“Hey, bro, can I ask you a favor?” Matt leaned against the locker next to Neil’s and grinned, and Neil raised an eyebrow. He took the books he needed out of his locker and shut it, slinging his backpack over his shoulders.
“Depends on what it is.”
“Will you come to the girls’ rehearsal with me after practice? I promised Dan I’d go,” Matt said, eyes flickering to the analog clock on the wall across the hallway. Students moved around them, bumping each other and chatting idly in the halls. It was five minutes until the end of school, and most of them were eager to get home. Neil had been planning to take the late bus home after Exy practice as usual, but Matt’s request made him pause. He didn’t have any other plans tonight, and he was always sort of intrigued about what the girls got up to when they weren’t practicing.
Allison, Dan, Renee, and Katelyn, one of the Vixen cheerleaders, were the only four members of a girl group that called themselves the Foxhearts. They were pretty popular around school - it was one of the first things Neil had noticed when he moved here. He’d been a new student at Palmetto High School for two months now. So far, he hadn’t made many friends except Matt and Dan. He’d tried out for the Exy team because it was the only thing he was good at besides math, and he didn’t want to join the Mathletes and brand himself a nerd for the rest of high school. He’d rather be a real athlete.
He loved Exy, but he’d been a little nervous about joining the team, with good reason. Coach Wymack wasn’t too tough, but it was his son Neil worried about. Kevin Day was Mr. Popular at Palmetto, the star of the Exy team and everyone’s favorite jock. His best friend Andrew Minyard was always an intimidating silent presence at his side, and had made it clear from day one that he didn’t like Neil. Kevin seemed to agree with him. During school, Kevin was irresistibly charming, sucking up to teachers and charming the pants off all the students; at practice, though, he was kind of an asshole. He was co-captain of the Foxes with Dan, and Neil was sure that if Dan hadn’t also been a captain, he wouldn’t have made the team.
As it was, Kevin had begrudgingly agreed to let him join, but his standoffish attitude towards Neil, combined with Andrew’s constant glares and snide remarks, ensured that just because Neil was a part of the most popular group of kids in school, didn’t mean he’d earned his place there.
He’d tried not to let it bother him for the past two months. He knew he was good at Exy, despite what Kevin loved to tell him. And it wasn’t all bad. He still loved playing, and Matt and Dan had instantly welcomed him, drawing him into their circle the day he’d joined the team. Neil quickly learned that although the Foxes seemed to be a united front on game days, that was all for show to impress the school. At practice and during the regular school day, there were two different factions to the Foxes: what Matt and Dan called “the cool ones,” which included themselves, Allison, Allison’s on-again off-again boyfriend Seth, and Renee, and the monsters - Kevin, Andrew, Andrew’s twin brother Aaron, and their cousin Nicky. Though Nicky was friendly enough to Neil, and he seemed to try to stay firmly between the two groups.
In the last two months, Neil had tried to avoid Kevin’s group and stayed close to Matt and Dan. Allison and Renee fawned over him and insisted they hang out as much as possible, and that was how Neil found out about the Foxhearts.
He’d never seen them perform, but Matt said they were fantastic. He didn’t know much about Katelyn since he didn’t associate with the cheerleaders, but he knew she was Aaron’s girlfriend and that made her off-limits. It wouldn’t have mattered to Neil anyway even if she was available; he wasn’t interested in her. Nor was he interested in any of the other girls on the team. Dan was really nice, but it was clear to anyone that she and Matt belonged together. Allison was too catty and stuck up for Neil’s taste, plus her complicated involvement with Seth made sure Neil would never even think of pursuing her, and Renee made him uneasy sometimes. Not that he didn’t like her. In the past two months, he’d integrated smoothly into their friend group. But he still hadn’t seen the Foxhearts perform. He’d only heard the rumors and the talk from his classmates about how excited they were for the upcoming talent show, where the girls would be performing.
He liked music, but Neil had never considered himself all too interested in things like talent competitions and pop girl groups. His Uncle Stuart liked classic rock, so that was what he listened to the most. Matt had also been trying to get him into some rap and R&B.
But Matt had become Neil’s best friend in the two months since he’d been here, and he couldn’t say no to Matt, especially since Matt rarely asked any favors from him. Instead, Matt always seemed to be doing random favors for Neil even though Neil never said a word.
So he said, “Sure,” as Matt leaned next to his locker, and he couldn’t help grinning back at Matt’s happy expression.
“Sweet,” Matt said. “You’ll like it, I promise. I know you’re still a skeptic, but that’s just because you haven’t seen them perform yet.”
Neil took his word for it as they headed to the school gymnasium together. Despite the antagonism he faced from Kevin, Andrew, and Aaron (who seemed to just hate Neil on principle since he’d always ignored him), Neil looked forward to practice every day. Exy had always been his favorite sport, ever since his uncle had stuck him in little leagues as a kid. He’d taken to it instantly and it had become somewhat of an obsession as he grew older.
