Nicky: ITS PRETTY CLEAR
Aaron: really no
Nicky: YOU GUYS
Nicky: step by step
Dan: are you hurt?
Dan: this is a bad way to tell us you’re hurt
Matt: L O V E
Matt: ANDREW LOVES COFFEE
Matt: we knew that
Aaron: I cannot believe you are going along with this
Aaron: it’s your fault this keeps happening
Nicky: coffee obvs
Nicky: BUT NOW
Alli: dicks dicks dicks
Matt: andrew loves coffee dicks!
Matt: what do I win?
Aaron: you all deserve this
Nicky: coffee GUY
Nicky: andrew loves the coffee GUY
Alli: and his dicks
Alli: you never know
Matt: tell me everything
Kevin: tell me nothing
Nicky: I saw him in a coffee shop
Nicky: he was SMILING at the hot coffee guy
Matt: pics or it didn’t happen
Alli: maybe it was aaron
Aaron: maybe it WAS me
Aaron: it must have been me
Nicky: S M I L I N G
Alli: and this is an emergency why?
Nicky: he obvs needs our help
Renee: he probably doesn’t
Alli: what kiiiind of help?
Nicky: you know how Andrew is an acquired taste
Alli: if that’s what we’re calling building up a tolerance to poisons, then sure
Alli: don’t @ me
Alli: I sprinkle arsenic on my breakfast these days
Alli: but lets be real about our boy
Nicky: he needs WINGMEN
Nicky: why are you all so difficult?
Nicky: it’s Coffee on 7th
Nicky: drop by
Nicky: vet the boy
Nicky: talk andrew up
Nicky: make sure he’s not straight
Aaron: you’re all going to die
Nicky: no aaron WE’RE all going to die
Nicky: but at least andrew will be happy
Matt: I call tuesday afternoon
Alli: what if we go and he’s not there
Nicky: GOOD POINT
Nicky: I’ll go first and get his schedule
Aaron: Is that wingmanning or creeping?
Nicky goes to the coffee shop first, as is according to his commitment to the plan. It’s not the kind of place he’d expect Andrew to go, not really—it’s spotlessly clean, but doesn’t really look it, not with the abundance of mismatched armchairs, settees, and even, Nicky thinks, one very decadent velvet chaise longue. There’s a rainbow hanging on the far wall. When Nicky squints at it, he sees that each wash of color is made up of a bundle of charging cords and headphones hanging from white ceramic hooks. The counter is long, dark wood, a lot of little drawers, looking like it would be more at home in an old-as-fuck library than sandwiched between a real estate office and a hair salon with the very, very strange name Unique Reflections in Hair. Behind it isn’t the cute redheaded coffee guy he’d seen Andrew smiling at, but a person with intricately braided hair, three facial piercings, and the kind of aesthetic that encourages you to say “them” instead of “him” or “her.” Nicky wants their jumpsuit hanging in his closet very much.
He sidles up, smiles his most winning smile, and orders something called ‘The Labyrinth’ from the menu without bothering to read its ingredients. The coffee person—Robin, their name tag says—starts pressing buttons and releasing steam from various alchemical machinery.
“Soooo,” Nicky says, so winning, innocent, in the kind of tone that all but demands his eyelashes lengthen and his eyes widen. “There’s this guy.”
“Oh boy,” Robin says. Nicky thinks he sees a dimple appear in their cheek when the corners of their mouth lift up.
“No, no,” Nicky assures them. “Nothing like that. He works here.”
“Sounds a little like that,” Robin observes.
“No,” Nicky says, “just, he makes my coffee exactly the way I like it. Just perfect. Best coffee in the world.”
“You haven’t even tried mine yet.”
Nicky sighs. “Red hair? Maybe yea high?”
“Neil,” Robin says. The dimple deepens.
“Neil,” Nicky echoes. “So, like, if I had a craving for the best coffee in the world, when might I...come in?”
“He’s not interested,” Robin tells him. “You’ll just embarrass yourself.”
“Not like that,” Nicky protests. “I have a husband. He’s hunky and German. We’re going to get married and have babies.”
“You just really love coffee.”
“Saturday through Wednesday, sometimes Fridays. After 2. Knock yourself out. Probably literally.”
“Thanks,” Nicky says. It tracks. It had been 3-ish on a Monday when he’d seen Andrew here, his elbows propped up on the counter, his body language open and easy, the smile on his face almost painful to look at, priceless, incredibly rare.
“Stick with your hunky German,” Robin advises. “He won’t be into it.”
“Oh,” Nicky says. “Is he...straight?”
Robin’s eyebrow goes up.
“Not that it matters,” Nicky tells them hurriedly. “People of all sexual orientations can make great coffee.”
“He’s Neil,” Robin says. “That’ll be $5.75. Here’s a free cookie.”
Nicky doesn’t realize, until after he’s down the sidewalk, that it’s probably a pity cookie.
Nicky: Neil. sat - wed after 2
Nicky: might could be straight??
Aaron: straight people aren’t gross
Alli: they are when our boy might like them
Nicky: this sounds like a job for boobs
Alli: boobs to the rescue
Matt: or the not rescue
Matt: if he’s really into them
Kevin: you know people can be bisexual right? or asexual?
Alli: um obviously
Alli: but those aren’t prohibitive
Renee: I imagine Andrew’s radar is pretty good
Nicky: he knows nothing of romance
Dan: guys I’m at work
Renee: he could
Matt: he could be the most romantic son of a bitch in the world and we wouldn’t know
Nicky: WINGPEOPLE. COFFEE. SAT-WED. AFTER 2. DO YOUR THING.
Allison doesn’t go the old-fashioned push-up bra and tight top route. Too easy. She puts on a soft, lacy bralette and an even softer top that drapes itself over one shoulder and falls around the elbow of her other arm. Leggings. Comfortable flats. Recon clothes. This isn’t a honeypot trap. Andrew would be able to spot a creep from a mile away. They’re not worried about someone who’s going to leer at her tits and make salacious comments. They’re worried about someone… Well, Allison assumes that Andrew has a solid rotation of fuck buddies. She’s never seen him in action, but she has no doubts that he has plenty of it. That intense thing he has going on would work on a lot of people. And the biceps. Even she admires the biceps.
She just can’t imagine Andrew smiling at any of them. Somewhere in that (admittedly built) chest there lies a heart, and if every art heist movie in the world has taught her anything, it’s that the things hidden behind the thickest walls are always the most valuable.
So, they need someone with soft hands. Someone who doesn’t want to cup her breasts in those hands.
Even if, when the redheaded guy at the counter looks at her, he’s a piece of fucking art all on his own. She feels a moment of cheap, vicious satisfaction that she’s the first one to really see him. How will she describe him in the group chat? She’s going to have to look up synonyms for blue.
“What do you want?” the guy asks.
Allison belatedly realizes that she’s been gazing. “Oh,” she says. “Right. Um. Hi.”
“Hi,” the guy says drily. Allison finally thinks to check his name tag, and there it is: Neil.
“How are you?” Allison asks. Get with it, she tells herself. Do your thing. She leans on the counter, arms crossed at the wrists, and puts a sweetly brilliant smile on her face.
“I am waiting with bated breath to make you coffee,” Neil says. “It’s incredibly fulfilling.”
Allison laughs her special, flirty laugh. “What if coffee isn’t what I want?”
