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All You Knead is Bread (and love, but who's keeping track?)

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Neil sighed, stuffing his cold hands into his pockets. His visible breath in the brisk air confirmed that getting up at four in the morning had been a stupid decision. 

“Please,” Kevin said, last week. “History Week 2021 is next week and I need someone to pick up my shifts at the bakery.”

“And you couldn’t ask me, what, last semester?” Neil groused. “You know, when you said ‘Our history group is really well rounded this year and we’re going to have to speak at all the events’ back in August?”

Either way, Neil had accepted Kevin’s hastily written piece of paper with the week’s shifts on it. He didn’t mind Kevin’s coworkers Jean and Jeremy when they came over to hang out with Kevin, and, honestly, what was the point of being a trained pastry chef if he didn’t make some pastries every now and again?

He never did forgive his mother for enrolling him in pastry chef school as a cover; she should have known he didn’t like sweets. But something about kneading dough, shaping pastries, and decorating cakes resonated, so he made it through the program. They ran the day he would have had an official graduation party, and she wasn’t around to see him use the skills, but he liked to think maybe she was looking down at him with a smile, even if he’d never seen her smile when she was alive.

Foxhole Pastries and Cakes seemed pretty standard as far as bakeries went, with a bright orange exterior. The glossy white paint was chipped on a few of the letters but still readable. It was inviting.

Neil hated it. To be fair, it was four thirty in the morning. He’d probably hate any bakery right now. He hated Kevin, he hated Kevin's well rounded history team, and he hated himself for agreeing to this.

He took a breath and pushed through the front door. A little chime twinkled to announce his arrival. No one was at the front of the shop, of course; it was four fucking thirty in the morning. Neil slid the lock in place behind him so no stray customers would get any ideas about coming in before the shop opened at six.

He walked to the main counter, making note of the table layout as he passed them; three small tables on each side of a center walkway. A tall counter lined the entire right side, with several stools tucked underneath. He’d gotten to the currently empty bakery case when the door to the back swung open and Kevin’s coworker Andrew shot Neil a very unimpressed look.

“You’re late.”

Neil was taken aback by the unfriendly tone and the implication that he was late. Then he remembered that Kevin said Jeremy came in every day to run the front counter so that Andrew never had to interact with the customers. 

“It’s 4:30, isn’t it?” Neil shot back. He swung around the corner to make his way towards the doors.

Andrew looked at Neil, then purposefully looked at the clock. “4:31. I ought to make you shape all the donuts yourself for this profound flagerancy of timekeeping.”

Neil rolled his eyes. He’d dealt with Andrew’s type before; guys who were needlessly antagonistic were easy to handle. He just had to hit him where it hurt. “Good thing I could roll out donuts twice as fast as you. Look at the size of your biceps. I bet you have no finesse. In fact, I assume the crushed pastries Kevin brings home at the end of the day are your bakes.”

If Neil had expected a rush of anger, he was surprised. Andrew didn’t say a word. He turned his back to Neil and pointed with his middle finger at the prep station adjacent to the sink. Neil saw the bake list on the counter and winced. He was not going to be able to produce that much in one morning without some help. He looked to see if Andrew was going to show him where things were.

Andrew was already occupied with the giant mixer in the far corner. He hefted a fifty pound bag of flour like it was weightless and started dumping it in. A tiny cloud of flour poofed up as the mixer’s kneading hook turned and turned.

“You’re never going to get a bake out if you don’t actually start working,” Andrew said. He hadn’t taken his eyes off of the dough in his mixer, and the noise ought to have been loud enough to keep him from noticing what Neil was or wasn’t doing.

Neil scowled, and made a production of moving around the kitchen. He opened cupboards and drawers, noting where everything was as best he could. By the time he started working on his first round of dough, it was already a quarter to five. If he got his yeast doughs rising, he could make up some time on a quick round of cookies. Neil consulted the rest of the bake list, mentally circling a few cookies and muffins that he could whip through if only to make sure the case looked good.

“Have you ever worked a professional position before?” Andrew asked, still not turning from his careful pour of flour. How he managed to work so much derision into a single sentence was almost impressive, but Neil wasn’t about to let him know that.

“Are you this friendly with Kevin? No wonder he never talks about you.” 

Neil did his best to get into a rhythm, and by the time his yeast doughs were proofing, he’d managed to get a couple of rounds of cookies into the oven. It was when he started to make the cakes that Andrew finally stopped working with his breads long enough to stare at him. His gaze was heavy on Neil’s back, but Neil wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of reacting.

Another half minute ticked by. Any longer, and Neil knew Andrew would lose his precious timing, which meant he just had to hold out a few more seconds and-

“What the fuck are you doing.” The words might have formed a question, but Andrew’s voice was flat.

“Skipping the whipped egg whites to save five minutes?” Neil said, affecting innocence. “I feel like there was someone here criticizing my time management skills.”

“Throw it out and start over,” Andrew said. “We are not serving flat cakes.”

Neil pointed a finger at Andrew. “Look. I get that you’ve got your routine and that Kevin did whatever you wanted him to--yes, ok, he did talk about you, and for some reason he feels compelled to do whatever you say. But if you think I woke up at four-fucking-o'clock this morning just to mess with the recipes and fuck with the bakery, then don’t talk to me. I know what I'm doing."

Andrew didn’t say another word. He stomped back to his bread, his boots heavy on the floor mats. Neil wanted to sigh. Instead, he got the cakes in the oven and worked out his frustration kneading his other dough. The timing was a small victory. Andrew staying on his side of the kitchen was another. The morning might have almost started to go smoothly until Andrew started singing.

Loudly.

Neil stopped mid-scoop, and the muffin dough splatted into the pan. Only luck allowed it to land in the prepared wrapper. 

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Neil asked. He didn’t have time to deal with Andrew’s apparent desire to be the next American Idol out of absolutely goddamn nowhere. It didn’t matter that Andrew’s singing voice was actually kind of velvety smooth, deep in a way that made the hairs on the back of Neil's arms stand up.

Andrew, who was still singing, didn't comment.

