Actions

Work Header

Signing on the Line

Chapter Text

The contract was read by his manager first, then his lawyer, his manager again, and then finally given to Neil.

He had a week to read it over, and he took to every word like they were something sacred, like he needed to memorize all of it. He hardly understood a thing, but was fortunately smart enough to not let his eagerness of being signed cloud his judgement.

From that first day in little league, to his last day at the University of Arizona, he’s been working towards a contract like this all his life. Playing for the pros, he’d be larger than his own existence. His name would grow to be bigger than his body, no longer associated with anything else, attached to Exy and only Exy, longer than he’d ever be alive.

In the heat of the moment, the fruition of a dream, he almost signed the contract before he even read the opening statement.

But thankfully, he didn’t, so now he sits here in his manager’s office with his manager, his lawyer, the head coach of the team, and one of their recruiters.

The lawyer goes over all the parts Neil had highlighted, the parts he couldn’t quite grasp. The salary he understood and thought of as unimportant, but the sponsor part, not so much, so his lawyer helpfully explains the process; a proceed of any profit made from a sponsorship or ad goes directly back to the team’s management.

His lawyer says the percentage is negotiable, but Neil waves it off. Money is the last thing he’s playing for.

When they get to the public relations section, everyone in the small room grows tense, aware of who Neil is, who Neil was.

He was a Wesninski, but Neil had left that name in his past long before he ever attended UOA. He hadn’t known what that name even meant until a camera crew showed up at his stadium and deemed him ‘The Butcher’s Son’.

Neil’s mother never did explain it, never told him why he had to be Alex, Stefan, Chris and then Neil Josten, of all names, and that he could never again be Nathaniel Wesninski after his father passed away. He was too young to ask why, so it was a new name and a new home every few years until his mother too, had to move on from life.

She died with her sickness and with every secret and with the very strict order to be anyone else but himself.

It made for a very interesting start to Neil’s final year of university, to be cut from class so he could be interrogated by the FBI. But Neil didn’t know anything; who his father was, what his father did, what his mother told him, where the money went.

Mary hadn’t told Neil a thing, so he could never be incriminated.

But the name stuck - Nathaniel Wesninski, the son of a murderer - and it made captaining his team all that much harder. Working with a team that refused to listen to him and was sickened by the sight of him made for some very easy losses, and prevented them from entering semi-finals.

It had every recruiter turning their gaze away from Neil, writing him off as unimportant, even though he was fighting with every tooth and nail to rally his team together.

Somehow, however, one pair of eyes stayed on him, and those eyes weren’t able to deny his talent.

Those eyes brought Neil here, to the San Francisco Seakings.

Here, to where he’s about to sign the contract of his dreams, except for one little thing:

The contract is a story, a script, and his freedom of speech has been stripped.

Every interview, TV spot and paparazzi picture will all be handled by someone above Neil’s head. He’ll be assigned his own publicist to go over media training with him, to create plans and strategies, and to control all his social media accounts from here on out.

But . . . he doesn’t care about any of that, not really. He’s here to play. He’s used to being anyone but himself.

They go over a few more things about his image clean up. It’s already been decided how Neil will be marketed - the official partner of Kevin Day. The rookie that’s going to help Kevin bring his team up the ranks, the same way Neil was able to run UOA up until his fifth year.

Kevin’s eyes were the ones on him, apparently, when Neil was sure nobody was watching him.

The talk of PR naturally brings up the part in the contract that had Neil scratching his head in confusion the most, because he didn’t understand how ‘dating and relationship(s)’ could be associated with playing for the pros.

It’s apparently a very big association, as it takes up a large paragraph in his contract.

Like everything about his own life so far, who he dates can only be shown in the limelight if it’s beneficial for him, the team, and the sponsors. As if Neil is nothing more than a special-edition trading card.

Any celebrity, from A to Z, could end up on Neil’s arm at some point. If it’d help his image, bring in sales, increase viewership, the Seakings’ PR team will be signing a check to whatever starlet’s name is most popular at the time.

It’s about image.

A morality clause; saying that his name must be publicized a certain way, and if he acts against it, Neil will be, in other words, slapped with a legal fee to cover the cost of potential damage, and be forced to forfeit his contract.

The black words on the paper don’t say he can’t be anything outside the ‘norm’, but they do say he can’t be perceived as such. Neil scowls at the wording, sending a scathing look at everyone in the room, hoping it’ll somehow reach whichever airhead wrote that and felt that they got to decide what normal is.

He stares down at his dream contract and suddenly sees it as a pair of handcuffs.

“I’m not comfortable with signing that,” Neil explains, and waves a hand at the thick binding of paper.

“It’s not real, Neil, it’s a show. It brings in the viewers and the ticket holders, which then raises the amount the sponsors are willing to put in,” his manager explains, as if it’s all obvious. “Every player you’ve ever seen in a game has signed this part of the contract. It’s nothing.”

“This basically says you’re forcing players out of their orientations,” Neil says, one eyebrow lifting. “That’s nothing?”

“Listen, kid, nobody’s forcing anybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, whatever, because we’re not saying you can’t be,” Coach Mullens suddenly says. “The world just can’t know and that’s how it is. If you want a career, then you’ll keep your secret love a secret and away from my court. If that’s gonna be a problem, then you’ll never find your footing in this world, I can promise you that.”

Neil hears the click of metal, the handcuffs sliding into place. “For the rest of my life?”

“You wouldn’t be considering this contract if you didn’t want to play Exy for the rest of your life.”

And that’s what it all comes back to, the handcuffs sliding off, the room tilting back into colour.

Exy.

It doesn’t really matter to him anyway, does it? He’s yet to encounter anyone electric enough to spark up his skin. Nothing will shock him as much as this sport does.

If they want to control who he holds hands with just to make a profit, then he won’t stop them, because it won’t stop him from his game. It won’t stop him from winning medals and trophies and championships. It won’t stop him from standing on an Olympic podium one day.

So he picks up the pen, signs the contract, and doesn’t think another thought about it.

-

He can’t believe he ever thought it was as easy as just playing Exy.

The season officially starts in October, training starts in August, but now, mid-July, he stands in his manager’s hotel room as a stylist yanks him into a black velvet suit. The first step to playing for a professional team, it seems, is attending charity event after sponsorship dinner after press conference after banquet after charity event. And repeat.

Tonight the NEL hosts its debut banquet, with every team attending, with every sports journalist in the country going to try and snatch as many first-time interviews as they can.

His manager and his publicist have been drilling him all week, preparing him for whatever questions may be asked and how he’s supposed to respond. His publicist will never be more than ten feet away, and in case that fails, and in case Neil’s mouth gets away from him, Kevin Day will be attached to his hip.

Neil would complain that he doesn’t need a babysitter, but he understands the role he’s playing now.

The Exy world knows who Neil is, knows that Kevin’s the one who saved his career. They’ve only exchanged the barest of words so far, but Kevin and Neil are far past the point of being teammates now. They’re to be a pair.

One of the dynamic duos that fans go crazy over. If successful, their names will be on shirts, hats, signs. When you hear the name Day, Josten will never be far behind.

It just sucks that nothing in his life is under his control. He doesn’t even get to choose the colour of his socks tonight.

A town car arrives to pick Neil up, Kevin already sitting inside, dressed in a similar suit. His tie is aqua, Neil’s is silver; the two colours of their team.

“All this for a game?” Neil asks, as they draw closer to the banquet. From the car he can see the red carpet, the security guards, the paparazzi and the news teams and journalists and the flashing cameras. “We’re athletes, not celebrities.”

Kevin hasn’t said a word to him all throughout the ride, and he doesn’t bother to meet Neil’s eyes, choosing instead to look out the window at the awaiting media frenzy. “In this world, it’s the same thing. Most people like it.”

Neil swallows roughly, and wonders for a split second if this is what he was really made for. “Are you one of them?” he asks, his voice slightly shaking.

Nothing in Kevin shakes. He’s been playing for this team for two years. He’s walked this red carpet before.

“I get paid to play something I would pay to play. It works for me.”

The words effectively stop the race to Neil’s heart. The words latch onto him and pull up the corners of his mouth, releasing the smallest of smiles. The words are exactly what Neil needed to hear.

“Then it’ll work for me.”

There’s a roar of a crowd once they step out of their car. Immediately they’re met by flashing white lights and their names being called, security trying to hold back aggressive reporters from crossing their line.

Kevin smiles, tight and clipped but somehow wide, his signature look. Neil’s publicist instructed him to leave behind the hard, jagged, bitter mess of what he was at UOA. His script tonight says to smile, smile, smile, be warm, be forgiving.

If Kevin can do it, then he can do it.

Their publicists push them past certain reporters, usher them closer to others, and Neil answers the questions that come his way as best he can, actively trying to be on his best behaviour, to be the face they want him to be.

Kevin’s partner; the untapped potential that Kevin saved, pulled from the rubble of a crumbling career and given another chance.

If that’s the story they want to portray then he’ll play it, as long as he gets to play his own game. That’s the one thing they can’t control; how hard he hits and how fast he runs and how many goals he gets to score will be all his.

Still, once they’re finally inside the dimly-lit banquet hall, with fewer reporters and more athletes, Neil lets out a breath of relief. Event workers direct them to their table where their other teammates are seated.

Neil’s met a few of them before, and has played against a few of them too. Laila Dermott was the goalie for the Trojans when Neil’s team went up against them in his first and second year. Matt Boyd, who greets Neil with an eager handshake, played with Kevin for the Foxes, but he graduated before Neil could ever get a chance to play in the championships against him.

Small talk ensues, most of the team happy to be reunited after the off-season, eager to get back to their stadium next month and begin practices.

But he’s been directed to talk only to Kevin in public for the time being, so unless he’s spoken to, he doesn’t open his mouth.

There’s a loud commotion near the entrance way, a flood of reporters flocking the doors, lights going off and names being called. Another team has arrived.

Beside him, Kevin goes tense.

Then his hand is on Neil’s arm, and he’s beckoning him upwards. “Come on.”

Their publicists remind them the entire walk over of what they should and shouldn’t say; Kevin has to flaunt his new partner, and if Kevin and Neil are to be the duo that dominates the country, they’ll have to find a way to best the current duo that holds top status.

Riko Moriyama and Andrew Minyard, of the New York Nighthawks.

They stand next to each other like they’d rather be anywhere else in the world, faces stony and cold, eyes sharp and on anywhere but each other. They allow their pictures to be taken, but their patience doesn’t last, and Riko raises a finger to the nearest photographer in an immediate order for them to disperse.

The season hasn’t even started yet, but the pair’s presence has fear and rivalry hot in the air, soaking into the skin of every team present. The two stand there in their matching black and metallic suits and strike the atmosphere like a bolt of lightning.

They’ve been a fascination of Neil’s since he started university. He knows all about the cracking partnership of what was once Riko and Kevin, and the intense rivalry between schools that soon followed.

But it was Andrew who was the focal point of Neil’s fascination.

Andrew signed with Riko’s team immediately after graduating from Palmetto State, and caused the whole world to disrupt into a maddening dark chaos.

Because he was supposed to sign with Kevin’s.

Spurned by two former teammates and partners, Kevin leads the way towards them, looking determined to wave his new partner in their faces. As they get closer, Neil becomes aware of the fact that he’s Kevin’s choice now, but he was never his first.

“Riko. Andrew,” Kevin says cooly, and it feels like the entire room goes quiet. “Welcome.”

Neil keeps a step behind Kevin, not using him to hide but letting him be the focus of whatever is to come.

Riko Moriyama is not what the TV makes him look out to be. Neil has spent a portion of his college career watching Riko’s every move, studying all his games religiously, taking notes and copying moves and techniques to use in his own game.

During a game or facing off against a reporter, Riko is venomous, dangerous.

Standing in front of Kevin, he looks a foot shorter. If he wants to meet Kevin’s eyes then he has no choice but to tilt his head up, a fact that only increases the hatred radiating off of him.

His voice and his presence have him standing seven feet tall, though. “Kevin, Kevin, Kevin,” he says easily, his smile glinting in the dark of the room.

And then there’s Andrew.

Neil wasn’t aware that Andrew was staring at him, and accidentally locks eyes with him when he looks over. It feels like a stab, and it takes everything in Neil to not jerk back. Andrew’s energy is just that; a knife held out, ready to slice.

“I wanted to formally introduce you to our new starting striker, Neil Josten,” Kevin says, and turns slightly to put a hand on Neil’s arm, beckoning him forward. It’s the last move Neil wants to make, feeling more like being shoved into a shark tank with an open wound than anything else.

“Oh, yes,” Riko says, nodding. “The one from Arizona. His team’s performance last year was quite miserable, so I understand why you had to beg for him. Good thing you’re used to begging, right, Kevin?”

Riko doesn’t shake Neil’s hand, and instead makes direct eye contact with him, as if that’s enough.

“You best get acquainted with Andrew. He’ll be blocking all your shots this season.”

Standing there in his silver and black suit, hair sleek and eyes sharp, Andrew says his first words of the night, and directs them all at Kevin. “Another pet, Kevin? What if this one tells you no, too? Where will you be then?”

“Andrew,” Kevin says, almost warningly.

It all goes above Neil’s head, words clearly holding message from a past that he wasn’t part of. It’s not part of his story, any of it, so he focuses on the story he has to tell now; being Kevin’s partner, starting striker for the San Francisco Seakings.

“I’m Neil,” he says brightly, or as bright as he can in the face of two devilish beings. “I played against you my junior year at Arizona.”

He thinks he hears Kevin’s breath hitch when he extends his hand out for Andrew. The atmosphere of the entire room slows and swirls with danger, but it’s too late; Neil’s hand is already out, presenting itself clear to Andrew.

Nothing changes in Andrew’s bored expression, but his eyes drop to the offered hand.

Then he takes it, gripping it tight in a firm shake.

“Odd. I don’t remember you at all.”

Immediately, there’s a flash of a camera near them, but neither pull away. Neil lets his hand be held for another moment, and when it becomes evident that Andrew won’t be the first to let go, he forces his hand to slide out and away.

“I can’t wait to get acquainted,” Neil says, going for simple and light-hearted, but it comes out more heated, more twisted, more teasing.

Andrew effortlessly slips his hands into his pockets and doesn’t take his eyes off Neil. “The pleasure will surely be yours. Or maybe not. Riko? Let’s go.”

Kevin grabs Neil’s arm tight and doesn’t give him a chance to try and respond, hauling him away from the duo and taking him back to their table. “That was a mistake.”

Neil is too busy looking at his hand to look at Kevin. It feels like it’s still being squeezed, tingling along his palm. “That was your idea,” he says pointedly.

“I didn’t ask you to do that,” Kevin says, gripping Neil’s arm harder. “Do you have any idea what you just started?”

Confusion weighs heavier on him than the impending fear of danger, so he frowns and asks, “What?”

Kevin groans, finally releasing Neil like he can’t stand to touch him anymore. Then, away from the table still and away from the whole world dying to catch just a few of their words, he leans in and hisses near Neil’s ear, “Andrew wouldn't have bothered to shake your hand unless he found you interesting.”

And at first Neil doesn’t understand.

But then, he does.

And he can’t help but feel like he just shook the hand of death itself.

-

After listening to a few speeches, hearing his own name come up a couple of times, posing for various pictures with various teammates and being asked the same round of questions over and over, he desperately needs to breathe.

Breathe in smoke that is, the scent reminding him so much of his mother, so he pays a server twenty bucks to tell him where the most discreet place to take a smoke break is. Kevin sends him a look when he pushes away from the table, but he ignores it, buttoning up his suit jacket as he stands, then takes off to follow the server.

He’s guided through a hectic kitchen, led down a hall and then another hall before being led out a large metal door. The loading docks, he guesses, judging by the packing boxes and the garage doors.

Neil says thank you, then quickly lights up a cigarette as soon as he’s left alone. One deep inhale to get it going, and the heavy weight of expectation seeps out of him, replaced by a temporary ease. He knows he’s being stupid, and that this is just how it is and that he needs to get used to it, but he just didn’t expect it all to be - like this.

Maybe when practice starts it’ll get easier, it’ll feel real, like he really is here to play a game and not pose for a picture with a practiced smile.

“Does Kevin know you smoke?”

In the empty loading dock, the sound of another voice echoes, rebounding off every wall, but even when the sound fades Neil’s heart is still racing. He immediately looks around, eyes narrowed and posture careful.

Across the way, shadowed by a stack of crates, stands Andrew Minyard. His regal suit and equally regal hairstyle contrast too sharply with the mess of crates and boxes and graffiti, but leaning against the wall with one leg propped, Andrew looks casual, relaxed.

Pretending his heart didn’t nearly just detonate from shock, Neil takes another inhale of smoke before crossing over to Andrew. He notes the cigarette in Andrew’s own hand, nearly burned down to a stub, and arches a brow. “I don’t, but does Riko know that you do?”

“Doesn’t matter. Riko doesn’t own me,” Andrew says simply, then crushes the end of his cigarette against the wall and tosses it.

Neil pauses, considering that, then says scornfully, “Kevin doesn’t own me.”

Andrew answers that with a bored look.

“He doesn’t,” Neil insists, not sure why that look riles up his every nerve. He takes another breath in and holds the smoke in his lungs for too long of a second, then slowly lets it out, but it does nothing to calm him now.

“When somebody is the reason for your very existence, they own you. Kevin got you your contract, yes? Well then he owns you.”

Anger flares in Neil’s chest, along with something he can’t place, something sharp and jarring. The truth, maybe.

Neil keeps it reined in, making his face blank as he can make it. He’s barely aware that he’s speaking, that annoying flaring feeling still bright in his chest, masking the increasing rate of his pulse. “Is that why you wouldn’t sign with him then? You didn’t want to be owned?”

Andrew considers that, it seems, by the way he tilts his head slightly to the side, but that illusion of confusion is snapped when he leans forward and grabs Neil’s cigarette from his fingers, bringing it up to his own mouth.

“A heavy question to be asking,” Andrew says slowly. “For a man who doesn’t know me.”

“I don’t have to know you to know your statistics,” Neil says, voice heavier now with annoyance over his stolen cigarette. Oddly enough, his lungs don’t ache without it, not if he can watch the ring Andrew’s lips make around the filter. “You’re not just the top-ranked goalie in the NEL.”

It only takes a few seconds for his mind to cough up the info he needs, the small facts and the large facts about Andrew Minyard, jersey number three, the New York Nighthawk’s starting goalie. Facts ranging from his speed to his aim to how many shots he blocked in total all of last season.

When he’s done listing the facts, the statistics, he expects something in Andrew’s face to change, expects to see some form of pride or triumph, but Andrew doesn’t even blink.

He blows out a cloud of smoke right into Neil’s face and says, “You’re straddling the border between obsessive and creepy. I should be calling security.”

“They’re facts. Everyone knows them.”

“Not like that.”

“I have to know,” Neil says defensively. “If I ever want to score on you.”

“Knowing all that won’t increase your level of talent,” Andrew scoffs, finally showing a sliver of emotion - judgement.

“I just don’t get it,” Neil says, backtracking to turn the subject to its origin point. “You and Kevin were a great pair. You’d do even better if you were on the same team again. Why’d you sign with his enemy?”

Andrew says, too easily, “Kevin’s enemy is not my enemy. I am my own enemy. Signing with the Nighthawks made that less so.”

Neil barely has a second to frown, to think about that, before Andrew is pushing away from the wall and taking a step closer into Neil’s space.

It’s strange, he thinks, in the brief few seconds he has before Andrew opens his mouth again, that he’s spent all night feeling suffocated but now, with a stranger breathing smoke in his face, standing toe to toe with him, all he feels is air.

“My answers come with a pricetag. You can compensate me with one of your own; why did you sign with the Seakings?”

The way he says it almost sounds like he’s implying that Neil had a decision, that Neil had other options to consider.

It takes a few seconds, but then it hits Neil.

Andrew isn’t implying that at all, he’s implying the opposite.

Rubbing dirt in the wound, running a highlighter across every word, shining a spotlight right on Neil’s still-aching heart.

He didn’t have any options.

“They were the only team to offer me a contract,” Neil admits, low and quiet, and even though that rage is back in his chest, he doesn’t push Andrew away.

“Then perhaps you should quit harping on what contracts I did or didn’t sign and focus on yourself,” Andrew says, and it’s venomous but it’s bright. “Like the real reason Kevin signed you. I bet you still think it’s because you’re his chance at finally besting Riko, right?”

Neil stares at a spot over Andrew’s shoulder, trying desperately to build his wall back up brick by brick, but every breath and word from Andrew has cement crumbling like dust in Neil’s hands.

“That’s one of the reasons, yes,” Neil says flatly, avoiding Andrew’s eyes.

Andrew leans in closer until his mouth is near Neil’s ear, and makes a buzzing noise, deep and grating, like Neil got the answer wrong. This close, a noise like that can’t echo off the walls, but Neil still hears it being repeated in every nerve in his body.

“No. Kevin will never have faith, in anything or anybody, a lesson you need to learn quickly. He will give up on you if you cannot give him what benefits him,” Andrew says quickly, that venom in his tone stinging so much Neil thinks it’s paralyzing him. “You know what you are? His scapegoat. When your team inevitably loses, he can place the blame on you, and no one will question him.”

Neil is still, from head to toe, but some bright hot instinct kicks in a second later, giving him the strength to snap his neck down and face forward, glaring down the scant few inches between him and Andrew.

“You’re going to eat those words,” Neil promises, and without looking he reaches between them for his stolen cigarette.

Andrew jerks his hand away, holding it out of Neil’s reach.

“I’m not hungry,” Andrew says, then flicks the cigarette behind him and turns away to walk back inside.

Then Neil is alone, with nothing and nobody saying his name, with nothing but his thoughts and the truth of him and the weight of his reality, and a sudden burning promise fueling its way through him.

He suddenly doesn’t need to breathe. He just needs to prove Andrew wrong.

Chapter Text

If that one brief interaction out by the loading docks supplied enough rage-induced encouragement to last a decade, the question that Neil answers on his way out of the banquet supplies enough encouragement to last a lifetime.

When he’s asked it, he doesn’t think of the repercussions, doesn’t think about the fact that every word said in public is a play in a game.

It’s the truth, at least, and maybe that’s why he says it.

Two security guards guide Neil and Kevin to their town car, the night having run its course on Neil and the effects of alcohol having run its course on Kevin. But the guards’ presence doesn’t stop the remaining reporters from flocking to their car, doesn’t stop the flash of cameras.

Doesn’t stop the question; “Neil, Neil! Now that you’ve met the opposing teams, how do you feel about your chances? Do you still think you can help Kevin bring your team to the playoffs?”

Neil stops, turns, and fixes on a smile that he doesn’t have to fake. He can see Kevin shaking his head from the corner of his eye, their publicists practically begging him to not answer this question.

He has to. He made a promise in his head to Andrew.

“Actually, if anything, I feel even more encouraged,” Neil says warmly, as if his words are pleasant opposed to cruel. “I know that with Kevin’s guidance, together we’re going to change how the playoffs are played. His enemies are now my enemies.”

He hopes that somehow, someway, Andrew watches this, and knows Neil’s words are for him.

“Are you referencing Riko Moriyama and his team?”

His smile deepens. “Andrew Minyard,” Neil says, and likes the way his tongue feels after saying his name. “He’s not as impenetrable as he thinks he is, and I’m going to take him down goal by goal. I’m going to score on him.”

Instead of prompting Neil for more, the reporter directs the microphone to Kevin, who stands there shell-shocked, as if Neil just reached into his chest and punched his heart. “Comments?”

Kevin glares at Neil, then faces the camera. “With enough coaching and practice, I fully believe in Neil’s future success,” he says dully, before motioning towards his publicist to clear out the reporters.

All in all, the question took less than a minute to answer.

Neil smiles to himself on the drive home, not knowing that one question will fuel the rest of his life.

-

It was an inevitable feud.

Long in the making, already in the process before Neil Josten was ever a Seaking. This feud was perhaps the main reason Kevin vouched for his recruitment. There hasn’t been a hype like this over a season since Kevin and Riko signed to the pros.

Because this feud started off between the Ravens and the Foxes, technically.

The Foxes lost the championships in Kevin and Andrew’s final year. That loss against the Ravens was only intensified when Andrew signed with Riko, and Kevin was forced to start his professional career on his own.

In Neil’s opinion, Kevin’s the best, but he was too used to having support. His first year as a Seaking, they made it to playoffs and were eliminated after the first round. His second year, they hadn’t earned enough points to qualify.

Losing three years in a row to someone he used to win with only had Kevin playing harder.

But now, Neil isn’t sure what Kevin saw in him that made him think partner.

Kevin’s Comeback Key, most articles had nicknamed Neil. It put a new spark in an old feud. Kevin had ammunition now - or, as most of the Exy world saw it, Kevin had no excuse not to win now.

With a new season, a new striker, a new attitude to Kevin’s playing style and a determination that nothing could cut through, it was an inevitable feud.

It was never meant to be like this, however, between the rookie and the goalie. Nobody ever thought it’d be Neil vs. Andrew, but now that it is, it’s everywhere.

Neil knows how press works, he’s seen his own interviews show up online as soon as they’re filmed, he knows better. Yet he still feels a bit stunned at how quick this - whatever this is - blows up. Everything and everyone, between the ESPN channel to the smallest online magazine, has something to say about it.

The picture of their handshake dominates every single article, with screaming headlines printed over top, their names flashing and bright. Minyard vs Josten, 03 vs 10, Rookie to Score On Goalie?

One news site tracks Andrew and Neil’s college career, and pulls up the footage of Neil’s deathmatch against the Foxes. In the video, Neil tries to run at the goal and score, only to have Andrew catch his ball and rebound it off Neil’s helmet.

It’s their only in-game interaction to date, but it’s more than enough to tip the scales in Andrew’s favour. Neil’s rookie image is painted even darker.

Statistics are compared, histories are recovered, stories are made up. The more gossip-run sites say Kevin only recruited Neil to replace the hole that Andrew left in his shield. Some sites say that Andrew’s going to use Neil’s inexperience to flaunt his own talent back in Kevin’s face.

It’s a mess, and Neil helped make it.

Unlike before though, there are people who want to support him. Neil almost doesn’t believe it when old teammates from Arizona are recorded vouching his name, saying their praises, citing his grim determination as an advantage over Andrew Minyard.

In August, the Seakings start preseason practice, often hosting open practices for fans and reporters to sit in and watch. Kevin pushes Neil to play harder, even if it is against his own team, reminding him that the world is watching.

The world is watching, and once they witness that grim determination in action, the scales tip slightly under Neil’s weight. Reporters begin to comment positively on his accuracy. Fans start to show up at their practices with signs.

Neil can’t remember the last time a fan held up a sign with his name on it that wasn’t followed by massive black X’s.

It’s inspiring, and has Neil fighting more aggressively during practice to prove them all right, that he deserves their faith.

It’s inspiring until the day it isn’t, when the feud hits its next point, and then even Neil loses faith in himself.

The whole team is gathered in their lounge after practice, sweaty and exhausted, but whatever’s about to play on the TV is apparently more important than showering. Coach Mullens stands by the television with his arms folded, face grim, remote control clutched tightly in one hand.

When he’s sure he has his team’s attention, he faces the TV and clicks play on the remote.

All the way over in New York, the Nighthawks are having their own open practice. A sportscaster from ESPN talks at the camera, commenting on the team’s impressive technique as a scrimmage plays out.

Any reporter who knows Andrew Minyard knows the risks of putting a microphone in his face, yet that doesn’t stop this reporter from approaching him as he walks off the court, helmet in his hands and eyes uncaring as he attempts to walk past them.

“Andrew, what do you have to say about the current buzz surrounding Neil Josten of the San Francisco Seakings? He says he’s going to score on you, what do you think his chances are?”

Andrew stops abruptly and turns to face the camera, fixing it with a look that could shatter glass.

“To say he has a chance would give him false hope. There is no chance and there is no hope,” Andrew says, cooly. “If Neil ‘Pipe Dream’ Josten wants to challenge me in public, then he better be ready to be destroyed in public.”

Not sparing another breath or word, Andrew turns from the camera and walks away, leaving the reporter stunned in their spot.

There’s something satisfying about hearing Andrew say his name, but Neil can hardly focus on that when his chest suddenly feels ten times heavier.

Coach is talking, the team is murmuring, Kevin is sending an angry, frantic glance in Neil’s direction.

Neil stares at the TV screen, still seeing Andrew on it. His heart turns in panicked circles, spinning faster every time he replays Andrew’s sharp words.

His heart stops spinning, and decides to land on a feeling Neil hasn’t felt in awhile, a feeling that Andrew’s rivalry ignites; the silent swell of hope.

-

“You shook his hand,” is Kevin’s explanation for ripping Neil from his apartment at 10:00PM and dragging him to the stadium. “You started this, now you are going to find a way to end it.”

It’s incredibly jarring to be two souls in a stadium that seats thousands. Loud and echoey and all-consuming. Neil almost prefers it. He almost doesn’t quite mind the sleep deprivation that will follow. He almost thinks he can tolerate Kevin’s harsh words and harsher critique.

“Andrew doesn’t do challenges; he crushes them. By putting yourself in his path you’ve single-handedly obliterated our chances of facing them in the playoffs.”

Neil glares up at Kevin through the faceguard of his helmet. “That’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think?”

“You don’t know Andrew, he works on spite or not at all. He’ll personally see to it that you never make it within ten feet of his goal. Lucky for him, it should be rather easy.”

It aggravates Neil, but that was likely Kevin’s aim, to get Neil to push himself the next step forward. His shots are forced to be faster, more aggressive, until Neil’s every cell is cursing the very second that Kevin Day was born.

Their private practices continue until Neil feels reformed, shaped into something - better.

That feeling of such elevation might have gotten to his head, because at their next open practice with the team, a reporter asks Neil, “Are you excited for the season to start?”

And Neil easily responds with, “More excited than I’ve ever been. Kevin’s an incredible captain, and he’s shaping us all into a weapon. The Nighthawks should be scared, and Riko should be sorry.”

“Why’s that?”

“That he ever doubted Kevin in the first place,” Neil says, frowning a bit, as if the answer was obvious. “But he can apologize on our court come November.”

To the viewers and the multiple news outlets that try to analyze Neil’s statement, it sounds like good-natured team rivalry. It sounds like the role he’s meant to play - the rookie to Kevin’s captaincy, partners, together, a duo.

That’s not how it sounds to the Nighthawks.

Not at all, Neil realizes, the next day during a closed practice, when Riko Moriyama steps onto their court all the way from New York City.

The entire team falls silent.

Riko’s dressed in a blue so dark it could be black. His eyes scan the lines of their well-worn court as if the floor is fouling his shoes. The Seakings stand around in their gear, scrimmage paused, looking from one to the other with a million silenced questions. Their coaches stand in the inner court, equally quiet, not making any movements to signal a stop to Riko’s presence.

Laila’s the first to speak up, storming out of her goal as she rips her helmet off. “What the hell are you doing here? How’d you even get in?”

Riko doesn’t look at her, his glare trained on both Kevin and Neil.

“Your court is a shame to the very sport you play,” Riko says, crossing his arms over his chest. “My family invented this sport. It is not difficult for me to gain access to any and all stadiums.”

Despite their hostile history, and despite the anger rippling across his face, Kevin remains wordless.

“This is a private practice,” Neil finally says, after sending a disappointed look Kevin’s way. “You’re in violation of the rules.”

“My family invented this sport,” Riko repeats, more viciously, turning all his attention on Neil. “You are a mockery to it. What makes you think a rookie like you has the right to speak against my team? Your name does not belong anywhere near mine.”

“It wasn’t you I was challenging,” Neil says, as calm as he can make it. It’s not that Riko unnerves him, it’s that Riko irritates him, and it irritates Neil even more that Riko has the audacity to say such things while standing on the Seakings’ logo.

“I didn’t come alone,” Riko says, and doesn’t turn around when the court door suddenly slams open. “You think you can score on Andrew? Prove it.”

The Seakings remain dead quiet as somebody else steps onto the court, footsteps like gunshots off the floor. Andrew comes up towards them wearing his own team’s gear, clashing harshly with the aqua of the Seakings.

Andrew stops right behind Riko and swings his racquet up to rest against his shoulder, looking like he’s contemplating taking a nap in the next five seconds.

“I’m not doing this,” Neil says firmly, taking a step back.

That only strengthens Riko’s grave smile. “Then we can give ESPN a ring and have a reporter here in minutes. I’m sure they’d love to hear you admit defeat.”

“You can’t -”

“This is what you get when you run your mouth off with foul and false accusations. Do not make promises if you have no way to make them true. You will practice against Andrew until you finally see how dim your chances are.”

Riko sends a look Kevin’s way, something dark and controlling in his eyes, and Neil’s stomach sinks, knowing fully well how Kevin will respond to that look.

With a small sigh, Kevin steps up to Neil and grabs his racquet, halting it. “Don’t use all your energy at once,” he says, a red-hot warning low in his voice. “Pace yourself.” Then he gives the racquet’s net a tug and walks away, following Riko and the rest of the Seakings off the court.

Then it’s just Neil and Andrew, and suddenly Neil’s knees feel weak.

Ignoring that, because nothing about Andrew unnerves Neil either, he steadies his face and turns a look on his opposer, souring his expression as best he can. Despite that sourness, he manages a smirk. “I thought Riko didn’t own you.”

Andrew says nothing but sticks his racquet out to roll a ball towards himself. Without breaking eye contact, he flicks it up and sends it flying right at Neil’s helmet. It bounces off with a sharp smack, then rolls away.

Neil doesn’t back down from that challenge.

He follows Kevin’s advice and paces himself, firing perfunctory shot after shot, carefully thought out and planned. Andrew responds to that by standing completely still and tilting his racquet whichever way he knows Neil is going to swing.

Irritation itches under Neil’s skin. He’s giving nearly every percent he has and Andrew’s barely turned his switch on, but Neil doesn’t fall for it, doesn’t give his one-hundred just yet. He waits for Andrew to break patience first.

Tens of minutes later, or at least that’s how it feels, Andrew finally stops moving to stare at Neil blankly. He leans down to pick up a ball, tosses it slightly, then smacks it with all his might, firing it at Neil at a speed that could hurt him.

Slow doesn’t exist after that. Fast, faster, fastest, Neil dodges every shot and shoots them back even quicker. He runs and leaps and tries from a different angle every single time, but somehow Andrew just knows where they’re going to land. Neil might as well be shooting at a brick wall.

His blood hasn’t felt like this before, never been so hot. It burns with determination, infuriation, some primal sort of need flowing through him to shoot and score and to wipe that stupid look off Andrew’s stupid face.

After trying every trick he knows, he thinks back to night practice, and shifts his body into a move he’s seen Kevin perform.

Andrew is expecting that, too, and flicks the ball away with a short snap of his wrist.

Neil stands a few feet back from the goal, panting and doubled over, watching his failure of a ball roll shamefully away.

“Remember,” Andrew calls out, the mocking in his voice sounding almost like a song. “All the night practice with Kevin won’t change a thing, he will never keep his faith in you. A few more shots and he’ll be done with you for good.”

No,” Neil grits out, and snaps into action, investing his last percent into charging the goal with every ounce of passion and hatred he has. Except when he swings his racquet back to fire a shot, all his muscles twist to a stop. It forces his grip slack, has him skidding to a halt.

Without momentum, the ball slides free of the net and hits the ground with a low thud.

The only body part that doesn’t burn are his eyes, so he watches the ball roll away, physically unable to reach out for it.

A banging on the court wall has Neil fumbling to find enough energy to look over. Kevin is making a cutting gesture at his neck, while Riko stands next to him, arms folded and face expressionless. The lack of smug satisfaction across Riko’s face is somehow worse than any at all.

Neil gasps out in defeat and doubles over, and doesn’t dare look up at Andrew, not even when there’s a tap against his helmet, the large net of Andrew’s racquet in his face.

“At least you tried,” Andrew says, and taps Neil’s helmet again.

“I never said I’m giving up,” Neil says back, just barely, before finally looking up at him.

The rest of the stadium vanishes, disintegrating quickly as Andrew leans forward, too close, as close as he was the night they met in the docks. The sound of his breath and his voice right by Neil’s ear shouldn’t sound so familiar, but it is.

Their helmets are all that separates them physically, but nothing can stop Andrew’s words from touching him. “Then until we meet again,” Andrew says, and it’s too much of a whisper to be a threat.

Andrew strolls off the court looking as if he hadn’t moved so much as a muscle while playing against Neil. Without another word to the Seakings, he and Riko disappear.

Footsteps break up the world of silence. Kevin rushes onto the court where Neil is now kneeling, his every body part on fire. “Neil.”

For whatever reason, there’s a defiant part of Neil that doesn’t want to look up, to meet the eyes of somebody who isn’t Andrew. Staring at Andrew had forced Neil to look as honest as he’s looked in months - he means it when he looks at Andrew with intent. Looking at anybody else will force a mask back on, and he’s not sure if he can fake it right now.

Kevin tugs at him when he remains quiet, gripping him roughly until he’s steady on his feet.

“He’s good,” Neil says distantly, staring at the court doors.

“You can’t beat him alone,” Kevin says somberly, and then, after a pause, “We have to do it together.”

It’s far from the harsh criticism Neil’s accustomed to. It draws his eyes to Kevin’s retreating figure as he walks away, trying to piece it all together.

He stays alone on the court for a few more minutes.

Showing Neil just how unattainable something is won’t make him want it any less. There’s fire in his muscles, a stinging suggestion that perhaps he won’t ever score on Andrew, but if anything, it only makes him want it more.

Riko’s the one who failed tonight.

Neil’s alone on the court, but he feels the ghost of Andrew’s closeness, and now more than ever, he can’t quite quell the hope of it.

-

Even with his arms stinging and burning, he couldn’t quite make himself go home.

So now he stands alone in the Seakings stadium, out on the court, envisioning where the ball would go if he stood here, or there, if he lifted the racquet like this and not that. The only conclusion he can come to though, is that no matter how he throws the ball, Andrew will be there to block it.

Neil wants to find it strange that he only feels determined in face of such an impossible challenge, but he doesn’t. What he does find strange is what he can’t explain; how ontop of determination, he feels put-off, disoriented, like there’s an answer in Andrew that is right there but Neil just can’t see it.

He can feel it though, like pinpricks and frustration and -

Shock.

Because when Neil turns around after staring at the goal for an endless minute, Andrew Minyard himself is standing in the open doorway to the court, leaning against the plexiglass frame with his arms crossed and his expression cool.

Neil suddenly lets out his breath and begins to smile, and the urge to figure things out disappears as he lets curiosity take over. He was tired before, tired and sore, but for some reason, with Andrew right there, he no longer feels like sleeping.

“Hey,” Neil says, taking off his helmet as he steps closer. He looks over Andrew’s head for something or somebody in the distance, but Andrew is alone. “Where’s Riko? Did he finally loosen your leash?”

Andrew’s expression hardens, then fades into blankness. “One would think that with all the time you spend talking about Riko that he owns you, as well.”

“So he does own you?”

Andrew ignores that and steps further into the court, walking a circle around Neil. “Your determination to play could be admirable if it weren’t so pathetic,” he says, eyes drifting to the racquet still in Neil’s hands. “What’s keeping you here?”

“Uh, well . . .” Neil looks at his racquet and realizes then how much it hurts to hold it. “I want to?”

“You want to, or you feel you’re expected to?”

Neil frowns and plucks at a string in the net. “There’s not much of a difference if I like doing it though, right?”

Andrew scoffs and makes another lap around Neil, never making eye contact as he walks. “Let’s play a new game,” he says while nodding. “It’s called ‘let’s not talk about Exy for five minutes’.”

Neil frowns again, but it’s quickly won over by a smirk. “You want me to stop talking about Exy? When we’re currently standing on an Exy court, in an Exy stadium, where I am dressed in my Exy gear, while holding my Exy racquet?”

Andrew pauses, face falling even more blank. “Can you do it or not?”

“Do I win anything if I do?”

Andrew finally looks at Neil then, his eyes narrowed as he thinks, then says, “To be determined.”

For some reason, Neil laughs.

And even though he hasn’t gone more than a minute without thinking about Exy over the past five years, Neil has never been one to back down from an impossible challenge . . .

“Okay, you’re on. Starting now.”

Except Neil hasn’t ever been faced with a challenge quite like this.

Andrew stares at Neil for the first thirty seconds, as Neil’s mouth forms different shapes and half-muttered words escape his lips only to be bit back down - because everything and anything he has to say has to be about Exy, the game, his team, his sponsors, his statistics, press pieces for the media and pre-written answers to endless repetitive questions and -

And he hasn’t ever been asked to talk about anything else.

“I - uh -” Neil stammers, heat flooding his face. “What do you want to talk about?”

Andrew’s eyes look as if they’re about to roll back. “How did you manage to complete college with the vocabulary of a two year old? What do you want to talk about?”

There’s a force in Neil’s throat, like the hand of someone controlling a puppet, about to make him say what they want him to say. He grits his teeth in time to stop himself and then sighs, giving his shoulders a slight shrug.

He doesn’t know what he wants to say, but he wants to say something.

Because Andrew stands there calmly, willing to listen.

“. . . my running shoes are beginning to break down,” is what Neil ends up saying, face flaming crimson now that the words are out. “I’ve put off buying a new pair though. I guess I hate spending money.”

He watches with his heart racing as one of Andrew’s eyebrows slowly lifts; clearly bored with Neil, and his pathetic attempt at normal conversation.

“I’m trying, okay?” Neil asks rather desperately, trying hard not to flinch as that eyebrow raises higher. “I’m not very interesting.”

All at once, Andrew smirks, and it transforms his entire face. He takes a step closer until he’s right in front of Neil, a powerful presence when compared to Neil’s nervous wreck of a body. He eyes the racquet that Neil’s still holding and threads his fingers through the net, giving it a quick tug.

“Your vocabulary is in need of a refresher, Neil,” Andrew says lowly, eyes flicking up to meet his. “I don’t think you understand what ‘interesting’ means. You win this round. ‘A’ for effort, and all that.”

He tugs on the racquet again before turning around to leave, and even when he’s gone, Neil doesn’t understand.

But he wants to.

Chapter Text

It feels like Neil’s lit a torch, and now he has to run as fast as he can to make it to the Olympic cauldron before the flame burns out. Except he’s never fast enough, no matter how hard he tries.

He has to burn, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

He signed a contract and put his fire in the control of somebody else’s hands.

He’s just not sure if he hates it, when his fire is up against Andrew Minyard’s ice. He thinks he might like it, actually, because it’s not a lie. Right down in his core, where he keeps his love for Exy safe and untouched, he feels the twist and burn of determination to prove Andrew wrong.

Besides the media’s exaggerations and rumours, their rivalry is real.

Which is why Neil doesn’t hate it.

Which is why he doesn’t deny his manager when they book him a deal with the official NEL monthly magazine. The magazine plans to dedicate their seasonal starter issue to the Seakings and the Nighthawks.

They want Andrew and Neil on the cover.

He tells himself he says yes for two reasons: he likes the idea of Riko fuming over losing his cover model status for the first time in two years.

The other reason is split into two halves; he might’ve said yes simply for the opportunity to provoke and spite Andrew. He might’ve also said yes simply for the opportunity to see Andrew.

He tries not to think about that last half.

-

There’s a new reason for the buzz in the air, a month before the season starts. An undying energy that already has the fans flocking the streets in their aqua-silver jerseys.

All the games played in the NEL from October first to November sixteenth mean almost nothing to the Exy world. What matters is November seventeenth, when San Francisco plays against New York in the most anticipated of all rematches.

It’s all anyone can talk about, all anyone cares about, and with every pair of eyes in the Exy world on him, Neil takes the pressure they give to him and turns it into motivation.

He started this feud, he asked for the world to look at him, and he doesn’t regret it. Neil was the NCAA failure who couldn’t get a team to sign him, and when he did sign with a team, his failure status changed to Kevin Day’s sidekick.

Now Neil is simply Neil; the rookie who challenged the NEL’s top-ranked goalie.

And, in a way, that’s exactly who he is.

He practices with more grit than he did throughout his five years of college. He practices with Kevin, with his team, and sometimes by himself, at near four in the morning. Sleep is impossible when no matter what he does, the image of Andrew in the goal sticks in his head.

So he stands alone in the stadium and throws shot after shot until he can’t feel or think about anything but his pounding heart.

It churns out the oddest song, that continues to ring throughout Neil’s mind when he eventually does try to sleep.

Kevin gives him as much advice as he can, but whenever he says Andrew’s name a look of scorn is never far behind. Neil can hear the betrayal in his voice like it’s still fresh.

“Andrew only ever plays his best game when he has incentive,” Kevin tells him after night practice, the two of them in the lounge, watching clips of the Nighthawk’s latest open practice.

Neil frowns, twisting his hands up together. “. . . am I the incentive?”

Kevin answers that with a sharp look and a sharper shrug. “I don’t know, but I’ve never seen him play like this before.”

It settles heavy in Neil’s stomach, and adds a few more raucous beats to that neverending song in his head.

-

It’s nearly 6:00PM when his phone goes off, an unknown number flashing across the screen. Besides the constant phone calls from his manager and the occasional call from his coaches, his phone remains mostly silent nowadays. It strikes enough curiosity in him to answer.

“Hello?” Neil says cautiously, not wanting to give too much away to whoever’s on the other side.

“Your blood was already all over Riko’s hands. Now it’s a mess.”

“Andrew?”

It’s terrifying to hear that voice, deep and rumbling and somehow still smooth, right in his ear. It’s even more terrifying that he has no idea how Andrew could possibly be calling him right now.

“How’d you get my number?” Neil asks when Andrew says nothing to confirm it’s him.

“If that were important I’d care enough to remember,” Andrew says simply. “Moving on - Riko’s not happy about this upcoming magazine spread. Or really, he’s not happy about you. He says I need to put an end to this.”

“So Riko’s making you call?” His smile comes instantly, evident in his voice as he says, “Are you sure he doesn’t own you?”

“Riko says I have to end it. I don’t think I want to.”

“And why’s that? Are you having fun?”

Andrew says without pausing, “I like making you look incompetent.”

“But you see me as a challenge,” Neil says slowly, remembering Kevin’s words - Andrew sees Neil as incentive.

“I never said you are incompetent.”

Neil’s smile twitches into wider, bigger, brighter. Not sure what to say to that, he chews at his lip to try and tramp down his grin. “Thank you.”

“You still don’t stand a chance.”

“You wouldn’t be calling me if you thought that.”

Against his best efforts, Neil’s smile refuses to budge, even as the line falls quiet. In the background of the call on Andrew’s side, a car honks, sirens go off, a soft murmur of voices can be heard from down below. The sounds of a New York City night.

Andrew must be outside, somewhere secluded if he’s talking to Neil.

Neil thinks about finding Andrew outside in the loading docks that night of the banquet. The only other soul in that huge, huge room that needed to breathe, needed to escape the role they’ve been cast in.

It’s only fitting that their roles have woven together.

“I need to know,” Andrew says, after a comfortable moment of silence. “Are you Kevin’s clone? Or is there something else you live for outside of your contract?”

For a second, Neil’s mind splinters off into various directions, trying to figure out the path that Andrew means. He knows he can’t ask directly, or else Andrew won’t believe what he answers with, so he says what he thinks he should say.

“I don’t really know what else to live for,” Neil answers, a bit wistfully. “This is my life.”

“How sad. Let me know if that changes.”

There’s not even a chance for Neil to get a breath in; the line goes dead as soon as Andrew’s last word is said.

Neil holds his phone to his ear, then slowly lowers it, swimming in confusion. Even more confusing is the ache in his chest that he’s never felt before. It feels like the burn of a breath you take after being held down under water.

He ignores that feeling and looks at the unknown number with the New York area code. He saves it as a new contact, naming Andrew ‘03’.

He doesn’t touch his phone for the rest of the night.

-

He arrives at LAX just as the sun is rising, and he’s in a chair getting makeup put on an hour before morning practice would usually start.

The studio isn’t quiet by any means; the set decoration team is running around placing props and fixing backgrounds, the photographer is talking to the lighting department, the stylist is rolling a clothing rack back and forth across set.

It’s quiet to him though. There’s something even louder in his brain, a screaming chaos, shouting nerves that refuse to stop attacking his spine every time he looks over and sees Andrew.

Andrew is leaning back in a makeup chair, eyes closed and feet propped off the vanity in front of him. He hasn’t so much as glanced over at Neil since he arrived. Neil tells himself he doesn’t care.

It’s just them today, to shoot for the cover. Tomorrow the starters for the Seakings will fly in for the remainder of the photoshoot, then immediately fly back to prepare for their first preseason game, while the Nighthawks will be photographed in New York.

So that leaves Andrew and Neil. No Riko, no Kevin, no coaches. Just them.

There is no possibility for anything, because what could Neil want from Andrew? What could Andrew give him? Nothing. There’s nothing Andrew could even offer him, so there’s nothing for Neil to choose.

Still, Neil has to reach for his water bottle and take a long sip, forcing his gaze away from Andrew, pushing those thoughts away.

It’s then that he notices the camera being set up in front of a large, white NEL backdrop further back in the studio. Two chairs have been placed next to each other on the right, directly facing another chair placed to the left.

It looks like a setup for an interview, this Neil knows. What he doesn’t know is why.

Frowning over at the scene, Neil looks to his manager and asks, “What’s that for?”

Though he already has an idea.

His manager says, while staring at his phone, as if this isn’t of any importance and that Neil should have already been in the know, “For your behind-the-scenes interview with Andrew.”

And that was exactly what Neil was guessing, but all the same, his heart stops in his chest and all words fall from his mouth.

“O-oh.” He glances at his reflection then, hoping something in it will ground him. It’s to no avail; his heart decides then to start pounding. “Like - together?”

“Like together,” his manager says, one eyebrow quirking while his eyes remain on his phone. “Any problem with that?”

Neil takes a deep breath and chances a glance over at Andrew. No, there is no problem, because to have a problem would mean he has an issue with being near Andrew, and . . .

And Neil sort of wants that, for whatever reason, so -

“No, no problem.”

After a makeup artist attacks Neil’s face with a variety of brushes and sponges, and after he’s dressed in the first outfit for the day, he’s led to the interview setup, where Andrew is already sitting. He looks as relaxed as he had earlier, his legs crossed at the ankle, hands folded over his stomach and his eyes closed. He doesn’t open them when Neil settles down beside him.

A fact that Neil is thankful for, because even just sitting next to Andrew has Neil’s skin feeling hot and his lungs feeling tight. He wrings his water bottle until the sound of the plastic crackling is louder than his pulse.

But why, is what he wonders, why does he feel this way? He’s done a thousand interviews, done them with various teammates in this exact situation before, in fact. He’s even been nervous for a few of them.

Never like this. Not to the point where he can’t sit still, feeling so helpless, as if his veins are vibrating under his skin.

“Stop.”

The one word, uttered so simply, is like slamming on the brakes. Immediately, Neil stops. His hands go slack around the bottle, his shoulders slump, and he finally looks to his left.

“Stop what?” he asks, ignoring how out of breath he sounds.

Andrew opens his eyes then, and finds enough energy to turn slightly to look right at Neil. He says nothing, but he doesn’t have to.

Neil uncurls his hands completely, muscles surging with relief as he does so, and lets out a deep breath.

“Sorry.”

But now that his hands aren’t busy, the franticness is building inside of him again, so Neil allows his gaze to settle fully on Andrew. Calculating everything; his eyes, his posture, his easy and calm breathing - as if he really isn’t breathing at all.

“. . . what kind of questions do you think they’ll ask us?” Neil tries, looking for any sign that Andrew is as affected as he is.

That gets a slight frown in his direction, but ultimately Andrew lets out a sigh and closes his eyes again. “All that matters is the answers you decide to give.”

“That’s not helpful.”

“Mhm.”

Just as Neil’s about to start in on choking the life out of his water bottle once more, with his every bone feeling full of electricity, Andrew speaks up and says, “You don’t have to answer any question that you don’t want to, or even how they want you to.”

Neil lets out a laugh bordering on skeptical. “Oh really? Do you have some sort of secret that I should know about?”

“It’s not a secret. It’s called ‘standing your ground’.”

For whatever reason, that feels like an insult, and it sinks heavy in Neil’s stomach. He looks around the studio at the various crew members, the lighting setup and the props and everything that’s designed to make fake things look real, and sighs.

“As if I ever had any ground in the first place.”

“Mhm,” Andrew says again, and nothing else.

Neil is spared having to think of a response by the interviewer approaching them. She introduces herself and reaches out to shake Neil’s hand, but is quick to pull back when Andrew simply stares at the offering.

“Nice to meet you both,” she says, smile never flinching, and takes the seat opposite them. “Shall we begin?”

The interview is made of simple questions at first; how long have they been reading the magazine, what their favourite issue is, what team did they root for the most while in college, easy things that Neil already knows how to answer.

But easy is never how anything stays.

“Neil, now that Andrew, a top-ranked player, is sitting here beside you, how do you feel about him? Are you still optimistic about your chances?”

Neil’s instinct is to laugh a bit, and turn to face Andrew. When Neil smiles, it’s for him, and not the camera. “I feel good. I mean, yeah, you might be top-ranked, but statistics are just that - statistics. Right, Andrew?”

Slower than snow melting, Andrew turns his head to look at Neil, without an ounce of feeling in his expression. “I hate you.”

Neil’s smile crashes a few levels, but he’s quick to hide it and face the camera again. “. . . it’s going to be fun proving him wrong.”

The interviewer smiles, and looks to Andrew. “And what about you, Andrew? Hate is a pretty strong word regarding Neil, don’t you think?”

Still sounding as void as his three previous words had, Andrew shrugs and says, “Hate could mean many things.”

“So is Neil as ferocious in person as he is on the court?”

Andrew’s eyes are fire on Neil’s face. “Not at all.”

That fire burns and boils the spite in Neil’s chest, and Neil is quick to face him again and snap, “As if you’re anything special off of it.”

“Never said I was.”

“Which is a shame,” Neil says airily, dramatically shrugging his shoulders. “I sort of hoped that there was a soul in there somewhere, considering how much you bring to each game.”

“Oh, Neil,” and it’s a wonder how any person could sound so empty and yet still be condescending, “There wasn’t - until you came along.”

It’s said so viciously that it must be an insult, but it pricks and pokes up Neil’s spine until it reaches his head, and then Neil feels hot all over again.

He’s saved - or maybe, interrupted - by the interviewer when she suddenly makes a cooing noise, her eyes wide as she says, “Ooh, that sounds promising. So is it true then, Andrew, that you’ve been playing with more precision during your practices because of Neil?”

“Because of how foolish he is, perhaps.”

“And you, Neil? What’s been your incentive?”

Neil can’t look anywhere else but at Andrew’s face and those burning eyes. “Andrew.”

And he’s looking at Andrew, and Andrew is looking right back at him.

So when the next question is asked, it doesn’t surprise Neil as hard as it should, not at first.

“Now Neil, let’s chat about your past. You were unable to find recruitment with any other NEL teams because of the incident involving the news of your father. Does he have any impact on you now that you’ve made it?”

Then it sinks in, and Neil’s hot blood turns cool, as quick as it takes for his head to spin around. He faces the camera with a paled face and shocked eyes and stammers, “Uh, what? I don’t . . . I can’t answer that.”

It’s been months since he last uttered anything regarding his family and his father. He’s spent every day since then storing it away, pushing it back, leaving it in his past. Having it spoken about so blatantly feels as if his entire mind has been raked over and pulled apart.

“Surely you must feel something like pride or victory. What would you say to your father if given the chance?”

Neil’s hands curl in on themselves once again, nails biting into skin. The room is spinning and he has no clue what’s where or why. He’s back in that moment, with the reporters and the questions and the anger and the fear and being so clueless as to who he is.

“I haven’t thought - uh, are there any other questions?”

“Whatever’s the first thing to come to mind.”

“I - I guess -”

“And what about your mo-”

The interviewer’s too-enthusiastic voice is cut off abruptly by Andrew saying, “He said no.”

In a tone so solid it makes the screaming room go silent.

Neil doesn’t breathe.

“Oh, I was asking Neil, but if you have something to say on the issue . . .”

Andrew’s expression is darker than it was minutes ago. He doesn’t frown or sneer; all it takes is one look and it dims the entire world. “And Neil said no, so unless you have any other questions pertaining to what you’re really here for, I think we’re finished.”

The interviewer’s mouth hangs open but nothing comes out. Her eyes flick from Neil to Andrew to someone behind the camera, as Andrew slips out from the chair, not deigning anyone with a glance as he leaves the studio.

Neil remains seated, every limb feeling heavy, his eyes unable to look away from the doors that Andrew just pushed through. His manager comes up to him, on the phone with someone, speaking angrily and looking focused for once. Neil catches his own name somewhere in the conversation - along with his father’s.

Neil tunes it all out, however, every voice and word said to him. His lungs ache, and he doesn’t notice anything until they suddenly don’t.

Because the moment he’s finally able to breathe again is the moment that Andrew walks back in through the doors and returns to set.

-

It’s a half hour before Neil is called to set. His nerves are still in disarray, but just like he does on the court, he pushes them away to focus on the task at hand. He does what he’s told, playing the role set out for him. He’s never done such a high scale photoshoot before, so he doesn’t hesitate in tilting his chin this way and that way when instructed, smiling when they ask him, conveying every emotion that they want him to convey. It’s clear what story they’re trying to tell.

Is it a story he actually believes in, though? Does he really hate Andrew the way the world is saying he does? Neil doesn’t think so, not even when he catches Andrew’s gaze between touch-ups and smiles, and all Andrew does is blink.

There’s just nothing to hate. Neil’s thought a lot about Andrew since first meeting him, and he can’t come up with a single reason. Rivalry doesn’t equate to hate.

Before Neil can go back to set after touch-ups, a hair stylist ties an aqua-coloured bandana around Neil’s head in a band, pushing his bangs back from his face. She says, sounding satisfied, “Now that’s more like it, hey, rookie?”

Neil itches to reach up and take it off.

When Andrew is called to set, that’s when the entire train derails. A story can’t be told when the character refuses to say their lines. Demands and requests are called out, but Andrew reacts as if they were never even said. Either on purpose, or simply because he just doesn’t care.

“Andrew, can we at least get a smile?” the photographer asks, lowering the camera from her face. “Make it grim, vicious, guarded. Anything.”

Andrew’s face stays the way it’s been all day; cold and plain, not a single emotion shuttering across it.

Neil watches without breathing, hands curled into fists and nails biting his palms. If he ever refused like that, if he ever denied what they wanted him to be . . . he wouldn’t exist.

Yet Andrew stands there, hands shoved in the pockets of his tailored pants, looking the way he always is and not what they want him to be. And he doesn’t disappear.

Neil is smiling by the end of it. If he can’t deny the rules, can’t break them, then he’ll happily watch Andrew do it.

Eventually the director yells out in frustration, turning to Andrew’s manager and demanding compliance, but Andrew’s manager simply shakes her head. The director calls for lunch, spewing obscenities as he walks away from set, talking loudly with the production team as they all voice their annoyance over Andrew.

Neil can’t stop smiling, and he finds that he doesn’t even want to.

It’s a surprise, though, when Neil turns from set and finds Andrew waiting for him. He’s staring at nothing, but once he’s sure Neil is there beside him, he heads for the door.

Neil follows without question as Andrew stops in front of his manager, holding out his hand silently until his manager produces a package of cigarettes and a lighter. Then he turns for the exit, turns down a hallway, down a staircase, and out a backdoor that leads into an alley.

Neil still asks no questions as Andrew leans against the wall of the building, designer suit be damned, and lights up. He asks no questions as Andrew takes a deep drag, then passes the cigarette off to Neil.

“That’s not a good look for you,” Andrew finally says, words slow and raspy. He points with his now-free fingers up at the bandana still fixed around Neil’s head.

“Thanks,” Neil says, mocking intent clear in is voice. “I’m choosing to wear it.”

“You are,” Andrew says in agreement, reaching back for the cigarette.

Neil frowns, eyebrows and mouth twisting up. “That was called sarcasm. Have you heard of it?”

“The definition must have changed then.”

“What do you mean?”

Andrew takes his time with answering, instead choosing to lean his head against the brick, closing his eyes, breathing up a cloud of smoke to the sky. “You have a choice. If you don’t like it, take it off.”

“After you just pissed them off like that by refusing to smile? Do you know how to, or have you never felt joy before?”

That gets one eye open. Andrew’s half glare is icy enough to freeze fire. “There’s nothing to smile about here,” he says, simply. “Though that must be news to you. If they say smile, you smile. If they say run, you’d ask where to? It’s sad.”

Neil lifts a hand to his head, feeling the soft curls of his hair tousled around the bandana, shaping a face that should be his but somebody else has made. They tied his hair back and removed the past five years of his life, turned him back into the freshman rookie at Arizona.

His hands move, as if to take the bandana off, but he can’t.

“It’s not up to me,” he says, quietly.

Andrew has both eyes open now, staring straight ahead at the opposite wall. “Sad. You are far too concerned with pleasing people who only want one thing from you. It’s your face that’s going to be on the magazine. Your name being played with.”

Andrew takes another two or three drags of his smoke, time passing as slowly as he breathes. Then he turns to Neil, holding the cigarette out of the way, and says clearly, “Come here.”

As stunned as Neil is by such a sudden command, he takes the few steps separating them until he’s right in front of Andrew.

Andrew’s hand motions towards the bandana. “Do you want to be this person?”

Neil’s response is automatic; “No.”

Without hesitating, Andrew snags his fingers into the material and pulls it free from Neil’s head, tossing it over his shoulder just as quickly.

“Then don’t be this person.”

He places the mostly-gone cigarette between Neil’s fingers, then pulls open the door that leads
inside, leaving Neil alone in the alley.

He finishes breathing in the rest of the cigarette, eyes never leaving the aqua-coloured material that sits on the dirty ground of a Los Angeles alleyway. Neil doesn’t pick it up.

Once inside, he goes back to his makeup chair, allowing the artist to touch up his face. It’s difficult to stay still when Andrew is only a few feet away, when Neil can’t stop thinking about him, when Neil replays the brush of Andrew’s fingers through his hair over, and over, and over.

He allows himself to spare a glance in his direction, watching as an obviously-anxious makeup artist brushes powder over Andrew’s cheeks, Andrew reclined in his chair with his feet up on the vanity again.

There’s no reason to get up and walk over, but there’s no reason not to, either, so Neil chooses what he wants to do. It’s the strangest sensation, allowing his feet to go where they want to go.

Stranger that it’s towards Andrew.

“Hey.”

The makeup artist ignores Neil’s interruption, but Andrew immediately opens his eyes.

“I wanted to say thank you, for, uh, for earlier.” His hand comes up to rest on the back of Andrew’s chair, fingers squeezing tight to stop himself from altering something he isn’t allowed to change, touching something he can’t touch. “You know . . . the only time I get to say anything that I actually think, it’s about you.”

Maybe he is being played like a puppet, but his rivalry with Andrew is real. Everything he’s said about Andrew has been the truth, regardless if the world hears it as hate.

It’s not.

The universe pauses and sits in sharp silence. Andrew sends a fierce look at the makeup artist, ushering her away, then looks back at the mirror as the universe presses play.

“So there is something outside of your contract?”

There’s intention in Andrew’s voice, intention that Neil wants to respond to. He immediately understands what Andrew was asking with that phone call, and it sinks his chest in. He can't.

“It’s not something I’m allowed to have.”

There’s somberness in Neil’s voice, sombreness that Andrew doesn’t respond to. He sits still and uncaring. “But do you want it?”

He’s never been asked that before.

Because of that fact, he can’t look up again, can’t bring himself to meet Andrew’s eyes in the reflection.

“I’ve never wanted it,” he says finally, and it’s not a yes, but it’s not a no.

“Doesn’t answer my question,” Andrew says, like he expected Neil to say that. He doesn’t give Neil the chance to try though, and instead slides from his seat to stand by his manager.

It’s fifteen minutes before they’re both called back to set. The director takes one look at Neil’s restyled hair, and widens his eyes to match the rage he had yelled out at Andrew.

“What happened to your hair?” he asks, and looks around for the hair stylist. “We have a cover to shoot for, you need to be ready.”

“I’m not wearing it,” Neil says back flatly, and something real bursts and bleeds in his chest, but it doesn’t hurt.

“Don’t be difficult. It’s not for you - it’s for the picture.”

“I’m not wearing it.”

“Do you want us to continue with this photoshoot or not?” he snaps, and waves over for the hair stylist. “It’s very simple; keep the stupid thing on your head and smile when you’re told. Got it?”

Fight fills Neil’s mouth, words and curses that can only be stopped by biting down on his tongue. It wouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Not here.

His ‘no’ is nonexistent here, just like it’s always been and always will be.

So Neil sighs and bows his head, and when the stylist pulls yet another bandana through his curls and ties it tight, he doesn’t take it off.

The photoshoot leads back underway, but this time Neil doesn’t smile, because it’s not asked of him.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with the man who’s meant to be his enemy, a man he’s meant to hate when he really doesn’t, though, feels like another lie.

The world won’t know, when the magazine comes out, that they really don’t hate each other, not that way. The cover shot will most likely be the two of them staring each other down, an inch of space between their faces. The world will never know the ideas being thought in that space.

Andrew is offering something.

A decision, a choice.

Something he can say no to - something he wants to say yes to.

Something Neil hasn’t ever had before. It’s always been what he has to do, no other options.

It’s not something anyone else can decide for him. It’s not even something he can decide to feel for himself, because you can tell yourself you can't, but it doesn’t stop you from wanting to reach out and touch, be touched. He’s never wanted that before, either.

How could he say no?

It’s the first time his body and his mind have been a cohesive yes. Funny, that it goes against everything his contract states, that it’s everything he should say no to.

“Andrew.” He says it in the last second they have together, before they’re broken apart by the stylists and makeup artists. “I want it.”

Andrew considers Neil for a moment, expression unreadable, but Neil knows he isn’t truly as bored as he looks. He leaves without saying anything, and Neil knows that’s not the end of it.

He’s proven right an hour later, when his phone goes off with a text message from ‘03’. It’s a bunch of numbers that at first glance mean nothing. It doesn’t take Neil long to realize the numbers are coordinates, a time, and a room number.

34.066042, -118.410602

10

753

Chapter Text

His hood is pulled up over his head, a baseball cap is lowered over his face.

It’s a precaution, though he’s pretty sure the only people who might recognize him right now are the people who’ve had their TV’s turned to a sports station over the past month.

Stepping out of the cab, he leaves behind his last checkpoint of safety, and enters an entirely different world. Fancy doesn’t begin to describe this hotel, with its palm trees and marble fountain. The doormen wear sharp, fitted suits, and greet him with a small bow.

The inside is even worse; a crystal chandelier hangs above Neil’s head as soon as he steps through the revolving doors. In his baggy hoodie and hat, he suddenly feels a bit out of place. Very, very out of place.

It takes a minute to find the right elevator, an even longer minute to work up the courage to press the button, and another sixty precise seconds to step onto it when the doors open. Then there’s no going back, the only direction is up, up, up to the seventh floor.

What’s on the seventh floor is everything he cannot have. It’s everything he signed away. It’s also what he doesn’t understand.

Neil isn’t stupid. He knows the risks and the dangers. What he doesn’t know is what he feels, he just knows that he feels it, because he hasn’t ever before.

Not like this. It’s never itched up inside of him. He’s never felt the scratching of sharp curiosity, clawing at his insides in an attempt to get out.

He’s been fine without it. You can’t want something you just don’t feel. He knows, realistically, he could be fine without this, too, but the thought of never knowing, never finding out, never trying, is enough reason to get him out of the elevator.

He has to know why he feels this, what this is, where it’s coming from and how. All he knows is that it’s because of Andrew.

What is it about Andrew?

The fact that it could ruin everything, if anyone else ever found out, doesn’t scare him. If anything, it comforts him, because he signed a contract saying he wouldn’t let people see this, wouldn’t let them know.

Andrew did, too.

So who out of the two of them is going to tell?

So what could it hurt to just find out? To feed an answer to his tightening heart, and finish the rhythm that’s been stuck in his head since he first shook Andrew’s hand.

The door with the gold 753 comes into view much too quickly, but having made his decision a long time ago, Neil doesn’t hesitate this time, and raises a hand to give a steady knock on the wood. It takes a minute, but soon there’s the sound of footsteps, and then the door is swinging back open.

Andrew stands there, an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips. He looks at Neil, then fishes his phone out of his pocket, clicks a button, and holds the screen up for Neil to see. “Eager?” he asks around the cigarette.

The time is flashing on the screen. Four minutes before ten. “Traffic wasn’t terrible,” Neil explains, and steps around Andrew to get inside.

The door closes, sealing them in, feeling almost as final as it had when they were locked in the court.

Andrew makes his way to the minibar and asks, “Did anyone see you come in?”

“I don’t think so. Hey - why’d you make this place so hard to find?”

Andrew says without looking at him, “To be sure you wanted to find it.”

He turns around and hands a bottle of something to Neil, then takes one for himself and makes his way over to the windowsill, turning the crank on the window and pushing it out as far as it will go. He lights up, completely ignorant to the placard on the wall that declares this suite as a non-smoking room.

“Not a fan of following the rules, I see,” Neil says conversationally, eyes glancing up at the placard.

“Five-hundred bucks a night. It’s a smoking room.”

Managing a grim sort of smile, Neil finds a place on the bed, facing Andrew where he sits at the window.

Settling into silence, Neil suddenly feels - awkward. Too aware of himself, from his clothes, to his thoughts, to this aching unknowing that he hates - because Andrew must know.

Neil’s been painted to look inexperienced by the media. He hates that sitting in front of Andrew, he is that painting, has no clue what to do or how. It makes him want to tear off his skin and try again, to be another picture, to know better.

Oblivious to Neil’s internal panic, or maybe because he’s all too aware of it, Andrew leans over and passes Neil his pack of smokes and a lighter. They smoke and breathe and drink in silence, and the longer each second stays quiet, the more Neil’s heart starts to settle.

He had expected go go go and now now now and desperate and quick just to get it over with. But Andrew sits there with his head tilted back, looking as if this is the only reason he invited Neil over tonight, like there’s nothing else expected.

So Neil has to ask, his cigarette nearly burnt down to a stub, “How many times have you done this?”

Andrew takes that as an insult, it seems, judging by the scowl that darkens his face.

“I mean -” He doesn’t know what he means, he can’t say it. “You signed this all away,” he tries, waving his hand around. “You don’t seem that bothered by it. Like you’ve found a way around it.”

Andrew shrugs, confirming Neil’s suspicion, acting as if signing away everything you are inside means nothing. “You could say that,” he says. “But I’m not going to let some words on a paper decide who I fuck anyway.”

That sends a sudden bolt of heat down Neil’s chest, feeling more like a punch than anything else. He ducks his head quickly to hide the flash of red that colours his cheeks. It’s dizzying to hear this - whatever this is - put into words.

“What if you get caught?”

“I can’t get caught,” Andrew says. “I’m not hiding anything, I’m just not telling. There’s a difference.”

Neil nods, though he doesn’t understand.

Andrew sips at his drink, studying Neil intently over the mouth of his bottle. “There’s a reason I never signed your team’s contract.”

“And what is that?”

“Is this sport really that important to you that you’d forfeit every cell you are?”

It’s not difficult to hold Andrew’s gaze now. He means it when he says, “It is every cell I am.”

Andrew looks as if he wants to roll his eyes, but he refrains and takes one last drag of his smoke before stubbing the end out against the pristine windowsill. “That’s what I thought you’d say,” he says, turning his body to face Neil better, letting his legs part and his shoulders relax. “I don’t believe it.”

Then it’s back to not being able to look at him. Andrew’s eyes are like a searching spotlight, so bright, exposing everything. All Neil can think about is the small distance between him and Andrew’s open legs, Andrew’s steady gaze, reading him and cracking him open.

“Or else you wouldn’t be here right now.”

Neil uses his drink as an excuse to avoid eye contact, lifting his bottle up up up until he can drain it. Andrew seems to be giving him the time he needs to answer that, so Neil takes it, studying the label of his beer with serious intent once he's finished.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here because I’ve never -” Neil starts, then stops, and finally looks up. “How am I supposed to pass up something I’ve never felt before?”

That changes something in Andrew’s structure. He’s quick to straighten himself and tower his presence over Neil. He says like it’s law, “You don’t feel anything. If this is going to be anything, it will be only physical. Do you understand?”

Neil doesn’t understand, because he most definitely does feel something. He doesn’t know what it is, and the only reason he knows it’s there is because it’s never been there.

He wants to think it’s simply because Andrew’s tied up in Neil’s love for Exy now, but then again, so is Kevin. He wants to think maybe it’s because Andrew is a means of security now, because Andrew can't tell anyone.

But that doesn’t work; Neil only wants because it’s Andrew.

Looking at him, at Andrew’s guarded gaze and venomous stance, Neil can’t pinpoint what it is about him.

The last thing it could ever be, however, is his touch. The last time Neil’s fingertips have brushed Andrew’s skin was the night they met.

It has to be something else.

Neil doesn’t mind figuring it out, but he has to say, a smirk tugging at his lips, “How could it only be physical when all we’ve done so far is shake hands?”

Andrew’s vicious expression stays where it is for a long moment, increasing in darkness, until suddenly he snaps his head around to stare out the window. “You’re a lot more difficult than I thought you’d be.”

“I’m a challenge, remember?”

Andrew lets out a slightly more raspy breath, a skeleton of a laugh. Neil feeds on it. It puts him one step closer to solving this.

Though he isn’t quite sure what he’ll do when he figures it out.

“Then where do you want to start?” Andrew asks, after another suspension of silence, surprising Neil with his voice.

For a moment there, he was expecting to be sent away. He didn’t think he’d be given another decision to make. Letting out a small laugh, Neil shrugs and admits, “I was hoping you would tell me.”

To his confusion, Andrew doesn’t answer that, and instead hops off the windowsill to walk over to the desk by the mirror, picking up a large leatherbound menu.

“We should eat,” Andrew says, tossing the book at Neil. “Order whatever you want.”

He isn’t hungry at all, his stomach too twisted up to feel anything, but he thinks maybe that’s not what Andrew is asking.

“What are you having?”

Andrew sighs at that, but lifts one dismissive shoulder and says, “Ice cream, probably.”

“Then I’ll have that.”

Whatever he had expected from tonight, sitting on a bed with Andrew Minyard and eating ice cream out of expensive serving dishes was not part of that.

The TV plays in the background, drowning out most of Neil’s attempt at conversation. Yet somehow, it’s not awkward. It’s almost as if this is how it’s supposed to go.

Andrew doesn’t talk, but he listens, even if he doesn’t lift his eyes to meet Neil’s. He stirs and picks at his dessert as Neil rattles on about this and that, topics mostly covering Exy, as that’s all he’s accustomed to talking about.

He starts off by mentioning how many of Andrew’s games he had watched throughout college - he had watched many. He mentions his days in little league, and how it was his only escape from a strange home life he wouldn’t understand for years to come. He starts to mention being recruited by Kevin, the day his coach at UOA had approached him and said ‘There’s a recruiter for the Seakings here to see you play tonight’ before he realizes, he really doesn’t want to talk about Kevin.

Or Exy.

Or anything about the game.

But what else to say?

He wants to find the reason why he feels so high about Andrew and uncaring about everything else; his whole career sits right outside the locked hotel door and Neil doesn’t think once about it when he’s talking to Andrew.

After a few moments of silence, stirring at melted ice cream, Neil thinks off the top of his head and tells Andrew about the weird dream he had last night, something he wouldn’t think to tell anyone else, because who else would listen?

The abrupt change in topics seems to shock Andrew, because there’s a quirk to his eyebrow and a twitch at his lips.

“So what about you?” Neil asks, giving his spoon a lick. “What kind of messed up dreams have you had?”

Andrew graces him with a cold look. “I’m living one,” he says, but after a minute, he surprises Neil by elaborating. “It’s pointless to wonder about them. They’re always going to be unrealistic, and I don’t approve of false hope.”

“I get that,” Neil says, nodding, though he isn’t sure he does get that. “Whenever I dream about flying, I wake up disappointed that I can’t. It always feels so real.”

“It never is.”

“Thanks, I’ll try to remember that next time I’m unconscious.”

Andrew looks at him again, and this time, he doesn’t look away.

Once they’re done their ice cream, they set the bowls down on the ground, as if they aren’t worth the rent of a house. Not having anything to keep his mouth and hands busy now, Neil glances at Andrew’s lips, and wonders too much about them.

“How am I doing?” He has to ask, half joke, half panic.

“Terrible,” Andrew answers, but it sounds half mocking, half bite. “But I’m not grading you, and I don’t plan on telling anyone else.”

“I know.” Neil shrugs a bit. “That’s what convinced me to come.”

Knowing Andrew would keep it a secret isn’t the reason he’s here, but it is the reassuring force that had him take those last few steps towards the door.

He’s here because -

And then he thinks he gets it.

Andrew’s been giving him chance after chance all night to turn around and walk away. The click of the lock wasn’t as final as the lock on the court had been; that had been somebody else’s decision, that neither could escape from. Being in here with Andrew, all Neil has to do to leave is leave.

Andrew is the opposite of Neil’s contract - he’s freedom.

Neil’s never had freedom. He’s never had freedom want him in return.

So uncaring about the rights or the wrongs because neither affect him, Andrew does things because and only if he wants to, despite all the rules and regulations.

For Neil, a man whose entire life has been rules and regulations, self-imposed and forced, it’s invigorating.

It’s freeing. It’s having the option of leaving if he wants to, staying if he wants that more. It’s whatever Neil wants to do, as long as he really wants to do it. No forcing, no pushing, no pressure.

Just a question, with so many answers.

That’s the reason he’s here. That’s the reason he wants Andrew.

Focusing on the TV after coming to that realization is difficult, and it shows in Neil’s bouncing legs, anxious fingers, in his eyes that keep averting from the screen to look at Andrew, waiting for Andrew, wanting Andrew to look at him.

