“ I know it’s not fair of me to ask you to wait. I won’t. I can’t ask that of you.”
“You don’t have to.”
It had been over a year since Commander Neil Josten and several other crew members on the Fox 10 mission had embarked into outer space. They were posted at the International Space Station on what was supposed to be a 14-month long expedition to gather data and monitor information on the ISS.
Andrew Minyard, spacecraft communicator, had been left behind at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
He was used to being left behind. It was second nature to him now. The biggest drawback to being in love with an astronaut was always the distance. Thousands of miles of space and stars separated Andrew from the other half of his heart.
Neil was always floating in the clouds, and Andrew was always left standing on the ground.
But ground control was his job. Neil had his mission; Andrew had his. As much as Andrew hated his job sometimes, he was devoted to it. And he would never begrudge Neil his other great love: space. Flying was Neil’s passion; floating out among the stars was his life. Andrew had known that going into their relationship. He’d known that Neil would be called away from him eventually. But Andrew didn’t have the strength to stay away.
They’d had a handful of shiny, bright months together before the Fox 10 Expedition launched, taking Neil and fellow crew members Kevin Day, Allison Reynolds, Matthew Boyd, and Danielle Wilds into the atmosphere. The only way Andrew and Neil could keep in touch after that was through the transmissions the Fox crew sent periodically back to Earth. They mostly contained updates on the expedition, but Neil sent private messages to Andrew, his face smiling through a too-small video screen as he told Andrew all about the astronaut food, the constant griping between Kevin and Allison, and the intimate moments he kept interrupting between Matt and Dan. Those, he said, made him miss Andrew.
“But I love it out here,” Neil had ended his last message with. His eyes had been warm, filled with light and reverence. “God, it’s beautiful, Andrew. It’s so quiet. Peaceful. I wish you could see it the way I do.”
Andrew did see it: he saw everything through Neil’s eyes, blue as the planet Neptune, and heard it in the tone of his voice, filled with awe and wonder. Andrew hated the distance between them, hated the time apart, but Neil’s love for outer space came through in every one of his transmissions, and it always made Andrew feel heartsick. Like he was missing something he’d never known he should be missing.
Through Neil’s eyes, Andrew couldn’t help but appreciate the vast ocean of stars and moons and planets that separated them.
He didn’t love it as much as Neil did, but he loved Neil. And that was enough.
One year and fifty-seven days. That was how long the Fox 10 expedition had been underway. There were only ten days left before Neil and his crewmates would return to earth, and Andrew was counting the seconds of every one of them. Each day passed slower than the rest.
His days when Neil was gone went by sluggishly. Andrew woke up, went to work, went home and went to bed. It was the same every day, but it was a routine, and it was familiar. It kept him grounded.
Grounded. As if he needed to be reminded where he was, how far away he was from Neil.
In his small apartment ten miles away from his job, Andrew laid alone in bed. He was angry that it felt so empty. Before Neil, he’d been sleeping alone for years.
But after Neil, there wasn’t a single night where Andrew slept without another body in his bed, sharing his warmth.
His apartment was too quiet, too dark. Andrew stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep. Everything was so much dimmer without Neil. He was light. He was joy, and peace, and warmth and heat. He was a star. Andrew had always considered himself a moon, a cold, heavy rock riddled with craters and dust, but Neil insisted he was the sun. The first time he’d said it, Andrew had no choice but to agree with him.
“We’re so different from each other. Like the sun and the moon.” That had been clear from the beginning. They both had their pasts, their traumas, but Neil had overcome his. Andrew was still haunted. Neil was bright. Andrew was dark. Day and night, summer and winter. Every other possible comparison of opposites in the world.
“Which one are you?” Neil had asked as he stretched lazily in Andrew’s bed, wrapped in nothing but the white sheets, the freckles on his back forming constellations up his spine which Andrew traced lightly with his fingers. Neil’s face was half-turned into the pillow, auburn curls in disarray, but Andrew could see his sleepy smile, those damned blue eyes of his sparkling in the weak sunlight coming in from the bedroom window. Andrew’s heart had skipped a few beats, then stilled all at once, and he had felt, suddenly, a sense of calm. Of . . . happiness.
“The moon,” Andrew said quietly as his fingers traced a lower path down Neil’s back. Neil closed his eyes and shivered, biting his lip as he arched beautifully into the touch.
“I don’t think so,” he whispered, moving closer to Andrew, wrapping his arm around his waist. He nuzzled his nose into Andrew’s neck, his breath warm, his voice soft. “You’re the sun.”
Andrew closed his eyes. Warmth spread through him, everywhere. The top of his head to the very tips of his toes, all through his blood and his veins, in his chest and his stomach, as if Neil’s words were magic.
He did feel a bit like the sun, just then.
“Okay,” he said.
Neil smiled and kissed him. He laughed, airy and free, when Andrew pulled the covers over their heads.
Andrew sighed and closed his eyes. He tried to recall the feeling of Neil’s skin under his hands, the softness of Neil’s hair between his fingers, the sound of his laugh, or the sound he made before he moaned Andrew’s name in bed.
He turned on his side, facing the nightstand by his bed. There was a framed picture next to the lamp - a gift from Neil before the Fox 10 crew launched. It was a photo of Neil in his obnoxiously orange space suit, helmet underhand, smile as bright as the stars. The freckles on his face stood out. The orange of his suit was so glaring. Andrew reached out and took the picture from the nightstand, turning over onto his back. He held the picture above his face and traced a finger over the image of Neil.
Ten days. Just ten. That was how long Andrew had to make it. He was surprised he’d even made it this long, especially since the mission was only supposed to last six months. But technicalities and issues had arisen, prolonging Neil’s time on the ISS.
But Andrew had a few things to pull him forward. His twin brother, who worked in the Medical and Clinical department at the JSC with Andrew. Their cousin, who worked for a marketing agency a few miles away. Betsy Dobson, his adopted mother. His friend Renee. He’d had all these people before he met Neil. But after Neil, things changed. Andrew became hopeless.
He sighed and put Neil’s picture back on his nightstand. He had an hour before he had to be at work. In five minutes, his brother would be knocking on his door. Aaron lived in an apartment one floor below Andrew. When Andrew moved to the city after college, Aaron had followed him despite Andrew’s protests. Nicky followed, too. They would never leave him alone.
Andrew supposed that was a good thing, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t allowed to complain.
He dragged himself out of bed and went slowly through his morning routine, dressing himself and fixing breakfast in his small kitchen.
“Mmm. This is amazing.” Neil brought another forkful of eggs to his mouth, smiling at Andrew’s droll look. “What?”
“They are just scrambled eggs. A child could make them.”
“They’re good, though,” Neil said. “I love your cooking.” Andrew rolled his eyes, and Neil’s smile grew wider. Andrew leaned forward across the table and kissed him. He tasted like eggs and orange juice.
“Stay,” Andrew murmured against his lips. “Stay here today.”
Neil’s hand found its way into Andrew’s hair, fingers curling in the blonde strands. His lips pressed into a smile against Andrew’s.
“Okay,” he said.
There was a knock on the door, startling Andrew out of his memories. He didn’t bother answering; Aaron had a key. A second later, Andrew heard the key jingle in the lock, and then the door opened, and footsteps creaked on the wood floor of the front entryway.
“Morning,” Aaron said as he came into the kitchen. “Smells good.”
“It’s not for you,” Andrew said.
“I already ate,” Aaron said. Andrew didn’t turn around to greet his brother, keeping his attention focused on the stove. He hadn’t realized he was making Neil’s favorite breakfast until he recognized the carton of eggs on the counter beside him. He grit his teeth in annoyance.
Aaron must have noticed his brother was tense, because he said, “It’s just ten more days, Andrew.”
Andrew didn’t reply. Aaron sighed. Andrew heard him take a seat at the kitchen table, chair creaking as he sat. Andrew didn’t turn to face him until the eggs were done and the orange juice was poured.
He ate silently, staring at his plate instead of his brother. Aaron was patient with him, never trying to coax him into conversation. He only spoke when Andrew had scooped the last bite of eggs into his mouth.
“He’ll be back before you know it,” he said softly. Andrew’s shoulders stiffened, but he sighed and relaxed them again almost immediately. Ten days. Ten more days. It was nothing in the face of the year he’d already spent without Neil by his side.
They’d met four years ago, when Neil had been selected from the pool of new applicants to NASA’s astronaut program. He’d been at the top of his class, with credentials that impressed even the most staunch of NASA higher-ups. He’d passed basic training with flying colors and sped through the mission training after he’d been chosen to fly on the Fox 10. Neil was famous at the Johnson Space Center - everyone knew his name and his face, and everyone knew about the rivalry he had with fellow astronaut Kevin Day. Kevin had already been at the JSC for a year before Neil arrived, and until Neil, there had never been anyone like Kevin, never one so skilled and determined. They’d both desperately wanted to be selected for the Fox 10, and in the end, they both had been.
Andrew had known Kevin since college; they weren’t quite friends, but they were an approximation of the sort. Kevin had been the one to get Aaron and Andrew their jobs at the space center; he had some pull with the NASA officials, and since the twins both had criminal records, the government institute was reluctant to hire them at first. But Kevin was nothing if not a charmer, and he swayed their opinions of the twins. It helped that Aaron and Andrew were the best at what they did, and it helped even more that they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were both reformed and healthy, at no risk of danger. They’d had to jump through more than a few hoops - mental health evaluations, drug tests, security clearances - but only six months after graduation, Andrew and Aaron were accepting positions in the transmissions and medical departments, respectively. Six months after that, Kevin introduced Neil and Andrew.
From their first meeting, Neil smiled and laughed and joked with Andrew, despite Andrew’s general disinterest and unresponsiveness. Neil was never deterred by the blank facade; he kept smiling and laughing, eyes sparkling, and soon enough it had sparked something in Andrew’s chest, stoking a flame in his tinder heart. It was two years after they’d met that Neil finally asked Andrew out on a date, and Andrew surprised himself by saying yes.
“ I would really love to take you out,” he said, leaning on Andrew’s desk in the transmissions department. His smile was soft, his expression earnest. “If you’d let me. I’m into you, Andrew. I like you a lot. And I didn’t really think I could feel this way about anyone.”
Andrew looked at him for a moment. It occurred to him that he should ask Neil why he found him so interesting. There was nothing remarkable about Andrew, nothing worthwhile except the scars on his arms, but those he kept covered up to avoid questions. Of course, the armbands earned him questions anyway, but people quickly learned to stow their curiosity and look the other way.
“What did you have in mind?” Andrew asked, being very careful not to let interest slip into his tone.
Neil’s smile brightened by a few watts, and Andrew’s heart stuttered in his chest. “Dinner, to start. What’s your favorite place?”
“There’s a diner on Palmetto Street,” Andrew found himself saying.
Neil nodded. “I know it. The Bumblebee, right?”
Andrew nodded back. It was the restaurant his mother owned, 1950’s-themed and kitschy. He loved everything about it.
“Sounds perfect,” Neil said. “Saturday okay? At eight?”
Andrew should’ve said no. Yes would lead to a path he wasn’t ready to walk on - Neil had just finished his two years of basic training and had already been selected for the Fox 10 mission, and training for the mission would start soon. That training would take another two years, and the mission itself would be another six months to a year, at least. Andrew didn’t do complications. He enjoyed his quiet, simple life, for the most part.
And yet he said, “Yes.”
Because maybe there had always been just a little something missing from his quiet, simple life.
“This is the proudest moment of my life,” Nicky said over the phone, sounding choked up. Andrew rolled his eyes and resisted the urge to hang up on his cousin.
Once Andrew had accepted Neil’s invitation to go on a date, the news had spread quickly throughout the JSC. Andrew’s coworkers were terrible gossips and he hated them all. Kevin found out first, though he’d probably already suspected on his own, and then Aaron had discovered it. Aaron was shocked, and in his disbelief he’d told Nicky.
The only person Andrew had voluntarily told was his mother. Betsy had looked at him for a long moment before she smiled, and her eyes were impossibly soft, pride and happiness shining through them. She’d kissed Andrew on the cheek, ran her hand through his hair, and wished him good luck.
Nicky had called Andrew on Saturday morning, hours before he was supposed to meet Neil. For a few moments, Andrew just let the phone ring, dreading picking it up and having to answer all the inevitable questions his cousin would batter him with. But he’d never really been able to let Nicky’s calls go to voicemail.
When he picked up, he wasn’t even given a chance to say hello before Nicky said, “Tell me Aaron wasn’t just playing a joke on me.”
Andrew sighed. “He wasn’t.”
“A date. You’re going on a date. With a man. I always hoped this day would come.”
“I will never speak to you again if you exaggerate this,” Andrew warned him. Nicky made a noise of frustration over the phone.
“Andrew, let me be happy for you. I never thought you would - this is big. When we were in college I thought you and Kevin might - but when you didn’t I was disappointed. I wanted something more for you. Like what I have with Erik.”
“It is just a date,” Andrew said, almost amused that Nicky had brought up Kevin. Andrew had come out to his family in their sophomore year, and since then it had been Nicky’s sole purpose in life to play matchmaker for Andrew. He’d seen Kevin as a potential candidate and had pursued it relentlessly, to Kevin’s great annoyance. Nicky still didn’t know that Andrew had spent most of his college years hooking up with Roland, a bartender at the club they used to frequent.
