Andrew is quiet.
It’s obvious now that he’s off the meds and not giggling manically at every stray thought that flits by his mind, but the difference is startling enough that Neil can see some of the Foxes still tiptoe around him as if unsure how to behave now that they can’t blame their unsettledness on his high. Andrew tends to sit in his corner, observing and calculating, a habit and a precaution. He chooses his words carefully, never wasting a single breath. He’s not slow; it just takes a lot of effort for things to be interesting enough to motivate him.
Most times, Neil finds Andrew’s quiet calming. It’s not meant to be a comfort, but it’s comfortable, for them. Andrew is still working on the whole apathy thing, but Neil never minded the quiet. He’s spent his whole life being quiet. He likes it, he thinks, this kind of quiet that is born out of comfort and familiarity rather than necessity. He likes that Andrew is fine with the quiet, too.
But sometimes, Andrew goes the entire day without speaking a word to anyone. Not even Neil. He’ll go through the motions of being alive, but it’s just that: alive, but not living. It’s a bit jarring, watching the blankness harden into a shell and watching the boy he knew retreating into himself until there’s no trace of Andrew left. Just a placeholder, breathing for him when he’s too tired to deal with the implications of what comes after each exhale. Touch is nowhere within the question on days like that. Even Kevin keeps his nagging to himself. The rest of the Foxes stay out of the way. Nicky will send Neil worried glances, but Neil just waits. Andrew will come back when he’s ready.
Andrew will come back, because he told Neil to stay.
Andrew’s quiet grounds Neil the same way solid cement beneath his feet does. It’s steady, it’s familiar. It’s Andrew.
Neil wouldn’t have it any other way.
Neil wakes up in the middle of the night choking on air.
He claws his way out of the nightmare, out of that basement, out from under sharp knives and cruel grins. His bedsheets, soaked in sweat, are a tangled mess around him, and for a moment, he’s not entirely sure where he is. The roar of his heartbeat is deafening in his ears. Mouth open, Neil gulps in a breath. Then another, and another.
Slowly, the sound of Kevin’s snoring and Nicky’s nonsensical sleep-muttering filters back in. Andrew is a deathly quiet sleeper, and an insomniac at that. Neil doesn't worry too much at the quiet underneath his bunk. Adrenaline is still pumping through his veins. Neil pushes himself up. Carefully, he climbs out of bed and down the ladder.
Andrew’s bunk is empty. It’s not particularly unusual at two-thirty in the morning, so Neil doesn’t panic. The door is slightly ajar. He slips out of the room on quiet feet.
He finds Andrew on one of the beanbags. The tv is on, muted and playing what looks like a nature documentary. Andrew is holding a half-empty mug in his hands.
They make eye contact but don’t speak. Wordlessly, Neil drags the other beanbag over. As an afterthought, he tugs on the hoodie Kevin left by his desk and settles into his seat next to Andrew.
“You look like a child,” Andrew says some time later. His voice is rough, scratchy from a whole day's worth of silence.
Neil flaps the too-long sleeves. “It’s comfy though.” He squints. “Isn’t that sweater you’re wearing mine?”
Andrew doesn’t respond. He shuffles around, putting the mug on the ground and shifting until he’s lying almost horizontally, head tilted towards Neil. His eyes are half-lidded where they are trained on the tv.
Reaching out a hand, Neil murmurs, “Yes or no?”
Gently, Neil sinks his hand into Andrew’s hair. He brushes his fingers through it, admiring the softness of it after Andrew washes it. Andrew’s eyes have drifted shut, though his breathing indicates that he’s still very much awake. The eyebags under his eyes are heavy. Neil plays with his hair and listens to him breathe. The nightmare seems miles away now.
It’s surprisingly easy, falling into this sort of quiet with Andrew. Neither of them are strangers to sleepless nights, but neither of them are friends with tender touches and soft intimacy. Sometimes, it’s too much—Andrew says no, Neil’s scars itch, their skin feels too tight or too loose and just uncomfortable. They both know about quiet nights that can hold such ruthless violence, but they are both allowing themselves to learn about quiet nights that can hold such safe gentleness.
They both doze off at some point, curled towards each other, doused in the flickering grey of the tv. It’s quiet.
“Where’s Andrew?” Kevin demands.
