Neil cursed inwardly when he realized neither Jean nor Jeremy were at the pub when he got there. He checked his phone. He was almost half an hour early. Damnit.
He strolled up the street for a couple of blocks until the cold leached through his clothes. Like an idiot, he’d left his jacket at home, taking the daytime warmth for granted. With a sigh that made the air gust white in front of him, he turned and shivered his way back.
Ducking through the crowd, he made his way up to the bar. He ordered Jeremy’s favorite craft beer and Jean’s wine, and a ginger ale for himself. The bartender snorted at him. “I’m going to need to see some ID, kid.”
Maybe Nicky wasn’t exactly wrong about how he came across. He fished his wallet out of his pocket and pulled out his license. The man examined it, eyeballing him suspiciously before tossing it back at him. He snatched it out of the air before it hit the counter and stuffed it back in next to his social security card.
A girl bellied up to the bar next to him and ordered some drink with a weird name. These always baffled Neil; he still didn’t understand why someone thought Anus Burner or Cock Sucking Cowboy were appealing names for a beverage. The girl didn’t get carded, Neil noticed, though he was willing to bet she was younger than he was.
There was a game on the TV over the bar and the flash of a white jersey caught his eye. Baseball. Spring training. Why must they put baseball on at the earliest possible moment? There weren’t even real games being played yet and they were already melting his brain cells.
“Hey,” came a voice next to him. He turned to find the girl looking at him, a smile playing on her lips. “I’m Marissa.”
He stared at her blankly. Was that supposed to mean something to him? Had Jeremy invited someone along and he’d forgotten? “Neil,” he said, feeling his cheeks heat.
Her smile grew. “I’m supposed to be meeting my friend here but she just texted me that her asshole boyfriend is making her have dinner with his parents instead.” Clearly not one of Jeremy’s friends, then. He wondered why she was telling him this. “You waiting for someone?”
“Girlfriend?” she asked, lips pursing into a pout.
“Well, you should hang with me instead,” she said, brushing his arm with her hand. “I’m much more fun.” He glanced down at her hand on his arm and wondered why she was touching him. He didn’t mind, exactly, but it was strange.
“I like my coworkers.”
“Trust me,” she said with a little laugh that sounded fake. “You’ll have a better time with me.”
He stared at her, confused about why she was so sure when she didn’t even know him or his friends.
“He’s not interested.” Jeremy appeared next to him, Jean right behind him. Neil almost sighed in relief.
“Who are you, his boyfriend?” There was a hint of acid in her bubblegum voice and Neil went rigid at the change.
Jeremy smiled pleasantly. “Just his friend.”
“Then you don’t get a say.” She looped her arm through Neil’s. “You want to come with me, right, Neil?”
Neil looked at Jean and Jeremy. “She wants you to go home with her,” Jean said in rapid French. “If you want to we won’t stop you.”
Neil responded in kind. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Do you want to sleep with her? If you do we won’t stop you.”
Neil recoiled slightly, almost yanking his arm out of Marissa’s grasp. “You can’t be serious.”
Jean gave a wry smile. “I’m pretty sure she is.”
Neil’s stomach twisted. He had no interest in her, not least because he didn’t need to try to imagine the girl’s reaction if he let curiosity get the best of him and actually said yes. Even the FBI agents and doctors had not been able to hide their revulsion at the scars that littered his body. To some people the ones on his face made him seem interesting, but nobody had ever seen him without a shirt on and been anything other than disgusted.
She tugged on his arm, a little impatiently. “What are you guys talking about?” she asked, pouting.
“I was asking him about a project at work,” Jean said smoothly.
Marissa rolled her eyes. “See, Neil, I told you I’d be more fun.”
“I’m not here to have fun,” Neil said, wondering why she was still touching him. “I’m just here for trivia night.”
Jeremy choked on his beer and Jean looked amused. Marissa’s expression turned frosty. “Well, good luck, then,” she said, her tone indicating that she hoped he’d die painfully in a sea of stupid questions, and she released his arm and disappeared.
“Hope you don’t mind I interrupted you back there,” Jeremy said after they had found a table and ordered their burgers. “I didn’t mean to cockblock, I just thought you looked like you needed help.”
