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Andrew wakes up with a headache and the sound of his phone falling to the floor next to his bed.

He jolts awake, blinking rapidly so he can take in his surroundings. He’s in his bedroom. There is sun coming in through the window, Renee is asleep next to him, his phone is vibrating on the floor, his head fucking hurts.

He leans over to grab his phone off the floor, accidentally knocking Renee in the process. She lets out a quiet “ow.” Andrew doesn’t apologize.

His phone stops buzzing. He has half a second to register the two missed calls from Nicky before it starts buzzing all over again. He groans. His head is killing him. It’s way too early to deal with Nicky’s shit but if he doesn’t answer he knows Nicky will just keep calling him.

Overbearing bastard.

“Who is it?” Renee asks. Andrew watches her sit up in bed. She’s wearing one of his old t-shirts. He can’t remember when they got home last night or why Renee decided to crash in his bed.

“Nicky,” Andrew says.

“Better answer it,” Renee says, flopping back onto the bed.

Andrew sighs. He answers the phone, before he can even get a word out Nicky is talking.

He says, “I have been calling you all morning! Do you know how worried I was! I thought maybe you were dead on the side of the road or something. Why didn’t you answer?

“I was sleeping,” Andrew says, he leans back on the headboard. The sunlight from the window is shining in his eyes. He turns away.

Okay, that’s fair. I was still worried. It’s like 11 am. You never sleep this late. Did you go out last night?

“What do you want, Nicky?” Andrew asks. He’s half tempted to throw his phone out the window or maybe himself.

I hate to do this to you. I know you hate coming down to the art gallery but I really need help. Erik is at a doctor’s appointment and Wayne called out last minute. Tonight is the exhibition opening and I have an artist on the way here to drop off work and no one to help me move it,” Nicky says.

Andrew should have just turned his phone off. Nicky won’t pay him, at least not with money, and he’s too tired to get himself out of bed just to be forced to do manual labor with a hang over.

“No.”

Andrew, pl- I am begging you to help me,” Nicky says, his voice pleading.

“No.”

I’ll pay you,” Nicky says hopefully.

“No you won’t.”

I’ll give you the rest of the fancy scotch that Erik and I were saving.

It’s almost a tempting offer. But Andrew’s head is throbbing and his stomach is in knots. Even the thought of alcohol is enough to make him feel sick.

“No.”

What! You never say no to scotch. What’s wrong with you?

Andrew says, “I’m hanging up.”

No! Don’t! Since Wayne didn’t show up I can just pay you what I would have given him. Does that work? I’m really desperate. The artist will be here in less than an hour. I can’t move sculptures on my own, Andrew. I might have a great body but it isn’t made for physical labor. I mean have you seen my-

“Shut up,” Andrew says, “Fine. I’ll come help. You better pay me this time."

Oh thank god,” Nicky says with a great sigh of relief, “ I owe you. I owe you so much. Thank you so much. You’re a lifesaver. I’m still going to give you that bottle of scotch. Just because you don’t want it now doesn’t mean you won’t want it later. Can you be here in less than thirty minutes? Do you need a ride? I can’t pick you up but I can send an uber over. Are you home or are you-

“Nicky,” Andrew says, “I’ll be there when I get there. Bye.”

Wait, Andrew-

Andrew hangs up before Nicky can say anything else. He looks over at Renee. She’s sitting on the edge of the bed, more awake than she was a moment ago. He wants to ask why she stayed. But he can probably take a wild guess.

“That sounded unpleasant,” Renee says with a smile, “Where are we going?”

“The art gallery,” Andrew says begrudgingly.

“Sounds fun!” Renee says. Always so chipper. Not hungover because she doesn’t drink. Andrew wonders if he should follow in her footsteps. “Coffee?”

“Yes,” Andrew says.

Renee gets up and leaves the room, closing the door behind her. Andrew can barely remember last night. All he can remember is going to the bar with Renee, he remembers going to the back with Roland, he remembers getting off, and then he remembers drinking the lingering feeling of sex from his system.

He doesn’t remember getting home but he knows Renee only stays when it’s bad. He doesn’t want to think about it. His mistakes are his own and no one else’s.

Andrew rubs his forehead. His skin feels sticky and gross. He doesn’t have the fortitude to deal with Nicky today. Or anyone at all really. He’ll just have to make do.

------

Nicky owns an art gallery in downtown Palmetto. It’s small and lackluster. Andrew doesn’t know anything about art nor does he really care about it. Nicky does apparently. It was sort of a surprise to both Andrew and Aaron when he went ahead and opened an art gallery. He did it with little to no money. Unfortunately it showed.

Renee put the windows down on the ride over. She had one hand on her cup of iced coffee and the other out the window. Andrew pretended to roll it up twice before she put her coffee down. A silent threat and since Andrew knew from experience that she could kick his ass, he didn’t test her.

Nicky’s art gallery was on a busy street but rarely got many patrons. It wasn’t anything fancy. Nicky set plants out front and hung posters for upcoming shows in the window. The open sign said welcome with a smile and a heart. Andrew doesn’t know who Nicky’s target audience is but he doesn’t think they are the type to find something like that appealing.

There is a stark white van blocking the entrance. Andrew pulls in behind and drops a few coins in the meter. Renee follows him out, her iced coffee in hand, looking chipper as ever. Still wearing his clothing because she refused to go out in what she had on yesterday.

“I think it’s nice that you agreed to help him out,” Renee says.

Andrew scowls at her and says, “He’s paying me.”

“Ah,” Renee says, “That makes more sense.”

The front door to the gallery opens and Nicky steps out, looking frantic. His eyes trail across the sidewalk until they catch on Renee and Andrew. He looks so relieved that he almost tumbles to the ground right on the spot.

“Thank god,” Nicky says, “I was starting to think that you weren’t going to show up.”

“Hi, Nicky,” Renee says, inserting herself between them, “I haven’t been to the gallery in a while. What exhibition are we helping put up?”

“It’s for our newest artist,” Nicky replies, “We just started representing him and we’re hoping that we can get some of his work sold at the first show.”

“Oh, how exciting!” Renee says with so much joy Andrew almost thinks she’s telling the truth. “I can’t wait to see it!”

“He’s good,” Nicky says, “Like better than the other artists we rep,” then he whispers, “Don’t tell anyone I said that.”

Renee laughs. Andrew doesn’t react at all. He wants to get this over with as quickly as possible. He’s only ever helped Nicky once before. Now might be a good time to drop one of the art pieces so Nicky will stop asking him all together.

