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out of the brush

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When Neil found this house, it was a 'take it as it is' kind of deal.

All the old furniture and knick knacks had been left untouched, unmoved, all bathed in a thin coating of dust Neil could draw smiley faces on as he walked around surveying it with Dan and Matt.

They'd been less than thrilled about Neil living in a place like this, but of all the houses they'd visited, it was not only the cheapest, but the one he felt safest in.

For whatever reason, the previous owners had decided they'd had enough of wrangling the jungle of a lawn, or making sense of the random rooms with no windows and peeling paint. There was simply no way to install marble countertops and glistening tiles into a timeless foundation that wouldn't budge for anything.

The listers hadn't wanted to touch it either; the house apparently had a history of falling apart and never staying put when a change was made. There was always something stuck in the gutters, the back ravine was flooded with mud no matter how many walls they put up, and the iron gate squeaked shrilly despite all maintenance.

It is the definition of something that would've been better off left alone, but was twisted and hammered at despite that.

And well, revenge is revenge, even from a house.

Now, when Neil runs his hands along the chipped walls, he can see where previous colors rain down, sloppily piled on top of one another. Never sticking, never staying, never bothering to fit the mold of a functional, standard suburban home.

It's an ugly, angry little thing. But he thinks it's far from decrepit. Once he had walked in, the sun shone on all the plastic wrapped furniture, remnants of people who didn't even want to take the time to move out, so unwilling to bear it any longer.

"So, how about it?" The listing agent asked nervously as she watched Neil stare up at the popcorn ceiling in the master bedroom. It was amazing honestly, how she could still have hope even after what he guessed to be tons of 'hell fucking no's. He could practically feel Dan and Matt biting their nails behind him, already trying to convince themselves that Neil couldn't possibly say yes, but...that it was also exactly what he would do.

And Neil had smiled at the big bay windows, stuck slightly crooked in the middle of the room with rusted handles, and upon hearing the wind attempt to rattle them to no avail, knew he had found his home.

He made no changes other than moving out the previous owners' things and replacing them with his own, and his 'upkeep' consisted of covering some of the shoddy spots with funny knick knacks and wall hangings. Neil's quite fond of his five cuckoo clocks.

The lawn grew even more horrendous with the addition of Neil's elaborate, and unfinished, fairy garden. He's not even sure where the little village is anymore, the grass having grown over it months ago.

He thinks it's more fun that way though.

So he had given the home it's freedom of the past and moved his tiny, unremarkable new life into it. The only thing he hadn't attempted to touch was the attic.

That was beyond him, beyond anyone, and he took it as a sign to leave it alone.

The attic is it's own world, and it's impossible to see the floor. Neil dreamed the first night about getting lost in there, and no one finding him. Generations of stuff litter it from wall to wall, from sewing machines to spinning wheels, old coat poles, dressers, and jewelry boxes that can't be opened without keys. Cookie tins hold a mixture of treasures; sewing supplies, old letters written in languages even he doesn't understand, and collectible coins from every state.

German bills, winter boots, and first editions sit withered and faded, coming apart at the edges. The house has probably collected something from every decade it's had the pleasure of withstanding, and refuses to back down.

The floor dusts over a day after sweeping, so Neil gave up on that too.

It's endless, and he's carved out a path for himself to make his way through it whenever he's up there. If he didn't know any better, he'd say it moves. He always feels like things are in different spots, or new things make themselves known to him, begging him to take an interest and move it out. The pink vanity and typewriter had been tempting, once or twice.

He's never been interested in exploring the attic for reasons other than to add his own things to the ever-growing collection, however...

He knows he saw a brush up there.

And no, not a normal brush made of plastic or wood that they sell nowadays. Those break off at the handle as soon as he so much as strokes one through Atlas' hair. He's already got a little shoebox graveyard of combs and brushes in his room, right next to a very smug puppy.

No, he means one of those old antique brushes, cast in brass or silver with thick white bristles.

And heh, he'd been right.

Atlas lets out a loud yowl that is, in Neil's honest opinion, a little dramatic. Neil pouts as he drags the brush cleanly through Atlas' thick coat. Finally, he's found something that can handle it. The handle of the brush is heavy and sturdy in his hand, the brass not yielding to the tangles or fluff. The ornate carvings on the brush leave indents in Neil's palm from how hard he's gripping it, but so be it.

All for the sake of his doggie.

"Oh stop it," Neil scolds in his tone reserved only for Atlas, his voice pitched slightly higher. He's glad no one can hear him talk like this, it's childish and way friendlier than he ever is with people. He can't help it, cute animals bring that out in him. Even stubborn ones like this.

His kindness is reserved for them and like...four people, and one of those people is the McDonald's cashier.

Atlas turns his head to glare at Neil, but Neil just coos at him some more as he snaps another sparkly bow into place on the dog's coat. He bought a big packet of barrettes online for this purpose alone. They're gold and glittery to match his puppy's eyes, and Neil has them strategically spread out in tufts of fur to keep the thick portions tamed.

"What a good boy," Neil says as he clips in another one. Atlas growls, but Neil knows better now. Atlas has been coming over to spend time with him for the last three weeks, and as dangerous as he likes to act, he's never so much as snapped at Neil. It's weird; Andrew tried to tell him how unruly and hostile the dog could be with others, but Neil hasn't picked up on it at all.

Currently, Neil is resting against one of Atlas' sides, since it's too hard to comb his whole coat from one place. The dog is simply too huge, and Neil has spent the last hour brushing his coat in sections. He thinks he's being gentle, but it's hard. The bristles catch on matted fur every once in a while, and Neil has to wrestle with it a bit before he can successfully clip a bow into it.

At least Atlas trusts him now, from how much time they spend together. The dog has no problem letting Neil climb all over him and rest against him to reach some of the more difficult spots.

"It's all going to be worth it," Neil sighs as he leans back, surveying his work. Atlas' black fur is dotted with the glittery bows, some traveling up his spine and ending tastefully at the tail.

Atlas looks the furthest thing from impressed.

Neil giggles over this again and again, it never gets old: Atlas' emotions. The dog is expressive, so much so that Neil almost feels like he's speaking to someone. He blames it on his lack of social skills, or his affinity for animals, and chooses to ignore it. He doesn't need to think he's stranger than he already is.

Instead, he giggles and scratches Atlas under the chin. The dog follows the sensation, rising up as Neil scratches harder, the way he likes. The dog closes his eyes sometimes now, and it never fails to make Neil smile. Atlas trusts him, and Neil no longer fears that one day the dog may never return.

"Who's a pretty doggie?" Neil coos again, and the dog goes still before sneezing again and wrenching himself away. He still hasn't figured out what that means. Neil laughs again though at how disgruntled the animal looks, his menacing nature canceled out by the tuft of hair sticking up on his head, clipped in place by a glittery bow.

Neil laughs harder, and the dog turns to him slowly, watching him with that same focus that never seems to let up.

Neil always has to stop himself from asking what the dog is looking at.

His laughter fades into small wheezes, and the next thing he knows Atlas is climbing across the bed over to him. The mattress creaks under the weight, and even after only three weeks, there's a dip in the center. Neil needs to get a new mattress.

