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Hold Each Other

Chapter Text

Warnings: mentions of triggers/suggested trauma, smut [of course]

 


 

 

When he says it, Neil knows.

He just fucking knows, even without looking or second-guessing. They might be only a few months into this whatever it is but Neil has Andrew down to fucking pat.

“Mouthy.”

With an air of disinterest, swinging his racquet over his hand like some sort of demented Viking.

Neil watches the hands with too much interest, for too long. It takes him two seconds to look away, and in those two seconds, he’s lost twice.

No one else really notices. Andrew’s teasing was a thing long before Neil knew about it; the upperclassmen had all looked at Neil with varying expressions of disbelief while Andrew smoked by the window.

Neil pretended his inhale was for the smoke.

Kevin snaps at them and they’re back in the game, but not really. Not that Andrew ever really is; not like the rest of them. Practice is up and Neil feels hot.

What is it he feels?

He’s still not sure, but he feels.

Maybe it’s the same for them. Maybe Andrew also feels and that’s why they somehow ended up like this. Neil doesn’t care. There’s a word in his head and a promise in the echo.

Andrew’s not in a rush. He never is. Neil waits and waits, spiraling in his body, and then makes his way to the roof. He needs the air. It hits him cold on the face, a welcome relief.

Of course, Andrew knows he’s weak. He shows up just a moment after, a cigarette already in his fingers. He doesn’t light it before he sits, facing Neil. Andrew watches Neil like a cat, slitted eyes and a carnivorous mouth.

“Yes or no.”

“Yes,” Neil says, barely managing to get the word past his lips. It’s dry and ragged in his throat, like he’s been screaming for hours.

Andrew attacks his mouth.

There are days when it’s soft—most days, really. Andrew has his ways and Neil doesn’t really have ways. Their evenings are usually slow exchanges, dragged out between smoke and stars.

This is not that.

Andrew bites hard enough that Neil tastes the sting of blood, reminding him that this is real. They are real. Neil fights a moan rising to his mouth, letting it vibrate in his throat.

It’s like this.

Neil doesn’t swing, until he violently burns. There’s no other way to explain it. Neil burns for Andrew and he’s never sure he can handle it, the dizzying fire that climbs up his body and eats him alive. He feels like he could light Andrew’s cigarette. Burn it to ash.

Neil wondered if it felt like death—like the way the bones cracked in the fire—but he doesn’t think so. He thinks this is something else.

“What did I tell you about being quiet?” Andrew asks, his mouth still close—close enough that Neil could feel his breath against his tongue.

“Where?” Neil asks. He tries not to feel embarrassed about the way he’s panting and finds it easier than before.

“Above the waist,” Andrew answers, eyes sharp. He looks like he’s contemplating how best to occupy Neil’s mouth.

Neil decides he’s better off choosing.

They made a list, once—not a real one, but one for them. Things that were okay and things that weren’t and things to ask first. The list has changed; they’ve added and moved things as they’ve gone. It was hell to figure out the first few weeks, when Neil learned that some things that trigger him are mundane and he had apologized to the tune of Andrew’s glare and the strangely comforting don’t fucking apologize, you know I hate sorry.

So, Neil knows he’s in several different columns of the list at once, but he figures his math has been getting good enough to figure it’s okay.

Neil slides Andrew’s shirt up, noting the startled twitch his arms make, and immediately descends on one of Andrew’s waiting nipples. He only has time to taste the faint memory of sweat from practice and the strange stick of soap before Andrew’s fingers are knotting in Neil’s hair, pulling tightly.

That’s a feeling Neil had thought would go badly at first, but they’d quickly discovered it was the opposite—at least where Andrew is concerned.

Neil enjoys this. It’s where he got his nickname, despite the Foxes’ beliefs that it’s the way Neil keeps putting his foot in his mouth and a gun in his enemies’ hands.

The truth of it is that Neil has lost count of the things he likes doing with Andrew and his mouth. The truth is that Andrew, even if he hisses at Neil for being stupid, still ends up moaning when Neil has his tongue in Andrew’s ass.

Andrew gets bored—or maybe impatient—and tugs Neil upward. Neil knows what he probably looks like—a mouth already bruised to hell, with a tiny cut beading with blood. His face is probably just as red.

Andrew looks into his eyes and tilts his head.

“We’re still on the roof.”

“I guess NASA’s getting a free show.”

Andrew’s mouth flattens into a displeased line and Neil kisses it off as best he can. Neil is embarrassingly intoxicated by kissing. Or maybe it’s just Andrew.

Maybe Andrew is all anything ever is to Neil.

Neil leans into Andrew, glad when Andrew willingly lies back. They could be in a stairwell and Neil thinks he wouldn’t care. He’s already signed his life away half a dozen times. This is nothing. This is better.

Andrew’s sweatpants roll down without issue and then Neil is tugging at his underwear. Neil realizes he’s licking his lips when Andrew squints at him, something roiling in his hazel eyes.

“Disgusting.”

“Beautiful,” Neil replies, still looking at the way Andrew is hard and red for him.

Andrew might have been prepared to say something about lying, but Neil opens his mouth and presses his tongue against the head of Andrew’s cock. Whatever rebuke was coming is gone and Andrew hisses, his hand reaching for Neil’s hair again.

Neil has seen junkie in Andrew’s eyes before, when Neil is on his knees and Andrew is watching him with a heavy gaze. The first time, Neil had been terrified by Andrew’s stare. He thought he was being judged and that had spiraled out of control. It wasn’t until the third time that Neil had come to recognize what was happening.

Andrew liked Neil’s mouth. He’d said something about blowing Neil before—a task he always took to with the same curious quality as his moments of true talent—but Andrew fixated on Neil doing it. Maybe it was because Neil’s mouth was occupied and he couldn’t dig himself a bigger grave, or maybe it was because Andrew just enjoyed watching Neil run his mouth.

It was probably both. Maybe more of the latter.

Neil liked the taste of Andrew. It was still strange to think about the logistics of it, but when he’d overheard Nicky waxing poetic about Erik a week ago, Neil had done an about-face to the bathroom and waited until his face wasn’t on fire to reenter the common area. That’s me, he’d thought, with the mortified horror of someone realizing a deadly truth.

Neil, if not stopped, could probably have gone on for days about the way Andrew felt in his mouth. He tasted like the salt of skin, always with the faintness of sweat because Neil hated soap and Andrew had said fine. Andrew was thick—a joke that wasn’t wasted on Neil, who had mistakenly talked about Andrew’s physique before being immensely grateful that no one would believe Nicky. Neil liked the sensation on his tongue, heavy in his mouth, and even pressing toward his throat with purpose.

Andrew scraped a blunt nail along the curve behind Neil’s ear—a new move—and Neil hummed in appreciation. Andrew ground out a curse and Neil wished he could press against something; he almost felt a sting at not being touched. Andrew noticed and yanked Neil up, waiting for the loud pop and Neil’s gasp before leaning in and sealing their lips together.

Andrew leans back after a moment and Neil thinks his lungs are burning. “Touch yourself.”

Neil groans, but it’s only half annoyance. The other half is relief. He slides his pants down his hips but turns his attention back to Andrew anyway, taking him in his mouth again. Neil can only half concentrate on himself; he’s too invested in what he’s doing to Andrew.

Neil has made a habit out of seeing how long it takes—and what, exactly, it takes—for him to get Andrew to feel something. To open his mouth, even a fraction.

Today, it doesn’t take long.

Andrew must have been worked up by the time he called Neil mouthy at practice—he usually is—but Neil hadn’t realized how much. Barely a minute passes from when Neil has his lips closed before Andrew is breathing harshly, his neck illuminated by the moon as he tilts his head back. He only looks down long enough to find the sides of Neil’s face with his hands, eyes cloudy.

“Yes or no.”

“Yes,” Neil says, as well as he can manage without completely abandoning Andrew.

Andrew starts to move and Neil finds himself burning somewhere close to bliss. The familiar slide is grounding and feels like a reminder.

This is real. They are real.

If Neil’s eyes are watery, it’s because he’s not that good at it yet.

Andrew gasps something harsh—a warning—but instead of his usual distance, Neil digs his fingers into Andrew’s hips, hoping Andrew will forgive the mistake. He wants to hold on.

He’s not sure what he expected, or if he expected anything. What Neil gets is the sensation of Andrew pulsing in his mouth and the sudden heat pooling into his throat, conflicting instincts to swallow and hold making Neil temporarily immobile. When he pushes past the fleeting confusion, Neil is rewarded by a tantalizing throb against his tongue. He licks as he pulls off Andrew, mouth sticky and messy at the corners, but Neil couldn’t care less.

Andrew watches him with flushed cheeks, huffing in what should be annoyance but isn’t. Neil can tell, by the small crack in Andrew’s mask.

“What did I tell you?”

Neil shrugs, not particularly bothered. Andrew just looks like he’s about to do something and Neil leans in, wanting a kiss but not sure whether he can have one. He pauses, hovering before Andrew’s mouth.

“Yes or—”

“Yes,” Andrew growls. His tongue pushes into Neil’s mouth with ferocity, like he wants to taste himself in every corner.

Neil moans into Andrew’s waiting mouth when Andrew starts stroking him. It was what Andrew must have been after, because there’s a thin smirk to his lips and his hand moves faster. Neil is crying out and bucking into Andrew’s hand before long, a blaze running down his spine.

Neil is saying something about how good Andrew is, or maybe how perfect it feels—he’s not sure; Andrew has suggested he’d record Neil, but that’s a discussion for another list.

Andrew moves to bite Neil’s neck and then his hand somehow hits just the right pace, grip tight and contact heady. Neil feels his climax hit him harder than any body check he’s ever experienced and he cries out a choked noise, digging his nails into Andrew’s back. He distantly registers the pleased hum Andrew makes at his neck, licking the mark he’s leaving behind with a flick of his tongue.

They’re a wreck and Neil is pretty sure someone must have heard him. Not that he cares, particularly.

He does, however, care about getting back to the room without alerting everyone in a fifteen-mile radius of what they’ve been doing.

“You’re a mess. Happy?” Andrew asks, dry.

Neil can’t help the tiny smile on his lips. “Happy.”

“Gross.”

“Perfect.”

“Don’t lie,” Andrew says, rolling his shoulder as he stares at his shirt. It’s black and the stains on the inside are very obvious. Neil wants to smile again, but he’s tired and he was so out of practice in the first place that Andrew had once told him your face is gonna crack.

Neil stands slowly, gingerly pulling his sweatpants up and adjusting his clothes for what will hopefully be a brief walk. “I’m not.”

Andrew is leading the way down the stairs and before they get close to the landing, Neil tilts forward and whispers, “Yes or no.”

Neil does smile when Andrew peers over his shoulder, squinting with barely-concealed aggravation. Yet he still says, “Yes.”

Neil dips forward and kisses Andrew’s neck, keeping it short, but he can’t help taking Andrew’s ear into his teeth before he draws back. Andrew hisses and looks back again, squinting in the dim light.

“Mouthy,” Andrew mutters. Neil just follows him to the dorm and the shower that waits.

He likes being called mouthy.

By Andrew, at least.

Chapter Text

Dan drops a water bottle.

She’s exhausted; they all are. It’s more of a distracted fumble than the stupidity Neil first put himself through when he’d blown out his arms. It still falls, though, and the team watches it happen.

“Geez, Dan,” Nicky says.

Allison snorts. They’re all in a good mood—it might have been grueling on the court, but they’re as close to functioning as a perfect unit as they’ve ever been. Maybe that’s the reason Neil ventures to speak, or maybe it’s because he’s still a little fractured from Evermore.

Either way, he opens his mouth, and the first thing out of it is a deadpan, “I didn’t get tortured for this.”

It was supposed to be a joke. Maybe. Neil doesn’t know anymore. Maybe he never did.

The whole team freezes.

Neil thinks he can hear water dripping in the showers. Dan’s knuckles are white on the bottle. Nicky is looking at Neil with a combination of horror and the same strange look he gets when he sees Neil react to being treated nicely. Matt makes a strangled noise and even Allison is looking at Neil.

Neil’s first reaction is to shut down. He could panic, but he can’t. He knows he should say something.

“Sor—”

“What did I tell you about that word?” Andrew interrupts lowly.

Matt’s eyes shift to Andrew, barely tearing away from Neil to look uncertainly at the shorter man.

Neil shrugs once. He can’t bring words into his mouth anymore. He keeps feeling a blade under his skin and he wants to tear at his cheek. The others watch him disappear into a stall and Neil is grateful when the door closes behind him, hiding their gazes and obscuring his mess of a body.

Neil lets the water scour away his mistakes, at least from the surface. They still lurk in his bones, aching through muscle.

The team are uneasy. Neil wants to curse himself for shattering the illusion of being a unified front, but he knows better than to do that in front of people that can see. He’s done faster than the others, for once, and Neil shoves his bag onto his shoulder before turning on his heel. His throat is starting to feel like a pinhole, which is curious.

The only time he cried at Evermore was when Riko was two steps away from giving him what amounted to a savage septum piercing. That had been a body reflex.

This is different.

Neil’s feet hit the ground and he starts to jog, picking up speed as he goes. He’s exhausted and sore, but more than anything, he just needs to get home.

Home?

He shuts down after that. His feet take him back to his room and he mechanically stows his things, turning in a circle next to his bed. He thinks there’s a lingering taste of vomit in the back of his throat.

You were fine. You were stronger than them. You showed everyone. You did.

His script flies under his fingers and he’s babbling through it, reading faster than should be possible. Neil is on a dark stage illuminated by the giant bulb of a game light and he is reciting lies like his life depends on it.

Someone comes in. Neil wonders if it’s Matt, but he thinks Matt would know better than to come in.

It’s not Matt. It’s Andrew, with his washed-out colors that still somehow end up looking as vibrant and fierce as life itself. He stops before Neil, hands raising like he’s giving absolution; he might as well be. The thing he opens his mouth to say is half a prayer, anyway.

“Yes or no.”

“Yes,” Neil says. He forgets how many times he’s said it. He can count on one hand how many times he’s said no.

Andrew’s hands are grounding. They pull Neil into the curtains, closer to Andrew. Neil finds it easy to let Andrew pull him down, three inches in three breaths, and then Andrew’s mouth is on Neil’s.

It feels like fighting fire with fire. Andrew and Neil are a controlled burn, racing against a roaring mass and licking the feet of the people they’re protecting.

When Andrew pulls back, Neil fights the urge to follow. “They don’t understand. Not really.”

“They try,” Neil says. He feels a bit of déjà vu. Andrew doesn’t comment; it’s a rare concession, and one that only happens in their closer moments. When one or both of them are like glass, fractured and sliver-thin, piercing soft flesh and knotted scars.

Neil ducks closer again, murmuring the same question, and Andrew gives him permission.

They’re kissing when the door opens.

It’s Matt, Neil knows without opening his eyes. He can smell the familiar body wash. Andrew’s mouth goes flat and Neil opens his eyes to see Andrew shooting a deadly look over Neil’s shoulder. Neil almost turns, but Andrew’s hand catches his chin and Neil patiently waits.

Matt ducks out of the room and Andrew clicks his tongue, a small noise of annoyance and disappointment. Neil can feel his ties loosen, knots slipping. He is smiling somewhere inside, even if his lips don’t curve upward.

Neil brushes a finger against Andrew’s wrist, imagining he can feel the pulse. When Andrew turns his head, Neil tilts his head and opens his mouth to take in one of Andrew’s fingers, swirling his tongue around the pad like he can taste the fingerprint. Neil likes the idea.

Andrew’s eyes are dark. He mutters a disgusting, but he’s the one to pull Neil into the bathroom.

This is not the first time they’ve lingered around the edges of making out, but Neil can tell the difference. There’s still the faint sourness of desperation hiding behind his tongue and Andrew is still watching Neil like he expects him to dissolve into nothing.

It makes sense that they’re a little too rough to be functional, even when they’re trying to push closer. It also makes sense that this is when they find it easiest to move through boundaries, rolling away stage walls to get to the place where they’re both real.

“Yes or no,” Andrew says. His hands are curled, hovering at Neil’s waist.

Neil opens his mouth long enough to breathe once, watching the way Andrew shivers almost imperceptibly at the brush of hot air. “Yes.”

Andrew doesn’t waste time. He pulls Neil’s clothes away and presses his lips to Neil’s cock like a promise, soft but burning.

Neil closes his eyes against the wave he feels. It always comes back, any time he gets close to Andrew. Where there was nothing there’s something, rushing to fill the gaps and flooding every space. The looseness Neil felt before is replaced by the force of a pull he can’t fight. He always feels a little dragged along by his self when he’s with Andrew. Emotions and reactions and the near-painful flood in his heart all tear Neil apart, and Andrew always waits to pick up the pieces.

Andrew handles Neil like a knife. He knows what he’s doing and what he wants, but he’s not rough. Andrew is as careful about losing or breaking as he is about his goal.

Neil feels weak when Andrew takes him in his mouth. His legs are screaming from practice even as heat coils below his stomach, pooling in a blaze that threatens to eat him inside out. Andrew’s hands are just as purposeful and scrutinizing as his gaze when he searches up and down Neil’s thighs, moving like he’s trying to find hidden weapons.

The room spirals a little. It’s not a bad feeling, Neil thinks, when it happens because Andrew moves just so and his tongue presses enough for Neil to swallow a whine. Neil pants quietly and finds Andrew’s head, careful to just tap instead of pull. Andrew looks up, one eyebrow raised as if he thinks Neil is stupid for stopping him.

Neil waits for Andrew to rise before kissing him. Maybe he’s soft, but Neil thinks kissing Andrew is the best thing he’s ever done. Being with Andrew means a hundred different things, like one for every scar. They shift and change, some fading and others avoided, but there are ones Neil can’t ignore.

Neil pulls back long enough to look at Andrew. He remembers, in curious sudden detail, and then words are pouring from his mouth again.

“I thought about you.”

He doesn’t have to explain. Andrew doesn’t have to answer, yet he does, something flat and deadly in his eyes. The look isn’t directed at Neil; it pierces something in the distance that Neil thinks is likely Riko’s head. Neil hopes Riko gets a migraine from it.

“Don’t lie,” Andrew growls. Neil thinks he should write a translation dictionary for Andrew. I can’t hear you say that.

“I thought about bad things, at first. Then I just thought about you laughing at me.”

“Good. I would have.”

“I know,” Neil says, and he thinks the first edges of a smile are finally cracking to the surface. I do and I can’t say it. “Where can I touch you?”

“Above the knees,” Andrew mutters. Neil is surprised, but he tries not to be. He fails, because Andrew slates him a look that says he’s five seconds from changing his mind out of spite.

Neil moves before Andrew can retract his words, careful to be gentle when he pulls Andrew’s sweatpants down. They’ve managed to chip out some rocky facts from the rubble of their respective trauma, and Neil knows Andrew doesn’t want anything rough yet. Not if he’s the one getting it. So, Neil is happy to be the soft one and let Andrew bite himself out of coiled anger using Neil’s neck and shoulders. Neil hides them anyway.

Andrew closes his mouth over Neil’s pulse when Neil closes his hand around Andrew, stroking slowly. He’s stupidly pleased to feel how hard Andrew is and how much he pushes into Neil’s touch.

Neil remembers the first time his teammates stared at him for getting Andrew to agree to bringing them along for Halloween. How did you do it? Even if he’d never admit it—because there were more serious things to think about then—Neil had felt a shiver of triumph. Andrew was dangerous, but Neil got through to him. Renee was the only one who’d done it before, and she had a very different brand of relationship with Andrew.

It was dangerous to think this way, but Neil could only be pleased by the way Andrew made soft noises against his neck. I’m different. For him.

Maybe they were both different for each other.

Andrew was close when he moved to touch Neil. They were at an awkward angle, shoved against a corner of the bathroom, arms pushed up against each other while Andrew decided to litter Neil with hickeys. Neil could feel his breath thin and his heart pound faster and the he turned his head, trying to catch Andrew’s mouth. He was rewarded with a mess of tongue and teeth and then Neil was moaning into Andrew, pressing closer while release shuddered through his body. Andrew finished just after Neil, still searching for Neil’s moan with his tongue.

They were breathing heavily and Neil felt the strange combination of burn and bliss trickle in his veins. Andrew bumped at Neil’s neck with his nose like a stubborn dog and Neil bit back a laugh.

“What?” Neil asked, liking the way his voice was rough and thin.

Andrew pulled back, scrutinizing Neil with an air of apparent distaste. “We’re dirty again.”

“Good thing we don’t pay water bills.”

Andrew made a disgusted noise, but he turned the shower on and started pulling his clothes off. Neil watched him, a familiar bloom aching in his chest. Danger, his instinct warned him, but Neil ignored it. He replaced the word with something he actually wanted to hear.

“Andrew,” Neil said. Simple. It tasted good on his tongue. Andrew turned. His expression could have been bored, but Neil knew better. Maybe I’ll do a photo book to go with the dictionary.

Andrew grew tired of waiting. He sighed and asked, impatient, “What?”

“I don’t hate you.”

Neil waited. He felt like his heart was in his throat. He wanted to say more but he couldn’t. Not so soon. Andrew watched him, tense.

“I hate you. Get in the fucking shower.”

Neil hid his smile and followed Andrew in. I don’t hate you, too.

Chapter Text

It’s an incredibly stupid mistake.

Teams never practice together. They just don’t. There are five hundred reasons not to, including but not limited to the fact that it gives away each team’s hand in a way reels don’t.

They do it anyway.

The Lobos are scraping bottom in Exy.  Neil might have felt sorry for them, but two-thirds of the team is bad choices made by the coach and the remaining one-third is fractured among itself. They aren’t even trying to function together. Coming to practice with the Lobos is more like coming to keep on an edge, using other bodies they can’t predict to hone their skills.

The Foxes hone away like a knife against a stone, and Neil is proud of them. Their new recruits aren’t in yet—and even if they were, Wymack is going the way of Neil and keeping them under wraps. The Foxes operate as the death squad they’ve always been, tearing the court up with their jagged edges and ripping through every opening they can get.

Neil knows something is coming.

Maybe it’s a sixth sense developed from his time on the run, but he hears a clock ticking in the back of his head and he wakes up imagining a screen with numbers on it that isn’t there.

He pushes his dread out of the way; he’s long since learned that he’ll have to cope with having freedom back so unexpectedly, even if that doesn’t make things easier. Neil throws himself into practice and helping Dan captain the team, working as the glue between two ingroups whose lines are rapidly fading.

It happens their third day.

Whoever the guy is, Neil suspects he belongs to the lower class of the Wesninski family. An enforcer, maybe, because his bulk sits on his top half. Neil knows when he catches a glimpse that there’s no time. Neil had come out to light a cigarette, thinking about Andrew—who’s been just out of reach during their stay—and the rest of the team were far enough behind him that they wouldn’t make it in time.

At least he doesn’t have a gun.

Wesninskis don’t do guns.

And if there is blood to pay, you will be bled with the sting of a knife.

Neil’s first instinct is to run. It’s fleeting, tamped down by the bandages of his Foxes, but he feels the jolt in his chest. Neil’s second instinct is to run at the man. If he can get the man disarmed, Coach can get security and the team can stay safe—assuming there aren’t others, which Neil is almost certain of.

Neil is small. Not as small as Andrew, but small enough to know when he’s outsized. He should let Matt handle it, or Nicky, but Neil knows they don’t know the knives. Only Neil knows them, and he won’t let anyone step into a Wesninski knife. Especially not for him.

Someone murmurs a yard or two away—maybe Dan, Neil thinks—and the beginnings of his name start to come out. It’s never finished.

The man lunges into action and Neil turns, ducking and using the man’s momentum to try bringing him to the ground. It predictably doesn’t work, but the Foxes are coming up and Neil needs to distract the man. He can see a knife glint in the sunlight. Neil reaches, feeling the blade bite his hand as he grabs. It’s a stupid, last-ditch move, but this is a stupid, last-ditch fight.

The man laughs and Neil swiftly redirects the blade. He is facing his Foxes and the man has an arm around Neil’s shoulders, pinning him against the struggle Neil isn’t making. Neil can see his teammates’ faces—Dan’s abject horror, Matt’s fury, Kevin’s terror. Renee’s determination. Allison’s icy rage. Nicky’s despair.

He doesn’t see Andrew or Coach, and Neil thinks that’s a mercy. They least of all need to see him break.

Neil watches his Foxes start to close the final distance—two feet away—and he tilts his head back, feeling blood and fire in his hand.

He hadn’t wanted this. He’d buried and burned the body, but now he’s on his hands and knees, digging up the bones to make a wall between the Foxes and his past. He sharpens them to stakes, feels the smoothness and morbidity.

Nathaniel Wesninski looks up at the man holding him, cataloging the minute differences in body posture, and then he says, “Do it. Or were you never taken to stick the pig?”

It is a clear dismissal. The worst thing that could be said. Nathaniel watches the man’s face crack and logic go out the window. The man stabs Nathaniel’s shoulder to the tune of six people crying out in a grotesque symphony.

Nathaniel laughs.

He laughs and hears a deeper one echo in his ears. The static frenzy bites him, its teeth sharp and cold, and Nathaniel twists the knife when he pulls it out. The man went in at an awkward angle and he can’t keep hold.

Nathaniel spins the blade in his ruined palm, catching it the way Kevin passes with his uninjured hand. The way Nicky slides up to a bar. The way Renee smiles at her teammates. Nathaniel knows the blade as an art; he doesn’t flourish—the Wesninskis were cruel, not cocky—but he makes every move look like water.

Nathaniel’s eyes pierce into the distance, not looking at his team. He sees his assailant superimposed in his vision and he stabs back, hitting a spot just shy of the kidney. It’s enough to send the man back, one arm leaving and the other sliding to Nathaniel’s neck. The Foxes skid the final distance, but it’s too late.

Nathaniel moves in ten seconds. He turns in the slack grip holding him and slices—a cross on the chest, deep enough to warn others when it heals, and a backhanded pummel against the head that leaves a gash in its wake as much as it knocks the man to the ground. It’s supposed to be a warning.

Instead, the man tightens his grip and Nathaniel feels him try to wrench the knife away.

It’s a stupid mistake. He should have known better.

The knife is just at the right angle to bury itself in the man’s neck when Nathaniel’s death vice falters. The man chokes and gurgles and Nathaniel hears every sound in his ear. He hears the way the man struggles and the way the knife does its work, digging into a frantic artery and the throb that gives itself up to the hungry steel. Nathaniel falls with the man, dragged down by a weighty arm.

Allison has her heels in her hand. She’s rushing forward with rage on her tongue but Renee holds her back, her eyes the closest they’ve been in a while to showing that other self. The second she sees the blood bathing Nathaniel, she stops in her tracks.

Even Dan backpedals from the pool. Matt is calling Nathaniel by a different name, asking something. Nathaniel barely has the strength to turn on his side, falling away from the body.

Nathaniel catches a glimpse of himself in the reflection from a glass door a few feet away. He sees a faded version of his face—red hair and arctic eyes—and then his world is cracking and laughter surrounds him as his fingers fly to his face.

Nathaniel realizes a moment late that it’s him laughing, and then he hates it. He hates it and himself and the fact that he lost enough to let the others hear. Nicky is crying, but his hand is firm against Nathaniel’s left wrist. Kevin’s shaking but steady on the other. Nathaniel thinks the warmth on his face is from what little is left of his nails and the scratches he just put there himself. He stops, because such a thing is useless and stupid.

There are pounding footsteps.

“Jesus,” Wymack says, his voice thick with disgust and horror and anger. Nathaniel doesn’t have to look to hear the other commotion, or the way someone is flying at him.

Kevin and Nicky are knocked away there are protests, but Andrew jerks Nathaniel’s face up with his hand and the others finally get a good look. Some of them seem disturbed, but to their credit, they try to look supportive. Nathaniel catalogs their reactions with mild interest.

“Give him back,” Andrew says savagely. Nathaniel slides his eyes back to the hazel ones watching him.

This? This is the one you decided to do it for? That’s not what a Wesninski does. A Wesninski would have put a knife in its back, and if that failed, in their own.

Nathaniel notes that Andrew seems disquieted. Beneath the veneer of anger and forcible rescuing, he is unbalanced. Desperate.

Nathaniel slides his gaze past them all. His fingers find the blade and before Andrew can move, Nathaniel is on his feet and stepping forth. He ducks between his teammates and they don’t move until a breath later. Nathaniel is fast.

There is one more man. He stands a few feet away, watching with guarded eyes. Nathaniel doesn’t care about guard. He can see right through the runner.

“Nathaniel Wesninski does not forget,” Nathaniel says. He keeps his voice low but the others still hear him. Dan sobs a little, but Nicky is past even that. “And he does not like to be reminded.”

The man pauses. Doesn’t say anything, but turns. Nathaniel waits two steps and casually flicks his wrist, feeling the flinches radiating from behind him as the blade buries itself in the man’s shoulder. It’s not a death throw; it’s a scarring one. It’s in enough muscle and tissue to leave a mark. A warning.

“I need two people to watch,” Nathaniel says. He is categorizing. Preparing. Parts of Neil are bleeding through at the smell of blood and the loss of the knife’s weight in his hand.

Allison, interestingly, is at his side. Nicky is quick, too, saying something choked to Aaron and Kevin about Andrew.

Nathaniel is walking back into the stadium, going to the locker room and counting each step backward. He knows how many there are to get there. He’d counted.

Allison’s heels are still in her hands. She seems like she still wants to swing them into someone’s flesh. Nathaniel gives her a brief glance, knowing his twisted smile is not something Neil wants near Allison. He does it anyway. She looks back at him with mirror eyes.

The second Nathaniel hits the locker room, Court visible beyond the doors in the distance, he snaps. The change is painful and it takes joy in the hurt. The way Neil is the one left to pick up the pieces.

Neil’s mouth is open but nothing comes out. Nicky is somehow back to sobbing and he crashes onto his knees; Neil doesn’t know when he sunk to the ground, but he notices after Nicky swims into view. Neil can hear ringing in his ears and he feels sick. A thousand things are on the brink of happening and for a foolish moment, he thinks the breakdown will wait until they’re home—but it comes with the mirror over the sink, behind Nicky’s back.

Neil screams. He hopes no one else hears it; hopes they’re outside. He screams and screams, feeling Nicky’s arms hold him tethered to the ground while he tries to keep his soul in his body. The screams are washed with tears he can barely feel, but he cries. He cries for the loss. He cries at having to dig up the body. He cries that he disturbed the rest of something so damaged as Nathaniel, and he cries because he used Nathaniel.

Neil never wanted to see that again. To be that. He tastes fire and flesh and he wants to vomit, but there’s nothing in his stomach. Instead, he winds himself down and forces what’s left in a box, going limp against Nicky.

Nicky takes a good three minutes longer to gather his strength. He hauls himself up and doesn’t ask before scooping Neil off the floor, cradling him against his chest like he thinks that will help.

Allison looks haunted when the door opens. Neil is sorry for what he’s done to her—to them—but with the scar he’s bared comes the quiet promise that he’s trusted them enough to show it. Allison catches his eye and gives him a fierce look that battles back any sorry he would have said.

Neil is tired. He shuts down between the locker and the front door, cradling his hand to his chest and letting himself feel his weight in Nicky’s arms. He can’t see past the fold in Nicky’s shirt that tents before his eyes. His vision is swimming with orange.

There are police and statements, but they don’t want to touch Wesninski business with a fifty-foot stick. A call to the FBI sorts things out for the moment and the team hit the road instead of going to the hotel. They drive and drive until they’re back at the Tower. Nicky still hasn’t relinquished Neil.

“She needs to look at him. At his hand,” Neil hears Wymack say. “Go. Kevin and Aaron are going. Matt, too.”

There’s shuffling on the bus. Neil registers being transferred from Nicky’s arms. Before he can think, his fingers curl tight enough that he fleetingly worries he’s hurt Nicky.

“I know,” Nicky says, a broken whisper and a promise. He shushes Neil softly, like he’s comforting a wounded animal. “I know.”

Neil forces his grip to loosen. He tries getting to his feet but the world spins and then Kevin is holding him. His hands are trembling like he wants to shove Neil away and reach for a bottle.

“You don’t have to touch me,” Neil says quietly. He’d meant it only for Kevin, but he hears Dan’s strangled noise of distress.

Kevin’s grip tightens and he takes them to the waiting car in the parking lot.

Neil wonders if Renee gets Andrew, or if the team will try to get him unconscious. Neil hates leaving him behind—hates leaving Andrew with Nathaniel—but he has to. His hand aches and he feels weak.

Abby is a mess. She’s pacing when they arrive and looks close to throwing up when she sees Neil. It’s almost funny, the way this breaks her, but it’s not. Cuts on the surface give her a starting point. Today, it’s just the hand, but there is so much more beneath it that Abby sees. She can probably see the way Neil is bleeding out while Kevin clings to him.

Neil mechanically follows orders to open his hand, close his hand. He spares a glance at the others; Matt has a brilliant bruise on his jaw and a cut on his arm. Aaron has scratches on one side of his body and a bloody lip. Kevin is mostly untouched, but there are bruises from impacting punches. They were holding Andrew back, Neil thinks.

They finish somehow. Before they can leave, Abby holds him back. Matt goes to the car with Aaron but Kevin stays, still holding Neil.

“You need stitches. You can’t let it bleed,” Abby says. She’s not talking about his hand.

Neil thinks about Nicky and Allison. “I know.”

Kevin rises to take him out. Neil feels guilty; Kevin is just as tired as he is. They stop short of the front door and Neil manages to straighten his gaze enough to look up at Kevin.

“I know,” Kevin grinds out. He’s bleeding, too. “I didn’t—I didn’t want to touch you. To set it off.”

“You’re not him,” Neil says simply.

He thinks he can hear Kevin inhale a sob when Neil leans into his chest and closes his eyes.

 


 

Neil wakes up delirious. He feels stuck between planes, one foot in and the other out of a doorway. Nathaniel reaches for a gun under his pillow and finds there is none. And he’s surrounded.

The Foxes have made a mess of the common area. Some sleep on the couch and others are curled up on the floor, over a layer of blankets three thick. Neil feels tears sting and Nathaniel’s legs propel him away, making him stumble into the bedroom behind him. No one wakes. Nathaniel is too quiet.

But Andrew was already waiting and Neil feels a shattering relief at seeing him. Andrew locks the door and waits, watching. For once, he has a vague nick on his cheek and a tiny hit under his jaw. Collateral damage.

“Bring him back.”

“I’m—I am—” Neil stumbles on his words. He chokes on Nathaniel; he wants to throw up the aftermath. Andrew’s eyes are still on him, holding a feverish edge.

“I want Neil,” Andrew says, each word dropping like a stone.

Neil catches a gasp and laugh on his tongue. “You don’t want anything.”

Andrew is the one to reach out. He barely starts the question before Neil says yes and then Andrew is pulling Neil close like he wants to absorb him and rip up the lines. Neil clings to Andrew like a drowning man, gasping for breath and life and a semblance of reality.

“I didn’t want to,” Neil says, hearing his voice crack. Andrew’s hands tighten on his back. “I didn’t want to and I hurt them and you and I’m sorry—”

“No sorry,” Andrew demands, spitting his words out. “Not for this.”

Neil unravels slowly, letting Andrew be his constant, and time passes immeasurably. It could be minutes or hours later when Neil finally sees Andrew in front of him; he still can’t look directly into his eyes.

“Where can I touch?”

“Wherever you need,” Andrew says. Neil looks at him with vague disapproval and tears threatening his eyes. Andrew holds his gaze and Neil shakes his head minutely.

“I know what a breakdown looks like.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“I do. You’re part of me,” Neil says, a whispered confession he hasn’t made. They’re raw enough that it sits between them instead of cutting like it usually would. “Where?”

After a long minute, Andrew finally answers. “Above the waist.”

Neil ducks his head into Andrew’s neck and inhales slowly. He lets Andrew block everything out. All senses are gone and Neil is left with pure being. He presses his fingers to Andrew’s arms—the small expanse that isn’t covered by shirt or bands. He feels the heat, just right; the stability of another body with him.

“Yes or no,” Andrew whispers. It’s the closest Neil has heard him come to emotion.

“Yes.”

Andrew kisses him. It’s not like the usual whiskey and cigarettes. It’s not even the burn of need that surfaces sometimes, when they’re alone together and Andrew is feeling good. It’s impossibly soft and Neil thinks it’s the closest thing to love he’s felt.

He cries.

They’re silent tears, but Andrew kisses them away, too. He follows their salty path and kisses Neil’s eyes shut, follows every inch of skin and scar. He’s kissing Nathaniel away.

Neil lets him, and when they’re done, he follows Andrew back to the team and curls up in his spot. He falls asleep facing Andrew, drinking in the sight of him and memorizing every inch to carry him through the night.

Neil dreams about Andrew, and the bones staying buried beneath six feet of dirt and concrete.

 


 

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” Nicky says, frenzied. He’s still uneven. Neil almost wants to reach out and straighten him, like a jostled picture frame. His hands are out until they stop, used to asking and permission. Nicky doesn’t give him a chance. “Jesus.”

Nicky pulls Neil close. Renee is minutely wary, but she seems to take Kevin and Andrew’s dismissiveness as a sign. Dan looks like she wants to cry, but she’s tired and her eyes have just lost their redness. Allison has finally given her heels up, but Neil gets the feeling she’ll be ready to throw them, the next time.

“You know I love you, right?”

Nicky senses the sudden tension in Neil and he leans back. Neil tries to wipe his face but he knows it’s too late. There’s enough left for Nicky to catch. Neil can hear Renee drop her fork. Even Kevin makes a choked noise.

You’re hurting them again.

A laugh burbles up in Neil’s throat and he tries to carve it down. Nicky is staring at him like he’s lost track of where to begin.

“I’m sor—”

“Oh my God, Neil,” Nicky says, pulling them together again. He feels like he’s the one falling apart. “No. Stop. Don’t do this.”

“I’ve never heard it before,” Neil says lightly. He tries to make it simple and realizes that won’t happen. It can’t. He has to give something back. Neil is quieter when he says, “I’m glad it was you.”

“He’s going to kill me,” Nicky wails, choking on tears while he tries to talk. “You guys!”

“It’s about time,” Aaron says. It should be rude or dismissive, but Neil takes it as the shocking show of support that it is.

Things have shifted. They’re on the mend, even if the bone is still broken. Neil wants to laugh at the thought. Bones, bones, bones. Skeletons in the closet. Skeletons in the kitchen. Skeletons in the bedroom…

Nicky stubbornly plants himself at Neil’s side for the rest of the day. It takes Kevin some time to pry him off by nighttime, but Andrew gives Nicky enough of a squinted glare to help.

Later that night, Neil kisses Andrew until he feels drunk. He lets Andrew bite his lip and bite the pain away, leaving only something clean in his wake. Andrew lets Neil have his neck, muttering fetish but stopping when other noises start to rise to his throat. Andrew works at Neil with his hands and mouth, not stringing things out enough to make Neil desperate. He even pushes against Neil’s hip, allowing himself the barest touch to push him through like he’s grounding himself in Neil’s physical presence.

“You know, I—”

“Don’t lie,” Andrew says reflexively, still breathing unevenly. They’re both barely cleaned up, but it doesn’t matter with the door locked and no one expecting them the next day.

Neil scoots closer, eyes half-lidded as he breathes Andrew’s exhales in. “I’m not. I won’t. Never.”

Andrew doesn’t voice his disapproval, but he gives one small concession. It’s the biggest thing he could have done.  “Be quiet. I hate you.”

“That’s fine,” Neil says. He can’t help the tiny smile that curves his lips. I love you, too.

Chapter Text

Neil goes to Wymack first.

He shifts on his feet; his body tells him to run. Neil can’t open his mouth and it takes a minute for Wymack to notice him standing in the doorway. The man sighs and moves as if to cross the room, but then he decides against it and waits.

He only waits so long.

“What is it, kid? Spit it out.”

Maybe they’re the words Neil needed to hear, or maybe there’s something else prompting him to move forward. Neil steps into the room and locks the door behind him. The Foxes aren’t due for the rest of the day, but he’s not taking any chances.

Wymack watches him with a scrutinizing gaze. Neil thinks about how Andrew said Wymack could see through everything.

“I can be faster.”

Wymack sighs and shuts the folder on his desk, sliding it away, scrubbing at his face. “You’re part of a team, Neil. You don’t need to be faster. Shit, you’re the fastest player in the league.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Neil watches Wymack lean back in his chair, the edges of confusion on his face. For once, Neil has given Wymack something the man can’t reach or understand. Neil chooses his words very carefully.

“I know things. Most of them, I don’t really need. Some of them, I could. I know how to move like the Ravens, without doing what they do. I can be faster.”

Neil hadn’t thought about it, before. He feels stupid for not having thought of it, but he’s been working toward recognizing that it’s not his fault he shoved Nathaniel into a vault to die. Neil had pushed away thoughts of knives and cleavers and all sorts of horrors he’d been through. He’d also managed to forget one of the vital things he’d been taught. It wasn’t Lola that had done it, either; it was her sister.

Rosa was different. She was as close to a sister as Neil ever could have had. She was more like the Hatfords than the Wesninskis. She also knew how to dance.

“No,” Wymack said, stone-faced. He didn’t elaborate. Neil sighed.

“Coach—”

“Don’t ‘coach’ me,” Wymack snapped. Neil pushed on.

“This isn’t just for now. It’s not even for Exy,” Neil said. The truth felt raw. “It’s for me.”

Wymack waited. Neil gathered his words again, like spilled blood. Scattered flowers on a grave.

Rosa was beautiful when she danced. She knew how to make you look at one thing while she did another. She could smile at a man while cutting his finger off and they’d never notice until they passed out from the shock.

She also never used her power, until she came upon someone in the Wesninski clan she felt needed protecting.

Maybe she’d also wanted to give them a way out.

“If I ignore what I can do, I’m lying to myself,” Neil said slowly. “I don’t have to pretend anymore; the press made sure of that. Riko’s gone. The Ravens are going to regroup; Kevin and Jean and I owe them most of what we’ll make. I need to be able to take what freedom I can, when I can.”

“You’re already free,” Wymack said, as if it were final.

“When they took me, the only thing that saved me was Nathaniel,” Neil said quietly. Wymack tensed in his chair.

Neil hadn’t spoken about it. Wymack kept pushing for Bee to get involved; he’d grudgingly accepted Andrew’s support for a short time before reminding Neil not to put his weight on a broken thing. Neil had ignored him. He still didn’t like Dobson.

“No.”


Neil went to Bee. He hated every second of it, but when he sat in the chair across from him, she waited attentively.

“I need to do something dangerous.”

Bee tensed. It reminded Neil of Wymack. He waited, watching her arrange her arms on her desk and eye him with mixed nervousness and preparation.

“What does it entail? Can you tell me?”

Neil wondered how much to say. Instead of answering, he started asking. “If you…can’t come back to yourself. How can you? How do you…”

Bee ran her lip between her teeth. She seemed to recognize Neil wasn’t going to say anything, but she was content with what she got. Neil knew she could probably guess after a little while, but he wasn’t going to say more than he needed. He’d leave her to her assumptions. Those, he could refute.

“It depends. In cases of post-traumatic stress, people use things like mantras. A word, or more. Counting. Street names from their childhood. If someone has dissociative identity disorder, they sometimes try and come to an understanding with their personality…”

Bee continued and Neil let her words wash over him. He heard what he wanted to hear. He hadn’t come to ask for help; he hadn’t gone to Wymack for help, either. He’d wanted outside confirmation. Neil knew what he needed to do.

Neil left Bee’s after five minutes of stomaching her conversation.

An understanding.


Neil understood Nathaniel. He knew the necessity of that person and he knew the strengths and weaknesses. He knew things he could pull from Nathaniel and things he couldn’t—things he had to allow Nathaniel to do, because Neil couldn’t.

Thankfully, Neil had time. Barely any, of course, but it was still there. He ran from class to the stadium, feeling the small portable speaker on his backpack bounce, and stood in the Court. It was time for him to come to an understanding.

“I need you to teach me,” Neil whispered, closing his eyes.

He could see Rosa again, with her dark hair—cut short, because she said no one could grab it—and brown eyes. The softness of her face and the sharpness of her mind. Neil could see Rosa in her thin dresses, printed with tiny flowers. The way she wore compression shorts underneath and boots with weighted toes to make her hits count.

Good job, Nat. Remember, hips and arms. You have to be able to separate them.

Neil let Nathaniel back. Nat, who took the fleeting moments with Rosa as the treasures that they were. He wondered where she was and if she thought of him.

Nathaniel was ready to dance.


Andrew noticed how tired he was. He watched Neil lower his body onto the roof, arm shaking minutely.

“Junkie,” Andrew muttered. It lost its bite with the cigarette he passed to Neil.

If there was one thing he hated about his agreement, it was the time it took from him being with Andrew. They’d been fleeting moments to begin with; five or ten minutes between classes that Neil would use to stare at Andrew until he was gifted with a don’t look at me like that.

“It’s nice to know you can miss me.” Neil only breathed in the smoke once before Andrew took it back and flung it over the roof, his eyes stormy.

“Shut up.”

Neil turned to him and was surprised when Andrew kissed him. It was pleasant, though. Good enough that he forgot to care about his secret and the time he was missing out on. He only had one week left of the three he’d scheduled.

Andrew slid his tongue along Neil’s teeth and all thought stopped.


Neil liked listening to things he heard in Allison’s car. They were perfect for dancing, fast-paced enough for his practice but not so fast that he stumbled over his feet.

He was being very careful of his feet. No matter how fast he danced, he never wanted to lose them. He’d come too close before.

Neil’s radio gave out after two weeks—it was cheaply bought from a gas station—and he resorted to using the speakers in the stadium. It was risky, but no one was coming in. Not if he was careful.

One week. He had one week left.


It was time.

Neil felt a little sick. He half expected Nathaniel to take over. Instinct flooded his veins even as he was getting into practice gear, rolling his head and rotating his arms.

Andrew noticed, of course.

“Why are you like this?” Andrew asked, German disguising his words. Neil had managed to get them all to speak the same language after beating the Ravens, but old habits died hard. Especially where Andrew and Aaron were concerned. The team was just happy with the twins’ solidifying truce.

“I don’t know what you mean. I’m me. I’m like this,” Neil said, responding in English. The others didn’t pay much attention. Nothing had given them cause, yet.

Other than Kevin. Kevin was a nosy bitch.

“Why are you so jittery, then?”

“I’m excited,” Neil said. Truth. He was excited. He was also terrified.

Neil had stayed miles away from any conversation about his abduction or his life with his parents. He’d given the team the dirty details, but he hadn’t told them the rest. Andrew was the only one that knew things like the tread of Neil’s mother’s shoes (stamped on Neil when he got too interested in teens his age) and the way Neil hated jalapeno because Nathan Wesninski would let Lola place the juice on raw wounds and watch his victim scream in agony. It wasn’t the most effective, he’d said, but it was fun.

Neil hadn’t brought Nathaniel up because he was terrifying. He’d terrify the team. They’d seen only a flash of him, when he’d dealt with the FBI agents, but they’d all been too tired. He’d hoped never to dig Nathaniel up again.

He’d nearly promised Andrew.

Bury him here. Neil was the one that promised to come back.

The Foxes took the court and Neil took his place. When they started drills, Neil could feel a countdown in his chest. Each round was a number flashing before his eyes.

Andrew was getting more irritated with each glance he sent Neil’s way. Even Dan was frowning uneasily. Neil ignored them in favor of listening to Kevin call the drills.

Kevin opened his mouth and the word roared in Neil’s ears. It was time.

The drill was simple. A scrimmage of sorts, with two goalkeepers and two players. It was the simplest of one-on-one practices, but the Ravens had twisted it. It was just as demanding as the game with the cones. There were boundaries—close-quarters limits and restrictions on steps—and it was meant to push the player into making faster decisions. Stringing together twenty moves where only two were required, if done right. It forced them to think in constant motion.

It was perfect.

Neil was against Kevin. Andrew was behind Kevin, at the goal, and Renee was behind Neil. The others were on the bench, drinking water and laughing. Neil could hear the music in his ears.

He was humming and didn’t notice it until Kevin flicked him a look, half confused and half aggravated. Neil ignored it. He could feel a tiny smile on his lips. Nicky said what the hell from the sidelines. Neil ignored the attention and gestured for Kevin to start.

Neil was scared of slipping into Nathaniel, but the second he moved, he stopped worrying. The court had never been a place for Nathaniel. It had been for Neil. He was safe, and that lent his feet a lightness that he’d forgotten—something he hadn’t achieved even with Nathaniel’s understanding.

Neil saw the moment that Kevin recognized the change. His eyes went wide by a fraction and then Neil was dancing past him, turning with a slide and feeling the movement up through his arms. He picked the ball up and bounced it left, dancing right. Kevin almost followed him and then didn’t, going for the ball. Neil found his footing easily, ducking by Kevin’s arm and brushing just past him, watching Kevin’s expression when they moved nose-to-nose. Kevin moved to knock him and Neil took it as an invitation, sliding under Kevin’s arm again and tapping the end of his racquet against Kevin’s without looking, hard enough to make the ball drop but so gentle it didn’t go far.

While Kevin was trying to regain the ball, Neil danced past him and slipped his racquet to the ball, flipping it in and moving again. This time, Kevin followed, trying to hound Neil. Neil bounced the ball the left wall, keeping his arms right and turning his legs left; Kevin started following Neil’s arms to the right only to miss him for a torturous three seconds, correcting quickly.

Not quickly enough.

Neil had the ball again and he made the shot, once again moving his feet and body at different speeds. His steps were fast as a tap dancer, but his arms were weighted like lead. Nothing he was doing made sense to Kevin.

He was dancing.

Neil couldn’t score on Andrew, of course. He didn’t bother; he bounced the ball and watched it get shot away. He’d made his point.

Neil turned and hear the others roar.

“Holy shit!” Matt practically screamed, laughing. “I could see the look on Kevin’s face from here!”

“What the hell was that?” Aaron demanded, for once part of the conversation. Neil shrugged. Andrew was coming his way.

“Any more secrets you’re keeping?” Andrew stared him down. The others didn’t quite catch his anger. Before Dan could argue, Neil shook his head once. Kevin was staring at Neil with a vaguely sick expression.

“Did you ask Bee for help? Or did you do it yourself?”

“You’d better think carefully about your answer,” Wymack said, his voice hard. He’d come up at some point without Neil noticing.

Neil slid his eyes to his coach, trying for honesty. “I asked her a few questions. She didn’t help in person.”

“You were alone,” Andrew said stonily. “You were alone. With him.”

“Him? Him who?” Matt asked, his cheer gone. He was tense. Neil could feel the unspoken question in the air. Moriyama? Were the Ravens here? One of the Wesninskis?

“Nathaniel,” Neil said, the name sour on his tongue. It wasn’t the answer they were expecting, but it was almost as bad. It was a good thing he’d prepared for fallout. “No one needs to see him.”

Renee was the only one who looked like she understood; Andrew wasn’t looking at all.

“Jesus. That could have been terrible,” Dan finally said. “Neil—”

“I know.”

“You don’t have to hide from us,” Allison said. “It’s not like we haven’t seen the handiwork. You can’t be worse than your father, and we saw what he did to your face.”

“You didn’t seem him almost break my ankles,” Neil said before he could stop. He regretted it immediately.

This wasn’t the place for any sort of confession, or the time. Neil hadn’t planned on confessing anything, ever, except maybe to Andrew. The words that left is mouth suggest a nightmare he’d avoided since the night it had happened.

A wooden block in the corner. Cleaver. Promise to go slow.

I’ll take my time.

You’re still going to die.

“Excuse me,” Neil said shortly. He propped his racquet against the wall with routine care and started for the door.

“Neil,” Nicky said, insistent, but Neil didn’t wait. He walked into the locker room and straight to the toilets.

He knew Andrew was nearby, but he wasn’t sure who else. Neil lowered himself carefully, kneeling, and waited. A wave of nausea hit him and he let it, throwing up mostly nothing. When it was over, he flushed and rocked back, sighing through his nose.

“You know, most people don’t accept panic attacks halfway through and push the rest for later.”

“I have a talent.” Neil turned, rising. Andrew was still watching him with hooded eyes.

Andrew stepped closer, hand twisted in Neil’s jersey. “You do. I thought you’d stopped working to get yourself killed when you offed Riko.”

“I was safe,” Neil said, trying to ignore the sharpness of Andrew’s words. “I have an understanding.”

Andrew still wasn’t happy. He leaned closer, ignoring the smell on Neil. “What exactly did you promise?”

“To stay alive,” Neil said simply, but then he continued. The truth. “With you.”

Andrew rocked back. There was still anger in his eyes, but it was of a different sort. He surveyed Neil with an unimpressed gaze. Neil reached for the sink. “And I thought you were the stupidly optimistic one.”

“I sure hope you don’t leave me for him,” Neil deadpanned. He meant it as a joke, but Andrew didn’t find it funny. Neil was just spitting water out of his mouth when Andrew hauled him by his collar and turned him around.

Andrew kissed him with such force that Neil bumped his head against the tile behind him. It was good while it lasted, but the click of a faraway door had Andrew backing away while Neil gathered his thoughts.

“Well, I don’t care what they think,” Nicky announced, already stripping as the others filed in. “That was fucking awesome.”


They went to Eden’s Twilight and Allison had her eyes on Neil.

“You’re coming with me.”

Neil looked for help. Kevin was absorbing drinks like sunlight. Andrew seemed unfazed. Renee was smiling angelically. The others were long gone, lost in the crowd.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Neil ventured. He could guess where this was going.

“If you can dance, you can dance,” Allison said, smiling a little. It looked wicked on her.

Neil had told Nicky what Rosa knew. Folklorico, he’d said, to Nicky’s delight. And something with a whip, I think.

Kinky, Nicky had said, beaming.

Neil slid his gaze to Andrew. He seemed vaguely amused. Not enough to move. There was no help coming from him. Neil sighed and slipped from his chair. Roland gave him a raised eyebrow on his way, lifting a shot glass in silent salute.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Nathaniel would have been conflicted about the dance floor; it was too crowded to move and there was no way to see an attack coming. The lights strobed and changed people’s faces with each color. It was the perfect place to jump and the worst place to be caught.

Neil, for the record, kind of liked it.

He wasn’t important in the crowd. He’d always found comfort in being just another person. He wasn’t caught when he was in a crowd. Neil found it almost too easy to forget. To let go, feeling the music bleed in.

Natural, Rosa had laughed. You can hear it, can’t you? She’d set a beat and Neil would dance the off-beat, syncopation in missing steps and rapid ones between hers. It was like another language to Neil.

He wondered with a smile if Andrew would think of it as a language.

He didn’t have to wonder long. Somehow—despite the way he always held himself at the table or higher places—Andrew had made his way to the edge of the floor. Aaron was slack-jawed next to him and Nicky was whooping, bouncing so excitedly Neil wondered why he didn’t join them. He remembered Andrew’s threat and guessed it still held.

None of it mattered, anyway. Andrew was watching him with a barely-veiled demand. Neil knew Andrew would never force Neil. It was out of the question. But for the first time, Neil thought he saw a hunger in Andrew’s eyes. It was consuming. Even from a distance, Neil felt like he had caught on fire. He was burning from the inside out.

“Oh, go on,” Allison said, ducking down to his ear. “Jesus. You’re hopeless.”

Neil took it as a compliment and made his way out, realizing after the fact how sweaty he was. Nicky was grinning.

“Oh, man. Oh, man. Hey—I’d never, ever, put a hand on you, but I would love to dance next time—”

Andrew turned a half-centimeter and Neil spoke. “Maybe. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.”

Neil glanced back at the floor and saw Dan and Matt looking out. He was surprised; he hadn’t noticed them. Dan was smirking with a knowing look and Matt was hopelessly distracted, as if Neil were speaking German again and he’d just given a monologue.

“Enough,” Andrew said shortly. Nicky seemed to mistake it for anger; he moved to apologize, or maybe to backpedal, but Neil winked at Nicky. Andrew led the way as Nicky stayed with Aaron, floundering for something to say or do.

Neil followed Andrew. Roland caught his eye at the bar, a vaguely amused and impressed look on his face. Neil noticed they were going toward the back—there was staircase he’d never seen before, and a small door next to it. Andrew opened the door and let Neil in before locking it.

It looked like a meeting room. There was a couch on the longer wall and a table in the corner with assorted bags piled haphazardly on the surface. Neil guessed it was some sort of break room for the employees. He didn’t have time to think much else before Andrew was in his space, crowding Neil toward the wall.

“Yes or no,” Andrew growled. Neil realized for the first time that Andrew’s pupils were wide and black, a thin rim of green-brown around them. He would have thought Andrew had broken his promise, if he didn’t know better.

I did this, Neil thought, and he was more than a little proud. Andrew glared. Neil finally gave in. “Yes.”

Andrew tore into him like a present. He was bruising force, stinging on the lips while Neil dizzily accepted every bite and swipe of tongue. The sounds of the part bumped through the walls and Neil found his pulse keeping time.

Someone knocked and Neil didn’t miss the death glare Andrew shot the door. It was a far cry from his usual disinterest at being interrupted. Neil licked his lips, watching Andrew’s attention shoot to the movement. Neil wanted to smile again.

“Home?” Neil whispered, ducking his head. He looked up through a wave of red hair and Andrew looked nearly murderous.

Neil let himself be swept along as they left the room, leaving out the back door. Neil wondered how the others were going to fare for the rest of the night, but he didn’t really care. Andrew got them to the house in one piece and barely waited until the door swung shut behind them.

“Ye—”

“Yes,” Neil said immediately. Andrew didn’t wait. He was back at Neil’s mouth with the impatience of someone interrupted in the middle of something very important, and that was enough to make Neil’s heart flutter. They stumbled back over doorways and liked the way they echoed off the walls, panting and the smack of mouths loud.

Neil managed to pull himself away long enough to ask. “Where can I touch?”

“Everywhere,” Andrew growled. It set Neil’s heart pounding again, except it migrated somewhere into his throat. Neil was still careful, starting just at Andrew’s chest. He moved his mouth to Andrew’s neck, enjoying the taste of his skin.

Neil wanted to ask if Andrew liked watching him dance. If it was a matter of skill, or if it was something else. Where Andrew’s eyes lingered on his body. He wanted to know so much and his mouth opened to spill his heart before he could stop it.

“Why?”

Andrew paused. Neil froze too, careful. He wasn’t sure where the lines where or where they’d move, but he was prepared. “It was interesting to watch.”

Damn it. Neil swallowed a whimper. It was stupid how five words could affect him so thoroughly, but Neil felt it to his core. He knew what he wanted in a sudden flash.

“Can…will you…” Neil struggled to find a way to say it. He didn’t want harsh words between them. He wasn’t sure how to say it; he didn’t know how it had been said before. Andrew’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t have to—I mean, you don’t have to—”

“You’re not like them,” Andrew said, and Neil stopped talking. “Say it.”

Neil’s voice was barely a whisper when he confessed. “I want to feel you. In me.”

Andrew didn’t flinch. He let the words wash over them and kept his hands on Neil’s waist. They were standing half in the bedroom doorway and half out of it. It was up to Andrew, and Neil was prepared for any answer.

“I won’t lie down. I can’t have you lie down.”

Neil held his breath. He was careful not to let his words string out with his pounding heart. “Sit?”

Andrew’s eyes darkened, but not with anger or refusal. “Yes.”

Neil let Andrew pull him through and lock the door. He didn’t ask when Andrew fished around in the bedside table. Neil was already scorching and he was close to losing his mind at how far gone he was. All he wanted was touch.

Andrew tugged at Neil’s shirt. It came off quickly, and they were both undressed before long. Andrew moved to the head of the bed, propped against the wall, and Neil paused at the edge of the bed.

“Are you sure?”

It could still be vulnerable. Neil would be on top, even if he wasn’t heavy enough to be a problem. He would be the one coming apart, but there were no black and white boxes for this. Andrew watched Neil with a curious stare.

“Yes.”

Andrew let Neil swing a leg over him, lingering on his knees, sitting back enough to be close but not enough to be ready. Neil could feel their heat pressed together. Andrew opened the lube in his hand with vague attention, keeping his eyes fixed on Neil.

“Tell me to stop,” Andrew said. Neil nodded once. Andrew waited.

Neil smiled a little. “I will. Yes.”

Neil didn’t talk much after that. Andrew worked his slicked fingers against Neil; it wasn’t the first time they’d done this, but it was the first time they’d done it with the intent of something more. Andrew was torturously slow as usual, and Neil fought the desire to push back onto his fingers. Impatience wasn’t good for either of them; especially in a new situation.

It was only when Neil was moaning into Andrew’s neck that things changed. Neil was panting and he felt too close. He wanted more, so he breathed slowly, tilting his head toward Andrew’s ear.

“Slow,” Neil said. Andrew turned, a flicker of sharpness entering his hazy eyes, but he found no trace of pain or fear. Neil smiled lazily and sighed when Andrew slowed. It wasn’t what he wanted, but Neil knew he needed it. The sensation reduced to a slow burn that simmered at the back of his mind.

Neil waited until he felt Andrew hard against his stomach. He waited and then waited a little longer, taking Andrew’s nipple in his mouth and enjoying the muffled groan he was rewarded with. Neil waited and the he leaned away, watching Andrew force his focus onto Neil.

“I’m ready,” Neil said. Andrew didn’t argue. Before he moved, Neil spoke again. “Is this okay?”

“Yes,” Andrew said, his voice rough. I did that, Neil thought, like a prayer he was repeating. It made him feel good. Not powerful, exactly—more trusted. It was that trust he would fight for more than anything else in his life.

Neil was careful to lower himself as slowly as he could, biting his lip so hard it almost distracted him from the push. Andrew was right when he’d been slow, of course; there was no pain. Just a gradual slide and adjusting to the feeling.

I’ve never done this before.

It should have been terrifying, but he was feeling a thousand other emotions. Shock. Excitement. Nervousness. A heady mix of desire and intoxication.

Andrew looked like he was going to bite his tongue off.

Neil almost laughed. Instead, he shifted, finishing the final inch between them, and he breathed out slowly. God, it feels good. How does it feel so good?

“Fine?” Andrew asked. He sounded like he was two seconds from breaking. Neil let a smile onto his lips, small but there.

“Yes. Can I move?”

Andrew paused. He closed his eyes, something washing over him—maybe need, or something deeper he instinctively fought but didn’t want to. “Yes.”

Neil lifted himself carefully, his breath morphing into a moan, and Andrew’s nails dug into his hips. Oh, no. This is bad. Neil loved kissing Andrew, but this was something different. It filled a spot he hadn’t realized was empty. He felt two seconds away from losing the lines of their bodies; Andrew was tracing his skin as if it weren’t scarred and Neil felt the press of their bodies so acutely he saw stars.

“You feel so good,” Neil managed. His voice was weak to his own ears. Andrew’s grip tightened. “So good—”

“You’re impossible,” Andrew said, but the insult had no bite. It was breathless.

Neil felt his heart skip a few beats. His stomach was tight and Andrew’s cock stretched him perfectly, hot and hard. Neil wanted more. He needed more. His mind was scattered but he still held back, opening his mouth and struggling through a sentence.

“Can I…move faster? Fast?”

“Yes.”

“H-how—”

“I’ll tell you. If you need to stop,” Andrew said, his sentence clipped in half. His eyelashes were fluttering against his cheek; he kept fighting to keep his eyes open. Neil relished the chance to see Andrew like this, barely clinging to threads of his dispassionate front.

I’ll break through. Neil moved faster, lifting himself enough that he nearly lost Andrew, and dropped with enough force to bounce. Andrew bit back a groan that still rumbled in his throat. Neil wasn’t sure how to let him feel comfortable making noise; he didn’t want to ask, because he had no place to. He had to let Andrew decide.

Instead, Neil made it okay. He forgot his reservations, reminding himself that they were safe. He let his breathing run ragged and his moans escape in snatches. Andrew scratched him with each noise, the vocal exclamations getting to him as much as Neil’s quickening pace. Neil forgot to think about what could go wrong and focused on the moment.

It wasn’t until he was settled that Neil thought of it.

He liked watching me. Said it was interesting.

The compliment—even if it hadn’t sounded like one—made the heat tighten. Neil whimpered and heard Andrew curse. The sound made him excited; it was a leak. A flash of emotion.

Neil did something he hadn’t thought of, but it made sense. Especially thinking back on Matt’s stare and the way Nicky had been jumping up and down. Neil remembered dancing and twisted, rolling his hips while he pushed Andrew all the way into him.

Neil’s reaction was instinctive. He cried out so loudly it might have been a scream; he couldn’t tell. He felt his head tilt back and he shook, red filtering into his vision for a startling moment. He was dizzied and confused; it wasn’t the orgasms he was used to chasing with Andrew. This was something else.

There were also the lingering remnants of Andrew’s moan. The first complete sound Neil had heard. Andrew’s blunt nails dug into Neil’s thighs and then they traveled back, pushing into soft flesh and then tugging at Neil’s ass.

“Yes,” Neil said insistently, before the question was asked. He levered himself up without a second thought, feeling the extra stretch from Andrew’s hands, and then he slammed down faster than he’d intended.

It didn’t matter. Andrew’s hands were digging into him and Neil was practically blind from seeing stars. He was gasping and whimpering. He was a mess.

You’re a mess, Andrew had said, but he’d kissed Neil and taken him in the shower all the same.

“Good—you’re so good, yes, yes—” Neil was babbling now, unable to keep his words back. He thought Andrew would joke about it; say something about him being mouthy or tell him to shut up. Neil barely registered that he didn’t, and that it was because Andrew was just as lost as him.

Neil slid down, testing himself, sliding one hip and then the other, and Andrew jerked forward to bite at Neil’s chest just as Neil was moaning again. He was aware that the echoes made things worse; if anyone had been in the house, it would have been a disaster. Neil didn’t know to be ashamed, even if he felt completely bare and laid out for Andrew.

They devolved into a mess. Neil rode Andrew as fast as he could, changing his angle after every few pushes to find something new that sent a thrill up his spine. It wasn’t until he leaned closer that he hit the right spot, for both of them. Neil tightened at the sensation; he felt Andrew hit him somewhere deep inside, perfect and sparking like lightning. For once, Andrew had his mouth at Neil’s throat to taste the moan vibrating there.

Neil fought the fire to slam against Andrew, letting the hands on his skin and the mouth at his throat ground him. It only took a minute for Neil to unravel, sliding onto Andrew so fully that he wasn’t sure there was anything between them. The orgasm that shook him was so bright and fierce that Neil was sure he’d probably pass out. He could feel his body tighten around Andrew. When Andrew came, it was only a second later and Neil was rewarded with a hot rush that made him hum with pleasure.

Neil could only hear their mingling breath past that moment, a crackling stereo in his ears. He felt sweaty and loose, relaxed in every muscle he hadn’t thought about until then. Neil stayed where he was, risking the seconds of closeness, and then he turned his head toward Andrew’s neck.

“Okay?” Neil asked. He sounded drunk. He kind of liked it.

“Yes,” Andrew huffed. There was no trace of anger. Neil looked at him, surprised, and felt a throb in his heart.

It wasn’t the relaxed vacancy Andrew usually had when sober. It was something entirely different. He looked…sated. Like something missing had been given to him, and he was holding onto it just for the moment. Neil felt almost like crying, but he thought it was probably a bad idea.

Andrew caught his gaze. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Why? You were so good,” Neil said innocently. He meant it, but he also meant to question. He was rewarded by a snort from Andrew.

Oh, Neil thought, his heart thumping again. Oh. He was seeing Andrew—something untouched, buried deep within him. Something he could only give in vulnerable moments; when he’d come to Neil after the FBI and now, when he’d trusted Neil close to his boundaries.

I love him.

“They’re going to be done soon,” Andrew muttered, but he made no move to get off the bed.

Neil swallowed the emotion in his throat and eased off Andrew, missing him immediately. “Okay. We can get them if we clean up.”

“Who said I wanted to get them.”

“Come on,” Neil said gently. He waited for Andrew to get up before facing him. Andrew squinted, looking as if he was to remind Neil not to look at him that way. Neil ducked down and pauses just in front of Andrew’s mouth. He didn’t miss the way Andrew had already half-closed his eyes, shifting his weight to the front of his feet.

Andrew huffed and mumbled yes against Neil’s mouth.

A line shifted.

He loves me.

Chapter Text

It’s supposed to be Nathaniel’s birthday.

Some birthday present.

Riko is watching Neil with the same calculated rage he’d shown during Christmas break. He’s standing, the usual blade in his hand. Neil is two steps away from an unending spiral.

The only comfort Neil has is that Riko has finally lost it.

Things had been bad over break. Worse than bad. Yet now, with Riko so far from home and Neil scarred, is when everything tips. Neil has a hand to play, even if he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get the chance.

If Neil’s father doesn’t get to him first, he’ll have the chance to use this. To barter Riko’s indiscretion against Neil and Kevin. Against their lives and freedom.

“You are blessedly quiet, for once,” Riko says.

Neil snorts a dark laugh. “You’re still a useless piece of shit.”

Neil earns a violent stab for his answer. Riko is digging in.

Things happen. Neil vaguely remembers the beginning of it—Riko making a threat Neil can’t remember. A directive. Neil knowing his choices and choosing the thing that would put him ahead, even knowing how it would hurt.

Not just him, but the Foxes.

They thought they had him back. Now, he was walking right back into Riko’s arms.

Riko started talking about Andrew and Neil couldn’t help the jerk he gave. Neil wasn’t tied down by anything other than words and a promise. He gritted his teeth and snarled. Riko seemed to be smiling.

“Every inch,” Riko reminds him. Every inch was something against the Foxes.

Neil couldn’t make it. He was raring to tear into Riko; five hundred curses rested on his tongue. There was only one way to really survive, but he didn’t want to. He couldn’t let Nathaniel take over. Not while Riko was still gloating over the fact that Neil hadn’t known.

So, Neil bit his tongue until he bled and then bled some more, waiting to be let go.


He goes to Eden’s Twilight. Neil wasn’t sure he was in Columbia the entire time, but they must have been close enough. Riko either wanted to laugh at Neil’s suffering or had to make a quick getaway before his absence was noted. Neil wasn’t even sure how he’d managed it in the first place.

Neil stumbled his way into the bar, biting back his pain and hunching under his hoodie. Roland saw him first.

“Hey—what the hell—”

“Drink,” Neil growled. His knuckles were white against the bar.

“What’s going on? Did—”

“Drink. Now,” Neil repeated, feeling a rush of vertigo. He held on by the skin of his teeth and waited. Roland poured a glass and hesitated.

“Are you sure?”

Neil snatched the glass and downed it, letting the burn replace the pain. He shoved it back. “Again.”

Roland let him through three glasses before asking. “Did he do this? I—”

“No,” Neil said. He breathed in, out. He could feel the alcohol working. There wasn’t much time. Practice was in an hour and someone would have noticed he wasn’t around campus. His phone was probably in his room, since that was the last place he remembered being.

Roland tapped his fingers against the bar. The place was nearly empty; it wouldn’t have been open, but there was an event in the evening and the staff were preparing.

“Who do I call?”

“A ride,” Neil said, knocking back another drink. “To campus.”

Roland wasn’t happy, but then, Neil wasn’t, either. The car came and Neil got in the back, ignoring the pain and holding himself away from the back of the seat. He kept to himself and waited.

Campus loomed and Neil didn’t think. He knew he should find Abby—get his phone and call her. He knew he shouldn’t get near the team in his state, and he didn’t want them to see him, but he had to see them. He had to know they were okay.

He kept imagining walking in and finding one less face.

He imagined it was Andrew.

Neil couldn’t hear them. They were already on the Court, he imagined, so he walked into the locker room. He saw his locker, bloody and open, and it added a nail to the coffin.

There was no way he couldn’t say.

There was a wall with a red message. Happy 19th, Junior. Neil almost laughed. He could feel his edges fraying. In the distance, the sounds of the others echoed. Overlapping arguments.

Neil turned and walked toward the door. He’d hoped they were playing so he could get a quick look and leave, but his feet kept taking him further. They were standing in a group, arguing. Neil could feel his heart thumping, pounding nails.

I have to tell them. May as well, now.

Nathaniel had trained himself not to tell, even with alcohol. Neil hadn’t needed to. Neil had friends, and that was dangerous. Neil didn’t drink.

But he had, because it was the only way he knew to keep himself conscious through the pain.

Neil stumbled through the door. For a blessed moment, he took them in. Coach was staring with a look of mixed horror and understanding. Allison was frozen in place. Dan looked halfway between rage and sorrow; Matt looked like he was going to break his racquet and his heart. Kevin looked haunted and crazed. Nicky was two seconds away from breaking down. Aaron even looked disturbed, and Renee seemed far away.

Andrew was alive. That was all it took for Neil to exhale, but the sound stuttered in his chest and Wymack said fuck before catching Neil’s arm as he sank.

“What happened? Why—?” Kevin choked on his questions. “He couldn’t have…?”

Neil giggled weakly before he could stop himself. Nicky looked like he was going to throw up.

“Did you drink?” Aaron asked. He sounded…scared, maybe. Or confused. Neil couldn’t tell.

“It’s the only way,” Neil said, looking at Wymack.

“Like hell it is,” Allison snarled. “Why the fuck did you go back to him—”

“Because I’ll kill him,” Neil said, the laughter burbling up.

Dan came closer, flinching at the smell of alcohol on him. “What are you talking about? Neil, you’re the only one getting hurt—”

“I didn’t go to him,” Neil said, and he caught Kevin’s eye. Kevin went white.

For a moment, Neil slid his gaze to Andrew. He wanted to remember every inch of his face. Andrew was preparing to fly into a rage. Neil was surprised he hadn’t already.

“There’s a reason I went in the first place,” Neil mused. Kevin started forward, pushing his teammates, to their shock.

“Neil, no—”

“There’s a reason he wanted me,” Neil said, his laughter morphing into something like a sob. Kevin was cursing, slapping a hand over Neil’s mouth with a feverish look. He’d promised, once, when they had a second together. I’ll watch you. Make sure you don’t say anything.

“Don’t listen to him,” Kevin said. He sounded rough and fierce. If Neil had been sober, he might have been shocked. Kevin didn’t talk about anything like that, other than Exy. “Don’t. Go away.”

Neil felt tears in his eyes. He looked at Kevin, curling his fingers over the hand on his mouth. Kevin stared back at him, wild. Not here. Here, Neil wanted to say. It was the only place he could. Kevin gave up, his hand falling limply to the ground, but he didn’t move. He kept himself in front of Neil, as if he thought his body could protect him.

“’Blood and steel never heal’,” Neil recited, watching Kevin tense at the words. From a distance, Neil saw Andrew turn to stone. “That’s what my father said. He also said something about kneeling, which is funny, since Riko told me the Moriyamas held his leash.”

They were taking it well, but Neil hadn’t even come to it yet. Kevin’s hand was shaking. Neil laced his fingers through it as an afterthought. He wasn’t sure which one of them was giving and which was taking, anymore.

“He’s the Butcher of Baltimore,” Neil said slowly. Andrew’s eyes flickered to life again. He was moving before anyone could stop him and he had his hand on Neil’s neck.

“Liar,” Andrew hissed. It wasn’t for his confession, but for before. Neil found Andrew’s eyes through a haze of tears.

“Couldn’t say,” Neil said softly. He lifted his hand and stopped short, prepared to lose. “I wanted to, before time was up.”

“What do you mean? Time? What are you talking about?” Nicky demanded. His voice was choked. Neil felt the hand on his neck release its pressure.

“I’m a loose end,” Neil mused. “I escaped my father on a stolen five million and he chased me across the country. Over seas and skies. I was supposed to be number four from the very beginning.”

The confession breaks things. Matt mutters something under his breath that sounds like a shocked curse. Dan runs her fingers through her hair so tightly Neil thinks she’ll pull it out. Renee’s face is blank.

Andrew was staring at Neil. The thing in his eyes wasn’t what Neil expected. It gave away more life than Neil had dared to expect. Andrew was furious.

“I’m done with this,” Andrew said shortly, and then he got to his feet. “He’s dead.”

“Andrew, no—” Kevin blurted, snatching Andrew’s arm. He was thrown up against a wall and Matt and Nicky ran over, pulling at Andrew. This wasn’t normal. Any other day, it would be up to Neil or Renee. Now, Neil was the reason and Renee didn’t seem to side with anyone but Andrew.

Neil, from his broken place on the Court, spoke. “I told you I’m going to kill him.”

Andrew let go of Kevin long enough to turn, fingers twitching. “How.”

“He stepped out of line,” Neil said, a snicker rising to his lips. “I didn’t go to him. He came here.”

“He’s not allowed,” Kevin said, voice shaky. “He can’t—”

“He did,” Neil said, scratching the number on his cheek. “And this. And Christmas. He’s signed his warrant. He’s dead. He trashed Moriyama property. Publicly.”

“You’re not property,” Nicky said weakly.

Neil could feel the alcohol wearing off. He lifted his hand and Nicky was there in a second, pulling him up as gingerly as he could. Neil felt everything swim before him and Dan swore, going to hold his other side. The team was a blur of orange.

“Abby’s almost here,” Wymack said shortly.

“I’m sorry,” Neil said softly. The strange tears were still pouring over his cheeks.

“No,” Andrew ground out. Allison shot him a look but Neil closed his eyes.

“I didn’t tell you,” Neil said quietly. “You didn’t need to know. Knowing put you in danger. I should never have stayed, but it was the only thing I could think of. I thought I could use me to help Kevin. To keep you safe.”

“You could have told us,” Aaron said. Even before he finished, Neil knew he was toeing a line. “You’re another one of them.”

Andrew was close to pulling a knife. Renee worked to catch his attention and Neil answered.

“I didn’t know I was theirs until Riko told me, right before Christmas. Until then, I thought I could pit my name against theirs. Now, I know I can use my lost worth.”

Nicky didn’t say anything about it again, but his hand was tighter. The team followed them out through the locker rooms and someone gagged at the open, bloody locker. Neil waited for Abby to see him and go through a small death. Kevin was still hanging onto Neil’s wrist like he thought that would help.

“I don’t think I can go much further,” Neil said conversationally. The team froze. “I lost a lot of blood. That was the point, I think. He was reminding me who I was.”

“Get out,” Andrew said, his tone dead. Neil started to pull at his shirt. He felt the edges of hysteria on his tongue; he was wavering between the alcohol and the terror of sobriety.

“Why not? It’s not like it won’t get worse—”

“Stop.”