Neil scribbles down the last decimal place. “I don’t know,” he replies distractedly.
“What do you mean you don't know?”
“I mean I’m not his keeper,” Neil says.
“He’s not answering my messages.”
“Maybe his phone’s dead.”
“You’re the one who doesn’t charge his phone.”
Neil sighs. He puts down the calculator and gives Kevin the most unimpressed stare he can manage. He tries to channel Andrew’s thousand yard stare, but no one can do dead-eyed staring like Andrew can. “Maybe he just doesn’t want to talk to you,” Neil says. “Remember when you threw out the last of his ice cream last week?”
“They were expired,” Kevin argues. “And I got him new ones.”
“You made Nicky buy them.”
Kevin sighs. “Okay, I pissed him off, fine. Maybe I’m trying to apologize right now, so can you help me find him?”
Neil narrows his eyes. “You’re trying to apologize?”
Kevin nods. And then, because he’s Kevin, he shamelessly adds, “I also need him to drive us to the court for extra practice with Matt, Nicky, and Aaron.”
“How did you manage to get them to agree to that?”
“I made them an offer they can’t refuse,” says Kevin, unintentionally ominous. “And they know they need the extra practice.”
Neil rolls his eyes. He glances back down at his homework. He’s finished most of the problem sets now, and he’s been sitting in the silent kitchen for the better part of the last two hours. He knows that Andrew emerged from the bedroom at one point. It’s not hard to figure out where he went.
“It’s your turn for dinner,” Neil reminds Kevin. “I’ll go find Andrew.”
He does find him, perched on the edge of the roof like always. Andrew blows out a cloud of smoke as Neil lowers himself onto the ledge next to him.
“Kevin’s pouting because you’re ignoring him,” Neil tells him.
Andrew grunts. He takes another drag before flinging the cigarette off the roof. They both watch the ash flutter to the ground.
“Hey,” Neil says softly. “You okay?”
There’s a long pause. Andrew’s eyes are fixed on the setting sun in the distance. Evening wind ruffles through his hair and clothes, the only movement breaking his stillness. Neil sits beside him and waits.
“Migraine,” Andrew says eventually. He’s told Neil about them before, how the things his brain absorbs like a sponge sometimes bounce around in his head aimlessly and restlessly, how the memories he can’t forget play on loop and he’s forced to endure it with no back door exit. There’s nothing anyone can do.
“I’ll get Kevin off your back,” Neil says.
Andrew digs in his pocket and pulls out his car keys. Wordlessly, he holds them out and lets Neil take it. His fingers linger against Neil’s. They’re cold.
“Andrew? Yes or no?”
A quick sideways glance. Weariness tugs at the edges of Andrew’s eyes. He nods. Neil tucks the keys away and takes hold of Andrew’s hand with both of his own. Andrew’s hand is rough. It’s wider than Neil’s own, lined with callouses and scars. Neil presses their palms together. Warmth seeps through the contact. Andrew doesn’t look at him, but his fingers curl around Neil’s, securely and firmly.
The sun is long gone by the time they make their way down the stairs back into the dorm.
Andrew kisses like he punches: hard and deep and honest. His lips burn against Neil’s own and sets his pulse on fire. Neil’s experience on kissing is limited but he doesn’t think he’d ever want to know anything else other than this—Andrew’s hands tracing his jawline, circling his wrists, carefully, so carefully, exploring the map of scars across Neil’s skin.
Kissing Andrew is a quiet affair. The only words exchanged are murmurs of yes or no . Each touch is searing, but only after they’ve made sure it’s okay. Neil likes it when Andrew’s fingers slip through his hair and down the back of his neck. He likes the way Andrew’s eyes are dark where they are trained on Neil’s face, the press of his fingertips against the sharpness of Neil’s cheekbones. He likes the way Andrew’s hair is so easy to mess up. The way Andrew shivers when Neil mouths at his neck. The way Andrew will threaten to push him out of bed when Neil starts muffling laughter into his collarbones, but his hands will have hooked themselves into Neil’s shirt.
Neil is good at keeping quiet. Quiet kept him alive. But he doesn’t need to just survive , now. Quiet isn’t a necessity anymore. It’s a choice. It’s a choice he’s making, with Andrew.
