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Neil Josten Builds Himself a Life

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“Well, that’s the last of it,” Matt announces as he drops Neil’s lone duffel bag near the entryway of his new apartment.

Neil gives him a look. Matt knows better than anyone the reason why he has so few belongings.

“Aw, don’t be like that, bud,” Matt says at Neil’s disgruntled reaction. “Don’t worry, we’ll turn this place into your new home soon enough. First stop: Ikea.”

-

Neil looks like a little kid exploring the world for the first time. Eyes darting around, hands reaching out to touch everything in sight. It’s kind of adorable and Matt just wants to bundle him up in blankets and never let go.

“Amazing, right?” Matt tells Neil, who still looks awe-struck.

“It’s like a billion houses in one place. I can’t believe my mom never thought to let us stay here. There’s beds, bathrooms, electricity, all we’d need is food.”

“Just wait till we go to the cafeteria,” Matt says with a laugh. “You’ll never go back to eating regular meatballs.”

“Damn, this is the perfect place. Can’t I just move in here instead?”

“I don’t think the FBI would appreciate you being immediately arrested for trespassing the day you’re let out of witness protection.” Matt sighs, never one to try and stop Neil from getting excited about something.

“Well then you underestimate my abilities at evading the law,” Neil responds with a smirk.

Matt rubs his face, “for the last time, bud, you can’t go around telling me this stuff. I’d have to report you to my team.”

“Please,” Neil huffs, “you guys already know that I’ve killed multiple people.”

At the horrified look given to them by some passers by, who are urging their children away, Matt says, “please don’t admit to murder in public places, it really won’t help integrate you in society.” While Matt is sure that Neil was an expert at normal human behavior and blending in while he was on the run, his years hidden away by the FBI while they took down his father’s circle have made him lose all social intelligence. Matt can only pray that Neil will gain some tact in the coming months.

Well, that’s what Matt is here for anyways, so Neil should be fine. Hopefully.

“Okay, so first things first, let’s find you a bed frame,” Matt says as they walk to the area full of beds.

When Neil looks at the price tag attached to the nearest frame, he falters, “nah, I think I’ll be fine with just a mattress.”

“Neil, you’re 25 years old, you are getting a bed frame.” Matt says staunchly. Neil still doesn’t look convinced so Matt continues. “Anyways, this is all being paid for by the team, it’s part of your transition. You’re getting a bed frame.”

Neil sighs, “fine.” And the two of them walk around looking at the beds. In the end, Neil picks the most basic full size frame, and Matt writes down the name in their booklet. The tiny wooden pencil looks even more comical than usual in Matt’s giant hands.

They move over to look at the mattresses.

Neil points to the first mattress he comes across and tells Matt he’ll get that one.

“Neil, Neil, Neilio. You should actually try out the mattresses.” Matt sighs, “you don’t have to just settle anymore. You can choose what you want.” It makes Matt sad to think about Neil’s life on the run where he had no control or choice in life. “Come on, my dad taught me how to test if a mattress is good.”

Matt flops himself onto the nearest mattress. “So the trick is to find one that’s pretty firm, but not too firm. You gotta lay on it like you’re sleeping to see if it’s comfortable.” Matt pats the space next to him, and Neil gets on.

-

“Sometimes I wonder if there’s any point to existence.” Neil says longingly, staring up at the ceiling.

“Yeah…” Matt sighs from where he’s laid next to Neil, also facing the ceiling.

“Well! I think this is the one then!” Matt declares, and with that, after testing out every single mattress in the Ikea, they finally found the one for Neil. “Next is a bedside table and dresser.”

They pick up some simple furniture to finish off Neil’s room, and write down the names of a table and set of chairs while they’re at it, so that he’ll have a place to eat other than on his bed.

“That should be enough to get you started, we’ll get some more stuff later. But for now, time to change your life,” Matt says as they head towards the cafeteria. “Why don’t you go grab us a table while I get the food?” He’s still nervous about unleashing Neil onto strangers.

Neil finds a table in the corner of the cafeteria, noticing how he saw the exact set of table and chairs in one of the showrooms earlier.

“So after this we’ll stop by Target to get some other essentials,” Matt says, Swedish meatballs chipmunked in his cheeks. It sets a distinct contrast to where Neil is delicately cutting up his meatballs with a fork and knife and dipping them into the gravy as if he were eating some fancy steak.

“Also, I was thinking, Ikea does this thing where you can hire someone to help you build the furniture-“

“Wait, build the furniture?” Neil asks.

“Yeah, it’s like Ikea’s whole thing. Anyways, I think we should hire someone to build the stuff for us because I can’t do it on my own, and I suck at reading those stupid instruction manuals.”

“Why can’t I help you?”

“No offense, bud, but some of these pieces are really heavy and I don’t want to risk crushing your tiny body underneath one of them.”

Neil doesn’t seem content with that reasoning, crossing his arms against his chest with a thinly veiled attempt at flexing his muscles while doing so.

“Also, it’d be easier if I had someone closer to my height, or at least a bit taller to help me out,” Matt attempts to reconcile.

Neil just huffs in response and goes back fo eating his meatballs, cutting them a slight bit more aggressively. The two of them finish their meal quietly.

As Neil starts to get up to put away his plate, Matt interrupts him, “ah ah ah, you didn’t even touch your vegetables.” And Neil at least has enough tact to look slightly ashamed. “How are you supposed to grow if you don’t eat veggies. At this point, I think I’m going to have to put you on watch for scurvy.”

“Ugh.” Neil sits back down and starts picking away at the vegetables on his plate, ignoring Matt’s content smile.

Matt patiently waits for Neil to finish his plate, and then they head down to the warehouse, and Neil once again looks like a kid in a candy shop staring at the wall displays of kitchen supplies in every color and design imaginable.

