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the ballad of the cat café

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The brightness brings things with it.

There’s this sensation of being completely awake, now that the winter sludge has melted and the days burn longer and brighter. The air is crisp and fresh—a green apple—and it’s hard not to feel alert when breathing it in. Strangely, on the back of all that comes a feeling of nostalgia, something akin to longing for a better year, and yet— Andrew Minyard has not had a better year than this one. 

He and Nicky are staying in the warmest, sunshiniest, and least mouldy apartment that Andrew’s ever lived in, and the two of them don’t bicker nearly as often as they used to, except on the rare occasion Andrew gets sexiled and Nicky forgets to tell him when his hook-up has left and Andrew can finally come home. He also has this job he doesn’t entirely loathe, a part-time gig working in a luxury bath products shop that comes with a generous employee discount he’s determined to milk for all its worth. 

Andrew doesn’t see Aaron as frequently, what with him living in a totally different state and all, but he still shows up from time to time, coming and going as suddenly as a nosebleed does, leaving Andrew privately thankful that he even appeared at all. And while Andrew doesn’t see Bee as much as he’d like to, either, they do still have a monthly session over Zoom, which suits Andrew just fine. When it comes down to it, he’s in the best place he’s ever been, partly because of all the work they have done over the years but also partly because he’s doing something he loves; he’s halfway through his first year studying Creative Writing and it feels good to finally be able to devote his time and energy to the one thing in the world that helps him make sense of it. 

And so, with the coming of Spring, Andrew needn’t look back at the many, less happy Springs that came before. For perhaps the first time, he can appreciate the brightness for its brightness.

For perhaps the first time, things are good. 

-

Andrew is at work, in the middle of a product demonstration, when the power cuts.

He’s showcasing a new bath bomb, a heart-shaped brick of a thing that’s the size of his fist, its rose and vanilla scent perfuming the air before he’s even dropped it into the basin of water. Once he does, a lustrous, pink haze immediately erupts in the clear, the bath bomb creating hypnotic, frothy patterns as it disintegrates, the hot water sending steam curling up from its surface in spindly ribbons. The whole thing is a bit of a spectacle and the small crowd of customers begin oohing and aahing over the blushing water. It’s just as he’s pointing them all in the direction of the bath bomb display that all of the store lights go out at the same time.

“Power cut?” Someone asks him immediately, as if he runs the fucking national electric grid.

“Must be,” he replies, sarcasm present-yet-unnoticeable.

“The cash registers are down,” Marissa yells to nobody in particular.

“I think it’s the entire street,” Katelyn adds from where she’s stationed at the doorway.

“Alright.” Allison claps her hands together once to get everyone’s attention and then she’s expertly kicking the customers out of the store with some convincingly sincere-sounding apologies thrown in. Once the last few pouting stragglers leave, reluctantly putting down their baskets, Allison closes the door.

“What now?” Dan asks, hopping onto the counter.

“We wait,” Allison replies easily. 

They stand in silence for a moment or two, everyone looking a little disappointed that they’re not being sent home even though the power will probably kick start again in a few minutes.

“Anyone wanna play i-spy?” Marissa asks. “I can start—”

“Is it a bath bomb?” Andrew interrupts. 

Marissa sticks her tongue out at him. “Hey, you got it,” she replies teasingly. “Your turn.”

Allison sighs, mercifully interrupting. They all turn to look at her as she squints down at her phone. “I just checked out the provider’s Twitter feed and it looks like things will be down for an hour at least,” she says. 

“An hour,” Dan echoes, incredulous. “What are we supposed to do for a whole hour?”

“You might as well take a long lunch break,” Allison says. “I can hold down the fort.”

“Score!” Marissa calls, slinging her arm around Katelyn while Dan bolts for the cloakroom.

She grabs her coat as well as Marissa’s and Katelyn’s. Then, her hand hovers over Andrew’s leather jacket before she turns to look at him.

“Um. So, like, do you want to come for lunch with us, Minyard?” she asks.

He shakes his head. “I have school stuff,” he replies, which isn’t even a lie. He’s got notes to review from his class earlier that morning—the one that put him in an absolutely rotten mood that he hasn’t fully shaken off yet.

“Fair enough,” Dan replies. “Smell you later.”

Andrew gives her a little salute as she dashes off and then he pulls the plug and watches the basin empty.

-

The nearest Starbucks also has no power, which means Andrew needs to go to the next-nearest Starbucks, which is a huge pain in his ass but he starts heading off in that general direction anyway.

