Chapter 1: Outside
“Stop,” Aaron says. He sounds so annoyed Neil wonders how he’s still functioning. “That’s not how you—”
“Sorry,” Neil says immediately. He stops midway through trying to suck liquid up the plastic thing he’s holding.
Aaron sighs through his nose and takes the thing away from Neil. Even past the thick plastic of his safety glasses, he looks agitated. Neil neatly folds his hands on the tabletop and watches.
One week in, and he’s already pissing off his lab partner.
Then again, Neil didn’t expect any less.
“There,” Aaron says, passing Neil the beaker. “Read me the number.”
At least he can do that.
“Why did you mark this?”
“It isn’t right.”
Neil opens his mouth and shuts it again. He reaches out and Seth passes his paper over. Neil isn’t sure how to explain that starting a sentence with ‘but’ isn’t right. He also doesn’t know how to explain that he knows the sentence he’s looking at is wrong.
Seth drums his fingers on the table. Neil imagines Seth punching him in the face.
“Do you care? Or are you happy with knowing I’m right?”
“I don’t know that you’re right,” Seth says, eyes narrowing. “You want me to trust you? Some—”
He doesn’t finish his sentence. Neil is vaguely glad for that; he might know how to knock Seth out, but he’s not keen on the attention it would bring down on his head.
The teacher interrupts them and Neil props his chin on his hand. He pretends not to notice when Seth makes the change to his paper, and he pretends not to notice two days later when Seth gets an A.
Kevin is aggravating.
Is this what Aaron feels like? Neil hopes he’s not as bad as Kevin. There’s something soul-sucking about leaving class and seeing the scowling boy waiting for him, tapping a foot impatiently.
“Why am I not surprised,” Neil says, before he even reaches Kevin.
Kevin glares. “Let’s go. You’re late.”
“Technically, the teacher was late,” Neil mutters. Kevin doesn’t answer.
The field is waiting for them. Kevin stands with his arms crossed and waits for Neil to take his place on the track.
Neil tried pointing out that Kevin wasn’t practicing, once. It didn’t work, of course. Kevin said it was his cooldown time and then said he spent hours after school practicing.
Then, he’d given Neil an after-school schedule. It was the worst.
But Neil would never say no. There weren’t many things he was good at, or many that made him feel like he was alive. When he stepped onto the track and stretched, his feet at the white line, he felt alive. He felt like he had a purpose.
Neil was fast. He’d always been fast. Kevin noticed, the first day in gym when Neil had sprinted around the tennis court several times without breaking a sweat. He’d made it a personal goal to badger Neil from then on.
For now, Neil didn’t mind. Running between classes gave him clarity he couldn’t really find anywhere else. If he had to put up with the star of the baseball team, so be it.
As long as Kevin didn’t stick him in a uniform, Neil would be fine.
“Hi,” Nicky says. His smile is wide and dimpled. Neil squints; the sun is out in full force.
“Kevin told me you run. I actually need a partner for training,” Nicky says. “Coach tells me I need to work on endurance.”
“Coach?” Neil echoes. He watches Nicky slide onto the bleachers in front of Neil. Nicky is wearing the volleyball team’s t-shirt and compression shorts. He is also oddly barefoot.
Nicky grins. “I’m on the volleyball team. I’m pretty good, but my coach says I get winded too easily. Think you can help?”
Neil considers. Between class and running, he doesn’t have much time. “Why did Kevin send you to me?”
“He didn’t,” Nicky says. His smile widens. “Aaron’s my cousin. He mentioned you, so I went to Kevin. He’s willing to let you go from free period hell if you help me, instead.”
That startles Neil. He looks Nicky over once again—tall, brown, with a head of curly hair and a gold ring on the top edge of his right ear.
He looks nothing like Aaron.
Nicky looks like he’s suppressing laughter. Neil pulls himself out of introspection and asks, “How did you convince Kevin to let me go? He’s…”
“Anal?” Nicky asks. Neil shrugs and Nicky snorts. “I’ve known him for a while. My and my cousins. We kind of run in the same group. Anyway, what do you say?”
“Yeah,” Neil says. He decides as he opens his mouth. “Sure.”
Nicky slings an arm over Neil’s shoulder and Aaron casts a poisonous look at them, one hand poised over the petri dish on the table.
“Sorry,” Neil says automatically.
Aaron turns his attention back to the experiment. “Don’t fucking shake the table.”
Nicky doesn’t seem to mind Aaron. Neil guesses it’s because they’re cousins.
It’s already four-thirty. School is out, but Aaron insisted on checking their chemistry project. Neil doesn’t even have to be there, but he doesn’t mind. He sits between Nicky and Aaron and waits.
The door to the classroom opens. Aaron doesn’t pay attention and Nicky is on his phone, but Neil immediately looks. He feels a familiar thrill of tension before he forces himself to relax. It doesn’t really work.
“Oh,” Matt says, surprised. “Neil.”
He’s with Dan, as usual. Neil thinks he’s happy to see them. He met them both at orientation and they decided, for some reason, to look after him. He’s used to Matt and Dan popping up at his locker throughout the day to say hello and check in on him.
Neil isn’t sure what he did to deserve them, but he’s grateful. Especially when Dan gives him extra homemade cookies.
“Hi,” Neil says. He’s not sure what else to say.
Matt look at Nicky, then Aaron. His eyes linger a moment too long at Aaron, like he’s trying to read in another language. “You okay?”
That’s a strange question. Neil looks at the people flanking him and considers. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
Matt doesn’t seem entirely convinced, but he goes to the back of the room to look at something. Dan sits at the table across from Neil and faces him. She’s a little less tactful about her open distrust of Nicky and Aaron.
Aaron, Neil might understand—Aaron is standoffish most of the time and unpleasant when crossed. He typically says things that should get him punched. Nicky, though, is the opposite. He’s cheerful and everyone likes him, for the most part. They like him enough to wave back when he walks the halls like he’s the president of the school.
So why are Matt and Dan so guarded?
“Done,” Aaron announces. He slides the petri dish off and goes to store it.
Nicky shoves his phone into his pocket and sighs dramatically. “I guess it’s time, Neil. Please, save me from this misery.”
With that declaration, Nicky throws his arms around Neil’s shoulders and smashes his cheek against the top of Neil’s head.
This should be repulsive. Neil should be shoving him away, retreating to the other side of the room. Anything. Instead, he thinks about how Nicky is warm like a furnace. “Can’t do that. You run, I avoid Kevin.”
“You’re getting the good end of the deal!”
Nicky snorts and sticks his tongue out while he starts to gather his backpack. Matt and Dan are still watching.
When Aaron leads the way out, Matt stops Neil before he can go. “Hey. They’re not…I mean, if they’re doing something—”
“What?” Neil asks. Doing something?
“If they’re bothering you,” Matt clarifies, but it doesn’t make anything clearer. Neil stares.
“They always bother me.”
“Neil. If they’re making you do something—anything—that you don’t want to—”
“What? They—I’m just helping Nicky,” Neil says. “Aaron’s my lab partner.”
He wants to say that’s it, but that would be a lie.
Neil is still not sure what friends are or how to let other people in, but he thinks maybe Aaron and Nicky are something like friends.
Nicky is getting better. He’s not so easily winded, but he definitely complains the same amount.
“I’m gonna die,” Nicky moans. He slumps against the banister of his front porch. Neil ignores him and stretches a leg before prodding Nicky to do the same.
The woman that emerges a moment later to give them lemonade isn’t Nicky’s mother. She’s not even related. Abby is just one of Nicky’s coach’s friends, apparently.
Nicky told Neil, one week into their runs, that he was gay. He also told Neil he didn’t live with his parents, anymore. They had kicked him out.
Neil couldn’t imagine being kicked out by someone that was family. He could imagine his father killing him and he could feel the ghosts of his mother slapping his face, but he couldn’t wrap his mind around being thrown out.
With the Wesninskis, you either had a use or you were dead.
“How did it go?” Abby asks. She gives Nicky a once-over, critical.
Neil shrugs. “He’s not dead.”
“Yet,” Nicky adds, taking a break from his lemonade.
Abby chides Nicky for being ungrateful while Neil looks at the world from the porch. He’s still somewhere else entirely when he becomes aware of someone coming to sit on the porch with their back to Neil.
From the back, Neil would think it was Aaron—but there’s something different about this person. The height is the same; the hair color is the same. This boy, though, is dressed in black. He has an air of darkness about him, like everything is muted an inch from his body.
“Who’s that?” Neil asks Nicky. They’re far enough from the other side of the porch that the stranger probably couldn’t hear them, if they weren’t already wearing earbuds.
Nicky glances over his shoulder. “Hm? What, Aaron?” He laughs. “Are y—wait.”
Neil watches Nicky panic. It’s interesting to watch; Nicky’s eyes widen and he gives Neil a desperate glance before he frantically looks for some place to put his glass of lemonade. Nicky is still in the middle of panicking when Aaron appears at the front door.
“You’re back,” Aaron says. He takes one step onto the porch and then sees the person at the other end. His mouth flattens into a line.
“Yeah,” Neil says, wondering if Aaron will explain for him. “I tried to shake him, but he was determined.”
“Great. You’re perfect for each other,” Aaron says flatly. His eyes keep sliding back to the person on the porch.
“Is this—” Neil starts, tilting his head toward the stranger. He is cut off when Wymack pulls into the driveway.
Wymack is Aaron’s guardian. Aaron doesn’t seem to like him all that much, but Nicky has said the man is pleasant enough. Nicky waves from the porch and Neil returns to his lemonade, waiting to ask his question again.
The stranger on the porch doesn’t even turn.
Abby comes to the porch and smiles. Nicky nudges Aaron and rolls his eyes. Their silent conversation is foreign to Neil, so he turns his attention to the man coming up the steps.
He still tenses around older men. Anyone old enough to be his father is instinctively placed in the not-safe category and Neil appropriately moves out of reach. He doesn’t even recognize that he slides further down the banister until he’s there and Nicky is giving him a confused frown.
“You give Abby any trouble?” Wymack asks Aaron.
“I’m not the problem child.”
“You’re all problem children,” Wymack says. He rolls his eyes. His gaze lands on Neil after a moment and he raises an eyebrow at Aaron. “Is this the famous Neil?”
“Famous?” Nicky echoes. He looks at Aaron and his expression turns gleeful. “What do you mean? Does Aaron talk about him all the time? Does he—”
“Shut up,” Aaron says. He glares, but Nicky is immune to all threatening expressions. He doesn’t even notice.
Wymack shakes his head. “You talk about him, too.”
“Well, duh,” Nicky says. “But he already shot me down. I mean, unless he’s changed his mind?”
“Nope,” Neil says. Nicky pretends to pout while he hops onto the porch banister and tips his glass to his mouth.
Wymack gives Neil a curious once-over. Neil tries not to feel the urge to run or apologize. It doesn’t work. The best he can do is to keep his mouth firmly shut, so that no one suspects.
Well. Almost no one. Behind Wymack, Neil can see the stranger watching him. Neil wants to look at this person—this twin, he realizes, now that he can see the boy’s face—but he’s forced to focus on Wymack.
“Huh. Well, I hope these three don’t give you too much trouble,” Wymack says. His hand reaches out and Neil stops thinking. He reacts on instinct.
He backpedals so fast he’s surprised he doesn’t trip. Neil was already out of reach, but he finds himself backed up to the edge of the porch. He knows he can vault over it in a heartbeat if he needs to and there’s a street that he can—
—Neil blinks and finds that, despite his planning, everyone is staring.
Wymack’s hand descends on empty space and his mouth is half-open around words that have died. Nicky’s hand is loose on his glass; he could drop it. Aaron looks angry for some reason.
“Hey—” Wymack says; he takes a step forward, hand up, and then he stops.
He stops because the twin is at his arm, a knife in his hand that casually flicks between his fingers.
“Don’t,” the boy says. Simple, dispassionate. Without a glance at Wymack.
Neil swallows. He counts.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Neil tells Nicky. He doesn’t wait for the answer.
It’s not his finest moment, but Neil can’t bring himself to move around Wymack. He hops over the banister in one smooth motion, gently rests his glass on it, and then jogs down the sidewalk. He waits until he’s a block down to start running.
He doesn’t stop running until his body starts to burn all over again.
The twin leans against his locker. Neil pauses, one hand on the strap of his backpack and the other holding a stack of books.
He’s used to the look he’s been given, but he’s only seen it from adults. Only after his mother’s death and his father’s incarceration. Most times, the people looking at him like he could be a killer or dead weight are the ones that know his past.
“We have class.”
Neil raises an eyebrow. “No, we don’t.”
“I have Chemistry with Aaron.”
The boy is silent. He crosses his arms over his chest. Neil notices he’s wearing black bands.
The silent scrutiny continues too long to be reasonable. Neil just waits. He has time.
The boy’s expression changes. He smiles slowly, but it looks less cheery and more dangerous. Like he’s amused by Neil’s powers of observation.
“You are going to be fun.”
Neil doesn’t know how to answer that.
He also doesn’t know how to react when Nicky emerges from a nearby classroom, smirking. “Told you.”
Aaron is close behind Nicky. He’s holding his backpack with white knuckles and his eyes are on his twin. “This is stupid. Andrew—”
Andrew. He holds up a hand and Aaron immediately falls silent. Neil watches Andrew and waits. He can take a punch; he can take a knife.
He’s taken bullets.
“One day,” Andrew muses, searching Neil’s face. “And then, I’ll tell you if we’re keeping him.”
Chapter 2: Cold Enough
Hell Day begins and Neil is saddled with Andrew, who is doing his best to piss him off.
Neil is more than grateful that Andrew can’t come into his first period class. No matter how terrifying he is or how well he can pass as Aaron, the teacher doesn’t care and Aaron doesn’t take the class that period.
Renee does take the class, though. She sits next to Neil and he notices her sending him a curious look.
“Is that Andrew?” Renee asks, while Neil digs for his homework.
Neil pauses and considers how much to say. He feels a lot like are ways to explain, but he’s not sure he wants to explain at all. He still isn’t sure why the hell Andrew has decided to shadow him all day.
Renee nods like this is all perfectly normal and Neil questions the state of the world. He wonders if he’s the only sane one around. He wonders if this casual acceptance of Andrew, with his knives and his threats, is just an unspoken rule he was never told about.
He wonders how he’s going to make it through seven class periods without completely losing his mind.
Thankfully, calculus is enough to take his mind off Andrew, even if it’s only for fifty minutes. Neil concentrates more than he ever has before and then the bell rings. He doesn’t even remember what happened that morning, too busy mentally calculating how quickly he can finish his homework in the evening, and then he isn’t alone.
Andrew is at his side.
“If Aaron’s going to your classes, what about his?” Neil asks.
“What about his?”
Neil looks at Andrew and tries not to be annoyed. He reasons that Aaron probably trusts Andrew, even if he doesn’t necessarily like whatever strange agreement they have.
They do have one, Neil thinks. From the way Aaron so easily backs down from Andrew, Neil suspects there’s some sort of promise in play. Aaron wouldn’t be so reserved with anyone else. He’s typically the type to say things he really shouldn’t to people; things that are borderline insensitive.
Maybe he does it because of Andrew. The thought tires Neil. He imagines Aaron is in a state of constant aggravation from not being able to argue with Andrew, his attention turned instead to his classmates. The theory is uncannily believable.
“This is it,” Neil says. He stops outside of his English class and Andrew fixes him with a dead stare. He already knows.
Neil reminds himself to tell Dan that her suggestion to make small talk with people isn’t helping. When he sits and unpacks his things, he corrects himself. Andrew doesn’t really seem like people; maybe it’s just him.
Well, Neil isn’t a fan of small talk anyway.
Neil is sitting with Seth as usual. They’re supposed to exchange papers and talk, but Neil is mostly marking Seth’s work. He works silently and Seth crosses his arm and balances on two legs of his chair.
“How’s the asshole?”
“Asking about Kevin doesn’t make me believe you hate him. It makes me think you don’t. It actually makes me think—”
“Oh my God,” Seth interrupted. “Andrew. What the fuck. Andrew.”
Neil has the creeping feeling that he’s not going to like what he sees. He turns around anyway.
Andrew is leaning against the window at the far corner of the classroom.
It seems like he was just in motion, for some reason. The image of the short, blonde boy with a dispassionate expression and gaze trained on the cigarette in his hand makes Neil wish he could lay down and just go to sleep. He is so tired. He is too tired to deal with this.
“How much would I need to pay you to kidnap me?” Neil asks.
“Nothing would be fucking enough for dealing with that.”
Neil accepts his fate and turns back to Seth’s paper. He wonders why Andrew is hanging around if he isn’t even going to watch Neil. Not that there’s anything to watch.
Ten minutes later, Seth’s chair creaks. Neil barely hears it over the conversations in the classroom, but he does see the way Seth crosses and uncrosses his arms a few times. Neil debates whether he should say something and decides to wait. Another three minutes, and he can’t stand it.
“What?” Neil finally asks.
“You really need help?”
Neil pauses. He remembers Matt asking a very similar question. Nicky and his cousins must have some sort of reputation—and it must be a pretty terrifying one, if even Seth knows about it. Seth doesn’t usually give a shit about anyone or anything.
Other than ‘hating’ Kevin.
“I’ll be fine.”
“You said you were fine when you came into class with a nosebleed last week. You’re a fucking liar.”
Neil opens his mouth to argue, but Seth jabs him in the chest with a pencil. Neil looks down at it and sighs. That’s another hole in his shirt. “Fine. I don’t know if I need help, but I don’t think I do. He’s just…watching. Or something.”
Seth frowns. “It’s still fucking creepy. Whatever. Just—you know where to find me. I don’t wanna deal with switching partners before the year is even half over.”
“Thanks for caring,” Neil says drily.
Seth shrugs and the conversation ends. He’s said what he needed to and Neil doesn’t care anymore. He’s tempted to look over his shoulder and find Andrew, but he thinks he knows what he’ll find.
Andrew is in the hall when Neil emerges from class. Neil tries not to sigh and hikes his backpack over his shoulder.
“What’s the weather like?”
“Nice and dry. I could dig a grave, no problem,” Andrew says. He smells like cigarettes.
Neil tries not to inhale too deeply, but he likes the scent. He tries to stay away from Andrew, though.
The Spanish classroom is across the school. It takes most of the four-minute passing period for Neil to walk to it, but he doesn’t mind. He watches Andrew out of the corner of his eye and categorizes things.
Andrew likes cigarettes. He has the same haircut as Aaron. He has flat black earrings and he’s wearing a black turtleneck, even though it’s at least seventy-five degrees outside. There’s a rubber band in his right hand; his fingers mindlessly twist it as he walks.
He also has the familiar twitch and pallor of someone trying to go cold turkey. Neil has seen it before, in some of the people his father dealt with.
Neil’s surprised that Andrew is even mobile, much less at school. He can see the greyness to Andrew’s skin, this close. He can also see the fine sheen of sweat and the tremble running through his limbs. Andrew is definitely extremely uncomfortable. It makes Neil uncomfortable just to look at him.
“Why don’t you sit inside?”
Andrew looks at him and for a second, the bored look shifts to one of recognition. “Why don’t you ever keep your mouth shut? That’s a bad habit, you know. You’re going to get hurt, one day.”
Andrew prods Neil’s cheek with a finger. Before he can react, Neil is shoved into the classroom.
Allison perks up immediately. She waves and then looks toward the door behind him. Neil walks over and takes the seat next to her. He feels like he’s lived fifty years in in just the first two classes of his day. He’s not sure how he’s going to survive until seventh period.
“I’ve heard some interesting things,” Allison says. “Want to help me win some bets? I’ll give you a cut.”
“Did you do your homework?” Neil asks. It’s a stupid question, but Allison gets the hint.
They look over their papers for a few minutes before class and Neil corrects some of Allison’s sentences. He can’t do anything about her terrible pronunciation, but she’s working on it.
Neil keeps glancing at the windows without realizing it for the first ten minutes of class. He doesn’t catch it until Allison leans across the aisle and stage-whispers at him.
“Looking for your boyfriend?”
Neil stares at Allison. “What?”
Allison smirks. “Andrew’s following you today, isn’t he?”
“How does everyone I know, know this?” Neil mutters. The teacher turns to them and he has one minute of blessed silence. One minute, and then the teacher turns away and Allison starts up again.
“Kevin, Andrew, and Nicky are kind of a weird bunch. Of course, Aaron’s included by default. Matt and Dan know Nicky, but they don’t like Andrew and Kevin can get annoying for Matt. Renee is probably the closest thing to a friend Andrew has, and she’s my best friend. Seth knows her and we—well. So, that’s how everyone knows.”
Neil lost track somewhere after Nicky’s name, but he’s not really interested, anyway. He wasn’t actually asking.
“So,” Allison says. “If Andrew is stalking you, it means he’s figuring out whether he’s going to let you keep hanging around Aaron and Nicky. And Kevin.”
“It’s a little late for him to be doing a background check,” Neil points out.
Someone in front of them turns around and glares. Neil doesn’t know the girl’s name. Allison just smiles slowly at the girl and waves her fingers. The girl flushes and faces the front again.
The class passes their homework up and splits into conversation groups. While people are moving, Allison takes the chance to finish her conversation in English.
“Whatever. All that matters is that he’s giving you a chance. Anyway, he couldn’t have known about you before. He was still out, the first few weeks of class.”
“Who knows? Rehab? Therapy? He’s had some shit in his life. No one knows the specifics, but we know enough to stay the fuck away. You should, too.”
So she says, but Allison sounds like she’s interested in Neil not staying the fuck away. Maybe she just knows him too well to even consider it an option. Neil nods once and turns his desk against hers. Allison rests her head in her hand, waiting. Her gaze is fixed just beyond Neil’s shoulder.
He suspects he knows why, but he’s not going to fucking look. He’s petty.
Allison smirks when Neil fixes her with a determined stare. He doesn’t mind. So long as he doesn’t give into Andrew’s convoluted plotting, Neil couldn’t care less.
Everyone else can think what they want. Neil just wants to get through the day.
He’s supposed to have gym before class, but Neil takes one step toward the locker room and suddenly he’s faced with Andrew.
“Follow,” Andrew says shortly.
Neil looks down the hallway for a second and Andrew leans in like he’s divulging a secret. His stage whisper is accompanied by falsely innocent, wide eyes. “I’m not going to ask again.”
Thankfully—or not—Kevin appears. He takes one look at Andrew and grips his gym bag tighter.
“Go,” Kevin says. “I already notified the coach.”
A foul betrayal. Neil mentally tallies a point on his shit list and turns to follow Andrew. He isn’t sure where they’re going until Andrew takes a left turn down the hallway and they walk into an unfamiliar room.
Well, almost unfamiliar. Kevin usually brings Neil in through the outside doors. Today, the weight room has only a handful of people inside. Neil recognizes one of them.
“Hi!” Dan says. Her smile is bright, but Neil can tell from one look at her eyes that she’s watching Andrew like a hawk. She doesn’t trust him.
Which isn’t comforting, since Dan could probably nearly bench press Matt, if she wanted to.
“Hi,” Neil replies. He feels awkward and out of place. This isn’t his element at all.
Andrew snaps and Neil is tempted not to turn his attention to him. He’s not a dog. Neil stubbornly waits a minute to help Dan adjust the straps on the brace she wears on her right hand. Dan just looks at him in half-exasperated way.
Neil finally turns to Andrew and finds him watching with a darkly amused expression. “Let’s play a game. A training game.”
“I don’t like games.”
“We’ll call it truth,” Andrew continues, ignoring Neil. “You lift, you ask a question. The weight comes down, you answer one.”
It is definitely not a game Neil wants to play. He sweeps the room one more time and tries to come up with a way to say no that doesn’t get him killed. Andrew pulls his hoodie over his head and Neil loses track of what he’s doing.
There are the familiar bands. They’re not for training; Neil had known that the moment he saw them, on Abby’s front porch. He’s pretty sure they hold knives, since Andrew seemed to conjure one up out of thin air when Neil backed away from Wymack.
Neil thinks he’s staring.
“Go on,” Andrew says. He waves a hand carelessly toward the far end of the room.
At least they’re far enough away that no one will hear them. Dan tries to give Neil a reassuring smile, but it doesn’t do much to help him.
Neil makes his way toward the back and throws his backpack on the floor. He pauses and feels his skin itch. He’s not keen on wearing a sweaty shirt for the rest of the day, but he is absolutely not changing in the middle of the room.
Andrew leans on the bar of the weight and grins lazily. He drums his fingers on the metal in a cool staccato. “There’s a bathroom behind you.”
Neil grabs a shirt from his backpack and goes into the bathroom. Andrew’s grin makes his irritation mount and he resolves to channel it into lifting. He rarely does it and usually, it’s with Kevin. Kevin, he trusts to think of him as an investment that can’t be lost. Andrew seems to have no interest in other people, aside from Aaron.
And Kevin, apparently.
He can’t stay locked in the bathroom forever. Neil slides his jacket back on since his shirt won’t cover his arms and he returns to find Andrew toeing his backpack.
“Keep doing that. Hopefully the bomb goes off and kills me,” Neil mutters.
Andrew chuckles darkly. “Death won’t save you from me.”
Neil almost cringes at that. Almost.
Instead, he lowers himself onto the waiting bench and tries not to panic too much. His heart is in his throat anyway; there’s no getting around how vulnerable it feels. He’s lying down under someone he doesn’t know and doesn’t trust, and there’s a weight above his chest.
Speaking of, Neil has no clue how heavy it’s going to be. He wonders if Andrew is going to murder him this way and call It an accident.
“Down, you. Up, me,” Andrew reminds him. He crosses his arms and waits.
Neil sighs through his nose and raises his hands. His grip is firm and Andrew puts two fingers on either side of Neil’s hands. He pretends to look solemn and it does absolutely nothing to help Neil’s mood.
Down. Andrew asks, “Where do you live?”
“Why? So you can kill me?” It’s not as heavy as Neil expected it to be.
Andrew lifts the weight out of Neil’s hands. He barely seems to make an effort at all. He leans down over Neil, strange hazel eyes steady.
“That’s not how this works. You know that.”
