“Oh,” Neil says, blinking at the class list that Wymack just emailed to him. His glasses make a bid for freedom down the bridge of his nose and he has to push them up to stop them from sliding down completely and smashing on the floor. Again. His thumb leaves a greasy smear on the lens, obscuring part of the list as he scrolls down and back up a few times, frowning.
“What’s up, best bud?” Matt calls over. “Something wrong with your schedule? Do you want me to go talk to Wymack about it?”
“No,” Neil says, absently wiping at the smudge on his glasses and making it worse. “It’s just… never mind. I thought…”
He scans the list one last time, but the name is definitely missing.
“Did you have breakfast this morning, dude?” Matt asks.
“Uh,” Neil says. He can’t remember.
“Here, I got you a bagel. Catch.”
Neil’s hands fly up automatically in front of his face, but the wrapper still manages to hit him square in the chest, leaving a smear of cream cheese on his sweater. Now that he looks at it, he also notices a tea stain on the sleeve. He unwraps the bagel – poppyseed with lemon cream cheese and papaya slices, because Matt once asked Neil about his favourite bagel topping and Neil blanked and said the first things he could think of. Matt must have stopped by the juice bar at the edge of campus this morning just to get him this. He feels oddly touched and muffles his embarrassment by taking a huge bite.
“You really shouldn’t eat at your desk,” Kevin huffs, shooting him a dirty look. “I had to clean crumbs out of your keyboard last week.”
“Why the fuck do you clean my keyboard?” Neil mutters around a mouthful of bagel, offended. He glances at the keyboard on his desk. It looks perfectly alright to him – fine, the F key sometimes goes on strike, and there’s a scorch mark on the side and some unidentified stain at the top, but other than that Kevin really needs to mind his own fucking business.
“Kevin,” Matt sings, “it’s almost time for class. Go perform your daily ritual of obsessively reviewing your notes. In silence. And let my boy eat, he needs his nutrients so he can grow big and strong.”
“I stopped growing at fifteen,” Neil says, resigned.
“You might just be a late bloomer,” Matt soothes.
“At twenty-six? Unlikely,” Kevin snorts from where he’s frantically digging through a collection of meticulous, hand-written notes. Neil could take pity on him and hand him the neat stack of flashcards he put on the bookshelf earlier, but also it’s kind of funny to watch.
“How’s Gauss doing?” Matt asks Neil, making a paper airplane out of his class list and flicking it over to Neil’s desk. It lands next to the small, shrivelled cactus that by some unspoken agreement has been named Carl Friedrich Gauss, after the mathematician. Neil’s pretty sure Gauss the cactus has been dead for at least three months, but he doesn’t have the heart to tell Matt.
“Good,” he says, “I think he’s perked up a bit since you dumped your coffee in his pot.”
“Told you he’d get around. Kev, will you quit hyperventilating? Your notes are over there.”
Kevin lunges for his flashcards and clutches them protectively to his chest. Neil crumples up the wrapping of his bagel and aims at the overflowing recycling bin in the corner. It bounces off and comes to rest under the filing cabinet.
Maybe there was a mistake, Neil thinks absently, gathering up his things. In all likeliness, administration just forgot to put Andrew Minyard on the class list. Maybe he signed up late, or it didn’t go through, or the list isn’t up-to-date. Neil’s going to walk into the classroom and Andrew will be there, as usual, tipping his chair back on its legs until Neil’s afraid he’ll keel over, looking bored and smelling faintly of cigarette smoke.
He has to be. Neil has grown too used to him last semester. If he switched over to a different class…
Frowning, Neil shakes his head. He doesn’t usually get so attached to his students. There’s some cold tea left in his mug and he drains it with a grimace before letting himself be ushered out of the office by Kevin. He promises Matt to meet him for a post-mortem lunch after class so they can compare stories and flips Kevin off when he asks him for the third time if he has his key card.
Then he makes his way to his classroom, the printed-out class list weighing too light in his pocket without the comforting weight of Andrew’s name on it.
“Alright, spill,” Matt says once they’ve settled down at a table with their food. “You’re moping about something. Teaching go that badly? Did you get the first and third semesters confused again?”
“I’m not moping,” Neil protests, spearing a grape from his fruit salad on his fork. “Class was just exhausting and I have yet to do a single thing for my thesis this week.”
“Big mood,” Matt sighs. “Seriously though, you look like you haven’t slept in days. You okay?”