When Matt and Neil entered the locker room, the rest of the team was already there and getting dressed for practice. Kevin gave Neil a derisive look when he saw him, as usual, and Andrew glared. There was always a weight to Andrew’s looks that made Neil want to stare back, so he usually did. He refused to be cowed or feel intimidated by him and Kevin. Despite what they said about him, he knew he was a good striker, and Coack Wymack thought so, too. Kevin didn’t like that at all. As Coach Wymack’s son, he was used to being the star favorite. Neil kind of enjoyed stealing his spotlight. It might be good for Kevin to get knocked down a few pegs.
When Neil met Andrew’s eyes steadily, Andrew just raised an eyebrow before he turned away to nudge Kevin. They leaned over to whisper to each other, and Kevin smirked when he looked back at Neil. Neil rolled his eyes and ignored them.
He dressed in his practice uniform, bright orange and white. He was number ten, and over the last two months, he’d come to love the number and the obnoxious colors of their team. He loved being a Fox. He didn’t care if Andrew and Kevin hated him forever - nothing would stop him from playing on this team.
“There is so much tension between you guys I could cut it with a knife,” Matt muttered beside him, pulling his jersey over his head. Neil sighed.
“I don’t even know why they hate me so much,” he said. “I didn’t do anything to them.” At his old school, he’d been practically invisible, plus there was no Exy team to speak of, so he’d been miserable. He didn’t have any friends. At Palmetto, he hadn’t expected to make friends and enemies both.
“Well, you know Kevin’s obviously jealous,” Matt grinned. “And Andrew usually just goes along with whatever Kevin does. Plus, I think he might be annoyed because he thinks you’re cute.”
“What?” Neil almost choked on air, his eyes widening as he struggled to keep his voice at a low volume. “Andrew has a crush on me?”
The side of Matt’s mouth quirked up in a smile. “You seriously haven’t noticed? When a boy is mean to you, it means he likes you,” he joked, speaking like he was talking as if they were in elementary school. Neil rolled his eyes, even as his head spun.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “He doesn’t think I’m cute.”
“Neil, please. Everyone thinks you’re cute. Including me.” Matt winked.
He was looked at a lot during school. But he thought it was just because he was the new kid and the newest topic of gossip for the Palmetto kids. He’d never considered himself particularly good-looking - he looked like his father, and it was a reminder of his family he’d rather not have been stuck with. Auburn hair, bright blue eyes, freckles here and there.
When Neil first met Nicky, Andrew’s cousin, Nicky had flirted with him a lot until Andrew snapped at him to stop. At the time, Neil thought it was just because Andrew hated Neil and didn’t want his cousin to be nice to him, but was it because he was jealous? The idea was so unfathomable that Neil almost laughed.
He dismissed Matt’s claim and shook his head. “No, that’s insane. He doesn’t like me.”
Matt just shrugged. “Whatever you say, Josten. Talk to Renee if you don’t believe me.”
“Renee?” He’d noticed Andrew and Renee sitting together sometimes during their breaks at practices, but he’d never put too much stock into it. Neil realized maybe he should have. Renee seemed to be the only person besides Kevin and his family that Andrew willingly spoke to. He’d thought at first maybe it was because they were dating, but Allison had scoffed when Neil mentioned it in passing.
“Not in a million years,” she’d said, flipping her hair back. Neil had left it at that, but he’d wondered what other reason Renee and Andrew would have to be friends.
“Renee and Andrew work out together outside of practice,” Matt said quietly as Kevin and Andrew left the locker room and went into the gym. “And they’re lab partners in Bio.”
Neil found that interesting, though he supposed it made some sort of sense. Andrew and Renee were both generally quiet people, though Renee was always kinder with her smiles and soft voice, and Andrew was just stony.
“Anyway,” Matt said, closing his locker. “Ask her at rehearsal tonight. She knows Andrew better than any of us besides Kevin. She’ll tell you.”
As Matt and Neil left the locker room, Neil thought about Matt’s words before he said, incredulously, “ Everyone thinks I’m cute?”
Matt laughed, and the sound echoed in the gym.
Practice went as it normally did, except Neil couldn’t stop staring at Andrew now. What Matt had said made him reanalyze all their interactions in the past two months. All of Andrew’s sarcastic remarks, all the looks he gave Neil, all the times they’d accidentally touched or brushed during practice and in the locker room. In the halls, whenever Andrew ran into Neil, he made it a point to bump shoulders with him. Neil usually bumped him back just as hard and gave him a challenging look.
Neil thought about the way Andrew looked at him specifically, and now he thought maybe there was an extra element to it that he hadn’t picked up on before. Was Andrew checking him out behind his glares?
Neil didn’t know how to deal with this. He’d never really been interested in people before, boys or girls. He’d never been with anyone. Of course, he was still young, but that apparently wasn’t an excuse when he saw how many people held hands or made out in the halls at school. Neil didn’t know if he was gay or straight or whatever, but maybe it was time to find out.
Neil stared at Andrew during practice and tried to figure out if he thought he was attractive. He was shorter than Neil, blond hair and hazel eyes - and okay, yeah, maybe his eyes were really pretty. He’d seen Andrew’s body in the locker room and knew it was compact and strong.
But did that mean Neil wanted to date him? Andrew certainly inspired emotion in him - the first time they’d met, Neil was angry over the way Andrew treated him until he’d decided to ignore it. Even still, for the last two months he’d found his eyes straying to Andrew more than once, and whenever they clashed on the court during practices, there was an undeniable tension there that Neil thought maybe wasn’t just rivalry.
