Dan raps her knuckles against the door to the monster’s flat and waits. Nicky greets her with an impressive mop of bedhair and a baffled expression which smooths over only when Neil darts past, citing brunch with Dan as his excuse for being awake at such a thoroughly reasonable hour on a Sunday morning. He’s in high spirits, from what Dan can tell, rolling on the balls of his feet as they wait for the elevator to arrive. Dan is ready to put it down to excitement over their plans – she has a stack of potential recruits under her arm thicker than Les Misérables for them to discuss, hopefully with a stack of pancakes of equal height on the side. Then she spots the light bruise peeking over the hem of Neil’s collar, and draws a very different conclusion about the source of Neil’s good mood. She smiles as they step into the elevator, but keeps the observation to herself. While some members of the team love to badger Neil for the slightest insight into his relationship, Dan is willing to push her curiosity aside for the sake of Neil’s privacy. He has plenty other teammates to pester him without her jumping on the bandwagon.
Just before the doors slide shut, an arm bursts through the gap, forcing them open. Andrew is as stoic and terrifying as ever (not that Dan would ever admit it) even while wearing Neil’s foxprint-patterned pyjama bottoms. The quickened rise and fall of his chest is the only hint that he ran to get here.
Neil raises an eyebrow at the sudden appearance of his underdressed partner.
Andrew lobs something at Neil which bounces off his chest and lands on the floor between his feet. Neil stoops to scoop it up, and Dan sees that it’s his wallet.
“Idiot,” Andrew huffs. He retracts his arm, and the doors slide shut on the sight of him stalking back to their dorm.
Neil taps the wallet against his hand a couple times before sliding it into the wallet.
“You’re both idiots if you think I’m letting you pay for brunch,” Dan says wryly.
Neil shakes his head. “I said I was going to pick up some stuff at the store afterwards. But thanks. Brunch is on me, though.”
“We’ll see,” Dan says, which means no. “Okay, I’ll admit it. That was sweet of him.”
The corner of Neil’s mouth twitches. “Nah. He’s just making sure I come back with the junk food I promised him.”
“Sure.” And, oh, Dan had been trying to be good, but she really can’t help herself any longer. “So, did you guys mean to give each other matching hickeys, or was that just a fun little accident?”
Neil slaps his hand to his neck and groans.
All in all, it’s a great morning.
Aaron’s trial is coming up. Kevin wouldn’t care (well, he would, but for different reasons) except that it’s making the cousins snippy and fractious. More so than usual. Andrew isn’t sleeping properly, although he would deny that it had any relation to the trial. Unfortunately, his insomnia is contagious, which ends with Neil losing focus at their night practice, having spent the best part of a week running on fumes and gatorade.
Kevin has been patient – patient by his standards, anyway – but the third fumbled catch in a row snaps his temper like brittle bone.
“Get the fuck off my court, Josten.” Kevin says, smacking the base of his racquet against the floor.
“Fuck you,” Neil answers reflexively. He stops to push his lengthening bangs back from his face.
“I’m not joking. You’re in no state to play. Get the fuck out.” Kevin wishes Neil would take it as the blessing it is, a night to re-focus and re-calibrate, but instead he’s glaring Kevin down like he just asked him to eat sewage.
Neil turns away from him to send another ball barrelling towards the goal. It misses by an entire foot.
“Neil,” Kevin says sharply, readying for a fight that neither of them have the energy nor patience for.
Before he can begin, the doors to the court bang open. Andrew stands in the entrance, arms crossed. It’s the expression that ends an argument before it’s had time to start; Kevin knows it far, far too well.
Andrew leads Neil away to the showers while Kevin continues his drills.
When he’s finished washing up, he finds the pair in the team lounge, collapsed on the wider of the couches. Neil is asleep, slumped into Andrew’s side. Andrew looks up as Kevin enters, but he doesn’t move his hand from its resting place in Neil’s hair. Although Neil was the only one of the pair training that night, Andrew’s hair is plastered against his head as though he, too, is fresh out of the shower. Kevin tries not to consider the implications.
