Chapter 1: don’t you know an apparition is a cheap date?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
There’s a storm brewing out in the desert.
Andrew feels it the moment he steps out of his front door. The air is thick with humidity, and there’s a certain stillness to it, like the space between two heartbeats or breaths. When he turns around after locking his door, a staccato flash of lightning shears through the sky off in the distance. Moments later, the accompanying thunder rumbles forth from the horizon, and it reverberates underneath his shoes as he heads to his car.
Part of him wants to pause for a moment to see if the storm will actually come pay a visit or if it will skirt around the city. Unfortunately, waiting around for even an extra five minutes could be the difference between getting to work on time or being an hour late so, with one last glance at the sky, which is the bruised fruit color of light pollution, he climbs into his car.
The street is quiet. Some of the houses have already gone dark for the night, which isn’t anything different than usual; as far as Andrew knows, none of his neighbors work overnight shifts. The rest of the quiet isn’t unusual either; his house is located in a newer block of bungalows that have only slightly more character and individuality than the average subdivision and cater more to young families than party-goers. A few blocks away, the asphalt and concrete bleeds back into desert, gives away to miles upon miles of sand. Andrew’s sure that, if the land developers have their way-
(and there’s really no doubt in his mind that they will - while Elvis is still the king in town, Andrew has lived in Las Vegas long enough to discover that the land developers are the local gods, the ones who have their fingers in every pie and shape the very environment itself)
-that part of the desert will soon be eradicated, replaced by evermore subdivisions with kitschy names.
Long live the march of progress.
The first ten minutes of his drive are uneventful, quiet and predictable, and the storm remains in his rear view mirror in a manner that seems vaguely taunting. But after those ten minutes pass, both pedestrian and vehicle traffic begins to pick up, and the nature and appearance of the businesses dotting either side of the street start to shift. Pawn shops, seemingly more and more of them with every passing week, pop up like mushrooms, their windows carrying brightly colored, foot-high messages about accepting gold and jewelry and being open for business at any time of day or night. Neon fixtures become commonplace, and the people on the sidewalks become more festooned with glitter and spandex, hairspray and spray tans. With the windows open, it becomes more difficult to hear the distant thunder over music spilling from strip clubs and bingo halls, over drunken warbling and revving engines. The sky has transformed from bruised orange to the yellow of a flame, flickering with the same kind of consistency.
And then, after making a single right turn, there is it, in every bit of its orgiastic glory of light and sound: the Las Vegas Strip.
The sheer gluttony of it never fails to stagger him. The first time he’d seen it, when he’d arrived fresh in town with the weight of college still clinging to his shoulders, he’d been so dumbstruck that he’d simply frozen on the street corner with an overloaded duffel bag hanging from each shoulder and desperately tried to make sense of the whole thing, tried to get his brain to sort through the absolute assault of information at a faster pace.
If it hadn’t been for some drunken tourist bumping into him, he might still be standing on that street corner, wasted away to nothing but a skeleton, empty eye sockets still fixed on the lights. As is, that tourist had broken the spell, and he’d been able to finish walking to the shoe box of an apartment that had become his home for four and a half years. While he eventually left the apartment behind, he didn’t leave behind the job, the same one he’s had for the last seven years: namely, a night shift bartender in the piano lounge at the Jewel, which is one of the many hotel and casino complexes lining the Strip, as plentiful and bright as stars in the sky.
As far as jobs go, it’s not the worst thing that he could be doing. It’s consistent in its inconsistency; he never knows what to expect on any given night, but generally, everything that does happen while he’s behind the bar falls into one of a few distinct categories. Lots of people come in and drink in silence, watch Shane or Kelsey do their thing, pay their tab and leave a generous tip behind. Some people come in already sopping drunk and proceed to pour their sorrows out because they watched one too many movies where bartenders were nothing more than a shoulder to cry on. Some people tell stories in low murmurs, stories about the connections they have in town, about bodies hidden beneath the sidewalks and the subdivision foundations, stories that are almost definitely bullshit.
Still, if he had to choose, Andrew would pick the storytellers over the weepers. At least they’re amusing.
While the Strip is busy, traffic isn’t yet at a standstill, and he pulls into the parking garage below the Jewel ten minutes before his shift is due to start. Heading upstairs, he gives himself a quick once-over in the mirror bolted to the wall of the employee break room, which is full of people coming off the afternoon shift and their compatriots about to start the night shift. Andrew recognizes maybe a third of them, and that’s a liberal estimate; the turnover in this place has been high since he started. It’s not at all unusual for people to work for a month before they bounce across the Strip to somewhere that pays better or before they decide that Vegas isn’t what they thought it would be and they skip town.
Andrew doesn’t blame the people in the latter group one bit.
He walks into the lounge exactly on time. As he steps behind the bar, Shane ambles onto the stage, which is swathed in an eerie blue light, and settles down at his piano to the sound of quiet applause. He barely acknowledges the sound; he simply cracks his knuckles once, settles his fingers on the keys and starts to play. After a moment, his steady, low voice joins the sound of the piano, and Andrew immediately tunes him out as he starts wiping down the surface of the bar. It’s not that Shane isn’t good - he’s leaps and bounds better than the pianist that used to play when Andrew first started behind the bar - but after hearing the same songs night after night for five years running, Andrew’s pretty sure that he could play all of them in his sleep.
Five minutes later, as Shane transitions from one song to the other with only a slight nod at the crowd to acknowledge their applause, Andrew’s co-worker Garrett pops through the door of the room and maneuvers between the tables in a manner that would likely be stealthy if it wasn’t for the fact that, at 6’7, he easily looms over everyone in the vicinity.
“Shane’s in one of his moods tonight,” Andrew comments once Garrett has joined him. Determining Shane’s mood is as easy as observing his ratio of banter and bad jokes to actual playing; seeing as he’s yet to say a word, Andrew figures he’s either exhausted, hungover or pissed off.
“Good,” Garrett answers, stooping over to peer into the mirror that takes up the whole wall behind the bar so he can adjust his tie. “If I hear that joke about the whale one more time, I’m going to quit.”
“The one about the French cat is worse.”
“At least that one’s clever. The whale one is just stupid.”
Their debate about which of Shane’s jokes is the most cringeworthy continues throughout the next few hours, whenever they aren’t too busy serving to talk. It’s a steady night, busy without being overwhelming, and by the time Garrett heads off for his ‘lunch’ break at one o’clock, they haven’t had to deal with any drunkards or people loudly lamenting their losses on the slots or at the tables.
All told, between that and the lack of Shane’s horrible jokes (he still hasn’t said anything more than thank you and taking a break, be back soon), it’s shaping up to be a good night.
Andrew takes advantage of the slight lull to clean up behind the bar, reorganize some of the bottles and flip over the calendar hanging over the cash register. He’s just started wiping down the register itself when he hears the creak of someone’s weight settling down on a stool, followed by the gentle tapping of their fingers against the counter. It’s not a rude sound intrinsically, but Andrew has heard it so many times over the last few years that it makes his left eye briefly twinge with annoyance.
“Be there in a second,” he responds without turning around, scrubbing at a particularly sticky patch on the register.
“Take your time.”
Andrew’s grip on the damp cloth loosens. The rest of him freezes. A swooping feeling, like he just fell from the top of an extraordinarily tall building, floods through his stomach, while his brain screams that this cannot be real. This has to be a cruel figment of his imagination, some kind of hallucination or maybe a particularly potent variety of food poisoning, because it simply isn’t possible that he just heard that voice.
The section of the mirror in front of him is plastered with health and safety posters and advertisements, so he can’t even perform a sanity check. The only thing that he can do, aside from simply walk out of the room, maybe walk right out into the desert never to return, is turn around and face the ghost from his past.
He takes a single deep breath of preparation and turns around.
The breath is snatched from his chest almost immediately.
Outside the confines of photographs, he hasn’t seen Steven in three years. He still has the same dark eyes and soft smile, but he’s more polished around the edges. The jacket he’s wearing, a navy blue tweed that would look ridiculous on anyone else, is on brand with the Steven that Andrew used to know, but this one actually fits him, cuts close to the line of his shoulders and the length of his arms. His hair is spiked up at the front but still looks wispy, like it would be as soft as a dandelion if Andrew reached out and touched it. It’s a blonde so light that it’s nearly silver, and it’s pretty clear that it was done by a professional and not two idiots with a bottle of bleach and only a vague idea of what they were doing.
(As if it was yesterday, Andrew remembers with perfect clarity the two of them cramming into Steven’s bathroom, which was really no bigger than a linen closet, fumbling with the bottle of bleach and laughing as their elbows collided whenever they moved. Even with the door and window open, the fumes had permeated every square inch of the space, and they’d still gotten distracted making out. They’d ended up with Andrew sitting on the floor and leaning back against the bathtub with Steven astride his lap, head wrapped up in an old towel, long fingers twisted into Andrew’s hair. They’d kissed for so long that by the time they got around to rinsing the bleach out, Steven’s hair had turned bright Halloween orange.
Andrew’s tongue had been tripping on apologies, but after scrutinizing his reflection in the mirror, Steven had simply shrugged and declared that he loved it before he hooked his fingers into the front of Andrew’s shirt and kissed him some more.
Even though he’s kissed other people since Steven left town, it’s still Steven’s mouth that Andrew remembers best.)
“Hi, Andrew,” Steven says, words nearly lost under a particularly grandiose sweep of Shane’s fingers along the keys. His smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and his fingers are still tapping against the polished surface of the bar in a gesture that seems to be more related to nerves than getting Andrew’s attention.
Andrew’s had dreams that started like this. More than he cares to think of.
Steven’s name is on the tip of his tongue, but he forces himself to swallow it down, nearly chokes on it as he spits out words that are simultaneously more and less painful.
“What are you doing here?” Steven’s smile, which was small to begin with, flickers and fades.
“I’m in town for work.” His eyes stay affixed on Andrew, and Andrew fixes his own over Steven’s shoulder, on the entrance to the lounge, hopeful that Garrett will push through the door at any second. “We’re scouting locations for a movie.”
Andrew can’t help but raise an eyebrow. “Bit lofty for a production assistant, isn’t it?”
The laugh that falls from Steven’s mouth is utterly dispirited, as sad as someone’s last breath.
“I haven’t been one of those for awhile. Gotta love promotions.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Andrew replies. The words taste as bitter as cyanide in his mouth. Steven doesn’t respond, and part of Andrew, a mean-spirited part, wants to glance over at his face and see if there’s pain blossoming there.
Instead, he keeps his eyes fixed on the door.
“How long are you in town for?” he asks, trying to keep his voice as level as possible.
“Two weeks, if all goes according to plan.”
Immediately, Andrew starts doing some calculations. He’s only taken a day or two of vacation this year and doesn’t really plan to use more until Christmas, which means he has at least two and a half weeks of time that’s sitting there, ripe for the taking.
He wonders if he could get away with using some on such short notice, if he could march upstairs on his break and spin some yarn about a family emergency that he has to take care of, if he could simply barricade himself in his house until Steven’s left town once again.
Maybe this time, when he leaves, it’ll actually be permanent.
Before he can go too deeply down that particular line of thinking, the lounge’s door swings open. Garrett’s distinctive silhouette blocks out most of the light spilling in from the lobby, and relief washes over Andrew’s mind like a cold chill.
He intends on simply walking out of the room without another word, but that mean-spirited part of him, the part that’s been building on some level for the last three years, emerges again, and he’s powerless to stop himself from speaking.
“Why did you come back, Steven?” he asks, tossing the cloth onto a shelf behind him and wiping his damp palms on his pants. “Why did you come back here?” This time, he allows himself to look, and he watches Steven’s utterly beautiful face twist into a wince, like he’s been slapped full force across the mouth.
The sight isn’t as satisfying as Andrew hoped it would be.
As soon as Garrett steps back behind the bar, Andrew brushes past him with a muttered be back soon. He can feel Steven’s gaze burning into his back as he weaves his way through the tables, but he refuses to look back, refuses to see what that wince of pain has turned into.
Normally, he’d head over to the buffet (which is touted as one of the best in the city, according to the marketing brochures that Steven used to help put together) to grab something to eat, but the thought of having to interact with so many people, even in a cursory manner, makes his head throb. So instead of heading towards the lobby, he turns down a narrow hallway near the lounge. The public portion of it ends in some bathrooms; beyond that, it’s employees only, and Andrew uses his pass to gain access to it. On the other side of the door, the chintzy red and gold carpeting transitions to plain white tile, and the rosy mood lighting is replaced by glaring halogen. Andrew immediately feels a little better, but he keeps walking, follows the hallway to the end and then turns down another one.
Eventually, he ends up at his destination: one of the smaller loading docks, which doesn’t see a lot of overnight deliveries and is currently abandoned. His footsteps are strangely loud on the concrete as he crosses to the edge and sits down with his legs dangling into thin air. The dock faces away from the Strip, but there’s still no escaping it; the sky is ablaze, and the noise of the music and the tourists and the continuous honking of car horns is only the slightest bit muted.
Still, it’s the closest thing to an oasis that he’s likely to find in the whole complex.
Closing his eyes, he sighs heavily, and some anxiety and tension leeches out of him, enough that he can start thinking rationally again.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. He wasn’t supposed to see Steven in the flesh again, wasn’t supposed to hear his voice again. Their last words to each other-
(“That’s it, Andrew? You don’t have anything else to say?”
“Just go, Steven. Please.”)
-weren’t supposed to be replaced by new ones. Steven was supposed to remain in the past, to hopefully be forgotten one day like a knickknack buried at the back of a dusty shelf.
Unfortunately, Andrew’s never been good at forgetting things.
The door swings open behind him, and he turns to look back over his shoulder, stomach dropping in anticipation for it to be Steven stepping outside, for him to still know all of Andrew’s favorite spots three years on. Thankfully, he’s proven wrong; instead of Steven, it’s Adam walking through the door, somehow managing to balance two loaded plates from the buffet in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, horn-rimmed glasses slipping down his nose. Andrew has never been more relieved to see him. Of all the people in the casino that he could be around right now, Adam is quite possibly the safest. He only joined the casino’s accounting department two and a half years ago, so unlike some of Andrew’s other friends, like Niki and Rie, he has absolutely no ties to Steven. He also has a way of reading moods, of somehow knowing how best to deal with any kind of situation that arises.
Andrew doesn’t really know what he needs right now, but he does know that Adam is probably the only person who might be able to help him figure it out.
“Busy night?” Andrew asks. It’s an inside joke between them, one that he never expects an answer to; Adam’s quiet about most things, but he’s downright silent on the topic of what he actually does when he’s at his desk. Tonight is no exception; he just smiles a little, the quirk of his lips almost disappearing into his beard, before he sits down a few inches away from Andrew and starts to pick at a small mountain of potato salad on one of his plates. For a few moments, Andrew savors the quiet. It settles over him like a weighted blanket, soothes some of the frantically loud thoughts still rotating through his brain.
Eventually, he decides to speak up. Maybe, if someone else is privy to what happened to him tonight, if he shares the knowledge with someone, it won’t feel as heavy on his shoulders, won’t fill his brain in screaming color like so many neon lights.
“I saw a ghost tonight.”
Adam pauses in the middle of dabbing at his mouth with a napkin. One of his eyebrows rises as he lowers the napkin back to his lap and says, “An actual ghost?”
“No. Well, not really. Not the kind of ghost that new blackjack dealer won’t shut up about. More like someone from the past who was supposed to stay in the past. That kind of ghost.” When he closes his eyes for a moment, he can see Steven sitting there on the other side of the bar, mere inches away from him, close enough that Andrew probably could have seen every fleck and discoloration in his eyes if the lights had been up all the way.
(That thought launches him into another collection of memories that he wants to shove down into the deepest hollow of his chest or tear out entirely. He doesn’t want to think about all the nights where Steven finished up early, came over to the lounge, sat down at the bar and spent the rest of Andrew’s shift flirting badly with him, pretending that he was just another drunken customer putting the moves on him.
More specifically, he definitely doesn’t want to think about how, when Andrew was finally done for the night, Steven would lean across the surface of the bar, wrap his fingers into the end of Andrew’s tie, tug him in close and murmur, hey bartender, want to take me home, eyes sparkling with mischief and glee.
He doesn’t want to think about the shiver that went up his spine every single time, even though it was a stupid, utterly cheesy line.)
“Ah,” Adam replies with a slight nod. “That kind of ghost.”
“Yeah,” Andrew sighs. There’s only fifteen minutes left in his break, and the thought of having to go back inside to possibly face Steven again, especially on an empty stomach, makes his head pound. As if he voiced the thought out loud, Adam clears his throat and holds one of his heaping plates out to Andrew.
“Here. Have some.” After a moment, he pulls another fork, individually wrapped in plastic, out of the pocket of his trousers and hands it over, and Andrew gratefully accepts both.
“Thanks, Adam,” he says, meaning it with everything he has.
Adam smiles again and goes back to his other plate.
When he heads back to the lounge, having dragged his break out for as long as possible, Shane has perked up some and is in the middle of telling a story about having choked on an avocado once. It’s a story Andrew has only heard half a dozen times, rather than two hundred, so that’s certainly a relief.
What’s more of a relief is the fact that the stool that Steven was sitting on is occupied by someone else, someone with majorly teased hair and an utterly unfamiliar silhouette.
“Hey,” Garrett says once Andrew steps back behind the bar. He’s in the midst of making a martini, hands performing a series of fancy flourishes with the shaker, and he doesn’t falter as he turns to look at Andrew. “That guy you were talking to when I came back seemed pretty bummed when you left. Do you know him?”
For a moment, Andrew’s stomach sinks, but he moves past it. It’s an automatic reaction still steeped in the past, a traitorous reaction that he’ll one day be able to totally eradicate.
“No,” he answers with a firm shake of his head. “Not anymore.”
tumblr post for reblogging can be found here!
Chapter 2: my 9 to 5 is cutting open old scars
title for this chapter comes from Fourth of July by Fall Out boy.
The traffic is almost bearable when Andrew finally pulls out of the parking garage at six-thirty and heads home. The sidewalks are dotted with drunken frat boys stumbling back to their hotel rooms after an all-night bender, casino employees and Elvis impersonators walking home after a long shift, street cleaners sweeping up the trash and washing away the vomit that accumulated overnight.
His street is still slumbering when he pulls into his driveway, which he’s grateful for; he doesn’t think he could take any early morning cheer from people he barely knows. As he steps out into the warm morning, shirt already sticking to his back, his phone buzzes with a text from Adam.
if you need to talk, i’m here.
He shoots back a quick reply before he returns his phone to his pocket and lets himself into the house. He’s barely through the door before Cornichon, the cat he adopted two months after Steven left, starts winding between his feet, a tripping hazard if he’s ever seen one. When he gently prods her with one foot so that she’ll move out of the way, she makes a sound suspiciously like a grumble and wanders into the kitchen, probably to meow pitifully and stare into her food dish until Andrew fills it to the very top.
Normally, he stays awake for a few hours after getting home, eats dinner and runs some errands or watches a movie, but he can barely keep his eyes open. His interaction with Steven was maybe five minutes at the most, but he feels like he hasn’t slept in days. By the time he scarfs down some leftovers, feeds Cornichon and has a shower, he’s nearly asleep on his feet. After pulling his blackout curtains shut, he collapses into bed, damp hair still trickling water down the back of his neck.
As he shuts his eyes and waits for sleep to overtake him, his mind wanders to the wooden box that is tucked under the bed frame, right underneath him, unless Cornichon knocked it askew while she was running around. It doesn’t look like anything special; it’s only a little bigger than a standard shoe box, and the silver paint has started to flake in spots, fade in others. There’s no markings on it to indicate exactly what it contains, but Andrew could probably provide an itemized list without so much as lifting the lid.
(“I have a present for you.”
Andrew glances up from the crossword he’s been working on over breakfast, pen still poised over the paper, crumbs from his bagel stuck to a spot where the ink is fresh. Steven is standing in the doorway of their kitchen, which is so tiny that Andrew could probably reach him if he leaned forward and reached out. His hair is mussed with sleep and totally free of product, stuck up in the back and flopped across his forehead. He’s wearing one of Andrew’s shirts, his lanky legs are bare beneath the hem of his boxers, and he looks so soft and gorgeous that, if it wasn’t for the fact that both of his arms are behind his back, hiding something from view, Andrew would be tempted to take him back to bed.
“A present?” he asks instead, dropping the pen to the table. “What’s the occasion?”
Steven’s mouth quirks up into a smile as he pads across the faded, peeling tiles in his bare feet.
“Do I need one?” Arms still behind his back, he glances pointedly from Andrew’s lap to his face and back again, and Andrew obediently pushes away from the table so that Steven can sit astride his lap, one leg on either side of him. Once he’s situated on Andrew’s knees, he finally reveals his gift, leaning back against the edge of the table so that there’s room between them for Andrew to hold it. It’s a wooden box with a hinged lid, painted silver, and Andrew absently rubs his thumb against the grain of the wood.
Andrew does. The box is roughly a third full of things he recognizes all too well, mementos that are a little ragged around the edges from being tucked in drawers or tacked up to the broken corkboard propped up against the wall in the living room. Balancing the box on one palm, Andrew carefully starts flicking through the contents. There are ticket stubs from the movies they’ve gone to, a strip of photos from the arcade they went to on their third date, a handwritten note that Andrew tucked into Steven’s pocket one night before they went off to their separate shifts. As he sorts through, he catches a glimpse of something painted across the bottom of the box in gold paint, but with only one free hand, he can’t move enough of the mementos aside to see what it is.
“What’s on the bottom?” he asks, carefully closing the lid and reaching around Steven so that he can set it on the table, which wobbles a little in response; one of the legs is uneven, and the piece of cardboard they’ve been using to steady it no longer seems to be doing the trick.
“‘I love you’,” Steven replies, loosely wrapping his arms around Andrew’s neck. “Do you like it?”
Like it is an understatement. It’s a simple gesture, but he knows that Steven has probably been working for weeks in order to keep it a surprise; in an apartment as small as theirs, keeping anything a secret for long is a miracle in and of itself.
“I love it,” he answers truthfully, dropping his palms to the lean, warm muscle of Steven’s thighs and craning his head up for a kiss. “Just like I love you.”)
The lid barely closes on the box now; if they had managed to stay together for even a few more weeks, Andrew thinks they would have had to move on to a second one, maybe painted the inverse, gold on the outside and a silver message on the inside.
He hasn’t opened it in three years. For long stretches of time, he’s even forgotten about it entirely. But now, his fingers itch to reach under the bed and grab it, and he doesn’t know if it’s from a desire to torture himself by combing back through the memories or if it’s to set the box out with the garbage on the curb.
Before he can give either option much consideration, he falls asleep.
When he wakes up, it’s mid-afternoon, the only sound in the apartment is the gentle whoosh of the air conditioning, he has a migraine, and the thought of actually going into work and possibly running into Steven again is unbearable.
He gives himself an hour to see if his mood shifts. He makes breakfast, writes up a grocery list and watches an episode of a nature series he’s been following on Netflix.
By the end of the hour, his head is still aching, and the thought of walking out into the desert is even more appealing than it was yesterday, when he’d first turned around to find Steven sitting at the bar.
He calls in sick and reels out an excuse about food poisoning that is immediately accepted. After he hangs up, he sends Adam a text to let him know that he won’t be coming in and spends the next fourteen hours alternating between sipping scotch, watching television, aimlessly playing with Cornichon and doing his utmost best not to think about Steven.
On the last front, he doesn’t succeed.
However, when he wakes up the next day with no headache in sight, he’s feeling slightly more hopeful. Logically, there’s a very high chance that Steven is no longer at the hotel, that he checked out and moved across the Strip to somewhere different, somewhere that doesn’t have a memory associated with every hallway and room. Sticking around would be a form of torture for both of them, and Steven was never the sadistic type.
Really, it seems like he blew this whole thing out of proportion. It was one encounter. In a few weeks, it’ll surely be just another faded memory in the back of his mind. In a year or so, he’ll have forgotten it entirely.
