Andrew and Neil had been an ampersand for almost as long as they’d known each other. Andrew&Neil, Neil&Andrew, their names were always associated with each other. Neil wasn’t the only ampersand in Andrew’s life: having been born a twin he’d been Aaron&Andrew since birth, and their cousin made them Aaron&Andrew&Nicky. Kevin had attached himself to Andrew in kindergarten and once Neil showed up they were Kevin&Andrew&Neil. As important as all those relationships were, his relationship with Neil was different.
They met the first day of first grade. Neil had just moved with his uncle from England and due to some strangeness in the different school systems was only six while everyone else was already seven-going-on-eight. He was tiny and fighty and had a thick Liverpudlian accent, which to this day hadn’t quite disappeared even after fifteen years living in the US.
Andrew was instantly suspicious of the interloper. Due to an early growth spurt, he was the tallest one of his friends for the first (and last) time. This development meant that he was their protector from all the jerk kids who liked to bully them, like that asshole Riko Moriyama who had clearly never been told ‘no’ in his life.
On their first morning of class, Neil had managed to make Kevin cry. Granted, making Kevin cry at that age had not been overly difficult. Andrew couldn’t remember exactly what Neil had done but it could have been anything ranging from taking Kevin’s favourite crayon, to making a scary face or even simply disagreeing with him. Honestly, it would have been more impressive if Neil hadn’t made seven-year-old Kevin shed some tears.
But seven-year-old Andrew hadn’t seen it that way. No, tiny Andrew had only seen a stranger being mean to his friend and vowed to do something about it.
That something, he decided, was to drug Neil and question him about his allegiances. Andrew had just learned what drugs were, although he was still a little fuzzy on the details. He was absolutely convinced that they were magically able to make people tell the truth. In retrospect, he found this belief absolutely hilarious, especially knowing how Neil would react to being drugged. His anxiety would spiral and he’d become paranoid and believe that someone was after him; he definitely wouldn’t be inclined to be honest.
Andrew’s not sure how six-year-old Neil would have reacted to being drugged because obviously Andrew didn’t have access to drugs as a first grader. He decided to make do with sand.
At lunch time, he tackled Neil into the sandbox and tried to force him to eat it, but Neil was a slippery bastard. He got away from Andrew’s hold and sprinted away fast enough that Andrew couldn’t catch him.
Andrew likely would have tried again, except that afternoon in class Neil defended Kevin from Riko Moriyama, making fun of Riko so much that he started sobbing. Riko’s tears had forced Andrew to come to the conclusion that Neil was actually alright. After that, and Andrew was never sure exactly how, he and Neil became inseparable.
It was also around that time that Andrew started acquiescing to Neil’s every request. Neil wasn’t too bad about it but he did learn quickly that as long as he asked Andrew would do whatever he wanted. Andrew was never sure exactly why he always listened to Neil until he was thirteen, entered puberty and started spending approximately 98% of his time thinking gay thoughts about Neil.
At first he didn’t realize that anything was out of the ordinary. Surely all guys must think about their best friends, right? Think about their lips and their hair and how they smelled and maybe what it would be like to lick them everywhere. Aaron assured him that no, that wasn’t normal guy-friend stuff, which had led Andrew into the pit of despair (there was a tiny possibility that he may have been super dramatic as a teenager). At an age when a stiff breeze could give a guy a boner, it was especially trying that his dick kept responding to everything done by the person he spent the most amount of time with. Thirteen had not been an easy year.
Neither had fourteen, which was when Neil had gotten his first kiss. Andrew hadn’t meant to be spying, he was just looking for Neil after school because they were supposed to go to Neil’s house to play on his Xbox. He’d found him just as a bubbly girl (who he instantly decided was a demon succubus) leaned forward with her pink girl lips, sticky with lip gloss, and pressed them to Neil’s.
He didn’t clearly remember his trip home but he did remember spending his evening lying on his bed staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling and listening to music that echoed his heartbreak.
Aaron showed up in his doorway at some point, eating a bowl of ice cream and giving him a judgmental look and absolutely zero sympathy for Andrew’s broken heart. (Andrew would get back at him when they were fifteen and Aaron completely lost his head over a girl in senior year. He had written the most embarrassing love poetry. Andrew still recited it when Aaron was acting superior and smug.)
The next day at school, Andrew played it cool and asked Neil about the kiss with all the subtlety of a heartbroken fourteen-year-old.
“Where’s your girlfriend?” snapped Andrew, cornering Neil at his locker.
Neil looked confused and the tips of his ears went red. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Don’t lie to me,” said Andrew, stung. “I saw you yesterday!”
“Oh,” said Neil, rubbing a hand through his hair. “I didn’t ask her to do that. I didn’t really like it, to be honest.”
“Huh,” said Andrew, playing at nonchalance while inside his brain was pinging. Gay? he wondered. GAY? gAy?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! “Because she was a girl?”
Neil had shrugged. “Just kissing in general, I think. I don’t really want to do it with anyone.” His blush had spread from his ears to his cheeks; he looked like he was on fire.
“Well, good,” said Andrew, squashing his disappointment. As long as Neil wanted nobody, he wouldn’t lose him.
Andrew’s first kiss had come when he was fifteen, with a guy who wasn’t special except that he was the only other gay guy (other than Nicky) who Andrew knew. Neil had ruined it, bursting into Andrew’s room excited about something or other and interrupting them. Neil had apologized and left, but the damage was done. Andrew threw the other guy out and refused to speak to him ever again (in addition to being needlessly dramatic, his conflict resolution skills as a teenager were also subpar). He found that Neil hadn’t retreated far, only to the kitchen. He’d poured himself a soda and was fidgeting nervously.
“Well?” demanded Andrew. “Anything to say?”
Neil flipped the tab of his soda back and forth. “I didn’t know you were…”
“Gay,” supplied Andrew, feeling queasy. It was the first time he’d said it out loud. Although Aaron knew about his epic crush on Neil, Andrew had never explicitly acknowledged his sexuality. He was angry that he hadn’t gotten to come out to Neil on his own terms. He’d had a plan. Granted, the plan was basically to tell Neil he was gay and for Neil to say, “Me, too! Let’s kiss!”, which was probably unlikely. But, still. He felt robbed.
“I’m sorry,” said Neil.
Andrew felt like he’d been punched in the gut. “It’s not something to be sorry about, it’s who I am.”
“No, not that,” said Neil, looking stricken. “I don’t care if you’re gay, you’re still Andrew. I’m sorry for barging in and for finding out before you told me.” He paused, and then said in a quieter voice, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I shouldn’t have had to; you should have known,” said Andrew angrily and nonsensically, before stomping back upstairs and closing Neil out of his room.
Things were slightly strained between them for a while until Andrew realized that if he kept being mad that Neil didn’t want him back that he was going to lose his best friend. He spent the next little while training himself out of reading anything into Neil’s actions and convincing himself that Neil’s friendship was enough.
And it was enough. He couldn’t have gotten through the hell that was high school without Neil’s loyalty. Even though he wasn’t out until college, high school was bad for him. His teenage hormones sent his mental health all out of whack and he was fairly certain that without Neil and Aaron and Nicky and Kevin he never would have survived to his twenties.
College was better; he and Neil had found their tribe there. Both of them dated sporadically, but honestly Andrew didn’t have the emotional energy to sustain two major relationships and none of the guys he tried to date appreciated that Neil always came first. Additionally, a side-effect of the SSRI he was prescribed was a decreased sex drive, so he didn’t actually mind being mostly-celibate and living with the guy he’d been in love with for the majority of his life. Neil loved him too—maybe not romantically but completely—and Andrew was happy with what they had.
Although right now it was difficult to remember the good parts of his life.
He slumped through their apartment door and collapsed face first onto the couch. Neil made a sympathetic noise and came over to take off Andrew’s shoes. He even put them back in their proper spot, which he never did with his own things.
He sat on the far end on the couch and started massaging Andrew’s feet. “Bad day?” he asked.
Andrew groaned and turned his face slightly to the side so he could be understood. “Bee says that there’s nothing closely comparable. She can prescribe me a generic alternative, but that’s it.” Lots of things sucked about becoming an adult, like aging out of his parents’ health insurance coverage. He loved his job, working for CPS, although it was draining and challenging it was also very rewarding. However, the drug plan was terrible and refused to cover the cost of his specific medication.
“You tried those before, didn’t you? They made you all anxious and restless.”
“Like Kevin when he’s off his meds,” agreed Andrew. “I don’t have another choice. I can’t afford the two thousand a month I’d have to pay to stay on my current meds.” It had taken a lot of trial and error and suffering through side effects and highs and lows before he and his therapist Bee had found medication that worked for him. He was loathe to give it up.
“Well…” said Neil thoughtfully, chewing his lip. “I have an idea.”
Andrew sat up and looked at him, not trusting his tone. He knew that tone. That tone always preceded a bad idea that Andrew knew was a bad idea but went along with anyway. That tone had been responsible for more detentions than he could count, at least one arrest (for mischief), a fairly serious fire in his mother’s kitchen (which Andrew was pretty sure he was technically still grounded for), losing three and a half shoes, and a frantic hunt for a ferret in a park in the middle of the night. Nothing good ever came from Neil using that tone.
“I have really good health insurance at work,” said Neil and oh, Andrew had been right. This was going to be bad. “I checked today and your meds are covered under the spousal plan.” He smiled guilelessly at Andrew. “We should get married.”