Neil banged a few mixing bowls around, purposely offbeat. He had only known Andrew for about an hour and a half, but he wasn't surprised to see that his best efforts to mess up Andrew's timing didn't phase him. 

Honestly, Andrew had pretty good taste in music. Neil wasn't about to tell him that, though. He noisily finished portioning out his muffins, noisily got them in the oven, and noisily moved on to his next bake, stopping only long enough to wipe a bead of sweat from his forehead. 

Andrew was right, of course, that he'd never worked professionally as a baker. But he was pleased to see that his instructor's diabolical practical exams had come in handy; he was able to wing it enough to have the case two-thirds full by open. 

Karaoke hour was apparently over when Andrew retrieved his loaves of bread from the proofer and began their final shaping. Some of his quick breads were already out of the oven, cooling on giant racks. They smelled better than they had any right to.

"There's probably customers waiting," Andrew said, and that was apparently supposed to motivate Neil to mess up the timing of his bakes to go unlock the front door and assist them at the counter. 

Seeing as Andrew was making no movement whatsoever towards the front and Kevin had specifically told him, "Andrew doesn't. Do. Customer. Service.", Neil didn't fight it. He washed off his hands and went up front.

Sure enough, there were a few people right outside the door. Neil pasted on a customer service smile and even managed to say ‘good morning’ and ‘welcome’ like he meant it. He was there as a favor to Kevin after all, and he didn't want to destroy business just because he couldn't stand other people.

Andrew apparently wasn't about to teach him the cash register either, but thankfully it was a simple enough process that Neil was able to take the first order for some muffins to go. The man dropped a dollar bill in the tip jar and Neil grinned. He was clearly nailing it.

The next woman got a chocolate pastry and, after some debate, a dozen cookies for her office mates.

"They look really good today," she said as Neil packed them up in some boxes he found on the shelf. "And I'll get a coffee to go."

"Sure," said Neil, eyes darting to locate if they even had a coffee maker. Fuck. 

Just as Neil was about to make an excuse about checking on the coffee in the back, Andrew busted through the door from the kitchen carrying a giant metal carafe of coffee. Neil knew it had to be heavy, but Andrew hefted it with ease. He set it on the long counter and wordlessly tossed a stack of cups and lids next to it. 

Neil smiled at the woman, took her money, and tried not to look at the clock. He had hoped to get the cakes cut and filled by the time the second shift employees showed up. Now, he wasn't sure when he'd slot that in between his rising doughs and--fuck, his muffins. They were probably burning.

Neil excused himself for a second when the third customer said they were still looking, and tried not to dash to the back. He was greeted by the lovely smell of perfectly golden brown muffins. Unless there was a friendly ghost working with them, that meant Andrew had kept an eye on the timer and pulled them out for him.

"Thanks," grumbled Neil, barely holding back a sigh of relief.

Andrew, predictably, said nothing. Neil headed back to the front of the house, attended the last customers, and then threw himself into a cycle of making progress for five minutes and helping customers for five minutes. It was as inefficient as it felt, and by the time he heard Andrew's curt greeting to the new employee arrivals, Neil was ready to scream.

"Hey, good morning Neil!" Jeremy waved and slid over to the register. It was a little odd to see him in a polo shirt with the bakery's logo on it rather than the t-shirts he favored. "Oh nice, Andrew showed you what to do?"

"No." 

Jeremy's smile didn't fade. "Well, Kevin did say you'd pick up quick! Oh, hey. The case looks great!" Jeremy paused, studying the contents. "That actually looks really great, no offense meant. Kevin had said you were a quick study but anyone can be thrown off by their first day."

Neil was used to Jeremy's wordiness, but it was still early enough that the sunshine in his voice was offensive. He waved off the compliments, muttering something about getting back to his cakes.

In the back, Jean was pulling down bowls from the cabinets. At a height of at least six four, he easily reached the top shelf bowls that Neil had purposely avoided lest he have to climb on the counters like a gremlin. Then again, that probably would get a rise out of Andrew. He made a mental note to try that at a different time.

"Good morning, Neil," Jean said in his calm, quiet way. His French accent was coming through stronger than usual, and Neil wondered if he had been talking to his family back in Marseilles before he got to work. Neil also wondered how quiet it was when Andrew and Jean were the only ones in the back.

"I saw the cake orders," Neil said in lieu of a greeting. "People are really going balls out on requests today, aren't they?"

Jean didn't say anything, but his smile was sly and agreeable.

The three of them got to work at their separate counters while Jeremy worked the register. Neil had almost frosted and filled his pan of cake squares when he noticed Andrew walking over. Andrew crowded up against Neil, staring at his (perfectly fluffy) cake. Neil warred between pushing Andrew away, sniping at him, or ignoring him. 

Andrew solved the issue with a noncommittal hum. “Cake looks decent, newbie.”

Neil had a feeling that might be as close to a compliment that Andrew was going to give him, but he wasn’t going to let Andrew get away with giving him grief earlier.  He spread a thick layer of filling without looking at Andrew. “Fuck you for thinking it would be anything except excellent.”

Jean made some sort of noise over by his cake counter. It might have been a snort. There was a small chance it was a laugh. Neil chose to ignore it in favor of pressing the next layer of cake in place. His squares weren’t going to be as beautiful as Jean’s creations, but they’d get the job done and taste decent, too.

Andrew put a hand on Neil’s counter, leaning in and swiping a spoonful of the filling. He popped it in his mouth, raised an eyebrow, and didn’t say a word as he headed back to his bread. Neil noticed the lack of his body heat almost instantly. He wasn’t about to ask Andrew’s opinion on it; he was sure it was fine.

Neil hadn’t tasted it, to be fair. He didn’t like sweets after all. But he trusted the recipe, and anyhow, Andrew circled back around five minutes later and swiped another spoonful. Neil batted his hand away, but Andrew was too quick, and Neil’s hand hit nothing but air. 

“Time for a break,” Andrew said as he pushed open the side door and headed outside.

“Go ahead,” Jean said when Neil glanced his way to see if he could really take a break. “I’ll watch the ovens.”