“—and I don’t really have a reason, do I, since I’m just property—”

“Stop,” Andrew said, louder. Neil realized Andrew was holding Neil’s shirt, pulling it back down. Even the half-inch that had shown was bad. Allison was looking away anyway; Dan was blinking away tears.

“Out,” Wymack said. The team left and Neil stood there, the ceiling spinning in his eyes.

I’m going to kill him, because he’s going to kill me.


“Don’t ever go again.”

“I can’t promise that,” Neil whispered back. Andrew watched him silently and then turned away, rolling his cigarette between his fingers. He didn’t offer one. It hurts like a punch to the gut.

Andrew didn’t say much, until he says, “Roland told me.”

Neil had known he would. With the state Neil showed up in, he was surprised no one had called the police. He was surprised he’d even been let in.

“I shouldn’t have said so much.”

“Why did you?”

“I was going to, before I left. Before the last move,” Neil said, exhaling slowly. The truth tasted bitter.

“That’s why. You wanted me to take it back,” Andrew added shortly. He was angry.

Neil felt helpless. He’d seen this coming, but he hadn’t anticipated how much it would hurt. He had lost so much, but Andrew was supposed to be a constant—at least until Neil crumbled and left, like so many ashes. Ash. Like Seth. That could be me.

“You are supremely stupid,” Andrew said. Neil looked at him. He felt his heart cracking. “Yes or no.”

The choice made tears rise to Neil’s eyes again. He almost choked on them when he tried to answer.

“Yes.”

Andrew was soft. He kissed Neil like he thought Neil would disappear. Instead of being beautiful, like Neil would have felt in any other circumstance, it was heartbreaking. You were supposed to be a side effect of the drugs.

You were supposed to be a hallucination.

Pipe dream.

“I’m here,” Neil said, his voice breaking under Andrew’s mouth. “I don’t want to go.”

“Promise,” Andrew said lowly. He hadn’t moved away. Neil felt like they were reading braille against one another’s lips. “Promise.”

“I’m coming back,” Neil said, practically gasping the words. “I’m coming back to you.”

Chapter Text

“I never said sorry. Not right,” Nicky says. His eyes are red. Neil blinks, tired. The rest of the team are talking in the hallway.

Nicky is drunk. Not enough to forget himself, but apparently, enough to bring this back up.

“I know,” Neil says simply. He doesn’t say, I’m fine, but it’s implied. Nicky’s mouth is flat and even his eyes are devoid of their usual joy.

“It’s not fine. I shouldn’t have—it was bad. Worse than bad.”

“I don’t think of things the same way you do,” Neil said quietly.

He’d learned about this, through Andrew and Kevin and the others. They were royally fucked, but through comparison and trial, Neil had come to understand. Neil didn’t swing for anyone but Andrew, but it could have been anyone. If anyone were Andrew.

Neil thinks he’s doing a bad job of explaining, so he tries again. “I didn’t like the drugs. The reasoning. But I wasn’t mad about it being a kiss.”

“Why?” Nicky asked. He sounded like he was trying not to cry. Neil wanted to get him a glass of water. By this point, Neil was surprised Nicky had never collapsed from dehydration. He cried enough for it.

“Because I care about you.”

Nicky does cry then, and Neil has to haul him onto the couch. The others find them and Nicky manages to say something about Neil being too precious for the world before Neil shoves a glass in his hands and orders him to drink.

Allison gives Neil a knowing look but he ignores it, pretending he’s practicing being co-captain when he makes Nicky sit and finish the water.

Before he leaves, Nicky hesitates in front of Neil. “I’m sorry.”

Neil huffs in annoyance—Andrew is rubbing off on him. He ignores Nicky’s apology and opens his arms a little, preparing to ask, but Nicky throws himself at Neil.

Andrew’s glare is the only thing that pries Nicky off.


Things are a little different.  Nicky is careful with Neil, but there’s less hiding in his gaze when he talks cheerily to Neil during practice. Neil is grateful for it; he hadn’t realized there was anything wrong with them. It’s one less nervous pain for Nicky to carry, and Neil is satisfied.


“I could kiss you!” Nicky laughs and jumps up and down. Neil rolls his eyes.

“I’d rather not go through that again.”

It’s a casual joke. With their closeness, it should be fine, but Neil forgets they’re in front of the team. Nicky freezes for a moment; not out of fear, but out of shock. Allison turns sharply and her heels squeak on the floor.

What—”

“When did you—?! You two???” Dan gasps. Her eyes dart to Andrew.

Andrew is pinning Nicky with a stare. Neil realizes belatedly that it was probably a bad idea to bring it up with Andrew nearby. He’s not certain how things like this work, since it was in the past.

“Columbia,” Neil says, trying for an explanation. He’s not talking to Dan or Allison, but Andrew. “I thought you knew.”

“Knew,” Andrew repeats. His words are hollow like bullet casings.

“You gave them to him. For me. You meant for me to be drugged that night and I didn’t know.”

“Not that,” Andrew growls. His eyes are going red. Kevin is already pushing Nicky toward the locker room. “You know—”

Neil doesn’t go further. He knows about consent and he knows about Andrew. I won’t be them. Kill me if I do that. So he had said, but Neil doesn’t know how Columbia works into that. If it was different because Neil was the enemy. Or maybe it wasn’t, and that fed into how much Andrew didn’t want to get into it when he’d first kissed Neil on the roof.

“I told you not to touch him,” Andrew suddenly says, violent, and he’s rounding on Nicky.

“Andrew, I didn’t—”

Andrew has his hands on Nicky’s throat and his eyes are burning coals. Kevin looks between them, sharp. Neil walks carefully up to Andrew’s side and lets his hand hover over Andrew’s wrist. He waits until Andrew looks him in the eye.

“Where?”

“Head,” Andrew grinds out. He’s holding on. He’s holding on so well. For me.

Neil steps up to Andrew and slowly laces his fingers in Andrew’s hair. He’s always liked it, soft and nearly bone-white in the light. The rest of the Foxes are holding their breath.

“I can tell you, if you want,” Neil says.

Andrew lets go of Nicky. He turns on his heel and goes to leave. “Shut up.”

There’s a breath of relief when Andrew leaves. Neil hears Wymack say Jesus Christ and then Neil crouches at Nicky’s side.

“Okay?” Neil asks him, titling his head to look at the rising bruises. Nicky winces.

“I’m still sorry,” Nicky says, voice hoarse. “And not just because he choked me.”

“I told you not to be.”

“I knew this was a bad fucking idea,” Wymack says, but he doesn’t push further. You two are a bad idea. He looks at Neil with a mixed expression of distaste and surrender. “You weren’t supposed to be a problem.”

“We’re not,” Neil says simply. Aaron snorts.


“I prefer you,” Neil whispers. He can see the shiver run up Andrew’s spine and the violent way he tries to squash it.

“Shut up.”

Neil continues, closing his eyes, inhaling smoke and whiskey and Andrew. “You’re the one that makes me feel.”

Andrew nearly falls off the roof. He turns and Neil realizes Andrew is breathing hard. His eyes are hazy. The sky behind him is peppered with stars and it’s cold. There’s rain in the atmosphere.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Andrew says, but it sounds more desperate than angry. Neil fixes him with a heavy stare.

You make me feel. I want you more than anything in the world.

Andrew makes a strangled noise. Neil doesn’t know if he spoke out loud; all he knows is the sudden rain and the lightning cracking around them.

Andrew stands and starts for the door. Neil follows him and the truths keep coming, down the stairs and through the hallway.

“A kiss is a kiss. I care about them. Some more than others. Us is different. I feel—”

“Shut up,” Andrew says. He’s hoarse. The door opens and Kevin sends them an alarmed look before Nicky drags him out. Neil thinks they’re dripping on the carpet.

“I feel. I live,” Neil says. He can’t stop his truths. “I’ve never felt it and I didn’t know I was missing it—”

“Yes or no,” Andrew nearly gasps, the door to the bathroom slamming behind them.

“It’s always yes with you.”

Neil thinks his shirt tears—it’s old, and Andrew is always careful but there’s only so much he can do. Their clothes are discarded and Neil is shivering, fighting the chill with the burning in his veins. Andrew kisses him when their shirts are gone, hands fumbling at sweatpants, and Neil keeps his hands out of the way. He waits.

“Will you let me…,” Neil starts, trailing off as he tries to wrap his mind around what he wants to do.

Andrew waits, fingers digging into Neil’s bare skin. The feeling brings Neil back to reality and he inhales slowly, the rain and smoke and liquor heady.

“You said you’d blow me,” Neil says. His lips are tugging into a smile he can’t fight. “Let me.”

“Yes,” Andrew says, “I hate you.”

Neil laughs and Andrew scrapes him, enough to remind him but never hurtful. Never rough. The water is hot when Andrew’s hand slips over the shower handle and Neil pants a little.

They’ve never done this.

Andrew had used his hands, once. Mouth, another time. Until now, Andrew has only allowed Neil to see him twice—once, when Neil had buried Nathaniel; again, when they’d danced dizzyingly close in the aftermath of a bad brawl.

Nicky had come to Neil, after apologizing for Columbia, to talk about things. He’d talked about being there for Neil—I may not know what it’s like to be, uh, with him, but I’ve lived with them long enough—and he’d even been the one to give Neil his first awkward primer with sexuality.

Neil had almost stopped Nicky when he’d started in on how to have safe oral sex, but he’s glad he sat through it. Some pragmatic side of Neil had known it was better to listen.

“Don’t move until I tell you,” Neil says. Andrew barely looks at Neil before his hazel eyes are slipping away with distance. Neil’s hands hover over Andrew’s legs. “Where else can I touch?”

“Legs,” Andrew says. His voice is strained, even as the water hits the walls around them. “Stomach.”

Neil nods once and is careful to lay his hands on Andrew’s thighs with no pressure, content to feel skin beneath his fingers. This is where Neil’s inexperience comes in—because even if Nicky had snuck him some tips and even, embarrassingly, something for practice, Neil has never done this with someone. Someone breathing and tilting their head back against the wall the way Andrew is, eyelashes heavy with water.

One thing Neil knows is that as an Exy player, he has a streak of competitiveness. It runs in his blood and for some reason, it always flares up with Andrew. Neil isn’t even competing against anyone or anything but his own poor expectations. Still, Neil is careful to go slow. He presses his tongue to the base of Andrew’s cock, waiting for something—a split second for refusal or rejection or Andrew needing to back out. Instead, Neil is rewarded with a sharp inhale. It sounds like music. Neil drags his tongue up, the sensation sending a cascade of feeling through him. He feels like there’s something fizzy in his mouth, but he knows it’s just nerves and pleasure.

Neil pauses with his lips at the head. Andrew’s hands are almost white at his sides and Neil looks up, a flickering moment of unease settling in his gut.

“Andrew? Still—”

“Good,” Andrew finishes. His shaking hands are accompanied by a blush hotter than anything Neil has seen on him before. Relief washes over Neil at first and then he hums in satisfaction, opening his mouth and taking Andrew on his tongue.

The weight Neil feels in his mouth is a comfort in a way he can’t explain. It’s like Andrew’s hand on the back of his neck, except it isn’t to reassure Andrew that Neil is real. This is a reminder to Neil that he’s being given trust. Andrew is leaning on Neil in a way that can’t be spoken and Neil thinks it tastes sweeter than any kiss he’s ever been given.

Andrew is still and tense while Neil relaxes, testing his limits. It’s one of those things you don’t know until the last minute; Nicky had said remember to breathe through your nose and relax, and trust enough that your partner will back off if it hurts, but Neil couldn’t have known how he’d take it until it happened. He’s glad that his practice has helped somewhat; it takes only a minute to adjust to Andrew and then Neil’s heart is racing.

Neil looks up to see Andrew watching him with, hazel eyes a thin rim of color around wide pupils. His mouth is even open a little, uncharacteristically vulnerable, and water runs down his face and through his hair. Neil would smile, but he has his mouth full and he isn’t about to give it up. He lets his fingers trace up Andrew’s legs, registering the shiver, and taps Andrew’s hips in a silent agreement to move.

Instead, Andrew reaches for Neil’s face like he thinks it isn’t real. He hesitates just short of Neil’s jaw, trembling, though if it’s emotion or control Neil can’t tell.

“Yes or no.”

It’s hard to answer verbally and Neil draws back, missing the taste of Andrew as soon as he leaves.

“You can touch me. Hold my head. Pull my hair. Feel my throat. Whatever you want. If I need you to stop, I’ll tap you.”

It had sounded much neater in his mind, but when Neil says it, he thinks every word makes him hotter. He would have asked, instead—please pull my hair, Andrew, hold my neck, Andrew—but this is too soon to do that. They need trust and they need to go slow. Neil can wait.

“Yes?” Neil finally asks, leaning back into Andrew’s hip.

“Yes.”

Neil takes Andrew faster this time and when he’s in place, he taps gently.

Andrew moves torturously slow. Neil is a little overwhelmed at first—it’s a sensation all by itself, having something warm and real on his tongue. Neil decides he likes the feel and taste, but he’d like to feel Andrew move. Andrew pulls out for what feels like an eternity and Neil hums, noticing the shudder that rolls through Andrew’s body.

It takes a few more slow pushes and pulls for Andrew to reach for Neil, hesitating when his fingers get to Neil’s face. Neil catches his eye and tries to say everything he can with his eyes—yes, please—and then Andrew sucks in a ragged breath as his fingers land on the hollows of Neil’s cheeks. Somewhere between the mounting pleasure and the full-body rush Neil feels, he decides to tilt his head and Andrew almost stops breathing.

Andrew moans and Neil feels the sound like a hand on his dick. Neil can’t help his own moan, and that does very good things for him because Andrew is so hard in his mouth that he can feel every vibration. Andrew’s hands flutter mindlessly for a moment and one lands on Neil’s throat. Neil almost sees stars and instead of going slow, he pulls back then takes all of Andrew in at once, ignoring the sting in his eyes. Neil had never imagined how it might feel to have a cock hitting the back of his throat, but he figured the time would have been wasted. There are no words for it. All he knows is Andrew and the way his body is hot.

Andrew curses, a rare concession, and Neil lets him set the pace. When he finally tenses, a breath before the climax, Neil holds on for dear life. He doesn’t want to move away. He lets Andrew finish and braces himself for the heat that spills into his throat. Neil watches Andrew’s legs shake and his hands desperate for purchase on the wall behind him. Neil wants to die when he feels the pulse on his tongue, the throb of blood and a heartbeat.

Neil lets Andrew pull away and then Andrew is pulling Neil up with a hand in his hair. Neil almost slams into the wall, stumbling a little, but Andrew presses against him and Neil cries out at the sensation of a hip grinding against his erection. Andrew’s hand is still on Neil’s throat like he can imagine it full and Andrew grinds harder. Neil can see spots blooming in his vision as he struggles to hold on, overcome with a wave of pleasure.

“Come for me, Neil. Feel for me,” Andrew says, his voice rough with the remnants of an orgasm. Neil loses the rest of his fleeting consciousness, a moan ripping from his lips. “Fuck, you sound wrecked.”

Neil falls even further. Andrew never talks like this; he never says anything, even if his eyes and hands and mouth all say things for him. Neil is barely hanging on when Andrew’s hand replaces his hip and the familiar touch is just right.

“For you,” Neil stutters, his hands clawing at the wall. He wants to touch but he can’t remember how to ask, or do anything but what Andrew asks. “And—Andrew—!”

Neil can’t push his head back any further. Andrew leans in and bites the skin at Neil’s neck; the shot of pleasure is lost in the shattering Neil feels. Every cell in his body is on fire as he cries out and spills at the edges, over Andrew’s hand, away from all the things that used to hold him captive.

It takes a while for Neil to come back to himself, fuzzy and unfocused. Andrew is waiting, his hand tracing something on Neil’s stomach. He’s still close.

He’s still close and that’s the only thing that matters to Neil.

“You’re different,” Neil finally says, when the buzzing dies down and the water washes away most things from them. Andrew catches his eye.

“Shut up.” Andrew doesn’t address either statement. You’re different than them. You’re different now.

Andrew knows he’s not like the others. It’s why he hadn’t been angry at the kiss, Neil knows, but the way it was done. But now—with Neil knowing the lingering taste of Andrew and remembering how close they were—he knows Andrew is different than before.

It’s a lot of trust to give someone, when you let them blow you. Either you get this, or you get your dick bitten off.

“You know, I’m starving,” Neil muses, reaching for shampoo. Andrew just gives him a look that says the percentage is rising. Neil smiles, because he’s pretty sure it’s the lowest it’s ever been.

Well, he hopes.

“Loser,” Andrew mutters, but he lets Neil shampoo his hair and doesn’t say anything else about the terrible pop culture reference. When they finish showering, Neil orders Chinese and opens the door to let Kevin and Nicky back in.

Neither of them say anything when Andrew eats from Neil’s chopsticks, but then, they don’t have to. They already know.

Chapter Text

It’s not the memories that do it.

The team are still high off their win. It’s barely been a week and they’re all still reeling—Kevin, from realizing his new freedom and Riko’s death; Dan, from beating the still-there thought of losing; even Nicky, who has been through secondhand hell and never knew who to side with or how to help hold up the team when it threatened to crumble.

Campus is exploding in orange and streamers. Neil sees them everywhere, and the win is enough to warn people off his past, for the moment.

But then a dark car rolls up and Neil’s past comes to him anyway.

Moriyama. Neil hears the words unravel. Uncle. Liability. Uncut dog.

There’s leverage to be had. The Moriyamas understand this, even as they try to maneuver themselves into the upper hand. Neil isn’t having it.

This is a risk.

He tries to unravel decades of strings in the span of a breath. Brotherhood, abuse, trauma. Pain. Fear. The acrid smoke of a fire burning always in the distance, preparing to consume.

Neil has to make a choice.

He would have thought staying or going was the hardest. Maybe even letting Nathaniel take over. There are so many choices.

None of them were like this.

He thinks with belated humor that it’s far easier to pawn away his life and his freedom. He’s done it before; he’s doing it now. The hard thing is figuring out what he’s pawning it for.

When Neil finally figures it out, he can see laughter in the man’s eyes. They let him out of the car and Neil stumbles through the next few breaths, making his way back to his dorm.

He’s glad Andrew isn’t around.


Neil tells Coach that he has to do something.

“What’s ‘something’?”

Wymack stares and Neil remembers what Andrew said about him. Neil avoids looking back at the man and instead focuses on the window, listening to the echoes of his teammates. They hold him down.

“It’ll be one day. I’ll be fine.”

“Andrew?”

Neil doesn’t flinch. He stands his ground and prays with Andrew’s name. “One day.”


Moriyama wasn’t clear, of course. Neil knew that when he left the car. The absence of words and the rearranging.

We will send him to you.

Neil is on his way back to the room from a run and he is dragged violently off the path. He fights immediately, pulling at the arms, but he’s not strong enough.

This is his father’s brother.

Neil slips. He has to.

Nathaniel registers the man holding him. He mentally lists weaknesses and is ever so slightly amused that the Moriyamas have done this.

It seems they aren’t so civil as they try to be. Or maybe it’s just the messenger. Another Riko.

Nathaniel’s uncle takes him to the locker room. It’s unfunny. The psychological twist is fumbling and incomplete. Nathaniel is unimpressed. There will be no one around until tomorrow, and that’s plenty of time. This lost brother of the Butcher has skills, but no schooling. He has no connections. He is a talented dog.

The Moriyamas don’t associate with dogs.

Nathaniel notes that there is a spartan setup waiting for them. The weight bench has been mutilated; there are straps and tools.

More importantly, there’s plastic.

A real Butcher wouldn’t use plastic. A Butcher would have his room; his slaughterhouse. A real Butcher would let the blood season the floor, like a prayer or a spell or grease for the hands of the devil. A real butcher would take Nathaniel to a killing ground—his childhood home, or maybe the first court he played on. This uncle isn’t a Wesninski. He is a pale imitation. He is no wolf.

But he tries his best to bite like one.

Nathaniel counts time carefully. He knows he has a limit. If his uncle isn’t killed by tomorrow, the Foxes will come, and then Nathaniel will die. His uncle will be left, and then the Moriyamas will have three contracts. Kevin, Jean, the dog.

Three, and no one to save the two that need it most.

His uncle starts with burns.

“You don’t have much left,” the man laughs. He searches for open skin and Nathaniel methodically lists the places in his mind.

The sensitive places. His hips. Below his stomach. His ass. His feet. Legs, above the ankles. Calves.

Nathaniel’s arms are a mess, mostly below the elbow. His chest and back are wrecked. His face is marred. Those places are taken.

The burns start simply. A knife held to heat and the uncle takes Nathaniel in pieces, lines down the thin skin over tendons. Those might heal without a trace.

Next come his shoulders. A patchwork on the right side, each burn pressed with some useless line in his uncle’s tirade. Promises to become the Butcher, laughter about Exy and Neil’s adopted family. His Foxes. Nathaniel doesn’t pay much attention. His anger will be directed elsewhere, when it suits him and is most powerful. Unlike the dog, Nathaniel knows his tricks.

Within two hours, Nathaniel is tired, but he can’t sleep. Not with someone working on his body.

Nathaniel’s uncle continues. They are entering dangerous territory, and Nathaniel recognizes that this will add to the aftermath. The uncle takes away shirt and pants until nothing but black underwear is left. He traces a knife along the delicate skin below the stomach. These are precision marks that Nathaniel imagines Aaron would approve, if he were a different kind.

Aaron brings thoughts of Andrew and Nathaniel shuts them down, forcing the present into the forefront. He needs to get out.

The only question is how.


Four hours in, his uncle decides to get threatening. There are five hours until the Foxes come.

Nathaniel feels the first twinge of panic. He’s not completely immune to everything. He feels horror and trauma just as acutely, even if he’s better at using it. Nathaniel’s uncle places wooden blocks and ropes and Nathaniel is breathing unevenly, remembering a dark basement and his father’s name. Lola.

There are patches of skin that are raw and red on his body. Littered burn marks and surgically perfect incisions. One of his fingers is sprained—thankfully not on his dominant hand—and he thinks his uncle pierced his ear.

If I get bored, I bet that boy would fuck you ‘til you died. I bet he likes pushing you down. He looks like the type. Do you like that, Junior? Being pushed down?

Never mind that the words enrage Neil. Nathaniel is calculated. He files his answer away to be given with a knife in the gut and thinks this will be his best kidnapping yet.

Nathaniel is veering closer to an edge. The hands on him are clinically painful, but he knows too well how these things change. Nathaniel listens to the ticking of the clock and lets the pain happen, sometimes groaning and sometimes letting out a sharp scream. None of it is pleading or pained. It’s all reaction, now.

As long as he can still play with the injuries, he’s fine. Neil will be fine.


Three hours until the Foxes.

Nathaniel’s uncle moves with purpose. He’s going to break a leg, or a knee, or an ankle. That, Nathaniel can’t have. Neil, with his deathly love affair with Exy, would be fractured—but even Nathaniel needs his legs to run.

“No! Not—”

Nathaniel screams. He pleads. Words come out and his uncle laughs.

Unlike Nathan, Nathaniel’s uncle listens. He thinks he can use the begging. He lets Nathaniel beg, wastes time, and thinks he’s winning by getting Nathaniel to give something else up. Nathaniel relocates the damage to his arm, which takes some convincing, but it’s better. His bicep is unmarked and Nathaniel can stand it.

Nathaniel’s uncle does his work and then takes a break, maybe not noticing he’s lost time in the process of negotiation and breaking down.


The Foxes, when they arrive, are an hour early.

Nathaniel has a plan.

These two things work perfectly together. Nathaniel can hear the hum of conversation; he sees the lights come up, clacking overhead in a domino pattern. His uncle grins and Nathaniel feels the vague ache that tells him Neil is going to regret letting his friends see him this way.

They just got over Baltimore. I can’t show them this, Neil screams. They can’t. Andrew. Nicky. Kevin—

Nathaniel doesn’t care.

“—there?” The voice that cuts off is familiar. Renee. She’s wary. Good.

Nathaniel waits. His uncle thinks he’s weak; he thinks Nathaniel won’t risk tearing wounds and he thinks Nathaniel has given up. Either the Moriyamas gave Nathaniel the upper hand, or his uncle really is a dog that doesn’t listen.

“Coach!”

Screaming. Pounding feet. Nathaniel registers that people are coming and his uncle unties him. Nicky is yelling; he sounds hoarse. There’s a rending noise from further down the hallway. Maybe a door screeching off its hinges.

Nathaniel slips from the bench. For the first time in too long, he’s upright and the world reels. Renee is by the door, blocking Allison. Nicky is frozen and Matt is tensing, looking for a weapon. Kevin has terror in his eyes. Dan is sprinting up behind Wymack. The glass door is locked, but there’s a beautifully open view into the room beyond. Nathaniel’s uncle is facing them and Nathaniel takes his chance, swaying as he stands.

He is weak, but something surges in Neil when his Foxes appear. Nathaniel has done his job of carrying through the pain and the plan. This is personal. This is about Neil.

“You forgot something,” Neil says. He knows he’s smiling the Butcher way. Someone sobs. Neil’s words gurgle with blood; he had the misfortune to be in possession of wisdom teeth, when his uncle started. They’re gone, now.

Neil takes the knife from the bench in one swift move and buries it deep, right where it’s supposed to go. Up into the ribs, right between the space that means it’ll probably hit the femoral artery and maybe liver or heart. His uncle makes a terrible noise, but like a Wesninski, he has the rage left to reach for Neil’s hair and pull. The Foxes scream from the other side of the door. Something pounds against the glass.

Neil’s uncle walks toward the glass, every step a heavy punctuation to his death sentence. Neil is swimming to the surface of the terror, dragged along, blood heavy in the air. His feet scrabble against the ground, tearing plastic and dragging things with him. His feet are slick and wet.

The glass is unforgiving when his uncle shoves him against it, pressing his ruined cheek for everyone to see. Nicky is yelling; his hands are pressing against the glass. Neil’s uncle leans in to whisper.

“Junior. Did you know? We’re going to take the skin off Kevin and hang it over Andrew’s body. Jean can dig the grave, and we’ll bury him in it.”

He knows their names.

His uncle says something else. It’s the words of Neil’s father and Neil can’t hold any longer. He sees Andrew, furious and dark, something broken in his eyes as he lifts what looks like a steel pipe to the glass.

Neil’s uncle shoves, hard, and all Neil feels is the bloom of pain and heat, entering him right where it hurts.

The scream that’s ripped from Neil’s throat is only half of it. He convulses against the glass, nails uselessly scratching the smooth surface, and there are tears in his eyes as he fights the instinct to let them roll back into his head.

The door breaks. Wymack hurls Neil’s uncle back and Neil falls, the impact sending a sharp pain through his body. He is bleeding. His legs are weak, his mouth is on fire, his head is pounding. The little burns and cuts don’t seem like much anymore. Neil’s vision swims and he chokes on blood.

Nicky moves to Neil, but he’s thrown back by a pale arm. Voices argue—you have to let us help—and then Neil sees Andrew. The man approaches and stops right before him, abortive, stuttering in his steps. He drops to his knees so hard Neil thinks he can feel it shake the ground. Andrew’s hands waver and Neil knows what he sees—torn underwear, torn body, scars tracing downward, blood everywhere, between his legs.

Neil knows he has to say something—has to say no, because he’s not hurt that way. But his mind is foggy and then Andrew is shaking, and Neil can’t categorize that. Andrew is the wall. The rock. The one that doesn’t collapse under Neil’s weight.

But maybe Neil has to be dead weight now, and that’s fine. Because he can’t move from where he is and if Neil dies on the floor, at least he’ll be something for Andrew to lean against.

“’M f…,” Neil starts, but he can’t string the words. He realizes it’s the wrong thing to say when Andrew’s eyes go dead. Neil tries again, spitting warm blood. “Not.”

It does little to help. Andrew’s still hovering, not touching and not letting anyone else touch. Neil doesn’t think he could handle it anyway.

“Yes or no,” Andrew grinds out. It’s not the way Neil wants to hear it.

“Yes,” Neil manages. Andrew reaches out and captures Neil’s head in his hands, relieving some of the pressure. Tilting so that the blood can come out without choking him. Neil closes his eyes. “Safe.”

It’s barely a whisper, and it’s the last thing he says.


Neil spends the next day in and out of it. He’s at Abby’s, because before blacking out he refused a hospital with lingering terror and Andrew had been prepared to throw people out of his way.

When Neil finally comes to, he feels like shit. Worse, even.

“Thank God.” Abby sighs, her head falling. She’s in a chair by the bed he’s lying on. Neil doesn’t say he wasn’t there. It’s a petty remark, and he doesn’t know where it came from.

Neil blinks, feeling curiously clean. “Did he die?”

Abby tenses. She might be trying to gauge what she should say, or if there’s a right way to answer. She’s probably wishing Bee were there, Neil thinks. Instead, she does the best she can.

“Yes.”

“Good,” Neil says. He lets out a sigh he didn’t know he was holding and falls back asleep.


The second day, he’s awake and mobile. Abby warns him not to move—there are stitches, she says, even if the damage to his arms was minimal. His sprained finger is a joke; his uncle hadn’t even noticed his failure to break it. The only real wound is behind him, where he can’t see, and it makes Neil itchy and paranoid.

“I told them they should wait—”

“Tell them to come,” Neil says, watching Abby fumble the glass of water she had for him. She watches him back, eyes narrow.

“Bee said—”

Neil resists the urge to snap at that. “I’m fine. You know that. We’ll have to deal with this.”

He doesn’t add, I have something to tell them.

Funnily, Abby mentions Jean is around. For the moment, at least. He’s supposed to be with the Jackals, but he’d come around because Kevin had called, tense, and said something about the past coming back again. Neil is glad he won’t have to repeat himself.

Neil manages to persuade Abby into letting him sit on the couch. He’s in pain and shouldn’t move much, but he won’t give his confession at the bed like he’s dying. He’s been through that once. He promised to live.

The team barely contain themselves after getting through the door. Nicky is two seconds from crying and Matt is soft words and murmured reassurance. Neil waits until they settle and looks to Kevin.

“Jean.”

Kevin visibly flinches. He looks sick. “Why—”

Neil doesn’t want to repeat himself. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to. Andrew moves, just enough of a threat, and Kevin disappears. While he’s gone, Neil drinks in every inch of Andrew he can see. He feels broken, but Andrew isn’t coming near. He’s waiting, coiled and ready to tear in.

“What the fuck happened?” Wymack asks, once Jean is hovering on the edges. Neil focuses on a bleak future and watches it get brighter.

“A visit,” Neil says, the words like gasoline on his tongue. “Moriyama. At school.”

Curses. Dan looks like she’d break the arm of the couch if she weren’t hanging onto Matt’s hand. Kevin inhales, a bare breath of panic, and Jean is stock-still.

“What did he want?” Renee asks quietly.

“That depends,” Neil muses. Andrew fixes him with a stare. Truths. “They found my uncle. I didn’t know about him; he’s not part of the family. They offered him up, like they had the upper hand. Said they thought he was in the way.”

“Of what?” Wymack prompts, when Neil leaves the silence a little too long.

“The family,” Neil shrugs. “Me.”

“I thought they’d stopped recognizing you. Us,” Kevin says, sounding sick. Neil catches his eye and tilts his head. Was it worth it, Neil? Nathaniel at the back of his mind, scratching behind his eyes.

“They did. I was in control—they were at my mercy. I could have said no. Could have left him loose; it wouldn’t have mattered. Could have done more, even.”

“But?” Wymack asks, sounding like he doesn’t want to know.

“But I agreed. With a condition.”

“You bargained with them,” Jean says, barely audible. He’s looking at Neil like he’s the biggest moron on the planet.

Maybe he is. Either way, Neil continues.

“If they wanted my uncle dead, they’d let Kevin go. If they wanted me to do it—no interference, one on one—they’d let Jean go. The price for losing was contract.”

The world scratches to a halt.

Nathaniel would be amused. He’d think it was funny that the people Neil cared about didn’t believe he’d do something like that for Kevin, never mind Jean. Neil doesn’t say that he learned more than he’s said when he was at Evermore. Neil knows Jean—not as intimately as Kevin, but enough to know. Neil also knows that it wouldn’t have worked to just save one of them. Kevin would have been just as lost as before if it was just him free, and Jean couldn’t hold himself up or out enough to help a still-leashed Kevin.

“You did that already,” Kevin says harshly. His breath is coming in short bursts. “You already bartered for our lives—”

“Nothing belongs to them, now,” Neil continues. Jean’s breath catches in his throat and stops.

Andrew catches it.

“Nothing,” Andrew repeats. He stalks forth and Neil meets his eyes. “You gave them nothing. Nothing belongs to me.”

The way Andrew’s voice shakes on the last part makes the first tear slip out. Neil feels like he’s tearing his heart out, or losing a tooth, or being stabbed again. It hurts.

He says it without meaning to. Matt has a hand slapped over his mouth. The tiny confession has Abby hiding her face. Andrew isn’t moving.

“If you gave them nothing, I—”

“Don’t,” Neil says. “One of us has to make it.”

Kevin turns and runs. He’s throwing up in the bathroom and Jean is still standing there, staring through Neil. He speaks. “Me?”

“It only works in pairs,” Neil reminds him softly. “Teach each other to stand alone.”

Andrew’s hands are shaking. He looks furious. Neil thinks of what to say, or how to explain. He thinks and thinks and comes up with nothing. There’s no way to make it better. He has to go back and figure out for the last time what’s going to happen. He has to go when he’s called.

“What did you do?” Andrew asks, quiet.

“One week,” Neil says, rolling the words around in his mouth like marbles. Matt curses. “Their team is falling apart without Riko and Jean. They’re losing on their investments. For the price I asked, I volunteered.”

“To what? To sign?” Allison asks, furious. “What the fuck—”

“Not to sign,” Neil corrects. “To train.”

“You aren’t going back,” Andrew says. He sounds dangerous. “You’re not.”

“I won’t be alone,” Neil reminds him. “And there will be people watching. It’s just publicity. A way for them to claw their way up. It won’t work, but they’ll do it anyway.”

“If you go, I go.”

That shocks Neil. Kevin stands in the doorway, his closed fists trembling. Andrew laughs, but there’s no humor in it.

“You? What have you ever done to save yourself? Or anyone else?”

Things are spiraling. Neil is tired—he needs rest, now more than ever. He doesn’t have much time. Neil rises, moving achingly slow, and turns to look at Kevin. He looks at the person he saved and feels guilty, because Kevin hadn’t been his first choice.

“You’re not going,” Neil says. “I don’t trust them. I have my name to use. You have nothing.”

“Stop saying that,” Andrew grinds out. Neil catches Wymack’s eye.

The coach gets the clue, but his firm stare tells Neil it isn’t over. He’ll get an earful later. Wymack ushers the team out, going on about rest, but no one says anything when Andrew stays behind. Neil leads the way to the backyard. He doesn’t bother to say anything to Jean, or Kevin. They have their lives to figure out, now. He’s given them that much.

“It wasn’t over,” Neil finally says, when they set foot on the grass. Andrew is staring at him.

Andrew steps closer—just within reach, but still too far. “I know that. But you didn’t have to throw yourself at the first chance. You have no fucking self-preservation skills, you know that?”

“I know,” Neil says, smiling. It feels crooked on his lips. Andrew’s hand shakes. “Yes.”

“I didn’t ask,” Andrew reminds him, but he reaches for Neil anyway. Neil lets the world wait on him as he leans into Andrew’s hand on his cheek, exhaling his worries into the air. Neil waits. He doesn’t want to push, and then finally, it comes. “Yes or no.”

“Yes.”

Andrew’s kiss is firm on Neil’s lips. It’s a reminder, berating him almost as much as it comforts him. You gave me nothing. Nothing belongs to me. All of Neil’s vulnerability—his rooftop secrets and the truths he gave even without prompting—belong to Andrew. The secret fear and hope. Everything was Andrew’s. They were all promises made a thousand times over, in whispers and kisses and bruises. They were Neil’s desire to return.

Bartering nothing to the Moriyamas was the most powerful thing Neil could have done. He’d given his weakest self to them, to be used during practices that would break as much skin as heart. Neil had done it not just for Jean or even Kevin. He’d done it for Andrew.

Neil had given up the very same thing he’d trusted only Andrew with because it was all he had. It was the most precious thing Neil could trade—and with the trade came the tying up of loose ends. Kevin would have a second chance along with Jean, and Andrew wouldn’t have to fight him so much by pushing himself. The Moriyamas wouldn’t come back for Kevin or Jean and Andrew didn’t have to protect them anymore. Without Riko and with the rearranging of the Ravens, all that was left was Neil. Neil, who had turned down his chance to be safe just to be with Andrew. Who had given the burden to Andrew even though he’d known Andrew couldn’t be enough.

Neil gave them nothing because he trusted Andrew to pick up the pieces, and he trusted that he didn’t need that feeling or that person anymore. He was no longer nothing. He was Neil.

“I want to follow you,” Andrew murmurs. His words move across Neil’s lips like ghosts.

Neil kept his eyes closed. His heart thuds painfully. “No.”

“I know.”

“You gave too much,” Neil says, feeling his voice break. “You shouldn’t have—”

“I did,” Andrew interrupts. Neil finally forces his eyes open. Andrew is staring at him with a fire that was rarely ever there, open and raw. “I wanted to.”

Andrew’s whispered yes is the only thing Neil hears after that. He let Andrew move his hands under Neil’s shirt as if finding secret magnetic spots, fitting into place just right. Andrew was convincing himself he’d get Neil back as much as Neil was convincing himself he’d come back. Maybe they were both wrong or stupid, but it didn’t matter. There was one last gamble to make and Neil felt confident making it, because he had something to come back to.

He had a home.

So, while Andrew pressed promises onto Neil’s mouth and let his hands memorize every scar and sigh, Neil knew he would be fine.

He was giving nothing for the world.

Chapter Text

Andrew’s rough edges don’t hurt Neil anymore.

Well.

They do hurt, but it’s not the same as burning bones. It’s not the same as slaps across the face and whispered promises to run.

Some nights, Neil falls asleep with Andrew curled up to his back, arms holding him down. Steadying. Some mornings, Neil wakes to Andrew pulling away and walking to the living room, cracking a window to smoke and steady the shiver in his soul. Either way, Neil is happy for what he has and sorrowful for what he doesn’t.

Just a few weeks into whatever not-thing they had, they were walking back inside from the roof. There was a storm and Neil was drenched, his shirt stuck to his back. Andrew was ahead of him, but then his foot was slipping and he was careening forward.

Neil didn’t think. He felt bile rise to his throat and he thought maybe, just maybe, it would be okay. That even if he was never forgiven, Andrew would be alive and safe. So, Neil reached out and caught Andrew’s arm.

It stopped the fall, but it started a fight. Or as close to a fight as Andrew could get.

Neil dropped Andrew’s arm as if burned, as soon as Andrew found his footing. Neil backed away, almost walking back out into the rain. He stood in the doorway and shoved his hands in his pockets before collapsing to his knees.

He felt a little like a convict awaiting execution.

“I’m sorry,” Neil said. It had to be said, even if Andrew was wild-eyed and staring back at Neil with a reflexive storm of disgust and hate and torment.

I don’t want you to be sorry for it, Andrew didn’t say. The words were running down his hands as he scrubbed a hand over his mouth.

“Don’t,” Andrew said, and then he turned and left. Neil stayed at the top of the steps until he heard doors slamming. Neil waited and waited until he was sneezing and leaning against the wall.

Nicky came up later, with distressed noises and a towel. He didn’t say much—he knew his cousin and respected him enough not to be rude. But he also knew Neil, and he was grateful for the one person that was breaking down walls.

Maybe a few bricks were falling on Neil, but the wall was coming down. It was no longer impenetrable.

The next day, Neil ran into Andrew on campus. He instinctively tucked his hands away and started to sit, but there was nothing around him. He slid down the wall and blinked.

Andrew looked down at him, his lips twisting in a not-quite smile. “You’re a moron.”

“I’m your moron.”

Andrew muttered something and then he asked. Neil said yes, but he didn’t get up. He sat on the floor and waited for Andrew to huff in annoyance, bending down at the waist to brush his lips against Neil’s ear. Disguised from the eyes around them, but close enough to be intimate.

He whispered insults, but when he closed his somewhat violent letter, it was with a number:

“Two hundred percent.”


Nicky is popular at the Eden’s Twilight. He’s fun and vibrant and always willing to flirt. As free-spirited as he is, though, Nicky is just the same as anyone else. He has limits and preferences.

Unfortunately, some people don’t care.

Neil is at the table with Andrew up until the moment Andrew goes to get drinks. Then, Neil is alone with Renee, who is talking Allison into waiting one more minute for the alcohol to take its toll. The two of them are laughing and brushing against each other. Neil looks away and his eyes happen to land on Nicky, at the edge of the dance floor, moving away from a man.

The first thing Neil notices is the way Nicky is laughing. It’s not real, even from a distance. It’s more awkward than anything else, and Nicky keeps glancing around to find a way out.

Neil is moving before he can think to tell his feet where to go. He’s at the dance floor in under a minute, and then the conversation barely becomes audible in a lull between songs.

“You’re embarrassing yourself,” Nicky says, but there’s no laughter in his voice. He’s strained. The stranger slurs something; he’s drunk. Neil steps up to them.

“There you are,” Neil tells Nicky. The relief he sees flooding Nicky’s features would be flattering in any other situation. Now, it incenses Neil. “Come on. Andrew’s looking for you.”

“Hey! ‘S not goin’,” the drunk man says. He throws an arm around Nicky and starts pushing them toward the back door.

Nicky exclaims in surprise as he’s propelled out of the club. Neil is right behind them. He knows better than to start something inside, but he still silently apologizes to Nicky in his mind. Once the cold night air hits his face, Neil shifts his feet. He pushes.

Nicky slips out of the way and the man goes stumbling. Neil watches him with vague interest and glances toward the nearby dumpster. There’s a wooden pallet there, probably from an alcohol delivery. He kicks at it and watches a board break, grabbing it with both hands.

“Wait—Neil,” Nicky says, startled, but Neil isn’t listening. He’s remembering a house and a fight and the way Aaron and Nicky hadn’t known. The way they’d never known Andrew’s pain.

He doesn’t want them to understand. Ever. It’s better than the alternative.

The drunk man yells and wheels on Neil. Neil lifts the board and waits, narrowing his eyes, pulling out of the way and slamming the wood against the man’s back. He watches the stranger fall and cracks him over the head for good measure, watching the man groan unintelligibly on the ground.

“Next time,” Neil says conversationally, “I’ll use my knives.”

Neil waves Nicky back inside and follows. He feels oddly relaxed. He also looks up to the table he’d left, where Andrew has returned.

Andrew is staring down at them and Neil knows he saw.

“Hey. Thanks,” Nicky says, capturing Neil’s attention again.

Neil shrugs. “No problem. My bloodlust hasn’t been sated, recently.”

Nicky laughs and says something about his cousin’s bad influence, but he hugs Neil anyway and presses a fond kiss to his forehead before winking and disappearing back into the crows. Neil climbs the stairs to the group table, taking his time and finding all his Foxes. They’re all somewhere now—dance floor, bar, even other tables. The only one waiting for Neil is Andrew.

“This is why I have knives in mine,” Andrew says, running a hand up the black band on his right arm. “It’s faster.”

“Fast is fine,” Neil agrees, sliding up onto the chair next to Andrew. “But slow can be just as good.”

Andrew is quiet, gaze weighty when it rests on Neil. There may as well be no one else around for the way he’s looking at Neil. Andrew tilts forward, inspecting Neil like a particularly pricy treasure. Neil holds his breath.

“Yes or no,” Andrew starts, and then there’s a flicker of a grin on his face that looks more like a snarl. “Slow or fast?”

“Yes,” Neil says, watching as Andrew leans in. “Slow.”


“End my suffering,” Neil says.

Aaron looks down at him with the usual mixed expression—distaste, uncertainty, suspicion. Neil starts to think maybe this is a bad idea.

“What did you do?”

Neil is glad for the question. It gives him something to run with. “I didn’t. Well. I was nearby.”

Aaron grunts and closes his door, sighing. Neil wonders when things got so twisted with them.

He hated Aaron because Aaron didn’t understand. A little further down the line, Neil is feeling like maybe that’s the best thing that could have happened. At least Aaron is normal enough for Andrew to have a tether, if Neil can’t be that anymore.

It’s not like Neil was trustworthy, anyway. He was spoiled by Nicky, so of course, he was unimpressed that Aaron didn’t like him. Aaron was an asshole, but only from Neil’s point of view.

And he knew how warped it was.

“Don’t move,” Aaron says, as if he thinks Neil is stupid enough to try. Neil doesn’t comment.

Aaron disappears back inside his dorm and comes out with a first-aid kit. Neil watches with interest as Aaron pulls the box up to the wall, rubbing at his eyes. It’s late—or early. Between three and four, maybe. Neil isn’t sure.

Aaron exhales through his teeth. Neil feels like this is regular for him. “I’ll have to touch.”

That’s new. Neil thinks he appreciates it more than Aaron can know, because Aaron isn’t paying attention to his patient, eyes fixed on the t-shirt in front of him.

“Go ahead,” Neil says simply. He thinks it’s a little funny that Aaron has the same thing as his brother, but it’s not quite the same. Yes or no. This is what I have to do.

Aaron gingerly moves Neil’s shirt up and presses with his fingertips, waiting for the painful inhales and the movement beneath the skin. He hums under his breath and unpacks his supplies.

“Bruised,” Aaron says. “You should be going to Abby.”

Neil doesn’t say he knows exactly what’s wrong with him, and that he’s had enough injury to know what’s wrong with his body. He lets Aaron be the one in charge, instead, and just answers in short affirmative noises.

Before Aaron finishes, Nicky pokes his head into the hallway, eyes squinty from sleep. “Whassgoinon?”

“Cursed,” Neil says before he can stop himself. He thinks he can hear Aaron snort, but he’s not quick enough to catch it when he whips his head around.

“Go back to bed,” Aaron tells Nicky. “Nothing’s wrong.”

Nicky grumbles but disappears back into his room. Neil thinks that’s it, but then Aaron unravels some tape and mutters under his breath, “Cursed.”

It’s a tiny bridge, but it’s better than jumping a chasm.

Andrew appears when Aaron starts packing up his box. Neil doesn’t notice at first; he’s too busy enjoying his newfound relationship.

“What if I walked out onto the highway.”

“And got hit by a semi,” Aaron continues.

“The end I deserve.”

“It be like that.”

Aaron just finishes his sentence and then Andrew is hovering nearby, his hair wild from the drive he took. Neil peers up at him from the ground.

“Maybe if I got hit, they’d pay my bills. Or I’d die. A win-win,” Neil continues. He tries not to smile or look apologetic. Normal is best, for Andrew.

Aaron rolls his eyes and offers Neil an arm to get up. Neil bites back a hiss when his side protests.

“Don’t say that,” Andrew says. His words are rough.

Aaron rolls his eyes again—Neil thinks they might fall out—and huffs. “Don’t fucking push him. They’ll break.”

It’s his good night. Aaron shuffles back into his room and closes the door.

Neil is smiling to himself when Andrew comments, disgusted. “You’re too happy.”

“You’re back,” Neil counters. He lets his smile soften and waits for Andrew to take him in. Checking.

Andrew turns and leads the way back to their room. The door shuts behind them and Andrew crowds into Neil’s space, his gaze fixed on Neil’s chest instead of upward, to close the height gap. Neil waits.

“Yes or no.”

“Yes.”

Andrew tucks himself perfectly into Neil and his kiss is a fragmented apology. Neil takes it all in stride, like there’s nothing especially different about tonight and Andrew hasn’t done anything wrong.

He hasn’t.

Still, Neil won’t say too much. He lets Andrew work through his thoughts while they curl up together and Neil is grateful that it’s a good night and Andrew will hold him.

All things considered, bruised ribs are a small price to pay.


Kevin is wide-eyed and he’s spiraling. Neil has to hold him down because Andrew isn’t there.

Even if he were, Neil knows this brand of hurt.

Neil inches over the space between them on the couch, his Spanish book abandoned on the floor. He was reviewing, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the way Kevin is falling down.

“Can I touch you?”

Kevin starts, jerking away as if he’s been hit. He doesn’t seem to understand. “What?”

“Can I touch you?” Neil repeats, keeping his tone placid. Kevin blinks.

Neil hasn’t seen many people touch Kevin. Andrew has forcibly moved him around before. Sometimes, there are team celebrations at the end of games. No one’s really affectionate with Kevin, though. Either Kevin doesn’t care, Neil thinks, or he’s just never been given the opportunity.

“Yes,” Kevin says, but it sounds more confused than anything else. Neil figures that’s all he can expect and resolves to talk about it later.

For now, Neil scoots the last inch between them and pulls Kevin down, arms reaching around his shoulders. Kevin is stiff in his arms, but Neil doesn’t care. He’s patient. A minute later, he can sense the first tiny unraveling of muscle and trauma. Kevin practically sinks into the embrace and Neil is suddenly glad.

It feels nice to hold someone. It’s taken a while for Neil to be comfortable with anything; he’d realized early on that Andrew is an exception. Neil will take anything Andrew gives. With the other Foxes, it’s different. Neil finds some things he’s okay with and others, he’s not sure. Neil also knows that his default methods of being close to others involve touch and—to Wymack’s chagrin—casual kisses.

It was funny, the first time Neil and Allison exchanged pecks on the cheek at a press conference and Wymack walked with his face in his hand for the next two weeks.

“Why?” Kevin suddenly asks. His voice is muffled and he sounds like he’s pouting. Neil snorts softly.

“Why not?”

Kevin doesn’t answer. He lets the hug drag on until Neil’s leg falls asleep. They sit there and then Kevin sighs and Neil releases him, letting Kevin move away.

Neil keeps half an eye on Kevin after that, for the twenty seconds before Andrew gets back. Neil is pleased that Kevin seems more relaxed, head tilted as he watches videos on his phone.

Andrew shoots a look between them when he returns, but he doesn’t say anything. He just walks up to Neil, a question and an answer, and then curls himself into Neil’s side like he can become a part of him simply by trying hard enough.

Neil doesn’t tell Andrew he’s already succeeded. He thinks he’s done enough sappy work for one night.


Allison swings her heel in the guy’s face.

Neil watches in slow motion. Part of him is still frozen in place by the words that are hanging in the air. Things Neil shouldn’t have had to hear.

The student falls to the ground and Allison is two seconds away from stomping his skull in before Neil holds her back with a brief touch to her arm.

“No.”

Allison catches his eye, finding whatever she needs, and then she kicks the guy in the chest and watches him roll over. “Fucking piece of shit. Stay the fuck away from the Foxes.”

Allison flicks her hair and starts walking away. She laces an arm around Neil’s and walks with a swing to her step. Neil lets her direct them out of eyesight and the small crowd that had gathered. She’s practically on fire. Neil likes that about her—she brings a heat to the team, crackling and vibrant, and it’s enough for them to warm by on cold days.

Except sometimes, she gets cold, too.

Someone says something about Seth and Allison and then it’s Neil’s turn. He rounds on the guy and brings his face into his knee, barely avoiding the blood. The guy is pissed, but Neil sidesteps him and literally kicks his ass. The guy falls into the fountain behind him and Neil glances at Allison. He paraphrases.

“You’re not fun enough to be a rabbit. Stay away from the Foxes.”

Neil turns on his heel just like that, only really interested in proving his point, and he takes Allison’s hand and guides them toward the tower before she starts laughing. He pretends not to see the tears but she doesn’t care, sliding an arm around his shoulder and leaning into him as they go.

“Not bad, princess,” she says. Neil accepts the nickname.

“I learned from the best.”

Allison’s smile gets wider. When they get back to the dorms, Aaron stops long enough to make sure it’s not Neil’s blood before muttering about attitude problems. Allison kisses the top of Neil’s head and disappears into her room.

It’s the little things that Neil is starting to enjoy. Like breaking a guy’s nose for his teammate. Those things, he can do. And he always will.


Neil is sleepy. Andrew lo—hates the way Neil looks this way, lying on his bunk in a t-shirt and soft shorts that are too small to be appropriate outside of the bedroom. Neil blinks slowly as he watches Andrew, hands curled by his chin.

“Stop looking at me like that.”

Neil smiles lazily. It’s more of a stretch than a smile. “Like what?”

Like I hung the goddamn stars. Like I’m some sort of perfect thing. Like you love me. Andrew wants to say something about truth and lies, but more than that, he wants to finish his ice cream. Neil is still staring.

“What? You want some?” Andrew prompts. He knows Neil doesn’t.

Neil smiles, though, and then he replies, “Yes or no?”

Andrew wants to tell him it’s not funny for ice cream and then he realizes what the moron is saying. He lov—hates Neil even more for that. Neil is good at his not-lies.

“Yes,” Andrew says, because he’s way past pretending and fighting.

Neil leans over the edge of the bed. His eyes are already fluttering closed and then he presses his lips to Andrew’s. Something about his mouth is wonderf—terrible. Neil presses his tongue against Andrew’s mouth and Andrew’s pulse skyrockets. It’s not the rabbit pace of fear; instead, it’s the thrum of desire. Andrew lets Neil in, a tongue sliding against his teeth like fire, cleansing everything it its path. Neil shouldn’t taste like beginnings, but he does.

And ice cream.

When Neil finally backs away, Andrew can tell it’s not because he wants to. Neil is still panting and his cheeks are red. His eyes are darting to Andrew’s mouth.

“Tastes good,” Neil says softly. Andrew wants to kis—kill him.

Andrew loads up his spoon before he can go too far. “Disgusting.”

“Never,” Neil says, the smile flickering to life. Andrew shoves a spoon into Neil’s mouth. He chases it—and the muffled noise of surprise that follows—with a kiss.

Maybe it does taste good, but he’s not going to fucking say it.

Chapter Text

Neil is struggling.

Andrew wakes and his arm flies out, but he stops it at the last minute. The last thing he needs is to hit Neil while he’s asleep, in the grip of some nightmare. Andrew backs away from Neil, toward the edge of the bed—Neil is up against the wall, thrashing. Andrew is always on the outside, to get away when he needs to.

He’s starting to wonder if they both need the escape.

Neil stops struggling and opens his eyes. Andrew watches him and wonders what’s next—the usual apologetic grin that Neil gives him when he runs late practicing with Kevin, or the guilty expression he wears for a few minutes after accidentally bumping into Andrew.

Instead, Andrew gets an eyeful of something else.

The person staring back at him is one step removed. Not enough to be far away, but enough to owlishly gaze back at Andrew.

Andrew feels something cold in his veins. He would feel unsafe, but nothing about Neil—or the sides of him he’s exposed—could ever be unsafe to Andrew. If they were, Neil would have told him.

If they were, Neil would never have stayed.

“I’ll go.”

The words leave the mouth of the person in the bed. Andrew knows with the raw burn of a bone being set that it’s not Neil that’s staring back at him. It’s Nathaniel.

I thought he would bury the bones, Andrew thinks, but he knows it’s not that simple. Those words were just what needed to be said at the time, and they both knew it would never be entirely over. It would just be different.

Nathaniel crawls out of bed, taking pains to avoid touching Andrew, and escapees to the living room. Andrew waits a good five minutes. He almost goes back to sleep, but part of him is curious. He’d seen Neil’s loose ends early on, and then he’d tied things together and found the entire tapestry. The thick carpet of scars and hurt that made up Neil. This is just another one of those things—but it’s not the same. It’s more important. A bigger scene.

Andrew leaves the bed behind. He walks in to find Nathaniel sitting on a chair improperly—something Andrew would almost be glad about, since it’s what Neil does, too. There’s a cigarette on the windowsill and the stars’ breeze is soft in the room.

“I can’t touch you,” Nathaniel says. It’s not rude or disgusted; it’s matter-of-fact. Like there are clearly printed rules and agreements.

Andrew would ask, but he gets the feeling Neil wouldn’t be happy. Not yet.

“I didn’t ask you to,” Andrew says, taking up residence across from Nathaniel.

Andrew almost feels an uncanny similarity with the person he’s looking back at. He’d first noticed it after the FBI—the way Nathaniel had been holding himself together with wire and stitches. The way he’d snapped back at the agent in charge and thrown his name and information at them, waving it like a bone to a dog. He’d used and used, every advantage that was an open wound seeping with blood and memories. He was raw.

Andrew hadn’t liked seeing Neil that way, but then he’d realized it was just Neil’s body. It wasn’t really him. Not the way that mattered.

So, Andrew had told Neil to come home, because Neil was the one. The Exy junkie that kept Andrew up at night because Kevin believed in him. The self-sacrificing fool that made deals with devils until he had nothing left but a pound of flesh, pieces of him missing. The one that tried so hard not to care but ended up giving away his life anyway.

Nathaniel was necessary. He was the one that got Neil moving, propelling him forward, to Exy and to the Foxes.

To Andrew.

“I would, if I could. If it would help,” Nathaniel says. He leans into the cigarette smoke.

Andrew shrugs. “You came to me. Brought me the…person that wanted to be. Neil.”

He’s not sure whether he should say you wanted to be Neil or you needed to be Neil. Neither of them are really right and Andrew can’t take shots at someone else’s brokenness. He spends most of his time navigating his shattered pieces.

“I kept running until he could be real,” Nathaniel muses. He’s introspective. Andrew doesn’t know how to categorize him, or if it matters. If he could ever find a way to tie up the ends. “He’s the one. He’s going to survive. He’s so real, now.”

Andrew leaves it at that. He knows, at least, that Nathaniel isn’t a danger. Not now. Nathaniel had been the one to take the reins in Baltimore, but Andrew doesn’t know when the shift happened. All he knows is that before-Neil ran, and if Nathaniel isn’t running, Andrew doesn’t have to worry about him.

The only things Andrew takes care of are the ones that make Neil run. The things that take him away. From what he’s seen so far, Nathaniel keeps Neil alive.

That’s enough.

Andrew goes back to bed. He’s not sure when—if—Neil or Nathaniel comes back. All he knows is that in the morning, there’s a coffee cake waiting on the kitchen table. Kevin and Neil are gone.

Andrew eats the whole thing.


Neil doesn’t talk about his slip-up. He doesn’t talk about why he had a nightmare, months later, thrashing out of it like a steel net. He doesn’t talk to Andrew about the way he acted after he woke.

Unfortunately, life has plans for Neil.

They’re at an away game with a rough Exy team—one of their strikers has been on top of the Foxes the entire time, even drawing by the locker room and taunting them before the game. On any other day, they wouldn’t care because the Foxes know they’re better, but it’s an anniversary. Allison is remembering Seth’s overdose and the rest of them are finding other things to fixate on, tearing at themselves in little ways.

Neil would never admit it, but he’s tearing a little, too.

The game flies by with yellow cards and even a red card on the side of the other team. Aaron gets dangerously close at one point—Neil doesn’t know what happened, but if Aaron was angry, it doesn’t matter. The game ends with a win for the Foxes.

The striker is a senior. He has nothing to lose. They all know this.

They didn’t know he would come to them.

Neil is walking out into the hallway, prepared to follow Dan out to Wymack and the waiting reporters, but they never make it that far. Something flies at Neil and he barely moves in time. The knife buries itself in his shoulder and Dan shouts. The rest of the team thunder toward the door, but Neil is already shoving Dan into the locker room and out of the way. Her appearance stops the stampede, even if only for a moment.

Maybe it’s the recent war or maybe Neil just can’t handle everything at once. He just slides.

Nathaniel wants to kill the guy standing in the hall, with Smith emblazoned across the back of his shirt. Smith is turning away and Nathaniel laughs. A stupid mistake. Smith turned his back on a wolf and Nathaniel takes the knife from his shoulder, a familiar burn and suck, and then he’s running.

Someone yells for Neil. It doesn’t matter. Nathaniel is on Smith in two seconds, wheeling him back and pressing the knife to his throat. Smith’s eyes go wide, but he twists and slams Nathaniel into the wall. He’s bigger and stronger, but Nathaniel has a knife. He could do something, if he wanted to. If he would risk putting his team in jeopardy.

A knife is all he needs.

Except Matt steps up to Smith and then he’s kicked back, gasping and clutching his ribs, and Nathaniel sees red. Rules and Exy don’t matter in that split second. All that matters is a Fox being attacked and the knife in Nathaniel’s hand.

Nathaniel lifts his hand. He’s moving when he hears Andrew.

“Neil!”

He knows better. Andrew knows who he’s talking to. Nathaniel knows this the same way he knows that he won’t really kill Smith. He wants to make an example of him. Part of Nathaniel is pleased that Andrew would step in—that he would try to keep the train on the rails. Hold things together. There is harmony in his interference. Another part of Nathaniel knows it will never happen again. Not once he knows.

Nathaniel twists the knife and digs just enough to cut Smith, from his wrist to the crook of his elbow. It’s enough to bleed but not enough to permanently injure. Smith curses and Nathaniel pretends to stumble, slipping, the blade deflecting and burying itself in Smith’s shoulder like a mirrored curse.

Smith drops Nathaniel. The landing hurts, but the triumph is sweeter. People are flooding the hallway; someone is dragging Smith away. Abby appears in a flurry of motion and then Nathaniel is walking away, back to the locker room. The Foxes are right there.

“Help Matt,” Nathaniel says shortly.

Abby immediately starts to protest. “Neil, you—”

“Help him,” Nathaniel repeats stonily. He doesn’t have time to argue with her, but he doesn’t want to physically push her. That kind of harm is not good.

Abby seems to get the message. She turns away and the space is filled by Andrew. Cold, pale, uncertain. Nathaniel has always wondered why Andrew thought Neil was a hallucination when Andrew was the one that always looked like he was two seconds away from fading.

He’s probably right, though.

“You did your job.”

“I did,” Nathaniel says. He can feel the urgency fading. The Foxes are safe—but he’s not done until Abby turns away from Matt and says something about stress. Nothing is broken, just tender. Bruised. Vulnerable.

It’s enough.

Neil sighs out, relaxing. He can feel the heat of blood at his shoulder. He realizes, surprised, that Andrew is pressing against the wound. His hands are getting dirty.

“You don’t have to—”

“Shut up.”

Andrew stays there and Neil basks in his warmth. He’s not quite the rock Neil had first imagined; he’s more like earth. Movable, but strong. Unyielding in the face of disaster. Constant. He is enough to hold Neil up, even with all the broken pieces between them.

Abby sighs when she looks at the wound. “When are you and knives going to stop being at odds?”

Neil laughs. He can’t do anything else. Andrew shakes his head, which is its own kind of laugh.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Chapter Text

Andrew throws something at Neil’s head and Matt watches him walk away, glaring as much as he can. They’re sitting in front of the television in the dorm, Nicky squashed against Neil’s side and Kevin sulking in a beanbag chair. Dan is tucked between Matt’s feet. Andrew had been at Neil’s other side, but then he decided to have a spontaneous fit of pique.

“I still don’t understand why you put up with him,” Matt mutters. “Are you sure? I mean, have you ever felt anything for anyone before?”

Neil shrugs. He’s not focused on the conversation, so it’s simple when he says, “I might have, once. That was fixed.”

The reactions from his teammates are expected. Or they would have been, if Neil had paid attention to what he was saying. Matt gapes, Dan turns around from her spot on the floor, Kevin stares with wide eyes.

It’s Nicky that worries Neil.

He stiffens and his hand is suddenly tight where it was resting on Neil’s ankle. His grip is shaky, even if it’s strong. Neil tries not to be too obvious, but he’s not going to leave Nicky in whatever spot Neil has accidentally pushed him into.

“What?” Neil asks quietly. He tries to sound soft and understanding.

Nicky grimaces. “That sounds a lot like…I mean, that’s not—it isn’t right.”

Neil wants to say, yeah, but he holds his words back. They’re not what Nicky needs to hear. Instead, he waits, glancing at the others in the room. He’s not sure if he should relocate. It’s easy with Andrew, who only lets the roof and the bed get this intimate. Neil isn’t sure whether he should save Nicky from himself or not.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Neil finally says. He’s trying to explain too much at once. Nicky shakes his head, glancing at the others.

“They know.”

“I don’t have to.”

“Maybe,” Nicky says, shrugging. “It’s not like it was what An—what anyone else has gone through. It didn’t get that bad. I just heard day in and day out about what was wrong with me, and how to fix it. Sometimes they tried to make us feel sick. They told me things about myself.”

Matt holds Dan closer. Kevin is looking away. Neil wants to say something, but he can feel the tide. Nicky has to say these things. For whatever reason, he needs the release. The openness. It’s been a while since they talked about Nicky’s kiss—that had been a nasty confrontation, with Andrew involved entirely by accident—and Neil has never pushed. He knows better.

But now, Nicky is pouring out. He keeps talking. “One of the counselors said that being gay was just a way to deal with feeling inferior. He’d say things like, you think you’re useless, don’t you, and then he’d keep going and say the same things every day. Every week.

“One time, he even told me you want to be used. Like he knew anything about me, or my sex life—which, at that point, had never really happened—and like he had figured everything out. I hated it.”

Nicky quiets. Neil lets the words settle around them. They’re ugly static. He doesn’t like them, but they’re there, and all he can do is turn down the volume. Neil slips his hand over Nicky’s, on his ankle. He feels the moment that Nicky jerks, shock flooding up through his fingers when Neil laces their hands together.

“No one is the same. Doesn’t mean you can’t hurt as much,” Neil says quietly. He rests his head on his knees, drawn up to his chest, and looks sideways at Nicky.

Dan exhales and whatever tension was building starts to leak away. The show playing on the television seems to come back to life, as if it was frozen before. Nicky isn’t done talking, but there’s less pressure on him, now.

“Could you say?” Nicky asks. It’s respectful. A little surprising—but just a little, because even though Nicky can dive headfirst into things, he’s so fiercely protective of his teammates that it hurts.

Neil shrugs. He doesn’t like the acid in his throat at the thought of spilling a secret, but he thinks of Riko on his knees and Stuart coming into the basement. “My mother. She would hit me when I even looked at girls. It probably wasn’t even serious, but I was a teenager.”

Nicky manages to hold back his immediate response, but Neil can see a familiar flash of pain in his eyes. Neil wonders how Nicky can feel that much for someone else. How he can trivialize his pain and shove it away, but react so intensely to what happens to his friends, even if it was in the past.

“If they could only see us now,” Nicky says, smiling shakily. His hand is tight in Neil’s.

“Yeah,” Neil agrees, running his thumb over the back of Nicky’s hand. It’s the only comfort he knows how to give, but it must be right because Nicky sighs, the rest of his pain escaping in a single breath.

When Andrew gets back, Nicky has already tucked his head onto Neil’s shoulder, his breathing slowing. Andrew doesn’t push his cousin away. He just looks at Neil, something unfathomable in his expression. When he takes his spot, he tangles his hand in Neil’s but doesn’t move closer.

Neil smiles to himself as the room darkens and his friends relax around him. If they could only see us now.


“With all the excitement, we didn’t have time to ask you about it,” the reporter says, laughing widely. Her gleaming hair is tossed over her shoulder with a practiced flick of her head.

Nicky smiles, but he’s puzzled. “Ask about what?”

“Well—the kiss, of course! It was such a shock; of course, we’d heard some rumors, but nothing was confirmed. And then!”

The reporter laughs. Neil glances at Nicky, who is a little stiff. It’s strange to see. Nicky is usually so open about Erik and about his appreciation for the men around him. It makes Neil frown to see Nicky laughing awkwardly.

“Uh, yeah. He—”

“But isn’t it scary? I mean, Exy is a male-dominated sport. What do your teammates think? Neil, do you feel any different, knowing this?” The reporter rounds on Neil before Nicky has a chance to say anything.

Neil logically knows that Nicky can hold his own. He knows Nicky has put up with worse. He knows these things, but in the moment, all he really knows is that a reporter is trying to his teammate—his friend, his family—during a live interview.

“Funny that you’d ask,” Neil starts. He can feel Nicky freeze next to him. Neil pauses for dramatic effect, thinking it’s been a while since he’s made Wymack wish he had a muzzle. “Since, like your question, Nicky’s sexuality has nothing to do with Exy. Which is what we’re here for.”

The reporter opens her mouth and closes it a few times. Neil is ready to start in again, but she gets in a quick bit before he can start. “Does that mean—”

“It means I don’t care, and neither should you. Neither should anyone, for that matter. Nicky isn’t up for sale. He’s not up for examination. Anyway, why does it matter who he’s attracted to? He’s not a gay man; he’s Nicky. You’re only talking about one part of him. Do you even know that he speaks German? Or that he makes great burgers? Those things are just as much a part of him. Except you decided to talk about his preferences because that’s a lot more uncomfortable, rude, and uncalled for. I guess I shouldn’t expect any less from the same person who wrote an article about why Allison didn’t mourn enough when Seth died.”

Neil thinks it’s quieter than the basement, when he’d first been dragged to Baltimore. The reporter is flushed. She opens her mouth again, but Neil beats her to the punch.

“Let me know when you decide to poke into my past and ask about my scars. I’ll be sure to call my therapist for the damage bringing that up will cause. Until then.”

He turns without another look back and threads his arm through Nicky’s, taking them back to the locker room. Nicky is stuck; his mouth if frozen in a half-open position and he moves as if on autopilot. The chatter starts up behind them as soon as Neil finishes talking.

Neil barely gets into the hallway before they’re stopped by the Foxes in the hallway—the girls are there, showered and flushed, and the others are hanging around the door. They look up when Nicky and Neil approach.

“Oh, God. What now?” Wymack demands. He doesn’t even linger on Nicky’s face for three seconds. Neil shrugs, a sorry on his tongue, but Wymack cuts him off. “Don’t you fucking dare say, ‘sorry, Coach’, Neil. I swear to God.”

“He, uh—” Nicky starts to say, but his voice sounds far away. It cracks just a little and Neil turns, alarmed, ready to make something up. He doesn’t get the chance.

Nicky yanks Neil into a hug. There’s a surprised noise from behind Neil, but he’s busy with an armful of Nicky. He thinks he can feel something wet on his shoulder and that makes Neil angrier than anything else. He curls his hands into Nicky’s jersey and glares daggers past Nicky’s shoulder, imagining them hitting their mark in too-shiny hair and a plastic smile.

“What happened?” Andrew asks. He’s suddenly there, impending death on his tongue.

Nicky laughs a little, already wiping away the last of his tears. “Man, that was great. You guys have to see it later—Neil juts destroyed a reporter. Made her seem like an insensitive, sensational bigot—”

“What else is new,” Aaron says, rolling his eyes, but when he shuffles past Nicky, his hand rests on his cousin’s shoulder a moment too long.

Dan looks proud of Neil. He doesn’t think much of it, walking to the showers. While the Foxes wait, Neil starts up the spray of water. Nicky is in and out; he’s too excited to tell the others what happened, once he calms down. Neil is halfway through washing out shampoo when Andrew appears, his face coming into view just over the shower door.

Neil stares back at Andrew. He might get soap in his eyes, but he doesn’t care.

“Your mouth is a menace,” Andrew says.

Neil doesn’t smile. “You like it.”

Andrew mutters a few cheerful words of murder and then he leans closer to the door, stray drops of water sparkling as they hit his head. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil says, letting his eyes fall closed with the weight of the water and the look Andrew is giving him.

Andrew’s kiss tastes like fire. Rich like wood and hot on the tongue. Neil enjoys it until Andrew pulls back and tells Neil finish showering before you drown, I won’t save you. Neil does smile when he turns around, running a hand through his hair before shutting off the water to change.

He didn’t protect Nicky for anyone but Nicky, but it’s nice that Andrew noticed. Neil thinks a lot of things about Andrew are nice, and he tells him so while they’re walking to the bus and the waiting Foxes. Andrew tells him I hate you before they push the door open.

“And you can take that shit-eating grin off your face.”

“Don’t talk about yourself that way,” Neil replies. He watches Andrew’s feet stutter, a mixed expression of frustration and attraction twisting Andrew’s mouth. “I happen to think you taste great.”

When they board the bus, Andrew finishes the conversation with, “I won’t deal with you right now.”

It’s a promise. It also makes Nicky throw his hands in the air and happily cheer, “I’ll help!”

He has no clue what he’s talking about, but it doesn’t stop Nicky from sliding into the row that really shouldn’t fit the three of them [but Andrew is small, so].

Neil dozes on the way back to campus and enjoys the combined warmth of the bodies beside him, yawning a little when the game starts to catch up to him.

“My murderous little fox,” Nicky says fondly, and he rests his head on top of Neil’s.

It’s a compliment if Neil’s ever heard one.

Chapter Text

Neil wasn’t sure whether to be afraid of him or not, at first. Their initial interaction had consisted of Andrew watching Neil with a strange detachment, the tattoos lining his arms swallowed at the elbow by black bands. Neil had seen those marks and immediately tensed. They weren’t crackling with energy yet, but they could be.

Neil’s experience with magic users wasn’t kind. His father had used his red-glow knives to take people apart. His mother didn’t have magic, and she’d died.

Neil never had the chance to find out if he had anything.

So maybe Wymack thinks Neil is good enough as a non-user, but Neil knows it isn’t true. That’s Kevin, with his drive and the way he fought to be the best against someone that had magic to use against him. That’s Dan, with her blatant don’t-give-a-shit attitude and the way she could keep a pack of misfit users and nons held together.

Neil knows not to be afraid of Andrew when he yanks Nicky up and instead of violence, his marks thrum and pulse like a charging battery. The light pokes out from between his sleeve and his bands, flickering in a dead approximation of what they should be.

This is the first time Neil realizes Andrew is fighting.


Andrew shakes his head. He reaches for Neil and pulls him to his feet. The curves of his arms are bathed in a soft light, colorless for now. Nicky said he’d seen orange, a few days ago.

“Whoops,” Neil says softly, because he opens his mouth and he doesn’t want to say something else.

It’s nice. It’s nice that Andrew can do this—that he’s not just touching, but supporting. Allowing. His magic is a curious kind, so intertwined with his feelings and actions that it’s a terrifying wonder that Andrew ever managed to keep it controlled. Neil still aches for that close past.

Andrew frowns a little as he pulls Neil up. “What?”

“I was just wondering if you could lift me up—you know, so I could hang this,” Neil says, waving the orange streamer in his hand. Andrew gives him a long look that says he knows that’s not the truth.

Still, Andrew lets it slide and makes a snide comment about being used as manual labor. It doesn’t bury itself too deep; they both know Andrew is much more than his strength. Especially to Neil.

Andrew hoists Neil up like it’s no big deal, hands at his ankles while Neil struggles to stay still and upright. He works as fast as he can, even though he knows Andrew isn’t bothered in the least. This is easy, for Andrew. This is lifting a light over his head.

Neil taps Andrew’s arm to be let down. Andrew is slow, lowering his hands and then waiting for Neil’s grip on his shoulders. Andrew’s hands travel to Neil’s waist, where they should just be supporting, but Neil feel the touch flicker in his chest. His breath catches.

“Yes or no?” Apparently, Andrew feels the same.

“Yes.”

Maybe Andrew is strong, but he’s softer than the hair under Neil’s hand when he leans in and kisses him. Neil smiles and tastes the magic on Andrew’s tongue, waiting behind patiently like a promise.

Give yourself to me, and you will never break.


Andrew had been so close. He’d watched Riko with a smile and humming tattoos. They weren’t alive, but their energy hung in the air. Neil had considered that—the medicine was supposed to suppress them. Without it, Andrew’s arms would crackle and burn. That’s why he covered up so much at games. To hide the truth.

“I see your gift is still useless,” Riko said. He leaned back in chair and all Neil wanted to do was hit the look off his face.

Kevin was white. His hands were clenched under the table. Andrew was tapping a knife on his leg, a warning and a reminder.

“Funny you talk about use,” Neil said, without even taking a breath. A moment. “I’ve yet to see yours, aside from parroting a laundry list of insults.”

Riko’s icy gaze had turned on Neil. Jean had stuttered a gasp. The Foxes’ reactions were mixed, but it was Andrew that Neil noticed. Andrew, whose humming tattoos had stopped. Who had laughed darkly but uncurled his hand from the hilt of a knife, letting it slip away under his band.

Neil paid attention to Andrew’s magic a lot more, after that.


Andrew is furious. He screams and Neil feels it in his heart, a coil of rage and pain impaling him with cruel intent.

Renee is wild-eyed. She is struggling to get through the crowd to them. Lights are flashing and there are voices and running. Neil doesn’t pay attention to any of it. Andrew is lit with red-orange bloody light, thumping and pulsing in time to something invisible.

“Andrew!” Neil yells, screaming until he feels it tear at his throat. He pours everything he has into his voice.

More than once, Neil has wished he had magic. He feels that now more than ever.

Andrew stops. For a blinding moment, Neil thinks something has finally clicked. He’s terrified. He waits for the blood or the static, the ringing and the force. Instead, the world moves around him. It’s only Andrew that changes, the light emanating from his body reduced to a glow. It pulses weakly, flaring after a few seconds before it subsides.

“Neil.” Andrew’s voice is hoarse. Neil rushes closer, wincing when someone hits his shoulder. The crowd is crushing but he couldn’t care less. He reaches for Andrew, waiting.

Neil doesn’t know if Andrew can hear him. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Andrew says, choking on the word, and Neil falls into him.

They are an island of pain, but in their shared wounds, they hold each other up. The edges of their scars line up and Neil feels Andrew fit against him, right along the jagged tear in his soul.

Andrew and Neil stay there until the crowd dissipates. The Foxes come to them, in varying states of disarray, but Andrew doesn’t look at them. He’s tucked in Neil’s arms, his face pressed against Neil’s collarbone to share his breath and time himself to the heartbeat beneath the skin. Neil is only just strong enough to hold Andrew and take them both the short distance to the bus, its side marked and dirtied with things thrown in the panic.

No one says anything when Neil slides into a row, pulling Andrew into his lap. They don’t make jokes about how close Andrew has let Neil, or how Andrew will wake up swinging at Neil’s jaw and leave a bruise. The Foxes understand.

Neil holds Andrew as they return home. He thinks back at the way he’d stopped Andrew and the way it hadn’t been magic.

Or maybe it was—magic of a different kind.


“How did you know?” Neil had asked. It had only been a few weeks into staying with the Foxes. Nicky had frozen in place. It was only the second time Neil had seen that look in Nicky’s face—the one that said he was sorry and angry. That he wished things were different.

Nicky’s mouth opened and closed a few times. “Jesus, Neil. You…it’s just…something you talk about. With your parents. You learn in school, too. They talk about how it might feel and how you can get tested.”