They wait in silence for a few minutes, watching as Neil sleeps, properly sleeps, for the first time in far too long. Neither are willing to disturb him, but the night is late and Kevin has a whole host of classes waiting for him in the morning.
“I’ll walk back,” says Kevin. Andrew meets his gaze for a long moment before nodding briefly. The bags under his eyes betray him.
Kevin darts back into the lockers to pick up Neil’s abandoned kit bag. When he passes them again, Andrew has slouched onto his side, having manoeuvred Neil in front of him so they can both lie comfortably. His arm is slung protectively around Neil’s waist like Andrew is prepared to beat off the world to keep him there.
Kevin knows they spend more nights in each other’s bunks than out of them in the dorm, but somehow they’re always up and away before anyone else is awake enough to give them any hassle over it. Kevin doesn’t care, but Nicky can be overbearing at the best of times, and Aaron is… well, Aaron. But here, in the privacy of an empty stadium, it looks like Neil has finally found enough security to drop off at last, and Andrew looks ready to follow. Kevin shuts the door behind him, not quite smiling, but close. It was strange to some, the idea of Neil and Andrew, but anyone who saw them curled up together would see it plain as day. They just fitted.
The next day, Neil is closer to being himself again, and no more is said on the matter.
Matt has to admit that press duty with Neil is never boring. The interviewers seem to share his opinion, visibly perking up when Neil follows Matt into the room. They lost to the Bearcats, but it was close enough that Matt doesn’t have to lie when he says that he’s proud of the team’s performance today.
“Some are saying that the failure of the defence line in later stages was due to Minyard’s performance in goal in the second half. How would you respond to that?
Matt doesn’t know why he bothers opening his mouth; the question may be directed to him, but he knows damn well that a boulder in the shape of Neil’s fury is already barrelling in this hapless reporter’s direction. “Well-”
“Last time I checked, this was a team sport,” Neil says loudly. “Was I hallucinating that, or has there been a few rule changes since yesterday?”
Matt isn’t sure whether to laugh or groan. Coach had told Matt to keep an eye on their resident fire-starter as though anyone was at all capable of controlling Neil when there was a mic in front of him. Matt feels sorry for the poor sucker that will one day be assigned to the role of Neil’s publicist, because he’s sure that Neil will drive them into an early grave alongside Matt’s.
“You have to admit that the number of goals that he let in-”
“I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that his entire defence line had already played two full quarters before he even stepped foot on court. People get tired the longer a game goes on, of course defence is going to suffer in the second half. But sure, keep pinning it on the goalie you clearly have it in for.”
Matt claps a hand on Neil’s back. “What he said,” he agrees, staring down the reporter.
They take no further questions.
Matt doesn’t mean to eavesdrop, but when he leaves the showers to see Andrew and Neil alone in the locker room he ducks back out of sight. He walks into at least one dramatic confrontation amongst his teammates per week, and sometimes the best way to deal with the daily bouts of fox drama is to hide and wait for the storm to pass.
“Point me to where I asked you to lead my own personal crusade.” Andrew’s flat tones echo off the tiled floor. Matt regrets leaving his ipod in his bag. The conversation doesn’t seem too personal to overhear, but Andrew and Neil have never been the easiest reads.
“I’m tired of them talking shit about you just because they have a vendetta against anyone with your…” Neil trails off. Matt imagines him to be making several expressive hand gestures; it’s hard to condense all of Andrew’s history and circumstances into one word. “…everything,” Neil settles on.
“Your principles should not intersect with my business.”
“Even if it could affect your future career?” Neil’s words are met, unsurprisingly, with silence. “Besides, yours do.”
“When I first came here, you told Nicky to back off. Not out of concern for me. Because of your principles.”
This time, the silence stretches so long that Matt doesn’t think Andrew is going to answer.
“Point,” Andrew concedes.
“Besides, is it so bad that I’m standing up for you?”
“Only when it’s making new enemies for you. How many does one man need?”