"Thanks," said Neil.

He was no stranger to being on his feet for hours, but now that he had a moment to think about it, he was ready to take a seat. Andrew had gone outside, so Neil headed to the front, sitting down at one of the tall stools nearest to Jeremy. They chatted for a few minutes until another cluster of customers stopped in.

"Oh, those muffins look great," one man said, ordering two. 

Neil didn't exactly beam with pride; he was just covering for Kevin, that was all. But the validation soothed his sore feet.

A few minutes later, Andrew poked his head out of the kitchen, looking around until he saw Neil. 

"Break's over," he said, staring until Neil got up from the stool.

The next round of bakes was slightly less intense and it helped that Neil had found a decent rhythm. And that Jeremy was handling the counter. And that Jean was here as a buffer for Andrew. Andrew didn’t sing the entire rest of the morning, and Neil was almost convinced he had imagined the earlier karaoke hour. 

In fact, he was almost looking forward to tomorrow’s shift by the time he and Andrew left at eleven. 

“Hey,” Andrew called after Neil had already gone five steps. 

Neil considered not turning around, decided to turn around anyhow, and was promptly hit in the face with a key.

“So you can let yourself in the door,” Andrew said while Neil scooped up the key from the sidewalk. “When you show up late again.”

Neil tossed up his middle finger as a goodbye. 

 

*

 

The next morning, Neil arrived at 4:32 with a satisfied grin overtaken by a yawn wide enough to split his face in two. He drank a handful of water from the sink while ignoring Andrew's intense glare. He focused instead on the giant container of red sugar sprinkles Andrew had presumably put at his station. With Valentine’s Day next week, they were supposed to lead up to it with plenty of heart shaped pastries and apparently red sugar sprinkles on everything. 

Andrew dropped his glare and seemed completely focused on his bakes to the point that Neil almost wanted to throw a handful of flour his way, if only to get a reaction.

In fact, the only time they interacted in the first hours of their shift was when Andrew cut across the kitchen to drop some dishes in the sink, purposely veering towards Neil. Neil didn’t think anything of it until Jean and Jeremy arrived an hour later.

“Whoa, Neil,” Jeremy said. “The glitter is an interesting touch. I like it!”

Jean hid a smile behind his hand.

Neil reached up, warily, and touched his hair. His hand came away covered in glitter.

“Are you serious?” Neil managed not to shout, but just barely.

“It’s food safe glitter.” Andrew shrugged. “And the way the light hits the glitter in your hair has entertained me all morning.”

The calm, easy look on Andrew’s face, like he expected Neil to just go along with it, was what broke Neil’s previous resolve to stay calm and not retaliate. He scooped stray flour from his workstation, and flung it at Andrew. The off-white of the flour poofed up, settling around all the spots of Andrew’s clothes that his apron didn’t cover.

“That was uncalled for,” Andrew said, brushing off his shoulder. The black fabric of his v neck t shirt held on stubbornly to the flour.

“You’re uncalled for,” Neil groused. 

"Ok, so," Jeremy said, looking from Andrew to Neil. He tapped a finger to his chin. "Maybe we should consider switching up the shifts until Kevin gets back."

"No, I'm fine," Neil said automatically. "I know you and Jean like working the same shift, don't screw up your free time together on my account-"

Jeremy waved a hand. "It's just for a bit, I'm sure. Andrew, you take my shifts for the rest of the week. Sorry Neil, but you’re ‘the new guy’ in the equation, so you’re still getting the early morning wake up.” Jeremy looked up at Jean. “If that’s ok with you?"

Jean put a hand on Jeremy's shoulder, a quiet gesture. He nodded. "Just so long as you don't make it a permanent change."

Andrew laughed before Jeremy could say a word. "It's not like Neil is going to be a permanent fixture here, so I think we're all safe."

Neil rolled his eyes and got back to his dough. 

 

*

 

Jeremy was happily humming a tune to himself when Neil showed up the next day, closing the door to the rainstorm behind him. Neil checked the clock six times to confirm that it was a half an hour to five am, a half an hour to the first hour of the morning that could even be counted as a time to get up, and yet, somehow, Jeremy was humming and smiling like he’d mainlined caffeine without any of the jitters. His hair was clean and dry and his clothes unrumpled. 

“Morning, Neil,” Jeremy said, with a wave. 

Neil pulled off his wet windbreaker and hung it up on a hook by the door. “Seriously Jeremy? Do you ever have a bad day?”

Jeremy laughed. “I sure do, but thankfully today’s not one of them.” He gestured to the ingredients on the counter behind him. “Hopefully, anyhow. I haven’t done the breads in forever, and Andrew’ll kill me if I screw them up.”

“It’s so humid we’re going to need twice as much flour to get anything to set right,” Neil replied, rubbing sleep and rain out of his eyes. “So, good luck.”

They got to work, but Neil had a hard time falling into his rhythm. It didn’t help that he really did need to use an extra handful of flour on everything, and his bake times seemed to vary at random because of it. He kept waiting for Andrew to mouth off about his inefficient time management, but every time he glanced at Andrew’s counter, he was reminded that Jeremy had switched with Andrew. Because they couldn’t get along well enough to be left alone. Neil rolled his eyes, and put a batch of this side of too wet cookies in the oven with a scowl. Any more flour, and the flavor would be too bland.

"They'll be good enough," Jeremy said, like he could read Neil's mind. Neil leveled an unimpressed stare his way, so Jeremy amended, "It's cold and wet. Any baked good is going to seem a little more special to anyone walking into our store today."

It would have to do. Jeremy's relentless optimism at 5:45 in the morning was giving Neil a headache. At least Andrew would have told it like it was, that Neil's cookies looked like shit. Somehow that was comforting to know. Neil needed more sleep. 

He glanced at Andrew’s counter again. Jeremy was working on breads as efficiently as he could, but it was obvious he was falling behind on his timing. Neil was realizing that Andrew worked faster than it looked. So as soon as Neil got the case half-filled, he popped over to the bread counter and helped knead.