(Never mind that he still remembers the smallest things about Steven. He still remembers how it felt when their fingertips brushed together for the first time, remembers the gaping pit of anxiety and nerves that had flourished in his stomach when he met Steven’s mom for the first time, remembers how, even if they’d had a fight and were going to bed angry, Steven never failed to press a kiss to the corner of Andrew’s mouth before he fell asleep.
Never mind all of that.)
Besides, even if Steven is still around, if Andrew happens to catch a glimpse of him walking through the lobby or spots him waiting in line at the buffet, well then, so be it. He’ll deal with that when it comes.
As he gets changed and messes with his hair, pausing every so often to lean over and scratch Cornichon, who is sitting on the edge of the bathtub staring up at him, he pushes every wayward thought, every negative comment or memory, out of his head with a simple refrain.
It’s going to be fine.
It’s very much not fine.
The thought that Steven might be so bold as to perform a repeat of his performance from the other night only occurs to him faintly, because it’s a move that would be almost insulting in its sheer brazenness.
And yet, when he walks into the lounge that night, he recognizes Steven’s silhouette immediately.
He’s sitting on the same stool, hunched over slightly and looking down at what looks like a large notebook. When Shane steps out onto the stage, Steven turns to glance at the piano, and the glow from one of the spotlights illuminates his face, sinks down into the hollows under his eyes and the cupid’s bow of his top lip. The light makes him look like something that should be on display in a museum, a piece of art kept safe and preserved behind glass.
Andrew forces himself to take a deep breath, even though every instinct he has is screaming at him to bolt, and mutters the refrain to himself as he walks across the room, tries to will himself to believe in it.
“It's going to be fine.”
He slides behind the bar just as Shane starts to dance along the piano keys. Immediately, he can feel Steven’s eyes land on him, but he does his absolute best to avoid looking in that direction. Instead, he focuses on preparing a rum and coke for the person sitting in front of him, draws it out for as long as possible before he slides it across the surface of the bar. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as he can go for the time being; everyone else occupying a stool either has a drink in front of them or has twisted around to watch Shane. Before he can initiate a conversation with Kate as a way to keep himself occupied, she brushes past him with an apologetic pat on the shoulder.
“I forgot my phone. Be right back.” They’re not supposed to have their phones while on shift, but that’s never stopped her, and even if Andrew was going to say something about it, she’s gone before he can even open his mouth.
He bites back a sigh. He wishes that he could go all night avoiding the elephant in the room, but he’s pretty sure that, if he does that, Steven will stick around longer, will wear him down inch by inch, brick by brick.
Maybe it’s like a band-aid: maybe it will hurt less if he just goes for it.
He wanders down to the other end of the bar, where Steven is sipping on a neon-green concoction, one of Kate’s specialties. He can smell the watermelon liqueur even from a distance, and his stomach turns as he leans back against the cash register and crosses his arms over his chest. After he sets his drink down, Steven quickly glances from his lit-up phone to his notebook and scribbles something down before he flips the book closed and turns his phone off. He doesn’t let go of the pen; instead, when he glances up at Andrew, he starts twiddling it, tapping against the web of skin between his opposite hand’s thumb and forefinger.
“Hi,” he says quietly. His lips are coated with a light film from the drink, and Andrew almost tosses a napkin at him.
“What are you doing back here?” he asks, drumming his fingers off his biceps. He feels like he’s been pulled back into a re-run, like he’s reliving the other night all over again.
Maybe he died, and this is his own personal version of Hell: having to deal with Steven popping up in his life again, night after night, for all eternity.
Steven shrugs and glances back over his shoulder at the stage. “Wanted to hear Shane play for a bit. I forgot how good he is.”
Andrew has a mean quip on the tip of his tongue about how Shane doesn’t seem as good when you’ve heard him play at least a thousand times over the past five years, but the memory of the pit that filled his stomach when he watched hurt blossom across Steven’s face the other night, how unsatisfying it had been, makes him bite the remark back.
“Shouldn’t you be out scouting locations? Or something like that?” he asks instead, glancing down at Steven’s notebook meaningfully. Steven shrugs again, and a smile, a distant cousin to a grin, maybe, unfurls on his mouth like a banner.
“I can’t work all the time, Andrew.”
“Yeah, well, you can’t stay here and drink all night either.”
Steven’s smile grows a little as he leans forward, arms crossed on top of his notebook, and replies, “Never used to stop us.”
(Andrew wishes he could lie, wishes that he could say that he has no idea what Steven is talking about, but while he can distort the truth when he has to, he’s not that good. He remembers perfectly the nights where they stopped by to say hi to some friends or attend some kind of party, whether it was for a birthday or an engagement or a going-away, and ended up getting drunk enough that, when they headed home with the sun just cresting the horizon, they spent most of the walk laughing and tripping over each other’s feet.
Most of those nights ended the same way; once they actually got through the door of their apartment, they rarely made it to the bed. More often than not, they simply toppled onto the damnably small couch and ended up with half their clothes strewn across the living room, with Steven’s knees digging divots into the cushions on either side of Andrew’s hips, face ducked into the curve of his neck, breathlessly panting and mumbling a stream of beautiful, heated words against Andrew’s skin as he roughly rolled his hips down.
Andrew wishes he could lie about all of that, but even in the dim room, he’s fairly certain that the flush seeping up his neck and into his cheeks would betray him in an instant.)
Voice edged in a way that he barely recognizes, Andrew says, “Guess it’s a good thing that we’re not an us anymore, isn’t it?”
He doesn’t wait around to see Steven’s reaction, doesn’t look to see if he wilts or winces or flushes. Instead, he walks back down to the other end of the bar, in a move that turns out to be conveniently timed; as soon as he comes to a stop, an older man in a well-tailored suit orders two shots of their finest tequila, one for himself and one for Andrew. While Andrew has never been a big believer of drinking on the job - he’s seen too many people abuse the privilege and end up disgracing themselves - if there’s any occasion worth forsaking that belief for, it’s this one.
Once he’s poured both shots, he clinks his glass against the man’s and tosses it back. It burns all the way down his throat and settles heavily in his gut, and warmth floods through his face, easily overpowers the warmth that falling back into his memories of Steven had caused.
Automatically, he glances back down the length of the polished bar.
The neon-green drink is still there, half-full and glowing like something radioactive, but Steven is gone.
Suddenly, Andrew feels like he can breathe again.
Chapter 3: you twist my arm (I'm twisting fate)
title of this chapter comes from Millions by Gerard Way.
Andrew is supposed to have the next night off, but he’s woken up by a call from his boss asking if he can come in and cover a shift at the Tiki Bar. If it was any other week, he’d come up with any excuse to get out of it; the typical clientele at the Tiki Bar make every last lounge customer look like a respectful, upstanding citizen. Drunken frat boys, newlyweds who were strangers only a few days or hours beforehand, screaming bachelorette parties; the Tiki Bar gets all of them in droves. He’ll probably spend most of his night gritting his teeth and trying his best not to literally toss someone out the door.
However, there are two things that can be said about the place: the number of Steven related memories associated with it are in the single digits, and he suspects that Steven would never think to look for him within its plastic palm frond covered walls.
So he says yes.
The first few hours are a maddening blur of shrieking laughter, sloppy flirtations being thrown his way and drink orders that are more sugary syrup than alcohol. By the time he finally manages to slip out for his lunch break just after one o’clock, he’s had three napkins with numbers scrawled on them pushed towards him, each of which ended up in the garbage.
He sends Adam a text to see if he wants to meet up and heads over to the buffet, which is dotted with people famished and pale from playing the slots for the last twelve hours, a few clearly jet-lagged travelers, more drunk people. Andrew loads up a plate and takes a booth in the far back corner, as far away from the entrance as possible. As he eats, he expects at any moment to glimpse up and see Steven a few feet away, blonde hair gleaming in the light, long fingers carefully filling a plate with more dessert than actual food.
Maybe he’s lost his sweet tooth by now, but somehow, Andrew suspects not.
Thankfully, by the time Adam arrives and slides into the booth opposite him, the only place he’s seen Steven is in the confines of his own mind.
“You smell like fruit punch,” Adam says by way of greeting.
“I’m covering the Tiki Bar,” Andrew answers. It’s all the explanation Adam needs. His brow furrows as he shakes his head sympathetically.
“Gross. Anyone throw up on you yet?”
“Not yet. But,” Andrew says, glancing down at his watch for punctuation, “the night is still young.” Adam nods and bites into a home fry. It’s clear that there’s something on his mind; there’s a distracted air to him, to the way he’s picking at his food rather than devouring it, but Andrew doesn’t push. It’s only fair that he respect Adam’s boundaries the way Adam respects his, so he remains quiet and works on his own dinner.
Eventually, Adam asks, “Are you still having your ghost problem?”
Andrew sighs and drops his fork to his plate as he nods. He’s not surprised that Adam asked, but it doesn’t seem fair for him to care so much when he doesn’t know anything beyond the vague hints Andrew has given him thus far.
Maybe, if he gives Adam some context to the whole situation, if he shares some memories, the weight of them will be easier to bear.
Maybe they’ll even be easier to forget.
“His name is Steven,” he begins, dropping his eyes to his plate and pushing his fork through a lumpy pile of macaroni salad. “We were together for three years. He used to work in the marketing department. Created some of the brochures, worked on the website, gave tours. That kind of thing.”
“How did you two actually meet?” Adam asks. His hands are clasped on the table in front of him, and he’s leaning forward slightly, the utter picture of attentiveness. Andrew knows that he could talk all night and well into the morning and Adam would still probably be sitting like that, listening to every single word.
He would never be cruel enough to take advantage of that, but he’s grateful for it nonetheless.
“It was a few days after I started,” he answers, and just like that, the scene begins to unfold in the theater of his mind’s eye.
(Keith isn’t due to start playing for another twenty minutes, but the lounge is already full of people, their low conversations intertwining together until it sounds like a swarm of bees buzzing around Andrew’s head. Even though his shift also wasn’t due to start for another twenty minutes, he’s already slung more drinks than he can count. As soon as he polishes off one and pushes it across the bar, he’s given another order, and he has to start all over again.
At the very least, being this busy will mean that the night will go by fast. It’ll be morning before he knows it, and he’ll be able to tromp back to his apartment, which is only a few steps above fleabag on the luxury scale, watch some television and fall asleep.
He’s been in town less than two weeks, and while he’s still staggered by the sheer spectacle of it all, the excitement of Vegas has already worn out its welcome.
He’s in the middle of throwing together a martini when the doors to the lounge open and admit both a corona of light from the lobby and a small cluster of people wearing suits and carrying briefcases. Leading the pack is someone wearing a ruby-red blazer with the casino’s logo emblazoned in gold thread on the back. It’s possibly the tackiest thing Andrew has ever seen, and he’s infinitely glad that his own uniform need only consist of a half-decent shirt and a dark tie.
If they’d given him something like that to wear after he scored the job, he would have quit on the spot.
As the group comes closer, Andrew realizes that the leader is chatting merrily away in Mandarin. Based on how he’s waving his arm around the room, he must be giving some kind of tour, maybe to a group of investors, and Andrew focuses his attention on finishing up the martini without spilling it all down his front. Once it’s done, he sets it down in front of the customer, takes their money and looks up to discover that the group leader is standing only a few feet away, one arm frozen in the middle of gesturing theatrically at the bar. A frown creases his young face, and after half-turning to the group behind him and quickly saying something, he turns back and clears his throat.
“You’re not Brent.”
“Am I supposed to be?” Andrew answers with a mirroring frown.
Thankfully, before they get stuck in a cycle of frowning at each other, Zack, the bartender giving Andrew his training, breezes by and claps a hand on Andrew’s shoulder while effortlessly twirling a bottle of tequila with the other.
“Brent betrayed us and went over to Circus Circus last Monday. This is Andrew, the new guy.” With that, he breezes away again, and Andrew is left blinking at the guy, whose name he still doesn’t know and who blinks back at him, brows drawn together quizzically.
“Alright, I’m going to tell them that you’re a world-class bartender, so just smile and do something fancy with your hands,” the guy eventually says, waving his own fingers for emphasis. As soon as the words are out of his mouth, his lips curve into a dazzlingly bright smile that Andrew only glimpses before he spins back around and starts speaking again, hands waving towards the bar. He has no idea if the guy is actually saying what he said he would, but just in case, he grabs a bottle of gin and adds a little flourish as he goes about making another martini.
By the time he finishes the drink and glances back up, skin faintly stinging from nerves, the group and their leader have disappeared.
“Who the hell was that?” Andrew asks the next time they have a slight reprieve from the constant stream of orders.
“Oh! That was Steven,” Zack answers. “He’s pretty new too. Don’t worry. You’ll get used to him.”
Frankly, Andrew doesn’t expect that they’ll bump into each other very often, unless these little tours are a common occurrence. The Jewel is a sprawling complex; the only people he’s seen more than once are the ones he works alongside in the lounge and the people in the human resources department that hired him.
He’s sure that, the next time he sees Steven, they’ll have forgotten about each other.
As it turns out, he’s wrong.
Three hours later, just after Keith has stepped away for a break, Andrew turns around to find Steven sitting in front of him. The hideous blazer is gone, replaced by a baggy red pullover that makes him looks like a college student.
Which he might very well have been, only a few months ago, Andrew reminds himself.
“Hey!” he says, sounding almost illegally chipper considering what time of night it is. “I’m sorry about earlier. I had no idea that Brent left, and it kind of threw me off my rhythm. I’m Steven.”
“Nice to meet you,” Andrew answers, glancing down towards the other end of the bar to make sure that Zack has everything under control before he continues, “Do you do that kind of thing a lot?” When Steven nods, his whole body rocks with it, like a puppet on strings.
“I’ve only been here two months, but it’s been at least once a week. I’m sure they’d rather that someone that actually knows the place like the back of their hand do it, but I’m the only one fluent enough in Mandarin who has the time, so this is what they get.”
“Looked like you were doing fine to me. Except for the whole Brent fiasco.”
“Fiasco?” Steven gasps and claps one hand to his heart. “It was more of a hiccup than a fiasco, and even if it was a fiasco, it’s your fault for not being Brent.”
Andrew doesn’t know how to respond to that in any kind of intelligent fashion, so instead, he asks, “Do you want a drink?”
“Trying to prove to me that you actually are a world-class bartender?” Steven asks with a bright grin. Before Andrew can issue a denial, Steven shakes his head. “Nah. I gotta get back to work. Someone discovered a typo in one of our brochures, and it isn’t going to fix itself. Some other night though, yeah?”
“Sure. Some other night,” Andrew answers automatically, taking it as a meaningless platitude.
It's not; true to his word, Steven shows up the next night and asks if he can still claim his drink.
After that, it's only a matter of days before Andrew realizes that, if Steven says something, he means it from the bottom of his heart.)
“Told you it wasn’t a very exciting story,” he apologizes, working away at his plate without looking up at Adam.
“The way I met Annie wasn’t very exciting either,” Adam responds, reaching his fork across the table and spearing a baby carrot off Andrew’s plate. “But it still changed my life.” After taking a moment to crunch the carrot between his teeth, he continues, “How long is he in town for?”
“He said two weeks, ‘if everything goes according to plan.’ Whatever that’s supposed to mean.” Andrew glances down at his watch; his break is almost up, and he needs to spend the last minutes polishing off his plate and not thinking about Steven if he wants to make it through the rest of his shift without losing his mind. To put the conversation to rest, he says casually, “Don’t suppose you need an assistant? I know how to do math. Please hire me.”
Adam smiles, shakes his head a little, and steals another one of Andrew’s carrots.
By the time six o’clock finally rolls around, Andrew is ready to go home, shower, and sleep for approximately four days.
Even after spending an absurd amount of time scrubbing at his hands, it still feels like there’s sugary alcohol stuck to his skin. He reeks of fruit punch (unsurprising, considering the spatters of alcohol dotting his shirt and pants), and he’s thrown four more napkins with numbers scrawled on them into the trash.
He hopes that the regular workers at the Tiki Bar get paid a hell of a lot more than he does, because if he had to put up with this five days a week, he’d cut out his own soul. Probably with a rusty knife.
As he walks to his car, footsteps echoing in the cavernous parking garage, his phone buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out to find a text from Adam, asking if he wants to grab something to eat with Annie before he heads home. He’s about to compose a response saying that he’s just going to head on home when he hears someone clear their throat. He expects that it’ll be someone else that he works with, maybe someone new who needs directions to the actual belly of the beast.
Instead, when he glances up, he’s met with Steven.
He’s leaning against the passenger side of Andrew’s car, arms crossed over his chest. He’s wearing casual clothes, dark wash jeans and a gray pullover hoodie with the silhouette of a corgi stenciled on the front. His hair is flopped across his forehead, and behind the black frames of his glasses, his eyes are cloudy with sleep.
He also looks a little sheepish, like a child caught with their hand in the candy jar.
As he should, Andrew thinks.
“What the hell?” he asks, pocketing his phone and coming to a stop. His keys are in his other hand, and he tightens his fingers around them, until their teeth are digging into the meat of his palm.
“Still have the same car,” Steven answers, patting the hood for emphasis. “You haven’t changed.”
Andrew’s pretty sure that Steven’s trying to go for levity with those words, but instead, they wallop him across the face as sharply and surely as someone’s knuckles. To counteract the pain and prevent himself from saying something truly horrible that he might mean but that he’ll definitely regret later, he takes a long, steadying breath before he responds.
“I mean, what are you doing down here?”
“I’m not stalking you, I swear. I was just… hoping that we could talk, maybe? That we could go somewhere besides the lounge.”
Andrew can’t be certain that Steven is thinking the same thing he’s thinking, but underneath Steven’s words, what he hears is somewhere without so many memories, which certainly rules out most of the Jewel, along with a good portion of the restaurants, parks and streets in town.
“Don’t you have to work?”
“Not for a few hours.” Steven pulls his glasses off and pinches the bridge of his nose between his fingers before he steps away from Andrew’s car. “I’ll buy you breakfast. You can pick the spot. Or...” He trails off and scuffs the toe of one sneaker off the ground. For a moment, whether it’s the hunch of his shoulders or the way he puts his glasses back on so they’re resting near the tip of his nose or the uncertain smile on his mouth, he looks so young, and Andrew feels like he’s been walloped again. “If you don’t want to, that’s fine. Checkout is at eleven, I can switch over to another hotel.”
The smartest thing for everyone involved would be for Steven to do exactly that. If he went upstairs and checked out, maybe, after a few weeks, Andrew would be able to sleep again without all of his dreams being flashbacks to the most bittersweet parts of his life. He’d be able to go to work without having to worry about turning around and having his past, the best and worst parts of it, literally staring him in the face.
When he opens his mouth, he truly intends to tell Steven to bleed back into the past and stay there this time.
However, what he finds himself saying instead, hands clammy with sweat and flesh divoted from his keys is, “Dinner.”
“Huh?” Steven asks, head snapping up from where he was staring between his feet, mouth screwed up in puzzlement. The sight makes more familiarity spark in Andrew’s chest - Steven always was so terribly expressive, wore every emotion on his face as clearly as if it was tattooed there.
He doesn’t know when exactly he started keeping track, but he adds that trait to his ongoing list of Things That Haven’t Changed About Steven Lim.
“Dinner,” Andrew repeats, clearing his throat and walking over to unlock the driver’s side door. “Technically, this is my dinner.”
“Breakfast for dinner.” Steven’s smile reaches all the way to his eyes this time. “My favorite.”
(There’s something off with Steven.
At first, when they’d been driving home, Andrew had just assumed that the unfocused look in Steven’s eyes and the way he was aimlessly nodding to Andrew’s comments, rather than actually saying anything, was just caused by a bad night, by someone up in marketing being a demanding pain in the ass.
But when Steven’s had a rough night, generally, the further away they get from the Jewel, the cheerier he gets. After an hour or so at home, he’s usually bounced back fully.
That’s not the case tonight.
Steven’s barely touched his pancakes; his eggs have been thoroughly shredded, but he’s maybe taken three bites of them, if that. He’s laughed a few times at the show Andrew threw on for background noise, but it’s been utterly without cheer, like he’s on auto-pilot. Mainly, he’s been staring down at his plate, prodding his food with his fork, the tines occasionally scraping across the plate loud enough to make Andrew shudder.
He’s never seen Steven be anything less than enthused about having breakfast for dinner, and it’s that fact that makes him speak up.
“Steven,” he says, setting his plate down on the coffee table and turning to face Steven. “Did something happen tonight?”
“No. Work was fine,” Steven answers, shaking his head and craning forward to set his barely touched plate beside Andrew’s. Sagging back against the lumpy couch, he sighs out all the air in his chest. His eyes flick up towards the ceiling, like he’s trying to find guidance in the beige stucco, and for a moment, it almost looks like tears are about to spill down his cheeks.
But that has to be a trick of the light. It has to be.
“Then what’s wrong?” Andrew wants to reach out and touch him, wants to twine their fingers together, but he doesn’t want to risk upsetting the balance of the room further. So he keeps his hands clasped in his own lap and waits an agonizingly long time for Steven to speak up again.
By the time he opens his mouth, it’s clear that the tears in his eyes aren’t a trick of the light or some kind of reflection from the dim lamp standing in the corner of the room.
“I got a job offer.”
Andrew frowns, more than a little confused. Steven has been trying to get away from the Jewel for the last month, has been applying for new positions on his days off and reaching out to their friends that have moved elsewhere in town to see if they know of any openings. If anything, this should be good news, news that they should be celebrating with something a little fancier than pancakes and eggs.
“It’s not at Circus Circus, is it?” Andrew asks, sliding a little closer, so that their knees are almost touching. “Because I’ll never…”
Hear the end of it from everyone is what he means to say, but the words die in his throat when Steven shakes his head vehemently.
“No, Andrew.” He takes a deep, shuddering breath and wipes his eyes on the sleeve of his hoodie. When the next words leave his mouth, they’re remarkably steady, like Steven’s been practicing them. “It’s in Los Angeles. They want me to start in a month.”
Andrew’s heart crawls up the back of his throat, until it feels like he’s going to choke on it.
“What did you say to them?”
It’s a pointless question. He knows what Steven said. It’s written on his face, clear as day. It’s written on the tears streaming down his face and on his untouched plate. But Andrew needs Steven to answer him, out loud. He needs confirmation that his life is about to be flipped upside down.
He needs to hear it.
“Yes.” Steven looks up at him, actually looks him in the eye for the first time since they left the Jewel, and in that moment, the entire world falls out from underneath Andrew’s feet. “I said yes, Andrew.”)
“Yeah,” Andrew mutters under his breath as he gets into the car and leans over to unlock the passenger door for Steven. “I know it is.”
Chapter 4: and there's only memories when it's over
I wasn't planning on posting this today but I've had a pounding headache all day and my brain hurts too much to work on prompts so ta-da!
title from Old Fashioned by Panic! At The Disco.
The place Andrew takes them to is far away from the luridness of the Strip, tucked into the enclave of suburbia. He’s been with Adam a handful of times; it’s not much to look at it, just a long, low building with filmy windows and faded paper pennants, like the ones that decorate used car lots, affixed to the siding, but it has decent coffee and omelets that are borderline delicious.
Perhaps more importantly, the place has absolutely no memories of Steven tied to it. It’s neutral. It’s safe.
Or, at least, it was safe. Now, Andrew’s pretty sure he’ll never be able to sit in one of the vinyl booths, the seats cracked from wear and dotted with elderly cigarette burns, without thinking about the conversation that’s about to unfold.
Still, it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make. There are new businesses springing up across town every day. At least one of them has to be a half-decent diner.
They don’t say a word on the drive over, and the silence continues even after they’re seated in a window booth, sandwiched between a family of tourists and two people wearing Bellagio uniforms, staring down into their coffee mugs with a vacancy that suggests they’re new to the night shift.
Andrew doesn’t have much of an appetite - his stomach feels like it’s been cemented over - but looking down at the menu gives him something to do besides look at Steven, who is simultaneously only a few feet away and separated from him by a gulf the size of Mexico. The server who comes by a few moments later is so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed that it almost hurts Andrew to look at. When she asks if they want anything to drink, Steven answers.
“Green tea and black coffee, please.”