Matt grabs a cart and carefully walks through each display, throwing things into the cart as he doesn’t trust Neil to actually buy the things he needs. Neil will occasionally pitch in and put some items in the cart, and it makes Matt’s heart burst thinking of how far this kid has come.

The cart is filled to the brim by the time they reach the furniture area. Matt expertly weaves through the aisles with the dolly, locating each box based on the numbers he wrote down in his booklet, Neil just trails behind, pushing the cart, confused.

Once everything is gathered, they go pay, and Neil is horrified to see how much everything cost, only saved by Matt swiping his job’s card with a smirk.

Outside, Matt tells Neil, “okay, you wait here with the stuff, while I go pull up my truck.” Honestly, he’s a bit nervous leaving Neil out alone in public, not sure what crimes he will admit to or people he will traumatize, but he knows he needs to trust Neil to manage on his own, that’s what all this is for anyways.

-

The first thing the two of them do when returning to Neil’s apartment building (after a quick stop at Target), is bring up the mattress and immediately unbox it, then flopping on top, exhausted by their trip.

“Yeah. This was a good choice.” Matt sighs after he regains his breath. And Neil mumbles in agreement. They lay there breathing for a few minutes until a loud knock at the door breaks their silence.

“Shit, I’ll go get that,” Matt says, and he regrets that decision when he opens the door and is faced with the single most beautiful woman he has ever seen. She has deep brown skin, close-cut curly hair, dimples, and biceps peeking out of her t-shirt.

“Uh,” Matt answers coherently.

“Hi. I’m Dan, I live over in 6C.”

“Hi. Matt.” He reaches out a sweaty hand in introduction. “Oh yeah, and that’s Neil over there,” slowly coming to his senses and pointing to the small redhead now sat up on the mattress. “He’s the one who actually lives here.” Neil gives a small wave.

“Oh, are y’all together?” Dan asks earnestly. Putting two and two together and realizing both men had been laying on the mattress before she arrived.

Matt laughs, “no way, he’s like my son.”

“Ah. Well I saw you guys carrying up some stuff and was wondering if y’all needed any help moving in.” Matt once again looks at her muscled arms.

“Uh, yeah actually, that would be great.” Matt’s smile is almost as big as he is at this point.

“Cool. Actually, let me just go see if I can convince my brother to stop watching tennis and come help us. I’ll be right back.”

Matt nods and closes the door behind her.

“Dudeeee,” he tells Neil. “I think if she put me in a chokehold, I’d die happy.”

“Straight people are so weird,” Neil responds, not really sure what his sexuality is but knowing it’s not whatever that is.

“First of all, I’m bi-“

Matt is interrupted by a knock at the door, “fuck, she’s back, act normal.”

“Okay...”

“Welcome back!” Matt says, Dan is now accompanied by a man only slightly shorter than Matt. He’s got sharp cheekbones, tight curls, and equally impressive arms to Dan. That family is genetically blessed.

“This is my little brother, Kevin,” Dan responds, “we live together.”

“Kevin, nice to meet you bro,” Matt gives him a fist bump, but Kevin does not seem impressed. “I’m Matt, that’s my pal, Neil, over there.”

“Hey.” Kevin says.

“Okay well, thank you both for offering to help us out, we have a lot of boxes we need to bring upstairs. So let’s go do that.” Matt turns around, “you too, Neil, you can grab the shopping bags.”

The elevator ride downstairs with the four of them is the most awkward 90 seconds Neil has ever experienced, and that’s saying something. Even he could feel the weird tension going on in there.

Once they get to Matt’s big red truck, Kevin finally speaks, “compensating for something?” And Dan smacks him on the shoulder for that.

“Idiot,” she says.

“Let’s just start unloading these boxes and bringing them up.” Matt says, desperate to cut the awkwardness.

Dan immediately grabs a box, muscles bulging, and Matt nearly faints. Kevin gets the next box, giving Matt the stink eye as he does. 

The four of them make quick work of it, and by the end of the hour, Neil’s apartment is full of boxes and plastic bags.

-

They end up at a Lebanese restaurant a few blocks down from the building after Matt invites Dan and Kevin for dinner as a thank you.

“So Neil, what brings you to Palmetto?” Dan asks, dipping her warm pita bread into the bowl of hummus.

“Work,” Neil says, and it’s not technically a lie because the FBI did hook him up with a job as a translator. And he obviously can’t tell her the real reason why he’s here. “I’m a translator.”

“Ooh what language do you speak?”

“French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Italian, Swedish, and a little bit of Arabic.”

“Damn.”

-

“So I think you should be alright for the night,” Matt says after helping make Neil’s bed — or well, mattress. The frame still needs to get built. “I’ll be back tomorrow, but you can text or call me if you need anything. Ooh also, the Ikea builder is coming tomorrow, so don’t forget about that.”

“Do we seriously need one of those?” Neil complains, “why can’t we just get Dan and Kevin to help us out again?”

“Because I don’t want Dan to see my inability to build Ikea furniture! That’s not husband material!”

“Husband material?”

“And I don’t think Kevin likes me.”

“I wonder why,” Neil jokes, which should make Matt angry, but he can’t help and smile at Neil, ruffling his hair before leaving.

-

Neil is already up by the time Matt lets himself into his apartment with the spare key.

“Morning, cutie!”

“Morning, Matt.”

“I got us some breakfast,” Matt says as he sets down two to-go cups of coffee and a paper bag on the counter.

Neil walks into the living area, pulling a hoodie on. The result is his hair sticking up and flopping ridiculously. Matt resists the urge to coo.

He slides Neil a black coffee and bagel with cream cheese over the counter.

“Thanks, Matt,” Neil responds shyly, still so unused to people doing nice things for him.

“Of course, bud. Anything for you.”

After eating their breakfast at the counter — standing because the furniture still needs to be built — the two of them begin sorting through the rest of the items from yesterday.

