There’s a man on the roof.
Rain lashes his face as Neil steps out through the door then stops, confused instincts telling him to leave and surge forward at the same time. The man is standing on the ledge, arms outstretched; he looks soaked to the bone and, more importantly, poised on the edge of a jump.
“Wait!” Neil calls out, taking two more steps, his feet splashing through the puddles that have collected on the concrete. It’s the splash more than his meagre voice that gets the man’s attention, and he turns around with a frown, lowering his arms.
Neil freezes, caught in the man’s gaze like a deer in headlights. His eyes are obscured by rain-smudged glasses and Neil wonders for a moment if he stepped up to the ledge by accident.
He clears his throat.
“Don’t,” he tries again, hefting his voice above the howl of the wind, “Don’t jump.”
The man looks at him. He seems calmer than someone about to commit suicide ought to be, Neil thinks. Or maybe that’s exactly how calm someone about to commit suicide would be.
“Give me one good reason,” he says, still looking at Neil over his shoulder, still dripping wet.
Neil’s mouth dries up. The truth is, he’s still scraping together reasons to live for himself. It has taken almost thirty years of bare-bones survival for him to get to this point—a small apartment, a boring job, a handful of friends, a three-legged cat—but some days Neil still wakes up pinned to the bed by how empty it all feels.
The man scoffs, then steps down away from the ledge almost jauntily and crosses the distance between them. He’s about the same height as Neil, with rain-darkened curls sluicing over his forehead, a scarf loose around his neck. His dark wool coat looks expensive, his shoes impractical. He takes off his glasses and wipes at them ineffectually with the bottom of his sweater, and Neil shakes off his momentary stupor.
“You’re not supposed to do that, you know,” he says, feeling deliciously hypocritical, because he a) isn’t even wearing his own glasses when he should, and b) never cleans them properly either.
The man stops and peers at him.
“You have an awful lot of ideas about what I shouldn’t do,” he says, gaze rolling down Neil’s body like a single raindrop. “Yet I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Neil. And you’re the one who was about to jump off the roof.”
“Was I?” The man says. “I don’t recall. Andrew.”
It takes a moment for Neil to understand that Andrew is his name. He nods and tries not to fidget with his sleeves, feeling increasingly soppy, until Andrew walks around him and to the door.
He turns back at the last moment, waves his hand around in an approximation of a salute, and says, “Don’t jump, or whatever.”
Neil doesn’t think about the incident again until Allison bullies him into coming along to dinner with Renee and Renee’s unknown best friend to balance out the group. Neil is contemplating how many breadsticks he can stuff into his jacket pocket before anyone notices when Renee gets up to wave her friend over, who looks quite different with dry clothes, styled hair and clean glasses, yet cannot be anyone other than Neil’s rooftop acquaintance.
“Andrew,” he blurts out before Renee can introduce him, earning himself a curious look from Allison.
“Neil,” Andrew says almost-pleasantly, pulling out the chair opposite him with a screech. “Look alive.”
“You two know each other?” Renee asks.
“No,” Neil says, at the same time as Andrew says, “Yes.”
Allison glances between the two of them, then picks up her glass of champagne and goes to take a sip, decides against it at the last moment and twirls it in her fingers instead, pursing her lips.
“This is interesting,” she says. “Neil never knows anyone.”
“I know everyone,” Neil scoffs. “I just don’t remember unimportant people’s names.”
“And yet you remembered Andrew’s,” Allison points out, but then the waiter comes to take their orders, and Neil is once again confronted with the conundrum of the needlessly complicated menu. The waiter graciously offers to return and Neil spends another few minutes scowling at the options while Allison and Renee make small-talk, until Andrew taps the menu to get his attention.
Neil looks up, and Andrew taps somewhere further down on the menu without breaking eye contact, like he knows exactly where everything is located, even upside-down. The gesture is so casual, so confident, and then the waiter is back and Neil opens his mouth and ends up ordering whatever Andrew chose for him, just to get it over with.
More small-talk, which Andrew engages with only when asked direct questions, in clipped, to-the-point replies, and Neil dips in and out of like a fish whenever he remembers to. The girls share a starter, Andrew sips at a glass of some ghastly pink blood orange and raspberry aperitif that looks garish against his dark clothes, Neil jiggles his knee under the table and fiddles with the rosemary twigs in the centrepiece until Allison slaps his hand away. He looks mournfully at the candle on the other side of the table and catches Andrew watching him with gin-bright eyes. His gaze feels like the clear burn of alcohol at the back of Neil’s throat, and he looks away again.
