Matt: you will be thrilled to hear that the dragon proposal won
Neil: fuck yes!
Matt: RIP you tho, you’ll be spending your summer with the monster
Matt: the monster. the minyard monster. he’s the winning artist.
Neil: is he.
Matt: how did you not know that?
Neil: i didn’t say i didn’t.
Andrew Minyard, the scariest, meanest, most infamous MFA art student at Palmetto State showed up at the main campus library on the first day of summer vacation with a baby strapped to his chest and a wagon full of iridescent junk.
It wasn’t the first time Neil had met Andrew. It wasn’t the second or third either. The bulk of Neil’s grad school funding came from organizing and overseeing the temporary art exhibits and installations that the angsty grad students, in their tiny-but-mighty art department, produced and displayed in the three libraries on campus. Andrew had done a smaller installation last spring; a great, swooping snowy owl the size of Neil, constructed entirely of recycled garbage - paper coffee cups and plastic cup lids and bits of blanched white cardboard boxes. It had been stunning. Neil had been stunned. (And not just by the art.)
But this was the first time Neil had seen Andrew with a baby.
Neil supposed it was at least a cute baby, as babies go; he didn’t have a whole lot of experience in evaluating infants, but there was a fluff of black hair on its head, epically dimpled cheeks, and the biggest, greenest eyes Neil had ever seen. There was also a toothless grin, a little drool on the chin, and “I’m full of shits & giggles” written on its pink onesie.
“My eyes are up here.” Andrew’s voice startled Neil out of his staring contest.
“You have a baby,” Neil said accusingly.
Andrew raised an eyebrow at him. “Well spotted Josten.”
“Neil,” Neil said distractedly, his eyes sliding back to the baby, who was now making grabby hands at him.
“Neil,” Andrew repeated.
“Yeah, I’ve told you to call me Neil. What’s its name?”
“His name is Kevin,” Andrew said, amusement coloring his words.
“Oh,” Neil said. “Kevin.” Neil wasn’t sure what to do but he kinda wanted to pet it. “Can I?” he asked, holding his hand out palm up and flat like he did for Jean’s dog.
“Can you what?”
“Um,” Neil hesitated. “Pet it?”
“He’s not a dog.”
Neil snapped his gaze up to Andrew’s again, but there was no offended look on his face - in fact there was no expression at all save for the bland amusement that had migrated from his voice to his expressive eyes. Still hazel. With a tinge of gold, when the light hit them right.
“Sorry,” Neil said.
“Gah,” Kevin gurgled to no one in particular.
“Here,” Andrew said, reaching around a wiggly Kevin to grab Neil’s hand. Andrew’s hand was warm and calloused and he had chipped purple nail polish on his thumb. He closed all of Neil’s fingers except the pointer and then pulled him into Kevin’s reach.
“Dahh!” Kevin exclaimed as he wrapped his tiny hand around Neil’s finger.
“He’s sticky,” Neil said in wonder. Kevin frog danced his feet happily.
“He usually is,” Andrew agreed.
“So,” Andrew said.
“Are you going to let us in?”
“Oh fuck,” Neil said, extricating his finger carefully from Kevin’s surprisingly strong grip.
“Fuhh!” Kevin repeated.
“Oh fuck!” Neil said, horrified.
“It’s fine,” Andrew smirked at him. “Fuck will probably be Kevin’s first word. You’d understand if you met Wymack.”
“You aren’t his dad?”
“Do I look like a dad?”
Neil gestured at the baby strapped to Andrew’s chest.
“Fair,” Andrew conceded. “So, are you going to let us in? Word is I’m supposed to install my art inside the actual library.”
“Right,” Neil said, pretending he couldn’t feel the blush working its way up his neck. “This way,” he said, leading the way around the side of the brick building to the ramp access door so Andrew could get his wagon inside.
Robin: have you asked him yet?
Robin: your bullshit doesnt work on me neilio
Robin: have you asked him yet?
Robin: you should ask him
Neil: he has a BABY
Robin: oh my god
“Can I help?” Neil handed the triple grande sugar cookie latte to Andrew. He took a careful sip, eyes on Neil the whole time.
“You know my coffee order,” Andrew said.
Neil shrugged. “It’s what you ordered last spring.”
“Last spring,” Andrew repeated.
“When you did the owl,” Neil clarified.
“I don’t remember you bringing me coffee last spring.”
Neil shrugged again, feeling warm under Andrew’s gaze. “I’m friends with Robin. She works in the cafe. She worked there last spring too. I asked.”
“You asked.” Andrew took another sip.
Kevin was strapped to his back this time, green eyes peeking curiously over Andrew’s shoulder. “Deeeewwwww,”he demanded, grabbing a fistful of Andrew’s ash blond hair and eliciting a brief wince on his normally impassive face. “DEW!”