With a beaming grin, she heads off, and Andrew simply stares across the table. Steven stares back at him blankly before realization washes over his face like a waterfall, and his eyes widen.
“Oh my God,” he stammers, cheeks turning red. “Is that still your, I mean-”
Andrew sighs and nods. Regardless of his feelings about the whole situation, watching Steven stutter and agonize isn’t exactly his idea of a good time. “You said it yourself. I haven’t changed.”
“I didn’t...” Steven’s mouth pops open and closed a few times before he sighs, slumps back against the other side of the booth, and reaches out to fiddle with the cracked corner of the laminated menu. His hair looks almost white-gold in the painfully bright sunlight streaming through the window. When the server comes back with their drinks, he flashes her a quick smile that doesn’t reach his eyes before he continues, “I guess I did say that. But I didn’t mean it in a bad way.”
Andrew doesn’t know how to respond to that. Really, he doesn’t know how to respond to anything about this situation, because there are no self-help guides for this. There’s no outline for how to talk to someone when there’s a divide between the person they used to be, a person that you knew intrinsically inside and out, and the person they’ve become. There’s no WikiHow article with convenient, easy to understand steps.
Which means that, maybe, the best thing to do is to stop thinking about it and just talk.
So that’s exactly what he does.
“Was it your idea?” he asks, staring down into the tar-black depths of his coffee. “To stay at the hotel, I mean.” He doesn’t say my hotel, doesn’t say our hotel, but the words are there all the same, lingering under the surface. He glances up in time to see Steven shake his head rapidly and lean forward to rest his elbows on the table. He bumps his mug of tea with his arm, and Andrew instinctively reaches out to steady it. His hand is halfway across the table before he realizes, and he immediately pulls back, like he’s been struck by a snake. For a few moments, Steven looks dumbstruck, and Andrew wonders if he just experienced the same thing, if he just found himself catapulted into the past. Eventually, he shakes his head again and grabs the sugar dispenser from the side of the table.
“I swear, I had no idea where I was staying until I landed at the airport.” Andrew can’t help but notice that Steven’s fingers are shaking slightly as he tears open two packets of sugar and empties them into his mug. Dropping his spoon in as well, he continues, “But that first night, at the lounge... that was my idea. I just... I wanted to see if you were still there. And I told myself that if you were, I’d check out the next morning.”
“Why didn’t you?” A lump has taken up residence in Andrew’s throat, and he tries to drown it with a swig of too-hot coffee. Steven shrugs and keeps stirring his spoon in his tea, clinking it softly against the side of the mug, even though the sugar must have dissolved four or five passes ago.
“I don’t know,” he eventually says, so softly that the words are almost buried underneath the bustle of the diner. “But I will. If you want me to leave, after we’re done here, I will. I promise.”
Andrew shouldn’t wait until they’re done eating. He should tell Steven that he does want him to leave, that he wants the last memory he has of Steven to be this conversation. He should tell Steven to leave him alone.
But try as he might, even though he can hear himself saying the words in his mind, even though he can see the pain that would blossom across Steven’s face even as he nodded resignedly and kept his promise, Andrew can’t bring himself to speak.
Thankfully, the fortuitous appearance of the server keeps him from having to say anything aside from his food order, and by the time she leaves again, the air between them feels less stifling, like they’ve narrowly averted some kind of storm. However, even with the change in ambiance, Andrew still doesn’t know where to go with the conversation, doesn’t know what to say.
Thankfully, Steven saves him from wracking his brain.
“Did you ever get a cat?” he asks with the smallest, most hesitant of smiles.
(God, that smile. Andrew remembers seeing a smile almost identical to it on the night they kissed for the first time by the massive fountain in front of the Jewel. He remembers pressing his mouth to it once, twice, three times, feeling near dizzy with giddiness, before it bloomed into an utterly beautiful grin. He remembers Steven laughing breathlessly before he curled his fingers into the front of Andrew’s vest and kissed him until Andrew was seeing spots behind his eyes brighter than all the neon surrounding them.
Even if he could somehow remove every other memory of Steven, he thinks that he would hold onto that one.)
“Yeah,” Andrew answers, smiling despite himself. At the very least, this is territory that he knows how to tread in. After digging his phone out of his pocket, he brings up the latest picture he took of Cornichon. It’s from a few nights ago, when he’d stepped out of the bathroom after taking a shower to find her lying on her back, all four paws drawn up towards her stomach, looking like a cross between a beached whale and a cloud. Pushing the phone across the table so that Steven can see, he says, “Her name is Cornichon.”
“Really?” Steven laughs. His smile grows a little larger, more authentic. “I always thought you were joking about that.”
“I would never joke about something so serious,” Andrew says solemnly, feeling a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He tries to keep his lips in a straight line, but his efforts are in vain; he cracks, and Steven mirrors him. “It was either Cornichon or Wellington, and I didn’t think she looked like much of a Wellington.”
“She looks like cotton candy to me.” Steven pushes the phone back across the table. “When did you get her?”
Talking about Cornichon, about how much she loves Annie and Adam and how she’s made it her goal to rip apart every catnip filled toy Andrew buys her, is easy. He thinks that, if he tried hard enough, if he kept his gaze lowered to the table, he might even be able to pretend that it’s not Steven that he’s talking to.
When the food arrives, his stomach growls; now that the cement has loosened up a bit, he realizes just how hungry he actually is. His conversation with Adam at the buffet seems like it was literal days ago.
As they start in on their respective plates, quiet falls back between them, and Andrew finds himself retreating back into his brain. All the conversation they’ve exchanged so far has revolved around himself; Steven hasn’t volunteered any information, hasn’t tried to steer the conversation towards what he’s doing in town. On some level, Andrew is grateful for that; talking about that kind of thing feels like it’d be next door neighbors with talking about their past, and even if he can now exchange a few sentences with Steven without feeling like he’s choking, that’s still not a subject that he wants to delve into anytime soon.
But he’s always believed in equality and fairness, and not giving Steven a chance to talk would be rude. If Steven chooses not to take the opportunity, that’s his choice, but even if Andrew isn’t entirely sure if he wants to know the answer to the question sitting on the tip of his tongue, it’s only fair that he ask.
“How’s Los Angeles?”
Steven pauses with his fork and knife hovering above his stack of blueberry pancakes. When he glances up, there’s an expression on his face that Andrew barely recognizes, a relative to pain and sadness.
If he had to put a name on it, he thinks weary would be close enough.
Setting his cutlery down with a clack against the rim of the plate, Steven asks, “Do you actually care, Andrew?”
Andrew has the sudden realization that there are bags under Steven’s eyes, and he wants nothing more than to carefully remove Steven’s smudged glasses from his face and trace his thumb along them. Before he can do something foolhardy, like reach out and do exactly that, he busies himself with cutting his eggs into small, ragged pieces.
“I care, Steven,” he answers, watching yolk ooze across his plate so that he doesn’t focus on how the sun is striking Steven’s face, making him look like some kind of gilded statue.
“Oh,” Steven says. The word leaves his chest like a gust of wind, and Andrew hears a clatter as Steven picks his cutlery back up. “Okay.”
He talks as they eat. Andrew doesn’t know what he was expecting to hear, but the information Steven gives him is almost sterile in how straight to the point it is, like he’s reading from a pre-prepared list:
- The winters are rainier.
- Sometimes, the air smells like the ocean, crisp and salty and fresh, but mostly, it smells like smog and ozone.
- He has a roommate, who is still languishing away as a production assistant for a major studio.
- Said roommate is allergic to both cats and dogs, and therefore, Steven has no pets, unless you count the squirrels that are obsessed with getting into the dumpsters behind their building.
- Los Angeles has a lot of incredible restaurants, but most of their buffets don’t hold a candle to the one at the Jewel.
Andrew suspects that last fact might be a lie.
It feels like Steven is holding something back, deliberately reeling himself in. He was always so enthusiastic about the smallest of things, found beauty in everything, whether it was a new song Shane was testing out or a ludicrous outfit worn by a street performer or the color of the sky at dawn. It was one of the reasons Andrew fell in love with him.
He can’t help but wonder how much of a difference there is between what Steven is actually telling him and what he wants to tell him, but he’s fairly certain there’s no way to ask that question without initiating an awkward conversation or perhaps even a fight, and frankly, he’s too damn tired to deal with either of those possibilities.
Once the server takes away their plates and returns with the bills, Steven grabs Andrew’s from his side of the table and slaps a credit card on top of both, all before Andrew can fumble his wallet from his pocket. He makes a token effort of protest, but Steven just shakes his head.
“I said that I’d buy. It’s the least I can do, since I dragged you out here.”
“You didn’t drag me, Steven,” Andrew replies, burying a yawn into the crook of his elbow. “I wanted to come.”
It surprises him how much he means it.
When they step back outside, sunlight washes over them like a waterfall, bounces off the windshields and windows of all the cars lined up in the parking lot. Andrew squints and turns his back on the glare, which means that he ends up facing Steven head-on.
Which might actually be worse than looking directly into the sun.
“Do you want me to drive you back?” he asks, even though the thought of spending more time in an enclosed space with Steven makes his head ache.
“It’s fine,” Steven answers. “I’ll find my own way back. You should get some sleep.”
“Yeah.” Andrew gently presses his palm into one of his tired eyes. “Probably.” When he glances back over, Steven is rocking back and forth on his heels, fingers twitching slightly in mid-air. This is a Steven he recognizes all too well, filled with nervous energy, about to burst with something.
“So,” he finally blurts. His fingers stop twitching in favor of tugging the sleeves of his sweater down to his knuckles.
“So what?” Andrew retorts.
“So, do you want me to check out? I’ve still got a few hours. Should be enough time to pack.”
Right. Somehow, Andrew forgot about that offer being on the table.
Realistically, answering yes would be the easiest thing to do. If he said yes, Steven would simply vanish into the ether again - the chances of Andrew running into him around town over the next few days are infinitesimal. In time, if Andrew tried really hard, he could probably even convince himself that Steven never returned, that the last few days have been nothing more than a figment of his imagination.
That would be the easiest route to take.
It would also be the most cowardly, and if there's one thing he hopes has changed over the last three years, it's that he's become less of a coward.
So, he shakes his head and gives Steven one last look before he digs his keys out of his pockets and heads over to his car.
“No, Steven,” he throws back over his shoulder as he unlocks the door with unsteady hands. “Stay.”
Chapter 5: my tell-tale heart’s a hammer in my chest
a fun fact: this chapter contains my favorite of all the flashbacks.
title from Roaring 20s by Panic! At The Disco.
When Andrew returns home, he’s ready to go down for the count. His eyelids are leaden, and his fingers fumble with the buttons on his shirt and with the flap of Cornichon’s bag of food. Still, despite his physical exhaustion, he expects that actually going to sleep will be difficult, that his brain will be so full of thoughts of Steven that actual rest will remain out of his reach for a long time.
Thankfully, he’s proven wrong. Almost as soon as his head hits the pillow, he falls unconscious, and while it’s all too possible that Steven makes the journey from his waking thoughts into his dreams, he can’t remember any of them when he awakens.
Perhaps that’s a good sign. Maybe it’s like exposure therapy - the longer he’s around Steven, the easier it will become.
His shift that night is uneventful, but he feels pulled taut with anticipation from the moment he steps into the lounge. Every time he has his back turned and hears the creak of someone settling their weight on a stool, he expects to turn around and find Steven looking back at him. Whenever the door at the back of the room lets in a spill of yellow light from the lobby, Andrew finds his eyes drawn to it, no matter how many times he tries to reel himself in.
After clocking out, he heads downstairs to the parking garage with no plans for the rest of the day beyond stocking up on groceries.
Those plans change when he reaches his car and discovers that, once again, Steven is waiting for him. This time, he’s made himself a little more comfortable; he’s sitting on the hood with his sneakered feet braced against the bumper, hands clasped between his knees, looking down at the oil streaked floor. He’s in casual clothes again, a red and blue hoodie and black jeans, and while his glasses are nowhere to be found and his hair has been spiked up away from his forehead, he still looks exhausted.
At the sight, Andrew finds himself falling back through the years, to a cool autumn night when they’d driven away from the city far enough to escape the pervasive light pollution and pulled off on the side of a service road that was really nothing more than packed down dirt straggling away from the asphalt.
(“That’s Cassiopeia,” Steven murmurs, pointing up at the stars stretching across the vast, beautifully dark expanse of the sky. “See?” Andrew follows the direction of Steven’s finger and finds the constellation he’s talking about, five stars closely grouped together in a line that looks like the spikes and ebbs of a heart monitor.
“I see it,” he responds, sliding over a little closer to Steven’s side, grateful for the extra layer he threw on before they left; not only is it keeping him warm, but it’s also providing a little bit of cushioning between his back and the hood of his car. “What’s the story behind it?”
Immediately, Steven launches into a tale of a vain Greek queen, and Andrew contents himself with listening along and tracing his fingers along the lines of Steven’s palm. He was never really interested in space as a kid, always preferred history and art, but he could listen to Steven talk about stars and chemistry and how things combine together for hours and be totally and utterly content.
Admittedly, his attention does drift a little, but it immediately comes back when Steven pokes him in the side with one long, slim finger.
“Earth to Andrew,” he says, rolling onto his side and propping himself up on his elbow. His feet are dangling over the edge of the hood, but if he’s uncomfortable, it’s impossible to tell. “Did you get lost in the stars?”
“More like I got lost in your eyes,” Andrew answers in the most saccharine tone he can muster up.
“You are the worst,” Steven groans theatrically. Suddenly, that one poking finger becomes five tickling ones.
“I meant it as a compliment!” Andrew laughs as he lightly slaps at Steven’s hand and tries to wriggle away from him. Only a few seconds later, he realizes that there’s nothing but air underneath his left side, but before he can correct himself, he falls off the hood and hits the sand with a thud. It’s not a far drop, but his back momentarily twinges, and he curses through a mouthful of laughter.
“Oh my God!” Steven scrambles off the hood, arms pinwheeling as he tries to find his balance and nearly falls on his face in the process. “Are you okay?”
“I think you knocked the wind out of me,” Andrew groans exaggeratedly. Once he’s come around the front of the car, Steven drops down to his knees, eyes wide with worry, and Andrew grabs the front of Steven’s sweater and yanks him down. Steven doesn’t go down without a fight; they end up tussling on the ground like schoolkids, sand and dust and pebbles flying through the air, both of them laughing madly as they fight for the high ground. Eventually, after lowering himself to Steven’s level and digging his fingers into Steven’s ribs, Andrew ends up the victor, hovering over Steven with his hands planted in the sand on either side of his head.
“I win,” he says triumphantly, panting a little, cheeks flushed with warmth.
“Really?” Steven laughs and reaches down to hook his fingers into Andrew’s belt loops. “Because from down here, it looks like I win.”
Andrew swallows heavily, all his braggadocio flying out the window in favor of a low flicker of arousal. It’s mindboggling how, most of the time, if Steven is actually trying to flirt, he can’t do it without cracking into laughter or turning bright pink, but sometimes, he just says things, things that make Andrew’s head swim and his throat go dry.
“I have a science question,” he says, licking his lips.
Steven tilts his head and tightens his fingers on Andrew’s belt loops, tugs him down closer, until Andrew has to drop from his palms to his elbows. “I may have a science answer.” It takes a moment for Andrew to get a response out, mainly because Steven is in the process of splaying his legs apart, which is more than a little distracting.
Eventually, he’s able to take his eyes away and ask, “How long do you think we’d have to make out in order to fog up my windows?”
A mischievous smile brighter than any of the constellations Steven has pointed out to him lights up his face, and Andrew falls a little further in love.
“I don’t know,” Steven says, feigning thoughtfulness. One of his hands breaks away from Andrew’s belt loops and slides under his shirts to splay flat on his stomach, and Andrew sucks in a shaky breath.
“Do you want to find out?” Steven nods enthusiastically.
“Yeah,” he answers, but rather than getting to his feet, he leans up for a kiss. “In a minute.”)
Forcefully dislodging the memory from his head, Andrew says, “If you keep this up, security is going to cart you off.”
Steven’s whole body jolts so forcefully that it’s almost comical. His head snaps up and he scrambles to his feet.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I was going to stop by last night, but I passed out early. Long day yesterday. Breakfast? I can drive this time, if you want. I’m parked over there.”
Andrew doesn’t know why Steven is apologizing for not coming to see him. What he does know is that, for all the thoughts he had about exposure therapy yesterday, spending more time with Steven is not going to be good for him, probably won’t be good for Steven either, for that matter.
But that being said, the simple fact is that he’s hungry, and going out for dinner would be a lot easier than throwing something together at home.
“Fine,” he answers, pocketing his keys again. “Where are we going?”
“There’s a place near downtown that someone recommended to me last night,” Steven responds as they walk away from Andrew’s car. “Thought we could check it out.”
Of all the things they’ve said to each other over the last week, all the things Andrew has heard, that simple we hurts the most.
They exchange small talk on the drive over, but it all revolves around Andrew’s life again. Steven asks if there’s anyone else still working at the Jewel that he knows, if the Tiki Bar is still a slightly fancier version of hell on earth, if Shane still likes to talk about his irrational fears as part of his act. Andrew answers all of the questions and tries to keep his attention focused out the window, but despite his best efforts, his gaze keeps drifting back to Steven. He looks totally at ease behind the wheel of the rental car. The sun is striking his profile again, illuminating him so perfectly that it almost hurts to look at.
Eventually, after navigating through streets already clogged with traffic, they pull into the place, a modern looking diner with plate glass windows facing out onto the sidewalk. Andrew’s never been to it before, which is good - it means that it’s another neutral zone. The coffee is rich, the breakfast platter is huge, and the booths lining the left wall of the narrow restaurant are small enough that Andrew’s legs keep bumping into Steven’s, no matter how he tries to arrange his limbs. In the end, he gives up trying, and their ankles end up pressed together, like two kids playing footsie during class.
Andrew may be a fully grown man, but that thought still makes his face flush.
The conversation is less stilted than the day before. Amazingly, even though he’s still not sure how much he wants to know about Steven’s current life, Andrew manages to get a few details out of him about how work is going. Steven says that he can’t reveal much about the actual project, but they’ve found some suitable locations and are getting close to signing a deal with at least one casino for some interior shots.
Abruptly, Andrew’s stomach sours.
“Are you going to be filming at our casino?” By the time he realizes what he said (the our hurts almost as much as Steven’s we), it’s too late to take it back. Steven’s throat bobs once, then twice, and his gaze drops down to his plate, covered in the last dregs of an omelet. There’s a small smear of egg at the corner of his mouth, and Andrew’s thumb is plagued with the urge to reach across and wipe it away.
He bites down on his own lip instead.
“Just a few exterior shots,” Steven eventually answers. “Nothing interior, as far as I know. I probably won’t even be there so...” He trails off and shifts his legs so that they’re no longer touching Andrew’s, and Andrew isn’t good enough at lying to himself to deny that he misses the contact once it’s gone. “Are you done eating?”
There are still a few bits of food on Andrew’s plate, scraps of bacon and a singular piece of toast soaked in butter, but his appetite has officially dried up.
“Yeah,” he mutters, pushing his plate away. “I’m done.”
Andrew pays this time; as soon as the server comes over with their receipts, he takes both and lays enough cash on the table to cover both their tabs and the tip. When Steven protests, Andrew ignores him and heads back out into the absurdly bright sunshine of another early summer morning. He takes a deep breath of the air, which is still slightly tinged with desert dew, and closes his eyes for a moment.
He’s no longer hungry, but he’s more convinced than ever that going out for dinner with Steven for a second time was playing with fire.
If he’s not careful, he’s going to get burnt.
He opens his eyes when he hears Steven’s footsteps on the pavement behind him. Steven’s chewing on something, loudly cracking it between his teeth.
“Here,” he says, pulling an individually wrapped mint out of his pocket and dropping into Andrew’s palm. “Grabbed you one.”
As he tears open the packaging, Andrew mutters, “You’re supposed to suck on these, you animal.” He’s not exactly sure what corner of his mind the words come from, but it’s too late to take them back. Even though all of his instincts are screaming for him not to look over at Steven’s face, like Lot’s wife turning back to the burning city, he still looks.
Thankfully, he doesn’t turn into a pillar of salt, but heat flares in his chest and fills the hollow points between his ribs.
Steven is smiling at him, bright and beaming and glorious, and there’s a slight glimmer in his dark eyes. It might be from the sheer glare of the sun, but somehow, Andrew doesn’t think so.
That realization should scare him more.
Crunching the remnants of the mint between his teeth, Steven says, “You always used to say that you couldn’t take me anywhere.” It’s true; it was one of many inside jokes they had, one of many things they used to say each other that sounded totally innocuous or even a little bit mean to people on the outside but that meant the world between the two of them.
“Yeah.” The heat in his chest is overwhelming. It feels like he might suffocate on it or crumble into ash, and there’s a lump in his throat that he wants to rip out. “I did.”
While the world passes by in a barrage of noise, silence falls between them. Andrew feels rooted to the ground, wishes that he’d driven so that he could at least have some kind of excuse, some exit line he could use. Instead, he’s stuck between staring at the mini-mall across the street or into the sun or at Steven. The last option offers the nicest view of the three, but looking at Steven means Andrew has to try and ignore the fact that the glimmer in Steven’s eyes has upgraded to actual wetness, wetness that Andrew can feel his own eyes wanting to mirror.
Thankfully, before he can crack down the middle like a shattered mirror, Steven clears his throat.
“Do you want me to drive you back to work?”
It’s probably the safest option, but going back to work to pick up his car could delay his return home by at least an hour, depending on traffic. His place isn’t technically closer, but they’ll be able to bypass the Strip, which means he’d get home sooner, and really, at this point in time, that’s the most important thing.
Sure, there’s a part of him that is reluctant to have Steven anywhere near his house, but it’s not like he’s going to invite him inside. Even if the driveway becomes a little less safe, he can still escape into his home.
“My place is easier to get to, if that’s okay with you. I’ll cab in later.”
“Are you sure?” The real answer to that question is no, but Andrew nods anyways, and Steven digs his keys from his pocket. “Okay. Let’s go.”
The drive takes fifteen minutes. Aside from Andrew giving Steven directions, they don’t say a single word. The lump in Andrew’s throat grows until it’s almost impossible to swallow around. It feels like there’s a storm crackling in the space between them, brewing somewhere over the console. It’s a storm that has to break eventually, but Andrew doesn’t know what kind of form that break will take. He isn’t sure what kind of form he wants it to take.
It comes in the form of Steven bursting into gleeful laughter seconds after he pulls into the driveway. Before Andrew can ask what the hell is so funny, Steven points at the window that looks into Andrew’s living room. He always draws the blinds before he leaves for the night, but somehow, Cornichon has managed to wriggle between them and the window and is standing on the ledge with her front paws pressed against the glass. It’s absurdly pathetic and ridiculously cute, and Andrew starts laughing as well.
“I swear that I fed her before I left.”
“Uh-huh. Sure you did.” Steven crosses his arms on top of the steering wheel and rests his chin on top as he peers out the windshield. There’s something appraising in his gaze, something that keeps Andrew from getting out right away, and eventually, he continues, “It’s a little roomier than the old place, isn’t it?”
The laugh that leaves Andrew’s chest feels as hollow as a dead tree. “That’s not saying much. The old place was practically a shoe box.” That’s putting it nicely; Andrew’s first apartment, which had eventually become their apartment, had been a real fixer-upper. The walls had been too thin, the window in their bedroom didn’t close properly, and the air conditioning worked intermittently at best.
But it had been theirs.
“Yeah. It was.” Steven turns so that he’s facing Andrew with his cheek resting on his crossed arms. His eyes are glimmering again, and the storm between them has returned with such a vengeance that sucking in a single breath feels like a challenge, even with the windows down. Andrew feels like he should say something, but the only words that come to mind are terrifying.
What do you want from me, Steven?
“I should go,” he mutters, popping his seat-belt open.
“Andrew, wait.” The words sound and feel like hammer blows, and Andrew freezes in the process of reaching for the door handle. It seems like a small, suffocating eternity passes before Steven finally continues. “I... I almost called you. Especially in the first few weeks. I almost called you a lot.”
