Neil was starting to think he was not as good at emotionally uninvolved sexual relationships as he’d thought he’d be.
It had been a reasonable assumption. Neil had been emotionally uninvolved in every other type of relationship he’d had in his childhood. There was no reason his university-roommate-turned-booty-call should be an exception to this rule.
“Rough break-up, huh?” Matt asked, passing Neil a beer. He didn’t drink, but he liked holding a bottle at parties. It made people stop offering to get him a drink.
“We weren’t dating,” Neil reminded him.
“Uh-huh,” Matt said, unconvinced. Neil gave him a flat glare, and Matt raised his hands in surrender. “Whatever you say, buddy.”
Neil’s mouth pulled down in a frown. He wasn’t sure what he’d done for Matt to designate him as ‘buddy.’ They’d been in the same English tutorial, the only course they shared between their incredibly disparate majors (Neil was in first year Mathematics with a minor in Statistics, and Matt was in his third year of Business Management). Neil had assumed their association would stop once their semester-long group project ended. Matt had somehow not gotten this memo.
Neil leaned against the wall. Music reverberated through the small university dorm. The twelve rooms on this floor shared one big common room and a dank little kitchen that no one used except to accidentally burn weed brownies or popcorn. He’d only been here a handful of times before; he lived a couple buildings over, with all the other unlucky first-year shmucks that had lost the lottery for the private rooms.
Sharing a room with a stranger had been a daunting prospect when Neil moved here six months ago. When Neil was eleven years old, he and his mother had moved across the country and legally changed their names after the protracted and agonizing process of his father’s arrest. Since then, it had been just him and her in an apartment that was so narrow you could almost reach both sides when you spread your arms.
It was their WitSec mandated counsellor who’d finally convinced his mom to let him come to university. She was a lot better than she had been when his father was first charged, but she was still prone to bouts of extreme paranoia and anxiety. As it was, he had to text her several times a day, and he usually called her when he got back to the dorm at night to reassure her that he was still alive.
Neil’s roommate had taken a dislike to Neil’s phone habits right off the bat.
Well, actually, that was unfair. To assume that Andrew had taken a dislike to Neil’s phone habits would be to assume that he’d liked anything about Neil in that first month.
“Hey,” Neil said when his roommate finally arrived, nearly eight hours after Neil had. His hands were slick with sweat and his stomach hurt from anxiety.
Andrew Minyard—Neil knew his name from the room assignments list—gave Neil a blank stare as he heaved a large suitcase onto the bed on the left-hand side of the room.
“Stop,” Andrew said. “I am not your friend. We are not going to associate. If you cross my side of the room, I will cut you. If you touch any of my stuff, I will break your hands. Understand?”
Neil stared at him. Andrew Minyard stared back, five-foot-nothing of black-clad apathy. Neil would have suspected a joke, but there was nothing humorous in Andrew’s expression.
Neil nodded, sitting back on his own bed. “Alright.”
That put a tiny crack in Andrew’s blankness, a blink of surprise. He shrugged it off and started tearing through his bags, unpacking into the tiny closet on his side of the room. Neil stretched back on his bed and pulled out his phone, plugging in his headphones. Andrew cast him a couple suspicious glances, but he didn’t move again.
That was fine. Neil had grown up around violence. He knew how to deal with it. The floor RA had nearly chatted his ear off earlier; Neil shuddered to think what he might have done if his roommate had been that kind of person.
A homicidal teenage delinquent, though—Neil could handle that. They would ignore each other, and the semester would move on, and once Neil was a second-year he’d get one of the guaranteed solo rooms upper-year students got and he’d never have to worry about roommates again.
“Heyyyy, lover boy,” Allison said, swinging around the corner of the kitchen to sling an arm around Neil’s neck. Neil frowned, perplexed. Matt’s friends were all weirdly accepting of him, but Allison’s penchant for draping herself over Neil like a cat was exceptionally odd. She grinned down at him, waggling her eyebrows. “I hear the monster finally dropped you,” she said.