Wow, I did not expect the response I got to the first chapter! Thank you all so much for your comments! I hope you continue to enjoy this story.
Chapter prompt: Secrets
The problem with meeting all of your best friends for life by the time you were seven was that you became complacent and lost the knack for making friends. Andrew was not convinced he ever actually had the ability. Aaron and Nicky were built-in friends he met before he could even lift his head by himself and he had no clue how he'd gotten attached to Kevin and Neil. Kevin had started following him around in kindergarten and he wasn't quite sure how he and Neil had gone from Andrew deciding that he wasn't going to feed the new kid sand to becoming actual friends. It was definitely Neil's doing.
After Neil, he never had to make a friend again. All subsequent friends belonged to one of the others first: Dan and Matt had been Neil's, Thea and Jean and Jeremy had been Kevin's, Erik and Allison had been Nicky's.
Renee was his.
She was his coworker and he was pretty sure that the only reason they’d successful become friends was because she'd noticed his unsubtle friend-crush and taken pity by befriending him since it was painfully clear that he had no idea what to do. Since then he'd held on to her tightly, as she knew all his secrets and was the only person who would always take his side. If he ever had a catastrophic break from Neil or Kevin, he suspected he wouldn't get their friends in the divorce.
Renee was awesome and way cooler than Andrew could ever hope to be. She had an amazing ability to shut people up and make them feel guilty simply by being kind. It was kind of like Neil's ability to shut people up by insulting them but less likely to end with a punch to the face.
Andrew valued her opinion and looked forward to their daily coffee breaks. She was very good at cutting through his bullshit and giving him her unvarnished opinion, although she always made it sound sweet.
"Uh oh," she said as he lurched into the breakroom like some sort of zombie and almost started gulping coffee straight from the pot. "Bad morning?"
He grunted in assent, telling her what case file he was working on. She grimaced sympathetically.
A lot of people (read: everyone but Neil, who understood him possibly on a molecular level) had been surprised when Andrew took a job with child protective services. As he wasn't an empathetic person, nor a particularly kind one, working with troubled children seemed like an odd career choice. And it could be absolutely terrible—seeing first-hand what happened to children who fell through the cracks, hearing stories and seeing evidence of the abuse they suffered, sometimes not being able to do anything to help—it was often draining and exhausting and heartbreaking. It wasn't always easy to deal with his depression while working here and he'd learned to be excellent at compartmentalization. But it was also worth it. And in some way he couldn't quite articulate it was something he had to do. With only a few small changes in his life, he might have been one of these children.
His and Aaron’s biological mother hadn’t been the most stable individual and when she found herself pregnant and single she went to her only brother for help. Luther Hemmick was nowhere near one of Andrew’s favourite people but he did have to admit that the man had at least done right by his sister. He took her in for the length of her pregnancy and, using his connections as a pastor, found a nice, childless couple who were looking to adopt. He made sure they stayed in close contact, wanting his son Nicky to know his biological cousins.
The Minyards were a typically white, blond, upper-middle-class couple, who were looking to check off their next life goal. Andrew wasn’t sure that they wanted children more than they wanted a status symbol. Once they actually received children they weren’t very interested in them. Sure, his parents made sure he was fed and clothed and provided for; they just never seemed to connect with or want to connect with him and Aaron. They all got along, in the bland way that acquaintances got along, but he hadn’t seen them since he’d moved out for college and save for a disinterested email or two they hadn’t contacted him or Aaron. It had rankled him as a teenager but he’d since learned that his parents’ indifference was a much better option than anything that would have happened to him and Aaron in foster care.
Renee gave him a chance to chug as much coffee as he could before she tried to start a coherent conversation.
“How was your weekend?” she asked, smiling over her own coffee mug.
“Well, let’s see. I desperately tried to find a cheap option to supplement our health coverage, it rained on me when I was coming home from getting groceries, Neil proposed marriage, and I stubbed my toe.”
Renee blinked. “Neil proposed?” she asked, being one of two people in the world (other than Aaron) who was fully aware of how Andrew felt about him.
“I was hoping to bury that,” said Andrew. “Yes. Apparently he gets excellent spousal coverage on his medical coverage.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You could tell him how you feel.”
He glared at her. “Pass.”
“Why?” she asked reasonably. He hated that she was always so reasonable. It made him look like a bigger disaster in comparison.
He sighed, trying to find the words he needed to explain. “If I asked him to, Neil would probably date me,” he admitted. “He’d kiss me, sleep with me, the whole shebang.”
Renee shot him a disbelieving look. “Then why…?”
“Because he’s a goddamn martyr that would do anything to make me happy, no matter the cost to himself,” said Andrew.
“You have to trust him to know his own mind.”
“And because what if it doesn’t work and ruins what we already have?” asked Andrew pathetically. “I can’t risk that.” His relationship with Neil was the most important relationship in his life. Aaron was a close second but with Aaron off at medical school they didn’t even live in the same city anymore. Andrew was still able to function normally without him. Having Neil that far away from him would feel like a gaping emptiness inside of him.
When he was a teenager he didn’t have to pay close attention in class to still get perfect marks, much to Aaron’s annoyance. Instead, he let his mind wander. Still, he sometimes got bored with his own thoughts, so he started playing an epic game of Death Is Not An Option with himself. To keep it interesting he made the questions as difficult as possible. Would he rather have sex with an attractive, age-appropriate woman or with his seventy-year-old male history teacher with false teeth? Would he prefer to never again eat ice cream or to eat Lima beans as a side dish at every meal for the rest of his life? Would he save Neil or Aaron from a fatal accident, if he only had time to save one of them?
The last question had given him weeks worth of trouble. One day he’d pick Aaron, because of course he would always save his twin but then Neil would grin conspiratorially at him from across the classroom. Then he’d switch to saving Neil, because Neil was the one person on the planet who understood him instinctively but then Aaron would save him some ice cream for dessert. He flip-flopped back and forth, never knowing who to pick. In the end he cheated and decided that he’d heroically sacrifice himself to save them both, breaking the only rule of the game. Then he spent a few days imagining his funeral and the pathetically grateful speeches both of them would have to deliver.
Nowadays, he’d still pick sacrificing himself (even though he was perfectly aware that both Aaron and Neil would try to stop him to the point where all three of them would probably die while in the middle of an argument) but he was aware that Neil was his Person. That his relationship with Neil was always going to be the major one in his life, even if it was never romantic. He wouldn’t do anything that would make Neil uncomfortable and he wouldn’t jeopardize their friendship. If anything was to happen between them, Neil was going to have to be the one who initiated it.
“You’re afraid,” said Renee.
“Of course I am,” said Andrew, uncharacteristically honest about his vulnerabilities. “I have a lot to lose.”
He was also worried that they’d get together and he suddenly wouldn’t want it any longer. He’d never been able to sustain interest in anyone else. Given that he’d been lusting after Neil since puberty he didn’t think desire would be a problem, but what if he had let everything grow out of proportion in his mind? He’d been imagining it for so long that it couldn’t possibly live up to his expectations.
“From what you’ve said, it seems likely that he feels the same way about you.”
“That’s just how Neil is. He never realizes when his words or actions could be misconstrued as romantic. He just doesn’t see the world that way.”
“I thought he told you he didn’t like it when you dated?”
“That was because the last guy I was seeing was rude to him,” explained Andrew. The relationship hadn’t lasted long, especially once the guy got inappropriately proprietary over him in Neil’s presence. Andrew dropped him immediately.
Neil admitted that he didn’t like it when Andrew dated guys like that. Andrew agreed and decided it was time to take a break from dating.
“Uh huh,” said Renee, sounding unconvinced.
“Neil isn't acting any differently to me than he has for the past fifteen years,” said Andrew. “If his feelings suddenly changed, I’d know.”
“I don’t think they’ve changed.”
“So you agree he doesn’t have feelings for me.”
“That’s not what I said.”
Andrew shook his head. “I don’t have time for this. I have to decide what to do about my insurance.”
Renee looked at him like he was a particularly dim puppy. “You already know what you’re going to do.”
“Yeah,” sighed Andrew, dropping his head onto the break room table and immediately regretting it. He didn’t even want to know why it was sticky. “I’m going to marry Neil.”
Chapter prompt: Phobia
Neil showed no outward signs of remembering that he’d proposed to Andrew. He didn’t mention it or ask if Andrew had made a decision. Andrew half-suspected that he had hallucinated the entire conversation, which was slightly worrying. He’d of course had fantasies about Neil before but this seemed a little strange for his brain to have conjured for no discernible reason. Maybe he’d been drunk at the time?
He was sitting on the kitchen counter and eating ice cream straight from the container, contemplating whether or not Neil had somehow been impaired when he’d offered to marry him, when Neil got home. His tie was already unknotted and his suit jacket was tossed over his shoulder. Andrew grimaced; Neil hated suits and would wear them rumpled if Andrew hadn’t put his foot down about it as soon as Neil had scored a cushy office job. Of course, somehow that meant that Andrew was the one responsible for ironing them (and he had to tie Neil’s tie for him every morning, since left to his own devices Neil would probably end up tangled in his tie). He knew he was enabling Neil’s inability to dress himself properly but it was actually less painful this way.
“Hey,” he said as Neil tossed his suit jacket onto the back of a chair (which he supposed was marginally better than on the floor).
Neil’s eyes lit up when he saw him before narrowing suspiciously. “Where’s the bug?” he asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Andrew, suddenly becoming very interesting in his ice cream.
