Neil Josten has never publicly dated anyone. Or privately dated anyone, really. He hasn't even wanted to, not since he got told off for it as a child. None of the dating drama his teammates focus on so much has ever made sense to him. He likes exy and the occasional movie and going out with his team. That's enough for him.
He says as much to his manager, who shakes her head.
“People are starting to spread rumors that you're gay,” Melissa says. “You need to date someone or it's going to become gospel.”
“I feel like you're not getting this,” Neil says. “I don't care what people say about me.”
“You'll care if it becomes a distraction on the court.” Melissa glares at him over the top of her giant round glasses. “You don't want people to make up homophobic chants about you. Trust me.”
“Can't you just make up a counter rumor? Say I'm dating you.”
“I'm a world-renowned lesbian,” Melissa says, rolling her eyes. “No one would ever believe it. Find someone else. I don't care if she's a beard. Just make it convincing. Make sure she has long hair, I don't know.”
Frustrated, Neil goes back to practice. He's getting tired of his lunches with Melissa: she always gives him news he doesn't want to hear, or else tells him he's going to be screwed if he doesn't do some annoying PR move. Sometimes it's charity dinners. Those he can tolerate.
Pretending to date someone, though. That's another story.
At least practice takes Neil out of his head for a while. He can focus entirely on this, his arms and his racquet and his legs and how quickly he can move all of the above. He avoids backliner checks, makes clean passes to other strikers, accepts passes from his dealer, utterly fails at getting balls past Andrew. It's a typical practice. Neil never scores on Andrew.
Today, it annoys him more than usual. Neil catches the ball as soon as it rebounds off Andrew's racquet and tries to tuck it into the corner of the goal. Andrew's foot blocks it, and Neil scoops the ball back up, aiming for a spot just out of Andrew's reach.
Andrew comes out of nowhere, abandons his heavy racquet and makes a little jump that gets the ball planted firmly in his palm. Great. Terrific. Not only is Neil a drama magnet, but he also can't score. Hopefully the Rockets bench him for six months so the Moriyamas swing by to put him out of his misery.
Coach calls practice. Neil strips off his gloves and stalks off the court. All he really wants is to shower for so long that he fuses with the water and melts into the drain.
He really pushes it with the shower—usually he's in there for ten minutes tops, but today he stands in place for half an hour and then takes even longer shampooing and soaping down.
It wasn't a bad practice, really. He played well, with the small caveat that he didn't score a single goal.
It's the Melissa stuff, Neil tells himself. He doesn't like feeling like this, like his back is against the wall. He used to have a solution for this. He isn't supposed to use it anymore.
Getting a fake girlfriend would probably not even be that hard. It's just that Neil has gotten used to not living a lie. He likes being honest and brusque and not pretending to be someone he definitely is not.
Neil turns the shower off and wraps himself in two towels just in case any of his teammates are still here. It's hot enough that walking home means he'll have to shower again when he gets there, probably, unless the thunder storm his phone keeps alerting him to really kicks off. Maybe he should get a car. He can definitely afford one. He just hasn't driven since—
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Neil says, startling. Andrew is still there for no reason at all, sitting on the floor and leaning against a row of lockers. “What the fuck, Andrew? You're probably going to get a staph infection down there.”
Andrew is still in his practice clothes. He gets up when Neil arrives and then pushes past him to get to the showers. Chalking it up to another strange interaction with the team's resident non-talkative goalie, Neil towels his hair and then quickly gets dressed, trying as best he can to hide his scars as he does.
Neil stretches an ankle that's been giving him shit the last couple of weeks, trying to get the kink out of it. He doesn't want to further injure himself, but he doesn't have another choice at this point. Besides, he doesn't live that far.
He makes it halfway out of the parking lot before a shiny black car pulls up to him. At first, Neil thinks it's a Moriyama. But when the window rolls down, he sees that it is, naturally, Andrew.
“Get in,” Andrew says.
“I can just walk,” Neil says.
Andrew stares at him.
Thunder claps around them. “I mean—if it's no trouble.”
“Get in or get sick,” Andrew says. “Your choice.”
Neil gets in. He hasn't been in a car this nice in years, and he has no positive memories associated with luxury vehicles of any kind. Andrew's is barely decorated: three pine air fresheners hang from his mirror, and there is a telltale pack of Marlboro Reds in one of his cupholders.
Andrew catches him looking. “I don't like the smell.”
“I do,” Neil says. “It's calming.”
Andrew doesn't question this, only turns his attention forward.
“If you take this next left—”
“I know where you live,” Andrew interrupts.
“What? How? Why?”
Neil remembers that: it was a housewarming the team forced on him a few months ago, and everyone left very late.
“And you remember how to get there from then?”
“I just told you that I do.”
“Okay.” Neil stares out the passenger window. Part of him can't believe he's sitting here. In the few months since they've met, he has tried to talk to Andrew a thousand times. Andrew is incredibly talented, but he has little to no interest in exy from what Neil can tell. Still, Neil can't resist: “Why do you let every striker score on you except for me?”
“The other strikers are just better.”
“Or you only try when I'm the one aiming for goal.”
Andrew pushes down on the gas despite the rain-slick roads. “Do I?”
“You're going to get us both killed,” Neil says, somewhat resigned to the fact.
“So what?” Andrew says. “Your life is not that great.”
It surprises a laugh out of Neil. “I like my life. I get to play exy all day. What's wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” Andrew says. “But like I said. Not that great.”
Every life feels great to Neil, though; he never thought he'd get to live one, not really. Not like this, with exy and a real team.
“Speak for yourself,” Neil says, remembering Melissa's scolding from earlier today. “This is enough for me.”
“Is it? Why did you have a hissy fit during practice, then?”
“I didn't have a hissy fit. I just wanted to score.”
“That is your version of a hissy fit.”
That's … fair enough, honestly. Neil sighs. “My manager says if I stay single, people are going to start thinking I'm gay.”
“Is there something wrong with being gay?”
“That's what I wanted to know.”
Andrew pulls up at a stop light and glances at Neil. “She did not want something untrue spreading about you?”
“I guess. I mean, I'm not interested in girls, either, but it wouldn't bother her if the rumor was that I was dating one.”
The light turns green. Andrew redirects his attention to the road, making a turn at Neil's street. He pulls over next to Neil's house.
Neil pushes the door open and starts to step out before immediately getting soaked. He hates the weather here. Hot and rainy all the time in summer, frozen solid all winter.
“Then find a girl,” Andrew says. “Make your manager happy.”
That startles a laugh out of Neil, too. He leans half-into Andrew's car, splattering the leather seats with water droplets. “Thanks for the ride.”
Andrew salutes him and lights a cigarette. When Neil closes the car door, Andrew drives off, still going way over the speed limit.
“I haven't found a girlfriend in the last twelve hours,” Neil says as soon as he hears her pick up.
“No shit,” Melissa says. “Why didn't you just say you were gay? We could've rolled it out properly, put you in a Pride parade or on the cover of Out or something—”
“What are you talking about? I'm not gay.”
“Didn't you read my email? Some pap caught you and Andrew Minyard yesterday. Canoodling.”
Canoodling? Andrew doesn't even let anyone slap his hand after a good save. “Andrew Minyard doesn't canoodle. And neither do I.”
“Whatever. He dropped you off at home last night and you stood there in the rain talking to him! That's canoodling!”
“What?” Neil puts her on speaker so he can open his email. Sure enough, there is a photograph of Andrew's car, Neil leaning into it to say goodbye. “Why were there photographers at my house? Are you sure they were paparazzi and not—” Moriyamas, his father's people, cops, feds?
“Yeah, this was all over TMZ, apparently you're the next gay icon. What do you want to do about it?”
“Nothing,” Neil says. “Andrew just gave me a ride home. We aren't together.”
“Hm,” Melissa says. “Well, maybe you should be. If you really are gay, I mean. Take advantage of the positive press now, and then when you do find someone, it can be quieter and more private. I'll see you at practice.”
“Yes. I set up a meeting with Andrew and the Rockets' PR guy at ten. See you then.”
“We aren't together,” Neil says for the thousandth time this morning. “Andrew just gave me a ride home. That's it.”
“The photo makes you look awfully couple-y,” Wilson says. “And why were you here so late, anyway?”
“I had therapy,” Andrew says. “Josten was having a nervous breakdown in the shower.”
“Look, Andrew. Neil,” Melissa says. “We're not homophobic here. If you two want to come out, we can do it in a very tasteful way, completely on your own terms—”
“How is it on our terms when we'd be doing it because this person posted this picture?” Neil says. “We're not even dating.”
“What if we were?” Andrew asks. “How would it work?”
“You'd do some magazine covers, maybe we could get you in Nike's pride jerseys, we could get you some rainbow sneakers or shoelaces or something—this could be very lucrative for both of you.”
“And like I told Neil,” Melissa says. “Maybe it's better to come out now, when the stakes are low, and then when you're in—ah—less manufactured relationships, the press won't be as vulture-y.”
“We need to talk about it,” Andrew says. “Alone.”
Melissa smiles. “Of course.”
She and Wilson leave the room. Neil stares at Andrew.
“Did you know this was going to happen?”
Andrew stares back, cool. “I saw the photographer. I thought you would, too, runaway.”
“I don't do that anymore,” Neil says, and then shoots back the one thing he knows about Andrew's past. “Junkie.”
“I don't do that anymore, either,” Andrew says.
“Are you actually gay?”
“Does it matter?”
“If we're going to come out, I think at least one of us should actually be into men.”
“At least one of us is.”
“Okay,” Neil says. “You think this is a good idea?”
Andrew shrugs. “It would make us money. You could buy a car. And down the line, if I sleep with someone at a club, no one will be able to out me against my will.”
“You really feel like this is on our terms?”
“The publicists are just greedy,” Andrew says. “They won't do anything we don't tell them to do. They work for us.”
“Okay,” Neil says. “But you have to listen to me. I know how to fake an identity.”
“We would need ground rules.”
“You could drop me off after practice,” Neil suggests. “And we would have to have dates. In view of cameras. What about, like, looking like a couple? We'd have to go to team events together. We have to touch each other in public, right?”
“The media think two men standing too close together are gay,” Andrew says. “You will not have to be kissed by me just because everyone thinks we are dating.”
“I don't like to be touched without warning,” Andrew adds. “I will drop the charade in a heartbeat if you put your hands on me without permission.”
“Wouldn't dream of it,” Neil says. “So we're doing this? I get Mel off my back, you get to come out on your own terms, we both get a decent kickback. All we have to do is wear some rainbow shoelaces and appear in a magazine?”
“Probably on a cover,” Andrew says, pushing his chair away from the table. “And they will probably make you take your shirt off, runaway.”
When they exit the room, they find Melissa and Wilson waiting for them anxiously.
“So?” Melissa says.
Andrew closes his hand around Neil's. “We're dating.”
“Can you slow down?” Neil says, eying the dashboard. Andrew is driving well over the speed limit. Again. “Do you have a death wish?”
“You shouldn't be so afraid to die.”
“I'm not afraid to die. That doesn't mean I want to do it right now on the way home from work.”
“You are afraid to die.”
Neil stares at Andrew. What has he gotten himself into? All he knows about Andrew Minyard is that he's a good goalie who sometimes spends entire practices slacking off.
“That's normal,” says Neil, who spent a lot of his life coaching himself into normalcy. “What's not normal is actively courting death.”
Andrew chances a look around at Neil, who can suddenly picture both of their bodies splattered on the asphalt like fried eggs. Somehow, in the image, Andrew's car is still pristine.
“The son of a gangster turned teenage runaway turned exy superstar is the last person who should be giving lectures on what is and is not normal.”
“You don't know me just because you googled me.”
“But I'll figure you out.”
“I'm not that complex.”
Neil gets the feeling he's being insulted. He says, “Don't you think this would be easier if we made an effort to like each other?”
“I don't like anyone.”
“Then why did you agree to this?”
“I told you why. I like my privacy.”
Neil can understand that. Lying does buy a certain kind of privacy. After all, he went years without anyone in his life knowing a thing about him.
“Still,” Neil says. “We're not going be best friends, but I don't think we should hate each other.”
“Oh Neil,” Andrew says, pulling up in front of Neil's house. “I don't care about you enough to hate you. Get out.”
Neil gets out. Too late, he remembers they're supposed to look like a couple, and he waves at Andrew's car as it speeds down the block.
The food is French. Neil hasn't had French food in years, not since he was pretending to be an exchange student there when he was a preteen. He still has some of the language skills, though, and he orders in French just to see how Andrew will react.
Other than closely watching Neil while Neil does this, Andrew doesn't really react. He just glances up at the waiter and requests some fancy whiskey and plain chicken.
“Cute trick,” Andrew says when the waiter leaves. “I didn't know you spoke French.”
“Only a little,” Neil says, and then, because there's no point in lying and he's trying to establish some kind of rapport with Andrew, adds, “I lived in France for a while when I was a kid.”
“On the lam in France? That's fancy for a runaway.”
“Not really,” Neil says. He tugs at the collar of his shirt, picked out for him by a stylist because he definitely didn't have anything nice enough to wear to a restaurant like this one. “Paris is a shithole.”
This, too, he says to gauge Andrew's reaction. But Andrew just stares back at him, blank-faced as always.
“Okay,” Neil says. “We don't have to talk.”
“No,” Andrew says. Then, “Where else have you lived?”
“Germany. Montreal for a while. Um, London.” All of these are locations Neil gave the FBI. All of them are locations his father's men tracked them down to. “What about you? You're from SF, right?”
“Oakland,” Andrew says.
“You were a foster child?”
“How was that?”
“How do you think?”
“Not fun, probably,” Neil guesses.
“No. It's a cruel world.”
“It's not the world that's cruel. It's the people in it.”
Again, Andrew just stares at him for a while. Then he says, “Don't I know it.”
Their food finally comes, and with it the end of most conversation. Neil thinks that's probably for the best.