Neil welcomes the dog with open arms, though he still hasn’t found answers online about this behavior. Atlas will walk over, then place his head firmly on top of Neil's before nuzzling him from side to side. He'll start at the head and move down to the side of Neil's face, rubbing harshly into his cheeks and down to his neck. Then, he'll move to the other side to do the same.

It tickles.

Neil laughs as his airway is effectively blocked by a giant dog for a few seconds, face completely covered in the fur of Atlas' chest. When Atlas is satisfied with whatever he's done, he grunts to himself and sits back, looking almost disappointed with himself.

"You're so weird," Neil sighs fondly, before face planting in the dog's chest. Atlas boofs softly, but doesn't tense up or move away like he would before. Neil wonders when the dog got so comfortable.

Before, Atlas was eyeing him warily, watchful of Neil's hands and movements. Now, he's happy to be used as a pillow for Neil to flop into.

Neil inhales deeply, always searching for a scent. There never is one.

Atlas doesn't smell like a dog. He doesn't smell like anything. Even with all the scented shampoos Neil has been buying him, there's nothing there.

Slowly, the dog bites into the back of Neil's hoodie and pushes him away, nestling him just where he wants him to be. He knows herding dogs exist, but this feels less like being herded and more like being actually moved. Atlas picks Neil up by his clothes and scoots him just so with his snout before carving out a space against him. With a huff, the dog plops right down next to Neil, bathing him in warmth. Neil curls right into Atlas's neck, his massive head plopping on top of Neil's to use as a platform.

Neil huffs, and gently pets the dog's fur. It's soft now, fluffy, no tangles.

He wonders why neither Andrew nor his brother take the time to brush or bathe Atlas, but if Neil's being honest, he's happy to. It brings him some purpose, to be responsible for something other than his own survival, to take care of it with more kindness than he's ever been able to give himself.

Still, Neil questions why Andrew never comes to visit. Neil knows he's not good at reading people, but with how much time he and Andrew also spend together now...

He'd think they were friends? Maybe?

Something in Neil's stomach flips uncomfortably at the thought of Andrew, and Atlas lifts his head, peering down at Neil.

How do you know when to do that?

Neil pulls back to search the dog's face. His eyes remind him of Andrew's, but blank in the moment, not as open. Andrew's eyes always sparkle with something when he's around Neil, either amusement, or a secret he's waiting Neil to mine for.

It's a bit uncanny though, how similar their personalities are. They're both so standoffish, yet for some reason they've chosen to open up to Neil. Atlas, through touch and Neil's care. Andrew, through his words.

Andrew doesn't seem like it, but he's an oversharer, constantly confessing things to Neil out of the blue about his dislikes, his past, his opinions. Neil found it jarring at first, and part of him still wonders why Andrew trusts him with the information so randomly. Andrew doesn't seem like the type to give so much away.

Yet, it doesn't feel as if Neil is being used as a dumping ground, or that Andrew is forcing himself. It's as if he wants to, and the more Neil learns, the more Neil feels himself gravitating towards the blond.

Atlas tilts his head down at Neil, and Neil pets him distractedly as he speaks. "How come your owner never comes to see us, huh?" he asks, and the dog stills. Neil stops too, making sure it wasn't something he did. Every once in a while, Atlas gives off some very strong do not touch me vibes, but this isn't that. Neil smirks. "You think he's afraid I'll tear into him about his poor pet care?"

Something in the dog's throat rumbles, on the edge of a growl, and Neil laughs before he shrugs. He's not sure where he's going with this. He's begun to use Atlas as his own personal therapist; it's easy to do, since he's not a person who can judge him or give him useless advice. Neil knows in the long run it's probably not helpful in the same way a therapist might be, but he's not ready for that and doesn't know if he ever will be. It helps just to be able to speak his feelings aloud though, and Atlas has been on the receiving end of many of Neil's confessions. His past, his opinions, his fears.

Talking about Andrew falls into a new category, but not one Neil can discern quite yet.

"It's easy to talk to him," Neil confesses, resuming his pets once Atlas relaxes. "Other people? Not so much."

Not that he tries, and it always feels like he has to try. People either usually hate him or tolerate him. It's rare he meets people like Dan or Matt, who want what's best for him and treat him like family.

Even then, their pity and sympathy can be overwhelming at times. It's not their fault, they just worry about him. They want him to adjust, without understanding that adjusting was never quite an option in some respects.

It's less about fitting himself into the typical mold of acceptable, and more about making his own mold for how he functions in the world. His view of the world, which is past the point of being reset.

He's finding bright spots though; the dark parts never go away, they simply shrink in comparison to the good things.

Andrew understands that, and Neil, on a wider level; Neil feels accepted, even the uglier parts, the parts that don't prove that he's gotten better, because sometimes he's just not okay. Andrew doesn't bother extending his pity or his concern, he simply lets Neil be.

And by doing so, Neil actually ends up comforted. Being around Andrew has a strange effect on him, he feels warm, less tense, yet energetic all the same.

It's too much for him to have a grasp on; examining his own emotions has never been a strong suit. All he knows is that the long car rides with Andrew, grabbing lunch and walking through the park, sound way less exhausting than—

"Matt and Dan want to take me out to a bar tomorrow night," Neil states, groaning to himself. Atlas paws at him, and he takes it as his cue to continue. "I think they worry I don't get out enough, which is fair or whatever. But.."

He hates bars, but it's his own fault that his friends don't know that. Neil doesn't want to make them worry any more than they already do, but telling them that he'd rather stay home isn't exactly an option. He would tell them about spending time with Andrew, because he thinks that counts as getting out, but he'd rather not face their probing alone. Plus, as comfortable as he is with Andrew, they've only known each other for three weeks.

That's nothing.

Andrew's the definition of a stranger without feeling like one, and given Neil's history, Matt and Dan are inclined to be protective.

He smiles at that. He does appreciate them, truly he does. He's just not great at being 100% transparent yet.

Atlas whines lowly at Neil's silence and Neil turns to smile at him. "I know they mean well, but it gets hard to stomach how they look at me," Neil admits. He rubs at Atlas' whiskers as he does it, because it makes him look like he's smiling back. "They don't mean to but I always get the sense I'm doing it wrong. The whole....having free will thing. Having a life."

So many years of being beaten into submission and hiding builds habits that don't just go away overnight. Neil doubts he'll ever be the type to completely let loose and go wild. To him, letting loose is shopping online and spending hours at the nickel arcade with Andrew.

Being alive, and being able to have his own goals and expectations, is more of a rush than he ever could've expected to have. Hell, going wild was buying this house.

Which he would bet money on being haunted, but if there are ghosts here, they leave him alone.

He glances up at the discolored ceiling and wonders if a bar would be more fun with Andrew there. He can imagine the blond lounging in a booth, nursing some kind of drink Neil doesn't know the name of, making up stories about the people who walk by. Neil can almost feel his weight next to him, sturdy and unmoving.

His stomach flip flops again with a rush of something, and Atlas flinches.

"Maybe one day Andrew can come and I won't feel so out of place," Neil jokes, booping Atlas on the nose. "Your owner is even worse with people than I am."

And he likes that, he likes that Andrew doesn't care what people think.

