Eight pairs of eyes stare back at Neil across the cafeteria table.
“You what?” Nicky gasps faintly, hands clutched over his chest as if he's actively having a heart attack.
“I’m sorry,” Dan shakes her head. “I must have misheard you.”
“Say it again. Louder. Into my cell phone,” Allison tacks on, holding the device out.
“Buddy,” Matt’s eyes light up, looking like Christmas and his birthday have come all at once this year.
“I’ll trade you my fruit cup for your brownie,” Aaron offers Kevin.
“Aaron!” Nicky snaps.
“What? So Josten has a crush. Who cares? He can join the rest of us in suffering.”
“The rest of us?” Kevin asks. “Who do you have a crush on?”
Aaron mutters darkly under his breath as he snatches Kevin’s brownie from his tray and practically launches the fruit cup at his forehead. Kevin swipes it from midair and grins back at him. Aaron turns red, which Neil decides must be due to annoyance.
Allison snaps her fingers at them. “Stop it. I can only handle one awkward crisis at a time, and it’s Neil’s turn right now. So spill, cutie.”
Neil groans, his own face growing red as he thrusts his fingers into his hair. He shouldn’t have told them. He knew it was a bad idea the moment it left his mouth. If only said mouth came pre-installed with a filter.
Renee puts a soothing hand on his back as his forehead meets the table. “Is it supposed to be this embarrassing?” he asks, voice slightly muffled against the surface.
“Yes,” comes the resounding answer from everyone.
“Should be used to it already, Josten,” Seth quips as he leans back in his chair. “Everyone knows you’re a walking disaster. Why should you pining be any different?”
He yelps when Allison kicks the chair leg out from underneath him so that he lands flat on the floor.
“So, who is it?” Nicky bounces on the edge of his seat. “Is he-”
“Oh no you don’t, Hemmick, you are not ruining this bet during the moment of truth,” Allison snaps. “Neil tells us which way he swings, or he doesn’t tell us at all.”
Neil frowns. “I don’t swing.”
“You mean you didn’t swing,” Dan furrows her brow. “Right? I mean, now that you like someone, it’s different, right?”
Neil thinks about this for a moment, then shakes his head. “No, I still don’t swing. I think it’s just…them.”
“Ah, you might be demisexual then, Neil,” Renee pipes up. “Demisexuals tend to only feel attracted to someone once they form an emotional bond. I can send you some information on it later if you like?”
“Oh,” Neil blinks at this. “Yeah, that’s- that’d be great. Thanks, Renee.”
Renee smiles brightly back at him.
“Wow, they must be pretty special then,” Matt claps him on the shoulder. “So, tell us about them.”
“Yes! Give us all the hot, juicy details,” Nicky winks.
“Or not,” Kevin and Aaron say in unison. They glance at each other before scowling and looking away.
“Oh, well, I, um,” Neil stutters, heat crawling back up his face again. “I don’t know. They, uh…I mean they’re super smart, but also, like, clever, you know? They’re never pushy- they’re always very patient and respectful towards me. And they pay close attention to details and have this incredible memory. They’re also a really good listener, and whenever they’re around, they make me feel safe and warm and-”
“Okay, stop, stop, we get it,” Allison rolls her eyes. “You look like a thermometer gauge that’s about to explode. Before you die from embarrassment, just tell us what you’re gonna do about it.”
Neil blinks at her. “Do about it?” he repeats.
Kevin scoffs. “Don’t tell us you dumped this ‘brilliant epiphany’ in our laps during lunch for nothing, Neil. You need to have a plan.”
“A plan?” he parrots again.
“Yes, exactly, Kevin!” Nicky chirps. “A plan, Neil! For how you’re going to woo your love!”
“Eew. Gross.” Aaron wrinkles his nose. He hands his bag of chips to Kevin to open before he begins crunching loudly. Neil thinks this may be a tactic to drown out his cousin’s words. Neil also wishes he’d thought of this plan.
“All right, I’m thinking rose petals, some soft sexy music, maybe a silk robe. It’s nighttime. You’ve left him a mysterious note with just one line, telling him where to meet you and when. You sign it ‘my love.’ The paper is bathed in your cologne and sealed with a kiss. You’re waiting by the window when he opens the bedroom door. The two of you stare across the room at one another in silence, agony and longing growing unbearably inside of you. Your robe falls open, leaving your chest bare, and he licks his lips at the sight. It reaches the point where neither of you can stand it any longer. You’re both panting as you finally rush towards each other. You leap into his arms, and he grabs onto your hips, and you’re thrusting your fingers into his hair so you can pull his head back, lean down, and-”
“Stop it,” Dan smacks the back of his head. Nicky squawks, rubbing at it while he glares at Dan.
