Mary let her cigarette burn down to the filter. She was finished with it, but something kept her from entering the drab building in front of her just yet. It was the last step in her journey. She’d done everything she could to reduce the playing field, and now it was time for the final gamble.
She didn’t let herself think about her son. If she thought about him too much, he’d become too alive in her mind, and she needed him to be dead for this so she wouldn’t be able to betray him.
She pocketed the stub of her cigarette. There were no Moriyama ties to this FBI office, at least none that she’d been able to dig up; it was small and unimportant enough to have escaped their claws. For now.
As she went through the glass revolving doors into the office, she scraped at non-existent dirt under her fingernails. It still felt like his blood was caked there, no matter how many times she scrubbed her hands with soap. A smile tugged at her mouth, stretching brittle lips. A drab, brown foyer greeted her behind the doors, a single, dried-up husk of a plant in one corner. At the front desk sat a young woman, her typing the only sound in the room. Mary walked up to her and put her hands on the desk, splaying her fingers. They looked, for all intents and purposes, clean.
“How may I help you, ma’am?”
“I’d like to talk to Agent Browning,” Mary said pleasantly, though her husband’s smile was still fixed on her mouth. “I have information that he will be interested in.”
“Do you have an appointment?” the receptionist asked, even though she must have seen on her screen that she did not.
“Your name, please?”
The smile spread further, pulling at the cracks in the corners of her mouth.
Neil couldn’t sleep.
It was way past midnight, he’d juggled classes and practice and Eden’s and even squeezed in a bit of homework today. He should be knackered—was knackered—but for some reason, sleep still wouldn’t come.
He sighed, turning on his side. A small light flickered on the coffee table and he frowned. He was sure he’d turned his phone off earlier this evening; maybe the battery was low again. He sat up, grabbing the phone and the hoodie slung over the side of the couch before stepping over a gently snoring Kevin on the floor. Kevin had lost their earlier game of rock, paper, scissors over who got to sleep on the sofa this time. Neither of them much liked the idea of sharing a bed with Nicky and the twins refused to even let anyone into their rooms, so they only had a choice between the sofa, the armchair and the floor. Kevin was usually out like a light the moment his head hit the pillow no matter where he slept, so Neil felt justified in hogging the couch whenever he could get away with it. True to his nature, Kevin didn’t stir when Neil stepped over him, so Neil left him to his beauty sleep and went into the kitchen to find a charger and make some tea.
The microwave whirred to life, its dull yellow light merely making the darkness seem even more dense. Neil found Aaron’s phone charging on the counter and unplugged it to use the charger on his own phone, which lit up as he stuck it in. There were several message previews waiting on the lock screen from someone called Dick. Neil yawned and squinted at the overly-bright screen, trying to remember if he shared a class with any Richards or had any group projects due, but then the messages themselves registered in his brain and he blinked at his phone in shock.
The screen went black again, hiding the increasingly explicit messages. Neil turned it on again, trying to unlock it, but after two failed attempts it finally clicked.
This must be Andrew’s phone.
He and Neil had the same model. Andrew had helped him manoeuvre a very drunk Nicky to his room earlier, it was possible they’d switched phones in the confusion. Which meant…
Neil scrubbed his hands over his face, trying to blot out the awkward implications of what he’d seen. He yanked the phone off its charger and stuffed it in the pocket of his hoodie. The microwave pinged and he dumped a teabag in the mug, pulled his sleeve down over his hand and grabbed the hot handle to carry it outside without burning himself.
The porch was lit by a small lantern. Neil hesitated for a moment when he saw the dark shape already sitting on the steps, but Andrew would have heard him come out anyway. At least this meant Neil could return the phone and wash his hands of the uncomfortable situation rather than wait until morning.
He lowered himself onto the top step, blowing on his tea. Andrew had an empty coffee cup cradled in the loose V of his legs. He’d probably not even gone to bed. The dim light made his eyes look unnaturally bright, shadows hanging underneath them like bats from the rafters of an empty house.
Neil cleared his throat.
“I think we swapped phones,” he said carefully, fishing the offending item out of his pocket. “This isn’t mine.”
Andrew glanced at it before digging in the pocket of his very tight jeans and extracting a matching phone that he tossed wordlessly at Neil. Neil caught it and ran his fingers along the familiar scratch on the back. When he tried to turn it on, the screen remained dark—the battery was empty.
Andrew turned his own phone over and over in his hands, staring at the dark gleam of the street.
“I, uh,” Neil muttered, “saw some of your messages, by accident. Maybe you should turn off previews.”
He felt his ears grow hot and quickly took a sip of his tea, nearly burning his tongue. Andrew’s phone stopped its dizzying process and Neil saw him look down at it as he turned it on, a brief twitch of his eyebrow the only indication that he’d read the messages.
The sudden pressure of the silence made Neil’s ears pop. He took another sip of his tea, which was starting to turn bitter.
“So,” he blurted out, unable to keep it in anymore. “Is his name really Dick or…?”
Andrew tilted his head to the side like Neil had said something remotely interesting for once and slanted him a look that Neil could only describe as devious. A laugh was threatening to froth over the edges of Neil’s mouth and he pressed it down with the pads of his fingers, smoothing the urge away.
Andrew clucked his tongue.
“This from the guy who doesn’t swing.”
“Just because I’m not interested doesn’t mean I have to clutch my pearls at every implication of something sexual,” Neil muttered, plucking the teabag out of his cup with his fingertips. He squeezed the excess liquid from it before tossing it into a sickly bush. It was compostable, probably.
“Maybe not,” Andrew hummed, still watching him with those morning-bright eyes.
“You’re gay,” he said, not really a question.
“Ten points for Josten.”
“But Nicky doesn’t know,” Neil pressed on. “Why?”
“Hardly your business, is it?” Andrew said, waggling his fingers at him as if to brush him off, like Neil was a speck of lint on his lapel.
Neil followed his gaze to the street, but there was nothing particularly mesmerising about it. Just the wet smudge of the street lamp and the dark windows of the houses on the other side.
“I don’t know what I am,” Neil admitted, squeezing his hands around the mug so hard they creaked. “I never really had time to think about it. Never really liked anyone that way. By the time I got to know any of my classmates, we were getting ready to move on again.”
He shrugged. Andrew wasn’t watching him, but somehow Neil could tell that the focus of his attention had shifted anyway.
“Poor little rabbit.” Andrew’s voice was mocking but strangely gentle as well. “So what? You think you missed out?”
“No,” Neil said, frowning. “I guess I just… envy you for that. Knowing for sure.”
He shrugged again and swirled the remains of his tea around in his mug. Andrew made a small, dismissive noise and picked up a pebble, throwing it across the street with ease. It pinged off the lamp post on the other side and vanished in the dark.
“Nothing about this came easy,” he said, through gritted teeth, and it sounded hard and gravelly and like he hadn’t really planned on saying it. He looked almost angry at himself, then he wiped his face blank again and stood up.
“Don’t leave Dick hanging too long,” Neil advised cheekily and got a casual shove in reply as Andrew walked past and slammed the door shut behind him. Neil cursed—he didn’t have a key—and drained the last of his tea, wrapping his arms around himself to keep the warmth in.
He glanced to the side where Andrew had been sitting and found a small bottle abandoned on the step below. The label was cracked and faded, but it had once been colourful, and Neil found a little wand for making soap bubbles inside and a few inches of liquid. He blew carefully on the wand, extracting a small bubble that popped as soon as it came free, and wondered what on Earth Andrew had been doing out here before Neil had joined him.
The thought of Andrew Minyard, most feared goalkeeper in college Exy, armbands laden down with knives, blowing soap bubbles on the front porch at four in the morning made Neil smile.
“Neil? Why the fuck are you sleeping out here? Jesus, it’s fucking freezing!”
Neil blinked, feeling disoriented and sluggish after the first jolt of adrenaline at being woken up in an unfamiliar place. He must have dozed off on the porch some time in the early hours of the morning, since Andrew had effectively locked him out and the other three were blessed with the deep sleep of the heavily inebriated. Nicky was clutching a blanket around his shoulders and quickly ushered him inside, draping the blanket over him instead. Neil had slept in worse places before, but he wasn’t going to complain at the prospect of Nicky’s customary Saturday morning hangover breakfast, and he was feeling a little frozen and stiff.
“Eat, you lunatic,” Nicky commanded, shovelling eggs and bacon on his plate. He turned to Aaron, who was valiantly trying to disappear behind a newspaper, and dumped more eggs on his plate as well even though Aaron had barely touched his yet. “He was outside,” Nicky huffed, poking Aaron’s newspaper with the spatula. “In these temperatures! Can you believe?”
“It’s not that cold,” Neil tried to say, but Nicky only pointed the spatula at him and glowered until Neil put a forkful of food in his mouth.
“Did you check if Kevin’s still alive?” Nicky asked, peering over the newspaper at Aaron, who grunted and shrunk down further.
“What about Andrew?”
Aaron shrugged again.
Nicky sighed as he sunk into his chair, picking up his coffee and leaning his face against the mug. It was large and sparkly and had “Best Dad” written on it, and Neil wondered if the twins had given it to him as a joke present or if Nicky had bought it himself.
“This is serious,” he mumbled. “Remember what happened last time?”
“Last time, you and Andrew drugged Neil against his will and he paid a bus boy to knock him out,” Aaron said dryly. “Kevin’s still out cold in the living room and Andrew’s room is upstairs, so I think it’s safe to assume neither of them has climbed out the window and is in the process of hitchhiking back to campus.”
Nicky scrunched up his face, like every time the topic came up, and Neil quickly crammed more food in his mouth so he wouldn’t be forced to once again accept Nicky’s tearful apology. There was a dull thud from above, probably coming from Andrew’s room, and Aaron made a “told you so” face at Nicky before hiding behind his newspaper again. It was dated from last month, but Neil decided not to mention it.
“So, Neil,” Nicky said, perking up, “the winter banquet is coming up. Have you thought about whether to take a date this year?”
“That’s alright, there’s still time. You know, the Vixens have a couple guys on the line-up this year, I’m getting vibes from that blond beefcake—Aaron, what’s his name again?”
Aaron sighed, long-suffering.
“Jason! Man, he’s dreamy, I totally would. Anyway, he’s been checking out your ass at games. I’m sure he’d say yes if you asked him to be your date. Or more.”
He winked, but Neil’s discomfort must have been evident on his face, because he followed it up with an eye-roll and a dramatically uttered “Lord give me strength” before piling more food on his plate.
Andrew appeared a little while later, sleep-mussed and squinty-eyed behind a pair of glasses. They were slim and silver and unobtrusive, but he wore them so rarely that it was still a peculiar sight. He slid into the chair next to Neil and stared at his empty plate until Nicky filled it for him.
“What about you, then?” Nicky said after topping up everyone’s coffee. “Are we finally going to see you ask Renee to the winter banquet this year? Even Aaron got himself a girlfriend by now, so there’s really no excuse.”
“I’m gay,” Andrew deadpanned, swirling milk and sugar through his coffee.
“Yes, very funny,” Nicky huffed. “I suppose next you’ll tell me you and Neil have been secretly dating for months. Honestly, you two would deserve each other, you’re both reticent assholes. No offence, Neil.”
Andrew threw Neil a look and mimed a helpless little shrug before going back to decimating his toast. Neil hid his smile in his coffee mug and managed to snatch up the sports section of Aaron’s newspaper, though the small tidbits on Exy didn’t provide any new information he didn’t already know.
It was several hours later, after Kevin had dragged the twins to the nearest store and Nicky had called dibs on Neil and the PlayStation, when Nicky very abruptly put down his controller and said: “Shit. Is Andrew gay?”
Neil kept his eyes studiously fixed on the screen, but even that didn’t keep his character from being slaughtered by zombies.
“Fuck,” Nicky sighed, scrubbing his hands over his face and into his hair. “Fuck, Neil, I fucked up. Did I fuck up? I can’t even tell anymore, these two are gonna be the death of me, I swear.”
“Why don’t you talk to Andrew when they get back?” Neil suggested awkwardly.
“Talking to Andrew is like talking to a rock sometimes,” Nicky said resignedly. “Half the time he doesn’t even listen.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“Yeah, with you, maybe,” Nicky smiled, dropping his hands back down and picking up his controller. “You know… maybe I was onto something there, earlier. Maybe you and Andrew should go to the banquet together. Even Renee can’t get him to listen quite like you can, these days.”
“Maybe you should all give Andrew more credit,” Neil said peevishly. “Are we playing another round or what?”
“Like I said,” Nicky grinned. “Reticent assholes. Let’s go.”
They played until it was dark outside. The others came back, stomping slush from their boots and arguing about what to make for dinner or whether to order take-out. Neil saw Nicky disappear up the stairs after Andrew. When he came back, he looked uncharacteristically sorrowful and grabbed his coat, claiming he needed to walk off some residual toxins from last night.
Kevin claimed the television to watch a rerun of last week’s Trojans game and Aaron staggered off to take a nap, so Neil took it upon himself to cobble together something edible for dinner out of the hodgepodge of groceries that no one had bothered putting away. He wasn’t as good at cooking as Nicky was, but he’d learned how to make something out of nothing while on the run, and he found the process of chopping vegetables, stirring sauce and frying meat almost as meditative as basic Exy drills. He didn’t hear Andrew approach over the sound of the television next door until he rattled the cutlery drawer on his way past. Sneaky fingers snagged a few carrots and peppers off the cutting board before Neil could bat them away, and Andrew pulled himself up to sit on the counter with his spoils, watching the sauce bubble in the pan.
“How’s your friend Richard?” Neil asked to lighten the mood, tumbling some pasta into the pot of boiling water. Andrew snorted softly and stole a mushroom, digging his thumb into the head until it broke apart.
“I thought you weren’t interested.”
Neil quickly dipped the rest of the vegetables into the sauce so Andrew couldn’t pilfer any more and chewed on his lip. It wasn’t that he was suddenly interested in sex—at least, not in having any himself—but that didn’t mean he wasn’t at least a little bit curious about how that worked for other people. Exchanging dirty talk with anonymous strangers was something he understood even less than the physical act itself, though at the same time, something about it was almost appealing in that it meant not having to actually go through with it. Exploring in a safe space, with the option of clicking save and exit any time…
“What?” Andrew said, noticing his distraction. He was leaning his head against the cupboard behind him, hair a mess and the label sticking out of the back of his shirt collar. He was still wearing his glasses.
“How, I mean,” Neil stumbled over the words, “how did you find this guy? He’s not actually your boyfriend, is he?”
Andrew stared at him, then huffed another not-laugh.
“He is not my boyfriend. And I found him on the internet. You might have heard of it.”
“Where?” Neil asked, trying to ignore the way his ears were starting to feel hot again. It wasn’t like he could talk about this kind of stuff with Kevin, or Matt, or Nicky. Kevin would lecture him on what all people could dig up about him on the internet and use against him once he was famous, Matt would try to be helpful but only succeed in making Neil feel even more abnormal, and Nicky would pry far too much.
Andrew kicked his legs idly back and forth and studied him for so long that Neil was entirely prepared to just drop the subject altogether and ask him to set the table.
“Girl or guy?”
“What do you want,” Andrew elaborated, casually as if talking about what sort of ice-cream Neil wanted for dinner.
Neil’s ears felt like he’d pressed them to the hot saucepan.
“I- neither. I’m not sure. I don’t care?”
“That bodes well,” Andrew hummed, amused. Then he hopped off the counter and started taking out mismatched plates, bowls and cutlery, stacking them on the table with no rhyme or reason. Neil supposed that was his version of setting the table and busied himself with the pasta.
Andrew served himself as soon as he was done and grabbed a fork and knife. On his way out of the kitchen, he stopped briefly to say: “If you make up your mind, you have my number.”
He disappeared, leaving Neil puzzling over what that meant.
Neil tapped his fingers against his phone. He’d opened a conversation with Andrew’s number but had yet to decide what to write. Kevin, Nicky and Aaron had called it an early night, but there’d still been light under Andrew’s door the last time Neil had ventured out to check.
“Fuck it,” he muttered to himself, receiving a heartfelt snore from Kevin in reply.
Neil: what exactly did you mean earlier?
Andrew: what do you think
Neil: as you’re so fond of saying, i need everything spelled out for me
Neil: humour me?