Neil points at the menu above his head. “We also have tea, soda, and baked goods.”
“Well,” she drawls. “What would you recommend?”
“Making a decision,” Neil tells her. “It’s delicious. Everyone loves it. If you need time to decide, we conveniently offer anywhere else in the shop to think about it.”
Allison looks back over her shoulder. There is literally no one else waiting in line behind her. The room is at least half full of people buried into cozy chairs or perched at tables typing or even one guy up in the second floor loft space doing something that looks like tai chi with a pair of enormous headphones covering his ears. Against her will, she feels herself start to smile.
“Okay, fine,” she says, turning back to Neil and straightening. “Your customer service skills suck, by the way.”
“Is that what you were looking for?” Neil asks. His eyes go wide. “Customer service?”
“Fuck you,” Allison laughs. Finally, grudgingly, she looks up at the menu. “What’s the raspberry coffee like?”
Neil hums. “Not bad, actually. If I use the mocha base and add a little sweet cream, it tastes like an expensive dessert.”
“Alright. I’ll have that. And whatever scone goes best with it.”
Neil nods and turns away from her, pulling out a cup and pressing buttons and generally paying her (and her boobs) no mind at all. He has nice hands, Allison thinks as she watches them. Whether or not they’re soft, she doesn’t know, but they’re agile and efficient, with long fingers and short nails painted in a chipped gradient of purples. He’s short, too, she notices. Maybe taller than Andrew, or maybe not, if the area behind the counter is elevated at all. What he definitely isn’t is flirting with Allison.
“Bacon and pepperjack,” Neil says, setting the cup and a little brown paper bag on the counter in front of her. “Nine bucks.”
She digs out her wallet. “I like your nails.”
“Oh,” he says, looking at them like he’d forgotten he even had them. “Thanks.”
“Do you like my boobs?” Allison asks.
Neil blinks once and then looks at her—more specifically, he looks at her chest. He tips his head to the right and then to the left, and then shrugs. “They look soft.”
“Soft,” Allison repeats.
“My cat would like them,” Neil elaborates.
“To sleep on. She sleeps in strange places.”
“And my breasts are ‘strange places’?”
“Well,” Neil says reasonably. “She doesn’t even know you.”
“Oh my god,” Allison says. “Oh my god. Can I pinch your cheeks?”
“Not unless you want me to throw very hot coffee at you.”
“Someday,” Allison tells him. She picks up her cup and points towards him with it. “Someday you’re going to let me pinch your cheeks.”
Neil says, very seriously, “That is really unlikely.”
Alli: he’s perfect
Matt: for you or for andrew?
Alli: he’d be rough on my ego
Matt: but not andrew’s?
Alli: andrew’s ego is bulletproof
Nicky: did he go for the boobs or not, allison??
Alli: not even a little
Alli: I asked
Alli: he seemed to think they’d be most valuable as a cat bed
Nicky: andrew loves cats!
Nicky: it’s destiny
Matt: what else? tell us everything
Alli: gorgeous. kind of a dick. funny in a weird way. his EYES.
Matt: what about them??
Alli: no I’m not going to spoil it
Alli: you’ll all see for yourself
Alli: he gives good coffee
Alli: I’d like to watch him do stuff with his hands
Nicky: if you know what she means
Dan: we know
Matt: we know
Kevin: but how does he feel about exy?
Alli: shockingly it didn’t come up KEVIN
Kevin: are any of you going to even ask him?
Nicky: no duh
Aaron: absolutely not
Renee: probably not
Kevin: fine. I’ll go.
Nicky: what’s the right answer?
Nicky: for a boyfriend for andrew? yay exy or nay exy?
Kevin: we’d have to deal with him too
Alli: are you going to give him a pop quiz?
Kevin: I’ll just wear a team shirt
Matt: good team or bad team?
Kevin: ….I don’t know yet
Matt likes the place as soon as he steps through the door. It feels separate from the foot traffic outside somehow. Instantly quieter. Air the perfect temperature and scented like old books and cookies. The colors are muted. The wood feels ancient beneath Matt’s feet, even if he rationally knows that it’s gotta be laminate. It’s not at all what you’d expect from a place named ‘Coffee.’ It should be called something like ‘The Fox’s Den’ or ‘Widdershins’ or ‘Wilde’s’ or something. In one corner is a woman playing an acoustic guitar and singing something smoky. There isn’t actually a crowd, but everyone in the room is facing her from their chairs and tables. No one is holding their cell phone, even.
It’s safe in some weird way.
He scans the room to make sure he doesn’t spot Andrew already there somewhere — it’s a little after seven o’clock, so he assumes Andrew’s off at the gym or an Illuminati meeting or something, but he checks anyway. No Andrew. At least, no Andrew on the ground floor.
There are two people behind the counter. One is a golden-haired surf god, stacked and tan and grinning widely at the customer in front of him. The other is shorter, with rich, dark red hair, the length of which is pulled up into a tiny ponytail that lies messily along the shorn sides. It should look douchey. It looks effortless. Matt wishes he could pull that off.
He slips into the line behind three or four other people. There’s one queue and two baristas, so he has to hope Neil happens to be the one he gets.
Except, he isn’t. Neil takes the next person in line. The blond guy takes the one after that. Neil is still dealing with the first customer, who’s either incredibly indecisive or has the largest order in the world, when the blond guy finishes with the second customer and moves to the third. Matt holds his breath in the hopes that Neil’s asshole will get him all the way through this customer, too, but no luck—Neil finishes, sends the guy on his way, and waves over the woman in front of Matt.
Take a long time, he wills the blond’s customer. Take forever. Take—nope, he’s gone.
Matt turns to the young mom behind him and says, “I’m still thinking, go ahead of me.”
All she wants is a bottle of water and a fruit tart. “I’m still thinking,” Matt tells the guy behind him hurriedly. “You can go first.”
He tells the professor-looking type after that guy to go ahead of him, too. It’s probably starting to get a bit conspicuous. The guy at the surfer’s register starts to walk away, then turns around and comes back. And then, horror of horrors, Neil’s customer leaves. Which means Neil will now take the professor type, even though it really should have been the other guy, and Matt will have to get out of line, or something. He can’t stand in it letting people pass him forever.
Neil looks up. The professor-type steps forward—and then stops at the sound of a loud whistle. Matt jerks his head up and sees that it was the surfer. His lips are still pursed and he’s pointing at Matt. Matt lifts a hand and points at himself, too. A question.
“Yes, you,” the surf god says. “I can’t watch any more of this. Go ahead.” He extends his pointing finger towards Neil.
The professor-type is a lot shorter than Matt is. It makes stepping around him in line a little bit awkward. He offers the guy a sheepish smile and hustles to Neil’s register.
His first thought is wow. The mouth on this guy. The cheekbones. The eyes. Good taste, Andrew. Maybe a little too good?
“You have unusual coloring,” Matt blurts. “Um, I mean. What’s your, uh, ancestry.”
“Polish and British,” Neil says, like this isn’t an incredibly strange question. “But I’m not the drug dealer. If that’s the code phrase or something.”
“Yeah,” Neil says. “There’s a guy, but I’m not him.”
“Why...would you think I was here to buy drugs?”
“Your weird line thing,” Neil says, gesturing towards the people behind Matt. “And then you said something really random. Seemed like a reasonable guess.”