The lump in Andrew’s throat triples in size as his stomach drops through the floorboards. He wishes he’d gotten out while he still had the chance. He wishes that he could have gone the rest of his life without knowing that particular tidbit of information, because no matter how hard he tries, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to lock that away in the vault of his mind.
“Why didn’t you?” he asks, barely recognizing his own voice. He intends on keeping his eyes fixed out the window, but of its own volition, his head turns, and he finds himself locking gazes with Steven, whose lips are curled into a small, rueful smile.
“I wanted to hear your voice, but I was pretty sure you didn’t want to hear mine.” Sighing deeply, he adds, “And then my phone broke and I lost your number, so that was the end of that.”
Andrew is fairly certain that straight-up electrocution would be less painful than this.
Technically, he supposes that he could tell Steven the truth; even during the two weeks immediately following Steven’s departure, the two weeks where Andrew had himself convinced that he hadn’t made the dumbest fucking decision of his life, he would have picked up his phone in a heartbeat if it had been Steven on the other end of it.
In the weeks that came after that fortnight, when the severity of what he had done set in, he lost count of how many mornings he came home from work and stared down at Steven’s number in his phone, how many midnight breaks he took to compose a text that he never ended up sending. He lost count of how many times his phone vibrated and he eagerly grabbed it, hoping that it would be Steven’s voice on the end of the line, saying something as innocuous as hey or something as wonderful as I love you, I miss you.
Eventually, after a night of too much drinking, he’d given into an impulse and deleted Steven’s number from his phone, and by the time the regret and the hangover set in, it had been too late to take it back.
His chest and throat ache. His eyes are burning. He wants to drag a pillow over his head and sleep for approximately fifteen years.
“I can’t do this right now,” he says, swallowing heavily and reaching for the door handle again. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too.” Before Andrew can slide fully out, Steven reaches over and gently tugs at the sleeve of his jacket, hard enough to make Andrew stop in his tracks and glance over. “Would it be alright if I stopped by tonight? When you go on break?”
Andrew glances down at where Steven’s slim fingers are still wrapped in his sleeve and thinks about how nice it would be to feel those fingers slotted between his own again, thinks about this last week has been an utter fucking roller coaster, how he could put a stop to it now by simply saying no. It would be the smart thing to do.
Then again, he thought staying in Las Vegas while Steven ran off to California to pursue his dreams was the smart thing to do, and look where that got him.
“Fine,” he answers, gently extricating his sleeve from Steven’s grasp and finally sliding free of the car. “I’ll see you then.”
Once he gets inside, he drops his keys on the small table in the foyer, kicks off his shoes and drops into his armchair. Elbows braced on his knees, he lowers his face to his hands and forces himself to take a series of deep breaths.
He’s in over his head. He can feel the resolve he spent three years cultivating unraveling thread by thread, like an old sweater, and he doesn’t know how to fix it.
More alarmingly, he doesn’t know if he wants to fix it.
“Cornichon,” he says, “what the fuck am I doing?”
He’s met with an indignant meow, followed by rustling as Cornichon tries to fight her way out from between the blinds and the window and fails miserably. With a laugh, he gets to his feet to help her out, after which she immediately runs into the kitchen and screeches at her half-full food dish.
At the very least, there’s one thing Andrew knows, and that’s that his cat does not care about the emotional clusterfuck that has taken over his brain.
Strangely enough, there’s something almost comforting about that.
Chapter 6: 'cause I've got you, under my skin
oh look y'all, we're halfway done!
chapter title comes from I've Got You Under My Skin by Frank Sinatra.
Andrew spends the hours leading up to next his shift thinking about calling in sick again.
It’s not too late for him to sway this whole situation back into his favor. He can stop himself from making another mistake that they’ll both end up regretting, one that will probably lead to another three years of pain.
In the end, he goes to work, only because it wouldn’t be fair to deprive someone else of a day off just because he’s going through an emotional clusterfuck. He tells himself that he’ll meet Steven on his break and nip things in the bud then and there, keep them from going even one step further towards oblivion.
Surely, he can at least manage to do that.
Steven shows up just before midnight.
It looks like he came directly from a meeting; the blue tweed jacket from the first time Andrew saw him is back, along with a narrow black tie, and not a single piece of hair is out of place. He also looks absolutely exhausted, and for some reason, even though Andrew wasn’t the one who had the idea for him to stop by, guilt churns in his stomach at the sight of the increasingly large bags under Steven’s eyes.
“Maybe you should go get some sleep,” he says once he’s finished a gin and tonic for the person sitting on the stool adjacent to Steven.
“I’ll be fine.” Steven flashes him a quick smile and starts fiddling with a napkin. “Take your time.”
There’s still half an hour until Garrett comes back from his break, and even though Steven seems perfectly content to occupy himself with his notebook and phone, the guilt in Andrew’s stomach kicks up a notch. When he manages to score a quick reprieve between customers, he sets about making another drink, one that he’s never been able to make over the last few years without thinking about Steven.
After adding an orange peel and a cherry from the fridge tucked away underneath the bar, he sets the drink down in front of Steven. Glancing up from his phone, Steven’s face lights up. For a moment, he almost looks wide-awake.
“An old fashioned?” he asks, swirling the amber liquid around the glass. “I haven’t had one of these in years.” He reaches down with one hand, presumably to pull his wallet from his pocket, but Andrew shakes his head.
“I’ve got it.” Before he can gauge Steven’s reaction, someone waves for his attention, and Andrew heads back to the other end of the bar, resisting the urge to bash his face off the nearest hard surface the whole time.
Nipping things in the bud is going great.
Things remain steady until Garrett returns. When Andrew slips out from behind the bar and goes around to meet Steven at his stool, his chest starts to tighten in increments. He has no idea what he’s going to say, how he’s going to put a stop to this, and not having a definitive plan feels foolhardy.
But it’s too late for that now. He’s just going to have to wing it.
When he reaches Steven, he’s slurping up the cherry from the bottom of the glass. With a pleased hum, he pushes the empty glass away, gathers up his things and slides off the stool.
“Haven’t lost your touch,” he says, falling into step beside Andrew. “That was amazing.”
“It’s kind of my job,” Andrew replies, pitching his voice low as they navigate through the tables towards the door. The drink has left a film on Steven’s lips, a film that looks almost black in the darkened, blue-tinged room, and he averts his eyes towards the door leading into the lobby.
“Still. Thank you.” Steven pushes open the door and they leave behind the blue light and Shane’s crooning, which is when Andrew realizes he doesn’t exactly know where to go. The loading dock is off-limits; he needs at one place to safely retreat to when this-
(Whatever this is, whatever it ends up becoming by the time Steven leaves town again)
-is all said and done.
Thankfully, Steven does the thinking for him.
“Is the pool on the eighteenth floor still open?”
Technically, the answer is no; the pool is locked at ten o’clock and doesn’t re-open until six in the morning. It’s one of the few negative things people consistently remark upon when they leave reviews online, or when they air their grievances out to Andrew while they’re slumped at the bar. However, one of the perks of being an employee is the key card in his pocket that gets him into essentially any part of the complex that doesn’t involve the money.
Better yet, while there’s definitely some memories still associated with that area, it’s not a place Andrew would ever choose to go to on his own. If it gets tainted, it doesn’t matter.
“That’s where you want to go?” he confirms as they walk towards the elevators. Steven nods.
“Yeah. Should be quiet, right?”
“Should be.” Technically, Andrew doesn’t know if quiet is a good thing; if he’s going to bring this to an end, maybe doing it in a more well-trafficked area would make him more likely to commit to his decision, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to air his dirty laundry in front of the people he works with, let alone the customers.
So the pool it is.
They take the elevator up to the eighteenth floor, quiet except for Steven’s slightly tuneless humming to the tinny music piping through the speakers. The quiet only increases after they step out into the hallway; the thick carpet underfoot muffles their footsteps, and only the faintest of murmurs leak out from the rooms that they pass. When they reach the pool, Andrew is only slightly surprised to discover that his hands are shaking when he pulls his key card from his pocket and slides it into the slot above the doorknob.
Truthfully, if considered solely on its merits as a pool, it’s really nothing worth writing home about. It’s significantly smaller than the four others located in the complex, and the tiles around it have faded to the color of old limes. There’s no diving board or hot tub, the room smells overwhelmingly of chlorine and mildew, and even at the deep end, the water is only a little deeper than Andrew’s height.
But what the pool lacks in amenities, it more than makes up for with the view
Two of the room’s walls are pure glass, which is always kept sparkling clean, and they look out onto the Strip, onto the swirling mess of lights, the crawling traffic, the exploding fountains and the occasional firework show. Even though Andrew became accustomed to the sight at ground level long ago, there’s still something to be said about seeing it from above. Up this high, it’s almost possible to forget how lurid it all is, how the streets smell like vomit come morning and the gutters are full of garbage.
“There it is.” After setting his phone and notebook down on a shelf beside the door, Steven walks around the pool and goes over to the window to stand almost nose to nose with the glass. “After I left, I used to dream about this.” He almost sounds wistful about it.
If Andrew was going to be wistful about anything about this room, it wouldn’t be the view.
(To be fair, Andrew hadn’t planned on getting tipsy tonight. They hadn't planned on staying at the Jewel for more than an hour or so; the original outline of the evening had been to drop by for Zack’s farewell party, maybe have a drink or two, and then head out to a late movie.
Except their movie started three hours ago, two drinks turned into six, and not getting tipsy turned into stumbling out of the hotel room Zack had rented for his party and into the hallway, both of them giggling and leaning on each other heavily. Steven’s face is flushed pink, and there’s a faint red sheen on his pretty mouth from wine, a sheen that Andrew leans in and tries to kiss off without losing his step. Steven laughs harder and gently shoves him away before he gasps with excitement and ambles towards the end of the hallway.
“Do you have your key card?” he asks, slumping against the door leading into the pool. “I wanna go swimming.”
“That sounds like a terrible idea,” Andrew answers as he obligingly fishes his key card out of his pocket and jams it into the reader installed above the doorknob. The door clicks open, and Steven stumbles inside, nearly loses his footing as the plush carpet gives away to polished tile. Andrew quickly pulls the door closed, sure that he’s going to turn around and find Steven in the pool, clothes and all, happy as a clam. Instead, with another gasp, Steven bypasses the water and goes over to stand by the window that offers a panoramic view of the Strip and the city beyond. Pressing both palms and his forehead against the glass, like a kid looking into an enclosure at the zoo, he hums contently.
“This is so pretty.” Glancing back over his shoulder, he adds, “Isn’t it?”
Andrew’s throat goes dry. The few yards between them suddenly seems like far too much space, and he goes around the pool so that he can press himself against Steven’s back and wrap both of his arms around his waist. Steven’s head drops back against his shoulder, which fully exposes the smooth length of his neck, and it seems like a waste to not take advantage of that space.
“I’ve seen better,” Andrew murmurs, pressing his lips to the slight dip underneath Steven’s ear before he moves lower, to the ledge of his jaw. Steven shudders and drops his fingers away from the glass, leaves smudge marks behind as he curls his hands tightly around Andrew’s forearms.
“Yeah?” he asks, sucking in a shaky breath that Andrew feels against his mouth. “What could be prettier than that view?” If it was any other time, if Andrew’s mind was a little less cloudy, he would probably try to tease Steven a little bit, wax poetic about the smokestacks of New Jersey and the cloudy waters of the Hudson before he told him the truth. As is, he doesn’t have the patience or the brainpower for that kind of tangent, so he simply gets straight to the point.
“You.” He lingers for a moment at the base of Steven’s neck before he travels back up and presses his mouth to the shell of Steven’s ear. “Always you, Steven.”
Steven moans softly and presses his hips back against Andrew’s.
“I think we should go home,” he says, twisting his head so that he can skim a kiss against the corner of Andrew’s mouth. “Like, right now.”
Frankly, Andrew thinks that might be one of the best ideas that Steven has ever had.
“Yeah,” he mumbles, pressing one last kiss to Steven’s cheek. “Let’s go home.”)
Andrew doesn’t know what to say, but he knows that he should say something. He should tell Steven that he doesn’t want to do this anymore, that everything that has led up to this point has been a mistake. He should turn around and go back downstairs, go back to work, and forget.
However, what would be easier than trying to forget, a skill he’s never been particularly good at, would be if he stopped lying to himself.
He’s already drowning. What’s a few more feet of water?
“I was never mad at you for leaving.”
Andrew expects the words to echo and expand, bounce off each wall until they fill the room and suffocate him. Instead, throwing the truth out in the air feels liberating.
It’s not a feeling that he expects to last for longer than a few seconds, but for the time being, he’s going to savor it.
Steven slowly turns around. His brow is furrowed in confusion, and frankly, Andrew doesn’t blame him; considering how they parted, considering how cold Andrew had been in the month between when Steven told him about the job offer and when he left, considering how he refused to discuss what was going on in his own mind, it only makes sense that Steven doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“What?” he asks, voice so quiet that it’s almost swallowed up by the soft hum of the air conditioning.
“It was never about you,” Andrew continues, squeezing his eyes shut and taking a deep breath of air that tastes heavily of chlorine. “Not really. I was just... angry with myself. For not being brave enough to go with you.”
“Brave enough?” Steven steps away from the window. For a moment, his hands hover in mid-air, like he wants to reach out, but he stashes them in his pockets before he keeps talking. “Andrew, I didn’t want you to give up your life for me. I never wanted that.”
A rueful laugh punches out of Andrew’s chest, and he takes a step closer to the window, to Steven, so that he can wave out at the view.
“Do you think that I wanted that to be my life? Do you think I wanted to be stuck here forever? This was supposed to be a... a stopping over point.” He can feel traitorous heat filling his eyes, and he curls his fingers into his palms until the tendons in his hands ache, forces himself to focus on the dark sliver of the desert at the edge of the horizon. “But you leaving... it was too much, too fast. I wasn’t ready. By the time I was ready, you were already gone. Off to better and brighter things.”
This time, Steven is the one who laughs, although it sounds more like he’s choking.
“Better things?” There’s no mistaking the tears in his eyes as anything else, and his hands come back out of his pocket as he crosses the space between them. “Andrew-”
What happens next seems to happen in slow-motion, seems to take hours, even though it’s seconds at most.
Whoever was in charge of drying up around the pool area after it closed apparently missed a spot, and Steven has stepped right in it. His foot skates across the tiles and propels him towards Andrew, who doesn’t brace himself sufficiently and ends up stumbling backwards once Steven collides with his chest.
As fate would have it, he ends up stumbling backwards right into the shallow end of the pool, and since Steven’s fingers are hooked in the front of his shirt, he brings Steven with him.
The water is on the wrong side of too warm, and his clothes are sodden by the time he pops above the surface. Spluttering the sharp taste of chlorine out of his mouth, he shoves his hair away from his face and looks down at where his shirt is plastered to his chest. Thankfully, he has a full change of clothing in his locker, to protect against instances where a customer slops a drink on him or throws up, but if he wants to dry off and make himself look presentable before he goes back to work (not to mention grab some food so he isn’t starving for the rest of his shift), he can’t stick around for much longer.
Steven resurfaces with a splash a few inches away, coughing loudly. His hair is flattened against his forehead, and rivulets of water are dripping off the ends and catching on the tip of his nose and the swell of his bottom lip.
“Oh my God,” he says, cheeks red with mortification. “Andrew, I’m so sorry, are-”
“I’m fine, Steven. Really. Are you alright?” Andrew’s fairly certain that he’s going to have a bruise on his hip from hitting the bottom of the pool, but at least he didn’t thwack his head.
“I’m okay.” When Steven straightens up to his full height, the water laps at the hem of his jacket, like it’s trying to drag him back under the surface. They’re only a few inches apart, close enough that Andrew is able to track the journey of a particular droplet of water as it glides down Steven’s cheek, bumps over his jawbone, and traces the long line of his neck before it soaks into the collar of his jacket. Another droplet starts following the same journey, and he knows that he should avert his gaze, look away from the bob of Steven’s throat, but he can’t tear his eyes away.
What does make him look away is their hands brushing together underwater.
He glances down beside his hip and gets a distorted version of the picture, a version that doesn’t quite match what he can feel happening. Steven’s fingertips press against his own and brush up the length of his fingers, trace all the way up to Andrew’s wrist before he shifts back down and slots his fingers into the space between Andrew’s, so that they’re palm to palm.
Andrew’s heart stutters, comes to a stop, and restarts, all in the span of a single second.
“I have to go get changed,” he says softly, still staring down at their intertwined hands. He’s too afraid of what might happen if he looks up. He’s not sure if he can trust himself to not simply pull Steven in with his free hand and kiss him until the sun is pouring through the window panes and his skin is wrinkled like a prune.
If he looks up, he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to look away again.
“I know.” Steven squeezes Andrew’s hand tightly before he lets go and backs away, water rippling around him. “Go, Andrew. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
It sounds like there’s a smile in his voice, but Andrew doesn’t allow himself to confirm that suspicion. Instead, he wades over to the stairs leading out of the shallow end, grabs a stack of towels from the shelving unit by the door, and exits the room, all without looking back. He leaves a trail of puddles in his wake as he makes his way to the elevator, each footstep squelching, and he silently says an apology for whoever is going to have to clean up after him. He changes quickly (and thanks the past version of himself for having the foresight to include a spare pair of shoes with his extra clothes), tries his best to make himself look slightly more presentable than a drowned rat, and stops at the buffet just long enough to grab a few sandwiches before he goes back into the lounge.
Shane is performing a new song for once. On any other night, Andrew would be mildly intrigued by that development, but tonight, it’s all he can do to make it back behind the bar without his chest buckling inward. He can still feel the phantom presence of Steven’s fingers between his own, slotted there like it was the only place they were ever meant to be.
There’s only five hours left until the end of his shift, but he suspects that making it through those five hours is going to be one of the most difficult things he’s ever had to do.
When he slides back behind the bar, Garrett is pretending to clean some glasses but is really surreptitiously checking his phone. As soon as he notices that Andrew has returned, he glances up once, idly, before he does an immediate double-take, eyes almost comically wide.
“Dude, what happened to you?”
Andrew’s fairly certain that there’s no simple way to answer that question that doesn’t somehow bringing his past with Steven into the equation, so in a move that he’s sure isn’t going to do anything to help his reputation as some kind of unknowable curmudgeon, he lies.
“Nothing,” he mutters, grabbing one of the glasses lined up in front of Garrett so that he can actually clean it. “Nothing at all.”
Somehow, he makes through his shift without imploding.
When he goes back downstairs to the parking garage, he half-expects to find Steven perched on the hood of his car, looking as tired as usual, ready to drag him out to breakfast again, ready to further insert himself back into Andrew’s life.
But there’s nothing on his hood except a fine layer of desert dust.
Part of him isn’t surprised; Steven has to sleep at some point. With the hours he’s apparently been keeping the last few days, he’s really been burning the candle at both ends.
The other part of him is crestfallen, and the fact that that part exists at all proves more than anything that there’s no backing out now, no ending to this that won’t be messy for both of them, that won’t set him back a few more years.
Essentially, the existence of that part proves that he is truly and utterly fucked.
Chapter 7: these arms of mine, they are wanting (wanting to hold you)
this chapter's title comes from These Arms of Mine by Otis Redding. the song also makes an appearance in the chapter (although it isn't actually mentioned by name), so hey, give it a listen if you want mood music.
anyways, based on my (admittedly biased) opinion, this is the angstiest chapter, but it's all uphill from here folks. <3
Even though he sticks to his routine, draws the blackout curtains and makes sure that Cornichon has food and turns on the fan standing at the end of his bed for white noise, Andrew’s sleep is restless.
He tosses and turns, traverses the entire width of his mattress in between dozing. While he’s never had a problem with it before, his bed feels too empty. When he’s half-conscious, his mind alternates between supplying him with a steady stream of what-ifs that he’s not awake enough to contemplate and flickering memories of Steven, each of them grainy and jumpy, like they’re being shown by a malfunctioning, ancient film projector. When he’s half-asleep, the memories become incomplete dreams.
By the time his alarm goes off, his head is pounding. His first instinct is to crawl back under his blanket and sleep through the next few days, but considering the struggle he just faced, that would be counterproductive, no matter how tempting it is.
So he makes himself some food, tries his best to focus on the television for a few hours, and goes to work with the knowledge that something is going to happen tonight. He has no idea what it will be (although his brain has, helpfully and annoyingly, provided him with several possibilities); what he does know is that the ball is in Steven’s court.
Whatever Steven decides to do, Andrew will work around.
He’s working with Kate tonight, and she talks his ear off whenever they aren’t serving someone, segues from one topic to the next effortlessly. Andrew tries to listen, but despite his best efforts, he only catches every third sentence, because most of his attention is focused on the lounge’s doors. Every time one of them swings open to admit a customer, Andrew finds himself scrutinizing their silhouette, finds his breath catching until he confirms that it isn’t Steven.
By the time Kate returns from her break just before one, Andrew’s stopped looking so hard. It’s getting late; Steven probably crashed already. Andrew doesn’t blame him for that, but there’s still a hollow pit in his stomach brought on by hours, nearly a whole day, of anticipation, not to mention a touch of dread.
Despite his surety that Steven won’t be stopping by, he decides to cover his bases on the off chance that he’s wrong. The loading dock is out; Adam had texted him earlier in the night to tell him that they were resurfacing the concrete and as such, it was out of bounds for the next few days. There’s always the pool, but Andrew doesn’t exactly relish a potential repeat of last night’s performance, especially since he forgot to bring a new spare set of clothes with him.
Thankfully, the Jewel has at least one other spot that is both secluded enough that they might be able to talk and is also a place that Andrew wouldn’t mind having ruined for him, if that’s the way things end up going.
“If somebody comes by looking for me,” he says to Kate as he finishes up a last drink and pushes it across the bar to a drag queen in a towering, spectacularly blonde wig, “tell them that I’m on the roof.”
“Alright,” Kate shrugs casually. “Is this person going to know what ‘on the roof’ means?”
(“Andrew, c’mon, we gotta go.”
“Five more minutes.” Andrew murmurs the words against the side of Steven’s neck and punctuates them by gently pressing his teeth into the thin skin stretched taut over Steven’s racing pulse. Curling his arm tighter around Steven’s back, he continues, “They can wait a little longer.”
“You said that ten minutes ago,” Steven laughs breathlessly, trailing off into a sound between a moan and a whimper as Andrew bites him a little harder. Despite his words, he tilts his head back further and presses closer to Andrew, keeps him firmly pinned against the rooftop storage shed.
“Are you sure?” Steven’s right – Andrew hasn’t checked his watch in a little while, but he’s fairly certain that if their break isn’t already over, they’re cutting it pretty close – but the thought of having to go back downstairs, of having to put a painfully polite smile on his face and pretend that he isn’t already counting down the hours until he can see Steven again, is outright painful. “Feels like we just got up here.”
“I know.” Steven’s fingers tighten on Andrew’s biceps as Andrew moves lower, to the base of his neck, and starts pressing a series of hard kisses just above the line of his collar. If he was to tug that collar aside, he’d be able to trace over the splotchy bruises he left there last night, but Steven has people to impress tonight and is wearing the shirt and tie to prove it. “Only a few more hours.”
“Do you wanna stay over?” Even though the last thing he wants to do is move away, Andrew forces himself to pull back from Steven’s neck and lean back against the shed. While Steven’s clothes are still in their rightful places, it’s pretty obvious that he was doing something on his break beyond grabbing food; his hair is a tousled mess, his lips are swollen ever-so-slightly, and there’s a flush decorating his cheeks, illuminated by the false sunlight of the Strip far below.
“Yeah.” Steven laughs and slides his hands up Andrew’s arms to curl around the sides of his neck. “You know, I don’t remember the last time I slept in my own bed.” Andrew takes a moment to think it over, trying not to shiver as Steven’s fingers inch up towards his hair.
“Me neither,” he answers, absently straightening Steven’s collar. He’s not thinking when he continues speaking; the words simply fall out. “Maybe you should just move in with me.”