Matt starts a list of everything that’s missing, such as furniture for the rest of the house, and some other home necessities. Those will get taken care of later on in the week. For now, he just wants to make sure Neil has a proper room to sleep in and table to eat on.

With that, there’s a pounding at the door, “oh, that should be the Ikea guy,” Matt says as Neil goes over to answer it.

Needless to say, when Neil pulls open the door, he is not impressed. “Seriously, this is the guy that’s going to help build my furniture?” He tells Matt, “he’s even shorter than I am.”

The man at the door remains with his face blank, “nice to meet you too,” he says.

“Hey, sorry about Neil, I’m Matt, thanks for helping us out,” Matt interjects before Neil can bully the man into leaving.

“Andrew,” the man responds, his eyes flickering in question between the two men.

Matt waves him inside, and with that Andrew steps through the threshold, slowly removing his puffy black jacket to reveal a loose black tank and black inked tattoos curling up his impressive arms.

Neil becomes slightly less incredulous at Andrew’s abilities.

“You can just leave that on the counter,” Matt says, pointing to Andrew’s jacket, “as you can see, we don’t really have anything ready here yet — which is why you’re here!” Andrew does not seem nearly as enthusiastic as Matt, but he continues on regardless, “let’s start with the bed since it’s the biggest.”

Matt locates the boxes which contain Neil’s bed. He grabs one and attempts to open it with his bare hands unsuccessfully. Andrew pulls the box towards him, pulls out a knife from one of his black combat boots, and expertly slices open the box.

“Smart,” Matt remarks but Neil is not impressed.

“Wow, how cliché, like no other wannabe goth has ever kept a knife in their boot,” he says boredly, trying to hide his discomfort at a near stranger bringing a knife into his home.

“I’m not goth,” Andrew responds with a hint of disgust.

“Oh so then this whole get up is just an act?” Neil says waving his hands over Andrew’s self.

“Maybe I just like the color black.”

“Okay. Sure. Like is black even considered a color?”

“Neil, your favorite color is gray,” Matt says, already exasperated, both at Neil’s inability to be a nice, functioning human being, and at having to carry the pieces of the bed out of the box alone as the two other men are preoccupied in some odd face off.

“That’s besides the point,” Neil responds with a huff, crossing his arms like a petulant child throwing a tantrum.

“What exactly is the point?” Andrew asks, despite everything, his face remaining blank and indifferent.

“The point is that you are not needed here, so you’re free to go now.”

“That’s cool with me, I’ll get paid either way. Have fun putting together all that furniture with your glorified spaghetti arms.” Andrew heads over to where his jacket is messily splayed over the counter.

“Hey!”

“Wait,” Matt says, “please stay, we really need your help.” He turns to the other man, “Neil, why don’t you go head out and start buying some things off the list, or maybe grab us some food while you’re at it?” He’s still incredibly hesitant to let Neil go out into the world on his own, especially if these past ten minutes have been any indication, but Matt really needs a hand if he wants this furniture to get built.

Andrew puts his jacket back on the counter, “I don’t like that word.”

“You’re staying?” Matt says, actually surprised.

Andrew shrugs, “it’s something decently interesting to do.”

-

Neil is grumbling to himself as he walks to the nearest grocery store, Matt’s FBI card in hand. He can’t believe Matt would kick him out of his own apartment so that some 5 foot nothing goth wannabe can flex his muscles while putting together furniture. Neil doesn’t even trust this man to make his furniture, for all he knows, his bed will fall apart on him in the middle of the night. He wouldn’t put it past Andrew.

But he will concede that at least Matt finally let him go out on his own for once (technically he did go for a run this morning but Matt doesn’t need to know).

Neil wastes his time at the grocery story, carefully strolling through each aisle. He picks out some food to stock the pantry and fridge; though he never learned to cook on the run, he wants to try now that he’s “starting a new life” or whatever Matt has told him.

He ends up buying some cooking supplies, including an apron depicting different types of pasta on it.

Once he gets back to his apartment, holding the pizza Matt asked him to buy, his bed frame and bedside table have already been built. Matt and Andrew are working quietly on the dresser, exchanging a few words here and there about what to do next.

Neil doesn’t feel like dealing with them, so he just starts putting away his things after Matt greets him and makes sure he hasn’t committed any crimes or started any fights at the grocery store.

“Where does this piece go?” Matt asks loudly, holding up a small plank of wood.

“Under the last one you put down,” Andrew responds, looking at the pictures of the instruction manual.

“I’ve already tried, it doesn’t work.”

Neil decides to see what’s going on with his furniture, he walks into his bedroom and sees the two men kneeled over the booklet.

“Let me have a look,” Neil says, unable to see the instructions due to Matt’s height and Andrew’s width. Matt grabs the instructions and passes it to him.

“Oh easy,” Neil says as he reads the words on the manual, “this piece goes on top, it says right here.” He turns to Andrew, whose face has for once shifted into a minor look of surprise, “you can’t read Swedish?”

“Why would I read Swedish?” Andrew shoots back incredulously.

“I don’t know, because your whole job is to build Swedish furniture.” Neil huffs waving his arms around, “ikea should only hire Swedish people to work for them.”

“Okay I’ll be sure to let my boss know.” Andrew says dryly.

“I mean, you never know, Andrew looks pretty Swedish to me,” Matt interjects, to which Andrew responds by boredly saying “hi” in Swedish. His accent isn’t half bad.

-

It’s about 6 by the time Andrew leaves, a completed bed, dresser, bedside table, table, and set of chairs in his wake. Neil is just glad that all the furniture got built today so Andrew won’t have to come back.

Neil decided to celebrate this by attempting to cook dinner. He’s starting with the basics, which means spaghetti and meatballs — everything already pre-made obviously. It’s a very fitting dish considering the apron he bought himself.