“You can take all the credit,” Neil said as he worked shoulder to shoulder with Jeremy. “Andrew would probably just throw these out if he knew I worked on them.”

"The secret is safe with me," Jeremy promised.

Fifteen minutes before Andrew and Jean were due to show up, Jeremy paused.

"So do you want to work the front end?" he asked, checking on Neil's response. "I know you picked up for Kevin but if Andrew is getting on your nerves, I can muddle my way through some bakes."

Jeremy was just as well trained as Neil, if not more. And he definitely had the better customer service persona of the two, as he was already upbeat and small talk didn't seem to phase him. 

Neil could never decide if Jeremy liked Jean so much because he balanced out his talkative nature. But that wasn't important. What was important was figuring out how he felt about Andrew. Neil didn't like the way Andrew tried to call him out for minor offenses and it seemed like Andrew was always trying to get his attention. 

But sometimes when he lingered near Neil's workstation, he smelled like yeast and a hint of sugar and it was pleasant in an odd sort of way. 

"Andrew is better than customers," Neil finally decided, right as the door opened and Andrew walked in, closing his black umbrella behind him.

"Thanks," said Andrew. Of course he'd chosen that moment to arrive, but Neil wasn't about to backtrack or make a fuss on his behalf. "I'd say I'm honored but even Jeremy would admit to that."

Jeremy nodded. "You're straightforward," he agreed. "Customers can get fussy over the oddest things. Like last week someone thought the finishing sugar looked too big. Accused us of 'just crumbling sugar cubes and calling it a day'."

Neil wouldn't call Andrew straightforward, but he did know, in general, what to expect from him.

“Did Neil help you with the bread?” Andrew said, tying on his apron and pushing his wet hair back. 

Jeremy tilted his head, but Neil wasn’t about to lie to a direct question. So he shrugged. “Yeah. Why do you ask?”

"Half these loaves look like shit," Andrew said. He prodded one a few times before nodding. “They can be saved though.”

“Those are the loaves I did,” Jeremy said, and Neil crossed his arms over his chest when Andrew actually paused to study Neil.

Neil didn’t back down from the heavy gaze. He had no clue what Andrew was expecting to find, and he didn’t care if he came back lacking.

“The humidity is out of control today,” Andrew said after a minute. “These show decent compensation.”

Despite being the most lackluster praise Neil had ever heard, something warm spread across his chest. Neil scowled at himself.

“You’re sure you don’t want the register?” Jeremy asked again. “It’s bound to be quiet today with all the rain.”

“I’m fine,” Neil said, staring Andrew down. 

“We need to plan the rest of the week," Jean added as he set his coat on the hook next to Neil's and gestured to the stack of preorders on the wall. "Valentine's day."

"Monday holidays are the worst. And the best," Jeremy said cryptically before noticing Neil's blank stare. "Because a bunch of people are going to celebrate the weekend before, which is good for business. And they'll still often get something on the day itself. Also good for business."

"Bad for us," Andrew said, cutting between them with a giant bag of flour in his arms.

Jeremy nodded. "Yeah, that was the next thing. We'll probably need to put in some extra hours this week."

Neil considered his workstation before a thought came to his mind. "Did Kevin pick this history event just because of the timing?"

"Probably.” Jean said with the ghost of a smile. “Welcome to the hell that is holiday week in a bakery."

Jeremy waved a hand like it wasn’t that bad. "At least Valentine's is just heart shaped everything and cookies and cakes. You want to talk time consuming, let’s talk rolls. I think Andrew made six thousand potato rolls last Christmas."

A couple of customers blew in from outside at that moment, so Jeremy headed out to the front to help them. Jean pulled down the stack of preorders, double checking to make sure none of them had been sorted into the wrong piles before taking his group of cake orders to his station and getting set up. Neil grabbed the substantial set that was left and skimmed them over, putting aside the ones that needed to be done first.

“I guess I’ve always wanted to see if I could bake five hundred cookies in one go,” he said after a minute. 

“Andrew will help,” Jean said. “Don’t let him pretend like he can’t bake more than his precious bread.”

At his station, Andrew didn’t seem to acknowledge the conversation. Neil stared at the orders a minute longer, trying to figure out the best way to plan the rest of his day. The production ramp up was daunting, but Neil had never met a challenge he didn’t tackle head first. He got out three times as much butter as he had the previous days from the refrigerator and staked a claim on one of the giant mixers.  

“Kevin had said you were enthusiastic about baking,” Jean said, watching Neil dump sugar into the mixer. He didn’t pause from twirling roses of frosting and setting them on his cake, the motion automatic and impressive. “It’s nice to see it in action.”

“Kevin doesn’t say anything nice about me,” Neil scoffed. The butter and sugar in the mixer creamed together, light and fluffy. He dropped in half a dozen eggs. “The nicest thing Kevin’s ever said about me is that sometimes, you’re more tolerable than Andrew, but it’s not like that’s a high bar.”

Andrew was close enough to retaliate, but he didn't say anything. 

“You should consider making a case to work here for real,” Jean said, watching Neil dump sugar into the mixer. He still didn’t pause from twirling bright red frosting roses and setting them on his cake, but he did shoot a smile Neil’s way.

“Thanks,” Neil said. “But I think that might destroy Andrew’s peaceful little corner of the world here, and I would hate to cause that sort of destruction.”

“You can work wherever you want,” Andrew said. “I don’t care.”

The way that he replied almost immediately sounded a little bit like he cared, but Neil didn’t say that. He waited until the butter and sugar had come together and dropped half a dozen eggs into the mixer. Working full time in the bakery seemed like a bit of an out of reach fantasy. And anyhow, Neil didn’t know if he could keep the early hours. 

And Andrew. He was another problem. Neil slowed the mixer and began hefting his bag of flour. It was not as easy as Andrew made it look, and he nearly dropped it. Neil shifted his grip and tried again, shouldering the bag and getting a relatively smooth pour.

Andrew was a problem because he kept finding excuses to crowd into Neil’s space, and he put glitter in Neil’s hair. He smelled like yeast and when he wasn’t in the kitchen, Neil noticed his absence. 

