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Meow Meow Lullaby

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Neil’s box of PG Tips was gone.

He’d hidden it very carefully inside the bread tin that no one ever used, but somehow Andrew had found it anyway and hidden it somewhere else just to spite him. Neil contemplated telling Renee, but she had banned him and Andrew from talking to her about their feud, and so Neil was left fuming to himself as he searched the kitchen for his tea.

He found it at last, wedged inside the umbrella stand, which meant that it was now completely soaked. Neil could of course make some anyway—it wasn’t like the teabag strictly needed to be dry to start with—and once upon a time, he wouldn’t have let them go to waste just because of a little rain. Today, he let the voice in his head that sounded like Dan’s talk him out of it.

With a sigh he rummaged around the cupboard for one of the inferior brands of tea and grabbed Andrew’s favourite mug out of the just-finished dishwasher. At least he’d be able flaunt that in his face. And perhaps the soggy teabags would miraculously find their way onto Andrew’s desk chair or into his drawers…

Somewhat cheered by the thought, he carried his tea back to his desk and moved a stack of recently returned books to the floor to make space. It was still raining heavily, the noise steady and comforting like a washing machine rumbling away in another room. Neil had gone for a run despite the weather before coming to work, and he still felt warmed and lightly spiced from his shower. He settled in his creaky old chair, toeing his shoes off and rubbing his feet together like a cricket, and craned his neck to see what was going on in Andrew’s section.

From his desk, he could just about see the reading corner in the children’s book section. A new beanbag chair had appeared overnight, covered in indigo fabric printed with neon stars and whooshy, whirly planet-like things. It sagged to one side and didn’t look as perky as a new one from a store would, and the seams were a little jagged. Not for the first time Neil wondered which poor soul Andrew badgered into reupholstering old furniture for him. It couldn’t have been Renee, because Renee was actually good at sewing. Neil glanced over to the pristine armchair he’d donated for the nonfiction section and felt a little smug. It was second-hand, yes; the leather worn smooth in places, but it gleamed like a glossy chestnut horse in the cosy light of the reading lamp beside it, making it appear vintage rather than the kind of garbage one found dumped by the side of the road like Andrew’s stuff. It hadn’t been cheap, but it paid itself off in satisfaction every time Neil compared the cheap fabrics and gaudy colours of the children’s corner with the calm, sophisticated reading nook he’d created.

His little moment of victory popped painfully in his ears as a grating voice spoke up right behind him.

“Don’t get too comfortable in your math equations,” Andrew said, looming over the back of Neil’s chair. It might have been intimidating if Neil didn’t know that Andrew had to stand on his tippy toes to do it. “Dan’s called a staff meeting. I hear we’re being closed down.”

Neil’s heart skipped a beat in his chest.

“We’re what?”

Andrew drew his thumb across his throat and made a horrible gargling sound to illustrate, laughing when he saw the expression on Neil’s face.

“Come now. Surely you were aware that funds for this dump have been going down the drain. There’s this thing called the internet, you might have heard of it—why bother coming here when Big Brother Google knows your every question before you even ask?”

Neil scowled.

“Libraries are a-”

“An indispensable and irreplaceable institution of knowledge, a pillar of democracy, practically a basic human right, Kevin’s personal kink, et cetera,” Andrew recounted dryly. “Yes, I know, Kevin talks in his sleep. Up you get, the boss is waiting.”

He yanked at Neil’s chair as he let go, making it spin and topple dangerously. Neil had to grab the edge of his desk to halt his wild ride before it bucked him off and he glowered after Andrew as he slipped back into his shoes and picked up his unfinished cup of tea. Andrew was probably just being antagonistic and overly dramatic. If there’d been bad news, Dan would have told Neil earlier when he passed her on his way upstairs. Still his stomach sloshed unpleasantly as he followed Andrew to the kitchen, where they held all of their important staff meetings, and squeezed himself in beside Renee.

Dan looked around at them with a dire expression on her face.

“Right, so,” she said, crossing and uncrossing her arms. “I’ve called you here because… there’s no easy way to say this. We’re being shut down.”

Across the circle, Andrew raised an eyebrow at Neil as if to say I told you so. Neil glared at him like this was all his fault, which, now that Neil thought about it, was probably true. Everyone knew Andrew didn’t care about the library.

“Is there nothing we can do?” Renee asked.

“Not unless we can raise a shitload of money by the end of the month, no,” Dan sighed, slumping.

“We could appeal to our wealthy patrons,” Kevin, who didn’t even work at the library, piped up from his spot on the kitchen table.

“Which wealthy patrons are those, exactly?” Dan asked wryly. “Last I checked, the only donations we get are from-”

“Isn’t it simple,” Andrew interrupted.

All eyes turned to him.

“Yes?” Dan said, gesturing at him.

“We host a fundraiser,” Andrew shrugged. “Something flashy for the adults and loads of crappy games for the kids, and a shitload of cake that we sell at an exorbitant price.”

“Oh, and I suppose you’ll be the one organising it all, will you?” Neil said sweetly. “Good at baking, are you?”

“I think that’s a great idea,” Renee said, which she had to, because she was Andrew’s only friend. Because she was also Neil’s friend, she added: “Though it would require quite a lot of organising.”

“And a budget we don’t have,” Dan muttered darkly.

“Oh, chin up, Danielle,” Andrew said. “What’s the worst that can happen? This ship is already going down. A couple hundred dollars more or less aren’t going to matter in the long run.”

“It should be literary-themed,” Kevin piped up. “How about a masked ball? We can turn the lobby into a dance floor, or better yet, an enchanted forest where-”

“Fine. You can have two hundred dollars,” Dan said grimly. “Wow me.”

She snapped her fingers at them, shooing them back to work. Neil sidled up to her as Kevin, Renee and Andrew discussed the merits of embroidering tablecloths with poetry quotes and nudged her elbow.

“Hey. You okay?”

Dan flicked him a tired smile.

“Truthfully, I’ve been better,” she said. Her make-up had rubbed away around her eyes, exposing dark bags. “I don’t know. I’ve been trying to keep this place alive for years, but maybe it’s finally time to rest my case and start investing my time and energy in other projects.”

Neil gasped, clutching his chest in mock-horror.

“Danielle Wymack! Your father would be ashamed to hear you talk like this. What has gotten into you?”

She chuckled, slinging an easy arm around his shoulders.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Promise me you won’t let me succumb to the madness?”

“Never,” Neil said solemnly. “I’d shoot you myself if it got to that.”

“Reassuring,” Dan quipped, ruffling his hair. Then she turned to the others. “What are you all still doing here? I don’t pay you to sit around and drink tea.”

“You don’t pay Kevin at all,” Neil felt compelled to point out.

“Exactly,” Dan said. “Now back to work, the lot of you. Prom planning committee can wait until after the new arrivals have been unpacked, logged in the system and filed.”

“You mean the three boxes of outdated dictionaries and knitting books Mrs Thistleworth donated that no one is ever going to check out?” Andrew said, flicking his fingers dismissively. “All nonfiction, ergo Neil’s section.”

Neil groaned.

“Can’t I just put them in storage, Dan?”

“You know the drill,” Dan said, hands on her hips. “Off you go, intrepid librarians.”

-

Dan and Kevin’s father had founded the Borough Library in his late wife’s honour. He’d bought the decrepit building that housed it off a friend, renovated it by himself whenever he could afford it, and slowly filled it with donated and second-hand books. Kayleigh had owned a small fortune’s worth of books when she’d been alive, and what better way to tend to her legacy than to make it available to the troubled, disenfranchised youth she’d used to work with?

