“Welcome to Chocoholic, what can I get you?”
The voice sounds bored and long-suffering, like its owner would rather be anywhere else. Aaron warned him that the rude waitstaff is something of a trademark of this place, which judging by its clientele appeals mostly to rich hipsters with masochistic tendencies and, apparently, Andrew.
The guy is—Andrew doesn’t want to say mouth-watering, because that would be stupid, but fuck if Andrew isn’t salivating a bit like a Pavlovian dog at the sight of him. His hair is an autumnal potpourri of rich cognac shades, burnt reds and shiny chestnut browns shot through with polished, rosy copper. He has the trim, wiry body of a runner, his posture looks intentionally sloppy to conceal the hard steel of muscles honed to perfection underneath. A faded white scar runs through the right side of his mouth, which is pulled taut by the beginnings of a sneer. The short sleeves of his pale lavender shirt are rolled up at the cuffs, sitting snugly against the subtle dip of his biceps and granting a chaste peek of a complicated geometric tattoo. Andrew can only imagine what his ass must look like, nestled tenderly into his just-this-side-of-sinfully tight, slightly distressed dark grey jeans.
His name tag says Neil in rushed, slanted handwriting.
“Surprise me,” Andrew says, closing the menu with a snap. He’d already made his decision, but he’s open to let a pretty, interesting boy blow his mind. Or just blow him.
Neil huffs, like he’s heard that one before, and stomps off. Andrew almost expects not to be served at all, but he only has a few minutes to rev up a fantasy about bouncing pretty, interesting Neil on his dick while he’s still wearing that lavender shirt and the little black apron before Neil is back with his drink.
“What is it?” Andrew asks, squinting at the improbably tall spire of thick, vanilla-flecked whipped cream, the elaborate swirls of chocolate sauce, and the skewer of marshmallows. The rim of the glass has been dipped in crushed golden Graham crackers and the inside is drizzled artfully with more dark chocolate sauce.
“Surprise,” Neil replies, dripping with sarcasm, and takes a kitchen torch out of the pocket of his apron.
Andrew watches, rapt, as Neil deftly toasts the marshmallows with the torch. His fingers are long and slender, the nails trimmed brutally short. When he’s through with them the marshmallows are caramelised to artful perfection, and he hasn’t even made any of the cream melt.
Andrew pointedly doesn’t watch his ass when he leaves, and instead pulls a piping hot, bubbly marshmallow from the skewer with his teeth. His “surprise” must be the s’mores milkshake, malty and chocolatey and sweet, over scoops of chocolate and vanilla ice cream. It’s not a hot chocolate as Andrew had planned, but it might as well be a wet dream distilled into a glass.
He makes it last.
Takes tiny sips. Scrapes his spoon down the side of the whipped cream, licks the Graham cracker dust from the rim, nibbles at the marshmallows. Scoops half-melted ice cream up on his tongue and lets it dissolve against the roof of his mouth, a confusing mix of hot and cold, but so, so good.
It’s worth every cent of the exorbitant price.
Especially since it comes with a side of Neil. Andrew’s table is crammed into the last bit of space in the back, near the bathrooms, but it affords him a good view of the counter where Neil works casual magic and sasses customers in a way that leaves some of them visibly dazed, whether from shock or arousal Andrew can’t quite tell. Neil, meanwhile, seems largely unimpressed by the tentative flirting flung his way. He slumps against the counter in between drinks, scowling at his phone and biting at non-existent nails. Occasionally he swipes a hand through the dappled autumn foliage of his hair and Andrew’s insides buzz like a mosquito swarm under a street lantern.
Or maybe that’s just a sign that his lactase pills aren’t up to snuff, pitted against the dairy monstrosity that is Andrew’s milkshake.
He finishes his drink at last, resists sticking his face in the glass like a cat to lick up the very last smudges, and goes up to the counter to pay. Neil handles his money like he’s sleep-walking, fingers counting change while his attention has already drifted to the next customer in line, and Andrew walks out feeling unbearably full and unbearably hungry at the same time.
Andrew is not a hipster, nor does he have masochistic tendencies, but he still goes back to Chocoholic at an alarming frequency. It becomes his Monday after-work indulgence, and he always makes sure to sit in Neil’s section of the café and ask for a surprise.
They even talk. A bit.
“This is disgusting,” Andrew informs Neil, pushing his mug back at him. “Bacon and maple syrup might be the one true breakfast power couple, but they do not go with hot chocolate.”
Neil looks pointedly at his empty mug.
“And yet you still drank it.”
“I don’t like wasting food,” Andrew says. It’s meant to be a quip, a throwaway line. God knows his family never believes him when he says things like that. But Neil tilts his head to the side and looks at him as if he can see the truth hiding in plain sight.