He keeps catching the lingering scent of the rose bath bomb on his hands and it reminds him of turkish delight and an unshakable urge to eat something sweet fills him up to the brim. He’s just trying to figure out what sort of decadent, jammy thing from Starbucks he’s in the mood for when he remembers around a thousand one-sided conversations he’s had with Nicky recently in which he’s been informed that Nicky works at a cat café now, if he can believe such a thing exists, and it’s only a couple of blocks over from the shop Andrew works in, and the cakes and hot drinks are simply to die for, and Andrew should totally visit on one of his lunch breaks sometime (he never has, as he chooses to spend all his breaks in the backroom of the shop, streaming episodes of The Great Pottery Throw Down on his phone). 

Andrew Googles the café and sees it’s much closer than the next-nearest Starbucks, which pretty much swings it. He also figures Nicky might give him a freebie, or at least a discount or something, and, well, he does quite like cats.

It’s not until he steps through the door that he realises he should have weighed up the pros and cons a little more carefully.

“No,” Nicky exclaims, leaping out from his position behind this giant, gingham-covered counter. “No, no, no. Am I dreaming?”

“Yeah, bye,” Andrew says as he swivels on his heel and moves to get the fuck out of there. Nicky is intercepting his path to the door in no time, however.

“Come on, don’t be like that,” Nicky croons, practically shoving Andrew towards the counter. “I’m just surprised, is all. What can I get you?”

Andrew has barely started reading the menu when someone else emerges from the kitchen—a boy around his own age, he guesses, with pretty, delicate features and tanned skin flecked here and there with the paler lines and splotches of fading scars. He’s got dark half-moons under his eyes, a brilliant scowl on his face, and he’s wearing an apron with a picture of a similarly pissed off-looking cat adorning the front pocket. 

He pokes Nicky in the shoulder with the floury rolling pin he’s brandishing like a baseball bat. “Oi,” he grunts. “What’s with the ruckus?”

“Oh!” Nicky spins to beam at him. “This is my cousin, Andrew. I’ve been telling him to come by for about a million years because well, he loves cake, and coffee, and cats, and well . . . those are all sort of our specialties, aren’t they?”

Nicky bleats out a laugh but the guy just watches him with a blank look that would give Andrew’s a run for its money.

“And, so, here he is! In the flesh. How exciting,” Nicky bulldozes on, directing his grin at Andrew now. “This is Neil, who I work with.”

“Evidently,” Andrew replies dryly. Then, to Neil, he says, “Hi.”

Neil makes a sort of grunting sound in response.

“Neil can introduce you to the cats,” Nicky goes on, his gaze darting between them swiftly. “Can’t you, Neil?”

Andrew takes the opportunity to actually locate said cats. There are four of them lounging on the gigantic cat tree that’s sitting by the window, two of which are tucked away in one of the tiny toadstool houses while the other two are spread out on one of the lilypad platforms, lazily playing together. The entire contraption is woodland-themed, apparently, with scratching posts that look like the thick branches of a tree and a lopsided toy owl perched at the very top.

Neil sighs a long-suffering sigh, but he stomps around the counter to stand next to Andrew, anyway. Then, he points to a gigantic, fluffy Persian who’s glaring out at them as if they’re an annoying disturbance.

“That’s Princess Peach,” Neil says. “She’s the sweetheart of the group.”

Andrew just nods. He doesn’t feel like he’s in a position to disagree with that.

“Those two,” Neil continues, gesturing to the two Russian Blues who are so entangled that it’s hard to tell whose slinky, silver tail is whose, “are Link and Zelda. They’re inseparable and insufferable.”

Next, Neil motions to the dozing, mustachioed Calico. “She’s called Skitty and she’ll be zooming around the place like it’s her own personal pinball machine when she wakes up, trust me.”

“Okay. Is that all of them?” Andrew asks, just as a fifth cat appears at his ankles as if summoned by his question.

Neil huffs an annoyed breath through his nose as he glares down at this fifth and apparently final cat, a black and white Shorthair that’s purring as it nuzzles against Andrew’s heel. 

That is Bowser,” Neil bites out, as Andrew squats down to pet the cat. “Because he’s the villain.”

Behind the counter, Nicky laughs.

Andrew scratches Bowser underneath the chin. “He seems alright to me.”

“That’s because the café is currently open,” Neil explains. “Once I flip the sign around to ‘Closed’, he clocks out and immediately becomes a monster.”

Bowser is now peering up at them as if to say, that’s not true, and Andrew snorts.

