The small hands in his were sticky, the tiny fingers squeezing his own tightly so they wouldn’t be separated. Normally, Andrew hated not having at least one hand free, but his family would always be the exception. Andrew kept his nieces close as they moved through the sea of people, keeping his eye out for the distinctive front of their desired stop. Rachel was practically vibrating with excitement beside him, her ponytail bouncing with each step she took. On his other side, Rebecca was looking straight ahead with a determined expression on her face that reminded Andrew of her mother.
They had been planning this trip for months, ever since Andrew had told them he was transferring to their city. It had been an easy decision, one that put him closer to his family as well as gave him a bigger paycheque. He didn’t really need the money, but he wasn’t going to say no . Plus he loved spoiling his nieces whenever he saw them, so it was a win for everyone.
He spotted the entrance a second before Rebecca did, and then his arm was being tugged on, her small body leading the charge. Rachel was quick to join her sister in pulling Andrew along, and he couldn’t bring himself to draw them back. He didn’t make it easy for them, keeping his walk at the same steady pace as before, but let them jump around in front of him, their excited chatter growing louder as they moved closer.
“Uncle Drew,” Rachel whined, “you’re so slooooow!”
“It’s cause he’s a goalie,” Rebecca sniffed. “No hustle to his bustle.”
Andrew felt his mouth quirk up at that. “Oh? Is that what your dad said?”
Rebecca nodded, very serious. “He said you were too slow and that’s why they made you goalie.”
Andrew slowed down his steps until they were at a practical crawl. Both the girls’ eyes went wide, and they scrambled to reassure him that he was, in fact, very fast. Super fast. The fastest ever. They clutched his arms with both hands, trying to pull him along and only managing to slide their feet in place. When it was clear they weren’t getting anywhere, they pulled out the big guns. Twin brown eyes stared up at him, wide and pleading.
Relenting, Andrew used his hold on their hands to swing them up into the air, walking the last few feet before he placed the two squealing girls inside of the store. Breathless with their giggles, his nieces quickly released him, only to cling to each other as they bounced in a small circle.
“Hello, welcome to Build-A-Bear,” a voice appeared beside Andrew, false cheer laced with the unmistakable sound of someone who would rather be anywhere else.
Turning, Andrew was met with a man with eyes so blue every thought in his head immediately drowned in them. He was only slightly taller than Andrew, which was a rarity, and looked exactly how he sounded. When he was face to face with Andrew, a flash of recognition passed over his features. Andrew tensed, ready to shut down yet another Exy fanatic, but the man only blinked and turned to his nieces.
“My name’s Neil, and I’ll be helping you find a new friend today. Are we ready?”
“Yes!” The girls cried together, smiles wide enough to show the gaps in their teeth.
Neil led them over to the first station with bins of different kinds of empty plushies. The girls immediately started rummaging through each bin, comparing each one. Andrew knew they would be here for a while, and settled against the wall to wait.
He felt more than saw when Neil appeared into the space beside him. “So,” he said, low enough to not be overheard, “have I seen you anywhere before?”
Andrew slid him a look. An auburn curl had fallen into his face, and Andrew glared at it. Fuck this guy for being so pretty. “No,” he said.
Neil hummed, lips quirked up into a small smile. “I see. Mistaken identity then. I’ve been there before.”
Andrew quirked a brow, watching Rebecca carefully examine the shell of a unicorn. “And I’m sure you’re going to tell me all about it.”
“Nah,” Neil said, shoving his hands into his pants. “That’s no fun, is it?”
Deciding to ignore him, for his own sanity, Andrew went back to watching his nieces. Rachel seemed to be undecided between two bears, and Rebecca had abandoned the unicorn completely.
“Choosing the right skin is important,” Neil said, and Andrew whipped his head around to look at him.
Neil’s mouth pulled up in a smile again, quick and sharp. “Necromancy is an art. Pick the wrong vessel and there’s no point in doing the rest.”
Andrew blinked at him, feeling like he was two steps behind in this conversation. “Stop flirting with me,” he said, for lack of anything else.
“Am I?” Neil asked, perfectly pleasant. “I must be terrible at it.”
Neil opened his mouth again but was cut off by two small bodies colliding into Andrew.
“Uncle Drew! Look at my monkey!” Rebecca said, shoving a wad of brown fluff into his hands.
“I got a cat!” Rachel said, waving the white thing around in the air.