“Fine,” Neil mutters, rubbing at his eyes. They feel itchy and dry from staying up late two nights in a row, cobbling together lesson plans he should have prepared over the summer. He adjusted a lot of his initial ideas after talking to Andrew last semester and finding out what he was struggling with through a careful combination of subtle probing, observation and guesswork. Andrew wasn’t shy about letting him know when he was being a shit teacher, but maths wasn’t Andrew’s strongest suit despite his good memory and Neil realised that his school education in the subject had several big, gaping holes. Since Andrew wasn’t the only student who had trouble keeping up, Neil was offering a couple of remedial classes this semester where they’d review the basics that he’d assumed they were all familiar with. To his surprise, almost everyone signed up for them.
Everyone except the person he’d designed them for, that is.
“One of my students from last year didn’t return,” Neil confides in Matt, pushing his potatoes around on his plate.
“Oh,” Matt says. “You mean he didn’t pass his exams?”
“No, he did,” Neil sighs. “That’s the thing. He improved a lot. I was sure he’d stay on.”
“Bummer,” Matt says sympathetically. “Maybe he dropped out for other reasons? It happens all the time, you know. It’s nothing personal, I’m sure you did what you could. You can’t save everyone, Neil.”
“Um, right,” Neil stammers, awkwardly cramming potatoes into his mouth so he won’t say anything else. He’s not bothered by a student dropping out – as Matt said, it happens all the time, and Neil couldn’t care less as long as there are enough students left so he gets paid to teach the class.
He’s bothered by this particular student dropping out, though, and finds himself wondering if he can sweet-talk one of the admins into giving him Andrew’s e-mail address so he can contact him.
The last time he saw Andrew was after the exam. Andrew flicked him a two-fingered salute and left without a word, his turquoise-dyed hair forming a sunlit cloud around his head as he walked off.
“Do you need a ride later?”
Matt’s voice breaks him out of his thoughts. Neil blinks and takes a sip of his juice to wash down the starchy mess of potatoes in his mouth.
“A ride where? You know I can just walk home.”
Matt frowns. “Don’t you have your driving test today?”
“Oh, yeah. That’d be great, thanks.”
“Nervous?” Matt asks sympathetically. “I know the last three times didn’t go so well, but-”
“Four,” Neil interjects sheepishly. “I failed four times.”
Matt flaps his hand around and shrugs. “Semantics. Anyway, I know today will be different. We practised loads last week, I know you’ve got this. I believe in you, buddy.”
“Thanks,” Neil says hollowly, draining his juice. “We’d better get back, do some thesis work before Kevin rips both of our heads off for slacking.”
They don’t do any thesis work.
It’s raining heavily when they walk back to the office. Matt holds his jacket over both of them, but Neil still gets wet. He bundles up in the fleecy blanket that Matt keeps around for emergencies and watches cat videos on his laptop, drinking stale tea while the rain lashes the windows and Kevin mutters obscenities at BibTeX. Matt munches chocolate chip cookies and plays Minesweeper with his screen turned away so Kevin can’t see.
Neil’s fifth driving test goes about as well as the other four.
He gets out of the car afterward and can’t remember anything about it at all. It’s still pouring and Neil numbly shakes the examiner’s hand and jogs off to the little Asian grocery store at the edge of campus, buys a three-pack of kimchi flavoured ramen and a few bottles of iced green tea and goes home.
His phone is dead, as usual, so he plugs it in and takes a shower in his cramped bathroom, hitting his head twice on the sloped ceiling. His kettle labours to boil enough water for his ramen, so he puts the bowl in the microwave instead and hunkers down on the floor by his charger to check his notifications. One missed call from his uncle, a message from Matt asking how his test went, some e-mails from students that aren’t Andrew and a newsletter he never signed up for. He sighs and puts the phone away.
The next day is cold and wet and mildewy, like laundry forgotten in the washing machine. Neil crawls out of bed after hitting snooze for the third time and has just enough time to get dressed, brush his teeth and gulp down some tea leftover from last night. His first class of the morning passes in a fog. Matt is waiting for him outside with steaming cups of coffee and greasy bacon sandwiches, beaming like he’s the sun rising at last. Several girls giggle and sigh as they pass him. One of the boys stage-whispers, “Look, Hatford’s boyfriend is here,” and some of the others laugh, but Neil can’t be bothered to care.
“You’re a life-saver,” he mutters, taking a coffee from Matt and hitching his bag higher on his shoulder. The strap is only hanging on by a thread – he really needs to fix that soon. “Lunch on me, okay? I must owe you a fortune by now.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Matt grins. “Come on, Kevin’s teaching all morning, which means we have the office to ourselves.”
“I really need to work on my thesis chapter,” Neil groans.
“Me too,” Matt sighs.
They end up having a sword fight with Kevin’s rulers – “To get our motivation up, Neil, it’s a fact that you should always combine work and pleasure” – and then Dan and Thea drop by and they all commiserate over the fact that they aren’t getting any work done. Neil half-heartedly prepares his next lesson after they’ve left, and then it’s time for lunch.