“I’ve got room for a few more,” Neil says. There’s a rustle of movement, and, oh, are they kissing? Matt strongly suspects that they are kissing. It’s more than his life is worth to look. He takes a few steps back, rattles his kit loudly and makes as much noise as possible before entering the locker room. The pair are a safe distance apart by the time he enters, and Matt gives them a probably-not-convincingly-casual nod before busying himself with his change of clothes.
The pair spend the journey home holed up together at the back of the bus, and if he suspects that they’re doing a little more than talking, Matt keeps it to himself.
They’ve earned a little privacy, after all.
“Well, maybe if you stopped and took the time to, I don’t know, explain literally anything that you do, we wouldn’t be in this fucking mess.”
“Aaron,” says Bee, a gentle reprimand. He isn’t in the mood to hear it. His attention remains on his brother, who’s features remain the same stony, impassive blank that they have in almost every joint session to date. It’s an expression that makes Aaron want to tear his hair out, or kick his brother’s face in, or both.
“What would you like me to explain?” says Andrew, more of a challenge than an offer. Aaron snorts, because, where to fucking begin?
“How about we start with your little fuck-buddy, seeing as you’re so keen to start on mine.” Earlier that week, Andrew had returned early from a class to find Aaron and Katelyn together in their dorm room. The result, while not outright violent, had been deeply unpleasant for all involved. And of course, Andrew was being an ass about it.
“Aaron. We’ve talked about this. How can you expect Andrew to talk about Katelyn respectfully if you won’t offer the same respect to his own partner?”
Aaron scoffs. “It’s not the same.”
Andrew’s eyebrow… it doesn’t quirk, but it twitches. “Oh?”
Aaron gestures vaguely. “You know what I mean.”
“I can assure you that I don’t.”
“Me and Katelyn. You and Neil. It isn’t the same.”
“How so?” Andrew’s tone isn’t in the danger zone yet, but it’s edging towards it.
“I’m not talking about the gay thing. I’m talking about…” The hand Aaron was waving clenches into a fist as he drops it into his lap. “Don’t make me say it.”
Andrew and Bee share a look over his head.
“Aaron,” says Bee.
“I just, fucking…” Aaron grapples with words, struggling to find a combination that won’t rip them apart any worse than they already have been. “How the fuck can you expect me to believe that you and him… that you’re real. That you’re normal, that you’re like us, after everything those fuckers did to you. What makes him so different?”
Andrew watches him. Just when Aaron resigns himself to the fact that no answer is coming, Andrew speaks. “If I ask him to stop, he stops.”
Aaron bites down on the inside of his cheek so hard that he thinks he might have drawn blood. “It can’t be that simple.”
Andrew’s eyes flicker upwards, like he would rather be anywhere else, having any other conversation in the world than this one. “We have a system. We don’t touch each other without asking first. We listen to each other. We talk. What more do you need me to say?”
Aaron falls silent. He doesn’t know what he needs from his brother, still, but it’s something.
“I have a question in return,” Andrew’s eyes flick to Bee. He isn’t looking for permission, but she nods in encouragement nonetheless. “Katelyn. What makes her so different?” Andrew meets his gaze dead-on as he turns Aaron’s own words back on him. “How can you trust her, after everything that bitch Tilda did to you?”
And finally, it all clicks into place.
Aaron forces himself to look his brother in the eyes. So much like his, yet at the same time so different. “Okay,” he concedes at last. “I see.”
Because, at last, he does.
Neil appears at Allison’s door with a black eye, a bust lip, and the words “don’t freak out,” spilling from his mouth before she can get so much as a word in.
“Great start,” she says, pulling him in. “Who do I need to kill?”
“My shoelace came undone and I ate shit while I was on my run. I just need enough makeup that I can get through class without looking like I’ve been in a fight again. Do you know how many of my lecturers have taken me aside to give me the domestic abuse hotline?”
“You should know how to do this yourself by now.” Allison rolls her eyes as she leads Neil through to the table.
“You’re better at it,” he admits grudgingly, and oh, doesn’t that just warm her heart to hear.