Andrew made a show of inspecting each one, giving his nod of approval to the girls. He was met with wide smiles, and then their heads turned to Neil, faces eager. He smiled and moved their group over to the next station, a large “Hear Me” hovering over it. The girls tried each and every sound, carefully comparing each one. Andrew stood there, listening to the same sounds, and did his best not to wince each time the voice rang out with a high “ I love you! ”.
Neil was watching him, amusement clear on his face. Andrew wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of cracking. He kept his mask in place, even when the girls decided they didn’t want a noise. It was fine. He didn’t need the memory of hearing the same sounds a hundred times to be locked into his brain forever, but it was fine.
“Ready for the fun part?” Neil asked the girls, his eyes still on Andrew.
He led them over a machine where the white stuffing was swirling around inside and a bear sat holding a box of tiny hearts. The girls immediately became entranced by it, squealing in delight at the puffy clouds. Andrew had to admit, it really did add something extra to this whole experience. Not that he’d ever admit that.
“Alright, who’s first?” Neil asked, standing by the spout.
The girls immediately turned to face each other, faces mirror images of determination. Neil raised a brow and cut Andrew a look. Andrew raised one finger, telling him to wait. He loved watching them in the little games they created. He and Aaron had missed out on too much, so being able to see his nieces having the childhood neither he nor Aaron got lit something warm deep in his chest.
Rebecca was the one who cracked, eyes blinking. Throwing her hands up in frustration, she collapsed to the ground while Rachel did a small dance, spinning in a tight circle. Neil laughed at their antics, a quiet scrape of a sound that seemed unsure of itself. Rachel marched over to where Neil stood, handing over her cat with more care than Andrew thought was necessary. By the time Rebecca picked herself up from the floor, it was her turn.
When both of the animals were stuffed, Neil told the girls to go pick out their hearts. Andrew thought this would have been the easy part. Grab a heart, stuff it inside, and move on. He was wrong.
“This next part is the most important,” Neil said very seriously. “We need to make sure your new friends have everything they need to stay with you forever, okay?” The girls nodded, just as serious as Neil. Rubbing his hands together, he sent a look at Andrew that promised trouble. “We need to wake these hearts up and give them lots of energy. Any ideas?”
“Dancing!” Rachel said, hopping up and down.
“Perfect,” Neil said, sending another glance at Andrew, raking his eyes up and down his body. Andrew refused to react. “Ready? Go!”
The girls didn’t waste a moment, wriggling around with their hearts clutched tightly in their hands. Neil stared at him, lips twitching up in a smile. Andrew narrowed his eyes at the man. There was mischief written all over his face, and Andrew knew something else was coming.
“I think we need more energy,” Neil said. “They’re not quite awake yet! Maybe if someone else joined you…”
Before Andrew could say anything, which may or may not have been child-appropriate, his niece turned to him, eyes wide. He stared back at them. He wouldn’t. He loved them, but he would not dance in the middle of this goddamn store just for a couple of stuffed animals.
“Uh oh,” Neil said, thumb pushing down on his mouth in an effort to tame the smile pulling there, “I don’t know how to wake these hearts up unless all of you dance.” Andrew glared at him, but Neil only shrugged. “Reanimation is a process, I don’t make the rules.”
“I bet you don’t,” Andrew grumbled. Looking down at his nieces and their wide eyes pleading back, Andrew closed his eyes in resignation. Pushing a breath out through his nose, he let them grab his hands and pull him into the most awkward dance of his life.
Just when he felt the last of his dignity drain away, Neil clapped his hands. “Great job girls! Are we ready for step two?” Andrew braced himself, but Neil only led the girls through what Andrew suspected was the actual script.
Finally, they reached the end. “Before we can put them in, we need to infuse them with good thoughts and wishes. Close your eyes and whisper a wish into the heart, alright?”
The girls nodded, closing their eyes tightly.
“Make it a good one,” Neil said. “Otherwise it can make the heart twisted and evil.”
“Really?” Rebecca gasped, holding her heart closer.
Neil nodded. “Do you see these?” He gestured to the scarring littering his cheeks. “These are from evil bears. So we have to be very careful.”
“Okay,” they whispered together before closing their eyes again and not quite whispering into their hands. Andrew logged away what they wished for, reminding himself to tell Aaron about it later.