It might be interesting to find out what would happen if Neil started actually responding to Andrew’s looks and taunts. And it would probably piss Kevin off if they really did start dating, which was a bonus.
Neil thought about what it would be like to kiss Andrew and suddenly found himself very distracted during practice.
When Andrew hit him with one of the balls on purpose, Neil turned and flashed him a sharp smile, showing all his teeth. A little thrill went through him when he saw Andrew’s eyes widen just a fraction behind his goalie helmet.
Oh, this might be fun.
Neil felt like he’d been missing a little excitement in his life until he came to Palmetto. Before his parents died, he might’ve thought differently - before he was Neil Hatford, he was Nathaniel Wesninski, son of the Butcher of Baltimore, one of the most renowned criminals on the eastern seaboard. But after Uncle Stuart adopted him and raised him away from the dangerous life his parents brought him up in, Neil had felt almost . . . bored. Exy was the only thing that really kept him going. Though he’d never felt a desperate need for friends or attachments before, joining the Foxes had shown him that he loved being a part of a team, and he liked having friends. He actually cared about them, too. And maybe, just maybe, it might be nice to have something like Matt had with Dan.
He doubted he and Andrew would ever have the type of relationship Matt and Dan had, but maybe just a relationship would be nice.
And now that Neil was thinking about it, he kind of wanted to see what more there was to Andrew. He was sure there had to be more behind what he showed on the surface.
After practice was over, Andrew left the court with what seemed like an extra-intense glare at Neil, and it made Neil smirk. Matt raised his eyebrows at the exchange.
“You’re gonna get yourself into trouble with this,” he said. They lingered behind in the gym, cooling down. Coach Wymack told them to have a good night and that he’d see them tomorrow, and left them with a wave.
“You’re the one who said he had a crush on me.”
Matt appeared to lose himself in thought for a minute and then shook his head. “I’m just trying to picture you guys as a couple. It’s too wild.”
“Did someone say my name?” Dan came over to Matt’s side and slung an arm around his waist. Matt grinned and waited until Renee and Allison had joined them, the others all having gone into the locker room to shower and change before they went home, before he spoke.
“I told Neil that Andrew thinks he’s cute,” he explained, looking at Renee. Dan laughed loudly, covering her mouth with her hand, and Allison snorted. Renee smiled and gave a one-shouldered shrug.
“He does seem to be a bit preoccupied with you,” she admitted. “He talks about you quite a lot when we’re together. Mostly to berate you and complain, but I think he’s annoyed because he does think you’re attractive and he doesn’t want to.” Renee looked slightly guilty. “You didn’t hear that from me, though.”
“Holy shit,” Allison said, grinning widely. “That is the best news I’ve heard all day.”
“No way,” Dan said. “Neil, you have to flirt with him. It’d be hilarious.”
“You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?” Allison accused with narrowed eyes as she put her hands on her hips. “I knew you were distracted during practice.”
Neil shrugged, rubbing the back of his head. “I don’t know. He’s - I don’t even know how it would work, but I guess he’s good-looking.”
“Oh, wait until Nicky hears about this. He’ll die.”
“Don’t tell him,” Neil said. “Please.” He knew enough about Nicky by now to know he’d never hear the end of it, and he didn’t want Andrew to have another reason to hate him.
“He’ll find out eventually,” Allison shrugged carelessly. “And Andrew won’t get pissed unless we get him to give up the charade and cave.” Her eyes glittered with mischief, and her face lit up. “Oh my God, I have an idea.” She ushered Renee and Dan off to the side, whispering conspiratorially with them, and Matt and Neil shared a look. Matt shrugged.
“I’d just go with it,” he suggested. Neil sighed.
As the girls were whispering, Katelyn walked into the gym. She was carrying a water bottle and her backpack was slung over her shoulder, dressed in leggings and a Vixens crop top. Her hair was in a long ponytail, and she smiled and waved at Neil and Matt when she saw them. “Hey, guys!”
Matt hugged her, and Katelyn gave Neil a friendly nod. Though Aaron seemed to hate Neil, Katelyn didn’t appear to have a problem with him. Neil thought she was okay; he didn’t really know her that well aside from her involvement with the Vixens and the fact that she was a Foxheart. She was probably here for rehearsal.
“Katelyn! Come here,” Allison said, waving her over. Katelyn set her things down and went to join the girls. They whispered for another few seconds before Katelyn gasped, and she and Dan nodded enthusiastically. When they turned back to Neil, Renee almost looked apologetic, and Neil got a bad feeling in his stomach.
“Neil,” Allison said, one eyebrow arched. “How would you like to be a Foxheart?”
“Uh,” he said, dumbfounded. “What?”
“Join our routine for the talent show,” Dan said. “It doesn’t have to be a permanent thing if you don’t want to be an official part of the group. But the whole team is gonna be at the show. When Andrew sees you on stage with us, I guarantee he’ll be blown away. You’ll definitely get his attention.”
“Um.” He chuckled, looking at Matt, who suddenly looked like it was the greatest idea he’d ever heard.