So it didn’t seem likely that Neil could work here beyond finishing out Kevin’s shifts for the end of the week. He said as much to Jean.

Jean just offered a knowing smile. Sometimes Neil greatly disliked Jean’s quiet nature.

By two hundred cookies, Neil’s eyes began to cross. His entire existence had narrowed to scooping dough, putting it on a sheet, putting the sheet on the rack, putting the rack on the oven, pulling another rack over, and starting again from the top. Occasionally he mixed things up by grabbing a hot rack too soon and burning his fingers.

There were cookies cooling on the other two racks, and more cookies piled up on his station, waiting to be frosted. He was about to run out of room to put cookies. Neil frowned at the clock. 

"After I finish this cake, I can start frosting those for you," Jean said. His cake was crumb coated, but he was just starting the bottom of the two tiers. 

Neil resigned himself to staying late if necessary, and went back to scooping.

The clang of a bowl rang out from behind him. A moment later, Andrew appeared at Neil's workstation with a huge container of red icing. Neil seriously needed to figure out his workout routine because that bucket was not light. It shook the whole counter, but like everything else in the bakery, Andrew had lifted it with ease.

“Thanks,” Neil said, expecting Andrew to turn and leave. 

Instead, Andrew wordlessly got a pastry bag down, cut the tip, and began scooping icing into it. With a steady hand, he began tracing the curve of the cookie and filling it in, cookie after cookie.

Neil filled the last rack with cookies, shoving it in the oven before getting a pastry bag and starting to work on the other, cooled cookies. He expected Andrew to move back to his station any minute now, but he didn’t, so they frosted cookies side by side for the next long while. Neil should have been surprised that Andrew’s body heat wasn’t uncomfortably warm, but he needed Andrew’s help if he wanted to leave anywhere near on time. He would have tolerated anything, including Andrew’s singing.

Which he still wasn’t sure if he had imagined or not, right up until he realized Andrew was humming as he worked, almost imperceptible. The tune wasn’t anything Neil recognized, just a rhythmic, soft lull. Neil decided he would tolerate that too, and they frosted four hundred of the cookies together like that, putting them back on the racks for the frosting to set. 

“Alright, I’ve got my cake done,” Jean announced. His quiet voice seemed louder than normal, and Neil tilted his head towards him like he’d come out of a trance.

“Awesome,” Neil said automatically. The cake was, of course, gorgeous, with frosting flowers cascading down one side and hearts of various sizes adorning the other side. “I think we’ve got fifty cookies to go.”

“A hundred,” Andrew said.

Even though he was right next to Neil, hearing his voice was still a surprise. Neil put down his pastry bag and stretched his cramped fingers.

“Break time.” This time, Andrew didn’t wait for Neil to go through to the front. He grabbed Neil’s shirtsleeve and tugged him towards the door to outside. 

Neil shrugged at Jean’s slightly raised eyebrow and let Andrew direct his movement. He forgot to grab his jacket, but the rain had let up enough that the overhang of the roof kept them dry. 

Andrew leaned against the concrete blocks of the side of the bakery, and didn’t say anything. Neil wouldn’t have minded sitting down for a few minutes, but he was content to press his hands against the rough wall and stretch out his legs, stiff from standing in one spot for too long. The concrete was surprisingly warm given the miserable weather, perhaps something to do with the bank of ovens on the other side. 

Either way, it helped relax Neil’s hands. He wondered if Andrew was going to say anything or if this was supposed to be a silent break. After a while, Neil realized Andrew had his eyes closed as he rested against the wall. Neil studied Andrew’s profile and counted the piercings in his ears. Andrew seemed a lot less antagonistic when he wasn’t glaring. 

After an indeterminate amount of time, Andrew opened his eyes like an internal timer had declared the break over. He nodded towards Neil and led the way to the door.

Neil hadn’t checked the clock when they left the kitchen and he wondered how long they’d spent outside. But when they went back in, even through the side door, there was a loud, insistent voice in front that had Andrew moving past the counters and marching through the doors to the front. Neil followed quickly, noticing that the cookies had been boxed up and were gone. 

Jeremy was up front. A few customers had taken advantage of the lull in the rain to come in, but they were stuck waiting behind a man who was sneering at Jeremy like he was something he’d found on the bottom of his shoe.

Neil might have disliked Andrew, but he instantly hated whoever could look at Jeremy and make that sort of face. 

“It’s for Valentine’s Day,” the man said, enunciating the words like Jeremy was a three year old. “Why would I want circle cookies?”

Neil’s stomach swooped, a nasty feeling. Had he seriously missed the shape of the cookies on the order? He had read it carefully before he got started; of course he had. It was for hundreds of cookies!

The man kept going. “Who, in the history of this godforsaken Hallmark holiday has requested round cookies instead of hearts?”

“You did,” Andrew said, flatly. He held up the order sheet and pointed to the handwritten lines. “If you’re unable to read, I will spell it out for you. Special order 3824. Riko Moriyama. Red-frosted sugar cookies, no other requests. ”

“Excuse me, but who are you?” Riko asked, his voice ice and his stare sharp enough to cut glass. 

Neil wasn’t surprised to see that the glare had no effect on Andrew. Instead of answering Riko’s question, Andrew took the paper and tore it in half. “Problem solved,” he said as the pieces floated to the ground. “If you’ll leave, we have actual customers to help.”

Riko was fuming, and Neil didn’t like the murderous glint in his eyes. He didn’t want to go against Andrew, but he’d seen men killed for less from people with that look in their eyes. Neil opened his mouth to say something, but Jeremy beat him to it.

“We’ll remake the order,” Jeremy said, his customer service smile firmly in place. “If you can pick it up tomorrow instead. That’s the best we can do.”

The derisive noise Andrew made was audible throughout the entire bakery. He turned and went back into the kitchen, leaving Neil up front. Neil grabbed one of the special order sheets, and scribbled down Riko’s information while Jeremy started helping the other people in the store.

