Before the summer practices of his final year at PSU begin, Neil has a month off. It’s a busy one.
The first week is spent at the house in Columbia, helping Nicky box up almost everything he owns to send on to Germany. What’s left behind is for Goodwill, although Nicky informs Neil and the twins they’re welcome to help themselves to whatever they want after he’s gone.
(The only thing Neil takes is a mug that says “If you were a fruit you’d be a fine-apple” on the side, that for some unidentifiable reason he can’t bear to give away. Nicky had always used it for Neil’s drinks: “Get it, Neil? You’re fine.”)
Aaron is the next to leave, off to spend time with Katelyn’s family before the two of them start at medical school in August. It gives Neil and Andrew the chance to spend a quiet couple of days together before they drive out to Philadelphia where Andrew has signed with the Philadelphia Porcupines.
They pick up the keys to Andrew’s new apartment. It’s unfurnished, so Neil gets the unenviable task of helping Andrew pick out furniture.
Unenviable because it takes too long; Neil could knock this out in an hour and a half on half the budget. He’d rather Andrew take him on a tour of the stadium, show him the facilities. But Andrew had made it clear he wasn’t taking Neil anywhere near a training ground until he at least had a semi-functional living space.
Neil becomes entirely too familiar with IKEA, but they get the job done in the end.
It’s foolish, but he lets himself believe this is them carving out space together. While they build a flatpack bookcase for the living room, it’s all too easy to imagine that this is the start of them living together, just the two of them.
Neil knows without Andrew having to say that this sense of belonging is the exact reason he dragged Neil around IKEA, getting his input, letting him put his own stamp — however miniscule — in every room of Andrew’s new apartment. To let him know that they’re in this together; that it’s his space too, and that he’s welcome. His fine-apple mug sits in the cupboard beside Andrew’s. He has a key.
But that’s the thing; it’s still Andrew’s apartment. It’s not theirs. They can play house all they want to, but Neil has to go back and finish an entire year in South Carolina, and after that, there’s no telling where he’ll end up.
The Porcupines have a solid offense line of young, fit players, so the chances are high that it won’t be Philadelphia.
So where does that leave them?
They won’t break up; at least, Neil doesn’t think they will. His nothing with Andrew is everything, actually, and if it ends then Neil won’t be the cause. He’s got no reason to believe that Andrew’s planning on breaking up with him, not that he’s said anything. But then again, with Andrew it’s so often in what he doesn’t say. Neil’s become accustomed to reading the silences.
So they’ll stay together, they’ll see each other whenever they can, and they’ll make it work. It’s just going to be difficult and lonely and Neil’s not looking forward to it, especially considering they don’t even have any sort of clear idea of when they’ll be back in each other’s orbits permanently.
It’s a year minimum. Realistically, it’s probably at least two.
Neil’s become so accustomed to having people, but over the last couple of years his hand-picked family has been chipped away little by little as people have graduated and moved away. They all visit, they all keep in touch (Neil couldn’t get rid of them if he wanted to), but it’s not the same.
This time around, Neil’s lost the last three in one fell swoop. It was so easy to forget that they weren’t all in the same graduating class, and now he can’t get away from that fact. It snuck up on him and all he can do is power through the next year alone.
He knows how much he’s going to miss Andrew, he knows how much it’s going to hurt, and he’s scared. Right down to his bones.
His last night in Philadelphia, Neil doesn’t really sleep. Andrew does, his hand clutched in Neil’s baggy t-shirt, his forehead pressed up against Neil’s upper-back.
Neil lies awake, listening to Andrew breathing, counting breaths and trying not to think about the fact that he doesn’t know how long he has to wait until he has this again. Their schedules don’t align in a convenient way and Neil doesn’t even have a game timetable yet, so they haven’t been able to set anything in stone.
What if it’s not for months? What if the distance does them harm? What if, every time they reunite, Andrew will have to relearn Neil’s presence in his space, in his bed, not comfortable enough to share it like he does now?
Neil has earned Andrew’s trust bit by bit, and it’s taken four years to get where they are now. Surely a couple of months isn’t enough to undo all of that. It’ll be fine.
...But what if it’s not?
Exhaustion eventually drags him under, but it’s a restless sleep, and his alarm yanks him out of it before he’s ready.
Andrew puts coffee on while Neil takes a shower, and when he’s out he finds Andrew in the kitchen sitting on the counter.
Neil smiles. “Whatcha doin’ up there?”
Andrew stares dully back at him. “You pushed the sugar too far back in the cupboard last night,” he accuses; Neil had been the last to make coffee. “I had to climb up here to reach it.”
“You just like to be tall,” Neil says. He steps into the gap between Andrew’s legs and looks up at him, careful not to touch but keeping well in reach.
Andrew watches him impassively for a moment, then his hands slowly come up to cup the sides of Neil’s face. He gently rubs his thumbs across Neil’s cheekbones, scrutinising the dark circles under Neil’s eyes.
He frowns, ever so slightly. “You didn’t sleep.” It almost sounds like another accusation.
Neil shrugs. “Not really. It’s okay, I can nap on the plane.”
He’s all packed, his duffel bag waiting out in the hall by the door. He’s happier with it out of his immediate eyeline; it’s another crack in the illusion that he could stay. Andrew is the one who is staying, all his things have a place. Neil can only be a temporary fixture, at least for the next couple of years.
The thought sinks like a stone inside him, settling where it’s likely to fester.
“Can I—?” he starts, and leans forward so his forehead is lightly pressing against Andrew’s chest.
Andrew doesn’t say anything, but his arms curl around Neil’s neck and he rests his cheek against Neil’s head. It’s as much permission as Neil needs, and he wraps his arms around Andrew’s waist.
He breathes him in, comforted by the feel of Andrew all around him, dreading having to let go, dreading the drive to the airport, having to get out of the Maserati, having to say goodbye.
He feels like he should say something.
“I—” I’ll miss you. “Andrew, I—” I love you. I don’t want to do this. Tell me it’ll be okay.
He lets go, steps back, takes a breath. He picks up his coffee and drains half of it in one go. “C’mon. I don’t want to be late.”
The drive to the airport is near silent. Neil spends most of it looking out of the window and the rest looking at Andrew, who’s wearing sunglasses in the early morning sunlight as he weaves precariously in and out of traffic.
Andrew slows down as they approach the turn-off for the short-stay parking lot, but Neil shakes his head. “Just take me to the drop-off zone.”
Andrew speeds up again but says, tone carefully even, “You don’t want me to come in with you?”
“No.” Neil hopes the it’ll be too hard goes without saying. “I have to go and check in and I’m pushing it as it is.”
Andrew nods and follows the signs to the drop-off zone.
It’s busy when they get there, but Neil only has his duffel to carry and it’s by his feet in the passenger seat. Andrew pulls the handbrake but leaves the engine running. He takes off his sunglasses and half turns in his seat. Neil feels everything inside him clam up, every instinct telling him that this is wrong, that they shouldn’t separate. He’s never felt so pathetic, and he doesn’t really understand it; he has experienced much worse things than this.
He doesn’t know how he manages it but he turns to Andrew, and he smiles.
“I’ll text you when I land.”
“Okay. I have to go to the meet-and-greet tonight,” Andrew says, like one might say they were going to get a root canal. “But I’m free any of the other nights,” he fiddles with a loose thread on his jeans and shrugs, “if you needed to call.”
Neil nods. They’ve never really done phone-calls. They’ve never needed to. And now they’ll need to. “Okay,” he says. “Thanks.”
A silence settles and Neil knows he should just get out of the car, but he can’t bring himself to move. Something cracks inside of him.
“Andrew—” he says, desperate, and it shatters Andrew’s composure. He reaches across the middle-console and hooks a hand in Neil’s collar, pulling him as close as he can get.
His lips crash into Neil’s, and into the kiss is poured everything that they can’t say. It’s reassurement, it’s see you later instead of goodbye, it’s a promise. Neil lets the message sink into his bones.
The driver of the taxi behind the Maserati beeps their horn, wanting the space, and it snaps Neil out of it.
He gathers his bag up, catching his breath, and then he allows himself another peek at Andrew.
There’s a dusting of pink across Andrew’s cheeks, his hair a little ruffled where Neil ran his fingers through it. His eyes are almost gold in this light and his lips are kiss-bitten and inviting. If Neil doesn’t get out of the car now, he never will.
“Drive safe,” he feels the need to say, and there’s a ghost of a smile on Andrew’s face before Neil gets out of the car.
He doesn’t look back, but he hears the Maserati drive away.
Sleep comes surprisingly easy on the flight even though it’s a pretty short one, and Neil jerks awake when the seatbelt signs come back on as they begin their descent.
He doesn’t have to wait for baggage-claim as his duffel was small enough to be hand-luggage — everything else he now owns is either at the house in Columbia, or at Abby’s place waiting for him to pick up and take to the dorms.
It’s Wymack who’s waiting at Arrivals for Neil, talking rapidly into his phone. He nods at Neil when he spots him, grabs Neil’s bag and shoulders it, then sets off towards the exit before Neil can complain.
He has to speed up to keep pace with Wymack and lets the familiar cadence of his coach’s voice wash over him.
“—no, I’m saying I’ve got five new players arriving tomorrow and so far I only have beds for two of them...Yes, I know that. Yes.” Wymack takes an impatient breath. “No, you listen to me. I put the paperwork in on time like I was supposed to, like I’ve done every year since I’ve been coach. If you’re missing that paperwork then it’s because you lost it—”
They reach the car and Wymack unlocks the doors, putting Neil’s duffel in the back. Neil gets into the passenger seat and fastens his seatbelt as Wymack gets into the driver’s seat.
He pulls the door closed. “I don’t care how you do it, but you need to find me another three-bed suite in Fox Tower. Move some of the football players around, I don’t care. Give me the rooms I organised.” There’s a pause as whoever’s on the other side speaks, and then Wymack says. “Thank you. I’ll pick up the keys in the morning.” He hangs up and sighs. “Fucking useless.”
“Rooming dispute?” Neil ascertains.
“Yeah. Don’t worry, it’s sorted. There’ll just be one room on the floor below the rest of you.”
“Give it to Jack and his lot. I’d rather have the freshmen all on the same floor where I can keep an eye on them.”
“Good idea, Captain,” Wymack says, and pulls out of the parking spot.
Neither of them are much for small-talk, and Wymack has the radio on anyway and hums along as they drive to Abby’s. Neil sends Andrew a one word text — here — and spends the rest of the journey conserving energy, knowing Abby will ask how his time off was, if Nicky got to Germany okay, how Andrew is, what he makes of Philadelphia.
Maybe that’s why Wymack doesn’t ask; this way, Neil only has to answer once.
He doesn’t speak until they pull up on Abby’s driveway. Wymack turns the engine off and says, “You okay, kid?”
Lying comes as easily as it ever has.
“I’m fine, Coach.”
Neil tries to leave it as long as possible to make his first phone-call to Andrew. He figures the longer he can go without hearing Andrew’s voice, the easier it will be in the long run.
He doesn’t quite make it forty-eight hours.
They’d had their first practice that morning, and despite the fact that it’s Neil’s third year as captain and all the returning players should be on board with that by now, Jack and Sheena decided to take Andrew’s absence as an excuse to push Neil’s buttons.
Robin and the others defer to Neil immediately which helps, but if Neil can’t get a control over it early then the freshmen won’t respect him and it’ll be one long slog to the end of the year.
He already feels tired of it.
He goes to the roof, sits in their spot, lights a cigarette, and dials Andrew’s number.
He won’t answer, Neil thinks for seven agonising seconds, but then the line clicks.
“Neil.” Andrew’s voice sounds a little gravelly, almost like he hasn’t spoken out loud all day. He might not have; Andrew didn’t have any team commitments today.
“Hi,” Neil says.
It’s instant relief, flooding through Neil. The clenching in his heart eases and for a moment he does nothing but breathe, matching it to Andrew’s as it drifts through the receiver.