“You’re sitting on the counter, Andrew,” said Neil patiently. “Where’s the bug?”
Andrew gestured vaguely toward the couch. “I last saw it somewhere over there. I conceded the territory.”
Neil smirked, heading over to where Andrew indicated. “What kind of bug this time? Spider?”
“It was covered in tentacles.”
“I don’t think bugs have tentacles,” said Neil, frowning thoughtfully.
“Hair, then. I didn’t stay around to examine it. I surrendered as soon as it skittered in.”
“How long have you been up there?” Neil was definitely amused. “If it weren’t for me would you have just moved apartments?”
“Maybe,” said Andrew. “You didn’t see the thing. It can have the apartment. It’s not that nice.”
Neil snorted. “Your little phobia is getting out of control.”
“It’s not a phobia. I’m not afraid. I just prefer to be far, far away from anything with more than four legs.”
“See, this is why you should let me get a cat,” said Neil. “They only have four legs and love murdering things. I’m sure it will eat any critters in here.”
“I thought you’re against killing them?” asked Andrew derisively. “You always escort them outside instead of squashing them.”
“Spiders are useful, Andrew,” said Neil earnestly. “They eat other bugs. Honestly, it can’t be—HOLY SHIT THAT THING IS HUGE.” He made a strange squeaky noise. “FUCK, IT’S MOVING!”
Andrew hid a smile in his ice cream container as repeated thumping sounded from near the couch. Neil showed up in the kitchen shortly afterwards, looking sheepish and carrying one of his shoes in his hand. Andrew wordlessly handed over a paper towel.
Neil gave him a dirty look as he cleaned the bug guts off his shoe. “Don’t say anything,” he said before disappearing into his room to change out of his suit. He came back wearing sweats that he’d had since high school and a faded, grey t-shirt. “What’s for dinner, other than ice cream?”
“That was a pre-dinner snack,” said Andrew. “I was thinking tacos? We have ground chicken and I bought some veggies on the way home.”
“Good idea,” said Neil, pulling out the frying pan. “How was your day?”
They fell into easy conversation as they moved around each other preparing dinner. Neil was in the middle of a story about his co-worker, Brenda, who kept trying to set him up with her daughter when they moved to the table to eat. It was simple, domestic, and familiar. Andrew didn’t want to upset the balance.
“I’ll marry you,” he blurted.
Neil stopped his story short. “Oh,” he said, blinking once. “I thought you didn’t want to.”
“I said I’d think about it.”
“Technically you stared at me in silence for so long that I worried that you’d had a seizure and then you locked yourself in your room and never mentioned it again.” The beginning of a smile was playing on Neil’s lips.
“Which you should have known meant that I’d think about it.”
“You’re right,” said Neil sarcastically. “I don’t know how I was confused.”
“So,” said Andrew gruffly, clearing his throat. Somehow it felt like his heart had migrated there. “Married?”
Neil nodded, set his half-eaten taco on his plate, and got up to rummage through his messenger bag, returning with several forms. “We have to get a license first, I have the paperwork we have to fill out. There’s a two week waiting period. I checked with city hall and we need to make an appointment for the actual ceremony but they can provide everything, including a witness if we don’t want to bring our own.”
Andrew stared at him. He forgot sometimes that Neil actually was a competent individual with a grown up job who could be incredibly organized.
“What else…” said Neil thoughtfully. “Oh, I talked to HR and they said that they can start on the paperwork to add you to my plan as soon as they have the marriage certificate, but it will take a couple weeks to go through. So if we get the license tomorrow or the next day, you’ll be covered by the end of next month. You have enough of your current prescription to last until then, right? If not, you can get Bee to give you a prescription for a couple days and we can pay for it out of pocket.” He nodded once, satisfied.
Andrew felt tongue-tied.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” asked Neil, picking up his taco again.
“You did all that?”
“Yeah, of course,” said Neil, looking surprised. “I don’t want you back on those other meds; you were miserable.”
“But you thought I said no.”
“Just in case,” said Neil, popping the last bite of his taco in his mouth. He chewed, swallowed, and then grinned at Andrew. “Besides, I knew you were thinking about it.”
Andrew had a complicated relationship with sleep. He liked sleep and spent a lot of time wanting to be asleep but his body didn’t always cooperate. He had sleeping pills for when his insomnia was really bad but he didn’t like the fuzzy-headed feeling that plagued him the day after he used them. He certainly wasn’t going to take them the night before his wedding: even though it was for insurance purposes he wanted to remember it.
Even if he had been sleeping he would have woken when he heard the sliding door to their balcony open. As well as having trouble falling asleep he always woke at the slightest noise.
He waited for five minutes after Neil went outside before he got up to check on him. Sometimes Neil just needed fresh air and would go back to bed on his own after one of his nightmares but he usually needed company.
Neil had had recurring nightmares for as long as Andrew had known him. Sometimes they were indistinct memories of his father. He didn’t really remember his father, his mother having left him when he was two, but the way he instinctively shied away from large men when they were angry told Andrew all he needed to know.
Sometimes Neil’s nightmares were about his mother showing up to take him away. That usually happened when he was feeling particularly happy and settled or when he was on the verge of something he was looking forward to.
Andrew’s feelings about Neil’s mother were very black and white: he hated her. It was easy for him; he didn’t have any conflicted familial ties and he didn’t have to care about the fact that she wasn’t actually a bad person. For Neil it was different. He loved her but she had disappointed him time and again throughout his life.
After she left his father, she moved back to Liverpool to stay with her brother. She didn’t stay for long. She had the need to keep moving, to never stay in one place. Luckily, Neil’s uncle had recognized that her itchy feet and paranoia weren’t the greatest combination for providing Neil a stable home and he’d convinced his sister to give him custody of Neil. When his job had transferred him to the States, he’d brought Neil with him.
Neil’s mother visited him periodically. Andrew always hated those visits; he wouldn’t see Neil for weeks as he spent all his time with his mother spoiling him before she left again, always leaving Neil dejected that he hadn’t been enough to make her stay. Andrew was never going to forgive her for hurting Neil over and over again.
Neil had never quite grown out of his childhood phobia that one of his parents would come to take him away from the stability of his uncle’s house. Andrew had learned early on in their friendship how to calm Neil’s fears.
He threw on a hoodie and socks and padded out to the balcony. Neil was in one of their brightly coloured patio chairs which had been an excellent sidewalk find. He was staring blankly out at the city lights.
Andrew leaned on the railing and waited for Neil to speak. It took another few minutes before he did.
“I’m getting cold feet,” he said.
It surprised Andrew that he was surprised. It shouldn’t have taken him off guard. Of course Neil didn’t really want to marry him tomorrow—or later today, actually.
“That’s okay,” he said, managing to keep his voice level and uninterested. “We don’t have to go through with it.”
Neil stared at him for a few moments in consternation before his brow cleared. He huffed. “No, that’s not what I—” He reached out with one of his feet and touched it to Andrew’s exposed knee.
Andrew flinched away. “Jesus, your feet are freezing. Put on some damn socks.”
Neil rolled his eyes. “Sure, next time I wake up in a panic because of a vivid dream where my mother prevents me from marrying you, my first thought will be for socks.”
“Get up,” said Andrew, dragging him out of the chair and back into the apartment. He steered Neil into his bedroom and pushed him into his bed. They’d shared plenty of times: during sleepovers as children, when Andrew was battling his depression and needed to know he wasn’t the only person in the world, when Neil needed comfort after a nightmare.
Neil went easily, curling up on his side and leaving the spot against the wall for Andrew. He liked to feel safe and protected after he dreamt of his parents so once Andrew climbed back into bed he pulled Neil against him.
“Go back to sleep,” he murmured. “You’re safe. Like I’d ever let anyone take you away from me.”
Neil sighed and the tension went out of his muscles. When he spoke, his voice was syrupy like he was practically already asleep again. Andrew had long been jealous of his ability to drop off almost instantly.
“Warm,” said Neil sleepily. “Love you,” he mumbled just before his breathing evened out and he fell into sleep.
It wasn’t an uncommon thing for him to say; Andrew knew it wasn’t a lie. Still, it always made Andrew’s heart throb traitorously. He closed his eyes and wished that Neil loved him back the way he wanted him to.
I continue to be completely blown away by the response to this fic. Thank you all so much for reading and commenting; I love you all!
Chapter prompt: Aquarium
The thing with having long-term all-consuming friendships was that they eventually became a case of mutually assured destruction. Andrew knew so many things about Neil—so many incredibly embarrassing things, like the time he’d laughed so hard he’d wet himself when he was eight, or the time he’d accidentally gotten himself wedged into a cupboard while proving to Kevin that he was small enough to fit into it. In return, Neil knew every single embarrassing thing from Andrew’s childhood onward, from how he’d kept accidentally calling their second grade teacher ‘Mom’ to the way he’d once spilled his pop into his lap at the movies and had to sit through the entirety of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince cold, wet, and sticky. They’d witnessed every single one of each other’s questionable fashion choices all through middle and high school (and had photographic evidence) and knew exactly which buttons to press. In college, games of Never Have I Ever with Neil and Kevin had always devolved into the three of them explicitly targeting each other while the other players looked on in a combination of horror and fascination.
The point of all this was that Andrew no longer had the capacity to be embarrassed in front of Neil. There was nothing that could be worse than what he already knew about him, nothing that could make Neil look at him differently. Therefore, it didn’t really bother him that Neil was one of the few people in the world who knew (first hand) that Andrew was a clingy sleeper.