Neil scowled. “Who doesn’t know?”
“Mm,” Allison said. “I’m going to go with approximately nobody.”
“That’s fantastic,” Neil grouched. “Who exactly told you?” Neither he nor Andrew were the sorts of people to go about advertising their business—the only reason the others knew in the first place was because of their pesky RA. Since the walls were basically made of tissue paper, there weren’t many secrets that he didn’t eventually learn.
“A lady never tells her sources,” Allison said. “Besides, don’t think I’m fooled by your small-town-boy act. If I told you, they’d be dead by morning.”
She seemed to relish the concept—of Neil’s bloodthirstiness, anyway. She wasn’t actually about to give up the gossip and let him deal with it. Neil scowled and took a quick swig of his beer, immediately regretting it. Revolting.
Matt’s girlfriend and a couple of their friends were dancing in the living room, loose-limbed and wild. Spring break didn’t technically start for two days, but tomorrow’s classes had been cancelled for a big sports event—football, Neil thought disparagingly—so everyone was starting early.
Allison poked his cheek. Neil jerked, glaring at her. It was kind of difficult, as she still had him in a headlock. “What?” he asked.
“Poor pumpkin,” she said, rubbing her cheek against his hair.
Neil pulled back and reached up to open her eye with his thumb and pointer. “Are you high?” he asked, inspecting her dilated pupil.
Allison swatted his hand away. “Oh, hush. I am trying to be sympathetic.”
“You’re trying to get me to give you details,” Neil said. “You know it’s not going to happen.”
“Mangy brat,” Allison grumbled, but she didn’t deny it. Neil tolerated her drunk petting for another minute or so, taking another sip of his beer. It wasn’t quite as gross as the first one.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I know plenty of nice boys. Or some not-nice boys, since that seems to be your type. We will find you someone new in no time. I’m a good matchmaker.”
“I don’t think I’m interested in the kind of guys you know,” Neil said.
“Don’t be so judgemental,” Allison said. “You don’t know what you’re missing. A quick hook up is just the thing to help you forget about a break-up.”
“We didn’t break up,” Neil said, but it was sounding less convincing every time he said it.
After all, the only reason he was at this stupid party in the first place was that he didn’t want to go back to his room.
Because Andrew would be there.
Neil picked up the phone immediately when it started ringing—habit, born from growing up with an overprotective mother. He put it to his ear as he climbed the three flights of stairs required to reach his dorm; the elevator had been out of order for the past six years.
It was not his mother.
“Neil,” Andrew said, and though Neil had only heard him talk a handful of times, his voice was unmistakable.
Neil pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it for a long moment before putting it back to his ear. “How did you get my number?”
“The RA gave it to me.”
“Nicky? I didn’t know you talked to him.”
“He’s my cousin,” Andrew said testily. “Stay out of the dorm for the next hour.”
“What?” Neil demanded. “Why? I have a calc assignment due in four hours.”
“Then use the library, genius.”
Neil ground his teeth. “Why do you need the dorm?”
Neil ground to a halt in the middle of the stairs. “Fine,” he said, because the last thing he wanted to do was walk in on his roommate with some girl. “But you owe me.”
“Next time you bring over a hot date, I’ll be sure to leave the state,” Andrew said, and hung up.
“Ugh,” Neil said, staring down at his phone. His calc assignment was online, fortunately, so it wouldn’t be that much of a pain, but his textbook was in their dorm room. Neil was going to have to use the online version, which looked like it had been designed by an armadillo.
He leaned against the railing and opened the call log, tapping the recent unknown number.
Stay out of my bed, he typed, just to be contrary. Andrew sent back a middle finger emoji, which was both childish and pathetic. Neil rolled his eyes, saving Andrew’s number to his phone. It might come in handy. Neil wasn’t likely to have a ‘hot date’ any time soon, but he could think of a couple perks to having his roommate in his debt.