“Oh my God Neil I will pay you to do it,” he said, eyes wide as he grinned.
“We can incorporate you into our routine without you having to memorize any steps or anything like that,” Katelyn said. “You don’t have to sing, but you can if you want.”
“Uh,” Neil said, which seemed all he was capable of saying at the moment. This idea was even more ridiculous than the one that Andrew had a crush on him. Him, performing on stage with the Foxhearts, in front of the whole school?
He’d never had stage fright - he probably wouldn’t be able to play Exy if he didn’t like crowds - but this was different than playing Exy. This was theatrics and singing and dancing, three things Neil had never even attempted to do.
“You really don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, Neil,” Renee said gently. “We won’t force you.” She smiled. “But I do think if you want to get Andrew to look at you in a way that isn’t like he hates you, this is certainly a way to do it.” She lowered her voice and then giggled quietly. “Plus, I know for a fact he secretly loves ABBA.”
Matt’s jaw dropped. “Shut up. No fucking way.”
Neil was confused. “What’s ABBA?”
“Oh, honey.” Allison shook her head, but her eyes were alight, and she was grinning. “Just you wait.”
ABBA was apparently a band. A Swedish pop band from the 70’s. When Allison played their song “Dancing Queen” for him, Neil realized he vaguely recognized it. He’d probably heard it on the radio at some point.
But the girls weren’t performing “Dancing Queen” at the talent show. Their routine was set to a song called “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” Neil didn’t understand why there were so many exclamation points in the song title and why it was so long, but he decided not to dwell on that. He still wasn’t sure he wanted to go along with this, but he was just sort of dazedly letting Allison pull him into her scheme.
Dan, Allison, Renee, and Matt and Neil changed out of their practice uniforms, and the girls changed into leggings or shorts and cut-off shirts for their rehearsal. Neil put on exercise shorts and a t-shirt, while Matt just put his regular clothes back on, grinning at Neil as he noted his bemused expression.
“I am gonna record every minute of this,” he said. “I hope you know that.”
“What am I even doing?” Neil asked, shaking his head as he and Matt rejoined the girls in the gym. Renee had taken a small Bluetooth speaker from her backpack and placed it on the floor, and she was standing next to it with her iPod, scrolling through her music.
“Just watch us first, Neil,” Dan said, gesturing for him and Matt to sit nearby. “You can get a feel for the performance.”
Neil nodded, still not totally understanding what was happening. He felt like he’d lost control of the situation and it was too late to do anything about it. He might as well just go along with it.
Dan, Allison, Katelyn, and Renee took their places at the center of the gym floor, standing next to each other in a formation that was obviously practiced. Allison and Katelyn stood at the center, and Dan leaned into Allison with her hip stuck out and her arm leaning on Allison’s shoulder. Renee was in the same position at Katelyn’s side. Renee had handed her iPod to Matt, and when she gave him a smile, he clicked play on the song.
It was an instrumental version so the girls could fill in the lyrics. Katelyn and Allison were the lead singers, and Dan and Renee were the backups. As the song started, Neil hated to admit that he thought it was catchy. He tapped his foot on the floor as he watched the girls break into their routine at the opening notes. It was perfectly synchronized, and the girls moved in tandem, not a step out of place. Allison and Katelyn were actually really good singers. There was one long note before the chorus where Allison tilted her head back to sing, and Neil was impressed by how she belted it out. When they got to the part that went gimme, gimme, gimme, the girls all moved backwards while gesturing with their hands for their audience to come forward, coy smiles on their faces.
Their dance fit with the song, and it was obviously 70’s-inspired - they did a lot of leg and arm movements, even that cheesy disco pointing move (but they pulled it off spectacularly well) and one where they laid on the ground and kicked their legs in the air. It actually reminded Neil a little bit of Exy - the way they twisted and twirled at some moments made him think of how he dodged the opposing team’s offense on the court. He might be able to get the hang of the dancing.
When the routine ended, Neil and Matt both clapped. Allison, looking smug, flipped her hair. Katelyn bowed, Renee did a fake curtsy, and Dan grinned. From Neil’s perspective, they’d done it perfectly. He didn’t see why they even had to rehearse. And he could see now why everyone was so obsessed with the Foxhearts around school.
“Okay,” he said, nodding slowly. “Okay.” He stood from the lowest bench on the bleachers where he was sitting. “Andrew really likes this stuff?”
“Trust me,” Renee said. “He does.”
It was so hard to believe, but Neil supposed everyone had secrets, and he wasn’t one to judge much. He shrugged and gave the girls a grin. “I’m in. What do I have to do?”
“Well,” Katelyn said. “The song calls for a man after midnight. You can be our man.”
“If you don’t want to do the singing and dancing, I have an idea,” Dan said. “You can just stand in the middle of us and let us move around you, and we’ll incorporate you into the dance. We’ll pretend to pull you around, jostle you a little, and maybe touch your face if you’re okay with that? You’ll be our centerpiece. We’ll barely even have to change the routine.”
“I think I can do some of the steps,” Neil said. “I want to try, at least.”