The city council had begrudgingly allocated some funds after Wymack had spent months battling paperwork and badgering them with letters, petitions and phone calls, reminding them of all the favours he’d done for them in the past. Over the years, the library—now lovingly nicknamed The Burrow by its regulars—had become a safe haven for everyone who needed a second, third or fourth chance, or even just a warm place to sleep for an hour. It had withstood the encroaching gentrification for several decades, Wymack refusing to sell the property no matter what they offered him. Still, its clientele had slowly dwindled, and when Dan had taken over after Wymack had retired, the city council had stopped backing them up, their obligation to Wymack done.

But the Burrow was still a home to people like Neil. People who had nowhere else to go, no one waiting for them at home. People who needed a refuge from the world. Neil had been fifteen the first time he’d come here, homeless and aimless, with no money, no family and no future to speak of. He’d used the library primarily as a warm napping spot until Wymack had found him. Instead of throwing Neil out, he’d extended a helping hand. Within the year, Neil was enrolled in high school and spent most week nights having dinner with the Wymacks.

The Burrow had been there for Neil when he’d needed it the most. If he had to team up with Andrew to save it, Neil decided, then he’d happily bite that bullet.

“We are never going to be able to pull this off with just two hundred dollars,” Kevin whined, pulling at his hair. It had steadily deteriorated over the course of the evening and was sticking up every which way in unruly tufts like grass that had been electrocuted. “That’s not even enough to cover the wine, let alone invitations, decorations, masks, soft drinks, catering, clean-up…”

“We can use cheap materials for most of these and make them ourselves,” Renee said placatingly. “Neil already offered to deliver the invitations and Andrew is going to talk to that night club he used to work at to see if they would sponsor the drinks.”

“What about costumes?” Neil said.

“Leave that to me,” Renee smiled. “Now, about that dessert buffet Andrew suggested…”

“I don’t like dessert,” Neil grumbled. “I still think we should just stick with snacks. We can get bags of chips and peanuts and stuff in bulk really cheap.”

Andrew snorted, tipping his chair back.

“Don’t listen to him. He has bad taste in everything.”

Renee sighed through her nose, pushed the notes she’d been keeping over to Kevin and stood up.

“More cocoa anyone?”

“None for Andrew,” Neil said, laced with mock-concern. “He needs to mind his weight; his Tinder stats have dropped lately.”

“That is not how Tinder works,” Kevin scoffed, then turned to Andrew. “Is it?”

“It’s alright, Neil, we all know no one in their right mind would swipe right for you,” Andrew hummed. “Though perhaps you would be less insufferable if you got laid every once in a while. Alas, I suppose we’ll never know.”

“Just because I don’t hook up with strangers every weekend-”

“Cocoa,” Renee said firmly, slamming four mugs down between them without spilling a single drop. Her voice sweetened as she added: “How about a midnight poetry slam in the dark? Could be fun.”

“Absolutely not,” Andrew said. “Angsty teenagers and droning housewives dripping their dreary minutiae all over, no thank you.”

“I have a few people in mind who would be more, ah… qualified,” Renee smiled, shooting Andrew a meaningful look over the rim of her cup. Andrew tipped his seat back even further and crossed his arms over his chest, glowering back.

“There’s a literary society at the university,” Kevin suggested. “We could ask if any of them are interested.”

“Excellent idea, Kevin,” Renee beamed. “We’ll need glow sticks, maybe Eden’s could part with some of theirs, Andrew?”

“Ugh,” Andrew sighed, letting his head fall back in disgust. If Neil just stuck his foot out a little bit, he could tilt Andrew’s chair off-balance and-

“Neil,” Renee said, a warning packed in cotton sweetness, “why don’t you write us a shopping list?”

-

“Oh, Neil, that looks so cute,” Renee said, leaning over his desk to peer at the masked foxes Neil had been doodling in the margins of his thesis notes.

“Uh,” Neil said.

“Would you mind if we used them for our invitations?”

“I don’t know,” Neil mumbled, shifting his notes around awkwardly. “They’re just scribbles…”

“I think they’re adorable,” Renee said firmly. “And they suit our theme perfectly. What about these two?”

One was a dark, chubby fox with a starry mask, the other lighter and longer, curved along the corner of the page and wearing a little neckerchief.

“Fine,” Neil said, “but I’ll redraw them. These are just… and it’s graph paper, anyway.”

“Thank you,” Renee beamed, bending down for a quick hug and plopping a fresh cup of tea on Neil’s desk. “Hey, so, are you coming to my birthday dinner on Friday? I’ve got to make the reservations.”

“Of course I’m coming to your birthday dinner,” Neil scoffed. “I’m your best friend!”

“Hmm, you forgot, didn’t you?” Renee grinned, poking his shoulder. “It’s okay, I still love you.”

“Is Andrew coming, too?” Neil asked darkly.

“Of course he is,” Renee hummed. “You know he’s my other best friend.”

“Ugh.”

“If only you two weren’t both so stubborn,” Renee sighed. “I think you’d get along really well if you could just get over this childish feud.”

“It’s not childish,” Neil muttered. “Remember what he did on my first day?”

“Which was three years ago. And you got your revenge. And then he got his. And so on. Which makes it childish,” Renee said, crossing her arms and leaning against Neil’s desk.

“He’s an asshole,” Neil insisted.

“So are you,” Renee said helpfully.

“Gee, Renee. It’s like you have a best friend type.”

Renee laughed.

“Maybe I do. See you Friday, then?”

“Remind me again what time,” Neil said. “Not that I’ve forgotten, just, uh… just in case.”

“Six,” Renee said, with barely concealed amusement. “At Seven Lakes Sushi Bar.”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Neil huffed.

“Sure you did.”

-

It was raining again as Neil carried the last box of long-expired lexicons up from the basement and dropped it on the floor in the children’s corner, which Renee had claimed as a crafting space for the time being.

“The last of the invitations are out,” he panted, shimmying out of his anorak and spraying Andrew with raindrops. “If I never have to bike up another godforsaken hill in the downpour it’ll be too soon.”

“Thank you, Neil,” Renee said earnestly. “I have some spare trousers that you could borrow, you look very wet.”

“Thanks, that would be great.”

“Top left drawer in my desk,” she called out, already digging into the box for more books to turn into bunting, napkin rings and streamers.

The trousers in question turned out to be pink, fleece-lined harem pants, but Neil decided he would rather be pink and dry than encased in soaked denim for the rest of the day. Besides, the pants were ridiculously comfortable. He made a detour to his own desk on his way back, made sure Andrew was busy cutting paper stars out of ancient magazines and grabbed a teabag out of his secret stash in his drawer labelled Thesis stuff. Andrew claimed to be allergic to academia, so Neil figured it was safe there for the time being, though he cautiously sniffed the teabag before using it—he was still scarred from the time Andrew had secretly swapped out an entire box for Earl Grey.

By the time he came back, a small group of children had gathered around Renee and her crafting supplies. She’d already set them to work painting the bunting and Andrew was showing a little girl how to use the glitter glue.

“You got some in your hair,” Neil pointed out, briefly enjoying the look of horror on Andrew’s face.

“No, he doesn’t,” Renee said without looking up.

Andrew glared at him, then grabbed a tube of pink glitter glue and squirted some in Neil’s direction. Neil dodged narrowly and took cover behind Renee, but Andrew merely shrugged and dropped the glue.

“Mister Andrew,” the little girl squeaked, buried almost entirely in a Barbie-patterned beanbag, “will you tell the story with the cat?”

“Story? What story,” Andrew deadpanned. “I don’t tell stories. I tell facts.”

The girl giggled.

“Marcie, cap the glue when you’re done with it,” Renee chided gently.

“Do the cat, Mister Andrew,” Marcie pleaded, capping all of her glue sticks and rolling herself into the beanbag until only her left foot stuck out, a scrunch of loose fabric around her toes where her faded Disney print tights were too long.

Andrew sighed, and, long-suffering, unfolded one of the paper stars he’d been cutting out and placed it over his face like a mask.

“Once upon a time there was a cat named Cat,” he said gravely.