He wonders if Andrew has ever been in a bar fight. That would be a cool story; he learned a few days into their acquaintanceship that Andrew does maintenance and construction around the outskirts of town, which isn't surprising in the slightest. Andrew could probably lift Neil and throw him pretty far.

And...if Andrew is anything like Atlas, he's calm and harmless until provoked.

Atlas half growls, half whines, and suddenly leaps over Neil and off the bed. He shakes his coat out roughly, and some of Neil's barrettes go flying. Neil gasps at the shock, and almost rolls off the bed from not having anything to hold him in place anymore.

Atlas blinks at him once before he walks calmly towards the door, turns around, and sits pristinely. And well, Neil knows what it means when Atlas tilts his head towards the door. Oh...

Now, Neil knows Atlas will come back, but it doesn't stop his heart from clenching a little whenever he leaves.

Call him pathetic, for missing a dog and his unruly owner all at once.

"Hey...you're not gonna stay tonight?" Neil asks, and at Atlas' silence, finds his answer. Neil sits up in bed hastily, his hair a mess from Atlas' nuzzling. "But..."

He reaches to the edge of his bed to pull back some packing paper, and pulls out the biggest, softest pillow he could find online. It's frilly, with memory foam.

It's got bones on it.

"But I got you a special pillow," Neil says, voice pouting as he holds it up for Atlas to see and approve of. It's a dog, his brain says again, like it always does. Neil doesn't know how much convincing he can possibly do, if any, but he swears he sees the dog's shoulders droop, resigned to it all.

Neil bites his bottom lip, eyes shining with the silent plea, but even he can sense that the dog has had enough. Neil guesses he understands. Being cooped up isn't easy for such a large animal, and he needs constant exercise.

He marks it on his list of other things to complain to Andrew about.

Neil puts down the pillow slowly, and doesn't bother to mask his disappointment as he stares at the floor. He hears the dog breath in and out deeply, like a sigh, and then the sound of claws on the hardwood meets Neil's ears. However, the gentle tapping sound doesn't fade out of the room, it gets louder.

Neil looks up to find Atlas sitting in front of him; with Neil slightly elevated on the bed, they're about the same height. Neil blinks at him; usually Atlas' goodbye doesn't include anything more than him walking away to wait for Neil to open the backdoor.

The dog's gaze reminds him of the first night they met, all too questioning and human-like. Weighing the options.

"Hm? What is it puppy?" Neil asks, but Atlas only stares, contemplating Neil's face with barely audible breath. In fact, if Neil's not mistaken, he'd say the dog isn't breathing at all. Concerned, Neil begins to lean forward, only to be met soon after with a warm tongue against his cheek.

Wh—

Neil freezes at the same time Atlas hesitates; they stay there for a moment, unmoving. Atlas still isn't breathing for some reason, and neither is Neil, but that's due to excitement. It's silly but, he always assumed it was normal for dogs to be affectionate with their licks, and Atlas has never licked him before. Stupidly, Neil feels his heart swell.

Then, the dog licks Neil's cheek again. It's tiny, it's fleeting, and as soon as it's done Atlas jolts back up at a distance, ramrod straight. His face gives nothing away, but Neil would compare it to needing to go to the bathroom really bad. For a moment, he looks like a stuffed dog. He doesn't move so much as a muscle, and Neil thinks if he were to tap him, he'd just fall over.

Thank god Neil lives alone, because he nearly squeals. Neil has never made that noise in his life, and he's not about to start, but this dog is just too much. "Aw! I love you too!"

And because he's never been normal, he leans forward and kisses Atlas on the nose in return.

All hell breaks loose.

The dog immediately goes cross eyed, staring at his nose for all of three seconds before turning around and hightailing it out of there. Neil yelps at the sharpness of it, watching the way Atlas' paws skid against the hardwood in his haste.

He hears several things in the hallway fall over and crash loudly to the floor.

Neil runs after him, but as speedy as he might be, he's no match for the dog.

Neil still hasn't figured out how Atlas does it, but moments later when he gets to the back door, it's open, and Atlas is gone.

Neil snorts to himself, and adds another thing to his list of suggestions for Andrew:

Atlas definitely needs more attention.

--

Coincidentally, Andrew calls him thirty minutes later and invites him out shopping, and Neil tries not to sound too eager when he agrees.

He doesn't like to admit it, but Andrew has a way of easing his nerves by doing nothing more than existing nearby.

Neil's still on edge about the bar meetup when he hops into Andrew's truck, but it's as if the blond has an immediate calming effect on him. Neil sinks into the dingy leather seats with a sigh, the equivalent to hot steam surrounding his aching muscles. The tension bleeds out before Andrew so much as speaks, and Neil almost feels drowsy with the warmth. He's surrounded by Andrew in the tiny front seat, and Andrew's scent is nothing fancy; smoke, rain, and maybe a drop of truck exhaust and fresh soil. Neil's not sure why he associates those things so strongly with the blond, but he can't help but inhale deeply.

He tries to be discreet about it, but this time he's so tired he doesn't catch himself. Andrew doesn't so much as blink; Neil even thinks he sees him wipe a smirk away.

Neil's a bit intimidated by how fast this became routine.

Andrew, self-identified loner, had decided to plant himself in Neil's life with a strong, silent refusal to budge. Long phone calls during nights when Atlas couldn't be there, drives to and from campus, and quiet dinners had become things Neil expected. While that was dangerous, he convinced himself he now had the freedom to take small risks like that.

And anyways, Andrew seemed in no hurry to leave his side either.

As wary as Neil was at first, his walls did less crumbling, and more opening up. It's like there's one Andrew shaped door in the foundation, allowing the blond safe passage. Every once in a while he might encounter an obstacle, but he waits until Neil lets him clear it. Patience is something the man only seems to afford to Neil, and he still has no idea what he did to earn it.

Even Dan and Matt had taken a few months to wear Neil down enough to get secrets and trust out of him, but maybe it's because Andrew doesn't push that makes it so easy to offer those things up.

Plus, Andrew has a cute dog, which is just a bonus.

"These might be good for training," Neil says as he holds up a box of artificial bacon treats. Currently, they're at the pet store, since Neil insisted on picking up some toys for Atlas. The treat section had caught his eye, despite how much Andrew tried to steer him away.

He shakes the box in Andrew's face as the blond glares at it in pure disgust. "He does not eat that shit."

Pft.

Neil rolls his eyes and throws them into his cart with a smirk. Atlas might be special, but he's still a puppy. Puppies love snacks.

"He will for me," Neil replies confidently, and Andrew's eyes drift sadly down to the box of treats.

He scrubs a hand over his face, eyeing Neil with palpable exhaustion. "I have a feeling you're right."

Drama queen.

Neil trots down the rows after that, throwing in a mess of things; rope toys, bouncy balls, bones. He eyes the leashes; would Atlas like walks? He ends up leaving the section undecided, suddenly feeling scrambled and overheated at the topic. Maybe it's just the feeling of Andrew twitching behind him that makes him antsy out of nowhere, or his nerves.

Oh well, another time.

Andrew sighs behind him as they walk.

Yeah, yeah. Unlike you, I want to make sure I'm able to take care of Atlas.