“Leave him alone, Allison,” Renee said, sliding in on Neil’s other side. She smiled at Neil, pretty and put together in a button-up, vest, bow tie, and a skirt which looked like it had been borrowed from the fifties. She looked very quirky and cute and Neil was moderately certain she was the most dangerous person in the room.
“How are you doing, Neil?” Renee asked, sipping from a can of soda.
“I’m fine,” Neil said, exasperated. “Why do people keep asking me that?”
“It’s your first break-up!” Allison said. “Everyone’s a mess after their first!”
“Who says it’s my first,” Neil groused.
Allison paused, squinting at him in suspicion. “It’s not?”
Neil held out for a long moment, then sighed. “Yes, fine, it is. But it’s not a break-up, because we weren’t dating.”
“But you were friends,” Renee pointed out. “It must sting a little.”
Neil shrugged. “I knew what I was getting into.”
“Sure,” Allison said. “That’s why you’re actually drinking for the first time since ever?”
“I’m not drinking,” Neil said peevishly.
“Uh-huh,” Allison said. “How much of that beer you got left there, sport?”
“It’s still full—” Neil paused, glancing at the bottle. He could have sworn he only had a couple sips, but a good half of his drink was gone.
“I’ve been here for over an hour,” Neil said, putting the drink down. “It’s still basically nothing.”
Allison sighed noisily, resting her chin on the top of his head. “What do you see in that guy, anyway?”
“He’s not that bad,” Renee said.
Neil frowned. “I forgot you two know each other,” he said. He basically only had two social groups—his intramural Exy team, which included Andrew, and then Matt’s friends. The fact that the two groups overlapped was still somewhat disorienting. Most of Matt’s friends knew of Andrew, in the capacity that most people knew where the DANGER: DO NOT ENTER signs were on a crime scene. But only Renee had actually spoken to him.
“Andrew and I have been friends since high school,” Renee said. She was quiet for a moment. “I’ll admit I was disappointed that things didn’t work out. You were good for each other.”
“We were just hooking up,” Neil said, discomfited. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
Renee smiled. “You don’t know Andrew like I do.”
Neil looked down, toying with the mouth of his beer. He felt like he knew Andrew. Sharing a room with a fifty square feet could do that to anyone, but it wasn’t just that. Andrew got it, in a way that none of Neil’s high school acquaintances had.
Maybe that had been the problem.
The bedroom smelled like cigarette smoke. Neil paused in the doorway, eyeing Andrew. He sat on the windowsill with a cigarette propped between his lips, flicking his gaze at Neil before dismissing him. Despite the non-reaction, Neil knew he was waiting for him to kick up a fuss.
He glanced up at the fire alarm. Andrew had stretched a condom over it, so Neil didn’t have to worry about him setting it off. He dropped his pack next to his desk and flopped into his chair.
He slid his phone open—he still liked the feel of the tactile keyboard, even though flip phones had gone out of vogue a couple years ago. The slide-phone was a neat compromise, a graduation gift from their WitSec handler, Roberta. He dialled his mother’s contact and put the phone to his ear.
The smell of smoke wafted over him. His mom had quit smoking inside a couple years ago and limited herself to the tiny balcony, and she usually locked him inside when she did to protect him from the second-hand smoke. Despite that, the smell triggered a wave of nostalgia. It smelled like home.
“Neil,” his mother greeted, voice tinny through the phone.
“Hey, mom,” he said. “Everything still sunny?”
“Clear skies here.”
“Hm,” Neil said. “I’ve got my schedule for finals. My last one is on the sixteenth.”
“I’ll get Robbie to book a flight home for you.”
“Thanks,” Neil said, rubbing his forehead. His mother didn’t say anything else, and they sat on either end of the call for a long moment, just listening to each other breathe.
“I’ve got homework,” Neil said finally.
“Okay,” his mother said.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“You too,” Neil said, and the call ended. He leaned forward, resting his head against his backpack.
“‘Everything still sunny?’” Andrew quoted, mocking. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Neil shot him a glare, but he was too tired to put any heat behind it.