Neil raised an eyebrow. “Drew?” he said.
Andrew pointed at him. “Don’t you dare.” He took another sip. Strips of green and purple and orange iridescent fabric floated around his face as he considered Neil. The fabric, Andrew had told him yesterday, was leftover from the theater department’s horrifying fall production of Xanadu. “Sure, you can help,” he said finally.
Andrew set his coffee on the floor and carefully unbuckled the straps holding Kevin to his back. Kevin squealed in delight as Andrew pulled him loose, kissed him loudly on his little forehead, and then shoved him into Neil’s arms.
Neil had never, ever, held a baby. He froze, one hand under each of Kevin’s little arms, terrified that he would squeeze too hard and break him in half.
Kevin didn’t seem to care. His eyes lit up, he opened his mouth wide, and said, “Baaaaguuu!” as he reached for Neil’s face. Neil had no choice but to bring the delightful little thing closer.
“Hi Kevin,” Neil said softly. Kevin’s hands landed on Neil’s cheeks, right on the scars. He looked rapturous. “What is he doing?” Neil whispered.
“Petting you,” Andrew deadpanned.
“Hilarious,” Neil said. He tried for snark, but it came out as a soft coo. Kevin grinned and scrabbled at his cheeks. “What do I do now?”
“Entertain him while I hang the rigging,” Andrew said, pulling wire cables out of his wagon. He pushed a large pink tote bag over to Neil with the toe of his black, stompy boot. “He likes the squish balls.”
Neil carefully sank cross-legged on the floor and settled a gurgling, happy Kevin in his lap, before digging a handful of brightly colored squishy balls from the tote bag. He handed one to Kevin. Kevin promptly dropped it and watched it roll away in delight. Neil handed him another, and he did the same thing. In moments all ten balls were scattered in disparate directions around them. When no more squish balls were forthcoming from the bag, Kevin’s grin faded, then drooped to a frown, and then he was thrashing against Neil’s hold on him.
“Andrew!” Neil called, panicked.
Andrew looked down from his step ladder, a pile of shiny aluminum plates in one hand. “You can put him on the ground, he’ll crawl after them.”
“Oh,” Neil said. He placed Kevin carefully on his belly and watched as he pushed up jerkily to his hands and then knees and set off after a magenta ball. When he reached it, Kevin promptly tried to put the thing in his mouth. Neil crawled after him, picked up a yellow ball, and handed it to him instead. Kevin squealed and dropped the magenta one to nom on the yellow. They made little zig-zag laps around Andrew’s workspace, finding squish balls and tasting them and moving on to the next flavor.
Neil was rapt, convinced Kevin was the weirdest most adorable thing he’d ever laid eyes on, and it was many minutes later that he realized Andrew had stopped working on the installation and was watching them with a complicated look on his face. “I need to feed him,” he said, climbing off the ladder.
Jean: what the fuck is that
Neil: i don’t know actually.
Neil: he’s cute though right?
Jean: if you like that sort of thing
Neil: i think i do
Jean: i don’t know what to say to that
Kevin’s black onesie read “I’m too young to pretend I like you.” He’d passed out in Neil’s arms, and Neil’s left shoulder was starting to ache from holding him up.
“I told you to use the harness. That little asshole weighs almost 20 pounds,” Andrew said. He draped silver fabric, adjusted the fold, and stapled something to something that Neil couldn’t see.
Neil leaned against the wall and slid slowly to the floor before shifting Kevin carefully up to his other shoulder. He held his breath and waited, but Kevin just sighed a little and stayed sleeping. He didn’t say to Andrew that he didn’t want the harness because Kevin’s little body pressed against him, trusting and warm and sleepy, was the most wonderful, most wholesome feeling he’d ever had in his relatively short, violent life. “I’m good,” he murmured.
Andrew snorted and stapled another swath of fabric. The dragon was coming together, swooping through the atrium in flashes of bright metal that caught the sunlight streaming through the skylights and crystals that flung rainbows across fabric wings pulled taut, shifting in the subtle breath of the air conditioning. It was breathtaking, and it wasn’t even complete yet.
Andrew climbed down from his ladder and looked up at the almost finished dragon for a moment. As he turned to Neil one of the suncatchers flung a flash of rainbow across his face and it made Neil’s heart buzz. Why was he so stupid pretty? Neil had never thought much about who was pretty and who wasn’t, but Andrew’s face looked like it was carved out of warm marble in just the right shape to steal Neil’s breath.
Andrew sat down across from Neil, legs crossed, black-clad forearms draped over his knees as he looked at Neil. “I’m almost done. Maybe two more days.”