Rachel turned to him, tugging on his sleeve. “Uncle Drew? Do you want to put a wish in?”
Catching the light in Neil’s pale eyes, Andrew had a few wishes flit through his mind, none of which he could put in his niece’s toy’s heart. Carefully, he took the hearts from both of them and whispered his wish of a good memory into them. Giving them back, he swallowed to clear away the tightness in his throat.
He watched Niel’s deft fingers lace up and close the backs, before handing them back to the girls. They each hugged their new toy, and with three pairs of eyes looking at him, Andrew also gave them a squeeze. Then, Neil set them loose in the store. The girls disappeared behind racks of clothes and shoes, giggling about what they were going to buy. Andrew waited by the door where he could see them flitting between aisles, grabbing anything that caught their eye. Andrew smirked to himself. Aaron would have a hard time keeping everything contained to their rooms at this point.
“So,” Neil said, sliding beside him again, “are you having fun yet? Or do you also want to pick out an outfit or two?”
Andrew flicked him a look. “Will the bears turn evil if I don’t?”
The smile Neil gave him was full and fierce, “If I said yes?”
“Then they take home evil bears.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” Neil laughed.
Andrew only hummed. Neil smelled like something sweet and fresh and Andrew was tempted to let it soak deep into his bones. “How’d you really get those scars?”
“Zombies,” Neil said without missing a beat.
“You don’t have much luck with the undead.”
“Or in general,” Neil said, unbothered.
Watching Rebecca show Rachel a sunhat in bright orange, Andrew took a chance, “Maybe. Maybe not.”
It was easy, talking to Neil. He had lived in the city for a year now but was cagey with where he had been before. Andrew kept waiting for him to ask for an autograph or to try and talk about anything Exy, but Neil never said a word. He did tell Neil about moving here recently to be closer to his family and his cat. When he had offered photos of the beast Neil had produced ones of his own.
“Did you resurrect her too?” Andrew asked.
Neil smiled, not answering his question.
By the time the girls had their arms (and Andrew’s) full of clothes and beds and accessories, Andrew was tempted to ask for Neil’s number. It was nice to talk to someone who didn’t flinch away from his dry-cutting humour, who didn’t blink at some details he folded into his words. For each truth Andrew had given, Neil had seemed to give one back wrapped up in something that almost sounded like a lie. It was fascinating and addicting.
Behind the counter, Neil’s fingers flew over the keys, typing in the names the girls gave him. Soon enough, he was packing away their new toys in boxes and scanning the many items. It looked like they had almost grabbed one of everything in the store.
Rachel turned to him, "I’m sorry, Uncle Drew. I looked but they didn’t have any goalie stuff.”
“That’s alright,” he assured her, pushing her bangs out of her face.
“You know,” Neil said slowly, still packing things away, “we’re getting a new shipment next month-” Andrew narrowed his eyes but Neil kept going- “of all new bears. Exy themed.”
“I hate you,” Andrew said as the girls whirled on him, already begging to come back.
Neil smiled, handing over the last of their bags. “Oh no. Guess I’ll have to try harder next time.”
“Will you?” Andrew wasn’t sure what he wanted the answer to be.
“Guess you’ll have to find out, won’t you?”
The second time Andrew took his nieces to Build-A-Bear, he almost turned back around. Their front display was prominently showing off the new ‘KevBear’. The window showed no less than six of the bears, one for each of the pro teams Kevin played on. There were even uniforms and toy Exy equipment shown with them. The girls were as excited as ever though, so bracing himself, they stepped through the doors.
Neil was busy with another family, and Andrew pushed away the pang of disappointment. He wasn’t here for Neil. He was here to take his nieces out and spoil them. Neil would have just been a bonus.
They were about to walk further into the shop when Andrew felt someone step too close to him, making his skin crawl. He turned to see the bright smile of another employee, far too cheerful for his tastes.
“Oh my god,” she said, “are you Andrew Minyard?”
“No,” he said flatly. Rachel and Rebecca eyed the woman, stepping closer to Andrew. They knew the rules about dealing with fans.
The woman laughed. “Don’t be shy! I’d recognize you anywhere, I’m a huge fan!”
Gritting his teeth, Andrew pulled the girls further behind him. “Good for you. I’m not him.”
She winked at him like they were in on some kind of joke. “Sure, I won’t tell. Anyways, I’m super excited to help you out today.”