Neil shrugged. He tried to brush it off, but he could feel Andrew’s stare on his back.

He didn’t know until later that Andrew had been suspicious of him from the beginning. Hadn’t trusted Neil’s words or the way he held himself away from everything else.

“Have you never tested? Or tried to figure out?” Nicky asked.

Neil felt a shiver up his spine. His father’s words rang in his mind. It’s the knife that matters, boy. You better remember it. His mother beating the life out of him when he seemed to drift. You stay aware. You stay awake. Stay alive. After running, testing was out of the question. Magic was out of the question. If he had it, he was supposed to crush it. Smother it until it died. Neil hadn’t understood. All his early life had been nothing but magic, and the way he felt like maybe he was special when he was playing Exy.

“No,” Neil said shortly. He left it there. Nicky seemed ready to push, but Andrew must have silenced him. Neil didn’t notice.

He was too busy remembering a cleaver humming with a red miasma.


Riko’s magic isn’t visible, Kevin had said. It was just another thing he didn’t know anything about.

Neil is at Riko’s mercy, a knife pressed to his stomach. Alone, it’s bad. With the growing haze of red-purple, it’s even worse. Traumatic. Neil holds back his screams as best as he can, but then his lip is bloody and the silence is punctuated by muffled sounds in his throat.

Andrew notices first, when he sees Neil again. He doesn’t ask or say anything at the beginning and Neil is grateful for that.

Except someone’s phone lights up the lounge when the power goes out for a moment and the light is vibrant red.

Neil’s breathing heaves in his chest, knives ripping through his throat, and he’s scrabbling backward before he can register what’s happening. His body tenses in anticipation and he shuts down, voice locked away in a small place and senses heightened. Trained on the light.

The light comes back on and before Matt can turn off the light, they notice Neil. Renee calls his name. Neil isn’t there. He is tucked into his dream, thinking of the Court and smiles and a pale hand at his neck.

“Jesus. Neil—” Wymack starts. He steps toward Neil and without thinking, Neil convulses violently, his entire body recoiling from the approaching man. Wymack stops dead in his tracks.

Neil can hear his breathing getting worse. He can see the world tilting and he can hear his ears ringing.

Someone’s voice cuts through the haze. “Turn off the fucking light.”

Andrew’s command is deathly soft. Matt’s phone light goes out but the red still bleeds into Neil’s vision. He is drowning in his own blood. Jean is waiting to patch him back up, with a little charm of magic that knits the damage and prepares Neil for another day of torture.

Nicky looks like he’s going to throw up. He’s reaching for his head, but his hands flex abortively. Neil realizes that his own hands are at his head, pressing against his ears like they can stop the sounds. The invasion.

He notices he’s talking. Repeating. “It’s not there. It’s not there. It’s not there—”

“Shut up.”

Neil blinks. The light is gone, but in its place is a white glow. He’s only ever seen color before—usually burnt orange or an acrid yellow-green—and Neil stares, watching the light. He almost thinks he could hold it in his hands, a soft and tortured thing, but hopeful. So hopeful. Resilient.

“Yes—” Neil starts, wondering, and Andrew answers before he can finish.

“Yes. Arms, hands, shoulders.”

Neil slides his hands onto the skin between Andrew’s sleeves and the black bands on his arms. He exhales, imagining he can feel warmth. Maybe it’s magic. It could just be Andrew. Neil doesn’t care; all he cares about is the weight of reality.

The Foxes are waiting. Neil takes his time, basking in the stability that is Andrew.

“I’m—I can practice. I need to,” Neil corrects. He feels the tense of Andrew’s muscles when he starts to say I’m fine, so he changes track. The anger doesn’t quite disappear, but it slips further away. Andrew’s glow is soft.

“All right. All right,” Wymack repeats, sighing, rubbing his hands over his face. Neil wants to apologize, but he knows it would be brushed off. “Get your asses changed.”

Neil waits for his teammates to file out. He stands last, reluctant to take his hands away. Andrew catches his wrists as Neil is drawing back.

“I would kill him for you.”

Andrew’s still glowing a soft white. He should be red, Neil thinks, or orange. Something else. But this is Neil, and they are something. They are the clear glow that runs down Andrew’s tattoos. They both know it isn’t innocent or pure. It’s suffering. The end of the line, after everything has been burned out.

But it’s beautiful. Like them.

“I know,” Neil replies. He pauses. “Yes or no?”

Andrew tilts his head. Looking for any pain, or fear. Instability. “Yes.”

Neil lets gravity work, pulling him into Andrew. He can almost taste the white glow. It sparks like lightning in his veins, magic humming under his tongue. It’s comforting.

He almost cries when he feels the way Andrew is dragged in, like he wants to share the light and lose himself in it. He couldn’t care less about practice, nails digging into Neil’s elbows and grounding him.

But Neil needs to wash things away. Needs to remind himself that Riko won’t be long, and with him will go the red-purple bruise of magic. Neil pulls away and rests his forehead against Andrew’s, breath soft as he slows his racing heart.

They have each other. They can stand anything. Andrew has his white magic, and Neil has the charms and curses to help him stay on track. They balance in the end, even if it’s because they broke enough to fit like shattered glass in a mosaic.

If his scars are there to fit Andrew, Neil thinks they’re not so bad, after all.

Chapter Text

“You are a pipe dream.”

He hates his mouth for letting the words out. Hates his heart—whatever muscle is sitting in that place—for feeling them in the first place.

Andrew doesn’t need this. He doesn’t need what Neil is. What he offers. What he means.

He has phantom hands on his skin, but they seem to flee when Andrew puts his own on Neil’s neck.

“You were perfect.”

Andrew wants to call it a lie. He wants to, so badly, but there is nothing but raw truth in Neil’s eyes.

It’s too soon. It’s not the right time.

So much is wrong and then Neil is walking out the doors and Andrew doesn’t see him again. He’s gone like the mirage he was in the first place, and Andrew almost loses it. His line is cut and he is torn like a kite in a storm, thrashing against the world around him.

He thought he saw someone on the ground, holding his string.

“You aren’t going anywhere. You’re staying with us.”

Again. Again, with the promises veiled as threats. The declarations.

Andrew wishes he could choke on the words like the blood he’s spilling.

Except Neil looks up at him and there’s something in his eyes that loses him. Andrew can see the flickers of color in blue, the suggestions of a flighty hope and desire fighting for a place among the pain and death. Andrew can see so much of himself and so very little, and he needs that. He hates that he needs that.

Andrew holds Neil down by his collar, listening to just a little more air escape, but he holds onto the stupid hope that Neil can keep them both in the air. Afloat, like phantom balloons, flying away from the hands that held them and escaping beyond.

Into the unknown.

Neil is saying something and Riko swings his racquet; all Andrew knows is the pulse of white-hot rage and sudden fear flooding his veins.

He hated the fear. Didn’t want it. It was acid in his throat.

It wasn’t the same.

This wasn’t him. Andrew was free; he was open and unbound. Neil was the one on his knees, wavering, stuck somewhere between triumph and emptiness.

He was supposed to die.

Andrew catches the tail end of Neil’s confession and he hates.


Andrew has been avoiding him.

He should have known.

Neil slips from his bedroom and into the common area. He’s heading toward the door when a voice pipes up from the couch.

“You’ve been in there for a while,” Dan says. Neil pauses, weighing his choices. There have only been three days since the match and Riko’s death. Jean is free; Kevin and Neil are free. Things should be different.

They are, but not the way he wants.

Neil shrugs. “Tired.”

“This isn’t right,” Dan says, hissing through her teeth. Matt makes a startled noise, trying to quiet her.

“Listen,” Matt starts, but he stops after the one word. He looks at Neil with a mixture of guilt and uncertainty.

They’re all happy that Neil and Andrew haven’t been together. He knows that. They want Andrew under control, but just like with Renee, they don’t trust Andrew with anyone else. Maybe especially Neil.

Neil opens the door. “I won’t be long.”

He meant it as truth. He’d only meant to run—to flood the ache out of his system. Instead, his feet pound the pavement and the sun makes its arc across the sky. When Neil finally stops, he feels shaky and weak. He doesn’t know where he is at first, but then he recognizes the restaurants on the corner and the highway to his left.

He doesn’t know what time it is, but judging by the sign on the side of the road, he’s been running for an hour. He’s fifteen minutes from home, give or take. It’s good to know his time hasn’t changed.

Neil drags himself into a burger place, heading straight for the bathroom. His forehead is sweaty, some of his hair stuck to it. He towels off his face, moving to his neck just to get his shirt unstuck. He feels uncomfortable in his sweatpants—he hadn’t meant to go this far.

But you did, a small voice says. It sounds suspiciously dead. He pushes it away; he doesn’t have time for Nathaniel.

He shouldn’t be running.

Neil buys a bottle of water and sits in a corner. He pulls his legs up onto the plastic bench, stretching worn muscles. His scars are fading and he’s getting back to where he was, before Evermore and Baltimore and the final match.

Neil leans his head back, but he doesn’t close his eyes. He remembers when he lost time, after Andrew was first released—when he fell asleep in the library and Andrew came to find him. But he doesn’t like the library. Neil twists the words around his tongue like the stem of a cherry, but he can’t figure out how to make the knot stay.

Sometime later, an employee comes to tell him they’re closing. Neil takes his water and starts back. He starts at a walk, the night dark around him. He’s glad for the bright orange of the Foxes; he’s not looking to get hit by a truck on his way back.

It would be a massively stupid thing to die of, after all he’s been through.

Neil barely makes it two miles before he starts to run. Somewhere around seven miles, when he feels like he’s on fire, he hears a screech. One of the passing cars turns sharply, crossing over to the opposite side where Neil is running.

His first instinct is to fight. Neil grinds to a halt—he knows he can’t outrun them; not in his state. The road is empty, so there won’t be any witnesses. Neil only has so much energy left. He has to save his strength, either to run back to the safety of the gas stations behind him or to try and escape once he’s taken closer to civilization.

Neil is lifting his fists when someone jogs over from the truck on the shoulder, a tall and thin silhouette against headlights.

“Damn it, Neil—”

It’s Matt. He slows as he approaches. He looks angry but relieved. Neil isn’t sure what to say. He waits, knowing he probably looks like shit and smells like he hasn’t showered in three days and two practices. Matt heaves a sigh.

Neil tries to make it better. “I guess I had a lot of energy from sitting around.”

“Yeah,” Matt says, in a tone that says it’s the worst excuse he’s ever heard, and he’s disappointed that Neil used it. “Sure. Get in.”

Neil doesn’t try again. He follows Matt into the truck, surprised when he sees Aaron in the backseat, arms crossed over his chest. Aaron’s face clearly says he’s irritated at being brought out and doesn’t think Neil is worth it.

“Too bad. I bet you’d been hit by a semi,” Aaron says. Matt doesn’t even bother throwing him a dirty look, slamming his door shut instead.

“How did anyone manage to force you here?” Neil replies. Aaron stares at him for a long moment, the anger intensifying.

Neil is rewarded with a charger thrown at his face. “Plug your fucking phone in.”

He didn’t remember bringing it, but it’s in his pocket, as usual. Neil had stopped playing the game where he left it behind a long time ago. Now, he forgets to charge it. He’s improving.

As soon as the phone has a one percent charge, it goes crazy. Messages flood in all at once—even a few voicemails, which he suspects are from Nicky. Neil ignores everything, resting his cheek against the cool glass of the window.

Matt sends him occasional glances, but he doesn’t say anything. Eventually, only his tight grip on the steering wheel is enough to broadcast his anger.

Somewhere a mile or two away from campus, Matt picks up his phone. “Yeah. Yes. No—he’s fine. Well, fine.”

Neil doesn’t miss the correction. It’s all for him.

Matt gets off the phone with Wymack, Neil suspects, and then they’re pulling into the parking lot. There are a few people waiting—Renee, interestingly, a book in hand as she sits under a light. Nicky is practically bouncing on his heels. Kevin has his arms crossed where he waits by the door.

Nicky is predictably the first to approach Neil. He practically pats him down, turning around Neil and inspecting him for injuries. “Jesus, Neil, we were worried—”

“You were worried,” Neil repeats, but it comes out sounding a little too bleak. Nicky gives him a half-terrified look. “I was just—”

“Running,” Aaron says significantly. He pushes past them, into the dorms.

Nicky frowns. He hesitates, like he wants to do something but isn’t sure. He lingers at Neil’s side for a full minute before finally saying something. “Do…can I—”

“Yes,” Neil says, sighing. Nicky needs it more than Neil, anyway. He lets Nicky hug him, and it feels more like home than he had thought it would.

Nicky hesitates, but Matt pushes him inside, muttering something Neil can’t hear. Renee stands then, her book closing softly as she approaches. Neil doesn’t know what to expect from her. He half expects a slap, but even that doesn’t feel quite right.

“You know, you can talk to us,” Renee says. It’s a soft rebuke.

Neil bites back his gut reaction. The response that’s too true. “I know.”

Renee looks at him with something sad in her eyes, like she knows what he was going to say. Like she understands that he can’t just unload, and it’s taking a lot to even stand there. “Okay. And, Neil—you don’t have to give all your time. You’re allowed to want things.”

She leaves Neil with that, and he files it away because he can’t think of it, now. There’s only Kevin left, and Neil gets the feeling he’ll have an earful prepared.

Instead, Kevin watches him like he’s watching a table with three legs, threatening to topple over. It’s new and uncomfortable. The closest Kevin has been to this understanding had been after Evermore, and Neil suspects it’s for the same reason.

“You—I’m not great at…whatever it is you have,” Kevin starts, haltingly. He’s referring to Neil and Andrew, which makes it even more uncomfortable. Neil is about to put him out of his misery before Kevin continues. “But the other things. I can listen. Or watch. Whatever you need.”

“And you?” Neil challenges. He keeps the question even, like an observation. “Why help me and not you?”

“I have my help,” Kevin says. It’s true, Neil realizes. Kevin is looking at him like he’s crazy. Neil isn’t sure what to say. What help? “You don’t seem like you’re going to accept yours. I know that.”

So now, he’s calling us the same. Neil almost replies that he’s not as stupid as Kevin, but he can’t really put those words into existence. They’re cruel.

And probably not entirely true.

Neil has been getting better at things like that.

“Fine,” Neil says, because he can’t give Kevin the same answer he gave Renee. “I’m still able to play.”

Kevin doesn’t comment. Maybe he’s run out of energy for sympathy. He walks back into the dorms and Neil follows a minute behind. Each step feels like a mountain and his body is screaming.

Neil takes a long shower. He lets it flush away the clinging remnants of his run. He doesn’t want them. He thinks back to what Renee said, about wanting. I don’t want, he thinks, but it sounds more like Andrew than him.

I do want, he corrects himself. But I can wait.

If the in-between hurts, it’s only because he knows there’s fault—and it isn’t his. It’s not Neil’s fault that Andrew is pushing him away. It isn’t Andrew’s. It’s a consequence of other things and other people. It hurts, but Neil knows it hurts Andrew just as much.

For the first time since the riot, Neil thinks it would be easier without him. What seemed like an inevitability before feels more like an option, now. That scares him. It’s never been an option.

Neil shuts the water off more forcefully than he’d intended. He dries off and bundles into another pair of sweatpants and a shirt in his laundry that he doesn’t recognize. It’s only after he pulls it on, noticing that it’s tighter and doesn’t cover some of the marks on his arms and neck, that he realizes it’s Andrew’s. It smells like him.

There isn’t much Neil can do. He starts to leave the dorm without thinking, barely noticing Matt tense on the couch.

“I’m not leaving,” Neil says before Matt can rise. Matt comes to the door anyway, watching Neil ascend the far staircase.

The roof is unoccupied. Neil misses the phantom in the corner—Andrew in his black turtleneck, with a cigarette in hand. Andrew tilting his white-blond head toward the stars, breathing smoke and anger into the atmosphere. The raw will to live.

Neil curls his legs up despite the way they protest and leans against nothing. It doesn’t hold him, but he’s not surprised. He wonders at how he forgot the way this felt—this floating, unmoored, useless. Crumbling under his own weight. Andrew would sneer. Something about your crumbling psyche isn’t my problem.

I thought I wasn’t your problem. He’d given Andrew so many ways out. He’d waited for so many more. Except they kept running into each other, instead of away. They kept colliding.

Neil had taken his chance. This was Andrew leaving his.

Somewhere between his cigarette and his thoughts, Neil feels a rush of air against his face. He opens his eyes in time to see the edge of the roof where he’d been standing. There are hands on his arms—he fully expects to turn and see Matt, cursing, or even Nicky with teary eyes.

Instead, Neil sees Andrew, with fury in his gaze and a growl at his teeth.

“I thought I told you to stop making it hard on me,” Andrew says. The words grind from his mouth, chewed up and spit out by something animal.

Neil blinks. “I don’t do anything and I still do.”

Andrew’s hands tighten on Neil’s arms. They’re so tight Neil thinks they might bruise. He must be gone if he isn’t thinking about that. It’s only a minute later that Neil realizes the hands are shaking, too.

“That’s not you,” Andrew says harshly. “So, stop making it worse.”

Neil closes his eyes. He wants to say he wasn’t trying to jump or fall, but he hadn’t been paying attention. Andrew clings to him still. Neil doesn’t expect anything.

“I’m real,” Neil says. He means it as an answer to Andrew’s grip, but it sounds like something else.

Andrew’s hands loosen. They travel up to Neil’s head, curling around his jaw. “Can I still touch?”

Neil wants to point out that he already is, but the way the question sounds painful stops him. There’s more in the words. “Yes.”

“Are you still—Am I still in?” Andrew shifts tracks, still forcing the words.

It’s a vague question, but Neil assumes he’s asking about their game. Truth for truth.

“Yes. I would never leave,” Neil says quietly. Andrew doesn’t like absolutes, but Neil navigates by them. I would never leave you. I would never leave this trust. There are more things on his tongue.

“Yes or no,” Andrew finally asks.

“Yes.”

Andrew leans over Neil. They match up awkwardly, like everything else, but they work. Neil feels strange kissing upside-down, but it’s a good feeling. He missed Andrew. He realizes this when his eyes flutter shut, when Andrew makes a muffled noise at Neil’s eyelashes on his skin.

Neil realizes he was cold. He’s not, now.

“It shouldn’t be this easy,” Andrew says, when he finally backs away. They’re so close that Neil can see a freckle between Andrew’s eye and his nose. He wants to touch it, but he holds back.

“It can be.”

Andrew doesn’t answer. Neil breathes out slowly, looking up at Andrew framed by the night sky. He has a truth on his tongue. Andrew seems to know. “It’s not your turn.”

Neil talks anyway. “I know. It’s finding a lock but not the key.”

“What is it with you and keys?”

“You almost don’t want to open it, when you find one,” Neil continues. He closes his eyes for a moment. He can feel the key in his hand and he traces it. “You need the fight, but you can’t. It’s easy.”

It was easy to lean on Andrew. It was easy to care about the Foxes. All of it was so terrifyingly easy.

Andrew leans closer again. His hands are tight in Neil’s—Andrew’s—shirt. “Why this?”

“It felt like home.”

Chapter Text

Andrew isn’t around. Neil doesn’t know how to feel about it (he does; he hates it) and he spends his days running and watching old games.

Somewhere around the third day, Aaron shows up.

“Hi,” Neil says shortly. He can’t think of what else to say. Aaron looks displeased.

They’re not the best of friends, but things have changed. Neil no longer holds any grudges against Aaron and Aaron has come to trust Neil in some capacity, so they’ve reached a stilted truce. They’ve also bonded over death—specifically, their own. It’s been interesting.

Aaron just sighs and shoves past Neil. “I’m supposed to make sure you’re not wallowing in loneliness.”

His tone says he doesn’t care. Neil appreciates it.

They sit in silence for a while, Aaron reading his anatomy book and Neil adding pages to his language notebook. This is comfortable—not in the way it is when it’s Andrew and Neil, but enough that Neil can find some peace. He suspects Aaron also feels the same, in some ways. They know each other well enough to know their buttons and when not to press them. They both also know the other is not a delicate creature. Aaron says things that piss Neil off and make their friends gasp, but Neil also makes remarks that Aaron would probably snap at other people for. It’s a mutually antagonistic friendship.

And then one hour into their session, Aaron brings up celebrity gossip on his laptop and he and Neil end up sitting just half an inch apart, musing at the Met Gala fashion and how some stars are sporting entirely new haircuts.

Neil has no clue why things like this happen with Aaron. He would expect it from Nicky, but without fail, Aaron has always managed to bring up some random actor or singer when he’s with Neil. Neil assumes it’s just another way Aaron tries to ground himself in normalcy. Neil wonders if it works.

“That’s a lot of dress,” Aaron murmurs, clicking through a slideshow. Neil shrugs.

Someone pops up that Neil doesn’t recognize but Aaron make a noise of appreciation. There’s a regular, full-body photo followed by a more interesting one. “Is that a tongue piercing?”

“Yeah. Looks good in music videos.”

A singer, I guess. “Looks good.”

It’s an uncharacteristic concession. Aaron turns his head to look at Neil, squinting like he’s trying to remember the name for the line in Neil’s skull beside his eye (sphenofrontal suture) and then he says, without any change of tone, “You think so?”

“Yeah.”

Aaron considers his answer, a finger tapping mindlessly on the edge of his laptop. “Do you have any piercings?”

Aaron has one. He has a tragus piercing in his right ear, usually punctuated by a tiny silver ball. Allison bought him snake jewelry once, but he rarely wears it.

“No,” Neil says. He doesn’t explain that piercings were always trouble. Stupid. A good way to be recognized or get caught. Besides which, there hadn’t exactly been time for him to get any. He was too busy running from his murderous father.

“Do you want any?”

Want is a funny word. It’s also funny that Aaron is asking so many questions. Neil looks at him, wondering if this is some sort of trick. He can’t fathom why Aaron cares. Do I want any? He hadn’t considered any before. Still, it does look good. It would be interesting. Certainly, a change.

“Why?” Neil asks. Aaron sighs through his nose. He opens a new tab and starts typing.

“I didn’t think you wanted anything,” Aaron says, snide. “Other than Exy and Andrew.”

Aaron says his brother’s name like he’s about to vomit. Neil appreciates the sentiment.

“I guess I haven’t thought about much.”

“What about tattoos?”

Neil shrugs. Aaron gives him a withering look but then turns the laptop. The screen is filled with images of tongue piercings. Neil doesn’t say anything. Aaron visibly grinds his teeth.

I guess there are worse ways to bond.


The piercer tells Neil he has a great tongue. Neil isn’t sure how to feel about that (but part of him wants to say that Andrew thinks so, too). Aaron seems to guess his thoughts and makes a disgusted noise.

It took half a day for Neil and Aaron to figure out what would look good, and then Aaron had called a friend and they’d figured out an appointment time. The day after doing research, Aaron and Neil go to a piercing parlor and Neil looks at a glass case of barbells while they wait for someone to help.

It’s fairly straightforward. The piercer explains pain (which Neil is only academically interested in) and healing time (which he is very attentive about). Neil signs some papers and then he’s sitting in a leather chair, waiting for the piercer to set up.

“You’re not going to be able to talk properly for a while,” Aaron says. He’s smirking. Neil stares him dead in the eye.

“Is that why you wanted me to get it done?”

That’s the end of the conversation. Neil sticks out his tongue, breathes through his nose, and then it begins.


Everything is sore. There’s pain, but Neil has been through worse. He’s content to exercise and do homework. Andrew isn’t around and he’s not talkative anyway, so Neil barely notices the healing wound in his mouth.

Aaron stops by with some things for Neil—ice cream, which he doesn’t like and can’t eat; bone broth, which is strange but safe—and then he disappears again after a few choice remarks about how nice it is not to have to worry about Neil digging his grave with his words.

The second day is worse. It’s still not the worst, but it’s not enjoyable. The days after that pass the same way—uncomfortable, sore, irritating when he tries to eat. Neil manages it and eventually starts talking in short bursts, quietly, mostly to himself.

The sensation is strange. It’s new, having something in his mouth, and he irrationally considers for one moment that he might swallow it. The thought passes and then the week flies by.

Neil belatedly wonders what Andrew will think. He looks at himself in the mirror, examining the silver orb, and decides it’s probably a little too late to worry.


Neil is back at the shop to have the barbell changed for a shorter one. It had only taken him three weeks to feel normal again.

Aaron invited himself, of course. He waits while Neil lets the piercer talk about how wonderful everything looks and how he’s lucky to heal so quickly. Neil doesn’t say it’s probably because he’s been constantly injured for most of his life.

For some reason, Aaron takes them to lunch afterward. Neil tentatively enjoys it and then, Aaron opens his mouth.

“You’re probably going to get comments about sucking dick.”

Neil drops the noodles hanging from his chopsticks. He stares at them, considering whether to pick them up again or use his chopsticks to take out Aaron’s eyes. “What?”

“It’s a thing, apparently. Stupid. Maybe they won’t, though. If you’re with Andrew.”

The waiter comes by and Neil settles for picking up his noodles again, deciding he doesn’t want to burden the underpaid employee with bloodstains on the tablecloth.


Andrew is coming back. Neil isn’t sure why he feels so sick.

It’s a strange feeling, having someone you want.

Neil uses his nervous energy to run and work out, thinking back to the conversation he had with his piercer. You should be able to do everything regularly; you healed pretty quickly. Just keep washing for two weeks, just in case, and see me if anything happens.

This, after Neil had asked about how he could use his tongue and the piercer gave him a knowing look.

Neil is just out of the shower when he realizes Andrew is sitting on the couch.

“I didn’t hear you,” Neil says, a little surprised.

Of course, Andrew’s eyes narrow and he swiftly leaves the couch. He catches Neil’s chin in his hand and stares him down. “Open.”

Neil obeys, waiting. He’s not sure whether to be afraid Andrew will rip it out or worried that Andrew will grab his bag and leave. Andrew turns his face, expression as dead neutral as always.

Aren’t you disappointed? Allison had asked once. I want someone to notice. To react when I do something. Neil had just shrugged to the tune of Allison’s disbelieving snort.

“Why?” Andrew asks the one question that matters and Neil lifts a shoulder in a lame shrug.

“I wanted to. I liked the way it looked.”

Andrew’s hand tenses. Neil realizes a little late what his confession really says. He’s never had the luxury of having anything because he liked or wanted it. This—a permanent choice that can only somewhat go away if he wants it to—is a change. It’s different. It’s Neil; not Nathaniel. Not him on the run.

“How long?” Andrew finally asks.

“It’s healed.”

“Yes or no.”

“Yes,” Neil says, a flood of relief crashing through him.

Andrew is careful when he kisses Neil. He feels like someone exploring something familiar in the dark. Neil lets Andrew be careful; he knows how big of a change it is and how much it means for Andrew to simply accept it.

Accept it because of me.

“What do you think the reporters will think?” Neil murmurs, enjoying the feeling of Andrew’s lips against his.

Andrew snorts, but he doesn’t pull away. “Metal fits. Your mouth is a machine that never stops running.”

Neil is pleased by that. He opens his mouth, sensing Andrew’s hesitation and holding himself still. It takes a second for them both to find their footing, but after the hesitation passes, it feels right. Familiar. Almost as if nothing has changed.

Andrew pulls back after a few minutes, still fixated on Neil’s mouth. He hums once, without any hint of emotion.

“What?” Neil asks.

“I thought I would feel it.”

Neil tries not to laugh. This is as close to a pout as I’ve ever seen on him. “We’ll just have to practice, then.”


Nicky practically implodes. He screams into the pillow he’s holding in his arms and when he finally emerges, his face is red.

Neil,” he moans dramatically, “you can’t just do shit like that!”

“I can, actually. It’s my tongue.” Neil sticks it out for effect. Nicky squeaks and slams his hands over his eyes.

“I am sinning, I am sinful, this is sinful—” Nicky says, going on a spiel and apologizing to Erik for some reason. Neil ignores him after nine words.

Kevin is sitting on the couch, staring at Neil like he’s deciphering the bastard child of trigonometry and calculus. He seems like he doesn’t know how to feel.

“When did, uh…or, really, why did you—?” Matt stutters, blinking too many times. He seems like he’s expecting Neil to say it was forced on him by some mafia thug on the street.

“It’s been over a month,” Neil says, shrugging. “I use a clear one when I don’t want people to see it.”

“Why would you hide it? Do you want it?”

“Yeah. That’s why I got it.”

Kevin is still staring. He makes a disgruntled noise. “How did we not see?”

“Probably because he barely opens his mouth when he talks, despite the volume of shit that comes out,” Aaron says. He’s clearly irritated by the drawn-out conversation. “Now, shut up. I’m studying.”

Nicky says something about Aaron relocating somewhere quiet, but his cousin ignores him. Neil takes his friends’ reactions in stride and continues scrolling on his laptop. Nicky pokes him with questions for the rest of the afternoon, most of which Neil answers offhandedly and with as little attention as possible.

He’s too busy researching the logistics of a tongue piercing and oral sex.


It’s not planned. Most of their relationship isn’t.

Neil is stretching, warm and loose after a shower and practice, and Andrew is watching him on the couch. There’s a lazy heat in Andrew’s eyes—one of the few things he ever betrays that marks him as human. He watches Neil as he lounges on the sofa, half-lidded hazel gaze resting on Neil’s body.

“Junkie,” Andrew murmurs, but it’s less of an insult and more appreciation. It makes Neil flood with heat and he places himself near Andrew on the couch, folding his legs over the arm of the couch and resting his head next to Andrew’s lap.

Neil is pleased when Andrew takes Neil’s head in his hands, relocating it to his leg. His fingers thread through Neil’s hair and stay there, toying. This is as close to affectionate as Andrew gets, even if he tugs sharply every few seconds like he’s reminding himself to stop being so soft. Neil likes it all the same.

A few minutes into their lounging, Neil feels the burning settle into a crackling fire. “You smell good.”

He turns his head into Andrew’s stomach, inhaling slowly. There’s the softness of laundry undercut by Andrew’s green shampoo. Neil wants to burrow closer but he stays where he is. Andrew’s fingers still.

“Where can I touch?”

“Waist down.”

Heavy words. Neil curls his fingers over the edge of Andrew’s waistband, sliding the sweatpants away. Neil is on his side, watching Andrew’s muscles tense when he lifts himself from the couch and lets Neil undress him. Neil feels a static buzz humming under his skin; he can practically taste Andrew already. His hands still once Andrew is undressed and he traces down the curve of Andrew’s thigh, enjoying the sharp inhale he hears above his head.

“Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Andrew says. It’s been a few months since he stopped sounding practiced and neutral with the word, but Neil isn’t used to it. He’s not used to the wisp of desire that sometimes curls around the s, or the way the hook of the y catches in Andrew’s throat.

Neil turns his head and opens his mouth. He presses his tongue against the base of Andrew’s cock—something he’s done dozens of times before—and sucks in the taste of him.

Except this time, Andrew jerks under Neil’s mouth and his fingers dig into Neil’s ass, a strangled curse bit off in his mouth.

Neil pauses. He’s a little shocked. He backs away to look up at Andrew, feeling a dull throb at the sight of the flush rising to Andrew’s pale skin. “Is that—”

“Good,” Andrew manages, his words thick with need. Neil is dizzy at the sound. “Too good. Wait.”

Neil obeys, letting Andrew breathe and tilt his head against the back of the couch, eyes closed like he’s praying. There’s no anger or fear in him, or Neil would move away. He still considers it as he watches Andrew shiver.

The moment passes and Neil tries to offer something. “I won’t, if you—”

“I do,” Andrew finally breathes, exhaling slowly. He’s struggling against the part of him that doesn’t want to want Neil. “Slow.”

Neil listens. He asks again and once he has a yes, he’s careful. He runs his tongue along Andrew’s length, slower than he’s used to, and then he flicks his tongue at the head. The fingers on Neil’s ass grip tight, sending a rush of pleasure through him while Andrew hold through his own wave.

It’s probably the slowest blowjob Neil has ever given Andrew, but Andrew makes it seem like the best. Neil is careful to take his time exploring Andrew without taking him in, giving Andrew time to adjust to the feeling of the metal ball against his skin. Neil waits so long he loses track of time, keeping pace with the sound of Andrew’s heavy breathing. When he seems comfortable, Neil finally takes Andrew in his mouth, just a little. He presses the piercing into skin and Andrew inhales sharply, a fleeting moan escaping his lips.

Neil moves away for a moment. He can tell Andrew is comfortable and lost, and he wants to set the rules before they become an obstacle. “If you want to move or go faster, do it. I’ll back off if it’s too much.”

Andrew doesn’t say much. He only gives his confirmation—his yes—and then Neil ducks onto Andrew again and stops thinking about how things could go wrong. They’re both safe and this is fine, a curious exploration that is clearly good for Andrew.

And Neil just loves the things that Andrew does. He loves making Andrew feel.

Andrew’s hips move and he pushes into Neil’s mouth almost without thinking. Neil worries for a moment that he might freeze; Neil runs his hands along Andrew’s thighs, trying for reassurance. It must work, because Neil can see Andrew’s abs tensing under his skin and the shiver that runs up his body.

Neil doesn’t have time to do much but enjoy the moment; Andrew is so far gone that his pleasure escapes in gasps and sighs, tiny gems that Neil collects to replay later. Neil feels the exact moment that Andrew tenses, his body lifting away from the couch, and then he comes in a hot rush that spills over Neil’s tongue. Perfect, Neil thinks, but then Andrew’s hands pull him upright and Neil is leaning against Andrew, fingers digging into his shoulders as a hand reaches into his sweatpants and curls around him.

Andrew bites Neil’s neck like he’s pouring out the remnants of his orgasm and Neil was already hard but he’s sensitive and senseless in Andrew’s hand. He only has time to rock against Andrew twice before he’s falling against Andrew’s shoulder, barely staying afloat as his mind crowds with static.

Neil thinks about moving, but then Andrew’s nose traces along his jaw and then his mouth is on Neil’s. Andrew’s tongue finds its way to the metal ball and he traces it; the sensation sends a full-body shiver through Neil and he feels the tiny jolt of his cock taking interest again. It should be embarrassing, but it’s not. After all, Andrew seemed to like the silly piercing just as much.

Andrew finally pulls back after a long moment. “Okay?”

“Still good,” Neil replies. He barely notices the piercing anymore, but apparently, Andrew did. It’s a good thing I did my research, I guess.

“Clean,” Andrew directs, finally sliding his hands down Neil’s waist to rest on his legs. He doesn’t say be safe, but he means it.

Neil smiles and ducks in closer again, pausing. He waits for Andrew to get tired of looking at his mouth, but it doesn’t happen. He just keeps looking as he leans in.

There’s a lot more he wants to try, but at the moment, Neil finds that he enjoys the simplicity of a kiss. He likes the way the metal is there and not, like a secret shared between them. A truth.

Neil mentally adds it to the list of truths he knows about Andrew that no one else does. Andrew gripes at him for his goofy expression before sending him to the bathroom, but Neil watches the expression on Andrew’s face and knows they aren’t finished.

They have more truth to figure out.

Chapter Text

Neil can tell the first time. Matt tries to take the mug from Neil and Neil jerks awake, two seconds from decking his friend. It was the first time Neil felt like he’d lost time around one of the Foxes.

After the game, Neil thought it would fix itself. Things were over, after all—as over as they could be. He’d had weeks to get back into the swing of things. Weeks to get over Evermore and Baltimore.

It’s not that easy.


Neil was falling asleep on the bench. They’d all had a long day, with finals and the rush of people moving out and plans being made. Still, they had a final practice—more of a party than a practice—and Neil was feeling the exhaustion hit.

He still didn’t like closing his eyes in a public place. It felt too much like wanting to die. But this was the court, and his Foxes were there.

Neil drifts out, a miasma of warmth and voices clouding his head. He floats away and then suddenly, something snaps reality into place like the grind of setting bone. Someone’s hand is on his head, in his hair, and Neil jerks back so violently he hits his head on the wall and it echoes. His chest is heaving in a way it shouldn’t be and he knows his pupils have dilated, his entire world concentrated on the singular touch and the anticipation of what comes next.

Nicky is despairing. His hand isn’t moving but his face rolls with clouds of horror and a faint sickness.

“Neil,” Nicky finally says, the name choked and uneven.

Neil shovels dirt. “Is the pizza here?”

He doesn’t even sound real to himself. The Foxes are a tableau of distress, but Neil just shifts to his feet and pretends nothing happened. He makes his way out of the court and toward the locker room.

He tries not to look at Andrew. He hopes he missed it.


They’re moving out. Neil is helping them clean their dorms, mostly because it helps calm him to go through methodical steps. He cycles through sweep, mop, and sweep so many times he thinks he’s losing track of time. That scares him more than it should. Neil looks at his phone, reassuring himself with the numbers, and then he looks at it again an hour later.

“If you’ve got something to do,” Nicky says, his grin knowing, “you can always go.”

Neil ignores the suggestion. “I don’t.”

He feels a little sad. Like every paper clip he finds is a memory of Allison dramatically sighing and printing out a term paper, moaning about someone moving her office supplies. Every spare condom is Dan telling Neil I might tell you when we’re done, I might not, even if she buys Neil watermelon gum anyway. The little confetti sprinkles are Nicky’s presents, sometimes randomly shoved at Neil with a giddy smile and always overflowing with tiny paper stars.

Kevin’s fluorescent bar wristbands. Pieces of the keychain Matt broke, that Neil replaced and got a soft smile for. Renee’s ribbons, from when she braided her hair for a game. Aaron’s rubber bands, snapped at Neil from across the room and returned with equal precision.

He keeps finding pieces of them and doesn’t want to let go.

Neil migrates to the living room at some point. The couches are stacked with things and he does his best to keep helping, but at some point, he ends up curled on his side by the coffee table. He falls into a half-sleep, dreaming of a night sky with neon stars and ribbons hanging from rubber band-ball comets, something jingling in the distance.

His dream is a swirl of perfect things. Neil dreams he’s holding a bird in his hands, blue and perfect, so soft that it tumbles through his fingers in a cascade of feathers and wishes. He loves so much his heart aches and he watches the love pour from his chest in rubies.

Someone touches his ankle.

The hand sends a rod of fire through him. Neil swallows a scream while his eyes fly open; he pulls at his wrists, expecting the slide of blood and the bite of metal, but there’s nothing. His hands fly out he realizes too late that Kevin is right there, staring in stunned horror while Neil hits his shoulders.

Neil feels a dryness in his throat. Knives in his lungs. He bites back the terror and finally looks at Kevin, willing his heart to stop and hoping no one else is around.

“They done?” Neil asks. Kevin flinches like the question hurt more than Neil’s fists.

Kevin doesn’t move. His hand is hovering above Neil’s leg, like he wants to do something but doesn’t know what. “You don’t have to hide it.”

Not from me. He doesn’t say the rest, but Neil hears it. Suddenly, all he can remember is Kevin telling him I’ll make sure you don’t say anything. Kevin is different, since their win. The team have done their best to help and Neil has been around, the times Kevin shows up at odd hours like it’s for midnight practice, but with something else entirely in his expression.

Neil isn’t sure when Kevin got to be strong enough to offer a hand, but it aches in a way he hadn’t expected.

“I’m not,” Neil says. A lie. Reflexive, but he hates it all the same.

Kevin catches the expression that flies across Neil’s face. “Where would it be safe?”

“I don’t know,” Neil answers. The truth tastes worse than bile. He doesn’t know what would be safe—what touches won’t bring back fading in and out of consciousness in a bloodstained basement.

Kevin looks sad but he doesn’t say anything else. It’s more than Neil usually gets from him—more emotion and empathy than Kevin has ever afforded before. Neil is grateful for what it is.

The others come in the front door, finished loading whatever they’d taken down, and Kevin lets the moment pass. They argue over lunch while Neil pulls himself up from the floor. It won’t be the last time, he thinks, but at least someone can understand.


Apparently, Andrew hadn’t seen. He hadn’t seen when Neil had flinched at practice, and Kevin hadn’t told him about the moment he’d tried to wake Neil.

It’s probably ironic that they’re on the bus, when it happens. Neil is enveloped in something soft and warm, thinking of warm hands with palms that seem made for holding him together. He’s dreaming of faint scars raised along skin, offered with ferocity and cradled as if they were the most precious thing in the world. Neil is dreaming of Andrew, a pale whisper of hope and truth, bloodless and bled.

It’s the way Andrew shrugs Neil’s head off his shoulder that wakes him up. The sensation of falling grips him, nothing but air beneath his mess of red hair, and he feels the loss of support like a kick to the ribs. It’s sharp and cruel and Neil is gasping, eyes torn open, straining against bonds that don’t exist. He tilts forward like a condemned building and then Andrew catches him before letting go, hands flying away like they’re on fire and Neil is the most painful thing he’s ever touched.

Andrew’s eyes are wild when Neil tilts his head. Neil can’t remember ever seeing him like this—not even when he’d come tilting into the world, while Nathaniel held his ragged edges together. Andrew has always been the calm before the storm and the aftermath to Neil. This is different. This is the rending wind that lifts buildings.

“I—” Neil starts, but his voice sounds cracked and foreign. Andrew reaches out as if to slap a hand over his mouth and stops short, another drop of blood falling into the depths of his eyes.

“I can’t,” Andrew says. The words hurt more than a cigarette burn—more than a stab wound, more than a broken bone. “You don’t have to say, but I—”

“No,” Neil gasps. It’s a confusing mess and he watches Andrew tense. Neil can’t properly comprehend—can’t order things into a line; all he knows if panic and fear and death. “No, it’s not—that’s not—”

He’s dizzy. Neil hears a ringing like the aftermath of a gunshot and that brings back horrible thoughts. He realizes belatedly that he’s having a panic attack and thinks, with detached amusement, that it’s fitting. It started this way, and now it’ll end this way.

Except Andrew is in front of him, leaning close, just shy of Neil’s face. He opens his mouth and breathes.

Just breathes.

There’s a ghost of him across Neil’s lips. It flies away after a second and Neil wants to chase it. The breath is soft, there and gone again. Neil thinks the spots are fading, but he can still hear his heart in his ears.

He tries again. “I need you.”

It’s his please. Andrew holds back. He waits for Neil to come down further. “I’m not your answ—”

“I know. It’s not a question,” Neil says.

Neil lets his shaking hands untangle from his shirt. He holds them between their bodies, willing them to stop, and then he looks up at Andrew. He doesn’t want to make it a plea. Can’t make it a need.

Andrew waits. He waits and waits and then he exhales, the last breath fanning across Neil’s skin like life.

“Yes or no,” Andrew finally says.

“Yes.”

The breath comes again, heavy in Neil’s mouth. It ground him and he lets it.

Andrew is never an escape. If anything, he’s the opposite—he’s static, holding Neil to him like a moon in orbit. His weight is the only thing keeping Neil together, some days.

Today is one of them.


He hates heights.

Heights, but he spends his nights looking at the moon until its blue glow is imprinted behind his eyes. Like it’s some kind of fucking fairy that will grant him a wish he doesn’t have.

Neil swims into view, ice and cobalt.

“I thought you fell asleep.”

Andrew glares up at him. He wants to say something about Neil’s learning curve. He wants to say he love—hates the way Neil appears like an answer, with his stupid hair and stupid eyes. Like fire and ice competing for space. The earth of his skin. Some sort of mythical creature, granting truths and transforming when Andrew isn’t expecting it.

“Don’t be a moron,” Andrew says, instead of the useless swirl of words on his tongue. They taste like cotton candy, melting and sweet and fleeting.

Neil just slides down, crouching next to Andrew, curved over himself to make a shapeless silhouette. His fingers are tangled together in some approximation of his life. “I’m your moron.”

It’s things like that that make Andrew want to kil—kiss him. He does, leaning over and watching the way Neil’s eyes flicker shut a moment too soon. Like he trusts what’s coming and doesn’t feel the need to look. Andrew would almost back away just to prove a point, but he can’t.

They run in circles.

Neil’s lips are a little dry. Andrew presses his tongue against them, waiting for Neil’s answer. Mouth open like a lock giving way to a key, making a soft noise and revealing everything.

They stay on the roof too long. Andrew doesn’t feel cold and thinks he should, so he could tell Neil he’s being stupid and drag them inside. Instead, they kiss and Andrew waits until Neil is red and lazy, the fan of his eyelashes along his cheek so disg—beautiful that Andrew wants to cover them up and never look again.

“It’s cold,” Andrew says, when he bothers to move away. Neil looks concerned for a minute but then he smiles and leans in, letting his head rest on Andrew’s shoulder.

“We can go inside. I’m sleepy.”

Andrew’s hands tighten in Neil’s jacket. It’s stupid and too big, and it’s in the way. “Idiot.”

Neil returns to him, again and again, like a fool. They don’t even shower; they just crawl into bed and Neil backs himself up to the wall, curling his hands under his chin until Andrew pulls them around his body.

Maybe Andrew is stupid, too, because he uses Neil’s mouth to make him drunk, letting the heaviness settle in until he feels so stupidly relaxed that he hate—that he loves it.

In the morning, Andrew presses a finger to Neil’s cheek, where a blur of scars marks out the number that used to exist. Neil opens his eyes, blue and constant and just out of reach.

Except he’s in reach, and Andrew does reach him, moving close until their noses touch.

“Good morning,” Neil says, half by way of explanation and half as a greeting. He has that stupid smile on his face that Andrew always looks for.

Andrew closes his eyes. He doesn’t have to look, even if he always wants to. He gives a little and Neil accepts, his fingers a brush against Andrew’s cheek that’s painfully soft and real. Andrew feels the phantom of Neil’s breath across his lips and then he feels the warmth that’s Neil, bringing him back down to earth.

It’s not a bad morning.

Chapter Text

When he is eight, his father reaches for his throat. Nathaniel shrinks back, because he is a child and he is scared. That angers Nathan. The child is lifted to the wall, the hand a reminder. You are not in control.

Nathaniel experiences these things. Every year of his childhood adds some new intimidation; some new torture that makes him wary of everything. A step too close, the turn of a shoulder, a booming voice, the words fucking idiot. Little triggers that Nathaniel categorizes—that he uses, to tell the time of day and how angry Nathan is.

Nathaniel doesn’t flinch after that. Instead, he learns how to go still. How to hold himself down.


Neil is tripping. He’d tried to get off the bus too fast; he doesn’t remember what led here, but he’s falling through nothing and then he lands on the ground, hard. His hands are raw on the concrete.

Andrew is ahead of him. He turns, probably to call him a moron or to look impassively at Neil before walking away. His image is blocked out by Wymack, a sudden eclipse. The man is descending upon Neil in a flurry of anger.

“What the fuck are you doing, you goddamn idiot—”

They’re exactly the same. Exactly.

He doesn’t even register his reaction, for a split second. Nathaniel just goes blank. He’s on his hands and knees, but he immediately straightens. He turns his bloody palms upwards and tilts his head back, leaving his neck open for access.

He is waiting for the hand at his neck, the wall at his back, and the knife on his skin.

“Damn it,” Wymack curses, but he’s not moving. He’s standing in place, with his hands somewhere around his waist, hovering there like they’re magnetized, repelled by Neil.

Kevin has one hand tight around Nicky’s arm. Neither of them seem to notice. They’re too busy staring. Neil realizes his mistake and he starts to rise, turning back to the bus—if he can just get off, not trip—but then a hand rests at the back of his neck and he pauses.

Andrew’s hand is shaking, just a little. Neil would think it was anger, but Andrew isn’t even really looking at him. He’s looking at someone that’s not Wymack, like he wants to hurt.

“You’re going to be late,” Andrew says. He directs Neil toward the doors, the waiting locker room, and Exy. “Junkie.”

Neil doesn’t register things until he’s changed. He vaguely remembers his teammates’ faces and the uncomfortable looks they shared. The way Wymack had been grinding his teeth.

When they start, no one says anything. Neil is grateful for that small luxury.


Aaron likes coming over to Neil’s, sometimes. Andrew has a different schedule, so he’s not around sometimes; it’s empty except for Neil, and Aaron is easily irritated when he’s studying. Distracted, too. Katelyn had apparently made Aaron promise to study alone at least once a week, when their relationship was fresh and she’d reminded him that they both needed space to become the genius doctors they were obviously going to be.

Neil is sitting in the living room the first time Aaron appears. The front door is closed; Nicky is just out of class and some of the others on the floor are there, too. Neil wants silence, so he sits alone and lets a cigarette burn on the windowsill.

That is, until the door opens and an irritated figure backs in, blonde hair sticking in a thousand directions and a stack of books and things in his arms. Neil almost says the wrong name when he walks toward the door to help. Aaron flicks him a look that’s halfway between irritated and distrustful, but he doesn’t stop Neil from taking half the textbooks.

“I need to study,” Aaron says shortly. It’s a warning and an explanation.

Neil shrugs. “Use my desk. Andrew doesn’t like people touching his things.”

Aaron gives him a long look that clearly says you’re an idiot and dumps his haul on Andrew’s desk. Neil retreats to the couch again.

Fifteen minutes in, Aaron pulls a book out of his stack and looks at it. He makes a disgusted noise and then tosses it at Neil’s head without looking. Neil is so absorbed in the novel he’s reading in Spanish that he almost doesn’t duck in time. The book hits the floor.

Aaron stares hard, like he wants to slap Neil but likes his hand too much to risk it. “Pick it up.”

Neil does. Aaron goes back to studying and Neil realizes it’s a psychology book. He’s itching to throw it back when he notices tabs on a few pages. There’s no reason for Aaron to mark them, so Neil cracks the book open, curious.

Apparently, there’s a reason.

Neil reads words that describe him in sometimes uncomfortable detail. He finds spots where there are gaps and other spots where everything is just plain wrong. But the book keeps his attention, and Neil reads it until Aaron slams his books back into a stack.

Neil helps Aaron carry his things back to his room. Katelyn is hanging in the doorway. She smiles at Neil, a little uncertain but clearly trying, and Neil just nods.

Later, Andrew stands in the doorway and his fingers twitch. Neil watches from the couch. “Did you use my desk?”

“Aaron was here,” Neil explains. He doesn’t say he told Aaron not to, or that Aaron was studying for a few hours in silence.

Andrew makes a face and throws his backpack on the desk like he can hit Aaron’s ghost. Neil hides his smile in his novel and waits for Andrew to sit by him, glaring at the closed door.

“Read.”

Neil smiles. He reads, waiting, and by the end of the night, Andrew is fixed securely to his side.


Figuring out what’s wrong doesn’t do anything to help it. It does help Neil put a reason to it, though.

Reason doesn’t mean much when trauma is involved.

Neil is in the girls’ room. He’s been recruited to help move a few things around; they can’t get Andrew or Aaron to help, Matt is out getting food with Kevin, and Nicky isn’t back from shopping. So, it falls to Neil to be the one to help. Renee is nursing a twisted ankle and Dan and Allison can’t move larger things without extra help. Neil readily jumps in when he hears the groan of furniture.

“Why don’t we move it into the hallway? It’ll be easier to rearrange and move things back in from there,” Dan says. Neil just follows their directions, lining cheap cabinets and dressers up against the narrow hallway.

Allison questions Neil as they go. “I’ve seen your place. Why don’t you get posters? Or even curtains? I mean, I know you have exactly two interests, but.”

Neil assumes she’s talking about Exy and Andrew. He wonders what Andrew would do if he came home to a poster of himself hung on the wall.

“What did you say? He’s actually smiling,” Aaron says, sounding mildly affronted when he walks past them in the hallway. Allison flips him off.

They’re in the middle of moving things when someone’s hands are on Neil’s shoulders. He freezes in the middle of the hallway, going dead. He shuts down.

The person maneuvers around him. Nathaniel registers each step, waiting with tense caution as the person disappears, but there are other footsteps in the distance. Nathaniel sees the hallway as the death trap that it is—towering, unstable furniture and doors too close to each other—and he knows he has to move.

There’s no time. A small group of people come around the corner, running and laughing. Something flies through the air. Familiar voices echo behind them; the strangers disappear and something tips. It’s going away from Nathaniel, which should be heartening, but there’s a squeak from the other side of the dresser and it’s shoved away, right in Nathaniel’s direction.

You’re weak. No one will help you. If you can’t get out yourself, you won’t get out.

Laughter. The ache of his chest protesting. No air.

“God damn it!”

“Fuck—wait—”

The dresser only comes up to his chest when he’s standing, but he’d curled in on himself when it fell. Neil is on his side, hands up at his head in a useless attempt to protect himself. The pressure of the dresser, even though it’s empty, is heavy and hard.

Nicky’s face swims into view. There’s a moment of recognition and he yells or screams; Neil can’t tell which. His ears are ringing. “Neil—shit—”

Footsteps pound down the hall. Neil can feel them shaking on the floor. Someone lifts the dresser, but the weight stays. Neil can see his father’s boots. Blood seeping toward Neil’s face, thick in the air. He can hear Lola’s laugh. His mother’s heels click on the floor. She is close, but she can’t see him. Doesn’t know he’s there.

“Neil. Neil,” Someone says, harsh. Kevin, maybe.

“What did you do?”

“I didn’t mean—”

Neil sucks in a breath. He tries to claw to the surface. His vision is spotty. Andrew’s voice closes in on him. “Don’t. Come back.”

He wants it to help; he does, but he’s far. He is far down the tunnel and he sees a pair of boots round the corner. He sees them and his mouth opens. He can’t control the words that come out of his mouth.

“Don’t do it don’t do it don’t move he’ll kill you—”

He spills out of himself and he loses his breath. Neil loses to the darkness and he’s relieved by it, letting go as his friends fade around him. Passing out lends him the brief sanctuary of nothingness, and he’ll take that any day.


Andrew doesn’t leave Neil’s side for days. He barely lets Nicky within five feet; the most Nicky can do is apologize and Neil tries to reassure him that it wasn’t his fault. Still, it gets to the point that Neil feels like he needs to sit down with Andrew and talk to him.

“I’m not going to fall apart.”

“You don’t know anything,” Andrew says. He tenses where he stands in the kitchen, hand tight around a pint of ice cream. His fingers are red.

Neil hums in agreement. “No. But I know I can’t stop living just because some things are bad.”

Andrew slams the freezer shut. He moves past Neil, careful not to touch him, and that’s when Neil breaks. He holds his hand up, hovering in front of Andrew to stop him. Andrew turns and looks at him with a flat expression that’s cracked in a few places. Some of his anger is leaking out.

“Yes or no,” Neil whispers. Andrew hasn’t done much other than hold him for the past few days. He’s feeling a little lost.

Andrew’s lips press together. “Yes.”

Neil takes the ice cream and sets it on the counter. He steps up to Andrew, hands at his shoulders but not touching. “Where?”

“Above the stomach.”

Neil slides his arms around Andrew’s shoulders. He dips his head into the space between Andrew’s chin and chest, a slow breath in to fill himself with the smell of Andrew. When he talks, Neil’s lips brush against skin, soft and warm.

“Smoke always reminded me of my mother. I burned her body inside of the car we were in.”

Andrew tenses. Neil hasn’t said so much before; he’s always hung around the edges, giving truth in pieces.

Neil feels Andrew’s jaw pry open. His words are strained. “Why did you take them? You took—”

“I did it to remember, at first,” Neil says softly. He can tell Andrew is shaking. Neil remembers the books Aaron has given him. Re-traumatizing.

“I won’t—”

“I started thinking of you.”

Andrew inhales sharply. His hands are tight on Neil’s arms. Neil continues, “They made me think of you. You were all I could think of. Lola had the car lighter in her hand and I kept trying to smell your smoke.”

Finally, Andrew pulls him closer. His hands pull Neil’s shirt like he wants to get it out of the way and feel nothing but skin. Neil tilts his head, moving out of his hiding place. Andrew’s eyes watch him, unblinking.

“I keep replacing things with you,” Neil says softly. It’s as close to a confession as he’s ever come.

Andrew is holding his gaze like a lifeline. His breath is coming in short bursts. Neil feels a shiver of pure need roll through him and then Andrew moves his hands, resting against Neil’s neck in grounding weight. They replace a chokehold with a reminder.

“Yes or no.”

“Yes. Forever,” Neil says. Andrew is halfway to his lips when he finishes.

The ice cream is melting, but Andrew ignores it. Neil feels a flare in his chest. He thinks, with the threat of tears behind his closed eyes, that this could be love. What it’s supposed to be. Not the demand to be stronger; not the demand to run and stay alive. Nothing is demanding about this. Andrew is a question and a promise. He is enough for Neil to set his compass by.

In the morning, Andrew dumps the pint of ice cream into the trash and gives Neil a long look.

“You owe me ice cream.”

Andrew gets home to a freezer packed with five different flavors, little ice cream sandwiches and cones shoved into every available space that the pints don’t take up. He looks at everything for a while and then goes into the bedroom, where Neil is reading a book on the bed and trying not to smile.

“Idiot,” Andrew mutters, but he’s lowering himself onto the bed with a question.

“Yes,” Neil says, waiting for Andrew to settle over him, firm thighs resting on either side of his waist. “I am your idiot.”

Andrew gives him a skeptical look, but they stay in the bed for the next three hours. Later, Andrew wanders toward the kitchen and pulls several pints into his arms. The front door opens and Kevin is there, Nicky right behind him. He pauses in the doorway, looking between Andrew—who is in underwear—and Neil, shirtless and ignoring the way his sweatpants are crooked on his hips.

“We’re just gonna…go to dinner,” Nicky says quickly, waving his hands in the air apologetically. He drags Kevin back out and Neil closes the door behind him.

“How long do you think they’ll be out?” Andrew suddenly asks. He has half an ice cream sandwich in hand, the pints back in the freezer. There’s a spot of chocolate on the side of his mouth.

Neil smiles and walks up to him. The chill of the freezer is still there. Once, it would have made him think of a dark basement and heavy knives. Now, he looks at the chocolate on Andrew’s face and memorizes it, carefully taking one of Andrew’s hands. There’s cookie stuck to it, sticky on the pads of his fingers.

“Long enough,” Neil says, examining the hand he’s holding. “Yes or—”

“Yes,” Andrew says.

He keeps eating while Neil sucks on his finger, but his eyes are dark.

Replacing, Neil thinks, is not so bad.

Chapter Text

They’re listening to one of Neil’s cursed pop songs. Andrew would never say he didn’t mind it.

But he didn’t.

The radio was at a medium hum; lower than Andrew would play it, but higher than Neil would keep it. A line in the middle they met with less difficulty than either of them expected.

They were also on their way to Columbia. It wasn’t the perfect place to get away, but there was an empty house and the promise of solitude. Not that it was an escape they were looking for; rather, it was privacy. Andrew had asked Neil, when he came in that weekend, one question.

Neil had uncurled himself from the couch, a book in some foreign language slipping from his fingers, and said yes.

Andrew pulled into the driveway and gathered their things, letting Neil go to the front door with the key. He liked unlocking the front door, when they visited. Andrew didn’t mind.

He was wanting. Wanting wasn’t as bad, now. Some time ago, Neil had managed to start changing that. Andrew fought less to keep away from Neil, instead redirecting his pauses to what Neil did and didn’t react to. So when Andrew deposited the grocery bags and their backpacks, he moved up to Neil and let his eyes wander.

There always seemed to be something new, when Andrew looked at Neil. His scars never changed, but sometimes there was a new freckle from the sun or a strand of hair burnished gold from the same bright culprit. Sometimes, there was an interesting facet to Neil’s blue eyes, like a river that was constantly shifting.

Today, Andrew looked and found the fluttering anticipation of someone holding back.

“I was gone for a while,” Andrew said. Neil’s lip disappeared under his teeth, flushing red. His eyes flickered down like he was trying to find words written on his palms.

“You were. I missed you,” Neil says. Andrew never asks for these things—these truths that Neil keeps giving up. But Neil gives them more for himself than for trade, always with a cautious spark that’s so different from the way he willingly opened his mouth to multiple cameras and badmouthed Riko.

Andrew pressed a hand to Neil’s neck. It felt right there. He knew Neil took it as a tether in his worst moments, when the panic attacks came and when he was drowning in his past—but it was just as much a tether for Andrew. He didn’t like tying a rope to a moving thing, where he could be torn and thrown, but Neil had stopped. He’d stood in place for Andrew; returned and stayed, holding him in place with respect and care that was nowhere near deserved.

“What do you want?” Andrew asked. He meant it as a question, and Neil knew that; he didn’t see invitations where there weren’t any clearly given.

Neil tilted his head, the word immediate. “You.”

It was as much of an answer as Andrew’s question. Neil meant it, fool that he was. Andrew drew out a breath and considered. Neil blinked slowly; the restraint in his eyes stayed locked firmly in place. He gave an inch then, without prompting.

“Where can I touch?”

Andrew decided. He wanted something he wasn’t sure of, so he needed to draw Neil out. “Chest. Waist.”

Neil gave him a curious look but he slid his hands to Andrew’s sides, the lightest touch to his sides. They’d touched before; it wasn’t like they’d been celibate in the dorms, or even on some of their trips. This was different—Andrew wasn’t wanting something specific and Neil was just enjoying the proximity.

He was so easy to please. Andrew hated that, once. What it meant.

“Need a marker?” Andrew asked, his tone dry. A flicker of a smile crossed Neil’s lips, quickly hidden. Andrew wanted to chase it; he knew why Neil held back. The same problem circling them like vultures.

Wanting nothing. Needing out of the question. Talking about not caring and hating and anything but what they were slowly gravitating toward.

Andrew’s hand shot out almost without his permission. He managed to catch the corner of Neil’s mouth, right where the smile had escaped. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

Neil was attentive. He probably had a damn list somewhere, ranked like Andrew’s percentages, filled with things that Andrew didn’t like and things that were marked out, dated when they changed. Adjusted.

Andrew huffed. His answer was rough. Not as ragged as in the past, though. “Don’t hide it from me.”

The smile came back. Small and fleeting, but real. Neil leaned closer, humming an affirmative and tracing Andrew’s chest with curious hands.

An idea started to take shape, unearthed by Neil’s exploration. A low burn that flooded Andrew and made him fight for concentration. He’d stopped fighting his body sometime after Baltimore, when he’d started to realize just how much Neil had chosen.

How he had chosen Andrew.

“Would you ever want…me,” Andrew said. It was out before he could stop it. “In—”

“Yes.”

The answer was too quick. Neil seemed to recognize that when Andrew’s eyes came back to his face, sharp. He held his breath and Andrew watched him rearrange his thoughts; try to clarify.

“I would. I do,” Neil said, closing his eyes for a brief moment, letting the words pass between them. He was careful when he answered. Restrained. His hands weren’t moving. “But it’s not for me to ask.”

He was right. It wasn’t—but Andrew hadn’t thought of that. He had only thought of the way Neil said I don’t swing and then said only you. The way he’d said they didn’t change anything. That everyone would lose, because their bets would still be wrong. Andrew had counted him a loss before anything had happened, then a compromise when they’d kissed, and stupid when Neil had let Andrew touch him and taste him.

What were they, now?

“And if I ask?” Andrew let the question linger. Neil stopped breathing. He had a stupid habit of doing that at all the wrong moments, but somehow, this felt right.

The thing in Neil’s eyes became clearer. “I’ll answer.”

Andrew never minced his words. Things were clear to him the way they were to Neil, even if Neil had spots that were softer and easier to injure. He was open in ways Andrew wouldn’t be. So, Andrew tilted forward, just to where his lips were by Neil’s ear. This felt like the closest to a confessional they would ever get.

“Can I fuck you?”

Andrew caught the shiver on Neil’s skin. The way he turned into Andrew’s voice just a little. “Yes.”

That was what he wanted. Andrew bit his response into the spot between Neil’s ear and jaw, feeling the hands on his sides tighten—not enough to hold him in place, but enough to give Neil something to support his weakening body. Neil breathed out his ecstasy, a low note of approval in his throat.

They knew each other well. The way their bodies worked and how they felt in different positions; what was off-limits and what required care. Neil found Andrew’s face after a second, drawing him eye-to-eye with hands in his hair for a moment.

“Would—” he stopped, his tongue escaping to wet his lips. Andrew followed the movement and almost forgot the word that hung in the air. “Can you be behind me?”

Andrew stilled.

He expected his reaction to be instinctive. He waited for revulsion, panic, even fear. He waited for anything, but he felt nothing. Well, not quite nothing. Instead of absence or pain, there was a note of yearning in his body. Andrew wasn’t sure how to hold that. He knew how to deal with his turn-offs and his bad memories. With Neil, only some things had shifted—and those, only with trust and time. Andrew shouldn’t have trusted that Neil would be okay, or that Andrew would be okay in the situation Neil was proposing. He shouldn’t have even considered it. But he was.

“I know it might be…I won’t be facing you,” Neil corrected. He had stopped moving, again. “How can I make it better?”

There was no better. Andrew didn’t say it. He couldn’t give that much away and it would sound wrong. Neil was the only one Andrew could do this with, or anything like it. They just had to figure things out.

“Slow,” Andrew said. He contemplated and decided there wasn’t enough time in the world to figure out why he was ready and not running to the other side of the room. “Just start by turning.”

Neil paused. He held Andrew’s face with soft hands; hands that should not have been so kind, considering the unkindness heaped upon them. He looked at Andrew placidly, the well in his eyes stilled for whatever he was about to say.

“You don’t have to.”

“I know.”

Neil smiled. “You could never hurt me.”

Andrew wanted to tell him not to lie. Wanted to warn him that those words were the exact wrong kind of thinking. Stupid trust. Instead, he waited for Neil to turn. There was still a hesitation in his hands but it wasn’t fueled by real uneasiness; it was just his checks holding true, keeping him from anything remotely unsafe.

Neil isn’t unsafe. The thought lanced through him and Andrew almost forgot exactly where they were and what he was doing. The singular, instinctive reaction to his own thoughts almost overtook him. He knew it was right before he knew that he was reaching to pull Neil’s shirt off. They had been through too much and Neil was too still to be anything but safe.

Andrew had Neil half-undressed and found that nothing changed. He still felt the desire low in his blood and the need to touch and hold. Neil’s breath caught in his throat and Andrew stepped closer, letting his mouth find the spot at the base of Neil’s neck that always seemed to give under pressure. Neil sighed at the touch, completely relaxed.

It struck Andrew how much Neil trusted him, to let someone be at his back this way. Neil, who had always reflexively looked over his shoulder and mistrusted everything. He had as much cause as Andrew to be nervous or defensive, but instead, he was practically melting onto the floor.

Maybe it was the thought of Neil turning liquid at his touch that had Andrew deciding to move. He traveled away from Neil’s back, to his neck, standing at his arm. Neil turned his head, a haze of pleasure pushed away while he tried to find Andrew’s eyes.

“Is this—”

“Still a yes,” Andrew said. His voice was lower than he meant it to be. Neil swallowed, his eyes closing for a second. “Bed?”

“Bed,” Neil agreed. They were in the other room almost too fast for Andrew to think. Andrew pulled at Neil’s pants carefully, waiting for Neil to shed them onto the floor. When he was done, Andrew stilled.

There was an exchange. Not one that Neil expected but one that Andrew needed to be made. He had to draw lines in his mind about giving and taking. “You can undress me.”

“Can I?” Neil asked. Always repeated, to make sure.

“Yes.”

Andrew felt the reflex to mock Neil when his hands lingered at the edge of Andrew’s shirt, more out of reverence and care than nervousness. He did. “You must be hell at Christmas.”

“You have more than seven shirts,” Neil said. He was smiling again. Andrew wanted to taste the curve of his lips, so he leaned in. Neil waited until he could grudgingly pull away to continue his duty, pausing at each piece of clothing to let Andrew stop him.

There was no stopping. Andrew waited, curious at how unexposed he felt while naked. Probably because Neil, fool that he was, was almost in danger of going cross-eyed from staring into Andrew’s eyes. At least it afforded Andrew a clear view of the blue pools before him, with their shifting and darkening waters.

“I won’t do this if you’re not ready,” Andrew said carefully. Neil blinked at him impassively, but the next words out of his mouth were anything but.

“Is that what you want? To watch me?”

Andrew would have choked on air, if he wasn’t already holding his breath at the intense wave he felt, thinking about Neil working himself open for Andrew. Neil was a performer, after all. He would probably be even worse than he was on the court, especially with Andrew’s eyes on him.

“Can you face me? It might help,” Andrew explained, even though he sounded unsteady. It was true. It was also true that he besides being a compromise, he really wanted to see Neil’s face.

Neil smiled again, less sweet, leaning back to open the bedside drawer. He snapped open the plastic bottle and Andrew absorbed himself in every corner of Neil’s face.

“Do you want to tell me how?”

“No. I want to see how you do it.”

Neil’s eyes flickered again at the confession. Andrew almost corrected himself but then he saw a tiny spark of feeling in Neil’s face, a jump and the flushing of his cheeks. Andrew knew without looking that it was the first finger. This was a simple touch, although it was enough of a prelude for Neil to be biting his lip. Andrew’s eyes on him were probably helping.

“I don’t usually do this,” Neil started. His breath hitched. Andrew started to ask but he was interrupted by another stutter in Neil’s words. “But it’s always you I think about.”

Of course, it is. Of course, but that doesn’t mean he’s ever said it or that Andrew had asked to hear it. As soon as it’s out in the open, though, Andrew knows he won’t be able to stop himself from replaying the words in his mind.

Neil added another finger and his mouth fell open just a little, eyelids fluttering but not quite falling shut. He didn’t make a noise. Andrew was drawn in by the sight, enough that he paused before Neil’s mouth.

“Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil said, his answer a hum of pleasure and need. Andrew kissed him, the push almost enough to throw Neil off balance while he was supporting himself with one arm. Andrew barely held him in place with one hand on his shoulder.

Somewhere in the middle of the kiss, Neil must have stretched himself wider or changed his pace, because he moaned into Andrew’s mouth with such intensity that Andrew felt it in his throat, humming to meet his own noise of pleasure. Neil couldn’t keep himself together; he wasn’t able to kiss Andrew back anymore, his eyebrows pulled together and his cheeks a deep rose. Andrew sank back just to see Neil, with his hand reaching behind him and his eyes shut in blind pleasure.

“Can I start?” Andrew finally asked, when Neil was breathing faster and the slide of lube lingered at the edge of Andrew’s hearing. Neil’s eyes fluttered open and he came back to himself so quickly Andrew almost wondered if the work had been for nothing.

“Yes,” Neil said, rising from his position. He waited a beat, pressing a lasting kiss to Andrew’s lips.

When Neil turned, Andrew thought it was a good thing he’d waited so long. There was no way to prepare for the shape of his body—the fine angle of his shoulders and waist, or the faint dimples that rested on either side of his spine, like they were pressed there by hands too loving to care how destructive their beauty was.

Andrew was already a dull, throbbing mess from watching Neil. Seeing him this way only made Andrew catch his breath and wonder at the trust that had been given to him. Neil was there, tracing the headboard with idle fingers, letting Andrew take his time as he came down from the high he had been building.

Neil was prepared to wait and go slow. It was the only thing Andrew needed from him.

Andrew traced down Neil’s spine. It was a perfect line down his back, despite the overlapping scars painting his skin. If he were an idiot, Andrew could probably wax poetic about it.

Instead, Andrew let his hand linger while Neil shivered. The little twitch brought Andrew back into reality. He paused, smoothing a hand over Neil’s lower back. It was almost reassuring—but Andrew didn’t offer reassurance. He only gave Neil the truth.

I won’t hurt you.

“Go ahead,” Neil said. His voice was barely a whisper.

Andrew let his hand wander over the curve of Neil’s ass. He liked the feeling. It was one thing to be forced to stare at it for an entire practice—especially knowing everyone else could see him—but it was another to have Neil in front of him, open and willing and excited. Wanting.

Andrew traced a circle around Neil’s hole, the remnants of lube sticking to his fingers. “You really went at it, didn’t you?”

“You told me to be ready,” Neil said stubbornly. He refused to be embarrassed, as usual. Andrew smirked.

“What are you planning that you got yourself this ready?”

Neil looked over his shoulder and Andrew stopped breathing. There was a beat of silence and Andrew knew there were only two choices. Neil would either make sure Andrew was okay, or he’d tell Andrew what he wanted. Safe things. Good things.

Instead, Neil said, “I was planning on you fucking me. If that’s not on the table, I’m flexible. But you know that.”

It was too much at once. Andrew curled his hand around Neil’s side, feeling the edges of his muscles tight under his fingers. He leaned forward, holding Neil’s gaze, wondering if those absurdly blue eyes could get any warmer when they were supposed to be cold.

Supposed to be a dream.

“Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil said, a flicker of triumph in his smile. Andrew resolved to get rid of it as fast as possible.

He was careful when he pushed into Neil, even if he didn’t have to be. Neil had stretched the fuck out of himself, but he still tightened around Andrew. It felt dizzying.

He didn’t know what he expected. Maybe he expected to feel something rough, like Neil’s hand tight around him; maybe he expected it to feel like nothing, like the unreal hallucination that Neil was. What Andrew got was the slickness of lube and the sure heat that was nothing but Neil.

Andrew didn’t realize he was sighing, an endless breath leaving his lips, until he had to stop and breathe in again. Neil was humming pleasantly in front of him, his head tilted and the planes of his shoulders rising under his skin.

He has freckles on his back, Andrew thought distantly. He lov—hated every one of them.

“Good,” Neil said, his voice almost dreamy. “You feel good—”

“Shut up,” Andrew replied, but he sounded weak to his own ears. He needed to move. “Can I move?”

“Yes.”

Andrew could probably watch the way he slid out of Neil all day. He hated that he couldn’t look away. Neil was tight like he didn’t want to let go—like he couldn’t bear to lose Andrew’s heat. When Andrew pulled out, he couldn’t decide whether it was better to be waiting to push in again, or if it was better to be all the way inside. He pushed into Neil again, thinking maybe he could find out, but he forgot what he was doing when he felt Neil tightening around him again.

“You can touch me,” Neil said. His voice was unsteady, as if he’d been running drills on the court. “You can—anywhere—”

“Shut up,” Andrew breathed, but it was more reflex than truth. His hand was already moving from Neil’s waist, sliding around his chest to feel the dip of his collarbone.

Andrew hated that he couldn’t stop wanting Neil. Of course, Neil knew that, and he would never push or try to draw Andrew out. Somehow, though, after however long—because Andrew wasn’t counting—Neil had managed to make Andrew feel less like wanting was bad. Things shifted, because Neil wanted him, and the push and pull was different when Neil was rocking back onto Andrew. Neil would never say what he wanted, consequence of both his personality and his respect for Andrew. It was up to Andrew to set the boundaries—and he was starting to find them along the places that made Neil react.

I only swing for you. Neil was stupid. He said things that Andrew hated, like how he wasn’t interested and didn’t look at anyone else. How he was fine taking what he was given.

Sometimes, like today, Neil showed a rare glimpse of want. It was good. Andrew hated the way he’d wanted—the way he’d wanted nothing and Neil had filled that spot. To have Neil want something was good. It made a spot in the middle.

So, Andrew met Neil halfway and found himself walking out further from shore than he ever had before.

Neil met him halfway, too. He didn’t move; he let Andrew be the one thrusting in and out of him, only pushing them closer together once Andrew had come as close as he could.

And Neil moaned like he mouthed off for the cameras. Andrew hated how Neil could drive him up the wall with just his mouth. It was stupid. Senseless. Neil would let out a long, low, sound and Andrew got so lost in it he didn’t realize he was moving faster.

Andrew bent over Neil’s back and took the freckled skin between his teeth. He wanted to leave marks of his own, better than the ones that were already there. Neil’s enthusiastic sounds only prompted Andrew to suck at his skin more, the salt on his tongue rich and sweet in a way nothing else could ever be.

Sometimes Andrew would eat a spoonful of ice cream and want to throw it across the room when it didn’t taste as good. He would leave Neil off the couch out of spite, but Andrew would end up chasing Neil’s mouth for more even while he simmered with anger.

“Good—so good, Andrew—” Neil murmured. His words were slurred and sloppy, like the mussed waves of red hair falling haphazardly in the wrong direction.

Andrew wanted to tell him to shut up, but he couldn’t. He liked the sound of Neil’s voice too much; the way he sounded weightless and relaxed, so far away from the tension and fear he’d lived with his entire life. They were both floating somewhere in the atmosphere, hopeless idiots forgetting the world in favor of finding each other.

Neil started to move and Andrew almost stopped. Except Neil’s head was titled sideways and he was smiling. There was a flush of red on his cheeks, making the scars and faint freckles stand out. Andrew caught glimpses of his blue eyes, frosty and flinty like winter ice. Neil was open to Andrew in all his colors and beauty, the stripes along his arms and the brightness coming from somewhere within him. He shouldn’t have been able to look this way, like the sun was housed inside his skin. Neil raised his hands and levered himself up until he was clinging to the head of the bed, his back pressing into Andrew’s chest.

Andrew rarely spoke when they were together like this. He found it too hard to string together the proper thoughts; even harder to keep back the betrayals on his tongue. Neil never seemed to mind, just like every other concession he made for Andrew. He loved what he was given.

“Can I?” Neil asked, gasping for breath. Each word was punctuated by short gasps, trembling running down his arms as he gripped the frame he held tighter, straining to keep his hands away. “Move—”

“Yes,” Andrew said. He wasn’t sure how he got the word out when he was so lost in Neil. None of the terror or uncertainty he’d expected surfaced; there was only Neil and his flushed form, responding to Andrew in ways he never did to anyone else.

Andrew could get high off the feeling of making Neil answer. It was dangerous and stupid, just like Neil.

Unfortunately, Andrew loved it.

He loved the way Neil was warm under his hands. The way Neil was breathless but never harsh; the way his eyelashes fanned over his cheeks, just a little browner than his red hair, his head tilted and catching the light. The way Neil curled a hand at his mouth to try and stop the little moan that escaped and the way he let Andrew take it away, their fingers tangled at his chest, right over the pounding below his skin.

Andrew pushed just right—brushed against Neil and heard the sweetest sound he’d ever drawn out of Neil. It rang in his ears and made him almost dizzy. Neil was tensing, right at the edge, and Andrew knew what was coming.

Then Neil tilted his head back, resting on Andrew’s shoulder. With his eyes still shut, he found the pulse hammering against his skin and pressed his open mouth to the spot. It should have been an awkward angle and an impossible move, but this was Neil. He simply made it happen, and as Andrew pushed into him one last time, Neil ran his teeth along the skin so softly Andrew barely felt it. The sensation was enough. Andrew felt every muscle in his body uncoil, heat and pleasure shuddering through him, and Neil was shaking in his arms. He had forgotten their entwined hands, but he remembered when Neil’s hand tethered him to the earth while they both rode through the static wave that hit them.

