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Feels Like Wasted Youth

Chapter Text

Neil pulled the straps on his bookbag, hitching it higher on his back. He was walking to his dorm, also known as the furthest complex that was technically still on campus. He debated stopping to get food on his way home but decided against it. It was October and that meant Dan was somewhere holed up in their apartment studying, and wherever there was a studious Dan, there was also a pot-hungry Alvarez cooking.

Sara Alvarez lived across the hall, but she might as well have lived with them. Neil couldn’t count the number of times he went to pee, only to hear her singing behind his shower curtain because she liked his shampoo best.

Neil lived in Shoebox. Not a shoebox, but his dorm apartment building was called Shoebox. Neil wasn’t well-versed in why all of the buildings were named random objects, but he felt like it fit the theme of his life well.

If he wasn’t hungry and poised to bitch about his last tutoring session of the night, Neil might’ve stayed outside and laid underneath the stars. It was only dusk, but the sky was a soft, shy lilac. There was a light breeze and it brought the warm, earthy smell of the soccer pitch toward him, tinged with cinnamon and smoke from the fireplaces behind the university.

Neil stomped on a pile of leaves that was just a touch out of his way. Early October always made Neil nostalgic for crisp apple slices and hazy, smoke-filled skies.

He pulled out his phone to text the group chat that was currently named Dan’s a Screamer.

I’m dying for some apples.

Dan text back right away, which meant she was on a study break and, hopefully, cooking dinner.

Laila just bought some granny smith!!

Neil longed for pale golds and crisp reds. He hoped, at the very least, his roommates cleaned the kitchen from the previous night’s banana nut bread episode.

Neil lived in room 314 with Matt and Dan, but in reality, he also lived with Alvarez, Laila, and Thea. Alvarez was the worst of the trio, often coming over to use their kitchen when she got the munchies because the pantry in 314 was typically better stocked (Matt was a Boy Scout).

When Neil walked up to his brick building, he sent up a prayer to the Shoebox gods that the elevator was working — it was never fucking working. He pressed the button with more force than necessary, but being firm showed that he meant business and boy, did Neil mean business. His legs were tired and he didn’t want to walk up three flights of steps. He waited for what felt like minutes (but was really only 20 seconds) before giving up. There was only so long he could look at his warped reflection in the closed doors before his morale dropped through the floor.

When he finally reached the landing on the third floor, his RA Jeremy’s door said I’m at a specEd cohort meeting! Don’t wait up! Neil snorted before continuing to his door.

He heard his roommates before he saw them — or rather he smelt them. Alvarez was already smoking up their room. Neil kicked the half-empty 20-pack of bud that was propping their door open out of the way. Everyone on the third floor had their doors propped open by flipping the deadbolt so they didn’t shut. It wasn’t unusual to come home to find someone sleeping on your couch when you got back from class. The third floor was like family, it just so happened that the girls in 315 were Neil’s favorites.

Dan had the oven on, heating up leftover pizza. “Hi, baby boy,” Dan cooed. She and her boyfriend Matt had adopted Neil somewhere along the way.

Before he could reply, Alvarez jumped in and said, “‘Bout fuckin’ time! Bachelor’s gonna be on in five and I’m not waiting for anyone.” She gave him a smoke-lazy smile. “I don’t give a fuck if god herself showed up with a blunt and a bag of chips.”

Neil rolled his eyes and ignored her, like always, but Laila didn’t.

“That’s just because you have a girlfriend,” she teased. He ignored them and headed toward the kitchen. The extra cheese sprinkled on top was bubbling away, so Neil cut off the oven.

“How many fire alarms have we had this semester?” Neil asked, eyeing Dan as she leaned against Matt.

“Not my fucking fault freshman can’t pop popcorn,” Dan sniffed.

“Hell yeah. I’m here to talk trash,” Laila said from the couch. She pulled her thick hair into a loose bun and looked up at Neil, her eyes glittered with mischief.

And drugstore wine.

Alvarez sat up as much as she could. She was braced against the front of their couch, head nestled between Laila’s knees.

“I’m always here to talk trash,” Alvarez said with a wolfish grin.

“I just had a tutoring session with that kid who, I am certain, is the biggest jackass out there.”

“I guess you’re not jackosexual then,” someone said from down the hall. The bathroom door closed and Neil didn’t care enough to figure out who it was.

“Being sexually attracted to a jackass is just sad,” Neil said, “besides, I’m trying not to bat at all.”

“That’s right, baby. No one is making you bat,” Laila said from across the room. “Now, tell us about Jackass.”

Neil visibly deflated. There was a reason Laila was his best friend.

“This is all I will say: White Americans suck at foreign language.”

Thea snorted from where she was sprawled against the other couch, religious studies textbook covering her face. It was her usual spot and someone typically made an attempt to poke her every few hours, making sure she was alive.

“It lives!” Matt called from where he was perched on the kitchen counter. Thea flipped him off in response.

Neil went to sit on the floor in front of the television but thought better of it. He took a second to survey the land. SZA was playing quietly in the background and there was trash everywhere. Empty beer cans and candy wrappers. They were all fucking pigs, but at least Alvarez made it a point to come by, when she was sober, and clean up.

The flimsy ass coffee table was their perpetual ashtray and Neil was pretty sure they had soaked cheap rosé into the carpet so deep it would never come out. There was also the distinct possibility Matt and Dan had fucked on the floor at least twice. Too many unidentifiable stains to ever justify.

Neil could only hope they wouldn’t be fined after move out. The microwave dinged and someone took out a bag of popcorn. Neil wasn’t sure, but it looked like Thea’s boyfriend, Karl or something.

“You set off the fire alarm and I’m shoving you down those stairs,” Neil said, leveling Karl or something with a dangerous look.

Karl or something shrugged and sat down.

Neil was a little bitter.

The number of times Neil had been roused out of bed, sleep mused, at 3 am because some jerkoff couldn’t make their drunk bedtime meal without setting off the very sensitive fire alarms were innumerable.

Neil was a lot bitter.

The girl that was in the bathroom finally walked out. Neil didn’t know her.

“Did you flush?” Dan asked.

“Yes, mother. What’s for dinner?”

“Since when did we start feeding the entire third floor,” Neil griped.