Then Neil shrugs and swipes up the mug with reddened fingers. He is embroiled in an ongoing fight with the malfunctioning milk steamer today, and Andrew bites the tip of his tongue to stop himself from reaching out and-
“You still have to pay for it,” Neil says over his shoulder. He’s wearing the sage green shirt, with tiny purple artichokes embroidered into the fabric. His apron is limp and stained, but the shirt is still pristine. Andrew has learned, through careful observation, that Neil cycles through a selection of about four different shirts for work: lavender, sage green, mustard yellow, and light blue-grey. Sometimes he cuffs the sleeves. Sometimes he wears a soft-looking cardigan over top.
Sometimes he wears the skinny jeans that have a tiny, tantalising rip just underneath the crease of his ass cheek, never enough to actually show skin, but even just the knowledge that it’s there drives Andrew wild.
Neil doesn’t flirt, not with Andrew or anyone else, so-
Andrew sits in the corner and stews in his wanton desires and tells himself, every week, that he’s not going to go back.
Except he always does go back. Of course.
Andrew stumbles into the café later than usual one miserly Monday night. Neil takes one look at him and whips up a spiced, salty-sweet hot chocolate with crushed potato chips and salted popcorn that he disturbingly calls a “Compost Special”. It’s a grey, smoggy day, the city pressing in relentlessly. Andrew’s current mental state is a tightrope wire and he’s still trying to regain his balance after a long, gruelling day at work, but the drink mellows him slightly. It’s not nearly as sweet and overpowering as the banana, dulce de leche and white chocolate abomination Neil came up with last week, but the one-two punch of salt and spices still rattles Andrew out of his post-work stupor.
He hasn’t failed to notice that the drinks Neil makes him have long since ventured off the standard Chocoholic menu by now. He gives them stupid names—Taste Bud Destroyer, Red Hot Chilli Pooper, Fuck Off Frappé, Nougat Noogie—and occasionally one of them even makes it onto the weekly rota of Daily Specials.
Somehow, Neil can always tell which ones are Andrew’s favourites.
Today Neil comes by his table in his blue-grey shirt with the swirly little clouds embroidered on the collar tips and cuffs, and a loose, dark grey cardigan with elbow patches in the shape of Calcifer the fire demon from Howl’s Moving Castle. The café is relatively quiet this time of day, steeping in a low, sulky murmur. Rain grizzles the windows, and the other barista, a tall, scowling Adonis with a cheek tattoo, has put on a playlist of classical pieces that are far too bombastic and heavy for a coffee shop but somehow fit into the vibe regardless.
“So,” Neil says, collecting Andrew’s mug. “New favourite?”
Andrew shrugs and flicks his fingers.
“Which one is yours?” he asks back.
“Oh,” Neil says, kneading a hand through his messy hair. “I’m not really a fan.”
“Not a fan of chocolate?” Andrew asks, incredulously. “And you chose to work here of all places?”
Neil grins, a quick prick of teeth and dimples.
“Bartenders aren’t supposed to drink on shift either,” he points out. “I worked at a fruit stand once. Worst diarrhea I’ve had in my life. Besides, I get to judge people for their orders here and if I tell them to fuck off they tip me.”
I’d tip you over the counter, Andrew thinks, keeping the words contained behind the steel bars of his teeth.
Neil lingers a moment and somehow they move on to talk about different apocalypse scenarios. Zombies, aliens, nuclear warfare. The movie Dogma, which Neil has apparently seen six and a half times, because for some reason it’s always on TV late at night when Neil can’t sleep.
Every once in a while Neil wanders away mid-sentence to make drinks and insult people, and the other barista shoots glowering looks at Andrew when he’s not pointedly ignoring him. Maybe he’s Neil’s boyfriend, and that’s why Neil is immune to the good-looking people coming into the café to hit on him. Maybe he’s just annoyed Neil keeps leaving him alone behind the counter to deal with the good-looking people himself.
It’s not like it matters.
Eventually Andrew pays for his drink, turns up his jacket collar, and leaves.
The next week, Chocoholic is more crowded than usual.
Andrew spots the table in the back being vacated by a generic beardy man bun guy and his tattooed girlfriend and plonks himself down in the seat as soon as they’ve left. People keep squeezing past him to go to the bathroom, but Andrew stays stubbornly put, waiting for Neil to finish arguing with a woman who ordered the marzipan hot chocolate and then complained about there being almonds in it.
Finally, Neil makes it through the thicket of tables and tumbles out into Andrew’s corner, looking lightly steamed, flushed, and thoroughly annoyed.
“Some stupid, dodgy exotic animal convention downtown,” he says loudly. “Lots of morons coming out of the woodwork. The usual?”
Andrew opens his mouth to reply when a broad-shouldered guy with a snake pun on his t-shirt steamrolls past him to get to the bathroom. The guy puts a heavy hand on Andrew’s shoulder like it has a right to be there and pushes him out of the way so forcefully that his chair screeches sideways over the floor, and everything in Andrew goes hot and cold and then blank.