Finally, he says, “Jack is already driving me crazy.”
“Are you surprised?”
“No.” Neil sighs. “Just sick of it.”
“Have Coach bench him for the year.”
“As tempting as that sounds, I actually need him. He’s good when he stops fighting everyone around him and I really want us to do well this year.”
“So punch him. Should get the message across.”
Neil snorts. “I’ll keep that in mind. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about Jack. Tell me about you. How was your meet-and-greet?”
“I don’t want to talk about the meet-and-greet.”
“That bad, huh?”
There’s a pause. “They all seem...eager to be pals.”
Neil gasps in mock horror. “God forbid you befriend your teammates. Oh the humanity.”
“Cute, Neil,” Andrew says, but there’s a huff of what might pass for amusement. It’s easy to joke about it now, but Neil is nervous about how well Andrew will get on with his teammates in the long run. After all, Foxes are Foxes for a reason, even the friendlier ones. The Porcupines might just be a little bit too clean-cut for Andrew to ever feel comfortable there.
“Have you spoken to Nicky? Or Aaron?”
“Nicky has practically been sending me hourly updates. His job interview is tomorrow. I think he’s nervous.”
“Probably,” Neil says, taking a mental note to send Nicky a good luck text. He takes a puff of the cigarette to keep it burning. “And Aaron?”
“Not a peep.”
“You could always call him.”
“Good advice, Dr. Phil,” Andrew says dryly. Pointedly, he adds, “You been to see Bee yet?”
He won’t rise to the bait. “That’s tomorrow.”
“What are you going to tell her?”
Neil smiles. “That’s confidential.”
He still doesn’t particularly talk to Bee about anything real, although he’s gotten marginally better at not just spouting Exy stats at her for half an hour. But he has a sneaking suspicion she’s going to push a little more with him this year. Just like he has a sneaking suspicion that Matt and Allison are going to call more. (Mainly because they’ve already started.)
It’s one thing to know he’s going to struggle. It’s another to have everyone else know it too.
“I have a few days free near the end of August,” Andrew says, and it could be casual conversation but Neil knows better.
“Any plans?” he asks, gently teasing.
“Asshole. I’ll drive down. We can stay at the Columbia house.” Andrew’s commitment to not fly is as prevalent as ever considering the drive is around ten hours.
“How am I supposed to get there?”
“I’ll come and get you.”
Warmth spreads through Neil. “Okay. But if you’re there on any weekdays, I’ll still have to go to practice.”
Andrew sighs. “I think I can cope with being your chauffeur for a couple of days.” He pauses, thoughtful. “You know, you should really get yourself a car.”
“Maybe,” Neil says. It’s a good idea actually. He’s been catching rides with one of the underclassmen which is a considerable downgrade to riding shotgun in Andrew’s Maserati. But he can’t deny he’s daunted by the prospect of buying his own car.
“I’ll help you look,” Andrew offers, “when I see you.”
Neil nods, even though Andrew can’t see him. It feels right that they should do this together. “Okay. Yeah, let’s do that.”
He stifles a yawn; it’s getting late. Neil has practice at eight, but he wants to get up earlier to go for a run. Andrew, too, has a full day of practice ahead of him. Sleep will do them both some good.
“I should let you go,” Neil says quietly.
Andrew hums lightly, but doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t hang up, either, and in the silence are all the words left unspoken.
“Just checking.” There’s a lump in Neil’s throat and a burning at the back of his eyes. “Bye,” he whispers.
Neil lies down flat on the concrete, closing his eyes and breathing in and out as slowly as he can.
The end of August is almost three months away. It feels too far.
Neil makes it through the summer.
Andrew visits in August, as promised. He gets up super early and drives straight to the court so that by the time he arrives the Foxes are in the middle of a scrimmage during afternoon practice. When Neil spots him through the plexiglass standing next to Wymack, he stops short, losing the ball.
Wymack takes one look at Neil’s face, rolls his eyes, and calls for a break.
Neil and Andrew make out in the Maserati for twenty minutes.
Despite Andrew’s stay being relatively short and them having to navigate around Neil’s schedule (he can’t miss practices, as tempting as it is), they manage to be fairly productive.
Andrew hangs around for a bit during that practice on his first day back, and he gives the goalies some pointers. Well, he gives Robin some pointers; the other goalie subs sort of hang around in the periphery to pay attention and Andrew lets them, although he gives them none of his direct attention.
The Fox line-up is bigger than ever, especially with all the new freshmen this year, and Andrew’s a distraction (not least for Neil), so he disappears to do his own thing until Neil is free. Neil assumes he pays Betsy a visit, but he also goes to Abby’s and helps her with dinner, and then that evening Wymack, Abby, Betsy, Andrew, Neil, and Robin all sit down together.
There’s no afternoon practice on the Friday so as soon as Neil’s out, he and Andrew go directly to Columbia where they can be alone right through until Sunday when Andrew has to head back.
They do manage to get Neil a car. Nothing flashy, a VW something or other that Andrew informs him is “practical and reliable”. This makes Neil smile.
“You researched this.”
Andrew sighs and looks away but doesn’t deny it. “I have super fast internet in my apartment. May as well use it.”
They travel back from the dealership to the house in Columbia in a convoy, and later on Neil gives the extra car key to Andrew, a very unsubtle callback to when Andrew gave Neil a key to the Maserati.
Andrew takes it without comment, slips it onto his key ring, brushes a barely-there kiss across Neil’s temple.
They don’t really leave the house except to go and get food or to smoke out back on the patio. They spend their time talking, or not talking, or just existing in each other’s space. Neil knows he’s being dramatic, but it feels like it’s the first time in months he’s managed to catch his breath.
Talking to Andrew about his new team, however, is like getting blood from a stone. All Neil really takes away from it is that Andrew is not entirely settled there. It’s to be expected, perhaps, as it’s a different routine and a different place to get used to, and it’s still relatively early days. Maybe things will get better once the season properly gets going and Andrew and his new teammates get more used to each other.
Neil tries to remain optimistic, but he’s quietly worried about Andrew alone in a new city with no one around him who really understands anything about him. As hard as Neil’s finding it, he does at least have a support system in his immediate surroundings; Wymack, Abby, Betsy, and Robin would all be more than happy for Neil to lean on them should he so wish.
(He knows he’s not always great at putting that into practice, but sometimes it’s enough just to know that the support is there.)
Andrew doesn’t have that right now.
But he does have Neil, for whatever that’s worth.
Sunday arrives far quicker than it has any right to, and Andrew has to get off relatively early if he wants to be able to get back to Philadelphia in time to get a decent night’s sleep. They tidy up what little mess they’ve made, and they leave at the same time, locking the door behind them. Neil can’t bear the thought of going back into that house alone.
They kiss against the driver’s side door of the Maserati, but Andrew breaks it off abruptly and gets into the car. The tyres squeal as he speeds away, and Neil watches long after the Maserati has disappeared.
Neil considers that visit the first hurdle, in a way. They both survived the distance, and upon their reunion discovered that whatever they had was still very much there. Their feelings hadn’t evaporated during the separation, and they were evidently both very committed to making it work.
So, hurdle cleared, he throws himself back into practice and classes.
The Foxes make a very strong start to the season and win their first two games comfortably, but then the standard starts to slip; a closer point-gap, a draw, and then a loss, all in quick succession.
Neil is the captain, he’s the only player on the Foxes roster due to graduate this year, and he’s aiming for the pro-leagues. His life quite literally depends on making it, so to say that the slip in quality has his nerves in shreds is putting it mildly.
The latest loss is an away game. They only lose by a singular goal, but it’s little comfort. When Wymack calls on him to do press-duty, Neil steadfastly refuses. Wymack, who knows when to push and when not to, leaves Neil be for now, sending Robin and Sheena in his place.
Neil showers in silence, changes in silence, gets back on the bus in silence. He walks down the aisle to Andrew’s old seat and curls up, pulling his hood up as if he can use it to block out the world.
His phone buzzes in his pocket a few times, but he ignores it and spends most of the journey pretending to be asleep so everyone will leave him alone. He’s holding too much tension in his body to convince anyone, but the only one likely to check is Robin, who’ll know better than to bother him right now.
The drive back to campus is around three hours and so it’s after midnight by the time they pull into the parking lot of the Foxhole Court. Being at the back, Neil’s the last off the bus and Wymack’s waiting for him at the bus door.
“Get some sleep, kid,” he tells Neil, concern in his eyes. “Come see me tomorrow.”
Something lurches in Neil’s stomach; he feels like Wymack is disappointed in him and it’s not sitting right. But he nods hollowly and walks past towards his car.
Robin’s waiting by the passenger door — she rides with Neil now — but she doesn’t say anything to him as he unlocks the car and they both get in. Music plays through the radio, but Neil doesn’t really register what it is; he barely registers the drive back to Fox Tower at all, in fact.
He’s halfway up to the roof before he realises he doesn’t even have any cigarettes on him. He didn’t take any with him to the game so they’re back in his suite, and he doubles back to grab them.
He has two roommates, Robin and Nick, although Nick rarely sleeps there, preferring to bunk with his girlfriend from the women’s soccer team two floors down. Neil actually passes Nick in the corridor. Neil just about registers Nick saying, “Hey man, are you okay?” but his voice sounds sort of far away and Neil ignores him anyway.
Inside the suite, there’s no immediate sign of Robin, but the door to the bedroom is shut. Neil closes his eyes and tries to remember where he left his cigarettes, but instead he’s distracted by the sounds of Fox Tower; doors slamming, muffled voices and laughter drifting through the walls and between floors, someone playing whiny alt-rock with their window open.
It’s too loud, it’s too much, and before Neil’s mind catches up to what he’s doing, Andrew’s voice is in his ear, sleepily saying his name.
“Neil?” Then, firmer, “Neil. Breathe.”
Neil has a white-knuckled grip on his phone as he belatedly realises he’s called Andrew, and that he’s sunk to his knees on the floor, and that the ragged sound he can hear is himself hyperventilating.
His chest hurts and he can’t get a good breath in and Andrew isn’t here, but he is on the other side of the phone and he’s telling Neil to breathe.
“Slower than that, Neil,” Andrew’s saying, and he’s endlessly calm. It’s not the first time he’s had to talk Neil through a panic attack, although it is the first time he’s had to do it over the phone.
It’s not the same without a hand on the back of his neck.
“Andrew, I—I can’t—it’s—”
“Shut up. It’s okay.” Andrew breathes in, loudly, deliberately, then out again. “Like that, Neil. Do that for me.”
He shakes his head, because he can’t, he feels like he’s dying, but at that moment he hears another voice in the room saying his name. It’s Robin, obviously coming to investigate the noise, and her sudden appearance is enough of a distraction for Neil to choke on his next breath. It interrupts his hyperventilating, and this time, when Andrew says again more urgently, “Fucking breathe, Neil,” he manages to suck in a slow and raggedy breath.
“Neil,” Robin says, anxious, “what do you need? What can I do?”
He shakes his head at her, trying to focus on Andrew slowly breathing with him over the receiver. After a minute he doesn’t feel like he’s dying anymore, although he’s still not breathing particularly steadily.
“Did I hear Robin a minute ago?” Andrew asks, when he’s judged Neil’s okay to speak.
“Is she still there?”
Neil looks to the right; Robin is standing nearby wringing her hands together nervously. “Yeah.”
“Give her the phone.”
Neil does as Andrew asks, wordlessly passing the phone over. He’s still sitting on his knees, and he can’t bring himself to move yet even though his legs are starting to go a little numb.
“Hi! Yes, I’m here!” Robin says into the phone. “No. No, he’s just...sitting there. On the floor.” Neil can’t hear Andrew’s side of the conversation, but can gather easily enough that Andrew wants updates from an outsider point of view. “It’s not quite regular, but better than it was a couple of minutes ago.”
Robin looks at Neil apologetically, probably at speaking about Neil while she’s standing right in front of him, but he waves her off and sucks in another slow breath.
