Author's Notes: New story! I started writing this over a year ago, but I finally came across it and decided it was worth resurrecting. I have a fair amount written, so I'll hopefully be updating every week or so. This first chapter is unnaturally long because I had a lot of backstory and didn't feel like ending it on a boring note. The others will not be this long. Enjoy the story, and please review!
Monday nights were supposed to mean football, Matthew Gilbert thought absently to himself as he pushed his oversized shopping cart down an aisle of meals-in-a-box. Or maybe that was only in the fall. Winter? No, probably the fall. He distantly remembered hearing something about the Super Bowl recently, so football was probably over, anyhow.
He hadn't ever really watched football, himself, so he wasn't really sure why this particular thought was floating back and forth across his mental radar. What had—? Oh, that was it. Monday night, which for Matthew meant the night he went shopping after work for groceries, random household necessities, and an alarming quantity of baked goods for Julie's preschool/daycare class.
Julie was three years old, blonde, cute to a fault (no, really, to a fault), and absolutely not Matthew's daughter. She was, as it happened, his niece, and at the moment he was thankful as hell that she was at daycare and not with him here. He'd managed to avoid taking her grocery shopping so far, but she'd no doubt busy herself running up and down the aisles, begging for candy and sugar-coated cereal and anything else she could get her hands on.
She was remarkably similar to her father—Jake, Matthew's little brother—in that regard, except that she was three, and Jake was twenty-three. Whining and begging were far more acceptable for a three-year-old. Stealing, on the other hand, was largely frowned upon no matter a person's age, and it was this that had finally gotten Jake locked up in jail.
It didn't even make sense, really. Sure, his brother had always been petulant and lazy, not willing to show up to work often enough to keep a job for more than a few weeks, but it wasn't like he was starving. Their parents had supported him well enough— not as well as they could have, maybe, but they'd wanted him to learn to be self-sufficient. What he'd ended up learning was how to embezzle money from the CD store where he'd finally managed to keep a job for a few months.
It had turned out to be quite a bit of money, and most of it had disappeared by the time he'd finally gotten caught. The long and short of it was that he'd gotten two years in prison, and his useless idiot of a girlfriend, Tracie, had ended up taking care of their then two-year-old daughter on her own.
While Jake had never exactly been great at the whole parenting business, as far as his and Matthew's parents were concerned, he'd apparently been the one making sure Julie stayed relatively healthy and fed. It had only taken two visits for his parents to start making calls, trying to get the girl taken to a foster home (and God only knew how much better that was likely to be) and lamenting the fact that they were too old and busy to take her in themselves.
And, well, it wasn't like Matthew had had much of a choice at that point. It was only temporary, until Jake got out of prison, but the girl had been living in his apartment for the past five months, and he'd more or less gotten used to it.
That didn't mean, of course, that he was exactly thrilled about the situation. Adopting a child was one thing, but getting temporary custody of one's niece after she'd been raised by idiots was another matter entirely. His apartment wasn't that big, to begin with, and although he was getting compensated for her food and daycare expenses, it was a hassle, having to dress her and feed her and get her to and from daycare every day. Not to mention his social life, which, granted, hadn't exactly been thrilling previously, but still.
"Sir? Do you need any help?" asked a restocking girl, and Matthew realized suddenly that he'd been staring at a display of cookies for several minutes.
"Uh—no, sorry," he said quickly, grabbing a package of Oreos and sticking it in the front compartment of his shopping cart. He'd gotten pretty much everything he'd come here for except for... He glanced down at his shopping list and frowned. Donuts. How much sugar could a group of small children really consume within the space of an hour?
More to the point, how much sugar could one small girl consume and still be able to be put to bed that night? He sighed, not looking forward to the likely answer.
Nonetheless, he dutifully headed to the bakery section, which housed a large and rather impressive display of donuts. There were something like twenty kids in Julie's class, plus two helpers and the teacher, the immensely aggravating Melissa Slane, who would undoubtedly complain if there weren't enough donuts to go around.