The busy chatter of the café is replaced by a monotone, flatlining whistle in his ears. His awareness of time trips up, and when he next blinks everything is back louder and brighter than before, except Neil is standing in front of him with barbed wire in his voice and the guy is taking a hurried step back, urgent business apparently forgotten.
The tables around them have grown quiet as Neil reams him out. The words fall so hard and fast that Andrew barely registers what is being said. He stares at the taut line of Neil’s back, the subtle lemon pinstripes on his mustard yellow shirt that he never noticed before. There’s a smattering of applause and then the guy is gone and the noise bubbles up around them again, and Neil is looking down at Andrew with a thoughtful expression.
It’s a testament to how fucked up Andrew is that his first coherent thought is: That was hot.
Out loud, he says, “That was unnecessary.”
Neil’s mouth twitches.
“Title of my sex tape,” he mutters, barely audible. Louder, he adds: “I’ll be right back with your drink.”
Andrew watches him fight his way through the crowd again. The other barista leans down to say something to him—Andrew thinks this one is called Jean, though he’s starting to lose track of all the tall, handsome, condescending guys that work alongside Neil on his Monday shifts. Neil shakes his head and starts steaming milk, effectively drowning out anything else Jean was about to say.
Andrew clenches his hands to fists in his lap.
It’s been years since he last froze up like that. He should be over it—it shouldn’t have happened—there’s no logical reason—and in front of Neil, too. In front of so many people. They probably didn’t even notice, but in that moment Andrew feels a nauseating surge of vulnerability, of being exposed, and he makes himself sit through it for another minute before the urge to punch something or someone gets too much and he stands up.
The air is wet outside. Andrew takes slow, measured sips of it, leaning against the wall and kicking his foot back against it until every collision with the bricks sends a shock of pain up his ankle.
Fuck that guy. Fuck him for wearing a stupid punny t-shirt like Drake always used to when he was home. Fuck Neil for thinking Andrew needed to be protected, and fuck his brain for being so fucking broken and useless. Just like everything Andrew owns.
Used to own, he corrects himself forcefully.
He has knives now, for fuck’s sake, though fat load of good they are when he stumbles off the neural pathway from his brain to his arm every time someone so much as looks at him wrong.
“Hey,” a voice says. “You forgot your drink.”
He looks up to see Neil standing in the door with a takeaway cup.
“Fuck you,” Andrew says, kicking the wall one last time for good measure.
“Sure,” Neil says, shrugging. “I don’t care if I pour it down the drain.”
The smug but you do, because you don’t like wasting food is implied. Andrew is tempted to walk away, just to prove him wrong. But maybe Neil already expects that of him.
He grabs the cup and leaves, realising too late that he didn’t even pay for the drink, and kicks another wall in frustration. He doesn’t need hand-outs. Hasn’t needed them in a long time. He yanks the lid off and takes a gulp of whatever it is to wash down the unpleasant taste on his tongue. Through the haze, he dimly registers sweet marzipan and toasted almonds and a punchy hint of amaretto.
Slowly, his hands stop shaking.
Slowly, he walks himself home.
He makes it two weeks.
Two weeks without going to Chocoholic. Two weeks without seeing Neil.
He works, he meets Aaron for dinner, he goes to the gym, he inhales five books without really tasting them, he goes hiking with Renee, they sit on top of a mountain and look at the sun-stained quilt of clouds spread out underneath them and don’t say a thing.
The next day, he goes back.
Neil is wearing a new shirt. It’s a sort of dappled turquoise, like the surface of a swimming pool, with coral red buttons. His eyes are soft and crinkled with tiredness.
“Stay up watching Dogma again?” Andrew asks him, stepping up to the counter under the pretence of studying the cookie display. Neil jerks a little, wipes hair out of his eyes and blinks slowly at him.
“You’re back,” he says.
“The usual,” Andrew hums, tapping his fingers on the counter. “And ring me up for last time, too.”
Neil looks at him shrewdly, then simply nods and takes one of the wide blue mugs off the shelf. Andrew picks a table—by the window this time—and drapes his rain-speckled coat over the other chair before sitting down.
Something jazzy is playing from the speakers today. Andrew stares out the window unseeing, until the clatter of a cup being put down in front of him draws his attention.
The whipped cream is dusted with a thick layer of cinnamon. A cheeky cookie is balanced on the saucer, something snickerdoodle-y and still warm.
“I didn’t ask for this,” Andrew says, nudging it with his finger.
“It comes with the drink,” Neil says, instead of I saw you looking at the cookies. Andrew snorts and snags the saucer with his finger, pulling it towards him. The cinnamon clings to his upper lip when he takes a sip.