“How’s your word count?” is the first thing out of Kevin’s mouth when they get back to the office, drowsy and slow because they gave in to the temptation to get burgers and cheese fries.
“Great,” Matt says, slumping into his seat. “Don’t tell me yours, Kev, please, I implore you.”
Kevin frowns. “I’m at twenty-eight thousand seven hundred eight. I was supposed to only be at twenty-five at this point, though. I think I’m going to have to rewrite the whole chapter, maybe focus more on-”
Neil tunes him out and buries his head in his arms, intending to just close his eyes for a bit. He jerks awake some twenty minutes later and looks around blearily. Kevin is typing furiously on his laptop, the noise an angry complement to the dull droning of the rain, and Matt is scowling at his computer while spinning a pen in his fingers.
“Anyone want tea?” Neil yawns, stretching. Matt gives him a thumbs-up with his free hand, but Kevin has earphones in and doesn’t seem to have heard him. Neil grabs all three of their mugs anyway and makes his way to the kitchen at the end of the hallway, rubbing at his eyes under the glasses.
The kitchen has the lingering smell of old plastic, cheap dish soap and food re-heated in the microwave. It’s dark enough that he has to turn on the lights and he stares at the outline of his reflection in the window while the water boils. His sweater is rumpled and his hair is sticking up on one side of his head, it’s a small blessing that he doesn’t have any more classes to teach today.
Carefully balancing the three mugs of hot tea in his hands, he shuffles back to the office and nearly spills some in shock when he finds the familiar figure of Andrew Minyard loitering outside.
He looks much the same as last semester. His turquoise hair has faded to a minty blond, but he’s wearing the same oversized black jacket with the roses embroidered on the sleeves, the same heavy boots, and the same blank expression on his face. He sweeps the same disinterested gaze over Neil and tips him the same salute he did last time they saw each other.
“Hi,” Neil says stupidly, still standing in the hallway with his three mugs. “I missed you in class yesterday.”
Andrew pops an eyebrow and Neil can feel his ears growing hot.
“I’m dropping out,” Andrew drawls with a faint shrug, tucking his hands into his pockets. He looks around the hallway even though there’s nothing to catch his eyes and shrugs again.
“What- no- but- you were doing so well,” Neil splutters, heart twinging oddly in his chest like someone is plucking at it with tweezers.
Andrew shrugs a third time and takes his hands out of his pockets again.
“Why?” Neil asks.
“Can’t really afford it,” Andrew says blandly, like he doesn’t care at all.
“There’s scholarships for that. I could help you apply, if you want.”
Andrew just snorts and looks at a discoloration on the wall.
“My brother got accepted into med school,” he says, very slowly. “No reason for me to stick around now that he’s gone.”
“Well, that’s a shame,” Neil tells him, a bit more loudly than is probably appropriate. “You’re one of the brightest people I ever taught.”
Andrew looks at him, something like amusement swimming in his eyes, or maybe drowning.
“Alright,” Neil concedes, “maths was never your strongest suit, but my point still stands. You should stay.”
“Maths,” Andrew echoes, bemused.
“You said maths. Plural. You always do that.”
“So? There’s many different kinds of mathematics. It should be plural,” Neil grumbles, incensed. He’s had this argument with Kevin many times.
“Your accent is…” Andrew thinks for a moment, tapping a finger against his mouth. “Hard to place.”
“I was raised by my uncle in the UK,” Neil admits, deflating. “We moved to the States when I was six. Never stayed in one place for long.”
“Go out with me,” Andrew says. It takes a while for the words to make sense in Neil’s brain. The tea is going cold in his hands and his fingers are starting to hurt, curled awkwardly around three handles.
His heart speeds up, pumping more blood into his burning ears.
“For a TA, you are remarkably slow,” Andrew says.
“Go out where?” Neil asks. “The cafeteria?”
“Anywhere,” Andrew sighs, dragging his gaze around the uninspiring hallway again as if to say, anywhere but here.
“It’s raining,” Neil points out dumbly.
“So? Are you made of sugar?” Andrew scoffs. Then he licks his lips, slowly, demonstratively, as if he’s imagining tasting him. Neil wonders if there’s steam coming out of his ears yet.
“I can’t,” Neil says, gesturing at the office door with his mugs. “I have to work on my thesis.”
Andrew rolls his eyes. “Not now, idiot. This weekend. Whenever. Go out with me.”
“I,” Neil says.
“Say yes!” Matt yells through the closed door. Neil jolts, having forgotten how thin the walls are in this building, and sloshes tea over the side of the mugs.