“I am going to have so much fun with this,” Allison said, rubbing her hands together like an evil cartoon villain. “Matt, play the song again. Neil, come here.” She pulled him into their circle and looked him over once, and then nodded in satisfaction. “I know just what to do.”
The talent show was a month away, and after Neil agreed to be a part of it, he spent every night after practice at rehearsals with the Foxhearts. He was able to hide his involvement from the rest of the team pretty well; at least, no one asked questions, though they might have given him a few suspicious looks when they kept noticing him lingering in the gym after they all went to change. But Matt covered for him - he told everyone Neil was keeping him company while he watched the girls rehearse. They all bought it. Neil knew Renee wouldn’t say anything to Andrew, and Allison didn’t say anything to Seth either when he asked. Though Seth was just jealous. Apparently Matt was right when he said everyone thought Neil was cute, because Seth saw him as a threat to his relationship with Allison. Allison just rolled her eyes.
As the talent show got closer, Neil actually found himself getting excited. He didn’t know what was going on with him, but maybe he had a future in show business if he was having this much fun.
That was the best part of it - it was fun rehearsing with the girls, and he got to know them much better as the weeks went on. He laughed a lot with them and genuinely enjoyed their company. He walked with them in the halls a lot more and sat with them at lunch. It wasn’t too unusual since Seth and Matt sat with them too, but the other Foxes certainly noticed. Nicky seemed happy that Neil was settling in well, and Kevin continued to disparage Neil about his playing style whenever they were on the court. Andrew continued to glare at him, but now Neil always just grinned back. He responded with a sharp retort whenever Andrew threw a caustic remark his way. He could tell it was throwing Andrew off.
When they had games, Neil also found himself showing off for Andrew - not that Andrew particularly cared as much about Exy as Kevin or Neil did, but Neil always felt his eyes on him when they played. So he would throw his all into the game and make sure to look at Andrew after he made an impressive move. He didn’t know how to flirt, so he didn’t even try, but Allison and Renee assured him he was doing just fine.
Renee promised that Andrew was as obsessed with him as ever, and at the Foxes’ last practice before the talent show, Neil decided to be bold and confront him for the first time. Since he’d moved to Palmetto, he and Andrew and Kevin hadn’t really clashed except to throw jibes at each other on the court. Neil decided it was time to change that.
After practice, Neil stepped in Andrew’s path before he could escape into the locker room. Andrew glared.
“Move, junkie,” he said. It was a nickname he’d taken to calling Neil when he’d overheard Neil talking to Coach about how much he loved Exy and what made him want to play. He meant it mockingly, but Neil just smiled.
“No,” Neil said. “Let’s talk.”
“What makes you think I’m interested in anything you have to say?” Andrew asked. He glanced over Neil’s shoulder - Kevin was undoubtedly hovering there, and Neil turned to look at him.
“You can go,” he said. Kevin flipped him off and looked at Andrew, who paused for a second before he nodded. Kevin raised an eyebrow and looked mildly affronted, but he disappeared into the locker room. Aaron, after glancing with vague interest at his brother, followed him.
Nicky lingered hesitantly, his helmet dangling from his hand. “Guys? Everything okay?”
Neil smiled. “All good. I just want to talk to Andrew for a second.”
“Okay,” Nicky said. He looked slightly worried, but he left after Andrew jerked his head towards the locker room. Matt, Seth, and the girls were still sitting around and cooling down, but they were far enough away that they wouldn’t hear. Neil turned back to Andrew.
“You have thirty seconds before I move you myself,” Andrew said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“I know why Kevin hates me,” Neil started, meeting Andrew’s gaze evenly. “He’s jealous of how good of a player I am, and he’s just an asshole. But I think you hate me for a different reason.” He smirked.
Andrew’s jaw tightened. “Really.”
“Yeah. I think you hate me because you like me.”
Hazel eyes narrowed into angry slits, and Neil knew he was treading on dangerous ground, but it only made him want to keep going.
“I think you have a crush on me,” he said. “And you can’t admit it because Kevin will think you’re insane.”
Andrew was deadly silent for one full minute before he said, voice blank, “Not that insane. Kevin wants to hook up with you.”
That nearly knocked Neil off his feet. The breath left him. “What?”
Andrew shrugged, and Neil could see a glimmer of satisfaction in his eyes that he’d caught Neil off guard. “He hates you, but he also thinks you’re hot. Don’t worry, though. He’ll never go for you. You’re too much alike.”
Neil shook his head, bewildered, before he got his wits back. He filed that away for later. Matt was proven right once again. Everyone wanted to hook up with him.
“Okay,” Neil said, straightening his shoulders. He put a smirk back on his face. “But you think I’m hot, too. You like me.”
Andrew’s jaw clenched again. “I hate you. I think you’re insufferable and annoying and not worth my time.” It was similar to what he’d said to Neil when they first met at tryouts for the Exy team - he’d taken one look at him and dismissed him as a nuisance.
But a nuisance he couldn’t ever seem to ignore.
“And yet you’re standing here,” Neil pointed out smugly. “Still talking to me. For someone who thinks I’m not worth his time, you sure can’t seem to leave me alone.”
Andrew’s glare could’ve cut stone, and he pushed past Neil with force, bumping his shoulder hard. Neil laughed as he watched Andrew stalk to the locker room.