“No, uh. No drugs for me. Not anymore, I mean.”
“So you’re just weird and random, then.”
“Um,” Matt says, frantically trying to think of a good excuse. “My friend sent me here. She said you make really good coffee.”
Neil blinks at him. And then shrugs. “Sure. What do you want?”
Probably Matt should have looked at the menu at some point during his extended stay in line. He sighs heavily, then offers Neil the most charming smile he can muster. “I couldn’t decide?”
“What do you usually get?” Neil asks.
“Caramel frap,” Matt says. It’s only a little embarrassing. “But maybe something hot?”
“Hot and sweet?”
When Neil moves towards the equipment, Matt trails him. He’s tall enough to see over all the machines, so he has a perfect view of the eyebrows Neil raise at him.
Matt says, “You look familiar.”
“You just said I looked unusual,” Neil reminds him.
“Right,” Matt laughs. “I think I saw you and your boyfriend at a party once. What’s his name?”
“Your boyfriend’s name.”
“The boyfriend you saw me with at a party once.”
“I don’t know anyone named Justin.”
“You’re asking if I have a boyfriend named Justin or Robert and if we were all at a party together at some time and place you haven’t named.”
“Fuck,” Matt sighs. “Do you have a boyfriend or not?”
Neil sets the cup down on the counter and picks up a little metal pitcher. Matt hears the aerator start working through the milk. Each gurgle a bubble being born. Neil says, thoughtfully, “I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?”
“I didn’t ask.”
Allison is onto something. He really is perfect for Andrew. They just have to get rid of this maybe-boyfriend guy. Matt asks, “Wouldn’t you know? If he was your boyfriend?”
“Not if I didn’t ask. Do you have one?”
“No, I have a girlfriend. Dan. Danielle. She’s the smartest and most beautiful human being in the world.”
“You should take her something. The pie is really good. And the brownies.”
“Oh, good idea.”
He decides on a piece of pecan pie and a cinnamon crumb brownie that makes his mouth water just looking at it. Neil packages it up, takes his money, gives him his change, and hands over a cup with a curvy, almost perfectly symmetrical design etched into the top with cream.
“Hazelnut and toffee,” Neil tells him. “And a lot of cream.”
Matt takes a sip and closes his eyes. It’s smooth and silky, sweet and hot on his tongue. It burns a gentle trail through his chest as he swallows.
“She was right,” Matt tells Neil. “You really do give good coffee.”
Matt: can we keep him? he’s perfect. I would die for him.
Matt: he’s dreamy
Matt: and a dick
Matt: I don’t think he’d bat an eyelash at andrew’s shit
Nicky: ugh I’m so jealous
Nicky: why must I work?
Nicky: this is a violation of my rights
Nicky: that’s it
Nicky: I’m going TOMORROW
Aaron: darn its such a shame I can’t go
Alli: and why is that?
Aaron: heres the thing
Aaron: sometimes a fertilized ovum gets in a fight with itself
Aaron: and then 2 people who look exactly the same are born
Aaron: so much the same that 1 of them can’t discreetly creep on the guy the other 1 probably never even smiled at in the first place
Alli: okay med school
Nicky: but we’d know if he knows Andrew’s name!!
Nicky: and if he thinks you’re Andrew we’ll know if they like each other or not!
Nicky: well if he says ‘here you are again minyard my nemesis, I’ll have to put more poison in your cup this time’ then we know it’s probably not looking good
Matt: I think that’s something he might actually say
Alli: I think it’s something *andrew* might actually say
Alli: like I said, perfect
Dan: matt’s description was rapturous
Dan: the eyes, you could skydive in them
Dan: the mouth, you could bounce gently upon it like a trampoline
Dan: the ass, you could bounce gently upon it like a trampoline
Dan: I’m going Saturday
Kevin: I’m going last
Kevin: my opinion is the most important
Nicky: oh is it?
Kevin: no one knows Andrew better than me
Kevin: I’ll fight you for it
Renee: challenge accepted
Renee: andrew *would* accept the results
This time, when Nicky steps through the doors of the coffee shop, Robin isn’t behind the counter.
But Neil isn’t either.
Instead, there’s a tall guy—he looks really tall, like, taller than Nicky and maybe even taller than Erik—with very alluring shoulders and perfectly coiffed black hair.
What the fuck is it about this coffee shop? Is everyone who works here hot?
Nicky sidles up to the empty counter and offers a bright smile. The guy’s name tag says Jean.
“Gene?” Nicky asks.
“Jean,” the guy corrects, barely suppressing a sigh. His accent is fluid, the vowels in some kind of exquisite dance with each other. “How can I help you?”
“Wellll,” Nicky says. “Is Neil here?”
“No,” Jean says.
“He usually is,” Nicky points out. “Will he come in later?”
“We switched shifts,” Jean explains.
Fuck Nicky’s life. He has the worst luck in the world. Except for all the things that go right for him. He glances around the quiet room, taking in the low murmur of conversation and the frenzied typing coming from the girl in the corner whose bloodshot eyes are vivid all the way from here. Jean isn’t lying—there’s no one who could be Neil. And yet, he realizes, that might be okay. He can’t directly interrogate Neil, but he can probably get some shit out of this guy.
“Listen,” Nicky says, rallying to the task. “I think my cousin has a thing for him.”
“For Neil?” Jean asks, sounding in absolutely no way surprised by this information.
“Yeah,” Nicky confirms. “So, what can you tell me?”
“Hmm,” Jean says. “I like him.”
“You like him.”
“Like,” Nicky frowns, “like-like him?”
“What if I said yes?”
Nicky scans Jean up and down. He’s probably not the kind of guy whose bad side you want to get on in a dark alley. For all that he’s smooth and slick and perfectly put together, he looks like he could level most people with a single hit.
Nicky’s pretty sure Andrew could take him.
“I don’t know,” Nicky admits.
Jean sighs. “Neil is wonderful. Most people don’t know what to do with him.”
“Literally the same as my cousin.”
“He’s very private,” Jean says pointedly.
“Literally the same as my cousin.”
“His favorite color is gray,” Jean provides.
Andrew’s is black. That could work, right? “How old is he?”
“Coffee?” Jean reminds him. “Gossip is for customers only.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nicky says. “Make me whatever. Is he single?”
Jean moves to the machines without answering. He opens something, puts something into it, closes it, presses a button. He gets a cup. He pours something into it. He doesn’t answer the question.
“Neil,” Nicky reminds him. “Single? Not single?”
“Je ne sais pas. Remember, he is a private person.”
“Okay, but you have eyes. Wouldn’t you know?”
“Hmmm. It can be difficult to tell. Particularly when strangers come in and ask questions about him.”
“Does that happen often?”
“Lately, it seems that way,” Jean tells him pointedly.
Difficult. Everyone at this coffee shop is beautiful and difficult. Nicky thinks hard about what question to ask next. The warm, mocha spice of the air doesn’t help. It makes him want to sit down, close his eyes, and let the muted sounds of life wash over him.
“What else can you tell me?”
“What else are you going to buy?”
“One item, one answer.”
“Mercenary,” Nicky says, more than a little impressed. “I’ll take a cookie. What are Neil’s three best qualities?”
Jean steps away from the steaming machine and selects a cookie from the display case. It’s enormous. “Three?” he muses. “But you only ordered one cookie.”