But it had been years since then, and this was Andrew’s first real date with someone. Aside from Roland, his experience went only as far as the hookups he’d had in juvie. This was real. Just thinking it made Andrew want to call Neil and cancel, to shelter his heart. Something real was something dangerous.
But Andrew was okay. He was doing okay. He was as healthy as he could be, mentally at least. His smoking habit was something Kevin was trying to break him of to no avail. But his medications kept him stable, and his support system was there when the meds didn’t always work.
He could handle a date, and if it turned into something more than just a date, he might even be able to handle that, too.
“Morning, Minyards,” the security guard at the front gate greeted Aaron and Andrew when they drove up to the entrance of the space center. They had their own cars, but carpooling was easier. Aaron nodded to the guard; Andrew didn’t acknowledge him, but that was nothing new. They showed their IDs and security clearances before the guard lifted the gate and let them pass through. Andrew parked at the very back of the parking lot, as far away from the building as he could get, and he almost smirked at Aaron’s annoyed scoff.
“Did Nicky call you?” Aaron asked as they got out of the car. “He wants to know if we’re still meeting him for dinner this weekend.”
Andrew shrugged, which was as much assent as Aaron was going to get. Aaron nodded. “I’ll call him back and tell him, then.” Aaron glanced at his brother, gaze wary. “He also mentioned he wanted to throw a party when Neil gets back.”
“No,” Andrew said flatly. The moment Neil got back, Andrew was going to drag him to his bedroom and they weren’t going to come out for a week.
For a brief, flickering moment, Andrew thought about asking Neil to move in with him when he returned to Earth. He let the thought fly away quickly before it had time to take root in his head.
“I figured as much,” Aaron said. “If you won’t let him have a party, he’ll at least want to go out for drinks with everyone.”
“Fine,” Andrew said, sighing. One night, a few hours at a bar, and then Andrew was dragging Neil away and spending as much time as he could getting reacquainted with him after so much time apart.
Before he had to say goodbye to Neil all over again, anyway.
But Andrew didn’t think about that right now. He only thought about the ten more days, and how he would greet Neil when he saw him again.
Neil smiled brightly at Andrew when they met at The Bumblebee. Andrew had chosen a corner booth for them, his favorite spot in the restaurant - Bee always saved it for him when he visited. He’d already ordered a coffee and his favorite appetizer. He didn’t get up from his seat to greet Neil when the other man approached, but Neil must have been expecting that, because he just smiled and slid into the booth opposite Andrew.
“You look really nice,” Neil said. Andrew’s heart did a funny little thing in his chest.
“So do you,” he managed to say.
He didn’t think he’d ever seen someone smile so big.
They talked, for the most part. And that was new to Andrew, too - talking like this, for this long, with someone he barely knew, should have been terrifying. But it wasn’t. It felt easy. And that was the most terrifying thing of all.
Neil talked about the story behind the scars on his face, wicked and deep. It was an answer to a question Andrew - and everyone else at the space center - had been curious about for two years, and Andrew felt privileged to know the truth. He’d keep it to himself; Neil was trusting him with it, and the weight of that trust felt like it might choke Andrew, but he wouldn’t break it.
In return for Neil’s freely offered honesty, Andrew relinquished little bits and pieces of his past, the ones it was easiest to talk about. Neil sat and listened intently, careful to keep anything like sympathy off his face, sensing that Andrew wouldn’t appreciate it. He was a good listener. Andrew liked that.
Neil talked about his life and the moment he’d realized he wanted to be an astronaut. The moment he’d fallen deeply, madly in love with the stars.
Andrew talked about his college years and how he met Kevin. Neil found that story funny. He was interested to know that they’d played Exy together.
“I used to play, too,” he said as they cut up their food. “I was a striker for my college team.”
“Goalie,” Andrew said, earning himself a crooked smile.
“Man, I loved Exy. Almost as much as I love space.” Neil got a reminiscent look on his face, nostalgia turning his eyes warm. Andrew’s gaze caught on him and held, and he couldn’t seem to look away. “Going to court was the one thing I looked forward to the most every day. Winning a game was the best damn feeling in the world.”
Andrew had never been so attached to the sport, not like Kevin was, but it was something to pass the time while he was in college. Kevin had roped him into it, and they’d stuck with it all four years, much like they’d stuck with each other.
“Kevin always said we could’ve gone pro,” Andrew said. Neil grinned.
“I had recruiters tell me that too,” he said. For a moment, they both wondered at the what-if. What if the three of them had gone pro, what if, in another life that could’ve been, they would have eventually crossed paths, rival teams playing against each other? Or maybe they would have been on the same team. It was a thought that had them both lost in their fantasies, for a while.
But Andrew didn’t regret the path he’d chosen, and neither did Kevin. And neither, Andrew could see already, did Neil. Anyone looking at Neil while he talked about space could see that it was a love for the ages, a fate written in the stars. Neil was always meant to fly high.
He asked Andrew how he’d ended up in ground control. That wasn’t as interesting a story as Neil’s epiphany that he wanted to be an astronaut, but Neil hung onto every word like it was scripture. Most of dinner passed this way - conversation came easily, and words flowed between them, from Neil more so than Andrew, but Neil was never put off by it. He kept the conversation going and never let it falter except when they were eating.
He was this . . . light. This overwhelming light that Andrew thought he could be consumed by, a supernova exploding.
By the end of dinner that night, Andrew knew he was a goner.
And he didn’t do a thing to stop it.
“Minyard,” Andrew’s boss said, pulling his attention away from his computer screen. “Any updates?”
Andrew shook his head, and Phil nodded and moved away, doing his check-ins down the line of desks that sat in the department. Beeps and alerts sounded throughout the room, messages and transmissions from various spacecraft positioned all over the Milky Way. There was a specific group of people assigned to monitor the ISS and the transmissions from any crew stationed there, and Andrew was in one of the topmost positions of that group. It was a comfort when he wanted to be the first to know if Neil had sent anything new.
Since he didn’t have any particularly pressing matters to attend to right that moment, he opened Neil’s last private transmission to him.
His face appeared on the tiny screen, jaw shadowed with the beginnings of an auburn beard. His hair was a little longer, waving around his ears. Andrew could see his freckles even through the screen, and the sparkle in his blue eyes.
“Hey, Andrew,” Neil said softly, smiling at the screen. “I miss you.” He sighed. “I’m coming home soon, okay? Soon.”
Soon. Neil had sent this message a week ago.
“I love it out here, you know I do,” Neil said. “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. Except for you, right when you wake up in the morning.” His smile made Andrew’s heart trip over itself. “But it feels like it’s been forever. Dan and Matt are lucky they have each other. Matt offers to cuddle with me sometimes, but it’s never the same.” And here Neil chuckled, mirth in his eyes. Andrew’s chest tightened. “I can’t wait to see you again. We’ll go to your mom’s restaurant when I get back, yeah? I miss Earth food. And you can tell me everything I’ve missed since I’ve been gone.”
Neil sighed again, leaning back in the chair where he’d sat to film the message. The interior of the space station was in the background, white walls and blinking lights. “I can’t wait to just . . . be in bed with you again. I miss you so much, baby. It’s killing me.”
Ten more days, Andrew had to keep repeating now. Ten more days.
Neil smiled again, blowing a kiss to the screen. “I love you, Andrew. I’ll see you soon.” The screen went black.
Andrew’s fingers hovered over his keyboard, resisting the urge to play it over again. He’d already memorized every word, every change of expression on Neil’s face, every detail of him.
Ten more days.
He didn’t know if he would make it.
“I don’t do this,” Andrew said roughly against Neil’s lips, hastily unbuttoning Neil’s shirt. “This isn’t me.”
“Do you want to stop?” Neil asked, his hands in Andrew’s hair, where Andrew had told him to keep them. His lips trailed over Andrew’s jaw, body pressing closer.
“No,” Andrew growled, though he knew he should have said yes. But any chances he’d had to stop this thing had already passed a long time ago.
Even if Andrew had had a normal relationship before, he never would’ve thought he’d be the type to hook up on the first date. Casual flings had always been the safest thing for him, but this felt different. More dangerous. There was more involved here, more at stake.
He’d let Neil touch him, and he’d never done that before, with anyone. Roland had come close, and he’d allowed Roland’s hands to hover over certain places. But Andrew had wanted Neil’s hands on him right away.
They’d finished dinner, and the person that had taken over Andrew’s body said, “Do you want to come to my place?”
Neil had said, “Are you sure? I don’t want to intrude.”
“You’re not,” Andrew said. He’d stared Neil down until the other man had smiled, as bright as the stars.
“Okay, then,” he said. “I’d love to.”
He’d followed Andrew in his car. Andrew had preceded him up the front steps of the building and let them in with his key.
In the elevator, they stood close together, arms brushing. Andrew turned his head, and Neil turned his. Without thinking, Andrew reached up, gripped Neil’s chin, pulled his head down, and whispered, “Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Neil breathed. Then Andrew was kissing him.
“Keep your hands in my hair,” Andrew bit into Neil’s lips. “Don’t put them anywhere else unless I say so.”
“Okay,” Neil said, shuddering when Andrew’s tongue went into his mouth.
They were kissing when the elevator dinged and the doors slid open, kissing as they stumbled together down the hall, kissing as Andrew fumbled for his keys. Neil kissed Andrew’s neck when Andrew had to break away to pick the right key off his keyring, and the shudder that wracked through Andrew felt like an earthquake. His hand tightened on Neil’s arm, fingers digging into skin. Neil seemed to like that response, and he swept his tongue over Andrew’s neck again, sucking a mark.
“Fuck,” Andrew growled, shoving his key into the lock. Inside, he pressed Neil up against the door when it was closed behind them. He kissed him hungrily. Andrew hadn’t even known he’d been starving for this, but one taste of Neil and he was suddenly ravenous. Neil was addicting.
When Andrew got Neil’s shirt unbuttoned the rest of the way, he pushed it off his shoulders and drew his hands down Neil’s chest. The sound Neil made when Andrew’s hand brushed the bulge in his jeans was the most heavenly sound Andrew had ever heard in his life.
They were in the bedroom before long, Andrew asking “Yes or no?” every now and then and Neil gasping out yes after yes after yes. Andrew had him on his back underneath him, legs up, hands twisted in the sheets. He had him on top of him, hips grinding down, moaning obscenely. It was not like Andrew at all, to do this sort of thing, to act like this. It was absurdly out of character. It was delirious pleasure, and Andrew wanted to do it again and again and again.
It terrified him.
But what terrified him even more was the next morning, when he woke up with his arm around Neil, face nuzzled in his neck.
Andrew didn’t want to run from this, though, no matter how much it scared him. He didn’t think he could run. If he’d wanted to, it would have had to have been last night, before they even went to dinner. He’d had his chance, and he didn’t take it.
He closed his eyes. He breathed. He trailed the tip of his nose along the back of Neil’s neck, laying a kiss at the base of his spine.
And later, over a plate of eggs, he told Neil to stay.
“Hey, Mom.” Andrew leaned in to kiss Bee on the cheek as she swept past him, arms laden with plates of food. She smiled softly at him as she passed to deliver her customers their meals. Andrew waited by the register, eyes on the pink and orange neon lights circling the ceiling. He remembered his and Neil’s first date, and their second, and their third. This was their most frequent spot, because it was Andrew’s favorite, and so it had become Neil’s favorite. They’d been other places, places Andrew hadn’t known but Neil had shown him - a park nearby with a pond with colorful koi fish in it, an ice cream shop downtown, a small hole-in-the-wall pub with surprisingly good food. They’d driven to the closest beach a few times and spent a few hours in the sun. They’d gone to the movies, making out in the back row like they were teenagers. But The Bumblebee Diner was where they spent the majority of their time, if not Andrew’s apartment.
Neil’s own apartment was smaller than Andrew’s and messier - Neil said his landlord was insufferable and his neighbors were terrible, so they spent more time at Andrew’s place than his. For a second time, Andrew considered asking Neil to move in with him when he returned to Earth. He’d already left clothes in Andrew’s room and toiletries in his bathroom.
Andrew dismissed the thought again, shaking his head. He didn’t wait for his mother to come back before he walked through the restaurant and into the kitchen. The cooks and wait staff greeted him with friendly smiles and nods, and Andrew lifted his hand to them. He hung up his jacket on a hook in the employee locker room and replaced it with a white apron.
He wasn’t an official employee of his mother, but he helped out when he felt the need to. The Bumblebee was popular, and any time Andrew saw signs of his mother being overworked, he bussed tables and washed dishes for her. Occasionally, he cooked. He would take things from the menu and put his own spin on them, making small changes and tweaks to the recipes. He made spectacular milkshakes, according to one of the waitresses. Desserts were his specialty.
There were five days until Neil and the rest of the Fox 10 crew returned to ground, and Andrew had to distract himself or he was going to go insane. So he was here.
He busied himself with diner work, cleaning and cooking and crafting desserts for a few hours. He stayed until closing to help his mother shut down the restaurant. When all the wait staff and cooks had gone home and it was just Andrew and Bee, she came up next to Andrew and gave him a look that spoke volumes. She knew him well.