The program cuts to commercial, and Andrew remains still as stone, a safe distance away from Neil’s jittering body.

And -

He’s slower than Andrew, clearly, because it seems Andrew had already come to Neil’s realization long ago. Andrew sits still and away from Neil because he’s waiting for Neil, not the other way around.

And here it is again, the reason he wants this; having a decision. Andrew’s given him space to draw out his lines, figure out his boundaries, and now Neil has to decide if he wants Andrew across them.

His name is attached to a contract that binds up his entire life, lining his body, keeping him contained. Now that he’s outside of it, playing within his own lines, he doesn’t know where to start.

But he does want to start, and that’s a first.

So he tries to make that first move, of his own volition, sitting up on the bed to face Andrew, who keeps his attention pinned to the TV. His apparent disinterest doesn’t deter Neil, not when Andrew is straightening out his legs on either side of Neil and slowly uncrossing his arms.

Then they’re face to face, nearly skin to skin, but not quite eye to eye; Neil is looking entirely at Andrew’s lips.

“Can I?” Neil asks, still staring at Andrew’s mouth, and his heart thrums up alive at how much he wants an answer.

Andrew lifts an eyebrow, and asks back, “Can you?”

It can’t be all that difficult, Neil thinks, and leans forward to reach for Andrew. His hands instinctively come up to cup Andrew’s jaw, because that’s what feels right.

Wrong.

His hands are stopped abruptly just inches from Andrew’s face. Andrew wraps his fingers tight around Neil’s wrists and holds him there, not pushing him away but not allowing him closer.

Once he’s sure Neil is contained in his hands, Andrew closes the distance between their lips and kisses him.

Neil didn't know it could feel like that.

It’s - odd. He never understood the point of it, and he doesn’t understand it now, but it’s just that with Andrew’s lips against his, he almost never wants to breathe again if it means he can keep kissing him.

The drag of curiosity, of knowing I want this, whatever this is, pulls him forward for more. He gives in completely to Andrew’s hands around his wrists, sagging his body forward and letting Andrew hold him up.

Being touched by Andrew feels like being told a million words at once. Like secrets being shared, no one else around to hear, only them and this and whatever comes next.

The kissing lasts for another minute, maybe two, maybe a hundred. Neil’s sense of time gets warped when he feels Andrew’s tongue against his, so really it could be the next day and he would be none the wiser.

Until Andrew flexes his grip around Neil, slowly ushering him back but not letting go. He says, firm and certain, “There are rules. Can you follow them?”

But how could Neil answer that when he can’t even remember his name, the English language so vague to him now? He blinks away the fog from his eyes, pushes through the daze, and only comes through to the other side when Andrew gives his wrists a squeeze.

Ever since Neil met him, and likely long before that, Andrew hasn’t followed a single rule that’s been put in his path. Laws and guidelines never mean anything to him. He’s his own person, player, game.

If Andrew comes with rules, then they must mean something. Neil nods his confirmation, then realizes a second later when Andrew doesn’t let go that it needs to be a vocal one. “Yes.”

He hardly recognizes his voice.

Andrew drops his wrists and puts a foot of space between them, but keeps one finger jabbed under Neil’s chin.

“I need to know that you really want it. If you need to stop, you say stop. If you need time, tell me you need time. Yes is yes and no is no.”

Neil looks at Andrew and meets the challenge in his eyes straight on. It settles weird in his stomach, twisting it up, because that challenge isn’t vicious or harmful. It’s as if Andrew’s waiting for Neil to say no, but even more than that, it’s as if he’s afraid he’ll say yes.

“I understand,” Neil says, holding himself very still as Andrew takes his hand away, in case such a simple word invokes a serious reaction. It’s risky to look away from Andrew’s eyes, but he needs to see where his hands are now; clenched up tight in the blanket, far away from Neil. “Where can I touch you?”

He asks without thinking it through, because he has to, confused by all these lines being drawn. So far it seems as if none of them lead to Andrew, but rather create a barrier around him.

“That’s the second rule,” Andrew says calmly, keeping his eyes on Neil’s face. “You can’t.”

Somewhere in the distance of Neil’s mind, there’s the sound of tires coming to a screeching halt. He snaps his head up quickly, unable to mask his continued confusion, but it quickly dies where it’s spread out across his face once he looks at Andrew’s.

It wouldn’t be a rule if Andrew didn’t need it. So instead of asking why, Neil says, “Okay.”

For whatever reason, that knocks the ice off Andrew’s features and shows what’s hidden underneath - shock.

It makes Neil wonder if anyone’s ever wanted to follow Andrew’s rules before. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t follow anyone else’s.

Andrew blinks and the ice comes back, sharpening and freezing everything from his eyes to his lips. “Do you have any rules?”

Neil shrugs and shakes his head. “Not yet. I’ve never done this before.”

Andrew’s response is silence, but he seems to hear whatever it is he needs to hear, because he doesn’t push it.

And oddly enough, it doesn’t fall back into more kissing, though Andrew does look between Neil and the windowsill for a considerable amount of time. He makes whatever decision he needs to and indicates with a jerk of his head to follow. Then they sit at the windowsill together, legs bent up and toes nearly touching, exchanging a lighter between them to light two separate cigarettes.

Andrew looks contemplative, remnants of challenge still in his eyes, looking almost angry with something. With himself.

Neil has to ask, “Is it usually like this?”

Whatever this is or is supposed to be or can be - Neil has a suspicion this isn't how it usually goes.

Andrew looks out at their view, breathing out a cloud of smoke into the gap of the open window, and shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s rare for someone to get past the second rule.”

Neil’s mouth wants to drop open to form another question, but he keeps it closed and fills in the blanks for himself. It’s clear now why Andrew looks that way; he doesn’t know what to do.

Has anyone ever said yes to him?

No, that’s not it, Neil thinks.

Has anyone ever asked him for a yes?

Content to wait it out, even if it never happens, Neil moves from the windowsill to sit on the bed, only to be stopped by a hand on his wrist.

Neil pauses immediately, and looks over his shoulder to where Andrew is, still sitting, taking one last drag of his cigarette. He never lets go of Neil’s wrist.

As soon as it’s stubbed out, grey ashes smearing into white wood, Neil is being hauled closer and downwards, just enough for Andrew to grab the back of his neck and pull him in for a kiss.

A hand on his neck and a hand around his wrist, Neil feels contained in a way that makes him feel free. He’s safe here. His no means no here.

He says yes here.

Somehow, someway, through quick pecks and violent nips of teeth against lips, they end up on the bed. The pillow feels like concrete when Neil’s head hits it, or maybe that shock of impact is from having Andrew’s entire body weight over top of him.

His hands instinctively come up to touch. Andrew is a hot, heavy, real thing above him and Neil wants to know every inch, so it doesn’t seem so foreign, but he can’t. Like a flashing red warning, blaring loud through his ears, he reminds himself to kill the need to solve things.

Andrew will show him whatever he wants him to know.

Andrew keeps his body raised in certain places, carefully arranging his knees and his arms to hold himself where he wants to be. Neil responds by pressing his own body further into the mattress, as if telling Andrew he gets it, he’ll give him his space.

All he can’t control, all he doesn’t want to, is the way that he’s breathing. One kiss and it’s heavy, two kisses and it’s desperate, three kisses and Neil thinks he’s suffocating, whining low in his throat and gasping in the half second that their lips aren’t touching.

He thinks maybe Andrew wants to smother him breathless, because his kisses quicken, raining down relentless.

A bite on his lower lip abruptly stops them, however, and Andrew asks right against Neil’s mouth, “Do you want this?”

And suddenly it all seems so very simple: this is not a contract. There are no false pretenses here, no mask he has to wear. It’s not you must do this or you won’t have anything. It’s do you want this? If you do, we can. If you don’t, we won’t.

“Yes,” Neil gasps out, and his voice is quickly swallowed up by Andrew’s lips and tongue and hands again.

Some people search for people. Some people wait. Neil was neither, not caring about being alone because he always had a game to play, a team to lead, a dream to make. But if he wasn’t searching and wasn’t waiting, then why is he reacting like this, like every touch of Andrew’s fingertips adds missing pieces to him?

His legs part without him thinking it, his throat twists out Andrew’s name, his heart beats somehow steady as Andrew’s hands skim lower and lower, as Andrew shoves Neil’s hoodie further up his chest and exposes all his skin.

“Tell me to stop,” Andrew says, between kisses planted to Neil’s neck and collarbone.

Neil throws his head back and grits out, “I don’t want you to stop.”

It was a question concealed as a statement, Neil realizes, and Andrew hears whatever he needed to hear in Neil’s answer. His kisses follow the path that his hands had made.

In the back of Neil’s mind, forced there because what Andrew’s lips and hands are doing right now takes priority, he thinks about the dangers. If anyone ever realized, saw, told, then Neil’s dream would be finished, his life would be over.

Then why does it feel like it’s just now beginning?

Andrew yanks Neil’s hoodie down from where it was bunched under his armpits, but it’s Neil who reaches out to rip it off.

That gets something - not a smile, not even a smirk - but a something in his direction. It also gives him a brief pause, enough to realize Andrew’s eyes are hazel, and not dark hateful things.

The world thinks he hates him, and Neil will live just fine with that, as long as they never know how willingly and easily he submits to Andrew’s hands. They push and pull and pinch and part and Neil says yes to it all, so desperate for Andrew to start.

Andrew kisses places that nobody else ever has, places that nobody else has ever touched, even with hands. Neil’s pulse races underneath Andrew’s lips, and his heart stops completely when Andrew’s cool breath blows over the mark of a wet kiss, and it scares Neil.

It scares Neil that he wasn’t searching but now he can’t imagine anyone else but Andrew.

He reminds himself of the reason; Andrew is safety that nobody else can give him, a set of rules just for them, a decision, an underlying trust that neither will give the other away because then they’ll both lose. The offer of yes or no.

That’s it.

There can’t be any other reason Neil is only thinking, and has only ever thought, Andrew.

As the kisses, bites, licks and marks continue, the need to grab something deepens and engraves itself like a scar across Neil. “Andrew,” he says, or tries to say but ends up gasping. He doesn’t want to ask for it, not wanting to force Andrew to give it, but he needs - he doesn’t know what he needs. “I -”

There’s a blur of blonde hair above Neil, a slick swell of heat from Andrew’s mouth around Neil’s neck. Andrew pulls back the very instant he hears his name, leaving Neil cold all over.

At Neil’s silence, his non-vocal no, Andrew looks like he’s about to sit up and forget about all of this, and Neil’s heart beats hard in sudden protest.

“No, never - nevermind,” he stammers, and closes his legs dangerously close around Andrew, but still not enough to touch. “Keep going.”

Andrew must be starving, and just as cold as Neil was, because he doesn’t waste a second and continues painting Neil’s neck with spit and kisses.

And Neil, watching how Andrew grips and grabs him, settles for clutching at the blanket underneath them. Leaving claw marks against the silken material is worlds safer than leaving claw marks down Andrew.

Neil’s about to tear holes through the blanket when, without looking or taking his mouth off Neil, Andrew reaches up with one hand and grabs hard at Neil’s wrist. Another anchor, another pinpoint of safety.

Unlike every other hold, this one doesn’t seem to be to keep Neil in place. This ones to give him something to feel.

Neil’s been throughout various variations of breathless, but never like this. The very proximity of Andrew is like a body check on the court, but it doesn’t hurt, it just leaves him gasping for air that can’t be breathed.

And suddenly, Neil wants more, in a way that he has never wanted more before.

But Andrew is pulling back.

Neil doesn’t mean to, truly, but he whines and whimpers the barest minimum of Andrew’s name.

As quiet as that one word is, it echoes and fades until silence consumes it.

“That’s enough,” Andrew says, the sound of his voice so strange now - so strange, but exactly what Neil needed to hear. He looks down at Neil, nothing about him heaving and shaking in the way that Neil is falling apart, and wipes at his mouth.

Andrew’s cheeks are red, his lips are redder, his eyes don’t look hazel anymore but rather something sparkling, so Neil lays there until he’s sure he’s not hallucinating any of it.

Sometime later, perhaps five seconds or five minutes, Andrew offers a hand and pulls Neil upright. His eyes and lips and cheeks are still surreal colours, which makes Neil think that Andrew just isn’t real - because Neil has never wanted anyone’s touch so much.

Then, as if he were reading Neil’s mind, Andrew reaches out and touches the pad of his thumb to Neil’s bottom lip, swiping across it in a way that could read as gentle if you weren’t Andrew, weren’t Neil.

It feels like he’s being asked a question; silent but as vital as air. Neil meets Andrew’s surreal eyes and nods, and it’s only then that Andrew removes his thumb to trace over his own lip, looking thoughtful and utterly at odds.

It must be common to be this breathless. Feeling weightless and drowsy, Neil can’t imagine having it, but the burn of wanting more more more scorches his insides. He says that to Andrew with his eyes.

It can’t be common, however, for Andrew to give one furious wipe to his mouth and push away from the bed to sit at the windowsill. Like more is wrong, like more can’t be done, like more is what he wants too much, like more really is something that Neil just doesn’t understand.

Neil watches him, and doesn’t ask why, because there are rules for a reason.

And, being honest, Neil doesn’t care about the more entirely - he cares about the Andrew of it all. So he keeps his mouth shut, because he knows Andrew wouldn’t want to hear it.

And, being honest, Neil isn’t going to tell him because right now, as he furiously puffs at a cigarette, Andrew looks the way Neil feels - like it’s more than just more for him, too.

Instead he tugs on his hoodie, and joins Andrew at the window. He hesitates before taking the offered cigarette, not wanting to burn away Andrew’s taste, but the scent of smoke always helps him reset his breathing.

But he really doesn’t mind never breathing again.

Even though the sky is dark, the lights of Los Angeles refuse to go down without a fight. Looking out at some strange version of night, the concept of time becomes even more confusing for Neil.

He doesn’t want it to become day.

And, as if he were reading Neil’s thoughts, counting down their seconds - as if he just wants Neil and nothing else - Andrew leans over and plucks the cigarette away from Neil and holds it out of the way, then grabs Neil with his free hand and pulls him to his lips.

This kiss is sour and ashy.

This kiss pauses time.

Neil figures this isn’t common at all, for either of them, or anybody.

But the last thing he could ever say is no.

Chapter Text

At some point he falls asleep, because at some point, he wakes up.

Alone.

Dull sunlight is coming in through the still-open window, letting in the cool air of an early LA morning. The blanket was kicked to the ground some time last night, so when Neil wakes up alone, he’s also cold.

The alone part is worse.

Because besides the ache running throughout his body, and the flip of his stomach every time he replays one of Andrew’s many, many kisses from last night, he has no concrete proof that he was ever not alone. There’s no evidence that there was another body in this bed, no history of everything Andrew did and said.

It was a dream then.

Even if it had actually happened, it might as well have been in Neil’s head.

Waking up feels like crash landing. Waking up feels like being within seconds of the finish line only to be transported back to start. Waking up - sucks.

Which is a funny thought to think, and just as painful; if Andrew was never meant to be part of reality, how come being underneath him is when Neil had felt the most real?

But it was simply a dream, gone as soon as the sun had risen. Today is the tomorrow that Neil had been dreading yesterday.

Time to wake up now, though he would rather fall back asleep.

There’s no point in the way his hands curl in on themselves, trying to remember the feeling of something he had never actually felt. It will only be physical is another funny thought to think, as Neil hadn’t touched once, but he still feels -

Whatever this is. Last night it was being on top of the world. Now it’s falling off of it.

It’s over.

It hadn’t even happened.

Neil throws his legs over the side of the bed and sits with his head in his hands, tiredly scrubbing at his eyes as he tries to think of his next move, where he needs to go from here. He stares at the door for a long moment, not wanting to open it and leave, when suddenly it’s flying back, and Andrew is walking in.

Andrew, real as the sunshine, real as the air outside, real as Neil’s own relief-filled sigh.

Neil stares, unable to believe any of this, the sun or the air or the Andrew of it all. He stares even as Andrew sits on the far edge of the bed, handing Neil a drink from the tray he had carried in.

“Stop that,” Andrew says simply, taking the lid off his cup to sip at the whipped cream that sits on top.

“You’re still here,” Neil says, dazedly, and despite the heat of the coffee seeping into his hands, he’s convinced he’s still dreaming.

“I can’t check out until you leave. Unless you want housekeeping coming up here to find you shirtless.”

“I see,” Neil says, and sips his coffee. It burns down his throat. Not even that is enough to wake him.

“Go shower so I can get out of here. Also, your phone hasn’t shut up all morning. I’d check that if I were you.”

Neil follows Andrew’s gaze to where his phone sits on the nightstand, and suddenly reality sounds like a siren. It doesn’t matter that Andrew is still here. It doesn’t change the life and the game waiting for him.

His reality is his team, his contract, is Kevin - who sent him a text saying ‘If we hurry along with this photoshoot we can fit a practice in before our game tomorrow’ - and his manager, who called him three times in the past hour.

His reality is confusion. What does he have for sure, and what isn’t real? If it was a dream, then why is it still happening?

Andrew sits calmly - on the bed that he had Neil pinned to for the better half of last night -  and watches as Neil rushes to gather the remainder of his clothes and hurry off to shower.

Neil doesn’t have a second to spare to catch his reflection in the mirror, but the startling amount of marks that decorate his neck have him pausing regardless. Proof it was real, Neil thinks, running his fingers along them, wincing at the tenderness and smirking at the memory.

It was real.

Whatever it was.

For a moment or two, pushed into the bed with Andrew’s fingernails raking down his abdomen, Andrew’s mouth at his neck, Andrew’s name spilling from his lips, he was Neil.

Those missing pieces that Andrew’s fingertips pressed into him were pieces of himself; his name, his mind, his decisions, his life. Nothing in Neil had felt like I have to, like he’s so often felt after signing his contract.

Andrew didn’t make Neil anything else, he simply allowed him the space to be I want to.

Himself.

The game is the sea, his contract is the anchor, and it might simply be a coincidence but it’s only Andrew who has given Neil his first chance at breathing.

But one breath of air isn’t enough to make up for a lifetime of being held down underwater.

He stands there under the too-hot shower, rinsing away the sweat and heat of last night, and thinks, and wants. All he wants is to make a decision by himself for himself.

Or not even that; he wants Andrew to look him in the eye, keep his lips against his, and ask him again do you want this?

That way Neil can say yes. There’s so little in his life that he can say that to, because there are so little opportunities where he would even be asked. His signature on his contract revoked his right to say it.

The reason he came here is the reason he wants to stay here. He simply wants to breathe. He wants the choices offered by Andrew. He wants to sleep, because dreams only happen at night, anyway.

Andrew is sitting at the windowsill when Neil finally emerges from the shower, both his legs bent up in front of him as he looks out the window, gaze unfocused, a cigarette lit between his fingers.

“Hey.”

Andrew says nothing, his silence almost inviting.

“I came up with a rule,” Neil says, and sits in the space between Andrew’s feet and the wall.

“Too late,” Andrew says, distantly, and Neil wonders if he’s replaying last night in his head like Neil is.

“Not if this happens again.”

“It won’t.”

“Then that’s my rule. Can it?”

Andrew just barely tilts his head to look at Neil, something scornful playing at his lips. “That is not a rule, that’s a dream.”

“You said to tell you when I want to stop, right?” Neil asks, waiting for Andrew to nod. “Then can’t I tell you when I want to start?”

For a moment Andrew looks incredibly displeased by that, studying Neil’s too-hopeful expression with serious intent.

“No.”

Irritation weighs on Neil, though he knows it shouldn’t. He won’t force Andrew to say yes, but he wants to know the reason behind his no. “Why not?”

“Not with you. Not with me.”

But Andrew looks at him, and it feels the way his hand around Neil’s wrist had felt, when he gave Neil something to hold and feel. That look says just you, and Neil knows his own eyes are saying only you.

“Are you scared?”

That snaps Andrew’s look into something sharp, slicing the air into a fine silence.

“I only ask,” Neil continues, moving to stand again, plucking the cigarette from Andrew’s fingers and placing it between his lips. “Because if it wasn’t anything last night, then what could one more night hurt?”

(He says it, not knowing that one day he will know exactly how much it will hurt.)

Andrew glares at his stolen cigarette. “You are an infection of irritation. More so than yesterday.”

Neil smirks. “Is that a yes?”

One eyebrow lifting slightly, Andrew reaches for his smokes and removes one from the pack, and is in the process of lighting it when he finally asks, “Did I say yes?”

Neil immediately falls back, throwing up every instinctive block he has, to stop himself from crossing a line he swore to never cross. There are rules for a reason; Neil refuses to break Andrew’s.

But something sticks with him.

The night of the banquet, Andrew had already found the same escape that Neil needed. The day that Riko had trespassed on their practice, Andrew was locked inside the court just as Neil had been. Last night, Andrew had asked Neil yes or no, but who’s ever asked him?

Just you and only you - it doesn’t sound like a coincidence anymore. Andrew gave Neil the slightest sliver of freedom in a soul-binding contract. Neil wants to give it back.

So Neil asks, “Do you want to say yes?”

The reaction that tears its way through Andrew makes it clear to Neil that nobody has asked him before.

Just as quick as he was to flinch, Andrew turns his gaze out the window, clenching his fingers too tightly around the delicate body of the cigarette. It snaps.

Neil waits a moment, not wanting to force an answer that can’t be rightfully said. He is not a contract, he won’t be like the constantly inquiring world, needing something from them that’s impossible to give.

He turns around, taking Andrew’s silence as a cue to leave.

He wonders why it feels the way that waking up does.

An inch before he’s too far away, a hand is wrapping around his wrist. It sears in a way that smokes, feeling like a yes etched into flesh.

In that moment, Neil knows his feet are going to stay right where they are. There are several paths in front of him, all leading to something, but they all lead away from Andrew and his nothing.

Andrew; who said his touch was nothing, yet managed to make Neil feel like more than just a player, puppet, contract, name.

More than just a game.

Neil feels everything he wants in Andrew’s grip around his wrist, so he turns around, and he stays.

It’s all up to Andrew, and it’s the one decision regarding Neil’s life that he doesn’t mind not making. Andrew makes up his mind, and the grip around Neil’s wrist tightens.

“The rules don’t change,” Andrew says firmly. “This is still just -” His fingers curl in, nails biting skin. “This.”

This is still nothing.

“Okay,” Neil says, and he wonders why Andrew had thought it had changed in the first place.

“Okay,” Andrew repeats, and lets go of Neil’s wrist.

Neil wishes he wouldn’t.

Andrew sends him one final look, as challenging as all the rest have been, as if he’s daring Neil to back out. He doesn’t see why he should. He meets that challenge and says back until next time.

He grabs his phone and his now-cold coffee off the nightstand, then looks to Andrew and smiles.

“Thank you,” he says, and he’s never meant it before. Then again, nobody’s ever given him something like this before.

Andrew doesn’t meet his gaze, but when Neil turns to leave, he can feel the heat of Andrew’s stare on his back.

-

He’s an hour late to the photoshoot, which he supposes he should feel guilty about, especially when his arrival sets off every crew member into a frenzy, but he can’t quite care just quite yet.

Hair and makeup drag him off to his chair before Kevin or his manager can get to him, thankfully, but that protection doesn’t last long. As the hair stylist is fixing Neil’s hair, Kevin appears at Neil’s side, and no amount of concealer can hide the scowl he fixes on him.

“You aren’t the type to sleep in,” Kevin says flatly. “Now you’ve held the entire team up. We need every spare minute of practice before our preseason game tomorrow.”

Neil keeps his eyes on his reflection. As long as he doesn’t look into Kevin’s eyes, or anybody else’s eyes, then he can hold onto the way it had felt when Andrew looked back at him.

Just you.

“If you’re that concerned, the props department has some spare racquets. Take them out back.”

Kevin jabs a finger at Neil and says like a threat, “We’re going to talk about this.”

They don’t get a chance; with the rest of the starters ready to go and the crew anxious and annoyed from the delay, as soon as Neil’s on set the photoshoot leads underway immediately. It progresses much smoother than yesterday had, for obvious reasons.

Of course, easy and simple is not how it stays. When the rest of the team breaks for lunch, the stylist pulls Neil and Kevin off to the dressing room, taking last minute measurements for an unexpected outfit change.

That’s when all of Neil’s hidden marks make themselves known.

The stylist doesn’t blink as she wraps a measuring tape around Neil’s midsection, but Kevin’s eyes are like hot coals on him, staring entirely at Neil’s neck.

As soon as the stylist turns away to her rolling rack, Kevin spins to face Neil and hisses lowly, “You didn’t.”

Neil doesn’t sway, looking forward and only forward. He pulls his new shirt on as soon as it’s handed to him. It doesn’t deter Kevin from staring.

It creates a tension that sticks to Neil the way that Andrew’s breath had. The rest of the photoshoot passes painfully, and as soon as the team is on the quick plane ride home, Neil asks to switch seats with Matt. He spends the entire ride dreading the conversation that awaits him on the other side.

When they land, he checks his phone, and ignores the pang in his chest at having no new messages.

-

It’s the most grueling practice of Neil’s entire life, because Kevin acts as if Neil isn’t there, as if Neil doesn’t exist.

Neil hears Andrew’s words from that first night, saying that Kevin lacks faith when he doesn’t get what he needs. It doesn’t make sense that whatever happened between Andrew and Neil is enough to make Kevin stop believing.

Or maybe Kevin never did.

The rest of the team definitely takes notice of Kevin not taking notice of Neil. It’s when Matt continues to steal the ball from Kevin to pass it to Neil that he feels encouraged enough to fight back and make his presence known.

He and Kevin are playing on the same side in this scrimmage, but that doesn’t stop Neil from checking him, tricking him, stealing the ball from him at every opportunity.

Kevin can’t pretend that he doesn’t exist when Neil is here to win.

After, as they shower and change out, run down to their cores, he expects Kevin to be angry about the way he played during practice, but if anything, Kevin looks satisfied, like it was the answer to his aggravation.

That doesn’t make him any less angry once the team leaves for the night. As soon as they’re alone, Kevin shoves Neil back and back and back until Neil slams into the lockers. It doesn’t feel as if his aim is to cause Neil pain, but rather, to show Neil his own.

“Tell me you didn’t.”

Neil doesn’t respond and stares at the wall, trying his hardest to refuse the guilt that Kevin’s forcing on him, trying so desperately to not regret something he had wanted so bad and had.

“Not with him, no, Neil. You signed a contract!”

He’s never heard this tone from Kevin before, something like fear in his voice, something like - no, Neil has heard this tone of voice before, has heard it in the cracks of Kevin’s strength when he talks about Andrew. He sounds like betrayal.

“So I’m supposed to stop feeling? Thinking?” Neil spits back, jerking his head up to finally face Kevin. “I’m not a machine.”

“You aren’t supposed to act on it,” Kevin shouts, and hits the locker beside Neil’s head, the metal crunching loudly under his fist. “Especially not with Andrew. He won’t feel anything back. He only cares about himself.”

Despite the anger and guilt, Neil finds a way to smirk, and looks off distantly. “He said the same thing about you.”

“Neil,” Kevin hisses, more urgent now than vicious. “If somebody finds out, if anybody knows - they won’t give you a chance. It’ll be over.”

Hearing it from anybody else, perhaps it wouldn’t have such an effect on Neil. Nobody knows this game like Kevin, though, nobody has sacrificed more for it; so when Kevin shouts a warning, Neil has no choice but to hear it.

Just as much as he felt shattered at having woken up alone, he feels the same bone-crushing terror at the thought of never playing Exy again. He feels the flicker of rage in his chest that he felt earlier, when he was as invisible as the air on the court, fighting for a chance to play.

But Kevin doesn’t understand the way Neil and Andrew do. There’s nothing for anyone to discover. What they have is nothing sealed up behind locked doors, and not an ounce more.

“It’s nothing,” Neil says, and it sounds so false on his tongue, saying it to Kevin. “It doesn’t matter, does it? It’s -” Such a lie, to Kevin and everyone but above all else, himself. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing,” Kevin repeats, sounding like a question but also a fact. “That doesn’t look like nothing.”

Neil’s staring at the wall behind Kevin again, and only notices that Kevin is pointing at his face a second later. He doesn’t want to imagine how he must look. He knows the pain in his chest is trying to show in his eyes.

It feels like waking up. It feels like being blinded by the sun after looking at the moon. It feels like hearing the truth, and realizing it was something you already knew.

Andrew said it was nothing and Neil believed it, but -

If it were nothing, the muscles holding his mask in place wouldn’t be breaking right now. He wouldn’t have had to wear a mask at all.

If it were nothing, then Neil would be able to let it go - it wouldn’t have been something that Neil could even hold.

If it were nothing, then Neil would agree with Kevin, and will it all away just as quickly as you forget dreams upon waking.

If you were nothing then why did it feel like I could choose you?

Why did Andrew say yes? It never could have been nothing after that.

Why did Neil even ask? Why did he want nothing so bad?

Because . . . what he thought was nothing was something to him, right?

Or else he wouldn’t have made the choice to walk down that hall towards the door with the 753 on it. He wouldn’t have stayed. He wouldn’t have wanted it when Andrew asked do you want this?

He was calling it nothing because Andrew said that’s what it was, but that wasn’t the definition to him. That’s why Andrew had to remind him with that tight grip around his wrist, that it had to stay how it had started, how it is and always will be.

Realizing that is feeling that feeling that Neil hates so much; waking up and finding out you can’t really fly like you could in your dream.

“Nobody will know,” Neil says resolutely, and that’s when it aches, disappointment filling his sea.

Nobody will know because it can’t happen again. It was a dream, and dreams, as Andrew had said, are never real.

Freedom was a facade that only existed in a locked hotel room, but Neil belongs on the court.

It doesn’t matter that Andrew’s eyes and lips had shifted into colours of the surreal after kissing Neil. It doesn’t matter that for one night Neil could say yes or no without feeling a hold around his throat.

It doesn’t matter because it never mattered, it never existed, it was always nothing.

He simply wanted a choice, but what is there to choose? Nothing is not a choice. The only thing he wanted to say yes to is as real as a ghost; all the wanting in the world can’t will it back to life.

How stupid to think he could have.

“It won’t happen again,” Neil continues, and takes one last look at the world around him before it turns back into dark green and blue. “You can stop worrying.”

It can’t happen again because Neil might not wake up next time, fallen into a too-deep sleep, always hitting that alarm clock to try and hold onto his dreams.

And he can’t do that to Andrew, he can’t break his rules. Andrew already told Neil they couldn’t and wouldn’t be. Not you. Not me. It wouldn’t be fair to continue and pretend it’s nothing when it’s not to Neil. It was freedom and feeling limitless and careless and alright. Neil won’t take that from Andrew if that’s not what he was trying to give.

Neil wants to choose Andrew, but Andrew is just like nothing; he is not a choice.

“You’re right, it won’t,” Kevin says harshly, pulling Neil from the trainwreck of his mind. “Don’t forget why you’re here, what you’re playing for.”

Neil looks down, nodding without meaning to. Kevin is right.

There has only ever been one path to take, one choice to make, as right from the beginning, it was the only one given.

Neil Josten wasn’t meant to have anything more than that.

How could he choose a choice that was already labeled as nonexistent? That should have been the first red flag that he’d have to give it up eventually.

Eventually is now, with Kevin standing there, waving that flag like a reminder.

This is his only choice for a reason; nothing will ever make him feel the way he’ll feel when he’s scoring goals, winning games, making something out of his name. Andrew can’t give him this, winning trophies and awards, tournaments and championships. Dreams of Andrew will never be the reality of making Court and the Olympics.

The Los Angeles skyline had already warned him, a collision of dark and light. Day is now aware of what happens at night.

Neil can never dream again. This is it for him.

Realizing that he’s still as much of a possession as he was two days ago, as he will be for the rest of his life, Neil’s lungs fill back up with water. Against his best efforts, he remembers how it had felt to breathe.

Even more, he remembers what it had felt like to not even need to, drowning in Andrew.

He has to forget.

But how?

“I wish I knew about him before I signed that contract,” Neil admits, allowing himself to look weak in front of Kevin, because Kevin will know how to smack it out of him, how to end it.

Kevin turns a fierce look on him, pointing a wild and waving hand in his face.

“He is not any more free than you are, even with his contract. He is a dream you need to get over. You’ve worked too hard for this. Don’t throw it away over what could be nothing.”

It feels like a punch, and Neil takes it unguarded.

But then he pauses, and stares at the wall behind Kevin’s head, and thinks -

Could be?

He stows that away, somewhere down deep, where nothing and nobody can touch it, and meets Kevin’s oddly-desperate gaze.

“Consider it over,” Neil says firmly. “Are we meeting in the morning for practice?”

Kevin pulls himself out of Neil’s space and has the good grace to look a bit guilty that he just crushed Neil’s heart while it was still beating. “Seven A.M. Don’t sleep in.”

When Kevin leaves, Neil collapses onto the nearest bench and falls onto his back. Sinking back into reality should be easy, it’ll just take some time. Maybe after their game tomorrow he’ll be fine. Back to himself, or at least back to the Neil Josten they want him to be.

Andrew couldn’t have changed that much, right?

(He tells himself that, but he wonders how quickly Earth would be able to repair itself after being crushed by a comet.)

It’s then his phone goes off with a text, and Neil’s heart stammers in his chest when he sees who it’s from.

First you piss off Riko, now Kevin? Do you like the idea of dying?

Chapter Text

The SeaKings win their first two preseason games, but it does nothing to stop Kevin from being a tyrant during practice. His insistence that his team never strays far from the court is the only reason the journalist from the NEL magazine comes to visit them directly at the stadium.

Neil’s called out from the scrimmage, but Kevin stops him before he can make it off the court by grabbing his face guard and giving it a yank. “Don’t play stupid. Get back here as soon as you can.”

All Neil does is wrench Kevin’s hand off of him, but he holds onto that advice, knowing the double meaning to Kevin’s words.

He doesn’t bother to change out and goes directly to the lounge to meet the interviewer, who sits with a camera, a notebook, and a tape recorder. She jots something down as soon as he steps into the room, likely about his sweaty-red appearance, and Neil seals up all his secrets even further.

All it takes is one pair of eyes, and now that he knows he’s being watched . . . he won’t take the chance, he won’t play stupid.

She’s a pleasant lady, who holds onto her patience with an iron-like grip as Neil neatly avoids answering most questions at point blank. But then she says a name, and ever since Neil first met the man behind said name his body has been finely attuned to it.

“You recently had a photoshoot with Andrew Minyard, of the New York Nighthawks. Is he as terrible in person as he is on the court?”

As that name echoes, so does Kevin’s voice, Kevin’s punch of words, the reminder that Neil can’t and won’t and never will, so he tries to answer neutrally - he won’t play stupid.

Neil thinks about the question, drawing out the moment by tapping a finger to his lips, before saying,  “Even more so, I’d say.”

She nods, writes something down, and then asks, “Andrew said you were ‘like a pipe dream’ in a previous interview. Why do you think that is?”

And then it’s all over, and every facade is breaking.

“He called me ‘Neil ‘Pipe Dream’ Josten’, actually, and maybe he said it because he has more faith in me than he’s letting on.”

“Meaning?”

“I seem to have a way of making dreams come true. It’s a dream, not a rule; it can be attained or changed.”

The interviewer smiles and nods, but doesn’t look like she understands, for which Neil is grateful for.

“What does your teammate Kevin Day have to say about your feud? Andrew was clearly important to him during their days at Palmetto State.”

He thinks, don’t play stupid -

“At the end of the day, we’re all here to play our best game. Having Andrew and the Nighthawks against us, instead of with us, brings out our tenacity. If Kevin isn’t appreciative of that, then he isn’t taking advantage of the situation. As for Andrew? That’s up to Kevin to answer.”

The journalist’s mouth takes on an odd angle, which doesn’t sit well with Neil. He braces himself for her next question. “So you and Kevin get along well? There’s no fear of you leaving?”

It’s like she knows something he so clearly doesn’t. Neil stares at her quizzically, eyebrow tilted high as he says, slowly, “. . . our strengths go hand in hand, and we each bring something different to the game. I couldn’t ask for anyone better to be at my side. Why do you ask?”

She looks at Neil as if he just woke up from a ten year coma, with shock and wide eyes and disbelief.

“Because there’s talk about other teams putting in a bid for you next season. The Nighthawks are one of them. Would you take Riko up on his offer?”

That is news to him.

That’s racing down a one way road only to have a ramp suddenly appear. Shock ripples through his body, blowing up his mind, the need to solve things trying to take control of his every urge and instinct.

But his shocked reaction is what they want, and even if it were an option, Neil would never side with Riko. So he shrugs and decides not to play stupid, saying easily, “Not a chance in hell. I’m where I need to be.”

He’s where he has to be.

She goes silent for a moment to write something down, and then that’s the end of that conversation. He answers the next few questions how he thinks his manager and publicist and Kevin would want him to answer, then shakes her hand, and hurries back to the court.

-

The magazine is published two days before the SeaKings’ first official game of the season.

And all hell sufficiently breaks loose.

Apparently, by not playing stupid, he was playing - well, stupid.

The cover is, as expected, of him and Andrew, staring each other down with the deepest shade of hated scrawled across their faces. It’s not the cover that has people talking, however, and it sure isn’t the cover that has Kevin in such a rage.

It’s what Riko said that has everything flipped upside down. The Exy world has an order, and up until the magazine came out, Neil knew his place - rookie.

Neil Josten was the failed captain of UOA. The striker with potential who couldn’t latch onto a deal with the pros. The fading athlete that Kevin Day rescued from being swept off the face of the earth.

Neil Josten was Kevin Day’s partner.

Until Riko Moriyama went on and said in his interview, ‘I see potential. I see great incompetence and a foul attitude that I will fix on my court, but I also see potential. It’d be nice to take another piece from Kevin’s board.’

And then, with just a few words, Neil Josten went from rookie to traitor.

The SeaKings accept Neil’s explanation, believing what he said in the interview and accepting it as the truth. Only, they don’t know what Kevin knows.

The Nighthawks have Andrew, and Kevin was the only witness to Neil’s pathetic plea for him.

So Kevin sees the incentive that nobody else can see.

So Kevin doesn’t accept Neil’s apology, and Kevin makes a show of tearing the magazine in half during their break at practice, and Kevin is back to hopeless as he ignores every inch of Neil.

Out of a simple lack of ability to care, Neil would usually tolerate it, but with their first game approaching so quickly, with the whole world watching, Neil needs Kevin at his side. He’s used to nobody believing in him, but he can’t handle it from Kevin, not when Kevin was the original source of faith. They have to be partners, a united force, just like they said they would be.

Because there's no reason not to be.

Riko is also in the unknown. There’s no way he could have known what happened between Andrew and Neil, so there’s no way he could use it as incentive to make Neil switch teams.

Which means it was all simply talk, and there really is no offer of more, of other choices. Riko knew saying such things would bruise Kevin’s still-tender wound of losing Andrew. It’d be pulling out another leg on a man who needs two to stand, and one to play.

He wants to be mad that Kevin hadn’t believed him over Riko, hadn't trusted him when he said it was over with Andrew, but he can still hear the betrayal etched into Kevin’s voice, and he can almost sympathize with him.

To be fair, he hadn’t even believed himself when he said it was over.

But it is, and has been ever since that day in the locker room when Neil took his last breath. He hadn’t responded to that text message, and he hadn’t tried to call, and he refused any attempt his body and mind voted for, reminding himself that he can’t dream anymore, there’s no point, there's no choice.

So even if the Nighthawks could offer him anything in the world, Neil couldn't take it.

There’s no use for this fight, no reason for Kevin to lose faith when Neil did exactly what he wanted.

On the day of their first game, Neil arrives at the stadium hours in advance, knowing that Kevin will be there, too. He finds him in the locker room, stretching out carefully, not sparing Neil a glance once he takes note of his presence.

Neil comes right up to him, his hands full of the scraps of magazine he had shoved in his bag the other day after Kevin had ripped it, and throws it all at Kevin’s feet.

“Clearly you missed the part where I said there’s no chance in hell I’m switching teams,” Neil is quick to fire out, heat running through every word, burning his tongue.

“Doesn’t matter,” Kevin says, keeping his gaze trained on the floor, on the shredded bits of magazine. “The idea has been put in your head. Once your contract’s up here you’ll be running to them. To Andrew.”

“You don’t know me. Unlike you, I have a spine, and a sense of loyalty.”

Kevin’s lips twist into the ugliest of all scowls. “He can offer you more. Only a fool would stay behind.”

“Spine. Loyalty,” Neil repeats, louder this time. “You offered it all first. Nobody else gave me a chance, and I don’t care what that means to the rest of the world. It means something to me. Your faith meant something to me.”

They both stay still, allowing those words to smack off every locker and rebound back to them. The severity of their breathing fills the room, angry-desperate exhales, but the more it continues, the more the air feels charged. Neil can’t wait to hurry this up and take it out to the court, where they can work this off and work together.

“I trusted Andrew, too,” Kevin says after a minute, more broken than Kevin’s ever sounded.

“I am not Andrew,” Neil says firmly, and then, resentfully, “and Andrew is nothing to me, and Riko is none the wiser. You know this was just a ploy to pit us against each other. He has nothing to offer me, and even if he did, he wouldn't know it.”

Something changes in Kevin’s expression, looking more startled than anything else, as if that really is just occurring to him.

So Neil continues; “I need your support, Kevin. Not everyone is going to leave you, so stop believing I’ll jump at every chance.” He indicates with a jerk of his chin towards the doors that lead to their home, their stadium, their court. “Hate me off the court, but not on it. We need each other.”

Kevin follows Neil’s gesture, and looks, for a moment, as captivated as Neil feels every time he remembers he has a safe place to play. Like he really can’t believe it’s his.

No other player has ever stayed by Kevin and wanted the same thing. No other play has stood by his side and called the court their home.

“When they offer it, you won’t want to say no,” Kevin says, his words as haunting as a ghost. “I’m trusting you to say it.”

Neil simply sticks out his hand for Kevin to shake, meaning a million promises with it. “You said if we wanted to beat him, we’d have to do it together. Is that still the plan?”

Kevin looks at Neil’s hand first, then meets Neil’s eyes and locks down their shared gaze.

“Try and keep up,” Kevin says, squeezing Neil’s hand hard before swiftly kicking the torn up magazine out of their way.

-

They play their game as if they’re on fire, and the only way to douse the flames is to win. It’s almost unfair to the Seattle Cobras, who must have been expecting an easy game, win or lose, with it being both teams’ first official game of the season.

Wrong.

It’s such a large point gap that halfway through the second period, Neil stops running, and instead works a slow jog towards the goal, still managing to score.

He plays with Kevin always at his side, working together, finally showing the world that Kevin’s choice wasn’t in vain and that Neil isn’t going anywhere. His place is with the SeaKings, and the crowd goes wild with that understanding.

It’s a cruel insult to the Nighthawks, highlighting the fact that even if they were to offer Neil a spot on next year’s roster, Neil would likely spit on it.

Though it’s no surprise that they win, racking up an impressive number of points that put them a foot ahead in the contending for playoffs, and even though the entire team is buzzing with excitement and pride, Neil just feels tired.

Not even on the court was he able to entirely forget that he’s a walking contract, an ambassador for lies. Or maybe that’s what he’s always been. Maybe there wasn’t anything before Neil Josten of the San Francisco SeaKings.

It’s a dull sort of ache, realizing that he doesn’t actually know, not anymore. Exy used to clear out the useless and give him one purpose - winning. To do that, you have to want to play.

Neil isn’t quite sure he wants to, when the purpose isn’t simply winning anymore. It’s being a name, and it’s proving a point, and it’s never being able to forget that this isn’t just a sport. Every shot he throws and every check he dodges is not to play, it’s to prove.

What is he playing for?

Is there any truth left to him? There must be, or else he wouldn’t feel so protective of whatever’s lying underneath his chest. He wouldn’t feel so tired from lying; he would just exist with it, he wouldn’t fight the tension of his strings.

The borderline between him and his role has become as thin as the paper he signed.

Mask placed back on, he handles the press with a smirk fixed on his face, unsurprised when every question is tilted in the direction of his newly-beginning feud/supposed partnership with Riko. Not once does he waver, not until he’s in the showers, when he finally gives up and sinks down to the tiles, trying so hard to breathe.

This would have all been so much easier if he never visited the dark, secret place between his contract and his name.

There’s an afterparty somewhere in the city, but Neil can’t imagine attending. He won’t be able to fake it for much longer tonight, not when he’s this exhausted. He asks Matt not to tell anyone that he isn’t planning on going, not wanting his manager to find out and force him, and promises to make up for it another night. Matt simply pats his shoulder in understanding.

Neil wonders if he’s tired, too.

Instead, his plan for the night is to try and sleep with the knowledge that he doesn’t know what he is anymore. Man or object, player or actor, liar or lie. Hopefully tomorrow he’ll wake up and feel like something again, maybe even himself, or at the very least, like a letter from his name.

That plan derails itself once Neil exits the back of the building and is met by the sudden scream of a crowd of fans.

It stops him up short and nearly has him backing into the security guard behind him. He should be used to a crowd of excited fans, what with being surrounded by tens of thousands of them every game, but being this close, with nothing but a small metal gate between them, has Neil’s heart racing in a different way.

Something is being shouted - his name, excitedly chanted as he steps further outside.

Large cardboard signs are being waved, jerseys are held up, various congratulations are being yelled out.

It’s a sight he never thought he would see; people believing in him so vividly.

Still standing there shocked, the warmth of pride seeps into his skin, replacing every rotting cell he had spent all night fighting against.

Security tries to guide him forward to the waiting car, but Neil holds out a hand and asks them to stop to let him sign, then asks for a marker. He writes his signature so many times his hand aches, but it doesn’t feel the way it had when he signed to the SeaKings, like he’s sealing himself up in a lie.

It feels like the truth.

He wonders, as he sprawls his name across a highlighter green sign covered in glitter, how it could feel that way, when he doesn’t even know himself, and neither do they.

Yet they believe in him anyway, like whatever he wants, they want.

And what does he want?

He wants to win.

The truth is that he wants to win, to be deserving of that faith. It would finally make something honest out of him.

Nobody’s ever had his back like this before. They shout his name and shake his hand and meet his smile and amongst all this unknown, what they want from him is exactly what he wants for himself.

To try.

The original purpose of playing.

Not to make money, not to run names into the ground, not because Kevin wants it or because his coaches demand it. Giving his all is what he wants to do, not what they want him to do.

His all is this, and he signs it

Neil Josten of the San Francisco SeaKings; striker, player, tryer.

Even if most of it is a lie, he finally understands a sliver of the truth.

When he eventually gets into his car, he breathes a cloud of exhale against the window and spells his name. Starting with an N, ending with an L, and despite the chaos between those two bookends, he can almost pinpoint exactly who he is now.

Or if not that, he can at least tell what he wants to be.

-

Having run though every emotion possible, and having played several different games (and only one of them being Exy), by time Neil gets home, he’s exhausted. He thinks he might just die, right here on this couch, as soon as he drops down on it.

Of course, right when his eyes are sliding shut is when his phone goes off. Neil grumbles to himself, stubbornly keeping his eyes closed as long as he can, knowing that it’s likely his manager calling to ask why he isn’t at the party.

On the fourth ring he finally fishes his phone from his pocket and looks at the screen. There’s no chance for a fifth ring, because Neil hits the answer button before he has control over his hands, fumbling with the phone as he tries to get it to his ear without dropping it.

“Andrew?” Neil asks, and it’s over it has to be over,, but there’s evidence in his voice suggesting he doesn’t quite want that.

“What a pathetic performance. In case anyone hasn’t told you yet, your jersey number is ten, not two.”

Nobody can accuse him if nobody can see him, so Neil grins to himself as relief filters through his lungs at hearing Andrew’s voice again. “Do you have something against the word ‘hello’?”

“Hello.”

“Hi. Isn’t it three A.M for you?”

“I’m in Chicago.”

“Then isn’t it two A.M for you?” Neil’s smile has woven itself into the threads of his voice and he can’t stop it. “You watched my game? We won.”

“Seattle is an abysmal team,” Andrew says dismissively, as if trying to squash the pride in Neil’s words. “No one is surprised.”

Neil closes his eyes and continues to smile, sprawling out more comfortably across the couch. Feeling warm all over, he says like a fact, mostly to himself, “You watched my game.”

“Your last goal was too sloppy, even for you. Make a move like that when I’m on the court and you won’t have a working bone in your body afterwards.”

“Is that a threat or a promise?”

“Neither,” Andrew says, neatly avoiding the pit that Neil’s already fallen into. “This is a warning; you should be careful.”

Neil opens his eyes then, not liking the sudden seriousness of Andrew’s voice. Andrew either sounds void or condescending, but never - concerned.

“Why’s that?”

“Remember when I said your blood was all over Riko’s hands? Now he’s wiping his hands clean by repainting your image. You were better off being the rookie.”

“He can talk all he wants, I’m never switching teams. He has nothing over me.”

“Yet.”

“I don’t care.”

And that should be the end of it. If Neil says anything else, and if Andrew responds, then it won’t be over, and more than anything it has to be over.

In a second or so, that’s when he’ll hang up. Another minute. Maybe two.

Three?

Maybe if neither say anything and stay on the line, allowing silence to speak for them, then maybe it could be another four or five minutes, or the passing of a night.

They stay wordless until suddenly, all too quickly, Andrew is speaking again, and Neil almost wishes he wouldn’t.

“You never told me to start.”

It’s a flat sentence, from beginning to end, holding no hostility or care. Somehow it still sounds the way a knife wound feels, and tension pulls at Neil’s body, forcing him upright.

His mouth opens around words that he can’t say, and what he ends up saying is, “I didn’t think you’d want me to.”

It’s such a lie that it hurts to say it.

It’s such a lie that it makes Neil’s life look honest in comparison.

Andrew lets Neil’s words sit and simmer for a second, then snaps back, “You wouldn’t have asked if you really thought that. What’s the real reason? Save your lies for someone who has tolerance.”

The truth is what’s underneath his chest, what he has to protect. The truth is - “We can’t.”

Because what is nothing to you is something to me -  you are a dream and this is a reality.

Andrew is quiet as Neil wraps the strings of his hoodie tight around one finger.

“Explain that change of heart to me,” Andrew finally says, bitterly, not sounding mad over Neil’s pathetic attempt at the truth, but rather sounding mad that - they can’t. “Last I remember, you were nearly on your knees begging for one more night.”

“Andrew - I - you know why.”

He’s the one who told Neil, a firm reminder around his wrist, that it had to stay nothing. He wouldn’t have had to remind Neil if he thought Neil already knew that.

Still, Andrew breathes furiously down the line and says, “No. I thought you were capable of following the rules; I told you it was strictly physical and nothing more. It is your own fault for getting that confused.”

“I know you said that,” Neil snaps, and has to close his eyes again. “That’s why I need to stop. It doesn’t work like that for me, and I won’t break your rules.”

“You are a disaster of lies,” Andrew cuts in, scornfully. “You were fine with it until Kevin knew. Is this what he wants, or what you want?”

It’s terrifying to be so transparent to someone who exists across the country from you. This isn’t what Neil wants at all - but it’s not what Andrew wants, either, so the only choice is neither.

“. . . you’re angry.” It’s that fact that cuts through the rest of his thoughts, abruptly putting a pause on Neil’s respiratory system. Guilt twinges at his insides, finding its place in the cracks of his chest. “You don’t get to be mad about this. You don’t get to tell me I can’t feel anything and then dictate how I go about doing that.”

The rise to Andrew’s voice falls back into a flat line. “Do I sound like a man who’s mad?”

Once again, Neil’s mouth parts, but nothing comes out.

There’s simply no way to fix this, as it wasn’t even meant to exist.

“Andrew . . .” If he could, he’d go back in time and stop himself from shaking Andrew’s hand and starting all of this, that way he wouldn’t have to feel - this. “This isn’t because of Kevin, but he isn’t wrong. If we keep this up then somebody will find out.”

“Explain what you mean by ‘this’,” Andrew says, interrupting Neil, forcing Neil to spell it out for him, though he must know, he has to know, he has to have seen. “I told you what it was from the beginning.”

“And I already told you, I haven’t wanted it before, not until you asked,” he says, more of the truth, chest feeling emptier by the second. “I wanted it because you asked. I’m not meant to have a choice; you’re the only person who gave me one.”

“That was your means of justification?’

“I can’t - I can’t make that be nothing. Could you?”

He can still feel Andrew’s hand around his wrist, he can still see the jerk and jolt of Andrew’s body when Neil asked back.

The phone line falls so quiet for so long that Neil thinks maybe Andrew hung up. He pulls the phone back to check, but Andrew’s name is still on the screen, the seconds ticking by.

“Your silence gives you away, you know,” Neil adds on, once those seconds hit a new minute.

“You’re not as smart as you look,” Andrew eventually says, tone even and cold as it’s always been. “It’s a very simple concept. I gave you options, yes - that does not mean I am one.”

Then it’s Neil who falls quiet.

He did not know that the two could be separate - they hadn’t felt separate.

Could it be that simple?

He wanted the freedom attached to Andrew. He wanted the chance and choice to feel or be whatever, without fallout or reprimand. He wanted - he wanted -

He didn’t know that what he wanted could be individual pieces. He only envisioned the entire picture.

“I can’t keep that separate.”

“Try harder.”

He hates that it feels like it’s up to him, like there’s a new set of buttons; one to go up, one to go down. Like Andrew is still waiting for him up on the seventh floor.

Could it be that simple?

But it is that simple, and it has been, always. Start or stop, stay or go, yes or no?

As simple as, do you want this? If you do, we can. If you don’t, we won’t.

Andrew isn’t an option; he’s the offerer.

Remembering that could be as simple as remembering a rule, a question, an answer, if Andrew were the one reminding him.

It could be that simple like everything else if Andrew made it be that simple.

Neil isn’t used to simple. If he’s ever offered something, there will be and always has been another hand guiding him to take it, or not take it, or another hand dragging it completely away before he can even see it. Everything he wants is not his own original thought; it’s what he has to want, it’s what he has to do.

That’s never been the case with Andrew.

He takes a breath in, reliving the way the cool blue air of San Francisco had felt in his lungs just hours earlier, then reliving the way Andrew’s breath had felt against his mouth just weeks ago.

They can control him - they do control him - but they can’t stop him from wanting what he wants. Making his own decisions is what makes him feel real. No other hand can take this offer away; it’s start or stop, stay or go, yes or no, it’s Andrew offering it.

They can’t stop him from wanting that.

And he does want it, and if he didn’t, Andrew wouldn’t make him take it. If Neil truly couldn’t, the offer would be non-existent. If Neil truly just didn’t - then this conversation would be over in the space of a breath.

“Okay,” Neil says, throat suddenly thick with everything he’s not saying. “I’m coming up with my rule. Can you follow it?”

Andrew says lowly, dark but not definitive, “I hate you.”

“My rule.” He has to clear his throat once or twice, can’t sound weak now, can’t sound like a lie now. “If I think I’m getting it confused, I’ll tell you.”

“You won’t get confused. You won’t feel anything. I won’t let you.”

It’s almost as if Andrew is reading his mind as Neil thinks it.

“Exactly, that’s the rule - don’t let me.” Hearing it back sounds stupid, risky, hopeful, exciting. “Don’t let me get it confused, and if I do I’ll tell you, and you can put a stop to it however you want.”

Neil isn’t all that sure that he can forget now that Andrew can’t be chosen; so many people have told him.

This is what he will forget: Andrew asking do you want me to touch you? will never be do you want me?

That’s why he needs this. Neil will never know the difference.

And if this were anybody else, Neil wouldn’t want to try, but here is that choice that he craves so much, coming straight from Andrew’s mouth, in Andrew’s words, because Andrew understands and Andrew wants it, too, and Andrew -

It’s a mistake, or will become one soon, but Neil will deal with that when it arrives in his timeline.

There’s a long stretch of silence as Andrew thinks about it. His rules are his only sense of order; he must be weighing his options, if he’s willing to trust Neil enough not to break them, if he knows himself well enough to go through with them.

He must be thinking what Neil is thinking: that one day the word nothing won’t fit into the seven letters that spell it out, that it will be too big to be contained.

But Neil won’t break a rule once it’s set. If it comes to that, he’ll let it end.

Andrew might not be an option, and he can’t stop Neil from being a lie, but he can see through to Neil’s truth.

That’s enough for Neil to choose.

“You’re going to regret this,” Andrew says after an eternity, his voice weighed down by every thought he just processed. “Tell me when to start.”

That might be more than enough, actually, because tonight Neil Josten lived out a lifelong dream by playing for the pros, and finished the game with a score of 9-3, SeaKing's favour.

Tonight he proved to the world that he can play, and that he can win.

But what makes Neil feel truly victorious is the promise of seeing Andrew Minyard again.

Chapter Text

There’s absolutely no time to say the word ‘start’.

He has two games a week, as does Andrew, and in between games he has practice and travel and interviews and sponsorship work, and absolutely no time to think about Andrew.

But he does, anyway. At the end of every night his hands itch to grab his phone and send a text, make a call, do something to get to him, but at the end of every night he reasons there’s no point to.

That is not what’s being offered.

The SeaKings watch the Nighthawks’ third game of the season as a team, all twenty-eight players crammed into the lounge to watch the game play out on their TV. To mask the pain of watching the Nighthawks, somebody, or maybe everybody, has brought in alcohol, which everyone drinks except for Neil.

He would drink, maybe, especially when Matt offers it, but with Andrew on the screen he doesn’t think it’s safe. He might blurt something out to his team. He might blurt something out to himself.

The lounge is full of laughter and curses. Napkins and bottle caps are thrown at the screen every time the Nighthawks score. It’s fun at first, until the game draws closer to halftime, and by then every single SeaKing has shut up.

It’s hard to laugh at a team that plays like that, a team that they will inevitably have to face.

Andrew gets scored on once and only once; as soon as it happens, every playing member of the Nighthawks sets out to destroy the striker that had made the goal. It’s almost as if they’re scaring the opposing team into not wanting to try and play at all. The striker is victim to relentless body checks and stick smacks, but the violence always remains in the realms of legal game play.

The Nighthawks are the dirtiest players in the NEL, this is a fact, but there has never been a day that they’ve been red carded - they know how to push every rule to its limit.

At halftime, one of the announcers says, “The Nighthawks are sure setting an example tonight. I don’t know about you, but I think that Josten has dug himself quite a grave. Minyard and Moriyama seem all too happy to bury him in it.”

Hearing his own name on screen has Neil growing tense, but only because it’s followed by Andrew’s. He guesses his face must’ve gone pale, for a few of the SeaKings send him sympathetic looks. Laila gives him a thumbs up. Matt claps a hand on his shoulder. Kevin hangs his head and groans.

But Neil isn’t tense for the reason they think.

Back on the screen the game resumes. Andrew has been swapped out, along with Jean Moreau, the backliner that had let the opposing striker pass and score.

Jean’s name has faded from the media ever since Andrew came into Riko’s picture, but he’s still a persistent piece forever fixed behind Riko’s back. It makes Neil wonder what’s keeping him there - force or choice?

“Is he still a psycho asshole?”

It takes Neil a moment to realize it’s being said to him, another moment to process that it’s Matt asking him, and another to realize that Matt means Andrew. Then the terror kicks in. Suddenly it feels as if all the eyes in the room are on him again, as if they’ve been there from the start, witnesses to every touch and word exchanged between Neil and Andrew.

That’s not possible though. Nobody here knows.

Except for Kevin, who goes just as stiff as Neil had been, which should be telling enough.

“What do you mean?” Neil asks once he finds his voice. “I don’t know him.”

“You had the photoshoot with him, right? Wasn’t he a huge dick?”

Neil shrugs, putting on the face he wears when the media asks him about Andrew. “He wasn’t anything interesting,” he says, trying to sound bored. “I only care about what he brings to the court.”

Matt rolls his eyes and takes a long sip of his beer. “Still an asshole then I bet,” he says. “Dan says the Foxes still get a bunch of crap from being associated with his name.”

“Dan?” Neil asks, but he already knows the answer. Like with Matt, Neil never got the chance to play against her. He doesn’t know her, but she demands admiration. Only the bravest of souls would take on coaching the Foxes after losing Kevin and Andrew from their roster.

“Assistant coach to the Foxes now,” Matt says proudly, a grin taking over his face as he shares a look with Kevin. “And my fiancée.” He waves his left hand and wiggles his ring finger, wrapped in a band of silver.

Neil nods and smiles, because that’s the sort of thing he guesses people smile about. Feeling like the conversation is over, he turns his attention back to the television - but the game isn’t as interesting now that Andrew’s been taken off.

It’s not the end of the conversation, apparently, because after a minute or so Matt is speaking again. He sounds the way you do when you’re telling a shameful secret. “I don’t know how we’re gonna get hitched when I have this contract. I think I’ll have to turn down my renewal after this season.”

That gets both Neil and Kevin’s attention. They both turn to look at Matt, their expressions twin pictures of shock. Kevin remains silent as Neil yelps, “What? Why?”

“Because?” Matt looks just as bewildered as Neil. “I don’t want to owe my life to something or somebody else, you know? Not when it should be to her.”

None of it computes in Neil’s head, not one bit, not when Matt is one of the greatest players in the game. One look at Kevin tells Neil that he doesn’t understand it either.

“But it’s your career,” Neil says, aware of how foolish he sounds, but he can’t wrap his mind around it.

Matt laughs and gives Neil’s shoulder a light smack, like Neil told a joke and not the truth. “So? No one’s saying I can’t have both. This will just have to wait a bit.”

Nothing has ever sounded more horrifying to Neil, to even risk giving this all up, hoping it’ll be there in the future. Neil suddenly has the urge to change out into his gear and hit the court.

It has him asking, almost dreadfully, “What if it’s not here when you want to come back?”

Matt shrugs, looking like that thought is the very least of his worries. “Then it’s not here when I want to come back.”

Neil glances at Kevin, who looks just as confused as Neil is. “That’s insane,” Kevin scoffs, before turning to watch the game again. It settles the erratic beat of Neil’s heart, knowing he isn’t alone in this feeling.

Until Matt looks at Kevin with a look too akin to sympathy. Until Matt turns and fixes that same look on Neil.

Then Neil wonders what it is he should be feeling. The game is all that Neil knows what to live for. He can’t imagine giving it up, for anything.

The Nighthawks win, with such a large point gap that it pushes them higher up in the contending for playoffs. Somehow, the SeaKings aren’t that far behind. It seems more likely that the two teams will be entering finals together.

But first they have to face each other.

-

The SeaKings have an away game in Houston, Texas on Friday night. That puts them in proximity of the Nighthawks, who happen to have a game in Oklahoma City on Thursday night.

Or really, that puts Neil in proximity of Andrew, and it doesn’t take long for the two of them to figure it out. Neil says ‘start’ and Andrew sends him another set of coordinates, this time to a motel that sits on the outskirts of the city. It’s the kind of motel that screams pay by the hour, a fact that Neil doesn’t take lightly as he walks along the doors.

They have tonight, and then Neil has to fly out to meet the rest of his team in Houston. Knowing they have a time limit only adds to the pressure Neil is feeling, but it doesn’t stop him from wasting five minutes standing outside the motel door, staring at the brass 7 that sits crookedly against the wood.

Knock, he tells himself, but he doesn’t knock.

Los Angeles happened nearly a month ago, and every day since then, Neil’s been trying to destroy the wayward vein that’s tangled and tethered up his heart.

Trying to prepare himself for this.

If tonight is anything, it’s a test - keep it separate.

Never one to back down from such a challenge, especially one as inviting as this, Neil finally finds the courage he needs and clicks it into his bones. All at once, his nerves shudder to a halt.

As soon as his fist connects with wood, all it takes is half of a second for the door to fly open, and for a hand to reach out and grab Neil by the front of his sweater. Neil is pulled inside before he can even blink, let alone breathe, and then he’s up against the inside of the door and Andrew is standing before him.

Andrew’s fist might as well be a nail in Neil’s chest; he is pinned in place, but there’s nowhere in the world he’d rather be.

Neil was cold, but now his cheeks feel warm as he says a raspy, “Hi.”

Andrew is tense, from his hand in Neil’s sweater all the way to his shoulders, his jaw, his eyes. His fist clenches once, twice, until he slowly uncurls it, and in a motion that feels too careful, he smooths out the wrinkle in the fabric of the sweater.

Then Andrew’s hands dangle by his sides, and Andrew looks as if he has no clue where he should put them.

Until Neil says, “I watched your game on the flight over. Nice save with -”

And then Andrew knows just where to put his hands - over Neil’s mouth.

“No talking,” he all but hisses, his warm palm pressed flat to Neil’s lips. “Just tell me if I can start.”

Under the pressure of Andrew’s strength and censor, Neil has to swallow roughly, because for whatever reason there’s a rock in his throat that has no business in being there. It feels as solid and pressing as disappointment, but it can’t be, because there’s nothing to be disappointed about.

He nods, and waits until Andrew lowers his hand. Andrew keeps it close though, as if he’s worried Neil might say something he shouldn’t again.

But Neil understands. Offer, not offerer. He has to remember.

“You can start,” Neil says, as clear as he can make it, but Andrew simply stares at him, long and hard and calculating, and this whole thing is - stupid. It’s stupid, because that look must mean that Andrew hates him, but Neil doesn’t hate the way he feels when Andrew looks at him like that. “Andrew, you can start.”

It takes a few seconds, but Andrew’s hand moves from Neil’s mouth to his jaw, and then he leans in and kisses him.

It’s been weeks, days and days, denial after denial after disappointment, but Neil did not forget how this could feel.

It’s a harsh kiss, right from the get-go, no hesitance or softness. The kiss of two people who want to be kissing one another, who have waited so long to kiss one another. It’s a harsh kiss in the sense that you don’t know where you are, but you’re excited to be there.

Andrew is bruising and Neil is all too happy to be choosing. He opens his mouth and gets lost in the direction that Andrew takes him.

As Neil places both of his hands flat against the door behind him, Andrew moves his other hand to cup the side of Neil’s head, pulling him impossibly closer. The Nighthawks did not have an easy win tonight; Andrew should be exhausted, but he touches Neil as if he has all the energy there is to offer.

His hands hold and his lips give and his tongue takes, until he’s no longer kissing Neil’s lips, but rather his neck. One of his hands slides down to pull at the collar of Neil’s sweater, nearly stretching the material in order to get to the skin underneath.

Neil hisses, shuts his eyes, and can’t remember what being cold had felt like.

Especially not when Andrew suddenly slips two warm hands under Neil’s sweater. He skims upwards, his skin skating over Neil’s skin, and hands shouldn’t feel like fire but Andrew’s do.

Neil wants to say something then, something irrelevant, something stupid, something to dislodge that awful feeling in his throat, but he knows he isn’t allowed, so he doesn’t.

Instead he watches and ignores the jump in his chest at the fact that this is happening again - he wanted this, and he got this, and Andrew wanted it too, and they can have it.

Though Neil isn’t that sure what it is about him that Andrew could want so much.

There’s fervor in Andrew’s hands as he bunches up Neil’s sweater, pushing it up under his arms. He barely refrains from attacking Neil’s newly exposed skin. Neil wonders, then, what there is about him to invoke such a reaction; he’s skin and bones and muscle, nothing special, but Andrew kisses and scrapes his teeth along Neil like Neil is a craving, finally caught.

Neil begins to dig his fingers into the wood behind him, reminding himself that he can’t reach out to find out.

Besides, if he really thinks about it, then he already knows the answer. He is skin and bones and muscle to Andrew, because that’s all Andrew wants, anyway.

So Neil tells himself that’s what he wants, too, and he nearly believes it - until Andrew is sinking to his knees, and then Neil’s heart quickly stammers off the beaten path.

“Uh,” Neil can’t help but say, mumble, yelp. “You -”

Andrew stares at Neil’s stomach, the contracting muscles there, and then drops his gaze to the fly of Neil’s jeans. “Say no,” he says in a tight voice. His breathing is controlled and calculated, but he looks anything but.

“To what?” Neil’s legs want to shake, break, he wants to fall.

Andrew’s breath comes out hard then. He stands smoothly, suddenly, and looks at Neil who is frozen against the door. “What do you want?”

And Neil nearly says you in the most breathless, desperate way, but some higher power must pity him, for instead he says, “Whatever you were about to do.”

His bottom lip curls inwards, trapped between his teeth, as an awful flush spreads across his face - blushing, as if he has no clue what he’s doing and he’s nervous, and even if that is true, it’s the last thing he’d ever want to tell Andrew.

Andrew reaches out, and with the rough pad of his thumb, pulls Neil’s lip free from his teeth. “I want to jerk you off.”

It’s said so bluntly that it doesn’t sound real.

Neil feels as if he’s been kicked in the throat, because it is real, and it’s being said to him, and it’s Andrew saying it. It’s Andrew asking it, not ordering it, not forcing it. It’s a want, a wish, and Neil knows all about want and wishes.

But he never knew it could feel like this.

“Yeah,” Neil gasps, and refrains from biting on his lip again. “I want that, too.”

Andrew must believe in Neil’s answer, for he wastes no time in unzipping Neil’s jeans, tugging them down just enough for what is necessary, and pressing one last kiss to the underside of Neil’s jaw before pulling at the waistband of Neil’s boxers.

It’s like a gun going off, no warning; Neil jerks forwards and says, “Wait, I -”

Andrew is remarkably subtle in how quick he takes his hands away, dropping them by his sides as he levels Neil with a patient look.

Neil’s chest is already heaving, his legs are definitely shaking, but he doesn’t want to stop, he wants to - “Can I touch you?” he asks, before he loses the confidence to, going for the blunt tone of voice that Andrew is so versed in. “I want to touch you, too. If that’s what you want. Can I?”

Andrew breathes in heavily for a moment, causing Neil’s heart to stop. His head tilts to the side as he takes in Neil’s hands, and then grabs them, holding them tight in his.

“Here,” Andrew says, and guides Neil’s hands to his shoulders. “That’s it.”

Neil nods furiously, relieved in more ways than one, and can’t keep the gratitude out of this kiss; he presses his thanks into Andrew’s lips.

Between having his hands curled around Andrew’s shoulders, and one of Andrew’s hands fixed around Neil’s bared hip, Neil feels grounded, and so when Andrew finally has Neil’s cock in his hand, Neil wants it entirely, and he does not feel hesitant.

Neil does clench his teeth to fight off a gasp, though, because he isn’t used to being touched like that.

His head knocks back against the door as Andrew quickly develops a rhythm. It must be impossible, but it feels as if this touch was made just from Andrew, just for Neil. All it takes is a few pumps for Andrew to work out just where to dig his thumb in, when to twist his hand, what it takes to make Neil’s breath shudder out of him like a cry.

If Andrew’s shoulders weren’t so pronounced, made of thick muscle, then Neil’s fingers would leave indentations. He squeezes down hard as Andrew’s pace quickens; it’s so much and so fast and then it’s gone, and Neil’s heart never fails to stop until it comes back.

This is not what it was before. Neil had been living in that night in Los Angeles for weeks, playing it over in his head when he was alone, when it was safe to think about such unsafe things, and this is not that.

If it were languid and careful before, it’s fast and rough now. If they had exchanged words before, there is nothing but silence and breath now.

This isn’t smoking at the windowsill as Neil acclimates to the temperature of being so near Andrew.

Except that was nothing, and this is also nothing, so the differences don’t matter.

I won’t let you feel anything, Andrew said, harsh words over a long distance. Now those words seem even further away, worlds away, because right now, Neil does feel something - he feels good.

It feels more than good, if Neil is being honest, and he means that in the way he whimpers out, “Fuck -”

The one word somehow manages to increase Andrew’s pace, forcing out a rough exhale through his nose. His hand around Neil’s hip pushes him back, as one of his knees comes between Neil’s thighs to nudge them apart.

And Neil goes, following every direction that Andrew gives him; he leans against the door, he parts his legs, he jerks into Andrew’s fist and tries to forget, he tries, he really does.

It’s just too good, and it’s just too Andrew.

So Neil shuts his eyes and sucks in his breath and pretends the heat and strength underneath his hands is imaginary, not anybody, nothing.

It could be anyone doing this to him, couldn’t it? And it would feel just as good, wouldn’t it?

Except, just as he thinks that, he feels breath against his face, oddly heavy for how soft it sounds, and the brush of Andrew’s nose against his, their foreheads just barely touching. Neil doesn’t open his eyes until he’s sure he’s not imagining it, and when he does, it’s to find that Andrew’s are closed; scrunched up tight, his expression as fierce as his hand around Neil.

Something so good shouldn’t cause one so much pain, Neil thinks, so he tilts his head down and presses the lightest of kisses to Andrew’s lips, no easy task for someone who can’t stop gasping, whining.

It doesn’t stop the fierceness of Andrew’s grip, but it does make him open his eyes and look up at Neil. He stares, as if unsure, then kisses him back. Then it’s back to shutting his eyes, back to shallow breathing, as if Andrew is saying I’m not really here. I do not exist.

But he does exist, because Neil can see him, and even when Neil’s eyes are closed, Neil’s body can feel him.

Neil begins to smile since Andrew can’t see it, and slowly moves his hands closer together over Andrew’s shoulders, his wrists draped loosely around him. Not pushing the limits of any boundaries but rather exploring the space given to him.

This feels like where his hands were meant to end up.

It’s around then that Neil hits his limit - the result of a twist to Andrew’s hand, the careful swipe of his thumb in all the right places - and starts to stutter forward. Not having anywhere to go but so much need to get there is an unbearable feeling, building and building low inside of Neil until it takes him, and he snaps.

Andrew holds him back with that hand on his hip, with his forehead pressed up to meet Neil’s forehead. Torture would be the best way to describe it, Neil thinks, being forced backwards as his hips urge to jerk forwards. The only place to go is into Andrew’s hand, so that’s where Neil loses himself, spilling into the tight fist around him.

Breathless as he is, one word fights to free from his mouth. His lips part to form the ‘A’ in Andrew, because that is all he wishes to say now, even if he has to pant it. Not nothing, not never, not anything but his name, because anything else feels wrong.

So he whimpers, “Andrew.” and not the one word that they are.

Andrew kisses the sound off his mouth.

Then they stay like that until Neil can hear his thoughts again, and not just his breath. All he wants is to remain like that though, with Andrew’s everything cornering him in, containing him in something so solid.

And for a moment, it seems as if Andrew wants that too, judging by how he does not pull away until moments pass. His lips and teeth graze over Neil’s jaw as he slips past, and Neil hisses, feeling that touch everywhere.

Face to face now, they stare at each other; Neil with the unguarded vision of someone about to sleep, dream, and Andrew, with the look of an animal that’s been hunted before.

Before anything can come from it, before anyone can say anything, the trance is broken by Andrew grabbing Neil’s sweater and wiping his hand across it.

“What the hell?” Neil yelps, batting Andrew’s hand away. It’s not what he wanted to say after that.

“You made the mess,” Andrew says, uncaring, and then he turns for the bathroom.

The door slams behind him, and Neil is left alone.

-

Andrew has been gone for a total of seven minutes and thirteen seconds - not that Neil is counting.

Neil sits cross-legged on the queen-sized bed, feeling like a small soul in a large ocean as he so very discreetly watches the clock. The smoke detector from the motel room rests beside him, Neil having dismantled it approximately three minutes ago. He had a feeling that Andrew would need a cigarette after - that.

After whatever it is he’s doing in the bathroom that requires seven minutes and thirty-one seconds now.

The clock soon hits a new minute, a few more seconds pass, then the quiet room is filled with the rattling of a doorknob, and Andrew is entering the room once again. There’s nowhere else for Neil to look; his eyes flick to meet Andrew’s, and even when Neil is looking at him, he doesn’t know what he’s seeing.

Andrew looks like the Andrew who left eight minutes ago, only now with a lot less fight in him. His shoulders look weighted - like Neil’s hands were too heavy for him - and his usual pale cheeks have a new tinge to them, something akin to pink. And though he no longer looks strained, like an animal locked up, he instead looks angry.

And that is so much worse.

“Why are you still here?” Andrew asks, stepping up to the end of the bed and crossing his arms over his chest.

Neil smiles and shrugs a shoulder. “You booked the room for the night, didn’t you?”

The anger in Andrew’s expression recedes as he lifts an eyebrow and narrows his eyes, then scoffs and looks away. Neil will count his silence as a point.

“Oh, I took this apart for you,” Neil says, pointing at the disassembled smoke detector. “Since you couldn’t reach it, and all.”

“Funny,” Andrew says, in a tone of voice that belays no humour. He’s quick to reach into his back pocket and grab his pack of cigarettes, even quicker to light up and place the stick between his lips. A cloud of smoke streams out of the corner of his mouth. “You should leave.”

And Neil will leave, soon, as soon as leaving feels like an option he wants to choose, as soon as it feels like something that Andrew actually wants him to do.

“Probably,” is all Neil can say, because he probably should, but he probably should do a lot of things that he isn’t currently doing. That response gets him a puff of smoke blown into his face.

It’s so easy for him, isn’t it? All Neil is to him is skin and bones and muscle. He can make Neil feel like that one minute and act like the world isn’t a little bit altered the next. But Neil? Neil sits there with a smokey ache in his throat and feels as if his skin has been shifted.

Like those lips of Andrew’s were scissors, and his hands were string, cutting Neil up and sewing him back together into something so much better.

“So then what, you want more?” Andrew snaps, head cocking to the side. “That’s all there is to offer you, Neil.”

Neil knew how this would be, how this is, how it’s always been, but even so, he can’t help but recoil slightly. He forces his gaze down, feeling the weight of Andrew’s on him.

“I don’t think I can have more.”

“Finally, a bit of honesty,” Andrew says, and then suddenly lurches forward to grab at Neil’s chin and haul his face upwards. “Do you get it now?”

Neil can’t help but struggle in that grip, the touch feeling wrong where it is, and between gritted teeth he says, “Nothing, right?”

“I get you off, you go home. Do I need to make it any more clear?”