“This is my new favorite place,” Nicky tells him. “I love and hate you all so much. Give me six cookies and tell me Neil’s three best and three worst qualities.”
Jean smiles then. It’s devastating. His teeth are perfect. He snaps the tongs together, a sharp metal click, and then goes back into the display for more cookies. “He is loyal. And incredibly generous. He doesn’t burden people with expectations. He also doesn’t know how or when to shut his mouth. He’s terrible at asking for help and gets in over his head a lot. And stubborn. Very stubborn.”
That...could work. Could be good. Andrew is loyal, too. And he gives in his own way, even if he does need to construct a complex scaffolding of deals and exchanges to give himself permission to do it. As for expectations, God knows Andrew lives to defy them. The other stuff—well, Nicky can actually even see how that would mesh well with Andrew. Andrew doesn’t do a lot of talking, so it might be good to see him with someone who does. A kind of bridge. If Neil doesn’t ask for things, doesn’t make demands or expect help, it could mean that Andrew’s rigid bartering system wouldn’t get a foothold—he might have to do things just for the sake of doing them. Stubborn is good with Andrew, too, maybe? Someone who he couldn’t just steamroll?
All in all, potential. Potential for sexiness and adoration.
Also, potential for a clash the type of which action movies are made about.
Either way, he thinks Andrew would be entertained by it.
Nicky squares his shoulders and points at a generous chunk of coffee cake. “What are his hobbies?”
He buys almost $40 worth of drinks and baked goods. Worth it.
Nicky: why is Neil avoiding me?
Nicky: not there again
Nicky: had to talk to a hot french guy about him
Dan: such hardship
Kevin: french, you say?
Matt: is that the surf god blond dude?
Nicky: nope. dark hair, very tall
Nicky: completely robbed me
Nicky: made me buy something for every single piece of information he gave me
Nicky: I’m going back
Nicky: I’m going to meet him if it’s the last thing I do
Coffee. is a two-block detour from Allison’s route home from the nail salon - almost nothing and well worth the trip. It's drizzly and humid outside, so the air inside the coffee shop is an instant balm to the sheen of sweat on her skin and the frizz in her hair. The door closes behind her and she sighs in relief, ensconced again in this weirdly magical place. She hears a mechanical click-click-click sound and looks around, quickly spotting a middle-aged man in wire-rimmed spectacles typing away on a typewriter that’s approximately the size of a cash register. Sure. Why not?
There’s no line today. She sees Neil leaning against the wall behind the counter, his phone in his hand, a little smile on his face. He looks up at her approach and says, “Boobs.”
“Allison,” she tells him. “Though I’ll answer to Titty McGee in a pinch.”
“It’s too gross outside for hot coffee,” Neil says.
“Probably,” Allison agrees. “I just got my nails done.” She holds them up for him to see. Three sage green fingers and two nude pinks on each hand. All in a smooth, subtle matte finish.
“Nice,” Neil says. He holds up his own. The purple is gone, and the neon rainbow in its place is fresh enough that it’s still glossy and unchipped.
“Do you paint them?”
“Nah. Robin does it. Iced tea?”
“Yes, please. Robin, huh? Is that your...partner?”
“Coworker,” Neil says, sounding amused.
“Do you have one?”
“I have several.”
Allison frowns. “Partners?”
“Coworkers. Strawberry basil okay?”
“Perfect. Are you in college?”
“Yeah,” Neil says. He grabs a cup, digs for a sharpie, and doodles something on the smooth, clear plastic. “I’m a senior. Majoring in math.”
Neil’s mouth tips up into a smile. “Because I like math.”
“No one likes math,” Allison protests. “People survive math.”
“Ah. Thanks for explaining the difference. That clears a lot up for me.”
“Dick,” Allison says fondly. “What are you doing after you graduate?”
“More math,” Neil says. “Grad school.”
“Good luck,” Allison tells him doubtfully. “I think I’d lose my mind.”
“Sure,” Neil says. “That’s definitely a thing you still have to lose.”
The cup, when Neil hands it over, has a pair of boobs doodled onto it—there’s a little cat curled up over the round tops. Allison smiles at Neil so brilliantly that a little pink actually creeps onto his cheeks at the intensity of her attention.
Dan loves each and every single one of her group of weirdos. But they are, undoubtedly, weirdos. They run the whole spectrum from ‘turned up to 11’ to ‘probably Batman.’
She has no doubt at all that they genuinely have Andrew’s best interests at heart. Everyone wants Andrew to be happy—even if they’ve never seen him look anything close to it, even if he has resting bitch face, even if he’s threatened to stab them any time they’ve mentioned setting him up, or getting him on Tinder, or even, like, taking a fucking cooking class.
Anyway, the point is, every single person involved in this mission is a human disaster in one way or another. Dan, as the lone adult in the room, is the only hope they have for a rational, focused evaluation of hot coffee guy.
She plans carefully. She gets on Google and makes note of when the coffee shop is the least busy on Saturdays during Neil’s shifts. She reads the menu ahead of time, so she won’t get distracted by asking Neil to recommend her a drink or a baked good. She pre-coffees so that she won’t be distracted by the smell. She drives. She parks. She walks. She goes in. Her research paid off: there’s only one person at the counter and they’re ordering from someone who must be Robin, if Nicky’s description was accurate. At the other register: hot coffee guy. Actually, genuinely hot, if not really her type.
Dan strides confidently towards him and offers him a bright, assured smile. “Hello.”
“‘Sup?” Neil asks.
“Can I ask you a weird question?”
“If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would you choose?”
“Hmm,” Neil says thoughtfully. And then, after almost no time spent thinking at all, “My mother.”
“Is she—” Dan stops, shakes her head. “Alive or dead?”
How is this already going off the rails?
“Dead,” Neil says. “Murdered.”
“Right in front of me,” Neil adds. “I was seventeen.”
“I’m— I’m so sorry.”
Neil shrugs. “Anything else?”
Dan has to rally. She squares her shoulders, stands up a little straighter, and says, “Alive, then. Any person alive.”
“Hmm,” Neil says again. It takes him longer this time. “You know that untouched civilization on that island near India? The Sentinelese?”
“One of them,” Neil says. “I’d ask them to explain the world to me. It’s gotta be better than what we think. If you won the lottery, would you take one lump sum or the payments over time?”
“Oh, are we not asking total strangers weird icebreaker questions? I thought that’s what we were doing.”
Dan grimaces. “All at once,” she says. “I could change my friends’ and family’s lives for the better right away. You?”
“Payments,” Neil says. “Have you ever looked up what happens to lottery winners? It isn’t pretty. I might be safe, though. I used to carry, like, a quarter of a million dollars around with me in a duffel bag. Probably I wouldn’t lose my mind.”
“You—” Dan starts. She shakes her head. “You are a handful, aren’t you?”
Neil’s smile is quick and brilliant. It narrows his eyes a little, making the blue seem somehow more enormous, more hypnotizing. He says, “I haven’t heard that one before.”
Okay. No. “Okay,” Dan says. “I have one more: if you could have an exotic pet, what would it be?”
“I wouldn’t. They shouldn’t be pets. Anyone who keeps a lion or a hippo in a cage in their backyard deserves to get mauled. You?”
