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Colin understands lust.

Lust is basic and animal. Lust is want, take, have, kick out. Love them and, somehow, get them to leave. Lust makes sense.

This. This makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever.

It did at the beginning. He remembers that. Tit for tat. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. It made sense and it was simple. But whatever this has become...whatever these…feelings are. That doesn’t make sense. Because Colin has made it his lifelong purpose not to have feelings. He lives by that. It’s the hill he’s going to die on.

Except Ally sneaks in with her ridiculous determination and stupid plan. With her need to find Mr. Right in all the guys who were Mr. Wrong the first time around. With her stress about wedding dates and numbers. With her little figures that have such life in them.

That’s what Ally is. That’s the thing that has Colin hooked, the thing that he keeps coming back to, coming back for. She’s life. Pure and unadulterated, messy and beautiful. She’s all those things that Colin absolutely avoids like the plague. Except he can’t. He keeps finding himself doing little things to make her smile. Finding reasons to be around her.

Which is why, when he fucks up so monumentally badly, a little part of him - a part he didn’t think existed - breaks. He blames it on hope, because that’s what it was. He hoped that he could be what she wanted so that she didn’t want to go through with her plan anymore. Didn’t want Jake Adams because she had Colin.

Which was a ridiculous thought from the start and he knew it. He knew it, but he thought maybe, just for a moment, that he was wrong. But he wasn’t. And now he’s stuck avoiding Ally on the landing between their apartments, on the stairs. She doesn’t work, so she doesn’t have a set schedule, so he starts saying in. Or he goes out and comes home alone. Because none of the girls he meets interest him

Because none of them are Ally.

He gets a drink with his brother, sitting in a pub that is ninety percent police officers, and listens to him bitch about his wife and his kids and his job. Colin nods along and drinks beer after beer, chewing on stale pretzels.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“What?”

“You haven’t said a word, and normally shutting you up requires a gag or a concussion. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. Just thinking. Listening.”

“Colin, you don’t listen to a word I say even when I’m talking about basketball, and basketball gives you a hard on. So spill.”

He’s about to deny it when he realizes that maybe talking about it might change things. It might clear his head and let him reason it all out and help him get over this, tell him that he’s being an idiot and should just get the fuck on with his life. “There’s a girl.”

His brother snorts. “Why am I not surprised.”

“It’s not like that.” He inhales deeply, but the exhale doesn’t do anything to release the tension in his shoulders.

“Buddy, it’s always like that. Remember back in high school with Dana Bertram? You were convinced she was your soul mate until you got her into bed and realized you were just horny.”

“I think I’m in love.” He shakes his head. “I know I am. And I fucked it up. I don’t… I don’t know how to get past it. She hates me now. And she lives in my building, so I have to dodge her because she thinks I’m just some asshole like the other guys she’s dated. And...how…” He shakes his head. “How do you make it stop?”

His brother leans back and looks at Colin for a long time. “You’re serious.”

He takes a long drink of his beer and stares down into the remains. “Yeah.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. No kidding. And I don’t have a shot at getting her back. She’s seeing this guy. This perfect guy. And, let’s face it, I’m far from perfect. And she deserves him. Deserves someone who can treat her like she’s everything. She’s talented and smart and funny and… And I need someone to tell me how to get past it, because I can’t fix it. I can’t be her friend again, even if she’d let me. And I haven’t managed to be interested in anyone since her, and drinking hasn’t helped and how the fuck do people do this?”

“She know how you feel?”

“It. Doesn’t. Matter.” He downs the rest of his beer and puts the glass down hard. “Look at me. What kind of prospect am I? He’s rich. He can take her to Paris. He took her to Paris. He makes her laugh and he… The only thing I ever did was make her laugh.”

“That’s a lot more important than money.”

“She’s so far out of my league it isn’t funny. I couldn’t believe it when she looked at me and saw something. At least until she realized what she was seeing.” He sighs. “This is where you tell me there’s nothing I can do, right? Get over it? Move on? Find some other nice girl who can see past my frat boy facade.”