“This'll be good publicity for you,” Cam says. “Besides, who am I supposed to get? Andrew? Have you ever seen him do an interview?”
“No,” Neil admits. “Do I have to be nice?”
“You know I'd never make you be nice.” Cam waves some reporters over to them. “Ready?”
Neil doesn't get a chance to respond, because just as he's about to say that he'd rather go shower and change, actually, someone from ESPN flags him down. Mostly they just want to know about the game—Neil and Cam scored eight goals between them, a good takeaway—but fifteen minutes in, they finally decide to ask about Andrew.
“Neil! How has it been being out?”
“Uh,” Neil says. “Mostly the same, but more people want to take my picture now.”
“Obviously you don't have family to tell—”
Neil blinks. “Yeah, obviously.”
“—but how have Andrew's family and friends reacted to the news?”
“I don't know,” Neil says. “I'll ask them. And I'll ask my dead family while I'm at it.”
Next to him, Cam makes a sound like a deflating balloon. Neil shoves past the rest of the mics aimed at him and into the locker room, where the rest of the team is already changed back into street clothes.
He showers quickly and follows everyone else back onto the team bus. Usually after games he sits with Cam and the rest of the offense for a post mortem, but tonight he has something else on his mind, so he waves the strikers away and walks down to where Andrew is sitting alone.
Andrew tracks Neil's movements right up until Neil drops into the seat in front of Andrew's, leaning over the back so they can talk.
“I saw your temper tantrum,” Andrew says. “It's all over twitter. Very cute.”
“I wasn't trying to be cute,” Neil says. “The reporter wasn't very polite.”
Andrew's eyebrow ticks up. “Since when are you the king of etiquette?”
“I think we should meet each other's friends,” Neil says.
“You have friends?”
“My college team.”
“The same team that is dispersed across the country?”
“So what you mean is that you want to meet my friends.”
“I mean, if you have any, yeah.”
Andrew taps his fingers against the window. “We're going to Eden's Twilight on Saturday.”
Neil doesn't know what that is. “Was that an invitation?”
“I'll pick you up at ten,” Andrew says. “Buy something good to wear.”
“How do you know I don't already have something good to wear?”
Andrew levels a long stare at Neil, and then he stands up and walks over to where Coach has a cooler of drinks. Neil follows, more to project the image of a doting boyfriend than because he's thirsty. Andrew hands him a bottle of water anyway.
“Okay,” Neil says. “There's a dress code. What is it?”
“Never mind,” Andrew says. “I'll come by early.”
“Are you going to bring me clothes? I don't think we're the same size.” They're close enough in height, but Andrew's shoulders are broad. Very broad. Anything of his would drown Neil.
Andrew looks over one of his broad shoulders at Neil. He has that expression on his face, like he genuinely doesn't understand how someone can be as bad at conversation as Neil. Well, it's not Neil's fault. He's new to talking about things other than exy.
Instead of clarifying, Andrew starts back to his spot on the back of the bus. “I'm going to sleep,” he says. “Stop bothering me.”
Neil shrugs and goes back to his regular seat next to Cam.
“Finally,” Cam says. “I get that you two are together or whatever now, but this is also important. Neil, what did you think of Kerry's counter attack?”
He emerges from the bedroom more than a little confused. “Did you buy all of this stuff? It's way too tight to be yours.”
Andrew's eyes rake up and down Neil's front before landing back on his face. “Yes.”
He stands up abruptly—bizarrely, he hadn't put anything down, not even his keys—and leaves Neil's apartment.
Neil is expecting an empty car and a quiet drive, but the passenger seat of Andrew's car is occupied by none other than Kevin Day, a cross-town rival. In the back sits someone who must be Andrew's twin, and next to him, someone Neil recognizes from getting checked in college.
“You must be Neil,” the latter says when Neil climbs in. “I'm Nicky. Andrew's cousin. I think I remember playing against you. You're the one with—” But he stops when Kevin turns on him. Neil is sure Nicky was about to ask about the Moriyamas, but he's happy enough to never think about them again. “Tell us everything. How did you and Andrew get together? How did you get Andrew to confess to having feelings? When did you start dating? Where are you from? You have great hair, did you know that?”
Neil opens his mouth, a little overwhelmed. “Um. How far is this place?”
From the front, Kevin says, “Forty-five minutes. Have fun.”
An hour later, thoroughly wrung of any information he has about his fake relationship, Neil finds himself in a thicket of patrons at the only club he's ever been to that wasn't playing sports on TVs all over the place.
“So,” Neil says, standing stiffly by the bar next to Andrew. He's never liked crowds. At least, not since he stopped trying to disappear into them. “These are your friends.”
“Two of them are related to me by blood,” Andrew says. The rest of Andrew's friends are at a table; Neil followed Andrew to the bar to collect drinks and get away from Nicky's incessant questioning. “Kevin and I have a deal.”
“I don't think either of those things require you to go clubbing together.”
Andrew doesn't answer, but for once, it's not because of his typical dead-eyed glare. The bartender interrupts them: “My favorite customer!” he says. “I missed you guys. What are you having?”
He catches sight of Neil, and adds, quieter, “Is he why you've been avoiding me?”
Andrew doesn't look at Neil. He puts in a drink order.
If I sleep with someone at a club, Andrew said. “Clingy ex?” Neil asks when the bartender walks away to make their drinks.
“No,” Andrew replies, leaning against the bar.
“Are you going to tell me anything about yourself, or should I just make stuff up when people ask me?”
“What do people ask you?”
“Will you answer if I tell you?”
“I'll trade you,” Andrew says. “I will answer one of your questions if you answer one of mine.”
Neil stares at him. He isn't used to sticking out enough for anyone to want to ask him any questions at all. Not off an exy court, anyway.
“There's not much to know,” Neil says. “You're with me all day.”
The bartender interrupts them again, this time with a tray of drinks. “I'll catch you later, Andrew.”
“We'll see,” Andrew tells him, and takes the drinks back to their table, where he and his friends mostly split them. Neil holds back, completely uninterested in getting drunk, especially with people he doesn't know.
Eventually, Aaron and Nicky get up to dance, and a few minutes later, someone drags Kevin off to dance, too.
Neil doesn't know what to say at first. He and Andrew have nothing in common but their fake relationship. They're not even playing it up very much right now; it's unlikely anyone at this club recognizes them at all.
“Why did you start playing exy?” Neil asks.
“I was in juvie, and I was prescribed physical activity. The exy team still had a spot. Turns out I have a knack for self-defense.”
Neil swirls his soda in its glass. He doesn't like soda much, but it's better than drinking bottled water at a club. At least like this, the only people who know he isn't really drinking are Andrew and the bartender.
“A goalie is not self-defense,” Neil says. “You put your body between the ball and the goal. It hurts.”
“So you want to play after all.”
“I didn't realize this was a game.”
Andrew says, “Why do you like the smell of Marlboro Reds?”
Neil blinks, surprised. “My mom used to smoke them. They're comforting.”
“You were close?”
“You could say that,” Neil says. “She kidnapped me to save me from being sold to the Moriyamas and died protecting me from my father. So, you know. A little.”
“Sarcasm is not attractive,” Andrew says.
“Luckily our relationship doesn't require us to be attracted to each other.”
“There you two are,” Kevin says, dropping back into his chair.
Neil makes a face. “Why would we have moved?”
“Couples dance,” Kevin says, looking at Andrew, not Neil. “I thought you would have been flaunting your boyfriend.”
Neil turns to Andrew, too. In the dark nightclub, Andrew’s black-on-black outfit makes him blend into nothingness, so that he gives off the odd impression of being just a head, fair cheeks flushed from heat and alcohol, blond hair a deliberate mess. It’s too dark, even, for Neil to make out much of his eyes.
“I don't dance,” he says.
“Then learn,” Kevin snaps. “You look like you hate each other. You may not care about your career, but Andrew—”
Andrew tosses something at Kevin, who shuts up and catches it instinctively. It turns out to be Andrew's phone, unlocked and turned to the camera.
“Take a candid,” Andrew says. He curves a hand around the back of Neil's neck and draws him forward until their foreheads are almost touching. “You are the definition of tragic backstory, Neil Josten.”
“Says you, juvenile offender. What did you do? Light a trash can on fire at your high school?”
“I did it on purpose,” Andrew says. “I needed to keep some people apart, and my presence would have brought them together.”
“So you took yourself out of the picture,” Neil says. “By getting yourself sent to juvie? You don't seem like that much of a martyr.”
Andrew still has Neil pulled close. The proximity is new, but not unpleasant. Neil can count the number of times he's been this close to another person on purpose, off an exy court, on one hand.
“Believe me,” Andrew says, “I am not a martyr.”
“You can stop now,” Kevin says. “It's on your Instagram, but it isn't very good. You are not even smiling.”
Andrew lets go. Neil watches the movement of his throat as he swallows more of his drink, but Andrew doesn't look back at him.
“At least sits closer to each other,” Kevin says. “What if someone sees you?”
Andrew scoots over so that he and Neil are almost touching. This close, Neil can smell the layer of residual stale cigarette smoke that lingers over most smokers.
“Why are you so invested in this?” Neil asks. “I didn't know you were a romantic.”
“I want Andrew to be successful,” Kevin says. “Part of that is his image. He refuses to give me his game, but sometimes he listens to me where PR is concerned.”
“So he told you that this is—” Neil can't say it's fake, even if there aren't mics in his face right now. He doesn't know who might be listening. “—what it is?”
“Of course he told me.”
“Oh,” Neil says, the image rearranging itself for him. “So the bartender isn't the clingy ex.”
Next to him, Andrew, who was steadily making his way through yet another drink, freezes. Kevin looks offended.
“I'm not Andrew's ex,” he says.
“This is what you didn't want people finding out.” Neil stirs his drink with its tiny straw, turning to Andrew. “You two are together, but Kevin doesn't want to come out. Right?”
“Of every terrible thing you have said since we started dating, that might be the worst.”
Kevin redirects his glare at Andrew. “What bartender is he talking about? Roland?”
Andrew pushes away from the table. “I'm getting more drinks.”
“Do you want me to—” Neil starts, but Andrew doesn't even look at him, just disappears into the crowd.
Neil stares at Kevin. “So no?”
“No. Emphatically no.”
“Then why do you know?”
“Because Andrew does not lie, and I know him better than he thinks,” Kevin says. “You would have more power behind your shots if you played with a heavier racquet.”
“I'm a striker,” Neil says. There's something surreal about Kevin Day of all people critiquing his form. He suddenly wishes he'd agreed to a real drink. “A heavy racquet would slow me down.”
“You're fast enough that it wouldn't matter.”
“How closely are you watching?”
Kevin tips the rest of his drink back. “Close enough. I'm right. Talk to your coach.”
Andrew doesn't come back for half an hour, and when he does, he decides it's time for all of them to leave. Aaron immediately goes to sleep, but next to Neil, Nicky chirps away about how much fun he had.
The trip back feels like it takes longer than the trip there, even with Andrew speeding through yellow lights. When they finally arrive, Neil finds that he has never been so happy to see the front of his house. He keys in the security code, unlocks the front door, drops his keys on the table, and pushes off his shoes. He walks into the living room and drops onto the air mattress Coach lent him when he first moved in.
It's been a long night, interacting with people he doesn't know, trying to figure out Andrew. Neil shifts on the mattress.
He doesn't know when he got so soft. He used to be able to fall asleep anywhere.
I'm just going to pound my way through this one as quickly as possible wish me luck
I'm on tumblr here. Please leave a comment if you enjoyed or spotted a typo!
The calendar says it's fall, but it's still hot and sticky out. Humidity clings to everything, Neil's hair and clothes, the hood of Andrew's car.
He didn't grow up too far from here. Sometimes if he thinks about it, it makes him shudder and yank at his hair to check his roots even though it's been years since he dyed them and years since anyone who would seek him out here was killed.
He takes a cold shower after his run. It's the one part of his house that Neil has actually made look occupied: crisp white shower curtain, soft towels, well-lit mirror he avoids looking in.
When he finishes, his doorbell is ringing. That's strange. No one ever visits him. Neil tiptoes to look through the peephole and sees none other than Nicky, Andrew's cousin, waiting in front of the door.
Neil wraps his towel tighter and opens it.
“Hi,” he says, wary. He isn't armed, and worse, he's almost naked, but he thinks he could still take out an eye at least. Nicky his taller than him but spindly, probably used to be bigger when he played exy but definitely more breakable now, and definitely slower than Neil if it comes to it—
“I brought you breakfast,” Nicky says cheerfully, holding up a bag and drinks from a nearby bakery. “Can I come in?”
“Uh,” Neil says. “Sure.”
“You can go get dressed. Breakfast can wait. I wanted to talk to you about something.”
Neil takes the out for what it is, gets dressed in clothes for practice as quickly as he can, and reemerges to find Nicky sitting gingerly on the edge of the air mattress Neil leaves in the living room.
“Do they not pay you?” Nicky asks. “I thought you'd been here for a few months.”
“Since the spring,” Neil says, accepting a coffee. “I haven't gotten around to furnishing the place yet.”
“I mean, no one's saying you need to buy art, but a real bed at least—and maybe some more chairs or something—it's weird that you have a big TV and no lamps, Neil.”
Neil makes a noncommittal noise and waits for Nicky to get to the point.
“You said you and Andrew have been together for a couple weeks, right?” Nicky says. “How much do you know about him?”
“Anything on the internet,” Neil says. “Anything he's felt like sharing, which isn't much. Why?”
“Andrew doesn't have a lot of friends,” Nicky says. He holds out the bag of pastries. “There's a bear claw in there, have you ever had one of those? You don't have a nut allergy, do you?”
“No,” Neil says, taking a bite of the proffered bear claw. “Why is it called a bear claw?”
“Because it looks like one, I guess. Anyway, my point is, Andrew doesn't trust just anyone. Or he just doesn't trust anyone. One or the other. But I'm the closest thing he's got to a parent, so—” Nicky waves a hand in the air. “Do you get what I'm saying?”
