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Life Never Tasted So Good

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Andrew avoided a kick to his head and followed up with a punch to the side, but Renee was fast as hell and blocked him while she responded with an uppercut that probably would have knocked him out (or knocked loose a few teeth at the least) if it wasn’t for the gloves and padding. He bit into the mouthguard and got in a few more jabs, but a couple of minutes later one of the staff called out that their time was up, which made them take a hasty step back with their hands up.

“Good practice,” Renee said once she discarded her own mouthguard, her face sweaty yet covered with a pleased grin. “Same time on Monday?”

He grunted once in agreement as he tugged off his gloves and was about to leave the ring when she spoke again. “So, you have a date with Neil tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah,” he answered with reluctance; they’d been sparring for the past two years but he wouldn’t know if he’d consider Renee a (close) friend. It was enough for him to know that she was a good fighter, that there was something behind those too-sweet smiles of hers (she didn’t open up about her past other than to talk a little about her foster mother, and in return she didn’t push when it came to Andrew’s which worked out well) and that she didn’t expect anything out of him other than a sparring partner because she was gay.

In other words, she was private, like Andrew, and clearly doing her best to move on from something, like Andrew (perhaps even more so considering the cross necklace and conservative clothes and sometimes fake, forced smiles), and wasn’t to be taken lightly, like Andrew.

Which made her being friends with Neil Josten a curious thing, considering that Neil was a freshman and majoring in mathematical sciences and Renee in her senior year majoring in religious studies. They weren’t related to each other nor did they grow up together or even in the same general vicinity, so there was no reason for Renee to be so concerned for the young man.

Except that Neil bore a similar touch of darkness buried deep down as well, that innate wariness Andrew recognized after his own troubled childhood. Neil also had a vague past he didn’t like talking about and was so good about respecting Andrew’s boundaries in that regard.

 “That’s good,” Renee continued as if she hadn’t picked up on his displeasure, which he highly doubted. “He’s a bit anxious about it since it’s his first date. I’m sure you’ll make it enjoyable for him, be a proper gentleman and all.” She gave him a smile deprived of all warmth as she smacked her right fist into her left palm hard enough to produce a loud ‘crack’ then cocked her head to the side. “See you Monday.”

Huh, Renee Walker, Good Christian Girl with the cross necklace and long pleated skirts, the rainbow-tipped bleached hair and cheerful platitudes who always apologized for kicking one’s ass, had just given Andrew a shovel talk of sorts?

He should have punched her in the kidneys when he had a chance.

Since he still had some time before class, he worked out on a punching bag for fifteen minutes to vent a little frustration; he refused to look over at the treadmills since Neil had an early class that day and wouldn’t be on one of them.

It was ridiculous how he had another person’s schedule memorized like that.

It was also ridiculous how his pulse sped up when he checked his phone in class (American lit) to find a text from Neil that he was picking up a shift at the library that afternoon and so wouldn’t be free until the evening.

Despite the ‘lovely’ chat with Renee earlier, Andrew still had trouble believing at times that Neil was real, that there was an attractive (very attractive) young man out there who’d agreed to go out with him. Even if there was something ‘off’ with Neil – that bit of darkness, the way he tried to deflect attention away from himself, the caginess about his past – he shouldn’t have any trouble finding someone.

Except that Renee had just said that Neil hadn’t gone out on a date before, a fact that Neil had admitted to as well the night before during their second phone call.

Andrew brought that up during his session with Bee; she already knew about Neil since he’d been talking about the freshman ever since seeing him at the gym back at the start of the semester, only for Neil to show up at the ice cream shop.

Bee had almost choked on her hot chocolate when Andrew had told her about the orange sherbet thing, then spent several minutes going on about how he needed to work on better expressing his ‘emotions’ and yes, he did indeed have emotions.

That was one argument he didn’t think she’d win… but he did have to admit, he felt ‘something’ when he looked at Neil, something warm and intoxicating. Something that wasn’t the usual apathy or rare flares of anger or disappointment.

“Are you ready for tomorrow?” Bee asked after handing over his mug of hot chocolate. “Everything all planned out?”

He fought the urge to roll his eyes. “It’s just two people going out to eat and socialize together, I don’t know why everyone is overreacting.”

“Because your idea of socializing is hanging out at a fetish club and drinking all night,” she reminded him. “With your brother and your roommate.”