The food arrives. Seafood for Andrew and Renee, a steak for Allison that looks rare enough to still be breathing, and Neil is surprised to discover creamy, cheesy pasta flecked with black pepper and nothing else for himself.
He didn’t know fancy food could be this simple. It didn’t used to be, back in his father’s house. He swirls the spaghetti on his fork and takes a bite, tasting parmesan and pepper and something unexpectedly tangy and potent, like alcohol except not.
Allison steals a forkful and sighs and says, “Mmm, truffle,” and Neil tries to look like he knew that but probably fails. He doesn’t like mushrooms, usually, and yet. He takes another bite and licks cheese from his upper lip and thinks he might order this again, if he can remember what it’s called.
He takes a sip of his sparkling water and catches Andrew’s eyes again. His expression is passive, almost bored, but there’s something smug about the line of his shoulders. It looks—good, on him.
After dinner, Neil takes out his battered pack of cigarettes that he doesn’t smoke anymore and excuses himself to go outside and be alone for five minutes. It usually works, too, but tonight he’s only there for a few lungfuls of air before he’s joined by Andrew. He, too, is holding a pack of cigarettes, but he shoots Neil a calculating look like he’s trying to solve the equation of his existence in this place in this moment, and doesn’t light up.
“You don’t really smoke,” he says finally, leaning against the wall.
“And you’re not really suicidal,” Neil replies on a whim.
“I never said I was,” Andrew says, sounding amused.
“Technically I never said I smoke either.”
“A lie in action rather than words is still a lie,” Andrew says. “The real question is, why.”
“I just,” Neil says, looking out across the wet street, “needed some air.”
They’re quiet for a moment, cars rushing by, the muted noises of the restaurant spilling out onto the sidewalk.
“Why were you on the roof?” Neil asks.
Andrew rolls his head around to look at him, the faintest ghost of a dimple in his cheek even though he’s not actually smiling.
“I just needed some air,” he says, before pushing off from the wall and going back inside.
Down the street from Neil’s apartment is a small second-hand bookstore called Neverland. It’s cramped and dusty and chaotic, opening hours move around randomly, the owner always looks like they’d rather not have any customers, and the interior smells faintly like stale coffee, but it’s the only place Neil feels like he can truly disappear in. There are two back exits and several easily accessible windows, the front room of the shop opens up into a maze of cluttered hallways and nonsensical back rooms and haphazardly placed shelves, and there’s three sets of stairs all leading up to what he thinks is the same gallery but could easily be two different galleries that just look vaguely the same. He hasn’t ruled out that the bookstore houses a few portals to other dimensions yet, either.
It is probably coincidence that two days after Neil mentions Neverland to Renee in passing, Andrew suddenly shows up there. Neil stumbles across him in the gay romance section on the gallery, leafing through a book with a seductively posed naked male torso on the cover. He’s wearing a striped black and white scarf that trails down almost to the ground, his nose is pink from the cold, and if Neil couldn’t see the way his eyes are fixed on the page he’d believe that he was utterly absorbed in his book.
“Didn’t picture you as a bodice ripper kind of guy,” Neil jokes, stepping up next to him and surveying the shelf. He trails his finger over the spine of a book near the top and says: “If it’s erotica you’re interested in, I recommend this series. The author seems to have at least a vague understanding of human anatomy.”
“Is that so?” Andrew hums, sliding his choice neatly back into its slot and leaning against the shelf. Dust swirls in the air and Neil is weirdly aware of how narrow the space around them is, how dim the light up here, how secluded they are even though he can still hear the sounds of people moving around downstairs. “Tell me, Neil,” Andrew says, low and interested, “are you an avid reader?”
“No,” Neil admits. “I like to just kind of, touch them.”
He realises how that sounds and tries to will his ears not to flare hot and red. His attention span is too short-lived to sit down and read a book from start to finish, but he likes to wander between the shelves, see what catches his eye. Sometimes he’ll skim one before putting it back. He’s had his nose in a lot of the books in this section, out of sheer curiosity, but they don’t really do anything for him.
He tries to explain this to Andrew. Andrew still has that keen look in his eyes, and they end up with Neil sideways in one of the dusty leather armchairs and Andrew sitting cross-legged on the floor, talking about random things—from mystery novels to poisons to Neil’s distrust of soup with chunky bits, from the weather (snowy; grey but with a luminous, festive quality to it) to their mutual disinterest in Christmas to whether hot chocolate should be made with milk or water.