“It’s not a facade, dude. It’s who you are.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

“You came to me for the truth, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I did.” He rubs his hand over his face. “I’m gonna go.” His brother nods and Colin gets to his feet, walking back toward the apartments. It takes a good hour, but the cold air feels good, even if he’s shivering by the time he gets home. He jogs up the stairs, stopping on the landing below his apartment.

Because she’s there just outside her door with Jake. Kissing him. Kissing him and unlocking her door.

Colin makes his way up the rest of the stairs quietly, unlocking his own door. He can see them break apart out of the corner of his eye. Jake glances over at him and Ally rushes in. “This is Colin. My neighbor.”

Colin turns just enough to wave. “Hi.”

“Colin, this is Jake.”

He waves his hand again. “Hi again.” He opens his door and slips inside, shutting it behind him and leaning against it. He resists the urge to look out the peephole and see them, to see if Jake leaves her at her door or if he goes inside, if they leave together. To act like he’s not a goddamned glutton for punishment.

He hears Ally’s door shut and turns around, hoping to see Jake disappearing down the stairs. Instead it’s quiet and the only footsteps are behind closed doors.

*

The bassist, Chester, booked the gig, and Colin’s grateful. He puts on his best and only suit and doesn’t think about how he was going to wear it when he took Ally to her sister’s wedding. He’s gotten better at not thinking about Ally. Except when he sees her or hears her or tries to sleep or is awake. Those times he hasn’t quite gotten under control, but he’s working on it. Until he sees her.

She’s beautiful.

He starts to lock the door, hoping he can get out of this without them acknowledging each other.
It hits him again that he fucked up, but he also knows that he had a chance, which maybe makes fucking up worth it. Or worse, because if he hadn’t fucked up, hadn’t kept knowing how to get in contact with Jake a secret, he wouldn't have known what it was like to be with her. Of course, he knows know he’d still would have been in love with her, so either way he was screwed.

She tries to make small talk, and he wishes she would stop. Stop pretending they can be friends, maybe. Or even acquaintances. He’s just 6A again. He thinks he’ll escape it. Bring up Daisy’s wedding and get away. He should know better.

She wants to know whose wedding he’s going to. If it’s a date. If he’s seeing someone. He’d laugh if it didn’t hurt so goddamn much. He tells her not to worry, all the other words clogged in his throat, then keeps going down the stairs and doesn’t stop.

He climbs into Tommy’s van and stares out the window as they drive to the reception venue. Once he sees the layout, he’s beginning to wonder who the hell Chester might be related to, because there is no way they swung this gig on their own merits. They’re decent. But they’re not security guards at the gate level. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

He sets up and they practice, tuning up and going over the set list of standards and covers that will get them through the speeches, and then the second half of the night which will be a little louder, a little more rock. People start to show up, filtering in wearing fancy dresses and sharp suits, laughing and talking because this is the world they belong in.

“Hey,” Tommy calls from behind his drum and the band gathers around in front of it. “So. Let’s not fuck this up, huh?”

They actually get a good reception from the crowd, and he keeps his eyes off the bride and groom, prefering to stare out at the rest of the people or up at the lights so he can’t see anything at all. Which is why, when he sees Ally, he thinks he might be seeing things. Except she’s there and she’s totally fucking up the gig, which means Tommy and Chester are likely to kill him.

He goes far more willingly than he wants to admit, because it’s Ally and, even upset at her and himself, he can’t tell her no. Not when she’s here and not with Jake. It takes him a second to process what she’s saying because he’s afraid he’s hearing what he wants to hear. But then she says she loves him - she thinks she loves him - and he tells her the truth.

He loves her right back.

*

“I’m not getting naked this time.”

“You didn’t get naked last time. In fact, I’m pretty sure you handed me my ass last time.” Colin takes her beer as she sits down in the seat next to him.

“Yeah, but your ass looked really good.”

“Why thank you.”

She rolls her eyes at his smarmy tone and waggled eyebrows, taking her beer back, settling in next to him. He wraps his arm around her and presses a kiss to her temple. “Behave yourself. The game’s starting.”

“You’re the one who started the blowjob last time.”

“How would you have started it? I’ve seen you in bed. You’re not that bendy.” She raises an eyebrow at him and takes a drink. “I mean, you get full style points, but you’re no gymnast.”