Nicky ushers them into the art gallery. Andrew holds his breath. A part of him wishes that he had left town the same way Aaron did. That way he would be left alone.

There’s one person standing inside the art gallery. He stands out like a sore thumb against the stark white walls, his hair a flaming red color that borders on unnatural. Andrew narrows his eyes at him, assessing, looking him over for any sign of danger.

He has on a pair of overalls that are covered in white smudges of paint. His hair is pulled back with an atrocious orange colored headband. It clashes with the color of his hair and the blue of his eyes.

He’s startling to look at. Andrew blinks. His headache coming back in full force. He’s so bright.

“This is Neil,” Nicky says, coming to a stop in the center of the room, “He’s out newest artist. A painter and a sculpture.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Renee says, she steps forward and extends a hand for Neil to take.

He looks her over quickly and carefully before stepping forward to take her hand. He looks tense, uncomfortable, Andrew wonders if Nicky even told him that they were coming.

“This is my cousin Andrew and our friend Renee,” Nicky says, gesturing to them both, “They’re going to help us move your art into the gallery and set up for the opening.

“As long as you don’t drop anything,” Neil says. His eyes flicker between Renee and Andrew. There goes Andrew’s plan to tip one of the art pieces over accidentally. This guy looks like he would make Nicky pay for it out of pocket.

Neil doesn’t look pleased. He’s probably one of those pretentious art types. He looks at everyone in the room with an air of distrust.

Andrew finds him incredibly interesting. But incredibly difficult to look at. Andrew’s head keeps pounding.

“Why don’t we get started,” Nicky says, “Everything is in the van out front right?”

“Yes,” Neil says.

They get to work and like always Andrew does the majority of the heavy lifting. Neil helps, in fact, Andrew thinks that he doesn’t like the idea of someone else touching his art. He keeps giving Andrew dirty looks over the side of his sculptures. Like he’s worried Andrew is going to ruin them just by putting his hands on them.

His sculptures are- odd. Andrew can’t think of another way to describe them. They’re devoid of any color, stark grey and bland looking plaster sculptures that curve in weird directions. They look organic, or an attempt to be that. Andrew has no idea what they mean, or what Nicky sees in this art. It all just looks like nothing. Nothing and more nothing.

They get all of the sculptures into the art gallery. What was once an open space seems more clustered now. Renee is walking around all of the sculptures, talking excitedly to Neil and asking questions. Nicky looks deep in thought, his finger scratching at his chin.

Andrew doesn’t know what to do with himself. He steals Renee’s iced coffee off of the front desk and finishes it. She notices and all she does is smile.

“I think I know how I want to set up,” Nicky says, “You don’t have to stick around and help, Neil. We can take care of the rest.”

“It’s fine,” Neil says, “I’ll stay.”

Andrew doesn’t know how he’s going to leave them with his art for the entire exhibition. He doesn’t seem to want to leave them alone with his art for a couple of hours.

Nicky starts barking out orders and Andrew listens to him as much as he sees fit. He turns things left when Nicky asks for them to be turned right. He moves things back instead of forwards. Nicky’s eyebrow is twitching by the end of set up. Being a pain in the ass only made Andrew feel a smidge better.

“It’s incredible,” Renee says, as soon as they’ve finished. She walks through the gallery with her hands behind her back, Nicky close behind her. Andrew stays by the open window. He can hear people talking as they walk past, their voices carrying through the thin glass.

The sun isn’t as bright as it was before but it’s warm against his back. Every time Neil steps in front of the window his hair catches the light. It makes him look like he’s on fire.

“It’s not too crowded, right?” Nicky asks.

“I don’t think so,” Renee says, “What do you think, Neil? Is it too crowded?”

Neil simply shrugs. Andrew’s headache is better now, still a dull pain pulsing in the back of his head, but it’s more manageable. He has a chance to look at Neil now without his eyes burning.

Neil looks tired. Andrew didn’t notice it before. There are bags under his eyes, darker than the rest of his skin, dark enough to be obvious if you’re really looking at him.

“Will you be at the opening later?” Nicky asks, “We’ll have lots of food and wine.”

“Yes,” Neil says with a slight sigh, “I’ll be there.”

“What about you guys?” Nicky asks, looking at Renee and then pointedly to Andrew.

Andrew almost tells Nicky that if he wants him there he’ll have to pay him for it. He doesn’t. Renee smiles bright and blindingly as she says, “We’ll try our best. I think Allison would love to see this.”

“Oh she would, wouldn’t she?” Nicky says with a smile, “It will be a good excuse for her to dress up.”

“I’ll ask,” Renee says.

Andrew looks back to Neil. He’s watching Andrew now. He looks startled when Andrew’s eyes meet his, he blinks and his face twitches slightly, but he doesn’t look away.

Interesting. Andrew can’t pinpoint why.

“Is that all you needed?” Neil asks, finally looking away.

“Yes!” Nicky says, “Thank you so much for your help! We’ll see you tonight.”

 

Neil leaves like he’s in a rush to get out of there. Like he’s been waiting the entire time for Nicky to dismiss him.

“Isn’t he incredible?” Nicky asks as soon as the door is shut. Andrew listens to the sound of the van turning on outside.

“He is very talented,” Renee says, “It’s sort of- bland, isn’t it?”

Nicky laughs. “It’s high end, Renee! Rich people love this sort of abstract stuff. I have to admit, I like a touch more color.”

“Same,” Renee says, like it’s a great secret.

Andrew turns his head to watch as the van drives off down the street. His head starts hurting all over again.

--------------

Andrew doesn’t go to the opening. Nicky texts him because of course he does. He has his bottle of scotch and the money that Nicky paid him. He doesn’t owe him anything else. Renee texts him as well. She sends along a photo of her and Allison dolled up for the opening. They’re wearing matching dress suits. Andrew tells her she looks like she’s going to a funeral. Renee thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world.

Instead of going to the art opening, because why in the world would he go? He doesn’t care about art. Andrew spends his evening in the bar downtown. He goes, despite his hangover and the eerie feeling that lingers days after he’s gotten off. He isn’t sure why. Renee would call him self-destructive.

He calls it trying to feel something for once.

He spends half of the night at the bar talking to Roland. They go to the back. This time Andrew gets Roland off and then kicks him out before anything else can happen.

It’s easy because there are no strings attached. No pesky questions. Roland does what he’s told, most of the time. When he doesn’t Andrew either kicks him out or ties his hands behind his back.