It’s punch after punch, and Neil knew they were coming. Andrew had said, told him, all but made it law - I won’t let you feel anything.

Still, he looks down, and feels as if fire is eating his chest.

Andrew moves his hand from Neil’s chin to his jaw, his grip still tight but the placement now feeling right. It happens on instinct, or at least that’s how it feels; Neil places his own hand over Andrew’s, lining their fingers up.

His bottom lip finds its way back between his teeth, biting down so sharply it hurts, but all at once, Neil stops. Maybe it’s spite, but he doesn’t want to say it to hurt Andrew, but rather to prove to Andrew that - well, he isn’t sure what he’s proving, but he figures it must be right to say something when you honestly mean it.

“How’s this for honesty?” Neil asks, his eyes trained on Andrew’s chest. “This is confusing for me.”

Andrew’s fingers shift against Neil’s cheek slightly. “So I’ve noticed.”

“You make it even more confusing, but you also make it make sense, because there’s only ever two options, yes or no and . . . I know what I want when you ask me. So, thanks.”

At that, Andrew snorts, in a way that nearly sounds like a laugh. “You say thanks when someone holds the door open for you, not when someone gives you a handjob,” he says scornfully. “And I’m not here to persuade you. I’ll give you options, and you’ll choose from them.”

At that, Neil smiles, in a way that soothes the burns in his chest. “Then how come you haven’t asked me to stay or go? You said ‘more’ is all there is to offer me, right?”

Andrew goes silent, and Neil ticks off another point on his scoreboard.

“I hate you,” Andrew says for the first time all night, and he looks as though he means it, but the hand on Neil’s jaw says otherwise. He takes another drag of his cigarette, then moves the hand on Neil’s face to the small of Neil’s back, and with the weight of his body, begins to push Neil down.

Straddled above Neil, with smoke pouring of his mouth, Andrew looks like the construction of every forgotten dream, made flesh.

Nothing, nothing, nothing, Neil screams inside his mind, a prisoner in his own skin, bones and muscle.

If tonight were a test, then this is how he discovers his answer; he asks for what he can have, and doesn’t want for what isn’t being offered.

So despite Andrew being the one on top, it’s Neil who asks, “Can I?”

Andrew says nothing, keeping his eyes locked on Neil’s, and begins to crush the rest of his cigarette into the pillow beside Neil’s head. Then the space between their lips becomes nonexistent.

Like all of Andrew’s touches, it starts out heavy, but unlike all of Andrew’s touches, this kiss slows into something that could almost be called sweet, if it were from anyone other than Andrew.

But it is Andrew. It has always been Andrew. If Neil could choose, it would only ever be Andrew.

This is adhesive; gluing all Neil’s shifted pieces into something that can never change back. He should stop it, should protest it, but it’s too late - he shook Andrew’s hand and he was already stuck.

This shift of skin might just be permanent.

When Andrew eventually pulls away, he takes Neil’s breath with him, but that’s okay, because Neil wouldn’t be able to breathe anyway - not when Andrew’s eyes look like that. Hazel, honey, gold, something metallic, something that shouldn’t exist.

There’s nothing real about that colour, nothing at all.

Neil licks over his lips, a movement that Andrew tracks with precision, then risks his life by darting in for another kiss.

Andrew gives it to him. Neil thinks he probably shouldn’t.

Because while a kiss can just be a kiss, that isn’t how this feels.

Or else Andrew would have asked him to leave, and Neil would have left, and they wouldn’t be here once again saying yes.

So Neil feigns ignorance, and he tells himself he passed.

Chapter Text

Two terrible things happen that Friday night, and losing to the Houston Tigers is not one of them.

Though that loss is very nearly up there, it’s not at the front of Neil’s mind. There’s no space for it, not when the two terrible things threaten to split his life at the seams.

Houston is a good team. Better than good. Better than the SeaKings.

If the Nighthawks didn’t have Riko, Andrew, and Jean, then perhaps Houston would be the greatest team in the NEL, because Houston has Thea Muldani and Jeremy Knox, which is unfortunate for the SeaKings.

They all step onto the court under the illusion that it’ll be an energetic, upbeat game, a reunion between players.

It is the opposite of an upbeat game, as it quite literally feels like being trapped in a tiny cage with live tigers.

As they get knocked back, again and again, the SeaKings think of Coach Mullen’s words - if they want to stand their ground against the Nighthawks, they’ll have to start with a crawl against the Tigers.

So crawl they do; Neil’s never tried so hard in his life to do just that.

He plays with agility and desperation working hand in hand, recalling upon every fact he knows about the Tiger’s playing style. Unfortunately, it’s one thing to read about a player’s tactics, and another thing entirely to see it in action.

The Tigers do not crawl, they pounce.

Instinct isn’t enough this time. Instinct won’t make Neil faster than Thea, because Thea isn’t just fast, she’s a tank; a moving wall that appears in front of Neil whenever he turns this way or that.  

Every pass is blocked or smacked away, an annoyance that hurts more than the jolt wringing through Neil’s wrists.

When he snatches the ball for the hundredth time, Thea is, of course, there to take it from him for the hundredth time.

Only this time, Kevin is somewhere behind them, calling out an order to Neil.

Right away, as if his life’s purpose is to make this throw, Neil turns and starts to bound towards Kevin, heaving his racquet over his shoulder and readying his aim.

And maybe it’s due to his large, leaping steps that he’s such an easy target to a tiger like Thea, or maybe it’s simply because he should have been faster. Either way, she readies her aim, too, and she doesn’t miss.

Everything happens all at once, no order to this destruction; a bomb about to detonate doesn’t wait until you’re ready to explode. Destroy is its aim, and so destroy is what happens.

Air evaporates from Neil’s lungs, sound disappears from his ears, the ground falls beneath his feet.

Thea runs into him, heavy and hard and obliterating, and checks him with more force than perhaps necessary, because Neil goes flying.

Cheap, weak plastic is no good against a wrecking ball. Neil smashes into the nearest wall, and in the smoke of confusion, he doesn’t think, and puts his arms out to soften the blow.

The entire stadium goes black as he hears it more than he feels it. There’s a crunch or a snap or a sound a wrist isn’t supposed to make, and it hurts, but for that reason he knows it’s not broken.

Please don’t let it be broken.

More than the pain, what he feels like fire is the weight of their soon-to-be-loss.

On his knees, he clutches his wrist and tries to breathe, tries to see and hear throughout all this chaos, and what his mind comes down to are two options, neither of them favourable:

Get up and keep playing, despite the pain and the pulse of his blood. That’s what he wants to do.

But the hush of the stadium and the panicked call of his own name from various teammates tells him he shouldn’t.

That brings him to the other option, the one he knows he should do.

If he keeps playing with his wrist like this, he will guarantee them a vicious loss. To stand up and continue when he can’t try with his all would be selfish, as trying with his all is the only thing he can give, and now it’s not enough.

So what he does is not what he wants; he raises his racquet and calls the game to a stop.

Coming to that decision feels as if he’s forcing thoughts through wet cement, but all in all it takes seven seconds from moment of impact to hitting the ground to decide it.

As soon as the game pauses, the hush fades from the crowd, the announcers begin talking all at once, the referees start blowing whistles and Neil’s teammates are running towards him as soon as they’re allowed to.

It’s Thea who helps him to his feet, though she offers no apologies and instead pats his shoulder. Before anyone else can get to him the SeaKings’ doctor is at his side, a referee helping her get Neil off the court.

Pain is insubstantial now; all Neil can feel are all the eyes on him.

There must be millions watching.

As his wrist is being wrapped, Neil can hear the announcers through all the speakers, their tones low and solemn; “Neil Josten, starting striker of the San Francisco SeaKings, has pulled himself from the game after sustaining an injury. Josten was known in the NCAA for never calling his injuries, so we can only assume the worst.”

Thankfully, it’s a sprain, and he’s never been so thankful for a sprain before. If he doesn’t strain himself then he can be back on the court by next week, hopefully. He’s able to join the rest of the subs and his coaches as they sit behind the plexiglass and watch the rest of the horror play out.

He can’t help but feel like it’s his fault that they lose.

That’s the first terrible thing.

The second part happens at the very same time as the first, but Neil doesn’t find out about it until it’s much too late.

Back in his hotel room, he sits on his bed and clutches his arm to his chest and replays everything he did wrong tonight. On his third mental playthrough, his phone goes off with a message from his manager - Watch and read this NOW. Call asap.

Neil’s heart races as he clicks the link, which takes him to a livestreaming of a developing news article.

According to the employees and various patrons of a sports bar in Oklahoma, Andrew Minyard of the New York Nighthawks was in attendance tonight, watching the game between Houston and San Francisco.

According to those employees and patrons, Andrew Minyard did not react well to Neil Josten getting injured and pulling himself from the game.

“Yeah, that Andrew goalie guy from New York was sitting right over there,” a man in the video says, pointing towards the crowded bar counter in front of a large television. “He didn’t talk to no one, but I thought he was gonna murder everyone in here when that kid from the SeaKings got hurt.”

Neil’s heart stops, starts, sinks, starts again, stutters, stops.

He stares, blankly, and suddenly can’t feel the pain of his wrist anymore, because it’s then he realizes what the news article has been titled; Josten vs. Minyard: Enemies or More?

I don’t know what to say, he texts his manager, who immediately calls him. He ignores it. He doesn’t know what to say.

Kevin must have watched it too, as right as Neil’s about to drop his phone again, he receives a message from him that simply says, You lied.

But Neil didn’t lie; he just didn’t tell the truth.

Neil isn’t sure what to say to either of them until he knows what’s happening for sure, so he dials the number of the only one in the world who can give him an answer.

The line rings and rings and rings, until it doesn’t, and then Neil is met with a full sort of silence.

“Why?” he asks into the void, knowing Andrew is listening. “Why did you do that?”

“A better question would be why did you lose so miserably tonight?”

“Andrew, answer me. Were you -” He cuts himself off because an unexpected jerk of laughter is trying to work its way through his throat. He stifles it and continues; “- worried?”

“The media grossly exaggerated my reaction,” Andrew says flatly, as if reading directly from a script. “It was anger, not worry, and not about your wellbeing.”

“What does that mean?” Neil asks, the pain in his arm beginning to spark back up.

“It’s like this: pulling yourself from the season via injury is a cheap way to excuse yourself from our game. Riko won’t stand for your act of cowardness, and neither will I.”

It sounds more and more like a badly written script, thrown together to tell a lie and not a story. Neil thinks he gets it then, but he still says, slowly, “I wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt myself.”

“Doesn’t matter. It is what you’re going to tell everyone,” Andrew says, forcibly.

There’s a bubble of something too similar to hope in Neil’s chest; light and airy, so easy to breathe around. “So it wasn’t anger then?”

In a cold, slow voice, Andrew says, “What else could it have been?”

“You didn’t have to react at all in the first place.”

“Did you choose to look like a fool on national television? No. Some things are beyond our realms of control.”

Neil sighs, knowing this isn’t a war he’s going to win. “They’re going to put us together soon enough, won’t they?”

“We are not together,” Andrew says instantly, and the bubble bursts. “And if it were my contract in trouble, perhaps I would care. Looks like I don’t, though.”

“But you made the mess,” Neil says, lips twitching at the sides as he replays Andrew’s voice saying those same words to him just a day ago.

“Plagiarism is for children.” Andrew’s words are more effective than bleach, cleansing Neil of all his hopes and dreams. “If you could stop being so single-minded for once, you’ll realize I gave you an escape route. I suggest you use it. We aren’t discussing this again.”

Andrew hangs up after the last word is said, not bothering to verify if his words reached Neil or not.

They did, but Neil’s still trying to process it, taking apart every word to investigate its meaning.

It was a lie, it was a story, it was an excuse: Neil Josten was the rookie with a death wish. Now he’s the rookie who doesn’t want to die.

Tonight, he allowed himself to get hurt, in hopes of injuring himself enough to be pulled from the season. Andrew Minyard, the direct target to all of Neil’s insults and challenges through the media the past few months, was simply angry that Neil was backing out of his word.

And everyone knows Andrew Minyard is a man of his word.

It’s a new narrative that Neil doesn’t get to choose, didn’t audition for, but if Andrew needs him to play it, even if Neil doesn’t understand the reasoning, then he will. He’ll be seen as a coward, a traitor, but that at least makes sense, and that at least is safe.

His contract will remain intact. Andrew Minyard’s ‘outburst’ in a crowded sports bar over Neil Josten means one thing and one thing only: a retaliation against cowardice.

It does not mean that their rivalry is more. It does not mean that what happened in a hotel room between desperate lips and searching hands is for the world to know. It does not mean anything other than what the script says.

He texts his manager, I have it figured out. Don’t worry.

But Neil does worry, because Neil wonders.

Andrew knows as well as Neil does that he didn’t intentionally hurt himself tonight.

Andrew had no real reason to react in such a way; he only had a reason to excuse it.

But he sat in a crowded room and watched Neil’s game, watched as Neil accidentally crashed into a wall and poorly broke his fall, and proceeded to get angry - no. Worried.

Andrew’s apparent reasoning for being worried never actually existed, so Neil wonders - where did it come from?

What’s the real reason, if the one from the script was never necessary?

It makes Neil wonder if there’s more to be excused here. It makes Neil wonder if this is hiding a deeper truth.

But what else could Andrew have been worried about?

Chapter Text

It hurts still, which is more annoying than actually painful.

His wrist aches as he attempts to stretch out after his run on the treadmill. He can hardly hold a dumbell, so his planned workout at the team’s fitness centre was scratched off almost immediately after setting foot in the gym. Despite his inability to do anything, Neil doesn’t want to leave.

It’s safe in here. It’s just him and the wall-width mirror. The televisions are all turned off. The only noise comes from the vents somewhere above. Outside and beyond the gym, the world is currently learning the “true” cause of Neil Josten’s wrist injury. His manager approved it and his publicist planned out how to leak it to the press, and Neil doesn’t have to say another word - the world will believe it, because it is believable.

Coward, phony, weakling, prey, everything Neil stands against, but the perfect cover for what he is; stupid, hopeless, illicit, in l-

No, that’s the stupidity talking.

Neil sighs and flops backwards onto the mat he was stretching on, closing his eyes and cradling his injured wrist closer to his chest. How annoying that something so unplanned could hurt so bad.

He hears something shuffling against the ground, and when he opens his eyes, it’s to see Kevin standing above him. All of Neil’s insides begin to shut down in guilt and shame. It’s the first time he’s seen Kevin since the game against the Tigers. Neil never did respond to his message.

“Is it out yet?” Neil asks, still laying back and looking up at Kevin’s towering presence.

“Your truth, or your lie?”

Neil groans and begins to sit up, pulling his legs close to his chest and burying his face against his knees. He isn’t a child anymore, but sometimes talking to Kevin makes him feel like one. “The latter.”

“It’s out. The Nighthawks are having a field day with it. I don’t know which to be madder about; the fact that you saw him again, or the fact that this is the lie you came up with to cover for him. You’re an embarrassment to this team.”

Anger begins to coil low in Neil’s stomach, but he ignores it and laughs, bitter and hard in his throat. He lifts his head back and squints at Kevin. “I’ll save you the trouble of figuring it out - I didn’t come up with the lie. Andrew did.”

Kevin’s fierce expression is quickly wiped out. The hard lines of his face soften into almost nothing, looking so completely lost. “What?” he asks, in a voice far too shocked to be Kevin’s.

“I don’t know why he did it, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe he really was mad. It wasn’t my brightest moment.”

“Neil, wait - Andrew came up with the story? And you don’t know why?”

Neil starts to frown, confused by Kevin being so startled. “It makes sense, doesn’t it?” But Kevin doesn’t say anything, and Neil’s confusion begins to drip into a stream of panic. “What?”

Kevin’s eyes are wide when he looks at Neil and asks, “Are you still going on about it being ‘nothing’?”

Neil jerks back slightly, caught off guard now, too. “What the hell does that mean?”

Kevin scoffs. “You really are an idiot.”

Panic turns into annoyance. Neil shakes his head and points his gaze away from Kevin, saying in a snarled voice, “If you’re just going to stand there and tell me what I already know then -”

“I don’t think it’s nothing, Neil,” Kevin says suddenly, and he looks pained in a way Neil has never seen before. “Not for you, and not for him.”

Annoyance cycles back to anger and has Neil on his feet in an instant. “I’m not falling for this,” he says. “If you’re looking for a reason to be angry with me, I can give you plenty.”

“Neil, listen.”

Neil looks at him and everything hurts. He pulls his wrist to his chest and wraps his good hand around it. This conversation feels the way it did to be hit and hurt so suddenly - the ground is there beneath your feet and then it isn’t, and then you’re in pain.

“I don’t know what he’s telling you to make you think that. He didn’t react like that for no reason - he’s Andrew. You have to know that he’s hiding something.”

Neil laughs, and he laughs again because that first laugh nearly felt like a sob. “First you’re on my case about it having to be nothing. Now you’re after me because it might not be nothing?”

“Neil, this is dangerous,” Kevin shouts, and grabs at Neil’s elbow when he tries to turn away, forcing him back. “This was too close of a call. You can’t have any more near misses. If you’re both in it too deep, then there is no saving you.”

“Neither of us are anything. Andrew doesn’t - Andrew just doesn’t, and he never will,” Neil insists, and it’s all so infuriating. He knows more than Kevin knows. He knows. He knows what he wants and he knows what he can never have and they are the same exact thing. He will not fall for this just because Kevin is implying otherwise. “I know this already, okay? I know this.”

Besides, if he were to fall for these crazy, impossible dreams, and believe Kevin when he says it could be something to Andrew, then that would be blurring the line between what is allowed and what isn’t. Neil would have to tell Andrew, and Andrew would have to put a stop to this, to them.

And Neil isn’t ready for it to be over yet. His entire world is pretend, but with Andrew, it nearly feels real.

“Then tell me why he reacted like that. If it were nothing, I don’t think he would have, Neil, and you never would have been in this situation. Don’t play stupid.”

Neil wrenches away from Kevin and grabs for his hoodie, his water bottle, and begins to take steps backwards. There’s a stupid weight on his chest that he’s too weak to push off. He needs to breathe. He isn’t safe here anymore.

“I don’t know,” he says, and gives a helpless shrug of his shoulders. “If you want Andrew’s answers, then ask Andrew.”

He spins away before Kevin can say anything else.

But also because, he really doesn’t know.

It had to have been anger, right? Not worry. Neil was being careless that night, and maybe his intention wasn’t to get injured, but his intention sure wasn’t avoiding injury, either. It makes sense. It makes sense. It has to make sense. Because the alternative . . .

Neil doesn’t picture the alternative, because like many things, it does not exist.

The water from the shower is hot, but not hot enough to stop Neil from thinking. His thoughts drift from Kevin to Andrew to his mother, oddly enough. Until she was gone, she was all Neil knew, and she didn’t teach Neil all that much.

Not about the fundamental things, the lessons that are taught through existing and nothing else. Neil’s never known love, or whatever comes before love, because he’s sure nobody’s ever loved him. His mother was always on edge, always calling him by a name he never recognized, always telling him to be quiet and not pull focus and to be anyone else - so if he never knew who he was, then how did she? And how could she possibly love whatever he was?

And so how could Andrew?

Neil Josten is a vicious force on the court and a smirking face in the media, and behind locked doors, with a mouth against his and hands on his skin, he is . . .

There is nothing to love about a lie like Neil Josten.

Andrew’s already made it abundantly clear that it’s nothing. The media exaggerated his reaction. Andrew did not mean anything by it, anyway. It was nothing, just like everything else.

For some reason, though, Neil thinks about it, and then he’s not sure if he believes it. Lie is inside of Neil’s name.

And he knows a lie when he sees one.

-

Neil should have known that the list of terrible things didn’t end at two.

Neil should have known that if you tilted that list sideways, it became a timeline.

One leads to two, two leads to three, three will go on as long as it needs to until this story gets told.

The third number makes itself evident the very next day after the story is leaked, with Riko and Andrew being invited last minute onto a late-night talk show in New York. Neil watches through a livestream on his laptop after his manager sends him the link.

The host is trying more so than usual to be funny, with a stony presence like Andrew and a vicious presence like Riko sitting across from him on a couch. Neither of them budge at the jokes, both bringing a hostility to an atmosphere that just can’t hold them.

They have to do it though; Andrew started this lie, Neil has to play it, and Riko has to believe it.

The world has to believe that Neil Josten was too afraid to face off against the Nighthawks once he realized how insufficient his skill level was against the Tigers.

Neil isn’t sure what’s more unsettling: Andrew sitting across from a world-known comedian without breaking his neck at his horrible jokes, or the fact that Andrew is playing along with this role so easily.

Andrew has made it clear how lowly he regards living a lie. The only reason that this makes sense to Neil is that maybe Andrew’s truth is worse.

Riko immediately believed the lie, maybe believed it too much, because now on national television, he sits across from the host and shakes Neil’s name out like a bloody banner; a warning.

“It’s a shame Neil didn’t injure himself permanently, if that were his intention. It makes me wonder what I ever saw in him. Fear not, Neil, I’ll make sure you are more than compensated on my court.”

The host laughs at that, but it’s not a joke.

“Andrew, could you walk us through your reaction a bit more? I’m speaking on behalf of the entire world here,” the host says, pauses, and looks out to the audience. “We didn’t think you cared about anything.”

“I don’t,” Andrew says coldly, ceasing the audience’s raucous laughter, and gives the host a look that says if he makes a joke again, Andrew will bring the ceiling down on him. “Neil Josten knew what would happen when he challenged me in the eye of the public. I’m a man of my word, and I expected as much from him. I don’t take well to being made a liar.”

There’s an eerie silence that follows - watching it from miles and miles away, even knowing it’s all a sham, Neil still feels the ice of Andrew - and then the host is forcing a laugh, making a joke, thanking his two guests before cutting to commercial.

It’s all so cold, but Neil waits for it to burn, for the world to turn on him.

No more faith for a coward, no more belief for someone so weak. The fans will trash their jerseys, sell their tickets, his teammates will shun him, and Kevin -

Neil waits for Kevin to grab his good wrist and twist it until it isn’t.

None of that happens.

Instead, Kevin orders him to come to practice despite his inability to play, and teaches him how to hold the racquet without putting unnecessary stress on the injury, showing him countless exercises to ease the healing process. There isn’t a second that passes where Kevin doesn’t look locked up and restricted, as if he so badly wants to yell and scold and control. His lips stay pressed into a harsh line, his eyes remain condescending, but no hopelessly-hopeful words are said.

The SeaKings ask Neil to come to their next game, even if it’s just to watch from the sidelines, so Neil shows up at the stadium wearing his jersey to cheer them on.

What greets him in the stands effectively takes his breath away.

Signs flood the stadium, held up by enthusiastic fans who endlessly cheer his name, who have been cheering his name since they first heard it. Neil thought they’d be gone, as quick as the lie had emerged, but there they are, holding handmade signs that say ‘Pipe Dream Josten’ in bright, shining writing.

Neil flexes his wrist and doesn’t wince, and sends every shout and scream through his veins, as if they’ll help him heal faster. Hearing his name used to be a strange thing, because that wasn’t him, he wasn’t what they thought he was - but they don’t even care. They still call out Neil Josten like that’s all Neil really is, all that matters.

All he really is, throughout and underneath all these lies.

If they can see something there, all without ever knowing him, then shouldn’t Neil be able to? And if they see something and want something in him, then couldn’t -

. . . but there is nothing to love about a lie.

So Neil decides to be the truth.

When the SeaKings win, and Neil is ushered onto the court to join his team in a wild and unruly celebration over their logo, he makes his decision. Kevin must see it on his face, because he grabs Neil’s arm before he can get too far away. “Don’t say anything stupid,” he warns. “Don’t let it be for nothing.”

Neil nods, and knows exactly what he’s going to say.

This game has gotten to be too big for him. It’s the reason he signed his contract, wanting to be more than just Neil Josten, but now Neil Josten is a list of things that Neil isn’t.

Being so entangled in too many marionette strings, Neil knows he will always be a puppet, but all he wants is to make a move of his own, to be the version of Neil that they believe in, even if he isn’t.

To be the version that he wants to believe in, even though he’s not.

It’s not the truth entirely; it’s just not a lie.

After the press has finished with his teammates, Neil steps up to the cameras and microphones. They all turn to him at a breakneck pace, question after question being called out, lights flashing in his face.

Are you really that scared? Do you really doubt your playing level that much? Does this mean you won’t be transferring to the Nighthawks?

Question after question that Neil has no real answer to, so he says this;

“I will admit it,” he says, keeping his gaze trained on the wrapping around his wrist. “The Tigers were good, more than good, and because of that my confidence was shaken, and because of that I hurt my team.”

He takes a deep breath in, and meets Kevin’s eyes where he stands behind the slew of reporters. Then he unclasps the pin holding his bandage together, and starts to unwrap it.

With every camera fixed on him, Neil flexes his wrist and makes a fist; healed.

“I’m not scared anymore, none of us are, and come next week we’ll be on the court as a united force, now more than ever. Nobody in this stadium has doubted me, so it’s time to stop doubting myself.” And he means it in so many ways. He looks up at the closest camera and smiles, and though there’s so much he can’t say, this is what he wants to say; “So yeah, you can call me a coward, or a traitor, or whatever you want, because I know I’m not. I’m . . . I’m just Neil, and I’m here to win.”

Somebody cheers in the background, probably Matt, and Kevin gives him a grim sort of look - one that speaks approval. Neil just about turns away from the reporters before he remembers something, and when he turns back, he’s smirking.

“Oh, and Riko? I’ll see you in November.”

He’s not sure who exactly his entire speech was directed at. Maybe himself, maybe the ones controlling all his strings, or maybe just anyone and everyone who’s listening.

-

When he gets home that night, there’s a message waiting to be opened on his phone. It says simply, Nice save.

Neil smiles, waits to respond, then sends a reply before he shuts his eyes for the night. I’m taking tips from a top-ranked goalie. Maybe you’ve heard of him?

Come morning, too early to be called day, Neil still doesn’t have a response. It encourages him enough to find Andrew’s number in his phone, hold his thumb over the call button for an endless amount of time, and finally press down on it.

It’s early in California, but Neil can’t sleep anyway, and he won’t be able to reach Andrew any later in the day when the Nighthawks have a game tonight.

Not that he should be calling - nothing, and all that - but he convinces himself he has a reason to. Calling means finding out if Riko still believes the lie or not, how angry he is over Neil’s retaliation, or if the SeaKings are in any sort of danger at the hands of Riko’s bloody wrath.

That’s his excuse, at least. That’s what he’ll tell Andrew if Andrew bothers to pick up.

Andrew does. “You have five seconds to hold my attention or I’m hanging up,” he says, tiredly. “It is too early to be dealing with you.”

Neil asks, ignoring the threat, “Is this a bad time?”

“It’s always a bad time with you.”

“Andrew.”

For a moment, Andrew goes quiet, and the noise of his background filters in through the line; people talking, overhead announcements, the mechanical beeping of large vehicles moving.

“What do you want?” he eventually asks.

Neil should hang up, because the reason he told himself to call isn’t the reason he’s still on the line. “I don’t actually know,” Neil says with a defeated sigh, more to himself than anything.

“Perhaps you’re looking for congratulations on twisting the narrative to your benefit.”

Neil lets out a small chuckle at that, annoyed and hard in his throat. “The narrative that never would have existed if you hadn’t gotten ‘angry’.”

“Grossly exaggerated.”

“The point is, if you hadn’t -” He’s not sure where this sentence is going. Andrew cuts him off cleanly.

“I learn from my mistakes. It stops me from ever making them again. You should look into it.”

Annoyance ticks in his chest, then fades out with another laugh and a deeper sigh. “If my mistakes lead to your mistakes, then sure. Can’t have you flipping tables over me again, can I?”

“There aren’t enough adjectives in the world to describe how insufferable you are.”

“Yet you haven’t hung up.” Neil smiles through the silence, the silence that isn’t quite silence with all the background noise coming from Andrew’s side. “Where are you?”

“On my way to Boston.”

“This early?” A flight from New York to Boston doesn’t take long at all, and first serve isn’t until eight P.M.

“I’m not flying.”

“Driving?”

“Bussing.”

“Is the rest of your team bussing?”

“No.”

“Then why are you?” Neil feels out of breath from asking questions, exhausted by Andrew’s one worded answers.

Finally, he gets an answer that sounds real; “If I can avoid being thirty-thousand feet in the air, I will.”

Neil’s smile is as slow as the sun rising. He settles back on the couch, cradling a cup of coffee to his chest. “You must really have something against the act of flying.”

“Not flying,” Andrew says, airily. “The chance of falling, maybe.”

Neil stops to think about that, letting his grip loosen around the phone, allowing his smile to stay where it is. It seems impossible for Andrew to be afraid of anything, but the fact that he is, the fact that he’s telling Neil . . .

Neil wonders if that’s what nothings are supposed to do.

“You know, you’re more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. Falling should be the least of your worries.”

Barely audible through the distance and the phone connection, Neil thinks he hears Andrew let out a short heavy breath.

“You are an innovator of emotional support.”

At that, Neil laughs. Hard. It shocks through his throat like an allergic reaction, swelling and suppressing and feeling warm warm warm too warm, and he hasn’t laughed like that since -

He can’t remember.

“I wasn’t aware you needed emotional support. Shall I try again?”

Andrew says nothing, but Neil has come to learn that such silence doesn’t mean shut up - Andrew would tell Neil to shut up if he needed him to - and it doesn’t mean no - Andrew would say no if he needed to.

Andrew’s silence is what he can’t say, which in this case is; continue.

So Neil continues. “For me it’s the sea.”

Andrew listens, like what Neil is saying matters, even if it doesn’t. He doesn’t twist it into something else, doesn’t stop Neil from speaking, he just listens, and it makes Neil want to never stop talking.

Especially when, through silence and listening, Andrew tells Neil more about himself than he ever lets on vocally.

“You can’t see under it when you’re above it,” Neil says. “How do you ever know what’s beneath you?”

Andrew answers at his own pace, slow and mindful. “You don’t.”

“Exactly.”

“What if what’s underneath is better?”

“That’s yet to be proven - it’s too dark to see anything.”

“It sounds as if you just fear the dark,” Andrew says, then pauses. “Not being able to see something doesn’t mean you should be afraid of it.”

Neil feels the twitch of his smile, curious and wide as he asks, “What does that even mean?”

Andrew lets out another one of those short breaths, sounding like a much-needed exhale. An endless silence fills up the line.

“No ships, no planes,” he says eventually, listing them off. “We’re never going to see Europe, are we?”

And whatever Neil was expecting, it could have never been that; as even as he’s hearing it, feeling it, replaying it, he doesn’t understand.

Until he does, and he feels a tug at one of his strings, this one connected to Andrew.

He doesn’t mind losing control to this one. Not when this string is just as tethered back.

“No, I guess not.”

Chapter Text

Halloween conveniently falls on a day that neither Andrew or Neil have a game to play, or a game to travel to.

Neil didn’t think anything of the day before, not even when he received several invitations to various parties throughout San Francisco and Hollywood. He didn’t think anything of the day until Andrew brought it up.

There’s no other day of the year where the mass amounts of millions of the world will be in costume.

Or, as Andrew had put it, in disguise.

The coordinates this time are not for a hotel, but rather a very, very public space. Neil’s adrenaline races once he realizes Andrew wants to meet him in a nightclub in New York. Not just any simple nightclub, Andrew tells him, but one that he frequents. One that doesn’t ask questions.

Neil would almost feel dumb about flying across the country for one night, but Andrew wants to meet him in public, and Neil can’t say no to that, even though he should.

But it’s Halloween, and everyone's dressed up as something they aren’t. Neil can be anyone tonight.

So what Neil is is this; the Grim Reaper.

Neil will be the first to admit he hasn’t a creative bone in his body. It came down to logistics - the hood would cover his head, the robe would fit in his carry-on, and the costume didn’t require much else. Once in New York, he checks into his hotel, throws his bag down and slides the black robe over his clothes, pulls the hood up, and calls it a costume.

No, not a costume - a disguise.

He’s let into the club through a backdoor with no questions asked, led through the kitchen and the bar to the dance floor, where he’s met with a flurry of colours and lights. Even if he weren’t in costume, he’d be easily hidden in the mess of people. The only reason he’s able to spot Andrew in the crowded club is because he knows what to look for and where to find it.

Andrew is sitting at the bar in the very far corner, surrounded by people but looking very much alone. His costume consists simply of an old-fashioned goalie mask, covered in fake blood, fastened to the top of his head.

Neil smiles as he makes his way closer, amused by it, the fact that someone like Andrew would wear a costume at all.

“Very original,” he says as he approaches Andrew’s side. There’s no free seats around Andrew, but there’s enough space to stand next to him. “A hockey goalie?”

“Not a goalie,” Andrew says, looking up to meet Neil’s eyes, a disapproving look crossing his face once he takes in Neil’s costume. “Jason.”

Neil doesn’t understand the reference, so he nods, and looks down at Andrew’s half-empty glass, which is surrounded by fun-size candy bar wrappers. Neil picks one up and waves it in front of Andrew’s face. “You plan on sharing?”

“Not with you.” Andrew sips his drink for a prolonged second, then reaches over the bar counter to snake a candy from a bowl hidden out of sight. He doesn’t acknowledge the bartender’s annoyed glare or Neil’s knowing smirk as he drops it on the countertop for him.

It’s all so obvious; from the way Andrew sits in a place where there’s only room for Neil to stand, the way he isn’t making eye contact, saying the bare minimum of words, it’s as if he’s forcibly trying to make this be nothing.

Nothing or not, Neil isn’t fooled. If Andrew simply wanted Neil under his body in a bed, then they wouldn’t be here, where there are no beds in sight.

Neil would mention that fact if he didn’t think Andrew would turn around and leave him here. Still, he feels ten feet off the floor already at being so close to him, and he hasn’t even had a sip of alcohol yet.

When the bartender finally gets to them, Andrew orders Neil’s drink, and sends a threat with his eyes when the bartender motions to move the candy away. The candy stays. Neil gets his drink.

Andrew’s eyes remain on the glass the entire time, from the moment the bartender slides it towards Neil to the moment Neil brings it to his lips.

Under Andrew’s watchful gaze, Neil accidentally downs his drink faster than he wanted to.

“So,” Neil says suddenly, just to say something, that watchful gaze beginning to be too much. “What’s the rest of your team doing for Halloween?”

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Andrew says, eyes now on his own glass. “What did Kevin say about you coming here?”

“I didn’t tell him.”

That brings Andrew’s gaze back, this time shaded more with shock than intent. “Naughty Neil,” he says, nearly singing the words. “He might snap your neck before Riko gets the chance. I can’t wait.”

Neil smiles, leaning further against the counter and sliding an inch closer to Andrew. “Are you sure? Can you spare the tables this time?”

The world stops the very second that Neil can pinpoint Andrew’s flare of annoyance - because behind that annoyance, Neil sees acceptance.

“It’s your fault,” Andrew says, boredly. “Your idiocy will be the end of you.” And then the world starts the very second that Andrew reaches over and grabs Neil’s wrist, squeezing it hard enough to ignite a dormant pain. “You should know how to land a fall by now.”

Andrew’s hand relaxes around him, no longer squeezing, just staying, and the temperature of the room spikes impossibly high. Or maybe, Neil thinks, he’s just coming down with a fever.

Neil hears many things then, but the true meaning is in the hand holding him - or really, the hand that isn’t letting him go. “You were worried.”

Andrew tightens his hold and says, “One day you’ll hurt more than yourself by playing dumb.”

“Until that day,” Neil says, and reaches for the remainder of his drink with his free hand, raising it in cheers. “You were worried.”

As if he were being burned by the heat of Neil’s skin, Andrew rips his hand away and ignores Neil’s cheers. “If you’re only going to talk about the game then we might as well go back to my place.”

Ten feet off the ground can’t explain how high Neil feels. A better way to say it would be that gravity never once existed. Neil hears those words and feels his stomach twist, his blood rush, his cheeks warm.

Andrew doesn’t look as though his own words changed him, but Neil is going to have third-degree burns once he leaves this club.

Andrew wants Neil to talk to him; Andrew wants to take him home.

To coordinates that cannot change.

There’s only a few inches left between them, and Neil claims two more of them by sliding closer. He asks, in a slow drawl, “Then what should I talk about?”

Andrew waves a dismissive hand. Neil takes it as an invitation to start.

Conversation with Andrew isn’t ever about the simple things, because conversation goes both ways; one speaks, one listens, one speaks back, one listens back.

Andrew is strictly a listener, unless provoked to be a speaker.

So Neil thinks, and he talks, and he comments, and he pauses when he thinks Andrew’s raised eyebrows might mean he wants to speak, and he continues when Andrew doesn’t.

Music - Neil mentions that he remembers the song that’s currently blasting through the club, a song that his teammates had played during summer practice. Andrew cuts Neil off to tell him that he doesn’t like this song, that no one should like this song, that this song shouldn’t even qualify as a song.

So Neil asks, “What does qualify as a song?”

Andrew speaks.

Neil listens.

And as the hour passes, after they down a few more drinks, Neil thinks he might know Andrew better than he knows anyone else in the world.

Andrew only listens to music if it has to be playing, and if it has to be playing, it has to be something from a different decade. Andrew only watches movies if he has to watch movies, and he only enjoys them when nearly everyone in it dies - hence his Halloween costume, that Neil now understands.

And Neil’s favourite fact of all might make itself evident when Neil tries to take the last candy from the bowl below the bar, and Andrew grabs his wrist again to stop him.

Apparently Reese’s Pieces are his favourite.

Who knew?

Neil does, now, so he lets out a sigh that he doesn’t mean, and hands the candy to Andrew.

And by the end of the hour, Neil knows for a fact that gravity doesn’t exist and that he really does have a fever. He wouldn’t want it any other way, not when Andrew keeps turning that look on him, not when Andrew lets out a short sigh and pours the rest of his candy into Neil’s waiting palm.

It’s not fair that this can’t go anywhere. Neil holds the most important facts in the world and he has no choice but to store them in a box labeled nothing. There will never be another night like this, where they can throw on a mask and lean closer and talk and learn and listen.

This is nothing, Neil reminds himself, because Andrew doesn’t seem to care enough to do it for him right now.

Andrew doesn’t seem concerned by it at all, meeting Neil in the middle of their distance until his breath can be felt, until there’s no gap in their bodies and his hand can lay hidden on Neil’s thigh between them.

Neil waits for the hand to stop him, his mouth to tell him no, the words to remind him that this isn’t anything, but Andrew doesn't.

Maybe because Neil hasn’t told Andrew that he has to yet. He probably should. Being this close and knowing this much blurs the borderline, a step too near to danger. Knowing more about what's on the other side only makes Neil want it more.

Not what Andrew can give him, but just - Andrew.

So he should say something.

Neil can’t have this be over though, not yet, not with that hand on his thigh, so he doesn’t say it.

Besides, it could simply be the high of the night, the adrenaline from being so seen, the effects of alcohol. It could simply really be nothing.

Then Andrew is taking his hand off Neil with deliberate care and promptly changing the topic so quickly that Neil’s head spins.

Casually lifting a shot glass to his lips, Andrew asks, “You’re a fast runner, right?”

Neil frowns for a moment, eyebrows pinching together. “Fastest striker in NCAA Exy. Why?”

“Good for you,” Andrew says breezily, then downs his shot before pulling the hockey mask over his face, the hood of his jacket up over his head. “Hope you can prove it.”

Neil realizes Andrew had been staring at a point behind Neil’s shoulder, so he turns around to look, and every organ in his body promptly begins to shut down. A large group of men are making their way through the dance floor towards Neil. All of them are wearing Neil’s jersey number for the SeaKings - only theirs are covered in splashes of red.

Not a group of fans, but a group of . . . the opposite of fans.

A group of not-fans that have clearly taken notice to Neil Josten’s presence in their club - in their city - because they look angry.

Neil turns quickly to Andrew with a searching look, for help, but Andrew merely sits there tapping his finger against his empty glass. His body language suggests he doesn’t look the least bit worried about getting caught.

Before Neil starts running, he spares a second to wonder why Andrew never seems to care about breaking his contract.

All out of seconds to spare with those men calling his name, Neil turns away from the bar and starts to push his way through the crowd, the need to sprint biting at his heels.

The intoxicated masses refuse to stop dancing, blocking his path towards the exit. Neil’s spiking panic nearly has him clawing his way out, but his need to flee undetected has him silent and aggravated, turning in circles for the nearest escape route.

A hand lands on his arm, firm and squeezing; Andrew’s hand, and immediately Neil starts to follow him.

Those voices calling out Neil’s name are getting more loud and aggressive, pushing them further into the dancing crowd. Drunk sports fans are already a nightmare - drunk sports fans that wear your jersey number covered in blood must be even worse.

Being chased by said fans when you’re with the man you shouldn’t be with is the cherry on top of a deadly concoction. So Neil doesn’t argue when Andrew elbows people out of their way and suddenly kicks the emergency back exit open.

He doesn’t hesitate in taking this escape route, and follows Andrew down the alley and around the corner. Andrew pushes Neil up against the wall and keeps him pinned there with a hand to his chest, shushing him with a vicious, “Stay quiet.”

They both stare in the direction of the club, waiting and listening. Neil doesn’t dare breathe, not yet, not until he’s sure that they aren’t being followed.

Then he hears his name being called again, and then Neil does the only thing left to do; he starts to run.

Like his life depends on it, because it does.

Every step he takes is another thing to keep safe; his team, his game, his name, Kevin, his fans -

Andrew.

If they catch him or if he leaves too much of himself behind then he’ll lose all of that, and he’ll never get them back.

Neil runs faster.

And every step he takes pushes him further away from the danger, from the rules, from the expectation, from everything he’s not and from what wants to hurt him for defying all that.

The tall city buildings blur around him, the streets turn black, Neil doesn’t dare look back, not even to see if Andrew is behind him. All he does is call out with his lungs heaving, “They’re crazy!”

They’ve long since stopped calling his name - and they never once called Andrew’s, so they must not know it’s him - but Neil still runs, because that’s what he does, he runs and he runs, and as he runs from the threat, it very much feels like running from the lock of his contract. He only ever slows to make sure Andrew can keep up.

Because Andrew is behind him.

Neil can’t stomach the thought of outrunning him.

Neil runs until he doesn’t feel the need to run anymore, but he keeps running, because he doesn’t feel the need to anymore. This far away and this fast he can do anything he wants to. Happiness wares with confusion, and Neil has to stop running so he can laugh.

Then he can’t stop laughing.

Hysterics, he thinks, he’s hysterical, he’s never laughed this hard before. It hurts his chest, clenches up his stomach, bursts off every nearby wall.

What were they even running from? He can’t remember. He can’t think of anything except for Andrew’s exasperated breath, or Andrew’s wild hair, or the blood smeared down his face and the goalie mask hanging off the back of his neck.

Neil tries to take a breath; it catches hard in his throat and sounds more like a laugh than a choke.

Andrew sends him the most vexed of glances, though its message is weakened when covered by his gasping breath.

Out of breath on the streets of New York, far away from their starting point, far away from the threat, Neil feels like he just ran from more than that. And they made it.

So Neil shakes his head and lets out another shuddering laugh-breath-choke. It earns him another harsh glare and a hand around his wrist, yanking him away from the side of the street and around another corner.

Then he’s being shoved against a wall, hidden in the shadows. Andrew keeps one arm braced over Neil’s chest and cups his other hand over his mouth, smothering Neil’s bursts of laughter.

Neil only smiles harder when his lips touch Andrew’s warm palm.

“Quiet,” Andrew says lowly, reminding Neil that they truly were running from a threat, that there are still people lurking nearby who could expose what is truth and not a lie.

Neil tries to be quiet.

They stay like that until all of New York goes silent, until they’re sure it’s just them and the clouded sky.

Andrew slowly lowers both his hands until he can use them to grip at Neil’s hips, keeping him pinned to the wall. But Neil wouldn’t dream of moving.

Though humour has cleared his lungs efficiently, Neil still smiles down at Andrew. He can feel the rapid rise and fall of Andrew’s chest against his, can see the faint smudge of a smirk on his lips.

“That was fun,” Neil whispers, though it’s only them on this street. He’s afraid of speaking too loud and collapsing this dream.

Andrew fixes him with a sour look and shoves at his hips. “Remember what I said about hurting more than just yourself?”

Neil tips his head to Andrew’s shoulder and finds the strength somewhere in him to manage one more laugh.

Andrew digs his fingers in again, at first feeling like a warning, then feeling like a suggestion, a question.

Neil looks up and meets Andrew’s eyes. It could be a trick of the dark, could be Neil’s imagination, could be nothing, but Neil can’t find a trace of hostility anywhere in his hazel.

So Neil smiles wider, finally catching his breath, and rests his forehead against Andrew’s.

This close, Neil thinks - and it could be another trick of the dark, his imagination, nothing - but he thinks Andrew smiles back.

It’s there and then gone, as quick as they had run, but Neil doesn’t complain when Andrew’s smile is replaced with his kiss.

Neil doesn’t dare run from this.

Chapter Text

When they finally get their breath back, Andrew pushes Neil out onto the sidewalk and points towards an oncoming cab. He says nothing, but squeezes the back of Neil’s neck when Neil hesitates on the sidewalk curb.

Neil doesn’t want to leave, especially not now, not now that he’s got a taste for everything he’s addicted to. One more hit of a kiss will be one kiss closer to never, ever enough, but he still wants it.

Andrew shoves at the small of Neil’s back, and Neil has no choice but to open the door to the back of the cab and climb in. The driver asks him where he’s going, and Neil hesitates, because he doesn’t -

Then his phone is going off. Neil digs it out and stares at the screen, stares at the address.

Not coordinates, not numbers to locate on a map, but an address.

The numbers and words feel odd rolling off his tongue, but they settle right in his stomach.

Once at Andrew’s apartment complex, Neil gets out of the cab and perches himself on the curb, sitting right down on the cold cement to wait. Wait for whoever and whatever’s to come.

It’s a bitterly cold night, or it must be. Neil can see the cloud of his breath in front of him, and his skin is cool to the touch.

But he doesn’t feel anything but warm.

Maybe it’s because his blood is still churning fever-hot, or maybe he’s coming down from the high of Andrew’s lips. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the burning promise of more that’s radiating in his chest.

Soon enough another cab is pulling up further down the block, and because Neil knows what to look for, he knows it’s Andrew. He stays where he is until the cab has pulled away, then stands once Andrew walks towards him. The most impossible thing in the world right now is to keep from smiling.

Or, that’s what Neil thinks until Andrew is fisting a hand in the material of Neil’s costume to pull him closer, and then the most impossible thing in the world is to keep from asking for a kiss.

As it turns out, Andrew’s hand in his costume is only there to pull the hood up over his head again. Then he pushes at Neil’s back towards the entrance to the building. “Come on.”

Neil’s only been to New York a handful of times in recent years, but even he knows this apartment building isn’t like the rest. Not with its sophistication and newness, its gleaming metal structure rising up high into the skyline. One step inside the lobby tells Neil it must have cost Andrew his salary for an entire season.

The man at the front desk pays no mind to them as they walk by. They wait for the elevator in silence, step into the elevator once it opens in silence, and stand behind the closed doors in silence.

Except in here, safe from the rest of the world, Andrew turns towards Neil and grabs at his hood again, yanking it down. His hand stays twisted in the fabric, with enough force to tilt Neil’s head to his.

As the elevator rises higher and higher, Andrew and Neil move closer and closer.

And Neil goes so easily, wanting to be closer, wanting Andrew to want him closer - and it’s that, that want, red and shining and screaming, that’s the most obvious warning sign Neil’s ever seen. Panic rings its alarm throughout Neil’s system and has him stilling completely, stuck in place once the doors open again.

This can’t be that. Neil can’t want to be closer. Andrew can’t want him to be.

If they want that, if they do, then they’re wanting more than what can be offered. Rules will be broken, and rules are rules for a reason, so Neil can’t.

He feels it so strongly though, knows this feeling as much as he knows his heart is beating - a fact that’s impossible to ignore with how heavy and fast it’s racing.

It’s the only option not on the table and it is the only thing that Neil wants; Andrew, just Andrew, only Andrew, always Andrew.

Neil tried wanting everything and anything else, but he ran away from it, and when he was done running, his prize wasn’t at the finish line. It was with him the entire time, because Neil refused to outrun him.

He will never come back from this if he doesn’t stop it now, if he doesn’t tell Andrew to stop it now. They will both fall, and Andrew has made it clear how much he hates the act of falling.

Neil won’t do that to him.

So when the elevator doors close again and they’re still standing in silence behind them, Andrew looks up at Neil, confusion waning with his scowl.

Neil stares at the shining chrome of the doors and says, “No.”

All he has to do is say it, and Andrew will put a stop to it.

I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t.

“Andrew,” he says, louder than his no, taking a step away from Andrew and forcing his hand off. “I can’t. I have to tell you something.”

It’s Andrew’s turn to say it, and he nearly growls it - “No.”

Andrew moves around Neil to get to the button panel, to order the doors open again, but Neil steps into his path.

“I won’t break your rules. I won’t let you let me break them.”

“Don’t say it.”

“I have to.”

“Do you want to? No.” There’s a challenge in Andrew’s eyes, gleaming dangerously in this light. It looks directed entirely at himself as he says, slowly, “No. No rules tonight.”

That has Neil immediately pausing, arms hanging limp by his sides, his mouth dropping open. The thought is too much for one person to contain.

A colour crosses Andrew’s face, one Neil hasn’t seen in his surreal palette yet; the shade of hopelessness, and it doesn’t suit Andrew’s skin.

No anger, no hesitance or defiance. Just the look of a man who wants something he can’t have.

Neil’s seen this colour in his reflection.

This feels like facing off against a predator whose tactics you’ve never seen before, that you don’t know how to fight. Neil has no defense against that look on Andrew’s face.

“None?” It doesn’t sound like it’s him asking, but it must be, because he feels the words vibrate through his drying throat.

Instead of responding, Andrew drops his gaze to Neil’s hand, and then holds it, as if he’s never held a hand before. Like Neil’s palm and fingers are strange things that he doesn’t know whether to crush or caress. He gives it a squeeze, and Neil takes it as an invitation to loop their fingers together.

“None,” Andrew confirms, looking at where his fingers twine with Neil’s.

It’s too much to give and too much to take, but with their fingers linked together and both of them wanting it, maybe they can hold it just for a night.

Neil shouldn’t agree, not when he doesn’t know how to fight this beast, but Andrew’s trusting Neil not to hurt him, so Neil trusts him back.

When Andrew grabs at Neil’s robe again and ushers him out into the hall and towards his apartment, Neil says nothing and goes.

-

The lock of the front door seals it all in, enveloping them in secrecy and safety. Just them. It’s always been just them, but now there’s nothing to hide and everything to show.

It’s where Andrew lives, where he exists when he’s not Andrew Minyard of the New York Nighthawks, and it’s where Neil is now. He feels the furthest thing from the name on his contract.

It’s the most obvious spot in the entire world and yet nobody knows they’re here.

Neil never wants to leave.

Simple furniture decorates the apartment, though it’s obvious everything must have cost a fortune. Two doors lead to a bathroom and a bedroom, the kitchen bleeds into a living room, and from the living room is access to a small balcony, not a fire escape.

“Nice place,” Neil says, surveying everything, trying not to feel awkward for being the first to break the silence.

“It’s an apartment,” Andrew says from where he stands at the fridge, opening it to grab two bottles of water. “Don’t act like you’ve never seen one before.”

Neil wants to argue and say but it’s your apartment, but that would imply that seeing Andrew’s apartment is some sort of accomplishment. Neil knows how Andrew would react to that.

He joins him in the kitchen and takes his water, the two of them drinking in silence and avoiding eye contact. Neil wants to say something, he does, but the unsaid word is too palpable between them.

He’s afraid of shifting it closer to the surface.

He’s afraid of saying the wrong thing now that he can say anything.

He's afraid of saying the right thing and having to force it be wrong later.

Andrew twists the cap back on his bottle and settles it on the counter behind them, then swiftly turns to press against Neil, knocking Neil’s body back into the counter. Sharp wood knicks into Neil’s lower back, but pain doesn’t register when it’s followed by Andrew’s hands and lips.

There’s nothing else to think or say when Andrew’s tongue brushes his and his breath becomes Neil’s.

Andrew takes hold of Neil’s wrists to stop them from moving - because Neil was floundering, arms waving on either side of him, unable to reach out and touch when he can still feel the boundaries of the rules that aren't there anymore.

“Andrew -” Neil gasps in the brief second that their lips aren’t touching.

Andrew squeezes Neil’s wrists and jerks his hips forward, not to grind against Neil but to instead slam him back into the counter, effectively shutting him up.

“What did I say?” Andrew asks, heavily, and gives his hips another jerk to prove his point.

“I - I can’t -” He can’t just unwill these rules, not that easily, not when they’re Andrew’s. He twists his wrists around until Andrew frees them, then glances from them to Andrew’s shoulders. “Can I?”

Andrew lets out a short breath through his nose, looks away, and nods.

Slowly, carefully, as if Andrew will combust if Neil touches too fast, Neil places his hands on Andrew’s shoulders. He feels so right under Neil’s hands, the curve his muscle and bone fitting the curve of Neil’s palms.

They go very, very still after that.

Andrew doesn’t flinch, but it’s clear he’s trying not to. He looks at Neil’s hands on him for a long moment, looking surprised that the touch doesn’t - hurt.

If this were happening a week ago, Neil would be breaking two rules right now. But it’s happening now, and Andrew isn’t asking him to stop, so Neil hopes he’s breaking none.

He waits, just in case.

Then he slowly moves his hands elsewhere; one slides up the back of Andrew’s head to dig into the soft, short hair there. His other hand inches downwards to toy at the neckline of Andrew’s sweater. Touching this way, without any deeper meaning than simply wanting to be close to someone, feels safe in a way Neil has never felt before.

And, judging by the calm, quiet breaths Andrew’s taking, Neil hopes he feels that way, too.

Then that unsaid word buries itself deep until tomorrow, and what Neil says instead is; “Can I make you feel good?” He says it with purpose, as he tugs a bit harder at Andrew’s hair, guiding his gaze up. “I want to, okay? If you want me to. Can I?”

Andrew doesn’t back down from the challenge in Neil’s eyes, though he doesn’t look like he believes it. “You wouldn’t know how.”

It’s still not a no.

Neil tugs Andrew’s hair again, this time using it to guide Andrew forward for a kiss. “Tell me how.”

They fall into the kiss, saying nothing that requires words, until Neil can’t feel his lips, until he feels once again weightless. They kiss until Andrew bites at Neil’s lower lip and says, “I want to fuck you.”

If Neil’s mind were made of bowling pins, Andrew would have just earned a strike. Everything goes tipping over; the world, the ocean, the building, Neil’s heart beating.

Neil’s never reacted like this to words before. Heat blooms in his stomach, so low he can’t control it. His mind shatters into the finest glass, never to be put back together now that it’s scattered over the ground.

Words like that never would’ve affected Neil so bad before, but it’s never been Andrew saying them. It’s never been Andrew looking at him like that - patiently - and it’s never been Andrew’s thumbs drawing careful circles around Neil’s hips as he waits for his answer.

It’s just Andrew; who never follows rules and never breaks his own, but put a cease to their existence to keep Neil for one more night.

Who stares at Neil like there isn’t currently an earthquake taking apart the apartment.

Neil stares back at Andrew without meaning to, thinking. If that’s what Andrew wants, then Andrew wants Neil, or - or Andrew wants Neil to want him.

And that’s what would make him feel good.

You’re so stupid, Andrew, Neil thinks distantly, and gives Andrew’s hair another quick yank. Offer me the world, do it, I’d still just want you.

So after what must be a century, Neil nods and says the first answer that comes to mind; “Yeah - yes.”

He rocks forward for another kiss, but Andrew evades it, neatly turning Neil around with a push of his hand, shoving him towards the bedroom.

“You need to shower.”

Neil frowns at that, wondering why that could possibly be important now, but once they pass the mirror in the bathroom he realizes why; splotches of fake blood surround his lips from being pressed against Andrew’s, and his hair is in sweaty-disarray.

With a slightly impatient sigh, Neil follows Andrew to his bedroom. It holds less contents than the living room had; a bed, nightstand, dresser, and an oddly placed orange and white goalie racquet in the corner.

Not finding much information there, Neil directs his attention to where Andrew is sliding open the drawers of his dresser to pull out clothes Neil can sleep in. It's unsettling to find that Andrew folds everything into semi-neat piles.

Even more unsettling than learning that is being in Andrew’s shower and using his coconut-scented shampoo and pine-scented soap, or spotting the blue toothbrush that sits in its holder on the counter and a razor that’s been carelessly tossed to the side.

The last pieces to the picture of Andrew.

Before this, Andrew was two things; a name and a body. Relentless on the court, soulless in the media, and careless with everything else.

But these small things Neil’s learning make Andrew more human than his pulse had proved just minutes ago.

A human, not a machine. Not just a thing that exists, ink on paper or a face on a screen, but rather somebody living and warm under Neil’s hands. Something real to want. A dream you can touch.

Such thoughts have him showering longer than he needs to. It’s not until there’s one abrupt knock on the door that Neil’s reminded where he is and what he’s about to do. He shuts off the water, dries himself off, and gets dressed in Andrew’s clothes.

Everything about him, from his head to his toes, echoes of Andrew.

Andrew is outside of the door when Neil opens it, a towel slung over his shoulder. He steps past Neil and makes it halfway inside before Neil calls out, “Wait, what am I supposed to -”

“Entertain yourself,” Andrew says, and slams the door behind him.

Then there’s nothing for Neil to do but sit with his thoughts of what’s to come.

There’s a wild need to know and solve things thriving through his fingers. He doesn’t know everything from a simple lack of needing to know everything when it comes to this. He never gave it a thought before. He doesn’t know where to start, what it’s like, how it feels or how it’s supposed to feel or how it can feel.

What to do.

Andrew knows he doesn’t know though, he must, so Neil comforts himself with that thought as long as he can, and distracts himself with the TV remote, trying to figure out what the buttons do.

Ultimately, he cannot figure out what the buttons do, so he ends up staring at a blank screen and repeating that last question to himself. What to do what to do what do I do -

The bathroom door opens and Andrew steps out, cutting Neil’s thoughts in half.

His wet blonde hair has been pushed back from his forehead, his face fresh and clean of all blood. Longing replaces the unknowing twitch to Neil’s fingers, because Neil knows, looking at Andrew when he looks like that, that he doesn’t care about anything else except for getting closer.

“We could have just showered together,” Neil decides to say, to stop his mouth from feeling so dry.

Andrew takes the remote Neil was holding and throws it further back on the couch. “Neither of us would have ended up clean.”

Neil has no comeback to that.

Everything about Andrew, from his eyes to his voice, is rendering Neil breathless, so he decides to stop searching for answers he doesn’t need. This is not a mystery that needs solving; as long as he wants Andrew and Andrew wants him, it’ll make sense eventually.

Neil believes in that more than the buckle to his knees when he stands, so he allows Andrew to take his hand and tug him towards the bedroom.

Then it’s happening, and the bedroom door is closing, sealing Neil and Andrew further away from the rest of the world.

Eventually isn’t soon enough, because as Neil rests against the door Andrew’s pinning him to, he thinks in frantic thoughts - where do his hands go, where does he look, what part of Andrew does he touch and how do they start?

How is he supposed to make this feel good for Andrew when he’s as unknowing as the dawn is of what's to come during day?

Andrew derails such thoughts by working his hands under Neil’s shirt and pressing them flat to his stomach. With his lips an inch away from Neil’s, he asks, “Do you know what to do?”

It doesn’t sound condescending; it sounds guiding.

Swallowing down panic, allowing himself to be the dawn, Neil shakes his head. “Show me?”

Andrew bites at Neil’s jaw gently, nodding a yes slowly, then stops and stills time completely.

He’s waiting.

For Neil to say the word that will allow it all to happen, for time to tick and for lessons to be learned and for hands to be permitted in places they otherwise wouldn’t be. This is how you start; you say it.

“Start,” Neil breathes out, placing his hands over Andrew’s, the only thing separating them the fabric of the shirt. “You can start.”

It works; Andrew moves to graze his teeth down the column of Neil’s neck. “It’ll hurt.”

“I don’t care.” He doesn’t, not if it means he gets to have Andrew this close, not if it means figuring this out together.

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s you,” Neil says simply, gasping back a breath when Andrew bites down harder. “You won’t hurt me.”

“You don’t know that,” Andrew insists, but starts to soothe over every bite mark he left behind with a kiss.

Neil smirks, distantly and dreamily. “Will you?”

His body is knocked back against the door suddenly in warning, causing another startled gasp to slip past Neil’s lips.

“I hope you’re aware that I despise you,” Andrew says lowly, hands gripping Neil almost-too-tightly.

Neil’s still smirking, smiling, dreaming. “As long as you’re aware that it’s a lie.”

Andrew lets out a dismissive sound that goes straight down Neil’s spine, and doesn’t waste his breath with a counter attack. Instead he turns them around and shoves Neil towards the bed.

Somewhere above their heads is the soft patter of footsteps, and outside, still-busy taxis honk their horns as police sirens go off; the sounds of the city refusing to go to sleep quite yet.

And throughout all those sounds, all Neil can hear is his own breathing, like a punch from his lungs, and Andrew’s, contained but slowly escalating.

A mixture of fast-heavy and slow-soft, because Neil is on his back and Andrew lays overtop of him, and this is the world, as far as Neil’s concerned. Whatever exists outside these walls now is as unimportant as the weather report from ten years ago - it doesn't matter right now so who cares?

Andrew hooks his arms under Neil’s knees, using the position to haul Neil’s lower body upwards, bending Neil in half as he leans forward to kiss him. Neil allows it, but this angle and this position changes things. This kiss is - different.

It’s coated in expectation now. Andrew’s hips are pressed against Neil’s ass and there’s this growing insistence between them. Hard and hot and prominent, no matter how lost Neil feels when Andrew coaxes a moan out of him.

This is going to happen. This is happening. And as the tension builds, as the pressure grows, Neil only feels less and less confused about what he wants - because yeah - yes, he wants it, whatever he's about to be given.

Andrew uses the weight of his body to hold Neil down and uses his now-free hands to roam the expanse of Neil’s body. His hands run over Neil’s chest, his stomach, brushing them over Neil’s hips before curling around to reach his ass.

Neil wants it, he wants that, he likes that, and he lets the whine aching at the back of his throat escape just to show it.

He wants it.

And it seems the more he wants it, the more Andrew does, too.

There’s precision and purpose in Andrew’s eyes. Neil’s rarely seen such a colour, especially coming from Andrew. It’s intoxicating, and Neil wishes he didn’t have to blink so he wouldn’t have to look away from it. Andrew never cares - but right now, with his hands there and his lips there and Neil under it all, he does, he cares.

“Wait,” Andrew says suddenly, leaning up, then placing a hand on Neil’s chest when he tries to move. He darts his eyes towards the nightstand, Neil’s gaze following, then reaches over to grab something.

Vision hazy now that it’s not locked on Andrew, it takes Neil a moment to place things. There’s a book by the lamp, which throws Neil off for an even longer moment, causing him to frown as he tries to think of what kind of book Andrew would read.

Then his eyes land on the box of condoms, and the bottle next to it.

Neil’s lungs then decide to stop working.

Without his conscious decision, his eyes track Andrew’s hands as he opens the box and drops a condom on the bed next to Neil’s shoulder. The soft sound of it landing on the blanket is easily swallowed up by Neil’s sudden staggered exhale.

Andrew is looking at him now, one eyebrow quirked. “Problem?”

And that’s the thing - Neil hasn’t a single one.

“No,” he says distantly, his heart skipping rope in his chest. He wants this, and what makes it so frightening is that he never has before. “I’ve just . . . I’ve never done this before.”

He hopes that says enough of what he means. The only way he could want it like this is if he wanted who was giving it.

Now’s the moment where Andrew should pull his hands away and move on, because what Neil just said was saying it, saying that he wants him, wants to choose him, and Andrew already said he is not to be wanted.

But tonight that doesn’t matter, does it? Tonight they can, if they want to, if Andrew wants Neil as much as Neil wants Andrew.

Andrew leans closer and Neil shuts his eyes in anticipation of a kiss, or maybe a flick to the forehead and a deep voice saying I don’t want you. Instead Andrew rests a hand on Neil’s chest and presses down gently, strong and steady. His fingers spread out until all of Neil’s heart feels covered.

Neil keeps his eyes closed, calming his heart until it stops beating hard enough to hammer his ribs into Andrew’s hand.

“I know,” Andrew eventually says, and seems as if he isn’t going to offer any other reassurance. Those two words would be enough, but yet, after a moment, he says more; “I haven’t, either.”

Neil opens his eyes and puts his hand over Andrew’s and suddenly doesn’t feel so alone in this fear.

Then it all starts.

It was a waste of time to have put clothes back on in the first place, because as soon as Andrew is satisfied with the pace of Neil’s pulse, all Neil’s clothes are on the floor in an instant. Neil’s chest bared and his legs naked, Andrew’s eyes roam up one limb and then the other, following closely with his hands.

Neil watches him, his gaze following the path Andrew makes, because they can watch now. They don’t have to close their eyes and pretend it isn’t them, even when they know it is.

This is Andrew and Andrew knows it’s Neil. This is what and who they want.

Neil’s spent the past few months in the direct light of the world’s eyes, but now is when he feels truly seen. Wants to be seen. Wants Andrew to look at him and understand that he is just as real as he is.

If you want me, you can choose me. I am not a lie when I’m with you.

Andrew slowly trails a hand between Neil’s legs, as if coming to that understanding himself, taking his time to make sure the warmth and texture of Neil’s skin isn’t something made up in his head.

Neil’s breath hitches and his eyes shut for a moment when Andrew’s exploring fingers brush over his ass, causing a contemplative look to cross Andrew’s face as he stills his hands.

Andrew stares at a point beyond Neil for a long few seconds, then pushes himself to his knees.

“Up,” Andrew says, jerking his chin to indicate towards the headboard of the bed.

Neil nods dazedly, pushing himself up with his elbows and stopping once his head hits a pillow. Andrew stays overtop of him, crawling up the bed as well until he’s hovering over Neil again. Then he grabs hard at Neil’s hips and flips them over; Andrew underneath, Neil overtop.

On Andrew’s lap.

All at once it’s better, the sensation of falling dissipating from his bones.

All at once it’s worse - if he does fall, it’ll be right onto Andrew.

The material of Andrew’s pants rubs against Neil’s thighs, Neils cock looking obscene when contrasted against Andrew’s clothing. An odd, shaky shame threatens to settle into Neil’s pulse. He looks at his own hands, unsure where to touch, so he settles for hooking them over the headboard and hanging on. Then he isn’t sure where to look; Andrew’s eyes are bright beckoning things, but if Neil looks directly at them he’ll get lost too quickly.

Andrew solves these silent equations and makes a noise, some sort of breathy command, and erases Neil’s unease by guiding him into a kiss, slow enough that Neil can easily put a stop to it.

Neil doesn’t have to look to know it’s Andrew kissing him.

And nothing in the world could make Neil think it could be anyone else touching him. Those are definitely Andrew’s hands trailing down the curve of Neil’s back, Andrew’s fingers sliding from his hips to grip his ass, and Andrew’s caution as he touches Neil for the very first time.

Neil has to break their kiss, his breath too desperate in its need to escape.

Andrew stills, as if waiting for permission to continue. Neil takes a moment before nudging his nose against Andrew’s in a yes.

So Andrew does, adding pressure to the dip of his rough fingertips, tracing circles around Neil’s hole until Neil adjusts to the new, new feeling. It’s - odd, Neil thinks, just odd. Half of him wants to push back into it and half of him wants to push away.

“Um,” he mumbles as his body begins to tense up. “It’s kind of -”

Andrew lets out a harsh breath then grits his teeth, his grip hardening around Neil’s ass. “You’re too -” He cuts himself off, looking furious with himself for thinking whatever he was about to say, then quickly loosens his hold.

“What if we -” His hands ache to dig deep into Andrew’s hair, to make it all better somehow, but his body won’t move.

He hadn’t realized it could be so -

Andrew looks defeated, his expression pinched as his chest expands with its deep, hurried huffs. It has Neil shutting up, realizing that whatever he suggests will only increase the stiffness in Andrew’s body.

“It’s okay,” he says instead, as reassuring as he can. He doesn’t know what exactly is wrong but together they can make it be okay, for themselves and for each other. “It’s okay, we can figure it out.” Neil kisses Andrew then, before Andrew can make any bitter retort. Very quickly, almost immediately, Neil begins to relax his tightened muscles and ligaments, settling easier over Andrew when Andrew kisses back.

Before Neil can write this off as confusion and not pleasure, Andrew kisses at a spot under Neil’s jaw, then leans back up to kiss his lips; hard and open, wet and hot, leaving a clinging string of spit between them when they part.

Andrew takes his hand away from Neil to bring it to his mouth, and pushes two fingers past his own spit-slick lips.

All of Neil then, all at once, burns.

Eyes wide open and unblinking, he watches Andrew’s face as Andrew sucks his fingers wet, then pushes them back behind Neil to play with the resistance of his hole.

“Fuck,” Neil grits out, dropping his forehead to Andrew’s, knowing instantly that he wants to push back into that touch. He wants that touch inside, deeper, closer.

It feels good now, not odd, the lingering brush of Andrew’s wet finger around his rim feels  - so fucking good.

There’s thought and care behind each of Andrew’s movements, an insistence running through his curling fingers that suggests that he likes this. The fact that Andrew enjoys it, that it feels good for him to touch Neil there - it sends a thrill up every knob of Neil’s spine until it reaches his head.

He swears again, and pushes back for more.

Soon it isn’t enough, not when Neil knows how much he can have. He nudges his nose against Andrew’s jaw in a silent bid for more, and exhales in relief when Andrew nods back.

“Don’t stop breathing,” Andrew warns lowly.

Neil doesn’t understand what that could possibly mean - until Andrew is adding lube to his fingers and massaging at Neil’s entrance, slowly working one fully inside, and then eventually, two.

Neil stops breathing.

Two is on the border of too much, and somehow, not nearly enough. His fingers slip from the headboard and land on Andrew’s shoulders in a desperate urge to ground himself, needing something alive to sink into as Andrew sinks into him.

It is torture, the pass and pull of pressure, the slide and curl of pleasure. Neil wants faster and Neil wants slower and Neil wants all of it and Neil never wants to live without it.

Half of him thinks it’d be easier if Andrew did it all at once, not caring, not sparing any hesitation, that way Neil wouldn’t feel like he’s hanging off the edge of a building, waiting to be pulled back up.

Half of Neil never wants to get to the other side of this; to the all of Andrew, because then it’ll be closer to over.

Whatever half of that thought Neil lands on, he’s desperate when he gets there.

When Andrew’s pace increases, so does Neil’s breathing. Loud and echoey in the closed off room, vivid enough to paint the walls anew. Andrew is silent for the most part, focused on steadying Neil’s waist and meeting Neil’s half-formed kisses as he twists his fingers deeper inside.

Neil can't be that calm. He's about to vibrate out of his skin if he has to wait any longer for Andrew to be everywhere in him. It’s a teasing pressure, a touch that Neil can’t believe he’s receiving. Andrew’s hands, Andrew’s permission, Andrew’s pleasure.

He curls his arms around Andrew’s neck and hides there, a frustrated noise scraping high along his throat as he says, “Andrew.”

Andrew doesn’t make any noise until right then, breathing raggedly as he hisses, “Neil.”

It sounds equal parts need and equal parts encouragement, making Neil feel brave enough to rock his hips into the next thrust of fingers. They both gasp at that.

Knowing his own desperation is affecting Andrew only has it rolling off of Neil in waves. He wants more of Andrew more than his brain needs his next breath.

“I’m good,” Neil growls out, determination mixing with that desperation. He knows exactly what half of that thought he landed on now. “You can - I’m good -”

“No.” Andrew’s voice doesn’t rise as he says it, but it might as well have been a shout. His hands freeze where they sit on and in Neil’s body before he uses one to grab at Neil’s chin, dragging his gaze down to meet his. “You’re not, not yet. Just wait.”

Authority outlines his words, but inside them is the very basis of fear. Neil nods quickly and listens, muttering out a sorry before leaning further against Andrew for support.

Andrew tries for a third, and Neil is suddenly thankful that he had listened. It’s a lot more than two.

He falls down, down, down, chest to Andrew’s chest and face buried in his neck, heaving his breath out at Andrew’s ear, saying his name so much and so fast his tongue goes numb.

Andrew tilts his head to press his lips to Neil’s jaw, and says his name back once and only once - but Neil will hear it forever.

With that, Andrew sits up and pushes Neil backwards until he hits the bed flat on his back. Everything about Neil’s body moves to accommodate Andrew; his spine curving, hips lifting, legs spreading and mouth parting, all so Andrew can get closer to him.

Andrew doesn’t waste a second, settling back between Neil and sliding his fingers back in, his wrist flicking in a more aggressive pace.

To counteract such aggression, Andrew places a steadying hand over Neil’s chest again, not moving it when Neil places both of his own hands over it.

Something has taken over Neil’s brain, or maybe he’s always been like this and was waiting for Andrew to come along and split this secret open. Or maybe this secret wasn't a secret, something that had to be hidden, but simply a piece of Neil that's only for Andrew to know about.

Then Andrew is ripping open that condom, and instead of shutting down in fear of the unknown, Neil welcomes it. Whatever he needs to know, Andrew will show him.

He can hear himself saying distantly, yes and now and Andrew, I -

Andrew Andrew Andrew -

His fever rages on, and surprisingly enough the only relief is Andrew’s fiery skin; the swipe of his hand against Neil’s forehead, pushing back his sweat-wet hair, the press of his lips to the corner of Neil’s mouth as Neil babbles Andrew’s name, and the final push of slick fingers against Neil’s hole before this all becomes more.

More is so much more than what Neil had been expecting.

Andrew hooks one of Neil’s legs over the bend of his elbow, and uses his other arm to hold Neil down across his chest, shaping him into the oddest position of possibility and security.

Then he’s lining himself up and pushing in, and they become one thing instead of two, a combination of want and being wanted.

Neil can only feel two points on his body: where Andrew is touching his chest, and where Andrew is breaking through the last restraints of Neil’s resistance.

The rest of Neil, all those lies, all those stories and strings, they don’t exist.

He’s aware of his breathing, air forging a staggered path out of his lungs, and the way his hands scrabble at the sheets, but none of that can take away from how full he feels, how much this -

And oddly enough, it doesn’t hurt.

It’s all of Andrew, all at once, overwhelming and everywhere that Neil’s body reformulates itself to find a way to exist around him. His mind blanks out and his heart stops beating in order to do so, all his energy going into allowing Andrew in, in, in.

It's a lot, but it doesn’t hurt the way Andrew had implied. Neil wonders why Andrew was so convinced it would.

Once Andrew’s pushed all the way inside, hips flush to Neil’s ass and his chest against Neil’s chest, Andrew asks, panting, “This - good?”

Neil opens his eyes before answering, only for shock to fill his already-full core because of the terrified expression on Andrew’s face. Though his mind feels caked in cement, he’s quick to answer.

“Yes.” To further prove it, he hooks one leg behind Andrew and presses the heel of his foot into Andrew’s lower back, inching his shirt up as he urges him forward. “You?”

The terror in Andrew’s expression deepens then fades, and then he nods.

Neil smiles, pressing with his foot again until Andrew starts moving, giving Andrew all the cards to play with.

Andrew takes them, and begins to move in a smooth, cruel pace. He never stays inside long and never comes back fast enough; slowly there, and then quickly gone. A languid but punctual wave of his body into Neil’s, pushing Neil carefully into the mattress with every press of his hips.

Neil’s only touching him where he absolutely needs to touch him, but even so, he can feel the tense lock of his muscles, the clench of his jaw, the way he’s trapping himself behind a barrier.

And Neil isn’t sure how he feels about that. He said he would make Andrew feel good. He wants to be enough of a void for Andrew to fill, wants Andrew to give whatever he wants to give and not hold back.

Neil is not the boundaries of a contract. He won’t keep Andrew boxed into something he longs to be free from.

“You can go faster,” Neil says, shocked by the sound of his own voice after all this static-filled quiet.

Andrew hears him, judging by the look he gives him, but he doesn’t answer, too focused on keeping up his perfected pace. “I don’t remember asking you,” he finally says, having to grit out the words through clenched teeth.

Neil responds by wrapping both his calves around Andrew’s back and digging his heels in; the shift in the angle is minor, but it has the head of Andrew’s cock pressing at a spot that clears Neil’s mind with a siren of white noise.

Gasping slightly at the unexpected pressure, gripping feebly at the sheets because Andrew just keeps going, keeps hitting that spot, Neil has to force himself back into reality enough to say, “I want you to - I want you to stop - holding back.”

I want you, all of you, however you are.

Andrew completely stops, clearly not reading that message on Neil’s face when he glances down at him again.

Neil takes the opportunity to reach up and twist a still-wet lock of Andrew’s hair around his finger. “I can handle you.”

It’s a promise.

He waits for Andrew to hear it.

Andrew stares at him a moment longer, then immediately begins again, driving himself forward so hard and fast that Neil’s body jolts up the bed as he bends in half. His hands let go of Andrew in order to find purchase against the sheets, twisting them up as he cries out at the impact, and fuck it’s too much but too much is so much better.

Andrew slowly slides out, lowering Neil back down to the mattress. “Still think that?” he asks, aiming for threatening, most likely, but the faint smirk across his face gives him away.

Beyond that smirk and through the threat, Neil can read Andrew, able to see that Andrew actually feels -

Good.

So Neil grins and braces his body for more, for everything, for Andrew. “Of course."

Now on equal footing, it feels as if they were made for each other. Which Neil knows, is a stupid thing to think, because you’re not created for the use of somebody else, but he wouldn’t say this is using.

