"Are you here for the Valentine’s special?”
Neil raised a brow. He wasn’t even standing close enough to the person in front of him, so he didn’t know why the café worker assumed that if two men stood five feet apart they were together and here for—Neil glanced at the flyer beside the register that said the Valentine’s special was a weeklong event where a different meal was on sale each day of the week as long as two were ordered.
Neil didn’t immediately say no because he didn’t care. He found it interesting that his “valentine” remained silent, as well, but not interesting enough to take a step forward and engage. Neil was close enough he could feel the man’s body heat, and he remembered looking at the man briefly when he walked in—short, blond, black armbands, wide shoulders—before Neil had returned to figuring out his order.
“Who would like to pay?” the cashier continued when both Neil and the other man stayed silent for too long. She looked uncomfortable and for some reason was not backing down from her mistake.
When the man in front of Neil didn’t move to acknowledge the mishap, Neil sighed softly and dropped some money on the counter. The man tilted his head, and Neil thought he felt a glare, but he didn’t turn to face his valentine.
“What’s the name on the order?” the cashier asked.
“It’ll be right out.”
Neil nodded and turned to find a table. He sat in one by the window and bit back a smile at the cashier’s expression when she noticed the other man sat at a different one.
When she called for Neil, he walked to the counter and pivoted to deposit the sandwich for his newly found love, who had at last looked up and met Neil’s eyes with hazel ones of his own. His expression was bored and didn’t change at all when Neil placed the sandwich in front of him.
Tapping two fingers to his temple, Neil saluted the man with a small smile and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day,” before turning and leaving the café.
“Hey, guys, date night tonight! If you show this flyer when you pay, you only have to pay for one person instead of two.”
Neil paused and took the flyer thrust at him in front of the student center. It boasted a fun Spring Break deal where anyone with the flyer could basically take a free plus-one bowling with them. He looked around to see who he was mistakenly dating this time and something akin to pure delight flooded through him for two seconds when he realized it was the short, bored man from last month.
He looked just as unfazed as before, and Neil couldn’t quite tamper his smile. His valentine-bowling-partner didn’t even stop walking, and Neil didn’t rush to keep up.
Neil called to him, “Is that any way to treat your boyfriend?”
The guy didn’t stop walking but did turn around. He mimicked Neil’s salute before turning around and leaving him behind.
Neil laughed, dropping the flyer.
“Hey, man, couples signing up together this week get one twenty dollar gift card to the coffee shop down the street and a discounted rate for the first three months.”
Neil’s head snapped up from looking at the gym membership form on the counter. He could not fathom why this school had so many activities that encouraged couples doing things together. He turned to see who his significant other was this time—and then grinned at the hazel eyes glaring at him.
Neil held up his hands in placation, still smiling, and then tilted his head toward the receptionist, raising a brow.
His valentine-bowling-partner-gym-buddy stared for a considering moment before sighing so soft only Neil could hear. In silence, they filled out their forms—Neil finally learned the name of his love, Andrew Minyard—and when the receptionist slid the gift card across the counter, Andrew pocketed it and turned to the front door without a word.
“Don’t you want to work out?” Neil asked, mocking and mean.
“Not anymore,” Andrew said, not looking back.
Neil was still grinning while he accepted the tour of the gym.
“You’re so funny, Neil.”
The girl laughed. Neil knew her name was Beth and he knew she was in his Stats class, but he didn’t know why she followed him to the library and he didn’t know why she talked to him the entire way.
“Do you usually study here?” she asked.
“Where do you study normally?”
Neil gestured vaguely with his hand, taking the stairs to the second floor where all the study tables were.
“So, here?” Beth asked, bemused. Neil didn’t reply. Why was she still following him?
“Don’t worry, Neil, I’m not gonna pounce you,” Beth said once they made it to the second floor. “I just wanna get to know you better.” He looked around for a vacant table very far away from Beth.
Beth laughed, though she didn’t sound as amused this time. “You’re just so quiet. And everyone is curious about the scars—”
Neil saw a familiar blonde head sitting at a table by the window. Andrew didn’t have any work in front of him; he was just staring blankly out the window, and Neil made a beeline to his table. Andrew looked over at his approach but didn’t say anything, and then Beth was beside Neil’s shoulder, and he didn’t look up at her, and neither did Andrew.
“Oh,” Beth said. “Is this your friend?”
Neil started taking out his work. “No,” he answered.
“Oh,” Beth said again. “I see. Right. Sorry. Um. See you…around. Neil. And Neil’s…um. Boyfriend?”
Neil and Andrew didn’t look up at Beth’s hesitant question, and eventually, Beth left with an awkward goodbye.
Andrew returned to looking out the window and Neil began working on his homework. An hour went by before Neil stopped hunching over his work to take a break. Andrew hadn’t moved or spoken at all the entire hour. Neil leaned back in his chair and stretched, and then he dropped an elbow on the table, propped his chin in his palm, and stared at his valentine-bowling-partner-gym-buddy-study-friend.