“Now, let’s be really clear about what you want,” Neil said, holding out the pen to Riko. “You write it down so we can avoid future…” He hesitated, because he hated to even call this clusterfuck of customer service anything but what it was: bullshit. Instead, he managed to force himself to say, “Misunderstandings.”

Riko had moved back into his first expression--the “everyone around me is an insect” type of look. He glanced at the pen Neil offered.

“I assume you are capable of writing,” Neil prompted, and Riko raised a single, well manicured eyebrow.

When Riko still didn't grab the pen, Neil rolled his eyes and started writing. “Ok. Heart shaped cookies. You still want sugar cookies, correct?”

Riko stared.

“Ok, so I’m putting down sugar cookies,” Neil said, repeating the words as slowly as Riko had talked to Jeremy. “And red icing.”

Riko’s expression didn't change. If Neil hadn’t been staring down this order that was guaranteed to keep him late, he would have found the whole situation rather hilarious. But somehow Riko prevented any humor from bleeding in. 

“Red. Icing.” Neil said as he wrote each word down. He stabbed the last period onto the page, leaving a tiny hole the size of the pen. “Anything else you’d like to add?”

Riko’s grin spread across his face. “Yeah,” he said. “Double the order.”

Neil blinked, and only just managed to stop himself from swearing. “For an order that size you’ll have to pay in full up front,” he said, heedless of whether that was an actual policy or not, because if he didn’t say that, he’d say something else, and that something else would be a lot like go fuck all the way off and don’t show up here again.

With a casual roll of his eyes, Riko pulled out his wallet, and put his card down on the counter, like he couldn’t risk the chance of Neil touching him if he handed over the card. Neil quickly calculated the new price and Jeremy rang him up.

“We open at six tomorrow,” Jeremy said, handing Riko his card back. 

Riko turned and left, and the moment he was gone it was like a storm cloud had left the building. Neil sighed, resigning himself to another several hours at work.

“Thanks for handling that,” Jeremy said after he’d gotten the last customer rung up. The sheets of rain that started up outside suggested it might be a little while longer before they got another.

“I didn’t handle shit,” Neil said. “Andrew was right. I should have told him to get out.”

“Yeah, I agree,” Jeremy said, keeping his voice low. “But sometimes we gotta pick our battles, right?”

“Right, and Andrew picks all of them,” Neil said, with a small smile despite himself. Somehow, it did seem like Andrew could take on someone like Riko. “Ok. Back to the grind.”

“Hey,” Jeremy said before Neil could get to the back. “I’ll order in some lunch. We’ll all work on it. It shouldn’t take too long after close if we all work together.”

Andrew had his back to the door. Neil didn’t know what to say, so he just went back to his own station and mechanically began preparing the next order. Things went from bad to worse when Jeremy popped in for a minute to take their lunch orders and explain his let’s work as a team plan.

“Did you forget about the show tonight?” Jean asked. “We’ve had our tickets for weeks.”

Jeremy’s mouth hung open. “Oh my god, I totally did! Everything happened so fast and all I could think about was not making Neil stay here til midnight.”

“Well, I guess we can-” Jean started, but Neil cut him off with a hand in the air like a stop sign.

“Nope,” Neil said, resigning himself to be there until midnight. Maybe he’d catch a few hours of sleep under the counter when no one else was there. “You guess nothing. I already stole your shifts together. I’m not destroying a major date night too.”

Jeremy pressed his lips together, debating his answer. 

“Go.” Andrew’s response was unexpected, and they all turned to look at him. He looked just as uninterested as ever. “I’ll help Neil.”

“Well, now I really need to stay,” Jeremy said. “Or else we’ll be cleaning up Neil’s body in the morning.”

Neil shook his head. “You act like I can’t hold my own, but there’s always a chance I’ll come out on top, you know.”

“Neil, I’m pretty sure Andrew bench presses you as a warm up,” Jeremy said. 

Andrew’s uninterested look slanted just slightly into a glare, and Jeremy put up his hands. 

“As long as you promise to leave Neil in one piece,” Jeremy amended.

Andrew’s impenetrable grin was probably not the answer Jeremy was looking for, but he accepted it without further argument. Neil wasn't sure whether to find that comforting or nerve-wracking.

Around the time Neil's shift would have ended, the rain let up just a little as their food arrived. He tried not to think about how much work there was to be done, and he was hungry enough that for a few minutes all he thought about was his sandwich. 

Jeremy ate with him and after a few minutes, Jean and Andrew reached stopping places and for a rare bit of time, the four of them sat at one of the tables and ate together while the rain started back up yet again outside.

"If I stay until close anyhow," Jeremy said after a pause, "we can probably get the majority of the cookies baked, if nothing else."

"We are going to have to do something about his previous order," Jean mused.

"I'll eat them," Andrew deadpanned, and Jean and Jeremy laughed.

"Even though I baked them?" Neil pressed.

"I'll eat the ones I iced," Andrew amended. 

"You won't be able to tell the difference."

"I can see the difference. I can see it right now."

"Bullshit. There's no difference. Same cookies, same icing."

Andrew pushed up from the table, grabbed two of the cookies, seemingly at random, and brought them back. But he didn't address Neil; he showed them to Jean.

"Are these the same?"

"Well." Jean paused, and Neil knew he had lost some sort of battle. "One is frosted three millimeters thicker than the other.”

Neil grabbed the cookies from Andrew and stared at them. “Bull. Shit,” he repeated. “They’re the same.”

Jean laughed. “They are. But Andrew did give me a very good opening.”

“Sure, sure, make fun of the new guy. I get it.” Neil couldn’t help but smile though. How long had Kevin been working for the bakery now? How many times had he hung out with Jean and Jeremy? The point was, Jean didn’t just make jokes because he could. He did because they were friends. 

And he wouldn’t have done that with Andrew unless he considered Andrew a friend. So then Neil had a thought. Why didn’t Andrew ever hang out with Kevin, Jean, and Jeremy outside of work? Or if he did, why didn’t he when Neil was around?