It made no logical sense that he—so defensive of his space while awake—would latch on to anything in his bed and curl around it like a cuddly koala. He usually woke wrapped around his pillows but it was way worse when there was another person in bed with him. Aaron used to cuss him out on the rare occasions during family vacations that they’d been made to share and Neil was the only other person he’d shared a bed with. He’d tried to share with Kevin a couple times during sleepovers but Kevin was too fidgety (and he kicked too much) for Andrew to fall asleep to begin with. The few relationships he’d had hadn’t ever progressed to the ‘sharing a bed for sleep’ stage.
Andrew woke on the morning of his wedding lying on top of something much more angular and less comfortable than his mattress. The thing he was lying on poked him a couple times and huffed a laugh.
“Wake up,” said Neil softly.
“No,” mumbled Andrew, tightening his arms which were, like his legs, wound around Neil’s body. He rubbed his face into Neil’s chest. “Too early.”
“I have to pee,” complained Neil, “and we have to be at city hall in ninety minutes.”
“We don’t have to,” said Andrew, perfectly content to stay where he was.
“That’s true,” said Neil, “but you need your insurance.”
“Plus, we told all our friends that we’re getting married tomorrow so this is the last day we have to do it without them all butting in.”
Neil had calmly announced their engagement during the last monthly get together at the Foxhole, a bar which was quite unremarkable save for its half-priced pitchers and twenty cent wings on Tuesdays. It had been popular among their friends during college and they still met there regularly to catch up with each other.
“Andrew and I are getting married the Friday after next,” Neil said nonchalantly once the wings had arrived and everyone was tearing into them like rabid animals.
There was a brief silence as everyone shifted their attention to him—even Andrew, because he was perfectly aware that their appointment at city hall was for Thursday.
“Wait a second,” said Allison, wiping her sticky fingers on a napkin. “Aren’t you already married?”
“No,” said Neil, rolling his eyes and reaching for another wing.
“Are you sure?” asked Dan. “I also thought you were already married.”
“I think we’d know.”
“Huh,” said Allison, still in disbelief.
“Congratulations!” said Matt enthusiastically. “Where’s the wedding?”
“City hall, and none of you are invited,” said Neil. Andrew had already made his preference for no guests clear, which Neil had agreed with although he was surprised that Andrew didn’t even want to invite Kevin or Aaron.
“Sure, we’ll stay away,” said Nicky sarcastically. “It’s not like we don’t already know the date and location.” Andrew was grateful for Neil’s foresight to tell everyone the wrong day.
“We’ll have a get-together the night before,” bargained Neil. “We can meet up here and you can shower us in beer and stale nachos.” And he could announce that they’d already gotten married earlier that day. As always, Andrew was impressed with the way Neil manipulated events to get exactly what he wanted.
“Are you sure you haven’t gotten married before?” cut in Allison.
“Yes,” said Neil impatiently.
“You did get married in the play our class put on in fourth grade,” supplied Kevin. Andrew kicked his ankle for bringing it up.
“See, that makes sense. I assumed that you’d gotten married on the playground at recess but this works, too,” said Allison. “Which of you was the girl?”
“Andrew,” answered Neil. At Allison’s raised eyebrow, he shrugged, “What? It was an all-boys school. Someone had to be the princess.”
“That was… not what I was expecting,” said Matt slowly.
“Yeah, how’d you convince him to do it?” asked Dan.
Neil caught Andrew’s eye and grinned. “I asked.”
“So he’s been whipped since the beginning,” muttered Allison, so quietly that Andrew didn’t think Neil heard her.
The conversation had then strayed into a new topic. Andrew was surprised that none of their friends had anything more to say about their marriage.
Neil poked him again. “If you don’t get up now, you’re going to be stuck with a happily sobbing Nicky at our wedding.”
“Fine,” Andrew grumbled, disentangling their limbs and rolling away. He was grateful to his younger self for repeatedly latching on to Neil like a limpet while they were sleeping; Neil was so used to it by now there was absolutely no way he’d suspect Andrew of having deeper feelings.
Neil helpfully prodded him until he pulled himself out of bed and into the shower where he let the hot water wake him up. Afterwards, Neil handed him a mug of coffee on his own way into the shower as they passed in the hallway. He gulped down the coffee as he dressed himself in a brand new suit. He’d considered wearing jeans and hoodie to city hall, but he wanted to look nice on his wedding day. Even if it meant nothing, it was still a big deal to him.
Before Neil finished his shower, Andrew laid out his clothes for him. He wasn’t taking any chances that Neil’s terrible fashion sense would make an appearance. He finished his coffee and placed the mug in the sink, doubling back to the washroom to brush his teeth once Neil was getting dressed.
The two of them met in the living room, Neil’s tie loose around his shoulders. Andrew tied it for him and then fruitlessly smoothed down his damp curls.
“All ready?” asked Neil, shoving his phone and wallet into his inside suit pockets.
“Okay,” said Neil, sounding a little nervous. “Let’s go get married.”
Waiting for their turn was interminable but the actual ceremony was over very quickly. Andrew barely paid any attention, all his focus on Neil who was staring back at him until it was time to exchange rings.
Andrew hadn’t given any thought to rings, but as usual Neil had taken care of it. The rings were made of matte metal so dark it was almost black.
“What’s this made of?” he asked, idly spinning the ring around his ring finger and getting used to its weight.
“Meteorite,” said Neil, obviously pleased with himself.
“Really?” asked Andrew, examining the ring with renewed interest.
“I thought you’d like that, you space nerd.”
The officiant waited patiently for their conversation to finish before he led them through their vows and proclaimed them married and instructed them to kiss each other.
The kiss was short and chaste and unexceptional. It was also not abnormal: Neil had been giving all his friends chaste kisses since the time in college that Dan had ranted about how toxic masculinity meant that men never showed platonic affection to their male friends. Neil, always ready to pick a fight—even if that fight was with societal norms—had responded by becoming much more openly affectionate, something which Andrew appreciated and hated in equal measure.
After the ceremony, they stood on the steps of city hall, Neil already loosening his tie and shrugging off his suit jacket. “Lunch?” he asked, indicating a little bistro nearby.
Andrew led the way into the restaurant. It was almost surreal that nothing had changed: they sat and chatted the same way they normally did with no mention that they were now lawfully married.
“What do you want to do now?” asked Andrew, once they settled the bill. “There’s still a couple hours before we have to meet our friends.”
Neil glanced around the tourist-friendly downtown core. “Aquarium?” he asked, pointing at a garishly-decorated building.
Andrew shrugged in agreement.
They locked their ties and suit jackets in the car and headed over to the aquarium. Andrew hadn’t ever attended before, having no interest in being closer to tourists or families than necessary. Luckily, it was quiet due to the fact that it was a weekday afternoon.
The two of them wandered from exhibit to exhibit, Andrew reading the informational displays and watching the fish swim while Neil just flitted around like an eight-year-old with ADHD.
“Andrew, look!” he called and Andrew pulled himself away from the jellyfish display to see what had caught Neil’s attention.
“Lobsters!” said Neil happily, pointing into a tank of the greenish crustaceans. “Did you know that lobsters mate for life?”
“That’s not actually true,” said a nearby woman who was wearing a teal polo shirt that identified her as staff. “It’s a common misconception because of that Friends episode, but it turns out that 90s sitcoms aren’t actually a reliable source of marine biology information!” She grinned and looked back and forth between them, her smile falling as neither of them laughed at her joke.
“They don’t?” asked Neil, crestfallen. “But I was going to call you my lobster,” he told Andrew.
“In what way am I a lobster?”
“You turn bright red whenever you get exposed to heat.”
“Sorry,” said the woman, butting in again. “But lobsters actually have a very complicated mating structure, where one male has a harem—”
“You have a harem?” Neil cut her off, looking at Andrew askance.
“I’m not a lobster,” Andrew reminded him.
“You’re right, you’re more of a barnacle,” said Neil slyly. Andrew could feel himself blushing, remembering how they’d woken up that morning. “Or an octopus!” Neil turned to the woman. “What about octopi—”
“Octopuses,” corrected Andrew.
“Octopuseses,” said Neil without missing a beat. “Do they mate for life?”
“Um, kind of,” said the woman, her eyes darting between them.
“Don’t they live in solitude until they mate and then males die immediately afterwards?” Andrew asked.
“Stop ruining this,” hissed Neil. “Octopuses mate for life and that’s final. You’re my octopus.”
Andrew gave him a flat look.
“You’ll have to excuse my husband,” said Neil, “he’s not very romantic.”
Andrew felt an unexpected tug under his breastbone at Neil referring to him as his husband. Still, “This is your idea of romance?” he inquired.
“We’re newlyweds,” Neil added, sotto voce, to the woman.
She cooed at them. “Congratulations!” she said, sounding sincere.
Neil laced their fingers together and smiled proudly. Andrew wasn’t sure why Neil was playing this up, but he was planning on enjoying it while it lasted.
Chapter prompt: Cats
Andrew was watching a documentary about polar bears when Neil launched himself on the couch, knocking Andrew’s toast onto the floor. He was damp from the shower he’d taken after his early morning run (because he was terrible at sleeping in, which as far as Andrew was concerned was what weekends were for). He’d slept in Andrew’s bed last night, as had become a habit in the month and a half since they’d gotten married. In fact, he slept there most nights, except when he had to get up earlier than usual and would disturb Andrew or when Andrew was having a particularly bad bout of insomnia and didn’t want company. Andrew was not complaining and was trying not to read anything into it; it likely didn’t mean anything, especially since their relationship hadn’t changed at all since their wedding.