Neither of whom had been pleased at first to find out they were remaining on campus that weekend – at least until Aaron realized that he could hang out with his little cheerleader tramp and Kevin that he could work on a history paper. “The drinks are good and people leave us alone there.”

“Except the bartenders.” Bee gave him a level look as she fired off that salvo, never one to go for mere flesh wounds when she wanted to make a point. “I’m surprised you’re not taking Neil to Eden’s and introducing him to Roland.”

“Don’t,” he warned; he knew that she felt that his ‘fuckbuddy’ thing with Roland had long outlived whatever usefulness it might have once had, and probably would have been ecstatic to know that for the last few trips back to Columbia he’d only hit the bartender up for drinks. However, he wasn’t in much of a mood to enlighten her just then, especially after that comment.

To give Bee credit, she inclined her head in silent apology, the light reflecting off of her glasses and strands of her grey-streaked brown hair falling into her face. “I’m sorry if that crossed a line, but you’ve always been a bit blasé about your sex life in the past. I guess I want you to think about makes Neil different.”

“We’re not having sex.” That should be more than obvious.

“No, not yet.” When Andrew remained quiet, Bee sat back in the chair with her mug held cradled in her hands. “Andrew… we’ve already established that you’re attracted to Neil, that there’s some infatuation there. I know you have your doubts, but he’s accepted your offer for a date and is talking to you, so let’s go with the assumption that there’s some infatuation on his part, too – infatuation or interest,” she clarified when he opened his mouth. “You’ll go out tomorrow, and because I happen to believe that you’re an intelligent, attractive young man with a lot to offer,” she ignored the loud snort of derision he produced, “it’ll lead to more dates. You’ll have to prepare yourself for what comes next, and that’s a healthy relationship.”

“How can someone so delusional in all good faith deal with patients?” he asked before he sipped his hot chocolate.

“It’s not delusion, it’s well-placed optimism,” Bee insisted. “You should try it sometime.” When he gave her a blank gaze over the rim of his mug, she sighed. “We’ll work up to it.”

Delusional indeed.

Yet for all that ‘delusion’, the time he spent with her usually helped to center him somewhat, to push down (somewhat) the doubts or demons plaguing him that week.

Kevin was in the room they shared when Andrew returned to the dorms after his shift at the Foxhole Ice Creamery. “Hey, your old man wants to know if you’re going to his and Abby’s place for dinner on Saturday,” he said while he fell down on his bed with the bag of take-out and ice cream.

“Hmm?” Kevin looked up from his laptop and grimaced when he noticed that Andrew was opening a pint of ice cream to eat first. “Dinner? My dad? And do you know how bad that stuff is for you?”

“Tell your old man, it’s his shit.”

“It’s meant to be an occasional treat, not a daily meal.” Kevin yelped when Andrew flung the cardboard lid at him. “What? I’m only pointing out how that-“

“How many shots did you drink last week? How much sodium and fake sugar’s in those damn protein drinks of yours?” When he was glared at by his friend, he knew he’d won that argument. “Shut up and read some more about your tulip wars.”

“It’s the War of the Roses! How many times do I-“

Andrew slipped in his earbuds and let the pain in the ass continue to rant about some long-dead bastards while he ate in peace.

Kevin was a mostly bearable roommate, his semi-health obsession and smelly soccer gear aside. He was competitive as hell in everything he did and still a little bit messed up from his mother’s death when he was a child, at losing the most important person in his life then having to move to a new country and live with a man he’d never known before (even if Wymack wasn’t half bad and Abby even better), so it wasn’t a surprise that Kevin had some issues.

It wasn’t a surprise that he got along with Andrew and Aaron.

Things had quieted down (Andrew had finished eating, Kevin appeared well into his paper) when Neil called. “Uhm, is this a good time?” he asked, the uncertainty evident in his voice.

“I’ve a few minutes,” Andrew said as he set his laptop aside. “Was about to work on something for tomorrow.”

“Okay, I won’t keep you long. I, ah, just wanted to check about the time again for tomorrow. Allison’s taking me somewhere to make sure I don’t embarrass myself or something like that and wants to know how much time she has to work a miracle, her words not mine.” Now Neil sounded a mix of annoyed and affectionate.