What it meant was that Neil was safe, and nobody suspected his identity, and yes, that meant he repeated it on every phone call. Old habits. After seven years, even Neil’s mother had conceded that nobody was hunting them in earnest anymore, but that didn’t mean she was ready to completely drop her guard.
Neil closed his eyes, longing for sleep. Midterms were going to kill him well before any mobsters showed up to do the job.
“You got any more of those?” Neil asked.
Andrew studied him blandly for a long moment, then dug a carton of cigarettes out of his pocket and tossed it to Neil. He caught it and tipped one out into his hand, finding a lighter wedged in with it. The smoke scorched his lungs and he had to suppress a cough.
He got his breathing under control and rested his face in his hand, holding the cigarette beside his cheek. For a minute he just breathed, soaking in the rare moment of quiet.
“You don’t make sense,” Andrew said, stubbing his own cigarette out on the windowsill. It left a small burn mark, a last sizzle of smoke rising up like a dancer before blowing away.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Neil said with a yawn, before putting out his cigarette against the bottom of his shoe. He pocketed the remainder for later and reluctantly pulled out his laptop to work on his English assignment. He couldn’t wait to be finished with his mandatory arts credits and finally put essay writing behind him.
He’d been working for about five minutes when he noticed Andrew hadn’t budged. He glanced up at him, raising an eyebrow.
Andrew’s jaw clenched almost imperceptibly, then he heaved himself off the windowsill. He paused behind Neil for a moment, staring down at Neil’s essay.
“Problem?” Neil said, too tired to be tactful.
Andrew made a dismissive noise but didn’t elaborate, and Neil ignored him for the rest of the evening.
Neil tipped his beer towards his mouth and got two droplets before it ran dry. He frowned, tilting the bottle to the side.
“Want another one?” Allison asked.
“Perhaps that’s enough,” Renee said, glancing at Neil.
“Oh, hush. Two beers won’t kill him.”
Renee gave her a level look. Allison pursed her lips and tossed her hair. “I promise I’ll cut him off after this one, okay?”
Renee didn’t look pleased, but she turned to give him a questioning look. “Neil?”
Neil rolled the bottle between his hands. “You mean I actually get a say?” he said dryly
Allison looked offended. “Did you think I was going to pour it down your throat?”
Neil looked down at the mouth of the bottle. He’d never actually gotten drunk before—the two parties he’d attended in high school had been brief and boring, mostly because he had called his mother within an hour to take him away.
Allison interpreted his silence as agreement and huffed. “Glad to know what a high opinion you have of me. You want that drink or not?”
Neil scanned the room. It was nearing midnight, and about half the people at the party had moved on to the campus bar; Matt was dancing with his girlfriend in the living room, and a handful of others littered the kitchen and dining area, but there weren’t many people left.
“Sure,” he said, handing Allison his empty bottle. She chucked it in the general direction of the recycling and he winced at the crack of glass against the plastic bin.
Allison snapped her fingers at someone in the kitchen. “You,” she said. “Beer. Two of the nice craft ones in the fridge. No, not the fucking pilsners—”
The harried-looking freshman scurried over with a couple beers and deposited them in Allison’s domineering hand. “Finally,” she said, though the exchange had taken maybe twenty seconds. “Let’s go sit down, I’m tired of leaning against the wall like a brooding teen hero from the eighties.”
She didn’t leave any room for argument, towing Neil along with her to flop on the couch facing the entertainment centre. Matt spotted Neil and waved, tugging Dan’s shirt to get her attention. When she saw the three of them on the couch she grinned and led Matt over by the hand.
Streetlights backlit the window behind them a dull orange. Dan dropped onto the couch adjacent to them and pulled off her heels, rubbing her feet. “I don’t know how you do it, Ally,” she said. “I get sick of these things after two hours.”
“Years of training, darling,” Allison drawled, then grinned, toasting Dan with her beer.
“Wait a second,” Dan said, pointing at Neil. “Are you drinking? You never drink.”