“Oops,” said Neil, when he saw Andrew’s toast lying buttered-side down on the floor. “Sorry.”
“You owe me breakfast,” said Andrew. “I demand waffles.”
Neil’s eyes narrowed. “Waffles in exchange for ruining plain toast?”
“I’m charging interest.”
“Fine, fine, I’ll take you to Sunny’s once you get dressed.”
“Score,” said Andrew. “I didn’t think that would work.”
Neil nudged the side of Andrew’s thigh with his sock-covered toes. “Soooo….” he said drawing out the word. “What’re we doing today?” He was practically bouncing in excitement.
Andrew should have known better than to tell him in advance that he had a surprise for him. Neil was like a six-year-old on Christmas who’d eaten his weight in cookies when he was anticipating something.
“It’s still a surprise,” said Andrew. “We’ll go after breakfast.”
“Do I have to wear anything?”
“Clothes, preferably,” replied Andrew dryly.
Neil lazily aimed a kick at Andrew’s face. Andrew caught his foot easily and trapped it in his lap. “You know I meant to ask how I should dress for our mysterious outing,” pouted Neil, trying and failing to get his foot back.
“What you’re wearing is fine,” said Andrew, letting him go and standing up before Neil got even more restless. “But breakfast first.”
Sunny’s was a little hole-in-the-wall diner that was a couple blocks away from their apartment. It was small and shabby but their waffles were to die for. Neil always had his topped with fruit but Andrew went for their whipped cream and chocolate and caramel and ice cream concoctions.
Neil was worked up all through breakfast, twitchy with anticipation. He kept jiggling and kicking his feet until Andrew managed to catch one between both of his own. Neil calmed slightly at the contact, leaving his foot curled around Andrew’s ankle.
“Are we going scuba diving?” he asked.
“No,” said Andrew. “Why would you guess that?”
“Skydiving?” pressed Neil.
“It’s like you’ve never met me.”
“It’s my birthday present,” said Neil, “so I assumed it would be something I wanted to do.”
Neil had always been picky about his birthday, not liking how many people lumped his birthday present in with his Christmas present because they were less than a month apart. Andrew had started giving him his birthday present in early June when Neil was twelve in order to space out his presents through the year (and to curb his incessant whining).
“And you want to go scuba and/or skydiving?” asked Andrew skeptically.
“Well, no,” said Neil, “but I could. You know, theoretically.”
“Uh huh,” said Andrew, rolling his eyes. “You’re ridiculous.”
“You love me.”
“Not enough to go skydiving with you,” Andrew shot back without a beat.
The server stopped beside their table her gaze bouncing between them. “I’ll go skydiving with you,” she said to Neil, her tone flirtatious. Andrew scowled but she didn’t look in his direction. He should be used to this by now; Neil got flirted with basically everywhere they went. People never assumed they were together, apparently being able to tell that Andrew didn’t have a chance (even though they now wore matching wedding rings). Over the years, Andrew had come up with several surefire ways to make them leave Neil alone. He wondered which would be most effective to get this woman to back off.
“I’m married,” said Neil, looking up at her and brandishing his ring finger. “To him,” he added gesturing at Andrew. “We’re very happy.”
“I'm married, too. My wife and I and also very happy,” said the server. “But she won’t go skydiving with me.”
Huh. That was unexpected. Neil shot Andrew a questioning look, to which he shrugged.
“I don’t actually want to go skydiving,” admitted Neil, looking a little sheepish. “Sorry.”
“Was worth a shot,” she sighed. “You guys want anything else or just the bill?”
Neil was bounding around like a puppy when they left the diner. The dog-like behaviour didn’t stop once they got in the car, where he rolled down the window and stuck his head outside. Which was coincidental, given where they were going.
“Stop that,” scolded Andrew, pulling him back into the car. “Your head’s going to be knocked off and I’ll be stuck with your headless corpse getting blood all over my upholstery.”
“Cause that would be your biggest worry if I was decapitated.”
“Well, you’d be dead. I wouldn’t have to worry about you anymore. My life would become much easier. And quieter.”
“You’d miss me.”
“Think of how peaceful it would be…” said Andrew wistfully.
“I’d come back as a ghost to haunt you.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
Neil laughed and settled as much as he was able to. He went completely still when he realized Andrew was turning into the parking lot for the animal shelter.
“Andrew, are we…?” he trailed off, too excited and nervous to voice his thoughts in case he was wrong.
“For your birthday, I’m getting you a cat… one cat,” specified Andrew.
Neil looked over at him, his face flushed and happy and his eyes soft and full of some unknown emotion that made Andrew’s stomach tie up in knots. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said gruffly.
“Okay,” agreed Neil easily, not making any effort to stop. Andrew distracted him by parking the car and heading into the shelter.
Andrew had called ahead, so there was a volunteer waiting for them to show them the adoptable cats. There was a playroom full of them, about nine or ten different cats looking for owners. They came in all colours and hair lengths and the only thing they seemed to have in common was a desire for Neil’s attention. He sat joyously in the middle of the room, letting the cats climb all over him as he laughed happily and tried to pet all of them at once. Watching him made Andrew’s chest feet full.
Neil had wanted a cat for as long as Andrew had known him, but his uncle’s allergies had made that impossible when he was growing up and until recently he and Andrew had only lived in apartments that didn’t allow pets. That had never stopped him from feeding all the strays in the vicinity and trying to earn their trust. Andrew had been waiting for the day that Neil ended up with rabies.
Of course, he should have expected that Neil being Neil meant that none of the well-behaved, friendly, normal cats caught his attention.
“Who’s that?” he asked the volunteer, indicating a tiny calico cat that had barricaded itself on the top of a cat tree and hissed and growled whenever anyone got close.
“Oh,” said the volunteer nervously, “that’s Monster. She doesn’t like people or other cats, with the exception of her brother. We don’t usually bring her out for potential adoption but she got up there this morning and none of us was willing to risk our skin to get her down.”
“Hmm,” said Neil thoughtfully, looking at the practically feral beast in the same way he looked at strays. “Her brother?”
The volunteer gestured to one of the nice cats, a sleek black and white tuxedo cat with white paws. “He’s a friendly little bugger, but he’ll never get adopted because our director thinks the two of them should stay together and no one wants her.”
Neil froze for a fraction of a second before nodding and moving on. He didn’t give Andrew a pleading look or otherwise indicate that he wanted the monster cat, but Andrew hadn’t known him for a decade and a half for nothing.
He sighed. “Really? Her? Are you sure you don’t want any of these nice, friendly, not-evil cats?” he asked long-sufferingly.
“She’s not evil,” said Neil loyally, despite the fact that she had noticed Neil looking at her and begun growling loudly enough that it sounded as if there was a motor in the room. “She’s just a little prickly.” She swatted at the hand Neil held up near her. He didn’t reach for her; he just held it there and waited for her to get used to it.
The volunteer’s eyebrows went up. “You want… Monster?” she asked, completely taken aback.
“I don’t know who gave her that name but she’s not keeping it,” said Neil. “You’re not a monster, are you sweetheart?” he crooned.
“I should have known,” said Andrew. “I should have known that this was going to be just like Lilo & Stitch where instead of picking a nice, normal dog you pick the fucking blue alien.”
“We don’t have to get her,” said Neil. “I know I’m only allowed one.”
“Of course we have to get her,” sighed Andrew. He left the room to fill out the paperwork for their two new cats and pay the adoption fees.
By the time he returned to Neil, he’d coaxed the reluctant cat down from the cat tree and had managed to get her into a cat carrier. The cat carrier was rocking back and forth and hissing and spitting. Meanwhile, the tuxedo cat was napping in his own carrier. Andrew surveyed them both. “Are you sure we can’t only have the calm one?”
“Nope,” said Neil, his arms sporting several long scratches. Andrew was going to have to pin him down and disinfect them once they got home; left to his own devices Neil would probably get gangrene and let his arms fall off. “They’re a package deal; like us.”
Andrew looked to the yowling cat carrier back to the one with a sleeping cat in it. “Which one am I?”
“The spikier one,” said Neil, grinning. “So, bad news.”
“What?” asked Andrew warily.
“I texted all our friends about the cats and I might have mentioned that they need new names…”
“So they’re now named King Fluffkins and Sir Fat Cat McCatterson.” Neil looked far too pleased with himself. “Those names are much better than Monster and Tuxedo, aren’t they?”
Chapter prompt: Holiday
During the last week of June the heat and humidity ramped up to Hell-like levels. Andrew was not built to handle the heat with any grace. He didn’t know much about his ancestry but the blond hair and pale skin indicated northern European roots—somewhere with a cool climate where they mainly ate cabbage and potatoes; he couldn’t handle spicy food at all and his body basically returned an ERROR: FILE NOT FOUND whenever the temperature climbed above 100 degrees.