The first thing Andrew became aware of, when the white heat edged away from his functioning mind, was that they close. He could feel Neil’s breathing and the way his shoulders heaved with exertion—they seemed to be synchronized, one heartbeat pounding endlessly in the night.

Andrew started to move. Neil made a small noise and he paused. “What? Do—”

“No—yes, I’m fine,” Neil said, trying to come up with other words but failing. He smiled over his shoulder apologetically, but the flush on his cheeks and his heavy-lidded eyes relieved any tense reaction Andrew might have had. Neil chuckled.  “I miss you every time. Just the heat, of course.”

Andrew caught the teasing correction. It didn’t stop him from saying, “Idiot.”

When he pulled away, Andrew was careful to move slowly. He’d been careful, but determining how Neil’s body would react was useless. Neil seemed fine; he tilted his head in the opposite direction, stretching the loose muscles of his shoulders. He even hummed under his breath, loosening his fingers. Andrew didn’t let go.

Of course, Neil looked back with a smile in his eyes and curled his hand closer to Andrew’s.

“Okay?” Neil asked, the question murmured. Just like always, making sure he wasn’t crossing any lines. Ready to move away and out of sight, if need be.

“Yes,” Andrew said. He let Neil’s smile flicker softly, watching as he turned on the mattress and rearranged himself, looking over Andrew with a feather-light gaze. Their hands were still tangled and Neil lifted them, careful. He held Andrew’s gaze when he brushed his lips across Andrew’s knuckles, something light in his eyes when Andrew inhaled a little.

“Thank you,” Neil said quietly. Andrew could tell where it was going and he wanted to say wait—not no, because that wasn’t what he wanted, but wait, because he wasn’t sure if he was prepared.

He knew Neil would wait, if Andrew asked. He knew Neil would stop. Change. Anything.

Andrew didn’t speak. Neil finished, the rest of the words falling like petals. “You are amazing.”

There was nothing left. It was terrifying and dangerous and somehow wonderful. Neil was. Andrew had to say something—not because he was expected to, or because Neil was trading in truth, but because he had to. Because when Andrew touches Neil every nerve ending sparks to life, firing through his body like lightning to the raised scars of Neil’s planetary body.

Andrew lifted his free hand to Neil’s face and rested it on his cheek, right by the scars, Andrew’s thumb finding the dip beneath Neil’s lower lip. He leaned in close, trading breath, but his eyes never left Neil’s.

“You are someone.” Words like flowers on painted glass, fragile and bright. “And I need someone.”

Andrew saw the precise moment that Neil’s eyes widened; the exact moment want changed to need in his stupid, one-track mind. The way his lip trembled and then Andrew secured it with his mouth, eyes closed and all memory trained on keeping this moment crystalline and bright in his mind.

Neil kissed him back until he couldn’t, his laughter taking over. Andrew let it wash over him and memorized it too, pushing it as far to the front of his mind as he could. He wanted these things to be the brightest, even if they were the ones that could cut him the most.

He trusted Neil like he trusted his knives. It probably wasn’t romantic to say so, but Andrew doesn’t have to say so.

He does, though.

They were in the shower by then and Neil laughed again. Harder.

Andrew warned him, “You’re going to swallow soap.”

“It won’t be the first thing I’ve swallowed that I shouldn’t.”

“Sixty-nine percent.”

Neil grinned at the joke. His eyes were practically shining out of his head like lamplights and Andrew had to look away, just for a second. Neil wasn’t bothered. When they finally got to bed, hair dry because they kissed so long they lost track of time, Andrew found his place at Neil’s back and felt the way Neil relaxed into the embrace. Relaxed, when his entire life had been unkind touches and shielding followed by pain.

Neil was exactly what he needed.

Even better, he was what Andrew wanted.

Chapter Text

Six, predictable, is a lot to handle.

Neil has his hands full helping Dan—something the Foxes had taken with grace and even some pride, on the part of a few of them. There are four men and two women; they have their files and their attitudes. Neil spends most of the first few practices just getting a handle on their makeshift alliances and learning what each can take and will give.

Andrew manages to keep out of action for most of the practice. Kevin cuts in with his opinion more than once, which would make Neil aggravated, but Kevin never goes far enough to make the recruits believe they can get away with not listening to Dan.

Well, most of them.

Cameron fights every step of the way. He’s one of the backliner picks and seems to think Neil doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Neil hadn’t felt the need to go through his past when the recruits had shown up, but he’s starting to think only a dissection would convince Cameron to shut up and take direction.

“All right. Try me,” Neil says. Andrew perks up from where he’s standing at goal—which is to say, his eyes slide a little left from the wall to Neil’s face and linger there.

Cameron smirks. One of the other guys—Morgan—casts Neil a half-worried look. Cameron is bigger than Neil and denser by a good amount. Running at him would be like running into a brick wall.

While the players set up, Ava approaches Neil. She is his pick. Compact, average height, and surprisingly almost as fast as him. She sometimes gets the same odd, blank expressions that Andrew does. Neil knows what they are, but he won’t ask.

“What do you need?” Ava asks. With the lights shining at full power, the streaks in her brown hair are almost as red as Neil’s.

Neil shrugs. “Focus on you. Don’t let his discipline distract you.”

He thinks she smiles, but he can’t be sure.

The scrimmage starts. Neil finds it easy to sidestep most obstacles, but the recruits fight tooth and nail. What they lack in training, they make up for with sheer will and spirit. They might not have the tricks the Foxes do—courtesy of insider knowledge of the Moriyama ways—but they have the drive. They have potential.

Well, most of them. There are some that Neil can tell simply have skill. They play the sport because they’re good at it and they’re having fun. Which is fine.

But Cameron acts like everyone else is dumber for having set so much on Exy and Neil doesn’t have the patience to correct him. Or remind him that his personal problems will be worked through off-court, because Neil wants him to drop it all before he sets foot on the floor.

Neil passes to Ava in the middle of the set and she catches the ball almost flawlessly, but he watches her tighten her grip and sees the racquet wobble. I’ll have to talk to her about second-guessing herself. Neil is on his way past the others on the court, readying a path for her shot, and then he’s facing Cameron.

Neil had expected resistance. He’d expected Cameron to get angry, after an hour of practice and twenty minutes of Neil passing him up at every turn. So, when Cameron slams into Neil, racquet raised to get over Neil’s head and allow more contact, it’s no big surprise.

What is surprising is the way Morgan—one of Dan’s picks—pops up and nudges Cameron just enough to topple the other player over, not even glancing at him while he frowns down at Neil. “Damn. You good?”

Neil pauses where he’s sitting on the floor. He is perfectly fine. He’s suffered far worse. Neil reaches out to let Morgan pull him up but then the commotion behind him draws his attention.

“Damn it, Andrew,” Neil mutters. He hadn’t registered Andrew leaving goal, or Dan shouting a brief warning before the goalie decided to descend upon Cameron. Neil turns around to see Andrew with his foot on Cameron’s neck and the butt of his racquet on the man’s chest.

Wymack sighs heavily from the other side of the glass. “Jesus Christ. Josten.”

It’s funny the way Wymack says his name, like it’s some sort of magic charm. Neil glances at Wymack and then shrugs, one-shouldered. Wymack gives him a stern look. It very clearly says, not him. Neil wants to laugh; he suspects the man thought Neil’s methods would be simple, compared to Kevin. He obviously hadn’t accounted for the fact that Neil was pragmatic—not pampering.

Cameron was going to learn at one point or another. They all were. Touch Josten and you might as well offer neck up on a wooden block.

“Andrew,” Neil says. Morgan is still trying to get him up, but Neil waves him away.  You’ll see. Andrew barely tears his attention away from Cameron.

To anyone else, it might seem like Andrew was as uncaring as ever. His face was flat and the hand holding his racquet was steady.

Except Neil can see the flicker of real anger in Andrew’s eyes; the split-second remnant of a memory looping through his mind, Neil on the ground and Riko’s arm cutting through the air. “Andrew.”

Andrew backs away. His foot rises and Cameron wheezes. Some of the others look perturbed, but most keep an impressed distance and avoid Cameron like he’s tainted. Ava is the one that manages to care enough to check on the downed player, tilting his head with clinical detachment. She’s kind of like Renee, Neil thinks, but not at all.

Neil watches Andrew pace over. Morgan holds his hands up, more relaxed and performative than actually intimidated. He gives Neil a reassuring grin and jogs over to Ava.

“Appreciate it,” Neil says, arms resting on his bent knees. “But I’m fine.”

“Say that again.” A twitch. Just the slightest wave of his racquet and Andrew is staring Neil down.

But Neil knows his secret. He knows Andrew’s anger and why it’s redirected at Neil. Andrew was worried and maybe even afraid, and he hated that. So, he pushed it into his fists and struck out at what had made him feel.

Neil tilts his head, squinting. “I think we’re done for today. Will you help me up?”

“Will you stop trying to get injured before we even start summer practice?”

“I never tried,” Neil says, but he’s smiling. Andrew just squints at him. “Yes.”

“Yes,” Andrew says. It’s muttered, repeated, but he throws his hand out and waits for Neil to catch it.

If any of the potential Foxes have something to say, they don’t say it. Dan wraps up practice, only giving Neil a cursory glance to look for something she finds, and manages to get in a word to each of the players. Neil isn’t sure he could ever do the same.

Morgan manages to somehow keep up a conversation with Neil the entire time they change out, asking half a dozen questions about Raven drills and why they do things this way or that. Neil is content to go back and forth with him; Morgan reminds him of Nicky, in a way. He’s sunny, both in color and attitude, and he always has an energetic expression. Neil isn’t sure how the two of them could fit in a room together, but somehow, he’s looking forward to it.

Neil leaves the stall, barely toweled off and his shirt sticking to the small of his back, to find Cameron making noise in the locker room.

“—even care. They only keep him around because of that one.”

Cameron jabs a finger at Andrew and Neil feels something crack. Dan catches his eye; it’s almost comical, the way she seems more nervous about what Neil will do than what Andrew did. She starts to shake her head but Neil sidles over to Cameron, acting as if he’s going to pass him.

“Too bad there’s no one keeping you on the team,” Neil says. Cameron rounds on him, anger twisting his face. Andrew manages one step before Neil holds up a finger, asking for time.

Andrew stops at the end of the bench. “I’m not patient.”

“See? Got him on a leash,” Cameron says. His laugh is harsh.

Neil is reminding himself to be civil. To be a leader. To—hit him right in the mouth and damn the outcome.

But help comes from an unexpected quarter. Or, rather, it seems like his bad attitude is catching.

“You’d know all about those,” Ava murmurs, stowing her neatly folded clothes in her locker.

Cameron turns on his heel, almost purple with rage. “What—”

“That so? I can get you a collar,” Neil interrupts, turning the focus back to himself. “If it’ll make you feel at home. Or are you used to being the one doing the leashing?”

It’s stupid. Very, very stupid. Neil knows better than most the things words can hide. He knows Cameron has his issues the same way Aaron did and that antagonizing each other won’t do any good. It took most of their first year together and a few torture sessions for Aaron and Neil to reach something even remotely like common ground; Cameron is three times Aaron’s size and apparently, three times as angry. Neil shouldn’t be baiting him.

Well, like I said. Sometimes, you have to break a bone to reset it.

Neil ducks a punch from Cameron and then Andrew’s patience is up. He slams Cameron across the locker room as the others shuffle out, apparently done with caring. Neil sighs and scrubs a hand over his face.

When it’s done, Andrew casts a sideways look at Ava. “Now there’s two of you. Great.”

“Wymack will be so happy,” Neil murmurs. He’s granted a faint glow of warmth—humor, maybe—from Andrew before it disappears.

Ava is waiting in the lounge with Morgan. He is practically talking at her and she sees Neil and Andrew come in, her attention pivoting. There’s a silent question on her face she doesn’t ask. Neil appreciates that about her.

“I think Aaron wanted to have dinner with everyone,” Neil says. Andrew gives him a skeptical look.

It’s actually true. Neil doesn’t defend his words, though. He doesn’t have to. Dan joins them and they all leave, thinking only about food and the future.

It’s nice to be able to think about that.


Neil starts to notice after a week that something is going on.

He’s never been the best at picking up on social cues but after a year with the Foxes, he can at least read them well enough to guess at some things. Like the fact that Nicky keeps making eyes at Morgan while simultaneously watching his interactions with Neil like a hawk.

That was an interesting introduction. Nicky had practically swooned over Morgan’s freckles and wouldn’t stop talking about how his hair was perfect. Morgan just looked confused and touched the bundle on top of his head, knotted off with a tie that had long since lost its color. He’d been cheerful about the compliments, though, and then he’d spent five minutes going on about Nicky’s highlight reel. It was a credit to how much Nicky liked him that he put up with those five minutes of Exy talk.

“You rely on your right foot,” Neil tells Morgan, while they’re going through an agility course. The recruits are already sweating but Morgan just looks unruffled and serious, nodding as his eyes flick over the cones.

“I had a minor injury to my left ankle years ago,” Morgan explains. “I know it’s fine, but it’s like some kind of second nature to just favor the right.”

Neil nods. “It takes time to train that sort of instinct out. It’s not good to, either; learning how to compensate helps not to re-injure. But if it was long enough ago and it’s healed fine, you have to learn how to let it go.”

“How?”

“There are ways,” Neil says, humming thoughtfully. A basement. Cleaver in hand, preparations to take inch by inch. The memory flickers and dies. He thinks of cigarette smoke. “See me after you stretch out in the morning.”

“Damn, Neil,” Nicky interrupts, appearing while he tries to juggle a few stray balls. “Can I borrow that? That was the smoothest pickup line I’ve ever heard.”

Neil ignores it—he’s used to Nicky’s exaggerations—but Morgan flushes and stutters, trying to clarify. Nicky teases him and Neil leaves it to them to figure things out. He’s too busy noticing the way Andrew is staring from goal.

Neil walks over, curious. Andrew usually either stares into space or divides his attention among the recruits; he hasn’t decided what the thinks about them yet, which is at least a step up from his lack of caring from last year.

“What?” Neil asks, stopping in front of Andrew.

Andrew returns the stare. “You came to me.”

“I did. You were staring,” Neil says. “Not that I mind.”

“Of course, you don’t,” Andrew mutters. He looks away. This is the Andrew that Neil is used to—the cool distance and unbothered expression.

What was it that I just saw, then? It hadn’t been Andrew thinking about things he shouldn’t or Andrew giving an eighth of his emotional capacity toward figuring out who was worthy of his protection and care.

Neil couldn’t figure it out. He got back to practice instead, concentrating on helping Dan. By the time they were done, he had almost forgotten about it. That is, until Ava walked over to him.

“You’re a good leader,” Ava says.

Neil pauses in the middle of loosening his gloves. “But?”

“But, you don’t really know how people work. Not quite.”

Neil isn’t sure how to answer. Part of him is still surprised that she would even say anything in the first place, but then he thinks about Andrew’s comment. Now there’s two of you. He supposes he should have expected something, sooner or later. He’s not sure if it will change how he feels about her.

“Meaning?” Neil finally replies.

Ava shrugs. “I don’t know if it’s because you’re so close you can’t tell. I don’t even know what you have in the first place. But you should probably start paying attention to Andrew, at practice. I know you pay attention to him when you’re off the court. Try it. You might see something.”

It’s not a lot to work with and Neil hadn’t expected it to be personal. Ava doesn’t give him time to reply. She leaves him there and he turns to see Andrew, standing at the door and staring right at Neil.

Yeah. Watch him.


Neil leaves practice and goes to the roof.

They spend less time up here. Things have changed; they’ve changed. Andrew doesn’t have the same reasons and neither does Neil. Today, Neil turns left down the hallway and Andrew barely pauses before following him. He fishes his cigarettes out of his pocket and stays a safe distance away from the edge.

He’s waiting.

“You remember I told you, I only swing for you.” It’s not the most artful way of saying it or starting the conversation. Neil does it anyway. Andrew has always been good at walking through the mess with him—walking him through it, too.

Andrew stops with a cigarette halfway to his lips. His next word is almost forced. “Yes.”

“It’s still true,” Neil says. He leans in a little, to look at the tiny lines at the inner corners of Andrew’s eyes. Andrew stares at his cigarette like he’s contemplating burning something. Maybe Neil. “You know that, right?”

Andrew gives him an even stare. He doesn’t say anything.

Neil lets a few more minutes pass before he tries again. By this time, Andrew is curling his knees up to his chest and the wind is cold on the back of Neil’s neck. He wants something warm to replace it. Wants Andrew’s hand to replace it.

“I always—”

“Don’t ‘always’ me.”

Neil smiles a little. He doesn’t bother wiping it off his lips. “I stayed for you.”

Andrew’s voice is rough when he answers. “I know.”

He doesn’t say I didn’t ask you to and Neil thinks that’s progress. Between the smile and the smoke, Neil edges in closer to Andrew. He waits until Andrew has a mouthful and asks, “Yes or no?”

“Yes.” Andrew breathes. The wisps curl around Neil and he carefully leans forward.

Andrew is hesitant; Neil leaves the lightest brush on his lips and moves away, trying not to frown. Neil does it when he’s confused, he’s been told. He doesn’t want Andrew to think he’s angry.

“What is it?”

“You could make it easier on yourself,” Andrew says. Every word is like pulling a tooth. The statement is vague but Neil knows exactly what he’s talking about. “You’re an idiot. You should have—”

“Should have what? Hidden? I thought I was supposed to stop hiding,” Neil says. He tries to sound amused. Gestures to his hair, his eyes—the mess on his cheek.

Andrew glares at the spot where the tattoo isn’t like he can erase it from ever having happened. Like he can burn it away again with sheer force of will. “Not when—”

The rest of the words are bitten off. Neil feels something throb in his chest. “You told me I wasn’t yours.”

I’m not your answer and you sure as hell aren’t mine.

“That’s right,” Andrew says shortly. Another fire flares to life in his eyes.

Because Andrew would never. He knows better than to say those things. Knows better than to use possessives. But he’s been feeling jealous these past few days and Neil hadn’t noticed. He’d been oblivious to it when Andrew was going through the mess of it himself and probably blaming himself for wanting. For caring in the first place.

“You don’t own me,” Neil continues. “Because I’m a gift. I gave me to you. I give my thoughts to you, every day. I give my waking up to you—”

“Don’t—” Andrew starts, the look in his eyes going from pure fire to something else. Something wild. He didn’t know the words he was going to hear and he can’t believe them. He can’t but he will, because Neil is only truth when he talks to Andrew.

“No?” Neil asks, quiet. Andrew’s hands curl in his hoodie. It’s too cold for them on the roof and Neil wants to go inside and hold Andrew but he needs to say this. If Andrew will let him.

Andrew swallows. He’s quieter than he’s ever been. “Yes.”

“I give all my kisses to you. I give you my eyes. I give you my shirts—even the ones you hate,” Neil adds, his lips turning up at the corners. He pauses. This is just as hard for him to say as it is for Andrew to hear. It’s just as terrifying. “I give you my heart. What’s there.”

“You’ve seen—”

“What your hair looks like in the morning. Terrible. What it looks like after a shower. Gross. What you look when you’re pissed,” Neil grins. Andrew’s ears are getting red. “What you look like in the morning, when you’re sleeping and your mouth is a little open—”

“You’re no sleeping beauty,” Andrew retorts. He’s wound up. He’s chewing through the muscle that’s his heart and Neil just has to give him what he needs. What he always needs. “Your hair is worse than mine in the morning. You never get haircuts. You always drop shit in the morning when I want it to be quiet.”

“Keep going. I like it when you’re sweet,” Neil says, when Andrew takes a pause for breath.

Andrew stares at him. Like he’s looking at some kind of mythical creature. “Shut up.”

“Are you sure?” Neil asks. Two questions at once. This acceptance—Andrew’s version of it—is something Neil will bring up again. As many times as Andrew needs him to. It doesn’t matter how good this moment is. Neil will keep making sure, because Andrew won’t. Can’t.

“Yes.”

It feels a lot like coming home. It feels better.

Andrew frames Neil’s face in his hands and leans in. He’s slow; methodical, like he’s speaking a new language with his tongue in Neil’s mouth and he wants to get it right. Neil forgets that it’s cold. Forgets practice and worrying about the new recruits and hoping things can stay the way they are forever.

They just are.

Then the door swings open and voices trickle from the stairwell. Neil stops, his hands on Andrew’s waist. Andrew is still in his lap when one of the freshman appears, Morgan right next to him. It takes them a beat to realize what’s in front of them.

“Shit—” the first man says, flinging his arm blindly for the door.

Morgan is redder than anyone Neil has ever seen before. “Oh, God—sorry, we’re sorry—”

Andrew ignores them and leans into Neil’s neck, biting with peeved attention. Neil swallows a moan but turns his attention back to Andrew, barely registering the door swinging closed. He laughs.

“Okay. You’ve got my attention.”

“I fucking hope so.”

Neil doesn’t stop laughing until Andrew starts pressing a hand against his sweatpants. They leave the roof and escape to their dorm while Neil wonders if Morgan has told anyone, yet. He wonders if anyone would believe him.

He sincerely hopes so.

Chapter Text

He’d guessed, by the time the countdown had ended, who really sent the message.

He’s not happy that he can’t tell his teammates anything. He walks into the hallway and sees the fake security guards, ghosts of his past. Hears the Foxes talking about him. He thinks of how much he’s going to miss and how they should still win the final match, could win the final match, and he hopes they do.

Hopes they push him far out of their minds and their hearts.

“There you are. We’ve been waiting!” Nicky laughs. He’s always laughing.

“I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry I couldn’t help. I’m sorry I won’t be able to stay. I’m sorry for not telling you.

Nicky is flustered. He backtracks and waves his hands, says it’s no big deal, looks at Neil with that expression that says he just wants to hug him. Today, Neil wants the hug. He wants it so badly but he can’t.

Andrew knows something is off. Neil feels like his mouth is stuffed with cotton. He’s already dead.

“Thank you. You were amazing.”

Somewhere among the Foxes talking, Neil feels Andrew tugging him in. Neil panics. I can’t, he thinks, static in his mind.

The two men see what’s happening. His father’s men. They have orders, Neil assumes, to match the guns at their waists. He sees one off them move; doesn’t care which.

NO,” Neil yells, whirling on his feet. A man grabs him, slamming him against the wall. Neil can hear the Foxes screaming.

His family, screaming.

“You can’t,” Neil manages to choke out. His feet fight for any kind of surface, despite the instinct kicked into him from years of this. He looks into the flat eyes of the killer holding him and knows he’s right. “He gave you orders. Follow them.”

The guards glance at each other. One starts talking to the Foxes. Neil assumes he has his gun out.

“You move, we shoot him now. He’s coming home. The Butcher is waiting.”

Kevin sucks in a breath. Neil knows he knows. Before anything else, Neil looks to Kevin, trying to communicate what he needs. The guards are just waiting for an excuse.

“I’m sorry,” Neil says, squeezing his eyes shut before the blow hits his temple. I’m sorry I left it for you to do.

There’s a flash of fire and pain and then Neil is out, lost to the darkness and wishing he could crawl back up and tell his friends one last thing.

I’m sorry.


“Let’s go,” Wymack shouts. The doors shut behind the two men and Neil is with them.

Neil is with them.

Andrew is moving. Kevin and Matt had tried to hold him; Renee had all but pulled his knives on him. They couldn’t keep him back. His head was full of static and all he could hear was thank you.

He knew.

Just one look and Andrew knew that Neil had known just what was happening. He’d known for a long time. Andrew thinks about Evermore and the way had unflinchingly lied to board the plane with no questions; how he’d taken the abuse and come back only tired. He said it was for Andrew. He didn’t say he only had so much time.

Only so much time to help, so he threw himself into places he didn’t want to be. Broke promises he didn’t want anyone to keep.

He told you not to protect him, a little voice reminds Andrew. He doesn’t care.

Andrew follows the men and realizes they’re not leaving. They take Neil out a side door, away from the partying crowd, toward a brick square at the edge of the campus.

Someone’s hand is on his collar before he can follow. Wymack barely registers Andrew’s struggle

“We have to call someone,” Wymack says shortly. Andrew hisses.

“Fuck that. They’re hurting him now,” Matt says. He’s come close at some point, his face ashen but his fists curled at his sides.

Allison has taken off her heels. “That’s one of us, Coach. We’re not going to sit here and wait.”

“You have to,” Wymack snapped. “They’ve got guns. We need to call—”

“FBI,” Kevin interrupts. When he appears, he has Neil’s phone in hand. His eyes are somewhere far away. “Neil told me what to do. They’re on their way.”

“Time?”

“Thirty minutes,” Kevin whispers. “They said they want to take him in alive.”

Andrew is furious. Thirty minutes. “I’m going to watch.”

“Don’t,” Kevin blurts, reaching for his arm. Andrew stares at his hand. Kevin isn’t that much of a moron.

Andrew slams him up to the wall. Dan curses. “Why not?”

“His father. He works for the Moriyamas,” Kevin grinds out. Something cold runs through Andrew’s veins. “Neil has been running from him since he was ten, with his mother. He ran the night he was trying out as a backliner with Riko and me.”

Moriyamas. Backliner. Everything is sliding into place; fragments, memories, words and looks. The pattern of scars raised under Andrew’s hands, edge of an iron and thin lines. A cleaver, he realizes now.

“He doesn’t want us to see,” Kevin whispers. “He wouldn’t want us to see.”


Lola takes her sweet time.

He’d thought they would take him away. Baltimore is the only place his father would go back to—the only place he’d be let back to—and he Nathan would enjoy the blunt poetry of it.

Nathaniel knows in an instant what the game is. Nathan had been hoping to see the Moriyamas. Have an audience with them. Recoup his losses and proudly pledge to kill his own son, for honor and retribution. He’ll be disappointed when he comes in, Nathaniel thinks. Nathan is not going to see the Moriyamas, or meet with them.

Lola finishes her work. It doesn’t take long. She questions him as she goes, asking what the Foxes know and where his mother is. Each burn and slice feels like an eternity, yet the ticking clock on the far wall tells him it’s been ten minutes. Ten minutes of purgatory.

He’s about to be in hell.


When ten minutes go by, Andrew hears it. Commotion outside, where the fans are gathered. Renee crosses the lounge and looks out the windows.

“A riot,” she says, something calculating in her voice.

“They’re moving him,” Andrew says. He stands immediately, fingers at the bands on his arms. “He’s going to Neil.”

“We can’t—” Matt starts, whirling around. Pleading. Wymack is running a hand through his hair.

Andrew is done waiting. He made no promise and he should feel no obligation but all he knows is that Neil is right there. He’s a few yards away, behind brick and pain, probably twisting away from someone’s knife. Neil had said thank you and walked into the arms of death, like it was his only option. Like it was the only certain thing in his life.

That’s supposed to be me, Andrew wants to say. Needs to say; needs to repeat it until Neil understands. Is your learning curve a horizontal line? Neil’s hands over his head and his brown-red eyelashes fanned across his cheeks. Don’t look at me like that. Neil flushed, head tilted against the bathroom wall. What are you afraid of? Heights. Neil watching the pen in Andrew’s hand. Doing something with his fingers and offering to order a drink, holding a finger up to an annoyed Kevin, who had started to complain.

“I am going,” Andrew says. “Do not try to stop me.”

“The best way to stop a shooter is in numbers. Overwhelm him,” Matt says, following Andrew to the door. The other Foxes are behind him

Even Aaron.

Idiots, all of them.

Andrew opens the door to chaos. He skirts around the outside of the crowd. There is a figure headed toward the brick building, two men behind him. Renee and Andrew are in place immediately. The man—Nathan—doesn’t turn around; Renee and Andrew cover the mouths of the bodyguards. They only have swift death in mind, but Allison knocks Renee’s mark out with a swift flash of her hand and Matt has Andrew’s man down, punching him in the chest and holding his nose to stop his attempts to suck in air.

It goes too well. Too well, too quickly. The Foxes have to fight to go unseen, crawling up to the dark building. Andrew swings the door open and slides in.

They don’t even have to go far before they hear the screams.

Andrew stops. His feet are stuck to the ground. For a minute, he’s back in his tiny room, thinking of ways to kill Proust while unwanted images of Neil being hit over the head or shot in the back reel through his mind.

This is much worse. The smell of blood and burning flesh hangs in the air. The building looks like a maintenance facility; the Foxes are in a thin hallway. There is an open room at the end, cages with humming electrical equipment obscuring the far reach of the space. Andrew steps behind one and listens.

“I was thinking of skinning you. But you’re too small for a rug.” The man’s voice is low. His footsteps are heavy with intent. Andrew thinks of Neil, flinching back from Wymack and the way he’s always just out of arm’s reach.

The hall is full of Foxes, but there’s something much bigger pacing in the room with Neil.

“Can I?” A woman asks. Her voice is choked; like she’s been punched in the throat. Andrew knows without doubt that it was Neil. He wonders who the woman is and what she did, then decides he doesn’t care. “I’d love to.”

“Take them,” Neil’s father says. “He can’t run anymore.”

Neil’s voice flickers back to life, except it’s not Neil. It’s the boy that can’t run; the boy who was stuck in place for ten years before his mother took him away. The person yelling no and please is not their Neil. It’s someone with the same voice, trying desperately to cling to the only thing that’s ever been safe.

Andrew starts to move. He does, but then someone in black is shoving him to the ground and there are gunshots everywhere. Screaming. An angry roar and the sounds of someone saying don’t look. Andrew can see the floating yellow letters in his periphery, while Kevin tries to hold his hand.

The noise is deafening and then it ends. The agents are moving around.

They’re right on time.


Nathaniel is shaking. His ankles are sore; Nathan wasn’t kind when he had held him.

Nathan is lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood.

Nathaniel’s mouth opens and he makes a noise. A terrible noise that he hates—it’s too human and not human enough. Hurt and exhausted and relieved. Nathaniel doesn’t have any food to throw up; everything has been long gone, since the game.

One of the agents is lifting his helmet. He has a patient face. “It’s okay.”

He’s also not right. He’s too old. Not old enough. Nathaniel thinks he can see a flicker of blue; he hears a cleaver dragging across metal. His breath is thin in his chest.

“Hey. We’re here to help,” the man says. He reaches out.

Nathaniel recoils so fast his head hits the concrete wall. He cries out in pain; his hands protest at the movement and his arms are on fire.

“Don’t touch him.”

At first, Nathaniel thinks it’s him, but that’s not right. Then he thinks it’s one of the agents. But Nathaniel knows that voice, would know it anywhere—has heard it soft and loud, laughing and interested and absolutely bored.

Andrew is deadly, now. He crosses the floor to kneel at Nathaniel’s feet. He’s not really here. He’s not real, Nathaniel thinks, but the agent moves away to let him closer.

“He’s dead,” Andrew says. Short, to the point.

“I know.”

“We’re leaving,” Andrew says. “Can I touch?”

“Shouldn’t,” Nathaniel says mechanically. “Too hurt.”

Andrew’s mouth is a thin line. Nathaniel places his palms on the floor—they’re mercifully unmarked—and pushes. The pain he feels is so terrible that he briefly considers falling; just falling and letting the earth come up to meet him. Instead, he stands upright and breathes through he nausea. Lets it into his body, filling every crevice.

The first thing he sees is Kevin’s face. Kevin. There, at the entrance to the hallway, with the other Foxes huddled along the walls. Nathaniel doesn’t understand what they’re doing there, or why a flood of panic is rising in his chest. The room smells like blood. It smells like burning.

Nathaniel remembers sharp noises. Someone’s hands on his legs. He remembers and starts to turn to look. Andrew says don’t, but Nathaniel is already looking at the pool of blood. Again. The figure on the floor, with his eyes and his hair and his everything.

That same, terrible sound comes out of his mouth and Nathaniel is lurching down the hallway, running with the bare energy he has left. He’s tumbling into the night air and falling back to his knees, bruised and bloodied, stinging everywhere while he vomits nothing into the grass. He shakes and shivers, feeling his heart slow its drum-beat pounding.

He has nothing left to give, so he lets go.


The next few days are a mess. Andrew doesn’t let Neil out of his sight. The FBI interrogate everyone, but mostly Neil. There are questions and raw wounds and by the end of it, Wymack takes them home and cancels their next practice in favor of making everyone talk to Dobson.

For the first few weeks, Neil keeps it together. He focuses on Riko and the final match.

It’s enough. They get through it and they win and everything is fine, except it’s not. Because Neil hadn’t wanted any of them to see that, to experience it—to even carry a fifth of the weight gathered on his shoulders. He starts hating it a little more each time he thinks about it.

He hates and tears himself apart inside and then, the day comes that he can’t keep it in any longer.


Of course, retribution comes. The Ravens have fans that don’t listen, even after everything. Neil is out in town with the Foxes; they’re doing some shopping and he’s wandering around, thinking about what to buy for Aaron and Andrew. They’re both with Bee, at their usual session.

Someone comes up to him and in a moment, Neil knows things won’t end well. The stranger has a fierce look and a cup in hand. It’s getting hotter and he can’t wear long sleeves, so Neil is in a t-shirt and a thin hoodie that’s unzipped. There is nothing to save Neil from the hot coffee being thrown at him.

Nathaniel was taught to stay quiet, even against gut instinct. He was taught that screaming only gave Nathan pleasure and Nathaniel didn’t want that.

Neil is different. Neil screams, mostly in shock, when the coffee hits his chest. He has a sudden, searing flash of memory—every inch of skin covered in burn scars flares to life like they’re being reinjured all at once. The shock is consuming.

He doesn’t notice Matt throwing the man away, Dan probably at his side to stop and violence and find a security guard. They don’t matter.

What matters is Kevin, suddenly in front of Neil with eyes that look unhinged. “Neil. Neil, talk.”

“What?” Neil asks. The world is drowning in syrup. He can’t really move.

“Are—you’re hurt. We need to change you.”

Kevin takes him into a bathroom without another word. He slides into the largest stall at the end and dumps his things on the floor—his bags from expensive places, all chosen for public image, except for the t-shirts Allison had teased him for. They’re all silly, meaningless pop culture references that Kevin has no shame about liking.

“Can I?” Kevin asks, hesitating. Neil manages to nod. Kevin helps him out of his things; he’s not as detached or comfortable as Andrew, but he tries. He has the demeanor of someone who’s seen it before—probably with Jean—and knows how to help, but has never really had to.

Kevin throws Neil’s shirt in the trash and pulls another over his head. This one is soft and too big. Neil realizes after a moment that it smells like Kevin’s laundry and that’s when he realizes Kevin is wearing one of his new shirts and Neil is wearing his old one—a soft Henley that has one mismatched button, because Renee sewed it on and Kevin was glared at until he left it alone and just wore it that way.

“I—”

“Thank you,” Neil says. He finally gets his words out and that’s all he can say. He’s not sure how to explain himself. Thank you for helping me. He knows how much it’s been taking for Kevin to finally step up. To finally stop being in the shadow, in second place.

To help someone when they’re hurt and not just wait for someone else to do it.

Kevin doesn’t look pained when he feels, now. Not as much. “Yeah. Ready?”

They leave the bathrooms and Neil holds his hand up to his nose. The sleeves are past his knuckles and he can smell cologne lingering on the fabric. It’s nice.

The others are waiting. Dan triple-checks Neil to make sure he’s okay and then they all pile back into cars, going back to campus. Andrew is waiting when they get there and Neil briefly wonders who told. His mouth is a thin line of barely-veiled anger, coiled behind his lips and ready to strike. Neil shrugs off Nicky’s arm and gives the others the brief reassurance he can afford before following Andrew upstairs.

“Where’s your shirt?”

“Trash.”

Andrew closes the door behind them; pauses and inhales. “Can I look?”

“Yes.” Neil stays still. Keeps his hands at his sides and lets Andrew hike up the borrowed shirt, fingers brushing around red skin. The burn is sensitive. Neil doubts it’ll do much more than scar, if that.

Andrew is as close to frowning as he can get. “Who did it?”

“I don’t know. Some guy.”

“Where is he?”

“Not here,” Neil says. He feels his lips quirk. “I am, though.”

Andrew huffs. Less than annoyed but more than accepting. He grumbles something about Neil’s already-lacking wardrobe and opens the door. Neil almost does laugh when he watches Matt stumble, presumably from where he was leaning against the door and waiting.

“Kevin bought me shirts,” Neil says. “Everyone picked one. I wasn’t allowed to pay.”

“Of course not,” Andrew says, glaring as the rest of the team come inside. Kevin hands Neil his bag and they decide where they’re going for dinner.

If Kevin hangs around Neil and turns at every little noise, no one says anything—least of all, Neil.


Neil’s t-shirt says, baby boy, baby and Andrew almost slams the door in his face. Neil catches it with his foot but stays where he is.

“They’re ready.”

“They can wait.”

Neil shrugs. He walks back out because he knows Andrew won’t sulk for long. Not when faced with a shirt that isn’t hiding everything and the fact that Neil is finally sporting a new haircut. It feels nice—fresh. Neil always liked haircuts, even done in gas station bathrooms and crudely hacked with a pair of scissors. They felt like newness.

What’s new is the way Neil doesn’t have to hide. What’s new is the way he walks down the hallway without itching for the need to stick to shadows that don’t exist.

Some random guy comes out of a party happening a few doors down and Neil instinctively sidesteps him. The guy stops him with a smile. He’s saying things—nothing of consequence; it’s all about school and not seeing Neil around—and he’s holding a red cup in his hand. Neil tries to be polite because Andrew isn’t done and they can’t leave without him, anyway.

Well, technically, they could.

“Why don’t you join us?”

“I’m going somewhere with friends,” Neil says, shrugging.

The guy frowns a little. Steps closer. Nudges Neil with his elbow. “They’re friends, right? They’d understand if you wanted to stay.”

He doesn’t want to stay, though. This guy is nice but Neil also doesn’t know him and Allison had already saved a table at the restaurant. Neil opens his mouth to say something and then another man comes barreling out, passing the people lingering around the hallway.

This new man throws an arm over Neil when he sees him, grinning and heavy. Neil stops breathing. He goes still, his mind dangerously turning to other thoughts. To the smell of blood and the weight of a cleaver against his neck.

“He’s just too shy to say he thinks you’re hot!” Neil barely hears the words. He barely registers the alcoholic laugh at his ear or the way the first guy—the nice one—is trying to get his friend away.

In the span of once second, the arm on Neil disappears and the drunk man is pushed back toward a wall. The first guy goes to pull him up, looking back at Neil apologetically. “I’m sorry.”

Neil nods. He doesn’t know what else to do or say. There’s a reassuring hand on his head and Neil propels himself down the hall and around the corner.

“Neil? Are you okay?” It’s Matt. Calm, stable, waiting. He doesn’t push any more than the question.

“Fine,” Neil finally says. His lungs remember to do their job and he blinks, stepping out the door and into the evening breeze. It feels nice. “Thanks.”

“Yeah. Of course,” Matt says. Neil notices the way his fist is curled tight at his side. He tries again.

“I wasn’t in trouble. I can—if I get that way, I can still fight back. When I have to.”

“You shouldn’t have to.”

“You shouldn’t have to fight for me,” Neil reminds him.

Matt opens his mouth. He’s somewhere else for a minute. “I do. It’s—sometimes, I can’t even do that.”

Oh. Oh, Neil thinks, and he says oh.

Dobson. The days after the attack and when Riko had nearly killed him. How the Foxes heard all about Neil and how he’d been keeping away from his enemies by keeping in front of theirs. Wymack had forced them to talk to Bee. They couldn’t help when Nathan was going to take my legs, just like they couldn’t help when I set foot on that plane and went to Riko. He thinks about Kevin and coffee and the way he’d refused to take his shirt back.

“You do more than enough,” Neil says. “Remember?” You let me stay.

Matt doesn’t reply to that. He walks further out to the waiting Foxes, where Kevin is insisting half of them secure the table because he doesn’t trust the restaurant to hold it. Andrew slinks out a beat later, cigarette in mouth and box open in his hand. Neil tilts the cardboard flap shut and leans in instead, breathing the smoke into his lungs as deeply as he can.

“Jesus, that’s the closest I’ve ever seen them come to making out,” Nicky squeaks from the car. Aaron shoots his cousin a narrow look over Neil’s shoulder.

Neil just drapes his arms over Andrew’s shoulders while Nicky freaks out and Kevin shoves him into the car to wait. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Andrew agrees, even while his eyes flicker over Neil’s arms and the little curl on his forehead. He starts to move and then stops, holding up a mass of leather in his hand. “Wear a damn jacket. I’m not going to listen to you complain when you get cold.”

“Yet you brought me one.” Neil doesn’t complain. It doesn’t matter. Andrew tosses the jacket and Neil shrugs it on before ducking into the car.

Kevin slaps a hand over Nicky’s mouth before they leave.  A wise move, until Nicky licks him and then grins for the rest of the trip. Neil doesn’t really care. He’s too busy enjoying Andrew’s fingers combing through his hair.

Chapter Text

Andrew is just minding his own goddamn business and then the everything starts shaking.

They all knew that California had earthquakes, somewhere in the back of their minds, but it wasn’t a constant thought. The game had been a constant thought; not the fact that the ground could decide to just stop fucking working like a blanket being snapped clean, laid flat one minute and rumbling the next.

“Shit!” Nicky curses, barely halfway through getting his shirt off. The others are making disgruntled noises, trying to crouch and keep their bearings.

Andrew can’t.

He just—can’t.

He hates flying because he doesn’t like the emptiness beneath him; it’s not necessarily heights, it’s the lack of steadiness beneath him. Because Andrew can be the rock Neil moors himself to but Andrew can’t do that if he doesn’t have ground to stand on. A foundation.

Andrew is frozen in place. The lockers screech and he wonders how old they are. If they’ll hold. The cabinet by the door—right where Andrew places himself, ready for any intruder—sways. It leans toward him and he watches it calmly.

Someone calls his name. Neil. Andrew is about to say something and then he’s hitting the ground, familiar arms around him. Neil didn’t even put his shirt back on; his scars are out like they never are and Andrew can only think of them, pressed against his chest, because things screech and groan around them. The world is falling and Andrew just holds Neil, nails digging into a warm arm at his shoulders.

When it stops, Andrew is aware of something heavy on his feet. He blinks—once, twice—and things come into focus.

Neil is on top of him.

What should be smothering is safe. Neil has Andrew pulled into him like he could save Andrew by pulling apart his chest and tucking him into the space by his heart. He’s also half pinned under the fucking cabinet.

“Damn,” Matt curses, standing slowly like he thinks Earth will move again. “Shit. Everyone—”

“Neil,” Kevin says, cutting him off. He’s moving in a second, going to the cabinet. Matt curses again. Andrew blinks slowly, registering the way Neil hasn’t let him go.

“Hey,” Andrew says. No answer. Louder, more insistent, “Hey.”

Neil raises his head. There’s a tiny trickle of deep red escaping the edge of his hairline. His blue eyes waver and then he finds Andrew, a tension in his arms bleeding away. He realizes he’s holding Andrew, body pressing on him, and goes white.

“I’m—”

“An idiot,” Andrew finishes. He tightens his arms around Neil. This is fine. He wants to tell him he’s a moron, again.

How could it not be fine, when you were trying to save me from a stupid falling shelf?

“Ouch,” Nicky says, wincing when Kevin pulls the cabinet off. “You’re gonna need ice. Want to shower first, or should I get Abby?”

Neil looks down at his legs. Nicky sees the blood on Neil’s forehead and jumps, alarmed, hands flying to find a spare towel. Kevin hisses a breath in through his teeth.

“It’s okay. Head wounds bleed a lot,” Neil says. It should be a simple fact but instead, it’s a reminder to everyone that he’s been through it all before. Multiple times.

“How many fingers?” Kevin asks.

Neil stares straight at him. “Friday.”

Kevin looks panicked for a good five seconds before he is incensed. “That’s not funny—”

“Thanks for caring,” Neil says evenly. Blink and you’d miss it. He really is grateful.

Andrew huffs and edges out of Neil’s grip, satisfied when the arms around him loosen immediately, pliable but sure. Nicky has a towel in hand and Andrew takes it, shoving it against Neil’s face and ignoring the muffled noise of surprise he gets in return.

“I’ll make sure he doesn’t knock his brain out in the shower,” Andrew says shortly.

“Yeah you will,” Matt says, half-muttered and bleak. Andrew shoots him a look he misses, with his back turned.

The others make quick work of showering. Andrew waits until they go, making Neil repeat mundane facts and conversations from practices weeks ago. Once the locker room is empty, he pushes Neil into a stall that’s just big enough to fit them and grabs for the soap.

“I am sorry,” Neil murmurs. He’s blinking in the spray, nose wrinkled when the water is pink over his face. Andrew tilts his head forward with a steady hand to inspect for damage.

“Don’t.”

“I shouldn’t have done it. Not even—”

“Yes, even,” Andrew retorts. “I know the fucking difference, Josten.”

Neil stares right back at him. “Knowing doesn’t make a difference.”

Andrew evaluates Neil with a steady gaze. Thinks back to Wymack yelling and Neil always hanging out of reach. Little things.

He’s right, but Andrew doesn’t have to like it. He doesn’t have to enjoy the fact that Neil is pulling truth from him. Andrew doesn’t like just giving or taking. He needs balance.

Maybe that knock on the head is balance. Balance enough that having Neil fling himself in the way allows Andrew to open his mouth and say, “I know you.”

Neil opens his mouth. Closes it. He looks like he’s trying to figure something out but can’t quite swing it. Andrew feels agitation in his fingers—an immediate response to his words; a pressure to shore up the leak. Neil hums under his breath; his fingers brush Andrew’s arm and he pulls back, but licks his lips. Tries again.

“Do you?” Do you know Neil? Do you trust Neil?

“Yes,” Andrew says. Simple.

He knows and trusts the man in front of him. Even if some days Andrew can’t trust himself, he trusts Neil. He trusts Neil to linger but not touch when Andrew feels like clawing at anything that comes into contact with his skin. He trusts Neil to only give what Andrew can take, when Andrew is raw from a dream and just wants a mouth to reassure him things are the better. Andrew trusts Neil to touch him only in love and care; never in anger and not even in annoyance.

“Okay,” Neil says. Nods, sending a little river down his head and onto Andrew’s shoulder. He’s got a tiny smile on his lips.

It always tastes sweet. Today, it tastes like the faintness of blood but Andrew still likes it. It seems like all their important ones are like this, reinforced by some outside problem. Neil barely breathing on the roof, immediate panic setting in. Neil relaxing into the kiss because they’ve done it a thousand times before, copper on his tongue from the wound washed out in the shower.

When Andrew pulls away, he carefully runs his hand through Neil’s hair with soap. Neil only winces a little when Andrew nears his forehead. They finish in short order and then Andrew pulls him out, going through the motions of sliding a shirt over Neil’s head before he catches the look being trained on him.

“What.”

“I can dress myself,” Neil says, amused. “If you want to, though—I don’t mind.”

He’s still half-naked. Andrew narrows his eyes. This is the wrong time and absolutely the wrong place. He wants to leave, before the ground decides to dick around with their love life again.

Love life?

Andrew slams his locker shut a little too hard. Neil finishes dressing and they leave the room. Wymack is waiting with the others, Abby at his elbow. She frowns at Neil and asks him questions, shining a light in his eyes and probing with gentle fingers. Her final decision is to let him live—if Neil is ever exactly living—and she shoos them onto the bus, making Andrew swear to wake him up every two hours just in case. Neil isn’t thrilled about the schedule but he agrees anyway.

Kevin catches them on the way in. He directs his question to Neil. “Are you sure? Two hours?”

Neil lifts one shoulder in a shrug. Andrew zeroes in on the conversation. Kevin catches his look and then glances at Neil, wondering if he should tell. He clearly remembers Andrew choking him but doesn’t want to overstep bounds.

Neil is the one that finally, tiredly says, “Evermore. Time…is different.”

He thinks about Neil at that time. The way he’d checked the clocks too many times. How he’d stayed awake on the bus, when everyone else had been sleeping or napping. Andrew wants to say something—not sorry, maybe not even a promise—but instead he nods. It might be all Neil needs, because they board and Andrew tugs Neil by his hood onto his lap. Neil curls up there, knees almost to his chest, and promptly falls asleep.

Andrew doesn’t think he’s ever seen Neil so ready to go to sleep, before. He’s always been wary, even after Riko’s death. Old habits were hard to kick. Today, Neil lets himself go slack and buries his nose in Andrew’s shirt, keeping his hands tucked under his chin, tangled together like he’s reassuring himself.

I’d do that, Andrew thinks. He wants to be the one holding Neil’s hand and he frowns, trying to shove the thought away. Two hours later, he wakes Neil and lets Abby check him. Neil barely talks. He’s never too happy when he wakes up. He can’t go back to sleep after that, settling for looking out the window.

Andrew is tired, though. He needs to tune out. Neil must notice, with three hours left to the drive, so he holds a hand out in question. Andrew purses his lips. If he falls asleep…

“I won’t,” Neil says. His voice barely carries over the hum of the road. “I’ll be too busy watching you.”

Andrew glares. Thinks about punching him and also maybe kissing that stupid, fuzzy look off his face. He settles for leaning on Neil’s shoulder, feeling his eyelids grow heavy and the hum block everything else out.

Usually, Andrew can’t sleep through the nights. He’s always up until one in the morning and then up again for practice. He gets his sleep elsewhere—unlike Neil, who had been hunted and couldn’t have fallen asleep in public. Andrew can fall asleep in a car with his friends or on the bus precisely because it is public. Because nothing will happen to him, especially with the Foxes keeping watch. With Neil keeping watch.

Andrew still wakes up rough plenty of times. He swings or elbows his way out of sleep but Neil always evades the hits, or at least takes them with grace. Andrew hates hurting Neil—even a little bit, with an elbow to the side—and he hates that Neil once said, I’ve been through worse.

Tonight, Andrew is woken by a soft voice in his ear. The gentle murmur of Russian in his ear, which Neil knows more of because he sucks up language like Andrew does memories. “We are home.”

Home sounds good. Stupid, ideal, and fleeting—but good. Andrew opens his eyes and stifles a yawn.

He notices the other Foxes staring.

Andrew glares. The team jumps into action, pretending to laugh and talk, but they keep glancing back at the pair. Even Renee’s gaze lingers a little too long on their forms. Once everyone is off, Abby check Neil again and declares him safe. Andrew barely stops to grab their bags before hauling Neil into the dorm.

Neil, yawning, climbs into bed first. He doesn’t bother changing out of his sweatpants. His back is against the wall like it always is, giving Andrew a way out. Andrew watches Neil wait for him, arms pulled into his chest. When he dumps their bags and turns, Andrew waves Neil’s arms away. Neil raises an eyebrow.

“Can you or can you not hold me?” Andrew asks. He means it to come out sarcastic but it just ends up sounding petulant. Neil smiles before squashing the quirk of his lips, settling on a solemn look that’s almost worse.

“Yes. I can.”

Andrew mutters a few things—junkie and idiot, all familiar—and Neil lets him have his spiel before pulling Andrew close to his chest. Andrew can feel his heartbeat pounding against his skin, one-two, like a ball bouncing off the court walls. Like Neil pushing him and shielding him from the world as it fell apart.

He contemplates. Andrew turns in Neil’s arms, watching blue eyes crack open a little, sleep threatening the corners. Neil’s focused on him, patient and willing to stay awake. Willing to wait.

“I don’t like earthquakes.”

Truth. Not truth. He’s saying one thing and his mind is unhelpfully supplying another. I don’t like my foundation being taken away from me. He hates how much he needs it, now. How much he’s come to rely on the Foxes and having something like a home. Hates it but can’t hate it. Neil is teaching him all about that.

Neil nods sagely. “It’s a good thing I’m here. To hold you.”

He doesn’t say hold you down. It would be the wrong thing to say. Anyway, Andrew is feeling the siren call of sleep and he knows why Neil said what he did. His arms are around Andrew. They always seem to be, these days.

“A good thing,” Andrew repeats. Neil smiles, all sleep and softness and care. It’s almost too much to look at—but Andrew looks anyway. Stares and stares until the world is blurry around him and he can’t keep his eyes open anymore.

He feels Neil’s lips, just a little dry, on his forehead. German, to remind him of Aaron and Nicky and the only family he’s ever had that chose him. “You are good. This is good. Love.”

Neil doesn’t say my love, but Andrew feels like it anyway. It’s not a bad thing to feel.

Chapter Text

He could feel it creeping up on him like a sickness.

The year ended well. The Foxes won, school came to a close, plans were made. Neil spent half his time occupied by Andrew’s mouth and the other half occupied by his hands. Life just went, perfect and unreal, until he looked at the calendar and realized what month it was.

July was always the worst. There were several reasons it was the worst, but chief among them was the fact that his father had nearly killed him for the first time in July—and later, his mother had been killed in July. Death was closer during the month and Neil could not escape it.

He had almost forgotten. Spending the year with the Foxes, Neil hadn’t thought he’d live this long. He had expected to die, yet here he was, feeling the days slide by like another, deadlier countdown.

The third came and Nicky would not stop talking about Eden’s Twilight. Neil could barely concentrate on his monologue, instead forcing his eyes to rove over the pages of a book in his hand. He was barely holding himself together by threads. Neil’s only comfort was that Andrew hadn’t seemed to notice.

“So? You’re coming, right?” Nicky asked, throwing himself onto the couch next to Neil. The cushions bounced and Neil almost knocked his head against the arm he was leaning on.

“Coming where?”

Nicky made an indignant noise. “The club! Tomorrow’s the fourth; we have to pregame!”

“Don’t you usually pregame a few hours ahead? Not an entire night?” Neil replied. He tried not to hold the book in his hands too tightly, forcing his fingers open a fraction of an inch.

Nicky frowned. He kept at it, though; Neil knew Kevin would go, even if he hadn’t been drinking as much since their last game. Andrew would probably want to, though Neil suspected he might stay. Might. Andrew wasn’t exactly the sentimental type, so there was a good chance he’d leave Neil to himself.

When it was time, Neil didn’t budge from the couch. He had a new book in hand.

“Well?” Andrew stood by the couch. He was holding a jacket in his hand; it was getting colder, again.

Neil had to force a neutral expression onto his face before he looked up. “Well, what?”

A vaguely stormy look entered Andrew’s eyes. His hand tightened on his jacket, making it creak softly. “I won’t wait. Are you going, or not?”

“Not,” Neil said quietly. I’m sorry. Andrew was predictably irritated by the unspoken apology.

“Don’t fall asleep on the couch,” Andrew said. It was as close to snapping at Neil as he ever got.

Andrew left and Neil exhaled raggedly, wondering how long he had. His ears were ringing. He felt like there was blood soaking into his clothes, staining his hands. Heavy on his eyelashes. He could see a phantom mist coming for him.

Neil snapped his book shut and stood. He wasn’t sure what to do but he knew he couldn’t stay where he was. Not if he wanted to stay sane.


He shouldn’t have been so irritated. He shouldn’t have, but Andrew couldn’t help it. He kept thinking about Neil on the couch, holding himself wound tight like he thought he was giving the wrong answer to some vital question.

Kevin shot him a look when Andrew stole a drink but didn’t say anything. He knew better than to involve himself and he didn’t care enough to try and work things out. Kevin probably hadn’t noticed, either—but Nicky had.

“What was up with Neil? Is there something coming up we should know about?”

Andrew shrugged the question off, half because he couldn’t think of anything and half because it was none of Nicky’s business.

“Come on. If something’s wrong—” Nicky started, but Andrew cut him off with a sharp glare. Nicky shut his mouth and turned his attention to drinking, but something still felt off.

The night felt off. Wrong.

Andrew was irritated. He shouldn’t have cared. It was fine that Neil wasn’t there. They didn’t need to be attached at the hip. Still, Andrew couldn’t shake the itch under his skin. For the first time he could remember, Andrew wasn’t interested in the club. He was thinking of when he would go home.


There was a loud crack. Nathaniel jolted upright, heart pounding, hands flying to his chest. He let out a strangled cry and tried to pull himself up.

The house wasn’t familiar. Something was wrong. His mother was nowhere and he was searching desperately for the bulletproof vest he always wore. She shouldn’t have made me take it off. She shouldn’t have, he thought, scrambling for the front door. He almost swung the door open before he stopped in his tracks. He had to find her. He couldn’t just leave.

Nathaniel could remember her words. Angry and tense. If we’re separated, you find tenth street and go. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Just go. Take what you need and run. Lock yourself in a bathroom at a restaurant; someplace busy. Public. She had made him recite the names of places they found in phone books. Tracing maps with his fingers, like a runaway’s braille. Nathaniel stumbled toward the kitchen, ears ringing. It was too loud. He threw a cabinet open and reached in; something sharp stabbed his finger and he didn’t even hiss in pain. It was nothing. He couldn’t find anything; no map, no plan, no stack of safe money. He had no choice.

This was it. Nathaniel threw himself out the door and ran. He ran and kept running, ignoring passing cars and street lights glowing in the dark. He kept one eye on his surroundings and the other trained on the distant moon, feet pounding against the pavement. His hand throbbed and he counted each heartbeat, using it to remind him. Each beat was a name he’d used or a hit he’d endured. Each one reminded him of his father and his mother and the endless, bloody circle.

There was no more. He was alone, and Nathaniel had no way out but running.


None of them were as drunk as they wanted to be. Kevin was fostering a buzz and Nicky was just tipsy enough to be relaxed. Aaron seemed as unbothered as ever. Andrew paused, hand on the doorknob, and stared.

“What?” Nicky asked, sighing.

Andrew felt something acid on his tongue. “It’s unlocked.”

“Maybe he forgot,” Nicky said, but his words were bleak. Andrew shoved the door open, ready to fight.

The living room seemed to be in perfect order, aside from the book half-open on the couch. It was a scene interrupted but not disturbed. Andrew paced around the room, wondering whether Neil would be waiting in their bedroom. If he was just asleep. If he’d forgotten.

“Andrew.” Kevin’s voice echoed from the kitchen, unsteady. If it had been another night, Andrew would have thought he was going to throw up.

Tonight, Andrew made his way over and froze in the doorway. One of the cabinets was thrown open, the inside no more disordered than it usually was. The only difference was the blood.

There was blood, dry along the edge of the drawer. Spots on the floor and a few flecks on the counter. A knife, angled diagonally and stuck between the back of the drawer and the front. Like someone had grabbed for it but couldn’t get it out in time.

“Shit,” Aaron said. He was already reaching for his phone.

“Wait. We need to look,” Andrew said. Kevin turned on him, his eyes wide and face pale.

“What? We need—”

“You know what this could be. We can’t involve anyone until we know. You know that.”

Kevin bit back his response. He ran for the basement door. Nicky thumped his way through rooms, doors banging against walls as he yelled for Neil. Andrew ordered his thoughts: find him, find him, find him. There was no more blood and no signs of a struggle, but Andrew knew better than to hope. He went willingly, last time. For us. For me. He could have done the same thing.

But there were no clues. No signs, like an abandoned cell phone or a thank you. Andrew wanted to scream. He wanted to break something. He wanted—anything, but the empty silence of the home he returned to find empty.

“He’s not here,” Nicky yelled from the back room, coming out with flushed skin and distracted eyes. “We should look for him. He can’t—maybe he’s still near. Maybe he didn’t go far.”

“You think he left?” Kevin asked. He glanced at Andrew.

“You think he didn’t?” Aaron said.

“Stop,” Andrew ordered. He was already pulling his jacket back on. “Tenth street. That’s where we need to go.”

He didn’t know much, but he knew that. Andrew didn’t wait for the others; he was down the steps and on the sidewalk before they had started to gather themselves. Andrew reached for his phone and dialed, not expecting to get an answer.

He was still disappointed when he didn’t get one.


Nathaniel could remember it in vivid detail. Each second ticked by like each foot hitting the ground.

His father seeing him. Thump. Nathan grabbing Nathaniel by the collar. Thump. The sound of kids outside, laughing. Thump. Someone grilling next door. Thump. The man in the corner, his eyes wide as he pleaded to Nathaniel for help. Thump. Nathan, never yelling but instead deathly quiet. Thump. Nathaniel tasting blood, his cheek hitting the wall, bewildered. Thump. Watching the man in the corner with his throat slit, life burbling out. Thump. Nathaniel’s screams hidden under the noise outside, other children and their happiness covering his pain. Thump. Fireworks. Thump.

The fireworks were real. He could hear them everywhere. Nathaniel ran and reality twisted around memory, so tight he could hardly breathe.

Something was clawing up from his insides. A reminder. He could see the moon but he wasn’t really looking at it. Nathaniel had a voice, trying to tell him something, but he didn’t listen. He couldn’t afford to. His chest burned and he counted the street signs. Seventeenth street. Sixteenth street. Fifteenth…


They found him faster than they’d expected to. Andrew guessed he’d only started running right before they returned. Neil was flying down the street, a blur of red-orange. Andrew pulled over. He caught up to Neil quickly, reaching for his arms. He only meant to stop Neil—to make him stutter, break the pace of his flight.

What he got instead was terror.

Neil screamed. More than screamed; his voice was almost as torn and bloody as his right hand, warm and wet when Andrew released his grip. It was too late. Neil had hit his knees and he was silent, swaying forward as if he was going to fall. Andrew moved around him, heart in his throat.

“Neil. Look at me.”

There was a chilling lack of self in Neil’s eyes. He was empty. Waiting. Whatever he’d expected at Andrew’s touch, it was bad. He was miles away. Andrew knew the look; he’d seen it in the mirror. In pictures of himself.

“Stop,” Andrew said. Tried the magic word. Nothing happened. “Neil. Wake up. Look at me.”

Nicky was walking over. Andrew held his hand up and tried not to feel it wen Neil flinched away. He reminded himself that his was not Neil. It wasn’t in the way Andrew wasn’t Andrew when he woke swinging, bruising Neil’s arms where they held him.

“Neil,” Andrew continued. “Neil Abram Josten. Number ten, starting striker, Palmetto State Foxes. Stupid Exy junkie.”

A light. Little, but enough. Andrew felt the words heavy in his mouth. He had to say them. Had to say them, even quietly and barely there. “Nothing is something is everything. To me.”

There was a tiny crease on Neil’s forehead. His eyes were filling with tears, but the feeling and reactions were late behind them. Andrew was waiting.

Neil broke in pieces. A short inhale, like he was reminding himself to breathe at all—he probably was—and then he caved. He reached for Andrew, a sob on his tongue, trying to say something. Andrew didn’t let him struggle through the question; he let Neil cling to him, shuddering breath and dizzying emotion.

Neil didn’t leave, Andrew thought. It wasn’t Neil that ran and it wasn’t him that hadn’t recognized Andrew. It hurt, to see the body and face Andrew recognized recoil so completely, but it would have been no different than seeing Aaron if he looked in the mirror. They just weren’t the same.

Andrew had Neil back, and that was all he needed.


They were curled in bed. One day and they’d barely left the house. The others had given Neil space; Nicky had smiled and held him, telling him it’s okay and you don’t have to tell us. He felt too blessed. To welcome. Too cared for.

Too much of everything had confined Neil to the bedroom where he stretched out, eyeing Andrew.

“What?”

Neil felt his gaze lingering on Andrew’s hair. Pale. It was almost white, in the summer. “Nothing.”

Andrew gave him a look that said he wasn’t convinced. Neil cautiously moved closer, keeping a good distance between their bodies. Andrew sighed through his nose, abandoning his phone on the bedside table. “What.”

“You didn’t have to come for me.” I was gone, again. Neil hated it. He hated that he’d left Andrew that way, even if it hadn’t been a choice. He didn’t think he was important enough for Andrew to feel any real flood of emotion at the disappearance, but Neil knew it would have brought back bad memories.

Did you think I left for good, this time?

“I did,” Andrew finally said. Hard.

Neil brought a hand up to his mouth. Pressed there, just to be sure. “I couldn’t ever leave. Not when you’re here.”

“I know. You didn’t get far,” Andrew retorts. It takes a moment too long for him to answer. Neil catches his breath.

Why? Neil wondered why he had to be so stuck. Why he was captured by the coolness of Andrew’s skin. Why he couldn’t take his eyes away from the hazel ones before him and how he would try to find all the colors hidden in them. Why Neil could feel memories of Andrew on his skin anytime he thought about him. Why even the worst shit that could happen hadn’t turned them away from each other.

Living wasn’t exactly easier. It just didn’t hurt as much.

“Can I kiss you?”

Andrew’s eyes focused again. Took Neil apart, inch by inch. “Yes.”

Neil didn’t lift himself. He only moved to meet Andrew halfway, keeping himself a comfortable distance apart. He didn’t want to push things, especially after pulling away on the street.

Andrew didn’t think the same. He rolled over Neil easily, the same way he always did. Sat with legs around Neil’s waist, even if the real thing holding Neil down was the way his body flooded with warmth and hope and something else. There were still fireworks in the distance but they weren’t forcing gunshots and death into his mind. Andrew didn’t leave room for anything but himself.

Neil opened his mouth and felt the careful press of Andrew’s tongue, fleeting and electric. Nicky gave Neil pop rocks for the first time recently and Neil had eaten too many bags, marveling at the fizz. The way it reminded him of Andrew. They were a poor substitute.

Andrew backed away for a second. He hovered over Neil—his mouth was red, something Neil had always loved—and observed. A cool hand pressed against Neil’s cheek, not quite covering the burns but tracing their watercolor edges.

“I think,” Neil started, but then he stopped. I know. “It feels better with you.”

Andrew’s hand stilled. He was looking past Neil, maybe at something worse. Maybe better. He could have been looking into the future; Neil almost never knew. What he did know was the way Andrew came back to him, tracing Neil’s lips with a touch so delicate it almost hurt.

“You say that because you’ve never had anything else,” Andrew said. Tired. He knew he was going to lose the argument. Neil smiled a little, letting Andrew’s thumb dip over his cupid’s bow.

“I never will and I never want to.” Always.

Andrew agreed—he agreed when he kissed Neil, then again when he let Neil run hands down his sides. He said yes and a hundred other things when they were both undressed, remnants of summer heat clinging to them while it grew darker outside. Andrew pressed against Neil, their bodies slick and warm, pushing into every touch. Neil forgot to be afraid of anything; of the fireworks and tenth street and falling in love. Neil forgot when Andrew shuddered against him and forgot when he swallowed the moan escaping his mouth, connected in a tangle of tired limbs.

No fear mattered as much as Andrew. Andrew was real; he was there, his palms warmer when they curled over Neil’s shoulders. No memory mattered as much as the one they were making. Neil could have run ten miles and he knew, without a doubt, that Andrew would come looking for him—just like he knew his feet would always turn right back to Andrew.

This was home. Andrew was home and Neil wasn’t going to give him up. Not for all the bad memories in the world, past or present or future. They were more important than that.

Maybe he had run. Maybe Neil had hit a low and didn’t warn Andrew; maybe he would never forget everything he wanted to. Maybe Andrew never would. Maybe Andrew would keep waking up uneasy, even if he only hit Neil sometimes when he came up.

None of it mattered, though. Not when they had a home. Not when they had each other.

Chapter Text

Neil doesn’t drink.

He’s at a club.

These are two things that do not fit. Neil doesn’t mind. He’s only ever here for Kevin—because he’s an alcoholic roommate and as much as Neil sometimes wants to kick Kevin in the head, he also doesn’t want all that raw talent to go to waste.

Maybe he also doesn’t mind having a roommate he can predict. Neil would never call it fondness.

Eden’s Twilight is Kevin’s drug of choice. He thrives on attention, but not the kind he gets on the field. Exy is where Kevin is prized for his ability. The club is a place where he is praised for his cheekbones (which are stupid) and his hair (which is only half stupid, because Neil has the same haircut). The club is where Kevin can loftily accept payments for drinks and the gazes of people who don’t know what a striker is, much less Exy. Neil is fine going along with it just so long as Kevin comes back to the field in the morning.

Or at least, by eight o’clock.

Kevin is well on his way to hammered; he goes through cycles and Neil knows them well. For another two hours, Kevin will be coherent and sharp but pleasantly above everything. The good thing about him is that Kevin is like a particularly expensive car—people love to ooh and ah, lavishing him with attention, but they don’t touch. They seem to intrinsically know their lives are worth less and don’t test him.

The fact is, Neil is bored out of his mind and borderline unstable for the first hour and a half they’re at the club. He has nothing to occupy himself with but keeping an eye on all the exits and newcomers, watching the ebb and flow of the crowd while Kevin walks through it like a fish moving through water.

Or maybe a fox through snow.

Neil goes to the bar when he can’t stand sitting in place. No one will steal Kevin’s table, even though it’s just Neil tonight. When it’s not Neil, it’s Kevin’s other friends—more college students his age or just a year ahead of Neil. Neil isn’t keen on meeting them and he’s always been saved by the fact that he’s in his last year of high school, his schedule never matching the others’ packed ones.

“The same?” Roland asks. Neil shrugs. He’s served his soda in a tall glace with more ice than liquid. Neil takes it and surveys the bar lazily; it’s already too much sugar for him, but he needs something to take the edge off the headache burning at his forehead.

Neil vaguely hears someone’s voice rising to his left. He keeps his body loose but he slides his gaze to the side, taking in the commotion. There’s a man with dark hair and a bulky body hovering over someone smaller—someone pale, their hair absorbing and reflecting the lights of the dance floor. The smaller man is in all black, eyes sharp like a blade.

A few things Neil notices: the smaller man is three seconds away from becoming violent and he’s also gripping his glass so tightly it looks like it might shatter. There’s distance in his flat gaze. There are also black bands on his arms.

Neil moves. That’s his problem, Kevin keeps trying to say. You don’t think. Neil has never been able to explain that he doesn’t really have to—Exy comes like breathing to him. He doesn’t know how to explain angles and formulas; he just knows that he can figure things out. Where to hit and where to run.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate well to life.

Neil slides under the larger man. He keeps his body held just a centimeter away from the pale man, but he turns into him like he’s prepared to lean closer. “Sorry. Roland’s busy. He’ll come by with your drink later.”

The larger man is startled. Maybe he didn’t see Neil. It doesn’t matter; Neil ignores him, sipping his soda and gazing into the distance as if he’s always been there, disinterested. The larger man mutters a few things, slurring his words. Neil flicks him a look and does his best to seem bored. The man grumbles his way to the other side of the bar.

As soon as the man is gone, Neil puts an extra inch between him and the stranger. “Sorry. He seemed like he was bothering you.”

“I don’t need your help,” the man says. His expression doesn’t change; it’s still flat. Neil isn’t sure what he expected.

“I know that,” Neil says. Do you? He does, but it’s not like that has ever mattered, before. Kevin’s pointed that out, too.

Neil turns to leave and feels a hand on his arm; it’s colder than he expected and that’s why he shivers. He thinks.

“I haven’t seen you here before. Who are you?”

“Neil,” he answers, after moment of hesitation. He wonders whether he should say he’s just looking after Kevin. If the stranger cares. His eyes are a weird color. They’re kind of brown and kind of green, or maybe something else. Neil can’t be sure.

The stranger’s expression changes. A few things float to the surface like debris—vague distaste, disappointment, frustration. They’re gone in a second. Neil is just interested that they were there at all.

“You’re Neil.”

“Who are—”

“Andrew,” Kevin says suddenly. He’s there with sweat on his forehead and a glass in his hand. He’s frowning a little at the pale man—Andrew—like he isn’t sure he’s seeing him. “I—”

“This is your mini-me, then,” Andrew says. Once again, he’s placid but too still, like a stagnant pool.

Neil almost snaps back. Almost—but he remembers what Kevin has said. How he warned Neil to act and not act around the others. Especially Andrew.

So, Neil waits a beat and then he says, “You’re his mini bodyguard, then.”

Andrew fixes him with an unwavering stare. Neil wonders if there’s anger there. If Neil will ever be able to decode the looks in those eyes (he still doesn’t know what color they are). Andrew steps up to Neil after a moment, glass still in his opposite hand. He tips it just a little, so the rim presses against Neil’s chest. It starts to leave a cold, wet spot. Andrew has a smile that only looks half real and not at all convincing.

“You’ll learn. Or I’ll teach you.”

Neil isn’t sure if it’s a threat or a promise. If Andrew is talking about some kind of respect, or Exy. Either way, Kevin leans in and opens his mouth before Andrew waves him away, downing the rest of his drink. Kevin snaps his mouth shut, making a disgruntled noise that’s swallowed by the music pounding around them. Neil feels his headache condense.

They don’t stay near Andrew but Neil can feel him watching the rest of the night. When Neil finally drives Kevin back to their shared room, he feels like Andrew’s gaze is still on him.

It doesn’t feel as suffocating as it should.


Andrew becomes a sometimes-present inclusion. Neil wonders if he’s really always been there, just zoning out in a corner of the bar. It should be surprising that he’d never noticed Kevin and Neil before, but Neil figures he has an excuse.

Now, though, Andrew wanders over to Neil. They have exchanges some nights and others, Andrew just glares at the side of Neil’s face. Neil tries to tell himself Andrew is looking through him and not at him. The affirmations don’t really work.

“Shouldn’t you be sleeping.”

Neil shrugs. “Shouldn’t you?”

“I don’t have practice in the middle of the night.” Andrew kicks back his drink and leaves. Neil doesn’t bother.


One night, Neil notices Andrew further out than he’s ever been before. He is unmoored from his body, eyes empty. Neil doesn’t like the look. He knows he can’t do much about it, but he also knows he can do something when Andrew resurfaces.

Neil goes to the bar. “Just a refill for Andrew.”

Roland raises an eyebrow. Knowing. He gives Neil a once-over that seems more searching than appraising. Neil wonders what he’s looking for. He must not find it, because he frowns and slides the drink across the bar. His mouth flattens and it’s the least cheerful Neil has ever seen him.

“I’ll be watching you and that drink. If something happens, I know how to get to you.”

Neil has a knee-jerk reaction. He kicks it because he thinks Kevin is a few feet away and he doesn’t want to risk Kevin caring enough to walk over and chew him out. Neil takes two seconds. Except all that comes out is, “What.”

Roland frowns. He shoos Neil away.

When Neil gets back to the table, Andrew is coming up for air. Neil waits. Andrew is back and casting a scathing look at Neil before his eyes fall on his glass, the water diluting what was a half-inch of alcohol into something disgusting. Andrew is displeased.

Neil slides the new drink to him. Andrew freezes. For a second, he’s gone again and Neil wants to dive over the banister.

Instead, Neil waits for Andrew to draw in a little and slides the glass back. He takes a mouthful, making sure to keep his mouth away from it. Some of it spills over his chin. He swallows it too hard. It burns and Neil almost wishes he had more soda. When he’s done, Neil slides it into the middle of the table.

Andrew frowns in distaste. “Don’t ever take my drink again.”

He leaves the drink at the table, but with Andrew, the things he does and the things he says are very different. My drink, he said. Neil counts it as a tiny victory.

He almost wants to take it back when Andrew pushes Neil’s head down later, even if it’s to avoid someone’s stray shoe. Neil isn’t sure how to feel about the hand traveling from his hair to his neck.

All he knows is that the weight doesn’t feel wrong.


Shit, Neil thinks. He ducks under the guy’s arm. Of course, Andrew had to snap when Neil wasn’t looking. Of course, he was justified—but of course, he was causing a commotion in the fucking bar.

As opposed to outside, where Neil would just stand watch and wait.

Neil only knows he needs to redirect Andrew’s attention; make him take the fight outdoors or stop him long enough for the bouncer to haul the man that made a mistake out. The man that made the mistake of putting a hand on Andrew’s arm.

So, Neil thinks to do what he usually does when Andrew is drifting—put his hand out, just carefully—but instead, his hand is smacked by a wall of muscle and someone’s hand yanks at his hair.

Neil shuts down.

He feels a dangerous slip into something else and fights it. He doesn’t want to go back; not when Andrew is here. Not when he needs Neil’s help. Neil fights but his throat is still filling with acid fear, his heart pounding just over the roaring of words in his ears.

NATHANIEL. FAILURE. I WILL TAKE THE SKIN FROM YOUR LEGS AND BREAK YOUR ARMS IN SO MANY PLACES YOU WILL NEVER BE PUT TOGETHER AGAIN.

The scream that rips from Neil’s throat is more reflex than anything else but it still happens. It happens and Andrew’s eyes are red with strobing light, suddenly much harder and much more present than they’d been before.

Neil is dragged along when the man backs away. He backs all the way out a side door, Neil hissing through his teeth. Andrew watches with deadly intent. The second they hit the gravel at the back of Eden’s Twilight, Andrew has his knife at the man’s neck. There’s shouting and terror and all Neil knows is a heavy hand slipping from his hair, his scalp burning half with memory and half with the force of being pulled outside. He thinks the man probably forgot he was holding Neil, but that’s on him.

Neil coughs. He forces himself upright and goes to Andrew, stumbling a little. The world is tilted. Neil holds a hand out, lingering in front of Andrew’s face. Asking. “Andrew.”

It takes a long minute for Andrew to look up. To fight between killing the man on the ground and returning to Neil. The long minute ends with Andrew climbing off the downed man, one threatening gesture with his knife as a parting gift. He pulls Neil into the back of the club, into a break room for employees, locking the door.

“What did he do? Where did he hurt you—”

Andrew is firm but Neil knows better. He watches Andrew recoil from the blood on Neil’s shirt. Neil opens his mouth to answer, soft. “It’s not mine. He cut himself on something on the way out.”

“I’m going to—”

“I’m fine,” Neil says. Andrew looks at him. He is there, but he is a storm. He is too much at once.

Neil lifts his hands. He wants—wants, when he never thought it could happen—but he doesn’t know what to say. How to ask. His mouth won’t work; nothing comes out. Andrew is waiting for him. He needs me.

“Can I hold you?” Neil finally asks. Andrew draws back; it’s not a recoil as much as it space, like he needs the extra air to think.

Andrew works at his mouth, too, like the liquor has gone sticky against his lips. “Yes.”

Neil pulls Andrew into his arms. It hurts how much it doesn’t hurt. He’s not sure how to hug properly; he doesn’t know anything but he knows, without missing a beat, that this is right. Andrew is just shorter than him, enough for Neil to press his lips into Andrew’s hair. Enough that he can inhale the cologne Andrew always wears, something soft and velvety and confusing.

Andrew’s hands tighten just a tiny bit on Neil’s shirt and in a moment, Neil knows he has been given something.

“We’re even now,” Neil muses. He can almost hear Andrew’s disgusted expression reassemble his features.