It’s fine. Everything Andrew does is fine. He goes home after and drinks some of the scotch that Nicky gave him. It doesn’t taste like it’s worth eight dollars. In fact, all Andrew can taste is the bile in the back of his throat. He does his best not to get sick.

---------

I know I promised no to bother you for a while after you helped me at the gallery but I have a slight emergency can you come down here? Like now?

Andrew glares at his phone. Renee is sitting across from him at the cafe just a few blocks over from Nicky’s shitty art gallery. The entire cafe smells like baking bread and sweet cream. It’s the best place to get coffee, mostly because the entire staff is apathetic. They don’t smile and give false niceties when you order.

“What is it?” Renee asks. She curls her hands around the edge of her cup. She recently redyed the ends of her hair an electric yellow color. It glows in the afternoon light.

“Nicky,” Andrew says, “Again.”

“Uh-uh,” Renee says with a smile, “Anything good?”

“He says he has an emergency at the art gallery,” Andrew says. He turns his phone over face down so he doesn’t have to read the other texts that start pouring in.

“What can be an emergency at the art gallery?” Renee asks with a hum, she tilts her head, her hair glows, “Do you think one of Neil’s pieces broke?”

“Who cares,” Andrew offers. Renee rolls her eyes at him.

“I’m sure Neil would love to hear you say that,” Renee says.

“You say that like your friends with him.”

“Oh, well I haven’t told you but Allison and Neil got along at the art opening. She sort of strong armed him into giving her his number,” Renee says.

That sounds about right. Allison seems the type to insert herself where she isn’t necessarily welcomed.

“He’s nice,” Renee says, “Very blunt and sort of rude. Allison adores him.”

“Of course she does,” Andrew says. He looks out the window. There are a few people walking down the street. Everything dull and boring compared to the yellow of Renee’s hair. He pretends he doesn’t see a flash of red wherever he looks.

“Do you think it’s a real emergency or a Nicky emergency?” Renee asks, “Do you want to make a bet?”

“It’s a nicky emergency,” Andrew says.

“I bet it’s a real emergency,” Renee replies, “That is the only option if we want to make it a real bet.”

“And when I’m right?”

Renee laughs. “If you’re right we will do whatever you want tonight. If I’m right you have to do whatever I want to do tonight.”

It isn’t a very high stakes bet.

“Fine,” Andrew says. He stands up and grabs his jacket from the back of the chair. Renee follows him.

They make it to the art gallery in under five minutes. Andrew’s phone went off in his pocket the entire walk over. Renee made a joke about how she was going to win the bet. Andrew told her that she didn’t know Nicky the way he did.

The gallery’s closed sign is hanging in the window, which is off. Andrew and Renee share a look before going inside.

The first thing Andrew notices is that Nicky is laying flat on his back in the center of the gallery crying. The second thing Andrew notices is that one of Neil’s sculptures was in several pieces on the floor.

“It looks like I win,” Renee says.

“I hate you,” Andrew replies under his breath.

“You came!” Nicky yells, “You have no idea how scared I am. These sculptures are worth at least a couple thousand a piece! I have no idea what to do! LOOK at it, Andrew! It’s in pieces.”

“I can see that,” Andrew says, “What do you want us to do?”

“Something!”

“Alright,” Renee says, walking over to Nicky and pulling him off the floor, “What happened?”

“I-I-I-” Nicky stutters. Renee calmly takes his hand and tells him to breathe. Andrew sort of hates that it turned out like this. A real emergency rather than a Nicky emergency. That means he lost the bet.

“Deep breaths,” Renee says, “Okay? Try again.”

“I was cleaning and bumped into it and it just collapsed!” Nicky wails, “What do I do!”

“You’re going to have to call Neil,” Renee says, “Don’t you have insurance to cover this?”

“Yes,” Nicky says, “But this ruins my reputation as an art gallery! No one is going to want to show their work here!”

Andrew rolls his eyes and looks away. The rest of the sculptures are still in one piece. Andrew wonders how Neil will react. He sort of wishes he can be there when Neil finds out.

“It was an accident,” Renee says, “Don’t feel too bad. These things happen.”

“Do they?” Nicky asks, looking hopeful.

“Well-” Renee says.

Andrew says, “No.”

Nicky starts crying again.

“You can’t call him while you’re crying,” Renee says, “Come on let’s get you some water.”

Andrew walks over to the sculpture that’s now sitting in pieces on the ground. He kicks one of the broken pieces of plaster. It crumbles. Andrew frowns.

There is a sign on the small elevated platform next to the piece. Andrew bends over to give it a read.

All it says is: More than one way to crumble, Artist: Neil Josten, Made from plaster and paper.

“Ironic,” Andrew says out loud.

He can hear Nicky yelling from the back.

The plan for today was to have coffee with Renee. Have is weekly phone call with Kevin to make sure he hasn’t gotten himself into a disastrous rowing accident or whatever it is he does at Harvard, and then he was going to finish editing the god awful article his boss sent him. Later he was going to spend the evening with Renee and Allison.

Now he’s stuck cleaning up Nicky’s mess. Which isn't uncommon or unusual. He shouldn’t be surprised really. This is what it meant to be related to Nicky. Nicky’s problems became your problems.

A huge pain in the ass.

The voices in the back quiet down finally. Andrew finishes his coffee and then throws it out, stepping outside to have a smoke while he waits. A few minutes pass before Renee is stepping outside next to him. He puts his cigarette out with his boot.

“So Nicky called Neil,” Renee says, “Do you want to know what he said?”

“Not really,” Andrew says, “But you’re going to tell me anyway, won’t you?”

“Yup! Neil said, just throw it out I have more. Can you believe that?” Renee asks, “He wasn’t even mad. Nicky almost had a heart attack.”

“Didn’t he make a comment about not dropping anything?” Andrew says, “Why the change of heart.”

Renee shrugs. “Nicky was crying on the phone call so maybe that’s why.”

“Ah,” Andrew says, he fiddles with his lighter in his pocket and says, “A sympathetic artist.”

Renee laughs. “Yes well, we are going to go pick up the replacement.”

“No,” Andrew says, “I have things to do. I’m not helping Nicky anymore. He has a husband, doesn’t he?”

“Erik is working,” Renee says, “And what exactly were your plans for the day? Other than doing whatever I want to do tonight?”

“I have to call Kevin,” Andrew says, “Unfortunately.”

“Call him on the way,” Renee says, she doesn’t touch him but she reaches out and steals the keys from his jacket pocket, “I’ll drive.”