Matt is acting as his sous-chef. He, like Neil, cannot cook, so it is one idiot leading another. Unlike Neil, however, he does posses kitchen skills, he just cannot put together ingredients and flavors to save Neil’s life.

Neil still shudders whenever he thinks of the time Matt made him spicy raspberry chicken.

It’s just more motivation for him to learn how to cook.

While the noodles are boiling in the pot, Neil sticks a hand in and grabs one floating near the surface — much to Matt’s terror. It’s still nearly raw, Neil assumes, based on the crunch it gave when he bit into it.

After a few more minutes and a few more crunchy noodles, Neil determines that the pasta is ready. He strains the water, adds in some sauce (which splashes all over his shirt), and finishes it off with the meatballs he had Matt heat up in the microwave.

The end dish is edible, but interesting to say the least, with the pasta being almost too chewy, the sauce sliding straight off the noodles thanks to Matt’s insistence that true Italians put oil in their pasta water, and the meatballs being slightly cold on the inside due to the microwave.

Nevertheless, Neil is proud. He has his own apartment, a real bed, and now has made a meal for himself. It does feel like the start to a new, free life.

And Matt, well, Matt is always proud of Neil.

-

The next day, the two of them find themselves at a shelter, a product of the discussion they had over dinner last night where Matt asked Neil, “now that you have your new life, what’s something you’ve always wanted?”

And Neil has always wondered what it’d be like to have a pet. Hence the animal shelter.

They’re currently talking to a woman with rainbow dyed hair, Renee, according to the name tag on her pinstriped overalls, who’s asking a bit more about which type of pet they’re looking to adopt. Neil gets a weird vibe around her, he’s not really sure why that is.

“We have dogs, cats, birds, some reptiles, mice, and a few other animals if you’re looking for something specific,” Renee lists off.

“What do you think Neil?” Matt prompts to his friend who looks slightly out of his element.

“Uh…” Neil trails off.

In the end, Renee asks him a bit about his life and recommends he look into getting a cat, “they can be playful and cuddly, but are also really independent.” So they head into the cat area, a room filled with cat trees and toys, and so many cats wandering around.

There’s two up on a tree napping on each other, a ginger cat swiping at a toy, and a tuxedo cat grooming himself.

Neil doesn’t know where to start, he walks in and heads towards the first animal he sees, a long-haired gray cat, chewing on a cheese toy.

“Hey, bud,” Neil tells the cat, imitating how Matt is when he talks to him, unsure how to approach humans, much less animals.

A minute later, when the cat finally deems Neil worth its attention, it turns its head slowly towards him, blinks its eyes, and begins hissing.

Neil is even more lost, “here kitty, kitty. It’s alright.” He attempts to be calming. The cat seems to frown at Neil and stops hissing, only to sprint across the room.

Matt turns over from where he’s currently covered in about ten cats, “dude, it’s your twin,” he says, referring to the hissing, running cat.

“Fuck off, Matt.”

-

Neil leaves with a cat carrier in his arm, holding the semi-evil cat he met, apparently named Floofy — which Matt has insisted needed to be changed soon.

Matt leaves with a new number in his phone and a new best friend. Renee still made Neil slightly uncomfortable, but Matt has the ability to befriend a rock with googly eyes.

-

Neil often questions what he did in his past life to deserve his current existence. But never as much as he is now.

His already scarred arms are covered in scrapes, there’s dry food all over the kitchen floor, and cat vomit on Neil’s pillow. Neil is currently hiding in his bathtub, arms around his knees.

Needless to say, Floofy has won.

And she is scarier than any of Neil’s previous tormentors: Nathan, Riko, his mom, hell even Lola.

He doesn’t understand how so much evil can fit in such a small body. Funny considering many people have said that about him.

Wow, maybe Floofy is Neil as a cat. If so, Neil needs to go apologize to Matt, stat.

Eventually, Matt arrives at Neil’s apartment and is able to drag Neil out of the bathroom, and out of the house — reluctantly “I can’t leave Floofy alone here, she’ll take over.”

They’re back at Ikea, looking at furniture for the rest of the apartment. Neil finally gets a reprieve from dealing with his pet demon, and earns a new-found appreciation for the store as a result.

Unfortunately, as Matt tells Neil over Swedish meatballs, new furniture also means the return of Andrew to help build said furniture.

When they return to the apartment, Neil’s hands covering his eyes to hide the hell that surely must be his house now, they find it exactly as they left it, with Floofy napping contently in the pastel pink macaron-shaped cat bed Matt bought.

Neil still eyes her wearily while heading to the kitchen.

Today’s dish is a one-pan chicken and vegetables recipe that Matt found online, it seemed simple enough. Matt’s in charge of chopping vegetables — Neil has knife skills, but not ones meant for the kitchen, while Neil seasons the chicken.

As they’re preparing their meal, Matt asks Neil about playing tennis with him. Apparently, Matt has decided that in order to win over Kevin and be able to date Dan, he should get really into Kevin’s favorite sport. Neil doesn’t know why anyone would go that far just for the chance to date someone.

Especially because he isn’t even sure if Dan wants to date Matt.

“Listen, I’m a gentleman, and I shall not begin courting a woman until I get her brother’s approval,” was Matt’s reasoning.

“Wouldn’t a true gentleman just respect the woman’s decision instead of relying on another man’s opinion? It’s not like Kevin’s gonna date you,” Neil responds.

That conversation was cut short however, when Floofy awoke from her slumber and began yowling like a siren for some food.

By the time the two of them finish the intense game of bringing Floofy food while trying not to experience her wrath, the food is ready.

The meal is a bit burnt as Matt was scared of the chicken being undercooked, but it’s not bad, just adds some extra texture.

-

The next day, much to Neil’s discontent, Andrew knocks on his door bright and early. Matt’s not even there yet, which means that Neil has to deal with Andrew on his own. Well, not on his own because he has a demon-cat here with him. Maybe he should unleash her on Andrew, Neil thinks.