“You’re telling me this cat knows he’s working right now?”

Neil rolls his eyes like Andrew’s not keeping up. “Exactly. This is all an act. He just has excellent customer service skills. Otherwise, he’s a jerk.”

Andrew looks at Nicky over his shoulder for confirmation but Nicky just shrugs.

Bowser slinks off to join the rest of the cats on the cat tree and Andrew turns his attention to the menu again, keenly aware that his hour away from work is ticking by. 

Beside him, Neil starts frowning as he fidgets with his apron strings, visibly uncomfortable now that the conversation has lapsed into silence. The way he slowly sways on the spot reminds Andrew of a tendril of seaweed shimmying from side-to-side in the ocean bed, and even though Andrew can’t fucking stand small talk, he’s about to say something  just to give the guy a break, but then Neil abruptly barks out that he’s going for a smoke and rushes through to the kitchen and out the back door like he’s fleeing from someone who’s about to kill him.

Once the door bangs shut, Andrew gives Nicky a look. “He’s . . . unique,” he says.

Nicky smiles at that. “Says you,” he replies.

Andrew shrugs before ordering a red velvet hot chocolate and a sugary cruffin topped with custard and blackberry jam. Nicky says he’ll bring them over so Andrew goes to take a seat. After getting momentarily hypnotised by the garish Louis Wain prints adorning the walls, he grabs his notebook from his bag. As he reads through his notes from the lecture he’d had that morning, his bad mood returns in full force.

His professor is only trying to inspire them all, he knows that. They each need to pitch their long-form writing projects to her by the end of the month, after all. 

But the truth of the situation is, whenever his professor assigns them something, based on a random prompt, or a specific concept they’re to explore, Andrew gets it done in no time. The words flow out of him.

When it’s up to him, though, he has no idea what to write about. 

This is, he assumes, a common problem, since his professor was tackling it today in her lecture, Where to Begin.

She suggested a few different starting points, as well as bringing their attention to many different, daily practices that they might find useful. It wasn’t until she began reading aloud from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, however, that Andrew started to feel uneasy. 

Now, as he reads the words over, they give him that same, jittery, cold feeling that he’d gotten while listening to them the first time around.

First, there was, ‘Start with your childhood . . . write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.’

Which led into, ‘Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is okay if well done.’

And ended with, ‘Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.’

So, here’s the thing: after getting out of the other end of things, going through an exhausting, repetitive-as-fuck cycle of self-destructing, going to therapy and getting better, the last thing Andrew thought he’d be asked of in a Creative Writing class was to collide with the past head-on. He always thought of academia as this safe, anonymous space—one in which he didn’t have to have a past at all, if he so wished it. 

And, well, he’s not sure he’ll even be able to confront the things he’s worked so hard to move away from. Just hours ago, he’d frozen in his seat as his professor spoke, his fight or flight response kicking in like a firecracker going off. He’d squirmed until he could do little but endure the remainder of the lecture in a hardened, cocooned state. 

Now, a paperweight of panic presses down on his chest, and he can think of little but dropping out. He can’t do this now. He can’t go back to all the terrible places he's been, not after gaining so much distance. He just can't. Not as an . . . exercise. Not on a professor’s whim. All that— it’s his life, his entire life, and maybe it’s a bit tattered at the seams from all the rough handling, but it’s his, and it’s his alone. 

He won’t give it up for a stupid diploma, he decides, no matter how much writing means to him, and so he pulls out his phone, opening a new email, ready to call it all off, when— 

Meow.

Andrew looks down, and finds Bowser is at his feet, something like a question in his eyes. 

“What?” Andrew asks him, on the tailend of a shaky exhale. “You want up? Is that allowed?”

Bowser stares up at him and Andrew imagines it's as if to say, who cares, a sentiment he’s inclined to agree with. So, he pats his lap and Bowser gracefully hops up into it. Andrew rubs behind Bowser’s ears as the cat settles and then he looks down at his phone again, clicking out of his email app before tucking it away as he breathes in, and in, and then out.

Nobody knows the dark waters he’s been held down in, nobody but him, and Bee, and Aaron, just a little bit. In reality, his professor knows jack shit and it’s not like she said he had to start there to be a good writer. There are other options, there will always be other options and fuck it—he can be a writer any which way he wants. 

He can.

“You look deep in thought.” 