Neil looks over Andrew’s face, curious. He meant to test Andrew just a little. It’s only fair. The steadiness in Andrew’s manner assures Neil that this is just what it is—just what Andrew said: a game. He lowers himself again and opens his hands.
Andrew watches him for a long moment and then drops the weight again. Neil lowers it and says, “An apartment. It’s close enough to run to.”
“Why Kevin? What did he do for you?”
“That’s two,” Andrew tells him. “Because he asked me to watch his back, and I owed him.”
Neil notices Andrew doesn’t quite answer the second question. He would point it out and complain, but Andrew’s vague truth means Neil can do the same thing. The bar comes to his chest again.
“You weren’t here at the beginning of the year, in August. Why?”
“I was occupied,” Neil says shortly. “I had to move into an apartment.”
Andrew notices his trick. His smile returns, but it’s only half as energetic as before. This far into the day, Neil wonders if the withdrawal is starting to affect him. He wonders if Andrew has anything to help sate it. Andrew doesn’t seem to notice his own problems, though. He just asks another question.
“Have you always lived here?”
“…no. I lived in Baltimore.”
This was a mistake.
He knows, logically, that all it takes is a search. One search and anyone could see that Nathan Wesninski was arrested and whisked away before a word could be spoken.
And if you look at Nathan, you might as well be looking at Nathaniel.
“Don’t drop it,” Andrew says suddenly. Neil blinks and realizes he’s still holding the weight just above his chest. He thought it wasn’t real. “I’d hate for you to kill yourself before I finish asking questions.”
“It’s my turn,” Neil reminds him. He shoves the weight away from his body. “Why knives?”
Why the fuck did it have to be knives?
“A friend gave them to me.”
Renee. Neil knows about her. She told him sometime after Aaron started actually walking with him to class. Neil wonders if maybe she approached him because she saw this coming. Renee mostly told him she understood and would listen, but he hadn’t taken her up on the offer.
Somehow, it seemed worse to him that she could tell. That she knew.
“We’re done,” Andrew says. Neil almost drops the weight in surprise. There are still fifteen minutes left in the period and Andrew has barely asked any questions.
He did ask the important one, though.
Neil waits until the bar is in place before he sits up. “What—”
“No talking,” Andrew says. He points toward a chair behind the bench. “Sit.”
Neil bites his tongue. He can tell something is happening in Andrew’s mind, but he’s not sure what. He waits and watches Andrew move around the bench to add more weight.
This is ridiculous. “You should have someone spotting you.”
“Who’s going to? You?”
“No. I actually wouldn’t mind if that thing rolled over your neck.”
Andrew laughs. Neil can still hear it fifteen minutes later, when the bell rings and he makes his way to the cafeteria.
“Finally!” Nicky cries. He hauls Neil into a hug.
Neil does his best to slide his tray onto the table so it won’t spill. Nicky’s warm, as usual. For some reason, he smells like cinnamon. Neil frowns. “Why do you smell like cinnamon?”
Nicky pulls back and beams. Aaron rolls his eyes and stabs his salad, but Neil catches him giving Neil a once-over when he thinks no one is looking.
“I made sopapillas! Here.”
Neil doesn’t like sweet things, but he doesn’t say anything because Nicky made them. He just takes the dessert and slides it next to his lunch tray.
Of course, Andrew appears at the table a few moments later. Aaron stares at his brother and Neil ignores him. He suspected Andrew would take spending a day watching him literally. He’s just surprised Andrew hasn’t followed him into any bathrooms, yet.
“Don’t fuck up the experiment,” Aaron tells Neil, but his eyes are still on Andrew. “Remember—”
“—that I need to read the meniscus when I do the measuring? Yeah. You should start remembering to brush your hair in the morning.”
“You should remember to cut yours.”
“How’s your separation anxiety? Does Katelyn have a cheer meeting?”
“How’s your face? Still scarred beyond recognition?”
Neil snorts. “Did you just use a ‘your face’ comeback? Weak.”
“Enough, enough,” Nicky says. He waves a hand distractedly and launches into a story about Erik making sopapillas at the same time as him in Germany—which is insane—but Neil isn’t paying full attention.
He noticed Andrew following his conversation with Aaron, even if Andrew had his usual flat expression. Neil could tell from the way Andrew leaned in over the table a little, and the way his fork started to mechanically separate peas and carrots in his tray instead of shoveling food into his mouth.
Andrew really is watching. But he’s listening, too. Neil thinks maybe he’s not so terrible.
Andrew is the worst. He is the bane of Neil’s existence. He is evil.
He is actively trying to sabotage the experiment.
Andrew knocks over their flask and Neil barely catches it before the contents—which took fifteen minutes to mix—spill over the side of the table.
“Whoops,” Andrew says.
He’s a cat. He’s a fucking cat. He’s just knocking shit over and watching the world burn.
“Stop,” Neil says. “Aaron’s going to kill me.”
Andrew raises his eyebrows. “We’re talking about my brother?”
“Yes. Now sit back.”
“He won’t kill you. He actually likes you, for some absurd reason.”
Neil exhales slowly. He reminds himself that it’s just one day, and Andrew is probably fine when he’s not trying to push someone over the edge.
Andrew is just waiting for Neil to snap. He wants Neil to snap. Neil knows this primarily because he’s used to this type of initiation—this type of test. He’s used to the mentality of making someone snap just to see how dangerous they can get.
Poking the tiger.
But Neil is better than that. He is going to be patient, because he has to live with Aaron for the rest of the year and all of his other friends are waiting for the day to be over, too.
Neil grits his teeth and stops Andrew from pouring twice as much powder as they need onto the scale.
It’s going to be a very long day.
Neil has never been so glad for free time in his life. He needs Nicky more than ever.
He makes it to the track on sheer will alone. Andrew follows close by and Neil tries not to look at him. He knows he’s two minutes and a bad comment away from chewing the knife psycho out.
“Neil!” Nicky calls. He grins and waves. After a second and a chance to see Neil’s face, his laughter turns nervous. “How, uh—how about we start? I’ve got energy to burn!”
A lie. An absolute lie, but Neil loves him for it. He tries to communicate through a look, because he knows Andrew is listening. Watching.
“Start with a jog,” Neil says. He exhales and throws his backpack onto the ground by the bleachers. He’s glad he doesn’t have to change again; he’s wearing sweatpants anyway and there are only one more class until he’s out of purgatory.
Nicky cheers and stretches as they walk toward the white line on the track. Neil lines up and breathes in and out, once.
His mind resets. Everything is clear, just for the moment. All he has to do is run.
All he’s ever had to do is run.
Neil goes twice as fast as Nicky. He runs the first lap and makes it back to Nicky when he’s halfway done. He slows to a jog and feels his body unwind just a little more.
“You’re doing well.”
“So are you,” Nicky says. He almost glances over his shoulder but Neil quickly stops him with a hand at his chin. “Sorry. Yeah—I can’t believe you lasted this long. When Matt and Dan started to help Kevin train the first month of school, they both went through it. Dan never gave in and Matt went about three classes before he snapped.”
“Yeah,” Nicky says. His laugh is more breath than sound and he takes a minute to get his breathing back in order. “Renee is the only one that really made it through, the first day of school. But she’s different. He hasn’t tested anyone the way he tested her.”
“I bet,” Neil mutters. He imagines Renee would handle it, but her estimation of Andrew would probably be much lower.
“So? You…I mean, has he—”
Nicky gives him a pained look. Neil shrugs.
“It’s just questions and staring. And trying to piss me off.”
“You’re very different when you’re pissed off,” Nicky reminds him, eyebrows hiking higher.
“Sure. But he hasn’t broken me yet.”
“Please don’t say that.”
Andrew is actually paying attention. He sits with his knees hiked up to his chest, sure, and the teacher keeps giving him exhausted glances, but Andrew is paying attention.
Neil guesses world history is a subject Andrew likes because they talk about military geniuses and empires. Andrew’s perfect for the part.
The lecture is only half an hour, because for the last twenty minutes they’re supposed to fill out a worksheet. They’re allowed to talk—quietly—but of course, the volume in the classroom gradually rises. It’s the end of the day and everyone is anxious to go.
For once, Neil feels the same.
“Wrong,” Andrew says. He taps Neil’s paper from across the aisle without even looking.
Neil pauses. He knows it’s wrong. He wrote it for a reason. He fakes annoyance anyway, which isn’t that difficult. “Oh, really? I checked the book.”
“You fucked up. It’s on thirty-eight.”
Again, without looking. Or opening the book that’s still under his seat.
Neil smiles to himself and fills in the right answer. Andrew pauses with his own pencil over the last empty space. Neil can almost pinpoint the exact moment that his eyes slide to Neil and realization hits him.
Playing to Andrew’s little vices isn’t that hard. It was finding out what they were while Neil was being interrogated that was hard.
“Well played,” Andrew says. He leans out of his chair a little, like an absurd perching bird.
Neil shrugs. He focuses on his paper and tries not to care what Andrew thinks anymore. It doesn’t help. He still feels a flood of triumph at the small victory.
Except the bell rings and then Andrew leans closer to say, “Are you going to run? Did you run from your father, too?”
The sound in Neil’s ears is a little like white noise. A small part of his brain desperately tries to wrangle the rest of him, but it’s too late. His mouth is already opening, and Andrew is sitting there waiting for the prize he’s been pushing for all day.
“You know,” Neil says, “I can appreciate what you’re doing. I’m sure no one else really does, since you do your best to pretend nothing touches you. I’m sure it took them a while to notice how fucked up you get halfway through the day, too. That isolation of yours is going to bite you in the ass.
“But it doesn’t matter. Your experiment is done and you can go back to whatever promise it is you made with Aaron, that requires him to listen to you when he’s just like you and couldn’t give a fuck about directions. I’m sure Kevin will be very proud that you ran a background check on me, almost halfway into the year. If I wanted to kill him, I would have done it by now.”
Andrew’s expression is unreadable. He might be about to talk, but Neil has one last thing to say.
“Maybe no one else notices things about you, but I do. I see you. And you’re not something to be afraid of.”
Neil isn’t sure why his declaration turned into a compliment, or if it can even be counted as a compliment. He’s also not sure he’s going to live for another full minute.
But then Nicky and Aaron burst through the door, their shoes squeaking as the slide around the corner. Aaron’s even flushed.
Nicky laughs, but it sounds more hysterical than friendly. “Good! I thought you’d left, Neil. You promised to walk home!”
Andrew is not buying it, this time. He steps up to Neil and then there’s a knife pressed under Neil’s chin—not threatening at all, but directing. He looks into Neil’s eyes and Neil wonders what he’s seeing.
“I like him,” Andrew announces. His grin is sharp. “But he’s suicidal.”
“Guess we’re two of a kind.”
I...took a while to do this. Sorry! I have a lot of work on my plate this week and I'm just trying to get it all done!!!!
That said, I hope you enjoy! This has been one of my favorite things to write. I like the idea of no-mafia AUs showcasing Foxes that are a little more out there. Like Neil, whom I feel would be slightly less 'dead boy walking'. I enjoy this AU mostly because without Riko/the Moriyamas to worry about, it's all about Fox family and Neil dealing with his family issues. Family is just my thing, guys.
Thank you so much, as always! Feel free to share and comment! I hope you enjoy this crazy high school ride and the prom we're all waiting for!
Chapter 3: You Don't Mind
Neil is having a strange week. A strange semester.
Thing is, he doesn't actually mind.
Neil has a routine.
He wakes up at five forty-five in the morning and throws his backpack and gym bag on. One holds everything he needs to survive, and the other holds his clothes.
The first thing he does is go to a convenience store ten blocks from the school. He goes inside, straight to the bathroom, and washes his face in the sink. He takes a fifty-cent coffee from the front and throws it out, two blocks down.
From there, Neil runs.
He runs to school and thinks of all the rules he is breaking just by staying. He counts his footsteps and his reasons and excuses. He reaches the gym at six-fifteen. The custodian has just unlocked the doors, so Neil walks through the empty space and to his locker in the main building. He shoves his gym bag in and keeps his backpack. There are things in it he will never let out of his reach.
At school, Neil showers. He uses the locker room as quickly as he can, because there’s no lock. There won’t be anyone around until seven, but he still rushes through this part of the routine.
At six-thirty, Neil leaves the showers and changes. He takes the gym clothes from his locker and scrubs them in a sink before he holds them under an air dryer. They’re never completely dry in time, but five minutes to seven, he stows them in the wire shoebox that is his gym locker and goes to the cafeteria.
Seven in the morning means breakfast and homework, if he has any left. Neil sits alone at a table and tunes everything out for a little while. There’s nothing as important as this half-hour, when he’s alone and there’s nothing for him to worry about.
He has pulled it off. The great lie.
Neil Josten is a real boy.
Then it’s seven-thirty and Kevin shows up to take Neil to the weight room, because it’s part of the schedule. They stay there until eight-thirty, and then Kevin allows him to mop away the sweat and get ready for class.
When the bell rings at eight forty-five, Neil almost believes he’s real, too.
The first disruption in his routine comes in the form of Seth.
It’s a Wednesday and Seth is in the cafeteria when Neil comes from the gym shower, his hair only half-dry. Neil immediately tenses. It doesn’t matter that he has a class with Seth, or that Neil could call Seth something like a friend. What matters is that this is a possible weakness in his routine, and Neil can’t let any cracks show.
He only hopes Seth doesn’t see him. The cafeteria is wide, even if it’s relatively empty. Neil flips his hood up, takes his food, and retreats to a corner. He tries to bury his nose in his Spanish notebook and duck his head behind his arm. All he needs is enough time to figure out how to change his routine—
—but he never gets the chance, because he hears footsteps and someone thumping onto the seat across from him.
“No wonder you’re such a little shit. You wake up at seven every morning?”
“I’m here at seven,” Neil says, and then he realizes his mistake. He considers physically shooting himself, since he already metaphorically did the same.
Seth watches him with his chin in his hand. “Oh, yeah? How far do you live?”
“That’s not an answer, dipshit.”
Neil tries not to grind his teeth. He tells himself Seth is trying to be nice—he really is; Neil has seen him be mean, and it is terrible—but Neil still doesn’t want to answer. An answer means a truth given away, because every lie has to have some truth to be believed.
“I don’t know. Fifteen minutes?”
Seth takes that in. He doesn’t show any signs of shock or horror, but Neil never expects them from Seth. He’s a quiet kind of dangerous; the kind where Neil never knows until the last second what’s going to happen.
He’s not sure why Seth is so perplexing. He doesn’t act like a parent the way Matt and Dan sometimes do, but it’s a near thing. Seth has a strange type of care.
“I don’t have a car,” Seth says. It’s an uncharacteristic admission. “I take the bus, so it takes about the same time. I live further out.”
Neil nods. Seth doesn’t take pity, and Neil would never say he’s sorry for the luxury of a bus ride.
For a mostly normal life.
“Guess we’ll be stuck in hell together for a while,” Seth says.
“Guess so,” Neil replies. He sits with Seth for the rest of the morning and wordlessly exchanged English homework.
When Seth gives him the apple from his tray, Neil thinks maybe it won’t be so bad. It’s always good to have an alibi, anyway.
He should have expected it.
His father has people everywhere, and even though he’s behind bars, he would obviously have them on the lookout.
Nathan Wesninski doesn’t lose. Not his deals, his property, or anything else.
Especially not his son.
Neil walks home late after practice with Kevin. He takes the lit sidewalk, but there’s always a part of town that’s darker than the rest. He reaches it on his way home.
With his two bags, Neil is weighed down. Fortunately, he’s also protected. There’s a buffer between him and the man that emerges from an alley with a knife in hand. Neil has to throw himself out of the way and neatly avoid tripping in the gutter before he throws his things into the corner and prepares to fight.
There is no running from this. You don’t run from the Butcher.
The man lunges and Neil sidesteps. He barely misses the blade and tries to knock it away, but the man is stubborn. If you find yourself in a knife fight without a fight, you’re not in the fight. Get out. The words replay in Neil’s head, but they contradict the surest fact he knows: you can’t run from the Butcher.
He found that out the hard way.
Neil feels the blade bite his shoulder. It stings and burns and he ground himself in the feeling. He catches the man again, this time hitting his wrist so hard the knife falls. It clatters and Neil lunges—
—but a door opens and someone walks out.
His immediate response is terror. Neil imagines trying to fight off two of his father’s men and imagines death. He realizes he has no choice but to run and thinks fleetingly of Kevin waiting in the morning for Neil, who would never come back. For Aaron frowning over his chemistry experiment and drawing back into silence. Dan, leaning against Matt and looking at the cafeteria crowd like she could find him.
He thinks of Andrew smiling sharply at him on the track and thinks he’ll never find out what is behind that smile.
It’s Dan. It’s Dan and Neil kicks into overdrive immediately. The man lunges at Dan and Neil is flooded with an overpowering wave of rage. He throws himself at the man and catches him around the neck with his arms; his legs latch around the man’s waist. His momentum takes them down and the impact hurts, but not as much as the knife that is being driven into his leg.
The blade doesn’t get far. Maybe a quarter of an inch in, Neil tightens his grip and hisses in the man’s ear, “Don’t touch.”
He was talking about Dan, but it doesn’t matter. The man wheezes and drops the knife.
That’s good. He’s weak. If he were truly part of the family, he would never drop it. He would bury it and kill them both.
“I am leaving,” Neil murmurs, low in the man’s ear. “And I suggest you do, too. They won’t let you live when they find out you let me live.”
He pulls his arms tighter around the man’s neck and waits. When the man passes out, Neil untangles himself and shoves the heavy body off him.
“Jesus,” Dan says. She kicks the knife away and Neil has to chase it before he cleans it and shoves it in his pocket. “Neil, what—”
“I’m fine.” It’s his automatic answer, but it’s a bad one—at least for Dan. Her expression changes and she presses her lips together.
Neil can’t argue. Dan pulls him through the door she emerged from and Neil hears the low thump of music. He wonders if it’s a club and if Matt is with her. Dan leads him down a dim hallway and Neil sees a few women—some of them probably too young to be women—lingering in doorways and talking. A few of them watch Neil and Dan pass with curious expressions.
The room Dan takes him to is at the end of the hallway. It’s an explosion of clothes and makeup tables. There are girls at nearly every station, laughing and fixing their eyeliner or lipstick. Neil is confused. He has no idea where he is. He’s still trying to string things together when Dan pulls him toward the last table on the left.
“Come on. Let me see,” she says. Her hands reach for his leg and Neil immediately backs up an inch.
Dan gives him a firm stare and he stares right back. He can play this game all night.
Well, maybe a few hours. He shouldn’t stand on his leg like this for too long.
“Dan, what the hell?” Someone gasps. “Why—”
“This is Neil,” Dan says.
That should not work the way it does. Neil’s name is not a magic word, but apparently it is, because suddenly there are three women swarming out of nowhere.
“Oh my God, he really is cute!”
“Look at those eyes! Wow. What I wouldn’t give…”
“You didn’t mention he was short. Pocket-sized,” one woman says, laughing.
Neil is unnerved. He levels an accusatory glare at Dan, who shrugs. “We talk at work. Don’t worry. No one’s going to say anything.”
“Wait, what happened? He’s—” one of the woman starts, and Dan waves her away.
“Some asshole in the alley. I walked into him and Neil decided to knock him out.”
“Keeper,” one of the women says, and then she goes back to her table to fix her hair.
“Yeah,” Dan says. Her smile is faint, but it’s there. It’s there, over the concern in her gaze.
Maybe he could give in, just a little. Only because Dan will kill herself with worry, otherwise. Neil sighs and looks around the room. There aren’t many women, and Dan trusts them. Besides, it’s dark and his legs aren’t as badly scarred. He could blame it on soccer. Probably.
“Fine,” Neil says. It comes out a little tighter than he meant it to, and Dan’s hand on his arm stills him.
“If you can’t—”
“I can. Do you have what I need?”
“Yeah,” Dan says. She nods shortly and disappears under her table. She comes back with a small kit and Neil doesn’t ask why she has it. He doesn’t say anything about the fact that there are similar boxes under the other tables that he can see.
Neil sets the supplies out and unbuttons his jeans before he pauses. “A drink would help.”
One of the women from before reappears with a glass of something amber in her hand. She winks at Neil and smiles sweetly. She reminds him of Renee. “For good luck.”
Neil swallows half of it at once and then methodically pulls his jeans down. Dan’s mouth is a firm line when she sees the damage, but Neil knows it isn’t half bad. There’s barely any real damage done—just a half-inch wide laceration that can easily be stitched and bandaged. It’s not even deep enough for him to stop running.
Neil soaks gauze in the liquor and presses it to the cut. Dan hisses in sympathy, but he doesn’t make noise. Dressing wounds is a silent ritual for several reasons. He cleans it up and then takes a prepackaged needle from the kit. It takes a second for him to maneuver it, but he starts to move toward the injury anyway.
“Wait,” Dan says suddenly. He pauses and looks up, nonplussed. “Are you sure you need—I mean, if you need—”
“Yes. And I can do it.”
He doesn’t say he’s done it before, but Dan isn’t stupid. She looks at him a long moment and puts her hand on his free leg. It stays there while he works, and then he’s pressing gauze and tape around the spot. He wraps his leg with a stretched bandage and one of the women comes over to add some whiskey to his glass. She glances at his work appreciatively.
“Not bad. Can’t believe you got tape around that thigh, though,” she says with a wink.
Neil frowns. “The roll was new.”
The woman bursts into laughter as she walks away. Dan smiles and Neil looks between them.
“You can bring him back!”
“Please do!” someone else yells.
Dan shakes her head, but she’s smiling. In the dimly lit room, she looks a little older—but the smile on her face and the way she has a reassuring hand on his leg is the same Dan he knows from school.
He’s glad he ran into her. Maybe he doesn’t like his secrets spilling, but he’s not angry that it was Dan.
“How far do you live?”
“Not far. I can make it.”
“I get off soon,” Dan says.
“Good. Walk home with someone else,” Neil says. He’s not sure why he does, but then he is.
He can pretend he wasn’t thinking about the people he knows when he was being attacked, but it would be a waste of time and energy.
A waste of life.
“I always do,” Dan says with a smile. “Be safe.”
She kisses his forehead before he leaves and Neil tries not to feel an ache in his chest. He thinks of Mary and her failed mothering, her success at just keeping him alive. He thinks about Dan and Matt and Seth, all caring about him for more than his life.
Having friends isn’t all that bad.
Seth takes one look at Neil’s face and glares across the table.
“What’s that about?”
It’s probably the most concerned Seth has ever been, and it doesn’t really sound like concern. It sounds more like he’s trying to discern how much of an idiot Neil is.
Neil shrugs. He’s sure that Dan doesn’t talk to Seth, but he’s not going to risk the lie. Maybe Seth won’t believe him, anyway.
“Some guy with a knife jumped me.”
Seth’s eyes narrow and he’s suddenly moving around the table. Neil automatically slides out of reach and Seth pauses. Neil has a moment to silently curse at himself before Seth gives him a solid once-over.
“Where?” he asks.
“Leg. It’s not bad,” Neil says. He shrugs.
Seth nods once, like it means something to him. He moves to Neil’s right side and resumes eating his breakfast like nothing happened.
Except something did, and when Neil gets up to go meet Kevin, something happens again. Seth follows him out of the cafeteria.
“Do you even know where I’m going?”
“Of course, I fucking do. Do I look like a moron?”
There’s no good answer to that. Neil keeps his mouth shut and walks to the weight room. He hopes Kevin is in a good mood and then thinks he’s an idiot for even thinking that would be possible. By the time he sees Kevin in the hall, Neil has a few contingency plans.
“Let’s go,” Kevin tells Neil. His eyes slide to Seth and he waits.
“He’s not going to run today,” Seth announces.
“We’re not running,” Kevin says, and then he realizes what Seth said. His expression morphs into one of annoyance and impatience. “Yes, he is.”
Kevin doesn’t even bother to argue or explain. Neil holds his breath. Seth just stands there, hands in his pockets like nothing is wrong and he’s never talked about punching Kevin in the face.
“No. He’s not.”
Kevin looks between Seth and Neil. His sharp gaze indicates that he thinks Seth is a bad influence. Neil wants to laugh.
He’s not sure when his life turned into a parody of itself, but he’s not complaining.
“I’m not gonna argue with you, Day. If I see him on the track,” Seth says, one finger jabbing at Kevin’s chest, “I’m gonna wipe the floor with your face.”
That, Neil did not expect.
Sure, Seth fantasizes about knocking Kevin ‘five ways to Tuesday’, but he never actually does anything. He complains about Kevin’s popularity and how he can’t go one class without hearing something about him, but in the end, Neil has never expected Seth to actually confront Kevin. Seth’s animosity is more of a hobby than a vicious rivalry.
Kind of like Aaron. Kind of.
Neil looks at Kevin and shrugs. “Let’s go.”
Kevin stares at Seth like he’s unnerved while they start their routine, but Seth busies himself in a corner with some weights and eventually, it’s like he’s not there.
Except he is, and he’s looking out for Neil. It’s just another strange shift in Neil’s school life, but he takes it in stride because he doesn’t mind it. He doesn’t mind it at all.
Seth follows Neil between classes. During passing period, when Neil usually greets Nicky, Seth stays firmly attached to his side.
“Oh. Uh…hey,” Nicky says. He seems utterly bewildered by the pair before him.
“Hi,” Neil says. He doesn’t explain. Nicky shrugs and cheerfully falls into step beside Neil.
A second later, Andrew appears. He’s walking with Nicky, which should not be a thing. Except there he is, bundled into a black jacket that fits him perfectly, his eyes scrutinizing the people beside him.
He looks tired. More tired than before. Neil wonders if he’s starting to hit a plateau in his path to sobriety. It’s not fun to see.
“Who did you mouth off to, this time?” Andrew asks. He gestures to Neil’s face.
“God,” Neil says. He’s not sure why he replies this way, when he knows Andrew. When he knows well enough how truth is exchanged between them.
“He isn’t listening to you.”
“He doesn’t have a choice.”
“Something we have in common.”
“You don’t have to follow me. Shouldn’t you be on the other side of the building?” Neil asks.
He should probably shut up before Andrew kills him. Nicky watches their back and forth with increasing trepidation, and he looks a little like he’s watching a tennis match with a bomb instead of a ball.