“Nice try. You’re still taking me out for coffee after this.”
Neil pulls a face, and Allison laughs. It doesn’t take long – Allison has treated him in far, far worse shape, as much as she’d rather not think about it – and soon there’s only the faintest smudge around Neil’s eye.
“Can I tempt you to some mascara? Glitter?” Allison asks, waggling her eyebrows as she spreads the contents of her makeup bag out for his inspection.
“Maybe next time,” says Neil, “When I’m not going to a calculus lecture.”
“But that’s the best place for it.” Allison dabs the tip of his nose with her brush, and Neil’s face scrunches up as he tries to hold back a sneeze. His hair flops back down over his forehead as he moves, falling into his eyes.
“Don’t move just yet,” Allison says, yanking a drawer open and fumbling for the kitchen scissors. “I’ve been meaning to deal with that mop for weeks, and right now I have you trapped.”
“Oh, no,” Neil says flatly, but still he surrenders herself to her demands. Wise move.
“Perfect,” says Allison a few minutes later, ruffling Neil’s hair to shake away the last loose strands. “Ready for the red carpet now. I hope there aren’t any cute guys in your maths class, or Andrew is going to go mad with jealousy.”
Neil snorts. “He’s not really the type.”
“Mhmm,” says Allison, because in her experience, everyone is the type.
Speaking of the psychotic little devil himself, Andrew bursts through the door just as Allison is brushing up the last of the trimmings.
“Hey,” Neil says, apparently impervious to Andrew’s thunderous entrance. Andrew ignores the greeting, taking hold of Neil’s chin to turn his face from side to side.
“Kevin said you fell,” he says, relinquishing the grip. Allison half-turns away, pretending to busy herself tidying but really listening, because the monster’s overbearing-boyfriend performances are as rarely shown in public as they are entertaining.
“Shoelaces. Who could have seen it coming?”
“I did. And warned you. Twice.”
Neil winces. “My bad.”
Andrew mutters something under his breath that seems to involve the words kill you. The day Allison understands their relationship is the day that she gives up on any and all gossip for the rest of her life.
Then, Andrew pauses, distracted. “Did you trip and fall onto a pair of sheers?”
“Allison gave me a haircut. How does it look?”
Andrew holds his hand in front of Neil’s face. When Neil nods, Andrew runs it quickly through his hair, gently tugging at the roots as he goes. “Awful.”
“Hey,” Allison interrupts, outraged. They both start, and Andrew’s hand drops away, like they had forgotten she was there. Which was the point, really. She holds the scissors in Andrew’s direction. “You’re next, scraggy.”
“When I’m dead,” Andrew replies flatly. It’s clear he isn’t joking. Neil shakes his head at them both.
“Come on, then,” Allison says. “Neil’s taking me for coffee. Give us a ride and I’ll buy you the sugariest, most expensive drink on the menu. I’m hoping the diabetes will finish you off if lung cancer falls through.”
Andrew glances between them. “Fine.”
Sugar and Neil; the keys to Andrew’s stony little heart.
Nicky is fully capable of responding to his cousin’s newfound domestic happiness with maturity and decorum.
He just chooses not to.
This has nearly ended in violence no less than eight times. But really, how can he be expected to let it lie when his cousin, who came to him an unruly, violent teen to whom any conversation was like pulling teeth with plastic tweezers, is, for the first time, experiencing the gay teen college romance Nicky could only have dreamed of?
With his fiancée a million miles away, Nicky has to live vicariously when it comes to matters of the heart. There is no better subject for this than his violent baby cousin, who, it seems, isn’t such a baby anymore.
Nicky is beyond late for his class already when he realises that his laptop is dead. He had been skyping with Eric until ass-o-clock in the morning, forgot to plug it in before passing out in his bunk and is paying for it three-fold. He has two options; pencil and paper (what is he, a toddler?) or steal someone’s laptop. The answer is both clear and obvious.