“I did,” Neil said. “I still don’t know what her deal was.”
Jeremy’s expression was impossible to read, which was a rarity. “She wanted to sleep with you.”
“Yeah, I got that from Jean. I just don’t know why.”
Jeremy and Jean exchanged looks that Neil had no chance of deciphering and didn’t answer his question. Jeremy jotted down their team name—Les Quizerables, and yes, Jean had come up with it—and they waited for the game to start.
“I think we should change the name,” Jeremy said around a mouthful of burger while the guy in charge got the computer set up.
“You think the name is why we keep losing?” Jean said, his accent drawing out his disdain.
Jeremy shrugged. “Can’t hurt, right?”
“What would we change it to?” Neil asked. “‘And In Last Place Is…’?”
Both Jeremy and Jean laughed. “Fuck off, Neil,” Jeremy said, but he sounded affectionate.
It was their usual debacle, Jeremy being good at sports and movies and Jean at music and none of the three of them doing much more than brain freezing for any other questions, even the obvious ones. Neil knew two answers, an all-time high. Jean and Jeremy seemed oddly disturbed that one of the two was that a human has nine pints of blood. Neil himself was more agitated by the fact that he knew Baltimore was Maryland’s largest city. It took him a minute before he could stop smelling the odd mix of fish and garbage that permeated that city’s streets.
For the first time, they didn’t finish last. Jeremy’s celebration at being second to last seemed a bit overblown, but Neil thought that was the beer talking. He was just relieved to get back to his apartment and cuddle with a very needy King for a while. He started a text to Andrew: A girl tried to pick me up tonight—but deleted it. As much as he wanted to talk to him about it, it seemed wrong to do via text. Instead he typed out did you hear why god created snakes before lawyers? He waited a while for an answer but his phone remained silent and eventually he dropped into a dreamless sleep.
He startled awake and glanced around the apartment, reaching instinctively under his pillow, his hand closing on nothing. There was a faint scratching sound that his brain recognized after a few agonizing seconds as King using the litter box. He slumped back down in his pillows and dropped his arm over his eyes. Shit.
As he lay there he found himself getting more awake instead of less. He squirmed around, trying to get comfortable in the tangle of his blankets. It didn’t help that he was hard. Usually if he ignored it it just went away after a while, but he knew from experience that he was more likely to fall back asleep if he helped it along. With a sigh that sounded aggravated even to his own ears he grabbed the tissues off the nightstand.
His mind skipped around as he stroked himself lazily, half of it focusing on the sensation and half skimming the surface of the things he had to do that week. The image of Andrew, standing squarely in front of that giant splash of a red painting, popped into his head. Then of him outside, the sunlight turning his hair and eyes into different shades of gold. He froze: he had never thought of anyone while doing this, not like that. He’d never…pictured someone. But he couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if it was Andrew’s hand on him instead of his own. Or his hand on Andrew—
When he came, it was more intense than usual. And when he dropped back onto the bed after cleaning himself up, sleep was nowhere to be found.
Part of him was dreading running into Nicky at the gym, but it occurred to him as he changed in the locker room bathroom that he may be able to do a little reconnaissance about Andrew. Nicky looked almost startled to see him and came over while Neil was still setting his water in the treadmill cupholder. “I wasn’t sure you’d come back,” Nicky said by way of greeting.
“It’s raining,” Neil answered, puzzled.
Nicky just looked at him for a moment as he started the treadmill up at a walking pace. “I do want to apologize. I really should have let you know what I was thinking.”
Neil nodded. “It’s all right. I’m sorry I bailed.”
“No, I get it. Andrew bailed too. It meant I didn’t have to cook all weekend though so that was good.”
Guilt tugged at the pit of Neil’s stomach. “I do want to hang out with you guys,” he said as he turned the speed up to a light jog. “I just don’t want to be set up.”
Nicky brightened. “You want to come over tonight?”
Neil pictured his apartment, blank except for King. “You guys want to come over instead? You can bring that movie you were talking about and I’ll order something.”
“Lemme check with Erik!” Nicky scrambled off and Neil set in to really run.