“How are you holding up, kiddo?” she asked him, squeezing his shoulder. No matter how much older he got, Bee always called him kiddo. It was comforting. He’d never admit how much he loved it.
Andrew shrugged, and his mother sighed. She leaned her head on his shoulder and hugged him around the waist, briefly, before she let go. “Five more days, honey. He’ll be home soon.” She smiled softly, eyes crinkling around the corners. “I miss him, too. I can’t wait to see him again. We’ll throw a party here, yeah? I’ll shut down the place for it.”
“Whatever you want,” Andrew said quietly, grabbing a broom and dustpan to start sweeping the floors. “Talk to Nicky about that. He wants to do something, too.”
“I’m sure he does,” Bee said fondly. “We’ll collaborate. But I’ll make sure to keep it small.” She winked at him, and Andrew let half a smile form on his face.
He and his mother worked in companionable silence as they cleaned up the restaurant. Andrew listened to her hum a tune, swaying to the music in her head as she tidied up. It was one of his favorite songs, one she always used to play for him as a kid when she was trying to calm him down. It always worked. Even now, Andrew felt the muscles in his shoulders relax. Tension bled out of him.
Soon. Neil would be home soon. He could last five days, as long as he had Bee to keep him calm.
Their second date, Neil brought him flowers.
For a moment, Andrew simply had to stop and stare and process, because no one had ever done anything like this for him before. He’d had no idea this was something people actually did. Romantic gestures were things only seen on screens. Romance itself was something only viewed between characters in a movie, not real people. It was manufactured to please the masses, and Andrew didn’t believe in any of it.
Except Neil Josten was standing in the hall in front of his apartment, smiling behind a bouquet of violet forget-me-nots.
The significance of the flowers wasn’t lost on Andrew. Neil had just started mission training. In a matter of months, he would be gone, swallowed up by space and stars. He would be gone for a long time. The forget-me-nots were a question Neil was asking, and one Andrew didn’t know how to answer. It was only their second date. It was too soon to be bringing this up.
But ‘only’ didn’t really mean anything, and he knew that. Not after what they’d shared on their first date. And Andrew also knew that it didn’t matter if it was too soon or not. Now that he and Neil had slept together, he’d been having frighteningly real visions of the future, and he saw a relationship, saw something he’d never had before in his life. That might’ve been his lust talking, locked up for so long and finally released, but he didn’t think it was.
So he took the flowers from Neil and said, “Thank you.” He stepped back so Neil could come inside, and with a tentative hand on his cheek, Neil leaned in and kissed him softly in the doorway.
“You’re welcome,” he said, breathing the words into his mouth. Andrew was careful not to crush the flowers between them. He’d never tried to keep anything alive before - aside from his brother and Kevin - but he wanted to make the effort for these. He hoped he had a vase lying around somewhere.
Neil watched him search for one in the kitchen, and then fill it with water and gently arrange the flowers in the vase. Their date tonight would be to a bar Neil liked, somewhere casual and relaxed. Andrew thought Neil had chosen it because he was being careful. He didn’t want to scare Andrew away.
But he couldn’t. It was too late for that. The moment their lips first touched, it was impossible to make Andrew run.
“Ready?” Neil asked when Andrew set the vase in the center of the kitchen table. He nodded, shuffling back towards the front door, where his shoes stood by the closet. Neil followed him, his hand resting lightly on Andrew’s back. All of Andrew’s nerves were suddenly focused on the spot where Neil’s hand touched him, electric currents radiating out from his palm. Andrew had to take a breath. This was too much.
He turned and kissed Neil, feelings overwhelming him. Neil was surprised, but he kissed him back right away, hands tangling in Andrew’s hair.
“We can stay in tonight,” Neil said breathlessly as he kissed Andrew’s neck. “If you want. I don’t mind.”
“Bad idea,” Andrew managed to say. If they stayed in, he’d end up doing things to Neil that he’d only ever dreamed of before.
“You sure about that?” Neil asked, kissing a path up Andrew’s jaw to his ear.
“100 percent,” Andrew said. With great restraint, he managed to separate himself from the man who had consumed his life in such a short amount of time. Neil looked regretful, but he smiled sheepishly. He held out his hand. Andrew took it.
“Let’s go, then,” Neil said, leading him out of the apartment.
Andrew let himself into Neil’s apartment, the same time he did every week. Neil had given him a key before he left so Andrew could water his plants. Neil had a whole wall full of shelves of them, facing a window so the sunlight could reach them. There were succulents on one shelf, ferns on another, a spider plant, aloe vera, a couple of ficuses, and one or two hanging plants on hooks in the ceiling. Each plant on the shelves was in its own individual pot, carefully kept and arranged. Andrew watered all the ones that needed it, measuring out the water with care. He collected Neil’s mail and added it to the pile on the kitchen table and dusted the surface of everything in the apartment. Neil had a cat named King, a fluffy brown-and-white thing with a scrunched up face and a flat nose. There was an automatic feeder in the kitchen, but Andrew made sure everything was working correctly and the containers were full. King himself was lounging in Neil’s room, curled up on his bed. The sheets were slightly unmade from the last time Andrew slept there.
He tried not to make a habit of it, sleeping in Neil’s apartment. But sometimes he couldn’t help himself. Some nights were fine, most nights he could survive, but others he couldn’t make it through without having Neil close in any way he could get him. Those nights were the worst. He would curl up in one of Neil’s old sweatshirts and imagine he could still smell Neil’s scent in the fabric.
Andrew sighed and slipped out of his shoes, taking his jacket off and draping it over the chair by Neil’s desk. King meowed at him as Andrew shoved the cat over to make room for himself on the bed, and he hissed back. Andrew took his phone out of his pocket and held it up over his face, clicking into his photo library. King meowed again and moved to lay by Andrew’s head.
All the recent photos in Andrew’s phone were of things he wanted to show Neil when he got back, and before that, all pictures of him and Neil together. Andrew went back to the beginning of their relationship and scrolled through the timeline of memories. Neil on their first date, laughing across the table. Neil on their first night together, wrapped up in white sheets. Neil in bed in the morning, sunlight playing across his skin. A shot of Neil and Andrew’s hands twined together. Silly, stupid pictures Neil had taken of himself on Andrew’s phone when Andrew had left it unattended. Neil and Andrew in the diner. Neil and Andrew at work. Neil and Andrew on a trip together, kayaking in a lake. Neil caught in a sunset. Andrew with his back turned to the camera and his head bent, the world blurry around him - Neil often liked to take candid pictures of him and make them look artsy.
Andrew could note the passage of time in the pictures by his own face. The farther the pictures went, the more relaxed he seemed. The more content.
He clicked on a picture of Neil at his last birthday party before the mission launch. Neil hadn’t shaved yet, and he had auburn scruff on his face. He was sitting at a table next to Andrew, a birthday cake in front of him. Andrew remembered this - his mother had taken the picture. Neil was smiling at the camera over the candles, but Andrew was looking at him. There was another picture of Neil blowing out the candles, making his wish. Then another picture of him leaned in to whisper something in Andrew’s ear, smiling as Andrew’s lips brushed against his cheek. Andrew stared at the photo for a long time, caught by the subtle intimacy in it. He used to think he’d never be the kind of man to act like this. Never be the kind of person to show affection, in public or ever. But his guard was down when he was with Neil. He hadn’t noticed his mother taking this one - he’d only seen her take the first. This was a softer, private moment.
Andrew’s heart felt like it would choke him, and suddenly he couldn’t breathe. He turned his phone off and set it beside him, closing his eyes. King climbed onto his chest, claws digging into his shirt. He was purring and warm as he made himself comfortable. The cat wasn’t very heavy, but somehow, the warm pressure helped. Andrew opened his eyes. He stared at the cat and breathed easily again.
He raised his hand and slid it along King’s back, petting him softly.
“He’ll be home soon,” he said. His voice sounded rough even to his own ears.
King mewled plaintively.
“Yeah,” Andrew said, sighing. “I miss him too.” Too much.
The first month was the hardest.
Andrew sat at his station in the transmissions department and helped coordinate the launch of the Fox 10, making sure all communication systems were running smoothly. He’d watched on the screen with the rest of his coworkers as the shuttle launched successfully, fire and flames erupting underneath it, the rocket shooting off into space, carrying Neil inside it. He thought he’d prepared for this. They’d said their goodbyes already, the night before. They’d held each other for a long, long time.
But the truth of it was, nothing could’ve prepared him for this. Fourteen months. Over a year. He’d only spent two years in a relationship with Neil, and now Andrew was wondering where the time had gone. They’d tried to make the moments last, but time moved so quickly when Andrew was truly happy. It wasn’t fair. He already felt the next year without his partner stretching like taffy before him, immeasurably long and terribly lonely.
The first month was the hardest. He didn’t sleep and hardly ate unless Aaron, Nicky, his mother or Renee stopped by his apartment and forcibly reminded him to take his meals and his meds.
When the first private transmission came from Neil, Andrew watched it over and over again, staying late at the space center just so he could loop it one more time.
You’re being unhealthy, he told himself. You’re being pathetic.
But he’d never had this before. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do.
He didn’t believe in God, but he thought God help me to himself many times in the first month.
“It’s nice to see you again, Andrew.”
“Yeah. You too.” Renee Walker smelled like she always did, pleasantly warm and reminding him of summer. She smiled at Andrew and squeezed his hand when she pulled away from their hug, her usual greeting whenever they saw each other. They’d been friends for a long time, and Andrew hoped they’d be friends for years to come. He knew they would. Renee was a rare diamond, and he intended to hold onto her.
“Shall we warm up?” She stretched her arms over her head, smiling when Andrew nodded and mirrored her. They stood at the beginning of the jogging trail running through the park near Andrew’s apartment building. Renee lived close by, and before Andrew had become hopelessly entangled in Neil, he and Renee used to meet twice weekly for exercise. They were gym buddies in college, and they’d continued the tradition after they graduated, though going to the gym had been replaced by their biweekly runs around the park.
He hadn’t seen her in a while, though, and he felt guilty for neglecting their friendship. She’d reached out to him and they’d met for coffee a few times in the last couple of months, and she made an effort to check in on Andrew during the long year and handful of days of Neil’s absence. But he’d let the ball drop on his end. She understood, and didn’t begrudge him for it - she was too kind for that - but Andrew wanted to make up for it nonetheless.
“Your mother reached out to me about Neil’s welcome-back party,” Renee said as they stretched their legs and muscles. Andrew made a face, and Renee laughed lightly. “Yes, I thought that might be your reaction. But I’ll be glad to come.”
“I’m not even sure he’ll be up for a party,” Andrew said, knowing as he said it that it wouldn’t matter. He’d learned quickly that Neil Josten would do anything to make the people he loved happy, and he loved his friends and family. He loved them fiercely and unconditionally.
“He’ll be glad to be back.” Renee used Andrew’s shoulder for balance as she lifted her leg behind her. “I’m sure you’re excited to see him again.”
Excited wasn’t quite the right word. Desperate. Aching. Yearning. Painfully longing. Those all seemed more appropriate. But Andrew just nodded.
“How’s Patrick?” he asked, changing the subject. He’d called Renee today in part because he did miss her, but also because he wanted a distraction. There were three days left, and each one was getting longer and longer.
“Oh, he’s wonderful.” Patrick was Renee’s fiance; they’d been engaged for almost a year. They’d met after Renee graduated, and by Andrew’s standards, he was decent. A good match for her. “We’ve finally set a date for the wedding, and we’ve got our venue booked.”
“I’ll expect my save-the-date in the mail shortly,” Andrew said. “But tell me now. I’ll mark it down.”
She grinned. “September 3rd. It’ll be in Pasadena, at the Arbor Gardens.” September was four months away; it was June now. People usually booked their weddings a year in advance, but Renee and Patrick were unconventional. And lucky, to be able to book a venue only four months out.
“Got your dress picked out yet?” Andrew asked as they finished their stretches and started out on their jog.
“No.” Renee looked worried. “That’s one of the things I still haven’t done yet, and I’m running out of time if I want it to be ready in time for the wedding.” She glanced over at him, a hopeful gleam in her eye. “I was hoping you’d come shopping with me. I’d like your opinion.”
“Katelyn’s isn’t good enough?” he asked sarcastically. Katelyn was Aaron’s longtime girlfriend, soon to be fiancee if Aaron got his head out of his ass like their cousin Nicky was hoping he would. She was also Renee’s best friend, and her Maid of Honor.
“She’ll be shopping with me, too,” Renee said. “Both of your opinions matter to me. Yours are probably the two I value most besides my mother’s.”
“I’ll go if I must,” Andrew said, pretending to be exasperated by the concept of dress shopping. In truth, it didn’t bother him all that much. Renee smiled knowingly.
“Thank you, Andrew. I’ll text you a date and time.”
Andrew wasn’t part of the wedding party - he wasn’t close enough with Patrick to be invited as one of the groomsmen - so he wasn’t sure his opinion on Renee’s dress should hold much weight, but he would give it because she’d asked for it. Neil’s fellow astronauts, Dan Wilds and Allison Reynolds, were the two other of Renee’s three bridesmaids. And now Andrew could see why Renee had put off getting her dress. She’d wanted to wait for them to return to Earth.