Andrew: at least he’s self-aware
Andrew: glad we got the introductions out of the way
Neil sighed and let his screen go dark without an answer. He wasn’t in the mood for playing games. If Andrew had an offer for him, he had to come out and say it. If not, Neil would just go back to trying to get some much-needed sleep and forget about the whole thing.
The tiny pinprick of light announcing a new message looked eerily bright in the dark, and Neil nearly dropped his phone in his haste to check.
Andrew: i’d blow you
Andrew: is that a yes or no
Neil: i don’t know
Neil: how does this work?
Andrew: this as in me putting my physical mouth on your physical dick or this as in talking about putting my hypothetical mouth on your hypothetical dick
Andrew: or this as in blowjobs in general
Andrew: because the internet really is your friend there
Neil: the hypothetical one
Neil: do you really want to do this?
Andrew: do you really want to do this?
The screen went dark once again as Neil chewed on his lip and thought about it. He and Andrew were—not exactly close, but Neil felt a certain kinship with Andrew that he didn’t feel with any of the other Foxes. After the whole unpleasantness at Eden’s last year, Neil had told Andrew enough about his history for Andrew to let him stay, and over time, more and more details had made their way out to be safely stored away in Andrew’s brain. In return, Andrew had given up some of his own demons, and they’d come to a sort of mutual understanding similar to the one Andrew had with Renee and Neil with Kevin.
All awkwardness aside, this felt like a, if not natural, then at least reasonable step in their friendship. If it could even be called that. It made more sense to Neil than talking to a complete stranger, and at the same time he knew that if things went awry, Andrew would let the matter drop without fuss and they’d go back to their current state of mutual respect.
Andrew: ground rules first
Andrew: just because it’s only hypothetical doesn’t mean we can’t stop at any time. a no is a no, no questions asked
Andrew: if you don’t want something, you say so
Neil: ok, yeah, you too
Andrew: whatever happens in here will not leave this chat
Andrew: we will not talk about it outside of this chat
Andrew: do you understand? no talking to any of our meddling teammates, no talking to me, no talking to bee or abby or anyone else
Neil: you’re the one who talks to bee
Andrew: not about this
Neil: can i add a rule
Neil: turn off message previews on your phone :P
Andrew: already did
“Neil,” Kevin mumbled, stirring on the floor. “Go t’sleep. Game t’morrow.”
“Tomorrow is Sunday, Kev. No games on Sunday.”
There was no reply, indicating that Kevin had gone back to sleep. Neil wondered for a moment how he and Andrew were going to get enough privacy to do this—they both shared their dorms with other people, after all, and the cousins’ house didn’t have enough bedrooms unless he and Andrew went there by themselves.
He decided this was a problem for another day and shoved his phone under his pillow.
As predicted, it took a while until Neil next had his dorm to himself. Matt and Seth had gone out with the girls and wouldn’t be back until much later, though Matt wouldn’t leave without asking Neil a thousand times if he was sure he didn’t want to come with. When they were finally gone, Neil locked the door behind them and then locked himself in the bedroom just to be safe. He wasn’t sure what the rest of the team was up to tonight, but he took out his phone and quickly thumbed out a message to Andrew anyway.
Neil: the other day
Neil: you said you’d blow me
Neil: tell me more?
Andrew’s response came through within minutes, and Neil felt a strange surge of excitement and curled up in his bunk with his phone clutched in his hand. He wasn’t entirely sure what was expected of him here, but Andrew knew that Neil was inexperienced and would probably tell him if he did it wrong.
Andrew: there’s a back room at eden’s. i’d take you there
Andrew: get you all worked up first
Neil: yeah? how
Andrew: i’d pin you to the wall, kiss you senseless
Andrew: shirt off, yes or no?
Neil’s fingers hovered over the keys, unsure. On the one hand, this was all just pretend, so what did it matter if fantasy-Andrew took off fantasy-Neil’s shirt? Somehow, though, Neil couldn’t really imagine it. He wanted it to be realistic, and the real Neil came with all of his scars, none of which were very attractive or something he wanted to think about very much just now.
He usually kept his own shirt on when masturbating, anyway.
Andrew: touch you on top of the shirt, yes or no
Andrew: i’d run my hands over your chest, play with you a bit
Andrew: you’re not allowed to touch me yet
Andrew: i’d stroke you through your pants first, get you hard
Andrew: all while kissing and sucking your neck
Neil appreciated how smoothly Andrew picked up the thread even after pausing to ask his yes or no questions. It was reassuring how casual and practiced Andrew was about this, and he nestled down deeper into his blankets, idly rubbing at himself with his free hand.
Neil: can i kiss your neck too?
Andrew: just relax
Neil: i am ;)
Andrew: leave a mark on your neck yes or no
Neil: hmm… no
Andrew: i’ll keep it light then, kiss down your neck and get on my knees
Andrew: are you hard?
Neil, sinking deeper into the fantasy, was almost surprised to discover that he was. He cupped himself through his sweatpants, just feeling the weight of his own palm, and pictured Andrew on his knees in front of him, looking up at him with those keen, knowing eyes.
Neil: what do i do?
Andrew: you can hold on to my shoulders if you need, no hair pulling
Andrew: i’d wrap my hand around you first, give you a couple strokes. you’re so hard already so i just suck on the tip, tasting you, trying you out.
Andrew: how’s that feel
Neil: good, you’re really good at this
Andrew: oh neil. i’ve barely even started yet.
Neil: yeah? then maybe you should get to it ;)
Andrew: i’m trying
Andrew: i take you in deeper, press my tongue just under the head. i’d keep my hand around you at first, taking you deeper with every stroke until i’ve got you all the way down my throat
Andrew: yeah, that’s exactly what you’d say
Andrew: you want to fuck my mouth but i’m holding your hips down, take it slow. want you to lose your mind before i give you what you need
Andrew: just going to tease you, taste you
Andrew: let me hear you neil
Neil: yeah, god
Andrew: you’re hot when you’re loud
Andrew: if you moan for me i’ll suck a little harder, will you do that?
Andrew: good, you’re doing so good neil
Andrew: i can just imagine you looking all hot and bothered, like you do on the court
Neil had started stroking himself, his sweatpants pushed down to his knees. Somehow Andrew’s words painted the most vivid pictures in his mind, and it was so easy to imagine this happening in a different universe, while Neil himself was still safe and snug in his own bed, getting himself off the way he was comfortable with. It didn’t usually take him this long, but it was better this way, building and building until he felt like he was about to shake apart.
Neil: andrew, i’m really close
Andrew: do you want to come?
Neil: is that ok
He pushed his face into his pillow and was dimly aware that he was moaning, half-mortified and half-pleased at the thought that Andrew would like it if he knew. His orgasm felt more intense than usual when he finally let go, and he thought about Andrew’s mouth and his low, rumbly voice telling Neil exactly what to do and how. It made him feel safe and vulnerable at the same time, and he stayed where he was for a little longer, drowsy and breathless and giddy and a little dizzy, waiting for the world to settle around him.
Once he was confident that he wouldn’t fall off the ladder when he climbed down from his bunk, he got up to clean himself and change. Then he fished his phone out from the coil of blankets on his bed and turned it back on.
Neil: thank you
Neil managed to avoid Andrew until practice the next day, but all residual awkwardness about the last night vanished once he was back on the court and focused on drills. He didn’t think about their conversation at all until he was in the shower and heard Andrew tell Kevin to fuck off when he kept trying to talk strategy through the cubicle walls. The sound of Andrew’s voice, a little rough from the hard practice and so close to Neil as he stood naked under the shower, sent a curious little thrill down Neil’s spine. He yanked on his own hair as he scrubbed shampoo through it and tried not to dwell on it, but despite their agreement not to talk about their little experiment outside of the chat, Andrew’s eyes seemed to follow him as he left the changing room to join the others for dinner.
The next couple of days passed in a blur. Neil barely had time to think in between Exy, classes and sleep, but the echoes of Andrew’s words seemed to follow him everywhere. It was new and strange to have something like an obsession that wasn’t tied to Exy or survival, and Neil found himself waiting anxiously for the next time that Matt and Seth both left the dorm for a foreseeable amount of time.
Andrew must have been paying attention as well, because when it happened, he was the first to text Neil even before Neil had finished locking the bedroom door. Neil knocked his shin against the bedframe in his haste to scramble up the ladder and had to laugh at himself, muffling the sound in his pillow. He’d never been this enthusiastic about jerking off. Usually it was a somewhat tedious task that he tried to deal with as quickly and cleanly as possible, though sometimes he did it late at night to help him sleep. But with the prospect of Andrew narrating a fantasy for him it suddenly had the potential to become much more interesting.
Andrew let him choose what he wanted, and since Neil didn’t really have any grand ideas of his own, he went with more or less the same as last time. Andrew ran with it, this time setting the scene at Neil’s dorm and taking great care to describe how he would kiss and mark up Neil’s legs and tease him to the brink of orgasm again and again. Neil tried to keep up, slowing down whenever he got too close, but it was still over more quickly than he liked.
Neil: what about you?
Andrew: what about me
Neil: do you want me to do anything
Andrew: are you offering?
Neil: i can try ;)
Andrew: i want you to
Andrew: get me a pint of chocolate chip ice cream
Neil: oh fuck off
Andrew: you asked
Neil: i didn’t mean that and you know it
Andrew: then no
Neil washed his hands, pulled his discarded jeans back on and tried to think of something to say. In the end, he grabbed his keys and wallet and left the dorm, jogging to the nearest convenience store to pick up the ice-cream Andrew had requested. He got a small cup of mango sorbet for himself and some fresh blueberries, then jogged back with his offerings and knocked on the door to Andrew’s dorm.
Andrew opened after a moment, looking soft and tousled like he’d just got out of bed. Something fragile like surprise flitted across his face for a moment before it was replaced with a glare, probably because Neil was breaking a rule by taking something from their earlier conversation outside into the real world like this.
Kevin was submerged in a beanbag chair with his headphones on, engrossed in a history documentary, and Nicky was sitting at a desk with his own earphones in, talking to Erik in German. Neither of them really took much notice of Neil, who held up the bag of ice-cream in offering and suppressed a grin when Andrew stepped aside to let him in.
He followed Andrew into the kitchen and washed the blueberries while Andrew rummaged wordlessly for two spoons. They didn’t sit down, just leaned against the counter with plenty of space between them and ate their ice-cream in silence. Neil still felt raw and shivery but somehow still comfortable, just sharing space with Andrew while Nicky talked in the background and the faint sounds of Kevin’s documentary filtered through his headphones.
Neil found himself drifting, thinking about what it would be like to kiss Andrew for real, outside of their phones and outside of the context of getting off. Andrew caught him looking at his mouth, pale lips wrapped around a melting spoonful of ice-cream, cheeks hollowed out slightly as he sucked it off, and Neil hastily dropped his gaze back to his sorbet.
This was not part of their deal. He shouldn’t even have brought the ice-cream. It was probably best if he left now and went back to his own dorm. Maybe he’d watch an old Exy game on Matt’s laptop, or get some homework done while everything was quiet.
He dropped his spoon in the sink and stole one last blueberry, flicking Andrew a quick, dorky salute before leaving.
Perhaps some space would be good, to sort out his hot thoughts.
Neil didn’t really know what to do for Christmas, and he was delaying the decision for as long as he could get away with.
Last year he’d spent winter break with Matt and the girls, who’d done their best to make him feel welcome, but it had still been exhausting having to assure them that he was having fun at every turn. Back in Baltimore, the holidays had been a season of extra tension and harsher-than-usual punishments; any festiveness merely a façade to keep up appearances. While on the run with his mother, Christmas was a day like any other, the only difference being that people were easier to con around that time and the Christmas shopping crowds meant they had less trouble disappearing among the masses.
The Foxes had one last game and then the winter banquet to get through. They had to fly out after their last class of the day and would be staying at a hotel for the night. Neil, much to Nicky’s chagrin, refused to take some random girl to the banquet as his date and so ended up sitting next to Andrew at the table and sharing a hotel room with him since they were the only unpaired Foxes for the night.
He tried not to think too much about sleeping in the same room as Andrew, and instead let Kevin drag him around the room to network with the other teams until they were finally served dinner. He was in the process of turning the sugary crust of his cranberry pie into mush with his fork when his phone buzzed against his leg. Feeling suddenly hot in his suit jacket, he forced himself to wait a few minutes before pulling it out to check his messages under the table.
Andrew: did you buy that suit yourself or did allison get it for you
Neil: kevin made me rent it, why
Andrew: the pants are too tight
Neil: is that your way of telling me you were staring at my ass?
There was no reply, which either meant Andrew had grown bored of the conversation or he considered the answer obvious. Neil took a careful sip of his water and tried to pretend he was still following the discussion between Kevin, Dan and the strikers of the team they were sharing a table with. He’d just slipped his phone back into his pocket when it buzzed again.
Andrew: think they’d notice if i got under the table to blow you?
Neil’s ears burned and he quickly shoved his phone out of sight again. There were tablecloths, and everyone at their table except for Andrew and Neil seemed deep in conversation, but the thought of actually testing Andrew’s casual suggestion took the edge off the initial rush of heat he’d felt and he grimaced. Sex in public places still held zero appeal for Neil. When his phone buzzed against his leg, he ignored it and made a point of engaging with the conversation around him, which had moved on to the upcoming world championships.
He was sufficiently distracted by Exy and forgot about the incident until they were rounding everyone up to go to the hotel. Neil caught Andrew looking at him as they filed out of the bus and Coach handed out the room keys. They were only going to share a room, not a bed, but Neil still felt like Andrew’s gaze on him was lighting him up in neon colours for everyone to see. He took the stairs instead of the elevator, realising that Andrew had been right—the pants were too tight—and was relieved to find that Andrew had already claimed the bathroom when he arrived.
There was a TV in the room, so Neil turned it on for background noise. He walked around aimlessly for a bit, opened the windows and shut them again, dropped onto his bed and rummaged around in his duffel. When the shower cut on in the bathroom, Neil finally pulled out his phone and checked the messages he’d missed.
Andrew: that’s a no then
Andrew: don’t tell me you actually get off talking about exy josten
Neil felt a smile itch at the corner of his mouth and typed a reply. He hit send before he could second-guess himself, then put his phone down and worked on loosening his tie.
Neil: tell me something interesting then and we’ll see what i get off to
When Andrew came out of the bathroom Neil nearly strangled himself trying to take off his tie and grab his things at the same time, earning himself an unimpressed twitch of Andrew’s eyebrow at his antics. He locked himself in the bathroom just as Andrew picked up his phone, feeling increasingly silly, especially when he noticed that he’d forgotten his pyjama pants. He couldn’t exactly go out there if Andrew was just reading his message though, so he squashed down any awkwardness and stripped down to his boxers, grateful he at least had a long-sleeved shirt to cover his scars.
He dawdled for as long he could feasibly get away with, actually flossing for once and combing his hair, with mixed results. When he ran out of ideas, he double-checked again that none of his scars were visible and tried not to look anywhere on Andrew’s side of the room as he put his things away and slipped into bed.
His phone was still on the bedside table, but he couldn’t make out the little light indicating a new message. It still itched at the back of his mind even when Andrew turned out the light, so he reached out as quietly as possible and turned his phone off to stop himself from being tempted to look at it.
“Night,” he muttered, voice muffled by his pillow. The only reply he got was a faint rustle from Andrew’s side of the room. It was strangely comforting, hearing the little sounds that meant Neil wasn’t alone. After his mom had left, he’d struggled to fall asleep on his own for a long time. He scrunched himself up into a corner of the bed, trying to remember the weight and warmth of her body on the other side of it. It had only been a little over three years, but he was already starting to forget so much about her. What scared him the most was that it was mostly the good bits he was forgetting. While the feeling of her sharp nails scratching his scalp as she pulled his hair was still as fresh in his mind as if it had happened yesterday, the sound of her voice when she joked around with him in a fake French accent had faded almost to obscurity by now.
Neil’s musings carried over into his dreams, and he woke from one of his recurring nightmares in the stale grey light of early dawn. The fabric of his shirt clung to him with cold sweat and it took him a moment to unlock his limbs from their frozen state of terror and dispel the faint scent of blood that lingered in his nose from the nightmare. Neil tried to think about that fateful night in Seattle as little as possible—there was no use chewing it over anymore, and yet his brain couldn’t seem to stop coming up with all the ways things could have gone differently that night. He breathed out shakily and reminded himself that none of these scenarios were real, that his father really was dead, that Lola and her ilk really were in prison and probably wouldn’t ever see the light of day again.