“Great,” Andrew deadpans.

His day just keeps getting worse and worse.

--------

Neil’s studio is on the other side of town. It’s not a long drive but Andrew is resentful that he has to go in the first place. He fumes the entire ride over. Instead of calling Kevin he sends him a vague text telling him to call some other day. Kevin says it’s fine. Andrew’s just annoyed he doesn’t have an excuse to call this thing off.

“Nicky should be the one picking up the new sculpture,” Andrew says, “Why are we his messengers?”

“It’s for the best,” Renee says, “Nicky would probably cry the entire ride over.”

Andrew can’t argue with that.

Neil’s studio is in an old converted factory. There’s a tall clock tower in the front. It looms over the parking lot and the rest of the building.

Andrew stares up at it as Renee pulls to a stop. The clock isn’t moving. Andrew wonders if it’s broken.

“I’ve never been here before,” Renee says as she turns the car off, “I didn’t know they put studio space inside.”

Andrew gets out of the car without answering.

The factory takes up almost an entire block. It’s huge. Andrew isn’t sure how they’re supposed to find Neil’s tiny studio in this giant place.

“Oh, Neil’s waiting for us,” Renee says.

Andrew looks to the front of the building. Sure enough Neil is waiting for them. He has a cigarette in his hand, held close to his face. He watches Andrew and Renee from afar, not bothering to call out to them.

He stands out like a sore thumb against the dark red brick. A splash of bright color. He’s still hard to look at.

“Come on,” Renee says, “I know you want to get out of here.”

“After you.”

Neil drops his cigarette as soon as they approach. He looks them over, studious, the same assessing look that he gave them the day they met.

“Hey,” Neil says. He doesn’t look pleased, but Andrew is starting to think that he never does. A nice change of pace compared to the people in Andrew’s life. All of them are always smiling and cheerful.

“Hey,” Renee says, “We’re here to pick up the replacement.”

“I know,” Neil says, “It’s inside.”

He opens the door and holds it while Andrew and Renee enter. The building is eerily quiet.

“My studio is this way,” Neil says, “I’m giving you a smaller piece this time. Easier to carry out.”

“I’m sure Nicky will really appreciate it,” Renee says, “He feels awful for what happened.”

“It’s fine,” Neil says, he starts walking and doesn’t look back as he talks, “The insurance will send me a check.”

“For how much?” Andrew asks without thinking.

Neil spares him a glance over his shoulder. His eyes are disgustingly blue. Blue enough that they’re hard to look at.

“Probably a thousand,” Neil says, “Maybe more.”

“Wow,” Renee says, “That’s good. You’ll get a full reimbursement.”

Neil shrugs and turns away.

His studio is at the end of a long hallway. The door is propped open and the smell of wet plaster and paint wafts into the hall. Neil steps in first and Renee follows him. Andrew hesitates at the door.

It’s like looking into a sea of gray. There isn’t a trace of color in Neil’s studio. Everything is washed out and empty. Some of his sculptures stand half finished against the walls of the studio. There’s handmade paper hanging from a clothing line across the room. There are broken pieces of sculpture in a pile on the side.

It’s chaotic and messy and yet it feels empty. It’s unsettling but Andrew can’t put his finger on why.

Maybe it’s because Neil is a vibrant person. He stands out, even when he’s wearing a bland gray shirt and a dirty pair of jeans. He can’t blend into a crowd. His hair is too bright, his eyes too startling. The studio is washed out compared to him. Hazy like a dream.

“It’s a mess,” Neil says, “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Renee says amicably, “Sorry for intruding.”

Neil shuffles through his maze of sculptures and then returns with a small white piece in his hand. It doesn’t look heavy and it’s much smaller than the one it’s replacing.

“This is it,” Neil says, holding the piece up. It doesn’t look like anything. Andrew is starting to wonder what the appeal is in Neil’s art.

“It’s lovely,” Renee says, “Thank you so much. Nicky will really appreciate it.”

“Just tell him not to call me crying again,” Neil says, “And we’re even.”

“I’ll do my best,” Renee says with a smile.

Neil walks across his studio, careful not to stumble over any of his art. He stops in front of Andrew in the doorway. He holds the sculpture out with an uneasy look in his eyes.

Andrew feels something spike through his chest painfully. He hates it. He hates it so much. He reaches out and takes the sculpture. His hand slips. The entire thing nearly falls to the ground but he catches it again.

Neil’s eyes go wide. Andrew assumes he’s going to lecture him or take the sculpture back. Instead Neil surprises him. He lets out a startled laugh. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. Neil’s face twists as soon as he laughs, stopping himself before anything else can come out.

Andrew’s chest hurts again. He considers just dropping the sculpture. He wonders if Neil will crack open just like the plaster.

“Please don’t break another one of my sculptures,” Neil says.

“Don’t say please,” Andrew says immediately.

Neil tilts his head and then says, “Fine. Just don’t break one of my sculptures. Again.”

“I didn’t break the last one,” Andrew says.

“Right, your cousin did,” Neil says, “Guilty by association.”

“That’s not how that works,” Andrew says.

“Isn’t it?”

“Well,” Renee says, cutting in, “Since we have the sculpture we should probably get going.”

“Right,” Neil says. He gives Andrew one last look and then turns away. Andrew feels the loss of his gaze like a physical weight. He hates this.

“Thanks for stopping by,” Neil says flippantly, “Let’s not meet like this again.”

“See you around, Neil,” Renee says.

Andrew turns and leaves without saying goodbye.

In the car Renee asks, “What was that about back there?”

“What was what?” Andrew asks.

“You and Neil,” Renee says, “I thought one of you was going to bite.”

“It was nothing,” Andrew says, “Drop it.”

“Touchy,” Renee says, but she’s smiling.

Andrew rolls the windows down and lights a cigarette. Renee sighs and covers the sculpture with her jacket.

“His art is depressing,” Andrew says suddenly. He doesn’t know why he says it. He’s been thinking about it, sure. But saying it outloud made it sound like he cared. Which he doesn’t.

“You think so?” Renee asks, “Why?”

“It’s empty,” Andrew says.

Renee hums. It’s quiet. The wind moves Andrew’s hair against the back of his neck. It tickles.

“I didn’t think you liked art,” Renee says.

“I don’t.”

“Then why say anything at all?”

Andrew rolls his eyes and looks away.

He doesn’t like art. He isn’t sure why he said anything. All he can feel is his throat constricting painfully. It burns like he’s had a drink of alcohol.