“No,” Robin says to Andrew. “He’s barely said a word since the game finished. We just got back and I thought he’d gone to the roof and I went to bed, but then he must have come back and I heard a noise so I came out and...well, he was already on the phone to you by then, you know as much as I do. Uh huh. Yep. Okay, sure.”
She presses a button on the phone and puts it on the floor beside Neil. “It’s on speaker, okay?” she says, and then scurries off to the kitchen, obviously pleased to have a task. Neil hears her opening the cupboard.
While she’s in the kitchen, Andrew says, “You still with me, Neil?”
“Yes,” he replies hollowly, tired and worn out. Then, “I’m sorry I woke you up.”
He almost thinks he can hear Andrew’s shrug. “I’m not.”
Robin returns with a glass of water, placing it carefully in Neil’s hands. The cold is a welcome shock to the system, grounding somehow. He takes a sip, and it’s good. He gulps some down far too quickly and almost chokes on it.
“Easy, Neil,” Robin says warily, and he nods. He takes another small sip, puts the glass down, then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Is it okay if I sit behind you?” Robin asks.
She sits down, her back to Neil’s but not actually touching him. “You can lean back against me if you need to,” she says, and Neil realises that Andrew’s suggested this to her, and he suddenly misses Andrew with such a force that he can feel panic start to rise in him again.
But then Robin asks Andrew a question about his last game—because she and Neil had been watching, of course—and he indulges her by answering. Neil lets himself be lulled by the cadence of their voices, by them not talking to him or about him; just around him, letting him come back to them on his own.
He shifts backwards until the pressure is off his knees, and he leans his back fully against Robin’s. It’s helpful to have that support and he sighs and drops his head back onto her shoulder, letting his eyes drift closed. He can feel her breathing steadily and it’s easier to sync his own heartbeat up to that; it’s grounding to have another person there even if it’s not the person he most wants it to be. But he can hear Andrew’s voice as he talks to Robin about Philadelphia, and it’s almost like Andrew’s in the room with them as long as he doesn’t open his eyes and ruin the illusion.
After a while, when his heartbeat’s as steady as ever and the anxiety has been stuffed back down into a corner until it rears it’s angry head again, Andrew finally addresses Neil directly. “How’re you doing over there, Neil.”
‘Fine’ is on the tip of Neil’s tongue, but he changes his mind at the last second. He lifts his head up off of Robin’s shoulder and opens his eyes. “Better,” he says, and reaches for his phone.
Robin gets to her feet. “I’m going on into bed then. Neil, just give me a shout if you need me. ‘Night, Andrew.” She pads off towards the bedroom, shutting the door with a quiet click behind her.
Neil takes his phone off speaker and brings it to his ear. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Andrew exhales slowly; Neil thinks he might be smoking. “What caused that?”
Neil shrugs. “I don’t know. Nothing. Everything.” He rubs a hand down his face. “There’s been scouts coming to some games and we keep giving piss-poor performances and if I don’t gain their attention now then I’m fucked.”
“You already have their attention. That’s why they’re coming to your games in the first place.”
“Yeah, only to watch us fucking lose,” Neil snaps, irritated. But it’s not Andrew that he’s annoyed at and he sighs. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologise, it’s fucking annoying,” Andrew drawls, and oh, Neil misses him.
“You’re fucking annoying,” he mutters, before the feeling overtakes him.
“Answer me this,” Andrew says, “how many goals did you score tonight?”
“...Six,” Neil says warily, not knowing where this is going.
“Right. Which is more than any other singular player on that court scored in your match, regardless of the fact that you lost.”
“That’s not the point—”
“It’s exactly the point. What’s your score record so far this season?”
“And how many assists?”
“It’s eighteen, actually,” Andrew says, and it stirs something inside of Neil. It’s one thing to know abstractly that Andrew’s been paying attention; it’s another to be explicitly told. “Those are the highest striker stats in the NCAA.”
“Yeah okay, but that’s not gonna mean anything if I can’t get us back on a winning streak.”
“That’s bullshit. We didn’t even make the semi-finals at last year’s championships and I still got signed.”
“You were signed well before we got to the quarters, though.”
“And do you know why that is?” Andrew doesn’t even wait for Neil to answer, just bulls on. “Because my fucking stats were good.”
“...Alright,” Neil concedes. “That’s fair enough, I guess.”
Andrew sighs, like he’s running out of patience, and hell, maybe he is. “You’re a fifth year senior, Neil. The scouts aren’t coming to see the Foxes, they’re coming to see you. Your stats already speak for themselves, and you’re not slipping personally. The team’s going through a blip but it’s still early in the season and any scout worth their salt will know that.”
Neil knows that, too; at least, he does on his best days. Teams are tricky, especially college teams where there’s changes every year and new dynamics to figure out. It’s Neil’s third year as captain and he knows how this works by now. But it’s probably because he’s captain that he feels the pressure more keenly; people are looking to him to pull everyone else together. It does reflect on him if the team starts losing.
“What if I can’t turn this around?” he asks, and it’s barely more than a whisper. “What if we just keep losing? What if we don’t even make the playoffs?”
It’s safe to ask Andrew this. Anyone else would jump to reassure Neil that it won’t happen, but Andrew can be trusted not to. He won’t promise Neil anything he isn’t sure of, and he can’t be sure of this; not yet.
“If you don’t make the playoffs, then you’ll get signed anyway. The Boston Raiders have been watching you since your sophomore year and you’ve been steadily improving since then. They’re not gonna change their minds about you just because Wymack signed a bunch of duds this year.”
“Hey,” Neil says reproachfully, but he feels better. “They’re not duds.”
This earns him a impassive hum, and it makes Neil snort. He thinks ahead to tomorrow when he needs to go and see Wymack. His head already feels clearer, ideas already forming of how they can rejig the line-up to hopefully improve results. He recognises now that Wymack’s words as Neil got off the bus were from a place of concern, not of disappointment. He’s only ever wanted the best for his player’s well-beings.
As much as Neil would like to sit here on the floor on the phone to Andrew until the sun comes up, he figures he needs to get to sleep soon if he wants to get anything even remotely productive done tomorrow.
He pulls the phone away from his here to check the time. “Fuck,” he says. “It’s after two. I didn’t realise it had got so late.”
His tone is apologetic and Andrew says, “It’s okay.” There’s a pause. “You can always call.”
“I know,” Neil says softly. “That’s why I did.”
Andrew sighs. “It’s...hard. Being this far away, knowing I can’t help when you get anxious.”
“You did help though.”
“Yes. But you helped her to help. And I’m fine now. Honest.”
“Andrew. I am.” Andrew’s getting tired now; they both are. But it’s always so hard to hang up. “I wish you were here.”
Shortly after Christmas, Wymack and Abby move in together. The new place isn’t that far from Abby’s old place, but it’s a little bigger and has a double garage so it’s perfect for the two of them.
Neil volunteers himself and Robin (much to her chagrin) to help with the heavy lifting, and Kevin also flies in from New York for the weekend to lend a hand.
Fresh off of spending the holidays quietly with Andrew in Columbia, Neil’s been in high spirits. The Foxes managed to pick themselves up again before the break and won their first game back after, and Wymack informs Neil that he’s already been approached by scouts from four different pro-teams interested in Neil. All in all, it’s promising stuff, and Neil’s finding himself much more amped up for the NCAA championships now than he was at the start of the school year.
That state of mind makes it easier to have Kevin on the other end of a sofa, bossing Neil around like he’d never even left.
“Jesus, Neil, lift it a little higher, I feel like I’m dragging it across the ground.”
“I can’t get it any higher, my centre of gravity is lower than yours.”
“Fucking—” Kevin grunts and backs up quickly towards the door. Which has swung shut since they last walked through it.
“Get the door then, Kevin.”
“With what hands, Neil?” Kevin shoots back sarcastically, then kicks at the door with the back of his foot. A moment later Wymack opens up, frowning at them.
“I said to leave the sofa for now. I don’t think it’ll fit through the living room door.”
“Are you kidding me?” Kevin snaps.
“I already said, it’s not my fault you weren’t listening, and don’t you take that tone with me—”
Neil rolls his eyes as Wymack and Kevin gripe at each other. The front door is wide so they can at least get the sofa in through there, and he starts walking forward with the sofa so that Kevin has no choice but to back up through the door.
“The fuck, Neil.”
“Shut up, this thing is heavy, just put it in the hallway for now.”
Wymack steps out of the way and Kevin and Neil place the sofa carefully down in the hallway, along the side of the stairs.
The three of them stand in a row, looking from the large sofa to the living room doorway through which they need to get the sofa. At first glance, it does not look like it will fit.
Kevin perches his forearm on Neil’s shoulder, leaning on him with a sigh. He looks at Wymack. “I mean, personally I think it looks great out here.”
“Uh huh,” Wymack says with a wry smile. “I’ll let you explain that one to Abby then.”
“Alright, don’t be hasty, we’ll figure it out,” Kevin says quickly.
In the end, Kevin doesn’t help with the sofa at all. Instead, he spends a good chunk of the afternoon trying to get the TV set up.
Now that all of the big furniture items are already inside, Abby makes the many, many, many trips to and from the moving truck with boxes, as well as a couple of journeys back to her old place to grab what wouldn’t fit in the first place.
It’s down to Neil, Wymack, and Robin to sort out the sofa, which they eventually manage to do. (It involves removing all of the cushions, holding the sofa at awkward angles to get it to fit through the door-frame, almost getting it wedged, and a lot of swearing.)
By the time it gets to 6pm, everyone is starving, and Wymack calls for pizza while Abby tries to find glasses so everyone can have a drink. “I got some non-alcoholic beers!” she tells Kevin brightly, and he smiles at her.
“Thank you, but I’m good with water for now.”
It doesn’t take long for Kevin to claim the living room, sitting down on the sofa with the newly set-up TV on and showing the build-up for tonight’s pro-Exy game: the Philadelphia Porcupines vs. the San Francisco Seagulls.
Andrew will take to the court for first serve at seven, so Neil sends him a brief good luck text at quarter to that he thinks will go ignored, but a reply comes through seconds later: for what?
Neil grins down at his phone as he types: you’re a real laugh riot
He waits, watching the three dots appear and disappear and then the message materialising before his eyes: this is why i keep u around, no one else gets my jokes. i’ll call u after the game
Neil pockets his phone just as Abby calls, “Kids! Pizza’s here!”
“I’m almost twenty-five,” Kevin grumbles, even as he gets to his feet. “I am not a kid.”
“You’re a giant baby and you know it,” Neil says, earning a laugh from Robin. Kevin glares at her and she manages to turn it into a cough.
“What is it about you that has goalies hanging off your every word?” Kevin asks Neil as they make their way through to the kitchen.
“It’s my natural charm and charisma,” he deadpans.
Wymack’s close enough to hear that and bursts out laughing.
“Coach,” Neil says. “That hurts.”
They wolf down their pizza and then migrate back into the living room in time for the game. Robin, Neil, and Kevin take the sofa; Abby and Wymack drift in and out, too many tidying jobs to do to sit for too long.
Andrew’s the starting goalie which means that for the first fifteen minutes, the Gulls can’t score at all and the Porcupines take an early lead.
Andrew’s looking good out there, but Neil can tell, and has been able to tell for a while now, that there’s no real communication with the backliners. Andrew’s getting by because he’s so good and has fast reflexes, but he’s having to work harder than he should because too many shots are being made.
When Andrew gets taken off after the first quarter, Kevin shakes his head.
“There’s no cohesive teamwork there.” He looks at Neil. “They don’t get on.”
“Who doesn’t?” Robin asks, leaning forward, and she’s smart to pay attention. Neil’s always been impressed at how well Kevin can read team dynamics like this. He’s come a long way since his days as a Raven.
“Andrew and the backliners,” Kevin replies. “Scratch that, Andrew and the rest of the team full-stop. No one even said anything to him as he walked off the court. Has he talked to you about it, Neil?”
