"Do you know that guy?" Emma asked. "Because he keeps staring at you."
Emma was trying a new thing where she dressed the way she thought a diner waitress should dress, in a polka-dotted dress and a pink apron, with her blonde hair up in a bun and a pencil behind one ear. It was weirdly twee, but as long as it didn't interfere with her tips Jesse didn't care. She always offered to split her tips with him and that was extra grocery money for the week.
"I don't know," Jesse said, "I'm washing dishes. We don't get a lot of customers back here."
"Ha ha," said Emma, snapping her gum. "Seriously, he keeps craning his neck around to look back here and I don't think it's for Woody. I think he's looking for you."
Jesse's glasses were all fogged up from the hot water in the double sink and the heat of the kitchen, and Ron, the cook, was starting to glare at both of them because Emma hadn't taken any plates out in a couple of minutes. She was a fairly terrible waitress, Jesse knew, but she made up for it with sass and a willingness to flirt with anyone who walked through the door. "No one knows I'm working here except Hallie," he said. "So I sincerely doubt it."
"But—" Emma said, and the cook cleared his throat, so she rolled her eyes and turned on her heel and grabbed a plate. She stomped back out to the counter, gave the wrong plates to at least two different people, and walked back. "I'm sure table three is looking at you. He's cute. You should wave."
"I've been washing dishes for six hours and I was up all night studying. I should definitely not wave."
Emma sighed loudly and grabbed another plate, which she dropped on table four with a sassy little hip move that was going to get her at least a ten dollar tip. Sometimes Jesse was a little jealous, but there had been a couple of nights when Woody had been desperate enough to send Jesse out to wait tables and it had been an unmitigated disaster of mixed up tickets and customers with soda dumped in their laps.
Emma stomped back in. Jesse winced preemptively; he didn't need to know there was anyone cute in the diner. He lived his entire life trying to avoid anyone who was potentially cute, or might want to talk, or possibly ever be interested in him. It was just… It was easier that way. He was busy and his life was a depressing disaster being held together by threads, and other than the people he couldn't avoid – Emma, Hallie, his econ professor, Woody – he had zero interest in talking to anyone else.
"Hey," said Emma, "Hallie's here. She wants fries and a milkshake."
"Tell her she has to eat something that's shaped like a vegetable first," said Jesse. "And then seriously, do not bring her a milkshake until she eats a vegetable. No matter how much she gives you the eyes."
"Aww," said Emma, pretending to pout. "What if it's a hamburger shaped like a carrot?"
"Won't work," said Jesse. "She's a vegetarian."
"Since Monday. She read Diet for a Small Planet over the weekend."
Emma pressed her lips together like she was trying desperately not to find that adorable. "Okay, sure; I'll get Ron to make her a veggie burger." Someone else walked in to the diner and she sighed again and flounced back out to the front.
Jesse ducked his head around the edge of the kitchen window and waved one soapy hand at his little sister. She was sitting on her favorite stool, spinning around and around, with her pink-and-black knapsack on the counter exploding with papers and glittery gel pens and erasers shaped like animals. "Hi!" said Hallie brightly. It was already dark outside, and Jesse hated that he had nowhere else for her to spend the evening and that he had nowhere else to send her after the school's afterschool program ended and before he was done working. It hurt a little bit.
"One hour," said Jesse, glancing at the clock.
"One hour and seventeen minutes," said Hallie. "It's okay. I have a book to read."
"Wouldn't you like a GameBoy?" asked Emma, giving her a cup of juice and some french fries. Juice was almost like a vegetable, but Jesse still glared.
"No," said Hallie, opening her bag. She pulled out a well-worn copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins. "Have you read this? It changed my life."
"You're ten," said Emma.
Hallie nodded. "I just hope that I have a few good novels ahead of me. Jesse's been reading me Anna Karenina before bed."
"What is wrong with the two of you?" said Emma, throwing her hands up in despair before going to take the order at table five.
Jesse went back to washing dishes. No. Well. Jesse peeked around the edge of the kitchen window to glance at table three before he went back to washing dishes. All he saw was a fairly normal looking guy staring hard at the menu. He didn't look familiar, and he definitely wasn't trying to stare at Jesse. Okay, then. Emma was crazy. Sometimes she got all excited about setting Jesse up, like being single at nineteen was the worst possible fate that had ever befallen a human being.
He liked washing dishes; he liked that he couldn't hear anything over the water when it was running so he was free to stare off into space and sing songs in the safety of his own head, or run over his economics homework for the test at the end of the week. After this he'd take Hallie home, get her to bed, run the laundry, make her lunch for school, finish his homework, and catch a couple of hours of sleep. First thing in the morning he had to get Hallie to school, get himself to class, and then work another ten hours. It was going to be the sixteenth day in a row he'd worked and he was starting to fantasize about having ten whole minutes to sit around doing absolutely nothing. On the other hand, the paycheck meant he had to spend fewer minutes of the day worrying about rent.
"—but Jesse's going to have Saturday off and we're going to go to the zoo," said Hallie, clear as a bell, from the other side of counter. "Why?"
Jesse couldn't hear the answer, but he noted with a little alarm that Emma was at the other end of the diner, near the only-for-show jukebox, which meant Hallie was talking to a stranger. Talking to strangers was the absolute number one under no circumstances do this rule of hanging out waiting for Jesse to finish working. Jesse hit the faucet with his elbow so it turned off and wiped his soapy hands off on his apron.
The formerly normal-looking (currently potentially-ax-murderer-looking) guy from table three was sitting at the edge of his booth's bench, talking to Hallie, who was showing him her book. He still didn't look particularly familiar to Jesse. "—and she has to build a fence around her house made of whale bones, because they curve in so the dogs can't climb them," Hallie explained, demonstrating with french fries.
"Clever," said table three.
"Karana is super smart," Hallie agreed. "I think if I were stranded on an island for years all by myself I'd last maybe a few weeks, but then I'd get super bored and lonely. If Jesse were there I'd be okay, though. He knows how to do basically everything."
"Hallie," hissed Jesse.
She turned around and smiled at him, and he found it extremely difficult to be mad at her when she did that, which was annoying. "See, that's Jesse. Jesse, this is Andrew, he went to high school with you so he's not a stranger who I'm not allowed to talk to."
Table three looked up and smiled at Jesse, and for a second Jesse still couldn't place him, because he didn't know anyone from high school anymore, and he definitely didn't know anyone from high school who would stalk his little sister.
Then the smile jarred something in the very back of Jesse's memory from the sophomore year play, and someone named Andrew who'd inexplicably had a British accent and smiled at Jesse a lot for no apparent reason, and Jesse suddenly realized that he did, in fact, know this person. Possibly he'd even harbored the occasional thought about this person, but that had been buried along with everything else from high school, deep in the back of Jesse's brain where it couldn't clutter up more immediate concerns.
"Oh," said Jesse. Upsettingly, Andrew looked a lot hotter than Jesse remembered from when he'd been lurking around the back of the auditorium. More upsettingly, Jesse couldn't imagine why anyone from high school would possibly remember him.
"Hello," said Andrew, and yes, that was the same British accent. His hair had gotten a lot swoopier than Jesse remembered, and he was wearing a plaid shirt and tight jeans and a leather jacket that meant he could clearly afford to eat somewhere a lot nicer than this.
"Hi," said Jesse, and then, to Hallie, "What if an ax-murderer said he knew me in high school? What if I went to high school with an actual ax-murderer? Then what? There's a rule for a reason, Hallie Kate."
"But he's not," said Hallie, shrugging. "I don't think he is. Are you?"
"No," said Andrew. "Not that I recall."
"I don't actually think you are," said Jesse, because he felt sort of like he was being impolite, but he had a point to make. "But you probably wouldn't say so if you were, would you? I'm trying to teach her logic. Also, self-defense."
"Ah," said Andrew Britishly. He clearly thought the whole exchange was hilarious but he was trying politely not to laugh. "That's a noble goal."
Hallie pouted. "But he knows you, Jesse. He knows what school you went to and that you were in Mrs. McKlosky's homeroom and that you played Albert in Bye Bye Birdie at school!"
"Or he knows how to use google, Hallie," said Jesse, trying to sound polite to Andrew and also discouraging to Hallie.
"Sorry, I just, I thought I recognized you," said Andrew. "I didn't at all mean to bother your sister. I remembered her coming to a rehearsal after school once and I thought there weren't likely to be two people around with such lovely hair, so."
Hallie turned a little pink and wound one of her extremely long and hard-to-keep-neat ringlets around her finger. "Thank you," she squeaked.
Jesse was completely one-hundred percent aware that his hair was currently as fro'ed out as it was likely to get, his face was red from steam in the kitchen, and he looked like the ten-bucks-an-hour dishwasher he was. "Okay, well, hi," he said. "You were… Uh, I remember you being around some of the drama club meetings, I guess? But not really, so, sorry or whatever, but um—"
"I transferred to California," said Andrew, smiling again. "I got some work acting, actually." There was a weird pause, like he thought Jesse was going to know what he was talking about.
"Um, congratulations," said Jesse. "That's cool. Hallie, you have homework, right?"
"I already did it," she said, but she stuffed her mouth full of fries which was an obvious tell.
"English?" asked Jesse.
"Some of it."
"It's not due until Fridayyyyyy," Hallie whined, collapsing against her bag as if the weight of the world were on top of her. "I want to read my book. Not the stupid school book."
"You've read it before and you have a spelling test Friday," said Jesse. He looked fake-apologetically at Andrew. "Sorry, she's pretty busy."
"Absolutely, right, of course," said Andrew. "It was nice to see you both again."
"Was it?" Jesse asked. "Well. Okay." He glared pointedly until Hallie opened up her bag and pulled out her school book. She sighed loudly so he couldn't miss it. "Thank you for doing what you're supposed to be doing anyway," said Jesse loudly, ignoring her.
Andrew laughed a little bit and went back to his menu. Jesse hovered for a second, to make sure he was really going to leave Hallie alone, and then he looked over and the backlog of dishes had gotten out of control.
Emma came zipping back into the kitchen. "Definitely flirting," she said, grabbing another round of plates and dropping off a couple of tickets. "He's cute. You should hit that."
"I have to work. Go away and stop letting strangers bother my baby sister," said Jesse, flicking suds at her.
"Fine," Emma pretended to grumble. Jesse checked a couple of times to make sure Andrew really was letting Hallie get back to work and then he went back to the dishes.
Jesse was tired enough to just lie down under the counter and go to sleep. Hallie had a science project due and he'd been up late after work helping her glue planets to cardboard boxes and fixing the scale up properly, and then he'd decided it wasn't worth it to go to sleep after all when he had to be up in three hours anyway. It was a good decision as far as catching up on his econ reading, but it was a terrible decision because he could barely stay awake in class and he had an eight-hour shift at the diner. He kept bumping into Kristen, the other waitress, or dropping glasses, or accidentally staring off into space and letting the sink overflow.
Mrs. James walked Hallie over when afterschool finished and Hallie sat at the counter where she could see Jesse from her stool. "You look terrible," she said. "I got an A on my science project, though."
"Good," said Jesse. "Eat something besides french fries, will you please?"
"But potatoes are a vegetable," Hallie whined.
"They're a starch," Jesse said. "Homework?"
"English vocabulary quiz. I have flashcards! I color-coded them by parts of speech."
"Study, I'll be done in…" The clock was a little fuzzy when Jesse looked at it. Was it seriously only six? "I'll be done in two hours."
"I wish Emma was working. She likes to walk around the block with me on her breaks."
Jesse shrugged unhappily. There was no better way to handle his schedule until Hallie was old enough to go home by herself. Maybe when she was sixteen. Maybe when she graduated. Maybe never.
He zoned out again, totally losing track of anything except the constant stream of dishes and sometimes the sound of Woody shouting at the napkin distributors over the phone in the back room. He'd snuck a cup of coffee but it hadn't helped, it just made his head buzz.
He zoned back in again to the sound of Hallie saying, "Unjust. That means unfair, because just is like justice. …Inept. That means clumsy or bad at something. But I asked if you can be ept at something and my teacher acted like it was a dumb question."
Jesse glanced out to see who she was studying with. Some of the regulars knew her and would stop by and ask how her grades were, which was slightly weird. But it was Andrew, the person who claimed to know him from high school, sitting on the next stool and holding her sticker-covered flash cards.
"And what's this word?"
"Indisputable," said Hallie. Jesse had a second of being proud of her for not stumbling over the pronunciation at all, and then a flash of panicked anger at her for talking to a stranger again. "It can't be argued or disputed. But doesn't dispute already sound like a negative? Dis-pute. See?"
"It does," Andrew agreed. "You're awfully clever, aren't you?"
"Well, I don't think it's awful," Hallie said.
"Uh, hey, excuse me, hi," said Jesse, leaning over the counter window. "What's going on out here?"
"He's not a stranger!" said Hallie immediately, so she knew he was pissed.
"Sorry," said Andrew, with an apologetic smile. "I offered to help her revise. I didn't mean to—"
"I asked him to! I said, can you help me with the cards? And he said yes. Jesse, don't be mad, he's not a stranger, his name is Andrew Garfield, he showed me his driver's license and I looked at the hologram so it's not a fake. He has his passport, too. And so far he hasn't tried to kidnap me or touch me or anything, I promise."
"Oh my god," said Andrew. "Has anyone else done that?"
"No," said Jesse pointedly, "because she's not allowed to talk to strangers."
"Jesssssssse," said Hallie, in her you're-being-an-unreasonable-tyrant voice. "He's nice and he went to your school and he's not creepy and he told me about his house in California and his mom and he's a good study helper."
"Right," said Jesse, trying not to look directly at Andrew, because it was incredibly awkward to explain this with him right there, "but that doesn't mean he's not dangerous. I'm uh, I'm sure you're not? But it's the principle of the thing."
"How can I make myself less potentially dangerous?" asked Andrew. "Shall I have someone vouch for me?"
You can explain what the hell you're doing here talking to my sister twice this week, Jesse thought. "Uh no, that's… I'm sure you're nice and all. Just uh. Why are you…"
"Oh, why am I here?" Andrew asked, as if his nice clothes and expensive hair and particularly cute face didn't make him stick out in the diner like a sore thumb. "I'm here for work, actually, but I've got a few days off and I thought I'd look up some people I went to school with. So far you're the only one I've found, though."
"Facebook," said Jesse. "Works way better than hanging out in diners and hoping."
"Well, but I…" Andrew said, "I mean, I saw you here and I just thought… I remembered you from the plays and, not to embarrass you or anything, but you were rather brilliant in them, and then the ones you wrote as well, and I always had a bit of a crush on you. I was too shy to say so."
"What?" Jesse squeaked. He was too tired to remember clearly every time he'd seen Andrew hanging around the auditorium, but zero of those instances had involved Jesse being brilliant. He could recall once when Andrew had smiled directly at him and Jesse had decided to sit in a dark corner backstage reading a book for the rest of the afternoon. Did that count?
Andrew didn't appear to have heard, or to have noticed that Jesse's voice was cracking like a middle schooler's. "And now that I'm an adult I thought, Andrew, you should really go and actually speak to him this time, instead of just… Staring at him from the back of the theater."
"No one ever stared at me from – What, that's – No one had a crush on me in high school," said Jesse. His face was bright red, he was sure. He wanted to dive under the counter.
"Why not?" asked Hallie reasonably.
"You had a staged reading of that play you wrote," said Andrew. "I remember thinking it was brilliant, and I ought to have said so, but… I didn't know you, and I thought it might be rude. So instead I've decided to sit around the diner and hope you don't think I'm rude now."
"That can't be the reason," said Jesse. "That just. That's ridiculous!"
"Oh god, I've embarrassed you," said Andrew. "I'm sorry. I'm an actor, I'm a bit forward with my feelings. I obviously have no idea if you've got a girlfriend or if you'd even be interested—"
"He doesn't," volunteered Hallie. "He's totally single."
Jesse gave her a look that should have peeled paint off the wall. She just smiled, comfortably immune. "I don't know you," said Jesse flatly. "And I'm sorry, you seem nice, but I'm busy and that is the most insane thing I have ever heard."
"I'm in town for a while," said Andrew. "I don't suppose there's ever a time when you're not working?"
Was he asking Jesse out? Like, on a date? Jesse just stared at him, mouth hanging open unattractively. "No," he said, trying not to squeak again. "I'm always working. I work seven days a week, I work all day long, I don't – Am I being set up for something? Like, are you being filmed and mocking me right now?"
"Well, I'd like to set you up with me," said Andrew, smiling gently. It was an excellent smile, but Jesse had no energy to appreciate it. Maybe it was the exhaustion, but he was genuinely baffled that this was happening. "You work all weekend?"
"Yes," Jesse lied.
"Not Saturday!" Hallie piped up. Jesse thought about just lunging over the counter to muzzle her.
"Hallie," he said through clenched teeth. "Don't you have homework?"
"You're taking me to the zoo," she said, completely ignoring him. "You didn't forget, did you?"
Andrew looked like he was trying not to laugh. So not only was this ridiculous, it was humiliating, too. "I know," said Jesse.
"I wouldn't dream of interrupting your zoo trip," said Andrew. "You work Sunday too, I suppose?"
"Yes," said Jesse. Andrew looked disappointed but he shrugged, and maybe that was why Jesse found himself adding, "But if you… I mean… I'm not in charge of who comes into the diner and sits here and… Um, is here."
"So," said Andrew carefully, "if I happened to come in again, perhaps you'd have a few spare minutes here and there?"
"You can't seriously hang out here just in case I get a break," said Jesse, horrified. "That's… Hallie's my sister, she can barely stand being here all day."
"I like it," Hallie said. "Free milkshakes."
"I could help Hallie with her homework and think very hopefully about you having a break," said Andrew. "And I wouldn't… I mean, I'm not trying to throw myself at you, here, but even if you didn't have a break I suppose we could chat when you're not too busy. And if we haven't got anything to chat about or you find me terribly tiresome that's alright, and I could go away. But if by chance you find it even the slightest bit enjoyable perhaps eventually you will have a day off." He smiled hopefully.
Jesse just didn't know what to say. He spluttered for a minute while Hallie looked at him curiously. "You… But I… I'm boring," Jesse said. "My entire life is literally just… working and Hallie. I don't even understand what we're talking about right now."
"I don't remember you being boring," said Andrew. "I remember you being funny and witty and terribly dry."
"I'm a dishwasher; I'm never dry," said Jesse, because apparently he couldn't control the stupid things that came out of his mouth.
Andrew laughed. "See?" he said. Jesse didn't.
"My brother's definitely funny," said Hallie. "Do you think he's cute, too?"
"Hallie," said Jesse, because he wasn't sure how it could get worse, but it looked like it was going to.
"I do," said Andrew, and bit his lip, looking down at Hallie's homework instead of up at Jesse.
Jesse knew exactly what his sister was about to ask. "Jesse, do you think—" she started.
"I will hide spiders in your bed," he hissed. "Snakes. Big ones."
She fell silent with a little pout on her face. Jesse had no idea what to say next. This didn't happen to him. This didn't happen to anyone.
"So is Andrew allowed to help me with my homework or not?" Hallie asked, because apparently ten-year-olds couldn't hear awkward silences. Hallie and Andrew looked up at Jesse with accidentally identical pleading expressions.
Jesse felt teamed-up against, and also utterly out of his depth and confused and tired and overwhelmed. "I guess," he said. "Okay. Sure." Hallie cheered and Andrew smiled. It really was an awesome smile. "But you don't tell him where we live or your social security number or the secret password to our buried pirate treasure."
"Aye-aye," said Hallie, saluting.
"I am really very sorry I never said anything at school," said Andrew, laughing.
Woody, in the back, yelled, "Eisenberg are you on a break or something? I don't remember you getting a ten minute hang-out break!"
Jesse rolled his eyes. "If he gets mean I just pretend to cry," Hallie told Andrew conspiratorially. "He's actually really nice."
"I should go back to work," said Jesse. He felt so awkward; why on earth had Andrew said all those things? Jesse could never in a million years have told a virtual stranger he though they were attractive. He just… He could feel himself dying from second-hand embarrassment just thinking about it, and worse, he had no idea what to do when someone said something like that about him. Andrew had to have an ulterior motive, or something wrong with him. He had to.
"We'll be fine," said Hallie. "Okay, Jesse? Stop worrying."
"I'm not worrying," Jesse lied automatically. "Well. Okay. Okay then. Um. Have fun studying."
Hallie waved him off and Andrew laughed a little bit and Jesse had no idea how his life could have gone so far off the rails so quickly.
"Andrew said he'd never seen a collection of erasers as big as mine," said Hallie. She waited a second, but Jesse was exhausted and he was cold and he really just wanted to get home. He grabbed her hand and pulled her across the road as the light changed. She immediately pulled her hand free again. "And Andrew says the word is really pronounced 'shejool,' not schedule. 'You have a very busy shejool,'" she said, in a not-bad imitation of him.
"He means that's how they pronounce it in England," said Jesse shortly.
"And elevators are lifts and trucks are lorries and instead of hello they say quack." She waited expectantly. "Jesse! I said instead of saying hello they say quack!"
It took every ounce of energy Jesse had left in his entire body to pretend to be shocked. "They do?"
"No," Hallie giggled. "I'm just kidding. But I am making a list. Andrew says I could be fluent in English. Get it? Fluent in English."
Had the four blocks home ever taken this long to walk before? Jesse thought about lying down on the sidewalk and napping a little bit before he tried the last block. "You are the funniest sister I have," he said. "Funniest… looking."
Hallie laughed. "I like Andrew. He's funny, too. He works in television, he was telling me about it. And then Emma was like, Oh my god, that's you? at him. It was really funny."
"I thought you were studying and learning English," said Jesse.
"Yeah, well if he's gonna go on a date with you he has to have a job," said Hallie. "Duh. I was checking him out."
"He's not going to go on a date with me," said Jesse, unlocking the door. He held it open for Hallie to run up the steps ahead of him, because the three flights looked insurmountable at the moment.
"Why?" Hallie asked, stopping on the landing.
"Why isn't he going on a date with you?"
Jesse sighed. "Because I don't go on dates with strangers."
Because who would babysit? Jesse thought to himself. What would I have to talk about? What would I wear? How would I spare the energy to pretend to be interesting for an hour? "Because I don't talk to strangers," said Jesse. "Remember how that's a rule?"
"It's a stupid rule. Andrew's nice," said Hallie.
Jesse had a sudden suspicion. "He didn't give you a present, did he? Hallie, we don't take presents from strangers, especially not nice ones –"
"No, jeez," said Hallie. "Besides, he's being nice to me because he wants to talk to you. I'm not dumb." She threw her bag on the floor of the apartment, kicked her sneakers off, and ran for the computer. "I'm checking my email and then I'm gonna google stuff."
"Okay," said Jesse. He picked her bag up and put it on the coat tree, flipped on NPR, and wondered if it was possible to die from exhaustion.
"Don't worry; safe search is on!"
Jesse did a quick calculation. If he napped for ten minutes, then did the dishes, made lunch for Hallie for tomorrow, and finished his econ problem set, he could still totally get five hours of sleep before he had to be up again. He could afford that. "I'm gonna nap on the couch," Jesse said. "Wake me up in ten minutes." He set the clock on his phone to go off in ten and put it on the coffee table with his glasses. Then he dropped face-first onto the couch.
"Okay," said Hallie. "Have a nice nap!"
Jesse was already asleep.
"Jesse," said Hallie. She shook his shoulder. "Jesse, wake up, I'm gonna be late to school."
Jesse flailed awake. "What?"
Sunlight was streaming in the window. "I have to be at school in fifteen minutes," said Hallie. "I can walk myself, though."
"Nuh uh," said Jesse, sitting up. His heart was racing a mile a minute because if he'd fallen asleep there were millions of things he had to do. Breakfast, for one, and lunch, for another.
"I made lunch," said Hallie, holding up a paper bag.
Jesse wasn't totally convinced she wasn't psychic sometimes. "What's in it?" he asked suspiciously.
"A granola bar, a juice box, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," she said proudly. "And I had a yogurt for breakfast. See? I can totally take care of myself."
The kitchen looked like a peanut butter tornado had hit it. She was wearing mis-matched socks, her ponytail was lopsided, and she was wearing a pink dress over jeans with an orange-and-purple striped sweater that made her look more like a tiny circus refugee than a fifth grader. But Jesse wasn't known for his fashion sense; maybe that was cool now. "You were supposed to wake me up," he said. "My phone was supposed to go off."
"I turned it off," said Hallie, not the least bit repentant. "You were really tired. Oh, and I google searched Andrew. Guess what? He's on tv!"
"Oh," said Jesse. They didn't own a television. "Like, British television?"
"American! He's on a show called California Shields, where he plays rookie cop Alex Hunter, the heartthrob who wears his heart on his sleeve. According to the IMDB, at least. There's about a million pictures of him driving cars and shooting and kissing girls and stuff. It's the breakout hit of the year!"
"Huh," said Jesse. That made the whole thing yesterday even weirder. "Well, good for him, I guess. I'm going to change my shirt so I don't look like I slept on the couch all night. When I ask you to wake me up—"
"But I can make my own breakfast and you were really tired," said Hallie. "I put all your books in your bag for you, too." Jesse kissed her on the top of her head and ducked into his bedroom to put on some cleaner clothes.
It was too bad he didn't have time for a shower but Hallie really was going to be late to school, and it wasn't like Jesse had anyone to look nice for. (He thought, very very briefly, about Andrew showing up at the diner, and then thought "television star," and "you are being ridiculous; you don't care if he shows up or what you look like" and dismissed that thought again.) He found a clean t-shirt and a hoodie that was near the top of the laundry pile, grabbed his bag, and hurried Hallie out of the apartment.
"Can I download an episode of Andrew's show to watch?" Hallie asked.
"That's illegal," said Jesse.
"Right, but can I?"
It was on the tip of Jesse's tongue to say no, because the last thing he needed was Hallie deciding Andrew was cool, or interesting or whatever, and then being disappointed when he didn't show up to the diner again. Plus, it was probably violent and full of sex. But then Jesse realized that he wouldn't mind seeing Andrew shoot people or have sex with them – presumably the un-shot ones – and he sighed. "I guess. One episode. I don't want to know where you find it so if the FBI knocks down our door I have plausible deniability."
"Good, because I already did," said Hallie. Jesse pretended to glare at her. "I didn't watch it yet!" she assured him. "I was gonna delete if you wanted me to. Isn't it cool that we know someone famous?"
"Not really," said Jesse. "Doesn't that make it kind of weird that he was helping you study for your vocab quiz tomorrow?"
"It makes him nice. Can I go to Mackenzie's birthday party next week?"
Sometimes her conversations gave him whiplash. "Sure," said Jesse. They turned the corner around the playground behind the school and suddenly there were millions of other kids walking around them. Jesse was always a little worried they'd be trampled by a herd of sixth graders. "What night is it? Do I have to get off work early to pick you up?"
"It's a sleepover," said Hallie. "On Tuesday."
"On a school night?"
"Her mom is gonna make us do our homework before we can have cake and then she's going to take us to school in the morning. Mackenzie is in advanced math with me."
Jesse was pretty against sleepovers on a school night, but… Well, Hallie didn't actually get invited to that many birthday parties, and he was aware that birthday parties were sort of like dates in fifth grade, in as much as they determined your social status with your entire peer group. "Okay," he said. "But you can't stay up late and you have to do your homework and you have to—"
"Jesse, I know," said Hallie. "Oh, there's Mackenzie! I love you, bye!" She grabbed her knapsack and dashed off toward another little girl who Jesse vaguely recognized from the last birthday party. She had glasses and unbrushed hair and she was holding a copy of The Hobbit, so Jesse felt like she was probably the right sort of person for Hallie to hang out with.
Jesse had class on the other side of town and he hadn't finished his problem set. Hallie had packed his bag full of every paper she'd been able to find in the apartment, apparently, so it took him the entire bus ride to even find the right notebook, and he ended up having to hand in a jumbled mess of half-finished papers that were going to tank his grade. Once, Jesse thought bleakly, he'd applied to some really good schools. Now he was in danger of flunking intro classes at community college.
Whenever it all got to be overwhelming and Jesse couldn't breathe because it felt like a million tons of solid rock were resting on his chest, he reminded himself that Hallie was okay. She was doing well in school, the rent, the water and the electric bills were paid, they had groceries in the fridge and that was what mattered. Everything else he couldn't give her –vacations and private school and a new bike and books from a store instead of the library – would be okay. She could live without them and he could live with that much guilt.
By the time he got to the diner Jesse was feeling a little bit better, or at least less crushed by everything. And then he walked in and Andrew was sitting at the counter chatting with Emma, and Jesse stopped dead in the doorway. "Seriously? Again? Don't you have a job?"
That wasn't exactly what he'd meant to say. Andrew laughed and turned around, and he certainly didn't look like a person who slept on the couch or freaked out over bad grades. He looked relaxed and handsome and charming and Jesse hated him for it just a little bit. "I do have a job," said Andrew, "but we don't start filming until next week so I'm free at the moment."
"And you don't have anywhere else to be?"
Andrew looked a little uncertain. "You said you didn't mind if I hung around to see you."
Emma, behind Andrew, was gesturing that she was going to murder Jesse if he didn't shut up. "Sorry," he said, because Emma really would make him suffer later. "You can, I mean, I just… I don't get it. Hallie googled you. You're on tv."
Andrew laughed. "Ah, did she?"
"You didn't know that?" Emma demanded. "Jesse! I know you live under a rock—"
"It's a very nice rock, we like it just fine," said Jesse.
"—but seriously, seriously, there are billboards. There are magazines. How can you not have known about California Shields?"
Jesse felt incredibly awkward. "I just don't. Hallie downloaded an episode. I'm sure she'll have an opinion tomorrow." He walked to the back and dropped his bag, wishing Andrew would go away so Jesse wouldn't have to think about what to say or how to stand or what to do next.
"I hope she likes it," Andrew was telling Emma. "I have a feeling she might be quite a severe critic."
"You're great, don't worry," said Emma. "Why are you filming out here?"
"Oh, it's a crossover event for the season finale," said Andrew. "Don't tell anyone; it’s very hush-hush. During the last four episodes of the season I'm on the East Coast and we're actually shooting out here. Then I've got some final shots to do back in California. There's a big cliffhanger with Leighton. She's getting shot, I'm afraid."
"Oh no!" said Emma. "Is she going to be okay?"
"Depends on whether she decides to leave Gossip Girl and come to us full-time next year," said Andrew. "Or she might die tragically and I'll spend next year grieving."
"You'll spend next year making out with every hot girl you meet," said Emma. "I've seen the show."
Jesse wished he had. He had absolutely nothing to say in this conversation, so he turned on the water and started in on the backlog of breakfast dishes. A few minutes later Emma came back and hip-checked him gently. "Hey, I'm on a cigarette break. Can you cover the tables for a few minutes?"
"You don't smoke," Jesse objected, but she was already walking out. He sighed and wiped his hands off on his apron.
"Hello," said Andrew. He was picking at a sandwich.
"I'm not on a break," Jesse warned him preemptively, but there was only one other customer in the entire diner, Mrs. Schlosky, who just liked to sit at a table and drink coffee and read her mystery novels.
"I think it's amazing you haven't seen the show," said Andrew. Jesse looked a little skeptically at him. Andrew's cheeks went pink. "I mean, you looked a little out of sorts over it, as if you thought I'd think it was weird you hadn't seen it, but… it's actually quite nice."
"Oh my god," said Jesse, "are you so famous that you actually need to look for people who don't know you're famous to keep you grounded?"
Andrew laughed. "No. I just like a break from answering questions about police work, which I know nothing about. Or being asked which guest star I really slept with. The answer is none of them, by the way."
"That's none of my business," said Jesse, inexplicably blushing.
"No, right, well…" Andrew said, biting his lip. "Except it could be. Eventually."
Eventually seemed like a silly thing to say to Jesse when Andrew lived in California and probably wasn't even going to come in again after today. "So you decided to ditch school to go become rich and famous? What a terrible plan," he said instead. "Really counter-productive."
Andrew laughed again. "Yes, I’m very sorry about it. There was an audition and then another and I'd never really liked school much anyway so I just didn't go back. My parents are furious."
"My diploma has really helped me get ahead," said Jesse.
Andrew made a very complicated face, like he wanted to laugh but he wasn't sure he was allowed to. "I remember you having good marks," he said. "Weren't you honor society and drama club and lots of other academic things?"
"That's a polite way of asking how I ended up working as a dishwasher, right?" Jesse asked, crossing his arms tightly across his chest. It only hurt a little bit, like being stabbed somewhere non-fatal with a blunt knife. Andrew shrugged adorably. "I needed a job close enough to school and our apartment for Hallie to be able to walk. That's… pretty much it."
"Ah," said Andrew, and he didn't push for anything else, which was nice. Jesse had no interest at all in explaining beyond that. A bus driver came in and sat down and Jesse got him a cup of coffee. Then he came back to lean on the counter next to Andrew. Coincidentally. Really.
"Hallie's an amazing girl," said Andrew. Jesse relaxed just a fraction. His favorite thing to talk about was how great Hallie was. "She knows so many words and she's read so many books. She has a favorite opera. I've never met anyone under fifty with a favorite opera before."
"It used to be Carmen," Jesse offered, "but last year she switched to The Magic Flute. She's fickle."
Andrew burst out with the toreador song from Carmen, waving his arms around wildly. He was a little bit flat and completely hilarious and Jesse couldn't help laughing. "You're butchering it," he said, biting his lip so he wouldn't grin.
"That's not what my shower says," Andrew argued.
Andrew grinned at him. "I am. Completely. Utterly."
"That's… I don't know what to say to that," Jesse laughed.
"Tell me that I'm not entirely wasting my day sitting here," Andrew said. Jesse abruptly found the floor much more interesting than Andrew's face. "Am I?"
"I don't know," said Jesse. His neck was burning and he wished someone would flag him down so he could take their order, or Emma would come back. "I mean… What do you even hope to get out of sitting there? I’m working. I’m always busy."
"You can't always be busy."
"If I'm not here I'm at NJCCC. Or I'm with Hallie. There's seriously… I honestly don't have ten spare minutes in a day, let alone… I mean… I can't ever… I'm boring and I'm stuck here and you're not."
Jesse glanced up to see Andrew inexplicably smiling at him. It made him want to go hide in the back again. Where was Emma? "Ten minutes sounds lovely," said Andrew. "And I’m sure eventually you'll have a whole hour. Perhaps after Hallie's in bed, or when she's at school."
"I won't." Jesse shook his head. "And I mean, if I ever did, you'd be in California again already. It's just… I really think you are wasting your time."
"Because you can't stand me?" asked Andrew.
Jesse wished he'd stop smiling like that; it made him feel dizzy. "No," said Jesse quietly. "Not because of that."
"Then I don't mind," said Andrew.
Jesse had never been so grateful in his entire life for Emma walking in again. He felt like his entire face was on fire. He threw the order pad at her and ducked back into the kitchen before Andrew could say anything else embarrassingly nice. He just needed a few minutes alone in case he spontaneously combusted.
"Andrew's leaving," Emma shouted. "He says he'll be back later!"
Jesse waved at her and turned the water on full blast so he wouldn't be able to hear anything else. Emma waited a second, then rolled her eyes and walked back out to the front. Jesse's life was so much easier when no one else was part of it.
When Hallie got in she wanted to talk about absolutely nothing except Mackenzie's birthday party. Jesse took his lunch late, when she'd already come in, so he could sit with her at a booth and double-check her homework and pretend like it was the kind of family dinner other families had.
"Did Andrew come back today?" Hallie asked, when she ran out of ways to explain all the different kinds of candy she was planning to eat at the sleepover.
"Yeah," said Jesse. He played with the straw in his soda, poking it through the ice cubes. "Why?"
"Betheny Strauss was reading Entertainment Weekly at recess and he was in it," said Hallie. "And I said I'd met him and she said I was lying and then I pointed out that it said they were filming east coast episodes so he could be here."
"She called you a liar?" Jesse echoed. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, I'm fine. I wasn't lying," said Hallie, waving him off. "Are you going to go out with him? He's pretty cute in the magazine."
"I… no," said Jesse. "I don't think so. Why? Would that be weird for you?"
Hallie scrunched up her face. "Yeah, kind of," she said. "If I'm not allowed to talk to strangers you probably shouldn't either."
Jesse was amazed at how relieved he felt. There was a perfect excuse to make Andrew go away. Hallie thought it was weird and Hallie always got top priority. "Okay," said Jesse. "that's fair. Next time he comes in I'll tell him to leave us alone."
Hallie made a funny humming noise and shrugged a little. "Hmm. Oh, did I tell you that we're going to bake cupcakes? Mackenzie has this really funny recipe for dirt cupcakes and you put gummy worms on top."
"Dirt, though?" asked Jesse. He felt about a thousand years old.
Hallie rolled her eyes. "Oreo crumbs, Jesse."
"Oh. I knew that."
Andrew walked in and Jesse's heart did a funny thing where it started off trying to leap through his throat because Andrew kept coming back, and then it sank again, because he couldn't figure out why Andrew was coming back. Jesse shoved his plate of food away on the table. He felt a little sick.