Matthew frowned, trying to remember why he'd agreed to provide weekly snacks in the first place. He'd been pressured into it, no doubt, but as to why he'd agreed... He'd probably had a brief fit of wanting to be liked by the parents of all the other children. That sounded vaguely familiar, although he couldn't imagine what had possessed him with such thoughts.
At least the store counted 14 donuts as a dozen—two of those would certainly be enough for everyone. He stared at the display for a hesitant moment, then, with a soft sigh, began placing one of every donut variety in one of the provided plastic boxes.
"I wouldn't recommend that one," a voice from somewhere behind him commented dryly.
Matthew turned to see a tall-ish man with blond hair standing slightly to one side of the display, hands in his pockets. He blinked once, then turned to examine the donut in his plastic tongs. He wasn't sure exactly what it was supposed to be, although he suspected a spring theme—its dough was dyed green, and it was covered in bright pink frosting and flower-shaped sprinkles.
He dropped it abruptly back into the display. "Thanks," he said, smiling slightly as he eyed the donut suspiciously.
The man laughed softly, taking his hands out of his pocket and leaning against one of the sliding glass doors enclosing the donut display. "Yeah, I ate half of one of those the other day. No idea why." He made a face at the memory. "I'm not even sure if it actually tasted bad, or what, but just looking at it made me feel sick."
"Yeah, I bet," Matthew said, suppressing another smile as he finished filling his first box and started on a second.
There was silence for a few moments as he quickly filled the box with donuts, not knowing what to say. He'd never been very skilled in small talk, but the blond man was still standing there, waiting for him to finish, and he felt sort of rude for not saying anything.
"You look familiar," the other man said suddenly, frowning.
"What?" Matthew looked up quickly as he set the last of the second round of donuts into the box and placed it in his cart. He'd never seen the man before in his life, but he wasn't sure if there was really a non-awkward way to say that. "Really?" He frowned slightly in return.
"Maybe not," the man said, smiling wryly and shrugging.
Matthew turned his cart around, facing it toward the checkout. "Um—well, thanks for the donut advice." He smiled briefly, then turned his cart toward the checkout.
"No problem," replied the blond man.
Matthew wished he had something else to say, but he was out of conversation topics, and he needed to hurry to Julie's daycare place before they started threatening to charge him extra. "See you," he said instead, even though he wouldn't.
"Yeah, see you," he heard the man reply softly.
As he got in line and paid for his groceries, he wondered distantly why the man had sounded so deep in thought.
"Come on, Julie," Matthew sighed, raking his fingers though his unwashed hair. There had been a time when he'd taken a shower and washed his hair every morning, without fail, but that was before his mornings had become filled with little-girl dresses and shoes and bowls full of Cheerios eaten painstakingly, bite by bite. "You can play with the blocks we have at home. It's time to go."
"These are better," Julie argued sullenly, adding a bright red cube to the top of her castle.
They weren't better, not by any reasonable standard, but Matthew figured that reason didn't matter too much to a three-year-old. The blocks here were at least five years old and had been thrown around and drooled on by hundreds of preschoolers during that time, while the blocks at home had been purchased three weeks ago, at Julie's insistence.
This, in a general sense, was Matthew's main problem with child-rearing. It wasn't Julie's noisiness, or her messiness, or her stubborn disobedience—it was the fact that she fundamentally wasn't rational, and it drove Matthew crazy.
"Julie, please," he begged, preparing to pick her up and carry her away. "I've had a really, really long day, and I'd really like to get our of here before—"
"Matthew!" cried an alarmingly familiar, sugary voice from across the room.
"Miss Slane," Matthew replied grimly, removing his attention from Julie, who grinned happily to herself—probably content in the knowledge that she had just been guaranteed at least another ten minutes with her blocks.
"Oh, don't be silly, you don't have to call me that," Miss Slane replied sweetly, giving him a sly look, as if sharing some inside joke.
"Melissa," he corrected, still somber.
If Melissa Slane had merely been brainless, flirtatious, and sappy, he would have paid her no mind. The problem was that underneath her unbreakable demeanor of cheerful oblivion, she was a feisty bitch who hated him.