“A cat named Cat? Really?” Neil muttered.

“Quiet in the peanut gallery,” Andrew said. “So, once upon a time, cat, Cat. Cat the cat was never tired and never wanted to go to bed.”

“Like me,” Marcie giggled.

“Me, too,” one of the other children supplied shyly. He was wearing blue hearing aids and a stained superhero t-shirt that he kept twisting between his hands.

“Me, three,” Andrew said flatly, and the children dissolved into laughter. Neil caught Renee’s eyes across the circle and quickly picked up a copy of Potholders To Crochet to occupy himself with, though he couldn’t block out Andrew’s droning, monotone voice slowly unravelling the story of the cat called Cat, who never wanted to sleep at night but kept napping in unlikely places during the day. Somehow Andrew always knew where to pause and indulge the children’s questions and theories, and they apparently thought he was a riot even though his jokes definitely weren’t funny in the least.

When Kevin called him over because he needed his help with something, Neil realised with a jolt that he’d spent an entire hour cutting dictionary entries into masks and listening to Andrew tell increasingly ridiculous stories to a steady trickle of children of all ages. Renee tucked her mouth into a dog-eared smile and sent him on his way with strict orders to bring tea for her and Andrew when he had a minute. Neil resolved to “forget” that Andrew hated chamomile—really, it was silly that he knew that about Andrew in the first place—but there was none left when he checked, so he opted for the blandest vanilla rooibos he found tucked in the back of the cupboard instead.

“Here,” he said, handing over Renee’s cup, fingers aching from being cramped around the scissors for so long. “Kevin managed to talk a few people into the poetry slam. Did Dan decide which of Kayleigh’s old books should go into the auction?”

“Not yet,” Renee said wryly. “She just can’t make up her mind which ones she can bear to part with.”

“Sentimental,” Andrew snorted.

“I’m still waiting to hear back from a friend about the poetry slam,” Renee went on, ignoring him. “He’s very talented, but he hates being the centre of attention.”

Neil shrugged.

“We’re probably set with Kevin’s lot, anyway. If your friend is too shy-”

“He is not,” Andrew cut in.

“You know him?” Neil asked, confused.

“In a manner of speaking,” Renee said, amusement pressed into the lines of her face like dried flowers. “Then it’s settled, that’s wonderful news. Andrew, have you heard back from Eden’s?”

“Still negotiating,” Andrew grunted, bent over a crochet pattern for a doily shaped like a bee.

“Isn’t there a bartender you sleep with?” Neil asked, propping his chin in his hand. “Maybe you could exchange sexual favours for booze.”

“Jealous much?” Andrew sneered.

“Yawn,” Neil said. “I’d rather do beginner’s Sudoku.”

“If you two could stop hate-flirting for a minute,” Renee said, ignoring their protests and holding up her phone, “I have some good news.”

-

“Allison Reynolds?” Dan asked. “The Allison Reynolds?”

“The very same,” Renee said. “She’s even offered to pay for champagne and a chocolate fountain, and she’s agreed to design and help me sew our costumes.”

“Wow,” Dan said numbly, sitting down. Kevin moved behind her and started massaging her shoulders like a boxer until she swatted him away. “But.”

“I know,” Renee said.

“What?” Neil asked.

“Allison’s father has been trying to buy this building for years,” Renee explained. “Reynolds Properties owns half of this neighbourhood by now.”

“So we can’t accept,” Neil sighed, slumping in his chair.

“Definitely not,” Dan said, her mouth pressed into a thin line. She knocked back her coffee like it was a shot of whisky and shook her head. “Damn.”

“I think you should give her a chance, actually,” Renee said.

“You think we should give everyone a chance,” Andrew huffed.

“I know Allison,” Renee countered, lifting her chin. “She’s… I won’t say she’s different, exactly, but she has a sound motive to support the Burrow.”

“Which is?”

“To spite her parents,” Renee grinned.

“And what about when she and her daddy make up and play nice again?” Dan asked. “We can’t take her money, Renee. We just can’t.”

“I’ll vouch for her,” Renee said stoically.

“Because she’s been sleeping with her,” Andrew volunteered. Renee sent him a quelling look that had Neil cringing in almost-sympathy. “What? It’s true.”

“Wait,” Neil said. “How do you know that? Renee is my best friend.”

“Poor, deluded soul.”

“Guys,” Dan snapped. “Can we get back to the topic at hand? I’m putting it to a vote. Who thinks we should let Allison Reynolds get involved?”

Renee raised her hand. So did Kevin, tentatively, though he dropped it again once he saw that they were outnumbered.

“We can do this on our own,” Neil said decisively. “And I’m not wearing some stupid designer costume. Sorry, Renee.”

“Big words from a little man,” Andrew said.

“I’m taller than you,” Neil shot back.

“I never should’ve hired either of you,” Dan muttered, digging her fingers into the bridge of her nose. “Go, out, I don’t want to hear any more of your weird bickering today.”

“Are we still letting Allison attend the fundraiser?” Renee asked lightly. “Because I kind of already invited her as my date.”

“Fine,” Dan said. “But, Renee…”

“I know what I’m doing,” Renee assured her, covering up the hint of bitterness in her voice with a hearty smile.

“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” Dan said, squeezing her arm. “She might be using you to get at us.”

“She’s not,” Renee said confidently. “Anyway, I’ll need to take everyone’s measurements today so I can get started on the costumes.”

-

“What is that.”

“Huh? That’s Pancake, she’s my dog,” Neil said. “Pancake, this is Andrew, he’s a douche. You can’t be friends with him, okay?”

Pancake whined low in her throat at the word friends. She wanted to be friends with everyone, so it fell to Neil to protect her from her own bad choices.

“Pancake,” Andrew repeated. “Because her face is squashed in or…?”

“No,” Neil said, scowling and putting one hand on Pancake’s head, burying his fingers in the soft fur. In truth, he didn’t know—the shelter had named her that long before Neil had adopted her. He’d wanted a cat, originally, but Pancake had kind of attached herself to him, and since no one else had wanted her…

Well. He could have a dog and a cat. There were cats that were fine living with dogs, right? Maybe one day Neil would get one of those. Then Pancake could have a friend and Neil could have his cat.

“Figures,” Andrew said.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“What?” Neil insisted.

“Nothing,” Andrew said. “Of course you’re a dog person.”

The words dripped in disdain and Neil bristled.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a dog person,” he said.

“Hm,” Andrew made, then walked a wide berth around Pancake, who whined again but stayed obediently by Neil’s side.

“Fuck you,” Neil called after him.

“No thank you,” Andrew called back. “Oh, and better check with Dan if that ugly thing is even allowed in here. Pretty sure we have a no pets policy.”

They didn’t, Neil was sure of it. Or did they? Fuming, he crouched on the floor and ran his hands under Pancake’s long, floppy ears. She made a blissful sound and let herself be fussed while Neil calmed himself down. The only reason he’d brought her to work was because Kevin had class and couldn’t look after her, and Wymack had a dentist appointment out of town. Pancake and Wymack got along like a log on fire and Kevin kept telling his dad to get a dog of his own, but so far Wymack had refused. Neil thought the only way to get him to agree was to trick him into going to the shelter with them and lock him in a kennel with the dogs, but Kevin argued he’d probably end up adopting all of them and the house definitely wasn’t big enough for that.

He made himself a cup of tea and filled Pancake’s water bowl in the kitchen before settling down at his desk to work on his thesis, Pancake curling up by his feet. Dan didn’t mind him doing his research if there was nothing else to be done, and Neil felt guilty for abandoning it in favour of fundraiser preparations. He lost himself in articles for a couple of hours, and only noticed Pancake’s absence when his feet started to grow cold.

“Pancake,” he called tentatively. Maybe she’d spotted Dan and left to say hello, or maybe there really were mice in the walls like Andrew claimed and she’d gone to check them out.

