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thorn in my skin

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1.

Andrew has seen Neil throw a punch only once. The guy he punched didn’t get back up to retaliate after Neil delivered the right hook, but then again, Andrew had never held any expectations on a temperamental child like Jack. Matt has brought up the legendary union between Neil’s fist and Riko Moriyama’s face numerous times, recounting the tale with rigorous enthusiasm, but Andrew would rather not think about that if he can help it, especially not after he finds out what provoked Neil to do it.

This time though, the man who Neil just decked gets back up after spitting out a broken tooth. He is a solid foot taller than Neil, but Neil, being who he is, does not appear troubled in the least. His mistake, however, is not him appearing calm and thus almost arrogant, but it’s him turning his back on his offender to talk to the woman whom Andrew assumes he is trying to defend.

Andrew is already making his way through the throng of dancing people before his mind even registers it. He really shouldn’t have sent Neil inside first when he was looking for a parking spot; he takes his eyes off Neil for one second – before he can make it to the bar where Neil is, the man grabs Neil from behind in a chokehold.

Faster than Andrew has ever seen him move, Neil elbows the guy in the solar plexus to throw him off balance, grabs his bicep by the sleeve, and throws him over his shoulder in one fell swoop.

Andrew is not one for poetics, but he has to say that the scene is nothing short of beautiful.

While the man is groaning on the floor like a sorry sack of potatoes, Andrew grabs Neil by the arm and books it out of the club before anybody can call security.

“Wait, I need to make sure she’s –”

“She’s fine,” Andrew says, opening the passenger door of the Maserati and shoving Neil inside.

He gets them on the road in the next few seconds, neither of them speaking a word as the car rolls down the freeway. Out of the corner of his eyes, Andrew sees Neil absentmindedly rubbing the knuckles of his right hand while staring out the window, past the blur of streetlamps and vehicles.

“Are you mad?” Neil asks.

“On the contrary, I am rather amused.”

Neil turns to look at him. “Oh?”

Andrew drums his fingers against the steering wheel, eyes on the road as he swiftly changes lanes. “I never knew Boyd’s boxing lessons included teaching you how to throw people to the ground.”

Neil goes back to rubbing his knuckles. Andrew assumes his hand must hurt right now, the skin a splintering red over older scars. Neil seems to realize what he’s doing though, and he goes for the cigarette pack on the console instead. He lights two up, handing one over to Andrew.

“I didn’t learn it from Matt,” Neil says, keeping his eyes on the curl of smoke in front of him.

Andrew takes a long drag from his cigarette and taps the ash off out the open window.

“I learned it from my mom.”

Andrew’s grip on the wheel tightens, his shoulders tense. A common reaction whenever either one of Neil’s parents are mentioned.

“The people after us were usually bigger, but they weren’t always the brightest. Still had to learn how to fight against them though.” Neil shrugs. “And guns aren’t always the most effective.”

“I suppose your mother’s lessons were not all useless.”

“That’s not –” Neil takes a deep breath, shaking his head, knowing that arguing with Andrew over Mary Hatford’s life decisions is a lost cause. He, of all people, knows what Andrew’s stance is on lousy parents. Sometimes, though, he still tries to defend his mother, but today is not one of those times. He drops the matter, tossing his cigarette out before it even burns halfway to the filter.

Andrew finishes his shortly after, rolling the windows back up. It is quiet once again save for the snarl of the engine.  

“I guess I am also rather annoyed, since we didn’t even get our drinks.”

Neil snorts at that. “Maybe trying out a new club wasn’t such a good idea, especially when it’s just us. We should just stick to what we know.”

Andrew glances at Neil, then asks, “What made you hit him in the first place?”

Neil directs his gaze from the windshield to Andrew, a thin smile on his lips. “I don’t like people who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Andrew feels his own lips twitching. Well, then. There’s not much Andrew can say about that, is there?

 

2.

The gift arrives seven months after the events in Baltimore.

There is no name, no return address, no notes. There is, however, a phone call, which Neil answers in their bedroom with the door closed. Meanwhile, Andrew stares at the nondescript package with his arms crossed over his chest, a bored expression on his face. Neil left it on the kitchen counter before taking the call, and now Andrew is staring at it, willing it to make the first move.