Nicky decides to interrupt. Unfortunately, he throws Neil under the bus. “Dan tells me you kicked some guy’s ass in an alley.”
“It wasn’t that dramatic.”
“I can’t believe she got you out of your pants, though. Lucky,” Nicky teases.
“You’re fucking disgusting,” Seth says.
“What? How can you look at this face and not want to kiss it? What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with you, faggot?”
“Don’t use that word,” Andrew says. Neil catches just a flicker of something on his face—a feeling—and then it’s gone.
Neil exhales through his nose for what feels like an hour. He’s more irritated than he should be.
Nicky and Seth are probably the furthest away from each other, if Neil were to make a spectrum of his friends. Nicky is open and affectionate where Seth is stiff and combative. Even if both of them seem to care about Neil in their own strange ways, Neil could never get them to sit next to each other in silence. Or even share the same space without contradicting one another. Constantly.
The bickering continues the full five minutes it takes Neil to get to class and then he’s left in blessed silence, just for fifty minutes. Seth is waiting when he gets out of class.
At lunch, Neil is floored to see not only Nicky and Aaron at a table with Seth, but Andrew, too. They’re all waiting and then Neil sees Matt and Dan coming over, with Allison close behind.
Kevin looks physically pained when he slides his lunch onto the table before him. He’s next to Dan, at least. Still, Neil knows he wants to be anywhere else. Probably training, too.
“Neil,” Matt says. He leans across the table and Neil is unnerved by how much he’s staring. “Thank you. Thank you so—”
“Stop. Stop, it’s—” Neil starts to argue, but Matt just keeps talking.
“No. This is important. I know Dan can take care of herself, but you threw yourself in the middle of things to help her out. It means a lot.”
“He was already going to attack me before she got there,” Neil points out.
“I watched you jump on his back and throw him onto the ground,” Dan says bluntly. Neil sends her a look and she shrugs. It’s a halfhearted apology for calling him out. “You were stabbed in the leg, and you ended up with a bruise on your face. That’s not just you, fighting for you. That’s you, not thinking and fighting for me. That matters.”
Neil feels like he’s sweating. He wants to leave the cafeteria. Too many people are looking at him.
“Yeah, he’s a fucking hero.” Seth snorts. “We done here? It’s getting old watching you all jerk him off.”
“Way to make it disgusting,” Matt snaps, but he’s not as irritated as he could be. He throws a ketchup packet at Seth and then they all start to eat.
A half-dozen little conversations unfold while Neil contemplates the apple on his tray and his life choices.
He considers he could have done a lot worse.
A lot worse, he thinks, while his friends eat and talk about their classes. Halfway through lunch, Neil notices Andrew staring at his tray. The tiny corn dogs on it still sit there.
Andrew looks miles away. Neil remembers that kind of look, but not from the addicts he used to see. He remembers it from the only other children he ever saw—brief interactions that never lasted and never happened twice. They would hang in corners and look toward the windows most of the time, until someone spoke to them or moved toward them.
The difference is that those children did not act the same way Andrew does. They would cower and submit and do what they were told.
So, Neil knows Andrew. But he doesn’t. He knows only the vague cloud that follows him; not the way he’s managed to pull himself up or why he bothers with Neil at all. With other people.
“Don’t like them?” Neil asks. He looks at the tray.
Andrew’s gaze fixes on him. His expression clearly says he is unimpressed and uninterested in small talk. He doesn’t answer.
Which is fine, because Neil doesn’t do small talk.
He says, “I’ve never had a hot dog. I’m pretty sure they’re not supposed to taste like this, though.”
That gets his attention. Andrew’s head shifts on his palm and he considers Neil.
“No. I ate what I needed to, growing up,” Neil says. He’s not sure why he’s saying any of this. “That’s about it. I had birthday cakes, I think, until I was six. I don’t really remember them.”
Before he can say anything—before Neil can say something about that look in Andrew’s eyes—Nicky interrupts. He swivels in his chair, eyebrows bunched together and a wounded expression on his face.
“You’ve never had a hot dog?”
“What?” Aaron leans over the table on Nicky’s other side. He seems to have torn his gaze away from Katelyn long enough to notice what’s going on.
“Neil’s never had a hot dog.”
“Hold on—” Neil starts to say, annoyed. It wasn’t supposed to be some sort of announcement. He meant to tell Andrew, as a way to offer peace and build a bridge just a little. Not so his friends could collectively sob for him.
“We need to have a cookout,” Matt says. “I’d kill for some of Nicky’s burgers.”
“I think Renee’s pies are the best,” Allison announces.
“You sure we should let the monsters near fire?” Seth snorts.
Neil frowns. He’s not sure what Seth is talking about. Of course, Nicky just glares at Seth and points a plastic fork at him. “You’re not invited. You can’t cook.”
“You don’t know that. And why the fuck would I come, anyway? I don’t need to deal with you outside of school, too, fa—”
“No,” Neil says. It’s out of his mouth before he can think, and his hand hovers in front of Seth’s mouth.
He really didn’t mean to do it, but it happens, and—
—and, Seth shuts up.
He replaces the word on his tongue with a corn dog, savagely stabbed with his fork as he stares Nicky down.
Matt looks at Neil like he did a backflip over the table and Neil glances at Andrew. He can’t help himself. Andrew just sits there, toying with the plastic knife in his hand. But he’s a little more present, and that’s all that Neil needs. He’s done what he wanted.
It’s one of the strangest weeks Neil has ever had, and definitely the strangest lunch, but he could get used to it. He could get used to all the different people at his table, and he doesn’t mind being the person that sees everything and tries to make things work.
Because something tells him that with his friends, no one has really tried to make things work before. And more than anyone, Neil knows they deserve it.
Heyyyy it's been a while coming, but my week has been hell. What's with this full moon? Why does it hate me? I just want to give it love.
I hope you enjoy! I really love family feels when it comes to the Foxes, and I like the idea of Neil doing his best to draw the team together. In the book, it was very much about his impending death and what he felt he owed people—namely Kevin and Andrew—so it's interesting to play it out in high school. Anyway, I hope you're liking the little moments that lead up to the Big Deal.
Thank you as always for following and commenting! I really appreciate it!
Chapter 4: Undress
Neil finally has a chance to relax with his friends.
Of course, he can't escape his family. Or his past. But the one place he doesn't want to escape—the place he has carved out for himself—may be the one place that is his undoing.
There's only really once choice, as much as Neil wants to think he could leave.
Neil sits on a park bench, his knees tucked up to his chest and his hair ruffled by the wind. The park table before him is covered with cheap plastic. It has a hot dog pattern.
There is no way to actually unravel how this ended up happening.
Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s pretty simple. Neil made the mistake of trying to build a bridge with Andrew while the others were around and then they all decided it was of extreme importance to get Neil a hot dog.
Not just from a fast food joint, though. No. They had to, of course, make a production out of it.
Interestingly enough, Neil mostly blames Kevin for that.
“No, no. You can’t wait that long,” Matt says, waving a hand as he flips a burger.
Kevin crosses his arms. He actually looks like he’s pouting. “But—”
They go on like that for a while. Neil tunes them out; he’s just glad no one has started a fight yet. Neil half expected the meetup to begin with blood and tears. He just hopes it doesn’t end that way.
The park is nice. Neil hasn’t been to it before. He hasn’t really been anywhere other than the school and the route that leads to it. This—this is different.
The trees remind him of Baltimore. Not a bad thing, yet. They’re just trees. They are green and wide, with tops that reach out around them. There are squirrels, sometimes.
It’s a nice day. The weather isn’t too hot, and the breeze is nice. If Neil were someone else, he might take his jacket off. He would revel in the feeling of the sun on his skin. The wind. Every bit of outside that he didn’t get to enjoy, before.
“What are you thinking about?” Renee slides onto the bench beside him. She keeps her distance, which is good. The question is not good.
Neil wonders what would happen if he said being shot.
Unfortunately, it’s a magic word. Allison perks up from where she’s been chatting with Dan nearby. Her blond hair ripples as she turns toward the table, one hand already at the hem of her shirt. “God, I thought we were going to stand here like old people all day!”
Old people? Neil doesn’t get the connection. He does get Allison taking her shirt off in one smooth motion, flicking her wrist and folding it absently. She is, of course, wearing a bathing suit underneath.
It’s like some sort of ritual. A cue. Everyone is taking their clothes off and Neil just sits on the bench wondering if his plastic red cup of lemonade is enough to drown himself with.
“Did you not bring anything?” Nicky frowns. He was already shirtless, but Neil assumed that was just Nicky and not this mass-coordinated…thing.
“Liar.” Andrew looks at Neil over the rim of his cup. Neil thinks this is one of those days he swerves more on the side of wanting to kill Andrew. Andrew’s smirk says he knows.
“Do you…um, not have—” Nicky fumbles and Neil doesn’t know what to say.
Of course, everyone else can hear, even if they pretend not to pay attention. Neil shrugs. “Wasn’t ever the right weather, back home. I don’t mind.”
“We can get something. I mean, I don’t think I have anything that fits, but it wouldn’t take long,” Nicky offers, practically bouncing with excitement. No doubt he’s imagining dressing Neil up.
Neil’s skin starts to itch.
Or, more specifically, his scars.
“It’s fine. I—”
“Oh, come on,” Nicky grins. He is suddenly too full of energy. “We still have some leftover summer weather! Now is the time! And if you’ve never enjoyed a cookout and a lake, you have to!”
“I’m sure I’ll live.”
“Yeah, but it won’t be fun.”
Neil resists the urge to roll his eyes. He is about to say something else when Nicky suddenly darts forward and—
—and, Neil was not ready.
He was not prepared because it was Nicky. Because even as Nicky’s hands are coming toward him, Neil doesn’t immediately avoid him. Because Nicky is safe, and Neil is not afraid of him. Is not afraid of Nicky hurting him.
But some things go beyond hurt.
It’s for safety. For secrecy. He hides because it keeps him safe and everyone else around him, too.
Nicky tugs at Neil’s shirt, laughing, and then he stops.
Then, the voices and laughter die down.
Neil curls over himself. There is a roaring in his ears. He can feel every inch of his skin—every scar, burned and cut and shot into him. He can feel them, and he knows everyone can see them. He knows what they must be thinking.
“You know, the father thing was a wild guess,” Andrew muses. His cup crackles. “Is it just him? Or mom, too?”
“Andrew,” Aaron manages. His voice is strangled. Neil can’t look at them.
Nicky is too quiet. He’s too quiet and Neil manages to tear his eyes away from the table to look at him. He looks—hurt. There is so much hurt in his eyes that Neil almost wants to ask him what’s wrong, or what hurt him. But he knows.
The shirt in Nicky’s hand is balled up. His knuckles are white. He can’t stop looking, but Neil thinks he’s not really looking at all.
Dan’s voice breaks the silence. “You know, Matt has a scar on his back. He passed out once, back when he was using. Fell from a fire escape and landed in a dumpster. There was glass.”
“That makes me feel so much better,” Neil says. He doesn’t mean it to be nasty. It doesn’t even come out that way. It comes out, instead, like everything else does. Cheeky. “I guess we’re both trash.”
There is a beat of silence. That beat is terrifying.
It passes, though, and then Matt snorts. It’s harsh—he struggles—but he manages to get it out. “Yeah,” he agrees. “We must be brothers.”
It should not slide so easily. It really shouldn’t. But everyone there is scarred in one way or another and at least for now, Neil knows there won’t be any questions.
There might be questions in the way Andrew’s eyes rest on him, or the way Nicky pauses when he hands Neil his jacket back.
Neil leaves the jacket off. It’s not like there’s a point, now. Anyway, he can’t get mustard on it. It’s his favorite.
So, at least Andrew doesn’t know. That is the sole upside to the cookout slipup. The comment about Neil’s father, during Andrew’s bizarre little test, was just that. A comment.
He doesn’t know anything.
Except how to bother Neil, apparently.
Like now. Now, Neil is on the track with Nicky, who apparently has a game in three days. He is cheerfully pessimistic about it—realistic, he said, when Neil asked—and doesn’t seem to mind their training. Except Neil knows Nicky and he knows really, Nicky just wants to do his best and help the team win.
Also now, Andrew is making a game out of throwing rocks at Neil.
Well. They’re more like pebbles, but it’s annoying as shit and he seems to be making a point of hitting Neil’s lower back and his ass, when given the opportunity.
“You’ll be fine,” Neil tells Nicky, right as a particularly fast rock hits the small of his back. It makes the fine come out strained, which isn’t helping. Neil tries again. “I mean it. Your stamina is much better.”
“I haven’t shaved off more than a minute.”
“A minute is a lot.” A minute can save your life.
Nicky’s jaw still works like he’s chewing on a bone. Despite his sunny disposition, his eyes hold a seed of uncertainty. That little hurt, Neil knows, means everything.
Neil would sigh, but he’s running. “I still don’t get why you had to work on stamina. Sure, it’s important, but I’d think that the rest is more important. How you play.”
“That doesn’t help,” Nicky groans. His head lolls forward and he slows down, because they’re on their third circuit and Neil is smart about training, even if he’s not smart with his routine.
Neil chews on his bottom lip. Another pebble hits his shoulder blade.
This is getting old.
“Does your cousin torment everyone that isn’t family, or is he just making a special effort for me?”
“You think he doesn’t torment his family?” Nicky snorts. “Andrew once froze my toothbrush in a block of ice because he said I left the sink too messy.”
“He said that?”
“No. Well, you know—he glared.”
Neil rolls his eyes. He believes it.
Another rock hits his ass.
Game day is not something Neil is excited about. He would not even go, if it weren’t for Nicky.
And Kevin. Kevin is determined to stick Neil in some sort of sport. Neil admittedly takes some pleasure in denying him at every turn.
Games are crowded. There are too many people and not enough escape routes. They’re always useless things, filled with people that are distracted and noise that could cover up a crime. Games are bad.
The other bad thing about them is that, since it’s Nicky, Andrew will be there.
Of course, before the game, there’s the nearly one-hour production that is supposed to hype up the crowd. Neil wanted to skip, but Katelyn is a cheerleader, which means Aaron is going, which means Andrew is going, which means…
…well. Everyone has to be there an hour early.
Not that Aaron openly goes to Katelyn. Neil only has a vague idea of what’s going on there, but he can’t quite fault Aaron for not wanting to involve Andrew in his love life. Or whatever.
Anyway, the point is that they arrive an hour and twenty minutes early, because Aaron decides he and Neil need to check on their experiment.
“Did you even change after school?”
“Waste of clothes.”
“God forbid you waste one of the seven outfits you own,” Aaron mutters. Neil doesn’t correct him.
This late, the school takes on a different aura. The darkened hallways seem less draining and more sinister. Some people would probably be scared by it. Neil has seen enough mundane locations become nightmares that it doesn’t bother him.
At least no one’s bleeding out on the ground.
The lab is closed. Aaron curses and rattles the doorknob. “Shit. Maybe—”
“Why do we have to check now? If you really want to, tomorrow—”
“No. Now,” Aaron snaps.
Neil is quiet. He takes a moment to step back—mentally—and evaluate Aaron.
He’s anxious. Something else too, maybe. It must be Katelyn, Neil thinks, because nothing else has changed about their situation. Aaron definitely isn’t nervous for Nicky. He’s nervous about Katelyn and by extension, Andrew. Why?
It’s none of his business and he shouldn’t care. Except Neil finds his mouth opening and then he says, “If you’re that worried, shouldn’t you be in the gym, so you can keep an eye on her?”
Aaron’s hand tenses on the doorknob. His jaw clenches visible and Neil sees the change from behind him.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know you don’t want Andrew to know, but I also know you don’t want to dump her.”
“Shut up.” Aaron rattles the doorknob again.
Neil resists the urge to sigh, but just barely. “What is it that’s so difficult for you to talk to him about? Obviously, he cares about you, as much as he can. You—”
“I said shut up,” Aaron growls. “You don’t. Know. Anything.”
It’s bad. Worse than he had cautiously guessed. Neil weighs his options. Pushing is always a good thing, he finds. Breaking a bone to set it. But Aaron isn’t like that and—
—and, he’s kind of the closest thing to a friend that Neil can imagine having.
So instead, Neil carefully nudges Aaron aside and kneels by the doorknob. He slides a pin into the lock and twists, working with both hands, until there’s a solid click and it swings open.
One for one.
Aaron stares at the far wall. His jaw works a little; he’s still gnawing through some sort of doubt and anger. When he finally gets through, he just says, “Thanks.”
It’s more than just. Neil knows that better than anyone.
Aaron needs the experiment, so Neil backs away and lets him work. This is just what works. The same way Neil runs, Aaron has measurements and ruled paper.
It’s nice, even if it’s not great. The silence and the empty classroom, with Aaron leaning over a lab table and Neil watching the windows.
Apparently, he should have been watching the doors.
Neil barely hears it in time. The slide of sneakers on the floor. His instinct strikes like lightning and Neil only registers throwing Aaron to the ground, the tumble of chairs hitting the floor and metal clanging as a gunshot cracks through the room.
Aaron makes a noise—not pain, good, not pain—and Neil rolls away. He skids behind a table and then launches himself out of cover without a second thought.
The guy is running.
Aaron is yelling for him, but Neil doesn’t care. Can’t. All he can see is the barrel of that gun pointed toward the gym and everyone—
—Nicky and Kevin and Andrew—
—he can’t, Neil can’t, so he runs. He runs like his life depends on it because someone’s does and if someone dies, it is because of Neil.
The man is sprinting. Neil catches up to him before he even opens the doors that lead outside, to the gym. The adrenaline means Neil isn’t even winded; he launches himself at the man and tackles him to the ground. They hit the tiled hallway painfully, but Neil couldn’t care less.
The man grunts and struggles, but he doesn’t say anything. Nothing.
He’s not one of Nathan’s men.
It should be comforting, but Neil only knows that someone with a gun is trying to kill people and some of those people could be the only people he gives a damn about.
And Neil could be wrong. It could just be that this is another trick.
Maybe this man is just a distraction. Maybe there are more, after the others.
Neil’s heart pounds. He looks toward the gym, but there are no screams or gunshots. Yet. Nothing to indicate that something might be wrong.
But then, their work was always silent. It was done with knives.
The man manages to worm his way onto his side. He grunts and then, suddenly, Neil feels himself being thrown back. He keeps his grip, but his head smacks the wall, a dull crack that makes him grit his teeth. Not bad enough for a concussion, but bad. He might bleed.
“Stop,” Neil growls. He tries to maneuver well enough to reach for the knife in his pocket, but he can’t risk letting go. “Stop it. I don’t want to kill you.”
“You can’t,” the man spits. His first words. “You’re all going to die.”
It could be vague, but it could also be painfully specific. Neil isn’t going to take the chance.
He instead takes a chance with his life, because that, he knows how to do.
Neil drops his grip as suddenly as he can. He reaches for the knife in his pocket—
—but of course, he’s not fast enough. He knew he wouldn’t be.
The shot comes at the same time a chorus of yells and a scream echo down the hall. The doors are open, Neil realizes, and he can see his friends standing a few feet away from the flood of people leaving the gym.
Aaron, breathless and red, sways next to Nicky. His eyes are on Neil—on his shirt, which is gray because it was white and always gets washed with his jeans—on the blood.
Neil opens his mouth because he needs to say something—needs to tell them to run—but then the man lifts his hand again and what comes out instead is a furious roar.
Do not make a noise. Death should come quietly for them, son. They should not have a chance.
The rules only work if he’s trying to stay alive. In the moment—in this moment, Neil is not. He is trying to die, just to keep the people before him alive.
He hears Nicky’s no and sees Kevin starting to move forward. After that, Neil does not have the time to pay attention. He is only able to concentrate on the man before him and the knife in his hand.
One of Neil’s hands goes to the man’s chin. His other arm comes around the side, with the blade.
He didn’t want any of them to see this. Didn’t want it to happen.
He doesn’t have a choice.
Nathaniel knows every soft spot on the human body and then some. He knows exactly how to angle the blade and where to drive it. He knows that the blood spilling over his hand is warm with life that will never again exist, from a heart that will soon stop beating.
Death makes people frantic and desperate. The man turns and throws Neil to the ground, because instinct tells him it will save him, even as his slit throat pours red over the hand pressed to it.
When the man points his gun again, Neil is satisfied that he has ended things—
—except that when the next shot comes, it bursts through the man’s already—torn throat and paints Neil’s face with a spray of warmth and copper.
The body that hits the floor nearly lands on him.
Neil breathes. Looks up at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling and counts.
Thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.
He feels warm. He remembers he was shot.
“—d, oh my God,” Nicky sobs. His shoes squeak on the bloody floor but he determinedly ignores the shooter. He crouches next to Neil and his hands shake when he tries to push Neil’s hair away from his face. “Neil, please—”
“Did it start?” He’s not sure why he asks. Maybe to comfort Nicky.
Nicky holds back a sob. “No, no, it didn’t, I—”
“Then you have time.” Neil blinks and starts to shift on his elbows to push himself up. “More time to practice.”
“Practice? Now? That’s what he’s thinking about,” Allison says incredulously. She still looks immaculate, but the wild energy in her movements says she’s unsettled.
Kevin notices what Neil is trying to do. “Stop. You shouldn’t—you need to—”
“Went through. It’s not bad,” Neil mutters. He realizes his mistake when he gets to his feet and finds Andrew’s eyes on him.
That heavy gaze. Why does it feel important?
Wait a minute. “Who shot—”
“Security guard,” Seth says lowly. “We should move. There’s probably an ambulance at the gates.”
Neil wants to argue—he does—but he doesn’t have the energy. He is sluggish, ha, and he lets Nicky direct him with a warm hand on his arm for support. Nothing should really matter now. Nothing but the fact that they are safe, and Neil is somehow miraculously alive.
It hits just a second later.
Escape. Leave. Do not let them help you. If they help, they ask questions, and questions are dangerous.
She won’t leave him alone. Don’t you dare walk toward them. Don’t you dare.
“I can’t,” Neil suddenly says. His breath is thin in his chest, but it’s not the bullet.
Nicky immediately stops. “What? What is it? Is it the—”
“I can’t see them,” Neil repeats. He doesn’t know how to explain. How to make it better.
Andrew finally speaks. “We don’t have time for this.” It’s the closest to agitated he’s ever sounded. “You are going to bleed out. I know you have stitched up worse. We have all seen it before.”
That’s not it, that’s not it, Neil wants to say, but he can’t. He can’t tell the truth.
One word. One word is all that changes it.
Suddenly, Andrew turns on his heel. His green-brown eyes pin Neil in place again, but this time, there is no trace of annoyance. Only certainty. He finds whatever he’s looking for and then his mouth twists a little. Like he sees something he doesn’t want to recognize.
“He said no,” Seth interrupts. “Besides, they’ll ask him shit about—they’ll want to know. We don’t need to deal with that. Let’s go.”
We. We, we, we. There should not be a we. You take that highway as far as you can go and then you go further. Don’t you stop. Find yourself a bottle and a needle; take care of it yourself. You can’t trust anyone. No one.
Neil breathes in sharply. The pain sparks and then Aaron is miraculously at his side, pulling them toward the side exit. “Let’s go. Abby will look at him.”
“You want us to take him to Abby?” Nicky gasps. “You know how bad of an idea that is?”
“Better than leaving him wherever the hell he lives to bleed.”
That’s it. All it takes is no, Andrew’s stare, and the sudden support of Seth and Aaron. Just miniscule shifts in the wind and then Neil is being whisked away.
He is in the car and Aaron asks him, “What’s your school schedule?”
“Schedule. You need to stay awake. Look at me. Look—”
Neil can’t. He passes out.
He wakes up again on the road with Aaron grimly holding his face. Neil’s cheek is warm from being slapped.
He remembers it in fragments, later. Abby’s hushed and strained conversation. The low voices of the twins. Alcohol fumes and the burn of stitches.
Nicky holding his hand. Aaron calling him an idiot.
Andrew sits on the bleachers in a faux-casual pose, his arms dangling over his knees. Great.
“Don’t throw rocks again. I’m injured.”
“It’s been a week, and they weren’t rocks. Are you picking up Kevin’s habit of being a drama queen? It’s not attractive.”
Why would I want to be attractive?
Neil doesn’t get a chance to say anything else. Nicky jogs up to him from the track, his cheeks pink and forehead damp. “You shouldn’t be running,” he says, frowning. “You can just—”
“I’m fine. It’s been a week.” Neil ignores the pointed look Andrew gives him.
“No,” Kevin announces. God. The baseball team is off and apparently, that means Kevin has more time than usual to pester Neil. When he’s not busy becoming the ultimate athlete. Or drinking. “Sit out.”
“Sure. Anything you say.”
Kevin scowls as Neil walks toward the track. He’s cursedly tall, so it only takes a few seconds for him to get in front of Neil. His arms are crossed over his chest and his green eyes are narrowed. “No. Sit.”
It seems like it’ll be more stress than it’s worth to argue. Besides which, Neil can feel Aaron staring holes into his back from the first-floor science classroom. He’s probably brewing something up in the lab to sedate Neil with, if he refuses.
Nicky cheerfully takes the track with Kevin. Neil knows that won’t last long.
“Interesting to see your stupidity extends beyond socialization,” Andrew muses.
So much for peace. Neil doesn’t turn to look at Andrew. “You watch me a lot, for someone that apparently doesn’t care about anything.”
“Oh? Who says that?”
Watching me or not caring? Neil leans back against the bleachers and closes his eyes. The sun does feel nice on his face. If he stays out too long like this, though, his freckles will show up. And then it’s one step closer to the past.
Neil meant for that to be the end, but of course, Andrew hums absently and proceeds to throw more rocks. Verbally.
“That was certainly a surprise, though. Little surprising Neil. Like a gift that keeps giving.”
“That’s me. Bow and all.”
“You were trying to kill him.”
“He was trying to kill you.”
Mistake. The word rings like an alarm in Neil’s head. He immediately presses his lips together. As if he can seal the answers shut within him, even though he’s already slipped up.
Andrew leans forward on his elbows and Neil can’t help but look.
“You look better.”
Well, shit. Guess I die, now.
He didn’t mean to say it. Neil certainly did not mean to give a sort-of-compliment to Andrew. Except he did and he is not entirely sure he was lying.