Neil puts Andrew’s hot chocolate and cake down on the table before squatting down by the cat tree and dangling a toy mouse just out of Princess Peach’s reach. He smells of a just-smoked cigarette and seems a little calmer, his gaze soft as it glides over the cat, and that’s probably a result of the nicotine buzz, Andrew thinks. He recalls the feeling very well himself and for a fleeting second his whole body buzzes, old urges crashing into new ones, making him grit his teeth.

“Is there a particular reason they are all named after video game characters?” he asks Neil, mostly to distract himself from the horrible intensity of the craving. 

Neil pouts his lips at Peach and makes a squeaky, kissing noise. Then, he shrugs. “I like video games.”

Andrew hums, considers going back to his notes but ultimately decides he doesn’t want to. “Why?”

“I dunno,” Neil replies, lifting the toy just out of Peach’s grasp so she has to jump up on her hind legs to paw at it. “Escapism, I suppose. I like anything that lets me forget about being a person for a while.”

It’s a little candid, sure, but Andrew gets that; books and writing have been the same thing for him from time to time. A path leading away from himself.

He hums in a way that could mean either, I feel you, or nothing at all. Neil plays with Peach for a short spell and then he gets up, stretches, and dusts himself off. 

Andrew watches him return to the kitchen and then realises his hour will be over soon. 

He downs his hot chocolate and eats his cruffin and then it’s time to go back to work.

-

The brightness brings things with it.

Stirs things up.

Andrew finds himself wandering down to the cat café on his lunch break, again and again and again. 

Whenever Nicky brings over his order, it’s with an unwavering, million-watt grin, and every time Andrew asks him what the hell is up, he’ll just shake his head and chirp that it’s ‘nothing’. Then, when Andrew and Neil inevitably end up sitting together, chatting about this or that while the cats take turns curling up in their laps, Andrew will spy Nicky busying himself behind the counter, that same grin plastered on his face. 

Back at home, Nicky still doesn’t say much. He doesn’t refer to Andrew’s visits to the café in passing comments, or in order to tease him, or anything like that. That’s why it blindsides Andrew when Nicky turns to him one evening as they’re watching TV and says, “He might not be interested, you know.” 

Andrew just stares at him, nonplussed. “What’s that, now?” he asks.

“Neil,” Nicky says, offering him an amused, conciliatory sort of smile. “He might not be interested. I just thought I’d warn you.”

Andrew is about to reply, who says I’m even interested, when he realises that he is, indeed, interested. He hadn’t really thought about it too deeply but now he can acknowledge that it’s definitely a thing, the dominoes all lined up for Nicky to give the necessary flick. 

“Oh?” he asks.

“I mean, he rejected my advances,” Nicky tells him.

“Yeah, well.” Andrew shrugs. “Who wouldn’t?”

Nicky squawks and steals Andrew’s cup of instant ramen, slurping up a big mouthful of noodles before Andrew snatches it back.

The reality show they were watching breaks for commercials and while it seems their conversation is already over, Andrew’s not sure he wants it to be. Now that this particular door has been opened, he figures he may as well poke his head inside to take a peek. “So, what’s his deal, anyway?”

Nicky shrugs, looking somewhat smug. “I mean, he’s sweet but he’s also kind of cranky, you know? He can never stay still. I’d guess he doesn’t get enough sleep—”

“I know what he’s like,” Andrew says. “I mean, what’s his story?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nicky replies. “He sort of owns the place.”

Now, that’s a surprise. “You’re shitting me.”

Nicky waves his hand around in the air vaguely. “Only sort of. It’s his uncle who actually owns it but I’ve never seen the guy myself. Neil handles everything. Other than that, he’s a bit of a mystery.”

The commercial break ends and the show comes back on and Andrew feels like asking Nicky more questions about Neil will just be exhausting so he increases the volume and they watch the rest of the show in silence.

Every time Andrew glances at Nicky out of the corner of his eye, though, he still looks smug.

-

“How come you smell like sweets?” Neil asks in a mumble.

It’s a compliment, Andrew thinks, but from Neil it sounds like it’s an annoyance. 

Andrew shrugs. “I work in a shop that sells fancy bath stuff,” he tells Neil. “It kind of sticks to me.”

“I’ll say,” Neil goes on. “Yesterday it was cotton candy. Today it’s lemon curd.”

That’ll be the new hand cream they just got in. Andrew shrugs again. “Not much I can do about it.”

Neil scrunches his nose. “No,” he says. “It’s not- It’s not a bad thing.”

“You say it like it’s a bad thing,” Andrew points out.