"We were so worried about you, Matthew," she began, taking on a passionate expression. "We were going to call to make sure you hadn't gotten into a car accident, but you must have forgotten to leave your cell phone on."
This was incredibly unfair. What had happened was traffic, and his boss, and the fact that he got off work 15 minutes before daycare was supposed to end, and it was at least a 17-minute drive. More to the point, he was less than 10 minutes late, and there were two other children still coloring in a corner. He doubted their parents got phone calls two minutes past six.
"Yeah," he agreed. "I must have forgotten." As if they didn't both know exactly what this conversation meant. He glanced down at Julie, as if for help, and was met with an oblivious smile. "How were the donuts?" he finally ventured to ask.
A look of deep concern passed over her face. "I wasn't going to mention anything about it," she said in a confidential tone, "but they seemed a little... stale. I wasn't sure if it would be okay to let the children eat them, but one of the helpers—" Matthew could hear an implied "bravely" in the tilt of her head—"tested them and decided they were still edible." She paused sympathetically. "It was so sweet of you to bring them, though. You know how much we appreciate it; it's just that—"
"You're welcome," Matthew cut her off. Interrupting such a heartfelt speech might have been rude, but it was better than what he would have done in another 30 seconds. "I'm sorry, we just really need to be going—" He picked Julie up by the armpits, ignoring her cries of protest, and set her by her coat and backpack. "Say goodbye to Miss Slane, Julie," he instructed, quickly pulling Julie's arms through the sleeves of her coat and stuffing the backpack into his briefcase.
"Bye, Miss Slane!" Julie called cheerfully, but Matthew was already whisking her out the door.
It had not been a good day. In addition to the usual stress of getting Julie ready in the morning and fending off Melissa in the evening, there had been work to deal with, and it was looking to be an exceptionally trying work week.
Matthew worked as a layout editor for a science magazine, and since his boss was leaving tomorrow for some important, week-long meeting in Florida (during the dead of winter, Matthew noted jealously), he had been unceremoniously put in charge of what essentially amounted toeverything. It was more responsibility than he wanted, given his current situation, but there was nothing he could do except take it.
"Uncle Mattie!" Julie called from the other side of Matthew's couch. They were home, now, and fed—both with canned ravioli, which was one of the few foods they both enjoyed.
Matthew turned off the faucet of the kitchen sink, where he had been doing dishes, and stepped into the living room to find Julie examining the pile of mail he had left on the coffee table. "Any letters?" he asked, wiping his hands on a dish towel.
"Present!" Julie cried, waving a slip of paper in the air. "There's a present for us!"
"Present?" Matthew repeated curiously. It took him a moment to realize what Julie meant. The paper, he realized as he got closer, was a slip informing them that there was a package downstairs—which, after Christmas, Julie apparently associated with presents.
"Sweetie, that's not for a present," Matthew explained tiredly, taking the piece of paper from her and looking it over briefly. "It's just some books I ordered online."
"Books!" Julie exclaimed, not deterred.
"Not books for you. Adult books." Matthew frowned. That sounded wrong, not that Julie would know. "Books for grown-ups," he amended. "But we still have new library books for you, remember?"
Julie nodded, apparently satisfied with this, while Matthew read the slip again with a sigh. Yet another chore for him to remember. He finished cleaning up the kitchen, then gave Julie a bath and read her one of the library books—The Magic School Bus Explores the Senses, because, dammit, if he was raising this girl, he was raising her to be a proper geek—before putting her to bed at eight. The next few hours he spent idly watching television, then idly flipping through a magazine, then—eventually—idly staring at the carpet.
It was aggravating, really. He didn't mind Julie much—he was doing this voluntarily, after all—but his inability to leave the apartment all night seemed a little unfair, especially considering that he hadn't even done anything to merit this sudden leap into... parenthood, he supposed. Guardian-hood, at least.
He eyed the package slip on the coffee table. New books would cheer him up, maybe. Julie had been asleep for at least two hours, and it wouldn't take more than five minutes to go down and pick up the books...