Liar. You know.
Andrew’s lips press together in a thin line. It’s almost mimicry. “Stop.”
“Don’t look at me like that.”
Andrew’s eyes narrow. Neil prepares himself for something—anything—while his heart migrates to his throat.
What he gets instead is Aaron interrupting them, apparently having sprinted from the classroom. Neil wonders if he saw the exchange.
“If you’re not running, you should be helping me,” Aaron says. His voice is strained and tight.
Andrew’s gaze slides lazily over Neil and then he leans back. His relaxed pose is a lie. Kind of like the one you just told yourself.
“I guess you should go, then,” Andrew says mockingly. His gaze fixes on his brother. “Before you run out of time.”
He is more right than he knows.
I am...so sorry. I moved and a lot has happened since I started this fic, but I'm back! I am back and so excited. Thank you so much for sticking it out with me!
Chapter 5: Nothing Left
Neil finally catches a break from fighting. He can't catch a break from his friends, though.
Maybe he doesn't want to.
He is aware about three minutes into stretching that Matt is staring.
Matt immediately looks away. Neil isn’t fooled. He’s about to ask again when Matt resignedly drops his head into his hands. He rubs his forehead and then presses his hands to his mouth, like it can keep the words locked up safe.
“The…I don’t care. Well, I do care,” Matt amends, wincing. Neil stares. “I just. Your scars.”
The way he says scars is full of defeat. Neil carefully paces away from the track and toward the bleachers. It’s late in the afternoon; class is out. Nicky went with Kevin to find something to drink that wasn’t water. They are supposed to be done with practice.
Neil is never done.
“What about them?” Neil wants to be unworried. He wants to speak lightly about the disaster on his skin.
It’s difficult. Especially now that he finds himself caring what Matt says.
Matt shrugs helplessly. “You—I know you never talk about home. Or family. Or anything.” He smiles sardonically, and Neil doesn’t interrupt. He can give Matt that much. “I just…I need you to know that I can help. We can. All of us—we care, you know?”
How do you know something like that? Neil doesn’t know how to explain. How to say that he tries not to care and tries not to make others care. That he doesn’t know, because he avoids care like the plague. He runs from it.
He runs for his life.
“They’re old,” Neil says. Instead of everything else. Instead of what he should or what he needs to. “You saw.”
“Yeah, well, the Civil War is technically old, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fucking important.” The reply sounds more…venomous than Neil expected. It’s not turned on him, but it’s harsh. “And they’re not that old. I know what scars look like.”
How do I even respond to that?
Neil isn’t used to anyone asking questions because they care. He can handle an interrogation. He can handle misplaced concern.
He cannot handle this. Not this kind of reality where someone cares, and they care because it is Neil. Not because he is a teenager or a mystery. Not because he is a charity case.
“I won’t—the person that did them. They’re not around.”
Half-truth. Neil can’t promise he won’t get any more. He’s already developing some; a starburst, where the gunshot caught him. Another where he was stabbed in the thigh.
Before this is over, the more painful ones will probably be beneath the surface.
Matt nods shortly. He stares at his hands like they are foreign objects. Like he doesn’t understand how they can’t fix everything. “It was your dad, wasn’t it? Your mom, too?”
It’s a little too close.
His first instinct is to refuse. To withdraw or remind Matt that he wasn’t going to pry. Except Neil is frayed from the stress of the past week and he has never wanted so much before in his life. He has never wanted to have friends, much less keep them. He has never wanted someone else to be safe.
Neil has only ever worried about staying alive. Things are different, now. Now that he’s only worried about everyone around him. Everyone in his close-knit circle.
So, Neil is exhausted, and he thinks maybe it’s not dangerous. Maybe he can let a little truth out. Maybe he can tell the truth, so his lies are easier.
There’s always a little bit of truth in a lie.
“He’s not around. She’s not, either.”
“Just because you’re not being hurt right now doesn’t mean you’re not being hurt.”
Neil doesn’t know how to answer that, either.
He arrives at his makeshift home at approximately ten-thirty at night. Kevin kept him late on the field and Neil showered at the school.
When Neil finds the door to his hideout cracked open a little, he panics.
Well. As close to panics as he can.
Neil draws the pocketknife at his side. He silently makes his way into the room, heart racing, and checks everything. There are no signs of a disturbance. His backpack—and everything he needs—is with him. The only things in the room are the things he’s stolen to make a bed.
Once he is certain that no one is hiding, and nothing has been left or taken, he runs.
Andrew sits on the porch with a glass of lemonade. He can hear Abby and Aaron talking in the kitchen, where they’re making some kind of dessert. Wymack is probably washing dishes.
It’s cool outside. If he wanted to close his eyes, his body might be tricked into sleeping. Maybe.
Well. He might already be asleep.
Neil is running down the street.
Andrew cocks his head to the right. Hm. “Aaron.”
The chatter inside lulls. Footsteps come around to the front door and then Aaron is there, a vague cloud hanging over his expression. He expects trouble.
Well, it’s Neil. Same difference.
Aaron stiffens and then, as if there is no danger or question that enters his mind, starts to walk down the porch steps. Andrew watches Neil run and then Aaron calls his name and Neil stops. Andrew scratches a nail against his glass. It just slides off.
“What? What is it?” Aaron is not quiet, but Andrew can barely hear him.
The redhead stands panting at the foot of the stairs. He is distant. A ship passing in the night. He might be too far to hear.
Aaron’s jaw clenches. His fingers flex and that—Andrew knows that. Knows the act-don’t-act. The struggle.
Neil blinks. “I was sleepwalking.”
Andrew nearly laughs. It is by far the worst lie he has ever heard and maybe the first he’s heard Neil tell.
Neil has not lied to Andrew. Maybe because he knows better. Or maybe more, a small voice says. Andrew ignores that one.
So, why is he lying to Aaron?
Abby is on the porch. Andrew didn’t notice her come out and that aggravates him. “Neil? Is he okay?”
She probably thinks he’s injured. He might be. Andrew peers at the redhead, but there are no obvious signs of blood.
Neil shakes his head once. “Sleepwalking. I was—”
“With your backpack?” Wymack starts to walk closer and Neil slides a half-step back. The lines of tension in his body scream no and Andrew suddenly, inexplicably, finds himself on his feet.
Andrew is not sure why he decides to do something. What he does know is that his hand falls on the back of Neil’s neck without any clear thought process leading up to the decision. Andrew can feel how hot Neil is and he can feel the cool sheen of sweat on his skin.
He can feel Neil’s pulse under his thumb.
“Stop.” Oh. Good fucking advice.
Except Neil listens. He listens and somehow, suddenly, uncoils just a little. Just enough for his eyes, blue and endless, to find Andrew. There is a spark far behind them; a recognition that reaches from whatever depths he’s fallen into. “I didn’t do anything.”
Not yet. “What are you doing here?”
“I didn’t know I was here.” Neil glances across the street. Andrew has a clear view of the freckles on his face. The darker color of his eyelashes.
He should really stop looking.
“Well, you are.” Aaron’s response is strained. Heavy. Andrew glances at him and finds Andrew glaring holes at his arm. Well, his hand.
Funny. Andrew pointedly lets go and wiggles his fingers. Aaron glares harder.
“We’re making dessert,” Abby finally says. She sounds uncertain, but she can’t not say something. It is physically impossible for her, Andrew thinks. “Why don’t you come in?”
No, Andrew thinks. He does not want to share dessert with Neil.
Andrew weighs the decision. He decides he does not mind, so long as Neil gives him more truths. More of whatever it was Andrew saw, when his hand was on Neil’s neck.
Aaron pointedly slides past Andrew to walk next to Neil. Andrew is immensely amused. As if he’s about to stab Neil in the middle of dessert.
He would not jeopardize dessert like that. Blood is not sweet enough.
Aaron hangs back with Neil. Andrew barely hears what his brother whispers, but he hears.
“Is he home?”
“Matt. He told me—he didn’t tell me everything. But—”
Neil doesn’t reply. Andrew assumes he must make a face or gesture, because Aaron doesn’t press.
The amusement is fading, anyway. It started to dissipate when Aaron asked, is he home.
Abby goes back to what she was pulling from the oven. It looks like some sort of crumble and smells like apples and cinnamon. There is a tub of ice cream on the counter and a few small plates.
Wymack is in the middle of asking Abby if she needs a knife when Neil suddenly walks away from Aaron, mechanically finding a knife and turning in a small circle as he scans the kitchen. Abby and Wymack’s words die in the air as Neil finds a lemon and slices it neatly in his hand. He is halfway to the counter when he stops in his tracks.
Neil’s hands loosen, and Andrew half expects the lemon and knife to fall. Instead, Neil places them on the counter and says, “Sorry.”
“Why…lemon?” Aaron asks, strained.
“It…that’s what you use,” Neil says. He sounds like he might be close to having a small breakdown. Or a very big one.
Wymack clears his throat. “Yeah. That’s in the British recipe, right?”
Andrew wonders if Neil is about to start speaking with an accent. Andrew thinks he might die. Or kill Neil.
Abby takes the lemon. No one really says anything. Andrew wants to refuse the sour addition to his dessert, but he lets it slide. Just once.
Just because it’s not that bad.
“You’re already here. May as well stay. You have your things, too,” Abby points out.
Neil clutches the strap of his backpack tighter. Aaron leans against the sink with his arms crossed. He doesn’t say anything, but Neil can feel the answer radiating from his body. Stay.
Aaron shows him a bathroom where he can shower if he needs to. Neil stands inside, door closed, for a full three minutes before he can move.
There is a painting above the toilet. The towels smell like fabric softener and shampoo. There are stray hairs, on the edge of the sink and beside the trash can. The carpet next to the tub is a little faded in the center.
It looks like someone lives here. Like there’s a family.
Neil yanks his shirt over his head and tries not to look in the mirror. He tries not to look at all the little signs of life. He changes quickly—
—and opens the bathroom door to find Aaron leaning against the wall, studiously staring at the far wall.
“You can sleep in my room.”
“I am not stealing your bed.”
“It’s not stealing if you give it.”
Aaron crosses his arms. Neil has the petty idea to mirror his stance, but he decides against it. He doesn’t want to cause a scene and involve Abby. She should probably be asleep.
A beat of silence. Aaron says, “If you don’t use it—”
“I can sleep on the floor. It won’t be any different.”
Aaron’s jaw twitches. Neil feels his heart soar a little. It is almost like flying. Being in an airplane. The weightless threat of leaving the ground.
The possibility of crashing.
Finally, Aaron gives in. His face says he doesn’t want to. “Fine. But you’re using a pillow. And a blanket. It’s not like we only have one set.”
Neil tentatively follows Aaron to his room. It looks…
He had no expectations, but if he did, Neil thinks he would have expected it to look like this. There are a few posters—small, protected with plastic. A bookshelf with textbooks and other novels. There is a desk on one wall, a lamp and laptop and messy schoolwork. There are a few pairs of shoes in random places.
It’s neat, but not perfect. Like Aaron.
There is also a stuffed bear on the bed. Neil pokes its stomach.
Aaron bats his hand away but doesn’t meet his eye. He might be blushing. “Take a fucking pillow.”
Neil actually feels himself smile a little. A bear. He thinks about Katelyn. Wonders if she gave it to him, or if he’s had it for a long time. Aaron is not immune to feeling something other than anger.
There are glasses on the bedside table. Neil drops his pillow on the ground and picks them up while Aaron closes the bedroom door.
When Aaron turns around, he sighs. He looks strange from the other side of the lenses. Just a little warped. “You’re going to fuck up your vision. You don’t need to add that to the list.”
Neil slides the glasses back onto the table. Aaron turns the lamp off but pauses at the foot of his bed, frowning. “Don’t you have…not jeans? To wear?”
There aren’t many options for Neil to take when he answers. He can’t exactly explain that he sleeps in his clothes because if he needs to run, he doesn’t need the added step of getting dressed. The added time during which he could be caught or killed.
Aaron interprets the silence, but not in the way Neil expected. Aaron blinks and then he is absolutely blushing as he tries desperately to keep a cool expression. “You, uh…usually…”
When Aaron vaguely waves his hand, Neil gets the point.
“Yes.” Why the fuck did I say that?
This is bad. Neil estimates that it wouldn’t break his legs if he jumped out the bedroom window. It’s only one story. He could pay for the window.
Aaron keeps his mouth firmly shut while he yanks his sheets back. “Yeah, well, just don’t—it’s not the end of the fucking world if you’re in your boxers. Jesus. Just—”
“I don’t have to—”
“You are not sleeping in your damn jeans, Josten. I’m trying to be nice.”
“Does it hurt?”
Aaron snorts. But he does relax a little, while he throws himself up his bed and kicks the sheets over his body. He’s apparently violent about sleep. “Relax. You’re not going to ruin my reputation.”
Neil still isn’t sure about it, but—
—but. He does want, distantly, the comfort. Not the stupid jeans; the stupid comfort that comes with being safe. With not worrying about having to leave because someone walks in on him sleeping in an abandoned home.
He kicks his jeans off and folds them next to his head, just in case.
It doesn’t take five minutes before Aaron sighs loudly. Neil rubs a hand over his eyes. “What?”
Springs. Aaron must turn over, or something. “You were an idiot.”
“You are,” Aaron amends. He sounds like he’s rolling his eyes. “You—do you really not know?”
“About what?” He knows. He has been very keen to avoid this particular conversation.
Aaron leans toward the edge of his mattress. Neil catches the seriousness in his green-brown eyes and the way his pale hair is already sticking up in the back. “You shouldn’t have gone after him. No matter what. You saw that he had a gun.”
Neil avoids his gaze. “I know.”
“So? What? You could have died.”
There is a thing in Aaron’s voice. A hulking, angry beast. It is not trained on Neil, though. It is chewing at something else. Maybe at Aaron.
“He was going to kill someone.” Neil shrugs. “I didn’t think.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Lie,” Aaron says, harsher. Neil thinks he recognizes the thing in Aaron’s gaze, now. It claws at Neil’s chest. Worry. He doesn’t want Aaron to worry. “Stop lying to me. I don’t want—you don’t have to.”
Neil scrapes one of his nails against his palm, beneath the blanket covering his body. “Everyone was in the gym.”
“Everyone,” Aaron echoes. Everyone. “You’re a fucking idiot, Josten. You just…you’re an idiot.”
He finishes weakly, because it is probably too much, and Neil keeps his mouth shut. He is.
Ten minutes later, Neil thinks they are finally going to sleep. He is almost asleep.
But Aaron is still at the edge of his bed and when he speaks, it is nearly a whisper. “Don’t protect me. I don’t need you to. I don’t need you thinking you need to die for me.”
Too late, Neil doesn’t say, and then he falls asleep.
Abby knocks on the door early in the morning. “I’m going to work. Breakfast is in the oven.”
She must be used to not getting an answer, because Neil hears her footsteps recede and the front door shuts soon after. Aaron grumbles into his pillow and stubbornly pulls his sheets closer.
Neil is usually preparing to run at this time. He has his routine.
But he’s staying with Aaron, so Neil thinks maybe the routine can wait.
He’s still awake, though. Neil rises to stretch and thinks maybe he’ll find out what’s in the kitchen. Or maybe figure out if he can exercise in the backyard to wake up.
Neil opens the door, tries to shut it silently, and turns to find himself face-to-face with Andrew.
Am I supposed to say something?
Andrew’s eyes slide down Neil and then—
—then, Neil remembers he is in his underwear.
Not that he has shame for being in his underwear. He doesn’t. It’s just that Neil is walking out of Aaron’s bedroom in his underwear.
Neil was fairly certain he and Andrew were on even ground, before. Now, he thinks he is probably top of the list for people Andrew is going to murder.
After all the work Neil did to prove he wasn’t a threat, too.
Before Andrew has a chance to quietly dispatch Neil, Aaron’s bedroom door opens, and he stumbles out. He is bleary-eyed but not an idiot. One glance between Neil and Andrew is enough for him to raise a finger at Andrew and say, “Don’t.”
Like that will help.
Neil thinks at least he’ll be able to eat breakfast before he dies.
He is trying to broadcast save me with his face.
Nicky glances between the trio and laughs nervously. “Hey, Neil. What, uh—what’s up? I didn’t realize we were picking you up, today.”
“He stayed over,” Andrew says evenly. Aaron shoots him a look.
Nicky’s eyes widen and then—
—then, he makes things even worse.
“Oh, finally! Jesus. I mean, it was kind of up in the air who would crack first. Erik thought it might be Kevin. As if. Does Katelyn know?”
Aaron chokes. Andrew smiles, but it is the type of smile that is all teeth and absolutely no smile. Andrew looks more like he is going to eat someone than laugh.
“No,” Neil manages to say. “That’s not—”
“I know.” Nicky cackles. “Anyway, if it were one of these two—”
“I could wreck half this car and pay for the repairs,” Andrew says cheerfully. “But I’d hate to destroy the side you and Aaron are sitting on.”
Nicky clears his throat and shuts his mouth, but he is still hiding a grin. Neil is completely lost.
Mostly, he just wants to get to school. For the first time in his miserable life.
When they arrive, Seth is pacing around the front steps. His eyes narrow when he sees Andrew’s car and he leans back against the railing, gaze trained on Neil. He sweeps over Neil like he’s looking for something and then fixes Aaron with a stare.
“Breakfast?” Seth asks.
Neil has never been so glad to see him. “Yeah. I need to grab something from the gym.”
Instead of waiting, Seth follows him. Neil thinks he can hear Aaron tearing into Nicky or Andrew as they walk away.
Neil shrugs. “I…” Don’t want to talk about it? Am fine?
“You look exhausted.” Seth raises an eyebrow. “Did you sleep?”
“Not you, too.”
Seth blanches. “Wait, what—”
“Forget it.” Neil walks faster.
He’s pretty sure Seth won’t forget, but at least he’ll drop it for the morning. Neil is not awake enough to deal with Seth asking about what happened. He is barely awake enough to deal with the others.
Seth hangs around the door while Neil performs his usual bag switch. Except this time, Neil finds a piece of paper that flutters to the floor.
He knows before he reaches for it what it is, but he opens it anyway.
See you for Open House, Junior.
andrew: did aaron just steal my fucking thunder
neil: did aaron just sign my death sentence
Well this was a ride, I hope you all enjoyed it!! I am trying to keep up with this fic, but I might end up with every-other-week posts as the AFTG Reverse Bang and AFTG Bingo come up. I have...uh...like 20 fics...pending...
Chapter 6: Feel the Fire
High school life gets as normal as it can be. Maybe it's a little too good. With an expiration date hanging over his head, though, Neil decides he doesn't give a shit anymore.
“Yes.” Renee smiles sweetly and hands Neil the paper. “We need volunteers to help set up.”
Neil takes the paper only because he can feel Allison staring from across the cafeteria. The flyer is mostly a shade of pastel orange, with pink and reddish text. It looks like a sunset.
Fitting, Neil thinks. He is probably going to run out of time by prom.
Renee leaves and Neil absently stabs at a cube of carrot-colored food on his tray. He is not quite sure it is carrot, or that anything else on the tray is what it seems.
Do I have something in common with cafeteria food?
“Didn’t think trailer trash like you would be picky about cafeteria food.” Seth drops his tray haphazardly onto the table. There’s no venom in his comment. Just the usual stabbing humor.
Neil raises an eyebrow. “I don’t live in a trailer.”
Seth smirks. “Yeah? Well, then I guess you just shop at Goodwill.”
“What’s wrong with my clothes?”
“The fact that you ask is what’s wrong,” Aaron mutters as he slides next to Neil. To his credit, Seth only gives him a three-second evaluation before returning his attention to lunch. “Don’t look. Andrew might come over.”
Neil glances up. He thinks Seth chokes on his drink; he’s not sure. He is too busy watching Andrew walk out of the lunch line with a disinterested expression and a cigarette that’s not well-hidden beneath his tray.
“Has he ever been caught smoking before?”
“Wymack knows,” Aaron says shortly.
Seth is still coughing. He does manage to get out, “You assume anyone wants to stop him. It’s easier to handle the psycho when he’s got a cigarette to distract him.”
Neil almost points out that a cigarette isn’t much of a distraction. He never gets the chance, because Andrew slams his tray next to Seth. It is absolutely purposeful, because a few peas go flying and one bounces off Seth’s arm. Neil is prepared for an all-out war but surprisingly, Seth pointedly ignores the petty attack and stabs one of his mini corndogs.
Andrew lazily cuts his food without any clear intentions of eating anything. He stares at Neil.
If Lola doesn’t kill him by prom, Neil suspects Andrew will take a shot at it.
Decorating, it turns out, happens after school. It also comes with extra credit.
The extra credit, Neil does not need. He might miss every field trip by virtue of perpetually ‘forgetting’ his permission slips, but he’s not doing badly in his classes. In fact, he is doing well enough that he is starting to worry about his teachers wanting to speak with his parents about it.
Anyway, the point is that prom committee meets after school—which means the school is open later and the main gym is also open.
Basically, Neil can use the school for longer than usual. He doesn’t have to escape to an abandoned building to try and stay hidden until the morning. This is entirely the reason why Neil signs up.
He nearly considers resigning when he shows up the first day and sees Andrew mutely unspooling a crepe paper streamer.
“Whose bright idea was it to schedule Open House in March, right before Prom?” Seth grumbles but tosses his backpack with all the others lumped on the bleachers. He’s also there for the free air conditioning, apparently.
Not because you signed up, Seth had said dismissively, while he used his height to write his name at the same time Neil did. His arm wasn’t even heavy on Neil’s head.
Renee smiles when she sees them. “We’re starting with the streamers,” she explains. There are hot-pink and orange spools in her hands. “Neil, maybe you can help Seth with the ladder. He’s taller, so it’s probably easier for him to hang them.”
This is how Neil ends up following Seth around the gym, bracing the ladder that is probably not legally stable enough to use. It’s not a bad way to spend the afternoon.
Someone wanders their way as they hit the halfway mark in the gym. Seth mutters obscenities under his breath as he tries to make a piece stick and Neil absently holds the ladder. He is just thinking that he really isn’t strong enough to save Seth if he fell without hurting himself when someone taps his shoulder.
“Hi.” She’s vaguely familiar. Neil can’t quite place her, but she has a mass of curly red hair and blue eyes. Strangely, she’s wearing a cheerleading uniform and the bright orange glitter shadow on her eyelids stands out against her dark skin.
“Katelyn,” Neil realizes.
She smiles. “I don’t think I’ve ever met you formally, before.”
“No. You were at the gym, though,” Neil realizes. He vaguely remembers Aaron seeing her through the open door.
Right before the whole shooting fiasco.
“I was. Are—I mean, Aaron said you stayed with him last night?”
Neil wants to bury himself twelve feet beneath the dirt. Just in case six isn’t enough. Above him, Seth totters a little. He slaps his palms to the top of the ladder and Neil pretends not to notice.
“Yes.” Neil starts to feel a little uneasy. After Nicky’s reaction, he’s not keen to entangle himself in any more issues. Especially since he is very much interested in staying under the radar.
Thought it might be a little late for that.
Katelyn nods distractedly. She glances over her shoulder and Neil follows her gaze—
—directly to Andrew. That’s odd.
It’s actually not.
A few things fall into place. Neil cautiously turns his attention back to Katelyn. “Why? Something wrong?”
Katelyn shakes her head quickly. “No. No, I just—I was just wondering about it. I mean, it was your first time staying over, right? Was—did…sorry. I know this isn’t my business.”
It really isn’t, but Neil gets the impression he should not say that. There is some other conflict playing out here and he does not want to drive her away.
“I hadn’t been to his house before,” Neil answers first. “It wasn’t exactly planned.”
Katelyn nods. She’s still worrying at her lip and glancing over her shoulder every few seconds. That, at least, still doesn’t make sense.
Andrew might be territorial about his brother, but Neil doesn’t fall under that category.
“Thank you,” Katelyn finally says.
“He needs friends. He—well, I don’t know. He just doesn’t get along with other people that often,” Katelyn explains. She laughs a little at the thought.
Neil snorts. “You’re right. But I didn’t—it’s not like I’m better.”
“Maybe not.” Her smile is soft. This is probably part of why Aaron likes her, Neil thinks. “But at least you two can be there for one another.”
Katelyn leaves and Neil wonders where Aaron is. He’s not around; Neil assumes he might have an after-school club. Or maybe he disappeared when Katelyn appeared, as if that would help dispel any suspicions.
Even Neil is aware of how badly that would backfire.
“Thank God,” Seth finally mutters. He steps down from the ladder and lets Neil reposition it. “Are freshman always this terrible?”
“Only when we’re hungry,” Neil replies easily.
Seth rolls his eyes. “My wallet is in my back pocket. Be quick about it. I might fall and die.”
Neil doesn’t say that the joke isn’t funny. He just fishes Seth’s wallet out and goes to the machines in the hallway. He just barely misses Aaron and Katelyn parting ways—and from the redness on their cheeks, Neil is very glad he came when he did.
“Hold the ladder for Seth,” Neil tells Aaron as he walks by. “Try not to swoon.”
Aaron slaps the back of his head.
It is not Andrew’s idea of entertainment to stay after school and pepper the gym with increasingly horrifying decorations. Unfortunately, one of Aaron’s clubs is volunteering and he has decided to sign up to help. Andrew is still thinking of the ways he is going to get back at Aaron for this.
The only remotely entertaining thing about the work is Neil. The redhead has always been entertaining, at least. Andrew takes the chance to observe him and wonders what the secrets hiding beneath Neil’s scarred skin are.
The only issue is that Neil seems to stick to Seth and Aaron, both of whom Andrew does not want around while he’s picking through Neil’s mask.
Seth disappears from the gym at one point, leaving Neil with a pair of scissors and curling ribbon. Andrew takes his chance and makes his way over, abandoning the balloons at his table but keeping his scissors.
Neil does not look up. Andrew watches the flick of Neil’s wrist as he curls the ribbons into spirals. “I should not be surprised you can do that.”
“It’s not hard to use a pair of scissors.”
Andrew thumbs the blades of his pair. “What other secrets are you hiding, Neil? Besides your mean mommy and daddy?”