"Hi," said Hallie, waving.
"Lunch break?" asked Andrew. He stood a little awkwardly by the end of their table. Under any other circumstances Jesse would have moved over so Andrew could sit down but he wasn't sure he wanted to be encouraging. On the other hand, being deliberately impolite made him feel terrible.
"Right," said Hallie. "Want to sit by me?"
Jesse gave her an I-thought-you-wanted-him-to-go-away look, which she deftly ignored. She scooted over instead and Andrew glanced at Jesse, who gestured to the empty seat graciously, because what else could he do? "I'd love to sit," Andrew said.
"Are you filming your tv show?" Hallie asked, offering him a french fry.
"Not yet," said Andrew. "We start on Monday."
"That's cool," said Hallie. "You have a cool job."
"It's pretty cool sometimes," Andrew agreed. "I like the acting bits. We spend a lot of time standing around, though."
"And you had to audition, too, right?" Hallie asked.
Andrew nodded. "I did. I auditioned for about a million things before I got a job. That's not so much fun."
"And where did you grow up?"
"Surrey, in England, and here for a couple of years," said Andrew.
"What's your favorite food?"
"I like hamburgers," said Andrew, "and chips." He stole one of her french fries and she giggled.
"Hallie, stop interrogating him," Jesse said, kicking her gently under the table.
Hallie ignored him. "Do you have siblings?"
"One brother, but he's older than me," said Andrew. Jesse wished he'd stop indulging her and treating her like a person to have serious conversations with. He tried to think of polite ways to tell Andrew to go away and came up blank; Andrew was relentlessly nice and unhelpfully, he really was cute.
"What's your favorite book?" Hallie asked.
"Oh, well." Andrew bit his lip. "I don't actually read all that much."
"What?" Jesse blurted involuntarily.
"Oh no! You were doing so well," Hallie said sadly. "Do you not have enough books? You can borrow mine."
Andrew looked a little taken aback. "Does having a favorite movie help?"
"No," said Hallie sternly.
Andrew looked appealingly at Jesse, who shrugged. "We're book people," he said, and he hoped the See, this would never work out, was implied.
Hallie was digging through her bag. "Here," she said. "I'll lend you a book. Maybe you just need to read more of them. This is my copy of The Secret Garden, I love it a lot. I just loaned it to Mackenzie and she loved it."
"Oh, I…" said Andrew, looking uncertainly at the well worn copy of the book.
"You don't have to read that," said Jesse, reaching out to grab it. Andrew didn't let go, though, so they were both holding it over the table.
There was a little pause. "I think I'd like to," said Andrew. "Hallie recommended it."
"She's ten," Jesse said. "If you're going to read a book it probably shouldn't be the same one a fifth-grader loves."
"Hey," said Hallie.
Andrew smiled wryly. "You're overestimating my reading level, perhaps," he said, still not letting go. "At the very least if I don't like it I can have a conversation with Hallie about why, right?" He didn't look at Hallie, though; he kept looking at Jesse. "I'm sure I'll like it, though."
Jesse felt like a jerk grabbing the book away from him. "It's her favorite," he said awkwardly, "so try not to lose it, I guess." He let go and sat back, picking up a napkin to fold into little triangles so he'd have something to do with his hands.
"You'll definitely like it," Hallie said brightly. "It's great. Do you like elephants?"
Andrew looked a little baffled. "Are there elephants in the book?"
"No," said Hallie. "Elephans maximus is an Asian elephant, and Loxodonta africana is an African elephant. I think it's funny that they have different names."
Andrew looked helplessly at Jesse, who was also not following this particularly conversation. "Because the book starts in India…?" Jesse hazarded.
"Because we're going to the zoo," said Hallie impatiently. "Do you work Saturday?"
"Hallie," said Jesse. He couldn't decide if he was mad or what. "I'm sure Andrew's very busy—"
"I'm not," said Andrew, stealing another one of Hallie's fries.
"—and anyway I thought you said you didn't want… I mean…" Jesse couldn't finish that sentence with Andrew sitting right there, and he couldn't think of a polite way to ask Andrew to leave.
Hallie made a face. "He won't be a stranger if I ask him enough questions, right? So he should come with us and you can get to know him, too."
"Whoa," said Andrew, "hang on a moment. I wouldn't dream of interrupting your only day off together. Although it's very kind of you to ask."
"But you said you start working on Monday, so if you don't come with us this weekend when will you get to?" Hallie asked. She was so infuriatingly reasonable. Jesse was alternatingly proud of her ruthless logic and horrified that he'd taught her to be such a pain in the ass.
"Well, I…" Andrew began, and looked at Jesse. Hallie looked at him, too. "Please?" she said.
"Andrew probably doesn't want to spend the day with us at the zoo," Jesse hedged.
Andrew said hesitantly, "I'd love to. I love zoos, but I wouldn't like to intrude…"
"He'd love to," Hallie repeated. "Andrew, have you ever been to the Bronx Zoo? They had to take down the Skyfari, which was the best ride, but there's still good stuff. There's a giant rope spiderweb to climb in and you can put your head in fox ears and hear like a desert fox does. And you can see the apes in the ape house! They look just like people."
"I haven't been there, no," Andrew said.
"Well," said Jesse, helpless against the look Hallie was giving him, "if you've never been to the Bronx Zoo you should really go, I guess."
Hallie cheered. Jesse glanced over at the clock and realized his lunch had ended about five minutes earlier and Woody was going to start freaking out shortly. "If you want you can meet us there," Jesse said, sliding out of the booth. "You don't have to, though. If you end up being busy or realizing you don't want to spend your free time with a couple of strangers at the zoo just give me a call. I should give you my number so you can."
Andrew beamed at that. He positively lit up, and Jesse realized that somehow instead of telling Andrew to go away he'd just sort of asked him out. Whoops.
"I think the idea is that I won't be a stranger anymore," said Andrew. "Right?"
"Right," said Hallie.
Jesse had run out of ways to say, But why do you want this? "Well, " he said, "Okay, I guess. Okay."
Andrew followed him out of the booth and over to the counter, while Hallie pulled out her homework. "Is it really alright?" asked Andrew quietly. "I honestly don't want to interrupt your only day off. Although, before you say anything, I would very much like to spend a day with you and Hallie. I mean. Perhaps more with you, but I understand it's a package deal, and she's adorable."
"We are," said Jesse. "A package deal. I mean… It's the two of us. Pretty much always. So maybe the zoo is a good idea. See what the reality of hanging out with us is like, and then you won't—"
"Jesse," said Andrew, interrupting. "I had a crush on you before I knew you properly and now that I've actually started talking to you you're funnier and nicer and smarter and cuter than I thought you'd be. A day at the zoo isn't going to discourage me."
"What if you fall in the polar bear tank?" Jesse asked inanely, because his brain just shut down when Andrew said things like that. "That would be a pretty bad day."
"I shall be extra specially careful around polar bears," said Andrew, "if you think that will help. I… I believe I was promised a phone number?"
Jesse temporarily forgot all the numbers he'd ever known and had to take out his phone to read the number to Andrew. "Text me if you get busy, or you have to work, or… Or whatever," he said.
"I'm going to go and let Hallie tell me why this book is so good," said Andrew. "I'll see you both on Saturday."
"Okay," said Jesse. His hands were shaking a little bit so he shoved them in his apron pockets. Andrew smiled brightly, which didn’t help, and went back over to Hallie's booth.
A minute later Jesse's phone beeped. I'm excited for Saturday! Apparently I mustn't miss tiger feeding time.
Jesse stared at the phone for a minute and then typed back, Definitely don't miss that. Looking forward to it. There. That was… He was almost flirting with the absurdly handsome famous person who kept stopping by the diner. That was a huge step forward. He was smiling when he went back to the sink because he couldn't help it, and even though it made him feel ridiculous, he didn't really mind.
Part of Jesse didn't actually believe Andrew would show up at the zoo on Saturday. Hallie had watched the episode of his show she'd downloaded and she'd insisted Jesse watch it, too (he pretended to object, for his dignity's sake). The show was kind of silly, with all the car chases and shoot-outs and flirting and hostage situations, but Andrew was great, particularly when he got a quiet moment on screen to act all sad about his partner's lack of faith in him, or his pain over his mother's cancer. "We should watch this every week," Hallie said, and Jesse just shrugged because it was hard to believe the cool rookie cop with the super hot car was that guy who kept coming into the diner to smile foolishly at him.
Jesse didn't worry about dressing up because he didn't own anything to dress up in. Andrew texted that he was parking and Jesse fumbled through the print outs for the three tickets he'd bought on line – just in case – by the big gates. It was a Saturday in late spring so there were tons of families and field trips going in and out. Maybe Andrew wouldn't be able to find them. Maybe they should just duck inside before he got there and—
"Hello," said Andrew cheerfully. "Oh my god, this zoo is huge!"
"This is the zoo that saved the buffalo," said Hallie. "Do you know about that?"
"No; you'll have to explain it to me," said Andrew. He smiled at Jesse and it made Jesse's stomach flip over. "Thanks for inviting me," Andrew said, a little quietly.
"Um, sure, no problem, it's just the zoo," said Jesse, trying not to turn red for no reason. "Here's your ticket."
"Oh, thanks," said Andrew. "Is this place expensive?"
"No," Jesse said, which wasn't exactly a lie. It wasn't expensive unless you were trying to live on a dishwasher's salary, but he wasn't going to get into how carefully he'd planned out how many dollars he would need for Hallie to get lunch at one of the stupidly expensive hot dog stands inside. Andrew started to take out his wallet and that was worse than anything else so Jesse just waved him off and grabbed Hallie's hand and pulled her toward the gate.
Hallie chattered happily at Andrew about how the Bronx Zoo had saved the last of the American buffalos from extinction at the turn of the century, while Andrew nodded and asked questions. Jesse looked for signs that Andrew was bored but he seemed actually interested. Hallie had researched the zoo online before they came, so she had plenty to say.
"Polar bears!" Hallie squealed, dragging Jesse down the path toward the polar bear exhibit.
"I've been warned about them," said Andrew, grinning at Jesse. Jesse swallowed a laugh and shook his head. Andrew was absolutely bewildering.
The polar bear looked a little sad, actually, lying by the edge of the pool. "The polar bear's latin name is Ursus maritimus. Ursus is bear, like the star ursa major, the big dipper. And then maritimus means ocean, like marine and maritime." Hallie leaned on the wall around the pit beyond the polar bear's pool, and Jesse automatically reached out and grabbed the hood of her sweatshirt with one hand.
"Do you know the Latin names of all the animals?" asked Andrew.
"Not yet," said Hallie. "Did you read the book yet?"
"Oh, no, not yet," said Andrew apologetically.
She sighed and turned back to the polar bear.
"She wanted to be a vet or a marine biologist," Jesse explained. "So she read a lot of books about animals. Now she wants to be an actress or a politician."
"Or a vet!" Hallie added.
Andrew nodded thoughtfully. "She's awfully cute; she could be in adverts."
"Don't – God, don't say things like that, she's serious about it. Politician isn't much better, frankly. I don't see what's wrong with wanting to be something normal, like a rocket scientist or a literature professor."
"Well, since I want to be an actor I think it's perfectly normal," Andrew said, laughing. Jesse resisted the urge to slap his own forehead in embarrassment. "But I think Hallie would make a lovely rocket scientist. How about you?"
"How about me what?" Jesse asked.
"Jesse writes," Hallie volunteered. "Plays and stories and stuff. He got a couple of them published, even." She snorted. "But I should be the literature professor."
Andrew looked at Jesse, and Jesse wished there were a way he could jump over the wall and drown himself in the polar bear pool. "It's no big deal," Jesse said. "High school stuff. Hey, Hallie; monkey house or reptile house?" He tugged on her hood.
"Reptiles!" Hallie cheered. She tore herself away from the polar bear and started down the path to the reptile house, Jesse and Andrew following.
Andrew mouthed, "Really?"
"She likes the poisonous ones best," Jesse said, wondering if this was going to be the point when Andrew suddenly remembered he had other things to do.
"And you?" Andrew asked.
"I mostly think about what would happen if one of them escaped and where the nearest exit is."
Andrew laughed, relieved. "Oh good; me too."
Hallie loved the cool, dark reptile house. She pressed her hands right up against the glass – although she didn't tap, because the sign said not to – and cooed at the spiders and snakes and other horrible things. Jesse didn't like them much but Andrew stayed resolutely in the middle of the hallway, as far from the reptiles on either side as he could possibly get.
"Did you know a cobra's venom can kill an elephant?" Hallie asked. "And they eat other snakes sometimes! He doesn't have his hood out so he's not going to try and eat us."
"Fantastic," said Andrew, making a face. "Can we… Isn't there a fuzzy baby animal somewhere you'd like to look at?"
"I want to see the hissing cockroaches!"
Andrew looked a little horrified. Jesse decided to intervene. "You don't want to miss the penguin feeding, right?" he said.
Hallie turned around so quickly she almost knocked over the children next to her. "Penguins! But that's on the other side of the zoo! We'll have to hurry." She took off through a crowd and Jesse's heart stopped for a second until they got outside and he caught up with her again.
"Don't run off," Jesse said, trying not to look like he'd almost had a heart attack.
"I'm right here," Hallie said reasonably. Jesse swallowed a whole lot of yelling about leashes and old enough to know better.
Andrew jogged up beside him. "Penguins seem quite exciting," he said. "And not nearly as horrible as those crawling things in there." He shuddered.
"Hey, what's that on your shoulder?" Jesse said, because he physically just couldn't resist. Andrew craned his neck and Jesse put his hand on the back of Andrew's shoulder, tapping his fingers like a horrible crawling thing. Andrew yelped and jumped away and Hallie almost fell over laughing.
"Not funny," said Andrew, laughing, and caught Jesse's hand.
"A little bit funny," Jesse grinned back at him.
"Hilarious!" Hallie giggled. "Oh man, your face!"
"What's wrong with my face?" Andrew asked, pretending to be insulted.
"Penguins!" Hallie said, giggling and marching resolutely toward the other side of the park. She had the zoo map memorized.
Andrew hadn't let go of Jesse's hand. "Nothing," said Jesse. "There's… There's nothing wrong with your face."
Andrew beamed at him. "Can I—" he said, and then he ducked forward and kissed Jesse. Jesse managed not to make a completely startled, embarrassing noise, but by the time he got to Oh, Andrew's kissing me; I should kiss him back, Andrew had rocked backwards again. "We should catch up with Hallie," he said. He turned his hand to lace his fingers through Jesse's and pulled him along after Hallie. It was a good thing he did that, actually, because Jesse had forgotten how to move or breathe or that he even had a sister.
"Penguins live in South America," said Hallie. "There are no penguins at the North Pole." She hadn't seen them, Jesse thought with relief, because that would have been an awkward conversation. "These penguins make funny, loud noises so sometimes they get called jackass penguins, but it's not a swear word, so it's okay. Jackass means donkey."
"Did you memorize the entire zoo website?" asked Andrew. Jesse could feel his hand getting sweaty and wanted to pull it away so he could wipe it off on his jeans, but Andrew didn't seem to have noticed.
"We come to the zoo a lot. I love the zoo," said Hallie. Jesse felt a sudden wave of intense guilt; they didn't come to the zoo nearly as often as they could have if he'd already graduated and gotten a real job. Hallie glanced back at them disapprovingly. "Are you two going to hold hands now?"
Andrew looked concerned. "I'm sorry; should we not?" he asked.
"It's kind of weird," said Hallie, scrunching up her nose a little. She dropped back and grabbed Jesse's other hand, which she normally hated doing, especially in public.
Jesse let go of Andrew's hand with an apologetic little shrug. Hallie was always going to win, and he wasn't ever going to do anything that made her uncomfortable. Andrew put his hands in his pockets.
"Penguins!" Hallie squealed, and ran to the exhibit, dragging Jesse after her.
They got lunch at the Crane Café and Jesse let Andrew buy Hallie an ice cream but not pay for everything else, and then they went up Tiger Mountain ("Did you know tigers like to swim? They're the only cats that do.") and to see the Red Pandas ("Their tails have twelve rings on them!") and then to see the sea lions and camels and peacocks. Jesse's feet were starting to hurt and he was sick to death of people bumping into him. They went to buy drinks and the woman in line behind them tapped Andrew on the shoulder and asked if he was from "that tv show," but he just shook his head and said he got that a lot.
"One more animal," Jesse yawned, slumping on the park bench a little bit. "Then we have to go home."
"Jesssssse," Hallie whined. "I haven't gotten to half the park yet!"
"I have homework," said Jesse. "You have homework. Andrew probably has other things to do. Come on. One more animal."
"But…" Hallie said. "But Jesse." He crossed his arms. She slumped dramatically on Andrew. "Pleeeease?"
Andrew bit his lip. "I think whatever Jesse says goes," he said apologetically.
Hallie stomped her foot. "Fine! Butterfly house. Come on; it's this way."
Jesse had to drag himself off the bench. Andrew offered him a hand up but dropped it again once Jesse was standing, with a guilty glance at Hallie. "If you aren't too tired I thought I could take you both to dinner after this," Andrew said.
"Oh, you don't have to do that," said Jesse.
"I know," said Andrew. "But you've taken me to the zoo; it seems like the least I could do."
"The least you could do would be not coming to the zoo with us," Jesse pointed out.
Andrew smiled. "Well, I couldn't have done that."
Jesse felt all flustered and confused. "Well we… I mean, it's going to get late, and…"
"Dinner," said Hallie, tugging on Jesse's arm. "I'm starving. I could eat a lion. I could eat all the elephants. I could eat the rhinos. Oh, except for being vegetarian."
"Do you want to skip the butterflies?" Jesse asked, concerned.
Hallie rolled her eyes so hard she almost fell over. "No. I just want to eat later. Can we get pizza?"
"If you'd like pizza," said Andrew agreeably. They followed Hallie into the butterfly exhibit. It was a lovely garden with fish ponds and butterflies flapping everywhere. One landed in Hallie's hair and Jesse had to shoo it away while she giggled and tried to hold still. Andrew looked a little less sanguine about butterflies landing on him, which was totally hilarious.
"They aren't spiders," said Jesse, trying not to laugh at him.
"No, but they have crawly little legs," Andrew explained, flapping his arm around his head. A zoo employee gave him a nasty look and he dropped his arms guiltily. "I'm sorry; I don't like things that crawl."
Jesse bit his lip and looked at his sneakers. If he looked up at Andrew he was going to have a completely ridiculous expression on his face, because he was so grateful that this hot, talented guy could be so silly.
Andrew moved behind Jesse. "You could protect me from them," he said. He was close enough for Jesse to feel his breath on his neck. Jesse looked guiltily at Hallie but she was busy being enraptured by a swarm of butterflies.
"I'm really tough," Jesse agreed. Andrew put one of his hands on Jesse's hip, slipping his fingers through Jesse's belt loops. Jesse froze.
"They're absolutely terrifying," said Andrew, putting his chin on Jesse's shoulder. He was too tall to do that, Jesse thought. He didn't move. He couldn't figure out what Andrew wanted from him.
"Is it the, uh, the wings?" asked Jesse. "All… flapping? I can see where that would be so scary."
"I don't mind you making fun of me," said Andrew quietly. Jesse could hear he was smiling. "Because I'm very secure in my masculinity. It's not threatened at all by how scared I am of spiders and snakes and tiny flapping insects that little girls think are lovely. I'm absolutely okay with what a baby I'm being."
Jesse laughed. Hallie turned around, squeaking, "Look, this one keeps coming back; I think he likes me!" and Andrew moved away quickly. Jesse missed his warmth against his back.
"Obviously they all like you," said Andrew. "Butterflies eat honey, don't they? And you're so sweet."
Hallie got a little pink. "They eat nectar, actually," she said. "Um. Okay. Can we go eat now?"
"See, neither one of us knows what the hell to do with you," Jesse muttered to Andrew as he followed Hallie out. Andrew threw his head back and laughed.
Andrew's rented car wasn't as flashy as anything he drove on television, Jesse noted with relief. "I had to get my American license," said Andrew. "It's still a bit weird to drive on the wrong side of the road."
"Well, that makes me feel really safe riding with you, thanks," said Jesse.
Andrew snorted. "I'll have you know I can chase bad guys down a motorway at a hundred miles an hour and put the car into a spin that stops just a centimeter short of the edge of a bridge," he said.
"Sure," Jesse agreed. "Do you get a lot of call for that on a day-to-day basis?"
"You'd be surprised," said Andrew.
They sat down for cheap pizza because Jesse categorically refused to let Andrew spend much money on them. He was, in fact, trying to think of ways he could steal the check before the end of the meal.
Hallie seemed determined to interrogate Andrew again. "I can't believe you haven't started the book yet," she said. "You work on Monday! How will you find time after that?"
Andrew had pizza sauce on his chin. Jesse couldn't stop staring. "I'll be pretty busy sometimes," Andrew agreed, "but actually there's a lot of downtime on a set. I can read. I mean… Mostly I don't, but I could."
"But—" Hallie started.
Jesse elbowed her. "Stop badgering him. Some people just don't like to read. Obviously their lives are very sad and barren, but we shouldn't judge them."
"It's just so tragic," said Hallie, shaking her head.
Andrew laughed. "I'm going to read it, I promise!"
"You say that," Hallie complained. "Tell me about auditions. Are they fun?"
"No," said Andrew. "They're miserable. Absolutely horrible. You go in and you almost always get told no, you're wrong, you did it badly, you're terrible. Once in a while it goes well and I get excited and I still usually don't get the job."
"But you got this one," pointed out Hallie. "That's pretty great."
"I'm lucky," said Andrew. Jesse seriously couldn't stand it anymore; he reached over with his napkin and wiped off Andrew's face. Andrew gave him a quick, adorable smile. "I didn't expect to get this job, and even when you get a job you never think it'll actually make it to air or get picked up by a network or renewed for a second season. Meanwhile I'm auditioning for all sorts of films and other thing and being told no, no, no."
Hallie nodded and considered that while scarfing down her second piece of pizza. "What do you do when people are mean to you?"
"I just know they're wrong," said Andrew. "That's all you can do." Jesse had no idea how anyone could ever do that. It was a little bit insane to him.
"So," said Hallie, "will you be too busy to come by and visit us again?"
Jesse almost choked on what he was eating. "Hallie," he said. "God. Andrew is going to think you were raised by wolves."
"I like wolves," said Hallie unconcernedly. "It's okay if he's too busy to come by as long as he tells us. That way you won't think he doesn't like you. You like us, right?"
It was totally justifiable to kill your baby sister for mortifying you to death, wasn't it? "Hallie," Jesse repeated, pained. "You have to stop. Andrew, she's not always like this, I swear."
"I would hate for you to think I wasn't around because you'd done something," Andrew said. His tone made it clear he thought Jesse was exactly the kind of person who would blame himself, and… Well, maybe that was true. "I really hope there will be a point when I'm not busy and you're not busy, either. Today was fun."
"There won't be," said Jesse. Andrew looked a little sad. "I mean, there might be, but probably not, so… I mean Hallie shouldn't get her hopes up."
"I'm tired," Hallie complained, pushing her plate away. "Are we almost done? Can we go home soon?"
Jesse could have stayed a lot longer; this was probably his only shot at something like a date with Andrew, even if it was just the zoo and dinner with his little sister. Andrew had kissed him, and Jesse hadn't met anyone he wanted to be kissed by in a really long time. But he stuffed that down somewhere because Hallie was more important than his stupid hormones. "Yeah," he said. "Just let me get the waiter."
"I'm getting the bill," said Andrew disapprovingly.
"Hallie just ate her bodyweight in cheese, you don't have to—"
"I want to," Andrew said. Jesse felt like he was always saying that, but he couldn't stop himself from frowning. He didn't like someone else paying for them, not even someone as nice as Andrew. They never ate out anywhere but the diner and he didn't want Hallie to expect it or take it for granted. He wasn't willing to fight with Andrew about it in front of her, though, so he just shrugged and tried to look comfortable with it.
Andrew drove them home. Jesse wasn't thrilled about that, either. He told himself he didn't need Andrew to know where they lived in case somehow he turned out to be a stalker after all, but more it was because their building was pretty rundown and the neighborhood wasn't the greatest. Hallie was tired, though, and he didn't want to drag her around on the bus.
"Gimme the keys," Hallie ordered Jesse. "I'm going upstairs to lie down forever." Jesse handed them over and he found himself standing on the sidewalk with Andrew, wondering if this was an I-had-fun-too-bad-we're-both-always-busy situation, or a today-was-weird-I-can't-deal-with-dating-a-guy-who's-always-with-his-sister situation. Andrew looked like he'd be really nice about letting Jesse down easy.
"So, uh," Jesse said. "That was fun, and you were really patient about Hallie, and going to the zoo, and dinner, and it—"
Andrew kissed him. There wasn't any preamble or any warning, at least not that Jesse picked up on. One minute Andrew was leaning against his car and the next he had grabbed Jesse's arms with his hands and pulled him forward so he could kiss him. Jesse couldn't help his surprised squeak. He caught his balance with his hands against Andrew's chest and tried to make himself relax, to let himself kiss back. He wasn't going to get another chance like this.
"Can I see you again?" Andrew asked breathlessly. His mouth was red and bitten-looking. Jesse couldn't stop looking at it. "I'm in town for a month. You must have another day off in there somewhere."
"I… No, I’m always working, I'm always busy, there's always Hallie," said Jesse, confused.
"You must have sometime off. It's illegal to work every day, isn't it?"
Maybe it was lack of oxygen from kissing or something. Maybe it was Andrew's giant eyes. "Tuesday night," said Jesse. "I'm not working and Hallie's going to a birthday party. But you're probably filming."
"No," said Andrew, smiling brilliantly, "I'm only shooting Tuesday morning. That's perfect." He surged forward and kissed Jesse again. It was like kissing a hurricane or a tornado or something; it left Jesse feeling wrecked and out of control and overwhelmed.
"I should go, I have homework," Jesse said inanely. He hadn't been quite this stupid on a date even when he actually was in high school.
Andrew stepped back and put his hands in his pockets. "Right," he said. "I should stop bothering you, I suppose. I just. I want to kiss you, I can't help it, I'm sorry. But Tuesday is wonderful, and it'll be nice to have you without Hallie there. Although I like Hallie quite a bit, she's lovely, she's so funny and smart. But if she doesn't feel quite right about us holding hands she wouldn't like… I mean, I'm being presumptuous, we haven't – I just really like you. A lot. So much. Tremendously."
"I like you, too," said Jesse helplessly. "I just don't know what you think this can possibly… This is crazy. This is totally crazy."
"I'll talk you around about it on Tuesday," said Andrew. He looked ridiculously happy, so Jesse decided to stop trying to talk him out of it. He'd just see him on Tuesday and explain rationally why it made absolutely no sense for the two of them to date. "Good night," said Andrew, getting in to his car.
Jesse waved as Andrew drove away. He was elated and terrified and confused all at once. Then he reminded himself that he had homework to do, and so did Hallie, and that part of his life still made sense, at least. So he went upstairs to think about that, instead.
Professor Farrah handed back the econ problem sets at the beginning of class. When he put Jesse's on his desk he said, "Can I talk to you after class, please, Mr. Eisenberg?"
There was a great big red D on the front of Jesse's paper. Jesse's heart sank straight through his stomach and felt like it landed on the floor somewhere. Something very much like panic welled up in his throat; he really, seriously couldn't believe he was about to be told he was flunking a community college class. He couldn't afford to make up the credit and he couldn't understand why he was so dumb.
Jesse resisted the urge to crumple up the paper and go into the hall and throw up. He resolutely straightened his problem set out, circled the D in pen a couple of times to make sure he saw how badly he was screwing up, and opened up his notebook. He'd take notes, he'd figure out what the hell was going on in class, and he'd do better.
Instead he spent most of the next hour trying to figure out how he was going to be able to sneak out before the end of class. He had a plan and everything to bolt as soon as the professor was finished, before anyone else could block the door. But at the end of the lecture Professor Farrah came over and leaned on the chair next to Jesse's, blocking his escape route. Jesse dug his nails into the cheap plastic of the chair and tried not to catch the professor's eye.
"That's all for today, see you on Wednesday," said Professor Farrah, leaning on Jesse's desk. There was nowhere lower for Jesse to sink; he just had to hope everyone else left the room before the teacher told him he should drop the class and kill himself.
"I'm sorry," Jesse blurted, before Professor Farrah could start. "I was really confused about the whole, when the supply line goes up the demand line goes out thing, or whatever, but I'm going to re-read the chapter and I swear, I'll do better."
Professor Farrah seemed like a nice man. He was tall and thin with a funny white mostache and little silver glasses. "Your problem set was a disaster," he said. Jesse was going to throw up on him. "Do you like economics?"
"I—" Jesse started. "Oh. What? Sure. You make it really… um, interesting."
The professor leaned over. "Name one thing you've found interesting."
This was worse than being yelled at. At least everyone else was gone. "Um, stagflation is an interesting word," Jesse tried.
"What does it mean?"
"I… have no idea," Jesse said miserably.
The professor sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "You know, I'm not sure this is where your natural talents lie, Mr. Eisenberg. It's clear you try, but it doesn't seem to be… You're not getting better at it."
"I can," Jesse choked. "I swear, I'll try harder—"
"Do you know what I think is interesting?" Professor Farrah reached into his bag on his desk and pulled out a set of papers. "You handed this in with your homework by accident."
That was the play Jesse had written as his senior drama project in high school. He felt a little bit like he'd been punched in the face, and for a minute he couldn't say anything at all. "My little sister must have put that in my bag," he managed finally. "I'm sorry, that wasn't – That wasn't supposed to be there."
Professor Farrah sat down on the desk next to Jesse's. "I hope you don't mind; I read it."
Jesse seriously just wanted to die. He closed his eyes and tried to stop his heart from jumping straight out of his throat. "Okay," he said. "I'm really sorry. That's a high school assignment, I wasn't cheating on your class or anything."
"It's good." Jesse opened his eyes again cautiously. Professor Farrah hadn't crumpled his writing up or set it on fire or any other horrible things. "You had more fun writing this than you have in my class all semester, didn't you?"
Jesse wasn't sure if that was a trick question. "Maybe?" he said cautiously.
"It shows." The professor sighed. "You know, sometimes the things you enjoy are a good indicator of the things you should pursue."
"No, but… I work at a diner," said Jesse, "washing dishes. I need classes that will get me out of that, not just make sure I'm there forever."
"But college can be a time to pursue your interests. You have a few years before you need to worry about supporting yourself or a family, don’t you?"
Jesse shook his head and dug his nails into his thighs until he could feel their sharpness through his jeans. It was comfortably distracting.
"Well, in that case I'm going to recommend tutoring," said Professor Farrah. "After class. At least an hour, with one of my upper-level students. Otherwise, and I hate to say this because you seem like an awfully smart young man, but you're not going to pass the final. And I don't know about the other econ classes you'd need to graduate, frankly."
There was something weird going on with Jesse's lungs and no matter how hard he tried he couldn't get enough air from breathing. "Okay," he managed. He had no idea how he'd rearrange his work schedule to allow for hours and hours more tutoring, but that was less dire than You're going to fail and You're too much of an idiot for this class.
"If you're miserable in this class you're going to be miserable in any job you get doing this," said Professor Farrah, and then he handed Jesse back his play and packed up and left.
It took Jesse an inordinate amount of effort to make his hands stop shaking and get himself breathing properly again. Eventually someone else stuck their head into the classroom and said, "Sorry; we're about to have macro in here. You need to go somewhere else." Jesse nodded and grabbed his stuff. He was on the brink of being late to work anyway.
"That's the third glass you've broken," said Emma. "What the hell is going on, Eisenberg?"
Jesse was pretty sure she was wearing an actual poodle skirt. "Is this, like, performance art to you?" he asked. "Are those saddle shoes?"
"Don't change the subject," said Emma. "Are you okay?"
Jesse nodded and stuck his hands back in the scaldingly hot water. As long as he didn't think about it he wouldn't freak out again. He needed to keep breathing; it was the best way to stay upright while working.
"Nothing," said Jesse. "Nothing. Just, my econ professor thinks I'm going to flunk out of his class. No big deal."
One of the guys in the diner yelled, "Hey, waitress!" Emma completely and utterly ignored him. She leaned against the sink and crossed her arms. "You're the smartest guy I know, Jesse. You aren't going to fail."
"Oh, he seems pretty sure. Can we talk about something else? Like who you're going to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance with?"
Emma beamed at him. "That was a pop-culture reference! Good job."
"Hallie and I have movie nights, okay. I watch movies. Sometimes."
"Do I need to take you out for a drink, hon? Maybe you should take up smoking. You look pretty wrecked."
Jesse shook his head. "I'm fine. I'll be fine. Everything's going to be fine. I'll just… I'll try harder and I'll get my shit together. See? It's fine."
"Maybe you should drown your sorrows in Andrew," Emma suggested, leering a little bit. "He's hot. How did the zoo thing go?"
"Okay," said Jesse. Emma pushed his shoulder. "It was… It was good. I think it was good, at least? I don't know, I never know how anyone else feels about that kind of stuff."
"Did he kiss you?" She didn't wait for him to answer, but she didn't have to, because he could feel his whole face turning red. "He did! Awesome! Are you seeing him again?"
"Tomorrow, if I don't get fired or die of embarrassment," Jesse said. "Hey, uh, that guy is behind the counter pouring his own coffee."
Emma waved that off. "Cool. Less work for me."
"How about neither one of us gets fired, okay? I'll try and stop breaking things and you go actually take some orders."
"Ugh, customers are my least favorite part of this job," Emma grumbled, flouncing back out to the tables.
Emma was definitely Jesse's favorite part of the job. She distracted him enough to stop his hands from shaking whenever he thought about homework or class or what the hell he was going to do. He was seriously curious about how much further she could go with her themed outfits, though. Maybe everyone who worked there was a little bit crazy.
"Are we having movie night this week?" Hallie asked, curling up at the other end of the couch with her battered copy of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.
"My night off is Tuesday," said Jesse. "And you're at Mackenzie's, eating dirt." He seriously could not figure out what was supposed to be going on in the graph in his econ textbook, and the longer he stared at it the more he felt dizzy from potential failure.
"What about Friday?" Hallie asked.
"Jessssssse," Hallie whined, leaning against his arm. "I'm not gonna see you at all this week."
"I'm seeing you right now. Look, there you are."
She kicked him. "That's not what I mean."
Jesse groaned and leaned back against the couch. "Okay, fine; I'll see if I can get out early on Thursday. It's quiet on Thursdays; I can probably get out by seven."
"That's only time to watch one movie," Hallie pouted. "And I'm gonna have to spend the whole weekend at the diner while you work."
Jesse shrugged. "Better than not watching me work, I guess."
She sighed loudly but there wasn't anything else he could do, so he ignored her and went back to his book.
After a minute Hallie kicked him again. Jesse turned and she slid her feet underneath his legs, leaning back against the arm of the couch. "Are you seeing Andrew tomorrow?"
"Yeah," said Jesse.
"Don't have sex with him."
Jesse choked on absolutely nothing. "Oh my god, Hallie, Jesus, what is wrong with you, of course I'm not going to – what the hell—"
"Lucy Santoro says you have to wait for the third date to have sex or boys won't call you back," said Hallie, with a little shrug. "So don't have sex with Andrew yet."
"Fifth grade didn't used to be like this," Jesse said. "I'm sure. Don't talk to Lucy anymore, ever."
"I'm just looking out for you!" Hallie said. "Jeez. He's nice and I want him to like you. It's… It's kind of weird, though."
Jesse bit his lip. "Are you okay with me seeing Andrew again?" he asked cautiously. "If you're not, just say so, okay? I can cancel."
Hallie shrugged again. "It's just weird. Because I won't be here Tuesday, but he will be. There's never anyone here but us. It's okay, though!" she added quickly. "I'm just thinking about it."
"Hallie, if you don't want Andrew here—"
"No, it's okay," she said. She didn't sound totally convinced but she smiled at him anyway. Jesse didn't want to be the reason she had to grow up too quickly and worry about other people's feelings instead of her own. "Andrew's nice and he likes you and he's going away pretty soon anyway, right? So it doesn't matter."
Jesse breathed a tiny sigh of relief. "Right. He lives in California. So he'll be gone again in a month anyway."
Hallie brightened up a little bit. "Okay then. That's… I mean, I don't want him to go away or anything, but that's good. Then it'll be just us again." Jesse started to offer again not to see Andrew but she was already plowing on. "If you only have a month maybe you better have sex with him, though. You only have so many dates coming up."
"Don't – Please don't – Ugh, Hallie, I love you, but please don't ever, ever say anything about sex again for the rest of your life, okay?"
She giggled. "Okay, maybe you shouldn't, then. He's a fling. That's what Lucy said. I mean, she didn't say it about you, she said it about this girl on a tv show, but that's what it is. A spring fling."
"Yeah, I guess so," said Jesse. "I'm not much of a fling person, though, so don't get used to it. In a couple of weeks it'll just be us again. Don't worry about it, okay?"