The air conditioner in his office was so old that he suspected it may have actually been built before air conditioners were invented. Needless to say it was not very effective; he spent all day sweating profusely as the heat sapped his will to do anything. Their apartment wasn’t much better. They had a single window air conditioning unit in the living room. Usually his ceiling and stand fans were enough to keep him cool at night, but the temperature spiked so high that he had to drag his mattress out in front of the air conditioner. Neil had taken to sleeping on the kitchen or bathroom floor where the tiles were cool. Sharing the mattress wasn’t an option because Andrew’s barnacle nature didn’t seem to understand that he was hot and didn’t want to plaster himself around someone who was equally warm.
Neil was the one relegated to the floor because a) he was capable of sleeping anywhere at any time, and b) his office was kept at a ridiculous 65 degrees meaning he got to be cool (too cool apparently; he kept sweaters at work to keep himself warm) during the day. In fact, Andrew had noticed a correlation between how hot it was outside and Neil’s work hours mysteriously getting longer.
It irritated him irrationally. If he was suffering, Neil should be suffering; he shouldn’t have to do it alone. Paradoxically, when Neil was around he found himself even more annoyed for some reason he couldn’t quite figure out. Everything Neil did recently seemed to make Andrew mad. It was probably just generally irritability and crabbiness. This weather should be illegal; he was going to lodge a complaint.
Neither of the cats were particularly fond of the heat, either. Sir, the name bestowed upon the tuxedo cat, spent his time lying on his back on the tiled floor, stretching himself out like Gumby. King planted herself in front of the air conditioner and hissed at anyone who tried to move her.
She’d actually settled in better than Andrew had been expecting. Away from the noisiness and multiple strange cats that lived in the shelter, she’d calmed down. She tolerated Neil, accepting food and treats from him and deigning to let him touch her without scratching open his hands from time to time. For some reason that went beyond understanding, she was incredibly fond of Andrew. Her preferred spot was next to him on the couch or his mattress and she allowed him to do things to her that would have resulted in Neil getting bitten if he’d tried, such as stroking her or brushing her or cutting her claws.
Andrew had no idea why she liked him but it ended up being useful since her hair tended to mat together if not brushed regularly. She’d growled threateningly at him the first time he’d dared brush out the mats in her coat but it must have felt nice afterwards because she kept showing up to be brushed. Considering that she was a short-haired cat he had no idea how she could produce so much hair, giving off what seemed to be an amount of hair equal to her weight every time he brushed her. In fact, given how small their two cats were, there was an awful lot of hair on every surface in their apartment, including on all of Andrew’s clothes. He resigned himself to it, especially after he’d seen King stalk and eat a silverfish.
By the time Independence Day (which Andrew didn’t care about except that it was a statutory holiday, which meant no work) rolled around, the heat had left Andrew in a bad mood for over a week and he was willing to move into a walk-in refrigerator because at least he wouldn’t be sweating one hundred percent of the time. As such, he was not impressed to learn that Neil had agreed for both of them, without asking, that they’d meet their friends at the Foxhole before heading out to see the fireworks.
“It’s what we do every year,” argued Neil, after Andrew had complained about having to go out for the fifth time. “I didn’t think I had to ask you if you wanted to do the same thing we always do.”
“Well, what if I didn’t want to go this year?” grumbled Andrew, trying to decide what to wear. It was hard to keep up his aesthetic of covering himself in black when it only added to how uncomfortably hot he was.
“Fine,” said Neil, throwing up his hands dramatically. “Stay home alone and sulk if you want to. See if I care.”
“Fine,” snapped Andrew, now feeling annoyed that instead of forcing him to go Neil was leaving without him.
Neil turned to leave but he stopped about halfway to the door. Andrew saw his shoulders rise and fall as if he were taking a deep breath to steel himself. “The Foxhole is air conditioned,” he said, his tone wheedling.
Andrew breathed out a sigh of defeat. “Fine,” he said again, this time more conciliatory. He settled on what to wear and changed quickly.
Neil was cooing goodbye to the cats when Andrew emerged from his room, still feeling grumpy but slightly mollified that Neil hadn’t gone without him. He was even more pacified when Neil told him he’d called an Uber instead of making them travel by public transit.
The bar was air conditioned and Andrew almost immediately felt better upon stepping foot inside. He was greeted by Nicky and Kevin who’d snagged a booth for them and had already procured a pitcher of beer. Neil wrinkled his nose at distaste of their offering and headed over to the pool tables to greet some other friends while Andrew gratefully took a seat and poured himself a pint.
He spent some time catching up with Nicky and Kevin before looking to see what Neil was up to. Glancing around, he caught sight of Neil near the bar—he’d been cornered by someone who was being a little too forward for Andrew’s liking. Neil looked uncomfortable and trapped.
Andrew was out of his seat in a flash, heading over to where Neil was trying to distance himself from the handsy guy.
“Bring another round!” Kevin called after him.
“Hey, Neil,” said Andrew, sidling up beside him and putting a proprietary hand on his lower back. “I noticed you didn’t take your pills this morning. That chlamydia isn’t going to clear up on its own, you know.”
Neil’s expression was unamused but he played along like he always did. “Oh, thanks, Andrew!” he said insincerely. “I keep forgetting, although I don’t know how.” He shrugged at the guy who was trying to flirt with him. “It itches.”
It was fun watching the interest drain out of the guy’s face as he became flustered and came up with an excuse to leave.
“You’re still mad at me, I see,” said Neil dryly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” lied Andrew.
“You only ever scare people off with fake STIs when you’re mad at me.”
Neil waggled his left hand, showing off his wedding ring. “So does this.”
Andrew didn’t answer—he didn't think he was actually mad at Neil, he was just annoyed and irritable in general and Neil was a convenient target. He pushed his way to the bar to order another pitcher.
The bartender was someone he recognized; they’d had an ongoing flirtation for a while that Andrew had never planned on pursuing. But maybe he should. Hooking up might cure the buzzing under his skin left by weeks of heat and frustration. He laid it on thick and ended up getting the guy’s number. He was feeling pretty good about himself until he turned and found Neil glaring at him.
“What?” he asked, instantly irritated again.
Neil expression turned incredulous. “Really?” he asked.
“What?” demanded Andrew, letting his annoyance bleed into his tone.
Neil shook his head. “Nothing,” he muttered, turning to lead the way back to the table.
They slid into opposite sides of the booth. Nicky greeted Neil effusively and asked about their cats; Neil’s response was atypically reticent.
Andrew kicked his shin. “Seriously, what is it?” he asked.
“You flirted with that guy. You got his number,” said Neil.
“Yeah, so?” asked Andrew. “I could use a meaningless hook up. It’s been a while; I need to blow off some steam.”
Both Nicky and Kevin went still and silent.
Neil blinked once, stunned. “Are you serious?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” asked Andrew, confused by everyone’s reaction. He didn’t hook up a lot, but he wasn’t a eunuch.
“Oh, look,” said Nicky loudly, looking around in a panic. He was on the inside of the booth, caught between Neil and the wall. He turned his whole body away from Neil’s and pointed at the wall. “Isn’t this wood panelling beautiful?”
“Yes,” agreed Kevin, also stuck beside Andrew. His tone was loud and forced. “It is very nice.”
Neil ignored them. “We’re married,” he said heatedly.
“Our marriage isn’t real,” argued Andrew. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Do you think it’s made of oak?” Kevin asked, almost shouting.
“Or maybe maple,” said Nicky desperately.
Neil’s face went completely blank. “Oh.”
“It’s just for the insurance,” Andrew needlessly explained, feeling off balance from Neil's behaviour. “It’s not like we were dating or in love beforehand.”
Neil didn’t answer right away, his eyes lost. Nicky and Kevin were both staring at the table and pretending they weren’t present.
“Neil…?” asked Andrew tentatively.
Neil snapped out of his reverie, pasting on an unconvincing smile. “No, of course,” he said, falsely bright. “Of course it means nothing to you. You should definitely hook up with that guy.” He pushed himself out of the booth. “I forgot, I promised Matt that I’d go uptown with him, so I’ll see you later, okay?” He disappeared into the crowd before Andrew even knew what was happening.
The silence at the table was very heavy; Kevin and Nicky were surreptitiously shooting him unimpressed glances.
“Our relationship is fake,” said Andrew, more for himself than for them. He looked up at Nicky whose expression was full of pity. “...Isn’t it?”
There is a brief reference to past animal death.
Chapter prompt: "I don't need your help."
Neil didn’t come home that night, which made Andrew feel like there was a weight on his chest. Of course that could have been King who, despite the heat, spent the night on Andrew’s chest purring into his face. All he wanted was to sit Neil down and demand an explanation for what was going on, especially after what Nicky had told him.
Neil at least texted to say he wasn’t coming home (and to remind Andrew to feed the cats and scoop their litter), but didn’t answer any of Andrew’s phone calls or texts. Andrew spent a sleepless night on his mattress, staring blankly at his meteorite ring and trying to sort everything out in his head. It occurred to him that he’d never once considered not wearing the ring and that Neil hadn’t taken his off either. He was also belatedly realizing that Neil took every opportunity to call him his husband (unlike Andrew who hadn’t uttered the word out loud, not willing to call Neil his husband if it wasn’t real). Apparently Neil was of the opinion that their marriage wasn’t fake and Andrew attempted to reconcile that with what he thought to be true.
The initial proposal had been because of insurance purposes, of that he was sure. But maybe Neil had always meant for it to be real? He was more affectionate with Andrew than he’d ever been and had been sleeping in his bed regularly until the heat wave. But that wasn’t completely out of the ordinary; he’d been acting like that for months before they got married.
According to Nicky, Neil claimed that they’d gotten together after Andrew’s last attempt at dating had failed.