By the time he had finished, Erik had replied that he would meet them at Neil’s apartment with the movie and food. Nicky’s shift was over and he was waiting for Neil when he came out of the shower. King was startled by the appearance of an extra human but remembered Nicky quickly and was soon doing her best to trip him by twisting through his legs.
“Aww, baby. I’ve missed you!” Nicky cooed and picked her up. He was the only person other than Neil she allowed to do so, and Neil couldn’t help but grin as she settled onto Nicky’s shoulder and sniffed his cheek. He surreptitiously took a picture and sent it off to Andrew.
Your cousin’s not all bad
A minute later his phone vibrated in his pocket. I see how it is
Neil put the phone away. The last thing he needed was for Nicky to notice. He snagged one of the beers he kept in the fridge for just such an occasion and brought it over to Nicky. “What’s the story with Erik and your cousin anyway?” he asked.
“Oh, that.” Nicky made a face. “Andrew—he’s a great person, but he’s not exactly the warm and fuzzy type, you know what I mean?” Neil nodded, though he couldn’t say he agreed. “Well, a couple of years ago he and his brother had a huge fight and Erik sided with Aaron.” Neil felt an unpleasant jolt. He hadn’t even realized Andrew had a brother. “Now Aaron lives in Chicago and Andrew lives here.”
“So you sided with Andrew?”
Nicky shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “Not really. I mean, I kind of saw both sides of it. I kept thinking they’d get over it but it’s been almost three years and they haven’t spoken.” He petted King for a moment. “It’s funny, everyone always thinks Andrew’s the stubborn one, but I think he’d let it go if Aaron would. But Aaron just can’t. I guess it was one thing too many.”
Neil wanted desperately to know what had happened, but he didn’t feel right pushing further. It was a relief when the buzzer sounded and he had to get up to let Erik in. The movie involved some people of various colors, a talking raccoon, and a walking tree riding around in a spaceship blasting old music. He was completely lost within five minutes but he didn’t really care. Nicky and Erik were laughing and King was purring in his lap and it was good. Not the same kind of good as wandering through a museum with Andrew, but good all the same.
He had never known there were so many different kinds of good. So many different little flavors to happiness. It had started with the weight of a brass key in his hand, and now…now there was laughing Jeremy happiness and purring cat happiness and smiling Nicky happiness, and a dozen different types of happiness centered around Andrew.
Nicky and Erik left a little after nine, and Neil pulled out his phone. You still up?
The phone rang a minute later and he couldn’t keep from smiling as he picked it up. “Well that answers one of my questions.”
There was a brief pause, then Andrew said, “What makes you think it was God who created lawyers?”
Neil laughed. “Okay, that’s a better answer than I had.”
“Of course it is.” He sounded exhausted, his voice wrung-out and slow.
“Should I let you get some sleep?” Neil asked.
“You’re the one who had to deal with my cousin tonight.”
“Eh, Nicky’s fine.” All his questions jumbled together, fighting for primacy, and he ended up not saying anything.
“Spit it out, Josten.”
Neil opened his mouth and closed it again, wondering how Andrew could tell over the phone. “I, uh, didn’t know you had a brother.”
Andrew snorted. “Is that what has you all wrapped up in knots? Yes, I have a brother. And no, I’m not going to kill Nicky for telling you.”
“Any other hidden family members I should know about? Wife and two kids, perhaps?”
That earned him a tired laugh. “Of the two of us, I am not the one with secrets about my family.”
An icy knife twisted in Neil’s gut. He pulled the phone away from his ear, instinct screaming at him to hang up, destroy the phone, get out get out get OUT. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, louder than the desperate pull of air through his teeth. For some reason the room was going blurry. He tried to take a step, but his knees were weak and he ended up crumpling onto the couch.
“Neil. Neil. NEIL.” Muffled cursing was emanating from somewhere near his abdomen when he finally got a deep enough breath to be able to register. He fumbled around and felt the hard edge of his phone. Huh. He thought he’d hung up. His thumb found the red button and pressed it and he fell and he fell and he fell.
He didn’t know how much time had passed when the buzzer to his apartment rang insistently, pushing through the fog. King was curled up against his side, a tiny island of warmth. He buried his cold hand in her fur and she gave a quiet chirp and tucked herself more tightly against him. The buzzer sounded again. And again.