It’s sharing; Andrew pushes in and Neil bends to take him. Andrew slides out and Neil unclenches to allow him.

And between them is this feeling, both of them fighting to keep it and fighting to give it, pushing it closer between their bodies. I want you to have it, they say silently, the message ending up somewhere catastrophically in the middle of them.

Eventually, it starts to feel like too much. Every thrust feels like hitting a new limit. Spots form in front of Neil’s eyes and his body burns from the constant push of Andrew, never wavering or slowing, and Neil doesn’t want him to, but he just needs - he’s starting to fall, he just needs -

Andrew covers Neil’s body with his own then, leaning down close enough that if Neil shifts slightly, he can hide his face against Andrew’s neck. Safety consumes Neil’s senses; the smell of Andrew strongest here, his pulse a steady thing to keep count of when everything else is infinite.

He makes some sort of noise then, too far gone to catalogue it as either a moan or a whimper or a whine.

This is what’s really been under the ocean. You can’t see what’s in it while you’re above it, but down in the dark under, you still can’t see a thing, either.

Neil doesn’t need to. He knows Andrew is there without ever having to open his eyes.

So even if someone were to try and pull him up, he would prefer to sink. Take away his breath, let the ocean swallow him whole, he refuses to go. He never needs to breathe if he's kissing Andrew.

This feeling is as obvious as it is painful.

It’s like a knife to the chest every time his heart pumps it out.

He shouldn’t have fallen for this illusion of choosing. Tonight will never be tomorrow, dawn will always become day, and they will move on from this.

Neil can reach out and push back a lock of Andrew’s hair now, and Neil can look into his eyes and not fear saying the wrong thing, but as soon as that sun comes up . . .

Andrew has always been, and will always be, too deep to get to and too high to reach.

He belongs behind a sealed glass case, only to be seen after-hours when the museum lights shut off, but Neil will never be able to stop from wanting to choose him. His hands will forever be pressed to bulletproof casing, waiting, for something that can’t forever be his.

Andrew took the rules away so they could want without consequence, but rules are rules for a reason, and come morning they’ll be back where they should be.

Come morning, Neil will burn, because he won’t break Andrew’s rules but he will always want to.

Because he will always want him.

The words push at Neil’s lips, clearing out every other thought; say them now, while you still can, tell him before you can’t.

But what would be the point? It’ll be said and then forced to be unimportant, as forgotten as that weather report from ten years ago. Nothing will come from it but he will still feel it and feel it until it rots in his chest.

Allowing it to be something now will make tomorrow impossible, when he has to wake up and force it into the misshapen figure of nothing.

Neil won’t be able to take it back, make his hands do that, not when they’re too used to the curve of Andrew’s muscles now.

He’ll never be able to reverse this feeling, un-mean those words, so instead of saying it, he keeps them hidden.

He hopes Andrew isn’t waiting for him to say it.

He hopes Andrew will understand why he can’t.

Even if I do say it, we can’t have this tomorrow, and never forever.

Andrew’s still sliding into Neil’s body at a shaky, imperfect, perfected pace, and Neil is still throwing his head back at the impact, still curling his fingers into Andrew’s shoulders tightly, but it’s when they’re scarcely touching that Neil has to blink reality away and forget, not yet not yet not yet -

He turns his head and stares at the wall, hating how this feels and hating that he has to memorize this - that this has to become nothing but a memory.

Andrew slows, reaching forward with one hand to tilt Neil’s face back upwards, and then he stops. He struggles with his next few breaths, having to force them out, and shakes his head in disagreement at something he reads on Neil’s face.

Neil doesn’t dare look away.

Letting Andrew see everything; that he’s sorry, that he’s ruined everything, that he wants to say it but he can’t say it, that he’s so fucking in - he just -

Neil looks and lets Andrew decide what he wants to do about that.

Andrew rubs slow, contemplative fingers around Neil’s hips, then he abruptly pulls out.

Dread fills Neil’s sudden emptiness, regret shortly following, but he doesn’t reach out to pull him back. He closes his eyes and bites hard over his lip, to keep it from quivering, to keep from speaking.

Ending it sooner will make it hurt less later.

It just hurts a lot right now.

But then Andrew is back, sliding completely over Neil’s body until their chest to chest and nose to nose. Neil’s lungs sigh out a pathetic, relieved exhale, and he’s quick to take the kiss given to him. He clasps his hands over Andrew’s cheeks and kisses him and kisses him, so grateful that he doesn’t know what to do.

Andrew rests his forehead against Neil’s, so close that there’s barely space for a breath between them, and whispers, “Turn over.”

It’s voiced like a demand; it sounds like a need.

Andrew waits for Neil to say no, but Neil understands why Andrew needs this, so he agrees. Tremors run through his body as he tries to turn onto his knees. It’s a relief to see a different perspective, but his legs are trembling too hard to hold himself up.

He doesn’t have to worry for long. Andrew’s weight settles over him, pinning him into position and stopping those tremors.

Andrew leans down to press his lips to the nape of Neil’s neck; not a kiss or a bite, but a breath.

A safe place to just be.

It’s easy for Andrew to shift Neil’s body around now that he’s like this, boneless from head to hip. Neil stays unmoving as Andrew repositions him, hiding his head in the curve of his arms.

Andrew has one arm wrapped tight around Neil’s chest, his palm spread out over Neil’s heart; beating more full and fast with everything it’s being forced to contain. Andrew eases into him, pressing forward until the width and length of him can’t go anywhere else, though Neil certainly tries to take more of it, lowering his pelvis further towards the bed as if that’ll give more of himself to Andrew.

Together again, skin to skin, heartbeat over back and hand over heartbeat, Neil forgets about time and limits and the slowly rising sun.

With his eyes closed and Andrew everywhere, Neil pretends that this is forever.

They’re a perfect thing, pieces all just right, strings tied to one another’s corresponding limbs, moving in a tandem that doesn’t take too much or give too little.

Neither hold back either, aware how little time is left.

Feel feel feel, give give give, hold what you can and understand you can never forever keep.

Andrew pushes Neil apart but also holds him together, his hands and kisses the stitches of all Neil’s seams. The only movement Neil’s capable of consists of sliding out his knees on either side of him, and biting over his lip to keep Andrew’s name and all those words out of his mouth.

They move along the continuous wave of the ocean, until the whole world is water.

Too deep in it, Neil can’t see, can only feel.

Andrew’s pants are brushing softly against Neil’s bare thighs, the head of his cock catching on Neil’s hole whenever he pulls too far out, his hand shaking where it contains Neil’s heart.

Too deep in all of that, Neil doesn’t realize that Andrew’s coming until he feels that, too.

It’s a push and pulse inside of Neil, an aching breath against his neck, but even more, it’s both of Andrew’s arms locking around him, a refusal to give Neil up as he loses everything else, stuttering forward with his release.

Andrew jerks inside of Neil once, twice, then goes still - or as still as any man can when they’re trembling so bad.

Neil’s lungs churn out a savage beat, his breath muffled against his arms. The rest of him stays frozen as Andrew shakes apart above him. The last thing he’d ever want to do is disrupt the balance of Andrew’s high.

It crashes down regardless.

Andrew’s throat scratches raw as he churns out angry, snagging gasps to get his breath back, pin-pricking along Neil’s skin. He sounds defeated and wounded, so far away from all of this even though his pulse is still pressed to Neil’s back.

Neil continues to lay underneath him, muscles tense but patient, giving Andrew as much time as he needs to figure out what he wants to do. This is what Neil was afraid of earlier, facing off against an animal he has no defense against; one wrong move and Neil could lose his head.

Andrew lets out one final exhale before he wrenches his body away quickly, tilting the bed like a tidal wave as he moves around it and away from it. Neil stays put, eyes shut, listening and feeling and believing entirely that Andrew won’t hurt him, because Andrew doesn’t want to hurt him.

Andrew only wants to hurt himself.

And that’s even worse.

So he doesn’t resist the tug of Andrew’s hands when it happens, allowing Andrew to shove him onto his back once again. Giving him an outlet for all his anger and energy - give it to me - because no matter how far Andrew goes, it’ll never be too far for Neil.

Like Neil had anticipated, all of Andrew has been sealed back behind glass.

Neil longs to touch, but Andrew’s pants have been pulled up and his shirt has been shifted back into place and he wears none of the open emotions that he had expressed earlier. So far from all of this, so gone, away, even as he parts Neil’s legs and settles between them.

He takes all of Neil into his mouth before Neil can do anything about it, not that Neil would do anything if he could.

He’s angry, too.

It’s over now.

The sun has risen, the tide has receded, the city has come back to life. Rules awaken and slip into place, where they belong, in the sockets of bones and the tendons of muscles.

No more touching. No more looking for things under the sea. The only options are what’s above it, not the water underneath. Neil is no longer allowed to want the forbidden and the hidden.
Andrew isn’t a choice anymore.

Andrew has to be nothing.

What he can’t place is the secondary anger that tears through all of Andrew’s movements. The fire of such ferocity doesn’t once touch Neil, and instead simmers under Andrew’s skin, burning him alive.

Neil can’t figure out why.

Angry because it’s over or angry because he ever let it happen?

Regardless, Neil doesn’t stop it, letting Andrew breathe with violence as he gets Neil off. His hands work wetly around the base of Neil’s cock, coaxing all of Neil into his mouth, swallowing everything when Neil comes with a cracked moan.

Then, with nothing left to feel, all they can do is try and see.

Andrew’s anger radiates through his gaze as he checks over Neil’s body; up his legs, his chest, looking for signs of impossible damage, then up to his face - and then the anger disappears.

Not gone, but lost somewhere.

“Andrew,” Neil manages to say as his throat burns. He raises a hand in question for permission to touch Andrew with it. “Can I?”

Andrew doesn’t answer.

Andrew jolts up to kiss Neil, pushing into Neil’s mouth until the sour taste on his tongue fades. He grabs at Neil’s wrists and guides them to his shoulders and doesn’t let go, letting himself be a choice, one more time.

Neil curls his hands in tighter than he has all night, letting himself choose, one last time.

They kiss until everything hurts, until Neil can feel the warmth receding from Andrew’s skin, glass becoming cool to the touch.

They kiss until the only thing left is the word unsaid, sitting sharp between their lips.

“It’s okay,” Neil whispers, to himself, to Andrew, and in the form of a question to whatever higher power might have pity on him.

It’s okay to have wanted it, to have chosen it, and eventually, it’ll be okay that they can’t.

“You don’t know that,” Andrew says, either to himself, or to Neil, or to the walls surrounding them.

He doesn’t, but he knows what he wants, and he’ll hold on until he really can’t, until morning, until the glass cracks.

Neil wants to say if you want to be chosen then let me choose you, but rules are rules for a reason, so Neil slowly pulls his hands away.

Who wouldn’t want to choose you?

They kiss until Andrew’s done seething with anger, and then they kiss until both of their hearts go quiet.

Chapter Text

Neil wakes up in stages, and they’re all more painful than the last.

But in a way, they’re pleasant.

At first he hears the sounds of the outside world filtering in; dogs barking, cars honking, a distant police siren going off. Just by noise alone, he knows he prefers New York to any other city. You always know where you are without ever having to open your eyes.

Then he does open his eyes, just to make sure, and is met with the view of Andrew’s bedroom. The sheets are wrecked under his body and sunlight is dull through the curtain, but nothing else has changed. It’s such a relief that he sighs, grips the sheets and closes his eyes again.

It wasn’t a dream, though it had felt like one.

Now he’s not so sure it still does. It hurts to move. Not in a terrible way, but in the satisfying way he feels after pushing his muscles to the limit in a game. It’s a constant reminder of everything he was afraid to forget.

The blanket is twisted around his legs on his side of the bed, but Andrew must have slept on the other side, because the pillow’s been shifted around, and if Neil really thinks about it, he can still feel the heat of his body so close.

Opening his eyes again, fighting to see through the brightness, he flicks his gaze around the room. He spots the book that had disrupted his focus last night, still on the nightstand, sticking out now that Neil’s noticed it again.

It’s a mystery book, he thinks, the title unfamiliar. It looks as if it’s been read recently, a page folded to keep Andrew’s place somewhere near the end. Neil smiles and thinks about reaching out to pick it up, but it’s not Neil’s book, so he leaves it.

He scans the room once more for something he can’t see and sighs again, flopping onto his back to stare up at the ceiling. A sharp shock runs through his lower body, but he ignores it in favour of focusing on the sharp shock in his heart.

It wasn’t a dream, but it’s still over just as quick as one would be upon waking.

For one night he was allowed to want what he wants. Now he has to un-want it, because he won’t lie to Andrew and say he doesn’t when he does.

That was the agreement they had reached; Neil would tell Andrew if he were getting it confused and Andrew would put a stop to it - but he isn’t confused.

He knows the difference.

He knows as much as he knows it’s day that he wants Andrew and not his offer.

That leaves him with two options; lie, or tell the truth.

Say it’s nothing like he’s been saying this entire time, or look into Andrew’s eyes and tell him that it’s not.

Either way, he never gets to keep him.

A voice sounds through the closed bedroom door, recognizably Andrew’s, but too loud to sound innocent. Curiosity interrupts Neil’s thoughts and has him moving from the bed to look for whatever clothing is closest to him, slipping it on, and making his way outside.

Andrew’s sitting up high on the kitchen island with his legs dangling in front of him, dressed for the day in a white hoodie and black track pants. A cup of coffee sits beside him as he talks on the phone.

Which wouldn’t be odd, except for the fact that there’s another phone sitting right next to him.

Painful as it is, Neil dashes across the room and into the kitchen as realization hits him, Andrew’s cursed name slipping from his lips.

Andrew’s using his phone, talking to somebody on his phone, ruining Neil’s life on his phone.

He throws his hands up to pull the phone free from Andrew, but Andrew bats him away and holds up a hand of his own; a warning sign to not move any closer.

“Andrew,” Neil hisses, fists clenching at his sides.

“He’ll be there,” Andrew says into the phone, a look of utter annoyance crossing his face. “Kevin, the more you repeat yourself, the less I want to help you.”

“Kevin!” That has Neil ignoring their boundaries and rocketing forward, desperate to grab his phone and run with it. He’s not sure if Andrew called Kevin or if Kevin was calling Neil. Regardless, it’s a nightmare in the making.

Andrew holds his ground without so much as nudging his coffee cup or looking down at Neil. He sticks one leg straight out to place his foot against Neil’s chest, shoving him back and not allowing him near.

“Who in this world understands my word better than you? He’ll be there. I won’t say it again.”

Neil sighs desperately, his heart racing from all this unknown, his entire future on Andrew’s uncaring shoulders. “Andrew.”

Andrew doesn’t make eye contact, but points towards the coffee pot on the counter by the fridge, then holds a finger up to his lips.

Accepting defeat, Neil turns towards the direction of the coffee and finds a cup for himself. If things were really, truly terrible, then Andrew would be ushering him out without so much as a goodbye. This is a good sign, he tells himself, opening up the fridge to find the milk.

Despite the detailed meal plan that the Nighthawks’ nutritionist must have given Andrew, the contents of his fridge shows just how much he considers said meal plan.

Kevin would kill him.

Kevin.

Neil stirs his coffee, turns around to lean against the counter, and keeps his eyes solely on Andrew as he talks to Kevin. They’re both so entwined with Neil’s life, two separate halves threaded through his whole, but he has never seen them interact together.

But at one point they were a together, a two, a pair. Maybe that’s why Andrew looks impatient now, rather than hurt or hateful.

“Are you done?” Andrew finally says, and when he gets his answer he pulls Neil’s phone from his ear to end the call.

Neil’s about to open his mouth and demand an explanation, but Andrew raises his hand in another halt, then reaches for his own phone and presses a button.

“I have to go, Bee. He’s awake,” is all he says into the phone, then ends that call more quicker than he had finished with Kevin’s.

Then Andrew picks up his coffee, takes a sip, and stares at Neil like he’s waiting for Neil to start explaining himself.

Neil’s mouth works around words that he can’t quite say, because he doesn’t know what those words quite are. “What was that?” he asks, breathless already. “What did he say to you?”

Andrew sips his coffee again, holding the cup to his lips as he stares at the fridge, looking as if he can’t remember the conversation.

“He said many things, Neil. He’s furious.”

“Andrew,” Neil pleads, forming what’s left of his energy into a demanding look.

Andrew places his coffee down by his side, then turns to Neil and says, “He also booked you a ticket on the next flight out of here. It leaves at two-fifteen. You need to be on it.”

It’s not what Neil was expecting, though he thinks maybe he should have. Of course. It has to end one way or another; Kevin being the deciding factor is the reminder Neil needed that he can’t choose this.

“I don’t get any say in it?”

If he could, if Andrew let him, he’d stay here one more hour, one more day, one more lifetime.

But all dreams have to end eventually.

It doesn’t quite sound like Andrew wants it to end, though.

“I made him a promise,” Andrew says flatly. “I won’t go back on it.”

“If this promise involves me, I have a right to know about it.”

Andrew stares at him. “You hold zero right to anything in my word.”

Neil steps closer, rubbing over his temples as an ache forms high in his head. “Can we skip this question and answer game, just this once?”

It feels like there’s a world between them, when just last night there was nothing in the world between them.

But then Andrew looks at him, and makes Neil feel as if he’s somehow still in Andrew’s.

“He’s not happy about it. He doesn’t have to be happy about it,” Andrew explains after a pause, then swiftly averts his gaze. “But he will stop intervening from here on out.”

There’s a rumble under Neil’s feet, the slightest shake of a beginning earthquake.

Neil wants to reach out for something to hold onto, but keeping his eyes on Andrew carries the same effect. “What did you give him in return?” he asks, knowing that Kevin is not a bargaining man but also knowing that Kevin would not let Neil get away with this so easily.

He waits; for the ground to tear apart, for the worst, for the inevitable.

I told him I won’t see you. I told him we’re nothing. I told him this is over.

“My word,” Andrew says simply, only to be met with Neil’s confused gaze. “Or perhaps in this case, my silence. Nobody is going to find out about this. I’ll make sure of it. And you are to keep playing your game, no matter what.”

The world continues to shake and shift, but not in the way Neil thought it was breaking. It’s far from what Neil thought Andrew would say. It feels like a dream again - it feels like last night.

It’s Andrew saying, I won’t let this be over.

Neil nearly drops his cup of coffee so he sets it down next to Andrew’s. He clears his throat, wanting to ask This? Meaning us? Meaning yes?

Instead he asks, “He believed you?”

“I haven’t told anyone your little secret yet, have I? He has no reason not to.”

At that, Neil begins to laugh uneasily, and has to be closer to Andrew, has to at least feel the heat from his body again, something to prove he’s not a figment of Neil’s warped imagination.

“From my point of view, he does,” Neil says, settling for standing a few inches back from Andrew’s open legs. “He hates you.”

“He’s angry with me. He could never hate me,” Andrew explains, eyes dropping down to the small amount of space between their bodies. “He believes me because he knows what I mean when I make a promise. He’s angry with me because I never promised to sign with him.”

The wave of confusion rises far above Neil’s head. “You still made him believe that you would.”

“I was going to, but I happen to have functioning eyes. Nothing in that contract appealed to me.”

Neil looks down at the floor, mentally recalling every word that he can about his contract, the same one offered to Andrew two years ago. Neil was told that every player in the NEL had to sign it in order to play.

So it doesn’t make sense, that there was something the Nighthawks had over Kevin.

“What do you mean?” Neil asks, when he can’t put it together.

Andrew looks down at him with cold eyes. “I don’t enjoy this sport enough to sign my life away to make them money. Kevin didn’t understand. He didn’t even try to understand. Said that it would be worth it, that the game was more important, that there was nothing he could do. He didn’t listen. Riko did.”

Neil’s chin snaps up the very instant that his stomach drops down. “The Nighthawks -”

“Were you listening earlier? The Nighthawks’ contract didn’t come with a morality clause like yours. We don’t need cheap tricks to make our sponsors happy or to sell tickets to games,” Andrew says, the heat of his voice increasing with every word. “Our name already does that for us. So we can be whoever the fuck we are, as long as we stay the best. That simple. So it doesn’t matter what happens to me if people find out; all that matters is what happens to you.”

Stunned to silence, Neil doesn’t try to speak, and uses the remaining pieces of his brain to think, recall, remember.

He’s been playing under the belief that every player in the game was being forced into script-provided roles. Every time he kissed Andrew he felt the illicitness of it all, the fact that neither of them could be this outside of the four walls of a hotel room.

Apparently, it was only one of them.

He hears Kevin’s insistent warning echo around in his memories - he is not any more free than you are - but Andrew is, isn’t he? Free in every way Neil never can be. Whatever he feels and whatever he wants isn’t locked in a legally-bound box.

Andrew can play completely intact, wearing no lies or falsities.

Jealousy sears Neil’s skin, from the inside and outside, until he’s afraid he’ll burn Andrew with his proximity.

Neil would have done anything for that, if he had the choice.

To play and be free, everything he wants and needs in his hands, nothing hidden.

He understands why Andrew did it, why Andrew signed against the one man he should have signed with. On the other hand, he understands why Kevin would be hurt by it.

For nearly five years, Andrew was behind Kevin, never a step too far away, with him through the thick and thin of every game.

Then he was gone, because the game wasn’t enough.

The only thing Kevin could offer Andrew wasn’t enough.

Andrew chose his only option, but it clearly wasn’t the one he wanted to make. Neil tilts his head to the side, looking up at Andrew as he nods. “I get it. I get why you did it. Does Kevin?”

“Not my problem. It’s too late for him to even try.” Betrayal threads through Andrew’s voice, the very same stitch that’s twined in Kevin’s. “Besides, this all benefits him. He’s just too blind to see.”

“How so?”

Andrew turns his head to stare at the cupboards above the counter. His fingers start to dig into the fabric of his pants, words crossing his face but never leaving his mouth, until he finally says, “Riko can’t hurt him any more than this.”

Neil lets out a breath he wasn’t aware he was holding.

Andrew really didn’t want to choose what he did.

“Were you -” It slips out more unexpected than that breath had been. Realization smacks him clean across the face. “Were you and Kevin -”

Andrew snaps around to face Neil entirely, his expression a warning that he’ll break Neil’s arm if he continues to suggest whatever he had been suggesting. The expression doesn’t fade, but Andrew does eventually say, “Kevin is as pretty as he is boring.”

Something thrills in Neil’s chest, sparking a grin from one side of his face to the other. “And what am I?”

Andrew’s hand comes up quickly to latch onto the back of Neil’s neck, yanking him forward.

“A persistent headache.”

Nothing in the world could scrub Neil’s grin away.

He raises one eyebrow, feigning confusion as he says slowly, “Persistent, you say, when you’re the one who holds the power of getting rid of me.”

Andrew’s fingers dig into Neil’s skin, pulling him up and closer. He leans further over until they’re forehead to forehead, Neil right between his legs. “It’s your contract on the line if anyone finds out about this. Remember that.”

“This?” Neil is quick to catch onto that word again, nudging his chin up until his nose brushes Andrew’s. This defines a something, a choice. “Explain what you mean by ‘this’.”

Andrew lets out a harsh breath at the same time that he scowls. The hand on Neil’s neck slides up until it’s buried deep in Neil’s hair, tugging it sharply.

“You know exactly what I mean.”

And Neil does.

It’s not over, not the way Neil thought it would be last night. He fell asleep knowing he’d wake up crashing. He fell asleep not knowing his dream would become life.

Andrew sits before him a choice, allowing Neil to choose him just as much as Neil wants to choose him.

He isn’t sure what changed to make Andrew let himself be an option. It couldn’t have happened in the span of a night, the seconds between moon and sun, but the shadows under Andrew’s eyes suggest that maybe he hadn’t slept; taking every waking moment he had to decide.

If Andrew continued to be nothing, then Neil couldn’t decide to choose him.

If Andrew continued to be nothing, then Neil couldn’t decide to not choose him.

Too used to being passed up and picked over for something more important and better. Neil understands that in his own way. While Neil wondered who wouldn’t want to choose you? Andrew wondered who would?

Me, Neil thinks, and making this choice is the greatest liberation of his life.

Neil’s eyes flicker down to Andrew’s lips, wondering why he hasn’t kissed him yet while knowing exactly why he hasn’t kissed him yet.

Andrew’s waiting to be chosen, just once, for once.

“Can I?” he asks, still staring at Andrew’s mouth. Fingers twine around a lock of Neil’s hair, tugging hard until Neil looks up, but the sharpness in Andrew’s eyes doesn’t deter Neil. He understands what that sharpness truly means. “Andrew. Can I?”

I want to. I want you.

He hopes Andrew hears that. He hopes Andrew wants that.

“Start.” The word is said against Neil’s lips, the feel of them confusing when Neil had almost expected Andrew to say stop, the word he’s supposed to say now that Neil’s said he wants him.

But Andrew does want Neil to want him, so Neil doesn’t waste another second in debating that, leaning up on his toes to push away the distance. He starts this kiss off easy and then eager, and Andrew finishes it hard and then desperate, nearly pulling Neil off his feet to get him closer.

It feels like he should say something, but the word he couldn’t say before has already been said wordlessly, through thrumming fingers tugging at hair and eyes caught on eyes, refusing to look anywhere else.

Andrew’s legs slide closer around Neil, knees bracketing hips, his arms folding behind Neil's neck, keeping him close.

Keeping him exactly where Neil wants to be. Letting Neil be there.

Neil has spent the past few months wondering what, wondering where, wondering who, wondering so much about his name and his place and his purpose in this world.

Now it all seems so clear.

So what Neil says is, “Thank you.”

What Andrew says is, “You have a plane to catch soon. Stop talking.”

He kisses Neil again.

It’s thank you right back.

Chapter Text

Unfortunately, the next number in the timeline is waiting outside of Neil’s apartment building.

Kevin is leaning against a town car, his arms folded, only looking at Neil once he steps directly in front of him. “Get in,” is all he says, stepping sideways to give Neil access to the door.

Neil looks over his shoulder to his building, thinking of the bed he so badly wants to be in, then back at Kevin. Andrew had sworn that Kevin would believe his word, so Neil doesn’t think he’s here to go back on it.

All he knows is that he has a place in this promise between them; he just doesn’t know what that place is, exactly. It feels like he’s about to find out.

“How long have you been waiting?” Neil asks, getting in the car. “You need some friends.”

They ride to their destination in silence, but all it takes is one glance from Kevin to tell Neil enough. Kevin is definitely staring at the clothes Neil is wearing - Andrew’s clothes.

The stadium is tall and vacant without any games being played, or any practices to attend to. The car pulls up to the team’s entrance and Kevin leads Neil inside to the locker rooms. Neil stops in front of his locker and grimaces. There’s still an ache between his legs, not as prominent now but enough of a problem to make running drills dreadful.

Irrational as it sounds, he suspects that Kevin knows this, knows the extent of what happened last night, and is serving this up as some sick sort of punishment.

Except when Neil finishes changing, he turns to find Kevin sitting on a nearby bench, half his gear on, the rest sitting to one side of him.

“If you’re going to yell at me it might be more effective on the court,” Neil says, carefully sitting down beside Kevin on the bench.

“I’m not going to yell. I did enough of that this morning.” Kevin looks up from his lap to look at Neil. The fear ringing around the green of Kevin’s eyes has Neil shifting further back. “I hope you know how stupid you’re being.”

“I do.” He won’t bend under Kevin’s weight, not about this, not anymore. “I tried caring. I can’t.”

“I made a promise with him to stop interfering as long as he does whatever it takes to keep it a secret, to keep you on my team. That doesn’t make it any less dangerous. Andrew thinks he can control the world, but he can’t change it.”

“Then you shouldn’t have agreed. You can’t guilt me out of this. It won’t work.”

Kevin’s eyebrows slant and pull together, his mouth working that dangerous curl it always does before he starts to yell. “I’ve tried talking sense into the both of you, because the more serious this gets the worse it will be, but neither of you will listen. I can’t stop Andrew from wanting to be with you. All I’m asking now is that you understand what this means.”

“I do,” Neil says again, though it sounds more distant than he intended it to. It’s just that the insides of his chest feel like molten liquid - Andrew wants to be with me. “Do you want me to promise?”

Kevin shakes his head, turning his gaze onto the row of lockers in front of him. “I can’t stop you, and I can never stop him, but if this ever gets out, it isn’t just you who will pay the consequences. I need you on my team, Neil. I need your help in getting to playoffs. I need you to win.”

“We will.”

“Tell me you understand what it’ll cost me if the truth gets out.”

Neil jerks completely around, all of him facing Kevin, understanding more than he wants to.

Cost you? he wants to ask, but he knows Kevin meant it exactly as he had said it. The fear in Kevin's eyes is because he can't afford to lose another player. It's always going to be the game for him. Neil sighs and says, “I understand.”

Kevin stands up from the bench, voice holding finality as he says, “I won’t get in the way, but you won’t be able to keep this inside forever. You will make your choice one day, just like Andrew did.” He keeps his back to Neil and pauses. “I hope it’s the right one.”

It feels like pressure, like a breath on the back of his neck, threatening him to pick the choice he doesn’t want to pick, like he truly doesn’t have a choice at all.

But if Andrew has shown him anything, it’s that Neil does. Yes or no is the format for life, and choosing either will hold zero consequences, as long as he’s choosing the answer he wants.

Andrew chose what he had to choose - Kevin’s still breathing down his neck about it.

So when Kevin starts to leave, a new fury burns in Neil’s chest. Before Kevin can step too far away, Neil calls out, “Do you at least understand why Andrew made his?”

Andrew’s betrayal always sounded so similar to Kevin’s, but it wasn’t identical; it was the opposite. Andrew said no and Kevin breathed you’re wrong, and didn’t try to understand why Andrew would need to say it.

“Yes,” Kevin finally says, and for the first time, Neil starts to think it isn’t betrayal in his voice, but rather complete misunderstanding. “He has no regard for anyone or anything but himself.”

Done with this, angry and hurt on behalf of Andrew, Neil roughly grabs his helmet and stalks past Kevin to get to the court. He knocks Kevin’s side heavily as he passes, and says as dark as he can, “No, Kevin, that’s all you.”

-

Even with the promise holding him together, it doesn’t make playing his role in life any easier.

It was never this difficult when he was playing in Arizona, when he was fighting to outplay his past, to prove his worth, to lead his team to a future only to end up an ultimate failure.

This is all so much more difficult than that, because this is no longer about the strategy he uses on the court. This is hardly about the game any more. He wouldn’t even call this a sport, but rather a morbid reality show, where he’s one of the stars.

There’s a director and a producer and a script, and a hand pushing him forward when he refuses to say his lines.

A story has to be told here, and with the SeaKings’ game against the Nighthawks happening in less than two weeks, they have to build the perfect climax. Except nobody seems to care about the details of the story, or even who wins or loses.

It’s about the cuts and the bruises; who can hurt the other the most before the story ends.

This feud was in the making before Neil Josten ever shook Andrew Minyard’s hand, but when he did, he made it all worse. Because from that moment on, every ounce of hatred became a lie, even if Neil didn’t know it at the time.

That’s why he’s so tired now, that’s why this is so much harder than it’s ever been before.

He doesn’t hate Andrew the way the world thinks he does, but he doesn’t get to tell them that, and even when the cameras are off and he’s free of the court, he has to keep pretending.

This is the game he’s playing.

It’s so far from the game that it makes him sick. The microphone is shoved into his face and he doesn’t get to talk about anything that he wants to talk about.

‘Tell us more about how you’re preparing to face off against Andrew Minyard in your upcoming game?’ he’s asked for the dozenth time, and he doesn’t get to mention tonight’s game, how Laila blocked a total of seventy-five shots and only let three pass, or how he watched Houston’s latest game yesterday and longs to play against them again.

He doesn’t get to say anything about this game he loves so much unless it’s to fan the fire between the east coast and the west coast, the rookie and the goalie.

Neil’s used to lying, and knows he can hold the weight of this lie up as long as he has to.

But the truth is so much heavier, and if it collapses, it will break Neil’s spine.

Rendering him unplayable for the rest of his life.

But he grits his teeth and continues to fight for it, because it’s all he has that’s real.

-

When they’re off the court and changed out after Friday’s game, Neil and Kevin are brought to a conference room. A camera and a viewing screen have been set up in front of two chairs, with a backdrop decorated in the NEL logo sitting behind them.

They’ve been invited to an interview with Exy Night in America, a broadcast that airs after every NEL game around the country. The SeaKings’ stadium is too far from the studio, so they’ve settled for a Skype interview. The hosts range from retired referees, former coaches and athletes, to current sports journalists.

These are professionals of the game, interested in the sport itself more than anything else. It’s the most refreshing conversation Neil’s had in ages. The hosts all know what they’re talking about, discussing moves and statistics like that’s all that truly matters.

They discuss in detail how Kevin played tonight; clean and strategic.

They discuss in detail how Neil played tonight; wild and unpredictable.

They discuss how they played together; hand in hand.

Neil invests so much of himself into the interview, relieved to actually speak with his own voice, that he doesn’t notice the shift in the hosts’ intention at first. Then one of the hosts smirks, that awful knowing smirk that Neil has seen on far too many faces lately. Neil braces himself for their question, but it’s directed at Kevin.

“Kevin, your current teammate is in direct rivalry with your former teammate, Andrew Minyard. Have you been teaching Neil any tricks on how to score against him? You’ve got to be dying to finally get back at him.”

Neil stares straight at the camera and hopes his face remains blank, because what he truly feels is the opposite - anger, over the fact that these professionals want to sink to that level.

Before Kevin has the chance to answer and fall into their trap, Neil steps in. “Kevin’s been showing me every trick in his book, but what it really comes down to is how we’re going to play against them as a team. We can’t win if our backliners aren’t stopping their strikers, right?”

The hosts all share a look, either not liking his answer or liking it too much. They think, as if trying to use Neil’s words to form another question.

Neil swallows roughly as Kevin goes tense.

Maybe he should have let Kevin answer it. Now all the attention has been turned on him.

“Has he truly been teaching you everything, Neil? You’ve recently come under fire for your cowardice on the court. Was Kevin not able to prepare you for such challenging opposers? Or is it just not possible, as Kevin himself hasn’t been able to best his former Raven rival?”

It’s the lowest of blows, but twice as hard as any direct punch could be. A tremor runs through Kevin’s spine; Neil can feel it from where he sits next to him.

“I have to say, it made sense to me,” another one of the hosts says to the other. It’s the former athlete whose name Neil can’t remember for the life of him. “A rookie mouthing off the top-ranked striker and goalie sounded like a cry for attention from the very beginning. Josten must have known he never could have scored against Minyard. His escape route wasn’t admirable, but was unfortunately sensible.”

The hosts all begin to murmur in agreement, nodding their heads. Neil feels anger like white noise, everything in him blank except for this overpowering hatred, ringing in his ears. He wants to jump to his feet and shout it isn’t true, he wants to call the Nighthawks to his stadium now so he can serve their heads on platters to them, he wants to reach into the camera and prove every one of the hosts wrong.

Kevin’s hand presses to Neil’s chest, holding him back, and it’s then Neil realizes he had leaned forward to try and dismantle the camera.

Still pressed against Neil, Kevin fixes on an easy smile and says, “You must have missed the impossible goals Neil scored tonight. I suggest you keep your eyes open from here on out. You won’t want to miss us on the court come November seventeenth.”

The hosts all share another awful look, some frowning, some smiling.

“Sounds like you two have truly formed a partnership. It makes me curious then,” the retired coach says, and holds up something to the camera - the NEL seasonal opening magazine, with Andrew and Neil on the cover. “Riko has expressed interest in recruiting you, Neil. I bet that offer would continue to stand if you pull your weight against him on the court. How will you say no to playing with Exy’s best, after playing with Exy’s worst?”

Nothing can hold him back now.

Not Kevin’s warning glare, not the impending pressure of doom above his head, not even the promise he knows he plays a part in.

“I am playing with Exy’s best,” Neil says brightly, if a bit scornfully, and lifts his chin. “Listen, the Nighthawks can try to claim that title all they want, but they haven’t put the work in. Best doesn’t mean scoring the most points.”

He waits a moment, for the hosts to stop him, to prompt him. He waits for his own heart to stop beating so fast, but it only goes quicker, more insistent and more encouraging.

“Best is continuing to train with your teammate while accommodating his injury. Best is a team having your back, right when you don’t have theirs. And best is coming back, again and again, for the third, fourth, fifth time, however many times it takes. Best isn’t about being better, so I think you need to rephrase your question.”

His breath is heaving out of him, but he smiles; genuine to himself, and for the first time, genuine to the world.

The hosts all begin to talk at once, some disagreeing and some raising their water glasses in cheers.

Neil is hesitant to look at Kevin, expecting an expression made of thorns and scorn. What he gets instead is the very beginnings of what could possibly be a smile.

Once the interview is finished and the camera is shut off, Kevin leans close enough to say, “He is going to kill you.”

Kevin walks away from Neil after that. Neil smiles after him.

-

The Nighthawks have only one image to uphold, Andrew had said; best.

Neil is no artist, but he thinks he might have just held up a paintbrush and rebranded the Nighthawks’ flawless portrait.

He gave the word a new meaning, and the Nighthawks can no longer live up to it.

They try though - and try, that is something the Nighthawks have never had to do. They just always were. The Nighthawks struggle with their next game, with Riko even throwing down his racquet when he misses yet another goal. They win in the end, but it doesn’t matter.

The world now views them in an altered light, proving Neil right.

No longer the bigger, better, best team, but more so a team that’s just - good.

It wasn’t Neil’s intention to dethrone them like this. It was his only chance at preaching honesty, so he took it. But he should have known that the world was only listening to his truth in order to twist it back into a lie; what they want to hear, not what he has to say.

Riko says nothing to the press. If he’s asked about Neil Josten, he fixes the camera with a stony expression and promptly walks away. The only proof that he could be at all enraged about this unseating of power shows up on Andrew’s face.

Neil reads the article on his phone as soon as Kevin sends it to him. Andrew Minyard was photographed outside of the Nighthawks’ stadium with a splattering of dark bruises around his left eye and temple. The article was full of close up pictures and wild rumours about how Andrew could have attained such an injury.

There isn’t a soul out there who would dare lay a hand on Andrew, yet someone had done it anyway.

He is not any more free than you are, Neil hears again as he looks through the pictures. This is the unfortunate proof.

It’s a few more hours before Riko releases a statement; he cites it as rough practice, that all the Nighthawks have been stepping it up on their home court in preparation for their game against the SeaKings. The world believes it as soon as it’s said.

Neil does not.

He waits until he’s in the safety of his home with a locked door before he claws his heart out. His pulse is a sickening beat as he types in Andrew’s number, louder than the sound of the dial tone. Neil grabs at a fistful of the blanket underneath him on his bed and starts to anxiously pull at it.

As soon as Andrew answers, Neil forgoes hello to ask, “What happened to your face?”

Nothing can mask the fear in his voice, sounding like knives and swords and horror.

“Are you still a SeaKing?” Andrew asks right away, unpausing, unflinching.

Neil holds his phone too tightly, the edge of it sharp in his hand. “Yes.”

“Is your secret out?”

“No.”

“Then that is what happened to my face,” Andrew says, sounding more accepting about it than Neil could ever feel. “It’s you who wears the leash, but it seems you’ve tugged too hard on the slack. Riko finally bit back. He wanted you in line months ago.”

Dread drags at Neil’s stomach, making him swallow too hard to keep the rise of bile out of his mouth. “And you were supposed to do it.”

“I was supposed to end it.”

That was the original purpose of Andrew’s phone calls; to warn Neil off of running his mouth before he angered Riko. The rivalry between Minyard and Josten was meant to die as soon as it started. It didn’t.

It was never a rivalry, so Andrew couldn’t.

Now it’s a promise.

Bested by a mouth that Andrew was meant to shut up months ago, Riko hurt Andrew as punishment.

Andrew had to sit back and take it, instead of explaining why he couldn’t end it, because if he did he’d be breaking his promise.

Neil doesn’t fight against the weary sigh that leaves his lips. His heart is aching with guilt. His hands ache with rage. Andrew would scoff at an apology, would likely hang up, so Neil skips over that thought and continues onto the next one. Fear doubles in size in his chest as he processes it. “What’s he going to do to my team, Andrew?”

Riko isn’t aware what Andrew is to him, but he took a hand to his face anyway.

Riko is well aware of what Neil’s team is to him.

Andrew confirms Neil’s despair by saying, “Prepare for the worst.”

Neil swallows down more bile, more fear, and nods.

“What’s he going to do to me, Andrew?”

Neil’s never had anything real in his life. Now he does, and it makes him feel sick how easily it can all be taken away.

Andrew says nothing for a moment, then sighs slightly. “Don’t think about that. He cannot take you out of the game until he’s faced you on the court and won. So don’t let him.”

Despite all the nausea and the panic and the fear, Neil smiles, staring dreamily at the wall before him. “Will you let me win?”

Andrew lets out a scoff, but if Neil knows Andrew at all, then he can hear a smirk somewhere in there. “You wouldn’t even want me to.”

“You’re right,” Neil says, smile shifting into a smirk of his own. “I want you to try and make me lose. I’ll still score on you.”

Andrew scoffs again; purely condescending, but his own version of a laugh. “Are you still on about that? How many times can you be denied before you finally quit?”

“Well I got you, didn’t I?”

Then Andrew is silent, and Neil feels similar to the way he feels when the goal lights up red.

“I hate you,” is what Andrew finally says, but Neil doesn’t believe him.

It’s scoring a point, and if Neil is being honest, there’s no other game he’d rather win.

Chapter Text

In the days leading up to November seventeenth, more events are added to the timeline.

The fourth event starts with Matt Boyd.

You would never know when looking at him that Matt Boyd wasn’t always the grinning, happy man that he is today. Neil is hesitant to believe it at first, because he wouldn’t have ever guessed, but the articles being published are actually speaking a partial truth - SeaKing Backliner: ADDICTION CRISIS!

It’s not a crisis anymore, but it was. Matt admits to the team that yes, he had suffered from addiction, but no, that does not make him any less of a person, then or now. He takes to the press after their next game and asks, “What’s to even be ashamed of?”

But whoever had orchestrated the breaking of that news isn’t pleased by his response, as the next morning, practice is broken up by game officials. Allegations have been brought to light, claiming that Matt Boyd has been playing under the influence of performance enhancers.

Performance enhancers: the greatest crime in the Exy world.

(Aside from one other thing, of course, that no one is allowed to be.)

Hours of practice and training are lost as one by one, the SeaKings are reviewed and tested by a medical team appointed by game officials. Though every test comes back clean, the news has already seeped into the minds of the public, and as a result, Matt is pulled from the starting line of their next game as the investigation is continued.

What’s he going to do to my team? Neil had asked, and now he’s finding out.

Then comes the fifth event.

With one game left to play before the SeaKings face the Nighthawks, another story is released. This one spreads like wildfire, not just throughout the Exy world, but the world of celebrity. Gossip-fueled websites can’t get enough of it, publishing article after article.

It’s more scandal than it should be. It’s more scandal because, as their contract states, it is not allowed.

The subject of said scandal is the last person Neil thought he could hurt.

The articles claim that Laila Dermott, starting goalie for the SeaKings, is more than ‘just friends’ with a former teammate of hers. Pictures are taken from her college past, along with quotes from former students and anonymous speakers to paint a picture that may be true, but absolutely cannot be.

Laila is forced to approach the cameras and the microphones to denounce the allegations. “I’m still good friends with Alvarez, but that’s all we are and ever have been. I wish nothing but luck to her and the Hurricanes this season, and I hope to face them in the playoffs.”

After a few more malicious rumours are created and spread, the speculation dies down without further prying into Laila’s private life.

Neil and Kevin are usually the last one’s out of the stadium after a game, but as Neil exits the locker room and is about to walk through the lounge, he realizes someone else is still here, too.

Laila is slumped on the couch with a phone to her ear and her hand over her face. She’s speaking quietly, but her voice is low and full of something awful.

“I’m sorry. You know I’m sorry. I love you.” She rubs at her forehead and sighs. “I’m sorry and I love you and I’m sorry.” Her eyes dart up to where Neil is standing in the doorway and she manages a small smile. “I have to go, but just remember that I’m sorry. Oh, and that I love you. Okay, bye.”

Neil should have left as soon as he realized she was in here, but for some reason his legs feel numb. He fiddles with the strap of his duffel bag and debates just leaving now, but the look on Laila’s face has him pausing. “Hey . . .” he tries, and takes a shaky step forward. “Is everything okay?”

“No,” Laila says bluntly, bouncing one leg up and down anxiously. “God. They need to invent a new phrase for ‘I love you’ because it doesn’t feel like enough right now.”

He immediately freezes up at the word love. He barely understands the textbook definition of it - how would he ever understand his own?

“Yeah,” he says, letting out a strangled sort of laugh. “Uh, what’s - what’s wrong?”

But he knows what’s wrong. He’s the reason for it.

“Read the tabloids, Neil!” Laila cries out, then starts to laugh. “Seriously, if this weren’t currently happening to me, I’d find it hilarious. Not the situation, God, of course not, but - but the fact that it was so easily believed. Why is the world’s first thought about two women that they must be friends? Just gal pals! Just best friends! I know I should be relieved, but knowing that this is the world we live in . . . it fucking sucks, Neil. It fucking sucks.”

Neil can relate, but can’t relate. His situation is somehow the same and somehow different. And he can’t even tell her that.

“I’m sorry,” is all he’s able to say, and it’s pathetic in his mind and even more pathetic coming out of his mouth.

“Nah, don’t be.” Laila waves her hand at him, then throws herself against the back of the couch and sighs at the ceiling. “It’s this stupid clause in our contracts. If I could, I’d marry her on the court - a big ol’ ‘fuck you’ to anyone who doesn’t want to believe it.”

“Yeah.” Guilt tears apart Neil’s insides. He turns to look at the far wall and fidgets some more with his bag, before deciding on the slightest bit of honesty that he can say. “It is my fault though. Riko set this up somehow, just like he did with Matt, and that’s on me.”

Laila arches one eyebrow and gives him a surprisingly wide smile. “Don’t apologize to me then, apologize to my girlfriend.”

Neil smiles back, just barely, wondering how it’s at all possible for Laila to be this positive about the situation. “Is she okay?”

“About this current situation? She will be.” She shrugs a bit, then bites over her lip as she thinks. “About everything else? I don’t know. It’s hard on both of us, being apart. I’m thinking that once I’m done with my contract here, I’ll switch to the Hurricanes.”

“They’re a good team.”

“Exactly. So unless we somehow make it to playoffs and kick some Nighthawk ass, I don’t think they’ll even consider it.”

That Neil can help with, he thinks and hopes. “Then we’ll make it to playoffs.”

“Oh, like it’s that simple.”

“It can be.”

Laila holds up her pinky and shoves it at Neil, only for Neil to stare at it in confusion for a few moments. “It’s a pinky promise.”

“Oh,” Neil says, embarrassment flaring along his cheeks. He hooks his pinky with hers. “Then I . . . pinky promise?”

Laila grins, looking ten times brighter than she had when Neil walked in. “Great.” Then she holds out her phone and somehow grins wider. “Oh, and I was serious about apologizing to my girlfriend.”

-

There’s only so many pieces of the SeaKings left on the game board. It feels as though one by one, number by number, they’re all being pulled off and picked at. Leaving each player small and foolish, more weary than they’ve ever been, and as far away as possible from the word best.

None of it is a coincidence.

The Nighthawks have to be the best, and if they can’t do that, then they’ll make everyone else look worse.

The optimism from reporters dwindles down into a near complete silence. Sportscasters stop speaking out in the SeaKing’s favour, and instead choose to run stories about their various scandals.

It was a game before, but now it’s a war.

If it was supposed to shake Neil’s confidence and make him more afraid to step on the court come November seventeenth, then that plan has failed.

At their last team practice before their game against the Nighthawks, Neil envisions Andrew in their goal, and he doesn’t miss a single shot.

-

It’s at night when he wants to talk to Andrew the most.

He knows he must be going crazy, or somewhere just outside the realms of crazy, because he’s aware of it. As soon as he thinks a thought about him, Neil knows it’s an irrational or illogical thought, because this just isn’t how Neil thinks.

And his focus is needed elsewhere.

Now is not the time to be lost in thoughts of a man made up of daydreams.

Now is the time to be careful, because he has so many eyes on him. So many instances that could give him all away. But maybe that’s why, now more than ever before, Neil wants him.

Which brings Neil back to feeling irrational and illogical. This isn’t who he is - wanting someone so much that it verges into needing them.

All throughout high school and his five years in college, he didn’t - couldn’t - understand relationships, or why anyone would want to be in one. Your own mind is a battlefield enough. Why willingly invite an opposing soldier inside?

He never thought about or sought out the desire to be in that position, of needing another person. It was always him and his game, and if needs be, his team. Even that was asking for too much.

He doesn’t understand it now, even as he’s experiencing it, inside that position that he never gave a thought to. Andrew’s contact information is shining bright on Neil’s phone and all he wants to do is press call.

Just do it, something in the back of his head shouts, but years of never feeling this feeling has him faltering. He knows he’s allowed to do it, that there’s nothing in Andrew’s rules forbidding him from reaching out, but there are Neil’s own rules from so long ago, made up right after his mother died.

People shouldn’t need people so bad.

Neil shouldn’t need people.

They lie and force and steal and take, and why would you ever need that?

But Andrew has never been and never will be just people. Andrew is fierce eyes, and blonde hair that Neil feels like he was created to touch, coconut-scented and right. He’s promises that refuse to break despite the weight of the world on top of them, and he’s the truth, and he’s choices, and he’s real.

Nobody else could ever be Andrew.

And with the game in less than two days, the media turning from brutal to ferocious with Neil’s name in their mouths, the world watching and the weight of Neil’s own promise to win sitting across his shoulders, he feels more heavy and tired than he has in a while.

Andrew’s the only one who could hold him up. The only one who Neil wants to hold him up.

If Andrew flew out with his team earlier today, arriving before the game for press work, then he should currently be in a five-star hotel somewhere in the heart of San Francisco - so close that Neil can still taste the way his kisses had felt. He settles against the pillows on his bed and finally works up the courage to hit the call button.

It might never make sense, needing somebody so bad, but Neil doesn’t care and surrenders to it. He needs to know if Andrew can feel the pressure too, if he’s okay, if he’s safe, if he needs anything from Neil at all. Anything.

If he’s thought at least one thought about Neil recently, when Neil can’t stop thinking about him.

As the phone rings, Neil trails a hand across his stomach, absentmindedly drawing patterns with his fingers as he works his way down, down, then slowly back up.

The phone continues to ring until an automated message says his call can’t be connected.

Neil frowns, because Andrew hasn’t not answered yet, but decides to try again in a few minutes.

He never wanted to be in this position; flat on his back with his every weakness exposed. It’s not in his nature to kneel. There’s just nothing in Andrew that makes Neil feel that way, not even when he’s raw and bleeding with his heart beating in his hand for him.

Andrew seems to know that Neil doesn’t want anyone else to see. That Neil wants Andrew to be the only one to see it.

Neil tells himself he’s being stupid, that he really doesn’t need anything anyway, but he is not stupid; Andrew wouldn’t have made that promise if he didn’t at least feel a shred of this same need. So Neil raises his phone and tries to call again.

It goes straight to voicemail.

Neil huffs, sets an alarm on his phone and lets it drop somewhere on his bed, then turns over and falls asleep.

-

It’s in the morning when he misses Andrew the most.

Andrew’s never been there when Neil’s woken up, but Neil always knew he was there.

Today he wakes up, and like many days before this, he stares at the blank space beside him in bed, and struggles to recall if his dreams were real or pretend. There’s a tug at his stomach, low and aching, empty.

Neil knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t stop himself from doing it. He wants to, and he’s slowly learning it’s not such a terrible concept, wanting things and having them.

So he comforts himself with that unstable thought, and drags a hand down his torso until it’s settled between his legs. He shuts his eyes, chews at his lip, runs his touch across himself until he can’t resist it anymore and grabs his phone to try again.

One hand on his phone, one hand over himself, he waits and waits and waits but Andrew doesn’t answer.

Annoyance tugs at Neil until he’s sitting upright. He uses both of his hands to type out a text, not really sure what to say or even why but his mind feels overloaded with memories of Andrew, his touch, how he had felt all over Neil’s skin.

But Neil won’t tell Andrew any of that. He sends the message - are you avoiding me because you’re that scared of losing?

He smiles to himself, imagining Andrew’s expression while reading it, then lets his phone drop to the bed as he turns onto his back and tries to replicate Andrew’s touch.

-

The rest of the day passes Andrew-less.

Neil feels more irritated than shameful.

It provides a pleasant distraction though, through the round of interviews and the charity lunch and the sponsorship dinner and the non-stop press. Too much of a distraction, maybe, because Neil mishears everyone, bumps into people when he isn’t looking, and stares forever at his phone, the camera, the question.

Andrew’s somewhere in his city, doing the same thing he is, somewhere close but not close enough.

The more Neil tells himself to stop being so pathetic, the more he feels the urge to reach out. It’s an endless cycle, increasing in viciousness until nearly everything Neil can see is red. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know how this works. He never has.

As much as Neil wants to believe in his ability to work out the complexity of Andrew, right now he just feels - he feels confused. And he hates being confused about something he feels so sure about.

“Snap out of it.” Kevin’s voice is loud in the quiet of the car, the two of them sitting against opposite windows as they’re driven to the next team event. “Get your head back where it belongs.”

Neil looks at Kevin and blinks away the fog of his thoughts. “Stop worrying about me,” he says, and turns to tilt his head against the window. “Isn’t your focus needed elsewhere?”

“I have to worry about,” Kevin says insistently, and whips out his phone from the pocket of his suit jacket. Neil glances over just slightly to see Kevin shoving the screen towards him. “Otherwise Andrew wouldn’t have sent this.”

Neil reluctantly turns around to look, first up at Kevin’s face and then down at the phone. Open on the screen is a text from ‘Minyard, Andrew’.

Tell your clone to stop making my life so difficult. Being afraid is not the reason I’m avoiding him. Remind him I have a promise to uphold.

At first, Neil frowns.

Then it makes sense, and Neil smirks.

“Got it?” Kevin snaps at him, yanking his phone away as he sends Neil another sharp glare.

No, not really, not at all, actually. Neil feels as if someone just tossed him up in the air, and now his mind is stuck in the clouds. “Got it,” he says, if a bit airily.

Now that they’re sleeping under the roof of the same city, Andrew has to avoid Neil if he’s going to make good on his promise to not let another soul know about them. It makes sense, perfect sense, and instant relief fills up Neil’s aching chest.

Because it sort of almost sounds like Andrew wants to be near Neil. Like it’s hard for him to not be near Neil.

Maybe Andrew needs him just as much. Maybe need isn’t such an illogical thought.

Neil shuts his eyes and shuts out the pressure, and smiles just a bit to himself.

Even when Andrew isn’t around, he’s still holding the world up.

Chapter Text

When Neil wakes up on November seventeenth, his heart is already pounding.

He lays in bed for at least ten minutes, trying to get his pulse under control and to find the strength he needs to move his legs.

Beneath his heavily beating anxiety, Neil feels -

Excited.

It’s been a very long time since he’s felt this way about the game. At one point, all those years ago, this was how he always felt. Adrenaline was a permanent fixture in his system. He never knew if he would win or lose, but he was always ready to put his life on the line for the former.

There’s a new factor in the excitement now. It sits low in Neil’s body, like a spark at the core of his spine.

A long time ago, Neil Josten faced Andrew Minyard on an Exy court and lost. Now Neil gets to try again, and now Neil thinks he just might win.

But if he doesn’t win . . .

There’s never been a threat over his head before, something that will fall down heavy on him if he doesn’t.

There is now.

He knows how to lose because he knows how to get back up. But if the SeaKings lose, that means the Nighthawks win, and Neil isn’t sure his team can push forward when there’s a force like Riko pushing back against them. If Riko gets away with everything that he’s done.

That’s enough of a thought to get Neil out of bed. He changes into his running clothes, downs a glass of water, then hits the hills of San Francisco for an early morning run.

Tonight’s game doesn’t determine which team will enter playoffs, because both teams have enough points to make it there already. The Nighthawks will enter through the eastern division, while the SeaKings will enter through the west. Tonight isn’t about making it to playoffs.

Tonight there is only a title on the line; worst or best.

It can’t be Neil who loses.

One thought has Neil running faster than he ever has. His legs burn but his heart burns harder. He wants to win. He wants to play. This feeling, this power, this is why he picked up a racquet all those years ago. It was to put a sense of purpose in his hands.

Now it’s time to use it.

The day passes, and soon the SeaKings arrive one by one at the stadium. First serve isn’t for hours, but the city is tearing itself down and rebuilding itself up with its energy and excitement. Fans already swarm the streets, while pubs around the city are maxed out in capacity, and local theatres have sold tickets to screenings of the game. Millions of people are sitting in their homes with their televisions already tuned to the right channel.

The SeaKings did their job and got everyone watching, so they take their last few hours to hide.

They pace around the lounge, stretch out on the benches, run laps through the lengths of the hallways. Lunch is ordered and magazines are passed around to kill time. Neil tries his best to immerse himself in the distractions, to keep his adrenaline from consuming him, but he can’t stop thinking about the team on the other side of his stadium.

He can’t stop thinking about one specific person.

After lunch he catches up with Matt, who’s pacing the hall between the locker room and the lounge. He’s hesitant the closer he gets, until he’s standing right in front of Matt with a look of pure guilt across his face. “Hey . . .” Neil tries, and can’t quite look Matt in the eyes. “Can I uh, join you?”

Matt would be within his every right to turn away from Neil now. Neil would turn away from himself if he could.

Instead Matt grins and throws his arm around Neil. “Hey!” he says, and pulls Neil into a walk. “You doing good? Nervous?”

“Not about the game,” Neil says and shrugs a little. “I guess about what happens if we lose the game.”

Matt hums in acknowledgement and squeezes at Neil’s shoulder. “Then let’s not lose the game.”

Neil smiles, but the guilt eats its way through his chest and jams itself up in his throat. He tries to say something but the words get stuck.

Apologizing is a strange concept for him. Not because he’s never done it, but because he’s rarely meant it.

“Hey, Matt? I’m really sorry.” Neil bites at his lip, fidgets with the sleeves of his sweater, looks anywhere but at Matt. “About everything that happened. Are you . . . alright?”

“Never better,” Matt says brightly, and his grin turns into a sun beam. He pats at Neil’s back, then rubs his hand in a soothing circle over the same spot. “I’m still here playing, right? That means that evil fuck-face hasn’t won yet.”

Neil lets out a harsh breath. “Sometimes it feels like he has.”

“Nah, he’s just messing with your head. Just . . . look at it this way.” Matt lets out a small sigh, but his smile never wavers. They finish their first lap of the hall and turn to walk the way they had come. “As long as there’s something you want to win the game for, then you haven’t lost yet.”

Neil’s steps begin to slow. He looks down at his feet, wanting to ask if that ideology still counts when what you want to win for is what you’re playing against.

Instead of asking that, Neil says, “What are you trying to win for?

Matt laughs. “Dan, duh,” he says, pulling Neil even closer. “Her Foxes won their last game for me, so I’m gonna win this one for her. You in?”

He raises a fist, and after a moment of staring at it, Neil realizes Matt wants him to bump it. He collides his fist with Matt’s, and tries not to wince at how strong he is.

“I’m in.”

He smiles, and it feels good to mean it.

“We got this.” Matt nods towards the lounge where the rest of their team is. “We’ve got your back. All you have to do is score on Minyard.”

Matt pats Neil’s shoulder before he leaves, and Neil nearly falls to his knees from it.

It’s Neil’s fault that everyone was hurt, that Matt ever had to suffer, but Matt is still here, still willing to rally behind Neil. To believe Neil. To play with Neil.

A lie can’t attract that, can it?

The nerves of the upcoming night clear from Neil’s mind, replaced by a raging fire of need. To win. For them, for Matt, for Laila, for everyone who’s ever been labelled the worst when they’re trying their best.

This is why he signed that contract, he thinks. This is why he wanted to play.

To win for everyone who can’t.

-

By time the team is let out onto the court to run laps, the stadium is packed.

The cheers are deafening, even through the walls. Silver and aqua surrounds them, an endless and overpowering wave through the crowd.

It’s not enough to swallow up the navy of the Nighthawks; the Nighthawk’s fans sit in the stands, wearing a blue so dark it looks like midnight. Neil doesn’t focus on them, because it doesn’t matter. Silver is brighter, and so much easier to see.

He runs at Kevin’s heels, purposely staying behind him so he has something to focus on besides the crowds. After the second lap, one of the SeaKings taps Neil on the shoulder as they pass, then indicates uptowards the stands with a jerk of their chin. Neil has to slow his run to get a better look, then has to squint to see from this far away.

It takes a long moment to realize what he’s looking at.

A group of children takes up a row nearest the home bench. Neil wonders if it’s their school that brought them here, or some sort of program. They’re all helping one another hold up handmade signs, Neil’s name painted on every single one of them - the name that Andrew gave him.

Neil ‘Pipe Dream’ Josten is written in crayon, marker and glitter, and once the kids realize he’s looking at them, they begin to jump up and down, frantically waving their signs around.

Neil waves at them, then starts to run his laps a little bit faster. His grin stays crystal across his face.

That’s until the opposing team is let into the inner court to run their laps in the opposite direction, and then Neil can’t smile. He can’t do anything but focus on not tripping over his own feet every time he passes Andrew.

Andrew runs with his chin up and pace steady, not looking at all bothered by the mass of thousands screaming at them, and definitely not looking at all affected by Neil’s proximity.

Kevin, now running behind Neil, shoves hard at Neil’s back, as if reminding him that he shouldn’t be looking in Andrew’s direction at all.

Both teams are soon called onto the court for drills. The SeaKings’ plan is to not waste a second or shot, and to try to use every moment of practice wisely, but the Nighthawks spend their time smacking balls down the court towards the SeaKings. Neil isn’t sure how much of a warm up he gets in when he spends most of his time ducking and dodging stray balls.

Before the referees can call the Nighthawks out on it, the time for drills is up, and the clock on the scoreboard declares that they only have mere minutes before first serve. Coach Mullens gathers everyone into a circle beside the home bench, reviewing statistics on his clipboard that he’s gone over a thousand times before already. Neil listens like it’s all new.

He ends his review with a grim smile, and says, “Play with one-hundred percent of what you got and nothing less, or we won’t win if we lose.”

Neil turns that over in his mind as he takes his place in the lineup.

Then Kevin and Riko are let onto the court, and the world goes quiet. Kevin walks with confidence, while Riko walks with arrogance. They meet in the middle over the SeaKings logo, and Riko sticks out his right hand.

Instead of shaking it, Kevin sticks out his left, forcing Riko to switch hands.

As soon as Riko has Kevin’s left hand in his, he pulls him down to his level and seems to hiss something into his ear, something the rest of the world will never know and never hear. Whatever it is, it has Kevin’s face falling serious. He abruptly pulls away and waits for the referee to do the coin toss.

The SeaKings win.

Neil is only playing for twenty minutes during first half tonight, then he’s to sit out until second period begins. Mullens had said it was to increase the point gap as much as possible, and to allow Neil to play as much as possible without burning him out before he faces Andrew.

Tonight the Nighthawks are leaving Andrew out of the goal until second half. It could be for a multitude of reasons, but Neil thinks he knows the truth; this is the showdown the world has been waiting for since July.

The game has to end with both Andrew and Neil on the court.

The first twenty minutes pass in a blink. Adrenaline and excitement create a chaotic energy that spreads like wildfire between player to player, and Neil lives for the burn. He has to be called off the court twice before he actually leaves.

As good as the Nighthawks are, the SeaKings are good, too. By time Neil’s out, the SeaKings have managed a total of three points.

Which may not sound ideal, but against the Nighthawks’ score of four, it’s a world.

Neil clacks sticks with his sub as they pass each other on the court. He remains breathless even while sitting on the bench, and he wonders how he ever could have forgotten how this game makes him feel.

It’s as he’s knocking back a bottle of water when he lets his gaze fall off of the court. Through the walls and the action of the game, he locks eyes with Andrew and can’t help but jolt back. Shock rings up through Neil’s spine at the abruptness of it, feeling as if he walked right into a trap. Like Andrew was already looking at him.

Neil hides his grin with his water bottle. Andrew looks away.

By halftime, the score is a magical 5-5. Nobody can quite believe it, but every SeaKing wears proof of their work and perseverance in the sweat dripping down their faces. Their coaches round them up to go over what they can change, and what they can’t change but can work around.

Then everyone directs their attention to Neil.

“Josten, this is it,” Mullen says, putting down his clipboard. “You know Minyard’s moves better than any of us. Tell your team what you need from them.”

Horror is a kick to Neil’s stomach. His mouth drops open as he stares from teammate to teammate. Words catch in his throat but never come out. The SeaKings all look at Neil as if he preaches gospel, like they’ll believe every word.

A year ago Neil was in this exact position, with a team that looked to him to lead them. He brought them to their death.

But this isn’t last year, and now he has a new reason to win.

He tells his team what he needs and they listen, eager smiles on all their faces.

When the teams are called back to the court, there’s an unnerving silence to the crowd. The announcers speak in low tones, as if they’re at a funeral, afraid to disrupt the dead.

Underneath that silence is excitement, just waiting to burst free.

Neil can hear it, because Neil can feel it.

The world stays quiet as Andrew and Neil take to their spots, but once the countdown on the scoreboard reads zero, the silence can’t be what it is anymore. It snaps like brittle bone and bleeds into a frenzy.

The buzzer goes off, the game starts, and the room full of thousands roars back to life. Neil almost fears the ceiling collapsing with the weight of all the voices crushing up against it. He takes the noise as extra fuel, pushing his body that much faster, that much better.

The game stays tied for the first ten minutes. Those ten minutes are more grueling than Neil’s first twenty had been; full of tiresome runs, passes, and intricate footwork to get around the too-fast, too-smart Nighthawks.

Anytime that Neil gets within fifteen feet of the Nighthawks’ goal, the tension in the air pulls tight, suspending the court in that moment. The world doesn’t dare blink, in fear of missing Neil Josten score against Andrew Minyard.

He never does. Every shot is blocked, either by Andrew or by a backliner. Neil’s stick gets smacked clean from his hands, or his shoulder is brutally checked, forcing him to drop his racquet on his own.

Andrew is right there, but Neil can never get close enough.

Every missed shot only highlights the purpose and power coursing through Neil’s hands. He has never wanted anything so bad; to score on the unscorable. It’s a good thing his helmet blocks a clear view of his mouth, because he can’t stop from smiling.

Can’t stop from grinning whenever Andrew turns that mocking glare on him.

As Neil runs down the court with his team a cohesive piece, with all the support and all the belief, Neil thinks about the signs in the crowd with his name on them, and he doesn’t think about all of his lies.

This is who he is.

Neil Josten of the San Francisco SeaKings. Ready and willing to score against a player like Andew Minyard. A dream that’s been alive much longer than what he feels for Andrew Minyard.

And he gets to have both.

With that thought, Neil runs faster, and snatches the ball midair before a Nighthawk can swipe it.

The very second he catches it, his body is checked by a brutal and sudden force. Neil crashes to the ground and loses the ball. He’s torn between scrambling after it and seeing who checked him like that.

Before he can make the decision for himself, a racquet is coming down and trapping his against the ground. Neil lets out a frustrated noise and jerks his chin up, squinting through his faceguard at -

Jean Moreau stands above Neil with his racquet held like a weapon. “Do not try him,” he says once he knows Neil is listening. There’s venom dripping from his voice. There’s nothing at all in his eyes. “If you win this game, you will lose everything else. Do not try him.”

Don’t try me,” Neil spits back, kicking his legs out to push away Jean’s racquet. He spares a second to look behind the walls for Riko’s face, then jumps to feet to find his way back into the game. He smacks Jean’s stick with his own as he passes him.

At fifteen minutes into the second half, the score is still 5-5.

At sixteen minutes into the second half, that all changes.

Experts will be analyzing the play for weeks to come, scratching their heads and asking themselves how Andrew didn’t see it coming.

It could be because Andrew’s eyes stay firmly on Kevin, the only real threat to his goal.

It could be because half the world wants him to fail, half wants him to win, equating to the pressure of the whole world on him.

It could be because he’s expecting something that isn’t coming.

Kevin rebounds the ball off the wall behind Neil, then holds his racquet up as if he’s meaning to catch it back from him. Neil heaves his own racquet up as if he’s going to send the ball to Kevin.

But he knows Andrew won’t risk losing sight of Kevin with him so close to the goal, giving Neil the brief illusion of invisibility.

Neil uses three steps to perfect his angle, and thinks of everything, and then nothing, then takes his shot.

And he scores.

It starts with the goal flaring up red behind Andrew, a loud horn going off, his coaches and teammates pounding against the walls, fans rattling the earth with the stomp of their feet, and it ends with the SeaKings all cheering his name.

None of that is proof that it’s real.

Neil stares at the goal as his racquet slips from his grip, not believing any of it.

Not until Andrew finally turns around. He first watches the ball roll out of his goal, then looks up at Neil.

All around the world, the goal will be replaying on every TV. The streets of San Francisco must be erupting with noise. Bets are being won and being lost. Journalists will already be writing about it. All around the stadium, the fans are shaking apart the floor boards and the announcers are speaking a mile a minute.

Neil feels none of it.

He continues to look at the one unmoving focal point of his life, and slowly, realizing his dream has just become real, Neil starts to smile.

For the first time since Neil shook Andrew’s hand, he lets the world see exactly what he feels for him, because they'll never figure it out.

Only Andrew will ever know what Neil’s saying with his smile.

He made his dream come true, against and throughout everything, and nothing is falling.

Andrew meets his stare and nods his head, short and quick, only visible if you’re Neil and you’re looking for it.

With that, Neil spins on his heels to run towards his excited teammates, losing himself in their hugs and high fives. Kevin simply looks at him, the congratulations in his smile waning with an awful warning in his eyes. Neil follows his gaze to where the Nighthawks are exchanging players.

Riko comes out onto the court to play his own second half.

But there’s nothing that can take it back. Neil scored, just like he said he would. He refuses to let Riko scare his team into a loss.

The game picks back up again with a new energy, a winning energy.

But at seventeen minutes into the game, Neil’s goal no longer seems important.

It’s more confusing than annoying when Riko appears in front of Neil; a striker isn’t meant to be blocking another striker. Neil looks around the court for someone to pull Riko off of him, but the SeaKings are occupied defending Kevin, who’s being followed by a wrongful amount of Nighthawks.

Neil grits his teeth and tries to shove past Riko. “Move it,” he snarls.

The court is too loud to hear much, but even with Riko’s voice so quiet, his words cut up the air. “You will never win.”

Neil scoffs. “Looks like I am.”

He tries to push past him again, throwing all of his weight into Riko, but Riko evades it by stepping to the side and then stepping back again, four walls boxing Neil in.

“You do not believe that.” Riko grabs at Neil’s face guard and drags him closer, the only noise in the stadium now the threatening hiss of a rattlesnake's tail; Riko’s voice. “You have too much to lose if you win. Who else do you want to see hurt? Kevin? Your coaches? Though I quite enjoyed seeing Dermott suffer, so perhaps I’ll try her again.”

The game is stil happening all around them, but Neil feels as if he’s been ripped out of it and dropped somewhere foreign. Not knowing what else to do, Neil tries to shove the end of his racquet into Riko’s chest.

Riko strikes like a snake and wraps his hand around the racquet, stilling it immediately. “You should be used to never winning.”

Neil pulls at his racquet, but Riko pulls back, with enough force to wrench it out of Neil’s hands and send it flying several feet away.

“Riko,” Neil seethes, finally directing his attention back to the court, looking in each direction for any sign of help. His eyes lock onto Andrew, who’s watching the game, but also watching Neil.

Neil quickly looks away.

“Oh,” Riko says, and he sounds genuinely surprised. “Oh, I see.” His hand latches onto Neil’s face guard and points him back in the direction of the Nighthawks’ goal. “It’s not the game you’re trying to win, is it?”

Neil doesn’t think, and makes the gravest mistake of his life.

Leave him alone!” he shouts, and doesn’t think, he can’t think, he reaches for Riko’s racquet, if he can just get it out of Riko’s hands he can -

Riko grins at him through his helmet, and it cuts Neil’s heart into strands. “I don’t think I will.”

They’re at a complete standstill, not breaking any rules by refusing to move, but still disrupting the flow of the game. If Neil could take his gaze off Riko, he’d hear the announcers speaking in confused tones, he’d see the referees and his coaches all smacking on the walls to get them back into action, and he’d notice Kevin shouting his name.

But Neil can’t look away from Riko when Riko looks at Andrew like that, so Neil doesn’t notice anything else.

“This isn’t how you play the game,” Neil says, voice surprisingly even.

“How strange then,” Riko drawls, and looks over at Andrew once more, too much. “That I continue to succeed.”

Neil isn’t sure what body part of his moves first, all that matters is that it hits its destination; anywhere against Riko. He throws all of himself into the punch, the blow, elbows and fists and fingers fighting desperately until both Neil and Riko are on the ground.

Riko isn’t much bigger than Neil, easy to pin down. Once he’s underneath him, Neil doesn’t hold back and rips his helmet off, all of his strength going into knocking that perpetual grin off Riko’s face.

Everything else is invisible, all gone, all falling. The scoreboard, the countdown, the crowd, the teams and the fans and the game itself; it all disappears with every hit he throws at Riko’s body.

“You will - never - win -” Neil shouts through gritted teeth, fighting against the thrashing limbs underneath him.

So focused on Riko, everything else unseeable, he doesn’t notice the approaching body, and so he doesn’t see the oncoming collision until it’s too late and he’s being knocked off of Riko and thrown aside.

The roles switch immediately; Neil underneath, a larger, heavier body of another Nighthawk over his. He continues to reach out for Riko as his own helmet is torn off, as a blow lands hard across his cheek, as whoever’s ontop of him reaches for Neil’s discarded racquet a few feet away.

In the last few seconds before the world goes grey, Neil sees Kevin running across the court towards him. He sees the crowd taking the shape of a monster, screaming to be entertained.

And he sees Andrew, who is standing too far out of his goal and too close to Neil. His stance is defensive, his legs braced and his fists curled up by his sides.

But Andrew can’t get any closer, can’t stop this, not if Andrew wants to keep his promise.

A hand squeezes at Neil’s jaw and forces his face upwards. Neil sinks his nails into his attacker’s wrists to try and weaken their hold on him, tries to force his knees hard into their stomach, tries to push out and away, but he’s slammed back down.

The last thing Neil sees is his own racquet being raised, the end of it dangerously close to taking apart his face.

The world goes grey, and then the world goes black.

Chapter Text

With his eyes closed and his mind crawling towards consciousness, he can distantly hear the hum of the crowd, the noise of the game, his own name . . .

After a few seconds of listening, the noises all turn into static, into pain, into endless screaming.

It flips and flashes through his mind like a too-fast slideshow of pictures; stepping onto the court, scoring on Andrew, high fiving his teammates, running into Riko and then - darkness.

Darkness smacks against the front of Neil’s brain so hard and fast it’s as if Neil hit it with a car. It goes flying up against the windshield, splintering the glass and sending him off-course. He jerks himself awake, gasping for air as he forces his eyes open.

One hurts too much to open completely, so he settles for using his right, squinting around at his surroundings. He first notes the bed he’s on, pushed up against the wall. A thin blanket is draped over his legs, and there are ice packs wrapped to the backs of his hands.

Memories and questions, things that did and didn’t happen, nightmares and dreams, they all mix up in his mind and he lets out another gasp, not sure if he’s really awake or not. Not until somebody moves somewhere beside him, and Neil flinches instinctively.

Both eyes open, wide with panic, Neil stares at the team’s nurse; she holds her hands up and says Neil’s name in a slow, distorted voice.

But it’s his coach’s voice that finally breaks the trance. Coach Mullens shouts, “Josten.” and Neil begins to think again.

He tries to click the fracture of his mind into a clear enough picture. What happened, where am I, what’s wrong? are all questions he thinks of asking, but all his mouth can permit is, “Did - did we win?”

They must have been prepared to hear the former questions, because the nurse sends a worried glance over her shoulder to Mullens. Mullens rolls his eyes.

“The game, no. The respect of the nation? Yes.”

Too concussed to process that, Neil gives his head a small shake, reaching up to feel whatever’s stuck to his face. There are bandages over his brow, his cheek, his nose. Everything is numb, but somehow everything hurts.

Dread of the unknown twists up Neil’s stomach, making his mind circle back to his first question.

“What happened?”

Coach Mullens laughs, but he doesn’t sound amused. “You nearly had your team pulled from the season, that’s what happened. If a fight like that took place out on the streets, you’d be in handcuffs. The authorities are writing it off as game-related violence.”

Neil stares at his coach through one eye, trying to call his bluff, then gives up and slumps back against the bed.

He knows where he is now; the team’s medical office, connected to the lounge. He was here last week for a blood test, to prove he wasn’t using enhancers, because Riko had started an investigation against them, and so the whole team had to be -

His mind lets go of that downward spiral, too full of holes to contain coherent thoughts. Instead of trying to piece together what he simply can’t remember, he heaves out a sigh and settles for asking more questions.

“What about after I went out?”

All he can recall is the frantic way Kevin had dashed across the court for him - too slow.

And Andrew, stuck in his goal, forced to watch - too far.

Neil was a mess of exposed insides on the ground, fighting and clawing to keep himself contained. To keep Andrew safe. To get Riko away. He was knocked out before he could be sure of all that. He hasn’t any idea what Riko did with all of Neil’s lies and truths after everything went black.

He’s not even sure what the time is right now. The world could be on fire, and Neil would be none the wiser.

His future could be doomed, and he’d have no clue.

“Kevin and Matt separated you, Riko, and that Moreau kid before the refs could get on the court. Just in time, or else you wouldn’t have a face. The three of you were taken out of the game so it could continue. We lost. They won.”