When Neil comes into the kitchen, his expression is somber, and he rakes a hand through his hair before he mimics Andrew’s pose. Now they’re both staring the brown box down as if it is a ticking time bomb and they’re both clueless as to how to cut the wires.

“Well?” Andrew asks, because this could possibly drag on until evening unless one of them does something about it.

Neil sighs, closing his eyes. When he opens them, he slips his fingers through an armband and withdraws a small knife, one of the two Andrew insists he keep on him at all times. That argument was hard-won, drawn out for weeks, but Andrew had known it was a tall order, what with Neil’s opinions on knives and all that he experienced with them. Andrew can’t help but feel a flicker of satisfaction each time he sees Neil put them to use – which is to say, rarely – but they’re now co-owners of Renee’s old knives whether Neil likes it or not.

He idly twirls the knife between his fingers, then uses the blade to cut through the tape sealing the box and tucks it back inside the sheath in his armband.

The breath he inhales is shaky when he opens the flaps, his eyes carefully blank.

Andrew does not like where this is going. He has a vague idea of what’s in the box, but he looks over Neil’s shoulder anyway. He gives the handgun a calm assessment. Thanks to his memory, he knows that it’s the ones that pigs use. Neil’s uncle must be fucking kidding them.

Neil stares at the pistol for a while longer before he picks it up, the controlled expression on his face unfaltering. He points the barrel downwards, removing the magazine and looking into the chamber, probably to make sure that it isn’t loaded. When he finds it empty, he puts everything back together with practiced movements and places the gun in the box, among the packing peanuts. He goes back to staring silently at the firearm, his hands gripping the edge of the counter.

Andrew knows that there are a few ways this could go, but he has a hunch as to which route Neil will most likely decide to take. He wants to tell Neil that he doesn’t need a gun, not with Andrew there to protect him, but he knows that things are never that simple, which is why he had Neil take some of his knives in the first place. He also knows that Neil had spent years sleeping with guns under his pillow, how they had been a source of reassurance that allowed Neil and his mother to close their eyes at night, just like how Andrew learned to sleep better with the weight of knives pressing against his forearms.

But these days, both of them are able to sleep on the same bed without any weapons underneath their pillows and on their person, and Andrew is not sure what he wants to do with this knowledge. They have poured years into forging their armors, and now they are stripping them, piece by tattered piece.

“9 millimeter Glock 17,” Neil says, tone detached, “Semi-automatic with very little recoil, so it won’t hurt your hand. It’s the most widely used gun among police forces in the world.”

It’s the type of gun he used in the past, he doesn’t say.

Andrew brushes Neil’s hair out of his face, and Neil finally tears his gaze away from the pistol to look at Andrew.

“And what will you do with it?” Andrew asks, tucking a lock of hair behind Neil’s ear.

“I’m going to keep it,” Neil answers, calm.

Andrew works his jaw, trying to keep his face and voice even, fingers tangled in Neil’s hair. “Do you not trust me?”

“Of course I trust you,” Neil says without any hesitation, “But with the upcoming trial, and with some of my father’s men still free, I don’t want to take any chances.”

“The others will question it,” Andrew says, managing to sound indifferent by all of this even though it’s quite the opposite.

The thing is, Andrew understands. Even if Neil will not keep the gun within reach at all times, even if he just stores it away in his safe, there is still comfort in knowing that he will not be completely powerless if trouble ever breaks into his home, into their home.

Neil turns his head a little, his lips brushing against the inner side of Andrew’s wrist, and Andrew suppresses a shudder.

“Then I’ll just have to keep it out of everyone’s sight,” Neil says easily, “I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you’re safe.”

And Andrew can’t quite look at Neil anymore just then, at the clarity and resolve in his blue eyes, the darkness hidden behind them, ready to crawl out whenever necessary. This, too, Andrew understands, but that does not mean he likes it. He has told Neil in the past that he does not need protecting, that there is not a part of him that is worth protecting, but when Neil looks at him like that, like he is the cornerstone of whatever it is Neil has built here, it gives Andrew the illusion that his life actually holds value.