"Okay," said Hallie, and went back to her book. It took Jesse a little bit longer to calm down enough to go back to his baffling econ questions. He didn't want to do anything that would upset the fragile imitation of a normal life he and Hallie had achieved, but he did want to see Andrew again. He felt miserably selfish and guilty over it. Tuesday he'd have to tell Andrew that they couldn't do this anymore; he couldn't pick a stranger over his sister, even temporarily. That didn't make him feel any better, though, and the econ book refused to start making sense.
"Hey," said Jesse, giving up. "Ice cream?" Hallie cheered. That was still easy. Thank god something was.
Andrew called Jesse at work Tuesday and offered to pick him up for dinner. Every restaurant he mentioned cost as much as Jesse made in a week, and definitely wasn't appropriate for the hoodie and jeans he was wearing. Going home to change wouldn’t help, either, because it wasn't like he had a suit jacket lurking in the closet somewhere. "Or, um, maybe instead of that we could go somewhere nearby, in case Hallie has a sleepover emergency," Jesse suggested hopefully.
"Is that likely?" Andrew asked.
"Oh, sure," Jesse lied, "happens all the time. She gets homesick or someone eats too much cake and throws up and I have to go get her."
"Hmm," said Andrew's voice on the phone. Jesse tried to imagine what face he was making, and how annoyed he was at being scheduled around the hypothetical problems of a ten year old. "Fair enough. There's an Italian place near you, isn't there?"
There was, and Jesse was only going to have to skip lunch for a couple of days to afford it. "Yes," he said gratefully. "That would be perfect." They arranged for Andrew to meet him there after he got done with work. After that… well, after that Jesse had no idea what was going to happen. Maybe he'd bore Andrew to death. Maybe Andrew would remember he had an early call to be on set. Maybe they'd go back to Jesse's apartment and – No, maybe they'd go to wherever Andrew was staying.
"Are you so excited?" Emma asked, when Jesse came back inside with the phone in his pocket.
"I could throw up," said Jesse. He was a little worried that he might throw up on Andrew, actually.
Emma made a thrilled, squeaking noise. "This is going to be so great! You have to tell me all about it. He's actually famous, Jesse. His face is in Entertainment Weekly this month!"
"Please stop telling me these things," said Jesse, walking past her into the kitchen. "You're making it worse."
"I'm making it awesome!" Emma shouted after him.
Jesse dropped almost as many dishes clearing off tables as he had the day before. Woody was starting to give him the side-eye and threatening to take the broken saucers out of his pay check.
It was an incredibly long shift. "Don't order anything with spinach," Emma said, as Jesse was getting ready to leave. "You'll get it in your teeth. Make sure you don't get sauce on your shirt. Turn your phone off and don't check for messages from Hallie every thirty seconds. Try not to assume everything you say is lame and weird; you are totally charming and adorable." She kissed his cheek.
"I'm terrible at this," Jesse said plaintively.
"You don't know that," said Emma. "You never go on dates. See? Logic." She pushed him out the door.
It was only a couple of blocks walk, just long enough for Jesse to totally psych himself out wondering what the hell he was thinking. Andrew met cool people all day and did cool stuff; Jesse was going to have absolutely nothing at all to say to him. He tried to look in through the door and see if Andrew was already there. There was totally time for Jesse to turn around and sneak home again and pretend the whole thing wasn't happening.
"Hello," said Andrew, behind him. Jesse managed not to jump too badly. Andrew was dressed up, or maybe he just dressed like that all the time, but his button-up and nice jacket made Jesse's free-with-this-credit-card hoodie look absolutely stupid.
Jesse fumbled and stuttered out something that should have been hello. Andrew smiled at him as if he'd said something brilliant instead of completely inane and Jesse followed him into the restaurant trying to figure out what exactly Andrew was hearing that he wasn't.
Andrew pulled out Jesse's chair for him. Jesse stared at it for a second before he realized what Andrew was doing and blushed. "Oh, you don't have to – I don't – "
"I'm being a gentleman," said Andrew mock-sternly. "I have a feeling if Hallie hears I wasn't I'll be sent away."
"Really? She told me we ought to hurry up and have sex." A second later he realized what he'd said. He closed his eyes and tried to rewind time and make that not have happened. "I mean, really she said we shouldn't. Then she said – Never mind. I just… Let's pretend that didn't just happen."
"I don't know that I'm comfortable with that conversation anyway," said Andrew, sitting down across from him. "That's… Isn't she a little young?"
"Apparently fifth grade is now a jungle," said Jesse.
"I can't believe she's worrying about it," said Andrew. "Now I'm nervous." He smiled brightly at Jesse. He didn't look nervous at all, but Jesse appreciated him saying that.
"Don't be," said Jesse. "I have a whole list of reasons why this isn't going to work out anyway."
Andrew bit his lip. "And that's supposed to make me feel better?"
"Well. Less pressure, at least, I guess." Jesse picked up his menu and used it to hide his face. He was saying a lot of stupid things because Andrew made him so nervous that he couldn't filter any of the ridiculous things he was thinking.
"Hmm," said Andrew. "You'd better give me your list one at a time so I can properly rebut. Wine?"
Jesse did a drink price calculation in his head, and then measured that against how much it might calm his nerves. "Yeah, okay, sure, one."
Andrew flagged down the waiter and ordered a bottle. He was looking at his menu pretty seriously; Jesse wondered how badly this compared to the places he usually ate. "Okay, what's your first reason?" Andrew asked.
"You live in California."
"Irrelevant; I'm here at the moment. Is the chicken any good?"
"I don't know; I haven't eaten here in years. It's relevant because you're going back pretty soon. So what's the point?"
Andrew waved his hand around. "I prefer to think of it as a window of opportunity. It's lucky I'm here at all. Next?"
"You're a tv star. That's… I mean, that's pretty much game over."
Andrew snorted. "That's ridiculous. I spend a lot of my day talking to really boring people who are vapid and annoying and only pretend to be interesting. Why wouldn't I want to talk to someone actually interesting?"
"Yeah, but… You can do all that stuff."
Jesse shrugged. "You know. What famous people do. Go to… Clubs. Or something." It turned out he wasn't entirely sure what rich and famous people did.
"I can," Andrew agreed. He was obviously trying not to laugh at Jesse, and it was weird, but this completely stupid conversation was calming Jesse down a little. "I like going out and dancing and drinking with my friends. I don't see why that means I can't also like going to dinner with you."
"Because I would never do that in a million years," Jesse tried to explain.
Andrew frowned a little bit. The waiter came back and poured them each a glass of wine. He offered Andrew the wine cork and Andrew looked a little confused, which was nice, because Jesse didn't know what you were supposed to do then either. "Are you worried I'm too…" Andrew began. "I mean, if you think I'm an uneducated buffoon who just parties and goes to clubs and wastes money, I'm not. I swear I'm not. I'm sorry I haven't read more books and I'm not getting a degree or anything but you can't just give up on me, I'm honestly not a complete fool, I promise—"
Jesse realized with a shock that Andrew was worried Jesse wouldn't like him. Andrew, who was cool and handsome and successful and funny and—"Oh my god!" said Jesse.
"I can find a favorite book," said Andrew determinedly. "Just give me a day or two. Maybe a week."
Jesse didn’t know what to say to that. He was trying to get his head around the idea that Andrew was worried about being up to Jesse's standards. As if Jesse had standards.
Andrew took a drink. He was holding on to his wine glass a little too tightly, not looking at Jesse at all.
"If you had a favorite book," Jesse managed finally, "I'd just think you were some kind of robot specially programmed to infiltrate and assassinate me or something. You'd be way too perfect. I… I can barely handle you at this level of perfection; please don't go and get any better."
Andrew's smile was brilliant and relieved and Jesse smiled back automatically. "I could say the same to you," said Andrew.
"You have the weirdest ideas about me," said Jesse. He needed to change the subject. "Okay, next; I don't do flings. I don't know how to. It takes me so long to relax around anyone that by the time I got used to you being around you'd be back in California."
"The wine will help with that one," said Andrew. Clearly he didn't understand the true depths of the problem. "Any others?"
"Just one. Hallie." Jesse looked apologetically at Andrew.
"Ah," Andrew nodded. "I'd wondered about that. She doesn't like you dating?"
Jesse shook his head. "She keeps telling me I should go on dates with you and inviting you along to the zoo, but then she gets worried about you being around while she's not. We're both so used to it being just the two of us."
"But she's open to the idea?" Andrew asked. "I admit, it's a bit odd, trying to charm both of you at once. She's only ten. Does she really get to decide who you see and what you do?"
"Yeah," Jesse said with an apologetic shrug. "She does."
Andrew sighed. "It's alright for now, though, isn't it? She knows we're out tonight. She doesn’t mind this."
"But after this, if she started being upset about it, I'd… You're amazing, and I really like you. But there isn't anyone in the world I'd want to date more than I'd want her to be happy."
There, most of Jesse's cards were on the table. That ought to make Andrew run screaming. Jesse was pretty sure he could cover the bill if Andrew decided to excuse himself and go home.
"She likes me," said Andrew thoughtfully. "I think I can win her over. Really I think she's just worried about you. You might like me and then I'd leave and that would make you sad. She'd hate that."
"That's exactly what's going to happen," Jesse pointed out.
Andrew shook his head. "Not necessarily. Anyway since it's only a month we can safely assume I'm not going to usurp Hallie's spot in your life and we can get on with our date, can't we?"
Jesse thought about telling Andrew that Hallie thought he was just a fling, but he figured Andrew knew that. "I guess," said Jesse. "We can table that discussion for a little while. So tell me what it's like to be on tv. Is it awesome?"
"Oh, you should come down and visit me at the set sometime!" Andrew said animatedly, and launched into a long and hilarious story about filming.
Andrew had nothing to worry about as far as not being smart or charming or wonderful. Jesse managed to relax at dinner enough to trade a couple of funny stories back and forth, although mostly he let Andrew ramble in his adorable, enthusiastic way about famous people Jesse had never heard of.
"I'll get the bill," said Andrew when it came, grabbing it away from the waiter. Jesse opened his mouth to explain that actually it was fine, he didn't need to, and Andrew cut him off. "No, no; I asked you out so I should pay."
"I don't think you did, actually," said Jesse, trying to think back.
"I definitely did and I’m definitely paying for this."
Jesse was really uncomfortable with that, but he wasn't sure how to say so without being a jerk. "But I mean, you don't have to—"
"Oh god, I've got more money than I know what to do with," said Andrew. Jesse flinched a little. The sheer unfairness of that – not that it was Andrew's fault or anything, but Jesse thought about money pretty much all the time, every minute of the day – made his stomach hurt.
"I can pay for myself," Jesse insisted tightly.
"Next time," said Andrew, handing the check back to the waiter with his card.
"You're assuming there will be a—"
"Of course I am," said Andrew sunnily. "I'm an optimist. Speaking of which. I could drive you home now, or… Is it too cliché to ask if you'd like to invite me up for coffee?"
Jesse's apartment was a disaster. "Why would you want to come up for coffee?" he asked, trying not to panic. "Don't you have to be up early for filming?"
Andrew laughed. "Makeup can do amazing things for people who look tired. I just thought… My hotel is all the way on the other side of town and if Hallie called you'd be far away. So I thought if we went anywhere it should be to your flat." He waited a beat, while Jesse tried to figure out how he'd clean up all of Hallie's stuff, do the dishes, and repaint all the walls before Andrew could get upstairs. "Unless you'd rather I just dropped you off," said Andrew. He kept smiling but Jesse was sure he was pretending not to be disappointed.
"I'd like to… I mean, if I had coffee you could come up for it," Jesse said. "I can make some. Coffee is great. I'm a big fan."
"Really?" Andrew asked.
Jesse had no resistance against Andrew's hopeful expression. "Seriously, I promised Hallie we wouldn't have sex," he said instead.
Andrew laughed. "Come on. I'll drive you home and if you decide to invite me up we won't tell Hallie anything about anything, no matter what happens."
Andrew had already kissed Jesse twice, so that wasn't what was making him nervous. What was making him nervous was… Well, everything else. "It's a pretty cheap apartment," Jesse said. "It's just, I mean, we haven't decorated it or anything. It isn't—"
"Jesse," said Andrew, grabbing his hand. "It's fine."
Jesse nodded a few times and tried to believe that. "If you don't give me my hand back I can't unlock the door," he said.
Andrew, a step lower than Jesse, was at about the same height for the moment. "Please don't worry about me," said Andrew. He leaned forward as if he were going to kiss Jesse, stopping just short of actually touching him. "I just want to spend time with you."
"Ah," said Jesse inanely. Andrew made all the words fly out of his brain. He leaned forward and kissed Andrew, heart pounding in his chest. Jesse felt like he was getting away with something, like he'd tricked Andrew into standing there and being kissed, and when they got into Jesse's apartment he'd realize it was all a mistake and this was the last chance Jesse had to do this.
Andrew tightened his hand around Jesse's, making a delighted noise. He put his other hand on Jesse's hip, pulling him forward, and kissed him back with all the enthusiasm Jesse was afraid to show. "I don't care if you ever unlock the door," said Andrew.
"Eventually our fourth-floor neighbor will walk by," said Jesse. "She's pretty scary. You'll care then."
Andrew smiled. "I won't," he said, but he let go so Jesse could turn around and undo all the locks on the door.
"So," said Jesse, "this is it. This is… I mean. It's just… Um." He tried to kick Hallie's collection of Little House on the Prairie books under the couch and straighten her bike up against the wall without it being too obvious that was what he was doing. Their breakfast dishes were still out, too, and there was dust all over the photos on the shelf behind the computer. Jesse stuck his hands in his pockets and assumed what he hoped was a totally calm expression.
"Ohhhh," said Andrew, walking in and turning slowly in a circle. Jesse refused to let himself wince. "This is… You've got walls that are all bookshelves. And maps."
"Well, we have a lot of books," Jesse said, trying to shrug with his hands still in his pockets. "A lot of them are from the library, though."
Andrew nodded. "I'm working very hard on not feeling utterly outclassed by you."
"They're just books," Jesse said.
"You say that with the self-confidence of someone who's never felt defeated by one," Andrew replied, and yeah, Jesse had never met a book he couldn't handle, so he just shrugged again. "I don't understand why you'd talk to me at all," said Andrew. "All the things I know about are going to seem terribly silly to you."
"I—That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," said Jesse. He fumbled around with his coffee machine. "Everything I know is going to bore you to death."
Andrew came up behind him and put his arms around Jesse's waist. Jesse froze, holding a tablespoon of coffee grounds in one hand. "Hasn't happened so far," said Andrew, and kissed Jesse's neck. "Try me."
"War and Peace is almost four thousand pages long," said Jesse, trying to keep his voice steady. Everywhere Andrew's mouth touched felt like it was on fire.
"Well, you'd best get started telling me about it, then," said Andrew. Jesse could hear his smile.
"I'm sure we could come up with something better to talk about," Jesse said, voice shaking a little bit. He turned his face a little more and Andrew kissed him.
It wasn't entirely comfortable but it wasn't bad, either, and Jesse was happy to have a crick in his neck to have Andrew plastered against his back like that. Andrew slid his hand into Jesse's front pocket and Jesse dropped his spoon full of coffee grounds all over the counter. "Whoops," Jesse said.
"I wasn't really that interested in coffee anyway," Andrew confessed. He pulled Jesse around and backed him up against the counter and kissed him until Jesse forgot how to breathe or worry or think about anything at all.
"I can't keep my hands off you," said Andrew, flushed and breathless. "I'm sorry, should I back off? Should I go slower? I do want to be a gentleman."
Jesse didn't want Andrew to be a gentleman; his legs felt shaky and his stomach was flipping over with want. "This is fine," he managed, and if his voice sounded a little strained hopefully Andrew wouldn’t notice.
Andrew smiled. "Oh, good. Just… tell me if it's too much."
"All appearances to the contrary," Jesse said, taking a couple of deep breaths, "this isn't actually the first date I've ever been on."
"I haven't been on a date in ages," Andrew said.
"You get plenty of practice on tv," said Jesse. "You make out with someone every week."
Andrew lit up. "Have you been watching my show?"
"I… Well. Hallie wanted to see some episodes," Jesse said, flushing.
"Does she like them?"
Jesse nodded and bit his lip. Hallie wasn't the one who'd stayed up late last night catching up on the first season.
"Well," said Andrew with a teasing smile, "tell Hallie that kissing on screen is boring and strange and utterly unsexy. And then… Don't tell her that it's much better with you."
Andrew kissed him again, and this time he let his hands roam; up underneath Jesse's sweatshirt and then under his t-shirt, too, tracing hot lines on Jesse's skin. Jesse put his hands on Andrew's hips, pushing him back a little, trying to get him to walk over to the couch without having to break the kiss. Andrew was amenable, apparently, stumbling backwards over Hallie's pile of glitter pens and sitting heavily on the couch that separated the living room from the kitchen, pulling Jesse down with him.
This was dangerous territory; they could sit on the couch, but they could also lie down on the couch. Jesse tried to find a way to sit on the couch next to Andrew without getting their legs tangled or hitting Andrew with his knee anywhere important. Andrew laughed into his mouth and put his hand on Jesse's ass, pulling him right into Andrew's lap.
"We don't have to get naked," said Andrew. His voice was gratifyingly rough. "But can we maybe take a layer off?"
Jesse just nodded because he was hot as hell and he'd been kissing Andrew so long he'd forgotten how to talk. He pulled his sweatshirt off and Andrew took off his button-up so he was just wearing an undershirt. "You look better than on tv," Jesse managed.
"Really? They spend so long making us look just damp enough and just tanned enough. I told them not to use the spray tan on me, though. I'm English; it would look ridiculous."
"I'm glad," said Jesse. "Otherwise you'd taste like spray tan." He leaned down and kissed Andrew's shoulder. Andrew tipped his head back against the couch and moaned. Then he stopped short and made a hilarious face. Jesse stopped. "What?" he asked. "Are you—"
"This is Hallie's, isn't it?" Andrew asked, pulling a Winnie-the-Pooh-shaped pencil sharpener out from underneath him.
"Oh. Yes. Yes, it is."
"It makes a terrible cushion," said Andrew.
Jesse started laughing. He hid his face against Andrew's shoulder and hiccuped for air, trying to make his shoulders stop shaking but he couldn't.
Andrew poked him in the side. "What? Have I broken some important toy?"
"I just…" Jesse tried, gasping around his giggles. "This is the worst-- The worst date-- I spilled things and you're sitting on a pencil sharpener and –"
"This is a wonderful date," Andrew corrected him. "I haven't had this much fun in months." He kissed Jesse, biting at Jesse's lips and rubbing his hand against Jesse's thigh until Jesse groaned involuntarily and stopped laughing because he just didn't have enough breath.
"This is really… This is all you want to do tonight?" Jesse asked, and then blushed, because he was implying something he didn't really mean to.
"This is fine," said Andrew. "This is perfect. Tell me how I can win Hallie over so I can do this forever." They had settled in on the couch half next to each other, half on top of each other. This, Jesse realized, would have been a good time to own a television so he could turn it on and they could pretend to watch it while they made out.
"Win Hallie over?"
Andrew grinned. "I think I've already got you pretty well won."
"See, this was what Hallie warned me about. That you'd think I was easy—"
"No," said Andrew. "I don’t think that at all, trust me."
"I. Well. Oh," said Jesse. Andrew had his arm around Jesse and Jesse would have been pretty content to just sit there forever, if they could have arranged it.
"Shall I buy Hallie a pony?" Andrew asked. "Or a dolphin?"
"Won't fit in our bathtub," said Jesse.
"Then I'll buy her an island with dolphins around it. Or something. She likes islands and dolphins."
Jesse looked at him suspiciously. "You don't really have enough money to buy an island, right? I can't – I don't think I can talk to someone who could buy an island."
"No," said Andrew, "not really. I bought my brother a car, but that's about as extravagant as I've managed. I've got all this ridiculous money but I don't really know what to do with it."
"That's gross," said Jesse. "Seriously. That's disgusting, get away from me." He made a half-hearted attempt to push Andrew off the couch.
"Something smaller?" suggested Andrew. "A new bike for her? Or a kitten?"
Andrew wasn't doing it on purpose, Jesse knew, but when he offered to buy Hallie the things Jesse couldn't get her himself it was like taking a body blow. "Please don't buy her anything," Jesse said. He was pretty proud of how even he kept his voice. "That's not fair."
"Alright," said Andrew. He'd missed how upset Jesse was, but that was good. Jesse needed to hide at least some of his crazy to keep Andrew liking him. "What else can I do?"
"She likes you fine," said Jesse. "She doesn't invite just anyone to the zoo."
Andrew sighed. "Fine. But I'm going to think about this." He kissed Jesse again, slowly pressing Jesse back into the couch. "I should go, I suppose. I should leave some mystery for the next date."
"I'm always busy—"
"We'll work something out," Andrew promised. "If you're always working then I can always find you at the diner, right?"
"Sure," said Jesse. He didn't really want to discourage Andrew, even if he felt a little guilty taking up all of Andrew's free time.
"Good," said Andrew. He smiled and kissed Jesse again, started to get off the couch and then turned around for another kiss.
"You're ridiculous," said Jesse, trying not to smile too stupidly.
"You keep saying that," said Andrew. "You must mean it as a compliment." He pulled Jesse up and over to the door and then proceeded to push Jesse against the door and kiss him again instead of letting him unlock it.
"You're also terrible at leaving," said Jesse eventually. It was later than he normally stayed up when he was doing homework, and the kitchen was still a mess and he had econ to look at. "I’m… I'm not complaining. Just, maybe you should work on that."
"I don't think I will," said Andrew. He let Jesse open the door and then stood on the steps, biting his lip and rocking back and forth a little bit. "I want to say all kinds of things you're not supposed to say on a first date, about how I'm feeling and how much I like you and how I can't wait to see you again. But I'm supposed to play it cool and nonchalant, so." He shrugged and tilted his head cockily. "See you around. Maybe."
Jesse laughed. "Very cool. Good job."
Andrew beamed. "Excellent, that's all the cool I've got in me. Have a good night. This is ridiculous, but I'm going to miss you." He leaned forward and kissed Jesse again, and Jesse thought about how Hallie wasn't going to be coming home at all, and Andrew could just stay. But then Andrew laughed and waved and bounced down the steps and out to his car.
Jesse took a couple of deep breaths. He had plenty of time to get his homework done and the apartment clean because there was absolutely no way he was going to fall asleep anytime soon. His mouth tasted like Andrew and his back was still warm where Andrew's hands had been.
It would be difficult, but maybe it was worth it to see if there was a way to do that again.
Jesse was so busy he might not have noticed Andrew didn't stop by the next day, or the day after that. Except that he did notice, obviously; he knew Andrew would be working and couldn't really spend every spare hour sitting around Woody's diner hoping to see Jesse for two minutes, and he knew that he'd been as discouraging as humanly possible, so it wasn't a huge surprise or anything. Jesse pretended his econ problem sets were a lot more interesting than they really were and didn't say anything to anyone.
"Lucy's having a really big birthday party," said Hallie. She had her homework spread out across the counter and Jesse had his spread out on the other side, trying to make sense of it while the diner was slow. Otherwise he was going to have to work on it during their movie night, and that would suck.
"When?" Jesse asked, mostly on autopilot. "Do I need to drop you off or pick you up? Do you need to buy a present?"
"Oh, no," said Hallie, drawing stars all over her notebook. "I'm not invited."
Jesse put his pen down. "Why not?"
Hallie shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just not. She invited everyone else, though. She invited Mackenzie, even."
"Do you… Can I…" Jesse started, and then stopped, because he couldn't think of a single thing he could do. Call Lucy's mother? Complain to the school? Hey, why isn't my sister more popular? Is it her straight A-plus grades? No fair!
"It's fine," said Hallie, carefully going over her notebook. "I don't care. It's just that everyone's talking about how cool it's gonna be."
"Maybe she invited you and she forgot to tell you," Jesse tried.
Hallie gave him a dirty look. "I'm not stupid. She told Mackenzie not to tell me she was invited because I wasn't invited. But Mackenzie told me anyway."
"You and Mackenzie could have your own party."
Hallie sighed. "No, she's going to Lucy's party. It's okay. I don't care."
Jesse ached to be able to do something, anything to help. He hadn't been invited to parties when he was in middle school but he'd been so lost in his own head he mostly hadn't cared. He didn't know what to tell Hallie or how to make it better. "What movie should we watch tonight?" he asked instead.
"Ummmm, I think The Princess Bride," said Hallie.
"Three movie nights in a row," said Jesse.
She shrugged. "I like it."
Jesse tried not to worry about Hallie too much but when Emma came in for her shift he cornered her. "Hey, I have a girl problem."
"Is it Andrew?" Emma asked. "Because I think I know what the problem might be."
"No, Andrew's fine," said Jesse, and then wondered where Andrew was. "It's Hallie."
"Oh no!" said Emma. "Does she need to talk to a girl about girl stuff?"
Jesse made a face. "No. At least, I hope not, jeez, she's ten. This is more like… girls at school being mean."
"Oh no," Emma said again. "That's awful, what happened?"
"She's not invited to a party," said Jesse. "What do I do?"
Emma bit her lip. She'd toned down dressing like her nametag should say "Flo" but she was still wearing super bright red lipstick and had drawn a fake mole on her cheek. "I don't think you do anything. Girls in middle school are just mean, and Hallie… Well, I hate to say this, don't freak out, but it just might be hard for her. Her clothes and her hair and her life aren't cool. Don't worry!" she added quickly. "When she gets to high school and college she'll be a million times more successful than those bitches. But the next three or four years may be kind of hard."
Jesse felt like he was going to have a heart attack. "I have to do something, then. Take her shopping, or buy her something cool or—"
"Jesse, would you know what clothes were cool?" Emma asked.
Emma shrugged. "Then you wouldn't be helping. Hallie will be fine, I promise. Oh, and uh… Don't look now, but." She nodded toward the door.
Andrew walked in. Jesse had been pretending not to wonder where Andrew was, so he had a moment of relief, and then a moment of guilt, because he was leaving in a few minutes with Hallie. It was a waste of a visit for Andrew.
"Hi," said Andrew. He stopped and looked at Emma. "I… I don't know whether I'm allowed to kiss you hello or not."
"Yes!" said Emma enthusiastically.
"Hi, Andrew!" said Hallie cheerfully. "I wondered where you were."
That seemed to answer the kissing question pretty neatly. Jesse ducked back behind the counter. "I had to work," said Andrew. "I'm sorry. I'd rather be here."
"You should be here," Hallie agreed. "Did you start the book yet?"
"I've got it with me," said Andrew. Hallie rolled her eyes. "I'm busy, I swear. Speaking of which, have you got a break coming up or anything?" he asked Jesse.
"Oh, no. Actually I'm leaving pretty soon," Jesse said.
"It's movie night!" Hallie explained cheerfully. "We're watching The Princess Bride."
Jesse could see Andrew trying to decide what to do about that. And he knew what he ought to say – sorry, see you sometime else, I guess, thanks for stopping by – but he was having such a long week and he was so tired and worried about Hallie and his own classes and Andrew made him feel better. He made things feel easier. "You could join us," Jesse said, and pretended he couldn't see the surprised face Hallie made. "If you're a Princess Bride fan."
"Inconceivable," said Andrew. Then, because he was a better person than Jesse was, he turned to Hallie and asked, "Would that be okay?"
She bit her lip. "Um," she said. Jesse was momentarily terrified she'd say no and he'd be the worst brother in the world. "I mean. Okay. It's usually just for family, but I guess you can come."
"Thank you," said Andrew seriously.
Emma squeaked and punched Jesse's shoulder. "He's adorable," she whispered. "Good job, you."
"I had literally nothing to do with it," Jesse protested, but Emma had already gone out to take orders.
Andrew helped Hallie pack up and Jesse grabbed his stuff. He tried not to feel guilty; Hallie had said she didn't mind. "I'll leave my car here for now," said Andrew.
"It might not be safe in the parking lot all night," Jesse pointed out, but Andrew shrugged him off. Either he was oblivious to what kind of neighborhood it was or he just didn't care.
"What are you filming?" asked Hallie, walking out with Andrew.
"Oh, I'm doing some detective work in a fake FBI office in New York. It's lots of scenes of pulling out pieces of paper and saying, 'Look at this!' and 'Oh my god!' And I'm supposed to be having some sexy tension with this woman who's going to be on the New York spin-off of the show. I promise it's really incredibly boring. What's going on with you?"
Hallie didn't seem to mind Andrew carrying her bookbag. "Oh, nothing much. I aced that test you helped me study for."
"And how was the birthday party?" Andrew asked.
"Oh, it was great! I ate six cupcakes and I didn't throw up, and then we watched Halloween and Halloween Two—"
"What?" Jesse demanded.
"—and totally didn't stay up late on a school night at all," said Hallie smoothly. "It was great. Although now Mackenzie is going to Lucy's party, so I don't know. I guess I'm gonna spend all weekend reading at the diner."
There were the stabbing pains of guilt again. "I'm sorry," said Jesse.
"It's okay," said Hallie, and the fact that she sounded like it really was okay made him feel worse.
"My best birthday party was when I was eight," said Andrew. "I insisted we have a party at the local swimming pool and there was a water slide and I went down it so many times my brother got annoyed I was hogging it and he pulled my swimming trunks down."
"No!" said Hallie, aghast but giggling.
"Yes," said Andrew. "In front of all my friends. I pushed him into the pool, though. And the cake we had later was delicious."
"That's your best birthday?" Jesse asked skeptically.
Andrew grinned at him over Hallie's head. "There was also one when I was sixteen that involved a girl I'd had a crush on in my class who wished me a very happy birthday."
"Oh," said Jesse, trying not to feel flustered.
"Did she sing?" asked Hallie.
"She—Uh, well, sort of," said Andrew.
Jesse interrupted loudly, "Oh look, we're home," and kicked Andrew's ankle. "She's ten," he hissed, ushering Hallie up the stairs.
"She's got opinions on your sex life," Andrew whispered back.
Jesse unlocked the door and looked for snacks in the cupboard while Hallie set up the laptop so they could watch the movie. She threw her books and toys out of the way off the couch with reckless abandon that made Jesse wince. Andrew, on the other hand, seemed to think it was hilarious.
Andrew sat by one arm of the couch and Jesse sat down next to him, offering him a bowl of microwaved popcorn. "It's got m&ms in it," Jesse said. "Salty and sweet."
"My favorite," said Hallie, throwing herself onto the couch. "Hit play."
Jesse started the DVD and settled into Andrew, just a little bit. Andrew smiled at him. Hallie looked over at them, vaguely puzzled, and then shrugged and grabbed the bowl of popcorn for herself.
Hallie knew the entire movie by heart and said most of the lines along with it. She was particularly excited to sigh, "As you wish," along with Westley. "That means he loves her," she said, and Jesse could almost see the hearts in her eyes.
"This is lovely," said Andrew, looking nearly as enraptured as Hallie. He wrapped his hand around Jesse's on the couch, where Hallie couldn't really see it. Somehow Andrew was pressed up against Jesse's side, and he had Hallie on his other side, and it was really, really nice.
"I need a drink," Hallie announced, jumping to her feet. She hit pause and dashed into the kitchen. "Does anyone else want water?"
"I would," said Andrew agreeably. "Popcorn makes me thirsty." He glanced over his shoulder and when Hallie opened the fridge he leaned over and kissed Jesse. "Hi," said Andrew quietly against Jesse's mouth.
Jesse wanted to say hi back, and to tell Andrew he was ridiculous again, and to explain that they couldn't do this with Hallie right there, but he didn't have time to do all those things so he kissed Andrew back instead. He put one hand on Andrew's jaw so he could kiss him hard, just for a minute, before he sat back.
Hallie came back with two glasses of water. Jesse tried to look like nothing much was going on, but the fact that his chest was heaving probably gave him away. "Okay, I hope tap water is okay because we had a Britta pitcher but we haven't bought new filters for it in like a year so it's probably unhygienic by now and…" She trailed off, looking at the two of them. "Here," she said, handing Andrew his glass. She put hers down on the table. "I'm gonna… Can I sit there?" Hallie pointed to the non-existent space between Andrew and Jesse.
Andrew looked at Jesse, and Jesse shrugged apologetically. "Sure," he said, scooting over to make room for her. She sat down next to him and curled up against his side, putting her head on his shoulder and holding his hand. That wasn’t at all normal for her. Jesse bit his lip and tried not to worry.
"I have a secret," said Hallie sleepily. "I am not left-handed either."
Hallie was asleep before the movie ended but she was still holding Jesse's hand snuggled against his shoulder. "I love that film," said Andrew quietly, as Westley and Buttercup finally kissed.
"Everyone loves this movie. Can you turn it off, please?" Jesse asked, trying to move without waking Hallie up. It wasn't going to be possible, he realized, and reluctantly shook her awake. "Hey, c'mon. You can skip brushing your teeth tonight, go straight to bed."
"I'm tired," Hallie complained, letting him pull her to her feet and steer her toward her room. "Can I skip school tomorrow?"
"Of course not."
"But Lucy—" Hallie started.
Jesse kissed her forehead. "Lucy sucks and we'll figure out what to do about her and her stupid party tomorrow, okay? I love you. Good night."
Hallie waved him off and closed her bedroom door.
Andrew was still sitting on the couch, looking dubiously at the piles of Jesse and Hallie's books. "Please tell me you aren't also some kind of maths genius," Andrew said, poking at Jesse's homework.
"Nope," said Jesse, sitting down next to him. "I couldn't be doing worse in that class if I tried. Every day when I walk in the professor gives me this look, like, 'Really? Again? You know you're only hurting yourself, right?'"
Andrew laughed quietly. "I doubt that. Is it some kind of requirement? You can't just drop it?"
Jesse had never dropped a class in his life. He'd never even considered it. "Econ classes, business degree, some kind of job that pays a little better than the diner," he said instead.
"Oh," said Andrew. "I hadn't pictured you as the business degree type. I'm sure you'll be good at it," he added quickly.
"I'm not," said Jesse. "I'm terrible at it."
Andrew put his arm around Jesse and leaned in so he could slump down and put his head on Jesse's shoulder. "Hallie said you got some of your writing published. What about that?"
"Oh – That's – I – It's not –" Jesse fumbled, getting all red and embarrassed. "That won't pay the rent or buy groceries or school clothes for Hallie. That's… It's nothing."
"I bet it's not nothing," said Andrew, but he dropped the subject. "I never got to kiss you hello tonight. And kissing you has turned into one of my favorite things, so…" He turned and Jesse kissed him, because Andrew had come looking for him and Andrew had watched a movie with Hallie, and Andrew was still there.
Andrew kissed back lazily, like he was trying to memorize how their mouths fit together. Jesse closed his eyes and pretended there was no such thing as school or classes or homework, only Andrew, and somehow all that other stress could slip away. Andrew pushed Jesse back against the couch and Jesse leaned back on his elbows, Andrew climbing on top of him.
"I could do this all night," Andrew said quietly, kissing Jesse's jaw.
"S'okay with me," Jesse said. Andrew bit his neck gently and Jesse's hips jerked up. Andrew was right there on top of him and the friction made Jesse gasp.
"Early call, though," said Andrew regretfully. "When are you off work? When can I see you?"
"I'm not, I work every night this week." Jesse's hand found its way up underneath Andrew's shirt, to the hot, soft skin of his back. Andrew shivered.
"Days?" Andrew asked. "What about…" He interrupted himself by kissing Jesse again, and he was starting to rock his hips back and forth distractingly against Jesse's. The couch wasn't really where Jesse wanted to do this, not with Hallie only half-asleep in the next room. On the other hand he didn't want Andrew to ever, ever stop.
"Thursday, sure, but you film during the day," Jesse said. It was getting hard to think of words or put them in sentences.
Andrew's kissing was getting more desperate, breath hitching in his chest. He pushed himself up so he wasn't lying right on top of Jesse. "Come and visit me on set. I have so much free time." His mouth was swollen and his hair was mussed and he looked gorgeous.
"What would I do on a television set?" Jesse asked, trying to sound reasonable and not like he wanted Andrew to stay, looking just like that, forever.
"I've seen your work," Andrew said reasonably. "You can see mine. I can show you off."
"Show me—" Jesse started, frowning.
Andrew kissed him. "You're gorgeous, and funny, and smart. I want to brag."
"You're crazy," said Jesse.
"Say you'll come," said Andrew insistently. "Otherwise I won't get to see you all week. Please?"
Andrew used his giant brown eyes on purpose, and it wasn't fair; Jesse didn't want to say no anyway. "Fine," said Jesse. Andrew cheered and kissed him again. Jesse dug his fingers into Andrew's back.
"I am bad at leaving," said Andrew finally, laughing a little and sitting back. "You make me want to stay. Please tell Hallie I'm sorry about interrupting her family movie night."
"It was fine," Jesse said, sitting up. He wondered how stupid his hair looked after making out on the couch like a high schooler.