Neil lets out his breath, feeling a temporary relief.

If Riko wasn’t on the court to finish the game, then the win isn’t his.

He lost just as much as Neil did.

Neil brushes a hand over his face, wincing at how the lightest touch feels like an attack. “Can I play next week?” he asks, afraid of the answer, afraid of it being over before he’s ready to finish.

Mullens laughs. “Not with those injuries, and definitely not with your red card.”

“Red card?” Neil sits back up again, his entire body rigid. He looks from his coach to the nurse, as if an answer will somehow appear between them. “You have one-hundred thousand people as witnesses. Riko started it. He wouldn’t let me play.”

“Relax, Josten. Riko got carded, too.”

He feels nothing but anger for a few moments, then sucks in his breath and reigns it in. It’s unfair, but he won’t be able to fight it tonight. There are more important issues to fix.

His coach says as much; “It’s a mess out there, Neil.” He sighs and rubs at his eyes. “There’s already a shit load of rumours going around about what happened. Your manager and publicist are already trying to come up with a press piece to buy us some time, but the board isn’t happy. They want an answer, a real answer.”

Mullens looks at the door for a long moment, as if he can see something behind it. “They don’t need to hear the truth, but I do. I need to think of the integrity of my team.”

The truth . . . Neil has busted knuckles, a swollen eye, a split lip and split skin and bandages upon bandages and a red card because he had to fight to protect his truth.

To protect Andrew.

To stop Riko from using Andrew against Neil. To stop him from ever touching him. Because if Riko ever used Andrew as a threat, Neil would cave and forfeit the game.

The truth would hurt the integrity of the team. The truth would make him lose his team.

The truth is what he signed against, only he didn’t know it at the time. He didn’t know because he hadn’t even met him yet. He signed on the line and promised that his secret love would stay a secret, but Neil wasn’t in love then.

He didn’t know.

He does now.

If they know he has a secret, a liability, something that threatens the team, they’ll give him up.

Tonight was the first night in far too long that he picked up a racquet and wanted to play with it. He won’t survive putting it down.

But then there’s Andrew, and if it comes down to one or the other, Neil won’t deny him, because he won’t hurt him. Staying in the game will give Riko that leverage.

Neil saw the way he looked at him. He remembered the bruises. He remembered Kevin’s words.

No one is free in this game, so Neil can longer play it.

Neil turns his head to look at the wall and says, “The truth . . .” He coughs, shuts his eyes, clenches up his hands and remembers how Andrew’s had felt around them. When he gripped Neil tight that night in the elevator because he couldn’t let him go. “Riko isn’t going to let me play anymore. It’s not about the game for him, it’s just about winning. That’s why he . .”

It sticks like a rock in his throat. It’s the feeling you get before you fall. Awful, angry, because you know it’s going to happen but you can’t do anything to stop it. It just has to. It must.

“What does he have against you?”

There’s no escape from the truth, is there? No more hiding behind locked doors and distant phone calls and the promise of one man’s word.

The consequence isn't simply losing the game anymore.

“Andrew,” Neil finally says, never looking away from the wall, and he wishes he could catch his heart but he has to let it fall.

The small room settles into silence. Neil wishes he could shut it all out as easy as he can shut his eyes. Or that it could all end quickly, just like pulling teeth or breaking a bone, but no. Neil’s dream ends slowly, even slower than the process of making it come true.

Until suddenly his coach says, “Good news, then. The media is on your side for now, what with you getting knocked out on the court. I’m sure we can work something out, some story to spin, to keep that Moriyama’s trap shut for -”

Whatever he had been about to say is abruptly cut off by the door banging open. Neil turns around to look just in time to see the team nurse jerk back and his coach stand up.

“I told you to wait outside -”

Andrew ignores that and slams the door behind him. He doesn’t pause in his path to get to Neil, and within a heartbeat he’s by Neil’s bed. Neil’s never seen anyone move so quickly. He’s never felt his heart move so quickly, either.

Andrew looms above Neil, breathing hard but somehow still silent. If he weren’t changed out and showered, Neil would have assumed he’d just come off the court; his eyes are wide, wild, angered, and he looks exasperated in a way that only the game can make Neil feel.

It happens so quickly, quicker than falling - Neil forgets everything. No pain or fear or panic, only Andrew Andrew Andrew.

There’s desperation in Andrew’s movements, in his eyes and in his breath. It feels like the press of a hand over Neil’s heart.

But Andrew doesn’t touch him. He stares at Neil as if he wants to, his fingers hovering above Neil’s shoulders, but he doesn’t move any closer, like he’s afraid a plexiglass wall is going to come falling down between them.

Neil waits for it too, until he just can’t wait or care anymore.

People shouldn’t need people.

Not Neil, not Andrew, not like this.

That doesn’t stop him. It’s just like falling. He just has to. He does need people.

He stretches out his hands until he can grasp at Andrew’s shirt, his chest, his shoulders, his face. Andrew allows Neil’s useless pawing for only a second, then grabs at his wrists and lowers them to Neil’s lap to inspect them.

The ice packs are removed first, then the bandages. A chair creaks somewhere in the room, the nurse standing up to say something, but Andrew raises a dismissive finger in her direction to halt her.

He doesn’t take the bandages off entirely, just enough to glance underneath. Neil hasn’t any idea what he’s looking for, but a crease appears between Andrew’s brow, and then he’s folding his hands around Neil’s. Locking them up in a grip that no force can break.

Maybe there’s movement in the room. Maybe there are things being said. Maybe they should stop. Maybe Neil doesn’t care at all.

Andrew lets go of one of Neil’s hands, only to quickly grab onto his face. His touch isn’t gentle; Neil’s cuts and bruises ache from the force of having his chin lifted, but if it means he’s allowed to look up at Andrew then he doesn’t care.

Neil’s lungs punch out a relieved and shaky exhale.

Need and hysteria, it builds and builds and comes out in the form of a shaky laugh. After everything, after the grey and the black and the disorienting process of waking up, Andrew is still real.

As real as he was that night in New York. As real as he is in every single one of Neil’s dreams.

Neil smiles and even though it hurts, it feels like breathing. Andrew scowls as they stare each other down, but his fingers are trembling as they track a path across Neil’s face.

It must be anger. Neil recognizes it from that one night, like Andrew’s skin isn’t strong enough to hold himself in. Like he’s going to shake himself apart just to keep his mind together.

Neil thinks to say something then, but he doesn’t know what.

Andrew beats him to it anyway, a vicious heat to his voice as he says, “You’re an idiot.” He tugs at Neil’s hair, then curls his hand up in it, pulling Neil that much closer.

It hits him, and Neil knows what to say then. “I scored on you.”

Andrew’s response to that is an even deeper scowl and a sharper tug at Neil’s hair.

It doesn’t deter him. “Remember when you said I couldn’t?”

Andrew presses two fingers into the bandage over Neil’s eyebrow, enough to make Neil hiss but not flinch, and says, “I hate you.”

Neil’s smile comes back quick, slight now, just for Andrew and not himself now. He waits until Andrew sees it, until he catches his breath, until he stops unraveling above Neil.

Then he doesn’t wait any longer and, acting of his own volition, ignoring their audience and the consequence, Neil leans up and asks with his eyes for a kiss.

Andrew never does catch his breath.

Andrew says yes to that kiss with so much more than just his lips.

As soon as Neil kisses Andrew, Andrew pushes Neil down and kisses him back. Urgent yet careful, caressing. Like there isn’t a single force in this world that can make him stop aside from Neil’s no.

A word that Neil will never say.

Because kissing Andrew makes him feel like he’s winning.

Because kissing Andrew is the one thing Neil can’t lose.

Chapter Text

It was Neil’s fault.

He threw the first punch, so he started it.

In Andrew’s world, it’s whoever’s the first to lay a hand that’s to blame, not whoever instigated the fight through words. Riko did deserve every hit thrown at him, but Neil, technically, deserved to be hit back.

Still, Andrew wanted nothing more in that moment than to tear off Riko’s head, fibre by fibre, vein by vein, leaving Riko a severed mess on the court.

For obvious reasons he couldn’t do that. The world was watching. Decapitating his captain on live television for Neil Josten’s sake might have been a red flag of some kind.

But standing there watching it happen was the hardest part of the night.

He had glanced up at the paused clock on the scoreboard, indicating that Neil, with the widest of all smiles, had scored less than two minutes before the fight. He turned his back on the game after that, instead focusing on picking at the net of his racquet.

All he could do was wait for the brawlers to clear out so he could continue to play the game how he has to play the game; to make others lose.

His mind betrayed his body countless times - look at him, stop him - but he couldn’t get any closer. If he did, somebody would’ve thrown his name into the mix and clicked together all the pieces, unravelling his promise.

It’s Neil’s fault. He deserves it. So Andrew stays where he is until the game continues.

It eventually ends with a Nighthawk win. Andrew heads straight for the court door, skipping the half-formed handshake lineup. Both teams are a mess anyway, nervous and fearful as their eyes drift to the spot where Neil Josten had laid unconscious while Riko Moriyama was ripped away, screaming and cursing.

It’s not a story that’ll fade into the night, that’s for sure.

The reporters all fall into Andrew’s path with their cameras and microphones. He marches past them. They don’t exist right now.

In the showers, he stands perfectly still and lets the water beat too-hot off his skin. He doesn’t think about what happened on the court. He doesn’t think about Neil. Nothing exists right now.

They won the game, but that doesn’t matter to Andrew when he’s already lost.

Riko has been a handsy captain to a few select teammates; Jean, mostly, and on one recent occasion, Andrew.

Riko is the reason either of them have contracts with the Nighthawks. To Riko that means he can hit, touch and hurt them, however and whenever he wants. His property, his control. Andrew was quick to correct that attitude the first time Riko tried to raise a hand to him. Jean was never able to.

Andrew used to wonder why. His answer came in the form of a fist to his face.

It’s like this: Jean had everything to lose if he ever defied Riko. Andrew never did. Until now.

Oh sure, Andrew tried to claim to himself that it was nothing, that it is nothing, but the thing with staring down a starving animal is that you either let them get you, or let them get somebody else.

That somebody else was Neil, so Neil was that everything.

Andrew took the bite, was fed to that hunger, and he came to the realization that while Jean can’t lose his game, he can’t lose Neil.

But when you live in a world where what you touch, you cannot keep, Andrew always knew he would have to lose.

So Andrew should have known what was going to happen next.

The Nighthawks are Riko’s extension of the Ravens - the greatest team in the NCAA to the greatest team in the NEL. The thought of losing his title to Neil Josten, not to mention Kevin Day, had Riko more violent than usual.

He needed someone to blame if it all went to hell.

‘Block his shots. Make a fool out of him. Get his name out of our ranks. He never should have opened his mouth. Do not let him win.’

Jean bowed his head in acceptance. Andrew stared right back at him. Even with the bruises across his face, he regarded Riko’s warning how he regards anything; not at all.

Riko believes his words to be rules, but Andrew only ever follows his own.

He stared right back at him and said, ‘Or what?’

Riko didn't answer, but Andrew found out soon after.

Neil was too good. Nothing in Andrew could have stopped him from scoring, making Andrew a liar against his own word. He still believed it as soon as it happened, when the goal lit up red and the scoreboard changed in the SeaKings’ favour. He believed it because he had always believed it.

So when Neil smiled at Andrew, Andrew nodded back.

Andrew might as well have put a loaded gun in Riko’s hands and pointed it at himself. Riko has a list of things to use against him, but he’s never had a bullet.

The answer to Andrew’s ‘Or what?’ became abundantly clear.

(Like he said, he knew he would have to lose.)

He was likely the only one on the court to not be confused as Riko began to follow Neil, pulling at his ear like a master reprimanding their dog. It all made sense. It all made sense until Neil threw that first punch.

Andrew was a witness to Neil’s smile. He saw it. He knew everything about it.

Neil had scored on the unscorable. The SeaKings were in the lead to take down an unbeatable team. He was living through the high of a dream, a moment he had spent months training for.

And yet, whatever Riko had said to him was enough to make Neil lose sight of it all. Neil let go of his racquet and his game in order to take Riko down, and Andrew can’t make sense of it.

The shower pounds against Andrew’s back until hot feels scalding, and he thinks, and he seethes, and he does not breathe. His fist hits the wall soon after realization hits him.

Neil is an idiot.

Riko had already hurt Neil’s team, insulted his name, and threatened to put a stop to his game. That left only one thing to take away from Neil, and regrettably, that thing is -

Andrew.

Anger plays a game with every nerve inside him. His pulse escalates until he can nearly hear it over the running water. What an idiot, so stupid, he hates him.

Neil was trying to protect him. Him. When it was Andrew who promised to keep this all a secret, keep it sealed, just the two of them in it. Riko found a way in and Neil was trying to push him out.

Andrew’s hands soon stop shaking enough for him to turn off the water. He listens to it drip from his body as he waits for the rest of the anger to fade out.

It doesn’t though. This anger has been present since Neil first said yes to him.

Maybe it isn’t really anger, but Andrew can’t call it anything else, not when it leaves him feeling this violent.

The locker room is too chaotic for anyone to notice him as he digs around his duffel bag for his phone, ditched under his clothes to stop himself from staring at the texts Neil had sent yesterday.

What an idiot. Andrew is going to kill him before anyone else can. They both know Andrew isn’t the one who needs protection. Andrew is what you need protection from.

You can’t save someone from pain when you’re the ammunition.

He swears he hates him, hates him even as he’s finding Kevin’s name in his phone and hitting call. He hates him as he waits the half second that it takes for Kevin to answer.

“Is he still here?” Andrew asks, not pausing for pleasantries.

“They won’t let me in to see him.”

“Good thing I’m not you.” He hangs up, finishes packing his bag back together, then slips away from what’s left of his team.

Winning the game but losing Riko has everyone running around confused, unsure if their win is actually a lose. They shouldn’t take notice to Andrew’s abrupt absence, and if they do, it’ll be followed by a sigh of relief.

Security tries to stop him as he makes his way around the stadium and towards the SeaKings’ lounge.

They try. They fail.

Kevin is the only player in the lounge when Andrew gets there, talking loudly with the SeaKings’ head coach. The vastness of a room that should be so full of life is unsettling. Andrew looks in every direction to check for anything that could be a threat, then settles his gaze back on Kevin.

“Where is he?”

The coach answers instead, looking bewildered as he shouts, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Andrew drops his bag at his feet and decides the door the two of them are standing in front of makes the most sense. He starts towards it but is stopped by a hand pressed to his chest.

It takes everything in Andrew to refrain from snapping it.

He looks down at the hand, then sends a warning look to Kevin, who understands and is quick to say, “Coach, let him -”

“You are on the wrong side of the stadium on the wrong side of the country,” the coach says, and Andrew wonders if he knows who he’s talking to, or if he really doesn’t care. If this were any other night, Andrew might want to find out the answer to that question. “You have ten seconds to get your ass out of here before we get security.”

The words are all pointless and droning, flying right over Andrew’s head. His eyes land back on the door as he says, flatly, “Let me see Neil.”

“Give me one good reason.”

Andrew lets out an impatient breath, and though he’d like nothing more than to clear that look off the coach’s face, smack him with his own arrogance, he doesn’t have time for that.

“Because I’m the one who’s fucking him, so unless you want to put his contract in jeopardy, I recommend getting out of my way.”

The coach blanks for a moment, then sends a look towards Kevin. “You knew about this?”

Kevin looks down at his feet. “I tried to stop it.”

The coach swears and runs a hand through his fading hair. “Just what we need, another fucking story to hide. That kid has so many liabilities, he’s lucky he’s worth it.”

Andrew doesn’t hear any of it, since none of it is permission to see Neil. “I’m going in now,” he says, still staring at the door.

“Not just - just wait,” the coach says, holding out his hand again. “He’s not even awake yet. Just wait here.”

The coach goes inside the room, leaving Andrew with Kevin. After a few moments of debating about tearing into the door anyway, Andrew turns towards the couches surrounding the television and sits down. Kevin looks at the door for too long of a second, then follows Andrew.

They keep their faces forward as they sit in silence.

They don’t look at each other when Kevin eventually asks, “So does Riko know?”

“It’s likely.”

“He’s going to use it to pull Neil from playoffs, isn’t he?”

“Stop speculating. I told you, I won’t let anyone else find out.”

“Then what’s he going to do to you for letting Neil score?”

Andrew does look at Kevin then. “I didn’t let him score,” he says plainly, though his voice carries a weight that wasn’t there before. “And I think he’s already done it.”

A thousand blows to the face would hurt less; Riko took out Neil and left Andrew with nothing.

Lucky for Andrew, he’s used to that. You can’t lose nothing.

Not so lucky for Andrew, Neil isn’t nothing.

He’d take, and will likely take, the thousand blows to the face. It won’t hurt. It won’t even register. Andrew made a promise, and he won’t be made a liar of his own word again. He won’t let Riko lay another hand on Neil. He won’t let Riko take away Neil. So no, there is nothing else Riko can do to hurt Andrew.

A thousand blows to the face. Now that is nothing.

The two of them fall back into tense silence. Andrew keeps his arms folded over his chest and his stare fixated on the wall as Kevin spins his racquet.

Which brings Andrew’s attention to the fact that Kevin hasn’t changed out yet.

He has no energy to frown, but it’s a near thing. “You should leave.”

Kevin twirls his racquet again, his gaze stuck somewhere on the floor. “He’s my teammate. It’s not that simple.”

Apparently he has enough energy to let out a scorching almost-laugh. It burns up his throat. It’s a sound he hasn’t made in a while. It’s a sound he never wants to make again.

“It was when it came to me though, wasn’t it?” he asks, and tells himself it doesn’t hurt anymore, it doesn’t feel like an attack anymore. “Now look where we are. Just go.”

“Andrew -” Kevin starts, struggling to lift his eyes up to meet Andrew’s.

Andrew looks away; he wanted Kevin to look guilty, not apologetic.

“I’m not interested in reviving old fights when the conclusion can’t be changed.”

Remorse continues to radiate off Kevin, and it makes Andrew feel sick.

“I would if I could,” Kevin says insistently, finding the strength he needs to look at Andrew’s face. “I understand now. I understand why you couldn’t sign with me.”

Andrew turns his head in the complete opposite direction, his arms folding up tighter, as if to block out Kevin’s pathetic attempt at empathy.

“Enlighten me.”

“The same reason Neil won’t give you up. There’s more to life than playing.”

Hearing such words from Kevin, the same man who let Andrew go because he had thought the same thing, has Andrew’s stomach turning in nauseating circles.

“You sicken me,” he says, and stands up. “If it took your teammate getting the life beat out of him for you to realize that, then it’s too late for you.”

Kevin stands too, holding himself defensively, and at first Andrew thinks it’s malicious intent flashing in Kevin’s eyes. After staring at him a moment longer, he feels his insides crush with the realization; it’s understanding.

“I realized that when Neil told me he wished he met you before he signed his contract, actually,” Kevin says, his words rapid fire gunshots, aimed to maim and hurt. The sad, half-smile, half-frown he gives Andrew hurts even worse. “I’m sorry. I know you won’t believe it, but it is there if you ever want to hear it.”

Kevin finally leaves, and Andrew’s never been so angry.

Of course, that anger gets lost in translation and stops making sense once he’s finally inside that room and he has his hands in Neil’s hair.

Neil doesn’t look at all concerned about the injuries cut into his face. He doesn’t even look the way he did on the court, when the goal lit up red. He looks as if his purpose all night has been exactly this, pulling Andrew closer.

What an idiot.

That anger stops feeling like anger when Neil Josten looks at Andrew like he’s worth more than dollar signs on paper.

Like nobody else ever has.

Andrew still feels angry, pure and red and thriving.

But he can’t quite feel it entirely.

-

The world is quiet when he finally leaves the stadium, but only because he chooses not to hear.

Noise as a whole is unimportant right now. His mind is attuned to one specific voice, and right now he isn’t speaking, so Andrew ignores everything else.

He has Neil’s keys in his hand. He hasn’t quite loosened his grip on them since Neil gave them to him, since Neil asked him to go home and wait while he sorted things out with his coach.

The ridges of the apartment key might be permanently indented in Andrew’s thumb; he can’t let go of it.

He should. If he were smart, he’d throw the keys into the street and get in a cab headed straight for the airport.

He can’t for a number of reasons, none of which make sense. Not knowing the damage and danger of the situation is the excuse Andrew settles on. He can’t leave until he knows what’s happening.

As soon as Neil returns, he’ll go.

It’s such a sad little apartment, nowhere near the scale of Andrew’s. The only sign of life is a pair of shoes, haphazardly kicked off by the door, and a book on the coffee table. It lays turned over and stuck open on the beginning pages, looking as if Neil put it down weeks ago and has yet to come back to it.

The entire place looks as if Neil hasn’t been here in years, really.

He decides there’s nothing worth looking at and sits down to wait.

Half an hour later, the intercom is going off. Andrew presses the button to let Neil in, then starts the countdown in his head until he has to leave. Three, two, one, flee.

Except instead of doing that, he opens the door and pulls Neil in.

Giving the keys back is something his hands don’t want to do, as then he’ll have no reason to stay. His mouth tries to shape the words and his throat tries to push them out, but he can’t bring himself to say I’m leaving now.

His now-empty hands need to hold something, so he grabs onto Neil’s jacket and curls his hands into a lock around him.

“It’s not -” Neil starts, offers Andrew a sort of exasperated smile, then looks around the small apartment, an expression that looks close to embarrassment crossing his face. With Andrew’s hands still on him, he starts to move around, kicking away the shoes by the door while sending a frantic glance in every direction. “I’m never home, I don’t have -” He walks away from Andrew’s touch and goes to the kitchen, opens the fridge and says, “We could order in? I don’t have anything.”

It could be endearing, maybe, how panicked Neil seems to be to make this a ‘home’. It could be endearing if Andrew didn’t currently hate him.

So Andrew ignores him, sitting down on the couch and grabbing the remote to turn on the TV. Predictably, it’s already on the sports channel, and even more predictably, said channel is replaying highlights from their game tonight.

Every other minute they show Neil’s goal.

At the sound of the game, Neil stops whatever he’s doing in the kitchen and turns towards the television. It doesn’t take long for him to stop his pacing and come over to sit beside Andrew.

Watching his own goal, Neil lets out a laugh that disrupts the entire room, pulling Andrew’s attention directly to him. The smile that crosses his face looks shy, looks innocent, completely at odds with the bandages still stuck to his face.

In the replay, Andrew can see how it all happened; how Andrew focused on Kevin, how Kevin focused on Neil, and how Neil focused on Andrew.

In slow motion, Neil scores and the goal goes red, and the Neil on the screen stops completely to look at Andrew. Neil begins to grin, but the camera can’t get close enough to show the world how Andrew had seen it.

Andrew turns away from the TV, not needing to see anymore, knowing exactly what happens next. Instead he looks at Neil, because he doesn’t know what’s happening there. Neil sits with his chin propped in his hands, a spark in his eyes, the softest but most victorious of all smiles pulling at his lips.

Andrew nearly jerks away, ready to stand up and leave. He should have left a long time ago.

This is what he gets, and he knew it would happen.

Once you let yourself be somebody’s something, you become an option.

And everyone has to make a choice eventually. He has never been anyone’s. There is no reason to choose someone like Andrew, and that’s been made perfectly evident so far.

He won’t even let himself dream about Neil choosing him, because dreams aren’t real, and they never will be, because you always have to wake up. You never do get to fly.

Neil watches his game like he needs to play it to breathe. He’s played it longer than he’s known Andrew, and will continue to play it long after he doesn’t know Andrew. What difference would it make, if they had met a month earlier, a year earlier, a lifetime earlier?

Neil would have always signed that contract, because Neil’s choice will always be this.

He’s fine with it. From the very beginning, Andrew’s had to be fine with it.

But he isn’t that fine with it.

Maybe, hopefully, he’ll find a way to make himself be fine with it eventually.

“Neil,” Andrew says.

His name isn’t even halfway out of Andrew’s mouth before Neil is turning to face him. “Yeah?”

“Riko used me as a threat against you, didn’t he?”

Neil nods, slowly, looking more afraid now. “How did he find out?”

“A lucky guess,” Andrew says simply, if a bit scornfully. “Now I need you to do something for me.”

Andrew wonders what Neil wouldn’t do for him, because Neil is already nodding, moving even closer on the couch. “Okay.”

His willingness has Andrew’s hands working into fists, the need to hit and hurt burning at him. He’s so stupid. “I made a promise to keep you in the game and to stop anyone from finding out about this. Nobody will. You have to let me do that. Stop making it hard for me.”

“I had to -”

“Stop thinking I need protection. I’ll deal with Riko. I need you to stand down when he comes back.”

Riko knows what to use against Andrew now, but even worse, he knows what to use against Neil.

Neil will fall for it and think he can stop it. He can’t.

Fortunately, Andrew’s known all along that he doesn’t get to keep anything, so nothing can be taken away from him. Neil was never and will never be his, so he can’t be taken away from Andrew, either.

Whatever else Riko wants to do to Andrew in retaliation will fall insubstantial.

All that matters is that Neil doesn’t get hurt, that the way he kisses Andrew alone in the dark is never for the world to know.

Neil stares wide-eyed at Andrew, looking absolutely gutted and already guilty for something that isn’t his fault. “Deal with what?” he asks, giving his head a slow shake. “What’s he going to do to you?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Andrew says, shrugging one shoulder. “If it’ll keep you in the game, I’ll let him. I made a promise.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Is anything?”

Fair means nothing to Andrew, and always has. If the world were fair, then it wouldn’t have made him like this, and it wouldn’t have put something so unattainable in his path.

“Andrew . . .” Neil says, sounding like a mix between accepting and distraught. He crawls the last few inches over until he’s a fraction away from Andrew and stares down at his folded arms, as if waiting for them to open. “Okay. I trust you.”

Andrew doesn’t budge.

He should turn completely away and end this now, for real, no more excuses, no more telling himself just one more night.

Because he doesn’t deserve any.

He hates Neil, because Neil keeps giving them to him.

He hates Neil, because Neil continues to act as if Andrew is a choice he wants to make. That either of them are choices they can make.

There are no other options here. Letting go will be the only one. They’re fooling themselves.

Life is easier when you know you can’t have anything, so you never pursue it. Yet here Neil is, looking as if he’ll wait ten eternities for Andrew to open his arms and say yes to him.

And yet here Andrew is, slowly uncrossing his arms for Neil, against everything in his head telling him not to. “What do you want?” he asks, and he sort of hopes it’s what he wants, too.

“Can I?” Neil asks, and Andrew feels that familiar anger flare up his spine.

Neither of them are options, but questions like these make it feel like they can be. He wants to hate it. He wants to refuse. He wants to say yes.

Even though he should say the word he’s been telling himself from the beginning; no.

He’s as stupid as Neil, clearly, because instead of saying that, he turns himself so his back is against the arm of the couch. Once settled, he grabs at Neil’s elbows and hauls him forward. Neil fumbles a bit at his knocked-over balance, but he quickly finds it once he’s settled over Andrew’s lap.

“Yes.”

From this angle Andrew has to lean up to kiss Neil, but Neil happily leans down to meet him in the middle

This is what he’s been waiting for all night, all day, all month; alone with Neil with nothing, not a wall, not a hand, not another single living soul between them.

He isn’t sure how he’s going to get over this.

For the time being, he decides the future isn’t what concerns him, so he focuses on the now, this war over who needs the other the most.

Andrew would let Neil win out of simple principle; Andrew doesn’t need anything.

But he hates losing, and he’s lost enough tonight.

His hands have been searching forever for something safe to touch, and with Neil right above him, he takes the chance to touch everywhere, as much as he can, while he still can.

A few hours ago millions of people had their eyes trained on them. Now they’re finally alone. There’s nothing to stop Andrew from flipping them over and pressing hot into Neil, making him whine out his name.

Nothing that is, except for Andrew himself.

He could give his all to Neil again, he could and he wants to, but he’s done that before. Too many times. And that someone wasn’t willing to hold it once they realized how hard it would be. Nobody can hold him. Neil thinks he can try, but there will always be something better and more brilliant to hold onto.

Andrew isn’t a choice, because nobody will choose him. Giving his all to Neil would be the same as throwing it at the sky; it’ll come down eventually.

It’ll fall.

A hand on the side of his face breaks that train of thought. Neil guides Andrew’s eyes up to his bruised and bandaged face, and he smiles.

“Hey,” he says, gently, and touches Andrew’s wrist. When Andrew doesn’t react, Neil wraps his fingers fully around him and drags his hand towards the hem of his sweatshirt. They both look down as Neil guides Andrew’s hand underneath.

Andrew watches his hand disappear under Neil’s sweater. An ache forms in his chest, like contained rage, as he skims his fingers over Neil’s skin, his defined muscles, the trail of hair that leads down.

He follows that trail with a scrape of his fingernails, perhaps scraping harder than he should, judging by Neil’s gasp.

Or maybe as hard as Neil wants it to be, judging by his moan.

Andrew slides his hand lower.

How dumb that life could be so cruel, presenting this perfection of a person and putting them right in your lap and having them say all the words you want to hear, only to -

How dumb that you can be given something that you cannot hold.

When he walked away from Kevin and that contract, he didn’t truly have a reason not to sign it. He had nothing. The point was that if he did have something, he had a right to keep it.

He doesn’t want to laugh again, but it’s all so hilarious.

Neil kissing Andrew’s cheek is enough to push all those thoughts away. He knows Neil. He knows a kiss against his cheek will lead to a kiss against his neck.

As soon as Neil has his lips to Andrew’s skin, Andrew shoves his hand into Neil’s pants to catch him off-guard, to win, to pull another moan from his mouth.

Neil does moan again, right against Andrew’s throat.

And Andrew loses.

Andrew bites back from saying I hate you, because he doesn’t, but he wishes he could want to.

He palms over Neil’s cock instead, tracing the shape of him through his boxers before finally slipping his hand under those, too. Neil makes an awful, breathy whimper at that, resting all of his weight against Andrew as he hardens in his hand.

He’s so hot, so unreal to feel, so trusting in the way that he doesn’t even look to see what Andrew is doing to him.

Andrew’s never been so hungry for it.

Maybe he will forever be hungry for it.

He’s been waiting and searching for something just like this, just like Neil.

He’s too selfish to give this up tonight, because right now, something just like Neil is already here and saying yes, and Andrew is tired of looking. He doesn’t want to search anymore. He never wants to look again.

He jerks his hand over Neil until it hurts, but even then he doesn’t stop; he slows down, languid twists up the base of Neil’s cock, up to the tip where he digs his thumb in just to hear Neil hiss, “Andrew.”

He makes the breathiest, lowest noises into Andrew’s skin. It’s enough for Andrew to suddenly let go of Neil, wanting to feel those noises against his mouth. Neil swears when Andrew pulls his hand free from his pants, but Andrew shushes him with a nip of teeth to his jaw.

Tonight Andrew is too tired of seeing Neil as a threat. He’s the most dangerous thing that Andrew’s ever laid a hand on, but Andrew already knows all the ways Neil can and will hurt him.

Neil is going to ruin him. He might as well feel something good, before he’s forced through the mutilation of broken bones and puzzle pieces.

“Like this,” Andrew instructs, sliding his hands backwards from Neil’s hips to grab his ass, pulling him forward to rub their cocks against each other.

Confusion is a weight across Neil’s face, his eyes wide as he stares at Andrew’s blank expression. He doesn’t follow the motion that Andrew had shown him, freezing with his hips lifted inches away from Andrew’s, looking at Andrew like this is some sort of trap.

Not realizing that he is the trap that Andrew’s already fallen down, down, down.

“This is okay?” Neil asks, glancing between them.

Andrew could laugh. None of this is okay, not the way Neil says it can be.

“Do you want me to change my mind?” he snaps, and grabs at Neil’s neck to pull his mouth to his. “Start.”

All it takes is that one word, and Neil starts to follow the pattern that Andrew had pulled his hips in.

He rocks forward to grind his cock against Andrew’s, both of them trapped behind denim and cotton but neither caring. It only makes it frantic and heated, the two of them having to work that much harder to seek friction, the two of them clenching their teeth when they finally find it.

Andrew controls the speed by holding Neil’s hips, guiding him into the pace and position. Once they find the perfect spot he keeps him right there, because right there feels like burning and breathing, all at once.

Soon, too soon, they pass the point of needing it to be perfect and venture into erratic, their thrusts relentless against each other. It’s messy, it’s a collision, it’s so good and then it’s gone and then it’s back, and Andrew can’t help the gasp that slips from his lips at that.

His hands find their way back under Neil’s sweater, needing to feel the heat of his skin again. Real real real but not for long, not forever.

It’s going to hurt in the way that requires stitches when Neil makes his decision. Andrew can’t say a word about it now. He lost his chance long ago. He knew he could never be an option, even when he first asked Neil yes or no?

Whoever’s the first to lay a hand has always been to blame. That’s the rule Andrew’s regarded his entire life with so far, but now he thinks that maybe it’s the first to offer a hand that’s at fault.

He deserves this.

So he doesn’t say a word when Neil wraps his arms around Andrew’s neck, threading his hands into Andrew’s hair, doesn’t put a stop to the mutter of curses leaving Neil’s mouth that slowly wind down into something else, something forbidden.

Something that Andrew longs to hear, but can never listen to.

Stupid Neil, wasting these words on someone who can never let himself hear them.

Stupid Andrew, really, because while it’s Neil who says these things and tilts their foreheads together, coming with his lips against Andrew’s and his eyes locked onto Andrew’s, it’s Andrew who allows it.

Neil shudders into pieces above him, unable to let it go and be over quite yet. He continues to rub himself against Andrew’s still-hard cock, even though it makes him whine, whimper, shiver.

Something that looks close to frustration crosses his face as he runs shaky hands over Andrew’s stomach.

“Andrew,” Neil says breathlessly, like he wants to keep giving, like Andrew can even take anything Neil has to offer.

Andrew pushes Neil’s hands away when they sink too low. Not because he doesn’t want Neil to touch him there, but because Neil is too far gone to understand that Andrew wants too much and can take too little.

Neil trembles through another attempt at Andrew’s name.

Andrew answers by grabbing Neil’s chin harshly and pointing his gaze to where it needs to be; on Andrew, and nowhere else.

With Neil’s eyes on him, Neil’s arms looped safely back around Andrew’s neck, Andrew trails a hand down to jerk himself off. It feels too good to be real for someone like Andrew, so he almost doesn’t believe it.

But Neil is there to swallow every hitch of his breath, taking the force from the jerk of Andrew’s hips, and Neil is still there when Andrew comes and eventually comes down.

Blurry, distant, but still there, not fleeting or fading, like all good things tend to do.

Breathing harshly, disoriented by the pleasure and the always-present pain, Andrew blinks hard at Neil’s face to clear away the haze. He hates how Neil looks back at him, like Andrew’s wounded, like he needs help, like Neil can help.

He shoves at Neil until Neil gets off of him, then stands up and tries not to grimace at the mess he feels. Without looking back at Neil he turns for the bathroom, shutting the door hard behind him.

He should have left before it could feel like anything other than forbidden. Before their first night. As soon as Neil looked at him and made Andrew think maybe.

Kissing Neil has him thirty-thousand feet up in the air, but soon he’ll have to open his eyes, and when he does, the ground will be right there.

You always fucking fall.

The bathroom is bare besides the necessities for living. Nothing heavy for Andrew to throw and break. He eyes the mirror and debates the damage it’d do to his hand, but he can’t handle looking at himself for long - he does look like someone who needs help.

After a few minutes of leaning against the counter, counting his breaths, he finally cleans up, avoiding his reflection as best he can. He opens the bathroom door, only to find Neil standing there with a wad of clothes in his hands. Neil shoves them at him wordlessly, then steps around him into the bathroom, closing the door behind Andrew.

Andrew holds the clothes in his hands and stares at the spot on the couch where they had just been. Ghosts might as well live here now.

He reluctantly changes, then eyes the front door before taking a step towards it.

It’ll be easier if he leaves before Neil has to tell him to go.

Andrew must stand in front of that door for five straight minutes. Five minutes of staring at the lock that’s been clicked into place, at the handle he isn’t strong enough to reach out and pull.

He continues to stand there even when Neil eventually comes out of the bathroom, sending Andrew a curious look before asking, “You’re staying, right?”

Oblivious to how those three simple words shatter the foundation Andrew stands on.

Andrew turns his gaze from the door to Neil and says nothing, as there is nothing to say, and follows Neil to the bedroom.

Neil stands beside his bed and waits for Andrew to pick what side he wants to sleep on. Then they settle under the blankets as one, at the same time, readjusting and shifting limbs and pushing at pillows until the room settles into a soft quiet.

The truth is, it wouldn’t matter what side Andrew had picked, because he hasn’t ever fallen asleep next to Neil.

He can’t. He won’t want to wake up.

Tonight, though, Neil inches his head closer to Andrew’s pillow and easily shuts his eyes, making it impossible for Andrew to not feel tired. Neil’s hand is hesitant as he slides it across the distance between them, before finally curling up in the fabric of Andrew’s shirt.

Andrew stares at it, then settles his own hand over Neil’s. To keep it there. He waits until he’s sure Neil is sleeping before he closes his eyes.

How funny, Andrew thinks, that he signed with the Nighthawks so he could be free to make his own choices and play by his own rules, but there are no choices, and he hasn’t a single rule left that he hasn’t broken himself.

Free is a fantasy.

His mind refuses to shut down, his pulse picking up whenever Neil makes a noise or shifts around. He has to keep opening his eyes whenever it happens, to make sure Neil’s still there, that it’s Neil’s hand underneath his.

After an hour or two, after the day he’s had, after picking apart what’s left of his head, Andrew lets exhaustion defeat him.

If he has a nightmare, then so what? What could be worse than this?

When he eventually wakes up, he’s in the same spot he had fallen asleep in, and Neil’s hand is still under his.

Still warm, still alive, still there.

Neil Josten is as real as he was when Andrew last closed his eyes, as colourful as he was in Andrew’s thoughts while he was asleep, leaving Andrew so confused as to what is reality, and what is a dream.

Doesn’t really matter, he decides, because either way it will end soon.

All hallucinations do.

Chapter Text

Neil wakes up.

He wakes up and for once he doesn’t mind the sensation, because all it takes is one second to realize Andrew is still next to him.

Andrew sleeps with his eyes scrunched up tight, like he really isn’t sleeping at all. His hand is still curled into the fabric of Neil’s shirt, his grip light enough that Neil is able to slip away without waking him up.

Neil’s head hurts and his body is a living ache, but his only priority in that moment is to calculate all of Andrew. To watch, to stare in all the ways that Andrew would hate him for. This is the only moment so far in his timeline where he has the opportunity to, so Neil doesn’t even blink.

He thinks to say his name, to wake him up, because he’s right there but Neil still misses him, wants to kiss him. He’s been wondering how the cut of Andrew’s cheekbones would feel under fingertips, if the bump in his nose is from a break or from birth.

Instead he decides to wait. It’s early. They went to bed late. Reality sort of sucks right now. He’ll wait.

He’s careful getting out of bed, and is sure to leave the door open ajar so Andrew will be able to hear Neil in the kitchen and know where he is. His first task after brushing the awful taste out of his mouth is to brew coffee, and it’s then, as the liquid drips into the pot, that he remembers the barren wasteland that is his fridge.

He swings open the fridge door and stands there dumbstruck, rubbing his foot up and down his shin as if that’ll coax out a solution to this problem.

They have no milk or cream for the coffee.

Neil can’t think of a solution for that.

As annoying as that is, Neil wishes these were the problems his life were made of. Things like not knowing what to have for breakfast and running out of coffee creamer.

Not problems like his sore bones and aching face because he was nearly executed on an Exy court.

Memories from last night rush back all at once. It’s another kick, another punch. Neil looks around the living room for his phone, his only purpose in life to call somebody, anybody, for an answer.

Last night was real. Last night, Neil Josten scored on Andrew Minyard. Last night Riko Moriyama took the goal to heart and punished Neil. Last night, Neil Josten threw the first punch and threw his career out the window.

The world must be going crazy. Neil would be, if he were the audience, that’s for sure. But Neil isn’t the spectator - he’s the specimen, under careful scrutinization, and he wonders what they’re saying about him, what they’re discovering.

He hasn’t thought a single thought about anything or anybody else but Andrew; his words, his safety, his hands on Neil’s skin.

If the audience looks too closely, they’ll see Andrew’s fingerprints, find Neil covered in Andrew’s evidence.

Neil bites hard on his lip as fear throttles him. His coach said they’d exclude Andrew from Neil’s narrative as best they could, that they’d tell a story that would prevent Riko from exposing the two of them and pulling Neil from the game. Neil isn’t sure what that story will be.

He has a feeling it’ll be far from the truth.

Once he’s found his phone, Neil pours his unfortunately-black coffee into a large mug and takes a seat at the small kitchen table. Despite his urgency, he can’t bring himself to check his phone. He doesn’t want to know.

But he has to, so he does; he’s missed dozens of calls, countless texts, and has an infinity of emails to sort through.

He isn’t sure where to start, but throughout the confusion, one name comes to mind. One name, one man who can bring forth a sense of security. Who always tells Neil how it is and how it has to be.

Neil wonders if he’s ever actually called Kevin Day before, but he is now. He lifts the ringing phone to his ear with a shaky hand.

“Neil.” Kevin answers immediately, sounding relieved as Neil feels in that moment. Then he pauses, as if he’d been waiting for the call but now isn’t sure what to say.

Neil doesn’t know where to begin either, so he settles on, “Hey . . . so I guess we lost.”

“Neil,” Kevin says again, his tone more grave.

“But I scored on him - we scored on him. Together. Like you said.”

If Neil had seen Kevin smile before, he can’t remember it, but he can certainly hear it in his voice when Kevin says, “I’m learning to become a man of my word.”

A weak smile twitches at Neil’s mouth. “Speaking of,” he says, and glances over his shoulder at the bedroom door, imagining Andrew behind it. “Riko knows.”

“I know.”

Neil shuts his eyes, holds his breath, then says, “Andrew told me he won’t let anything happen, but it’ll cost him, won’t it? He’ll pay for it. I don’t want him to have to.”

“It might be your only choice,” Kevin says, his voice a ghost.

“This is the one time I don’t want that choice to be Andrew.”

It hurts to say it. It’s an awful truth.

Kevin attempts to say something, but the noise dies in his throat. Another beat of quiet passes as Neil waits for him to say something contrite, something about Exy, something about how all that matters in the end is winning the game.

Instead Kevin says, “He knows what he’s doing, and he wouldn’t do anything without proper incentive. You have to trust him.”

Neil was afraid of that. He finally looks away from the bedroom door when he starts imagining a monster emerging from it.

“Okay.” He sighs and rubs at his eyes, then asks, “Is it awful?”

“It could be. Nobody knows what to think of it right now,” Kevin answers, sounding nearly amused. “I’m sure your management has already come up with a story for the press. I would call them next if I were you.”

“Okay,” Neil says again. “Thanks.”

“Good luck.”

They both hang up. Neil sips at his bitter coffee and stares at the window beside him. The curtain is still closed, sunlight pushing up against it, but he imagines what’s happening behind it.

The world is on fire. The city is in pieces. The life he had yesterday is not the life he has today.

He has to yank the curtain aside then, needing to see with his own eyes that everything is intact.

But the sun is shining brightly. The street is full of cars. The sidewalk is free of angry mobs.

Neil breathes, and wonders if this means things can be okay.

He calls his manager next and keeps his eyes on the world outside. His manager is angry, which was expected. Neil sits there and listens until his manager’s panic dwindles down into a weary, worn-out sigh, then starts up again.

It’s a mess, but the advantage of nobody understanding what had happened last night is having a wider opportunity to lie about it.

After a few minutes of hearing about how much of an idiot he is, Neil puts the phone on speaker so he’s free to curl up into the nest of his arms to wait the storm out. Sometime after the third tirade, his manager finally begins to discuss strategies.

“The story we give the press has to be mutually beneficial. Whatever we spin, the Nighthawks’ rep will have to approve it first.”

“Mutually beneficial,” Neil repeats, slowly beginning to scowl. “Last night one of the Nighthawks nearly took off my face with a racquet. Tell me what benefits they deserve from this.”

“Neil,” his manager says, and Neil can practically see him pulling at his hair. “This isn’t the kind of team you want to mess around with. It’s too dangerous.”

There’s sincerity in his voice, a tone Neil’s never heard from him before. It’s enough to make Neil bow his head in submission and listen. Riko would like that if he were to see.

Riko will like this story even more; it’s catered to him, beginning, middle and end.

Neil got ‘cocky’. Once he scored on Andrew, he couldn’t help but rub it in Riko’s face. And anyone who’s watched one of Neil’s interviews over the past few months will understand that when Neil opens his mouth to you, he doesn’t shut up. Riko had no choice but to put him in his place.

It’s his own fault, really, for making a lie so believable.

Neil can’t be bothered to look out the window anymore. It doesn’t matter. The sun can shine and the world can pass by, but Neil is and always will be a living lie.

“I understand,” Neil agrees, though his voice betrays his words.

Nothing is real anymore, and that’s the only truth Neil has and knows. Exy was all he had and now Exy is the reason his hands are tied behind his back. All that purpose he felt last night doesn’t seem so purposeful now.

“You’re both wrong,” a voice says from behind Neil.

Not expecting it, Neil jerks forward from his chair and into the table, nearly sending his coffee off the edge as his managers squawks, “Who is that?”

Andrew stands there slouching, his hair mussed and his eyes heavy as he looks from Neil’s face to the coffee pot on the counter. Ignoring the question, Andrew chooses to grab coffee instead.

“Andrew,” Neil somehow manages to answer, his voice hoarse. It’s just that - well, it can’t be real. None of this. Not when Andrew looks like that.

That bliss doesn’t last; right away the line explodes with noise. Neil doesn’t look away from Andrew as his manager curses in ways that Neil has never heard before.

Andrew pours his coffee, seemingly perfectly capable of tuning out the chaos, and opens the fridge. He goes stock still after a second, then slams the door shut with a heavy hand.

The look he turns on Neil could cut concrete. “There’s no milk.”

Neil smiles weakly. “Sorry,” he says, and smiles wider when Andrew’s eyes narrow into slits.

His manager is saying something, or maybe he’s still swearing himself blue. Neil doesn’t know or care. He watches as Andrew sips at his coffee and wrinkles his nose, and can practically hear him thinking I hate you.

Andrew manages to get up on the table to sit, his legs swinging off the edge as he balances his coffee. Once he’s settled, he holds out an expectant hand.

Hope comes alive in Neil’s chest as he hands the phone over. Andrew takes another sip, then clears his throat.

“You heard him correctly. You can stop with the dramatics now,” Andrew says, his voice still rough from sleep. “Let’s stop pretending this is as scandalous as you’re making it out to be and get to the real problem.”

“Neil, you’ve got to be out of your -”

“Your plan is to paint Neil as the villain, correct? To benefit Riko?” One of Andrew’s eyebrows lifts, as if genuinely curious. “Do you have vision problems? We all saw the same thing last night. The press won’t buy your story and the public won’t believe it.”

“Minyard,” Neil’s manager seathes. “It’s not that easy.”

“Then make it be that easy,” Andrew says, like it is and that it can be. “Why not just tell the truth?”

Neil tries to breathe, but it gets stuck in his throat. The truth is a concept that’s worse than a lie.

“You’re afraid of stepping on Riko’s toes, I understand,” Andrew continues. “You’re forgetting one important detail; Neil was not on that court last night when my team won. Neither was Riko. Do you know what that means?” He sips at his coffee, and when no one speaks up, says, “Riko didn’t truly win.”

A curious voice comes down the line; “What are you saying?”

“If Riko wants to prove that he is the more worthy player, he will need to face Neil in a rematch. This can’t happen if he pulls Neil from the game now. The world saw what we saw last night. They know he’s afraid.”

A few more curses are muttered. Neil’s heart slows, fear and hope wedged between each beat.

“Your team won’t agree with this.”

“They have to. Riko won’t be able to deny the opportunity to play against Neil again, not when his success will forever by questioned. It’s instant immunity. Use it.”

Neil doesn’t think and moves his hand to clutch at Andrew’s sweater. He tugs a little at it, until Andrew is looking solely at him. “Is it really that easy?”

Andrew’s eyes flick down to Neil’s hand and then at his face. He sighs before lowering his coffee cup to the table, then uses his free hand to grasp at Neil’s chin. “Don’t you believe me?”

And he does. He trusts in that hand more than he does both of his own.

“So what should I say?”

When Andrew’s lips twitch to the side, it could nearly be called a smile. If it weren’t so cruel and calculating. “Whatever you want. He can’t touch you. I did say I wouldn’t let him, right?”

Neil’s smile then is a smile, despite the outraged and confused words being shouted at the two of them through the phone.

He hardly listens to whatever comes next. Whatever is said. He only pays attention when Andrew hangs up the phone, as that’s when Andrew can finally get both of his hands on Neil.

Andrew hooks the fingers of his left hand into the collar of Neil’s shirt, the other hand still gripping Neil’s chin. His thumb probes at Neil’s bottom lip, staring at it like he wishes to kiss it. Neil wishes he would.

He wishes this didn’t have to happen.

“It isn’t that easy. I know it isn’t,” Neil says, his grip on Andrew tightening. “Just because I’m untouchable doesn’t mean you are. As long as there’s you, he can get to me.”

Andrew shrugs a shoulder, slight but definite. “That’s your own fault for growing attached.”

“That’s your fault for being so attachable.”

“No, no spewing any of your nonsense until you find milk for this coffee.”

Neil frowns at their abandoned coffee cups, still mostly full. There’s distress in his chest, like pressure caused by someone else pressing down on him. He can’t breathe around it.

“Why?” Neil asks, no longer talking about coffee and cream.

“Why what, Neil?” Andrew asks back, his thumb now beginning to stroke down Neil’s jaw.

It’s incredibly difficult to not choke on his breath then. “Why do I get to keep this if you’re the one who pays for this? What do you get?”

Being as close as they are, when Andrew goes tense, Neil can feel it. His thumb stops stroking, his face goes hard.

Then he suddenly wraps his hand around Neil’s throat. He stares at him for an eternity before saying, “Nothing.”

Neil nearly pushes Andrew away from him, hating that, hating that so much. Anyone who gives at their own expense deserves something, deserves - not this. Not bruises on skin and not suffering and not nothing.

Neil’s ability to play isn’t worth more than Andrew’s life, but Andrew stares at Neil as if everything in the world is more consequential than his own existence. It’s not fair.

It’s not fair that Neil once thought of Andrew as free, when he is the most trapped of them all, and it’s not fair.

Andrew is saying something. Neil can see his lips moving, but he can’t hear a thing, so angry and afraid and -

“Neil,” Andrew says again, louder, accompanied by a squeeze around Neil’s throat; not enough to hurt, but enough to warn. “I don’t want your pity. I want you to understand what I’m saying; you need to say ‘no’ if that’s what you want to say, no matter what. No matter who it is that asks or what they ask. Do you understand?”

Neil does and doesn’t, but if it’s all he can give Andrew in return, then he agrees. “I understand.”

“Good,” Andrew nods, and loosens his hold on Neil but doesn’t let go. “Now. Can I?”

Neil blinks at him, at first surprised to hear his own words echoed back at him, then confused as to whether or not it’s a trick or a genuine question.

Except out of all these things that Neil doesn’t know, he does know this - he wants to say yes.

“Neil,” Andrew says again, his thumb tapping at Neil’s pulse point. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil answers in the very same second that he stands from his chair.

Nowhere in the world could be as safe as Andrew’s kiss. So sure, certain, so wanted from both sides, and so true. Andrew still has his hand around Neil’s neck, so he must feel the spike of his heart rate and how unsteady it is; calm from this kiss, erratic from the fear of losing it.

It’ll be okay, Neil tries to tell himself, hating himself for that, because for that to happen Andrew has to make it be okay.

And that’s exactly what Neil is afraid of.

Chapter Text

The rest of the world will have to wait.

Neil shuts his phone off and changes the channel on the TV to something unrelated to Exy, then closes the curtains and seals them safe inside.

He doesn’t need to look outside to prove that this is real.

They place a call to a local Chinese restaurant for lunch. Neil catches a shower as they wait, while Andrew lounges on the couch. He’s still there when Neil steps out of the bathroom, his phone in his hand and his eyes on the screen.

“I have a red-eye back to New York. Leaves at eleven.”

Neil pauses a few feet away from the couch, his grip on the towel around his hips loosening.

“And until then?”

Andrew looks at the towel, but he doesn’t answer with words.

Slow, lazy kisses are pressed to Neil’s abdomen as Andrew hooks his fingers around Neil’s hips to pull him closer. His lips stop just before hitting the towel, where he says, “Go change.”

It takes a few seconds for Neil to realize he’s meant to move, and an even longer few seconds to make his body do just that.

Once the food arrives they both momentarily prioritize eating over putting their mouths on each other’s bodies, and watch TV in calm silence, exchanging cartons of food until it’s all gone.

Neil doesn’t want to think about anything else but this. Not the press conference scheduled for their teams tomorrow, not what’s waiting for Andrew when he steps off that plane to New York, not the fact that none of this is fair but they have no choice but to choose it.

But by trying not to think about it, Neil ends up thinking about it. Before his thoughts derail like a runaway train, Andrew pinches at Neil’s wrist, hard enough to make all thoughts stop, then indicates towards the bedroom.

Then there isn’t a single thought in Neil’s mind that isn’t about Andrew; his mouth, his hands, his body, his breath. It doesn’t end slow and lazy. It’s fast.

And it’s frightening, in the way that even after Neil is pressed against the bed, he still feels like he’s falling. There’s a constant swoop in his stomach, the sense of free falling, whenever Andrew looks right at him. How anything could be grounding while being terrifying while being wanted so much is beyond Neil’s realm of understanding.

He doesn’t need to understand. He trusts it anyway.

Andrew has one hand on Neil’s abdomen, one hand around Neil’s cock, his eyes somewhere low on Neil’s body, and Neil has nothing on him. A heavy and constricting sort of panic attacks Neil’s body, mixed horribly with arousal and desperation - Andrew wants to be untouchable, but the reality is that he can’t be. He can be touched and he can be taken away and an awful cry rips apart Neil’s throat.

“Andrew -” He chokes out, and nearly grabs at Andrew’s shoulders to pull him to his lips before he remembers. “Can - can I?” His hands hover above Andrew, ready to reach out at the allowed second.

Andrew responds by jerking up Neil’s body and colliding against him, a harsh kiss that is answer and question all in one. He places Neil’s hands in his hair and kisses Neil like the world outside doesn’t exist, like there is no plane waiting for him, like it really has been and always will be just them and this.

Those kisses on the bed soon become kisses on the couch to kisses in the kitchen to kisses in the front hall at 9:30 P.M. Andrew should have left half an hour ago, and Neil should have let him go, but his hands refused to cooperate.

Even now, they tighten and grip and grab where Andrew lets him touch. The strong curve of bone and muscle along Andrew’s shoulders is a reassurance to Neil, that Andrew won’t bend and break as easily as Riko wants him to.

“Are you usually so desperate?” Andrew asks as he tugs at Neil’s hair to pull him away from his mouth.

“No,” Neil admits, and obeys that command by not pressing forward for more. “It’s just - you.”

“Well, stop.” Andrew’s gaze drops to Neil’s lips though, his look not as convincing as his tone. “I have to go.”

“Then you should go.”

Andrew’s eyes narrow briefly before he lets out a barely-audible sigh. The hand not holding his duffel bag grabs at Neil’s shirt to twist it up, as if a nervous habit, to distract himself. Neil doesn’t have to wonder about that; Andrew’s soon to be thirty-thousand feet in the air, on his way back to what might as well be prison.

“Call me if you need to,” he says softly, not wincing when Andrew yanks hard on the t-shirt. “Or even if you don’t need to.”

Andrew yanks even more until Neil is toe to toe with him. “I’ll be sure to forget that.”

He takes a calculated step back from Neil, his eyes darting over the space between them. Neil tries to stay still, to not follow, but his feet move of their own accord and suddenly he’s in front of Andrew again, face to face, no more distance.

Andrew sighs and drops his bag to the ground, then grabs Neil to flip them around, so Neil’s back is against the door. Hands come up to bracket Neil’s face, his only view Andrew’s stony gaze.

“I don’t like repeating myself, but I will say this however many times I have to until you understand it,” Andrew says intently. “It will be okay.”

“I want to believe that, but -” Neil touches at the bruise across Andrew’s cheekbone. He thinks of the way Riko had looked at Andrew last night, hungry and violent, as if he’d been looking forever for a way to hurt him.

“Then believe it.” Andrew tilts Neil’s head up until their gaze is level. “All that should matter to you is playing the game.”

Neil immediately frowns, disagreeing so entirely with that.

One of these days, Neil will figure out a way to prove Andrew wrong. Show that he is worth more than a game, more than a contract, that he means something to Neil in ways that Neil knows he isn’t allowed to say.

For now, Neil sighs and leans his forehead against Andrew’s, and says, “Alright. Shouldn’t be too difficult, scoring on you again.”

This close, when Andrew lets out a punch of breathy laughter, it feels powerful enough to shock the Earth off its axis.

“Keep telling yourself that,” Andrew says, dropping his hands from Neil’s face to grab his bag. “Maybe I’ll believe it eventually.”

He leaves without another word, stepping past Neil to open the door and disappear down the hallway. Neil doesn’t move for what feels like minutes, knowing it’s stupid but hoping that Andrew will somehow come back.

Of course, he doesn’t, and Neil swallows down the fear that’s choking him. It’ll be okay.

Hopefully Neil can believe that eventually, too.

-

The conference room is full and loud, sort of like how it feels on the court. Except Neil isn’t safe here, and that’s the biggest difference. They dressed him and Kevin in sharp new suits, but were unable to do anything about the dark bruises lining Neil’s face, and sat them down at a conference table in front of a slew of cameras.

The sound of the press talking amongst themselves is enough to drown out Neil’s voice as he says to Kevin, “I don’t think I should do this.”

Kevin stares straight ahead as he asks, “What else is there to do?”

“I don’t know,” Neil admits, his panic building. “Lie? That way Andrew won’t -”

He can lie and please Riko and then maybe Riko won’t -

“Andrew is giving you the opportunity to speak the truth.” Kevin tilts his head in the vague direction of Neil, his expression at complete odds with the tone of his voice. “Believe in his word.”

“And if I don’t?”

Kevin doesn’t answer, but by doing so, he says everything. Once upon a time he didn’t believe in Andrew’s word, and now Andrew is . . .

Neil squeezes his hands into fists and takes one final deep breath before everything starts. He’ll tell the truth, he’ll say what no one wants to hear, and then he might just keep going, until everything ends.

A moderator begins to call on reporters to ask their questions, each one unsurprising and typical. What does surprise Neil is how much he enjoys answering. The truth is so strange on his tongue.

“Josten, will you comment on the incident between Riko Moriyama and yourself during last Friday’s game? Exy hasn’t seen a fight like that in quite a while. What caused it?”

Neil laughs while Kevin goes still beside him. “Isn’t it obvious?” he asks, looking at Kevin and then the press with wide eyes and a quirked brow. “He’s scared. Think about it, all that talk he spewed about my team not being good enough, about me not being worthy. He finally realized he’s all talk and no game. I scored on his unscorable goalie. Me, the rookie, and he tried to put me in my ‘place’. I’m surprised nobody else has realized he’s just a bratty child underneath that mask of his.”

He can tell that Kevin isn’t breathing at this point, his hand on Neil’s thigh under the table squeezing too tight. But Neil smiles, and throws in a laugh, because it’s true.

Cameras flash and blur his vision as more questions are shouted out, each piling on top of each other. Once a brief calm settles over the crowd, the moderator calls on another reporter.

“That doesn’t explain your reaction,” the reporter says, reading something off of her notepad. “What happened to invoke the fight between you and Mr. Moriyama?”

The real reason is - Neil nearly opens his mouth before thinking better of it, then lets out one more bitter laugh and shrugs, as if casual.

The real reason is that Neil wished to dismantle Riko’s skeleton.

The reason Neil gives is; “Riko was being an asshole.” Which isn’t a lie. “The fight was justified, don’t you think? I can’t be the only one who wants to punch his face off.”

“You received your first red card of the season. Was it worth it?”

“Maybe not,” Neil says and shrugs again. “But it was fun.”

“What does this mean about the feud between you and Andrew Minyard? Is he your true rival, or is Riko?”

Before Neil can say anything, Kevin squeezes Neil’s thigh again, then speaks up. “As Neil has said before, my enemies are his enemies. Andrew handled the goal with dignity, while his captain did not. My troubles are no longer with him.”

The room erupts with noise, the press standing and shouting out question after question about Kevin’s partnership with Andrew. Kevin hasn’t spoken Andrew’s name to the media since their split. Neil only thinks about that for a moment, because Kevin explains himself soon after.

“Is this to say you are no longer rivals with your former teammate? Have you forgiven him for his decision regarding the Nighthawks?”

Kevin folds his hands up tight on the table and gives the press a grim grin. Under the table, Neil swaps their positions by lightly placing his hand over Kevin’s knee, for whatever reassurance he can offer.

“I have, as I understand his reasoning now. I’ve also come to find that playing against him strengthens my team as a whole.”

But does he mean that, or is he only saying that to divert the attention away from Neil?

Kevin knocks his foot against Neil’s and keeps it there, pressed against him, so Neil believes in the former.

“Then Kevin, if Riko is your true rival now, what kind of message are you trying to send him?”

Kevin and Neil share a look before they both turn smiles onto the crowd.

“The message we’ve been sending all along, only this time we have proof; we are the best. Our chance at a full game was taken from us, so we’re hoping Riko will see to the challenge and give us one. We’d like to face him in finals. And by we, I mean the entire team.”

Neil nods and adds on, “It’d be nice to play against the Nighthawks without being knocked unconscious by one of their players, wouldn’t it?”

That gets him a sharp push of Kevin’s foot against his and a round of uncomfortable laughter from the audience.

But it feels like a check list, all the boxes filled in. The truth was said and the world hasn’t ended and he grins a real grin when he exits the conference room. It worked. They did it. Riko can’t touch him.

Once Kevin and Neil are safe behind closed doors, Neil reaches up to clasp a hand around Kevin’s shoulder and asks, “Now what?”

Kevin lets out a slow, shuddery breath, and it’s then that Neil realizes he’s shaking.

“We wait.”

-

The screen in front of them is made up of black and blue; Riko and Andrew match their black backdrop with the Nighthawks logo plastered across it. They sit at the same second, spines straight and chins lifted. Riko looks livid, while Andrew just looks - cold.

Which Neil knows he isn’t, because Neil had felt the heat of Andrew’s skin against his own less than a day ago.

The bones in Neil’s hands make an awful sound when he squeezes them together. On the screen, Riko has started speaking, his tone even with his usual hint of arrogance mixed in. It’s equal parts amusing and nerve racking to see Riko backed into a corner like this, forced to speak in favour of Neil.

Amusing because Neil can see that the smirk on his face is forced there.

Nerve racking because Neil knows it won’t stay there.

“Sure, let’s go with the absurd theory that Josten spewed earlier,” Riko begins, his expression unimpressed. “It would be impossible for a mouthy child such as Josten to not get under my skin. I was only trying to shut his mouth up for once, so we could continue our game. It is not my fault that things grew so far out of hand.”

It’s what Neil needed to hear, what Riko needed to say to make every dangerous truth go away. But relief does not follow, for as soon as Riko finishes speaking, another question is being asked.

“Shelley Smith from ESPN SportsCenter,” the reporter says, her face not visible on the screen but Riko’s immediate disdain evident. “A colleague of mine spoke to Neil Josten earlier during the SeaKings’ conference. Josten was reported as saying that you were ‘scared’. It doesn’t appear as though you were only trying to ‘shut Josten up’, otherwise you wouldn’t have abandoned your position as a striker to intervene him. Care to explain that?”

Neil looks beside him on the couch to Kevin, who is just as tense, his face stern where it’s propped on top of his folded hands. Kevin doesn’t look back, but instead taps the side of Neil’s foot with his own.

Neil tries to breathe, believe, he really does. It’s just that the horrible thing about the truth is that you can’t control it as much as you can a lie.

That for Neil to say the truth, someone else has to lie.

“That was my fault,” Andrew speaks up, voice filled with stone cold conviction. Even through the distance and the knowledge that it’s not real, Neil can feel the same confusion that everyone listening and watching must be feeling. “I promised my captain that I would not allow a rookie like Neil Josten to score. I broke that promise, and as such, Riko took it upon himself to prevent it from happening again. Josten is to blame for the violence, but it is my fault that it had happened.”

Every word sounds forced, every word echoes falsity, and every word is a lie but is oh so believable if you didn’t know Andrew like Neil.

Riko’s smirk returns, uglier than before, thin and so sharp that it looks as if it’ll slice the screen that they’re watching on.

Then he drapes his arm across the back of Andrew’s chair, a movement that looks so simple, so normal.

Except that it’s not.

Neil is on his feet in a second, nails digging into the flesh of his palms too deep, his voice too pained as he shouts, “He can’t do that! He can’t have him, he can’t touch - Kevin -”

Kevin remains seated, his voice so removed from everything. “Neil.”

“No, I can’t -” Neil is shaking, hating, everything. “What’s he going to do to him?”

He turns to look at Kevin, sitting hunched in on the couch with his hands now rubbing circles over eyes. “Neil - it’ll be -”

No, it won’t be, it won’t be okay. How could anyone promise such a thing? How could Andrew have looked at Neil and told him that it’ll be okay, when Andrew is the one sitting rigid in his seat, confessing to a crime that he never committed and taking his undeserved punishment in the form of a touch he never consented to.

Riko is a puppet master like all the rest, but his intent is different. His use of control isn’t to gain; it’s to hurt. He can take a truth and take a lie and twist it until it’s him in charge, with everyone else merely objects attached to his strings.

The conference ends after a few more questions, and one last statement.

Riko, with his arm still around Andrew’s chair, smiles at the camera and settles all the questions; “Neil Josten did not score with beginners luck. Perhaps we could even call it skill. As long as everyone knows that we are better, because a player made of lies will never be the best. So yes, Neil Josten, we’ll see you in finals. We promise.”

And it worked. Neil spoke his truth and Riko spun his lie. The game will remain as it was, as it always will be.

And it worked, but if only he knew when he signed his name on that line that there’d be a price to pay. One he was never meant to afford.

Kevin is the one calling out Neil’s name, the one prying Neil’s hands free of themselves to stop the tear of skin. Neil is the one helpless to it all, the one who started it all. Andrew is the one paying the price, the one laying down all his rules for a debt that isn’t his.

Riko is the one smiling in the end, the one who wins.

Chapter Text

If being in love is how it looks in the movies, then the movies have it wrong.

It might be what this is, maybe, but it’s difficult to tell when Neil’s never felt this before. You might as well tell him the name of an obscure star, then ask him to point it out in the sky. He wouldn’t know where it is - what it is - but he’d know that it’s there.

It has to be that, though. That one word, one feeling, because those four letters explain everything.

That’s the reason Neil hesitates whenever a microphone is shoved in his face. He won’t, he can’t, he refuses to give Riko any reason to retaliate using Andrew. Neil said his truth, but he will say no more.

It’s not worth it. Freedom has been a tempting taste on his tongue but he’d rather swallow it or spit it out than take away any more of Andrew’s.

This is that feeling, it has to be, when he’s on the phone with Andrew. Neil says little more than Andrew does, but there’s anticipation in every second that passes, this annoying sort of longing that sort of - hurts.

When Andrew does speak, it’s in short sentences, sounding as though he hasn’t slept. It might be from the fact that he’s been playing nearly full games lately - and unlike his game against the SeaKings, Andrew doesn’t let a single player score.

“Your left side was too open in the third-quarter,” Neil says, laying on his bed with his laptop open next to him, replaying Andrew’s game. “I would’ve scored.”

Used to Andrew’s silence, Neil’s learned to listen to his breathing; Andrew’s exhale sounds nearly amused. “Turn the game off. I’ve lived it once, I don’t need to live it again.”

Neil pauses the game, smirking to himself as he does. “You won’t, don’t worry.” He aims for teasing before a yawn cuts him off; it’s past three in New York, just after midnight in San Francisco, but Neil doesn’t want to hang up, so he doesn’t, not even when he says, “Goodnight.”

Sometimes the safest place to breathe is three hours behind you, or three hours ahead.

Curiosity strikes Neil later on in the locker room, after the SeaKings have played their second-to-last game of the fall season. His teammates talk about holiday plans, traditions, places and family, and all Neil can think is Andrew.

In the end he decides that the movies aren’t wrong, but neither is Neil. The movies aren’t real, and this is.

Whatever this is . . . it’s true, and Neil knows that, at least.

When the fall season ends, the San Francisco SeaKings are the top-ranked team in the Western division, and will be moving into the playoffs. Once the final buzzer sounds on their last game, the SeaKings take over the court, flinging themselves at one another and shouting words that get lost in the cheers of the crowd.

With a near perfect winning streak, the SeaKings have come farther than they did last season, and are going to continue to go further.

The press is ravenous once Neil steps off the court and into the foyer, so much so that security has to keep them at bay. Once he’s given a water bottle and a towel to wipe away his sweat, he approaches the cameras and readies himself for what they have to say.

“You’ve single-handedly brought the SeaKings to the top of their division,” the reporter says, shoving the microphone into his face. “You could easily belong to a team like the Nighthawks, or the Houston Tigers. If either teams were to come forward with an official offer, would you consider them?”

Kevin is still waiting for Neil behind the slew of reporters, arms crossed and expression tight. He shakes his head, but Neil doesn’t need a cue from him to know what to say.

“Why would I leave?” he asks, shrugging his shoulders. “All my reasons to play are right here.”

It’s his only answer to that question, fielding all the rest. He accepts their congratulations and stands beside Kevin when it’s his turn to speak to the press, and it’s exactly two hours later when he regrets his singular answer.

He’s home when his phone rings, an unknown number from New York calling him. Curiosity tells Neil to answer; caution tells him to throw the phone as far away as possible.

Because he knows who it is.

“This better be some form of congratulations for making it to playoffs,” Neil answers, as even and clipped as he can make his voice right now. “Or I’m hanging up.”

“Oh, but I am. Congratulations, Neil, truly,” Riko says, his words a low drawl that sends something sharp down Neil’s spine. “I’m also calling to offer my sincerest of apologies. It seems I gave a false statement to the press a little while ago; your incompetence is less so than what I had imagined.”

Neil has to swallow down bile and curse words before attempting to speak again. “Quit the apologies and get to the point already.”

“Happily,” Riko says, then sighs, long and amused. The sort of noise you hear in horror movies, from monsters and demons. “You’ve piqued my interest with your little quote from tonight. You will regret it, and I will personally see to it. Did you forget, Neil? I do not lose, so if you wish to be a winner . . . well, when I lay the offer on the table, you will eat it.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You’ll see soon enough. Be quick to make your decision when the time comes, or I’ll be sure to make it hurt for him. Have a good night, Neil.”

The line goes dead, and soon, so does Neil’s hope and heart.

-

Christmas was a quiet affair for Neil; having no family kind of does that for you. But he needed quiet, since everything else has been so loud. New Year’s Eve is just as quiet, if you don’t count the noise coming from the celebrations out on the streets.

Neil spends the day pacing his apartment, staring at the time, fixing the cushions on the couch, the pillows on his bed, waiting, waiting, waiting. Andrew’s flight from South Carolina arrives a bit after 11:00 PM, and even though Neil’s waiting is almost up, it feels like an eternity.

Andrew spent the holidays with a woman named Betsy Dobson, the psychiatrist assigned to the Foxes back in Andrew’s day. Neil’s only heard mention of her once before. He wanted to ask Andrew, or even Kevin, what Andrew’s connection to her is, but if Andrew wanted Neil to know then he would have told him. So Neil doesn’t ask.

On the television screen, a pre-recorded program is taking place in Times Square. Thousands of people from three hours ago stand in mass crowds, waiting for the ball to drop. Neil stares at them in present time, all those faces, all those lives, thousands and thousands, and he wants to smile.

Thousands and thousands, millions to billions, and all he wants is one.

It’s only a slight surprise when the front door to Neil’s apartment suddenly opens. Neil was waiting for the intercom to go off, or for Andrew to at least knock, but in the end he was expecting Andrew, so when he looks over and sees Andrew standing in the threshold with his suitcase by his side, Neil only leaps to his feet from anticipation.

Andrew closes the door behind him and turns to lock it - though Neil questions the integrity of such a lock if he hadn’t even heard Andrew pick it - then faces Neil.

His bangs are peeking out from underneath a black knitted beanie, with a seemingly handmade, garishly orange scarf wrapped around his neck. For whatever reason, Andrew doesn’t protest when Neil begins to unwind it, lets Neil take off his hat and run his fingers through Andrew’s messy hair.

Now that Neil can verify that Andrew’s in one complete piece, and that his bruises have long since faded, he breathes out in relief. Nobody else can touch them when the door is locked and they’re safe in here.

“Can I?” Neil asks, his mouth missing the way those words feel on his tongue, his chest missing the pressure of Andrew’s answer, his yes.

Andrew nods as he backs Neil up against the couch, Neil trying to help Andrew shrug out of his coat and his sweater - someone sure hates the cold, don’t they? - before impatience takes over, and with his sweater still stuck around one arm, Andrew kisses Neil hard.

Times Square is loud on the television in front of them. The ball is beginning to descend, less than sixty seconds until a new day, new number, new year. Neil turns his face to watch it from the corner of his eye, transfixed by the flashing lights and the promise of a new start, as Andrew makes a low noise of frustration and directs Neil’s mouth back to his.

This can’t be a movie, because Neil has never seen one quite like it, but it almost feels like one when he looks at Andrew and pauses, waits until the countdown reaches ten seconds, then asks, “Okay?”

Two seconds before midnight, Andrew answers with, “Okay.”

Then their lips are together, and then it’s the first day of a new year.

Neil doesn’t get to believe in much, but he’s allowing himself this. Even when Andrew grabs a handful of Neil’s hair to tug him away. “You’re a sap.”

“Yeah,” Neil agrees, because he doesn’t care. “Happy New Year.”

Andrew pulls a little harder on Neil’s hair before releasing him, then makes a show of wiping off his mouth, as if to rid himself of Neil’s taste. He stands and heads for the bedroom before Neil can comment on that, not that he’d be able to come up with words right now, not when his mind is malfunctioning.

Neil turns off the TV and follows after him.

It’s cold outside, but not in this room. Not when they’re moving too fast against each other for it to be anything other than hot. Belatedly, Neil thinks of something to say, something witty about Andrew not liking the taste of him, but keeps it to himself in favour of not being bitten.

Andrew keeps looking at him, in between kisses, when his focus isn’t on perfecting the push of his fingers into Neil. Looks at him like he knows something that Neil doesn’t.

Then there’s weight over him, Andrew taking the touch of his fingers away before swinging his right leg over Neil’s hips, settling himself over Neil’s lap, straddling him in a way he never has before. He looks at each of Neil’s hands before pinning them up by his head, then lets go and reaches for the hem of his own shirt.

In the blink of an eye it’s gone, and then Neil doesn’t quite want to blink.

Neil is going to suffocate.

Hard muscle and soft skin paints the imperfect-perfect canvas of a human, creates a map of places that Neil wants to kiss. A line of hair leads from Andrew’s belly downwards, a line that Neil tracks with his eyes before letting out some sort of - whine or-or whimper or - he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, he wants - he wants.

A jabbing finger under Neil’s chin is enough to pull Neil’s focus upwards, enough to close his gaping mouth.

More than the jaw-dropping sight of Andrew’s soft and hard body, Neil is stuck on the fact that Andrew wants this. That it was Andrew’s decision to take himself apart like that, because of Neil, for Neil. His hands want to touch and his throat burns from holding back words, but he keeps himself still and silent as Andrew first kisses his neck, collarbone, chest, lower and lower until he can no longer straddle Neil’s pelvis and has to lay back on the bed.

Once between Neil’s legs, Andrew looks up. He taps his own bare shoulder and says, “Here.”

Neil nods, light-headed, and quickly moves his hands to finally touch Andrew’s skin.

Two things are certain then; this is that feeling in the movies, and that he is not deserving of it.

But he remains helpless to it, weak-limbed and trembling as Andrew keeps making him feel it. Doesn’t he understand, can’t someone so smart see? Neil’s as unknowing as the dawn, he doesn’t know, but he knows this, so why can’t he?

When it’s over, and Andrew’s lips are slick and swollen, and Neil is relaxed and wet between his thighs, and Andrew’s breath can be felt against his skin, and the heat from their touches starts to fade and the room begins to feel cold again, Neil waits for some sort of denial.

He waits, but instead of detestment and resent, Andrew slowly crawls up from between Neil’s legs and stops. His forehead drops to Neil’s stomach, his open mouth pants against the curve of Neil’s abdomen, and he doesn’t move.

Despite how out of breath he is, Neil goes perfectly still.

Andrew’s hair tickles against Neil’s skin; damp and warm and comforting. Neil wants to ask questions, wants to beg Andrew to pick a more deserving person, but his mind is too fuzzy around the edges and everything feels too right, too perfect.

Neil only has the strength to maneuver a leg underneath the blanket, while Andrew stays exactly where he is, his cheek now pressed against Neil’s stomach, his gaze on the far wall. A long and slow breath is let out against Neil’s tight, taught muscles, before an arm is being thrown across him, holding him.

Andrew stays there, so Neil stays under him.

Before Neil’s eyes force themselves shut for the night, Neil takes one last second to study the expanse of Andrew’s impressive back. He catches sight of a freckle, small and placed precisely along the top of Andrew’s spine.

It’s odd, world-changing, to see such strength uncovered. There’s nothing to shield Andrew from Neil’s eyes, and Neil’s insides flip and flounder when he realizes that that’s the point - Andrew wants Neil to see.