They were all dead or in jail, he reminded himself, all of his father’s people. There was no one left to come after him. He would have been notified if anybody had been released. With an effort, he pushed himself to his feet and stumbled over to the door and answered. “Yes?”
“You’re alive.” Andrew.
There was a beat of silence, then “Okay.” There was something in that word—resignation, or maybe just fatigue—that thawed Neil.
He pushed the button to unlock the door. He had no idea if Andrew was actually coming up or not; his legs still felt shaky underneath him, the room a little surreal. After a couple of minutes there was a single knock and he opened the door.
“What the fuck, Neil.” There was no heat to his voice; Neil thought he would have preferred it if there were.
Neil just pulled the door wider and waited. Andrew stared at him for a long moment then came in. He looked even more worn than he sounded, as if something was rubbing sandpaper across his facade and showing the cracks underneath. “You look like shit,” Neil said.
“Likewise.” No doubt, but that was pretty much always true for Neil. Andrew usually was so self-possessed, it was startling to see him like this. Neil went into his tiny excuse for a kitchen and started heating water, then got out two cups and dropped tea bags in them.
Andrew picked up the box of tea. “I had no idea you were actually a middle-aged woman,” he said, reading the label. “Your disguise is excellent.”
Neil flipped him off with one hand and poured the water into the cups with the other, then set a timer. The scents of lavender and chamomile drifted through the apartment and Neil breathed in deeply. The ground settled beneath his feet, and he wasn’t sure how much of that was from the tea and how much from Andrew’s solid presence.
When the tea was done steeping Neil carried his over to the couch. Andrew followed. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”
“I…” Neil took a sip of the too-hot tea and tried to think of a way to tell the truth and not violate his training. “My parents are dead,” he finally settled on.
“And that is why you had a panic attack.” His tone was mild but there was an undercurrent of skepticism.
“Isn’t that leading the witness?”
“Who’s the judge here? Your cat?”
King had fled at Andrew’s knock but had reappeared on the top of her tower and was looking down at them both. In the dim room she was mostly eyes. “Aren’t cats always judging us?”
“I call bias in this case.” Andrew took a cautious sip of his tea and made a face. “Why does this taste like an attic?”
“I was unaware an attic had a taste.” Neil set his mug down and went into the kitchen. He found the vanilla-infused sugar cubes that he had grabbed at Whole Foods once by mistake and had been trying to figure out how to get rid of ever since. He dropped one in, then at Andrew’s gesture, a second.
“When did your parents die?” Andrew asked. Neil noticed he didn’t ask how.
“My mother died six years ago, and my father the year after.”
“That’s some bad luck.”
Neil couldn’t stop himself in time. “Not really.”
That damn eyebrow went up but Andrew didn’t comment; just drank his tea, evidently more tolerable and less attic-y with the sugar. “My mother is dead too,” he finally said, and there was no grief in his voice. Just an odd note of satisfaction.
“And your father?”
“I’ve never met him.”
“Some people have all the luck,” Neil muttered, then flinched. He didn’t know why his edit button disappeared every time he was around Andrew, but he needed to watch himself. Especially since Andrew was a lawyer, or almost.
Andrew stood, giving no indication that he had heard him. “Now that I have confirmed you’re not dead, I’m going to go get some sleep.”
“You can stay here, if you want,” Neil offered, then flushed when he realized how that sounded. “I don’t mind sleeping on the couch.”
“I don’t sleep well in new places, and I already didn’t really sleep last night,” Andrew said, tugging on his jacket.
“Thank you,” Neil said. Andrew didn’t acknowledge him. When he reached for the door, Neil asked, “How did your mother die?”
Andrew turned to look at him. “Drug overdose. My brother tells everyone it was a car accident.”
With that, he was gone. Neil went through the motions of getting ready for bed. He took out his bottle of Ambien even though he already felt like he had run a marathon, but after a moment put it back unopened. He set the alarm on his phone, then opened up Andrew’s text window. My father murdered my mother he typed into the box. He shut off the phone without hitting send and lay back, staring at the flicker of streetlights playing across the ceiling until finally sleep swept him under.