“It was Jurassic Park,” Neil says. “Last night.”
“A classic,” Andrew hums approvingly. “How would you fight off a velociraptor?”
Neil slides into the seat that holds Andrew’s drippy coat and fiddles with the sugar bowl as he talks. They run through a few different strategies before another fit, tall guy calls Neil back to the counter.
“How many of these do you have?” Andrew huffs.
“How many of what?”
Andrew gestures at the counter, then holds his hand up above his head as if to measure someone’s height.
“Oh,” Neil grins. “I mean. Most guys are tall from your perspective.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Three inches make all the difference.”
“Title of your sex tape?” Andrew guesses, and Neil makes a see-saw motion with his hand.
“Better get back before Seth breaks the steamer again.”
Andrew toasts him with his cup and immediately feels like an idiot, but Neil only laughs, rocking back on the balls of his feet, then quickly schools his face back into a frown.
“Can’t be too cheery, it’ll ruin our street cred,” he stage-whispers. “Enjoy your hot chocolate, Andrew.”
It doesn’t occur to Andrew until much later that he never told Neil his name.
He intends to ask Neil about it the next week, but the café is packed and the only seat available is in Kevin’s section. Andrew tries to catch Neil’s eye regardless, to no avail—Kevin spots him and immediately makes a beeline for him.
He has a small notepad and a ruthlessly sharpened pencil that he taps once against the paper.
“Order?” he demands. He’s the kind of good-looking Andrew usually steers clear of. Pampered skin and shiny hair and immaculate clothes, a charming mole high on his cheek where the tattoo is, brilliantly green eyes.
Andrew likes to save guys like him for later—when he’s safely alone in his own bed with a bottle of lube and a box of tissues and a trusty selection of favourite fantasies at his brain’s disposal.
Today, however, he’s mostly just annoyed that Kevin isn’t Neil.
“The candied ginger hot chocolate,” he decides.
“We don’t have that. Please pick something from the menu, this isn’t Oprah.”
“The show,” Kevin says, flicking his hand like he’s chasing away a troublesome fly. “Where they fulfil people’s weird wishes.”
“Right,” Andrew says slowly.
“So?” Kevin prompts. “What do you want?”
“The candied ginger hot chocolate,” Andrew repeats, crossing his arms. “Neil made it for me before.”
“Neil is busy,” Kevin sniffs, “he doesn’t have time to indulge your every whim, you know.”
Andrew pointedly looks over to where Neil is typing on his phone, oblivious to the world around him. Kevin follows his line of sight, makes a gentle harrumph noise, and taps his pencil against his notepad once more.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he mutters, before turning on the spot and marching back to the counter. Andrew watches him talk to Neil and jerk his head towards Andrew, which means he also sees the way Neil perks up at the sight of him.
Somehow his hands have gone slick with sweat.
He rubs them on his jeans, annoyed, and takes out his book. He becomes even more annoyed when he sees that it’s the copy of Howl’s Moving Castle he checked out of the library the other day, but before he can shove it back out of sight, Neil is there with a mug and a conspiratorial quirk of his lips.
“Here,” he says, plopping the drink down in front of him and gesturing at his book. “Let me know what you think.”
“This is not what I ordered,” Andrew says. The drink is plain today, compared to all the other towering confections he’s had so far. It’s just a small cup of dark chocolate with a thick, pudding-like consistency and a tiny golden spoon.
“Trust me,” is all Neil says.
Kevin calls his name and he leaves, dragging his feet back behind the counter to make more drinks. Andrew swishes his chocolate around the cup, observing its sluggish movements, and tries it.
It’s rich and sumptuous. Bittersweet and complex. The chocolate pudding comparison was not far off—Andrew scoops up tiny sips with his spoon, letting them melt against the roof of his mouth. It’s only a small cup, but by the end of it, he feels like he just had a five course meal.
Kevin now avoids his table like the plague, so it’s Neil who comes to collect his empty cup a while later.
“The other day,” Andrew starts. “How did you know my name?”
Neil hesitates, nudges the spoon so it slides a little more securely into the saucer.
“Aaron didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what,” Andrew says, then, “Aaron?”
Neil nods and looks over his shoulder.
“He, uh. He’s in our DnD group. Kevin dug him up somewhere, I don’t know.”
Andrew doesn’t say anything. He and Aaron don’t look so alike anymore that people regularly get them confused, but if Neil knows Aaron, and Aaron mentioned he had a twin—of course Neil realised.
The imbalance of it all, of Neil knowing who he was before Andrew knew Neil even existed, makes Andrew feel off-kilter for a moment.
Neil must see the look on his face and fidgets, nearly loses the spoon after all, then clears his throat.
“I’ll bring the bill, yeah?”
Without waiting for an answer, he turns around and leaves.