The first thing Andrew says when he walks in and looks around is, “where’s your boyfriend?”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Neil grumbles, more angry at the fact that Andrew is making assumptions about his life than the fact that he thinks Neil and Matt are dating. “He’ll be here soon.”

And as if on cue, Matt walks in, sweating, wearing full gym wear and holding a racket under his arm, “hey, sorry I’m late, I lost track of time at tennis practice.”

“So that wasn’t a joke,” Neil says dryly.

“Nope!” After putting his racket down, Matt turns to Andrew, as if just noticing him, “oh have you started yet?” And at Andrew’s shake of his head, “great! Let’s start on the couch then.”

Apparently, tennis practice has Matt all hyped up on adrenaline, even more golden retriever like than normal.

Matt gets Andrew to help him bring the boxes out of the closet — stored there so Floofy wouldn’t desecrate them. But of course, because this cat has decided to be the bane of Neil’s existence, Floofy has sat herself right in the middle of the living room, where the sofa is meant to go, and refuses to budge.

Neil tries to lure her away with a treat, but she just swipes at him and stays put. Matt attempts to pick her up and move her, but she won’t stop screaming and scratching his arm.

“Whatever, let’s just build the couch over near that wall, and we can push it back when the cat moves,” Matt says after what feels like half an hour of struggling. When he turns back to look at Floofy, though, Andrew is knelt beside her, scratching her chin.

“What the…” Neil trails off at the sight. Somehow betrayed that his own pet likes Andrew more than him. Even if he still doesn’t like her very much yet.

After a few minutes of Andrew petting and scratching Floofy, who is currently acting like an angel, she walks into his arms, and he moves her onto her bed. It’s like magic.

Neil is speechless, but Andrew seems indifferent all the while, as if taming murderous cats is something he does every other Tuesday.

And Matt says, “well you know what people say, animals are a good judge of character,” with a wink at Neil.

Neil throws his hands up, “well then why doesn’t she like me?”

“Because you’re an asshole,” responds both Andrew and Matt, though the latter says it much more lovingly than the former.

“Ugh, just hand me the instruction manual.” After the discovery that Neil could speak Swedish the other day (Matt knew all along but completely forgot to put two and two together), he’s been enlisted to help and direct the furniture building, which he would complain about, but it means he gets to boss Andrew around, so it’s not all bad.

In the end, it went by pretty quickly, Andrew mostly kept quiet and followed Neil’s lead — except for a few squabbles of which nails go where. Matt, as always, just kept a running narrative of whatever thoughts popped into his head.

Neil was quite fascinated watching Andrew handle and move around heavy pieces of furniture and seeing his muscles shift on his tattooed arms. Especially juxtaposed with the fact Andrew would occasionally go over and gently pet Floofy.

Neil can’t figure him out. He’s not sure if he wants to.

-

Matt is tying Neil’s tie, helping him get ready for his first day as a translator. Neil thought the tie was overkill but Matt made up some excuse of first good impressions or something. In reality, he just thinks Matt wanted to dress him up nice.

The past week has been uneventful. Neil finally has a furnished place to live, he’s become settled in the area, learned to deal with his cat a bit better, and tried out some more cooking. Which yes, in retrospect, is a lot to happen in a week, but considering Neil’s history, it’s uneventful.

So now it’s time for the next step of his integration into a normal life: work.

Matt is going to go with Neil for his first day, just to get him all set up and make sure everything’s okay, but after that, he has to reluctantly go back to his day job at the FBI. “But don’t worry bud, I’ll be at your place everyday after work to check up on you and hang out,” he assured Neil.

Nevertheless, Neil is grateful for the company because he has no idea what to expect today.

He’s somewhat looking forward to it, eager to make money legally for once, and always willing to use his many languages. Just a bit nervous.

Neil is content to let Matt do most of the talking when they arrive at his new workplace. Matt is content to do the talking.

Neil gets started pretty quickly considering how straightforward his job is: read the text and translate it to the appropriate language. So within the hour, he gets brought to his desk.

He works next to a blonde woman named Allison, which he knows because she immediately introduced herself upon seeing him and Matt walk in, he’s not really sure what she does.

Neil gets started right away, opening his first file and typing away the translation onto a Word document.

Matt occupies the time by messing around with the items on Neil’s desk, and chatting with Allison.

Allison is a bit much, apparently the self-proclaimed office gossip, but other than that Neil’s first day went well. He can envision himself doing this everyday, yet another part of his new existence.

-

When Neil walks into his apartment, Matt is watching a tennis match on the new tv, halfway out of his seat and yelling at the screen. Looking back at it, Matt probably insisted Neil buy a tv just for this reason.

“What. The. Fuck.”

“Shhhh, it’s game point.” Matt is breathing as heavily as the players on the screen. He’s really taking this whole tennis thing way too seriously.

Neil doesn’t care enough to bother, so he goes and refills Floofy’s food bowl. She’s been more agreeable these days. Still a menace, but a somewhat manageable one.

-

The next day when Neil gets home from work, there’s a box from a nearby bakery on his counter. When he walks towards it, Matt shouts, “don’t touch that!”

Neil walks away, not even a fan of sweets and not looking to get in the middle of Matt’s weird courting rituals. His current scheme is to head over to apartment 6C and tell Dan and Kevin that he accidentally bought too much stuff from the bakery, then just thrust the box in their arms and run away.

All things said, it does technically go to plan, running and all.

-

When it gets to the weekend, Matt tells Neil they’re going out for dinner. Apparently he found some restaurant that airs live tennis matches, and he invited Dan and Kevin along but didn’t mention that detail.

Matt drives the four of them to the restaurant and acts like the perfect gentleman to Dan, opening her door, pulling out her seat, taking her jacket.

When he asks them if they liked the desserts, Dan responds, “the lemon meringue was incredible.”