Three days. Three days, and then they could all breathe a sigh of relief. The JSC was already preparing for the astronauts’ return. Things had been busy in the transmissions department, people running around monitoring the signals coming down from the ISS. Andrew had seen Neil’s face, briefly, on one of the big screens as he’d confirmed everything was going smoothly up there. He’d stared at it, drinking in the sight of him, unshaved and scruffy. Andrew liked him best that way.
He’d sent a short, private message to Neil on the channel they used for their personal conversations. See you soon.
Neil had responded with, When I get back to Earth, never let me go again.
Andrew knew he was only joking, but the thought was oh so tempting. To have Neil by his side always, instead of up in the air. Andrew’s thoughts could spin out into a tornado with the thinking of it.
When he hugged Renee goodbye after their run, his heart beat fast from the exercise. Andrew heard his own words echo in his ears with each beat.
See you soon.
See you soon.
See you soon.
A third date became a fourth became a fifth. A week became a month became two. Andrew blinked, and half a year had gone by, almost every minute of it spent with Neil.
It was good, for the most part. It was unrealistic and childish to think it would be perfect. Andrew had known it wasn’t going to be perfect. It couldn’t be, with his past and Neil’s - a past he hadn’t known Neil had, and one he came to learn in bits and pieces, very slowly. They revealed the puzzle pieces of themselves crumb by crumb, on their own time. But eventually they knew the whole picture of each other. That was the true test of it, Andrew thought. Things had been soft and lovely and like a dream up until the night they both finally told all their truths. Here’s the moment where it starts falling apart, Andrew thought as he and Neil argued. I’ve been waiting for this.
“How the fuck can you - how can you let me sit here and touch you like this? You should’ve told me - I should’ve never -“ Neil was frustrated, scraping his hands through his hair, unable to form complete sentences. “If you didn’t want to do anything . . .God, Andrew, I feel like a fucking monster.”
“Don’t,” Andrew snarled. “I said yes. I gave you rules and you listened to them. Don’t compare yourself to a monster.”
“But - “
“But nothing. I said yes. I don’t lie, Neil.”
He just omitted the truth. And he didn’t lie to other people. Maybe to himself.
They’d done something different tonight. Andrew had been thinking about it for weeks and he thought he would be okay if it was Neil. He wanted it to be Neil. He wanted to try it and see if he could finally heal. He was a grown fucking man and it was time. Time to move past all this. He could handle it.
He’d given Neil rules - he’d always given Neil rules, from the beginning, and because of that it was from the beginning that Neil knew there was something behind it, but he never pried, never pushed - and Neil had listened. He always listened.
Things were going well up until the moment Neil accidentally squeezed him a little too hard, until he touched him in a certain spot Andrew forgot even triggered him. He shoved him away, shaking. Neil had looked shocked, hurt, upset. Worried. He’d stayed at the end of the bed where he’d been exiled, but his arms were stretched out, hands laying on the mattress.
Andrew curled around himself and took deep breaths and when he finally calmed down, he closed his eyes and gave Neil the final pieces of the puzzle. Their conversations about the subject had been brief thus far, only discussing what needed to be discussed and no more. That Andrew had been abused, Neil knew, but not the circumstances. That his abuser was dead and that Aaron had killed him, Neil had found out from doing his own research. He’d read articles about the trial and Aaron’s acquittal.
Andrew put the rest of the story together, and then the argument had started.
Andrew couldn’t seem to find his way out of it.
“You shouldn’t be angry,” he said, unfocused and blank.
“Don’t fucking tell me I shouldn’t be angry,” Neil said, eyes burning. “I’m not angry at you, honey, I’m mad at myself. I should’ve known better.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Don’t force yourself to do something you don’t want to do because of me!”
“I don’t -“ He had to stop, collect himself. “I want to.”
”Are you sure? Because the way you just pushed me away - “
“Stop,” Andrew said harshly, his voice rising without his meaning it to. “Shut up.”
Neil fell silent, huffing angrily. Andrew sat down hard on the couch, his head in his hands.
It was quiet for a few moments, and then Neil sat down beside Andrew, letting out a sigh. He didn’t touch him.
“I want to,” Andrew said again, quieter, meaning it this time. “Just not tonight.”
“We don’t have to do it at all, sweetheart.” Neil’s voice was soft, understanding, full of compassion. Andrew could barely stand it. No one had ever spoken to him like Neil did. No one had ever treated him this way. “I’m okay if we never do it. I can go the rest of our lives just being with you in any way you want. It doesn’t matter to me.”
The rest of their lives. Andrew couldn’t take that right now.
“I meant what I said,” he said, finally lifting his eyes back to Neil’s face. “I want to. Another time.”
Finally, Neil conceded. This wasn’t an argument he was having with Andrew; it was one Andrew was having with himself.
“Okay,” he said. He reached out tentatively and brushed his thumb over Andrew’s cheek; Andrew’s eyes fluttered closed. “Whenever you’re ready. You know I’ll be here.”
But you won’t, Andrew thought but didn’t say. Because you’re leaving soon.
Neil saw the thoughts in his eyes, and his smile was sad. He kissed Andrew’s forehead gently. Andrew wrapped his arms around him.
They held each other for the rest of the night.
Andrew laid in bed alone, his mind suddenly remembering every fight he’d ever had with Neil in the two years they were together before the mission left ground. Though fights was a strong word - the biggest argument they’d ever had was the one he’d just replayed. They’d fought about Neil’s past too, once. Neil’s father had been a gangster, one of the more powerful ones in Baltimore. He barely escaped his childhood home with his life, and Nathan Wesninski was the reason for most of his scars. It was why Neil had changed his name, why he’d pursued the life he did. Space was as far away as he could get from his father’s ghost and his family’s past.
Neil had nightmares every so often, something Andrew discovered during their fifth date. He’d woken up because of a trembling body in his bed, and for a moment he didn’t know what to do. When he’d reached out to touch Neil - something he knew was stupid and he knew he shouldn’t have done - he’d paid for it with a stinging blow to his face.
Andrew rubbed his cheek where Neil had hit him that night. He sighed.
They fought because Andrew said it was okay and Neil insisted it wasn’t, and they’d gone back and forth for a while until Neil unexpectedly broke down and cried. Andrew had held him, rocking him back and forth until he calmed.
They only ever had petty squabbles, for the most part. When Neil stayed over, he left his clothes everywhere. When Andrew stayed over, he left the cap off the toothpaste. When Andrew was over he got annoyed at Neil’s cat for interrupting them. When Neil was over he got annoyed at Aaron for interrupting them with texts to his brother. (Neil argued that Aaron always seemed to know when he was over, and purposely annoyed Andrew when he was with Neil. Andrew always rolled his eyes and told Neil he was being paranoid).
Andrew missed him. He missed Neil’s clothes all over his room. He missed their stupid, meaningless arguments.
There was one day left.
Tomorrow, Andrew thought to himself. Then he said it out loud, so it would seem more real. “Tomorrow.”
All Andrew had to do was close his eyes, and when he opened them again to a new day, Neil would be closer to him than he’d been in a year.
He dragged himself out of bed and went to his closet, where he kept a box on the top shelf. It was a memento box from his mother’s childhood, passed down to him as a gift when Andrew had graduated college. Bee gave it to him with the intention that he would use it to store his happiest memories, as a way for him to remind himself that life was worth living, and that he was worthy of a life. She told him to take it out and look through it when he needed to remember.
He hadn’t had much inside it until he met Neil. It was the size of a large book, shaped the same with a front cover that opened up to a hollow box, and patterned to look like the ocean. Before Neil, Andrew had kept five things in the box: a copy of his and Aaron’s adoption certificate, a picture of Bee standing in front of her restaurant on opening day, a folded letter from his brother, a keychain from Germany his cousin Nicky had gotten him when he first brought Erik home to the States, and a plastic gold coin Kevin Day had given him when they were in school together.
But after Neil, he kept an envelope full of notes. Neil was a hopeless romantic, and during the two years they had together before the mission, he was always giving Andrew gifts or leaving notes for him to find when Neil wasn’t around. Each one had a quote about space or stars on it, because Andrew was in love with a nerd.
There was one with a quote from Romeo and Juliet , because Neil was apparently a fan of Shakespeare. “ When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night / And pay no worship to the garish sun.” Andrew thought that one was ironic, because Neil always compared himself to the moon and Andrew to the sun, but he’d reversed them there. Or maybe not so ironic. It was exactly how Andrew felt about Neil.
One of Andrew’s personal favorites was from Carl Sagan, one of Neil’s idols. “ The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
But the one Andrew always came back to was one Neil had left right before the launch of the Fox 10 mission. It was a line from a poem by Sarah Williams, and Andrew thought it perfectly captured everything he understood about Neil and all the reasons why he loved him.
“ Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. ”
Neil had those lines inked on his skin, in cursive along his rib cage. Two lines of text that Andrew liked to trace with his fingers when they were in bed together, and every time he did, Neil would close his eyes and take a breath and Andrew would feel the rise and fall of his lungs under his hand. Their last night together, Andrew had kissed those words on his skin, lips a caress and a promise. Neil had held his hand.
The first time Neil told Andrew he loved him was their six month anniversary.
Andrew thought the concept of a six month anniversary was stupid. No one counted months; a relationship was marked by years. But what did he know? He’d never been in one.
And he liked letting Neil be sentimental, so he allowed the gift giving and the romantic platitudes. Neil never expected anything in return - he was happy with Andrew’s quiet and unspoken affection, given in the way he knew how.
It was a summer evening; they were swimming together. In the morning, Andrew woke up to Neil’s kisses on his neck, a murmured “Want to go somewhere?” In his ear. They’d driven three hours from Houston to Lake Travis, picking up supplies for a day trip on the way. Neil sang along to songs on the radio while Andrew drove. They kissed at stoplights and held hands on the freeway. Lake Travis was better for swimming and more touristy than Lake Houston, and Neil had wanted the three-hour drive. Andrew liked road trips.
They hadn’t bothered with a hotel, choosing to camp out of the car they’d borrowed from Matt Boyd for the trip. Matt was Neil’s friend, one of the other candidates for the Fox 10 mission. He had a truck with bed space, and he’d let Neil borrow it with no questions asked. Andrew wondered at that instant loyalty and the kindness of friends. He hadn’t had much of either growing up, and it was still strange for him to see how Neil’s friends treated him.
Andrew drove, because he liked cars and he wanted to see what the truck felt like under his hands. It had a bench seat in the front, so Neil slid in next to him and sat close enough that it was almost a distraction. He smiled innocently while Andrew gave him a look.
The drive was filled with quiet music and the occasional snap of the camera on Neil’s phone. Andrew let him take as many pictures as he wanted. He was used to it by now. Before he met Neil, he never liked to see himself in pictures - the sight of his own face bothered him for reasons he could never quite name. But when Neil started taking picture after picture of him, Andrew’s aversion to himself waned. Neil promised he’d never post the pictures anywhere without Andrew’s permission, and mostly he kept them for his own personal enjoyment anyway. Andrew had once asked why Neil was so obsessed with taking pictures of him, and Neil’s answer was just as sickeningly tender as he would’ve expected.
“I like to capture memories,” Neil said. “There’s this Latin quote I like - forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. It means ‘Perhaps this too will be a pleasure to look back on one day.’ It’s stuck with me ever since I first heard it. It’s sort of my philosophy on life.”
So endlessly positive. Andrew soaked it up like a drug.
When they got to the campsite, Andrew pulled into a dirt lot with little to no other cars in it. The lake was surprisingly empty for this time of year, but Andrew wasn’t going to complain. He cut the engine.
Neil got out of the car and stripped off his t-shirt, which momentarily made Andrew’s operating system freeze. He stared, lips parted, as Neil ran a hand through his hair and tossed his shirt into the truck bed. He stretched his arms over his head to work out his muscles after sitting in the car for so long. Andrew wasn’t looking at his scars - the ones he was slowly starting to learn the stories behind - but he was just staring. At him.
“It’s beautiful out today,” Neil said through the open car door, his smile soft. “Perfect weather.”
Andrew had always preferred the winter, but Neil liked the warmer months, sunlight and soft breezes. Space was cold, and when he went there, he said he wanted to remember the warmth.
He looked at Andrew expectantly. “You gonna join me, or do I have to bribe you?”
That sounded nice. Andrew filed it away for later.
They spent most of the day swimming and sunbathing, talking quietly as they sat on the large blanket they’d set on the ground by the lake. There were barely any other people around, and it was peaceful. Andrew was almost frightened by how content he felt.
He’d never had anyone like Neil in his life before, and he was afraid of him disappearing.
It had only been six months, but it felt like an age. It was the longest relationship Andrew had ever had - and really the first thing Andrew would ever properly define as a relationship. The men he’d been with before Neil were nothing. He could barely remember them now, apart from Roland. Neil’s light blotted everything and everyone else out.
“Hey,” Neil said after they’d been sitting in comfortable silence for a minute. He turned his head, a lazy smile on his face. “I love you.”
For a second, Andrew froze. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had told him that besides his mother.
Part of him thought he should’ve expected it. Maybe part of him did, but not here, not now, not in this moment.