As far as people went, Neil didn’t really care about any of them. He went to school and got a gym membership and adopted a cat because after his father’s demise at the hands of the FBI, Neil found he didn’t have much to live for when he wasn’t running. He made himself busy so he wouldn’t have to think about how not busy he was anymore. But other people didn’t really factor into that life. He couldn’t even say he really cared about Andrew, but it was kind of fun to have a break in his routine, and it helped that Andrew seemed to care about Neil as much as Neil cared about him.
After fifteen minutes of Neil studying the moles on Andrew’s face and the muscles of his neck, the man in question turned to Neil and intoned, “Don’t you have to study?”
Neil, still holding his face up, grinned. “Not anymore.”
Andrew’s apathy turned into a scowl, and then he stood up and left Neil at the table.
It was one hundred and five degrees outside, and Neil didn’t want to suffer heat stroke more than he didn’t want to suffer his scars bared to the world. It was Friday and he was bored and even though he had already ran that morning, Neil was feeling so restless he decided to run again that afternoon, which almost would have been a mistake with the heat and his forgotten water bottle and the fact that apparently there was a faux Mardi Gras thing going on so when he ran by the student center one of the pep people got him and somehow Neil walked away from the altercation covered in beads and a new pair of sunglasses and a flyer promoting tonight’s parade and subsequent party.
But when Neil went into the campus’s local coffee shop, Neil spotted his valentine-bowling-partner-gym-buddy-study-friend and didn’t hate the day as much as he had when it started.
Andrew—and most of the other patrons—looked at Neil when he entered the shop. He must have been a sight bursting in the way he did: drenched in sweat, short running shorts, white tank-top, shin high socks, ghastly scars snaking up both arms from wrist to elbow and across his collarbone and all over his face, an orange bandana pushing his hair out of his eyes, ten beaded necklaces strewn about his neck, and large black sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose.
Neil made a beeline for Andrew. He noticed that there were actually two Andrews at the table, but even if Neil didn’t have the black armbands to tip him off, the blank expression on one and the vaguely annoyed expression on the other gave the twins away.
Neil stopped beside their table and proceeded to take off half his necklaces. He dropped them in front of Andrew unceremoniously, and then took off his sunglasses and added them to the pile of beads. Then Neil turned to the bathroom so he could splash cold water on his face and wash off the sweat drying to his skin.
When he left the bathroom to go to the counter and order himself water, he saw that Andrew had put on the beads and sunglasses and was staring out the front window, and his twin was trying very hard to ignore him while at the same time asking what the fuck, Andrew. Neil snorted, and then turned to order. He was so thirsty.
The next time Neil saw Andrew at the coffee shop, Andrew was on his phone and sipping from a large, sugary thing. Neil ordered his own drink—something less sugary but still with whip cream on top—and sat at the same table. Andrew didn’t look up and Neil pulled out his own phone, perching his elbow across the back of his chair, legs sprawled in front of him, and sipping from his drink.
After ten minutes of companionable silence, the bell above the door jingled and someone exclaimed “Andrew!” Neil glanced up to see a Hispanic man with dark hair and dark eyes approach the table, though he faltered for a minute when he noticed Neil. Neil turned his gaze to Andrew and saw his valentine-bowling-partner-gym-buddy-study-friend-coffee-sharer hadn’t looked up at the new comer’s entrance.
Neil turned back to his phone.
“Um, and who’s your friend?” the man asked as soon as he stood beside them.
Andrew, still looking at his phone, answered, “My boyfriend.”
Neil, his drink down to its last dregs, took a hard pull from his straw to make an obnoxious sucking sound with the last of his drink. As soon as there was nothing left, Neil, not looking up from his phone, turned his head and kissed the air in Andrew’s direction.
“I’m sorry, he’s fucking who?” Andrew’s friend sounded so shook and aghast and surprised that Neil couldn’t fight his smirk.
“He’s fucking me,” Neil supplied, and then he stood up from the table and threw his drink away. He left without a goodbye to the sound of bumbling expletives from Andrew’s friend, a loud exclamation of “Oh my god, Andrew, what!?” and Neil smiled about it all the way home.
“Are you sure you don’t want a spotter? I never see you work out your arms.”
“I’m fine.” And why would this guy know Neil’s gym routine? Neil felt highly uncomfortable and straightened from his squat, moving to put away his free weights. He didn’t want to leave so early, had only be at the gym for barely an hour, but almost as soon as Neil was off the treadmill, a random dude started following him, pestering him about his workout regime in a manner that didn’t feel professional or welcoming, and Neil just wanted the guy to leave him alone.
Neil started toward the showers and the guy continued to follow, and Neil was tuning him out but his rage was building and he was two seconds away from snapping.
“Look—” he started when the guy actually grabbed Neil’s forearm to stop him, and then suddenly Andrew was beside Neil’s shoulder (Neil had seen him at the bench press when he first walked in and nodded a greeting that wasn’t returned), arms folded and blank expression, but the random dude immediately dropped Neil’s arm.
“Can I help you?” the guy asked a little nervously when Andrew continued to stare him down, and Neil figured that if anyone that short but with shoulders that wide stared someone down, it might be a little intimidating.