Before he could guilt himself out of it, he was out the door and heading down in an elevator, paper tightly in hand.
The package was waiting for him when he got to the mail center downstairs, and he took it gratefully, loving its book-ish weight. He had already turned in the direction of the elevators when he saw a glimpse of blond hair lifting itself off one of the couches in the lobby and heard a somewhat-familiar voice address him.
"Hey," the voice said, and Matthew realized, as he turned to look, that it was the man he had met at the donut case the day before. "I thought you looked familiar! You live here?"
Matthew blinked. "Um—yeah, I do. You—uh, I'm guessing you do, too?"
The man smiled, trying to un-ruffle his hair. "Yep." He leaned forward a little, extending his hand. "Caleb Anderson," he introduced himself.
Matthew reached out and shook the offered hand, a little self-consciously. "Matthew Gilbert," he responded. He noticed suddenly that Caleb was in what looked like pajamas: dark blue flannel pants and a thin gray t-shirt. "Why are you down here?" he asked, frowning slightly. Come to think of it, it had looked like the man—Caleb—had been trying to sleep.
"Oh, uh—" Caleb grinned sheepishly. "My girlfriend kicked me out. For the night, apparently."
Matthew wasn't sure whether to smile or look sympathetic—he'd have leaned firmly toward the latter had it not been for that grin on the other man's face—so he ended up just awkwardly combining the two expressions. "That sucks," he said, smiling a tiny bit more. "What'd you do?"
Caleb made a face like he was trying to remember. "I think I was 'being a slob,'" he replied. "Or something like that. Basically, we just had yet another stupid fight, and now I'm resigned to this lobby."
"I'm sorry," Matthew said, not quite sure why.
"It's my apartment, too," Caleb informed him, smiling wryly. "She doesn't even help pay the rent." He gave a broad shrug. "But I wasn't going to argue that just to be allowed to stay up there with her."
"Why can't you kick her out?" Matthew asked, stepping a little closer.
Caleb sighed, falling back against the muted floral couch. "Not really worth it," he explained simply. "It's not the first time she's done this. I just wish I'd thought to bring a blanket this time. Do you happen to have a blanket you could spare for the night?"
Abruptly, Matthew remembered that he'd left Julie alone, and it had been at least five minutes, now. "Shit," he muttered. "Um—I kind of forgot something upstairs. But—uh, you know, if you come up with me, I can lend you a blanket." Well, that hadn't sounded incredibly socially awkward at all.
Caleb was smiling, though. "Really? That'd be great. I hate trying to sleep without a blanket; it always takes me hours."
Matthew smiled in return. "Yeah, me, too," he agreed, then glanced edgily at the elevator. "Um, I really need to—" he began.
"Oh! Yeah, okay." Caleb hopped to his feet, following Matthew to the elevator. "What floor do you live on?"
"Twenty-fourth," Matthew replied, pushing the button for it and waiting impatiently for the doors to close. "How about you?"
"Fifty-seventh," Caleb replied, and Matthew raised an eyebrow.
"One of those big apartments?"
"It's just two bedrooms," Caleb said. "It's pretty spacious, though, I guess."
"Huh." Matthew smiled. "I've always been curious about those. What direction does it face?"
"It's on the northeast corner. Living room faces the city; bedrooms face the lake."
"Wow," Matthew murmured. "Nice view. Mine doesn't face much."
Caleb smiled. "I'd offer to let you come see, if I weren't... exiled." He grinned. "Maybe some other time?"
The elevator came to a stop on Matthew's floor, and the doors opened to reveal a long hallway. "Yeah, maybe," Matthew agreed, giving the other man a slight smile. He doubted it was a popular opinion, but seriously—why were all the nice guys straight? Not to mention taken.
Still, friends were good. And considering Matthew's current social life, any sort of interaction with someone who wasn't from work or Julie's daycare was probably great.