Neil got up and stretched, slipped back into his shoes and was about to grab his mug and get himself more tea when he spotted a flash of brown from the direction of the children’s corner.

“Oh, hell no,” he muttered, clomping over to where Andrew was sitting cross-legged on the floor, sorting books into the shelves from the returns cart. “First you insult my dog, then you steal her?”

“I did not steal her,” Andrew said calmly. “In fact, she is the one that stole my armchair.”

Neil glared at Pancake, who was blissfully asleep under a heap of stuffed animals in the round bamboo chair Andrew had put up in the corner yesterday.

“Traitor,” he hissed.

“Was there anything else you wanted, other than to annoy me with your general existence?” Andrew asked.

“Hmm, no. Now that you mention it, though, maybe I should stay here and annoy you some more.”

Andrew sighed loudly, but went back to sorting his books. Neil squeezed himself in next to Pancake, who woke up briefly to stick her wet snout in his hand before draping herself across his lap with a huff and going back to sleep.

If Neil ignored Andrew’s existence, it was strangely peaceful in the children’s corner. It was early enough that the only visitor in this part of the library was a young woman with a sleeping baby strapped to her chest, deeply engrossed in the childcare section. Andrew stayed silent as he finished his task and went back to his desk, where he started to scribble something into a notebook. Neil wasn’t sure what he did outside of work—perhaps he was enrolled in community college like him, or even at university with Kevin. There was a small furrow between his brows as he worked and the light from his desk lamp reflected off his glasses and danced through his white-blond hair. His nose was slightly crooked, like it had been broken once, and there was a scar on his temple that Neil hadn’t noticed before. Maybe if Neil could figure out what fight Andrew had got into, he could use it… somehow.

He must have dozed off, and when he jerked awake again almost a full hour had passed. Pancake was nuzzling him, making her tiny yippy sounds that meant she was hungry, and Neil felt a pang of self-consciousness as he pried himself out of the comfortable embrace of the armchair and found Andrew watching him from his desk.

“What?” he asked nonchalantly, brushing invisible lint off his sweater. “Pancake made me do it.”

“Mhm,” Andrew made sceptically, looking at him over the edge of his glasses. They were thin, golden frames and made him look a little bit grandpa-like, though he couldn’t have been much older than Neil.

“Come on, Pancake. Let’s get lunch,” Neil said, snagging her by the collar.

“And who is going to pick all that dog hair out of my chair?” Andrew called after them.

“It’s your chair,” Neil called back over his shoulder and winked. “Try duct tape.”

He was in an unusually good mood as he clipped the leash on Pancake’s collar and left the building, humming to himself on their way to the Waffle House where Matt worked.

-

On Neil’s day off, he spent the morning at the gym and the afternoon working feverishly on this thesis. He texted Renee Happy Birthday, then forgot all about it until his stomach started growling and he looked up at the clock only to discover that it was almost six in the evening.

“Sorry I’m late,” he panted, peeling himself out of his wet jacket and dropping into his seat. The only one left was next to Andrew, and Neil scooted his chair as far away from him as possible and gave Renee a bright smile as he chucked her present at her, narrowly missing Kevin’s face. She snatched it out of the air without so much as a blink and rolled her eyes.

“I thought I said no presents,” she said, peering into the bag of mixed rainbow candies.

“It’s not a present,” Neil lied. “I owe you for fixing my bike, remember?”

“Hmm,” Renee hummed. “Well, in that case, I’m sure we can put these to good use.”

Pancake finished slobbering all over Matt’s hand in excited greeting and wriggled between Neil’s feet, sniffing the floor under the table before promptly betraying him by lying down on Andrew’s boots.

“Why,” Andrew said, glaring down at the offending lump but making no move to shoo her away. “Why are you so insistent on getting dog hair on me.”

“Aw, she likes you,” Renee cooed and passed a menu to Neil. “We’re ready to order when you are, Neil.”

“Um,” Neil said, staring at the rows upon rows of identical-looking sushi.

“Just get the set with salmon and tuna,” Dan advised.

“Try the live octopus,” Andrew said. “Maybe you’ll choke on it.”

“There is no live octopus,” Renee chided.

“Way to crush my dreams, Renee,” Andrew sighed.

The waitress came over to take their orders and Neil picked one of the cheaper mixed sets at random. If it tasted like crap, he could always swap with Kevin, who looked equally lost.

“To Renee, then,” Matt said when the last of their drinks arrived, holding a cup of sake up for a toast. “The loveliest girl on the block.”

“And the sneakiest,” Neil added, clacking his tea cup against Matt’s sake.

“The best chess player,” Kevin said woefully.

“The dirtiest fighter,” Andrew muttered, rubbing at a bruise on his arm and glaring at her. Renee blew him a tiny butterfly kiss across the table and lifted her own rainbow-coloured mocktail.

“To all of us, and keeping the Burrow alive,” she said.

“Hear, hear,” Dan said. “To family.”

Neil coughed as he nearly scalded his mouth on his tea and caught Andrew smirking at him over the rim of his rum and coke. Peeved, Neil stuck his tongue out at him and let Matt pull him into a conversation about his thesis, doing his best to ignore the persistent itch of Andrew’s presence by his side.

-

The days leading up to the fundraiser were spent in a hazy blur of rain and work. Neil was so exhausted he fell asleep in Andrew’s chair again on two separate occasions, and woke up draped in a blanket he couldn’t remember grabbing. It was a silvery, dark grey and softer than Pancake’s fur, and Neil decided that Renee must have brought it up for him, because the only other options were Dan (out running errands all day), Kevin (unlikely) or Andrew (even unlikelier).

On the day of the fundraiser, they closed up early to clear space for the dancefloor and put up the last of the decorations. Dan had recruited a few volunteers to help them set up and Wymack and Abby showed up with bags of sandwiches and cups of coffee for everyone, offering a hand wherever it was needed. There was barely time to take it all in before Renee made them all change into their costumes, and by the time Neil came back from the bathroom the first guests were already starting to trickle in. He spotted Randy Boyd, who owned the boxing studio across the street, chatting animatedly to Abby and Stephanie Walker, and some of the other local business owners as well as a few teachers from the nearby high school where Neil had graduated only a few years ago. Mrs Thistleworth, their most avid book donator, and her partner Mrs Gillespie, the library’s most voracious reader, were in attendance sporting matching Fairy Godmother costumes and had already roped Wymack into a lengthy discussion about some new SciFi novel.

“Neil!”

He was hailed down by a harried-looking Dan dressed in Gryffindor robes.

“Why is there a chocolate fountain? I thought we agreed we wouldn’t let Allison Reynolds interfere-”

“Some other woman sponsored it, I think,” Neil shrugged. “She was here earlier, talking to Andrew. Betsy something?”

“Oh,” Dan said, deflating. “Alright then. Hey, I like your costume.”

“Renee picked it,” Neil said. “I wanted to be Ada Lovelace but she thought no one would recognise it, so we compromised.”

“Well, I happen to think you would have made a very fetching Ada.”

“Thank you, Dan, I happen to think so too,” Neil grinned.

“I only remember Lord Of The Rings in very broad terms. Remind me which one of the hobbits you are?”

“I’m obviously Pippin,” Neil sniffed. “The nosy mischievous one.”

“Sounds about right,” Dan grinned. Neil elbowed her and she elbowed back, and for a moment they just basked in their easy camaraderie, watching the madness unfold around them.

“Right, I should get ready for my speech and the auction,” Dan sighed. “Did Seth come through with his DJ kit?”

“Everything’s under control, Hermione Danger. Go forth and be awesome,” Neil grinned at her, punching her arm. Dan punched him back, then caught him in a quick hug before bustling off.

He spotted Andrew by the chocolate fountain, loading a plate with wafers, marshmallows, strawberries and cookie dough balls.