Neil isn’t a poet. But when Andrew’s eyelashes flutter, Neil swears he sees faerie dust. Andrew makes minimal noises in bed, but he has other tells: the red of his ears, the way his skin flushes a glowing pink, the huff of his breath through Neil’s hair. He likes teasing these reactions out of Andrew. He likes knowing he can cause such reactions in Andrew. He likes knowing that Andrew lets him, that maybe, just maybe, Andrew likes it, too.
They don’t always go further than kissing. Neil lets Andrew take the lead because he trusts Andrew, because he wants to. And because it’s easier, sometimes. Neil still doesn’t really understand the hype about sex. He likes being close to Andrew when he can. He likes sharing body heat, he likes learning the intimate parts of Andrew and allowing himself to be exposed in the same way in return. There’s a thrill in that, one he doesn’t think he’ll ever really become used to. So they go at their own pace.
And it’s quiet. And it’s good.
Neil comes back to the dorm half an hour early in the afternoon since the professor had an emergency. Silence greets him when he opens the door. It’s not unusual this time of day, but there’s a staleness to the quiet that feels wrong.
He dumps his bag by the desks and makes his way to the bedroom. The others are out—Nicky’s covers thrown hazardously halfway off his bunk, Kevin’s bed neatly made—but there’s an Andrew-shaped lump in the other bottom bunk.
“Andrew?” Neil glances at the armbands resting on top of the dresser. Andrew’s backpack hasn’t moved either. He had a morning class, but it’s not like he can’t afford to skip. Neil moves on from that obvious question and instead asks, “Have you eaten yet today?”
His only response was a slight shuffling from the blanket cocoon. Neil can just barely see a tuft of blond hair peeking out of it. He takes that as a no.
Retracing his steps, Neil goes to pull his phone out from his bag. He puts the kettle on to boil and rummages through the cupboards for the instant hot chocolate mix. While he waits for the hot water, he taps out a quick message to Nicky to buy takeout on his way back.
Andrew hasn’t moved by the time Neil makes his way back with a mug of hot chocolate in his hands. “Hey,” Neil says. He sets the drink down on top of the dresser. “You should drink something at least.”
For a long moment, Neil thinks Andrew will ignore him. Just as he’s preparing to make himself sparse and give Andrew his space, the blankets move. Andrew’s face peers out. He looks exhausted. The hollowness in his expression makes Neil’s chest squeeze.
Neil hands him the mug, and then hovers beside the bed until Andrew shifts over to let him sit on the edge of it. He watches Andrew sip at the hot chocolate for a while. His stare is empty and spacey. Neil wants to reach out and ground him, but he knows that won’t be appreciated right now. Worse still is that he knows it won’t work.
“Do you want me to call Bee?” he offers.
Andrew blinks slowly. He looks into the mug blankly. He shakes his head.
“Okay,” Neil says. “Do you want me to stay?”
More blinking. A tired nod.
The half-empty mug is replaced on the dresser. Andrew retreats back into his blankets, but he leaves enough room for Neil to crawl back into the bunk. They rearrange their limbs until Andrew is pressed up against the wall, his thick comforter a soft barrier between them. Neil stretches out beside him, careful to leave what little space he can.
A hand touches his shoulder. Neil turns on his side to find Andrew already facing him. His expression is still heartbreakingly blank, but his eyes are more focused than before. They trace over Neil’s face as if running through a familiar routine.
Wordlessly, Neil lays his arm between their heads. Andrew slowly reaches up. His fingers trail across the scars there, until he reaches Neil’s hand. He slips his fingers through Neil’s own. He blinks at Neil once. Neil watches his eyes droop closed.
Andrew’s breathing eventually evens out again. Neil doesn’t move, not even when his arm goes numb from the awkward angle. He watches over Andrew’s uneasy rest, waits for the storm to pass.
Allison is halfway through painting the nails on Neil’s left hand when she finally gives up trying to gossip with Neil. Instead, without looking away from the sparkly blue nail polish, she goes, “So what are you fighting with the monster about?”
Neil frowns. “Don’t call him that.”
“Yeah, yeah, you know it’s an affectionate nickname by now.” Allison waves the tiny wand at him. “Don’t avoid the question, twerp.”
“We’re not fighting.”
“Uh-huh. And that’s why you showed up at our door at seven in the evening even though you usually fuck off somewhere with him every chance you get.”