“I think you might be threatening me,” Neil says, but Nicky is doing it so good-naturedly Neil doesn't even feel frightened. He thinks he could take Nicky one-on-one, easy. If Nicky has a gun on him, it's a different story, but Neil doesn't see where it could be hidden.
“Jesus, no, I'm not threatening you.” Nicky tips back some of his own coffee. “I'm just saying. It's hard to get Andrew to open up, so the fact that you have must mean he really likes you, so it's your responsibility not to punish that.”
“Andrew's a big boy, Nicky. I think he can defend himself.”
“Andrew's had my back since we met each other,” Nicky says. “I just want to make sure you know someone has his.”
“Weird that his cousin is giving me this speech and not his twin brother,” Neil says. “I don't think they even talked all night at Eden's. What's up with that?”
Nicky sighs. “God, I don't know. If I tell you—can I tell you what happened when Aaron first found out he had a twin?”
“What do you mean? He didn't always know?”
“No. Their mom put them up for adoption, and then she felt bad about it and got one of them back. Aaron didn't know he had a twin until they were teenagers. He wrote Andrew and basically got told to fuck off. Then Andrew got sent to juvie, and when he got out, Aaron's mom died, and they both ended up with me.” Nicky seems to be watching for Neil's reaction. Neil puts legitimate effort into not giving him one. “Aaron's mom died in a car accident. Andrew was in the car with her. Aaron's blamed him ever since, and he and Andrew have never really gotten along.”
“I thought you were here to tell me not to hurt your cousin or whatever.”
“I am, but I also think you should know what you're getting yourself into.” Nicky reaches for the remote control. “Do you mind? I love the Today Show.”
“No, go ahead. Are you telling me Andrew isn't worth the trouble?”
“No,” Nicky says, emphatic. “He just—he doesn't emote the way the rest of us do, you know? Just because he ignores you or doesn't talk doesn't mean he doesn't care. He loves his brother. I know he does.”
“I love his brother too,” Nicky says, which isn't what Neil asked. “By the way, Kevin wanted me to give you his number. He says you're supposed to be meeting up to talk racquets?”
“Kevin is proactive,” Nicky says dryly. “You should have seen him when he first joined our college team. Everyone hated him within a week, but you know what? He made us better. And he'll make you better, too, if you let him.”
Neil stares at him. He didn't realize he was going to end up friends with Kevin Day thanks to Andrew, or get visited by his cousin bright and early, or get threatened. It all feels alarmingly normal based on his limited knowledge of relationships, all of which comes from bad romantic comedies Matt made him watch.
“I thought I was dating Andrew, not joining a cult,” Neil says carefully.
Nicky laughs this off, which is a little alarming. “I can give you a ride to practice if you want. I promise I'm done with the scary part of this and we can just be regular friends now, I've just known Andrew for a long time and sometimes he doesn't do this stuff for himself, so—” He sighs again. “Come on, I'll let you pick the music.”
“I don't really listen to music,” Neil says.
“You don't listen to music, you've never had bear claws, you don't have furniture—I swear you're like not even a real person.” Nicky laughs again, but Neil doesn't really get the joke. “I'll teach you about good music. We're going to start with the queen of pop and work our way down to the obscure stuff.”
Neil looks at his running shoes by the door, a little regretfully. “I can walk.”
“No way. It's disgusting out.” Nicky waves a hand in front of his face. “At least you have central air, Jesus, you're kind of a mess, huh? Let's go. I'm not taking no for an answer, and you're so close, you're not even out of my way.”
He doesn't love the idea of getting into Nicky's car, but at this point Neil is pretty sure Nicky is mostly harmless. He follows Nicky out to the car and spends the entire ten minute drive getting his ear talked off about pop music. By the end of the trip, Nicky has made Neil download an app called Spotify and shared multiple playlists with him.
“You'll thank me later,” Nicky says. “See you soon!”
Neil gets out of the car, safe and sound and yet still feeling absurdly like he has gotten himself into a real mess.
“Kevin Day gave you that tip?” Cam asks, bemused. “Since when are you guys friends?”
“He went to college with Andrew,” Neil says. “They've been close ever since.”
“Huh. Cute.” She pulls off her helmet and combs her hand through blond hair. “Well, don't forget he's our rival. Gather intel, but never give anything away, got it?”
“Got it,” Neil says.
She fans out a series of shots of Neil and Andrew. The only one where they look anything like a believable couple is the one Kevin took at Eden's Twilight; it almost looks like they might be about to kiss in that one. In the others, Neil and Andrew stand or sit near each other, but neither of them is particularly emotive, which means they almost look like they could be strangers.
“Just give me something,” Melissa says. “Be a little flirty. Hug. Touch. No one's saying you have to make out on camera, but at least make it look like you've made out before. Please. I've seen you guys in action, you have killer chemistry! But it's not coming across.”
“Okay,” Neil says. “I'll let Andrew know. We have a date tonight.”
“Good. I love our lunches.” Mel waves down the waiter. “And post something about Andrew on Twitter or something. I can do it if you're not creative enough.”
“Can I go now?”
“Yeah, you'd better. Have fun tonight.”
Not likely, Neil thinks, and leaves.
Nearby, someone lifts a camera. Then someone else does. Remembering Mel's advice, Neil throws an arm around Andrew's waist to tug him close. Andrew freezes for just long enough for a single flash to go off, and then he pulls away.
“Sorry,” Neil says, as quietly as he can manage. “Mel told me to.”
Andrew doesn't respond. In fact, he doesn't say much of anything, even when they're seated at the restaurant.
Andrew has dressed for the occasion. It's turning into a theme: Andrew dresses nicely, and Neil wears whatever someone else tells him to wear. He really is not an aesthetically aware person. It's not like he was raised in a home full of art. The only things he knows about interior design or any kind of fashion are which colors hide blood best.
They order appetizers. The restaurant is a little stifling—Neil isn't used to wearing a suit jacket, especially not when he's trying to eat. And Andrew has that same blank expression he always wears when he's just watching Neil.
“It's your turn to ask me something,” Neil says, more to break the awkward silence than anything else.
Andrew picks up some of their appetizer on his fork and holds it out. When Neil just stares at it, Andrew says, “Did you think we were sitting by the window for the view?”
Oh. Right. “I haven't done this before,” Neil says. “I don't know what a relationship is supposed to look like.”
“Eat the chicken.”
Neil leans forward and eats it off Andrew's fork. Like clockwork, a few flashes go off. Neil feels ridiculous.
“This is ridiculous,” he says.
“You agreed to it.”
“Yeah, but maybe it wasn't a good idea. I mean, what are we getting out of this?”
“Free meals, a publicity boost, and future privacy.”
Neil puts some of his food in his own mouth. “Right.”
“You are not used to anyone you know knowing anything about you.”
Neil glances up, sees Andrew's eyes trained only on him.
“They still don't,” he says. “I'm not gay.” He looks at the way Andrew is sitting, just as stiff as Neil, and thinks about Kevin directing them the other night. “You're not used to lying to everyone you know. That's why you told Kevin.”
“Who are you running away from?” Andrew asks, like it's a casual question anyone would ask on a date.
“No one,” Neil says. “Not anymore. But I ran away from my father as a child, and I kept running until he caught up with me in college.” The story has been out there since it happened, pretty much. “But you knew that.”
“You don't seem like someone who ever stopped. I bet you know every way out of this place and where the nearest gas station is.”
“I—” It's a fair assumption. Neil still gets that rumbling in his chest sometimes, that feeling like he can just take the wrong turn on his way home and keep running, dye his hair and buy contacts and disappear into a crowd. Or not. He brings his fingers up to his scarred cheek. His father's people branded his face on purpose. “It's not something you grow out of.”
“You can grow out of anything,” Andrew says, reaching forward and wrapping his hand around one of Neil's. “Given enough time.”
Andrew's grip is loose, but it probably looks romantic to the people still watching them. “What did you grow out of?”
“If you had grabbed me without warning three years ago the way you grabbed me earlier tonight, I would have put a knife between your ribs,” Andrew says. “That is growth.”
“Yeah, well.” Neil slides his hand out from under Andrew's under the pretense of flipping through the drinks menu. “Someone was taking a picture. Believe me, I wasn't trying to feel you up.”
“Believe me,” Andrew says, “I know.”
“Do you ever smile? Maybe that would convince people we actually like each other. Then we wouldn't have to touch.”
After a moment's pause, Andrew says, “No. I grew out of that, too.”
“I'll give you more warning next time,” Neil says. “This won't work if we can't stand each other.”
Andrew doesn't answer. They don't say much else until the waiter shows up with their dinner.
Maybe this was Andrew's plan all along, because by the time the leaves on the trees have started changing color, Neil genuinely can't say he hates him. He never did, really; he went from not knowing Andrew at all to being confused by him to being annoyed by him.
Now—well, Andrew is interesting, that's for sure. He barely talks to anyone else on the team; only the other goalies have broken through. He plays exy like it's his job; he does not, like Neil or Kevin Day might, look like he is injecting passion into every goal he saves. He rarely shows any expression at all during a game, other than grim determination.
Yet he's better than any goalie Neil has ever played with. Neil always knew that, but it's more obvious now that he's watching Andrew all the time. Not only can Andrew make impossible-looking saves; he can also angle the rebounds perfectly, get the ball in a teammate's net without needing to worry much about the teammate's reflexes. He controls the play out of the back. It's obvious that they're a different team with a different—and worse—strategy when Andrew is on the bench.
And then there's the deal with Kevin. He and Andrew played college exy together, spent years attached at the hip, and moved to the same city to play professionally. There has to be something tying them together, and Neil isn't convinced that it's friendship.
Eventually, weeks after Neil met Kevin at Eden's Twilight, Neil asks Andrew, “What's the deal with Kevin?”
He says it like that on purpose. Andrew can answer it either way—explain Kevin's deal, or explain what his deal is with Kevin. It seems to take Andrew a moment to decide, but then he says, “We have known each other a long time. In college, we made a trade. I would have his back until we graduated.”
“In exchange for career advice?” Neil stares at Andrew's profile. He has a little scar on his brow, a touch lighter than the rest of his skin. Neil wants to ask where it came from. It's rare for goalies to get injured there. “That doesn't sound like you.”
“In exchange, he said he would find me something to do with my life.”
“So he held up his end. He's still alive, so I assume you held up yours. Why does he still boss you around?”
“He did not,” Andrew says, “hold up his end.”
“What does that mean?”
“That's another question.”
But Neil figures it out for himself a few days later. They're at practice, and Andrew is leaning against the wall, only jerking up to make saves when it's Neil about to score on him, when it becomes clear.
Andrew doesn't care about exy. It's not just that he thinks of it as a job; he is actively disinterested in it. That's why he doesn't listen to Kevin where the game is concerned. But he lets Kevin have influence over his image. For all Neil knows, Andrew let Kevin dictate this. That must be why they're still indebted to each other: Kevin is alive, healthy, and playing exy. Andrew still hasn't found anything to do with his life.
“Why don't you like exy?” Neil asks, casually, the next time they're on one of their fake dates. It's a Thursday evening. There's a game tomorrow night. Neil spins his fork in his giant bowl of pasta. “Did you grow out of that too?”
“Exy is boring.”
“What doesn't bore you?”
Andrew finishes chewing a giant mouthful of food and looks at Neil, calculating. “Sometimes you don't.”
“Sometimes,” Andrew says, “you're interesting.”
“Right now, am I interesting or boring?”
“You're never interesting when you are talking about exy.” Andrew takes a sip of his water, still not breaking eye contact. “Something about you doesn't add up, but it's not the exy.”
Neil stares at him, perplexed. “I'm not a math problem.”
“I've never lied to you.”
“Sure,” Andrew agrees. “But you have wanted to. I want to know why. Everyone knows all your deep dark secrets. So why do you still want to lie all the time?”
Neil looks away rather than answer immediately. They're not seated by the window this time; instead, the restaurant has given them a much more intimate table. It's the same place they ate at a couple of weeks ago, which has recently shot up in popularity—thanks, Neil assumes, to the two famous exy players who are revolutionizing equality in sports and favor this restaurant. They don't need to sit near the window for people to see them. Everyone in the restaurant is watching them. He catches a voyeur's eye and raises an eyebrow. The would-be photographer hastily stows their phone.
“I don't know,” Neil says, which is honest. Maybe a little too honest. “It's a habit. I'm trying to—other than college, I've never lived in one place for very long. Matt—my old roommate—is the first person who's ever known me, and even then sometimes—” He stops, caught off guard by Andrew's hand hovering over his own.
“Can I?” Andrew asks. “Touch you, I mean.”
Andrew hasn't asked before when it was just casual touches like this. Neil nods, lets Andrew thread their fingers together.
“I mean, he knows me,” Neil continues. “But not the way—not really. He doesn't know most of what I've done. He thinks I'm like him.”
“Damaged, but mostly healed.” It really does feel too honest now. “He doesn't know that's really me, all the way through. For him, being a fuck up was something he could get over because it's not really who he is. But for me—it's genetic or something. I always know I could solve a problem the way my father or mother would have. I don't because I like my life, not because I think it'd be the wrong thing to do.”
Andrew has the strangest expression on his face. Neil hasn't seen him emote like this before. Maybe he is about to be broken up with.
Instead, though, Andrew leans over the table, beckoning Neil forward. When Neil goes, Andrew comes right up to his ear.
“I've solved problems like they would, too,” Andrew whispers. “It worked.”
Neil drops back into his seat, and Andrew lets go of his hand, waiting.
“That was honest,” Neil says.
“So were you. For once.”
Neil gets it. This was another trade. He's starting to think Andrew does everything like that, impersonal, trades and deals instead of promises and relationships. He wonders if there's anything other than blood tying Nicky and Aaron to Andrew.