“And you are… Andrew in pyjamas?” Neil guessed, sidling up to him and stealing a strawberry off his plate. Andrew was dressed in a white, hooded fleece onesie with clawed paws for the feet and hands, a fluffy tail stuck to the back and a gold paper crown on his head. He looked incredibly soft, despite the hard look he shot Neil.

“Max,” he said.

“No, I’m Pippin,” Neil said. “Pretty sure there was no hobbit called Max in Lord Of The Rings.”

“I’m Max,” Andrew elaborated. “From Where The Wild Things Are.”

“Ah.”

Andrew eyed him up and down and speared two marshmallows on a stick to hold into the chocolate fountain.

“And here I was, hoping you would dress up as a calculator,” he said nonsensically. “So I could push all your buttons.”

“That’s gay of you,” Neil grinned. Andrew narrowed his eyes at him, but the effect was rather ruined by the way the marshmallows bulged out his cheeks.

“You know, I did consider going as a triangle,” Neil said. “Then I could have told people I’m acute triangle.”

“More like obtuse,” Andrew grunted, swirling one of the strawberries in the melted chocolate.

“Mm, tell me more math words,” Neil hummed.

“It’s too early for dirty talk. Go away and let me enjoy my chocolate fountain in peace.”

Neil would have been happy to badger Andrew some more, but Dan was starting her speech and then they were calling everyone in for the book auction. For a while Neil just wandered around, mingling with the guests, drinking fruit punch and straightening decorations, teasing Wymack about getting old and swapping empty bottles for full ones. Andrew’s bartender from Eden’s was there, helping out with the drinks, and he winked at Neil as he walked past. Confused, Neil toasted him with his glass and put it out of his mind, catching up with Dan for a bit as the auction was winding down.

“I knew putting Kevin in charge of this bit was a good idea,” she murmured. “Eye candy always sells.”

“Ew,” Neil said. “He’s your brother!”

Dan laughed.

“I’m not saying I find him attractive. Just look at all those rich hipster girls in the front row making doe eyes at him.”

“Gross,” Neil muttered. He was starting to regret going with a costume that involved being barefoot for the entire evening and rubbed one foot against the other in an attempt to warm them up.

“Dan,” Renee called out, leading a blond woman over by her hand. “I want you to meet someone.”

“Allison Reynolds,” the woman introduced herself. She said it in the way some people flashed an expensive watch, or a gun. “Pleased to.”

“Danielle Wymack,” Dan said warily, drawing herself up to her full height. Stiltedly, she added: “Thank you for coming.”

“I’m just here to piss my parents off,” Allison smirked. “And for my beautiful girlfriend, of course.”

Renee ducked her head to hide her smile as Allison caught her around the waist and pressed a kiss to her shoulder.

“Champagne would have been nice, mind you,” Allison went on with a twinkle in her eye, like she knew exactly what Dan thought of her. “But I guess we can’t have everything, can we?”

“We did what we could,” Dan said stiffly, then cracked a little smile. “Besides, no one would believe we needed help if we had champagne.”

“True,” Allison allowed. “Though you’ll find there’s been a sizeable anonymous donation to the Borough Library as of…” She checked her rhinestone-encrusted phone. “…five minutes ago.”

“Allison,” Renee chided gently.

“What? It’s my money, I can do with it what I want. And what I want to do with it is make my girlfriend happy. Is that such a crime?”

Renee’s smile was unwavering, though she went a little pink around her ears. Dan cleared her throat.

“Ms Reynolds-”

“Allison, please.”

“Allison,” Dan amended. “You have to understand that we will not be selling this property to you or your father-”

“Pfft, like I care about that,” Allison huffed. “I already own more hipster coffee shops in this town than I know what to do with. My only request is that you give your employees a pay raise.”

Allison,” Renee said sharply.

“It’s non-negotiable, I’m afraid,” Allison said sweetly, twirling a strand of hair around her finger. “Renee, darling, will you dance with me?”

“You are impossible,” Renee muttered, but let herself be led off to the dancefloor anyway, where Seth was starting the music back up now that people were drifting back from the auction.

“Well,” Dan said. “I guess that’s happening.”

“Yup,” Neil said, clinking his glass against hers. “Wanna dance awkwardly and make a fool of yourself with me?”

“Speak for yourself,” Dan grinned. “I used to be a stripper, remember? I have moves.”

“Yeah, sexy moves,” Neil said dismissively. “But can you do a drunk robot pretending to be a chicken?”

“Lead the way, then.”

-

Before Neil knew it, midnight was rumbling on the horizon like distant thunder. Renee and Kevin were leading people upstairs where they’d prepared the poetry slam in the dark, having obscured the windows with heavy curtains and setting up a booth for the poets that was cordoned off as well. Once everyone was in their seat, the lights were dimmed, leaving only a single reading lamp in the booth, its glow barely making it past the thick fabric of the curtains.

Renee had distributed the glow sticks to the audience and was explaining how many points each colour was worth. Instead of measuring their approval in applause after each poet went on, she and Kevin would collect and count the glow sticks and tally the score. The poet with the most points would win a generously donated gift card for a local bookshop and a night in the library with their friends, complete with complimentary pizza (which Dan had only agreed to after Kevin had vouched for the competing poets and Neil had promised he’d stay and chaperone).

Neil did his best to pay attention, but it was hard to sit still in the dark with so many strangers for so long. He was about to sneak out between poets to get some fresh air and a cup of tea to perk him up when Renee introduced her mystery friend as “someone who’d rather stay anonymous, so we’ll just call him Cat for now.”

The voice in the reading booth sounded just as flat and lifeless as when he’d told stories to children over glitter glue and paper stars, but somehow that just made it strangely mesmerising in the dark. The poem he read was called Meow Meow Lullaby and it was written in the style of a simple nursery rhyme, though it was far from the light-hearted children’s tale of Cat the cat who didn’t want to go to bed. The words seem to pin Neil to his chair like a butterfly trapped under glass. He felt like someone had turned a spotlight on him, and Andrew’s eyes were looking straight at him through the curtains around the booth.

He felt seen.

The poem ended, and all around him pink glow sticks snapped to life through the dazed applause. Neil dimly remembered that the pink ones meant the highest score, and he scrabbled for his own, flexing and shaking it before handing it down the line to Renee. He stumbled to his feet and felt his way along the row of chairs in front of him, mumbling apologies as he pushed past invisible limbs, then finally found the wall and followed the glowing exit signs until he was blinking in the low light of the staff kitchen.

Apparently, Andrew had beat him to it.

“Uh,” Neil said, still trying to squeeze the afterimages of the glow sticks from his retinas and the echo of Andrew’s poem from his ears.

“Tea?” Andrew asked casually, like he hadn’t just turned Neil inside out, and dangled a mug from his index finger in offering.

“Um,” Neil said.

“You seem to have lost your words.”

“Fine,” Neil said, frowning, “but I’m going to watch you make it, just in case you get any ideas.”

“Like swapping the sugar for salt?” Andrew snorted.

“It was a good idea,” Neil said defensively. “In theory.”

“In theory,” Andrew repeated. “Like, if you hadn’t forgotten all about it and essentially pranked yourself.”

There was something in the flat line of his mouth that made Neil think he might have been smiling. Like he was holding the smile just inside his mouth, a precious marble tucked under his tongue for safe-keeping.

Neil pulled himself up to sit on the counter, watching Andrew make the tea. He held out his hand for the box and picked out the teabag himself, sniffing it to make sure it hadn’t been tampered with, and Andrew rolled his eyes and wordlessly pushed the mug of hot water at him so he could plop it in himself.

Neil cupped his hands around the mug until it was too hot to hold and put it back down, clearing his throat.

“I didn’t know you could write,” he said into the silence.