“Yeah,” Dan says. She’s always kind of wanted a pet fox. They could play adorable fetch. They could go on runs together through the park. She could pet its pointy little ears. It would murder intruders and rats. “Yeah, none, I agree. They should be in the wild.”
Neil smiles at her again, giving her the distinct impression that he didn’t believe a word of that. “So,” he says, “did you want to buy something?”
Danielle realizes, suddenly, to her horror, that she doesn’t remember what she’d decided to order from the online menu. She throws a desperate look around and realizes that there are not one, not two, but three people waiting in the line now. Is this place even real? Is it some kind of collective hallucination? Did Nicky infect them with an hysterical contagion? Is Neil an actor Andrew has hired to make all of them think they’ve gone insane?
Sheepishly, she confesses, “I forgot.”
“What I wanted to order. Can you—you sent my boyfriend home with a piece of pecan pie once. Can I get some of that and a drink that would be good with it?”
“Ah,” Neil says. He smiles again, like he’s figured something out. Like he’s solved one of those math problems he apparently likes. “Danielle.”
“Guilty,” she admits. “It was really good pie. Matt is a little in love with you.”
“He seemed like good people. How do you feel about oranges?”
Dan feels good about oranges. She feels good about Neil, even if he is a handful. He moves around behind the counter easily, confidently scooping orange zest into a cup, adding milk, chopping a block of chocolate, sprinkling in some sort of spice, salting it, and leaving it to melt together while he bags up the pie. She sees him tuck a piece of the brownie Matt had liked so much into the bag and feels weirdly...glowy? That Neil had remembered him. Matt had been so sure he’d made an absolute fool of himself, had been an awkward giant, had creeped Neil out, but—but here Neil is, remembering him, calling him good people, sending home free treats for him.
When Neil hands over her cup, there’s a luscious layer of whipped cream on the top of it. It’s sprinkled with brown sugar and chocolate shavings. She takes a sip and moans. Actually, properly moans, loudly, in a way that should have drawn the attention of half the room but somehow doesn’t. Maybe people just moan a lot in here.
Dan: oh god
Dan: you guys
Dan: this hot chocolate is so good
Dan: he put orange in it? and brown sugar?
Dan: I made sex noises
Dan: I’m still making sex noises
Matt: you loved him
Dan: I loved him
Dan: he remembered you
Dan: he sent you home a brownie
Nicky: I deeply resent each and every one of you
Nicky: Jean just made me a latte
Alli: he made me this strawberry basil iced tea the other day and I almost proposed to him
Nicky: YOU WENT BACK?
Alli: yeah no shit
Alli: that place is great
Alli: no wonder andrew never told us about it
Kevin: he’s seducing you all
Kevin: luckily I can’t be seduced
Aaron: yeah kevin we know
Aaron: no one lives up to your standards
Aaron: it’s just you and your perfect hand
Alli: damn, son
Matt: must not proposition kevin
Matt: must not proposition kevin
Matt: must not proposition kevin
Dan: proposition away
Dan: he real pretty
Matt: HEY KEVIN
Matt: CAN I… LEND YOU A HAND??
Kevin: I can get a hand any time I need it
Kevin: not just a hand
Kevin: other things too
Kevin: all the things
Nicky: methinks the lady doth protest too much
Kevin: you all suck
Kevin: a lot
Dan: but not you
Dan: because you can’t be seduced
Nicky: he’s gonna seduce you
Nicky: he’s gonna seduce you so bad
Kevin: you haven’t even met him
Nicky: I know and I’m already seduced
Nicky: I can’t wait to say I told you so
Renee: you’ll have to wait
Renee: I’m going Monday
Nicky: I’m not worried
Alli: I wish I could be there to see that
Dan: yeah I hate to say it but good luck
Aaron: can I be removed from this group chat?
Renee: pity ‘yes’ from me
Aaron is just curious. He’s not going to vet the guy or anything. Andrew doesn’t give a shit about Aaron’s opinion about most things, and the places he puts his dick is definitely high on that list of ‘most things.’
But he is curious, especially now that he routinely opens up his phone to see over a hundred notifications from the very super secret group text that Nicky had forced them all into. The balance of their friendship group is...precarious, at best. Bringing new people into it is basically a fucking nightmare. Aaron hasn’t been able to find a single girlfriend who didn’t find the totality of them to be so overwhelming that she would do just about anything to get out of group hangs — and that doesn’t even include the ones Andrew immediately suspects and rejects. So, the idea that some random coffee shop guy is somehow weaseling his way into everyone’s good books is… Well, Aaron needs to see this for himself. He needs to see this place Andrew goes to. He needs to see the kind of person Andrew would smile at.
He needs to try that orange hot chocolate.
The building is one of those old downtown ones, something that used to be a general store or a butcher’s shop and then was a pile of shit and now is renovated to rejuvenate the city’s history. Or something. Most of the front is large, plate glass windows and a glass door. The name “Coffee. on 7th” is emblazoned on the door in black and gold letters that are somehow both old-timey and no-nonsense. Aaron tries to squint through the windows, but he can’t—it takes him a second to realize that there are at least three other panes of glass between the windows and the inside of the restaurant, layered and framed in a big antique wooden thing. They appear, to Aaron’s eye, to be painted to resemble the interior of the restaurant, the people and objects arranged on the panes to give the whole thing a realistic dimension that would fool you at first glance—and maybe even second.
The giveaway is the stillness and detail of the customers: there’s a guy with a tophat at the miniature, painted counter, a woman in a wizard’s hat tucked away in a chair. Aaron moves to the other side and finds another set of glass, this one showing people lounging at the tables and sofas. An alien, little green man style, reading a newspaper; Elton John, Aaron thinks, with his feet up on a table.
No wonder Andrew likes it.
When he goes in, he gets an instant sense of nostalgia. The paintings had primed him, or something—the space feels familiar, welcoming, like coming home. It’s quiet, despite the fact that nearly every seat is full. It smells amazing. Aaron’s mouth waters. It’s a rich, sensuous riot of spice and sweet and fruit and chocolate and roasted nuts and decadent coffee and books and leather and everything you’d ever want to wrap yourself up in.
A burst of laughter comes from one of the corner tables; Aaron looks over and sees a group of about eight people crowded into a nook with two sofas and a couple of plush floor pillows. One of them holds up a white card and says, indignantly, “A cooler full of organs?? You guys!”
It’s hard to picture Andrew here, once Aaron is inside. Everyone looks like they belong. Everyone. The old couple knitting in the corner. The twenty-somethings playing Cards Against Humanity. The high school kids staring glumly at thick textbooks. Andrew has made an art form out of not fitting in anywhere. It’s like he prides himself on it. Does he have a usual order? A usual spot? Does he claim one of these chairs and relax in it? Does he sip something deep and dark and read classic literature? Or one of those young adult novels Aaron sees lying around the apartment sometimes?
What does Andrew do here, in this secret place where he smiles?
Fuck it. Aaron just has to do a face-to-face with this guy, this Neil, and then he can peace out and tell everyone else that he was not seduced and the guy is fine or a dick or both, and it won’t matter, and Andrew wouldn’t give a shit about his opinion anyway, so. Whatever.