“You shouldn’t let her walk all over you like that, have Renee put a stop to it,” Andrew told him, even though he felt that damn tingle in his chest at the thought of Neil putting so much effort into their date.

“It’s all right,” Neil assured him. “It makes her happy and… well, I can probably use the help.”

There was no ‘probably’ to it, considering the rags Andrew usually saw him wander around in. Rags he had a love/hate relationship with because he suspected they hid a very nice body beneath their baggy fabric, yet they were probably all that kept half (at least) the campus from asking Neil out on a date.

“I’ll pick you up at 5:30pm,” Andrew reminded the young man, who hummed in response.

“Oh!,” Neil said before he hung up. “That one book on forensics you talked about was returned today. I grabbed it for you and can give it to you tomorrow.”

“Five thirty,” Andrew repeated before he ended the call, and glanced at Kevin who was staring at him instead of his own laptop. “What?”

“Josten, right?” Kevin asked. “He’s really fast, I’ve seen him a few times running around when the weather isn’t too hot. Keep trying to get him to sign up for soccer but he won’t.” He appeared put out over that fact, at someone saying ‘no’ to him. “Maybe you can help with that.”

“With him turning you down? Of course.” When Kevin went to argue, Andrew stared him down. “I’m not going to berate him into joining some stupid team.”

“It’s not stupid,” Kevin mumbled before he resumed working on his paper. “You used to play.”

And so Andrew knew of what he spoke; soccer had been something foisted upon him in juvie to ‘encourage teamwork and conflict resolution’ and a bunch of other pat phrases that had been a bunch of bullshit – Andrew had only agreed to ‘participate’ in order to get out of group therapy and to throw balls at people.

He’d continued to play in high school because of Aaron, but between a more than decent GPA and perfect SAT score thanks to an eidetic memory, he’d been able to scrape together enough scholarships to pay for a state college like PSU and that had been that for sports. Thanks to holding up his end of the deal with Aaron and them scheduling their SAT tests on different weekends, ‘Aaron’ had gotten a near perfect score and so managed a hard-luck scholarship of his own.

Thoughts of Aaron put Andrew in a sour mood for the rest of the night, which Kevin must have picked up on since he focused on his paper and didn’t talk about annoying things like soccer or diets anymore. Nor did he bitch when Andrew went out for a smoke before going to bed.

Andrew had a nightmare about Drake that night, one of being frozen on his bed while his foster brother crept closer and closer before he could force himself to wake up, and it took him over an hour before he could fall back asleep. That made him late waking up the next morning and slow getting ready, which meant he was late reaching the gym after he stopped for coffee on the way.  In return, he missed seeing Neil for a second day in the row, which did nothing for his dark mood – not even the text on his phone about meeting up later.

He worked out right up until his first class of the day, using the weights to burn off his frustrations and demons until he felt as close to ‘human’ as possible. Then he splashed off the worst of the sweat and went to pretend to learn something for a couple of hours.

Since they weren’t going to Columbia for the weekend, Aaron insisted that they meet up for lunch; Andrew didn’t understand the logic of if (which probably meant that Nicky was behind it somehow, meddling long-distance from Germany) when they sat there eating in uncomfortable silence (at least on Aaron’s part after a few stilted questions on how his classes were going and if Kevin was still the same).

Bee would say that the important thing was that Aaron was trying, that after him throwing a fit and ‘declaring’ his independence by refusing to room together, by insisting that he had a right to date the cheerleader, that Aaron was still trying to show that he wanted Andrew in his life.

All Andrew knew was that he wanted a few hours where he didn’t have to think much about his twin.

He took a nap when he returned to the dorm and then spent some extra time getting ready that night, in the shower and before the mirror to shave and style his hair. Kevin was most likely off at Wymack’s so there were no snide remarks over his attention to detail, and after fussing with the cuffs of his black jeans, he slid a pack of cigarettes into his front right pocket and his phone into his left before he went to pick up Neil in one of the freshmen dorms after a slight detour.

He was given several wary looks when he entered the building, either for the cigarette dangling from his lips or the black armbands on his forearms, or possibly because freshmen had already heard enough about him to know to leave him the hell alone. Thanks to his probation he didn’t go out of his way to start fights, but he’d ended a couple when dumb fucks thought to challenge him or Aaron because of their lack of height or reputations, just enough to drive the point home that they were to be left alone.