“You wound me. Really.”

“Your ego can stand being wounded.” She smiles and turns her head just a little bit more, just enough to kiss him softly. “Now shut up.”

Colin laughs and shakes his head, leaning back in his seat to watch the game. Ally lpresses against him, sitting up to argue with the refs and throw popcorn, smiling innocently and shrugging when the people in front of them look back at her.

“I really can’t take you out in public, can I?”

“You love taking me out in public. You like hearing people ask how you got so lucky.”

He smiles and turns her head, kissing her. “I do.”

“Watch the game.”

The Celtics are up thirty-eight points at halftime, and Ally rolls her eyes as they start the kiss cam shots. Colin takes her beer out of her hand and shifts in his seat. She turns slightly toward him and shakes her head.

“I’m not kissing you for the camera.”

“I’m not kissing you for the camera either.” He kisses her again, because he can, and it’s slow and warm in a way he’ll never get used to. Never wants to get used to. He wants it to be like this every time, new and perfect and exciting. Ally deepens the kiss and Colin presses a hand along her jaw, thumb rubbing lightly on her cheekbone.

“Get a room!” someone behind them yells, and the little kid behind them dumps the remains of their bucket of popcorn on Ally’s head. She pulls back, laughing, and Colin tries to think of anyone he’s been with who would laugh at this. Tries to think how he got so lucky.

She settles back in her seat and leans into him again. He carefully picks popcorn out of her hair and drops it on the floor behind her chair. She keeps yelling at the ref and the guys on the 76ers, elevating heckling to an art form. Colin bites back laughter the more heated she gets, and he finally has to pull her down when she stands up and starts yelling. He tugs her down on his lap and wraps his arms around her like a seatbelt to keep her from jumping up again.

He buries his laughter against her spine, shivering a little when she digs her nails into his thighs in response. She feels him and rakes her nails against his jeans, and he misses most of the rest of the game, too busy holding her tight against his hard on.

“You’re fucking evil.”

“Mm.” Ally turns and smiles down at him. “That’s why you love me.”

*

“Holy shit.”

Colin looks up from the cheese wrapped in prosciutto that he’s about to put in his mouth, the dirty joke he was on the verge of making dying on his lips at Ally’s wide-eyed expression. “What?”

“That’s Jake Adams.”

“Oh.” Suddenly Colin’s not hungry, so he wraps the cheese up in a napkin and shoves it in his jacket pocket. “What’s he doing here?”

“I invited him. I just didn’t think he’d come.”

“Oh.” Something cold races through Colin and he nods. “I didn’t know you were still in touch with him.”

“I’m not. I mean, I wasn’t.”

“Well, you should go say hi. Work the crowd.”

“I can’t Mom and Dad are in the same building. Voluntarily. I can’t believe there are this many people here.” Ally looks around the gallery, at the people milling around and looking at her sculptures. “I can’t believe two of them have already sold.”

Colin smiles, and he can’t look away from the joy on her face. “I can.”

She turns her gaze to him and looks into his eyes. “You believe in me.”

“Always.” He kisses her softly, pulling back with reluctance. “Go mingle. I’ll guard the snacks and tell everyone they can’t have punch until they tell me how amazing my girlfriend is.”

“You have an amazing girlfriend?” Ally looks around the room. “Did you bring her?”

“Nah. Left her at home. Didn’t want you to be jealous.” He kisses her again. “Go.”

She walks away and into the crowd, stopping and talking with groups of people. He watches her as she explains a few of the pieces, talking about her process and her inspirations. Her face is glowing, happiness bright in her eyes.

“Colin!” Daisy waves at him from across the room, hurrying over and hugging him. “Thank god I found a babysitter. I thought you had a gig tonight?”

“Wasn’t going to miss this. It’s her big night.” He grins over at Ally. He can see Daisy out of the corner of his eye, can see her smiling at him, and he’s beginning to think he might actually win her over at some point. At least he thinks he’s graduated from ‘rape-y neighbor’ to ‘you’re seriously dating him?’ He’s not sure if that’s just because he and Ally have moved in together so he no longer qualifies as a neighbor or if Ally’s friends have warmed up to him. “Thanks for letting her use your wedding piece in the show.”