When he didn’t respond right away, Neil wasn’t bothered. He reached over and squeezed Andrew’s hand once before he let go, that soft smile still on his face. He closed his eyes and turned his face towards the sun, and that was it.
Andrew relaxed. There was no expectation that he would say it back, at least not yet. Maybe he would never need to. He wasn’t even positive if he knew he was in love yet.
Liar, a voice told him.
The feeling that carried him through the rest of the day was like air.
Andrew remembered when he’d finally said it back. It took him a bit, but Neil always let him move at his own pace. When Andrew said the words back to him, Neil got that infuriating smile, that look in his eye, and he kissed Andrew for a long time.
That was the first night they actually slept together. In the six months before, they’d shared a bed plenty of times, but their sexual relationship went only as far as fooling around, and only as far as Andrew was comfortable with. Their argument over Andrew’s past had been two weeks before. It was still fresh in Andrew’s mind, and he hadn’t been sure that Neil would say yes, or that he would believe that Andrew was ready after so short a time. But there had barely been any words. Andrew remembered every detail of that night, every expression that crossed Neil’s face when he finally pushed into him for the first time, every sweet sound and pleasured sigh he made.
There were so many markers of their relationship. That was one. The day that Neil had introduced Andrew as his boyfriend to his friends was another one that stuck out in his mind. They’d gone out for dinner with Matt and Dan, and Neil’s friends had been delighted to know him. They were absurdly happy for the two of them, happy to see them together, and to see the effect Andrew had on Neil.
Andrew had never had friends like that, apart from Kevin and Renee. But his and Kevin’s friendship had never been the loud, boisterous, affectionate kind, and Renee’s friendship was very soft and quiet. He preferred it that way, though.
He remembered the day he’d introduced Neil to Aaron and Nicky, and then Bee. Each of their reactions was exactly what Andrew had expected from them, which made it easier. Aaron was cautious and stoic; Katelyn was kinder. Neil and Aaron were considerate to each other, but there was a tension there that Andrew still couldn’t quite understand (Neil had just said Aaron didn’t like him, but Aaron wouldn’t tell him why. When Andrew asked his brother, Aaron only said that he didn’t trust Neil. But when it came to Andrew, Aaron had always been protective). Nicky and his fiance Erik had been ecstatic to meet Neil, and Neil liked them immediately.
Bee was so, so, so happy for her son, but she only let it show in her eyes and her soft, pleased smile when she hugged Neil upon meeting him.
“I think you make a very good match,” she’d told them after their dinner that night with Andrew’s family. “I’m happy to see you together.”
Andrew could tell that his mother’s approval meant a lot to Neil.
With Kevin, it was different. He was slightly annoyed that his best friend and his rival in the field were now dating, and for a wild moment, Andrew even thought he might’ve been jealous. But it lasted for only a week before Kevin invited them both out to a bar for drinks and conversation.
Kevin regaled Neil with stories of his and Andrew’s time in college, and Neil asked questions about how long they’d known each other. Kevin’s father, David Wymack, had been the coach of their college Exy team, and Neil and Kevin compared notes about their time on the court. They bonded quickly over that, though there were several differences of opinion about the sport that resulted in heated debate, which Andrew watched wordlessly. They were both so strong-willed and stubborn. Of course they would be rivals.
Neil had gone to a small college out of state, and he’d moved to Texas after graduation to pursue his career as an astronaut. He met Matt, Dan, Kevin, and Allison Reynolds during his first day at the Johnson Space Center and his orientation into NASA. He’d become close friends with Matt and Dan right away, but since he was at the top of his group with Kevin, there was competition there. But Kevin introduced him to Andrew. And that softened things between them forever.
To this day, Andrew wasn’t sure why Kevin introduced them. Kevin had never told him. In any case, he didn’t really need to. Andrew didn’t need to know why. It was enough that Kevin had done it.
He missed Kevin, too, though not as much as he missed Neil. Regardless, he’d be relieved to see both of them again when they landed in six hours.
The space center was buzzing with activity, all systems go and all employees on their feet as they prepared for the landing. Andrew couldn’t sit still. He could barely breathe.
He hadn’t been able to sleep last night. It would catch up to him later, but at the moment he didn’t care. He wouldn’t be able to sleep again until Neil was with him. In his arms. In his bed. Home.
The crew that would replace the Fox 10 on the ISS had already been sent up, their capsule launched just hours ago. A trip up to the International Space Station only took six hours; as far and wide as space seemed, the station orbited only miles away from Earth. The return trip took half the time. In three hours, when the replacement crew was set to arrive, Neil and the rest of Fox 10 would start on their trajectory back to the planet. In another three hours, he would be here.
They would land at the Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the astronauts would undergo medical checks and get some rest before they were transported to the JSC. So really, it would be more than six hours until Andrew saw Neil again; probably closer to twelve. He would sleep at work if he had to. He wasn’t leaving until Neil walked in.
He sat at his desk in the middle of the chaos around him and stared at the log of Neil’s transmissions, anticipation and nerves making him sweat. He closed his eyes. He had waited over a year. He could wait a little longer.
There was nothing, truly nothing, in the entire universe, like the view of Earth from space. Neil had always believed that.
He sat in the Cup - the crew’s observation deck on the ISS - and stared at the curving line of Earth against the blackness of eternity. It was magnificent. Truly breathtaking. Neil could sit there for hours and never get bored of just watching it.
The station floated somewhere above North America now. He had watched over the last fourteen months as, in small, infinitesimal increments, the Earth rotated and the station orbited, changing its position. Once they’d been over Europe, then Africa. Russia and Asia. They’d passed over the whole globe. Everyone had spent a birthday up here. Andrew had spent a birthday down there, without him. It was the first one they’d spent apart, but Neil had sent him the longest private transmission he’d recorded, and they were able to speak over video chat for more than an hour. Neil still remembered every word they said to each other, the quiet exchange of I love yous.
Matt and Dan had sung him a happy birthday, and they’d presented him with some of their freeze-dried rations in lieu of a cake. Allison and Kevin joined in on the celebration, though Kevin had to be cajoled. He was taking the mission so seriously, though really, there was nothing life-or-death about it. They were only up here to record and observe data.
But it was enough, for Neil, just to be up here. Even as far away as he was from Andrew, he wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. He wanted to go even farther than the ISS. He wanted to go to the moon and beyond.
He’d heard talk around the space center before the Fox 10 launch, of a new mission to send another small crew of people to the moon. It was being kept hush-hush for now, just excited whispers. The last men to set foot on the moon had been there forty-five years ago. Neil thought it was high time they sent someone up again, and he wanted more than anything else in the world to be on that mission. The technology was far more advanced now; they could do so much more than they’d ever imagined. They might be able to go even farther than the moon, one day soon.
Neil wanted to see Mars up close. He wanted to see the rings of Saturn with his own eyes.
He could see the moon clearly from the Cup, watching it with longing. The Earth from space at night was stunning - when the moon was out, and the populous cities sent up beacons to the stars, glowing with hundreds of thousands of spots of golden light. Neil had stored up so many pictures to show Andrew when he got back.
“Neil?” He turned his head at the sound of Allison Reynolds’ voice. She floated into the Cup with him, using the handles on the walls to pull herself through the gravityless air. She’d tamed her blond hair into a ponytail, but the end of it still stuck up and floated around her head like a cloud. “You’ve been in here a while. We’re just about getting ready to go.”
Neil had always been close friends with Matt and Dan, from the minute he met them in training at the space academy, but up here, he’d grown even closer to Allison. She surprised him with the force of her friendship, and he was glad to have it.
She butted heads with Kevin a lot, which grew tiresome quickly in the cramped quarters. They’d all been living on top of each other for months, and Neil knew they were all itching to go home.
The stars constantly tugged at Neil, pulling him towards them, and he wanted to heed their call for the rest of his life.
But there was someone on Earth waiting for him.
And Neil wanted to spend the rest of his life with him, too.
“Everything on track?” Andrew asked the director, who was monitoring the room as everyone took their positions and waited for the launch of the Fox 10 back to Earth.
“Everything’s on track,” Director Alvarez said. “Don’t worry, Andrew. You’ll get your man back.”
Andrew rolled his eyes and walked away from her, but he could hear her quiet laugh. He wouldn’t admit it, but he liked Director Alvarez. She was nice, and she got things done quickly and efficiently around here. The department thrived under her leadership and she was an asset to the entire space center. Any problems that sprung up, she tackled with a steady calm.
Andrew wasn’t expecting there to be any problems with the launch. They’d done this before, a thousand times. There were always setbacks every now and then, but as long as he’d worked at the JSC, there hadn’t been any fatal accidents, no dramatic failures. But of course he’d worried on the day Neil and the rest of the crew first went up into space. He’d lost sleep thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Neil and the crew were there to perform repairs on the space station, and Andrew hated thinking about what could happen if there was something wrong with their spacesuits when they had to go outside. If their oxygen tanks broke. If something ruptured, if they got stuck out there.
None of that happened, but the same worries plagued Andrew now as he took his seat at his desk again, tapping his fingers on the surface. He couldn’t help it.
“Looks like the replacement crew has arrived,” someone said, which made Andrew perk his head up. Just three hours now. Neil could leave the ISS. He was on his way home.
A transmission buzzed through on the wall of screens at the front of the room. Kevin’s face showed, pixelated at first until it appeared in high definition. From his own screen, Andrew knew he could see the entire room, and everyone stopped to listen to him.
“We’re all settled in,” Kevin said, switching the camera view to a wide-angle of the five crew members, strapped into their seats in the small rocket that would take them home. Neil gave a thumbs up, grinning at the camera through his helmet. “Ready to come home.” There was relief in Kevin’s voice, a tired victory. He loved being up there as much as Neil, Andrew knew. But Kevin also had people he loved on Earth waiting for him. “Launch in T-minus 10.”
“9,” Andrew murmured with the rest of the room. “8. 7. 6. 5.”
Neil’s eyes were closed, his head resting against his seat. He looked peaceful. There was a small, content smile on his face, visible through the video screen. Andrew wondered if he was thinking about him. If he was excited to come home to him.
“Four,” Kevin said, his hand reaching up to switch toggles and press buttons above his head. “Three.”
“Two,” Andrew breathed.
“One,” Neil mouthed, opening his eyes. Andrew thought he could see him, could pick him out in the room full of people.
There was a rumble and a rush, the crew members’ bodies shaking in their seats as their capsule launched from the docking platform on the International Space Station and out into the blackness.
“We’re on our way,” Kevin said, breathing out in relief.
Andrew let some of the tension melt away from him.
Three more hours.
“I don’t want you to go.”
Andrew hadn’t meant to say the words. But he was glad that if they had to slip out, Neil wasn’t awake to hear them.
He slept softly beside Andrew in bed, face half-buried in the pillow. Sunlight streamed from the window over his bare back, gilding his auburn hair in gold.
Andrew had barely given a voice to the accidental confession. He’d whispered it, mouthed it to the quiet room. Neil had no chance of hearing it. He was a deep sleeper, though Andrew had learned how to wake him with a touch.
The Fox 10 was supposed to launch this afternoon. It was early in the morning. Too early. Neil should be up and getting ready. They couldn’t leave without him.
Andrew thought about what would happen if he kept him here. But he would never, ever, beg Neil to stay. He couldn’t.
They’d been building up to this for months. No, not months. Years. It had been two years since they first kissed. Two years since they’d been together. The first year had been slow, exploratory. By the end of it, they’d settled into something comfortable. Something that felt like home. They’d taken their time with each other. They’d had time.
The last six months had been frantic. Breathless. Every time they touched each other, it was hungry, eager, fast. Their looming separation cast a shade of urgency over everything they did. Andrew knew what was coming, and Neil knew he would have to leave. Neither of them were prepared for it. Physically, Neil was ready. He was in peak condition, healthy, strong. But his head and his heart weren’t so steady.
So they devoured each other. They drowned in each other. It was all they could do; it would sustain them both for the long year Neil was to be away.
But now the day had come.
Last night had been . . . Andrew still felt it in every part of his body. They hadn’t wanted to let go of each other. Neither of them were capable of it for more than a minute. They’d barely spoken, knowing the right words wouldn’t come to them. They’d let their touches speak for them.
Andrew almost didn’t want Neil to wake up now. He wanted to prolong this moment.
But he felt when Neil stirred, turning his face towards Andrew as he opened his eyes. His smile was sad.
Andrew brushed his thumb over Neil’s cheek, tracing the edge of that smile.
Neil took his hand and kissed each one of his fingers, then held it close to his chest. He closed his eyes again and just breathed for a minute or two.
“I know . . .” Neil started, his voice soft. His breath shuddered when he let it out, and when he opened his eyes again and looked at Andrew, his gaze was penetrating. “Will you wait for me?”
Andrew’s heart stopped and then started again, strong and true. He remembered a conversation they’d had - last year, in the fledgling stage of their relationship, when they’d discussed the Fox 10 mission and Neil’s involvement in it. They both knew what they were committing to when they decided to be together. Up until that point, they hadn’t discussed the distance that would keep them apart. It had been a shadow following them, but they were both too caught up in the rush of their feelings to call attention to it.
But over their quiet, private dinner that night, Neil said, “I know this is . . . still new to both of us. And it’s early. And I know it’s not fair of me to ask you to wait. I won’t. I can’t ask that of you.”