There’s only one person in line in front of him. There’s also only one barista that Aaron can see. The California Adonis Nicky had mentioned, probably. He finishes up with the people at his register and calls over the girls in front of Aaron, but he looks over their heads and smiles at Aaron. As the girls walk towards the counter, the blond guy turns towards the swinging door behind him and whistles, loudly. He calls, “Neil!” and then shifts his attention back onto the girls.
The door swings open and delivers what must be Neil into the counter space. He is, Aaron supposes, objectively very attractive. His dark red hair flops over his forehead in waves. His blue eyes are stark against sun-warmed skin. He flashes an incandescent smile at Aaron and then, stepping closer to the counter, scans him up and down and adjusts its degree and temperature about 50% downwards.
“What can I get you?” Neil asks.
Aaron has no idea how to interpret that rapid shift in weather. Does he recognize Andrew/Aaron or not? Was Andrew in the shop, smiling, a complete one-off coincidence and they’ve been obsessing over this kid for no reason? Does Andrew even come here regularly? Or is this how Neil deals with regulars in general, this placidly friendly smile and easy body language.
“Coffee? Tea?” Neil prompts, making Aaron realize he’s been standing there staring and thinking for who even knows how long.
“Flat white,” Aaron says. “And—” he scans the well-lit, mouth-watering food arranged beneath the glass display “—what are those?” he asks, pointing to a crispy, spiral-looking thing.
“Sarikopitakia,” Neil says. “Fried Turkish pastry. They’re new.”
There’s almost a note of warning in that. Aaron raises an eyebrow.
“Possibly not perfected yet,” Neil explains. “Good, but I can’t fully vouch for them.”
“I’ll take two,” Aaron says.
Neil nods and shifts away from the counter, moving towards the gleaming steel machines. Aaron figures he ought to do something other than just order, something he can point to when Nicky asks what he found out. Aaron drifts towards Neil’s post at the machines and says, super casual, “Hey, do I know you?”
Neil smiles over at him. “No.”
“Very,” Neil says, like he’s never been more certain of anything in his life, like Aaron has just asked if two and two add up to four, or if the Earth is mostly water, or...something else. Aaron can’t quite put his finger on it. Neil just sounds. Sure.
“Cool,” Aaron says. He drifts back towards the register when Neil finishes his coffee. He pays. He takes the paper bag Neil hands him. He leaves.
He doesn’t realize, until he’s gotten home, that there are more things in the bag than he’d asked for—and definitely more than he’d paid for. There’s a thick, fudgy brownie, a few vividly colored macarons, and a black and white cookie the size of Aaron’s hand. They're each in smaller bags that crinkle and crinkle as he unpacks them, drawing Andrew to the kitchen in curiosity.
“What is that?” Andrew asks.
Aaron pulls his coffee cup closer to him defensively. “Nothing.”
Andrew’s eyebrow goes up, skeptical.
“I went to a coffee shop,” Aaron says, challenging Andrew to say something about it. “You’re not the boss of me.”
Andrew’s other eyebrow goes up. This one looks amused. He reaches across the counter and slides the brownie towards him by the corner of its bag. Aaron watches him closely, waiting for a confrontation, waiting for Andrew to say, ‘what the fuck were you doing at my coffee place?’ or ‘why are you being so weird?’, but all Andrew does is reach over again and slowly slide the cookie towards himself too.
“Later,” Andrew says.
Aaron doesn’t take a full breath until Andrew has disappeared down the hallway and closed his bedroom door behind him.
Aaron: I went
Aaron: coffee was good
Aaron: food was good
Aaron: he didn’t call me Andrew
Aaron: I asked if we’d met before and he said no
Aaron: now you can all leave me alone
Nicky: that’s kind of weird, right?
Aaron: that’s what usually happens to me at coffee shops
Aaron: I would like very much to be excluded from this narrative
Aaron: one that I have never asked to be a part of
Nicky: I don’t know what to do with that
Alli: OR maybe he DOES know andrew and ALSO knows that andrew has a TWIN
Aaron: did you have to capslock twin?
Dan: this bums me out
Dan: I actually think they’d be cute
Matt: the cutest
Matt: and think about all the coffee we’d get
Dan: delicious coffee
Matt: well if he doesn’t know who andrew is we’ll just make it happen
Kevin: on andrew’s behalf, I don’t like the sound of that
Nicky: NOT FOURTHED
Renee: has anyone tried *asking Andrew*?
Nicky: god no
Matt: I barely survived asking him if he’d had a bad day at work last week
Kevin: he wouldn’t answer anyway
Renee: I don’t know about that
Nicky: then you ask him, Renee
Nicky: he probably wouldn’t kill you
Renee: very reassuring
Alli: don’t be a hero babe
Alli: maybe we can put on some wigs and sunglasses and camp out and see what we see
Kevin: surveillance op?
Matt: I love it
Matt: I can be super inconspicuous
Dan: oh, honey
Alli: very inconspicuous wall of muscle meat
Dan: def hot
Renee: I’m going tomorrow
Kevin: then me
Kevin: then we can stop this nonsense
Renee would not say that she was surprised to hear that there might be someone in Andrew’s life. He’s been—different probably isn’t the right word. She couldn’t point to any one thing that’s changed in the past few weeks. There’s just something new in his voice, maybe. Something in the way he holds himself, something a little easier. Something in the way he taps the back of his phone when it’s face-down on the table, over and over, unconsciously beating a little rhythm into the plastic of his case.
She hasn’t asked. He’ll tell her when he’s ready to tell her.
So, maybe he does like this Neil. Maybe he likes someone else and it put him in such a good mood that he smiled at the guy in the coffee shop. Maybe he’s dating someone else there and became friends with Neil. Renee doesn’t make a lot of assumptions about people, and especially not about Andrew.
Also, she’s been hearing the others wax rhapsodic about this place and this guy for almost two weeks, so there’s no way she’s not going to go and get her own eyes on it.
The coffee place turns out to be only about a five minute walk from the gym she and Andrew usually spar at. She can see why it would have appealed to him. There’s no cutesy name, no ironic hipster chalkboard signs, no little wrought iron tables blocking half of the sidewalk. Just thick black letters with gilded shadows, black-painted brick, and windows that both are and aren’t really windows. When she steps inside, it smells just like Andrew to her—warm and solid and steady. The acoustics are fantastic; she can tell that people are talking, but their voices fade away into a low hum, more of a lullaby than a cacophony.
And there, at the battered wooden counter, is the guy. Neil. Propped up against one of the counters behind him, smiling down at his phone screen around the white stick of the lollipop tucked into his cheek. He looks up, hearing her or hearing something, and extends the smile to her.
He pulls the candy out of his mouth with a loud pop. It’s blue. It’s tinged his lips with lavender.
“Hey,” he says, straightening. “Welcome to Coffee.”
“Thank you,” Renee says. She smiles back at him helplessly, charmed by the blue-purple lips and the easy joy in his eyes. “I hear you’re very good.”
“We must be,” Neil says cheerfully, “if we’re still open despite our abysmal customer service.”
Renee lowers her voice, leans in like she’s about to tell him a secret. “I also hear you make bespoke drinks.”
“Do you?” Neil asks.
“And amazing baked goods.”
“Wow,” Neil says.
“This is the most normal customer interaction I’ve had in a really long time. We do have great baked stuff. You gotta give me a little guidance, though. I’m not a mind reader.”
“Okay,” Renee says, still smiling. “What about that pumpkin bread?”