“I don’t need your help,” Andrew repeats. He sounds less…less, this time. Maybe Neil is just making things up, but he imagines he’s started to decode them instead. He’s learning how to hear Andrew.

“Hugs, then? You need those.”

“I don’t.”

“Do you want me to move?”

Andrew pinches him but through a t-shirt, it’s more of a tug than a reprimand. Neil breathes in, a little too much because he likes the way Andrew smells, and holds it in. Another not-pinch. “Breathe.”

“I know,” Neil mumbles. Andrew says he stops, sometimes. Neil tilts his head and Andrew tenses a little. There’s no fear but Neil still freezes, waiting for the push or the words to move away.

Instead, he feels a shiver echo through him. Andrew is shivering. Just a little but just enough. Neil backs away, feeling burned. “Just tell me—”

Andrew glares. This specific glare is the one Neil has numbered ten; out of all his glares, it’s the one Andrew reserves for times Neil is most annoying to Andrew. When he’s saying things that are too nice or stupid, in Andrew’s eyes. Neil feels his heart pound, once, stabbing. Or maybe it’s good; he can’t tell.

“You’re a fucking moron and I hate you.”

It may as well be a declaration of love.

It is, Neil realizes, and then the stabbing comes back even harder. He feels like it’s pinning him in place. It’s moving through him. He is being repeatedly pricked by a hundred sharp things and he feels them all.

He feels.

“All the time? Or just when I’m buying you drinks and getting in the middle of your fights?”

There’s a smile on Neil’s face and it’s his. His instinct is to pull it off but Andrew catches his wrists, holding them on either side of his face. “I hate you all the time.”

“Does that mean you want to kill me?”

“Ninety percent of the time.”

“And the rest?” Neil knows the answer. He knows, he knows, but he can’t believe it. He can’t live on words. Andrew glares. This is a new one.

A new one and a new feeling when Andrew’s hands move to Neil’s face, pull him in, bring him to Andrew’s waiting lips. They’re not cold. They’re warm, so warm and Neil is burning. He is melting and Andrew is the only thing keeping him real and solid. When Andrew pulls back, Neil stupidly follows him for a second, missing the contact already. He stops himself after a second; he knows Andrew needs his room.

Andrew seems like he wants to press his lips together—give the usual displeased look—but he can’t close his mouth. He wavers like he wants to talk and not talk at the same time. He settles on saying, “I hate you.”

“I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Andrew gets the new look again—the looks that goes with I hate you but says something else entirely. He pushes Neil up to the wall and kisses him again; this time, his tongue slips against Neil’s mouth. Neil opens instinctively and almost loses it—his mind, his thoughts, his grip on sanity. Everything goes except for the feeling of Andrew, mapping out every inch of Neil’s mouth with a fire that goes against everything he seems to be. But seeming is not being and Neil doesn’t know how he can ever forget again, looking at Andrew’s frozen veneer and remembering the burning beneath.

“Breathe,” Andrew reminds him, pulling back from his lips, sounding too out of breath to be as annoyed as he usually is. There’s a wet sound when they separate; Neil thinks he makes a noise—a whimper—and then Andrew’s eyes change. Darker, like a pool waiting to swallow Neil whole (he wouldn’t mind).

They spend the next five minutes in the room and Neil doesn’t want to leave, even when someone finally knocks on the door and they have to vacate.

He still has Andrew everywhere when he gets home that night and Neil doesn’t try half as hard as he could to scrub the cologne off his skin. He leaves it there and falls asleep with his arm pressed against his face, the lingering smell bringing a buzzing to his lips.

It doesn’t feel wrong. It actually feels really, really right.


Instead of staring at the side of Neil’s face, Andrew pulls him into a corner of the bar.

Well, he doesn’t pull. He just walks and Neil follows.

One Thursday—after the fight outside and the one in the break room—Andrew wordlessly rises and gives Neil a cursory glance before walking toward the back of the club. Neil follows, half dazed and half on edge.

Andrew finds a nook by the bar; a recess hidden from everything else by pillars. Neil still isn’t sure about how public it is, but if Andrew is comfortable he reasons it must be good enough.

“Yes or no?” Andrew asks. He’s a watercolor of light, the pulsing dance floor translating to soft glow on his skin and hair. Neil almost forgets to answer because he’s too distracted.

“Yes,” Neil says.

This is the first time they find a place. It is not the last. Andrew keeps it up; not every day but very nearly every week. Sometimes he goes as soon as Neil and Kevin arrive; other times, he waits until Kevin is knocking back his third drink to thread his fingers through Neil’s hair.

It's always good. Always better than good. Neil forgets there was anything before this—any simmering uncertainty or anger between them. Any mistrust. All he knows now is the way Andrew sometimes lets him put his hands on Andrew’s waist or chest, never allowed to hold but allowed to touch. Neil only knows the way Andrew leans into him or has his hands wandering Neil’s body like he wants to be alone and is incredibly irritated that he can’t be.

They go on and on and eventually, Neil thinks it would hurt to lose this. He thinks that and spends a few days in a blind panic, thinking this can’t happen. Kevin keeps giving him long stares and of course, his solution is to make Neil work harder on the court. The only good it does is making Neil too tired to run far if the itch in his legs becomes too much.

He doesn’t run, though. He lets the feeling of needing Andrew hold him down and he waits, wondering when—if ever—he’ll be able to say something. Because it doesn’t matter if Andrew can’t care back; what matters is that Neil needs him to know.

He’s the only one Neil has ever loved, after all.


Finals roll around and Neil barely sees Kevin. He’s still got a schedule, though. Kevin holds it to him with a pointed finger that Neil is tempted to bite. Instead, Neil takes the stupid paper and spends more than the allotted time on the court.

Everything he does is an extension of his feelings. The way he wants, now more than ever, to be close to someone. He’s not sure when being fine became being with Andrew, but it did.

The last day of finals, Neil is on the court. He’s running the usual Raven drills, knocking down cones while doing complicated steps he’d suggested Kevin add. Neil had been proud of the idea for all of two minutes before regretting it. Now, he flies through it easily, the usual rush of exhilaration pounding in his chest. Neil finishes his drill and turns, heading to the opposite wall and the cones lined up there, when he sees Andrew.

This is a new kind of exhilaration.

Andrew’s arms are crossed. He is very much trying to look bored; trying, because Neil can see the difference and it’s there in the way Andrew’s mouth moves and his eyes narrow.

“I should have guessed I would find you here. Junkie.”

Neil fights a smile. He fights it and barely manages to hold it down as he walks over to the wall. He very certainly doesn’t miss the way Andrew’s gaze lingers on his shorts. “You say that like you went anywhere else first.”

Andrew continues to stare. His hand twitches on his backpack like he wants to throw it at Neil’s face. Instead, he turns away from the glass. “I am not waiting.”

Neil is off the court and in the locker room faster than he’s ever gone before. He doesn’t bother to shower or change; something tells him Andrew doesn’t mind the training gear—the shirt that’s torn almost all the way down the side because it had been too hot in the last city Neil had lived in and the compression shorts he’s wearing because it’s been a long week. Neil grabs his bag from the bench and is right on Andrew’s heels, leaving the coolness of the building for the car waiting outside.

“You finished?” Neil asks, once he throws his bag onto the floor and climbs in.

Andrew starts the car and turns the volume down two levels. “Don’t ask questions you know the answer to.”

Neil guesses he’s right and leans back in his seat, watching the world pass by in overexposed flashes. He wonders where they’re going and doesn’t care. Andrew is back—even if he’s a little out of reach—and Neil will take anything.

He dozes a little at some point, nodding for a fraction of a second before instinct forces his eyes open and his right hand to his left arm. He’s about to pinch himself when Andrew catches his wrist. “Don’t.”

Neil almost wishes it were easier said than done, but this is Andrew. Neil relaxes again and manages to fall asleep. Only ten minutes pass before he’s opening his eyes, the car slowing while they drive into a small neighborhood. Neil wonders, with some humor, if he’s being taken to meet someone. He doubts it. Andrew pulls into a driveway and Neil categorizes the windows and doors absentmindedly; he doesn’t need the information but it will linger, a distracting train of thought at the back of his mind.

The door closes behind them and Andrew gives Neil a once-over. He’s debating something. Something obvious, Neil thinks, but he’d never say so to Andrew’s face. Neil settles for helping. “Can I touch you?”

“Yes. Above the waist.”

Neil is slow. He wants, more than anything, to have a dozen more hands to hold Andrew. Instead, he maps the smaller man out, tracing collarbone and hidden ribs and the line of his back. The shiver under Andrew’s skin reminds him of a wild cat; the sort of thoughtless shudder that comes with a primal feeling. Some sort of intrinsic instinct.

Neil isn’t sure what he thinks about Andrew starting to trust and respond to Neil like it’s an instinct (that’s a half-lie; he loves it).

“I missed you,” Neil says. It’s more than he should and they’re not playing the usual game to pass the time—truth for truth—but he says it anyway. Traces a shape onto Andrew’s bicep. He really likes those. Andrew has nice arms, like he could hold up a house and not even blink.

There’s Andrew’s glare, number ten, and he steps into Neil’s space. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like I’m your answer. I’m not and you sure as hell aren’t mine.”

Neil shrugs. “I didn’t ask a question. Should I?”

Andrew twitches. His hands on Neil’s wrists are a little tight but never hurting.

He’s drawing Neil’s hands further down. Down his sides, down to his hips, almost on his legs. Neil stops when they reach the invisible line and Andrew pauses.

“You didn’t say yes,” Neil says quietly. There’s number ten, again—and then it’s gone and Neil is looking at something else, raw and untouched and almost drowning with its weight. He can’t really find the words and when he does, they come out thin. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Andrew says. His thumbs press against Neil’s pulse. “I want you to touch me.”

Neil leans in; he can’t stay back any longer. Not when Andrew is there, waiting. When they finally kiss, it feels like they’ve been holding a storm back. Neil’s shirt is shoved up over his chest—not that it makes much of a difference—and there are hands pressing into his skin. Warm hands and Neil wonders how Andrew felt even a little cold before when now, he’s leaving fire in his wake.

Even with permission, Neil tries to go slow. He moves his hands around Andrew’s legs, pausing after every inch. When he’s finally holding Andrew’s ass, all Neil gets in return is a growl against his mouth and the scrape of nails on his chest. A reminder, not a warning. I want you to touch me.

Neil has never thought about doing this before, but he really likes the way Andrew feels in his hands.

Andrew is still pressing for attention, so Neil manages to escape his mouth and move to his neck. Neil has never tried it before—he’s always been too cautious to try—but now, he presses his tongue against Andrew’s skin and scrapes just a little with his teeth, reassuring. I’m here. I’m listening. The noise Andrew makes in response is the best thing Neil has heard all week. Neil pursues it, trying to find other places to suck that make the same thing happen.

Except then, Andrew’s hand is pulling down Neil’s shorts and there is nothing to think about but the warm hand reaching for him, wrapping around him, firm and sure. Neil gasps and thinks the wall is the only thing holding him up, even if it’s barely doing the job. Andrew’s free hand is holding Neil in place, fingers pressing into his hip. Neil can’t think of anything to do but kiss him and hope that he doesn’t fall down.

Neil keeps himself held still and Andrew takes every moan that Neil gives, chasing it with his tongue and hand in equal measure. When the rush hits Neil, he lets Andrew take the noise from his mouth, hoping it will be enough of a reassurance until he can find his words and his mind. Neil breathes heavily and unravels, trying to force his eyes all the way open.

“You—”

“Not yet,” Andrew says. His voice is rough. Neil doesn’t look down; he gives Andrew what he needs and instead returns to his neck, pressing kisses along the worried skin while Andrew’s breath comes unsteady. Neil doesn’t say anything when Andrew relaxes and he doesn’t look down.

He doesn’t need to see to know. Not with Andrew.

Neil blinks lazily and moves his arms over Andrew’s shoulders. He drapes them there and wonders at how perfectly level they are. “I hope the shower is nice.”

Andrew very nearly rolls his eyes. Neil bites back an excited smile. I did that. “Idiot.”

“Your idiot,” Neil corrects. He follows Andrew to the bathroom and considers the words still in his head. Not yet. He wonders how long they’ll be at the house and whose it is. He wonders about when Andrew wants to do something—go further—but he doesn’t ask, because words and actions are different things with Andrew.

With Andrew, it’s learning when to listen and when to look. Neil thinks maybe he’s starting to get the hang of it. They step in the shower, the water heating up, and Neil ducks his head to meet Andrew’s lips. He waits—maybe this is a new question, to go with the new thing between them—and Andrew closes the gap.

They have time, and Neil is happy to wait. If it means trust and safety, he can wait as long as Andrew needs, until they become second nature. Until knowing everything about each other becomes instinct.

They have time. That’s all they need.

Chapter Text

Prologue: Pregame

 

Neil is pasted together when he first meets Kevin.

Badly glued. Things keep falling off.

“You’re good,” Kevin says, “but aren’t you a backliner?”

“Not anymore,” Neil says. He leaves it at that and so does Kevin—even if Kevin gives him a frown and a look that says he’s not pleased.


For the first few days of summer, Neil plays and Kevin watches.  A couple weeks in, Kevin hands Neil a sheet of paper and tells him to follow it to the letter. “If something interferes with your school schedule, do it anyway. Hernandez knows my terms.”

Neil doesn’t argue. He’s too busy picking up fragments here and there. Eventually—maybe two weeks into the school year—Neil hits a wall. Literally. Someone slams him during practice and instead of being in the game, Neil is back in a basement, his father holding something heavy and sharp in his hands. Neil runs from the court.

He thinks he’s falling. Things aren’t holding up the way they should. I just have to make it. Push it away.

When Neil reaches his apartment near midnight, he showers; he’s ready to crawl into bed with burning legs when someone knocks on the door.

Kevin is there with Hernandez and Wymack. A condition of their taking him on, they explain; he has to share the space with Kevin. It’s big anyway, Hernandez says, like Neil doesn’t have hundreds of thousands stashed away; you could split rent. Kevin likes privacy, too.

Neil just watches Kevin and thinks he just has to make it through this. Just enough. Enough to start senior year and finally go to college, to a team that’s good.

Kevin gives the kitchen a barely-accepting once-over and Neil thinks making it might be harder than he thought.


Summer is halfway through and Kevin wakes up in a frenzy.

They were in the living room; Kevin, shockingly asleep on the couch and Neil curled into a sofa. The television is on, volume low. Neil is staring through it more than at it. Kevin comes up gasping, curling into the side of the couch. Neil feels his limbs tense and doesn’t move. He waits.

Kevin is trying to get his breathing under control. Neil stares determinedly at the television. “What do you need?”

“A drink,” Kevin says roughly. Neil nods, once. There’s a car downstairs—he’s not sure if it’s Kevin’s or a loan from Wymack for the summer.

“I can go—”

“Drive?” The question is out in the air and Kevin is making a face. He doesn’t want to ask. Neil pauses, halfway off the sofa. “I…there’s a place I go.”

Neil’s mind is screaming at him not to go. New places are unsafe. Alcohol and drunk people are unsafe. Liquor is for swallowing down when he is punched too hard or when Nathan breaks something and doesn’t want the hospital asking questions. Neil can’t really do alcohol.

He can drive, though.

Neil takes the keys. Silent agreement. Kevin disappears into his room and emerges a moment later, changed and with his hair fixed from the mess it was.

Neil concentrates on Kevin the entire night. Categorizes the way he drinks, the way he acts, the look in his eyes. By the time they leave, he has a better idea of what Kevin is like. He has a better idea of how to help.

Being a designated driver isn’t that bad. Neil can handle the club, so long as he’s concentrating on Kevin.


Sometime three-quarters of the way through summer, Kevin is hanging upside-down on the couch. He’s got a bottle by his head but hasn’t touched it much; today is recreational. Neil sits cross-legged on the floor and goes through a notebook full of vocabulary. Spanish, this time. It’s a good way for him to unwind.

“I want carrot cake,” Kevin says. Disgruntled, like the craving is an unnecessary intrusion. Neil glances at him, hands pausing over a blank page.

“I’ve never had carrot cake.”

He’s only ever had cake a handful of times. Always birthdays—usually when he was younger and it was acceptable. Up to the age of five, maybe. At six, Nathaniel was no longer being coddled. He was being raised. There was a legacy for him to grow into.

Neil realizes Kevin is staring at him with some mix of horror and nausea. Kevin rights himself and reaches for the bottle, swallowing more than before. Neil tucks his knees up to his chest and waits.

He knows Kevin isn’t the same kind of drunk, but knowing never matters. There is always the gut response of moving away. Avoiding reach. Even if Kevin is younger and different, this is more than just seeing a father. This is the ocean of alcohol that Neil has always struggled not to drown in.

“We’re going to the store,” Kevin finally says. He moves his mouth like he doesn’t like the taste of what he’s drinking.

Neil accepts as usual. He drives and lets Kevin mess with the radio, ignoring the fiddling so long as it stays at the same level. They go to the store and Kevin asks him a series of questions—do you like icing, what about raisins, do you want it cold or warm—and then they go home.

Kevin slides him a plate and then starts to eat his slices like he hates how good they are. Neil figures it has to do with calorie count.

It’s not another minute until Neil realizes that Kevin is waiting on him. Neil slides his notebook back onto the coffee table, trying not to sigh. He takes a bite, careful.

He hadn’t figured out how to tell Kevin that he doesn’t really like sweet things all that much.

Kevin is satisfied, maybe, because some of the anger dissipates. Or maybe it’s the alcohol. Either way, Neil thinks the carrot cake isn’t bad. It’s not as sweet as the birthday cake he barely remembers or the chocolate one that was supposed to be for the adults, that no one ate. It’s nice.

This, even if Kevin props his feet on the table and rocks it when Neil is writing, is nice.


A few weeks before school, Kevin pulls Neil up from the floor of the court and makes a face at him.

“You need a haircut.”

Neil raises a hand reflexively to the strands. Stiffens. Thinks about reminders—don’t ever keep it long enough for someone to grab you, keep it away from your eyes, always know that it’s more important to see than be seen. He’s halfway into the spiel when Kevin yanks him out of it.

“We’ll go after practice,” Kevin announces, running a hand through his darker hair.

Practice ends quickly. Neil doesn’t like where things are going. Kevin drives, maybe already with an appointment or maybe confident that he can be attended immediately. He pays in advance, ignoring Neil’s usual protest—I have money—and then, they sit.

Neil waits in the chair and feels like he’s about to be executed. The black sheet around his shoulders is unfamiliar. Neil is used to kitchen scissors and standing in a too-bright bathroom; first with his mother, her hands careful around his neck and ears, then with Nathan, shoving at Neil’s shoulders. Neil swallows his anxiety and concentrates on avoiding his reflection.

“What are we doing today?” the man asks, twirling a pair of shiny scissors in hand. Neil watches them more than anything else. Next to him, Kevin glances over.

Neil shrugs. “Whatever Kevin does.”

There is something unexplainable on Kevin’s face, but he doesn’t interrupt. The stylist laughs and talks the entire time, keeping up an easy conversation that’s meaningless enough to tune out and soft enough to provide a hum of reassurance. Neil wonders if Kevin has given the man practice with silent clients. The cut is quick and efficient, even if Neil is sure it takes more than just a few snips to achieve.

In the end, Neil ends up like Kevin, unnervingly enough that he actually forgets not to look in the mirror.

“Huh,” the stylist says. “I dunno, Kevin—”

Whatever he’s about to say gets cut off. Neil doesn’t bother asking. Kevin talks to people, always with the same camera-ready smile, and then they leave. Kevin drives with the windows down. Neil had once wondered what the point of Kevin’s haircut was—shorter on the sides, longer on top—but when the wind ruffles his hair, he understands.

It kind of feels good.

 

Epilogue: Hangover

 

Andrew likes pulling Neil’s hair.

Sometimes, when they’re sitting side by side and Neil is phonetically spelling out words in his language notebook, Andrew will slide his hand into Neil’s hair. He always moves up from Neil’s neck, where his hand is a warm reminder. Fingers inch through red hair, winding strands around them, letting the waves fall in and out of his grip. Andrew doesn’t even have to look. Sometimes he does, anyway.

Neil loves it. He loves it almost as much as kissing Andrew, which is where it usually leads.

“Time for a haircut?” Neil asks. He jots something down. Fine. Reaches for a purple pen.

Andrew grumbles. “No.”

Neil smiles a little. Andrew pokes his cheek with a red pen.


Neil is lying on his bed with his hands over his head. His wrists are under one of the wood slats of the headboard, even though he doesn’t need something to restrain him.

Andrew is sitting on him, absently pushing Neil’s shirt up. Things are always a toss-up with him; sometimes, Andrew grinds against Neil like he wants to fuck him through his jeans; other times, Andrew will stretch out lazily and kiss Neil so slowly it’s like the world has forgotten to spin in time.

This is one of the times that Andrew has something in mind he won’t communicate. And idea he’s trying to warm up to, while he unknowingly strings Neil out with every touch.

“What do you want?” Neil asks. Andrew never answers—not verbally, at least. Even if consent is required for him, Andrew will not talk about wanting. Wanting is something he is still trying to allow.

Andrew scratches a nail over Neil’s collarbone. Lingers. Decides. “Can you use your hands?”

Something in mind. Neil feels his heart flutter into his throat and he’s afraid it’ll come out when he opens his mouth. He waits. Andrew has done the work, most of the time. Has only recently even let Neil watch him. To touch is different.

“Yes. I’ll stop if you—if I need to.” Neil tangles with the words. Andrew doesn’t seem to mind; his hands are pushing Neil’s shirt further up his chest.

Neil lets Andrew do what he needs to. Undress them, throw things into corners, hazy hazel eyes examining Neil. The room is hot. Neil waits and asks—where to touch, how slow to go—and then there is nothing between them. Andrew is a warm weight on top of him and Neil can taste honey on his tongue, like the kind Andrew pours all over his toast in the morning.

Things change when Neil touches Andrew. He is ready for anything—for a short command to stop, or to go slow. A reconsideration. Instead, Andrew bites his tongue and holds back a noise. He shakes like he’s trying not to move. He bends over Neil and kisses him, fingers spread over Neil’s chest like mine.

Neil is careful. Slow. He is so slow that by the time he has two fingers in, Andrew leans over him and hisses, “Hurry the fuck up, Josten.”

It sounds like a request but Neil asks anyway. He’s glad he did when Andrew repeats himself, this time with more yes and fuck that don’t end because Neil is moving his hand faster. He is transfixed by the way a touch here will make a noise there. The way a casual stroke will result in Andrew suddenly grabbing a fistful of Neil’s hair and clinging for dear life.

Andrew curses a lot. Some of it sounds angry—like he’s angry at himself for enjoying this or maybe angry for enjoying Neil, specifically. Somewhere along the line, though, the words morph into half—formed gasps and starts. The words give way to something much more uncomplicated and Neil can barely concentrate, for the look on Andrew’s face. The way his paleness is flooded with color.

Neil bites a mark onto Andrew’s neck and uses his free hand to stroke him, marveling at how hard Andrew is. How he pushes into Neil’s hand willingly, his breath fanning across Neil’s cheek. When Andrew finally comes, he pulls at Neil’s hair so hard there are stars, pleasure and reality crashing into one another. Neil thinks he could probably just get wired up watching Andrew.

“Fine?” Neil asks, when Andrew is pressed to his chest, face somewhere between neck and shoulder.

Andrew huffs at the word. “Not fine. Good.”

Good is as close to perfect as Andrew will ever get.


“He’s agitated,” Kevin says. He slams the car door shut. Neil gives him a sidelong look, buckling his seatbelt.

They’re supposed to be driving to the first summer practice for the Foxes. Neil is officially going to be a Fox. It should be exhilarating, but Neil is more focused on what Kevin just said about Andrew.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, he almost came with me.”

Kevin doesn’t offer anything else. He drives to campus with a perpetually displeased expression; Neil is used to it. He wonders why Andrew is agitated and wonders if he’ll do something to help calm him down. Neil has done it before—waving a hand in front of Andrew’s face, saying something softly in German, bringing him back to shore.

Neil almost forgets to be on edge when he walks into the lounge. Almost.

He is distantly aware from the beginning that he is expected to stay where they can all stare at him. He is also aware of Andrew, sitting on the couch, fixing him with a stare. A very intense stare. This is number eight; the one that says Andrew is ready to fight someone that gets too close. The one that says his attention is only on Neil, for protection—both ways.

“He’s so cute,” someone whispers. Neil glances to the side and finds Nicky, with wide eyes and barely-contained joy. Nicky speaks louder. “Look, he’s like a tiny, redheaded Kevin!”

Neil can’t stop the disgruntled noise that escapes his lips. Matt is smothering a grin. “We are not the same.”

“I bet,” Nicky says, wiggling his eyebrows. He gives Neil a once-over.

Wymack interrupts long enough to explain things—positions and practice schedules—and Neil tunes him out. The Foxes are examining him but he couldn’t care less.

Somewhere in the middle of the spiel, Andrew waves imperiously. Neil doesn’t even think; he reacts with months of comfortable intimacy, crossing the room and falling into place alongside Andrew.

Wymack stumbles. Shoots Andrew a narrow-eyed look. Picks up his monologue again, but the Foxes have already been tipped off. They appraise the scene on the couch with varying expression of disbelief, amusement, and even irritation. Aaron—Andrew’s twin and someone Neil has never met—fixes a simmering stare on Neil.

Neil does his best to ignore it like he ignores Seth’s remarks for the first hour of practice. After that, Kevin and Dan keep them too busy to think about anything else.

It’s not the worst way things could have gone.


Andrew is far away. He is launching balls at his teammates from somewhere off the coast of Africa.

Neil doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like it because it means Andrew doesn’t care and Neil doesn’t like it because practice is worse. Seth and Matt are nearly at each other’s throats. Dan is doing her best to keep people together, but she’s having a hard time. Things come to a head when Andrew shoots a ball near Seth’s feet, making the taller man stumble and curse.

“Andrew!” Wymack yells. He says something Andrew doesn’t pay attention to. Matt shoves Seth. Kevin is trying to chew Andrew out but Andrew isn’t listening.

Neil is done.

He pushes his hair back with an agitated hand and crosses the court. Dan gives him a startled, worried look. She starts to move toward him but Renee’s hand rests gently on her arm. Neil walks past Seth and Kevin, flipping them both off on his way, and comes to a stop in front of Andrew.

“What do you need?”

“I do not need anything. You know that.”

Neil stays where he is. Starts to lift a hand—not to touch, but to show and ask. Andrew catches his wrist. Matt curses. Neil knows what everyone is thinking, but Andrew’s grip isn’t tight. Just warning. Reminding. Neil turns his hand enough to brush his fingers against Andrew’s thumb.

“Truth? I love your arms.” Neil gives it freely. He knows no one can hear him and he’s not sure if they could he would care, anymore.

Andrew stares. His glare is moving somewhere to a nine, where he is feeling the beginnings of irritation. The start of a ten, which always comes before he kisses Neil. “I didn’t ask.”

Neil shrugs. “It’s free.”

“Nothing is free,” Andrew says, but he shoves Neil back with a gloved hand. “We are wasting time.”

Neil nods, once. “I’ll buy you a sundae.”

“Bribery?”

“Promises.”

Neil walks back to his spot. Hears a muttered what the fuck from Dan. He ignores it and tests his racquet. After twenty seconds, he starts losing patience, again. “Are we going to practice, or what?”


“Soft boy. Soft,” Nicky croons. He is holding Neil in his arms and his cheek is pressed into Neil’s head.

A year ago, this would have been terrifying.

Now, all Neil knows is that he isn’t cold. Despite the air conditioning being cranked up to unbelievable levels and his shorts being the only thing clean pajamas he has, Nicky’s body heat is more than enough. Nicky is very warm. Very warm, Neil thinks, blinking heavily.

“Did you even ask if that was okay,” Aaron says when he comes in. “Or did you just push yourself on him, like you do with everyone else?”

Nicky gapes. “I don’t—wait! Guys! Do I—”

“You’re fine,” Neil mumbles, looking down at his legs. The scars are bright in the light. The first time the Foxes saw them—even if they’re not nearly half as bad as the ones they haven’t seen on his chest—they reacted oddly. Some angry, some quiet. None of them actually disgusted.

“Speak for yourself,” Kevin says, stabbing a spoon into his ice cream.

“Shut up. I bought you your damn alcohol,” Nicky says, sticking his tongue out. As if to prove a point, Kevin stares him right in the eye and downs half the bottle at once.

Neil ignores their antics. He picks at Nicky’s hoodie absently, rubbing a fold between his fingers. He never had comfortable jackets, in Baltimore. Just plasticky things that were meant to keep him alive. Maybe, Neil thinks, it wouldn’t be terrible to take them up on their offer to take him shopping.

“Do you like it?”

Neil blinks. Realizes he’s been messing with Nicky’s jacket for too long to play it off. He shrugs ineffectually. “I never had a nice jacket.”

The room stills. Kevin’s spoon snaps when he stabs it too far into his still-hard ice cream. He pulls the cracked plastic out and tosses it into a nearby trashcan. Nicky’s arms hug Neil closer to his body and Neil can almost feel Nicky’s frown in his hair.

“Okay. We’ll get you one,” Nicky says. He shuffles around then and Neil blinks, barley registering something shoved over his head. Warmth and fabric muffling everything around him, the faint smell of Nicky and soap blocking out the world. “Until then, use this.”

Neil falls asleep approximately three minutes after Nicky’s hoodie engulfs him. He wakes up held against Nicky’s chest on the couch and finds he’s not as mad as he thought he would be.

Besides, Andrew’s holding his hand where he’s asleep in the beanbag chair.


Neil tried to give Nicky his hoodie back and Nicky refused. Gosh, you look cute in it, Nicky had said. He’d very quickly insisted that he would never lay a finger on Neil—unless expressly asked—while backing away from Andrew.

After practice, Neil pops the hoodie on—it’s getting cold out—and catches the way Matt is staring. He looks like he’s trying to do calculus. Neil doesn’t know what’s going on.

“So, uh…I almost can’t believe the monsters let you in their rooms,” Matt says.

Neil shrugs. “They’re not that bad. They’re just different from you.”

Matt takes it with grace. He still continues, though. “I think Renee is the only one that can swap between groups, but she’s pretty neutral. Anyway, you seem to have Andrew in hand.”

“No one has Andrew in hand.”

“Well, you did a good job of setting him straight at practice the other day. What did you do?”

“I asked.” Neil gathers his bag. He’s not sure what Matt’s point is, but he likes Matt, so he’s willing to endure the conversation.

Matt hums thoughtfully. “I would’ve thought Nicky would tell me, though. Or anyone. He has a habit of oversharing.”

“Told you what?”

Matt gives him an incredulous look and then Andrew appears out of nowhere with a quiet come and Neil gives Matt and apologetic shrug before leaving. He thinks about the conversation for the rest of the day, until Andrew throws the hoodie in a corner and kisses the thoughts from Neil’s mind.


“They’re all idiots,” Seth says, tossing a shirt on. Neil combs through his hair with his fingers; the locker room is empty. Somehow, they are alone together.

Neil isn’t sure what to say. Seth has always come off as homophobic and rude. Certainly not someone he’d imagine Allison being with, even if their relationship fluctuates. “What?”

“Most of them think you and Nicky are fucking.” Seth shrugs.

“What?” Neil repeats, except this time he chokes a little more. Seth shoots him an unimpressed look. It makes him seem a lot like Kevin. He would probably hate that.

“You’ve been screwing Andrew since before the summer, though. I’m assuming Aaron knows, since he doesn’t like you.”

Another what waits on Neil’s tongue. He swallows it. Backtracks. “But you knew better.”

 “It’s fucking obvious. They’re idiots.”

“They are,” Neil agrees. It’s pretty clear to him; it’s not like they’ve been hiding. Not like they hid when Neil went to sit with Andrew the first day, or when Neil calmed Andrew at practice. Any of the times Andrew has thrown Neil’s bag at him or pushed his hand onto Neil’s neck, grounding.

It’s funny that they assume it’s Nicky, and all because of a stupid sweater.

Seth appraises Neil once more. Something a little less hostile lingers in his gaze. “You knew that, though.”

“If being friends with someone confuses them, they’re not paying attention,” Neil replies. “Not my fault. Not my problem to correct.”

Something like a smirk flickers across Seth’s face. Neil still isn’t sure he enjoys the man’s company, but he finds it less grating than before. At least there were no slurs in his commentary. Neil takes it as a step in the right direction.


Andrew is very, very agitated.

Their first game is going well. They’re playing well, but the team they’re up against is going hard.  They are threatening cards and getting on the last nerves of the Foxes. Dan keeps her team in line, but they’re one bad word or move away from snapping.

Neil sees it coming. He sees the person moving toward Seth and knows only that if they collide, Seth will be carded and there will be a fight. A fight that will involve Matt and probably a few others from the opposing team. Neil has made his shot—has just passed for Kevin to score—so he turns on his heel, redirecting his path to intercept the other two. Seth sees him coming and gives him room. The other player turns on Neil, apparently forgetting themselves, and pursues him. Two steps later, they’re colliding and Neil is knocked off his feet.

It takes Neil a second to realize he’s not knocked off his feet; Seth is holding him up and away, backing up from the fuming player on the ground. Neil feels his feet hanging in the air and he blinks, letting the referees do their work.

“You can put me down,” Neil finally says. Seth nearly dumps him but the way he watches Neil for a second says he’s more interested in things being all right than he’s letting on.

Things don’t get much better, but the Foxes are now focused. The opposing team is after Neil with a vengeance and the Foxes work best when they are closed around a goal—scoring and protecting Neil come hand-in-hand. They’ve got his back.

Neil figures he can use it to his advantage. They have a one-point lead and they’re nearing the end. Neil knows they’re going to try to score and he thinks of the only thing he knows will help the Foxes call the last shot. He leans just a little over to the player across from him.

“You call this a game? I’ve been more entertained watching paint dry,” Neil says drily. “No wonder you’ve never made it to finals.”

He could go on, but he doesn’t need much to provoke the guy. The ball is in play and Neil weaves in and out of bodies. Kevin passes and Neil takes the shot; he doesn’t bother watching it go in. He knows he made it.

Neil also knows that there is a player on a collision course with him and there’s no time to stop. They crash all at once, a mess of plastic and limbs at high speed, and Neil is thrown to the ground. He curls instinctively and waits for it to pass.

It doesn’t pass. The guy is punching and Neil is suddenly in a basement, mold and death everywhere, chains, his wrists held tight—

“Neil,” someone says. A worried voice. “Fuckers—”

“I’m fine,” Neil says automatically. Nicky is picking him up; Neil winces. He feels bruised in a hundred places, but not broken. “What—”

“We gotta get out of here. Andrew’s about to kill someone,” Nicky jokes, carrying Neil off the court. The sound of something slamming against a locker echoes down the hallway.

Nicky almost says something again and then they walk into the locker room, where Kevin and Matt are keeping wary distance from Andrew. He has his knives out like he thinks he’s going to do something and Neil snorts before hissing in pain, pressing a hand to his chest. Andrew rounds on him and the other Foxes lingering in the corners step forward, nervous.

“I’m f—”

“Don’t,” Andrew says, harsh. He watches Neil stand, Nicky giving him up. “That was the most idiotic thing you have done, yet.”

“On your list,” Neil says. Andrew glares. It’s a nine. A nine, with the added details of I care about you and if you do that again, I’ll kill you. “Anyway, it was worth it just to see his face.”

Matt snorts. “Remember when you thought he was a quiet one, Dan?”

“He’s still quiet,” she says, shrugging.

“Quiet savage,” Nicky says, giggling.

“Hey,” Neil says, examining Andrew’s face. His heart is still pounding from the game. He thinks too much and right now, he doesn’t. He stops. “Yes or no?”

Andrew gives him an incredulous look. “We are not alone.”

“I can wait. You can say no.”

Neil wonders if anyone knows. He thinks Aaron probably does and maybe Nicky, too. Kevin doesn’t know anything, ever. Renee definitely does. The point is, Andrew has never discussed his sexuality and he’s probably never given the Foxes reason to believe he even likes anything other than hitting people. Even that isn’t exactly true.

So, Neil can wait. He only wanted to ask.

Andrew lets out a long-suffering sigh. Tosses his gloves onto a bench and holds Neil’s head in his hands. Allison says what the and Neil ignores her. Ignores Kevin’s startled noise. Ignores everything.

He has been with Andrew for one year and watching him on the court, actually playing like he’s more interested than just in passing, had been good. It had been good to look back and watch Andrew’s arms flexing under his jersey, or the sliver of skin at his back when he bent over to examine his shoes.

It had been good for Neil to do the one thing that always felt safe for him, with the first person he ever felt safe with.

“Yes,” Andrew says, hands on Neil’s head. “One hundred and thirteen percent.”

Neil smiles. He smiles, hears someone’s much louder what the fuck and leans down to kiss Andrew.

It’s definitely more than worth it.

Chapter Text

Cha-Cha Slide

They’re at a banquet and Neil is sitting at a table, bored out of his mind, watching Andrew carve lines in the tablecloth with his dinner knife. They’re holding hands under the table.

The banquet is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be good for glad-handing, according to Wymack, and publicity, according to Kevin. Nicky points out they’re the same thing and gets smacked upside the head. Neil is just concentrating on looking studiously interested while imagining what kind of alcohol Andrew has at the hotel and how messed up the Foxes will get when they head back.

At some point, the tables are moved out of the way and there’s music playing. Neil stands against a wall with Andrew, joined hands hidden behind their backs. A few songs go by—some of Allison’s kind, made for dancing or at least jumping up and down. It’s not so loud that Neil starts to hate existence but he feels like it might get there, before the night is up.

The music concentrates, simmering to a stark beat. Suddenly, dozens of people are screaming. Neil has a fraction of panic stab through him and he instinctively grips Andrew’s hand tighter, the fear sharp and acid. Before Neil can slide, Andrew pokes a knife into Neil’s sleeve—enough to startle him but nowhere near cutting.

“I hate this fucking song.”

“This is a song?”

Neil notices, for the first time, the people flooding toward the cleared-out dance area. He barely registers the Foxes stampeding before he’s carried along with the tide, glancing at Andrew in confusion. Nicky is practically jumping up and down in excitement. Thankfully, Kevin looks just as confused as Neil feels. Neil clings to that tiny hope and gives him a questioning look. Kevin just frowns and tries to extricate himself from the massing crowd.

“Oh, come on!” Allison cries, waving at the three escaping foxes. “You can’t not dance to it!”

“What? There’s a dance?” Neil half-yells, edging away from the rising noise coming from the speakers. He is so confused.

Nicky turns on his heel. “It’s the Cha-Cha Slide! Can’t you tell?”

Neil looks at Kevin. For a comforting moment, they both stare at each other. Neil wonders if this is what it feels like for the others, when he and Kevin practice French.

Nicky isn’t the only one staring, now. The other Foxes have paused in their stampede toward the front of the crowd. Matt looks uncertain but Dan is the only one that seems to get it immediately, something like pain in her expression—or maybe it’s a memory.

“Are we supposed to know what you’re talking about?” Kevin asks. He sounds like he can’t be bothered—the way he usually does when people talk about anything other than Exy or celebrities—but Neil doesn’t miss the we in his comment. The sliver of solidarity it offers.

Andrew shrugs. He moves his hand out of Neil’s and fishes for his cigarettes. “Be thankful you don’t.”

“We’ll address this later,” Allison says, pointing in turn at Kevin and Neil. She pushes the other Foxes to the front of the crowd and flips her hair over her shoulder, tossing her blazer toward the sidelines. Neil catches it deftly and folds it over his arm.

The dance, it turns out, is pretty simple. It helps that the singer—if you could call him that—spells out the steps. Neil watches the Foxes lead the dance, throwing enough energy into it that they seem like they’re fighting for some sort of award. Neil smiles to himself. He thinks they’d be lying if any of them said they didn’t approach everything like a competition. Other than Renee, maybe.

Kevin leans against the wall and seems a little lost. Despite his support, Neil thinks maybe he’s feeling the loss. Neil doesn’t mind it—after all, he’s enjoying the experience of having his firsts with the Foxes. Maybe Kevin feels it more acutely, though, because he holds his arms in a way that could be angry but is probably more uncomfortable.

“This girl in Madrid tried to teach me how to salsa,” Neil says. Andrew inches just a little closer but doesn’t turn his head; he’s listening. Kevin glances at Neil. “She was terrible. I already kind of knew—one of my dad’s friends had a wife that liked dancing. She would teach me, when I was a kid. Keep me out of the way.”

He doesn’t add anything else. It’s as much as he can say and he has no plan for whatever else he could say. Kevin relaxes a fraction of an inch, but it’s enough that Neil is sure he won’t be drinking himself to a blackout for the night. Andrew passes Neil his cigarette.

“No one dances this anymore,” Andrew says, crossing his arms. He kicks a leg up behind him. “No one has danced it since middle school, and it was just as bad, then.”

Neil smiles to himself. Moves the cigarette away from his body and leans into Andrew, breathing in slowly. He likes it better secondhand, anyway. “You have opinions about it.”

Andrew glares. Number nine. He takes the cigarette back, but Neil doesn’t need it. “I have truth.”

Kevin looks at them like they’re speaking German but doesn’t interrupt. He just shakes his head and then sees Jeremy in the crowd. Neil stifles laughter when he sees Jeremy waving at Kevin animatedly. Kevin makes a startled noise. Neil bites his lip.

“I think he wants to help you out,” Neil says, gesturing. There’s no way Kevin can pretend not to notice; Neil waves back at Jeremy.

Kevin shoots Neil a betrayed look but it’s only half believable. Neil notices Wymack not bothering to hide his grin while he walks up to them.

Neil looks over at Andrew. “Try not to stare.”

Andrew is nearly murderous when Neil takes Kevin by the hand and leads him toward the crowd. He decides, with the music thumping but not overwhelming at the back of the mess, that it’s not so bad. He’s only half-invested anyway; he’s more interested in standing behind Jeremy and Kevin and taking snapshots he knows Kevin will probably ask for later.

Besides, Neil can feel Andrew staring from the wall.

When they get back to the hotel room, Andrew locks them away from the others for the half-hour they have until drinks in Allison’s room.

“I told you not to stare,” Neil says.

“Shut up.”

They might be a little late to the party.

 

 

Whataburger

The game was in Houston and after, they all argue about where to eat. Wymack points out that nothing is going to be open and Neil, despite being tired and distracted by the way Andrew’s hair looks in the light of the bus, points out, “Whataburger’s open.”

“What now,” Aaron says, giving Neil a look like he’s speaking in tongues. Neil doesn’t feel like repeating himself.

Nicky is the one that responds positively. He gasps. “Coach! Oh my God, can we go to Whataburger?”

“What the fuck is that,” Aaron repeats.

Matt and Dan are looking to Neil for direction. Wymack doesn’t say anything, the traitor, and Neil sighs through his nose. He’s too tired for this.

“It’s a burger place,” Neil says. Seth mumbles no shit and gets elbowed by someone.

They decide to go and Neil leans against the window. Nicky is convincing Kevin—who is still unsure—that he should post it to Snapchat or something because he’d get, like, a billion likes. Nicky brings up half a dozen videos to show Kevin, who, despite his best intentions, seems to get caught up in the hype.

“Anyway,” Nicky says, rolling his eyes. “You’re the queen of social media. You know people will love anything you post.”

Neil tunes everything out. He’s remembering. He remembers Texas well; remembers the south, where everything is humid and sticks to your skin. The coast, where the breeze is almost like California but the ocean is warmer. The deserts, with tumbleweeds the size of small cars.

He remembers his mother pulling him into an old car, hotwiring it and taking off while a man came out of the grocery store, yelling. Don’t look back. Nathan will catch you, if you stop. Memories.

“Stop,” Andrew says. His voice cuts the fog and Neil looks away from the glass, blinking. “We’re almost there.”

Neil doesn’t argue. He listens to Nicky talk about biscuits and folds his arms over the seat in front of him, quiet. Seth glances back at him and Neil catches his eye. For some reason, Seth catches what’s going on. He gives Neil a cursory examination—up and down, as usual, looking for something. He does it a lot, when Neil comes in and out of things. Maybe they have something in common, from the way Seth does it, or maybe it’s because Seth had younger sibling. Neil has no idea. Whatever the reason, Seth doesn’t find what he’s looking for. He’s not happy, but he turns away.

The team is just excited for food. They order probably too much and Dan laughs when an employee points out the Foxes have the same colors as the restaurant. Guess it’s meant to be, she says. Her energy is enough that the late-night manager, upon hearing it’s their first time at the place, decides to let them make off with tiny number tents. Allison and Renee giggle about it, whispering when the woman hands Dan a stack. Neil isn’t sure why they’re laughing.

The team finally sits and eats. Neil tries to separate past from present. It must not work completely because, despite enjoying getting something into his stomach, Wymack speaks up from the end of the long aisle of Foxes.

“When did you dislocate your shoulder?”

Neil freezes. Something roars in his ears. His hand is frozen on the way to his Powerade and he suddenly doesn’t trust anything. The lights are too bright and everything blurs. He isn’t sure who is asking the question.

“He’s fine,” Seth announces, a little louder than necessary. He slams his hand on Neil’s shoulder while Kevin glares from a few seats away, probably about to say something about making the injury worse.

Except Neil doesn’t flinch or wince. The injury isn’t there. The pain isn’t. He is here, now, with the Foxes.

Not on the run and hurting from throwing himself out of a car.

Neil finally speaks. “I’m fine.”

Wymack frowns but takes it at face value. Andrew jabs a plastic fork into the back of Neil’s hand; Neil has no idea where he got it from. He’s eating a burger.

“You know what the only good thing about college is? A schedule,” Seth says. It’s sudden. “Fucking stupid assholes, otherwise. Especially the ones that think they’re big shit. It’s college.”

It comes out of nowhere and would make no sense at all, except Neil knows what Seth is saying. Time. Time is strange, when you don’t have a sense of now and before. When you lapse at a word, or a smell, or a sound.

Neil shrugs. “I was homeschooled. I’m glad I can still pick my schedule.”

“You can’t be homeschooled if you never had a home.”

“Assholes shouldn’t be able to walk, but here you are.”

Kevin is looking between them uncertainly. Renee smiles from her place across the table. Aside from Matt and Allison, she’s probably the only person that has an idea of why Neil and Seth interact at all. That’s fine by Neil; he doesn’t need everyone clamoring for advice the way they do about Andrew. It’s enough to be considered somehow magical with one person; he’s not going to shoulder the responsibility with everyone else.

Neil isn’t magical, anyway. Seth would probably never do something Neil asked.

When the team leaves, they’re all full and sleepy. Wymack has an absurd amount of coffee with him and Abby is talking about travel. Andrew picks the window seat and Neil lets him, surprised that Andrew would let himself be boxed in. Neil is halfway to dozing when he feels Nicky’s overlarge hoodie slip to the floor from where he draped it over his shoulder.

Without missing a beat, Seth picks it up and tosses it over Neil, still talking to Kevin about something.

Neil blinks and stares down at the hoodie. He looks to the side and sees Andrew watching him, something around a number ten glare pinning Neil in place. “You are an idiot.”

“It’s why I can talk to you,” Neil says. Andrew grabs a fistful of Neil’s hair and drags him in, just a brief kiss that burns Neil’s mouth, hidden from the others behind the seat in front of him. Neil is glad they’re at the back.

“Idiot,” Andrew mutters, letting Neil go. He curls further into the window but doesn’t let go of Neil’s hand.

Yeah, Neil thinks. I like being an idiot.

 

 

Weather

Neil notices a few weeks into the fall semester that Andrew doesn’t like the cold.

Of course, it’s not because Andrew shows any outright signs of disliking anything. It’s mostly in the little movements he makes and the little things he says. One Friday, Neil is waiting for Andrew at the cafeteria. He’s wearing a new hoodie—Nicky had kept his promise and taken Neil to get one; Neil had come home with three, two chosen by the Foxes and the third one of Andrew’s choices. Neil still wears Nicky’s when it’s too cold, but today, he’s in the black one that Andrew likes. It has a tiny crab with a knife on the front.

Neil sees Andrew from a mile off. He’s hunched into himself, black turtleneck peeking out from under his faded leather jacket. His expression is visible even from afar.

“Move,” Andrew says when he gets to the door, making a face. Neil tries not to smile.

The cafeteria is warmer but Andrew keeps his jacket on. He huffs when they finally sit down.

“Nicky says it might snow, next month.”

Andrew stabs a tater tot. Neil coughs into his hand. He has the suspicion that Andrew doesn’t like the weather. It makes sense—he’s from California, after all. Well, for the most part. He’s lived in warmer places. Neil wonders with amusement if Andrew has ever acclimated to the weather or if he’s always hated it. I bet he’s a nightmare when it starts to freeze.

Neil doesn’t have strong feelings about the weather. He knows how to deal with it, although he’s never had to do anything drastic. He’s never been trapped inside his home because of weather.

There were other reasons, though.

Neil surveys the chicken on his plate and absently stabs a piece. “Has it ever snowed, here?”

“Shut up. Eat,” Andrew says, jabbing his fork at Neil’s plate. Neil takes it as a yes.

Only two weeks later, they wake up to a fine white dust. Andrew is pissed.

Neil feels half sorry for the people in Andrew’s classes—if he even goes to them. Neil plods through his day and the snow, keeping his footing while watching students wipe out on slick sidewalks, before the landscaping people come by and salt things. The stuff crunches underfoot and Neil navigates his day simply.

He runs into Nicky, at three o’clock. Nicky is beaming, despite the redness to his nose. There are snowflakes stuck in his wild curls. He laughs and waves.

“Can you believe it? Man, this is great!”

“I didn’t think you’d like snow,” Neil says. Nicky is a beam of sunshine. He doesn’t seem the type.

“It reminds me of Erik,” Nicky confesses. “He sends me pictures, sometimes. Beautiful.”

Neil isn’t sure if Nicky means the snow, or Erik. Maybe both. The snow keeps falling in slow motion and they walk together away from the building, going at a slow pace.

A few minutes later, Neil sees Kevin. Right when he reaches him, Kevin takes a step and starts to fall, slipping on a patch of ice. Neil manages to catch him while Nicky tries to contain his laughter, shaking and redder in the face than before. Kevin looks equally angry and frustrated.

“Yeah,” Neil says, righting Kevin. “Your shoes.”

“What?”

“You don’t have enough tread. No traction,” Neil points out. Kevin frowns.

Nicky coughs on a giggle. “Um—he’s right. Yeah. You’re pretty smart about snow, aren’t you, Neil?”

Neil shrugs. Kevin huffs and starts in on them about practice and Nicky rolls his eyes behind Kevin’s back good-naturedly. They all head back to the dorms together and Neil pops his hood up, insulated against the cold weather.

When Neil finishes climbing the stairs, he finds Andrew waiting for him, agitatedly tapping a cigarette against his finger. Nicky starts to say hello but Andrew just grabs Neil’s wrist and tugs him toward his room. Neil looks over his shoulder to say something and finds Nicky laughing again, leaning on a confused Kevin. Nicky yells get some and Andrew flips him off.

Neil lets Andrew direct him into the bedroom, amused. The books and backpack he’s holding are taken from him and then Andrew is steering Neil onto the couch, pulling his knees up and fitting into Neil’s side like a puzzle piece.

“What were you doing? You were supposed to be out twenty minutes ago,” Andrew says.

Neil finally laughs. He earns a glare—number eight—and Andrew moves to leave. Neil holds his hands up, pleading. “It takes a long time to walk carefully in the snow. And Kevin fell.”

There. Interest—maybe even amusement, in Andrew’s eyes. He hums thoughtfully and takes a drag, tilting his head back. The smoke wanders toward the open window.

Neil eyes the window, bemused. “I thought you would have the heater on.”

“Waste,” Andrew mutters. He fits closer and Neil feel his heart thump heavily.

Oh. Andrew’s wearing socks and sweatpants and Neil’s soft blue pullover. His fingers are red where they peek out from the too-long sleeves. Neil feels like he’s about to choke on his heart. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go. Neil holds his hand palm up and Andrew moves to give him the cigarette.

“Yes or no?” Neil asks, before Andrew can trade off. Andrew pauses, exhaling.

“Yes.”

Neil leans in and finds Andrew’s mouth a welcome escape from the cold. He thinks, when Andrew’s freezing hands slip under his hoodie, that he could learn to love the cold. If it brings them this close, Neil thinks winter could be his favorite season.

The door must have opened silently, because suddenly Allison is saying, “Sweet. Sickeningly sweet.”

Neil blinks. Just when his eyes open to Andrew growling, Neil sees something—the way the light makes Andrew’s lashes white, the way his mouth is red, the way his eyes are still soft.

I am very gone, Neil thinks quietly. His hand is still entwined with Andrew’s. He ducks into Andrew’s neck, trying to steady his heart. Andrew probably flips Allison off or makes a threatening gesture; her laughter is immediate. The door creaks when she starts to pull it shut. “Coach called a meeting, so we have to leave early for practice. Twenty minutes.”

Neil sighs into Andrew’s neck. Feels the jump in Andrew’s throat when Neil’s breath fans across it. This is perfect. Neil thinks Andrew is kind of like the snowflakes outside—cold, pale; but he melts when he’s touched.

At least, when Neil touches him.

“Fucking snow,” Andrew says. Neil snorts out a laugh. Andrew turns to glare at him.

Neil smiles, just a little. Careful. “We do have twenty minutes.”

Andrew makes a face, but his hands are inching back up Neil’s chest. Warmer, now. He traces a pattern that repeats itself and Neil watches his face.

“Twenty minutes,” Andrew repeats. He leans in and Neil catches his breath, watching Andrew’s eyelids lower just a little. “Breathe.”

“Can’t. Just fell,” Neil says.

He means it to be teasing—means it to be just as snide as his usual comments—but the way it sounds doesn’t let him get away with it. He’s quiet when he says it, afraid of being too loud, like he can somehow scare Andrew away with volume alone. Andrew’s mouth opens and nothing comes out.

For once, Andrew can’t say shut up. He can’t turn it on Neil or tell him not to lie. Neil’s heart just fell out of his mouth and it’s a cold winter around them.

Andrew doesn’t say anything. He fits Neil’s head between his hands like he’s framing something timeless and leans in.

Twenty minutes, it seems, is more than enough to say I love you without really saying it.

Chapter Text

Riko’s pet doesn’t talk back. He takes the hits and the cuts; lets them burn and sting. His body is a canvas of wounds, healed and healing and still weeping. He is the lowest of the low.

He only exists for Riko to mark, a blank slate for action and reaction.

Jean is supposed to be his partner. Jean takes Riko’s pet after every torment and attempts to piece him back together, just enough for the next time. Jean is softly-spoken French, half careful and all afraid.

These are the moments that blur. They only exist fleetingly, but when they happen, they are the most painful.


Nathaniel knows what to do. He sees Riko coming across the field and Nathaniel ducks out of the way, every inch of his body straining for survival.

There is a thin line between performing and excelling. Riko is waiting at it with a knife and a fist.

Between doing and waiting, Nathaniel finds himself safe. He has done things the right way and Riko leaves him be, for the first time that week. Nathaniel lets Jean lean on him for a moment; there’s a sore calf that needs rest.

“I need to talk to you,” Kevin says, in French.

Nathaniel turns, blinking owlishly, to take in the second-second son.

Kevin is untouchable—or as close to it as anyone could get. He is just as much property as Neil or Jean, but it’s his talent and name that raise him above everyone else. He stands next to Riko, instead of being crushed underfoot or dragged by his collar. Kevin is not treated the same.

“Talk,” Nathaniel says. Kevin looks around the court, watching the other black-and-red figures march off.

Kevin lowers his voice even more. “Not here.”

Nathaniel has an innate sense of self-preservation. He also has a secret.

“Fine,” Nathaniel says. He runs a hand through Jean’s hair, a cursory reassurance that is both calculated and empathetic. Nathaniel cannot entirely stomach Jean’s submission, but Neil cares.

The secret, Neil.

Kevin takes Nathaniel to a small alcove in the locker room. Turns the knob in a nearby shower stall, trying to block out their voices. Nathaniel almost points out that the water won’t do much if someone is determined to listen, but decides not to. Kevin is an anxious creature and he’s been worse, lately.

Something is up. Nathaniel thinks he knows what.

“I’m sorry—”

“Don’t,” Nathaniel says shortly. Jean’s gripping his wrist too tightly. Nathaniel lets him, for now. “When?”

“Soon,” Kevin says. “Something is coming.”

True. Nathaniel has seen it; he’d felt it, in the last week that Riko had torn into him with vicious energy. He knows, at the back of his mind, that Kevin won’t be able to escape it. Whatever is coming will hit Kevin hard and in the end, running will be his only option.

“You can’t,” Jean whispers, harsh. His eyes are wide and glassy. “You—”

“I’m sorry,” Kevin says again. He’s going to say something else but Nathaniel holds up a hand, cutting him off. He lets Jean tangle their fingers together. This is only the beginning.

“I will. Come to me when you decide.”

Nathaniel cares about Kevin only as much as he can, before the man’s neurotic antics start threatening Neil’s existence. Kevin is unsteady and noncommittal. He wavers between the drilled-in compulsion to be Riko’s second and his desire to leave everything behind. His desire to be the best.

Jean is cold and quiet. Nathaniel undresses them clinically and turns the water to the warm side, waiting for the stall to fill with steam. He lets the heat burn away surface any traces of surface fear and helps Jean shampoo in silence.

Nathaniel figures neither of them will have this, once Kevin leaves. Riko will need a new second.


Kevin appears in the middle of the night. He is pale and gray, his hand wrapped in thick white bandages. He sways in the doorway, his dark hair askew and something unspeakable pressed behind his lips. It almost escapes in a sharp gasp, the controlled sob slipping between his teeth.

“I have to go. Now—”

Neil doesn’t let him finish. Neil throws a jacket on; his heart pounds and he takes his things out from a hidden board under his bed, where he’d once scratched his nails bloody prying up the flooring. He pulls out a binder and shoves it into Kevin’s hands.

“There’s money,” Neil says. “Go. Find your father and don’t look back.”

He can’t say anything else. There is nothing else. Neil is giving away his life.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin says.

Neil would cry. He would, but being the butcher’s son and Riko’s pet has taught him not to. Not while he’s still trapped in the castle.

Kevin leaves, clutching Neil’s history in his uninjured hand. He leaves and Neil pulls his knees up to his chest on the bed, feeling the room grow colder around him as the night turns into blue-violet morning.

Until Riko comes.


Nathaniel screams. He can’t help it.

The scream is more rage than fear. He has fear, of course—a healthy amount, given the circumstances. But there’s no point in being afraid when there’s no way to escape.

Nathaniel is taken apart under Riko’s hands. Three weeks seem like nothing and everything; time doesn’t work the way it should. The axis of the world is tilted and everything is off-course. Nathaniel can’t keep a hold on anything but the pain, so he uses it to track the passing hours.

Riko slides a knife across Neil’s arms. Neil screams and there are tears in his eyes, instinctive reactions.

“Do not bother. It will not help,” Riko says, his voice low. As if he thinks Nathaniel is trying to earn mercy.

Riko is stupid, in many ways. Foolish and weak and childish. Nathaniel is glad, however, that he is Riko’s. The other Moriyamas are not as foolish as Riko. They know how to make someone regret their life and any connections they might have made along the way. Nathaniel does not have any of those—outside of Kevin, who is untouchable, and Jean, who is too useful to waste.

Now, Nathaniel only has Jean.

Jean is given Nathaniel, once Riko is done. He has the usual task of patching things up as best as he can, the little red bag from under his bed pulled out and laid on the bed. He also has the bottle, amber and harsh when Nathaniel tries to breathe through his nose.

Nathaniel is half-conscious. “Give me a drink.”

“It will hurt. Your lip—”

“I know.”

Jean tilts the bottle. It tastes like fire going down and it feels like it too, flushing the cut on Nathaniel’s lip. Nothing is too painful, though; things are too far along for Nathaniel to register true agony. That bird took wing long ago.

“You need stitches,” Jean says. “We can wait, or I can do them.”

“Do them,” Nathaniel says. He feels very far away. The alcohol is just starting to work. “Give me five minutes.”

Jean obeys. That is his lot. He waits by the bed and Nathaniel holds a hand out, searching for Jean’s palm. They are no longer partners. Riko has chosen Jean; even if Nathaniel shares a room with Jean, Riko monopolizes his time. Nathaniel is without a partner on the field; his only support is at night, in troubled sleep. It doesn’t help to have Jean in the bedroom, but Neil likes to pretend it does.

“Don’t move too far,” Jean says quietly. He places his hand on the bed, palm to the ceiling. Nathaniel traces letters into it with his finger. Escape. Freedom. Life. Love. Stupid words he can’t speak, but ones that Neil can never stop thinking about. Always at the back of his mind.

“He’ll play, next year,” Nathaniel muses. Jean’s hand twitches. “They say he’s coaching, now.”

Jean presses his lips together. “Why would he play?”

Nathaniel knows what he’s really asking. Why would Kevin stay in the spotlight? Why would he step onto the court, across from Riko? Why would he return to the very thing that guarantees despair?

Because he has hope, Neil thinks.

“Because he’s a fool,” Nathaniel says.


Someone is stupid enough to come tell Riko about Kevin while the Ravens are on the court. Nathaniel can see it happening. He instinctively moves toward Jean.

Riko turns and he is fire. He is burning a path onto the court, snarling silently; the Ravens make way. Nathaniel feels a tiny, skip-beat stab of feeling in his heart. He tries to push it away. Riko swings his racquet and catches Jean behind the knees, bringing him to the ground.

Jean lets it happen. Hits the ground, holding back a noise of pain. Riko hits his shoulders. Jean pitches forward, hands slapping the floor. On all fours, he is just holding himself up for the blows. Riko hits again. He is screaming in Japanese—something about betrayal and family and blood.

Nathaniel doesn’t flinch. He holds himself still for every hit, waiting. Riko only ever goes so far with Jean.

Except today, Riko seems to forget. Maybe he thinks he’s hitting Nathaniel; maybe he has forgotten about his pet. Either way, he keeps going and Neil hears the sickening crack of a stick against Jean’s body. Neil can’t stop himself; his feet propel him forward and he skids on the floor. Someone grabs him; sharp reminders and the word no come at him from all sides. Riko doesn’t even notice.

Riko doesn’t notice until Neil screams Jean’s name, frenzied, pulling at the hands holding him. Riko turns, anger and instability bleeding from the edges of his mask. Neil throws himself out of the mess he’s caught in and puts himself in front of Jean.

“I know you’re a worthless human being who can only function on the court,” Neil spits, “but even a robotic, second-rate son should know better. But, you know what? You keep pulling the bricks out of the foundation, and I’ll happily watch you fall on your ass.”

This is why Neil is a secret. This is the very reason why Neil is still alive—just a hope, a dream of something else.

But Neil always knew he wasn’t going to last long.

Riko is set off all over again, but this time, it’s Neil he looks to. Despite his fury, Riko has less of the energy he had before, which only makes the smallest change. At some point, Neil hears Jean whispering his name. He can’t respond. He can barely breathe.

Things pass and then Neil is blinking on the floor of the court, the sounds of voices around him. He turns his head to find Jean, tear-stained and a little more mobile.

“Good,” Neil says, closing his eyes. It was all he needed to see.


They dump him at Palmetto State, probably as some sort of accusation. Another mind game. Neil looks up at the ceiling; he’d come to in the van, aware that it was the first time he’d seen the night sky in ages. The first time he’d been allowed anywhere outside the court. Outside Evermore.

Someone curses. Neil doesn’t move; if he dies, it would only be the proper end to everything. He waits.

“Neil!” Kevin’s scream is ragged, ripped from a place that’s raw and unhealed. He uses the name here, where Riko isn’t. Neil is glade for that. No one was allowed to use it at Evermore. Even at the end, it seems, Kevin is attempting to give Neil something. A small victory.

Neil wants to tell him about facing off against Riko. It was funny. He thinks Kevin would probably faint.

“Shit,” someone says. A man—Wymack, Neil assumes. The low voice makes Neil’s blood cold, before he forces himself to remember that he can’t do anything.

Neil opens his mouth; he wants—needs—to say something. All that comes out is blood. He is looking at the ceiling—

—and then he is looking at a face. Strange green-brown eyes, swimming into view. Unfamiliar. A pale man with translucent eyelashes, feathery in the light.

Neil lifts his hand. It hurts so much but he does it anyway, reaching. The voices are starting to drown in the ringing in his ears. Neil only sees the pale figure and wonders if it’s there to take him beyond. If the man is someone only he can see, strange and cruel and beautiful, like sun-bleached bone. Something left too long in the burning of the sun.

The last thing Neil thinks is, this isn’t too bad of a death, and then he falls into darkness.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel wakes with his heart racing and his thoughts flying in a hundred different directions.

The first thing he notices is the bedroom. It’s soft—there is no other word to describe the picture frames, the worn bedspread, the quilted fabrics, the curtains faded by years of sunlight. It is too soft. Nathaniel wonders what new hell this is; what Riko has planned.

A woman comes in. He knows immediately that she is not with the Ravens and for a terrifying moment, Nathaniel thinks he has been taken to his father’s people. He pushes himself up from the bed, prepared for a knife or a cigarette burn or even sharp words.

Instead, he gets a horrified look from the woman. She gasps and says, “Please don’t move.”

“Who—”

“Abby. You can call me Abby,” she says, raising her hands in surrender. “You’re hurt. I need to check your bandages.”

“What?”

Jean does that, Nathaniel thinks. If there’s a need. Otherwise, they heal faster when they’re uncovered.

You’re not with Jean. You’re not at Evermore.

“I have to look at your bandages,” Abby repeats. She sounds pained. Maybe she knows Nathaniel isn’t in a good place.

Nathaniel has to hold himself painfully still while Abby works. She’s not rough or unkind, but the hands on him are so unfamiliar that he feels something crawling under his skin. Everything about this is wrong. When Abby finishes, she worries at her lip and glances toward the door. Nathaniel tenses all over again.

“Kevin is here,” Abby starts, uneasy. “I told him you weren’t ready—”

“I’m seeing him.”

Nathaniel’s legs swing off the bed. Abby is obviously displeased but doesn’t say anything. The walk to the front of the house is near-agonizing; everything hurts and Nathaniel is keenly aware that he should not be alive. He was supposed to die.

Kevin is waiting. His back is to Nathaniel; he’s talking to Wymack. Nathaniel instinctively edges toward the wall at the sight of the man—remembers, in a flash, a man in dirtied jeans with sleeves rolled up. You will learn, Nathaniel. You are my child. Something complex surfaces on Wymack’s face; Nathaniel can’t untangle the emotions there. He doesn’t even care, so long as anger isn’t there.

“Neil,” Kevin says. He sounds nervous. Almost afraid. Nathaniel looks at him and considers.

He looks better. His hand is better, too. Kevin seems healthier, even if he’s mostly the same. There’s something about the way he holds himself. Nathaniel wonders if Kevin has finally stopped being second and remembers the press conference—the announcement that had made Riko fly into a rage. He hasn’t changed. Not in the way that matters.

Nathaniel notices, for the first time, someone in the corner. He almost stops breathing for a second—something stupid that Neil does when he’s feeling too much.

The man is pale. Short, but he looks strong. There are black bands on his arms that Nathaniel recognizes at once. He is familiar. He was the last thing Neil saw, before he passed out.

“Andrew,” Wymack says, gesturing toward the short man. “He’s on the team. Kevin says you know about us.”

“Then why are you explaining?”

Wymack doesn’t get angry. Nathaniel has a healthy amount of fear, but not enough to warrant keeping his mouth shut. Wymack isn’t part of the Moriyama web.

He’s also Kevin’s father, but Nathaniel knows Kevin hasn’t said anything about that.

“You have a chance,” Kevin says. He’s staring. “They thought you would die, the way they thought I’d give up. Play with me—”

“Is that honestly what you think? I am seriously starting to regret my decision to help you leave,” Nathaniel replies, a flare of anger sparking in his chest. The only thing keeping him from going further is a voice at the back of his mind.

“What are you talking about?”

“The point was not to make you run. The point was to break you into staying,” Nathaniel says, leaning against the wall behind him. He’s tired. “Make you more like Jean. Take you down a notch. Their mistake was thinking you were strong enough to stay, or strong enough to leave everything behind. Their mistake was thinking you were strong.”

Nathaniel watches each point hammered home, nails to pulse. Kevin bleeds thick and slow.

For the first time, the man in the corner shows signs of interest. He’s stopped tracing his armbands and is dragging his heavy stare to Nathaniel. It should be uncomfortable—Nathaniel knows danger when he sees it—but instead, it’s comfortable. Familiar.

Wymack sighs and runs a hand over his head. “Okay. Listen—we kept you here so you wouldn’t die. God knows you were in a bad state. Kevin’s the only reason I didn’t take you to a damn hospital. Now, you have a choice—for some godforsaken reason, Kevin seems to think you’ll play. I couldn’t give a shit about that. You just escaped the Moriyamas. They don’t know you’re alive.”

You could run, Wymack doesn’t say. It doesn’t matter; the words are in Neil’s head. He knows. Neil knows he could run far, or just into the arms of the FBI, to spill secrets and be hidden the safest way possible. He could end this.

He could do what his mother tried to, when he was ten. When his father ripped him back by their shared red hair and stared into Neil’s blue eyes with mirrored, nightmare versions. You are not going anywhere.

“Run? Running isn’t an option,” Nathaniel says, quiet. He knows all too well that he will be found. There is no way that he won’t.

He remembers lessons. The pressure on his shoulders. The classes meant to be cursory, where Neil was never allowed to speak with anyone else. Where Jean was his only constant. Shared papers written with bloody knuckles and bruised ribs.

“’Beware of entrance to a quarrel,’” Nathaniel recites. He is smiling. “I have a bone to pick with Riko. I’m not going anywhere.”


Neil is far less certain once he’s healed and being observed by the Foxes.

The pale man—Andrew—watches Neil. His unwavering attention is unnerving. Neil does his best to ignore it and focus on the moment. The Foxes talk about him, around him, in circles. They argue what’s good and what’s not.

Neil is quick to figure out where lines are drawn. Nicky and Aaron follow Andrew. Kevin sets their path, with some choice jabs from Andrew. Seth is outright against Neil. Allison tends toward his argument, but she seems to have a more critical view of things. Matt and Renee are willing to give him a chance. Dan veers on the side of agreeing with them, but as captain, she holds back. She wants to keep the team a unit. Her choice is just as important—if not more so—than anyone else’s.

“How the fuck do we know he’s not here to spy on us, anyway? He was dumped in the court,” Seth says, kicking his feet up onto a table. “Do you seriously trust him? He’s got dead eyes.”

Neil is tired. Wired. All he wants is to move; he needs it. He’s been stationary too long. He keeps looking over his shoulder for the men that will drag him back, kicking and screaming.

“You sure you’re not looking in a mirror?” Nicky replies, raising his eyebrows. Seth says something homophobic and Neil feels worn thin.

“I don’t need your trust,” Neil says. He realizes a little too late that it’s the first thing he’s said since meeting them. “I need a clean shot at Riko and no witnesses.”

Silence. Silence, then Seth’s laughter. Matt grins, nudging Dan. “I think he’ll fit in just fine.”

“Fitting in is not your concern,” Neil says evenly. “What happens when Riko finds out is your concern. He will not take this lightly, just as he did not take Kevin’s announcement lightly.”

Kevin flinches. Shows the first sign of guilt since Neil’s appearance. Andrew leans forward, suddenly attentive.

“We’re not afraid of him,” Dan says shortly.

“You should be,” Neil says. “You should be terrified. Do not decide to keep me because you like what I am trying to do. Do not decide after one day of knowing me. Decide once you figure out whether you are willing to give something up. Something that matters.”

Neil leaves the Foxes in the lounge. He doesn’t bother changing; he isn’t interested in showing his scars or bandages. He lines up cones and starts the drills, pushing himself to go faster. Everything is difficult; swinging his arm, breathing, moving his feet. Almost four days of recovery have slowed him—not much, but enough for him to be angry. He goes hard and then harder, feeling the burn in his arms.

Somewhere in the middle of his last set, he hears a low whistle. Neil tunes it out and finishes, his ears ringing. A warning. He slows his breath, keeping an even pace. Turns and sees the Foxes watching him with mixed emotions—some contempt, excitement, awe, curiosity. It varies.

For a second, Neil forgets. He reaches out with his right hand and says, in French, “Too slow. I’ll be faster next time. Let’s take the bandages off.”

Silence. Silence, and Neil feels himself plummeting. He is falling too fast and he shuts the world out. There is no answer to his words. No Jean, no hand on his arm, no soft discussion about what to do. No avoidance of Riko. No coexistence.

Neil is torn in half and then some.

“Neil,” Kevin says. His voice is very far away.

No. Kevin is speaking French, but it’s wrong. It’s the wrong voice and as much as Neil wants to answer, he hates it just as much. Hates that Kevin is here—out—and hates that he’s out, too. Neil was never supposed to be here. He isn’t supposed to make it. He should have died and Jean should be the one here. The one breathing in the fresh air.

No, Neil thinks. He cuts the pain with a heavy blade and shoves himself back into his body, gathering frayed ends and stuffing them inside.

“Kid. Shit—” Wymack curses, coming to a stop a few feet away. “You’re bleeding. You fucking—”

“Stitches,” Neil says. “A while back. It’s old blood. It will heal.”

“You’re not going to fucking heal if you keep pulling stitches,” Wymack warns. Neil assumes he’s about to give an order or threat.

Neil steps back a half-pace, gauging the distance between them like it’s second nature. It is. “I won’t. It’s healed enough to leave it be.”

Wymack notices him backing away but doesn’t say anything. Neil thinks perhaps this is the difference between father and son. Maybe Kevin could be like that, one day, but it’s far in the future. The Foxes are still murmuring when Neil starts to walk off the court. Dan is the one to finally say something, but it’s not what Neil expected.

“What was that?”

“What?”

“The drill you were doing. I’ve never seen it before.”

Nathaniel snaps. He turns on his heel and rounds on Kevin—Wymack is too far away to do anything. Nathaniel manages to push Kevin against the glass, holding his shirt and pressing an arm against his chest, before he recognizes something.

Andrew is holding a knife in his hand and leaning against the wall. He doesn’t look like he’s about to do something, but he’s definitely ready. He’s alert, too, for the first time since Nathaniel met him.

“Tell me you are not this much of a fucking idiot,” Nathaniel says. He sounds like he’s laughing. He is, somewhere inside. He’s incredulous, too. “Tell me.”

“They would never be able to do it,” Kevin says, in French.

Nathaniel tilts his head. Replies in English. “Do not hide. You are an idiot, and your teammates deserve to know. So—explain. Why, if you were a coach, did you not teach them Raven drills?”

“Assistant coach,” Kevin says. Nathaniel tightens his grip. Knows he’s smiling pleasantly, but it’s the Butcher’s smile. “I told you. They cannot—”

“Tell me another lie and you will be just the same as him,” Nathaniel says, silky and low.

Kevin goes white. Andrew taps Nathaniel’s wrist with a knife. Not dangerous, but warning. He seems just as irritated as Nathaniel is, past his strange façade of cheer. Drugs, Nathaniel thinks for the first time. Not good ones, either. Andrew today is different from when they first met; Nathaniel had thought it was for the Foxes’ benefit, but he thinks it’s actually real. Andrew is flying too high.

Nathaniel releases Kevin and deliberately shoves his hands in his pockets. “You ran to this team for a reason. You are not giving them the chance. Are you trying to go back? Because if you are, I will kill you.”

The court is silent. Nathaniel feels the burn of the torn stitches. He turns away from Kevin and leaves.

He runs the entire way to Abby’s. As much as he said he wasn’t running—that he couldn’t—he can’t help it. It’s in his bones. He runs and runs until he reaches the house. He has to force his feet toward the door. Force himself to go in and check his wounds, redressing and exposing. Surveying himself in the mirror. Nathaniel makes quick work of it and snaps the lid on the plastic box shut, stowing it under the bathroom sink.

He thinks about Jean’s red bag. Thinks of Jean, at Evermore, probably still sleeping in an empty room. Without Neil. Without his first partner and bound to another one. A dangerous one.

Neil lays in bed and stares up at the ceiling, tracing a lily onto the bedspread by memory. “I will kill him,” he promises to the empty room. Speaks in French. “For you. For us.”


Neil stares while Andrew smokes a cigarette, perched at the window like he belongs there. Matt is standing in the doorway, apologetic, what looks like a bruise forming on his jaw.

“I tried,” Matt says, probably about to try again just for the shit of it.

Neil waves his apology away and turns his attention to Andrew. “Well?”

Andrew casts a glance at Matt. The taller man makes a disgusted noise and looks to Neil. Neil shrugs. Matt sighs and shuts the door behind him, probably hanging nearby and looking for something to beat Andrew with, just in case.

“I appreciate that you understand what a moron Kevin is,” Andrew says. “But, I have a deal with him.”

“Protection.”

Andrew looks at him, curious. Neil shrugs. I’m not that stupid. He’d guessed as much, given the two times Andrew had snapped to attention when Nathaniel came too close to Kevin.

Of course, Andrew had also let Neil that close. Something told him Andrew didn’t let anyone that close.

“You are here because I allow it,” Andrew says, blowing smoke into Neil’s face. Neil inhales slowly, remembering Jean’s cigarettes. Smuggled things that the Ravens were never allowed to have. He picked them up around campus and burned them out of sight, where the smell was thin.

Jean said the smoke reminded him of a place.

“Doesn’t seem like that. Wouldn’t it be because Kevin allows it?”

“Kevin doesn’t know what’s good for him,” Andrew says, one eyebrow cocked. He snorts at the thought and flicks ash. “You are here because I know he needs you. You will push him. He needs to let go.”

“That is a tall order. You should know that Kevin is afraid of change. He’s stubborn.”

“I do know.”

“Then? What is it you want me to do? I am only here for Riko,” Neil replies. He has a good idea of what Andrew is going to say, but he keeps his suspicion to himself.

Andrew smokes for a minute, silent. He is interesting—compelling in a way Neil can’t quite place. There is clearly something he’s dealing with. Or rather, not dealing with. Neil thinks about waking up and seeing Andrew in a halo of light, pale and almost not there. Ghostly.

“Give him your game. Let him use you how he needs to. Kevin wants the win and he needs to give up on being second.”