“See you at the talent show tomorrow, Andrew,” he called just before Andrew slammed the locker room door.
Matt came over to him, eyes wide. “I could feel the sexual tension from across the gym.”
Neil had to admit he felt it now too, and he’d been feeling it for the past month leading up to the talent show. His stomach tightened and he felt fluttery whenever he was close enough to Andrew. His cheeks reddened whenever he coaxed a response from him, even if it was a sarcastic one. He’d never experienced the feeling before, but when he’d described it to Matt, Matt had grinned and told him, “You’re in deep.”
“Showing off, teasing, taunting, these are all things you do to your crush,” Allison said as she approached them. “My little protege is learning. I can’t wait to see the look on Andrew’s face tomorrow.”
“Speaking of tomorrow,” Dan said as she wiped sweat from her forehead. She grinned. “Neil, I think it’s time you saw your costume.”
Even backstage, Neil could feel how full the Palmetto High School auditorium was. He could hear the murmurs of everyone in the audience as they chattered quietly and found seats. All the tickets for the talent show had been sold, and it would be a full house. The Foxhearts were the last act going on. No one said it, but Neil knew practically the whole school was here to see them. He wasn’t nervous - it was just like an Exy game. The people in the burnt orange upholstered auditorium seats might as well have been people sitting in the bleachers on game day.
Neil returned to where the girls were waiting in one of the music rooms behind the auditorium, getting their hair and makeup done. They were helping each other with their lipstick, and their costumes sparkled in the light. They all wore metallic silver bell-bottom pants and matching crop tops with bell sleeves. Neil expected it to look stupid, but they actually all pulled it off pretty well. Their makeup was glittery and silver to match the outfits, and Allison and Katelyn’s hair had been attacked with spray to keep it volumized and wavy.
Neil wasn’t wearing the same thing as them, but he did match. His costume was a pair of black pants and a silver button-up shirt that lay open over his chest, with shiny sneakers on his feet. He’d let the girls gel his hair and hadn’t even protested when they outlined his eyes in makeup and glitter. He kind of liked it, if he was being honest with himself - he looked less like his father than he ever had, and it made him grin to see himself in the mirror.
He hadn’t invited his Uncle Stuart to the talent show. It wasn’t that he was embarrassed, but it would just confuse his uncle, and he didn’t want to have to explain his own complicated reasons behind it. Stuart was just glad that Neil was spending so much time with his friends. And the fact that he showed up to every one of the Foxes’ games was enough.
The rest of the Foxes were all in the front row of the auditorium, just a few feet from the stage. It wasn’t normal that they all hung out together - either it was the girls’ group or Kevin’s group, but the Foxhearts were a uniting force for the Foxes since Katelyn was Aaron’s girlfriend. Where he went, Nicky, Kevin, and Andrew went, and he was here to support Katelyn tonight.
Since Neil had arrived at Palmetto, it seemed like Nicky had been trying to get the two sides of the Foxes to become one. He’d only succeeded once so far, when they’d all gone out for pizza two weeks ago. It hadn’t been that bad, and Nicky seemed confident that they’d all be closer friends sooner or later.
If tonight worked and Andrew actually admitted he was into Neil, Nicky might get his wish.
None of them besides Matt and Seth knew Neil was here tonight though - they all thought he’d gotten suddenly sick with a bad stomach virus. Nicky had been disappointed when Neil texted him, but Neil was just glad the excuse worked.
“You ready?” Dan asked as Neil sat in one of the chairs next to the girls. She was bouncing on her toes, stretching her legs before the routine. They wouldn’t go on for another hour and a half, after the rest of the acts went, but she was excited.
“This is probably gonna be the weirdest thing I’ll ever do,” Neil said. Dan laughed, and Renee smiled.
“But it’ll work out in your favor,” Allison said, putting the last touches on her lipstick. “And we’ve given you a lifelong appreciation for ABBA. You’re welcome.”
Neil grinned. He had been listening to a lot of ABBA in the past month. He’d heard “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” probably more than fifty times by now, and he never got tired of it. Now it wasn’t so hard to believe that even someone like Andrew could love this kind of music.
Neil wondered what would happen if anyone else ever found out Andrew’s secret. Neil would take it to the grave, but he kind of liked knowing.
There were a variety of different acts before the Foxhearts were scheduled to go on: a few solo singers, a gymnast, a juggler, a contortionist, a magician, a piano player and another band. The band was pretty good. Allison said they were the biggest competition.
The Foxhearts did have original music, but they also liked to do big choreographed performances like the one they were doing tonight. They did covers when they felt like it, and this one had been Renee’s idea. As a pop group, they liked to cover a lot of other pop musicians when they weren’t working on their own stuff. Neil had heard some of their original songs over the course of the last month, and he thought it deserved to be on the radio. And that was coming from someone who normally hated pop music.
“We’ve been discussing it,” Allison said, pulling Neil’s attention to her where she sat in her chair with her legs crossed, “and we’ve decided that if you want, you can join the group officially after tonight.”
Neil’s eyes widened as he looked from her face to Renee’s, to Dan’s, to Katelyn’s, and they all gave him enthusiastic nods and encouraging smiles.