He pushed open the door to his apartment, gesturing Caleb inside and running into the other room to check on Julie without explanation. After verifying that she was still in her bed, breathing peacefully, he returned to the living room to find Caleb standing awkwardly by the couch, his hand resting lightly on the throw blanket draped over one of its arms.
"Is this okay?" Caleb asked, looking momentarily worried.
"Yeah, that's fine," Matthew said. Then he glanced at the clock and gave Caleb an amused frown. "It's only a little past 10," he pointed out. "You want a drink or something before you go down and sleep?"
"Drink?" Caleb repeated. He gave Matthew another sheepish smile. "Um, yeah, okay. Like beer?"
Matthew blushed and headed for the refrigerator. "No, sorry. I don't have any alcohol. Soda?"
"Damn," Caleb muttered. "Yeah, soda's fine. Do you mind if I—uh—" he looked pointedly at the couch.
"Oh—yeah, go ahead." Matthew peered into the depths of his refrigerator, looking for loose soda cans. "I have... Sprite and Pepsi," he called.
"Sprite sounds good," Caleb called back.
Matthew got two glasses of ice, filling one with Sprite and the other with Pepsi and carrying both into the living room. "Here," he said, handing the Sprite to Caleb and sitting down on the far end of the couch with the Pepsi.
"Thanks," Caleb said, flashing a grateful smile. "Sorry for... I don't know. Disturbing your evening."
Matthew laughed out loud at that. "It hasn't really been much of an evening; don't worry." He almost said something about Julie, but decided against it. It wasn't that he had any reason not to mention her—it was just... He'd hardly met anyone in the last few months without being "Julie's uncle" to them, and it was nice, meeting someone just as himself, for once.
"Yeah, mine either," Caleb sighed softly, taking a long sip from his drink. He slumped back heavily against the couch, his legs extended in front of him, and Matthew couldn't help but comment mentally on what a nice picture he made, stretched out like that.
Small talk. Right. "So—uh, what do you do?" he asked.
Caleb looked almost surprised at the question. "I'm a fireman," he replied. "Er, fire-person—fighter—you know what I mean." He smiled.
"Really?" Matthew asked, equally surprised. He wasn't sure why he was surprised—Caleb certainly looked the part. He also wasn't sure exactly how to respond, but he was pretty sure that he hadn't meant to say what he did, which was, "My mom likes firefighters."
Caleb laughed, though, and not in a way that made Matthew feel more conversationally inept than he already did. "I think all middle-aged women like firefighters," he said, shaking his head. "I don't really get it."
Matthew probably could have explained it, but that wouldn't have been the greatest of ideas. Instead, he just laughed softly in return. "Yeah, I guess so. That's really cool, though."
Caleb gave him that shy grin again. "I guess. What do you do?"
"Oh—um, I design layouts for a science magazine." His job didn't usually sound extraordinarily gay, but it was making a good effort at it now.
"Oh, cool," Caleb said, smiling. "You interested in science, or just layout stuff?"
"I like science," Matthew admitted, thinking of the Magic School Bus book in the other room. "I was actually going to major in chemistry in college, but..." He shrugged. "It didn't work out."
"It just... didn't interest me that much, being in labs and stuff. I don't know. I didn't really enjoy it."
"Do you like your job now?" Caleb asked, taking another drink from his glass.
"Yeah, usually," Matthew sighed. He finally gave into his urge to curl up on his end of the sofa, pulling his legs up underneath him.
Caleb laughed softly. "I'm guessing that doesn't include now?"
"My boss is out of town this week," Matthew explained wearily. "It's kind of stressful."
"Mm," said Caleb, sounding sympathetic. He adjusted his grip on the glass and shifted guiltily in his seat. "Should I let you get to bed, then?"
"What? No, I'll be up for a while. I wouldn't be able to fall asleep yet, anyhow."
"Yeah, me neither," Caleb sighed, then smiled. "But I don't have many other options."
"You can stay here for a while, if you want," Matthew offered, before he could think it over.
"Really?" Caleb brightened considerably at this. "I mean, I don't want to bother you if you're busy."