Andrew gave Jesse a dubious look. "I'm not stupid, Jesse. I can tell when I'm in the way. I suppose I can't blame her, though. If I had you I wouldn't want to share, either."
"You do have me," Jesse said. Andrew grinned and Jesse turned red, because that wasn't entirely how he'd meant that. "I mean, you got me to go out with you—"
"No, I like it how you said it the first time," laughed Andrew. "I'll see you Thursday. Okay, this is me, being a mature person and leaving even though you look so deliciously rumpled. Ugh, this is terrible. I don't want to be mature at all."
Jesse gave him a push. "I'm not going to come down to the set if I've made you late and tired. Everyone will yell at me."
"Everyone will love you," said Andrew. He grabbed his coat and gave Jesse a smile that made Jesse feel like he was melting inside. "Thanks for movie night." Andrew looked like there were a lot of other things he'd like to say but he left instead.
There were some nights when Jesse was so exhausted by his job and school and so tired of being in charge all the time that he just wanted to go home, eat a bag of chips for dinner, and lie on the couch until he fell asleep. But it was never an option, because he couldn't do that to Hallie. He tried to remember what vaguely fresh food they had in the fridge that he could throw together for her before he could curl up in bed and ignore the world for a few hours.
"My English teacher said you can never start a sentence with and or but. But you can sometimes, can't you? I think she's wrong." Hallie shook her head. "I'm pretty sure I've read more books than she has, too."
"It's almost the end of the school year," said Jesse, tired and distracted. "You can stick it out for another couple of months.
"But it's not just her," said Hallie. "My math teacher got the homework question wrong yesterday on the board. Oh, and remember that time I asked Mr. Mitchell about evolution and he told me it was just a theory? I hate school, Jesse."
"No, you don't," said Jesse, not really listening. They had one sad tomato in the back of the fridge; could he do something with that?
"I said I hate it," Hallie repeated stubbornly. "Everyone is mean and my teachers are stupid. Except Mr. Grantham."
"Hallie," Jesse sighed. He wished she would just drop it. "Come on. You don't hate school."
"I love the idea of school," she said. "I just hate the one I actually go to. Can I go somewhere else next year?"
"No," said Jesse. "You'll go somewhere else when you get to high school."
"But that's a million years away," Hallie complained. "And then it'll just be to Truman. Can I go to school in the city? I want to go to one of the test-in schools. Or private school."
They had almost walked as far as their apartment. Jesse wished they were already inside so he could go in his bedroom and avoid this conversation which he couldn't win at. "We don't live in the city. We'd have to lie on the applications. And private schools are expensive."
"But what's more important than school?" Hallie asked. "If we were going to spend money on anything—"
"Which we aren't."
"Why can't I even talk about this? I just want to go to school with smart kids!" Hallie complained.
Jesse felt guilty as hell, and that made him snappy. "Well you can't," he said. "Sometimes you don't get everything you want."
Hallie stopped short, staring at him with her mouth open. She looked hurt and surprised and Jesse closed his eyes and wished a car would hit him. Not fatally, just… punishment for making her look like that.
"I'm sorry," Jesse tried. "Maybe if I get a better job after I graduate. But right now I can't--"
"You shouldn't yell at me," said Hallie, eyes full of tears.
"I didn't mean to," Jesse said. "I'm sorry."
Hallie wiped her face off on her sleeve. "I'm not a baby. I know you can't buy me stuff. But it's school and if I don't go to a good high school I won't go to a good college and… I worry."
"You don't worry about that stuff, okay. I worry about it enough for both of us," said Jesse. He tried to sound like a grown up who was making sensible decisions for the two of them, rather than helpless and angry at the world and bitterly guilty.
Hallie stared at him for a long minute, pressing her lips together so he wouldn't be able to tell they were trembling. "Can I have a hug?" Hallie asked in a small voice. Jesse held his arms out for her and she threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his waist. "I didn't mean to be a brat," she said, muffled by his shirt. "I'm sorry."
"And I wish I could buy you everything, Hallie Kate," Jesse said, working to sound calm instead of heartbroken. "You know that, right?"
She nodded. "It's okay. We talked about this before, I know."
"I'm sorry," Jesse said again. "Please let me do all the panicking about your future, okay? I promise, I think about it all day every day." His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. Only one of them was allowed to get teary at a time.
"Okay," said Hallie. "I'll try. Are you mad at me?"
"Nope," said Jesse. He forced himself to smile. "Why, did you do something else? I better not find out you robbed a bank or kidnapped the president."
"But as long as you don't find out…" Hallie said. Jesse snorted and squeezed her a little. "Okay, I'll try not to break any of the really important laws," Hallie promised, giggling. "Race you upstairs?" She grabbed her bag and ran across the street before he even realized what she'd said.
Jesse jogged after her, trying to do the calculus of private school for the hundred millionth time. There was no way he could pick up enough hours in the day unless he cloned himself a couple of times. Maybe he should switch what he was studying to mad science. Would community college have a class in that?
"What's this?" Hallie asked from the landing.
"What's what?" Jesse asked.
"Did you get me a present?" Hallie squeaked. "There's a package with my name on it!"
Jesse frowned. "I didn't. Does it say who it's from?"
"There's a sticker but it's too dark to see out here. Open the door, hurry up!"
Jesse let her in and she raced to the kitchen counter. "Oh my god, it's from a book store. Jesse!"
"I didn't get you anything," he said, holding his hands up. He put their coats on the coat tree and watched her rip the package open and tear through the layers of yellow and pink tissue paper to a stack of books.
"Jesse, look!" Hallie shrieked. It was an absolutely gorgeous hardcover set of books. "Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island… Jesse, I've only read half of these and this is a matching set!"
She couldn’t have looked more elated. "Who's sending you books, short stuff?" Jesse asked. "You have a boyfriend you didn't tell me about?"
"No, but I think you do," said Hallie, pulling a card out. "'Dear Hallie, sorry for interrupting family movie night. I hope this makes up for it. I haven't read them, obviously, but the girl at the shop assured me you'd like them. I look forward to your review. Sincerely yours, Andrew.' Oh Jesse, he's the nicest boy. You should marry him."
"Oh no," said Jesse. Hallie looked up at him and frowned. "Hallie, we can't – You can't take presents from him, it's not right, it's not okay—"
She clutched the books to her chest with both arms, eyes wide and alarmed. "You aren't taking them back!"
"No! They're mine! He can get you something else." She dumped the books back in the box, grabbed it with both hands, and ran into her bedroom as if she were worried Jesse would try and tear them away from her.
Jesse felt a little sick. He didn't have the words to explain to Hallie why it made him so uncomfortable that Andrew would buy her an expensive present, and he clearly hadn't found the right words to explain it to Andrew, either. But it felt entirely wrong to Jesse, especially after having a fight with her over what they could and couldn't afford. It wasn't fair that Andrew could sweep in and send her things, and then he'd leave and they'd stop and she'd be heartbroken and Jesse wouldn't be able to fix it. It wasn't fair that someone so nice could show Jesse up so completely. It wasn't fair that Jesse couldn't pay him back for it. It wasn't fair that Jesse would never be able to do anything like that for her himself.
Maybe he wasn't being rational. He told himself to keep breathing and not get too upset, but he felt sick all over. He couldn't take the books away from Hallie now that she had them, and he had no idea what to say to Andrew tomorrow, either.
Jesse got up to take Hallie to school, then went back to bed for a couple of hours. He almost talked himself into forgetting to set his alarm so he wouldn't have time to go see Andrew, but the guilt of doing that meant he never really fell asleep again anyway, just dozed and imagined all the famous, cool people Andrew was probably hanging out with on set.
He took a bus to another bus to get to the set, which turned out to be a lot of trailers and tents set up near one of the federal city buildings. A guy with glasses and a clipboard checked Jesse's driver's license twice before he grudgingly let Jesse go up the stairs and into the building, hissing at him the whole time that he'd need to be quiet and stay out of the way. Jesse had no intention of being noticed or getting in anyone's way, but the clipboard guy didn't seem to believe him.
It was a moot point anyway, as it turned out, because as soon as they walked over to where the actors were Andrew shouted, "Jesse!" and came jogging over. A bunch of people wearing expensive suits and standing around drinking coffee looked over and laughed. Jesse considered turning around and just running away, but Andrew was right there.
"Hi," said Jesse.
Andrew grinned and kissed him. Jesse was a little startled – he hadn't thought that was something Andrew would do in front of everyone he worked with. "I'm glad you came," Andrew said.
"Everybody – Everyone is looking over here," Jesse said, in case Andrew had missed it somehow.
Andrew looked over his shoulder and waved and those people laughed again. "It's possible I've been talking about you all morning," Andrew said. He grabbed Jesse's hand as if he could tell Jesse was still thinking about bolting. "I couldn't help it. I was excited."
He would be distinctly less excited when Jesse yelled at him for buying extravagant presents for Hallie. Jesse tried to keep that thought off his face. "Are you really busy? I can come back later, or I can go—"
"I haven't introduced you around," said Andrew, "and I’m not busy at all." He pulled Jesse away from the baffled looking clipboard guy and over to the cast. Jesse didn't catch any of their names because these were going to be the cast of the NY spinoff and he'd never seen them before. Jesse nodded a lot and shook a lot of hands and if he ended up standing mostly behind Andrew, well, that was accidental.
There was a dark-haired woman wearing glasses and a suit who looked Jesse up and down and said, "Nice," to Andrew with a little leer. Jesse could feel his face turning red.
"I know," said Andrew happily. "I had such a crush at school and he's even better-looking now."
She laughed and Jesse tried not to look too completely mortified. "We're on a break, Andrew; let him get out of here before you embarrass him to death. He has nothing but nice things to say about you, Jesse, I promise. Andrew's the one who should be embarrassed. He's been gushing all over the place."
"You should get that looked at," Jesse muttered.
Andrew laughed. "Right, I'll be back in a few minutes, okay? If they work out the lighting give me a shout." He pulled Jesse away down one of the halls to a set of rooms that said "CAST ONLY" in marker on pieces of paper.
"You don't need to be filming something?" Jesse asked.
"Not right now. The lighting this morning has been a disaster; it's bouncing off the wall wrong and everyone's lit like gargoyles, apparently." He closed the door and Jesse tried to decide how to start talking to Andrew about buying things for Hallie. Before he could start Andrew cornered him against the door. "Hi," said Andrew, leaning down with a wolfish grin.
"You're at work," Jesse started, but when Andrew leaned in to kiss him he opened his mouth and kissed him back, curling his hands into the back of Andrew's suit jacket to pull him closer.
"You should come and visit every day," said Andrew, moving one of his legs between Jesse's.
Jesse was pretty determined that he wasn't going to get off by dry humping Andrew at work, but it was a little hard to remember why. "I have to work," Jesse said, tipping his head back because Andrew was sucking on his neck and it made him shiver all over.
"Quit your job," said Andrew. "Jobs are stupid." He slid his hands up underneath Jesse's t-shirt.
Jesse was probably ruining Andrew's work clothes. "Rent," said Jesse, trying not to crumple Andrew's shirt too much while he untucked it a little frantically. "Groceries."
"I'll pay your rent. Quit your job and stay with me," Andrew said, breathless and growling in Jesse's ear.
Jesse jolted out of his hormone-fuelled haze. "Hang on," he said, shoving Andrew back. Andrew stopped, looking confused and flushed and rumpled and Jesse wanted to grab him with both hands so he put his hands in his pockets instead. "You can't just--- Andrew, we need to talk."
"Oh no," said Andrew, frowning. "That sounds bad."
"It… Well, it is," said Jesse. He straightened his shirt and took a couple of deep breaths and didn't look at Andrew's mouth, or his neck, or his hands.
Andrew sighed. "I liked what we were doing before, but okay." He pulled over one of the folding metal chairs in the office and offered it to Jesse. "Am I in trouble?"
"Kind of," said Jesse. He wasn't sure how mad he could actually get at Andrew, particularly with Andrew right there in the room. He hadn't even started and he already felt bad about it. "No, I mean, of course not, but—"
"Tell me what I did," said Andrew, taking another chair for himself.
Jesse took another deep breath and tried to arrange his thoughts while he sat down. "You got Hallie some really nice books."
"She didn't like them?"
"She loved them." Andrew looked relieved. Jesse shook his head. "Andrew, you can't… you can't buy her stuff, okay? I'm serious."
"I thought you meant silly things," Andrew said. "Extravagant things."
Sets of hardcover books were extravagant. "I meant anything."
Andrew frowned again. "But—"
"I get that it's not a big deal to you," said Jesse, feeling more uncomfortable by the second. "But it is for me. You're going to go away and break her heart. And I… I can't pay you back."
Andrew looked entirely lost. "You don't have to pay me back. It's a present."
Jesse looked hard at his hands, clenched together in his lap. "I don't want to feel like I owe you, though. Not when I can't possibly reciprocate. I mean, when you offer to pay our rent—"
"I was kidding!"
"—it makes me feel like a pet. And Andrew, I can't… I mean, this whole thing is probably a bad idea, I knew that, but I—"
"Hey," said Andrew, catching one of Jesse's hands. "I'm sorry. I really am. I didn't realize I was upsetting you this much. I wouldn't do that on purpose. I won't do it again, I promise." He gave Jesse a long, sincere look that ruined all of Jesse's resolve to tell him this was a bad idea and they couldn't do this anymore. "I can be thoughtless and pushy. I'm just so happy about you, and I get excited and I forget to be sensible. Please don't be mad at me."
Jesse just shook his head. Mad was the wrong word, anyway. He probably couldn't manage mad at Andrew. He just had a heavy feeling in his stomach that this wasn't going to work out because it couldn't, and that it would be a lot less painful to just end it here and now. He started to say so and choked on the words. Andrew was going away again in a couple of weeks anyway. It couldn't really hurt to just… stick it out.
"I'm sorry," Andrew said. "I won't do it again. I mean, I'll try not to do it again." He bit his lip. "Although I can't promise anything about Christmas. I love Christmas."
"We're Jewish," said Jesse. He didn't want to make Andrew sad, he just wanted to feel less uncomfortable around him.
"I'm half-Jewish," Andrew said, smiling cautiously. "I've just always thought of that as an excuse to buy eight times as many presents."
Jesse started to argue some more and then realized that it was April, and Andrew would be long gone before December. "I guess we can talk about that when it matters," he said. "I'm sorry if this sounds crazy, I just can't—"
"Not crazy," said Andrew. "I'm sorry I made you uncomfortable. That's the opposite of my intentions, honestly." He put one hand carefully on Jesse's jaw and Jesse had to fight to keep his eyes open. It would have been so easy to relax into Andrew. Andrew leaned forward and kissed Jesse gently, like he was scared Jesse would stop him. Jesse groaned and wrapped his arms around Andrew's neck.
Someone banged on the door. "Andrew! Filming again, we need you."
Jesse jerked back. "Sorry, you're going to get in trouble—"
"I'm not sleeping with the script supervisor," Andrew snorted. "This is nothing. Come and watch us film a little bit? I just… I don't want you to go yet."
"I have an hour before I have to get the bus, I guess," Jesse agreed.
Andrew started to say something and stopped, laughing ruefully. "I was going to offer a car to drive you back to work but… I suppose I'd better not. This is going to be hard. I can't help it; I want to do a million things for you."
"Just don't get fired for me, okay?" Jesse said, blushing a little.
"Then stop looking so delicious," said Andrew. "You've got to have another night off sometime soon, right? Without Hallie? I love Hallie, but I think I might die if I don’t get to put my hands on you somewhere no one can interrupt us."
Jesse stood up and pulled Andrew up, too. "So much for being a gentleman," he teased. "I know I'm irresistibly sexy, but you'll just have to struggle through somehow."
"You think you're kidding," Andrew growled, wrapping his arms around Jesse again. He was always touching Jesse, and normally Jesse didn't like people in his space but he found he didn't mind when Andrew crowded him.
"Be nice or I'll give you a hickey and make-up will yell at you," Jesse said.
Andrew laughed. "It would be worth it."
Somehow Jesse got into a heated debate with one of the clipboard guys between shots. (Well. "Somehow" was mostly Jesse saying, "I can't believe that dialogue," without realizing he'd said it out loud, and then the clipboard guy saying, "What's that supposed to mean?") Jesse honestly wasn't trying to cause any problems or get Andrew in trouble, but it was just one too many terrible police puns. The clipboard guy got upset about his comment and Jesse defended himself by pointing out there were other ways to end a scene.
That earned Jesse a supremely offended eye roll from the clipboard guy, but one of the other actors, a stately looking older guy who Jesse was almost sure he should have recognized, clapped Jesse on the shoulder. "That's what I said when they tried to sell me on the spinoff," he said. "And then they pointed out the obscene piles of money I'd be making and I gave up. You're a writer?"
"Oh, no, I mean, I've written some stuff, but not actual writing. I haven't – I don't –" Jesse said. He wondered how much worse he'd be if he actually knew the names of the people he was talking to.
"Ah, aspiring writer? You should talk to Aaron, he's around here somewhere. He's written some of our episodes but he's actually a writing professor and he's always complaining about the puns. I’m Martin, by the way. Call me Marty."
"Jesse," said Jesse, awkwardly shaking his hand. "An actual professor works on these scripts? Really?"
Martin gave him a mock-stern look. "Try to sound less horrified, young man. We can't all be working on Proust adaptations all the time."
"Proust would never write a cop show," Jesse objected. Martin laughed. People tended to do that and then Jesse would retroactively realize they thought he'd been making a joke. He smiled a little nervously.
"You're the nice kid who came in with Andrew, aren't you?" Martin asked. "That's sweet. Actors and writers make good couples. You going to write him a Proustian script?"
Jesse was pretty sure he was blushing so hard his ears hurt. "Oh – Oh god, I'm not – I mean, there are so many things wrong with what you just said. I'm just visiting him, I'm not – We're not – and I'm not really a writer."
Martin narrowed his eyes a little. "Do you write?"
"Well. Sometimes, when I have free time."
"Then you're a writer." Martin clapped him on the back again. "Seriously, Aaron would love you, let's go find him." He took Jesse by the elbow and walked him over toward the coffee table. Jesse glanced over his shoulder but Andrew was much too busy pretending to look through files on camera to notice. Andrew was really talented, Jesse thought wistfully, which meant he was really focused and serious and not at all able to goof off with Jesse while he was filming.
Aaron turned out to be a tall, serious-looking man with glasses who spoke incredibly fast and gave Jesse long piercing looks that made him want to apologize for… Well, for something. "It's just," Jesse explained haltingly, wondering how this had happened to him. "I haven't seen that much tv and even I can tell this is derivative."
"Ha!" said Aaron. "But the beauty is in the way people speak, not the characterization. Anyone can make a character, but how do you make people care about the issues you're attempting to teach them? Most cop shows skew right, but mine skews all the way to the left."
Jesse had never deliberately watched another cop show, so he wasn't sure what to do with that. "But surely it matters, if characters are going to connect with the audience? I mean, Andrew's great, but one week he's all upset about his mom's cancer and the next week it isn't even mentioned. Isn't follow-through important?"
Aaron – Professor Sorkin – glared at Jesse some more over his glasses, and Jesse would have quailed and run away except Martin was right there, holding his coffee and looking amused. "What do you write?" demanded Aaron. "Is it serial television?"
"Plays, mostly," said Jesse. "Some short stories. Articles."
"Ha," said Sorkin. "Then you have no idea. Ever gotten them published?"
"A couple," said Jesse. Wasn’t Andrew done yet?
"And did anyone try to change your vision?"
"A few thousand rejection letters certainly made me think twice about it," Jesse said. "But once they were published, no, not really."
Sorkin jabbed a finger at him. "Well, in television everyone's got a finger in the pie. Someone else writes the scripts, I punch them up, the network adds stuff it wants to sell, the actors decide to improvise. I hate improvisation," he added, glaring at Martin, who laughed. "It's not like writing a story at all."
"Sure," said Jesse, "that makes sense. I just don't see why you have to go to the deliberately derivative place instead."
They argued for a while longer, and Jesse might have stood there arguing all day except that Andrew came jogging over. "I'm done for a bit," he said, looking from Martin to Sorkin with amusement. "Shall I rescue you from them?"
"Yes," said Jesse fervently. "Please. It was uh, it was nice to meet you."
Andrew stifled a laugh and pulled Jesse away. "Are you causing trouble?" Andrew asked teasingly.
"Oh god, I hope not," said Jesse, fighting down panic. "Am I going to get you in trouble?"
"No, don't worry," Andrew laughed. "Martin's the nicest, isn't he? And Aaron can be quite difficult. He likes it when people argue with him, though. I think he liked you."
"Right, but…" Jesse said, looking around at all the cast and crew. "What about me being here at all?"
"People visit the set all the time," said Andrew. Was he deliberately missing Jesse's point? He put his arm around Jesse, which didn't clear anything up.
Jesse sighed. "No, I mean… Me. Because your character is kind of a ladies' man, and I know there's some… Isn't there some stuff about Tom Cruise and John Travolta and Scientology and not being gay? I read that in the New Yorker."
"Oh, I suppose," said Andrew breezily. "I don’t care. "
"So it might get you in trouble?" Jesse asked, feeling his heart drop.
"Maybe. I literally could not care less. Please don't worry about it."
Obviously Jesse was going to worry about it lots now. "Okay," he said. "I should really go. Thanks for inviting me. This is all… You're really talented."
Andrew beamed. "Do you think so? This is a bit crap but I love the show anyway. It's quite cheesy and ridiculous and good fun. I'll come by the diner later, shall I? Bother you about when I can take you out again."
Jesse was developing a ridiculous, helpless smile whenever Andrew was around. He couldn't stop himself from beaming at Andrew like a total dork. "I'm busy," he said, but pushed up on his toes and kissed Andrew. He was a little afraid to put his hands in Andrew's hair because there were make up people and hair people and they were all going to see, so he tightened his hand on Andrew's bicep instead. Andrew groaned into his mouth and Jesse stored that sound away for later, when he was alone and he could listen to it over and over.
"You can't always be busy," said Andrew, undaunted and cheerful. He looked like he'd been kissed despite Jesse's best efforts not to muss him.
"I am. You know I am."
Andrew shrugged. "Then I'll take you out for dinner. Hey, there's a great diner I know…"
"My bus is coming," Jesse lied, because otherwise he was going to stand there and say, Why are you so great? What do you want from me? and Andrew would laugh at him.
"I'll see you later," said Andrew, letting go of him reluctantly. "Bye."
"I'll figure out a night off without Hallie before you leave," Jesse said. "Somehow. I'll um… I don't know how? But I will."
Andrew's answering smile was worth all the trouble it was going to be.
The problem was that Jesse couldn't seem to actually find time off. He had one night but Andrew was filming. Then Andrew had a day off and Jesse had tutoring and work. Andrew managed to pop by the diner almost ever day, and the days he didn't he left Jesse rambling and adorable voicemails. Jesse felt guilty; he'd promised Andrew he'd find time off, and he could have taken a day without too much trouble, but he was afraid that the more time he spent with Andrew the more time he would want to spend with him. It was dangerous; Jesse was determined not to get too attached to something he couldn't really have. Not when Andrew was leaving so soon.
On the other hand Jesse was developing a desperate, nagging obsession with getting Andrew's clothes off, and every time he had a free minute he found his mind going back to it. He wanted to touch Andrew, bite him, lick him, make him moan again—Jesse dropped a lot more plates while Emma smirked at him.
They almost managed another movie night, and Jesse would have been willing to do almost anything after Hallie went to bed, but at the last minute Hallie wasn't feeling well.
"Are you sick?" Jesse asked, trying to feel her forehead across the counter, but his hands were hot from the dishwater anyway.
"I just feel bad," Hallie groaned, putting her head down. "My head hurts and my throat hurts and I wanna go to bed. Is that okay? I'm sorry. Tell Andrew I'm really, really sorry."
"It's okay," said Jesse. "Emma, I'm gonna leave a little early, okay? Hallie's sick."
Emma waved him off. Jesse collected his stuff and then packed up Hallie's too. She was looking a little pale. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I know you wanted Andrew to come over. I can go to bed and you can… Do stuff." She wrinkled up her nose a little bit.
"I don't think that would be a good idea," Jesse said. She leaned on him while they walked home, looking more and more miserable. Jesse set her up on the couch with pillows and some soup and then called Andrew.
"Tonight's cancelled," Jesse said. "Sorry. Hallie's under the weather."
"Oh no," said Andrew. "That's terrible. I could… I could come over and bring her soup or something."
"She's got soup, and you shouldn't get sick, too," said Jesse. "Thanks, though." He didn't want Andrew to come over and be solicitous of Hallie. He needed to keep some things for himself.
Andrew sighed heavily. "She's really sick and not just upset about me coming over?"
"She's not a liar, Andrew," said Jesse, a little bit insulted.
"I'm just asking. That's… Disappointing."
"I'm sorry," Jesse said again. "Hallie needs me, and you know I want to see you, but… Well."
"I know, it's just… I'm leaving after next week."
Jesse knew that. He was in danger of knowing exactly how many hours he had left before Andrew went back to California, but it didn't change anything, except to make him more determined not to let Andrew worm his way into every aspect of Jesse's life. "She didn't get sick on purpose. She's a kid; kids get sick."
"Obviously. I'm not accusing her of anything, Jesse. I'm just a little upset because she gets you every day and I haven't seen you alone all week."
"You know I'm always going to…" Jesse started, and then cut himself off. Pick her over you. He didn't want to say it like that. As if Andrew and Hallie were in the same category in his life. "It's not like I'm choosing to ditch you. Hallie needs me, so Hallie gets me."
"And if I needed you?" Andrew asked. "Never mind, don't answer that. It's fine. I'll see you some other time, if there is one."
Jesse had never heard Andrew sound so tired or snappish. "I told you when you started coming by the diner that I was always busy and this was a bad idea," Jesse said, stung. He felt guilty enough cancelling the only night they'd managed to work out together all week without Andrew being a baby about it.
"Sometimes I don't even think you're trying," said Andrew.
That hurt. "Go try with someone else, then," snapped Jesse, and hung up.
Hallie looked at him apologetically. "Did you just yell at Andrew? Is he mad at me? I think I feel better, I can—"
"He's being a jerk," said Jesse. "Don't worry about him." He sat down on the couch and put his arm around Hallie, who cuddled into him.
Jesse's phone rang. He turned it off so he could read to Hallie before she fell asleep and pretend he wasn't hurt, or guilty, or mad at Andrew for not being perfect after all.
Jesse was exhausted and lost in class; he hadn't slept well, trying to decide if he should call Andrew and apologize or what. Tutoring hadn't gone any better. Jesse was sure the nice girl who was trying to help him figure out supply curves thought he was an idiot. Jesse hated being mad at people and he hated it when people were mad at him.
He walked in to the diner and Woody shouted, "What in the Sam Hill is going on here, Eisenberg?" He was wearing jeans and a leather jacket and a cowboy hat, with a cigarette dangling between his lips.
"Is there some kind of costume party going on all the time that no one told me about?" Jesse asked. "This place is insane." He dropped his backpack behind the counter and pulled off his sweatshirt so he could put on an apron.
"Who is sending you flowers at my place of business?" Woody asked. "It's weird."
Jesse blinked at him. "What? I don't know what you're talking about."
"Flowers!" Emma trilled. "Look at all the flowers!" There were four vases of yellow roses on the counters and another on one of the tables. "Yellow roses are for apologizing. What did he do? What happened? Can I take some of these home?" She'd gone the other way with her fifties theme today; black cigarette trousers and kitten heels and a white blouse knotted in front.
"He— Are these all from Andrew?" Jesse stared incredulously. Trust Andrew to do something ridiculously over the top.
Emma pulled out a bunch of cards. "'Very sorry I was overtired and rude last night,'" she read. She flipped to the next one. "'Hope Hallie is feeling better.' And, 'You turned your phone off! I am just going to keep sending flowers until you turn it back on.' Jesse, what happened?"
"We had a fight," said Jesse. "I hung up on him. This is all… This is strange."
"Well for god's sake turn your phone on before people start thinking my diner is a florists," grumbled Woody.
"Imagine what he'd do if you ever tried to break up with him," said Emma, wide-eyed. Jesse winced. He hadn't mentioned his assumption that they were going to break up when Andrew went home in a little over a week; it hadn't seemed necessary. But… maybe it was. Maybe Andrew was really, really invested and maybe Jesse should explain why he wasn't letting himself be.
In the meantime Jesse felt really awful about making Andrew feel awful. "This is all a mistake, oh god, I have to tell him this isn't going to work and—"
"Jesse, breathe," said Emma. "Actually, you stand here and breathe while I give that guy his pancakes and then I'll come back and yell at you a little so you'll feel better."
Jesse nodded. He took his phone out and turned it on; there were seventeen voicemails, and fifteen of them were from Andrew. He winced and deleted them without listening. He told himself he needed it on anyway in case Hallie called, sick, from school. She'd felt a lot better in the morning, which made Jesse wonder if maybe Andrew had been right, and that made him feel a million times worse about the whole thing anyway.
"Okay, tell me everything," said Emma.
"I have stuff I should be doing—"
"Start at the beginning. Leave no juicy detail out! Have you two hooked up yet?"
"Emma, Jesus. This was just… We haven't been able to find a lot of time to spend together since we're both working. And I cancelled on him last night and he got pissed, but… I mean, I've also been kind of difficult about getting time off."
Emma considered that for a minute. "You don't have the easiest life, obviously, and he should get that. But you! You have a gorgeous boy who adores you and you don't take every possible second to spend with him while you can? Are you an idiot?" She gave him a little shove.
"He's going to leave—"
"And in the meantime why not be happy? You really wallow in your misery sometimes, Jesse."
He did. He knew he did. It was just… easier to be there than to be happy and hopeful and worried it was all going to go away. "It's scary," Jesse said plaintively. "He's so sure it's all going to work out and I'm not."
"It won't if you never see him."
"Anyway I've got work, and Hallie, and school."
Emma bumped him with her hip. "What if I took Hallie one night?"
Jesse blinked. "What if you took Hallie where?"
"Like a sleepover! I can take her shopping and we can play with make up and stay up late watching girly movies and she can stay over with me. And you and Andrew can get some time alone together, if you know what I mean." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
Jesse blushed. "If it's okay with Hallie," he said. "I don't want her to think I'm ditching her for… For…"
"For sex, Jesse," said Emma. A couple of customers turned to look and Jesse ducked back behind the racks of cups and plates. "How about Friday? That way she can stay up late and you don't have to flip out."
"If Andrew even wants to," Jesse said. Emma picked up one of the vases and waved it at him. Yeah, Andrew probably wanted to. "Okay. I'm just wondering if—"
"Hurry the hell up and call him!" Woody shouted from the back. "Before more flowers show up or I have to fire you for never doing any work!"
"I do lots of work!" Jesse shouted back. "Oh, but I'm taking off on Friday, I think."
"Whatever," Woody said, and closed his office door.
"Call your boy," said Emma. "Say you're sorry and ask if he wants to get naked. I bet you a million dollars he says yes."
"Shut up," said Jesse, blushing furiously. "Go take someone's order. Leave me alone." She smirked and went back out to bring coffee to the regulars and honestly, probably to gossip about who was sending all the flowers. Jesse had no idea what he was going to say but he dialed Andrew's number anyway.
The phone rang a bunch of times before Andrew picked up, long enough for Jesse to make himself nervous over it. "Jesse, I was filming, I'm sorry, did the flowers—"
"Am I interrupting? I can call back—"
"Don't you dare," Andrew said. "I'm so sorry. I had a rotten day of filming and not enough sleep and I was grumpy and I wanted to see you, but I can't believe what an arse I was. Is Hallie feeling better?"
"She's a little sick but she's at school," said Jesse. "I can't believe you sent flowers. Are you crazy? I'm starting to think you might be a little crazy."
"Crazy about you," said Andrew. "Are they nice? I'm so sorry, Jesse, honestly."
"They're beautiful, but… You sent like, a million of them. Remember that whole conversation we had about buying stuff?"
Andrew sighed. "I didn't buy anything for Hallie. Besides, these are apology roses. I have to be allowed to buy you apology roses."
There was obviously no point in talking to Andrew about this, because he was never going to understand what Jesse was talking about. "Okay," Jesse said. "It's fine. You can be grumpy. Go ahead and be mad at me. I mean, I cancelled on you at the last second. And… Well, you weren't entirely wrong."
"I was, I'm sorry," said Andrew again. "I know how important Hallie is to you."
Jesse closed his eyes for a second. "No, you weren't. I wasn't trying very hard. You were right about that and I deserved to be snapped at. You should take some of these flowers back. But I – Well, Emma has threatened me and Woody yelled at me and… If I said I could be free Friday night and Hallie would be at a sleepover, would that… Would you…"
"Oh, Jesse," said Andrew quietly. "Really? Because I promise, I'll like you just as much if you never have a night off again, but… I would really, really like that."
Jesse smiled and Emma cheered. Jesse glared and waved at her to go away. "I'm taking Friday off," Jesse said. "If you happen to be free and you want to go out… Or if you want to stay in…"
"In," said Andrew immediately. "Let's stay in."
"Okay," said Jesse, fighting down more ridiculous smiles. (Emma whispered, "Dimples!" and he threw a washcloth at her.) "That sounds good, too."
"I'm so glad you're not cross with me. I can't wait to see you."
"Friday," said Jesse. "Oh, and stop sending flowers; Woody is flipping out. I still can't believe you sent me flowers."
"Of course I did," said Andrew, as if lots of people sent Jesse flowers all the time and that was a perfectly normal thing to do. "Let Woody flip out. I like sending you things. See you Friday!"
"Bye," said Jesse, hanging up. Emma looked at him and squealed and he just shook his head at her, smiling and biting his lip.
Emma came by to pick Hallie up before dinner. "Excited?" Emma asked.
"So excited!" Hallie squeaked. "Can we go to the mall? Can we watch horror movies?"
"Sure," said Emma. "How about ice cream for dinner, too?"
"Emma," Jesse groaned, but Hallie was already excited so he didn't complain too much.
"I only packed one book for overnight," said Hallie. "Do you think that's enough?"
Emma frowned. "Why would you need a book? We're going to have fun, I promise."
Hallie rolled her eyes and looked at Jesse, who swallowed a laugh. "Here, don't go too crazy at the mall," he said, handing her a couple of twenties. Hopefully that would be enough to buy something that she could show off in front of Lucy; it was literally all the cash he had until the end of the month.
"Excited?" Emma asked him, leering a little bit.
Jesse refused to blush in front of his little sister. "I've had dates before," he said. Emma gave him a long look. "Fine, not in a couple of years, go away please."
"Have fun, be good," said Emma, giving him a quick hug. "But not too good."
"Tell Andrew I'm sorry I had a previous engagement," said Hallie.
"Hallie, you know I… I mean, I love you and stuff, and Andrew is just—"
"You like him," said Hallie, with a glance at Emma that definitely meant she'd been coached on what to say. "And he makes you happy, and that's… That's good. You should be happy and I like him and everything." If she didn't sound entirely convinced Jesse was willing to overlook it.
"Good girl," said Emma.
Hallie made a face. "He's not gonna touch my stuff, though, right?"
"No," said Jesse. "I promise. Don't worry about that."
"Okay, then. Have fun tonight." She gave Jesse a hug. Emma beamed proudly.
Jesse said, "I'll cover one of your shifts next week." It was the third time he'd offered it.
Emma shook her head at him. "Just get some with your cute boyfriend, and tell me allllll about it," she said, herding Hallie out.
"I'm really not going to do that," said Jesse, fighting down a blush again. He locked the door after them and thought about eating dinner, but he was feeling nervous and he wasn't sure he wanted to eat before Andrew came over. He imagined himself throwing up on Andrew and blanched. Definitely not a good idea to eat.
He sat down on the couch and pretended to read a book for a few minutes, but he kept looking up to see if Andrew had texted or called. It was distracting. He finally turned his phone over so he couldn't see the screen and settled into his book.
A knock on the door jolted Jesse back to the real world. He had no idea how long it had been. For a second he wasn't sure if the knock had been in the narrative or at his door, and then it was repeated. Jesse scrambled off the couch and unlocked the door.
"I tried calling," said Andrew. He was holding a bottle of wine. It was probably expensive, Jesse thought despairingly.
"Oh, I was reading," Jesse said. "C'mon in. Sorry."
Andrew smiled wryly. "I will have to see if I can distract you at least as well as a book does. Has Hallie gone?"
"Emma took her a while ago," said Jesse. He was weirdly nervous, considering that he and Andrew had already fooled around a little. "Here, let me – Does this go in the fridge? I don't really know anything about wine."
"Fridge is fine," said Andrew. "Hey. Come here." He pulled Jesse away from the refrigerator. "I've missed you terribly."
"It's been a week," said Jesse, but he put his arms around Andrew's neck and pulled him down into a kiss. Now he could tangle his hands in Andrew's ridiculously poufy hair without worrying that a make up person would get mad at him. Andrew gasped when Jesse yanked by accident, hot and a little desperate against Jesse's mouth. Jesse staggered backward and Andrew went with him until Jesse's back hit the wall. Andrew's kissing went from gentle to frantic, biting at Jesse's mouth and running his hands up Jesse's back.