As Neil stocks up on shampoo, his mind drifts back his predicament. Andrew's presence can't diminish his anxieties completely, not all the time. He thinks of Dan and Matt as he does his best to read the label of the lavender scented bottle, but doesn't process the words.

Could he...could he ask Andrew to come?

He's not sure, he's never been in that situation. He wants him there yes, but he's never actually invited the blond anywhere. They just...end up places. And it's nice, but leaves Neil totally at a loss for the best way to broach the subject.

He's seen how Andrew acts around others; contrary, making them jump through hoops. Andrew doesn't like requests posed in the normal way, and Neil is all too understanding. It feels like being cornered, trapped.

But would it feel that way if Neil asked?

He doesn't get the chance to think much longer, because Andrew's hand comes into view to grab the shampoo carefully out of his hands. Neil tracks the movement until all he sees is golden eyes boring into him, and Neil can almost predict the words out of Andrew's mouth before he speaks.

"You're nervous about something," Andrew states, doesn't ask. Because for some reason, he always seems to pick up on it.

And rather than just accept it, this time Neil can't help but ask. "How do you know?"

He doesn't deny it though; Andrew makes him feel like he doesn't have to. Still, no one should be able to tell how Neil is feeling about anything. It's a force of habit, one he's mastered. Emotions are dangerous things to give away, and his mother spent many years making sure Neil could mask them to the point of being a shell. Nothing rises to the surface, and he knows this. He knows he's good. He's been on the edge of a breakdown while grabbing coffee with Dan, he's been near crumbling during group projects. No one ever knows, because he doesn't want them to. He thinks Matt and Dan have gotten better at sensing it, but they're never confident, never sure.

But Andrew—

"I told you before, I'm a people person," the blond deadpans, and Neil can't help but laugh. It's a hiccuping, pathetic thing, but it's not fake. That's enough.

"Sure," Neil whispers, and decides to forget the lavender scent, and throws the oat one into his cart instead. Lavender never sticks to Atlas' fur, maybe oats will.

"You're in pain too," Andrew comments, and at that Neil flinches before looking down at his feet. Well...the other day he had twisted his ankle a bit while giving Atlas a bath but—

He had been completely hiding that too.

Baffled, Neil opens and closes his mouth several times. Maybe he'd been limping after all. "I—I mean my ankle kind of hurts?"

Andrew nods, giving Neil the once over. He's done it tons of times, but over the weeks Neil has begun to shiver at the feeling of Andrew's eyes taking him in completely. Again, he's left asking: what do you see?

Distracted, Neil reaches up to touch his scars, then freezes when Andrew tracks that movement too. The blond's gaze, typically hard and unforgiving, softens for him.

"We can get a brace next door at the pharmacy," Andrew says as he herds Neil to the next aisle without Neil realizing, but there's no resistance as he goes. He throws some pig ears in the basket, just to have something to do with his hands, because for a moment his instinct is to latch onto Andrew's sleeve. The last of Neil's whits dissolve when after a moment, Andrew decides to add, "Your scars aren't ugly."

And...and that's not true. Neil knows his scars are in fact, very ugly, and jarring on top of things. It's impossible to go anywhere without stares, without hearing the occasional gasp.

But that's not what Andrew means, and that's not what Neil hears.

Instead, all the registers is: 'Your scars aren't ugly to me.'

Neil halts, turning back to Andrew fast, like the lightning strikes he hates so much with questions he can't form. Because he doesn't know what to ask, what he's missing. But it's there, on the tip of his tongue. How do you know?

Only when he turns does he realize how closely the blond had been following him. Andrew's odd that way too; he keeps his distance from everyone, never touching, never giving anyone the chance to so much as graze him. But with Neil he hovers, and Neil never knew how much he likes that feeling of being surrounded by something that won't harm, will only protect.

Where has he felt that way before?

They're nearly chest to chest now, but despite the way Neil locks up, Andrew is unperturbed as he bulldozes forward. Like his dog, there's nothing that can stand in his way, not even the redness Neil swears he sees for a split second on Andrew's pale cheeks. "Do you want to go somewhere tomorrow night?"

Neil balks at the abrupt shift in the topic, and how it gets him back to his initial predicament with an eerie efficiency. Andrew couldn't possibly know, it's just an invitation.

Right, normal.

Though...when has Andrew ever asked him like that?

At a loss, Neil grasps for words for once.

"I—I'm meeting my friends at the bar on 5th," Neil says in lieu of an answer, then shakes his head from the strangeness of it all. He knows Andrew isn't the typical friend, and that he makes Neil feel different than most people, but still. Neil has never not had a grasp of his words, of his train of thought. Sure, he feels flustered on the inside, but it's something he should be able to reel back and mull over on his own. He certainly shouldn't be showing it. He feels like someone else's emotions are being injected into him, frazzling and flustering.

But...he's where he wanted to be, albeit awkwardly, so he gives up trying to do anything smoothly, and asks, "Do you want to come?"

Neil never expects anything from Andrew, but he likes to think he can read the blond well ninety percent of the time. It's not intentional, they're similar. They have messy pasts and muddled instincts.

However, this falls in the other ten percent.

"I'll meet you there," Andrew answers immediately before walking forward, and thus, walking Neil with him. At Neil's total lack of willingness to move, Andrew actually passes him, and it dawns on Neil that he's not used to seeing Andrew's back. Andrew always walks behind him.

Even as the blond passes him, he turns around sharply, peering behind Neil. He does this a lot, and Neil’s not sure who learned it first, Andrew or his dog.

Neil blinks. That was easy but...is it always that easy? "Um."

Andrew quirks a brow, and the amusement soaks into his gaze, laughing at Neil. It's a joke Neil can't grasp quite yet, but for once his pettiness is outweighed by his joy. Andrew said he'd meet him there. Andrew will be with him.

Neil can't stop the grin that blooms on his face.

"Wow, speechless? You?" Andrew drawls, and Neil glares without heat. He'll give him that. Andrew did see Neil cuss out that dog walker the other day.

But hey, he hadn't picked up after his dog, and the harness he was using was way too small.

He deserved the punch too.

"Fuck you," Neil mumbles, but it's weakened more by his laugh. Andrew shakes his head in mock disappointment.

"You're losing your edge."

And yeah, he probably is. It sure feels that way lately. Neil's smile grows even more.

"Well, maybe that's a good thing," he sighs, and tosses in some more bones as they walk towards the checkout just to make Andrew cringe.

Honestly, you act like I'm making you eat them.

Neil has not ever been soft. He's wispy edges no one can grab, and shadows no one can see. He's been cold, and distant. But ever since Dan and Matt, since Andrew, that has begun to change. This feeling now, whatever it is, is not one he wants to stop. He doesn't matter if it makes him weak, he's at the point where he can embrace it.

And anxiety be damned, he'll get through that too. He's survived worse.

"You did put those hideous bows on my dog," Andrew continues with an edge of judgement, and when Neil turns around to smirk at him, Andrew is almost pouting.

Funny, your dog did the same thing.

"They were not! He looked so cute!" Neil says, and Andrew brings his own hands over his ears, and then to Neil's mouth. Neil's legs shake, unsteady, before Andrew pulls back.