Andrew is his.

But what could Neil ever give back?

He makes a mental note to ask later if he can kiss that spot, right on Andrew’s spine, like he so badly wants to, then he falls asleep.

A few hours pass before Neil is woken up by something in his head telling him to. There’s no longer any warmth and weight over his stomach, the room so much colder than it was before. The late hour of night has painted the walls in shades of black and blue, shadows and empty spaces.

Neil on the bed, Andrew sitting on the edge of it.

Neil squeezes his eyes shut for a moment to clear out the delusion he’s feeling, still dreaming. Something about the room feels dangerous now, like something is lurking along the corners.

Something that Andrew must be able to sense, for he sits hunched over, still shirtless as he stares at the opposite wall.

“Andrew,” Neil tries carefully, before sitting up and approaching the edge of the bed, slowly.

Andrew doesn’t answer, but gives a slight nod to show he can hear Neil.

“What is it?” Neil looks at the blue wall Andrew’s gaze is on, afraid for a second that something monstrous will emerge from it, until he gets close enough to realize that Andrew isn’t staring at the wall, but rather, his wrists; Andrew looks down at them as if he can see something that isn’t there, hidden underneath his armbands.

Neil can’t recall a day where Andrew hasn’t had them fixed perfectly around each forearm. He never wondered about them, thinking of them as a part of Andrew’s structure, something as unquestionable as the colour of his hair. They were a running joke with the media and the fans while Andrew attended Palmetto State - Neil’s read the articles, something about telling Andrew apart from his twin.

But Neil’s never asked, because he doesn’t need to know if Andrew doesn’t need him to.

Andrew runs a finger down the black material slowly, then retracts his own touch as if it had hurt. “Nothing you should worry about,” he says eventually, and tilts his gaze up to burn holes into the wall instead.

“But you’re worried about it.”

“I’m not.” Andrew starts to drum his fingers along his thighs, irritated. “If I truly wanted to, I could stop him.”

Neil feels as if he’s already asked too many questions, especially considering how Andrew hates giving too many answers, but he has to ask this one; “Stop what?”

Andrew scoffs, the sound ghostly and grey. “I’m your incentive.” He turns slightly to glance at Neil’s face, but not enough to meet Neil’s eyes. “He is going to ask you a question, one you will not want to say no to, but that has to be your answer. He’ll use this to make you believe you have to say yes. You don’t.”

Confusion and panic are awful feelings to feel at four o’clock in the morning. Neil squeezes his hands into fists, allowing his nails to bite into his palms in an attempt to wake him, to put him back into the reality of a few hours ago when everything was perfect, everything was right . . .

“Do you understand?”

He doesn’t.

“I understand,” he lies instead, because it sounds like there’s blood in Andrew’s voice and Neil’s the weapon that wounded him.

Andrew looks at him for a full moment, the weight in his gaze as heavy as his body had been over Neil’s.

“Riko is going to ask you to join his team.” When Neil opens his mouth, Andrew raises a hand to cover it. “No. He is going to ask, and you are going to say no. When you do, he is going to take these off.” He looks pointedly downward at the armbands. “He’ll make it look worse than it is. He’ll make you want to say yes, but you don’t, and you won’t.”

Horror and nausea are twin terrors of emotion. Neil reels back from Andrew and his awful words, but they’re the missing pieces to the puzzle Neil couldn’t solve. That phone call makes all the more sense now.

And then the confusion and panic, horror and nausea all vanish, and in their wake is anger.

There’s a reason Andrew keeps himself shielded off from everyone’s eyes, why he’s never seen without his armbands. What lays underneath his clothes is for him and him only. When he shed his shirt it was explicit permission for Neil to see.

That was allowed, granted, given, and now something is being stolen.

Neil shakes his head, mouth numb as he stammers out words. “No, he can’t - he can’t do that.”

“But he is.” A strong, steady hand wraps around the back of Neil’s neck. “You don’t. You won’t. You’re going to stay away and you are going to say no. Promise me.”

“I -” He shuts his eyes and his mouth as Andrew squeezes at his neck. “I can’t do that to you.”

“I’m asking you to.”

He wants to ask why, why, why is it you and why is it me and why is this happening and why can’t we ever just be?

Neil inhales deeply before finally opening his eyes, only to find Andrew’s narrowed on him, waiting . . . and if Andrew asks . . . then Neil will answer. “I . . I promise,” he says, and can’t resist the urge to dig his fingers into Andrew’s shoulders just then. “But I won’t look. When he makes you. I won’t look.”

Andrew makes a noise like a scoff that can’t escape. “You’re supposed to look.”

“You don’t want me to, so I won’t.”

Andrew does scoff then. He pushes at Neil’s neck until Neil is forced to look down, then shoves his free arm into his line of sight. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. Curiosity will get the best of you eventually.”

“But it does,” Neil insists, because the grip around his neck says otherwise. “So I won’t.”

Neil takes one hand off of Andrew in order to reach up and around, to pull Andrew’s hand off his neck. Andrew lets go surprisingly easy, and doesn’t resist when Neil threads their fingers together.

“What else is he going to do?” Neil asks, his grip around Andrew tightening subconsciously.

Andrew’s demeanor hardens as he looks off somewhere behind Neil. Seeing things that Neil can’t see. Aware of monsters that don’t exist in Neil’s mind. His gaze could peel the paint off the walls, but not once does he pull away from Neil.

Such a look says everything that Neil had been fearing. He wants to pull away then, to grab his phone and call and put an end to this, say yes, give Riko what he wants so Andrew can have what he wants and . . .

There are so many things that he doesn’t understand.

This is it, that feeling. Neil knows. Neil loves him, he does, and he doesn’t understand why nobody else ever has.

Why Andrew is always the offerer but not the option, why nobody else ever wanted to choose him when he is Neil’s only choice.

In that moment of horrible clarity, Neil only wants to give it all up and give it all to Riko, but that isn’t what Andrew wants, damn it. Giving Andrew a sliver of what he wants is the least Neil can do, so he can’t.

“Okay,” Neil says, swallowing down sickness. “It’s -” It’s not okay. “It’ll be okay.”

Maybe it’s a question, maybe it’s a plea.

“I already said that, didn’t I?” Andrew asks, but maybe it’s a promise, maybe it’s a death sentence.

Andrew stands before Neil can argue, pulling on whatever shirt is closest to him, then finding his discarded pack of cigarettes on top of Neil’s dresser. The bedroom door shuts and clicks behind him, and Neil doesn’t follow him.

He sits there in the cold, with the black and blue walls, and all the monsters that have come out.

Chapter Text

The world is waiting for them when winter passes and spring begins.

Playing through the fall season was challenge enough. Now there’s a blade to Neil’s throat and a weight over his head that will fall if he doesn’t make it to the end. Expectation hangs above him and will crush him if he loses.

Except that expectation isn’t his alone to bear; as soon as Kevin returns from the holidays he’s at Neil’s door, and then they’re on the court together. A loss will cost the both of them, and they’ve no means to pay.

The first game for the SeaKings in the playoffs is a home game. Neil grabs his bag and takes the stairs to the ground floor, adrenaline the force behind his beating heart, finally ready to play like he’s always wanted to play.

When he pushes through the apartment building’s front door, however, the street is eerily vacant.

All the cars usually parked along the curb are gone, leaving only a shiny black Sedan in the very centre. Jean Moreau exiting said car only confirms how creepy and weird this is. Neil grits his teeth as he slows his walk, planning an escape route in his head.

“This better be good,” he says, false amusement loaded into his voice as he stares at the much taller man watching over him.

“I warned you,” Jean says back cooly, his eyes barely blinking.

“Did you? I must have forgot,” Neil points at his forehead, where he had been struck by the end of a racquet, “when you, you know, nearly decapitated me.”

Before Jean can respond Neil swings his bag off his shoulder and shoves it at Jean’s chest, earning him a grunt and a sneer. Neil opens the door himself and isn’t surprised to find Riko waiting for him, dressed in a black darker than the car.

“You’re not my ride to the stadium,” Neil says curiously, to which Riko snaps, “Get in.”

Neil would love nothing more than to refuse that and witness the crease between Riko’s brow deepen, but he also wants to get this over with. He has a game to win, so he gets in.

“Playoffs begin tonight,” Riko says once Neil is seated and the door is closed beside him. “I have a sinking suspicion that the SeaKings will make it to finals afterall.”

Neil shrugs. “I told you so.”

“Ah, but I never said you would be part of that team,” Riko tuts at him, finger waving in Neil’s face. “If I were you, I would quit the attitude and learn my place as quickly as possible. The more you deny me, the worse it will be for him.”

Neil’s mockery of a smile vanishes at the mention of Andrew.

“He did mention my offer, didn’t he?”

New Years plays in Neil’s mind; the dark room, the dark armbands, the dark words. You don’t. You won’t.

“Of me joining your team?” Neil’s brows pinch together, as if genuinely confused. “Yeah, he did. So glad I can tell you ‘no’ to your face.”

Riko considers that, his lips pursing together before giving away to a cool, sharp smirk. “You say that now, but allow me to remind you who your boyfriend is.” He pauses and watches Neil’s face; all the control in the world can’t reign Neil’s expression in. “Oh. Oh, you don’t know? Well, you soon will.”

“What do you -”

“Such a tattered human being, Neil,” Riko sings. “So many holes and cracks in his facade, just waiting to be exposed.”

“Fuck you,” Neil snaps, grabbing at the front of Riko’s sleek black shirt and jerking him closer. “Don’t touch him, don’t even look at him -”

His pulse feels odd and offbeat. His hands twitch with the need to fight, claw, kick, hurt, make things bleed.

But his heart tells him to surrender and agree.

Because Riko doesn’t even flinch. Because Neil’s hands are empty, and Riko’s hands grip Andrew.

Neil’s hands start to tremble, a sickening hatred urging him to tear himself away from Riko, but he holds on tight to grasp whatever power he has left, and says, “Threaten us all you want. It doesn’t matter. You can’t take me out of the game, and nobody will believe it if I switch teams now.”

“Haven’t I said it before?” Riko asks, the weight of his words like a cold hand around Neil’s neck. “My family invented this sport. I can and will do whatever I please, and the world will believe it. You’re already so full of lies. One more will not be a surprise.”

Neil takes slow, staggered breaths, and then lets out a laugh.

“You know, if you were good enough at playing, you wouldn’t have to worry about losing to a rookie like me. I’m not signing your contract, but I’ll be happy to tell you several places where you can shove it.”

Riko’s mouth uncharacteristically hangs open, his eyes wide and stunned on Neil. Then he’s raising a hand, high up as if to deliver a crushing blow, but that blow never follows.

“Oh, I am going to enjoy this,” he says sweetly as he lowers his hand. “Your current contract is nothing but walls waiting to cave in. When you can’t take it anymore, when you wish to stop being such a lie, you will be begging me for release. If you’re lucky, I will not deny you. Until then . .”

The door beside Neil suddenly swings open, but Neil remains seated. He studies Riko’s face and wonders how one human could be so awful. The fact that Andrew has lasted two seasons with him is not something Neil wants to contemplate, now that he understands the cost.

No words feel sufficient. There’s nothing Neil can say to cut Riko back, so he gets out of the car and grabs his bag from Jean, and then he begins to run.

He runs all the way to the stadium. His heart stays erratic even when he’s standing still. Those walls Riko had mentioned feel suddenly constricting, no way out but death . . . no way out but saying yes.

-

The Exy world hasn’t experienced a scandal since November. It shouldn’t be a surprise with how fast this one spreads, or how vicious it escalates to. It’s the perfect launchpad for rumours, gossip, for old teammates to speak up, for old classmates to voice their opinions, for the world to cast a spotlight on Andrew Minyard.

The pictures are on every cell phone in the locker room, all of Neil’s team huddled around and whispering to one another before they prepare for their game against Nevada. What’s wrong with him? and what happened to him? and does he still do it? and why would anyone hurt themselves like that? are all questions asked into the air, with no answers returned.

Hale tried to show him, and Neil almost looked before he realized what was on the screen. “Scary, right? I knew the guy’s been locked up before, but I didn’t know he was that crazy.”

Neil simply gave a closed-lip half-smile to his teammate, before staring into his temporary locker, at the darkness and the depth to it, as he tried to push away guilt.

Some say that the pictures were leaked, taken from a few years ago. Some say that they’re recent, and that Andrew’s mental health needs to be once again questioned, for the sake of his team’s safety. Some condemn Andrew for being so weak. Some say he’s looking for attention.

All say lies.

Still, the world has a look at Andrew Minyard’s insides; a place they’ve never been before, never been allowed in. They’ve never been granted permission past Andrew’s many walls. Now they’re tearing Andrew apart more than he ever could himself.

When the team is called onto the court for warm-ups, and no one responds, all too fixated on their phones, Kevin slams the side of his fist against the nearest locker. The bang of the metal stuns the room into attentiveness, each player snapping their heads up to look.

“Enough!” Kevin shouts, pointing the head of his racquet in the general direction of his team. “I don’t want to hear another word of this from any of you. First player to speak up will be benched for the rest of the season.”

One by one, the SeaKings nod their heads and put their cell phones away, all having the good grace to look ashamed for a moment. Neil manages to send Kevin a brief, grateful look before he heads towards the court.

Except he knows what they don’t, that this is simply the beginning.

Scars are a story of the past. And in this case, the future.

They win their away game against Nevada, decimating the team on their own court. Neil plays with anger, with fire driving his bones and blood, driving his team towards the next bracket in the playoffs.

The press tries to stop Neil when he passes. They shout out crass and insensitive comments, questions, about how Neil feels about his rival’s ‘secret weakness’ and ‘what it means for his team’ but before Neil can come to a full stop, Laila and Matt step in. Matt tosses Neil his helmet and jerks his thumb towards the lockers before turning towards the press with his heart-melting smile.

Neil nearly feels gratitude, before remembering that all of this is his fault.

Their flight from Nevada lands just after midnight. The front door of Neil’s apartment is locked, with nothing seeming out of place when he steps inside - except for the sleek black box sitting on Neil’s kitchen table.

As if it had been there all along, as if it has a right in Neil’s home.

Neil does a quick survey of the apartment, checking behind every door, before finally approaching the box again. He lifts the lid off slowly, afraid of something jumping out, and finds what appears to be a contract inside. It’s printed on thick paper, with sharp letters and blank signature lines, and a platinum pen resting neatly in a black velvet box.

All Neil has to do is sign and make this stop.

Instead, Neil hastily packs the contract back up and grabs his phone. He doesn’t breathe until the line stops ringing and Andrew’s silence greets him. “I didn’t look.” His hand is shaking, his bottom lip is too, but he manages to spit out, “And I didn’t sign.”

Andrew lets out a slight breath, but his words are the opposite; loud and firm. “I need you to promise me that you won’t.”

“Andrew -” And then he can’t speak, he can’t say these words, not to him, not to Andrew.

“Neil,” Andrew says. “Promise me.”

Neil shakes his head, but that won’t stop this. It won’t stop the contract from existing, from Riko’s hands controlling, won’t stop whatever is about to come next.

Still, when Andrew asks, Neil answers; “I promise,” he says weakly, his fingers twitching with the urge to cross. Who knew that promises could feel more binding than signatures on paper. “I can’t promise that I won’t kick Riko’s ass the next time I see him though.”

“Oh yes, that worked out so well for you last time,” Andrew says airily, pulling out a splintered laugh from Neil.

Unfairness strangles him. Binds his hands behind his back. Bows his head low.

“He won’t get away with this. Andrew? I promise.”

“You speak as if you have a say in that.” Andrew scoffs. “Besides, it doesn’t matter. Digging up old wounds won’t make them hurt again, that’s not how it works.”

Neil loses his breath when he realizes what that means; old wounds don’t hurt - new wounds do. “All this so I can play a game? No, I . . . you can’t do this.”

“I promised to keep you in said game. I won’t go back on that.”

“But this is going to get worse, isn’t it? Signing his contract will keep me in the game, so why shouldn’t I?”

“Because you won’t be free,” Andrew answers instantly, an awful quiet following. “. . . not when you’re with him. Understand?”

Everything in Neil’s chest detaches, bones breaking apart, veins ripping from heart, life leaving lungs. He does understand, and he hates what that means for Andrew.

“Neil? If you won’t do it for yourself, then I need you to do it for me.”

Neil rubs over his eyes with his free hand, hard enough to leave colourful spirals behind. “I understand,” he says eventually, and wishes in that moment that he had never met Andrew, so he wouldn’t have to inflict him upon this. “Andrew . . . why did you sign with him?”

He knows the reason Andrew told him, that there was something in the SeaKings’ contract that he couldn’t agree to, something that was so conveniently missing from what the Nighthawks had to offer him.

But as Kevin had said, Andrew isn’t any more free than Neil is. He walked away from handcuffs, straight into prison.

“Because I once thought there was nothing that Riko could use against me. I hadn’t anticipated you.”

If Neil lets out a noise then, that sounds close to a cry, some sort of mangled sob, then Andrew ignores it and Neil tries to suppress it. He knows he isn’t in the wrong here, that it isn’t his life being toyed with now, his secrets being cast as bait. That he is the weapon that Andrew won’t defend himself against.

So he reigns it in, because Andrew is doing the same for him.

“It’s going to get worse, look worse, sound worse,” Andrew says after a long moment of silence. “I’m warning you ahead of time. Don’t believe everything the media says, idiot. You keep playing your game, and you stay away and let me deal with this. I am going to keep my promise, and you are going to keep yours.”

Neil nods, but still has to ask, “What if I don’t?”

“You will.”

Andrew hangs up before Neil can understand that certainty. He gets it after a minute, after calming his breathing in an attempt to be rid of demons, then eyes the black box and the white contract before throwing it in the garbage.

Faith is so rare out here, endangered as much as hope. If Neil is the one thing that Andrew trusts in, then he won’t be the one to deny him. Andrew asked Neil not to break him, but Neil already promised that a long time ago.

When he goes to bed that night, his hands stay clenched into fists, keeping all of their promises safe in his grip.

Chapter Text

Harsh knocking on the door wakes Neil up well before his alarm is set to go off.

He glances at his phone to check the time, only for his bleary eyes to catch sight of dozens of notifications for missed calls and texts.

And it’s not even seven in the morning, lovely.

The SeaKings played their first game in the second bracket of playoffs last night and narrowly won, pushing them one step closer to finals. Now all they have to do is finish this bracket and then the next before they can advance, where they’ll finally face off against the Nighthawks in a best four-out-of-seven championship round.

A few more games between the SeaKings and the crown.

Neil hasn’t let the slew of black boxes distract him. After finding yet another contract on his kitchen table when he returned home from practice, he got used to it all too quickly. He contemplated changing the locks but doubted that would stop someone as determined as Riko.

The contract he found last night was different than all the rest, however, in that the pages were smeared with red fingerprints. Before he could even consider what - or who - he threw it out.

Another heavy knock lands on the front door, finally pulling Neil from his bed. He rubs his eyes as he shuffles across the floorboards, an aching, dreary sort of dread beginning to build in his chest at the sound of that knock.

It’s Kevin.

Which isn’t unusual, but the fright in Kevin’s expression is.

“You weren’t answering your phone,” Kevin says, waving his phone in Neil’s face as if to prove a point.

“I was asleep,” Neil answers, yawning in Kevin’s face to prove his own point.

Kevin curses and grabs the sleeve of Neil’s sweater, rushing into the apartment and dragging Neil behind him until they’re sealed behind a closed door. His eyes widen once he catches sight of the kitchen table, covered in black boxes, but he schools his expression before he looks back at Neil.

“Have you seen it?”

“Seen what? I was asleep.” Neil scowls a little, but it’s mostly to mask the fear he’s feeling, the fear over whatever Kevin is about to tell him. Sleep would be the only place safe from this soon-to-be nightmare.

Kevin huffs out his breath and runs a hand through his thick hair before pulling out his phone again, typing quickly on it.

“Kevin . . .” Neil says carefully, cautiously.

“Neil, just -” Kevin sighs, looking more pained than Neil has seen in a while. He clicks something on his screen, then shoves the phone in front of Neil’s face. “Just read this.”

The screen is too bright for Neil to make sense of at first, the words too blurry, but soon the black bolded headline clears up before him.

Even then it doesn’t make sense.

“Kevin.”

The entire world narrows down into that one headline.

The New York Nighthawks’ Starting Goalie: Victim or Villain?

Neil drops the phone and takes a step backwards, only for Kevin to catch first the phone, then Neil’s elbow.

“Neil.”

“No -”

“You have to read it.”

No.”

The headline already tells Neil more than he needs to know. The article description, placed underneath a photograph of a young Andrew Minyard, is even more unimaginable, made up of words stolen from a mind the world has no right to. No, no, no, no - why doesn’t anyone understand the word no?

Kevin tugs Neil closer and holds the phone up for him, as none of Neil’s limbs are willing to work right now. Small, black font lists horror after horror, recounting events that are so awful that Neil would get down on his knees and pray for them to be simply fictional.

They can’t be real.

But Andrew has always been as unreal as they come.

The news leaked late last night, the information pulled from several anonymous sources. It answers several questions, while breaking open room for new ones. One event connects to the next, until it makes too much sense, until it doesn’t make sense.

Neil leans into Kevin’s side, only because gravity wants to claim him and he can’t resist.

It’s another timeline, this one already date-stamped and in the past and made strictly of places and people that hurt Andrew. What they did to him, what they took from him. Ranging from his first years in foster care, to his time in a juvenile correctional center, all the way up to -

Just a few years ago, really.

Neil glances at Kevin as he skims over the article, his stomach clenching when he reads the words Palmetto State University, and foster brother, and manslaughter.

The case was settled in court just before Andrew graduated - Andrew and his brother, Aaron.

“Stop,” Neil rushes out, breath staggering out of him. He shoves the phone at Kevin, who finally takes it away and pockets it. “I -”

Except there is nothing for him to say about this, because this was something he wasn’t meant to know about. Nobody was meant to know it.

Now everyone does.

He was only twenty.

He was only seven.

Neil sinks to the ground, hands trembling more than they have a right to. Kevin lowers himself as well, crouching in front of Neil, looking utterly lost in a world that he at least has some sort of direction in.

“You - you knew?” Neil asks weakly, hardly able to look at Kevin’s ghostly face.

“Only pieces of it. I was there when -” He looks away, swallowing roughly. “I only knew about the one time. Not the rest.”

For a moment, Neil is able to breathe. The next moment, he’s curled over and dry heaving. He means to say something, but he honestly can’t. Kevin rubs at his back as Neil chokes, and Neil hates it all, hates everything, hates them and him and himself.

Rules are rules for a reason and Andrew’s were because of this.

Andrew always gave Neil a choice because he was never given one. Andrew wanted Neil to be free because he never has been. Andrew once told Neil that no one had ever made it to the second rule, no one could understand why they couldn’t touch him - that he couldn’t be touched because he was touched.

Neil fumbles blindly for his phone, hidden somewhere in the pockets of his sweats. He grabs it, all the names and notifications a mess before his eyes, but somehow finds Andrew’s name, hits the call button, and brings the phone to his ear.

It rings, and it rings, but no one answers.

Neil tries again.

No one answers again.

“The morality clause in our contract, it was going to protect him. Him and his brother. Somehow Riko - he knew about it, what happened a few years ago. I told Andrew not to sign with him because of it.” Kevin hides his eyes with his hand and lets out a deep breath. “He told me that Riko would never have a reason to use it against him.”

If Neil weren’t sitting just then, he’s sure the universe would have toppled him over.

Neil is the weapon that Andrew refuses to defend himself against. It’s Neil to blame for this. For everything.

“I’m going to kill him,” Neil says, quiet to the room but loud to himself. “He did this because of me, because of that contract. No - no, I’m going to kill him, I -”

“Neil.”

Neil gestures at the the black boxes overflowing on the kitchen table. “He did this because I wouldn’t sign with him, but I promised Andrew that I wouldn’t. That leaves only one option and you know it, I can’t let him -”

Kevin grabs hold of Neil’s flailing arms and stills him. “Stop. You need to think of Andrew.”

Neil goes very stiff in Kevin’s hold, before offering him the ugliest of all scowls.

“When have you ever thought of Andrew?”

Kevin stares at Neil and slowly lets him go.

“I never stopped,” he whispers, as a furious look blows its way through his expression before it settles back on a cold calm. “I just didn’t know what I was supposed to think.”

That cools Neil’s rage only slightly, but something about the longing in Kevin’s eyes unsettles him even further. Before he can question it, however, his phone rings.

It’s an unknown number, but Neil recognizes it onsight.

When he answers, he says nothing, while Riko says, “I’m going to assume that you’ve seen the news by now, Nathaniel. Thoughts? Opinions?”

Neil’s hand clenches tighter around the phone, but his mouth stays closed.

For once, Kevin stays equally as quiet.

“That shocked? You really shouldn’t be. Your boyfriend’s whole persona screams ‘childhood trauma’ everywhere he goes. In fact, he’s out on the court right now, leaving a trail of shame behind him.”

Finally, Neil snaps.

“Go fuck yourself.”

He nearly hangs up, he really does, but Riko lets out a laugh that sounds too near to dangerous.

“Shall I make another assumption?” Riko asks, and doesn’t pause for Neil to answer. “You’ve received the latest contract, so you must now understand what happens to him every time you deny me. It would be a tragedy if more of his past came back to visit, wouldn’t it?”

“You won’t,” Neil shouts, jumping to his feet too quickly, the world spinning and spinning and it never stops. “Don’t fucking touch him!”

“Oh, Neil,” Riko laughs. “I wouldn’t taint my hands on someone like him. That’s what money is for.”

“Riko, just -” Just what? The one thing he can do is what he promised not to do.

“How about this? Let’s make a deal, one that advantages you; we’ve arranged a flight for you in a few hours. Be sure to catch it, and perhaps your boyfriend will come out of this unscathed.”

A million words make up a billion threats just then, but they freeze in Neil’s throat, so instead he says, “I’ll be there.”

Because what else is there to do?

-

The plane doesn’t fly fast enough. The car doesn’t drive fast enough. He doesn’t run fast enough.

Yet somehow he makes it to the Nighthawks’ stadium within a half hour of first serve.

Kevin offered to go, and Neil almost agreed, but he wasn’t sure about the fine print in this deal between him and Riko. He couldn’t take chances. He couldn’t hurt Andrew again. So now as he rounds the corner of the Nighthawks’ stadium, led by a security guard on either side of him, he does it alone.

A burst of light flashes bright and blinding on his left side, a swarm of paparazzi attempting to shove themselves past the barricade to get to him, his name shouted almost violently. They ask questions that Neil can’t and never will answer, and he’s never heard them so rabid before.

They know he’d be here. He wonders about that.

Another security guard leads him through the athlete and staff entrance, then joins another guard to take him through the tunnels leading into the court. Neil pauses, still masked in the dark, and listens to the screams of the crowd, reminding him of where he is - and for someone who shouldn’t be here, it sure feels like he’s meant to be.

“Neil Josten,” one of the guard says, then motions towards the VIP box situated between the home and away benches. Neil swallows hard before following, stepping out of what he thought was darkness and landing inside a stadium full of navy, full of black, full of darker.

Somehow the crowd spots him, even as masked as he is, and just like that, one hundred thousand people know exactly where he is.

Exactly where he shouldn’t be.

Once let into the VIP box, the crowd’s view of him is mostly obscured. Nothing can block his view of the court, though, and so he sees Andrew immediately; he stands in the goal as the Nighthawks fire shots off at him, not missing a single one.

It happens one by one, slow at first until it’s a wave of navy turning towards him, the Nighthawks all pausing in their plays to look over at the VIP box, to stare at him. The announcers are saying something, something that riles the crowd up even further, something that gets a few players to raise their middle fingers in Neil’s direction.

Neil doesn’t hear it. Neil barely sees it. He only has eyes for the one person out of thousands who isn’t looking at him.

And besides, he can handle it. He’ll take the gazes and glances and whispered words so those thousands of people never look at Andrew again.

“You made it.” The sound of the door clicking shut again pulls Neil from his trance; he hadn’t heard it open at all. He remains still with his eyes locked on the court as Riko steps closer behind him. “I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve always had you pegged down as pathetic.”

“You’re right, you shouldn’t be surprised.” The hair on the back of his neck feels as if it’s standing on end when Riko comes up behind his back. “It was you who blackmailed me, wasn’t it?”

Riko laughs, so awful that Neil’s first thought is to shove his elbow backwards into his ribs, but refrains just barely.

“What’s one more to him?” Riko asks, moving to stand beside Neil and motioning towards Andrew with a jerk of his chin. “He’s used to it, I’d imagine. He might even enjoy it.”

Neil spins around then, but Riko doesn’t move, allowing Neil to collide into him. “Fuck you.”

He can’t keep calm, not when Riko smiles like that while talking about that. He can’t.

“Wait.” Riko tilts his head sideways, his smile so slight and cruel. “Unless I’m mistaken, and you’re not legally forbidden from going public with your ill-advised relationship?”

Neil’s body goes lax, the fight from his clenching hands fading. Dread is cold in his stomach, putting out every fire.

“Start making sense soon,” Neil says lowly, folding up his arms to keep them from wringing Riko’s neck. “I’m beginning to lose interest.”

“Look around you, Nathaniel, look where you are. What reason do you have to be here, on today of all days?” Riko asks while smirking. “Remember those walls I warned you about? This is the moment they all come tumbling down. They’re going to put two and two together, and they won’t like the answer, will -”

“Stop,” Neil says, cutting Riko off. “What about Andrew?”

“Oh, I’ll keep my word, since you’ve kept yours. We won’t touch him,” Riko says while raising his hands in mock surrender. “But that’s not why I asked you here.”

Neil lunges forward, and he can’t claim to not be thinking because he is, he’s thinking violent thoughts, wishing he had the knowledge of his mother or even his father on how to kill a human being and hide all evidence just then.

Riko doesn’t budge, despite Neil’s weight against him. “You ran to your beloved’s side in his time of crisis, how sweet. Or, actually, how sad, considering that he doesn’t want to see you. Do you know what that means?”

A hard, pointed finger is jammed underneath Neil’s chin, with enough pressure to keep his mouth shut.

“You’ve outed yourself for no reason. I don’t have to lift a single finger, on you or him. I should thank you, for single handedly ending your own career.”

Neil struggles to pull away from Riko, only to have his chin grasped tightly. Still, he manages to sneer, “I’ll deny it - whatever they think. I’ll deny it.”

“You won’t,” Riko says, rubbing the pad of his thumb over Neil’s lips before turning Neil’s face towards the court, to where Andrew is still in the goal. “You won’t deny him when he looks like that. You won’t deny him like they did, will you?”

The only option Neil has is to close his eyes; block it out, take him away, make it end.

But when he opens them, Riko still has a hold on him, Andrew is still on the court, and Neil is still here to watch it all.

He nearly admits defeat, the white flag ready in hand, but Andrew paid a heavy fee for him, for them, for this. He can’t give up yet.

“Perhaps they’ll take it easy on you, seeing as you’re a fan favourite. Perhaps they’ll even see it as romantic. You were never rivals - you were in love. I doubt it, but we’ll find out soon enough. All I know for sure is that come tomorrow, you won’t have a contract with the San Francisco SeaKings.”

Neil finally manages to pull free of Riko’s hold, gasping for air as he wasn’t even aware he’d stopped breathing. He holds his throat, keeps one hand on the plexiglass wall, and watches as Riko offers him one more sharp smile.

“Enjoy the show, Neil,” Riko says, running a hand down the front of his black-blue jersey to smooth it out. “The world certainly will.”

The feeling of being had, of being set up, feels too similar to a punch to the chest. A punch he could have avoided. A punch he had no other option but to take, because if he didn’t, someone else would have.

He doesn’t care.

(Even if it hurts to breathe because of it; he watches as the game finally leads underway, as both teams clash and fight and try, and though the court is so different from his own, the uniforms all unfamiliar colours, the players complete strangers, he watches it and he already misses it.)

One hundred thousand people are watching Andrew. Out of those one hundred thousand, Andrew deserves at least one person to be on his side. One person who looks at him and doesn’t see only what’s been done to him.

One hundred thousand people, and not a single one of them were meant to know.

Let them know all about Neil. He doesn’t care.

Andrew plays the first half of the game, everything seeming normal as the timer ticks down on the scoreboard. Or - almost normal; Neil’s spent the past year watching every one of Andrew’s games, how he moves, how he plays, and can safely say Andrew hasn’t ever played like this before. His blocks are aggressive, as if to hurt those who try to get past him without his permission.

Then he plays as if to hurt himself. When the buzzer rings for halftime, Andrew digs the butt of his racquet into the ground and leans against it, and though so many people are looking at him, Neil has a feeling that he’s the only one who sees the buckle to his knees, the rapid rise and fall of his chest.

Once off the court, Andrew throws his helmet to the ground and disappears down the dark hall leading towards the home team lockers. Neil doesn’t wait to see how the rest of the team reacts, doesn’t think to look at the expression on Riko’s face, and exits the VIP box quickly.

Not surprising, a security guard is there for him. “This way,” he says, and before Neil can answer he leads him down the same tunnel that Andrew had fled through, then diverting to the left, away from the lounge that leads to the athlete’s entrance to the locker room. With the halls similar to the SeaKings’ stadium, Neil knows where they’re going; opposite the staff entrance to either locker room is a small lounge for the security team, with two couches, a table, and lockers to place their belongings in.

Neil isn’t expecting anything, so the sight of two other people already waiting in the tiny room is more than a shock to him. He jerks back in the threshold of the door, looking between each strange face in a desperate attempt to place them.

The two are sitting on opposite couches, both turning their heads to look at Neil. The same surprise that Neil feels is written across each of their faces; Neil recognizes one of them immediately, after his shock wears off.

There isn’t another soul out there who could look identical to Andrew in nearly every way.

His name was mentioned throughout the article that broke today. Manslaughter, the press had claimed, he was tried for manslaughter.

Neil can’t figure out who the woman is, though, but she’s the first to stand up. Even with her movements small and calculated, even with the dark blue walls surrounding her, she manages to offer a warm smile that is entirely ignored by Neil.

“Hi there,” she says softly, too softly, standing in front of Neil and offering her hand. “You must be Neil. I’ve heard so much about you. My name is Betsy, Betsy Dobson.”

Betsy, Betsy Dobson, Bee -

Even knowing who she is then, her connection to Andrew, Neil doesn’t take her hand.

Mostly because, before he can think about it, Aaron is standing up and shoving his way between them. “You’re Neil?” he shouts, his sudden anger raising every defence that Neil has. “The kid always starting shit with my brother?”

“I -”

For someone who looks like Andrew, he doesn’t sound like him.

“What are you doing here?”

Saying the truth is debatable, so he settles with, “I have to see Andrew.”

“Why? To do what? You started this, didn’t you?”

Under normal circumstances, Neil wouldn’t feel this helpless, but Aaron preaches honesty. Being accused though, before he can even try to explain himself, inspires enough spite for him to say, “Do you really care? Andrew’s never mentioned you before, now that I think about it.”

The side of Aaron’s mouth twitches, anger passing through him in a way that never shows on Andrew. “Fuck you, what do you know?” he snaps, shoving at Neil’s shoulder. “You have guilt written all over you. This is your fault, admit it.”

“I never said it wasn’t, and you still haven’t answered my question - do you really care?”

“I care enough to know what this will do to Andrew’s career, what this will do to mine.”

At first, the selfishness in that one statement has Neil’s fists clenching up, fight brewing in his chest. But then, he thinks, and he remembers what Kevin had said; no one was ever meant to find out about this. The morality clause in the SeaKings’ contract was meant to keep it hidden, keep it from ever reaching the surface, so Andrew could live without his demons showing up in every magazine, so Aaron could have a prosperous life without his crimes hung up like a banner everywhere he goes.

Now it’s all out.

“I-I’m sorry,” Neil says, the words escaping as if brought out by force. “If I didn’t come -”

But he doesn’t say any more, because he did come, and even if it ruins the rest of his life, it’s one less attack on Andrew.

“Haven’t you ruined enough?” Aaron asks, about to push Neil by the shoulders again before Dobson briefly grabs the back of his shirt, just enough to keep him at bay before immediately letting go. “Why would he want to see you?

“What Aaron means,” Dobson says before stepping in front of Aaron and casting a gentle smile on Neil, “is that this is a highly sensitive issue, and our top priority right now is to ensure that Andrew is free from as much trauma as possible.”

Those words hurt more than anything Aaron could inflict upon him. “I’m not here to hurt him,” Neil says shamefully, pure and unguarded emotion tearing up his throat.

He’s here to talk to him, tell him, help him, show him that - that - that Neil is - that he -

“Of course not,” Dobson says softly, but Neil doesn’t believe her. “Andrew’s only ever spoken highly about you, but perhaps -”

“She’s saying piss off, before you make it worse,” Aaron cuts in, leaning around Dobson to scowl at Neil.

In that moment, Neil wonders if he respects Aaron or hates him, and ultimately decides that he despises him. “I’m not going anywhere,” he shouts back. “If anyone’s walking away, it should be you.”

“Fuck you,” Aaron yells, and nearly lunges at Neil before there’s a knock on the open door and someone clearing their throat. The three of them look to see Andrew’s manager, dressed up professionally but looking worse for wear, her eyes tired and mouth set in a grim line.

“He’ll see you and you,” she says, indicating towards Aaron and Dobson, but not Neil.

Aaron tears away without another word to Neil, stalking across the hall and into the locker room. Dobson moves to follow him, but in a moment of desperation, Neil latches onto her elbow to still her. She faces him with a still-kind smile and waits.

“Tell him I’m not leaving until I talk to him,” Neil pleads. “Tell him I’ll wait all night if I have to.”

I’ll wait forever.

Dobson thinks for a moment, then places her hand over Neil’s and says, “I’ll let him know.”

-

The ground is a hard place to sit, but he doesn’t trust himself to stand.

He sits tucked up against the open door of the security team lounge, watching as staff and security fill up the hall when the game finishes. Aaron tears out of the locker room first, storming past Neil without a second glance. Neil’s never been so happy to see someone leave.

Dobson takes a while longer, only coming out once it sounds as though the Nighthawks have taken over their locker room again. She stops in front of Neil, offering him a smile that no longer reaches her eyes.

“I passed along your message, but perhaps tonight isn’t the night for this.”

Neil scowls at her. “I’m not leaving.”

Her smile flickers out into something devastating. Neil says nothing else to her, focusing his gaze back on the locker room door. Dobson sighs and wishes him well, then leaves him alone in the dark blue hallway.

He waits.

He waits until the foot traffic in the hallway dies down completely. He waits until a security guard approaches him and says, “We need to clear this hallway.”

Neil stares at the door and replies, “I have permission to be here.”

Riko orchestrated this entire night, of course Neil has permission to be here. The security guard accepts that too easily, so Neil sits, and he continues to wait.

There must not be another soul in the stadium now. Neil believes in Andrew though, knows he won’t leave anything unfinished and that he’ll see him tonight, even if it’s to tell him to fuck off.

Eventually the locker room door is opening again, Andrew’s manager stepping out. Her expression is anger, frustration, and the same look that Dobson wore; devastation. Neil is on his feet before she can say a thing, pushing past the door in a heartbeat.

Everything is black and blue and endless. There are too many twists and turns as he makes his way through the short hallways, past the showers and the gear closets, until he’s finally in the very center of the locker room. It’s still slightly warm from the showers being recently turned off, all the bodies that have passed through, but it’s silent, too silent.

And then there’s Andrew.

He’s long since changed out of his gear and showered, standing there with his arms folded and his chin raised, a cigarette tucked behind his ear. His hazel eyes lock onto Neil’s immediately, drawing Neil further into the room.

Every step that Neil takes pulls him further under; these walls are so dark and blue, this must be the ocean, the only place they’ve ever been able to find secrecy and safety, however temporary. Except Neil is looking right at Andrew, can verify with his own eyes that he’s real, but he can’t tell if he’s there.

Andrew stares back like he can’t see Neil either.

His pounding heart comes to a shuddery stop at the same time as his feet. He stands a safe distance away from Andrew, something inside of him telling him where the line is drawn, where he cannot cross.

Even then, Neil takes a step backwards, to give him more space.

Words run up and get stuck in his throat, his hands hurt with the need to reach out, but he doesn’t say a single word or lay a single finger on Andrew.

Andrew is a blank wall, his voice just as flat as he says, “You shouldn’t be here.”

How terrifying, that something spoken so emotionless and quiet could be so hurtful.

“I have to be,” Neil says, because he has to be, he won’t let Riko touch him again. “I had to come.”

“Did I not make it clear enough? Do you not remember?” The way Andrew is staring so blankly, speaking so plainly, is as unnerving as a knife in Neil’s side. “I told you to stay away. You promised me that you would stay away.”

“Andrew,” Neil says, desperation pushing him forward the step that he had taken back. “You don’t understand. If I didn’t come - he would’ve -”

“Stop. Repeat what you just said. I don’t understand? Funny then, that I seem to remember everything.” Andrew takes a step closer too, but it only makes Neil want to retreat. “I don’t need a martyr. The only thing I needed was for you to stay away.”

Neil exhales so deeply he feels life leave him. “I had to make sure . . . Andrew, he would have - how could I stay away?”

“Because you made me a promise.”

And he knows he did, but he couldn’t. He hangs his head, words aimed at the ground, and admits, “I couldn’t.”

He shuts his eyes then, only for Andrew to show his first sliver of emotion by saying, “Stop.”

The dark and quiet room turns into noise and chaos all within a few footsteps; Andrew is suddenly in front of Neil, shoving him backwards so hard it jerks the breath out of him. One hand pushes against his chest, another one wrapping around his throat, until he’s pinned against the nearest row of lockers.

Andrew’s grip is so fierce that it’s frightening, but only because it forces Neil to see.

“You don’t get to close your eyes,” Andrew says flatly. “You want to look at me like they do, so do it.”

The grip around his throat is too tight for Neil to shake his head, but he doesn’t fight it. It’s either him or Andrew, and he made his decision by coming here. So he looks.

And what he sees hurts, and what he sees was always meant to be secret, and what he sees is what only he can see, out of one hundred thousand, and what he sees is what he doesn’t deserve.

“I’m not - I won’t,” Neil says with that hand around his throat. “I’m not here to do that.”

He wonders if silence would have been the better option to take, because all at once he’s being shoved hard into the lockers again, both of Andrew’s hands digging into his chest. It hurts, maybe, but he doesn’t notice, not when Andrew looks like that.

Like he’s bleeding, like he’d been stitching himself up for years, only for Neil to come along and rip them all out.

“I told you to stay away. I asked you. I said that it would look worse than it is, and that you had to stay away,” Andrew says, heat lining his words, his hands still pressed into Neil’s chest. “Yet here you stand. Look at me, look at where you are.” Then he takes his hands away, leaving Neil so cold. “You broke your promise, so what else could you be here for?”

It’s climbing a wall, no grip and nothing solid to hold onto, but you’re so desperate to go up because you cannot go down.

Neil feels like he’s falling anyways. “Andrew.”

“All you had to do was listen, now he’s got you right where he wants you. He won. You should give him a call and tell him congratulations.”

All and any of Neil’s pleas fade along the waves of the sea, lost forever.

Neil didn’t listen. Andrew asked him, asked him to promise, made him swear You don’t. You won’t but Neil did. When Riko asked, Neil came, all without considering if that was what Andrew wanted.

All without considering his promise that he would stay away.

He is just like them.

“This is your fault, anyway,” Andrew says after a moment, as if the thought just now occurred to him. “This never would have happened if it weren’t for you. You should have had the good sense to know I wouldn’t want to see you.”

For a man made of lies, hearing the truth stings in a way it shouldn’t.

He’s the reason the world woke up today and knew every fact that was meant to stay secret. It’s Neil that Riko is after, but it’s Andrew who suffers, becoming something so real so that Neil can remain a falsity.

And he trusted him; Andrew accepted his fate and he trusted Neil and he deemed this pain worth it, only for Neil to break it.

With no way to make it right, with no words that could be used to apologize, Neil settles for the only truth he knows; “I know . . . but you don’t deserve this. I had to do something.”

All at once, Andrew clamps both of his hands over Neil’s mouth. “Don’t.” They stare at one another as Neil finally swallows whatever was about to come next, until slowly, Andrew pulls his hands away. “You’re mistaking me for someone who needs help. I don’t. You do, however, but it’s too late for that, isn’t it?” A cruel looking smile graces Andrew’s lips, as thin as a blade. “You gave them all the right clues. They must be figuring it out right now.”

A wild fear breaks free in Neil’s chest - not the truth, not the world knowing his truth, but losing Andrew because of it.

“I don’t care, let them know,” he shouts, effectively wiping the smile off Andrew’s face. “If this is what it costs you, I won’t play anymore. I can’t. I’ll tell them all - I’ll tell them the truth.”

Andrew scoffs. “So I can break my promise, too? Do you understand the definition of a promise?” He presses his hand flat against Neil’s chest, a ghost of what his touch once felt like. “I’m meant to keep you in the game, no matter the circumstance or consequence. You’re meant to let me do it.”

And as long as that promise was upheld, then Andrew could keep Neil, and Neil could choose Andrew.

But around them and all over, the world will be clicking it all together; come morning they’ll have solved it, by noon they’ll have it twisted into something else, and come night, Neil Josten will be in violation of his contract, and will no longer be a SeaKing.

This is his fault. All he had to do was listen.

He not only broke his own promise, but now he’s forcing Andrew to break his.

“What if I don’t want to play anymore?” Neil asks with a slight tilt of his head, lying while also telling the truth.

Andrew gazes at Neil with a careful blankness, as if forced there, then takes a step away from him. He sounds almost disgusted when he says, “You were supposed to choose the game.”

Neil shakes his head almost immediately, because even if there were a game for Neil to choose, he wouldn’t. Exy was once Neil’s whole world, but the world can’t give him what Andrew did; a hand holding his, being kissed breathless, held up by a promise.

“I could have,” Neil says. “But then I wouldn’t have been able to choose you.”

“I am not an option.”

“Then why do I want you?”

“Haven’t you learned by now that the fantasy of getting what you want is what fairytales are made out of?”

The sincerity in those words looks as though they rip a few more stitches. Andrew hasn’t ever gotten what he wants; for it to stop, for Kevin to understand, for Neil to stay away, for things to go his way.

“When you said it’d be okay,” Neil says, his voice beginning to break. “You never said it’d be okay for you.”

It’s quiet for a moment longer, and then quiet is being shattered by the sound of Neil’s body hitting metal again. Face inches away from Neil’s, Andrew declares, “That is not an option either.”

Neil keeps his gaze solely on Andrew’s face; all of the angles appear sharper now, his cheeks more hollow and eyes more blank. There isn’t a single colour left in him, the shade of his skin the muted tone of a nightmare you can’t fully remember, that still stays with you forever.

Looking so intently into Andrew’s eyes, Neil doesn’t notice that Andrew’s hands are moving until one is grasping his chin and dragging his gaze down. Neil watches as Andrew rolls up the left sleeve of his sweater, up past his elbow to expose his bare forearm.

The skin there is too pale, a stark backdrop for all the lines that have been dragged across it. Some of the scars have faded, some look like they were dug too deep, and some look too new; altogether, they look as though they could have killed Andrew.

He wants to look away, but Andrew already told him not to.

Andrew tracks a scar with the tip of his finger, digging his nail in deep. “It’s like this,” he says, eyes following the same path as his scars. “It doesn’t hurt anymore, you only think it does because of how you wish to see it. Trying to ‘save’ me from something that can’t hurt is a waste of your time.”

Neil nods, only because he can’t think of the words to say right now.

He says it can’t hurt, and maybe it truly can’t, in the sense that it isn’t supposed to - but things that shouldn’t happen still happen all the time. After all, Andrew let Neil in and Neil took a no and made it be a yes.

So he can’t save him, he knows that, but he won’t be like them, he can’t.

He lifts his hands slowly to put them in Andrew’s line of sight, then moves them up by his head, pressing the backs of them against the lockers. There’s nothing else he can do but give the choice up to Andrew.

“I shouldn’t have come here,” Neil says, his tone so much stronger than how he feels. “I did what I thought was right, and not what I promised you.”

Andrew scoffs. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“But it does . . . Andrew, you deserve a choice.”

Andrew begins to shake his head, either already knowing what Neil is about to say, or disagreeing with the fact that he deserves a choice at all.

As he thinks, there’s a horrible ache in Neil’s chest that he has to fight around to breathe. It’s not something that he wants to offer, not truly, but it isn’t up to him. The answer is all Andrew’s to decide - it’s just that Neil isn’t sure what he’ll do when Andrew does.

But if it’s what Andrew wants, he’ll do it.

Letting go of this might destroy Neil, but at least it won’t destroy Andrew.

“If you want me to stay, then I’ll stay,” he says in offering, willing his voice not to break. “If you want me to go, then . .  then I’ll go. It’s up to you. Just you.”

Andrew stares hard at Neil, complexity in his eyes instead of blankness, before making a dismissive noise through his nose. “You’re already here.”

“Andrew,” Neil pleads, and his name hurts more than it has the right to. “Stay or go?”

Start or stop. Yes or no?

Andrew lets out a horrible breath and closes his eyes. “You should go.”

Hearing those words feels like being shot. Accepting those words feels like a heart attack.

Acting on those words is waking up.

But he made the offer, and Andrew made the decision, so Neil nods, straightens himself out and tries to take a step around Andrew, to leave, to go.

Only for Andrew to grab his wrist and still him, keeping Neil right in front of him.

“That doesn’t mean I want you to.”

Then it feels like his first breath of air, water clearing from Neil’s lungs.

All of Neil falls plaint to Andrew’s hands, allowing Andrew to crowd him up against the lockers and lean his entire weight against him. His hands slide from Neil’s wrists to his biceps, keeping him pinned in place, keeping him close, keeping him contained.

“You can stay,” Andrew chooses, his voice so definite and sure against Neil’s cheek.

Neil nods frantically, saying back, “Then I’ll stay.”

The world is calm for the following few seconds, just them and this choice and this want. It awakens something inside of Neil; fight, purpose, power, promise. He takes in the way Andrew feels so close against him and decides. “You don’t have to break your promise. I’m going to get us out of this.”

Andrew’s scoff is hot against Neil’s jaw. “Do you also need the definition of ‘too late’ explained to you?”

“You’re forgetting who I am,” Neil answers, beginning to smile now for the first time all day. “I’m good at lying. What’s one more?”

It’s all he does.

It’s all he is.

Whatever excuse he comes up with will have to wipe out any doubt or curiosity. It’ll have to be enough of a lie that even Neil’s veins and bones believe it.

Andrew makes a noise that nearly sounds like a laugh, the look in his eyes powerful enough to turn the dark room bright. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he warns, his hand wrapping around Neil’s neck. “Fool me once -”

Neil slowly shakes his head, daring himself to rest his forehead against Andrew’s. Words like I won’t or I swear or any other version of pleading won’t work here. The damage is done, but if Andrew wants Neil to stay, maybe eventually he can believe him again.

“You know what I’m going to do?” Neil asks, still smiling. “Win.”

Andrew taps his thumb against Neil’s pulse point and sighs. “So single-minded with you.”

“It’s all we can take from him,” Neil explains. “It’s all he wants.”

Fight begins to build in his bones, making his fingers curl in with the need to grab onto something and do something. He smiles as Andrew glares at him, before Andrew gives him a slight nod.

“Then we’ll win.” And it sounds like more than a promise.

Slowly, Andrew begins to breathe steadier, easier, and then Neil does, too. His eyes track Andrew’s face, looking for change, looking for something that is the same, before glancing downwards at his wrist.

“Can I?” he asks, motioning towards the rolled up sleeve. When Andrew nods, he begins to pull down the sleeve with careful fingers, until Andrew’s scarred skin is covered.

He says it doesn’t hurt anymore, and it’s not up to Neil to decide that for him - he just won’t give him any more reasons to hurt again.

He pulls his hands free of Andrew’s space, but Andrew still has his hand on Neil’s neck. He taps along with Neil’s pulse, steady under skin, before pushing his thumb up towards Neil’s bottom lip and tugging at it slightly.

“Would you look at that, Bee,” Andrew says into the space between them, the blankness in his gaze changing into a curious sort of calm. He continues to search Neil’s expression until he finds whatever he’s looking for, then taps at Neil’s lip again. “I felt something.”

Neil inhales deeply, at odds with his shuddering pulse. “What’s that?”

Andrew’s calm demeanour fades within a blink, leaving him looking faded and angry, and so, so tired.

“I hate you. I really do.”

“Okay,” Neil agrees, though he really doesn’t, and when Andrew lets out his breath, heavy and relieved, he doesn’t sound like he agrees, either.

Too many people have used yes or no as a weapon against Andrew, and though Neil Josten may not be much when you take away every lie, he’ll always be a truth that Andrew can choose.

Andrew will never have to pay the price for what he wants, or doesn’t want, again.

Neil promises.

Chapter Text

Everyone is looking at him, because everyone has been looking at him ever since that night. One-hundred thousand had seemed impossible, but that number must be in the millions now.

Neil doesn’t look at any one of them, keeping his eyes on his hands and wrists, remembering the way that Andrew had held them above Neil’s head, pinning them against the lockers. To make sure Neil wouldn’t move, wouldn’t reach out and touch what couldn’t be touched.

He stayed perfectly still, giving it all up to Andrew, knowing it shouldn’t be happening, he shouldn’t have been given a second chance.

It was his fault that Andrew had to frantically relearn Neil’s control. It was his fault that Andrew had to reteach him.

Despite how still he stayed, Andrew’s grip on him had warred between harsh and bruising, careful and desperate. He’d loosen his hold only to tighten it seconds later - waiting, testing, seeing.

Then he had looked so dejected, so hopeless as he said, “The rules don’t change. I don’t want this to change.”

But that wasn’t a decision they got to make, because it had to change. Neil was a threat, one aimed directly at Andrew.

So when Andrew kissed him in that dark locker room, it was more hesitant than Andrew had likely wanted it to be, for he swore when he pulled back and let go of Neil’s wrists.

It had to change. It couldn’t be as easy as it was. Neil lost that privilege. Neil stole it from Andrew.

Still, Andrew didn’t tell him to leave, so Neil had stayed.

“Neil.”

He can’t look away from his wrists, can’t stop thinking about Andrew’s shaky trust, and how all that matters now is building it up again, because Andrew had seemed so determined in his want to have it again. That’s why Neil is here - he has a promise to keep.

“Mr. Josten,” someone else says, louder, and Neil finally looks up from his hands to look at everyone seated around the conference table. Too many faces look back at him, each more grim than the last.

Coach Mullens sits beside him on his left, while his manager and publicist sit to his right. His lawyer sits across from him, with two lawyers that represent the SeaKings on either side of him. The situation has drawn in the interest (concern) of James Kingston, owner and founder of the SeaKings, who sits at the head of the table, with the team’s lead manager, Robert Carden, sitting on the opposite end.

Though Neil wants to be hopeful, it’s difficult to imagine any of them on Neil’s side when they’ve spent the past hour going between the pros and the cons of signing Neil to the SeaKings.

Pros: he’s profitable, popular, and an integral part of the striker lineup.

Cons: he’s in love with a man.

Neil didn’t think love had a weight to it before, but it’s being made abundantly clear right in front of him now.

“The last thing we want to do is take legal action against you,” Kingston says, which is when Neil finally enters back into the conversation; he had checked out long ago. “That’s why we’re all here today, to work something out so that you’re free to remain a SeaKing.”

Free, they say, like Neil could really be free.

“Give me a pen,” Neil says, holding out his hand. “I’ll sign whatever it is you need me to.”

“Mr. Josten - uh, Neil,” Carden says awkwardly - he used to never be so awkward around Neil - and clears his throat. “We’re afraid it ain’t that easy.”

The lawyers for the SeaKings shuffle around the folders in front of them, speaking in hushed tones to each other and to Neil’s lawyer before looking to Kingston, Mullens, then Neil. Dread is quick to build in Neil’s chest, making it ache so bad. He swallows, briefly debates how hard he wants to make this on himself, then says, “Then get to it already.”

As expected, it wasn’t difficult for the world to put the pieces together. Neil had left behind too many clues over the past few months, and showing up at the Nighthawks’ stadium the night Andrew was in the direct spotlight of the media hadn’t helped any.

The first clue was that he had shook Andrew’s hand at all, as everyone knew that Andrew was never so kind to do something like that. The second clue was disappearing with him at their photoshoot and returning with pieces of his clothes missing - a small fact that whoever leaked the information had been all too happy to exaggerate.

The third clue was Andrew’s largely-publicized reaction to Neil’s injury, and how perhaps it wasn’t over cowardice after all.

The fourth clue was Neil being spotted in New York on Halloween night. At the time it was meaningless, because there were more than a handful of SeaKings in New York celebrating. Now though, with the world’s eyes on him, with its idea that maybe it isn’t quite a rivalry between Andrew and Neil, it has to mean something.

Between that and showing up at the stadium, it was easy for the world to paint the rest of the picture; Neil Josten is in love with Andrew Minyard.

And it’s true, but it can’t be.

Now powerful, money-hungry men all stare him down with his whole future sitting in their hands.

Neil looks at each of their faces and accepts it, because his life was never really his. Let them twist it into something else, a lie, a falsity - no matter how fake they make him they can’t change what he felt.

What he feels.

He has a promise to keep, a game to win, an outstanding debt with a warped king to pay off. Neil hates lying through his teeth but it’s second nature by now. He knows he can’t win a game if nobody wants him to play in it.

Nobody wants to support this kind of truth, because this kind of truth doesn’t sell tickets. It doesn’t pull in viewers or sponsors. It’s everything Neil is but he’ll let them turn it into a lie, into a secret, as long as he gets to keep it.

There was a black box waiting for Neil when he returned home from New York. It looked as all the rest had, but inside was nothing but blank paper; no signature lines, no contract, no way out anymore except for this.

“Whatever it is, I don’t care,” Neil snaps at the table, hating their grave expressions and serious tones. “I’ll do it. Just tell me what you want already.”

“Neil,” his manager says urgently, laying a hand on Neil’s tense forearm. “We have to take this seriously. It’s either this or nothing.”

Nothing.

Oh, but don’t they get it? He’s doing this so he can choose nothing.

“Whatever,” Neil sighs, waving them all onwards.

The lawyers take out Neil’s contract, and it’s so strange to see it again after all this time, the source of every nightmare Neil’s had since first dreaming of Andrew. They go over the contract as if Neil’s never read it, as if he doesn’t understand it, and discuss outloud what consequences are meant to happen if he’s found in violation of the morality clause.

They speak of legal fees and lawsuits. Kingston and Carden look at Coach Mullens and discuss what will happen to the SeaKings’ stats if Neil is pulled from the lineup now.

Such a shame, isn’t it, that Neil didn’t know how much he had until losing it all was a threat staring him in the eyes.

He will lose all of it, everything, but worse, he’ll be letting Riko win all of it.

But it’s that, it’s him, it’s that monster that crawled from Neil’s worst dream, that might be his only way out of it.

Luckily, Riko and Neil have been very public and adamant about facing each other in finals. If it weren’t for that one singular truth, the lie they want Neil to be and tell wouldn’t work so well.

“You weren’t at the stadium for Mr. Minyard’s benefit,” one of the lawyers says, reading from a piece of paper in front of him. “The public relation team for the San Francisco SeaKings have stated here that you were there to be sure that Minyard played despite his supposed ‘trauma’, as it was believed his performance would be lacking, thus earning the New York Nighthawk’s a loss that would set them back in the playoff games.”

Neil’s mouth falls open, his glare not nearly as sharp as he wants it to be. It’s believable. It’s utter bullshit.

It’s similar to the story spun earlier in the season, when Andrew’s concern was passed off as anger over Neil’s supposed inability to play.

Except this one depicts Andrew as weak, as afraid, as if all those scars on his arms and the past that he had lived is all that Andrew is.

Neil notices his hands are trembling when he looks down, but he has no choice but to agree. “Use it, who cares. They’ll buy it.”

“You’ll have to face the public with this, Mr. Josten. You have to believe it,” someone says sternly, but Neil doesn’t look to see who. All the voices sound the same, the snarling sound of demons.

He can’t though, because he believes in Andrew and that’s it.

More folders are taken out, the lawyers passing out papers around the table as options are discussed. Neil looks down at the paper in front of him and goes still, because yes, he made a promise, but he can’t agree to this.

But . . . but he has to, because he can lie until he’s blue in the face, but that won’t stop people from wondering. Neil left behind too many clues that the truth will always lie in, and wondering leads to looking, and looking leads to finding what cannot be found.

“We’ll wait a week or two before we inform the press,” Neil’s publicist says as everyone at the table skims over Neil’s new contract. “As to not create suspicion so shortly after the incident. That’ll give us time to make changes to the social media accounts, and to find an opportunity for Neil to publicly speak about his relationship status.”

To stop the public from looking any further into Neil’s truth, they’ll give them a more interesting lie. One that’s innocent enough in its origin but has the power to grow, twist and spiral into several new paths so that nobody will ever seek out the path that leads to the truth.

It’s soon to be rumoured that Neil is dating a former cheerleader for an opposing university of UOA, that way she can remain nameless, unknown (and how could someone who might as well be a ghost be more believable than what’s real). They’ve been in an on again, off again relationship ever since Neil’s fourth year. It’s nothing concrete. It’s nothing that Neil will have to actively pursue in the eye of the public. It’s really just an idea of a person. It’s just really a lie.

“If - and I want to emphasize the ‘if’ here - if the public does not believe the rumours, or your statements, then we’ll have no choice but to enhance this plan.” His publicist taps her fingernails against the tabletop, something in her shoulders and expression so tight and pained as she explains what a beard is, and that he might just need one, and that it’s perfectly normal in Hollywood, and that it’s not a big deal.

“And to be sure this plan works, we will have to ask you to sign this contract as a means of prevention,” one of the lawyers says, having the courtesy to almost look ashamed. He begins to read off the contract as if Neil doesn’t have eyes and doesn’t know what it says, what it means.

He is to never publicly discuss anything to do with Andrew Minyard again. No more taunts, comments or insults. Nothing that puts Andrew Minyard related in Neil Josten’s mouth unless it’s strictly about his stats as a player or his performance in a game - and only if Neil is asked.

If they’re to attend the same event, Neil is not permitted to engage with him unless in the presence of another teammate or member of the SeaKings’ management.

If the SeaKings make it to finals, their contact will be in-game, and in-game only.

Neil wants to refuse and refute it. It can’t actually be legal and it sure isn’t humane, to censor his thoughts like that, his feelings, his wants. The only truth he’s been granted ever since he signed his name on the line was what he could say to the press about the rival goalie, and now he can’t even do that.

If he says no, like he so badly wants to, his tongue and throat burning with the urge to scream it, then he won’t be allowed to play. And that isn’t what he promised.

So Neil looks at the contract and says, “Pen.”

Neil signs his name on the blank line and agrees to yet another lie.

When he’s done, he shoves the papers away and throws the pen, not caring as it rolls off the table. The contract is taken by a lawyer and sealed up in a folder, placed in a briefcase, never for Neil to see again, even though he will continue to pay the price for his name on that contract far longer than the game will be around.

He sits there, radiating anger, as the men shake hands and depart from the table. Neil doesn’t dare look up until he’s sure nearly everyone is gone, and when he does, it's to meet the eyes of his coach.

“Maybe one day it won’t be like this,” Coach Mullens tells Neil, placing a tentative hand on Neil’s shoulder. “But it isn’t today, and it won’t be tomorrow.”

Then that tentative hand is disappearing, and soon it’s just the empty seats and the quiet room, and Neil listening as he can perfectly hear all the walls falling down, one by one.

-

Though there’s nothing about this situation that shines, the silver lining is that Neil Josten has always been a lie.

From N to N, nearly every letter in him was not what he was born as, not truly. His father left him with a name he couldn’t keep, and it was Neil’s own mother who pulled at his hair and begged him to listen, to be somebody else. Whatever Neil originally was, or whatever he was supposed to be, will remain something he’ll only ever wonder about.

He was a lie when his mother died, so he continued to be a lie after. ‘Neil Josten’ was on all the papers, on every ID. Nobody questioned it when Neil believed in it - and he had to believe in it.

It wasn’t until his final year of university that the lie had been plucked at and unravelled, then quickly revealed.

The truth was what he was and couldn’t be - a Wesninski.

With no concrete proof though, with all of his father’s secrets gone with his mother, Neil was allowed to stay Neil. The only cost of it all was realizing that sometimes, being a lie was better.

Now isn’t one of those times, but still, Neil has to believe in it.

It’s easy with all the lines written for him, when all he has to do is open his mouth and say them. When they ask ‘Is it true you’ve been dating a former cheerleader for one of your college rivals?’ Neil says ‘Yes’. When they ask ‘Does your rivalry with Andrew Minyard still stand, after recent events?’ Neil is forced to say ‘Of course it does.’ even though what he wants to say and shout is ‘What rivalry?’

This is what Neil promised though, this is what he has to do, so while he detests the burning mark of the letters L-I-E being scarred into his skin, he forces out the words and goes along with it.

L-I-E he thinks, truly isn’t any different than N-E-I-L.

-

The news about Andrew passes when the week changes over. That’s how it works. If you can’t poke and prod at the fire to keep it burning then that fire will go out, and with Andrew remaining wordless to the press and his game unwavering, the media quickly moves on . . .

. . . to what they think is a bigger and brighter fire; Neil and his so-called relationship. Nobody knows who ‘she’ is but it’s apparently the most interesting thing in all of Exy history. Neil doesn’t care, doesn’t mind answering mindless questions that don’t really have an answer, not really, not when the heat is taken away from Andrew.

Let Neil’s life be wrapped in lies, let the fire spread from tree to tree until the mountain is charred and the ground is dead, until the moon is red. Just don’t let Andrew burn ever again.

Except Neil knows that real life doesn’t fade so fast.

Andrew’s past isn’t a story that can be crumpled up and recycled once it’s read. It’s more like tattoo on skin than ink on newsprint. More permanent than memories have the right to be. So if Andrew can’t talk to or look at Neil the same way, now or ever again, then . . . then Neil understands, and won’t try to start another fire for Andrew.

With the SeaKings (and the Nighthawks) facing down one more bracket before advancing to finals (because they will advance to finals, they have to), Neil is - tired. Last night they played their first game against the Houston Tigers and won, but not enough to call it a true victory. It was more of a challenge than Neil wants to admit, but at least he came away without a single injury.

The team flew back right after their game, having landed just after midnight. Neil takes the elevator up to his apartment for once, dreaming about his bed as he swings his keys around his finger, when he suddenly stops. The keys fall to the floor with a clatter and a cling that Neil never hears.

Andrew.

Andrew -

Neil knew he’d be in town for tomorrow, for the NEL’s spring banquet. All the teams remaining in the playoffs are meant to attend, an opportunity for them to bring in more viewers and promote their various sponsors. The SeaKings will be hosting it at their stadium, a fact that Neil isn’t sure if he’s grateful for yet.

Knowing why he’s here doesn’t change the fact that Neil is shocked by Andrew’s presence. After hearing for days how unattainable he is and has to be had almost made Neil believe it.

Andrew is leaning against the wall beside Neil’s front door, his hood pulled over his head and a black-blue duffel bag slung over one shoulder. He looks up at the sound of Neil’s keys hitting the floor, but doesn’t say anything.

They haven’t seen one another since that terrible night in a terrible place trying to piece together a terrible situation. They haven’t talked since that phone call, the one Neil placed as soon as that meeting was over, to tell Andrew what was happening and that he was going to do it, that he promised.

Neil smiles as he finally makes his way closer. “One day you’re going to tell me how you keep getting past the front door.”

Andrew doesn’t smile back, his eyes hardly meeting Neil’s as he says, “This building lacks proper security.”

He looks tired. The kind of tired where you’d rather never be awake again.

Neil’s smile falters for a moment, but then he thinks and says, “I could get you a key.” He aims for effortless but only succeeds in accelerating his own pulse.

Andrew gives Neil a flat look and remains silent, then reaches for the doorknob and gives it a simple twist; it opens with far too much ease for a man who didn’t use a key.

Rendering his own key useless, Neil pockets it and follows Andrew inside, being sure to lock the door behind them. He continues on into the kitchen and drops his bag on the table before noticing that Andrew hasn’t moved at all. He stands in the hall without daring to take a step forward.

Something is wrong.

But then, something has always been wrong.

Neil stays in the kitchen and looks through his fridge, peering inside without really seeing anything. He uses the time to think, think, think about what has changed and what hasn’t and what shouldn’t, what should.

Because Andrew said it himself. He nearly begged Neil with his hands around his wrists and his lips against his; I don’t want this to change.

But do things?

When Andrew looks like that, Neil can’t just act as if everything is normal and fine, not wanting to be another reason for fire. Andrew created his rules because he needed them, and even if it’s all Neil can do, he won’t break them.

Not again.

“If I had known you were coming I would have picked something up,” Neil says after a long moment of silence, closing the fridge door before turning to Andrew.

Andrew is still silent by the door, his fingers running up and down the strap of his bag as he shrugs a shoulder. “Doesn’t matter. Not staying long.”

Neil hums a little, not agreeing or disagreeing as he takes a few steps closer, until they’re within a safe distance of one another. That’s when he can feel the rigid air surrounding Andrew; a sort of cold barrier, not allowing anything in and refusing to allow himself out.

Andrew’s fingers curl tighter around his bag, the air around him growing even more tense. “What?” he asks, his eyes searching Neil’s like he can’t truly see him.

Neil blinks, and realizes he’d been staring.

“Andrew,” he says, more of a whisper than anything else. “Can I?”

He doesn’t ask it because he needs it right now. He asks it to see and know how far that barrier extends, if Andrew needs him closer or further. He asks it so Andrew knows that this doesn’t change.

Andrew locks up and hesitates, as if debating taking a step back. He continues to search Neil’s face for what must be signs of danger, or force, or pressure. Then his stern expression smooths out, and Andrew says, “No.”

Such a short, simple word, and it has the power to immediately send Neil three steps back. N-o is so much more than just a two-lettered word.

“Okay,” Neil says, and isn’t sure what else to do so he takes one more step away from Andrew.

What Neil doesn’t understand is the storm that tears itself across Andrew’s face, there and gone in the blink of an eye. He stops locking himself up and allows his arms to drop by his sides, hands curling into weapons that never move to strike a blow.

They never would, never will.

Neil nods and tries to step around Andrew, giving him as much space as possible, only for Andrew to press a hand to Neil’s chest. His strength creates a wall that Neil stops for.

“I don’t -” Andrew says, looking disgusted with himself in that moment, at an utter loss for words. “I don’t mean -”

Neil offers Andrew his truest of all smiles and briefly touches the back of his hand. “You don’t have to explain yourself, remember?” he asks, waiting until Andrew’s hand stops feeling so strained. “I’m just going to get us some food. Will you wait here?”

It’s an open invitation to leave, a silent plea for him to stay.

Andrew keeps his hand against Neil’s chest until he finally lets out his breath, and then he finally drops his bag and kicks off his shoes. That’s when Neil finally breathes.

Once Neil’s out in the hall he nearly sprints along the walls, bypassing the elevator in favour of skipping down the stairs. It’s too late for any restaurants to be open, but there’s a nearby twenty-four hour convenience store. He doesn’t know what to specifically buy so he picks up a little of everything, and purposely turns around the Exy magazine with a picture of his face on it as he heads to the check-out.

Whatever headline that had been above his picture couldn’t be further from the truth. This is his truth, and it breaks into his home because it might as well be his home too, and Neil wants him.

Getting home with bags full of food is harder than Neil had anticipated, his wrists numb by time he pushes through the door to his apartment. It’s nothing but a minor inconvenience though when Andrew turns to look at Neil from his place on the couch. Still here, still choosing to stay.

Neil wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do after a no, but this seems to be it. You just - you just let it be and you understand and you listen and you don’t force it into a yes.

He begins to unload the groceries, explaining to Andrew what he bought and setting aside whatever snack Andrew seems to show interest in.

Neil turns away from the living room to put away the ice cream when a warm presence at his side nearly makes him jump, not expecting it, but Andrew simply plucks the carton from Neil’s hands and makes his way back to the couch.

(Neil notices how he sits nearer the wall, opposite the spot where he had taken Neil apart with his mouth and hands just months ago.)

Grabbing a spoon, Neil sucks in a breath that he hopes Andrew doesn’t hear and follows him, sitting in the spot that Andrew seems to be avoiding. He hands the spoon to Andrew, who takes it without touching Neil, then picks up the remote for the television. Nothing catches his attention, so Neil flips through the channels while watching Andrew’s face for any sign of interest.

After a few dozen channels, Neil simply settles for the channel that least relates to Exy - the cooking channel.

A mix of voices fill the room, the people on the television talking about things that Neil will never understand and that Andrew doesn’t care about. Yet they both sit there in peace and watch, and there isn’t a second where terror threatens to cover them and dry like cement.

Neil waits, but it never happens.

Andrew will breathe, Neil will yawn, the couch will creak a bit when Neil shifts about, Andrew will make a grunt-hum of approval when Neil pulls the blanket off the back of the couch to cover them both, all while some pastry chef explains whatever dish she’s making.

It’s calm.

Neil isn’t sure he’s ever been truly calm before.

This doesn’t feel like the sort of world where monsters control and contracts exist just to bind you.

Then pop goes the peace - Andrew suddenly looks at Neil and asks, “Are you ever going to read that?”

Used to his voice, but not expecting to hear it, Neil’s heart goes skittering through his chest. He’s breathless when he finally realizes what Andrew is talking about; his stare is transfixed on the book on the coffee table, still face-down and open from the last time Neil attempted to read it. If Andrew hadn’t pointed it out then Neil is entirely sure he would have forgotten about it.

“Oh,” Neil says, sitting up to reach for the book. A fine layer of dust coats the front and back. “Should I?”

Andrew just barely shrugs, a gesture that Neil takes as a go ahead, so Neil starts to flip through the book to try and remember what had been happening. Starting from the beginning is probably easier, so he goes back to the first page.

He’s aware of Andrew watching him, but apparently not aware enough to realize what Andrew wants; Andrew nudges at Neil’s arm until Neil looks at him, at Andrew’s eyes first on the book and then on Neil’s face.

Heart moving fast again, Neil looks at the spot next to Andrew and asks, “Can I?”

Andrew doesn’t answer with words, instead moving over on the couch until he’s right against the arm, creating more room for Neil. There’s still a slight gap between their thighs when Neil settles closer to him, draping the blanket over both of their laps. He positions the book so enough light hits the pages and so Andrew can see, and then Neil finally reads the book that’s been sitting on his table all this time.

It’s a real story in the sense that these are fictional characters surviving in a fictional world. Neil wonders if there’s truly such a difference between the words in this book and the words of his life; somebody else has written it, and none of it is real.

Just as he’s about to flip the page, Andrew reaches out to still Neil’s wrist for a moment before letting go.

Then Neil knows the difference. That touch and this feeling could never be fictional.

If you asked Neil what the book was about, he wouldn’t be able to tell you, even as he reads it. The words on the paper quickly stop being important to him as he realizes he doesn’t care for any fictional world.

The only story that matters is the one that no one gets to know about.

Persistent and annoyed fingers tap at Neil’s wrist, bringing Neil back into reality, but Andrew is already yanking the book from Neil’s hands and folding down the page to mark their spot by time Neil really notices. Andrew throws the book onto the coffee table, then turns and looks at Neil.

Neil blinks, and realizes with a bit of shame hot in his cheeks that he hadn’t even been pretending to read - he’d been watching Andrew.

Andrew looks back for what must be minutes, before crossing his arms and shutting his eyes, slipping down the couch until he can rest his chin to his chest. Neil blinks again to try and stop from staring, but he can’t look away. With the lights from the TV flashing off Andrew’s face, he looks otherworldly - but he’s not.

He’s real.

“You can have the bed,” Neil says, breaking the silence. He jerks his chin towards the bedroom door when Andrew cracks one eye open at him. “I’ll take the couch.”

Andrew studies Neil for an endless minute, then studies the door, then stands up. He doesn’t make an immediate move for the bedroom and instead turns to Neil, reaching out to tap his fingertips to Neil’s chin. It’s nearly shameful how easy it is for a simple touch to take Neil’s breath away.

Before Neil can fully exhale, Andrew is already in the bedroom and closing the door behind him.

Exhaustion decides then to rest its full weight on Neil, but even so, he can’t fall asleep yet. He watches the television’s multi-coloured lights flash off the white walls, painting everything green, purple and navy, making everything look so . . . he can’t tell if he’s asleep or simply dreaming . .

Apparently he was asleep, because once he hears the familiar click and creak of the bedroom door opening, Neil wakes up.

He blinks at the too-bright television - the cooking channel is now playing infomercials, meaning it must be near four in the morning - before his gaze gravitates towards the shadowy figure standing in the bedroom doorway.

“Andrew, what -” Neil says sleepily, his neck aching as he moves about on the couch, but Andrew turns suddenly, walking back into the bedroom but leaving the door open behind him.

Taking that as his cue to follow, Neil turns off the TV and obeys, treading lightly as he makes his way. Andrew is sitting on the bed with his back against the wall, having already claimed that spot for himself. He watches as Neil approaches the bed, hesitant and careful.

“This is okay?” Neil asks once his knees hit the edge of the mattress, his voice only a whisper but still so loud in such a quiet room.

Andrew lifts a dismissive shoulder before laying down, throwing an arm over his face and pulling the blanket up to his chest. “I don’t want to hear you complain about your sore neck come morning,” he says roughly. “Get in.”

Despite Andrew’s sour tone, Neil smiles as he settles into the bed. He lets Andrew take up most of the blanket and positions himself so he’s flat on his back, his eyes on the ceiling, enough distance between them.

Then they lay there in the dark, both clearly wide awake.

Neil watches the odd-looking shadow being cast across the room, wondering what it is outside that’s hitting the street lamp like that, and after a few minutes, he dares to glance at Andrew.