“Is it such a difficult question?” Andrew muses. “I won’t write a tearful diary entry about it if you say no, you know. But you aren’t my tutor and I’m not your student anymore.”
Neil clears his throat and shuffles his feet.
“Yes?” he says. It comes out rather squeaky.
“Are you asking me?” Andrew huffs, both of his eyebrows coming up this time. He tilts his head and looks a bit like a tropical bird with his greenish hair and his golden eyes.
“No,” Neil says quickly. “I mean yes.”
“Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Neil repeats, “yes, I’ll go out with you.”
Andrew’s eyes widen for a second and Neil wonders if he’s surprised him. Then the blank expression is back, slightly fox-eared at the edges with something like hunger.
“Number?” he asks.
“Nine,” Neil says reflexively.
“Nine,” Andrew echoes flatly. “Your phone number is nine.”
Neil’s entire face is burning now. It feels like the sun rash he had the first time he had to teach a class.
“No, it’s my lucky number,” he mumbles sheepishly. “I thought you were asking me to pick a random number.”
“I am attracted to an idiot,” Andrew laments. “And here I was, thinking I couldn’t sink any lower. Life sure is full of surprises.”
The heat on his face is still there, but Neil finds himself grinning, a tiny bit of smugness splashing out of the corner of his mouth.
“You’re attracted to me? That’s cute.”
“You mean deplorable,” Andrew counters. “Here.”
He steps close. Neil blinks rapidly and fights the urge to stumble backwards, but all Andrew does is tug down the pen that Neil stuck behind his ear at some point for safe-keeping. He uncaps it and points to where Neil scribbled some quick equations on his left hand earlier. Without thinking, Neil holds out his hand, and Andrew adds his phone number underneath a faded doodle of Gauss the cactus.
“Text me,” Andrew tells him. Then he salutes him with the pen and walks off.
“Nelson Anthony Hector Julian Hatford-Boyd,” Matt says the moment Neil nudges the door closed behind him with his butt. He relieves him of the mugs, drops them on a desk and puts both hands on Neil’s shoulders.
“That really isn’t my name,” Neil protests.
“Shh,” Matt says, “shh, you’re my son and I gave you this name, so it’s yours. Now listen. I need you to tell me everything about the boy who just propositioned you in the hallway, and then I need to call my wife and plan your date outfit – no offence, but you only have two pairs of jeans and half of them are jorts.”
“What he needs to do is work on his thesis,” Kevin huffs, snatching one of the mugs of lukewarm tea and downing half of it in one go. “He has a meeting with his supervisor coming up, you do realise that, don’t you? Neil, I don’t think you should be going on any dates until after the meeting, you need to focus on your work now. This is a crucial phase of your thesis-”
“I need to take a piss,” Neil announces loudly, stepping away from them. He ducks back out into the hallway, ignoring their calls, and finds the nearest stairwell. It has stopped raining at last and the campus green looks like a wet brown cat from where he stands, grumpily blinking at the receding clouds. Neil takes off his glasses and leans his forehead against the cool window, closing his eyes for a moment.
When he opens them again, the phone number on his hand is still there. He takes out his phone and copies it into his contacts, then opens a new conversation.
it’s still yes
this is neil btw
They text back and forth a few times. Okay, a lot of times. Somehow Andrew is really easy to talk to, and he’s funny, and Neil finds himself carrying a charger around with him just so he doesn’t miss any of his messages. He learns that his class was the only one Andrew even bothered to attend regularly, and that Andrew works at a craft store off campus, where he spends most of his time judging the customers’ fashion sense and arranging things by colour. He also learns that Andrew has two guinea pigs that his cousin left behind when he moved to Germany, and which Andrew is taking reluctant care of. He calls them Asshole and Jerk, complains a lot about how dumb and useless they are, and sometimes sends Neil videos of them squeaking and jumping around in their cage. (“It’s called popcorning,” Andrew informs him, and Neil has to smile every time he thinks about it.)
Neil, in turn, keeps a running commentary on how many times a day Kevin runs to the library, who is ahead in the daily caffeine ingestion race, how Gauss the cactus is doing, and the top three dumbest questions he’s received from students that day.
every time i see a pair of jeggings i want to gouge my eyes out
idk they look comfy
if u wear jeggings on friday i will stab you with a knitting needle
“Who are you texting, Neilio?” Matt asks, pushing himself over to Neil’s desk on his swivel chair and trying to catch a glimpse of his phone. “Is it your mysterious admirer who dropped out of class just so he could hit on you without the iffy ethical implications of him being your student?”
“That’s not why he dropped out,” Neil says and tucks his phone back in his pocket.
“Aha, so it is him you keep talking to instead of working on your thesis,” Matt grins. “How are you feeling about your first date? Nervous? Excited? Giddy? Don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal to have butterflies in your stomach.”
