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One More for the Road

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Neil’s pretty sure he’s been head over heels with Todd Anderson since his first day at The Society coffee shop and cafe, when he stormed into the back room where Neil was being shown the locations of all the fire extinguishers, whipped cream dispenser in hand, and exclaimed: “Charlie can you please deal with this lady, I’m about five seconds from gouging her eyes out with this thing.”

Neil hadn’t really believed in love at first sight up until that point, but the sight of an irate Todd Anderson was apparently the sign he was waiting for. Though of course the moment Todd caught sight of him he flushed, averted his eyes, and quickly shuffled away while Charlie excused himself to go deal with whatever customer was hellish enough to deserve the threat of blindness by whipped cream dispenser.

“Who was that?” Neil asked when Charlie returned, in a voice he hoped wasn’t too blatantly awestruck.

“Who? Oh, Todd. Good luck seeing him like that again. He’s like a skittish kitten around new people, it took him months to get used to me. But good luck newbie.” Charlie said, “Maybe in about three months he’ll be able to look you in the eye long enough for you to ask him out.”

Oh god had he really been that obvious? Neil couldn’t even open his mouth to protest before  Charlie raised an eyebrow and said “You have a terrible poker face for an actor. You should work on that. You’re in customer service now, you’re going to need it.”

Two and a half months later Neil has found that unfortunately Charlie had been right about the poker face. He’s gotten better but he can feel his eye twitching as he tries to explain for the fourth time that he can’t get the whipped cream to stay at the bottom of the cup to a particularly stubborn soccer mom. Out of the corner of his eye he catches Todd hiding a half smile as he rearranges the gluten free baked goods in the glass case.

Charlie had been wrong about Todd though, it had only taken him two months, one week and three days for Todd to fully warm up to him. So ha, suck on that Dalton.

More than that, Neil had finally come up with a foolproof way to ask Todd out on a date. Back in November on one of their seemingly never ending late night shifts Neil had managed to glean out of Todd that they’d grown up  in neighbouring towns less than twenty minutes apart. (“It’s a sign!” He’d gushed to Ginny, the cafe’s resident baking expert, who’d rolled her eyes in response.)

Using this key information and an exam schedule he’d figured out from some well place questions, Neil had entirely rearranged his schedule leading up to the winter break so he’d be free to drive Todd home for the break. He figured he could use the four or so hour drive as the perfect opportunity to finally get Todd to see that they were clearly perfect for each other and build up the guts to actually ask him on a real date. (And on the off chance it didn’t go so well he had an easy escape plan as just a friend helping another friend get home). Now all Neil has to do is work up the courage to actually offer to drive Todd home and do it in a way that doesn’t make him sound like a huge creepy stalker.

“So,” Neil says, once whipped cream lady has finally been dealt with, “You doing anything fun for break?”

Todd looks up from the display, his hair flopping over into his eyes just so and Neil has the urge to grab his phone out of his apron pocket and preserve this perfect moment. He resists but only just barely.

“What? Oh. No. Not really, you know, family stuff. My brother just got engaged and he’s bringing his fiancee home so that’s sort of the big thing right now.”

Neil nods like he understands. He doesn’t really, he’s an only child and tends to feel smothered with attention when he goes home. Todd’s never really opened up about his family, even to Charlie who’s been around the longest, but Neil knows enough about dysfunctional parent-child relationships to recognize it when he hears it.

“Hmmm, yeah me too. We always do big family Christmas at my house but other than that I don’t really have any plans.” Neil bites the inside of his cheek. C’mon Perry, he tells himself, now or never. “Actually, I’d been meaning to ask, if you need a ride home I totally have room in my car, it wouldn’t even be out of the way you live like, right there. And you said your last exam is on the 17th and I was going to leave on the 18th so the timing totally works.”

Todd looks at him. Oh god did that sound stupid? It did didn’t it. Fuck. Now Todd is never going to talk to him again and-

“Seriously? That’d, uh, that would be really great. I was going to drive but my car’s been having some issues and I was worried about the trip. I can pay you gas money and everything.” Todd says, smiling just a little bit and Neil fights the urge to start fist pumping the air.