Those eyes are locked on him again, and Andrew inhales deeply, closing his eyes. "I never want to hear you say that again."

Ha.

Neil's about to ask why Andrew insists on being so unaffectionate when it comes to his dog, when Andrew surprises him yet again. The blond stuffs his hands into his pockets and stares down at Neil's cart, not looking at him. He clears his throat, and opens the can of worms. "How's my dog, anyways?"

And oh, Neil's favorite subject.

Neil talks Andrew's ear off all the way to the pharmacy and back to the car, telling him about how good Atlas has been, how he's learning to fetch but...isn't quite getting it. He keeps trying to bring Neil back pretty rocks and dead rats, and the one time Neil said no, he brought back a rather large tree limb instead.

It's fine, they'll get there.

By the time Neil is done singing the dog's praises, he's nearly out of breath. He can't help it, it's been nice not to be alone in his house, and the dog has been very good at finding Neil's little fairy statues in the garden. He breaks them sometimes, but it's about the effort.

Neil settles back in the leather seat of the truck, admiring Andrew's profile with a smile. For once, Andrew doesn't tell him to stop staring, though Neil knows he's aware. Instead, Andrew soaks up the words and the attention like the sunlight coming through the driver's side window. "I'm glad I can take care of him, it makes me feel...better," Neil confesses softly.

Andrew knows a lot about Neil's past, about his issues, more than most people. Neil probably talks to him nearly as much as he talks to Atlas nowadays, but he's a bit more reserved when it comes to Andrew. Hesitant. Talking about these things with a human audience is...never something he'll be confident about.

Andrew pulls up in front of Neil's house like he's done dozens of times, gazing out across the jungle lawn before turning back to Neil. His keys have a little bone keychain hanging from them now, courtesy of Neil, and it sways when Andrew cuts the engine.

Neil watches Andrew's hands as they follow their usual path, gliding up the steering wheel, then back down before finally resting on Andrew's knees. It's a nervous tick; that's what Neil thought at first. Now he's not so sure.

Andrew's not the nervous type, but not only that...

It's as if Andrew is keeping something in check.

The blond exhales as he stares, and Neil is dissected and resealed all in the span of a few seconds.

And, in a habit Neil still can't understand, Andrew gives him something without Neil asking.

"I wanted a dog because people are difficult for me," Andrew says, voice low. He says that part without much trouble, but the next part has him clenching his fists, knuckles cracking audibly in the small space between them. Andrew pushes himself with these confessions, but he doesn't need to. Neil doesn't need to know if Andrew doesn't want him to know. But Andrew goes on anyways, strikingly reminiscent of Neil's own feelings on the subject. "I never liked talking to other people, and I wasn't raised with my brother until much later, so the whole sibling bonding was delayed. I'm not used to being around anyone worthwhile."

Neil blinks, mulling the words over. The way Andrew talks about Aaron now is...well, annoyed, but familiar. Close. It's what makes the reality surprising. "You didn't know you had a twin?"

Andrew's knuckles crack again. "I was put in foster care. He wasn't."

A seed of rage is planted in Neil's chest; as feisty as he is, it's been a while since he's felt this pure, white hot hostility. It pains him more that there's no one here to lash out at, no one to scream at or threaten. He knows Andrew's mother is gone, his father was never in the picture.

Neil hopes they burn anyways.

"Stop," Andrew says, but it's too soft for Neil to take seriously. He's too angry to analyze it too, the way Andrew can somehow sense his temper flare up beneath his skin.

"You didn't have to tell me if you didn't want to," Neil says instead, almost desperate. He knows Andrew spends a great deal of time protecting Neil from nonexistent threats, it's just the way Andrew is. He looks after people, despite despising the majority of them.

Yet, Neil feels like he should return the favor when he can. He'll keep all Andrew's secrets safe, sure. But they're allowed to stay solely with their owner.

"It's not about want," Andrew says, and Neil doesn't get that either.

"You're not obligated—"

"I know," Andrew interrupts, sure and steady, and despite the shift in mood, the blond seems to relax back in his own seat. He looks almost drowsy, and it's just a feeling inside Neil, an inkling that he doesn't know if he can trust, but he swears...

Andrew seems content. The blond reaches into the back to grab Neil's bag of pet supplies, and plops it into his lap. "I feel like telling you things. Don't break your brain over it."

Before Andrew can pull away, Neil's hands jolt up on their own accord, digging into Andrew's sleeve. Andrew doesn't so much as flinch.

Grasping for something, anything to make Andrew feel less on the spot, Neil opens his mouth. "You know, my mom—"

"You don't have to do that."

"But...you just—"

"It's a truth for a truth, remember?" Andrew points out, referencing the little game they've fallen into over the last few weeks. They've never given a name to it, it happened to take shape. Andrew confesses something, Neil confesses something. It's equal, shared. They never give more than they want to, more than they can handle. Andrew's memory is better than Neil's, he knows that, so maybe he's losing count again. This happens a lot, after all.

But if Neil's being honest, he feels the need to keep count is all but nonexistent. It's whatever feels right, whatever they want to talk about.

"Yeah, but I feel like telling you things too, okay?" Neil says, and Andrew stubbornly turns away, staring down the road and into the distance. In that moment, he's so much like Atlas, and Neil snorts. "I swear..."

"Hm?" Andrew hums, sparing Neil a tentative glance. Shy now, all of a sudden?

For some reason, Neil feels warmth expand in his chest, carrying all the way through his body and down to his toes. It lights him on fire, lively, welcome sparks.

"Nothin' Andrew," Neil hums, and opens the door. At Andrew's glare, Neil salutes him, and resists the urge to pile back into the car to embrace the warmth some more. He'll see Andrew soon enough, and that's what he needs to get him through the next few hours. "See you later."

As he closes the door slowly, he catches Andrew leaning forward across the seat ever so slightly, unable to catch his own urge in time.

Neil walks backwards down the worn cobblestone path to the house, and nearly trips over the first porch step.

--

When Neil walks up to the bar, it's less rowdy than he expects.

The alcohol hits his nose, strong and potent, enough to make his insides feel sticky and sloshy. However, he notes it's not coming from the bar he's headed into, and he allows himself to feel hopeful as he gets closer.

The bar on 5th, as Matt put it, is stylized like a tavern, and it's not as packed as the other more modern bars on the same block. Whereas Neil hears loud music and strobing lights shining from just a few yards away, the bar in front of him hardly adds to the cacophony of sound. He hears outdated songs from another era, ones he probably won't be scolded for not knowing, and the subtle notes of laughter and jeers from through the oak door.

He smiles softly at the hanging fairy lights and old lamp posts which line the bar from the outside, adding to the old timey, abandoned feel.

Of course, Matt and Dan kept him in mind after all.

But, a bar is a bar, and that means there's bouncers.

Neil grumbles to himself as he walks up to the door; this is his least favorite part. He's small, and whenever he comes to these places he's subjected to at least one joke about his height or round cheeks. There's the classic 'we can't let kids in here' or 'are you sure you're old enough to drink' posed at him, sometimes multiple times in one night.

He wonders which one it'll be this time.