Andrew buys the first book in the series Neil recommended— “How can I not, after that glowing review?”—and Neil feels weirdly warm and squirmy inside. They part ways at the door, snowflakes dusting Andrew’s hair and stripy scarf, and Neil shoves his hands in his pockets and goes home a little lighter.
They run into each other a few more times at the bookstore, and every time Andrew leaves with a new book recommended by Neil and some fresh morsels of information about him that Neil didn’t even mean to share. One dreary December afternoon Andrew smuggles a thermos of hot chocolate in with him and sits with his back to the clunky old radiator, chocolate moustache on his upper lip, talking about the perfect crime. Neil has his legs tangled in with Andrew’s, a book in one hand and an apple in the other; blinks against the fuzzy light drizzling down on them from the bare light bulb on the ceiling and opens his mouth and.
About his father, about his mother; about surviving.
Andrew listens, with that bored-yet-intent expression of his, and drinks his hot chocolate, and offers Neil the last refill when Neil is done.
Neil takes the cup and drinks. It’s less sweet than he expected; thick, rich dark chocolate infused with orange and spices, and Neil drains the whole cup.
“What are you doing tomorrow,” Andrew asks him after Neil has more or less recovered from his unplanned word vomit.
“Nothing,” Neil says. “I was going to stop by the farmer’s market, say hello to Matt.”
“Matt Boyd,” Andrew guesses.
“He has a stall there on Sundays,” Neil says. “Sells his pumpkins and stuff.”
Andrew nods, and invites himself along because apparently he needs a pumpkin urgently, and so Neil goes running the next morning and detours to the market and meets up with him in front of the little cart that does coffee and cider and mulled wine.
“No hot chocolate?” Andrew asks grumpily, but he accepts a cup of coffee with hazelnut syrup when Neil buys one for him and a cider for himself.
Andrew’s eyes slide over Neil’s running outfit and he frowns, looks away. Blows on his coffee and pinches his glove between his teeth to pull it off so he can unlock his phone. Then he holds it up, says, “Smile,” and snaps a picture before Neil can protest.
“What was that for?” Neil asks, bemused.
“To prove a point,” Andrew says unhelpfully.
Andrew sighs and takes a sip of his coffee and frowns down at the cup in his hand and his glove in the other. Neil reaches over without thinking, takes the glove and slides it over Andrew’s bare hand, careful not to touch his skin.
When he looks up, Andrew’s face is blank, but there’s something slightly thunderstruck in the way he’s staring at Neil.
“Okay?” Neil asks, unsure.
Andrew blinks, and the look is gone.
“To Renee,” he says, and it takes Neil a moment to catch up on the non-sequitur. “She thinks this is a date.”
He glances pointedly at Neil’s sweaty running gear. Neil feels warm and suddenly aware of just how sweaty he is, and looks down at Andrew’s nice coat and stripy scarf and impractical shoes.
It’s what Andrew wears all the time, he tells himself. It doesn’t mean anything.
“Oh,” he says, belatedly, and finishes his cider. “I think Matt is down that way.”
“Mmh,” Andrew says into his cup, and follows Neil down the row like nothing happened at all.
They meet again at Renee’s monthly murder mystery boardgame night. Neil has so far only participated once, usually making excuses not to attend, but this time he is faintly excited at the prospect of getting to spend more time with Andrew. Or, around Andrew.
He also finds that he enjoys the game Renee chose, because he gets to play a secret role and deceive and mislead everyone else, which goes swimmingly even after Andrew catches on. Neil knows the moment Andrew realises and expects to be called out any moment, but Andrew just gets that dimply, almost cheeky look on his face and keeps quiet, watching as Neil continues to spin and navigate his increasingly complicated web of lies and wreaks quiet havoc among the group.
By the end of the night, Neil has successfully killed off two more characters and convinced everyone else that Andrew is the murderer. He greatly enjoys the reveal and thinks maybe he should go to these things more often, especially when Andrew’s foot brushes against his under the table.
They walk home together part of the way, and then Andrew ends up walking him home all of the way, and Neil invites him in for hot chocolate because he stocked up on a whim the last time he went grocery shopping, just in case. Andrew raises an eyebrow at the invitation but comes up with him, standing on the doormat with his hands in his coat pockets and his beanie hat still on, looking helplessly down at Neil’s cat trying his best to befriend Andrew’s boots.