“Since I started dating Renee.” The girl stuck out her tongue. “Allison, by the way.”

“Allison,” Neil said, weighing it on his tongue. “If you shit, you’re supposed to spray air freshener.” That made the girls on the couch giggle. Neil rolled his eyes and headed back to his room.

Renee was sitting at his desk, feet curled under her on the seat.

“She your girlfriend?” Neil asked.

Renee turned and smiled widely at him. “Yeah, she’s in my advanced biometrics course.”

“Nice,” Neil supplied. He grabbed a pile of blankets off his bed and bundled them under his arm, carrying them into the front room, Renee following him. Neil made a nest of blankets and pillows in front of the television.

Eventually, they settled onto the floor, Neil sprawled on a blanket. Alvarez and Laila, Dan and Matt were on the couch. Thea was still fast asleep on the other couch, her boyfriend on the floor next to her. Allison snagged a blanket from Neil’s stash and wrapped it around her shoulders like a cape, before gesturing for Renee to come to sit between her legs.

When everyone was cozy, Jeremy poked his head in, giving the room his megawatt smile. “Hey, guys. It’s good to see everyone, but you know Housing’s policies on propped doors.” He kicked the beer lightly with his foot.

There was a chorus of Hey Jer ’s that made Jeremy beam.

“Wanna smoke?” Alvarez nodded to the pipe on the table. “Bachelor’s on and I got the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies I know you like so much.”

Jeremy looked at the pipe with a pained expression. His face twitched, keeping the smile in place.

“No thanks,” Jeremy said as he backed out of the doorway.

“Stop messing with him,” Dan laughed, reaching over Neil for the bowl of pretzels. “One day he’s gonna report us.”

“Oh, please. Jeremy Knox? The actual Webster definition of sunshine? Not likely,” Laila scoffed.

“He’s too good to us,” Matt said.

“Shhh,” Alvarez hissed. “Bekah M is reaming the shit out of Ari.”

“God, I hate him,” Thea growled from behind her textbook.

The group hummed in agreement.

And with that, they settled into their Monday night ritual.

Chapter Text

Neil threw his head back into the spray, water spilling down his shoulders like a cliff’s edge. It took everything in him not to pretend he was in a music video, because come on. But he had other things on his mind. More stressful things. Midterms, to be exact. Well, okay. The end of midterms, to be more exact. Neil had finished his last one earlier that day, and was now in the shower, using the shampoo Alvarez left that smelled like lavender and rosemary.

Speaking of their friend, Neil hadn’t seen Alvarez since Dan banned the third floor from so much as breathing in her direction. Alvarez had been a silent, but ever watchful presence from across the hall, waiting for the door to be propped open again, like a dog that had been kicked out of her person’s bedroom.

It was almost depressing, coming home to a closed door, sliding his key into the lock and not immediately tripping over a body passed out on his floor. Almost.

The water pressure softened into a fine mist and Neil banged on the shared wall, alerting his neighbors that he was in fact, still using the shower.

He was decompressing for fuck’s sake. Neil cut the shower off and wrapped a towel around his middle. Maybe it wasn’t the best time to relax anyway. Dan was going to get her scores back within the next hour, and whether the night ended in a brawl or celebration, he needed to be alert.

And dressed.

Neil padded over to his bedroom, wet feet picking up wayward post-its. He’d almost forgotten the apartment was covered in motivational stickies, courtesy of Alvarez. That morning, he had reached into his own pocket to find a yellow note that read: DAN THE MAN! Good luck, I believe in you xx. He didn’t have the energy to wonder how it had even got in there.

Neil was shuffling down the hall, feet dragging, towel fisted at his hip when he heard the beginnings of what could only mean one thing. Regardless, he stopped at the sink, texted Matt, “Coast clear?” and popped an ibuprofen, but Matt’s response dinged a moment too late.

“I passed motherfuckers!”

Neil reached the living area where Dan had the door flung open, addressing her crowd with a winning smile. A cheer went up and Matt pulled up a shitty Spotify playlist on the tv with Neil’s laptop—who the fuck could pay for premium?

Dan narrowed her eyes at Neil’s state of undress before stepping aside and waving the third floor into the dorm. The ban was over. Someone dropped a 20-pack of Miller Lite in front of the door to keep it open.

“I take it you passed,” Neil said, dry.

Dan grinned and folded Neil into her arms.

Someone shoved them out of the way, yelling, “Move!” Neil finally felt like he was home, and he relaxed into Dan’s embrace before heading into his room to put some clothes on.

Laila came in somewhere around him stepping into his pants.

“Oooh, baby! There’s a full moon tonight!”

Neil hopped a little to get the tight pants over his hips before he turned around, fastening them as he went. He picked up a rumpled shirt off the ground and sniffed it before pulling it on.

“Do we have enough food?” Neil asked. Their pantry was always stocked with Cheetos and ginger ale, but he wasn't sure who had been in charge of Dan’s celebration and/or consolation foods of choice.

“Went yesterday. Wasn’t sure which list to follow, but wine coolers and Pringles overlapped so,” Laila shrugged.

“Good enough for me,” Neil said and grabbed Laila’s hand.

Soon, the apartment was filled with laughter and smoke, and Neil felt like a salmon fighting his way upstream with the number of people crammed into the hallway. The secondhand high from the pot had his brain buzzing and his lungs itching for a drag.

Alvarez was in the kitchen with all of her makeup set up on the stove. Laila placed a hand on  Neil’s hips, nudging him out of the way. “Babe, is that a compact mirror on the stove coil?”

“I swear to god if you start a fire,” Neil threatened.

“It’s not even on,” Alvarez grumbled just loud enough to be heard.

“Oh, it’s not on, is it?” Neil asked.

Alvarez turned around to swirl Coral Crush on her cheeks, but Neil still heard to stove click off.

“No, it’s not fucking on.”

Laila wrapped an arm around her girlfriend and pointed at Neil. “Little buddy here wants to do some happy hookah.”

Alvarez turned around, eyes bright in the neon lights.

“I change my mind,” Neil said, swatting her away.

Laila was already raiding the cupboards. There were beer cans left on every flat surface and the apartment smelled like hair product, too much cologne, and that funky corn chip sweat that said everyone in the apartment had been drunk for a while. Neil loved it so much he thought he might cry.