Neil shrugs uncomfortably. He doesn’t like talking about Andrew when Andrew’s not here, especially about something he’s been privately worried about. It almost feels like a betrayal, even though in all likelihood Andrew wouldn’t really care about this kind of conversation. “Not really. But yeah, I don’t think they really...click.”
Kevin makes a disgruntled noise and looks back at the screen. “Andrew’s got some of the best stats in the league and they’re not utilising him properly. He’ll get traded before his contract’s up at this rate.”
Neil looks at Kevin sharply. “What?”
His tone catches Kevin’s attention, and Kevin pats him awkwardly on the arm. “It’s okay, it’s probably a good thing. Andrew needs to find a team that’s a better fit for him. There’ll be a few teams looking next season, so I wouldn’t pin your hopes on going to Philadelphia after you graduate.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Neil says glumly, even though there had been some part of him, however small, that was holding out hope for that eventuality.
“You’ll get an offer from Boston soon,” Kevin says. “Others, too.”
“What makes you say that? Have you heard something?” Neil asks. Kevin has so many connections that he’s always finding out about things well before it’s officially announced. He knew about Andrew’s offer before it was even offered.
“I’ve heard a lot of things,” Kevin says with a cryptic smile, but when he sees Neil’s expression he sighs. “You’ll get an offer. Just trust me.”
And because he does, Neil doesn’t push any further.
They settle back in to watch the rest of the game. Neil is slightly less interested when Andrew isn’t on the court, mainly because Kevin has given him a lot to think about, but Andrew’s brought back on again for the last quarter, just after the Porcupines have managed to lose hold of their lead.
It’s typical that they’re bringing Andrew back on to hold the line while they try and scrape a victory. The backliners essentially leave him to drown on his own, instead offering support to the offense and barely even running after any opposing strikers who make it past them.
Andrew does his job, he saves the goals, but alongside Neil’s ever-present pride of Andrew, his blood is absolutely boiling. With the Foxes, Andrew played as part of a team, and it even seemed like he enjoyed it by the end of his senior year. This feels like a step backwards, and Neil hates it.
“It’s like they’re setting him up to fail,” Robin says, and she looks as angry as Neil. And she’s right; as good as Andrew is, there’s only so much he can do against an exhausting onslaught.
Kevin nods knowingly. “They’re not helping him, but if they lose now they’ll blame him, even though he’s the only player on the Porcupine’s roster who’s pulled their weight tonight.”
“And every other night they play,” Neil adds darkly.
Wymack wanders back in from the kitchen and glances at the TV, crossing his arms. “How’s our boy doing?”
“Amazing,” Neil says, because he is and always will be Andrew’s biggest advocate. “Not that it’ll matter if the Porcupines don’t score at least twice more in the next three minutes.”
“Oof,” Wymack says. He watches for a moment and then waves a hand at the screen, incredulous. “What the fuck? The backliners are fucking nowhere, what kind of game-plan is their coach running?”
“Good fucking question, Coach,” Robin says, shaking her head at the screen.
At the very least, everyone in this room is on Andrew’s side, and Neil lets that thought comfort him for a second.
But then one of the strikers breaks away down the court towards Andrew, well past the backliners. No one else is near them; the striker passes to himself off the wall and takes another six steps towards the goal before he shoots.
Andrew is ready for it and he saves it, knocking it over halfway back up the court. But the striker doesn’t stop running even after he’s missed his shot, and he barges straight into Andrew who hasn’t yet quite steadied himself after making the save; he’s knocked backwards into the wall, and even Neil can see the way his head knocks backwards before he slumps to the ground.
Neil’s on his feet before he’s even registered the movement, his hands interlocked on the back of his head as he tries to process what he’s seeing. The commentators are speaking but Neil can’t really hear them; he’s too busy watching Andrew, waiting to see if he’s moving, if he’ll stand up.
And he does; he scrabbles at the wall and pulls himself up just as a couple of teammates and the team nurse start to crowd around him, and then Neil can’t really see what’s going on because there’s too many people in the way.
“Fuck,” he says, and a steady hand lands on his shoulder. It’s Wymack, and Neil looks up at his coach, his own worries reflected in Wymack’s eyes. “Is he okay? He hit his head, right? Fuck, Coach!”
“It’s okay, kid, I think he’s okay,” Wymack says, but he doesn’t sound totally sure, because they can’t be until Andrew’s been checked out by a doctor. “Look, he’s walking off the court.”
Neil looks back to the screen to see that Andrew is indeed walking off the court. The nurse is walking alongside him but not touching him, and Andrew has one hand on the court walls. The fact that he’s on his feet is a good sign, but he’s moving fairly slowly and he’s still wearing his helmet so Neil can’t really see his face.
He hates that he’s not there; he hates that he can’t take Andrew’s face in his hands and check that he’s not hurt for himself.
The striker who hit him gets sent off, a goalie sub gets sent on for Andrew, and the Porcupines limp their way to the last buzzer, losing by one goal.
He knows it’s pointless, because Andrew will need to have a medical check-up before he does anything else and his phone will be in a locker, but Neil calls him.
It rings out until it goes to voicemail, and Neil hangs up and then redials again and again. He’s pacing in the kitchen, Abby hovering anxiously. The others are all still watching the match analysis, seeing if there’ll be any updates on there.
When it’s gone to voicemail for the sixth time, Neil leaves a message. “Hey, it’s me, I was watching, are you okay? Call me back as soon as you get this. If I haven’t gotten a hold of you in the next thirty minutes I will catch a flight over there, I swear to God, Andrew.”
He hangs up and decides to leave it a minute, sinking into a stool at the breakfast bar. He lowers his head onto the table and a moment later, Abby puts an arm around him and lowers her cheek onto his head, running a hand up and down his arm.
She doesn’t really say anything, but she makes soothing noises and all at once Neil is reminded of after Baltimore; of Abby cleaning and redressing his wounds, and combing her fingers through his hair when he was having a panic attack.
He’s become so accustomed to having a support system; to having people to turn to. He likes the reminder that he’s not alone, and he’s so terrified of losing that after he graduates.
He hates that he doesn’t think Andrew has that right now. It’s not that he doesn’t have people because he does, but he doesn’t have people close. Neil, Wymack, and Betsy are in South Carolina, Nicky is in Germany, Aaron is in Chicago, Kevin is in New York, and Renee is here, there, and everywhere. All of Andrew’s inner circle, scattered to the wind.
“You saw the replay,” Neil says quietly. “Tell me the truth, how did you think he looked?”
“A little dizzy maybe,” Abby says carefully, “but he got back to his feet on his own, he walked off unaided, and those are all good signs.”
Neil shrugs. “But head injuries don’t always show signs straight away.”
“Oh, honey,” Abby says, and he feels her press a kiss to his temple; he still hasn’t lifted his head off the table. His phone is clenched firmly in his hand as he wills it to ring. “I know it’s frightening that we’re so far away and don’t know what’s going on, but we’ll find out soon, okay? If you don’t get in touch soon David will call Andrew’s coach and he can give us an update.”
Neil nods; it’s a good a plan as any, although ideally he won’t have to wait that long. He sits up straight and Abby steps away. “I’m gonna try him again.”
She nods and heads back into the living room to join the others and Neil hears the low murmur of their voices as they talk to each other.
He tries Andrew’s number again, and again it goes to voicemail. He breathes in and out slowly and then tries one more time. This time, there’s an answer.
“I’m here,” Andrew says in lieu of a hello, and Neil just about melts in relief.
If Neil wasn’t so concerned he’d probably throw his phone across the room. “Are you okay?”
“If I’m not allowed to say that then neither are you.”
“Even if it’s true?”
“What makes you think it’s never true when I say it?”
“Observation,” Andrew says dryly, and Neil sees what he’s doing.
“You’re trying to distract me and it won’t work. Have you seen a doctor? What did they say?”
Andrew sighs. “I mean, I’ve got a bit of a headache and a sizeable bruise forming on my side where he hit me, but no broken bones, no concussion.”
Neil bites at his lip worriedly. “Concussion symptoms don’t necessarily happen right away, it could take days to know that for sure.”
There’s a pause. “I mean, I guess? But the doctor said I’m not concussed, so I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”
“So who’s going to keep an eye on you just in case? You live on your own.”
“Neil, I didn’t even lose consciousness. You don’t need to worry.”
“No, I think I do, actually, because clearly no one on your fucking team has your back.”
Andrew hums that over. “You’re not wrong about that.” It’s the biggest outright admission Neil’s managed to get that everything is not hunky-dory in Philadelphia, but he can’t say he feels any satisfaction in that. More like a sick pit of worry in his stomach.
“I’ll fly out then,” he says. “I’ll stay with you until you’re out of the woods.”
“You’re in your senior year, you have a game next week. You have the playoffs to worry about.”
“Fuck the playoffs,” Neil snaps. “I’m worried about you.”
“Well don’t,” Andrew says, like it’s that easy.
Neil laughs without any humour. “It’s not a switch I can turn off.” Andrew doesn’t immediately reply, and Neil softens. “I hate that you’re on your own out there.”
“It’s not like it’s your fault,” Andrew says.
“I know that. It’s not really the point though.” He sighs. “What did the doctor say then, do you have to take it easy?”
“I miss the next two games, and no practice until after then. Just as a precaution, he said.”
“So you’re supposed to what, just stay at your apartment until then and rest up?”
“On your own?”
“Seeing as how I’m the only one who lives there...yes.”
Neil shakes his head even though Andrew can’t see him. “I don’t like that.” On some level he’s aware he’s being dramatic, and he absolutely blames it on the distance and that he can’t see or feel Andrew for himself, but he has visions of Andrew just going to sleep and never waking up, dying from some brain bleed or something just because no one was there to check on him.
And even if Andrew did have someone in Philadelphia who could check on him, Neil isn’t sure he’d trust anyone but himself to do it.
“I don’t know what you want me to tell you,” Andrew says again, and he sounds so tired.
“You don’t need to tell me anything. I’ll see if I can get a flight out tonight, and if I can’t, I’ll jump in the car right now and drive straight to you.”
“You really don’t need to do that.”
Neil hesitates; he hasn’t really considered what Andrew wants here. “It doesn’t have to be me, then. I’ll call Renee. Or Aaron. I just can’t...you can’t be alone right now, I can’t take it. If you don’t want me there, just let me call someone else.”
“Neil, stop it,” Andrew snaps, and he sounds almost angry for the first time. “I always want you to be here.”
“...Okay.” He nods, head clearing. “Okay. Hang on a second.”
He carries the phone through to the living room; everyone looks up at him, eager for news. “He’s alright,” Neil says quickly to assuage their worry, “but I don’t want him to be on his own right now. Kevin, how sure were you that I’d be getting an offer soon?”
“It’s a non-issue. One hundred percent,” Kevin says, and he wouldn’t say that unless he really did know.
“Great,” Neil says. He would have gone anyway, but it’s an added bonus to know he’s not jeapordizing his future. He turns his attention to Wymack. “Coach, can you see if you can get me a flight out to Philadelphia tonight?”
Wymack’s on his feet immediately. “Of course.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket. “Give me a minute.”
Neil puts the phone back to his ear. “You hear that?”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“You’re insufferable,” Andrew says, but there’s no bite to it.
Despite everything, Neil smiles.
Neil gets offers, just like everyone said he would. He signs with the Boston Raiders because they gave him the best deal and he’ll be a starting striker with them, not just a sub at first like some of the other offers he received.
The Foxes make it to the final of the NCAA championship but lose by the narrowest of margins to the Trojans. It stings, but considering the rocky patch the Foxes went through before Christmas, Neil will take it. It’s not the highest of highs he wanted to go out on, but it’s high enough.
He has nothing left to prove here.
Andrew’s there to watch him graduate—he was there to watch the final, too—and Neil feels a sense of accomplishment that he hadn’t expected when he walks across the stage. Graduating from college isn’t something he’d ever imagined would be in the cards for him.
Then again, he’d never imagined living this long.