Renee drops the subject quickly. She says, “I won the bet, right? That means I get to pick what we’re doing tonight.”

“Great,” Andrew says.

Renee decides on a night in. Andrew thinks it’s a smart move. He doesn’t trust himself at the bar right now or any time soon.

---------

Andrew goes to the bar with Renee after two weeks of not going. He feels bent out of shape. Like he needs to go for a long walk to get out excess energy.

The last two weeks were quiet and boring. Andrew stayed close to home. He worked, he hung out with Renee, he talked to Kevin, he avoided the art gallery, he avoided the bar, he replied to the first message from Aaron in over a month.

Andrew prefers the monotony. Change does nothing for him. Excitement does nothing for him. He wants to stay away from curiosities.

His mind drifts to Neil and he writes it off as nothing more than lingering interest. Neil was easy on the eyes. It was as simple as that.

Andrew would be lying if he said he wasn’t curious. None of it made sense. Neil was hard to look at, too bright, too real. Yet he was surrounded by gray. His art, his clothing, his studio. Everything about him was washed in gray. Andrew couldn’t figure it out.

He pushes the thought aside. He’s getting distracted. He’s sitting at the corner table of the bar. Renee is across from him. Beside her is Allison. She’s talking but Andrew isn’t listening. Her words go in one ear and out the other.

Andrew looks to the bar. Roland catches his eye. He nods towards the back. Andrew looks to Renee. She notices. She always notices. She frowns.

Andrew gets up.

It’s easy. Simple. Andrew likes simple. It makes this easier. He sneaks off to the back.

It’s quick because Andrew isn’t really into it. He brushes off his pants when he’s done and then ushers Roland out of the backroom.

He feels gross all over again. It gets easier every time, not by much anyway.

Andrew goes off to the bathroom. He’s not even hard. He doesn’t know why. He washes his hands and then splashes water on his face. He feels gross. Dirty. Unwell. He sighs.

Maybe it isn’t getting any easier.

Renee would call him self destructive. Andrew thinks that if he was really trying to be self destructive he would be dead by now.

Andrew needs a drink. He steps back out to the bar. Roland hands him a drink. He takes it without looking at him.

There’s a third person at their table. Andrew blinks when he sees a catch of red. He narrows his eyes.

Neil is sitting at the table next to Allison. He’s wearing gray, as per usual. Andrew hesitates. He feels sick to his stomach. He can’t pinpoint why. He’s sad nothing more than a handful of words to Neil. Why does it bother him so much? Why does his presence make Andrew feel sick?

He’s bright. His hair stands out underneath the lights in the bar. It’s unsettling. He looks out of place in a loose gray sweater, his hair tied back, curls falling into his face.

Andrew downs his drink before he makes it back to the table.

Renee smiles at him.

“Welcome back,” She says. She doesn’t sound pleased. Andrew ignores her in favor of returning to his seat.

“Look who decided to join us,” Allison says, “You’ve met right?”

“Unfortunately,” Andrew says. He steals a drink from the center of the table. He downs it.

Renee glares at him.

Andrew feels lightheaded.

“He almost dropped one of my sculptures,” Neil says.

“It’s not like anyone would miss them,” Andrew says.

“Andrew,” Renee says quietly, a warning. Andrew ignores her.

Neil leans his elbow on the table. He says, “You think so?”

“Yes,” Andrew says.

“Why?”

“Because your art is nothing.”

Neil blows out a breath and smirks. It’s crooked, leaning heavily to one side. It’s probably supposed to look dangerous. Maybe a bit intimidating. For whatever reason Andrew thinks it’s sort of hot. He wants to reach out and wipe the smile right off his face, take a hold of his cheeks and squeeze.

“Nothing?” Neil asks, there’s a hint of amusement in his voice. He says, “Isn’t that the point? Art doesn’t have to be anything to have value. I make things so I don’t end up punching someone in the face.”

Andrew leans back and shrugs. He wishes he had something to do with his hands. He wishes he had another drink. He’s probably had more than enough.

“I’m going to have a smoke,” Andrew says, standing up.

“Running away?” Neil asks.

“No,” Andrew says, “I just lost interest.”

He walks out of the bar as fast as he can. The fresh air does wonders. He can finally see and think clearly. People pass by but they don’t pay him any mind. In their own world, some stumbling, some perfectly sober. Andrew leans against the wall and pulls a cigarette out.

He gets through half of the cigarette when the bar door opens. He turns and looks. Neil steps out, a smoke already in his hand. He leans against the wall next to Andrew.

“What?” Andrew says.

“Am I bothering you?” Neil asks innocently. Only there isn’t an innocent look on his face. In fact, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

“Yes,” Andrew says honestly, “Very much actually.”

“I get that a lot,” Neil says. He lights his cigarette and then holds it close. Not bothering to take a drag. Another thing to add to the list that makes Neil both weird and interesting at the same time.

“Do you have a problem with me?” Neil asks.

Andrew looks at him. It’s dark outside, with only a few street lights and the light over the bar to light their path. Still Neil looks like he’s standing under the sun. His eyes are shining. Mischievous maybe. Or something less sinister.

Andrew watches him.

“Not really,” Andrew says, “You’re a mystery that I don’t care to solve.”

“Funny,” Neil says, “You don’t look like you don’t care.”

“Shut up,” Andrew replies. He takes one last drag and flicks his cigarette into the street. Neil tsks at him.

“There’s an ashtray behind you,” Neil says.

“Did you not hear me say shut up?”

Neil laughs. For some reason he fucking laughs. Andrew looks at him like he’s out of his mind, because he must be. Andrew isn’t being nice. He isn’t being funny. So why is he laughing.

“Do you really think my art is nothing?” Neil asks.

Andrew sighs. He should have kept his mouth shut. Luckily he has a high tolerance for alcohol. He’s already starting to feel sober.

“Does my opinion matter?” Andrew asks, “You didn’t seem to care anyway.”

“It matters because-” Neil says and then stops, “Well I guess it doesn’t. Still- no one has ever said that to me before. I’m curious.”

“You’re bland,” Andrew says, not holding back, “You make no sense. You stand out like a sore thumb and yet you wear clothing to try and blend in. Your studio was a washed up hole of nothing but gray and white. Your sculptures look like nothing. Like they’re not even there.”

“Huh,” Neil says reverently, “Interesting.”

“What?”

“It’s just-” Neil says, “I’ve always tried to blend in. It makes sense everything I make is the same.”

