"Shh, shh. You're going to wake up your sister.” Neil’s been trying to open the door for three minutes now, gently nudging Sir from the door so he can tiptoe inside. She’s persistent, though, paw reaching through the crack in the door to snatch at his shoelaces. He leans down, scratching under her chin through the door. “You have to let me in eventually.”
She gives him a look that almost seems contemplative, as if Neil’s late night arrival can’t be dismissed so easily. It’s an uncomfortable level of perception; a parent he’s never had waiting up for him past his curfew. After a few boops to her nose, she deems him worthy of entering, flitting away from the door to sit next to the counter.
Neil finally gets himself inside, toeing off his shoes as he closes the door behind him. It’s quiet as he expected, the stove clock reading half past three. He doesn’t remember turning the kitchen light on before he left. Sir sits patiently under it, eyes expectant. Neil knows he won’t get out of this without a bribe.
“Fine, but only if you stay quiet.”
She makes a small chirp of affirmation and Neil moves to the cabinet, opening the door enough to pull out a small bag. It creaks enough to deafen in the quiet of the late night, and Neil makes a mental note to fix it in the morning. Sir hops up on the counter and Neil allows it, if only because Andrew doesn’t. It’s fun to tease him a little, even if he’s not here to defend himself.
Neil drops a few treats in front of her, watching the way she carefully chews through the first couple, purr nearly as loud as the cabinet door. Content that she’s not going to give him away just yet, he pops open the rice cooker next to her, happy to see it’s been refilled in his absence. Sir gives it a curious look before deciding her bribe smells better. Neil scoops up a small amount for himself, relishing in the way it warms his hands. He hadn’t been expecting the temperature to drop so low, foregoing his jacket in his rush. Digging around as quietly as he can for a set of chopsticks, Neil comes up with a mismatched pair. It’s a small victory considering the drawer still sticks from the amount of silverware they’d been gifted in the move.
Something soft brushes up against his leg, letting Neil know he’s out of time.
Sir peeks her head over the counter at King, tongue gathering the remnants of her treats from her lips. Taking it as the challenge for attention that it is, King jumps up on the counter and starts nudging Neil’s hand in earnest. He moves his rice out of the fur danger zone and shakes out a few treats for her as well.
“You’re both spoiled,” he says, giving King a small pat on her flank.
He decides the counter is the popular place to be this evening and joins them both, leaning back against the cabinets. Neil only gets through a few bites when he hears the telltale footsteps on the stairs. Another bite and he can count the strides from the landing to the kitchen, Andrew coming into view on his fifth step. He stops just inside the doorway, taking a second to look Neil over. His once over is a little more scrutinized than Sir’s had been.
He leans against the frame of the doorway, arms folded over his chest and says nothing.
Neil expects as much, and keeps chewing.
There’s an endless minute, the electrical drone of the kitchen light and occasional purr filling the hush between them. Neil’s halfway to taking another bite when he grows tired of the stalemate. “Hey.”
Andrew’s expression doesn’t change, and Neil goes back to his rice. Neil knows Andrew’s choosing his words carefully when he doesn’t get an immediate reply. They won’t be ones of anger, and that’s probably not much better than the alternative. Disappointment rings somber in Neil’s ears the longer the silence stretches.
“I went for a run.”
Andrew looks pointedly at the clock on the wall. Neither of them need to voice the time. “You still left.”
“I text you that I’d be back.” Neil says around a mouthful, eyes focused on the way Andrew’s shoulders drop just the slightest—less in defeat and more in relief. Neil may crack first, but that doesn’t mean Andrew’s as hard to read as he thinks. “Did you not believe me?”
It’s a bland accusation, one that isn’t really meant to hurt. He knows Andrew got his text. Andrew knows Neil wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it. Saying goodbye once was enough.
“Where did you go?”
“Down by the bridge. Couple miles,” Neil says simply. It’s not the answer Andrew wants judging by the way he raises his brow at Neil. He lets King crawl into his lap, lifting his bowl away from her curious paws. It’s a distraction and Neil takes it gladly.