“He told you that?” Andrew asked. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
Nicky gave him a look. “He probably assumed you knew!” he said, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “He said you had a conversation and sorted everything out.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” demanded Andrew.
“Because I knew you didn’t want me to make a big deal out of it,” hissed Nicky. “And I didn’t realize how clueless you are! It’s not like he was being subtle!”
“To be fair to Andrew, though, they’ve always acted like that,” said Kevin.
Andrew gestured at Kevin. “Thank you.”
“Oh, no, I’m not on your side,” said Kevin. “You fucked up. Fix it.”
Although how was Andrew supposed to fix it if Neil kept avoiding him?
He pondered what Nicky said. He was pretty sure he knew what conversation he was referring to; he tried to remember the specifics.
It had occurred just after Andrew had told a guy to lose his number. They’d only been out twice together, both times for coffee, and Andrew hadn’t felt any particular spark with him. Then the guy, Roland, had run into him when he and Neil were having lunch together and had immediately become possessive.
“Andrew, who’s this?” he’d asked, slipping an arm around Andrew’s waist.
Andrew was incredibly uncomfortable and pushed him out of his personal space. Neil glanced between the two of them, and narrowed his eyes. “I’m Neil,” he said.
Roland had given him a once over, his lips pressing together in a thin line. “I think Andrew may have mentioned you,” he said snottily, again stepping too close to Andrew. “You’re his roommate, right?”
“Uh huh,” said Neil, unimpressed. “And you are?”
“I’m Andrew’s boyfriend.” Roland puffed himself up to look down his nose at Neil.
“No you’re not,” interjected Andrew.
Roland had the gall to look insulted by Andrew’s bluntness, but Andrew didn’t know what else he was expecting. They barely knew each other and he was being incredibly rude to Andrew’s best friend. He had no idea how he thought this might endear him to Andrew. He dismissed Roland unceremoniously and returned to find Neil giving him a strange look.
“I didn’t like that,” admitted Neil.
“I don’t…” Neil fiddled with his utensils. “I don’t like any of the guys you date,” he blurted out, and immediately looked guilty.
Andrew shrugged, not bothered. “That’s because they’re all boring and terrible. I think I’m going to give up on dating altogether; I don’t have the energy.”
Neil bit his lip. “What about us?” he asked, his eyes intense.
“I always have energy for you,” said Andrew, “which is why I don’t have energy for dating anyone else.”
“Me, too,” said Neil. “So it’ll just be you and me from now on?” He grinned happily at Andrew.
“Sounds good,” replied Andrew. Dating was exhausting, especially since he never wanted anything more than being home with Neil.
He could see in retrospect how maybe possibly Neil might have been suggesting that they should date each other, but it was pretty vague. And Neil had been saying things that got Andrew’s hopes up throughout their entire relationship. Andrew had trained himself to ignore anything that sounded remotely as if Neil was interested in him; he’d had to, in order to be happy with their friendship without driving himself crazy wanting more. It was how he protected himself.
He didn’t get any sleep that night, worried that he’d ruined everything without realizing what he was doing. Had he actually had everything he’d wanted for years?
Neil still hadn’t returned by the time Andrew had to leave for work—he didn’t have enough vacation time banked to take the 5th off, unlike Neil. Everyone at work avoided him, likely because he was in an even blacker mood than the one he’d already been in because of the heat. Even Renee stayed away, although she did bring him an iced cappuccino at one point. Andrew thanked her but didn’t try to talk to her any further—he wasn’t in the mood for another person to point out how stupid he was.
He was hot and sticky and more than a little anxious that Neil would still be missing when he got home. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do if Neil still wasn’t there—probably comb the city searching for him. Instead, his knees almost buckled in relief when he found Neil in their tiny kitchen, fighting to open a jar of sour pickles.
“Give it here,” he said, reaching for the jar automatically.
Neil jerked away and half-turned. “I don’t need your help,” he said petulantly. Andrew wordlessly watched him struggle for another few moments before Neil huffed and handed over the jar.
Andrew popped off the lid without much trouble and handed the jar back. “Are you having pickles for dinner?” he asked.
Neil gestured at the table, where rye bread and mustard and smoked meat were set out.
“Wow,” said Andrew. “Serious Talk food.”
It was something Neil had picked up from his uncle. For some reason that defied explanation Stuart thought that smoked meat sandwiches softened the blow of any bad news and were required for all important conversations. According to Neil, they’d eaten smoked meat sandwiches when Stuart had told Neil he had a girlfriend, during the incredibly awkward sex talk that Stuart had delivered, the time when Stuart had accidentally run over one of the stray cats that Neil was feeding, and when Stuart told him he was getting married.
“I think we need one, don’t you?” asked Neil, not making eye contact. Neil’s demeanour was making Andrew nervous.
“Do we have to?” he said before thinking. He’d wanted to talk this through with Neil, but what if it was bad news? In that case he wanted to put off this conversation forever.
“We can’t solve all our arguments with thumb wars,” said Neil.
Andrew wanted to protest further. “Just let me change,” he said instead. He wished it wasn’t still so goddamn hot because he wanted to wear his favourite sweater as a safety blanket but he had to make do with a t-shirt that said “I’m so gay I can’t even think straight” that Neil had given him after he’d officially come out in college.
Neil was sitting at the table waiting for him, his spine unnaturally straight as if he was sitting at attention. Both the cats were circling like furry sharks, intent on the meat on the table. Andrew sat across from Neil and waited for him to say something. Neil gestured that he should eat and began assembling his own sandwich.
“I didn’t hook up with that guy,” said Andrew, as he took a couple slices of bread. It felt important that Neil knew that.
“Good,” said Neil shortly.
Andrew looked up at him.
Neil coloured slightly. “I thought we were on the same page but apparently we should have made it clear beforehand. I want to be married to you and I know you need the insurance, but we’re getting a divorce if you hook up with other people.” He swallowed and looked down at the table. “It’s up to you.”
“We’re not getting divorced,” said Andrew, even the suggestion of doing so made him feel ill.
Neil breathed an obvious sigh of relief before tensing again. “You said our marriage doesn’t mean anything to you, that it’s only for the insurance. But it means something to me. I thought…” he trailed off uncertainly. “It’s real for me,” he concluded softly.
Andrew felt as if his head was spinning, unsure of what Neil was telling him. Or at least he knew what it seemed like Neil was telling him but he was having trouble believing it.
“It’s real as in…?” he asked. His heart felt like it was going to pound out of his chest.
Neil huffed with impatience. “As in we’re married! Husbands! Life partners. I don’t know how else you want me to say this. Together forever; I love you and you love me… or I thought you did.”
“When did this happen?”
“We’ve been together for months,” said Neil, before wavering slightly. “Haven’t we? I thought we decided to be together when you ditched the last guy you dated.”
Andrew shook his head wordlessly. “But… nothing changed.”
“Why would anything change? I’ve felt this way for years but didn’t realize until then,” said Neil, rubbing the back of his neck.
“But…” Andrew was still confused how he hadn’t noticed that they were dating. “We don’t… do stuff.”
“You mean like sex?” asked Neil, wrinkling his nose. “You know I don’t care about any of that—sure I wouldn’t mind kissing you more if you wanted to, but I assumed that if you wanted anything else we’d talk about it and since you didn’t seem interested…” He trailed off again, a look of devastation coming over his face. “Oh my god, you’re not interested. You don’t actually want this, or me.”
He stood to leave but Andrew lunged across the table to catch his wrist and grip hard, not willing to let Neil walk away when they were so close to figuring everything out. “Of course I do,” he said.
“You didn’t even notice,” protested Neil, tugging his arm to try to escape.
“I have been in love with you for an embarrassingly long time,” admitted Andrew, speaking quickly in an attempt to tear off the band aid painlessly. “So long, in fact, that I knew there was no hope of you ever returning my feelings. So I trained myself to ignore anything you did that might indicate you wanted more so I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”
“Oh,” said Neil, blinking stupidly and going still. “How long?”
Andrew let go of Neil’s wrist and face palmed. “I’m not telling you.”
Neil’s face lit up. “That long, huh?” he said, obviously pleased.
“Shut up, I hate you.”
“No, you have an epic crush on me,” crowed Neil. “Since the beginning of time apparently.”
“I have no idea why; you’re clearly the worst.”
“Joke’s on you; you married me.”
“Oh no,” said Andrew, suddenly realizing something important. He pushed his chair away from the table.
The teasing smile on Neil’s face slid off immediately at Andrew’s tone. He rounded the table in concern. “What? What’s wrong?”
“We got real married, not fake married,” said Andrew.
“Well, legally it was always real. It’s not like we were playing dress up even if you thought it was only for insurance.”
“I know, but…” He could feel horror creeping over him. “I got married, for real, and I didn’t invite Aaron.”
A slow, sunrise smile dawned on Neil’s face. “I did tell you that you should.”
“No, no, no, no,” moaned Andrew. “Can we still pretend it’s fake?” he asked. “Maybe have a renewal of vows and invite him to that?”
“You want me to help you break a deal?” asked Neil, sounding scandalised. “You want me to lie to your brother?”
“You lie to him all the time; you think it’s funny to lie to him.”
“True,” said Neil. He deposited himself in Andrew’s lap and threw his arm around his shoulders. Andrew breathed in sharply, startled at the brazen display of intimacy. He tipped his head back to meet Neil’s eyes. “But I’m still a little annoyed that you didn’t notice we were dating,” Neil continued, seemingly unaware of the effect he was having on Andrew, “so I’m going to have to take Aaron’s side on this one.”