Andrew steals Neil’s cigarette from his hand. Their fingers touch. Andrew pulls away quickly. He takes a drag.
“Then do something about it,” Andrew says.

“I thought you didn’t care enough,” Neil says, looking rather proud of himself.

“I don’t,” Andrew says. He takes another drag and purposefully blows it in Neil’s face. He doesn’t even flinch.

“You’re a terrible liar,” Neil says.

Andrew glares at him. Stupid brat. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Andrew’s half hard just from talking to him. Earlier having Roland’s dick in his hands did absolutely nothing for him. And now this.

Andrew crushes the cigarette with his fingers.

“You’re annoying,” Andrew says.

“Thanks,” Neil says.

Andrew doesn’t know why he says it, but he says, “Why do you try to blend in?”

“I spent most of my life hiding,” Neil says, “I won’t tell you anything else.”

“How interesting,” Andrew says, “And now I’m losing interest. Go away.”

Neil hums, “Are you sure? And stop this interesting conversation?”

“Goodbye.”

Neil laughs and turns to the front door of the bar.

“Okay,” He says, turning back to look at Andrew over his shoulder, “Have a good night, Andrew.”

He disappears through the doorway. Just like that he’s gone. Like water in the palm of Andrew’s hand. That’s what Neil is. Impossible to grasp, impossible to hold on to, but something that Andrew craves all the same.

Andrew turns on his heel and leaves.

------------

“You know I hate to push you,” Renee says, “But I’m worried about you.”

“Don’t be,” Andrew replies. He turns away.

They’re in his living room. Renee on the couch. The TV is muted. The stove is on.

Renee says, “I just want you to be happy, Andrew. You can’t keep running yourself into the ground.”

The heat isn’t on but Andrew feels unnecessarily warm.

Renee says, “I won’t talk about it anymore. I just hope you know I’m here for you. If you need anything.”

Andrew doesn’t answer.

---------

Nicky calls Andrew the day that Neil’s exhibition ends. Andrew is half asleep in bed. His phone is ringing non stop. He has a headache, the kind that comes from drinking far too much. The kind that Andrew is all too familiar with.

Maybe Renee is right.

Andrew grabs his phone and answers without checking who’s calling.

“What?”

Hello, dear cousin. My favorite cousin, don’t tell Aaron I said that. I have a favor to ask,” Nicky immediately says.

Andrew groans. He thinks about throwing his phone across the room. He doesn’t.

“What is it?”

So Wayne, my useless employee, quit yesterday and since the exhibition closed last night, we need help getting Neil’s art out of the gallery. I will pay you. Promise.

Andrew knows Nicky is good for it. He didn’t leave him hanging last time.

“Fine,” Andrew says, “I’ll get there when I get there.”

I can not tell you how much I love you right now. Thank you so much. Oh my god! Now I’m going to have to go and hire a whole new worker. Do you know what a nightmare it is to-
“Bye, Nicky,” Andrew says.

Wait-

Andrew hangs up.

He takes his sweet time getting ready to leave. It was mid morning when Nicky called. By the time Andrew leaves it’s the afternoon. He drives to the art gallery, not looking forward to another time he’s going to have to see Neil.

Hopefully this will be the last time they run into each other.

Andrew parks behind the van out front. He can see Nicky and Neil moving around inside. Andrew gets out of the car and sighs. He should have just said no. Nicky has a husband. He could have asked him to do the heavy lifting.

The bell rings over the front door when Andrew walks in. Neil and Nicky both turn around. Nicky’s face breaking out into a smile. Neil on the other hand looks curious, a single eyebrow lifting.

“Andrew, thank goodness!” Nicky says, “We’re just going to take Neil’s art to the van. Thank you again, I owe you.”

“You’re paying me,” Andrew says.

“Yes. Yup,” Nicky says, nodding, “I am paying you. Okay let’s get started.”

Getting the sculptures back into the van is a pain in the ass. It was easier when Renee was there to help. Andrew doesn’t complain. He does pretend to almost drop one of Neil’s pieces again. Neil laughs again. It makes Andrew’s stomach twist.

What he wouldn’t do to hear it again.

“Thank you for your help,” Nicky says, “It would have taken twice as long if it was just Neil and I.”

Andrew shrugs. Next time he’ll say no. That’s what he keeps telling himself anyway. And yet here he is.

“Yeah, thanks,” Neil says, “I appreciate you helping us move nothing.”

Nicky lets out a surprised gasp.

“Wha-?” Nicky says and then stops.
Andrew only has eyes on Neil.

“Next time you should hire someone,” Andrew says.

“That’s what you're for,” Neil replies.

“There won’t be a next time from me,” Andrew says, “But nice try.”

“We’ll see,” Neil says. He’s smirking again. Andrew hates how much it affects him. “Actually, if you’re free. You can help me get these back into my studio.”

“Not for free,” Andrew says.

Neil hums. “I can’t pay you. But I’ll let you break one of my, what did you call them, ‘bland’ sculptures?

Nicky gasps again.

Andrew considers it.

He doesn’t think this is what Renee meant when she called him self-destructive. But saying yes feels like signing his name on a death certificate. Like something bad will happen. Like he’s signing on for trouble.

Against his better judgement, and for some unknown reason, Andrew says, “Fine.”

“Great,” Neil says, with a smirk, “You can follow me in that thing you call a car.”

“What’s happening?” Nicky asks, looking between them, “Andrew, you’re not really going to break one of Neil’s sculptures, right?”

“We’ll see,” Andrew says, “Are you paying me now or later?”

“I was going to stop at the bank on the way home,” Nicky says.

“You can drop it off tomorrow,” Andrew says, “I’m leaving.”

“What?” Nicky asks, confused.

“Bye,” Andrew says.

 

Neil laughs as they walk out the door. Nicky follows them out, taking the air of confusion along with him. It feels much less stifling when it’s in the open air.

“Thanks again, Nicky,” Neil says, “We’ll be in touch.”

“Right,” Nicky says, sounding winded.

Neil gets in his van. Andrew gets in his car. They leave Nicky behind.

------

The studio is just as bland and boring as the first time Andrew was there. They carry the sculptures inside one by one, it’s arduous and annoying. Neil doesn’t listen to instructions and bumps against every doorway like he’s doing it on purpose. Andrew really, really hopes he never has to do this again.

He has a feeling it won’t be the last time.

“I said you could break anything,” Neil says. He stands in the middle of his studio. The paper that was hanging from the clothing line is gone now, replaced with gray fabric that looks like it’s been bleached.

“Anything?” Andrew asks.