That his mom was still out there, somewhere. Alive. Hopefully.
He expected Andrew to still be out cold and made an effort to be silent when he got out of bed, but the moment Neil sat up, the sheets whispering along his body, Andrew’s eyes blinked themselves open and a small furrow carved itself between his brows.
“Sorry,” Neil whispered. “You can go back to sleep.”
Andrew continued to stare at him as he picked up his clothes and went into the bathroom. He was still awake when Neil came back, though he hadn’t moved an inch under his blankets.
Neil slipped into his running shoes and left Andrew’s sleep-clouded gaze and the remains of his nightmare behind.
Neil sat next to Andrew on the plane again, staring out at the clouds. He felt threadbare with tiredness, worn down to the bone from the nightmares that had slowly been eroding his sleep all year. Most of the others were napping in their seats, but Neil found himself jolting awake every time he started to doze off. Planes, like cars and buses, were treacherous in sleep: he’d spent so much time on them while on the run that the veil between reality and memories had become thin there, making him feel sick and disoriented when he woke up. He was floating somewhere between France and Germany, Louis and Alex, when a pen poked painfully between his ribs. The veil fell back down, and Neil smacked the pen away and raised a questioning eyebrow at Andrew.
“You have nightmares,” Andrew stated, quietly enough that Kevin in the aisle seat didn’t stir.
“Doesn’t everyone?” Neil muttered, rubbing the sore spot where Andrew’s pen had stabbed him. Andrew merely continued to look at him, gaze flat and head reclined, but there was something off about him. Neil glanced at his hands, which were twisting and squeezing the pen in his lap, hard enough to make his knuckles turn white.
“You’re scared of flying,” Neil realised. “Seriously?”
Andrew huffed and threw the pen at Kevin’s head. It hit him on the cheek, right where his tattoo was, and Kevin flinched awake with a sour expression.
“Hey, Kevin,” Andrew said. “Rise and shine. I found you someone to practice with over Christmas.”
“Wha- oh,” Kevin yawned, turning to Neil. “You’re coming with us?”
“I am?” Neil asked drily.
“He is,” Andrew said cheerfully. “I have it on good authority that you have failed to make other plans, and Kevin can get away with sneaking you both into the court. We’ve already established that Exy gives you a permanent hard-on, so don’t pretend this isn’t exactly what you were waiting for.”
“I’ve already drawn up a training regime,” Kevin piped up, but Andrew reached back without looking and put his hand over Kevin’s mouth to shut him up.
“Spend Christmas in Columbia with us, yes or no?”
Andrew twirled his finger, pointing first at Kevin, then at himself.
“Nicky is going to Paris with Erik dearest and Aaron is due to meet his future in-laws,” he explained. “So?”
“Fine,” Neil said. “I’ll think about it.”
Kevin finally succeeded in wrangling free from Andrew’s hand.
“You can drive, right? That means if Andrew lets us have the car, we can—”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, hm, Kevin?” Andrew drawled. “That’s a very big if.”
The seatbelt signs clicked on just as Kevin was about to reply. Neil bent down to pick up the pen that had rolled under his seat and handed it back to Andrew, who stared at it for a moment before grabbing it. His fingers brushed Neil’s; the nails were bitten down to neat stubs and a vicious bruise lurked just under his skin, probably from sparring with Renee, or maybe from that one impossible save he’d made in their last game. Neil still got tingles just from thinking about it.
“Wasn’t staring,” Neil muttered, wrenching his gaze away and looking back at the wet sky outside the window. The plane tilted downwards and the ground came rushing up, making Neil’s ears pop under the strain. Andrew’s knuckles were white again around the pen, and—
Okay, maybe he was staring a bit.
Before he knew it, everyone had left for their Christmas holidays in a flurry of packing and activity. Andrew, Kevin and Neil were the last ones to go, because Andrew had to drive Nicky to the airport first. Matt had given Neil a proper suitcase as an early present, since he had enough stuff now that it didn’t all fit into his duffel bag anymore. Looking at it made him feel antsy, so he roped Kevin into playing a game with him in the parking lot where they had to throw and catch a ball either with the left or right hand depending on what number the other shouted. His brain sufficiently tied in knots, he climbed into the back seat of Andrew’s car and spent the drive to Columbia listening to music on his phone and looking out of the window at the passing scenery.
They arrived at the house late in the afternoon. The sky was a flinty grey, the very opposite of festive, but since it wasn’t raining Kevin and Neil left Andrew to unpack the groceries they’d picked up on the way and went for a leisurely jog around the neighbourhood. When they came back Kevin set himself up in Aaron’s room upstairs, so Neil took Nicky’s room, glad to find that it had a functioning lock on the door. They were going to Eden’s tonight, so he showered quickly and struggled into a pair of ridiculously tight jeans that Allison had bought him. She’d assured him that they made his ass look “like a ripe, juicy peach”—not that Neil cared about looking like fruit or being plucked and eaten, whatever Allison had meant by that exactly, but he knew from experience that Andrew would send him back to get changed if his outfit didn’t measure up.
This time, Andrew merely trailed a look down his body and turned wordlessly to grab his keys and march out to the car.
They had dinner at Sweetie’s first, where Kevin and Neil talked strategy for the upcoming season and Andrew silently and methodically cut his spaghetti into tiny slivers. Neil noticed him sprinkling parmesan on Kevin’s chicken whenever Kevin’s attention was elsewhere and joined in the game with the pepper shaker, trying hard to keep a straight face as Kevin went on at length about sneaky manoeuvres on the court then promptly started coughing.
“They sure put a lot of pepper on your chicken,” Neil said deadpan. There was a small noise beside him, but when he turned to look Andrew’s expression was impassive as ever. Neil had just concluded that he’d won their little game when he noticed the small mound of parmesan on his plate.
Eden’s was less crowded than usual, though still just as noisy. Neil secured them a table while Andrew went to get drinks, Kevin wavering between the two for a moment before trailing Neil. The tray Andrew came back with only had a few shots and a can of soda for Neil, much less impressive than their usual. Andrew meticulously counted out the shots between himself and Kevin, who looked unhappy at the slim pickings but knocked them back without complaining before disappearing to the dancefloor. Andrew took his time with his own portion, sinking back into the sofa with his eyes closed and his head tipped back, and Neil found himself staring at the taut landscape of his exposed throat. There was a small nick just under his jaw where he must have cut himself shaving this morning. It was a strange, vulnerable thing to be aware of; a tell-tale sign of daily life, of a real, solid, touchable person.
Neil had never been allowed close enough to anyone to be privy to such things before. He blinked, echoes of flashing lights preening behind his closed eyelids. This kind of mundane intimacy was a potent, heady thing; far more tempting to a lonely runaway than sex had ever been. Andrew’s eyes opened a sliver, regarding him through the filmy haze of lights in the dark, and Neil pulled out his phone just for something to do, somewhere to look.
He found their last conversation and tapped his finger against the screen as he thought of something to write.
Neil: are we still playing?
Andrew must have had his phone on silent, because he didn’t react. Neil replied to a few stray messages from the other Foxes, some as old as a week, before putting his phone away again and opting instead to watch the dancers below. He looked up when he sensed movement in his periphery and found Andrew filling the tray with their empty glasses before taking it back to the bar. Neil followed his progress through the crowd, saw him gesture to Roland behind the bar—just a throwaway little motion, almost swallowed up under the swimming lights that bobbed along the room like corks on a current. Roland nodded, calmly finished up his last order and briefly spoke to the other bartender before discreetly following Andrew through a back door.
For one reckless moment, Neil wanted to get up and do the same. He reeled himself in and turned himself firmly back to the table, pulling out his phone again so he wouldn’t be tempted to imagine what Andrew and Roland were doing behind that door. He had no new messages, but his phone buzzed in his hand as he scrolled idly through his call log and his stomach throbbed uncomfortably when he saw who it was.
Just the one word had Neil’s mind fizz and spark. He imagined Andrew in some stock room, Roland kissing his neck while Andrew typed one-handed, the other slipped into Roland’s trousers. Or maybe Roland was sucking him off, or—
He rubbed his hand over his face and swore into the crook of his palm. This whole thing had been a bad idea. Clearly Neil was too inexperienced for anything so casual, too starved not to get attached. Everything in his life was like a switch that was flicked either on or off. Exy was on. Sex was off. Andrew was on. Other people were off.
He was still wrangling with his discomfort when his phone buzzed again.
Andrew: talk to me
Andrew: what do you want
Neil let out a shaky breath, checked to make sure Kevin wasn’t anywhere nearby, and started to type.
Neil: i want to get you off
Andrew: yeah? how
Neil: however you like it
Neil: want to make you feel good
Andrew’s reply took a long time to come through, long enough that Neil thought he’d abandoned their game in favour of Roland. It was stupid anyway, to do this at Eden’s, surrounded by staff and strangers, with Kevin somewhere in the crowd. Neil wasn’t hard, not really, but the thought of Andrew prone and relaxed like he’d been earlier, letting Neil put his hands or mouth on him and enjoying it, made Neil’s spine tingle and set his nerves alight down to his fingertips.
Andrew: sure you don’t want my mouth on you?
Neil: not today
Neil: it’s your turn
Neil: tell me what you want andrew
Andrew: i want nothing
Neil: is nothing what you’re doing with roland then?
Neil knew instinctively that he’d crossed a line when he hit send. He still waited for a reply, chewing on his lower lip, but nothing came through, and then suddenly Kevin was back with some idea he’d had for a new training exercise he wanted to introduce when everyone came back after break. Neil barely paid attention, feeling wrong and spaced out, and lost the thread altogether when he saw Andrew emerge from the back out of the corner of his eyes.
Andrew picked up another round of drinks on the way. He wouldn’t meet Neil’s eyes as he placed them on the table and downed his own shot of whisky. Kevin tried and failed to rope him into Exy talk, and they ended up leaving soon after.
Neil leaned his forehead against the car window and tried not to want things he couldn’t have.
settle in and buckle up for some serious smut eyyyy ;) *fingerguns out of the room and goes to hide under 10000 blankets bye*
happy monday lmao
Christmas passed surprisingly calmly. Neil spent his days exercising with Kevin, trying and failing to read a book Matt had lent him and watching episodes of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency with Andrew on the couch. Neither of them had brought up what had happened at Eden’s and they hadn’t texted again, but Andrew didn’t seem angry with him. He even drove Neil and Kevin to Palmetto on Christmas Day so they could use the court to run drills, though he didn’t participate himself, opting instead to take a nap in the stands until they’d powered themselves out.
Kevin gave Neil and Andrew some new gear for Christmas. He hadn’t wrapped any of it and dropped it all unceremoniously into their laps at breakfast, which made Neil feel better about not having brought any presents. Since Kevin was completely useless in the kitchen, he volunteered to throw together a simple Christmas dinner instead, and Andrew pulled an entire mixed berry pie out of the freezer for dessert. Afterwards, they played cards and Andrew and Neil both cheated so blatantly that Kevin walked three circles in the living room whilst ranting about fair play, which somehow segued into a monologue about Jeremy Knox and the Day Spirit Award.
It was, perhaps, the best Christmas Neil had ever had.
He went to bed sleepy and sated and blinked down at his book for a few moments before tucking it away again. There were a few texts on his phone from the other Foxes wishing him a happy Christmas and Neil thumbed out brief replies to them, then he pulled up his conversation with Andrew and chewed on his lip as he decided on what to say.
Neil: sorry about the other day
Neil: i won’t do it again
Neil: can we just
Neil: go back to before?
Neil sank down deeper under his blanket, rubbing his fingers over the scratch on the back of his phone. Several minutes passed in what felt like a sort of comfortable silence, if it was possible to have that in a phone conversation, and then another message from Andrew came through.
Andrew: i want to rim you yes or no
Andrew: because it’s hot
Neil: but isn’t it kind of gross
Andrew: you shower at least twice a day, do you not
Neil: oh. yeah
Neil thought about how Andrew had said want, like offering a subtle olive branch after their last conversation. He still wasn’t sure what exactly was so appealing about rimming, but that was what these fantasies were for, after all. He had nothing to lose by testing it out.
Neil: okay, we can try
Neil: you always know the right things to say to get me going anyway ;)
And just like that, Neil felt the tingly anticipation again, making his pulse thrum and curling his toes into the sheets.
Neil: how do you want me?
Andrew: on your front, pants off and legs spread
Neil: yes sir ;)
Neil: …my ass is all yours? ;)
Andrew: i will end this conversation and block your number
Andrew: less winky faces, more listening
Neil: i’m listening
Andrew: because i’m going to start by refreshing all those marks i left on your thighs last time
Neil: mm you like my legs
Andrew: i thought you were listening
Neil: some of us can talk and listen at the same time
Andrew: we’ll see if you can still do that by the time i’m through with you
Neil: oh yeah? like that is it?
Andrew: i’ll make you moan as pretty as you look, all spread out for me like this
Neil: so you think i’m pretty huh
Andrew: like a trainwreck
Neil: kiss my ass
Andrew: hmm maybe
Andrew: or maybe i’ll suck another bruise there, just above the crease between your ass and your thigh, where the skin is all sensitive and you’ll feel it every time you sit down
Andrew: then, slowly, i’ll move inwards, spread you open with my hands and trace you with my tongue
Neil: you holding me down or can i move?
Andrew: i like you more restricted
Andrew: don’t move for now
Andrew: just let me taste you and take care of you
Andrew: once you’re all nice and wet, i’ll use my thumb to open you up a bit, get you loose and relaxed
Andrew: then i’ll start licking inside you, fuck you with my tongue
Neil: fuck ok
Neil: can i move now, wanna rock into it, feels so good
Andrew: not yet
Andrew: you’re dripping with my spit so i’ll just use that to push my finger in deeper, alternate fingering you with using my tongue, hold you open with two fingers for better access
Neil: andrew, wanna touch myself so bad
Andrew: hmm? can’t hear you
Neil: andrew, fuck, let me touch myself
Andrew: because you asked so nicely
Andrew: i’ll let you up on your hands and knees, you can jerk yourself off while i eat you out
It was so easy to get lost in the scene Andrew painted in his mind. Neil wasn’t sure how it would really feel to have Andrew’s tongue in his ass, but the way Andrew described it was enough to get him going, and he even tried turning over on his hands and knees like Andrew had instructed while he jerked himself off. He could imagine Andrew crouched behind him, hands on his ass and eyes watching him intently, and forgot to type anything altogether as he rocked into his hand and felt the tension wind tighter and tighter like a spring inside him until it finally released.
He pitched forward into his pillow, breathing harshly. The room spun a little, and he used some tissues to clean himself up a bit before checking his phone again. It seemed Andrew had also become too preoccupied to write any more, and the thought that Andrew was upstairs in this moment, working towards or coming down from his own orgasm, made his stomach flip-flop like he’d missed a step going down the stairs.
Neil: ok, you were right, that was hot
The next night, Neil stayed up and re-read the Wikipedia article Andrew had linked last night. Then he read some other Wikipedia articles, and from there he clicked through to a couple websites that had helpful pointers on things Neil had never even thought about before. Feeling reasonably briefed for his next phone conversation with Andrew, he finally went to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, though he had some regrets when Kevin dragged him out of bed early for a long run and insisted they go to the court later to get some extra practice in.
Andrew let himself be bribed into driving them with the promise of expensive whisky, but he still declined to join them, instead lounging in the stands eating his way through a bag of hard candy and playing with his phone. After almost three hours of being chased around the court by an Exy-manic Kevin, Neil sat down on the ground and refused to get up until Kevin finally called it quits. Even he had his limits, and he ached to get under a hot shower and into the softest pair of sweatpants he owned.
Kevin stayed behind to tidy up, so when Neil was done and dressed he went through to the lounge and stretched out on the couch to wait. He was massaging his thigh, which was on the verge of cramping up, when his fingers skimmed the hard edge of his phone in his pocket. Pulling it out, he saw that he had several missed messages waiting.