Neil pauses but when he looks up, there is no anger in his gaze. Not even annoyance. He evaluates Andrew with something like curiosity and Andrew finds he is not certain why that is attractive at all.
Of course, Neil is attractive. That is simple. Andrew can categorize and store that piece of information.
He cannot store the thought that Neil might actually be looking back.
“You still don’t trust me.” Neil doesn’t ask, which Andrew appreciates. No stupid questions. Except it’s still stupid, even in the form of a statement.
Andrew’s lips twist in to a smirk. “Bravo. Give the man a prize. What an award-winning deduction.”
“So, what do you need to trust me?” What do you value, Neil doesn’t ask. Andrew can see the little wheels whirling behind Neil’s blue eyes. “Truth, then,” Neil finally decides. “Yes?”
Andrew ignores the shiver the word sends through his body. It pricks his skin and whispers for him to listen. He does not.
“Truth,” Andrew agrees shortly. He narrows his eyes, as if that will help the blur that always surrounds Neil like he’s some sort of mirage. “You can’t always expect answers.”
“No,” Neil agrees. “You can’t.”
Andrew presses his lips together. He might avoid saying something he should not, at least.
“Where are your parents, Neil?”
It is the obvious question, but Andrew is not going to deny his curiosity. Neil’s little smile means he expected it, anyway.
There is not much to glean from Neil’s tone. This might actually be fun. Andrew assumes Neil is not going to offer more, so he waits for a question.
Neil calmly pulls his scissors along the ribbon beneath his fingers. “What did you make Aaron promise, that he can’t do anything without your permission?”
The little zip of the ribbon echoes in Andrew’s ears.
“I did not make him do anything.” Andrew feels his lips pull at the corners. Not exactly a smile. Sourer than that. “Why did you try to stop the shooter?”
Neil does not pause, but he does readjust his grip on the ribbon. “You can kill someone by doing nothing.”
That is interesting. A nice little wordplay, Andrew thinks. He paces around Neil, wondering if it will make a difference. Neil still does not look up.
He does ask another question. “Who did you kill?”
Andrew grinds his shoe into the gym floor. It squeaks a little as he comes around to look at Neil’s face.
There is no trace of fear or knowledge, but Neil asked. Besides, he asked with the weight of knowledge in his voice. It is not new, either. Not from the shooting. This is something else. He isn’t a stranger to killing or death.
“Someone I promised to.”
They are both giving away more than they mean to, apparently.
Neil pulls another ribbon into his palm. He lines up his scissors. Andrew considers that he actually isn’t as forgiving as he thought he would be and asks, “What is your full name?”
There’s a little snik of the blade against ribbon, but the sound is abruptly muffled when the scissors bite into Neil’s palm. He looks down at the rising blood.
Andrew does not have time to react. Neil gazes at the blood and says, “My middle name is Abram. You can call me that, if you want.”
The scissors thud onto the table. Andrew almost speaks, but then Aaron and Seth appear from nowhere. Seth immediately grabs Neil’s hand. “Shit. What the fuck?” He shoots a particularly venomous glare at Andrew, but when he speaks, he is talking to Aaron. “Keep that monster on a leash.”
Aaron doesn’t answer; Seth is already pulling Neil toward the bathrooms.
Silence. Andrew welcomes nothing but of course, Aaron cannot leave it that way.
“That’s a very vague question,” Andrew replies mockingly. “You are going to have to be more specific.”
Aaron actually has the spine to look irritated. Andrew finds that interesting. He was like this in the car, too, after Neil spent the night.
Andrew pointedly does not think about that.
“Why are you doing this to him?”
“What am I doing?” You are being defensive, aren’t you? A little voice in Andrew’s head pokes at him. Why is that, Andrew?
Aaron snatches up the scissors from the table and holds them out as if they’re evidence. “You didn’t go this far with the others.”
“Didn’t I?” Andrew stares back at Aaron. They have the same eyes. The same everything. Except not at all. “They aren’t the same.”
“Yeah, I got that,” Aaron snaps. He turns to look toward the doors to the gym. Like some kind of lost puppy. His expression when he speaks again says he can’t believe what he’s saying. “You’re not doing yourself any favors. You’re making things worse. As if that was fucking possible.”
Andrew does not answer. He doesn’t need to.
He is not flirting with Neil.
Andrew is making a habit of seeking Neil out.
After the ribbon incident, at least he is more cautious about his approach. Or at least, as cautious as Andrew is capable of being.
Neil helps Seth set up some tables and then he notices the side door is open. When Neil goes to close it, he finds Andrew leaning against the wall, leather jacket creaking as he lifts his arm to take a drag from a cigarette.
“You know, those will kill you.”
“That’s the point.”
Neil does not resist the smile that twists his lips. Not today. He holds a coke he is sharing with Seth and Aaron slapped a fox-print band-aid on his healing cut a few hours ago. Unironically.
Andrew stares at the smile. He actually looks irritated.
This is the thing; Andrew does not typically express emotion well. He has amusement and he has coldness. Beyond those things, not much reaches the surface. Save for now.
“Don’t look at me like that.” Andrew pokes his cheek a little too hard.
Neil blinks. “Like what?”
He doesn’t get an answer; Wymack rounds the corner. Neil feels a fleeting rush of fear—the same fear he always feels when someone his father’s age appears. This is an especially bad situation. Neil feels guilty by extension.
Andrew takes a long drag. He blows it in Wymack’s path.
Wymack comes to a stop before them. Something about the look in his eyes is very bleak. Wymack’s stare flicks between them and then his expression just looks pained. “I don’t wanna see this.”
“So, close your eyes.” Andrew blows smoke again. Neil just wants to sink into the ground.
Except that’s not right. Wymack shakes his head and walks away but Neil’s still stuck on those words. I don’t wanna see this.
“Wymack knows you don’t smoke,” Neil realizes. He turns to look at Andrew. “What is he talking about?”
Andrew determinedly takes another drag. He is glaring at the tennis court in the distance. When he moves his hand to the side, Neil realizes the smoke is wafting at him.
Neil dips in on instinct. He breathes in and then Andrew turns to watch, something suddenly coiled in his posture.
See what? See us—
The only thing that escapes Neil is a bewildered laugh.
He thinks about questions and Andrew doggedly pursuing him through the gym. Neil thinks about curious eyes and Andrew, irritated, watching Neil emerge from Aaron’s room in his underwear.
“Do you—you like, like me.”
Andrew stares at him with something approaching extreme hate. “You made me hear that. You made me listen to you say—”
“You do.” Neil wants to laugh. All that comes out is a puff of startled air. “Even before the shooting, right? How long have you—”
“Do you want me to? Or do you want to do something else?”
Andrew’s lips press into a flat line. He drops the cigarette and stomps on it a little too hard. When he comes to stand before Neil, his eyes are sharp. “This is not a discussion we are going to have.”
“How else will I know?” Neil challenges. “Tell me. You can ask whatever you want. I don’t want to do something wrong and—”
“Yes or no,” Andrew grinds out. “That’s all you need to know. Two words. Even you can’t fuck it up.”
He likes me, Neil thinks. He likes me, and he is letting me do this.
“Can I touch you? Yes or no?”
“No.” Andrew’s hands flex at his sides. “I’ll handcuff you if I have to.”
“You don’t. But you can.”
Andrew is all frustration when he pushes Neil back into the wall. It is not harsh. Neil lets the building steady him as Andrew suddenly crowds his space, all warm lips and cold hands.
This is everything Neil was warned about, but better.
He likes the way Andrew’s nails dig into his side a little. He likes the whisper of Andrew’s breath on his skin and the slide of a tongue against his lips.
He might love the way Andrew’s hand curls around the back of his neck when Neil’s lips part willingly.
Dangerous, a small voice reminds him. This could kill you.
Neil answers without hesitation.
I’m already dead.
Andrew absolutely does not look for Neil.
Not after first period, where he finds Neil at his locker, absently shoving textbooks inside. The classroom next to them is empty and Neil does not protest when Andrew yanks him inside. Neil barely makes it to class on time; he is still pulling his shirt straight as he goes.
Andrew does not look for Neil after second period, only to be disappointed when Kevin beats him to it. Of course, Neil keeps flickering amused glances at Andrew. His eyes say he knows just why Andrew is so pissed. Kevin makes the mistake of pointing it out. He is rewarded with a kick to the shins.
Third period, Andrew does not look for Neil. He does, however, find Neil in the hallway. They both pretend to be bothered when the crowd pushes them into a closet, but neither of them make an effort to leave until the warning bell rings.
Fourth period finds Andrew at the side door to the school. Neil just stares helplessly down the hall before he seems to resign himself to the reality of his situation. Neil walks out, and Andrew finds the marks he left in the morning already darkening.
By lunchtime, Andrew has given up any pretense of accidentally running into Neil. They end up in the locker room in the auxiliary gym, because Neil says he needs to check something—and if there’s no one there, well, it’s just an opportunity they took.
The sound of Neil hitting a locker when Andrew pushes him inside is probably a little too addictive. Andrew watches the little half-smile form on Neil’s lips before Andrew stops looking and starts moving, instead. The surprised hitch in Neil’s breathing is stupid. He is stupid.
He knows what is coming but every time, Neil acts as if Andrew is kissing him from the first time. It is an ego boost Andrew absolutely does not need or want.
Neil’s hands curl hopelessly over the sleeves of his jacket. Andrew only notices because he looks up long enough to find out where Neil’s hands are.
He makes a spur-of-the-moment decision. Not a smart choice. Perhaps Neil is rubbing off on him.
“You can touch. Chest up,” Andrew tells him.
Neil’s wide eyes look a little fuzzy. He blinks and mumbles something that sounds like okayyeah and then his hands tentatively lower onto Andrew’s shoulders. It’s a little underwhelming, to say the least.
Until Neil’s hands wander over the front of Andrew’s chest.
Andrew is not entirely certain Neil knows what he is doing when his fingertips graze enough to be tantalizing but not enough to actually touch. Andrew bites at his lip and Neil gasps into the kiss, fingers pulling at Andrew’s shirt.
It might be a stupid idea to wander somewhere Andrew will leave marks, but he considers Neil’s neck for a moment. It is a moment too long, because Neil apparently has the same idea—only Andrew is entirely unprepared for the jolt that strikes him when Neil’s mouth descends on his neck.
Andrew can only channel his feelings into the grip he has on Neil’s sides. At least, until he decides to get revenge by wandering a little further south. Andrew does not appreciate the way his voice shakes when he speaks. “Yes or—”
“Yes,” Neil mumbles against his neck.
Neil practically squeaks when Andrew grabs his ass, so it was entirely worth it.
Aaron looks ready to pass out when he sits beside Neil in the lab. “Do me a favor,” he says shortly. “Start wearing turtlenecks.”
Neil looks down and remembers he can’t see his neck. He’s fairly certain what’s there, though.
“Seems like they’re setting up for something,” Neil muses, watching teachers walk by in the hall. It’s late. After school, already.
“Well, yeah.” Aaron stares at him. “It’s Open House.”
The look Aaron is giving him clearly says he thinks Neil has no brain cells left. Neil has stopped paying attention.
See you at Open House, Junior.
It’s too soon. He panics.
He hasn’t said something to Andrew. He hasn’t told Nicky how much he loves his cookies; Neil hasn’t seen Matt and Dan since they started their tests. He hasn’t told Kevin to slow down.
He hasn’t had enough time.
Neil closes his eyes.
“What?” Aaron glances over his shoulder, bored, one hand on the beaker before him.
Neil swallows. Tries to think of what he could ever say. “Thanks.”
Aaron blinks. Sets the beaker down. His voice is strained when he asks, “For what?”
“For being my friend.”
Aaron’s mouth forms a thin line. Neil wants to laugh. Maybe cry. Andrew does that, too. “You didn’t have to be mine, either.”
“No. I did,” Neil says quietly. I couldn’t have died if I wasn’t alive, first.
Because he doesn’t want to leave Aaron with this, Neil fakes a smile. “Who else would screw up the experiments for you?”
Well, things were good while they lasted. Neil blinks in the red light of the basement and pulls himself upright—or at least as upright as he can, with his wrists bound.
Lola lounges on a nearby chair. It might look laughably childish, if it were anyone else. This is Lola, however. Nothing about her is childish. Everything is terrifying.
Neil has a healthy amount of fear. He is aware that most of his friends think that he is fearless; that he regularly jumps in front of bullets and knives without a second thought.
They are wrong.
Fear is the only thing that has kept Neil alive, to this point. It is the only thing that let him see sixteen. He hadn’t counted on it getting him this far.
It looks like it won’t last much longer, anyway.
Pro tip: American Psycho/American Beauty is the soundtrack to the makeout montage
I hope you uhhhhh enjoyed this (holy shit i loved writing that makeout scene????)
Chapter 7: Comforting
Neil only has his memories left, in the end. The thing is, he didn't count on being so unwilling to leave.
It happens like this: Neil walks out of the lab. He leaves Aaron there, promising to be back, and abruptly wakes up in a basement.
He is not alone.
Lola flicks a nail against the gleaming edge of her blade. It makes a ringing sound, faint but menacing, and she absently bounces one foot in the air, one leg crossed over the other. Her dark hair is a tangled mess, barely held back from the sharp angles of her bloodthirsty face.
She is always hungry. She is always looking for bones to chew.
Neil takes a look around the basement. He doesn’t recognize it, but that isn’t new. He does recognize the blood-red light. It’s Lola’s favorite.
And he recognizes the blades laid out on a table, each a different size and color, each with different edges. Teeth and curves and biting steel.
He is going to be here—wherever here is—a while.
“Do you think you can offer me up like a present?” Neil tests the rope at his wrists. It is too tight. He might be able to dislocate a thumb to get out, but it would take time, and Lola would notice.
Lola smiles from the couch. She comes over, the metallic clink of the lighter in her left hand echoing in the basement. She crouches by Neil’s legs, contemplating the exposed skin before her.
She gives no warning when she flicks the lighter and presses it to his thigh, silently observing the flash and burn.
And Neil bites his tongue, as he always has.
“Warm family reunion,” Lola muses quietly. When she leans back on her heels, the light in her dark eyes is terrible and amused. “That’s what it’s going to be, Nathaniel.”
“I’m not surprised he’s not here.” Aaron tiredly hefts his backpack onto his shoulders. Andrew chews his gum harder than he should. “He probably left to avoid this—to avoid us fawning over him.”
“I wouldn’t have fawned,” Nicky protests. He looks toward the gates of the school as if he’ll see Neil there, just leaving and close enough to catch.
Andrew looks down at his hands. A few hours ago, he caught Neil. It was the locker room.
“Busy schedule,” Abby announces as soon as she appears, Wymack in tow. “We have a lot of places to visit. Where’s Kevin?”
“Probably practicing.” Andrew sneers. He does not care about open house. He does not care about decorating for prom, he does not care about Kevin’s addiction to practice, and he absolutely does not care about Neil being gone. Missing.
He is a coward if he ran from this, Andrew thinks.
And you know he wouldn’t, a small voice says. Andrew ignores it. It’s not his problem. Neil is not his problem.
But Aaron bites his lip and stares back at the school and Andrew, unfortunately cannot not make it his problem.
“You sure he just left?” Nicky bounces on his heels, antsy. “He said he was just going to his locker, right?”
“He didn’t say where he was going,” Aaron admitted. Then he closes his eyes and a sudden stillness comes over him. Some realization has hit him.
Andrew’s fists clench at his sides. He forces them open. “Share with the class, Aaron.”
Aaron opens his eyes. Looks miserably down at his feet, as if he’ll find some trace of Neil there. “He promised. He promised he’d be right back.”
Promises, promises. Did he know? Andrew feels something curl in his chest. A heavy, dark object. He tries to ignore it. He thinks about questions and answers, about Neil somehow knowing what to ask, about Neil watching everything and knowing what it all meant.
So, you promised to keep Aaron safe. And that means you have to make sure everyone is safe, right?
That’s why you had to test me so much.
Andrew hadn’t corrected the mistake. Didn’t say it wasn’t just a test for Aaron.
“I—boys, we need to go,” Abby says, pained. “I have to—”
“Start with me,” Nicky blurts. “Save Aaron for last. Just give them some time to look for him. He might just be in the locker room.”
“I’m sure he’s fine.” Abby sighs. “If he left, he probably doesn’t want to be found. It’s not good, but you can’t force him to open up.”
“Watch me,” Aaron says shortly. He tosses his backpack at Nicky and walks away.
“Your father is looking for you.”
Kevin spins around, startled. The second he does, Andrew knows something is wrong. Kevin is already breathing heavily, but he’s not in his workout clothes. He’s standing in the hallway by the labs, a stupid expression of shock on his face.
“What?” Aaron demands, before Andrew can comment. “Have you seen Neil? What—”
“I didn’t know.” Kevin swallows. His eyes flick nervously toward the doors at the end of the hallway and Andrew—
—Andrew has had enough. He yanks at Kevin’s shirt, pulls him down, holds his chin in one hand. Kevin still tries to look away. Andrew pushes him toward the wall and waits until Kevin’s knees hit the ground.
There is only one word on Andrew’s lips. “Explain.”
“I thought he seemed familiar. I thought I knew him,” Kevin babbles, everything coming out in a rush. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I wasn’t going to check because I know—”
“What do you know?” Aaron’s voice rises, thin, and Andrew almost stops to turn and look at him. Aaron is not like this. He is not emotional or desperate or anything like that.
Kevin’s brow knits and his hands curl around the sleeves of his jacket. “His mother was murdered. They were living somewhere away from his father. His father had gang connections and he…I don’t know when, but he ended up in prison.”
Andrew lets Kevin go. He thinks about Neil backing away from Wymack; of Neil hesitating, always looking for a way out but ready to confront a shooter.
Neil, an absolute idiot, his chin raised and his gaze hard when he asked who did you kill?
“He has scars,” Aaron whispers. His hands are curled into fists at his side and he says, “He probably doesn’t know. I saw them. Just a few, but I know there’s more. It’s why he won’t change in the open.”
“We don’t need to know this,” Andrew says shortly, but he is half-lying. He does not want to know this; does not want all the secrets that are pouring out. Not without Neil.
These are questions Andrew isn’t asking and he can’t give any back for everything that’s been said.
Kevin looks between them. “Why—what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be with Abby—”
“Neil’s gone,” Aaron snaps, turning on his heel. “He left the lab earlier and I haven’t seen him.”
Kevin pales. “You think—”
“I think you should have fucking told us sooner that you were poking around his past,” Aaron hisses. “I think you should have told us if you thought something was that wrong. How long have you known about this?”
Kevin glances back toward the library. Andrew can see the calculation forming behind his answer and that might be it; it might be why Andrew kicks at Kevin’s shin and curls a hand around his neck, because Kevin knows better.
“Don’t lie to me, Day,” Andrew says calmly. They have an understanding. Ever since Kevin limped into town, the bruises and destroyed ankle still healing, so unsure of the man he had just been told to call father.
Kevin squeezes his eyes shut and Andrew considers slapping him. This is not the time for Kevin to run and hide. For him to go back on years of relearning how to stand.
“Since after the shooting,” Kevin finally says. “That’s how I knew.”
This time, Andrew does not restrain himself.
Aaron is shouting something when feet pound down the hallway, sneakers squeaking. Andrew barely notices Matt’s hands pulling at his fingers and Andrew only lets go because he does not want Matt touching him. Dan stands behind Kevin, her mouth set as she looks at the spots where bruises are going to form. Kevin coughs and Matt rounds on Andrew.
“I don’t know what the fuck your problem is—”
“Your pet is missing. Or haven’t you noticed?” Andrew flexes his hands. He can feel the phantom of a neck beneath his fingers. Matt is staring, but Dan has taken a half-step back. She’s shocked. Andrew feels something like a smile twist his mouth. “Oh, that’s right. You haven’t seen him in days, isn’t that right? Poor, abandoned Neil.”
Aaron starts to walk. Matt follows one step behind and of course, Aaron has to fill him in. “His mother was murdered, and his father was in prison. We don’t know what’s going on. He left the lab and promised me he’d be right back.”
“Maybe he just left to avoid suspicion,” Dan submits. “I mean, Open House is for parents and guardians. He probably just doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. His grades are fantastic.”
“A true mother,” Andrew mocks.
“No,” Aaron insists. “He promised.”
“Then, what? You think something happened to him?” Matt pokes his head into empty classrooms as they go. Andrew knows they will not find anything.
They may never find anything.
Abram. Why do you love to run, Abram? Is it your father you’re running from? Or something else?
Andrew should not care. He does not care, he tells himself, about a liar and a runner. He is only here because Aaron is here.
“I think his dad is involved in a gang and Neil has scars all over his fucking body,” Aaron finally says, his voice breaking a little. “I think the last thing he just told me was thank you for being my friend. I think he’s never stayed anywhere for too long and I think he didn’t mean to stay here, either. But he did.”
Matt opens his mouth to say something, but Kevin’s sneakers squeal on the tile and he comes to a stop.
Andrew does not know what he expected to see, but he sees the key on the floor with its ragged black lanyard. Might as well, Abby had said, if Aaron’s going to have him over.
Except Andrew had been the one to allow it. Andrew had been the one to slide the key onto the lanyard and later dump it in Neil’s locker, taking advantage of Neil’s distraction and nearly missing the metal slots when Neil had closed his mouth over Andrew’s neck.
This was a key Andrew gave him and it was lying on the floor of the hallway, the lanyard twisted and dirty, flung to the side as if it had been thrown.
Andrew picks it up. No one else could touch it; it was his, after all.
“His backpack is here,” Kevin says, the panic in his voice rising. He reaches into the gap between the water fountain and the line of lockers next to it.
“We need to tell someone,” Dan finally says. She speaks slowly, staring at the backpack as if it’s a ghost.
Matt shakes his head. “I don’t know if the police—”
“We need to tell someone,” Dan repeats, her voice shaking. “Because I don’t think the man that tried to stab me in the alley was after me.”
Neil only keeps track of the first two days. It’s the seventh day that matters, anyway.
That’s when he is coming.
Lola isn’t there, most of the time, but Neil is watched. He is mostly kept awake, slapped or stabbed or cut or burned until his eyes are wide open. He doesn’t hear much; can’t tell where he is, because Lola slid a pair of headphones on him that don’t seem to play anything in particular.
Just the screech of metal, footsteps, disembodied voices echoing.
At one point, he thinks he hears Kevin. Thinks he can hear can’t wait forever and no chance. Sometimes he hears Aaron, always fainter than the rest, lost.
It hurts when Neil hears Andrew. Hears give up and gone.
He knows it’s his mind filling up the static spaces. Telling him that his friends are looking; that they are worried. That they are losing hope. That maybe, over time, they are beginning to think he ran and didn’t look back.
“You know, I sometimes wonder why you matter.” Lola flicks her knife at his arm, thin ribbons like papercuts rising. Red. “You failed, after all. Why does he care about you?”
Neil can’t keep his mouth shut. He would laugh; would blame it on Aaron and Nicky and everyone—everyone and Andrew, who always made Neil talk, coaxed his mouth open with fingers sliding under Neil’s waistband and a tongue against his lips.
“He still doesn’t care about you,” Neil says, and he does laugh. “Or are you asking for a friend?”
Lola takes the opportunity to leave more burns on his hands. Neil just holds his screams in his dry mouth, trying to think back to when he was lying on the floor in Aaron’s bedroom. The peace of a safe place—a safe house, no ghosts in the walls, no basement with the lurking scent of blood.
No heavy footsteps on the staircase, Neil recites. No yelling. No belt. No hand at my throat. No screams, no death, no blood.
Just a friend and—
—and whatever Andrew was.
I wish I could have found out.
“This is stupid,” Aaron snaps. “What are we doing? Just waiting around for him to pop up?”
“We can’t do much without the police,” Dan says testily. “And the FBI aren’t too worried about him.”
Andrew rolls a corndog on his tray. He distinctly remembers slamming his tray across from Neil and hitting Seth with vegetables.
All these memories he can’t forget.
“What do you suggest we do?” Seth curls his hand around the edge of the table. His expression is dark. He seems like the moon without the sun. The shadows on his face aren’t beaten back by Neil, anymore.
Aaron glances toward the gym. “We found his keys and backpack. Maybe there’s more here.”
“It’s been days,” Dan argues. She sighs and drops her head into her hands. “This is a high school. Anything left behind would be hard to find.”
“We still look,” Aaron says shortly. “It’s not like anyone else is.”
Neil can hear the footsteps.
He closes his eyes. Not because he thinks he can wish it away. If he keeps them shut long enough, maybe he will be able to face what is coming.
Nathan descends like an old god, every inch violent and unpredictable. Nathaniel does not move; he does not struggle or fight. He is pinned, held down to his chair and unable to do anything but watch fate unfold like a paper flower, delicate and sharp at the edges.
“There he is.” Nathan has something in his hand. It’s a fire axe. The blade is half-red.
Nathaniel keeps his mouth shut, but the words race behind his closed lips. A waterfall of no and don’t and wait. All little-boy words, contained in his chest, in some chamber of his fluttering heart.
“Do you know where you are, Nathaniel?”
The nonono in his mind is a cresting wave; a litany of bad memories and terror and pain. Nathaniel cannot keep the bird in his chest silent; his lips open and he says, “No.”
Nathan shifts minutely and then Nathaniel is gasping, a wounded cry tearing from his ragged throat as his head snaps to the side.
This is the first time his father has touched him in years.
The bubbling panic roils even more and Nathaniel chokes on it; he chokes on his life, rapidly fluttering away from him with frantic wingbeats, and he could never chase after it, no matter how fast he tried to run.
“You did a terrible thing, running from me,” Nathan muses. He tilts his head and Nathaniel cannot look at those blue eyes because they are his, only colder and deeper and so much worse. “You know how this ends.”
Nathaniel’s breath comes faster. He is running inside—his heart is racing, straining, hoping to burst from his chest and leave. Go—
He has no home, but he still remembers warmth and laughter, Seth handing him a drink in the gym, Aaron snoring and swearing he doesn’t in the morning, Matt and Dan waving from down the hallway, Kevin wrinkling his nose at Neil’s shampoo, Allison and Renee draping streamers over him as they decorate, Nicky warming him with a hug, Andrew.