That night, Andrew sits in his usual corner at the 24/7 laundromat waiting for his clothes to finish in the dryer and imagines what it would be like to punch his twin.
It had been Aaron who recommended Chocoholic to him, after all. He’d been weirdly insistent Andrew check it out, now that Andrew thinks about it. And, yes, Andrew likes hot chocolate, but mostly he just went there because it’s close to his work and so Aaron would shut up about it.
Now he knows it wasn’t the hot chocolate Aaron wanted him to sample.
He so hates surprises.
(The irony isn’t lost on him.)
Once Andrew knows what to look for, he quickly realises that everyone in his immediate social circle also seems to know Neil.
Renee off-handedly mentions him tagging along to the mall with her and Allison. Their mutual friend Dan has a boyfriend named Matt who bakes the cookies for Chocoholic. Bee rhapsodises about their lavender white hot chocolate when Andrew tells her about the café on their monthly phone call. Nicky regales him with a long, convoluted story from his uni days about a guy getting in an argument with the homophobic professor in his Intro To Statistics class, what was his name again? Niall? Oh, right, Neil!
Neil, Neil, Neil.
All of a sudden he’s everywhere.
Andrew leaves Aaron’s last invite to dinner on read.
There’s a skewer of chocolate-covered strawberries balanced carefully on top of Andrew’s mug.
Neil is wearing a sneer and a bandage on his nose and a candy apple red shirt that should not go with his hair or his complexion but defiantly does. He’s telling Andrew about the asshole who didn’t check for cyclists before opening his car door. Andrew can picture it vividly: Neil springing right up again with blood streaming from his nose to deck the guy, breaking his nose in the process, before calling an ambulance for him and then cycling home without waiting for it to arrive.
“Idiot,” Andrew says out loud, even though he’s half hard under the table.
He offers the skewer to Neil, who gently slides one of the strawberries off and pops it in his mouth.
“I wasn’t the one screaming like a baby,” Neil says, shrugging. “It’s just a broken nose.”
Jean has been trying to catch Neil’s attention for the last five minutes. Neil wanders away, still looking like he’d rather be anywhere else than at work, and reluctantly serves a family of four a few tables over.
Andrew wipes his hands on his pants and finishes his berry hot chocolate. He was going to ask Neil today—but it’s clearly not a good time. Although Andrew can think of a few things they could do that wouldn’t strain Neil’s broken nose too much.
He watches as Neil crankily putters around behind the counter, making more mess than he’s cleaning up. No. No, it can wait.
He finds other excuses.
The café is too busy. Kevin keeps watching them. The drink isn’t right. It’s a Tuesday. Neil is wearing the wrong shirt. Andrew is too tired. Neil is too radiant, ranting about the terrible French movie he watched last night, and why are French movies always so depressing anyway?
Then the universe conspires against him, and offers him the perfect opportunity on a silver platter.
Neil happens to finish his shift at the same time as Andrew is leaving the café. A Florentine hot chocolate is still warming Andrew’s palate with the last notes of caramelised almond, there are honeyed slivers of evening sun wedged in the gaps between the buildings, and for a moment the street is hushed and empty. Neil is wearing his sage green shirt under a creamy woollen jumper, one side of the collar sticking up like he pulled it on in a hurry.
Andrew imagines pushing him up against the brick wall and sucking him off, the rough denim of Neil’s jeans rubbing against his cheek, the cold teeth of the zipper nibbling at his jaw.
“Going home?” Neil asks, coming to stand beside him with his hands buried in his pockets.
“I was going to get some food,” Neil says, open-ended, and runs a hand through his staticky hair.
“Where?” Andrew asks, though his mouth is dry like fresh snow and the word seems frozen stuck, taking some skin off when he rips it loose.
Neil hesitates, then says, “Za’atar, if you know it?”
Andrew shakes his head.
“It’s not far from here,” Neil says, again an invitation to invite himself, but Andrew’s tongue is still iced over. Neil waits, fiddling with the bandage on his nose, and finally takes pity on him: “Do you want to come?”
Za’atar is a tiny Middle Eastern bistro about ten minutes’ walk from Chocoholic. The interior is minimalistic, drawing the eye to the blue tiled walls and their delicate geometric patterns. The lighting is dim and cosy, some candles flicker conspiratorially in their plain Mason jars placed in strategic alcoves. There’s a low murmur of conversation, the air is warm and spiced, and Neil greets the waitress like they know each other and leads Andrew to an almost-hidden nook in the back, squeezing onto one of the bar stools. Andrew takes the other one, his feet dangling uncomfortably in the air, and picks up a menu.
The waitress brings water and tea and words for Neil in a language Andrew doesn’t understand. Even the letters on the menu are wriggling out of his grasp like butterflies pinned sloppily to the page, though Andrew knows those at least are in English. Neil looks both more solemn and more at ease here, talking with the waitress in humble tones, cracking a dry smile every now and again.
