Neil Josten walked hand in hand with his sister down the block as she told him the names of all the bugs she had seen at the park. He nodded along as she spoke, listening to her excitement. His other hand held a leash for his dog who was trained perfectly not to need one, but the park happened to have a strict leash policy, even for service dogs. As they rounded the corner onto their street, Athena abruptly stopped her sentence halfway through, perking up at the sight of a moving truck in front of their building. Neil had heard the week before that the apartment across the hall from theirs was for sale, but he had never expected anyone to move in so quickly. Apartments in New York City moved fast, but Neil knew that his one had been priced well above market value and he’d been looking forward to some time with no one else living on his floor. He had specifically chosen this building three years ago because there were only two flats per floor and the elevator required a key fob to work, meaning the chance for unwanted visitors making it into his house was slim. The stairwell was the weakest point of entry, but the building owners had thought of that too, reinforcing the doors in addition to adding key fobs that only opened the door to the owner’s specific floor.
“Do you think they have kids?” Athena asked as Neil sized up the moving truck. It was the smallest size. That added in with the fact that they were just a few blocks from NYU made him think not.
“I don’t know, maybe,” he answered, trying not to crush her dreams of having a playmate close by.
“Can we meet them today? Please, please please,” she begged, looking up at him and pouting with her big blue eyes.
“Why don’t we let them get settled and introduce ourselves in a few days?” In the meantime, Neil planned on asking some of his contacts for any information they could find on the new neighbors.
She made a face at him but didn’t argue as he led her inside the building. Stopping in front of the mailboxes, she looked over the names. 4A had been blank for two weeks but now read Andrew Minyard. Athena took her time sounding the name out, at 6 years old she was only beginning to learn to read, but she was already the best in her class by a long shot. After a few tries under her breath, she said it aloud. Neil wasn’t sure exactly how Minyard was pronounced but he cheered with her anyway.
They made it all the way to their apartment without seeing any movers. When he let Zeus into the apartment to do a check before they walked in he was sure someone would come out to greet them but no one did. Zeus trotted out and collected his treat for a job well done, before turning and sniffing at the neighbors’ open doorway. Neil froze; he didn’t want to meet his new neighbors because his dog barged into their house, but Zeus was well mannered and after sniffing and determining there was no threat he trotted back into the apartment like nothing had happened.
Neil had gotten Zeus at 18 after being diagnosed with PTSD. He didn’t feel like his mental health was bad enough to warrant a service dog at the time, but he had been in the process of legally adopting his two-year-old sister then and both the lawyer he was working with and his therapist assured him it would help his case. He had been raising her himself in FBI safe houses since she was born and didn’t completely understand why it was just then becoming a problem the state was involved in.
When he left the protection of the FBI he was given a new name and new papers, as was Athena. They had been offered witness protection but after their time in safe houses, Neil wanted to get out from under the government’s control as much as he could. By that point, all of his father's inner circle had been taken down so the threat to his life was no longer imminent. The leading agent had still done what he could to offer them safety. Neil felt uncomfortable with having his name on Athena’s birth certificate, especially when no mother was listed, but he was told it was a normal procedure with adoptions. Since their mother died in childbirth with only a fake ID on her, Athena’s original birth certificate listed no mother or father. On the new one, Athena’s birth date was changed to a week earlier, thanks to Agent Browning, who had said if they had missed any of his father’s people they wouldn’t think to look for that. Once they had left the building that day they were officially Athena Ember Josten and Neil Abram Josten. For the first time in his life, Neil was free to do whatever he wanted. Funded by his mother's life insurance policy and the reward money for information leading to the arrest of 13 of his father's people, he moved to New York City.
It took them a week to meet their mysterious neighbor. The first few days Athena waited like Neil had asked her, hoping to run into them, but on the fourth day her patience ran out. She started demanding they go out to the park or the convenience store, even the dry cleaners once, just so they would have to ride the elevator down and back up, which would give them more chances to meet. The background check had surprised Neil, as did an interesting car accident investigation, but nothing came up that worried him, so he let his child drag him outside every few hours hoping to catch a glimpse.