“Okay, whatever,” the guy mumbled, and then turned to leave. Neil and Andrew watched him until he was on his own machine and decidedly not looking at anyone, and then they ventured into the showers together. Despite the one hot day where Neil showed off his scars, he still felt uncomfortable with his bare chest exposed, so he didn’t change out with Andrew and instead stripped his clothes in his own stall after he grabbed his towel.
They reunited again in the locker room. Neil thought Andrew would have left since he had heard the blonde’s shower turn off five minutes ago, but when Neil walked into the locker room toweling dry his hair, he found Andrew propped up against his locker and watching his entrance.
“A lot of people flirt with you,” Andrew commented, seemingly offhandedly, but everything about Andrew seemed that way.
Had that been flirting? Neil hadn’t noticed. He thought it interesting Andrew had. Neil dropped the towel at his feet, a slow smiling stretching across his face. “Good thing I’m taken, then,” he said, just because.
Andrew pursed his lips distastefully, stared at Neil for a minute more, and then left.
Neil was debating which cat food to get when three people joined his aisle. Neil had looked up at the movement, and then did a double-take when he saw it was Andrew, his twin, and his friend. They each wore three different expressions when they recognized Neil: the twin, annoyed; the friend, delighted; Andrew, nothing.
“Oh my Jesus fucking Christ,” the twin said first.
The friend’s delight, impossibly, grew. “Oh my god, Aaron, you’ve seen him, too?”
Aaron scowled and didn’t answer. The friend (who introduced himself as Nicky) started asking Neil questions—what’s his name, what’s he doing, does he have a cat, how did he meet Andrew, are they really boyfriends—but Neil didn’t answer any of them and just looked at Andrew and Andrew, surprisingly, stared back.
After a moment, Neil started to smile, and Andrew’s apathy turned to borderline annoyance, and Andrew moved to grab a bag of cat food. He yanked one off the shelf without even looking and then turned away without a word, leaving Nicky and Aaron to scrabble after him, no questions answered, not even Neil’s name.
“Wait, Andrew!” Neil called, grinning wide, though he didn’t know where Andrew disappeared to or if he’d hear him. “It’s two for one!”
Neil hadn’t slept well last night. He’d had a terrible dream and a horrible test to study for and a wretched time waking up, and by the time his class was over he just wanted to lie down and not wake up again, but he still had one more class to go in two hours.
He remembered seeing gigantic beanbag chairs in the student center on campus, so he stumbled his way through the doors and upon entering the lounge found two free beanbag chairs and a couch with only one valentine-bowling-partner-gym-buddy-study-friend-coffee-sharer-catfood-fiend inhabitant.
Neil sat on the couch, letting out a little huff that sounded like a groan of exhaustion. Andrew was sitting on one side of the couch, and though Neil should have sat on the other side, he instead sat in the middle but far enough away to not be touching Andrew at all.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, his body already halfway asleep, but Andrew jolted him awake by asking, “Can I help you?”
Neil smiled, eyes still closed. “No.”
A pause, and then, “Stop that.”
His smile grew. “Stop what?”
“What’s on your face?”
Neil didn’t know if he was talking about his smile or his scars or if Neil really did have something on his face, but he didn’t really care. He said, “What’s on your face?”
“Aren’t you here to sleep?”
“Stop talking to me, then.”
Andrew stopped talking, and Neil thought he would have left, but Neil was asleep two seconds later, and when he woke up an hour later, Andrew had moved to a beanbag chair and he was staring at Neil. Neil stared back until it was time to go to class.
“Couples event at Eden’s Twilight tonight!”
A flyer was forced into Neil’s hand. How many couple functions could one school have? And what was with this colossal waste of paper? But Neil supposed it was finals week, so he wouldn’t have to deal with any more activities forced on him until after the summer, though the thought made him kind of sad.
Instead of throwing away the flyer like he usually did, Neil shoved it in his pocket and looked around, hoping to find his valentine-bowling-partner-gym-buddy-study-friend-coffee-sharer-catfood-fiend-nap-watcher, but Neil was surrounded by faces he didn’t recognize, people he didn’t know. He swallowed his disappointment and ventured to the library to while away his afternoon even though he didn’t have classes anymore for the day.
Neil went upstairs and found the table he had shared with Andrew and sat down. He stared out the window for an hour, thinking about nothing, annoyed and sad at himself, when someone moved to stand behind the chair across from Neil but didn’t sit down.
When he looked up, he saw Andrew, but Neil didn’t have enough in him to smile today. They looked at each other, Andrew blank, Neil blank, until Andrew withdrew a wadded piece of paper from his pocket and tossed it at Neil’s face.
Confused, Neil picked it up and unraveled it, only to find the same flyer Neil had in his own pocket. He looked up, but Andrew wasn’t looking at him anymore, instead staring out the window. Neil thought Andrew’s cheeks looked a little pink, and finally Neil smiled.
“So how many free drinks do you think we can get?” he asked, standing up, and Andrew started walking away without him. Neil laughed, moving to follow. “Andrew, wait! I think we get a free drink if we wear matching outfits!”