Neil tensed as all their eyes lit on him again. He looked away, scowling. “Maybe this is why,” he muttered. He hated the way they paid attention to him when he varied from his routine. “It’s just a beer.”
“Man,” Matt said. “You really liked Andrew, huh?”
“Not everything is about Andrew!” Neil snapped.
The others froze, staring at him like he was a wild animal. He exhaled heavily through his nose, glaring at the carpet.
“Fine,” he muttered. “Maybe it is about Andrew. Just…leave it, alright?”
Allison reached out to pat his hair consolingly, but he jerked his head away and leaned against the opposite arm of the couch. He took a swig of his beer, barely tasting it.
Renee’s hand slipped into his. She squeezed it briefly before removing it, perhaps sensing that Neil wouldn’t allow a prolonged display of sympathy. Neil looked away, allowing her to guide the conversation into safer waters, and stared into his beer bottle instead.
He took another drink.
Neil hammered on the door to their room. “Andrew if you’re in there you have thirty seconds to get ready before I come in, I’ve got an exam in half an hour I don’t care if you’re fucking naked—”
The door swung open before he could unlock it and barge in. Neil fell back a step as a tall, dark-haired, very shirtless guy rested his elbow against the doorframe, raising an eyebrow.
Neil scowled and leaned to the side to peer around the guy. Andrew was sitting on his desk inside the room, fortunately already fully dressed. “Great,” he said. “Can I come in now?”
The guy in the doorway laughed. “Wow, hot but cranky, huh?”
“Roland, get out,” Andrew said, sounding bored of the whole conversation.
The guy—Roland—rolled his eyes and dropped his arm, reaching back to grab his shirt from where it was draped over Andrew’s chair. “You’re such a sweet-talker, Andrew.”
Neil edged past him as he pulled on the shirt. “You need to give me more than half an hour’s notice before you monopolize the room,” he said to Andrew as he started to tear through his desk.
“It wasn’t exactly premeditated,” Roland said, amused.
“Then go to your place next time,” Neil shot back.
“I live off-campus.”
“Even better,” Neil muttered, finally locating his calculator in the bottom drawer of his desk which—how did it end up there, anyway? He usually kept it in his backpack.
“Roland,” Andrew said, and even though there was no change in his intonation, Roland clearly heard the warning in it.
“See you around, asshole,” he said, vanishing out of the tiny dorm room.
Neil pulled his stats notes off the shelf and dropped into his desk chair. He already had a 3-by-5 notecard ready, but he had been so busy with yesterday’s chemistry midterm that he’d barely studied for today’s exam other than forty-five minutes last night until Andrew forcibly turned the lights out.
Andrew let him alone for about five minutes before he broke the silence. “Is this going to be a problem?”
Neil blinked, his mind swimming with equations, and turned to stare at Andrew. His gaze was hard, almost defensive. Neil frowned, running back over the last few minutes to try and figure out what had rattled Andrew.
“You mean…you hooking up with a guy?” he asked, uncertain. It was the only thing he could think of that would make Andrew look so tense.
A minute twitch in Andrew’s jaw confirmed Neil’s theory. Neil relaxed, shaking his head. “No, it’s fine. I don’t think I’m actually straight either.”
“You like guys?” Andrew asked.
Neil shrugged. “I dunno. I haven’t really thought about it much.”
Andrew raised a skeptical eyebrow, and Neil rolled his eyes. “I have a midterm to study for,” he said. “Can the interrogation wait?”
Andrew gave him a flat look and slid off his desk. “If you do think about, let me know,” he said.
Neil blinked at him, perplexed. Andrew held his gaze steadily.
Understanding dawned and Neil jerked back. “What?”
Andrew let out a deep sigh, like Neil’s very existence was incredibly irritating. Neil stared at him, utterly thrown. “I thought you hated me,” he said.
“Every inch of you,” Andrew said. “Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t blow you.”
“Oh,” Neil said. “Uh.”