He couldn’t take the thought to any logical conclusion, partly because there wasn’t one, and partly because he’d finished eating and, as nice as it was to sit and rest, the thought of going home eventually was even better. 

Jeremy was right. They were able to get through baking a sizable chunk of the order before Jean insisted, politely but firmly, they had to leave. 

“Please just go,” Neil ended up saying, nearly pushing Jeremy through the door. “You’ve been here since four. You should sleep. Enjoy your evening.”

Andrew didn’t say anything. He’d finished setting up for his overnight bakes, and cleaned up his station. At least, the parts of his station that weren’t covered in cookies. 

“Thank you,” Jean said.

Jeremy’s parting words were accompanied by one last look at Andrew. “Good luck, Neil. You guys can do this!"

"I promise there will be minimal blood on the floor when you come back tomorrow," Neil said. "Completely within the current food safety guidelines."

"Neil. There's no acceptable amount of human blood within any food safety guidelines." 

And then Jeremy closed the door, and it was just Neil and Andrew.

And five hundred cookies, but Neil wasn't worried about those “accidentally” grabbing a knife and stabbing him. The more he thought about it, the more he didn’t think he was worried about Andrew doing that either.

Like he had earlier that day, Andrew grabbed a bucket of icing and set up next to Neil. The two of them frosted heart-shaped cookies for nearly an hour without talking. Andrew had set up his phone to play music through a nearby speaker, and while it wasn’t what Neil normally listened to, it was interesting and loud and helped pass the time.

One of the songs sounded familiar and Neil paused for a moment. "You sang this one earlier, didn't you?" 

He wasn't sure why he said that, and it seemed like Andrew had ignored him. But when the next song came on, Andrew sang along. Neil liked the way Andrew's voice filled the room. 

They were down to the last hundred, maybe fifty cookies, when Andrew tugged at Neil’s shirtsleeve. Neil expected to see flour or glitter, but it was just Andrew’s hand.

“I know we’re almost done, but I need to take a break or my wrist is going to snap in half.”

Neil nodded. Now that they’d stopped for a moment, he realized how sore his hand was from going through the same motions for literally hundreds of cookies. He didn’t want to tell Andrew he wasn’t sure he’d be able to pick up the icing bag again.

Andrew nodded towards the side door, and walked out without looking back. Neil followed after. 

Outside, the sun had nearly set. Neil yawned, unable to hide the exhaustion that came with working for over twelve hours. 

The sound of a lighter caught his attention and Neil was surprised to see Andrew with a cigarette.

Andrew followed Neil’s questioning look and shook his head. “Normally I’m not at work all damn day.”

“You could blow smoke on every one of his cookies in there and I wouldn’t say a word,” Neil said, remembering the way Riko had spoken to Jeremy. “I’d encourage it.”

Andrew’s grin was so devilish that Neil half expected him to go in and do exactly that. But Andrew didn’t go anywhere, didn't do anything except take another slow drag on his cigarette. Neil leaned against the wall and watched Andrew smoke so he wouldn’t be tempted to close his eyes.

Normally Neil would be too on edge out in public and around people he didn’t know to fall asleep like that, but for some reason, Andrew didn’t seem to activate that fear response. Neil would figure that out tomorrow. Once he’d slept for twenty four hours.

“I don’t think I can frost another goddamned cookie," Neil confessed into the silence, because he was still dangerously close to falling asleep. It wasn't like he'd even be in bed by now, but the early mornings of the previous days were catching up to him.

“Maybe next time don’t take the order,” Andrew suggested, blowing smoke against the cool evening air. 

“But you stayed to help me," Neil pointed out. Andrew was like a puzzle he couldn't quite figure out, and suddenly he had an odd desire to figure him out.

Andrew shrugged.

"I thought you hated me," Neil pressed, not sure what answer he expected. Would Andrew agree? Disagree? 

Andrew pressed the butt of his cigarette against the wall and dropped it to the ground. 

"I do,” he said, closing the distance between them. He paused. But instead of saying anything else about that, he put his hand on Neil's mouth and said, "Now shush, don't say anything stupid." 

His fingers smelled like vanilla and sugar and smoke, and Neil forgot his exhaustion for a moment. He couldn't say why he didn't mind Andrew's presence, but Andrew was already moving away, heading back inside.

 

*

 

"Never again," Neil said, dropping the last cookie into a box and closing the lid. He dropped the bag of frosting onto the counter and shook out his hand.

"Go home and don't come back tomorrow," Andrew said, carrying the boxes to the corner, out of the way for tomorrow's work.

"Rude," Neil said, too tired to put much fire in his words. "We make cookies together for six hours and that's all you can say to me?"

"I mean it. Get some rest." Andrew picked up a knife from the magnet strip on the wall. He pointed it at Neil. "They'll figure out something. You, on the other hand, have been here for nearly two shifts. Don't. Come. In. Tomorrow."

 

*

 

Neil came in tomorrow. 

He hadn’t set his alarm and slept for ten hours straight, but when he got up, he figured it wasn’t worth letting the others drown in heart shaped sprinkles. He got to the bakery just after seven.

“Neil!” Jeremy looked surprised to see him, but quickly schooled his face from shock to a smile. “I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Andrew told me he told you to stay home, but I was pretty sure that meant he was just trying to slow down the investigation. You know? Of his murdering you?”

“Unlucky for him,” Neil said, “Because I’m still alive.”

Jeremy grinned. “Impressive.”

The boxes of cookies weren’t where he and Andrew had left them. “Has Riko picked up the order yet?”

“Nope. But he paid for it, so whether he does or not doesn’t bother me.” Jeremy paused. “Mostly. I’d still be upset for you to have worked so much for no reason.”

Neil shrugged as he headed to his workstation. Jeremy had started working through some special orders, and Neil grabbed the next one so Jeremy could relieve Jean from the front counter. 

“It wasn’t too bad,” he said, thinking about the time he’d spent with Andrew, and the warmth of Andrew’s hand on his face.

Right now, that hand was holding a knife pointed at him, accusingingly. “I thought I told you to stay home,” Andrew said as he emerged from the small storage room. 