Andrew’s is the first to hand. He most likely won’t surface until noon, by which time Nicky will have returned from class, leaving him none the wiser. The perfect crime.
Or it is the perfect crime until Nicky opens the laptop in the middle of his seminar to a webpage that is filled with very, very unsafe-for-classroom content.
Nicky slams the laptop shut. It wasn’t a video, none of the sites Nicky knew from his own fits of late-night loneliness. Large blocks of text, diagrams that were more analytical than downright pornographic. Nicky slides the laptop open again, just enough for the screen to light up once more, and tabs up. No, not porn. Informative. Educational.
The girl beside him, although unable to see his screen, is giving Nicky some very strange looks. Nicky glances back to the laptop before sliding it shut once more. Pencil and paper will have to do.
The class is drier than dirt, leaving Nicky’s mind with far too much space to think. A dangerous pastime in Nicky’s case, Eric would say teasingly. Nicky had assumed – well, not that he had thought about it, much, but Andrew always seemed so set and sure of himself that it was hard to imagine him googling how-to guides like an acne-riddled teen the night before prom. His apparent innocence is weirdly adorable. Not a word Nicky uses out-loud in his cousin’s presence, but true all the same.
Nicky remembers his first time. Awkward, uncomfortable, and involving entirely the wrong set of genitals. He can only hope Andrew and Neil’s is better.
He shouldn’t get involved. He really, really, shouldn’t.
Nicky slips the laptop back into place mere moments before Andrew slouches into the living space. Nicky watches him as the coffee-maker gurgles away, thinking.
Andrew glances up. Nicky isn’t sure what he reads in his face, but it must be setting off alarm bells, because his hands move almost unconsciously to his sleeves. Nicky holds his hands up.
“I just…” Oh, this is a lot more awkward than Nicky anticipated. “You know, I’m always here for you. If there’s anything you want to talk about.” He clears his throat. “If you have any questions…”
Andrew’s eyes narrow. They flick in the direction of his desk. Nicky remembers, far too late, Andrew’s impossibly perfect memory. He would remember the exact position he left his laptop in. Nicky is busted.
“Don’t borrow my laptop,” Andrew snarls. The coffee brewer clicks, and it may be the only thing that saves Nicky’s life.
“I’m sorry! I was in a rush!” Nicky says weekly. “If it’s any consolation, the guy who sits behind me now thinks I’m a grade-A pervert.”
Andrew slams a mug down on the counter so hard he almost cracks it. “One more word. One more.”
“I won’t. I won’t, I promise, I’ve been there, okay?”
Andrew takes his coffee and his laptop and leaves without another word. Nicky counts it as a blessing.
The next day, he’s working his way through the mother of all essays when Andrew enters the room, pulling the door shut behind him. Nicky keeps working until Andrew pulls a chair over to Nicky’s desk and sits in it. He stops typing mid-sentence, fingers hovering over the keys.
“Everything okay, Andrew?”
“I want you to take a moment and remember how many knives I have on me right now.”
“A lot, I assume.”
“A lot,” Andrew confirms. “If I had any other choice in the world, I would take it. But I have you. So, I’m going to ask you something, and you are going to be calm and level and mature and everything that you usually are not when you answer.”
“Of course,” Nicky says in a heartbeat. He can’t think of a single time Andrew has ever come to him for help, not even when he was wrapped up in bed and coughing his lungs out the day before his AP Calc exam. Nicky has never been more determined to get something right in his life.
“How,” Andrew says, stops, starts again. Today is full of firsts; Andrew is usually so careful and measured with his words. “How do I do it without hurting him?”
Nicky’s heart is ready to melt or break or explode, maybe all at once. “Oh, Andrew.”
“The knives, Nicky. Remember the knives.”
“Okay,” says Nicky, and he tells Andrew everything he can. He wants, more than anything, for Andrew to be safe and happy, and if it involves going into details that even Nicky is squeamish about discussing with family, then that’s what he’ll do.
He offers to write out a list of reliable books and websites for Andrew to check out, ones he used himself and others Eric recommended to him. Andrew shakes his head.