He knows he should say more, a handful of half truths barely a consolation. Andrew deserves more than that. Neil hadn’t meant to leave, but the thought of staying still had gotten the better of him. His feet had hit the sidewalk before he’d realized where he was going. It wasn’t about the argument—stupid before it even started—and old habits die hard.
Andrew exhales and Neil himself relaxes at the sound. His arms unfold and he gives Neil a pointed look, as if Neil is going to say no —as if Neil would know the word as anything other than foreign on his tongue. He nods, and Andrew crosses the kitchen, shooing King when he gets to Neil.
Another minute or two passes between them, Andrew refusing to do more than watch Neil snack. He offers a small bite to Andrew, gently prodding his lips until Andrew obliges. Neil gives him a small smile, pinching Andrew’s cheek with the chopsticks. The amusement is not returned in the slightest.
“I came back,” Neil says, placing the mostly empty bowl aside. Andrew’s hands drum on either side of Neil’s legs on the counter. He gives a tug to Andrew’s sleeve, another reminder that he’s still here.
Andrew takes the hint, fingertips finding the hem of Neil’s shirt, thumbing small circles into the chilled skin from his run. “You came back.”
Neil leans back on his palms, nervous energy draining down into a last twitch of his fingertips. There’s an urge to draw Andrew closer, to let Neil apologize in so many words for doing what he said he wouldn’t do—what he’ll inevitably do again. It’s hard to admit you’re wrong, and even harder to admit you might continue to be wrong.
Andrew watches and waits for Neil to work through his thoughts, fingertips thrumming down the small of Neil’s back. His words keep catching on the tip of his tongue, the answer is stuck in a place Neil can’t quite reach.
Ever aware of Neil’s train of thoughts, Andrew nods, tapping either side of Neil’s hips to move him closer to the edge of the counter. Neil’s hands are allowed only a moment to hover before he gets an affirming nod. Carding though Andrew’s hair doesn’t get old, and this time is no exception. He leans forward with little prompting, tucking himself against Neil’s collar. This too Neil treats like a gift.
Neil props his head on top of Andrew’s, one arm draped over his shoulder, the other hand continuing to scratch lightly at his nape. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for things you aren’t sorry for,” comes the mumbled reply.
“I worried you.”
“I don’t worry.” Neil feels a nip to his collar in affirmation.
“Is that why you left the light on?”
Andrew leans away from Neil, far enough that Neil’s arms slip from his shoulders, but close enough to keep warm hands to Neil’s back. “All dogs find their way home when they get hungry.”
Neil leans back onto the counter, King headbutting him in the arm from a severe lack of attention. Andrew looks affronted when Neil attempts to pull away, equally as displeased with the diversion of attention. He swaps hands to keep them both satisfied when Sir makes her way along the counter to see if Neil’s grown a third arm to pet her as well.
“I was here first,” Andrew says, watching the way Sir swishes her tail impatiently.
“I think you’re all spoiled,” Neil muses, moving his hand to scratch under Andrew’s chin. It doesn’t earn him the same purring as the cats, but it does win him only half a glare. Neil smiles back, and makes the decision not comment on how Andrew leans into it regardless.
“You all woke me up,” Andrew says, knowing none of them are convinced. He pulls away too soon, turning on heel. “I need my beauty sleep.”
“Is that an invitation?” He watches King drop from the counter to tag along.
“It’s an I won’t be so nice the second time, ” he says over his shoulder. Neil counts the five strides it takes for Andrew to reach the stairs, his steps coming to a halt just before the climb. Neil hangs back, if only for a second, the feeling of knowing someone is waiting for him more comforting than he can ever admit.
Hopping off the counter, he lets Sir climb up onto his shoulder. “Can’t keep sleeping beauty waiting, can we?”
“Heard that,” Andrew tosses back, the sound of his footsteps following his words.
Neil smiles, turning off the kitchen light as he leaves. No use leaving it on when he’s already made it back home.