Andrew and his sneering, his disinterest, his stupid black jeans with all the tears and holes, his leather jacket and the soft hoodie underneath all falling away because Andrew wants them close when they kiss, when he lets Neil taste the salt of the skin at his neck, fingers digging into Neil like he wants to anchor them together forever.
Nathan slides something between Neil’s feet and when he looks down, he realizes it’s one of the wooden blocks from the gym, and then he realizes he is below the gym, he never left, and he almost laughs. He hopes he haunts the shit out of the gym, if only so he can watch Nicky bitch at Kevin. So he can hear Aaron tell Andrew to move his ass faster because he knows Andrew can. Allison sighing and telling Katelyn to ditch Aaron; Katelyn’s laughter.
Nothing and everything.
He doesn’t want to go.
Something rattles. A door, maybe. Neil can’t tell if it’s his imagination or reality anymore. He wants to look, but Nathan stands there, commanding his attention.
Faint voices. Nathan’s gaze slides to Lola, heavy; she holds her ground. Neil giggles. “You know you’re dead?”
Lola’s furious gaze turns to him. He is not allowed to speak. Nathan does not let it go; his blade weighs heavy on Neil’s arm, but it doesn’t matter, because Neil is right.
They are not entirely alone here, and that means there is not much time. That means Nathan does not get his family dinner. He only gets as much time as it will take to kill his son.
Nathan’s phone rings. He reaches for it calmly, still pressing a knife to Neil’s arm, the blood flowing over the arm of the chair. Neil can hear it dripping on the concrete like a ticking clock.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
“Good. You can listen,” Nathan says. He presses a button and sets the phone on the arm of the chair, just next to Neil’s arm. “Say hello to your uncle, Neil.”
“I didn’t call about him,” Stuart says shortly. Neil thinks he might cry, if he weren’t dehydrated. His eyes burn anyway.
How long has it been?
Nathan presses the knife deeper and Neil cannot help the gasp of pain that escapes him. He shuts his mouth just after, trying not to grip the chair too hard. It bleeds more when you tense.
Not that it matters. He won’t have much blood left, by the end of this.
“We are family,” Nathan says patiently.
Stuart laughs shortly. “I don’t care.” It’s a lie. It’s a lie and Neil knows because he and Neil’s mother have the same voice; Mary had the same voice, when she told Neil that Nathan would never catch up to them. “I am calling you because the FBI know. And they found you.”
Nathan considers the new information. His face never changes—it never does, and Neil wants to get that terrible face out of his mind and his memory, flat eyes and ragged mouth so ready to devour.
“They won’t get here in time.”
“They’re already there.”
Stuart hangs up. Neil’s mouth opens abortively, and Nathan stands, beckoning. Lola comes to him and he slides his blade under her chin, promising. Neil doesn’t want to look and knows he has to look; wants to turn away and stare at the same time.
“Move him. Leave him on the track, since he’s so fond of running.”
Lola chokes. The blade presses into her throat. Neil takes the little drop of blood that falls as a seal and he knows, even if he dies, she is going to die, too. It’s the only good thing he can see in his short future.
Nathan continues. “He is going to die slowly, in the one place he thought he could always hide. Aren’t you, Nathaniel?”
“Locked,” Aaron huffs. He abandons the doorknob to the basement storage. “Office has keys, right?”
“Breaking it would be faster.”
Seth shoots a look at Andrew. “Won’t work. Old locks. We’re going to need the key.”
Andrew chooses not to say anything about his response. It is his choice, after all.
They are rifling through the gym coach’s office when they hear the sirens.
“Where?” Aaron ducks instinctually, even though they’re in an office with no windows.
“The front doors,” Seth says immediately. “Allison and Renee are on that side.”
“They’ll be fine,” Aaron replies. He slams the drawer on the coach’s desk shut. “I have the keys. Hurry.”
They walk back down the hallway. It’s only a few feet away and then Seth shoves the doors open. One of them bangs against the wall and Andrew darkly comments, “Good job.”
Seth’s mouth is open to retort, but Aaron silences them. “Shh.”
They still. There is only silence and the darkness of the gym in the late evening, the windows on the opposite wall wide and the world outside nearly black.
“It’s open,” Seth suddenly says. Andrew follows his gaze, but he already knows what he is going to find; he knows what darkness pours from the basement and he does not want to go there. Cannot set foot there.
Seth bolts and Aaron moves to follow him, slower, but Andrew pulls his brother’s arm. Aaron turns and there is something wild in his eyes—memory, probably, of glass and asphalt and their piece of shit mother finally gone. Everything ended.
“Don’t,” Andrew says.
Aaron pulls at his arm. “I need to. I need to—”
Their argument doesn’t last long. Seth comes back, a baseball bat in his hands, and says, “He’s not there. They moved him.”
“What do you mean, moved? Who? We were here the whole time—” Aaron breaks off and then he’s the one running, tearing his arm from Andrew’s grip and sprinting toward the side door to the gym.
There is blood on the door handle.
Andrew does not register following. He does not want to see what they will find, but he is not going to let Aaron go, so he follows. He follows after Seth, the sirens wailing in his ears above everything else. Andrew can hardly concentrate for the sirens, too close, and then the sirens are muddied with a scream that is nothing but Neil’s name.
There is a body on the track.
There is a body and it is not a person, because bodies are not people and Andrew can look; it’s not Neil, not anymore, if it ever was, because Neil is not a real person.
Aaron is on his knees. He says something, and Andrew doesn’t pay attention. The body on the ground is still. The arms are a mess of cuts and burns; the red hair hides most of the damage, but Andrew can see blood and worried skin.
“Andrew,” Aaron snaps. His hands are heavy on Neil’s chest and Andrew wants to tell him to stop; that he will be buried, not pressed into the earth. “We need an ambulance, he’s barely breathing—”
And oh, just like that—
—just like the word breathing, Neil is suddenly there on the ground, his hand curled halfway into a fist, and that is just like Neil, to fight even when he was thrown onto the fucking track in an absolute state of collapse and disaster.
Neil’s fingers uncurl just a little and his whispered word as his blue eyes crack to find Andrew is, “Yes.”
y'know one of these days i'm just going to write a story without pain but it's not this day???
Chapter 8: Lights You Up
In the aftermath, Neil expects a lot of things. Fortunately, none of them really happen.
Neil hates hospitals. They set his teeth on edge.
Police do, too, but they aren’t going to be a problem anymore.
“Yeah, fuck off.” The insult is muttered and then there’s a figure toeing the door open, one neat leather shoe extended under a pair of tight, navy-blue pants.
Stuart smiles when he sees Neil is awake. He’s got lines at the corners of his eyes—deeper than Mary, maybe because his sister didn’t have much reason to smile in her later years. Their eyes are the same, though. A blue that hinges a little more toward gray, like cloudy skies.
Neil also knows his half-curls were inherited from his mother’s side. Of course, Stuart’s are wild, where Neil’s just like to cling around his neck and ears.
“Food’s disgusting,” Stuart says cheerfully. He drops into a seat next to Neil’s bed; it’s a wonder that the coffees in his hand don’t spill. He puts one on Neil’s tray, the little tap of the cardboard cup audible. It smells like vanilla. “So? They bother you?”
“They haven’t since you kicked one in the crotch,” Neil says placidly. He turns the coffee cup in his hand and finds himself looking at his skin a bit too long.
He has more scars, now. Can’t hide them anymore.
Stuart’s chair creaks. He is leaning forward and Neil blinks, looking at his uncle. For all the mischief in his eyes—all the rebellious devil-may-care gleaming—Stuart is not happy. He wasn’t happy the moment he showed up at the hospital, or the moment he kneed a police officer for pushing too hard about Neil’s memories of the kidnapping.
You must remember something.
Didn’t take long for Stuart to deal with that one.
Neil isn’t sure why his uncle’s presence comforts him so much. It’s not like they have a bond. Neil barely remembers Stuart in person, from visits with his mother. What he remembers more is Stuart’s calls, and the way he tried to tell Mary to leave, before it was too late for leaving.
She tried anyway, of course.
“Wait. How are you here?” Neil stares at Stuart.
Stuart blinks. He laughs, startled, and sets his coffee on the nightstand. “You just now realized?”
“You should be—”
“I should be here.” Stuart’s voice is strained, this time. He looks down at his hands for a moment, then out the door. “I was. Not close enough, but…enough to know.”
Neil doesn’t ask why Stuart was in the country. He has a feeling he doesn’t want to know. Maybe it was business, or maybe it something else. Maybe both.
“You called him.”
Neil thinks about the conversation. Family. I don’t care, Stuart said, cold and dry, distant over the phone. The basement was worse, with the dampness and dark—yet somehow it wasn’t as bad.
Thinking about the basement is bad, so Neil stops. “Did they find him?”
The reply is simple. Calm, as if it is of no consequence, and Stuart take a sip of his coffee as he reclines in his chair—but Neil can see the simmering anger in the lines of Stuart’s body. His anger isn’t like Mary’s, but maybe that’s because he’s not Neil’s mother, or father.
There’s also satisfaction in Stuart’s face, which is why Neil knows the answer is very different.
Stuart looks up. His gaze is pained when he asks, “For what? I was late.”
Neil shrugs. “You showed up at all.”
Stuart’s lips are pressed together. He still looks pained; Neil doesn’t know why, but then Stuart stands and shoves his hands in his pockets. “We fucked up with you, you know. Don’t thank me—showing up shouldn’t be a choice.”
“I don’t think it was you that fucked up,” Neil says drily. He is suddenly exhausted—limbs heavy, memories and apologies swirling in his mind.
There’s a knock at the door. Neil expects it to be another nurse, but—
“I’ll be back,” Stuart says artfully. He takes his coffee with him, gesturing toward Neil’s. “Drink. It’ll make you feel human. At least a little.”
Now that Stuart is gone, it’s quiet. Aaron lingers by the door; even from the bed, Neil can tell how tensely clenched his jaw is.
Neil isn’t sure how to start. He thinks he should tell Aaron to sit, but he’s not sure how well that will go over. The only chair is right next to Neil, who…doesn’t exactly look fantastic.
Neil is fully aware of how nightmarish his bandages look. The thick cotton on his arms and the ones hidden beneath his sheets, on his legs and his abdomen. Some of them are already scabbed-over. The worst are in stitches.
Aaron takes his steps toward the bed. Neil doesn’t miss the strained detachment; he wants to be premed, after all, so Neil thinks maybe Aaron is trying to think of Neil as just a patient. A collection of injuries.
Very, very bad injuries.
Finally, Aaron says, “You’re a fucking idiot.”
“I—” Neil stops short. He really has no clue what to say. “Yes?”
Aaron stares at him and then, for some reason, they’re both grinning and Neil laughs, laughs enough that his ribs ache and protest, because what did he have to worry about? Not Aaron. Not their friendship.
Aaron drops into the chair at Neil’s bedside; he is not so simmering, stewing in his anger and sorrow and disbelief. He rests his elbow on the mattress and looks Neil over, chin in hand. “How was surgery?”
“I was unconscious. Finally.”
Aaron’s disapproving look says she doesn’t appreciate the joke. Neil rolls his eyes.
He’s not sure why it isn’t surprising when Aaron reaches out to inspect Neil’s hand. Aaron’s touch is warm, the exploration of his fingers gentle.
“Wait. You’re wearing glasses.”
Aaron looks over the frame of his glasses, eyebrows raised, and Neil barely chokes back a laugh. A puff of air escapes anyway. “Yeah. I’ve been awake for a while.”
“Not allowed,” Aaron says shortly. He sets Neil’s hand down again and pulls his legs up onto the seat of his chair. “Rule one; you are not allowed to apologize for being fucking abducted. Clear?”
Aaron is angry, but not at Neil. It shouldn’t feel nice to have someone’s anger turned outward, a shield between Neil and the world, but—
—well, it does. It’s nice, to have someone else acting as the wall that keeps things back.
“All right.” Neil shrugs; his body is still sore, but it won’t get better with him lying in bed. It was always better when he was running, place to place, the wounds knitting as if they knew he would die if they took too long. “You need some rules, too.”
“Like you’re not allowed to question my—”
“Oh, God,” Aaron mutters. He drops his face into his hands. “All right, I won’t say shit about you and Andrew, after this. But if I really think there’s a problem—”
“By all means.” Neil raises an eyebrow, amused. “That wasn’t what I was going to say, but thanks for submitting the idea.”
Aaron squints and looks up. “What were you going to say?”
“I was going to say, don’t question my uncle.”
“I saw what he did,” Aaron says bluntly. “That’s all I want to know.”
Neil smiles a little and imagines what the encounter must have looked like from the hallway. Probably just as amusing as it did from the bed.
God, I’m tired. Neil realizes a moment late that his eyelids are heavy. Aaron moves back from the bed, a half-frown on his mouth. “You should sleep. You—”
“Wait,” Neil mumbles. There’s a tiny surge of adrenaline in his veins—go to sleep, wake up, it’s all gone—and the room swirls. A stab of panic cuts between his ribs and his breath comes thinner.
He nodded off a few times in the basement and Lola was there every time, waiting just until he drifted, her knife and fire forcing him back to wakefulness. Neil always opened his eyes to that basement; to the torn poster on the wall and the dampness in the corners.
He opened his eyes to another basement, too, with blood on the concrete and stains that never came out; with footsteps on the stairs and Mary standing in the doorway, watching.
Aaron’s voice swims in his ears. “Neil. Hey. Look at me. Neil.”
Something is beeping. Aaron curses under his breath and then it stops. Neil looks for him, pale hair and hands, and then he finds Aaron. Finds the steady hazel eyes looking back at him. “I just—I can’t—”
“Good,” Aaron says quietly. “Look at my eyes. I’m here, right?”
Is he? The question must be obvious because Aaron’s gaze flickers, a little pain and then he rearranges himself, steadying.
“Count.” Aaron raises his hand, fingers closed over something invisible. “You have the wrong number of fingers in a dream. If you count five, it’s real. Okay?”
Aaron lifts his middle finger and Neil laughs shortly. “Well, now I know it’s real.”
“Count,” Aaron prompts again
“One.” Another finger, slow but deliberate. “Two.”
Aaron is watching Neil’s face. Neil isn’t sure for what, but he watches another finger go up.
“Three. Four. Five.” Neil sighs. He thinks—he wonders if he should close his eyes. Aaron’s hand is on his, he realizes, and so he tries. Neil closes his eyes and opens them to the same hand, fingers splayed.
Aaron is absently tapping against Neil’s knuckles. He bites his lip, worrying at it, and Neil realizes Aaron looks tired. Very tired.
“You need to sleep, too,” Neil says quietly. He feels the beginnings of an apology on his tongue and starts to say, “I’m—”
“More important,” Aaron finishes easily. He stares down at their hands and he is tense; so tense, Neil is about to apologize again. Except Aaron looks up, his mouth set, and his gaze determined. “I love you.”
“You’re my friend,” Aaron says patiently. He might be blushing. “I care about you.”
“Did you say this to Seth, too? He’s your friend,” Neil says faintly.
Aaron snorts. “Shut up, Josten. Just—you’re different, okay?”
Not okay, Neil wants to say. Not okay. He hasn’t—
— “I haven’t,” Neil starts helplessly, trying to explain. “No one’s…I mean, not even…”
Aaron seems to realize what he’s trying to say and oh, that may make things worse, because then Aaron glares weakly down at the bed and his eyes are glassy.
Neil hasn’t heard I love you in a decade or longer, if he ever did. He can’t remember.
“You need sleep,” Aaron says shortly. He yanks his glasses off and rubs at his eyes. “I’m not going to leave.”
“Fine. Rule two is you can’t sleep on the chair.”
“It’s not a rule if it only applies to this situation,” Aaron grumbles, but he kicks his shoes off and moves around to the other side of the bed.
Neil isn’t sure why it feels right to have Aaron curl up at his side, or why it’s also right to press his cheek to the top of Aaron’s head. He only knows there are fingers intertwined with his and the security of a solid body beside him. Maybe Neil will wake up too many times or find himself drifting, but there is someone anchoring him here.
It’s nice. Better than he anticipated.
Aaron sighs and his breath tickles Neil’s shoulder. “Go to sleep, Josten,” he mumbles. “Rest.”
“Okay,” Neil says, and then he drifts away without a second thought.
Andrew pauses in the doorway.
Nicky gasps. “Oh, Andrew, look. Oh my God, my heart. They’re so cute.”
Andrew wants to tell him to shut up, but he is distracted while Nicky takes pictures with his phone.
He hasn’t seen Aaron like this. Not ever.
Not relaxed like he is with Neil, curled up against his side like there’s nothing unusual about being so close to another person. That, and he’s holding Neil’s hand, his hair a mess and glasses resting on the bedside table.
Aaron looks comfortable, and Andrew doesn’t know what to do with that. With Aaron, who looks like he feels safe, safe enough to ignore the unfamiliar hospital around him and the nurses that probably came in and out during the night.
“Maybe we should come back later,” Nicky supplies, but then Aaron stirs, grumbling in annoyance behind closed lips.
Andrew points. “That’s the awake noise.”
“I know,” Nicky groans. He sighs and takes a few steps into the room, dumping the bag of food he brought on a table and shrugging off his jacket. “Aaron?”
For a moment, Aaron curls tighter against Neil, like he’s trying to avoid the sun. He glares balefully at the intruders before sighing, rubbing at his eyes and pulling himself upright.
“I don’t think drool is antiseptic,” Andrew says drily. He’s not annoyed that Aaron spent the night at the hospital, with Neil.
Aaron’s unimpressed stare says he thinks he knows shit. “Glasses.”
“Yeah. Good, you remember how to speak. Maybe now you can explain why you didn’t call Abby. She wouldn’t stop fussing about you.”
Not entirely true. She was worried for a minute before Wymack told her that Aaron went to visit Neil.
“She knew where I was. Anyway, I—”
They’re interrupted. Not by a nurse or Nicky trying to placate them, but by the sudden, ragged gasp of Neil being forcefully pulled into wakefulness.
Aaron starts to move but freezes when Neil curls toward the side of the bed, white-knuckled grip curled around the rail of his bed. He sucks in air like a drowning man, scarred arms shaking. He isn’t seeing anything, Andrew knows—and if he is, it’s nothing good.
“Stop,” Andrew says.
Neil’s breath still hitches in his chest. The monitor next to him blinks in annoyance but makes no sound. Aaron furtively glances at it, then toward the door. Andrew makes a note to ask why it’s silenced, later.
Nicky wrings his hands, casting a worried glance at Aaron. Andrew decides to move; Aaron isn’t fully awake and besides, some petty corner of Andrew’s mind says it’s better for him to do this.
“Stop,” Andrew repeats quietly. He reaches for Neil’s neck and only thinks about it a moment later, suddenly stock-still with the thought that Neil may not want it. May not want the touch.
Except Neil sighs, his breathing just a little more even, the shudders wracking his body subsiding. He pushes into Andrew’s hand like he needs it there to hold him together.
Eventually, the rasping pulls of Neil’s breathing even enough, quieting as he uncurls his hands from the rail. He blinks owlishly, as if nothing has happened and he is just fine, and says, “Did you bring tacos?”
“Yes,” Nicky blurts, because he is trying not to cry, and the one thing Nicky does best is move on. “I brought pan dulce and tacos and—and I don’t know what you want to drink but I have lots of stuff—”
“Shouldn’t you all be in school?” Neil frowns. He still hasn’t moved away from Andrew’s hand.
In fact, Neil reaches up and tangles their fingers together, like it is perfectly natural and not at all strange to do so in front of Nicky and Aaron.
Nicky awkwardly shrugs and bounces on his heels. “Well. It’s, uh…Saturday.”
“Right.” Liar, Andrew thinks. Neil glances down at his sheets. “The gym is done, then?”
“Yeah,” Nicky says cheerfully, his relief nearly palpable. “It looks great! I took some pictures, so you can see—Seth helped me out, he wanted to visit you right now, but he couldn’t—”
Nicky goes on, moving around the bed, his phone in hand as he chatters about the prom and how great it’s going to be. Andrew could almost believe they were back in the cafeteria, if it weren’t for the smell. The hospital smell and the way Neil is more bandaged than not, his golden skin in sharp contrast with the blinding white of the gauze hiding his injuries.
Andrew does not know what to do. He has never been good at comforting.
He only knows how to prevent; how to warn off danger and stop it when it comes too close. But the danger is already gone, now. Has already taken its pound of flesh from Neil, while the idiot probably sat back and held in his screams.
Andrew wants to hate him for it. Wants to end everything and walk away, just to spare himself.
But he’s never been good at that, either.
Neil yawns. He stifles it with his arm and Seth passes him a soda.
“Healthy,” Andrew says mockingly. Seth just rolls his eyes.
Neil is itchy.
Part of the itch is his bandages—the injuries are almost two weeks old, now, and Neil hates wearing bandages, but Aaron insists. High schools are filthy breeding grounds. Neil didn’t mention the time he healed from a bullet wound while squatting under an overpass in Salt Lake City.
The other part of the itch is the fact that Andrew hasn’t really touched him since he left the hospital.
Neil is aware that Andrew has reservations. He’s careful to navigate them. But this feels like a shift—a sudden change. Neil doesn’t want to ask yes or no because maybe that is the wrong question; maybe that is unfair, given the bandages.
But he’s waited. He has waited for more than the brush of Andrew’s shoulder or Andrew tugging him away from a swinging backpack.
“I forgot something,” Neil says suddenly, standing. He knows someone will come with him; someone always does, these days. Instead of waiting, though, he turns to Andrew. “Yes—”
Andrew slams his water bottle down a little too hard. It cuts off the rest and he gets to his feet, muttering yes just loud enough for Neil to hear.
Progress. Neil hopes this works.
The auxiliary gym should be open, so Neil walks toward it. He barely makes it two steps outside before Andrew stops in his tracks. “No.”
Neil turns, surprised. There’s a painful stab in his chest but he shoves it away. This isn’t your choice. He swallows and looks down at his feet.
This was going to happen. Wasn’t it? Neil was surprised Aaron stuck around. Then again, he knew Aaron first. Maybe he just wants a lab partner, anyway.
Andrew is different. This—this is more. Neil does not expect any more than he can be given.
“Do you want me to leave you alone?” Neil hopes Andrew hears. He can’t raise his voice. Can’t make the words invade the world the way his father did, crushing everything else out like bloody wine from grapes.
Andrew’s mouth twists in dissatisfaction. “No. I don’t want to go to the gym.”
“You don’t—” Neil cuts himself off just by virtue of the frustration he feels. He can’t explain that he doesn’t need Andrew’s caution. Not now. “Do you not want them to know? Or do you not want to, anymore?”
“No,” Andrew repeats. He reaches out and then stops short and—
—and Neil feels something snap inside of him.
“You’re not him,” Neil says, grinding the words out from between his reluctant teeth. “Never. You never—”
“Don’t say never,” Andrew replies sharply, but there is a sudden unravelling; a tension that bleeds from him. That Neil didn’t quite see before, and was this it all along?
Neil wants to laugh. Wants to cry, a little, because this is just another thing he should have lost. Another thing he had no right to have.
“I will,” Neil says firmly. “Because you could never.”
Andrew’s lips press together and then his hand catches Neil’s hoodie, pulling the sleeve as he draws them back toward the cafeteria. They are in sight of the glass walls and then Andrew stops, turning as suddenly as he started.
“Yes or no?”
Neil looks down at his stormy hazel eyes and thinks of the basement. Except he thinks instead of the memories that clung to his skin like condensation; the dampness that he imagined was Andrew’s kisses, the way he tried to replicate the weight of Andrew’s hand on his neck. All the memories he wanted to replace.
Andrew kisses him, and it is like Neil is finally coming home.
Neil is an idiot. An idiot, so Andrew tells him all the time.
He still tastes good, though.
Andrew presses; his tongue questions and Neil answers, lips parting and a contented sigh waiting. All this from Neil, Andrew thinks, who is so far from experienced in the good things life has to offer that he might as well be clueless.
He is clueless.
Neil’s hands are curled in Andrew’s sheets. There’s a book on the floor, but no one is coming to inspect the sound. Besides, Andrew’s door is locked.
It is easy to draw out pleasure from Neil. Maybe Andrew would have expected that to be boring, but it’s the opposite—it is addictive, learning the nuances between Neil humming and Neil moaning, the flush on his cheeks red and high.
This is the latter.
Andrew’s hand is on Neil’s stomach, sliding low and pressing against heated skin, and Neil whines in his throat when Andrew bites his lip. He really does look perfect there, hair carelessly spread against the sheets and fingers twisting above his head.
“Yes or no?” Andrew murmurs the question against Neil’s mouth. Travels his way toward Neil’s collarbone, pausing over a nasty scar to give it attention.
Neil bites a surging moan. “Y—yes.”
Andrew slides Neil’s shirt off. They usually go this far, now, abandoning clothing in an effort to press close. Andrew wants the steady thump of Neil’s heart against his chest. Neil just wants.
Andrew is absolutely fine with that.
“Can I touch you?” Neil blinks, his blue eyes cloudy.
“Yes,” Andrew says, not waiting for the question. “Waist up.”
Neil’s hands are warm. They’re always warm—hot, almost—and he smooths patiently over Andrew’s chest as if it is a sheet of paper he wants to flatten. Whatever little wrinkles Andrew has, Neil smooths them away when they are together, ignoring the stains and scratches and dark words.
Of course, Neil shifts under Andrew and their diversion is a little less innocent. Andrew bites his lip and defiantly ignores the wave of desire that rises to greet Neil’s touch. Too much. He is not going to do this, now.
There is something else he thinks he wants to do, though.
Andrew taps his fingers absently along the band of Neil’s jeans. Pauses until Neil opens his eyes, still distracted but trying valiantly to focus. “You…” Andrew trails off; doesn’t know how to say this. “Yes or no. I—”
“Yes,” Neil says simply, as if that is it. As if nothing momentous is happening.
And it isn’t, Andrew tells himself, because milestones and attaching importance to sex or anything like it is stupid and he doesn’t care; he doesn’t, he just cares that it’s Neil and he’s saying yes.