Who’s also staring at the ceiling, his entire body tense.

“Hey,” Neil says quietly, turning over until he’s entirely facing Andrew. “The couch is fine, I promise. I don’t have to sleep beside you.”

Andrew doesn’t even blink, answering without missing a beat, “It’s harder when I can’t see where you are.”

Oh. “Okay.” Neil curls in on himself a little more, keeping his body turned towards Andrew. “Then I’ll stay.”

Slowly Andrew starts to turn his gaze from the ceiling to Neil’s face. His hands are threaded together on top of his chest, twitching slightly the longer he studies Neil. Such a look creates a million questions inside of Neil, but in the end he asks zero. Then Andrew looks back up.

Neil wonders how this is okay, if Andrew’s okay with this or making himself be okay with this, if Andrew’s been okay with all of that or if he’s forcing himself to be okay with all of that. If okay is all Andrew’s been or never been.

Seconds pass, minutes change, shadows shift around the room. Neil is just about to close his eyes when Andrew suddenly says, “How funny, that what you want to be real isn’t, and what you don’t want is.” He motions with only a tired lift of his fingers to the distance between them; not too close but not too far, because they can’t be either.

Neil can only nod, head so heavy with dreams and questions.

“It wasn’t supposed to matter. This. It never mattered before,” Andrew says, and the longer he looks at the ceiling, the faster Neil’s pulse runs. “Evidently, I was wrong.” Once again he gestures to the space between them, and Neil’s heart hurts.

“This matters. It’s always mattered,” Neil insists, putting a hand on the mattress between them. “You have rules for a reason, and it - it matters.”

“It shouldn’t. I already know how easily rules will break. I should be used to it. Five years later . . .” Andrew speaks to the ceiling, but screams to himself. “. . I should be used to it. I don’t get to be angry over something I already knew.”

Neil has to gulp down a breath before he starts screaming himself. “You can, if that’s what you feel. You can.”

“Just because you feel something doesn’t mean that you should,” Andrew says, and chooses then to look at Neil. “I already knew it would happen. I had the power to stop Riko, didn’t I? But instead I said yes, because I couldn’t say no. I’m beginning to hate that word. What good does it do?”

“You didn’t -” Neil jerks up from the pillows and is quick to put more distance between them. “He had you backed into a corner, he forced you, I forced you. It matters, what you want - it matters. Your rules matter and your yes matters and he doesn’t get to touch that.”

Andrew sits up too, fierce and radiating as he says, “A man who lives his life by rules is not a free one.”

“Not when you decide them.” Neil’s eyes are wide, his voice crushing down into a rough whisper. “Rules are rules for a reason. They’re not always to bind you, but to keep you - free.”

It’s a long moment before Andrew says anything.

“I thought you hated rules.”

Neil nods, dropping his gaze to the bed as he admits, “I’ve never come across a rule that gives you a choice . . . not until I met you.”

Andrew’s expression passes through a thousand different storms before it goes blank again. He stares at Neil for a moment, then falls against his pillow and pushes his back against the wall. “You need to fall asleep first,” is all he says, his voice now void as he watches Neil.

“Okay,” Neil says, his own voice full of glass, and lays back down.

Andrew tugs at the blanket until it’s covering both of them, and soon enough, Neil is closing his eyes, falling asleep much easier now that he’s under Andrew’s watchful gaze. He knows exactly where and who he is when Andrew looks at him.

In those last few moments before conscious-then-gone, before sleep claims him, Neil thinks of how today is a no, and tomorrow the same might follow, but that he doesn’t mind if it’s never a yes. His choice is Andrew and all that comes with him, because no matter what it is, it’s going to be real.

As long as Andrew has rules then Neil will follow them, and if there’s ever a day where Andrew puts them down, then Neil will follow him.

He just hopes that Andrew understands when he asks that he can.

That Andrew knows that he can choose too. That he can be angry without being anger. That he can be loved even if he never loves back. That he can want, and nothing, not Riko, or the game, or Neil, can change that.

Sometime later, just before the sun rises, when everything is dark but light, asleep but awake, Neil wakes up cold, all of the blankets pulled off of him. His hand reaches out to pull some back, but stops short of touching Andrew.

Andrew must’ve woken up from the bed spring creaking and slowly cracks one eye open. Then the blanket is being pulled up until it covers Neil enough, warmth spreading across his skin and under it.

Neil smiles, sleepy against the pillow, and doesn’t flinch when two hard fingers are suddenly pressing into his cheek, tilting his face away.

It must be a dream. It can’t be reality. These words shouldn’t exist on paper like this.

Except Neil can feel him, fingerprints left on his skin, and he doesn’t have to sleep to live this dream.

Chapter Text

Despite the impending sense of doom that the banquet brings, a hint of hope coats everything. The sun is pushing through the grey mid-March clouds, cloaking Neil’s dread with what one might call optimism.

Maybe it’s the sunshine, or maybe it’s just Andrew.

They spend the morning in peace, moving around one another easily as they pour coffee, eat breakfast, brush their teeth and watch TV. Not many words are said but not many words are needed.

Andrew’s hands occasionally brush over Neil’s arms and shoulders throughout the morning, erasing Neil’s tenseness. It’s when he’s standing in the middle of his bedroom with a towel slung over one shoulder, staring at the covered window in front of him, that Andrew touches at his shoulder once more; the difference is slight but immediate.

Neil turns to face him so complicitly, even though nothing was said. Andrew tilts his head in question, and Neil nods, dropping his arms to his sides to give complete access to Andrew.

Andrew pulls at the zip of Neil’s hoodie, so slow it nearly feels torturous, before letting it slide off Neil’s shoulders. Andrew’s free hand quickly takes up residence around Neil’s throat, holding it gentle but tight.

Neil closes his eyes, wishing so badly this could just be it for the rest of their forever.

Andrew doesn’t touch him any further than that, though Neil secretly wishes deep down for a kiss. He hopes for later or maybe one day, but is okay with never.

Then he’s pushed off towards the bathroom, where he regretfully washes away Andrew’s touch, but also washes away his unease, until it’s quite and curled up in his chest for now.

Until he steps back into his bedroom, towel wrapped around his hips, staring at the garment bag laid out on his bed.

All at once the sun isn’t enough to shine through the clouds.

He still doesn’t understand why he couldn’t just wear the same suit he wore to the first NEL banquet. It’s the same thing; black, sleek, expensive, a symbol of the figure they think he is or want him to be.

Later on in the evening he’ll be strapped down in it and have his hair combed back, cologne sprayed against his throat, before gathering together with all of Exy’s best, as if they’re not truly at one another’s throats for a chance at the crown.

And worst of all, Andrew will be there.

Lying like that, pretending that he isn’t, that he doesn’t exist, will feel the same as pulling teeth. Because Andrew will be right there, but he might as well be across the universe with how forbidden and hidden he is and has to be.

Neil scowls at the suit and everything that it stands for, and decides then that perhaps it isn’t quite the same suit he wore to the first banquet. Oh no, this one is worse.

A sharp knock sounds against the door before it’s being opened. Andrew walks in, first looking at Neil and then at the garment bag, an unimpressed expression crossing his face.

Neil sighs and flops onto his bed, next to the garment bag. “Do we have to go?”

Andrew crosses his arms and thinks about that. “The two of us being absent would raise a few questions, don’t you think?”

The truth sucks sometimes, so Neil sighs again. “Well . . . at least we have a few more hours until you have to leave.”

The floorboards creak a bit as Andrew shuffles closer to Neil, until he’s looming over him. “A few hours that you could be spending with your imaginary girlfriend,” he says, kicking a little at Neil’s shins hanging over the edge of the mattress. “What was her name again?”

Throwing his hands over his face, Neil groans, “She doesn’t have one. The team thinks the less the public knows, the more they can come up with themselves. It keeps them from wondering about -” About me and you. “- everything else.”

The bed shifts as Andrew sits down on it, sitting a small space away from Neil. His proximity and presence is a welcome distraction from the knot in Neil’s gut, making Neil feel brave enough to move his hands and peek up at Andrew.

His eyes are Neil’s favourite thing to look at when he can’t handle anything else; for such a blank expression, the looks he gives Neil are bright and captivating.

Neil lets his breath out slowly, lungs feeling less cramped, and reaches out a hand.

Andrew’s truth was forced out of him, pried from closed lips and clenched up hands. Neil hates how much he hates that his own truth is being shut in and duct-taped secure. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that Andrew feels like he let it happen when Andrew would know more than anybody what it’s like to be forced.

Andrew captures Neil’s hand within his own, curling his fingers around him.

And as Andrew stares at Neil, with their hands intertwined on top of Neil’s stomach, Neil thinks about lies and honesty, and while he wants to shout his truth into the world, it’s already being said between them, this, their hold and their hands.

So what Neil says instead is, “Nathaniel Wesninski.”

It burns to break the silence with such awful words, but Neil wants it to be his choice that they’re said. Andrew’s mouth twists into a frown but all he does is tug at Neil’s hand, readjusting their hold on each other, so Neil continues.

“That’s the name I was born with, did you know?”

“Everyone knows,” Andrew answers, confusion darkening the crease between his brows. “It was all over the news.”

Neil sighs as he sits up, hunching in on himself more than he’d care to admit. He studies the creases in the blanket they sit on, a vast ocean of blue fabric, and goes to smooth it out but stops. Instead he traces a crease line that leads all the way to Andrew.

Then he traces it away from him.

“I was named after my father, but did you know I never knew it? I never knew his name. Nobody would tell me. Not my mother, or any of her relatives. Maybe it was for my safety, maybe it was for theirs.” He thinks about how young and foolish he had felt when he learned, and how it wasn’t that long ago, how he’d spent the majority of his life a lie without ever knowing. “I guess if I didn’t know who or what he was, I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone. Then he died.”

He shrugs so helplessly, all he’s able to do, as Andrew watches him carefully.

“But it still didn’t matter. I still had to become someone else.” Neil laughs, his chest aching as he does so. “And even with a different name and a different home, nobody would tell me the truth.”

Andrew traces a different line in the blanket, drawing a path straight to Neil that he doesn’t retract. “You became Neil Josten.”

“No,” Neil says, shaking his head. “Names I can’t even remember, personas my mother forged together. Whatever she could do to put enough distance between me and whatever my father was. To try and have . . . a normal, honest life.” His voice cracks right in time for his throat to produce a bitter laugh. “It’s funny, because she was just another lie. She died without telling me anything. Just another new name.”

Neil swallows down rust and nails. His mother is a memory now but what even was she? What was he? What is Neil?

“But she didn’t leave me with anything real.”

Their hands are only inches apart now, all the lines on this map leading only to each other.

Andrew looks down before suddenly striking out and grabbing hold of Neil’s wrist, gripping it tight in a warning.

“Stop, I know what you’re doing,” he says, his eyes suddenly fierce. “You’ll run yourself empty trying to make this fair.”

Neil lets go of the restraint in his wrist, allowing Andrew complete control over him. “That’s not what I’m doing. This isn’t to - to balance the scales. I’m telling you because I want to tell you.” He doesn’t wince when Andrew’s hold grows vicious, because then suddenly it’s not. “Did you know . . . did you know that when I’m with you, I don’t care what my name is?”

Andrew’s hand disappears, along with any warmth or comfort. His lips peel back to show off sharp teeth as he wars between snarling and staying silent.

“Andrew, I don’t know what part of me is true anymore because I never did. It’s either being withheld from me so I never know it, or I’m the one who’s not allowed to speak about it.” It feels like someone’s stepping on his chest, and the way that Andrew looks so desperately at him makes Neil want to tear out this pressure growing inside of his ribcage. “So all I really know - all I know is that this is real, and that I want it.”

Silence makes sense as it covers the room. Neither of them move or breathe, not until Andrew breaks out of his frozen state and starts to smooth down the blanket, destroying all the crease lines.

Then he asks, “How’d you get into the game?”

The question is asked to the air, so simple in its nature, but it’s enough of a blindside for Neil to jerk his chin up and frown in confusion. He thinks for a moment, but he already knows his answer.

“It was bigger than me. Despite all the names I had, I could still get on the court and play. The game didn’t care that the name I went by wasn’t the name I was born with, didn’t care that I had no idea what was true or not anymore.” Neil understands the change in topics then, and that pressure in his chest begins to feel like a stab. “It was the only thing left that was real.”

There’s an intensity in Andrew’s hazel eyes that’s as sharp as the blade in Neil’s ribs. He nods, then says, “That’s what Kevin promised me.”

Hearing that name, out of all these names in Neil’s brain, has Neil’s system running on pure anxiety. “Kevin?” he asks, a little dumbfounded.

Andrew shifts around until he’s cross-legged on the bed with his gaze on the far wall, all ferocity drained from him.

“He promised that he’d make the game big enough to swallow my life whole, said it’d take over everything,” Andrew explains, voice flat and face void. “Told me that once it was over, it would make me forget everything. Strange then, how everything still happened. A stupid game couldn’t make it unreal. If I could have wanted anything, I would have asked for that. Except life doesn’t work that way.”

Fury tunnels its way through all of Neil’s veins at the implication of such simple words. All Andrew does is stare straight ahead, his expression a flat sheet, hiding something beneath.

“He wasn’t wrong though, and he liked that. After everything, Exy was the only thing left for me.” Then all at once that sheet is ripped off, exposing all of Andrew’s jagged edges. He laughs, and it could destroy the world. “Imagine my reaction when he presented that contract and turned the game into something false. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t forfeit the one thing I had left. But you’ve heard this story before.”

It takes effort Neil doesn’t have to untwist his sick nerves and ask, “So then the Nighthawks were real?”

“No, not entirely,” Andrew says, his tone back to honey-slow. “It wasn’t a box, however, so it was better.” Andrew’s mouth opens as if to continue that train of thought, before saying, “Bee was the voice of reason in the end, telling me that I’d be fine if I didn’t, fine if I did, as long as I -” Then his jaw jerks shut in an uncharacteristic bout of shock. “As long as I wanted it.”

Neil doesn’t breathe. “And?”

It takes a forever or two until Andrew finally looks at Neil again. “I wanted it.”

Everything feels too numb for Neil to work out sounds and words. “But -” he tries, then has to cough and clear his frozen throat. There’s something about Andrew’s words that he doesn’t understand and it’s paralyzing him. “How can it be better when Riko’s behind you every step? How is that freedom?”

“It’s not,” Andrew agrees. “But like I said, I wanted it enough.”

Neil’s lungs become a cage for his breath, his heart a prisoner somewhere inside of him when Andrew looks at Neil like that. He’s unexplainable; from the surreal colour of his eyes to the set of his lips to the way he touches Neil, a mystery that Neil will never solve.

He thought he had a label for that feeling in his chest, but when Andrew looks like that, Neil knows nothing.

“Do you still want it?” Neil asks eventually, unable to look anywhere else but those hazel eyes.

Andrew shrugs. “I know better than to wish for things I can’t have.”

Confused, Neil hears one thing and thinks he’s hearing another, as if Andrew is talking about something else . . but what?

He’s so lost in thought that he misses Andrew moving closer, only coming to when Andrew’s hands are around his face, pulling Neil in.

“You can,” Andrew says, answering some silent question that Neil must’ve asked, nodding and nudging until they’re forehead to forehead. Neil lets out a soft sigh before leaning in to kiss Andrew, just a careful press of lips despite the tingling desire behind them.

The ice in Neil’s chest melts and releases its prisoners; he breathes and he feels and he exhales so loudly when Andrew’s hands wander from his shoulders to his back to his waist, keeping Neil so contained and safe.

“It doesn’t have to be the same way for you,” Andrew says, somewhere in the moments that they aren’t kissing. “If it’s the only thing left that’s real, remember your stupid game and play it.”

Neil hopes he’ll understand later, because all he can think clearly about just then is the sturdy grip of Andrew’s hands and the way he looks so sure, so lost, so hopeful and hopeless.

“Okay,” he agrees, and is quick to move back in for more of Andrew’s everything.

Hours later, when Andrew is gone and Neil is allowing his stylist to pull him perfectly into his suit, Neil finally understands that confusing message that Andrew had been saying.

I wanted it, he had said, but Andrew wasn’t talking about Exy.

-

Neil’s ‘imaginary girlfriend’ is all the press chooses to talk about as he walks the red carpet.

Funny, how the banquet is to celebrate each team’s success while also promoting their upcoming games, and all that anyone cares about is a hint of a person who doesn’t even exist.

Where’s your girlfriend tonight? and Can we get the name of your mysterious lady? and What does your girlfriend think about your upcoming games, and how is she helping you cope with the pressure?

All Neil can think as he faces the microphones and cameras is that if the public stops believing this lie, they’ll have to make the lie more concrete - for example, making that imaginary girlfriend not so imaginary.

“I’d rather keep the finer details of our relationship private, if that’s alright with you,” Neil lies, flashing a too-wide grin that he hopes comes across as charming. “She’s my number one fan, and that’s enough to stave off any pressure.”

His face is flaming hot as he turns away from that reporter, thankful when his publicist grabs for his arm and hurries him past the last round of the press. By time he’s inside he can hardly breathe and has to loosen his tie until he doesn’t feel so constricted.

Each of the four tables have been decorated in a cloth that coordinates with the colour of the team sitting there. Aqua and silver are easy to find, and Neil is quick to take his seat beside Kevin’s place card. He feels a million years away from that first banquet; so young, fresh, naive and unknowing of how false everything is. Now he knows that pretty flowers on the table and five-star food and fancy outfits are all disguises for evil.

Now spotting that evil is as natural as knowing his own name.

Kevin eventually arrives and is just as quick as Neil to sit down. He looks around for a server while holding his empty wine glass, and when he can’t find one, sighs and curses under his breath. Neil can feel the tense lines of Kevin’s body just sitting beside him, so he offers his full glass of wine without saying a word.

Good thing he does, or perhaps not so good, because just then is when there’s commotion throughout the tables, heralding Riko and Andrew’s entrance. Neil swears that Kevin gulps down the drink a bit faster, so he snatches it away and finishes the last few drops for himself.

“Is he -” Kevin says, throat thick with something awful. “Andrew . . . is he okay?”

Neil gives the empty wine glass a long, hard look before turning that glare on Kevin. “Is he ever?”

Guilt cuts its way across Kevin’s face as he bows his head. Ever since Neil returned from that last-minute trip to New York, Kevin has been living in remorse, acting as if he could have somehow helped.

If only Kevin had listened when Andrew asked for help. Kevin saw and knew what nobody else did, and if only he remembered that when he denied Andrew and refused to accept his no.

But no, this isn’t his fault. This lie isn’t his fault. It’s nobody’s but Neil’s.

“There’s nothing you can do now,” Neil says, the honest truth. “Except for keeping your end of the bargain by not interfering.”

Kevin nods but doesn’t look any more at ease until he’s finally able to flag a server down.

When Neil glances back across the table it’s to be met by Matt’s curious look. He forces on a smile for him and asks how his night is going, but small talk suddenly feels like the hardest thing in the world. He’s grateful for the distraction of food and doesn’t dare look anywhere else but at his own plate or Kevin’s face as the night goes on.

Because if he looks even a little to the right, then he’ll see the Nighthawks; Riko, Jean, everyone in between, and then Andrew.

The one person out of billions that Neil can’t look at or talk about. The one person out of billions that Neil wants to be seen by and talk to.

After the first course and the clearing of the table, NEL officials take the stage to welcome the teams and discuss the rest of the season. Soon after that, all four captains of the remaining teams join them and take turns ‘congratulating’ one another.

Neil wonders if the rest of the hall can see the cracks in Kevin’s smile. Riko sure can, for he uses his speech like a pickaxe to Kevin’s confidence; “Oh yes, congratulations, especially to the SeaKings. Your third season of having Kevin Day as your captain and you’ve finally made it to playoffs. Congratulations indeed.”

It’s likely the first and only bout of truth being spoken tonight. A room full of lies and liars, but it’s all old hat by now. Smile when you’re told to and not when you want to and tilt your head this way, never that way, and speak in that tone of voice when you’re answering that kind of question and smile all over again and don’t forget -

Don’t forget what’s real.

So as angry as Neil is over Riko and his comment, he swallows it down to save for later, when he’s on the court facing off against him where it matters.

Don’t forget what’s real, Neil hears Andrew say and he holds onto that like a mantra or a prayer. But how could he forget what’s real when what’s real is being marched over to the SeaKings’ table with a guiding hand on his back.

All of Neil’s anger flares out then, nearly powerful enough to rip him from his chair so he can get his fists in Riko’s face. Except he isn’t allowed to be near Andrew, can’t acknowledge him, can’t even look at him, and punching Riko’s face in wouldn’t be possible without breaking all of those rules.

Riko and Andrew approach the table and stand at the front of it like two kings. Riko’s left hand is hidden from view, somehow subtle in its very obvious placement. He’s clearly touching the small of Andrew’s back, making the forced touch look casual, look acceptable. His grin is pure barbed wire, while Andrew’s expression is vacant as he stares at nothing.

“SeaKings,” Riko announces, and Neil wonders if he threw his dinner knife at Riko, would it be enough to pierce his skin? “I decided to personally congratulate you all myself, rather than address you at large. I must say, Andrew and I are pleasantly surprised by how far you’ve come. You should enjoy it while you can. I have a suspicion that your secret weapon won’t be so secret soon.”

The last sentence is said with Riko’s eyes solely on Neil.

Neil drops his gaze to his plate to save himself from impending murder charges.

The table erupts into curses and insults aimed at Riko, who is all too happy to throw a few back. His awful voice tugs and tugs at the nerves in Neil’s spine, the ones holding Neil in place so he doesn’t look, until he has no choice but to look up again, ready to spew out a warning and make him go away - only for Andrew to catch his gaze.

Then Neil doesn’t want Riko to go away, because that would mean he’d take Andrew with him. Andrew stands stoic and still, utterly impassive as Riko maps out his body like it’s land he has claim on; his hand wanders from Andrew’s back to his shoulder, then to his hip, all places that you have to ask to touch.

The thing is, Neil has a feeling Riko did ask Andrew if he could touch him there. He has an even worse feeling that Andrew made himself say yes.

Neil opens his mouth to speak, only to feel a heavy knock against his leg - Kevin’s knee is pressed urgently against Neil’s, his tense muscles all the warning Neil needs to remember the rules.

Neil quickly closes his mouth and looks away, but not quick enough to avoid Riko’s attention.

“Oh, there you are, Neil. You are awfully quiet tonight, aren’t you?” Riko practically purrs, his fingers lingering around Andrew’s elbow before finally fading away. “No need to explain, I understand you must be tired of answering questions about your dear girlfriend. What was her name again? Andrew and I are so curious.”

Neil has to hide his hands underneath the table when they begin to tremble, desperately trying to ground himself before he vocalizes something permanent. He’s thankful when Kevin slides a hand under the table to steady Neil’s shaking knee, but that isn’t what steadies him in that moment.

It’s the flash of honey-hazel eyes, suddenly looking entirely at Neil. The look Andrew gives Neil is briefer than a heartbeat, but it’s enough to pull Neil from his sinking ship of lies.

His trembling stops, his heart slows down, and he smiles.

“Actually, can we talk? More specifically, can we talk about your game against Toronto?” Neil asks all too breezily, then shares a look with various grinning teammates. “Right, guys? Weren’t we just discussing how rough that game was? I thought the top-ranked striker in NEL Exy would be able to deliver a higher point gap than that, but I guess not. You’re making it incredibly difficult to be afraid of you when you play like that, you know.”

Riko’s grin grows until all his teeth are bared, his eyes glinting in the low light of the room. “Think what you wish, Neil, but I will remind you that to become champions, you must win against the Nighthawks a total of four times,” he says sweetly, fearfully. “You couldn’t even win against us once. Your little goal against Andrew was child’s play at best. Right, Andrew?”

Once again, Andrew and Neil lock eyes, but the warmth from Andrew’s gaze is gone and replaced by something black and blue, blocking out everything true. “It was nothing,” he says, “in the same way that you are nothing.”

He has to look away, he has to look away right now, but he can’t, Andrew just - and Neil can’t.

Right when Neil’s about to debate how helpful clawing out his own eyes would be, a burst of laughter comes from the other side of him. Everyone turns to watch as Laila knocks back her head and howls.

“This guy! He still thinks he’s scary?” Her long, curly hair sways as she laughs, loud and delighted even as Riko scowls at her. “Dude, we’re the first-ranked team in the west. You’re about as intimidating as this napkin.”

To further prove her point, Laila balls up the used napkin she’s holding and throws it in Riko’s direction, and then, as if they had planned it beforehand, every SeaKing follows suit until there isn’t a napkin left on the table, and Riko has no choice but to retreat from the SeaKings and their laughter.

But as he goes, so does Andrew, with Riko’s hand pressed firmly to his back.

The laughter continues, but Neil only hears a distant hum. He can’t feel anything but the sensation of being trapped below ice; so far away and so cold, doomed to drown.

“God, what an asshole,” Laila says, draining the rest of her wine in one go after the SeaKings all cheer and clink their glasses together. She looks at Neil for a moment then, a moment too long. “Are you okay?”

It’s not enough to free Neil from the ice, but it’s just enough to warm him. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he smiles and lies. “Thanks.”

Smiling and lying, after all, is what Neil’s good at.

-

“What do you mean I can’t see him?”

It’s too early in the morning to be coherent, but now Neil is all rage.

His manager called him last night and asked to meet up before tonight’s game against Houston, claiming it was urgent. Neil wouldn’t have agreed though if he knew the meeting would be about this.

“It’s in your best interest,” his manager explains, leaning casually against his desk as Neil fumes in his chair. “This close to finals, and with the press watching you so closely, we can’t risk another scandal or chance of exposure.”

Neil clenches his hands into fists and darts his heated gaze from his manager to the corner of the office. He stares at the potted plant placed there like he hopes to set it aflame. “We’re being careful, we’re not stupid. You can’t forbid me from actually seeing him, that isn’t something any of you have the power to do.”

“Oh, are you a lawyer?”

“No, but I’ve read my contract. You can dress me up all you want and make me say what you want me to say, but you can’t actually change me.”

Neil feels breathless then, his chest rising and falling fast underneath his crossed arms. The potted plant doesn’t combust, to Neil’s dismay; something in this white-black office needs to scream, hurt, bleed, and it won’t be Neil because he’s already decaying.

The office is separated from the rest of the building by a glass window and pure white blinds, but it doesn’t matter, it still feels like a prison.

Especially when his manager says, “You can blame me all you want, but this was Andrew’s idea.”

Neil blinks and is honestly surprised to find the world still intact, because his world has been set ablaze. “What?” he asks slowly, head cocking to the side.

“I received a call from Andrew’s own manager yesterday evening, claiming that Andrew no longer wishes to remain in contact with you. A bit of telephone tag here, but his words were along the lines of ‘focus on your game’. He and his management are asking that you refrain from any sort of contact from here on out. That means no phone calls, texts, emails, nothing.”

Anger grabs at Neil’s heart and crushes it until it stops beating, then places it back in his dead silent chest.

“Oh.”

Neil wants to detest it, ignore this warning, but he remembers the way Andrew had looked at him at the banquet, the way his eyes ordered him to sit down and allow it. He remembers Andrew’s desperate plea in a dark bedroom that Neil stayed away, and Neil didn’t listen, broke a promise, broke a rule - and he won’t do that again.

If this is what Andrew is asking him to do, then Neil will do it.

Neil stares at his lap and fiddles with his hands, wishing he had better spent his time with Andrew when it was just them and yes and the bed. What if he never gets to ask again, never gets to touch? What if this means giving him up?

Andrew, why can’t you ever let me choose you?

“Well, you can tell Andrew’s manager that I hate her,” Neil says sullenly, the words whispered to his hands.

“Does this mean we’ve come to an understanding?” When Neil says nothing, his manager groans and stands a little taller. “Neil, look at it this way; you’re this close to winning finals, so I’d imagine the team’s management would be willing to renegotiate your contract to keep you next season.”

At that, Neil laughs, and he laughs hard. “You’re kidding me, right? Is that a joke?” he demands scornfully. “A win isn’t going to change anything. They’ll jump through any loop they can to keep this a secret. Winning some crown won’t make them think any less of the situation. I’m still - still - still in love with a man no matter how you cut it, so don’t throw hope around like that.”

Neil hits the end of his rope then. The only choice left is to let go and fall down, down, down, because there is nobody above him to pull him up. He leaves the office in a rush, so fast that even when he’s out on the street, it feels like his heart is still up on the twenty-third floor.

Doesn’t matter though, as heart or no heart, this is where he’ll always end up. Everyone’s been saying that he’ll make his choice eventually, but this doesn’t feel like choosing. Oh no, this is standing on the edge of a building and being told the only way down is to jump.

There’s the game, which is what he lives for and what wants him but what costs him. There’s Andrew, who makes Neil feel like what he wants matters - unless what he wants is Andrew.

There’s one or the other or there’s nothing at all.

All signs point towards the game, and the stadium that feels like home, and the team that has his back, but . . .

But no, because Neil has put his hands on Andrew’s shoulders and he’s felt the weight of his gaze and Neil’s been a witness to the way Andrew looks when Neil asks him do you want this?

How could something that was supposed to be nothing feel like everything? How could you want something so bad when a year ago, you didn’t know or care about its existence? Neil does now though, and he’s felt him and felt for him, and there’s no forgetting that.

But it doesn’t matter. What Neil wants doesn’t want to be chosen.

So Neil can’t, so Neil doesn’t.

-

He’s ready in his gear long before anyone else is, so he sits on a bench in the locker room and lets the muffled sounds of the crowd and his teammates wash him away. He stays seated even when his teammates file out of the room and head towards the court. He doesn’t move until Kevin realizes he isn’t following and snaps, “You have five minutes to break down, then we need you out there.”

Neil just barely moves then to look up at him, and then he asks a question he’s been wondering about forever; “How did you choose so easily? How’d you decide to give Andrew up?”

Kevin’s expression goes miserably blank, and it’s a long moment before he answers. “It wasn’t a decision, as I didn’t even think about. I couldn’t understand him for not following me, and that was it. If I had listened - I should have listened, and then my choice would have been different.”

Neil nods before turning his attention to his gloved hands, flexing his fingers just to prove that he can decide how he moves. Neil can’t do what Kevin did in deciding not to choose Andrew because Neil can’t stop thinking about him, can’t stop listening to him.

He’s been destroying his mind trying to figure out why Andrew won’t let Neil choose him, when the reason has been right there from the beginning. It’s been looking at Neil with guilt and grief tied up in green eyes.

Nobody’s ever chosen Andrew so it’s why he can’t be an option. Everyone either leaves him, hurts him, or un-chooses him. Neil sits there in his gear and jersey and understands that it’s either this, or him, and he’s been telling Andrew from the very beginning what was real, what meant everything to him.

The game.

“Thanks,” Neil eventually whispers, fighting the urge to drop his gloves and run from this decision. Kevin gives a terse nod back before reminding him ‘five minutes’.

Panic rattles and rings down Neil’s spine at being left alone, the door right there for him to escape through, but he’s saved from that dangerous thought by somebody loudly clearing their throat. Neil looks over his shoulder to see Matt standing in the doorway of the bathroom stalls, looking hesitantly at Neil’s face.

“Hey . . . everything good?”

“Yeah,” Neil replies, but it sounds too close to a sob in his ears. “Just - tired.”

“Aren’t we all?” Matt asks with a grin that doesn’t look too much like a grin. “But I mean like, about the whole . . Andrew thing.”

Panic once again strikes a match inside of Neil. He’s quick to school his shocked features and innocently shrug his shoulders. “Oh, no, that’s - that’s nothing.”

“Oh, cool, yeah,” Matt says, taking a few careful steps closer before sitting at the end of the bench, sliding down until he’s next to Neil. “But if it weren’t - if it were, I dunno, something - that’d be okay, you know.”

Neil shrugs again. It doesn’t really matter what it is.

“I’m sorry.”

Neil frowns then, not expecting to hear such guilt, from Matt of all people. He quirks an eyebrow at him but doesn’t ask, not truly wanting to know why that guilt is there. “It’s fine.”

“But it isn’t, is it?” Matt’s cheerful expression gives way to darkness as he says, “I don’t know what it’s like to be in your position, I know that, but I know how suffocating our contracts can be. They hated that my engagement to Dan was so public. It’s why I’m waiting until my contract’s done and over to finally tie the knot, you know? Yeah, sorry, not the same thing, but - lying sucks, I know.”

For one moment and one moment only, Neil looks at Matt and lets him see the truth. He drops his smile and sighs, “Yeah, but I’m used to it.”

“That’s not how it should be.”

Neil shrugs for what feels like the millionth time.

“Just how it is.” The understanding in Matt’s eyes had felt nice a second ago but now it feels just as suffocating as all the rules and restrictions. Except Neil is desperate; he hasn’t been able to say the truth since his lips last touched Andrew’s. So Neil takes the path laid out for him and says what he wants to say without persecution. “I didn’t think I’d have a problem with all the rules we have, but then I met him, and I . . I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve felt before, so I should be able to let it go . . . but . .”

I can’t.

Neil waits for the consequences of such an admission, but the walls remain standing and it’s only Matt listening and looking at him. He claps a hand down on Neil’s shoulder and shakes his head.

“That - yeah, that sucks. Really sucks. Can I ask though, uh, what it is about him that you like so much?”

Neil’s shoulders hurt from all this shrugging. “I’m still trying to explain that to myself.”

Matt hums a little and squeezes Neil’s shoulder reassuringly. “Then you probably don’t need to explain it. If you feel it, then it’s real, that simple.”

Neil would laugh if he had the heart or energy.

“Then I guess . . .” he says, looking back down at his twisted-up hands. “I guess I’m trying to understand what could be so wrong about it.”

How come the way I feel when I look at him, or the way he looks at me, is outlawed and forbidden? What’s so different about holding his hand than holding any other?

It’s Matt who laughs, so loud and light it brightens up the room and knocks Neil off balance.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he says easily, giving Neil’s hair a fierce rub or two. “It just doesn’t make those bastards any money.”

Any fire left in Neil is quickly put out, and any fight is evaporated. “Yeah, you’re right . . . but hey, we should probably get out there. Kevin’s waiting.”

Matt stands to his feet and sighs in agreement, only to pause and face Neil again. “You know what you should do?” he asks, his grin fixed back across his face. “Go to Europe. Dan and I used to think about getting married there, because pro Exy isn’t as big yet. Nobody will know who you are.”

Such a fantasy is enough to make Neil smile, so faintly. “That seems hard to imagine.”

“It’s real, man,” Matt says with enthusiasm, almost able to turn Neil’s ghost smile into a grin. “You just have to want it enough, and it’ll find a way to work out. It has to, alright?”

He says it like a question but for some reason Neil hears it as a promise.

A hope or a wish or another stupid, useless dream.

Because as Matt leaves and Neil doesn’t, he hears the closing of doors and the clicking of locks and knows there’s nowhere else for him to go but towards the court. It’s the only entrance open for him and it’s so unfair, because Andrew isn’t there and Andrew can’t follow.

No planes, no ships, no way to get there. Andrew already said that they’d never see Europe together.

There really is no option where they get out of this together. The only way out is down, down, down.

And alone.

-

Neil hears nothing.

Not the screams of the crowd, not his teammates excited cheering, not the clacking of their sticks or any of their coaches’ motivational words.

Nothing.

Until he’s on the court and the timer is ticking down and he can hardly feel his racquet in his own hands. That’s when he hears it; the closing and locking of the court doors behind them.

That one sound is an explosion, blowing clear through Neil’s mind.

Neil jerks towards the door and suddenly can’t breathe as he watches his only chance of escape being taken from him. The only way out is to play, play, play, like he said he would, but what if he doesn’t win?

What if this is it for him?

“Neil!”

Neil feels his lungs pull and twist inside of him and doesn’t dare take his eyes off the door.

“Neil!” Kevin shouts louder, until Neil finally looks at him. “You need to focus! We win this and we go to finals, remember?”

A better question would be how could you forget?

Neil thinks he nods in understanding, but everything from his chin to his heels feels numb. It’s a miracle that he can run and move when the buzzer sounds and the game begins.

Or maybe not, because in the end, the SeaKings do not win.

Neil can only recall his goal, an opportunity that he seized on instinct, but even that is a blur. It’s all dark water and no air and no way to stay conscious under the waves. Neil doesn’t inhale properly until the referees are unlocking the doors and allowing them out.

Except Neil is glued to his spot. They lost, and he can’t even feel it. Kevin is staring at him with all the disappointment that the world has to offer, but Neil’s numbness is a shield to it. He’s under the waves and reality is so far above it.

Reporters ask him if it’s the pressure of finals or troubles in his relationship that caused such a poor performance. Neil can’t remember what he answered with and decides it doesn’t matter, as it was just another lie.

Neil showers under hot water but still goes home numb.

The front door to his apartment is open slightly when he gets there, and all at once Neil can feel, his veins churning with hope, Andrew -

He shoves the door open and steps inside, only to find that it’s not Andrew waiting for him.

“That was a loss for the books, don’t you think? Good thing you’ve got one game left to try,” Riko says from where he’s perched on Neil’s couch, tonight’s game replaying on the TV in front of him. “I’d say now is a perfect time for a renegotiation on your contract. Perhaps now you’ll listen to me.”

Chapter Text

Neil takes a shallow breath in before closing the door behind him and dropping off his bag. He ignores Riko as he heads straight to the fridge to grab a bottle of water, not paying him any mind as he untwists the cap and takes a sip.

A thick and threatening silence consumes the apartment.

Riko slowly rises from the couch and dusts off his legs, then walks closer, making the tiny kitchen feel even tinier; a trap. “Nothing to say?”

Neil makes a face as he swallows down more water, his nose scrunching up as he draws out the seconds. “Mm, not really, not to you. I just hope you’re aware that you’re not in the clear yet - once we win the next game, we’ll be moving onto finals.”

“But I want to face you in finals, remember,” Riko says brightly, his grin just as gleaming. “I enjoy watching you squirm in Andrew’s presence. Speaking of, that man wears his collar well. Figures, given his past. Says ‘yes’ so easily.”

The grinding of Neil’s teeth sounds the way nails do on a chalkboard. A thousand vicious words press on his tongue but he says nothing, instead taking another sip of water before resting the bottle on the counter.

“Isn’t there some sort of law saying I can kill you when you’re a threat to me in my own home?” he asks casually, tilting his head to one side.

“If you could have, you would have,” Riko says with a sneer. “Besides, dear Neil, I am not here to threaten you - I’m here to make an offer.”

“Was my ‘no’ not clear enough? Do you remember having any of those contracts returned to you signed?”

“You won’t say no to this, that I am sure of.” Riko gestures towards the table, where a familiar black box sits ominously on top. “Let’s sit, shall we?”

Riko pulls out a chair and sits down primly, as if the seat will taint him. He crosses one leg over the other and gives Neil a very pointed look, and though frustration is smacking at Neil’s heart and he only wants to deny him, he sits down to face Riko.

“Alright, go, let’s hear it. You sure are eager to be turned down again,” Neil says while reaching for the box, tearing the lid off without ceremony. The contract inside looks just like all the others, so he scoffs and places the lid back on.

“If you could stop being a petulant child for one moment, you would see that this is a mutually beneficial transaction. I have something you want, you have something I need.”

Deciding to continue playing his petulant child card, Neil tips his head entirely to one side and stares blankly at Riko’s face. “You ‘need’ to stop me from beating you at finals. I want Andrew’s safety.”

Riko clicks his tongue and shakes his head, all while smiling viciously. “That is where you’re wrong, Neil. Andrew is perfectly safe with me for the time being, but I cannot say the same about you. You are quite a weapon.”

At that, Neil jerks his head up and goes still. There’s a sour taste in his mouth, every breath feeling more wrong than the last. He feels his skin being punctured when Riko’s grin widens.

“Allow me to explain,” Riko says all too gleefully. “It’s quite adorable how much he wants you, if a bit pathetic. One mention of your name and that boy’s favourite word is ‘yes’ all of a sudden. All I have to do is entertain the idea of taking you out of the game and he goes willingly, so one wonders if he’s really that in love with you, or with the promise he made you. Oh.” Riko’s eyes grow wide then at Neil’s helplessly shocked expression, but his surprise is all false. “Oh, is this news to you? Makes sense he wouldn’t confess such feelings for you, what with everyone either fucking him or fucking him over.”

Neil bolts up from his seat while grinding out the words, “Get out -” only to have his wrist seized, only to be yanked back down.

“It’s killing him, that I can tell, but breaking Minyard of his word has always been a favourite pastime of mine. He wants it to end, so how about it, Neil? You won’t deny him like that, will you?” Riko twists Neil’s wrist again and hisses, “Like they did?

Neil seethes, furiously breathing as he fights against the hold on his wrist until Riko abruptly lets go.

“And that is simply one example. I’ll continue with that later, but first let’s get back to discussing what you want; to be with Andrew while continuing to play Exy as much a your pathetic little heart will allow.” Riko looks right at Neil with dark eyes made of fire and loses his smile. “And then there’s what I need; to win.”

“It’s just a stupid game,” Neil mutters while rubbing at his sore wrist, scowling all the while.

“Uh-uh, Neil, you know better than that. Imagine if your own father was still alive, and your only reason for living was to please him. Imagine if you lost. What do you think would become of you because of that?”

Neil’s scowl darkens and deepens. “Am I supposed to care about your daddy issues?”

That fire in Riko’s gaze diminishes into smoke. “I need to win because the price if I lose is not one I can afford to pay.”

“Take out a loan.”

“I should cuff you in the ear, maybe then you’ll listen,” Riko snarls, flicking his hand out dismissively. “This is meant to be mutually beneficial. The more you anger me, the less I feel inclined to help you.”

Neil taps at his left ear and leans closer across the table. “Sorry, didn’t catch that. Can you repeat yourself?”

Riko slowly lets his breath out before summoning back his smile.

“Sign with the Nighthawks now and be free from the SeaKings. We’ll buy you out completely; no ties, no legal feels, no lawsuits, nothing. You will be one of us by noon tomorrow. Once you’ve signed, you are free to play Exy at the best of your ability with athletes of a similar ranking. You are guaranteed to make Court and you will go onto win gold. The bonus? You’ll be doing this all with Andrew in goal behind you. Doesn’t that sound heavenly?”

It sounds like every single one of Neil’s dreams brought to life. That fantasy is right where Neil’s mind goes when he closes his eyes at the end of every day. But Neil already knows that good things are usually followed by handcuffs, and that dreams always end; so he seals hope back up and shrugs.

“I’ve heard this all before. Tell me what’s different about the contract in that box.”

“Prepare yourself for this next reason,” Riko says eagerly, the look on his face the one a predator makes when spotting its prey. “It’s all up to you, Neil. Do remember that.”

“Just hurry up,” Neil snaps, annoyed despite how his hands are twisting up underneath the table.

Riko grins.

“Sign the contract and I will never touch Andrew again.”

Every part of Neil shakes itself apart then, as an awful sickness burns through his stomach and floods into his blood. No, no - no, and he remembers Riko’s hands on Andrew and he remembers Riko’s earlier words and no - and no no no no -

“No -”

“Not a finger, not anywhere,” Riko continues. “The decision, and his safety, is entirely in your hands.”

Fury blurs Neil’s vision until the only thing he can see is the tilting and crashing of the world. “And if I - if I don’t - ?”

The twist of Riko’s smile is a twist in Neil’s chest, and he is going to bleed out from this.

“That’s for me to know and Andrew to find out.”

Neil is shaking as his fingers touch at the box, taking the lid off carefully this time to grab at the contract. He spots the shining pen and in that moment, he nearly grabs it just to let this all be over, to save Andrew.

But that would not be winning, that’d be sacrifice and surrender.

Andrew asked Neil to win like it was the only thing in the world he truly wanted, and Neil can’t take that from him.

No,” Neil shouts as nausea sweeps over him. He has just enough strength to shove at the box and send it sprawling towards the floor. “We’re going to play against each other fair and square. If you want to win, it’ll be with me as a SeaKing. Not like this.”

Riko promptly stands and steps over the upended contract, as if he had expected such a reaction. “I understand that you need time to consider,” he says evenly, still smiling. “And as you said before, you still have one more game to win before you can even consider finals. So, win or lose, this offer still stands. I’ll be waiting.”

He leaves Neil a mess beside the table, shaking and gasping for a chance at air and reality. The click of the door closing behind Riko isn’t enough to pull Neil out of this warzone of fear, because now that fear is everywhere.

Neil can’t take a step without detonating.

-

With less than twenty-four hours until their rematch against Houston, the SeaKings push themselves to their limits during practice. It’s as if their loss only fueled them; anger pushes them to be faster, humiliation urges them to be stronger. They play with all the more accuracy until there isn’t a doubt left on the court.

Except for the doubt inside of Neil.

Laila stops Neil during their break, still toying around with her goalie racquet as if it doesn’t weigh a thing. “Hey, so how’s about you and me rack up a pretty-looking point gap during first half tomorrow? I block, you score, and we send those Nighthawks a little warning message about what they’re in for.”

Neil smiles - he even laughs - and bumps her fist while saying, “Sounds good to me.”

But he really can’t even listen.

He isn’t the player they think he is because he isn’t the player he thought he was.

Wearing their colours doesn’t make him a SeaKing. Any second now his teammates will turn around and see all of his lies. And because lies weigh more than the truth (because the truth is free) he will only drag them down.

Neil looks from one face to the next and thinks that in a perfect world, this would be the perfect team, playing the perfect game.

But this is not a perfect world.

In fact, this is a world so dark and hideous that it can’t stand the sight of anything good, has to swallow it entirely before spitting it out different and twisted.

If this world ever saw the way Andrew looked that night in the elevator, when all he wanted was Neil, or heard the way Neil so easily said yes to him, or if this world could get their hands on this feeling of being trusted and being able to trust, this world would destroy it.

This world would turn it into something equally dark, equally hideous.

For this is a world where the things you want and love cost you your life. It’s a universe run by the rules of false Gods, and if you don’t play their way, then you get nothing.

Neil Josten has always been nothing.

He’s built on a foundation of unreal things and fake names, so easy to splinter and shake. Once that foundation falls to pieces, then you are left with a skeleton; nothing.

So Neil Josten has to choose nothing.

It might just kill him.

At the end of practice Neil offers to round up all the balls and put away the gear, though not much cleaning gets done when the rest of the team leaves and Neil is free to smack the balls up and down the court in the dark. Frustration builds into anger until his body is too weak to hold it in.

With no one around to see or hear him, Neil yells and throws his racquet as far as he can. The sound of it smashing into the ground sounds like bones breaking.

Either or, neither, none.

Choose the game, lose Andrew.

Choose Andrew, lose the game.

It’s become abundantly clear that he cannot have both. It’s one or the other.

It’s Andrew and everything that comes with him; trust, longing, understanding, something so much - more. Or it’s the game; the victory of a goal flaring up red, a home beneath his feet and a family of a team.

Or it’s Riko’s offer.

Which could be everything all in one, but also something else.

It’s also surrender and it’s submission and it’s betrayal. To Kevin, to his team, to every fan that’s worn his jersey. To Andrew, who has done everything he can to make sure Neil never truly understands what it’s like to be controlled by the heavy hands of force, by a man who will never hear a no.

Andrew had said that Neil wouldn’t be free.

So the only option out of all these options is none of these options.

Neil picks up a stray ball and throws it hard at the court wall, only to have it bounce back with perfect precision. Figures. He catches it and throws it again, and again, and again and again until he’s certain there must be a crack in the plexiglass.

The SeaKings are more than capable of getting to finals on their own. All they have to do is win tomorrow’s game. They stand a perfect chance of winning finals, too. They’re a team of professionals; they’ve always had that ability, they just didn’t know how to shape themselves into what they could be until recently.

They’ll make it just fine without him.

Because if Neil isn’t there on the court when the SeaKings win and Riko loses, the win may not be Riko’s but it will also not be Neil’s. All the cards that Riko holds will be pulled from his hands and he won’t have any reason to threaten Neil. No more reasons for Riko to touch what isn’t his to touch.

And Andrew won’t be forced into saying yes to it.

It’s all Neil’s fault and always has been.

So he has to go.

Neil throws the ball once more but turns around before he has the opportunity to catch it. He hears it fall to the ground and roll away, somewhere towards a dark corner of the court. It seems to know where it’s going without anyone guiding it.

It’s not the same for Neil. He doesn’t know where he’ll go, but he has to go there.

Wherever.

Anywhere.

Far from here.

Neil turns again, ready to chase down the rest of the practice balls, and is met with the silent sight of Kevin walking towards him. None of his footsteps make a sound, not a feature on his face speaks expression.

“You should go home,” Kevin says flatly. “You’ll need as much rest as possible. Tomorrow will be a very strenuous day.”

Neil nods, though he isn’t sure how he manages it. “I know.”

What if I’m not here tomorrow? Wherever, anywhere, far from here -

Kevin stares at him, reading and looking, and Neil isn’t sure what he’s going to find when Neil can’t even pin down one single thought in his head. His emotions feel like fireworks inside of him.

“One loss is acceptable. Considering the fact that it’s our third of the entire season, I would say that speaks volumes.” So he must think Neil’s upset about the previous loss - and he is, but he has lost so much more than just a game.

“I know,” Neil croaks out, nodding again. “It’s not that.”

Kevin narrows his eyes and crosses his arms, but his intense look doubles as one of understanding. Together, they look out towards the blackened court, only partially lit by the security lights placed around the stadium.

Neil sighs a little as he studies every line crossing the floor, remembering how much he hated and craved Kevin’s single-minded need to play his best.

Kevin will win just fine without him. Kevin’s the best. Kevin’s always been the best.

Being recruited by the one and only Kevin Day might just be the one and only highlight of Neil’s career.

Though he knows Kevin won’t prompt or press him for more, Neil has to say it, has to let some of this agony out of his chest. “This game is a lot harder than I first thought it’d be. And I’m not talking about playing.”

The court falls quiet as the words settle and echo.

Kevin lets out his held breath and says, “It’s not the game it once was. It’s not the game my mother had intended it to be. Not that I’m playing her version, either.” Neil turns to look at Kevin, not sure what to say to that admission, but is beaten to speaking when Kevin faces him as well and whispers, “I’m sorry, Neil.”

Everyone keeps saying that, as if apologizing to him will somehow change a contract. Neil wants to resent that but he can’t - not when Kevin looks like that, as if someone just clawed down his chest and tore out all his soft spots.

Kevin looks unbalanced and lost and completely, absolutely, grief-stricken.

“But I’m also grateful.” Great pain caused by sharp blades cuts into Kevin’s expression, but somehow he smiles. “I know it’s been difficult for you, yet you’ve stuck with me regardless. You kept your promise, and now we’re one game away from finals. I shouldn’t be surprised - it was why I recruited you, how you stuck by your team like a captain on a sinking ship. I’m grateful for that, and I’m . . . I’m sorry for introducing you to another.”

Neil knows in that instant that Kevin is no longer referring to a team, but rather a person.

Neil looks away.

“When we win, I’m going to try and change it, however I can. For you and for - for Andrew.”

Hope is such a dangerous thing to feel; Neil shuts down upon hearing it, forcing himself to refuse it. “Kevin,” he pleads. “It’s not that simple.”

“I have to try,” Kevin says so surely. “The way I should have tried when Andrew first asked me to.”

Hope breaks through Neil’s defenses and all he can do is shut his eyes tight to stop the onslaught of tears. They burn more than they have the right to.

He wants to tell Kevin what Riko will do if Neil stays and plays, if he goes onto help the SeaKings win. He wants to tell him that it’s better for everyone if he leaves now, without a trace or clue, but he doesn’t say that.

Because Kevin’s words are the first real words that Neil’s heard since he last saw Andrew.

So Neil blinks and blinks until the tears fade away and then he says, “No. Win or lose, you’re going to do more than try. That’s what you’re going to do, and if not for Andrew, then for everyone else.” He thinks of every teammate with a secret held above their heads, all the future players out there with multiple dreams and only one option. “Promise?”

Kevin doesn’t even buckle or bend, only looking more fierce and certain as he stares at Neil.

“I promise,” he says, and Neil believes it.

Together they shut down the rest of the court, and as they lock the court door behind them, Neil decides to play just one more game. He’ll lay his dreams to rest with one final win.

-

The door locks again and it’s too late to leave.

It’s been too late for a while; Neil had looked for a point of exit but could never bring himself to escape. He promised himself one more win and then he’s done, for good.

Forgetting his promise is all too easy in a game like this, however. It’s tenacious but exhilarating, freeing, like shouting and being heard. Laila gave him a number - I give them three, you get us seven. Those are good numbers. - and by some miracle that number soon fixes itself on the scoreboard above them.

Thea is the same moving wall that she was back in October, but Neil isn’t the same player he was when she pushed him. He also isn’t fighting to win the same thing as her, and is able to find a way past her soon enough, earning him a perfect view of the goal right before he scores.

All too soon the buzzer is ringing to announce the end of first half. When the court doors are unbolted and opened, the sound of the crowd is nearly enough to take Neil off his feet and keep him on the court.

His heart breaks, because even though he wants to, he can’t.

That was it.

He watches the second half of the game as a spectator and jumps to his feet when the final buzzer sounds on a SeaKings win. For the first time in NEL history they’ll be advancing to finals. The announcers overhead are talking excitedly, spewing statistics and facts and saying Kevin Day! and Neil Josten!

Before Neil can run and leave and disappear, he’s being ushered out onto the court for the handshake lineup. He can’t meet anyone’s eyes - until he gets to Jeremy Knox, who nearly knocks Neil to the ground with his heavy high five. “That was quite a game, Josten!” he shouts, as if his team hasn’t just been kicked out of playoffs. “Boy, do I regret not taking you seriously. We sure look forward to seeing you next year!”

It takes a moment to think through ice-cold guilt, but then Neil is lying and smiling. “Yeah, see you next year.”

Run, Neil tells himself, reminds himself, says like a prayer. Go.

But he can’t run away when all these people are saying stay.

Neil looks for every opportunity from there on out but it’s a constant stream of things to do and people to see, obligations and interviews and sponsorship dinners and after-parties. There aren’t any doors open for him to leave through, all of them locked or blocked by something out of Neil’s power to move.

Nothing is all he has and yet nothing is being wrenched from his hands.

Figures.

And he doesn’t even want to leave completely or for forever, but what Neil Josten wants has never mattered. Maybe it mattered in that hotel room in Los Angeles, and perhaps it mattered when Andrew asked, but Andrew isn’t here anymore.

Days push and pull until it’s the first of April, with the second of April bringing the first round of finals; the SeaKings versus the Nighthawks, all the way in New York City. So it’s now, tonight, still the first of April, that Neil has to plan his escape.

He shoves whatever he can into his duffel bag and sets it by the door, that way, no matter what he decides tomorrow - stay or go - he’ll have everything he needs.

Neil doesn’t sleep. He says goodbye in his head to this life that he’s lived, and in a perfect world it wouldn’t have needed to be perfect, if it had just offered him a choice.

This is not a perfect world, Neil now knows, but he dreams all the same, and if it were . . .

This would be New York that I was in and it’d be you I woke up next to.

But that’s just a dream I live, and I don’t think I’m meant to.

His alarm goes off at 7:00 AM but he doesn’t shut it off right away, hoping the insistent beeping will increase his sense of urgency. It doesn’t. So he lays there until an ache begins to form in his head, until force is once again pulling him from bed.

Neil didn’t sleep but he’s not so sure he’s awake, because when his phone goes off with a text from Andrew, he’s convinced it’s a dream.

He doesn’t believe it even as he’s reading it, a long set of numbers and a time; coordinates.

That sense of urgency kicks in then. Neil types them into his phone and holds his breath and refuses hope and -

It’s no good, all this refusing, because hope is all Neil feels.

Those numbers lead right to Andrew.

Chapter Text

He used to prefer New York over any other city.

For multiple reasons, for one person, but as Neil makes his way through New York in the back of a taxi, he finds it looks like every other city he’s ever been in. Grey-black buildings form and crumble as he passes them, all of them dark and identical until he finally arrives at his destination.

A gleaming structure that’s so much taller, like a fortress or a guarded tower; forbidden and forewarned.

Except Neil has the coordinates to say that he’s wanted here if he wants to be here, so here he is.

First serve isn’t until three hours from now, with now being just past five. Giving them time to . . . to . . . Neil doesn’t know.

The block looks the same as it did last time Neil was here, secluded and quiet. To be safe, he pulls his hood further over his head as he steps towards the doors. He presses a few buttons on the intercom, because he doesn’t have the skills to pick the lock on a building so pristine, and smiles politely at the man working the front desk before he hurries to the elevator.

Then he stands in that elevator where this all could have and should have been over.

He waits for the expectant threat of Riko to jump out from around a corner, or for a hoard of cameras and people to appear and incriminate him, but all that greets him when he steps out of the elevator are halls and walls and then Andrew’s door.

With the hall so eerily silent, Neil only knocks once before trying the handle, afraid of causing too much noise and disruption. The door is unlocked, easily opening for Neil to step inside. He doesn’t look as he locks the door behind him, too busy scanning his surroundings to find Andrew.

Who sits at the kitchen island, slumped over on a bar stool with a glass and a bottle in front of him.

And just like the street outside, Andrew doesn’t look any different from when Neil last saw him, so Neil lets out his held breath and approaches him.

“Being tanked on the court won’t help your chances any,” he says evenly, if a bit quietly.

Andrew huffs and knocks back the rest of his drink, then turns smoothly in his seat to face Neil.

And then he does look entirely different, so tired, like he hasn’t slept once in months, and Neil tramples down the urge to reach out and swipe his thumbs at the shadows under Andrew’s eyes.

“You came,” Andrew says, sounding more like a bewildered statement than anything relieved.

“You told me to.”

Andrew shakes his head. “I asked. You didn’t have to.”

Neil lets his bag drop to the ground and closes the gap of distance between them. His arms stay folded over his chest to stop himself from reaching out to touch, to tell Andrew that he doesn’t want to be touched.

(He wants so badly to be touched, but what’s the point when this is already over?)

Gaze flicking down to take in Neil’s tense stance, Andrew continues; “I’m surprised you listened in the first place, in staying away.”

“You told me to,” Neil says again, a little more fierce, a little more defensive. “Of course I did.”

“Don’t use that tone with me. You know why I did it.”

Neil stares blankly at him. Andrew stares back.

Their staring contest lasts nearly a full minute before Andrew’s eyes widen slightly, then quickly narrow. He scoffs and flicks his hand out, as if the answer was always right there.

“I took myself out of the equation to make your decision easier. Can’t be a choice if I’m not there.”

Understanding and sorrow punch at Neil’s lungs one after the other until he can’t breathe. His arms fall to his sides as he asks, “What do you mean?”

Andrew makes a show of rubbing at his temples while sighing.

“Riko certainly tried his hardest in getting me to get you to sign that contract. When I refused, I knew he’d turn the tables and use me against you. What’d he tell you, that he wouldn’t touch me if you signed? How predictable,” Andrew says casually, with a small shrug of his shoulders. “I know how much you love your martyr card. Couldn’t let you use it. I’m not meant to be an option, Neil. I had to stop you from thinking that I was.”

Neil feels fight rip through his body, folding up in his fists. He wants to be angry that Andrew ever thought that - that he thinks that. He wants to be angry that that’s why Andrew pulled away from him and he wants to be angry that they’re in this situation at all, all out of options.

Instead of feeling angry, however, Neil only feels defeated.

“The only question is, did it work? Are you here to play tonight or here to turn your contract in?”

“I -” is all Neil manages to get out between his clenched teeth and a burning throat. Shame creeps through his veins until it’s flooding his face with too-hot blood. “Andrew . . . neither. I’m not playing tonight.”

Andrew’s spine straightens as he levels Neil with a look that’s half curious, half furious. “Say that again.”

“I’m not playing tonight because I’m not playing ever. I won’t give him a reason to hurt you, hurt any of them. If I’m not there when the SeaKings win then he has no reason to go after you, and I won’t have to lie anymore. The game can be a game again.”

Anger does not suit Andrew’s face; it takes over everything, from the baring of his teeth to the slant of his eyebrows. His jaw clenches and his muscles twitch in a desperate fit to control his expression.

Neil’s only seen that look once and only once and he realizes all too quickly that such an expression might not mean anger in Andrew’s dictionary.

“Oh, this game was rigged long before you ever showed up,” Andrew says dismissively, waving his hand before he suddenly grabs at Neil’s arms to haul him closer. “What are you saying, Neil, what are you trying to achieve? Being the hero doesn’t work this way.”

Despite how weighted Neil’s bones feel, as soon as Andrew’s touching him Neil falls pliant. His stupid heart skips several beats when Andrew’s hands slip down his arms to hold at his wrists, and how is he supposed to say goodbye to this?

“You said you were going to win,” Andrew says flatly. “In fact, you promised me.”

“And he told me what he’d do to you if I did.”

“Why don’t you ever believe me when I say that I can handle it?”

“Because you shouldn’t have to,” Neil answers, fighting the grip Andrew has on him until he can tangle their hands together. “He makes you feel - he makes you say yes, and you shouldn’t have to say that.”

Andrew rips one hand away from Neil to tap at his own temple, sneering as he says, “I know what I’m agreeing to. It’s either I say yes to him or you do, and I made a promise.” He lets out another harsh breath before turning around and snagging the bottle of amber-coloured alcohol, filling his glass to the brim.

Before he can pick it up, Neil swerves around him to knock it out of his reach, sending the glass falling sideways, liquid spilling across the counter top.

Andrew stares at the spilled drink, clearly unimpressed, but Neil’s attention is caught by the familiar-looking book sitting in the direct line of the spill. Too late, the pages quickly absorb the drink until every word is drenched.

“You stole my book,” Neil decides to say, poking at the wet pages and deeming it ruined.

“You were never going to finish it,” Andrew says, eyeing the spill before looking away.

“Did you?”

“Does it matter if it’s not a happy ending?” Andrew folds his fingers around Neil’s wrist and pulls him back into his direct line of sight, his opposite hand coming up to rest on Neil’s hip. “This is a coward’s way out and you know it. Remember when you said this game was every cell that you are?”

“But it isn’t anymore,” Neil says solemnly, looking down into eyes that he wants to drown in.

Andrew should not exist in such an imperfect world and Neil should not feel this, but Neil does regardless, and he feels it so much. Andrew isn’t made of tricks and traps; he’s the truth and he asks questions and gives options and he knows how to make a chained man feel free, and all Neil wants is to give him a piece of that feeling.

But Andrew tugs at Neil’s wrist and looks at him in disagreement.

“Everything else, Neil - this,” he tugs on his wrist again, fingers curling around him like he forgot how to let go, “is a pipe dream. It’s fiction. Worse. It’s words in a book that never gets read. It never gets to happen.”

Maybe he does it in protest of such words, or maybe he does it because suddenly he hates Andrew, but Neil resists Andrew’s touch until he finally frees him. “Then let me leave, let me disappear.”

“I can’t,” Andrew all but growls, and Neil blanks because Andrew’s anger looks far too similar to desperation now. “I need you to choose what’s real. You have to prove that you can. What did you want the most a year ago, two, ten?”

Without Andrew’s touch on his body Neil feels suddenly cold. His next words make him feel even colder; “To play.”

Silence seals up the room, not another sound breaking through the walls. They might as well be up in outer space or somewhere far away, so quiet until Andrew lets out a harsh breath, his expression switching between despair and relief.

“Then there you go. Choose it.”

If only it were that easy, but Neil suddenly can’t, because his skin still tingles from the sensation of Andrew’s hands. A touch like that, like his, makes Neil want to be an honest man, to say his own truth at least once in his own life.

“I love you,” he says, and though he feels weightless and breathless, the words come out evenly. For it is the truth and he means it. “Andrew? I do.”

Three words apparently have the power to disassemble an invincible man. Andrew’s face breaks into pieces until he no longer looks like himself, like those three words chiseled apart every feature and molded him into some sort of broken creature.

His hand belatedly raises to press against Neil’s mouth, blocking out his breath instead of his words.

Andrew himself looks thoughtless, breathless, beaten. He stares and stares and stares until anger fades into frustration and frustration breaks down into a familiar nothing.

“You shouldn’t throw such words around, Neil,” is all Andrew says.

His hand stays firmly against Neil’s mouth for an endless minute or two, and it’s not until the third endless minute that Neil realizes Andrew is shaking. He wraps a gentle hand around Andrew’s wrist and lowers it himself.

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t feel it. I hate lying,” Neil says carefully, taking Andrew’s stunned stance as an opportunity to loop their fingers together once more. “You know that.”

Neil said it so he could say the truth, but he also said it because this is the breaking of a rule. Now Andrew will say go and Neil will go and now Andrew will say this has to be over and Neil will let it be over.

Because I can’t keep it separate and here’s the truth - I never could.

But you knew that.

So why didn’t you stop me sooner?

Andrew always knew that for Neil to want this, he had to want him. Neil was breaking the rules right from the start, but since Andrew never stopped him, wasn't Andrew breaking them too? But why?

Why let these feelings grow and go onto be something that will kill Neil to walk away from?

And then -

And then all it takes is one more endless minute for Neil to get it.

Andrew wanted Neil to want him, because he wanted Neil.

Neil fades back into attention then, just in time to notice that Andrew is bordering on self-destructive with how hard his hands are trembling, all that anger on his face seeping inwards. Thinking quickly, Neil taps his free hand underneath Andrew’s chin until they’re eye to eye, and slowly, that anger switches into refusal.

Shock and sorrow all battle for property, taking turns through the spin of Andrew’s expression.

“You can’t,” he says warningly.

And it’s not an order or a plea, it’s a belief that Andrew has faith in; Neil can’t want him because soon enough Neil will want something else.

Because everyone always wants something else and not Andrew in the end. Those rules of his were to keep anyone from ever touching him and latching on and inevitably letting go. Then why ever allow Neil to place his hands on him?

Maybe he had hoped Neil wouldn’t disappear, or maybe he knew he would and wanted it anyway, while he could.

Understanding that, Neil tightens his hold on Andrew’s hand and leans in as much as Andrew will allow him; they end up nearly nose to nose. “I can’t choose anything else because I don’t want any of that,” he says. “It’s you. So now you tell me - what do you want?”

Shock and surprise and refusal all form together into one picture; heartbreak, clear across Andrew’s face.

“Even if I told you, what good would it do? What good does ‘wanting’ anything do?” Andrew asks with heat, with hurt. “Unless you can prove to me that ‘wanting’ ever gets you anywhere, how do you expect me to believe you?”

Neil didn’t know understanding could hurt so bad. It’s a hot throb in his chest, like he’s bleeding, and he likely is. Not even the comfort of Andrew’s skin against his, the sound of his breathing or the colour of his eyes is enough to distract Neil from how much this all hurts.

Is that why he needed Neil to play and win so badly? So he could prove that at least one want and dream could come true, even if that dream weren’t his.

“Prove it?” Neil asks, nudging his nose off Andrew’s. “Fine. Looks like I’m playing tonight after all.”

And I’ll win.

Andrew cautiously raises his eyes to meet Neil’s. “For which team?”

“Mine.”

It’s a long pause before it seems to register with Andrew. Then he gives a short nod, and as his hands drag down Neil’s sides, his expression drags with it, until he looks almost miserable, like he needs a new heart because his is failing.

But then he gives Neil a dark grin, gone within a blink. “Don’t expect me to make it easy for you.”

“I don’t need you to,” Neil says back, the pressure inside his chest quickly lessening.

That just barely brings back the twitch to Andrew’s mouth. “Watch it. Cocky never looked good on you.”

Neil thinks of a thousand different retaliations but ultimately settles on silence, on smiling.

To think he was this close from walking away from him, from all of it. Leaving was never an option in the way that severing your own arm isn’t an option; he would have left mutilated and bleeding, and though he would not be a lie, the truth would be trapped inside of him.

Now it’s out between them, and instead of refusing it, they’re finding a way to choose it.

If he wins, if that impossibility becomes a reality, then maybe this could, too. Because out of everything, this has always been the forbidden dream, forever out of reach.

Neil notices then that though Andrew looks tired, he also looks more solid and structured than he had when Neil first walked in here. He wonders why that is as he goes to the fridge, opening it to find a water bottle.

“Don’t need you tanked on the court, remember,” Neil says a bit slyly as he hands the water over, dodging Andrew’s kick just in time.

“For that, I’m aiming all the balls at your head.”

“Can you reach my head?”

He dodges that kick too, and looks back just in time to see the fractured structure of Andrew’s face, held together by glue and tape, shift into something relieved, freed. Neil gives him a little wave only to get the finger in return, then he grabs his bag, and leaves.

And though every step takes him further away from Andrew, they also bring him closer.

The stakes have once again been raised, shaping this into so much more than just a game. Now the prize isn’t a material possession or the crown title of champion.

The prize is the truth; saying it, hearing it, keeping it, and Neil is going to win it.

-

One would think that they're here to film a movie opposed to playing a game, what with all the cameras in his face constantly. He had five interviews before he changed into his gear and three after, with more to come regardless if they win or lose.

Not once does Neil forget why he’s here.

The sight of silver and aqua overpowers all the blue of the Nighthawks’ locker rooms. There’s a reason the colours clash so well - or so badly - and that’s because there can only be one victor, one winner, one champion. They’ll never mesh together into something cohesive. One has to be better.

The SeaKings were never meant to get this far. To place money on the team at the beginning of the season would have been like throwing your wallet away and praying that it’d be returned someday. Now they’re the second-ranked team in the NEL, and Neil wonders just how many people are winning their bets on that.

For an impossible dream, the SeaKings sure are making it a reality.

So, no, Neil doesn’t forget why he’s here.

He’s here to prove it.

It’s as the SeaKings are stretching out in the lounge that the large flat screen television mounted on the wall begins to run highlights of the Nighthawks. Clips from previous games and goals flash across the screen before the program cuts to interviews of a few well-known players.

Clearly the mouthy players, Neil soon realizes, as the SeaKings all go still at the obviously plotted threats and taunts thrown their way.

Riko is the last player to speak, eyeing the camera like the interview is beneath his namesake. He lets out a long, heavy sigh before he begins to smile.

“Oh, those SeaKings - especially that Neil Josten. Has his appeal worn off for anyone else, or is that simply me? Regardless, I’m sure you will all see tonight. They won’t be able to handle our all and will be begging for surrender soon enough, I can -”

One of the SeaKings lets out a sharp, loud laugh and shuts off the television. Neil decides it doesn’t matter anyway, whatever Riko wanted to say. All the threats in the world won’t be enough to bring him to his knees; he has a point to prove and a promise to keep.

He continues to stretch until Kevin approaches him, a grim sort of smile on his face where Neil had expected to see panic and nausea. “Come,” he says, jerking his head towards the door to the locker room, not waiting for Neil to follow.

Once the door is closed and it’s just them and all the lockers, Kevin turns his stare on the far wall before saying, “We’re going to lose.”

Which loosens the tightness in Neil’s chest slightly, just enough to rattle a laugh free. “Um, alright. Thanks for your confidence.”

“No,” Kevin continues, slowly turning his head to face Neil. There’s that grim smile again, looking like it’s being put there by choice for some reason. “We have to lose.”

If Neil could properly reach, he’d press his hand to Kevin’s forehead to check his temperature. Instead he frowns, head tilting to the side. “Yeah, great idea,” he drawls. “Except that it’s not.”

“Listen to me, please?” Kevin asks, and it’s the fact that he’s asking that Neil listens. “You’ve heard what Riko’s been saying, but you and I are both aware of how scared he is. Think about it, then think about his ego. If we win tonight, he’ll never admit that we earned it. But if we purposely lose tonight and let him think that he’s truly victorious, then turn around and tell him that we let him win . . if we show the world that we had to let Riko win just to please his ego . . . Neil, it is not something he’ll recover from.”

“Kevin, that’s crazy,” Neil says with disbelief, though he will admit his pulse is pounding faster at the idea. “We’ll look like idiots.”

Kevin simply shrugs - a very dismissing gesture for a man made of panic, and it’s then that Neil sees that Kevin’s smile isn’t grim but rather . . . confident.

“All my life, I’ve lived to try and please Riko. I’ve let him overpower me because I believed him to be genuinely better than me, but he isn’t, is he?”

“No.” Neil begins to nod. “No, he isn’t.”

“I know about his threats towards you. This could be your chance to show him you hold more power over him than he knows, that you won’t lose because he wants you to. What do you think?”

“I want that,” Neil answers honestly, and is surprised when the world doesn’t turn itself inwards to swallow that want whole. “But what if we don’t come back from this?”

He thinks about his promise with Andrew, reinforced just hours earlier.

“We’re SeaKings,” Kevin says like that’s answer enough, a genuine frown on his face now.

Neil laughs at that. He laughs hard.

“How are you going to convince the rest of the team on this?”

Kevin’s grim-turned-confident smile switches once again, into something much more menacing, much more knowing, before he says, “I already have.”

-

“Remember, Neil, this could have been you!”

Riko’s voice is barely audible from such a distance, from where he stands slightly opposite of Neil on the court.

The scoreboard above them is ticking down to the final minute before the game starts, and every second that burns away has Neil’s heart rate rocketing. He’s never been more excited to lose before.

It makes sense. If Riko wants to win so badly then fine, Neil will give it to him. It’s what Riko’s been hassling Neil to do for months now, isn’t it? Oh, but not like this, not with the entire world watching and knowing that Neil Josten and Kevin Day had to let the great Riko Moriyama win.

Like throwing a game of tag to soothe a child’s confidence.

“Remember, Riko,” Neil calls back, “you’re a piece of shit! And your team only follows you by force, not choice. Some captain!”

Riko glances over his shoulder at the Nighthawks’ goal, where Andrew stands with his gaze on the far opposite wall. “You say it as if it’s my fault, when you are the one forcing my hand,” he says after turning back to face Neil.

The timer above is nearly at zero, at begin, but Neil takes a daunting step forward regardless. “If you were truly number one in the game then you’d drop the threats and play me for real. Give me your all, we’ll see if it’s good enough.”

He’s smiling behind his faceguard, but not for the reasons Riko thinks. I am going to show the world how weak you really are. Give me your all and it won’t be enough.

“If that’s what you want, Neil!” Riko shouts back.

The timer hits zero and the buzzer goes off and the game begins.

It’s another game of pretend, but Neil wants to play this one. Every smug look sent his way from a Nighthawk only makes it that much better - you are not as good as you think you are, Neil thinks as he passes the ball to Matt, only to have his racquet swept aside by a Nighthawk.

In that moment he imagines five different moves to counteract that attack, but he doesn’t perform any of them.

Riko believes every stumble and fumble and fall, and because he is the root of all Neil’s lies, lying to him doesn’t feel like anything else besides victory.

The SeaKings lose.

With just enough of a point gap to cast the Nighthawks under a spell, making them believe they’re genuinely victorious. Neil listens to their insults as they go down the handshake lineup and has to fight off a smile - they’ll realize soon enough.

At the end of the lineup is Andrew, who barely touches the hands of the other SeaKings until he gets to Neil. Then his grip is tight and grounding as he shakes Neil’s hand, not letting go until they absolutely have to.

Neil walks away with a smile on his face, for more reasons than one.

-

The lounge is empty this early before a game, save for one person.

Laila is pacing the length of the room, her hands trailing over every piece of furniture as she shakes her head, her long and curly hair flipping this way and that. She looks how she did when Neil first witnessed one of her meltdowns, only this time, she’s almost smiling.

“Hey,” Neil says, dropping his duffel bag. “You okay?”

Laila doesn’t stop pacing but looks over her shoulder at him. Her smile intensifies before it fizzles out. “No, man. They’re here.”

Neil frowns, not understanding her words or her smile. “‘They’ who?”

“The recruiters for the Hurricanes! They’re here to see me play tonight.”

Suddenly Neil can understand the odd nervous-excited buzz in the air that surrounds her. “Oh, that’s amazing.”

She laughs disbelievingly. “In a perfect world, maybe, but we live in the world where we purposely got our asses handed to us just a few days ago, and while that was the most fun I’ve had since like, birth, what if we don’t come back from it? What if they don’t realize we let them win?”

“We will, and they will,” Neil reassures her. “Be ready to sign a contract as soon as you step off that court tonight.”

Laila laughs again, no longer pacing back and forth. “This is really it,” she says softly, sounding amazed, sounding hopeful.

Neil’s never seen someone’s dream unfold from mind to reality before, but he thinks he’s witnessing it now. It stirs something in his chest, in something even deeper than that.

“Seven-three?”

Laila’s laugh lights up the room as she sticks her hand out for Neil to shake.

“Seven-three.”

-

The buzzer sounds on an 9-5 win, SeaKings favour.

Or at least, Neil knows the buzzer sounded, because the only reason the SeaKings would be screaming so loud is if they won, and they could have only won if the game ended.

The Nighthawks were floating a little too high from their last win, and as such, weren’t expecting the SeaKings to come crashing through the gate to play the way they can play. It didn’t take much effort to get the score to 7-3, but the blind side didn’t last long once second half began.

Not when Andrew was put out on the court, clearly aware of the SeaKings’ little trick. He tried to shut down the goal as he always has, but for the first time in his professional history, it wasn’t enough. Neil worked with Kevin to score an assisted goal, while Kevin took home the blessed gesture of Andrew Minyard’s middle finger when he scored on his own right after.

With the scoreboard flashing their proudly won numbers, Neil hopes it’s clear to the world that they simply let the Nighthawks win last week out of sympathy, and nothing more. It must be evident to Riko too, for there’s the sound of a racquet clattering to the ground and shouted curses as Riko barrels his way across the court to get to Neil.

He says no words, his face enough of a thundercloud to scream out a reprimand.

“Riko, hey,” Neil says, a little breathless as he swings his racquet over his shoulder before approaching Riko. “I’d say good game, except that would be a lie, and you know how I feel about lying. Oh, except for that last game - consider that one more of a gift.”

He isn’t expecting Riko to grab at his face guard and pull him closer, so he stumbles as he’s yanked within inches of Riko.