Neil made a face as he walked into the living room. Mismatched Christmas lights were taped to the walls, illegal extension cords hanging down to reach the outlets, and Jeremy was in the process of hanging a Happy Easter banner over the couch even though it was the middle of October.

Someone had gotten a hold of Alvarez’s sticky note collection and made an entire wall dedicated to congratulation notes for Dan. The longer the night went on, the more illegible each note would get. If a little sharpie got on the wall, well, they probably weren’t getting their deposit back anyway; what with their propensity for not cleaning up the puke that was left on their floor. Matt or Neil usually threw an empty pizza box on top of it until they could hunt down the sorry sonuvabitch who had hurled.

Alvarez was licking cigarette paper as she rolled a blunt. “Someone put the charcoal on the stove! My little buddy wants to happy hookah! But until then—” she lit the blunt and took in a lungful of smoke, before slowly blowing it into Neil’s face. “Here, little buddy, some grass for you, fresh from Lowe’s.”

Neil snorted but took the blunt.

Someone started screaming in the background, and the thumps that followed said they were being chased out into the hall. Ah, Neil loved his little family.

He passed the blunt and walked over to the beer pong table he and Matt had painted freshman year—school colors because they were nothing if not proud. It was Dan and Matt against Jeremy, who always played alone because it meant people would cycle in and out as his partner and he could squeeze in a conversation with as many people as humanly possible.

Jeremy passed Neil the hot pink ping pong ball. Neil eyed it considerably. He wasn’t drunk enough to suck at it, but he was sober enough to not find it particularly riveting. He tossed the ball and it clicked against the table once before it hit the rim of a cup and went off on a tangent line.

Neil jerked forward under the hearty slap Jeremy hit him with. “Get ‘em next time, Champ!” He would comment under normal circumstances, but there was an angry looking blond in their doorway and for a second Neil panicked that someone was going to narc on them. He was only there long enough to catch a glimpse, and then Neil was pulled out to sea by the tide of drunken calls.

He carefully made his way over to the couch. Careful because he was a little drunk and didn’t want to fall. People were yelling at the tv, but Neil didn’t care to know which reality show was on because he definitely didn’t want to know what was happening.

The night became a blur of laughter and catcalls and Stacy London telling them what not to wear. Neil was pressed between the warm bodies of people he loved and he had a lukewarm beer in his hand. He was content to fade in and out of awareness, thinking of everything and nothing, all at once.

A girl with short-cropped purple hair came to tell Neil that the cooler was empty—she was told that he was the person to come to to find the beer.

Neil hauled himself to his feet and fought the riptide of people as he made his way back to his room. Under his bed was a veritable liquor store worthy stash of alcohol. He picked up a case of Miller Lite and a couple of the sugary beers that Matt liked, the bottles clinking together as he made his way back to the kitchen.

The thump of beer on the counter reminded him that he wasn’t really in his body and he laughed, a disjointed sound that made no sense, but everyone joined in on his merriment and Neil really loved these people.

The freezer groaned as Neil hauled out a bag of ice, stabbing it open with a knife because he couldn’t be bothered to find scissors. He tossed the handful of bottles onto the bed of ice before a pair of arms wrapped around his front, narrowly missing being stabbed with said knife.

Neil wrinkled his nose at the mixed scent of his shampoo and weed.

“Hello,” Neil said gently, giving Alvarez’s head a firm pat.

“Hi Neil,” Alvarez said smiling up at him.

“What do you need, butthead?”

“A coke, I’m thirsty.”

Neil rolled his eyes and saved the lecture on the importance of staying hydrated and reached into the ice slurry to pull out a bright red can. He flicked the side a couple times so it wouldn’t spill over and popped the tab open with the knife.

Alvarez wrapped both hands around the coke and looked up at Neil while taking a sip. Her pupils were huge and Neil had to catch himself from making a stupidly obvious comment about it.

Before she turned around to leave she told Neil, “I heard Kevin went to go get spicy chips from his dorm. I know you love chips.”

“Who the fuck is Kevin?”

“Thea’s boyfriend.”

“Oh, you mean fucking Karl?”

“Whatever, you know I’m bad with names. I’m going to go shake and bake.”

“If Zum Zum comes on you already know I’m going to join you on the dancefloor.”

Alvarez winked. “I can make anything happen.”

Two shots of cheap raspberry vodka later, Neil was sitting on the arm of the couch when all hell broke loose.

Fire alarm.

God fucking damn it.

Chapter Text

Fire alarm. All of the collective fucks.

Neil was pissed because of course the alarm would go off on the one night that Dan allowed people into their apartment. He was still tipsy, but he wasn’t so far gone that he didn’t realize the state of their apartment was going to be a problem. The colored lights on the walls filled the room with a red haze that threaded its way through the smoke in the room, highlighting the obscene amount of trash and sticky, spilled liquor on the floor. 90s Hip Hop was blaring on the television and it was just enough to convince Neil that his brain was actually melting.

The crowd around him dissolved into hysterics with Alvarez and her girlfriend at the head of the fucking cuckoo train. One second they were smoking a spliff, the next the fire alarm was going off. Laila squawked and Alvarez hopped up out of her crouch on the floor to run around screaming the lyrics to We Didn’t Start The Fire. Somewhere between screaming the timeline of the Cold War, Neil reached out a hand and snagged them by the backs of their shirts, hauling them towards the door as he yelled, “All right, everyone OUT.”

The hallways were fuzzy with smoke, but honestly, that could have just been Neil’s contacts. He didn’t remember the last time he had taken them out. Everyone shuffled out slowly, and for once, Neil was glad that Shoebox was an outside building. The cool, night air felt amazing against his flushed skin. He hadn’t realized how hot he was.

Alvarez was mumbling something incoherent into Neil’s ear and Matt was fighting his way upstream, back into the apartment to find Dan. Neil yelled that she was last asleep in the hammock in her room. Thea had Karl, whose name was apparently Kevin, in tow, and Neil almost snorted when he saw Jeremy scrambling down the stairs so he could be in front and throw himself on the damn fire if need be—his face was so determined. He wasn’t sure who else was in the sea of people, but basically, with Matt coming out of the apartment with Dan in a bridal carry, everyone was in tow. They all made it down the stairs just as the fire trucks start to wail in the distance. Between the drip of one moment and the next, Neil takes in the rest of Shoebox, standing around in various states of undress, either from sleeping or fucking.