A short blonde man, wearing all black in the middle of July, was checking his mailbox when they walked through the front door of their apartment building. Neil recognized him from a photo he found during his background check. Athena nearly ran into him, walking backward and telling a story about how she did a cartwheel at gymnastics.
“Watch where you’re going Athena,” Neil reminded her right before she hit him.
Her eyes went wide and she turned around. “Where do you live?”
“Athena!” Neil exclaimed exasperated, putting his hand on his face for a moment.
Andrew glanced at Neil then turned toward Athena. “Here. Where do you live?”
“I live here, too!” she grabbed his hand and dragged him toward the elevator. “Come on!”
Neil closed his eyes and took a deep breath before following. He couldn’t tell if he was more embarrassed by her actions or annoyed that she had completely disregarded his lessons on stranger danger. Regardless, he and Zeus followed them into the elevator and he tapped his wallet on the sensor while Athena leaned forward and pressed the fourth-floor button. She swung her hand, still connected with Andrew’s, and continued her story about gymnastics.
The door opening prompted her to pull Andrew toward their front door instead of his. Neil followed, getting his keys from his pocket and then unlocking the door. He ushered Zeus forward and waited for him to come back.
“We have to wait for Zeus to check the house before we go in,” Athena explained to Andrew, swinging their hands back and forth again.
Andrew quirked an eyebrow in response. “Why?”
“He’s a special dog! He has a job to do!”
“Oh I see,” Andrew said, clearly feigning to know much more now while obviously not being all the wiser. “Is he good at his job?”
“Yeah! He’s the best! He keeps us safe!”
While she spoke Zeus came back giving Neil the all clear. Athena started to pull Andrew into the house, but Neil put a hand out to stop her.
“Did you ask him if he wants to come?” Neil asked, pulling out the dad voice that he hates using.
“He’s my friend; he wants to come,” she said, raising their connected hands, “See?”
“But did you ask him? Did he give you a verbal approval?” he paused for her to speak, however, her only reply was to make a face at him, “Do you even know his name?”
“Yes, I do. His name is Drew. Can we go now?”
“Did he tell you that or did you read his mailbox and assume it’s okay to give him a nickname?”
The two stared at each other for a few moments before she gave in.
“Fine! Mr. Andrew, would you like to come over to my house?” As she spoke, she gave him her best pouty face and stuck her lip out. Neil rolled his eyes at her antics.
“Sure, why not?” Andrew replied, surprising Neil.
Neil looked at him shocked, “Are you sure? You don’t have to”.
“He said yes! Move!” she said shoving past Neil and dragging Andrew with her.
“Athena, he’s going to have to leave if you can’t be nice”.
“Sorry,” she quickly said and cracked her best convincing smile.
Neil let it slide despite the fact that she didn’t sound sorry at all, assuming her excitement was overriding her manners. He figured she’d realize her new neighbor could not live up to the hype she’d create around him soon enough.
Their apartment was fairly large for the area. The front door opened into a large space that was serving as the living room, dining room, and kitchen. To the right was a hallway that led to two average sized bedrooms and a more spacious master suite. Neil had had no idea how to furnish a home when he’d bought the apartment at 19 years old so he’d hired a decorator. The woman called the style Scandinavian Minimalist, which meant mostly grey and earthy tones with very little clutter. At first, Neil thought it looked too much like a magazine page, but once Athena had added an Elsa blanket to the couch, Barbies and G.I. Joes to the coffee table, and a fair amount of scribbling to the dining table, it started feeling like a home.