The hand buried in Neil’s hair falls to clutch the front of Neil’s sweatshirt. “I hate you,” he says, because these words slide off his tongue easier than other words do.

Neil, inexplicable as he always is, only smiles, a pathetic little thing that curls one corner of his mouth.  

  

3.

“Your ass is grass –” Nicky starts, solemn.

“Nicky, for fuck’s sake –”

“Your ass is grass,” Nicky marches on, undeterred by Aaron’s outcry, “and I’m going to mow it.”

Kevin looks up into the sky like he wishes for death to knock on his door at that very moment and Aaron throws his hands up in exasperation.

Neil, predictably, is sporting a massive frown. “That’s such a weird thing to say.”

Neil should really learn a thing or two from Andrew about tuning out the nonsense that comes out of Nicky’s mouth.

“You, sir, are on,” someone whose name Andrew does not care to learn says, returning Nicky’s gaze with an equally grim one, a baseball bat slung across his shoulders.

“Hemmick, you are going to regret taking us on,” another one says, throwing an arm around Nicky’s shoulder. The rest of the conversation gets increasingly stupid from there, and Andrew can begin to see why Neil hates baseball so much. Maybe it is not so much about the nature of the sports itself but the strand of idiocy that runs in the players’ genes that makes Neil so averse to baseball.

“Why did we agree to attend their party again?” Neil asks in Russian, looking as annoyed as Andrew is feeling.

“Free booze,” Andrew says in the same language, taking out his cigarettes and lighting one up. He offers them to Neil, and places them back in the pocket of his black jeans when Neil shakes his head. “But I am beginning to think that not even a copious amount of alcohol is going to be worth facing this ordeal.”

“No take-backs,” Neil reminds him, a wry smile on his lips, “Or Kevin will have to raid your alcohol stash back in our room.”

“What’s one extra body to me? There is plenty of space on the construction site to hide the evidence.”

They had been piling out of the Maserati when the Honda Altima carrying five baseball jocks pulled up beside it, and an invitation to celebrate the baseball team’s advancement to the College World Series tournament was extended to Nicky. He’s friendly with some of the players because they live down the hall, and since Nicky is invited, the rest of Andrew’s lot, by default, are invited as well. The nonsensical conversation between Nicky and the baseball people was spawned from a challenge to see who can chug down the most liquor that night before passing out.

Andrew lights up another stick, flicking his fingers in the direction of the tower so that Kevin and Aaron can go on ahead – one of the baseball people had said that their other teammates are already congregated in one of the basement rooms.

“Nicholas.” Andrew casts Nicky an unimpressed stare, his bored tone so incongruent with the rest of the excitable chatter that the noise dies down. “Time to go inside.”

“Oops, Minyard has a point,” baseball bat-carrying guy says, “Pretty sure the party’s started a while ago. We should –”

A pebble pelting the side of his face cuts him off, his sports equipment clattering to the ground. All of them turn their attention to a group of men standing a couple of yards away, unsteady on their feet, beer bottles in hand. A couple of them are bending down to collect stones from the sidewalk, while the others are shouting profanities.

What the hell?” Nicky shrieks.

“Looks like a bunch of drunkards can’t take their favorite team losing,” Neil says, eyes on the men’s caps and jerseys, apparels emblazoned with emblems of another school.

Andrew throws his cigarette aside and immediately starts herding Neil and Nicky away from the manmade hailstorm.

Most of the pebbles thrown land near their feet and on some of the cars, but when one flies directly towards Nicky’s head, too fast for him to dodge, Neil’s foot slides under the baseball bat that’s rolled near him and kicks it upwards so that it can jump into his hands. Neil takes a swing and hits the stone, effectively shooting one man between the eyes.    

Not too fast for Neil, it seems.

The pebbles stop coming at them. The men blink out of their drunken stupor, share confused glances, and look down at their fallen companion, then back at Neil, who’s tapping the barrel of the bat against his palm and levelling them a cool gaze. They scramble to haul the unconscious man up and bolt out of the parking lot.

A low whistle pulls Andrew’s gaze from the retreating figures to one of the baseball players.

“Damn, Josten,” the guy says, “Want to switch over to our team?”