"I swear I had good intentions tonight," Andrew groaned. "Dinner and wine and… Take your shirt off." Jesse laughed. He was still feeling a little shaky but now it was mostly adrenaline coursing through his arms, making it hard to struggle out of his sweatshirt. Andrew helped but it wasn't really helpful, pushing Jesse's shirt up and then dropping to his knees to kiss Jesse's stomach. Jesse made a gasping, startled noise.
"Andrew," Jesse said. Andrew looked up. He was on his knees with his mouth red and a little wet and his cheeks flushed and Jesse shuddered all over. Andrew cupped Jesse's dick with one hand, pushing a little with the heel of his palm, and Jesse went from half-hard to totally hard and dizzy with want in the space of a breath. "Your shirt too," Jesse said, gritting his teeth, proud of how many words that was. Andrew nodded, reaching for the button on his nice shirt, but his hands were shaking a little and he couldn't get the buttons undone.
Jesse fell to his knees between Andrew's legs and kissed him again, hard, while he undid Andrew's buttons. Andrew put his hands on Jesse's thighs and his thumbs rubbed over the seams on the inner thigh, sliding up toward Jesse's dick. Jesse shuddered. "I can't do this if you don't stop that," he said, but Andrew just grinned and squeezed Jesse's thighs again. Jesse groaned and yanked Andrew's shirt open, popping off the last two buttons. It was incredibly satisfying. He pushed the shirt off Andrew's shoulders and glared at his undershirt. "Why are you wearing this? This is awful."
"Bossy," said Andrew, breathless and a little delighted. He slid his hands up underneath Jesse's t-shirt and sweatshirt, pushing them up again so Jesse had to stop what he was doing and struggle his way out of them.
"I want to see how far down your blush goes," said Andrew, and leaned forward to run his tongue over Jesse's nipple. Jesse jerked back and banged his head against the wall.
"Oww, jackass," he grumbled, but Andrew didn't look at all repentant. He pushed Jesse back against the wall with both hands so he could trail his mouth all over Jesse's chest, kissing and dragging his tongue along Jesse's ribs and biting lightly when Jesse started to squirm. Jesse's breath was catching in his chest; he was burning up all over and his jeans were way, way too tight. He shifted his hips, trying to find a little more room. Andrew kissed lower; Jesse's bellybutton and then his hipbone. Jesse was amazed at how far he could bend. He pulled on Andrew's shoulders, trying to coax him back up because he didn't want to come in his jeans like a high schooler. Andrew kissed his way back up, stopping for a minute to suck on Jesse's other nipple while Jesse's chest heaved and he tried to stop making embarrassing, broken, needy noises.
"So gorgeous," said Andrew, kissing the underside of Jesse's jaw. "And see, it goes all the way down. Can I…" he trailed one of his hands over the buttons on Jesse's jeans. Jesse hissed and his hips rocked up entirely of their own accord.
"Yes," said Jesse, trying not to sound totally wrecked. "God, yes." Andrew undid the button and then just left his hand there, as if that was all he'd wanted, sucking a bruise onto Jesse's neck. "Andrew," Jesse gritted out. "Stop trying to tease me to death and get moving." He rocked his hips up encouragingly this time.
Andrew laughed, breath hot against Jesse's neck. "I like this side of you," he said. He pulled Jesse's zipper down. Jesse pushed his jeans down over his hips, which gave his dick a little relief, but the way he was sitting he couldn't get them off without moving away from Andrew, and he really, really didn't want to do that.
Andrew looked at him consideringly. "You don't have to," Jesse said, abruptly embarrassed and a little uncomfortable with being watched like that when he was half-naked and starting to shake with want.
Andrew shook his head. "Just thinking about the best way to do this," he said. He kissed Jesse's mouth, slow and deep, sliding his hands up Jesse's thighs and underneath his boxers, until Jesse couldn't stop the little begging noise he made. Then Andrew sat back and put both hands on Jesse's hips, pushing him up against the wall on his knees. Andrew looked at Jesse, holding his gaze as he slid his hands down Jesse's hips, taking Jesse's boxers with him.
"That's a terrible angle," said Jesse inanely.
"I'm flexible," Andrew said. He leaned forward and Jesse rocked his hips forward again, trying to make him get on with it already. It felt like his heart was going to burst out of his chest and his legs were already starting to feel shaky. "You should put your hand in my hair," said Andrew, looking a little pink. "And… feel free to pull."
"Oh my god," Jesse said. Andrew leaned in and kissed the tip of his dick and Jesse shuddered all over. He managed to put one hand in Andrew's hair but his hands felt disconnected from his body. Any pulling he did was going to be entirely coincidental. Then Andrew took Jesse's cock in his mouth and started sucking and dragging his tongue along the bottom and Jesse's vision whited out and he forgot to do anything at all, including breathe.
Those embarrassing noises were coming from him, Jesse noted distantly, but all he was thinking was god, yes and right there and holy shit. He was on fire all over, his legs were going to give out, there was no blood anywhere in his body except his dick, his whole body was throbbing. He tried to warn Andrew but he didn't have the breath; all he managed was a broken groan and then he was coming, hand clenched in Andrew's hair, hot and cold and shivering all over.
It took a minute for Jesse to come back to himself. He was leaning on Andrew's shoulder and Andrew was rubbing circles with his hand against the small of Jesse's back, mumbling something Jesse couldn't quite make out. "Sorry," Jesse managed. "That was… It's been a while. And I've been thinking about you, and…"
"Don't apologize," said Andrew. "I uh… I enjoy making other people happy." He kissed Jesse and this time his mouth was saltier and more bitter; Jesse was tasting himself, he realized, and shuddered again. It was a little bit dirty and terribly hot.
"Well, can I—" Jesse started. "I mean, let me reciprocate, then." He reached for Andrew's jeans and Andrew hissed and jerked.
"It won't take much, I don't think," Andrew said, a little ruefully. He bit his lip, closing his eyes. He looked as if he was concentrating desperately. Jesse undid his tight jeans and pushed them down far enough to free Andrew's dick from his boxer-briefs, already heavy and red and leaking a little bit. Jesse wasn't flexible enough to lean down like Andrew had, but he licked his hand and wrapped it around Andrew's cock. He moved slowly at first, uncertain about what Andrew would want, but then faster and more confident as Andrew started to groan and shake. Jesse leaned forward and kissed Andrew, and then put his other hand in Andrew's hair and tugged sharply once. Andrew gasped and came all over Jesse's hand.
"Easy," said Jesse, gently teasing. Andrew's eyes fluttered open again. His face and neck was flushed and Jesse thought that if his undershirt had been off his chest would have been red, too. Andrew looked at Jesse, eyes dark and still heavily lidded, and pulled Jesse's hand up. Without breaking eye contact Andrew licked Jesse's palm, sucking on Jesse's fingers. Jesse shuddered hard and had to look away. Andrew ran his tongue over the tip of Jesse's finger and pulled off with a wet noise. "Stop it, we just – I can't do that again for at least a few minutes," Jesse ordered.
"No, me neither," said Andrew smiling. "Do you have any idea how gorgeous you are?"
Jesse shook his head. He didn't have the energy to deal with that right now. He wanted to lie down but Andrew had actually only just gotten there, and their rug was scratchy. He tried to rally, pulling his boxers back up and struggling to his feet so he could kick off his jeans and socks. He liked Andrew but he wasn't going to walk around naked. "So, you brought wine. We could do something about that."
Jesse offered Andrew a hand up. "Dinner?" Andrew asked hopefully. He tucked his dick away but didn't bother to zip up his jeans. "And then… this again?"
"I can cook something," said Jesse. Andrew was still mostly dressed; it was weird. He opened up one of their cupboards as if he didn't know what was in there. "Pasta or… Well, no, pretty much we just have pasta."
"Let's order food," said Andrew, wrapping his arms around Jesse from behind. "I can think of lots of things I'd rather do with you than wait for water to boil."
Jesse blushed again. "Ordering is expensive, I can just—"
"Jesus," Andrew swore. "Let me take care of dinner. Let me take care of you. Just for a little while."
He was leaving in a week; it was a terrible idea. It was going to hurt so much when he left. But – "Yeah," Jesse said, turning. "Okay. Just this once." Andrew smiled and kissed him.
Eventually, after dinner and wine and defiling the couch Jesse couldn't afford to replace, they made it into the bedroom. And sometime after that, Jesse found himself dozing on Andrew's chest, with Andrew's hand in his hair.
"You really have to leave on Saturday?" Jesse asked.
"Yeah," said Andrew. "We're filming back in L.A. starting on Sunday."
Jesse tightened his arm around Andrew's waist and didn't say Don't go. "Okay."
Andrew untwisted one of Jesse's curls and then retwisted it around his finger. "I could leave the show."
"Shut up," said Jesse. "No, you couldn't."
"No," Andrew agreed ruefully. "I couldn't. You could resign. Move to California."
Jesse didn't even dignify that with a response.
Andrew sighed. "Fine, I didn't really think you would. You'll come and visit me, though, won't you?"
"Right," said Jesse. "I'll just leave Hallie in the closet for the week and sell some blood to buy a plane ticket—"
"Stop it," said Andrew, laughing a little. "Bring Hallie. I'll buy you both tickets."
"For the hundredth time," Jesse said. "You're not allowed to buy us stuff. Okay? Especially not expensive tickets to California."
"What if I make you fly economy and I don't pay the baggage allowance?" Andrew asked. Jesse dug his blunt nails into Andrew's side until Andrew squirmed underneath him. "Fine, fine," said Andrew. "No tickets. I suppose I can make do with dirty phone calls until I can find an excuse to come back out here."
Jesse closed his eyes and listened to Andrew's heart beat for a minute. "You really think that's a good idea?" he asked finally, quietly.
"What, coming back to visit? God, yes. Are you not having a good time tonight? I'm having an amazing time."
Jesse couldn't joke. His chest hurt, a strange overwhelming ache that made it hard to breathe. He opened his eyes and found that they stung a little bit.
"Jesse?" Andrew asked, quietly concerned. "Do you… Do you not want to do this again?"
Jesse thought about telling Andrew he didn't. That way Andrew would leave and Jesse wouldn't have to talk about how gut-wrenching this was. He felt ridiculous, being so upset; he'd only known Andrew three weeks and a couple of days in high school.
"It just doesn't seem to be very practical to think it can happen again," Jesse tried, keeping his voice carefully steady.
"It won't if we don't try," Andrew said.
Jesse groaned and hid his face against Andrew's shoulder. "If wishes were horses, Andrew. This is stupid. Even talking about this is stupid."
"Why is it stupid? Why can't we—"
"Because," said Jesse. He pushed himself up so he was sitting against the head of the bed and drew his knees up, arms around them. He hoped this would be easier if he stopped touching Andrew. "Because it's going to hurt when you leave. If I think about you coming back I'm going to spend a lot of time hurting, and that's only a maybe, a what-if. It's like ripping off a band-aid. We should just… get it over with."
Andrew sat up, hair looking ridiculous. "But I will be back," he said. "Jesse, I promise—"
"Don't do that," said Jesse. "You're so convinced that this is all going to work out. I'm not. I don't want to sit around and miss you for nothing."
"I want you to sit around and miss me," Andrew mumbled, looking down.
"That's not fair," said Jesse. "You're going to be busy in L.A. and you'll do movies and be famous and have this big exciting life, and I'm going to be here. I'm always going to be here, taking care of Hallie, working a million hours a week, trying to keep things together. There's no space for you in my life." And there was no place for Jesse in Andrew's life, either, but he didn't want to say so. Partially because he thought it went without saying and partially because he knew Andrew well enough now to know that he'd argue, that he'd come up with some stupid improbable fairy-tale scenario. And it wouldn't happen, and Andrew would end up disappointed and Jesse would feel guilty and worse than he already did.
Andrew moved to sit next to him, but not quite touching him. Jesse appreciated the space. "Does that mean when I go back to California you're breaking up with me?" Andrew asked quietly.
The sadder he sounded the guiltier Jesse felt, and the snappier it made him. "Is this even a thing we can break up?" Jesse asked. "It's like, four dates. A couple of weeks. That's barely even a fling, let alone a… Let alone anything else. I'm just saying. We can enjoy this right now and then you'll go home and we'll both go back to real life. I mean, to our lives."
Andrew didn't say anything for a long time. Jesse got lost in his own thoughts, wondering if he'd been too blunt or too mean, and if Andrew was going to leave right now, or if he'd stick around and argue. Jesse wasn't up to an argument. He felt shitty enough as it was. He just… He didn't have enough energy to try and keep his life going and all the balls he juggled daily up in the air and also think about Andrew being far away. It was too much. Jesse didn't have the emotional energy to do it.
"Okay," said Andrew finally.
"Really?" Jesse asked, turning.
"I think it's completely stupid," Andrew said, "but I can't… I can't make you sit around and wait for me. I'll be heartbroken over you, obviously, but I've spent the last three weeks pushing and pushing and… Even I can take a hint eventually."
Jesse winced. Heartbroken had to be too strong a word. Andrew would be sad, but he'd get over it faster if it wasn't dragged out. "It's been a really good three weeks," he said, voice breaking a little. "The best I've had in… In ever, maybe."
"Okay," said Andrew again. He leaned over and kissed Jesse, bringing one hand up to cup Jesse's jaw. He kept his mouth gentle, coaxing Jesse to open up and kiss him back, and Jesse tried to relax and enjoy it, even while his brain was chanting last, last, last.
"I get this week, though, don't I?" Andrew asked.
Jesse just nodded and crawled on top of Andrew, kissing him harder, more desperately. Andrew groaned underneath him and Jesse ran his hands over Andrew's arms, over the muscles in his chest, through Andrew's hair, trying to catalog every noise he made and store it away where he could keep it after Andrew left.
"You work all week?" Andrew asked, sliding down the bed a little.
"Of course." Jesse needed to remember how the skin on Andrew's shoulders tasted a little different than under his chin; how he shivered when Jesse bit him gently, how he groaned and sighed when Jesse raked his nails up Andrew's side. "I can get out early Monday. Maybe Wednesday, too. But there's Hallie—"
Andrew reached up and pulled Jesse down into another long, slow kiss. Jesse wanted to tell him to stay just to keep Jesse calm when he started to get upset about things. "It's fine," said Andrew. "I'm filming anyway. I'll come by, we'll eat at the diner, I'll sit around and Hallie can tell me about school. And after she goes to bed I get you. Right?"
"Why are you so persistent?" Jesse asked. "I don't understand."
"If I only get another week I'm making the most of it," said Andrew. "Can I come by Saturday morning before I fly out? Just to say goodbye. I suppose you don't want me to buy a goodbye present for Hallie."
Jesse laughed. "Seriously, seriously, why are you always trying to bribe her into liking you? She likes you, Andrew. As much as she could possibly like anyone in this situation. I promise."
"So you say. Mostly I just… I like buying things for people. I won't, though."
Jesse appreciated the thought, and even more he appreciated Andrew refraining from showering Hallie with presents right before he disappeared into the sunset. "Thank you," Jesse said. "You're pretty okay, you know that?" This was what he wanted to remember; Andrew's smile when his eyes crinkled up and he tilted his head back and he laughed with his whole body.
"I'll show you pretty okay," Andrew growled, still laughing, and rolled on top of Jesse.
"Please," Jesse said. "Please."
"Do you really have to go?" Hallie asked.
Andrew looked like he was working not to get choked up. "I do," he said. He was sitting on his suitcase in their living room, holding his coat but not putting it on yet. "You can go back to having your movie nights all to yourself."
"But I just got used to you interrupting them," Hallie said. "Jesse, tell him not to go."
Jesse was finding the whole morning a lot easier if he didn't look anywhere near where Andrew was. "I can't," he said. "He has work in California."
"But there's going to be a New York spinoff," Hallie said. "Can't you get a job on that one?"
Andrew shook his head. "I've got a contract in California and… Aww, Hallie, I'd stay if I could." He held his arms out and she ran over and gave him a hug. Jesse pretended to be very busy rearranging his books on the coffee table. "Don't forget about that email you're sending me," said Andrew.
"I won't," Hallie said.
"What email?" Jesse asked.
Hallie and Andrew exchanged a look. "It's a secret," said Hallie. "Andrew, you haven't even finished the book yet!"
"Is it alright if I take it to read on the plane? I promise I'll tell you what I thought when I finish it."
"If you ever finish it," said Hallie gloomily. "I've read two of the Anne books you gave me already."
"You read a lot faster than I do," said Andrew. He sighed and looked at Jesse, who looked down again. "My taxi will be here in a few minutes."
"Don't go," Hallie said, hugging him again.
Jesse couldn't deal with Hallie and Andrew both being sad. "He has to," he said. "Stop making him feel worse, Hallie Kate."
She looked up and glared at Jesse for a second. "Fine. I'll miss you, Andrew. Come back and visit us soon, okay?" Andrew nodded and Hallie went into her room, sniffling a little bit.
"I was going to get her a really cute stationery set with sparkles and ponies on it," said Andrew, a little reproachfully. "So she could write to me."
"Don't you think it's better if she doesn't?" Jesse asked. "You're not going to have time for a pen pal, anyway. Let me carry your suitcase downstairs, come on."
"Jesse…" Andrew said, and then trailed off again. He moved so Jesse could drag his suitcase down the stairs, following him with his smaller carry-on bag and his coat.
They lived on a side street, so there weren't a lot of cars or passers by on Saturday morning. Jesse put the suitcase down by the curb and crossed his arms uncomfortably across his chest.
"I hate that I'm leaving," said Andrew. He waited a minute. Jesse squinted into the sun across the street and bit his lip. "Jesse…" Andrew started again. "Oh for god's sake. Will you please say you'll miss me?"
"I'll miss you," said Jesse obediently. He felt numb all over.
"If I could stay—"
"You can't. So. I mean, why are we even talking about this?"
Andrew grabbed his hand. "Because I am going to miss you. All the time. Every day."
"But then eventually you'll stop missing me," Jesse said. "It's been a month. You'll be busy."
"Yes, but… I mean, I want to say all kinds of things I know would make you embarrassed, about how as soon as I met you I knew I was going to fall madly in love." He held up a hand to forestall Jesse's objections. "But I'm perfectly aware you'll tell me that four weeks isn't long enough for that and I'm just being ridiculous, so I won't." He pulled Jesse closer. "I've promised not to call you."
"And yet you're emailing my sister," Jesse said, trying to sound light-hearted and failing miserably.
Andrew leaned over and kissed him. He kissed like he was drowning, like Jesse was oxygen, like he could avoid saying goodbye forever if they just kept kissing. Jesse tried to tell Andrew how much he was going to miss him without having to actually say anything, just with his hands on Andrew's back and the way he kissed back.
It was wrenching to step back and let go of Andrew, but Jesse made himself do it. The cab was at the corner and he didn't think being self-indulgent was going to make it better or easier.
"Will you call me, please?" Andrew asked, leaning his forehead against Jesse's.
"Nothing ever happens here that I'd need to call about," said Jesse.
Andrew made a frustrated noise at the back of his throat. "Call me about your day. Tell me how Hallie's doing in class, what she's reading. Tell me if it's a bad day at the diner or your econ professor is an idiot or what Emma's wearing. Just call me."
Jesse bit his lip. "You have to give me some time before I can call you and just… Chat."
The cab honked. Jesse hadn't seen it pulling up. "Call me whenever you can, then," said Andrew. "Please?"
The cab driver opened the trunk. Jesse dragged his hands out of Andrew's and put the suitcase in for him. His chest felt tight all over and he was absolutely determined not to lose it in front of Andrew.
"Bye," said Andrew. He looked so miserable. Jesse believed in clean breaks but he was going to get one in a minute anyway, and it couldn't hurt, he decided, to go up on his toes and kiss Andrew again. Andrew dug his hands into Jesse's arms. There were going to be bruises tomorrow.
"JFK, right?" said the cab driver.
Andrew looked like he was going to start crying, and Jesse couldn't, couldn't deal with that. "Have a safe flight," Jesse said, and then he ran back upstairs like he was afraid of something.
"Is he gone?" Hallie asked, peeking out of her bedroom.
Jesse nodded and picked up the thickest book he could find. "I'm going to go read, okay? If you need anything just knock."
"Are you gonna be okay?" Hallie said uncertainly.
Jesse nodded a lot and worked on smiling and then locked himself in his room and sat, staring at the wall, clutching his book, for a long time.
"Hey," Emma said. "Jesse? Hey, Jesse, sit down for a second."
He didn't really hear her until he felt her hand on his elbow, and then he didn't entirely figure out what words she was saying until she walked him out to the front and pushed him into one of the chairs. Emma crouched in front of him, looking concerned.
"You've been standing there with water spilling out of the sink and nothing in your hands," Emma said. "You've been kind of sad all month and a little bit out of it, but… Are you okay? Seriously." She turned his wrist over and checked his pulse, and then put the back of her hand against his forehead.
"I'm fine," said Jesse. "Sorry. I just… I was thinking about stuff."
"I said your name four times and you didn’t even blink. What the hell, Jesse?"
He was having a lot of trouble concentrating on what she was saying, partly because he hadn't slept in a couple of days. Every time she paused a tidal wave of worry overwhelmed him again and drowned out all the things he was supposed to be doing, like washing dishes.
She put her hand on his knee and gave it a little shake. "Spill, Eisenberg."
"Just. A lot of stuff is going on," he said. She waited patiently. Jesse sighed, "Okay, there's the part where I got my grades from NJCCC and my econ grade is so miserable I probably won't be able to take any other classes in the department. I got a pity D."
"Oh, Jesse," said Emma. "That really sucks. Can you just take some other classes? Computers or something?"
His hands started shaking so he clamped them between his knees. "It doesn't matter anyway. I can't take any classes this summer because my rent check just bounced."
"Shit," Emma said. "Do you need to borrow some money?"
"No! Emma, please, like you don't live in a rat hole and work two jobs to put yourself through fashion school?"
"Yeah, but if you need it I have savings," Emma said.
Jesse shook his head. "I'm always really, really careful about the budget. I'm so pissed at myself. One of the checks didn't get cashed the week I thought it did, and then Hallie needed money for her school field trip, and the first summer camp down payment was due, and… Well, the rent check bounced."
"What are you doing?" Emma asked. "Is it going to be okay?" Emma sat down in the chair next to him. Jesse looked around to see if there were any customers but it was only the regulars, and none of them needed her right now.
Jesse tried to look really certain when he nodded, to beat back all the crazy worst-case scenarios he'd had flashing through his brain all week. "I called the bank, they're going to put it through again. It'll be fine. I mean. Hopefully. Anyway that all happened Tuesday, I should have dealt with it by now. Sorry I've been distracted."
"How much of this does Hallie know about?"
"None," said Jesse. "Obviously."
Emma pressed her lips together and gave him a long, waiting look.
"Go ahead and ask," Jesse said.
"But I know the answer," said Emma. "The answer is none, because you haven't called him. It's been five weeks."
"I'm not going to call and say, 'Hey, finally got around to calling you, my life is a fucking disaster,'" Jesse said. "That wouldn't be very nice."
Emma was clearly bursting with the need to give him advice. Jesse wasn't sure he was up to listening to it. "He'd like to hear from you," she said.
"Can we not – I know, you have a whole speech planned, I've seen you circling me like an advice-giving shark the last couple of weeks. But I can barely deal with the stuff I have to deal with at the moment."
He'd toyed with the idea of calling Andrew every day since Andrew had left. He was, honestly, a tiny bit sad that Andrew had actually refrained from calling him. Why was that the one thing Andrew had listened to Jesse about? It was his own fault, he knew that. He just kept waiting for it to get easier not to call Andrew and not to see him in the diner, and it kept not feeling any better.
Jesse had resolved not to crack and dump all his problems on Andrew, who was far away and probably didn't care anymore. The problem was that he didn't have anyone else to say it to. Emma had her own life and her own problems, working two jobs and managing to do a lot better in school than Jesse was. Hallie wasn't an option. Jesse didn't talk to anyone else.
She sighed. "You know the longer you wait the harder it'll be to call, right?"
Jesse didn't say, That's what I'm counting on.
"I'd tell you to take a day or two off but I'm betting you don't have that option right now, huh?" Emma asked. She gave him a hug. "Let me know if I can do anything to help, okay?"
"Sure," said Jesse.
He'd distracted himself again, and he was doing a terrible job at his job, which should have been so simple it was insulting. Emma kept giving him long sideways glances and Woody came out once to stare at him before he went home for the day. Jesse felt a little bad about being such a shitty employee but mostly he just felt bad about life in general.
Toward the end of the afternoon Hallie came running in, bag bouncing up and down on her shoulder. "Jesse! I need a present! Lucy's having another sleepover. The theme is princesses!" she said breathlessly.
Jesse winced. "I thought you hated Lucy," he said.
"No, she didn't like me. That's why she didn't invite me to her birthday, but this time I'm invited and so is everyone else in my class and it's going to be amazing but I need a present. Can we go to the mall?"
Jesse tried desperately to think of a second solution to this problem that wouldn't make Hallie cry. "Can we give her one of your books? All wrapped up, maybe?" he suggested.
Hallie tilted her head and frowned at him. "No, I told you. The theme is princess. Everyone's going to bring really cool stuff. She's going to open the presents in front of everyone."
Jesse swore and swore and swore inside his head. He was too tired to come up with a good way to phrase it for her. "I can't," he said flatly. Her face fell. Jesse tried not to look directly at her. "Hallie, this is a bad week, I’m sorry."
"But…" she said, drooping a little bit, "can't we just not buy something else? I can skip lunch at school, or—"
"No," said Jesse, because there wasn't anything else they could skip. He needed to keep the lights and the water on. "I'm really, really sorry. If I could I would, but this week is just… I can't."
Hallie sniffled, but she nodded. The only thing Jesse hated worse than when she cried was when she pretended that everything was okay and put on her brave face. "Okay," she said. "It's okay. I can tell her I'm busy that night. She's boring anyway."
"Aww, Hallie," Jesse said. "Can't you go and… I don't know, pretend you left your present at home? Next month we can—"
"Jesse, everyone is going to be there. I can't be the only person without a present. It's okay. I don't even like Lucy." She visibly, obviously stuffed her disappointment down and started looking through her bag for her homework instead.
"I'm sorry," Jesse said again, because he couldn't say anything else. Hallie just shrugged and started her homework.
There was a moment when Jesse looked at her and thought about all the things he couldn't do for her, and he started to panic. It was sudden and wretched and overwhelming and his chest felt like it was collapsing under the weight of it. The room started to spin and he put one hand on the counter so he wouldn’t fall down. The very last thing they needed was a doctor's bill, especially an emergency room visit.
He didn't say anything to Emma because he knew she'd overreact. He pushed his way blindly through the back and into Woody's office and shut the door behind him, leaning against it and tried to force himself to calm down. His heart was racing in his ears and it felt like it was pounding out of his chest.
"Okay," he said to himself. "You're fine. You'll be fine." The rent was going to be taken care of and Hallie would survive not going to one sleepover. He just felt so shitty about it and he didn't know what to do.
Since the alternative seemed to be passing out at work, Jesse took his phone out of his pocket. He dialed Andrew's number without looking; he'd never managed to take it off his speed dial.
It rang, and then it rang again, and then Andrew's cheerful voice said, "Hello, I'm busy saving L.A. from terrorists. Leave me a message and I'll ring you back."
Jesse told himself over and over again to hang up.
"Hey, uh, it's Jesse. Hi. From New Jersey, you remember. I mean, I hope you remember. Or maybe not. This might be better if you don't. Then you can just delete this without listening to it, and oh god, maybe you should just delete this voicemail anyway. I was going to wait and call you when I could say, 'Hey, how are you? Everything here is fine. I bet California's great. Things are great here, too.' Only I don't think that's going to happen because everything's wrong and shitty and that's not a great reason to call someone, I know. I just… I miss you and I… I wanted to hear your voice. Anyway, I heard it on your voicemail so I'm going to hang up now. Okay? I uh. I hope you're having a good day and so on. You really don't need to call me back about this terrible phone call. Bye."
He clicked his phone off and realized his hands were shaking. That was probably the dumbest voicemail anyone had left in the history of the world. Particularly for someone they hadn't spoken to in weeks. He thought about calling back and telling Andrew not to listen to it, but that would be the second one, he wouldn't listen to it first, and it would really be compounding the crazy. Andrew was never going to want to talk to him again.
Jesse banged his head against the wall a couple of times, but it didn't make anything better. He was feeling the tiniest bit more able to cope, at least. He'd done something, even if it was futile and stupid. He realized suddenly that Andrew might call back and want to talk to him, and that was too horrible to contemplate at the moment. It was even worse than the idea that Andrew might not want to call him back anymore. His phone felt like a ticking time bomb in his pocket. He took a couple of deep, steadying breaths and walked back out to the back of the diner.
Hallie was watching him curiously. "Is everything okay?" she asked. "I swear I'm not upset about Lucy's party, Jesse."
"We'll figure something out about that," he said. "Don't worry, okay? Oh hey, can you hold on to my phone? Don't answer it or anything, just… watch it."
"Will it do a little dance?" Hallie asked dubiously. Jesse stuck his tongue out at her. She giggled and put the phone in her bag.
Emma was also giving him a long, serious look. "I'm fine," he said preemptively. Then, more quietly, "Hey, can I borrow twenty bucks so Hallie can get a present for a kid she doesn't even like?"
"Just take the tips from today," said Emma. Jesse started to protest and she shook her head. "It's fine, seriously. That creepy trucker guy left me a fifty yesterday so I'm set for groceries. Is that enough or do you need something for rent, too?"
"It's fine," Jesse repeated. "I'll pay you back for all of this, I just need to fix stuff for Hallie right now." He hated the idea of taking Emma's tips and he hated the idea of letting Hallie down. He couldn't think of a good solution, though.
"Not that I care, but we're basically out of water glasses, so if you could get me some…" Emma said.
Jesse grimaced and went back to the sink. He hadn't really washed anything and the piles of dishes were getting out of hand. He appreciated Emma's total lack of interest in serving the customers, but she and the cook did need a few dishes.
He managed to distract himself into actually doing some work until it was time to go home. Hallie was a little clingier than usual, and Jesse walked pretty slowly since he was exhausted.
"I have no idea what a good princess-themed present is," Jesse said. "A tiara? A pony?"
"Jesse," Hallie complained. "It's more like, Lucy has this t-shirt that says, 'I'm the princess, bitch!' in sparkly pink letters."
Jesse was horrified, and he didn't keep it off his face very well. "And you want to go hang out with this person?"
"Nnnnno, but she's the coolest girl in my class and she sits at the table with all the cool kids at lunch and I never get to sit there and they all sit around talking about stuff and I… I just want to sit there, too. It would be so cool if I got to sit at the good table," Hallie said wistfully.
Jesse had never much cared what table he got to sit at or who was sitting where, but he understood the concept of the cool table and the importance of being invited. "Okay," he said. "But nothing that says 'bitch' on it. That's gross."
She sighed as if Jesse was very tiresome and too old to understand, but she didn't argue.
"What do you want for dinner?" Jesse asked, letting her in to the apartment. "We have spaghetti or… I think there's some ravioli in the freezer."
"Spaghetti's fine," said Hallie, throwing her bag on the couch. "Meatballs?"
"I thought you were a vegetarian."
She squirmed a little. "I am. I just… Can I have a meatball anyway?"
Jesse laughed. He loved her so much sometimes. "Yeah. Whatever you want."
He was tired and he burned himself heating the pot up on the stove, which was ridiculous. The day had just been too much, and being emotional made him even tireder, which was probably why he didn't realize Hallie was chattering away on his phone until he brought a bowl of spaghetti out to her.
"Hey," he said.
She shushed him imperiously. "I'm on the phone," she whispered.
"My phone," he pointed out.
"Yes, but it's Andrew."
Jesse's heart stopped and he almost dropped dinner, but that would have been wasteful. "Hallie," Jesse said. "You – Is that – Andrew called and –" He couldn't get all the way to the end of a sentence that made sense.
Hallie rolled her eyes. "He's telling me about the movie he's auditioning for," she whispered. And then, in her regular voice, "Oh, Jesse's done making dinner. Do you still want to talk to him?"
"No," said Jesse automatically, but Hallie took the bowls out of his hands and put them on the coffee table and then handed him the phone.
"Andrew called to say hi," she said. "He says you called him? I'm really glad. I was telling him you looked bad today."
"Thanks for that," Jesse said.
On the phone, Andrew laughed. "She wasn't, really, she was telling me she and Emma were worried about you. And I said it was awfully nice that you called me if you were having a bad day. …Jesse? Are you there?"
Andrew sounded so good. And not at all like he thought Jesse was a gibbering idiot. Hallie kicked Jesse's ankle and hissed, "Say something!"
"Hi," said Jesse. His voice sounded totally weird in his own ears.
"Oh, good. I thought I'd lost you," said Andrew.
"No, I—I'm really sorry, I called you and left the weirdest message."
Andrew sighed but it sounded fond. "Jesse, I'm thrilled that you called me if you're having a bad day. I can't think of anything that would make me happier. I want to be the person you call when you have a bad day. The only thing that would be better would be if I could turn your day around somehow. Can I do anything to help? What's going on?"
"I'm sorry I didn't call before," said Jesse. He glanced at Hallie, who was watching him with way too much interest, so he went into his bedroom and shut the door. "It's been a really long time. I'm sorry."
"You were trying to get over me," said Andrew reasonably. "I really hope you didn't manage it."
Jesse laughed reluctantly. Something about Andrew's voice made some of the fear and tension of his week come loose and let him breathe again. "What if I did?"
"Then I've just wasted weeks and weeks pining for you," said Andrew cheerfully. "Now tell me what's going on. You sounded at the end of your rope in that message. I nearly called Emma to go and make sure you hadn't jumped off a bridge."
"No danger of bridge-jumping," Jesse promised, sitting down on his bed. "You don't want to hear about my shitty week. How have you been?"
"I do," Andrew insisted."My week's been fine. We're done shooting the show but I have to go and do some silly promotions and things. Jesse, what's going on?"
"Nothing. It's fine. I have it under control. I just…"
"You just what?"
Jesse's shoulders felt tight. He tried rolling his arm to see if he could get the ache out of his neck. Andrew waited patiently. Jesse found himself saying, "I just wish that for a little while, for five minutes even, someone else could be in charge. Does that make any sense? Five minutes where someone else has to worry about Hallie and school and the rent and… I just want five minutes off." His voice cracked a little.
"You need a proper holiday," Andrew said. "Come and visit me."
Jesse laughed. "I didn't call you for five weeks and you—" He was grateful and confused and somehow he missed Andrew even more now that he was actually listening to him talk.
"I've been missing you for five weeks! You owe me. Come and visit. Bring Hallie. I promise, I'll take care of everything while you're here. You won't have to worry about a thing."
"Would you please stop that? I can't. Hallie has summer camp starting in a couple of weeks, and I have to work. Aren't you going to yell at me for not calling?"
"I don't know. Do you think I seem likely to yell at you? Would that make you more inclined to call me again? Or come and visit?"
Jesse shook his head, even though Andrew couldn't see him. "Hallie's got camp at the YMCA."
"But she isn't a young man or a Christian, to the best of my understanding," said Andrew.
Jesse lay back on his bed and pushed his glasses up over his head so that the room turned into a comforting blur. "Can you just… Can you just tell me about your day? And what you're doing? I'd really like to stop thinking about my day for a while."
"Oh, Jesse," said Andrew. "I will if you'll promise to call me again, soon. And that you'll tell me what's going on."
"Okay," Jesse said. He just wanted to close his eyes and listen to Andrew talk for a little while, even if it wasn't going to fix anything. "Sure."
"Excellent!" said Andrew. "Well! Then I have to tell you about what happened on the last day of shooting. It was the most amazing thing. Fire! Disaster! Emergency sirens! You'll never believe it." Jesse bit his lip and listened and tried not to say I think I love you out loud.
Once the floodgates were open Jesse had a terrible time not calling Andrew. He kept waiting for Andrew to sound busy or annoyed or inconvenienced but Andrew kept seeming happy to hear from him. He did get a little reproachful now and then about Jesse having not called for all those weeks, but he was easily placated by Jesse calling while he did random errands, like taking Hallie shopping for a present for Lucy.
"Take a picture and send it to me," Andrew said.
Jesse's phone was three years old and it barely took pictures, but he snapped something that sort of resembled the bag Hallie was thinking about buying.
"No," said Andrew. "Tell her that's not princessy enough."
Jesse relayed that and Hallie agreed. "Do you want me to just give the phone to her?" he asked. "I don't think you two actually need me for this conversation."
"I always need you for all sorts of conversations," said Andrew. "When are you coming to visit?"
"You're being pushy again," Jesse warned.
Andrew sighed. "Sorry. Has Hallie found anything else?"
Hallie was trying on hats in front of the mirror. "Uh, not really."
"I don't see why this horrible little girl should get a present anyway."
"It's fifth-grade politics. I don't pretend to understand."