The two men at the door stop at his approach; they're tall, muscular, but Neil stares blankly at them. Not much intimidates him when his mind automatically generates escape routes, so all he feels is annoyance at the way they start to smirk down at him.

Here it comes...

One of the men leans forward, smile growing, before the first syllable leaps back into his throat and chokes him. It startles Neil, the abrupt suddenness with which the men pull themselves back, inhaling sharply.

For a split second, there's fear in their eyes, and their spines straighten as they put up their hands in surrender. "U—uh sorry we—"

The man makes another hesitant noise as he peers beyond Neil, and before he has time to ask, Neil feels two fingers tap gently at the base of his spine before following the curving path up to his neck. Everything in Neil's body seems to melt, the tension he hadn't even recognized fizzles out at the feeling of Andrew next to him.

Neil shivers as the blond comes into view beside him, leaving the ghost of burning hot hands on Neil's skin. The dose of comfort leaves him spinning, as does the overabundance of that scent. Smoke, soil, rain...

Andrew regards the bouncers with disinterest, but inclines his head. They straighten further, impossibly so. They remind Neil of those little Christmas nutcrackers. "Problem?"

"N-No, not at all," the first bouncer replies, and they both side step with bowed heads to let them through the door.

Andrew shrugs before gently nudging Neil forward. At a loss, Neil stumbles over the small step that leads into the tavern, and throws a look back at Andrew's impassive face. "Do you know them?"

It's all he can think to ask; he's not sure what warrants a reaction like that. He replays the moment in his head where the bouncer inhaled sharply, and sincerely hopes he doesn't stink.

Andrew shrugs again, eyes shining. "Nope."

--

He'd told Matt and Dan about bringing a new friend along, and while they'd seemed ecstatic over the phone, the bewilderment and judgement is much more palpable across the table.

He should've told them Andrew is the last person they want to start a staring contest with, since they won't win (Neil knows, he's tried).

Yet, here they are.

Dan takes in Andrew's blank expression and pits it against the fire in her own, as if her sternness and expectation alone can wear him down into cracking and showing the slightest bit of something. Annoyance, aggression, humor.

Anything to let them know he's an alright guy. Neil refrains from kicking her under the table.

Matt, meanwhile, is all smiles. His grin has been called disarming, cute, and impossible to withstand.

None of that seems to apply to Andrew. So, instead of letting it go like a normal person, Matt smiles wider, and Neil starts to worry about his cheeks splitting.

Neil chews on the end of his straw as he sips on the last few drops of his coke, the slurping sound too loud over the silence between them. He's suddenly thankful for the music, and the sirens of the pinball machine in the corner.

He never expected Andrew to be much of a talker, but a silent Dan and Matt...

He's at a loss.

Neil clears his throat and he has Andrew's full attention in an instant. Dan flinches when Andrew moves, and Neil bites down the edge of a smile. "So—"

"Buddy!" Matt says loud enough for a nearby server to yelp, and Neil reels back at the pure force of Matt's voice. Andrew's hand grips Neil's knee under the table, steadying him. Matt eyes Neil's glass, empty and very much devoid of alcohol to begin with. "What if I order us a shoot? You sure you just want soda? You know we'll drive you home if you want to drink."

Neil glances at the mixed drink in Matt's hand with the purple umbrella, and the whiskey tumbler Andrew is currently nursing. He feels outnumbered, even with Dan's beer can. He knows he doesn't have to, but he glances at the bar anyways, debating. He hasn't attempted to drink since starting his new life, it gives up too much control. He's freer now, more carefree, but that carefree? He doubts it. But he doesn't want to seem paranoid, he won't be able to explain why. "Um..."

But he never gets the chance to offer an excuse. Andrew's voice slices through the air as the blond sips the rest of his glass, pushing it aside when he's done. He hides it behind the napkin dispenser. "He doesn't want one."

Dan and Matt flinch; it's the truth, but he still isn't trained to expect how in sync Andrew is with Neil's anxieties.

"Oh, well that's okay," Matt says, and seeing the way Neil eyes his drink, pops the purple umbrella into Neil's glass. Success. "He doesn't need to explain."

Matt directs the statement a bit firmly, at Andrew. It has a sense of justification, like Matt is already trying to disprove Andrew's bad opinion of him.

And why is Andrew's opinion bad to start with? Neil guesses it makes sense, he's not the most trusting person either. Suspicion is his default, but this feels different than the usual wariness.

Why does he feel like there's a competition going on that he's not privy to?

Dan grapples for her words a moment later, squinting across the table. "Okay...uh, food, Neil?"

"He's not hungry either," Andrew answers, again, correctly.

"He can speak for himself," Dan snaps.

Andrew leans forward, and some of that usual intensity finally shines through. His shoulders draw together tightly as he rises up, chin raised. He's not taller than Dan or Matt, but it's as if he's trying to stare down at them anyways. "You're telling me this?"

"Listen you—"

"Andrew," Neil begins softly, a silent question, and Andrew no longer seems to care about the furls of anger forming beneath his skin. He turns to Neil and surely, because Neil chooses to show it this time, senses the confusion. Neil's not sure how he feels about this, he only knows to trust his instincts.

A spark of anger blooms in him as well before it's snuffed out, but he's not sure where it comes from or who it's for. It doesn't feel like his. Andrew blinks at him, then back at Dan and Matt, and makes a sound in the back of his throat that borders on a growl.

Andrew doesn't like guilt, and Neil doesn't think that's what his expression is, but it's a cousin of it. He's seen Andrew look like this a few times, as if he's lost control of himself and nothing disgusts him more. Slowly, Andrew plants himself back into his seat, and stares at the swirling patterns on the table.

The irrationality of the situation isn't something Neil can grasp in its entirety, but he gets the gist. He stuck all his friends, who are protective in their own ways, in the same room without much introduction. He should've seen this coming.

Regardless, the escalation is sudden, random. He almost wishes Dan and Matt would step out so he could ask, knowing Andrew would be honest with him.

He gets his wish.

Dan and Matt's faces soften when Andrew backs down, and they share their own weird, telepathic couples' glance. They stare at each other, then at Andrew, then at Neil, and back at Andrew again. They really need to stop.

"Ah," Dan says, and Andrew glares at the surprise in her voice. Neil's back to being clueless. He doesn't have time to open his mouth when Dan grabs Matt's hand and tugs him away with a harsh pull, and Matt goes along despite having a straw in his mouth. It goes with him, hanging sadly from his lips. "We're going to get some water," Dan says, smiling at Andrew amicably.

It gives Neil whiplash with how fast they're gone, and if he gets interrupted one more time, he might just lose it.

As soon as they're out of earshot, Andrew sinks into the booth, muscles turning to jelly. Petulantly, he grabs a handful of napkins and starts to neatly rip them into strips.

Neil turns in his seat, bringing his knees up to his chest as he surveys the way Andrew lays out the strips in rows. It kind of reminds Neil of the little trenches he started to make in his backyard, with Atlas' help.

"I won't apologize," Andrew says eventually, all but whispering. Neil stays silent, because he never expects an apology from Andrew. He just trusts that Andrew will let him know his reasonings in some way, shape, or form. Andrew stares down at his sheer napkin rows, glaring at his hands soon after before clenching them into fists. "I'm just...trying to get used to this. It's new."