“If I were you I would get my hearing checked, Neil Josten,” Riko sneers, giving the guard one more fierce tug. “You know who I am, you have heard my offer, you must know I am not to be messed with. You will not make a fool of me again.”

“What else can you do when no one is afraid of you?”

“A win without you on the court will have to count as my victory, I do not care anymore. If you try me one more time I will not be afraid to tell the entire world that -”

“Hey!” A familiar voice is shouting, Neil only recognizing it as Matt when Matt steps into view and shoves Riko away. “Riko fuck-face, hit the showers! Your loser ass is beginning to stink.”

They’re surrounded by silver and navy now, a clashing-yet-shimmering ocean of an audience.

Neil joins along with those laughing, but the humour of Riko’s temper tantrum only lasts a few more seconds before punches are being thrown and bodies are hitting the court. It lasts less than a minute before security is forcibly separating the teams.

Somehow it feels like another win.

-

The world does catch onto the fact that the SeaKings let the Nighthawks win.

And it isn’t pretty.

News articles and talk show hosts alternate between praising the trick and condemning it. Faith is placed in the SeaKings by some, while others warn the SeaKings to not get too cocky while facing off against the greatest team in the NEL. Fans are outraged in anger or outrageously delighted.

It’s Kevin who publicly admits to the trick; “I thought I’d give my former teammate one last hurrah. For as long as I can remember, Riko has tried to drown my success, but I think he’s forgetting that I’m a SeaKing, and I won’t sink.”

It’s Riko who refutes that; “And while Kevin Day remains truly poetic, we are Nighthawks. We’re at the top for a reason. One little trick will not decide the fate of the next few games.”

It’s Neil who says; “I just think it’s funny that Riko was so afraid of losing, but he hasn’t made any efforts to win. He has no choice now, right? Prove to me that you don’t need us to let you win. Play the game for real and we’ll see who comes out on top.”

And it’s Andrew who ends the mess of the media by stating; “This might be the most interesting season yet.”

It makes for a fierce energy in the air when both teams are in New York for their third game against each other. Fans fight and shout at one another in the crowd and in the streets, while the Nighthawks take to verbally tearing apart the SeaKings when they’re on the court for drills.

Neil thinks, even with his blood roaring in his ears, even as he listens to the lies they’re spilling, that this is sort of, kind of - fun.

Fun and relieving when Riko once again stands a little ways away from Neil on the court but doesn’t once bring up the threat of touching Andrew. Instead he smirks at Neil and warns, “You won’t wish for anything real when I’m done with you.”

Neil simply smiles back, and then the game begins.

It’s how Neil always wanted the game to be, why he used to lose himself in playing it; it’s passion against passion and need against need, skill and ferocity and determination in every move.

To make it all better, the SeaKings are quick to take the lead.

Then they win, and it feels like a dream, but to make it all better . . .

It isn’t.

-

With four days in between games, there’s a small gap for the SeaKings to practice and attend their various obligations; Neil and Kevin both make appearances at an event for the sports drink company that sponsors them, Matt flies out to South Carolina to cheer on Dan’s Foxes, and Laila travels to Florida to meet once more with management for the Hurricanes.

Neil wishes they could simply have the games back to back to back and get it over with. The excitement of the world is wearing on him, making him feel like he has to be constantly turned on, and while he is excited, he’s also on edge.

Real things never are that, and so at any moment he expects the feeling to snap. For the truth to slip into cracks in the ground and for lies to seep out.

With one day before their fourth game against the Nighthawks, Neil knows he has to push himself. He plans to run and run until his lungs physically ache and he can’t think of a thing - or at least, that was his plan, until his phone starts to ring.

And then everything that could be real suddenly isn’t.

Because the call is from Andrew.

“Hey,” Neil answers, but immediately holds his breath, expecting the dark, cruel tone of Riko to speak back.

“My flight boards in fifteen minutes,” someone replies in a flat, removed voice.

And well, that couldn’t be anyone but Andrew.

“To go where?” Neil asks, letting out his breath, holding the phone between his ear and shoulder as he searches the room for his running shoes.

“San Francisco, idiot.”

“But the game isn’t until tomorrow ni- oh.”

He stops looking for his running shoes and starts looking around his apartment for any messes that need cleaning, running through a mental checklist of the contents of his fridge, scanning the bed and debating if he should wash the sheets now or later or -

“It’s not so I can see you. There’s some business I have to settle before the season ends.”

Even standing completely still, Neil’s heart races and races and then stops. “Oh.” He flops back on his bed and rubs at his eyes, pushing back the urge to touch and want that had dragged itself out just moments ago.

“Don’t make that sound. I would if I could.”

“I know, I know,” Neil sighs, brushing it off, but the longing sticks. He takes a few seconds to decide on a safe topic to talk about. This pre-boarding ritual was never meant to be a ritual, but Andrew would call and Neil would answer, staying on the line until the stewardess would make the call to turn off all electronic devices. “So, two-one, hey? You sure you’re not taking it easy on me?”

That earns him a scornful-but-soft scoff, Andrew’s eye roll practically audible. “You insult yourself with such accusations. Besides, it was you who took it easy on me.”

“To be fair, that was Kevin’s idea.”

“Curious. I find it hard to believe that Kevin Day has vertebra at all.”

Neil laughs, quiet and contained in his steadying chest. It’s been too long since he could talk to Andrew, just talk, without the mention of threats or impending danger or long, loud words and fear fear fear -

But that of course is their reality. It is what’s real whether they like it or not and it’s waiting for each of them outside of this phone call. Panic packs itself back inside Neil’s body, and though he had tried to stay on the safe side of things, he can’t not ask this.

“Andrew,” he begins, worry already evident in those two syllables. “You don’t have to answer, but I have to ask. Riko . . . has he . . has he -”

“You’re asking if Riko has come through with his threats?” Andrew asks plainly, to which Neil mumbles in response. “No, because the bastard had the good sense to realize he needs two working wrists to play the game. Can’t say I’ll give him a warning next time he tries to lay a hand on me.”

Neil feels the pressure in his chest deflate a little, but the rage is still there. “Okay,” he says breathily, forcing his hand around the phone to loosen. “Well, the offer to decapitate him is on the table. We could do it together, if you’re into that.”

“If this is your attempt at dirty talk, stop it.”

“Mm,” Neil hums, tapping a finger against his bottom lip. “I would, but you still have what - ten minutes left? Who would you talk to then?”

“A potted plant would be more efficient.”

Neil lets out a laugh that he’d usually stifle, but with Andrew, he doesn’t. “Wouldn’t that make for an interesting headline?”

Andrew lets out a slightly amused-sounding huff before saying, “Speaking of headlines, you and your ‘girlfriend’ haven’t been featured in any lately.”

Dragging out that part of Neil feels like covering the sun in clouds; his mood immediately sinks, his entire life feels grey. “Yeah,” he agrees quietly. “The story couldn’t stay hot, but this close to the end of the season . . . I don’t think they’re going to push it to be more.”

“Lucky you. It was getting tiring to watch, all that lying.”

“Told you I was good at it,” Neil says humorously, but then thinks, and has to sigh. “Too good at it I think, because now . . . what’s even real anymore? In my experience, if it’s too good to be true, then it’s usually a dream.”

Andrew says, almost thoughtfully, “Pinch yourself. Quite a surprise to realize you’re awake.”

Neil shuts his eyes, perhaps contradictory to the point, and uses his free hand to pinch at his wrist. It hurts, for what it is, a flaring sting that’s gone by the time Neil’s smile takes over his face.

Two-one, then three-one, then four-one, then they . . .

It was thought to be unattainable, but now it’s right there. It’s been pushed back and back and back and it’s been cut off from every direction, no way out and no way in, but two more wins and the crown will be his.

Theirs.

“Do we really get to win, Andrew?” Neil has to ask, because even though he knows he isn’t dreaming, because he can hear the sound of Andrew breathing, if it’s too good to be true then it just can’t be real.

He doesn’t believe any of it until Andrew says, “Are you awake, Neil?”

-

Above their heads the scoreboard reads 11-10.

The seconds and minutes into overtime have stopped, the game now over.

With a Nighthawks’ win.

It was a push-pull, push-pull type of playing, desperation rearing its head from both teams during both halves of the game. Neil will admit that anger had clouded his usual ability, for all he saw was red. Not the lines of the court or the players around him.

Dark purple and red.

Those colours shaded the skin around Andrew’s eye and temple, noticeable enough to spot from across the court. Even more prominent were the bruises along Riko’s face, and Neil would have felt satisfaction in that if it didn’t have to mean the same for Andrew.

So anger took the reins and instead of playing to win, Neil played to bodycheck Riko, to hit him, to trip him out from under himself as much as possible. He won that, at least.

Still, the gap of one point is nothing to brag about, especially when said point was won within the last few seconds of overtime. If the Nighthawks are trying to prove that they’re superior, they’re doing a horrible job of it. Neil says as much with his smile as he briskly makes his way down the handshake lineup.

Riko is scowling when they meet in the middle, his hand striking out to grab Neil’s and twist it. Despite the pain that flares up Neil’s wrist, and the frustration he feels from losing the game, and the anger he has over Andrew’s face, Neil manages a smirk.

“That’s not a good look for you,” he says, pointing with his free hand at his own face, where Riko’s bruises would be. “Maybe you should try keeping your hands to yourself, hm? Oh, and give being a better striker a shot, too. That should help.”

The noise Riko makes as he lunges forward sounds as if it’s being pulled from a wounded animal. Before he can curl his fingers into Neil’s jersey, Riko is held back by a hand fisted in his own. Both of the strikers turn to see Andrew, a flat look on his face as he shoves at Riko to keep moving.

If anyone notices that Riko goes without too much of a complaint, no one says anything.

Then Andrew turns to Neil and shakes his hand.

“Good game,” he says in his bland tone of voice, his fingers curling around Neil’s, and if anyone notices that Andrew holds on for a second longer than necessary, no one says anything.

-

In the days leading up to the fifth game of the NEL finals, the world climbs ten steps higher on the crazy ladder. So high up that Neil constantly feels as if he’s about to fall. He’s caught in a storm of support or total opposition, with him or against him, and Neil has no choice but to stand there and listen.

There are those that believe in the statistics, and there are those who simply have faith. Half of everyone believes the SeaKings can win while the other half thinks, but can they, can they really?

It should be impossible, all of this. The NEL finals have existed for nearly two decades now, and the Nighthawks have only lost their crown twice - long before Riko was ever set to take over the team. How can a team like the SeaKings steal the throne when every season prior, they’ve sat near the bottom of dead last?

How could one rookie kid change that? is the question of the hour, asked between sports reporters and journalists alike, but they can never come up with an answer.

Because it wasn’t Neil who made the SeaKings better, and Neil knows that. The thing is that the SeaKings were never actually bad.

How else could the playoffs tally be 2-2? Two games to win or two games to lose.

As the storm twists itself around Neil, he thinks why now? Why is this the season that they’re pushing themselves to the top, and not any season prior? Is it for the crown, or for the chance to prove that they can?

Nothing in their lives has ever been real, but this, this just might be. If they want it to be.

Who would have thought a mouthy little rookie like Neil Josten could get this far? one of many sportscasters asks. Looks like Minyard was wrong to call him a pipe dream. I guess we’ll find out over the next two weeks.

Neil still hears their words in his head like an echo as he climbs the steps of the empty Nighthawks stadium. First serve isn’t for hours, but as soon as he landed he received a set of coordinates and a time - and a seat number.

The last part was a bit unnecessary, what with the seats of the stadium black and blue and Andrew a shock of bright light in the middle of it all. Neil continues his way through the aisles and up the stairs until he finds seat 371, right next to Andrew in seat 372.

“This is a new one,” Neil says as he sits, glancing around the empty stadium. Only a few security guards are making their laps this early in the day. “Any specific reason?”

Andrew remains quiet as he looks at Neil, his expression equally silent. The bruise isn’t as dark anymore, but Neil still feels rage run through his spine when he sees the very shadow of it.

Andrew parts his lips for a moment, as if to say something, then promptly closes them. Neil can only notice his mouth then, suddenly feeling reckless and uncaring about any witnesses or the cameras; if he could kiss those lips until the second that the game begins, he would.

Instead of doing that, Neil lays his hand out palm up and waits until Andrew slides his fingers through his. Pale skin is a sharp contrast against warm skin, but they blend seamlessly together, all the way down to Andrew’s busted knuckles and Neil’s scarred fingers.

Neil studies their hands until he realizes that Andrew is holding something in his other; a large folder, pristine and official-looking, like it shouldn’t be held so casually.

“What’s that?” Neil asks, his voice rough and scratchy when surrounded by all this space.

Andrew offers him the folder, not a single feature on his face giving away what could be inside.

“Open it.”

Though Andrew appears calm, Neil’s heart begins racing, a loud thump that feels as if it could shake apart the floors. He takes the folder with hands that threaten to tremble and opens it, pulling out a thick packet of binded paper, white and crisp and familiar.

It looks identical to the contract he had signed all those months ago to become a SeaKing. Except now the names have been replaced by Minyard and Andrew and the initial J.

“Andrew -” is all Neil can manage with how tight his lungs feel. “This is -”

This is a contract for the San Francisco SeaKings, dated nearly a week ago, signed in all the right places by Andrew himself.

“Andrew.”

“I heard your current starting goalie is leaving you for Florida,” Andrew says breezily, but his eyes are hard and certain. “Thought I’d spare your team the recruitment process.”

It sounds like a joke at first, because what? Neil’s lips twitch into a nervous smile as he waits for the punchline, but it quickly flickers out when nothing comes. This means - it means that -

If it’s too good to be true then it has to be a dream, and this - this can’t possibly be real, not in this world, not for Andrew and not for Neil. So as quick as his heart was to start racing, it decelerates until it’s still and silent in his chest.

“Andrew, no,” he tries weakly, a war in his heart and his mind on what to feel, what to say. “But -”

But it’s impossible.

Andrew must have been expecting Neil’s disbelief, for all he does is sigh a little before taking the contract back. “When I signed with the Nighthawks, I made sure I had the option to buy out the contract. Once I finish this season I’ll pay the fees and come August, I will be a SeaKing. Do you get it yet, or should I take to pinching you?”

A firm hand wraps around Neil’s wrist, fingers moving along Neil’s skin as if to actually pinch him, but Neil thinks not even that would be enough to pull him from this. There are too many questions and too many impossibilities holding him down in what feels like slumber, too many ways for this to be a trick or an illusion.

He tries to match up every one of his questions with Andrew’s few answers, but it only leads him to more confusion. The contract in Andrew’s hands is the same contract he couldn’t sign over two years ago when Kevin offered it. It’s the same set of rules and restrictions that sent Andrew off to New York to sign with the Nighthawks.

Unless -

Unless the one reason that Andrew couldn’t sign with Kevin and the SeaKings is gone now. Neil reaches for the contract and snatches it away with more force than necessary, his heart now steady with purpose. He flips through the pages until he finds the section that’s caused every single one of his nightmares since he first signed it.

But it’s not gone. It’s the same. Word for word, it’s the same contract that Neil signed, the same contract that Andrew once refused to sign. These are the rules that Andrew wouldn’t bend to, because he wouldn’t lie, couldn’t change himself into what they wanted. So why?

“Why?” is what Neil asks, furious and feeling sick to his stomach at the sight of Andrew’s initials next to such constricting words. “No, you can’t do this, you know you can’t.” A part of him wants to be hopeful, clinging desperately to Kevin’s promise, but that doesn’t change their now, that doesn’t make this any better or any easier. This is still signing over your everything for a game. “You’re the one who told me that forfeiting every cell that you are isn’t worth it for a game!”

Andrew’s calm, blank face makes the matter all the more infuriating. He takes a moment to recollect the contract and push it back in its folder, then turns to Neil and waits until their gaze meets once again.

Then he says, with the same calm and blankness, “I didn’t sign it to play a game.”

Neil stops breathing, suspended in a moment that shouldn’t exist, not in this world. Before Neil can respond, Andrew shrugs and says, “Also the constant flights to California are growing tiring. It’s easier when all my things are in one place.”

Still not breathing, not even daring to blink in case Andrew disappears in the half second that it would take, Neil manages a small smile before asking, “Does this mean I can get you a key now, or are you going to keep breaking in?”

“Sure, take the fun out of it,” Andrew says, and Neil breathes, fully smiling now, not able to stop, not when Andrew leans into his space and draws Neil even closer with a hand on his neck.

Oh, Neil hasn’t ever been so confused. He can feel the warmth of Andrew’s skin and the blow of his breath, he can see Andrew’s eyes and the sure set of his lips, and though Andrew is the one thing that’s real, he can’t possibly be possible.

The hand on the back of Neil’s neck brings him down to the ground and away from the storm, and soon enough, fear and confusion fade into certainty. Neil wonders if maybe . . . if maybe this was how Andrew felt when Neil said those three words to him, as if they were some far fetched fantasy that you never once allowed yourself to envision, and so even when it’s staring you right in the face, you can’t believe that it’s true.

But the threat of it all being taken away doesn’t mean it can’t be a choice, and so Neil chooses it.

For some reason though, out of everything running through Neil’s head, the first thing he thinks to ask is, “Does Kevin know?”

Andrew shrugs and waves his free hand dismissively. “Let it be a surprise.”

And even with all this relief rushing through him, Neil has to think it, and worse, he has to ask it.

“What about Riko?”

“What about him?” Andrew asks, stroking his hand down Neil’s neck. “He’ll lose all his power when he loses finals. Didn’t you know? His daddy won’t let him be starting line if he can’t take a rookie like you out.”

Understanding soothes Neil’s mind, making sense of all Riko’s panicked pleas.

“Rookie? Are people still calling me that?” Neil asks with a derisive snort. “I can’t think of any other striker who’s managed five goals on you in two games. Seven’s a lot more than zero, last I checked.”

Andrew drags Neil even closer by pulling at his hair, and says against his mouth, “I like you better when you’re not running your mouth off, have I mentioned that?”

“Once or twice,” Neil admits. “But if we’re going to be on the same team, you should probably get used to it.”

“Never.”

And then Andrew effectively blocks Neil from saying any more words by kissing him.

It won’t be the same as living in freedom, this Neil knows, but with Andrew behind him in goal instead of across from him, and with Andrew speaking right to him and not far away and over the phone, it won’t be freedom but they won’t be alone.

Getting used to this is something Neil hopes never happens.

-

The fifth game was won with a score of 7-5.

With the SeaKings being the winner, of course.

Neil felt the weight of Riko’s fury, but heavier than that was the weight of Andrew’s gaze. Louder than Riko’s snarled curses were the cheers of Neil’s team, prideful and celebratory as they clung to each other. They were one game closer to pushing the crowned king away from his throne for good, and Neil was one game closer to playing with Andrew.

He couldn’t have cared less about fury.

That was then, with five games played. Tonight is the sixth, and could be the last.

If the SeaKings win tonight, the crown is theirs. If the Nighthawks win, the playoffs will go into the seventh game, a first in all of NEL history.

And if the world were crazy before, it’s apocalyptic now; the streets of San Francisco are filled with fans and out-of-towners, forcing Neil to leave for the stadium several hours earlier than needed. Cameras are pointed at Neil’s face as soon as he leaves his apartment building, and a dozen more are waiting for him when he reaches the stadium.

Instead of hurrying past the press, Neil surprises himself by wanting to answer their questions. Yes, they will win tonight. Yes, he can’t wait to destroy Riko, and yes, Riko is undeserving of his position and should concede as captain after he loses.

And yes, the SeaKings are worth more than the Nighthawks ten times over.

Not being afraid anymore is such a lovely thing. The rules and regulations might never change, but at least someone like Neil might be able to win.

The SeaKings are rounded up to listen to their coaches’ various speeches; everything they’ve heard a thousand times but with different meaning tonight. Fear is contagious between players, spreading worse than a virus, but as their coaches’ words switch from tactics to motivation to determination, that fear turns into power.

As the stadium fills up to near max capacity, the reserved seating section for guests of the SeaKings fills too. Neil is finally able to match faces to names that he’s heard of throughout the season; Dan Wilds and David Wymack are easy to pinpoint once they enter the stands, both due to Matt’s yelling and the audience’s cheers.

His teammates all wave to their friends and family, and as they do, Neil is able to spot the one person who can’t have a loved one in the stands. Rules and regulations won’t let her.

Neil takes a seat next to Laila on the home bench and says, “Hey.”

She sighs loudly, as if she were waiting for some sort of signal to let it all out.

“Don’t you just want to punch something sometimes? I tell myself I don’t care, that it’s not our fault, but it’s just not fair.”

“I know,” Neil says, because in a way he does.

“Next season can’t come soon enough.”

“Oh, yeah.” He shrugs a little; people call him mouthy but sometimes he really doesn’t know what to say. “Congratulations, by the way. You’re gonna do great, even though it means playing against us.” He starts to fidget with his gloves as Laila gives him a look, then points his own gaze towards the court where half the Nighthawks are running laps while the rest run drills. “Better than playing against her.”

That draws out a delighted smile from Laila, while her gaze takes on a knowing look.

“Ah-ha,” she says smugly yet quietly, and while Neil goes perfectly still, she rests her head on his shoulder. “I knew there was no girlfriend. You wouldn’t know how to talk to a girl if there were a gun to your head.”

For some reason, Neil takes offense to that. “But I’m talking to you.”

For some reason, Laila laughs at that. “We would have been the perfect fake couple, don’t you think?” When Neil groans, she laughs again. “Too little, too late, though. Oh. I think Captain Grumpy-pants wants you.”

She motions off towards Kevin, who’s standing with his arms folded and expression cross as he signals for Neil to follow. It’s only slightly disorienting being near Laila’s calming presence before standing next to a looming, focused Kevin all within a few seconds.

Kevin guides him away from the SeaKings and walks further down the side of the court, until they’re far enough away from prying ears and screaming fans. They step towards the plexiglass together and watch as the Nighthawks run around the SeaKings’ court, looking so out of place in their navy-on-black jerseys.

“I won’t say that this could be it, like everyone else is so keen on repeating,” Kevin says as he raises a hand to touch the wall. “This has to be it. There can’t be any doubt over who the best is. We must beat them to the crown; no ties, no overtime, no seventh game.”

Neil frowns a bit. “You say that as if I don’t have full faith in our chances tonight,” he says, and despite that faith, his next few words come out shaky; “Hey . . . don’t forget your promise. You’re still going to try, right? Try and change the rules?”

The corner of Kevin’s mouth twitches just a bit, and Neil can’t tell if it’s a smirk, smile or frown.

Until he says, “That’s why it is so important that we come in first.”

Neil feels something jagged smooth over in his chest, a pressure lessening in his heart.

“Oh, by the way, any idea who the new starting goalie is going to be?” Neil manages to ask without laughing, though his smile must give him away.

Or maybe not, for Kevin frowns as his dark brows pinch together. “Nobody has discussed anything with me as of yet. Why?”

“No reason,” Neil says, continuing to smile. “Let’s just hope that whoever we get can keep up.”

-

The lineup puts Neil in the game for the first quarter and the last quarter; starting the game and ending the game, much like their match in November.

Except this time Andrew will be in goal for the full game; the news of this earns a groan or a curse from every SeaKing besides Neil.

It only shows how desperate the Nighthawks are to win, and when they lose, it will show how powerful the SeaKings really are.

How determined Neil really is.

Andrew won’t go easy on him, won’t allow Neil to win for the sake of it. Andrew can’t - but he knows Neil can do it himself anyway.

That fact alone has Neil smiling as they form their lineup outside the court.

For years now the San Francisco SeaKings have been one of the lower-ranked teams in the NEL, never getting close enough to the middle, let alone the top. How funny that a team full of dreamers never let themselves believe it doesn’t just happen in your sleep.

When Neil’s name, number and position are being called, and the crowd goes wild as he steps onto the court to take his place, he knows the prize tonight is more precious than gold.

All year long it’s been too far to get to and too high to reach.

Now it’s one win away.

All year long he’s been Neil Josten; rookie, partner, striker. The mouthie kid who started a fight with somebody he shouldn’t have (who fell for somebody he couldn’t have). Every time he told a truth he was force fed a lie to spit out. Lie after lie after lie, but not tonight. Oh no, not tonight.

Every ounce of him is truth. N-e-i-l J-o-s-t-e-n the signs in the crowd say, waved about and shouted out and that’s him, and this is it.

Neil surveys the Nighthawks as they enter the court on their side, Andrew the last player in before the door is bolted shut. He watches him until a loud noise diverts his attention away; Riko has the head of his racquet to the ground and a sneer across his face.

Maybe Neil should feel a bit scared at Riko’s expression, given how close he looks to murder, but instead he smiles and waves with his free hand at the soon-to-be fallen king.

The timer on the scoreboard nearly reads zero. Neil’s pulse counts down with it, slow and steady - until the buzzer goes off and the game begins, and Neil feels brought back to life. He’s running before he even takes a breath in, has the ball in his net before he even makes sense of anything.

The game starts off brutal. Three minutes in and Neil loses count of how many times he’s been slammed into the wall. The first yellow card is handed to a Nighthawk, with the next going to a SeaKing right after, but the violence never slows.

Neil wonders if the Nighthawks are desperate to win, or desperate to please Riko.

He’s slammed into the wall again before he can figure it out, and is graced with a penalty shot as he hadn’t been in possession of the ball. Considering how brutal the game is shaping up to be, Neil happily takes the shot. The teams line themselves up so Neil can position himself for it, and once ready, he looks up - into Andrew’s eyes.

Andrew is a blank wall, but once the ball is moving he’s moving too, diving to try and block where he thinks the ball will end up. It would be all too easy for him to purposely misjudge Neil’s movements and allow the SeaKings the point, but Neil can see that he’s trying, judging from how hard his racquet hits the ground.

The goal lights up red regardless, and the SeaKings take the lead.

First point taken, the game explodes with its violence. Navy collides with aqua as the players clash into one another, nobody caring about the aches and the injuries. Neil is sporting multiple bruises by time Kevin manages a point of his own, and is seeing stars by time the Nighthawks finally break though the SeaKings’ defense.

Neil is quickly subbed out, and though he needs to keep playing, he figures he kind of needs to keep breathing, too. The nurse looks him over as he watches the game from the bench. She scolds him for not sitting still, then scolds him for not drinking enough water, then scolds him for not even listening - but how could he?

They’re in the lead in one of the biggest games in all of Exy history.

Every second that passes is a second closer to winning and a second closer to Riko losing; not just the game, but his crown, title, captaincy and his starting line position - everything that he is.

He will have no chance to become a lie, and that will be so much worse, for he will be the truth; a lesser version than what he wishes he could be.

Soon he’ll be forgotten, and for a man who lives to be known, that’s a fate worse than death.

Before Neil even knows it, the buzzer rings to call for halftime. The teams file off the court, the SeaKings looking more worn down than they ever have, but they smile all the same. Matt hooks his arm around Neil’s neck and pulls him to his chest as he yells out, “I better be on that court when we finally hand Riko his ass!”

They stretch and rehydrate in the lounge as their coaches go over their second half strategy; to take advantage of the Nighthawks’ suddenly dirty playing style. The more yellow and red cards given, the more penalty shots the SeaKings will receive.

They’re dismissed back to the inner court shortly after, where Neil takes his seat on the bench. He watches Kevin, who stares at the court intently, his racquet held tightly in his left hand; where it belongs, but not what it once was.

The fact that he can hold it at all is reason enough to believe in him.

Neil smiles, but keeps his thoughts to himself as he thinks Kevin Day, you really are a fool. You’ve already won.

They’ve been made to believe that they’d have to forfeit what they want and have, because what they wanted should have been impossible. Except there’s still a ‘10’ on Neil’s back, and there’s a racquet in Kevin’s hand, and the SeaKings are playing in the NEL playoff finals. So how could anything be impossible, unless this has all been a dream?

But then the buzzer goes off to alert the teams that halftime is over, and Neil startles awake, only to realize he wasn’t sleeping.

Kevin, Matt, Neil and Riko are all off the court for third quarter, causing all the players in the game to push themselves to establish their prominence. The Nighthawks breach the SeaKings’ defense line too quickly without Matt there, and thought Laila defends her goal as if her life were on the line, the Nighthawks are too many and too much.

The goal turns red in the blink of an eye.

“Shit,” Matt curses, then stands up to press against the plexiglass, banging on the wall as he cheers on his teammates. The rest of the benched SeaKings are quick to join him, yelling out support until the ball is finally away from their side of the court.

The game becomes tied with a score of 3-3 by time Kevin is subbed back in, but Neil doesn’t feel relief, because Riko is brought back in, too, and Riko’s style of playing seems to be more focused on hurting than scoring; he smacks the SeaKings around as if they are merely dolls in his way.

Before Neil’s temper can hit its breaking point, he’s being called back onto the court. He takes one last deep breath before pulling his helmet on and stepping through the threshold. Kevin nods at him as he takes his spot nearby, and then the game begins again.

If it was rough and brutal before, it’s a massacre now; Neil is tripped and flat on his back before he can pinpoint what direction the ball is going in. Once he’s able to stand on his feet, it’s to witness another goal on Laila.

Even from across the court, Neil can hear her vicious snarl as she smacks her racquet against the floor. The sound and shock of it lights a fire in Neil however, and has him running for the ball as soon as it’s back in play. He shoves Moreau out of the way to catch it, hard enough to send him sprawling, and throws it off to Kevin.

Kevin throws it near the Nighthawks’ goal - not to score, but to rebound off the wall. Neil is already there to catch it before any Nighthawk can get to him, and fires the ball at the goal, colouring it red.

Andrew watches as the ball rolls out of his goal, then bends down to pick it up. Once given the signal to initiate play, he locks eyes with Neil before throwing it up in the air and swatting at it, hard enough to crack something.

Neil is already racing for it before the ball even leaves Andrew’s net.

4-4 is an infuriating score to see beside the countdown; with less than ten minutes left of the game it cannot come down to a tie. If they go into overtime it’ll look as if the SeaKings can’t truly win, and if they lose -

They can’t lose. There can’t be a seventh game. This is it.

Somehow it always comes down to these final quarters of the game, where time no longer matters. Where the game itself no longer matters.

For around the eight minute mark, a shattering smack that sounds like a gunshot ignites through the court, loud enough to pause the game. Every player turns around at the agonized shouting that soon follows, every player confused.

Neil doesn’t recognize who it is that’s yelling until he looks right at him, because he has never heard Kevin sound like that before.

Kevin is on his knees with his racquet dropped beside him, his left hand cradled against his chest as he begins to hyperventilate.

Above Kevin is his backliner mark, who has a guilty look on his face and his racquet held behind his back as if he hadn’t just used it as a weapon. Riko stands beside him, smiling like the manic ruler that he is.

Before the doors are unbolted, and before anyone can figure out what’s going on, Neil is running. First he shoves at the backliner, spewing whatever swears and threats he can think of as he pushes the player away from Kevin. Just when he raises a fist to punch the man’s face in, somebody is grabbing Neil’s arms and dragging him backwards.

Neil doesn’t stop thrashing, uncaring about who it is that’s holding him, feeling his face heat up and burn from what must be tears. They could have broken Kevin, broken his hand, all for a game, all to win a stupid crown and Riko -

Riko is watching Neil like he’s the most amusing thing he’s yet to see, smiling as if innocent. Neil attempts to break free from whoever has their arms around him, but is spun towards Kevin just in time.

There’s no blood anywhere on the floor as the team nurse cuts through Kevin’s gloves to get to his hand. His face is a careful balance of pain and anger, until he looks at Neil, and then it’s unreadable.

It was Matt who was holding Neil back; he releases Neil so he can hurry towards Kevin. Neil isn’t aware of anyone else in the stadium then. Not the players, the fans, the good or the bad, just Kevin and his hand.

“It doesn’t appear broken,” the nurse says as Kevin attempts to make a fist. Neil sighs in relief, while Kevin lets out, of all things, a laugh.

“Never again,” Kevin says, voice laced with pain as he makes another fist. Then he looks up at Neil. “Neil, you have to -”

“I know,” Neil says, and it burns in his chest from how much he means it. “I will. I promise.”

Nobody on the court makes a sound as Kevin is escorted off of it, nobody except the backliner who purposely smacked at Kevin’s hand. They loudly detest their red card as a referee forces them out.

Neil doesn’t say anything when he finally faces Riko again. He wants nothing more than to take his nails to his face and tear it off, wants to hurt him more than he could have ever hurt them, but nothing will be as damaging to Riko as a win.

So he turns away from Riko and breathes in as much as he can, and when the game begins again, Neil is not the player he was just minutes ago. There isn’t a bone in his body that’ll allow the score to stay 4-4.

Monsters all have their weak spots, no matter how deadly they can be. Neil hopes it hurts like a stab to Riko’s stomach when Neil gains possession of the ball and scores with it. 5-4, but Neil’s bones all push for more.

He can hear his own blood rushing in his ears, can feel every nerve protest movement, and has to force himself to still for a moment by the Nighthawks’ goal to catch his breath before the game resumes.

When he stands upright again, it’s to find Andrew out of his goal by a few feet, too close to Neil, his gaze lazy on the ball in his hands.

“I let you have that one,” Andrew drawls, giving the ball a small toss before catching it again.

“Funny, that one was for Kevin.”

That gets him a sharp look before Andrew is allowed to kick the game back into motion by sending the ball down the court.

With only a couple minutes left of the game, Neil does all he can to keep the ball in his net. He doesn’t need to score anymore as long as Riko can’t.

He’ll never score on Andrew Minyard again, he realizes, and then remembers that after this he will never need to.

He couldn’t be happier.

The timer hits 0:59, then 0:58, and then Riko is in Neil’s face, smacking hard at his stick with a desperation Neil’s never seen before, snarling words in an attempt to hurt. Neil throws the ball towards Laila, who sends it all the way down the court. The SeaKings’ offensive dealer snags it, passing it to Matt, who passes it to Neil, and with less than thirty seconds left on the clock, they play the world’s most desperate game of keep-away.

At 0:13, Riko slams Neil into the nearest wall and growls, “This is not a win, not when you will lose everything for it. You fool, you do not get to win, not now and not ever!”

Neil waits until there’s less than five seconds left of the game before he drops his racquet to the ground and smiles. “Weird,” he says, glancing up at the scoreboard as vicious fingers curl around his throat. “Looks like we did.”

The buzzer sounds off to end the game with a score of 5-4.

Riko makes a noise that could break glass and squeezes hard at Neil’s throat, pressing him into the wall, but all it takes is a heavy push to throw Riko off of him.

His body feels made of gold, like it’s glowing, heavy and light as he tears down the court towards the quickly-growing group of SeaKings. They won. They won. The screams in the stadium are for them, because they won.

Because the Nighthawks lost.

No longer champions, no longer kings and queens, no longer anything but losers.

And the SeaKings are winners.

And it’s for Matt, and it’s for Kevin, and it’s for Laila.

And it’s for himself and it’s for Andrew and it’s for every kid in the stands with a dream in their hands that could never become real but it is because it can.

The SeaKings gather around Neil in a huddle of cries and curses and loud, disbelieving, We did it!’s. Half the stadium is on fire and half of it is ice and Neil can’t breathe when he rips his helmet off, can’t think, can’t do anything but look from one relieved face to the next as everything burns and everything freezes.

Matt rubs at Neil’s hair and Laila throws her arms around him, but it isn’t until the one and only Kevin Day approaches him that Neil lets it all sink in and take over. Kevin’s hand is wrapped in an ice pack and clutched against his chest, but his right hand is free to reach out and land on Neil’s shoulder.

“You did it.”

“I promised.”

“I -” Kevin’s face goes blank, his eyes searching somewhere past Neil’s head before he eventually looks back. “Thank you.”

Then Kevin’s hand is pushing at him, turning Neil around in the direction that Kevin had just been looking at, and Neil’s frozen-burning heart stills.

The Nighthawks are scattered around their side of the court, shouting at one another or staring up at the scoreboard, as if attempting to figure out how that number could be real. Neil would be doing the same thing if he didn’t believe in it so much.

Andrew is unstrapping his gloves as Neil approaches him, dropping them to the floor once Neil’s within a few feet. His face is flushed red behind his face guard, his eyes seemingly empty as he flexes his wrists and stretches out his hand.

He wears his usual careful blankness, if a bit more cautious once he finally looks at Neil. He doesn’t look like a man who’s just been set free, like the number on the scoreboard doesn’t signify anything other than a five and a four.

But it has to be more than that, because what was once impossible is now real. Neil proved it. The numbers are real, and they don’t change.

This is theirs and they get to keep it, so could they?

Neil guesses he’s about to find out.

He takes one last step towards Andrew and stops. “Hey.”

Andrew just barely looks Neil’s way, fiddling with the guards on his wrists next. “If you’re expecting any form of congratulations, you’re in the wrong place.”

Neil nearly laughs, because there have been so many places; room numbers and coordinates to high-end hotels, to nightclubs, apartments, bedrooms and homes. Only them and the walls and the agony of wanting and being wanted.

It’s never been like this before, with hundreds upon thousands upon millions watching them.

Out of all the places they could be, this could never be wrong.

“I already know better than to expect anything from you.” Neil takes a careful step forward as a smile spreads slow and small across his face. He feels delirious almost, dizzy, but the closer he gets, the more he wants to ask. “Andrew, can I?”

It takes him a moment to understand, but only a moment, before Andrew’s face is twisting into a defensive scowl, his eyes widening then narrowing. “Neil,” he says in warning, stepping backwards as he takes in the stands of people around them.

“I want to if you want to.”

Because they’re free to say yes if that’s what they want to say, and nobody, not anybody, can take that away. Not now, and not tomorrow, not ever.

“I -” Andrew sounds as if he’s never once been caught off-guard before, his voice small and choked off in his throat. The surprise and violence in his expression ebs away once his eyes settle back on Neil’s, and then he steps forward and rips off his helmet.

Neil is yanked off his feet by a hand folded in his jersey, Andrew pulling him closer until they’re chest to chest. Andrew’s other hand slides through Neil’s hair, using the leverage to tilt Neil’s head back. He looks first at Neil’s eyes, then at Neil’s mouth.

It’s a bit terrifying how quickly one-hundred thousand people can immediately disappear.

They kiss as if there is no one watching, as if there never was any hesitance. Neil gives into those hands because those hands are the only hands he will ever want. Screw the contract, screw the lawyers and the fees and the entire fucking game - he already played, and he won anyway.

Afraid, always so afraid of somebody separating them, Neil wraps his arms around Andrew’s neck and clings to him. He expects strange hands to land on them, for someone to pull Neil back, for the floor to split between their feet . . . but the only hands on him are Andrew’s; one curled around the collar of Neil’s jersey to pull him in, the other at the back of Neil’s head to push him in.

Being chosen is one thing, and Neil kisses Andrew in thanks.

Because being a choice is another, and as Andrew kisses Neil back in front of a million witnesses, Neil is witness to Andrew finally letting himself be one.

Pleasure and peace slip into pain suddenly, with Andrew’s strong fingers moving to squeeze around Neil’s hips in a vice-like grip. Neil barely has time to lift his head in question before he’s being pulled off his feet and shoved behind Andrew. He holds Neil back with one arm while bracing himself with the other.

Somebody is screaming Neil’s name - no, everyone is screaming his name, but all Neil can hear are the footsteps coming towards them, and all he can see besides Andrew’s tense shoulders is a fury of black and blue.

Riko Moriyama is no longer human, not that he ever was, instead now a rabid animal; his face is one of a predator, annoyed with its prey for continuing to escape, with his racquet raised as if a weapon and not a tool.

“I warned you both!” Riko shouts, close enough now that Neil can practically smell fear and panic. “You do not get to take what’s mine! If you will not lose, then you will not live.”

Riko uses two hands to lift the racquet in a swinging motion, too quick for Andrew to do anything but push Neil back against the goal wall and lift his arm higher to cover his face -

But instead of the racquet coming down on Andrew, it clatters to the floor.

Too deep in shock to comprehend why, Neil’s only train of thought is to get Andrew away from Riko. He stumbles forward to grab onto Andrew’s shoulders, pulling him backwards with hands that are violently shaking. They’re both breathing fast, erratic, as they watch a suddenly silent Riko fall to his knees.

Kevin Day stands behind him, one hand cradled against his chest, one hand held tight around the back of Riko’s neck to force him to the ground. Both of their faces are sharp with grief, but Kevin doesn’t let go, and Riko doesn’t stand up.

“It’s over, Riko,” Kevin says, glancing up at Andrew and Neil for a moment before looking down at the fallen king. “They won.”

Andrew blocks Neil’s path when Neil tries to take a step forward, so instead Neil taps at the back of Andrew’s hand, asking without words to hold it. Andrew looks down for a moment, then loops their fingers together before they take a step forward as one.

Riko is snarling out curses to Kevin, but when he jerks his head up he flashes, of all things, a smile; unflinching and wicked.

Neil isn’t deterred. “You hear that?” he asks, clinging tighter to Andrew’s hand as he indicates with his free one around the chaotic court, the screaming stadium. “The crowd? Our team? We won.”

Riko smiles as if he wants to cut with it, but where he was once sharp, he is now dull. Whatever power he had left flickers out as he says, “The two of you will never play again.” He looks at their conjoined hands and laughs. “Not after that. Would you truly call that winning?”

Neil takes one moment to think about it, first seeing the referees and security guards about to storm the court to separate them, then seeing all the SeaKings scattered around them. They each look weary and worn, but not defeated.

He sees the Nighthawks filing off the court, heads hung low.

He sees Andrew staring at him, seemingly uncaring about all of it, and maybe Neil would believe him if Andrew’s hand weren’t so fiercely holding his, as if afraid Neil will disappear.

Neil looks back at Riko and offers a smile of his own.

“As long as you lose, I do.”

Riko jerks enough in Kevin’s hold to cause Kevin to gasp and let go, but by then the security guards are there. Neil allows Andrew to pull him back again, the two of them still together as Riko’s vicious threats fill up the court, still together even when he’s gone.

There’s no break in the motion; shortly after Riko is taken out, event staff are filing in, clearing the court and readying a carpet for the award ceremony. The trophy will be brought out soon and awarded to its rightful winners. Behind the three of them, the rest of the SeaKings begin to form at the half-court line by their lineup order, with a clear space for Neil to stand.

Kevin looks over his shoulder, then back at Neil, a million words in that one look; perhaps variations of thank you or I’m sorry or I promise, or all of the above. Neil offers a smile back, grim despite being genuine, and nods towards the SeaKings.

That isn’t Neil’s trophy anyway, it’s not what he was fighting for. It belongs to the number one captain in the game and his teammates - but Neil Josten isn’t a SeaKing anymore. He might never be again.

“You should go,” Andrew says as he tries to pull his hand free, indicating towards the waiting SeaKings. “You won.”

Neil doesn’t let him let go, because it doesn’t look as if Andrew really wants to, and Neil is done doing what others think he should be doing.

“I didn’t win it for the game,” he says and grips Andrew’s hand tighter.

Andrew drops his gaze down to where they’re touching, as if just now realizing that they haven’t been forced apart. With that, he nods, and begins to lead Neil away from the court and towards the doors, to a world waiting to change them and hurt them and destroy them if they don’t conform.

Neil doesn’t quite care, because only they have the power to let go.

And they don’t have to if they don’t want to anymore.

That’s what Neil was fighting for.

-

“It isn’t fair,” Neil says as he slumps back against the bed. The blankets are rumpled and warm from being wrapped around two bodies over the past few days; they haven’t moved very far from the bedroom, save to eat and shower. “I don’t know what to do.”

Though the SeaKings had won the playoffs, everything went up in flames after the game, ignited by a single kiss. Questions were asked, answers were demanded, but there was nothing to say. Neil Josten had disappeared off the face of the Earth before the trophy could even be awarded.

People wanted to know what it meant. Neil kissed Andrew on an Exy court and sufficiently altered Exy history. It wasn’t something anyone had seen before, and so, nobody knew what to make of it. Are they together? Is it real? And if so, what exactly is it?

So many questions, Neil should’ve known they would’ve wanted him to lie in answer.

It’s been his entire life so far; tell the truth and find a way to twist it into something acceptable, redeemable, believable. He stood on a winning court and kissed who he wanted and it wasn’t enough to make people see - this is who he is, dammit, this is it, and he doesn’t need to be saved from this.

That’s what they all think, though. That’s what they told Neil in that boardroom yesterday. He sat in a room full of officials, lawyers, owners and managers, all the people with all the power to erase him. And instead they said, “We can fix this.”

We can fix this.

Which is the same as erasing, if you think about it.

‘Fix this’, as if Neil didn’t mean it when he said that he wanted it, as if Andrew were lying when he said yes.

As if their hands on each other’s bodies wasn’t because they wanted to be closer. As if there’s something wrong with what they have, though it has only ever felt right. As if, in that moment of fear and panic, Andrew hadn’t pulled Neil back to save his life.

Fix this. Fix what?

‘We’d like for you to remain a SeaKing, and we wish to see Andrew Minyard’s transfer through, but we have to find a way to make this beneficial for all.’ That’s what they told him, in those exact words.

In other words; they’d rather go through a million hoops than admit the truth.

Neil felt annoyance, mostly, for even he hadn’t seen it coming. He won the game while accepting that he had also lost the game, and that one day that was going to be okay.

He couldn’t lie anymore; one season of pretending nearly rendered him nameless. He couldn’t do it for one more, ten more, twenty.

He hadn’t imagined that they’d offer him a future at all. He thought that was it.

Here they are, though, with a price tag next to his life, the game on a silver plate for him to choose.

So he doesn’t know what to do.

The bed creaks as Andrew rolls onto his side to consider Neil, placing his book down. His eyes are less tired, more vivid, more free. It’s been taking Neil a little too long to look away from them lately - not that he has anywhere else to look.

For now, right now and these past few days, the world has just been them, right here.

Where Neil can look at Andrew as long as Andrew permits it, and where Andrew can draw his lines and decide if or when he wants to invite Neil over them.

“Nobody is going to believe this,” Neil says, glaring at the index cards in his hands, the story they want him to tell. “You would never force me into a kiss. It wasn’t a dare. How stupid do they think you are, I -” He has to shut his eyes and force out his breath, too angry to finish that sentence.

He feels movement around him, and when he opens his eyes, Andrew is face to face with him. His hair is fluffier than usual from being rubbed against the pillows, and the shirt he’s wearing is actually Neil’s shirt; he hadn’t packed enough, for neither of them knew how long he’d be staying.

Focusing on all of Andrew’s features washes out Neil’s anger, and when Andrew plucks the cards free from Neil’s grasp only to then thread their fingers together, Neil can’t think of anything else.

“They don’t know me. It’s believable”

“That doesn’t matter. It’s not true.” Neil tugs Andrew’s hand closer to his lap, needing a distraction. He fiddles with Andrew’s fingers, studying his nails and the lines of his knuckles. “I thought it was over. I thought they’d get rid of me. Not - not this. I made my decision already. I chose you.”

Andrew raises his free hand to grab at Neil’s neck, his grip firm and familiar. “Wanting me won’t let you play Exy, and you can’t look me in the eye and say you’re okay with that.”

That bout of truth hurts more than it should. It’s a staggering stab down Neil’s chest until all he can do to fend off the pain is close his eyes, because he can’t lie to Andrew. The idea of never playing again is overwhelming and emptying. Having it being offered to him again, despite everything, almost makes him want to grab it and never let go.

Except now he knows it’s not as easy as just playing Exy.

Except now he has Andrew to hold onto.

“Not like this,” Neil finally says, giving his head a shake. “I want to play, but not like this. Kevin promised . . . but it’ll never change, and I thought -”

“Stop. Stop thinking and listen instead. Look at your options; if you go through with this, I’ll find a way to stay on your team. If you don’t . . .”

Fear takes hold of his heart, the tone of Andrew’s voice just then enough to sink Neil. Too often he’s woken up at night, afraid to turn over and see that Andrew’s side of the bed is empty. That he’s gone. Taken.

But Andrew’s still holding his hand and still looking at him, because he is still here.

And . . . and so even if Neil doesn’t . . . then Andrew will still be here, and that’s the only option that sounds right and sounds fair.

“And what do you want?” Neil asks Andrew, staring at him with intent now. It’s been the one question that nobody’s yet to ask.

Andrew’s expression dissipates into a blank slate. “Doesn’t matter to me,” he says boredly, letting go of Neil to pick up the cards again, flipping through them. “Say what you want to say.”

Then he throws the cards to the floor, each sturdy piece of paper fluttering around the room, and turns all of his attention on Neil.

The only light comes from the bedside lamp, casting half of Andrew’s face in gold and half in shadow. Neil taps his thumb against the still-fading bruise around Andrew’s eye, like he so often does, as if he can erase the press of someone else’s fingers.

They won. He keeps forgetting. Riko lost and will never touch Andrew again, will never hurt another player again, will never play again. It was announced this morning that Riko Moriyama is ‘willingly’ stepping down as captain and starting line. In other terms; benched for the rest of his life.

It sparked outrage in his fans - all five of them (or so Neil likes to imagine).

But as soon as the bruise disappears, Riko will really be gone, and they can work together on leaving his memory behind.

Riko will be gone. The main instigator in Neil’s nightmares will be gone because they won, so maybe playing again won’t be so bad, maybe, maybe, maybe . . .

Neil doesn’t decide on that maybe, and instead says a yes to Andrew’s inquiring look. His mouth is already open for the kiss when Andrew gives it to him, as thrilling as it was the first time and more so than the kiss in the stadium. Neil imagines a lifetime of these kisses and gets dizzy from the reality of it.

Andrew’s still here and they won so maybe . . .

Using the flat of his hand against Neil’s chest, Andrew guides Neil across the bed until he can pin him against the wall. Neil’s legs automatically spread open to allow Andrew to fit between them, Andrew taking the given space to press closer until their lips meet again.

They’re getting better at fitting together. So much better that Neil wonders why they ever part.

Andrew continues to press breathy, hot kisses to Neil’s lips as he fumbles with the hem of Neil’s shirt, pushing it only high enough to trap it underneath Neil’s arms, exposing his torso.

He quickly moves onto Neil’s gym shorts, but his fingers struggle to untie the knot of the drawstring. Neil reaches down to try and help only to have his hand swatted away. “Andrew, I can -”

“No,” Andrew says, and drops his head and hand down to Neil’s crotch. He doesn’t take long in mapping out the shape of Neil, half-hard and growing the longer Andrew touches him like that.

Neil stares on in fascination. He doesn’t know what Andrew’s doing but he’s very good at doing it, drawing out a hiss-turned-moan from Neil as he rubs along the line of Neil’s cock, so strangely prominent through the jersey material of his shorts.

“Andrew,” Neil groans weakly, not in warning but in praise, and is awarded by Andrew’s thumb teasing at the head of his cock. “-drew -”

Want is going to devour him before Andrew does.

Neil backs further against the wall, scrabbling with one hand for purchase, his feet slipping and sliding around either side of Andrew until Andrew rests his free hand on Neil’s hip, stilling his movements. Who knew a simple touch could be so catastrophic?

Neil feels crazy, wound up. He can feel his cock leaking, wetting at the tip when Andrew draws a line over it. He’s going to soak these shorts. They’ll have to be burned, or thrown out or -

Warm lips enclose over his and cut off his breathing and his thoughts. Andrew kisses him until Neil has no choice but to emmitt every moan, whine and whimper into the safety of Andrew’s mouth.

And then Andrew’s lips are gone, dropping down, down, down to where Neil’s straining in his shorts. He has to resist jerking up against Andrew’s mouth, has to stifle the noises that want to burst free as Andrew works along the solid shape of Neil’s erection.

There’s a layer between them but it’s too much. He’s sensitive, too addicted to Andrew’s touch. Not even Andrew’s hands, both around Neil’s hips now, can save Neil from sinking, falling, jumping, flying. “Andrew -” Neil cries again, folding in on himself.

He thinks he can feel Andrew smirking against him, just barely, before Andrew mouths at the head of Neil’s cock, adding his spit to the already-dark dampness covering Neil’s crotch.

Neil is shaking, as there is nothing else to do. He’ll allow Andrew to destroy him because Neil likes the person he is better when Andrew helps put him back together.

One of Andrew’s hands slips up towards Neil’s bared stomach, his warm palm skidding over the shuddering curve of skin. His other hand tries for the drawstring again, and Neil nearly leaves it to him out of pure inability to move, but he wants Andrew’s mouth on him now, so he helps.

Andrew doesn’t bat his hand away this time, allowing Neil to shove his own shorts down. They both breathe out in relief when Neil is finally freed, Andrew’s breath warm over Neil’s cock. He shudders, expecting Andrew to take him whole then, needs Andrew to take him whole, but Andrew settles his mouth against Neil’s stomach instead, kissing his way up.

“And- Andrew -” Neil says through clenched teeth, then lowers his hands to hover over Andrew’s head. “C-can -”

Andrew doesn’t even look up; he exhales against Neil’s twitching abdomen, “Yes.”

Neil doesn’t hesitate in weaving his fingers into Andrew’s hair and gripping him tight, not daring to let go.

Oh no, no, no maybes, not here.

Just yes.

Andrew keeps up the war of soft, insistent kisses and harsh, unforgiving tugs of his hand over Neil’s cock until all that’s important to Neil is making this last forever. His legs slip against the sheets and Andrew’s name is a pitiful whine in his throat, but try as he might, he can’t hold on for as long as he’d like.

Because Andrew looks up. His hand continues its heated pace but his kisses stop. And then Neil looks down.

Neil stops moving, goes quiet, needing absolute silence because what Andrew’s eyes are saying is almost too faint to make sense of. It looks like a question or a need, it looks like hope, like someone who’s already expecting denial. It looks like a plea.

It looks like a path to run down and a goal to run towards. It looks like someone who wants to run to you but expects you to run away.

But Neil already said no more maybes.

Neil curls further down to reach Andrew’s lips, the angle just barely making it possible to kiss him, but Neil has chosen and will always choose him.

He ends up coming while locked up in that kiss, Andrew’s hand never stilling around him. He pants out the truth and twists it into Andrew’s hair and says it with his body, you, you, you, you -

Neil wraps his arms around Andrew’s neck, urging him upwards until they’re eye to eye, and there Neil says it with his voice; “You.”

Andrew scowls and tugs Neil down until he’s flat on his back, shutting him up with kisses and bites, but the further he sinks against Neil, around Neil, into Neil, the more he’s saying that truth right back.

No maybes, only yes, not them, only you.

Some words on paper can’t take this away. Some warped king with a crooked crown can’t hurt them.

Say what you want to say, Andrew had said, and Neil thinks -

Well, I already have.

-

He can’t find the cue cards.

His publicist had revamped his speech, writing it all out as if a script. Neil was meant to review it the night before, but he didn’t; he wanted everyone to know that he was lying through his teeth, that his words were printed on stock paper.

Now he can’t find them. He knows he put them in his messenger bag last night, but after emptying out the entire thing in his dressing room, Neil comes up cardless.

“One minute, Mr. Josten,” an event staff member tells him, and ushers him out of the dressing room and into the hall. As he walks, his stylist trails after him with a lint brush while fussing over his hair the entire way.

Apparently this press conference is a big deal.

It’s just another lie for Neil.

Kevin is standing behind the door leading to the conference room, tall and clean-cut in his suit with his dark hair expertly styled, almost enough to make him seem confident. He turns at Neil’s approach, and the illusion breaks; Kevin simply looks as if he wants to vomit.

“Neil,” Kevin says desperately, stepping closer until he’s right in front of Neil. “I -”

Neil can only glare up at him, wanting to say so many words, but too afraid that he’ll break too.

He wants to shout and scream but you promised me! but instead he says nothing.

So much for saying what you want to say.

They both have to take a step back to allow room for the event staff. Two men in suits are carrying the trophy, handling it carefully into the conference room to be put on display.

It’s tradition to have the trophy engraved with the names of everyone on the team and the year of their win the day after the award ceremony, but that was a week ago, and not a name has been etched into it as of yet.

Likely because they want to be sure that Neil is a legible player before striking his name into silver.

Neil scowls at the trophy as it leaves his line of sight.

He continues to scowl as they’re led into the conference room. It feels quite a bit like being led to a slaughter.

The press only adds to that. Reporters leap from their seats as soon as Neil has a foot through the threshold. Questions are shouted as if whoever’s asking will die if they aren’t answered. Lights flash from every direction. The big, big room suddenly feels small, small, small.

The conference table is full of ERC and NEL officials already. James Kingston and Robert Carden are grim-faced and silent in their seats, not acknowledging Neil or Kevin as they sit. The moderator reads out the names of everyone present one by one, and Neil thinks that there has to be some sort of irony in how many people want to control Neil’s life but are too afraid to live their own.

A photographer comes up too close to the stage, their camera flashing so brightly that it momentarily blinds Neil. A chorus of camera flashes quickly follow. Not once does he smile, for he is not here for pleasantries.

They don’t deserve something reserved for Andrew.

Neil grabs the water in front of him to distract himself as the moderator leads the conference underway. He thinks of what to say as people begin to talk, the vice-president of the NEL going on about values and traditions, Kingston commending the SeaKings for their win.

He knows what he should say, the gist of what his publicist planned for him, what they want him to say . . . he just isn’t sure how to say it.

All too soon Neil’s name is being called. “Mr. Josten will now speak in regards to the events of last Friday’s game. Mr. Josten, the floor is yours.”

The floor is his, and every pair of eyes is on him. Neil grabs the water again and takes a few desperate sips. “Um, yeah. About last Friday’s game -”

“Neil, can you please confirm or deny that you are in a relationship with Andrew Minyard of the New York Nighthawks?”

“Does this mean you’re gay? How long have the two of you been together?”

“Was the rivalry all for show then?”

Another reporter shouts, “Is it true that Andrew Minyard forced you into the kiss we witnessed after your championship game?”

Then it never stops, until all Neil can hear is accusation after accusation, all embedded with lies and secrets and terrible truths. Did Andrew - and is Andrew - and what does this mean for your career? and did you know about Andrew Minyard’s past and did it influence your opinion of him at all?

Neil can’t see a single face as he looks at the mob of monsters, but he hears the cries of the creatures and feels the jabbing of their fingers. Like the invading hand of a scientist exploring their specimen, trying to find out what’s wrong with it.

Neil scowls and scowls and doesn’t say a thing - and then he begins to smile.

They want something to be wrong with him? Fine, but it won’t be this, that kiss, or any of the ones before or after. Andrew isn’t the monster they’re trying to pin him as and Neil isn’t the liar they want him to be.

What they have and what they feel belongs to Andrew and Neil. The rest of them can’t have it, touch it, or taint it.

Last Friday night, when Neil stepped out onto that court, he decided to be the truth; for himself and for all of them. He did it to be free, to show that you can be free.

And this? These questions? That is not how he would define free.

So without his script, all of his lines forgotten, Neil Josten crosses his arms and smirks. “Well, actually -”

That’s when he feels it, under the hand tucked against his chest - something is inside the inner pocket of his suit jacket. His expression fades, his words die in his throat. He sticks his hand inside his jacket, fishing out the cue cards that can’t be there, because he didn’t put them there.

One by one, person by person, everything else fades, too.

Neil stares wide-eyed at the cards, every word unfamiliar and false. It’s his speech, printed with all the answers he has to say. There’s just one difference between the cards in his hands and the cards he’d been given.

Scrawled across the first card, in dark, bold writing, are the words Say what you want to say - just don’t say this.

Neil stares and stares and stares until Kevin elbows him in the side, and one by one, person by person, everything starts to fade back in. All the colour has been drained from Neil’s face when he looks up. He can see but he can’t hear over the sound of his heart. Over all the words in his head that he thought would never be said.

And then they all come out.

“Well, I guess I should thank you all for having me tonight. I hear your questions, and I happen to have a few answers,” Neil says, starting off slowly, a little less nervous as he straightens out his tie. “Actually, I’ve been waiting to tell you all this for quite some time, but unfortunately my hands were tied.”

He holds up both hands as if they were bound together.

He can feel as everyone at the conference table grows tense. Kevin is the only one who dares to look at him, his usual anxiety clear across his face.

Neil considers that, but is distracted by the trophy; it stands tall and silver off to the side, a metal crown perched on top. It symbolizes great success and grueling work, but Neil will forever associate it with lies and tricks, pain and traps.

Trophy be damned, game be damned. If this is how you play, then Neil refuses to be a player.

“I thought I was being pretty obvious last Friday, but apparently not, or else I wouldn’t be here in this stupid suit, trying to convince you all that was you saw wasn’t real. But you all saw it. If you really fall for any other explanation then you don’t deserve to call yourselves journalists.”

Neil takes a deep breath and leans back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest once more.

“They want me to tell you that Andrew Minyard forced me to kiss him as some sort of dare or punishment. First of all, that’s complete bullshit, and second of all, an extremely harmful accusation to be making. I refuse to say it, like they want me to, so here,” he says, and picks up the cue cards, only to throw them into the air and away from the table. “Read the script for yourselves if you’re that desperate to believe a lie. Or you could listen to what I really have to say for once.”

There’s a long pause from the press, their silence unnerving. This is that moment though, that Neil’s been waiting for. Nothing can save him from this, and even if something could . . . he’d prefer to drown.

“I’m not in a relationship with Andrew,” Neil says, which invites a crowd of questions that Neil ignores. “I’m not in a relationship with him because that’s not how we define it. All you need to know is that yes, we’re . . . together.” Warmth pools low in his stomach, rising up through his chest, the urge to smile pulling at his muscles. “The truth is that we have been for a while, and not just because he’s a guy, but because . . . because he’s him, but since he isn’t a girl, we have to be punished for it.”

People sitting at the table begin to cough or clear their throats. They murmur to one another, as if trying to form a plan, but nobody makes a move to do anything. Cowards. It wouldn’t matter anyway; Neil can only focus on his own voice, his own words - finally, finally, finally.

“It’s called a morality clause, and everybody in the NEL has to sign it. It basically means that if you’re anything besides straight, or anything besides what they deem to be ‘normal’, then you have to keep it a secret, so I wasn’t allowed to let the public know about my ‘real life’. Sure, you can still be yourself, but they’ll do anything they can to make sure nobody ever knows it.”

One reporter raises her hand, to which the moderator himself looks to Neil instead. Neil nods, allowing it.

“May I ask what specifically was done to keep your sexual orientation a secret?”

Neil laughs. “Well for starters, I wasn’t ever in a relationship with a cheerleader.”

The crowd starts up again, more questions, more shouting.

The high of telling the truth, the impossibility of it, has Neil feeling as if this is truly a dream and that soon he’ll wake up with a new script in his hands. But because it is not and he knows it, Neil continues to smile and answer in his own words.

“By telling you all of this, I’m in violation of my contract. They wanted me to tell you that Andrew forced me, that it wasn’t real, but it was. I know this means I’m forfeiting my chance at redemption. I know I won’t play with the SeaKings ever again. I don’t care.”

The questions continue with somebody asking, “Why exactly would the NEL put their athletes through this?”

Neil leans over the table to look down the line of officials, locking eyes with the vice-president.

“Well?”

The man, Jimmy Foster or whatever, looks around the room as if he hasn’t a clue where he is. His mouth forms shapes, but his voice forms no answers.

“That is a question, uh, best answered by an attorney that represents the National Exy League,” he says, fumbling, looking at all the faces next to him for help. “At this current date and time, I am not at will to answer directly.”

Neil hadn’t expected anything more from him, so it doesn’t hurt. He answers instead.

“I think it has something to do with the ratings, and maybe the ticket sales. How profitable we are for them. Nobody wants a gay athlete, but it’s funny, because my manager can’t keep track of all the calls and emails he’s been getting about sponsorship deals. Interest in Exy is at an all-time high, last I checked, and athletes from other leagues have expressed their support. But it doesn’t matter though, right?” He’s sure to look at Jimmy Foster again, though the man won’t hold eye contact anymore. “You can only sell us if we’re what you want us to be, right?”

Neil gets to his feet to stand over the men at the table, finding his legs are weaker than he thought, but he remains tall and speaks as loud as he can.

“Tell me, do you think any of this changes the score? The SeaKings won. Do you think my sexuality, or anybody else’s, would’ve stopped that?” When nobody answers, Neil shouts, “Do you?”

He laughs when all he’s met with is silence. Laughs because he’s so right, and they are so wrong, and he shouldn’t have ever been afraid of them.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he says with scorn. “This isn’t the game it’s supposed to be, and you all know it. Thanks for having me this season, but until contracts start changing, none of us are winners. I’ll see myself out.”

His chair squeals against the floor as he shoves it backwards. The room is full of noise, so many voices, but Neil was ready to leave before he even stepped out here. He tries to turn, only to be stopped by a hand gripping his arm.

Tight and resilient, but also hesitant, and such a grip could only belong to Kevin Day.

“Wait,” Kevin says, and though he sounds so unsure, he silences the room. Everyone goes still. Even Neil.

Neil looks at Kevin’s hand on his arm and then at Kevin’s eyes, and he looks like Kevin and sounds like Kevin, but Kevin wouldn’t . . . he won’t . . . will he? Neil feels something thrill through his bones as Kevin urges him back into his seat. So he sits, and he listens, and he hopes.

“Um.” Kevin clears his throat and straightens himself out, slowly sliding his hand away from Neil. He glances briefly at Neil as if for some sort of guidance, but there isn’t anything Neil can do for him. Kevin created that spark of hope; igniting the fire is all up to him.

Neil said everything that he could say and came through on his word. It’s Kevin’s turn now to say his.

Kevin Day takes in a deep breath before presenting the press with a defiant smile; so different from the many smiles he’s given to the press before, this one maybe borrowed from another.

“Good evening, everyone,” Kevin says, fidgeting with his tie before finally dropping his hands to the table and folding them. “I have something to say as well, something I should have said sooner. It was up to me to address this years ago when I was first given the chance, much like it is up to me now. I was afraid, but it wasn’t until recent events took place that I’ve realized I have nothing to be afraid of. Not like my fellow athletes do. I’d like to take a moment to thank those athletes.”

Kevin looks to Neil. Neil doesn’t dare look anywhere else.

“And I want to apologize. I, amongst others, have been demanding what can’t be given,” Kevin says, his steady voice beginning to falter. He glances down at his hands and looks years younger than he really is. “My mother invented this game. It was her life well before I came along, and it’s what I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to, but I don’t think she would be pleased to learn that in order to play Exy, one must give up their life to do so.”

Mention of Kayleigh Day creates a stir in the crowd, multiple voices rising. It raises something in Kevin, has his chin lifting instead of bowing, his shoulders sure instead of shrugged. He sips at the water set aside for him, and when he lowers it, his smile has grown into something grand.

“Neil Josten is a valuable player. I would go far enough to say he’s the reason for the SeaKings’ championship win. To rid him off his contract and position with the SeaKings would be in bad taste, as his private affairs have nothing to do with how well he plays Exy. He did as he said he would and nothing else should matter.”

There isn’t a single member of the press who isn’t standing, isn’t asking questions. Neil might be the only one in the room who can’t think of anything to say. He watches Kevin like Kevin is Neil’s only chance of ever breathing again, watches as Kevin, who has been so terrified of drowning, dips beneath the water that Neil’s grown so accustomed to.

Kevin’s smile is gone now, nothing left on his face but determination only ever seen on the court.

“A player’s sexual orientation has no effect on the game, but the game has an effect on the player. With that said, I am here to plead to the ERC and NEL to disband the morality clause that holds together our contracts. It’s inhumane and unethical. Skills and statistics are all we should be focused on when it comes to this game, and Neil Josten’s are more than impressive, as far as I’m concerned.”

There’s laughter from the crowd, but Kevin must not hear it, for he stares at the trophy that he had worked so hard for, then looks away.

“Until these demands are met, I will not be returning to the SeaKings or any other team in the NEL. These shouldn’t even be demands, as this should not be a cause. We should look at players as people, not paychecks. I shouldn’t have ever looked at you as only a player, not a person,” Kevin says, Neil only realizing those words are for him until Kevin looks at him again. “I’m sorry for not saying this sooner, but I will not be going back on that court unless you’re there with me. We need to show the world how Exy is meant to be played, don’t you think?”

Neil can only nod, for once at a loss for words.

“With that, I hope the ERC and NEL will hear our pleas and be quick to act upon them,” Kevin says to the room now, looking as if he’s built himself into something stronger over the past few minutes. “Otherwise, I suggest you all prepare yourself for a very empty court in the upcoming years. Thank you all for your time, and goodnight.”

Damn media training. Kevin has always been the best.

Kevin stands before Neil can process what’s happened. He looks at the trophy, his trophy, that will now be lacking his name as well, then turns to leave the stage and the loud, loud room behind. Neil stands to follow, with security tailing the two of them as soon as they’re off the stage. The press is a different beast than it was when they first walked in; more ravenous now, more desperate.

When the door swings shut behind them, the noise of the world cuts out completely. All there is to hear is Kevin finally breathing, loud and gasping as if he had held it the entire time he was speaking.

Kevin turns to lean against the wall, his eyes closed and mouth permanently hung open.

Neil watches only for a moment, before laying his hand on Kevin’s shoulder and rubbing it, getting him to turn around.

Kevin gulps in another breath and smiles weakly at Neil, nodding as if to say he’s okay.

Neil stares, wondering how the man he’s looking at is the same man that was in that room, fighting for him. He has to laugh, then asks, “Did you have that speech planned?”

Kevin swallows roughly and shakes his head. “Not on paper, but it’s been in my head for a very long time.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Neil says while smiling, feeling an odd sort of hysteria build up in him. “Are you really going to give it all up?”

Whatever panic was left in Kevin’s expression quickly clears out. “This is my mother’s game. If I never play it again, it’ll be on my terms. Not theirs.”

“You’re crazy,” Neil says breathily, fully smiling now. “Thank you.”

“I’m simply telling the truth.”

The truth has never been simple.

It’s been wrapped up and hidden away. It’s been at the very tip of Neil’s tongue but made into something he could never say. Yet this does feel that simple, in a way.

In fact, it feels easier than lying ever has been.

“Yeah,” Neil says, and finally feels free. “Me, too.”

-

Neil didn’t want to be in the room anyway, but he didn’t take too kindly to being told he wasn’t allowed.

It’s likely for the best, because if the decision the ERC makes isn’t the right one, then there would have probably been casualties. So, no, Neil is not in the conference room as his entire future is decided - instead he’s watching it from home.

Home, but not for much longer. Half of the place is packed up, while the rest shouldn’t take too much work as Neil never really owned much. Then home will be a two bedroom apartment on the other side of San Francisco.

With two sets of keys.

(Andrew had given Neil a look for that.)

“Yeah, we’re on the right channel,” Neil tells his manager over the phone. “Just waiting for it to start. Yeah. Alright. Thanks.”

There’s something absolutely terrifying about being told ‘good luck’. Especially in a situation that really is entirely chance for Neil. He said all he could say. His strength and speed can’t be factors in victory here, as this isn’t a game.

Every sports channel is meant to be airing the conference, with multiple news outlets in attendance to cover it as well. Today could change the history of the game. Today will choose Neil’s life.

Neil can’t focus on packing anymore and has to sit down to steady himself. On one hand he doesn’t care, but in the other hand he holds his love for the sport and his team tightly. Either way he’ll be alright, but this stopped being solely about him long ago.

As if on cue, Andrew comes out of the bedroom and drops the box he was holding beside all the others, then perches himself on the arm of the couch. He watches the television and ignores Neil’s blatant stare on him, as if the world isn’t about to end or begin.

Neil already gave it all up, he knows, but to have it ripped away now might hurt so much worse, because it’ll only mean that they don’t matter to them, and that they never have. That this game will never be what it was.

Letting go of Neil Josten won’t be as devastating to the NEL as losing Kevin Day, and Neil puts half of his hope into that fact. He puts the rest into his belief that the NEL will finally see them as humans, opposed to play things.

As he watches the TV, anxious as commercial after commercial plays, he begins to twist his hands together, nails digging into his skin to prove something - that he’s awake, that he’s okay, that -

Then his hands are suddenly being grabbed by Andrew’s, his slightly larger hands enclosing around both of Neil’s to still him.

“Stop,” Andrew says bluntly, not sparing a glance downwards as he keeps Neil contained in safety.

Neil tries to calm down, but it’s impossible. On the television screen, the conference is beginning, all the cameras fixed on the stage as NEL officials take their seats. There’s Foster and Carden, along with many faces that Neil hasn’t seen before. All these strangers . . . deciding his life . . .

“Neil,” Andrew says in warning, and finally looks at Neil when Neil looks at him. “What’s going to happen is going to happen. You did what you could.”

“I know, I just -” He hadn’t planned to say anything, whether they win or lose, but those eyes and hands of his make Neil want to write speeches, to tell the truth, to say thank you. “If they don’t repeal it . . . if we never play again . . . I need you to know that -”

“You’re not dying, Neil.” But Andrew tightens his hold regardless. “They haven’t said anything yet. Save your sap for later.”

Neil wants to protest that but instead shuts up. Besides, whatever it was he was about to say, Andrew must already know it. Thank you, thank you, thank you -

Andrew nods, as if hearing those thoughts, then indicates towards the screen where an official is now speaking.

Neil goes perfectly still. Andrew continues to hold him.

The official introduces himself and the others present at the table, then states the values of the NEL and the history that’s gone into the sport.

It’s explained to the world how the past season has affected Exy’s image. Scores and statistics are stated, with the top three teams ranked. The Nighthawks are awarded as the team with the most points, while the SeaKings remain the team with the most wins, with the Tigers earning an honorary mention for most commended team.

Then the official speaking sits down, and George Silva, the head commissioner for the NEL, takes the stage. Neil hasn’t ever met the man, but he’s seen him at high-end events. To have him attending this press conference only highlights how important it is.

Neil can’t sit still, his legs jittery and his hands threatening to shake.

“Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you all for joining us today,” Silva says, something about his voice welcoming, with something in his expression reading as a warning. “Recent events have caused quite a disruption, not just in the NEL, but throughout the entire world of Exy. After hearing from critics and fans from across the globe, it needs to be said that the NEL only acts with an athlete’s best interests in mind. Every rule has its reason.”

Neil leaps to his feet. He needs to stand, so as to not feel so helpless, so he’s not just sitting here as some asshole decides that they deserve to be hurt for who they are.

Andrew stays seated, but shifts around to better hold Neil’s hand, never letting go.

“That being said, some rules are outdated.” That earns a cacophony of questions, which are all ignored as Silva continues; “It is true that a player’s gender identity and sexual orientation have no effect on how they play the game. With Exy sales at an all-time high, and interest peaking on a global scale, we wish to be the first professional sport to put our best foot forward. The NEL offers the sincerest of apologies to affected athletes, but thanks you all for taking this step with us.”

The man sounds convincing enough, but Neil will never trust a man who sat on an empire of falsities. He wants to believe just as much as he wants to play, but it can’t be this simple. Rules and regulations can’t change so easily.

Except that this wasn’t simple.

He remembers the day Kevin had him trapped in the locker room as he made him believe it was impossible, remembers the first time he lied on camera about Andrew, remembers all of the kisses and touches and words he held back on because feelings were forbidden for him.

He was worth it.

Neil holds Andrew’s hand back, looking at him as he decides that whatever words come out of Silva’s mouth, they won’t break this. They never were able to.

“Starting as soon as the 2018-2019 NEL season, we will be redrafting the morality clause in an effort to support future athletes and to make Exy an inclusive sport, with renegotiations to begin for all those currently affected by their contracts before fall practice starts. It is my great pleasure to thank you all on behalf of the NEL for your patience, and we look forward to another successful Exy season together.”

And what do you do when all of your dreams come true?

When you actually wake up with the ability to fly?

Neil stares at the screen until his vision blurs, afraid to take his eyes away, as if he’ll take the words away. His heart was expecting to crash, but with no reason to it climbs up, up, up, and there is no coming down.

So what do you do?

He waits for someone to shake him awake and tell him that he isn’t free, that none of them are, or ever will be.

“Neil.”

And this is it, soon he’ll open his eyes and -

“Neil,” Andrew says, louder, and pulls Neil’s hand to turn him around. The look on Andrew’s face is the same as always, but the hold he has on Neil has softened; secure as always, but without the fear of letting go.

“Andrew,” Neil says, wanting to hate that he’s nearly in hysterics already. “We did it.”

Andrew scoffs, but he rubs his thumb against the back of Neil’s hand in a way that words can’t convey. “It was inevitable. You and Kevin had them backed into a corner. It won’t change everything.”

“Maybe,” Neil admits, allowing his voice to crack because he’s been fighting for months, and they don’t have to anymore. “It’ll change something, though, and isn’t that better than nothing?”

Their hands begin to drift, with Andrew’s landing on Neil’s hips and Neil’s moving up to cradle Andrew’s face. He waits for Andrew to refute that, but Andrew never does.

“So it seems,” Andrew says, his words spoken but his meaning held in a kiss.

Neil pulls Andrew closer as Andrew pulls Neil closer, and Neil remembers when Andrew’s rules didn’t allow this, and when they did. Just like he’ll remember when their rules didn’t allow this, and when they finally, finally did.

They kiss until Neil feels Andrew’s mouth twitch against his lips and has to pull back to see him, only to find that Andrew is smirking.

With all the impossibilities of today, Neil believes it and smiles back. “What’s so funny?”

His smirk could almost be called a grin now. Andrew squeezes Neil’s hips while shrugging casually. “Nothing, I’m simply imagining what would’ve happened if I hadn’t let you score on me.”

Neil’s hands go slack around Andrew, his laugh doubtful. “You didn’t.”

Andrew shrugs again, but that look of his makes Neil trust in anything he has to say.

“Guess we’ll never find out.”

“Liar,” Neil says accusingly, reaching up to tease at a lock of Andrew’s hair. “You’re not very good at it, you know.”

But that’s okay, because they’ll never have to lie again. Pretend is a game that they’ve long since passed playing.

They won anyway, but not glory or gold; the choice of yes or no, stay or go, you and me.

And they already decided long ago.