrew assumes Bastard has knocked over the ashtray that neither of them have any use for.

“If you have ever wondered,” he says blandly, “that is why I call her Bastard.”

Neil closes the distance between them, leaning against Andrew’s side. “Don’t pretend that you’re not proud of her for being a beautiful little shit.” 

He rests his head on Andrew’s shoulder, looking out at their unadorned garden. He hums quietly as he absent-mindedly scratches Boof’s head. “I think you should plant some marigolds.” 

Andrew grunts against the rim of his mug, considering. “What about the tomatoes you wanted?”

Neil pats him on the arm, twice. “You’ll figure it out.”

“Leaving all the hard work to me,” Andrew muses. “You are truly a menace.”

Neil straightens his back, creating a small pocket of distance between them so he can look at Andrew’s face. 

“You know,” he starts, a devious gleam in his eyes, “it’s funny how we’re doing things backwards.” His eyes flicker down to Andrew’s mouth, then back up to his eyes. “We’ve moved in together even though we’ve never even kissed yet.” 

Andrew nearly spills a whole mug of hot tea over his lap. 

“I mean, we don’t have to, if you don’t want to.” Neil folds his hand over Andrew’s, his fingers familiar and warm. “But know that my lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.”

Andrew places his mug to the side and squeezes Neil’s hand, moving closer until their noses are brushing. “Stop quoting Shakespeare.”

Neil’s eyes are soft, his smile softer. “But you like it when I do.”

Andrew doesn’t waste his breath on a rebuttal. He skims his thumb over Neil’s lips, calculating the number of times he has imagined kissing them. 

“Yes?” he asks.

“Yes,” Neil answers.

Andrew inhales like he is about to plunge into a pool of cold water, and leans in.

Out of nowhere, Bastard clambers onto his shoulders, throwing him off kilter. She purrs as if she had done nothing wrong, rubbing enthusiastically against his cheek.

Neil blinks. Then he laughs, open-mouthed and bright. 

Something in Andrew trembles and solidifies, all at once. 

He could get used to living here, to having someone to live with. 

*

Andrew’s recent Google search history: catnip plants for cats, yard sale near me, how to ask your boss if you can change your work schedule, romeo and juliet ticket prices, how to plant marigolds, how to build a home