Andrew has a nightmare. It twists into Neil hurting him. He tries not to admit it, but Neil pries the truth free. Fluff ensues.
"What if you had a triplet, but Andrew ate him in the womb?" Nicky asked, earning annoyed silence from Aaron.
"What makes you think Aaron wasn't the one who ate this hypothetical third Minyard?"
Nicky scoffed, "Really, Neil? I get you guys are like soulmates or whatever but c'mon. He's Andrew ."
"My point is that you are clearly not a reliable source, since you seem to think my murderous cousin is a saint."
"Murder isn't necessarily bad," Neil said, lifting his chin indignantly.
"Did I really just hear you say that? Now I understand why Wymack hates letting you talk to the press."
Andrew watched the exchange with mild disinterest, though that last bit did catch his attention. He sort of wanted to hear the reason behind Neil's opinion. Most (scratch that, all normal) people view murder as bad. It's one of those things people "look past" and "ignore". It's not something people are just like "okay that's fine I guess".
Then again, Neil probably lost most of his brain cells while he was on the run.
"I know they say alcohol kills your brain, but I think Neil is a really good example of how that isn't true," Kevin said. Andrew didn't particularly disagree.
"'They' also say that you're the most attractive Exy player."
Nicky wheezed, "That was great. High-five, Neil!"
Neil indulged Nicky's request, though not with much enthusiasm.
"I have to agree with Nicky — God I can't believe I just said that — I think Andrew has corrupted you."
"Whoa, I never said that," Nicky said, lifting his hands defensively and glancing over at Andrew.
"If anything, I provided support for Neil's terrible ideas. Unwillingly, but support nevertheless," Andrew said, ignoring the fact that Aaron started listening when he spoke.
"How do you unwillingly provide support?" Nicky asked, his confusion matched on Kevin's face.
"Simple. He sits there and listens to me talk. He never disagrees or agrees, but I just assume that means there isn't any issue with what I'm saying."
Kevin stared at Neil for a brief moment of horror, "You and Andrew talk about murder?"
"Correction: I talk, he sits there. Did you miss the unwilling part of that conversation?"
Nicky shrugged, "I'm not that surprised. I mean, we are talking about Neil, the runaway son of a murderer, and Andrew, who's picture would probably be found if you looked up 'murderous' in a dictionary."
"Do you value your life?" Andrew asked, tracing the outline of one of the knives in his armbands.
"Yes, very much. I'm not even married yet, I have so much to live for. I can't die until I've met at least one celebrity."
"I'm a celebrity," Kevin said.
"An important celebrity," Nicky clarified, flicking a marshmallow at Kevin's face.
Where did the marshmallow come from? Andrew wasn't quite sure. Probably from between the couch cushions. (If it came from the secret bag in the top cabinet then Andrew may have to plan an actual murder. Those were there for a reason; they're his.¹ )
"Okay, I think I've had enough of this family soap opera, I'm leaving now," Aaron said.
"Aw, but you haven't even said anything."
Aaron glared at Nicky, closing the door behind him. Probably off to visit his cheerleader. (It's not that Andrew hated Katelyn; it's that he hated that she did pretty much nothing yet somehow Aaron still loved her. It didn't make sense. But their deal was off. And secretly, Andrew did appreciate that she made Aaron happy. Though he would never admit that, even to himself.)
"Hey, you should braid my hair."
Neil frowned, looking at Nicky like the man had just asked him to go wrestle an octopus, "What makes you think I know how to braid hair?"
"Dude, you apparently lived alone with your mom for nine years, of course you know how to braid hair."
Neil paused, his face twisting in that I-can't-find-a-lie-for-this-situation expression of his that Andrew had grown disappointingly familiar with.
"Fine, but I don't know if your hair is long enough."
It turned out that Nicky's hair was long enough, though he didn't look good with braids. Andrew told him so.
The sun was a glaring golden eye on the horizon, painting the sky a bruised apricot and salmon. The clouds were sharp streaks of pale colors, seemingly made of fire rather than water. The air smelled of something crisp and dizzying, like a wound doused in hydrogen peroxide. There was a heavy heat on his legs, but otherwise the air was still and cool.
"Hey there, AJ," a voice crawled up his spine, wrapping around him like a snake.
"You should say please."
Andrew twisted away, trapped between the sinister voice and the edge of the roof. Falling, falling, falling. But where? Down onto the ground or down into his mind, sealing away his feelings?
He hated it. He hated the paralyzing fear and heart-stopping rage. He wanted to run; wanted to fight; wanted it to stop.
But it never did. Even when he would finally break and whisper that damned word, it never did end.
The dreamscape shifts, the sky a bloody red that matches the emotions pummeling their way through Andrew's psyche. A color that matches the hair of his new tormentor. The clouds are wicked shards of ice. They match his tormentor's eyes.