Hallie shouted, "What about this?" holding up a sparkly clutch that Jesse couldn't imagine a fifth-grader would have a use for.
"Let me ask Andrew," he said.
With Andrew's help they ended up finding a bag that Hallie thought was cute enough for Lucy, and then Jesse talked to Andrew about absolutely nothing for another half hour while Hallie poked around the book store.
"When she's off at that party you can call me," said Andrew. "I'll entertain you. I know how desperately lonely you get."
Jesse laughed a little. "Don't you have a job? And people in the same time zone as you to talk to?"
"They're all boring. None of them have big blue eyes like yours."
"My eyes don't make me less boring," Jesse argued.
"Don't they? Perhaps I'd better check. In person."
"We can't just pick up and fly out there," Jesse said. It was seriously the tenth time he'd told Andrew that. "Job. Rent. Camp. Expensive tickets. Remember?"
"But I could pay for all that—"
"If you offer again I'm going to hang up on you."
Andrew's silence was decidedly pouty.
"It makes me uncomfortable when you offer to pay for stuff. You know that."
"But I can," Andrew argued. "Why can't you just let this be easy? It's only money; I don't care what happens to it."
Jesse closed his eyes for a moment and reminded himself that he liked Andrew, despite Andrew's giant, stupid blind spot for when he was insulting Jesse accidentally. "There are no circumstances under which I would ever—"
"If Hallie were in hospital," said Andrew promptly. "If she had an emergency and I could help. You'd call and ask me then."
"Fine," Jesse conceded grudgingly. "Then. But short of a life-or-death emergency, no."
"I think you not ever having a holiday is an emergency," Andrew said. "And the fact that I haven't seen you in weeks is definitely. It's an emergency of the heart. I might die."
Andrew kept making Jesse laugh when he had every intention of being mad. "You're such a dork," he said. Hallie had sat down in the aisle of the bookstore with her nose buried in a book. It was going to be a challenge getting her up to leave.
"Be that as it may," Andrew said. "Tell me you really would call me if you had an emergency. I worry."
"Will you please stop offering to buy things otherwise, then?"
Andrew sighed loudly to let Jesse know that Andrew thought he was ridiculous. "I'll try," he said. "I forget sometimes."
"You forget all the time," Jesse grumbled.
"Well I'm making up for all those missing weeks of not getting to speak to you at all," Andrew said. Jesse winced. "I didn't get to do anything nice for you at all then."
"You don't need to do anything for me anyway!" Jesse pointed out.
Andrew said patiently, "I'm going to explain this again, and you might need to jot it down somewhere. I'm a little bit miserable and lonely out here. Talking to you makes me happy. Your face makes me happy. And if I can do anything to return the favor, to make your life easier or happier or better, then it's a reward for me to get to do it."
Jesse could feel his face heating up. "Andrew," he said, with just a little bit of whine creeping into his voice. "What am I supposed to say to that?"
"Say thank you and tell me I can fly you out to California."
"I'm hanging up on you now," Jesse said loudly.
"I'm late to work anyway," Andrew replied, sounding remarkably unfazed.
Jesse rolled his eyes and put his phone away in his pocket. "Hallie," he said. She didn't look up. "Hallie Kate. C'mon, the store is closing soon."
It was the last week of class for Hallie and Jesse made brownies for her farewell-to-fifth-grade school party while on the phone with Andrew. He was in danger of becoming totally codependent, he knew. Hallie started off helping and after a few minutes rolled her eyes and stage-whispered, "Fine, I guess I'm not needed here," and went to read on the couch.
"Oh dear," Andrew laughed. "Have I got in the way?"
"No, she's just… Well. Maybe a little bit? But she can deal with it." Jesse winced saying that, and Hallie stuck her tongue out at him. But that meant she wasn't really mad, and she didn't really mind sharing his time. And that was good, because Jesse apparently wasn't going to stop.
"I'm sure we could come to a reasonable compromise if I got to see you. Ever. At all."
Jesse cracked an egg and it got all over his hands. He tucked the phone under his chin and went to the sink. "Where did you get the idea that whining was attractive? Is it considered sexy in England?"
"I miiiiiiiiss you," Andrew complained. "For some reason you're immune to how charming and adorable I am. I can't understand it. All I've got left is relentless whining."
"How could I ever resist," Jesse said dryly.
"I genuinely don't know," said Andrew. "If you'd just say you're coming I'd stop complaining all the time. Just decide that you want to be here and then come and visit me."
Jesse put the phone down on the counter. He considered hanging up and decided he wasn't that mad, but he was more than a little frustrated.
"What?" Hallie asked.
"Certain people," said Jesse loudly, pouring the brownies into the pan, "won't stop trying to make me feel bad about things I can't actually change."
"Ohhhh," said Hallie, frowning a little. "What does that mean?"
"It means…" Jesse had to stop and consider, because he was trying not to get Hallie's hopes up about ever going to visit Andrew when he was pretty sure it couldn't happen. "It means that if it were an option to go visit Andrew we would. But it's not, and badgering me doesn't help, it just makes me feel shitty about it. Wanna lick the spoon?"
It was possible Andrew was saying something on the phone but Jesse had the luxury of not being able to hear him at the moment. Possibly that was passive-aggressive. Possibly Jesse didn't care. He handed Hallie the spoon. "Tomorrow after school is Lucy's party, right?"
"Right. Thank you for making the brownies. Tell Andrew to stop being a jerk or he's not allowed to be your boyfriend anymore."
"I already told him you get final approval," Jesse said.
Hallie cheered. Jesse figured it was probably time to see if Andrew was still on the phone or if he'd hung up in a huff. He didn't get mad very often but he did get huffy occasionally and start pouting.
Jesse picked up the phone a little hesitantly. "Hey," he said.
"I'm not trying to make you feel bad about anything," Andrew said. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, well. Unless I get a fairy godmother pretty quickly I can't come out and visit, and I wish I could, I promise, so… Can you please, please stop asking me all the time?" It felt like an unreasonable request to make, even though Jesse knew it wasn't.
"I will," Andrew said. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, Jesse, honestly."
"It's okay," Jesse said. He had a sudden suspicion. "Don't send a million flowers to the diner, please."
Andrew groaned. "But—"
"I appreciate the thought, I promise."
"Please tell Hallie I've finished being a thoughtless jerk and I hope she can forgive me," Andrew said. "I wanted you to know how much I want you to visit, not at all to make you feel bad that you can't. I'm so sorry."
"It's fine, Andrew, don't worry about it—"
"It's not. I'm sorry."
Hallie looked up from her book. "Hey, can I ask Andrew some questions about auditions?"
Jesse thought it was a little weird, but he handed the phone over to her. It could have been worse, he thought, if Hallie and Andrew hadn't gotten along. But it was a little strange having Hallie chatter away happily with someone who, had circumstances been different, Jesse would have been dating.
Eventually it got late enough that Hallie had to go to bed so she wouldn't be tired for the party and sleepover, and Jesse made her give the phone back. His battery was mostly dead anyway. "I'll call you tomorrow," he said, because he couldn't stop himself from calling even when nothing was going on.
"I'll look forward to it," said Andrew, uncharacteristically serious. "You know I'd love for you to come and visit but I'm really, genuinely sorry about making you feel bad."
"Yeah," said Jesse. "I know. If I thought you were doing it on purpose I wouldn't be calling you tomorrow."
Andrew laughed, relieved. "Well then. That's good, I think. Have a good night."
"You, too," said Jesse, and hung up.
Jesse was arguing with Emma half-heartedly over which Spice Girl he would be (she said Baby Spice, he said "Wait, who are the Spice Girls again?") during a stupidly long shift when the door to the diner banged open and Hallie ran in, crying. School had only been over for twenty minutes; she should have been just leaving for the sleepover. Jesse shook suds off his hands and ducked around the counter.
"Hallie? Sweetheart?" Emma said, frowning.
Hallie dropped her bag on the floor and threw her arms around Jesse, sobbing against his apron. He hadn't seen her cry like this in years and it made his heart sink through his stomach to the floor. "What happened?" he asked. She shook her head and cried harder. "Are you hurt? Did someone hurt you? Did you fall or get mugged or… Or…" Jesse had trouble thinking of really awful things that might have happened to her because it made his heart race.
"No," she said, muffled. Emma made a face at Jesse and he shrugged helplessly back. Hallie never did this; she got upset sometimes but she never cried like this. He had no idea what it was about.
Woody stuck his head out of the back. "What in the hell happened? Did somebody hit Hallie? Should I get my shotgun?"
"No," Hallie said again. "I'm okay." She was still crying but she tried to take a deep breath and wipe her face off on her sleeve.
Jesse was pretty reluctant to let her stop hugging him, frankly. "What happened?" he asked again.
"I hate Lucy," said Hallie, and started crying again. "I hate her, I hate her, I hate her. I'm never going back to that school again, Jesse, I won't. You can't make me. Don't make me."
"Who is Lucy?" Woody asked. "You want me to shoot her?"
"Yes," said Hallie viciously. Jesse blinked at her. That was totally unlike his sister, the sweetest kid he'd ever met.
Emma put her tray down and crouched by Hallie. "What did Lucy do? I thought you were going over to her house tonight."
Hallie was pretty obviously trying not to cry but her eyes were full of tears and her lower lip was trembling. "She asked me today if I'd packed a bag and I said yes and she… And everyone started laughing. There wasn't ever a party, she was just… She said I was stupid for thinking she'd ever invite me… And everybody laughed and made fun of me, even the sixth graders. Even Mackenzie. I'm never ever going back there."
Jesse didn't know what else to do, so he hugged her again. He hated those fifth grade girls and there wasn't anything he could do about it. He was furious and horrified but being unable to do anything to make Hallie feel better was the very worst part.
"Aww hell, I'm gonna get my shotgun," said Woody.
"Why would she do that?" Jesse asked. "I don't understand. Did something happen?"
"It was all just a joke," said Hallie, crying against his chest. "It was a joke and she's the meanest, most horrible person in the world. I'm never going back."
"Okay," said Jesse, because he had to say something. Besides, it was the last day of school.
"And I'm not going to camp, either. All those girls are going to be there."
Jesse swallowed down a lot of curses. "Hallie. I don't know… You can't just sit around the apartment or the diner all summer."
She started crying harder and shook her head.
Jesse felt absolutely sick. Emma and Woody were both looking at him like he was going to be able to do something to fix this, but it wasn't fixable. Jesse had never understood what made kids be mean or how to make them stop. Kids had picked on him and he hadn't known what to do so he'd pretended not to care. Hallie cared and all she wanted was to sit at the cool table sometimes and go to sleepovers and everyone was being mean. He might have let Woody get his shotgun if he weren't crazy enough to maybe use it.
"How about a milkshake," Emma said. Hallie shook her head. "C'mon, it'll make you feel better," Emma tried, but Hallie didn't look up.
Jesse wasn't sure what to do. He needed to do something. He couldn't listen to Hallie cry like this, and he couldn't make her go to summer camp with those girls. "Maybe you'll feel better in a little while," he said inanely.
"I won't. I never will. I hate them."
"Maybe you'll feel better when we… Oh god, Hallie, what if I told you we were going to California? What if I said we were going to visit Andrew in Los Angeles while all those stupid girls are stuck here in Jersey? His house is near the beach, he said, and it's really nice, and… Would that help?"
He hadn't meant to offer it and he didn't know how he'd make it happen but Hallie actually looked up at him for the first time since she'd come in, with a little bit of a hopeful, incredulous smile. Jesse would have done anything on earth to make her feel better. "Really?" she asked.
"It… Uh, it was a surprise," said Jesse, wondering if that sounded convincing. He tried to figure out what he was going to say to Andrew and how he'd explain his abrupt change of heart. What was he going to do about his job and their apartment?
"You planned it?" Hallie asked, perking up slowly. "Did Andrew tell you I want to go to Los Angeles and go on auditions? He said he could help me find some. If it was okay with you, I mean. Can we go to the beach? Can we go to Disneyland? Is Andrew so excited to see you?"
Jesse bit his lip and nodded, because he wasn't a very good liar and Hallie usually could tell.
"That's so exciting!" Emma squealed. "I have a cousin who just broke up with her boyfriend and needs a place to stay if you want to sublet your apartment for a couple of weeks!"
"I don't remember you asking me for a couple of weeks off," said Woody. Emma put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "But I mean, I forget a lot of stuff," Woody shrugged.
"Really?" Hallie asked. "Really really?"
"Yeah," said Jesse. "You can send all those girls a postcard from the beach. 'Had to skip the sleepover after all. Wish you were here.'"
She giggled and wiped her face off on her sleeve. Her cheeks were still pink and blotchy and she'd probably cry again later, when she remembered what had happened, but…Well, Andrew had offered that they could visit if there was an emergency, and this felt like one to Jesse.
"When can we go?" Hallie asked. "When can I start packing?"
Jesse really, really hoped Andrew had meant it when he'd offered to let them come out and stay. "Soon," he promised. "Just as soon as I talk to Andrew."
"Yes!" said Andrew. "God, yes. When can you come? Tomorrow?"
Jesse laughed, relieved. Hallie dragged a suitcase out of the closet and shouted, "Is this big enough? How many bathing suits should I pack?"
"Tell her to bring all of them," said Andrew.
"She only owns one anyway. I can't believe you aren't mad at me for being such a hypocrite. Aren't you working on that film? Are we going to… I mean, I don't want to be in your way."
"Jesse!" Andrew said sharply. "You've just said you'll come. If you back out now I will actually die of a broken heart, do you understand? Go and take a taxi to the airport right this minute."
"Or you could tell me when a good time for us to fly out would be. Seriously, it's really nice of you. I just…" Jesse lowered his voice a little. "I had to do something, you know? Hallie was—"
"I can't imagine. Is she alright?"
"She's pretty distracted packing. She was crying again before dinner, though. I'm not allowed to seek revenge on fifth graders, right?"
"No, I don't think so, unfortunately. I hope all the arseholes who made fun of me at school are watching my show and choking on envy. Children are awful. Hallie should have punched that girl."
Jesse watched Hallie trying to decide between two sundresses. "I think we might ritually burn the present we bought for her later."
"I'm just going to book you both tickets, alright? Is Friday too soon? Which airport is it easiest for you to fly out of? Newark, I suppose?"
"You don't have to—"
"I'll buy your tickets out and if you want to go home again you'll have to buy your own," said Andrew, as if that were utterly reasonable. Jesse laughed. Andrew said, "Seriously, let me buy these and we can argue later over when you'll pay me back."
"I will pay you back," Jesse insisted.
"Of course you will," said Andrew. "Friday? I'll have some days off next week. When I'm working you can take Hallie to the beach and lie around reading books. It'll be a proper holiday. Oh my god, I'm so excited."
Jesse laughed, "We're the ones going on vacation. Friday's okay. Friday works."
"Fantastic," said Andrew. "I'll email you the tickets. I can't wait."
Jesse was too focused on packing and making sure everything went smoothly with the trip to start worrying about seeing Andrew again, right until the plane landed. It wasn't that he thought Andrew would have changed in the intervening couple of months, but what if Jesse had? What if Andrew had been remembering Jesse as funnier and nicer and better looking than he really was? What if the whole thing was a disaster and it didn't make Hallie feel better after all?
"Jesse," said Hallie, anxiously waiting for the crowd to thin out so they could get off the plane, "you're making faces."
"I can't waaaait, I want to see Andrew. Don't you want to see Andrew?" She bounced a little bit in her seat, trying to see if they'd opened the plane doors yet so people could begin clearing out.
"I can't believe we're doing this," Jesse muttered. The stress reminded him how tired he was; they'd gotten up hours before dawn to get to the airport on time.
Hallie craned her neck to look over the seats. "The doors are opened! Jesse, let's go!"
They shuffled forward along with everyone else on the plane, Hallie clutching her pink backpack and Jesse dragging both of their carry-on suitcases. Jesse had Andrew's address if they needed to get a cab. He'd resigned himself to racking up credit card bills he'd never be able to pay off. He told himself it was worth it.
They filed down the ramp and through the airport and Jesse tried to figure out what he was going to say when they eventually found Andrew. He didn't know how casual to be, or how clingy to be, or what Andrew wanted in return for buying these tickets. It made his stomach feel queasy. This had probably been a terrible idea. Then he looked at Hallie, bouncing down the ugly metal hallway and bubbling over with excitement, and changed his mind. This was a great idea.
The arrivals area was thronging with people. Most of them were tall and blond and tanned and everyone had sunglasses and cell phones. The sunlight through the windows was dazzling but the room was air conditioned like crazy. Hallie darted through the crowd while Jesse tried to avoid running over anyone's toes with the suitcases.
"Don't run off!" he yelled.
"But I see Andrew!" Hallie said. Jesse had just a second to be horribly, overwhelmingly nervous, before Hallie ducked under the dividing rope and Andrew grabbed her up in a hug, spinning her around.
He looked so good. A little tanned, and his t-shirt pulled across his shoulders, and his jeans were tight, and his hair was ridiculous even with sunglasses pushed up into it. Andrew looked gorgeous. He was laughing with Hallie, who was beaming at him, and that made Jesse's heart flip over even faster.
"I can't believe we're in California!" Hallie squeaked.
"I can't believe you are either," said Andrew. "Listen, I'm going to put you down so I can say hello to Jesse properly. Will it bother you terribly if I kiss him?"
Hallie scrunched up her nose a little but she shrugged when he put her down. "I mean, I guess you haven't seen him in a while."
"Indeed I haven't," Andrew agreed, looking at Jesse. There was so much want in his face that Jesse forgot to be nervous and just smiled at him automatically. Andrew reached over the dividing rope and grabbed Jesse with both hands, dragging him into a kiss. Jesse squeaked and dropped the suitcases so he could grab Andrew, one hand tangled in Andrew's t-shirt and the other grabbed his beltloops. He wanted to kiss Andrew forever. Despite his best intentions he'd forgotten exactly what Andrew tasted like, what his chest felt like pressed up against Jesse's, how much he made all the anxiety and stress melt out of Jesse's shoulders.
"Okay, jeez," said Hallie.
Andrew grinned against Jesse's mouth. "I suppose I've missed you. And I've just scandalized your sister, sorry."
"I'm not scandalized," said Hallie, "but that lady was taking a picture with her cell phone."
Andrew swore a little bit and stepped back. "Of course she was. To be continued. What can I carry?"
Jesse hadn't really considered that in L.A. Andrew was really famous, and they had lots of cameras and photographers and people who'd want to see who he was kissing. Sure they would, Jesse thought, and it probably shouldn't be him.
Andrew didn't wait for an answer, he just grabbed Hallie's suitcase. "Right, follow me, I've got my car outside. I'm so pleased you're both here!"
Hallie darted ahead a little. "Can we go to the beach? When can I see the ocean? How big is your house? Oh my god, it's so sunny!"
"I thought we'd go home and have some food and then we could go to the beach. Whoa, there," Andrew said, grabbing Hallie's hand before she could dart out into traffic. There wasn't a car coming, but Jesse appreciated the gesture.
"Thanks for coming to get us," said Jesse, when he finally realized he hadn't said anything to Andrew yet.
Andrew threw him a dazzling grin. "Obviously. I can't wait for you to see my house. I can't wait for you to see…" He bit his lip and lowered his voice a little bit. "I've got a really big bed."
"Is that like a metaphor, or an insinuation…?"
"No," Andrew laughed. "I've just got a really big bed." He had a much flashier car in L.A. but it seemed to Jesse like everyone had a flashier car out here. Andrew loaded their suitcases into the back. He glanced around the parking lot. "As long as no one's looking at us right now," he said, crowding Jesse against the back of the car.
"Missed you," Jesse said, putting his arms around Andrew's neck. He rested his forehead against Andrew's shoulder and enjoyed how much Andrew smelled the same. "Oh my god, it's so pathetic. I missed you so much."
"It's not pathetic," Andrew scolded, "it's lovely. If you'd missed me half as much as I missed you you'd have been here weeks ago." He kissed Jesse before Jesse could argue, which was good; Jesse wasn't sure he was ready to be the kind of person who argued about who missed whom more.
"Aww. Emma was right; it's kind of cute," Hallie said.
Andrew laughed. "Emma said we were cute?"
"And adorable. I promised her I'd call and tell her all about it. I don't know what she wants me to say, though. 'Then they kissed a lot,' I guess." Hallie shrugged. "Can we go to your house now?"
Andrew clicked the button on his keys so the doors unlocked and she could climb in. "You look amazing," Jesse said. "I just… I forgot how amazing you are."
"You look terrible," Andrew said, but so affectionately that Jesse couldn't really work up to being offended. "Like you haven't slept in days. I'm so glad you're here."
"Are you… Do you have plans to help me relax?" Jesse asked, blushing a little.
Andrew grinned. "Oh, do I."
Andrew's house was gorgeous. It was also obviously a bachelor's house; there were a few scattered dishes around and a couple of DVDs in the living room, but everything else was sleek and modern and looked like it had come with the place, including the giant flat-screen television. There was a balcony in the back and if you squinted just right and there was no smog you could see what Andrew insisted was the ocean. "I'm going to go put on my bathing suit," said Hallie when Andrew showed her a guest room twice the size of her bedroom at home.
Andrew pushed open the door to his own bedroom. "See? Huge," he said, grinning at Jesse, and dropped Jesse's suitcase on the floor. "This is okay, isn't it? Will Hallie be horribly traumatized by you staying with me? Shall I just sneak into a guest room with you at night instead?"
"I think she'll understand," Jesse said. "Emma gave her kind of a talk before we left."
Andrew's eyes got huge. "A talk like… the talk?"
"I don't think so," Jesse laughed. "More like, 'your brother and Andrew will probably make out a lot. You should probably ignore them.'"
"Ah," said Andrew, grinning. "Well, in that case I'd hate to disappoint her."
Jesse sat down on Andrew's bed. "We should probably still shut the door," he said. Andrew laughed and pushed it shut with his hip and then all but threw himself at Jesse, knocking them both backward onto the bed. Andrew's hands were everywhere and his mouth was hot and ferocious on Jesse's. Jesse rolled them over so he was on top of Andrew and pressed Andrew into the bed. Andrew moaned and mumbled, "Missed you, missed you, missed you," while Jesse kissed his neck. His fingers dug into Jesse's back.
"I'm here," said Jesse. He reminded himself that they couldn't do this right now; Hallie was expecting a trip to the beach. He pulled himself reluctantly off Andrew and sprawled on the bed instead, trying to get his breathing back under control. Andrew's bed was so big they could lie across it. Jesse kicked his sneakers off because it seemed polite.
Andrew groaned. "Right, okay, fair enough. I can wait a bit." He pushed himself up on his elbows. "Do you want to rest before we go to the beach? You really do look tired. I can make sure Hallie's had a snack and put on sunscreen and unpacked."
"I can do all that," Jesse objected.
"Right," Andrew agreed, rolling onto his side to kiss him again. "But the idea is that you're on holiday and I'm going to help you relax. I can handle Hallie for a bit. She can tell me about all the books she's read and I can tell her about the one I've managed. I quite liked The Secret Garden, actually. Poor Colin."
Jesse huffed a laugh. He wanted to say no, let's just go to the beach, because Hallie was dying to. But a couple of minutes wouldn't hurt, would they? Andrew's bed really was comfortable, and Jesse hadn't slept well in weeks. Plus he'd been up so early. "Ten minutes," said Jesse, trying not to yawn.
"Half an hour," said Andrew. He rolled off the bed and pulled the curtains shut. "I'm just… I'm really thrilled you've come. Thank you for coming."
"That's ridiculous," Jesse said. It was hard to keep his eyes open once the room was dark.
Andrew said something else but Jesse missed it because he was already mostly asleep.
Jesse woke up disoriented and not entirely sure where he was. He flailed around a little bit until he remembered that they'd flown to California and this giant bed was Andrew's. He'd drooled all over Andrew's nice blanket. Jesse wanted a shower, or at least to wash his face; he felt gritty and he had no idea what time it was.
It took him a couple of tries to remember which room was the bathroom. Then Jesse went downstairs, wondering why he didn't hear Hallie shrieking about the beach. One of Andrew's walls was mostly glass, which was cool but really alien. Jesse could see that the sun was starting to set. He called himself a couple of names for ruining Hallie's first beach trip.
"Hello?" Jesse said. He still didn't hear anyone and he was trying not to panic unreasonably that they'd all vanished off the planet while he was napping. Jesse tried to distract himself by poking around Andrew's kitchen a little bit. There were dirty dishes in the sink and he was a little surprised to see the cupboards were full, and so was the fridge and the freezer.
Jesse wondered if they'd all left gone somewhere without him, had a momentary pang of panic, and decided to wash Andrew's dishes so he couldn't call 911. Luckily just then the door banged open. "That was amazing!" Hallie shouted. Jesse heard Andrew shush her.
"I'm awake," Jesse called, in case that was why. Andrew and Hallie walked into the kitchen. She was wearing a giant floppy hat that Jesse had never seen before.
"You don't have to do that," said Andrew.
Jesse shrugged and rinsed his hands off. "I'm pretty much a professional."
Andrew laughed and kissed him. Jesse wasn't sure what to do with his hands because they were still wet. "Did you sleep well?"
"Did you buy a house full of food for us?" Jesse countered.
"Ah," said Andrew, biting his lip. "Well. I thought you'd probably be worried about how expensive it is to eat out. So this way I thought you could cook and take food with you and stress a bit less."
Jesse found something in his throat was keeping him from replying to that for a minute. "You're so thoughtful," he managed. "I don't… You didn't have to do that, but thank you."
Andrew beamed at him. "Of course."
"Andrew got me this hat because he said my nose was burning. Is my nose red?" Hallie asked.
Jesse squinted at her. "Maybe?" he said. Her cheeks were pink anyway.
"I've got aloe in the bathroom upstairs," said Andrew. Jesse raised an eyebrow. "You are two of the palest people I've ever met, and I'm English," Andrew explained. "I thought there might be some need."
Hallie ran upstairs. "You took her out?" Jesse asked. He felt very strange about Hallie going places without telling him first, but they were staying with Andrew; it wasn't like he was worried Andrew would run off with her. It was just disconcerting.
"I hope that's alright. I wanted her to see the beach and I wanted a chance to chat with her. It seemed like we ought to talk." Andrew took the dishes out of Jesse's hands and put them on the counter.
Jesse grimaced. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted them to talk. If anything happened and either of them decided not to like the other then Jesse was screwed. "You could have left a note. I sort of thought you two had been kidnapped by aliens."
"Sorry, sorry. I’m not used to babysitting yet. And our talk was fine," Andrew assured him. "We both agreed that you work too hard and you worry too much, and then Hallie told me Emma had explained about boyfriends to her. I feel a bit like I've just got permission to court you; it's terribly Victorian."
"Well, without Emma and Hallie's approval you won't get anywhere with me, obviously."
Andrew laughed. "Indeed. And Hallie said… Well, she said you smile more when I'm around, and I'm terribly proud of myself for that, I'm afraid. And then she told me about the birthday party incident. I could slap those girls."
"I don't know what to do," Jesse confessed. "This is just a temporary solution; I can't take her to California every time someone calls her a name or makes fun of her."
"You could," Andrew said. Jesse rolled his eyes. Andrew sighed. "Well, I wish you could at any rate. I wish she went to school out here. I'd get Justin to swing by her class and make everyone scream and then he'd tell them all to go to hell and give Hallie a hug and they'd all actually die of jealousy."
"Who's Justin?" Jesse asked blankly.
Andrew blinked at him. "My new partner on the show. Don't look at me like that; I know you've been watching. Hallie told me so."
"But he… He's only been in like, two episodes since your other partner got shot. Why would anyone care?" Jesse asked.
"Jesse, he's Justin Timberlake." Andrew looked at him expectantly, so obviously that was supposed to mean something to Jesse, but Jesse had no idea what.
"Okay," said Jesse. "Good for him, I guess?"
Andrew started laughing. "Oh my god, you are my very favorite person." Jesse shrugged a little. Andrew's giggles got slightly hysterical and he put one hand on the wall to keep himself upright.
Jesse waited patiently for him to finish. "So I should know who that is, is your point."
"No, no; it's much better this way. Will you please come down to the set and tell him you've never heard of him? I would love that. It would make my year."
Hallie came running back in. "Can we watch your show on that giant tv? I want to see that car blow up in slow motion. The one in the first season finale when it looked like Joe had died!"
"Do you know who Justin Timberlake is?" Jesse asked.
Hallie frowned at him. "He's on the show, right? Oh, and he was in Lucy's magazine. There was some article about what kind of girls he likes. It was stupid though; he likes girls who 'know their own minds' and 'order dessert on a date.' Who doesn't get dessert? Honestly."
Andrew started laughing again. Jesse rolled his eyes at him. "Speaking of dessert, how about dinner? I can cook something."
"Are you okay?" she asked Andrew, looking concerned. Andrew waved her off, gasping for breath. "I think you might have killed him."
Andrew made a valiant effort to rally. "Let's order food; you're on holiday. You can cook tomorrow when I'm on the film set, and then take Hallie to the beach and I'll meet you there."
"Hallie wants to see cars blow up on a giant television," said Andrew. "I never refuse a lady such a reasonable request. Come on." He took Jesse's hand and squeezed it a little bit, still smiling like Jesse was the funniest person he'd ever met. Jesse couldn't say no to that.
Hallie liked the beach, and Jesse liked sitting in the shade with a book. He thought she'd get bored of running back and forth in the surf, or at least tired of wearing a giant floppy hat, but instead she found some other girls around her own age who were doing something very complicated with sand and went off to play with them.
The mother who'd been supervising them smiled sympathetically at Jesse. "Summer vacation, huh? It's exhausting."
"Uh," said Jesse, who wasn't great at talking to strangers at the best of times. "Yeah. Usually she goes to camp, so…"
"Oh, I know," said the mom. "Thank god for science summer camp, right? Otherwise they drive you crazy all day. You have to keep them busy and you have to keep them thinking. I swear they forget everything they learned last year over the summer otherwise."
"Science summer camp?" Jesse asked, just a little bit wistfully.
She gestured to the girls. "They were doing some volume and displacement experiments earlier. Now they're examining the natural environment. They're supposed to list all the different species they can find and make a food web. The teacher's over there, I'm just a chaperone."
Jesse bit his lip. "Is it okay for Hallie to hang out with them, then? I mean, if they're in class—"
The mother waved him off. "Hallie's adorable, she's not causing trouble, and she's helping gather data. I don't think anyone minds. I’m Deb, by the way." Jesse introduced himself and shook her hand. "Do you two live around here? Hallie could sign up for camp. It's not too late yet."
Jesse shook his head. "We live in New Jersey, actually. This is just a vacation."
"Oh," Deb said, "That's too bad. Hallie seems like she's having so much fun."
Jesse was pretty sure a science summer camp on the beach was Hallie's nirvana. He was never going to be able to convince her to get on a plane back home.
Hallie ran around doing science experiments for a while until Andrew arrived, and then she reluctantly let herself be dragged away from two girls who, she assured Jesse, were her new best friends. The girls recognized Andrew and stared open-mouthed at Hallie when she hugged him hello and then scolded him for being late. At least on the beach at science summer camp Hallie seemed to be the most popular girl ever.
"Alondra says the summer camp is part of their school," Hallie explained excitedly. "They take classes in science and math over the summer and it's the Summer Beach Academy and for sixth grade it's only for girls because boys dominate math and science classes. And their teacher's name is Susan, and they all call her Susan; they don't call her Ms. Baker even in class!"
"Breathe," said Jesse.
"And Susan says she doesn't mind if I come by every day! Jesse, can we come back tomorrow? They're going to be photographing different species to put on their website about saving the ecosystem and I learned the word salinity and I want to come back every day."
Jesse sighed. "That mom said you need to sign up or enroll or something." That was going to be expensive, and he didn't want to promise Hallie anything she couldn't have.
"But—" she started.
Andrew interrupted smoothly, "Hallie, you've got an audition tomorrow anyway, haven't you?"
"But that's first thing in the morning! Can we come back after that? Please? Please? Jesse, please?"
Jesse didn't know what to do, so he looked at Andrew. Andrew put his hands in his pockets and said, "How about yes to tomorrow and we'll talk about after that?"
Hallie waited half a second for Jesse to nod and then she shrieked with joy and ran off to tell Susan and Alondra and everyone else. "That's a private school summer class," Jesse said. "They're going to want—"
"I ruined your summer camp in New Jersey, I could pay for this instead," Andrew offered, and then winced, like he expected Jesse to yell at him. "Just because I can, and you can't, and Hallie's had a miserable spring, and it could be a Chanukah present from me, couldn't it? But I won't offer it unless you want me to because I’m trying not to undermine you, which is what Emma told me I was doing before."
"You ramble almost as much as Hallie," Jesse said. He was really, really torn. And he wondered when Andrew had been talking to Emma. "I want her to have everything she possibly can, I want this to be a great vacation for her. But when we go home she's going to be heartbroken because nothing will be different, and I don't want her to be crushed."
"I rather imagine Hallie understands," said Andrew. He hesitated. "It seems a little mean not to give her nice things now because she can't have them later, too. Although I understand completely, and I’m not trying to tell you what to do. I have no idea what I'd do if I were in charge of a ten-year-old full time. Go mad, probably."
"You'd be fine because you'd have to be fine," said Jesse pragmatically. "But I guess… God, are you sure you don't mind? I feel like we're mooching off you."
Andrew kissed him. Jesse hoped no one had a camera phone on the beach. "You're going to be rich and famous and successful," Andrew said quietly, leaning his forehead against Jesse's. "And once you are I am going to demand every penny back from you. I promise."
"A rich and successful dishwasher?" Jesse laughed.
Andrew's hand slid down Jesse's back and squeezed his ass. Jesse squeaked a little. "A playwright," said Andrew. "A novelist. A physicist, a doctor, a professor of literature. I have absolutely no doubts that a year from now you won't be washing dishes, Jesse. None."
"Is the public groping supposed to encourage me?" Jesse asked. He was trying to sound sarcastic but he mostly sounded breathless.
"Yes," said Andrew, kissing Jesse behind his ear and on his jaw and ducking his head to kiss Jesse's neck. "Absolutely it is."
Andrew stopped. "Wait. Really?"
"Yeah," Jesse sighed. "It's not ideal, and it's not my favorite thing in the world, and I'm uncomfortable with it, but… You asking me if it's okay helps a lot. With the books you just bought them for her and it was like you were the good guy and I was the grinch who couldn't give her Christmas. It was kind of creepy, too, like you thought if you gave my baby sister a present I'd have sex with you."
"Christ, that wasn't what I intended at all," Andrew protested.
Jesse shrugged. "I know. But it felt like that. This is… I mean, if we're… I mean, I guess you can…"
Andrew smiled cautiously. "If I'm your boyfriend I'm allowed to buy Hallie things?
Jesse was trying not to blush and failing. "This one thing, this one time, because it's seriously everything she wants in the entire world. It's educational, I mean… I can't say no to that, even if it's just for a couple of weeks."
Andrew grabbed Jesse's arms with both hands and kissed him, hard and fast. Jesse barely had time to try and find his balance before Andrew let go again.
"I let you spend money on my sister and you kiss me. You are the weirdest person I know," Jesse said, feeling dizzy.
"I'll draw you a flow chart to explain it all later," said Andrew, grinning.
Much to Jesse's amusement Andrew seemed to think he needed to compensate for suddenly being allowed to spoil Hallie by being extremely strict with her. It was hilarious for two reasons; first, because Andrew had no idea how to be strict with Hallie. He tried sounding very stern and scary about how much homework she'd have to do for the science camp and she got more excited about it. Second, because Andrew was terrible at being strict or stern. He told Hallie she wasn't allowed to have ice cream with lunch, and she gave him a tragic pouty look that would have made Jesse roll his eyes and laugh at her. Andrew caved immediately.
By the time they got home Andrew looked exhausted and Hallie was tired from running around all day. Andrew tried to tell her something about bed time and being well-rested for the audition tomorrow and she just waved him off and went upstairs on her own.
"I can't believe you do this all day," Andrew groaned, leaning against Jesse's shoulder. Jesse was beginning to feel prickly all over from too much sun. "I’m ready to go back to being irresponsible and spoiled."
"That was cute how you tried to help out," Jesse said.
Andrew poked him. "I saw you laughing at me."
"I was enjoying your attempts to parent. You want me to make dinner?"
"How could you possibly move after that? I just want to lie here on the couch forever." Andrew clung to Jesse and Jesse bit his lip so he wouldn't laugh at him again. Andrew shifted around so his head was in Jesse's lap. Jesse carded his fingers through Andrew's hair, looking out the dark windows at the city lights and the hills beyond.
"Is there a way we can just… stay like this forever?" Jesse asked wistfully. He was trying not to count down the days and minutes until their flight home. Sure, he worried pretty much every minute of their vacation that he'd go broke or Hallie would get crushed by an audition or Andrew would get tired of them, but he didn't want to leave.
"S'fine with me," Andrew yawned. "You know that, right? You could just stay with me forever."
"We can't, though," Jesse said. "I have to work and figure out what the hell I’m doing about school, and Hallie has a whole life in Jersey."