He has slightly more time off before he needs to head to Boston than he would if he’d been returning to Palmetto for summer practices, so he heads to Philadelphia to spend time with Andrew while they both have the time to really enjoy each other.
Andrew—who did not have a concussion just like he said and seemed to enjoy reminding Neil of his colossal overreaction—finished out the season on the subs bench, never playing more than a quarter per game. The barrier between him and the rest of the team and upper management now appears insurmountable. It seems to fundamentally be a clash in personalities; the Porcupines are unwilling or unable to even try to understand Andrew, treating him like some kind of goal-saving robot that might turn on them at any moment instead of the person that he is.
It doesn’t seem to bother Andrew that much. But it bothers Neil.
Andrew’s contract is a pretty standard two year one—like the one Neil’s just signed with the Raiders—so technically he has to do another whole season before he can leave for pastures new, but Kevin’s been making calls on his behalf, getting the word out that one of pro-Exy’s rising stars is looking for a new team. Neil’s hopeful that something can be sorted soon, but not knowing when or where that might be is another anxiety all of its own.
When the time comes for Neil to make his move to Boston, Andrew comes with him. They drive up together like they did when Andrew moved to Philadelphia, only this time they’re in Neil’s car and it will be Andrew who has to fly out again.
There’s less of a distance between them now, but Neil knows he can’t get too used to that fact; at most, Andrew will only be in Philadelphia for one more year. Who knows where he’ll be after that?
A nice idea would be that Andrew could get a spot on Neil’s new team, but they both know that won’t happen. The Raiders already have one of the best goalies in the country, and their subs bench is full. Even if it wasn’t, a move to Boston isn’t good for his career if Andrew wants to see any real game time, and Neil knows that he does, even if he won’t admit it.
Exy stopped being merely a way to pass the time for Andrew a while ago now.
What it all boils down to is that Neil will eventually have to find his way onto whatever team Andrew ends up on. Boston is just a stop-gap; it makes furniture shopping remarkably easy—they just get it all from thrift stores, with the exception of Neil’s bedframe and mattress. Andrew had steadfastly refuse to share a bed with Neil unless he forked out for a new one.
(“You’re not getting a used one, it’s unsanitary, Neil, what the fuck is wrong with you.”
“Mattresses are so expensive though.”
“You have money.”)
All in all, his apartment ends up looking sparse. It isn’t really an issue when Andrew’s still there because he fills it up somehow. Something he owns is in every room making the place feel lived in; his toothbrush in the bathroom, his hoodie over the back of the cheap sofa in the living room, his keys and sunglasses on the side counter in the kitchen, his soft pyjamas in the bedroom.
Neil’s stuff is there too, of course, but making a place his own is still something he doesn’t entirely know how to do. And he doesn’t really feel the need to make it his own if it’s only temporary, if Andrew’s name isn’t on the lease alongside his, if there isn’t two pairs of sneakers by the door instead of one.
As Neil’s gone for a minimalism look for his decor, they have a lot of free time left over to properly explore the city, look around, get a good feel for the place. Neil likes it, in as much as he likes anywhere that isn’t Baltimore. It’ll take some getting used to, but there’s plenty to do, and once the season gets started he’ll be busy enough as it is anyway.
He’s here to do a job, and he’s going to do it well.
When Andrew’s last day rolls around, Neil asks how Andrew wants to spend it. Andrew dryly suggests that they see if they can get last minute tickets to the baseball game that’s playing that day.
“Go Red Sox?” he says in response to Neil’s flat look.
Neil shakes his head. “You come into my house…”
(He knows Andrew is only joking, but jokes about baseball are always inherently offensive to Neil’s Exy-centric sensibilities.)
So they stay in, and it’s infinitely preferable to anything else they might find outside of this apartment. They make food, and Skype with Nicky and Erik, and then watch reruns of The Great British Bake Off on the laptop because it’s Andrew’s new favourite show. They sprawl together on the sofa, Andrew making his way through a carton of ice cream, glaring at the screen every time Paul Hollywood says anything.
With Andrew’s fingers brushing gently against his neck, Neil intermittently naps through the evening, which means that when they finally go to bed, he can’t sleep.
There’s a crack in the curtains that’s letting in a sliver of light from the city that’s bustling beyond the window, shining across Neil’s face. Andrew’s back is to the window so he remains unbothered, his breathing steady and his features soft and slack in sleep.
Neil should get up and close the curtains properly so he can maybe get some sleep, but he doesn’t want to. He wants to trace his fingertips over Andrew’s face, smooth over his eyebrows, down his cheek, over the curve of his lips, across his jaw.
He doesn’t, because it would wake Andrew up and he doesn’t want that. So instead he watches, and soon, sleep tugs at him and he lets it take him.
Andrew’s flight the next day is late morning and Neil has a team meeting at his new stadium so can’t take him to the airport. Andrew takes an Uber instead, leaving Neil with a lingering kiss and a drawn out sigh that seems to imply he’s as tired of long-distance as Neil is.
Luckily, Neil’s too busy for the rest of the day to think on that too much. After his meeting he has to get his photograph taken for the team website as well as give a mini-interview. He has to get measured for his new-custom gear and talk with the equipment manager about the kind of racquets he prefers using (he sticks with heavies, as he has ever since Kevin enforced the change on him; he’d been right after all).
He’s all done by the early evening and as soon as he gets back to his apartment, he dresses for a run and heads right back out again.
Running is a comfort, a tried and tested routine, and although it’s usually a great way to clear his head, today he’s using it as another way to help familiarise himself with the area. There’s a park nearby to his building so he goes through there. He manages to map out another couple of running routes he can take in the future, before heading back at a light jog.
By the time he’s showered and changed, it’s fully dark outside and he’s starving. There’s leftovers in the fridge from the day before so he heats those up and wolfs it down, leaving the dishes in the sink to soak because he can’t be bothered right now.
He traipses back through to the living room, trying to think of something to do.
Back at college, even after Andrew had graduated, there was always something to distract if Neil was willing to let it. As captain, Neil was always putting out fires that would erupt between other teammates, planning training exercises for late-night practices, or helping Wymack with the line-up. Even with Exy taken out of the equation, it was college; there was parties and people and noise and, God forbid, even homework. There was always something going on, something to do, some kind of distraction.
Here, as Neil sits in a slump on his brand new (old) sofa, there is nothing but a crushing sense of loneliness. He looks around his living room helplessly and he suddenly hates how bare it is. His earlier comments to Andrew about it being pointless to fill it too much now seem hopelessly naive; who cares if this isn’t his forever home? It needs more; it needs something to suggest that someone actually lives here, that it’s not just a box where someone sleeps.
He realises he doesn’t even have any photographs; he’ll have to get Dan to send him some. He’ll have to get some of the ones from his phone printed, put in a frame, there to remind him that he has people.
People he can talk to.
Neil slowly counts to ten in his mind, letting the loneliness consume him. Once he’s reached ten, he exhales slowly.
Tomorrow is another day.
Neil follows up on his own epiphany and gets a few more home-comforts.
Nothing extravagant: a rug for the living room, a couple of colourful cushions for the sofa, a few new framed pictures for the walls. He does actually get a TV—nothing fancy—more because it makes the room feel fuller than because he actually needs one.
He gets a radio for the kitchen and it’s almost always on when he’s home, helping him feel less alone. He gets a fox-shaped kitchen clock, just to have something to put on the wall in there. He gets a cactus for the windowsill in the bedroom because he thinks it’ll be easy to keep alive, and because it somehow reminds him of Andrew. (Small. Prickly.)
He also has a little porcupine plush toy, one of the official Philadelphia Porcupine ones, wearing Andrew’s jersey. The fact that Andrew won’t be a player there for much longer is irrelevant; it’s still part of his story and besides, the plush is cute, and Andrew likes that Neil has it even if he gave the most exaggerated eye-roll ever seen when Neil first showed him. It sits pride of place on Neil’s bed, and when Andrew’s moved teams, it’ll be joined by a plush toy in a Minyard jersey of whatever mascot that team has, too.
It all helps, however minutely. But Neil still can’t stand being in that apartment alone.
Once the season properly gets underway, Neil throws himself into it. His teammates are fine; no problems like Andrew has found with his, but they’re still not the Foxes. They don’t really feel like his tribe, and Neil soon learns to try not to compare them.
The third match is a home one, and it’s against a team from Los Angeles. Neil’s excited about it because it’s the team Allison plays for. It’s the first match he’s faced against an ex-teammate. Against a friend.
There isn’t time to see her beforehand, and during the game they are both the professionals that they are; heads down with a steely determination. It’s not that close of a game; the Raiders are much higher in the rankings and the score reflects that, but it’s still a decent game. When the final whistle blows, Allison drops her racquet and launches herself at Neil in a sweaty hug.
“Oof,” Neil says when he catches her, and hears her cackle in his ear.
“Good game, you little asshole,” she says. “Let’s go get a beer.”
Following the post-game press call, Allison doesn’t return to the hotel with her teammates, nor will she be heading to the airport with them tomorrow. She’s staying with Neil for the weekend, and so he drives them back to his apartment.
There’s already beer in his fridge so they don’t need to go anywhere. Allison puts on sweats, wipes all of her make-up off and ties her hair into a messy top-knot, and Neil recognises that this is not a version of Allison everyone is welcome to see.
They sit on the sofa with some music channel Allison put on playing in the background as they catch up and reminisce, making their way through the beers. Allison has her legs draped over Neil’s lap, and as she tells him about her own career plans, the feeling of how content he feels just to have someone else here almost overtakes him, even though it isn’t Andrew.
“—and all of the advertising deals I get in L.A. are great but my team’s stuck in the bottom third of the rankings season after season and we can’t get out no matter how hard I play.”
“You’re wasted on that team,” Neil tells her truthfully.
She sighs airily. “I really, really am. I’ve been talking to Kevin, though.” She leans forward a little; her eyes are a little bleary from the booze but they’re wide and excited, as if she’s about to divulge a secret. “He’s been talking to his managers. He thinks he might be able to get me a deal in New York with him.”
Neil smiles at the thought; Kevin and Allison on the same team again would be a formidable force, but it would also be a very good fit for Allison.
“I’d say that’s a smart move.”
“Yup.” She leans back again. “I don’t wanna get my hopes up too much, though.”
“I’m sure it’ll work out if Kevin’s on the case.”
Allison hums non-committally and then changes the subject abruptly. “Did you know Renee’s in Puerto Rico right now?”
Neil nods; he did know this. Renee is excellent at keeping in touch with everyone, and even if she hadn’t told Neil personally he’d have found out from Andrew anyway. “When’s she back?”
“In a month. And then she’s staying with me for a week before she has to jet off again.” Allison sighs and looks at her beer bottle mournfully. “I miss her.”
It seems disingenuous somehow to try and lift her spirits, especially when he understands how platitudes like Cheer up! You’ll be together again soon! are astronomically unhelpful. Besides, he knows how she feels. Maybe it’ll help them just to be melancholy together.
“I miss her too. I miss everyone. I miss Andrew.”
“I miss Andrew,” she says wonderingly. “Somewhere along the way he got tolerable...somehow.”
Knowing that Allison really does mean this as a compliment, Neil lets it go. “I think he’d probably say the same thing about you.”
Allison shakes her head and laughs. “Time is weird.”
“It really fucking is.” Neil picks at a loose thread on the arm of the sofa and shrugs. “I thought I’d get used to the solitude again, but I just can’t. I never thought I’d get used to having people there all the time, but I did, and now I can’t stand the silence.”
“Baby,” Allison says sadly, and she hoists herself up to give him a one armed hug, unwilling to part with her beer.
He smiles wryly and pats her arm. “S’okay, Allison”
“It’s not,” she insists, frowning. “I hate the idea that when I leave on Sunday you’re gonna be sitting in here on your own all sad until the next time you see Andrew or someone else comes to visit you.”
“I’m not that pathetic.”