“Seriously?” he said.
Allison shrugged. “We can tell you like it, so don’t even try to deny it.”
“And you’re actually pretty good at dancing, Neil,” Dan said.
“Yeah. If you weren’t a Fox I’d say you should try out for the Vixens,” Katelyn said with a rueful grin.
“And we could use another dancer,” Renee added. “I think I’m much better at singing, anyway.” She smiled, and Neil looked at them all again, suddenly feeling overwhelmed with emotion.
“You guys really want me to join?”
“Of course we do,” Dan said. “We love you. And rehearsing with you has been the best. I don’t want to give it up.”
“We’re going to be international stars one day,” Allison said confidently, flipping her hair back. “So the only reason you should have for not joining is if you can’t handle the fame and fortune.”
Neil had planned to play Exy for the rest of his life, go pro and then make his way to the Olympics, but honestly, this sounded just as exciting. And he was surprised at how much he was actually into the idea.
“Okay,” he said, face stretching into a grin. “I’d love to join.”
Katelyn jumped up and made a happy noise, and she leaned forward to hug him. Allison, Dan and Renee joined and made it a group hug.
As they were hugging each other and laughing, someone from stage crew came in and told them they were on in ten minutes. Neil and the girls pulled apart, and the girls did some quick last-minute voice exercises before they all shook out their arms and legs and headed to the stage. Neil could feel excitement building in his stomach, and he couldn’t help but grin as he took his place with his friends on the stage. The curtain was shut, so no one could see them yet, but Neil couldn’t wait to see the looks on the Foxes’ faces. On Andrew’s face.
“Now, for our last act of the night,” the emcee in front of the curtain said to the audience. People cheered, anticipation building. “I’m sure you’ve all heard of them. You’ve seen them perform at our talent show every year before this, our school dances, and maybe you’ve even seen them at one of their shows outside of school. Let’s welcome to the stage . . . the Foxhearts, with a special surprise guest!”
The auditorium erupted into applause as the lights focused on the stage and the curtains opened to reveal Neil and the girls. They were standing in front of a brightly lit white screen, so only their silhouettes were visible against the light. Neil was hidden behind Allison and Katelyn.
As the opening notes of the song rang through the room, Neil lifted his chin and grinned. At the moment the first note of the catchy flute melody started playing, Allison and Katelyn spun out to the side, revealing Neil behind them. The audience went wild. Neil set his eyes on the Foxes in the front row, though he could hardly see them with the lights on him. It took him a moment for his eyes to adjust, and when he did, he saw Nicky practically jumping out of his chair, his face frozen in a shocked expression. He had his hands on either side of his face, and he was staring with his jaw dropped at Neil. His face slowly morphed into an ecstatic grin, and then he started pumping his fist in the air.
Kevin looked like he was tripping on drugs, or like he’d been teleported to an alternate universe with no idea how he got there. He looked around at the people next to him as if they would have an explanation for him, but the rest of the people in the audience were eating up the performance, some of them actually getting out of their seats and dancing, clapping along to the song as they watched the girls dance around Neil and pull him into their routine.
Aaron was mostly here for Katelyn and wasn’t interested in Neil, but he did look baffled by his presence on the stage. Matt appeared to be having the time of his life, and Seth only really cared about Allison.
Andrew was frozen solid in his seat, and the expression on his face was one Neil would remember for the rest of his life. It was there and gone in a second before he composed himself, but Neil caught it, and he was so glad he did.
Usually, Andrew looked either bored and unexpressive or he looked like he was mocking everyone around him. But there had been a genuine expression of shock on his face, eyes wide and mouth open before he’d quickly schooled himself into the glare he usually reserved for Neil. Neil grinned down at him from the stage, and Andrew’s eyes followed him as he moved.
Andrew never looked away for the entire performance.
By the end, Neil’s heart was pounding with adrenaline, and when the Foxhearts struck their final pose at the end of the song, they had the whole auditorium on their feet cheering for them. They held the pose for a few seconds, all breathless, until the girls formed a line on either side of Neil, and they all bowed. Allison took Neil’s hand and raised his arm in the air, and the audience cheered louder.
“They love you,” she said with a grin. “I’ve turned you into a star.”
He laughed and slung his arm around her waist, leaning against her to catch his breath.
His eyes never moved from Andrew’s face, and he grinned. There was a challenge and a dare in it, and he knew Andrew couldn’t resist. Not after that show.
As they left the stage, Neil could hear the student emcee saying into the microphone, “ Wow, what a performance, right? That’s some of the best we’ve seen from those ladies. Or I should say, ladies and gentleman. I believe that was our very own new kid Neil Hatford, wasn’t it? Who knew he was as talented on the stage as he is on the Exy court?”
Neil grinned as the girls tugged him back to the music room. He could get used to being a Foxheart.
The Foxhearts won the show. Allison said she hadn’t expected anything less. They got first place, and second place was given to the other band that had performed. Third place went to the contortionist. For their prize, Neil and the girls were each given a gift card to one of the local food hotspots in Palmetto, plus blue first-place ribbons. Neil was kind of proud as he pinned his ribbon to his shirt.