“Easier said than done,” Neil says, crossing his arms. Andrew’s gaze turns to him. “But that is why I am here. To do what he can’t.”


The game ends in horror.

It goes well—Kevin and Neil force the Foxes into shape in almost unimaginable time, roughly throwing them together and putting clamps in place to keep the team stable. They are not stable. They are shaky.

No matter, the Foxes win. They win and Neil knows from the second he leaves the court what will happen. He feels the panic gripping his chest and searches for a hand that isn’t there. Needs a body that is a ghost to him, insubstantial but perfect in his mind’s eye. Neil barely claws his way out of his gear and into fresh clothes before his throat is clothing and his breath is thin.

This is years. Years, coming back to him. Instinct and drills and the innate need to survive. Neil stumbles out of the locker room and into the lounge; he barely comprehends the Foxes’ enthusiasm. He is swimming in fear and desperation.

He doesn’t want to be this, but then Wymack comes up and says, “Neil. Sit the fuck down.”

Training kicks in. Knees hit the floor, both arms raising at his sides. He waits for two Ravens to hold him down—Kevin, Riko’s pair; Jean, Nathaniel’s—and waits for the hit. Waits for Riko to discipline his pet.

Someone makes a noise of horror. He wants to tell them to be quiet—quiet, or you’ll be next—but he can’t move. It takes all of his strength to hold himself still and submit to the terror of not knowing when something will happen. When he will be thrown to the ground and beaten.

“Shit,” Wymack says.

Murmurs. He’s still waiting. Someone’s hands appear on his arms and he knows it’s Kevin. Waits for someone else. Waits.

Waits.

“Stop,” Kevin says. “Neil, look—Nathaniel. Look at me.”

He calls. Kevin calls; tries for comfort and knows it won’t work. The second he appeals to survival, Nathaniel is tearing his arm away from Kevin’s grip and propelling himself toward the wall.

Nathaniel breathes in ragged bursts. Glares at the floor because he can’t think to look anywhere else.

Riko does not have a pet. Nathaniel will not even give him nothing, anymore. Riko barely deserves absence. He barely deserves death.

Something cracks. Nathaniel reassembles the pieces he still has and looks up, clinical. “We won. Remember what it feels like, because we will keep winning, right until we are standing across the court from him.”

He has successfully shifted the attention away from himself. Nicky cheers; Kevin says something vaguely supportive of the statement. Nathaniel ignores them all; he retreats into himself, categorizing. He needs to know that he will not fall apart at Riko’s gaze. Needs to know that he has let go of that part that belonged to Riko; the part of him that would bend the knee and fall to the ground.

Nathaniel knows it won’t be so easy, but he has time. He has time to rearrange, before they see Riko. Before everything comes to a head.


Neil sits in Eden’s Twilight for what feels like the hundredth time, ginger ale sweaty in his hand.

Nicky is still surprised, apparently, that Andrew didn’t chew Neil up and spit him out the first time. Of course, Neil had only taken one drink before realizing what was in it. He hadn’t had much else to contemplate, given the fact that Andrew already knew all about him from Kevin. Neil took the drink and didn’t take any more, fighting every push until Nicky had apologetically come up to him with cracker dust in his hands. Neil had slipped away and paid a man to knock him out.

Andrew still smiles at that, sometimes. A very dark, oil-slick smile.

“Pay attention,” Andrew says. His hand is heavy on Neil’s neck, bringing him back to the present.

Neil doesn’t fight the hand. It feels oddly good. He wonders if Jean ever used to do the same. “I am.”

“You are not. You need to pay attention.”

“Why? You are the one that made the promise. I am only here to kill Riko.”

“You keep saying that,” Andrew replies, his eyes glittering in the neon lights of the dance floor. “But I don’t think you’re even capable of throwing a punch without falling apart.”

He’s wrong, of course. Neil doesn’t say that.

It’s only falling apart if you can’t put it back together. Otherwise, it’s disassembling. Rearranging.

Neil watches Kevin get shitfaced and doesn’t bother sparing too much pity. He spends most of his time watching Andrew, anyway. He can’t quite pin Andrew down. Most of his movements make sense, but others don’t. Neil has his suspicions; he spent years with the Ravens, after all, enduring and witnessing every form of torture that wouldn’t leave permanent marks, and some that did. From Nathan, Neil knows even more.

He shouldn’t be dissecting Andrew like this. It’s a waste of time and Neil understands that the Foxes aren’t going to be permanent. He is not permanent.

Neil drinks his ginger ale, watered-down from the melted ice, and finds Nicky in the crowd. Wonders how it feels to throw his hands up and dance.

“You going to join them?” Andrew asks, mocking.

“No,” Neil says. Yes, his heart pleads.


Wymack announces, very last-minute, that Kevin has been asked onto a show.

Neil feels panic start to bleed into the world. It creeps red at the edges of his vision. He asks, under his breath, “Do you know what this will mean?”

“What?” Nicky asks. His question startles Neil out of his haze just enough to focus. Nicky switches to German. “Was that French? What is it?”

It’s probably the worst-kept secret Neil has, that he reverts to French out of habit. What the Foxes don’t know is that it’s because of Jean. Neil is always turning to someone that isn’t there, like going down a staircase and thinking there’s an extra stair at the bottom. It feels just as wrong. Just as suddenly terrifying.

“Nothing,” Neil says, in English. Andrew barely gives them both a cursory glance.

The next morning, they’re piling onto the bus and Neil feels his hands sweat. He wants to vomit and scream. He wants to stand in front of the camera and tell Riko to meet him and get it fucking over with.

Instead, Neil ends up roped into the show in a flurry of frenzied banter and coolly arched eyebrows. He’s in a tiny room with Kevin after a few moments, his throat closing to a pinhole and the lights too bright around him. His ears are ringing.

“Don’t say anything,” Kevin says, straightening his jacket. “I will answer questions as needed.”

“I don’t think she wants me on the show to sit there and model.”

“She wants you there because you’re shiny and new. You’re a secret. The more contained this is, the better it will be.”

Neil wants to ask how Kevin is doing it. How, despite his panic and fear, he is somehow pulling himself together for the interview. If it’s the cameras that make him feel like he won’t fall apart when Riko shows up.

It’s only when Riko’s presence is announced and Kevin goes pale that Neil realizes the truth.

Kevin didn’t know.

He didn’t think.

Neil feels the truth burst into flame like a road flare. He stands before Kevin does. Unbuttons his suit jacket, letting just the smallest Butcher smile onto his face. Taps into the moment of fury he’d felt when Jean was being beaten and finds it’s not as hard as he thinks.

“I would say it is good to see you,” Neil says, while the din of the crowd drowns him out. “But I would be lying.”

He smiles through the handshake—through the way Riko competes even at that, trying to grip tighter—and he keeps himself between Jean and Kevin.

Neil holds himself tight until he sees Jean coming onstage, just a little thinner and more worn. They make eye contact and Neil can see everything at once—the pain of being left, the shock of realization, the relief and heartbreak.

He didn’t know I was alive.

Neil had known his secret would be safe, with Wymack’s extraordinary cautionary measures. He’d still expected Riko to know, somehow, like a pet owner who expected their dog to come home. He had thought that Riko would tell Jean something—that Neil had run away, or that Kevin had taken him. Anything that would have given Jean the strength to persist without having the will to follow.

Instead, Neil sees Jean two seconds away from tears, Raven training the only thing keeping him together, and Neil pulls him close. He holds him a few seconds too long and whispers into his ear, “I am not leaving you. Do you understand?”

Jean can’t even reply. He makes a small noise and Neil feels the fury crystallize in his chest. He lets go and puts on a camera-ready face.

He keeps up the act until Riko leans in and laughs about Kevin’s injury and attempts to step away from the Ravens. Neil keeps it up and then it all comes falling down around him when he turns in his chair, widening his bright blue eyes and making the best use of his face that he knows how.

“From my time at Evermore, I knew you were fickle with your friends, but I did not realize just how bad it was,” Neil says. He hears Kevin choke on his spit and sees Riko’s expression freeze over.

Neil doesn’t give a shit.

In fact, it only makes him more persistent.

Neil spends the next five minutes calling Riko, in less specific terms, a psychotic backstabber. It’s very fun and he is pleased to have the chance at all. Neil knows exactly what he is doing; he knows how easy it will be to draw Riko out like the child he is.

He knows how Riko moves. Knows how he will lash out. Neil knows Riko from head to toe; has seen him shower with his fancy soap and has been made to worship the ground Riko walks on. The pet knows its master with intimate detail and now, Neil is about to use just what he knows to bite.

He is prepared to take the next limb. Riko has already rid himself of an arm, by forcing Kevin into a choice that ended in him leaving. Has taken out a leg, by nearly killing Neil.

Now, for the other leg.

When the interview ends, Neil pushes Kevin ahead of him and offstage. The Foxes are out of their seats and moving. Neil ignores Riko behind him; he moves fast, hoping to at least get to the door. The hallway is too private. He needs to make this public.

They reach the door before Riko catches up. Before he says to Kevin, “You know you will not make it. Your punishment will be twice as harsh, for not watching my pet in my absence.”

His Japanese is fast. Kevin opens his mouth to answer but Andrew pushes through the door, leaving it half-open as he stalks over to Riko. The Foxes are hanging back in the hallway.

“Ah. I would say I would like to stay and chat, but I would be half-lying,” Andrew says. He smiles wide, shark-like and unstable. “I would like to stay, but I don’t think you’d enjoy what I want to do.”

Riko says something else to Kevin that Neil doesn’t hear. He is too busy noting the way Kevin is taking a step back and the way the Foxes are still, hanging up against the walls like they don’t want to move and make things worse.

Neil’s rage overtakes him. It invades every corner and he knows he is two seconds from breaking.

Riko is right there. He is there and Neil only has to reach out and snap his useless neck.

“This conversation is over,” Nathaniel says, waving for Andrew. For a moment, Nathaniel thinks Andrew will argue. The moment passes and the shorter man gives him a shuttered look before taking Kevin into the hall.

Riko steps to follow and Nathaniel calculatedly steps into his path. His hands are at his sides, loose but ready. Riko looks into his eyes, cold. Nathaniel calculates his time. His chances.

He finally says, “I could kill you now and save us both the trouble.”

Someone behind Nathaniel makes a shocked noise. There are scuffling sounds, like someone is trying to get to him but is being held back. Nathaniel ignores them. Riko looks up at him and smirks.

“What makes you think that?”

“It was you that said I was nothing, was it not? What is the death of nothing?”

I could kill you now and not care about my death. You would be dead, too. The truth and a lie. Nathaniel waits patiently. He only has to hold out a little longer.

Riko laughs softly. “What do you imagine would happen then? Your…team would walk happily into the sunset? You know better, my dog. You know how they would suffer.”

Neil comes back to himself in a jolt. Swallows his fear and the acid in his throat at the insinuation. He knows what Riko is saying. Neil knows what he has just done and the chance he’s taking—not just with his life, but with Jean’s. With the Foxes.

“I hope you are not lonely,” Neil says, taking a step into the crowded space behind him. He is taking refuge in the crowd and Riko thinks it is a sign of weakness. Neil knows it is a sign of survival. “But then again, you are a psychopath. I don’t think you feel anything, besides inadequacy.”

Neil turns and walks away.

Chapter Text

“No.”

Andrew stares at Neil. He unflinchingly holds his gaze, waiting. Neil doesn’t give him an answer.

“Let’s play a game,” Andrew says. It’s not a question. He steps closer to Neil—not threatening. Just there. “Truth for truth.”

Neil waits. He isn’t thinking about Riko or his plans, at the moment. All he knows is Andrew, standing before him, with his black shirt and black bands and the black circles of his pupils.

Andrew smiles. “I ask, you answer. Then you get to ask. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

Neil lets his answer hang in the air. He knows there are plenty of things he can outrun, but he doesn’t think Andrew is one of them. Not that he wants to. Andrew has defied him from the moment Neil passed out to the sight of his face. He is strange—too insubstantial to be there, but so strong he seems to hold the world up, sometimes.

“Good. Why no?”

“I need to be with Seth and Allison. They’re planning on going out.”

Andrew is sharp. He’s not displeased by the answer; it’s the truth. He’s not happy either, though. “I am aware. That is their mistake. Why are you making it yours?”

Andrew asks like he knows Neil. He does, Neil thinks, probably more than he should. He seems to know Neil does not stay in place for just anyone. Neil thinks Andrew is the opposite—he doesn’t move for just anyone.

It makes them quite the pair, he supposes.

“That’s two questions,” Neil reminds Andrew. When the shorter man waits, Neil answers. “It is my problem, now. Riko will not let this go.”

Andrew hums in agreement. He seems to have more to say, but maybe his interest has faded. He doesn’t seem too delighted by Neil’s choice.

Neil thinks it has something to do with lines.

After the first few days, Neil had been firmly placed in Andrew’s camp—or, technically, Kevin’s. Because Andrew went with Kevin, and with Andrew came Nicky and Aaron. The Foxes are split down the middle. Neil was only part of their group because Andrew made a deal with him, but Neil is rooming with Matt and Seth, so he has an in on the other group.

One foot in, one foot out. Kind of like how he’s a walking dead man.

“Pick your battles,” Andrew warns. He doesn’t say he’ll force Neil to go next time and Neil knows he never would. He’s warning, for some reason. “You can’t save everyone.”

Watch me, Neil doesn’t say. He lets the door swing shut behind Andrew and looks back at his bed.

He has an hour before the others go out. One hour to plan.


“You’re what?”

“Take me with you or I will run there,” Neil says. He means it as a statement of fact, not an ultimatum, but Seth gives a short laugh. He’s incredulous.

He’s also moving like he’s about to punch Neil.

“Time to settle a bet,” Allison says smoothly, passing between Seth and Neil. She distracts Seth long enough to redirect his attention to whatever she’s talking about.

Neil wasn’t aware any bets involved him.

Seth looks murderous, but he doesn’t argue. Matt and Dan exchange glances in the hallway. Even Renee seems uncertain. No one understands what Neil is doing. Seth doesn’t trust him. Even Allison isn’t completely on board, but she at least seems to know that Neil is serious.

They leave and Neil stays quiet the entire way. When they reach the club, he scans the crowd. Looks for any signs. He doesn’t trust the bartender or anyone around him, so he doesn’t drink—he just holds a glass of something and pours it out into abandoned drinks throughout the night.

He notices Seth walk away from Allison on the dance floor—she doesn’t notice, or maybe she thinks he’s just going for a drink—and he knows. Neil just knows. He remembers traded information; Kevin giving him bits and pieces when things came up. Matt talking about his addiction. Nicky offhandedly referencing other things.

So, Neil sees Seth walk away and knows he has to move. This is the time.

The problem with Neil has always been that he cares. He knows better than to care; Nathaniel was taught to stay away, stay safe, stay alive. Neil is a hopeless dream with numbered days; his only choice is to care, clawing at the dirt on his way into the grave.

But Nathaniel needs to be the one handling things, now. He is the one that walks into the bathroom where Seth is stumbling into a stall. Nathaniel hangs by a door, forces himself to vomit, leans sideways like he’s too drunk to gauge up from down.

A man walks in.

The sound of the bathroom door’s lock sliding into place echoes. Nathaniel takes stock of his choices. His weapons. Heavy feet approach. Nathaniel hears the man pause. Can almost hear consideration—the man contemplating taking Nathaniel out, maybe, or knocking him out to ensure no witnesses. He seems to decide Nathaniel won’t be able to remember and turns toward Seth’s stall.

Seth slurs a few words. Unintelligible anger. His feet move uselessly on the tile floor.

Nathaniel waits until he hears a struggle. He stands quietly, shifting his weight in worn-out shoes, and comes up behind the man. Surveys. There is a needle by his thigh. Nathaniel picks it up. He squirts the contents into a corner and lifts the plunger again, filling it with air.

He locks a leg around the man in two seconds and slams the needle into his chest. The man reaches up but before he can act, Nathaniel whispers in his ear, “Do you want an embolism?”

The man stills. Nathaniel ignores him, watching Seth, who is knocked out. He is untouched—so far—but there are materials laid out on the floor. Overdoes, Nathaniel notices. A practical and believable cover.

A terrible one, given the Foxes. Given Seth. Allison.

“I answer to—”

“Oh, I know,” Nathaniel says, unbothered. He shifts his weight and moves around the man, motioning for him to back up against the wall. “I am the Butcher.”

The man’s eyes widen. He knows enough, at least, to know that his orders mean nothing. The Butcher answers to someone higher up than Riko.

Nathaniel has never stepped into his father’s shoes. He technically cannot, but technicalities are lost on grunts like the man before him. All that matters is a shadowy chain of command and orders probably drilled into him hundreds of times. Do not defy the first Moriyama. Do not defy his pet.

“What do you want?” the man finally asks.

Nathaniel hums. “Better,” he praises. “Do you have clearance for the Nest?”

“Yes.”

“Give it to me.”

Instinct fights with orders. The man withdraws something from his pocket, painfully slow. It is all Neil needs—a wallet and a pass. Nathaniel tucks it into his jeans and nods. “Good. Now—”

Evidently, training and orders aren’t good enough. Nathaniel should have known. This man has not been raised by the Moriyamas. He is no true member of their world. The man lunges and Nathaniel lets go of the syringe. He means to take it out—he isn’t in the business of killing—but his priority is to stay alive, which means immediately kicking the man in the chest. Nathaniel scrabbles backwards, trying to find a wall for stability. The man reels back and hits something. The syringe digs into his flesh; he reaches for it and fumbles. Nathaniel knows what is coming. He fights the man back. It’s messy and unsteady, but there is air traveling through his artery and Nathaniel knows it’s just a matter of time.

He has no time to feel when the man collapses on the floor. When he grunts and hits his chest. Nathaniel hauls Seth up haphazardly, trying to compensate for the bigger man’s weight. He drags them toward the door and fumbles with the lock. He has to step on the hand that grabs for his ankle.

Nathaniel throws himself into the crowd. They don’t mind him. He lets the pulse take him further, until he is looking at Allison and Seth is making pained noises in his ear.

“We need to go,” Nathaniel says. To her credit, Allison doesn’t argue. She pulls Seth’s other arm over her shoulder and shoves her way out of the dance floor.

They are in the car. Nathaniel thinks time is snapping into cuts, only the important pieces left behind. He takes his phone from his pocket—there are a few dozen messages from Nicky he’d never cleared—and dials Andrew.

He’s not sure why. He should be dialing Kevin’s number.

“Get them out. Now,” Nathaniel says, as soon as Andrew picks up.

Andrew is silent. Even his silence is a question. Nathaniel wants to laugh. This is stupid. This is too much. He doesn’t have time. Nathaniel continues, “Call Coach. Everyone—everyone—needs to be waiting, when I return.”

He hangs up. Andrew understands. He might not be happy, but he knows what Nathaniel is saying.

Allison screeches into the parking lot of the court. Nathaniel stays where he is while she pulls Seth out. He holds himself together for a minute, checking cracks and glue to make sure things hold up to scrutiny. He gathers himself and exits the car.

“What the fuck,” Wymack says, as soon as he walks in with Allison and Seth. The man looks tired but alert.

“Riko tried to kill him,” Nathaniel explains. “I stopped it. Have Abby look at him. He should be fine—whatever is in his system is probably whatever he took voluntarily. He may have a concussion, though.”

Allison shoots Nathaniel a look—probably at his ‘voluntary’ comment—but she leads Seth into an exam room. Wymack runs a hand over his face. “You called—”

“I did.”

“Right.” Wymack gives Nathaniel a searching, tired look. “We might as well wait.”

“There’s nothing else to do.”

When the others finally arrive, Andrew crowd into Nathaniel’s space. It’s a strange feeling, being the one on the receiving end of Andrew’s intent scrutiny. He holds himself still, to the wall. Andrew’s hand twists Nathaniel’s head this way and that.

“I told you to pick your fights. You can’t save everyone.”

Jean, Nathaniel realizes. Andrew is talking about Jean. So, he thinks I haven’t thought of it. He’s not sure whether to be annoyed or amused. He actually feels a little bit like pouting, but that’s Neil.

Neil holds eye contact with Andrew, curious about the green in the brown, but speaks to Wymack. “How many days until the banquet, Coach?”

“I—what? It’s in two days. Jesus fuck, this is going to—”

“Two,” Neil repeats, effectively silencing the man. He’s still looking at Andrew. The man smells like cigarette smoke. Earth. “One day to lay low, one day to travel.”

“It would be all over the newspapers,” Andrew says. He doesn’t speak like he’s correcting Neil; this is his method of questioning. Neil mentally tallies the questions. He wonders if Andrew ever intends on paying Neil back.

“Not if he isn’t found. Allison and Seth are always on the outs. The Foxes are dysfunctional. Maybe we thought he ran. Maybe he’s run before.”

Andrew gives him a long look. He’s following Neil’s logic. He is curiously sober, Neil thinks. Still sober, in fact, in front of Wymack. Andrew traces the tattoo on Neil’s cheek. The scars under his eye. “You are playing with fire.”

“You are aware I have burn scars.”

“I am aware you are going to have several more.”

Wymack groans. “Can you fucking speak English? Jesus Christ, you might as well be speaking French again.”

“Riko won’t suspect anything,” Neil clarifies. His cheek feels strangely warm where Andrew touched it. It doesn’t make sense. His hand was cold. “Too little time. We go to the banquet—keep Seth hidden. I will deal with Riko.”

“Deal?” Kevin echoes. He is pale but he steps closer, speaking furiously, his French hitting like a hundred tiny flechettes. “You cannot deal with him. He has the power. How do you not understand? You know. This was just a small taste—”

“Yes, yes,” Neil says, irritated. “but I do not deal in small tastes. I take bites. Can you?”

Kevin presses his lips together. He makes a noise and cuts the air with his hand like that will end the conversation. It is a habit he picked up from years of trying to silence Nathaniel behind Riko’s back. Neil wonders if Kevin even realizes it.

“This will be fun,” Andrew says, smiling. He throws himself onto the couch and crosses his legs.

Sure, it will, Neil thinks. And it’ll be even more fun when I watch Riko have an aneurysm.


Time is nothing. Time is a useless barrier. Time is only as important as what Neil has to plan for.

He has things in his pocket. Secrets and lies. Mistakes.

The banquet is messy. They are supposed to be seated across from the Ravens, but Neil insists that Wymack move them. “I don’t want him to know until he knows,” Neil says.

Wymack doesn’t understand, but he curses his way through the change anyway. Part of Neil is furious at giving in even a little. The other part is giddy with excitement.

Seth hadn’t been pleased about sitting out half of the banquet. Allison had shut him up pretty quickly, though. Sometime after the club, Neil thinks they both changed—maybe for the better. In any case, Allison trusts him more and Seth has stopped being so readily violent.

He still almost punched Neil in the mouth when he found out about the bathroom incident.

The banquet wears on and then the tables are moved. People walk around and shake hands; Andrew follows Kevin around and Neil makes nice, just waiting for the perfect moment.

As it so happens, Riko can’t not be the one to walk up to them. It’s perfect.

Neil lets himself be distracted by Jean for a millisecond. Feels his heart hammer in chest. Sees what is at risk if he fails.

“Oh. Fantastic,” Neil says, when Riko steps up. “I was wondering when you’d come crawling back to us.”

Jean is wide-eyed and terrified. Neil’s instinct to pull him closer is overridden by the plan in his head.

Japanese feels wrong in Nathaniel’s mouth. He speaks it anyway. “You have failed.”

“I have not. You are standing here.”

Nathaniel resists the urge to roll his eyes. It isn’t his and he doesn’t need it, now. “I learned a game recently. Would you like to play?”

He doesn’t wait for an answer. Nathaniel crosses his arm and casually leans against Kevin. Riko watches, seething. He is two seconds from beating the shit out of them. It is glorious.

He hasn’t seemed to have caught on that he no longer has a pet.

“This game is truth for truth,” Nathaniel says, reaching into his pocket. “Truth: you sent someone to kill one of the Foxes.”

“That sounds like a tabloid headline,” Riko says. His lip curls. Nathaniel pulls the wallet out the rest of the way and his eyes go dark.

“Truth,” Nathaniel continues. “You do not have permission. Tell me I am wrong.”

Riko takes a half-step forward. Nathaniel raises a finger, says, “Ah. No, no. Look that way.”

Nathaniel gestures over his shoulder. He knows Moriyama is there, talking to someone. He lets Riko calculate and seethe some more. Wonders if he could boil a pot on Riko’s head.

He thinks he could.

“Tell me I am wrong,” Nathaniel repeats. “But before you do, consider. I could walk over and hand this to him. We both know the master will not concern himself with your lost pet. But he will be very interested in what you are doing, when you are supposed to be on the court. Body and soul.”

Nathaniel closes his threat with the Moriyama threat. It eats through his tongue like acid. Riko smiles, a little flicker—an ugly promise. They have reached even footing and Riko is just waiting for another opportunity. This will even the score, but Neil has made the stakes much higher.

Six feet and two inches higher.

“Perhaps you should think about where you will be, in the end,” Riko says smoothly. He extends his hand. Neil passes the wallet. He is certain Riko won’t suspect Neil has duplicated anything. That’s Riko’s problem.

“I will be on the court,” Neil says. “And you will be walking off it.”

Riko turns away. He leaves Neil there and Jean, hands shaking, cannot move. Kevin opens his mouth to say something but Neil moves around him and to Jean.

“I promised,” Neil whispers. “I said I wouldn’t leave you.”

Jean chokes on something—air, tears, emotion. It doesn’t matter. Neil pulls him off the court; he barely sees Seth take the court and wonders if Riko will even be surprised. Neil makes his way to the locker room and then out into the lounge.

He needs—

—he just needs.

He has to reassure himself that he isn’t dead and Jean is there. He has to reassure himself that somehow, some fucking how, he has managed to take not one, but two from Riko. He has done the impossible and saved the ones that needed saving.

Neil has paid for two lives with his own and he would do it again.

Jean just breathes. He holds onto Neil, always the same, like he’s the smaller one and Neil is the tower holding them up. Neil whispers nonsense in his ear—pieces of poetry, songs, sayings, all in French. He keeps up a gently rolling stream until even his soft words become hoarse.

When the clock behind the wall moves too far, Neil knows the others are coming. The banquet is ending. Neil extracts himself far enough to look Jean in the eyes.

He speaks, careful, afraid to hurt. “You will have to see Abby, tomorrow. For the injuries. Then Bee—for everything else. I will keep you with me tonight.”

Jean’s hands tighten on his wrists. He is fighting, Neil knows. Fighting dependence and need. His instinct to follow and survive warring with his need to be supported. When he finally speaks, his voice is cracked and unsteady. “Tonight?”

“Yes. Tonight, you stay with me,” Neil repeats. He pushes a hand through Jean’s hair, through a tangled mess that gives way like it always does. This is reassurance. Familiarity.

Jean breathes him in and Neil lets him.

They were all they had.

Now, they have more, and Neil will teach Jean for as long as he is alive. It isn’t much time, but it’s all he has.


“You have a bad habit of caring about everything.”

Andrew flicks his cigarette at Neil. It’s cold on the roof. Below them, everyone is sleeping.

There is an empty void where Jean should be.

Neil sits. Drapes his arms over his knees. “Not everything.”

Andrew makes a face, somewhere between a grimace and a snarl. He pushes Neil’s face away with a finger to his cheek, poking. Neil distantly remembers him tracing the tattoo and thinks about how warm his skin felt afterward.

He wonders if Andrew knows he is next, or if he would even care. He is going to fight it, probably. Or at least warn Neil.

But all Nathaniel can see are cracks, and Neil has to fix everything before he goes. Before he runs out of time. There is nothing else for him to do.

There is nothing else for him but to care.

“You avoided damage this time. You won’t be so lucky, next time. You know what you have done.”

“You’re right,” Neil agrees. “I do know.”

He pauses. Thinks of the confusing mess his life has become.

Neil isn’t sure when he decided to dive headfirst into Andrew and his problems. He’s not sure; he doesn’t know. He does care.

There’s too much for him to hold at once, but Neil has always been good at splitting his worries into little things. Packaging his truths and lies into shrink-wrap. He must be able to, to survive alone. It is the only condition of him being on the outside. He would never have made it—would never have helped Jean make it—if he couldn’t. If Neil couldn’t tear the Raven from his chest and leave it, bloody on the floor.

“Andrew,” Neil says. He stops. He’s not sure what he’s going to say. Suddenly, the stars seem much closer and the ground further. He is dizzy.

“Go inside,” Andrew says. Raises his hand a second later, the cigarette between his fingers. Slowly points to the door with a salute. “Go.”

Neil isn’t sure why he feels like he failed himself. He gathers himself up, but takes a moment to inhale deeply, sucking the smoke in and closing his eyes. It still feels like comfort.

It feels like something approaching a home.


“You know what you are asking. That makes it worse,” Andrew says. He has an arm braced across Neil’s chest, pushing him to the wall.

Warning.

Neil tastes other words on his tongue. Ones that have no place here. He says, “I only know it needs to be done. You know it. With things this way—we’re split in half. More than half.”

“And why should I care?”

“You don’t have to,” Neil says. “I’ll care for you.”

Too far. It’s a little too far and Andrew withdraws his arm, a hand held up to keep Neil in place. He is somewhere beyond. He is not looking at the world, or maybe he is. Maybe he’s looking at another world. His.

Neil itches to do something. He has only ever known Kevin and Jean; Kevin requires a careful touch and coaxing. Jean needs firm hands to hold him to the ground and keep his pieces together, more than even Neil. Andrew—

—Andrew.

Neil feels his pain acutely, under the sink and raw. It is always new and always old, like water from a faucet. Too cold; so cold, it freezes Andrew. Makes him icy and pristine, like a diamond. Unyielding. Hard, but still see-through and glass. Neil looks into Andrew and can’t find a reflection looking back.

“You don’t know anything,” Andrew finally says. He points to the door. “Go.”

Neil doesn’t push it. He leaves, when all he wants to do is come back and say tell me what you need.


Neil, packed in a car, turns the key in his hand.

He has been very determinedly not thinking about it for some time. It is somewhere to go and he can’t afford that. Can’t afford to want his feet to return somewhere. It hurts too much.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, he thinks, the outline slowly becoming second nature. Just for a little while.

Nicky is painfully nervous. Neil just watches the landscape fly by the window. He has a fuzzy idea of things, coagulating like blood from a wound. The miles pass and Neil glances at Kevin.

Kevin has been off, since Jean’s return. Neil isn’t sure how things have played out between them, but they had spoken. After the banquet and the first night, where Neil tried to hold Jean together with his smaller body, Kevin had talked to him. Jean is still in Bee’s care—he has to stay with her for a month, before he’s allowed back—and even then, Neil has no idea what will happen. But Kevin had spoken to Jean and somehow, he’s been strange after. Neil almost wonders if they fought.

“You’re thinking too much,” Neil says quietly. He holds his hand out in front of Kevin’s forehead and waits. He waits and Kevin finally sighs, less irritated than he would probably like, lowering his head into Neil’s hand.

It’s almost like checking for a fever. It’s more like checking for a pulse.

They go through the motions once they get to the house. Aaron and Nicky and Andrew, all navigating mines that take the shape of words and looks. Neil keeps his distance and props his new racquet against the entryway, thinking about the next game and how he doesn’t have much time. There is never enough time.

Somewhere halfway through dinner, Andrew goes inside.

Neil feels it creeping up his neck. He looks at the table through Nathaniel’s eyes—it is getting harder to let go, with so little time and so much that he can’t help wanting—but he does it anyway. He sees the way their hosts keep glancing at the house and the way their eyes flick from the ground floor to the upstairs rooms, as if they can track some sort of movement.

He doesn’t bother making an excuse. Neil rises from his chair and walks inside. Someone protests, maybe, and Kevin makes an annoyed noise at him. Neil ignores them and climbs the stairs.

When he reaches the door, he hears the crash of glass.

Neil opens the door. Slides halfway. Takes in the scene—a stranger with a broken bottle in his hand, the smell of alcohol everywhere, Andrew—

The only thing Neil registers is Andrew’s torn shirt and the scratches on his back. There is static in Neil’s head; persistent, invading. It reminds him of Kevin with a broken hand, Jean on the floor—and Neil cracks. He takes something from the table next to him—can’t tell what it is—and swings. Hears the man yell in pain and anger.

Below it all, Andrew starts to laugh.

The man grabs Nathaniel by his throat. Holds him against the wall. Nathaniel knows this game, too. He is nearly paralyzed; he can hear Nathan in his head, you won’t get out, you will never get out alive, stupid boy, and Nathaniel screams. He screams and slams his weapon into the man’s face. There is a sick crunch he recognizes too well. Nathaniel is dropped but he keeps hitting, using momentum and leverage to shove the man back. The stranger reaches for him, even as he is most definitely dying. Tears at Nathaniel’s clothes.

There are other people. Nathaniel can only feel hands on him and then there is another sound. A sound and his face is covered in a spray of warm blood.

He backs into a corner. Andrew is getting up from the bed, just pulled together enough to say things. To speak to the real monsters in the doorway, a man and woman with black glass for eyes. He goes to Aaron.

Nathaniel considers himself very held together. Not whole, perhaps. Just stable enough for life. He is covered in blood and bruises, but that is nothing new.

It’s just that Neil didn’t expect it, outside of the Court.

It’s a harsh lesson, but it had to happen. Nathaniel pulls his body up from the floor. He thinks the others finally recognize him and he wonders how good he was at being nothing that they didn’t see him. Nathaniel steps into their odd circle while Nicky falls apart again; he ignores the questions and shaking hands trying to force themselves to touch him.

“There will be police,” Nathaniel says. “Call Wymack.”

It’s the last thing he says. He walks downstairs in a haze and wonders about Jean. Thinks he will have to wait to disassemble himself and rearrange the pieces. Wait until no one is looking.

They’re going to try and take him away, a voice reminds him.

Nathaniel waits on the curb, staring at a court in the distance. Tastes copper on his tongue. “They can try.”

Chapter Text

Neil does not stand.

Riko enters the room, a smile and a lie. Neil wonders just how far Riko would go. He thinks, too far for his own good.

“You seem to be facing trouble,” Riko says. He crosses one leg over the other and leans back in the silvery-blue chair across from Neil. “Did I not warn you?”

Neil lifts his chin. “You must have a good reason for coming. You wouldn’t risk daddy’s anger for nothing again, would you? Or maybe I am right and you are simply that stupid.”

Riko is silent. His smile stays in place, more teeth than anything else. His eyes are sharp like ice and knives. Neil holds himself very carefully. He expects violence and anticipates trouble. Riko just lifts his hand to reach into his suit jacket. Neil tenses, prepared. Riko just smiles wider and withdraws an envelope, tilting his head. He slides it across the table with a soft rasp.

“Christmas is near. You should be with your family.”

Neil doesn’t answer. He can’t. His heart is in his throat and he reaches for the envelope. Riko’s hand shoots out but Neil avoids it, holding his hand loftily as if he is preparing to conduct an orchestra. I will not hesitate to hit you, he tries to say with his gaze.

Riko raises his palms, placating, a smirk on his lips. Neil reaches again and takes the envelope, opening it to reveal a slip of paper.

A statement.

The press release talks about Neil’s return to Evermore and his realization that he was better suited to a team with a great legacy like the Ravens. That despite his straying nature, he has decided to go back to the Ravens after realizing the Foxes were not worth his time.

“This seems preemptive,” Neil says archly, but his heart is pounding. He remembers the hallway outside and the number of officers. Calculates the number of steps to a door and the miles to a bus station.

And then he thinks of Andrew, somewhere else and being interrogated about—

—about it.

“Perhaps. Something tells me you will come to realize the error of your ways.”

“Oh? A little bird, perhaps?”

Riko stiffens. There is violence behind his smile. Neil almost laughs. It’s the name his uncle has used to talk about Riko, before—an insult. A dismissal of his worth and status. Riko gathers himself, less playful and more cruel. He has changed from a housecat to a leopard.

“Your teammate is required to go through therapy. Become sober, perhaps,” Riko says. Neil listens. “He is quite a sad thing. I hear there are doctors that might help, however. Ones that would not hesitate to have him relive his darkest moments. Is that not how a proper sword is forged? In fire?”

Riko doesn’t have to say more. Neil knows—knows from his family, from Nicky, from simple guesses. He knows what Riko is threatening.

If Neil does not return to Evermore, there will be no doubt. No question as to Andrew’s fate.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Riko will keep his word. In fact, Neil doubts that he will.

But he has no choice.

Neil can’t not do anything. He cannot risk this part of the game; he can’t afford to doubt Riko. Despite his anger and fickle nature, Riko loves the game. He plays it with absolute dedication. Neil’s only choice has always been to tap into that. He used it before, to save Kevin. To save Jean.

Third time’s a charm.

“He does not leave Palmetto,” Neil finally says. “He is evaluated by someone that Dr. Dobson assigns. No questions asked.”

“Since when has anyone ever questioned the Moriyama name?” And lived, Riko doesn’t say. Neil smiles a little. He knows it gets under Riko’s skin.

Neil doesn’t say, I have. He slides the envelope back to Riko and leans back, moving his hands under the table. “Then you have my word. Christmas.”

He doesn’t say, if I don’t sign, you can’t keep me. Riko would laugh. He doesn’t think Neil is capable of holding up; Neil doesn’t know if he is capable. Nothing is certain—

—nothing, and Andrew somewhere in the building, with blood still dry on his forehead.

“I never expected any less,” Riko says. He rises from the table and then pauses, glancing down at Neil. “I did expect fighting.”

“Since when has anyone fought the Moriyama name?”

Riko wheels. Neil has no time to react; no time to calculate how much he has to lose or what he could do. All he knows is that Andrew is somewhere and Neil is here, stuck in a room, with one chance. He steels himself.

The knife cuts across his face. Neil only feels the bite on his upper lip, left side, and then again under his eye. It is cold and steely.

Riko withdraws with the expression of a bored child. “You will remember to give me what I want, before this is over.”

I already have, Neil doesn’t say.


“What the fuck? Did—”

“No,” Neil says shortly, ignoring Wymack. He looks around the waiting room. Kevin is in a corner with Aaron and Nicky. “Where—”

There is a commotion down the hallway. Andrew comes toward them like a tornado, spinning with force and purpose. Neil imagines the police station torn around him and blinks to wash the image away.

“That’s enough,” Andrew says, waving a hand dismissively. He is at the edge of his medication. “I—”

He stops midsentence. Neil just knows—knows—before Andrew rounds on him. Wymack makes a surprised noise and then Neil is being shoved back into a wall, a hand at his neck. In the distance, an alarmed voice calls out. Neil lets Wymack handle it and focuses instead on Andrew.

He is there, in the moment. Neil wonders what brought him back. Was it me? He thinks it wasn’t. It was the smell of expensive cologne and matcha, green tea that Riko loved to drink and Jean used when Neil had lost two molars to Riko’s rage.

“Where?” Andrew asks, savage. “Where is he?”

“Gone,” Neil answers. Andrew drops him. Neil answers the other question before it comes. “Just me. Just now.”

“You have nothing to barter,” Andrew says. A statement; not a question. Neil wonders when he caught on.

Nothing. Nothing left, when Neil feels the phantom of Riko’s racquet. When Neil reaches for Jean, French on his tongue and expectation in his hands.

There isn’t much Neil can do, anymore. He has given his life three times and there are no more trades to be had. He has signed himself away in blood.

Andrew’s finger lifts to Neil’s face. Traces the cut, from temple to chin, skipping over Neil’s lip. His mouth feels dry. Everything feels warm.

“We’re going,” Wymack says, suddenly there. “Abby’s. Now.”


Abby is arguing in the kitchen with Wymack. Their voices are below yelling. Nicky and Kevin have gone somewhere; Aaron is probably hiding.

Neil is with Andrew.

He’s not sure how he was given permission to come in. Andrew stands by the bed and looks out the half-open door. There is a chilling lack in his eyes. Neil has seen it before—the distance. The quality of emptiness. The taste of the void. He wonders—

—he stops.

“You did this,” Andrew says. Not an accusation, just…matter-of-fact. As usual.

Neil rolls words around his mouth like marbles. “What do you want?”

“Does it matter? You made the choice.”

“Andrew.”

A flicker. It might be anger or deadliness, but it’s something. Neil realizes he doesn’t say Andrew’s name often. In all this time, Andrew is usually the one commanding his attention. When it’s Neil starting their conversations, he always does so after extended eye contact. Careful agreement.

“Andrew,” Neil says again, watching the wave roll through the man at his side. “Tell me. What do you want?”

“Is this you cashing in on your questions?” Andrew asks. The bitter bite of something earthy. A root, buried beneath six feet of life.

“Yes,” Neil says, because nothing else will satiate Andrew. He waits, careful, considers closing the door. Doesn’t. No one is close enough to hear, anyway.

He wonders why Andrew reacts to Neil saying his name.

There’s an approximation on Andrew’s face for a second. Faking it, before he stops. “Bee.”

Neil had guessed the answer. He wasn’t stupid enough to think he was trusted or important enough for Andrew to ask for his help. Neil nods, once. Looks toward the door and the staircase in the distance. Thinks about how much time they have.

He won’t be there to see the change. Or if he is, it won’t be the same. It won’t be the same as now.

“Okay,” Neil says. He starts to walk toward the door and feels a hand on the hood of his jacket, a tug that is just enough to stop him in his tracks. “Cashing in?”

Andrew gives him a look. Neil knows he is technically in debt; Andrew has asked more than he’s answered. “Keep an eye on him. Do not let anyone touch him.”

Neil already knows he’s going to fail Andrew. He already knows this is him breaking something he can’t afford to.

Doesn’t want to.

“I will,” Neil says, instead of everything else on his tongue. He tastes the difference. “Let me go.”

He means in more way than one. Andrew watches him. Something in his eyes is questioning. Half disbelieving and half exasperated. As close as he’ll ever get to really showing those emotions. Andrew’s hand leaves Neil’s jacket but falls on his neck, a weight there that ties Neil to the ground.

He wants to let it moor him so badly. He wants it to hold him up. He wants—

—wants. Something.

“This is not up for negotiation,” Andrew says. Stone. Neil hurts with every word and he doesn’t understand it; can’t tell why. He feels it inside, more acute than a knee to his chest or the look Jean had given him from the floor of the court.

I thought you were taking me to death, Neil doesn’t say, and I was ready to follow you.

I am.

“Break it,” Neil says. He thinks his voice is almost nothing now. Close to insubstantial, like Andrew leaning over Neil on the Foxhole Court. Like a pale face ringed in the stadium lights, washed-out and vital. Alive. “I am telling you to. Break it.”

Andrew stares at him for a long minute. Watches and waits. Neil holds his breath, holds something else, all of it in his throat. Choking him. If he opens his mouth again, he knows he will spill it out. All the words and questions, the key he knows by memory, why were you there that day?

Did you wonder who I was?

Did you say something, when you leaned over me?

Why do you change when I say your name?

“I don’t need to,” Andrew says. If you go for Kevin, Andrew doesn’t say.

Neil doesn’t correct him.


Bee doesn’t like the idea, but at least she’s releasing Jean. Most of the team are at the dorms; it’s just Neil and Kevin with Andrew. When they arrive, Neil leaves the passenger’s seat. Andrew keeps his keys; Neil has a set. Wymack is waiting at the steps with Abby and Jean—

—Jean is there, suddenly across the space between them. He is taller but he seems to compact, his mouth open and his hand reaching.

He hesitates.

Neil doesn’t like the uncertainty there. He presses his mouth into a thin line and holds out his hand. Jean catches it with a small noise. It sounds like letting go and giving in. His arms are tight when he pulls Neil in and this is new; he has never been this desperate. This fervent. Neil feels a spike of anger for whatever made Jean think he has to second-guess things.

“You’re done,” Neil says quietly. “It’s done.”

He lets Jean take what he needs and looks over his shoulders, wondering. Neil needs to see. He finds Andrew’s eyes on him, unreadable.

For a second, Neil wants to reach out again.

Andrew must notice, because he pulls into himself and walks away, toward Bee.

Neil sighs. He lets the world swallow up another and feels a peculiar space in his body, as one piece is returned and another taken.

He wonders why he’s counting Jean and Andrew as the same.


Matt glances toward their closed bedroom door. He shifts on his feet uneasily.

“I, uh—you know, if you need privacy—”

“I don’t think so,” Neil says. “He seems fine around you. All of you. He just…needs to be close, for now.”

Matt passes a hand over his face. He seems embarrassed. Neil isn’t sure why; Jean hasn’t done anything particularly embarrassing. If anything, Neil had expected Matt to be guarded. For him to be tense at the idea of sharing a room with two Ravens, now.

“That’s not…I mean, you haven’t seen him in a while. If you need,” Matt says, the words strangled as he tries to shove them out, “privacy. I get it. Just—just please, let me know—”

“We don’t,” Neil says again. He doesn’t know how else to explain.

Seth sighs on the couch, slamming his textbook onto the coffee table. When he turns, his words are annoyed but his face betrays a hint of gleeful amusement. “Matt wants you to warn him if you two are going to fuck.”

“I,” Neil says, and then he stops. He just stops.

“I could have told him you two haven’t got that far yet, but he didn’t run his little speech by me,” Seth says, shrugging. “Anyway, I expect more breaking furniture than backs. You tell him about Andrew yet?”

What? What? “What,” Neil says. He feels like he’s breathing in water.

He is so very, very confused.

Matt starts to say something to Seth. Neil tunes them out and walks into the bedroom, careful to close the door as quietly as possible. He pauses just inside the door, surveying the room. Jean’s things are tucked into a corner. He is staring at them—the shirts in the duffel bag and the suit at the bottom, a reminder of the banquet he was stolen away from.

Neil crosses the room and grabs the bag. He looks through it quickly and pulls out what’s important—wallet, passport—and then he walks over to the window.

“What—” Jean starts to say, breaking through the reticence trained into his bones.

Neil hauls the bag in his hand and throws it as far as he can. He watches it spiral through the air, tumbling over and over, until it lands in the distance.

“Okay. Well, um—I was going to say, dinner. Shopping, too?” Matt asks from the doorway. Seth is laughing.

Neil looks at Jean. He can see the surprise in those soft eyes and then the relief. The gratitude. Neil moves on instinct, combing his hand through Jean’s hair and letting it rest there. It feels good, to reach down from wherever he’s floating and satisfy himself with the touch of someone else. The reality that Jean is human; is living. He is a real person and he will live.

“Yeah. We need to buy some things,” Neil says.


It is almost time.

Neil plans meticulously. Makes sure he will be gone after the others and then plans four, ten, twenty times.

The hardest part is Jean.

He can’t go back. Neil can’t break all the hard work and he knows, in this case, it is definitely better to ask forgiveness. It is better to leave Jean in the dark, so that he can start learning to live.

Neil asks Nicky. “Will you take him with you?”

Nicky has, oddly, been the best with Jean. He seems to dial himself back with Jean, his usual rambunctious attitude replaced with warm smiles and just enough glow to pass on some light to Jean. He has taken to Jean in a way that Neil feels is familiar. It’s almost the same as he is with Neil, just more…careful.

It’s the care that Neil needs, for Jean.

“Yeah, of course—but what about—”

“I have to stay,” Neil says. He can’t think of a way to explain. He has no lie ready, so instead, he says, “I promised.”

Nicky looks like he wants to argue. He does. “Forget it. I know Andrew; Kevin—”

“Not Kevin.”

There. Nicky hesitates. Searches Neil’s face for something—Neil doesn’t know what—and his confusion doesn’t change. He sighs and runs a hand through his curls, frowning.

“Okay. Well—well, you can always join us, later. You should.”

He leaves it there. Neil goes to Jean next; he feels a hard lump in his throat. He is choking on his thrice-sold life. He is choking on the love he never meant to have or give away.

Neil sinks onto the bed across from Jean and opens his arms. Jean leans against him, rests his head on his shoulder. Breathes in the space between Neil’s neck and shoulder, soft reminder. Fluttering.

“Nicky’s taking you with them, for the holidays.”

A moment of stillness. Neil waits, keeping his hands constant on Jean’s back. Traces reminders of words. Freedom. Love. Jean breathes again, but it is thin. His soft French fills the space between them. “You will not go.”

“Not this time,” Neil says. I can’t be the one that’s saved. I was never supposed to be. “They will take care of you, if you let them.”

Jean’s hands tighten in Neil’s jacket. They loosen then, like he is trying not to hold. Like he feels burdensome. Neil reaches up between their chests and covers Jean’s hands with his own. Curls them tighter again. He can feel Jean pressing his lips together, keeping something in.

“Tell me?” Neil asks, quiet. Always tries to ask, because Jean is no one’s property. He never was.

Jean breathes shakily. “I do not want to. I—how could—”

Neil knows the question without hearing it. How could you bear to have left me? How could Kevin leave Riko? It is the question. The question. How they could break their pair and somehow still be standing.

“You are more important than us,” Neil says simply.

“That is not—”

“It is true. Do not ever think you are less than,” Neil says, fierce. He wants to dismantle Riko, kick his head into a hole and bury his hands beneath several tons of concrete. “You are important. You are. If anyone were to survive, I would want it to be you. Do you understand? Not us. Just you.”

Jean’s sob is quiet. Held in. Neil waits, his hands over Jean’s. He waits until the shaking stops and pain passes, not completely gone but released. Neil tries to imagine that he will come back to this—to Jean loosening his edges, to Andrew walking out of that building, to Kevin preparing to fight. He imagines that there will be nothing left to fix, and Neil will go willingly.

He will.

“Okay,” Jean finally says. His hands twist. He tries so hard and he says, “I’ll bring you something.”

Neil laughs, a soft huff of breath. “You already did. You are enough.”

He kisses the tattoo on Jean’s cheek like he can burn it away like that; like years of abuse can fly in the face of a touch that is soft. That is caring.

For the first time, he sees a small smile on Jean’s lips.


He finds himself standing at the door to his—to Riko’s pet’s room. It feels surreal. The space is cold. He realizes this for the first time; that the temperature is too cold. It feels like death. Maybe it is meant to help the injuries.

More likely, it is meant to keep hope small and dying.

He has things to do to survive. He has plans, but they feel smaller in the face of the room. Memories. Things that sting his skin, ghostly and painful. They promise resurrection at Riko’s hands.

He wonders how Andrew is doing. If he is feverish and shaking, but empty. Eyes always empty.

“Time for practice,” someone at the doorway says. If you remember. Neil does.

He takes the uniform and takes the court. Becomes backliner again, a position that now feels wrong. Has maybe always felt a little wrong. Neil works himself hard to make it, but even toeing the thin line does nothing for Riko.

He is insatiable.

His purpose is to break Neil, and so he sets about doing that. He takes Neil’s legs out from under him with a racquet. Shoves the stick into Neil’s chest. Hits him sometimes, fist flying into Neil’s face.

It doesn’t help that Neil doesn’t hold his punches, either. Right in front of the Ravens, he laughs and mocks, saying things like is daddy not paying enough attention and I bet he wouldn’t even buy you a new pet. Not even if you asked.

Neil pushes as far as he can and then some. He blurs, a swirl of pain and practice and picturesque fantasies of his Foxes. Of Jean frowning over a carousel of tourist oddities, cheap and stamped with names, combing the N section. Maybe looking at A, if he can’t get the name he is looking for. Nicky always ready with hot chocolate and Aaron always ready with a short word.

Kevin practicing, like always. Neil can feel the echo of his feet on the court like they’re connected by a string and two cheap cups. Dan and Matt holding hands in elevators, in a private room where they can open like they can’t in the dorms. Allison at odds with Seth, probably spending time with Renee, but there is still care and because of that, Seth will be allowed along.

Neil thinks of his reasons, counts them as he counts the hits, and tries to stay awake. Don’t sign, don’t sign, don’t sign.

Tries to remember when his kneeling at the Master’s feet, a stiff rod pushing his chin up. Expectant. Don’t sign.

It becomes the only thing he can remember, when he forgets what day it is and can’t conjure up the Foxes anymore. He has only one thing to live by, now. Don’t sign. Has only one purpose. Don’t sign. Knows no names—not even his own—and only feels the racquet in his hands and the uniform over his wounds. Don’t sign.

Neil is shoved to his knees again and again, until they are a canvas of watercolor bruises. He is pushed until his shoulders are bruised wings. He is kicked until every breath is almost as painful as the knowledge that he is away from home.

Home. Don’t sign.

Neil forgets everything but the bruises  Exy  Riko  Master  hope  time  DON’T SIGN.

“Sign,” he is commanded. Again and again. “Sign.”


He wakes in an airport that is too bright. His breath is thin in his chest and he can’t think, can’t speak. He shuts down hard, everything stopping with a near-audible crunch, the grind of gears eating themselves into shreds of metal.

He only remembers a handful of numbers. He tries to untangle them in his mind and can’t. Neil calls the first one and waits until he hears the person at the other end pick up, voice veiled behind the careful-suspicion-curiosity of answering an unknown number.

“Wymack speaking.”

“I’m at the airport,” Neil says. He thinks it comes out right, but that could just be word in his head. The way he had planned to say it. He can’t separate the two.

Wymack says something Neil doesn’t really hear. The ringing in his ears gets louder. He grabs the metal box around the telephone and it bites into his hand, rending a small noise of pain from his throat. He feels something wet in his palm, under the haphazard bandages there.

Jean couldn’t help this time and neither could Abby. No one could.

Neil finds his way to the front somehow. He makes it to the doors and stands in the tide of moving people, staring unseeing into the distance. It smells like rain in the air and the gray concrete surrounding him is almost as dark as the sky he can see at the end of the covered terminal. Neil looks he doesn’t know how long, waiting.

A hand on his shoulder rudely forces him into the present and he opens his mouth, a scream ready on his lips, flying wild. “Shit. Neil,” Wymack says, insistent. He lets go but stays close. Neil breathes in, out. Thin. Not enough. Wymack forces his sentence into order. “We need to go. Now.”

Neil climbs into the car and tries to hold himself apart, above everything. Tries to keep himself contained. Tries not to let pieces scatter in the wind. He holds himself upright when he leaves the car and steps into Wymack’s apartment. Holds himself away when the man stands there, a picture of stern lines.

“I need a drink,” Neil says. He sounds distant. “And your first-aid kit.”

Wymack doesn’t argue. Maybe he knows how bad it is, or how dangerous Neil really is. How close to snapping he could be, fresh from Evermore and maybe even signed away to the devil.

He isn’t.

The one thing Neil knows, with absolute clarity, is that he has himself. He didn’t sign.

Neil downs half a bottle before he even starts. Wymack hangs around the edges, sometimes scraping bloody bandages into the trash can and other times unwrapping gauze squares. Neil only lets him just out of arm’s reach, waiting for the supplies to slide across the table before accepting them.

He is fine. He will be fine. He has a home, and he is coming back to it. He is coming back, now.


Jean hits the ground. His knees give out. He is murmuring a canso, sweet French and a fragmented ending, nor ever…

Neil notices Nicky’s hand frozen on the car door. Aaron hanging just behind him, surveying Neil with something very different in his eyes. Nicky looks to Kevin for answers—Kevin, who stands next to Neil and lets the world wash over him.

He hadn’t said anything, when Neil came back. Only pulled chairs out for him and took care not to brush too close.

“Shhh.” Neil reaches out, pleading. Asking forgiveness. It hurts when Jean immediately accepts his hand with a touch so light it almost isn’t there. He is worried. Cautious. Afraid of hurting any more. “I’m fine.”

“You’re not,” Nicky says, a half-choked laugh. “I’m going to—he—”

Neil hushes Nicky, too. Repeats what he needs to, to stay alive. “I’m fine. Let’s go inside; it’s cold.”

They go in. Neil lets them take their fill, Nicky with his soft words and Christmas presents. Lets Aaron watch him with careful distance, taking in the pained movements and slow movement. “He’s not going to thank you.”

Nicky protests. Neil says, “I know. I don’t need his thanks.”

Neil retreats to the bedroom after a little while, citing exhaustion. He simply can’t handle them. Matt, still rigid from the shock of seeing Neil a few days ago, keeps them back. Only Jean follows Neil, to pull his shirt up and examine the bandages. Find the ones that can be uncovered, so the air can do its work and let the flesh mend.

“What if I want you to survive?” Jean asks, quiet. Neil feels the question squeeze his heart. Some of the blood from his heart comes out of a shallow wound in his side as he holds his breath.

Neil thinks. He thinks and then Jean takes his wrist, gentle, guiding it upward. He needs this, now. Neil almost breaks when he pushes fingers through Jean’s hair. He thinks they are strange twin reflections, provoking things in one another. Flipped. Action and reaction, exactly the same but completely different. Neil holds onto Jean like he does his own reflection, but he could never hate him the same way. Jean is the reflection that Neil finds in pools of rain on the ground, muddy and unclear but perfect.

“I was never going to,” Neil says, smiling a little. Sad. “Promise me?”

Jean shakes his head in a jerk—just once, to the left. He stops his gut reaction and stills, saying, “What?”

“Live.”


He tells Kevin much the same, but it is not the same intimacy. Neil is still untangling Evermore from his veins, like a creeping vine.

“You need to stop being content with second.”

“I—”

“You are. You pull your punches and you never give everything. You’ve never given them everything, even when you said you were going to,” Neil says. Thinks of the Foxes and their unstable lines. Their ingroups and the split that Kevin was at the center of.

Kevin sucks in a breath through his teeth. “You know it’s not that easy—”

“I know I paid my life for yours,” Neil says. Kevin loses his answer. Neil lets the silence stretch; tries to think of how to make this work. “You can’t win if you don’t do this. You have to give.”

“Give what?”

“Everything,” Neil says. He shrugs once, but it is worth the pain to get through to Kevin. “Is your fear worth more than what you have to lose? Or are the stakes greater than anything he could do to you?”

Kevin flexes his hands. Looks down at them as if he’s not sure they’re his. Neil thinks, distantly, that if he and Jean are mirrors, he and Kevin are painting and reproduction. Kevin is the one with the original feeling—the true inspiration, from that first spark of art and life. Neil is an attempt to make the same thing, but he didn’t quite come out right. He has twined pain and anger in most places. He has colors that don’t exist in Kevin, and is missing some, too. They are meant to be easily confused, and they might have been once, but now all Neil can see are the differences.

He is something like a counterfeit that decided to become real.

“You have nothing to lose,” Neil says. It is the one thing he has always felt; always known. Always hated, when it came to Kevin and the Court. “You always had everything to win. It’s yours, if you would just take it.”

He leaves Kevin to his thoughts and goes back to his room, where Jean and Matt are probably waiting. Where Seth is going to come back, along with Allison and Renee. He thinks about the things he has to live for and finds himself remembering a knife against his skin.

He counts them again, lets the knife fade from his memory, and opens the door to his room.

Chapter Text

Why does it hurt?

Neil has been asking too many questions, lately. He knows they can’t be answered. He knows he doesn’t have time.

But still.

He asks the questions and gathers them inside his chest, as if that will stop them from spilling out onto the sidewalk.

He watches Andrew come down the stairs.

There’s the same emptiness that was always there, when he was sober, except Neil feels it. He feels it more than ever, driving home through layers of muscle and scar tissue. That look twists within him and Neil finds, for a fleeting moment, that he is wondering whether it was worth it.

Whether any of this was worth it.

He takes a knife and spreads the lie all over his body, a thin sheen of reflective paint that others can project onto. Neil stands by the driver’s side door of Andrew’s car, waiting. Andrew passes him and slides into the seat. Nicky makes a distressed noise, but Neil shakes his head once and climbs into the backseat. Wymack talks to Bee on the stairs while they leave, his eyes lingering on the car, unconvinced and conflicted.

Neil resists the urge to pull his knees to his chest. Breathes in and out, then counts.

They drive to the dorms and the others leave, once they notice Andrew isn’t saying anything. Aaron hesitates, though, and Neil is glad he forced Aaron into joining Andrew at sessions with Bee.

Neil realizes he’s stuck to his seat, so he slides out. Starts walking before a hand on his elbow stops him.

Andrew examines him, wandering gaze and one hand passing through the air in front of Neil like he’s mentally categorizing things. He finds the bandages on Neil’s face, the healing marks on his palms, the tape sticking out of his collar.

“This was you doing what I asked? You are not very smart, are you?” Andrew’s voice is tight. It’s the only thing about him that betrays emotion; his eyes are still flat moons of color.

Neil remembers something, behind the wall he has built in the middle of his brain. “Andrew,” he says, careful. Something in him races when Andrew flickers a little at that, like the flame of a candle when breath whispers against it. “I—”

“No,” Andrew says suddenly, raising a finger. His curled hand is twisted like he expects there to be a cigarette. No, I can’t do this right now. It surprises Neil. His instinct, as always, is to push. Break it and once it is broken, assemble it better. Stronger.

Instead, Neil finds the worn box in his pocket and shakes a stick out for Andrew. He lights it and slides it into Andrew’s hand, still suspended between them. Andrew stares at it for a second, then lifts it to his lips. Neil watches and then doesn’t, aware. Too aware.

At least, until Andrew is holding the smoking thing right up to his face. The cloud of smoke envelops Neil and he breathes in slowly. He ignores the cigarette lingering over his tattoo, ignores the threat—ignores everything that is not Andrew, holding the green-brown gaze.

He thinks maybe he likes Andrew’s eyes because they look like earth and life and everything Neil was never allowed, at the Nest.

The realization jolts him into action. Neil passes the box to Andrew, something crawling up to his heart and embedding its claws. He is not sure what he will do, if he stays. What he will say.

Neil leaves Andrew in peace, because Andrew asked and Neil isn’t sure he can really keep this down. He goes to his room, settling onto the couch while Matt gives him a long look.

“God, you’re fucking depressing,” Seth says, throwing something at Neil. It’s just a breakfast bar; it doesn’t hurt. Matt gives Seth a poisonous look, but Neil gets the feeling Seth isn’t talking about what Matt thinks he is.

Not that Neil has any clue what Seth is talking about. That’s just another question to add to his growing collection.

Neil unwraps the bar and eats it, letting Seth grab his foot and stretch his legs over Seth’s lap. His legs are still itchy and uncomfortable, healing scars making the skin pink and tight in places. “When are we going to lunch?”

“Whenever your pet monster decides whether he’s going to kill anyone,” Seth says, shrugging.

“Don’t,” Neil says softly. He thinks it might be a veiled threat, but he’s weak. It’s probably not.

Seth gives him a long look. There are five seconds that pass where Seth’s face—like the one Neil wears, or the one the drugs gave Andrew—slides away. The second face he is left with is where the understanding comes from; the food and the way he was slow to move Neil.

“Fine. But I’m not kissing knife cat’s ass anytime soon.”

Neil has no clue what the fuck Seth is saying, but if it makes Matt suppress a smile, he assumes it’s not blatantly offensive. Neil eats half the bar in his hand and holds it out to Seth, expectant. Seth gives him a dark look that is all for Matt’s benefit and takes it, finishes the other half.

They wait there, for the sound of something breaking or raised voices. Neil knows they will never come. He is waiting for the knock at the door—the uncertain expressions—and he feels nothing, in the meantime. Is nothing. He lets himself go, avoiding the feeling of the cigarette hovering over his cheek and the silent promise to speak later.

Neil closes his eyes and lets everything go. He calls it practice.


“I want you to be here for it, but after that…” Neil trails off, a sense of unease rising in his blood. He stops midsentence, watching Jean lean against the wall. Neil moves toward him without a second thought, heart hammering in his chest. Fear spikes through his body.

Jean turns to look at him and his eyes are wide—there is surprise there, like he doesn’t understand what’s wrong. Why Neil is the one sucking in harsh breaths and hitting the floor with both knees. The pain radiates and Neil vaguely remembers there are bruises there, still unhealed from his time at the Nest. Jean practically vaults off the bed to hover in front of him.

“Neil? Neil—”

Shut. Click. “I’m fine,” Neil says. He sits, lifting his abused knees from the floor. “You were…”

“I was just thinking,” Jean says, still uncertain. “I did…I know…Bee told me I should.”

Of course she did, Neil doesn’t say. Three Ravens in one place? Difficult. A pair in one place? Never. He wishes he could be something entirely new. Something different, that Jean wouldn’t have to look at and see the past lurking inside.

He wishes he could be better.

“I’m…I—” Neil chokes on the words. He hates them, hates them with all his being. They rip a path up his throat and he can’t give them sound. Jean deserves better. I deserve better. This is not what he means.

“Don’t,” Jean says. There are tears in his eyes and that—

—that is good. That is very, very good.

Because Jean is a person, even if he’s not entirely whole or solid yet. He is a person and Neil feels crippling relief hit him like an overpowering ocean wave. He lets it drag him down, the salt in his lungs, and thinks about a body thrown over the cliffs in California. Thinks of his father’s hand at his mouth, pressed to his lips with suffocating force. Holding all the things in.

“You never say sorry to me,” Jean whispers. He is holding Neil and that is new, too. It is almost wrong in how right it is. Neil clings to him and he’s not sure who is holding whom up, anymore. Maybe it was never like that, though. Maybe they are both leaning on each other and that’s fine, but Neil can’t be the body weighing Jean down.

You carry a lot of weight. Don’t carry the weight of the dead, Neil doesn’t say.

Instead, he holds Jean and fumbles, his hands skipping through hair that smells like soft shampoo and nights spent with hands tangled together.

He can’t hold onto anyone, in the end. He doesn’t want to drag them down.


“What?”

Nicky rubs the back of his neck. He shrugs, wincing, trying to come up with something to say. Neil would help, but he has no clue what’s going on. Nicky finally groans, shoving the bag toward Neil again.

“Just, wear it. Please.”

Nicky leaves the bag in Neil’s still hands, closing the door behind him and muttering something indecipherable.

Neil looks down at the bag and pulls out its contents—a strange pair of black jeans with a multitude of holes and tears in them, and a that is definitely more mesh than fabric. Neil can tell, just by looking at it, that the shirt will expose a bulk of scars across his ribs and a nasty pattern along his right shoulder blade. He thinks about being under flashing lights, with the marks glowing eerily.

He thinks about his father, in the years before his prison sentence, cultivating scars like he did Nathaniel.

“You don’t have to fucking wear it,” Seth says.

Neil looks up, startled. He forgot Seth was even there, but the man is sitting on his bed, glowering over the top of a notebook. He’s supposed to be studying, but Neil gives him half an hour before he goes somewhere with Allison and Renee. Matt and Dan will probably go along, too.

Right. The words. Neil shrugs, says, “I’m fine.”

Seth narrows his eyes. He’s trying to glare, but the fact that he’s talking at all means that he cares. It’s just different. Like the lines between Jean and Kevin and—

—and.

Neil swallows.

“You don’t,” Seth repeats. “Fuck it—”

Seth reaches for the shirt and Neil draws his hand back, sighing. Starts to tear his sweatpants off and pull on the jeans instead. His skin is crawling and he forces that thought away.

When did you learn this? Riko had asked. Smirking. Growling. When did you learn the bad habit of thinking you have privacy? You have none. You have nothing to yourself. You belong.

Nathaniel never hid at the Nest. That was the point. He was not allowed to. Riko’s pet was not allowed to crawl under and lick his wounds; he was given over to Jean, patched up, sent to bed and then taken to practice.

Seth is quiet. Neil can hear the crackle of paper under his hands when Neil pulls his shirt off, his fingers brushing raised bumps and knots in the skin. Gunshot wounds, knife wounds, burns, the iron that had been pressed to his shoulder. That one stretched as he grew.

“Fine,” Neil repeats, after he throws the other shirt on. It is—the mesh does a job of hiding the immediate evidence of the scars. It’s only when you look that you see them.

He knows people will look. Knows Foxes will look.

Seth exhales through his nose and rips the page from his notebook, throwing it at Neil. It bounces off and Neil watches it roll across the floor. Seth stares and says, “Don’t fucking complain to me, then.”

Except when Neil goes to leave, Seth throws another paper ball.

“You have a fucking phone. Use it.”

Neil smiles, a hidden thing between just the two of them, and he closes the bedroom door behind him.


“Ouch,” Roland says. Gestures to Neil’s face. It takes a second for Neil to realize he’s talking about the faint scar on his lip, more pronounced at his mouth where it disappeared on his cheek.

Neil shrugs. “Someone thought I talked too much.”

Roland squints. Gives Neil a look he can’t quite place, and then he thinks he remembers Matt having the same not-quite-pained expression. Neil tries to remember when it was and thinks it might have had something to do with Jean. He’s not sure. Neil thinks about explaining that it’s not bad and that he’s had worse, but somehow, that doesn’t seem like it would make things better.

Wiser to keep his mouth shut.

Except then, Roland says, “Well, that’s…huh. I probably don’t have to warn you, but listen to him. He tells you when something’s pissing him off.”

“I—what? Who?” Neil freezes for a second. Immediately, instinctively scans the room. Looks for evidence of the message being passed on. He imagines he can smell tea and flowers.

“Look, I know Andrew—” Roland starts to say, sighing, and Neil is almost tripping to keep up.

“Andrew? What? He didn’t do this,” Neil says. He feels the water all over again, but this time he’s flipping, no sign of up. His brain is sloshing around his skull; his mouth is full of seaweed. “He would—”

“Oh. Wait—so you’re not—” Roland gestures. It’s vague. Neil stares, trying to string together a thought. Roland groans, running a hand over his face. “I mean, I thought…well, he tends to restrain people when—”

When he fights them? When he—

—when—

“Forget it,” Roland says. He’s almost as quick to shove the drinks at Neil as he is to end the conversation. Neil takes the tray in hand, practiced from years of serving at the Nest, and walks back to the table. Only Andrew and Kevin are left, and Kevin is very far into his drink.

Neil notices Andrew’s eyes on his wrist. Before he can ask about Roland, Neil decides the answer is probably warrants a peace offering. He blurts, “They used to make me serve them, when I was younger. They liked showing me off.”

Andrew’s eyes narrow. He takes his drink from the tray, deliberately slow. Neil feels as if he has made a mistake.

There’s no helping it. Neil asks, “Why does Roland think you’re restraining me?”

He says it. Categorizes the way Andrew’s hand pauses on the way to his mouth. The way he looks down at his glass, as if contemplating something very vital. Neil thinks maybe Andrew is debating throwing it at him, but then the fractured glass slides into place and Neil is suddenly seeing feather-light lashes and a haloed white head. He is looking up-down at brown and green earth, the world snapping into place around the being before him.

Fuck.

Andrew opens his mouth but Neil beats him to it with an “Excuse me.”

He hadn’t meant to say it, but everything just kicked in—he is suddenly back at the Nest, navigating a velvet room filled with dangerous men in suits. Watching eyes watch him while he keeps his head down, his arm weighted with a half-dozen drinks. Bruises hidden under a sleek black suit, the silk lining caressing his tortured skin. Neil leaves the table because he can’t breathe; there are too many people and he can’t see the sky. He makes it to the back door and stumbles into the alley, turning aimlessly. He has no plan.

No plan, but a moment later the door is opening and Andrew is walking toward him. He has the untouched expression he’s had since Bee, but the surface is scratched. Something bleeds through. Neil thinks about all the other times and wants to laugh, but the panic rising in his chest overcomes the amusement.

“I thought you hated me.”

“I do,” Andrew says. He’s still there, just in arm’s reach. Then, “You were supposed to be a side effect of the drugs.”

“Maybe I am,” Neil says. He’s laughing, but he doesn’t feel it. Am I even real? He thinks about how much of a lie he is—how much of a falsity, born from caring about people he was never supposed to become attached to. He was never supposed to be normal. “Maybe—”

“You are real,” Andrew says. He sounds like he wants to stab something, but when his hands rise, they only hold Neil’s face, and then he kisses him.

And this—this—is dangerous.

It’s dangerous that Neil feels Andrew’s mouth on his, can taste the spice of alcohol and soda. That he can feel how soft it is, which doesn’t make sense because the only things that ever come out of Andrew’s mouth are hard and clear. Andrew’s breath is barely there, just a tickle across his skin, but it is enough. Neil thinks about falling apart and disassembling and he isn’t sure he can pick himself up, after this.

Andrew moves away and then he’s looking toward the other end of the alley, pulling cigarettes from his jeans. Neil opens his mouth and then closes it before the heat escapes. He thinks of shirt on his back and the phone in his pocket. The hand on his neck.

Neil laughs, helpless. “Was it for me, or were you trying to make sure I was real?”

“Stop,” Andrew says. He shoves a cigarette at Neil, the other resting in his hand. He has a finger under his mouth, tracing the swell of his bottom lip.

Neil remembers how it feels. Tastes.

“Why? Don’t want me to say yes?”

“This isn’t yes,” Andrew says. He points to Neil’s face but doesn’t look. He is very determined to stare at something across the alley. “This is panic. I’m not—I won’t do this. I am different.”

Different from them. Neil shakes his head, tries to dislodge the words from where they stick on his tongue. “You are. You never—”

“So, shut up.” Andrew inhales, then breathes a cloud in Neil’s direction. Neil tucks the unlit cigarette behind his ear and leans in, opens his mouth just barely to suck in the smoke. He likes to think of it like a kiss, too.

Maybe Andrew knows that. Maybe not. He still examines Neil, wandering eyes. Neil thinks maybe the searching was never prying. It’s more like Andrew is trying to match up Neil’s rough edges, make something he can understand and hold.

Maybe that means Andrew will only care as long as he has something to wonder about, but Neil is fine with that. He isn’t going to last long. Why not?

Why not?

Neil shuffles closer, gauging their height difference. Tries to remember how Andrew kissed him despite it. He starts to ask, very quiet, “How do I—”

“Yes or no,” Andrew replies.

“Yes or no,” Neil says, tasting the difference. The way Jean paused before hugging him; the way Kevin didn’t immediately look under the bandages. Thinks of a long stare before a finger pressed to his tattoo.

“Yes,” Andrew says. He sounds rough, like the whiskey in his drink. Neil leans down; he feels as if he is leaning over the edge of a roof, shoes hooked into the railing. There is nothing beneath him and only a small thing keeping him grounded.

Small, but strong. Neil kisses Andrew and finds himself remembering why he had been so ready to follow. Why he still is. This—Andrew—is not someone that needs looking after, but Neil wants to. He wants to keep any more arrows from hitting their mark; wants to keep unwanted hands away and cruel words silenced. He wants to give and he doesn’t care what he receives.

The kissing is good, though. It’s nice.

Maybe better than nice.

Andrew’s hand finds his jaw and Neil feels the heat of the cigarette, the smoke curling around their faces. It hides them for just a little while, and Neil finds he is content to hide because he’s not alone and if he isn’t alone, he’s not really hiding.


Neil is going to prepare for the game. Jean is there, too, because he likes to run through drills even if he knows he isn’t staying. Somehow, the Foxes have carved out a reluctant spot for him—aside from Nicky, who adopts stray souls like some people adopt dogs. Maybe it’s because Jean will eventually leave, but if that’s the case, it doesn’t bother Jean or Neil. He is safe, and where Neil is, he will always have a home.

Nicky is laughing about something, his hand on Jean’s shoulder where it is allowed to be. Neil opens his locker and then everything—

—the world—

—it all smells of blood—

Someone says his name, shocked. Neil is staring at the rich, red life of something or someone he may or may not know. He starts to rip his things from the locker, his hands searching. He expects to see something; to see Mary’s face, to find a hand, to hear a rusted cleaver hit the ground at his feet. He expects the worst. He thinks—

—he can’t think.

Except he can; that’s the problem. He is in the locker room, surrounded by Foxes, and there’s just too much blood. Nathaniel tears his locker inside out and he screams, as if he can reach Riko through the locker, as if it’s some stupid fucking magical portal.

THEY LET HIM OUT, THEY LET HIM OUT, HE IS GOING TO TAKE ME—

He realizes he is saying the words, lightning-quick Polish that is like second nature, when he feels hands on him.

Hand on his neck. On his chest.

Nathaniel breathes heavily and feels other people holding his arms—Kevin and Matt, he thinks. His knees are on the floor; he isn’t sure when that happened. Andrew is holding him in place, on hand on his neck.

Jean is kneeling before him. His jeans are starting to soak through with blood. His hand is spread wide over Nathaniel’s heart, patient. There is no flicker of desperation, like there used to be at the Nest. No immediate drive to fix Nathaniel and prepare him for Riko. Instead, there is a soft pain. A trembling love that holds between them, attempting to reach past the walls and layers of pain.

“No one is going to hurt you,” Jean says. He doesn’t understand Nathaniel’s screams—no one does—but still, he tries.

Nathaniel breathes in, out. Borrows numbers and counts them out, backward and forward.

“What the fuck,” Wymack says. He’s frozen in the doorway and then he storms forth, dropping whatever it is he’s holding. “Is—”

“It’s not mine,” Nathaniel says. He sounds oddly conversational to his own ears, despite the rasp to his voice. “I need a clean uniform, or bleach. Before the blood—”

“Jesus fuck,” Wymack growls. “Can you get that one-track fucking mind off—”

“No,” Neil says sharply. He is already thinking. “That’s what he wants. I’m not in the business of giving him what he wants; are you?”

Neil looks around the room and realizes that at some point, the girls came to the door. Allison is surveying the carnage with tightly pressed lips; Dan is reaching for Matt and Renee is calculating. Neil pulls himself up, wanting to reassure Jean but aware of his dirty hands. Jean ignores the hesitation and reaches out, lacing their hands together. Neil almost laughs. Jean raises and eyebrow.

We’ve had worse, haven’t we?

“Bleach or a uniform,” Neil repeats. “When we win tonight, I would like Riko to see that he failed. Again.”

Wymack sighs and runs a hand over his face. “Fucking delinquents. All right—all right, fine. But you,” he says, pointing to Neil, “at least try not to bring him down on your head again, tonight.”

“I will try,” Neil says. But I won’t try very hard.

Wymack can probably hear the unspoken part, because he rolls his eyes and leaves. Neil examines the mess in front of his locker and starts to walk toward the sinks and paper towel dispensers. It’s at that moment he realizes Andrew’s hand never left. It curls tighter and Neil instinctively pauses, waiting.

“Leave it, junkie,” Andrew says. Neil shrugs.

“How interested are you in sending a message?” Neil asks, turning to look over his shoulder. “Purely out of curiosity, of course.”

Andrew stares right at him. Almost through him, but he holds on. Neil isn’t sure who he holds on for. Then there’s a wry smile, all sarcasm and dry edges. “Ah, Neil. Unbelievable and unreal.”