"What's new?" Neil asks.

Andrew stays quiet, and Neil doesn't press.

He scoots closer to Andrew instead, liking the warmth he gets from it. "I'm not asking you to be someone different, not that you ever would be," Neil says with a small smirk. Andrew doesn't try to be anything other than himself, and Neil likes that. His friends don't have to like each other, but he only ask they acknowledge each other's importance to Neil. "Matt and Dan don't exactly do things my way either, but they do care about me, they're not trying to hurt me."

From the way Andrew twitches, Neil guesses that for once, he hit the nail on the head. So that is what's bothering you...

Scowling at Neil's smugness, Andrew drops the napkin in his hands. "Why would I care?"

Neil's smile grows. "You're being a little..."

"Protective," Andrew finishes, chewing on the word like he's trying to remember the definition. Protective is probably a tame word for what he's being. Maybe that's what's new, but Andrew's been protective ever since he met Neil. Neil assumed it was Andrew's personality, not that it had anything to do with him. Andrew scoffs at Neil's quirked brow, and shakes his head down at the table. "Yeah."

Neil is put at ease by the easy confession, the warmth swirling around him and threatening to turn him into a puddle. The scent of rain and soil is stronger now, for some reason.

Andrew sighs then, wiping his hands over his face. From the bar, Neil can see Matt and Dan checking on them every few seconds, and he shakes his head fondly.

"I'll reel it in," Andrew muses with an edge of determination, but Neil shrugs. He's not sure who Andrew is talking to, but if it's him, there's no need.

He doesn't mind it. Andrew's protection is different from the way Matt and Dan hover, and Neil finds his spine growing tingly whenever he experiences it. It's not a bad feeling.

"You're just like your dog," Neil comments jokingly, laughing when Andrew automatically reaches for his empty glass.

"Shut up."

Whatever tension was in the air before lightens, and the world starts moving at its normal pace. Despite the weird start to the evening, this is probably the most comfortable Neil has ever felt in a bar. He takes to collecting the napkin shreds and messing with them further, until he can rearrange them into little snowflakes.

By the time he's on his second one, Dan and Matt return, also noticeably more relaxed. Matt slides into the booth in front of Neil, but Dan stays standing as she clears her throat. "Hey Andrew, I think we got off on the wrong foot, can I talk to you in private?"

Neil goes still, and he sends her a warning glance. "Dan..."

"He doesn't have to!" Dan says, arms up in surrender. "Seriously, no pressure here."

Andrew eyes her for an agonizingly long time, making her fidget in place. But Dan is Dan, so she's stubborn and resilient as all hell. Eventually, Andrew comes to a decision in his own head and nods once, getting up with a squeeze to Neil's knee.

As is Andrew's way, there's always a condition. The blond twitches as he looks between Neil and Dan. "I don't want to be gone for too long."

Dan blinks at that, staring at Neil for explanation. Neil shrugs. Andrew's terms are simple, you take them or leave them.

"Um. Okay?" Dan agrees, and Andrew follows without stalling.

Yes, definitely just like your dog.

It's then Neil realizes he's been, effectively, trapped.

When he turns to Matt, the other man has gone still, staring at where Neil's lips are turned in a soft smile, stuck like that from Andrew's presence. There's a giddiness in his eyes, in the way Matt's body seems to vibrate in place. "So..."

Neil frowns in an instant. It's hard, because his heart is light as a feather, and his mind swims with the feeling Andrew left in his wake, but he will not be subject to this. Whatever it is.

Neil crosses his arms. "What's that look?"

Matt shrugs, too fake, too sharp. He goes for the baffled tone, but he's a bad actor, and it only serves to make Neil want to check his temperature. "What look?"

Neil hopes he looks as unimpressed as Andrew. "The 'I'm Matt and I just figured out something heartfelt about Neil and I need to make sure I don't start crying in public' look."

It's the same look that preceded a ten minute crying fit after Matt gifted him a stuffed shark from his old Exy team days, and Neil had preceded to hug the thing to death.

He hadn't understood then, and he doesn't understand now.

Matt scoffs, sending Neil a look of disbelief. "What? No, that is not a look," he tries, sipping too hard from his second cocktail. This one has an orange umbrella. Neil wants it, but he won't let that distract him. He stares Matt down, because it's not hard to do. The man is weak to him, and Matt freezes predictably moments later. He pushes his drink away from himself, wincing. "And I mean it, it's nothing."

Neil squints. Sure. "That's it? No advice, no nudging?"

There's always nudging.

Neil doesn't mind it most days. He's often slow when it comes to certain areas of life, and while some things he couldn't give less of a damn about, other things he'd rather be pointed in the right direction of. Dan and Matt are good at that, steering him without being total hand-holders. They do that for him, at his request.

Otherwise...they absolutely would.

But Matt doesn't jump on this opportunity like he would others. His expression softens into a gooey quality, and Neil's stomach turns at the thought of whatever he's about to say. Matt's naturally sappy, and Neil accepts it, but...he's not sure he wants to deal with the tears by himself. He never knows what to do.

It seems he doesn't have to worry.

Matt sighs, as if it pains him to not go on, but his smile is serene and proud. "Not...with this, my dude," he says, and pops the umbrella into Neil's drink. "I think you should do what you feel is right. You have to figure this out alone."

This?

Neil's not sure what that means, but his response is default, and truthful.

"I don't know what's right."

He takes a chance with everything, and it's somehow always worked out by his measurements, and the ultimate measurement is staying alive. Existing. But he's finding that's starting to not be enough, and what does he do then? He trusts his instincts, but not his thoughts.

He doesn't have experience with whatever this Matt and Andrew are referring to, nor with the feelings nipping at his skin.

He just knows he has to walk in the direction his mind tells him to walk in, because he's never had the chance to do so for himself in the past.

There's no way to avoid messing up, but at this point, he has no idea what he's attempting.

And maybe that's what Matt means. It's alright if Neil doesn't know now, he'll have to piece it together one of these days, and he has the time.

And then, then he can ask for help. He hopes he has the courage to.

Matt grins at Neil's confusion, raising his glass at him cheekily. "That's the fun of it."

Neil's not sure he agrees yet, but he hopes that soon, he will.

Dan and Andrew eventually return, and Dan sinks into her seat with a smile. It's genuine this time, and Andrew ignores Neil's questioning looks. But even he seems relaxed, content to stay silent at Neil's side and listen to Dan and Matt's ramblings the rest of the night. Even if he tunes them out, his hand finds a steady perch on Neil's knee, and doesn't move.

Dan claps her hands together, and the night finally begins. "Okay! Next round on me?"

--

A few days later, Neil ends up at the grocery store weighing the pros and cons of each frozen pie flavor.

Matt and Dan invited him and Andrew over for dinner, with the only caveat being that Neil has to buy dessert. After several hours debating with Andrew that fruit bouquets do not count, and being told 'I will never speak to you again if you buy a healthy dessert,' Neil decided pie was a safe way to go.

But hm. Chocolate Silk, or Oreo?

He's never had either, and both make his stomach hurt just thinking about them.

Neil sighs and decides he'll mull it over while he grabs some juice from the next aisle, and stops short when he turns the corner and finds a carbon copy of Andrew already staring at him.