Andrew chewed on the ‘fuck off’ that was rolling around on his tongue. They would just have to come back later. He couldn’t handle this woman this close to him any longer. He started pushing his girls back out the door, another set of eyes weighing heavy on him.
“We want the guy from last time,” Rebecca said, nose turned up. Andrew would have to remind her about not engaging with the fans, but she looked so defiant he held his tongue.
The woman blinked before bending down and smiling at Rebecca, “Well how about I help you this time? I promise it’ll be really fun!”
“No,” Rebecca said. She tugged on Andrew’s sleeve. “The guy from last time was fun.”
“Neil,” Andrew said.
The woman pulled a face before she smoothed it out again. “Oh, Neil. I think he’s a little busy-”
“It’s alright,” a familiar voice said, bringing the redhead with it. “I can take them.”
“You’re already with a family,” she said, voice tight.
Neil smiled back at her, sharp and unfriendly and it sent a swoop through Andrew’s belly. “You’re about to chase this one out the door, so why don’t you take over for me instead.”
Andrew watched with mild curiosity the stare down that they fell into, Neil sharp-edged and unwavering. The woman lasted only a moment before her mouth pulled into a frown. She glanced at Andrew before looking back at Neil.
“Go away,” Andrew told her.
Neil nearly led them away from the woman, face softening as soon as his back was turned. He glanced at Andrew as soon as the girls got to the station, their hands sorting through bins. With a grimace, Andrew saw one for him. He needed to pay better attention to what his PR Agent sent him.
“Still hate me?” Neil asked.
“More than ever,” Andrew said.
Neil hummed, eyes warm. “Wait until I tell you who sent up the display.”
The glint of humour Andrew could see in his face already gave him the answer, but he found he didn’t mind Neil telling him anyway.
By the time they left the store, Andrew had cataloged every time Neil had laughed during their visit. They also said they would come back next week after Neil promised something for the girls’ new bears. One Kevin, one Andrew.
Looking at how closely his nieces held them, Andrew found he didn’t mind so much.
Neil was waiting for them the next week. The girls waved, pulling Andrew along after them. They brought their Exy bears with them, their jerseys catching the lights of the mall as they swung through the air.
“Welcome back! Are you guys ready?”
The girls handed over their bears without complaint, and Neil took them towards the back. Motioning for them to wait, Neil slipped away into the staff room. The girls wandered through the aisles again, picking through items but not picking anything. Andrew watched them, enjoying how happy they looked.
“They really like you,” Neil said, reappearing a few minutes later, arms behind his back. “It’s nice to see you with them.”
Andrew didn’t have an answer for him, too busy studying the way his form leaned against the wall. Neil stared back at him, eyes ghostly blue.
His lips quirked up, tugging at one of his scars. “Have I resurrected your heart yet?”
Letting out a huff that could have been a laugh, Andrew turned to wave the girls over. They were just short of running, weaving between families until they were bouncing on their toes in front of them. With a flourish, Neil produced the bears from behind his back, and Andrew decided he really hated him.
Rebecca’s KevinBear had a carefully stitched chess piece under his eye along with a PSU uniform that Andrew thought might have been handmade. Rachel’s AndrewBear was also in orange, but had large black platform shoes on. The girls were far too excited about their new outfits to notice the death glare Andrew was sending Neil.
“I hate you.”
Neil leaned in close enough for Andrew to count the different shades of blue in his eyes and smell the fresh mint on his breath. “You know, I don’t really believe you.”
Andrew was back at Build-A-Bear, but this time without the girls. He watched Neil give less than enthusiastic customer service, face blank and bored. When he caught Andrew’s eye, he lit up, flashing him a quick but bright smile.
Andrew waited just outside the door until Neil was able to extract himself from his group. He jogged up to Andrew, tension easing from his shoulders as he drew closer.
“Hey,” he said, casting a quick glance around. “Where are the girls?”
“Neil,” Andrew said, stepping closer. “You like Exy.”
“I never said I didn’t.”
Andrew studied his open expression. “You know me.”
“Not yet,” Neil said.
Fingering the collar of his shirt, Andrew cocked his head. “Would you like a ticket to the next game?”
Neil’s smile grew, his body swaying closer. “I think I could move some things around.”
“Obviously,” Neil said. “So, Drew , are you taking me out?”
Andrew smirked, hooking his finger inside of Neil’s shirt and tugging. “Obviously.