“Of course.” She glances around the crowd and then narrows her eyes. “Is that Jake Adams?”

“Yeah. Talking to your mom.”

“Well, she’s talking to him. I think that’s a little different.” She does a crappy job of hiding her concerned look at Colin. “You okay with him being here?”

“Of course. Your mom will completely ignore my existence, try to set Jake and Ally up again, drink too much champagne, and then bitch about other people’s dresses.”

“It’s like you’ve met her.”

“Much to her dismay.” He shrugs. “You think if Ally and I ever got married, your mom would invite Jake, drug me, hide my body, and shove Jake up to the altar instead?”

Daisy pats his head. “Don’t give her ideas.”

“Right.” He sighs and smiles at her. “Thanks.”

She starts to walk off then turns and comes back. “Colin? For what it’s worth? You’re twice the guy Jake Adams is.” She leans in and drops her voice. “From what Ally says? In every way.”

“Oh my god.” He snorts a laugh, feeling heat rise on his face. “I’d say I can’t believe she said that to you, but I’ve met you both.”

She laughs as she walks off and he starts walking around. The train sculpture is still his favorite, but Ally’s created so many more scenes that capture life in both an unreal and down-to-earth way. He looks up from the one that’s a representation of the two of them sharing a seat at the basketball game to see Ally’s mom heading his way with Jake in tow.

“Colin. Darling.”

“Ava.”

She wrinkles her nose then puts her hand on the back of Jake’s shoulder. “Have you met Jake? He and Ally were together.”

Jake looks uncomfortable as he stick out his hand. “We’ve met, right? The neighbor?”

“Yeah. 6A.”

“Colin was the one who helped Ally get back in touch with you. Perhaps you have some… friends? In common, I mean.”

“Mom? Mom. Jake. Wow. Jake.” Ally hurries up stands next to Jake. “You look great.”

“Thanks, Ally. You too.” He leans down and kisses her cheek, and Colin can see the flush rise up on her face. He glances away, looking back at the sculpture.

“And Colin. You know Colin.”

“Yeah. The neighbor.”

“The neighbor. Yeah. I mean, no.” Ally blinks, eyes wide as she looks at Colin. “No. Not the neighbor. Not anymore. The roommate.”

“I thought you had a one bedroom?”

“Right. Roommate. We share a room.”

Colin sighs. “Ally and I are dating. I know, I know. Who thought she’d meet someone greater than Jake Adams. Crazy, huh? You want something to drink, Ally?”

“Yeah. Thanks.” She looks at him, unsure if she should be worried or wounded, so he manages a smile as he walks away. He can practically see Ava shoving Ally and Jake together, no doubt urging them to kiss and make up.

He grabs two glasses of champagne even though he hates the stuff and walks back to the three of them. Before he can get there, Daisy’s on the little stage and tapping the microphone with her finger.

“Okay, so someday I’m going to have a chance to embarrass her at her wedding, so I’ll actually keep this nice and polite.” The crowd laughs, especially the ones who have heard Ally’s version of a speech. “Ally, as you know, was in marketing, which no self-respecting person would ever choose for a career, but we all know that my sister’s never had a lot of self-respect, as evidenced by the guys she’s dated in the past.”

There are catcalls this time and Ally is blushing bright red when Colin hands her the glass of champagne. He rests his hand in the small of her back and she takes a step closer to him, away from Jake. It’s more gratifying than he likes to admit, even to himself, but it’s calming to feel her against him.

“But that’s all changed now. She’s pursuing her dream, she has a guy who supports her and reminds her how great she is, and she’s actually starting to believe it when people tell her how talented she is. So thanks everybody for coming, and buy my big sister’s art so she can pay her half of the rent. And, for the record, Colin did not ask me to put that last bit in.”

Ally looks up at Colin with a big smile and kisses him, wrapping her arms around his neck. “You’re pretty amazing, number twenty.” She traces his skin above the collar of his shirt. “Might even have to move you up to number one.”

“You told me who number one was, remember? Creepy puppet guy?”

“Not the first. The best. And the last.”

Colin kisses her, warm and hungry, a promise of what’s to come. “I can live with that.”