Andrew mumbled, "I know, I just hate it. I hate that you're going to leave again. I hate L.A.; it's nothing like London. You make me less homesick."
"I'm nothing like London, either," Jesse pointed out, but he pulled Andrew up so he could kiss him. The idea that he might be making Andrew feel better made Jesse a little giddy and he didn't know how to explain it out loud, so he wanted to try and explain it with his hands.
There were still places on Andrew that Jesse hadn't touched yet, spots on his shoulder that Jesse hadn't found time to kiss. He hadn't even completed his catalog of all the noises Andrew made, quiet and desperate and pliable underneath Jesse on the couch.
"Why can't I come?" Jesse asked.
"Because," Hallie said, putting a cough drop and some chap stick in her purse, "You'll freak out and then you'll freak me out."
That was probably true, but the idea of his little sister doing something as scary as an audition without him around made Jesse want to run around the room screaming. "I won't freak out," Jesse lied.
Andrew kissed his cheek. "It's very sweet that you think so. You're already freaking out. Hallie's going to be terribly professional and we decided it would be easier if it's just her and me. I promise I'll text you every minute."
"Are you sure you want to do this? You don't have to. If you decide you don't want to Andrew will bring you right back here. You—"
"See?" Hallie said. "Freaking out." She finished packing her purse. "I'm totally ready and I'm all set to go. Andrew said I'll probably get a hundred nos before I get a yes. I'm being realistic." She had her determined face on and Jesse didn't want to discourage her, but he was also terribly worried she was going to get hurt.
"Okay," Jesse said reluctantly. "You'll call me?"
"Definitely," Andrew promised. He started to herd Hallie toward the door, but at the last minute she dodged around him and darted back over to Jesse.
"Wish me luck," Hallie said, hugging him.
It was probably wrong that Jesse was so glad she still needed him. "You're going to be amazing."
"We don't say good luck, we say break a leg," Andrew said.
Jesse gave Hallie another squeeze and said, "Okay, go for it, rock star. Break a leg."
Andrew held his hand out for Hallie. "It'll be fine," Andrew said. "I promise. Even if it goes horribly it'll be fine."
"If it goes horribly can we get cookies?" Hallie asked, taking Andrew's hand. Clearly she smelled blood in the water as far as his strict parenting went.
"Um, well…" Andrew said, opening the door. "What about fruit? Some sort of healthy snack?"
"Aaaaaandrew," Hallie complained. "But what if I'm sad?"
"We'll talk about it later," Andrew said. Jesse was absolutely sure he was going to give Hallie cookies before the end of the day. Jesse clearly needed to give Andrew some tips for saying no to her.
Jesse waved and tried not to freak out at being all by himself. He was glad Hallie and Andrew liked each other enough now to do things together without him, and he was secretly a little bit excited that there was another adult around who could look after her now and then. The idea of having a few hours to himself while she was with Andrew or at summer camp was intoxicating. On the other hand Jesse was pretty sure he'd never be able to let Hallie go off with someone else without worrying at least a little bit. He was terrified for her and her audition.
Jesse had plans for what to do while they were gone. He wanted to clean up the mess he and Hallie had managed to make in the last couple days, do the dishes, take care of all the stuff Andrew had obviously let pile up living here as a bachelor. He needed to go online and look at classes for the fall and figure out what he was going to do about them. He needed to check his bank account balance and see how he was going to pay for this trip.
Instead he sat down on the couch with a book. Jesse flipped his phone open but Andrew hadn't texted. Jesse should have been happy about Andrew not texting while he drove but mostly he was nervous. He told himself he'd read for a little while before he started doing things or texting Andrew a million times.
Jesse hadn't relaxed in so long he'd almost forgotten how it felt. He was genuinely surprised when his phone buzzed and startled him out of his book. Hallie's just gone in the room. So far so good. She is by far the cutest child here.
Jesse texted back, Of course she is. He hadn't ever doubted that part.
The phone buzzed and Jesse flipped it on. "What are you doing?" Andrew asked. "I'm standing around with lots of stage parents trying not to look nervous."
"I… I had all these plans and instead I'm lying on your couch with a book."
"Oh, fantastic," said Andrew. "I knew you'd figure out what a holiday is supposed to be eventually."
"There's a pile of dishes, though, and Hallie's left books all over the floor, and—" Jesse yawned. "Oh my god, what's wrong with me? I've only been awake a couple of hours."
Andrew laughed. "Can I take some credit for keeping you up last night? No, seriously; holidays are for napping. I'll call you when Hallie's finished."
Jesse was genuinely having trouble keeping his eyes open. It was weird. "Do you think she's got a shot in hell?"
"Not really, but that's just because they seem to be looking for a more ethnic type of child for this juice advert. I've got a sense of these things because I've done a million auditions. My agent's found something else for her later this week where they're apparently looking for precocious and nerdy and… Don't be offended, Jesse, but I think she might be a lock for it."
Jesse laughed. "That's awesome. You're awesome for doing this. You don't mind hanging out with my little sister? It's kind of above and beyond the call of duty."
"She's lovely and it's my pleasure, I promise. When she finally gets something it'll be the best feeling in the world. I could live on that feeling for ages. I'll call you in a couple of hours."
"Don't let her convince you she can have cookies as a snack," Jesse said, but it was mostly a yawn. He hung up and dozed on the couch for a while.
He got up when Hallie and Andrew came home, feeling a little guilty but relaxed for the first time he could remember in years. "It was fine!" Hallie said preemptively. "They said no thank you, but I think I can do better next time. I took some notes."
"You don't have to do it again if you don’t want to," Jesse said.
Hallie bit her lip and looked at Andrew. "Can you give us a second?" she asked. She was clearly trying really hard to sound like a grown up.
"Oh, of course," said Andrew, faintly puzzled. "I'll go upstairs and put things together for the beach. I've got a surprise for you." He kissed Jesse and went upstairs. Hallie, to her credit, had mostly stopped rolling her eyes when he did that.
"What's up?" Jesse asked.
Hallie sat on the couch next to him, fidgeting a little bit. "I've been thinking about this a lot."
Jesse's stomach sank a little bit. "Are you not happy here? We can go home," he said, but he couldn't quite keep the wince out of his voice. He didn't want to go home. He had no idea what he'd do if Hallie wasn't having fun. "There's summer camp and the beach and this is a gorgeous house, right? Right?"
"Right," Hallie said, frowning at him. "This is awesome."
"So then what are we talking about?"
"Oh." Hallie chewed on her lip and Jesse recognized it as the exact same thing he did when he was mulling over the perfect way to say something. "No, I meant… I really think I can get one of these auditions, and I want to… I want to help out."
Hallie glanced upstairs at where Andrew had gone. "I know that you work a lot," she said, "and I need a lot of stuff, and I want a lot of stuff, and I just… I thought if I got a commercial that would be like me helping out, too."
"Oh, Hallie Kate," said Jesse. "Your job is to be in school and do your best and make friends and—"
"You work all the time," Hallie said insistently. "I'm not a little kid anymore, Jesse, I know things aren't okay. And I'm really glad you get to see Andrew, he's great, but this must be costing us a million dollars and—"
Jesse grabbed her and hugged her with both arms. She squeaked a little and hugged him back. "None of this is for you to worry about. We're fine. I promise, we're fine."
"I just want to help," said Hallie against his shoulder.
Jesse was not going to cry, because then he'd have to explain to Andrew what was going on. He took a couple of deep breaths and tried not to think about how his baby sister wasn't really a baby anymore. He really hoped he wasn't screwing her up with all his problems. Jesse kissed the top of her head. "Hallie, if you want to audition for stuff you can do as many as you want. And if you never get a job you will still be the most awesome sister I ever had. But not if you don't want to. Not if you think you have to."
"I want to," said Hallie. "I just… If I get a job I want to help us out."
"No," said Jesse immediately. "If you get a job it goes into your college fund."
She made a grumpy noise. "If it's my money I should get to spend it the way I want to."
"You don't even have any money yet. Can we argue about this when you do?"
"We won't be arguing," said Hallie confidently. "Because I'm going to win. But whatever. Go tell Andrew he can come back downstairs. I know you don't want him to know how much you worry about money."
Jesse tried not to look astonished. "Oh. That's… Really thoughtful."
"I don't like sharing you, but I like Andrew," said Hallie, hugging him again. "I don't want him to get freaked out and go away."
"Oh god," Jesse said, starting to laugh because he didn't know what else to do. "Me too. That's exactly how I feel all the time." Hallie didn't say anything, she just snuggled against his side and stayed there for a long minute.
Hallie's camp friends were thrilled to see her, and maybe a little bit thrilled to see Andrew again. Then Andrew managed somehow, through a combination of his ridiculous face and magic, probably, to convince Jesse to go to lunch with him instead of hovering over Hallie all afternoon.
"What if something happens?" Jesse grumbled.
"Then she'll call you," said Andrew. He looked unforgivably cool driving down the highway by the beach. Jesse was glad Andrew hadn't said anything about the fact that hoodies and jeans were all Jesse owned.
They had lunch at a restaurant on a patio looking over the beach. "You said surprises," said Jesse. "I don't like surprises."
"I know," said Andrew. "Have another glass of wine."
"That lady just took a picture with her phone," said Jesse.
Andrew made a face and looked over his shoulder. "People do that in L.A. It's fine; we're not making out or anything."
"It's kind of an obvious date," Jesse said.
"Ugh, let's hope not. I've been… Well, I haven't been yelled at, I suppose, but I've been spoken to firmly about the network's expectations for the show. Oh god, don't look at me like that, it's fine. They can't actually tell me what to do."
"But your job—"
"Is fine," said Andrew firmly. "The network renewed us, I've just got a pay rise, and I'm not famous enough to have paparazzi following me around trying to out me. Being an actor has always been my dream; if this is the price I pay it's fine."
Jesse didn't feel at all good about that. He sank down in his chair a little bit. "But you could get in trouble. Andrew, I can't—"
"Anything could happen," said Andrew, with a careless shrug that infuriated Jesse. He reminded himself that Andrew wasn't living paycheck-to-paycheck and if he got fired he probably had a safety net. Plus, Andrew wasn't responsible for anyone else. He was doing all the things people their age were supposed to be doing.
"You said something about more wine," Jesse said. He felt a little bad, being grumpy and difficult, but it was easier than explaining himself.
"I did," said Andrew, filling his glass. "Oh good, he's here."
"Aaron!" said Andrew, standing up. "Glad you could make it." They shook hands. Aaron Sorkin was wearing a suit. Jesse resisted the urge to sink even lower in his chair, because then he would have been nearly on the floor.
"Hi," said Jesse. If this was Andrew's surprise then he was seriously terrible at surprises. Jesse was glad he already had wine.
"Good, I'm glad you're here," said Sorkin, as if they had been in the middle of a conversation. Jesse gave Andrew a seriously confused look.
Andrew shrugged apologetically. "He asked me about your writing. And you in general."
Jesse felt inexplicably embarrassed. "Oh. I could um, print it out or whatever, but that's not… You teach writing. You write for the show, I mean, I… That's um—"
"I've already sent it to him," said Andrew. Jesse almost choked on his wine. "Well, I had Hallie email it to me and I sent it on. She makes an excellent henchman."
Jesse was going to have a very strongly worded conversation about this with Hallie. "Oh," he said again.
"I liked it," said Sorkin, who apparently didn't see anything weird about the whole conversation. "I was impressed. Obviously you're smart, but smart and funny is rare, particularly in writing. Let's talk about what you're doing with your life."
"Am I supposed to know what I'm doing with my life?" Jesse asked. He was starting to panic a little bit. Andrew put his hand on top of Jesse's.
"Where do you go to school?" Sorkin asked. He seemed to think Jesse was kidding, which was nice.
Jesse wondered if it would be very rude to crawl under the table and hide. "I'm between schools at the moment," he said, because he couldn't explain to a professor that he'd flunked out of community college econ classes.
Sorkin slammed his hand on the table. Jesse jumped. "Bullshit," he said. "This attitude that you should just quit school and write is bullshit. Even the best writers can still learn. There's a place for studying the classics, damn it. There's a place for discussion and peer review and learning the craft. Obviously I'm a professor; I have a bias. But there's more to the world than just selling scripts."
"I didn't quit school to write scripts," Jesse managed.
"Good, because I deal with that kind of bullshit all the time with undergrads. They're going to write the next great movie and they think they don't need school. They do. Go get me a gin and tonic."
That last was apparently directed toward Andrew, who looked a little amused by the whole thing. "I'll get more drinks, shall I?"
"Um, but—" Jesse started, but Andrew was much too polite to refuse what seemed to be a direct order.
"I was worried you'd say NYU or Columbia," said Sorkin.
"No, I… Wait, why would that worry you?"
Sorkin leaned over the table, intense behind his wire-rimmed glasses. "Because I'm in charge of the recruitment committee for our joint B.A./M.A. creative writing program. And I showed the committee your play. And the articles, actually. Very funny. Marxist jokes, I see what you did there."
Jesse had run out of wine somehow. It was strange; he was sure Andrew had just filled his glass up. "I can't," Jesse blurted. Whatever Aaron wanted, he couldn't. "I live in New York, I'm responsible for my little sister out there, I'm broke as hell. I can't… Whatever you're talking about, I can't."
"All of that can be dealt with," said Aaron, waving him off. "We have scholarships, I’m on that committee, too. You can always move. Your sister would be fine in California, I'm sure. And whatever you do in New York—"
"I work at a diner," said Jesse, "in Jersey."
"We have diners," Sorkin snorted. "Who cares where it is?"
Andrew reappeared, thank god, with a drink for Aaron and one for Jesse. "I care," said Jesse. "I live in New Jersey. This is all – Um – I don't even know what to say."
"I get what I want," Aaron warned him, gesturing with his glass. "Ask Andrew. I'm relentless. I believe in going for what you want and sinking your teeth in."
"I'd rather you didn't sink your teeth into me," said Jesse. Aaron laughed. Jesse was relieved he still thought Jesse was kidding.
"Please don't give him a heart attack; I need him," said Andrew, sitting down. "I thought you were going to tell me all the things we're going to be up to this season?"
"Ha!" said Aaron. "Good question. You know Justin is coming on full-time. Well, this season you're going to wrestle with questions of morality; the demons that haunt men and the things that drive them. And Joe's going to develop a drug addiction."
"Wait, what am I wrestling with?" Andrew asked. "This sounds a bit severe."
"You're going to be part of a bust that goes wrong, and you help cover up a bad shooting. And then you spend the season trying to come clean but unable to, because you get involved with the wrong people and you need the money for your mother's chemo."
Jesse couldn't stop the skeptical, "Wait, seriously?" from coming out of his mouth.
"This is strictly hush-hush," Aaron said. "Then we find out that Connie had a secret past as a sex worker. I'll teach them to say I'm not a feminist. But don't think I've forgotten about you. I haven't."
"Okay," said Jesse meekly, and started in on his third drink.
By the time they got done talking about the upcoming season it was time to go get Hallie. Andrew pushed his cool sunglasses up in his ridiculous hair. He should have been driving a convertible, like he did on the show, Jesse decided. He was comfortably tipsy still, enough to stare pretty openly at Andrew's shoulders and his biceps without feeling too weird about it.
"So? What did he want?" Andrew asked.
"Just some crazy talk about… Um, stuff," said Jesse.
Andrew put his free hand on Jesse's thigh and squeezed a little. "Tell me," Andrew said. Jesse shook his head. Andrew slid his hand up higher. "Jesse, tell me."
"He… I think he wants me to go to school out here in his program," said Jesse. "That's crazy, though."
"That's great!" said Andrew. He paused. "Wait, is that not great? Why is that not great?"
Jesse shook his head again. It was hard to articulate how he felt about the whole thing, because it would sound crazy if he said, I can't think about good things happening because then they might not. It was like standing on a carpet that might be yanked out from under him.
"Okay," said Andrew. "When you don't say anything it makes it really difficult for me to work out what you're thinking. I mean, obviously you're thinking about how handsome I am, and how much you like me—"
Jesse laughed, relieved. Andrew grinned at him. "Sorry," said Jesse. "I just… I can't go to school. I have to work. So it's awesome, but it's not feasible, and it's almost worse to hear about things I can't have. Does that make sense?"
"Yes," said Andrew. "Horribly enough it does." He pulled into the parking lot by the beach, where the science class kids were all being met by their parents. Andrew gave Jesse a very serious look. It was pretty cute on him. "Here's the thing I've been thinking about. This has all been… This has all been really easy for me. All I had to do was go to New York for work, meet an amazing person, and fall totally in love with him."
"Shut up, this is my story, that's how it goes. I haven't had to change anything about my life, and even if I did, my life is easy to change. I'm just responsible for myself. This is all really difficult for you, and it's full of changes, and if you do the wrong thing you and Hallie might both be screwed, and that must be absolutely terrifying. So I keep pushing and pushing because it's so simple for me, and you keep dragging your feet because it's so complicated for you."
Jesse just nodded. He couldn't breathe. Andrew was absolutely right, and it terrified Jesse a little bit that Andrew actually seemed to understand.
"You should still have options," said Andrew quietly. "You should still have choices. And if I can do anything to make them easier I will. But if you can't… I mean, if this is beyond you, I don't blame you a bit. I swear, I can be patient and supportive and respectful of what you choose to do. I've been a brat, but I can be good. Okay?"
Jesse undid his seatbelt so he could lean across the gear shift and kiss Andrew. Andrew seemed a little surprised, but Jesse kissed him hard enough to knock his sunglasses a little askew, one hand in Andrew's hair and the other on his arm. He hoped that Andrew could translate it as Thank you and You're wonderful and I love you, too.
Hallie knocked on the window or Jesse might have just climbed into Andrew's lap in the front seat. "Eww," said Hallie, "seriously, all the time? In public?"
Jesse remembered about Andrew and not causing a scandal and sat back, breathing hard. "Whoops."
"No no," said Andrew, looking a little dazed. "Any time you'd like. No warning necessary. It's absolutely fine."
Jesse laughed at him and opened the back door for Hallie. She shook her head like they were both crazy.
"Tell us about what you did today," said Andrew.
"Oh!" Hallie said. "Today we learned about tide pools! Do you know what indicator species are?" Andrew shook his head and Hallie launched into an extremely complicated explanation of tides and snails and barnacles. Jesse put his hand on top of Andrew's free one and tangled their fingers together.
Hallie loved summer camp on the beach; Andrew and Jesse mostly hung around by the beach or walked and ate food Jesse had packed for lunch. They also spent a lot of time taking advantage of having the house to themselves. There was even a trip to Disneyland that ended in a mild sunburn for Jesse and Andrew almost throwing up from going on too many rides after lunch. It was the most idyllic week Jesse had ever spent. He called Emma to see if he still had a job and an apartment. She asked him about what he and Andrew were doing and then hung up on him with a gleeful, "Stop worrying and enjoy your vacation!"
Jesse spent a few hours at a celebratory lunch for Andrew's show. Andrew was immediately swept off by some of the network people, leaving Jesse alone to socialize, which was terrifying. Justin, at least, turned out to be nice, if also possibly the weirdest person Jesse had ever met. "I saw you," said Justin, gesticulating with his beer bottle. He was swaying a little. "You and Andrew were on Perez looking cute as shit. So I already knew who you were when you walked in. You're like, famous."
Jesse sincerely hoped that wasn't true. "We were trying to avoid that," he said. "And actually isn't it you who's famous?"
"You weren't like, doing anything. No one was naked. Andrew just looked, y'know, what's that word? Sotted?"
"Besotted," said Jesse absently. Presumably Justin meant that to be reassuring. It wasn't particularly. After all the things Andrew had done for Jesse and Hallie Jesse was terrified of getting Andrew in trouble.
"Yes," said Justin, seriously and drunkenly. "He was being a sot."
"No, it's all one word – Nevermind," said Jesse, because Justin was frowning. "Is that Perez thing a big deal? Will people have seen that?"
Justin laughed. "He's kind of the biggest deal, even if he's an asshole. He has a total crush on Andrew, though, so don't worry. He might hate you for dating him, but fuck that dude."
Jesse couldn't tell if Perez was a person or a magazine or what. He looked around the room at all the other people he vaguely recognized from Andrew's show; they mostly weren't actors, they were producers and writers and people that Andrew had very briefly introduced him to and Jesse had failed to speak to coherently. He wondered how many of them had seen pictures of them together and if any of them had ratted Andrew out to the network. Actually maybe some of the people at this luncheon were network people; Jesse hadn't worked that out, either.
"Glad you're out here, man," said Justin. "You're really saving his life. It's so great, bro. You're so great."
"Okay," said Jesse, nodding a lot. The beer in his hand made him feel like the kind of person people might call 'bro,' even if he had no intention of drinking it. "Cool. Sure. What does that mean?"
"Dude," said Justin, "Andrew is like this teddy bear who is dying for someone to hug. And you're all huggable and shit. "
Jesse hoped his nodding looked like he understood and agreed with that.
Justin leaned in, getting his beer breath a little bit in Jesse's face. "Plus, okay, plus, dude's crazy homesick half the time. You know he doesn't even really like tv shows? This one blew up and he's like, he's got this contract, and he's here, but this isn't like, his dream. His dream is acting-acting. You know? I mean, he's happy as long as there's a camera, but still. He told me that one time when he was wasted. It's cool, though, 'cause him and me are gonna be bros and do all the shitty publicity together, but honestly, I swear to god, when you weren't calling him I thought he was gonna cry like, every minute of every day."
"Whoa," said Jesse. "Seriously?" It had never occurred to him that Andrew's glamorous life in L.A. could be anything less than perfect all the time, which… was stupid, now that he considered how many times he'd heard Andrew say something vague about missing his family or his friends or London. He was just so happy to be a working actor that it had never sunk in properly. Jesse was so used to thinking about his own misery, and Andrew usually looked so happy.
"Yeah, dude, totally," said Justin. "He's a great dude. I totally think he's the greatest kid, you know? I'm psyched to be working with him, it's just… It's awesome how you make him all like, bubbly and shit. You know?"
Jesse honestly couldn’t picture a non-bubbly Andrew. "Okay," he said. "Well, I'm glad I can help."
Justin hugged him. Jesse hadn't been expecting that, and he didn't do much except stand there with his shoulders around his ears, trying to figure out what to do.
Andrew walked over and disapprovingly pried Justin off Jesse. "Hands to yourself, please," he said. He wrapped his arms around Jesse's waist. Jesse looked around again, because the room was full of people and even if Andrew didn't care some of these people might.
"How'd the audition go?" Justin asked.
Andrew sighed a little bit. "Not great."
"Wait, you had an audition?" Jesse knew Hallie had gone on three or four, but apparently he'd missed something.
Andrew smiled fondly. "Remember Tuesday when you were reading on the couch and didn't actually realize I'd gone until you called me in a panic asking where I was?"
"Not a panic," Jesse said, flushing. "I just… We were talking and then you vanished and I thought you'd gone upstairs or something. And then I realized you were actually gone."
"I think I'm going to start taking the book actually out of your hands before I tell you I'm leaving."
Jesse rolled his eyes. "You can try."
Justin hiccuped, "You got a bad feeling? You're so talented. You're gonna get an Oscar, I know it. I wish I had an Oscar," Justin added wistfully. Jesse considered giving him another hug.
"Just a bad feeling," said Andrew with a shrug. "I haven't heard one way or the other yet. And you've got a Grammy, haven't you?"
"I've got four," said Justin.
Oh, Jesse thought; that was probably why he should have known who Justin was.
"Then you've already done better than I have," said Andrew. He didn't manage to escape a back-thumping bro-hug with Justin before he steered Jesse away and back to the writers, where Jesse got in another argument with Aaron Sorkin over whether the illegal immigrants plotline was too cliché or not. Then Aaron asked him if he'd been thinking about the writing program at UCLA and Jesse stammered and hid behind Andrew and looked for an excuse to leave.
There was a little voice in the back of Jesse's head that was wondering if maybe it was feasible to try school out here. He wanted to, he just couldn't wrap his head around how he'd pay for the move and a new apartment and somehow find a job that would pay their living expenses. Anyway, moving Hallie for two weeks was one thing but moving her permanently was another. He didn't say it out loud because he knew Andrew wouldn't hear the objections, he'd only hear the idea that it might happen and then he'd start pestering Jesse about it. Andrew was wonderful and kind and funny and lovely but he was also pushy and a little unrealistic about how fast Jesse could move ahead in his life.
The very, very worst danger was if Jesse got his hopes up about school and Andrew and everything, and then it didn't work out. That was too horrible to contemplate. Jesse couldn't imagine that it would all work out, and he couldn't bear to think about how it would feel if it didn't.
"I think I got it!" Hallie shouted, running through Andrew's front door.
Jesse hadn't entirely gotten over the weirdness of letting Hallie go out with Andrew without him. He'd gone to one audition and it had been boring and awkward. He'd felt more terrified than Hallie had, so he hadn't gone again.
"I've got a really good feeling and the guy in the suit said they were really 'feeling it,' which Andrew says is good, and every time I read it they laughed and they said they'd be in touch really soon!"
Andrew followed her in more sedately. "That doesn't always mean anything," he cautioned her, but Hallie dumped her bag on the floor and ran around the living room, skipping in circles.
"Well, that's cool," said Jesse. "Is it a good part?"
"It's just a Pepsi commercial," said Hallie, making a little face. "But I'll take any part I can get, obviously. I'm going upstairs to put on my bathing suit; we're doing swimming lessons today!" She went tearing upstairs.
Jesse picked up her bag. "I'm sorry she's just dumping her stuff all over. I can talk to her."
"I like it," said Andrew, throwing himself on the couch. "She obviously feels comfortable here. Come and sit with me before we have to run off after her again. She's exhausting. I really don't understand how you do this day after day after day."
Jesse sat down on the couch. Hallie had kicked off a pair of sneakers in the kitchen, and she'd left a notebook on the counter, and a half-full glass of orange juice on the coffee table. Jesse itched to pick it all up because they were in Andrew's space, but he didn’t mind pretending it didn't drive him crazy while Andrew put his arm around Jesse's shoulders.
"We nearly got in an accident today," said Andrew. Jesse stiffened automatically, imagining ambulances and emergency rooms and hospital bills. "We didn't," said Andrew quickly, leaning into him. "Everyone's fine but this utter arsehole nearly rear-ended me when we were pulling out into traffic and I thought… For a second I thought about what I'd have to tell you if Hallie got hurt, or if I couldn't get you on the phone and Hallie was hurt, and it was so overwhelming and horrible that for a moment I couldn't breathe."
"Please just tell me everyone's okay," said Jesse. "I can't – I don't want to talk about hypothetical car crashes."
Andrew rubbed his hand up and down Jesse's arm. "I was thinking about how you must feel like that all the time. Being responsible for her is… I can't imagine, I couldn't do it on my own."
Jesse didn't say anything. Probably Andrew would have been fine; he was smart and capable and he would have been more worried about Hallie than himself. But he liked feeling like Andrew thought he was doing something special.
Andrew's phone rang and he answered it with an apologetic smile at Jesse. "Yeah? What, seriously? Already? That's great, that's awesome!" He perked up and elbowed Jesse a little. Jesse couldn't hear the other voice on the phone so he just shrugged. "Hallie!" Andrew shouted. "I've got a phone call for you!"
Hallie came tearing back downstairs. "Really? What's up?" Andrew handed her the phone, grinning. "Hello?" she said.
"She's got the advert," Andrew whispered to Jesse.
Hallie gasped but she was obviously trying hard to sound like a grown up when she said, "Thank you very much, that sounds great. We'll be there tomorrow morning, then, to sign the papers." Then she handed the phone back to Andrew and began quietly jumping up and down.
"Yeah, thanks. You'll email us the details, right?" said Andrew, and then hung up.
Hallie started screaming. "Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god oh my god oh my god!" She ran around the couch a couple of times, twirling and waving her arms in the air. Then she shrieked again and threw herself at Jesse, knocking him backwards against Andrew.
"Congratulations!" said Jesse. "You're going to be awesome."
"They're filming it tomorrow and maybe the next day, too! And it's a real commercial; it's a national campaign!"
Andrew, who apparently was very attuned to middle school politics, said, "I hope all the girls in New York see it and die of jealousy."
"Oh my god, me too!" Hallie shrieked. "I have to go tell Alondra! Can we go to the beach right now? I need to tell everyone!"
"Maybe tonight we could go out and celebrate," said Andrew. He'd been excellent about not offering to take them out much, so Jesse didn't object.
"Yes! Let me go get my towel so we can go! Can we go right now? We need to go!" She was still shouting as she ran upstairs again.
Jesse said, "I don't know that I can handle my little sister being on tv and famous."
"She'll just be that girl from the ad, don't worry," said Andrew. "You might get someone now and then saying, 'Hey, it's that Pepsi girl!' but it's not as if she's starring in a film. You'll have to come along tomorrow and sign some papers."
"What if she hates it? What if it's hard? What if someone's mean to her?"
"It's just a day or two. If she hates it she'll survive." Andrew kissed Jesse. Then he said quietly, hiding his face against Jesse's neck, "You could stay out here." Jesse bit his lip. Andrew sighed. "I know, I promised not to push you, but I just… I can't bear the idea that you're going home again in a couple of days. You could go to university out here and Hallie loves that science program so much, and… I'd just really like it a lot. I think you would, too."
"That school's expensive, and her commercial isn't going to pay for it," Jesse said. He had only vague ideas how much school in California would cost or how much a commercial paid, but he was sure the one didn’t equate with the other.
Andrew was quiet again. "You'd have to get a job either way," he said. "I just… I hope you'll think about it. That's all."
"I am thinking about it," Jesse admitted. "Can we wait… I haven't talked to Hallie at all, and this is so fast. I mean, this has probably been the best couple of weeks of my life, but it won't always be like this. I'm trying to figure out what it could be."
"It can't always be just like this?" Andrew asked, a little wistfully.
"This is vacation," said Jesse. He hated that he had to be the grown up with Andrew, sometimes, too. "I'm not working or in school. Hallie isn't in school. You're not working full-time, either. We aren't arguing over how to spend what little free time we have, or money, or how to balance time with Hallie and with us." Andrew made a sad little noise and Jesse leaned over and kissed him. Andrew was so much better at talking about how he felt, and initiating touch than Jesse was, but Jesse was making himself try.
"Maybe we wouldn't fight about it, maybe it would all work out," said Andrew against his mouth.
"Or maybe to afford school and living out here I'd have to work twice as much, and you'd never see me," said Jesse. He was too nice to remind Andrew about the fight they'd had over that back in New York, but Andrew groaned anyway.
"Okay," said Andrew, "fair enough. You'll go back to New York, and I'll pine desperately for you here, and eventually one of us will work out a way for us to both be on the same coast."
Jesse wanted to be the guy who uprooted his life for the guy he was in love with, but it just wasn't in him. "Give me a while, okay? I'm thinking about it. I promise I am."
Jesse was a little bit late coming to bed because for the first time in months there were ideas bouncing around in his brain that he wanted to write down. He borrowed Andrew's laptop and started typing and didn't look up again until it was well past midnight.
He knew Hallie had gone to bed a few hours ago, and he had a vague memory of Andrew saying he was going upstairs and that Jesse had said something in return like, "Be right up." But that had definitely been a while ago. Jesse grimaced and emailed what he'd been writing to himself.
The bedroom light was on but Andrew was asleep, sprawled across most of the bed. He'd stripped down to his boxers and a t-shirt and his face was smushed awkwardly into one of the pillows. One of Jesse's books was on the other pillow, and his suitcase was open on the floor. Andrew's clothes were all over the floor, sneakers kicked under the nightstand, a stack of scripts and papers were on the floor, about to topple over and fall all over Jesse's clothes.
This. I could do this. We could make this work, Jesse thought. He was a little surprised at himself, because it was the sixth or seventh night in a row when he'd been a tiny bit annoyed at how messy Andrew was, or rolled his eyes at Andrew's idea of not being clingy, or spent a few minutes every hour trying to figure out how he'd pay off his credit cards. But the tension, the panic, the rock that had been sitting on his chest for months – years, maybe – was gone, because Andrew made it go away. He was so sweet and kind and generous and the things that frustrated Jesse about him all came from what a genuinely good guy he was.
Jesse kicked off his sneakers and his jeans and crawled into bed with Andrew. He didn't want to wake Andrew up, exactly, but Jesse felt a little bit like he imagined Andrew must feel all day long; something light and giddy in his chest, a feeling like… hope. Jesse almost never felt that way, not for very long. There was always too much reality intruding on him. But going to school seemed almost possible, and Hallie liked it out here so much, and she'd found work so maybe he could figure something out. And there was always Andrew, being so wonderful and sure.
Jesse bit his lip and then decided Andrew probably wouldn't really mind if he got woken up. "Andrew?" he said quietly.
Andrew mumbled something that might have been, "I'm awake," and rolled over. Jesse laughed and kissed him under his jaw, on his throat, across his shoulder where the neck of his t-shirt was all stretched out. Andrew made a sleepy, happy noise and reached for Jesse, pulling him closer clumsily. Jesse kissed Andrew, kneeling over him, tasting Andrew's toothpaste when he coaxed Andrew's mouth open.
"Meant to stay up," said Andrew sleepily, running his hands up Jesse's sides.
"Sorry, I got caught up writing." Jesse pushed Andrew's shirt up and kissed his chest.
"Anything good?" Andrew asked. He sounded a little more awake but his voice was still deep and scratchy.
Jesse laughed. "I never think so, no."
"Then it's probably brilliant," said Andrew. He laughed breathlessly when Jesse started trailing his mouth across Andrew's stomach. "You've got to let me and Hallie be the judges, I think. Oh god, come here." Andrew grabbed Jesse's biceps with both hands and dragged him up to kiss him again. Andrew's skin was warm all over.
It felt like home, with his hands and his mouth all over Andrew's chest and his hips, pushing his shorts down. Andrew groaned quietly. "You're just so…" said Jesse, and then he couldn't find the right words to say everything he wanted to. "Thank you," he said instead. Andrew looked faintly puzzled. "Just for being you," Jesse tried to clarify. "You're just… I'm not very easy to deal with, and you're amazing."
Andrew put his hands in Jesse's hair and pulled him down. "I think you're wonderful," he said. "I like everything about you, even all the self-doubt and worry and difficulties." Andrew rolled them over. The one problem with such a large bed, Jesse had discovered, was that reaching the drawer where the lube was could be frustrating. Andrew fished it out and pulled the cap off, handing it to Jesse. "I don't know if I could have been as brave as you've been."
"I'm not," said Jesse. He slid his hands down Andrew's back, over the curve of Andrew's ass, and Andrew inhaled sharply. "I haven't been brave at all."
"You think there's only one way to be brave," said Andrew, pressing back against Jesse's fingers.
"I think you're a little biased," said Jesse. He rolled back on top of Andrew, kissing him slowly and with intent.
Andrew arched his back and bent his knees, canting his hips a little, eyes mostly shut. "Love does that," he said.
"It…" Jesse said, breath catching in his throat. He couldn't tell if he felt hot and tingly all over because they were naked or because of what Andrew was saying or just because of Andrew. "Yeah," he said quietly, kissing Andrew. "I guess it does."
Andrew's agent handed Jesse a clipboard with four hundred papers on it to sign. Or maybe not four hundred, but it certainly felt that way. Hallie was bouncing with impatience so Andrew took her to go meet the director and the hair and make-up people.
"I'm glad you're here," said Andrew's agent, who'd introduced himself as Larry. That seemed like the kind of name an agent should have, somehow.
"Yeah, this is… Is this standard?" Jesse asked.
Larry shrugged. "There's more forms for kids because we have to do all this stuff about not breaking child labor laws and making sure they still go to school and what have you. Plus there's union stuff, and contract stuff, and you know. Lots of papers."
Jesse wondered if possibly he was signing his little sister's entire life away, but he trusted Andrew to know what the hell was going on. "This doesn't give you the right to Hallie's soul or anything, does it?"
Larry laughed the polite laugh of someone who clearly thought Jesse was a little crazy. "Just a day or two of shooting here. She's only got a couple of lines. Of course there's always the chance that the commercial will go viral and they'll want to turn it into a series, but the odds of that are minuscule and in case of that obviously we'd renegotiate her rate."
It was pretty rare for Jesse to feel dumb, but he did during this conversation. "Okay," he said. "Sure, I guess. If you say so."
"It's a really good deal, especially for her first commercial," Larry assured him. "Hey, there was something I wanted to speak to you about—"
Hallie came running back in. She was wearing overalls that didn't fit and her hair was up in a weird lopsided ponytail. It made her look awkward and younger than she really was. "Jesse! Look, I have a wardrobe! Oh my god, no, don't hug me; you can't mess up my makeup."
"I can't hug you anyway, my hands are full of papers," said Jesse.
"Andrew keeps trying to tell me how boring and repetitious this is going to be, but so far it's totally amazing and awesome," Hallie said, bubbling over with excitement.
Jesse wondered how she'd feel in a couple of hours, but he nodded. "Okay, well, that guy is waving you over, so I guess go drink some Pepsi."