Neil’s stomach feels more like it’s crawling with fire ants, but that might just be all the kimchi ramen he’s eaten this week. He grabs his mug and sighs when he realises he finished his tea without noticing. Again.
“It’s just a date,” he mumbles, never mind that Matt is right and it is more or less Neil’s first date. Ever. Unless you count the time one of Thea’s friends asked Neil if he wanted to go to the cinema and Neil brought Kevin along because he didn’t realise it was supposed to be a date, which Neil is trying his best to just erase from his memory altogether.
Matt shoots him a pitying look and pats his shoulder.
“Dan and I are taking you shopping later,” he tells him, not even a question.
“I’ve already done my grocery shopping.”
“For clothes, Neil. For your date.”
Neil thinks of Andrew complaining about jeggings and his mouth twitches into a smile.
“Okay, fine,” he says, “I guess I could use your help.”
Clothes shopping is hard. They’re in the fifth store and Neil’s head is swimming. He’s barely able to tell colours apart anymore and just takes whatever Matt and Dan hand him, once again squirming out of his hoodie in the overheated confines of a changing room, the fabric making his hair stand on end.
At last, Matt and Dan agree on an outfit – dark blue skinny jeans so tight they show off his quads and a soft black bomber jacket lined with orange silk – and Neil treats them to Subways after, as a thank-you and because he’s starving. He tries not to think too much about all the money he just spent on that jacket. It is a nice jacket, and he feels comfortable in it, and Matt says he looks like Dan Smith from Bastille in the World Gone Mad video which Neil assumes is good.
“Good enough to eat,” Matt confirms, winking as he steals some of Dan’s sour cream and onion chips. Dan slaps his hand.
“Those jeans really make your ass pop,” she adds and grins when Neil looks flustered.
“Don’t put out on the first date though,” Matt says. “Wait until at least the second date.”
“Bullshit,” Dan laughs. “Neil can put out whenever the fuck he wants to. Just be safe. Do you have condoms? We could buy you some nice ones.”
“I have some,” Neil mumbles, ears burning. He’s pretty sure the single condom in his wallet has long since expired; it’s not like he was ever really planning to use it. There’s always a few packets in the college starter kits that the student council hands out at the beginning of the semester, but he missed them this year.
“Well then, just make sure to shower thoroughly and you’re all set,” Dan beams.
“Should he shave?” Matt muses, chin in hand. “I kinda like the scruffy look. And you can say what you like, but beard burn is totally sexy.”
Dan scrunches up her nose but concedes: “I guess the scruff can stay. No offense Neil, but you look like you just turned eighteen when you shave.”
“I know,” Neil sighs. At least it never really grows much past the scruffy stage, so he doesn’t have to worry too much about it.
He wonders if Andrew is going to expect anything to happen on Friday that might involve beard burn. He hasn’t even considered the possibility until Matt and Dan brought it up. Andrew said he was attracted to Neil, which for most people usually means some degree of wanting to have sex. Right?
His phone buzzes in his pocket as Matt and Dan squabble over the last of the chips. Neil slides it out and checks it under the table, a soft jolt of adrenaline fizzling through him at the sight of Andrew’s name.
what r u up to
at the mall w friends. you?
bored at work
tell me a joke
what kind of joke?
a funny one duh
why are frogs so happy?
because they eat what bugs them!
i hate you
On Friday, Andrew picks Neil up in a limousine.
Neil’s jaw drops a little. He doesn’t know what kind of car he expected Andrew to have, but – it has to be borrowed. There’s no way Andrew does his grocery shopping in this car.
“Huh,” Andrew says, eyes lingering on Neil’s legs. “Who dressed you?”
“Matt and Dan,” Neil admits, sliding into the passenger seat. “Thought I’d save the jeggings for the second date. Keep the suspense going.”
“And you ruined it,” Andrew says and snaps his fingers. He steps on the gas and Neil briefly wonders if he always drives this fast or if he’s nervous as well. The radio is turned up loud enough to drown out any attempts at conversation, and Neil surreptitiously wipes his sweaty palms on his jeans and looks at the streets whipping past on the wind, the overripe sun weighing down a gauzy blue sky, Andrew’s sharp profile on the blade of the last light.
Andrew’s face is clean-shaven. Neil quickly drops his gaze.
They stop outside a diner and Andrew turns off the car. The sudden silence sends a shiver racing down Neil’s spine. Andrew fishes a packet of cigarettes out of the glove compartment, lights one and waves the packet at him.