By the time realization hits, it’s too late to take the words back. Maybe, if he scrambles fast enough, he can play them off as a joke or an idle comment.
But the thought of going that particular route only lasts for the times it takes him to glance up from Steven’s collar to his face. His eyes are wide and unblinking, and the longer that Andrew looks at him, the bigger his smile grows.
“Do you… do you want that?” he asks softly. “Like, really want that?”
While Andrew may not have been appropriately prepared for the words leaving his mouth, he is prepared to answer that question. He’s thought about Steven moving in with him an increasing amount over the past few weeks. On a practical front, it makes sense – Steven is already at his apartment most days anyways, so they might as well save on rent, might as well consolidate their separate commutes into one, whenever possible.
But, practicalities aside, the simple fact is that he wants to wake up to Steven beside him every single day. He wants to kiss him goodnight and good morning. He wants his apartment to be theirs.
“Yeah,” he nods, wrapping both of his arms around Steven’s back and bracing their foreheads together. “I do. Whenever you’re ready.” Steven laughs again, giddily this time, and crushes their mouths together a little clumsily, palms pressing hard against Andrew’s jaw.
“Wanna help me pack tomorrow?” he asks when he pulls back, beaming brighter than the sun or any of the signs dotting the Strip. “Is that too soon?” Andrew shakes his head.
“No,” he murmurs, leaning back in for another messy kiss. “That’s not soon enough.”
In the end, by the time they get back downstairs, they’ve both overstayed their break by fifteen minutes.)
“Yes,” Andrew throws back over his shoulder as he steps out from behind the bar. “He will.”
Even thirty floors up, there’s no escaping the Strip.
The sky is ablaze, constantly flickering and changing color as the neon signs cycle through their messages about cheap buffets and the performers in residence and the 24/7 slot machines. Helicopter tours are going on overhead, the thrum of the rotors sounding as ominous as a thunderclap, and music is drifting up from somewhere, probably an advertisement on loop.
Despite the presence of all the light and sound, it’s actually a beautiful night. It’s warm, but there’s enough of a breeze to keep the air from being stifling. As he sinks down to rest on the ground with his back against the side of a utility shed that’s padlocked shut, Andrew takes a deep breath, which seems to clear out some of the fog in his brain that’s been accumulating since he tried and failed to sleep.
Before he can really appreciate the clarity, the door leading out onto the roof pops open, and Steven steps out, tripping over the slightly raised lip.
“I must have just missed you downstairs,” he says as he walks over. He’s back in casual clothes, glasses included, and based on the slight dampness of his hair and the whiff of citrus Andrew catches as Steven sinks down beside him, he’s fresh from the shower. “I’m surprised they still haven’t fixed the lock on that door.”
“They did,” Andrew answers, resisting the urge to slide over a little. “Four times, actually. They said they’d fire whoever keeps breaking it, but no luck so far.”
Sighing contently, Steven murmurs, “Gotta love this place.”
A few days ago, Andrew could have started something with that, could have used that as a catalyst to say something that would hurt them both, but now, he merely sighs as well and leans his head back against the shed. “Yeah. Gotta love it.”
They lapse into a silence that maybe, in an alternate universe, could be considered downright companionable. Andrew can feel Steven’s eyes burning into the side of his face, and he rolls his head on his shoulders so that he can look over at him. There’s a soft smile on Steven’s face, one that makes warmth blossom in Andrew’s chest, warmth that seems like it might be the precursor to a wildfire.
“What are you looking at?” he dares to ask, glancing down at where Steven’s hand is resting on the ground between them. He drops his own hand into the gap as well, and the limited space means that their pinkies end up overlapping. Steven’s smile grows even larger.
“You, obviously,” he answers, moving his hand so that it’s fully draped over Andrew’s. “It’s just nice to see you again.”
“You saw me yesterday,” Andrew points out, surprised at how soft the words are when they leave his mouth. He flips his hand over so that the back is resting against the rough ground, and Steven’s fingers immediately slide into place, like a key joining with a lock.
“You know what I mean, Andrew.” With his other hand, Steven digs into the pocket of his jeans, pulls his phone out and starts tapping at the screen. Before Andrew can ask what he’s doing, music starts piping from it. It’s a little tinny, and the sound doesn’t carry exceptionally well, is muted by the helicopters overhead and the rumbling of the various equipment and vents scattered across the roof, but Andrew still recognizes the song as one that Shane has in his repertoire.
“What are you doing?” he asks as Steven sets his phone on a slight ledge protruding from the side of the shed above their heads.
“Asking you to dance,” Steven answers, making sure the phone is secure before he turns back to Andrew. “If you want to. We don’t have to. It’s probably a stupid-”
“Steven,” Andrew interrupts before Steven can work himself into a tizzy. His whole body feels flushed, and his skin feels too tight; the thought of being that close to Steven is more than a little overwhelming, but that isn’t enough to keep him from getting to his feet and using their intertwined hands to pull Steven up as well. “Show me what you’ve got.”
Steven beams at him, steps in close enough for the knot at the end of his hoodie’s drawstring to dig into Andrew’s chest, and curls his arm around Andrew’s back. Their hands stay tangled together the entire time.
Truthfully, Andrew isn’t expecting much; they’ve never danced together, not like this. Sure, there had been a few times when they’d been tipsy and packed into a hotel room or a tiny apartment with their friends where they’d swayed back and forth, wrapped up in each other, but that hadn’t exactly required much skill or sense of rhythm. More to the point, it had usually ended up dissolving into the two of them making out, into the music dissolving away to mere background noise as they got lost in each other.
But Steven’s not bad. He’s a little out of time, although Andrew is willing to blame that on the choice of song, which is a tad too upbeat for real slow dancing, but his sense of rhythm is decent, and he doesn’t clomp on Andrew’s toes whenever they carefully turn into a spin.
It piques Andrew’s curiosity.
“When did you learn how to dance?” he murmurs, tightening his fingers slightly in the worn fabric of Steven’s hoodie, where it’s a little loose at the dip of his spine. Steven’s head is lowered slightly, like he’s thinking about resting it against Andrew’s shoulder, and his hair is tickling against Andrew’s cheek. While he waits for Steven to answer, he almost falls back into an old habit, almost twists his head to press a soft kiss to Steven’s temple and breathe him in.
“A long time ago, actually.” Steven tightens his arm around Andrew’s waist; it brings them even closer, so that Andrew can feel every single one of Steven’s breaths as they expand and leave his lungs. “I took lessons when I was in high school. I wanted to be ready for when I got married, one day.”
“Really?” There’s a pit in Andrew’s stomach, a pit that’s making him wonder if he wants to go further down this road, if it might be better to fall silent and listen to the music, but he’s already asked. It’s too late to take it back.
“Yeah.” Steven takes a deep breath and sighs it out. His next words are mumbled; if they weren’t standing so close, Andrew thinks they might have been fully lost to the air. “I kind of always thought I’d get to show you one day. At our...”
It’s a good thing that he trails off, because while it takes Andrew a moment or so to connect the dots, even that incomplete thought is enough to give him whiplash, to make him feel like he’s been absolutely gut-punched. More than that, it makes him remember something that’s been sitting in the back of his mind since Steven came back to town, something he was really hoping he could successfully keep buried.
Even though he pawned it off a few weeks after Steven left town in the misguided belief that it would make things easier, he can still picture the ring he purchased from a pawn shop one night on a whim, as a kind of insurance policy for the day he summoned up the bravery to actually go through with it. He can still remember how the weight of it rested in the palm of his hand, how it felt to trace his thumb around it, how it caught the light every time he took it out of the velvet lined box it resided in.
What Steven said shouldn’t be that surprising; Steven once told him, only half-jokingly, that he’d wanted to get married since he was born. But to actually be confronted with that knowledge, to truly learn that Andrew wasn’t the only one actually thinking about the next step...
It’s like being hit with a tsunami.
“I can’t do this.” Dropping Steven’s hand, he stumbles backwards, head buzzing with the sound of a thousand frenzied bees. Steven’s mouth opens, but Andrew shakes his head rapidly. “No, Steven. I can’t.” With that, he turns and leaves, chest heaving for breath as he nearly falls back into the stairwell.
His journey back to the lounge is a blur; his feet carry him there automatically, but his brain is nowhere to be found, too busy torn between being back up on the roof with Steven and three years in the past. He doesn’t so much open the door into the lounge as he stumbles through it. Thankfully, he isn’t interrupting anything important; Shane is apparently taking a break of his own, and the room is full of murmured conversations, which only pause for a moment at his sudden entrance before they start back up again. When he gets back behind the bar, Kate glances up at him with a slight grin, which dies almost immediately.
“Jesus, what happened to you?”
Andrew shakes his head and reaches for the phone behind the bar. It takes a moment for him to dredge up Adam’s extension from the bottom of his mind, but once it’s there, he dials with unsteady fingers. Adam answers on the third ring.
“Andrew? Is everything okay?”
“No.” Andrew forces himself to take a breath to steady his voice before he continues talking; he doesn’t exactly need the customers to be able to tell that he’s falling to pieces just by overhearing the conversation. “When you’re done for the night, could you meet me here?”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Adam replies. Immediately, some of the tightness in Andrew’s chest disappears, and he takes another deep breath.
“Okay. Thank you.”
He hangs up and takes a few more seconds to brace himself before he turns back around, plasters a grin on his face and takes an order from an older woman whose whole appearance screams tourist. Once he’s finished her strawberry daiquiri, he turns to throw himself into something else and is met with Kate staring at him with a mixture of worry and pity.
“Seriously, Andrew. Are you alright?”
If Andrew wanted to be totally truthful, he would answer far from it. But where has being truthful gotten him these past few days? Being truthful brought Steven close to him again, but just as quickly, Steven being truthful stuck a wedge between them, a wedge that Andrew is going to choke on for, potentially, the rest of his life.
Besides, he’s a professional. He’s not going to spill out all of his problems to a co-worker while he’s on the clock. He can shove everything down and keep it there until six o’clock comes around and Adam comes to see him.
He might choke on it when it all comes back up, but that’s a risk he’s willing to take.
“I’m fine,” he answers.
Remarkably, it almost sounds genuine.
He sleepwalks through the rest of the shift, goes through the motions and smiles and laughs and does not let on that he wants to either yell at the top of his lungs or retreat into the darkness of his house for the rest of his life. Finally, half an hour after Shane hangs it up for the night, the doors at the back of the lounge pop open to admit the day shift bartenders, and Andrew slips out from behind the bar and slides into a table at the back corner of the room, where he can keep an eye on the door. Adam, punctual as ever, shows up almost as soon as Andrew makes himself comfortable, but he doesn’t sit immediately. Instead, he pauses at the side of the table, one hand on the back of the chair opposite Andrew.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks.
Andrew knows that he should talk about it. He should fill Adam in on everything that’s happened over the past few days, tell him that no matter what he does, what choices he makes or what path he wanders down, things only get more fucked up.
But Adam didn’t ask whether he should talk about it; he asked if he wanted to talk about it, and while Andrew has heard a lot of things over the past few days that he didn’t know how to handle, he knows the answer to that particular question.
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “Not yet.” Adam nods and briefly claps a hand on Andrew’s shoulder.
“Okay. I’ll be right back.” He wanders off to the bar, and Andrew keeps his gaze lowered on the tabletop, which is reflecting back the deep blue lights overhead. At the very least, the lounge is quiet; they don’t have another performer until after noon, and without that draw, it’s not super popular. Most of the patrons departed when Shane left the stage, and the few that remain look like they’re too busy embroiled in their own internal struggles to be concerned with Andrew’s.
Adam returns with two glasses of scotch. After setting them down on the table and dropping into the chair opposite Andrew, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a deck of cards. The box is battered and worn, and the cards aren’t much better, but Andrew has never been more grateful to see a deck in his life.
“I only know how to play Crazy Eights,” Adam says, shuffling the deck slowly. “And solitaire.”
Andrew laughs, and unlike all the artificial ones he reeled out over the last few hours of his shift, the sound is all too genuine.
“I can work with Crazy Eights.”
Andrew quickly loses count of how many rounds they play and how many glasses of scotch he polishes off. By the time they venture out into the light of day, the sun is fully up, the earth is swaying distinctly, and he’s too tired to think about much of anything other than getting home in one piece.
Before he climbs into a cab (Annie is picking Adam up and offered to drive him home too, but Andrew’s already imposed enough for one night), he pulls Adam into a tight hug that, for a moment, makes the world stand still.
“Thank you,” he mutters, tasting scotch on his own breath.
“You’re welcome.” When Adam pulls back, he over-corrects and nearly stumbles back onto his ass. “I’ll call you later, okay?”
Andrew nods and stumbles into the backseat of one of the cabs that are perpetually lined up outside the Jewel’s main entrance, waiting to pick up people like vultures awaiting their turn at a carcass. The driver has a vanilla air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror, but it doesn’t do much to hide the intertwined scents of booze and vomit clinging to the faux-leather of the seat. Andrew’s stomach turns as he gives the driver his address, and he leans his head against the window and closes his eyes. There’s no chance of him actually falling asleep; the sun is too goddamn bright for that, but it at least calms the churning in his gut and the pounding in his temples for a few minutes.
When he gets home, he stumbles into the kitchen, tops off Cornichon’s dishes, pours himself another glass of scotch from his personal reserve and drops down into his armchair in the living room. It’s not an ideal spot to sleep; even with the blinds pulled, sun still leaks into the room, but frankly, he’s too comfortable to care, and he sinks down into the well-worn cushions and takes a sip.
Even though most of his thoughts have been obliterated by the scotch seeping into his mind like molasses, there’s still one that won’t leave, an image that he can’t stop picturing.
Namely, the image of the ring he’d purchased so long ago, a simple gold band with no ornamentation, and how it would have looked on Steven’s slim finger.
The obvious way to get rid of that image seems to be to drink even more, so that is exactly what he does.
Eventually, after he finishes the glass and before he can lever himself out of the chair to get another, he manages to pass out.
Chapter 8: and all I know is, I wanna be here with you from now on
alright, I know last chapter was an experience in angst (sorry!), but I think this one makes up for it (mostly). and if not, next chapter definitely does.
chapter title from Aquaman by Walk the Moon.
It’s not quite the worst sleep of Andrew's life, but it’s close.
He wakes up when a car backfires down the block. He wakes up when Cornichon jumps onto his lap and meows at the top of her lungs before she curls up and goes to sleep. He wakes up because his mouth tastes like garbage and his back is aching and his head is pounding and the sun is too bright.
He wakes up for good when his phone, still stuck in his pocket, starts vibrating against his leg.
He opens his eyes no wider than a squint as he wrestles it out; anything bigger than that is almost definitely going to make his head split in two. It’s a few minutes after five, and if it was anyone other than Adam calling him, he would almost definitely ignore it and try to get some more sleep. As is, he reluctantly answers and groans.
“Do you feel as horrible as I do?”
“Doubt it.” Adam doesn’t exactly sound chipper, but he does sound considerably more awake than Andrew feels. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Not leaving my house.” Thankfully, it’s his night off, and even if he gets a call and is asked to cover someone, he’s saying no. He’s going nowhere near the Jewel until he absolutely has to.
“Well, that’s convenient. We’ll be over around seven then.”
“Did you just invite yourself over?”
“Yes. Niki and Kelsie might come too. And Rie. Don’t worry about food, we’ll bring some.” Adam pauses, during which Andrew hears Annie’s voice in the background. “Would that be okay?”
Part of Andrew wants to say no. He wants to remain alone, try to get some more sleep, maybe drink some more scotch and try to prepare himself for whatever is going to happen tomorrow. The thought that nothing might happen doesn’t even occur to him. He knows as well as he knows his own name that Steven isn’t done with him yet.
But he knows that, for the most part, that’s just the hangover talking. It’s been a long time since they were all able to get together, since they were all off at the same time (vaguely, he wonders if Adam had something to do with that), and at least if he’s with his friends, he’ll be spared a few hours of brooding. Maybe he’ll even be able to get some blessed sleep afterwards.
“Yeah, sure,” he answers, sitting up straight and running a hand through his tangled hair. After glancing around the disheveled living room, at the scotch glass resting on the end table and the clumps of Cornichon’s fur littering the floor, he adds, “Maybe make it 7:30.”
Two hours isn’t a lot of time to make both himself and the house presentable, but he does what he can.
He pops two aspirin, takes a shower, brushes his teeth and skips shaving before he turns his attention to the rest of the house. He corrals the dishes scattered around the house to the kitchen and washes them before he vacuums up the tumbleweeds of Cornichon’s fur and sweeps up the loose pellets of food that have escaped her dish and are littered across the kitchen floor. He manages to squeeze in wiping down the counters before the doorbell rings, and on his way to answer the door, he casts an appraising glance around the house.
There’s still some work to be done, but it will have to do.
Annie is carrying a bag with two baguettes sticking out of it and a bottle of wine, while Adam’s arms are occupied with a slow cooker that appears to be full of some kind of stew. Andrew’s stomach rumbles at the sight of it as Annie breezes by into the kitchen.
“How’s the hangover?” Adam asks as Andrew closes the door behind him.
“Manageable.” The aspirin have kicked in, and thankfully, the nausea he had upon awakening has abated. “How’s yours?”
“Fine,” Adam answers as they head into the kitchen as well. Annie has already dropped her food off and has scooped Cornichon up into her arms. Cornichon, for her part, almost looks smug.
“When was the last time you brushed her?” Annie asks, scratching underneath her chin. Truthfully, Andrew can’t remember, and when he says as much, Annie rolls her eyes, shifts Cornichon’s weight in her arms so that she can grab the brush from the top of the fridge, and heads back into the living room. Adam has wasted no time in setting everything up; the slow cooker is plugged back in, and he’s rooting around in Andrew’s cutlery drawer for a corkscrew.
“Are you alright?” he asks, bumping the drawer shut with his hip. “It didn’t seem like you were in a good place last night.”
“I wasn’t.” The thought of talking about this last night, while the memory was still so fresh in his mind, was incomprehensible; it would have been like ripping out brand new stitches. But now, even though his whole body feels heavy with lack of sleep, now that he’s in a safe spot, Andrew thinks that he can open a little bit.
At the very least, he can give Adam some kind of context as to why he was such a fucking mess.
As he fishes out some wine glasses from the back of his cabinet, he says, “I found out something I wasn’t ready for. From Steven.”
“What kind of thing?” Adam pours them both a few inches of wine before he leans back against the counter. Andrew takes a careful sip, savors the hints of vanilla and plum, and takes his time thinking about how best to word what happened last night without simply blurting it out.
“I bought Steven a ring once,” he says carefully, staring down at the floor, at a tuft of Cornichon’s fur that he missed while cleaning up. “I wasn’t ready to propose yet, but I was ready to be ready, if that makes sense. And apparently, we were both on the same page about that. Before I fucked everything up.” There’s a bitter taste in his mouth, something like regret, and he takes another sip, larger this time, to try to wash the taste out.
“Jesus,” Adam says softly. It’s an apt reaction, if a simple one, and Andrew wants to laugh at how perfectly it sums up how the last few days have been for him. “No wonder you were messed up.”
Before Andrew can respond to that, the doorbell rings again, and Annie lets in Rie, who also starts cooing at his cat almost immediately and comes bearing what looks like an apple pie. They don’t even get a chance to close the door before Niki and Kelsie pull into the driveway.
After that, for a few truly wonderful hours, Andrew is too busy thoroughly enjoying himself to think about the hurricane that is his emotional state. Dinner is absolutely delicious, and the wine warms him from the inside out, like sitting around a campfire. Once they’ve finished eating, Niki rummages through his records until she finds something that she likes, and they spread out across the living room, music playing softly, dessert resting on the coffee table, Cornichon darting back and forth between them, soaking up the attention.
Truly, up until the moment where headlights sweep through his open window and across the tan walls of his living room, it’s one of the best nights he’s had in the past three years.
“Is someone else coming?” Rie asks, brows furrowed.
Andrew shakes his head as Steven’s rental car parks against the curb and the man himself steps outside. All the relaxation he’s been savoring over the past few hours is immediately swept by a wave of tension; it feels like there’s a wire going from his head to his toes, and someone has abruptly pulled it far too tight. Polishing off his glass of wine, he gets to his feet.
“Andrew?” Adam has scooted to the edge of the sofa and has one hand braced on the arm like he’s about to lever himself up.
“It’s fine. I’ll be right back,” he says, trying to give his other friends the best reassuring smile he can, all the while hoping that they don’t get to their feet and look out the window; Rie and Niki were Steven’s friends too, and Andrew doesn’t know if they know he’s back in town. Even though it may be selfish of him, he doesn’t particularly want to go back through the past few days, let them know exactly what he’s been going through.
He should have expected this. The evening was going so well.
He slips out into the warm night, closes the door quietly behind himself, and stands in the small alcove that surrounds his front door, in the dark area that the streetlights don’t illuminate. Steven has paused on the top step and is glancing over at where the light from the living room is spilling out onto the front lawn, gnawing on his lip.
“I’m sorry,” he says. His shoulders are slumped, and the dark suit jacket that Andrew is sure fits him perfectly looks too big due to the posture. “I can go.”
“You’re already here.” Andrew shoves his hands wrist-deep into his pockets and leans against the wall of the alcove, rough brick scraping at his shoulders through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. They’ve barely spoken, but already, the air between them is heavy and thick, tenser than it was that first day, when Andrew’s heart had stuttered to a stop at the sound of Steven’s voice. “Why are you here, Steven?”
With another glance over at the window, Steven comes up into the alcove and leans against the opposite wall. He’s almost entirely hidden in the shadows, just a few pale smudges here and there. Maybe the darkness makes it easier to talk, because he doesn’t let Andrew’s question dangle in the air for long.
“I shouldn’t have said that last night,” he begins. “About... you know. It wasn’t fair to you. I just... I shouldn’t have said it.”
Steven is right: of all the things they’ve said to each other so far in this new phase of whatever the fuck their relationship is, the knowledge that Steven wanted to marry him is definitely the most unfair. If Andrew had to pick one thing to forget, one thing that he could have gone the rest of his life without knowing, it would be that particular fact.
But he can’t forget. He can’t comb through his memories, extract that one, and crumple it in his fist like a discarded piece of paper.
But maybe, even if it’s a petulant thing to think, he can even the score a little bit. Maybe he can do something unfair.
Maybe he can confess something that Steven won’t be able to forget.
“I bought a ring for you.”
The world doesn’t go silent - there’s traffic a few streets over, the quiet rumble of airplanes overhead, and the steady murmur of both the conversation and music on the other side of his door - but silence falls in the space between them. Steven remains utterly still for a very, very long time. There’s not so much as a rasp as his shirt brushes against the brick or his feet shift on the ground.
When he eventually responds, the single word that leaves his mouth sounds like it’s drifting up from the bottom of a very deep, very dark well.
Andrew has to swallow repeatedly before he can bring himself to answer.
“Yeah. I didn’t really have any plans for it, but it was there. Just in case I did come up with something.”
Steven slides out of the shadows and steps forward, and the pale smudges of his face and hands and hair become actual things of substance. He’s close enough that Andrew would barely have to reach in order to hook their fingers together, if he felt so inclined.
“What happened to the ring?” he asks, voice sounding like it might break at any moment. The lump in Andrew’s throat grows threefold, until he can barely swallow around it, let alone speak.
“I...” He clears his throat and tries again. “It’s gone. I pawned it off. After you left.”
Steven sucks in a wavering breath, and the sound pierces through Andrew’s ribs and straight into his heart. He steps closer, until there’s really no concept of personal space between them, close enough that Andrew can feel the fabric of Steven’s shirt rustle against the back of his hand. Their foreheads bump together, and one of his long-fingered hands comes to rest on the side of Andrew’s face, splays across his cheek and jaw. He smells good, like citrus and some kind of hair product and mint, and the feeling of his palm against Andrew’s skin is utterly familiar and ridden with nostalgia, like stepping into his childhood home after being away for months.
He screws his eyes shut. Being this close to Steven is absolutely suffocating, but the thought of moving away is even more so.