Neil flushes a wonderful color when Andrew pulls his underwear away and then Andrew is caught; trapped by the way Neil’s eyes flutter, his bitten mouth parting in surprise and a gasp at Andrew’s touch. Neil’s hands on Andrew’s chest are shaking, pulling him closer, and Andrew gives in to gravity. He leans in and kisses Neil, chasing every sweet corner of his mouth while Neil tries to kiss him back.
Of course, Andrew does things right, and his hand stroking Neil’s dick is good enough that Neil eventually forgets to kiss Andrew properly. Neil is a mess of heady moans, his nose bumping against Andrew as he tries to push his body up, get them closer together.
This—this is bad.
Not that Andrew thought about this—them—before. He didn’t need to. Didn’t have to say what they were or what it meant. He only let it happen.
Except now, Andrew looks down and doesn’t want to think about Neil leaving; does not want to imagine he won’t come back to Neil next year. That they won’t keep coming back to each other, once school is over and it’s just them and the sun and the moon.
Andrew wants Neil to stick around. He also thinks, when Neil lets out a helpless cry, that he could probably come to the image of Neil being jerked off.
“Ah—Andrew,” Neil gasps, his hands curling tight on Andrew’s shoulders; his touch should be wrong, should be too hard, but Andrew likes it, loves the tremble he feels. Loves how Neil’s shaky breath ghosts across his face.
Andrew waits. Watches, when Neil comes with a moan, his head tilted back and the strawberry blush on his cheeks just as lovely as his parted lips.
Yes. Andrew could definitely come to this. He almost does.
Neil slurs his words a little when he speaks, which is definitely not sexy or adorable. “Drew. D’you—”
“No. Not yet,” Andrew amends. He does not want to give too much, now or later, but he says it anyway. Neil smiles a little and Andrew shakes his head. “Wait.”
He goes to the bathroom and Neil waits, because he does, he is good like that.
So, maybe Andrew wants Neil longer than now. Maybe that’s all right.
well folks, it took a while, but we have come around to happiness and i hope you're ready for it
(also bitch buddies are my SOUL you CAN'T take Aaron and Neil being bffs from me OKAY)
Chapter 9: I See Everything
Neil isn't thinking about the prom, but apparently, everyone else is. He just has other things on his mind. Better things. Like kissing Andrew.
“You’re staying with me.”
Seth announces this as he drops his backpack onto the cafeteria bench, the thump jolting Neil back to reality. “Am I?”
“Yes.” Seth bites into the apple in his hand, which makes him look like an asshole. Guess it’s a good thing I like assholes. “Everyone else may have forgotten or conveniently avoided the topic, but I won’t.”
“The topic of you not having a place to live.” Seth shrugs, turning the apple in his hand as if he is inspecting it for the next best part to demolish.
Neil pokes at his breakfast roll. It looks soggy and gray. “I do.”
“Live. Not exist.”
He’s not wrong. Still, Neil presses his lips together and looks away, shoving his tray toward the other side of the table. Seth is still watching him.
Part of Neil did wonder if the others forgot. He thinks Nicky probably avoided the topic; Andrew…
…well. He’s been keeping Andrew occupied with other things.
Anyway, it’s only been a week since Neil was released from the hospital and two weeks since the basement. Stuart dealt with the police and the questions, but Neil assumes his uncle is still trying to keep the authorities misled about the scope of the issue.
Especially since Nathan’s body will probably never be found.
“Just stay.” Seth sighs and digs into his backpack. He rolls another apple at Neil, bright green and scrubbed clean. “We end up here at the same time, anyway.”
There are many reasons not to that immediately flood to mind. Reasons like putting Seth in danger or not having an easy way to run if Neil needed to.
Except those reasons don’t matter anymore.
The apple feels weighty in Neil’s hand. The bandages on his knuckles are gone. He can see the little circular marks and the pale, silvery lines from Lola’s knife. He can also see the cat Andrew doodled yesterday that hasn’t washed off. The ink spots under his nails from Aaron’s broken pen. Chipping blue paint, because Nicky asked to paint his nails in the hospital and Neil had never done it before, so he said yes.
Maybe his hands show him all the bad memories, but he is starting to see them less than the good ones.
“Okay,” Neil finally says. He takes a bite of the apple. It’s sour, but it’s good. Tart. Not quite sweet, but close enough.
“Okay.” Seth nods, his mission complete, and takes another bite.
Saturday night and one week until the prom, Neil is yawning on Aaron’s bedroom floor. He flips through the heavy book in his hand and stares down at the tiny letters.
“Organisms that reproduce sexually exhibit zygotic, gametic, or sporic meiosis. One way to determine the type of life cycle—”
“Comparing the diploid and haploid forms of the organism.”
Neil shuts the book and slides it onto the floor. Aaron tugs gently at his hair; Neil can almost hear the frown on his lips. “We’re not done.”
“You know this,” Neil says, gesturing vaguely at the book. “You’re going to do fine.”
“It’s AP Biology. I—”
“You are going to do fine,” Neil repeats. He closes his eyes for a second, enjoying the hands working through his hair. “You know this. I’ve been quizzing you for an hour. It’s not going to help you if you over study.”
The downstairs door opens and closes. Neil pretends not to care about it, but he wonders if it’s Andrew. Nicky was supposed to take his driving test, so Andrew and Kevin took him. Nicky was terrified of using Andrew’s car. Andrew said it would help him pass the test.
“What about you? Not studying?” Aaron mutters. A muffled curse escapes his lips as his fingers stumble in Neil’s hair.
Neil starts to shrug and stops just as quickly. He doesn’t want to dislodge Aaron. “Not really. Freshman classes aren’t hard. And I almost died.”
“How long are you gonna milk that one?”
“At least until prom.”
Aaron’s hands pause. He clears his throat and Neil is tempted to look back, just to see his expression. He waits, but only because he doesn’t want to lose the warmth of Aaron’s body against his.
“Prom. Do you want to go?”
This was probably not the best time for the others to make it upstairs.
Kevin freezes in the doorway, jacket in hand. He looks like he is about to turn on his heel and shove Nicky down the staircase. Nicky’s eyes are wide, an expression of joy suspended on his face and a paper in his hand.
Andrew, of course, passively takes in the scene before him.
Neil is sitting with his back to Aaron’s bed. Aaron has his legs thrown over Neil’s shoulders and he's supposed to be practicing braids with Neil’s hair, because he wanted to learn for Katelyn and Neil happened to be there.
“We can—” Nicky blurts, arms moving wildly before Kevin blindly reaches out to cover his mouth.
Neil glances at the paper. “Is that your temporary license? You passed?”
“I did!” Nicky exclaims quickly. He shoulders past Kevin to show Neil the paper.
Aaron gingerly moves his legs away and steps off his bed, reaching for the discarded book by Neil’s leg. His face looks red and he pushes his glasses up his nose. Neil wonders if Aaron had almost lost his glasses again, while he was looking down at Neil’s head.
“Abby said to order pizza.” Aaron glances at his twin, fidgeting with the book in his hands.
Nicky turns on his heel. “Pizza! Oh, hell yes!”
“You shouldn’t—” Kevin starts to argue, but Neil kicks his shin. Kevin turns to look down at him, frowning.
Neil raises an eyebrow. “Help me up?”
Kevin sighs, but he offers his hand. Neil can see the moles dotting Kevin’s arm like tiny constellations.
Neil pulls Kevin down instead, ignoring the stuttered protest. He pulls a pen out from under his leg and starts to connect the dots.
Kevin just sits back on his heels, long legs folded up to his chest. He is quiet when he asks, “How is it? With Seth?”
“Good,” Neil replies, surprised. He pauses in connecting two small moles, contemplating what to draw. He could do a box, or a star. Moon. “It’s just us, in the apartment. I have money, too.”
“You know you can come over, if you ever want. For space. I…well, I know it might not be—”
Wymack. Neil thinks about being in the same house as the man. It’s not as disquieting as it used to be, but then, he’s not actively trying.
If Kevin is there, though…maybe.
Neil shrugs. Finishes his constellations, neat glittery gold lines drawn on Kevin’s arm. “Maybe sometime. A weekend. Just to…study.”
This was supposed to be studying, too. If studying means this—Aaron playing with his hair, Nicky bouncing around happily—Neil doesn’t mind it. Not at all.
“I like it,” Kevin says decisively as he takes his arm back. Like that’s the end of a discussion they didn’t have.
Neil smiles to himself. “Good.”
A lot of things are good, now. He is still getting used to that.
“Come on,” Nicky says, tugging at Kevin’s shirt. “We gotta order pizza and I know how picky you are about your veggie pile—”
They migrate away from Aaron’s room naturally and suddenly, Neil is left on the floor, and Andrew is still standing in the doorway. Watching.
Neil tries to press down his smile. It doesn’t work all that well.
“Did the car survive?”
“Tch.” Andrew frowns and turns on his heel, pushing his door open. Neil grins and clambers to his feet, socks shuffling on the carpet as he walks across the hallway.
Andrew closes the door almost all the way behind him and Neil stands there, waiting.
“What?” Andrew’s eyes narrow. He steps closer, eyes flicking over Neil’s face.
“You know? You make me feel—”
“Nope.” Andrew raises a finger. His mouth is pressed into a flat line, but Neil can see the telltale red blush spreading from the tips of his ears. “Truth only. And I didn’t ask.”
“Okay,” Neil says patiently. “Can I show you? Can I touch you?”
Andrew struggles for approximately one minute before he gives in, like he always does. Neil never pushes him. He just stands there, and it is more pleasing than anything else that Andrew gives in to nothing.
Neil tries not to grin when he carefully raises his hands and presses his fingers to Andrew’s arms. The little zap of electricity makes Andrew’s eyes widen, nothing but crystalline surprise in their hazel depths for a glorious moment. Of course, Andrew tries to cover it up immediately, but the important thing is that Neil saw.
“You are a menace.”
Neil laughs. “You like menaces.”
“Wrong,” Andrew mutters. He pulls Neil in by his hair, tugging at the tiny braids Aaron left. “I like one menace. I tolerate the rest.”
Neil would tell Andrew that’s almost romantic, but he is preoccupied with kissing him instead. With the relief he feels just as Andrew’s lips brush his, the buzzing between them like static again. It feels right to be there, the evening light warm as it comes through the window, but never as warm as Andrew. There is a coil in Neil’s chest, heat and desire and a thud that might be love. Like his heart is trying to match Andrew’s just by virtue of proximity.
Nicky is laughing downstairs, but then voices come closer and Andrew pulls back, a half-frown on his lips while he glares at his door.
For some reason, Neil has the urge to do something stupid. On impulse, he leans in, presses his lips to Andrew’s forehead. Inhales the soft smell of Andrew’s shampoo and the spice of his cologne. There’s a flower somewhere in there, too.
“What are you doing?” Andrew’s question is shaky. Neil can feel Andrew’s hands flexing on his wrists.
Neil hums, massaging his fingers on Andrew’s scalp. “Holding the world in my hands.”
Andrew’s grip tightens. He doesn’t say anything, but he does kiss Neil right until Nicky hits the top of the landing, calling them both to the kitchen.
Nicky doesn’t say anything when Neil and Andrew emerge. But then, he really doesn’t have to.
“You should ask.” Katelyn swings her legs over the bleacher seats, smoothing her cheer skirt over her legs as she settles next to Neil. There’s a braid next to her right ear. It looks a little funny toward the bottom, but it’s still nice.
Neil frowns. “Ask what?”
Katelyn just smiles and turns back to the track. Andrew is there, hands on his waist as he stares down at Kevin. Kevin was supposed to run the track four times, but Andrew decided that was four times too many. Kevin didn’t want to back down. It was a quick fight.
“You still have time,” Katelyn reminds Neil. “Five days until prom. You know he’ll say yes.”
“I’m not asking Kevin. Not even out of pity. Besides, I think Jeremy is going to take him. And Jean.”
Katelyn’s eyebrows shoot up. She beams, clapping excitedly. “Oh, good! He took my advice. Silly Jeremy. He was pouting about them not coming to him, first.”
“You reminded him they’re both idiots.”
“I did.” Katelyn laughs. “But you’re not much better off. Come on, Neil. You deserve better.”
Neil shrugs. He is aware of how close to the truth they are coming. They don’t have a deal.
I don’t deserve better, though.
It’s what he doesn’t say. What he thinks; what he has thought, since Andrew stared down at him on the track, that terrible, blank look in his eyes. Looking like Neil was not Neil but a corpse. A nameless body, just so much bone and flesh.
I don’t want to make him see that again. Neil never wanted anyone to see that, or anything like it. He knows it is hard to avoid, given his past and how it follows him, but he hates it all the same. Almost wished he had just died on the track, if only to let them all go. To release his grip on them and let them into the future. Without him.
Katelyn tugs her jacket closed tighter—only it’s not hers, Neil realizes; it’s Aaron’s. “We all know, you know. It’s not like you two are obvious, but Andrew? We’ve known him for a while. We can see.”
“Can you really?” Neil means it as a genuine question. He knows he can see the changes—the flicker in Andrew’s eyes, the hitch in his breath, the pink on his ears. He hopes he is the only one that sees those things.
“Yes. It’s…he’s almost…calmer.”
Neil sends her a disbelieving look. Katelyn shrugs, a helpless smile on her lips. “It’s true.”
Andrew kicks Kevin’s shin. He is holding back, of course, but Kevin groans dramatically and rolls onto his side. It seems like he gets the clever idea to do push-ups, but that only lasts until Andrew sits on his back. Neil can hear Kevin’s wheeze from the bleachers.
“I don’t…I mean, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to go.”
“How do you know?” Katelyn raises her eyebrows again—it’s that way that Allison does, like she knows everything, and maybe she does. What does he know?
Neil drops his chin into his palms. “Andrew isn’t really the type. He doesn’t…I mean, he’s not…open about us, anyway.”
Katelyn bites her lip. “Before you came,” she starts cautiously. “It was…well. It wasn’t a secret that Andrew had shit happen to him—”
“Don’t tell me,” Neil says immediately, maybe harsher than he meant to, because Katelyn’s head whips around. “I don’t—don’t tell me. He tells me what he wants.”
“Okay.” Katelyn tangles her hands together and looks down at the track. “I just want you to know, he has a reason.”
“Of course, he does.” Neil looks sideways at her, brow furrowed. “Andrew always has a reason.”
Katelyn is silent. She blinks a few times and then laughs, looking down at her hands. “Maybe you’re not as much of an idiot as I thought. But you’re still dumb.”
Aaron appears at the foot of the bleachers. Katelyn stands, brushing off her skirt, but she waits. “Like I said. You won’t know if you don’t ask—and he won’t say no. Not to you.”
“He can. If he wants,” Neil replies. That’s the rule.
“I know.” Katelyn smiles and starts down the stairs. “But he won’t.”
Neil is not prepared.
He is at school, firstly. It is the middle of the day. Everything should be fine, but it isn’t, because there are three older boys standing around him and he has no clue what’s happening.
“Easy target,” one of them says. He laughs. “Can’t believe the psycho left him alone.”
“Do you need something?”
They ignore him. Neil glances toward the gym door. The rest of the class is just outside. Andrew is just outside.
These people are wasting his time. He should be going to see Andrew.
“We should do a good job,” one of the taller guys says. He is trying to sound menacing. Neil is just annoyed. “After all, he broke your arm, Dean.”
“I actually haven’t ever broken someone’s arm,” Neil says drily.
Finally, someone acknowledges him. Dean, Neil assumes. “Not you. Your psycho boyfriend.”
Boyfriend. Neil’s eyebrows hike up. “What now—”
Someone punches him in the gut. He misses it by virtue of the absolutely absurd claim that Andrew is his boyfriend. That—
Anyway, Neil is distracted, which is how he ends up doubled over, arms around his middle. “Okay,” he wheezes, aggravation mounting. “I’m going to suggest you stop. Before you make this worse for yourself.”
Someone laughs. A well-placed kick to his shin brings him onto his knees.
“Seriously,” Neil grunts. “At least two people are going to kill you and the class is coming inside in two minutes. Try to be smart for ten seconds.”
“Shut up, faggot.” Creative, Neil doesn’t say, because he has the impression words aren’t going to do much.
Neil slides his leg around and he is ready to fight—ready to cause a commotion—but suddenly, he is yanked backward. His eyes widen and then he feels himself being dragged and he knows—
—knows, suddenly, without a doubt, where they are taking him.
He should be forcing his heart rate to slow down, but he can’t. Not when the basement door is at his back and three guys are dragging him back to the pit of its hell.
Neil’s voice is stuck in his throat. He feels it—knows how stupid it is for his body to feel heavy and his arguments to die, but his brain short-circuits and all he can think is that Andrew is just outside and there is going to be a fight when someone finds out what happens and then they can’t go to prom—
—and then Neil is being shoved into the basement, we’ll deal with him later, the heavy door shut on him and the dampness emerging like a thing to greet him.
They probably didn’t expect him to make a sound, or to be heard. Fortunately, Neil has practice with being trapped.
He pours out every scream that never left his mouth when Nathan was there; screams for every cut and burn that marked his skin. He pounds at the door with fists that could not land on his father, on the man that loomed in the stairwell like death itself.
Neil screams and fights and tries not to look back, because he knows what he’ll see; knows he will find the ghosts of Nathan and Lola, their mouths twisted with rot as they silently watch him fall apart against a heavy wooden door.
He doesn’t know how long he makes noise until the door is wrenched open, a cacophony of shouts and the vivid fluorescent light of the gym bombarding him. Somewhere a few feet away, Wymack and the other coach have the three boys. Kevin is on the ground, coughing, and Andrew is standing by the door, fists clenched and rage rolling off his body. Nicky is pressed to the wall, chest heaving, and Seth is wiping blood from his mouth.
Aaron pants, his hair askew and knuckles bloody. He is there in the doorway, pale and too bright, and just a second later his hands yank Neil out of the basement and into his arms. They tumble onto the floor and Neil realizes his face is wet—he is crying, maybe, and his throat feels raspy and torn.
“You’re fine,” Aaron gasps, even though his arms shake, and his fingers dig into Neil’s back like he is a balloon ready to float away. “We’re here. You’re fine. I’ve got you.”
It’s not fine, Neil wants to say, because stupid teenagers just shoved him into his personal hell, but that’s not the point.
He is not fine, and this is not fine, but everything else—
—Aaron holding him and the others ready to fight, already fighting, determined to help him?
That is more than fine. That is good.
“What’d you do?” Neil reaches out and then stops. Lets his hand drop onto his lap.
Stupid. Andrew almost reaches out just to put it on his face.
Neil smiles, fleeting. He sounds rough. He was screaming. I heard it.
That was what tipped them off. Not that Neil was gone, really; that they could hear a voice, from the basement.
“Liar,” Neil murmurs. He looks fond; why does he look fond, he shouldn’t. He should be a mess and more. He should be demanding to know why Kevin was hurt and why Andrew broke Dean’s arm, again.
Andrew curls his hands around his jacket. Looks down, but then he hears Neil’s voice again.
“Can I touch your face? Yes or no.”
Bad idea. Like flying at the boys, instead of the basement door. Like turning the full force of his rage in the wrong direction, again. Kevin tried to stop him and what? Another reminder not to touch Andrew—
—not to touch him, when things happen like this—
—and it was Aaron and Nicky that were smart enough to actually help.
Neil’s hands are warm. They do not shake. They should, but they don’t, and Andrew doesn’t know why the fuck that is. Doesn’t know why Neil is. He shouldn’t be. He should be dead. He shouldn’t exist at all.
“You really did a number on Kevin.”
Andrew’s mouth twists. “Not as bad as it could have been.” Don’t you know how bad that is?
“No,” Neil agrees, like it’s a good thing. Like not going too far is okay. “I know why you did.”
“He told me he remembered me,” Neil muses. His fingers smooth over the bruise on Andrew’s cheek. “I know he was afraid. Anyway, I should have told you all. I…”
“You were running,” Andrew says shortly. Not that it is acceptable, or an answer, or an excuse.
Neil knows this. He does, and he smiles, crooked and fond. “I was. Anyway, I know you were angry at him. For not saying anything. I know it wasn’t about me. So, you don’t have to worry.”
“Not about you,” Andrew echoes.
Yes and no. He could back away. He could let it go; let everything go like he has before. He could watch Neil slip back into the comfortable place they’ve been.
He could keep pulling them into dark corners and pretending that it is fine, and he won’t break someone’s arm if they try to hurt Neil.
“It was.” Like ripping a band-aid. Andrew finds himself curiously intact, once he says it.
Neil pauses. His hands are still on Andrew’s face, fingers massaging his temples. “What?”
“It was about you.”
“It was about you because you were in the fucking basement,” Andrew says shortly. Too much, but he keeps going, “It was about you because it was about you. Because I know, and I couldn’t do nothing.”
Neil’s hands have stopped moving. His blue eyes seem watery and Andrew is prepared for anything—to move away, to have Neil push him, to have only a confused response.
Instead, what he gets is Neil pressing his lips to Andrew’s forehead like Andrew is the fragile one, the small one, the one that needs it. “I love—”
“Don’t say that,” Andrew says immediately, panic rising to his throat, and he does not know what to do. How to explain that truth is truth, and this cannot be it.
Neil’s hands tighten on his cheeks. “I love you,” he says fiercely, like the idiot that he is. Like the stupid, suicidal idiot he is. “I want you now and I want you later, and I don’t want to spend the rest of today without you, or next year, or—”
“Stop,” Andrew says, his hands looking for Neil’s lips to steady them. “You’re spiraling.”
“Not.” Neil laughs, his eyes bright and so blue, and Andrew can see the truth, so he can’t call it a lie. “I am not. I am telling the truth. Don’t call it a lie because you don’t believe it.”
They are stupid. They are stupid and kids, and Andrew wants to tell him that, but he knows that Neil knows. He knows that this runaway knows better than anyone, and he knows just the same that Neil believes it. He believes every word he’s said. He believes in his love and his want and all the other shit.
Andrew can’t say no in the face of all that truth.
Rather, he doesn’t want to.
And that is his answer, sealed with the kiss he presses against Neil’s lips.
“Drew,” Neil whispers, as soon as they part. “Wanna got to prom?”
now taking bets as to what andrew 'what the fuck did you just call me' minyard tells neil
Chapter 10: Here
Prom night is coming up and Neil only has one thing—one person—on his mind.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“We have to find you something,” Nicky insists.
Neil looks him dead in the eye. “I was just going to wear my black hoodie.”
Nicky starts to protest, but he closes his mouth. It’s a wobbly line as he squints at Neil, clearly contemplating what he is going to do. If he should do something.
Finally, he gives in. “You can’t. Neil, you can’t.”
He can’t help it. Neil snorts.
Nicky’s eyes widen comically, but before he can say anything, Aaron comes downstairs. He has Abby’s keys in hand, and Bee is following him.
Betsy is…new, to Neil. She was apparently away for work, the past month that Neil was accidentally becoming involved with the twins and all his other friends. Betsy—or Bee—is apparently Andrew’s favorite. She is basically his therapist-mother, Aaron says, and it is clear that Aaron appreciates Abby’s hands-off approach more than Bee’s.
Anyway, Bee is back, and she wants Neil to have dinner at some point. Which is fine. He thinks.
“You know your limit,” Bee tells Aaron. “Are you sure you shouldn’t wait for Andrew? He—”
“I told them to go,” Andrew says from his doorway. He shuts it a little too hard, abruptly cutting off whatever it was Bee was about to say. Neil recognizes the tension ins his shoulders, even beneath his heavy black hoodie.
Bee looks up at him. “They can wait.”
Andrew snorts and gestures at Neil. “That can’t wait.”
Neil doesn’t take offense. He has been dragged enough for his wardrobe and besides, he knows Andrew is just lashing out.
It’s not as if Neil didn’t know Andrew had his issues. It’s just that now, without any near-death experiences or traumatic episodes to focus on, there’s just this. Just Andrew, with an appointment he doesn’t want to talk about and the prom looming in the distance.
The house is busy enough that no one notices when Neil approaches Andrew in the hidden alcove between the kitchen and the hallway.
“You know, I—”
“If you tell me you can wait, I will take back my answer.” Andrew fiddles with the cigarette in his hand, twisting it agitatedly through his fingers.
Neil can see a tremor in his hand. He feels a small ache that won’t quite go away. Part of him wants to reach out, but another part recognizes how bad of an idea it might be.
“Andrew, are you—”
“Don’t wear red,” Andrew interrupts. He glares toward the front door, as if he can make Nicky stop laughing with eyesight alone. “Your hair is red, and it’ll look stupid. More stupid than you already do.”
Neil is quiet. He waits a beat—watches the static buzz over Andrew’s skin; the way he grinds the cigarette into useless paper in his hand, frenetic energy crackling in every movement. There are faint smudges beneath Andrew’s eyes, from lack of sleep or eyeliner or something else.
For a moment, Neil wonders if this is what Andrew felt. If he was always watching Neil, perpetually stuck in limbo, wondering whether to move or not.
Well. Andrew doesn’t really wonder, so maybe it’s a little different.
“Stop looking at me like that. I’m not fucking being committed.” The accusation grinds out like stone and Neil raises his hands to Andrew’s, careful, not yet touching.
“Andrew. You’re cold.”
Andrew blinks. Looks down at his body, as if he forgot he had one. He finds his hand shaking a little.
Neil keeps his distance, but he asks, “Yes or no?”
Andrew still blinks down at his hands, but he manages to answer in a faintly intrigued tone. “Yes.”
Neil enjoys the curl of his hands around Andrew’s. He ignores the cigarette as it drops to the floor; he focuses on the tight balls of Andrew’s hands. He does not try to pry them open. He warms them, instead.
Andrew watches their hands with muted interested. It takes a long while for him to uncurl his fists, but he does, and then he tangled their fingers together. He digs into Neil’s hands like he needs an anchor, and Neil doesn’t mind the bite of Andrew’s blunt nails.
“Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Neil says simply. He lets Andrew pull him in by the hands, enjoying the soft curl of heat between their lips. The slide of Andrew’s tongue.
Someone says Andrew’s name in the distance. Neil contemplates ignoring it, but Andrew pulls back, an irritated sigh on his lips. He glances at Neil and unwinds their hands, reluctantly pulling each finger away. Neil smiles.