“Your mom?” Neil guesses. “Nicky said she died in a car accident.”
Andrew's gaze is calculating again. “I warned her not to touch Aaron again. It is not my fault she didn't listen to me.”
“Look at us,” Neil says, because Andrew clearly wants to see what his reaction to this will be, and Neil understands wanting a parent dead better than anyone. “We're bonding.”
Andrew looks unimpressed, so Neil hits again, harder this time. “Who were you trying to keep Aaron away from by going to juvie?”
“It's not your turn. You know the rules.”
“Ask me a question, then.”
“I'm having a birthday party,” Andrew says instead.
It's not a very good subject change, but Neil lets it slide. “Really? You don't seem like the party type.”
“We went clubbing the week after we got together.”
“Yeah, and you sat in the corner and drank. Did Nicky bully you into it?”
Andrew doesn't answer, which might as well be confirmation. It's almost funny; Neil almost smiles.
“Okay,” Neil says. “So what do you want?”
Andrew blinks. “Nothing.”
“I can't not buy my boyfriend a birthday gift.”
Andrew blinks again. “Surprise me.”
“You don't seem that easy to surprise.”
“I'm not.” Andrew swirls his drink in its glass. “You will probably buy me something exy-related.”
This time Neil actually does smile. “I was just going to ask if you needed new gloves.”
Andrew doesn't roll his eyes, but he does look up at the ceiling and then back down. “Try a little harder.”
Neil sighs and replies that he doesn't need to have lunch with her unless she has news for him, and since he's been on his best behavior, she shouldn't have news for him. She sends back an annoyed-looking emoji, which Neil takes to mean she'll leave him alone.
“So he's like his brother, then?” Neil says, sipping at the hot chocolate Nicky ordered for him. They're going for a walk because “the weather is really nice, Neil, and the weather is like never nice here!” Neil doesn't think he's ever been on a walk before.
“Well, at least if you got Andrew something exy-related, he'd use it. I mean, he'd roll his eyes, but he'd use it.”
“I have no idea what to get either of them,” Neil admits. “What does Kevin usually get them?”
“After he stopped getting Aaron exy gifts, Kevin just started getting him whatever expensive luxury gift they recommend at a department store. Andrew's harder 'cause he's rich and doesn't like anything, but you literally can just get Aaron a watch or cologne or something.”
“Andrew doesn't like watches?”
“You don't want to get something thoughtful for your boyfriend?”
“Yeah,” Neil says. “Sure. I'm just not good at this.”
“Maybe you can buy him a vacation,” Nicky says. “Go to Hawaii or something this summer.”
Summer seems years away. Neil can give Andrew a trip for two somewhere remote. Andrew can take whoever he likes, Kevin or some stranger or even Aaron. Neil doesn't have to have anything to do with it. By summer, Neil can't imagine this won't be over.
Nicky seems to catch on: “Of course, you can just give him the tickets. I mean, Andrew is really loyal, but if you don't want to count your chickens, you don't have to give him one ticket and keep the other, you know? You can just say, here, this is a fun vacation you can go on and possibly take your cool cousin with you on if we break up—not to jinx you or anything—”
“We've only been together for a couple of months,” Neil says. “It's not a big deal. If we break up, we break up.”
Nicky stares at him. “Andrew doesn't just date, Neil. If he told people about you, he's probably serious.”
“Of course,” Neil says quickly. “I'm serious too. I'm just saying, I don't think anyone would be surprised at a new relationship ending a couple months in, right?”
“I mean, I would be, but I guess it's up to you.” They reach the end of a block, and Nicky, for some mysterious reason, just circles around it. “Hawaii is probably not the best place if you're doing a trip, though. Andrew doesn't love the beach. You should send him to like, Scotland. Somewhere where there's good whiskey and not much sun.”
“Andrew likes Irish whiskey,” Neil says, which earns him a proud smile from Nicky. Neil wonders if he's still being tested and decides he probably is. “I could get him a trip to Belfast.”
“They play exy in the UK, right? You could go see a game. I mean, if you can convince Andrew.”
Neil has no intention at all of flying to Northern Ireland, but he nods. “Sure,” he says, automatic. “I'll convince him.”
Right now, the lighting is dim and intimate. Neil recognizes about half the people as their or Kevin's teammates. Everyone else must be a friend of Aaron's or Nicky's, or else Andrew has friends he hasn't bothered to introduce Neil to.
Even Andrew's bartender friend Roland is here, having what looks like a hysterical conversation with Nicky. Neil passes them on his way to dropping his gifts on the overloaded kitchen island.
Almost immediately after that, a hand wraps around his wrist. Neil's instinct is to twist away, but when he looks he sees that Kevin is dragging him toward a bunch of his teammates.
“What are you doing?” Neil says. “They're my rivals.”
“If you have friends on U.S. Court, you'll be more likely to make Court yourself,” Kevin says, as if this should be obvious.
“You don't think I can get in on just my talent?”
Kevin shoots a withering glare back at him. “No one gets in on just their talent.”
“Not even you?”
Kevin holds out his left hand and flexes it. “Except me. But I had to fight way back onto it.”
“You think I'm going to be Court?”
“If you'll actually listen to me, yes,” Kevin says. He drops Neil's wrist to introduce him to everyone. “This is Neil Josten, starting striker for the Rockets.”
“I remember you,” someone says. Neil doesn't recognize her without her gear on at first, but her voice is familiar. Thea Muldani, captain and starting backliner for the Timberwolves. “You're an annoying little shit on a court, you know that?”
Neil flashes his teeth. “Yes.”
“Where's your boyfriend?” another of Kevin's teammates asks, and Neil looks around, having mostly forgotten that he's here to celebrate something specific.
He finds the wrong short blond first: Aaron is there with his fiancee, a fellow intern according to Nicky. Nicky himself has separated from the Eden's Twilight bartender and busied himself filling a tray with drinks. Andrew has replaced Nicky at the bartender's side.
It's strange to see Andrew in this context, expression as blank as ever, leaning casually against the wall in conversation. Neil thinks he's seen Andrew talk to maybe five people who aren't related to him by blood, and never with this strange ease. The bartender is laughing at whatever Andrew is saying. What could he possibly be laughing at? Andrew isn't funny.
Nicky appears at Neil's elbow, tray of drinks in hand.
“I have vodka cranberries and tequila orange juices,” Nicky says. “We can do something more complicated if you have requests. Neil, yours is the one with no lime—”
Surprised that Nicky thought ahead, Neil accepts the glass. It's just plain cranberry juice, bitter and honestly kind of gross, but disguised as a real drink. Neil tries a smile.
“Thanks,” he says, watching as Kevin's teammates help themselves to drinks. “Nicky, do you know if Andrew and Roland were ever together?”
Nicky follows Neil's gaze, then lets out a short laugh. “Why? Are you jealous? I know, he's super hot, and I think he's probably gay but I've been taken the whole time I've known him. But I don't think you have anything to worry about. They've known each other a long time, but I'm his cousin. I think I would've known.”
“Oh,” Neil says. Maybe Andrew and Roland have inside jokes. “I'm not jealous. Andrew can talk to whoever he wants.”
“I really think you're fine,” Nicky says. “If Roland and Andrew were actually going to happen, they probably would've happened by now.”
“Didn't you just find out Andrew was gay when everyone else did?” Neil asks. “Maybe they did happen and you just didn't know about it.”
Nicky contemplates this. “No, I don't think so. I think Andrew's type is short brown guys with red hair.” He ruffles Neil's. “Did you put any product in your hair? I think you could use some pomade.”
“Lucky for you, I happened to know you wouldn't do your hair and brought some with me.” Nicky fishes some out of his pocket and makes a big show of doing Neil's hair. Neil has no idea what is going on, but eventually Nicky stops and nods, satisfied. “At least your outfit is good. Did someone else dress you?”
“It's one of the outfits my stylist sent over for a date,” Neil says. He's only had a stylist for two and a half months. It's all very strange. “What did you do to my hair?”
“I just wanted to make you look intentional. Like you got dressed and went to a party on purpose instead of just accidentally finding yourself here.”
“Oh. Does it look good?”
“Yes. We have similar hair textures and I've been doing mine for years, so—I can recommend a good barber also if you're interested in switching up your look—”
Neil has gone to the same chain brand discount hair salon since he stopped cutting and dyeing his own hair. He looks back at where Andrew and Roland are talking. Roland definitely has a deliberate hairstyle, something someone who knew what they were doing did.
“Yeah, text me the barber's name,” Neil says. “I used to dye my hair, but I never really learned how to do anything with it.”
“I'll teach you,” Nicky says. “Not tonight, though. Gotta go entertain my loving guests. Steal your man back if you're so worried.”
Neil starts to do just that, but then Andrew and Roland cast a quick look around and disappear down a hallway.
Whatever. He and Andrew aren't really together. Andrew can do what he likes with whomever he likes.
Neil spends another hour getting dragged around the party by Kevin. Neil tries to spend most of his time talking to Thea Muldani, who absolutely batters Neil every time they play each other and as such is fascinating to him, but unfortunately there are other people he's supposed to be talking to.
He meets Aaron's fiancee, Katelyn, who says she's happy to have someone else to talk to on Minyard family excursions since Aaron and Andrew just stare each other down (“It's just brunch once a month, but it's always awkward! Please come next time!”) and promises to add a plus-one to Andrew's wedding invitation.
He meets Nicky's partner, Erik, who works for some giant multinational company that lets him spend half his time here and half his time in Germany. Erik expresses similar sentiments to Katelyn: he is delighted there will be another person around whenever he has to hang out with the Minyards, and also delighted that there is another gay couple to outvote the straight one when it comes to important decisions like where to have brunch and whether to wear sunscreen or not.
Eventually, Neil breaks free. He hides out on the balcony, which is deserted this late in the year. No one at the party smokes apparently, and it's more than a little cold outside.
A few minutes after Neil gets outside, the balcony door slides open again.
“Hiding from your own party?” Neil asks.
“You're the one hiding,” Andrew says. He pulls his pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket. “I am smoking.”
Neil leans on the railing. It's no surprise they hosted the party at Andrew's apartment: it's on the top floor of a tall building, and its balcony feels dangerous. There is a ladder up to the roof; Neil thinks it feels reckless even looking at it.
But it does mean they have a great view of the city and the water beyond it, all the glittering lights and speeding cars and, in the distance, lights on the water that must be from boats. It's nice, Neil thinks. He should post it on his social media.
“Why didn't you tell me your brother was getting married?”
Andrew lays the cigarettes on the railing and digs around in his pockets until he finds a lighter. “It was never relevant.”
“When's the wedding?”
“You two don't get along.”
“He saved my life,” Andrew says. “Probably.”
“Is that why you wanted to do this? To have a date for the wedding?”
“I don't care about the wedding.”
“That doesn't answer my question.”
Andrew smokes silently for a while before finally saying, “Aaron thinks of himself as the normal one. But he killed someone in cold blood, too. Whatever is wrong with me—we're twins. He is not normal just because I have to take medication and he isn't allowed to.”
“So you're trying to prove something to your brother?”
“No,” Andrew says. “I don't care about him, either. He can believe whatever he wants.”
“I don't believe you.”
“You can believe whatever you want, too.”
“I have another question.”
“It's not your turn.”
“I'll owe you.”
Andrew doesn't say anything, so Neil asks his question. “You said you and Roland have known each other for a long time. Does that mean you're together? Why not take him to Aaron's wedding?”
Andrew's eyes flick up to meet Neil's. He is, Neil thinks, surprised. “No. We sleep together sometimes. It isn't emotional.”
“Because you're not emotional?”
“He does as he's told. He keeps his hands to himself.”
“Nicky says he's hot.”
“Nicky says everyone is hot. Don't you have eyes of your own?”
“I guess,” Neil says. He takes the packet of cigarettes from where it's resting next to Andrew's wrist and lights one of them. “I don't think Roland's my type.”
“I thought you didn't have a type.”
Neil takes a long drag. It's been a while since he smoked properly. He can already feel his lungs protesting it, the burn, the way running is going to be harder tomorrow. “I don't.”
“What happened to your hair?” Andrew asks. “It was neat when you got here.”
“It's not neat?” Neil runs a hand through it self-consciously. “Nicky said he was fixing it.”
Andrew exhales smoke through his teeth. “Oh.”
“What did you think happened?”
Andrew lights another cigarette instead of responding, but he can't avoid the question, so eventually he says, “I wondered if you found your own Roland.”
“Oh,” Neil says, and then, “Oh. Were you jealous?”
“No,” Andrew says. “I hate you.”
“I thought you didn't care about me enough to hate me.”
“Careful. I'll push you off the balcony and not think anything of it.”
Neil smiles into the night. “Do it. I'll drag you down with me.”
it's the twins' birthday tomorrow so this is a celebratory chapter of faking it in which the story's timeline lines up perfectly with real life ! wow
i'm on tumblr here. please leave a comment if you enjoyed or spotted a typo.
quick content warning: there is discussion of andrew and neil's scars in this chapter & the circumstances that led to them. also some casual mentions of child abuse and not so casual mentions of child sex abuse.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Neil celebrated four Thanksgivings and four Christmases in four years of college, all of them with other people's families, all of them awkward and stuffy but somehow warm and fun at the same time. Before his first holiday with his teammates, he didn't care. He remembers looking forward to alone time over Thanksgiving break before Matt dropped plane tickets to New York on Neil's desk.
It's just that Neil didn't know. He knew most families weren't like his, but he didn't know how different it could be, how nice, even with a family as messy as Matt's, to sit down together and argue about politics and eat turkey or ham and talk about gratitude. He never wanted it because he didn't know it existed. Sometimes he wishes he could go back to that: ignorance and the so-called bliss that goes along with it.