“No thanks,” Neil replies, lips curled in distaste, handing the baseball bat to its owner. All of them, bar Neil and Andrew, laugh and head inside as if they weren’t the targets of harassment a few moments ago, Nicky ruffling Neil’s hair and giving him a grateful smile on his way in.

Andrew stares at Neil, who’s affecting innocence.

“What is it?”

Andrew arches an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t swing.”

Neil rolls his eyes. “Very funny.”

“I try,” Andrew says dryly. “So was that merely a lucky hit or have you been a closeted baseball player all along?”

Neil glares at him. “Like I said, you’re a comedic genius, Andrew.” Then he looks away and bites his lower lip, thinking of what to say next, a habit that usually tempts Andrew to kiss him.

As he mulls over the words to utter, Andrew steps closer, taking Neil’s left hand in his right. Andrew thinks of the clean hit Neil pulled off, the agility evident in his movements, the swing of his hips, the twist of his torso, his shoulders and back muscles taut, his eyes a dangerous and determined gleam.  

With his other hand, Andrew catches Neil’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, gaze dropping from Neil’s eyes to his mouth.

Neil takes the hint and nods. Andrew leans in for a kiss that has Neil sighing against his lips when they part. He draws back a little, and Neil rests his forehead against Andrew’s.

“If you really must know,” Neil says, eyes half-mast, “Carrying around a baseball bat is sometimes significantly less suspicious when you’re a ten-year-old and you need a weapon. It was necessary to inflict a little blunt trauma, sometimes.”

Andrew considers the implications of that statement, but decides against calling Neil out on it. “Let me guess,” Andrew says instead, running his fingers from Neil’s shoulder down to his wrist before linking their fingers together, “You had a Yankees cap and a baseball mitt to complete the look.”

Neil bites back a smile. “Shut up.”

“Oh, but I have all this comedic talent inside of me, begging to burst forth.”

“I remember you telling me specifically that no one likes a smart mouth.”

“Never said my goal was to make you like me.”

Neil smiles, unbridled, and Andrew’s heart is a baby bird, fluttering against his ribcage.

“Too late for that.”

 

4.

When Andrew looks back on things, he thinks he should have seen it coming.

The day has been awfully pleasant; he wakes up and is met with Neil’s soft gaze, and he lets himself drown in the absolute blueness of them. Breakfast and their morning shower are shared efforts, both with satiating results. King springs ten feet into the air when a precarious stack of Exy magazines topples onto the floor, and Neil’s laughter rings in the room, clear and loud enough to get Andrew drunk on it. Lunch is a shared plate of gyros, eaten at the park where the sight of happy children leaves a trace of a smile on Neil’s lips. The evening is dedicated to making scathing commentaries on the action flick they watch, Neil lying on the couch with his feet in Andrew’s lap and two cats on his stomach. No one has ever told Andrew that happiness would be this, an unbidden arrival that settles calmly in his chest, quiet like mist lifting at dawn.    

At ten, Neil stands and stretches, back arched and arms crossed above his head, hair askew and sweater riding up his toned abdomen, and Andrew gives it all a disinterested glance even as his hands flex where they’re resting on his thighs.

The television plays a commercial about insurance plans and Neil goes to the kitchen to grab a snack. His head pops out from behind the freezer door to tell Andrew that there’s no more ice cream.

Andrew shrugs. “We’re out of cigarettes anyway.”

And so they put on their shoes and armbands and grab their phones and wallets, heading to the 7-11 down the block.

Cigarettes and several cartons of ice cream purchased, they walk back home, during which Neil hooks his small finger with Andrew’s, and Andrew allows it, like he usually does, because there is comfort in this gesture of intimacy, the simple, barely-there skin-on-skin contact of I’m glad I am here with you.

The thing about stripping your armor off is that it is hard to start putting the pieces of metal on your body again because you learn that it is easier to breathe without the heaviness atop your flesh. Other days, it feels like having a noose around your neck, tightening if you so much as move the wrong way.

The pain that lances through Andrew’s body is jarring enough to have him staggering sideways, one hand fumbling for his knives. He overcomes the initial shock to lash out, his blade meeting the flesh of his attacker’s hand. A knife, not his, falls to the ground and a muttered curse is heard, the man stepping out of the shadows of the alleyway to make a grab for his dropped weapon.