“We have separate lives,” Neil says. “We don’t have to spend every waking moment together.”
“Yeah,” Allison agrees. “But you only come over when you’re clearly avoiding your dorm.”
Neil feels guilty suddenly. Between his new vice captain duties and actually needing to pass his classes so he can get a degree and settling into his thing with Andrew, he hasn’t had as much time to just hang out as he used to. Matt manages to bully him into lunch between classes but the girls are harder to catch because of their own impending graduation.
Neil really doesn’t want to think about that at all.
“I like spending time with you, too,” Neil says.
Allison reaches up with her free hand to ruffle his hair. “Love you, too, babe. But you’re still dodging the question. What’s up with you and Andrew? It’s weird when you’re not attached at the hip. Also, like, if you need us to beat him up, just say the word, you know? I’ll sic Renee on him.”
“Don’t do that,” Neil says. He looks down at his coloured nails. “We’re fine—really, Allison, don’t look at me like that. Just a disagreement, is all.”
“I can take care of myself. I can handle Andrew.”
“I know you can, honey.” Allison sits back and studies him. “You know we all care about you, right? You, and the monster, too. You guys look happier. Well, Minyard looks less like he’s about to commit homicide most of the time, so that’s as much of an improvement as it’s ever going to get, I guess.”
Despite himself, Neil smiles. “I am,” he admits, “happier.” He pauses. “That feels so weird to say.”
“Kiddo, you’re breaking my heart.”
Neil goes back to his dorm close to midnight with his nails painted sparkly blue and a promise to drag the others to the next movie night. Nicky is already asleep, while Kevin is still at his desk reviewing exy tapes. He glances up at Neil's entrance and points up at the ceiling. Neil nods at him.
He only pauses long enough to grab a jacket before leaving for the roof. Andrew gives no indication that he heard Neil push open the heavy door, but when Neil comes to sit beside him, he holds out the pack of cigarettes. A peace offering.
"There's a bet about what we're fighting about," Neil says. "And how long the fight will last."
"We're not fighting," Andrew says predictably.
"That's what I said." Neil takes a drag. He tilts his head back to look at the sky. He squints, but there are no stars to be found.
Beside him, Andrew stubs out his cigarette. He doesn't look at Neil. He lets Neil study his profile for a few minutes.
The cigarette in Neil's hand went out sometime during his neglect. He puts it out completely and leans back onto his hands.
"So," he says. "Where do we go from here?"
Andrew turns to him, finally. His expression is deadpan like always, lips pressed into a flat line. But his eyes, they're ablaze.
"Anywhere but here," Andrew says, and that's that.
Neil is shaking when he leaves the professor's office. Unfortunately, he forgot that Matt is waiting for him. His friend immediately sees through his feeble attempt at feigning normalcy.
"Dude, what happened?" Matt asks. "Did you fail your midterm or something?"
"No," says Neil. "He wants to recommend me for an internship."
"What? Neil, buddy, that's fantastic news! I'm proud of you."
Neil nods. There's a rushing in his ears. Matt is saying something, something about gathering the team to celebrate because the Foxes love any excuse to get drunk but they're all proud of Neil, honest, because you're a genius, Neil, and that prof clearly understands that. Neil doesn't realize he's stopped breathing until Matt suddenly cuts himself off and is standing right in front of Neil.
"Hey," Matt says. "Hey. What's wrong?"
Neil opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He tries again. Words slip just out of reach, tangling together until he can't make sense of it all. He sees the professor's calm earnest gaze, the freshly printed application form with his name on it. His wallet burns in his pocket. There are phantom fingers tugging at his hair, a voice hissing in his ear to run, run away, to where no one knows your name.
The worst part is that Neil can feel the familiar urge to give in to that fleeing instinct, that it would be so easy to fall back into that habit of running.
Matt is still peering at him in growing concern. "Neil," he says seriously. "Do you want me to call Andrew?"
Lightning pulse in his throat, Neil almost says yes. Andrew would understand the strange panic taking root in his ribcage. Or maybe he wouldn't—but he'd be a solid presence, the rock in a storming ocean, holding Neil down until he remembers how to stay. Andrew would stare him down and tell him to stop being stupid and remind him that he's not a ghost anymore. Neil Abram Josten, you are a real person and real people are known.