“Oh,” Neil said, struggling to keep the disappointment from his voice. He had two more days then to tell him as Robin had urged. Tell him that Neil hadn’t stopped thinking about his strong hands, his low rumbling voice, his intense hazel gaze since last spring. Tell him that he had a collection of freckles behind his left ear that looked like Casiopea and that Neil wanted to sit on a blanket under the stars with him and show him his favorite constellations. Tell him that his art is Neil’s favorite, that he still had a picture of the snowy owl saved on his phone, and that when they’d taken down the installation Neil had swiped a scrap of the crinkly cellophane that had made up part of the owl’s wings and tucked it into his notebook.
Tell him that Andrew - with his sparse words and his frank appraisals and his deliberate movements - made more sense to Neil than anyone he’d ever met.
Neil wondered desperately what it would be like to kiss him.
He scrambled for his words as Andrew watched him, but before Neil could arrange anything that wouldn’t make him sound crazy, Kevin farted contentedly in his sleep, long and drawn out like the sound of popping bubble wrap.
Andrew snorted quietly and Neil ducked his head in amusement and wrinkled his nose, which sent his unruly auburn hair over his forehead and into his eyes. He tried to blow it away from his face since his hands were otherwise occupied with a stinky sleeping Kevin, but his stupid bangs just kept flopping back into his eyes.
Andrew reached out then, slowly, and Neil held his breath as he watched him telegraph his movement. He brushed his fingertips against Neil’s forehead, captured the rogue curls, and tucked them behind Neil’s ear. Andrew’s touch lingered just this side of longer than it should against the shell of Neil’s ear.
“You need a haircut,” Andrew said.
Kevin squirmed and pushed back from Neil’s shoulder, blinking grumpy green eyes up at him and screwing up his face, and Neil’s lungs finally reminded him to breathe again.
“Diaper change,” Andrew said with a sigh, and pulled Kevin from Neil’s arms.
Neil was briefly distracted by Andrew’s biceps as he gathered up Kevin and shouldered the pink bag, moving quickly and efficiently as Kevin started to make increasingly louder noises of protest.
“I’ve got you,” Andrew said softly in a voice that belonged solely to Kevin. It made Neil feel melty and warm to hear. “See you tomorrow, Neil,” Andrew said, and Neil didn’t think it was his imagination that his tone was just as soft for Neil as it was for Kevin.
Matt: i haven’t seen you all summer :(
Matt: did the minyard monster actually eat you?
Matt: isn’t he done with the installation yet?
Matt: did you steal a baby????????
Matt: why is he so BEAUTIFUL?
Matt: whose baby is that?
“Wear the good shirt,” Allison had said.
“Which one’s the good shirt?” Neil had muttered into his phone, flipping through his meager closet.
“Anything I’ve bought you.”
Which meant tight. Which meant not one of his trademark sweaters with floppy sleeves long enough to cover most of the scars on the back of his hands. Neil had sighed and pulled down his favorite Allison purchase - a long-sleeved button down in a rich, deep blue, scattered with a pattern of tiny stars. It was only a small moment of hesitation before he grabbed a soft, camel colored cardigan to pair with it. It may be summer, but it was always cold in the library, he justified.
Neil put his cardigan on and took it off again three times before throwing it into the corner of his office with a muttered, “Fuck it,” because he trusted Allison. He questioned his decision five more times and tugged at the hem of the snug shirt repeatedly as he tumbled down the back stairs of the library, but it was worth it when he opened the side door for Andrew and his wagon, when Andrew hesitated at the threshold and slid his his eyes down and then slowly up Neil’s torso.
Worth it when Andrew said, “Nice stars,” and reached out to run a finger along the edge of Neil’s shoulder.
“Thanks,” Neil said, sending a promise into the ether to have Stuart ship a new bottle of the matte lavender nail polish that Allison adored and that could only be found in London.
Neil looked Andrew up and down carefully. He was conspicuously sans-baby for the first time all summer. “No Kevin?”
“He’s with Wymack. Problem?” Andrew cocked his head at Neil, his face inscrutable.
“Nope,” Neil said. He held the door wider and trailed Andrew and his wagon to the atrium. “I can hand you stuff, if that helps.”
Andrew stared at him for a long moment, and then nodded, setting up his ladder and directing Neil to scraps of rich velvet, and then silver plates, and then a whole heap of what looked like giant clear sequins. Every ten or fifteen or twenty minutes Andrew would climb down his ladder, move it a foot or two, and up he’d go again.
It was meditative, watching him work. Soothing.
When they’d made the full circle, tucking bits and bobs here and there, Andrew climbed down and turned to look at Neil. “I want to buy you a coffee,” he said.
Neil blinked. “Now?”
“Now,” Andrew agreed.
“Okay,” Neil said. Andrew held out a hand. Neil blinked again. “What?”
Andrew sighed and motioned with a curl of his fingers.
Neil gave him his hand and Andrew turned to tow him to the center of the atrium. “Lay down,” he said.