“No,” said Andrew. “I won’t do it.”
“You’ll break your promise?” asked Neil archly, fully aware that Andrew wouldn’t. “I’m sorry my dear octopus, but I’m afraid it's your own fault.”
“Maybe he won’t get married,” suggested Andrew hopefully.
“That’s wishful thinking; you know he’s getting hitched as soon as he’s finished school. He’s all goo-goo eyed over Katelyn.”
“This is all your fault.”
“I don’t see how. Everyone thinks that I’m the oblivious one but I figured out what was going on well before you did.”
“And what was going on?” asked Andrew, raising an eyebrow.
“I already told you,” said Neil, rolling his eyes.
“Prove it,” challenged Andrew, knowing exactly how Neil responded to any kind of dare.
Neil smiled, his eyes crinkling in the corners, and leaned in to kiss him.
Here we are at the end! Thank you so much for your kudos and comments; I'm so glad you enjoyed my silly little story! Special thanks to Sheila, Angel, and Nea for organizing Andreil Week!
Chapter prompt: Bare skin, chosen from Andreil Week 2018 Day 3 prompts.
“...I guess what I’m trying to say is, true love is the soul's recognition of its counterpoint in another. I think it’s a very rare thing in this world and something to be valued. And I'm really happy that my brother managed to find it. Congratulations, Aaron and Katelyn.” Andrew suppressed a grimace and raised his champagne glass, as did all the people attached to the hundreds of eyes that were on him. He was never going to forgive Aaron for actually making him go through with it.
(“I’m gonna marry Lindsay Turnball one day, just wait and see,” said nine-year-old Aaron, referring to their fifteen-year-old babysitter.
“No you’re not,” replied Andrew lazily.
“I am! And you’re going to give a speech at our wedding.”
“You have to, you’re my brother, it’s like the rules or something. I’m going to give a speech when you get married.”
“I’m never getting married,” said Andrew with all the certainty of a nine-year-old who knew exactly what his life was going to be like. “Especially not to some stupid girl.”
“You have to get married,” replied Aaron, aghast. “Everyone gets married. That’s what you do when you grow up.”
“Neil’s uncle isn’t married.”
“Neil’s uncle is a weirdo. He talks funny and uses words like rubbish and lorry.”
Andrew didn’t like the Neil-adjacent insult, but he had to admit that Aaron had a point. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not getting married and, if I do, I’m not inviting you. And I’m not giving a speech!” He hated talking in front of strangers.
Aaron looked hurt by the lack of imaginary wedding invitation. “I’ll make you a deal,” he bargained. “You invite me to your wedding and I won’t make you give a speech at mine. But,” he warned, “if you don’t invite me you have to give a speech and it has to be good. Like the one in Wedding Crashers.” Which was the movie they’d watched with Lindsay the night before and was probably the reason for Aaron’s sudden interest in weddings.
“Deal,” said Andrew, and spit in his hand to shake on it.)
Andrew caught Neil’s eye and had to look away from his amused expression. Neil was unduly enjoying Andrew’s humiliation and was aware that he’d just recited, almost word for word, the speech from Wedding Crashers.
Katelyn and Aaron made their way over to thank Andrew for his kind words.
“Can’t believe you made me go through with this,” muttered Andrew in Aaron’s ear as he clapped him on the shoulder.
“Should’ve thought of that before you didn’t invite me to your wedding.”
“I didn’t think it was real,” protested Andrew.
Aaron rolled his eyes in disbelief. “Yeah, cause you were ever going to divorce Neil and marry someone else. The two of you have been practically married since grade school.”
Andrew conceded the point. “We got married on a Thursday in the middle of your semester; you couldn’t have come anyway.” They’d already had this argument multiple times at this point but Andrew wasn’t willing to back down quite yet.
“True, but it doesn’t matter. The agreement was that you’d invite me, which you failed to do.”
“Instead of having this argument for the umpteenth time, could the two of you pretend to like each other so the photographer can get a couple nice pictures?” muttered Katelyn, her tone strained and frazzled.
“Of course babe,” said Aaron instantly.
Andrew would have made fun of him for being whipped except, a) he wasn’t stupid enough to anger a bride on her wedding day either, and b) Aaron had too many examples of him acquiesing to Neil’s every request.
After posing for several photos (at least Katelyn knew them well enough that she didn’t demand they smile for the camera—not glaring was the minimum she required of them) Andrew made his way back over to his seat beside Neil. Sharing their table were Kevin and his date, Thea, Nicky and his husband, Erik, and Andrew’s parents. It was the only table filled with Aaron’s guests—although he and Katelyn had also invited many of their joint friends, Aaron only had a small number of personal invitees—as the majority of tables were filled with Katelyn’s seemingly infinite extended family.
Andrew had introduced Neil to his parents despite the fact that it wasn’t really necessary since they’d known him for approximately as long as Andrew had. It was like introducing Neil to acquaintances that he’d lost touch with.
“You remember Neil, of course,” Andrew had said. “My husband.” The word still gave him a thrill every time he said it out loud.
His mother smiled. “Yes, of course. You’ve been married for a long time now.”
Andrew glanced at Neil and then back at his mother, “A little over two years, but I wasn’t sure you knew.”
His mother’s smile wavered and she blinked once in surprise. “I thought you got married right after high school,” she said. She looked over to his father for support.
He nodded in agreement, “When you were eighteen.”
“See?” hissed Neil, jabbing him in the side. “You were literally the last person to know.”
Neil had way too much fun teasing Andrew about not knowing they were married (which wasn’t what had happened at all. He’d known they were married; he just hadn’t known that Neil meant his vows) especially since Neil had taken a lot of flak over the years for being oblivious to romantic advances.
“Are you sure you‘ve only been married for two years?” asked Andrew’s father.
“Pretty sure,” Andrew responded dryly.
“But that’s why I gave you the GT.”
“I thought that was a graduation gift.”
“Then Aaron would have gotten one, too.”
Which, in retrospect, made sense. “Does that mean you got him and Katelyn a car?” asked Andrew, feeling unaccountably jealous. His car was old now. He couldn’t afford a fancy new car on his salary and Neil didn’t seem keen on them buying a sports car. Maybe he and Neil should have had a large wedding if it got them expensive gifts. By not inviting anybody to their wedding, had they missed out on presents?
“No, we’re helping them with the down payment on their house,” said his mother. For all that their parents didn’t seem to care that much about what was going on in their lives, they had always been generous with material objects.
“Thanks,” said Andrew genuinely. They weren’t the best parents but they could have been far worse.
“I’m glad you’re happy,” said his mother, before wandering away to go make small talk with the other party guests.
Andrew took advantage of the open bar and as the evening wore on everything became muted and soft around the edges. He spent most of his time watching Neil; it was still a novelty after two years that he could watch Neil openly without worrying about giving himself away. He suspected his own expression mirrored the soft, disbelieving glances Aaron kept giving his new bride. He would worry about ruining his aesthetic, but he knew almost nobody here and they’d already heard his stupid, saccharine speech.
“Matt texted to say that the cats are fine,” said Neil, leaning against him. “King’s only bitten him four times.”
“That’s my girl.”
Neil laughed softly.
“Dance with me,” Andrew said, surprising himself. He didn’t normally care for dancing, but the music was slow and it was little more than an excuse to get his hands on Neil.
Neil raised an eyebrow but followed him to the dance floor anyway, looping his arms around Andrew’s neck and humming contentedly.
“Should we have a vow renewal?” Andrew asked, keeping his voice low.
“You want presents, huh?” asked Neil, an edge of laughter in his tone.
“Maybe my Dad will spring for a Maserati.”
Neil chuckled and pressed their foreheads together. “That is a completely impractical car and you and I are responsible adults.”
“Since when?” Andrew tightened his hold on Neil, pulling him closer to nuzzle against his throat.
They swayed together through the next two songs. “Wanna get out of here?” Neil murmured, turning his head so his lips ghosting against the shell of Andrew’s ear.
Andrew suppressed his shiver. It was ridiculous how Neil could still affect him so much, even after over two years of Andrew having him as he’d always wanted.
They made their goodbyes to Nicky and Aaron (Kevin and Andrew’s parents already having left the venue) and then Neil drove them back to their hotel, holding Andrew’s hand the whole way. Once they were back in their room, Andrew pulled Neil into a kiss, which led to another and another, and then to peeling Neil out of the suit that hugged him in all the right places so he could put his hands against his bare skin.
They continued kissing as Andrew stripped and fell into bed. It wasn’t going to go any further tonight—it rarely did for them—but it felt good to press together skin to skin.
Eventually they got up to brush their teeth and use the facilities before climbing back into bed. Andrew plastered himself to Neil’s back, glad that the hotel was so over air-conditioned that they wouldn’t overheat. Neil settled against him and yawned sleepily, already almost falling into slumber.
“It was a nice wedding,” he murmured.
“Jealous?” asked Andrew into the back of his neck.
“No; I still prefer ours,” said Neil. “I’m glad Aaron finally found his octopus. Took him long enough.”
Andrew snorted. “Yes, well, not everyone can meet their life barnacle when they’re seven years old.”
Neil huffed a laugh but he was already drifting. “Love you,” he said, just as he did every night before he fell asleep.
“I know you do,” replied Andrew, perfectly content.