“It’s my favorite,” Neil tells her. “Do you like sweet? Hot or cold? Caffeine or no caffeine?”
“Sweet. Cold. No caffeine.”
Neil works gracefully, moving around the machines almost like he’s dancing with them. His fingers dip into bowls and jars, he hums and adds a little of this, and then a little of that. Renee knows she should be asking him questions, but—well, she actually really shouldn’t be asking him questions. Not with ulterior motives. Not when she knows something he doesn’t. So she watches instead. She watches him lift a glass jar and inhale the scent of it. She watches his careful hands brew and blend, watches him set the cup aside to cool while he adds cream and sugar to a pitcher and whips it into a thick cream. He adds ice to her cup and tips half of the cream onto its surface. The rest, he puts into a small lidded container made of the classic wheat-colored recycled paper.
She really likes the idea of someone putting this much care into Andrew. Someone who can take a few halting instructions and make something out of them. Someone with that smile and those steady fingers.
“It’s good warmed up,” Neil tells her when he hands it all over. “Put the bread in the microwave for around forty-five seconds, then top it with the extra whipped cream.”
“Thank you,” Renee tells him. “Really.”
Neil gives her another smile, this one more vague; he slips the lollipop back into his mouth and his phone out of his pocket.
Renee turns to leave. And that’s when she spots him. Andrew. Sideways in a plush blue chair, his legs draped over one arm, his book open in his lap, his eyes trained on the counter. On her. She lifts the bag and waves at him with it. There’s no avoiding it. She has to go over.
“Renee,” Andrew says, when she’s close.
“Andrew.” She tries a serene smile. He is unmoved.
“What did you get?” he asks.
“Um. Pumpkin bread. And this is—” she’s not sure, so she takes a sip of the drink. “Oh.”
Andrew’s mouth twitches. “Good?”
“Really good,” she agrees, taking another, longer sip. “It’s like...white chocolate, maybe? But also...maple? Cardamom?”
Andrew nods. He says, lightly, “You come here often?”
“First time,” she tells him honestly. “You?”
“I’m a regular,” he admits. “Their brownies are a weakness of mine.”
He’s keeping his eyes resolutely on hers. Unusually resolutely. He’s not usually a forced eye contact person. Renee tries shifting to her right, freeing up his line-of-sight to include the counter behind her. His eyes dart that way, then quickly back to hers. Resolute. Absolutely resolute. Renee feels a small smile creep onto her face.
“Well,” she says brightly. “I won’t bother you. Though I may be very upset with you for not mentioning this place before.”
“If you tell the others,” Andrew says with sudden seriousness, “I will kick your ass.”
Renee pops her straw into her mouth and smiles at him around it, innocently, innocence he’ll definitely see right though. She says, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Andrew’s phone buzzes. His hand twitches towards it, but he jerks it back and settles it onto his book instead. Renee walks out of the coffee shop on a cushion of air.
Renee: he was very nice
Renee: he made me a very good drink
Dan: he didn’t mention his dead mother?
Alli: or tell you your boobs were irrelevant?
Matt: or make you feel things deep in the core of your soul?
Renee: very nice
Renee: that’s all I’m going to say
Nicky: ugh I hate you all
Nicky: is there more to say and you’re just not saying it??
Renee: try the pumpkin bread when you go
Kevin is mostly kidding about the exy thing. Mostly. Mostly. Would it be better if Andrew had a boyfriend or partner or whatever who liked exy? Obviously, yes, for Kevin. And maybe even for Andrew, if it meant he could tune out and let the guy deal with Kevin’s obsessiveness.
But it’s not like it would be a deal breaker. If Andrew really liked someone, Kevin would swallow almost any personal flaw. Bad personal hygiene. A gambling habit. Even being a baseball fan. Honestly, he thinks they’d all put up with pretty much anything if Andrew ever actually liked someone enough to make it a thing.
Still, deciding which team shirt to put on before going to the coffee shop is a challenge. If he wears one from his favorite, he’ll at least know if Neil likes them too. If he puts on something like a Wolves shirt, though, what would he learn? That Neil has no concept of how the sport should be played if he says he likes them; that Neil doesn’t know fuck all about exy if he doesn’t comment on it; that Neil is a dick in the best way if he promptly tells Kevin that the team sucks.
He goes with a worn jersey from his second-favorite college team. They’d been great five years ago. They could be great again with a few of the promising new players they’d just drafted. The shirt is a little short on Kevin now, dancing just under the waistline of his joggers, stretched a little tight across his chest. He supposes that it has its advantages, too. Neil hadn’t gone for Allison’s chest, but maybe he’ll go for Kevin’s. Information is always valuable.
Neil seems to be the only person working when Kevin steps into the coffee shop. There’s a lazy queue of a few people, all gazing at either the menu or their phone screens and shuffling forward every time Neil sends someone away with their drink in hand. He watches Neil greet each customer with a bland politeness, take their orders, blink slowly at the stupid ones, make their drinks, package their food, and send them off with an impersonal half-smile.
When it’s his turn, he steps up—Neil smiles his vague smile and then blinks it into more clarity when he sees Kevin’s shirt.
“This is going to be their season,” he tells Kevin.
“You think?” Kevin asks.
“They’ve had a rough few years, but now that Hastings has taken over and brought in Williams, I think they’re going to make a comeback.”
“Williams?” Kevin asks in disbelief. “You think Williams is going to make the difference?”
“Oh, let me guess,” Neil says. “You’re into Elliot.”
“Uh, yeah. Did you see his high school stats?”
“I did. Boring.”
“He did fine in high school, but he’s not going to be able to bring it against the Bees.”
“But you think Williams will?”
Neil grins at him then, suddenly, sharp, his eyes icicles honed to a fine point. “I think Williams adapts. I think his second halves were always better than his firsts.”
“And what about Pérez?” Kevin demands.
“Serviceable,” Neil says. Like a moron.
“So you think Williams is going to carry the whole team on his back?”
Neil frowns at him, then breaks into another smile. “No. I think they’re going to make each other better. You can’t spell team without team.”
“That’s sentimental bullshit and you know it. A team is only as strong as its weakest link.”
“And who, exactly, do you think is their weakest link?”
“Grimke,” Kevin says promptly.
From behind him comes the sound of a clearing throat. He and Neil both throw a look in that direction, assess the annoyed-looking businessman, and then turn back to each other.
“I’ll give you that,” Neil says, “but he and Rodrigo guarding Pérez together? The whole division better look out.”
“Excuse me,” the businessman says loudly. “If you don’t start doing your actual job, I’m going to take my business elsewhere.”
“Great,” Neil snaps back at him. “Try Beany Boppers on eighth. You’ll love it.”
The guy stomps off, leaving the only other person in line looking amused. Tall-ish athletic woman. Very short hair. “Hi Neil,” she calls.
“The usual?” Neil asks her.
“Yep. And Laila’s, too.”
“What about you?” Neil asks Kevin.
“I don’t know. I’m too horrified by your touchy feely ideas about exy to even think about eating anything.”
Kevin follows when Neil steps towards the machines.
“You know it’s a team sport, right?” Neil asks.
“You know we just covered that, right?”
Neil grins at him again, wide and bright, the spark in his eyes flaring hotter. “Alright, then, tell me all about how Elliot is going to single-handedly save the Bobcats.”
“We’re getting off track,” Kevin says.