Neil allows himself a smirk—something halfway between the butcher and the backliner, but entirely different. He pushes his hair away from his face, not minding the stick of blood. Andrew releases Neil, his hand traveling instead to Neil’s chin.

This is very intimate for the locker room, but Neil doubts anyone is paying attention.

Andrew gazes steadily at him. “What did you have in mind?”


He always knew it would happen, of course.

After the game and the party—and maybe over an hour on the roof with Andrew; Neil isn’t sure—he goes to his room. It’s empty for now and Neil takes the folder out of his safe, finding the slip of paper. He calls Stuart and speaks softly, knees drawn up to his chest.

He has lost his power as an untouchable piece. That is a sobering thought—almost the same as leaning over the roof with Andrew, watching things fall to the ground. It certainly doesn’t feel as good.

Nathan is out, and he will take his son into his own hands. His business with Neil does not involve the Moriyamas. His purpose is to reclaim the heir that has strayed so far from his true purpose. Neil buries his head between his knees and waits for the call back.

The FBI are amusing. They seem to think they have some sort of leverage. Some reason for Neil to listen to him.

They are very wrong.

Neil dictates his terms. He explains what he needs, what will happen, and exactly what they must do to capture Nathan alive. He tells them everything and when he is done, Neil takes the burner phone and cracks it in half. He throws it into the full dumpster behind the dorms and knows it will be gone by morning.

He will be gone by morning too, one day. But that day is far and Neil as just postponed disaster to keep his father at bay and away from his Foxes.

The FBI will be watching and Neil will stay with his family, while Nathan’s people are systematically captured as they attempt to warn the heir to the Butcher’s dynasty that his time as a free man is up.

He thinks this is what will happen, but he does not account for the stupidity of the agents he spoke to and he does not account for the resistance of those who do not know Nathan Wesninski. Neil does not remember that no one will believe him, because he is nineteen and an Exy star and there is no way he is the child of a criminal king.

Neil does not think that he will be failed by the same people he was told would never fail. He does not think until it is too late.

Chapter Text

Neil sits on the roof and stares at his phone. The number on his screen is ten; he doesn’t like that. Part of him irrationally wants to stop it from ever changing.

The door behind him creaks. There’s a pause, which Neil suspects is Andrew trying to decide whether he hates or likes that Neil is here, first. Neil slips his phone into his pocket—unseen, he hopes—and waits.

His pulse feels unnatural.

It’s always like this, with Andrew. This waiting and breathless anticipation. This need that shouldn’t be.

Andrew throws a box of cigarettes. Neil catches them instinctively and has an odd flash of memory. Honey, give me one. The strike of a lighter, the click of plastic. A cloud of smoke and the smell of blood. Distant noises.

“Well?” Andrew’s hand is stretched out, waiting. Neil taps a stick out, careful, passes it. Andrew holds his gaze for a long moment. He takes a drag and exhales purposefully. Neil inhales automatically, a slow response that fills his lungs.

Andrew taps the white stick with one finger. “You don’t smoke.”

“I don’t.”

But you breathe it in, Andrew doesn’t say. Neil rearranges himself on the roof, uncrossing his legs and lying back against the rough surface. He traces the stars with his gaze, remembering the constellations. Jean liked to talk about them, when it was less painful to remember being outside. Before he realized he would never leave.

Neil looks at Venus. Not a star, a planet. It looks like a star.

“My mother used to smoke,” Neil says. “It killed her appetite and calmed her nerves. It made her seem tough, too, I guess. It got the smell of the Moriyamas out.”

Andrew is quiet. He passes the cigarette and Neil cups it in his hand, watching the end flicker orange. It looks like the embers of a fire. A log cracking. Neil sitting by the grate, on his knees, silent. Not silent enough. The door closed and Nathan had his hands on the iron.

“It doesn’t make me think of her, anymore.” Not alive and not being burned, then tossed off the edge of a cliff.

Andrew reaches. Neil lifts his hand and Andrew pinches his arm lightly through the fabric of his hoodie. Neil feels the ghost of a smile cross his lips. He passes the stick back. “It is calming,” Andrew said, “to some people. It’s repetitive. Easy. Like breathing.”

“Like reminding yourself to breathe? Or that you can breathe?”

Andrew doesn’t clarify. Neil guesses his answer was one for one, so he tries again. “What did Kevin tell you about my father?”

He turns to look and finds Andrew frozen, a tableau of anticipation. From one look, Neil sees the answer is nothing. “Nothing?” Neil huffs out a breath—it’s too weightless to be a laugh. Too dead to be angry or pleased. Andrew still doesn’t move.

Neil turns to look up again. Finds a constellation and traces its shape. Finds Andromeda, and thinks of being chained to a rock to await imminent death. He can relate.

“He taught his son many things,” Neil says. “Knives. Pain. The best way to extract information. How to draw something out the right amount, to get what you want from someone and make them think you owe them a favor. Until it’s too late.”

“What is your name?”

Neil blinks, surprised. He almost laughs. Everything he’s said, and Andrew is asking for his name.

“Do not,” Neil begins, slow and deliberate, “call me Nathaniel.”

“Was that his name?”

“Nathan,” Neil corrects. He doesn’t correct the past tense. He closes his eyes, the stars burned behind them. There’s a very bright one in the middle of everything. “If you can’t call me Neil, call me Abram.”

Neil opens his eyes to Andrew hovering over him, pale and methodical. The moon gives him a bluish glow. “Close your eyes,” Andrew says. Neil can’t. He’s too distracted by the way Andrew’s eyelashes look and the way his eyes are more green than brown, right now. “Close your eyes, Neil,” Andrew repeats. His voice is thin.

It should be hard to obey. It should be hard to give this, but it isn’t. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Maybe it’s Andrew or maybe it’s the reason, but Neil closes his eyes. He closes them and then feels the brush of lips against his, just a little dry and impossibly warm. He wants to reach up—wants to hold that face in his hands, the face he thought was an angel and he knows it now—but Andrew has him pinned. Andrew’s hands at his wrists are not the shackles Neil is used to; they are adornments. They are pretty bracelets that Neil would never want to take off. They hold him—

—together. Apart—

—and then they guide Neil’s hands into Andrew’s hair, and that’s it. There is no way to fight this and Neil is so far past caring to that he could probably cry. He has Andrew’s hair between his fingers, soft as silk, and a tongue pressing against his lips.

Neil opens his mouth because he will always, always let Andrew in. He has never been able not to. He is somewhere far away when Andrew kisses him harder, head tilted for access, the same tongue making Neil fall apart in ways that he has never felt before. Neil thinks maybe he would let Andrew reassemble him, because anything he makes would only be better.

He doesn’t know how long they lie there, sprawled on the roof. All Neil knows is that Andrew suddenly bites at his bottom lip, one of his knees moving and pressing against Neil’s hip, and then Neil is moaning quite unashamedly into Andrew’s mouth.

Everything stutters to a halt.

Neil hears Andrew’s long inhale and he feels the sudden coil in Andrew’s body, like he is reeling himself in the same way he pulls himself away. Neil blinks and finds that his hands have done a number on Andrew’s hair; it’s not usually perfect, but it is definitely less so, now. Neil licks his lips, hesitant, and watches Andrew try not to watch.

“Was that—” Bad? Me, or a memory? Was it a mistake? He could end it so many ways.

Andrew reaches out. His hand wavers by Neil’s chin, like he’s debating whether to touch or lean back in. Like he is trying to untangle a very complicated knot. His hand turns into one finger, hovering over Neil’s lips. “Not you. Just—not more. Not now.”

It’s the stumble in Andrew’s words that tells Neil the reason. Then, as Andrew sits and Neil struggles to pull himself upright, he sees Andrew rearranging his legs and quickly looks away. Definitely too excited, he thinks. He’s not sure whether to pleased at his handiwork or bewildered. He settles for both.

Andrew is holding the box of cigarettes in his hand. He stares at them for a long moment and then drops them, pushing a hand through his hair. If Neil were more sentimental, he might like to think that Andrew was trying to imitate what Neil was doing, before. As it is, Neil thinks the movement is just a little frustrated.

“The keys—” Neil starts to say, and it’s like some sort of word vomit. He wonders if kissing made it easier to say things.

Andrew rolls his eyes and very nearly smacks Neil in the face with the cigarettes. “Not now. A man can only take so much, Josten.”

Neil smiles to himself. He hides it in a bitten lip, until the memory of Andrew makes that a bad idea. He looks back up to the stars and hopes he’ll end up there, because at least he could look down and find Andrew. His own bright star on earth, pale and confusing, maybe a star or maybe a planet.


“Looks like this is going well,” Neil says.

Wymack casts him a withering look that seems to have a small seed of blame in it. Neil doesn’t know why the man would be angry at him, so he looks back to the court.

Andrew is making life hell for Kevin, Dan, and Aaron. They’re running through drills before practice because Kevin decided Dan and Aaron needed to shore up some of their skills, before the game in one week. Jean is there, too, to help provide resistance.

Neil feels the phone in his pocket buzz and imagines the number on the screen.

Maybe it’s the ominous feeling or the knowledge that he is running out of time that makes Neil decide to do something. Kevin barely misses tripping over a ball shot at his feet, growling at Andrew while his Raven footwork narrowly saves him.

Neil doesn’t even tell Wymack what he’s going to do. He barely knows, himself. All he knows is that he’s walking across the court, and Jean is the only one that noticed him come through the door. Usually, Wymack’s yell or whistle would warn the players, but the man isn’t fast enough and Kevin is chewing Andrew out for putting them in danger with his rebounds.

“Hey,” Neil starts to say. Andrew looks over his shoulder, a spark of recognition in his eyes.

Before anything can happen, a ball shoots from the players’ side and straight for Neil. It might have been meant to get past Andrew, but it’s far off angle—probably because all three Foxes are pissed. Neil waits for it to either hit him or miss; he’s not too concerned.

Instead, Neil feels his stomach fall as he becomes weightless and a pair of arms lift him off the ground. Neil blinks, hearing the ball ricochet of a far wall and bounce a few times. “Fine?” Jean asks, in French.

“That was unnecessary.”

“I think it was necessary. We both know what Andrew would have done.”

Neil gives Jean a narrow gaze but grunts in acceptance. “You can put me down.”

“Want to see how long it takes for him to try and take you?” Jean asks. He’s trying to hide a smile and failing. “I’m sure we can make a bet out of it. We could make enough money from Matt to buy breakfast.”

Neil laughs.

He is rusty, because he’s not used to being this. Being Neil. He is used to laughing as Nathaniel, cold and calculated, designed for danger. He is used to laughing shortly, in dark amusement. He is used to secret laughter in his darkened room in the Nest, his bed pushed up close to Jean’s and their eyes meeting after a day where Riko didn’t hit anyone too hard.

This is different. Now, Neil thinks about Matt’s bewildered expression. He thinks about Allison charting up the bets and waiting until the last minute to make hers, waving one hand in the air while Renee paints the other in mismatched colors. He thinks of the Foxes and their absurd bets on life, because they know what it is like to be bet against. He laughs.

It doesn’t last long. It wasn’t so funny or so important. But Neil did throw his head back a little and when he turns it, his legs still dangling off the floor as Jean holds him, he realizes he is being stared at.

Neil coughs.

“I—what—” Dan says, at a loss. She looks torn between crying and laughing, herself.

Neil taps Jean’s shoulder. He is let down carefully and he makes his way toward Andrew, ignoring the confused mess he has made of the others. Andrew paces away from the others and waits for Neil to follow. “What?”

“You’re going to hurt them, and then they can’t play.”

“And?”

“Andrew,” Neil says evenly. He waits until those eyes are back on him. It doesn’t take long. He finds the intent in Andrew’s eyes and almost smiles. I wish I could have seen his reaction. “I promised, remember? I can’t help if they’re not able to play.”

Andrew surveys Neil with a slow sweep. “They should be faster.”

It’s the closest thing Neil will get. He nods, fighting a smile. “Okay.”

Wymack is waiting at the door. He looks at Neil like he’s grown extra heads. “How do you th—no, you know what? I don’t want to know. Just tell me this is not going to be a problem,” Wymack says, his expression pained as he looks back onto the court.

Andrew is rebounding the balls all the way across the court. It would suck a lot more if Jean wasn’t there to idly retrieve them and hike them halfway up the court.

“There’s no problem. What—” What were you going to say, Neil is going to say, but Wymack waves a hand.

“No. I’m not doing this. I don’t get paid enough for this. Just—go.”

Neil wonders what it is Wymack thinks but gives up. The other Foxes are arriving and he needs to change.

Later, he finds Jean calmly collecting money from the others. When he has the stack, he neatly splits it and passes half to Neil. Matt gapes at him, but Neil just folds it into his pocket. He’s not lacking for money, but it’s nice to have smaller bills. They’re easier to buy Andrew drinks with.


The bus bounces over a pothole, but Neil barely notices. He is watching the signs go by as they make their way toward one of the last games of the season. It’s just this, one more, then Riko.

Jean came, as Abby’s helper. He was quiet but sure when he told Neil. I’m not going to hide. If he’s there—

—and then he cut himself off, or maybe Neil did. Either way, that was all that needed to be said.

“I’ve been this way. Once,” Neil says.

Andrew’s gaze shifts to him. Neil feels it resting on him like a phantom hand on his neck. Outside, the colors are shifting. Greens and browns. Everything is the same, now. He wonders how he didn’t see it before. Andrew’s eyes.

“Stop looking,” Andrew says, sharp. Neil shrugs, a helpless it’s okay.

He keeps spilling. “I don’t remember much. Too young. Maybe one day I’ll feel like coming back.”

He drifts in and out of sleep as they go. Halfway there, they stop at a gas station and the Foxes file off. Neil lingers, chin resting on the backseat. He watches Andrew watch him. They are at an impassive impasse, like owls in a staring contest. After a few seconds, Neil realizes there’s a tiny mole in the corner of Andrew’s right eye. It’s almost invisible.

Neil reaches out, then pauses, questioning. “Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

Andrew looks very unimpressed when Neil presses his thumb to the spot. Neil almost laughs, thinking maybe Andrew was expecting more. He smiles, weighing the choice of teasing against the likely attitude he’ll receive in response, and then he doesn’t have to make the choice.

They are on a dirty bus in the middle of nowhere, but Andrew kisses him like they’re on the roof again—or like they’re in the bedroom, with the others partying and the silence enveloping them. Hands tracing old scar tissue and hands twirling around pale strands of hair. Nothing but two bodies meeting in the same places.

Andrew moves back. He manages to keep half the unimpressed face, but it wavers. “Go inside.”

“Sure,” Neil says. He avoids Kevin and Nicky’s argument and bends over the freezer box by the windows, scanning its contents. He satisfies himself with a white plastic package and pays before jogging back to the bus, hoping the temperature will save his gift.

Andrew looks at the ice cream like he thinks it’s going to grow legs and start playing Exy. Neil wiggles it once. “If you’re not going to—”

It’s snatched from his hand without another word. Neil smirks and drops his chin onto his arms, watching the way Andrew neatly opens the package from the wrong end. He wants to laugh and cry and stay here forever. Andrew stares him down and closes his mouth around the chocolate-dipped monstrosity and Neil glares. “Not fair.”

“You’re a Fox,” Andrew replies. He still leans in, though, a sticky question pressed against Neil’s lips and the answer sweet on Neil’s tongue. Neil calls him an idiot when Andrew realizes there’s ice cream dripping down his hand. Andrew just shrugs and licks it off.


He sees them in the stands. Two familiar faces, peering down at him like judgement.

Neil counts it as a victory that he doesn’t falter in his jog, instead sliding sideways from his body. He closes his eyes and opens them not to a cheering stadium, but to a killing field.

He knows the exits and the number of guards and what they’re carrying. Just because you don’t recognize them doesn’t mean they’re not his. Neil discards the guards and moves uncertain replicas to the other side of the board. What will they do? Where will they take you? Think.

Nathan has risked too much for this. Maybe it isn’t him. But it is, Neil knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt. There is no avoiding the truth. So, Nathan has sent two of his best to retrieve his son. This is not a Moriyama play; this is Nathan Wesninski.

But this is messy.

Neil knows the risk. Nathan risks angering the Moriyamas. Risks losing his life, going after property this way. But then—

—then he remembers blood and numbers—

—his words—

—Riko.

Neil wants to laugh. He wants to laugh and cry because all of this, of course, would all trail back to the same pit of despair. The same black hole of a human that is Riko. He paid the crow to bring you back, and your father was stupid enough to fall for it. Neil isn’t sure whether he should be grateful or annoyed.

Two birds with one stone.

He does laugh, then. No one notices since he’s at the front of the line, but Neil looks up toward the domed ceiling and laughs. He thinks this is probably the best situation he could have created, and it’s just been handed to him on a silver platter.

It might be the most painful, too. But pain is not part of his plans. It is a part of him.

He does have one regret—or rather, ten of them. I hope Andrew doesn’t kill Kevin, he thinks, because they’ll need him for the finals. He wonders if Jean will wear his jersey when he takes the field for the Foxes, or if he will refuse.

He wonders what the stadium will sound like, echoing with chants for the Foxes.

The whistle blows and the Foxes march off the Court. In less than ten minutes, the game starts.


They won and Neil lets himself be carried along. He waits in the shower stall until everyone has left. Instead of his usual ritual, Neil leaves his uniform on.

He thinks if he dies, he wants to do it as Neil.

He looks in the direction of the lounge and wants nothing more than to go that way. He wants to tell them they have to leave. He wants—

—he wants.

Neil walks into the lounge and watches Nicky turn, frowning. “What’s up?”

“I forgot—” Neil says, but then he can’t finish. I forgot how much this would hurt.

I forgot what this felt like.

There is so much he needs to say but no time.

“What? Clothes?” Aaron asks. He raises an eyebrow.

“I don’t buy it as a mistake,” Allison says. She laughs, her eyes glittering. She is sharp, but the way she looks at Neil is not unkind. It never has been.

“My things,” Neil says. He looks at Jean and in that moment, he knows. He knows that Jean can sense it—that he feels it too, the bell echoing in their bones. The final farewell. Neil can only give his information in code. Can only hope that Jean understands; knows the safe. “My birthday.”

“Your birthday,” Andrew repeats, quiet, and this isn’t what Neil meant to do. He didn’t mean for the way the Foxes are looking at him, upset and sad but so very kind.

So willing to take a broken bird and show him how to fly.

“I never—” I never meant to hurt you. Any of you. I never meant to stay.

“We would have done something,” Dan says. “We still can.”

“We will,” Andrew says. Just like that, it’s certain. It’s fact. It’s done. Andrew toys with an unlit cigarette and Neil realizes Andrew was waiting for him. He was waiting.

Too much. Too much, not enough. Neil nods once. He takes a deep breath and hopes he can say what he wants to, what he needs to. What comes out is, “Thank you. I know I would have loved it.”

He tries to smile. Finds Andrew’s gaze on him, still and tense, trying to peel back the pain he sees. Neil takes the bag in Jean’s outstretched hand and backs away.

He doesn’t look at the contents until he’s almost gone. He almost cries when he sees the orange containers—pills for pain and pills to stay awake—and the plastic bottle of alcohol from a hotel room. It’s the only way Jean knows how to help or protect. Neil curls his hands around them and knows he won’t be able to take them. He slips some of the pills into his pocket anyway.

The hall is long. He makes it almost all the way before the two men come through the door, dressed as security, probably ready to intrude on the entire team. Instead, Neil walks up to them and then walks past.

“We’re going.”


“I wonder what he would think if we take this,” Lola says, tilting Neil’s head with her cruel hand. He fights the desire to pull away with a reminder. Ten. Nine. Eight—

Lola holds her hand out for the lighter. It lands in her palm; glowing ember of orange-red. Neil thinks about Andrew and then forces himself not to. He won’t do that. He won’t allow anything to touch those memories. He makes himself still and then—

—then, just a slip and a fall, he’s picking himself up. He is Nathaniel the Butcher’s son and he is not going to bend. Lola laughs when she presses it to his face. She laughs more when a scream makes its way out between his teeth.

Nathaniel holds up against fire and steel, right until Lola shoves a cloth over his mouth and he inhales the sweet smell of disaster.


He wonders if the FBI have caught up to him yet.

They should have, by now. He has no time to think about the Foxes and where they’re at, of course; all that Nathaniel concerns himself with is breathing.

This is a hard thing to do. A hard thing, because there are footsteps on the staircase and Nathan Wesninski is coming into the doorway.

Nathaniel is not fearless. He is practical, contained, enduring. He is survival.

The thing about survival is that it is built on recognizing fear and knowing when to obey it.

He pulls at his wrists. It hurts, but that’s never stopped him. He breathes in and out, ten nine eight seven six

—Nathan stand before him, the same heavy boots and neatly folded sleeves. The same blue eyes and red hair, except never, because Nathaniel has some of his mother’s color in his cheeks. Her freckles on across his nose.

It’s not enough. It never was.

“Look at this. Marked like a pig,” Nathan says, gesturing to the tattoo. Nathaniel feels a shiver up his spine—a warning. His instinct is to pull away. “Did you go willingly to the slaughter?”

Nathaniel has two choices. He can obey—years of instinct kicking in—or he can try. He cannot defy; he can only try. He can only hold himself up long enough to hope for a way out. Nathaniel doesn’t answer. Nathan leans closer, the smell of aftershave and violence, and asks, “Did you?”

“No—”

There is a crack across his face. He registers the way his head snaps to the side and the way his cheek burns with the blunt force of a knife handle. Nathaniel gathers himself, his ringing ear, his shaking body. He breathes in and out.

“So, you ran from them. You did this, as my payment,” Nathan says. His hand curls toward Nathaniel’s neck. His eyes are flat pools and they are as cold as they are bright. He matches his son’s gaze and waits.

Nathaniel breathes. Five, four. “How will you compensate them if you kill me?”

Too much. Nathan kicks the chair back and Nathaniel falls, a barely-contained cry of pain leaving him when his bound wrists smack against concrete. Lola is laughing; she’s always laughing. His father is moving things around, giving orders to his two men. Nathaniel feels the rabbit pace of fear start to invade his body. It floods his veins and bleeds into everything.

“You ran,” Nathan says. Three. Two. “You know better than to run.”

Nathan is hefting something like an axe in his right hand, a wooden block in his left. Nathaniel feels bile rise to his throat and he tries to turn onto his side, looking for any way out. He only rocks the chair so much; feels himself slip away from it, still bound but desperate. Lola jerks but Nathaniel is faster than her. He swipes a knife from the table and buries it in her side, right where he knows it will hurt.

Right where it can kill.

His mind is racing in five hundred different directions. He is dizzy and sick and high on adrenaline. Nathan closes in before Nathaniel can fumble at the door; he pushes Nathaniel against the wall, heaved up, feet dangling and air cut off. Nathaniel kicks. He struggles. He needs to get free. He needs—

—Lola growls, a wet slap as her bloody hand drags along the concrete walls. Nathan speaks in Polish, directing his two helpers. “Take her away. Bathtub.”

Lola screams. She is angry. She knows she is going to die tonight. Nathaniel would be happy, but he can’t be. He wants—

—Nathan shoves him onto a waiting table, axe and block, and Nathaniel’s heart soars into his throat. Nathan’s arm raises.

One

Andrew.

Chapter Text

Everything happens too fast, but then, that’s how it always is. How it always has been.

His mother, with her hand outstretched as she was thrown backward. Andrew, a bottle cracked over his head. Kevin pulling Neil up from the ground, his words muffled through a haze of pain.

Nathaniel feels Nathan’s hand at his neck, yanking him from the metal surface. There are unknown shouts and Nathaniel doesn’t know up from down; all he knows is the way his wounds are tearing. Lola’s handiwork is being redone.

He knows the sound of silenced gunshots. The not-sound. He hears voices and commands.

Something hits him and he sways, dizzy on weak legs. Nathaniel hits the ground and sees Nathan raising his arms, the axes still gripped in his hands. There are black-uniformed men on the ground, some groaning and others already standing.

Nathaniel sees the axe come for him. He reaches blindly, finds something hard and sure, and throws it.

The knife buries itself in Nathan Wesninski’s chest, right where he taught Nathaniel to throw it. No use if you don’t aim for the head. If you can, however…you aim for the heart. It’s much more painful. Nathaniel watches Nathan’s arms pause mid-swing. He watches the movement resume, just a little slower. He’s ready for the consequence, and then a round finds Nathan’s head and does the job.

Nathaniel can see his world in the tiny hole. He can feel his life on his face, blood-red and warm.

He shakes. The world is shaking.

Someone pulls him up. Shouting voices are adamant and Nathaniel hears none of them. He is propelled upstairs, away from the copper-death smell of the basement. It thickens when they move through the hose and Nathaniel catches a glimpse of a crimson trail leading toward the bathroom. He wonders if Lola is dead. He walks, unable to join feeling or purpose to the movement. He just moves forward, one foot in front of the other, stay alive.

He shouldn’t be alive.

They pull him to the front of the house, with the waiting agent that was his mother’s contact, once. Valdez looks at Nathaniel much the same way Wymack does, but he has the sense to see danger. He holds back, wary, and asks, “Are you all right, son?”

“I’m not your son,” Nathaniel says. “My father is dead in that basement.”

He reels sideways and vomits. There’s not much in his stomach and he realizes, as his torn hands scrape the pavement of his once-driveway, that he never got to eat after the game. He wonders if the Foxes did. He hopes so.

“You’re going to have to get looked at,” Valdez says. He seems sorry about it. “They’ll want to talk to you, too. I’ll be there.”

Nathaniel wonders if Valdez is coming to sate his guilty conscience. If he looks at Nathaniel and sees Mary, a young mother trying to save her child and disappearing before she had the chance.

He thinks Valdez will be good for one thing.

“I want to see them,” Nathaniel says. Someone is directing him by the arm, their grip firm. He is not a criminal or a danger, yet. He’s being led to the waiting cars.

But will they want to see you?


The first few hours are fun. He thinks they’re hours, at least; he’s not sure. Drifting off and waking feels like it takes minutes, each time. Nathaniel stares at the bandages on his body and wants to tear them off. They’re the wrong color; Jean uses ones that aren’t as white. They aren’t as visible.

Nathaniel tried taking a few off, after the first hour. He told the woman the cut wasn’t bad enough to cover and that it would heal faster in the open. He would be able to play sooner.

“It’ll scar,” she said. He just raised his arm, with its already-extensive patchwork, and stared her down.

The agent that questions him never gets far. He keeps coming back and Nathaniel isn’t allowed to leave, so he settles for closing his eyes and pretending the medication is working on him.

“I want to see them,” Neil says, for what feels like the hundredth time. Maybe it is.

Maybe the finals are over and the Foxes have won, celebrating the victory and the fact that they never needed the Raven that didn’t fit in.

“What makes you think they’ll come?”

“They never left,” Neil says.


He is unceremoniously hauled to his feet. They are just barely cautious of his wounds and Nathaniel holds his breath. He could be going to a four-by-four concrete cell, or he could be taken to their silvery interrogation rooms. He’s not hopeful.

“You won’t have much time,” Valdez announces. He walks through the door and Nathaniel immediately knows the score, like he did the first time he saw the Foxes. The overlap is obvious. Valdez has seniority, but he’s also close to this case. His pull extends, but it takes time. It took time.

Nathaniel shrugs. He’s being cuffed, for some strange reason. “I never did.”

They shuttle him off and he recognizes the streets. He also recognizes the hotel they drive to, where there is no sign of the bus. Nathaniel wonders if the team ditched it when they realized how bad things were, or if the FBI had to step in. He really hopes someone figured it out without the agents.

Valdez doesn’t go in. Just the agent that’s perpetually pissed off and two of his friends. They aren’t the only ones, of course—there’s a woman on the balcony who’s leaning too casually and a teenager in the pool that at second glance doesn’t look so young. Nathaniel counts off the undercover ones and wonders, with some amusement, if the FBI bought out the entire hotel. He hopes so.

He doesn’t start to feel the fear grip him until he’s standing in front of the door. It’s a big room. He thinks about running—turning around and sliding over the agent’s back. Twisting his hands just so to grab a gun. Vaulting the staircase, evading the pool using the side door he saw. Crossing the parking lot and going the back way through the diner across the street. Going—

—gone.

All the thoughts leave when the door opens and he hears Wymack curse at the agent. “What the hell now? You know, I oughta—shit.

His half-whisper is strangled. Nathaniel waits for the agents to push him forward and hears rules being spoken. “Don’t everyone move. One at a time. No touching and don’t come too close.”

“Jesus. You don’t have to cuff him,” Abby says. She sounds like she wants to cry and punch them at the same time. “He’s hurt—”

The agent cuts her off. He says something, but Nathaniel isn’t paying attention. He’s counting.

Nicky has his knees pulled up to his chest. His eyes are red and he looks like he’s stopped trying to hold himself together. Dan has a hand over her mouth. Seth seems like he’s ready to punch the wall, his hand flexing at his side.

Nathaniel notices something. “Where’s Jean?” The dread rises in his throat. “Andrew?”

“They—” Wymack starts to explain, but he’s cut off by the sound of a door slamming.

It’s bizarre, seeing them come in together. Fourteen inches separate them, so the handcuffs binding them together are at an awkward tilt. Jean’s hair is a mess and he looks like he hasn’t slept since the game. Nathaniel catches his eye, questions. Jean tilts his chin to reveal a bruise, vaguely fist-sized.

Nathaniel’s attention turns to Andrew. He waits as Andrew pushes past agents, shoving to get to Neil. He pauses inches away, leaning forward on the ball of his foot like he’s prepared to lunge but he’s unsure.

Andrew is never unsure.

“I’m glad it was you two,” Nathaniel says. He’s not sure what for. Am I glad Jean held him down? Am I glad Andrew let him? “I—”

“Shut up,” Andrew says. When he raises his hand, Nathaniel realizes his knuckles are bruised. Scratched. He came out the other end of something untouched, but Nathaniel thinks there are people somewhere—maybe even in the room—that are sporting evidence of Andrew’s anger.

Andrew’s touch almost loosens him. The knots slip just a little, a box in the corner of Nathaniel’s mind coming undone. It’s fighting to be opened. “Look at me,” Andrew says. He is deliberate. He is always conscious; intentional. “Look at me, runaway.”

“I’m sorry,” Nathaniel says. He’s talking to everyone. He knows he shouldn’t be sorry for surviving, but Neil feels the ache like a phantom knife to the chest. Like father, like son. There’s panic rising to his throat. He still hasn’t eaten. He should eat. “It was the only way.”

“No,” Allison says, fierce. It surprises him, but she looks at him with unclouded eyes, her chin tilted up. “It wasn’t. You should have told us. We would have helped you.”

“This started before any of you,” Nathaniel muses. He wonders if there is water nearby. His throat is dry. Why are his eyes wet? “Before Kevin, even. Neil was never supposed to live. I was always supposed to die.”

“But you did live,” Aaron says. It’s an uncharacteristic contribution and Nathaniel takes it with caution.

“I did,” Nathaniel agrees. “That’s why I was ready to die.”

Renee turns her face into Allison’s shoulder. She’s crying the same way Dan and Matt are. Nicky’s hands are clamped over his mouth and even Aaron seems to take the news with removed horror.

Kevin takes a visible breath and inches forward. He knows Nathaniel well and he knows better than to set off the hum of survival still echoing in Nathaniel’s bones. He is too close to the basement. Too close to Baltimore.

“I thought you told me there was nothing to lose. That—”

“I sold my life three times,” Nathaniel says, emphasizing each word. He doesn’t know how Kevin doesn’t understand. Part of him does, maybe, but it’s not here right now. “I am nothing.”

There’s a hand on his jaw. It draws his face away from the Foxes and then Nathaniel is looking at Andrew, the green-brown color invading his world and washing everything else out. The hotel lamp behind him makes him golden-pale.

Nathaniel thinks of a very different scene, when he was lying on his back and looking up at the same face. But it wasn’t the same, was it? The mole by Andrew’s eye was hidden, his expression held no secret love, and there was no hand reaching out. The Andrew then was an angel of death, certain and cold in his beauty.

This man before him doesn’t look the same.

“Not nothing,” Andrew says. His fingers are pressed right under the heaviest bandage, where his tattoo used to be. He looks at Nathaniel and there are kisses and smoke in his eyes. “Something. Someone.”

Neil had sat on the edge of the roof and confessed to the moon, I want to be someone to you.

You are someone to me, Andrew says.

“I—can Ne—can I go back?” Nathaniel asks. He chokes on the question the same way he chokes on life. It is almost too much, too bright, too good. “Ye—”

“Yes.”

Andrew’s word is the only one he needs. Neil knows his vision is blurry with tears. He knows he is dizzy from relief and exhaustion, but he doesn’t care about any of it. He only cares about the hand on his face and the way he feels like he could sink into the floor and for once, be picked up for the purpose of standing and not being knocked back down again.

“Like hell we’re losing our best striker,” Allison snarls. Neil looks pointedly at Kevin. “Oh, come on. I love the bitch as much as anyone else, but you let me put makeup on you.”

“You never asked me,” Kevin says. Maybe it’s a serious answer or maybe he’s trying to help. Neil doesn’t know.

All he knows is that he’s trying very hard not to cry, which means he isn’t successful at stopping the small smile growing on his lips.

He’s not sure if it’s the first time he’s smiled around the Foxes, but something tells him this is the one they’ll remember.


“Was that Andrew?” Neil asks, curious. He’s exhausted but he still has to. Jean pauses, his bedsheets in hand.

“No. There was some sort of fight, once we finally got out to look for you. Andrew didn’t have the patience for it, after a minute or two.”

“Definitely one,” Neil replies. Jean nods to himself and folds the sheets in his arms. He’s doing laundry, which Neil guesses is a way for him to use his routine-oriented method of handling tragedy for productive purposes.

He thinks about the pills in his pockets. Lola had found one and laughed. She wanted to give it to him.

“You told me you would want me to survive,” Jean says. Neil drags himself out of memory long enough to surface and watch his partner. Jean steps away from the bed, a little closer to Neil. He holds his hand out, questioning.

Neil smiles, bemused, but accepts. Jean’s hand finds his hair—the mess that it is, after captivity and the cursory rinse in the FBI sink—and runs through it. “I guess I know why you liked this,” Neil says, humming quietly. Jean smiles.

“Yeah,” he agrees. He’s quiet, contemplating the strands as if he’s looking for something. “I meant it, when I said I wanted you to live, too.”

“I know.”

“Can I visit you?” Jean asks and his voice is so soft, so reminiscent of other things that Neil almost falls to his knees again. Instead, he tugs at Jean’s shirt with one hand and waits for the taller man to bend over and rest their foreheads together.

Neil runs a hand through Jean’s hair and smiles at the way it’s accepted—Jean pushes into him like a cat, silent but firm. “I want you to.”

Jean’s eyes widen a little. Pets do not want. They take what they are given, Riko said, grinding a foot into Neil’s bruised ribs. You are property. You cannot own anything. Especially not yourself. There are other words like these, a nightmare gospel that Riko delivered in sermons punctuated by violence.

“Good. I want to,” Jean replies, determined.

They stare at each other for a moment, two peculiar birds that aren’t quite the same but probably look like it, and then Neil laughs. He laughs and Jean laughs while they stand among a pile of forgotten blankets.

It’s nice, to be able to laugh together. It’s nice to be able to survive.


“We, uh—we’re going to eat. We’ll bring something back for you,” Matt says, waving awkwardly. He keeps looking between Andrew and Jean. Neil bites his lip and a smile.

“Sure you don’t want to stay?” Neil asks Jean. We could make some money off this.

Jean is straight-faced, but there’s a telltale twinkle in his eye. Matt looks like he’s starting to sweat.

They stand for a wonderful, absurd minute while Andrew stares determinedly at Jean. Matt clears his throat, probably about to excuse himself. “I should probably eat,” Jean says. “I need the energy.”

Matt chokes on his excuse. Neil holds his laugh in while Jean closes the door behind him, leaving the dorm silent as the Foxes disappear down the hall. The second Andrew clicks the lock to the bedroom in place, Neil laughs. It doesn’t last long and it’s not lively by any stretch of the word, but it does capture Andrew’s attention.

He leans in and his thumb brushes under the bandage on Neil’s cheek. “Yes or no?”

“It’s always yes with you,” Neil says. He thinks he sounds fond and he’s not sure how that works—how any of this works, because he’s only known Andrew for a few months but it feels like they fit as two halves of a circle that encloses the world.

Maybe Andrew is all he knows of the world and all he cares about. Neil doesn’t think it’s a bad thing.

Not a bad thing, like the way Andrew kisses him. The way he navigates the bandages and bruises, his lips soft in a way his words never were. And how could it be this way, when Andrew says I hate you and uses the same mouth to sweetly dismantle him?

It feels like they stand there forever—

—not that Neil would mind—

—and then Andrew closes with a tiny promise, a kiss that tastes like something.

“We have to cover these,” Andrew says, his fingers tracing the edge of a bandage. We, not you. We, not I. Neil smiles a little.

“Okay.”

Andrew does a haphazard job, but it is something. It is just like them, a little crooked and covered in duct tape but sturdy. Neil wiggles his fingers and eyebrows; Andrew presses a thumb to his forehead and directs him to the shower. Andrew doesn’t undress all the way—he stays in his underwear; black, of course—but he helps Neil strip. Despite the bags and bandages, Andrew approaches the task with caution and practicality. He works like things just are and always have been and Neil falls a little further in love.

He wonders when he started thinking of love and thinks maybe it was sooner than he realized.

They kiss under the shower head and Neil has to fight both the stream of water and the way he seems to lose his breath so easily around Andrew. After a few minutes, Andrew works on his hair with shampoo and his hands are just as careful as they are everywhere else.

Neil would be—is—fine with this. With staying this close, Andrew allowing hands on his head even when Neil is clumsy and covered in plastic bags.

He lets Andrew set the rules, though, and Andrew’s hand is definitely wandering a little too far south to be casual.

“I—what—,” Neil starts to ask, but he can’t get the words out. Andrew’s hand stops maddeningly close, tracing a line where Neil’s underwear would stop if he were wearing any. The skin there feels like it’s pulled up toward the touch.

“Yes or no,” Andrew mutters against Neil’s lips. His eyes are closed, but he struggles to open them while he waits for an answer.

Neil forgets to breathe but in his defense, Andrew can’t expect him to when he fixes Neil with that gaze. Maybe Andrew has earth eyes, but he is very much not that. He is fluid and Neil almost thinks Andrew could follow the water down the drain, disappearing in all his colorless parts.

Because it’s not white or pale bone that characterizes Andrew, Neil thinks. If it did before, it doesn’t now. Now, he is like shining glass. A waterfall that catches the light sometimes, refracting a smile or a startling rose-colored ray of love. Andrew is shimmering and Neil keeps finding new facets to him, tilting his head with kisses to find every new color that slides along the surface of his face.

“Yes,” Neil says, his heart falling out of his throat and into Andrew’s waiting mouth.

His brain short-circuits between the kiss and Andrew’s hand finally curling around him.

Neil forgets what exactly is waiting for him. He forgets about dying and the one man left between his family and freedom. He forgets about the scars forming under his bandages and the way Kevin hasn’t quite stepped out of the shadows. Andrew chases everything away with his mouth and his hand and Neil gives all that he can, thank you after thank you, hoping Andrew understands.

His legs are weak and he leans against the wall. It’s good, because then they’re almost the same height and Neil can let Andrew just be there, to kiss him or to watch. Neil finds himself somewhere—some way—strange, his skin buzzing and his heart pounding in his like a reminder. You are real.

They are real.

He can feel the revelation building and Neil closes the space between them to kiss Andrew. In the middle of it, he remembers the roof and the look on Andrew’s face. It helps that Andrew touches him just right, and then Neil moans into his mouth and feels Andrew press against him. There is no space between their bodies and there are no secrets. Neil doesn’t hide his flushed face and Andrew doesn’t hide his reaction, even if he murmurs not to look.

Neil is fine with whatever Andrew gives him. He is fine with his lips on Andrew’s neck—his second-favorite place to be—and his hands in Andrew’s hair.

Well, maybe he can’t exactly feel through the plastic, but. He tries.

And that’s really what matters, isn’t it?


“You’re going to be that bitch, aren’t you?”

Allison snorts into her juice at Neil’s comment. Andrew gives him a sidelong look that says he doesn’t approve of her influence on him.

Kevin doesn’t back down. Neil shrugs and pulls himself out of the beanbag, stretching. “Fine. You know they won’t let you come in trashed.”

How do you know that, Andrew doesn’t say. He gives Neil an appraising look and a cursory nod. Permission to take the car.

Neil wants very much to kiss him, but then he wants that most of the time. Andrew shoots him a glare and hikes his knees up further to his chest, balancing his ice cream there. “Eighty-nine percent.”

Neil just smiles and twirls his keys on one finger. He wonders if Allison will be gone when they return and thinks she’ll probably stay long enough to take Kevin off their hands. He waves goodbye and steers Kevin downstairs, thinking about what they’re going to do.

Seth catches them on their way out and takes one look at Kevin, who is nursing a water bottle that definitely isn’t holding water. “I’m coming,” he says, abruptly turning away from the dorms to follow them. Neil smiles to himself and starts the car.


“Is Andrew half your impulse control, or—”

“Yes. More.”

“Fucking useless gay,” Seth says. It’s conversational. The tattoo artist glances up from whatever he’s doing and maybe decides there’s nothing to be concerned about. Neil contemplates the paper under his hands and thinks it’s good that the FBI gave him legitimate paperwork.

He wouldn’t be able to get tattooed without a license. Not that he doesn’t have a few, but. It’s the principle of the thing.

Jean walks through the door a few minutes later. Aaron only stays for a minute; he’s on his way to meet Katelyn. “You’re all idiots,” he announces, but his gaze lingers over the design Neil is staring at. “Yeah.”

Neil smiles to himself and follows Kevin into the back. Seth and Jean come along as their plus ones; Seth is talking to Jean about his dismal haircut—come on, dude, even I know you’re way overdue; you and the carrot head—and Jean leans back in his chair while he listens.

“He wants to get drunk,” Neil tells the tattoo artist. The guy raises his eyebrows, but he shrugs. Kevin is stubbornly downing the bottle in one go, before the man gets to work.

Kevin’s tattoo is quick. He can’t talk, though. Neil watches and listens to the buzz-hum of the machine. It brings him back to a hazy basement, with scarred men and women counting stacks of money. He exhales and replaces it with this moment—this, where Kevin is rising from the chair and the red of the tattoo is invisible among the flush on his cheeks.

“You sure?” Kevin asks, when Neil starts to sit.

Neil stares at him. “You are really bad at making jokes.”

“It’s not a joke,” Kevin says. He frowns and drops into the seat next to Neil a little too hard. “You know, if this doesn’t work—”

“It will,” Neil says evenly. I’ll kill him, one way or another. If I die, at least I die without his mark on me and with my first mark of my own.

Jean catches his eye from across the room. The flash in his eyes is warning.

It’s Seth that says something.

“You know, I think we all want a piece of that. Maybe try not going full martyr on this one.”

“I didn’t think you knew words that big,” Neil replies. Seth smirks. Job done. He’s taken the pressure off, at least for now.

Now is not the time to think about Riko or how to fight him. Now, they are making the night theirs.

Neil is making his body his.

The machine starts to hum and Neil lets the man roll his sleeve up. He likes that there’s no mention of his scars or the few bandages that still cover his arms. Even if there were, he knows a now-drunk Kevin would be the first to fight it.

Kevin would probably fight Riko, in this state. Neil considers telling Wymack to let Kevin drink before the finals and he can see the same plan in Jean’s smirk.

The tattoo doesn’t take long and then they’re driving back, Seth insisting that they stop for burgers. You need food, he tells Kevin, with a smack to the back of his head. Kevin loudly and drunkenly argues about calories but he forgets what he’s saying halfway through and ends up talking about chess. Jean corrects him, interjecting in half-French sometimes because he also brought a drink along.

Neil lets their chatter wash over him. It feels comforting, somehow. When they finish climbing the stairs at the dorm, almost everyone is already in the girls’ room, music and drinks out. Neil leaves the others there and continues down the hall.

Andrew is waiting on the beanbag, still curled up and stubborn. Neil feels a helpless flame in his chest as he kneels at Andrew’s feet. “You finished your ice cream?”

“You took too long,” Andrew replies. He pauses then, eyes traveling toward Neil’s right shoulder. He can see the shine of the saniderm bandage and his hand reaches out. “Yes or—”

“Yes.”

Andrew pulls the sleeve up. The biggest burn scar—a mess on Neil’s shoulder—is now enclosed in a perfect circle. The grey and black within it makes a moon, like the one they’ve spent so many nights staring up at. The one that knows their secrets and their kisses. The one sitting before Neil, somehow unreachable but bright. Andrew’s thumb slides along the circle, giving it a wide berth.

“Do you have no impulse control, or are you just stupid?”

“Seth asked almost the same thing,” Neil muses. “But he was nicer.”

Andrew gives him a skeptical look and Neil just smiles. “You could come next time,” Neil says.

“Next time.” Andrew doesn’t ask and he doesn’t say anything about it. His hand moves to Neil’s neck, constant. “Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

Andrew’s kiss is sticky and tastes like cookies and cream. Neil doesn’t usually like sweet things, but he thinks he could probably get used to this.

He hopes he can. He hopes he has time. He hopes this isn’t the last thing he will remember; Andrew’s hand skipping over his sore shoulder, tracing a pattern up his side when his hand slips under Neil’s shirt. Neil hopes there will be hundreds of thousands of days like this, where all that matters is the laughter down the hall and the smaller body that presses against his and fits into all the empty spaces.

Chapter Text

Ichirou Moriyama rarely visited Evermore. There were a few occasions during which he would appear—mostly matters which required displays of power and class.

Nathaniel had always feared Ichirou more than he’d ever feared Riko.

So, when Neil leaves class and starts to walk toward the cafeteria and Andrew, he sees Ichirou and thinks that didn’t last long.

The man does not wait. He walks toward the waiting car in the distance and the crowd seems to part for him, like the students around him can sense his danger—like he’s a shark in the water. Nathaniel takes the visit in stride because he has no other choice.

There are very few ways this could end. Most of them include death.

“I am sure you know why you are here,” Ichirou says, once they are seated. The car smells like leather and scotch. There is also the underlying tang of copper, as if the air freshener is blood-scented. Nathaniel imagines that for a second and thinks it would be like Riko to do something like that.

The thing is, Ichirou doesn’t ask. His words could be construed as a question, but that’s the point. Nathaniel speaks at his own risk.

“Property and debts,” Nathaniel answers. He is aware of the language; he grew up around it. Served drinks for men making deals like this.

Of course, none of them bartered for their lives. Not directly.

Nathaniel keeps his legs uncrossed and his posture loose. “My father made the mistake of dying. He also made the mistake of making a deal that was not approved.”

Ichirou stares. Drapes his hands over his knees, wrists delicately crossed. Nathaniel has no doubt he could move and kill him in three seconds, if he wanted. Thankfully, Ichirou waits. “It would be simple. To eliminate you would balance things.”

“Respectfully, Lord Moriyama, it would be a loss.” Nathaniel pauses—for death or for effect; he doesn’t know—and then continues. “My life is worth a sum every year that I perform on the court. You are well aware, of course, that I will not stop playing. It would be my pleasure to return that which was promised to you—the price of my life.”

Nathaniel doesn’t need money. He doesn’t need much in life.

Ichirou is silent. His silence is more violent than Riko’s physical attacks and it is certainly more dangerous. He is harder to read, but Nathaniel can read him. He can read the way the tone of the conversation shifts from matter-of-fact to contemplative.

“Would it?”

“It would,” Nathaniel says. Good. He caught it. “It seems, however, that your family is suffering a rot from within. I am hesitant to promise gold for a sick dog, you understand.”

Ichirou’s smile is thin and barely contained. He probably wants to slit Nathaniel’s throat. As pleasing as it would be, however, the man has more patience and calculation than his idiot of a brother. Nathaniel thanks his lucky stars and waits.

“You consider the most powerful family in the world to be rotten?”

“Not the family,” Nathaniel says. “Not yet. But Riko is destructive. He risked that which was not his, when he nearly killed me. He risked again when he took me during Christmas; then, when he gave my father my location and let the Butcher’s people find me.”

Ichirou watches and waits. Nathaniel holds his hands up, careful. Gestures to his backpack and earns a long look from the Moriyama, before the barest nod. It feels like defusing a bomb when Nathaniel reaches into his bag and retrieves a wallet.

“I had the means to end the family months ago,” Nathaniel says, passing the wallet. The same one he picked up the night Seth was almost killed. The one Riko thought he got back. “Riko hired a killer and he was messy about it. His target survived, and I found this on the body of the man who was supposed to kill my teammate. It was unfortunate. Of course, I recognized the consequences this could bring upon the family. I took it and held it.”

Ichirou contemplates the wallet. Riko might have held it between disgusted fingers; Ichirou runs his fingers along the leather and turns it in his hand. He examines the security card for Evermore and the other items. After a few minutes, he closes it and lays it next to his leg.

“We do not require so much that we would take everything, of course. Eighty percent is sufficient.”

“I will notify the others,” Nathaniel says, dipping his head.

For a tense moment, he thinks Ichirou will take the deal back. He thinks he will be killed just for the suggestion. He thinks Jean and Kevin will find him on the court, this time unequivocally dead.

“Do that,” Ichirou says instead. “This should not happen again.”

Whether he’s talking about Neil or Riko, Nathaniel doesn’t care. He leaves the car and watches it slowly roll away. He holds his breath and waits for something else to happen—for someone to grab him; for his death to come. Instead, he hears the sounds of campus thin into silence as students disappear into their classes.

He stands there, hand tight around his backpack strap, and wonders if any of this is real.


“This sucks,” Seth says. It’s all he says, though. Neil keeps him running through drills and listens to the rebound of the balls.

No one else is on the court. Neil and Seth are early, because Seth has been lagging and Neil thinks it has to do with Renee and Allison’s matching bracelets.

Seth and Allison may have ended around the time he nearly died, but that doesn’t mean Seth is immune to emotions. He just shoves them away.

They have that in common. Maybe it’s why they get along.

“They’ll be here soon,” Neil announces, after five more minutes of Seth gritting his teeth and forcing his body through the drills. “Water and a quick cooldown.”

Seth mutters a few choice curses, but he follows Neil toward the locker room.

It’s the smell that gets him.

Neil knows it immediately; there’s a stab in his gut and a phantom flash across his scarred cheek. He tenses and shoves Seth backward; he ignores the noise of protest that echoes off the walls.

Nathaniel has two seconds to duck away from Lola, but it’s not enough. She’s closer to Seth than he is in one minute and then she’s holding a knife to his neck and Nathaniel is thinking not again.

“Let him go.”

“We have unfinished business.”

Seth is staring hard, but Nathaniel elects to ignore the obvious message he’s trying to send. Everything about Seth’s face is screaming not to listen to her; to give him up.

Neil won’t let that happen.

Nathaniel gauges the distance and the time. He thinks his chances are good. “Are you going to tell me your entire plan, too? Hit all the villain stereotypes? Or are we going to fight?”

Lola grins. Her lipstick is smeared on her teeth and she looks like shit. This way, injured and bandaged in too many places, Lola is dangerous. She’s more dangerous than she was in the basement. Nathaniel thinks she’s probably on something strong—codeine, maybe—and she has nothing to lose. She’s dying and she knows it; she just wants to take him with her.

“Leave him,” Nathaniel says, gesturing to Seth. “You don’t have time for that, and I like to play with my food.”

Lola’s smile is feral. She slams Seth against the wall, practiced. He goes down and Nathaniel ensures that there’s no blood before he turns and sprints like his life depends on it.

It probably does.

Lola follows, the tap of her boots on the floor rapid. Nathaniel only has to make it out into the hall and then he swings toward the small kitchenette off to the side of the lounge. It’s across the narrow hall from Wymack’s office, so Nathaniel knows if things go wrong, the Foxes will have time to react.

He also knows there’s probably a knife around for him to use.

Nathaniel slides into the room, barely grabbing the doorway and flinging himself toward the sink. His fingers close around a butter knife that’s not sharp enough, but that just means Lola will hurt more. He doesn’t mind that.

Lola follows two steps behind. Her knife gleams in the fluorescent life and Nathaniel does his best to keep out of her reach, sliding his weapon up his sleeve to hide it. For now, he has the advantage if she thinks he’s unarmed. Of course, for the trick to work, he has to stay alive while unarmed.

It’s difficult, but not impossible. Lola manages to slice his arm once and he’s silently glad it didn’t get near his tattoo. He’s pretty sure he wouldn’t hear the end of it. Lola backs him into a corner and Nathaniel grits his teeth. He ducks under her arm and uses the momentum to flip her over his back and into the cabinets. Unfortunately, he’s wearing a hoodie—the perfect thing for her ragged nails to catch. Lola drags him backward and the knife descends. Nathaniel deflects her arm with his, but she struggles to push the knife closer to his neck.

He can see his world in the shine of the metal. It reminds him of a polished banister and a door that’s not supposed to be open or used. One he walks through with Andrew almost every night, anyway.

He wonders if Andrew would know where to find him. Would he look to the sky? Would he even believe?

Nathaniel kicks enough to slide just an inch down. It’s enough. Lola’s knife descends and instead of his neck being caught, it’s his forehead. He can feel the line of fire being drawn there and he’s glad that the blood hasn’t blurred his vision, yet. Lola screams in anger.

He can see his window of opportunity. Well, it’s probably more like a crevice of chance.

The knife slides into his waiting palm and Nathaniel knows Lola sees it. Her desperation is clear when she throws her weight into her arm, descending on him. They should be here soon, he thinks. I hope they find Seth, first.

Lola starts to bury the knife in his shoulder. It’s on the right side, which is funny, because Lola must be really desperate if she’s going for the wrong spot. He knows she has the greatest chance of missing his arteries and the blade isn’t even an inch deep when he gets his hand up.

He buries the knife in her neck. At the same moment, she digs deeper and a furious scream escapes him.

Lola’s last bid is to shove him back. He only remembers after he’s moving that there’s a table behind him. He hits the edge hard and then Nathaniel is blinking and on the floor. The light is too bright and his foot is only partway out the door. He distantly wonders if it’s Lola’s blood he feels at his side or his. It’s warm.

There are voices. Loud yelling. Finally, he thinks. His ears are ringing a little. Shock, he assumes, coupled with a minor concussion. If he breathes evenly and keeps himself focused, it will subside. The ringing is already giving way to the voices.

“—ck. Fuck,” Wymack curses. His feet pound down the hall and his sneakers screech. Nathaniel wonders if Seth moved, or if Wymack just noticed him.

He thinks, amused, that it would be just like the Foxes not to see his foot sticking out of the door.

Except then he hears Seth, angry and with vaguely pain-steeped words. “Go! Fucking—where the fuck is he?!”

He hears uneven footsteps, followed by lighter and faster ones. He imagines Andrew shoving past everyone else. I’ll bet he looks terrifying. Someone gasps and the footsteps come faster.

Andrew screeches around the corner, growling. He stops. Nathaniel stares up at the light, unblinking. He waits. Andrew doesn’t move.

“Shit,” Wymack says. He stops in the doorway.

Jean pushes past the crowd. He’s at Neil’s side in a second, fingers skipping over skin. “You’re fine. It missed the artery. Concussion? Follow my fingers.”

“I’m fine,” Nathaniel says. He follows the fingers and blinks slowly. Jean nods sharply and snaps a towel off the nearby sink.

“Sure. When did she show up?”

“Ten minutes? Not sure. Where’s Seth? Is he—”

“I’m here, you fucking suicidal moron,” Seth hisses. He’s leaning against the door, his forehead in his hand like he has a headache.

“I knew it wouldn’t be long. Sorry,” Neil says, raising a finger toward Seth’s forehead.

Something snaps Andrew out of it. His jaw tightens and he crosses the room to Neil. He crouches—as much as he can, being so short anyway—and glares. “You are making my life difficult, Josten.”

“Sorry, Minyard. You’ve got to be faster, next time.”

Neil smirks and Andrew’s hands clench. Wymack sighs in the doorway, his phone in hand. Neil didn’t notice the man leave, but he says, “FBI are on their way. They expected this, I guess.”

“Of course, they did,” Andrew says. His tone is neutral but his eyes scream bloody murder. Ha. “I think we should lodge a formal complaint.”

Andrew’s version of formal includes fists and his complaints generally leave people gasping for breath. Neil smiles at the image of the agents doubled over in pain while Andrew smokes and fills out a small card.

He is content to wait for help to arrive, while Jean wraps a towel around the knife and applies pressure. Andrew may complain, but ultimately, he doesn’t argue when Neil grabs his sleeve with two fingers. He just crouches there, glaring at the paramedics that enter. It’s a bit like having a lion cub at his side.

Andrew doesn’t leave his side as they investigate the injury in Abby’s exam room. It’s probably one of the nicest things he’s ever done. Neil pretends not to smell the blood that permeates everything and concentrates on keeping an eye on Seth, who sits across from him even after his exam is finished and he’s warned to keep company in case his concussion worsens.

“Guess you managed to get out of practice,” Neil tells him. Andrew is glaring a hole into the side of his face; he can feel it.

Seth smirks. “Sure, I did. What’s your excuse?”

“Maybe I wanted to do something other than Exy.”

Seth gives Andrew a pointed look and grins wider as he moves toward the door. He secures his exit before he says, “I don’t think he’ll let you, with a stab wound.”

“That’s what you think!” Neil yells after him. Quieter, with his fingers still tangled in Andrew’s, he says, “I’m sure there are things to do that don’t involve me using my arm.”

Andrew just stares him straight in the face and slaps his head—but when he’s done, his hand comes to rest at Neil’s neck. He meets Neil’s pale blue eyes with warm, brown-green ones.

“I hate you.”

“It’s always a yes with you,” Neil murmurs. He tilts his head and lets their noses brush just a little.

Andrew inhales a little; the sound is as sweet as the taste of his mouth when he kisses Neil. The smell of blood is still distant but it fades, scared away by the sensation of a hand on Neil’s neck and the warmth of a tongue sliding against his lips. When Andrew moves back a moment later, Neil smiles. “I should get stabbed more often.”


The game is in a few days, but the Foxes are at the mall. Allison had insisted, since they never celebrated Neil’s birthday. Consider your new wardrobe a celebration. It will be for us, she’d said, rolling her eyes at his shirt. Neil had just shrugged and followed Andrew to his car.

“Oh my God,” Nicky gasps. He’s waving a shirt over his head. “Neil! Neil, look!”

“I can’t see. You’re waving it.”

Nicky sticks his tongue out, but he comes closer to show Neil the shirt. The Foxes seem oddly bent on buying graphic shirts; Neil has never worn anything like them. They’re too easily recognizable and besides, the Ravens gear were the only thing she ever needed. Nicky’s shirt says Angery and it’s an orange creamsicle color. Allison has half a dozen picks and Kevin is invested in some dress shirts halfway across the store, where Matt is good-naturedly trying to pull him away.

After half an hour, Neil leaves with a heavy bag and the Foxes spread around the food court. The sun is disappearing in the distance; a few of the bars are starting to pick up, loud and laughing college students stumbling around.

One such student comes a little too close to Andrew. He says something Neil can’t decipher—his back is turned, at first—but then he sways and his arm descends.

Neil doesn’t think. Some might say it’s his fatal flaw.

He takes the stranger’s arm and uses the momentum to flip the guy over his shoulder. The weight presses into him but Neil holds his ground and lets the body tumble and roll over his back. The man ends up in the bushes behind Neil, feet sticking out like a cartoon character.

Andrew stares at Neil.

“That worked better than I thought it would,” Neil says. “Maybe—I might have overreacted.”

Andrew presses his lips together in that way that says he probably wants to kiss Neil, but they’re in public and he just can’t. Yet.

It’s the thought that counts.

Neil smiles a little. He lets his hand brush against Andrew’s, a fleeting touch to remind him they are fine. Andrew’s gaze slides to the man trying to extract himself from the bush. “Kevin fucking overreacts,” Andrew corrects. “That was called for.”

Sure, Neil’s shrug says. He lets Andrew guide them to a Chinese place and they eventually meet up with the team, a few tables shoved together to fit them. Apparently, Nicky saw the confrontation, because he regales the team with an embellished version of events. Neil doesn’t mind and Andrew doesn’t shut his cousin up, so it seems like the storytelling is all right.

It’s all right when Andrew’s hand finds Neil’s knee under the table, even if he can’t do more for the moment. Neil takes what he’s given with Andrew, and the simple brush is just as important as anything that happens on the roof.

Maybe even more.


The sound of the crowd is a roar in the distance. It is reminiscent of dark basements and a crowded, red room. It brings back an image of Mary, pulling at Nathaniel with desperate hands.

Don’t go out there. Never again, Nathaniel. Promise me—never again—

Neil takes a deep breath. He lets air flow through his lungs; lets himself be overtaken. He flushes out the memories with clearer ones; sharper ones.

Dan lifting weights while Matt gazes at her, his spikes a mess and his smile a reflex.

Allison painting swatches of lipstick on her arm with Renee, covering up their mutual bruises from practice.

Aaron and Katelyn in a corner of the diner, heads tilted together.

Nicky laughing, his eyes crinkled at the corners as he looks at Erik’s pictures.

Seth quietly sharing his notebooks and making tater tots when study sessions drag on.

Jean curling up at the foot of Neil’s bed, reading poetry in French with his hair half-dry from a shower.

Kevin, tipsy but aware, his chin propped in one hand and the queen on his cheek stark black on his skin.

Andrew.

Neil thinks he’ll remember Andrew forever. If he dies, his dust will recall the color of Andrew’s eyes. If Neil wakes in another universe, he’ll search for Andrew all over again. If Neil were born again, he’d spend his lifetime remembering and hoping for Andrew to be sent back, too.

If Neil dies tonight, he’ll die remembering the way Andrew pressed a key into his hand and kissed him while the stars and moon watched.

“Are you ready?” Jean asks. He comes up to Neil’s side with a towel in hand. He wears the Foxes’ colors for the night, but there is no number on his back. Just a fox, its keen eyes unafraid.

Neil brushes a hand over the hoodie hanging in his locker. It’s a little too small for him; the sleeves fall short of his wrists. He likes it still, because it’s Andrew’s. It’s his. It’s theirs.

“Yeah. I’m ready.”

The Foxes take the court the way they take life—with their heads held high, their hearts pounding to the beat of the moment. Uncertain of the future but sure of the present, when they will take everything they are given and work to the death for it. When they fight not only for themselves but for one another.

The heart is a family is a home.

Sometimes, people are all you need. Neil has never had a place, and he thinks he might never have one—but he is starting to believe in people. His home is where he can go and be held; it is a place where his heart can rest. He has never felt more at peace than with Allison doing his makeup, or Renee smiling; with Seth and Matt arguing over semantics in the bedroom; with Dan retying his bandanna when practice drags on; with Nicky laughing brightly and Aaron’s impassive stare; with Jean teasing Kevin in French just to hear the exasperation in his voice; with Andrew, kissing him, holding him, just looking at him.

No one holds back. They keep their minds focused and their gazes unflinching. Even when Riko mutters to Kevin, his words a litany of you are not enough, you are never enough, you are second and that is your place. Not when Riko passes Neil and says you have no time left.

Neil is afraid.

He is afraid, but he is able to stand and listen and play because he is not one. He is not just himself; he is the team at his back and the way they came for him, when he thought they would leave his baggage and curse behind.

Kevin is the one that makes the shot. He is given the opening and he takes it; Neil passes and then Kevin is flying, his arm an orange blur.

He is using his scarred hand again, and he wins with it.

Neil sees the ball hit home just seconds before time ends. He sees it happen and he exhales—a long, breathless sigh that brings him to his knees. This feels final. This feels like the end. A true conclusion, with the roar of the crowd fading behind his heartbeat.

Riko’s eyes meet his. Neil opens his mouth.

He says, “You have always been second. Will you tell the reporters what it feels like, to be a worthless piece of shit? Or will you hide behind your racquet and play the child? Throw a tantrum? I wonder—when Tetsuji dies, will you finally be thrown out like the trash you are? I wish I could be there to see it.”

Neil has more on his mind, but he doesn’t need to say more. There’s a formless word on Riko’s tongue, the Japanese mangled as he screams. He is causing a scene in the middle of the court and Neil couldn’t care less. The racquet descending on his head will injure him; could kill him, but it doesn’t matter. None of it matters because Neil has made the final move. He has positioned himself on the board for the final blow and he waits as it is his duty to wait—

—not for Riko—

—but for the Foxes.

For his family.

The crack that follows is not the sound of his head. It is the sickening, familiar echo of an arm being broken. Riko’s scream changes tone and Neil watches him fall to his knees.

When Neil looks up, there—

—above—

—is Andrew.

Andrew.

He is clear and bright in the stadium lights; they part around him in a halo, forced away by the gravity of his presence. Neil blinks and watches Andrew turn, his eyes a swirl of color and life.

There is life in Andrew’s eyes and Neil wants to cry.

The Foxes close around them, a barrier against everything outside. Neil feels the burn in his eyes and then Andrew leans close, his gaze searching.

“Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil breathes. He lifts his head and pushes himself up from the ground. The air around them is heavy.

Andrew’s gloves are discarded, hitting the floor with heavy thumps. Neil recognizes the hands on his face, one curved against a knife scar and the other thumb pressed under the burns. Neil lets the Foxes stand for them, a circle of backs with numbers he could never forget.

The hands are warm. They are warm, not cold, and Andrew isn’t taking him to death—he’s taking them somewhere else; somewhere just as uncertain.

Somewhere different. Maybe even better.

Andrew kisses him and Neil tastes the future on his lips.

He thinks he could enjoy the sweetness.

Chapter Text

He meets the boy for the first time in a crowded shop.

Kevin decided to go inside, so of course Andrew followed with Nicky and Aaron. The place is a familiar tangle of odds and ends. Leather-bound notebooks, fountain pens, tea leaves, glass bottles for potions and such. Andrew can feel a low thrum, like the pulse of the shop. Kevin calls it scoping the competition, but Andrew calls it a waste of money.

Nicky’s absorbed with a set of tarots in the corner, cooing at the design while Aaron reminds him of the dozen sets he has at home. Andrew keeps one eye on Kevin and the other trained on the door as he wanders around. He starts to walk down an aisle with little charms and then the sun shines through the window on the far wall and Andrew squints, reflexively turning his head away from the light. A second later, the light is obscured by a figure.

Shit.

He has red hair. It looks kind of like fire, with the sun lighting strands of red and gold. He also has scars—not the curse marks Andrew sometimes sees in shop patrons, but real, physical remnants of abuse. It somehow makes things worse, to see crude torture so openly displayed.

But the boy looks up and Andrew forgets anything or anyone else is there, because there are a pair of too-blue eyes looking back at him. They are blue like an electric spell; blue like forget-me-nots and the cold spring sky. He has a tiny glass bead on his left ear, an orb that seems to change from clear to hazy rainbow with every tilt of his head.

Andrew’s gut reaction is a sudden, fierce thought. I hate him, he thinks. He watches the boy turn sideways a little, a hand reaching out toward the shelves before him. He is still illuminated in light and it’s ridiculous. Andrew notices the hands that peek out of a thick hoodie are also scarred; little circles darken his knuckles and there are pale lines crisscrossing his skin.

“There you are,” Nicky says suddenly. He startles Andrew away from—whatever this is—and holds up a tiny bag. “Should we collar Kevin? I think he’s talking to the manager.”

We should, Andrew thinks, but his feet are still pointed toward the boy at the bookshelf. Something rises up through his throat—a no, maybe—and he swallows it. It is a bitter pill that burns going down.

He walks away with effort and tries to forget those blue eyes.


Neil is in charge of restocking the tea wall. It’s a wall of rough wood boxes, the stain corresponding to the tea nestled within. The tiny jars are marked with handwritten labels, because Renee is proud of their concoctions and she likes adding a personal touch.

Unfortunately, it’s a high wall. Neil has to drag a ladder out and then a line forms while he’s balancing a box and reaching into a shelf. Allison can handle it with Dan, but he feels the itch to help. Neil is considering waiting to finish after the rush when he hears laughter and then—

—then, the ladder shakes and he starts to fall.

He thinks it would be funny to die like this, after everything else.

He doesn’t make a sound, because that doesn’t help; it never helps. Instead, he tries to prepare his body for the inevitable pain.

Instead, he hears a few gasps and exclamations, and then someone’s arms. Someone is holding him, sagging with the momentum, but the grip on his body is strong and sure. Neil blinks; he’s not sure which way is up. He tries to look around him and finds someone looking down at him.

The light is behind the person. For a second, all Neil sees is a shadowy face. The features begin to appear, though, and Neil finds himself staring a little too much at green-brown eyes. He tries to figure out what they remind him of; it might be Renee’s peaceful blend, or maybe Allison’s restorative one. He’s not sure and then the person’s mouth flattens into a line. He looks down at Neil with an expression that says, well?

“Sorry,” Neil says. “I’m fine.”

He awkwardly tries to extricate himself. For a second, he thinks the hands hold him tighter, but then he’s shoved upright. Neil is just blinking, dizziness making him squint, and then someone familiar swims into view. Neil’s eyes widen like they can replace the image with something else, but the person before him is the same.

“Kevin?”

“Neil,” Kevin says. He sounds halfway between pleased and horrified. It’s probably the best reaction Neil could have hoped for, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it.

Kevin looks the same. He talks the same, too—like he’s both above and one step removed from everything and everyone else. He certainly seems better, though. Neil wonders if it has to do with the people around him—a tall man with curly hair and bright eyes and the one that caught Neil.

Wait. Two. There are two.

“I—I haven’t seen you…I mean, you look…”

Terrible, Neil thinks absently. He’s busy looking at the twins standing near the taller man. He assumes they’re twins, from the way they have very similar…everything. Except Neil can see the marks under the surface, and they are very close to being nothing alike.

“I should help,” Neil says. He’s not avoiding Kevin.

Not exactly.

Neil slides the ladder away from the customers and escapes behind the counter. He slips in between Dan and Renee without a second thought. Any time they hold their hands out, he’s ready with the right tea.

He likes to test himself to remember what’s in each blend. There are some for sleep, some for wakefulness, some for focus. Some for love. They are all meant to help. Most of them have simple names, but Neil always gives them his own. He likes to use new words he learns in other languages—long words; ones that aren’t taught in study books. He finds words like harmony and intuition, or as close as he can get, and writes them on the wood box shelves. No one complains, and Allison says it makes the place look better.

Neil loses himself in the repetition and then Kevin is at the counter, arms crossed, ordering for his group. He is only as charming as he needs to be, but Allison doesn’t care. She only nods strategically and completes the order.

Should I, Neil thinks, or should I not?

It’s a stupid question. He ducks behind the raw counter, looks down at the collection of tins, and begins to pick a few things. He drops his tiny ratios into a bag and then ties it. Allison doesn’t question him; she gave up after the third time Neil did this and Renee told her something. Neil still doesn’t know what Renee said.

Neil reaches across the counter, toward one of the twins. The one that caught him. The man stares at the hand before him. For a second, Neil remembers that he somehow forgot his scars. They are the reason he doesn’t work at the register, where customers would see him. He is about to draw his hand back when the man’s eyes change and his jaw tenses.

A pale hand extends, palm up and open. Neil carefully drops the bag into the waiting hand.

“Andrew,” Kevin says. He’s halfway to the door, but he looks back with a small frown.

Andrew. Neil watches him back away and then leave.

Just like always, he’s sure the tea won’t help, but he gave it anyway. He thinks he might not see Andrew again, but he has done all that he can. There’s not much more he’s capable of. Neil returns to the ladder to stock the shelves and finds himself ruminating on Andrew for the rest of the afternoon, images of white-blonde hair and feathery eyelashes running through his head.


“That smells good,” Nicky says.

Andrew shrugs. He glares at the tea in his cup before he catches himself and turns away from his cousin. Kevin is taking inventory somewhere, probably chiding Aaron for not turning labels toward the outside. The shop is closed and silent; it’s late evening.

Who the hell gives someone tea, anyway?

The fragrance is low and rich. Andrew’s hand tightens on the handle of his mug and he gauges the heat through the ceramic. He hopes he brewed it right and then tells himself he doesn’t care.

The first sip is hot. He’s not sure if he expected magic or something, but he knows better and he sighs through his nose. Nicky gives him a curious look and Andrew closes his eyes for a second. He grounds himself—tries to forget the blue eyes and worry, when Neil had looked down at his scarred hands and started to pull away.

Neil. That’s his name. Andrew heard Kevin say it. Later, Kevin said they knew each other as children. He also said Neil didn’t have so many scars, then.

Andrew takes another sip. This one rests on his tongue longer. Aside from the orange, which was easy to smell from the start, there is vanilla and the faint taste of cinnamon. The tea is black, but that’s all Andrew knows about it.

He also knows it tastes good.

It’s strange. It should be bitter and it should be a chore to drink; Andrew has never been too interested in tea. He’s also never believed in the little shops that sell magically-enhanced concoctions. But he saw Neil make the bag, and Andrew knows the only thing in the tea is tea. He would know if there were something else.

So, Neil gave him tea. Good tea, but tea.

Why?

Andrew thinks until he lifts the mug to his lips and finds it empty. He frowns and hears Nicky chuckle from across the room.

“Guess you liked it.”

Andrew stares at his cousin, but Nicky’s never been put off by the twins’ glares. He’s especially immune to Andrew’s glare, which probably says something about his survival skills. Andrew sets his mug on the table next to the couch.

Nicky turns his gaze back to his book, but he says, “You could always go buy some more.”

He could.


He doesn’t see Neil. His immediate response is to walk back out the door, but someone sees him.

“Oh. Hi,” Renee says. She smiles. Andrew knows her; he knows Dan and Allison, too, after so many years of Kevin coming by. Neil is the strange one, here.

Speaking of.

Neil appears, pushing a door open with his back. He doesn’t turn around when he sets the box in his hands on the counter. Andrew watches him for a second, and then Neil crouches and he’s wearing stupid tight sweatpants—

—and Andrew loudly slams his palms onto the counter.

“I’m just looking,” he manages to say. His eyes almost burn as he stares at the counter, but he can see Neil in his periphery, jumping a little at the noise.

“Okay. Neil, I need to check on the orange. Watch the front for me?”

“Sure.”

Renee disappears and Andrew focuses on the tins behind the glass. They all look strange; full of dry things. Leaves and what looks like fruit. Some berry or seed shapes.

“Did you try it?” Neil asks. Andrew drags his eyes up from the counter.

There’s that face.

Andrew has questions. Mostly he wants to ask why, but also wants to ask where the hell Neil came from. Who hired him. How he’s allowed to work at the shop, when Dan is so picky she only had two employees, before.

Nothing comes out.

Neil doesn’t seem to mind. “You didn’t order anything. I thought maybe you could try something different. Sometimes, the things we have made aren’t for everyone.”

“It didn’t have magic,” Andrew finally says. It’s not what he should have said, but he says it.

Neil leans back from the counter. He is quiet for a moment, like he’s contemplating. His blue eyes break away and he reaches for an empty tin. He moves oddly—slowly, as if he’s moving through water or trying not to disturb the world around him. Like he’s being careful of bumping into glass shelves that don’t exist. “Of course not,” Neil says. “You didn’t ask.”

I hate him, I hate him, Andrew thinks. He watches Neil tip a handful of something into the tin and thinks it might be vanilla. While he watches, Neil’s movements seem to stutter a little. His fingers bump a jar and his sleeve drags across the counter. Andrew isn’t sure what made the change, but then Neil unscrews the jar and a tiny puff escapes.

Neil’s blue eyes go wide. One hand automatically tilts some of the cinnamon into the tin, but then his nose wrinkles and the freckles across it shift like stars whirling through the night sky and—

—and he sneezes. Neil sneezes into his arm, a little half-escaped sound that sounds like the literal translation of achoo.

God, does Andrew hate him.

He also hands him a napkin from on top of the counter before he can stop himself. Neil blinks at the paper, brown eyelashes against bright eyes, and gingerly maneuvers his hand around the edge of the gift. He takes care not to touch and Andrew can hear his heart thud in his ears. He hates it, he hates it, he hates it.

“Thanks,” Neil says. He rubs his nose and washes his hand at the sink. Andrew can see the tin on the counter, open and dark. Neil returns to it after a moment, closes and shakes it, then opens it again to examine the contents.

He nods to himself, satisfied, and closes the tin again. He looks somewhere below the counter to something Andrew can’t see. It looks like he’s running his hand over something. Neil pops up again after a second with a label machine. It prints a sticker that Neil presses onto the tin, a vaguely rose-shaped thing. Neil fishes a marker from his pocket and crouches to write.

Crouches, instead of bringing the tin to his goddamn face.

Andrew kind of wants to leave.

Neil finishes the label and goes to the register. Andrew follows him—not because he wants to, but because he’s interested to see what other atrocities Neil commits. Instead, he sees Neil ring up the tin and then slide a card through the reader. The sale clears and then Neil pushes the tin across the counter.

Andrew stares at it. He wonders if maybe it is enchanted and waits for the lid to open like the mouth of a tiny monster. Like something eating its way through his chest.

“It’s different, this time,” Neil says. He pauses. “You don’t have to—”

Andrew takes the tin. He fucking takes it and does not know what he is doing. He shrugs and looks toward the back door as if someone will come and save him. “Tell Renee goodbye for me.”

Neil nods. Andrew takes his tea and makes a cup as soon as he gets home.

This time, there’s a spice to it. He’s not sure what it is, but it tingles on his tongue and brings his thoughts right back to Neil crouching and Neil holding his hand out, careful.

“Okay, maybe I was wrong. Maybe you hate it?” Nicky supplies, casting a doubtful look at Andrew’s face.

Nicky tries to reach for the mug and Andrew kicks his hand away.


Neil should probably pay more attention to the weather and less to the memories of Andrew playing in his mind.

But Andrew looked so cautious when he took the tea and Neil feels like there must be a spell working in his favor, because someone finally came back.

Of course, Neil is walking through rain now, and his shirt is stuck to his back. It’s also white. He’s certain there might be a shirt at the shop, left over from the last round Dan had made, but he’s not counting on his luck. A car passes him and he’s splashed up his side by dirty street water.

Only the memory of Andrew’s frown makes it any better.

Neil comes in through the back door. The shop isn’t open yet, but Dan is in her office. Neil says a quick hello and makes a beeline to the front, promising to mop up the trail he’s leaving when he finds a shirt. He goes to the counter and then—

—then he sees Andrew—

—who is staring at him probably as much as Neil is staring.