“God, Drew,” Steven murmurs, dropping his other hand to Andrew’s waist. He’s the first person that’s called Andrew that in three years. With a laugh that’s both watery and bitter, he continues, “We really messed this up, didn’t we?”
The brick of the alcove scrapes at the back of Andrew’s head as he nods, causing his nose to bump against Steven’s. He thinks that he might choke if he tries to talk. There’s a part of him that’s afraid that he’s going to blink and this will all be gone, will have turned out to be a prolonged fever dream after all. Tentatively, he reaches out and slides his arm around Steven’s waist to haul him in closer. Thankfully, Steven doesn’t vanish or turn out to be a figment of his imagination; he tilts his head to the side and slides his hand around to the back of Andrew’s neck, splays his fingers wide.
“Can I?” he whispers, mouth catching on the corner of Andrew’s. Andrew’s pretty sure he could come up with a quip, make a comment about how it’s a little late to ask for permission, seeing as they’re basically already doing it.
Instead, meaning it with everything he has despite all that has happened between them the last few days, all the hours of sleep he’s lost, he whispers, “Please.”
Steven doesn’t keep him waiting.
When their lips slot together, Andrew forgets how to breathe. Steven’s mouth is soft against his own, and he has to stop himself from moving too quickly, from surging ahead and doing his best to map out every inch of him again. Steven sighs softly, and his other hand curls into the fabric of Andrew’s shirt, grips it tight like it’s the only thing keeping them together. When he breathes out, his chest presses into Andrew’s, but it still doesn’t feel like they’re close enough. Andrew curves his other hand to the warmth of Steven’s cheek, and Steven breaks away from Andrew’s mouth long enough to turn and press a kiss as light as a feather to the center of Andrew’s palm before he presses back in, firmer this time, more sure and less tentative.
Andrew responds in kind and wonders how in the hell he’s managed to go three years without this.
(Despite the alcohol sitting heavily in his stomach, Andrew can’t sleep.
He can get right to the very edge, but just when it feels like he might actually be able to tip over, something yanks him back. The list of things keeping him awake is too damn long: the uncomfortable nature of their couch, the fact that the air conditioning is only working in fits and starts, his own racing thoughts, the fact that normally, at this time of day, he would still be at work, slinging drinks to the background music of Shane’s fingers dancing across the keys.
Mainly, however, what is keeping him awake is the fact that, every time he opens his eyes, all he can see is the pyramid of cardboard boxes stacked neatly by the door of their apartment. Each box has been labelled in marker, and while it’s too dark for Andrew to read the labels, he still knows exactly what each box contains. He’s been watching the pyramid grow for a month, box by box, has watched the rest of their apartment consequently grow emptier.
With a frustrated sigh, he turns his back on the pyramid, buries his face against the couch cushions, and absently wipes sweat off the back of his neck.
All he wants to do is sleep through the next twenty-four hours.
He dozes fitfully for long enough that, when he next opens his eyes, he can see weak morning sunlight leaking through the gaps in the blinds. It takes him a moment to realize that what woke him this time was the sound of shuffling footsteps coming down the hallway. The sound of them becomes sharper as they move from the hall carpet to the peeling tile of the kitchen. The coffee maker clicks softly as it turns on, the cutlery drawer rattles as Steven pulls something out of it, the fridge creaks as it opens and shuts.
Abruptly, those sounds change, and the footsteps come closer, become muted again as Steven steps into the carpeted living room. For a moment, Andrew’s instinct is to pretend that he’s still asleep, to simply remain motionless until Steven walks away, but he knows that won’t work; Steven knows him too well for that. But he tells himself that, even if he won’t pretend to be asleep, he’ll keep his eyes closed. It’ll make things easier for the both of them.
But as soon as he feels a hand press into the cushion beside his hip, not only does he open his eyes, but he rolls over to face Steven, who is kneeling on the floor beside the couch. He still looks half-asleep, bleary-eyed and pillow-creased, hair mussed up and falling across his forehead.
A few months ago, that sight would have made Andrew’s heart momentarily stutter. Now, it just makes acid crawl up his throat.
“Andrew.” Steven says it barely above a whisper, but it sounds as loud as a gunshot. Carefully, like he’s approaching a wounded animal, he raises his hand off the couch and drops it to Andrew’s cheek. “Please.” He pauses for a moment, eyes fixed on Andrew’s face, before he leans in and kisses him.
In retrospect, Andrew blames his reaction on how damn tired he is, physically and emotionally, on how he’s exhausted down to the very marrow of his bones.
He melts against Steven’s mouth, reaches up to press Steven’s palm even more firmly against his cheek, and returns the kiss with everything he has. His thoughts are disjointed, but for a moment, he can’t help but cling to the idea that maybe, if he kisses Steven, if he pulls him up onto the couch and holds him tight, he won’t leave. He’ll unpack the pyramid of boxes, will return all of his possessions to their rightful places, will return all of his clothes to their closet and his trinkets to their shelves.
But that idea only keeps hold of him for as long as it takes Steven to pull back an inch. When Andrew blinks his eyes open and takes in the wilted smile on Steven’s lips and the distinct glimmer in his dark eyes, it all comes rushing back fast enough to make him lightheaded.
Andrew doesn’t say a word. He just closes his eyes again and rolls over to face the back of the couch again, the kiss burning on his lips like acid.
The next time Steven leans in for a kiss, the last time, moments before he climbs into his car, Andrew turns his head, and Steven’s mouth brushes against his jaw instead.
It’s one of the softest touches Andrew has ever experienced, but it hurts just as much as being punched.)
When they separate to breathe, they’re still in each other’s space, sharing the same limited supply of oxygen. Andrew can feel Steven smiling when he turns his head and presses a lingering kiss to Andrew’s cheek, but he doesn’t dare open his eyes to get a look at it. Doing that runs the risk of drawing things to a close prematurely, and if there’s one thing he doesn’t want, it’s that. What he wants is to remain in the bubble they’ve created for the rest of his life. He doesn’t want to think about what might happen tomorrow, doesn’t want to think about the fact that Steven is due to leave again in a few days, that he’s going to be taking another portion of Andrew’s heart back to California back with him.
He just wants to relive this moment, over and over again, until he can’t remember anything else.
Despite his best efforts, the moment comes to an end when a particularly loud laugh, Kelsie by the sounds of it, pops it like a pin stabbing a balloon, reminds him that he should probably go back to his friends, even though doing that means he needs to let go of Steven.
“I’m sorry,” he sighs. “I-”
“It’s fine.” Steven presses another kiss to the corner of his mouth, and Andrew has to stop himself from chasing after another one. “Can I come see you tomorrow?”
Andrew nods, decides he wants one more kiss anyways to tide himself over, and leans in for what is supposed to be a gentle peck and ends up leaving him totally and utterly breathless.
“Yeah,” he answers, skimming his fingers across the line of Steven’s jaw as he reluctantly lets go of him. “Tomorrow. I’ll see you then.”
He waits until Steven’s taillights have disappeared from sight before he stumbles back inside. He’s dizzy, and his brain feels stuffed full of cotton. He steps into the kitchen to grab another glass of wine and finds Adam already there, working on doing the dishes.
Andrew doesn’t know what his face looks like, but there must be something there, something in his expression that makes it clear how fucked he is, because Adam immediately towels off his hands, grabs a wine glass from the drying rack and passes it over to Andrew.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
Andrew takes his time thinking over his answer, pours himself a glass, immediately drains half of it in one fell swoop, and is still no closer to knowing his answer.
“Adam,” he mutters, staring down into the deep red of the wine and scrubbing at his eyes, “I don’t have a fucking clue.”
Chapter 9: skin new, hands true (my hands all over you)
some of you may be wondering: "but Kaitlyn, why is this fic rated M? surely it isn't just because of the Angst(™)?"
well, this chapter is the reason why. enjoy!
title from MFEO - Pt. 1: Made For Each Other, Pt. 2: You Can Breathe by Jack's Mannequin.
Andrew spends his waking hours between Steven’s departure from his driveway and his own arrival back at the Jewel feeling like he’s walking on pins and needles, like the blood in his veins has been replaced by something carbonated. He can still feel Steven’s mouth imprinted against his own, can still feel the smooth skin of Steven’s cheek against his palm as clearly as if it was tattooed there. From the moment that he slides behind the bar, his stomach is frothing with nervous anticipation.
There’s a tiny voice in the back of his mind that is doing its utter best to keep him grounded, trying to remind him that despite the giddiness he’s feeling, there’s no mistaking that he’s completely screwed himself over now. Steven leaves town in only a matter of days, and Andrew is going to be left at the bottom of a dark hole that might take years to crawl out of.
Andrew is willing to admit that the voice has a point, but if he’s already so far gone, what’s the point of denying himself a few more minutes of happiness?
He can’t fall any further than he already has.
He doesn’t know whether to expect Steven to come by during or after his shift, but he’s almost relieved when two o’clock rolls around with no sign of him. He doesn’t want their time to be restricted to his break, and he doesn’t want Steven to lose any more sleep over him although, considering how much sleep Andrew has lost over him over the past few days, that might only be fair.
By the time six o’clock comes around, Andrew’s giddiness has given away to nerves again. He clocks out as fast as he can, doesn’t linger around to chit-chat, and heads down to the parking garage, not wanting to get his hopes up but doing it all the same.
Thankfully, it pays off. Steven is sitting on the hood of his car, looking like he just rolled out of bed; he’s in dark sweatpants and a red hoodie, and he’s rubbing at his eyes. How he summoned the energy to put his contacts in, Andrew doesn’t know. There are two takeaway cups resting beside him, and Andrew can smell the deep richness of black coffee from a few yards away.
“There’s no way that you’re getting enough sleep,” he says, coming to a stop a few inches away from the bumper. Steven jumps slightly before he looks up and smiles. It illuminates his face, seems to make the bags under his eyes fade, at least for a few moments.
“I never get enough sleep,” he answers before he passes one of the cups over to Andrew. “Brought you some coffee.”
“Thank you.” When Andrew takes the cup, their fingers brush together. Absently, barely aware that he’s doing it, he drops his other hand to Steven’s knee and spreads his fingers wide. “Do you want to get breakfast?” He knows that they need to talk, and while it’s not exactly the kind of conversation he’d like to have in a tiny booth at yet another diner, he’s willing to make it work if he has to.
But Steven shakes his head minutely, and the flush spreading up his cheeks to the tips of his ears seems to indicate that he has something else in mind.
“Actually, I was... kind of hoping I could meet your cat.”
It probably wouldn’t be smart for him to say yes. Aside from the front alcove, his house should remain a neutral zone, a place where he can retreat when all of this is over.
Then again, in some respects, Steven is already part of his house. He’s always been a part of it, centralized in the box under Andrew’s bed that he never threw out, in the tiny objects scattered around the rooms that had their origin stories in their relationship, in the fridge magnets and the weird mugs and the books. He’s been a part of it since Andrew moved in, like a ghost following him from room to room.
What’s the point of keeping the flesh and blood version of him out if his ghost is already there?
So, anticipation igniting every one of his nerves, Andrew swallows and nods.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
They drive through streets that are already snarled with knots of traffic. Steven sips on his coffee and talks a little about work, says that if he has to sit through one more stuffy meeting, he’s going to quit, says that he misses when his most pressing concern was fixing a typo in a brochure before yet another customer pointed it out.
Andrew knows enough not to read too much into that comment, but it still makes something deep in his chest ache, and he buries the ache with bitter coffee.
When they arrive at the house, Andrew’s hands are shaking as he sorts through his keys. They haven’t touched again, not since Steven slid off the hood of his car, but Steven’s mere presence, hovering a few inches back while Andrew unlocks the door, is still overwhelming on its own. The air between them is fraught with tension, like the air crackling before the first lightning strike of a storm.
He can’t remember the last time he was this nervous.
Cornichon meets them in the front entrance and immediately takes to Steven; she winds her way around his feet like a pretzel, and once he crouches down and takes his shoes off, she bumps her head up against his palm, silently demanding more attention.
“Hey,” Steven says softly, scratching underneath her chin, and Andrew excuses himself with a mutter about making some food so that his heart doesn’t combust. There’s leftover stew from the previous night in his fridge, and he busies himself with fetching bowls from the cupboards, even though his stomach is churning so hard that he thinks he might actually throw up if he eats. Once he’s grabbed the bowls, he turns around with a comment on his lips, expecting to have to raise his voice so that Steven can hear him in the hallway.
Instead, he freezes with his mouth half-open.
Steven is standing in the doorway with Cornichon bundled in his arms, sweater already streaked with her fur. In his sweatpants, with his hair soft and free of product, holding Andrew’s cat with a soft smile on his painfully beautifully face, he looks like a dream, like the only thing Andrew ever wants to come home to for the rest of his life.
Something flickers and ignites deep in his chest, something that feels like it might very well consume him from the inside out if he isn’t careful.
He’s tired of being careful.
He drops the bowls to the counter with a clatter that’s loud enough to scare Cornichon from Steven’s arms. Landing on the floor with a thump, she scurries out of the room, and Andrew momentarily feels a twinge of guilt.
Mainly though, he feels incendiary.
“We should talk,” he says carefully, leaning back against the counter. He means it; they should get everything out into the air between them before they take even a single step towards each other, because he suspects that simply dragging his foot across the tiles will be enough of a spark to ignite them both.
“We should.” Steven clears his throat. His cheeks are faintly pink, and Andrew doesn’t miss the way Steven’s eyes sweep from his feet all the way up to his face.
He doesn’t miss it, but god, how he has missed it.
“Do you want to?” Despite what he wants to do, Andrew knows that he shouldn’t be asking that question. He shouldn’t be encouraging this; he should be the voice of reason here, should be the one insisting that they reel things in.
But he thinks that it might already be too late for that. He’s fairly certain that he indirectly encouraged this the moment he decided not to take his vacation and hide until Steven left town.
Brow crinkling a little, Steven takes a single tentative step forward and shakes his head.
“No. Not yet.”
If they back down now, perhaps with time, Andrew will be able to move past everything, but if they go forward with this, there’s no coming back. This will officially and totally undo any progress, minimal as it may be, that he’s made over the last three years.
It takes him a few moments to find his voice again, like his brain is desperately trying to make him reconsider, but he answers with his heart.
“Come here then. Please.”
Steven crosses the room, and each one of his footsteps is a spark.
By the time he reaches Andrew, the room is ablaze.
The tentativeness from last night is nowhere to be found. Steven doesn’t pause, doesn’t hesitate; he crashes into Andrew’s front, grips his shirt tightly with both hands and kisses him with everything he has. Their noses press together awkwardly from the angle being not quite right, but Andrew doesn’t pull away to correct it; they have so much time to make up for, literal years, and he’s not going to lose another second. Wrapping both his arms around Steven’s back, he pulls him in closer, until they’re melded together as tightly as riveted metal, until the press of Steven’s body against his makes the lip of the counter dig painfully into the small of his back.
Even when they have to separate to breathe, they don’t leave each other’s space. Whenever Steven pulls away from Andrew’s mouth, he’s always somewhere else a few seconds later, trailing his lips along Andrew’s forehead, his cheeks, the corners of his eyes. His hands roam over Andrew’s chest, over the breadth of his shoulders and down his back, and Andrew does his absolute best to return the favor. He dances his fingers over the jut of Steven’s sharp hipbones and the ludicrously soft skin of his stomach, presses his mouth to the tip of Steven’s nose and the birthmarks on his cheek and the parchment thin skin stretched over his closed eyelids. Eventually, both of his hands end up tight in Steven’s blonde hair, which is as impossibly soft as he thought it would be. He can’t help but contrast it to how it felt after the bleach misadventure, when it had been like running his fingers through straw for a few weeks, and the next time he pulls back to suck in a breath, he murmurs, “I kinda miss the orange.”
Steven laughs against his mouth. “You should have seen when it was pink.”
Something akin to a lance of despair pierces Andrew’s chest. Truly, it’s an innocuous comment, but it makes him wonder what else he’s missed these past three years, what other parts of Steven’s life he needs to catch up on.
It’s a thought that has the potential to drag things down into the dumps or outright stop them in their tracks, and he’s nowhere near close to being ready for this to end, so he decides to bury the thought with more kisses.
When the pressure of the counter digging into his back finally becomes too much, he tightens his hands on Steven’s waist and spins them around. Before he can swoop back in, Steven hops up onto the counter and shuffles back until his shoulders are braced against the base of the cupboards.
“Get back here,” he mutters, tossing his arms around Andrew’s neck and hooking his heels around the backs of Andrew’s thighs. Andrew wants to tease him, wants to make a joke about Steven not asking nicely, but more than that, he wants to keep kissing him, so he swoops back in, palms braced on Steven’s thighs, on lean muscle covered by soft, worn fabric, and does just that.
The next time Steven pulls away to take a breath through his swollen lips, Andrew ducks his head and starts tracing the line of his jaw with his mouth, follows it from Steven’s chin all the way up to his ear before he starts mapping out the graceful swoop of his long neck. This always used to be one of his favorite things; he would have been content to spend literal hours kissing every inch of Steven’s neck, marking him up until his skin was strawberry-pink and thundercloud purple with bruises.
Based on the way Steven tosses his head back, moans Andrew’s name and tightens his fingers in Andrew’s hair, Andrew isn’t the only who missed it.
He takes his time relearning Steven’s skin, relearning what it feels like to have Steven’s pulse thrumming underneath his tongue, how he looks when he’s scratched up from beard burn. Selfishly, he wants to mark up every inch of his neck, but he doesn’t think that would go over well at Steven’s job, so he waits until he’s worked his way down to the base of Steven’s throat to bring his teeth into the mix. Tugging Steven’s hoodie aside, he works a bruise into the junction where his shoulder meets his neck, and Steven groans and digs his heels hard into the back of Andrew’s legs, like he’s trying to leave marks of his own behind.
“Andrew,” he pants breathlessly, “can I ask you something?” Answering that verbally would mean that Andrew would have to pause what he’s doing, so he nods instead. “Do you think that you can still carry me?”
That’s enough to get Andrew to pull away from the curve of Steven’s neck, absently licking at his own swollen lips. There’s a mischievous glint in Steven’s dark eyes and a challenging twist to his mouth, and Andrew wants to devour him, wants to pull him in close until they’re utterly intertwined, one person in two bodies.
“Let’s find out.” Sliding his hands beneath Steven’s thighs, he waits until Steven’s arms and legs are tightly locked around him before he steps backwards. He’s a little heavier than Andrew remembers, but carrying him is still easy enough, and he takes a few cautious steps towards the doorway. “Where do you wanna go?”
“Bed,” Steven immediately answers, pressing a trail of kisses along Andrew’s hairline and over to his temple. “Please.”
If Andrew wasn’t already totally and utterly gone, the pleading undertone in Steven’s voice would be the thing that tips him over the edge.
Even though he wants to get Steven laid out on his mattress as fast as possible, he forces himself to take it slow; he doesn’t want to trip over Cornichon, or a slipper that he left out, or anything else for that matter. Each step is made even more challenging by the fact that Steven distracts him the entire time; he drags his palms along Andrew’s shoulders and down his arms, digs his nails in, runs his fingers through Andrew’s hair and kisses every inch of him that he can reach.
Andrew’s head spins at the thought of returning the favor.
When they finally make it to the bedroom, he kicks the door closed behind them - he loves his cat, but he doesn’t exactly want her coming in and being a mood killer - and deposits Steven on the bed as gently as he can manage. After turning on the lamp on his bedside table, he crawls up after him. Before he can make his way between Steven’s legs, Steven surges up onto his knees and starts frantically working on the buttons of Andrew’s shirt, mouth set in a determined line. Andrew doesn’t get in his way, but he leans in for another kiss, a fevered mess of tongues and teeth. Eventually, when Steven pops the last button free, he shoves it down Andrew’s arms, until it’s dangling from his wrists. Andrew flicks it free, lets it drift to the ground like a dust mote, before he roughly shoves his hands underneath the hem of Steven’s hoodie and drags it up over his head. It ends up draped over the edge of Andrew’s dresser, knocks over a bottle of cologne that, thankfully, doesn’t shatter.
The skin to skin contact as their bare chests meet is absolutely intoxicating. Steven is miles of soft skin, marked with darker birthmarks that Andrew once knew the exact amount of, and he drags his fingers down Steven’s back, relishes in the feeling of the muscles on either side of his spine shifting and flexing. Eventually, Steven loses his balance and tumbles backwards. Andrew follows after him, ducks his head so that he can trace the line of Steven’s collarbones and uses his fingertips to outline the edges of the red flush slowly spreading down Steven’s chest.
“You’re so beautiful,” he murmurs, dragging his tongue over thin skin stretched over hard bone.
Steven whimpers and presses his hips up against Andrew’s stomach. His sweatpants don’t exactly leave much to the imagination, and the burning line of hardness pressing against him makes Andrew’s cock twitch in response. He presses down against the mattress for some relief as he moves to mouth at the base of Steven’s throat. Before he can work on adding another mark to Steven's neck, Steven gasps, “I want to touch you.”
“Can I touch you too?” Andrew asks, propping himself up on his hands so he can actually get a good look at Steven. Steven nods again and reaches up to trace Andrew’s bottom lip with his thumb.
“Please, Andrew.” It’s soft, almost reverent, the way he says Andrew’s name, and Andrew has to squeeze his eyes shut so that he doesn’t break apart into a million pieces. He presses a kiss to the tip of Steven’s thumb before he steals Steven’s mouth again. In the midst of the kiss, Steven’s long fingers settle on his belt and start carefully working it open, and it’s so distracting that Andrew almost has to stop.
By the time his lungs ache, his buckle is dangling open against the front of his pants, and his button has been popped free as well. He’s going to have to move in order to actually take his pants off, so he decides to do double-duty and starts kissing down the center of Steven’s chest. By the time he reaches his stomach, each of the breaths leaving Steven’s mouth is shaky.
Which is convenient, because so are Andrew’s hands when they curl into the waistband of Steven’s sweatpants.
Suddenly, it all seems like too much. It feels like their first time all over again, only amplified by a thousand. It feels like he’s one wrong move away from fucking up again, feels like the ground might fall out from underneath him. Dropping his head down to rest against Steven’s stomach, he takes a deep breath to see if it will make any difference.
It doesn’t, but Steven dropping one hand to the back of his head does.
“We can stop, if you want to.”
Andrew shakes his head. He definitely doesn’t want to stop. It’s just difficult to believe that this is happening at all, that this is the direction his life went in, that Steven is actually here with him again.
He doesn’t mean to mumble that loud enough for Steven to hear, but that’s precisely what happens, and with a quiet sigh, Steven traces Andrew’s hairline with his thumb.
“I’m here, Andrew. I’m not going anywhere.”
That’s not strictly true - in only a few days, Steven will be leaving Las Vegas in the rear view again - but Andrew doesn’t want to think that far ahead. He doesn’t want to think of anything that’s outside of his room, anything that isn’t confined to this moment.
He takes a few more moments to gather himself before he lowers his head and drags his tongue through the narrow patch of dark hair traveling between Steven’s navel and the waistband of his sweatpants.
It’s safe to say that the mood of the room shifts after that.
After dragging both Steven’s sweatpants and his boxers down his long legs and dropping them to the floor, Andrew shucks out of his own, trying to ignore the burst of self-consciousness that suddenly fires off in his brain. Thankfully, the way Steven that looks at him, mouth parted, eyes wide, does a little to quell that burst, as does the way he sits up and extends his hand.
“Come back. Please.”
Andrew takes Steven’s hand and lets himself be pulled back down to the bed. Their hips brushing together is like an electric shock; Andrew bites down on his own bottom lip, and Steven shudders from head to toe before he rolls out from underneath Andrew so that he’s resting on his side, facing him.
“Is this okay?” he asks, fingertips trailing down the center of Andrew’s chest and coming to a stop on his stomach, a hairsbreadth away from where he’s hard and aching. Andrew nods as he smooths his palm up the outside of Steven’s thigh to his hip. He wants to move, wants so badly to arch his hips up into Steven’s hand, but he doesn’t want Steven to feel like he’s being pushed into anything.