Neil tucks his hands into the back pocket of his jeans. He’s swimming in his t-shirt. It’s about 5 sizes too big for him. Andrew bets he would benefit from some sort of wardrobe change. He’s sort of tempted to set the shirt on fire for him right then and there.

“Anything,” Neil says. He raises his hands and gestures around the open studio.

Anything. Andrew sort of wants to destroy Neil before he touches anything else.

He walks around the studio. His eyes trailing over the boring, plain white sculptures. There’s probably something to them. They have movement, structure. Andrew just can’t see it. He can’t see what Nicky sees in them. Or Renee. Or any of the people that bought the sculptures that Neil had in the gallery.

All he sees is the easy way out. An easy outlet. Something devoid of personality. It doesn’t tell Andrew who Neil Josten is. It doesn’t tell him anything. Andrew does a circle around the room. He stops behind Neil, nudges him with the back of his foot. Neil looks over his shoulder.

“You first,” Andrew says.

“Me?” Neil asks, looking startled, “I’m not going to break my own art.”

 

“Why not?” Andrew asks. He nudges him again, this time on the back of Neil’s knee. He nearly topples over from the sensation. Andrew bites back any sort of reaction.

“Fine,” Neil says. He stands up straight and looks around, tapping his finger to his chin.

“Oh this one,” He says. He walks over to a tall piece, tall enough that it nearly touches the ceiling. It’s poorly made and falling apart at the top.

“I hate this thing,” Neil says.

He reaches out and grabs the middle. With one good pull it topples to the side and shatters to pieces.

“That can’t be good for the floor,” Neil says.

He’s surrounded by broken plaster and shattered paper mache. He smirks. Andrew feels warm.

“You’re turn,” Neil says.

Andrew grabs the closest sculptures, a small rounded object on a shelf. He drops it to the ground and watches it smash to pieces.

“It feels good, huh?” Neil asks, “Stuff falls all the time when I’m working. It’s sort of a relief.”

“Are you ever going to make something that isn’t worth more smashed to pieces?” Andrew asks.

“Probably not,” Neil says, “Isn’t that the point?”

“Why do you make it then?” Andrew asks, “If you don’t even care if it breaks.”

“Nothing is permanent,” Neil says, “Getting attached to an object is meaningless. It’s going to break. You’re going to lose it. It’s sort of like people. They come. They go. They die. Nothing lasts forever. Why should any of this?”

Andrew bites the inside of his mouth. For once, for the first time, it isn’t painful to look at Neil. He isn’t bright. He doesn’t stand out. Suddenly he blends in.

“Who are you?” Andrew asks.

“I don’t know,” Neil says, “Do you know who you are?”

“No,” Andrew replies.

“Then I guess it doesn’t matter,” Neil says, “We’re just like my sculptures. Nothing.”
Andrew doesn’t really feel like nothing right now. Neither does Neil.

“Nothing,” He repeats.

“Right?” Neil says. He looks curious. Andrew can’t tell if he needs someone to assure him that he’s real or if he really thinks he’s nothing. Andrew isn’t a therapist. He isn’t here to put Neil back together like one of his broken sculptures.

But god he sort of wants to try.

Andrew steps forward. He steps over the broken pieces of Neil’s plaster sculptures. There is dust on the floor. It’s almost everywhere. It smells like paint but there isn’t a splash of color in sight.

Andrew stops in front of Neil.

He says, “You make no sense. Try taking the mask off and making something real for once.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Neil says, “The last time I made something real- it- well-” He stops and looks away, “My mom used to beat me black and blue if she found me painting. I stopped trying.”

“Where is she now?”

“Dead,” Neil says, “Don’t feel bad for me. It was for the best.”

“I don’t,” Andrew says.

“Do you have any soul crushing secrets you want to share with me?” Neil asks, “Or are you going to smash another one of my sculptures and say something philosophical.”

“Neither,” Andrew says. He steps forward again. Neil takes a step with him. It’s odd. They move in tandem. Andrew doesn’t know why Neil doesn’t just run.

Isn’t Andrew supposed to be scary? He doesn’t know anymore. He’s just doing whatever he wants now. He reaches out and stops short of touching Neil, his hand hovering over the side of his neck.

Neil, Neil, foolish, a confusing whirlwind of secrets and lies and bland art and gray clothing, tilts his head to make room. Andrew swallows.

He says, “I’m going to touch you.”

“I hope you do more than that,” Neil says, breathless.
“Is that a yes?” Andrew asks.

Neil doesn’t look surprised. He nods. When he sees it isn’t enough he says, “Yes.”

Andrew places his hand on the back of Neil’s neck. He pulls him down.

They kiss for the first time in Neil’s studio, surrounded by broken sculptures. Still so many secrets bottled up. Still so many questions. Andrew opens his mouth. He breaths in Neil’s sigh.

Neil kisses him back. Andrew grabs his hands and forces them behind his back. Neil keeps them where Andrew puts them. For some reason it makes Andrew want to kiss him hard enough that it leaves a bruise.

It’s a hell of a kiss coming from nothing.

It sort of tastes like everything.

-------

Sleeping with Neil was not part of the plan. But here they are. Andrew definitely thought about it. More than once. He just never thought that he would actually act on it. Or that Neil would be interested in return.

Yet here they are. More than a handful of times and never more than Andrew getting Neil off. He still won’t let Neil touch him. Not there. Not yet. Maybe someday.

Andrew hates that he thinks about someday.

Neil’s in bed next to him. His tongue sticking out of his mouth, a pen in one hand, and Andrew’s hand in the other.

“Are you done?” Andrew asks, taking a drag of his cigarette.

“No,” Neil says, “Stay still, or I’ll mess up.”

Andrew rolls his eyes.

Neil’s dressed for the most part. The tank top he’s wearing doesn’t do him any favors. It shows more flesh than he probably likes to reveal. The scars on his arms are in full view, the scars on his side and chest peeking out from under the edges of the loose fabric.

Andrew doesn’t resist. Neil’s hand is warm. The feeling of the pen on his skin makes him feel itchy, but he doesn’t pull away. There’s something borderline endearing about the way Neil’s lips curl when he’s concentrating.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Andrew has been tempted more than once to push back. To put an end to whatever this is before it can become something with too much attachment. He keeps coming back. Neil shows up when he’s not at work or in his studio. He comes over and let’s himself into Andrew’s apartment like he lives here.

He follows instructions. He doesn’t touch when he’s not supposed to. He kisses like his life depends on it. Like the world narrows down to just them and nothing else.