Neil had somehow managed to score a single room (he’d been cagey about that, too), and answered the door on the second knock. “Come in,” he offered as he opened the door a little then walked back into the room, leaving it for Andrew to push aside and enter. Once in the rather bare room, Andrew gazed at Neil, who fidgeted for a moment before he forced his hands down at his sides. "Ah, is it too much? Renee made Allison stop at one point."

Neil wore dark blue skinny jeans and a long-sleeved light grey top that clung to his upper body; Andrew had been correct in assuming that the younger man possessed a toned physique from what he could see. Reynolds had taken care of Neil's hair as well, had dragged him off to a salon or something to get it styled and conditioned if the sheen to the bottle-black strands was any indication, the still long bangs combed back instead of falling into Neil's (artificially) dark eyes.

"Not bad," was all Andrew said even as his fingers twitched with the desire to muss up the artfully styled hair, to tug off the new clothes.

"Okay." Neil gave him that damn shy smile before he went over to the desk and picked up a book - the forensic one Andrew had mentioned during a call one night. "Here it is, before I forget about it."

"You can leave it in the car," Andrew said as they exited the room and headed to the parking lot; along the way, he noticed that several people paid attention to Neil and his new look but didn't say anything, while Neil only seemed to notice when they came too close or walked out of rooms.

"Did you work today?" Neil asked as they stepped into the stairwell, seeming to dislike elevators as much as Andrew. “Uhm, earlier, I mean.”

"I only work weekdays," Andrew explained. "Crowds are too annoying on the weekends."

"Ah." It looked as if Neil wanted to ask something else but wasn't sure how to go about it or if Andrew would be open to the question, so Andrew waited until they were in the GS to speak again.

"How about this, you can ask me whatever you want." Neil paused in fastening his seatbelt and arched his left eyebrow, clearly surprised by the statement. "If I feel it's too personal then I won't answer it, but I won't be upset about you asking."

"That seems like a bit much, why would you give away so much information?" Add ‘suspicious’ to the mix as well.

Wasn't that such an interesting answer? Someone better be careful because they were only making Andrew more intrigued by the minute, which was unusual. "Because for each answer I give you, you do the same," he proposed. "Again, you don't have to answer if you don't want to, but for each answer you give, I'll do the same."

Neil chewed on his bottom lip as if considering the offer while Andrew put the car in ‘drive’ and left the parking lot. "I can decide what I want to answer, no consequences?" Neil asked once they were out on the road as if feeling out the deal.

"Yes, but we always tell the truth when we do answer." That was one thing Andrew wouldn’t budge on – no lies.

There was another minute of silence before Neil spoke again. "Okay, I'm in."

Not exactly the most enthusiastic answer since Neil sat hunched in the passenger seat, but he looked at Andrew as he said the words with a bit of defiance on his face - eyes bright and chin jutted out the slightest bit.

All Andrew did was nod once and shake free a cigarette with his right hand; he noticed how Neil began to relax once he lit it and blew out a plume of smoke.

"Uhm, so where are we going?"

"Is that your question?"

Neil rolled his eyes and relaxed even more as he drew in a deep breath. "No, it's a general one."

"To the store."

That didn't seem to be what Neil expected to hear, his confusion growing as they pulled into a small grocery store not too far from campus. "We're here for snacks and drinks," Andrew partially explained before he was asked; he picked up a plastic basket and headed straight for the snack aisle with a bemused Neil tagging along like a quiet shadow.

He wasn't surprised when Neil made a face at the chocolate bars and packages of cookies he dropped into the basket, instead favoring granola bars and trail mixes heavy with nuts and dried fruit. Neil chose a large bottle of water and a bottle of unsweetened tea while Andrew grabbed a couple bottles of fruit punch as well as a large drink container, then they went to check out.

"I got this," Andrew insisted, which earned him a slight scowl at first until Neil shrugged.

“If this is dinner, then I give you marks for originality if not generosity,” Neil said when they returned to the car.

“Not quite.” Andrew could tell the lack of answers was beginning to get to the other man. “You’ll see soon enough.”

“I hope so.”

Yet Neil didn’t waste a question on asking exactly what they were doing, which seemed to indicate that he was willing to go along with Andrew. “How do you rate a room to yourself,” Andrew asked as a distraction from that thought and a way to feel out how far Neil was willing to tell the truth.