He spends Thanksgiving with Nicky, Kevin, and the Minyards (Neil said he didn't drink, and Andrew told him there was nothing to worry about, and Neil said that Andrew was right, and then Andrew poured him a glass of wine). Then he goes to the team Christmas party (Andrew wove his fingers through Neil's belt loops a couple of hours in, tucked his face into Neil's neck, and said he wanted to leave. Neil, who wasn't having much fun anyway, agreed). Then he spends Christmas Day with Andrew's family again (Katelyn made Neil a stocking. Neil got the strangest feeling in his chest, almost like he might cry. Andrew touched his wrist, and it actually helped).
It's a strange charade, pretending people you've recently met are going to be your family, but Neil doesn't dislike it. Katelyn is relentlessly sweet; Thea is the only person Andrew seems to like; Kevin, with a couple drinks in him, can be cajoled into telling stories about exy instead of World War II; Nicky loves talking about what the twins used to be like; Erik will lean in next to Neil and make jokes about how weird these dynamics are.
It's so stupid, but Neil likes it. He likes how warm he feels with these people. He lets himself drink that glass of wine at Thanksgiving and then two glasses at Christmas, plus a nightcap with Andrew when they go out for a cigarette before Neil leaves.
He likes them, likes them in a way he never expected to like anyone after his friends graduated from college. And he's lying to them. Neil isn't used to it anymore, lying to everyone he knows. He liked figuring out who he can be when he's honest. Now it feels a little like he's back in hiding, except now the stakes are higher, because now he cares about the people he'll be leaving behind when he disappears.
“We always throw a big party for New Year's,” Nicky tells Neil the morning after Christmas, when they've bundled up to shop the sales at electronics stores. “Andrew even pays for a real bartender even though Andrew's regular drink is like the simplest thing ever.”
“What's the big deal about New Year's?” Neil asks, examining a pair of headphones. He's been listening to music on his runs lately thanks to playlists Nicky keeps sending him on an app called Spotify, and lately he's been thinking he needs a pair of earbuds that won't fall out. “Andrew doesn't seem like a holiday guy.”
“I couldn't tell you why Andrew does a lot of the things he does,” Nicky says, plucking the headphones out of Neil's hand and dropping a nicer pair in his shopping cart. “Belated Christmas gift, stop it, I do get paid at work, you know. But I like New Year's because it's an excuse to drink champagne, plus you can make it symbolic and talk about change and resolutions and how you'll take the chance to improve your life and all that.”
“Yeah, but no one actually follows through on resolutions.”
“Sure,” Nicky says, now examining TV speaker systems. “But it's nice to think that you might, you know? Like, one day a year you really believe you can change your life.”
“Anyone can change their life,” Neil says. “You just have to do it.”
“Do you really think it's that simple? People have the habits they do because of the circumstances of their lives. Like Kevin with his drinking. He made lots of resolutions to drink less, but it wasn't until after he went to therapy that he figured out what was making him drink so much in the first place.”
“Kevin sees a shrink?”
“I don't think they're called that anymore.” Nicky adds four video games to their cart. “But yeah. Who doesn't?”
Nicky laughs. “That explains a lot, actually. Let's pay for this stuff before I end up spending three thousand dollars, come on, do you want to get lunch after?”
He has nothing else to do. And he's hungry. And he likes Nicky.
Neil says, “Sure.”
Andrew is nowhere near him; instead, he's standing by the speaker system, fiddling with the music controls.
Neil drops in behind Andrew, lowering his voice to ask, “Don't you and Roland need to disappear into a bedroom?”
Andrew turns so that they're face to face. This puts them a little too close for comfort, but Neil isn't going to be the one to yield a step back.
“Why should I? I already have a boyfriend.” Andrew's hand hovers by the side of Neil's neck until Neil nods his consent, and then Andrew touches him. Andrew's hand is warm. Neil swallows.
“Yeah, but you're not getting anything out of this.”
“People will want us to kiss at midnight,” Andrew says. His thumb brushes against Neil's Adam's apple. “Yes or no?”
“At midnight?” Neil says. “Only if you let me take a selfie.”
Andrew takes a half-step back, dropping his hand. “Do you even know how?”
“To kiss or take a selfie?” Neil swirls his drink—whiskey, neat, like Andrew's—and shrugs. “I guess you'll find out.”
But when midnight rolls around, there isn't a camera in sight. They're both on Andrew's balcony by then, Andrew chain smoking, Neil sipping from a drink Roland made him without making eye contact.
Andrew leans close. “It's about to be midnight,” he says. “No one is here to take a picture.”
“So I guess you don't have to find out how bad a kisser I am.” Neil feels warm. It must be the whiskey. Roland went heavy on the pour. “Congratulations.”
Inside Andrew's apartment, everyone is cheering. Neil leans back against the balcony. Andrew is still looking at him, but Neil can't figure out what his expression is supposed to mean, and he doesn't want to give Andrew the satisfaction of asking. Neil says, “Happy New Year,” and Andrew flicks his cigarette into the wind.
They win the first two games of the postseason, and then they fly out to Chicago for their first away game of the season.
It's hard fought, but it's a win, too, mostly thanks to Andrew coming out of nowhere in the last minute of the game to save a goal that would've been an equalizer. He gets surrounded by press mics after the game. Neil, pleased to not be the center of attention for once, abandons him to the journalists and sneaks away to the locker room.
“Where's Minyard?” Cam asks after they check in at the hotel an hour later. “You're not sharing with Correa anymore. We put you with Minyard when we were figuring out our playoffs hotel situation. Let me know if anything happens and we can do an emergency sub out or something, okay?”
Neil stares at her. “What?”
“You're rooming with Andrew, and if you break up, let me know so we can switch you back.” Cam hands Neil the room keys, and Neil stares at them. It's by sheer luck that they've managed to avoid this thus far—the Rockets only change hotel situations between the regular season and postseason. “You guys are right next to me, so try to keep it down, okay?”
“I don't think that'll be a problem,” Neil says. “I just want to go to sleep.”
“Sure, whatever you say. But Jojo and I would love to not be kept up by a bed banging against the wall. That's all I'm saying.”
“Don't worry,” Neil tells her. “I'm not very loud.”
He searches for Andrew, and finds him with the other goalies, all huddled together in one corner of the lobby. Becca is carrying way more bags than they're supposed to have brought, and Andrew is listening while Akash says something that involves wild arm motions. When Andrew catches Neil looking, he stands up without excusing himself and makes his way over.
“We're sharing,” Neil says, holding up the keycards. “Do you want to hang out here?”
“No,” Andrew says, already starting toward the elevators.
They make it all the way to their hotel room before it occurs to Neil that if the team put Andrew and Neil together because they're officially a couple, then there might be only one bed. When Neil opens the door, he finds that he's right.
“There's only one bed,” Neil says.
Andrew brushes past him and drops his bag next to one side of the bed. He sits down, stiff. “Is that a problem?”
“No,” Neil says, which isn't really true. There's no way he'll be able to sleep through the night with someone else in the bed. “It's fine.”
He changes with his back to Andrew. His skin feels like it doesn't fit right. His elbows itch.
He waits for Andrew to ask, are you sure?, but of course Andrew doesn't. Neil didn't tell the truth, but it doesn't matter. Andrew doesn't challenge him on it.
“If you touch me, I will probably punch you,” Andrew says, once they've both gotten under the covers. He's facing away from Neil, who is lying on his back. It's the best way to see the maximum amount of the room. “Try not to move.”
It's silent for a few long minutes. Neil almost thinks Andrew has fallen asleep, but then Andrew says, “Is this the first time you've done this?”
“Faked a relationship with one of my teammates?”
Andrew huffs. “No. Slept in a bed with someone else.”
Neil remembers the hard lump of metal under a pillow, remembers being tucked between a body as small as his and the wall on a twin-sized mattress. He says, “No.”
“So you do swing.”
They haven't drawn the curtains. Scattered light peeks in from outside, casting part of the ceiling in shadow and highlighting the texture of the rest. Neil stares up at the stucco. He thinks he can see the delicate dusting of a cobweb.
“No. When I was on the run, my mother and I shared a bed.”
There's an intake of breath. Somehow, Neil likes that, catching Andrew by surprise. Even like this.
“Cozy,” Andrew says.
“It woke her up,” Neil says. “If I moved. So I learned not to.”
“What happened if she woke up?”
“She would—get scared. She'd grab a gun and jump out of bed. When she found out it was me, she'd make me get out of the bed and keep watch. It made sense.” Neil closes his eyes. Even now, he can almost feel it there, the gun, tucked right beneath his head. It seems stupid now. Anything could have happened. They could have blown their own heads off in their sleep and all the running would have been for nothing. “She needed to be alert, and she needed her sleep, and she wouldn't get it if I kept waking her up.”
“Did you ever fall asleep?”
“The first time,” Neil admits. He remembers being startled awake, metal rings heavy against his jaw. He doesn't want to talk about this anymore. He hates remembering his mother like that, scared of her own shadow, curled around him like a lioness. “I'm a quick learner.”
Andrew's breathing sounds shallow. He says, “Take a turn.”
“You answered more than one question,” Andrew says. “It's fair.”
There are a thousand things he still wants to know about Andrew, but he doesn't feel like asking about any of them. He says, “What about you? Have you ever done this before?”
Andrew's silence, Neil has learned, usually means consideration.
“This? No.” He is quiet for so long that Neil thinks that's all the answer he's getting, but then Andrew adds, “I've never been stupid enough.”
“Yeah, well,” Neil says, closing his eyes. “This was your idea.”
Andrew doesn't say anything to that, and eventually it does sound like he falls asleep.
Neil, who swore he wouldn't, dozes off soon after.
“Seriously, it's like you two and that figure skater. What's his name? It doesn't matter.” Mel pushes a yellow bag of M&Ms toward Neil. “You want those? I'm allergic to peanuts. My girlfriend keeps forgetting.” She rolls her eyes. “Does Andrew ever do that? Forget vital facts about you?”
“I don't think Andrew forgets anything,” Neil says. “We have to do this photoshoot?”
“This photoshoot was the whole point of—” Mel waves her hands at Neil. “You know. Everything.”
“Right,” Neil says. He plays with the edge of the M&M wrapping. “My contract says I keep my shirt on in photoshoots.”
“They're not going to ambush me?” asks Neil, who has done shoots like these before and had many arguments with art directors.
“Of course not,” Melissa promises. “You know I always have your back.”
“Are you going to be there?”
“I'll be a phone call away. Don't worry about it.”
“Okay,” Neil says. “I won't.”
“No,” Neil says for at least the fourth time. “You can reread my contract if you want.”
“Oh, come on, Neil,” the creative director says. “Don't you want to look sexy?”
“He said no,” Andrew says, idly playing with one of his armbands. He had no qualms about stripping down; right now, he's in joggers—Nike, who sponsor him—and has his boxers peeking out. Gucci. For the magazine. He still has his armbands on, though. The photographer agreed that they looked good on him. “Just put him in an undershirt.”
“Maybe white,” the director muses. “It could look good with his skin, the contrast, and it's like the inverse of Andrew's armbands.”
Neil gets put in a white v-neck. The sleeves get rolled up. It's almost a close call: he has a scar on his shoulder that peeks out a little, but it's only one, so it can be attributed to exy.
“You look too stiff,” the director says. “You can do that in expensive clothes, but when you're not covered up, your body language matters.”
Neil looks at Andrew. “What are we supposed to do?”
“What if you were just hanging out together? If you were alone?”
Andrew reaches up, but his hand halts before it touches Neil. “Ready?”
Andrew drops his hand to the back of Neil's neck and tugs him forward. It's cooler than Neil expected it to be. The lights here are hot, and he feels uncomfortably sweaty.
He catches sight of Andrew's throat. The light is so bright that he can see the blue of Andrew's veins. His Adam's apple casts a dark shadow. Neil starts to say something, but the camera goes off, interrupting him. He hasn't noticed anyone's veins like this before, not when he wasn't explicitly trying to hurt them.
“Neil, get in a little closer. Your face is good, but your body looks stiff.”
“Can I touch your back?” Neil asks, low.
A moment's consideration, then: “No. You can touch my shoulders.”
In the end, the shot the director seems to like has them both facing forward, Neil glaring at the camera with his head propped on Andrew's shoulder.
“Beautiful,” the director says. “Finally. Athletes are so hard to direct. You guys can go back to the dressing room, we'll talk to your people about which shots we're going to use—”
Neil charges toward the dressing room, a little desperate to shower, but as soon as they get inside Andrew puts out a hand to block him. Neil waits, not impatiently.
“What's under the shirt?” Andrew asks.
“Scars,” Neil says.
“From a life on the run?”
“From—” Neil hesitates. “I probably wouldn't have ended up on the run if it weren't for these scars.”
“Only if you show me,” Neil says. “I've never seen you with your armbands off.”
Andrew stares at him, blank-faced. Then he says, “Okay. Show me.”
Neil drags off the undershirt. Andrew's eyes sweep over Neil's chest, and Neil can imagine what he's taking in: a broad, flat burn from a hot iron; a litany of thin surface-level scars, shallow cuts from blades, meant to hurt without maiming; pale skin from his left shoulder all the way down, the leftovers of a jump out of a moving vehicle; the unmistakable pucker of a bullet hole, poorly healed. When he meets Neil's eyes, Andrew has the strangest expression on his face. If it were anyone else, Neil would call it understanding. Empathy.
“That looks like a little more than a life on the run.”
“My dad wasn't the nicest guy,” Neil says. “Why did you think I wasn't surprised by your mother's car accident?”
“She was never my mother.”
It's quiet; Andrew is staring at Neil like Neil might at any moment blow up.
“Your turn,” Neil says.
Wordlessly, Andrew peels off his armbands and shows Neil what they've been covering. Andrew's wrists are covered in criss-crossing scars, not unlike the ones on Neil's chest, except that these are short and white and—Neil realizes, seeing the unevenness of the marks on Andrew's right arm—self-inflicted.
“Andrew—” Neil reaches out instinctively, unsure if he wants to cover the marks with his hand or grasp Andrew's wrist to pull him closer or just curl his hand around Andrew's like they have a hundred times now in public.