Neil shakes his head, feeling too queasy for it. Andrew shrugs and gets out of the car, flicks his just-lit cigarette to the ground and grinds it out under his heel. He’s wearing boots that look far too warm for this weather and some ripped black jeans, a candy-coloured array of bruises showing through the holes on his knees. His t-shirt sports the NASA logo with a flower print where the logo is normally blue and red.
“I like your shirt,” Neil says, following him to the entrance of the diner.
“I hate yours,” Andrew informs him. Neil looks down at his plain white tee and frowns.
“Why, what’s wrong with it?” he asks, but Andrew doesn’t answer.
They get settled at a sticky blue formica table towards the back, a spray of plastic flowers sheltered by laminated menus. Most of what’s on there is ice-cream and fast food and Neil sighs internally. There goes his resolution to try and eat healthier.
Andrew casually orders the Salted Caramel Deluxe Sundae with extra fudge sauce and a chocolate milkshake. Neil’s stomach turns at the mere thought. He gets an avocado burger with sweet potato fries and a pineapple juice, which makes Andrew choke on his water and look at him like he’s the one who just ordered enough calories to last him an entire week.
“What?” Neil says. “I like juice.”
“Right,” Andrew mutters, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “You’re just getting pineapple juice because you like juice. No reason.”
“Uh, yeah. Why else would I get it?”
Andrew stares and opens his mouth, then snaps it closed again; breathes in and holds it for a second before saying, very fast and sarcastic: “I don’t know, maybe because we’re on a date and you wanna make sure your spunk tastes nice in case I give you a blowjob later?”
Now it’s Neil’s turn to stare. For a moment they’re both frozen, then something tickles at the back of Neil’s throat like he’s accidentally breathed in dust and he starts laughing. Just like that, all of his nervousness is gone. He hiccups a bit and smothers another bout of laughter in his hand.
“Is that actually true?” he asks. “I thought that was like, an urban myth.”
Andrew shrugs. His features are smooth and calm except for a quick upwards twitch of his eyebrows.
“I’ve never tested it,” he says. He looks like he wants to say more – maybe he wants to suggest they test it together – but he pushes his tongue against his front teeth instead and licks the sticky remnants of the words away.
“Me neither,” Neil confesses. “I’ve never… anything.”
Andrew nods and shrugs and looks away. The waitress returns with their drinks and Neil cups his hands around his juice and doesn’t know whether to feel awkward about drinking it now, but then Andrew seamlessly picks up a conversation they’d started on the phone this morning and everything’s easy again. Their food arrives soon after and Neil watches in awe as Andrew demolishes his giant sundae, finishes his milkshake and steals half of Neil’s sweet potato fries.
“Do you work out a lot?” Neil blurts out after the last fry has disappeared into Andrew’s mouth. Andrew shrugs. Maybe all that energy goes into shrugging so much, Neil thinks. Andrew’s shoulders are broad enough to sit on and his biceps strain against the sleeves of his shirt. Watching him lift must be a religious experience.
Neil orders another pineapple juice, just in case, and the look Andrew gives him makes warmth coil in his gut.
They don’t end up testing the pineapple hypothesis, and Neil is relieved despite the spark of curiosity he’s been nursing like a drink all night. They do, however, drive around in the limo after dinner, with the last sliver of sunlight licking at the horizon in the distance and the street lamps dousing everything in an otherworldly glow. Neil flicks through the radio stations and settles on one that is playing Bastille, hunching down into his jacket with a smile. When they finally stop outside a 7-Eleven Andrew’s hair is tugged sideways from the wind and Neil’s face feels numb from the cold, but Neil forgets about all of that as Andrew leans in and curls his hand around Neil’s jaw, eyes on his lips.
“Okay?” he murmurs, looking hungrier than when he had his sundae.
“Yeah,” Neil says. His voice is croaky and his pulse is so rapid Andrew must feel it squirming in his neck where he’s brushing his fingers over the exposed skin, stroking absently. As if reading his thoughts, Andrew gently digs his fingertip into his pulse point like an anchor. Then he leans in the rest of the way and kisses him, and Neil shivers so violently he nearly dislodges Andrew’s hand from his neck.
“Are you sure,” Andrew withdraws to murmur pointedly.
“Yes,” Neil gasps, chasing after his mouth. Andrew hums, amused, and Neil accidentally catches his lower lip with his teeth, but before he can pull back and apologise Andrew has shifted his hand to the back of Neil’s head and tugged him in, kissing back with a single-minded focus that makes Neil’s mind unravel a little at the seams. Andrew’s breath his hot and sharp on his face. His body radiates warmth, but his hand is cold where it’s cupped around Neil’s head. Neil gropes around until he finds Andrew’s other hand, then forgets what he was going to do with it once he had it and instead just holds it between his, playing with Andrew’s fingers. He brushes over the rabbit-soft skin at the base between his fingers and swallows the minuscule noise that escapes Andrew’s mouth with delight.