Neil halts with a gasp, but it doesn't take him long to deduce that this is not Andrew. He allows himself to feel disappointed for a fraction of a second before actually connecting the dots.

The blond in front of him styles his hair another way, and has a slightly different physique, but it's nothing physical that makes him different from Andrew. It's his expression, the look in his eyes...

Neil can't explain it, but he knows. The feeling isn't there either, the comfort and warmth which comes from being in Andrew's vicinity.

So that means—

"Oh, you're Aar—"

"You fucking reek," Aaron hisses, looking aghast at Neil's...everything. He covers his nose with the back of his hand and glares, a mixture of contempt and disbelief.

Well.

Neil falters, but that's the last time he's going to let Aaron surprise him. Neil already feels his blood boil, and his list flies to the front of his mind.

After all, isn't it Aaron who's the shitty owner between the twins?

"Ugh," Aaron retches, turning away to shake his head, and Neil quickly smells under his arms. The fuck? He's not even sweating...

Okay. Fine. There goes any first impression Neil could've had, and he doesn't linger on what could've been. This is the man who let Atlas get lost in that storm!

"Fuck you, asshole," Neil spits back, scoffing at Aaron's petulant glare. It's nothing compared to Andrew's. It's sad, actually. "Andrew forgot to tell me you're not just a bad owner, you're a shit person too."

And the audacity of Neil to say so, considering he's about the rudest person to have ever walked the planet. But Aaron doesn't know that.

Aaron opens his mouth before he actually seems to take in Neil's words, and pauses. He drops his own basket to the floor, letting it clatter loudly in the empty aisle. "...bad owner?"

"Yeah, remember Atlas? He's about this tall, black fur?" Neil says, stretching his hands as high as he can. Atlas is actually still taller than the point he can reach but—"You're the one who let him get out during a storm. I had to take him in to make sure he was alright. You're welcome. Oh, and while we're at it, you're welcome for bathing him, combing him, and buying him treats too. What's next? Does he need his vaccines too?"

Aaron stares at Neil for an impossibly long time, face twisting with something like horror or exhaustion. He should be apologizing, but whatever. Neil's sure Atlas prefers Andrew, he has to.

Of course, he likes Neil the best though.

Neil crosses his arms, expectant, and Aaron finally seems to remember he can speak. He shakes his head, and throws his hands up as if to ask why he's being cursed like this.

Funny, Neil could ask the same.

"Fucking Andrew," Aaron mutters, then points at Neil demandingly. He's lucky he's not anywhere near Neil's bubble. "Listen up idiot, that dog is dangerous, you should stay away from it. It's not going to let you hug and cuddle him or whatever the hell you're thinking."

Neil glares; why do people keep saying that? And also, does this mean Andrew hasn't told Aaron about him? That doesn't make sense; they're both looking after the dog, Aaron should know what Neil is pitching in. Has he been ignoring Atlas' clean coat? Has he not missed his dog on the nights he stays with Neil?

The more Neil hears, the more pissed he becomes.

"You and Andrew really are delusional when it comes to that dog, you must not know him well at all," Neil says, and he's confident, not because he's arrogant, but because he's experienced the extent of Atlas' playfulness and affection. "He's very loving."

Aaron goes quiet, ashen.

He searches Neil's face, like he's waiting for more, for a joke. But Neil's never been more serious. In a blink, the contempt on Aaron's face grows, and if he were an animal, Neil knows he'd be bristling at the edges. Aaron inhales sharply before grabbing his basket.

"Oh, I'm sure he is," Aaron mutters with a laugh devoid of humor, and before Neil can so much as get another word out, Aaron hightails it out of there, and leaves a string of curses in his wake.

--

Later that night, Neil hears what sounds like someone picking his backdoor lock.

He has his shotgun in his hand before he can so much as get a breath in, loading it smoothly and with practice. Riding a bike.

He doesn't think about what an intruder could possibly want. He moves with all instinct, no hesitation. It's about survival, it's about eradicating the threat before it can do any damage to him.

But when he gets to the back porch, it's only Atlas sitting there in the doorway.

Neil breathes a sigh of relief before lowering his shotgun. Strange, did Andrew let him in? Neil walks to the door and peers out. There's no one. Neil spends too long staring into the brush, hands shaking around the gun. He...hasn't had to hold it in a long time.

Atlas boofs softly beside him, and it turns into a whine. At the sadness laced in it, Neil gives the dog his attention. Carefully, he pries his shaking hand off the door handle as he closes it, and brings it to the dog's forehead to pet him softly. "Oh, no, it's okay puppy. You just scared me is all. Want to come in to sleep?"

The dog licks Neil's palm before turning in the direction of the bedroom, but waits for Neil to walk ahead of him. Neil laughs to himself, shaking the last of his nerves off. He deadbolts the lock three times, to make sure it's in place.

You're safe. It was nothing.

He watches as Atlas makes himself comfortable on Neil's bed, already biting at the edges of his new pillow until it's just right. He leaves space for Neil next to him back pressed to the wall, and lifts his head when Neil doesn't immediately join him.

Neil snorts, and locks his bedroom door. Yeah, nothing to worry about at all.

He stores his gun safely before he climbs into bed, piling comforters onto himself. He knows having Atlas next to him will make him overheat, but in the moment, he wants the comfort. He presses his face into the dog's fur, inhaling deeply as his trembles dissipate. Atlas begins to do his weird nuzzling again, and before Neil knows it, it's as if the fear and adrenaline are completely gone. He even starts to feel a bit drowsy...

"I met your other owner today," he says quietly, yawning soon after. Atlas stills, but then his paw comes up to rest over Neil's waist. The dog grumbles in the back of his throat, and Neil smiles. Yeah, his thoughts exactly. "I've decided I don't like him as much. I mean...I don't stink, what kind of bullshit insult even was that?"

Atlas sneezes, and Neil squints up at him. "Sometimes I think you're laughing at me."

But the dog only boofs. Neil boofs back, and hopes it's petty.

He pets Atlas slowly, the movement lulling him closer and closer to the edge of sleep. His limbs start to feel heavy, had he always been this tired? It has been a confusing week, there's still a lot he feels like he doesn't get. As confusing as it was though, he enjoyed it. He's never been excited to wake up, but there's a first time for everything.

Atlas whines again, and Neil tugs on his fur. "Yes, yes, I know. See? Everyone thinks you're so terrifying," Neil muses, and now the thought really makes him want to laugh. This dog? Right. A big, sappy ball of fluff is more like it. "Not to me. Not for me. That's something else you have in common with your owner."

Atlas lifts his head lazily, peering at Neil through half lidded eyes. Neil's own lids begin to droop as he stares—has Atlas ever shown him this expression before?

"I feel safe," Neil finishes, sighing into the soft sheets. "Lately I—"

Lately...

Neil's hand droops from where it rests on Atlas' fur, and he doesn't have the strength to pick it back up.

"I wish he was here."

And then all he sees is darkness. There's no dreaming, no sounds. He falls into sleep peacefully, with only one thing coming through his senses.

Strange, Atlas never had a scent before, but that night, all Neil comprehends is the smell of smoke, soil, and rain.