“I learned when I was around six,” Andrew deadpanned. “They usually teach it in school. It’s a very useful skill to have, though I suppose you wouldn’t know, since you’ve developed your own hieroglyphics instead.”

“The one time I try to be polite-” Neil grumbled.

“I am shocked that word is even in your vocabulary.”

“Shut up.”

They both lapsed into silence, drinking their tea and listening to the muffled sounds of the poetry slam still going on next door. Neil’s eyes felt sore so he closed them; tilting his head back against the cupboard behind him. He was just going to rest for a moment…

“Don’t,” Andrew murmured, dropping his spoon in the sink with a loud clatter and startling him awake again.

“I wasn’t,” Neil said, sitting up quickly.

“Mhm.”

“Shouldn’t you be going back to collect your winnings?” Neil asked.

“What makes you so sure I’m winning?”

“I saw how many pink ones you got. The others were fine, but…” He shrugged.

“I don’t care,” Andrew said, slow and sure.

“Maybe you should,” Neil told him. “You could do more with this than win a bunch of glow sticks, you know.”

“Do me a favour and stick to the nonfiction,” Andrew retorted, though there was something about his eyes that made Neil think he’d hit a nerve after all. Or—skimmed it, at least.

“If you win, you’re stuck in the library with me for a night,” Neil called after him.

Andrew stopped in his tracks for a second, then gave him the finger without glancing back and left the kitchen.

-

Neil and Dan were dividing up the last of the fruit punch between them when an elderly woman came over, dressed as what Neil could only assume was Neville Longbottom’s grandmother.

“Oh, Danielle, it was absolutely lovely,” she gushed. “Obviously, I’ve already adjusted my little contribution. It’d be a shame to see such a very important neighbourhood institution go, after all.”

“Thanks, Mrs Spear,” Dan said levelly. “We appreciate your unwavering support.”

“Of course, dear, of course,” Mrs Spear chuckled. “Well, I should get going. Duty doesn’t sleep, you know how it is.”

They said their goodbyes, and as soon as Mrs Spear was out of earshot, Dan said, “She hates us.”

“Uh,” Neil said. “Who is she, again?”

“Cass Spear,” Dan said. “From the Spear Foundation? She’s our only remaining patron. Without her donations, we wouldn’t have been able to buy all those new children’s books last year. Lord knows why she keeps them up, though, she never even comes here.”

“Spear,” Neil repeated, something itching at the back of his mind. “Hmm.”

“You have that look on your face,” Dan said, looking suspicious. “The one that means you’re about to do something stupid.”

“Don’t you worry about me,” Neil said brightly. “Excuse me, I need to find Andrew.”

“Now that definitely worries me,” Dan muttered, but Neil ignored her and snagged a leftover cup of chocolate from the fountain and some fruit on his way out.

“If you commit murder, you’re fired!” Dan shouted after him.

Neil found Andrew in the children’s reading corner, buried in a monster-patterned beanbag with a box of leftover glow sticks.

“Why is Cass Spear donating money to the Burrow?” Neil asked, plopping himself down next to him and holding out his offerings.

“What?” Andrew said, snapping the glow stick in his hand. It lit up bright green, casting a ghoulish light over his face.

“Cass Spear,” Neil repeated. “She was your foster mother, wasn’t she? I heard when that pig came in and asked you about her husband.”

“Pig,” Andrew said blankly. “Oh, Pigginson Higginson. That was nothing.”

He wiggled his fingers at him, shooing him away.

“She clearly didn’t want to be here tonight,” Neil continued. “So why was she? Do you have anything on her husband?”

“No,” Andrew said. “Go away.”

“Not until you tell me.”

Andrew sighed and snapped another glow stick.

“Let’s just say she knows what will happen to the reputation of her dear, dead, war hero son if she pisses me off.”

“Well, now I have to know what he did.”

“No. You don’t,” Andrew said flatly. Neil was about to press, but something in Andrew’s expression stopped him. He looked… tired. His hood was skewed, his crown was crumpled and his mask had a smudge of chocolate sauce on it where it hung limply around his neck. The white, fleecy onesie looked too big on him in the light, like it was weighing him down.

“Okay,” Neil said instead. “So, where are those wild things?”

For a moment, a tiny bit of surprise flitted across Andrew’s face like the shadow of a wingtip passing overhead. Then he bent down and pulled a book from one of the lower shelves, holding it out to him.

“Why don’t you read it to me?” Neil suggested, grinning at Andrew’s eyeroll. “No, really, I’ve suddenly forgotten how to read. Indulge me.”

He didn’t really think Andrew would, but apparently the late hour had worn down Andrew’s defences just as it had worn down Neil’s. Andrew led him through the book, reading the words without any inflection whatsoever, stopping only to steal bits of chocolate and fruit from Neil’s stash. Neil lay very still in his beanbag and let Andrew’s voice settle over him like a weighted blanket, grounding him in the restless, thrumming waters of two a.m. that were slowly pooling around their feet.

“There you are!” someone exclaimed just as Andrew had closed the book on the last page, startling them both out of their trance. The guy who swept into the room was dressed like an oversized Tinkerbell, leaving a trail of glitter in his wake from the gauzy wings he’d glued to the back of his costume. He was followed by someone with Andrew’s exact face, though his expression was all sideways.

“You have a twin?” Neil asked around a yawn, pushing himself up to stretch.

“And a cousin, unfortunately,” Andrew sighed, tossing the book to the side. “What do you want? I distinctly remember telling you I didn’t want you coming.”

“Hi, I’m Nicky,” the unfortunate cousin said, offering a glitter-coated hand for Neil to shake. Neil eyed it warily and looked at the twin brother instead.

“This is Aaron,” Nicky supplied. “He refused to dress up, because he’s a fun sponge.”

“I am not twelve,” Aaron hissed, crossing his arms.

“Really? Could have fooled me,” Neil said.

“Out of the two of us, who is currently dressed as a hobbit?” Aaron snorted, barely glancing at him. “Andrew, let’s go.”

“I can drive myself,” Andrew said, slowly and precisely.

“I told you,” Nicky sniffed. “Andrew, we just wanted to congratulate you on your win. You were incredible! Aaron and I are so proud of you.”

“Speak for yourself,” Aaron muttered.

“Great,” Andrew said. “So now you can leave. Bye.”

“Or you could stay,” Neil offered with a wide smile. “We could use help tidying up, and there’s probably going to be wine after. I want to hear all about my good friend Andrew here. Has he always been this charmingly sullen? Did he, perhaps, have any embarrassing teenage phases?”

Nicky seemed to vibrate in excitement, sprinkling glitter everywhere.

“Aaron, did you hear that? My time has come at last.”

“Your time to go home, you mean,” Andrew growled.

“No, I think I want to hear this, actually,” Aaron said thoughtfully. “Nicky, remember the time he tried to dye his hair? Or the-”

“You will pay for this,” Andrew told Neil.

“Can’t wait,” Neil smiled, pushing himself to his feet. “Alright, you two can help me take down the curtains and stack the chairs while you tell me all about Andrew’s sordid past…”

-

Slowly, the night was winding down like a music box. A few of the other guests had also stayed to help clear up: Wymack and Abby said goodnight when the worst of it was taken care of, Matt had to practically force his mother out of the door to drive her home, and Neil was delighted to watch the woman who’d paid for the chocolate fountain give Andrew a hug goodbye. Andrew looked so comically startled that Neil wished he’d had the presence of mind to take out his phone for a picture.

In the end, there were just the five of them left, along with Allison, Nicky, Aaron, and two people from the literary society who Neil was reasonably sure were called Jean and Thea. They crammed into the kitchen with bottles of wine and cups of tea, tinny music drifting like steam from Renee’s phone, costumes half-disassembled and masks lost or pushed up into their hair.