Andrew: boring boring boring
Andrew: literally the only interesting thing in here is how short your shorts are
Andrew: did you actually shrink those in the wash
Andrew: have you ever fantasised about sex on the court
Andrew: i can’t decide if the answer is yes of course or no that would be sacrilege
Andrew: i am, for the record
Andrew: thinking about fucking you
Andrew: in goal, maybe. wonder how often it would light up red
Andrew: might short-circuit it, if i fuck you hard enough
Andrew: leave a permanent imprint of your ass on the plexiglass, now wouldn’t that be fun
Andrew: with legs like yours i bet you could just wrap them around me and hold yourself up no problem
Andrew: i bet you could ride me for hours
Andrew: 2hrs 58min exactly, apparently, thank fuck this is finally over
Andrew: sweaty and messy is a good look on you, be better if i was the one responsible for it
Andrew: have fun in the shower
Neil stared at the messages, open-mouthed and half-liquefied in the sofa cushions. His thigh really did start cramping up then, and he hissed and started frantically kneading and stretching the sore muscles until they eased up again. Matt usually had some sports drinks in his locker, which would be easier to jimmy open without proper lockpicking equipment than Abby’s office, so Neil limped his way back to the changing room where he promptly bumped into Andrew.
“Agh,” he said eloquently, feeling his ears flush at the way Andrew’s eyes casually trailed down his body. “Just… checking on Kevin.”
“If he’s not done in five minutes I am leaving without him,” Andrew shrugged and walked past him.
“Not without your keys you can’t,” Neil called after him, heart pounding as he held up the car key that he’d snagged from Andrew’s jacket pocket. Andrew stilled, tilting his head to the side as he regarded the stolen key.
“Fine, you’re driving. The five minute rule still applies. Oh, wait—four and half, now. Tick tock.”
Stunned, Neil watched him go, then turned the smooth car key over in his hand. He pressed its teeth into his palm and traced the ridges with his finger, wondering what had prompted Andrew to suddenly decide to let Neil drive his precious car.
Aaron and Katelyn came over for New Year’s Eve. Andrew had let Neil take his car out again for a grocery run and Neil still felt jittery and like he was doing something forbidden as he loaded the bags into the trunk and turned the key in the ignition. The car smelled faintly like cigarette smoke and leather, and there was an abandoned black hoodie on the back seat that Neil spontaneously decided to borrow while the car was slowly heating up. He was used to wearing someone else’s clothes from his time on the run, where his mom had made him burn his old clothes and pick out new ones in thrift stores with every change of identity, but it was different to wear something that still actively belonged to someone else. He pulled the collar over his mouth and nose and inhaled, chasing the scent of Andrew’s skin and the hint of his aftershave buried in the fabric.
There it was again, the sort of intimacy Neil found himself more and more intrigued by. Knowing, and maybe also being known. He shook his head. This hadn’t been part of their deal, and Neil needed to stop behaving like a creepy stalker and drive home before the ice-cream melted.
Katelyn’s car was parked in the driveway when he arrived. She and Aaron were still standing in the hallway and Neil nudged his way past them with the groceries, nodding a quick greeting. Kevin was trying to talk Andrew into another trip to the court now that Aaron could join them, but Andrew merely looked like he was sleeping with his eyes open and didn’t register a single word Kevin was saying.
“Well, thanks for having me,” Katelyn said cheerfully as Kevin finally lapsed into sour silence. “Aaron said you guys don’t have girlfriends, so I brought some friends.”
“Friends?” Kevin frowned. “Who?”
Katelyn held up a bag and grinned. “Meet booze, fireworks and chocolate. They’re the life and soul of every New Year’s party.”
Andrew’s eyes focused at the mention of chocolate. Kevin made a big production of examining the fireworks, arguing with Katelyn about which ones were the most spectacular, and Aaron dropped onto the sofa and turned the TV on. Neil put away the last of the groceries and made himself a cup of tea, startling when he saw that Andrew had silently followed him into the kitchen.
Katelyn had brought several boxes of boozy chocolates and a tin of hot chocolate mix with marshmallows, making Neil wonder if they were meant to be some sort of peace offering for Andrew. Aaron had somehow managed to get Andrew to call off their deal earlier this year, but there was no love lost between Andrew and Katelyn. She was stubborn though and she’d started to give as good as she got, and Neil suspected that Andrew was developing a sort of grudging respect or at least resigned tolerance for her.
“Guess you’re still not getting rid of her,” Neil said as Andrew picked over the chocolates and popped one in his mouth.
“Bribery doesn’t work on me,” Andrew scoffed and ate another chocolate.
“Hmm,” Neil made. “Doesn’t it though?”
Andrew flicked a chocolate at him and Neil dodged at the last moment, laughing quietly. The next one almost landed in his cup of tea, and the third one Neil caught in his mouth.
“Show-off,” Andrew snorted. A hiss and a bang indicated that Kevin and Katelyn had started in on the fireworks outside, so Neil grabbed a few things from the fridge and checked the recipe for the Swiss cheese fondue he’d wanted to try out. Andrew pulled himself up onto the counter and continued to demolish the chocolates, interspersed with bites of whatever Neil was preparing within reach, and when Aaron wandered in for a drink Neil set him to work cutting up the bread.
“You never make Andrew do anything,” Aaron grumbled, glaring at where Andrew was dropping another stolen pinch of grated cheese into his mouth.
“That’s because he’s my favourite Minyard twin,” Neil replied deadpan, ignoring the garlic clove that went sailing in his direction from Andrew’s hand.
“Must be,” Aaron muttered, barely audible where he was hunched over the bread. “Seeing as you’re wearing his fucking shirt.”
Neil looked down at himself and felt his ears grow warm. He’d completely forgotten about the borrowed hoodie. If Andrew had noticed, though, he didn’t let on—he was staring into space and serenely plucking the leaves off a sprig of parsley.
“Ohh, smells good, is that cheese fondue?” Katelyn asked, sticking her head inside and rubbing her hands together to warm them up. She and Kevin trailed scents of smoke and cold air inside with them, and suddenly the kitchen seemed too small for all of them and Neil missed the simple companionship of just having Andrew there on the counter with him, stealing bites of food.
Even between the five of them, there was still cheese left in the pot once they were all done eating. Neil couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so full. He’d picked up some fruit for dessert, but the thought of eating just a single grape made him vaguely sick. When Kevin announced that he was going for a walk, clearly waiting for someone to say they’d join him, Neil pushed himself up and went to put on his shoes and jacket.
It was cold outside, the kind of dry, sticky cold that turned his breath to ice and made his eyes water. He and Kevin tottered down the street, wary of icy patches on the pavement.
“So,” Kevin said, a thin crack in the silence. “Andrew lets you drive his car now.”
Neil didn’t hear a question in there and stayed quiet. Kevin fiddled with the zip on his jacket, eyes fixed on the ground.
“What exactly did you promise him in exchange?”
“Nothing,” Neil said. “He just offered.”
“He just… seriously?” Kevin shook his head. “That’s unusual.”
Neil shrugged, not wanting to admit that he’d been wondering about Andrew’s sudden generosity, too. Things between him and Andrew had always been somewhat intense from the moment Andrew had hit him with an Exy racquet, and for some reason he let Neil get away with more than any of the others, even Aaron. In return, Neil had told Andrew some of his truths—only the bare bones, and none of the names, but still more than he’d told anyone else.
“I’ve been thinking,” Kevin said, sounding even more stilted than usual. A couple of fireworks shot up nearby, leaving comet trails of light against the frozen sky, and Neil flinched away from the noise. Kevin stared at the smoke and cleared his throat.
“I should—I want to. Stop. Drinking.”
“Okay,” he said slowly.
“It affects my playing,” Kevin said, his nervous hands betraying his business-like tone.
“Maybe you should talk to Dobson about this,” Neil suggested, unsure what Kevin wanted from him. “Or Abby.”
Kevin took a deep breath.
“Yeah, I know, and I will after break. I’ve already told Andrew. I might… need some help. To keep me on track.”
“Okay,” Neil said again. “You want Andrew and me to keep an eye on you?”
Kevin nodded and stuck his hands in his pockets. They were almost back at the house now, and Neil’s toes felt numb from the cold. Katelyn and Aaron were setting up the fireworks, and there was the pinprick glow of a lighter flicking on and off where Andrew was watching over the proceedings from the doorway.
Neil let Kevin go ahead and pulled out his phone to send a quick text to Andrew.
Neil: so do i get a kiss at midnight? ;)
He watched as Andrew fished his phone out of his pocket, the light from the screen illuminating his face. Andrew clicked the lighter again and typed something before tucking the phone away again.
Andrew: you can kiss my dick if you’re so desperate
Neil: i’ll settle for that
Neil: happy new year andrew
...yep, we're going there today *upside down smiley*
“So,” Nicky said ominously, dropping into the seat next to Neil, who scrambled to put his phone away. He and Andrew had been texting on and off for most of January, so much so that their conversations had started to veer away from the sexual and devolved more into a running commentary of their daily lives, interspersed with the occasional thought experiment involving zombies, aliens or deep sea life. There’d still been a few times where Andrew narrated a particular fantasy for Neil late at night and Neil got himself off to it, and Andrew sometimes offered some risqué insight or downright filthy observation when Neil was least expecting it. Most of the time, though, they were simply exchanging banter or making fun of Kevin.
“I notice you’ve been using your phone a lot lately,” Nicky continued, waggling his eyebrows. “Let me correct that—I notice you’ve been using your phone lately, period. What’s up with that?”
Neil shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The truth was that he’d started to carry his phone around for the sole reason of being able to talk to Andrew throughout the day. Every time he felt the buzz of an incoming message, he felt a tiny, secret thrill in the base of his spine, even if it was just Andrew complaining about today’s poor dessert selection in the cafeteria.
“It’s just Exy stuff,” Neil tried, rubbing his thumb over the edge of his phone in his pocket.
“Hmm,” Nicky made. “I know you’re almost as obsessed with Exy as Kevin, but somehow I don’t believe you.”
He mock-gasped, scooting closer to Neil on the sofa and dropping his voice to a stage whisper.
“Don’t tell me you’ve found yourself a significant other, Mister I-don’t-swing?”
“No,” Neil said hastily. “That’s not what this is.”
“Uhuh,” Nicky purred. “You can tell me, Neil. Is it a boy or a girl, hm? How did you meet them?”
Neil stood up abruptly, shaking Nicky’s arm off.
“I need to talk to Coach about the line-up for the next game.”
“Aw, Neil, don’t be like that! I’m just curious!”
“Yeah, well, maybe it’s none of your business,” Neil muttered, willing his ears to stop burning. He and Andrew were just talking. Alright, maybe that talking sometimes led to Neil coming into his hand with fantasies of Andrew in his mind, but that was all it was; they hadn’t agreed on anything else. And it really wasn’t any of Nicky’s business.
Slowly, the other Foxes also started to take notice of Neil’s new habits concerning his phone. Both Matt and Dan teased him about it when the team went out for lunch together, and Allison even tried to bribe him into telling her, promising him half of what she would win from the inevitable bet in exchange for a tip-off. Neil refused to say anything on the matter, though he spotted Renee hiding a smile when he and Andrew both checked their phones at the same time as they waited for the other Foxes to arrive.
After several failed attempts to get Neil to reveal the identity of his texting partner, Nicky decided instead to make use of Neil’s new online presence and message him incessantly. Neil tried to keep up at first, but the sheer amount of hot air Nicky was blowing his way got on his nerves so much he ended up simply muting the conversation after a particularly chatty day.
“You brought this on yourself,” Aaron told Nicky when he was whining about it over dinner. Nicky pouted, but Neil couldn’t see any reason to reverse it—if Nicky had anything important to say to him, he could tell him in person or get Kevin to text him instead.
“Harsh,” Nicky sniffed when Neil told him so. “And I still don’t know who you’re texting all the time, that’s just rude. What if you want to get married someday, Neil? Wouldn’t you want your family to get to know your partner?”
Neil froze, cheese slowly dripping off the end of his pizza slice.
“He means the Foxes,” Andrew sighed, stealing the runaway cheese from his plate. “Because we’re such a big, happy family.”
The sarcasm in his sentence was punctuated by an angry scream from the freshmen’s dorm next door and a series of loud crashes.
“Your cousin is delusional,” Neil told Andrew, pinching an olive from Andrew’s pizza in revenge for the stolen cheese. He popped it in his mouth, remembering too late that he didn’t actually like olives, and swallowed it quickly without chewing.
“What else is new?”
Texting Andrew became Neil’s go-to strategy whenever he was bored. He discovered that Andrew, though usually silent, could keep up a constant commentary on the world around him if prompted, from mundane things to philosophical questions, scathing remarks about the Valentine’s Day decorations on campus, describing in minute detail the bizarre eyebrows of his lecturer, and debating the merits of different types of tools and weapons in a zombie invasion. One memorable strategy meeting, he sent Neil an almost exact transcription of Kevin’s speech, except with the word “Exy” consistently swapped out for “cock”. It was a miracle no one caught on that Andrew was the reason for Neil’s sudden texting affinity, he thought as Kevin glared at him for snorting out loud.
As much as Andrew seemed to enjoy tickling a reaction out of Neil at the most inopportune moments, it was proving frustratingly hard to get Andrew’s poker face to crack in return. He rarely ever laughed, even when Neil thought he’d made a really good joke; a minuscule twitch of his mouth was the most Neil could get out of him. Occasionally their conversations veered into darker territory, but those were rare and usually happened late at night when they were in different dorm rooms, and Neil was sure even then that Andrew’s face remained perfectly blank. Andrew wasn’t easily surprised or shocked like Nicky, he didn’t smile fondly at his phone like Matt when he got a particularly sweet text from Dan, and he never acknowledged that it was Neil he was texting, even when they were alone in the kitchen supposedly grabbing snacks for a Foxes movie night.
That only left one topic of conversation.
It took Neil a while to work himself up to it. He was still a little unsure about his sexting skills, but the only way to improve was to practice. And so far Andrew hadn’t complained. They were on the way home from an away game, everyone buzzing with leftover energy and nerves from a very close win, though Neil could feel himself starting to come off his high and grow tired. He yawned a few times until Matt laughed at him and sent him back to his seat at the back of the bus. Kevin was watching a recap of the game on his phone and frowning, Aaron was in the process of nodding off, and Andrew was staring out of the window at the dark street. Neil walked past his own seat and casually slid into the one beside Andrew. This prompted a brief sideways glance from Andrew, who couldn’t even be bothered to move his head, but since he didn’t protest the new seating arrangement Neil assumed he didn’t actively object to it.
After a few minutes of Andrew staring out the window and Neil staring at Andrew, Neil pulled his phone out of his pocket. His fingers became sweaty as he typed and his neck prickled with the awareness that he was on a bus with all of his teammates, that all Andrew had to do was turn and look and he’d see what Neil was writing. If all went to plan he’d see it in a moment anyway, but Neil had to think about how to word his message first.
Neil: so i’ve been thinking about going down on you
He was going to write more, but the courage left him as soon as he hit send. He looked studiously ahead at the back of the seat in front of him, tucking his hands and the phone between his thighs. Andrew continued to gaze at the stream of passing lights outside the window for several more minutes and Neil was beginning to think he’d turned off his phone or put it on silent, but then, finally, Andrew fished his phone out of his pocket and checked.
There was no immediate reaction that Neil could detect, but Andrew stared at the screen for so long that it went dark, which meant Neil had at least surprised him. Andrew still didn’t look at him, but he slowly started to type a response.
Andrew: have you, now
Andrew: and how would you do that
Neil’s fingers were shaking in excitement as he quickly tapped out a reply.
Neil: i remember you saying you enjoyed the view of me on my knees. i think i’d also enjoy the view from on my knees, watching your expression as i take you in my mouth. i’d just suck on the head at first, get used to it, to your taste. but you know i’m competitive. i bet i’d get the hang of it real quick so i can swallow you down deep
This time, there was a tiny noise from Andrew as he read the message, like he was sucking in a breath through his teeth. Neil felt a smug sort of contentment throb in his chest and it took all of his willpower not to turn his head and look at Andrew.
Andrew: aren’t you ambitious
Neil: what can i say, i’m a quick study
Neil: you can hold my face if you want, guide my head so the rhythm’s just right
Andrew: you want me to fuck your face?