Instead he settles for fist pumping internally and says, “Don’t worry about the gas money, consider it an early Christmas present or whatever. I was making the trip anyways, we’ll just count it as saving the environment.”

Todd gives him another little half smile, “Yeah it’s gonna single-handedly stop climate change I’m sure. Thanks Neil, I totally owe you one.” He looks around at the mostly empty cafe, “You cool if I go on my lunch break?”

“Ice cold.” Neil says, and normally he would spend the next few hours antagonizing over what a completely ridiculously stupid thing that was to say, but he’s still floating on cloud nine that his plan worked. Todd said yes! He doesn’t even care that the same Christmas CD has been playing on repeat for six hours, or that he has to remake a fussy Harvard kid’s drink twice, or restock the paper towel in the bathroom for the fourth day in a row. Because who can care about those things when faced with four hours of road trip bonding with the cutest smartest guy in Boston?

Not Neil Perry that’s for sure.

He’s whistling away, cleaning off the back counters an hour later when Todd comes back from his break.

“Hey about driving back home together-” Todd starts, tying his apron on. “I’m all for it, I totally want to but there’s a problem.”

“What?” Neil says, the bottom falling out of his stomach like the first drop on a fair ride.

Todd’s eyes flick around the room, looking anywhere but Neil. “See, before my car was acting up I sort of promised I would drive someone home, and I just don’t want to leave them stranded you know? So I was wondering if maybe you’d drive them too? It’s right on the way I swear.”

Oh. Well. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not exactly the ideal daydream scenario Neil had imagined on many a slow afternoon shift with only some over caffeinated college students for company.

“As long as they don’t mind sitting in the back, I guess I can fit another person.” Neil says, trying not to let the reluctance show in his voice, but at least he’s established that Todd’ll sit in the front with him.

“Really? Neil you’re the best.” Todd says smiling huge and turning to head to the back room to start on tomorrow’s pastries. “Charlie’s going to be so thrilled.” He adds before disappearing behind the swinging door.

Oh fuck.

Next time Neil makes a fool proof plan he needs to remember to make it Charlie Dalton proof as well.

 

The sight of Todd Anderson bundled up in a coat outside of his building, with actual swear to god earmuffs is enough to make Neil want to tell him Charlie had texted saying he didn’t need the ride after all. Consequences be damned. However this unlikely plan would have been foiled anyways because Charlie is standing next to Todd with two huge suitcases at his feet.

“Hey!” Neil says brightly at Todd, who thankfully is only toting a small backpack.

“Hey man, thanks for the ride.” Charlie says, politely but with just a hint of bite behind it, because of course Charlie Dalton fucking knows . He might play oblivious sometimes but he goes to Harvard for crying out loud, he’s not a total idiot.

Though Neil also goes to Harvard and he’s the one who got suckered into this so maybe it isn’t as good a sign as he’d hoped.

They just barely manage to get Charlie’s suitcases in the trunk and Neil and Todd cram their backpacks into the backseat.

“Why do I have to sit in the back?” Charlie whines once they’re finally off and on the highway.

“You have the shortest legs.” Neil points out diplomatically.

“Also we secretly hate you and we can talk about you behind your back up here.” Todd says, and Neil wonders if he plays up the whole quiet thing just for the sake of throwing everyone off when he does want to be surprisingly biting.

“Well not really secretly.” Neil says, only a third joking.

“Ha ha, you’re hilarious. Don’t quit your day jobs assholes.” Charlie says, before plugging into his iPod and ignoring them both.

Neil catches Todd smirking out of the corner of his eye as he flicks through Neil’s CD collection. Finally digging out the only Christmas CD he owns, a mixed tape Ginny had made for him last year, and throws Neil for another loop when he starts quietly singing along.

 

They stop at the two hour mark to get lunch, Charlie emerging from the cocoon he’d created in the back seat and stretching noisily. It’s one of those generic roadside stops with a handful of fast food chains inside and a little convenience store, packed out with people going or coming for the holidays.