Neil sighs. “Sweets are fine, I guess,” he says. Bowser is stretched across his lap like an impossibly long piece of taffy and it looks like they’re getting along for once, Neil’s fingers twirling tiny loops in his short fur. “Last week, though, you smelled like something a bit . . . gentler? It was sort of clean, and comforting, in a way.”

Andrew thinks back. “Was it a floral scent? Lavender?”

“More like . . . herbal,” Neil says, and he must accidentally pinch Bowser because Boswer hisses and Neil hisses right back at him, baring his teeth.

“Rosemary,” Andrew says.

“Hmm?” Neil stops antagonising Bowser and looks up at him. 

“There was rosemary in the lotion I was wearing,” Andrew tells him.

Neil nods. “Right. It was . . . oddly soothing.”

“Well, like I say, it just clings to me.”

“But you like it, right?”

“It’s fine.”

Neil smiles and it’s a hatchling of a thing, small and soft if a little unsteady. “I like it, too.” 

So, the next time Andrew’s finishes up for lunch, he grabs a few products on his way to the cloakroom: a milky-lilac bar of soap smelling of chamomile and lavender, a couple of rosewater-infused sheet masks, and a small pot of the lotion Neil had said he liked. 

Dan rings him up and gives a low whistle. “You trying to woo someone, Minyard?” she asks.

Andrew takes the paper bag, shoves a fistful of random free samples inside, and leaves without responding.

When he gets to the café, the cats immediately crowd around him as if he’s their king, mewling needily and making the other customers point and coo and laugh. Once he’s eventually petted everyone, he escapes and makes his way over to the counter, wordlessly handing Neil the paper bag as soon as he gets there.

Neil hesitates before he takes it, the brown paper crinkling in his grip. He gingerly takes out each item and arranges them in a neat line on the counter.

“What’s all this for?” he asks. 

“Just stuff I thought you might like,” Andrew says. “Lotion and face masks. Self-care stuff.”

“Self-care?” Neil repeats, his lips quirking into a smirk. “I don’t know her.”

Andrew doesn’t laugh and in the silence that follows, Neil starts to fidget, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and poking the chunk of soap with his pinkie before randomly rearranging the items on the counter. He’s overwhelmed, Andrew realises, his cheeks flushed and his eyes wide. 

“It’s not a big deal,” Andrew tells him. “It’s just stuff. With my employee discount, they were practically free.”

Neil nods. He puts everything back in the paper bag and hugs it close to his chest. “Well, thanks,” he says, taking a step backwards towards the kitchen. “I— um— these are really nice.”

Andrew drums his fingers on the counter and nods before going to take a seat. He takes out one of his notebooks and flips through the pages but the letters and words jumble together nonsensically and he closes it with a sigh. Catching sight of his reflection in the mirror on the wall, he looks down again. Apparently, Neil’s not the only one who's starry-eyed and blushing.

“You okay?” Nicky asks as he waltzes past. “You look kinda weird.”

“Gee, thanks,” Andrew snaps at him. 

“What? You do, though.”

“Go away,” Andrew replies stonily.

“Don’t you want to order anything?”

Andrew sighs. “Just get me a coffee and a fruit tart or something.”

“It’s strawberry today,” Nicky tells him. 

Andrew glares at him. “Okay.”

Nicky throws his hands up in the air like Andrew’s the most difficult person in existence and saunters away. 

Andrew’s barely even exhaled the breath he was holding before Bowser appears in the space Nicky just left. He stares up at Andrew, unblinking, and then lets out one extremely judgemental-sounding meow.

Andrew rolls his eyes. “Don’t give me that,” he says.

Bowser’s whiskers twitch but he leaps into Andrew’s lap anyway.

-

The brightness brings things with it. 

The urge to walk around under the sun, for one, despite both the persistent chill in the air and the fact that Andrew never really cared so much for the sun before. 

He used to be one for the pockets of dark at the fringes of things, for closed curtains and ice tunnels. Tucked-away cupboards and tents made of blankets. 

Now, apparently, he’s one for going into town on a day he’s not even working and asking his crush to walk around outside with him. 

“You want to walk around?” Neil repeats, eyebrows shooting up. “With me?”

Andrew nods.

“But— what about—?” Neil begins before he’s cut off by Nicky.

“I can look after things here,” Nicky tells him, insistent. “Really, boss, don’t worry about it.”

And so, they set off, both of them still in their winter gear despite the recent shift in the weather. Neil walks by Andrew in an unruly sort of silence, tugging at his scarf before picking at the lint on his gloves. As they get to the park and pass through the gate, he finally shoves his fluttering hands in his pockets, as if banishing them to another dimension, and looks at Andrew for the first time since they left the café.