He doesn’t have to wait long before Steven’s fingers dance down lower and slowly trace up the length of him. Andrew screws his eyes shut again and groans once Steven actually wraps his hand around him. It shouldn’t be possible for something so simple to feel so goddamn good, but he already knows that he isn’t going to last long.
When he mirrors Steven’s movements, Steven cries out and surges forward into a kiss that doesn’t end until they’re both panting too hard to do anything more vigorous than gasp against each other’s mouth. The angle isn’t exactly optimal, and Andrew’s wrist is starting to ache, but he pushes through it; it’s worth it to feel Steven scrabble at his bicep with his free hand and moan against his mouth as he comes. Even as his breath catches in his throat, Steven doesn’t slow down; instead, he increases the speed of his hand and presses a series of hard kisses to Andrew’s mouth, each of which adds to the heat building up in Andrew’s stomach.
“God, Andrew,” he murmurs, dropping his forehead to rest against Andrew’s as he twists his wrist. “Do you have any idea how amazing you are?”
That’s the push Andrew needs to fall over the edge.
The world grows hazy for a few minutes. His brain is beautifully empty of anything beyond the last twinges of arousal. The only thing he can focus on is the spots where Steven is touching him, where his clean hand is still splayed on Andrew’s bicep and where their legs are tangled together. He takes his time catching his breath before he slowly open his eyes and finds Steven smiling at him, still panting, lips swollen and face flush with color, easily the most beautiful thing Andrew has ever seen.
“Hey,” he says quietly, with a hint of laughter behind the word. Andrew understands; his chest feels fit to ache with breathless giddiness.
“Hey, yourself.” He tilts his head a little and falls into a deep kiss that rocks him down to his very core. “Do you want to clean yourself up? Bathroom’s all yours.”
“In a minute.” Leaning backwards and wiping his hand off on the sheets (Andrew does the same - it’s probably about time he changed them anyways), he situates himself so that his head is tucked underneath Andrew’s chin and his mouth is skimming against his chest. “I wanna stay here for a while.”
“You can stay as long as you want,” Andrew murmurs, burying his face into the soft mop of Steven’s hair and inhaling deeply.
Steven hums contently.
Andrew isn’t sure how long they stay like that, wrapped up in each other, breath synced, fingertips softly skimming over bare skin. He doesn’t want to fall asleep, not before he strips the bed and cleans himself up, but the steady rhythm of Steven’s inhales and exhales is almost hypnotic. By the time Steven stirs again, presses a soft kiss to the skin over Andrew’s heart before he shuffles backwards, Andrew’s eyes are leaden and sore.
“First door on the left.” Steven gives him a smile before he slides to the end of the bed, grabs his boxers and sweatpants from the floor, and wanders down the hallway. Once he manages to summon up some energy from his deepest reserves, Andrew tugs on a pair of clean boxers, strips the bed and puts new sheets on, does it so haphazardly that he’s sure they’ll have pulled loose by the time he wakes up again. Once that’s done, he trudges into the kitchen to grab a glass of water and check on Cornichon’s dishes.
They should probably talk about this, now that they’ve gotten the fire between them out of the way, but frankly, he’s in no state of mind to deal with that kind of conversation; he has to work tonight, and if he wants to have any chance at being a functioning employee, he needs to sleep. It’s cutting it close - if he remembers correctly, in approximately seventy-two hours, Steven will be on a plane - but if they’re going to talk this through, they need to do it right.
A few minutes later, the bathroom door creaks open, and Steven calls down the hallway that he’s done. Even though his bed is calling to him, Andrew takes his time cleaning himself up and brushing his teeth, because he’s fully convinced that, when he steps back out into the hallway, Steven is going to be hovering at the front door like a sheepish one-night stand trying to sneak away without being rude.
However, when he exits the bathroom and glances to his left, he has a clear line of sight to the front door. When he glances to his right, he can see clearly into his bedroom, right to where Steven is back in his bed, tucked under the blanket with the bare line of his shoulders peeking out.
Only a few days ago, such a sight would have constituted an invasion, would have been a breach of his space and his privacy. Now, it makes his chest ache.
For the first time since he moved in, his house almost feels like a home, and the fact that it’s so temporary is utterly excruciating.
“Are you okay?” he asks, closing the bedroom door again. Before he can travel over to the bedside table to turn off the lamp, Steven does it for him.
“Yeah.” Once Andrew is underneath the covers, he’s lightly smacked by Steven’s hand as it gropes out backwards and flails around until it finds Andrew’s and locks together. Tugging slightly, he adds, “My legs are still shaking.”
Andrew huffs out a pleased laugh, and his stomach swoops as he takes the hint and moves closer until he’s fitted around Steven’s body, nose brushing against the nape of his neck, arm around the narrow line of his waist, their fingers and legs tangled together. When they’d lived together in their glorified shoe box of an apartment, their bed had been so narrow that they’d had to sleep like this out of necessity most of the time. Sometimes, on the days when they couldn’t sleep even though work had ended hours before, Andrew would murmur things in Steven’s ear, bits and pieces of Ukrainian from his childhood, other phrases in different languages he’d picked up from people in the bar. In return, Steven would teach him bits of Mandarin and Malay and usually, after a long enough time of stumbling over unfamiliar syllables, they ended up falling asleep.
Sometimes, if it was a really bad day, if they were too damn keyed up for whatever reason, the language lessons wouldn’t be enough.
On those days, Andrew murmured other things.
(Andrew can’t see their alarm clock over Steven’s shoulder, but he knows that they should both already be asleep. That’s easy enough to tell from the slivers of sun leaking around the edges of their makeshift blackout curtains, where the fabric has pulled away from the thumbtacks securing it to the window frame. Even above the fan providing a good burst of white noise, he can hear the traffic increasing on the street in front of their apartment, which means that the morning is well underway and they should be well on the way to resting up for another night of work.
But sleep is going to have to wait a little longer because, at the moment, Andrew has something more pressing to do.
Namely, make Steven fall apart.
Steven’s back is pressed against his chest, and Andrew can feel every shudder that runs down the length of Steven’s spine, every gasp or whimper or moan that leaves his mouth. One of his hands has reached back to wrap tight around Andrew’s thigh, while the other is tangled in the sheets by his head, pulling them loose from the corner of the narrow mattress.
“Andrew,” he gasps, hips pressing forward into the loose, slick circle of Andrew’s fingers. Andrew buries a groan into the side of Steven’s neck and follows it up with a scrape of his teeth along the part of Steven’s jaw that he reach.
“Feel good?” he murmurs, rolling his own hips against the slight swell of Steven’s ass. Steven nods rapidly and digs his blunt nails into Andrew’s thigh.
“So good,” he answers, voice pitching higher when Andrew twists his wrist. “So damn good.” When Andrew starts sucking a mark into the base of Steven’s throat, Steven chokes around the word fuck, and more heat flourishes in Andrew’s stomach.
“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he says once he’s polished off the mark, pressing a hard kiss to it for good measure. He’s getting close, and he knows that Steven is too, can tell by the rapid speed of his breath and the unsteady rhythm his hips have fallen into. He takes a moment to compose himself, digs his teeth briefly into the curve of Steven’s shoulder, before he continues, “Wanna see you come. Wanna hear you, Steven, can you do that for me?”
Steven gasps, twists his head back, and catches Andrew’s mouth in a hard clash of teeth and tongue.
Technically, that doesn’t answer Andrew’s question, but he thinks that the absolutely beautiful keen that Steven buries against his mouth when he comes is a resounding yes.)
Currently, he’s far too tired to do either of those things. Instead, after letting his eyes fall closed, he takes a deep breath and murmurs, “Ya sumuvav za toboyu,” against the back of Steven’s neck, wholly certain that Steven won’t remember what it means, won’t remember his own valiant attempts to shape his tongue around the syllables.
Then again, Steven always was good at catching him off guard.
“Yeah,” he whispers, bringing their interconnected hands to his mouth and pressing a kiss to Andrew’s knuckles. “I missed you too.”
Andrew falls asleep with that kiss still burning into his skin.
Chapter 10: I want to stay with you my love (the way some science fiction does)
chapter title comes from Science Fiction by Arctic Monkeys.
Half an hour before his alarm is due to go off, Andrew wakes up to an empty bed.
He notices it in fits and starts. The first tip-off is that there’s no longer warmth almost on the wrong side of too hot kindling in his chest and down the length of his limbs. The second is that, when he stretches one arm out, his fingers skim over nothing but bare mattress, the sheet having peeled back and rucked itself up near the line of his hip.
The third and final tip-off occurs when he stretches further, turns on the lamp on his bedside table, and discovers that Steven isn’t standing at the end of the bed pulling his clothes on. The only parts of him still lingering are the smell of his shampoo on Andrew’s pillow and the kiss that he burned into Andrew’s knuckles.
And the post-it note stuck to Andrew’s lampshade.
He lashes forward and tears it away hard enough to make the lamp wobble ominously. The note, bearing the logo of the Jewel in the top-left corner, is nearly filled with Steven’s handwriting; on the last line, the letters are shrunken and pressed too close, like siblings jostling for space in the backseat of a long car ride.
Sorry that I made you miss your dinner. I’m in room 1003. Come by before your shift if you can.
Andrew carefully sets the note on the nightstand before he sighs out what feels like every ounce of breath in his body and melts back into the mattress. He’s not surprised that Steven is gone; even if he didn’t have work to do, him actually sleeping all day and waking up at Andrew’s side would have only further fucked his sleep schedule up, which is not exactly the kind of effect Andrew wants to have on him.
Still, waking up to Steven beside him was always one of his favorite things, and since he doesn’t know how the next few days are going to unfold, there’s a distinct part of him that feels robbed.
His stomach growls alarmingly loud, and the thought of the leftover stew waiting for him in the fridge temporarily banishes every other thought from his mind.
Unfortunately, even after he eats and ruminates for a good long while, absently scratching Cornichon with his foot underneath the table, he doesn’t reach a state of clarity. After last night, he doesn’t think this is something he can figure out on his own. They’re fully intertwined now. What Steven wants is going to affect him and vice versa.
And that is terrifying.
He glances from the last dregs of stew in his bowl to his knuckles, to where Steven pressed his mouth before he fell asleep. He can still feel the curvature of Steven’s body as it settled back against his, can hear Steven murmuring I missed you too. That had seemed totally and utterly genuine; sure, there’s always the chance that Steven was pretending, but Andrew suspects not. He was never much of an actor, always wore his emotions as brightly as a banner.
Then again, maybe that is one of the things that changed about him over the last three years. Maybe Andrew was so caught up in his own mind, so distracted, that he missed it. Maybe he’s deluding himself.
That particular thought feels like something he could analyze for hours, until it’s time to go to work and he has to skip seeing Steven so, before he can fall down the rabbit hole any further, he goes back to the bedroom, grabs his phone, and calls Adam.
“What is it?” Adam answers in a heavy mumble, like his face is still shoved deep into his pillow.
“I might have fucked up,” Andrew answers, dropping down heavily onto the edge of his mattress. “Might have. I don’t know for sure yet.”
“How the...” Rustling fills the phone line for a moment. “Didn’t you just wake up?”
“I’ve been up for a bit. And this was earlier today. After we came back here.” He catches the slip of his tongue almost immediately and wonders briefly if Adam will miss it.
No such luck.
“You slept with him, didn’t you?” Adam asks after a brief pause.
“Yeah.” Andrew drags a hand down the side of his face, and half a week of stubble rasps against his palm. He wonders idly if Steven’s skin is still marked with it, if the curve of his neck is still scratched pink.
“Do you regret it?”
Regardless of the potential consequences it may have, the ripple effect that it might have on the rest of his life, Andrew doesn’t have to search for an answer to that question.
“No. He wants me to stop by his room before work. To talk.”
“Good. I think that’s exactly what the two of you need to do.” In the background, Annie murmurs something, and there’s another rustle as Adam covers up the phone to answer her before he comes back on the line. “Just... be honest with him, Andrew. Even if it’s hard. Tell him the truth. You owe that to each other.”
“What if I don’t know what the truth is?”
“Then maybe you can figure it out together.” It’s such a simple, commonly used word, but together in this context makes something in Andrew’s heart spark to life. “I have to go. If you want to talk on break tonight, let me know, alright?”
“Alright. See you tonight.”
After he’s ended the call, Andrew immediately gets to his feet. He can’t afford to get lost in his thoughts again; if they’re going to take care of this, he needs to do it now, before he falls back into overthinking and does something absurdly foolish, like take the night off or call Steven and tell him that something came up.
He’s not going to be a coward. Not this time.
(The thing is, Los Angeles isn’t even that far away.
Andrew’s never been, but he’s looked it up an innumerable amount of times over the last two weeks, typed the city’s name into a search bar and brought up directions. Sometimes, the traffic has an impact on the estimated length of time it would take to drive there, but the mile count is always the same, roughly three hundred, depending on which route he took. Considering the countless number of miles between New Jersey and Nevada, three hundred should seem like nothing.
Yet those three hundred miles, the distance between point A and point B, feel utterly impassable.
He finished up work two hours ago, and while he should be winding down, preparing to grab a few winks of sleep, he’s working on his third drink and staring down at his phone, loosely cradled in one hand. He keeps alternating between the maps application, which is displaying a wavy red line going from his address to the center of LA, to his text messages. The last message he received from Steven, dated almost exactly two weeks ago, is hovering at the top of his screen, in his peripheral vision. Andrew doesn’t have to focus his eyes on it to know exactly what it says; he’s read it so many times that he’s fairly certain it’s embedded in his brain, implanted there so thoroughly that he'll probably be able to recall it on his deathbed.
made it, safe and sound. I miss you. I’m sorry.
Andrew still hasn’t answered.
Whenever he has downtime at work, or after he’s made it back home, he tries to come up with some kind of response. In his head, he’s composed answer after answer. He’s run the gauntlet of emotion, swung from sappy to angry to desperate, sometimes in the course of a single hour.
Tonight, whether it’s because of the tiredness that’s leeched into his mind or because of the cheap rum and warm soda sitting in his stomach, he’s leaning more towards desperate. His cursor is blinking at the end of the text, taunting him to do something, to keep typing or press send or start over.
Rather than making a choice, he simply rereads what he’s written so far, the result of an absurdly long type spent correcting and rephrasing and deleting.
I’m sorry too. I’m sorry for everything I said. I’m sorry that I didn’t kiss you back, that last time. I love you. I miss you. Everything about you. I made a mistake.
He reads it over again and again, until he can hear the words echoing in his mind. He adds a sentence, takes out another, and reads it again. He flicks back over to the map, stares at how the distance between them has been rendered and compressed so neatly into that single red line.
Then, he closes the map, erases the text he’s spent so long composing, and tosses the rest of his drink down his throat before he gets up to make another.
He never does respond to the message.)
He arrives in the gilded, brightly illuminated lobby of the Jewel two and a half hours before his shift. As he steps into the elevator and presses the button for the tenth floor, whole body flooded with nervous energy, he realizes that he might be too early. It’s all too possible that Steven is out wining and dining someone, still in some kind of meeting or out scouting. If that’s the case, despite his earlier resolve, Andrew doesn’t know if he’ll be able to keep up his courage. He doesn’t want to simply wait in front of Steven’s door until he returns like some kind of runaway pet.
By the time he actually comes to a stop in front of Steven’s door and knocks lightly, he’s convinced himself so thoroughly that he’s already managed to fuck this up that when the door flies open mere seconds later, he’s flabbergasted.
“Hey,” Steven says, pushing his glasses up his nose and holding the door open wider. “You came.” He sounds happy about it, but the meaning of the words still make Andrew disappointed in his past self for giving Steven that kind of expectation.
His resolve strengthens again.
“Of course I did.” Andrew steps into the small hallway leading into the room while Steven locks the door. It’s one of the mid-range suites, nearly identical to the ones they used to crowd into with their friends on their nights off, right down to the ruby and gold swirled carpet and the tastefully tan walls. There’s a small alcove on his right containing a kitchenette, and the narrow counter is dotted with mugs and water glasses. Beyond that is the bathroom and the room itself. The curtains are pulled back, and the window looks out onto the fountain at the front of the building, which is spurting both water and light a few stories up into the air, shifting colors every five seconds. The lamps on either side of the massive, neatly made bed are on, but the overhead light is off, and there’s something about the warm glow of the room that makes Andrew feel like he’s slipped into the past again.
“Not a bad view,” he says cordially, carefully bypassing one of Steven’s suitcases on the floor, which is open and full of rumpled clothes, so that he can sit down on the edge of the mattress.
“Not quite the eighteenth floor, but it’ll have to do.” Steven kicks a pair of sneakers under the small desk pressed against the wall opposite the bed, so conspicuous about it that Andrew bites back a laugh. “Are you hungry? I can order room service.” When Andrew shakes his head, Steven says, “Me neither,” and sinks down onto the bed with a nervous laugh, legs dangling over the edge of the mattress, close enough that his knee is bumping against Andrew’s. His arms are cushioned under his head, and the position has made the hem of his shirt ride up to expose a few inches of skin. Even though Andrew knows they need to talk, he’s so distracted by that strip that he has to convince himself not to trace it with his hand.
He settles for taking the hem of Steven’s shirt and twisting the extraneous fabric in his fingers. The contact keeps him from feeling like he’s about to implode. Earlier in the day, falling back together had felt as organic as breathing, but now, he’s flying blind. He has no idea what he’s doing.
But maybe he can work with that.
“Where do we go from here?” he begins, keeping his eyes lowered to the general vicinity of Steven’s knees, worrying the fabric of his shirt between his fingers. “What... what do you want from me, Steven?”
Really, it’s probably the best question he could ask, because Steven’s answer might give them some kind of shape and definition. Simultaneously, it’s also the hardest question he’s had to ask in his life, because he is absolutely petrified of what kind of answer he is going to get. He needs to know the truth, but the thought of what that truth could possibly be makes his heart beat in his throat.
Steven doesn’t answer for an excruciatingly long time. Every additional second that ticks by feels like a lit match pressing against Andrew’s skin, but he forces himself to remain quiet and wait it out.
Eventually, Steven’s fingers slide down and gently extract Andrew’s from his shirt.
“When I first saw you again,” he says quietly as he twines their fingers together, “for a few seconds, I forgot that I hadn’t seen you in so long. I forgot everything that happened between us, near the end. I just... I forgot. And I almost sat down in front of you and said-”
“Hey bartender, want to take me home?” They recite it perfectly in sync, and Steven bursts out laughing.
“Yeah, exactly.” He rolls up into a seated position, legs crossed, and turns to face Andrew. After pulling their intertwined hands into his lap, the room goes quiet again, aside from the almost imperceptible brush of Steven’s other hand against the back of Andrew’s as he traces the lines of his tendons and knuckles. When he continues, he keeps his head ducked, and his voice is thicker. “I don’t regret leaving. I need you to know that. The work has been everything I wanted and more. But...” Squeezing Andrew’s hand tightly, he brings it up to his mouth and presses a lingering kiss to the back of it. Something wet plinks against Andrew’s knuckles. “But seeing you again, even when I thought for sure that you hated me? That... that felt like coming home, Andrew.”
Andrew’s chest tightens and locks, and the cogs and gears of his brain spin fruitlessly as he tries to process what is absolutely the most overwhelming thing anyone has ever said to him.
He was hoping that the truth Steven gave him would have some kind of alignment with his own, but he never could have imagined that it would be identical to his own.
The sound of Steven’s voice suddenly pierces through the rush of blood filling his ears, and Andrew realizes that Steven is still talking.
“I don’t know if you want the same thing as me.” More wetness strikes the back of Andrew’s hand. “But I want you to be happy, no matter what. You deserve that, Andrew. You always have. If you being happy somehow involves me, then that would be amazing. But if it doesn’t, then that’s… that’s okay too.” Lips skimming over his knuckles, Steven finally looks back up, and there are tear tracks coursing down his cheeks. Stomach churning, Andrew leans in to where one track ends just above Steven’s jawline and follows it back to his eyelid, pressing kisses that leave his lips salty up to the source.
“Steven,” he says, bracing his forehead against Steven’s and closing his eyes so that he doesn’t end up with tear tracks of his own. “I slept better today, with you beside me, than I have the past three years running. I missed you. God, I missed you so much.”
“I missed you too,” Steven whispers, squeezing Andrew’s hand tightly.
“I don’t want to fuck things up again. I want to be better this time. I want us to be better this time. I’m not ready to leave yet, but I’m ready to think about it. I just... I want to try to make this work. Okay?”
“I want to make this work too,” Steven says, nodding vehemently. “I really, really do.” He leans forward into a kiss that leaves another thin coating of salt on Andrew’s lips. “Just so long as you’re sure. I don’t want you to regret this. Or me.”
“I never regretted you, Steven,” Andrew answers, and regardless of what he may have tried to tell himself the last few years, it’s the gospel truth. “And I’m not going to regret this. Even if it doesn’t work out, at least we tried. It’s more than I did last time.”
“I put too much pressure on you last time.” Abruptly, Steven clambers his way into Andrew’s lap in a flurry of long limbs. Once his knees are firmly situated against the mattress on either side of Andrew’s hips and his arms are wrapped around Andrew’s neck, he continues, “I’m not going to do that again. We can take this as fast or slow as you want. We’ll figure it out.”
“We will,” Andrew agrees, tilting his head back so that he can reach Steven’s mouth with his own. “Together.”
Over the course of the next two hours, they manage to sketch out some plans. Andrew has the next day off, and they make plans to have actual dinner once he’s woken up, to spend as many hours as possible together until Steven flies out the day after. Andrew decides to ask his boss if he can switch over to the day shift as soon as possible, and Steven jots his phone number down on a scrap of paper from the desk and shoves it into Andrew’s pocket, so that he can add it to his cell later.
Mainly, though, they kiss, over and over, occasionally breaking away to laugh as their emotions bubble over. Steven slides on top of him and kisses him until Andrew feels like he might melt into the mattress, until his very blood feels as molten as lava. In return, Andrew kisses Steven until his cheeks and neck are pink from flushing and beard burn, kisses him until the only coherent word from Steven’s mouth is Andrew’s name.
They kiss until Andrew has to go get ready for his shift. Before he heads downstairs, he ends up with the door at his back and the warm press of Steven’s body at his front as Steven hurriedly kisses the side of his neck like it’s the last chance he has to do it.
“Steven,” Andrew groans, tilting his head back even as he reaches for the doorknob. “I have to go. Gonna be late.”
“Sorry,” Steven murmurs, pressing a final kiss to the hollow at the base of Andrew’s throat before he rocks back onto his heels. “Go, before I drag you back to bed.”
“Drag yourself back to bed,” Andrew teases. “You need to get some sleep.”
“No guarantees. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Can’t come fast enough.”
He slides behind the bar just as the clock strikes nine. His hair is a mess, and the collar of his shirt is askew, so he tries to surreptitiously fix both using the mirror behind the bar. Apparently, he doesn’t do a very good job, because within seconds, Garrett zeroes in on him with a grin.
“What were you doing before your shift?” he asks, waggling his eyebrows ludicrously high. Normally, Andrew would just roll his eyes, but he finds himself smiling at his own reflection.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I would, actually! I’ve never seen you this happy before.”
For the next few hours, whenever they have downtime, Andrew tries to convince Garrett that he’s not drunk or on drugs without actually revealing the reason for the ridiculous grin that can’t seem to stay off his face. By the time he slips out for his break after texting Adam to meet him at the buffet, there’s no sign that it’s going to disappear anytime soon.
“So,” Adam says once they’re settled in a booth. “Were you honest with him?”
Andrew nods. “I was.”
“Good. Now what?”
Andrew takes his time pondering that question whilst carving into the ham steak taking up a third of his plate. They didn’t exactly put a name on what was between them, didn’t define it using any kind of easy buzzword that Andrew could reel out and have be an easy explanation. That’s something they’ll have to discuss another time.
But even if he doesn’t know what they are specifically, he knows that Steven is officially back in his life, and he knows how he wants to proceed on that basis.
“Now,” he answers, meaning it with every ounce of his being, “I’m going to do everything I can to make things work.”
