Andrew presses an uncharacteristically gentle kiss to Neil’s temple before he showers.
All whilst he’s running underneath the water, he thinks about it. Thinks about the strange softness, the warm satisfaction he gets from it, the solid and real feeling of Neil underneath his lips. He rubs shampoo into his hair and thinks about how it smells like Neil (as he couldn’t be fucking bothered to buy his own). Andrew also thinks about how he doesn’t mind this - the whole sharing thing. There’s nothing he doesn’t want to give, but there are some things he can’t give, some things which old demons claw at until they are firmly off limits.
Although , he reminds himself, those limits are changing .
Nine months ago, when he first pinned Neil to the wall and shoved his hand down his pants, Andrew could never have imagined giving things he is now. Before, he would never have let Neil trace his scars with gentle fingers. Andrew would not have let another body into his bed and be able to sleep soundly and never have held Neil’s hand tightly in his own whilst the others gasp and gawk at their public affection. Back then, when he was still too broken to touch.
And now … he’s still broken, but the jagged edges are smoothed down a little. Neil’s equally rough edges have acted like sandpaper.
When he gets out of the shower, Neil has disappeared. The lurch of panic is stifled swiftly, the little note on the kitchen side reading Gone to the store. I’ll buy you ice cream. Xxx
Andrew huffs, furiously pretending that the ‘xxx’ hasn’t sent warmth catapulting through his stomach.
A kiss, softer than any Andrew has ever had, is pushed against his cheek one morning when Kevin and Neil wake up far too fucking early to go and practice. He doesn’t hate the feeling. His cheek tingles, the exact spot where Neil had kissed, and he presses his fingers against it for a moment.
He returns the favour a few weeks later. Neil is busy, struggling through a bunch of confusing math which looks worse than a headache. Andrew stares at his side profile - the sharp cut of his jaw, the dip of his cheekbone, the smatter of freckles across the bridge of his nose - for what feels like hours. It’s only when he steps forwards his presence becomes noticed.
Neil’s unfriendly scowl morphs into something much more comfortable when he catches sight of who it is. “Oh. Hey. Thought you were Kevin.”
Andrew raises an eyebrow.
“He’s been on my ass about extra practice all morning.” Neil runs his hand over his eyebrow and sighs. “I had to remind him that I need good grades to play Exy at all. Didn’t seem too pleased.”
“When is he ever pleased?” Andrew replied flatly. Neil looks at him and smiles, a small upturn of the lips which pokes one dimple into existence.
There’s a silence, in which Neil pushes his math work away a few centimetres without realising. He eyes train on Andrew, their gazes locking and colliding mid air.
“Can I kiss you?” Neil asks, hopeful, and something warm unfurls in Andrew’s chest, threatening to suffocate him. The fact that Neil wants to kiss him, that Neil wants this, is almost overwhelming.
“You have homework,” he replies, nonchalant as ever.
“I’ll do it later.”
“You need grades to play Exy.”
Neil furrows his eyebrows. Andrew would deny it until he went blue, but that little crinkle of his nose he gets when he’s mildly annoyed is one of Andrew’s favorite things to look at. “Is that a no?”
“It’s a ‘later’,” Andrew promises.
Before he leaves, he leans down close to Neil’s cheek. It’s not casual, not like the quick goodbye kiss on the cheek given to him by Neil. This is slow and drawn out. His mind works furiously as he presses his lips against him, pulling apart every tiny movement. Neil keeps his hands on his lap, watching Andrew curiously. The kiss is gentle, a reassurance and a promise all in one gesture.
He ignores Neil’s flush as he saunters from the room, and he pretends that his lips aren’t tingling from the spot where Neil’s skin touched.
He and Neil don’t hug often. The closest they get to a hug is Andrew pressing comfort into the back of Neil’s neck whilst he hyperventilates, desperately trying to gather himself. Andrew chants the same thing - you’re Neil Josten, Riko is dead, your father is dead - every time. That is enough most times. He can safely pull Neil back from the edge and shield him from his biting memories.
But not tonight. It starts with a nightmare, the untimely surfacing of Neil’s past. By the time Andrew has followed a stumbling, panicking Neil to the bathroom, Neil is far gone, his eyes glacial depths of hostility. Harsh fingers are pulling through auburn hair, almost as if he’s trying to tear it out.
He sinks to the floor. The fluorescent bathroom light does Neil no wonders; the shadows under his eyes seem sunk into his skin, his hair sticking to his clammy forehead. Most of the horror evaporates after a few minutes. Each ragged breath had been forcing away the torment, and all is left of Neil is a tired, haunted shell of a man. Andrew recognises that feeling. He also recognises how Neil clutches at the flimsy material of his sleep shirt, craving something to ground him. For Andrew, that would be going the roof with a cigarette, feeling the horrible twist of vertigo as he looks at the ground. But Neil? Andrew feels spectacularly out of his depth right now, as Nathaniel’s remains are slowly buried and Neil battles to be fine again.
Eventually, after what must be ten minutes of silence, Neil chokes out, “It was you.”
Andrew looks at Neil, eyes searching.