Being known is not a death sentence anymore.
Forcing air through his lungs, Neil shakes his head. He reaches out and grabs Matt's arm, where he already has his phone out. Still doing his best to breathe, Neil types out, i want to go home.
Matt reads, and then nods. “Okay,” he says. “Okay, let’s get you back to the Tower.”
Neil hesitates. Matt waits. Because he’s still shaking, Neil throws all his pride to the wind. He reaches out and hooks a hand in Matt’s jacket.
“Okay?” Matt asks. “Do you want me to talk? Distract you? You don’t have to talk back.”
Matt talks about his day, his current group project woes, this conversation he had with Dan last week. Neil listens as best he can. Mostly he’s concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.
Andrew opens the door, takes one look at Neil’s pale face and glares at Matt. “Explain.”
Neil shuffles forwards. He shoves the open notebook he dug out of his backpack at Andrew. Matt helped me, Neil wrote, I had a panic attack.
Andrew flicks a quick glance at Neil’s scribbles. He takes another look at Neil’s face. “You’re still panicking,” he observes. He reaches out to pull at Neil’s backpack strap. “Bye, Boyd.”
As Andrew goes to close the door on Matt, Neil turns and tugs at Matt’s jacket. His friend looks down at him. Neil opens his mouth. No sounds come out. He scowls, frustrated, but Matt just gives him a small smile.
“It’s okay, buddy. Just, take care of yourself, okay? Come find me when you feel better. You still owe me a lunch, yeah?”
Neil nods. He gives Matt one last wave before Andrew loses his patience and practically drags him into the dorm.
“What happened?” Andrew demands.
Through his messy chicken scratch writing, Neil manages to explain. He struggles to come up with a proper reason why he’s unable to speak, but Andrew doesn’t question it. Instead, he asks Neil yes or no. When Neil nods, he sits them both down on the couch, arranges their limbs until Neil is sprawled over Andrew’s lap, face pressed against the soft material of Andrew’s sweatshirt.
“There are worse things to be known for,” Andrew murmurs above his head. Neil closes his eyes and tries to match the rhythm of their heartbeats.
(Two days later, Andrew comes back to the dorms and drops a book in Neil’s lap. Sign Language for Dummies. Neil looks up at him, but Andrew just stares back at him calmly. Without a word, Neil picks the book up and flips to the first page.)
Neil opens the door to find Aaron standing in the hallway, looking vaguely annoyed and more than a little uncomfortable.
“Where’s Andrew?” Aaron asks before Neil can open his mouth.
Neil rolls his eyes. “Passed out after barfing up his guts for the past hour.”
Aaron scowls at him. “You just left him alone?”
“What part of passed out do you not get? I’m not about to watch him sleep like a creeper.”
“He’s sick, asshole.”
“I know that.”
For a moment, they just stand there in the open doorway, glaring at each other. No one else is in; Nicky is out at some study group thing, Kevin is over at Wymack’s. Andrew’s been down since last night. Neil found him pale-faced and shivering on the bathroom floor.
Aaron backs down first. He shoves a thermos at Neil. “Get him to drink this. He needs to eat and stay hydrated, cycle out the bacteria in him.”
“What is it?”
“You made soup?” Neil holds the thermos away. “You know Andrew already has food poisoning, right?”
The glare Aaron gives him can rival Andrew. “Just because you only know how to make scrambled eggs doesn’t mean the rest of us are incompetent in a kitchen.” Aaron glances away. “Katelyn helped me make it.”
Neil looks at him, then at the thermos. It’s warm in his hands. Aaron is shifting his weight on his feet, like he’s ready to leave at any moment. His relationship with his brother isn’t exactly amazing, but compared to how they were before, Neil thinks it’s a vast improvement. Even if they’re both still emotionally constipated in regards to each other.
It’s clumsy, this at-a-distance taking care of each other. But Neil can recognize the tiny give-and-takes, the small olive branches being offered.
“I’ll give it to him,” says Neil. He takes a step back. Aaron doesn’t move. “If Andrew feels less like murder when he wakes up, I’ll get him to message you.”
“Don’t bother,” Aaron tells him. “Just—take care of him, Josten. Even if he is a terrible baby when he’s sick.”
“Can’t be worse than Kevin.”