“Oh,” Neil says. Oh.

Andrew has that look on his face, again. It is almost like he hates Neil, but there’s not enough in it to be believable. It ends up looking more like Andrew is frustrated. Frustrated and something else. “Why are you wet?” Andrew asks, as if this is the stupidest thing to have to ask.

“It’s raining.”

I know, Andrew’s face says. He exhales loudly through his nose. Neil has a brief image of Andrew as a dragon and holds a giggle in his throat. I might be getting sick, he thinks. These are feverish thoughts.

Andrew beckons him. Neil hesitates behind the counter but Andrew gives him a look that says he isn’t waiting. Neil walks into the dining area and watches Andrew unzip his jacket and toss it to Neil. It’s the same jacket he’s always worn when he visits; a soft hoodie that’s faded black and too big. It fits Neil perfectly.

Neil is very aware of the five seconds that he stands, bare-chested, before Andrew. He shivers a little when he finally zips the hoodie up to his neck and hopes no one will notice throughout the day.

“Thank you.”

Andrew stares. He’s staring past Neil’s shoulder, maybe. “Maybe use a fucking umbrella.”

It is at this point that Neil should let it go, or thank Andrew again. The problem with that is Neil. He has long since given up on being proper or polite or charming. So instead, he says, “Maybe. Maybe not.”

He shrugs and holds his hand up to his face, the sleeve of the hoodie pulled over his knuckles. He likes that the sleeves are long enough. Andrew watches him and his eye twitches just a little. He turns on his heel and shoulders his way roughly out.

Neil should feel disappointed that Andrew left, but instead, he inhales the smell of the hoodie. It’s soft against his skin and he shivers again.

Maybe not.


Kevin comes by a week after the rain. The shop is about to close and Dan is orchestrating a dinner get-together. Matt is finally there, because he can’t stay away from his wife for long. Even Seth hangs around and Neil doesn’t mind, because Seth talks a lot of shit but he always buys Neil gloves for cold weather that hide his scars.

“You should come,” Dan says.

Neil shrugs. “I should finish, first.”

“Just leave it for tomorrow. It’s all right.”

Neil shakes his head. He doesn’t have to say anything more; Dan just nods and follows the others out.

Well, the others minus Andrew. Andrew leans against the door and Neil tries not to blush.

He’s still wearing the jacket.

Neil follows a list in his mind. It helps calm him and it helps him order his fractured thoughts. Clean the counters, clean the tables, flip the chairs. Sweep the floor. He actually forgets about his one-man audience as he heats water for his tea while he finishes. It’s not until Neil is sipping the cup that he closes his eyes for a moment and opens them again to Andrew.

There it is. The thing—whatever thing was there from the start, that only got bigger after the tea. Neil holds his breath.

“You’re not going to make me any?”

Neil works on reflex. It’s a bad habit but it’s a hard one to break. He extends his hand, teacup steady despite his racing heart. Andrew looks at him and the connection between their eyes feels tangible. Neil could breathe and let it in.

Andrew’s lips touch the edge of the cup and Neil tilts it just a little, transfixed. He watches color rise to Andrew’s mouth at the heat.

He should look away.

He should, but Andrew’s fingers press Neil’s wrist and the cup is lowered while Andrew leans over the counter. Neil only has time to slide the cup away before—

—after. After it’s gone, Andrew kisses him. He is as warm as the tea and Neil likes him much, much more. It’s soft at first; a velvet touch that is sweeter than the honey Neil always offers customers. It changes when Andrew’s tongue presses against Neil’s mouth, questioning. He can’t say no to it and doesn’t think he’d ever want to; Neil opens his mouth then finds himself somewhere indescribable. Andrew tastes likes bliss and that’s a name and tea Neil has never made and doesn’t think he could.

There’s a hint of orange that lingers from their tea. Neil chases after it and he feels Andrew’s hand curling over his neck, fingers pulling at the short strands of hair. Andrew does something with his tongue—a press, a twist—and Neil completely loses his mind. He doesn’t know anything but the feeling and he thinks he probably moans.

He knows he did when Andrew fucking vaults over the counter to sit on its edge in front of Neil. His hands draw Neil’s face in, as if Neil needs any prompting. One of Andrew’s hands wanders below Neil’s collar.

Neil wants to touch, more than anything, but he has a clear memory of an open palm. He manages to pull away from Andrew—which takes longer than it should—but he can’t talk right away. He’s too busy trying to breathe properly. Andrew is staring at him and the look is back, the frustration and something else, except there’s less frustration. Neil wonders if the something else is attraction. He’s not sure he can call it love, yet.

“Can I touch you?” Neil asks.

Andrew’s hand is still on his neck. It traces a shape. “Yes. If I say—”

“Stop, then I stop,” Neil agrees. Andrew watches him and the look in his eyes makes Neil angry. He knows the past he sees and he wants to stay angry at it, but he doesn’t care about it as much as he cares about the Andrew in front of him.

This is the one that matters.

“Yes.”

Neil half imagines Andrew will dissipate when he touches him. Instead, his hands find a very real face. Andrew’s skin feels warmer than he expected beneath his palms. It’s also soft. Neil wants to kiss him again, so he asks. “Can I kiss you? Yes or no.”

“Yes,” Andrew says. He sounds like he’s biting the word.

Neil starts to figure out what those things he can’t name are. He leans in and Andrew meets him halfway, his mouth hot and waiting. Neil can feel strong legs pushing against his hips, enclosing him and bringing him closer. The touch sends heat up his spine but he ignores it; he is only going as fast as Andrew does.

Andrew’s teeth are at Neil’s lip and the tug feels like it’s pulling him into an abyss. He isn’t afraid of what he can’t see; he lets Andrew take him somewhere else, and Neil forgets he’s in a tea shop, or that there are people waiting for them.

He forgets a lot of unimportant things. He hopes he does the same thing to Andrew. When Andrew finally pulls back, he thinks maybe they feel the same.

“We should go,” Neil finally submits. Andrew is watching his mouth. Neil looks out toward the street and remembers the time. He looks down at the jacket on his shoulders. “Do you want this back? It’s probably cold.”

Andrew stares. “No,” he decides.

Neil nods once, but he still pauses. He pulls the jacket off and then reaches for his shirts. Andrew stares and Neil yanks them over his head. He tugs his work shirt back on and passes the black thermal to Andrew. “It’s cold.”

Andrew spends a long time looking at it, but he ends up sliding it over his head while Neil bundles back into the jacket. Neil turns the lights out and they step onto the sidewalk, where the night life is at a slow crawl.

Neil kind of wants to be closer to Andrew, but he doesn’t want to push it.

But Andrew slides his fingers through Neil’s and Neil thinks his heart does something weird. “Let’s go,” Andrew says, like things have always been this way.

Neil hopes they always will be.

Chapter Text

Mini Art for the chapter! 1 billion thanks to tumblr user still-waiting-for-godot.

 


 

 

Andrew is tending to the violets when it happens.

There’s a rustle to his right and he freezes, instinct kicking in. He’s holding a thin plastic bottle in his hand; it’s not really a knife, but it could probably startle an attacker.

The space to Andrew’s right is occupied by sunflowers. They’re unusual for a flower shop, but some idiots must like them. He’s never had a customer buy one, so Andrew thinks they’re useless.

The sunflowers rustle again.

Andrew watches them and then they rustle more and then—

—then, someone’s head pops out and Andrew reflexively squeezes the trigger on the spray bottle.

Shit.

Andrew takes a moment to assess. The stranger blinks and there are tiny droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes. His eyes are pure blue and his hair is red-brown. He has tiny freckles across his nose and cheeks that look like specks of gold. He—

—he is saying something.

“Sorry.”

Of all the things, this is what the stranger says. He has a face full of water, sunflower leaves in his hair, and he’s precariously swaying between the shelves around him.

Are you some kind of idiot, Andrew doesn’t say. He sets the spray bottle onto the table before him and turns fully, trying to keep his expression schooled. “What are you doing.”

It doesn’t come out like a question, but Andrew doesn’t care. The stranger is absently running a finger along the petals of a sunflower in a way that should not be so fascinating.

“I’m trying to find flowers for a friend. I’m not very good at it.”

There’s a lot Andrew could say, but instead, he picks up the spray bottle and walks around the sunflower display. He notices the man has a few inches on him and his irritation mounts. The idiot with red hair just stands with his hands in the pockets of a hoodie that is disgustingly old. Andrew kind of wants to punch him, for some strange reason.

“Would you help me?”

He could. It’s technically his job. He should. But the stranger asks like Andrew can choose to leave him wandering the store, and Andrew is tempted to do just that—

—except he keeps finding little orbs of water in the stranger’s hair and they reflect the light so distractingly he can’t look away.

“Fine.”

Andrew doesn’t offer any more. The stranger, somehow, knows exactly what to say. “A friend of mine just got a new apartment. It’s—well. More than that.”

New beginnings. Andrew winds his way through rows of flowers. Their scents are faint, but vibrant. He passes Renee in an aisle, ordering succulents on a shelf. She catches his eye and smiles a little. Andrew tries not to think of what she’ll say about him helping the stranger.

It’s probably something very true, and something he doesn’t want to hear.

Andrew leads the stranger to a table with lilies. He gestures to them. This is normally when he would leave, but something cements his feet in place. He tries to unstick them but instead, his eyes are drawn to the figure at his side.

“Perfect,” the stranger says.

He does it again. That thing where he brushes his fingers over the petals of the flowers and Andrew can’t look away—

—keeps thinking that it shouldn’t be possible for a touch to be so soft—

—and then something chokes him and he turns away.

He tries not to think it’s his heart, in his throat.

“Thank you,” the man says, and Andrew is stupid enough to look over his shoulder. He’s stupid enough to see the sun illuminate the man through the window, giving him a bright halo.

He is stupid enough to march back to the sunflowers and stare at them until Renee comes over.


Kevin comes by like clockwork. Andrew watches him consider some garden stones for fifteen minutes before he gets fed up and walks over.

“What?” Andrew asks.

Kevin looks at him with a vague expression of surprise. That’s…unusual. Andrew watches Kevin shrug and turn slowly. His eyes find something and his expression changes; it might be fondness, but Andrew doesn’t think Kevin is capable of that.

He didn’t, at least.

Kevin walks over to the lilies and Andrew considers throwing himself into the bags of soil behind them.

“Neil gave me some of these as a housewarming gift.”

“Neil,” Andrew repeats. He knows with utter certainty that it’s the stranger.

“He’s a friend. I knew him when we were kids.” Kevin shrugs.

Andrew wants to shake him until he starts functioning properly. This is not Kevin. Kevin does not consider people friends. He does not look at flowers like he’s remembering a person and he does not have a crooked smirk that is more exasperatedly fond than sharp.

“I should probably get him something,” Kevin muses. That’s a little closer to home. Andrew relaxes just a little. “Something bright. He’s bright.”

It’s a clumsy description but it makes things so much worse. Andrew is very close to dropping the garden stones over his head just to save himself the misery.

Neil is bright.

Andrew grabs Kevin’s arm and steers him toward the other end of the store. Kevin may know a bit about gardening, but he’s not the same as Andrew. His focus is on what to grow and when, not the meaning behind everything. Andrew brings Kevin to the display of daisies and Kevin looks down, impressed.

“Perfect.”

Andrew knows they are. He doesn’t say anything.

He’s ringing Kevin up when Neil walks through the door.

Of course, Kevin doesn’t miss a beat. He waits until Andrew is done and then turns to Neil and holds the pot before him. “I guess this makes it easier. Here.”

Neil stares at the flowers for a full minute. Andrew is three seconds from screaming and flipping the cash register over the counter.

“Thank you,” Neil says. He says it, but his face looks like a mess. He’s transfixed by the flowers and there’s also something bizarrely hurt in his expression. Like he’s never been given anything before. Andrew hates it.

Kevin says something that Andrew doesn’t pay attention to, and then he leaves.

He leaves Andrew with Neil.

Andrew should go find something to do, but he stays at the register. He watches Neil consider the flowers in his hands and feels a twinge in his chest. It’s a burn that makes him more aggravated. He doesn’t like the concept of this feeling and when it appeared.

“I should—” Neil starts to say, and Andrew doesn’t say, if you say buy Kevin something in return I will kill you right here. “I don’t…know how to take care of these.”

He looks very distressed by the admission and Andrew exhales a long sigh. He wants to forget Neil’s stupid fingers caressing flowers and he wants to forget the way Neil looks at them like they are alien and precious.

“It’s not hard,” Andrew says. He leaves the register and Neil follows.

After five minutes, Neil has directions and supplies. He says thank you again and Andrew tries not to look at his face.

It’s too bright.


Neil passes by the flower shop three days after receiving his daisies. He sees Andrew by a window, but he doesn’t seem to be working. There’s a book in his hand. Neil is too far to see the words, but he can see a sketch on the page. A flower.

A thought strikes him.

When he returns home, Neil opens his laptop and does a quick search. He smiles when he reads the page about lilies and then the one about daisies.

He is smiling.

It’s a strange sensation. New, but not unwelcome.

Kevin can always elicit a sassy response, and Jean is good for nonverbal conversations. They sometimes go five minutes without saying anything out loud, which is good for pissing Kevin off. As an unofficial third roommate, Neil enjoys being around them.

But this person—this flower boy, with his halfhearted glares and secrets—is someone Neil more than enjoys. He’s been wondering when he’ll need to go back to the store again.

He hopes it’s soon.


Kevin has some friends over. They’re going to dinner.

“He’s so cute!” Nicky gasps. This is a new face to Neil, who is uncertain of the compliment. Nicky throws his arms out and then pauses. “Can I hug you?”

“Sure,” Neil says, but it comes out sounding like a question. Nicky hugs him and Neil feels engulfed in someone much taller and warmer than he is. It feels…nice.

Nicky mock glares at Kevin when he pulls back. “You don’t give him enough hugs.”

“He’s not a plant,” Kevin says, throwing a jacket on. “It’s not like he needs to be watered.”

But Kevin’s gaze rests on Neil a little too long, uncertain. Neil tries to silently communicate that, no, it is perfectly okay that Kevin does not hug him all the time.

The way Kevin is now, it would be extremely bizarre and somewhat uncomfortable. They’ll get there, maybe. One day.

“You should come with us,” Nicky says, smiling. “We’re going to pick up my cousins on the way, though.”

Kevin pauses on his way to the door. Neil thinks he sees a little smirk and suddenly feels a slow sense of dread overcome him. Things are not quite right when Kevin has that sneaky look on his face.

“You should,” Kevin says. Nicky looks at him, faintly surprised. “It’s probably time you meet Aaron.”

“Andrew, too,” Nicky adds. His puzzled look starts to morph into something closer to Kevin’s nefarious grin when he realizes what’s going on. Whatever secret the two of them share is kept utterly silent.

“I don’t know—”

“Don’t worry. You can leave anytime,” Nicky says. “It’s just dinner.”

The problem is that Neil would never back down from Kevin. He’s also a little too curious for his own good. So, Neil agrees and throws his hoodie on while Kevin wrinkles his nose and says, maybe we should take him shopping, too.

They walk a few blocks down and come to a stop outside of an apartment complex with a gate. Nicky and Kevin talk about something while Neil flips his hood up to block the fine mist of rain settling on him. It’s a cool afternoon and he crouches by the grass at the curb, where a little patch of dandelions grows. He hears the gate squeak behind him while he plucks the dandelion and holds it to his face as he stands.

“Were you crawling?” a voice asks.

Neil knows that voice.

He turns just as he blows on the dandelion, forgetting for a moment what he’s doing, and comes face-to-face with the man from the flower shop.

Nicky slaps a hand over his mouth and nearly doubles over in silent laughter. Kevin looks smug, of course. And—

—and this person in front of him has a twin who stands nearby, very not dressed in black and looking at Neil like he’s an errant puppy.

“We should go, Andrew,” Kevin says.

Andrew.

Andrew stares at Neil. His eye might twitch; Neil isn’t sure. A beat of silence passes between them and Neil clears his throat. His gaze lands on a white seed in Andrew’s hair. “Can—um—”

Andrew’s jaw clenches a little. Neil doesn’t touch. He just gestures. “You, um. Have a…”

Nicky can’t keep his laughter in. He falls to his knees with teary eyes and then, somehow, they’re all walking. Neil tries to keep up and hopes he hasn’t dug himself further into a hole.

When Andrew sits across from him at the table and stares like a hungry lion, Neil thinks maybe he’s six feet deep.


His heart does acrobatics when he sees Andrew, crouched in a tangle of flowers. There’s an unlit cigarette behind his ear and he’s wearing a black turtleneck under his store vest.

The explosion of flowers is for a display. Valentine’s Day is only three weeks away and Andrew is choosing flowers for the vases that will go by the windows. Most of them seem traditional—roses, orchids, aster. But Neil knows Andrew and he now knows that Andrew is very particular about flowers. There must be some, he thinks, that aren’t ordinary. Like the red, star-shaped flowers at Andrew’s elbow.

“What are these?” Neil asks. He crouches next to Andrew.

It takes a minute for Andrew to answer. “Amaryllis.”

“Like the myth,” Neil says. Andrew’s hands pause over a bunch of tiny white flowers that he’s moving toward a vase of roses. Neil’s heart skips. “Right?”

Andrew is still hovering. He nods once and it seems more like he’s trying to shake himself out of wherever his mind went. He continues his arrangement and Neil is content to watch.

The back room usually has the door open. Renee started letting Neil in a few weeks ago, when she noticed that Andrew didn’t hate Neil as much as most other customers. She also told him that if he needed a job, there was an open position.

I should probably wait, Neil told her. He didn’t say, in case Andrew isn’t comfortable with having me around.

Neil’s eyes wander. Andrew is absorbed in his work, so Neil tries to pick out flowers he knows. Most are pink and red, so it’s hard for him to differentiate at first glance—but in a corner, Neil sees a colorful vase of flowers with ruffled edges. He knows these.

He knows a lot about these.

He hopes he isn’t blushing and is glad Andrew isn’t paying attention. Neil inches toward the vase. He asks, “Can I—I mean, should I come by more often?”

He doesn’t ask, would you like me to? He knows enough to know Andrew wouldn’t answer that. Neil worries as it is, because Andrew is frozen and staring at the roses with a flat expression. He’s about to take back the question when Andrew finally says, “Yes.”

Thank God, Neil doesn’t say. He thinks he’s dizzy and he’s glad he’s sitting down. His fingers find the right flower and he cautiously picks it out. There’s enough of a stem for him to do what he wants, if Andrew lets him.

Neil holds the flower close, but not too close. “Can I?”

“Yes,” Andrew says. It’s strained, but not because he’s forcing himself. His body was already turned to Neil before he spoke. Neil feels a flicker of warmth when he slides the flower into the little loop on Andrew’s vest.

Later, when Neil passes by the shop on his way home, Andrew is still wearing the red peony.


 

Neil spends enough time at the shop that some of the regulars start to ask if he’s new.

“He in training?” Wymack asks. He’s picking up a few things for landscaping. Andrew glances at Neil, who is studiously cleaning a vase for a new window arrangement.

“No.”

Wymack nods once. He’s too insightful for his own good. Andrew almost shoves the man out the door, but he’s not fast enough. Wymack hands Andrew his card and says, “He’s nice. Helped me with my things.”

God damn it, Andrew doesn’t say. He knows exactly what Wymack thinks.


Neil sneezes. Andrew stares at him for a long minute and convinces himself he’s glaring.

“Sorry,” Neil says. Andrew sighs and shoves a tissue at his face. Neil accepts it gracefully, as always, and maneuvers his fingers away from Andrew’s hand.

Andrew wishes he wouldn’t.

When he went to Bee’s a week ago, the usual flowers in hand, she told him to say something. He’s not going to know, she said, smiling. And it’s good that you’re starting to let yourself want something. Just remember, not everyone speaks the same language that you do.

Andrew knows that. He knows it all, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to open his mouth and ask Neil…

…what? To go on a date?

Andrew almost snaps the stem of the flower in his hand. Unfortunately, the thorns are still on it. One digs into his thumb and he releases the flower to press against his stinging finger.

Neil’s eyes go wide. Andrew stops breathing.

He knows that look. He hates it.

But then—

—then, Neil’s hands fly up and stop just short of Andrew’s hand. He takes a breath and waits. “Can I?”

“Yes,” Andrew says. He watches Neil snatch a paper towel from the sink and wet it, then press the paper against Andrew’s finger. The sting doesn’t feel as immediate.

And then Neil goes digging in his pocket and fishes out a band-aid. He does his work with the concentration of a man defusing a bomb, but his face only shows care. Concern. Something—

—something else. Something Andrew can’t really think about.

Neil pulls the band-aid tight and hesitates. His eyes flick up to Andrew’s like he’s waiting to be reprimanded. Andrew bites back what he feels at that look and says, “It’s fine.”

He pretends not to notice Neil’s slow exhale. Neil nods to himself and tosses the paper towel in the trash. He relaxes just a little and his shoulders drop.

Andrew busies himself with the flowers. He works for a while and doesn’t pay attention to the time until he notices Neil rummaging for his jacket. His heart thumps painfully and he has the sudden, unbidden revelation that he doesn’t want Neil to leave.

Damn it.

He does the closest thing he can to saying something. Andrew finds a red carnation in the flowers on the table and before he can think better of it, he trims the stem. When Neil pops up from the table, Andrew sticks it behind Neil’s ear.

Neil’s mouth falls open a little. There’s an uneven flush on his cheeks and Andrew studiously avoids looking directly at him.

It would be a little like looking at the sun.


Andrew is closing. Renee leaves a little early with a smile and well-wishes.

He hears the back door five minutes after she leaves and frowns. He’s about to ask what she forgot when he hears the familiar zip of a hoodie. Andrew ducks around the corner and looks into the back room.

Neil is standing there, absently looking around the room.

“What are you doing?”

Neil looks up. The way his face warms shouldn’t make Andrew feel anything, but it does. It makes him feel more than he bargained for. “It’s going to rain. I don’t want you to get sick.”

Andrew stares. “A little rain won’t kill me.”

“I also wanted to see you,” Neil says. He has that little lopsided smile he usually wears when he thinks no one is looking, but of course Andrew is always looking, and he wonders why Neil is suddenly showing it to him. He’s also thinking too much.

“Stay there. I’m not done.”

Neil nods and Andrew tries to control his breathing while he goes back to the shop. He sweeps and puts things in order and tries not to think too much about what Neil might be doing.

His questions are answered when Neil emerges from the back with a vase and a determined expression. Andrew stares and Neil starts to say something, but then he closes his mouth. It’s not often that Neil doesn’t say something—in fact, Andrew is pretty sure Neil talks more than he should, sometimes—so Andrew leaves him alone.

Neil wanders around the shop and Andrew determinedly stares down the counters he wipes. He doesn’t look and doesn’t think and then he sees Neil’s hands slide the vase onto the counter before him. This time, it’s full. Andrew’s question dies on his tongue.

Jonquil, mallow, red roses and tulips, honeysuckle. Carnations.

It’s a fucking explosion of everything Neil could possibly say and of course it is; of course, Neil couldn’t just give Andrew one flower, of course he had to go and shove a bunch of love flowers into a vase that is almost spilling over. Of course.

“This is…appalling,” Andrew says, choked. “They don’t even—what kind of arrangement—”

He is deflecting by impulse and then, suddenly, he remembers Bee’s words. He remembers, not everyone speaks the same language you do.

But he learned it. For me.

Andrew spins away from the counter and goes straight to the right aisle. He comes back to find Neil still in the same place. Andrew places his flower in the center of the mess—just one, because he can fucking control himself—and says, “There.”

The ambrosia sits proudly among the mismatched blooms and Neil blinks, once.

“You’re right. Now it’s perfect.”

Neil brushes the petals of the ambrosia and Andrew is ready to die. He is done with waiting and done with making himself not want. No one is around and they’re trading flowers like stupid Victorian women and Andrew has had it.

“Yes or no,” he asks. He leans over the counter and Neil meets his gaze, a flash of surprise crossing his face just as a blush does.

“Yes. I thought the flowers—”

The rest of his sentence is muffled, because Andrew doesn’t have the patience to wait for the rest of the sass coming out of Neil’s mouth.

He finds his expectations exceeded, because Neil’s lips on his are warm and soft. He kisses carefully, like he does everything else, and Andrew wants to get to the point where he makes Neil stop thinking so much. He runs his tongue along Neil’s lower lip just to taste, but the gasp that radiates against his mouth is too sweet not to pursue. Neil is too sweet and he opens his mouth readily, his head tilting just a little to let Andrew in. The moment Andrew feels Neil’s tongue along his teeth he finds himself the victim of an empty mind. There’s no room for anything else but this.

Neil’s hands are hovering at his face. Andrew can feel them, so he holds those wrists and urges him further. He’s been wondering what those hands feel like for weeks, now.

They’re good. Better than good. Neil touches Andrew like the flowers, soft and reverent, and Andrew wants to hate how perfect it feels. He wants to be angry that Neil knows exactly how much to press and where to slide his thumb over Andrew’s cheek, but he can’t. Andrew can only let Neil hold him just right while they kiss, palms warm and gentle like he’s holding the world.

They have to break apart for breath, or so Andrew tells himself. It takes a while to act on the thought. When he does move away, Andrew finds Neil following his mouth for a second and he almost dives right back in. It takes a firm reminder that the shop is closed and it’s late for Andrew to refocus.

His eyes also come into focus just beyond Neil’s shoulder. “It’s raining.”

Neil blinks. He turns and Andrew has a perfect view of his jaw, the flush on his cheeks, the freckles on his face. It’s distracting. “Oh. I guess it’s a good thing I stopped by.”

Andrew realizes something. “You didn’t bring an umbrella.”

“No,” Neil agrees. His hands go to his hoodie and he pulls it open.

The fucking idiot thought it would be smart to fit two people into hoodie. Andrew can’t believe he just kissed Neil.

Maybe his face says it, because that little curved smile is back on Neil’s face. “Why do you think it’s so big?”

“You are—you’re terrible,” Andrew says. He doesn’t sound convincing, so he tries again, but he thinks he’s sputtering. “You’re the worst. You—”

“I said yes,” Neil says, plucking a flower from the bouquet. A green carnation. “And you?”

Even after that, he’s still asking. Andrew finds that the most annoying out of everything and he lets Neil know. He pulls him into another kiss and waits until Neil is holding him to move back. Andrew keeps his hands on Neil’s wrists to hold them in place and Neil smiles a little. His fingers brush against Andrew’s face absently.

Andrew picks out another carnation—which takes a while, because Neil did not plan this bouquet well—and sticks it behind Neil’s ear. “Yes.”

He finds another flower and sticks it behind the other ear. He rummages again and Neil laughs. The sound is enough to stop Andrew, who is tempted to make it happen again. Neil leans on the counter, his head in his hands.

“Are you making me a crown?”

Andrew sucks in a breath. “Forget it. You’ve got a big head already.”

 Neil laughs when Andrew stomps to the back. He follows a few steps behind, the flowers on either side of his face like little parentheses enclosing his glow. He flips his hood up and holds his arms out. “Yes?”

“Yes.”

They both end up with rain-splattered shirts, but Andrew doesn’t care. He has flowers at home, and Neil’s crown isn’t finished, yet.

Chapter Text

“Shit,” Aaron mutters. He watches the slightly larger figure coming up the stairs.

He knew, logically, that he would have a roommate. He still doesn’t like it.

The stranger is quiet. He doesn’t say hello or make eye contact. He only makes two trips up the stairs and Aaron wonders what the hell his room looks like. They are situated across from each other, separated by a tiny living and dining area. They share a bathroom and a kitchen, too.

They share a lot of space. Aaron had hoped he’d be one of the people that wouldn’t have a roommate—a last-minute room assignment—but he has no such luck.

“I’m Aaron,” he grudgingly says, when his roommate starts pulling cheap sheets onto his bed.

The guy looks back at him. He has scars on his face, but his eyes are bright. “Neil.”

It’s all they say for the first three days.


Day four, Katelyn comes over.

“Do you have a roommate?” she asks. She’s carrying the other half of their takeout haul.

Aaron shrugs. “He’s quiet. I don’t know if he’s left, since we moved in.”

Katelyn frowns. She makes a small huh and then Aaron can’t stop her, because she’s already at Neil’s door. She knocks before Aaron can say anything.

He half expects the door to stay shut, but then Neil opens it with a guarded expression. When he sees Katelyn, something complicated twists his features. Aaron feels his hand curl on the back of his chair. Katelyn beams like nothing is wrong.

“Hi. I’m Katelyn. I thought I’d introduce myself—my boyfriend wasn’t about to do it.”

“Oh,” Neil says. He seems nervous, or something like it. There’s no fear in the way he holds himself, but Andrew can see something else. Tension of some sort.

“Would you like to have lunch with us? We ordered way too much?”

Neil is rapidly assessing Katelyn like she has three heads. Aaron wants to protest, but he holds back. The peculiar way Neil is acting suddenly strikes him as familiar and Aaron can’t talk. He can only see his brother and the way he’d been so suspicious of everything.

He wonders why Andrew is angry, where Neil is bewildered. He wonders if it matters.

“Come on. It’s getting cold,” Aaron hears himself saying. He unpacks the bags like he’s not going to wait, but he knows he would.

He blames Katelyn for making him decent.


“No, that’s not it,” Neil says. He reaches over to take Aaron’s notebook and corrects the spelling. “Just remember that—”

“I got it,” Aaron sighs. He’s more irritated with himself than Neil.

Well. He is kind of irritated by Neil, who seems to pick up languages like some guys pick up girls.

They’re studying in the library, for once. The study rooms on the second floor are mostly empty since it’s the beginning of the semester and Neil likes a change of scenery. Aaron thinks he probably likes the view the most, since the windows offer a view of the green campus.

Someone taps on the glass door and Aaron turns to look, surprised. The timer he set hasn’t gone off, so they still have time in the room.

It’s Nicky.

Aaron sighs again. Neil looks between them with a vaguely curious expression. “My cousin,” Aaron explains. He flips Nicky off through the glass and watches his cousin laugh. Neil is still staring.

Hm. Nicky is gay, but Nicky has Erik. He may talk about the particulars of kissing other guys, but Aaron has never been sure that Nicky’s serious.

I guess I find out today.

Nicky opens the door and comes in. He has some sort of iced coffee in one hand and a stack of books in the other. He drops into a leather chair unceremoniously. “Who’s this?”

“Neil,” Aaron says. He gestured vaguely. “This is my cousin, Nicky.”

Nicky leans over the table. His chin rests in his hand as he scrutinizes Neil. It only takes half a minute for Nicky to coo, his eyes bright and his dimples showing on either side of his smile. “Freckles! How cute.”

Aaron watches Neil unwind a little. One of his hands makes it halfway to the scar on his left cheek, but he forcibly redirects it to the table. “Thanks?”

Aaron snorts. He watches Nicky talk at Neil for a few more minutes and decides Neil is either oblivious or uninterested. He’s leaning toward oblivious.

“Come on. What about this one?”

“Wrong,” Neil and Nicky say in unison. Aaron silently fumes and decides maybe he’s not interested in seeing where this leads.

They’re enough to deal with alone. Together, Aaron doesn’t want to deal with them at all.


He hears the knock on the door and goes to answer it. He is not nervous. This is Katelyn.

Aaron opens the door and instead of her face, the first thing he sees is Neil. Neil, with a bloody nose.

“What the fuck?”

“Help me,” Katelyn says. She’s a little sharp, but Aaron isn’t hurt by it. Neil is bleeding.

Aaron lets them in and goes to the kitchen for a paper towel. “What the fuck happened?”

He’s never seen Neil touch someone else, much less fight them. The closest he ever comes is letting Nicky sit shoulder-to-shoulder, but Nicky doesn’t count. He’s different.

Katelyn goes to direct Neil’s head down but he’s already doing it. He’s also sticking his fingers into his nose to pinch whatever blood vessel or vein has burst. Aaron doesn’t like that he knows how to do it. Neil should know more about languages than he does attending to bloody noses.

“Some assholes on their way to or from a party,” Katelyn says. She sounds bloodthirsty. “I was heading over here and they were trying to get my attention. Neil came over to walk with me.”

A little pit of dread and guilt starts burying itself into Aaron’s stomach. Katelyn notices, because she draws back her anger just a little and presses a hand to his shoulder. “I could have handled it. It’s not like there are usually drunk guys roaming campus at six o’clock, most days. I’m pretty sure campus police picked them up while we came up the stairs.”

Neil says something muffled and Katelyn chastises him for talking. Aaron still feels the knot of guilt twisting in his stomach and then Neil looks up, exasperated.

“We both know you’re too short to punch anyone in the knees, much less the face.”

Aaron chokes on his incredulous scoff. “Whatever, smartass. You’re barely taller than me.”

“But enough,” Neil says. He smirks.

Aaron feels a little bit like a jerk for making Neil feel like he has to comfort him. After all, Neil is the idiot holding a bloody paper towel to his nose. Aaron scraps his dinner date plans and suggests pizza, because it’s one of the few things Neil seems to visibly enjoy. Katelyn’s smile says she approves.

Later, when Neil is heading into the shower, Aaron stops him.

“Thanks.”

“Was that painful?”

“Shut up. I’m not coming in to help if I hear you pass out and hit the floor,” Aaron replies. Neil just smiles a little and disappears.

Maybe it’s not that bad, having a roommate.


Neil likes most of Aaron’s friends. It was only a matter of time before their worlds collided.

Kevin seems to get along with people as well as he possibly can. Nicky gets along with everyone. Seth and Allison are harder sells, but Renee came with Allison and she’s good at defusing situations. Dan and Matt are the easiest and Aaron seems to like Matt.

It’s perfect.

Except Nicky asks, “Where’s Andrew? I thought you asked him to come.”

“No,” Aaron says.

Neil has heard the name in passing. He thinks it’s Aaron’s brother. He’s always wondered about the absent Andrew, but he’s never felt privileged enough to ask the way Nicky does.

“You didn’t invite him?” Neil asks.

Aaron pauses. The way he looks at Neil is curious—like Neil has the power to say or do something to push Aaron away. Like that would ever happen.

Like Aaron is the weird one. That’s definitely not true.

“He was in a bad mood this morning,” Aaron say slowly.

Nicky snorts. “Andrew is a bad mood. Come on—”

“I just—” Aaron starts, but he flushes a little and looks down at the cup in his hand. Neil gives Nicky a long look and Nicky turns to give them as much privacy as he can. When he isn’t looking, Aaron sighs. He mutters, “I just…don’t want to deal with it if he decides to kill someone.”

Neil shrugs. “Can’t be that bad.”

Aaron looks at him with mixed pity and disbelief.

“Anyway, I’m always willing to punch a bitch,” Neil reminds him.

Aaron snorts into his drink. “Yeah, you are.”


“You what?”

“I invited my roommate,” Aaron says. He doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t even respond to Andrew’s stare. Andrew might be angry about it, but he knows Aaron has a healthy amount of fear. He just doesn’t think he needs to be afraid.

Seth frowns. “Why didn’t you tell me? If N—”

“Because it was last minute,” Aaron says. He sends Seth a pointed look.

Seth has met Aaron’s roommate. Andrew has not.

In fact, now that he considers it, everyone has met Aaron’s roommate. It’s just Andrew that hasn’t, because he couldn’t care less.

Andrew is definitely interested, though. It doesn’t seem right for everyone to be somehow charmed by this stranger. This outsider.

And Neil has managed to charm them all.


Andrew isn’t waiting or watching, which is why when he sees the stranger, he thinks maybe he forgot mixing meds and alcohol again.

He’s hard to miss. Bright blue eyes and red-brown hair that curls around his ears.

He has freckles.

Andrew should be angry that now is when he sees this, but then he watches Aaron walk up to the stranger and say something in his ear.

And then the stranger tilts his head toward Aaron, a lazy half-smirk wicked on his lips, and Andrew grips his plastic cup so tightly he hears it crack.

Nicky chooses this moment to scream, “Neil!”

So, this is the roommate. Andrew slides his cup onto an available surface and crosses his arms. He leans against the wall behind him and waits.

Aaron eventually brings Neil over, though he looks as unwilling as a man sending his brother to be executed. “Hey. This is my roommate—”

“Neil. I can’t believe he’s real,” Andrew says. “Is he real? Are we sure you’re not all sharing a hallucination?”

“You would be, too,” Neil says. And then, because he apparently has no sense of self-preservation, “You don’t seem like the daydreaming type. Unless the daydream is about the color black.”

Aaron chokes on his drink. He looks like he’s ready to throw Neil out the window to save his life. Andrew wishes he would; they’re on the third floor.

He thinks Neil would probably survive. He looks stubborn enough.

Andrew hums in interest. He looks over the scars on Neil’s face and the fine lines poking out from under the collar of his soft sweatshirt. It looks very soft. “What do you daydream about? Something boring, I’m sure. Scar cream?”

Aaron’s expressions shifts. That’s anger, clear and burning. Andrew is only a little surprised. He’s seen the way Nicky talks about Neil, like he’s the sun in the sky. It follows that they would be protective of their stray. Aaron opens his mouth to say something, but Neil just shrugs and says, “Not scar cream.”

Andrew doesn’t have a cup in hand to crush. He doesn’t have an outlet for the influx of sudden interest he feels, or the overwhelming desire to do…something, to Neil’s face. He’s not sure if he wants to punch Neil or run his fingers over that smart mouth.

“Look. Kevin’s trying to get your attention,” Aaron says. He sounds strangled when he pushes Neil away. Neil just looks amused and follows the shove, unbothered. Once he’s gone, Aaron stares at Andrew.

It is at this moment that Andrew knows Aaron sees something. Knows something he shouldn’t. Something even Andrew isn’t entirely on board with, yet.

“Don’t,” Aaron says. He’s—”

“What? Fragile?” Andrew asks, mocking. “Too late.”

Andrew sticks to the wall for the rest of the night, but his eyes follow the strange redhead around the room.


Neil notices Andrew watching him. After one week of it, he’s starting to wonder what the problem is.

“I don’t think he likes me,” Neil muses. Aaron frowns and pauses with his glass against his lips.

“He doesn’t like anyone. Why do you care?”

“He’s so cute when he’s jealous, isn’t he?” Katelyn smirks and Aaron sputters. Neil looks between them.

“What?”

Katelyn drags Aaron to the bar and Neil sits in the corner. He watches Nicky bouncing up and down on the dance floor and absently counts all the faces he recognizes in the club. It’s only the seventh time he’s been to Eden’s Twilight, but he already knows most of the bouncers by name. The one coming through the back door to take the next shift is unfamiliar. Neil decides he needs air and a cigarette and makes his way to the front, where James is talking to the newcomer.

“Hey, Neil,” James says. He smiles a little—he’s friendly, and he usually says hello to the group when they come to the club. “How’s your night going?”

“All right.”

The stranger’s eyes narrow. He’s a big guy with a biker jacket and he looks at Neil with familiar suspicion. Neil exchanges a look with James.

“This is Eddie,” James says, gesturing to the other man. “He’s new.”

“I need to see your ID, before you go back in,” Eddie says immediately. Neil fights a smile.

This happened with all the bouncers. Nicky always teased Neil about it, too. Your face is too pretty, Nicky said, of course they’re going to card you. Neil still doesn’t know why Nicky chose to joke about him being pretty, but he’s aware he looks young.

Neil pulls his ID out from his back pocket and passes it over. James lingers in the doorway, probably to intervene if needed, but Neil waves him away.

Eddie makes a surprised noise. “Huh. Out of state? I’m actually passing through Baltimore on a ride, soon.”

“Are you?”

“Yeah,” Eddie replies. The stiffness is gone. He leans against the railing and talks about bike rides cross-country and the scenery he enjoys. For the next half-hour, Neil forgets to keep track of time. He likes that Eddie doesn’t ask why Neil isn’t smoking his cigarette. It burns in his hand and the smoke curls around him like a cat’s tail.

It’s only when Neil glances up and sees Andrew inside that he realizes he’s been out for a long time.

Also, Andrew is staring.

“Friend of yours?” Eddie asks.

“I mean, he’s my friend’s twin brother. I think he might hate me.”

Eddie looks down at Neil. For a second, his face is entirely surprised, and then he laughs. He tilts his head back and then shakes it like Neil has said something monumentally hilarious. Neil frowns a little and squashes his cigarette before picking it off the sidewalk and throwing it into a nearby trashcan.

“Watch out for yourself,” Eddie says, still with the sound of humor in his voice. Neil waves absentmindedly and goes back to his table. Andrew watches him the entire time.

“He’s new,” Andrew says, when Neil slides a chair out.

“Yeah.”

Andrew’s eyes narrow. “We don’t know him.”

“That’s what new means.”

Neil watches Andrew exhale, a forced breath that escapes his nose. He lifts a glass from the table and swirls it gently. “No one’s going to help you if you get in trouble. They’re all busy or drunk.”

“You’re not,” Neil says. He’s intrigued by Andrew’s sudden caution. He has the sneaking feeling it has something to do with the way Andrew doesn’t let people touch him and the way he always stays a step ahead of the people around them.

It’s none of his business, of course. It’s not like he’s…

…what?

Neil blinks. He’s not sure what he’s thinking.

“I’m not going to save you,” Andrew says, finally tipping the glass. “And you couldn’t save me if you tried.”


Neil has no clue why Aaron keeps bringing him to parties.

That’s a lie. He knows why. Their names are Kevin and Nicky, and they both get stupid drunk. Aaron just doesn’t want to spend his time being responsible, and Neil doesn’t drink.

The thing is, Kevin and Nicky are predictable. They are in control of their faculties for seventy-five percent of the party, and the last twenty-five percent happen an hour before they attempt to crawl home. So, for three-quarters of the night, Neil just does his best to stay out of the way and try to combat his slowly growing headache.

Tonight, Neil finds himself in a bedroom. He sits by the window and considers a cigarette, but then he hears footsteps.

Andrew.

He doesn’t seem to notice Neil at first. It’s a big bedroom and Neil is in the dark corner. Andrew doesn’t see him and then, he’s turning back to the door because someone else is coming. Neil wonders how the hell his escape ended up being a hot spot.

“You’re in my room,” the newcomer says. He’s a tall guy with a shit-eating grin and Neil can almost smell the alcohol from across the room.

Andrew answers flatly. “This is your room?”

The guy laughs. Neil has the sneaking, uncomfortable feeling he sometimes gets around Katelyn and Aaron—but there’s a current of uneasiness to it. For one, the stranger is drunk.

Also, Neil highly doubts Andrew likes anyone in any way, much less for what the drunk guy seems to expect. And at a party.

The guy is laughing and saying something else Neil almost doesn’t hear. He closes the door behind him and leans on it, still laughing. Neil has the sudden realization that he should probably say something, before he ends up in an even more awkward situation, but—

—but, he sees the way Andrew shifts and the line of tension that appears in his body.

The drunk guy is moving again and Neil leaves the bed without thinking. He sidesteps Andrew, keeping an invisible bubble intact, and knees the drunk guy in the crotch with more force than strictly necessary. He watches the guy collapse onto the floor, groaning.

It seems like a solid surface was all he needed. The guy slurs a few words and then he’s open-mouthed and out cold. Gross, Neil thinks. He steps over the guy and opens the door.

“So much for a smoke,” Neil mutters. He takes a second to glance back at Andrew and then grabs the stranger’s ankles and drags him out with effort. Andrew stands frozen by the door.

Neil shoves the drunk guy into the bathroom next to the bedroom and then looks back at Andrew. He wonders if he should say something, but he settles for a nod and closes the door.

He stays there for the rest of the night.


Neil is on a nighttime run when he passes Seth’s dorm. Aaron talked about finding two other people to dorm with the next year, and Seth is one of them. Neil doesn’t hate the idea. Seth is the closest thing to a dysfunctional brother Neil has.

Dysfunctional, because there are three drunk guys outside the dorm—one of whom is Seth—and they’re all arguing. Loudly.

Neil distantly remembers that Andrew lives in the same building. He wonders if Andrew is watching, smoking with a relaxed arm hanging out the edge of the window.

That’s an intruding thought. Neil forces his attention on Seth and slows to a jog, redirecting his feet toward the distant sidewalk.

It isn’t until someone punches Seth that he breaks into a sprint.

Neil has fought enough to know his strengths and weaknesses. He knows he’s small, which means momentum and speed are his assets. He’s also good with knives, but that’s not something he wants to prove on a college campus. Neil manages to kick the back of the guy’s leg, right at the knee. He hears a pained scream at around the same time he hears an angry roar. Someone else is coming at him. Neil judges distance and time like he breathes; he rolls with the punch and out of the way, braces himself against the ground, and rights himself. It’s a natural move for him to slam his fist into the jaw waiting for him and then he ducks under a swinging arm.

He's not thinking about anything but living and keeping Seth alive. It’s not a good mindset to have when he’s fighting two drunk morons on a Saturday night, but it’s the one he has.

Neil notices the guy he’s fighting back off. Apparently, two minutes is enough. The drunk guys make slurred threats and manage to limp off. Neil hopes he twisted their ankles properly.

“What’re you doing here?” Seth asks. He bit his lip, but it seems like he’s fine. Neil wonders if a bruise is already forming on his shoulder. It was a bad punch from a drunk frat boy.

Neil knows this particular brand of drunk. Seth is Allison-drunk, which means he’s going through another self-pitying swing. He and Allison haven’t been together for a while, which anyone could have seen coming. They were good, but they were never really a permanent fixture. The problem is that Seth’s sense of self-worth is shit and thinking about Allison just makes him think about other things.

“Come on,” Neil sighs. He fishes around for Seth’s keys in his pocket and is thankful they’re there.

When he unlocks the right door, he finds Andrew.

Andrew, in shorts and no shirt, sitting on a kitchen counter and eating a pretzel. He watches Neil like a cat, unblinking and cool.

“Um.”

It’s not the best opener.

“I don’t care,” Andrew says, but he does watch Neil pull Seth through. Neil wonders if he should test him by letting Seth slip, but something tells him Andrew would let it happen just to prove a point.

Neil shifts his weight. His shoulder burns. “Which room?”

Andrew points with his bitten pretzel. Neil nods and drags Seth off.

It takes him a few minutes to settle everything and get Seth to bed, but Neil is just as sweaty as if he finished his run. He closes the door behind him and rummages in the kitchen for a glass. Andrew is still on the counter, rolling his half-eaten pretzel in cinnamon and honey. Neil ignores him and fills the glass before taking it to Seth. He leaves it close to the bed, but far enough to avoid being smacked off by Seth’s drunken thrashing.

After everything, Neil needs a drink and sleep. He’s tired, especially since midterms are about to hit with full force. Neil makes it into the kitchen one last time for a glass of water, this time for himself. Andrew sits on the counter with cinnamon and sugar dotted on the corner of his mouth.

Neil isn’t sure why he notices that.

The lights are too bright in the kitchen and things feel unreal. Neil drinks his water and finds himself tiredly staring at the front door.

“Try.”

Neil blinks. He looks at Andrew and finds the pretzel being held out to him. “I’m not going to eat your food.”

“I offered.”

“I barely see you eat. Do you even eat? You shouldn’t have muscle if you’re not eating protein. No.” Neil knows he’s being stubborn and he’s giving Andrew way too much shit. He can’t seem to keep his mouth shut, with Andrew. It’s a bad habit that’s blown up.

Wait, he said Andrew had muscles.

Andrew shoves the rest of his pretzel into his mouth with a glare. He beckons and the gesture is familiar—Neil has seen him do it to Kevin a few times. Maybe Aaron, too. No one questions when Andrew does this.

Neil would question, but he’s tired and curious. He does wait a beat too long, though, just for the fun of it. Andrew looks two seconds from either rolling his eyes or grabbing one of the knives by the sink. Neil walks up to Andrew and finds himself in the unusual position of being stuck between someone’s thighs.

Andrew’s.

He wants to say something and doesn’t know what. Andrew leans closer and Neil finds his vision filled with far too much Andrew. He tries to distract himself with details—the brown and green of Andrew’s eyes, or the way his eyelashes fan over his cheeks—but they make things worse.

“You piss me off,” Andrew says.

Neil tries not to smile. He’s helpless to stop it; it feels lopsided but nice. “I knew you hated me.”

“I do.”

“Why am I so close, then?”

“Because I want to kiss you.”

Oh.

Andrew watches him with his patented exasperation and Neil isn’t sure what to say. Andrew’s mouth flattens into a line. “Yes or no?”

There’s a question? A choice? Neil opens his mouth and what comes out is, “Yes.”

Andrew tastes like cinnamon and honey. The kiss is sticky; Neil feels sugar against his lips and he reflexively licks at it, but then he realizes Andrew’s mouth is on his and that—

that feels very good.

He likes the way Andrew’s breath hitches. The way thumbs dig into his waist, hands curled around his hips. He likes that Andrew opens his mouth and kisses Neil deeper, his mouth hot and sweet.

There’s a lot happening and Neil just wants to hold Andrew there forever, but he isn’t sure he can even hold, so his hands just hover in the air. Andrew makes an impatient noise that vibrates between them and Neil feels his hands directed to Andrew’s shoulders. It feels good to have something concrete, a reminder that this is real. Neil is slow when he moves his hands along Andrew’s shoulders, finding the small patch of skin between his shirt and neck.

Andrew pulls back for a second and Neil can’t breathe properly. “You smell.”

“I just ran,” Neil says. He can feel the smile fighting its way back.

“Your shirt is gross. You’re sweaty—”

“You still kissed me,” Neil says, his laugh barely there.

Andrew, the fucking asshole, looks him dead in the eye. “You still tried the pretzel.”

“I’d like to try more,” Neil says. His smile grows and Andrew starts to stare again. It’s not hate, Neil thinks—it’s something else. Something far more precious. Something he won’t be able to forget, now that he’s seen it.

Andrew mutters something like a curse, but he pulls Neil in with a hand on his neck. Neil is glad. He’s glad he went for a run, glad he ran into Seth—he’s glad for even knowing Andrew in the first place.

He’s glad he took a chance on having a roommate.

Chapter Text

The first time he sees Neil is in his speech class.

Andrew is busy ignoring the world when his eyes pass over an unfamiliar face. The stranger has bright auburn hair and freckles; he has scars on his face, but even from the side Andrew can see his feathery eyelashes. He looks interesting.

He also isn’t paying attention.

For the entire class, Neil ignores the professor. He sits one row in front of the back, diagonal from Andrew. He’s writing in his notebook, but Andrew can see it’s not English. It doesn’t look like German, either. Andrew rests his chin in his palm and stares; he follows the path of Neil’s hand and the way it makes unfamiliar words. Neil doesn’t write sentences or paragraphs; it seems almost like a vocabulary list. There are three words on one line, then ten, then five. The groups vary and Andrew wonders what they mean.

An hour later, he realizes he spent the entire class staring.


Their third week of class, Andrew sees the boyfriend for the first time. He looks like an asshole—perpetually displeased expression, rough manner, frat boy haircut. He’s much taller than Neil and seems to loom over his shoulder.

Andrew has a moment of curiosity at the appearance of the boyfriend. Not that he’d wondered about Neil—it’s only that the guy doesn’t seem to fit. They don’t seem to fit.

But Andrew has seen worse couples. None that he was interested in, though.

“I’m not waiting for your ass,” the boyfriend says. Andrew observes him with fleeting interest. He wonders why the quiet Neil would be with someone like this.

He thinks of the scars on Neil’s face.

None of your business.

Neil shrugs. “I don’t expect you to.”

“You know they’d kill me if I showed up without you.”

“I can hear their voices. ‘Seth, where’s Neil’?”

Seth. It sounds like a jerk name. Andrew tears his gaze away and forces it onto the book under his hand. He really doesn’t care about Neil and his boyfriend.

He doesn’t.


Of course, they’re doing some dumb-as-shit exercise that requires partners. Of course, Andrew came late to class.

Of course, Neil was the leftover and the only person without a partner when Andrew showed up.

“I’m Neil.”

“I know.”

Fuck.

Neil pauses with his pen over his notebook. Andrew can see faint grooves from his foreign-language exercises. The rest of the room is lively. People are talking and laughing. Meanwhile, Andrew wishes he could leave.

“And you, uh—”

“Andrew,” he says. He tries to sound less like he’s chewing a metal bar, but it doesn’t quite work. “What are we supposed to be doing?”

“Fake interviews.” Neil’s lip quirks a little. A sarcastic-as-shit smirk.

Andrew hates that he’s so interested in it.

He resists the urge to roll his eyes, but they still slide a little. “So? What’s your major?”

Neil leans back in his chair. He looks different, head-on. His eyes are bright, red hair sticking up in awkward places, and Andrew is faintly reminded of a fox. He thinks Neil is probably just as troublesome.

“Undecided. Maybe something with languages,” Neil says. “What about you? Drama?”

Andrew takes exactly three seconds to let the comment sink in. He inhales slowly. Neil’s expression is innocent, but his blue eyes are clear and captivated.

Captivating.

Andrew does not need this. Any of this. He doesn’t need to be wondering what language is in Neil’s notebook or whether his lips taste as sweet as the strawberry color they are. He certainly doesn’t need to be interested in someone with a boyfriend.

Someone who doesn’t seem to know better.

“Undecided,” Andrew lies. He crosses his legs and reflexively reaches for his pocket—for his cigarettes—before a disgusted noise leaves his lips. He can’t smoke in class.

Another little smile curls Neil’s lips and Andrew is half-tempted to punch it off. Neil asks, “Do you have siblings?”

“Yeah. A good twin.”

“I believe you. What’s his name?”

“Asshole.”

Neil laughs. He laughs and he’s sitting backward on his chair. Andrew doesn’t know when that happened, but he notices it and he can’t stop noticing it. He can’t stop noticing things about Neil.

The professor suddenly calls time and Andrew realizes he never asked questions. He’s making up believable lies about Neil—that he likes tomato, wants to dance, doesn’t have a sense of fashion or more than eight pairs of underwear—but the professor never calls on them.

He leaves class pissed off, and his mood only worsens when he sees Seth and Neil in the hallway.


Another week passes and then Neil comes into class with a brilliant bruise on his cheek. He doesn’t seem different at first, but Andrew notices the way he moves slowly and wears a hoodie that’s too large.

He shouldn’t care. He shouldn’t be thinking about it, but he can’t help it. Andrew watches Neil and looks at the empty seat next to him.

He does something unbelievably stupid.

He tells himself as much when he quietly vaults over the table to sit next to Neil. He doesn’t make eye contact and crosses his arms. He leans back in his chair and taps his arm with an irritated finger. All he wants is a cigarette.

He can feel Neil looking at him.

He waits, but Neil doesn’t say anything. He just looks. Andrew fights back the rush of anger he feels and glances at Neil. “They were sucking face last class,” he says, gesturing with his head at the couple behind them. A lie.

Neil nods once. He moves to rest his chin on his palm and there—there’s a wince. A flash of pain.

“Didn’t realize you were on the football team,” Andrew says. Why does he say anything?

There’s a pause. Neil blinks slowly, like his body is running half-speed. “I’m not.”

Andrew doesn’t add to that comment. He doesn’t need to.

Later, Seth waits at the door. Andrew thinks he could say something, but he doesn’t. He follows Neil out and sees Seth’s position change when he sees Andrew. He meets Andrew’s gaze for a second and his guard is immediately up.

“Who’s the fucking midget?”

Neil looks over his shoulder. Andrew can see the faint surprise there, like he didn’t realize he was followed. Neil opens his mouth, but Seth’s eyes narrow. Something clicks into place. “Stay the fuck away,” Seth says.

“What—” Neil starts, but Seth holds up his hand.

“We’re leaving. Now.”

Andrew shouldn’t care. He shouldn’t. But he watches them go, anyway.


He’s not paying attention until the moment Aaron utters the name.

“—is Seth. I mean, they’re always a mess, but whatever.”

“Seth,” Andrew echoes. He doesn’t even realize he says it until it’s out in the open. Aaron looks up from where he’s having dinner with Katelyn and studying.

Aaron pauses. “Yeah. Guy in one of my classes.”

“Does he look like an asshole?” Andrew asks conversationally. He looks at the cigarette in his fingers and wonders if pressing it to his arm would help shut him the fuck up.

Katelyn snorts. “I guess. I have no clue how Allison hasn’t given him a makeover, yet. His girlfriend,” she adds.

“Girlfriend? Isn’t that generous? They’re so on and off I’m surprised they haven’t combusted yet. You could fry a lightbulb with their relationship.”

Girlfriend, Andrew thinks. He wonders if the black eye had anything to do with her. With Seth. He wonders why the hell he’s wondering. The conversation continues without him, but Andrew doesn’t care. At least, he doesn’t until Aaron talks again.

“Why?”

Andrew shrugs. “I think he knows this guy in my class. I thought they were dating.”

“Oh, shit,” Katelyn breathes. “That—I mean, he says homophobic shit all the time. Nicky calls him out on it. I didn’t think…I mean, are you sure?”

“I don’t care.”

Lie.


Andrew sees Neil walking ahead of him on his way to class. Neil, and some taller guy Andrew doesn’t recognize.

They seem to be having friendly conversation. Neil has the same half-unguarded look that he does with Seth, but the guy he’s talking to seems massively more approachable.

Andrew takes a second to question Neil’s taste.

This new man is tall, too. He also has dumb spiky hair. His smile seems genuine and he leans against the wall next to Neil while they await the elevator. Andrew is just coming close when he watches the guy raise a finger to the fading bruise on Neil’s face.

It shouldn’t make Andrew suck in a breath, but he does. He does and he hates it.

Andrew makes extra effort to squeak his shoes against the floor as he walks up.

Neil sees him and a surprised expression crosses his face. His tongue darts over his lips and Andrew is very tempted to look at his face. He forces the desire back and waits. Neil says, “Hey. I’m sorry—”

“Why? What did you do?”

Andrew focuses on not looking. Mostly, he watches the elevator number change. He tracks the red light and imagines it flooding the world in a hazy filter. Neil shifts on his feet. “Seth. He was an asshole. He was just—”

This, Andrew doesn’t need to hear.

Doesn’t want to.

“Don’t.”

He says it flatly. He can see Neil recoil and he can see the stranger next to him come alive, like he was waiting for something to happen. The elevator doors open and they step in. Andrew stays close to the doors. Neil’s hand is tight on his backpack and Andrew can see the scars stand out, white against his warm skin.

“I’ll come by before you get out,” the stranger murmurs. Neil nods distractedly.

“Thanks, Matt.”

Andrew knows that name.

He knows the name and knows the face, now. Things fit together like a stiff puzzle. He remembers Danielle Wilds—one of Renee’s friends—and he remembers her boyfriend, Matt.

Neil sure knows how to fucking choose them.

Andrew does not stomp to class. He walks at a measured pace and tries not to think about Neil’s love life. He tries not to think about how stupid it is to date a guy like Seth, and how bad of an idea it is to love a guy like Matt. How Neil has managed to give his heart away to people that are inevitably going to bruise it. He tries not to think about how Neil smirked at him that day in class, or that he was writing in another language.

He tries not to think that he wants to know more.


They have a short project that has to be done in pairs. Andrew gets Neil, again.

“I have chemistry with Aaron.”

Andrew almost disappears to the bathroom right then and there.

Neil continues, “It’s a big lecture hall. I didn’t realize until recently. He’s dating Katelyn, isn’t he? I have friends who know her.”

“I don’t care,” Andrew says. He wants to say, I want to know who. He doesn’t want to say it.

“What do you care about? Cigarettes, black,” Neil lists. He trails off at the end, expectant.

Andrew makes the mistake of looking. He looks at Neil and notices there are no bruises. No signs of a bad mood or silence. He wonders what’s happening with Neil and tells himself he doesn’t care.

“Nothing.”

The response isn’t what he expects. Neil blinks and his mouth his half-open. And—

—he blushes.

This is stupid. It is so stupid that Andrew leans forward to try and see whether there’s something he’s missing. Neil laughs; it’s a half-noise that comes out more like air escaping a tire. “Oh. Is that it?”

Andrew frowns. “Shut up and work.”

Neil ducks his head, but Andrew can’t get the image out of his head. Neil blushing and his eyes wide. What the fuck was it about nothing that got to him? Andrew wants to know so badly he hates it. He doesn’t like this interest he has in Neil. He is better than caring or wanting to know someone as obviously unstable as Neil.

He can only handle himself. He’s not looking for strays.

Class wears on and then Neil chews on his bottom lip. It’s distracting and then he opens his mouth and asks, “What kind of knives?”

His pencil is pointed to Andrew’s black armbands. Andrew’s fingers curl around the table reflexively and he has to remind himself to answer. He looks at Neil and a few dozen questions come to mind.

How did he know? Why does he care?

Why does Andrew care?

“The kind that stab people.”

There’s that smile. That damned smile is on Neil’s mouth and Andrew can’t look away. It feels like years since he’s seen it and he hates how much he wants to see it again. It makes the freckles on his face scatter like stardust.

“That’s a good answer.”

“That’s a good response,” Andrew shoots back. He’s flirting. He is flirting and he is flirting with possibly the worst or best decision he could ever make.

He’s leaning toward worst.

Neil’s lip is pulled under his teeth again. Andrew is going a little crazy. He thinks Neil doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that’s even more infuriating. Neil asks, quieter, “Want to play a game?”

Andrew stares at him. He should say no. He should probably leave. He should do any number of things, but he can’t because Neil is talking again.

“It’ll be like the interview. I ask, then you ask. Only the truth. Fair.”

“It’s not fair. You asked all the questions last time.”

Neil’s smile flickers. Andrew realizes his mistake too late. “Okay. So, you start, and you get extra.”

Andrew should say no.

Instead, he asks, “Why gray? Did you wash all your shirts with your jeans?”

Neil blinks. He looks down at himself—at his horribly worn jeans and grey shirt. It looks like it’s the first time he’s noticed his own outfit. “I…like gray.”

“You look dead in it,” Andrew says. He doesn’t miss the sarcastic twist to Neil’s smile. “How do you know Matt?”

“I don’t remember,” Neil says. He catches Andrew’s skeptical glare and shrugs. “I don’t. I just do—him and his girlfriend, Dan. Allison, too. Renee—but Renee—”

“You know Renee?”

Neil pauses. There’s a wary look on his face. “Yes. You have one more question.”

Andrew doesn’t argue. He tries to imagine what the best thing to ask would be. He knows he should ask about Seth. “Where’s Seth been, lately?”

Neil doesn’t react the way Andrew thought he would. There’s no flinch. No defensive or angry response. No pain or shock.

“He’s still around. He just sucks at Spanish. He changed his class schedule so we’d be in it together, so now he isn’t around when I’m on my way to class.”

Neil looks curious about the question. Andrew feels…

…disappointed? Relieved?

He has no fucking clue.

Andrew pulls back and turns his attention to his notebook. He can feel Neil watch him for a good few minutes.

“No more?” Neil asks. He asks and Andrew slides him a suspicious glance.

There’s a lot about Neil that doesn’t add up.

“No,” Andrew says.

At least, for now.


He’s at a party and he sees Neil.

 Normally, Andrew only comes to parties with Aaron. He comes mostly to let the noise drown out the world. He came for the same reason this time—except his plans drastically change when he sees Neil wandering in the kitchen.

The dorm is crowded. Andrew does not enjoy being close to people; he only likes the crowd when he can get through it. He still grits his teeth and wades through the thick of it. He makes his way to the redhead leaning against the fridge.

“No drink,” Andrew says, when he’s close enough.

Neil shrugs. He takes stock of the drink in Andrew’s left hand. “No cigarette.”

“Not yet.”

They stand in the corner for a few moments. Andrew wonders what he thought he was doing when he walked over. He has no plan; there’s nothing he has to say to Neil. Nothing he wants to say.

He itches for smoke. Andrew blames Neil, so he passes his cup over. Neil doesn’t say anything and Andrew makes his way to a nearby door, cigarette in hand.

He’s only outside for two minutes before some moron decides they want to lose their life by bothering him.

“Oh, hey. I know you,” the guy says. He’s laughing and drunk. Andrew does his best to ignore him. Most times, he finds drunk people at parties either stumble away or are swept away be friends looking for them.

He has no such luck today. The drunk guy continues to talk—Andrew isn’t paying attention; he doesn’t care—and then he walks closer. Andrew’s attention shifts drastically. He doesn’t expect to have to do anything. He doesn’t imagine he’ll have to fight the guy; he just seems drunk. But Andrew is ready for anything.

Well, almost.

He’s not ready when Neil pops up next to him. He didn’t even notice Neil, which can’t be good. And of course, Neil has to open his mouth like the smartass he is and say, “Don’t you have somewhere to be? Other than a holding cell, I mean.”

The change is remarkable. Andrew is reminded once again that people aren’t usually dangerous until you piss them off—and then, they’re only half-dangerous. The drunk guy immediately starts yelling about freshman and pricks and then he comes too close for comfort.

Andrew is ready to move. He waits to move—he has been waiting for most of the argument.

Neil beats him to it.

There is no time to be impressed that Neil can so easily threaten someone a foot taller than him. There is no time to wonder where the hell Neil picked up a kitchen knife.

Actually, there is no time at all. Andrew feels like he’s staring at a frozen image, Neil threatening a drunk guy with a reverse grip on a serrated blade.

It should not be as attractive as Andrew thinks it is.

“You’re drunk. You should go inside,” Neil says.

“Yeah—yeah,” the guy hiccups. “I…drunk. Should go inside.”

The guy ambles away but Neil still holds the knife ready until the door closes again. Andrew realizes his cigarette has burned to nothing. He drops it and steps on it, but he barely looks.

When he finally gets his tongue unstuck from the roof of his mouth, Andrew says, “You did not just fucking Jedi-trick that drunk guy.”

“I—what?”

Andrew stares. Neil looks genuinely confused. “Fuck.”

He’s not just attracted to Neil, he’s attracted to a knife-wielding idiot that knows nothing about pop culture.

“Do you want to leave?” Neil asks. Andrew almost laughs. He could. He just knows Neil would get that dumb grin and Andrew can’t handle any more fuckery for the night.

“Fine.”

“Are you sure?”

There he goes again. “Yes.”

Andrew walks. He walks and knows he barely had half a drink, but he still feels the need to burn it away. Neil is blessedly silent and then they get to Andrew’s car, parked a few blocks down at his dorm. Andrew tosses his keys to Neil—

—and realizes he tossed his keys to Neil.

Neil seems unbothered because of course, he does. Neil doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t know Andrew just gave him something precious and if he did, he’d probably get a dumb look even while he pretended that it was okay.

When Andrew finally climbs in, he notices Neil waiting—not touching anything—and thinks maybe Neil does know.

“Where?”

“Food,” Andrew says. He doesn’t add to that.

He is surprised when Neil pulls up to a diner.

It’s actually one of Andrew’s favorites. He should want to leave—there are waitstaff that know him—but he doesn’t. Maybe he’s still half-drunk or maybe he’s just given up on caring. Andrew slides into a booth and absently starts to fold a napkin.

“Good to see you,” Renee says. Andrew almost snaps his neck when he jerks to look up at her.

Of fucking course.

Renee knowingly slides the menu onto Neil’s side and smiles patiently as she walks away. Neil curiously glances at Andrew and turns the menu between them. He leans across the table and Andrew can see gold strands in his red hair, luminous under the cheap lighting.

Andrew sucks in a breath. “I’ve been here.”

“Oh,” Neil says.

He says it, but he’s smiling a little, and god damn it Andrew should have known.

Neil rests his chin on his crossed arms, his head tilted, and Andrew can’t stop staring. He even tries to look at Neil’s reflection in the window, but that doesn’t work.

Eventually, Renee comes back for the menu and Andrew’s order. Neil still watches Andrew and then asks, “May I ask?”

Who the fuck says may I? “Yes.”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Not gray.” It’s not a lie. Neil seems to know. He also smirks a little and Andrew is hit with the increased desire to wipe it off. “What’s your favorite food?”

“I don’t know. Haven’t had much in my life, except rice and cheap produce.”

It’s more truth than Andrew expected. He pauses. Neil looks back at him with clear eyes. He is aware of what he’s doing. Andrew isn’t sure if that makes it better or worse.

He’s not the kind of person people bare their souls to.

The door swings open behind Neil and Andrew feels an odd rush of emotion. There’s Matt and Dan, with Seth. It’s such a bizarre combination and a terrible coincidence that he can’t look away. He feels like he’s watching a train wreck in slow motion. Neli turns to look, his head lifted from his arms. Andrew readies himself.

Neil just murmurs a vaguely interested hum and then turns back. “What color would you dye your hair?”

Andrew presses his lips together. He tries to find a lie—something hidden—but there’s no interest in Neil’s expression. Either he’s a good liar, or…something.

“Blonde,” Andrew says flatly. “How long did you and Seth—”

He cuts himself off because he expects an interruption. Instead, his sentence just hangs haphazardly in the air. Thankfully, Renee comes with their food, but Neil’s expression of confusion is all-consuming. He has a stupid wrinkle between his eyebrows and his blue eyes swirl with questions.

Andrew is going to have to explain.

He hates this.

“You and Seth,” Andrew emphasizes. He speaks almost in a grimace. “How long were you—”

Thankfully, this is the moment that Neil seems to understand what Andrew is asking. His mouth falls open a little and then he looks faintly scandalized. “No,” Neil says. “No.”

Oh. What?

“Have you met him?” Neil asks. He chokes a little on the question and Andrew recognizes that Neil is somewhere between laughter and horror. “No. No, he’s like…the worst older brother. Well—maybe not the worst. But. He’s the one I’m stuck with. Not that we’re related, because we’re not. Thank God.”

It’s a whole lot at once but Andrew glances over his shoulder and everything does that stupid thing where it makes sense, in retrospect.

Seth nearly biting Andrew’s head off. Katelyn saying Seth was dating someone already, Neil mentioning Seth took a class with him and that’s why they walked together.

Andrew wants to hate the sudden clarity, but he can’t.

“And Matt?”

“What the fuck,” Neil says. It’s a little louder than strictly necessary and Andrew glares. He’s not embarrassed. He’s not. “No. He treats me like his kid, or his dog, maybe. Have I been doing something wrong that no one’s told me about?”

Andrew doesn’t like the little frown on Neil’s face, or the apprehension. He really hates himself for bringing any of this up in the first place.

But he wanted to know so badly, and now he’s making a complete idiot of himself in the middle of a diner at one in the morning.

“Your turn,” Andrew forces out. He shoves pancakes into his mouth and hopes Neil will forget everything by their next class.

“Why do you care?”

Of fucking course. Andrew spears more pancakes and wishes he had something more substantial on his plate. He feels the knee-jerk desire to dig into something substantial. He doesn’t want to budge. Logically, he knows Neil would probably back off if Andrew told him no—

—but this thing is eating him from the inside out and Andrew doesn’t do that. He doesn’t do pining or romance.

“You’re interesting.” It’s a version of the truth. It’s not saying, I’m interested in you, but Andrew doesn’t have to. He can see it on Neil’s face. In the raise of his eyebrows, the pink on his cheeks, and the way his blue eyes dart to his French toast.

“Well, yeah,” Neil mutters. His voice raises a little. “That’s why we’re doing this, right?”

He means the questions, but maybe he also means other things. Like Andrew making up stories in his head about Neil’s life and wondering what he writes in other languages. Like Neil threatening to stab a guy with a kitchen knife at a party. Like them eating too much breakfast at one in the morning.

Andrew rests his chin on his hand. He can see a small dot of syrup on the corner of Neil’s mouth. He tries to ignore it and asks, “What do you write in your notebook? The stuff that’s in a different language.”

“That wasn’t an answer,” Neil says, but he smiles a little. “French, most of the time. It’s…poetry.”

This boy writes French poetry in his notebook and Andrew has had it.

He slams cash onto the table and slides out of the booth. He gestures for Neil to follow and barely registers Renee’s farewell. When he reaches the parking lot and his car, Andrew leans against the hood. He tries to come up with something to excuse what he wants to do and then he hears Bee in his voice, telling him it’s good that you’re allowing yourself to want something.

Neil looks up at the night sky. He leans next to Andrew, gingerly folding his hands in his lap. He looks good in profile, illuminated by neon. He looks unreal.

“You can’t touch below the waist,” Andrew says. Then, his last question. “Can you kiss me?”

Neil smiles. It’s small; all happiness and no attitude. He turns to Andrew and says, “Yes.”

Andrew waits for Neil to turn. He lets Neil cautiously balance his hands on the hood of the car, sleeves pulled down like he doesn’t want to smudge anything. Andrew wants to mock him for it, but he wants the kiss more. He waits until the last moment to close his eyes, so he sees every freckle on Neil’s face—every pale scar, every red-gold hair, every soft curve of his lips. He sees everything about Neil just how it is and then he lets go. He doesn’t see; he feels.

This feeling isn’t bad.

Neil might be inexperienced or nervous, because he’s slow and the press of his mouth is barely there. It doesn’t matter to Andrew. What matters is that Neil’s hands on his chest aren’t holding him down or in place; they’re just there, fingertips curled into Andrew’s shirt like Neil is trying not to float away. Andrew presses his tongue to the corner he almost memorized and tastes syrup, but then Neil moans against his lips and he can’t think straight.

“Gross,” Andrew says, when he pulls back for breath. “You’re a messy eater.”

“You don’t know that,” Neil says, out of breath. He smirks and adds, “Yet.”

Andrew thinks he growls, but he’s not sure. He’s too busy kissing Neil again. He wasn’t sure something could feel this right—he’s grounded, with Neil fit between his legs, but there’s room to breathe. Neil’s touch isn’t insistent or commanding. His hands are wondering when they brush over Andrew’s chest and arms, like Neil is amazed that there’s a body before him. The hopeless noise he makes when Andrew holds his jaw with one hand could be addictive. Andrew definitely wants to find out.

An explosion of laughter from the suddenly-open door of the diner brings Andrew back to the present. He moves back a little and almost laughs when he watches Neil follow him for a second like a drunk moth. The people passing them don’t seem to notice or care about the romantic interlude taking place on Andrew’s car.

“We should get back to campus,” Andrew mutters. He’s about to say something else, but then he feels the tickle of breath at his neck and then Neil’s mouth against his skin. He hisses in a short breath and his hands grab a fistful of Neil’s appalling hoodie.

Neil pauses and moves back. “Bad?”

“No,” Andrew says. He sounds choked to his own ears. “Not bad. Very not bad.”

“Good,” Neil says, and Andrew can feel his smile. Neil’s tongue is on his skin and Andrew thinks the stars are reeling in the sky. He should not be so disoriented by something so simple, but he is. He can’t tell up from down and honestly—

—he doesn’t care.

Andrew tugs at Neil’s hood after a breathless minute. His head feels like static on a television. “It’s cold.”

“Okay,” Neil says. “I drive?”

“Yes.”

Andrew curls his knees up to his chest and smokes while they drive back. When they get to the dorms, he feels a coil of tension in his stomach.

He could be wrong about everything, again.

Neil hands the keys over and then he presses his forehead against Andrew’s. It’s such a weird thing to do that Andrew stares and almost goes cross-eyed. “Can I see you tomorrow?”

“If you’re not blind,” Andrew replies, but the tension seeps away. He has no reason to be worried.

He never really has.

Neil smiles. “Okay. I’ll see you, then.”

Andrew watches him leave. He showers and wonders if Neil will read him the poetry. He imagines Neil would probably tell him to learn French. He wonders what Neil would say if Andrew came back to him in four weeks speaking fluent French.

Something good. Something that would make him sound like the smartass he is.

Andrew thinks he could get used to that.


"I didn't mention everything," Neil says.

Andrew can see the familiar battle playing out—self-preservation warring against a stronger need. "Don't."

Neil is stubborn. Andrew has learned this, after two days and Neil repeatedly yawning in speech class after staying up too late to talk to Andrew. He's not surprised when Neil tilts his chin and starts again.

"There's—before I came here—"

"I. Don't. Care," Andrew says. He has to stop after every word, because he doesn't want to hurt Neil but he also needs him to understand. "Did you ever ask me why I said waist up?"

Neil frowns. He looks a little insulted. "No."

"Exactly."

There's a twist of fingers. Neil's gaze settles somewhere in the distance and Andrew pulls him back with a hand on his chin. He wants those blue eyes here, now. He's willing to wait. Neil turns back to him and Andrew waits for the next small crisis. He knows these things happen. He expects them.

The good part is learning how to deal with them. How to forget them, and replace them with other things.

"And if I did tell you?"

"I'd listen."

Neil looks at him that way—the way Andrew can't handle for long. The way that makes his blue eyes bright and his scars pale against the flush on his cheeks. This is a good look on Neil, but it's turned on Andrew and that never makes sense. It doesn't make sense for someone to regard him with this kind of brightness.

This love.

"You are annoyingly pretty." Andrew says it when he doesn't meant to, but that happens a lot, with Neil. He's been learning how to let some things go.

Anyway, it's almost three in the morning and Neil is curled up beside him on the couch. Andrew can blame it on the time and the wine he drank. Maybe Neil won't remember.

Of course, Neil will remember.

Neil smiles and it makes him even more unfairly beautiful. He buries his head in the crook of Andrew's neck and shoulder, like he can sense Andrew's nerves—he probably can—and presses a kiss there. "You are too."

"Shut up."

"I like your eyelashes. When you sat next to me in class, I kept looking at you out of the corner of my eye."

"You're really trying now, aren't you?"

"I also like your mouth, but I forgot why," Neil says. His false confusion makes Andrew want to hit him with a pillow, and also maybe kiss him.

In the end, he chooses the kiss. Neil laughs before he eagerly abandons humor for Andrew's lips. It's just as slow and deliberate as all the other kisses they've shared, but there's something softer to it, now. An understanding. They're not playing the game anymore, but they're still on equal footing. That part won't change.

When Andrew leans back, Neil settles his head on Andrew's shoulder like it belongs there. Maybe it does; Andrew doesn't know. He watches the numbers on the clock change and thinks. "Stay?"

Neil's hand traces something onto his arm. A word Andrew doesn't recognize, yet. He's not that far with French. "Yes."

It's a good answer. It's the truth.

It's nice.

Chapter Text

Thank you.

Thank you so much.

If you're reading this, it's because you follow this fic. It's because you somehow saw enough good here to continue to follow. Thank you so much for your continued patience and love!

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From here, this series will be separate fics in a series. I hope to continue for a long time and I hope you stay for the ride! You can find the next installment here, if you missed it.

 

I've seen all of your requests, both here and on tumblr. I promise I'll get to them all!

 

I love you all.