Neil: yeah, why not
Neil: don’t go too fast though, don’t want you to come too quickly
Neil: well, for one thing, i’m enjoying the view ;)
There was a soft rustle as Andrew’s body betrayed him with an abrupt motion. He tried to cover it up by tugging on the strings of his hoodie until they were perfectly aligned, but Neil was starting to learn his tells from all the time spent watching Andrew for the slightest reaction. It was dark on the bus, save for the occasional flash of light skittering in through the window like a lost bat. Neil felt warm and sleepy, wired and disoriented; it was as if they’d entered a sort of limbo between realities where it was safe to say everything and anything as long as he didn’t say it out loud.
Andrew: what else
Neil: i want to see you slowly lose control. you’re always so strong, so composed. always make me feel good. i want to see what it looks like when you come undone, when you lose yourself in my mouth and let go. want to hear you moan, feel you pull my hair because you need something to hold on to. wanna know what you taste like when you come
Andrew once again stared at his phone for a long time, still as a statue. Then swallowed thickly, turned off his phone, tucked it out of sight and curled up on his side, facing the window. When Neil snuck a glance at him after a few minutes, his eyes were closed.
Neil tried to sleep too, but his eyes kept snapping open again. The bus was quiet now save for the hum of the engine. Street lights polluted the darkness, leaving filmy echoes behind on the backs of his eyelids, tilting the world in and out of focus. Neil felt like they were speeding through space, like he was going to jerk free of his body any moment and crash face-first into the night sky. Searching for something solid and real to hold on to, his gaze found Andrew’s sleeping form and latched on. Andrew’s hands were knotted into fists like he, too, was afraid of floating away if he let go. His eyebrows were deeply furrowed, and Neil had the strange thought that he looked more relaxed awake than asleep.
On Valentine’s Day, Neil found himself alone.
Allison had booked a romantic spa getaway for herself and Seth, who was less than enthused about the spa part but quite cheerful about the getaway part. Matt and Dan had plans that, if things went well, would end at a hotel rather than the dorms later that night. Neil didn’t mind—he didn’t understand the weird hype about Valentine’s Day anyway, and it would be nice to have the dorm to himself for once. He and Kevin had spent a few hours doing Raven drills on the court the night before and practice that afternoon had been intense. Neil’s muscles were sore and aching and he had a pile of homework that he’d been procrastinating on all week. He made quick work of his math worksheets and put in a half-hearted attempt at finishing a dreadfully boring essay, then decided to take a break and have dinner. It seemed that no one had remembered to stock the fridge that week, though, so he grabbed his keys and made his way to the nearest store to pick up some groceries.
As he browsed the aisles, he wondered absently what Andrew was doing tonight. He checked his phone, but there were no new messages on it. As he passed the frozen goods section, his eyes caught on a special Valentine’s Day edition ice-cream, chocolate with cherry swirls and brownie pieces. He wondered if Andrew would like it and toyed with the idea of buying a tub and surprising him with it, then he pulled a face at himself and quickly walked on, before circling back and picking one up anyway. Just in case Matt and Dan came back early, he told himself firmly.
He piled some more groceries on top of the ice-cream and spent a while dithering over which breakfast cereal to buy. On his way to the self-check-out area, he wandered past a shelf of condoms and slowed; there was something he’d been curious about ever since Christmas break. He pretended to look at the supplements for a bit until he was sure there was no one nearby, then he casually grabbed one of the bottles of lube and dropped it in his basket before marching determinedly toward check-out.
When he got back to the dorm, he took his time throwing together a simple dinner and ate it on the couch while listening to an Exy podcast Kevin had recommended. Then he chipped away at his homework some more, fixed himself a small bowl of ice-cream and let most of it melt, distractedly sucking on the cherries as he worked. It was midnight when he finished and there was no sign of Matt and Dan, so he checked the lock one last time and got ready for bed.
The bottle of lube still sat innocently where he’d shoved it under his blankets earlier. There were no new messages from Andrew yet, so Neil spent some time scrolling through past conversations until he found the messages Andrew had sent him during night practice once, about fucking him on the court. Breathing deeply, Neil kicked off his boxers and stroked himself to full hardness, trying to imagine what it would feel like to have Andrew inside him, holding him up and pressing him against the wall, fucking into him with his hand on Neil’s dick while kissing him senseless. He knew, from brief, accidental glances in the locker room, that Andrew’s cock was thick and heavy, and he wondered if he’d be able to take it or if it would hurt or take time. The stuff he’d read on the internet had been quite contradictory and a little intimidating, but a lot of the sites had recommended experimenting on one’s own while masturbating before trying it with another person. Neil picked up the lube and squeezed some on his hand. He shuffled around, trying to find a comfortable position, ending up on his back again with one leg up on the railing of his bunk.
With his clean hand, he picked up his phone and found the conversation where Andrew had talked about rimming him. He slipped his fingers down between his legs and let them rest against the tight furl of his asshole, acquainting himself with the weird sensation. Doing this to himself felt incredibly awkward, but reading over Andrew’s words again somehow made it better. Neil let them distract his buzzing mind while he slowly stroked his fingertips over his hole, then tried pushing one inside and was surprised at how easily it went in, helped by the excess lube.
“Okay,” he muttered, “now what?”
It didn’t feel instantly amazing. It didn’t feel like much of anything at all, neither good nor bad, and Neil wriggled around a bit and pushed his finger in and out a few times. He imagined the wetness of Andrew’s mouth joining it, a skilled tongue licking around it, withdrawing just to tell Neil what to do. Andrew would know how to make this feel good.
As if summoned by Neil’s thoughts, his phone hummed with an incoming message, and Neil had to scroll all the way back down to read it.
Andrew: kevin keeps pestering me about night practice
Andrew: either tell him no or come drive him to the court
Andrew: if you don’t i will commit a murder
Neil: uhh i can’t right now
Neil: tell him i’ll go with him tomorrow night
Andrew: too late, he’s coming over
“Shit,” Neil swore, sitting up and searching for the tissues he’d deposited at the foot of the bed earlier. There was a knock on the door and he stilled, looking down at the mess he’d made of himself and the bed. He was half-hard, his shoulder still twinged from where Seth had checked him into the wall at practice earlier, and his brain felt like sludge. With a sigh, he flopped back against the pillows and waited for Kevin to give up and leave.
Andrew: are you just pretending not to be in because kevin’s a douchebag or are you actually out
Neil: the first
Andrew: and here i was, thinking you’d snagged yourself a hot v date
Neil closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He knew he could just ask Andrew if he was in the mood for a shared fantasy, but it felt somehow wrong to do it after he’d already started. He tried to put his phone to the side and pick up where he’d stopped earlier, but every time he began to get into it again his phone buzzed with a message and distracted him from his task. There were a few indignant messages from Kevin, asking where he was, which Neil simply clicked away, but somehow the ones from Andrew were harder to ignore.
Andrew: so how come you’re still up
Andrew: what’s got the great neil josten so busy he doesn’t have time for exy
Neil: just wanted to try something
Andrew: what something
Neil chewed on his lip, feeling his body flush hot at the thought of telling Andrew. He took a deep, shivery breath and gave himself a push.
Neil: i’ve been thinking
Neil: about what you said at night practice that time
Neil: about fucking me on the court
Andrew: oh neil
Andrew: and you didn’t invite me? rude
Neil: like i said. i wanted to try something
Neil: but i don’t think i’m doing it right
Neil: so if you wanted to be invited
Neil: you could, idk
Andrew: help how
Andrew: what, exactly, were you trying to do
Andrew: not until you tell me what you’re doing
Neil: nothing, because you and kevin keep pestering me
Andrew: if you can’t say it i can’t help you neil
Neil: fine, i was trying to finger myself, but it just feels weird
Andrew: weird how
Neil: just, not bad but it’s not, you know
Neil: turning me on
Andrew: have you found your prostate yet
Neil: i don’t think so
Andrew: might be a good start
Andrew: your body just has to get used to it. maybe try jerking off at the same time
Andrew: it’s better if you bring yourself close to orgasm and then stop a few times
Neil: yeah, ok
Neil: i’ll need both hands for that though
Andrew: want me to keep helping?
Neil poured some more lube on his fingers because he was starting to feel overheated and dry, then he turned on his side and propped the phone against the wall so he could still see Andrew’s messages. He stroked himself with one hand and reached behind himself with the other, pressing one finger inside and trying to match its rhythm up to his other hand, probing deeper than before. After a while it started to feel good in a soothing way, and he imagined Andrew there with him, coaxing him through it and guiding his hand, watching him as he squirmed against the sheets and squeezed his dick to stop himself from coming too soon like Andrew had advised.
Andrew: i’m going to entertain myself by imagining what you look like right now
Andrew: must be quite a sight
Andrew: if i was there with you, i’d sit back and watch you do all the work. i’d wait until you were done, until you finally let yourself come, moaning and fucking yourself on your fingers, and then i’d slowly tease you until you’re hard again. you’d be all nice and relaxed and wet from the first time, oversensitive and still so hot, i could probably just fuck you without further prep
Andrew: i wouldn’t touch your dick though. not yet. we have all night, and you already came once, so we could just take our time for the second round, find a position that makes you lose your mind
Andrew: i suppose they all have their merits. i could fuck you hard and fast on your knees and you wouldn’t have to do a thing except hold yourself up. if i fuck you on your back you could watch me do it, and i could catch your moans with my mouth, spread you open just how i want you. or you could be the little spoon and we could go extra slow, and i’d play with your nipples and suck bruises into your neck. i assume your roommates are out, so we could even fuck in the kitchen. i could bend you over the table or you could put your thighs to good use
Neil was so, so close. His head was spinning with all the different scenarios Andrew was teasing him with, and his finger had found an angle that was almost right, skating the edge of pleasure. His legs were shaking from the strain and his shoulder and wrist hurt from being bent so awkwardly, but he’d deal with that later; right now he just needed to come. When he finally managed to stumble his way beyond that elusive line and into an orgasm he’d been chasing for what felt like a small eternity, it swept over him like white noise, obliterating all coherent thought. He probably made some sort of sound and he felt hoarse and utterly boneless when it was over, his muscles throbbing with heat and pain at being pushed so far, but the discomfort was outweighed by sweet relief.
Andrew: neil? still there?
Neil closed his eyes and caught his breath, then made his way unsteadily down the ladder and into the bathroom to wash his hands. He went back to send Andrew a quick reassurance before taking the world’s longest hot shower, only getting out because he was starting to nod off where he was standing and he didn’t want to slip and break his arm.
Neil: that helped
Warning for some disturbing imagery in a nightmare Neil has in this chapter.
You may have noticed that this fic is now part of a series! This is because I am writing a sequel from Andrew's POV which will probably have around 5 chapters. So if you enjoyed this fic so far, make sure you subscribe to the series as well to get a notification when I post the sequel, and/or follow me on Tumblr :)
Neil slept like a log. They didn’t have practice the next morning, so he didn’t wake up until Matt came back, humming as he dropped his keys in the hallway. Neil yawned and stretched and crawled out of bed, feeling unsettled that he’d slept so long but better rested than he had in a while. He heard Matt talking to someone, probably Dan, and pulled on a pair of sweatpants before padding outside to say hello.
“Hey, Neil,” Matt grinned, nodding at the textbooks still scattered over Neil’s desk. “You’re up late. Did you pull an all-nighter?”
“Uh, yeah,” he croaked, then noticed Andrew standing just beyond the doorway and tried to stop his entire body from flushing bright red.
“How… studious,” Andrew said. His voice was carefully bland, but there was something almost mischievous in his eyes as he casually looked Neil up and down.
“So what was the game you wanted to borrow?” Matt asked Andrew, who merely gave a weak shrug in response and continued to stare at Neil. Matt gestured at the shelf by the TV and stepped aside to let him in. “Well, take whatever you want, I think I still have some of Aaron’s anyway. Neil, do you want coffee?”
“Yeah,” Neil said again, working a hand through the snarls in his hair and stuffing the other in his pocket. “I bought ice-cream.”
“It’s a bit early for ice-cream,” Matt chuckled over the gurgle of the coffee maker.
“What kind?” Andrew asked, still standing in the entryway.
“Chocolate and cherry,” Neil mumbled. “It’s in the freezer.”
For a second, Andrew’s tongue darted out to lick his lips. Then he turned on his heel and followed Matt into the kitchen, rummaging around in the freezer for the ice-cream. Neil felt both rooted to the spot and like he was slowly jellifying into a puddle of goo where he stood. He remembered Andrew suggesting they fuck in the kitchen last night and had to take a deep breath and list the top ten fouls that Exy players typically got red-carded for in his head.
“Is Andrew in here?”
Neil jumped and swivelled around to see Kevin shouldering his way into the dorm.
“No,” Neil blurted, “I mean, yes.”
“Go away!” Andrew yelled from the kitchen. “It’s the fucking weekend. Find a different babysitter.”
“Neil,” Kevin scowled, “where were you last night? I wanted to practice. We’re behind on drills-”
“Don’t listen to him, Neil,” said a cheerful Dan on her way in. “Abby says he strained his wrist yesterday and isn’t allowed to practice for at least three days. Kev, take a breather, you sound like a broken record for god’s sake.”
She left the door open, and within ten minutes most of the other Foxes minus the freshmen had been attracted by the sound of the coffee maker and were cluttering up the living area. Flustered, Neil retreated to the bathroom to change into jeans and a hoodie and stared at his reflection, trying to determine if there were any traces of last night visible somewhere in his expression.
When he came out he nearly walked right into Renee.
“Neil, hello,” she said, pleasantly as ever. “I was just going to fetch some drinks from our dorm. Would you care to help me?”
Neil still felt a little uneasy around Renee even though they’d had a talk last year about Renee’s past and why Neil didn’t particularly care for her. She looked at him sweetly, hands crossed in front of her, but there was a dangerous glint in her eyes that let Neil know he’d better come with her.
He followed her to the girls’ dorm and into the kitchen, where Renee took out a few bottles and lined them up neatly on the counter.
“It’s Andrew, isn’t it?” she asked, closing the cupboard. “The one you’ve been texting so much.”
Neil pressed his lips together, unwilling to confirm or deny without Andrew’s permission, but Renee only nodded to herself like she already knew.
“I’m glad that you seem to be getting along so well now,” she said matter-of-factly. “But I do feel it necessary to let you know that if you hurt or harm him in any way, I will slice you to ribbons, hang you out to dry and use you as tinsel on my next Christmas tree.”
“Right,” Neil said, feeling more awkward than intimidated, even though he knew she was dead serious. “It’s not what you think, though,” he felt compelled to point out. “We aren’t…”
“Boyfriends?” Renee asked, raising an eyebrow. “No, I didn’t think so. But you’re also not nothing, are you?”
Neil couldn’t really reply and dropped his gaze to the bottles instead. Renee took this as confirmation and handed him the whisky with a wry little smile.
“Actually,” Neil said, thinking about Kevin who was currently eating cereal on the floor of their dorm watching a quiz show and trying to guess all the answers before the competitors, “maybe we shouldn’t bring this. It’s barely noon.”
“Quite right,” Renee agreed easily. “How about some popcorn instead? I think we have a few bags left over from the last movie night…”
Neil dreamed he was back in the house in Baltimore.
He was in the basement, lost in the dark. It was damp and dirty and every time he tried to run, his feet slipped on severed limbs and pools of blood. Somewhere Lola was laughing, the grisly sound echoing off the walls and closing in, but he couldn’t tell where she was. The contents of his duffel bag were scattered across the floor and he feverishly tried to pick everything up and stuff it back in as his father’s steps drew nearer in the dark. The basement twisted around him, turning into a deserted gas station just outside Seattle; all the lights on but the security cameras off, blood smeared on the tiles in ghastly neon splashes.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,” someone sang. Like a broken record, it kept jumping back to the beginning of the verse. Neil was crouched behind a shelf, bleeding. He didn’t know where his mother was—she’d been next to him just a second ago, now she was gone.
He woke up. Not violently or noisily, but tense and contained, like his mother had taught him to. His breathing was shallow, he had his face pressed into the pillow and his body was scrunched up into a ball, stuffed into a corner of his bed. Everything ached, and for a moment he couldn’t remember where he was and who he was.