“It’s not pathetic to be sad and like...miss everyone.” She gasps. “Oh! Neil! You should get a pet?”
Neil scoffs. “What, like a dog?”
Allison mulls this over. “Hmm, no, not a dog. Too many away games, it wouldn’t be fair. But like, a budgie? Oh, or a cat!”
When Neil doesn’t immediately rebuff the idea, Allison bulls on. “You could totally get a cat. They’re slightly lower maintenance than a dog, but they’re great company. Just get chummy with a neighbour so you have someone to come in and feed it when you’re out of town.”
Neil’s affronted by the idea he doesn’t already know any of his neighbours. “My neighbour is called Dolores. She’s seventy-six and I carry her groceries inside for her.”
“Well there you go, angel, Dolores can check in on your cat for you.”
“On my cat,” Neil repeats, shaking his head. “I don’t have a cat, Allison.”
“Your hypothetical cat that you should hypothetically get to keep the hypothetical loneliness demons at bay. Hypothetically.”
She smiles at him and it’s hard not to smile back. He’d never really thought about getting a pet of any kind before, but he’d never thought about a lot of things before.
He could do this, if he wanted to.
“A cat?” he says tentatively to Allison. “Really?”
She beams then downs the rest of her beer, pushing the now empty bottle towards Neil and reaching for his laptop on the coffee table in front of them. “I’ll find some nearby shelters. You go and get us more beer from the fridge.”
They spend the rest of the night and well into the early hours like that. Allison finds the numbers and addresses for a couple of shelters, but then she clicks into YouTube and they watch cat videos as they get drunker, each one solidifying the idea in Neil’s mind that he definitely wants one of these furballs in his life at the earliest opportunity.
Morning arrives with the sun glaring through the window. Neil and Allison both managed to fall asleep on the sofa, and Neil has a crick in his neck from the awkward angle. It feels like something has died in his mouth and he’s desperate for the toilet, not helped by the fact that Allison’s feet are pushing right into his bladder.
Her cheek is perched on the opposite arm of the sofa, hair an absolute mess, mouth open as she snores. She’s drooling slightly.
Neil’s tempted to take a picture, but she might actually murder him for it. Instead, he moves her feet so he can get up, receiving a disgruntled noise in response, and hurries off to the bathroom.
He brushes his teeth while he’s in there just to get rid of the lingering beer taste then goes to the kitchen and drinks two glasses of water. Already feeling more human, he starts measuring out grounds for the coffee machine, and while he’s waiting for it to do his thing, he checks his phone.
He has three unread texts, all from Andrew, which is unusual, and Neil opens their message window to see if he sent anything to Andrew beforehand.
There is a few messages preceding Andrew’s, and Neil doesn’t remember sending them.
- allison thjnks i should get a cst because im so fuckin lonely
- i mean cat
Neil rolls his eyes at himself. He’s usually very good about not sending drunk messages, but these ones were sent just shy of four in the morning. He blames Allison entirely.
Andrew’s first reply was merely ? which makes sense as Neil undoubtedly woke him up with the messages. The second one was sent about five minutes later and says: are u ok? do u want me to call? and the breath almost seizes in Neil’s chest, because that message is clearly in response to the ‘lonely’ part of Neil’s original text.
He must have fallen asleep before seeing Andrew’s replies, and Andrew’s final message, sent about half an hour after the second, said this: guessing u fell asleep. u should get a cat if u want to. i’ll talk to u tomorrow.
Neil debates calling Andrew right then and there, but Allison hoarsely yells from the living room, “I need coffee…stat!” and he decides to save it for later. Instead, he sends off a message: sorry for txting so late, was drunk, don’t remember. i think i do want to get a cat tho. i’ll call later. miss you x
He doesn’t always sign off his messages like that, but it feels appropriate somehow this morning. And also, it’s just always true.
The coffee machine beeps then and Neil pours two cups, taking them back through and giving one to Allison to try and revive her.
He thinks she might have forgotten about their conversation the night before, but she hasn’t, and as soon as she’s up and ready for the day (a good two hours later), she calls one of the shelters she found the night before. It had said on their website that they weren’t open for walk-ins on Saturdays, but Allison is very persuasive when she wants to be. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s Allison Reynolds and she’s not shy about name-dropping herself.)
Neil drives them over with Allison calling out directions from her phone, and after telling him to turn too late not once, not twice, but three times, they eventually arrive unscathed.
Neil didn’t know what he had been expecting. Some kind of animal prison, maybe, but it’s not like that. It’s nice and spacious, and as he trails Allison towards the entrance, he can see an outside area where a bunch of volunteers are playing with some of the dogs.
He feels strangely nervous as they go in, almost like he’s going for a job interview. (Not that he’s ever had a job interview as such, but he imagines this is what it would feel like.) He just feels...scrutinised. Like the people who run this place will take one look at him and decide he couldn’t possibly provide a good home for any of these cats.
It doesn’t sit right with him. This suddenly seems like a big deal. He wants this, he realises. Now that the idea’s been planted, he can’t let it go. How nice it would be to get home from practice or a game to be greeted by a cat.
Allison does most of the talking while Neil smiles politely—the staff all seem a little in awe, but Allison has that effect on most people and probably would even if she wasn’t famous.
At some point, while Allison’s still charming people at the welcome desk, one of the volunteers comes over to Neil and quietly asks if he’d like to see the cats.
The volunteer, a woman around Neil’s age who introduces herself as Sadie, takes Neil down the corridor towards where the cats are kept; the dogs are on the other side of the building.
Again, he’s expecting something prison-like; tiny little cubbies with bars on the doors and barely enough room for a cat to be able to turn around. But again, it’s not like that. There’s larger rooms with plenty of light, plenty of things to climb on, plenty of soft things to sleep on.
A lot of the rooms are currently empty, and Sadie tells Neil that there’s a larger play room and most of the in-shelter cats are in there, with the exception of a few who aren’t very well, or who don’t play well with others.
She takes him straight down to the play room where there’s climbing frames, scratching posts, cat toys galore, and volunteers playing with the cats and showing them a bit of love.
Some of the cats show no interest in Neil whatsoever, but others do, coming over and letting him stroke them, a braver tabby crawling into his lap and purring loudly.
It’s lovely, and it’s overwhelming, and he wants to take them all home with him even though he knows he can’t. He came here to look; to express interest. He didn’t come to make any solid decisions, which is difficult to remember when he’s swarmed by cats who all want a forever home.
After around twenty minutes or so, when Neil’s stroked as many of the cats as will let him, he follows Sadie back out of the play room.
As they go back down the corridor, he looks in the rooms that still have cats in them. Most of them are sleeping and so don’t seem to notice, but there’s one room that has two cats inside, and one of them comes straight over to the window when Neil stops in front of it.
It’s a larger cat, with big eyes and longish black and white fur. The other one is smaller and shorter haired, very orange, and curled up in the corner eyeing Neil warily.
“What’s the story with these two?” Neil asks Sadie, wondering why they aren’t with the others in the play room. “Are they sick?”
“No, not sick. They came in together a couple of months ago, someone brought them in off the street. We’re not exactly sure as to their history, but we think they were probably someone’s pets and they got abandoned.”
“What are their names?”
“Oh,” Sadie laughs. “This little madam peering up at you is King Fluffikins, and the scowling ginger tomcat is called Sir Fatcat McCatterson.”
Neil raises an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“The manager’s daughter was here when they got brought in, and she named them. We just call them Sir and King.” She shrugs. “It stuck.”
Neil smiles; he likes the names. He likes the irony that King is actually fatter than Sir despite what the full names imply—but then again, that might just be all the extra hair she’s carrying.
“Why aren’t they playing with the others?”
“Sir is pretty wary of the other cats at the moment so he’s happier kept apart, and King won’t leave his side. We’ve tried to take her out without him but she won’t have it. She’s very loyal.” Sadie smiles down at King. “We think Sir will be okay with other cats eventually but he’s just very skittish right now, of people as well. He needs a lot of patience and love, that’s all.”
Neil nods. King meows up at him, and in the corner, Sir stands up and turns around so his back’s to the window and lies down again. It seems an almost passive-aggressive gesture and it makes Neil laugh; it inexplicably reminds him of Andrew.
“I’m guessing these two need to be rehomed together, then?”
“Definitely. Separating them would be detrimental, I think. As far as we can tell, they’ve always been together. They’re very bonded,” Sadie says.
Neil nods again. He wants them. He wanted all the cats in the play room, but there’s something about these two in particular that he can’t put his finger on. He can already picture them in his apartment.
He turns to Sadie. “Can you like, put them on hold for me? Is that how it works?”
“You want them?” Sadie looks delighted.
“Yeah, I just...it’s not just my decision, I need to talk to my partner.”
Sadie tilts her head towards the reception area in confusion. “...Miss Reynolds?”
The misunderstanding startles a laugh out of Neil. “No! Fuck, no. No, no, no. Not Allison. She’s my friend but she’s just visiting, she…” he laughs again. “No. My partner lives in Philadelphia right now but at some point we’ll be back living in the same apartment and so I think I need to run this by him if I’m gonna be bringing two cats into the equation.”
“Philadelphia,” Sadie says, before tentatively venturing, “Andrew Minyard?”
She’s obviously an Exy fan, and Neil’s uneasy for a moment. Him and Andrew aren’t a secret, but the press have been somewhat dense as to the nature of their relationship and Neil doesn’t particularly want to field any obtrusive interest they might have if it turns into a big story.
But he also doesn’t want to lie about who Andrew is to him.
“...Yeah,” he says warily.
She smiles kindly, and at that moment Neil knows he’s safe from Sadie running off to the papers. “I always wondered about you two. I was a big Foxes fan.”
She shrugs. “All my favourites graduated.”
Neil grins. “Mine too.”
Neil and Allison leave shortly after that, Neil promising to call Sadie the following day about Sir and King once he’s spoken to Andrew.
They spend the rest of the day together. Neil takes Allison for lunch somewhere nice and quiet, and then she takes him shopping. She gets him some art for his apartment. Some abstract thing; Neil’s not sure if he’s supposed to get it, but it looks nice enough. Allison says it’s a housewarming gift. And then she makes him buy new jeans and a couple of new t-shirts because no matter how much his wardrobe has expanded over the years, it’s never good enough for her impossibly high standards.
She tries to make him go for a haircut but he refuses, saying if she wants him to cut his hair then she’ll have to do it herself.
Of course, she takes him up on that, and sits him down in the bathroom when they get back.
Later on, they order takeout, and Neil lets Allison bully him into watching The Bachelor, then they Skype with Dan and Matt, and Neil shows off his neatened up hair.
Allison has an early flight the next day and so turns in early. Neil had offered her his bed saying he was happy on the sofa, but she wouldn’t take it, and so Neil leaves her with pillows and blankets and then goes into his own bedroom.
He waits around an hour, just to make sure Allison’s asleep and he won’t disturb her, and then he calls Andrew.
“Hey.” The phone is picked up remarkably quickly; Andrew’s clearly been waiting for this call.
“Hey. You okay?”
“Yes. Is Allison still there?”
“She’s sleeping on the sofa, her flight is early tomorrow. I’m gonna drop her at the airport.”
“Have you enjoyed having a visitor?”
“Yeah,” Neil says. “Yeah, it’s been really good to see her and catch up properly. She said she’s hoping to get signed to Kevin’s team in New York.”
“That would be a smart move.”
“That’s what I said.” Through the phone, he hears Andrew yawn. “You sound tired.”
Neil feels a little responsible for this as his messages definitely disturbed Andrew’s sleep, but an apology seems pointless when Andrew will only wave it off anyway.
“So did you mean it?” he asks.
“When you said I could get a cat if I want to.”
“You don’t need my permission, Neil.”
“I know that, but I don’t want to do anything you’re not comfortable with. Me getting a cat means that one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, you’ll also be living with a cat, because you’ll be living with me.”
“...I’m aware of that.”
“So you’re okay? With cats?”
Andrew lets out a little huff of air. “I mean...it’s...cats. I don’t have anything against cats.”