“Congratulations again, on winning the slam,” Jean said to Andrew, tilting his glass of wine at him. Neil recognised his soft French accent from the piece he’d read, something deeply satirical that had flown right over most people’s heads. He was sitting on the counter, propping up a drowsy Thea, and there was something darkly sweet like liquorice in his eyes when he added: “I was very impressed by your poem. You would be a good fit for our group.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow.

“Maybe we should meet up to discuss it some time,” he said, casually. For a moment Neil’s stomach twisted with a nonsensical, gingery flare of possessiveness. Andrew was theirs, he didn’t belong with some snotty, rich, elitist university club kids.

“For fuck’s sake, Andrew,” Aaron said. “Can you not try and get ass while I’m right there?”

“No one is forcing you to be here,” Andrew said without looking at him. His eyes were fixed on some undefined point in space, glazed over in a way that made Neil think he was close to breaking point, though he couldn’t say why he knew.

He reached out and plucked Andrew’s dilapidated crown off his head. Andrew’s eyes slid to him, following the movement as Neil put the crown on his own head, and the dangerous blankness in his eyes slowly made way for something more mundane.

“You are insufferable,” Andrew gritted out.

“Hey, Andrew. What newspaper does a triangle read?” Neil quipped.

“No,” Andrew said.

“The hypotenews!”

“Insufferable and not funny,” Andrew said.

“Oh,” Nicky said, hushed. “Aaron, is he…?”

“I am leaving,” Aaron announced, startling Dan, Renee and Allison out of a tipsy round of complimenting each other’s hair.

“No, Aaron, come on,” Nicky pleaded. “Things are just getting interesting.”

“Do you want a ride home or not,” Aaron said. Nicky pouted and grumbled, but let himself be towed out, squeezing Andrew’s hand in passing and leaving a glittery imprint behind.

“Oh my god,” Nicky’s muffled voice came from the end of the corridor, “Aaron, we could have said you dressed up as straight Andrew!”

Jean and Thea carried a dozing Kevin out between them soon after and Neil watched, scowling, as Jean and Andrew exchanged phone numbers. Allison coaxed Renee home and Dan set about locking up, leaving Neil and Andrew to walk themselves out.

The parking lot was coated in a thin film of drizzle. Neil had finally changed out of his hobbit costume and was happy to have warm feet again, though cycling the half hour home in this weather would probably ruin that again soon. He was so tired, too… Maybe if he took the night bus and then walked…

Someone sighed behind him.

“Stop staring woefully at that death trap you call a bicycle and get in,” Andrew said. Neil stared dumbly at the open passenger side door of his car. “I’m driving you home, idiot.”

“You must be growing soft in your old age,” Neil teased as he slipped inside and buckled himself in. Andrew was back in his black jeans and hoodie, a wild thing contained. The light of the street lamps slipped over his face in bold tiger stripes, painting his eyes golden as he glanced over at Neil.

“Must be,” Andrew agreed.

They sat in silence for the rest of the ride.

-

“So, the good news is, we made enough money to keep the library going,” Dan said over brunch in the staff kitchen the next day. Abby had dropped off enough food from Waffle House to feed a small army. Neil felt drowsy and comfortable in his chair, belly full of hot coffee and waffle sandwiches (which had been a great idea, no matter what Andrew said).

“What’s the bad news?” Andrew asked. He looked about as fresh as he usually did, but his hair wasn’t quite as neat, like he hadn’t bothered combing it this morning.

“What’s the hypotenews?” Neil whispered, narrowly avoiding a kick under the table.

“Someone puked in the downstairs toilet,” Dan announced gravely.

“So?” Kevin said. “We have cleaning staff, don’t we?”

Dan stabbed her finger at him.

“Kevin, so nice of you to volunteer. Mop and bucket’s waiting outside for you.”

He spluttered, but Dan manhandled him out the door before he could even finish his coffee.

“What are you all waiting for?” she called over her shoulder. “We’re opening in five. Chop, chop!”

Renee exchanged a fleeting smile with Andrew and Neil and shrugged, packing up the rest of the food and putting it away in the fridge.

“Have a good day, you two,” she said, cradling her mug of coffee against her cheek and leaving to take up her post at her desk downstairs.

“I don’t think I can work on my thesis today,” Neil groaned, sinking deeper into his chair.

“Then don’t,” Andrew said.

“I might come and sleep in your armchair again,” Neil mumbled through a yawn.

“Where is your dog.”

“With Wymack,” Neil said, then added a sly, “Why, do you miss her?”

“Why would I miss a slobbering goblin shedding hair all over my things,” Andrew scoffed.

“Hmm. I think you’ve grown fond of her. Understandable, she’s a treat.”

“I don’t like dogs,” Andrew spat, getting to his feet. “If you fall asleep in my armchair again, I will personally drop you out the window into the dumpster.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Neil said, waving his hand and feigning another yawn. “You’re all bark.”

-

There was a brand new box of PG Tips in the tea cupboard.

It was still sealed, and Neil carefully pried open the cardboard lid and peered inside. Regular teabags. They smelled like they should—the earthy savour of dried tea leaves, the subtle tang of malt, a hint of underlying sweetness.

“What did that box of tea ever do to you?” Renee said, entering the kitchen behind him with an empty mug of her own.

“Nothing,” Neil said, quickly putting it down. “Um, thanks for buying it.”

“Oh, it’s not from me.”

“Oh,” Neil said. “I thought, because you went to the store yesterday…”

Renee shook her head.

“They didn’t have it, most places don’t. I bought the other one you like, and some more cocoa.”

“Dan, then,” Neil decided. “I need to ask her where she gets it. What are you having?”

“The wild apple chai, I think,” Renee smiled. “Could you make two of that, please? I was going to bring Andrew some as well.”

“Can’t he make his own tea,” Neil grumbled, but fished another mug out of the cupboard anyway. They chatted about Renee’s ideas for hosting a monthly book-and-knitting club at the library as the tea steeped and Renee stirred a few spoonfuls of honey into the apple chai before glancing at her watch.

“Oh, shoot, I forgot I had a delivery. Sorry, Neil, would you take this over to Andrew? I have to run.”

She didn’t give him any time to protest, whisking her own tea away downstairs and leaving Neil to scowl at the second mug. He was tempted to just dump it down the drain, but that would be a waste of a perfectly good cup of tea, so he picked it up after all, intending to just leave it on Andrew’s desk on his way back to his own.

Unfortunately for him, Andrew was at his desk, talking to a tired looking woman with a baby strapped to her chest. Neil recognised Marcie running around the woman’s legs as well, and there was a colourful stack of books that they seemed to be in the process of checking out.

“Just take it,” Andrew was saying. “I will just throw it away otherwise, I have no use for it. Consider it repayment for the sewing patterns.”

“Oh,” the woman said uncomfortably, looking down at the blue envelope she was twisting in her hands. “Well, if you’re really sure. That’s very kind of you. Marcie’s birthday is coming up…”

“I will be so many years old!” Marcie shouted from where she was turning dizzying circles around herself like a spinning top. “Did you know I’m adopted!”

“Marcie,” the woman said, placing her hand on her head. “Inside voice please, your brother is sleeping.”

“What do you want,” Andrew said to Neil, spotting him hovering.

“I brought you tea, courtesy of Renee,” Neil said dryly, placing the cup down on the desk. “Don’t thank me.”

Andrew just flicked his fingers at him and went back to scanning the books for Marcie. Neil left them to it, though he glimpsed the golden writing on the envelope on his way past, cementing his suspicion that Andrew had just given the gift card he’d won in the poetry slam away.

The thought niggled at him all afternoon. He tried to distract himself with thesis work, had a late lunch with Matt and came back just in time to catch Andrew raiding the cookie shelf in the kitchen.

“You know that’s not Dan-sanctioned lunch, right?” Neil remarked, leaning against the doorway. Andrew grabbed a plate and started arranging chocolate chip cookies and saltines on it before dumping an entire bag of M&Ms over the lot.