Neil hunched over again and tugged at the left cuff of his shirt but surprised him by answering after a couple of seconds. “I… things were messed up, the last year or so,” he said in a reluctant way that warned Andrew not to pry into that ‘messed up’ part. “I finished high school online and it was decided that having a roommate would be a little too much for me during my first year.” Neil stared straight ahead as he spoke, a far away look in in those fake eyes of his and the expression on his too-attractive face almost terrible in its blankness. “Next year I’ll room with someone.”

Fair enough; Andrew wouldn’t have been able to stomach Kevin without Aaron around last year or tolerate someone new this year. “Enjoy it while it lasts.”

Neil jolted at the sound of his voice then turned to look at him, a trembling smile on his face as he seemed to realize what Andrew had said. “Yeah, I know.” He was quiet after that as if waiting for Andrew to say something else before he realized that was it, that he’d answered the question and Andrew wouldn’t pry, as promised. “Uhm, my turn?”

Andrew nodded while he turned the car onto a smaller, tree-lined street.

“Okay.” Neil thought about something before he nodded, too. “The armbands you always wear. Is there something… well, there’s something in them, isn’t there?” He almost sounded apologetic to ask the question.

And another suspicion was confirmed – only Renee had picked up on the blades kept in the bands. “A couple of knives.” He’d told the truth, just not the entire truth, the same as Neil had earlier.

Neil stilled at the answer but didn’t seem surprised by it. “Okay.” Nor did he throw a fit over Andrew being armed, which wasn’t a normal reaction. He didn’t ask ‘why’ or go on about how dangerous it was, that Andrew could get into trouble (ha) carrying weapons around all the time.

Oh yes, suspicious and interesting indeed.

“You’re not surprised,” Andrew stated, which earned a slight shrug from his… companion for the evening.

“It’s rather rural in some parts of Oregon,” Neil answered. “You see a lot of people carrying knives and even guns there, it’s an open carry state.”

Another half-truth; oh, someone was going to be such fun playing this game, weren’t they?

Unfortunately, they’d reached their first planned destination of the night, so Andrew parked the GS in the small parking lot off the street and grabbed the bags from the store along with the one he’d picked up earlier – a bottle of whiskey.

Once again Neil followed without saying a word, at least until Andrew opened the door of their intended stop. “Uh, they paint here?” He blinked at the sign above the door and then at Andrew. “We’re going to paint here?”

“What, I don’t look the artistic type?” Andrew drawled as he motioned for Neil to enter first.

Neil was quiet as if afraid of answering the question and then smiled, the expression free of shadows or uncertainty. “Right, how could I miss it with all the black and the cigarettes? It’s the lack of a beret and French accent that’s throwing me off.”

Andrew gave him a slight shove forward. “You’re a smart-ass, Josten.”

“Hmm, so I’ve been told. Something about an attitude problem, too.”

Yes, Andrew could see it, especially when he paid for them and got another scowl for his troubles. “I asked you out.”

“That doesn’t mean you should have to pay for everything tonight,” Neil grumbled as they sat down at the end of a long table. “That’s… that’s….”

“A date,” Andrew informed the idiot. “Look it up.”

“Fine, I’m paying next time,” Neil snapped as he fussed with one of the brushes set out in a plastic cup. “Now what are we supposed to do?” he asked and missed Andrew sitting there like a thunderstruck fool as the meaning of those words sunk in.

Neil didn’t really mean it, did he? They hadn’t even gotten through one night, how could there be others?

“Andrew? What do we do with this?” Neil asked again as he tapped the thankfully dry brush against the tip of Andrew’s nose.

“You paint what they teach you to paint,” he said with a bit of annoyance as he batted the brush aside. “Haven’t you heard about these places?” He’d thought about bringing Neil here because of Aaron going on about how much fun he’d had the one night with the cheerleader and Kevin’s ‘teambuilding’ events with the soccer team (more like ‘get trashed and covered in paint’) – it would keep Neil busy and take off the pressure of having to talk all the time, as well as them sitting right next to each other for two hours if they’d gone to a movie.

“Oh.” Neil chewed on his bottom lip again. “No… they didn’t have one back in Enterprise.”