Andrew grabbed his coat. “I’ll take that as a no,” he said. He swung the door open, vanishing before Neil could get another word in.
Neil looked back down at his stats notes. He should probably go after Andrew and shake some answers out of him, but he definitely didn’t have time right now.
It probably wouldn’t be a problem, he thought as he flipped through notes which felt only vaguely familiar. Andrew had never brought up his interest before, and he didn’t strike Neil as the kind of person who would object to being told no.
Neil would deal with it later.
The light shimmered a little, like the late hour had enchanted it. Neil sipped the soda Renee had brought him and grimaced. He was too dehydrated to stomach the sickly sweetness of it.
Everyone else had finally left the party; it was just the five of them. Six, if you counted Matt’s erstwhile neighbour Seth, who was passed out in the bathroom doorway. Someone had helpfully draped a towel over him to make him more comfortable.
“Why Andrew?” Matt asked into the quiet.
Neil knew he’d been cranky with them earlier for their prodding, but he was too sleepy now to be annoyed. He tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling, picturing Andrew’s intent stare. The way he would watch Neil talk without looking away even for a moment. Neil had never known anyone with such single-minded focus, and certainly not focussed on him.
“It’s just…easy, around him,” Neil said. “Around everyone else, it’s like…it’s like I’m playing a part. But I don’t have to censor myself around him. It doesn’t matter what I say, it won’t bother him. I can just…be.”
“You don’t have to censor yourself around us,” Matt said, a frown in his voice.
Neil let out a brief, humourless laugh. “Yeah, I do.”
Matt exhaled, pushing himself upright. “Do you want to know why I never wear short sleeves?” he asked. Neil’s eyebrows furrowed as Matt shoved his sleeve up his arm.
Tiny, overlapping dark lines covered his forearm, concentrated below the crease of his elbow. Neil stared, too surprised to be tactful. “I lived with my dad growing up,” Matt said. “He’d bring me to all sorts of ‘business parties’ and he encouraged me to try the party favours. I guess it kept me out of his hair. It wasn’t till I OD’ed in junior year that my mom found out and took me away to rehab.”
He pulled his sleeve back down. “None of us are ‘normal’, Neil. Allison almost died of anorexia because her parents wanted her to be a model.” Allison raised her glass in an ironic toast, a smirk on her lips. “Renee used to run drugs and spent six months in juvie. Dan—”
He hesitated, glancing at her. She grinned, putting an arm around his shoulder proprietarily. “I became a stripper when I was sixteen to pay the bills,” she said with the attitude of someone who had taken shame and shoved it somewhere that the sun didn’t shine. Matt’s face melted, smiling at her with infinite admiration.
Neil looked away. Their easy intimacy felt foreign, like he was watching something through a warped mirror, something that didn’t feel real. He’d never known anyone who loved each other as openly and obviously as Matt and Dan; his mother had never shown any interest in dating after her calamitous first marriage.
He took a brief swig of his beer and rested his head against the back of the couch, closing his eyes. A sort of fatalistic curiosity rose in him.
“My dad had a room in the basement where he used to murder people,” he said. “Sometimes he would make me watch.”
He kept his eyes closed, not daring to look. He knew what he’d see; nobody had ever been ready to deal with exactly how fucked up Neil was. Not before Andrew. There was a reason he’d never bothered to make friends in high school. Neil made people uncomfortable, even when he was trying to keep his childhood a secret. There were too many sharp edges, and he couldn’t blunt them all even if he tried.
Finally, Allison laughed, a short bark that made Neil raise his head. She shook her head. “You sure don’t skimp on the tragic backstory, do you, kid?” she said, smirking.
“I’m not a kid,” he said quietly.
“Yeah, you are,” she said, resting her head against her hand. “You’ve might’ve been through more shit than most adults, but you’re still an itty bitty eighteen-year-old who’s probably never seen a healthy role model in his life.”
She smiled, tilting her beer towards him. “You fit right in here, kiddo,” she said, and for once in his life Neil had no idea what to say.