“Andrew!” Neil’s voice is terror-stricken, and Andrew slumps backwards against a car parked on the street.

“Go,” he tells Neil in a rasp, fingers pressed against the right side of his abdomen. They come away sticky with blood, and Andrew ignores them in favor of stepping forward to finish the fight.

But if Neil is anything, it is the embodiment of stubbornness, and instead of fleeing, he stands between Andrew and the assailant, dropping the plastic bag, a pint of ice cream rolling away into the gutter.

Andrew can’t see Neil’s face, and he does not know if he should be grateful for that or not.

Neil edges closer, and the man forgoes his knife in favor of brandishing a gun, his injured hand tucked against his chest.

“Stop, or I’ll shoot!”

Neil doesn’t waste time to humor the threat, moving sideways before lunging forward, grabbing the gun and pointing it away from the intended line of fire. He twists the weapon down, breaking the man’s finger around the trigger. He screams in pain as Neil slips the gun out of his hand and throws it aside.

Knives drawn out, Neil stalks closer, a hunter closing in on his prey.

“Neil,” Andrew says, chest heaving. “Neil, look at me.”

Neil ignores him, approaching the man whose useless hands are held up shakily until his back hits the brick wall behind him.

“Please, have mercy.”

“Should have thought of that before you drove a knife into someone’s stomach,” Neil says, a cruel edge underlying his even voice.

Andrew slouches forward, inching closer to Neil with slow, aching steps. “Neil, that’s enough.”

“Look, I didn’t –”

“Silence,” Neil hisses, “Scum like you should keep their mouth shut.”

“Wesninski, I only meant –”

Neil jabs the knives on each side of the man’s stomach, zipping them across the torso so that his insides would spill out of the crescent slits.

“Neil,” Andrew says again, his stiff voice odd in his ears, the dampness of blood spreading over his t-shirt, the knife wound throbbing. He presses a hand over it, the other reaching out to touch Neil’s elbow.

Neil spins around, body tense, but the icy rage in his eyes washes away when they land on Andrew. He drops his knives, surging forward when Andrew stumbles. Neil’s bloodied hands are on his shoulders, steadying him as they both kneel on the pavement, and Andrew hooks his fingers on the collar of Neil’s hooded sweater.

“Andrew,” Neil says, frantic, “We need to – you need to lie down.”

After Neil maneuvers him so he’s lying on his back, Andrew still has his fingers around Neil’s shirt, and it takes every ounce of his strength to tug on it.

“I’m here,” Neil says in a rush, eyes wild with panic, “I need to – shit.” He shoves his hoodie and t-shirt off, then puts the hoodie back on. He rips Andrew’s shirt apart to assess the damage before folding his own t-shirt and pressing it over the wound.

Andrew inhales sharply, gritting his teeth.

“Andrew, you need to stay with me,” Neil says thickly, “I have to – I need to call help, so you need to –” his voice breaks off over an aborted sob. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t say such stupid things,” Andrew says, barely above a whisper, breath coming in shallow pants. Fuck, but his eyelids feel like they weigh a ton, his vision marred by black spots. The act of breathing sends ice shards down his torso, but he fights the wave of lightheadedness, focusing his eyes on Neil’s face, contorted by a tangle of fear and guilt.

“Neil,” he hears himself say, reaching out a hand to smooth the crinkle between Neil’s eyebrows, and it is the last thing he does before darkness envelops him.

 

5.

The first thing he notices is the smell of antiseptic. Then, it is the scratchy linen underneath his palms. He peels his eyes open, and he is greeted with an unfamiliar grey ceiling. He jolts awake, heartrate picking up a speed, muscles tense. He doesn’t get too far though, doesn’t even manage to sit up, because there is a sharp twinge emanating from his abdomen that has him hissing in pain. He forces himself to calm down. He is hooked to an IV and he is in a hospital gown, but his armbands are on, and the familiar weight of his knife sheaths is enough to have him settle back on the bed.

Through the grogginess of his mind and the pull of stitches on his skin, he remembers. He always remembers.