Andrew returns the glance but Neil doesn’t say anything, so Andrew doesn’t either. They keep on walking, quiet wedged between them like a doorstop, but it’s not an uncomfortable sort of quiet; it’s the kind that’s swollen with possibility. The promise of more.

All around the park, spring has sprinkled its fairy dust. There are snowdrops all over and the beginnings of daffodils, their blade-like shoots buttery green and poking up from the ground, seemingly growing by the second.

Rounding the corner, they see cygnets on the bank of the pond, clumsy-footed and new. Neil makes a soft, pleased noise as he sees them so Andrew steers him towards a nearby bench to take a seat. 

After a few moments of sitting and watching the fuzzy cygnets waddle around after their mother, Neil clears his throat. Even in spring’s thaw, his breath comes out a cloud.

“So, um, what do you write?” he asks.

Andrew immediately slides his gaze over to him. They’re starting there, are they? 

“Anything, really,” he replies. “Usually, my professor sets an assignment and I just start writing, not really knowing where I’ll end up.”

“In other words, you wing it.”

“I wing it,” Andrew agrees. “I like winging it.”

“But, let’s say there isn’t an assignment set,” Neil says. “What would you write, then?”

Andrew huffs something like a laugh through his teeth. That’s one thing he hasn’t unpuzzled yet, though he’s been thinking about it more and more these days.

That thing his professor said, about writing everything down, even the bad stuff—especially the bad stuff—he thought it stupid at first. Now, he’s not so sure. 

Hypothetically, there are so many places he could begin. The first foster home, which was bad. The second, which was worse. Or maybe even the third, which was where he lived when he began carrying a knife on him at all times. He could start with his suitcase, the blue one the broken wheel, or with doors that are locked until they aren’t, or with blood in the bathwater, or—

The problem is that it’s his natural instinct to push these things away and quickly, before he drowns in them. 

The problem is that there are so many places he could begin but he’s not sure he’ll ever allow himself to go back to any of them. 

“I haven’t figured that out, yet.”

Neil doesn’t look surprised. “What does your professor say?”

“She tells us to write down what’s true.”

Neil meets his gaze and his eyes are the same colour as the pond if it were frozen over and Andrew feels like a cartoon anvil just fell on his head. 

“And?” Neil prompts. “What’s true, Andrew Minyard?”

Andrew scoffs and shrugs. “Oh, I don’t know. Just a bunch of junk I went to therapy to get over and forget about?”

Neil holds Andrew’s eyes with his own and doesn’t blink. “Well, yeah. What’s true is what’s ugly. What’s true is usually fucking horrible. Does she not know that?”

“She knows that,” Andrew says. “That’s the point. We suffer. And it’s supposed to give the world pretty words.”

Neil rolls his eyes. “That’s messed up. I mean, I spend every minute of my life just trying to fucking . . . survive with all the shit I’ve got going on inside my head. You’re telling me I’m supposed to like, make it into meaningful art, too? No way. Just surviving is enough.”

Of course it is, Andrew thinks. He knows he doesn’t have to do what’s being suggested to him, not if it compromises all the work he’s already done, all the progress he’s made. But— what if this, in its own way, is also work? 

He’s been thinking of it like this: there’s a monster following him, and some days it’s miles away, but other days it’s wheezing down his neck, its breath hot and damp. If he turns around and faces it, maybe it’ll stop hunting him. If he turns around and faces it, maybe he’ll see it’s already retreated.

He gets it, he thinks. It’s a sort of exorcism. 

He’s just not sure if and when he’ll be ready to actually turn around.

“I guess I’ll see,” he says, sighing out of his nose. “It’s just advice. It’s not like she’s holding a gun to my head and telling me to cough up all the grisly bits or fuck off. Maybe I could try it with some of the . . . not so bad stuff.”

“Oh, the not so bad stuff,” Neil says wryly, widening his eyes. “Can’t say I’ve experienced much of that, myself.”

Andrew wants Neil to stop. He wants to grab him and pull him close and tell him making jokes about it is only helpful until it’s not, but Andrew’s not the only person with a monster at his back—that’s plain to see by now—and who is he to lecture anyone on how to cope, anyway?

So, instead, Andrew gives Neil a quick once-over out of the corner of his eye. The thing about Neil is, he always looks tired but he’s also almost always wired, full of nervous energy. Andrew knows by now that he spends most of his time outside of work running or gaming or baking, that he plays on a community Exy team on the weekends, that he finds it difficult to switch off and relax. And maybe, just maybe, it could be that he never slows down because he can’t stop trying to outrun the thing that’s at his heels. 