Karl—Kevin was talking with a group. Neil vaguely recognized them from their building. One had dark hair and darker eyes, he was facing Kevin along with two identical blond men. One twin was looking at Neil with a mostly blank expression, except for the raised eyebrow. Neil was never one to back away from a challenge, even if he was mildly intoxicated. He stared back, hoping his face looked impassive until Jeremy blocked his path.

“Is everyone all right?” He looked frantic and Neil mustered up some pity.

“You were with us, Jer.”

“I know! Which is why I should’ve been able to stop it!”

“So there was a fire?”

Neil looked around. He didn’t see a fire. He wondered if that man was still staring at him, but he wasn’t going to risk looking past Jeremy’s oddly concerned face.

“They won’t tell us anything yet.”

Alvarez was practically asleep on her feet at that point, and Neil was pretty sure that this was what raising a child was like.

The firefighters came out of the apartment in full gear, and Neil was trying to see if they had any soot or ash or something badass like that on them. No such luck. The RA’s came back over to give the all clear. Apparently, someone had pulled the fire alarm...purposefully. The other RA’s were glaring at Neil’s group, but Alvarez stuck her tongue out at them as they passed, making them look away.

Kevin jogged up to them and Neil gave him a searching look. He didn’t know Kevin ran with that other crowd. Neil, despite his better judgment, turned around to see if that one guy was still staring, but the blond was gone.

“Can we please take the elevator?” Alvarez suggested on a whine. Laila had caught up with them, having stepped away to talk to her teammates, transferring a sleepy Alvarez to her shoulder.

Neil didn’t see why not, especially since there was no fire. Evidently, everyone else had had the same idea, and with more than fifteen people in their dingy elevator, Neil was near ready to call the fire department back because they’d surely get stuck.

They stopped on the second floor and a group of people got out. Neil almost wanted to crane his neck to see if that guy was nowhere in sight, but the door closed before he could see anything. There was a moment where the elevator stalled and Neil was two seconds from fainting dead away in a hot elevator stuffed with people—sardines, anyone?—but thankfully it opened on their floor. Jeremy was already at their door, cleaning up bits of paper and cans. Neil stepped over a hunched over Jeremy and shook his head, but stopped when a piece of paper, flickering in the wind, caught his eye. It was taped to their door and Neil ripped it off—it definitely hadn’t been there before they went downstairs.

“Learn to keep it down or a fire alarm will be the least of your worries. Sincerely, The Entire Second Floor.”

Neil stood there for a moment, considering the messy scrawl before he crumpled it in his hand. He was going to lose his mother fucking mind.

He turned around, breezing by Dan and Matt as they rounded the corner.

“Hey, monkey, where you going?”

He heard a vague, “I didn’t like that look, we should probably follow him.”

He practically flew down the stairs, an impressive feat, considering he was very, very tipsy and very, very angry. He jumped down to the landing with a thud and marched down the hallway, looking for any sign of Kevin’s name on the doors. He knew who did this.

Neil found nothing on the first end of the hall, so he continued down, finding a group: Kevin, Aaron, Andrew, and Nicky.

He heard Dan and Matt behind him, no doubt coming to stop him, but the notion didn’t deter him. He banged the side of his fist against their door, once. He wasn’t going to knock again. That little fucker would be waiting for him.

Neil didn’t care if he woke up the ‘entire second floor.’ If they had something to say to him, they could say it to his goddamn face. He doubted they had the nerve.

The blond from downstairs answered and Neil had to ball his fists to keep himself from decking him right in the jaw.

“Where do you get off?” Neil was fuming.

The blond gave him an appraising look. “In my bedroom, with a little Marvin Gaye.”

“You know what I mean, asshole. I’m talking about this bullshit.” He launched the balled up piece of paper at his chest.

Dan and Matt finally caught up with him, if the arms around his waist were any indication. At least it better be one of them. He was ready to go down swinging on an S.O.B.

“Hey, hey, bud,” Dan’s voice was low in his ear. “We’ve had a lot to drink tonight, haven’t we. It’s okay. Let’s get you into bed and I’ll fix this.”

“Midterms is an inappropriate time to be having parties, don’t you think?” The blond said with a mocking head tilt.

“That is none of your business,” Neil barked.

“You just made it my business.”

Dan dropped her arms from around Neil in shock.

“The fuck is your deal? Pissed you weren’t invited? All you had to do was knock, big guy,” Neil’s voice dropped an octave at that last part. There wasn’t much big about him at all, actually.

The blond took a step forward and Neil was already winding his arm back to fucking deck him when Matt pulled him back. “Dude, sorry about the party, but you didn’t have to do... whatever it is he’s mad about.”

“He pulled the goddamn alarm,” Neil said. “What are you, five?”

“I made myself perfectly clear. Goodbye.”

Neil stuck his foot between the door and the jam. “We are not clear. Threaten me again and I’ll shove that note down your throat.”

“Promise?” the blond said, and Neil wanted to throttle him.

“Matt, take me upstairs. I’m too drunk for this.”

Neil turned around. “You don’t have to be here for this. You don’t have to always protect me.”

Matt ran a hand down his face. “Someone has to, little buddy.”

“Run home, little red.”

Neil snapped his teeth at him in response. He'll show him a big bad wolf. 

Chapter Text

Neil woke up to his entire body feeling like one very large bruise. He’d somehow slept too much and not enough, and was full of a restless energy that insisted he get out of bed but it chained him in between the sheets at the same time. That’s a hangover, baby!  By some miracle, he managed to climb out of bed and make his way into the bathroom. He looked like shit, curls matted to his head from sleep.

Getting ready for class was an exercise in self-control, it took what felt like six years to meander toward the kitchen, which was...clean. Apparently, Alvarez had let herself in and wiped everything down, counters and floors. That would probably explain the shower being on before 8am and the singing. Jesus, the singing. Forgoing coffee was on his mind, he was still keyed up from the night before, but his hangover bloomed in his forehead like a pungent flower and, in defense of the coffee, he might actually fall asleep in class.