In the end Andrew is spared the humiliation of having to order anything, because a short, brusque woman comes out of the kitchen with platters of food for them. She has grey-streaked black hair pinned back under a white cap, a severe face, brittle hands, and not a single crease in her uniform. Neil’s eyes widen a little when he sees her, the smile slipping off his face.
“Mom,” he says. “I didn’t know you were working tonight.”
She replies something in the other language, somehow fitting several tables’ worth of food into the small space between them. Neil replies in English, disjointed crumbs of a conversation, the woman—his mother—calls him Abram, flashes the barest of glances at Andrew and walks away. She has the same tight, stilted gait as her son, like she’s holding back, like her more natural form of movement is running or possibly flying.
“Sorry about that,” Neil says.
“Abram?” Andrew asks.
“My middle name,” Neil explains, picking up his rolled-up napkin and shaking out the cutlery nestled inside. He gestures at the food that could very well feed several more people and says, “Help yourself.”
The food is different than Andrew is used to, in a way that makes him want to try everything. He loads tiny portions on his plate, steals a spoonful here, a bite there. Being spoiled for choice like this is still a pleasant oddity, though he has to suppress a faint urge to hoard, to eat more than he is hungry for, for fear of the glut not lasting. The habit lurks like grout in the grooves of his brain, even after all these years, no matter how much he scrubs.
Neil talks a little about travelling. Andrew eats up his words alongside the food. When they’re done, Neil’s mother comes back out with dessert—warm, honey-soaked baklava with ground pistachios, and a bowl of sliced, ice-cold fruit. The waitress brings more tea and two large bags of leftovers, one of which she hands over to Andrew with a bemused smile.
“Guess that means she’s adopted you,” Neil says sleepily, one cheek propped up in his hand.
“Why,” Andrew says, too full and too drowsy to take proper offence.
“Her mind works in mysterious ways,” he sighs, waving his hand. “Here. Try this baklava. It’s good.”
It’s more than good. Andrew polishes off almost the entire plate while Neil inhales most of the fruit. When they finally stagger upright and leave their alcove, the window is dark, showing a crisp slice of moon in the mouth of the night.
“Is she really your mother?” Andrew asks as they step outside together. Neil huffs out a laugh.
“Is Nicky really your cousin?”
“Point,” Andrew concedes.
“I guess you could say my father pissed in the gene pool,” Neil shrugs. “But I’d rather not go into it.”
He’s mentioned his father only once before. Andrew doesn’t press.
On the way home—not really home, just both of them ambling to a point where they start the real walk home, apart—Neil tells Andrew about a poem called Things I Didn’t Know I Loved. He tries to recite some of it but gets tripped up and turned around, laughs it off, starts over.
Andrew stops at the corner with his bag of leftovers and a mouthful of silence he still hasn’t shed. Neil looks at him in the moonlight, breathless and jittery in the cold.
Abram, Andrew wants to say.
Instead he takes out his phone, opens a new contact, and offers it to Neil.
“It’s okay,” Neil says, for the second time. “Andrew, it’s okay.”
They’re in Neil’s bedroom, in a shoebox apartment on the twelfth floor of an ugly concrete block of a building. Andrew texted Neil after his therapy session in which he spent an hour telling his therapist all the reasons why he couldn’t do exactly that. Dr Chen, a little old lady who takes no shit and curses almost as much as she smokes, was predictably not impressed with him. So now Andrew is here, in Neil’s bedroom, trying to get a hold of the spiralling feeling of fucked-up-ness and the acute need to walk away, burn all bridges, and start over somewhere fresh and new.
Not that starting over somewhere fresh and new has ever worked for him before.
That thought is more sobering than any of the stupid breathing techniques. Andrew cracks his neck, rolls his shoulders. There. He’s still the sole owner of this body, useless as it may be.
“I just started new meds,” he forces himself to say. “Always messes with…”
He lets his fingers dance around the words. The truth is that adjusting his medication usually makes him bounce between desperately horny and utterly disinterested, and sometimes his brain is one thing and his body another. Like right now.
“We can do something else,” Neil says bluntly. “No offence, but I don’t really care if we fuck.”
Andrew’s head snaps up.
“Then why did you say yes?”
Neil hesitates, absently kneading the hem of his t-shirt in his hands. Andrew braces for something—the kick-back of a bullet dodged—but then Neil says, slowly:
“Because I like you. I like being close with you. Sex is nice when it’s like that, but I’m equally happy to watch a movie or make out on the couch, you know?”
He looks outwardly dishevelled, with his fly still open and his t-shirt all crinkly, but his face is smooth and calm, his words steady, casual. Yet there’s a live wire running through the shape of his body, the warning hum of it almost audible. Andrew’s fingers itch to reach out and touch.