“You were … with me.” Neil sighs, trying to keep his voice neutral. He only just manages it. “In Baltimore.” Andrew grips tighter on the back of Neil’s neck at the word. “With Nathan.”
“Yeah.” Neil huffs out a weak, sad laugh. “Guess my mind is a real bitch, huh?”
A few choice responses brew on his tongue. Shut up. Don’t make a joke of it. I hate you. Instead, he just says, “Mine too.”
Neil forces a smile. It lacks the familiar warmth and fondness that Andrew has become accustomed to; something pangs in his chest at the sight. He pushes that deep, deep down, but it doesn’t quite go away. The feeling is still there, and with every second he spends looking at Neil it embeds itself deeper. Andrew tries to look away, but those blue eyes are horribly bright, so captivating that he is left with no choice but to act. He searches Neil’s eyes and asks yes or no ? Neil answers yes as if he’s been waiting to say that his whole life, and Andrew leans in and presses a kiss to Neil’s lips. The usual fire is not there. This kiss is chaste and gentle, something so unbearably innocent that Andrew finds himself having to pull away after a few seconds.
“I hated it,” Neil says, heaving another dangerously wobbly sigh. “You … I couldn’t -”
Andrew pushes a finger to his lips to hush him. Words never go well for either of them. Actions always speak louder, and leave them with a satisfaction that painful admissions could never do.
“Can - can I touch you?”
“Waist and above,” Andrew replies, voice strangely soft.
Neil places his hands delicately on either side of Andrew’s waist, like he’s carrying something valuable, and slides them up so his hands are loosely wrapped around him. Mind whirring, Andrew runs a hand through Neil’s hair, guiding him towards the broad expanse of his chest. The touch is light.
Hugs have never been something he enjoys. Bitter, Cass-related memories all come surging up whenever a pair of arms encircle him gently. Worse, traumatising Drake-related memories rise in the back of his mind and he remembers that awful feeling of being held down by a pair of arms. Of being trapped.
But, as Andrew is quickly discovering, Neil has an unnerving talent of being able to replace his memories with better ones.
It’s nice to be able to hold somebody without being held . Neil’s arms around him are gentle, loose and easily escapable. This way Andrew holds him reminds him of the promise he made to himself back when Neil returned from Baltimore, when he swore that nobody would ever touch Neil again and live to tell the tale. Andrew tightens his grip fractionally, resisting the urge to pull Neil as close as possible and hold him there forever. He’s still battling to stay on the right side of sane after his nightmare. There’s a horrible, shuddering breath which Neil takes as he tries to become balanced once again.
Instead, Andrew leans his chin on Neil’s head and tries to keep his heart rate steady.
After, Andrew collapses breathlessly onto Neil, their sweaty skin sliding against each other. Neil absently runs his fingers through Andrew’s hair, down onto the back of his neck, but never any further than that. Neil’s chest heaves and they are so tightly pushed together that every dip of Neil’s torso feels like his own. One hand is still gripping Neil’s thigh and the other is above their heads, their fingers intertwined.
“Thankyou,” Neil mumbles into his shoulder. He pushes a kiss there. “That was good,” he adds, with another kiss following. His lips are hot and wet, and probably deliciously kiss-swollen. Andrew can’t summon the willpower to pull back and look. “ You were good. So good.”
Andrew grunts in reply. It had been good, a rerun of a dance already practiced, so the burden of anxiety was much less significant this time. Andrew rolls off but keeps their fingers intertwined, lying parallel and staring at the ceiling. Now would be when Andrew should get up and go to the bathroom. To clean up, sort out his swarming emotions and steady himself whilst glaring into the mirror. But today, he makes no effort to move. Strangely, he doesn’t feel the twist of disgust and flurry of toxic memories attach themselves to him. Andrew feels … fine. Content.
Neil’s surprise is evident in how he freezes, fingers stopping lazily tracing patterns over his knuckles.
“Are you okay?”
“You …” Neil tries, then stops. “That’s good. I’m more than okay.”
“You already said that.” His words don’t sound friendly, not to an outsider, but Neil notices the warmth buried somewhere within his natural hostility.
“Did I?” he says, lightly teasing. He raises their joint hands to his lips and kisses Andrew’s scarred knuckles, lips trailing feather light across the back of his hand. “I’ve been told being honest is a good look on me.”
It takes a long, long minute before any more words are possible. Andrew feels open. Vulnerable. But at the same time, safe , gripping onto Neil as they bask in the afterglow together . He could get used to this.
“I’m staying,” Andrew says eventually. That’s all he can manage.
He thinks Neil grasps the fact that he doesn’t just mean now. Andrew is staying here, by his side, for as long as he can. The word future rings dimly around his mind, followed by an image of their house, their bed, and a bunch of other disgustingly domestic things Andrew doesn’t think he can think about.
“Yeah,” Neil agrees, his subtle smile fading until it is barely noticeable. He sighs and looks at Andrew, drinking in the sight with nothing but adoration in his eyes. Andrew squeezes his hand, reprimanding, yet also slightly just because he wants to. “I’m staying too.”