He hummed at the coffee, warm in the pot, and dumped it into a reusable cup—one of them had to be environmentally friendly, what with the number of straws Dan could go through. He headed out the door and skipped the elevator because he had war flashbacks of last night.

On the first floor was their recycling bin. It was small and made to be taken out every other day, but, of course, maintenance was shit and so were the residents because it was overflowing with empty milk jugs and pizza boxes—99% which were probably from their party the night before. Neil sighed when he saw it, if he were a better man, and not late to class, he’d clean it up. But it just so happened he was 0 for 2 today.

The walk was hot and sticky, like always, but he made it to class relatively sweat-free. He was still reeling over that argument. Everything from the night before was pretty fuzzy, but he remembered that it involved a mean note and a mean face.

He made his way home and only marginally smelled like a stinky liquor bottle. Dan text him after he walked in the door.

Um, wtf happened last night?

He ignored it in favor of trying to start another fight in the middle of his kitchen. Thea’s boyfriend, Kevin, was raiding the pantry, probably at the behest of his sleepy girlfriend who had set up camp on the loveseat.

“Karl,” Neil started, trying to be as nasty as possible, “Tell your fucking friend to back off.”

“You know his name is Kevin,” Thea said.

“Kevin, whatever.”

“Aaron was studying for the MCAT,” Kevin explained. “He had Andrew tell you guys to shut up—they have a weird agreement about school things, so Andrew did it. In his own way.” If he was offended by the name affront, Kevin didn't let it show. He carried a bag of caramel rice cakes over to Thea, lifting her feet and dropping them back into his lap. She crunched happily, and Neil seethed even more.

“Well, tell Andrew he needs to learn some damn manners.” Honestly, he needed to shower and sleep it off, but something about that smug motherfucker really rubbed him the wrong way. At least he knew his name now so he could efficiently curse the day he was born. Or something else dramatic. That’s a hangover, baby!

Kevin shrugged like it was the least of his problems, and Neil supposed that it was. It didn’t seem like there was a lot that could control the other man.

Laila burst in with her hands streaked an obscene red.

“Whose body am I hiding?” Neil asked.

“I need you to help me dye my hair. I fucked it up. Also, the dude with my food is downstairs. Help me, Obi Juan, whoever the fuck you are.”

“You don’t deserve me,” Neil said, slipping into his shoes.

“No one does.” Laila blew him a kiss as he ran out the door.

After he grabbed the bag of Fresh Kitchen from Ravi, Neil turned around to bolt back up the stairs because he was starting to truly radiate that hangover funk. Before he made his way up the stairs he noticed the recycling bin once again. Someone had neatly stacked everything around it, placing the jugs into empty cardboard containers. A lawful good presence was among them. It made Neil smile.

Neil somehow ended up hand feeding Laila and dyeing her hair purple, which translated to bloody red hands that smelled like chemicals and pork. He was washing her hair out in the kitchen sink when someone knocked on the door. The fact that they knocked meant it wasn’t anyone from their floor. No one on the third floor knew what knocking was.

“Dan! The door!”

“We’re fucking!” was the only reply he got.

“My god,” Neil sighed before he handed Laila the shampoo.

His hands were still streaked with red, so he swung his foot up and kicked the handle up. The door opened, thankfully. It was the same man from the night before, the one with dark hair and darker eyes. Neil assumed that it wasn’t Andrew or Aaron, what with the twin thing.

That, and the sheepish grin didn’t translate well into Andrew’s demonic face.

“I’m Nicky, I live downstairs? Sorry about last night. Mostly sorry about Andrew.”

Neil wanted to put a condemning hand on his hip, but he remembered the dye at the last minute.

He settled for a gruff, “Is he always like that?” Figuring that comments about kenneling the dog for the night wouldn’t go over well.

“Not always, but...more times than not,” Nicky admitted.

Neil shook his head. “Whatever, if he pulls some shit like that again—”

Nicky interrupted him. “I mean, you guys were being obnoxiously loud. Midterms aren’t over for everyone, and my cousin was really trying to study… Andrew doesn’t do things without a reason.”

Neil felt appropriately chastised, but anger had gotten him this far after all. “I don’t give a damn about his reasons. He could’ve knocked like a normal person.”

Nicky gave him an incredulous look and Neil knew he was out of line, but he held his ground anyway, because he’s a dumbass.

“Well, again. Sorry. Can I make it up to you? My club’s having an impromptu barbeque later this week and I’d really like for you all to make it. Bring that energy you had last night.” Three eye rolls in unison, because Kevin was a little shit that didn’t have their backs.

Nicky continued, wheedling, “I’ll save you guys some food. Especially you.”

Alvarez, who was walking across the hall looking for her girlfriend, heard the word food and perked up like the goddamn dog Neil was convinced she had to be. “Apology accepted, my good sir. Make sure you’ve got to-go plates ready, too, and we’ll be there.”

“You don’t even know what he’s talking about,” Laila shouted from the sink.

Alvarez embraced Nicky as she squeezed through the door. “I don’t need to know the man. I just need to know the food.”

“Shut the fuck up,” everyone except Nicky chorused.

“So, I’ll see you? Kevin will give you my number to text me the details of who can make it. It would be great if you guys would sign in, too, it helps us get funding.”

“What is it for?” Thea asked around a rice cake.

“It’s for Wesley, my church group,” Nicky said.

“Oh dope, are you a fundamentalist?” Alvarez said with poorly concealed malice.

“No, absolutely not. I’m too gay for that.”

“Oh fuck, yeah? I’m a lesbian. Respect.”

“Ignore her,” Laila said from the sink, “She thinks she’s fucking cool or some shit.”

“Haha, I like her!” Nicky said.

They prattled for a bit before Neil got bored of the conversation and left the room. Laila still had another fifteen minutes before she needed another rinse and his eyes were about to roll out of his head.

It wasn’t until Nicky had left later that night that Neil realized he should have asked if the menace was going to be there. He doubted it, though. Christians don’t purposely set off fire alarms. Right?

Later in the week, Neil noticed that there was a flyer stuck to the door when he went for his morning run. His fight or flight was always switched to fight, so he's got about six shots of adrenaline running. He went to crumble it, thinking of all the ways he could shove it down Andrew’s throat, when his hand stops before he reaches the page, finally reading it. It was a flyer for Nicky’s Christian Barbeque. Fuck.