Chapter 11: oh darling, I wish you were here
so, if anyone wants to yell about how amazing the s5 premiere was, please come hit up my tumblr inbox, because I am dying.
anyways, only one chapter + the coda fic left after this!
chapter title from Vanilla Twilight by Owl City, because a nonny messaged me and said the song reminded them of this fic and I haven't stopped thinking about it.
After waking up and showering, Andrew stands in front of his closet for what feels like a truly ridiculous amount of time, trying to narrow down what to wear. When they’d been making their plans last night, they hadn’t picked a specific place to go for dinner, but he suspects that it’ll be at least slightly fancier than the diners they’ve been frequenting, and he wants to put some kind of effort in without overdressing.
Thankfully, he’s still less nervous than he was before their first date, in the hours leading up to their first kiss.
(Steven is running late.
It’s only by five minutes, and Andrew knows that there’s probably two dozen different reasons why Steven is running behind. It’s possible he got too caught up in a task and simply hasn’t noticed the time yet or that he got given something at the last minute or that he had to cover someone’s lunch break and had to stick around for a little bit longer.
But still, as five minutes turns into six and then seven, Andrew’s stomach grows more and more unsteady. The longer he waits outside, leaning against the half-wall surrounding the fountain that serves as the closest thing the Jewel has to a centerpiece, the more he suspects that he’s going to have to dart across the driveway and throw up in one of the fake bushes near the building’s main entrance.
Maybe Steven isn’t late because of work. Maybe he changed his mind about going on a date and decided to stick around for a full shift, rather than four hours. Maybe he’s trying to compose a text right now to tell Andrew thanks but no thanks.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Twelve minutes pass, but just as Andrew is ready to either actually throw up or call it a night, he spots Steven coming towards him, maneuvering through the steady trickle of tourists heading for the front door with an expression on his face that almost looks like terror.
“I’m so sorry,” he says when he’s still a few feet away from Andrew. Thankfully, the godawful ruby-red blazer he has to wear when he’s giving tours is nowhere to be seen, but he’s still wearing the rest of his work clothes, a slightly baggy white button-up carefully tucked into black slacks. “Jen was a little late coming back from lunch, and my phone died and I’m just…” With a loud sigh, like he’s letting out literal days of frustration, he closes the space between them and pulls Andrew into a hug, ducks his face into the side of Andrew’s neck like he’s been doing it for years.
Andrew’s knees almost give out.
It’s not the first time they’ve hugged, not by far – he learned pretty early on in their friendship that Steven is tactile, especially when he’s tipsy or upset or when someone else is upset and he’s trying to comfort them – but Andrew doesn’t think it’s ever been quite like this. Steven’s never melted so wholly against him, like Andrew is the only thing keeping him from drowning.
Andrew thinks that it’s a sensation he could quickly become addicted to.
“I’m just really glad you waited for me,” Steven mumbles, tightening his arms around Andrew’s waist.
As he wraps his own arms around Steven’s back and pulls him in closer, some of Andrew’s anxiousness melts away.
“Yeah,” he replies, inhaling the intertwined scents of Steven’s cologne and shampoo. “Me too.”)
He finally settles on an outfit mere minutes before Steven knocks on his door. He’s wearing a nice jacket but no tie, and there’s a small plastic bag hanging from his fingers.
“I have a peace offering,” he announces as he steps inside, pulling a new catnip-filled mouse out of the bag. “It’s the least I can do, for taking you away from her again.”
“She probably appreciates the peace and quiet,” Andrew answers, taking the toy from Steven’s outstretched hand so that he can tear the packaging off. As soon as he tosses it in the direction of the living room, Cornichon, who has been winding around their legs, bolts after it. “But I think that she also appreciates the gesture.”
“Good.” After balling the plastic bag up and tucking it into the pocket of his trousers, Steven wraps his fingers into the front of Andrew’s shirt and tugs him into a kiss that leaves Andrew reeling on his feet. “You ready to eat?”
Frankly, after a kiss like that, Andrew is kind of ready to pull Steven back to his bedroom, but that can wait until after dinner.
It might be a challenge to wait that long, but at the very least, he’ll have more energy after he eats.
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
The place that Steven takes them to is on the Strip, but there’s no mistaking it as just another gaudy piece of Vegas, a blatant cash grab for the tourists. The inside is lit dimly and tastefully accented with gold, the walls are covered in intricately painted tableaus of flowers and nature, the wine selection is expansive (and expensive), and there’s enough space between the tables that being overheard is a faint possibility. How Steven managed to score a reservation on such short notice is beyond Andrew, and when he asks, Steven flushes slightly, murmurs something about his job having perks, and then steals a sip of Andrew’s wine that leaves his lips red as a beet.
Andrew barely manages to resist the urge to lean across the table, curl his hands around Steven’s lapels, and kiss that red slick right off his beautiful mouth.
By the time they get back to Andrew’s house, utterly satiated (and a little tipsy, in Andrew’s case), it’s nearly midnight, but Andrew is reluctant to let the night draw to a close. Steven’s flight is due to leave in a mere twelve hours, and the thought of having to give him up again, even if it’s only for a few weeks, is excruciating. At the same time, he doesn’t want Steven to feel pressured into sticking around when he really should be getting some sleep.
Before he can say anything, Steven snaps his seat belt open and turns the car off.
“Can I come in for a bit?” he asks. There’s something glimmering deep in his eyes, illuminated by the streetlights marching down the street, something promising that makes Andrew swallow hard and tighten his fingers on his own knee.
“You’re sure?” he asks, trying his best to resist lurching across the console and tugging Steven over into his lap. “I don’t want to keep you awake.”
“Oh,” Steven replies quietly as he rubs at the back of his neck, and Andrew can tell from the tone of his voice that whatever he’s going to continue with is going to make his throat go dry. “That’s… that’s kind of exactly what I want you to do.”
The fact that they even make it inside, let alone all the way to the bedroom, after a remark like that is a bit of a miracle.
It’s only afterwards that Andrew realizes that the problem with falling into bed with Steven again is that it makes it even more difficult to let go of him.
“Do you want me to see you off?” he asks once the afterglow has faded some. His head is tucked underneath Steven’s chin, and his fingers are tracing over the curvature of his ribs. If he concentrates, he can hear the beat of Steven’s heart, still in the process of slowing back down to its normal rhythm. “I think I can stay awake that long.”
“If I need to sleep, then so do you,” Steven replies, shivering slightly when Andrew’s fingers ghost a little lower, over the soft strip of skin between his ribs and hip. Fingers slowly running through Andrew’s hair, Steven continues, “Besides, this isn’t goodbye. Not this time.”
Andrew thinks that those might be the loveliest words he’s ever heard.
Changing over to the day shift is a hellish process.
He researches the best way to switch his sleep schedule over and takes a few days off to make the transition easier, but he still ends up sleepwalking through some of his first shifts. To make things worse, since the lounge is so quiet during the morning and afternoon, he ends up pulling most of his shifts in the Tiki Bar, which is sticky, loud, crowded and generally all-around horrific regardless of the time of day. Not being able to commiserate with Adam over food only makes things worse.
But switching over means that he can actually talk to Steven during normal waking hours, and that alone makes everything worth it.
Steven constantly sends him pictures of interesting things he’s seen during his day, snapshots of brightly colored graffiti and cute cats and the latest ridiculous jacket he’s purchased. In return, Andrew sends him pictures of the sunrise when he gets a chance to see it, of Cornichon and the bizarre things he sees displayed in pawn shop windows. Whenever time allows, they talk for literal hours. They talk about the years they spent together and the years they spent apart. They comb back through memories together and share the ones that they created separately with each other.
As the days pass, part of Andrew, the cynic that permanently resides in the back of his mind, expects that the novelty will wear off and be replaced by regret. Surely one of them will get sick of the other, will realize that they’ve made a mistake letting the other one back in their life.
But a week goes by, and then a month, and then a month of half, with no sign of that regret.
While Andrew knows it’s not a long period of time in the grand scheme of things, considering the fact that he doesn’t see Steven outside the confines of a computer or phone screen for that entire time and only falls for him harder every day, he thinks there’s something to be said about that.
Two months after he kisses Steven on his doorstep, he gets to return the favor on Steven’s doorstep.
He takes four days off, leaves Cornichon with Adam and Annie, spends an absurd amount of time stuck in traffic, and finally arrives in Los Angeles to beaming sunshine that still isn’t as bright as Steven’s grin when he throws open his door and launches himself into Andrew’s arms with enough force to knock him back a few steps.
The days pass in an absolute whirlwind. They spend a lot of time hanging out with Steven’s roommate Evan, who teaches Andrew six different Korean drinking games and kicks his ass at all of them. They spend a lot of time driving from one restaurant to the other, trying to squeeze in as many of Steven’s favorites as possible, and a lot of time seeing the sights, the obligatory touristy ones as well as some low-key places that Steven has discovered over the years.
Mainly though, they spend a lot of time in Steven’s bed, wrapped up in each other and making up for lost time.
On the last night, after Evan has soundly beaten both of them at drinking and excused himself to go meet some friends, they stumble back to Steven’s bedroom on unsteady feet and practically trip over each other in their haste to hit the mattress. When the dust clears, Andrew finds himself hovering with his head just above Steven’s stomach, and it suddenly seems imperative that he ask for permission to do something that he’s desperately missed.
Even though his mouth practically waters at the thought, he takes his time working up to it. Pushing Steven’s shirt up to his ribs, he lowers his head and starts leaving a line of kisses parallel to Steven’s waistband, uses his teeth and lips to work his way over to one hip and then the other, and then starts the whole process over again. Only when Steven is a panting mess underneath him, one hand twisted tightly into Andrew’s hair and the other gripping the sheets, does he ask.
“Steven.” He shuffles down a little further, until he has to hunch over his own knees so that his feet aren’t hanging over the edge of the bed and, glancing up so that he can gauge Steven’s reaction, presses his mouth against where Steven is hard in the constraints of his jeans. “Can I?”
The sound that leaves Steven’s mouth is almost a sob.
There are a lot of things about Steven that didn’t change while they were apart: his sweet tooth, his boundless enthusiasm for life, his penchant for hair dye and his begrudging love of puns.
As it turns out, the beautiful way he falls apart once Andrew gets his mouth on him also hasn’t changed.
One month after Andrew discovers that even four uninterrupted days of being around Steven isn’t enough to satisfy the longing continually filling the hollow points of his chest, Steven returns the favor by coming back into town for a few days.
Unfortunately, despite Andrew’s idea of possibly having everyone over for dinner again so that Niki and Rie can catch up with Steven as well, their schedules conflict, and it doesn’t work out. Adam and Annie, however, are both off, and while part of Andrew is worried that things might be awkward, is worried that at least one person is going to feel left out because of their different histories, dinner goes off without a hitch. Afterwards, per usual, Adam insists on helping clean up, and despite Andrew’s insistence that Steven is a guest, he ignores everything Andrew says and cheerfully follows after Adam to the kitchen, raving about the coconut cream pie that Adam made for dessert. When Andrew looks to Annie for some back-up, she shrugs.
“If he keeps complimenting Adam’s cooking like that, we might have to find ourselves new boyfriends.”
Andrew laughs and sinks down onto the floor beside her so that they can see which one of them Cornichon pays more attention to when they’re both holding toys.
Unsurprisingly, Annie is the winner.
Long after the sound of dishes clinking together stops drifting from the kitchen, Adam and Steven haven’t reappeared, and although Andrew is fairly certain that Adam isn’t the kind of person to pull the hurt him and I’ll hurt you talk, he’s still concerned, so after asking Annie if she wants more wine, he makes his way across the living room.
He’s just outside the kitchen door when he hears Steven speak.
“I really don’t want to mess this up. He’s… he’s the best thing that ever happened to me, Adam.”
The statement stops Andrew in his tracks. If it was coming from anyone else, he would dismiss it as outright hyperbole; hell, even if it was Steven saying it, if he was using any other tone besides reverent, Andrew would assume that it was exaggeration.
But this isn’t hyperbole or some kind of offhand comment. This is Steven fully displaying his emotions, in a way Andrew was always envious of.
“For what it’s worth,” Adam says softly, “I’m pretty sure he’d say the same about you.”
Adam is right.
Much later that night, when they’re lying in bed in the dark, drifting off to sleep, Andrew lets Steven hear that truth from his own mouth.
“Adam was right,” he mumbles, shifting his arm underneath Steven’s shoulders so it doesn’t fall asleep. There’s no need to take a breath to prepare himself; he’s so tired that the words simply spill out. “You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The rhythm of Steven’s fingers, where they’re brushing over the line of Andrew’s waist, momentarily stutters.
“You heard that?” Andrew hums to indicate yes, and a vague current of concern starts swimming towards his mind, concern that Steven is going to think he was violating a private conversation. Before the current can actually reach his brain, Steven’s fingers return to their slow movements, and he cranes up to press a kiss to Andrew’s cheek. “Good. ‘Cause I meant it.”
Somehow, impossibly, Andrew falls even harder.
He isn’t in any rush, but approximately four months after Steven kisses him and reignites his heart, Andrew starts casually looking for studio apartments in the Los Angeles area that won’t break the bank. He starts doing some research on how to end his lease on his house, how much notice he’ll need to give, and he starts looking at his furniture appraisingly and wonders how much of it he can leave behind.
After three weeks of looking off and on, he finds a place.
It’s on the third floor of a walk-up about ten miles from Steven’s place. It’s definitely small, but it’s in a safe neighborhood, it’s within his budget, and when he looks up information on the property management company that owns it, the reviews are surprisingly not scathing, which means that it’s probably too good to be true and there’s liable to be twenty other people in line before him, waiting to snatch it up with eager fingers.
But a mere hour after he asks for more information, he gets a promising response.
A week later, after his background check and references clear, the place is officially his for the first of December.
He stares at the email for an eternity, reads the words over and over again. The realization sets in like molasses dripping into a bowl, bit by bit, until it hits the point where he has to push his laptop back a few inches and let out a deep exhale.
He has so much that he needs to do, so many practicalities to arrange: end his lease, sort through his possessions, give notice at the Jewel, find a new job, make sure he has sufficient time to say goodbye to everyone before he heads out.
But first things first, he needs to tell Steven.
He drags the email into a text as an attachment and then stares down at his phone for another eternity, thumbs tapping aimlessly against the screen, trying to compose a message. He loses count of how many false starts he makes, how many words he ends up erasing, before he finally just goes for it and sends a simple question.
don’t suppose you know any good restaurants in this neighborhood?
It’s mid-morning, so he doesn’t expect Steven to answer right away; he’s probably embroiled in some meeting or out on site. Even when he gets a notification that the message has been read, he expects that it’ll be awhile before Steven actually responds.
Instead, almost as soon as that notification pops up, Steven calls him.
“Andrew, you’re serious?” The words fall out of his mouth in a tumble, overlap each other in their excitement, and Andrew wishes that he could see the smile that he can hear in Steven’s voice.
“I’m serious. And before you ask, yes, I’m sure.” Truthfully, he’s never been sure of a decision in his entire life.
“Oh my God.” The words trail off into a delighted whisper, and Andrew’s heart swells in response. “I can’t believe this. I’m gonna talk to some friends later, see if they might be able to hook you up with a job, okay?” Before he can answer, there’s a rustle on the line, and he hears Steven faintly call be right there before he returns. “I’m sorry, I have to go, but I’ll call you as soon as I get home, I promise. I love you. So much.”
“Love you too,” Andrew automatically answers before he hangs up.
It’s only afterwards that he realizes it’s the first time they’ve said it to each other since they got back together.
Now that the floodgates are open, he has no plans on trying to dam them up again.
It’s Annie’s idea to throw him a going-away party.
They hold it at his house, which is filled with cardboard boxes and almost totally devoid of furniture. There are people piled on the couch and sitting cross-legged on the floor and spilling out into the back yard, where Shane is holding some kind of impromptu concert, interrupted every so often by his new boyfriend begging him to please shut the fuck up in the most loving manner Andrew has ever heard.
Seeing everyone gathered together in one spot is what really sets everything in stone, what actually makes everything real. In two days, he’ll be pulling out of his driveway for the last time. In a week, he’ll be starting his new job, tending bar at a place owned by one of Steven’s friends.
It’s hard to believe just how much things have changed since the beginning of summer.
Eventually, mingling with everyone and answering the same half dozen questions over and over again becomes tedious, not to mention overwhelming, so he steps out into the backyard, which cleared out some when Shane and Ryan headed off to work, to get some air. The night is cool enough to make goosebumps stand up on his arms as he crosses the grass to where Adam is leaning back against the wooden fence bordering the small yard, head tilted towards the dark sky.
“Too much for you too?” Andrew asks. Adam nods and takes a small sip from his glass of wine.
“Just needed a minute.”
After the chaos of the night, to mention nothing of the last few weeks, Adam’s companionable silence is nothing less than soothing, and Andrew soaks it up like the sun. Of all the things about Vegas, this is what he’s going to miss the most: being able to simply sit with Adam, with no expectations from either of them, to know that if he needs to talk, there’s someone willing to listen.
“You know,” he says idly, gently elbowing Adam in the arm, “I’m sure there’s always a need for accountants in LA. Just saying.” Adam huffs out a laugh, but there’s a slightly sheepish smile peeking out from underneath his beard.
“Annie’s actually been talking about moving back to California,” he says. “One day, maybe.” If it was coming from anyone else, Andrew would think that they were maybe pulling his leg, but he knows that Adam is serious as a heart attack, and something awfully close to joy fills his chest.
“If you end up doing it, we’ll throw you a housewarming party. It’d only be fair after tonight,” he says before he tilts his head up to look at the sky. The light pollution isn’t horrible tonight; if he squints, he can see the stars, glittering above like pinholes punched in dark fabric stretched taut.
He’s starting to think that someone up there likes him an awful lot, because there’s simply no other explanation as to why everything has worked out so goddamn well.
He doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve such treatment, but he’ll definitely take it.
Chapter 12: epilogue: I've done some things that I shouldn't have done (but I haven’t stopped loving you once)
Andrew smells the sea before he sees it.
The salinity of it breezes through his open window as he drives down the freeway towards the city, brushes against his upper lip like a gentle kiss. He gets a few more miles of purity before the smog kicks in, acrid like battery acid, but by that point, he can actually see the aquamarine water in the distance, winking at him from between rolling hills and a never-ending number of freeway ramps. From this far away, it looks as beautiful as it was meant to be, looks like the ocean the Beach Boys sang about in every other song. It’s easy to forget that it’s slicked with pollution and filled with trash.
Thankfully, his new home isn’t near the water, so he can hold onto the image of it glinting like the most pristine jewel in all the world for a little while longer.
By the time he pulls up to the curb in front of his new home, it’s late afternoon, and the sun is starting to disappear behind a thin skein of gray clouds that promise to bring rain in the near future. The small moving van that preceded him with most of his furniture (not that there was a lot of it - after three years of having more space than he knew what to do with, he’s downsized himself right back into a shoe box again) is nowhere to be seen, but Steven is sitting on the steps leading up to the building, one leg bouncing up and down like it’s about to fly right off his body. There’s a set of keys peeking out of his fingers, and even though the day has cooled significantly, there’s a sheen of sweat covering his face and his forearms.
Which seems to indicate that the moving van isn’t late - it’s already come and gone, and Steven handled it all.
There are more boxes in Andrew’s car, filling most of the backseat and the trunk, but for the time being, they can wait; he’s pretty sure that if he doesn’t get Cornichon out of her crate soon, she’s going to murder him the first chance she gets. Grabbing her from the passenger side, he slides out and groans at the stiffness in his legs makes itself known.
“Hey,” Steven says, jumping to his feet. After bounding down the steps, beaming from ear to ear, he reaches through the bars of Cornichon’s crate and brushes her nose with his finger. For his efforts, he’s rewarded with an indignant yowl and a lick of her sandpaper rough tongue. “I’ve missed her.”
“Gotta admit, I’m feeling kind of left out here,” Andrew remarks, slinging his free arm around Steven’s waist and tugging him in closer. Steven rolls his eyes theatrically before he leans in for a kiss that’s as soothing as a balm on a wound.
“I missed you too,” he replies, gently bumping his nose against Andrew’s before he backs away and drops the keys into Andrew’s free hand. “I’ll grab some boxes.”
After setting up Cornichon’s litter box and dishes, Andrew joins Steven in bringing up the rest of the car’s contents. By the third trip up and down the narrow, steep stairs, he’s cursing the part of him that thought moving into a walk-up wasn’t going to be a pain in the ass. It takes nearly an hour before the last box is not only in the apartment but is moved somewhere where it won’t be a tripping hazard. His arms and thighs are aching, and the thought of a shower is beyond tempting, but he’s pretty sure that if he doesn’t get horizontal fast, he’s going to slump right over. His bed frame is leaning against the wall in pieces, waiting to be assembled, and he bypasses it in favor of simply tipping the bare mattress over onto the floor with a thud before he collapses on top of it, lack of sheets be damned.
“At least the hard part’s done,” Steven comments, stretching out beside him. “No thanks to Cornichon.”
“Leave her alone,” Andrew says, gently elbowing Steven in the side as he glances over at where Cornichon is fast asleep atop the tallest stack of boxes in the apartment. “She’s had a long day.”
“Fair enough.” Steven wriggles over until his head is resting on Andrew’s chest, and he peels up the fabric of Andrew’s shirt so he can slip his hand underneath and curl his fingers around Andrew’s hip. Andrew sighs contently and turns so that he can bury his face into Steven’s hair, breathe in the slight tang of hair product and clean sweat.
“Can’t believe I’m actually here,” he murmurs, sliding his arm underneath Steven’s shoulders and tugging him closer.
“Me neither. I’m not dreaming, am I?”
“No. Not unless we’re having the same dream.”
As the sun continues to descend, it leaves behind tall, dark shadows that splay across the boxes like a raised hand, and the apartment falls quiet. Andrew lets his eyes fall closed; he doesn’t plan on going to sleep, not until he’s had a chance to shower and get some of the basics unpacked, but he’s unwilling to move away from Steven yet. The visits they’ve had over the past few months didn’t give him enough of this, enough of the gentle drag of skin against skin with no pressure to move things further.
Simply put, the last few months didn’t give him enough of Steven in the flesh, and that’s a mistake he’s planning to rectify.
It’s almost fully dark by the time Steven stirs and flops on top of him. There’s just enough light coming through the window from an electric billboard across the way for Andrew to see the mischievous grin decorating Steven’s face.
“What are you doing?” he asks, feeling a smile of his own stretch at his mouth.
“I was going to wait until you actually started work, but...” Clearing his throat, he leans in until his lips are brushing against the corner of Andrew’s mouth. In his best impression of a purr, which is simultaneously the most embarrassing thing Andrew has ever heard and weirdly arousing at the same time, he says, “Hey bartender, want to take me home?”
The years haven’t changed anything: it’s still one of the cheesiest lines Andrew has ever heard (and boy has he heard some), but even though it’s ludicrous, Andrew’s heart still swells at the sound of it coming from Steven’s mouth.
“I do want that,” he answers, wrapping both of his arms tightly around Steven’s back and pulling him in closer, until Steven’s lankier frame is solidly arranged around his own. “There’s just one problem.”
“Yeah?” Steven asks, mischievous grin turning into something softer around the edges, something absolutely lovely that Andrew could stare at for the rest of time and never tire of. “What’s that?”
Andrew tilts his head up and steals a kiss that warms him down to his very toes before he answers.
“I’m already home, Steven.”
planning, writing and editing this fic in preparation for posting took two and a half months. at one point, I went through a break-up, and having this fic to focus on honestly helped so, so much. on the flip side, after the third draft, I was so convinced that the whole thing was garbage that I almost scrapped everything.
I'm so glad I didn't do that, because the response to this has been phenomenal. the comments, the kudos, the tumblr messages... it all means the world to me, utterly and truly. I'm so grateful to each and every one of you.
we're not quite done with these boys / this verse yet yet - I'll be posting a coda fic in a few days from Steven's perspective to really wrap everything up, and at some point, there should be a Shyan fic set in the same verse - but even if y'all don't stick around for those, I adore you. Thank you all for reading. <3