"You don't really drink it," Hallie said, but she went running back the other way across the warehouse, ducking under ladders and between lighting people.
"She's cute," said Larry in a careless voice that made Jesse bristle. Hallie was cute. "So anyway, can we chat?"
"I'm signing my name four hundred times," said Jesse, gesturing to the clipboard. "But if you want to chat at me, sure. Because I think I'm going to be doing this for a while."
Larry laughed politely again. He made Jesse want to clench his teeth a lot. "Sure, no problem, it's not a big deal, I was just hoping you and Andrew could cool it a little bit."
Jesse wondered where Andrew was, actually. "Cool it, like… stop bothering you?"
"No, like… It's all over twitter and TMZ and Perez and it's cool, obviously. What I want most is for Andrew to be happy, and you're a nice guy, seriously, I like you two crazy kids." How could someone barely older than they were be so condescending? Jesse wondered, but at the same time he could feel worry starting to settle in to his chest where he normally kept oxygen. "Any publicity is good publicity, and it's cool, but I'm putting out a lot of fires right now, you know?"
"Fires?" Jesse asked carefully.
Larry shrugged. "There was that big meeting with the suits at the network, I'm sure Andrew told you. The show's got a really conservative showrunner, but it's also got Aaron Sorkin, so on the one hand is the guy who wants Andrew fired and on the other hand you've got this famous crazy professor who'll go to the mat for him. They obviously decided to renew his contract for next season, but that should have been a four year deal, you know? Big bonuses! Instead it was mostly them telling him to keep his nose clean or they'll kill his character off."
"What?" Jesse asked. His stomach felt like it was bottoming out. That didn't sound like how Andrew had explained it at all.
Larry had missed the panic in Jesse's voice, because he just shrugged. "It's cool, but there have also been like, three auditions I know he wanted and then he didn't get because right now he's Mister Blind Item, and not everyone wants to deal with that. So like, it's totally cool with me, I'm all for you two being happy. I just wish you'd cool it in public a little bit so I wouldn't have to deal with this shit so much."
Jesse felt like he was going to throw up. "That movie, the one he had an audition for last week, the one he really wanted…"
"Yeah, that was a bummer, right? I know they liked him, I know he was right for that part. I mean, the producer took me aside and said they just can't, though, because the funding is a little shaky and they don't want to risk it on a guy who might blow his own career up. So. I've tried to talk to Andrew about it but he basically tunes me out, you know how he is. Can you talk to him? You don’t want to date some asshole who's self-destructing, right? It's not a sexy look on anyone. You done signing yet?"
Jesse numbly handed him the clipboard. Larry kept on talking but Jesse didn't hear most of it; he was trying to reconcile Andrew's blasé attitude about what was going on with the apparently dire state of reality. It was everything Jesse had been worried about, and it was really happening.
His first impulse was to drag Hallie out and get on a plane immediately. They were ruining Andrew's life. He'd just signed Hallie up for at least one full day of filming, though. Then he considered being angry at Andrew for not being totally honest about what was going on, but… Well, it was exactly like Andrew to only talk about good things and ignore bad things and hope they'd go away.
"You okay?" asked Larry.
Jesse nodded. "Yeah, actually. Thanks. You just… There's been something I've been trying to decide all week, and you just made it really easy." He choked back the weird shaking in his voice; Larry really, seriously didn't need to know more about their drama.
"Cool," said Larry. "I'm gonna go check up on my newest client. You should go get some coffee or something; this is gonna be a long day."
Jesse started arranging the words in his head to tell Andrew that he was going home ASAP and he wasn't coming back, and it was because he loved Andrew too much to stay. "You have no idea."
"I'm so tiiiiired," Hallie moaned, leaning against Jesse. Andrew had caught a taxi over to a meeting with Larry and Jesse had spent a lot of hours standing around drinking coffee and being intensely bored while other parents gave him dirty looks.
"That's a wrap for the day," announced the director.
"Do you need her for tomorrow?" Jesse asked.
"Nope, she's all done. First job?"
"Yeah," said Jesse.
"She was great. Hallie, you were a pro." He shook her hand and she perked up a little bit, then yawned and deflated again as soon as he left.
Jesse elbowed her until she stood up, but she still leaned against him like all the bones had gone out of her body. "Was it fun?" he asked.
"Yeah, it was great. It's just hard to act like it's the first time you're saying the line when it's really the four hundred millionth time. Can I do it again?"
"Are you sure?" Jesse asked. He nodded politely to the other stage mothers who'd been glaring at him all day because Hallie had the most lines in the commercial.
"I want to sleep for about a million hours and then I totally want to do it again," Hallie said, still yawning.
The sun was setting behind the hills, sinking into the ocean somewhere. It was still hot, though. Jesse was going to miss this weather. "Well," said Jesse, "maybe you can audition for stuff in New York. You have a headshot and a resume now."
"Oh," said Hallie, putting her hands in her pockets while Jesse unlocked Andrew's car. "We can't… I thought maybe we could stay out here for a while?"
Jesse took a minute to just breathe while she climbed in. He'd been pretty good about keeping up a brave face all day and trying not to think about it. "No," he said, "that's not a good idea. You and I are flying home tomorrow." He made sure Hallie had buckled her seat belt before he put the car in gear.
"You have camp and I have work and we have an apartment that misses us."
Hallie frowned. "But I don't want to go back. I hate everyone at camp and my friends are all out here and Andrew's house is way nicer than our apartment."
"Yeah, well. This is a vacation. Vacations are so awesome because they end and you think, 'boy, we sure did have fun.'" Jesse was pretty proud of how calm he sounded.
"But… But you… But don't you like Andrew?"
Jesse winced and maybe hit the brakes a little hard. "I like him lots. I'm not going to move into his house with my little sister. We're not married. He's got a life, too, just like us."
Hallie frowned harder. "You're lying," she said. "I don't know what you're lying about, but you're lying, Jesse. What's going on?"
He clutched the steering wheel so hard his knuckles went white, but he kept his voice as level as he possibly could. "We're going home. We have to go pack tonight. No arguments."
"Fine," said Hallie, crossing her arms. She stuck her lower lip out. Jesse ignored her. She couldn't possibly make him feel worse than he did already.
"You're back!" said Andrew, jumping off the couch. He didn't kiss Jesse at the door, but only because he glanced over at Hallie who rolled her eyes at both of them. Andrew wrapped his arms around Jesse's waist and smiled at him, that stupid heart-melting smile he had when he wasn't even trying. "Today was brilliant, wasn't it?" Jesse didn’t even need to say anything before Andrew's smile flickered and started to fade. "Wait, was it not?"
"Hallie, go upstairs and start packing," said Jesse. She sighed loudly and stomped upstairs.
"You're packing?" Andrew asked, going straight to his heartbroken face. "Jesse, why—"
Jesse pushed him back a couple of steps, so Andrew was leaning against the back of the couch. "We need to talk."
"Oh god, what happened?" Andrew asked, grimacing. "Please don't start a conversation like that, it's terrifying."
Jesse was feeling pretty terrified himself. He wasn't entirely sure he could do this like a grown up; he wanted to just tell Andrew that he hated him and run out so they wouldn't have to talk. He made himself take a deep breath or two. "You haven't been totally honest with me."
"I have!" Andrew insisted. "Of course I have! What have people been telling you?"
"No, you haven't," said Jesse. "Larry took me aside today to talk to me about all the parts you aren't getting and the auditions you're getting turned down for and the trouble you're in at work."
Andrew blinked a couple of times and then looked down, so obviously, openly guilty that Jesse's heart plummeted. So it wasn't a misunderstanding; Larry was right. "I don't care," Andrew mumbled.
"I care," said Jesse. "You love acting. You keep telling me about all your hopes and dreams and plans."
Andrew shrugged, and then started to say something, and then shrugged again. He still hadn't looked up at Jesse. "Will it help at all if I say I'd rather have you than any of that?"
"No," said Jesse flatly. Andrew winced. "I mean… I mean, that sounded bad, but Andrew… Hey, Andrew, look at me." If he was going to do this he wanted to do it right. Jesse was pretty sure he wasn't going to have the guts to do it twice, at least.
He squeezed Andrew's hand and Andrew looked up, finally. Andrew chewed on his lower lip and his giant brown eyes were pleading with Jesse not to say what Jesse was obviously about to say.
Jesse steeled himself because he had to. "You have been so incredibly generous to me and to Hallie. And you keep saying that you want me to go to school, or to write, or just… You know, just to be happy, because I'm not. And I don't get why you wouldn't understand that I want that for you more than anything else, too."
"But I'd rather have you than some stupid job—" Andrew started, choking up. "You make me happy."
"That's not enough," said Jesse. Andrew started to protest again and Jesse cut him off. "Maybe you think it's enough right now, but you'd resent me eventually."
"What if I didn't?" Andrew argued, but it was half-hearted. "If I lost my job and all my prospects I'd go and work in a shop or something. Like you do. I wouldn't mind."
Jesse wondered if Andrew had any idea how much he hated his job. Andrew was generally a lot happier than Jesse was, but eventually he'd start hating it, and then he'd hate Jesse. He shook his head. "I'd mind. You understand that, right? It would kill me to be the guy who stopped you from getting everything you want or took the things you love away from you."
Andrew's face crumpled a little bit and he looked back down at his sneakers. Jesse wished Andrew would yell at him, or even give Jesse a reason to yell. They were both being so reasonable, and it made his chest hurt. "I want both," Andrew said quietly. "Why can't I have both?"
"I don't know," said Jesse, working hard not to lose his shit over Andrew looking so wrecked. "I guess we don't get everything, sometimes."
Andrew started to argue again but he stopped himself with an angry sigh. "So you're just going to leave? And… and you're not coming back, either, are you? I can tell by the way you've got your shoulders set. You're just going and… That's it."
Jesse started to say something and couldn't, because his voice was caught up in his throat and there were a whole bunch of stupid angry tears stopping him from speaking. He took another couple of breaths and choked it all back. "You said I was brave. I guess I'm doing the hard thing for both of us. I… I'm gonna go make sure Hallie's all packed up so we can leave in the morning. I will really, really miss you." He kissed Andrew's cheek and then let go of his hand. Whatever happened at the airport tomorrow this felt like goodbye to Jesse.
"You're leaving and I haven't got anyone to be angry with," said Andrew quietly. "That isn't fair."
All the platitudes about life not being fair seemed too mean to say. Jesse just shrugged and went upstairs and left Andrew leaning miserably against the couch.
Newark Airport was crowded and dingy, but it was a kind of crowded Jesse was comfortable with; New Jersey had a very particular kind of rudeness that felt like home. An elderly woman in leggings tried to run Jesse's feet over with her suitcase and the guy selling coffee cursed him out counting out exact change. It was nice.
Emma met them at the sidewalk, leaning against her terrible beat-up old car. Blue paint was scraped off in a few places, showing red paint and silver underneath. Hallie ran over and gave Emma a big hug. "I can't wait to sleep in my own bed," Hallie groaned. "Did your cousin like our apartment? Is my stuff okay?"
"She didn't touch anything, I promise," Emma said. She gave Jesse a long up and down glance. "So… Things didn’t work out, huh?"
Jesse shook his head. "No, not exactly."
Emma waited a second, obviously impatient, and then said, "Well? Is he a creep? What's the deal? What happened?"
"Jesse did something that made Andrew really sad," said Hallie accusingly. "And he won't tell me what it was. Andrew barely said a word all morning or when he dropped us off."
Emma looked at Jesse again, but he wasn't volunteering anything. She opened up the trunk and put Hallie's suitcase in. "Tell me about your commercial, then. Was it awesome?"
Hallie perked up. "Oh, it was awesome! The director promised to call me when it's going to start airing and let me know. I got to get my hair and make up done and shoot the scene a bunch of different ways and meet all these cool people who do lights and design sets!"
"Let her ride up front," said Jesse. He was too tired to talk to Emma anyway. He was proud of how he'd managed to keep himself together; he'd slept on the couch and made everyone breakfast and ignored all of Hallie's pouting. Before the drive to the airport Andrew had only managed, "I hate this; this isn't fair," and then stopped again, and Jesse had pretended not to see the slump in his shoulders or the depressed way he kicked his sneakers against the sidewalk. Jesse and Andrew had both spent most of the ride talking to Hallie in turns but not to each other. Their goodbye had been weird and uncomfortable; Andrew clearly uncertain whether or not he would be allowed a hug goodbye and Jesse quietly pointing out how many people around them had cameras and cameraphones and then pulling Hallie into the airport.
Jesse was absolutely sure he was doing the right thing, but it felt awful. He told himself that he wasn't always going to feel like there was a ragged, gaping hole in his chest.
"—and it was great!" Hallie was saying. "Did I tell you about the Science Academy? I got to help design three different experiments! It was amazing. They call their teacher Susan."
"Tell me all about it," Emma said, starting the car.
Jesse leaned back against the back seat and closed his eyes. He was happy to be home. He was attempting to be happy that the whole crazy experiment – trying things, going places, being open to experiences – was over. It was easier and safer to stay home and keep his head down and do what he was comfortable with.
"That sounds amazing," said Emma, when Hallie was finally done explaining about tides and starfish and ecosystems. They had to be halfway back to their apartment already. "So… Is he asleep?"
"Maybe," Hallie said. Jesse didn't move. He didn't have anything to add to the conversation.
"What happened?" Emma asked. "Did they have a fight or something? I thought they sounded pretty deliriously happy."
"I don't know. They argued a little bit but mostly it was fine! Andrew's really nice. And then yesterday suddenly Jesse goes, 'We have to go home,' and started looking like he's going to cry all the time. And I was like, 'Why?' and he got all crabby which always means he's upset about something."
"Any idea what?"
"I don't know, some stupid grown-up thing," Hallie said. "All I know is this morning Andrew said, 'Don't worry; I’m going to fix it,' to me. But I'm not the one who's upset, so whatever. I mean, I am upset! I don't want to be here. You're awesome but I hate school and I hate those girls and if Jesse thinks I'm going to camp here he's crazy. But I'm not the one who's mad at Andrew. Well actually, I don't think Jesse is mad at Andrew either. That's what makes it weird. Sometimes my brother is totally nuts."
Emma said loudly, "Would anyone pretending to sleep in my car like to volunteer what stupid grown-up things happened?"
"No," replied Jesse, not opening his eyes.
She sighed. "Okay. Fine. You know Woody scheduled you for a shift tomorrow morning, right?"
"Great," said Jesse. "Everything's back to normal. The way it should be."
"This is it!" Hallie shrieked. "Look! Turn it up!"
Emma had brought in an old television and set it up on the counter of the diner. She turned the volume up while Hallie shushed all the people eating in the booths. Jesse turned the sink off and came over to lean on the counter.
"That's me, that's me!" said Hallie, jumping up and down.
It was extremely weird seeing his sister on tv. In the commercial she was sitting in a park looking dorky and left out, while other kids ran around playing and throwing things at her. Jesse winced, because that was a little on the nose. Then Hallie-on-the-tv drank a Pepsi and suddenly all the other kids were magically transformed into dorks, too, reading books and playing chess. Hallie-on-TV got up to go play with some other kids and said cheerfully, "Pepsi! Change your world."
Some of the patrons in the diner began applauding. Hallie turned around and bowed. "You were so great!" Emma said, hugging her. "Look how cute you were! You were really on tv and everything!"
"How does soda change anyone's world?" Jesse grumbled half-heartedly. Hallie rolled her eyes at him. "You were awesome, though," he said, giving her a hug. "Practically a movie star."
"Well, if we were in California I could audition for movies," Hallie pointed out. Jesse sighed loudly. "I'm just saying!" Hallie protested. "California has movies! And beaches! And –"
"Don't say it," Jesse warned her.
"Well, it does," Hallie said. "Why can't I say it? You talk to him sometimes."
Jesse pretended to look thoughtful. "Wait, I forget; how do you say 'none of your business' again? Oh right: none of your business."
Hallie stomped back over to Emma. "It's not fair!" she said loudly, sitting down at the counter with her book again. "I just think you should know I know that it's not fair."
"Duly noted," said Jesse.
"I know that means you're ignoring me," Hallie complained.
Emma shook her head at both of them. "How about a milkshake for the tv star?"
"Yes, please," said Hallie politely. "Have you read The Mists of Avalon? So far it's amazing. Alondra told me to read it."
Jesse tuned them out because he'd already heard all about the Mists of Avalon. It was so weird that people all over the country were seeing Hallie's commercial. He hoped those horrible girls were dying of jealousy. Hallie had adamantly refused to go back to camp, and so she'd ended up actually spending most of her summer in the diner, sitting around reading books and occasionally bringing Jesse's laptop with her to skype with her new friends in California.
"Hey," said Emma eventually, bumping Jesse with her hip. "Your baby sister is famous."
"Kind of," Jesse agreed.
"You know she just gave me a half-hour speech about how she's going to go back to California and go to school out there and do more commercials to pay for it, right?" Emma asked, obviously concerned.
"Yeah," Jesse said. "I know. She tells me roughly four times a day. It's okay; she's too short to get on a plane without an adult."
"I'm just saying," Emma said. "I wouldn't put it past her to plan some Parent Trap style hijinx."
Jesse shook his head. "We've had a long talk about it. No hijinx, no shenanigans, no mayhem. We've reached kind of a stalemate about school, but… Well, it's not like she'd be willing to fail for not attending."
"And that's your solution?" Emma asked. "Making her go back and pretending like this spring and summer never happened?"
"What else am I supposed to do?" Jesse asked, frustrated. Emma shrugged apologetically. Jesse sighed. "I get it; she hates school. She knows we can't afford to move her to a private school. I'm trying to figure out some ways to fix things but it's not going to happen immediately."
"Like what? Can I help?" Emma asked eagerly. "I'm sorry; I'm just really invested in you being less mopey all the time."
Jesse fidgeted a little bit and tried not to feel like a stray puppy Emma felt responsible for. "Like… Well, like that school she loves in California called me to let me know they have scholarships. And if they have them there must be some out here somewhere. Not for this year, it's too late for September, but for eighth grade at least. And she can audition for things out here if she wants to. It won't be as good as California, but I can't fix that part."
"What about you?" Emma asked. Someone in the diner yelled for coffee and Hallie went to get the pot for him. Jesse was mildly disturbed by that.
"What about me?" Jesse pretended not to understand the question. She splashed water from the sink on him. "Fine. I'm looking in to some creative writing night classes. Aaron, the writer on Andrew's show, offered to write me a recommendation and call people. It's weird, but… I mean, I can probably swing a class. And he says eventually if I can get some kind of degree in something he can help me get a job, and in the meantime maybe find some editing stuff I can do."
"That's great!" said Emma, hugging him. Jesse laughed and tried not to let his face turn red. Someone in the diner wolf-whistled. "I thought you'd spent the whole summer just being sad and doing nothing!"
Jesse shrugged. "I did, mostly."
"But this is so wonderful," said Emma. She sounded a little choked up. "Seriously, Jesse, I'm so proud of you. You're actually making changes that might make you happy instead of just hunkering down and pretending not to see the world."
"Yeah, well, I don't know, I guess I liked being not-miserable," Jesse said, trying to escape her hug. "Jeez, Emma."
"So can I cancel Operation Cheer Jesse Up From The World's Saddest Breakup?"
Jesse shrugged her off. "We didn't – It wasn't – I'm fine."
"Maybe he'll show up at the diner with flowers in the rain," said Emma dreamily. "Or wait, are we mad at him? I have spent weeks and weeks trying to figure out if we're mad at him or not."
"We're not. It wasn't his fault. It was just…"
"And this is where you always trail off and shrug and look really sad for a few hours. Fine. I get it," Emma said grumpily. "It's hard to fix you when you won't share."
Jesse shrugged again, apologetically this time. He couldn't tell her because he couldn't talk about it, because his insides still felt like they'd been crushed all to hell. He wasn't quite strong enough not to answer the phone when Andrew called to talk about the show and his friends, but it was horrible, listening to Andrew's determined cheer when Jesse could tell Andrew didn't really mean it. Neither of them were coping particularly well, apparently. Hearing Andrew pretend to be happy was worse than how Jesse felt anyway, and every time he swore he wasn't going to answer the phone again. Somehow he always did.
"My commercial is on again!" Hallie shrieked. "Turn it up, turn it up!"
Andrew called a week later and Jesse answered because even if it made him miserable later he always wanted to hear Andrew's voice. "Can you do me a favor?" Andrew asked. "Watch Entertainment Tonight tonight."
"What?" Jesse asked, confused.
"It's a television program, it'll be on at seven," said Andrew patiently. "They'll be talking about me."
"Oh right, your show starts up again next week, huh?" Jesse asked, pretending like he wasn't pathetically looking forward to seeing Andrew's face again every week.
"Will you just watch it please?" Andrew asked. "If you don't I'm sure someone will still tell you about it, but I'd rather you watched."
"I'll try," said Jesse. "Woody bought a TV for the diner. Emma mostly watches the fashion channel, but I can probably get her to change it for you."
"I'll call you later, then," said Andrew, hanging up.
If he'd done something really stupid like quit the show and he expected Jesse to applaud him for it, he was insane, Jesse thought to himself, pocketing his phone. They'd talked about that a couple of times. Andrew was a big-dramatic-gesture kind of guy, but Jesse wasn’t particularly a throw-your-life-away-for-me kind of guy.
The diner was fairly crowded for a Thursday night. A couple of teenagers came in and saw Hallie at the counter and asked her for autographs, which made her beam and Jesse scowl. They had reached a stalemate about what to do when school started in a week; Hallie was still insisting she wasn't going.
"Andrew says to put on Entertainment Tonight," said Jesse. "Do you know what that is?"
"I do," said Emma. "Are they doing a segment on the show?"
"I don't know," said Jesse, "he just said I should watch it."
"Have you told him about the class you signed up for?"
Jesse shook his head. Telling Andrew about how Jesse was getting his life together sounded suspiciously like telling Andrew that Jesse was moving on with his life without him.
Entertainment Tonight turned out to be a screeching horrible television show full of plastic-looking people saying stupid things loudly at each other. It was the sort of show that always made Jesse feel secretly superior about not owning a TV. But at the end of the introductory segment, they listed all the news they were covering, including, apparently, "Exclusive E.T. coverage of Andrew Garfield's interview with Meredith Viera!"
"So they have a segment about someone else's interview?" Jesse asked. The whole thing left him feeling terribly out to sea.
"Shh," said Hallie. "I want to hear what he's talking about."
They cut to commercials and Jesse pretended to wash some dishes, but Emma and Woody were both sitting in the front watching the TV too. Everyone at the diner had started talking about Andrew as if he worked there, sort of, or at least as if he were a missing member of the family. When the show came back from commercials – including Hallie's, much to her delight – everyone stopped working and leaned on the counter to watch instead.
"After a summer filled with speculation and controversy finally: Andrew Garfield speaks! E.T. has exclusive coverage of his interview with Meredith Viera, his chat with Ellen, and his cover of The Advocate Magazine for September."
"Oh my god," said Jesse. "Oh shit. What?"
The show cut to Andrew talking to a very sensible-looking woman on an empty set. "Why now?" she asked him. "Why make this big announcement?"
Andrew-on-the-television shrugged, looking adorably uncomfortable. "It was never a big deal to me," he said, "and frankly I don't think it's anyone's business who I date. But the rumors and the speculation were making my boyfriend uncomfortable, and I didn't want him to feel like my dirty secret."
"Do you think this will affect your career?" she asked.
"I hope not," Andrew said, smiling. "The show's been fantastic and supportive and like I said, it was never a secret. I’m just making it official so people will stop poking around in my personal life as if they're uncovering a great scandal. In this day and age it shouldn't be important, should it?"
"He just referred to Jesse as his boyfriend on national TV, right?" Emma asked.
"He definitely did," Hallie agreed, looking at Jesse with wide eyes. Jesse's phone rang in his pocket, but he couldn't answer it because he couldn't breathe. The whole room was spinning a little bit.
Andrew-on-the-television kept talking and then they cut to him on the cover of a magazine with, "Yes, I'm gay!" as the headline. Jesse fumbled for his phone because he was pretty sure it was Andrew, and he was really sure he needed to kill Andrew for being an idiot.
"You are watching, aren't you?" Andrew asked. "Oh god, they edited it so badly."
"Are you crazy?" Jesse asked. "What the hell are you doing?" Emma and Hallie and Woody all leaned toward him while pretending not to be eavesdropping.
"Obviously everyone was furious with me, but they've decided to act as if they're supportive because it makes for better press that way," said Andrew, ignoring his questions. "I told them they could fire me if they liked and I'd just move to New York and do Broadway and be closer to you anyway. I almost wish they'd gone for that but they didn't."
"Oh my god," said Jesse. "What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that if I just came out and said it everyone would have to stop whispering behind my back. Now they can hire me or not as they like, but they can't spread any rumors."
"But your job—"
"Is safe. Justin said he'd walk if they fired me and suddenly they became quite interested in a multi-season arc and the two of us doing promos together. God bless Justin, honestly. It's a headache for Larry but it's also making me quite a bit more famous, which is good for him in the end."
Jesse started to say something and stopped. He couldn't think at all; it was all white noise in his head. "You're nuts," he said. "This could all go horribly wrong!"
There was a little pause. Then Andrew said quietly, "I suppose it could. I'm taking a chance on something really difficult and scary because I'm hopeful it'll work out in the end."
Hallie and Emma were openly staring at him. Jesse got Andrew's implication, he just wasn't entirely ready to answer it. "Andrew, you just… You can't just… Oh my god, did you seriously refer to me as your boyfriend on television? I mean, if you even meant me. You didn't say my name or anything—"
"I didn't think you'd appreciate me saying 'my boyfriend Jesse Eisenberg, who works at a diner in Jersey City.' But yes, obviously I meant you. I haven't got any other boyfriends. And now if you come and visit we can hold hands, or kiss, or anything else in public."
"We probably shouldn't do anything else in public," Jesse said, mouth on autopilot. Andrew laughed. "I mean – Oh god, Andrew, are you sure about this? What am I even saying; it's not like you can take it back."
"I can't," Andrew agreed. "So I sincerely hope it's going to work out for me."
"We can't possibly move before January," Jesse blurted. Hallie screamed and threw her arms up in the air in victory. Jesse closed his eyes and tried not to look at them or think too carefully about what he was saying. "I'm taking a class here and Hallie's got school starting next week so we can't do anything before the winter break."
"I didn't mean you had to uproot your entire life tomorrow," Andrew said quickly.
"No, but I—I mean, I've been trying to – That school Hallie loves called me about a scholarship for her, and even if I can't start this year Aaron's been bothering me all summer, and… I mean, we can't afford to move, I'd need to find a job, we'd need a place to live—"
Andrew interrupted, "I can find you somewhere. I can find you a job, probably, if you just need something crap and nearby and easy until we find you something better." He paused. "Is this okay? I did this because I had to and because I wanted you to have options, but it wasn't meant to bully you into changes you aren't ready for."
"I want to," Jesse said. He opened his eyes again. Emma and Hallie were hugging, which was insanely embarrassing. He turned away from them. "You're crazy and this is probably the dumbest thing ever, but I want to."
"I am madly in love with you," said Andrew. "You know that, right?"
"I figured it out," said Jesse, smiling and biting his lip.
"You're supposed to say it back," Andrew prompted. "Go ahead. I'll wait."
Jesse laughed. "I love you. I have been in love with you for months and months and months. Thank you for waiting."
"Oh, thank god," said Andrew.
"You can't seriously have gone on TV to say all that stuff if you weren't sure."
"Well, it was partially for myself. And anyway I was ninety-percent sure. You're hard to read sometimes."
"I'm one-hundred-percent sure," said Jesse quietly. "Okay? I promise."
Andrew cheered a little. "Fantastic! You can come out in January. I can set things up for then."
"We're not going to move in to your house," Jesse warned him. "This isn't just… This is about all kinds of life changes, not just proximity to you."
"I'd assumed," said Andrew, laughing. "You couldn't possibly make it that easy."
"I have Hallie. You don't want to be responsible for her full time."
Hallie shouted, "I can be responsible for myself full time!"
"You have to go to school here until January," Jesse told her firmly. "At the minimum. And if things don't work out you don't get to quit school or throw fits."
"It'll work out," said Andrew confidently.
"No problem!" said Hallie. "Tell Andrew I said hi and also yaaaaay!"
"I heard," Andrew laughed. "Tell her I said yay as well. And tell her I can't wait to see you both. I'll fly out in a couple of weeks when I've got a day off. I need to see you; it's been forever. And you can fly out here for a visit and we'll arrange things. It'll all work out, Jesse. I promise."
Everything Jesse was feeling was tentative at best; a muted hope that things were actually going to happen, quiet surprise that Andrew would have gone so far to fix them, cautiously encouraging ideas about what might happen soon. Jesse said, "Okay. I believe you."
"God, really?" Andrew asked. "That's amazing. You're amazing."
"Only because you make it possible to be that way," said Jesse, blushing a little. "I have to go, this is awkward over the phone. You'll come out and visit soon, right?"
"I'd be there tonight if I could manage it."
"No, just – I'll see you when you can, and we'll – I miss you. Okay?"
"Okay," said Andrew. "I love you!"
"I love you, too," Jesse said.
Woody said, "Who else needs a beer?" He gave Hallie an awkward one-armed hug and then pushed his way into his office and shut the door. Emma seriously looked like she might cry. Jesse hung up the phone and threw his towel at her. "Stop looking at me. Go away. Shoo."
Emma laughed and went to bring plates to patrons who had been waiting for at least half an hour. Hallie gave him a long, considering look. "We're really doing this?" she asked.
"Yeah," said Jesse. "You know you still come first, right? No matter where we move or who I date you're still my favorite sister."
"I'm your only sister," Hallie said, rolling her eyes. "Are you sure we can't move in September?"
She sighed. "Fine. I guess I can wait to move until January if you can. I get to tease you and Andrew over how gross you are, right? Because you two are totally gross."
"Of course," said Jesse.
"When we get home tonight I'm going to start packing. Can I bring all my books? We can use my money from the commercial to move."
Jesse sighed. "That money is for college."
"But I want to help. I can do more commercials out there, right? I'm cute, I have experience, and the camera loves me." She batted her eyes at Jesse.
He laughed. "We'll talk about it. I don't know exactly what we're doing yet, okay? But I'll take it under consideration."
"I love you," Hallie said.
"Yeah," Jesse agreed, "you too."
It was almost exactly the opposite of Andrew's house; more of a cottage hunkered down not too far from the beach, with dark wooden walls and rickety steps leading up to a front door that badly needed repainting. "Oh," said Hallie, "oh, I love it."
"Wait until you see the inside," said Andrew, squeezing Jesse's hand.
"I already know we can't afford this," Jesse replied, but half-heartedly because Hallie was running in ahead of them.
"Don't be like that; you haven't seen it yet," Andrew said encouragingly. He had the keys from the broker for some reason and unlocked the door. There wasn't much furniture, just a couch and a couple of lamps, but the floors and walls were wood and it looked cozy even mostly empty.
"Ohhh," said Hallie, darting into the kitchen and then back around the living room. It was small enough that there weren't a lot of places for her to go. "Can I look upstairs? Are the bedrooms upstairs? Is that a fireplace? Why do you have a fireplace in California?"
"Go ahead," said Andrew. "Look around everywhere." Hallie cheered and ran up the stairs.
It was an impossibly lovely living room; Jesse could picture exactly where he'd sit when he was reading or typing and where all of Hallie's stuff would end up all over the floor. "I thought you said you looked around for places for us like I asked."
"This is near Hallie's school," said Andrew. "And it's not too far from your university. It's also close to my house, I might point out. Do you like it?"
"Andrew," Jesse sighed.
"If you hate it we can look at other places," said Andrew, looking a little sad. "I've got a whole list."
"No," said Jesse, "this is gorgeous, it's just…"
"Hallie can bike to school if she likes. No one bikes in L.A. but she could. How's school been for her?" Andrew asked.
Jesse shrugged. "The other girls seemed to want a détente but she wasn't interested. She's been invited to at least a hundred birthday parties and she refuses to go to any of them. She's so stubborn."
"Ah," said Andrew, "not like anyone else in your family, then."
"Shut up," said Jesse, turning a little bit red. "Do you have any idea how Emma got offered a job as a clothes buyer for the New York version of your show?"
Andrew found the ceiling suddenly very interesting. "Did she? How odd."
"You are the very nicest meddler I know," said Jesse. He leaned up to kiss Andrew and Andrew squeezed his hand again. Two more weeks until they could do this almost all the time. Jesse was trying not to imagine it too perfectly, because Andrew was working full time and Jesse was about to start school and work nearly full time. It would be nice to live close to Andrew, though.
"Jesse!" Hallie shouted from upstairs. "Oh my god! The bedroom walls have bookshelves already built in to them! And there's a balcony and you can see the beach! You have to come see this!"
Andrew laughed against Jesse's mouth. "We should go upstairs."
"The whole place is perfect, I'm sure," said Jesse, feeling a little depressed about it. "I'm pretty sure I gave you a price range we could afford, Andrew, and I'm absolutely sure this isn't in it. And you're not—"
"I wouldn't dream of offering to pay for anything," said Andrew. He pulled Jesse upstairs, where the bedrooms did in fact have floor to ceiling bookshelves built in to the walls, and little balconies with sliding doors.
"I'm going to put my desk here, and I'm going to study there, and we can put up our pictures on that wall," said Hallie. She sighed and flopped to the floor. "This house is so great, but we can't have it, can we? What if I did a million more commercials?"
Jesse hated Andrew a little bit. "Hallie, we're going to find somewhere awesome, I promise. Maybe not quite this awesome, but definitely awesome."
"You like it, then?" Andrew asked.
Hallie rolled her eyes at him. "It's perfect. I can almost see the school from here."
"Oh, good," said Andrew. "I thought you might. It's just, I know the owner and I think I could probably get you an excellent deal on the rent."
Hallie perked up. "Really?"
Jesse was feeling deeply suspicious. "What does that mean, you know the owner?"
"Oh, well," Andrew said breezily, "what with all the kerfuffle over my career and all I've got this person in charge of my investment portfolio and he thought I ought to be a little more careful with my money. And apparently houses are a terribly good investment despite the horrible crash in the market."
"Andrew, you did not--"
"It's got nothing to do with you!" Andrew said, holding his hands up. "It's just, when I happened to look at the house it struck me that perhaps it would be acceptable for the two of you. But only if you like it, and obviously the rent will be exorbitant."
"Andrew," said Jesse again, helplessly. "What is wrong with you?"
"I'm going to be a very stern landlord," said Andrew, not looking at him. "No parties and no smoking and no pets."
"Awww!" said Hallie. "What if they're cute, though?"
"Well, cute pets are obviously excepted," said Andrew.
"You are such a jackass," said Jesse, trying not to smile because that was only going to encourage him. "You bought a house. What if we'd hated it?"
"Jesse, it's got bookshelves for walls. You weren't going to hate it," said Andrew. "No, seriously, before you yell at me or tell me that you won't take it, I looked all over. I honestly did. I looked with two different estate agents and there wasn't a single thing that was close enough or cheap enough that wasn't in a horribly dangerous neighborhood. I'm not letting you live anywhere Hallie will need to take three buses and travel over an hour to school. And I'm not letting you live anywhere you might be shot. I'm just not."
Jesse closed his eyes for a second. "When I said not to buy us anything, Andrew, I guess I didn't specifically say no houses, but…"
"It's an investment," Andrew insisted. "And anyway it's entirely selfish because I want you to live close enough for me to drop by and drive you crazy all the time. Please say it's alright. Please." He gave Jesse a look with his giant, horrible, pleading eyes and Jesse could feel Hallie watching him with a similar expression on the other side, and it wasn't fair, because Jesse was really honestly determined to do all this with as little help from Andrew as possible, but…
"Yay!" said Hallie. "I call this room! Andrew, when my wall is full of books I'm going to make you read all of them."
"He hasn't said yes yet."
"Yeah, he has," said Hallie confidently. "That's his Okay-but-only-this-once-I-can't-believe-I'm-giving-you-dessert-for-dinner-again face."
Andrew put his hands on Jesse's hips. "Is that your okay-but-only-this-once face?" He leaned in and kissed Jesse gently, biting at Jesse's lip until Jesse sighed and opened his mouth to kiss him back. Jesse closed his eyes and thought about all the things he wanted and couldn't have. And then he thought about all the things he could have, suddenly, and how much he wanted to have them with Andrew, and kissed back harder, catching his fingers in Andrew's belt-loops to pull him closer.
Hallie cleared her throat loudly. "You seriously aren't allowed to do that in my bedroom. That's why you have your own bedroom."
Jesse laughed and opened his eyes, but he didn’t let go. "That sounds fair. Sorry, Hallie."
"I'm happy you're so happy," said Hallie. "It's just kind of gross."
Andrew leaned forward and kissed Jesse again quickly, smiling against his mouth. "I don't think it's gross," he said quietly, laughing a little bit.
Jesse couldn't quite believe he was saying those words. "I think it's just about perfect, myself."