“Sorry, do you prefer a track that lets you make unsubstantiated claims about a striker who shoots to the upper left 86% of the time?”
This is supposed to be about Andrew, Kevin reminds himself. Andrew doesn’t even care about exy. Andrew certainly doesn’t care about the performance of a team Kevin only really likes because his first pro idol had played for them eight years ago. He opens his mouth to change the subject, to ask Neil what else he likes, maybe, or if he knows how to do anything other than be wrong about exy, or maybe even try flirting so they can get a sense of what kind of a chance Andrew has. What comes out is, “86% of goalies leave their upper left vulnerable 86% of the time.”
Neil’s eyes roll. “Statistics,” he says with no shortage of disgust. “You’re one of those.”
Outraged, Kevin says, “You were just talking about statistics.”
“Was I? I thought I was talking about actual talent.”
“Oh, no, asshole,” Kevin says, drawing himself up to his fullest height. “People call good luck and flashy, superficial playing ‘talent.’ If it’s not reflected in the numbers, it’s not worth a damn. ‘Talent’ gets you magazine covers and sponsorships, but if it doesn’t get your team wins, what good is it?”
“Oh—wait, what’s your name?” Neil asks.
Kevin: he’ll do
Nicky: that’s it? that’s all we get?
Kevin: half the things that come out of his mouth are wrong
Kevin: but he’ll do
Alli: do for you or do for andrew?
Kevin: he doesn’t back down
Kevin: he won’t take Andrew’s shit
Kevin: they’re about the same height
Kevin: my blessing is given
Nicky: oh, well then, I guess it’s all decided then
Nicky: I HAVEN’T EVEN MET HIM
Matt: he seduced Kevin
Alli: totally seduced Kevin
Kevin: by being wrong about exy?
Nicky: nobody is making any decisions until I meet him
Nicky: do you hear me?
Nicky: MY BLESSING IS NOT YET GIVEN
Renee: we can all give our blessings and it won’t make them a couple
Renee: it’s really only up to Neil and Andrew
Alli: I mean
Alli: we have options
Dan: do we?
Alli: we keep going
Alli: we befriend him
Alli: we bring him to group stuff
Alli: we see if Andrew smiles at him more
Nicky: I found him
Nicky: if anyone’s going to befriend him and invite him to stuff it’s going to be me
Nicky: you can eyeroll at me all you want missy
Nicky: guys why does Neil hate me?
Nicky: why is he avoiding me?
Aaron: he can’t be avoiding you
Aaron: he doesn’t know you exist
Aaron: but if he did
Aaron: he would probably be avoiding you
Nicky tells himself that the third time is the charm. He stands outside the coffee shop’s doors and repeats it to himself. Three times. The third time is the charm. The third time is the charm. The third time is the charm.
As soon as he steps his foot inside, he knows he was wrong. Neil is there, finally, but even as Nicky crosses the threshold he says something to the blond god at the register next to him, takes off his apron, and walks out into the dining room. His break, Nicky thinks mournfully. Nicky definitely cannot go pester Neil on his break. There’s no way that won’t look like flirting. There’s no way Andrew wouldn’t maybe actually stab him for once if Nicky was coming onto the only guy any of them have ever seen him smile at.
Glumly, Nicky follows Neil with his eyes, watching him wind through the tables. He stops here and there, says stuff to customers who stop him. He twists to get through the very scant space between the backs of two chairs. His arms go up. His shirt rides up enough to give a flash of very flat, very toned abs. Nicky wants those abs for Andrew. Andrew deserves those abs.
Neil comes to a stop in front of a wide, velvet-looking chair. Navy blue with a sheen. He bends. Nicky wants that ass for Andrew. Andrew deserves that ass.
And then, Neil...topples. He jerks forward a little and then topples onto whoever is in the chair. It’s a controlled fall, with Neil’s body curving and twisting so that he’s caught, safely, confidently, in the arms of whoever is in the chair.
Nicky’s heart sinks. They’re too late. Neil is already with someone. Neil is with someone who picks up his legs and swings them over the arm of the chair, who wraps around him and pushes their face against his neck. Someone whose left hand curves over his thigh like it has the fucking deed to it. Someone who...wears thick-soled black high-tops. Someone who wears torn black jeans and a snug black shirt and black armbands.
Someone who is literally Andrew, Nicky realizes, a moment before his cousin emerges from Neil’s neck and kisses him square on the mouth, almost obnoxiously.
Nicky feels a moment of brilliant, Las Vegas-wattage smugness. Pride and relief and satisfaction.
And then, he feels a moment of sheer terror when Andrew looks up and meets his eyes.
Well, shit. Nicky smiles weakly at him and lifts his hand in an awkward wave. Andrew doesn’t wave back. He doesn’t even blink. He turns his head, his eyes still locked on Nicky, and murmurs something to Neil. Neil whips around to follow Andrew’s gaze. He really is beautiful, Nicky thinks mournfully. If Nicky was going to survive this encounter, he might have written a hundred gay epics about Neil.
He waits, frozen other than his hand, which is still awkwardly moving side to side like the arm of a metronome. He waits until Andrew jerks his chin, summoning Nicky. Probably not really to his death, but to a stiff, uncomfortable conversation about Nicky spying on him and betraying his trust. Nicky winds his way through the tables with not even one quarter of the grace Neil had done it with. He almost stumbles over a backpack on the ground. It’s worse that he knows Neil and Andrew are watching him, judging him, preparing to slow-roast him over a fire of their disappointment.
Finally, he makes it. He shuffles his feet up to the base of the blue velvet chair and, even though it’s the last thing he wants to do, lifts his eyes to meet Andrew’s.
“Nicky,” Andrew says evenly.
“Heyyyy,” Nicky says.
“This is my cousin, Nicky,” Andrew tells Neil. He readjusts, lifting and shifting with his arms so that Neil is more upright. “Nicky, this is Neil.”
“Hey,” Neil says. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Oh?” Nicky asks hesitantly.
“More than I realized, maybe,” Neil answers drily.
Of course Neil’s coworkers had sold him out. Of course they’d tell their friend when the same guy came in twice asking questions about him.
“I don’t think this is a coincidence,” Andrew muses. “You, Renee, Aaron.”
Nicky says, “Um.”
“The others?” Andrew asks, so dry it’s arid, so dry that Nicky’s mouth feels like cotton.
“Wait,” Neil says suddenly. “This is your cousin. Renee is your friend who came in. Aaron was obviously your twin.”
“Is there a Matt, an Allison, and a Cody?”
“Yes, yes, and no,” Andrew answers.
“An outlier,” Neil says. “Interesting.”
“Hey Nicky,” Andrew says.
“I’m going to ask you a lot of direct questions about this. Later. At home.”
A tsunami of relief washes over Nicky’s entire brain. Every wrinkled, gray, gelatinous part of his brain glows at the stay of execution. Later, at home, is not right here and right now.
“That’s my cue,” Nicky says brightly. “Neil, it was nice to meet you. If I disappear forever, remember that it wasn’t your fault.”
Neil’s smile is fond, and amused, and mostly directed at Andrew. He says, “Sure,” in Nicky’s general direction. It’s a dismissal. The best dismissal he’s ever had in his life. Salvation from his own, terrible ideas.
Nicky: nevermind guys I think we should let Andrew handle this on his own