“No, I don’t,” Andrew mutters. “I still want to blow you.”
“Oh,” Neil says, frowning. “But…”
Andrew grits his teeth.
“It’s not about—receiving, for me,” he tries to explain. He doesn’t know why he adds, “Most of the time I get myself off, anyway.”
Neil blinks slowly at him like a cat. Andrew rubs his palms on his jeans, then buttons them back up and grabs his shirt. The act of getting dressed in front of Neil feels almost more vulnerable than the reverse.
This whole night has been a disaster. The bridge-burning option looks more and more appealing. Except then Neil gets up and puts his hands on top of Andrew’s, stilling them, and leans in for a quick peck.
“Howl’s Moving Castle is on Netflix,” he says. “If we both still want to later, we can see about that blowjob.”
So they settle in on Neil’s awful green couch and watch Howl’s Moving Castle. Neil makes them simple hot cocoas, nothing like the fancy ones at the café, and wraps them both in a giant weighted blanket that is imbued with the same faint coffee-and-chocolate scent that Neil brings home from the café. It’s a blatant attempt at comfort that Andrew doesn’t need, but, despite himself, he still feels irritatingly soothed.
“Do you want to stay over?” Neil asks when the end credits roll, shaking off the blanket and picking up their mugs. He looks even messier than before, and Andrew wants to smooth down the wrinkles in his shirt and the cowlicks in his hair. And then possibly mess them all up again.
“No,” Andrew says, then, “Maybe. Yes.”
Neil shoots him an amused look.
Andrew sits on the couch, stewing in his indecision, while Neil puts their mugs away and disappears in the bathroom. Listening to the gurgle of the pipes, the faint chitter of rain on the windows, the humming of the refrigerator—it all feels so strangely domestic that Andrew nearly can’t stand it. He gets up, paces around the cramped living room, and takes a step into the kitchenette, opening and closing some cupboards and peering into the freezer. There’s a sad-looking pot of basil on the window sill and Andrew resists the urge to water it.
This is not his life.
He’s about to quietly pull on his shoes and leave when the bathroom door opens and Neil steps back out. He looks minty fresh in a loose, crumpled t-shirt and striped boxer shorts, his feet bare and his hair fluffed up. Andrew takes a step closer and Neil also takes a step closer and then Andrew leans in slowly, giving Neil time to back away. Neil does not back away. When they kiss Neil tastes like toothpaste and smells like soap, something orange-y from one of the fancier brands, though the bottle has a two-for-one sticker on it like Neil only bought it because it was on offer. Andrew isn’t sure why he’s thinking about soap right now. Neil’s mouth is cool and hot at the same time and he’s slightly taller than Andrew and one of his hands is resting very slightly against Andrew’s shoulder as if to steady him, and Andrew’s toes are curling in his socks, because he can’t even remember the last time he kissed a pretty boy like this.
Neil’s body makes a soft thump when it collides with the wall behind them and they part a little, breathing heavily.
“Still want to blow me?” Neil murmurs against Andrew’s mouth. His teasing tone doesn’t quite manage to cover up the huskiness of his voice, and Andrew’s stomach clenches pleasantly.
“Yes,” he says. “Do you?”
“Yeah,” Neil hums, ducking his head to kiss Andrew’s neck, and fuck if that doesn’t make his knees buckle for an embarrassing moment.
Andrew decides to cover up the lapse by deliberately following the trajectory of his knees down onto the floor. He cups a hand over the firm swoop of Neil’s thigh, drags his thumb over the dramatic arch of his hipbone. Neil shivers and huffs and goes quiet when Andrew peels off his boxer shorts, watching him with keen focus.
Andrew slides the shorts down and guides Neil’s feet out of them one by one, rubbing the calloused pads of his thumbs over the soft skin around Neil’s ankles, which feels rich and delicate like whipped cream. Neil sucks in a breath, still propped up smugly against the wall, and Andrew leans down and tucks a kiss just underneath the crescent moon of his left ankle.
“I hate your feet,” he murmurs, nosing at the soft hair on Neil’s leg. “I hate your ankles. Your calves. And fuck your knees in particular.”
He places more kisses as he goes, hooks a hand in the back of Neil’s right knee and tugs until it folds, brushes his mouth over the warm, exposed skin there.
“But your thighs I hate especially,” he says contemptuously, sliding his hands first over the hard lines of Neil’s quads which twitch under his touch, then around the back to the soft crease where his thighs meet his ass. “Here. And here. And all over.”
“I see,” Neil breathes, collapsing a little more against the wall but tilting his hips forward so Andrew can get a better grip on his ass and pull him in. Andrew takes a moment to nuzzle into the salty-sweet scent of him and Neil sighs.
“I don’t think you do,” Andrew murmurs, and swallows him all the way down.
Weirdly, it doesn’t change anything.