“I have storytime,” he said.

“Ah, so that’s how you get the kids to like you,” Neil grinned. “You bribe them with sweets.”

Andrew looked down at the plate, then held it out to Neil as if daring him to take something.

“Um,” Neil said. “No, thanks.”

Andrew shrugged and stuck a cookie in his mouth.

“Are you still chaperoning the library pizza night,” he asked through the crumbs.

“Depends,” Neil said. “Who are you inviting? That bartender?”

“No,” Andrew said, something like amusement curling through his voice. “Not the bartender.”

“Good. So, who?”

“People,” Andrew said vaguely, waving his hand. “Are you free on Saturday.”

“I guess,” Neil hummed. “I’ll need to find a dog sitter for Pancake though.”

“Bring her,” Andrew said quickly.

“Admit it, you like her,” Neil crowed, stealing a saltine from Andrew’s plate as he walked past.

“Thought you didn’t want any,” Andrew muttered, glaring at his hand.

“Changed my mind. See you on Saturday then!”

-

On Saturday Neil arrived at the library to discover that Andrew had invited all of the other poetry contestants from the literary society to his library pizza night. They had already taken over the children’s corner with bottles of beer and wine, bowls of microwave popcorn, sleeping bags, laptops, notebooks and DVDs, and seemed to be in the process of a writing exercise where everyone would write one paragraph, fold over the one that came before it, and hand it down the line to the next person, who would then add to it only knowing what the preceding paragraph was.

Andrew himself was at his desk, ordering the pizza. Pancake immediately bounded up to him, tail wagging so hard her whole body shook even though Andrew refused to pet her hello.

“Pepperoni and jalapeno,” Neil told Andrew, unclipping her leash.

“Disgusting,” Andrew informed him, though he typed the order in all the same before hitting send.

“Is Jean here?” Neil asked, looking around. Andrew threw him an odd look, then wordlessly pointed in the direction of the kitchen. Pancake, who had nearly bowled herself over in excitement when she saw that there were even more people for her to meet, was being thoroughly fussed over by Thea and another girl, so Neil left her to her fate and padded to the kitchen.

“Ah, hello,” Jean said, looking up from where he was rinsing out a teapot at the sink.

“We do clean that after we use it, you know,” Neil told him. “We’re not heathens.”

Jean chuckled.

“It just seemed a little dusty, is all,” he said. “Where is the tea?”

Neil regretted not hiding his precious PG Tips as Jean rifled through the cupboard, but when Jean came up with the forgotten box of Lavender Earl Grey Crème he felt even more irked. That one was supposed to be a joke. Renee was the only one who drank it occasionally, and she was the only one Neil could forgive for liking it, because she was Renee.

“Andrew doesn’t like that one,” he felt compelled to point out as Jean dropped two bags into the pot and poured hot water over it.

“No?” Jean said. “Well, he can make his own tea, then.”

“Uh. I thought you liked him?” Neil asked, scrunching up his nose. Jean lifted both of his eyebrows and gave a little laugh.

“He is attractive, I will admit. But he made it clear to me that we would not be, how to say… compatible, in this.”

“Why not?” Neil couldn’t help asking.

“He has… very particular taste,” Jean replied, looking Neil up and down like there was more he wanted to say. Before Neil could open his mouth and make even more of a fool of himself, though, Andrew stuck his head in the door and asked what was taking so long.

“We were just discussing the tea,” Jean said smoothly, fishing the teabags out of the pot and picking it up carefully. “Neil will bring the milk and sugar.”

He flashed Neil a tight smile over his shoulder as he followed Andrew back to the others. Feeling grumpy and weirdly left out, Neil grabbed the milk from the fridge but purposefully forgot the sugar before claiming the bamboo chair and watching as Pancake made her rounds and finally flopped down between Andrew and Jean.

He wasn’t in the mood to participate much in the writing games. Neither did Andrew, who sat against the wall staring into space and absent-mindedly petting Pancake. He got up to get their pizza when it arrived, but didn’t contribute as the others picked a movie to watch—Dead Poet’s Society was first, then The History Boys, neither of which Neil had seen before. Thea and Jean argued about the merits of Mona Lisa Smile versus The Goldfinch next, but Neil was too tired and restless to pay attention anymore, so he slipped outside with Pancake and let her nose about the parking lot a bit while he lit a rare cigarette and watched the smoke curl and twist under the light from the street lamp.

“A runner who smokes,” said a dry voice from the doorway. “Is that allowed?”

“I’m not smoking,” Neil said, hastily stubbing out the cigarette against the wall and hoping fervently that Dan wouldn’t find out.

Andrew walked down the steps and stood beside him, looking over to where Pancake was chasing a stray bit of newspaper tossed about by the wind. Neil shivered and wrapped his arms around himself.

“Can I ask you something?” he blurted out.

“Can I stop you,” Andrew asked back.

“Probably not,” Neil admitted, lips quirking. “Uh, so. Earlier, Jean said that you and him weren’t compatible. Why?”

Andrew looked at him, his eyes shimmering and different in the dark like velvet brushed the wrong way.

“As it turns out,” he said slowly, turning to face Neil and mirroring his pose with his arms wrapped around his chest, “my type is mouthy, irritating assholes.”

Something threatened to burst behind Neil’s sternum.

“Oh?” he said lightly. “Anyone I know?”

“Hmm. He’s rather obtuse,” Andrew murmured.

“Sure he’s not acute?” Neil joked feebly.

“Acutely annoying, yes,” Andrew clarified.

“And you still want to kiss him?” Neil scoffed, shuffling a step closer. “Sounds like a you problem.”

“Not if he wants to kiss me back,” Andrew said quietly, watching Neil’s mouth like a challenge.

“Well,” Neil said, trying to subtly wipe his nervous hands on his jeans without drawing attention to them. “You may have a point.”

“Did you just agree with me?”

“Little bit. Enjoy it while it lasts, it will be the first and only time.”

Andrew huffed a tiny cloud of laughter into the cold air, then reached out and tangled his fingers in Neil’s hair.

“So?” he asked.

“So?” Neil challenged.

“Kissing,” Andrew clarified. “Yes?”

“Yep,” Neil said, in a very mature, definitely not squeaky way.

Andrew leaned in and Neil met him halfway. His mouth was warm and tasted faintly like cream and Earl Grey, but Neil didn’t even care. His whole body felt like thousands of tiny light bulbs had popped on inside him, his nerves forming an electric circuit that Andrew’s tongue had somehow found the switch to. For a moment he was sure that he was lit up so brightly that he must be visible from space; a hot, bright, pink beacon right there in the parking lot.

“I thought you didn’t like Earl Grey,” he murmured when they pulled apart, carefully peeling their mouths from each other like bandaids from skin.

“I don’t hate it either,” Andrew murmured back.

“I don’t think I can be associated with you, then. I have standards, you know,” Neil said, before leaning back in for another kiss.

-

They lay facing each other in the dark, all around them the even rainfall of sleep-breathing, Pancake’s nose pressed to Neil’s back. The library was still and quiet around them, still the same safe, warm haven that it had been to Neil at fifteen, that it would continue to be for as long as there were people willing to fight for it.

Andrew’s hand was laced with Neil’s on the floor between their sleeping bags. Neil’s mouth felt soft and sore from kissing and his fingertips were buzzing where they touched Andrew’s skin.

“Stop staring,” Andrew whispered, tightening his hand on Neil’s.

“You stop staring,” Neil whispered back.

Andrew tightened his hand further and Neil squeezed back just as hard. They both let go at the same time, and Andrew stroked his thumb over Neil’s knuckles like he was dusting them with kisses.

“Good night, Cat,” Neil whispered. “Sleep tight.”

“Night, dog boy,” Andrew murmured, already drifting off.