A tiny dot of light drew his eye. It came from a phone, tucked half under his pillow. He picked it up and smoothed his fingers over the back, relieved when they caught on the scratch in the case. He was Neil, he was safe, and he’d been texting Andrew before bed. Judging by Andrew’s last half-amused message, Neil had fallen asleep in the middle of their conversation.
Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to talk to him. It was past three in the morning, the night a bitter brew slowly going stale, but Neil sent a message anyway.
Neil: are you there
Neil chewed over the words until they were nothing but useless mush in his mouth. He sighed and let his limbs unspool a little, typing the same two letters and deleting them over and over again.
Neil: it’s nothing
Andrew: define nothing
Neil: never mind
Neil: why are you awake?
Neil: look at us, being well-adjusted humans
Andrew: speak for yourself
Neil: i don’t think i can go back to sleep
Andrew: sucks to be you
Neil: do you maybe wanna do something
Andrew: like what
Neil: go for a walk?
Andrew: meet me in the parking lot
Neil slipped out of the room on silent feet and pulled on his shoes. He couldn’t find his jacket in the dark, but it had been starting to feel like spring the past couple of days and invisible birds were already singing in the trees outside. If he got cold, he could just jog a bit to warm up.
Andrew was a black silhouette leaning against his car. The light of a street lamp caught on something iridescent as Neil drew closer. It was a soap bubble, blown his way by Andrew’s mouth.
“What’s up with that?” Neil asked, voice raspy from sleep. He reached out and tapped the bubble with his finger, popping it. Andrew dipped the bubble wand back into the liquid and gently blew on it, tickling a few more bubbles free.
“I made a deal with Aaron,” he said, watching them float away in the dark.
“Another one?” Neil grimaced.
“He stops taking cracker dust and I stop smoking.”
“So the bubbles are your way of dealing with your oral fixation?” Neil teased. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t smelled cigarette smoke on Andrew in a while.
“He thought I couldn’t do it,” Andrew said blandly, though there was a competitive glint in his eyes as he said it.
“And he calls himself your twin?” Neil scoffed. “Of course you can.”
Andrew tucked the little soap bottle back into his coat pocket and pushed away from the car, circling it until he reached the passenger side. He threw his keys to Neil without further comment and got in.
“You want me to drive?” Neil asked, climbing into the driver’s seat. “Where to?”
“Anywhere.” Andrew shrugged. “Ideally somewhere with coffee.”
“Might be a while before anything opens that has coffee worth buying, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Andrew settled in against the passenger side of the car and let his eyes drift shut. Neil drove aimlessly until the first hints of dawn were growing on the horizon like mould, then he stopped at the nearest diner, stretched and yawned and got out of the car to shake some feeling back into his stiff legs. It didn’t take long until Andrew was awake and rolled out of his seat with his hair sticking up sideways and his eyes glued almost shut with the remnants of sleep.
“Coffee?” Neil offered, stretching his arms behind his back and shivering in the morning chill. He felt clammy—not the kind that came from damp basements, but a fresher sort, like a plant that had collected dew overnight.
Andrew took one look at him and tugged off his hoodie, throwing it at him before walking resolutely into the diner. Neil blinked down at the warm fabric in his hands. He had permission to wear it now, and it still smelled deliciously like Andrew. Resisting the urge to bury his nose in the scent, Neil pulled the hoodie on and went after Andrew.
The diner offered a breakfast buffet. Andrew made a beeline straight for it, so Neil followed and they piled their plates with eggs, bacon, pancakes and fried potatoes. Andrew grabbed four little waffle cones with maple syrup for himself and Neil filled the spaces on his plate with sliced fruit, and they found a table in the back and got coffee from a half-asleep waitress.
Andrew poured one of the maple syrup cones into his coffee and the rest on top of everything on his plate. Neil was dubious how that would work with the eggs but wisely kept his mouth shut until Andrew had finished his first cup of coffee.
The fact that Andrew was not a morning person was one of the little things Neil had learned about him since they’d started texting. He’d bartered his favourite food (mango curry) for Andrew’s favourite colour, which wasn’t actually black but indigo. Andrew had revealed late one night that he sometimes broke into Abby’s house when she was out just to take a hot bath, because the dorms and locker rooms only had showers. Another time he’d confessed that he was the one who’d been hiding Kevin’s awful-smelling deodorant since the start of term.
Now, sitting across from a sleep-tousled Andrew inhaling little waffle cones of maple syrup in his pyjamas after driving around in his car for hours just because Neil had a nightmare, Neil couldn’t understand why the others still called him a monster.
Spring championships started to get rough. The Foxes were doing better than ever, having ironed out some of their difficulties from last year and padded their ranks with new members, and Neil was proud of the team for pushing themselves harder and harder with each game. Even the freshmen, who had given them some trouble at the beginning of the semester, seemed determined to make it work now that they had a chance to make it to finals. Some days Neil barely reached his bed before falling asleep, which made for a nice change to the nightmares. And even on the days when he wasn’t bone tired, Neil still looked forward to his bedtime chats with Andrew which had become a comforting routine. He was content, and that was more than he’d ever been in his life.
Sometimes he wondered if his mom was out there somewhere, watching his games on TV. Most days he was sure that she couldn’t know, or else she’d have long since come to beat him senseless for his recklessness and drag him away into obscurity again. If she was even still alive.
She had to be, he told himself. The last time he’d spoken to Stuart he’d called her a human cockroach and laughed fondly, because if anyone could kill the Butcher of Baltimore, put half the Moriyama family behind bars and live, it was Mary.
She was probably just biding her time. Hunting down the last of his father’s people, making sure they were really safe. One of these days she would simply walk back into his life like she’d never left. Or perhaps she was too paranoid to do even that and would stay hidden, skirting along the outer edges of Neil’s new life, an invisible shadow watching over him for the rest of time.
He stopped abruptly on his morning run, the back of his neck prickling with the sudden fear of being watched, but when he turned around the street was empty. He shook his head and made his way back to the tower, trying to shake all thoughts of his mother loose on the way.
As he came back to the dorms, he found the twins camped out on Matt’s sofa playing Mario Kart.
“Apparently Kevin is hogging their dorm to practice a presentation for class,” Matt said, bemused, safely watching the proceedings from the sidelines with a cup of coffee. “And they have a score to settle.”
“Ten bucks says Andrew wins,” Neil offered. Matt considered it, then shook his hand on it.
Neil fetched himself a cup of coffee and took up position next to Matt. He had to shower, but there was something about the focused look on Andrew’s face and the way his sweater hugged his biceps that kept him in place for a little bit longer. The sweater was, for once, not black but a very dark indigo with little hints of stars hidden in the dark fabric. Andrew had pushed up the sleeves, revealing his armbands, and the hairs on the back of his neck seemed to stand up, electrified from brushing against the hood of the sweater.
Neil was barely aware of drinking his coffee until his mug was suddenly empty. The twins seemed to have settled in for the long haul, so he finally tore himself away and went to take a shower. When he came back, more Foxes had started to trickle in to watch the epic showdown between the twins and place their bets.
The sun was hanging low in the sky by the time it ended. Neil walked away a little richer than before and managed to pry Kevin off his history notes long enough for a quick evening practice before dinner. Since it was a Saturday, Matt and Seth went out for drinks with the girls, but Neil declined and settled into bed with his phone, propped up on pillows.
Neil: congrats on your win
Neil: that sweater looked good on you btw
Andrew: would look better on your floor hm?
Neil: well now that you mention it ;)
Instead of the usual verbal response, Neil received a picture this time. It showed Andrew from the chest down wearing the sweater but no pants, with the front of the sweater strategically pulled down over his crotch. Neil’s mouth went dry. They’d never exchanged pictures like this before, but now that Andrew had sent it, Neil wondered frantically why they hadn’t thought of that before.
Neil: holy shit
Neil: where are you?
Neil: wanna get off?
Neil: are you gonna keep wearing the sweater
Andrew: if that’s what it takes for you to put out josten
Neil: mm it sure helps
As Neil scrambled to pull down his sweatpants, another picture came through. It was the same as the last one, except this time Neil could see the head of Andrew’s flushed cock peeking out underneath the fabric. Neil felt his blood rush south. Before he could disentangle his brain long enough for a coherent reply, Andrew sent another message.
Andrew: send me one of you, yes or no
The excitement grew a little stale. Neil bit his lip and looked down at himself, wearing a dorky t-shirt in an ugly shade of washed-out puce, the tail-ends of several scars trailing out underneath the hem. Freckles were scattered across his thighs like toast crumbs, and his body hair, while a shade darker than the hair on his head, still had a tell-tale reddish tinge to it.
He pulled his pants back up and climbed down the ladder, found a nicer shirt and opened the door of Matt’s wardrobe that had a full-body mirror fixed to the inside. Taking a deep breath, he turned around and tugged his sweatpants down to just underneath his ass, snapping a few pictures over his shoulder until he got the angle right. His ass was, weirdly, a safer area to expose than his front; the shirt hung down low enough to cover all his scars, the hair wasn’t nearly so visible, and—well, Neil had a good ass, thanks to Exy and running.
He sent the picture to Andrew and climbed back up into his bunk, waiting anxiously for a response.
Andrew: that your way of telling me you want to get fucked?
Neil: i’m sure you can think of several fun things to do with my ass
Neil: pick your poison
Andrew: how about i finger you in front of that mirror
Andrew: that way we can both watch your pretty face as you come
Neil: yeah no i’m not a narcissist like kevin, pass
Neil: i’d rather suck you off tbh
Neil: we could 69
Andrew: oh neil
Andrew: you were so innocent, once upon a time
Neil: clearly you corrupted me
Neil: with your gorgeous cock and your stupid sweaters
Andrew: i’ll have you know my sweaters are very smart
Neil: oh? like the one you wore yesterday, that said ice-cream is cheaper than therapy?
Andrew: nothing but the truth
Andrew: do you want that gorgeous cock now or what
Neil: yeah i want it
Neil: do you wanna be on top so you can fuck my mouth
Andrew: you and your obsession with mouths
Andrew: i won’t suck your dick though
Neil: fingers are good
Neil: every time you add one i’ll deepthroat you
Andrew: i’m starting to think i should get you a vibrator
Neil: wow yeah
Neil: but then what will i need you for?
Neil: are you even trying to get off? because if you can still spell words like that you’re doing it wrong
Within seconds, Andrew had sent another picture of himself. He had his fist around his dick and his sweater pushed up with his other hand. There was precome dripping down his knuckles and Neil, who’d been loosely jerking himself off throughout the exchange, started to pick up his pace in earnest.
Andrew: you’re the one who keeps mouthing off even though he’s supposed to be sucking my dick
Neil: i would if you’d put some fingers in me
Neil: or do you need a map?
Andrew: i need you to shut up
Neil dropped his phone on his chest and dug his fingers into his hair, panting erratically as he came over his hand. He gave himself a few seconds to catch his breath, then he quickly snapped a picture of his come-streaked hand and sent it to Andrew before the awkwardness could settle back in.
Neil: too late
The next picture belied his words though, and Neil had to press a smile into his pillow. It was a shame that Andrew wouldn’t be able to wear the sweater again tomorrow, really.
whoo boy... it's monday again so i guess here's another chapter! i don't think there are any warnings, except for a character using a slur in one scene? one chapter left after this, then we're moving on to the sequel!
The closer the Foxes got to championship finals, the less Neil could sleep. The only thing that could distract him from Exy was Andrew; he put in just enough effort to pass his classes and talked to his teammates mostly when they were on the court. Neil was so out of it he probably would have forgotten that his birthday was supposed to be at the end of March if Matt hadn’t asked him about his plans. Neil stared at him for several seconds, trying to recalibrate his brain, then shrugged and muttered something about how they could celebrate if they won the away game they had on the day before.
“Of course we’re going to win,” Matt laughed. “We’ve made it this far, we’re unstoppable now!”
“Shut up, you’re going to jinx us,” Aaron snapped over the noise in the locker room. Neil privately agreed with Matt, but they still had to keep their heads in the game—even just a single oversight could cost them the championships at this point, and he wasn’t going to let that happen.
By the time the buzzer sounded, he was starting to think Aaron might have had a point. The Foxes had started the game on the wrong foot, with Allison and Seth at each other’s throats, Kevin a bundle of nerves, Andrew more apathetic than usual and Nicky and Aaron squabbling over minor things. Neil thought he saw his mother in the stands during warm-ups and even though he tried his best to focus on the game, his eyes kept straying towards the audience, costing him valuable reaction time. They rallied in the second half and Neil ran himself ragged to make up for his inattention in the first, and they just about scraped a narrow win by a one-point margin.
That night they travelled back to campus in silence, sore and exhausted, and even Kevin seemed too tired to rant about their unsatisfying performance or Neil’s snappish comments to the reporters afterward. Neil dozed on the bus but found he couldn’t sleep once they were back at the dorms, feeling stretched past breaking point and buzzing with thoughts of his mother and useless worries about the future.
He heaved himself out of bed, careful not to wake up Matt and Seth, though with how loudly the latter was snoring he didn’t think even a fire alarm would rouse either of them any time soon. Coffee seemed like a bad idea in his wired state, so he made himself a cup of tea instead and curled up on the sofa, switching on the TV to some crappy late-night quiz show but turning the sound down low. He sipped on his tea and stared at the screen, caught halfway between asleep and awake, until he noticed that he’d left his phone on the table. Andrew had sent him a message around midnight and Neil quickly finished his tea before opening the conversation.
Andrew: check your jacket pocket
Andrew: happy birthday or whatever
Intrigued, Neil stumbled to the coat rack and rifled through the jackets until he found the one he’d been wearing on the way home. The only things in his pockets were his keys, so he checked his windbreaker that he wore for running and the coat Nicky had given him for Christmas last year, but all he came up with was loose change and bits of lint. When he went back to his jacket and plucked out his keys to see if he’d missed anything else in that pocket, he noticed that they seemed heavier than usual.
Holding them up to the light, his breath caught in his throat. There were two new additions: a car key, and a key that Neil thought he recognised from trips to Columbia.
Andrew’s car and Andrew’s house.
Shaking slightly, he went back to the sofa and picked up his phone.
Neil: why are you giving me these?
Andrew: because you’re a homeless disaster who thinks he can run everywhere as long as he has enough granola bars
Andrew: and i am tired of being kevin’s chauffeur
Neil didn’t know what to say, so he went back to staring at the keys instead and tracing their outlines into his palm. He’d never had anywhere permanent to stay. Even the dorms were just a temporary arrangement, a means to an end. If he could get away with it, Neil would probably have been happy sleeping on the court—he’d definitely slept in less comfortable places before.
He must have zoned out for a while, because the next thing he knew was that he had several missed messages on his phone, one missed call from Andrew, and there was a scraping noise coming from the front door as someone picked the lock from outside.
“What the fuck,” Neil whispered, staring at Andrew’s outline in the doorway. Andrew strolled in like he hadn’t just broken in despite the extra lock Neil had installed last year.
“We were out of…,” Andrew said, looking around and snatching the tin of coffee from the counter, “coffee.”
“Right,” Neil said.
Andrew regarded him, passing the coffee tin back and forth between his hands. His eyes dropped to the keys clutched in Neil’s hand, flickered to the TV which had switched to a teleshopping programme, then back to Neil’s face.
“I thought you might be having a nervous breakdown.”
“Well, I’m not,” Neil said tiredly. “I think.”
He rubbed at his face. Andrew put the coffee tin back on the counter and padded over to him, sinking onto the couch and propping his feet up on the coffee table. He grabbed the remote and switched through the channels until he found one showing an old movie. Then he tugged most of Neil’s blanket over himself and settled into the couch cushions.
Neil looked between him and the TV and decided to just accept this strange turn of events. Slowly he loosened his death grip on the keys and tried to pull his blanket back, but Andrew held on. After a few minutes of silent tug-of-war, Neil gave up and simply scooted closer to Andrew.
“What is this crap?” he yawned, gesturing at the TV.
“Sleepless In Seattle,” Andrew replied.
Neil flinched at the mention of Seattle. He tried to contain it, but he was sitting so close to Andrew now that Andrew still noticed and shot him a questioning look.
Slowly, hesitatingly, Neil began to tell him. Andrew already knew the bare bones, puzzle pieces of Neil’s life—that Neil and his mother had run away from his abusive crime boss father who was now dead while his mother had disappeared, and that Neil was trying to start a new life away from it all. He was tired, though, tired of keeping it all so tightly sealed inside him, twitching at every mention of the Moriyamas, every calculating look Kevin sent his way.