“Just tell me. I’ll remember them.”
When they’re done, Nicky almost claps Andrew on the shoulder. He thinks better of it, hand hovering mid-air before he withdraws it. “Andrew.”
Andrew is half-way out the door, but he stops, which is more than Nicky expected.
“You’ll be fine.”
Andrew huffs, and abruptly disappears. Nicky smiles to himself as he turns back to his essay.
It took him a long time to piece it all together, but the truth is that Andrew really can be quite sweet, in his own terrifying way.
Nicky wonders how long it will be before he has to give Neil the sex talk too. Maybe he should offer.
Best not to; he has some self-preservation instincts, after all.
Renne likes to think that she has improved at reading Andrew over the years. Some of his quirks are more obvious than others, however; it doesn’t take a student of human character to notice that when Andrew wants to spar, it’s usually because he has something on his mind.
Renee is hardly in a position to judge, not when she finds the cut and blow of a vicious fistfight as cathartic as he does. There’s still a piece of Natalie Shields underneath all of Renee’s growth like the pit at the heart of a peach. Sometimes the best way of holding her down is by letting her out in controlled increments. Give her the inch so she won’t take the mile.
As usual, it is only when they have beaten each other to exhaustion and back that Andrew is ready to talk. They sit cross-legged in the centre of the room, slurping down apple-juice cartons like kids in the playground, and finally, Andrew speaks.
“I want you to train Neil.”
Renee sets her carton down. “I thought Matt was teaching him to box.”
“He’s a shit boxer.”
“Neil or Matt?”
Renee shakes her head. She reaches back to pull out her hair tie, letting her bangs tumble back into their usual place. “Is there a reason Neil hasn’t asked me himself?”
Andrew is silent. There it is; the heart of the matter.
Renee sighs. “I’m not going to force Neil to train with me if he doesn’t want to.”
“I don’t force Neil to do anything,” Andrew says sharply. Renee winces; it was a poor choice of words on her part.
“Why do you think he needs it?”
“Matt is teaching him how to box. It’s not the same as real fighting.”
Renee hums. “Can’t he do something for fun?”
“That’s not the point. Besides,” Andrew pauses. “Matt only knows how to fight like the fuck-off giant that he is.”
Renee can’t argue with that; Matt never had to learn the same style of combat that she and Andrew did. He may teach Neil how to throw a good punch, but there’s a big difference in stance and strategy when your opponent is a foot taller than you. Renee and Andrew learned that the hard way.
“And who is it that you think Neil is going to be fighting?”
Andrew waves one arm in an all-encompassing gesture. “Have you met him?”
“Renee,” he shoots back, imitating her tone and inflection.
“What did he say when you suggested that I teach him?”
Andrew scrunches up his features in an imitation of Neil’s ugh face. “He said that he gets enough bruises as it is.”
“He’s not wrong.”
Andrew doesn’t roll his eyes, but his eyebrows twitch as though he’s considering it. “He also said he doesn’t need to get any better. Because he…” Andrew grimaces. Sharing is still tough for him, even after years of therapy and trust. “He has me to protect him.”
“As I said,” Renee says, smiling. “He’s not wrong.”
“He’s an idiot.”
“He has his moments.”
They finish their juice boxes in silence.
“Well,” says Renee, getting back to her feet. Her legs may be going stiff, but there’s still some fight left in her. There always is. “I may not be able to train Neil, but at least I can train his bodyguard to the best of my ability.” She holds her hand out to Andrew. After a moment of careful consideration, he takes it, using the pull to swing himself to his feet. “One more round?”
Andrew nods, determination setting in his eyes like concrete. “One more round.”
Renee likes to think that she has improved at reading Andrew over the years. This time, as they trade hits and kicks, it isn’t anger or frustration powering Andrew’s movements; it’s something far more powerful.
She thinks – hopes – prays – that the worst of Neil’s fights are behind them. All the same, she sleeps a little easier knowing that, should the day come, Andrew will be at his back with a knife in each hand.
That’s love, after all.