Andrew shoots him a look before pulling a new cigarette from his pocket, gingerly reaching down for the other one. Neil watches him move and tries not to think of other things. He settles for reaching out with his hand, waiting for the bump of Andrew’s head on his palm and the soft hair that brushes his skin.
Andrew squints at him. “Forty percent.”
“What?” Neil’s smile widens. Andrew’s tongue clicks.
“Go ask someone else.”
And then Andrew is gone, following Bee to her car while Nicky waves, Abby’s keys jingling in his hand. Neil slides out of the kitchen silently, flexing his hands as if he can recapture the ghost of Andrew. He likes the warmth that is quickly fading, and he hopes Andrew comes back soon.
“Ready?” Aaron tugs on his jacket. His glasses are askew; he’s been wearing them, lately, after too many late-night study sessions. Neil reaches out to fix them.
“What’s forty percent?”
Aaron frowns. He hesitates when he opens his mouth and then Kevin pipes up from the porch, where he has just appeared.
“Whiskey’s around forty percent.”
Somehow, Neil doesn’t think that’s the right answer.
Neil is an idiot. Andrew stubbornly ignores the slamming of lockers nearby; they are tucked at the far end of the gym, and no one will find them.
Anyway, if someone does, Andrew will just shove them into one of the lockers.
A whisper. A brush of soft red hair against Andrew’s forehead, Neil tilting his head to allow more access, and Andrew draws a particularly sweet moan from Neil’s throat.
Neil is stupid. Stupid, stupid, and Andrew’s head is spinning.
What is your pain level? Stupid question. As if there is a number to put to it, or like every day is the same. What percentage would you use to describe how content you are with your living situation?
He wonders if Neil will ever figure it out. If it matters.
Sliding scales. Everything is a sliding scale, like the way Andrew very much enjoys pinning Neil’s hands today, circling fingers around them like bracelets because no wrists so pretty should be unadorned. Andrew can feel the tremble running up Neil’s arms and the shiver of his breath, where their chests are pressed together.
Neil sits on a bench, his back pressed to the lockers, and Andrew stands over him. He likes this position, partly because Neil is the one tilting his chin up, and partly because Andrew likes the stretch of his shoulders as he pushes Neil’s hands above his head.
A locker closes nearby, and Andrew pulls back a little, watching Neil pant, cheeks red and eyes hazy.
“One mile a minute,” Neil whispers. His fingers curl and a shudder runs up his spine.
Andrew can feel Neil’s pulse against his thumb. He knows. His reply is a rough, “Ninety percent.”
“Oh?” A little smile curls Neil’s lips. He lingers too close, his nose bumping Andrew’s, and that should not be as tantalizing as it is. “It got better.”
“More doesn’t mean better,” Andrew growls. It is technically true and not a lie.
Neil grins. It makes him look stupid, with his rosy cheeks and the little glimmer to his bright blue eyes. Andrew can’t stand looking at him too long; it’s like staring at the sun.
He occupies himself instead with Neil’s mouth, diving in again to explore the only place he really wants to be. Neil is warm, and this is all the heat he needs.
A locker slams. Far too close, this time. Andrew pulls away, annoyed, and Neil blinks.
The sounds of an argument echo from nearby. Andrew can pick out Nicky’s voice and someone else. One of the pieces of human trash that threw Neil into the basement.
It is a bad day to be angry. Andrew itches under his skin and he moves, unthinking—
—and then he realizes Neil is already halfway across the locker room, hiking his jacket up his right shoulder absentmindedly, like he wasn’t just making out in a corner.
Andrew blinks and suddenly, his mission goes from destruction to prevention. He is acutely aware of how often Neil manages to land himself in trouble, and this is not a day for that to happen.
Neil rounds the corner just before Andrew, and Andrew has time to see the frustratingly laughable way Neil leans back, the muscles in his legs clear as he tenses and roundhouse kicks Dean so hard the guy goes flying into a nearby trash can.
It definitely should not be hot that Neil is unmoved, the smooth curve of his calf relaxing as he lowers his leg and glances at Nicky. “You okay?”
“What the fuck,” Nicky breathes, eyes wide and shoulders still hunched in shock. He stares at Dean, who is sprawled on his ass, and then Nicky laughs. He laughs so hard he bends over, tears in his eyes as he slaps his hand on the bench before him.
Kevin stands across the way, his face hidden by his palm, and for the first time, Andrew knows exactly how he feels.
This is when Wymack finally appears, already rubbing his forehead exhaustedly. He barely glances at Dean before he snaps, gesturing for Dean to follow him. “We’re going to have a talk. The last one we have, before you’re suspended.”
Dean sputter to argue, but Andrew stares evenly at him from behind Neil. He may or may not slide a knife out from under his sleeve. Dean shuts up and follows Wymack.
Nicky is still cry-laughing. “Neil. Neil, oh my God, I love you. I love you so much.”
“You’re fine?” Neil presses again, squinting as he gives Nicky a once-over.
“Yes. Jesus, yes, I’m fine. God, I thought Kevin overreacted, but that—”
“It wasn’t overreacting.” Neil shrugs. “It was preventative. He won’t do it again. Ever.”
So, maybe Andrew does like Neil, and maybe he does kind of want to go to prom with him, if only to see what shit Neil finishes. Because he may not actively start anything, but he is absolutely ready to end things.
Prom might actually be fun.
Kevin just wearily throws his backpack over his shoulder, dark hair still wet, and tugs Neil’s jacket over his shoulder properly. “You need to zip up. It’s cold.”
Andrew does not care that everyone loves Neil, and he does not care that Neil is ready to fight for all of them. He does not care.
He loves Neil. That is what matters.
Neil might be panicking.
He is sitting on Andrew’s floor. They’re out early; their exams are over. The others are waiting for them. They are all going to meet for pizza, once school is out.
If Neil makes it that long.
Aaron only opened his closet to dig around for a box. He wanted to look for something; Neil doesn’t know what. All Neil knows is that there is a full-length mirror facing him, and he can see himself for the first time in months. Years.
He is actually looking, now. He is looking, and he can see the scars on his cheek. The fine lines on his jaw, tracing toward his neck. The discoloration on his hands. Even the hickey that hides near his collar is somehow missed, because he is too busy looking at the knotted scar by his shoulder.
Scars. He could trace each one and remember its pain or trace each one and tell how he earned it. Where he was and who did it and how he should have stopped it.
Aaron turns back, but whatever is on his lips dies when he sees Neil’s face. “What?”
Neil means to answer—say something distracting—but when he opens his mouth, all that comes out is a choked noise. He starts to stumble to his feet, thinking he should get away, but he turns and runs right into Kevin.
“Shh.” Kevin’s hands are warm. Hot, almost. They hold Neil steady, but he can’t blink enough to find Kevin’s face and his head is swimming. “Neil. Breathe with me. In…out. In…out.”
It’s hard. So hard, and Neil almost gives up, but Kevin pulls Neil’s hand to his chest. “Feel,” he says, and his voice is a rumble Neil can feel. “Breathe with it. One, two. Three. One, two—”
Neil doesn’t know how long he stands there, but the thump of Kevin’s heart against his palm is concrete enough to follow. Neil trails along its beating like a red thread, making his way back to his body with pausing steps.
… “Are you…petting me?” Neil chokes out.
Kevin makes an annoyed noise. “You weren’t complaining.”
“I wasn’t coherent.”
Kevin rolls his eyes. Neil doesn’t want to look away, but he does, and he finds Aaron standing by the bed. Neil expects things; he expects unease, worry, frustration. Everything but the patience he finds there and the care in Aaron’s eyes as he takes in the way Neil comes down to earth.
Aaron’s finger rubs along the foot of his bed. It is the only indication of his concern. “What was it?”
“The mirror,” Neil admits. He notices the door is closed; Aaron must have guessed. “I just…it…”
He swallows. How stupid it will sound, he thinks, to explain that it wasn’t the scars that really did it. It was thinking about prom, and realizing that he is going to be in a nice new suit, but his body is still going to be the same, he is still going to be the same, chewed up and spit out and somehow landing at Andrew’s feet, and why did Andrew ever say yes?
Kevin glances at Aaron and then turns around. He is hiking his shirt up before Neil can sputter, “What—”
“See?” Kevin’s shirt is pooled around his neck, but he shrugs, and Neil can see a faint line on his shoulder blade. A few other scars. They stand out against his brown skin, silvery-pale and fine.
Aaron groans. “Please don’t make me take my pants off to show you the one on my leg. I’d rather not be murdered by my brother when he comes in at the wrong time.”
“He’s still got two tests left.” Kevin shrugs. He probably also notices the shifty slide in Neil’s eyes, because he says, “That’s it, right? Not the scars. Andrew.”
Neil wants to argue, but of course it’s about Andrew, because Andrew is safe and right and one of the first things Neil ever wanted. Wants.
“Oh, Jesus,” Aaron mutters, but there’s a seed of pain in his eyes. A heartbreak that pushes through all the sibling discord. “You…he’s not…”
“Andrew was staring at your ass long before you collected a few more scars,” Kevin says, short and to the point, just as he always is. Aaron chokes. “And he still looks. He’s not paying attention to the scars.”
He’s right and there’s more to it than just that, but Neil only needs this much, and he laughs shortly. Maybe it’s broken, but broken can be fixed, and Kevin and Aaron are doing their best.
“Andrew doesn’t care about scars,” Aaron mutters. He crosses his arms and stares toward the door. “He has some. Anyway, it’s not like yours matter. You’re pretty enough.”
Kevin actually turns on his heel to stare.
“Wow, mood,” Nicky announces from the bedroom doorway. “Is today sex up the cheerleader day? I didn’t wear cologne.”
“Please stop.” Neil sighs, but he finds himself smiling despite himself.
Out of all the things he never meant to do or feel, his friends are the best. With them, he thinks perhaps struggling won’t be as much of a struggle. He has people looking out for him, and now, he has a reason to fight. A reason to want to come to school every day. A reason to wake up at all.
Kevin looks down at him while Nicky teases his cousin. “The way you look doesn’t determine how someone loves you. Nothing about the outside does.”
“Are you trying to tell me I’ve got a great personality?”
“No.” Kevin snorts, but he’s finally smiling, half-formed and crooked. It’s one of the only things about Kevin that is not perfect. Neil likes it the most. “You have a bad attitude. But he likes those.”
That’s true, Neil thinks, and so he shrugs and gives up. The moment is gone, and he is more than willing to let it stay gone, because he has better things to surround himself with, like Nicky’s laughter and the way Aaron is blushing as he complains about how often people walk into his room without knocking.
Andrew holds his hand under the table at the pizza place, and it is silly and perfect and everything that Neil is not supposed to have. And he loves it. He loves Andrew.
Neil says so, when Andrew lets everyone else out of the car but keeps Neil inside, his fake-annoyed growl culminating in a kiss. Neil doesn’t mind.
It’s what he was aiming for, anyway.
Katelyn and Aaron are taking dozens of pictures. They are going through the usual dance of complaints and blushingly happy poses. Andrew ignores them and goes toward the kitchen, thinking he might as well eat some leftover pizza while he waits for Neil. He emerges from the fridge with a Hawaiian-pepperoni slice in his mouth—
—and turns to find Neil standing in the doorway.
Well. Well, Neil’s suit is deep blue. His shirt is neat and white, the top two buttons left casually open, as if he thinks he’s smooth and Andrew won’t notice the hint. Allison did a good job, Andrew thinks distantly, because the faint line at Neil’s lashes makes them look even more feathery and long; the color on his cheeks isn’t just natural, not with the rose-gold shine.
And he got a haircut, Andrew realizes, because the frustrating cut of Neil’s cheekbones is very apparent, and that is because his hair has been cut enough to brush them, the back shaved into an undercut that Andrew can’t wait to rub his hands over.
“Sorry. The door was unlocked,” Neil says, his shrug helpless. His blue eyes flick over Andrew and he blushes.
Andrew thinks the pizza is going soggy in his mouth. He swallows his bite and contemplates it, wondering if he should mourn the loss of his food. He doesn’t feel like wrapping it in foil again.
Except Neil crosses the kitchen and takes a bite, his lashes fluttery and stupid and everything about his gold-shining skin distracting. He hums as he chews, still looking Andrew over.
“Well?” Andrew asks, irritated. He doesn’t know what Neil is going to say, or what he will try to say. Andrew has a new black turtleneck, soft cashmere, and the suit he pulled on over it is a crimson that is closer to black than red.
Neil smiles a little. His hand wavers in the air and Andrew tilts his head, ignoring their question in favor of getting Neil to just put his fucking hands on him. “Well. You always look hot.”
“That’s so very unromantic, Josten.”
“Okay,” Neil murmurs. He is close. “How about this?”
Andrew is waiting for a kiss, but Neil just looks down to pin a fucking flower on Andrew, and it’s a goddamn carnation, a green carnation, because Neil really is stupid and romantic.
“Oscar Wilde. Really?” Andrew brushes a finger against one of the petals. It is solitary but pristine, and Andrew wonders if the person at the flowershop knew what it meant. What it means.
Neil grins. Glances down at Andrew’s pizza. His eyes still go back to Andrew’s lips when he asks, “Yes or no?”
Good. Andrew has stopped using certain words, in his mind, because it’s a step he has been told he needs to make, and Neil deserves a little more, tonight. With his glowy cheeks and the sparkle to his blue eyes.
The kiss is good, better than good, and Neil doesn’t care that they both just ate a bite of pizza, but then, he almost died twice. Andrew thinks his taste is compromised.
The prom doesn’t really matter. What matters is this. Andrew finds himself meandering down paths in his mind, where he wonders what Neil will look like in three years; if he will be at college on a track scholarship. If he will grow into his legs and grow out of his terrible fashion sense, and if Andrew will have the blind luck to be there to see it. To see everything.
Neil’s hands slide along Andrew’s collar. He holds Andrew with both hands, cupping his face as if Andrew is some sort of precious gem that he can’t drop. It is more than Andrew feels he needs, but then, Neil always likes to do more.
When Neil pulls back, he bumps his nose against Andrew’s and smiles. “You gonna eat that?”
Andrew glares as he takes another bite of the pizza. It doesn’t do much to chase away the taste of Neil, and for that, he’s grateful.
Neil can’t focus on the prom. He barely pays attention long enough for Katelyn and Aaron to be crowned; Andrew doesn’t have the patience to listen to the stumbling of the presenting teacher’s speech about school and achievement.
For the seventh time that night, Andrew pulls Neil into a dark corner and kisses him up against the wall. No one is paying attention to who is making out with who—it’s prom—and Andrew has taken full advantage of that fact.
Of course, as the night wears on, neither of them really think much. They just end up colliding again and again, until eventually, Neil is laughing breathlessly by the punch bowl, stumbling backward toward the doors with Andrew’s hands on his shirt.
“We’re leaving? Time for food?”
Andrew shoots him a heavy look. “Eating, yes. Food, no.”
Neil probably squeaks when Andrew pushes him through the doors, but it’s not because of what Andrew said. Definitely not.
They make it to Andrew’s car somehow, only Andrew opens the back door and Neil laughs as he throws himself inside. This is stupid, and he shouldn’t be so excited about what every stupid teenager does, but he is, because none of this should be possible and he shouldn’t be here with Andrew.
Not that it matters. Neil ignores all the bells and reminders ringing in his head and shuts them off like a noisy phone. Neil pushes himself further up the seat and then he realizes there’s a blanket beneath him.
“Did…” Neil blinks, watching Andrew’s coat go sailing into the passenger’s seat. “You planned this. Didn’t you?”
Andrew’s mouth thins into a line and he pauses. Maybe he is wondering what to say, or how to answer. Neil laughs. He laughs and pulls himself up, meeting Andrew for a kiss and forgetting to ask, because they have been doing this all night, and Neil doesn’t remember when Andrew stopped questioning and started moving. Andrew peels his jacket off and moves it aside, leaning over Neil, his shirt stretched around his arms as he supports himself.
One of Andrew’s feet is on the floor and the other is on the seat, between Neil’s legs, his thigh brushing against Neil’s crotch just enough to be tantalizing. Neil moans, frustrated and low, shivering for Andrew’s touch. They are not close enough.
Neil doesn’t like the turtleneck. Well—he likes how it looks. He just doesn’t like that it’s in the way right now, blocking access to Andrew’s chest, and he yanks it up over Andrew’s head without a care for what Andrews’ hair might look like. “I—Andrew, I—”
“Yes or no,” Andrew mutters, fingers already pulling at Neil’s belt. Neil feels his heart skip a few beats and then a few more.
“Yes. I want—I want you, Andrew, I—”
“Shh.” Andrew leans in and then Neil loses his questions and hesitancy; everything goes, only the press of a warm mouth left to ground him. His breath hitches in his chest and Andrew pushes Neil’s shirt away, broad hands warm and steadying.
Neil almost asks if he should move, but Andrew pulls his pants away so quickly the question flees. Neil is left with the image of Andrew leaning over between his legs, silver-blond hair falling over his face and hazel eyes heavy-lidded.
He has to ask. Neil reaches for Andrew, hesitating. “Can I touch you?”
Andrew’s tongue flicks over his lips. There is a darkness in his eyes—some unspoken desire he may not be ready to speak, and Neil is fine with that—and then Andrew says, “Don’t push.”
“Never,” Neil whispers, and then he closes his eyes and his mouth falls open in a thin moan as Andrew’s lips close around the head of his cock. “Ah—Andrew—”
The hands are at his hips, pressing into the bone, and it is the closest to a nonverbal shut up, Josten, that Neil has ever experienced. He wants to laugh and cry at the same time. He wants to pull Andrew up and kiss him senseless. He wants so much.
Andrew’s tongue slides along the length of Neil’s cock, tasting like he always does, because Neil isn’t an idiot and he knows Andrew seeks out every corner of Neil’s mouth when they kiss. Andrew says Neil can’t keep his tongue in his mouth but that’s the pot calling the kettle black, not that Neil is complaining, because Andrew does things that make him shiver and curl his hands into the blanket beneath him.
Neil can hardly look at Andrew, but then he can’t look away—not with the lovely image of Andrew’s flushed and hollowed cheeks, or the way his hands slide up Neil’s body as if he wants to touch all of him at once. Neil can’t keep his words in his mouth; he is a mess of “Fuck, Drew, yes, yes—”
Except Neil doesn’t want thing to end this way—not like he ever wants them to end—and it only takes a too-close gasp for him to tap Andrew’s hands.
God, he could be addicted, specifically to the pop of Andrew’s mouth as he moves away from Neil, his mouth red and his hair out of place. Neil pulls him in with clumsy hands, uncaring of how sloppy he is being, because he needs Andrew’s mouth on his. Neil loves the way Andrew leans in, his tongue fighting Neil like he is trying to fuck Neil’s mouth the way he was just sucking him off.
Neil barely manages to flutter his hands against Andrew’s face, waiting until he has the space he doesn’t really want to say what he does want. “Drew. I want you. I—can you—”
Andrew just hovers above him, and Neil is sure the answer will be no and he is fine with that, but then Neil feels the curl of a hand over his chest and he almost does cry. “Are you sure? Here. We can—”
“I’m not going to make it home,” Neil jokes, but the pull of his lips into a smile is nothing but truth. “Yes. I’m sure.”
Andrew waits and Neil isn’t sure if it’s for changing his mind or calculating the risk. They are parked far from the gym and it’s not too late into the evening, and honestly Neil doesn’t think either of them have considered the logistics of what they are going to do.
But it’s fine, because Andrew kisses him, and everything leaves the way it does when Andrew’s involved. Neil lets Andrew shuffle around the floor, fishing something out of his discarded pants, and Neil laughs. He grins when Andrew comes back, eyebrow raised. “You really did plan, didn’t you?”
“If you’re not going to be safe, I have to make sure you are,” Andrew mutters. He is trying and failing to sound annoyed.
—Neil might be hopeless. He is hopeless under Andrew, somehow safe and warm despite being pinned to the backseat of a car that’s not his, because it smells like Andrew and the smoke from their suits. Because Andrew would never hurt Neil, and he had a condom in his pocket and lube, too, and Neil feels stupidly mushy over that when he really shouldn’t.
Neil takes the condom, because he wants to, and Andrew doesn’t argue. He pulls Andrew down and waits for the kiss, the slide of Andrew’s tongue; he slides the condom on then, and he feels a thrill of pleasure at the way Andrew’s breath catches at Neil’s touch.
Neil smiles as he noses Andrew’s neck, searching for the right spot to press his lips to, and he finds it easily enough. He is so preoccupied by it that he hardly notices Andrew preparing, until there is a slick finger pressing against him.
Neil hums. Curls his fingers around Andrew’s shoulders, which he could never hope to hold, and says, “I am.”
Andrew leans over him and Neil thinks he knows, now—knows that Andrew wants to see Neil’s face, has to find everything the way he has to taste everything—and Neil is fine with that. He is fine opening to Andrew, because he knows he is safe with him. Neil lets everything to the surface and he lets Andrew in, the first slide of a finger making his heart stutter.
A little gasp leaves him, and Neil tries to edge his legs wider, let Andrew closer, because he is shaking, and he wants more even though he knows he has to wait.
“Pretty,” Andrew murmurs, and then Neil’s heart really does skip, and it starts hammering again at an unsteady pace. “Did Allison plan on it, or did you ask her to do your makeup?”
Neil wants to laugh and ask why this is the time for twenty questions, but then there is another finger stretching him and he moans so loud he can feel his blush deepening.
“I—I asked her,” Neil chokes out. He contemplated asking her to cover his scars, but then he remembered what Kevin and Aaron told him, and anyway, it would have taken too long. Neil was impatient to see Andrew.
Andrew bites a spot on Neil’s chest, his tongue arriving a moment later to soothe, and Neil whines when the contact is not enough. “Pretty boy,” Andrew murmurs, moving further up Neil’s body. “You know you are. Don’t you?”
“I thought I was the one that talked too much,” Neil manages, but he sounds as unsteady as he feels. The stretch is a comfortable burn now, neat and tantalizing. He thinks Andrew is three fingers deep but he’s not sure anymore. “I’m ready.”
“I decide that,” Andrew murmurs, but he pulls his hand away and starts to shift.
Neil isn’t sure why, but when Andrew’s hand is just there and waiting, what else is there for him to do? He leans up on his elbows just enough to lick the pad of Andrew’s fingers, watches him stiffen and his eyes slide back to Neil, green-brown and dark.
“Disgusting,” Andrew says, but his voice is rough and low, and he doesn’t believe it.
Neil can’t shrug, but he does say, “I like me on you.”
Andrew’s lip curls and he leans in, the force of his mouth bruising as he crushes Neil’s lips. Neil can feel Andrew’s cock heavy on his stomach, a hard line of heat promising more. Neil almost asks Andrew to move again, but Andrew pulls back and asks, “Ready?”
“Yes,” Neil says, and then he feels the persistent stretch of Andrew’s cock sliding into him, and the word dissolves into a hiss. “Fuck—”
There is nothing to hold onto and Neil doesn’t want to dig his nails into Andrew’s skin, but the alternative turns out to be whacking his hand against the car door behind him. Andrew just lets out a short laugh, breathless, and runs his hand down Neil’s chest. “I said yes. You can touch.”
“I don’t—don’twanna—hurt you,” Neil stutters, stars bursting behind his eyes as they flutter shut. He can’t open them long enough.
Andrew pauses and Neil’s heart drops for just a second until Andrew says, “You won’t. You can’t. Not you.”
Neil blinks, his heart migrating up to his throat, and he wishes it would settle the fuck down as he slides his hands around Andrew’s chest and toward his back. He tries not to be rough and at first, it’s easy, given that Andrew slides in and out so torturously slow that Neil almost protests.
“Move,” Neil pleads, hoping he can explain just how much he wants more. “Drew, I—”
“Want,” Andrew whispers, leaning in just enough to kiss Neil one last time. “Only say you want.”
“I do,” Neil gasps, just as Andrew thrusts harder than before. “Want—want you, Andrew, Drew—”
It is all Neil can say. He loses his tongue somewhere between there and Andrew’s burning hand on his chest, pressing against Neil like he wants to catch Neil’s heart when it beats out of his chest.
“Beautiful,” Andrew says, and Neil can’t contain how much he spills at the edges just from hearing something so soft leaving Andrew’s mouth. “Fuck—Neil—”
Neil is just a string of wantwantwant, the word cascading from his lips in a mess of gasps and moans while Andrew fucks him, the heat of their bodies filling the backseat and making the air itself heavy, and this is safe and good, and Neil can’t figure out where he ends, and Andrew begins.
There is only the two of them and then the coil of heat low in Neil’s body, wound tight as his fingers drag against Andrew’s skin, needing purchase as he falls into a seemingly-endless spiral of pleasure. His tongue unsticks itself long enough for him to speak, but he doesn’t even have the presence of mind to say anything useful but “Andrew, fuck, I’m—”
—and then he comes in a flash of white heat, open mouth pressed to Andrew’s shoulder as he shudders into the body above him. Neil’s knee is barely propped up by the passenger’s seat and he thinks the blanket fell in a pile next to his head at some point, but he is shaking through the nerve-sparking joy of orgasm and he can’t bring himself to care about anything else.
Neil cares even less when he hears Andrew’s breath catch and feels the pool of heat stationary between them, each slow rock of Andrew’s hips married with his panting breath, and Andrew looks so good this way, flushed cheeks and unguarded eyes, that Neil traces a hand over the side of Andrew’s face.
Andrew meets his gaze and somehow, Neil thinks they both understand without words. They know then, close and sweaty in the too-hot confines of the car, that this is more than one night or one year. When Neil raises his arms and holds Andrew’s face, he thinks I have the world in my hands, and he believes it’s true, because how could it not be?
“I love you, Andrew,” Neil whispers, because he may be young, but he is not stupid, and he has lived enough deaths to know what this feeling is.
And as he watches Andrew lean over him, their foreheads bumping clumsily in the afterglow, Neil knows it is the truth. He knows just as Andrew says, “One hundred percent. Perfect.”
I hope you enjoyed the ride! This was really a trip, and I'm glad I was pushed to finish it. I've been so busy, but it's been rewarding to get the boost of seeing people enjoy the story. I might be exhausted and working hard every day, but spending a few minutes on writing is worth your lovely comments.
Thank you so much for sticking with me. I really appreciate it!