This seems about as optimistic as Neil’s going to get, and honestly it’s good enough for him.
“Good. Because I really want one.”
“Don’t go to a breeder,” Andrew says immediately. “Go to a shelter and adopt one.”
“Oh yeah, obviously,” Neil says. “Me and Allison went to a shelter today actually. And I’ve...well, I’ve already seen a cat that I like.”
Neil bites his lip nervously. “Um...two, actually. They need to be rehomed together.”
There’s a pause, and for a moment Neil thinks that this is too big of a step, that Andrew will never go for two. But then he says, “Tell me about them.”
So Neil does.
He fills Andrew in on what Sadie told him about where the cats were found and what their ridiculous names are, and how Sir is shy and skittish and potentially an asshole, but King is outgoing and cuddly, and that they’re inseparable and must have looked after each other for however long they were living as strays.
When he’s finished, there’s another long pause before Andrew says, “It sounds like you were really taken with them.”
“I was,” Neil says simply. “I am. I don’t know how to explain it. It just felt right, when I saw them. I dunno.”
“Well, you’ll have to get a litterbox. And a scratching post climbing frame thing. And you’ll have to give them the right kind of food and make sure they get enough exercise. You’ll have to play with them.”
A smile spreads across Neil’s face. “I know all that, I’ve been looking into it. Have you?”
“I did an internet search, Neil, don’t get excited.”
“I am excited. You did an internet search. You care.”
“Of course I care,” Andrew replies, and it’s not a snap, but it’s almost a snap, and for that reason Neil drops the teasing tone immediately.
“Andrew?” he asks.
There’s no immediate answer, but because Neil knows Andrew as well as he does, he doesn’t interrupt. He waits for Andrew to either find the words or change the subject, or maybe even hang up, if Neil’s really unlucky. He’s hoping for option A.
And it is option A that wins out.
“You said you were lonely,” Andrew finally gets out. “In your text, those were your words. That you were ‘so fucking lonely’. And I just...I don’t want you to be.” He sounds like he’s speaking through gritted teeth, but he reiterates: “I don’t want you to be lonely.”
“I don’t want me to be lonely, either,” Neil says softly. “But it’s okay. It won’t last forever. Are you?”
“No. I don’t know. I don’t think that’s the right word. I...miss you. But I don’t know if it’s the same as what you feel.”
“I miss you too,” Neil says. It’s all he can say. Some days it’s all he can think about.
“Oh,” Andrew says, offhand, and Neil’s glad that it sounds like there’s about to be a change of subject. It makes it easier to swallow the lump in his throat. “I might have news soon about a transfer.”
He cannot believe Andrew has waited this long into the conversation to bring this up.
“A transfer for you? Out of Philadelphia?”
“Yep. I haven’t had any specific talks myself yet but upper management have been approached by the Chicago Devils about me. They’re still gonna want to get as much money out of me as they can so they’ll probably end up sending me out to Chicago on loan to run out the rest of my contract. And then after that, the Devils can sign me if they want to.”
It doesn’t seem as definitive as Neil wants it to be, although it’s definitely a good sign. The Chicago Devils are a great team, in a fantastic standing in the rankings, and an aging (albeit legendary) offense line. That means there’s room there for Neil to work his way in.
“What happens if they didn’t sign you after the loan-period is over?”
“I’d find a new team, I guess,” Andrew says easily. “But I’m not worried. They wouldn’t take me on loan if they didn’t want to sign me officially. It’s just having to jump through Philadelphia’s hoops so they can get their money.”
“I don’t really care. As long as I can leave.”
This feels good. This feels almost perfect; a solid move for Andrew, and somewhere that would make sense for Neil too. The only dark cloud is the distance. Boston and Chicago. It’ll be their largest distance so far.
But if it’ll make Andrew happier, then it’s more than worth it.
“Aaron and Katelyn live in Chicago,” he reminds Andrew.
“I do know where my brother lives, thanks,” Andrew says dryly. “We have been known to talk to each other every now and again.”
“Alright, no need to be sarcastic, I was just saying. You’ll have to invite them round when you’re all moved in.”
“I’ll be sure to throw a raging house-party.”
Neil laughs. They’re getting ahead of themselves, but it’s hard not to. “You have to start putting in a good word for me with the Devils’ management as soon as you move then,” Neil says cheekily.
“There are no good words to say about you,” Andrew drawls.
“Don’t worry I’ll tell them you play stickball good.”
“That’s all I ask,” Neil says solemnly.
He feels good all of a sudden. Like plans are being made. Like things are falling into place, even if it’s taking longer than he’d like.
He feels like everything’s going to be okay.
“Chicago,” Andrew confirms. “And cats.”
Cats and Chicago. That’s the new plan.
Halfway through his second and final season with the Boston Raiders, there’s a series of international friendlies, which means that players from pro-teams all over the country get called up to the US Court.
Neil’s still on the bench coming back from a wrist injury, so he knows he won’t be one of them. It stings a little bit, but the Olympics are a year and a half away and he’d rather get called up to the national team for those. Besides, at least there’s a reason he’s out this time, and he’s not being overlooked when he’s fully fit.
He misses the press-conference when the US Court managers announce the team because he’s getting checked out by the team doctor. He knows Andrew won’t be on it, because he’s pretty sure Andrew would have remembered to mention being asked to play. He doesn’t understand why Andrew wasn’t asked, but puts it down to the fact that he’d had a turbulent year what with being loaned out and then signed to the Chicago Devils after only making sporadic appearances in his last few months in Philadelphia. Rumours had run rampant that Andrew was ‘difficult to work with’, and managers tend to balk at that kind of thing.
Regardless, Andrew’s current record in Chicago is stellar, and so Neil has no doubt that he’ll get called up next time, hopefully with Neil as well. And at the very least, they’re so close now to playing on the same team again; Neil’s been in the midst of finalising the paperwork for his move to Chicago as soon as he’s finished out the season in Boston.
Boston’s a good team, and he’s enjoyed it, but it’s time to move on.
And it’s long past the time to be with Andrew.
So all in all, Neil’s not too down in the dumps about Court as he gets into his car to drive back to his apartment.
He switches on the radio and it’s on the usual Exy news one he tends to leave on as background noise. As he suspected, all they’re talking about is the team selection. Kevin’s on the roster, as is Thea, and Jeremy Knox. Neil smiles as he gets a mention himself, the radio host saying, “I’m sure Neil Josten would have been a shoe-in if he wasn’t just coming back from a mild injury.”
He pulls a face when they talk about the goalies who were chosen. There’s three of them, two of whom are of a very high calibre but certainly not better than Andrew, and the third who’s a rookie, even greener than Neil is, in his first season after going pro straight out of high school. An odd choice for Court at the current stage in his career.
“Of course many of our listeners might think that Nielson’s a bit wet behind the ears, but he’s shown great promise. Although it is worth mentioning we’ve received reports that he was only asked because Andrew Minyard of the Chicago Devils turned down the offer. These reports are of course unconfirmed as we’ve been unable to reach Minyard for a comment, but given his outstanding track record we have to believe it’s true—”
Neil switches off the radio.
He thinks back over his last few conversations with Andrew, wondering if somehow, Andrew had mentioned this and Neil just hadn’t registered what he was saying. But no; it’s Andrew and it’s Exy, which means Neil is always paying attention. He hadn’t said a word.
Maybe it’s not true. After all, the radio host had said it was an unconfirmed report. But even as he thinks it, Neil immediately dismisses it. He knows it’s true. Andrew was called up to the US Court, turned them down, and elected not to tell Neil.
He stews in the silence for the rest of the drive, trying to figure out if he’s angry or confused or concerned, and he settles on an uncomfortable mixture of all three.
Neil’s not sure if he has a right to be upset about this, but then again he’s not upset that Andrew turned down the offer. That’s his decision, his prerogative.
No, Neil’s upset that he wasn’t told. They’re supposed to share the big things. This is a big thing.
Or maybe it’s not. It would be for Neil, but there’s every chance that for Andrew, it’s just...not.
He takes the stairs up to his apartment because he thinks the extra time it’ll take might help him to think more clearly, but he makes the mistake of looking at his phone on the way up the stairs and sees a message from Kevin which merely says: why the fuck did he say no?
Neil types out a harried reply: idk you’d have to ask him
Too many people try and reach Andrew through Neil. It grates sometimes, particularly when it’s Kevin.
- i’ve tried he won’t answer the phone
Neil doesn’t respond; the conversation’s just stoking his own frustration. By the time he reaches his apartment, however, Kevin’s sent another message through: this is about you somehow
- how’d you figure
- because it’s almost always about you
Neil won’t reply to that one either. He gets inside, locking the door again behind him. King is underfoot almost immediately, and he bends down to give her a little fuss.
“Where’s Sir, huh? He sleeping?”
King chirps back at him, and he stands back up again and goes into the living room. Sir is indeed asleep in there, perched on the back of the sofa. When Neil sits down, Sir opens his eyes and graciously allows Neil to scratch behind his ears.
“Right,” Neil says with a sigh, then pulls up his call list. Andrew’s still number one on Neil’s speed-dial even though he has a different phone now. A lot has changed but not that; not that Andrew’s still the first person Neil ever wants to tell anything to, good or bad.
He presses call.
It rings, and rings, and rings.
Until finally, innocently, like butter wouldn’t melt: “To what do I owe the pleasure, Neil?”
Neil can’t help but laugh. “You’re such an asshole, you know that?”
“In polite society we usually greet people with ‘hello’, but okay, I’m the asshole.”
“Don’t give me that, you know exactly why I’m calling.”
“You could be calling about any number of things. Enlighten me.”
Neil sighs in frustration but plays along. “I caught an interesting report on the radio about the team selection for Court. They seem to think you were offered a slot and turned it down.”
“I suppose you think it’s true.”
“...Yes. It’s true.”
Any irritation immediately fades away at hearing it right from Andrew’s mouth. All that’s left is confusion. “Why did I have to find out on the radio like everyone else? Why didn’t you just tell me?”
“I...don’t know,” Andrew says carefully, and he almost sounds annoyed that he doesn’t know. “I knew you wouldn’t get asked because of your wrist. And you’ve always cared more about Court than I have.”
“What, did you think I’d be jealous? I’m not; there’ll be other opportunities for me. If you want to go, you should. Maybe you still can.”
“I don’t want to.”
Neil slumps down until he’s lying fully down on the sofa, staring at the ceiling with his phone to his ear. “Why not?”
He’s thinking about Kevin’s text, about how it’s almost always about Neil, and he doesn’t like the implications. He doesn’t ever want to be responsible for holding Andrew back from anything.
But then again, Neil and Kevin have always thought about Exy differently to Andrew. It’s hard to put aside his hyperfocus and try to see it from another point of view, but he can try for Andrew’s sake.
“Maybe I just don’t feel like it,” Andrew says petulantly. “Can’t that be reason enough?”
“Sure, if that’s all it is. But is it?”
King hops onto the sofa down by Neil’s legs, then walks over him, stepping on his stomach and then lying down and making herself comfortable. She starts purring almost immediately, heavy and warm.
“Is that King?”
“Yeah, she’s crawled on me.”
“She is the loudest cat in the world, I can hear her from here.”
“True, but irrelevant. King judges you for trying to change the subject.”
“King’s never judged anyone for anything ever, she’s too stupid.”
“Okay first of all, that is my baby you’re talking about, and second of all, stupid people judge people all the time, and finally, I asked you a question. I’d like to know, but if you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to. Tell me no and I’ll drop it.”
He waits for the no, almost certain it’s coming. It’s a fine balance because if Andrew takes too long to answer, that’s also a no, and Neil has to know when to leave well enough alone. But Andrew’s hesitation is brief, even if his tone is a little irritated.
“Fine. Just remember that I’ve already made my decision and I’m happy with it and I’m not changing my mind.”
“Duly noted,” Neil says.