Andrew liked what he had with Roland. It was easy. Transactional. But this? This feels like something else. Neil comes over for dinner. He leaves Andrew notes when he has to leave early. He invites Andrew to his studio. He wants Andrew around.

Andrew can’t seem to find it in himself to fight him.

“Why did you follow me out of the bar?” Andrew asks suddenly.

Neil looks up for a second, his hand coming to a stop.

“What?” He asks.

“That day you were at the bar with Allison and Renee. Why did you follow me outside?”

“Oh,” Neil says. He looks back down at Andrew’s hand, picking up where he left off, “Renee said I shouldn’t let what you said get to me. She said you’re a good person but you can shove people away. Allison said it was because you’re hard to get along with.”

“And? Wouldn’t that be reason enough to stay away?”

“I guess,” Neil says, “My only thought was, I’m also hard to get along with.”

He stops drawing and blows on Andrew’s hand so the ink will dry. Andrew takes in a breath.

“So you followed me outside,” Andrew says.

“So I followed you outside,” Neil replies, “I also like a good argument and I thought we were going to get into one. Allison says I like to look for trouble.”

“Allison shouldn’t be one to pass judgement,” Andrew says.

“Yeah. I’m pretty sure Allison is evil. That’s why I like her,” Neil looks over his handy work. He tucks the pen behind his ear and says, “I’m done.”

Andrew looks down.

It’s a bunch of flowers and vines and leaves. Detailed and dark against Andrew’s skin. It’s nothing like the sculptures Neil makes.

“Thanks,” Neil says, “You sat very well. You didn’t complain once.”

“Shut up,” Andrew says. He reaches out and takes hold of Neil’s tank top, tugging him over. Neil laughs as Andrew kisses him.

“You shouldn’t have drawn on me,” Andrew says, “I’m going to get ink on your dick.”

Neil laughs as Andrew pushes him down. He says, “Use your other hand! I worked hard on that!”

Andrew kisses him until he’s quiet.

--------

“I can’t believe you’re making me do this again,” Andrew says.

It’s sweltering outside. A heat wave in the middle of summer. Neil looks at ease, like the heat doesn’t bother him one bit. His hair is long now and he has it pulled back with an orange hair tie.

“I told you,” Neil says, “Count on having to do this a million more times.”

Nicky holds the door open to the gallery while they carry the last piece in. It’s heavy, heavier than the others. Andrew’s arms shouldn’t feel like jell-o after he puts it down, but they do. He’s going to have to start working out more.

Neil steps back and looks around the gallery. Andrew stands next to him, crossing his arms.

The sculptures are different from the first show he put together. They’re alive. Organic looking objects that stretch and curve and turn in on themselves. There still isn’t a lot of color, just a touch on a few here or there. But they’re different. Andrew can feel it. He could feel it when he would walk into the studio and catch Neil working on one of them.

Andrew doesn’t know what changed. In his mind it was nothing. In reality it was probably everything.

“They’re amazing,” Nicky says with awe, “I can’t believe how beautiful they look.”

“Thanks,” Neil says, “Try not to break any this time. I’m slightly more attached to them this time around.”

“I promise nothing like that will happen again,” Nicky says, “Your sculptures are in safe hands.”

“What happened to nothing lasts forever?” Andrew asks under his breath.

Neil leans into his side. It’s a ghost of a touch, light enough that Andrew can pull away if he wants. It’s an unspoken agreement now, but it was one they had to discuss. Andrew wants Neil to touch him. He just has to take it slow.

“I changed my mind,” Neil says lightly, “Haven’t you?”

The door to the gallery opens. Renee and Allison walk in.

Allison lets out a low whistle, “Wow, look at this!”

“It’s amazing, Neil,” Renee says, “Your second show! How exciting!”

“You have no idea how honored I am,” Nicky says, “I’ve had people asking after your work for months.”

Neil just shrugs. Everything in the room is on sale. Neil doesn’t care either way. He admitted to Andrew that he picks a number off the top of his head when he puts a price on the pieces. If they don’t sell he probably wouldn’t be upset. If they do it’s just a happy surprise.

“The opening is tonight, right?” Allison asks, “Do you want to rep one of my newest designs or are you going to show up in your work clothes covered in plaster again?”

“Probably the later,” Neil says.

Allison ruffles his hair, causing stray hair to fall out of his hair tie.

“Stop,” Neil says.

Nicky starts talking about the opening. Allison puts her two cents in. Neil sighs as he watches them, listening and taking everything in. No matter how much he pretends not to care Andrew can see that he does. More than he would ever admit.

Andrew sneaks out the front door and lights a cigarette. It’s way too warm to be lugging giant sculptures around. Andrew is nothing if not a sucker.

The bell over the gallery door rings. Andrew watches Renee step out and stop beside him. Andrew goes to drop his cigarette but Renee stops him, lifting her hand to tell him to wait.

“It’s fine,” She says, “Don’t stop on my account.”

“Alright,” Andrew says.

She doesn’t say anything else. They linger in relative quiet. Andrew with his back against the glass window of the gallery. Renee standing next to him with her hands tucked behind her back.

“So,” She says, “Are you happy?”

“What?” Andrew asks.

“Are you happy?”

“Why are you asking?”

Renee shrugs. A smile lights up her face. She changed the tips of her hair to a new color. They’re pink now. A bubblegum pink, bright and cheery.

“You seem different,” Renee says, “I haven’t had to follow you home after the bar in months.”

He doesn’t go to the bar for the same reason anymore. He shrugs, not wanting to give anything away.

“It doesn’t change everything,” Andrew says. Because it doesn’t. He still has bad days. In fact, sometimes he has bad weeks.

“I know that,” Renee says, “It’s just nice.”

Andrew rolls his eyes. “You’re being sentimental.”

Renee laughs. “I know! Isn’t it awful.”

They lapse into quiet for a moment. Andrew finishes his cigarette and then throws it in the ashtray by the door.

“I’m happy for you,” Renee says, “If that means anything to you.”

“Shut up,” Andrew says. He can feel his ears heating up. He can blame it on the heat if Renee asks.

“Okay,” Renee says while laughing, raising her hands in defense, “I’ll stop. I just- I’m happy. You know?”

“Yeah. I know,” Andrew says. He looks up at the sky. It’s blue, clear and blue, not a cloud in sight. It’s the same color as Neil’s eyes. He takes a deep breath. “It’s not the worst thing in the world.”

“No,” Renee replies, “It’s definitely not.”