To which Matt says, “oh yeah, I remember you mentioning you liked lemon.” Neil has no idea when Dan has ever mentioned that.

Not ten minutes into the meal however, Matt’s attention is pulled away from Dan and onto the current tennis match playing on the screen.

Kevin makes some comment about a bad play, and Matt says, “I forgot you liked tennis, so do I!” And it’s the fakest thing Neil has ever heard. He makes a note to himself to give Matt some lessons in lying.

The two of them spend the rest of the time talking about tennis, while Dan and Neil just chatted about whatever.

According to Matt, the night was a success.

-

Allison loves to pester Neil while he’s working. She has a sixth sense for drama. And right as he closes one document and is about to move onto the next, she interrupts him. 

“So, Neil…” She grabs a nail file out of nowhere, and starts filing her nails. It seems to be the only filing she does in this place. “Your friend Matt told me you’re single. And for a hot piece like you, I can’t tell why that is.”

Neil has no will to deal with this. “I don’t date.”

“So you’re more of a pump it and dump it guy, then.”

Neil is mildly horrified, “I don’t do that either.”

“Come on, you can’t really believe that. Have you even dated anyone before?” Neil shakes his head, “well then how can you know you don’t date?”

“Because I just do, Allison,” Neil is frustrated at this point. “Leave me alone.”

Allison is quiet for a minute, but Neil doesn’t trust the silence, she looks devious.

“How about this: let me set you up on one date. And if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll won’t bother you about your dating life.”

“Fine, whatever, if it’ll get you to shut up.” Neil doesn’t actually plan on going to this date, but Allison doesn’t need to know that.

“Ooh yay! And I have the perfect guy for you!” She’s way too excited about this. Oh god.

-

“You’ve got everything you need, right? Phone, wallet, condom.”

“Oh my god, Matt. I don’t even wanna be here.” Allison the evil genius she is, texted Matt about Neil’s blind date and so Neil couldn’t bail. Matt insisted on driving and everything.

“At least give it a shot, you never know,” Matt goads. Neil just grumbles to himself.

Once they arrive, Matt says, “good luck! Stay safe! And call me if you need anything! Or if he’s a creep.”

“Yeah yeah.” Neil says.

And all of a sudden Matt gets all teary eyed, “My little boy is all grown up.”

“Fuck off, Matt.” Neil smacks him and starts walking in.

“Go get em, tiger!”

Fuck. When Neil walks into the restaurant and sees a man who looks exactly like Andrew there, he sincerely hopes that Andrew has some secret identical twin Neil wasn’t aware of.

But alas his hopes fade when the blonde walks up to him, wearing a dark grey button up and black slacks, and says dully, “a pleasure seeing you here.”

And Neil already has to deal with this whole blind date situation, he really does not want to deal with Andrew too. “I wish I could say the same. Now if you don’t mind, I have a date to get to.”

Andrew doesn’t budge, and Neil comes to a horrible realization. “Shit. You’re my date aren’t you?”

“It appears so.”

“Whatever, let’s just get this over with.” Neil is half-glad that at least he somewhat knows Andrew, like it’s not an axe-murdering stranger. Granted Andrew does carry knives in his boots, but Neil has plenty of experience with those.

They get seating at their table and it feels so romantic, with the candle flicker in the dim light and soft music playing.

Neil decides to set the record straight before Andrew gets any ideas, “listen, I don’t date. I’m only here because my annoying coworker forced me into it.”

“Then it’s a good thing I don’t date either.”

“Then what are you doing here?” Neil asked perplexed.

“Same as you, someone made me.” Andrew says while skimming the menu.

Neil somehow refuses to believe that Andrew would do something he doesn’t want to. “What you couldn’t just wave your knife at them and tell them no?”

“Considering that she’s the one who gave me those knives, no.”

“God, where does Allison meet these people?” Neil asks, more to himself than Andrew.

“Renee?” Andrew asks, “Probably at the gym.”

That name rings a bell. “Wait Renee? Does she work at an animal shelter?” When Andrew nods his head, Neil nearly jumps out of his seat, “so that’s why you’re so good with Floofy.”

“Your cat’s name is Floofy?” Andrew asks with an undercurrent of disgust in his voice.

Neil is slightly ashamed yet equally protective of his cat’s name, “that’s the name she came with. Matt and I couldn’t think of anything better.”

“Wow you really are useless,” Andrew said, as if it was something that had been on his mind often. “Did you even decorate your apartment since I built the furniture or does it still look like an inpatient ward?”

“Uh, Matt bought a tv?” Neil attempts not to sound too pathetic. He doesn’t even know why he cares, it’s not like he’s trying to impress Andrew.

Out of nowhere, Andrew gets out of his seat, rolling up his sleeves to reveal his inked forearms, Neil’s mouth runs inexplicably dry. “Screw this, we’re going back to your place and making it decent. I refuse to allow furniture I built to exist in such an ugly space.”

“I-“ Neil gets up from his chair, unsure of what just happened. After a moment he realizes that he just got an easy out of his date and some free interior design, so who is he to turn it down. “Sure, yeah, whatever.”

Andrew leads them to his car, a tricked-out, black — no surprise there — GS. Neil has no idea how he could afford such a car with an Ikea builder’s salary.

They drive in silence to Neil’s apartment. It’s somehow not awkward.

As Neil turns the key to his door, he silently prays that Matt isn’t inside, not even sure where to begin to explain why he’s walking into his apartment with Andrew. With his luck, Matt would think that Neil was making use of that condom he forced onto him. Neil shivers thinking about it.

For once, whatever god is up there grants Neil something good, and the apartment is empty when he and Andrew walk in.

Andrew heads straight to the living area, which does look pretty empty now that Neil thinks about it.

They never did end up ordering at that restaurant, so Neil asks, “do you want me to cook us something to eat?”