Neil’s finger linked with his, the pale light of the moon, the confrontation with the man, the stickiness of blood between his fingers, Neil stifling his panic to tend to Andrew.

Neil.

Andrew turns his head and sees Neil curled up in a ball on a chair by the bed, face hidden behind folded arms over his knees. In that posture, in the darkness of the room, he looks like a child.

“Neil,” Andrew tries to say, but it comes out as a weak croak.  

It is enough to get Neil’s attention, though, and within one breath, Neil is hovering by his side, helping him gulp down half a glass of water. The only light that’s switched on is the lamp on the nightstand, but it is enough for Andrew to make out the vacant look in Neil’s eyes, the shadows under them.

“Come here,” Andrew says, voice scratchy like rusted blade.

For a while, Neil doesn’t move. Slowly, he takes a step closer, before hesitantly sitting on the edge of the bed, careful not to touch Andrew.

When all he does is stare at the linoleum floor, Andrew nudges a leg against his back, and he flinches a little.

“Say something, Neil.”

Neil sighs, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms. Then he finally looks at Andrew, their eyes meeting, and Andrew derives no sense of ease in seeing how hollow Neil’s expression is.

“You’ve been unconscious for two days. The blade missed your liver by half an inch,” Neil tells him in a monotone, “What else do you want me to say?”

Andrew’s jaw clenches. If he takes the bait, they will only end up arguing, and Andrew does not have the energy for that, nor does he want the first words they exchange after he wakes up to be bitter. Two days. It doesn’t take a lot for him to imagine how the past two days have been like for Neil, and he chooses to focus on this instead.

He unclenches his jaw, flexes his fingers. “Have you been eating?”

“I –” Neil frowns, head tilted to the side. “Yes, I have.”

Andrew is not convinced.

“Did you go home?”

Neil’s answer comes quicker this time. “No. I didn’t want to leave you alone.”

The words that Andrew has lined up die on his tongue. Neil’s answer should not have been surprising, but it still makes something inside Andrew stir, something warm. Neil mistakes his silence for something else though, because he says, “It’s fine. Matt brought me some clothes. He even stopped by our place to feed the cats.”

Andrew wants to roll his eyes, but he clears his throat and gathers the words to ask, “And have you been sleeping?”

Neil gives a one-shouldered shrug, face still devoid of any discernible emotions. “Didn’t really have the time for that.”

“Neil,” Andrew says slowly, picking his words with more care than he normally does, and it’s not just due to the fatigue, “What have you been doing?”

The stare that Neil sends his way would be unsettling if not for the way Neil’s ruddy hair is mussed and soft-looking, his old, oversized t-shirt hanging loosely on his frame, his lips swollen as if he’s been biting on them ceaselessly, his sweatpants a little too long, hiding his bare feet.

“I’ve been doing some clean-up,” Neil says, glacial blue eyes piercing, “The man who attacked us was one of my father’s underlings. He was released early from prison and he broke his parole by coming anywhere within a ten-mile radius from me. All that aside, the authorities saw it as self-defense on our part.”

Neil’s half-smile is thin and razor-edged. “He’ll be made an example. The Moriyamas will, at the very least, make sure of that.”

Instincts scream warnings inside Andrew’s head, urging him to fight, run, defend, but he knows Neil. He knows what Neil is capable of, all the barbed pieces and steeled skin and acerbic words, but he also knows all the clumsy and unassuming fragments of him, all the soft sounds and even softer touches and lingering gazes, and there is not a part of Neil that Andrew is afraid of, because there is not a part of Neil that would ever hurt Andrew.   

Andrew’s mind replays the scene from that night, where Neil gutted a man, of the blood spilled on the sidewalk, of the knives in Neil’s hands. The self-destructive, self-hating part of Andrew is waiting for Neil to throw the knives back at him, to blame him for giving them to Neil in the first place and playing a part in making Neil take a person’s life.

But this disconcertingly calm and calculated reaction is not unexpected; Andrew has, after all, seen the smile that overtook Neil’s face, all sharp ridges and cruel satisfaction, when he leaned in close to tell Andrew that he had just witnessed Riko’s death.  