Neil had conveniently forgotten about that, which meant he had blacked it out of his memory with copious amounts of alcohol, but he didn’t think he could hide from Alvarez long enough to skip it. His record was about an hour and seventeen minutes, and that was because she had slept for forty of them. Further proof she was a goddamn bloodhound? Inconclusive.

Well, if he had to be tortured, he was going to take all of his friends with him. Dan, Matt, Laila, Alvarez, Thea, and, yes, Kevin, too. And it was only just them because Nicky put a cap on how much food he would save. Neil would have taken the entire goddamn third floor if he could.

They went down to the picnic area that was by the Wellness Center and settled in, everyone a little more happily than Neil. He had on jean shorts, but unfortunately not jorts. They were too short to be jorts. His jorts that hit below middle thigh had been burned in a ceremonial fire two semesters prior. The baby blue Oxford button up was short-sleeved but it was still hot as hell. The tents were set up all around them with tables set aside for games and information about the club. In the center was the buffet tables, which Alvarez headed toward immediately. Nicky came up to greet them and led them over to his table, where Renee was sitting with her girlfriend, Allison.

When Alvarez returned, Nicky went to introduce her to Renee and Allison, but she interrupted him to let him know that all lesbians knew each other. That made Neil laugh and he finally settled into the afternoon in a way he didn’t think he was going to be able to. The barbeque wasn’t that bad either. Renee had made bulgogi and it was actually the best food Neil had ever eaten.

Neil was surprised that he was enjoying his time so much, and when he saw the blond out of the corner of his eye, he couldn’t hold his tongue.

“Really Nicky?” Neil said, gesturing toward Andrew.

“He’s my cousin,” Nicky explained. “Plus, he helps us recycle. He’s Mr. Green Team himself.”

Neil’s mind went to the cleaned up recycling on the first floor.

He made an excuse, something about more bulgogi, and headed over to where Andrew was standing.

Andrew eyed him coolly, saying nothing.

“Pull any fire alarms lately?” Neil asked casually, pretending to look at the variety of plated foods sitting around.

Andrew gave him an unimpressed once-over, but his eyes lingered near Neil’s thighs. Neil assumed that he was making fun of his jorts, and gave him a mouthful of snark.

Andrew merely responded, “Run often?”

Neil was taken aback, both by the question and the lack of insult. He shrugged in response and Andrew offered nothing else. Neil was surprised by how unawkward their silence was, it was like they were both pensive, trying to unravel one another.

Neil broke the silence. “So, I heard you have a thing for recycling. Was the first floor you?”

“Assholes,” Andrew muttered.

“I wish they would grow up. It’s disgusting.”

Neil stopped and then said, “Maybe I should take a page from your book and dump it by their doors.”

Andrew gave him a blank stare. “You act as if I haven’t already.”

That startled a laugh out of Neil, and Andrew’s mouth twitched.

“What else do you do for the greater good? Scare children into eating their vegetables?”

“Boo,” Andrew deadpanned and Neil was surprised when he laughed again, drawing the attention of the table.

Dan and Matt were giving him weird looks, but at least Alvarez was too busy talking with Nicky and balancing two plates on her thighs to notice him. Renee was looking at them, too, a polite smile on her face. She gave Andrew a significant look and Andrew stared back.

“You know Renee?” Neil asked.

“More or less.”

“What does that mean?”

“That I more or less know her.”

One of the campus squirrels distracted Neil as it came over to snatch something off his half-abandoned plate. Neil was shocked enough that he forgot the train of the conversation, and distracted, Neil asked, “You ever noticed how squirrels are basically tree dogs?”

Andrew gave him a blank stare and waited a beat too long before he replied, “Bye.”

Neil looked after him in shock as Andrew walked off without another comment.

Chapter Text

Neil passed Andrew a few times over the next couple of weeks, and, more often than not, his thoughts went back to the fire alarm and he would have to work on the breathing exercises Dan had given him for his rage. He wondered if it would be wrong to confront him again, but he knew that Dan would tell him that yes, yes it would be.

It wasn’t until he went shopping with Laila, Renee, and Alvarez that Neil changed his tune about Andrew. He was sitting in the shopping cart, Renee pushing, while Laila and Alvarez ran up and down the aisles throwing boxes of crackers and soda on top of him. He was too nervous to care about what they were doing, over the past couple of weeks, Neil found a way to gripe about Andrew in any and every conversation and he knew that Renee was Andrew’s close friend. He did admonish them and tell them to get better party decorations than the midterms Easter decorations debacle.

“Are you nervous about finals?” Renee asked. She always had this soft way of setting him at ease.

“Not too nervous, I’m sure they’ll go as well as they might. Though if I don’t get my ass out and study that won’t happen.” Neil laughed.

She nodded. “I have a couple classes that I’m worried about.” She goes on to prattle about her major focused classes. Neil doesn’t remember what exactly her major is, but he figured it was too rude to ask at that point.

Eventually, he asked, “How do you know Andrew?” Of course, every conversation has to come back to Andrew in some capacity.

“From high school, actually.”

“Oh. What’s up with him and Aaron?” He was trying really hard not to pry and had definitely missed it by a long-shot.

She smiled through his faux pas and humored him. “He and Aaron have a deal. Andrew is getting Aaron through school and med-school.”

“Why is that Andrew’s job?”

“Aaron had a scare in high school. He has a lot of pressure on him to succeed and become a doctor. He started messing around with different drugs, mostly adderall, but there was one time that he was snorting adderall at a party and somebody had cut it with coke and caffeine and Andrew found him having a panic attack in the bathroom. He got him off his dependency and promised that he wouldn’t need anything else to get through school. Andrew takes his deals very seriously. He’s mostly bark but does have some bite. I’m working with him on that. It’s...a long process.”

Neil pondered that for a few minutes in silence before he asked, “Why are you telling me all of this?”

“That’s easy. Andrew gave me permission to tell you things, but only if you ask first.”

Neil didn’t know how to answer that. He didn’t know what those other things could entail.