Andrew nods his head and shoots back, “I’m a vegetarian.” Neil isn’t sure why he’s so surprised about that fact.

So while Andrew looks around the apartment, turning his head this way and that, taking random measurements with a tape measure —not from Ikea — he pulled out of his pocket, Neil gets started on dinner.

He’s not really sure what to make, never having made a meal without meat, so he scrolls through vegetarian recipes until he finds one for stir-fry that seems simple enough.

Andrew finishes with whatever he was doing soon enough, so he grabs Floofy, softly murmuring to her, “I can’t believe they gave you such a terrible name, no wonder you’re so mean to them.” He sits on a stool at the counter, cat in his lap, and starts talking to Neil.

They talk about nothing and everything. Why Neil moved to Palmetto (work). How Andrew got started at Ikea (his old therapist suggested it). Where Neil learned to speak Swedish (traveling — again, not technically a lie). Neil slowly comes to realize he doesn’t mind Andrew’s company, maybe even likes it.

Neil makes two plates of stir fry and sits next to Andrew at the counter to eat. It’s quiet but comfortable. It feels oddly domestic. Even more so than with Matt. Neil doesn’t know what to think of that.

After the meal, Andrew leaves, with promises to return soon with new items to decorate Neil’s home.

-

Neil still hasn’t told Matt about his whole date (if it can be even called that with Andrew), when he asked, he just said the date went okay but he wasn’t into it, so Matt let him be.

With Neil’s job and Matt’s new tennis obsession, they’ve been seeing each other less and less. Sure, Matt makes sure to visit Neil’s apartment at least once a day to see him, but considering how attached at the hip the two of them were at the beginning of this, it’s an improvement.

Neil is happy to have some independence, and apparently, so is Matt because the first time Neil sees him the next weekend is in the hallway of his building, Matt sneakily exiting room 6C.

And Neil assumes he’s either banging Dan or watching tennis with Kevin. It could honestly go either way.

“Oh hey bud, I wasn’t expecting to see you here,” Matt says.

“In the hallway in front of my apartment,” Neil says incredulously.

“Okay fine you got me,” Matt says, and Neil hopes he’s only this terrible at keeping secrets from him and not in general. That wouldn’t bode well for his job with the FBI. “Dan and I are sleeping together. But Kevin can’t know. I still need to win him over first.”

“I mean I wasn’t gonna tell him anyways,” Neil cannot express how much he does not care about his friends’ dating life.

“Okay good good,” Matt is sweating, a bit shaky. “Everything’s good. I’m fine.”

“Dude how do you work for the FBI?”

-

Neil does eventually tell Matt about Andrew, but only because when he gets a text from Andrew saying he’s coming by, Matt is already over at his apartment swinging a tennis racket around looking like an idiot.

“Hey, uh Matt,” Neil says hesitantly.

“Yeah, bud?” Matt sets down the racket, Neil rarely acts this way around him anymore. Like he’s scared to tell him things.

“So you know that date I went on like last week?” Matt nods. “Turns out my date was Andrew. The Ikea guy,” Neil wipes his hands on his jeans. Matt doesn’t say anything, waiting for Neil to finish his thought. “Anyways, he’s coming over to decorate the apartment.”

“Uh…” Matt is lost as to how going on a date translates to interior design.

“Yeah I’m not really sure either,” Neil says as if he could read his mind. “Anyways I’m just letting you know. So please don’t be weird about it.”

Matt, as he is wont to do, ruffles his hair, “aww of course not, Neilio! I wouldn’t embarrass you in front of your date.”

This was what Neil was afraid of. “He’s not my date. I don’t date. He’s just a friend.” And it’s not a lie.

Twenty minutes later, Neil is opening the door to Andrew, who has four shopping bags hanging from his arms (they’re so strong they don’t even as much as tremble under the weight) and is carrying a box so big it covers his head, which, considering his height, isn’t saying much.

“I kind of got carried away at Home Goods.” Andrew says as a greeting. He sets the box down on the counter and notices the other man in the room. “Matt.” He nods his head in acknowledgment.

Andrew puts the bags in the closet, like he owns the place, and pulls out a can of paint from the box. He enlists Matt to help him move the tv and stand away from the wall. Apparently he’s painting an accent wall.

He pulls out a painter’s apron, already covered in color, from his box, and a few paint rollers.

“Wanna join?” He asks Neil, waving a roller at him. And Neil’s never painted a wall before, but it feels like something people would do in their new homes, something official, so he takes the roller from Andrew, and grabs his cooking apron.

Andrew opens the can of paint, revealing a dark slate blue color that borders on gray.

The two of them get started painting the wall, side by side, getting into a routine. Matt says, “I’ll leave y’all to it,” not wanting to disrupt whatever is going on between them. He types away on his phone and leaves the apartment shortly. Probably to hang out with Dan or Kevin. Or both.

As they’re painting, Andrew and Neil talk about whatever, continuing their conversation from the other night. Right now, they’re discussing how Andrew is so good with Floofy — who is currently locked in Neil’s room so she doesn’t ruin the paint job — (he volunteers at Renee’s shelter occasionally).

“Truth for a truth?” Andrew suddenly veers the conversation. When Neil doesn’t respond, he continues, “I give you a truth, you give me one back. You can start. Ask me anything.”

Neil takes a second to think, “Why flowers?” He asks, referring to the inked vines twisting up Andrew’s forearms.

Andrew shrugs, “they looked pretty.” Then he does not hold back, “who gave you those scars?”

It’s a question Neil has braced himself many times to ask. People notice burn marks and knife scars on your face and running up your arms. He doesn’t even know how much he’s allowed to tell. But Matt’s not here, and for some reason, Neil feels like he can trust Andrew, like he at least owes him some truth, so he responds.

“My dad.” He notices Andrew’s jaw tightening and clarifies, “he’s dead now.”