Both of them have blood on their hands, and it is something that they have learned to live with. What they have not fully learned, perhaps, is that they are holding knives by the hilt with the blades pointed at each other’s throat, and neither of them know how to back away, nor do they want to.

Andrew turns his right hand over, palm up, and lifts his chin a little to point at it.

Neil looks down at his hand, resting a hair’s breadth away from his own. Some of the coldness melts away from Neil’s eyes, but the dip of his brows displays his obvious confusion.

“What are you waiting for, Neil?”

There is weakness around Neil’s mouth just then, his blank expression crumbling away to be replaced by contrite.

“You got hurt,” he says, a tremble to his lips, “And it was because of me.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Andrew counters, “It is not your fault that an idiot broke his parole and tried to kill you.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Neil bites out. He takes a few deep breaths, his hand shaking as it finally folds over Andrew’s. “I thought that you were –” He looks at their joined hands and then closes his eyes, his voice unbearably fragile when he says, “I thought that you were going to leave me.”  

Andrew’s heart bends; it is a compass which points to Neil, and he doesn’t know what else to do but squeeze Neil’s hand. “It would take a lot more than a stab to get rid of me.”

Neil manages a fleeting, watery smile at that, hand tight around Andrew’s.

Exhaustion comes creeping back to Andrew, and it is perhaps this sense of weariness, this momentary lapse in judgment, that prompts him to say, “Even if I were to die, you would still be fine. You would continue on living and surviving, just as you always have.” With Exy, with their college and current teammates, Neil would not be alone.

Neil snaps his head up and looks at Andrew, blue eyes honest and vulnerable and firm, all at once.

“The world means nothing to me without you, Andrew.”

The last time Andrew has heard and seen a similar tone of voice and expression on Neil was when he told Andrew if you tell me to leave, I’ll go, back in that dingy hotel room in Baltimore. Only this time, Neil sounds certain instead of lost.

The truth is that a part of Andrew is aware of this, just as he is aware that it is the same for him, that nothing else matters if Neil is not there with him. What takes Andrew aback is how Neil has the ability to speak these words out loud, to say what he feels, to still be able to deliver a hit that throws Andrew off-kilter while he himself is rendered defenseless and bare. Perhaps this is Neil’s greatest weapon yet – using words to disarm Andrew, to take down the fortress that is built around themselves.

Because Andrew is not as good with words, all he says is a hoarse, “Don’t.”

“I mean it, Andrew. My life isn’t –”

“Shut up,” Andrew says, hating the way Neil’s face crumples in on itself at his biting words. He tugs Neil’s hand, annoyed that he lacks the strength to actually yank him closer.

“Kiss me,” he finally says, frustration and vulnerability an infuriating weight on his chest, and the hurt in Neil’s eyes gives way to confusion.

Neil blinks. “That’s – I don’t think –”

“I’m not going to ask again, Neil,” Andrew grounds out.

The expression on Neil’s face settles, and Andrew wants to look away from the steady, clear gaze directed his way. It makes him feel transparent, like Neil can see all the thoughts and emotions brewing in him, but he meets Neil’s gaze head on, waiting.

“Okay,” Neil says, gaze softening, maddening. He pushes himself up on one knee and leans forward, bracing himself with his free hand planted near Andrew’s head on the pillow, careful of Andrew’s injury.

Andrew’s eyes fall shut when he feels the tentative press of Neil’s lips against his. One hand is still clasped around Neil’s, and the other goes up to the nape of Neil’s neck, fingers tangled around the soft strands.

It is a gentle kiss, and suddenly Andrew is desperate for more, for a roughness that could scrape away the raw feeling of being exposed, that could make him forget the bleakness and pain in Neil’s eyes when he thought he was going to lose Andrew, to smother the fact that they have grown so weak and dependent and content.    

Neil indulges him, but pulls away too soon, his breath coming in scattered puffs against Andrew’s mouth. They remain like that for a while, foreheads touching, pulse racing against each other’s wrists, Andrew’s thumb rubbing back and forth over the trace lines from the knife scars on Neil’s cheek.  

 

+1

These, too, are weapons wielded against Andrew, whether Neil realizes it or not – Neil’s eyes, his lips, his skin, his warmth, his heart.