“It isn’t that I don’t want to ever. But whenever you talked about playing for the US Court, you always talked about it in terms of us going together. If I go now, without you, when it’s just a friendly tournament with no real stakes, then it doesn’t really mean anything to me.”
“Okay,” Neil says evenly. “That’s fair.”
“It’s something I might only get to do once, and I want to go with you. So it’s a no this time, but for the Olympics when you get asked as well, it’ll be a yes.”
“What if I don’t get asked?”
“What if they don’t ask you again because you turned them down this time?”
“I doubt that will happen, but if that’s the case, I’m fine with it. I’d rather watch you get to play Court than have to go without you.”
Neil doesn’t respond while he lets that sink in. Andrew’s always been sentimental if you know what to look for, even though Neil’s usually the only one who’s looking. It makes sense after hearing Neil talk about it incessantly for all these years that Andrew would attach the idea of Court to Neil.
He can accept that, as long as Andrew’s doing it for himself and not because he thinks Neil would be upset if he went without him.
“You might change your mind about that someday,” he says, because he feels like he needs to.
“Maybe,” Andrew allows. “But today, this is how I feel.”
Neil nods, obviously out of Andrew’s sight, but it’s more for his own understanding. “Okay. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”
“I’m...happy,” Andrew says, stilted, because using words like that still isn’t easy for either of them, even if they now understand how important it is to recognise the emotion and to invite it in.
“It still doesn’t explain why you didn’t just tell me that when they first asked you, though,” Neil grumbles; just because he’s on board with Andrew’s decision doesn’t mean he’s letting go being blindsided by a radio announcement.
Andrew sighs. “It’s not like I lied.”
“That’s a technicality.”
“You of all people don’t get to make that distinction,” Andrew deadpans, and Neil rolls his eyes.
“I didn’t tell you because I thought you might try and talk me out of it, I guess. I don’t know. It was easier not to.”
Neil can’t necessarily say he blames Andrew for jumping to that conclusion. After all, it’s not like he did immediately understand once he’d found out. It doesn’t mean he’s happy about being left out of the loop, though.
“But even so, you can always tell me anything. Forget Exy, and any of that other bullshit. Above everything else, I’m always on your side, okay? I’ve got your back, just like you’ve got mine.”
This will always be the most important team.
“I know, Neil.”
“Are we doing a bit, here? What’s going on?”
“You started it.”
“Okay, shut up. Talk to me about the line-up, then. Thoughts? Opinions?”
Andrew groans. “I don’t give a fuck, junkie, talk to Kevin about it.”
“Oh yeah, speaking of Kevin, you need to call him about this because he’s having a conniption and he won’t leave me alone.”
“Can’t you talk to him?”
“No, call him back. I’m sick of being your messenger pigeon.”
“Then what am I keeping you around for?” Andrew wonders aloud, but he sounds just a little bit fond.
Neil smiles. “Must be some other reason.”
There’s less than six months until they’ll be living together again. It can’t come quickly enough.
The flight to Chicago is cramped and uncomfortable. Neil’s pretty sure the person in the seat across the aisle from his recognises him as they keep stealing unsubtle glances, but Neil puts on his best ‘do NOT approach me’ face and they leave him alone.
He’s just exhausted; there had been a lot of last minute things to sort out before he could leave Boston, and he’s been lonely, too. The last time Andrew had been down, he’d flown so that he could drive Neil’s car back to Chicago with him, taking Sir and King with him along with some of Neil’s belongings that he didn’t want to get rid of.
Neil didn’t envy Andrew’s 14+ hour car journey with two cats in tow, but he didn’t particularly like being alone in his apartment for the three weeks before he finished up his contract in Boston and started his new one with Andrew and the Chicago Devils.
The seatbelt signs flicker on overhead and the captain announces that they’re beginning their descent. Neil exhales a slow breath of relief.
It seems to take forever for the plane to reach the gate when they land. Neil’s seatbelt is off before he’s technically allowed, so he’s on his feet and grabbing his duffel out of the overhead bin with unparallelled speed.
He gets stuck behind a few slow-walking people who have spread out across the corridor so as to be as inconvenient as possible to their fellow travellers as they make their way towards baggage-claim. In the end, Neil doesn’t even know why he bothered rushing. When he gets there, the conveyor belt for his flight hasn’t even starting spitting out anyone’s luggage yet.
He sighs, tapping his foot impatiently as he settles against a pillar to wait. He has two checked bags that he needs to pick up; it’s a far cry from the days that everything he owned fit into one duffel bag.
He wouldn’t go back to those days, though.
A few minutes later the conveyor belt finally kicks into life, and the first of the suitcases drifts into sight. Neil pulls his duffel tighter over his shoulder and strategically moves so he can clearly see what’s coming.
In his pocket, his phone starts to ring, and Neil pulls it out.
He smiles at the caller-ID, a grainy picture of Andrew staring at the camera dead on, cigarette between his lips.
Neil clicks to answer. “Hey.”
“Where are you?” Andrew asks without preamble. “Your flight landed twenty minutes ago.” Anyone would think he’s impatient to see Neil.
“I know. I’m at baggage claim.”
“...Wow, who even are you anymore.”
Neil snorts. “Jackass. You at Arrivals, then?”
“Have you made me an embarrassing ‘Welcome Home, Neil’ sign?”
“How did you know?” Andrew drawls, and Neil is overcome, suddenly, with the idea that Andrew is so close to him. All Neil needs to do once he’s got his bags is walk through that arch and round the corner and then there Andrew will be.
“Just a hunch,” Neil jokes, a smile pulling at his mouth.
This isn’t a flying visit. This is what they’ve been working towards since before they even knew it was what they were working towards, ever since Neil Josten officially became Neil Josten. A life; a life lived together.
It’s only taken six and a half years. Six long years of truths and cigarettes and kisses and slowly earned trust; of fingers brushing leading to hand-holding, of careful touches, stops and starts, sharing body heat when they could stand it, just sharing the space when they couldn’t. There’s been separations and reunions and it’s all culminating here, today.
It’s been so worth the wait.
“Your cats have missed you.”
“Hey, they’re our cats,” Neil says reproachfully, but then he grins. “Are you sure they’re the only ones who’ve missed me?”
“I don’t need to. Your reticence tells me everything I need to know.”
“I could leave, y’know. Get back in my car and drive home and leave you to hitchhike.”
“It’s not like I’ve never done that before.”
Andrew makes a tch sound and Neil laughs.
“Nah. You wouldn’t leave me,” he says confidently.
“No,” Andrew sighs, resigned to his fate. “I wouldn’t.”
Neil’s reply falters on his tongue as he notices a familiar bag approaching on the conveyor belt. “Oh shit, one of my bags is coming, I gotta go, I’ll see you in a sec, okay?”
“Okay,” Andrew says, and then, tentatively, “I can’t wait to see you.”
Neil’s heart aches, but it’s the good kind. “Me neither. But like, you, not me. What I mean is, I can’t wait to see you.”
Andrew groans. “Yeah I got that, Neil, thanks for ruining the moment.”
He hangs up and Neil just about has time to shove his phone into his pocket before his first bag comes into range, and he grabs the handles and swings it off the conveyor belt, careful not to take out any wayward toddlers who might be tottering about. The second bag is close to follow, and with his duffel across his shoulders and a handle in each hand, Neil wheels his suitcases towards the exit, under the archway and around the corner.
There’s a small crowd of people waiting, but Neil spots Andrew immediately; he’s standing a bit apart and he does not, in fact, have a ‘Welcome Home, Neil’ sign, but his eyes are on Neil’s as Neil gets closer.
And he smiles.
They don’t kiss yet—there’s too many people around and they still very much value their privacy—but Andrew immediately takes one of Neil’s suitcases and starts to make his way out. Neil falls into step beside him, and after letting the back of his hand lightly bump into Andrew’s a couple of times, Andrew wordlessly links their fingers together.
They do kiss in the car. Just briefly; soft, gentle promises of what’s to come considering they have their own apartment which they’ll now both be living in and they don’t actually have to make-out in the car like they’re teenagers with nowhere else to go.
Neil spends the whole ride back watching Andrew, which for once is let go without the usual quip of, “Staring.”
Back at the apartment, Neil dumps his bags in the bedroom, fusses over the cats for a few minutes, and then hops into the shower. He’s prepared to have to dig through his suitcases to find where he put his favourite sweatpants and hoodie to pull on for the rest of the evening, but he sees that Andrew has already done this for him while he was in the bathroom; they’re folded neatly on the corner of the bed.
Dried and dressed, Neil pads back through the apartment. He finds Andrew in the living room on the sofa, a mug of coffee in his hand and another one on the coffee table for Neil. It’s been put in Nicky’s fine-apple mug, and Neil grins.
Andrew’s watching a David Attenborough narrated nature documentary. There are currently lions on the screen; the cats are staring up at the TV, utterly enraptured.
Everything feels warm and calm and right.
Neil clambers onto the sofa and deposits his head in Andrew’s lap. “Hi.”
Andrew’s free hand settles in Neil’s hair. “Hi.” He hums. “You smell good.”
“I know, I stole your shampoo.”
Andrew leans down and lightly nips at Neil’s ear. “It’s our shampoo now,” he says, a callback to Neil’s earlier comment about the cats, and it would sound sarcastic if not for the fact that Neil knows better by now.
He rolls over so he’s looking up at Andrew. He catches Andrew’s hand and presses a kiss to his palm, then pulls it to his chest, holding it over his heart. Andrew gazes back down at him measuredly, considering something.
Then he nods, reaches forward to put his mug on the table next to Neil’s, and then adjusts his position so he’s lying down alongside Neil. They face each other; Andrew wraps an arm around Neil to keep him from slipping off the edge of the sofa.
Their faces are close enough that their noses are touching, and all it takes is for Andrew to tilt his head to the side to slot their lips together.
It feels like waking up or coming home. It’s dizzying and grounding and a million other things that shouldn’t make sense all together but somehow they do anyway. It feels like something Neil was never supposed to have, but now that he has it, he knows incontrovertibly that he deserves it, and that Andrew deserves it. This little corner of home and happiness and contentment that they’ve carved out for themselves. It’s taken time and work and it’ll take maintenance but it’s theirs and he’ll never take it for granted.
“What do you wanna do tomorrow?” he asks quietly, in between lazy kisses.
Andrew hums it over as he kisses a trail across Neil’s face, lingering over every scar, landing inevitably at Neil’s lips again. “We need to go grocery shopping.” He kisses him again. “You need to unpack.”
Neil pouts. “I thought you unpacked for me.”
“I dug through your bag and yanked out your sweats, I didn’t touch anything else.”
“Did you clear space for me in the closet?”
“There’s always been space for you in the closet, dumbass.” Andrew narrows his eyes, then kisses the confused furrow on Neil’s brow. “You were always going to end up here with me, I didn’t want to fill a space that was already yours.”
This isn’t news to Neil, it’s not a surprise, and yet he’s oddly touched anyway. He smiles, whispers, “Okay,” then chases after Andrew’s lips for another kiss.
“Okay, so here’s the plan, let me know what you think,” he says a moment later when they’ve come up for air. “I’ll get up and go for a run, you can come if you want—”
“...Noted. Then I’ll get back and unpack while you make us breakfast and coffee. We’ll go and do the grocery shopping, come home, nap, wake up, go for a drive, come home again, make dinner, watch The Great British Bake Off, make out, go to sleep?”
It’s such an alarmingly domestic plan. Neil almost can’t believe he’s the one who’s suggested it.
Andrew nods drowsily. “Alright, I’m on board.”
Neil smiles. “I thought you might be.”
“Shut up.” Andrew burrows closer, clutching his hand in Neil’s hoodie. Neil brings his hand up to idly run his fingers through Andrew’s hair, and it’s quiet for a couple of minutes; just David Attenborough’s dulcet tones in the background and the soft sounds of existing in the same space. Their coffees are going cold behind him but Neil doesn’t care. Eventually, his eyes drift closed.
“Neil?” Andrew murmurs.