Athena told Andrew to sit on the couch while she showed him all of her dolls and told him the drama of the week. Neil went to the kitchen and started making dinner, a process Athena usually loved to help with. As he cooked he listened to her tell the tale of Skipper borrowing Barbie’s favorite shoes and then losing them, only for them to find out evil Barbie had stolen them. When she got to the climax of the story, Barbie and evil Barbie’s fight, he looked over and caught Andrew’s eye, giving him his best “I know, right?” look. For his part Andrew was doing well nodding along at the right elements, seemingly engrossed in the drama. Dinner was done a little before Athena’s story so Neil let her finish before calling her to the table.
“You eat dinner at 4:30?” Andrew asked, his tone full of judgment.
Neil rolled his eyes. “She’s six, she eats dinner at 4:30 and is in bed asleep by 7:30. Do you want some or not?”.
“Sure,” he said and turned to Athena, “If I had known your dad could cook I would have come over sooner.”
Athena laughed so hard Neil thought she was going to fall off her chair. “He’s not my dad, silly! Neil’s my brother!”.
“Mhm, right Neil?”
“Well legally I’m your dad, but yes I am your brother,” Neil said as he cut up her pasta and passed the plate to her.
“Mr. Andrew, did you know that there are five thousand types of ladybugs?”
“I did not, that’s impressive, what else do you know about ladybugs?”
Neil shot him an annoyed looked for the question, which Andrew ignored, choosing instead to listen intently. Soon enough she ran out of ladybug facts and decided to interrogate Andrew instead.
“How old are you?” she asked starting off easy. Neil hoped dinner was done before she got to her weird questions like what’s your eighth favorite color and 15th favorite dinosaur, both of which she had asked his advisor once.
“23,” he said coolly. Neil slyly eyed him up for a moment. Short and blonde, muscular and serious. He somehow looked both older and younger than his actual age.
“Are you in school like Neil?”
“No I graduated,” he said leaning back in his chair, clearly settling in for the long haul.
“Do you have a job?” she asked leaning toward him.
“Yes, I play Exy.”
“That’s not a real job,” she said. Neil had to take a deep breath and cover his face at that comment; insulting someone’s job was worse than her weird questions.
“I don’t like Exy,” she pointed her fork at him to make it clear she was serious.
“Neither do I,” Andrew said equally seriously.
“Why is it your job then?”
“It pays well.”
“That’s not a very good reason.”
“It is to an adult.”
Neil laughed, the comment overriding the embarrassment he felt at Athena insulting Andrew’s job. Neither one paid him any attention, which gave him a chance to observe them both. Athena didn't normally take to adults quickly, she had clearly inherited his distrust of people, but for some reason, she seemed to like Andrew.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Andrew raised his eyebrow at that question, “Not at the moment, Officer.”
Neil raised an eyebrow, thinking, he hadn't had the time or energy to follow exy since Athena was born, but he did know there were some openly gay and bi athletes in the sport. However, he was fairly certain Andrew Minyard was not one of them.
“Don’t look at me like that! Boys are allowed to have boyfriends!” she yelled, louder than necessary with Andrew sitting next to her, clearly not catching the meaning of his words.
“I know," Andrew said nodding. Something in his expression shifted, but Neil couldn't figure out what it was.
“Okay good,” Athena said proudly, sitting up a little straighter.
Neil cut her off before she could ask another question, “Athena, I think that’s enough questions, eat your dinner”.
She stuck her tongue out at him. When she started eating again, Neil took his plate to the sink and rinsed it off, with Andrew following him.
Andrew stepped close, backing him into the sink, and spoke in a low voice “You know, you really shouldn't invite strangers into your home.”
“Andrew Joseph Minyard. Five feet tall, the first-year goalie for the New York Knights. Impressive juvie record, no criminal record, no speeding tickets, one parking ticket 3 years ago. One brother, one cousin, no other family. Your mother died in a car accident which you survived, sorry your brother survived, did I miss anything?”
Andrew’s face stayed the same throughout Neil’s entire speech, but he blinked slowly when he said ‘you survived’ which was enough of a tell for Neil to assume he guessed right.
“Oh, someone did his research.”