Over the next couple of weeks, as finals crept closer, Neil found himself thinking about Andrew, and not all of the thoughts were boiling rage about the fire alarm incident. It had been four weeks since his conversation with Renee at the grocery store, and Neil had bumped into Andrew numerous times. Mostly in the halls, hot and sweaty after running.  He couldn’t get those unknown questions out of his mind.

Every time Neil passed him after a run, he would start to breathe through his nose—not wanting to sound like he was out of shape or anything with how he was panting. If he hoped Andrew watched him as he walked by, well, Neil would never know because he was too chicken to look back and check. He wasn’t sure why he wanted Andrew to look at him so badly, but he wasn’t going to think about that. At least not until he was six beers deep, crying about The Bachelor with Laila.

There was one memorable time when Neil sprinted home in the rain and Andrew was standing outside, just under the overhang of the building, chain-smoking. Neil stopped in front of him and water dripped into his eyes as he said, “That’s really bad for your lungs.”

“Running is bad for you.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Shut up.”

“No.” Neil felt like he was walking on air all the way up to the third floor.

Bumping into Andrew in front of his door on the second floor became a ritual. Sometimes, when Neil couldn’t sleep because Dan and Matt were being a little too loud, he would walk down to the second floor, hoping to bump into Andrew. He wasn’t always outside, but one particular night found Andrew leaning against the door to his apartment, cigarette in hand, looking like he’d seen a ghost.

“Nightmare,” he’d explain.

On those nights, Neil would sit with him and stare at the ceiling. Sometimes there would be a lizard crawling on the wall. Neil never knew what to say, so he didn’t ever say anything.

Then, there was nothing. He didn’t see Andrew, and the more he didn’t see Andrew, the more he thought of Andrew.

When finals rolled around, Neil had a sort of energy about him. He almost wanted to make Andrew mad. He wanted to throw a party just to elicit a reaction from him. At this point, he felt like Andrew’s ire was better than his nothing.

Neil almost blew off studying for his finals, but the only way to celebrate finals ending was to pass. So he hit the books, went to the library and every time, he had this small hope that he would see Andrew there.

There was a moment that he thought about asking Kevin about Andrew’s lack of appearance, but honestly, not even Andrew justified having a conversation with fucking Kevin.

He got the idea later that night, settled in around the tv with more people than lived in his apartment. Matt said, “So are we having a thing Friday or are we skipping it.”

Dan thought about it through one commercial and then said, “What if we left them a note in advance, so they know to relocate.”

“Not even giving them an option babe?” Matt laughed.

“I’ll do it,” Neil blurted. He didn’t blush, but it was a near thing. He was only four beers deep after all.

Everyone in the room gave him strange looks, but thankfully no one pushed it. He shoved a forkful of spaghetti into his mouth and they continued with Monday night Bachelor. Neil didn’t drink anymore beers, though.

Later, sitting at his desk with crumpled pieces of paper scattered around his room, and a sharpie stain or two on his mouth, Neil wrote and rewrote the illusive Note. He’d been trying to find a way to formulate it in a way that wasn’t...well, Neil.

He wanted something that was on the cusp of flirty, but Neil wasn’t well versed in flirting. He wondered if he should ask one of the girls, but decided against it because it was actually the very last thing on earth he wanted to do.

Neil realized that this was something he needed to get done before his roommates found the evidence. He scribbled something down, pulled on his shoes, and collected the scraps for recycling before heading out the door.

It wasn’t until he reached their door that he realized he didn’t bring anything with him to attach the note to the door. He briefly thought about sliding it underneath the door but was afraid if he got down there someone would open the door and he would have to explain why he was trying to look through the crevice under their door. He supposed he could have left it on the doormat, but the wind could blow it away or someone could steal it or even step on it.

That’s what Neil told himself after the fact, but right after he knocked, he cursed himself out.

A sleep-ridden Andrew opened the door. Neil had to take an extra second to reboot his brain to get his mouth to work.

“Do you have any scotch tape?” A resounding fail.

Andrew looked at Neil, then at the note in his hand, and finally back at Neil.

It wasn’t the brightest plan, Neil would admit, but Andrew looked so soft in the hallway light and his hair was pushed up on one side. Asking Neil to think right then was cruel and unusual punishment.

“How about I save you a step.” Andrew reached for the note, tugging it out of Neil’s now limp grasp.

He skimmed the note before asking, “Are you warning me or inviting me?” 

“Both,” Neil answered before he could remember why.

Neil stood there for a moment, trying to calm his heartbeat.

It was quiet for a moment before Andrew asked, “Did you blow a demon or something?”

Neil’s brain short-circuited. “What?”

Andrew gestured to the blurs of black sharpie all over Neil’s mouth.

“Oh.” Neil blushed this time. “I was chewing on the sharpie?” he said it like it was a question.

Andrew gave him a complex look and just nodded. “Should I bring something?”

“Just yourself.” Neil immediately turned and bolted because what the fuck was that?

The party was in full swing before grades officially came out—they wouldn’t be posted until the next Tuesday, and honestly, none of them gave a fuck. Everyone was about to go home for Christmas break and they needed a blowout anyway. Neil was on music this time. He hooked his shitty iPod nano up to the amp that some large frat boy had dragged inside. He was currently blasting reggaeton and whenever someone decided to be xenophobic or some shit, Neil cursed them out in Spanish because that’s what Spanish majors did baby!

Alvarez had set off the smoke alarm the week before smoking in the kitchen, so there was a requisite ban on smoking. She had an insane amount of edibles and was admonishing anyone who tried to eat more than two, saying “Satan is going to rip your soul out ya ass, b! Slow down. It’ll hit.” Neil loved her so fucking much.

He left her guarding the music, like an angry little pitbull and headed toward the kitchen to get a drink. When he got there, Thea was giving a review of some kind of sex toy to an enraptured audience.

“I would say I saw god, but I’d be lying ‘cause it didn't stop there. I saw God, Jesus, the devil, and Jehovah's Witness.”

Neil immediately turned around and left the kitchen, not wanting to be a part of whatever was covered up by screams and giggles.

Without a drink, Neil wandered around sober, wondering when Andrew was going to show up. Wondering if he was going to show up. At least at some point, Laila grabbed him by his arm and dragged him into Dan’s room to do her makeup. Neil was used to having to do her makeup, she had tremors and could never get her eyeliner right. Neil had an uncanny ability to make both sides symmetrical. It was his spiritual gift, Dan had told him.