Matthew hid a smile. "I'm not busy," he promised.
"Cool," said Caleb, grinning widely. "So what can we do?"
"...Got any movies?"
Matthew glanced at his shelf. "Um—not many." He actually had quite a few, but the majority were for the 5-and-under crowd.
"No alcohol and no movies?" Caleb asked, incredulous. "Geez. What do you do for fun?"
Fun. There was a word that had pretty much vanished from Matthew's mental vocabulary. I don't have fun, he wanted to say, but he refrained. "I have some movies," he argued instead, standing to examine them before Caleb could notice just how many Kipper and Blue's Clues DVDs he had. "Um. Maybe not," he admitted, after a moment's inspection. He'd actually forgotten just how meager and lame his collection of movies was, but it was all coming back to him in a rush.
"Pride and Prejudice!" Caleb exclaimed from somewhere alarmingly close to Matthew's right shoulder.
Matthew jumped. "What?"
A hand entered his field of vision, grabbed the two-disc miniseries from the shelf, and retreated. "Oh, God, we have to watch this," Caleb said, his tone either horrified or reverent—Matthew couldn't quite tell which.
"We do?" he asked weakly.
"Yes! You have no idea—my sister used to be in love with this. I spent most of the summer before my senior year of high school listening to this movie."
"It's a miniseries," Matthew commented lamely.
"Yeah, exactly. Come on, please?" Caleb removed the first disc and held it out. "Why do you have it, anyhow?"
Matthew laughed shyly, grabbing the disc and kneeling to put it in the DVD player. "I had to write a huge paper on the book in college," he explained, embarrassed. "I kept this playing in the background for motivation." He looked up to see Caleb staring at him.
"That's amazing," Caleb said, after a moment. "Wow. Did it work?"
"Not sure," Matthew said, shrugging. "It kept me entertained, though."
"Yeah, I bet." Caleb grinned, falling back onto the couch with a sigh. "You don't mind watching it, do you?"
Matthew smiled, looking away. "No," he answered truthfully. It was a little embarrassing, yes, but he couldn't say he minded. He grabbed the remote and started the movie, then sat back down where he'd been sitting before, curled up on one end of the couch.
In the five years or so since Matthew's Pride-and-Prejudice-marathon, he'd managed to forget just how long the damned thing was. After all, it hadn't mattered much when he'd been watching with no particular direction, five or six times a week. At one in the morning, though, sitting on his couch with a complete stranger, it made quite a difference.
Just about when he started contemplating falling asleep and hoping Caleb wouldn't notice, though, Caleb apparently grew tired of the plot and decided to change the dialogue, muttering over it in a high-pitched British accent.
"Why, Mr. Darcy, I don't know what you're implying," he gasped in a tone of coy indignation, and Matthew was unsuccessful in containing a snort of laughter. He tried to keep his eyes firmly on the television screen, but in his peripheral vision, he could see Caleb grin to himself.
By the time they got to the scene Caleb described in passing as "gratuitous Colin Firth shirtless action," Matthew had given up on containing his laughter. "You're enjoying this way too much," he managed finally, grinning.
"Me?" Caleb asked innocently, grinning back. "I don't know what you're talking about." He blinked. "You're the one laughing."
"Shut up," Matthew laughed, extending a foot to kick him lightly.
"Hey, I'm not complaining," Caleb argued. "My girlfriend threatens murder when I do this around her."
"You do this to other movies, too?" Matthew asked in vague horror.
"Only the mock-able ones." He grinned. "Which is all I ever get to watch with her."
"I pity her," Matthew said, feigning solemnity.
"You do not," Caleb retorted lightly. "You're horribly envious because you don't get to enjoy this sort of quality entertainment on a regular basis."
The weird thing was, he was sort of right. "Definitely," Matthew agreed sarcastically.
"And hey, if you're going to pity someone, pity me. It's not my fault that she takes me to see things like 'Tristan and Isolde.' What does she think I'm going to do?"
"...At a theater?"
"It was awful!" Caleb protested.
"I'm surprised she didn't really murder you," Matthew laughed.