Why? Why? Why?
It didn't make sense. Sure, maybe Neil was a firm of torment, but not like this.
Neil was hidden feelings and unwanted desire, crushed urges and something other than hate.
The first tormentor was blind rage and uncaring pain, crushed body and something that was definitely hate.
Pain, lashed across his arms and crawling up his back and down his thighs.
Panic, creeping over him like toxic sludge.
Fear, sharp and true and startling, like a needle in his heart.
The dream was gone in an instant, but Andrew never forgot details. The worst part of his eidetic memory is the details. The burn and stretch and tear. Andrew refused to allow himself to think it, but sometimes the memories make him nauseous enough that he won't eat for a while.
Neil was there. Two feet away and nowhere near touching him. Concern in eyes that are decidedly warmer than ice. Hair the color of windblown autumn leaves instead of blood. Scars across his skin like a torn tapestry, except the tears just made the artwork worth more (Andrew remembered hearing a news report like that.²) No malicious intent to be found on his stupid face.
"Do you want me to leave?"
"No." He said it far too fast. He didn't even think before he spoke. He had meant to sound uncaring and annoyed. Instead he sounded breathless. He hated it.
Neil didn't move, simply lying there. He didn't stare, just glanced over at Andrew every so often. They must've remained like that for a whole hour.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Andrew did think about that question. He didn't want to share his subconscious fears, but he also knew that he and Neil were built around the exchange of truth. He also knew that Neil didn't need the truth and would accept a 'no' without complaint. For some reason, that made no seem like an unsatisfactory answer.
"Yes. But you can't ask questions or pity me, understand?"
So Andrew shared his nightmare with vague descriptions. He didn't mention the fear, the panic, the pain, the falling.
Neil adhered to the agreement, keeping pity off his face. Though maybe Andrew just couldn't see it in the dark.
Andrew huffed, which was as startling to him as it was to Neil. All this mushy talk of nightmares and thanks was really going to be his downfall.
"Are you sure you want me to stay?"
This time, Andrew responded with a steady, "Yes." It didn't sound rushed or breathless.
The silence, interrupted only by the steady breathing that eventually fell into an identical pattern, was more comforting than Andrew cared to admit. For once, the weight of Neil's body next to him didn't make him tense. It actually made him calmer. More aware of where he was and what he had.
He hated it. Which was probably an oxymoron but he didn't care. Yes, he was calmer. But he didn't want the comfort. Comfort brought pain and loss. Comfort felt good, but it was just a layer of memory foam overtop a mattress of knives.
Andrew hated the false sense of security. Still, he knew that the security wasn't false, which somehow made it worse. This was why he chose to shove feelings away; they only caused complications and confusion.
"It's okay. You know that, right?"
"Care to enlighten me, Josten?"
"If you don't want to talk. Or if you want anything. You're allowed to be human."
"I thought I was a monster."
"Everyone that says is wrong."
"A saint, am I? Should i start saying Hail Mary's with Renee?"
Neil smiled, "No. You aren't a saint. But you aren't a monster. You're… an ocean. There's lots of cool, pretty things in the ocean. Coral, dolphins, pearls. But there's also lots of bad stuff. Darkness, pressure, the unknown. Some people devote their life to exploring it, others fear it, but overall it isn't good or bad."
"Very poetic. What are you in this metaphor?" Andrew asked out of annoyance, not curiosity. Definitely not curiosity.
Neil smiled, moving one of his hands closer to Andrew, "An oceanographer."
"You seem more like a brain dead octopus," Andrew said, voice flat.
But he reached out and laced his fingers with Neil's.
"Look they're holding hands," Nicky whispered.
"What? God damn them, I put a lot of money into that bet!" One of the freshman hissed.
"Shush. I just won a bet, I'm basking in my glory," Ocylla whispered back.
"You're one of the richest people here, share with us poor people."
Andrew chose that moment to sit up, "You should bet on who I can kill first."
Neil flung a blanket over Andrew's face, "Better run while you can."
Andrew shoved the blanket away, gazing at Neil blankly.
"Why do you always protect them?"
"So you don't have to admit that you wouldn't ever hurt them."
"You're getting dangerously close to 150%."
Neil grinned, "I think that's a new record."
Andrew rolled his eyes. Neil looked so bright, in the morning sunlight with tousled hair and a wide smile that Andrew found mildly ridiculous. Unfortunately, Andrew seemed to have a weakness for ridiculous Exy junkies with auburn hair and blue eyes.
"Yes or no?"
"It's always yes."
For once, Andrew didn't complain about Neil's answer, simply pulling him in for a kiss. It was hard to believe that he'd been having a nightmare just a few hours ago when this moment felt like a dream. (A dangerous thought, but Andrew decided he didn't care about avoiding danger right now.)