Andrew’s answer came in a heartbeat. “You don’t have to.”
Neil had just looked at him, his eyes shining. Then he smiled, stood from the table, and pulled Andrew up to kiss him deeply.
It had been so early, then. So soon after their first kiss. Andrew was afraid of the strength of his feelings, but he was unequipped with the willpower to deny them anymore. He could try, but Neil broke down all his barriers.
Now, as they looked at each other in bed, Andrew knew Neil was asking to reassure himself. To know that Andrew would be waiting for him when he got back, and whenever Neil had to leave again, he would still wait for him. Always. For however long it took.
Andrew kissed him, lingering on his lips. “I will always wait for you,” he whispered. Neil let out a noise that broke Andrew’s heart, and he pulled him close.
Three hours felt like three months.
Neil daydreamed about what he and Andrew would do when he got back to Earth. They’d stay in bed for a week before they went anywhere. They’d go to Bee’s restaurant again - Neil missed her cooking so much. He missed his cat. He wanted to get another one when he got back, a companion for King. Andrew’s friend Renee’s wedding was coming up; Allison and Dan had talked about it while they were stationed on the ISS. Neil had never gone to a formal event like that with Andrew, and he was looking forward to it. Andrew in a tux - now that would be a sight to see.
The thought of the wedding made him think of his own future. Of something permanent with Andrew, something lasting. Ideas spun in his head, grand gestures he could make. Though Andrew might not appreciate a grand gesture. He’d like something subtle, more meaningful.
Neil just wanted to touch him again, most of all. Wanted to hold him. Kiss him. Feel his body again. Relearn the shape of it after a year apart.
Over a year. Fourteen months. Sixty-one weeks. Four hundred and twenty five days. Three hours.
Neil’s body shook with the impact when their capsule hit the water, but he braced himself. Members of the US Coast Guard were nearby to help them disembark and get them safely to shore, to the Edwards Air Force base for medical tests and checkups. Neil endured it all with his usual pleasant manner, making the doctors laugh. They dragged Kevin, Allison, Matt and Dan away for their own individual tests, but the five of them would meet back up later to head back to Texas.
Kevin looked exhausted, his smile tenuous as he was led away by the team of doctors that greeted him when they got to shore. The Edwards Air Force base was different from the Johnson Space Center, which Neil would almost call a second home. He couldn’t wait to see it again. He wanted to get back into the regular routine of flashing his ID card at the gates every morning, being greeted by the security guards, smiling at the desk attendants and the people in Andrew’s department as he came to visit him.
As an astronaut, Neil’s title was Commander, as was Kevin’s. The two of them were pilots on any missions they were assigned to. But when he wasn’t flying, his job at the JSC was in the Engineering department. He was a math whiz, and his “desk job,” as he lovingly referred to it, involved looking over propulsion systems and blueprints for spacecraft. He and Andrew’s departments only crossed paths every now and then, so Neil always went out of his way to visit him. They’d had lunch together at the JSC more than once - it was how rumors of their relationship started to orbit around the office. People caught them together in the break room once. Dan called it “canoodling.” Neil still remembered the hassle of having to report to HR about their relationship; not that it was a violation of anything, but there were protocols in place for any interpersonal relationships that formed between coworkers. Matt and Dan had to go through it, too.
But it was worth it. All completely worth it, and Neil would do it again, a thousand times over for the reward of being able to kiss Andrew freely when he stopped by his desk. (And he would take the teasing wolf whistles they received for it).
Neil wasn’t thinking of the debriefing he’d have to give to the higher-ups when he got back to the JSC, or the meetings he’d have to sit through, the reports he’d have to write. He was only thinking of Andrew. What that first reunion would be like.
If he was there in the building, it would be in front of other people. But Neil didn’t care. He didn’t care who saw or how they’d react. Hell, he might even ask Kevin to record it, just so he could remember the moment over and over again.
Finally, after grueling hours of being poked and prodded at, Neil, Kevin, Allison, and Matt and Dan boarded the private plane that would take them from California to Texas. Allison fell asleep almost immediately, nodding off against Kevin’s shoulder after takeoff. Kevin held a brief conversation with Neil before he fell asleep too, his head resting against Allison’s. Neither of them would mention it when they woke up.
Neil sat across from Matt and Dan. Both of them looked exhausted. They all were, sporting dark circles under their eyes. But there was satisfaction on their faces for a mission accomplished.
“How much do you want to bet that Nicky is planning a welcome home party for you?” Matt asked quietly. Neil laughed. Matt and Dan had only met Andrew’s boisterous cousin a handful of times, but they liked each other. Neil wanted to do more of that when they all got back, hang out together as a group. At first it was just him and Andrew. Then it was him, Andrew, and Kevin. Then Neil was introduced to Andrew’s family, and Andrew was introduced to Neil’s friends. They’d gone out to the bar together a few times, when their schedules all aligned. Andrew had to be coaxed into it, but Neil knew some part of him enjoyed the camaraderie.
“I don’t need to bet,” Neil said. “I know he is.” And it would probably happen at Bee’s restaurant.
“Well, if there’s one thing I miss after being up there for so long, it’s alcohol,” Matt said, tipping his head back against his seat. Neil smirked. “Can’t wait to celebrate our return. We deserve a drink or two, don’t we?” He nudged his wife beside him, and Dan smiled.
“We do,” she agreed. “Although our mission wasn’t particularly dangerous or exciting. We were just there to monitor and do repairs.”
“Yeah, but being in space always has risks. It’s fucking outer space. We could’ve died at any moment,” Matt said. Dan laughed. “There could’ve been a malfunction with the station, something could’ve exploded, one of our suits could’ve gotten punctured when we were doing spacewalks.”
“I guess you’re right.”
Neil never considered the risks too much when he was preparing to fly. They seemed inconsequential. The astronauts were trained so rigorously and so well-prepared before a mission that it didn’t feel like such a possibility. But he knew it was. Anything could go wrong at any time, and as trained as they were for those situations, survival wasn’t guaranteed when you were in the vacuum of space.
Neil remembered the day he and Andrew had said goodbye before the launch of the Fox 10. Andrew had held back his worry, but Neil saw it in his eyes. He felt it in the long, hard kiss he gave him. For a minute, he let himself imagine what it would be like if their positions were reversed - if Andrew was going up there, and Neil was confined to the ground. Neil didn’t know if he’d be able to handle the overwhelming fear. On the day of the launch, it had already felt like his heart was being torn from his chest. He’d felt sick.
Neil closed his eyes, but he doubted he’d be able to sleep.
Not until he could see Andrew again.
The words from Director Alvarez had Andrew out of his desk chair and walking fast down the hallway, holding himself back from running down the corridor to the main entrance. He didn’t want to seem too desperate and give his coworkers an excuse to tease him for it. They probably would anyway, but it didn’t matter.
He slammed through the doors of the JSC, breathless. A crowd of reporters was already waiting outside, having been notified that today was the triumphant return of the Fox 10 crew. They had their cameras and microphones ready. Andrew pushed through them all without apologizing, needing to get to the front of the crowd. His heart burst like an exploding star in his chest.
A black government SUV was pulling through the entry gates. It seemed to drive slow on purpose. When it pulled up to the front of the crowd and the door opened, Andrew’s breath stopped.
It wasn’t Neil who stepped out first, but Kevin, of course. Kevin was often the face of the PR department, and he was best among the astronauts at handling the press. He greeted the reporters with a victorious smile, though Andrew could see the dark circles under his eyes.
Allison was next, standing tall and proud. She must’ve done her hair and makeup in the car on the way over, because she looked impeccable, not at all like she’d just returned from a year-long journey into space. Matt and Dan followed her out of the car, holding hands. Their marriage was a favored interview topic among reporters; it was rare for fellow astronauts to have romances with each other, and they had been America’s sweethearts ever since their relationship was publicly announced.
They saw Andrew and grinned. Matt said something that Andrew couldn’t hear over the reporters’ questions and the JSC staff’s cheering.
Then Neil stepped out of the car.
His hair was longer. It was the first thing Andrew noticed. It went almost to his shoulders now, waves of auburn sweeping gently back, and Andrew wanted to bury his hands in it and tug.
Somehow, he had more freckles. He seemed a little taller, too, which wasn’t entirely impossible - the gravity of space might have done that to him. It had happened before; they warned of it in all the astronauts’ training.
Andrew’s eyes ran over him, memorizing every detail again. Over a year without seeing him except from the other side of a screen. Over a year without physically touching him.
“Neil,” he said.
Neil couldn’t have heard him, but his head was searching, as if he knew Andrew would be there waiting for him at the front of the crowd. When their eyes met, Neil stilled. Then a bright, infectious grin stretched across his face, and he was striding toward Andrew with purpose.
His arms were around Andrew in the next second, enveloping him. Andrew felt himself be lifted from the ground, spun around. It was ridiculous, but he didn’t dare complain. He closed his eyes and buried his face in Neil’s shoulder, clutching him as tight as he could without hurting him. His hands went over Neil’s hips, his back, his arms, his chest, touched his neck and his face, every part of him, before they found purchase in Neil’s hair and stayed there.
He didn’t have the words to speak. Neil’s arms were a vise around him, containing him, and it seemed he didn’t know what to say, either. They just held each other.
Neil’s nose skimmed Andrew’s neck, his jaw, his ear. He was trembling. Or maybe that was Andrew. Maybe it was both of them. He couldn’t tell.
“God,” Neil finally said. “God, I - ” He choked on his words, holding Andrew tighter. “You have no idea how much I want to kiss you.”
“Do it,” Andrew growled. “I don’t care who sees.”
“I can’t. Not like I want to,” Neil groaned. Andrew’s body reacted at that, coming alive again after months of slumber. “God, I missed you so fucking much. This doesn’t feel real.”
Andrew only held him tighter in response.
He didn’t want to let him go.
But he had to, eventually, at least for the moment.
Neil kept hold of his hand, though, as they entered the building together, and Andrew squeezed his fingers, letting all of his senses focus on that point of contact.
Andrew tuned out most of what happened after that. He didn’t hear the questions the reporters threw Neil’s way, didn’t care about the protocol that had to be followed upon the crew’s return to Earth - he knew there was a press conference scheduled, debriefings and meetings Neil would have to attend. As far as Andrew was concerned, he would be right by Neil’s side during all of it, and they would have to shoot him to keep him away.
He found his brother in the crowd at one point; guys from the medical department had gathered to greet the Fox 10 crew. Kevin and Aaron hugged, which Andrew found a bit strange, but didn’t comment on. Andrew’s phone buzzed in his pocket multiple times, but he didn’t bother to check it - he knew it was probably Nicky. Nicky knew when the Fox 10 was supposed to arrive back on terra firma, and he’d been anticipating it almost as much as Andrew had, only because of the welcome back party he’d been planning for days now. Andrew had tried to talk him out of it, to no avail. It was supposed to be tomorrow. The astronauts would all be given a few days off to rest and recuperate before they had to return to the office for regular deskwork, and Nicky had made sure everyone on his guest list could attend.
Every now and then, during the rush of commotion and excitement in the JSC, Neil would look over at Andrew and smile, as if to reassure him that he was still there. And he wasn’t going anywhere again, anytime soon.
Andrew felt like he didn’t tear his eyes away from Neil’s face the entire time. He just drank him in. All the details of his face that he couldn’t see properly from a screen. There were so many. The exact shade of blue of his eyes. Every individual freckle on his face. The shape of his lips, and the way his hair curled around his ears. He had stubble on his chin, the shadow of a beard growing. Andrew hated to say he liked it. He needed to get Neil alone, so he could study every minute detail, every single thing that had changed about him in the fourteen months he’d been gone.
Fourteen months. It felt like nothing now. It was already hazy in Andrew’s mind.
Andrew knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he would have to let Neil go again at some point. It was part of the job. It was the way their life was going to be as long as Neil was an astronaut, and he couldn’t fault Neil for that.
The only thing he resented was that his life hadn’t guided him in the same direction. That he didn’t feel the same pull to the stars that Neil felt, so he couldn’t follow him when he left.
But he didn’t want to think about the next time Neil would leave him.
He wanted to carve out the time they had in between then and now, and stay in it for as long as he could.
Neil didn’t keep track of the time - time was inconsequential in space, and it had always escaped him on Earth anyway - but the stars were out by the time he and Andrew finally left the Johnson Space Center. He looked up at the sky as they walked outside, smiling breathlessly. “There they are.”
Every time, he was fascinated by them. He didn’t think he’d ever lose that feeling. He looked back down at Andrew, who was just watching him. “You can’t see them in space. They all disappear.”
Andrew knew that, but he let Neil tell it to him like he was hearing it for the first time.
Neil laughed, and he stopped to kiss Andrew in the middle of the parking lot under the stars. This kiss was quieter than the first, softer. Andrew savored every second of it. He put his hands on Neil’s face and pressed his body closer. It had been so long since he’d touched him like this that it felt like the first time, and he felt just as nervous as he had back then. Though he knew he had no reason to be.
“Your place?” Neil asked against his lips, stroking his hands down Andrew’s back.
“Yours,” Andrew murmured. “Your cat misses you.”