Andrew is at a loss. His interest levels in a guy usually drop rapidly after hooking up. With Neil, he still finds himself at Chocoholic every week, still fantasises about the exact weight and taste and texture of his dick in his mouth, the stiff meringue peaks of his sex hair, the languid flex of his thigh muscles under his palms. They kiss up against the brick wall outside after Neil’s shift ends, they go out for food to these tiny, secret bistros only Neil knows, they watch a different Ghibli movie on Neil’s couch every Sunday.
Kevin still gives Andrew the stink-eye and refuses to make any of the drinks he orders, but Andrew catches him fixing Neil’s collar for him before sending him over, even lick his thumb and try to wipe a smudge of cocoa from Neil’s cheek once, and attempt which Neil expertly dodges. Renee comes along for a matcha white hot chocolate and smiles the whole time without mentioning Neil at all. Aaron suggests meeting up at Chocoholic and Andrew doesn’t reply, but he does go for lunch with him at a boring salad bar the week after, where the mutual speechlessness and stilted smalltalk is at least limited to their respective lunch breaks. Every once in a while Andrew watches the three dots dance on his phone screen as Aaron tries and fails once again to bring up the question of Neil in casual conversation, and it’s—surprisingly okay.
The sex is good. Really good, even though Andrew still can’t get it up half the time. He’s reached the stage where he can tell that the side effects of his new medication are not just a temporary by-product of getting used to them. The weaning off process is long and arduous as always, and once it’s done he will have to start all over from scratch. But Andrew has been there before, he can do it again, find a new equilibrium if he toughs it out. And in the meantime he gets to suck Neil’s dick, which still counts as a win in his book.
“Here,” Neil says, sliding into the seat opposite Andrew with a hazelnut mocha for himself and another unknown concoction for Andrew. “Try it. Rosewater and cardamom.”
Andrew wrinkles his nose, but scoops up some of the crushed baklava on top of the whipped cream with his spoon. Neil’s mom now supplies the café with it once a week, and apparently it sells like crazy. It’s a Tuesday, which means Neil must have saved some for Andrew, because there’d be none left otherwise.
Neil sighs, rubbing at the fading, yellowish bruises on the still tender bridge of his nose. Andrew has timed his visits so he usually arrives after a rush period and Neil can take his break. The Tuesday one is often the worst, for some reason, and Neil slides down in his seat a little and slants a tired look at Andrew. For once, his green shirt is creased and milk-stained, there are sweat rings under his arms, and he has cocoa streaked in his hair and a yawn perched in the springs of his jaw.
He needs a bath, Andrew thinks. A hot bath, and a massage, and takeaway from his favourite dumpling place for dinner, and an orgasm or two. There. That’s their plans for the evening settled.
“I think my latte art is improving,” Neil says, shaking out his right hand. “The swan almost doesn’t look like a penis anymore.”
Andrew pushes his thumb into his bottom lip hard.
The thing is, Neil has made Andrew greedy.
Having him is not enough. He wants to keep him, too.
Andrew is used to rifling through his closet and discarding outfits he saved up to buy. He checks endless books out of the library and never gets past the first chapter. His brain comes up with a million different ways to fuck a guy, but the minute he lays hands on him the curtains fall for good. He bursts with covetous longing at the sight of every sleek, ridiculous car that passes him in the street, yet he still walks to work because he can’t make up his mind which one he actually wants.
Neil is a surprise order every time. Andrew never knows what he’s going to taste until he takes the first sip. He goes back and he goes back and he goes back.
Neil is a million flavours all at once. Neil tastes like more.
Andrew grits his teeth and shreds his napkin between his fingers and sits in the steady, boozy soak of his appetite.
“Are you thinking dirty thoughts about me again?” Neil says, a smirk blooming on the rim of his glass.
“No,” Andrew says. “Maybe. Yes.”
Neil shakes a little with silent, breathy laughter, his teeth clacking against the glass.
“To think that all those times I was convinced you were plotting how to murder me, you were just sitting here consumed with lust.”
“Why not both? I can multitask,” Andrew says.
“Hot,” Neil murmurs, still smirking, still hiding behind his glass, still poured into his seat like a shot of something potent and illegal.
Andrew drains the last of his drink—not as bad as he thought, a tender balance of subtle flavours—and holds his cup out to him.
“I want another one of the spiced sweet potato abomination you made last week,” he demands. “With melted marshmallows.”
Neil’s smirk widens.
“No,” he says, and the word makes Andrew’s entire soul buzz in ways he never thought possible before. Neil pulls himself out of the landslide of his limbs and leans forward, until his mouth just brushes the vulnerable shell of Andrew’s ear, and murmurs, “You know I don’t take orders from you.”
Then he gets up, gathers their cups, and leaves Andrew sitting in the dregs of his hunger, craving just one more sip.