“Is your cat aware it’s missing a leg,” he says at last, when Neil has already shucked off his jacket and shoes and is in the process of boiling some water. Neil sticks his head out of the little kitchen and shrugs.
“Probably not,” he says. “He was born this way. His name’s Pringles, in case you were wondering.”
It takes Andrew until Neil is done with the hot chocolate to take off his hat and coat. Pringles follows them into the living room which doubles as Neil’s bedroom, lovingly tripping Andrew up every step of the way, and then they sink into Neil’s ridiculous couch and Pringles turns twelve circles before settling down between them with a breathy purr.
“Why Pringles,” Andrew asks.
“Because,” Neil says, “Allison said I couldn’t name him Cat, and I panicked, and there was a can of Pringles on the table.”
“I see,” Andrew says.
They both look down at the cat. Silence fizzes like popping candy between them, and Neil starts to bounce his leg just to relieve some of the weird, sudden tension.
Then Neil reaches out a hand to pet Pringles and Andrew reaches out a hand to pet Pringles and they meet halfway, tangling awkwardly in mid-air. Neil feels hot up to his ears. Andrew clears his throat twice.
“Hypothetically speaking,” Neil says, “what would be an appropriate outfit? To make it a date?”
Andrew’s fingers twitch in his grip.
“Nothing,” he says.
“So… naked?” Neil grins.
“No,” Andrew amends quickly. “Anything. It’s not about the clothes. The clothes don’t factor into it at all.”
“Maybe a little bit,” Neil says mischievously. “I’m quite fond of your stripy scarf.”
Andrew riffles his free hand through his hair, looking flustered. Neil squeezes his fingers and is gratified when Andrew squeezes back.
“How about some air,” Neil suggests, when Andrew still won’t look at him. He gets up, and Andrew lets himself be tugged along, and Pringles yawns and stretches and somehow manages to take up both of their vacated seats.
“He has a big personality,” Neil comments fondly, looking down at his cat.
“Air,” Andrew reminds him. Neil grabs Andrew’s coat and scarf from the back of the chair they were carefully draped over and leads him out into the staircase and up, to the top of the building. There’s something clandestine about it and Neil can’t help tip-toeing, even though he’s pretty sure the old lady living in the apartment above him takes out her hearing aids at night. He jiggles open the door to the roof and steps out into the icy cold air, breath immediately frothing into a white cloud in front of his face.
“Fuck, it’s cold,” he says, joyfully. Andrew snorts, and the next moment Neil feels something heavy and warm slip over his shoulders that smells like the clean, herbal aftershave Andrew uses. He can’t help burrowing into the coat a little, and smiles when he sees Andrew winding the long coils of the scarf around his neck.
“Ridiculous,” he tells him.
“Speak for yourself,” Andrew says, looking pointedly around them at the barren, frostbitten roof.
“Shut up, it’s romantic and shit,” Neil objects. “There’s stars and all. Well, somewhere. Behind those clouds. Probably.”
“I will push you off this roof,” Andrew murmurs, crowding him up against the ledge without actually touching him. Neil goes willingly, smirking when Andrew breaks eye contact first to glance down to the concrete below.
“It’s a long way down,” Neil hums conversationally. It’s been a long way up here, too, he thinks. From one rooftop to another.
“Is it,” Andrew says.
He curls a hand around the base of his skull, pulling him away from the drop and into his space. His breath is warm on Neil’s skin, and Neil wants to pickle himself in that spicy, thyme-y smell. He decides to chase after it, nosing into the soft gaps between his scarf and his neck, delighted to find secret treasure trails of goosebumps there, hidden tendons and beating veins and tiny moles, the gentle slope of his Adam’s apple, the soft ripple of a sharp inhale.
The hand on the back of his head tightens and yanks him out of his reverie, and then Andrew’s lips are on him, cool and slightly chapped, opening him up. Neil drinks him in, clutching at the ends of his scarf, and lets himself fall into a bottomless kiss until he can’t feel his feet anymore.
“Enough air,” Andrew commands, breathing hard, still mouth to mouth with Neil. A single flake of frost spins into the web of his eyelashes and Neil tilts his chin to kiss it away, tasting a sliver of cold water on the tip of his tongue, feeling the delicate, paperthin skin under his lips.
“Let’s go back down,” he murmurs, straightening Andrew’s scarf. “I’ll make more hot chocolate.”