Andrew wondered if they had much of anything back in Neil’s ‘hometown’ but didn’t say anything, instead he began to unpack the bags he’d brought. “You paint what they show you while you eat and get drunk.” When Neil shook his head at the last part, he handed over the water and iced tea. “Or not get drunk, in your case.” As for himself, he grabbed the plastic container and went over to one of the sinks probably meant to clean the brushes to rinse it out and when he returned, he poured in a couple of shots of whiskey then some punch. “We both get to watch everyone else get wasted.”

He waited to see if Neil complained about him drinking, but all the younger man did was reach for one of the granola bars. “What are we painting?” When Andrew shrugged, he peeled open the wrapper of the bar and proposed artworks by Klimt and Picasso and Dali until Andrew picked up a piece of cookie and threw it at him.

Someone knew art but didn’t know ice cream, how fucked up was that?

Still, Andrew had a hot guy laughing beside him, attention focused on him, as the place steadily filled up with the rest of the people there to paint for the evening; there were a few other couples, several small parties of friends and what looked to be a gathering of coworkers still dressed for a day in the office. Neil stiffened as an older man came by to place two paper plates filled with paint down next to them, a reaction which Andrew noted but didn’t remark out loud, and soon enough a hyper-active young woman around their age got up on the small stage in the front of the room to reveal the cat painting they’d be recreating.

Neil slowly relaxed and sipped his iced tea, his attention on the instructions being called out to the room while Andrew searched around then got up to fetch some yellow paint. The older guy tried to prevent him from squeezing some out on his plate until Andrew fixed him with a level gaze, and only Neil seemed to notice that he’d left the table (all of the half-empty wine bottles might play some part).

“Hmm? But we’re not using that color,” Neil said when he glanced at Andrew’s plate.

“I am.” While Neil began to shape out the cat’s body, he worked on his own project and refused to shiver when Neil laughed once he figured it out.

“Do you have something against cats or just love bees that much?”

“It’s for someone I know.” Andrew stared down the instructor when she came around to check on their progress.

“I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.” Neil’s smile faded as he concentrated on the silly picture of a cat rolling on its back in a field of flowers. Considering his knowledge of art, it wasn’t a surprise that he was doing a good job of painting the image, especially since he was one of the few sober people in the place.

“Not bad,” Andrew told him.

“Hmm?” Neil rubbed at his chin and left a stripe of purple behind that Andrew struggled not to wipe away. “The painting?” When Andrew nodded, he frowned and resumed painting a flower. “I… well, we traveled a lot after the… after my mom left my dad. It was difficult to make friends in a new town, but there were always museums to hang out in.”

Again, a kernel of truth in that statement, something that wasn’t a proper lie… but wasn’t the whole story, either. Neil had told him the other night about his parents divorcing when he was young, about it being an acrimonious split and his mother wanting nothing more to do with the man to the point that Neil had cut him out of his life, too. That he didn’t go to him for help after his mother died suddenly from an unknown illness.

Gee, what a sad, sad story. Too bad it made Andrew want to cry out ‘liar, liar’ rather than tears of sympathy, much the same as when Renee went on about the tragic accident which had befallen both of her parents and how lucky she’d been to find her dear, sweet foster mother.

Andrew didn’t like liars… but it was clear that Neil and Renee were lying to protect themselves, were trying to leave something terrible behind in the past which had scarred them deeply and terribly, so he’d overlook it to a point.

They were nearly done with their paintings when Neil leaned over to steal some of his black for the cat’s stripes. Andrew narrowed his eyes at the theft, especially when Neil leaned over for some more. “No.”

“Aw come on,” the flagrant thief whined as he held up his brush. “I just need a little more.”

“Then ask for some.” The one guy was walking around with two bottles of paint in his hand.

Neil glanced at the man then aside, unease evident on his face. “It’s just a little,” he repeated. “Come on.”

Andrew swiped yellow paint on the tip of Neil’s nose as a silent answer.

“You- you didn’t!” Neil’s (fake) brown eyes went wide, which allowed Andrew a glimpse of some pale color – blue maybe, that or grey. “That’s-“

“Five more minutes!” the too-chipper instructor called out. “You should be finishing up now.”

Neil’s eyes narrowed as he dipped his brush in a greyish glob of paint, which caused Andrew to narrow his own. “Feel like walking back to campus?”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Ask me if I wouldn’t,” Andrew dared.