"Oh, she went for popcorn and never came back. I had to take a taxi home. Actually, that was the last time I ended up sleeping in the lobby." He flashed that unworried grin again, and Matthew laughed incredulously.
"And she's still putting up with you why?"
"Because I'm irresistible, of course," Caleb said, grinning broadly. "Ooh, Colin Firth! Shush."
Matthew shushed, allowing Caleb to return to his dialogue-improving until the story (finally) came to a close and the credits began to roll.
"What time is it?" Caleb asked, finally beginning to sound vaguely tired.
Matthew yawned, pushing up the sleeve of his shirt to check his watch. "Like 3:30," he replied, grinning and falling sideways against the arm of the couch.
"Seriously? How long were we watching this?"
"It's like five hours long, I think," Matthew answered, still using the couch arm as a pillow.
"Wow." He paused. "When do you have to wake up?"
Matthew let out a sleepy, yet oddly content, sigh. "In three hours."
"Oh, geez, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to keep you up so late."
"It's fine," Matthew laughed. "I stay up this late all the time, just lying in bed and trying to sleep." He sat up, smiling. "I should be able to sleep now, though."
"Yeah, good idea," Caleb said, standing and picking up the blanket he had left on the back of the couch. "Thanks for letting me hang out here."
Matthew blinked, looking at the blanket. "Caleb," he said, laughing in tired exasperation. "Are you seriously going back down to the lobby now?"
"Uh, yeah," Caleb said, smiling self-consciously. "I think so."
"Look, you can just sleep on my couch," Matthew offered, shaking his head. "It's safer, anyhow."
"What? No, it's fine. I don't want to bother you any—"
"I'm going to be asleep in five minutes. It's seriously not going to bother me."
"...Are you sure?"
"Yes! The lights will actually be off here, too, unlike in the lobby." He reached for the light switch on the wall and flipped it, sending the room into blackness. "There. Alright?"
In the darkness, he heard Caleb laugh quietly, then fall back down onto the couch. "Yeah, alright. Thanks."
Matthew smiled to himself, locking the door and heading to his room. "Good night," he said softly.
Caleb was still asleep, curled up under the blanket on the couch, when Matthew woke up the next morning, and, through some small miracle, he stayed asleep during Matthew's entire morning routine. It took some bribing to keep Julie quiet enough not to wake him up, but Matthew somehow managed to get her dressed, fed, and out the door while Caleb slept on obliviously.
Work was just as miserable as he'd been expecting it to be—worse, even, after only three hours of sleep—but he couldn't help but feel a little better about things after the previous night. He'd actually done something sort of fun, and with another human being who wasn't three. It had been a surprisingly momentous occasion.
He managed to pick Julie up without incident after work, then returned home to find his blanket folded up neatly and put back where it had come from. He smiled, staring at it just briefly, then set to work on dinner—pan-fried hamburgers, because he was feeling ambitious.
It wasn't until later, after he'd eaten dinner and put Julie to bed, that his vague and indescribable feeling of optimism finally wore off. It was a Wednesday night, he had nothing to do, and his life was really every bit as dull as it had been before. He slumped down onto the couch, sighing. Caleb was back with his girlfriend, no doubt, and—
The doorbell rang, making him jump. He frowned. He rarely got visitors, and anyone who lived outside the apartment would have rung through the intercom first, meaning that it probably had to be Caleb.
He got up, attempting to fix his disheveled hair before going to the door and opening it. "Hey," he said, seeing that he had been correct. He paused hesitantly. "Did you leave something here?"
Caleb blushed. "Uh—no, my girlfriend's still not letting me back in." He rubbed awkwardly at the back of his neck. "I'm sorry, I should leave you alone. I'll—um..."
Matthew laughed softly, pulling open the door. "It's fine; come in."
"Really? Oh, um, okay." He smiled sheepishly as he entered. "I won't stay all night this time, I promise."