Neil has seemingly deciphered the reason behind Andrew’s silence, and he holds up a hand before Andrew can even begin to say anything.

“I know it sounds like I’m not okay, and I don’t suppose I am, but I’m not stupid, either. I have things worked out. I know how to handle the bad days. It’s just— it’s like, there are parts of my mind that are like closed-off aisles in the supermarket. There’s been a spillage, and nobody’s cleaned it up yet, and nobody’s allowed down there, not even me. Because ignoring the warning signs will lead to someone slipping in the mess and falling on their ass. A world of hurt.”

Andrew knows this feeling; he knows what it’s like to not look your own trauma in the eye lest it goad you into a staring contest you’ll inevitably lose. 

He also knows what it’s like to hold someone at arm’s length, to think, if I tell you about all the terrible places I have been, let you in on the ugliness of it, you will run

“So, you’ve never talked to anyone?” Andrew checks.

“Who am I gonna tell?” Neil asks, and he sucks air through his teeth; he wants to be done with this conversation. “My therapist?” he suggests dryly. “My professor?”

“I’ve been exactly where you are,” Andrew tells him. I know the terrain all too well. “You could tell me. Maybe not now, but someday. When you’re ready.”

Neil sighs through his nose. “That’s—”

“Hey,” Andrew says, twisting to face Neil and tugging him closer by the lapels on his coat. “There are closed-off aisles in my mind, too.”

And it’s true. So often, he thinks he is better. He thinks he is better but then he’ll wake in the night reaching for the top drawer of his dresser where his knives are kept. He’ll wake in the night squirming on the inside and the outside, feeling like he wants to claw his skin off, dig the bad shit out. He’ll wake in the night and think, I thought I escaped this place but this place has escaped into me, too. And each time it happens he will comfort himself in every kind voice he can conjure. He will tell himself, it’s okay, it's okay, it’s okay. I’m broken but I’m doing my best. A lighthouse on fire is still a beacon.

He breathes in and grits his teeth and Neil looks into his eyes for a long moment and then nods. 

“Okay,” he says, and just like that, so much that was once hard—and separate—between them has turned soft. Has melted and melded, becoming the same, recognisable thing. “Okay. I’ll think about it.”

Andrew lets go of Neil’s coat and smooths down the fabric and like that, they turn back to the pond. The swans are gliding upon its surface now, and Andrew breathes in and out in the same rhythm Neil does.

Eventually, they get up and they continue walking.

-

A few weeks later, Andrew gets to the café and finds Neil knelt on the ground by the cat tree, Bowser pretzeled in his lap.

“I think Bowser is sick,” he tells Andrew in a small voice, looking as close to tears as Andrew’s ever seen him.

“What’s up with him?” Andrew asks, sitting cross-legged on the floor across from them.

“He’s just been really despondent lately,” Neil replies. “Out of sorts.”

Andrew hums. “Let’s keep an eye on him,” he says. “We can take him to the vet if you’re worried.”

Neil sighs, exasperated, and looks up at the ceiling. Andrew thinks he really is going to cry but then he directs his gaze at Andrew and offers him a sad, precarious smile. 

“All I have are these stupid cats,” he admits. 

Andrew scoots closer to Neil so that their knees knock together. Bowser stirs at the movement and half of him spills into Andrew’s lap as he lets out a sleepy mewl. Andrew smooths his hand down Bowser’s spine; it glides along his tail until it eventually lands on top of Neil’s hand. 

Then, holding Neil’s gaze, Andrew clumsily tangles their fingers together. That’s not wholly true, he squeezes down. You have me. Neil has him.

Neil startles, looking bewildered, but he holds onto Andrew’s hand.

He holds onto it like he’s at sea, and it’s the one thing that’s keeping him afloat.

-

The next time Andrew stops by the café, Neil hides in the kitchen. Andrew leaves him be but he doesn’t go anywhere; he’s decided it’s time to let his intentions be known. 

He takes a seat at the table nearest to the cat tree and starts reading through a piece he’s written for a recent assignment, a short story about a lonely, old woman with hoarding tendencies who becomes a point of fascination for the children who live in her building. Hours pass as he agonises over making the most miniscule of tweaks. Meanwhile, sunshine cascades into the café through the window, creating a pool of pale, lemony light for the cats to stretch out in. 