Andrew just says, “good.” And the two of them are silent afterwards, putting an end to the truth game.

The two of them eventually reach the other end of the wall when they notice something they missed: the entire upper half. It’s still the plain white of the original wall. Maybe they shouldn’t have let Matt leave. But Neil doesn’t have a ladder and doesn’t feel like it’d be appropriate to ask Andrew to lift him up, so he just leaves it for when Matt gets back.

Andrew heads back to the closet to grab his bags, and Neil heads into the kitchen, deciding the least he can do to thank Andrew is make him some food. He bought some tofu the other day, thinking he could make him something with that. He decides on tacos.

Neil carefully chops up a tomato as Andrew is staging different items around the living room. Placing an object in one spot, standing back and starting at it for a moment, moving his head back and forth, and then replacing the object and starting all over. Andrew’s decorating is serious business.

He’ll occasionally take a break to play with Floofy, waving around a little felt toy on a stick. It’s cute.

As they eat the tacos together — this is Neil’s best dish yet — Neil starts up the truth game. “Why the knives? Other than for opening boxes,” he asks.

“Some people have issues understanding the meaning of no.” Andrew leaves it at that. Neil doesn’t push him to explain. “What’s with all the languages?”

“A product of being on the run.”

“So you’re a rabbit.” Andrew puts it like an observation, not a question.

“Not anymore.” And for once, Neil believes it.

-

Andrew comes back a few days later, this time to decorate Neil’s bedroom.

Matt is playing tennis with Kevin or something, but at least he finished painting the top half of the statement wall yesterday.

Before Andrew heads into the bedroom, he looks around the living area making minor adjustments as he goes.

Neil keeps him company as he decorates. The truth game unwinds until Neil finds himself recounting years on the run from his father.

Andrew in turn, tells him about foster home after foster home, each one worse than the last, only freed when he discovered his twin brother.

And sitting here, in Neil’s bedroom, divulging their life stories to each other feels unbearably intimate. Not necessarily in a romantic way. But Neil has never let anyone see this much of him, know this much of him. Andrew is a pillar, holding him up. Taking in his life without pity or sadness but with a deep understanding.

And right now, in the sanctuary of his newly decorated room, Neil feels as safe as he’s ever been.

-

Neil’s apartment is as nice as it’ll ever be, but Andrew keeps insisting on coming in every other day. Apparently there’s always one tiny thing that needs fixing. Although after he makes the minor adjustment, Andrew simply plays with Floofy or sits around or talks to Neil. It’s almost as if he enjoys spending time with Neil

And Neil’s not complaining, instead he uses Andrew as a taste tester for his new recipes, getting slowly better as he goes, until he no longer needs to look them up online.

Matt still visits everyday, he’s just accepted Andrew as a new part of the household. He’s happy that Neil’s made a friend. Whatever they are to each other.

And once Neil’s apartment can’t possibly be decorated any further, Matt decides it’s time to throw a house warming party, to celebrate Neil’s new home and new life.

Neil is reluctant about this whole thing, he’s still not good with most people and isn’t sure how to feel about them all being in his house. But Matt just reminds him of all the people he’s met along the way.

(Matt is really into this party because he finally won over Kevin and is going to officially take Dan as his date. Clearly all the tennis has paid off. Except it’s backfired because now Matt genuinely likes tennis.)

Matt recruits Allison to help him with the planning, and Neil is officially scared. He doesn’t know what Allison is capable of.

-

Neil pulls a tray of appetizers out of the oven. He insisted on cooking for the party, it’s become stress-relief.

In his bright and beautiful living room, Renee, Dan, and Allison are comparing skin care routines, and Matt and Kevin are talking tennis. Andrew is with him in the kitchen, keeping him company as he works.

He normally might find it annoying, but Andrew has never been a normality in Neil’s life.

He grabs the appetizers from Neil’s tray and starts artfully arranging them on a serving plate. He turns back to give a quick glance towards Neil before bringing out the food to the living room, then sets down the plate.

He slowly walks towards Neil, who has flour in his hair and oven mitts on his hands. He grabs the corner of Neil’s ridiculous pasta apron to pull the man closer, until they are breathing the same air, and softly asks, “yes or no?”

And Neil’s yes comes as naturally to him as breathing. And when Andrew’s lips slot over his, it’s like the final piece of the puzzle slotting into place.

Neil doesn’t know how long they stand there, kissing, but it feels like years yet somehow never enough. Andrew eventually pulls back with a slight smirk, “better go bring these to the others,” his voice sounds more gravelly than normal as he picks up the plate and saunters into the living room. Neil just stands there and watches him go, slightly hazy.

Neil eventually gets pulled out of the kitchen to go hang out with his guests. He sends Andrew in there to make sure Matt isn’t destroying the food.

He talks with Kevin and the girls, and finds out that Kevin had known that Matt and Dan were hooking up all along. Dan says, “yeah I told him right away, it’s not like Matt is any good at keeping secrets anyways. It was nice to see him try to win Kevin over though.”

Renee asks how things are going with the cat he adopted, and if he ever got around to changing her name. He tells her Floofy is currently sleeping in his room, but she can go visit if she’d like. Renee laughs when Neil says Floofy’s name, shocked that he decided to keep the terrible name the shelter owner gave her.

Allison teases Neil about Andrew, and he touches his fingers to his lips, wondering if she could tell what they were doing in the kitchen earlier. When she takes credit for being the reason for their friendship, Neil gets the answer to his question. Though she does make fun of Neil for having a crush on Andrew, and she’s not wrong, even if Neil didn’t know about it until twenty minutes ago.

Eventually the food is ready and they all sit at Neil’s Ikea table and chairs. With Matt on his left, and Andrew on his right, their pinkies brushing against each other every so often, and friends all around him, Neil is happier than he’s ever been.

And against all the odds, all the years of running and hiding, Neil Josten has built himself a life.