Doing Laila’s makeup turned into a line of girls and a couple guys coming into the room to have their nails painted. That’s where Neil was when there was a knock on the doorframe.

“The door is wide fucking open,” Laila said from where she was perched on Dan’s bed wearing her fluffy robe.

“I’ll check,” Neil said. “Sorry babe,” he continued as an aside to the girl whose nails he definitely wasn’t going to be finishing. She waved him off and grabbed the polish herself. Girls were so self-sufficient. Neil was always so impressed.

He made his way through the bodies in the front room and standing in the doorway was Andrew. Neil stopped an awkward distance away. He had never seen Andrew in anything like he was wearing.

He was in a burgundy long-sleeved shirt and black shorts that his brain supplied the term ‘chubby’ for and he blushed because that couldn’t be right. It was an awkward distance because people walked between them, while Neil stood there, dumbfounded.

Andrew shifted and Neil finally found his voice. “You come to shut us down?”

He smirked and took a step toward Neil. “I figured, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.”

Neil gave Andrew a bewildered look but his confusion wasn’t even enough to stop his smile. Andrew was actually there.

“Do you want anything to drink?”

“Maybe later.”

Neil nodded and reached out his hand in offering. Andrew waited a beat before he clasped his hand with Neil’s; it was warm and chapped from the wind and so strong that Neil felt like it was all he needed to anchor him to earth.

He dragged Andrew after him, pointing out people and their names, telling Andrew that he would tell him if they were important enough to remember their names.

“I’m good with names,” Andrew said with a secret look that Neil wanted to unravel so badly.

When they finally got to Neil’s room, his stomach did a little dip. He had never had a boy in his room before. Well, he had, but this time he was sure that it was different. Andrew held his hand. Not many guys were tactile enough to do that. Neil also noticed that Andrew hadn’t shaken any of the hands offered to him. He didn’t know if that was a preference thing or if he just didn’t want to let go of Neil’s hand. He chose to think it was the latter since Andrew had always quirked his hand, holding up Neil’s by way of denial.

They got to talking, Neil eventually closed his door to shut out the noise. Normally, Neil was one of the first people to get wasted at parties, but he was pleasantly surprised that he was too interested in trying to unravel Andrew’s riddles to worry about partying with his friends, though he was sure they’d eventually do both. Andrew’s favorite drink was honey whiskey.

As the night wore on, they moved from being sprawled out on the beanbags to Andrew sitting on Neil’s bed to charge his phone in case his brother texted, with Neil sitting in his desk chair.

Eventually, Alvarez must have left her guard post because the top hits started playing, and the change in music reminded Neil that he had invited Andrew to an actual party and they had been in his room talking for hours.

“I guess I’ve been monopolizing your time. Do you want to get out there and get a drink or anything? I mean we could even have a drink in here. The stash is under my bed. I think I have a little of everything.”

“Didn’t Renee tell you why I was coming?” Andrew asked.

Neil perked up at the mention of Renee and the questions that had been at the back of his mind all night.

“Something about adderall?”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “Is that all you asked?”

“I’m bad at knowing the right questions to ask.”

“You’ve done okay so far tonight.”

“Maybe, but I still don’t know why you’re here.”

“You,” Andrew said it like it was obvious.

“Me?”

“Yeah, why do you think I’m at a fucking party and not drinking?”

“You’re sober? I don’t know.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Far from it. No, I was hoping I could kiss you tonight.”

A thrill ran up Neil’s spine. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. When is the last time you drank?”

“I didn’t.”

“Drugs?”

“None.”

“Can I kiss you?”

“Yes.”

Andrew was sitting criss-cross on the bed and he leaned forward at the waist to meet Neil where he was standing in front of the bed. Neil closed his eyes but Andrew never finished crossing the distance.

Neil opened his eyes.

“I’m gay, is what she was supposed to tell you.”

“I’m…” Neil paused, searching for a word, “So fucking into you.”

Andrew snorted and leaned forward. Right before their lips met, the fire alarm went off.

Neil leaned back and smiled at Andrew and playfully said, “Was that you?”

Andrew just rolled his eyes and shoved him toward the door. “That’d be a real fire alarm, idiot.”

Neil looked up. “Oh shit.”

They shuffled out of the room, there was smoke everywhere, Neil and Andrew hiked their shirts over their faces. Neil felt a firm hand at his lower back and he didn’t have to check to know it was Andrew. Everyone was pushing out the door except Laila and Alvarez who were looking for something, but before Neil could veer off course to grab them, Matt and Dan grabbed them by the collars and ushered them toward the door. Neil could vaguely hear the sound of Jeremy yelling for everyone to stay calm. The alarm was shrill and people were pushing against him, but Neil felt sturdy, unshakeable.

Nicky was gesturing with his hands at the group, and Thea was giving a drunk Kevin a piggyback ride. Dan and Matt came up behind Neil. Everyone was there, safe.

“Did you do this?” Dan pointed a finger at Andrew, then coughed. Matt wound a protective arm around her waist.

Neil gave a muffled, “He was with me.”

There wasn’t a chance to see Matt and Dan’s reaction to that, and for that Neil was grateful. They finally made it down the stairs, and Neil sniffed the air.

“Is that popcorn?”

“Fucking freshmen.”

Andrew was looking at Neil, and Neil blushed.

“What?”

“Is it still a yes?”

Neil looked around. “Here?”

Andrew shrugged.

Neil grinned and tugged him forward.

They felt something spraying on them. They pulled away, startled, to see Alvarez standing over them with a large bottle of champagne.

“Sorry, I didn’t know which fire to put out,” she said, faux-shocked, looking from the dorms and back to Neil and Andrew.

“Alcohol exacerbates a fire,” Andrew said, dull.

“Not that kind of fire.” She winked. “Crotch fires are—”

“Due to gonorrhea…”

“Shut up. It’s time to celebrate,” she said, bringing the bottle to her lips.

Neil grinned and Andrew licked the champagne out of his mouth.

There was laughter, some cheering, a wolf-whistle, but all Neil could hear was the fire alarm and the beat of his heart.