Neil gazed at him for several seconds before he sighed and dabbed the paint on the cat before setting the brush aside. “You’re an asshole,” he declared as he wiped at the drying paint on his nose. “First the ice cream thing and then you won’t even let me have a little paint? What, didn’t anyone ever teach you any manners?”

“Kind of difficult when I grew up in foster homes most of my life,” Andrew answered as he ‘signed’ the painting, certain that Neil was going to end the date after that ‘asshole’ comment so he figured why hold back the really damaging information anymore?

It was quiet while Neil stared at his painting then took it up front to use a blow dryer to help dry the paint. Andrew remained at the table and finished off his drink then the last candy bar as he gazed at the stupid bumblebee he’d painted for Bee on a whim.

Prepared to return back to campus, he began to pack up when Neil returned. “Ah, is that dry enough?” Neil asked as he set his own painting down on the table.

“It’s fine,” Andrew insisted, and inwardly frowned when Neil began to gather up all the empty wrappers he’d left on the table.

“Okay, it’s your car. Don’t complain to me if it gets paint everywhere when we’re… ah, where are we going now?” Neil gave him a curious look while Andrew digested the fact that they weren’t going back to the dorms, it seemed.

“Still a surprise,” he said as he picked up the picture, mindful of the drying paint.

“Asshole,” Neil muttered.

“Asshole with a car,” Andrew clarified. “And you’re a smart-ass.”

“Hmm, we already covered that.” Still, Neil smiled as he walked beside Andrew to the car.

There were a couple of towels left over from when he and Aaron had moved back onto campus, so Andrew used them to keep any paint from marking up the trunk’s interior before he and Neil got into the GS. Then he slowly held his hand out in front of Neil’s face and waited for a puzzled Neil to give a slight nod, his body still and gaze locked on Andrew’s fingers, before he wiped at the remaining paint on the oblivious idiot’s nose. “You look like you stuck your nose in a flower or something.”

“Whose fault is that?” Neil asked once Andrew pulled away, busy rubbing at his nose while Andrew started the GS. “So, uhm, foster care? What about your brother? You said you were twins.”

“We are. My mother kept him and gave me up, and it took about thirteen years before her brother found out and tracked me down,” Andrew summed up; he’d told Neil about Aaron and that Tilda was dead, that Nicky had looked after the two of them until they’d graduated high school.

“Oh.” Neil appeared thoughtful as he continued to rub at his nose. “That must have been difficult.” When Andrew clicked his tongue, Neil blushed in response. “I mean… I’m sorry, I don’t know what I mean. Thank you for sharing that.”

At least he didn’t say something pat like how ‘lucky’ Andrew was to have finally found his family or ‘all’s well that ends well’.

He also didn’t pry for more answers, didn’t ask Andrew about those foster homes or why he’d been given up, which some people had been shitty enough to do.

“Why did your parents break up?” Andrew decided to ask as they pulled into a local diner he favored.

Neil was quiet long enough to make Andrew think that there wouldn’t be an answer. “Because my mother never should have married him, and he certainly never should have been a father,” he finally said in a harsh tone that made it clear that was it for the topic, his arms wrapped around his narrow chest and dark eyes haunted.

Still, it was a good enough of an answer for Andrew, especially coupled with the way that Neil always wore clothes that covered him from neck to knee to elbow despite the heat and humidity, even when working out. How he hadn’t liked the older man – someone old enough to be his father’s age – approaching him back at the shop or the host at the diner who walked them to their booth.

Especially when Andrew knew plenty of people who shouldn’t have been fathers or mothers in his lifetime, who shouldn’t have been married or in relationships and so made their ‘homes’ a special kind of hell for those trapped in them.

“It’s the past,” was all Andrew said as he sat down in the booth.

“If only.” Neil sounded bitter, his expression drawn, and then he summoned up a smile which made Andrew’s stomach twist about – he told himself that he was just hungry, dammit. Low blood sugar was making him stupid. “This place any good?”

“The triple decker sundae is amazing.”

Neil gazed at him for several seconds while his smile twitched before he groaned. “Seriously? What is it with you and ice cream? You work at an ice cream shop all week and you bring me some place to eat even more of it? Tell me there’s something else on the menu, please.”