"If you're going to be sleeping in the lobby otherwise, you might as well," Matthew said, turning to wipe some crumbs off the dining room table so he wouldn't have to look at Caleb as he said it. "Your girlfriend isn't letting you in two nights in a row for being messy?"
"Oh, no. It's because I forgot that Monday was her birthday." He smiled nervously. "And I just figured that out tonight, so I'm kind of screwed."
"Ouch," said Matthew, wincing. "What are you going to do?"
"...Wait for her either to break up with me or forgive me?" Caleb said, looking somewhat pained. "It's kind of too late to do anything else. Actually, that's how I figured it out—she was telling me it was too late to do anything. From behind the closed and dead-bolted door to the apartment."
"Ah." Matthew bit on his lip for a moment. "Yeah, you're pretty screwed," he said, smiling slightly.
"Did you just get back from work...?"
"Yeah, I got called in for an extra half-shift this morning. I managed to sneak into my apartment to get clothes and stuff, but she figured that out. Hence the deadbolt."
"Have you eaten anything?"
"Uh, not exactly."
"Meaning no, but you don't have to feed me," Caleb explained, looking guilty again. "I'll just order pizza or something."
"I made hamburgers," Matthew said, going to the refrigerator and pulling out a cooked hamburger patty in a Tupperware sandwich box. "I can heat this one up for you." He smiled. "Cheaper than pizza."
"Not for you," Caleb muttered softly.
Caleb looked up, smiling hesitantly. "...Okay," he finally agreed.
Matthew smiled in return, then went to the kitchen and put the hamburger patty on a plate in the microwave. "Do you want cheese?" he called.
"No, that's okay."
"Lettuce? Tomato? Ketchup and/or mustard?"
Caleb laughed softly, leaning against the doorframe between the living room and kitchen. "Just ketchup is fine."
The microwave beeped, and Matthew quickly assembled the hamburger. "Potato chips?" he offered, holding up the paper-clipped-shut bag.
"Um, okay," Caleb agreed, looking hesitant again. "Thanks."
"Don't worry about it," Matthew said, smiling. "Apart from yesterday, I haven't had anyone visit here in months."
Matthew shrugged, slightly embarrassed at the admission, then poured some of the potato chips onto Caleb's plate. He clipped the bag shut again, then got the last can of Sprite from the refrigerator and poured it into a glass, along with a few ice cubes. "Here you go," he said finally, stepping past Caleb and setting both plate and glass on the table.
Caleb stared for a moment, then gave a small, embarrassed laugh. "Thank you," he said, sitting down. "You seriously didn't have to—"
"It's fine," Matthew insisted. "Really." He smiled, then glanced away. It seemed a little rude to just stand around while Caleb ate, and he'd already cleaned up the kitchen... "I'm going to go take a shower," he decided out loud. He'd missed his shower again that morning, and his hair's flat, mousy shade of brown was looking worse than usual. "You're not going to leave, are you?"
"...Not if you're willing to let me stay for a while?"
Matthew grinned. "Okay, then. Stay. I'll be right back."
"Okay," Caleb agreed, smiling.
Matthew tried to make it a quick shower—honestly, he tried. But he was exhausted, and somewhat cold, and the comfort of hot water and foamy shower gel was too much to give up right away. Nearly a half hour later, he finally shut off the water and dried off with a towel before pulling some pajamas on and heading back to the living room.
When he got there, Caleb was sitting on the couch, looking over at him quizzically. It took Matthew a moment to figure out why.
"Julie!" he exclaimed, paling slightly and snatching her up from where she was standing, near the doorway. "Why are you awake?"
"I'm thirsty," she complained. "Who's that?" She turned in his arms and pointed in the general direction of Caleb, who grinned shyly.
"I take it you forgot to introduce me?" he asked.
Matthew blushed hard. "This is Caleb," he said, looking resolutely at Julie. "He lives on one of the floors above us, okay?"
Julie blinked. "Okay."
"And, um, Caleb?" He finally looked over at the other man, letting out a weary sigh and setting his niece back down. "This is Julie."
More Author's Notes: This is kind of early to be begging, but please, please review! It brightens my day, truly.