Kissing, it turns out, is weird and untidy and really, really nice.
There’s spit and there’s teeth that don’t always fit together, there’s sitting frozen in the same position for so long he gets a crick in his neck. There’s wet, squelchy sounds and heavy breaths and vibrations when one of them hums into the kiss. Neil’s glasses get smudged. Andrew pulls back to say something and Neil whines and follows until he’s half sitting in Andrew’s lap. Neil needs to breathe but Andrew does that thing with his tongue, and breathing is overrated, anyway. Their hands keep wandering, clutching fabric, tangling into knots, shaking and tracing and touching and hovering, a litany of unasked questions. After a while, there’s sore lips and cheeks stinging from the heat and uncontrollable shivers in the cold wind despite the fact that Neil is sweating and feeling like he’s glowing from the inside out. Andrew’s hair looks even more dishevelled when they finally break apart, and Neil soothes his fingers through the mess, pulling it into ever more ridiculous shapes. It feels like he has some sort of product in it, which really just makes it worse.
“I liked that,” Neil murmurs, still petting Andrew’s hair. His voice is shaking, too. “Can we do it again some time?”
“Tomorrow?” Andrew asks. He sounds – hungry still.
“Alright, yes,” Neil says quickly, “tomorrow.”
They get out of the car. Neil cleans his glasses on his shirt and goes inside the store to buy… something. Andrew stays behind for a smoke, and Neil notices that it takes him several tries to light his cigarette. He doesn’t think it’s because of the wind and smiles to himself as he enters the store.
“Oh my god,” Matt says. “Oh my god. Snogging. That’s so cute, Neil.”
Neil is too happy about all the snogging he’s done this weekend to care that Matt is mocking his choice of words. Snogging, kissing, making out – it doesn’t matter, he and Andrew did all of it, a lot. Neil spent most of Saturday hanging out in the craft store where Andrew works and distracting him in-between customers. Afterward they drove around aimlessly again, this time in Andrew’s actual car, turning off the highway when they were far enough outside town and parking in a barren field to lie on the sun-warmed hood and watch the stars come out while holding hands. At some point Andrew picked up Neil’s hand and read his palm, expertly rattling off facts and interpretations and closing with, “But it’s all bullshit, of course.” Neil’s stomach still jolts happily at the memory of Andrew’s calloused fingertips stroking over the lines on his palm.
On Sunday it rained and Neil had to go to the campus library, so Andrew tagged along. They ended up studying each other’s mouths more than any book, until a librarian kicked them out.
“Have you prepared for your progress meeting at all?” Kevin asks waspishly.
“Nope,” Neil says. “I guess I’ll just wing it.”
Kevin makes an offended noise.
“Hey, Kevin,” Matt says. “What’s the most educated dick?”
“Is it Kevin,” Neil mutters under his breath.
Matt spreads his hands and waggles his fingers. “A Ph-D! Get it?”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Kevin snaps. “Neil, I think your work ethic-”
“Calm down, I went to the library yesterday,” Neil says hastily, neglecting to mention that he didn’t actually get any work done there. It does the trick though and Kevin deflates a little.
“Oh. Well, that’s good. We can go together after lunch and get some more research in. They should really consider keeping it open longer hours on Sunday, that’s when everyone has time to really knuckle down, after all.”
“Never change, Kevione Daynger,” Matt says. “Neil, snogmaster extraordinaire, we have class in ten, chop chop.”
Neil is scatter-brained and distracted all throughout teaching. He covers up how flustered he is at getting his minus and plus signs confused again by making his students work on practice equations while he pretends to grade homework assignments. At the end of the lesson, one of the gigglier girls comes up to his desk and asks a few random questions about the material that Neil is sure they covered in the last class, before finally blurting out: “I was just wondering, Neil, if you, you know. Had a girlfriend?”
“No,” he says slowly, fiddling with his key card.
“Oh, good,” the girl breathes. “I mean, I think you’re really cute, and-”
“I’m seeing someone, though,” Neil hastily adds, horrified at her proposition. Some part of his brain whispers that this isn’t that much different from Andrew approaching him the other week, but all he feels about the situation right now is hot, awkward discomfort. He can’t even remember the girl’s name.
She rallies quickly, at least. Small blessings.
“Ooh, well. She’s a lucky girl! See you next week, Neil!”
She’s out of the classroom before Neil can even think of what to reply. Neil pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and takes a deep breath. Christ. He is really looking forward to being done with his thesis and the teaching and college.