Neil thought if he told Andrew the whole story, maybe the ghosts haunting him would finally be wrangled to rest. Andrew had never flinched at anything Neil had unburdened on him, hadn’t even batted an eyelid after that first night at Eden’s when Neil had decided to come clean about some of the things he was hiding. He was still missing some of the key pieces, but he’d given Neil his literal keys and Neil wanted to give something back.
So he told Andrew about the night his father had caught up with him and his mother in Seattle, how he’d nearly killed Neil before his mother had got her hold on a gun and shot him. How she’d dragged Neil away and patched him up, and then left him alone on a beach in California and vanished so thoroughly he wasn’t sure she’d ever even existed in the first place.
Go somewhere even I wouldn’t find you, she’d said. Don’t look back. Don’t slow down. Don’t trust anyone.
He’d hitchhiked his way to a nondescript town in Arizona and collapsed in an abandoned building. Once he was reasonably sure no one had followed him and his wounds were healed enough, he’d retraced the usual steps they took upon arriving in a new place. He’d erased all traces of his old identity and forged a new one. He’d enrolled in school, set up false trails and lies, kept his head down.
Until he’d made a mistake.
He had meant to keep far away from the laughing stock that was Millport High’s Exy team, but the allure of the game had been too strong. He’d watched one match and it was like a switch had been activated in his brain. It went downhill from there, fast and exhilarating, and before every practice and every game Neil told himself this would be the last, and after every practice and every game he told himself just one more. Until the news of the FBI raid on Castle Evermore reached him, and the subsequent shockwaves spreading through the Exy community at the arrest of one of their most beloved players, along with the Ravens’ coach and several other members of the Moriyama family.
Evidence has come to light, the news anchor had said. Neil thought he knew where that evidence came from, and that the Moriyamas being in prison didn’t mean that he and his mother were safe—more like the opposite, if she’d really been the one to put them there.
He should have run. Should have stayed far away from Exy for the rest of his life. And yet Neil couldn’t leave.
David Wymack had come to recruit him, trailing a broken Kevin Day in his wake, and Neil had tried to run but not really. A racquet to the stomach was all it took to break the spell of that first panicked retreat. In a way, it was Andrew’s fault that Neil had ended up here, and Neil told him so with a half-smile trying to crawl free of his lips.
“I am not your answer,” Andrew told him. To anyone else he would have looked bored, though Neil knew he had been listening with single-minded focus to Neil’s story.
“No one is anyone’s answer,” Neil scoffed. “I’m not even sure there is a question. My father is dead. His people are in prison. The Moriyamas are in prison. As far as anyone knows, Nathaniel Wesninski is dead. Either my mom is dead too or she’s still out there keeping me safe. This is as much closure as I’ll ever get.”
He shrugged, once again tracing the ridges of the keys in his hand. The skin on his fingers was starting to feel sore from the repetitive motion.
“And yet,” Andrew said, “you’re sitting here with me in the middle of the night, watching TV with the sound off and clutching a bunch of keys like you’re trying to give yourself a stick-and-poke tattoo.”
“Maybe I am having a nervous breakdown,” Neil huffed.
“I knew it,” Andrew said. He shook one hand free from the blanket and reached over, pinching Neil’s hand between thumb and index finger and tugging it away from the keys. Neil let their fingers slide together until they were doing something that could loosely be called holding hands.
“Thank you,” Neil sighed.
“Shut up,” Andrew muttered.
They stayed like that until Neil fell asleep with his head drooping on Andrew’s shoulder.
The next morning, Neil woke up alone. The blanket was empty beside him, though when he picked it up and pulled it over himself it was still warm, like Andrew had only just left. He buried his nose in the fabric and closed his eyes again, but the bright sunlight streaming in through the windows and tickling his nose made going back to sleep impossible. It wasn’t very late in the morning and Matt and Seth usually slept in after games, so Neil was surprised to find their beds empty when he shuffled into the bedroom to get clean clothes. They weren’t back by the time he’d changed, and neither the cousins nor the girls opened when he knocked on their doors.
He decided to jog to the court and see if anyone was there. If he was lucky, he’d find someone who was up for a light scrimmage. He couldn’t believe they’d let him sleep in if they’d really gone to practice; it was more likely Allison had dragged them out for brunch, but there was always a chance that Kevin and maybe Dan were around, helping Wymack or doing drills.
It was warm outside and Neil pulled off his hoodie and tied it around his waist, realising with a pang that it was the one Andrew had given him when they’d gone for their late-night drive. Neil evidently still hadn’t returned it.
He let himself into the lobby, lost in thought about their next game, and nearly jumped out of his skin when there was a sudden outbreak of noise and cheers.
The whole team was assembled. Dan, Allison, Renee, Matt and Nicky were all wearing party hats. The lobby had been decorated with streamers and someone had set up a long table against the wall, laden down with food and a giant cake piled high with fruit. The freshmen looked like they hadn’t appreciated being dragged out of bed for this but wisely kept their mouths shut except to yawn. Not even Kevin had any criticism to offer though when Dan announced that they were, of course, going to have a birthday scrimmage in Neil’s honour later, so everyone was only allowed one slice of cake for now. Wymack and Abby joined them when Dan was cutting the cake and Renee poured everyone a measure of some fruity strawberry punch that Neil was pleased to find out had no alcohol in it. He was sure someone would manage to spike it sooner or later, but for now he could share in the toast and not feel like an outlier for once. Kevin, too, looked relieved that he wouldn’t have to justify not drinking.
Once he had his cake, Neil slipped through the cracks of the conversation Nicky had pulled him into and went to join Andrew, who was leaning against the food table and sneaking Hershey’s Kisses from a bowl. He’d meticulously scraped all of the peach slices off his cake, so Neil tested the waters by stealing one off his plate.
“You don’t like peaches?”
“They have fur,” Andrew said distastefully, pushing the rest of his peaches onto Neil’s plate.
“That’s the best part,” Neil grinned. Andrew waved his hand dismissively and popped another Hershey’s Kiss into his mouth.
“We are going to Columbia tonight.”
“Eden’s?” Neil asked.
Neil ate the last peach and looked longingly in the direction of the court.
“What will it cost for you to participate in the scrimmage later?”
Andrew let out an annoyed huff through his nose and didn’t reply. Neil waited, then pulled out his phone.
Neil: if you do
Neil: i’ll send you a picture later tonight
Neil: you know, like last time
Andrew barely glanced at the messages. Neil took it as a dismissal and left Andrew to the Hershey’s Kisses, and before long they were all traipsing to the court in their gear. Andrew had changed as well, and Neil saw Renee talk to him for a moment before they split up and took the two opposing goals.
Neil could feel himself smiling under his helmet. Apparently he hadn’t been quite as dismissed as he’d thought.
They divided up the teams, with Neil getting first pick. He was tempted to choose Andrew, but he was even more tempted to play against him today, so he went for Renee instead. Andrew’s eyes followed his progress across the court as they got into position, causing a shiver to trip down Neil’s spine.
Andrew blocked all of Neil’s shots for the first half of the scrimmage. He let in all of Kevin’s, much to his team’s and Kevin’s chagrin. Every time he denied Neil though, Neil felt like he was on fire in all the good ways. He pushed past Aaron and Nicky again and again, trying to keep Andrew on his toes as he took shots at different parts of the goal, and just as the second half was drawing to a close he finally managed to sneak one past him by a hair’s breadth and the goal lit up red.
Neil let out a triumphant yell, ignoring the good-natured ribbing of the backliners that the goal had just been a charitable birthday present. They wrapped up the scrimmage soon after, with Neil’s team winning on the technicality that Andrew had purposely let all of Kevin’s shots in. There was more cake after, and Seth finally succeeded in spiking the punch, and everything devolved from there until Wymack kicked them all out.
They didn’t end up going to Eden’s, because Aaron had to study and Nicky felt sick after too much cake and Kevin wasn’t keen on going out drinking. Andrew and Neil went out to get dinner for everyone and then Neil joined Kevin in watching the Trojans’ last game.
It was maybe the best birthday he’d ever had.
He told Andrew so when everyone had gone to bed and they were texting, and Andrew replied by reminding him that he still owed him a picture.
Neil: what kind of picture do you want?
Andrew: go outside
Neil: uhh ok? i’m not flashing some poor old lady though
Neil: ok i’m outside, now what
Andrew: dare you to pick up the soap bottle by the stairs and blow a bubble
Neil stifled a laugh. He’d tried it a few times, but his bubbles always burst before they left the wand.
Neil: that’s not fair
Neil: i thought you were gonna ask for a dick pic at the very least
Andrew: not as part of some dumb trade
Andrew: i’m serious, you owe me a soap bubble pic
Andrew: hop to it
It took him forever. The few times he managed to produce a bubble, it popped or disappeared before he could take a picture. Frustrated, dripping soap water and shivering from the cold, he finally got one just before it burst, sent it to Andrew and went back inside.
Neil: i hate you a bit
The Foxes won two more games. Dan was delirious, Kevin became so intensely one-track mind that he nearly failed one of his classes, and Seth and Allison had loud celebratory sex in the dorms, forcing Matt and Neil to flee for the night. Matt sought refuge with Dan and Neil claimed the sofa in Andrew’s dorm, then made a game out of sending Andrew teasing, suggestive messages all evening while demonstrating a few yoga exercises to Nicky that all involved a lot of bending over.
“Is Andrew pissed at you?” Nicky whispered after Andrew had left the dorm for an ice-cream run, slamming the door behind himself. “He keeps glaring at you.”
Neil shrugged cheerfully and went back to correcting his stance.
He left Andrew in peace for the rest of the evening. Kevin and Aaron were the first to head to bed, then finally Nicky yawned three times in a row and gave up on his homework. Neil took the bathroom after him and nearly ran into Andrew on his way back to the sofa.
He wasn’t glaring anymore, but his eyes were still burning holes in Neil’s clothes, like twin lit cigarettes in the darkness. Neil felt a pleasant shiver trickle down his back at the scrutiny and let their arms brush on his way past.
As soon as Andrew was in the bathroom, Neil pulled out his phone again.
Neil: you played so good today
Neil: i thought about blowing you in the shower after
Andrew: spare me your stickball fetish
Neil: mm what about blowing you in the shower though? ;)
Andrew: fine, but make it quick
Grinning, Neil immediately launched into a detailed description of that particular fantasy. He’d been dazed and stupid about Andrew all day and seeing him block shot after shot on their goal had only fuelled the fire. If he didn’t enjoy being on the court so much he almost would’ve wished to be in the stands for this game, or even better, at home in front of the television so he could replay each and every attempt at goal that Andrew denied the opposing strikers.
He was in the middle of telling Andrew just how amazing his cock felt in his mouth when a battery warning flashed, seconds before the screen of his phone suddenly went dark. Neil cursed and groped around in his things for his charger, but he’d left it in the other dorm and there were no spares lying around as far as he could see. For a moment he contemplated knocking on the bathroom door and simply… offering to do the things he’d been describing, but that went far beyond the terms of their arrangement, and he wasn’t even sure if he really wanted to do that in the first place.
The bathroom door eventually opened on its own. Neil peeked over the back of the couch, heart lurching in his chest. There was no visible tent in the front of Andrew’s pants, but his neck was pink and he looked bright-eyed and tousled. His bottom lip was plump and red like he’d been biting it and Neil was so distracted by that little detail that he reacted a split second too late when Andrew tugged a charger out of a drawer and flung it at him.
“You are a pain in the ass,” Andrew hissed, his voice pleasantly rough. He disappeared into the bedroom without another word, leaving Neil half-hard on the sofa, for once craving something else than text messages.
The stadium was awash in red and gold, but the Foxes’ orange and white had set entire sections ablaze. Neil’s ears were ringing. They’d won the final match against the Trojans, with Kevin making the deciding goal just seconds before the buzzer sounded. The Foxes’ fans were stamping the ground in triumph, the sound thundering through the stadium, echoing Neil’s heartbeat and projecting it out into the world. They’d really made it.
Dan was shaking Jeremy Knox’s hand, laughing at something he said. Kevin looked half vindicated and half shell-shocked, still sitting where some of the others had tackled him to the ground after his goal. At the other end of the court Andrew was slowly and meticulously peeling off his gloves, his sweat-soaked uniform clinging to his skin.
Neil let his teammates’ celebration carry him across the court. The Trojans were lining up to shake hands and he followed the trail, dazed and unsteady on his feet. Wymack and Abby were waiting for them, beaming with pride, and Kevin and Dan peeled off for press duty while some of the others went to speak to their families and friends in the stands. Andrew merely exchanged a few brief words with Betsy Dobson but stuck around to wait for Nicky and Aaron. Neil didn’t have anyone who’d come to see him play tonight, so he accepted a handshake and some gruff congratulations from Wymack, neatly sidestepped a hug from Abby and went to the locker rooms to get changed.
The Trojans were traditionally one of the biggest, most popular college Exy teams, which meant they had money to spend on luxuries such as individual shower stalls. They didn’t lock like the ones in the Foxhole Court, but they provided enough shelter that Neil felt safe enough to shower and change in them without waiting for the others to leave first, though he didn’t linger beyond what was necessary. The locker room was noisy and rowdy when he came out, still towelling his hair dry, so he quickly packed up his things and made his way outside for a few moments of peace and quiet.
The season was over. He should have been celebrating their spectacular win with his team, their journey from bottom of the barrel to championship winners in under two years, but all he was capable of feeling in that moment was a terrifying emptiness. The year had passed so quickly. If he was lucky, he had three more years like this one left at Palmetto, and then what? He’d never stopped to think about his future while on the run; now it opened up before him like a gaping black hole.
He was so caught up in the tangled knot of his thoughts that he didn’t pay attention where he was going. The corridor he was in looked the same as the last one and he cursed himself for not memorising his route.
Just as he thought he’d doubled back towards the court, a woman dressed as a stadium attendant stepped out of the shadows and blocked his path. Her hair was badly dyed and brittle and her face had more lines in it than Neil remembered, but even before her presence fully registered in his mind, his feet were already stumbling to a stop.
“You need to leave,” she hissed, holding up a familiar duffel bag. Neil hadn’t taken this one with him to USC, it had still been at his dorm when they’d left early this morning. She must have broken in and packed it for him, following them at a distance.
“No,” he tried to say, but his throat closed up against his will.
“I thought I had made myself clear enough,” his mother said, grabbing his arm and digging her fingernails in. “I thought I’d taught you better than this. What are you, retarded? Did you think you could just stay here and become a famous Exy player?”
“I, no, I just,” Neil stammered. She shook him, snarling, then abruptly froze as voices passed nearby before dragging him the other way. “Mom, wait…”
“Shut up,” she snapped. “You’re going to get us both killed.”
“I can’t just leave without-”
“Without what?” Mary scoffed. “Saying goodbye to your little friends?”
Neil dug his heels in, feeling stupidly like a child trying to get his mother to buy him candy. He wondered, somewhat hysterically, what she would do if he just threw a tantrum right then and there. Called for security, pretended he didn’t know her.
“I don’t want to go,” he forced out, voice snapping halfway through. The slap came more quickly than he anticipated, making his head jerk from the force, though he didn’t cry out. It took him a moment to shake the black spots from his vision, but before he could try and explain that he wouldn’t come with her, that he wouldn’t run anymore, someone barged around the corner and tackled her to the ground.
“What’s going on?”
“Neil! Are you okay?”
Voices zigzagged and danced around him. Neil wondered if maybe she’d hit him harder than he’d originally thought, because everything felt dulled and blurry. Then the world came back into focus and he saw Andrew on the ground, pinning his mother down with a deadly blank look on his face and a knife to her throat. She was struggling like a wildcat, though she grew limp when the rest of the team caught up and surrounded them, Dan pulling Neil to his feet.
His lip was bleeding and the side of his face stung. He was shaking but assessed that he was otherwise fine and brushed her off, stepping towards Andrew.
“Let her go,” he said. “She was just about to leave. Right, mom?”
She looked at him, furious and terrified, then she reigned herself in and pressed her lips together into a thin line.
“Fine,” she said sharply. “I give up. After everything I did to keep you alive, if you want to throw it away, all for some stupid game… Fine. It’s your funeral.”