Neil gasped. “My baby! I almost forgot about him. I can’t believe it.” He looked terribly guilty, and Andrew almost smiled. “That reminds me, too - I think I want to get another cat. King Fluffkins needs a friend.”
“Whatever you say,” Andrew said.
“Thank you for taking care of him while I was gone,” Neil said gently, a smile on his face. “And my plants.”
“I tried my best not to kill them.”
Neil laughed quietly, and he swung his and Andrew’s joined hands between them as they walked. He let out a sigh, and Andrew felt such overwhelming relief in it. “I can’t wait to go home.”
“Everyone’s missed you,” Andrew said. “A lot.”
“Did you miss me?”
Neil laughed again and slung his arm around Andrew’s shoulders, kissing his cheek. “God, I love you.”
“I like your beard,” Andrew admitted, rubbing his hand over Neil’s scruffy face. Neil winked at him.
“You like it, huh? I had a crazy feeling you might. I’ll let it grow for a bit if you want me to.” Andrew just shrugged, but he didn’t miss the smug look on Neil’s face.
They fell quiet as they reached Andrew’s car and got in. Neil was grinning.
“What?” Andrew asked.
“It’s just so surreal to be in an actual car again. But it reminds me of the station a little bit.”
“Tell me about what it was like up there.”
That was all the prompting Neil needed to start telling stories of his long months in space. Andrew listened to him talk, content to sit there and hear his voice for hours. It soothed him; it slowly erased all the time they’d spent apart.
Neil’s tales lasted until they got to his place. When they stood at the threshold, he quieted and stared at the door to his apartment with a soft smile. Andrew handed him his keys, and Neil unlocked the door slowly.
It was dim when they stepped inside, and Neil didn’t flick any of the lights on immediately. The place was washed in a soft nighttime glow from the windows in the living room. Andrew had been here recently, but it felt so much different with Neil home. It felt whole. Complete. There had been a part of it missing with him gone.
King Fluffkins appeared from around a corner. At the sight of Neil, he darted immediately to his owner and twined around his ankles, even going so far as to stand up on his back paws and press his front paws into Neil’s legs, mewling and purring. It was such un-cat-like behavior that Andrew just stared.
Neil bent down and scooped the cat up, burying his face in his fur. “Oh my god, I missed you so fucking much.” He cuddled the cat and kissed his tiny ears, carrying him through the apartment. Andrew followed close behind, listening to King purr like a lawnmower. He supposed King had always been an unusually affectionate cat, but watching him with Neil reminded Andrew of it. Behind Neil’s back, Andrew took out his phone and silently snapped a picture of King burrowing into Neil’s shoulder. He didn’t know why. But he wanted to capture the moment.
They went into the bedroom. Neil paused before the bed, and then he gently set the cat down on the floor. King nuzzled his leg once more before he twined around Andrew’s ankles and darted away.
“You’re probably exhausted,” Andrew said, taking Neil’s hand. The weight of it felt staggering after so long without it. “Let’s go to bed.”
Neil turned to him. “I should be tired, but I’m not. I feel like I won’t be able to sleep.”
“What do you want to do, then?”
Neil kissed him. Andrew disappeared into it before he could stop himself, kissing Neil back the way he’d wanted to do since he first emerged from that car earlier today. He gripped Neil’s hair, molding their bodies together. He felt Neil’s hands go under his shirt, run across the expanse of his back.
“We don’t have to tonight,” Neil whispered as he trailed his lips along Andrew’s jaw. His stubble scraped Andrew’s chin, and Andrew shivered, his stomach tightening.
“I want to,” he said. “I need - ” He needed to feel it again, after months and months and months without it. “I want to fuck you. Can I?”
“Yes,” Neil moaned, his hands on Andrew’s hips. “Yeah.”
“I thought of you,” Andrew said as he tore Neil’s clothes from him. “This.”
Phone sex was not ideal when Neil lived on a cramped space station with four other people, but they’d tried, more than once. It hadn’t been entirely satisfying for either of them. So most often, Andrew was left to himself, alone at night with his thoughts and memories of Neil.
Neil was trembling, and Andrew slowed down, cupping his face. “Hey. We don’t have to do this if - ”
“No,” Neil said, kissing him again. “I want to. So fucking badly. It’s just - it’s been so goddamn long.”
Andrew still slowed down, and let Neil set the pace. He kissed Neil gently, trying to calm his shaking. When they made it to the bed, down to their underwear, Andrew was half afraid Neil was going to cry. He wouldn’t judge him for it. Never. But he might cry, too, if Neil started. It was just . . . overwhelming. Being together again, being able to touch, to kiss, to hold each other. It overpowered everything.
“I love you,” Neil whispered, biting the words into Andrew’s skin as Andrew gently pulled his briefs off. “I love you so much.”
Later, as Andrew pushed inside him and they both made sounds of desperation, Andrew buried his face in Neil’s neck and repeated the words back to him. Neil’s arms wound around him, his legs locked around his back to keep Andrew in place. Andrew took his time. He moved slowly. As far as he was concerned, the night was endless. Eternal. Time was whatever they wanted it to be. This moment was theirs forever.
Andrew savored the moment when Neil lost himself, memorizing the arch of his eyebrows and the round shape of his open mouth, the heavenly, holy sound that came out of it, the scratch of his nails and the grip of his hands, the heat of his body, the softness of his release. He held him through it, skimming his nose over Neil’s skin, kissing his chest.
When it was Andrew’s turn, he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t pause or falter. He wanted it too badly to say no, and he wouldn’t deny himself this. To have Neil inside him after fourteen months was earth-shattering. It was heavy, and it buried him under the weight, the feeling. But he went under gladly. He didn’t care if he ever came back up for air.
Neil checked on him, like he always did. He made sure Andrew was okay. With his head between Andrew’s thighs, he whispered the ridiculous sweet nothings to him that Andrew had missed so badly it hurt. He traced promises with his tongue. He called Andrew the sappy nicknames Andrew would never admit to loving. He made Andrew feel like a burning sun, like an exploding star. He held Andrew’s face and pressed their lips together as Neil’s body moved over his, their hips joined, skin stuck together with sweat. Andrew’s toes curled as he drew his feet up the backs of Neil’s legs, his muscled thighs. He pulled every move he knew to make Neil shiver just right, to elicit the noises he’d missed hearing from him.
It was a long, slow, star-filled night, endless and as infinite as the universe, and Andrew counted the breaths between them and held each one close to his chest, his own personal solar system.
“Are you sure you’re ready?” Andrew asked, reaching for Neil’s hand. Neil was grinning, and he ducked to kiss Andrew’s cheek as they walked towards the entrance to The Bumblee Diner.
“Of course I am,” Neil promised him. “I can’t wait to see everyone again.”
Andrew had warned Neil of the return party Nicky had planned for him, and he’d been mentally preparing himself all day for the social interaction. He still wanted Neil all to himself - he wasn’t done reacquainting himself with his boyfriend yet.
Boyfriend. For some reason, that word seemed so inadequate now. They weren’t just boyfriends, nor were they just partners, not after the test of so much time and miles apart. They were more, but Andrew didn’t have a good enough word to encompass it yet.
“I don’t know if you’re ready,” Andrew warned Neil with a straight face. “Nicky has been pestering me all week.”
“I’m touched that he cares so much,” Neil said, and Andrew could tell by his face that he meant it.
“My mom will probably cry,” Andrew said. Neil laughed.
“So will I, as soon as she hugs me.”
His mother had texted Andrew today, with just a smiley face and happy emojis that Katelyn had probably taught her how to use. He already knew she was ecstatic about Neil’s return. The diner had closed early to the public for tonight, so they could have their party for family and friends. Bee had gotten her cooks to make all of Neil’s favorite foods and desserts. They’d made a cake that said ‘Welcome home, Nei!’ and was decorated with stars and planets piped in icing and a little rocket ship.
Of course, the party wasn’t just for him - the other astronauts would be there, too. Bee had gone all out and actually made them each their own individual cake, just to make sure they were all included. But she had a soft spot for Neil in particular.
Andrew paused before they entered the diner. None of the lights were out, and he could clearly see everyone inside - there’d been no point in trying to make it a surprise party, despite Nicky’s suggestions. He looked at Neil again. “I don’t think you’re ready.”
Neil’s smile was bright. “I love you.” He kissed him softly, and then opened the door.
They were the last to arrive, only because Andrew hadn’t wanted to come. Bee was there to hug and kiss them immediately, and as predicted, she burst into tears when she hugged Neil. Neil’s eyes glistened when she threw her arms around him, and he sniffled as he buried his face in her shoulder. But he was still smiling.
Aaron and Katelyn were there, and Aaron greeted his brother with a nod and a pat on the back. Nicky and his fiance Erik were next in line to hug Neil when Bee finally let go of him. Nicky had also invited Renee for Andrew’s sake, and she and her fiance stood off to the side. Renee smiled warmly when she held her arms out, asking for a hug, and Andrew gave it to her.
“You made it,” Renee said. She wasn’t just talking about the party - he knew, somehow, that she meant he’d made it through waiting. He’d made it through fourteen months, a year of separation.
“I did,” he said. It still felt like a dream. All the time he’d spent alone was already half-remembered.
“Renee!” Neil approached, beaming. “It’s so good to see you again.” He hugged her, and shook hands with Patrick, her quiet fiance. “Is Allison here? Did you see her? And Dan?”
“Yes, they’re here. They’re very excited about being home in time for the wedding,” she said.
“Oh, yeah! God, it’s soon, isn’t it? I can’t wait, either. I haven’t ever been to a wedding.”
“We’re looking forward to it,” Patrick said, and Renee added, “And we’re so happy you’re home, too.”
“Thanks, guys. I missed everyone. A lot.”
“ I’m just happy I don’t have to share space with you anymore, Josten,” Matt said, coming up from behind them with a drink in his hand. “Sleeping in my own bed with Dan last night was unreal.”
“You actually slept?” Allison said, eyebrow raised. She sidled up next to Renee and leaned her arm on her shoulder. “I couldn’t. It was too weird.”
“He was out like a light almost as soon as we got home,” Dan said, appearing beside her husband. He tucked her under his arm and shrugged.
“Major jet lag,” he said. “Or I guess it’s rocket lag.”
Andrew looked around the diner for Kevin, and found him seated at the long counter with Aaron. They’d all known each other in college, of course, but Andrew had never known them to be particularly close in the intimate sense that they had meaningful conversations together, so he was curious to know when an actual friendship had bloomed between them.
Katelyn stood behind Aaron, and Allison made her way over to Kevin, jostling him with her elbow. They’d always had a strange relationship that Andrew didn’t quite understand, and didn’t really care to.
“Andrew, dear, could you help me with the cake in the kitchen?” Bee asked him, and he brushed Neil’s arm and left him to his conversation with Matt and Dan before he followed his mother back through the diner and into the kitchen. There were several cakes laid out in a row on the long center counter, all decorated differently, all personalized to each of the Fox 10 crew. Andrew shook his head.
“You did too much,” he chided his mother gently, and she smiled.
“The cakes were partly Nicky’s idea,” she said. “But I liked it too. I know I might’ve gone a little overboard.” She eyed her son, and her smile turned softer. “You’re happy.”
Andrew didn’t show his emotions in any way that people could discern on his face, but Bee always knew. He nodded.
“He’s home,” he said simply.
“Did I tell you how proud I am of you?” Her eyes were sparkling, and she hugged him. He let her, his arms coming up around her back. “Neil is your first serious relationship, and I was worried how the distance might affect you when he left. But you made it through, Andrew. And I know you’re strong enough to survive on your own, but to see you with Neil, to see the effort you make for him, makes me so happy.”
“He’s not my reason for living,” Andrew promised her, to assure himself and his mother. It was something he’d talked about with his therapist while Neil was gone - he barely remembered the sessions, but he’d been going since college, and he knew it was a large part of the reason he’d survived and worked through his trauma. He’d been hesitant to talk about his relationship with Neil when it came up, but it couldn’t be avoided. His therapist had told him to be careful that he didn’t make Neil the end-all-be-all in his life. He couldn’t pin his survival on the existence of one person, couldn’t rely on his love for Neil to be an easy fix, and he couldn’t become too dependent. It was part of the reason Andrew had tried to keep at a safe length away from Neil, at first. Why he didn’t want to let him in too much in the beginning of their relationship. But he’d failed spectacularly at that.
He thought he was okay, though, at being self-reliant. At being strong enough to be on his own. He couldn’t say the year without Neil had been the hardest of his life, not when he considered his childhood, but it had been a test he wasn’t sure he could pass.
He had, though. He’d felt empty without Neil, yes. But he hadn’t become a shell.
“I know,” Bee said, smoothing her hand up Andrew’s back in the comforting way she always used to do when he was a child. She rubbed circles into it, pulling back from their hug with a proud smile and soft eyes. “I’m just so happy to see you in love like this. What a thing it is to watch.”
He wouldn’t get emotional. “Thanks, Mom,” he said quietly. She patted his cheek.
“Now, help me bring these cakes out, will you? The party’s just getting started.”
He followed her out of the kitchen, wheeling cakes out on a cart, and met Neil’s eyes when he emerged into the diner. Neil’s smile was enough to light up the world, as if he was so happy to see him again after just five minutes.