“I don’t like that word.” It slipped out before Andrew could stop himself from speaking, and with enough force that Neil paused in flipping over the menus left on the table.

Around then the server arrived to ask if she could get them something to drink, her attention zeroed in on Neil as she smiled a little too much. He didn’t seem to notice while he requested a water and a hot tea, and she left after Andrew ordered a chocolate milkshake.

“You’re not going to ask?” Andrew gazed at Neil as he continued to study the menu.

“Don’t feel like taking a turn,” Neil told him, his voice quiet and attention still on the laminated piece of paper held between his hands.

Rare anger welled up inside of Andrew. “If you think you’re being nice and-“

Dark brown eyes (Andrew had always hated that color after Drake, but somehow they were bearable with that minuscule ring of pale blue/grey) regarded him with something akin to weary understanding. “Why do we have to ask so many things tonight? Why can’t we save something for the next time or the time after that?”

Once again Andrew was left speechless by the thought that Neil expected more than one ‘date’, that he wasn’t just going along with everything that night as a joke or… or something.

He couldn’t possibly be there because he wanted to spend more time with Andrew.

“The fries are good,” Andrew told him instead of voicing those thoughts. “And the grilled cheese sandwich.”

“Oh.” Neil blinked at the change in topic and glanced down at the menu. “Uhm, that sounds fine.”

Andrew ordered for the two of them when the server returned with their drinks (and a big smile for Neil which was ignored) then watched as Neil fussed with his bangs. “You don’t have to keep doing this,” he finally told the idiot when the uncertainty grew to be too much.

“Doing what?” Neil frowned in confusion as he toyed with the teabag in his mug. “Brew tea?”

If he wasn’t so damn pretty…. “The whole pity date thing,” Andrew gritted out while silently cursing his hormones.

“’Pity date’? What’s a ‘pity date’?” Neil’s blackened brows drew together even more as steam rose before his face. “Allison didn’t say anything about a ‘pity’ thing, just that I should punch you if you got grabby because that’s not allowed on a first date, even though Renee said she didn’t think you’d do that.” He pushed the mug aside and reached for something that turned out to be his phone. “I need to ask her-“

Andrew ignored the strong urge to bash his head against the table and threw the coiled-up paper wrapper from his straw at the oblivious fool to make him stop texting Reynolds. “It means what I said – you being here because you felt sorry for the dumb guy who kept fucking with your orders just to… to get a reaction out of you.” To try and figure Neil out a little, what he liked and didn’t like (other than that awful orange sherbet), to interact with him a little more than ‘next’.

“But that’s….” Neil picked up the wad of paper and rubbed it between his right thumb and forefinger. “I wouldn’t give someone my number just for that.” He still sounded confused and now a bit hurt. “Is that all this is, you messing with me?”

Andrew could say ‘yes’ and that would be that, would be him leaving money on the table for their dinner and taking Neil back to the dorms and ignoring him at the gym. Might mean he would need to find a new sparring partner since Renee had seemed to adopt the kid, but she was graduating next spring anyway, it was only a matter of time before he’d have to do it. He could end it now and not be let down like always, not have to find out that Neil didn’t mean his ‘next time’s or when the lies would outweigh the truths. That Neil hadn’t dated anyone for a reason and really didn’t ‘swing’.

Or he could take a chance on Bee being right for once (again) and that this might, just might, work out. That there was a reason why Neil hadn’t been interested in anyone before yet was willing to put up with Andrew.

He should have brought the bottle of whiskey in with him to help make the decision easier.

“Andrew?” Neil asked as his hand inched toward the phone sitting on top of the table.

“I’m not messing with you this time,” Andrew stated before he had a sip of his milkshake (before he gave in to the urge to deny everything and play it safe).

“Oh.” Neil was still for a few seconds then smiled in what appeared to be delight, which made Andrew’s stomach twist once again. “Wait, this time?” the idiot muttered as he resumed frowning. “Do you know how awful those ice cream flavors were? Bacon ice cream? Who the hell puts processed meat in ice cream?”

Andrew continued to drink his milkshake then ate some of his sundae while Neil ranted about ice cream and sneaky assholes for at least twenty minutes, and used the time to make plans for their next date.

There had to be a fair around somewhere, wait until Neil was subjected to the wonders of deep-fried desserts.

*******