Nonplussed, Neil lay down.
“Stay,” Andrew said, pinning him with a finger point.
Neil stayed, sprawled on his back on the floor and looking up at Andrew’s dragon. It swooped in a circle, just inside the first floor balcony of the atrium, secured with mesh you couldn’t see and thin wires that disappeared into the railings. Its wings swayed like it’d been caught in slow motion flight, the metal plates and iridescent scales undulating in the light.
When Andrew returned with two to-go cups from the library cafe, Neil sat up and took a tentative sip from the cup Andrew handed him. “Hazelnut Americano,” he said, surprised.
Andrew was looking up at his dragon, sipping from his own cup, but he lolled his head to the side. “I asked your friend Robin,” he said.
Andrew’s attention was a warm blanket Neil wanted to curl up in. It made his insides all velvety and happy.
“Is it finished?” Andrew asked.
“The dragon,” Andrew said. “Is it finished?”
Neil looked up again. “He’s beautiful,” he said after a moment. “But where is he going?”
“Where should he go?” Andrew asked.
Neil hummed and considered. “The stars,” he decided.
Andrew didn’t say anything, but he lay back on the floor, and Neil did too. After a stretch of moments, Andrew’s hand brushed against the back of Neil’s, and Neil held his breath and hooked one finger carefully around Andrew’s, and Andrew let him.
Robin: he bought you a coffee (!!!!!!!!!)
Robin: did you ask him yet?
Neil: no. but. he held my hand. well kinda. he held my finger. I held his finger?
Robin: you are a disaster (complimentary)
Neil: how is that complimentary?
Robin: well, it’s not (derogatory)
Robin: just ask him out neilio
Andrew showed up with Kevin the next day and dumped him unceremoniously into Neil’s arms.
“Eeeeel!” Kevin squealed. Neil pulled him close and breathed in his baby smell.
“You have an office?” Andrew asked.
“Take him there. Come back in two hours.”
“Oh god,” Neil said. “What if-”
“You’ll be fine,” Andrew interrupted him, holding the pink bag out.
Neil hiked Kevin onto one hip and grabbed the bag. “Okay, but if he dies it’s on you.”
“Do not murder my best friend,” Andrew said seriously.
Neil’s eyebrows shot up. “Kevin is your best friend?”
“Then I’m going to be his second-best friend,” Neil declared.
“Pfbbbbt,” Kevin added, latching on to Neil’s hair and blowing a spit bubble. Today’s bright orange onesie said, “Watch your language ASSHOLE I’m a baby.”
“I think your best friend is trying to send me a message with your shirt,” Neil said to Kevin.
“Gah!” Kevin said, blinking his big eyes at Neil.
“Exactly,” Neil said.
Andrew rolled his eyes. “Two hours,” he said, and he turned towards the atrium with his wagon.
Neil swallowed his curiosity and hunkered down in his tiny office with Kevin, hoping like hell he wasn’t going to have to change a diaper or feed his soon-to-be second-best friend, but thankfully Kevin was happy to sit in his lap and poke Neil’s scars and pull his hair and put bits and corners of Neil’s cardigan in his mouth for about twenty minutes before he passed out in Neil’s arms.
Kevin was still sleeping when Neil’s two hours were up, and he took the stairs carefully down to the atrium to find Andrew standing smack dab in the middle looking up at his dragon. Neil looked up too, and paused, his mouth dropping open.
The dragon was the same stunning iridescent creature it had been this morning, but now there were gold and silver and lavender stars glittering and shooting out all around it, spinning slowly on their little wires.
“Oh,” Neil breathed, twirling in place to take it all in, Kevin warm in his arms, Andrew’s dragon soaring above through the stars. “I love it.”
Andrew came to stand next to him. “Is it finished?”
“Yes,” Neil said. He turned to Andrew. “So you won’t come back tomorrow?”
“No,” Andrew agreed.
Neil blew out a careful breath. “I could...help with Kevin sometime. If you wanted.”
Andrew considered him. “Or, you could go out with me sometime. If you wanted.”
An irrepressible grin snuck across Neil’s face. “What about both?”
“Both is good,” Andrew said. He stepped closer, braided their fingers together, and hooked one arm around Neil’s to help hold Kevin’s weight. “Yes?” Andrew asked, a whisper against Neil’s mouth, and Neil had barely breathed a “Yes” in response before Andrew’s lips were on Neil’s, and he was kissing him and he was kissing him and he was kissing him. Neil’s heart did cartwheels in his chest and he kissed him back, standing in the middle of his library with Kevin in their arms, scattered dragon rainbows dancing around them, and paper mâché stars twinkling above.
It was perfect.
Matt, Jean, Robin, Allison
Matt: WHY am I always the last to know ANYTHING?