They share a grimace at the memory of the last time Kevin caught the bug going around. Aaron gives him a brief nod. Neil returns it. He doesn’t watch Aaron walk back down the hall.
When he goes to the bedroom to check on Andrew, he finds him awake. Neil settles on the floor beside his bunk. Andrew blinks at him blearily. His skin is flushed, his hair a sweaty mess.
“Aaron said you should get some liquids in you at least,” Neil says. He uncaps the thermos and waits until Andrew pushes himself up.
Andrew peers at the soup in his hands. "Aaron can't cook," he remarks.
Neil is going to lord that fact over Aaron next time they are trapped in conversation. Right now, he just shrugs. Andrew gives him a shrewd look, but he drinks the soup.
"How do you feel?" Neil asks after he's finished half the thermos.
"Less like death," Andrew says. He stares down at the empty cup. There's this look in his eyes, the smallest bit of befuddlement, like he's found a puzzle he's not sure he wants to spend the effort on solving just yet. "I don't have... The last time I was this sick," he says slowly, "Cass had to come get me from school."
Neil's hands clench on his knees. If Andrew notices, he doesn't react. Neil stays quiet, watching Andrew trace the rim of the cup.
"No one ever had the time to take care of a sick foster child," Andrew says. His low voice almost fades into the quiet of the room. "It was easier to be fine. Guess you know how that is."
"Yeah," Neil says softly.
"I threw up in the middle of class. They made me wait in the nurse's office and I threw up again because I thought Cass was going to send me back when she came. Or maybe I thought she wouldn't show up at all."
"But she did."
Andrew closes his eyes. He holds out the cup. Neil takes it and puts it with the thermos. "She did," Andrew says. "She drove us home and took care of me like all the mothers in the movies. She called in sick for me the next day even though I was feeling better and took me out for ice cream. I thought the fever gave me hallucinations."
It's quiet for a bit as they both absorbed that. Andrew still hasn't opened his eyes. Neil is stuck in the unpleasant whirlpool of emotions that comes every time Andrew mentions that woman's name. He can almost imagine a pre-teen Andrew, pink-faced with fever, awkward in his disbelief that the palm on his forehead is real, and gentle.
Shaking off the sudden twinge in his chest, Neil says, "I was never allowed to be sick."
"You can't just not be sick."
He smiles, but it doesn't sit right, so he stops. "Being sick made you vulnerable, an easy target. We were always stocked up on Tylenol and cough syrup, but mostly we just powered through it until we weren't sick anymore."
"So you just decided not to catch the flu for eight years?"
"I think I did, once. Woke up so sick I couldn't see straight. I was basically useless for two days. It was... dangerous."
"Did she beat the sickness out of you?"
Neil grimaces. He knows about Andrew's distaste for his mother, and sometimes when he thinks about all those houses that Andrew passed through and all those people that gave up on him without even trying—sometimes Neil thinks he can understand the sentiment. But he can’t change his past. He can’t change the blood that runs through his veins.
“We were crossing state lines,” he says. “I spent the entire trip with a bucket in the backseat.”
“Sounds like a fun road trip.”
Neil huffs a laugh. He looks at Andrew, and finds him staring right back. “I guess,” he says, “we can be sick now.”
“Great,” Andrew says. “I’ll be sure to make a public announcement about it.”
Neil rolls his eyes. He pushes himself to his feet, grabbing the thermos and leaving Andrew to fall back asleep.
They’ll be just fine. And this time, Neil thinks he really means it.
These days, Andrew sleeps with his armbands off.
Neil notices, of course he does, but he doesn’t say anything. Andrew never said anything about the way Neil has finally stopped checking for exits in every room he’s in. If they both trust each other enough to lower their guards this much, that’s a secret they’ll keep close to their chest.
On bad nights, Neil relocates back to his own bunk or he does rock-paper-scissors with Kevin for the better couch in the Columbia house living room. On good nights that turn into bad days, they sit up in Andrew’s bed and silently put space and distance between their bodies. On bad nights that might turn into good days, they agree to come back to each other only when they are certain and sure and ready.