Neil volunteers to get food while Todd and Charlie hunt out a table from the nuclear families and when he comes back with a tray loaded with food and drinks they’re huddled together conspiratorially, jumping away from each other when Todd notices him standing there.

“What’s up?” Neil asks, trying to sound casual but when he puts the tray down he slams it just a little and an order of fries goes scattered over the table.

He doesn’t really think Charlie likes Todd, or at least not in that sense. The two have one of the weirdest relationships Neil has ever seen but they’re also alarmingly close having worked at the cafe the longest. But still, something about how Todd had looked almost guilty when he’d showed up, the fact that he’d offered to drive Charlie home in the first place. It all makes Neil feel a little woozy.

Almost any desirable trait Neil brings to the table as a boyfriend Charlie’s got him matched or beat, with the exception of height, a fact he is illogically proud of.

Also he clearly doesn’t have an issue with eating food off of a not particularly sanitary surface since he starts eating the scattered fries off the table.

“Needs ketchup.” He says, hoping out of his seat and over to the condiments bar.

“So,” Neil says, starting in on his own fries,“What's the word hummingbird?” And immediately internally cringes.

“Nothing new. Charlie’s still hung up on the Ginger Cutie.” Todd shrugs, and Neil allows himself a small internal fist pump.

The Ginger Cutie is a regular customer who Charlie has had a crush on for almost a year now. His real name is Steven, something Neil had actually been the one to find out thank you very much. But they’d all being calling him the Ginger Cutie for long enough that it had stuck around stubbornly.

“What about him?” Neil asked, “Did Charlie finally ask him out?”

Todd shakes his head, “Nope. You know how it is, it’s easy to develop a crush on the person who supplies you with caffeine, you start to associate that feeling with the person, bam insta-crush that will crash and burn when you start seeing each other in different contexts.”

“Are you talking about the Ginger Cutie?” Charlie says, reemerging with a fist full of ketchup packets. He sighs as he sits down, “It’s all in vain anyways, Ginny’s pretty sure he has a boyfriend who’s like a million feet tall. The bastard.”

“Oh yeah.” Neil says, he can picture the guy Charlie’s talking about, and they do come in together a lot. “Are they dating? I thought they were just roommates or something.”

“They were snuggling on the couch last week!” Charlie moans, “It’s a lost cause.”

“There there.” Todd says patting his shoulder, “Maybe they’re just good friends not constrained by society's definitions of acceptable behaviour for male friendships.”

“One can only hope.” Neil says and Todd winks at him from across the table.

Charlie seems to be over the possible romantic entanglements of the Ginger Cutie by the time they leave, practically skipping to the car and shouting, “Shotgun!”

“What? No.” Neil says, “Todd’s in the front, you’ve got little mini toothpick legs.”

Charlie looks over at Todd, “Please tell me at least you respect the humble rules of the shotgun call.”

Todd rolls his eyes, “Let him sit in the front for a while, he’ll be insufferable otherwise. Or, well, you know, more insufferable than usual.”

“Cheers darling.” Charlie says, grinning all teeth and sliding into the passenger side.

 

The small mercy in this is that Charlie is the first one to be dropped off, though that means Neil gets roped into once again lugging Charlie’s obnoxious amount of baggage to his front door from the car. Charlie’s family is loaded, don’t they have people for this?

“See you on the other side.” Charlie says, and reaches out to hug Todd and then Neil, “Don’t screw it up.” He whispers, before thudding Neil on the back twice and clicking both of them with finger guns.

Neil’s car, which is small to begin with, suddenly feels huge with the absence of Charlie Dalton and his stuff and he suddenly feels jittery at the thought of being alone with Todd.

He fiddles with the radio for a while but they’re in a grey zone between stations and it’s mostly just static.

“You’re probably sick of the Christmas music, huh?” Neil asks, darting a glance at the CD.

“Yeah I can only handle so much before my cynical nature starts to take over.” Todd says and god he’s just so-so what? Neil doesn’t even know. He’s just so completely Todd Anderson. This bizarre mix of bashful quietness and sharp edged wit and every time Neil thinks he sort of has him figured out there’s one more layer, one more quirk. Neil’s good at figuring out people, he’s an actor after all, but even after all these weeks and endless coffee making shifts he’s still finding new pieces every single day.