“When’s the last time you saw Erik?” Matt asks.
“Two months ago,” Nicky says miserably.
“You need to get laid,” Allison and Seth say in unison before they grin at each other and bump fists.
“I do need to get laid,” Nicky wallows. Kevin pats his shoulder awkwardly.
“Terrible execution, but Nicky’s on to something,” Allison allows. “And it’s clear you need our help, Josten.”
“Allison,” Renee says warningly.
“What? Listen to him. He wasn’t even going to do anything about it! Were you?”
“So if you don’t do anything about it, then you’ll never build a relationship with them. Don’t you want a relationship, Neil?”
There’s a slight spark of interest when he hears those words. Something about them makes him think more. And the thought is both dangerous and hopeful – a craving he’s felt for some time now but always ignored.
And he does so again, shoving it down and away as he shrugs and answers, “I don’t know. I’ve never had one before.”
There’s silence at the table for a moment.
“Never?” Nicky’s voice cracks a bit.
“Well,” Matt says hesitantly. “He did say he’s never liked anyone like that before-”
“Yeah, I know, but…never?”
“Hush, Nicky,” Renee scolds him. “It doesn’t matter if Neil’s never been in a relationship before.”
“Yeah, honestly, it makes a lot more sense,” Seth nods his head decisively.
Neil scowls at him. “What makes more sense?”
Seth motions vaguely.
“You just gestured at all of me.”
“Okay, that’s it. I’ve decided. Neil, we’re helping you make a plan,” Allison slaps her hand on the table.
“No, that’s okay, I really don’t think-”
“One of us will give you advice each week, and then you’ll come back and tell us how it went,” Allison barrels on, ignoring him.
“Uh, not interested,” Aaron scowls.
“Ooh, count me in!” Matt grins.
“Give me one good reason why,” Kevin sniffs.
Allison’s eyes gleam as she addresses the table. “Because I smell a bet.”
Neil rolls his eyes as he watches the rest of the table perk up. “Okay, but why should I listen to any of you about this?”
“Neil, babe,” Allison grins. “My rep speaks for itself. Show me any guy on campus, and I can get a date with them.”
“Andrew,” Aaron quips without missing a beat.
“Don’t test me, Minyard,” Allison points at him. “Your brother is not above bribery.”
Aaron crosses his arms and slinks back in his seat.
“Successful long-term relationship,” Dan points at her and Matt, “Successful long-distance relationship,” she points at Nicky, “Hook-up culture,” she nods to Allison and Seth, “Ability to talk to anyone,” Renee waves, “and-” She looks thoughtfully at Kevin and Aaron before her lips quirk. “Bisexual disasters?”
Neil isn’t convinced. “But-”
“Ah, it’ll be fine, kid,” Seth grins. “When have we ever steered you wrong?”
Neil opens his mouth.
“Don’t answer that,” Seth says quickly.
Neil closes it and sniffs.
“Just worry about making your crush fall for you, Josten. The rest of you,” Allison addresses the table with a smirk. “See me later for details.”
“Leave it to us, Neil!” Nicky grins. “We’ll come up with a foolproof plan for making them fall in love with you!”
Neil crosses his arms. “Fine, but…only if you promise not to ask me who they are.”
Allison rolls her eyes. “God, what are we in grade school? Go ahead. Keep your secrets then.”
Dan drags a hand over her face. “Okay, well, I’m going first.”
“Wait, what? Why?” Kevin sits up in his seat, his competitive streak flaring. “Why should you get to go first?”
“Because I just want this over with,” she rolls her eyes at him.
Kevin mutters unintelligibly.
Dan ignores him, turning and fixing Neil with her steady gaze. “Start with something small and easy, Neil. Just be helpful.”
“Be helpful,” Neil echoes dubiously.
“Hold the door open for them. Offer to carry their bag. Help them with their homework. Find little ways to show them that you care.”
“Right,” Neil frowns.
“Don’t worry, Neil knows all about being little,” Matt ruffles Neil’s hair gently. Neil pushes his hand away with a scowl.
“Aww, that’s so cute!” Nicky squeals. “You’re little too, Aaron!”
“Shut the hell up, Nicky.”
Kevin snorts. Then he asks, “Now can we talk about lacrosse?”
“No!” the entire table shouts at him.