When the show let out and students, parents and teachers flooded the hallways, Neil was almost lost in the crowd. He would’ve been swept away if Allison and Dan hadn’t been on either side of him, keeping him anchored. They were all still in their costumes, standing with the other talent acts as they waited to be greeted by the people who’d come to see them tonight. It took awhile for people to flood out through the double doors, and a bunch of people came up to the Foxhearts and congratulated them or complimented them on the show. Allison showed Neil off like he was a prized trophy, but he didn’t mind. Everyone was impressed with him, and even more excited when Allison told them all he was officially joining the group as their fifth member.
By the time the Foxes came out, almost the last ones out of the auditorium since they’d been in the front row, Neil was exhausted. But he stood straighter when he saw Andrew emerge. Aaron had a bouquet of flowers for Katelyn, Seth had one for Allison and Matt had one for Dan. Andrew had a single flower in his hand, which he gave to Renee without even looking at her. She smiled and tucked it behind her ear. Aaron, Matt and Seth all kissed the girls. Kevin still looked like he was on the acid trip of his life, and he was blinking owlishly at Neil, at a loss for words. Nicky was screeching something Neil couldn’t understand.
And Andrew just stared at him, so intensely that Neil started feeling hot. Hotter than the performance had made him.
He grinned, tilting his head back. “Did you enjoy the show?”
Andrew’s hand shot out and grabbed Neil’s wrist. He tugged him over to the nearest bathroom, and Neil let himself be pulled.
Neil heard Nicky say, “What is going on right now?” Allison responded, “Shhh. Let it happen.”
Before Andrew pulled him into the bathroom, Neil heard Kevin’s flabbergasted “What the fuck?” He couldn’t help but laugh.
Andrew silenced him with a hand to his mouth as he pushed him up against the wall in the bathroom, glaring.
“You . . .” Andrew said, cheeks flushed and eyes brighter than usual, “are the most aggravating person I have ever met.”
Then he took his hand off of Neil’s mouth and kissed him.
As first kisses went, Neil thought it was amazing. He had nothing to compare it to, but even if he did he thought this would top anything else. Andrew didn’t kiss like Neil thought he would, hard and bruising - it was a lot more . . . involved than Neil expected it to be. There was a lot of tongue, a lot of lip-biting, and Neil’s head was fuzzy before long.
He loved it.
When Andrew pulled away from him, he growled threateningly, “This doesn’t mean anything.”
Neil grinned dreamily, his hands in Andrew’s hair. Andrew’s hands were still on his shoulders, pushing under the open halves of his silver shirt. “Sure it doesn’t.”
“Shut up.” Andrew kissed him again.
Though it was late, the Foxes and Katelyn all went to get pizza after the show. Andrew pulled Neil into his car, ignoring Kevin’s look of disbelief when Neil was given the passenger seat, the spot usually reserved for him. Neil thought tomorrow Kevin would wake up and think this entire night had been a dream.
“Neil,” Nicky said from the back seat, still reeling from the show. “ Neil! Why didn’t you tell me you were a superstar? I don’t even know how to function right now. I can’t handle this.”
“Katelyn told me you’re like, actually a part of the group now,” Aaron said next to his cousin. “Seriously?”
“It’s fun,” Neil said with a smile. “I like it.”
“You are so weird,” Aaron muttered.
“You are amazing, ” Nicky gushed. “You were so good up there, Neil! I hope Matt or somebody was recording because I want a copy of it and I want to keep it forever so I can watch it to cheer me up when I’m sad.”
Neil laughed. “Thanks, Nicky.”
“Andrew,” Kevin finally spoke, still looking bewildered. “What the hell?” It was obvious what Andrew and Neil had done in the bathroom, and everyone knew it when they walked out, but Andrew put on his bored look and just stood by Neil’s side. In the space of minutes, something had shifted between them and changed the balance of the whole team. The girls and Matt looked satisfied and smug, Seth just raised an eyebrow, and Nicky and Aaron had looked between Andrew and Neil with twin expressions of confusion on their faces. Neil was preparing himself for all the questions he’d get later.
In the driver’s seat, Andrew shrugged and glanced at Kevin through the rearview mirror. “You won’t get an explanation that will satisfy you, so don’t ask.”
Dumbfounded, Kevin slumped back against the seat and shook his head, mouth still hanging slightly open.
Neil remembered what Andrew said about Kevin finding him attractive and wondered what he thought of the performance, but that was something to tease him about later. For now, he looked over at Andrew and smiled.
The Foxes all met at Sweetie’s, Palmetto’s best pizza and ice cream place, and commandeered a large table for their whole group. Andrew sat next to Neil, close enough that their arms brushed. Neil spent the rest of the night laughing and eating with the people that had become his new family.
Three months at Palmetto High School and he’d become a member of their most popular sports team and their most popular band. He had friends. He meant something to people now, and he cared about them, too. That was a new thing for him, and something he realized he never wanted to let go.
As he leaned slightly into Andrew, Neil wondered what the future would bring. As an Exy star or a member of the Foxhearts, as Andrew’s - boyfriend? - friend, he was ready for all of it.
And he couldn’t wait.
please watch this amazing video i found of choreography for the song and then imagine neil and the girls dancing like this thank you goodnight