“So,” Neil says after a long silence.

“So,” Todd replies.

Neil tries pathetically to think of something they can talk about but everything that comes to mind seems dull or potentially dangerous territory.

“Neil?” Todd says, after the silence stretches on into uncomfortableness. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Sorry.” He shakes his head, “It’s been a long day.”

“Oh.” Todd says softly and Neil can’t help but be reminded of those early days of elusive Todd. He’d never been shy exactly, just not one to chatter on about the obvious and not warmed up enough to Neil to share his thoughts openly.  “Cause I was hoping maybe you were psyching yourself up to ask me out.”

Neil makes this noise, somewhere between a gasp and a choke and manages not to drive the car into the oncoming lane of traffic but it’s sort of a close call.

“Oh I knew it!” Todd says sounding adorably excited and it’s basically worth the near death experience in Neil’s opinion. “Charlie said he thought you were, but I mean it’s Charlie he’s like the last person I’d take dating advice from. And I was going to ask you to this New Year’s party but he said if I asked you first you’d be all upset because you’d worked out this whole plan, which is very sweet by the way and I appreciate a lot.”

“Uh,” Neil says very smartly because 1) that is the most he’s ever heard Todd talk in one go and 2) he was going to ask him out. Todd Anderson, elusive coffee making daydream heart throb was going to ask him, Neil Perry, out to a New Year’s party.

Holy crap.

“Neil please say something you’re freaking me out.” Todd says and Neil realizes he’s been driving on autopilot and staring out blankly at the highway for the last few minutes.

“Sorry. Sorry. I just. You were really going to and-I mean, you’re just so...wow!-and I’m not ever. I just-wow.” Neil finishes lamely.

“I think you’re so wow too,” Todd says,“And if you weren’t driving a very dangerous hunk of metal at high speeds right now I could maybe even kiss you.” He’s gone pink, flushed from his cheeks to the tips of his ears.

It’s so effortless after that and the rest of the drive passes in a flurry, Todd’s hand resting on top of his in between their seats as Neil’s brain suddenly rediscovers a million things to talk about, things he wants to know about Todd. But it’s less frantic now. He knows they have all the time in the world.

Todd directs him on the last stretch to his house and Neil parks the car at the edge of his long driveway, the beginnings of a snow flurry making him feel like they’re in the centre of a snow globe.

“Thanks for the ride. It was very sweet of you, even if you had ulterior motives.” Todd he says. He unbuckles his seatbelt and pulls his backpack out from the backseat, poised to go.

“Todd,” Neil says, raising his eyebrows. “I’m not driving anymore.” Pushing his luck just a little.

“Oh. Good point.” Todd says, leaning across the gear shift and the cupholders filled with change, but not quite far enough, making Neil meet him the rest of the way.

It’s just a chaste press of lips, the way kids kiss on the playground but Neil’s heart is beating so fast he’s sure Todd can hear it. And when Todd sighs against him and opens his mouth Neil’s pretty sure it’s actually exploded and this is just the flurry of chemicals erupting in his brain as he dies. He cards his hands into Todd’s hair and honestly it’d be worth being dead over just to know that Todd’s hair is in fact as silky as it looks.

Eventually Todd does pull away, red mouthed and red cheeked. “I’ve wanted to do that for a while.”

“I’ve wanted to do that since you barged into the back room my first day and threatened to gouge that lady’s eyes out with the whipped cream dispenser.” Neil says.

“Oh my god.” Todd says, flushing even deeper red, and laughing. Just a little at first and growing and growing until they’re both uncontrollably laughing and gasping for breath.

“You’re a ridiculous human being.” Todd says, finally catching his breath and leaning in close to press his face against Neil’s. “I should probably go, the windows are starting to fog over and I don’t want the neighbours to talk.”

Neil pouts, “It’s Christmas.”

“It’s December 18th.” Todd says, but he relents when Neil pouts at him, “Fine. One more for the road.”