Andrew steps out of arm's length and pulls his armbands back on. “Go shower.”
“Andrew,” Neil says again. He doesn't really know what he can possibly say—none of those scars looked new, and Andrew has been in therapy as long as Neil has known him—but he feels like he has to say something anyway.
Andrew's eyes drop back to the bullet-shaped scar. “Who shot you?” Then he flushes, like he's given something away by accident.
“One of my dad's people.” Neil has never seen Andrew emote this much. It feels like a new degree of honesty. Here are all the ways I should've died, and didn't. “I was wearing a Kevlar vest. I used to never—I was only wearing it because my mom slapped me for not wearing one the night before.”
Andrew's gaze is steady, dark, and unreadable. He says again, “Go shower,” and Neil, who listens to Andrew now for some reason, does.
“Is this weird?” Neil asks Kevin when he's at Kevin's place watching old exy tapes. “I mean, should I be at this wedding? Andrew and I aren't really together.”
Kevin stares at Neil, and then he says, “I think you will be around for a long time anyway.”
“What does that mean?”
Kevin passes Neil a container of takeout. “Nothing.”
“I mean, this can't last forever,” Neil says. “Andrew can take Roland to the wedding.”
“I think if Andrew wanted to take Roland to the wedding, he wouldn't be in a relationship with someone else. Do you want duck sauce?”
Neil stares at the TV, where figures in blue are running around a court trying to keep the ball away from figures in red. It strikes him as a little surreal that he's sitting on the couch right now watching exy and eating Chinese takeout with Kevin fucking Day, but when Neil twists a little to look at him, Kevin isn't even looking back. He's holding the remote.
“Watch that play again,” Kevin says. “Look, see how number thirteen is holding her racquet? It lets you get more leverage from that distance. You should try that.”
“He isn't,” Neil says.
“He isn't in a relationship with someone else. This is fake. It's just for cameras.”
“What I meant,” Kevin says, incredibly slowly, like he thinks Neil doesn't understand English, “is that if he wanted to go on dates with Roland, he would be going on dates with Roland.”
“Not if he wanted privacy with Roland. Then it would make sense for him to get the media circus out of the way first. That's what we talked about when we decided to do this.”
Kevin blinks, and then he pauses the TV. “You like him.”
“I mean, I don't hate him. I don't know if I'd go that far, though—”
“No,” Kevin says. “You like him. For real.”
“Don't be stupid,” Neil says. “I've never liked anyone before. I'm not going to start now.”
“Okay.” Kevin presses play. “Pay attention, then.”
They're supposed to go on a date to celebrate, but, exhausted, they veto this decision. Instead, Andrew and Neil walk into the team hotel holding hands. It's probably enough of a photo op for Mel, and even if it isn't, she's too far away to make a fuss about it. That's the one good thing about traveling. Neil can ignore her calls, and she can't show up when he's halfway through a workout and invite him to lunch.
Neil and Andrew get ready for bed in silence, and for the first time, Neil feels uncomfortable in it. When they get into bed, he starts a conversation instead of just going to sleep:
“I got the invite to Aaron's wedding the other day,” he says, curved on his side so he's facing Andrew. “You're sure you want me to come?”
“It's five months away,” Andrew says.
His cheeks are scrubbed pink. It makes him look younger. Neil has never really considered that before, Andrew younger. He knows Andrew didn't have a happy childhood. He supposes he just always imagines Andrew like this, fully formed, quiet, strong, deliberate. He can't conceive of an Andrew in a playground or high school classroom.
“I can't predict the future, Neil.”
“I just thought,” Neil says. “Maybe there was someone else you wanted to take to the wedding.”
Andrew says, “There is no one else.”
He starts to turn onto his other side, but Neil doesn't want the conversation to end yet. He doesn't really know what he's doing, but he knows he wants to keep talking for as long as Andrew will let him.
“What are you scared of?” Neil asks.
Andrew flips back around and slants a look at Neil across the pillows. “Heights.”
“Seriously? That's so mundane.”
“What did you expect? Not all of us have mobster fathers.”
“Hey, that can be something I grew out of,” Neil says. “Being scared of him.”
“What are you scared of now?”
Neil considers it. “Dying.”
“Yours is heights.”
Andrew's eyebrow twitches. Neil rolls his eyes. “Okay. When I was in college, after—after my dad died. I used to have this recurring dream that I was trapped in an elevator.”
“A little. I grew into it.”
“Is that why you don't drive?”
“I can drive,” Neil says. “I just never got a car.”
“The same way you still haven't bought a bed.”
“Is that why you haven't slept over yet?” Neil asks, and immediately wishes he could take it back.
But Andrew doesn't acknowledge why this question might be weird. “I've slept in worse places,” he says. “At least I know you won't try to touch me.”
Neil blinks. It's honesty he wasn't expecting. He knows Andrew was a victim of rape as a child—his brother went through a whole murder trial for killing the perpetrator. But he hasn't heard Andrew talk about it this openly before.
He thinks about what Kevin said. You like him. Neil doesn't even know what that's supposed to feel like, liking someone. He's heard people compare it to butterflies or feeling lightheaded. He never feels like that with Andrew. He always just feels grounded, anchored in place. He never feels nervous or sweaty or clammy. He just feels—normal. Like himself, but more.
Neil doesn't like Andrew, he just trusts him. And Andrew trusts him back, at least enough to sleep a foot away from him on a hotel bed. But they're not friends. After they break up, they probably won't even talk.
Neil wonders what would have happened if he and Andrew had met before both their lives went to shit, but when he tries to narrow down when that would've been, he can't. He can't remember ever having been happy until he was in college.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Andrew says.
“Sorry,” Neil says, and then, “I was just thinking. Everything would probably be so different if we'd known each other when we were kids.”
Andrew's arm shifts where it's tucked under his pillow.
“You don't think we would have been friends?” Neil asks.
“Did you have friends?”
“No,” Neil admits. “But if it was you—”
He's cut off by Andrew pressing a hand against his mouth.
“Don't,” Andrew says. “We didn't know each other. And here we are.”
He takes his hand back, but he turns to face the other direction, signaling an end to their conversation. Neil stares at the back of Andrew's head, the place where his hair pushes up against the pillow. Eventually, he sleeps.
“I'm on call,” Katelyn says, greeting Neil with a one-armed hug and then immediately returning to choosing between sets of silverware. “If I have to go in, I need you to help me finish this up. I heard you don't have furniture yet, so no offense, but I don't really trust you to register anything for me. But Aaron was really specific about some of the stuff he wants, so you can always scan all of that.”
“Okay,” Neil says.
“I'm really glad you agreed to come out today. I wanted to talk to you. I feel like we haven't really gotten to hang out just us yet.”
“So obviously we've all heard the you and Andrew story, but I want to know the stuff from before you got together.” She squeezes the straw poking out of her iced coffee. “I've never known him to date anyone. I don't even think he has that many friends. In fact, he really didn't like me when we first met. I think I've grown on him, though.”
Neil thinks Andrew probably had his reasons. “I think people don't get him, but he definitely cares a lot.”
Katelyn beams at Neil like he is a pet who has just performed a particularly difficult trick. “You're so right. I love that you get that about him.” She scans another item. “Maybe you should take advantage of being here and order some stuff for your place. Do you have silverware or anything?”
“I have a plate and a fork,” Neil says. “I don't really eat at home ever.”
“Are you just waiting it out til you can move in with Andrew? I mean, his apartment is gorgeous, and I am extremely jealous, but it's not a bad idea to have your own stuff.” She looks him up and down. “I feel like you've been dressing more stylishly lately, too.”
“Andrew and my stylist are slowly replacing everything in my wardrobe.” Neil tries to figure out the difference between eight different blenders, all of which cost much more than what he thinks a blender should reasonably cost. “I don't notice until I put on jeans and find out they're tighter than I usually buy them.”
Katelyn snorts. “That's actually really cute. I should put Andrew's styling services on our registry. Do you think he would give us that?”
“I think you're wasting a gift if you aren't making Andrew get you the most expensive thing on the registry.”
“Good point. I do expect you to get your own gift, you know. That's why I sent you your own invitation instead of making you Andrew's plus one.” She pauses halfway through lifting a measuring cup. “And I also really like you. I'm really happy you're part of this family now.”
“Oh,” Neil says. He still doesn't know if he should even be going to this wedding, let alone becoming friends with the bride. “Thanks. I'm happy, too.”
“It is so fucking good to see you,” Matt says, hugging Neil so tightly that Neil worries his ribs might crack. “I'm here to distract the shit out of you so you guys lose, too, and then we can go on vacation.”
Neil takes a step back so Matt can enter the house. “Where are you thinking for this year?”
“Coral reefs? Have you ever been scuba diving? Do you think your boo would want to come?”
“I don't know,” Neil says. “I'll ask him.”
Matt looks around the living room. “No furniture, Neil? Seriously? You've lived here almost a year.”
“I'm busy,” Neil says, defensive. “Besides, I don't spend that much time here.”
“Wow, he starts dating someone and suddenly he's Mister Popular.” Matt drops onto the mattress and winces. “Jesus, you still only have an air mattress? I'm glad I'm staying at a hotel. This is not comfortable.”
Neil shrugs. “I haven't gotten around to it.”
“Please. I know how you are. You're probably scared that if you buy furniture you'll feel too tied down.” Matt rolls his eyes. “I can't believe you're still such a commitment-phobe even though you're in a relationship. Speaking of which, when do I get to meet the lucky guy?”
“It's not like that.” Neil drops into the folding chair next to the mattress. It's been a very long time since he lied to Matt. “It got blown out of proportion because of paparazzi and stuff.”
“Do you hate that?” Matt asks.
“I haven't really thought about it,” Neil says. He doesn't love lying all the time again, but it's really not so bad, hanging out with Andrew. Andrew is an enigma for sure, but he's good at exy and smart and sometimes surprisingly funny. He hasn't actually turned any of his rumored violence on Neil. He always asks before touching. “I mean, it's annoying to always think about how you look to photographers, but Andrew kind of makes it bearable.”
As if on cue, the lock clicks and Andrew walks in, carrying a garment bag. He blinks when he sees Matt.
“Hi, Andrew,” Neil says. “This is my best friend. Matt. Matt, this is Andrew, my—” He trails off, still avoiding lying.
If Andrew catches this, he doesn't mention it. He accepts Matt's proffered hand, gives it the briefest shake, and turns back to Neil.
“We had dinner plans,” he says.
Neil clenches his jaw. “Sorry. I completely forgot.”
“Oh,” Andrew says. He glances at his watch. “We can—”
Struck with sudden inspiration, Neil says, “Do you mind if Matt joins us?”
Andrew stares at him.
“You did say you wanted to get to know my friends,” Neil adds. “Since I know yours so well.”
Andrew stares at him.
Neil leans over to whisper into Andrew's ear. “Be nice. He's my friend.”
“Okay,” Andrew says. “I'll change the reservation.”
He steps into the other room to do it, and Matt rounds on Neil.
“Holy shit,” he says. “You said it wasn't that serious.”
“I never said that.”
“You gave him your security code? And a key?”
Bemused, Neil says, “Yeah. Why?”
Matt's eyes are very wide. “Nothing. It's not like you.”
Andrew comes back in, tucking his phone away. “Maybe he just trusts me.”
“Neil doesn't trust anyone,” Matt says.
Andrew thrusts the garment bag into Neil's arms. “People change. Which is what you should do. We're going to be late.”
“He lets you dress him?”
Maybe this was a bad idea. Neil takes the bag into the bathroom and gets dressed as quickly as possible. He has no clue what Matt and Andrew could even possibly be talking about. Matt likes sports and movies. Andrew, as far as Neil can tell, doesn't like anything. Except dessert.
And, Neil discovers when he reenters the living room, cars. Andrew and Matt are actually carrying a conversation about cars.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Neil says. “We should get going.”
“Why didn't you tell me Andrew drives a Maserati?” Matt says. “By the way, Andrew, it's embarrassing that you drive a car worth a hundred k and your boyfriend sleeps on an air mattress in his living room. There's no way in hell you sleep on that thing, right?”
Andrew doesn't visibly tense, but he also doesn't respond.
“I'm getting a real bed,” Neil says, locking the door behind them. He and Andrew have never spent much time alone in his house together. They aren't really dating. Andrew gets to dress him, choreograph him, and tell him what to say. He doesn't get to furnish his house. “I just keep forgetting.”
“You need to make yourself more of a priority,” Matt says. “Also, holy shit, Andrew, that's your car? And I get to ride in it?”
Andrew looks at Neil, and then he looks back at Matt. “Do you drive?”
Matt's eyes get that round look again. “Yes.”
Andrew tosses him the keys. “Then you get to drive it.”
Neil has no idea what alternate universe he passed into, because the person sitting next to him, four glasses of expensive malbec in, is not acting like Andrew.
“I'll be right back,” Matt says when they're wrapping up. “I need the restroom.”
Neil waits until Matt is sufficiently far to say, “I didn't know you were capable of being that friendly.”
Andrew leans over to reply into Neil's ear. His eyes look more hooded than usual. He is, Neil realizes, drunk. Not wasted, but drunker than he gets when he's the one driving. “I'm being nice.”
“I didn't think you'd let him drive your car,” Neil says. “That was nicer than I expected.”
“You trust him.”
“Yeah,” Neil says. “Completely.”
Andrew gazes at him. “You always guess wrong.”
“What does that mean?”
“With me,” Andrew says. “You can never guess what I'm going to do. I can't guess what you will do, either, you know.”
Neil smiles despite himself. “You're drunk.”
“A little,” Andrew says. “I never get drunk anymore. It reminds me of—here is a truth for you. I used to take this medication. An anti-psychotic.” He grimaces; in the right light, it might look like a smile. “I got enough of not being in my right mind.”
“I didn't expect you to be such a talkative drunk.”