“Andrew,” Neil said, and Andrew slowly, reluctantly let her up, though he didn’t put his knives away just yet.
She stood up, chest heaving, and threw his duffel bag at his feet.
“I was never here,” she ground out.
Then she turned around, eyes darting between the assembled Foxes and Wymack, and started to limp away. Neil watched her until she’d turned a corner, disappearing back into the unknown, before picking up his bag and handing it to Andrew.
“I don’t trust myself with this right now,” he admitted, relieved when Andrew took it from him and pulled it over his shoulder.
“That was your mom?” Nicky whispered into the horrible silence. Neil almost expected a barrage of questions to rain down on him now that the spell was broken, but the other Foxes just looked at him, caught between curiosity and shock.
“You know, I can sort of see the resemblance,” Matt joked half-heartedly. Aaron punched his arm for it, but Neil couldn’t stop the laughter bubbling up in his throat. It felt like vomiting, but at least the sickness in his stomach was gone after he’d let it out.
“Can we go home?” he asked, barely resisting the temptation to lean on Andrew to keep himself upright on his trembling legs. “There’s some things you should probably know, now that I’m… staying. I’m staying.”
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They couldn’t go home just yet because their flights weren’t until the next morning, but Wymack drove them to the hotel in a rented bus and they all assembled in the girls’ suite to listen to Neil’s story, minus the freshmen who hadn’t been there earlier. Neil only told them the basics, none of the details he’d confessed to Andrew just a few weeks ago, but it was still one of the hardest things he’d ever done. His tongue kept trying to twist his truths into lies, tweaking and embellishing and sparing the more gruesome bits. He forced himself to go on though, because his team, his family, deserved to know who they had let into their lives.
“I’d like to stay, but I understand if you don’t want me to come back next year,” he finished weakly, eyes drooping from the strain of everything that had happened today. He tried to tell himself that he didn’t even care if they kicked him out, he just wanted to go to bed and sleep, but there was something heavy and spiky in his stomach that wouldn’t let him swallow that lie.
“Are you mad?” Dan finally said into the silence. “We just won championships. This team needs you, Neil. Who else is going to take over as captain next year?”
Kevin cleared his throat but was summarily ignored.
“We already have one Moriyama reject on the team,” Nicky said brightly, slapping Kevin’s shoulder. “Might as well keep you too, Neil. It’s not like any other team is going to sign you, what with that attitude problem of yours.”
He winked at Neil, who could feel the spiky thing in his stomach slowly liquefying and sloshing around, the briny taste of relief nearly making him throw up.
“I can’t believe no one bet on runaway mobster son,” Allison sighed dramatically. “Now we’re going to have to open up a new bet. Any ideas?”
“We still have the one about who Neil’s secret mystery girlfriend is,” Matt pointed out cheerfully.
“Or boyfriend,” Nicky said.
“Still don’t wanna tell us?” Allison simpered at Neil, batting her lashes. “In the spirit of full disclosure and all?”
“Full disclosure: it’s none of your business,” Neil sneered at her and she laughed.
“We’ll figure it out one way or another, cub. Now, weren’t we going to celebrate our epic win with copious amounts of booze and terrible music?”
Neil and Andrew shared a hotel room again. Andrew didn’t really participate in the post-game party, but he sat in a corner, nursing a glass of whisky and waiting until Neil had enough. He trailed after him when Neil stumbled to their room, not drunk but still tipsy on truth and victory, and they got ready for bed without speaking.
Neil felt drowsy as he nestled into the pillows, but somehow his eyes didn’t want to stay shut. There were too many thoughts jostling for space in his head. He tossed and turned for a while, until Andrew sighed loudly in the other bed and picked up his phone.
Andrew: go to sleep
Neil: or what?
Andrew: or i’ll suffocate you with a pillow
Neil: that sounds kinky ;)
Andrew: it’s not
Neil: yeah it is. i read about it on wikipedia.
Andrew: i can think of at least 8 different ways to kill you in the next five minutes
Neil: just 8? i can think of 23
Andrew: we should have chucked you out the window when we had the chance
Neil: i’d hit the ground running
Neil: anyway it’s too late now, i’m a fox for good, everyone said so
Neil: no take backsies
Neil: i can hear the sarcasm from here
Andrew: all i can hear is you thinking too loud
Neil: guess you’ll have to come up with a way to make my brain shut up then
Andrew: i can think of 23
Neil: do any of them involve murder?
Andrew: not this time
Neil bit his lip and glanced over to Andrew’s bed. It was dark, but he could just see Andrew’s face in the cool glow of his screen. He was looking at Neil, too.
Neil: tell me
The fantasy Andrew started to describe was comparatively innocent. They danced around anything too concrete at first, hesitant to cross that invisible boundary with both of them in the same room. Neil always got hard more easily after a game, which Andrew would have attributed to his stickball fetish, though Neil thought it was probably just that he was more relaxed after releasing all the pent-up energy and tension of game days. He ignored it for now, not wanting to touch himself unless Andrew specifically told him to, and he couldn’t hear any tell-tale sounds from Andrew’s side of the room either.
Then Andrew took things up a notch, and it suddenly got a lot harder to ignore.
Andrew: i want to sit on your face yes or no?
Neil: you want me to rim you?
Neil let out a shaky breath, fully aware that Andrew would be able to hear it. Maybe it would encourage Andrew to get a little more vocal as well. Knowing some of Andrew’s backstory, Neil hadn’t expected him to ever ask for something like this. Now that it had come up, he wondered if Andrew really had just meant a blowjob or if he’d deliberately worded it that way to give Neil the wrong idea and open up that avenue of conversation.
Neil: you just gave every possible answer to that question, you do know that right?
Andrew huffed audibly and a tiny thrill ran through Neil at having provoked a reaction.
Andrew: never mind smartass
Andrew: i meant a blowjob anyway
Neil: i can give you that
Neil: but just for the record, you’re also welcome to sit on my face the other way
It took Andrew a long time to reply. Neil squirmed a little, trying to relieve some pressure without being too obvious about it.
Andrew: not today
Neil: but some other time?
Andrew: stop being so smug and start sucking my dick
Neil smothered a laugh in his sleeve and got started describing what he would do. He could imagine Andrew kneeling over him, giving his cock a few strokes before guiding it into Neil’s open mouth. It would be a good position to see Andrew’s face as he came—Neil had often wondered what it would look like. He sighed and squirmed again, then decided to just go ahead and ask Andrew.
Neil: do you want to get off? i mean, for real?
Andrew: do you?
He was just about to shove one hand down his pants when Andrew suddenly spoke out loud.
“This isn’t what we agreed on.”
“Yeah,” Neil said again. “But is it okay?”
Andrew took a moment to deliberate. The sheets rustled around him as he moved, turning on his side to face Neil.
“Yes,” he said quietly. The single word made Neil’s whole body tingle. He wondered if they were going to switch to talking without their phones now, but when he tried to shape any of the words out loud that he usually had no trouble spelling out in their chat, his mouth locked up before he could say anything.
Heart pounding, he picked up his phone again.
Neil: we could just
Neil: do it like we usually do?
Andrew: no touching?
Neil: no touching
Neil: or i could go to the bathroom if you prefer
They didn’t text much more after that, but both left their phones on, the dim light illuminating their faces in the dark. Neil turned on his side, mirroring Andrew, and held his gaze as he slowly, tentatively stroked his palm over his erection through the fabric of his sweatpants. There was some shifting and rustling as Andrew presumably did the same on his side of the room, and then the only sound was their laboured breathing and the occasional whisper of fabric.
Andrew never dropped his gaze from Neil’s face. He looked perfectly calm and unruffled, except for the light hitches in his breath and the way his free hand still clutched his phone like a lifeline. Neil wondered if he’d done this before, with Roland or someone else, or if this was the first time Andrew had consented to getting off in the same room as another person.
Occasionally Andrew stilled, holding his breath, then started up again slower than before. He was waiting for him, Neil realised, awkwardly trying to speed up his strokes. It was proving harder to get himself off with Andrew there, watching him so intently, and Neil nearly wished back for the secret safety of their phones, but then Andrew murmured a low, “Just let go,” his voice raspy and perfect, and suddenly it was better, too.
Chasing his orgasm with renewed vigour, Neil thought he might have whispered Andrew’s name out loud, except then he really was coming and everything fuzzed out for a pleasant moment.
They didn’t talk about it. Neil fell asleep shortly after cleaning up, and the next morning Andrew was already up by the time Neil clawed himself out of a strange dream. The Foxes had a quick breakfast at the hotel before leaving for the airport, still jubilant about last night’s win but much more muted due to hangovers, sore muscles and lack of sleep.
Once they were home, Neil went straight to bed. He would have to sort out where he was going to spend the summer soon—Allison and Matt had both already badgered him about visiting them—but for now he just wanted to rest.
There were still exams to get through the following week. Neil was so caught up in studying and getting dragged along to team-bonding activities and planning the girls’ and Seth’s farewell party that he barely noticed the lack of messages from Andrew. When he didn’t even reply after Neil texted him from a store run and asked him what kind of ice-cream he wanted, though, Neil started to get worried.
Maybe what they’d done at the hotel had fucked things up irreparably between them. Maybe whatever it was that they had was never meant to cross the boundary into the real world like that. He needed to talk to Andrew, but every time he caught him alone Andrew found some excuse to disappear. He wasn’t replying to Neil’s texts at all anymore and even Renee was beginning to cast concerned glances when Andrew repeatedly brushed him off.
Nicky insisted on one last weekend in Columbia before he flew out to Germany to spend the summer with Erik and his family. Aaron would go on a roadtrip with Katelyn to look at medical schools, Kevin and Andrew were going to spend the summer at the house in Columbia, and Neil would probably stay with Abby unless Andrew invited him to Columbia again.
Which wasn’t looking very likely at the moment.
They packed up their stuff after the last exam and piled into Andrew’s car. It was a balmy spring day, though clouds were sprouting on the horizon like weeds, threatening rain later. The car was hot with all five of them inside and Andrew turned the air conditioning to full blast while Nicky turned the volume of the music up high. It was impossible to catch some sleep, despite how tired Neil was, so he whiled away the time playing a silly game on his phone that Dan had made him install.
After dinner at Sweetie’s, they spent a few hours at Eden’s, but they were all knackered and didn’t last long. Andrew drove them home in silence and they tottered off to bed, Neil and Kevin once again playing Rock, Paper, Scissors over who got to have the sofa. Kevin won this time, since he wasn’t drunk and easily distracted, so Neil decided to have one last cup of tea while Kevin made up the beds.
It was still warm outside, though a light drizzle had started up. Neil stood on the porch with his tea, watching the rain and thinking of the night when he and Andrew had accidentally switched phones. He tapped his fingers against the case of his phone in his pocket, then pulled it out to check, but of course there were no new messages from Andrew. His heart ached a little at the unfamiliar sight—his chat with Andrew had been pushed all the way down the screen by other messages by now.
Neil: i miss you
There. Now it was back at the top. It was going to get pushed down again if Andrew kept up his silent treatment, but Neil was good at pestering. Maybe if he kept pushing, Andrew would finally crack and tell him where they stood.
Feeling slightly comforted by this thought, Neil went back inside and curled up on the armchair, hugging his pillow.
He woke up to something hitting the side of his face. It was morning, albeit early; the sky still a grey sludge, birdsong swelling outside the window. The thing that had bounced off his cheek was a bottle cap and he looked up to find Andrew in the doorway, sipping water and watching him.
Neil quietly disentangled himself from the blanket and stood up. As soon as he was on his feet Andrew turned and left, leading the way out onto the porch. A steaming cup of tea sat on the stairs for Neil like a peace offering and he lowered himself down beside it, wrapping his arms around himself against the chill.
“Does this mean you’re finished with your strop, then?” he rasped, taking a sip of his tea. Andrew shot him an unimpressed look and fiddled with the label on his water bottle.
“Look,” Neil sighed. “What happened at the hotel… we don’t have to do that again. We can just go back to the way it was. Yeah?”
“No,” Andrew said, frowning. “I don’t…”
“What?” Neil prompted.
Andrew sighed, picked up the soap bottle and blew a careful bubble at Neil.
“I would do it again,” he said slowly.
“You liked it,” Neil translated, cocking his head to the side. “Then what’s the problem?”
“That is the problem,” Andrew said around bared teeth. “This,” he continued, gesturing between himself and Neil, “was not part of our agreement.”
“You mean us talking?” Neil frowned. “I’m fine with it if you are.”
Andrew rolled his eyes and turned away to blow some more bubbles. They scintillated in the early morning light, drifting lazily across the street.
“I still don’t get it,” Neil admitted, frustrated. Andrew put the bubble wand back into its bottle and tucked them away behind an empty flower pot, then swivelled to face Neil, their knees touching between them.
“I want to kiss you,” Andrew said. “Out loud, for real, like this. Get it now?”
Neil blinked. He looked down at their joined knees; the small hole in his grey sweatpants where they’d snagged on his racquet once, the whites showing through the threadbare denim of Andrew’s black jeans, bruises smudged just out of sight.
“You want to kiss me,” he echoed.
“That’s what I said,” Andrew growled.
“But,” Neil said weakly. “I mean. What about? And. Roland?”
“No,” Andrew said immediately. “No one else. Just you.”
“Oh,” Neil made. “Okay.”
“Okay, you can kiss me,” Neil answered, fiddling with his mug. “But I’ll probably taste like—what is this tea, anyway? It tastes like one of those fancy body butters Allison is so crazy about.”
“Cherry Berry Extravaganza,” Andrew said blankly and frowned. “It was on your shelf.”
His leg was bouncing a little now, brushing past Neil’s with every bop.
“I have a shelf?” Neil asked, amused.
“The tea shelf,” Andrew said like it was obvious. “You’re the only one who actually drinks that stuff. Why buy a tea you don’t like?”
“Oh, I didn’t say I didn’t like it,” Neil grinned. “Just thought I’d warn you. Speaking of which…”
He put his mug away at a safe distance and leaned a little closer to Andrew, slowly reaching out his hand. He and Andrew both watched its progress until it settled on Andrew’s knee, stopping it mid-bounce.
“Still want to kiss me?” Neil murmured.
“No,” Andrew said. “Maybe. Yes.”
Neil laughed and Andrew closed the distance between them with a huff, turning the sound into an aborted hiccup. They fell into an awkward dance of leaning in and pulling back and meeting not quite in the middle before Andrew finally took Neil’s face in both of his hands and held him still so he could kiss him properly. It was a slow kiss that soaked through Neil’s bones, like rain fine enough to count as mist; leaving him dazed and shivering when Andrew pulled back.
“Andrew,” Neil murmured.
“Don’t,” Andrew warned. “Don’t say my name like that.”
“Like you just came.”
Neil choked a little on his spit and Andrew quickly pulled his hands away from his face.
“Andrew,” Neil said again, trying to give it a different sound without much success. “I, uh… Do you mind if we take things… slow?”
Andrew stared at him.
“And here I was, planning to ravish you on the front step for everyone to see,” he said deadpan.
“Ravish?” Neil laughed. “Of all the words you could have gone for, you chose ravish?”
“I was joking, not trying to dirty talk you,” Andrew hissed, splotches of colour appearing on his face. It only made Neil laugh harder, and he nearly fell down a step when the door opened suddenly behind them and a very grumpy Kevin stuck his head out, wrapped in a blanket.
“What is it with you two and sitting out here?” he demanded. “It’s about to rain, you should get inside before you catch pneumonia.”
“That’s not how pneumonia works!” Aaron yelled from somewhere inside the house.
“Were they kissing?” Nicky piped up as well. “Please tell me they were kissing, I’m going to win so many bets.”
Neil froze and tried to plaster a look of innocence on his face that definitely did not say that he and Andrew had totally, absolutely just been kissing. Kevin squinted between him and Andrew’s suspiciously red face and opened his mouth several times to reply before finally deciding to just go back inside.
“So…” Neil said. “Does this mean we can keep texting?”
“Yes,” Andrew said, looking at Neil’s lips like he was already thinking about kissing again.
“Good,” Neil grinned. “Hang on, I need to tell you something.”
He made a show of pulling out his phone and turning it on, then opened his and Andrew’s chat and typed very slowly.
Neil: hey andrew
Neil: i want to kiss you again
Neil: yes or no?