He picks up smoothies on his way back to the office – mango and pineapple for himself, watermelon and berries for Matt, a green one for Kevin and a fourth one with blueberries for Andrew. He drops Matt’s and Kevin’s off at the office, packs up his laptop and whichever book is nearest and walks across campus in the drizzle until he reaches the craft store.
Andrew is behind the counter, talking to an elderly woman. Neil gets closer and sees that he’s showing her how to knit something, the needles flashing expertly in his hands. Whatever he’s making is large, knobbly and made of incredibly ugly vomit-coloured yarn. It vaguely resembles a human digestive tract.
The woman laughs and takes a step to the side. Andrew looks up, sees Neil standing there with his smoothies and freezes mid-knit. Neil wishes he had a camera to preserve the moment for posterity.
“Hello, how may I help you?” the woman says kindly, glancing between Neil and Andrew. Her nametag says Betsy Dobson underneath several different bee pins.
“Oh, uh,” Neil says. “I’m just here to see Andrew. Is that okay?”
Betsy Dobson smiles and smooths a hand down her skirt.
“Of course. Andrew, you can finish telling me about your project later, I’ll be in my office.”
Andrew looks dismayed and quickly shoves the woollen monstrosity under the counter and out of sight.
“Hey,” Neil says, offering him the blueberry smoothie.
“I thought you had class,” Andrew says thinly.
“It finished half an hour ago,” Neil explains. “I brought my laptop. Do you mind if I work here for a bit? I just can’t focus with Kevin and Matt around.”
Andrew shrugs his customary shrug and takes a sip of his smoothie. He reaches out and slips two pencils out from behind Neil’s ears, brushing his hair back in the process.
“So you knit,” Neil smiles, quickly turning his face to press a little kiss into the hollow of Andrew’s palm before he pulls it away.
“So I knit,” Andrew echoes, resigned.
“What is it?” Neil asks curiously, leaning forward and peering over the counter. Andrew just stuffs the thing further out of sight.
“Nothing,” he mutters. “Just… it’s nothing. An ugly, useless nothing.”
“Sounds artistic,” Neil grins.
Neil puts his chin in his hand and hums, “So, is that a knitting needle in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
“I said shut up,” Andrew growls, pushing his face away.
Muffled laughter drifts out from one of the nearby aisles of sewing supplies. Andrew glowers at it, and out spill two girls in a rainbow riot of colours and knitwear. Their nametags say Renee Walker and Allison with a squiggly line that Neil can’t decipher. Renee’s hair is dyed white, but when she cards her fingers through it, several different dye colours are revealed underneath. Allison is dressed exclusively in shades of pink, but somehow makes it look extremely tasteful.
“Weren’t you doing inventory in the back?” Andrew asks them dryly.
“Not anymore,” Allison smirks. “So this is the-”
“Neil, hello,” Renee smiles sweetly, shaking his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. We’re Andrew’s friends.”
“Co-workers,” Andrew grumbles.
“We have a knitting club,” Renee continues, blithely ignoring him. “You can join, if you want.”
“Oh,” Neil says. “I don’t actually know how to knit.”
“That’s fine,” Renee says. “I taught Allison and Andrew, too. It’s fun and easy, you’ll pick it up in no time.”
Allison is watching her fondly and drapes an arm around her shoulder.
“Renee is the knitting queen,” she tells Neil. “Andrew sucks at it-”
“I do not,” Andrew protests, neck flushing. “I just choose not to… not suck.”
“Right,” Allison laughs. She turns to Neil and stage-whispers: “It’s a political statement, apparently.”
“I’m taking a break,” Andrew announces loudly. He grabs the rest of his smoothie and marches out from behind the counter and towards the back of the store. Neil looks after him until he stops, looks over his shoulder at him and jerks his head in a signal to follow.
There’s a small staff kitchen hidden behind a postcard display. Andrew stands on his tiptoes and rummages around in a cupboard, coming up with a squashed box of tea and some expired granola cookies.
“Here,” he says, “you can work in here until I’m done.”
“Thank you,” Neil says. The drizzle outside has thickened to rain and the noise on the window is soothing. There’s a small fridge to one side, covered in silly magnets, inspirational quotes and postcards, and a noticeboard half obscured by photos of the staff. Neil spots Andrew in several of them.
Andrew’s neck is still flushed pink when Neil steps close to him. Neil lifts a hand to smooth his fingertips over the pretty colour and Andrew shivers and catches his wrist, but doesn’t push it away.
“You said you were taking a break,” Neil murmurs, still thumbing at the soft skin on Andrew’s neck.
“Yes,” Andrew says.
“Does that mean you can,” Neil hums, “stay here a bit?”
“Just a bit,” Andrew tells him, already crowding him up against the small expanse of wall between the window and the table.
Neil goes willingly.