“It's the wine,” Andrew says. His hand hovers over Neil's knee, out of the line of sight of any cameras unless the waiter has strapped one to the bottom of the table. “Yes or no?”
Neil's breath catches. “What are you asking me?”
“I figured you out,” Andrew says, instead of answering.
“Yeah. You've had a billion concussions. That's why you're so dumb. You only have four brain cells left.” Andrew refills his glass, taking his hand back. “If you didn't sleep on an air mattress, I would ask to crash at your place tonight.”
“You're drunk,” Neil says again. “I haven't had that many concussions.”
“Any amount of concussions is too many.”
“You said I trust Matt. I trust you, too.”
“I know that.”
“Do you trust me?”
Andrew's expression is as blank as ever. “I grew out of that, too. And apparently right back into it. I should know better, shouldn't I?”
“Maybe you've had too many concussions, too.”
Matt finally returns, rescuing them from what has become a very awkward line of conversation.
“Dessert?” he asks. “Yelp says there's a great pastry place a ten minute drive from here, and I could use a coffee.”
Neil opens his mouth to answer, but Andrew has already nodded and stood up.
“We still have to pay,” Neil reminds him.
“Your friend just did that,” Andrew says. “What did you think took him so long?”
“Least I could do after crashing your date,” Matt says, and then adds, low, “He's kinda weird, but I like him.”
Oblivious, or at least pretending to be, Andrew trails along behind them.
“Yeah,” Neil says. “Me too.”
thanks for reading! i'm on tumblr. please leave a comment if you enjoyed or spotted a typo!
quick warning for pushy guys in bars and references to past rape
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As they get to the last few series of playoffs, Neil and Andrew's dates become much more low key.
“That's part of it, too,” Mel says, stealing some of Neil's abandoned dessert. “You have to seem into each other—and you've done a really good job of that lately, believe me—but you can't be so into each other that you're more into each other than you are into exy.”
“Not possible,” Neil says.
“Regardless. I don't want to see you coming out of clubs at four in the morning anymore. It's playoffs. You need to look like you're taking exy very seriously while still being totally in love. Spend the night at Andrew's, but tweet that you're just having a quiet night in, you know? He can stay at your place and you can post on Instagram about how it's closer to work. Get it?”
“I don't think he's going to want to stay at my house,” Neil says. “I don't have a real bed yet.”
Melissa levels a long look at him. “Don't say that too loudly. People will think you're ready to jet out of here at any moment. That's the last thing we want people to be saying during playoffs.”
“Really? The last thing?”
“Star striker Neil Josten is unsettled at the Rockets,” Mel says. “Star striker Neil Josten never felt at home here. Star striker Neil Josten looks forward to moving to a quieter city. Star striker Neil Josten complains about not having enough space. Star striker Neil Josten—”
“Okay,” Neil says. “I get it. I'll take a picture at Ikea and tell everyone it's my living room.”
“Actually, going to Ikea isn't a bad idea,” Mel says. Then she grins. “Oh shit. I rhymed. I'm a poet and I didn't even—”
“I'm not going to Ikea,” Neil interrupts. “Andrew's car is too fancy to ruin with furniture, and if it's getting delivered anyway, I can just order it online.”
“How do you still not get this? It's about the photo op, Neil.”
“I'm sick of everything being photo ops. Me and Andrew hang out all the time. There's your photo op.” The waiter drops off their receipt, and Neil signs his name and pockets his credit card. “We'll post on social media. I'm sure we can do something that looks good.”
“Make it cute,” Mel says. “I'm in a betting pool on how long you'll stay together.”
“Did you bet for us or against us?”
“What does betting for you even mean in this scenario?”
“Good point.” Neil pushes his seat back. “You're welcome for lunch. As usual, it's been terrible.”
“I'm going to repeat that when I give a toast at your wedding.”
“Are you going to make us get married?”
Mel laughs. “I'm already selling the rights to your wedding photos. You'll thank me when you have a fat check from Conde Nast in your mailbox.”
Neil groans. He can actually picture her doing it, too, is the problem.
The other problem is that Andrew's car is outside, waiting to pick him up, and Neil is actually looking forward to seeing him. When did that happen?
They're at Andrew's apartment, three episodes into some dramatic TV show about crime or something. It might be the first time Neil has been here without anyone else around to break the silence. He likes it. Andrew's leather sectional is surprisingly comfortable, and his TV and sound system are much nicer than Neil's.
“We can't all spend our free time running and watching old exy games,” Andrew replies from where he's sitting cross legged in the corner of the couch. Their dinner is half-finished on Andrew's cocktail table. “I would ask you what you want to watch, but I know what you'd say.”
“Maybe I'd surprise you. Maybe I'd say I want to watch The Office.”
“We'll watch The Office if you can name one character.”
“I don't know. Kevin.”
Andrew huffs and stretches one leg out in front of him. “Correct.”
Andrew switches the TV to what Neil can only assume is the The Office. They watch it for a while; Neil doesn't really get it, but Andrew seems to enjoy it, which is good enough for Neil.
It's the show's annoying boss that reminds Neil why they're doing this in the first place. “Mel wants us to take pictures together for social media. Proof of our quiet night in.”
They huddle together for the selfie, and then Andrew doesn't move back to his corner of the couch while Neil posts it. Their thighs are pressed against each other. Neil thinks, Andrew doesn't like to be touched, but then Andrew doesn't move away.
“Stay over,” Andrew says.
Neil watches as likes and comments start to show up on the picture.
“Okay,” he says.
“It's late,” Andrew says. “And the morning photo op will be good.”
“I already said yes.”
“You said 'okay.'”
Neil smiles. “Yes.”
But as he stretches out next to Andrew, he doesn't feel terrified at all. He feels—
“Your bed is comfortable,” Neil says.
Andrew is curled toward him. The bed is bigger than most hotel beds, but they're both pretty close to the middle. Neil doesn't know when that became a thing. He supposes they're just used to the proximity now. “Maybe you just miss sleeping in a real bed.”
“If you had real furniture, we could do this at your house.”
“It would be more convenient,” Neil agrees. “You live so far.”
“The suburbs are boring.” Andrew closes his eyes. “The traffic is worth it.”
Neil thinks that if he wanted to, he could reach out and touch Andrew, that spot where his hair brushes against his ear, that stretch of exposed neck. He wonders how Andrew would react, Andrew who trusts him and is nice to his friends and invited him to spend the night and didn't move away on the couch.
“Good night,” Neil says.
Andrew doesn't respond.
The stakes are just too high. At this stage, with this level of exhaustion, exy becomes more about luck than skill, and that's never been the type of game Neil likes to play. If he wanted to play games of chance, he would have devoted his life to poker, not exy. He'd probably be good at it, too.
Someone checks him. Again. He loses the ball. Again. He feels like a compressed spring. At any moment, he might explode outward. He has that feeling he gets sometimes before he goads a journalist or opposing player, like he might just come loose.
There is the sound of the butt of someone's stick banging against the floor. Neil doesn't have to look to know it's Andrew. It's his signature, and anyway it came from the direction of his goal.
He looks anyway. Andrew is looking back. He lifts two fingers in the air, a signal, and then the ball comes flying in Neil's direction.
Neil catches it and doesn't wait to be checked again. He takes off, gets himself into a better position, and shoots.
Cam tackles him from behind. “Wow, thank fuck for that relationship,” she's saying. “Your Minyard mind meld shit was always good, but it's been amazing since you guys got together.”
A little dazed, Neil says, “What mind meld shit?” but it gets lost as the rest of the team pile on top of him. Only Andrew stays back.
“How high up will we be?” Neil asks, because he knows Andrew won't.
Mel hands them a photograph of last year's float. “It's just a dressed up bus, so if you can imagine that—it's really not that high,” she adds, seeing the look on Neil's face. “You don't have to lean on the edge or anything. Are you scared of heights?”
“No,” Neil says, but he doesn't elaborate because Andrew isn't looking at any of them. He's seen Andrew smoke cigarettes while leaning off the edge of balconies thirty stories high. It's not like it's a fear that can't be overcome. “It sounds fun.”
He reaches into the cabinet above the sink for a glass, fills it from the Brita Andrew started refrigerating because Neil prefers cold water. They don't have a ton of time; they're being picked up for their Pride float in twenty minutes, and Neil still needs to get dressed.
Andrew pushes a plate of toast toward him. “We're going to have a long day.”
“Yeah,” Neil says, eating quickly and in silence.
Andrew leans against the counter next to him, sipping at coffee and looking through his phone. “Your clothes are on my bed.”
“Shoulders and chest are covered?”
Of course, Andrew doesn't respond to this. He never does when he thinks the answer should be obvious. Neil finds himself smiling. He likes the moments like this—quiet, no cameras around, just him and Andrew. Like their drives home, their evenings sleeping carefully apart in the same bed.
They aren't really together, but Andrew doesn't seem to mind, and Neil certainly doesn't. He likes this. Just this. In the quiet moments, it feels almost like it could be real.
Down below, Rockets fans in the Pride version of the jersey that Nike made are shouting at them to kiss. They have been since Neil and Andrew got up here. Neil doesn't hate the idea. He and Andrew have never kissed before, but it's not like kissing is that big a deal. Not when they've already shared a bed countless times, sat close enough to touch on a couch, confessed every terrible thing that they've done.
Neil turns to Andrew. Andrew is in sunglasses almost the size of his head. Below them, his cheeks are tinged pink—sunburn, Neil thinks, the idea giving him a thrill for some reason.
It's strange to think it, but Andrew kind of looks at home on top of a pride float. Or at least, he looks at ease, breeze ruffling his hair where he leans against the definitely-not-sturdy rail, head cocked toward Neil. Maybe it's just the sunglasses hiding most of his expression.
Below them, the chants continue. Neil opens his mouth. He shouldn't say it, but the words come out of his mouth anyway. “Well? Want to give the people what they want?”
“What do you want?” Andrew asks.
Neil reaches for the sunglasses so he can get a better read on Andrew's face. Andrew's eyes belie his casual posture. They are bright, alert, and trained only on Neil.
Neil still feels like he doesn't have full control over his mouth. “You.”
Andrew kisses him. That, too, feels alert. It's another Andrew altogether, one capable of passion and not just indifference, one who could be with Neil for real.
Neil forces himself to remember what he's supposed to remember. This is fake. This is for show. If there weren't a hundred cameras and a thousand phones pointed at them, this wouldn't be happening.
Still. Andrew's fingers on his chin. That feels real. Andrew's other hand, layered over one of Neil's in warning. That feels real, too.
Andrew pulls away and swipes his glasses back. Neil takes a moment to catch his breath, and when he looks, finds that Andrew appears to be doing the same.
Something about that makes Neil smile. Behind the glasses, Andrew is back to his impassivity.
Still, the alcohol hits Neil immediately. He feels like it's sweating out through his pores, making him overheat, and he dances badly next to Nicky because Nicky asked him to and Neil was tired of sitting next to drunk Kevin and silent Andrew and didn't see why he shouldn't. It's an afterparty. They're celebrating themselves. He's had a good first year at the Rockets with playoff finals still to go, and he's here with his friends. Somehow.
Nicky leans forward to talk into Neil's ear: “Look, it's your boo.”
Sure enough, when Neil looks, Andrew is passing by their part of the dance floor, presumably for more drinks. Neil catches his sleeve.
“Dance with me,” he says. “For the photo op.”
Andrew glances in the direction of the bar, and then he lets himself be pulled onto the floor. Neil supposes this is Andrew, dancing: just like Andrew doing anything else, it's stoic and still somehow. He barely touches Neil, other than a hand curved around the back of Neil's neck. He moves his hips a little. That's it.
“That's not dancing,” Neil shouts in the direction of Andrew's ear, but Andrew's only modification is to step a little closer.
He is now, Neil realizes, within kissing distance. It feels more possible than it has before, probably because they did kiss earlier today, probably because Neil is a little drunk and therefore more inclined to think weird stupid thoughts.
Neil pushes this impulse aside and focuses on his attempts at dancing. It's fine. He doesn't get why people go out to do just this. He could be close to Andrew anywhere, in a car or on a couch or in a bed. Dancing like this just feels awkward.
The beat drops, and for a moment everyone freezes. Neil looks back down at Andrew and is surprised to find Andrew's eyes already trained on his.
There is an unfamiliar stirring in Neil's stomach. At first he thinks it's the alcohol. Then Andrew's eyes drop to Neil's mouth, and Neil thinks, oh, and then, not the alcohol then.
“Andrew,” Neil says, not sure where he's going with any of this. He wants to go somewhere more private—if they're going to do anything they need to talk about it first, and if they're going to talk about this, Neil would rather do it off this loud dance floor.
Andrew startles. His hand slips off Neil's neck.
“More drinks,” is his only explanation.
He doesn't seem like he wants to be followed. Neil watches him disappear into the crowd of bodies, then surveys the place he's ended up. He can't see where Nicky is. For the first time, he's alone.
But not for long: someone swoops in behind him, puts their hands on Neil's hips. Neil's first thought is that it must be Andrew, but of course it couldn't be Andrew. Andrew always asks before touching. Neil steps forward, putting enough space between him and the person trying to dance with him that he can turn around.
The guy in question is much bigger than Neil but, Neil thinks, probably weaker. Except the guy takes Neil's turning around as an invitation, drops his hands back onto Neil's hips, and drags him forward.
Neil steps back. “I have a boyfriend,” he shouts over the music, but the guy doesn't care, grabbing him again. It's annoying enough that Neil considers swinging a fist, but it doesn't seem worth the fight. He just pulls back away, starting to make his way off the dance floor.
A moment later, the guy is on the floor and Andrew is standing over him. Nicky is shouting something in Neil's ear, but Neil can't make it out.
He realizes, suddenly, that this is going to be an optics nightmare. He twists his hand in Andrew's sleeve and tugs.
Luckily, Andrew lets him. They get out to the parking lot before Andrew talks.