No, he wasn’t Andrew’s sole reason for living.
But he was the reason Andrew felt centered and settled.
He was the reason Andrew knew what happiness was.
And he wouldn’t ever give that up. Not for all the stars in the sky.
“I don’t want to scare you by saying this,” Neil said as he and Andrew swayed softly, dancing in his living room to the quiet music playing from outside. They didn’t know where it was coming from, but Neil had heard it and opened the windows to let the sound in. He’d coaxed Andrew into a slow dance.
Andrew stiffened slightly at the words, and he knew Neil felt it. Neil kissed his hair. “Forgive me if it’s too forward. But I need to say it.” They waltzed together in Neil’s room of plants, sunshine warming the floor under their bare feet. Andrew closed his eyes as Neil sighed.
“I think you’re it for me,” he whispered quietly. “I mean, I - I love you, sweetheart, and I can’t imagine ever wanting anyone else.”
It was the name that broke Andrew, every little ounce of feeling in his chest cracking apart and spilling into his veins. The enormity of that statement. The weight of Neil’s words. Andrew didn’t know if Neil even realized what he was saying.
But he’d known Neil long enough by now that Andrew knew he wasn’t in the habit of saying things he didn’t mean. He did not make declarations unless he understood the severity of them. He did not pronounce his feelings unless they were true and strong as steel.
“You’re it,” Neil repeated, squeezing Andrew’s hand where he held it up as they danced. “Forever, if you want that.”
Did he want that?
Andrew already knew the answer, but it terrified him.
So he kept his head on Neil’s shoulder, but he pressed a firm kiss to his neck.
And they kept dancing.
“Babe, are you ready? I don’t want to be late.” Neil poked his head into Andrew’s bedroom. His eyes widened, and he whistled when he saw Andrew’s reflection in the mirror. “Damn. You look so fucking sexy in a suit.”
Andrew rolled his eyes, but Neil came into the room and wrapped his arms around Andrew’s waist from behind, kissing his neck. Andrew watched their reflections. Neil looked unspeakably good in a suit, too, and Andrew thought about taking it off of him later.
The day of Renee and Patrick’s wedding had dawned, and Andrew felt . . . excited. He didn’t know if that was the right word, but he felt something akin to it. Anticipation, maybe. There was a certain warmth in his chest as he prepared for his best friend’s nuptials. The entire summer had been leading up to this, it felt like.
“I’m ready,” he said as he straightened his tie in the mirror. Neil playfully but his ear and cupped a hand around Andrew’s ass before he winked and left the room.
“Come on, then,” he taunted. Andrew’s eyes narrowed, but he followed. Neil had been over-affectionate since his return, but then, Andrew had been unusually touchy-feely with him too. Neither of them minded.
They took Andrew’s car to the wedding. Neil whistled when they pulled up to the venue and parked. “Wow. This place is beautiful.”
He took Andrew’s hand as he led him through the building and into the ceremony space, which was an outdoor botanical garden. Andrew had been surprised at the location - Renee was religious, and he would’ve thought she wanted to get married in a church. But she’d compromised with Patrick. The space was beautiful, greenery and flowers everywhere, and the weather was perfect for an outdoor wedding. White chairs with elegant organza bows were set up on either side of a white cloth runner that had been laid across the grass, leading to a large arch at the end with soft-colored flowers growing up the sides. There was a violinist off to the side, sitting near a rose bush.
Andrew and Neil found their seats, next to Matt, Aaron, and Kevin. Nicky and Erik were in the row behind them. “Hey, guys!” Matt grinned at them. “You clean up nice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with your hair gelled like that, Neil.”
He’d slicked it back for the wedding, and Andrew hated to admit it looked good. Though he’d shaved his beard, too, which Andrew objected to strenuously. He still had a pleasant burn in between his thighs from that beard.
“I’ve never been to a wedding,” Neil said. “I wanted to be fancy.”
“I hope the ceremony isn’t too long,” Nicky said from behind them. “I want to get to the reception and party.”
“Are you guys staying at the hotel?” Kevin asked Matt.
“Yeah, Dan and I got a room. Mostly because Dan’s in the bridal party, but we don’t want to drive back if we’re drinking.”
“Same here,” Aaron said.
“We booked one,” Nicky said. “And an extra night, just to treat ourselves. I hear the hotel has a great spa.”
The venue was only half an hour away from their homes, but Neil didn’t know that Andrew had booked them a room in the hotel where the reception would be, too.
They’d taken small trips together before, and they’d had plenty of “date nights,” as Neil lovingly referred to them, but Andrew was feeling romantic, and he’d followed the urge. He’d packed a bag for himself and Neil and hid it in the trunk of his car, and Neil hadn’t noticed.
Neil was always surprising him - he wanted to be the one to do it this time.
As Neil got wrapped up in conversation with Matt and Kevin, Andrew leaned towards his brother on his other side. He nudged Aaron, who raised an eyebrow at him.
“What?” Aaron asked.
“You and Kevin,” Andrew said. He didn’t know why it had been stuck in the back of his mind since the party at the diner, but he couldn’t shake it.
“What about it?”
“Just curious to know when you became more than just college buddies.”
“You know he was always more than that to us,” Aaron said, with surprising conviction. He shrugged at the look Andrew gave him, and didn’t explain anything further. Andrew was baffled.
But he couldn’t ask his brother anything more about it, because the music changed, signaling the start of the ceremony. Everyone was settled in their seats, and Renee’s pastor had taken her place under the arch.
Patrick went down the aisle first, beaming with happiness. The bridesmaids and groomsmen followed. Allison, Dan, Katelyn, and Renee’s cousin made up Renee’s side of the party, all wearing flowing pastel dresses and carrying lilac bouquets, flowers in their hair.
Renee was escorted down the aisle by her mother, Stephanie. She looked radiant. Her dress was a simple, modest lace gown, and she looked stunning. Andrew had ended up going with her to pick it out. She’d tried on about five dresses, but when she came out in this one, Andrew said, “That’s it,” and she agreed. It suited her well. When she passed Andrew’s row, she met his eyes and smiled. The corner of Andrew’s mouth quirked back at her, the most emotion he would give his friend.
But he was happy for her. She deserved this.
The ceremony was emotional. Neil took Andrew’s hand halfway through, and Andrew looked over to see tears in his eyes. Neil sniffled and looked over at Andrew sheepishly.
“Sap,” Andrew mouthed to him.
“I think I really like weddings,” Neil mouthed back.
As Renee and Patrick said their I do’s, Neil squeezed Andrew’s hand again, and something solidified in Andrew. He was going to ask Neil a question tonight, one he’d been thinking about for over a year. It had sustained him during the roughest days of Neil’s absence. It had been a dream he fantasized about for months, and he hadn’t planned on asking it for a while. But the look on Neil’s face strengthened his resolve.
When the bride and groom walked back down the aisle as husband and wife, everyone got up from their chairs and applauded, throwing grains of rice that had been provided in little bags on their chairs. The guests began to file out after the newlyweds. The hotel where the reception would be held was five minutes away, and in the car on the way there, Neil wiped his eyes.
“I didn’t think I would get that emotional,” he said. “It’s just so nice to see Renee get married. And she looked beautiful. It was just really heartfelt.”
“I knew you would cry,” Andrew said, teasing him.
“You did not,” Neil said. He sighed happily and leaned back against the seat, smiling stupidly. “For my first wedding, that was great. I’m sad I missed Matt and Dan’s.” Those two had been married before Neil joined the astronaut program. “Do you think Kevin and Allison will get married?”
Andrew almost choked on barely restrained laughter. Neil laughed. “Alright, fine. What about Aaron and Katelyn?”
“Maybe,” Andrew said, though he wasn’t positive that would ever happen. His brother had been with Katelyn for years, and he knew their relationship was solid, but for whatever reason, Andrew just couldn’t picture them settling the way Renee and Patrick and Matt and Dan had. It wasn’t that his brother wasn’t the marriage type. Andrew had an aversion to Katelyn when she first started dating his brother, but he’d gotten over that - he didn’t have anything against her personally. He just wasn’t sure if she and Aaron would make a good married couple.
“Oh, we have Nicky and Erik’s wedding to look forward to!” Neil remembered. “They set a date, right?”
“Not yet.” His cousin was enjoying a long engagement.
“They’d better hurry up,” Neil said. “I think I might want a wedding now.”
Andrew flushed. “Do you?”
“I don’t know. It might be nice.” He grinned at Andrew to let him know he was only joking.
The sheer thought of marriage seemed so out of Andrew’s reach that he didn’t bother entertaining it. At least not yet. That was never something he’d considered possible for himself. Never something he thought the universe would allow him to have.
But the universe had allowed him to have Neil, after all. So maybe the stars were kinder to him than he’d thought.
Andrew and Neil found place settings with their names on them on a table in the hotel ballroom when they arrived. When dinner was served, Andrew thought it was the right time to tell Neil his surprise.
“I got us a room for tonight,” he said, only for Neil to hear.
Neil’s eyes widened, and he blushed. “Really?” His smile was luminous when Andrew nodded.
“I packed us a bag,” he said. “It’s in the trunk.”
“We’ve never gotten a hotel room before,” Neil pointed out, looking at Andrew in a way that made his stomach tighten. It was ridiculous. They weren’t teenagers on prom night. They each had their own apartment, and plenty of privacy. But this felt different. The novelty of it was exciting.
The night was sparkling. Andrew had never seen Renee look so happy, and all he could feel was pleased for her. As much as he hated social events, he didn’t mind this one. Weddings weren’t so bad.
Halfway through the night, Kevin, Neil and Matt started a conversation about work. Andrew wanted to tune it out, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to bear it. But he made himself listen.
“We just got back,” Matt said, rubbing his hands over his face in exhaustion. “But you guys heard what they said in the meetings, right? They’re talking about the moon again. NASA’s thinking about working with Russia. Roscocosmos wants to go to Mars, and this is the first time in years they’re willing to work with us instead of actively trying to beat us.”
“They said they already have a shortlist of candidates for a new moon mission,” Kevin said, glancing quickly at Andrew and then away, so quickly Andrew would’ve missed it if he wasn’t paying attention. Kevin looked at Neil, his smile a little grim. “We’re on it.”
Andrew saw the light in Neil’s eyes, the dreamy glow that came over him at the prospect of flying to the moon, and he pretended it didn’t tear him apart.
He just got Neil back.
But he’d always known he was going to have to let him go again. He just didn’t think it would be so soon.
“When?” Neil asked. And though his tone was filled with excitement, he squeezed Andrew’s knee under the table. As if to say I’m sorry.
“Not for a couple years,” Matt said.
That eased the ache in Andrew’s heart. Just a little bit.
“Five, at the most, I think,” Kevin guessed. Andrew breathed a little more. Five years. That was a long time. He would have five years of peace with Neil, if he was lucky.
The conversation switched to other things, and Andrew pushed thoughts of how far away the moon was - 238,900 miles, compared to the 254 mile distance to the space station - from his mind. It was a good night. It wasn’t time to dwell on the future.
When the dancing began, Neil grinned and pulled a reluctant Andrew onto the floor. After Renee and Patrick had shared their first dance together, the DJ they’d hired for the evening’s entertainment invited everyone else to join in. Andrew would’ve been happy to watch Neil make a fool of himself trying to dance to the party music that played, but then the DJ slowed things down. And the song was familiar.
It was the same song Neil had once heard from his window, and slow-danced to with Andrew in his living room. It was one of Andrew’s favorite memories. When Neil had told him he wanted forever.
Andrew knew Neil was remembering as he took his hand and pulled him up from his chair. They fit together perfectly, swaying gently to the music. Neil pressed his forehead to Andrew’s and closed his eyes, a small, soft smile on his face.
Maybe now was the time to dwell on the future, after all. Andrew couldn’t hold it in anymore. He was a supernova waiting to implode.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, making Neil’s eyes open.
“Yeah?” Neil smiled, his hand pressing into Andrew’s back.
“Let’s move in together.”
For a moment, Neil stopped moving. They paused in the middle of the dance floor, still in waltz position.
“Yes,” Neil whispered, nodding fast, his eyes shining. Before Andrew could speak again, to ask him if he was sure, if he really wanted it, he said, “Yes, yes. Let’s move in together. Okay.”
“I’ve been . . . thinking about it. For a long time,” Andrew said.
“Me too,” Neil admitted, kissing the side of his mouth. “I thought about it at least once a week while I was up there. I never put words to it, but I’ve always wanted something more permanent with you. I want to build a life and a home with you, Andrew.”
The words rattled him to his core, but he stood steady. It shook the stars and knocked the planets out of alignment. It was a good kind of earthquake, though. No foundations were broken; only new ones would be built from it.
“Good,” was all he could bring himself to say.
The song ended, but they stood there in the middle of the dance floor for a moment longer, holding each other.
“No matter what happens,” Neil whispered to him. “No matter where I go. No matter how many miles away from you I am. No matter how many planets I visit or missions I go on. You will always be my home, Andrew.” He kissed his mouth, so gently. “You.”
Andrew closed his eyes. He pulled the words in close to his chest, feeling them burn bright.
In that moment, he felt what Neil must have felt every time he looked up at the stars. Just . . . peace.
And it was enough.