“I did. And then I came in.” The smile on Neil’s face pulled at the corners of his mouth, but he didn’t mind. Andrew wouldn’t find it scary. 

Andrew considered Neil. He looked like he was going to say something, but turned around and went back to work. 

Jeremy headed to the front, and when the door swung open, Neil saw someone at the counter who kind of looked like Riko, but taller. 

"Yes, I'll take it," the man said to Jean. "The order is for Riko Moriyama, but he is unable to pick it up."

Neil glanced at Jeremy, who shrugged. When the man had left the bakery, the three of them exchanged a look.

"Weirdest special order ever," Jeremy finally declared, and Jean nodded his agreement.

 

 *

 

“When you said it was going to be busy on Valentine’s day,” Neil said, leaning against the wall during his break with Andrew, taken far too late in their shift, “I don’t know what I expected. It’s a bakery. It’s Valentine’s day."

"Kevin's back tomorrow, isn't he?" Andrew said, out of nowhere.

"Yeah." Neil looked up at the sky. Soft gray clouds blocked out the sun, but he'd been working hard enough that the chill was welcome. Filling in for Kevin had been an interesting change of pace, but tomorrow it was back to the old routine of listening to Kevin tell him to apply for grad school and stretching the money his mother had left for him out across an indeterminate future.

Tomorrow, it was back to never seeing Andrew again and for some reason, that left an odd weight in his chest.

"We're going to need more help soon," Andrew continued, talking to the alley more than Neil. "You could work here."

"Wait, what?" Neil looked for signs that Andrew was trying to make a joke and came back with nothing. "You've gotten used to me being around, haven't you?" He teased, but even as he said it, he knew the opposite was somehow true.

"You're interesting," Andrew said instead of yes. 

Neil pursed his lips. "You're interesting too. Why do you never hang out with Kevin outside of work? I see Jean and Jeremy all the time."

Andrew considered Neil with a look that made Neil's heart beat faster and his face heat up, like he was somehow in trouble, but without the urge to run. So Neil stared back, noticing for the first time that Andrew's eyes were an odd shade of hazel that seemed to glow golden when a bit of sun poked through the clouds.

"Kevin said you've never gone out."

Neil scrunched his forehead trying to parse Andrew's answer. "I mean, I do stay at home a lot but I go out with Kevin when he asks."

"Like a date."

"Oh!" Neil shook his head. "No, not really."

Andrew gestured like that proved his point, but Neil shook his head, still confused. He was used to reading body language from his time on the run with his mom, but Andrew was unreadable.

"But what does dating have to do with you and me?" Neil pressed. "Three days ago, you said you hated me."

"Sure," Andrew said, easily. His gaze never left Neil's face. "Doesn't mean I don't want to blow you."

Neil's brain broke, just for a moment, as he tried to integrate that statement into his interactions with Andrew.

"You have a crush on me?" he asked, glad he was still up against the brick wall, because it was doing a lot of the work to keep him standing right now.

Andrew shrugged. "Kind of, yeah."

From anyone else, that level of response might have seemed rude or insulting, but Neil realized from his time working with Andrew the past week that it was as close to a firm yes as he would get.

"That's so cool," Neil said, a strange elation blooming beneath his skin. "I definitely thought you hated me."

"I didn't want to force you to do anything," Andrew said, matter of fact. "And I didn't trust myself to leave it alone."

"Huh." Neil parsed that admission and shrugged. "Well, hey. You could have just asked me."

"Like it's that easy," Andrew said, holding back a sneer that Neil suspected was less for him and more for other things Andrew had dealt with in the past. 

Neil was surprised to hear himself say, "Maybe it could be." 

For a moment, only the light February breeze made a sound between them, a cool gust that threatened to be too cold.

"I doubt it," Andrew said, but his glare softened. 

"Well," Neil said, suddenly curious about how close Andrew had gotten. "Maybe we could start somewhere?"

It wasn't his imagination; Andrew took a step closer. Neil was never more thankful for the wall at his back as he realized Andrew was looking at his lips.

"Ok. How about a kiss?" Andrew asked. 

He waited, patiently, and Neil realized that no matter what answer he gave, Andrew would respect it.

"Yes," Neil said, and Andrew leaned in.

Andrew kissed like he baked; sure of his movements and confident in his techniques. Neil held on for the ride, awash in sudden sensations: Andrew's chapped lips against his, Andrew's nose pressed beside his, Andrew's breath mingling with his. 

Andrew put his arms on either side of Neil, gently pinning him in place. Being in Andrew's arms was pleasant, like he could fall and Andrew would catch him. Neil wasn't sure where that feeling was coming from, but he liked it a lot. 

When Andrew stepped back, taking in Neil's appearance, Neil wondered exactly what he saw. Did he see the heat in Neil's cheeks? Could he tell how dizzy Neil felt?

"Interesting," Andrew said. His cheeks were lightly pink and Neil had a swell of pride that he'd done that.

“I really liked that,” Neil said. The breathlessness in his voice surprised him, but it made sense. He kind of wanted to pull Andrew closer so they could share another kiss. “Maybe after work we could do it again?”

 

*

 

After work, they did it again.

 

*

 

A week later, Neil stood in front of Foxhole Pastries and Cakes, his hands in his pockets and a small smile on his face. He headed to the side door, ignoring the jab Andrew made about the time as he detoured on his way to his workstation to press a kiss to Andrew’s cheek.

Kevin groaned behind them.

“You know, when I asked you to cover my shifts,” he said, pointing a whisk accusingly, “I didn’t anticipate this being the outcome.”

“But I’m glad it was!” Neil said. He still couldn’t face the mornings with a smile as bright as Jeremy’s but he was happy nonetheless. “And admit it, aren’t you glad we get to see Andrew more often?”

“I get to see Andrew at least twenty hours a week at work,” Kevin said, turning back to his meringue. 

“And now you get to see him more,” Neil said. “Isn’t it great?”

Kevin didn’t answer, and Andrew didn’t say anything, but Neil headed to his station with a grin. He was starting to feel like he was home.