“Who saw us?” he says.
Neil stares at him. “I was fine.”
“Who saw us?”
“What? Literally everyone. I don't know if they recognized us, but either way, they're probably calling the cops and we should probably be inside when they get here.”
“Cops?” Andrew says.
Something occurs to Neil. “Are you drunk?”
Andrew glares up at him. “I know my limits.”
“Knowing them and not surpassing them are two different things.”
Andrew doesn't say anything. Neil sighs.
“Let's go back inside,” he says. “We can do damage control. You can just tell the truth. He was groping me without my consent and you defended me. You'll look heroic.”
“Tell the truth?” Andrew says. “Are you sure you're capable of doing that?”
“You really do sound drunk. Come on. You're not going to get in trouble.”
“What makes you think they'd be on our side? Since when do pigs care about people like us?”
People like us? “We're rich, famous athletes. They'll be on our side.”
Neil waits, but Andrew doesn't reply. He just glares pointedly at something to the left of Neil's shoulder.
It clicks. People like us. Andrew isn't drunk. He's remembering.
“Andrew,” Neil says, spreading his arms out like being able to see that Neil is undamaged will help. “He didn't—it doesn't matter. I don't care. I'm fine, look, I was just going to go sit down if he didn't leave me alone.”
Andrew leans against his car and takes his pack of Marlboro Reds out of his pocket. He lights one cigarette, takes a shaky drag, and then smashes it against the side of the car like it can possibly do any damage. Then he lights another.
Neil lets Andrew take a few drags before swiping the cigarette from between his fingers and stealing his own drag. He's unused to it. Even when he bought his own cigarettes, he always just inhaled to light them and then let them burn out. He was after the smell, not the nicotine.
“Thanks for defending my honor,” Neil says. “But I was fine. Honestly.”
Andrew ignores him, looking down at his vibrating phone. “Nicky says there's no cops. Security threw him out for nonconsensual touching.”
“Do you want to go back inside?”
Andrew takes back his cigarette. “I don't want anything.”
He has the strangest look on his face, like he might just let himself drown. Neil has the urge to grab hold of him. Somehow, he resists. “Do you want to go home?”
“Did you just hear me?”
“I can rephrase the question, if that'll get you to answer it.”
Andrew's eyes meet his. The parking lot is surprisingly well-lit, and Andrew's pupils are pinpricks in the floodlights. His hair has that little gleam it always has when they go out, like its dishevelment is artful. Neil doesn't know how to do that with his own hair. Now that he doesn't dye it anymore, he barely cares what it looks like. He always just wears it the way it comes out of his head.
“Don't look at me like that,” Andrew says. “I remember what this is, even if you don't.”
“This?” Neil asks. “What is this?”
Andrew crushes the cigarette under his boot.
“Nothing,” he says. “This is nothing. This is fake.”
“It might be fake, but it is not nothing,” Neil says. “We're—” But he stops himself. He was about to call Andrew his friend. It doesn't feel quite right.
When Neil doesn't finish his sentence, Andrew says, “Exactly.” Then he steps into Neil's personal space, wraps hot fingers around Neil's chin, and asks, “Yes or no?”
Bemused, Neil says, “Yes.”
Andrew kisses him. Neil freezes. It's the last thing he expected Andrew to do, kiss him in a deserted parking lot on a cold night in December, not a single camera there to see it. At first Neil thinks Andrew must have seen something Neil didn't, but then Andrew's fingers shift, thumb tracing Neil's jaw, and Neil realizes, no, this isn't part of their fake relationship. This is a real kiss. Andrew is really kissing him. It's not like Neil doesn't want this. He was just thinking about it, imagining how it might be, just the two of them instead of a whole crowd of people—but he doesn't know how Andrew feels. He can't guess at Andrew's motivations, not with this, not with Andrew so obviously clinging to some kind of ledge.
Too late, Neil steps back. “I,” he says, and then, “Are there—cameras? Andrew—”
Andrew presses his fingers against his mouth and closes his eyes. “Go home, Neil.”
“I don't want to see you.”
“I thought you didn't want anything.”
“I don't,” Andrew says. He backs further away, drawing out yet another cigarette. “Especially not you. Call an Uber and go home.”
Neil, who has the strangest feeling he has completely lost control of his own life, obeys.
But of course that doesn't make sense, Neil realizes when he's alone at his apartment on Saturday night. Neil has seen Andrew practicing hungover after three hours' sleep. Andrew smokes. His exy fitness is clearly not a priority.
Neil has spent most of his Saturday evenings for the last few months with Andrew, but not just Andrew. He's been to brunch with Andrew's friends, played video games with them, been to parties in their homes. This is his first Saturday alone in his apartment since he and Andrew started pretending to be in a relationship.
He texts Andrew: what's up? are you around?, but Andrew never responds. He texts Nicky, but Nicky only texts back, staying in tonight, see you soon. He doesn't text Kevin, who has a game tonight, and he doesn't even think he has Aaron's number.
Neil turns on Kevin's game, more to fill the space than anything else. His apartment never seemed quiet before. If anything, Neil liked the quiet. Now it just feels ominous, like anything could be hiding behind the door.
It's too empty, is the problem. He still doesn't have proper furniture. He can't keep using the air mattress in his living room as his hub for watching TV, sleeping, eating, and entertaining. He needs actual stuff.
Katelyn suggested he was waiting to move in with Andrew, but Neil is never going to move in with Andrew, because Neil isn't really dating Andrew. Maybe Andrew should have at least told his family the truth. But then, Neil still thinks part of the reason Andrew agreed to this in the first place was that he wanted a date to Aaron's wedding.
Neil opens his laptop, a cheap, scratched machine he bought his sophomore year of college. He should probably upgrade that, too, but it's still functional, so it feels like a waste of money.
Four hours and thousands of dollars later, Neil has scheduled delivery of a new bedroom and living room set.
ESPN has switched from Kevin's game to an analysis of the entire weekend's exy. Neil sees his own face pop up on the screen and takes it as a sign. It's time to go to bed.
“Trouble in paradise?” Cam asks, seeing Neil's hopeful—and ignored—glance toward the back.
“No.” Neil drops into the seat next to her. They're three games into a five game series, and they've won two of them. “We're just focused. We only have one game left.”
“That's the spirit,” Cam says, patting his shoulder. “You heard that, right, guys? Josten only wants to play one more game this season. You know what that means, right?”
Neil doesn't chance a look back at Andrew, who isn't within earshot and probably doesn't care about this conversation anyway. Instead, he tries on his father's smile. “It means don't lose.”
“You're okay,” someone is saying in his ear. “Come on. Just relax. Relax, Josten.”
Someone else is getting him onto a stretcher. I can walk, he starts to say, but no one seems to hear him.
“Josten. Breathe. You're going to the hospital.”
It's Cam, her hand resting on his leg.
“Josten,” she says again. “Blink if you hear me.”
“Jesus, I thought we lost you. You're okay, you're going to the hospital, there's an ambulance just outside—”
“No,” Neil says. He hates ambulances. He always has. Actually, maybe not always. Who hates ambulances as a kid? He hates what they mean, probably, and—
“No? What do you mean no? You can't just stay here, don't tell me you're fine, either, I know what it looks like when a player can't play anymore—just trust us, okay, we're going to be fine, we're still going to win—”
Cam's hand disappears. She's replaced by Andrew, still in most of his gear. Only his helmet and racquet are missing.
“We're winning?” Neil asks.
“Ask again and I'll have them drop the stretchers right here,” Andrew says. He's getting in the ambulance with Neil. Something like relief floods Neil's insides. Andrew is here. He is going to be fine.
“What's the score?” Neil asks instead, and Andrew looks around at an EMT.
“Do you have rehab for exy addiction?”
“I'm not addicted,” Neil says. “Just interested.”
“I think I know addiction when I see it. My brother is a doctor.”
“What, so you're one through osmosis?”
“Hold still,” Andrew says, and then, to someone else, the EMT again, “He doesn't like small spaces. Or being strapped down.”
“Then get him to stop moving,” an impatient voice behind Neil's head says.
Andrew makes eye contact with Neil, who understands. It's not his first time being injured. It's not his first time annoying medical professionals.
Neil reaches out blindly for Andrew's hand with his uninjured arm. He hates hospitals.
Andrew's hand closes around his. Another hand presses against Neil's chest.
“Take a breath. We're almost there.”
Ironically, it's Andrew's concern that finally breaks Neil. “Andrew, it's my arm, it's my right arm—”
“If Kevin learned to play with his other hand, so can you.” Andrew doesn't squeeze Neil's fingers at all, just holds them, as impersonally as he might the handle of a briefcase or an exy racquet. “Besides, I earn enough for the both of us.”
Neil opens his eyes for long enough to glare at Andrew. His arm hurts so badly that Andrew seems sharpened somehow, all crisp lines.
“Are you joking right now? I must be dying.”
“We can only hope.”
But Andrew is right. The ride to the ER is quick. Neil gets sent in for X-rays and other tests immediately—the perks of being famous, he supposes, and decides he and Andrew can argue about it later—and then when he gets out, there is Andrew, sitting down as casually as ever. He gets up when Neil gets wheeled in, though, hovers near the bed.
“Hi,” Neil says.
Andrew's eyes go to the nurse who brought Neil in.
“We'll have the results of the tests soon, but so far, it's looking like he'll be just fine,” the nurse says. “The doctor will be in shortly.”
She disappears after that, leaving Neil and Andrew alone.
“I'm glad you're here,” Neil says. “Even if it took getting injured to make you stop avoiding me.”
Andrew's expression shifts. “Avoiding you?”
“Is that not what it's called when someone you're used to talking to every day suddenly stops talking to you?”
Andrew doesn't answer, which isn't like him. At least, not like the version of him Neil has come to know in the last few months.
Maybe this was a bad idea from the start. Neil can't make himself regret it, but it might be time to call it. They can't keep going on like this. Andrew deserves a real chance with someone he really wants.
“Andrew, I think we should break up.”
Andrew doesn't look at him. “Okay.”
“Don't you want to know why?”
“I kissed you. You didn't want me to.”
Neil blinks. “No. I—no, of course I wanted you to. I asked you to.”
“For cameras,” Andrew says. “Not because you wanted to.”
“I did want to. I didn't know that you wanted to.”
Again, Andrew doesn't say anything. Neil almost wants to roll his eyes: of course Andrew wouldn't want to admit to wanting anything. It must be exhausting being him.
“That's not it, anyway. I don't think I should be going to your brother's wedding if this is fake,” Neil says. “I just think it's too high stakes. You don't want to be cutting me out of pictures and replacing me with whoever you end up with.”
“Whoever I end up with,” Andrew repeats.
“Or,” Neil says.
Neil considers it, all of it, Andrew letting Matt drive his car, Andrew's fingers around the back of Neil's neck, Andrew smoking and letting Neil into his space and lying on the opposite side of a bed and telling the truth. He considers Andrew kissing him, first on a parade float for everyone to see and then almost in private, in the parking lot of a bar. It didn't feel fake. Neil can tell. He knows he can tell.
He says, “I don't want this to end.”
Andrew is close enough that Neil hears it when his breath catches. “Everything ends.”
“I like you.” He wants to touch Andrew, to hold his hand again, to kiss him again. “I want to try this for real.”
“This is nothing,” Andrew says.
“I know,” Neil says. “But it doesn't have to be.”
“You're in shock,” Andrew says. “You have just suffered trauma.”
“It's not the first time,” Neil says. “And it probably won't be the last. We play a very violent sport.”
Andrew's expression shifts again, but it looks better this time, unwound. “I hate you.”
“Every time you say that, I believe you a little less.” Neil reaches up with his uninjured hand, stops before he actually touches Andrew's face. “I want you to kiss me.”
There is no one in the room. No one to see them, no one to take a picture and post it, no one to tweet or call in a tip or squeal about how cute they are.
Andrew says, “The same rules apply. Don't touch me.”
Then he bridges the gap between them and kisses Neil.
Neil has been to four weddings and heard this exact quote in all of them. He has no idea what it's from.
“The Bible,” Andrew whispers helpfully.
“It's kind of cliché,” Neil says. “No offense.”
Andrew's hand is warm on Neil's thigh. “None taken.”
Their phones have been deposited into a basket with everyone else's. Both phones are turned off. Melissa suggested they at least take pictures in their tuxes before heading out, but Andrew didn't feel like it, and Neil's right arm is still recovering.
“That's not an excuse,” she told them. “You can use your left arm. Or either of Andrew's.”
But they used it as an excuse anyway. Neil thinks it's the first time he and Andrew have been together for this long without taking a single photo for social media. The wedding photographer is getting shots of them, of course, but they're not for public consumption. Aaron and Katelyn are private people. And so are Neil and Andrew, now.
They're flying out to Hawaii tomorrow morning, courtesy of the vacation trip Neil bought Andrew for his birthday. Neil didn't expect that he'd be the one going, or else he might've chosen somewhere else, a big European city instead of the beach, a room high up in a hotel instead of a resort.
But Andrew will be with him. And, Neil thinks, layering his hand over Andrew's, that's better.
The couple says, “I do.” They kiss. Everyone cheers. It's a beautiful wedding, Neil assumes. He doesn't have a good eye for these things. Kevin thinks his living room furniture is “the blandest shit I have ever seen.” But at least he has furniture now.
He and Andrew woke up in Neil's bed today. Neil went for a jog. Andrew made breakfast. They ate it in Neil's newly furnished living room.
It's not much. He still needs chairs, a kitchen table, a new computer, a car. The basic things other people have—a blender, pots and pans.
But he has a couch and a real bed. His TV is on a TV stand instead of just resting haphazardly on the floor. And he has Andrew.
It's not much. But it's a start.
so much happens in this chapter that i almost split it into two but then i was like fuck it let em read it all at once. so. you're welcome.
here is my tumblr. please leave a comment if you enjoyed or spotted a typo!