Late in the day, after Nicky has finished up, Neil eventually emerges. He probably thought Andrew would be gone too, but Andrew is still there, the only customer left in the place. 

Neil freezes as Andrew raises his head and makes eye contact with him. Without looking away, Andrew closes his laptop. 

There’s not much room for them to ignore each other, now.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” Neil replies. Illuminated by the sunshine, his eyes are twin, blue flames.

A beat of quiet passes and Andrew motions to Bowser. “He looks alright.”

“Yeah,” Neil agrees. “I think I was probably just . . . worrying over nothing.”

Andrew nods. “Probably.”

Neil dithers on the spot before decisively walking over to the door and flipping the sign from ‘Open’ to ‘Closed’. 

“Why do you come here so often?” he asks, his fingertips still pressed up against the glass, gaze fixed on the street outside.

“You don’t want me to?” Andrew checks. 

Neil pushes himself away from the door and drifts towards Andrew’s table. His fingers twist in his apron, the fabric creasing up. “It’s not that.” He shakes his head. “I just . . . I need to know.”

“I like being around you,” Andrew admits easily. 

Neil swallows, his expression darkening like he’s about to argue. Then, just as quickly, he softens entirely, deflating like a souffle that hasn’t gone right. 

“I like being around you, too,” he says in a small voice, moving to run the tips of his fingers along his shirt sleeves. “I don’t know what you see in me but— I’m glad you like being around me.”

Andrew thinks of Neil sitting with Bowser all day until he got his grit back, thinks of him exhausting himself on his quest to leave the past in the dirt, clenching his fists just to make it through the messiness of the day. 

Mostly, though, Andrew thinks about how being around Neil feels freeing. 

Freeing, and easy, and vital.

Andrew stands, placing his hands on the table and stepping up onto his tip-toes to lean across it. 

“Can I kiss you?” he asks.

Neil’s hands slowly fall to his sides. His lips part in a silent gasp, and then a yes tumbles out.

-

After they’ve closed up the café and said goodnight to the cats, they head back to Andrew and Nicky’s place. 

In Andrew’s room, they talk, watch a few episodes of some anime, and talk some more. Lying on Andrew’s bed, the late evening light catches on Neil's sharp, graceful angles. He’s a sunset somewhere vast and sandy, all velvet shadows and planes of gold. 

By the time they’re kissing again, there’s no more light.

They kiss in the blurry, blue-tinged dark until they’re sleepy and semi-liquid from it. It’s lazy and unrushed—a slow, wet drag—and it’d be oh so lovely to fall asleep just the way they are, faces close enough for their noses to brush and arms loosely wrapped around each other’s waist, but they eventually do unstick themselves from their peaceful nest to change and wash up, Andrew grabbing an old pyjama set for Neil to sleep in. 

After tucking themselves under the blankets, they come together again, their shadows blending into one in the formless dark, and Neil’s breathing so steadily that Andrew thinks he must have fallen asleep.

Then—

“I’m such a mess.”

Neil curls up, drawing his knees to his chest, tucking his chin. “I’m such a mess and it’s not—” he stops, sips air, sighs. “I’m not one of those fucking vases that has been painstakingly pieced back together, its cracks left all glittery and golden for the whole world to see. I’m not all the more beautiful for having been broken. I’m just—”

“You’re you,” Andrew finishes for him, when his voice dies in his throat. “You’re a life, a story.”

Neil lifts his head to look at Andrew, his eyes bright in the dark. He nods. “Yeah,” he breathes out. “ Yeah . I wanna keep it together so bad but it’s hard.”

“It is hard,” Andrew agrees. A lighthouse on fire is still a beacon and all, but one day you sort of have to think about how you’re going to put out the flames.

“You getting that,” Neil says, “it doesn’t make everything okay, but . . . it helps. I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad you’re here.”

Andrew smooths his palm across the tense ridge of Neil’s shoulders. “I’m glad we’re here, too.”

-

-

The next morning, Andrew wakes up before Neil does. 

He goes through to the kitchen to make coffee before returning to his room. He smooths a hand through Neil’s hair, brushing it out of his face, and while Neil stirs and huffs, he lets him, before turning onto his other side to sleep some more. Andrew presses his lips together, trying to ignore the way his heart is fluttering in his chest. 

Then, quietly, he sits down at his desk, opens his laptop and creates a new, blank document.

He stares at the blinking cursor for as long as he can and then, he starts writing. He starts writing, and he has no idea what will spill out, or where he’ll end up, but he’s here; he’s here, and he’s writing.