But on good nights, or good mornings following good nights, when Neil wakes up to Andrew’s sleep-soft face, there is this: flyaway blond hair tickling Neil’s forehead, a familiar weight of a hand linked in his, the pretty hazel of Andrew’s eyes as they slowly wake up into focus. There is this: the thick, syrupy warmth of waking up from a nice dream, spreading from Neil’s belly and keeping him safe and soft and unwilling to climb out of bed just yet, not even for his morning run. There is this: Andrew blinking sleepily at his face and slowly moving forwards to press a kiss on his nose before he’s awake enough to hold himself back.
“Good morning,” Neil whispers.
“Your breath stinks,” Andrew answers.
Neil scrunches up his face but he doesn’t say Yours, too. Instead, he watches Andrew yawn, lets his eyes trail down the rumpled gray tshirt Andrew is wearing, down to his bare arms. Neil is raising a hand before he registers the movement.
“Andrew,” says Neil quietly. “Yes or no?”
Andrew follows his gaze and considers. He rolls onto his side, facing Neil. “Yes,” he says. His eyes are steady on Neil’s face.
Neil has felt Andrew’s scars before. Rarely, on very specific occasions. He’s traced his way from Andrew’s wrist to his elbow, careful and feather-light and reverent. Andrew has done the same for his own scars. An equal exchange, of sorts. But mostly Neil treats it like a gift each time.
They’re rough. They make a violent landscape on Andrew’s skin, raised bumps and jagged edges and uneven lines. Andrew doesn’t move as Neil runs his fingers along them. Neil shivers at the feel.
It’s strange. When he brushes his own scars, it feels distant, cold, like they are drawn on someone else’s body. Someone else’s pain and suffering. And maybe it is, because Nathaniel Wesninski is as good as dead. Neil Josten is the one who survived. But touching Andrew’s scars, there is an ache that echoes underneath Neil’s collarbones.
Andrew’s hand closes around Neil’s wrist. Neil stops, holding still, but Andrew’s expression is still calm. He lifts his other hand and brushes a thumb across Neil’s cheek, right over the burn scar.
“I’m right here,” Andrew tells him.
Neil closes his eyes. Leans into his touch. “I know,” he says back.
It's one fourteen in the morning, and neither of them are sleeping.
Neil watches Andrew flick his lighter, change his mind, put the cigarette away. The street is quiet, the whole world asleep save for the two of them. The light above the front door flickers over them.
Eventually, Andrew shoves the entire pack back in his pockets. Exchanges them for his keys. He doesn't say a word, just stands and walks to the car parked in the driveway.
He knows better than to ask where they are going. Andrew turns off the stereo and steers them onto the highway. The empty road stretches before them, the night flying by their windows in flashes of yellow street lamps. Everything feels muted. Not quite real. Almost soft.
Neil studies the way the dimness throws shadows across Andrew's face. The sharp cut of his jaw, the crookedness of his nose. The unwavering alertness in his eyes on the path forward. The way a few stray curls of blond hair flops over his forehead and makes him look like a kid. Neil resists the urge to reach over and brush them away.
"Staring," Andrew says into the silence.
Neil hums. "Caught me," he says, just to see the way Andrew's jaw clenches.
"I want to go somewhere," Andrew says next.
Neil blinks. It's still a bit startling to hear Andrew admit to wanting something. He's been making progress, with Bee, by himself, inching out of the darkness steadily at his own pace. It never ceases to amaze Neil, Andrew's capacity to be better. To live.
It makes Neil want to do anything to give Andrew what he wants.
"Okay," Neil says easily. "Where?"
"I don't know yet. North, maybe."
"Let me guess, we're taking the car?"
"Shut up, Josten."
Neil smiles. He looks out the window. He's seen the exact same scenery before, the pitch darkness left behind by a pair of headlights as he and his mother sped away into the night. Half his life can be reduced to involuntary road trips. He doesn't miss it.
But there's something different about being in a car with Andrew. The quietness that settles between them has less to do with the urgent need to disappear, with the night pressing around them. This quiet is comfortable. Safe. Neil thinks that maybe he wouldn’t mind if this drive never ends.
“Next break,” Neil says. “Let’s go.”
Andrew nods. They don’t speak for the rest of the night. They don’t need to.
(When they return to the house, just after sunrise, a box of pastries and five cups of coffee between them, Nicky greets them with a smile and a simple, “Welcome home.” It feels right. Neil can’t help but smile back.)