Kevin ripped his helmet off, shaking it in Neil’s face. “Are you even paying attention?” he snapped. “I have been telling you for three weeks that your underhand pass is weak, but I don’t even think you’ve practiced.”
“It’s a rec league, Kevin,” Neil said, shoving the sweaty helmet aside. The rest of the team looked away awkwardly. “Some of us have to take some time to study.”
“Is that what you call watching three Exy games in a row last night,” Andrew said, walking past them towards the court entrance. “Studying.”
Neil scowled at him. “You binged an entire season of Criminal Minds last weekend, you don’t get to talk.”
Andrew shrugged dismissively and wandered away to get some water. The community rec centre where they practiced didn’t have the funds for a fully enclosed Exy court, so this one had no plexiglass roof. Kevin, who had grown up near one of the most prestigious courts in the country, constantly bemoaned how they had to bastardize the game to play without the ricochets that characterized pro games.
Neil shoved Kevin off. “I need to go,” he said, overriding Kevin’s protests. Neil loved Exy, and ordinarily would be happy to spend several hours here with Kevin after the others left. With the end of semester currently kicking his ass, he didn’t have the patience for Kevin’s attitude right now.
He also, possibly, had to spend some actual time studying tonight, rather than staring at the book he was supposed to have read for English and regretting the decision to come to university.
Neil tuned out Kevin’s objections and headed into the change room, stowing his racquet in their team’s rented space in the gear locker. In less than a month he’d be heading home for the winter break, where it would just be him and his mother for two weeks. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, but he was ready for the peace and quiet; everyone he knew here seemed personally offended by his lack of holiday spirit.
He entered the men’s change room and located his gear bag in the corner of the room. He bundled his clothes under one arm and ducked through the throng of Exy players to one of the bathroom stalls. It was narrow, but he managed to get changed without much issue; he was used to it.
He carried his gear back out into the changing room.
“Too good to change out with us, Josten?”
Neil looked up. One of the other guys, Jonathan, was grinning at him. His tone was teasing, not cruel, so Neil forced out a fake laugh, trying to duck around him.
Jonathan grabbed him in a headlock, scruffing up his hair. Neil flinched, trying to yank out of his grip, but Jonathan only laughed. The others spread out, making a circle around them to watch.
“Come on, Neil, kick him in the nuts!” someone called.
Jonathan clearly thought this was high comedy, because he tried to grab Neil around the middle and lift him, still under the impression that they were having a playful wrestling match. Neil squirmed, keeping out of his grip, but just barely.
His breath came in choppy pants. His lungs constricted. He tried to remind himself that Jonathan was only playing, but his mind couldn’t help but supply memories of harsher hands. When Jonathan’s hand twisted in the front of his shirt, he lashed out instinctively, almost blind with panic.
His fist cracked against Jonathan’s jaw. Pain spiked up his wrist and he wrenched backwards, feeling more than hearing the sound of fabric tearing.
He stumbled back, clutching the torn remnants of his t-shirt. Jonathan swore, clapping a hand over his jaw protectively.
The jeering stopped completely. Neil braced himself and looked down. His shirt had ripped along the neckline, hanging open. The twisted flesh of his burn scar was exposed for everyone to see.
“Christ, Neil, I was just messing aroun—”
Jonathan cut off abruptly, and when Neil looked up he saw why. Andrew had moved in between them. He didn’t say anything or raise a hand, but the force of his presence made Jonathan back up a step. His eyes flicked over Andrew’s shoulder to look at Neil.
Neil swallowed and pulled his shirt up to cover his shoulder. Jonathan’s eyes went wide, his hand dropping from his cheek. A pronounced red mark showed where he was going to have a nasty bruise tomorrow, but whatever he saw in Neil’s face dissipated his anger like smoke.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s fine,” Neil forced out. He glanced around, but the others were all frozen, waiting to see what would happen next.
Neil hiked his shirt up higher like that could change what they’d seen and pushed past a couple guys to his duffel. They parted like water in front of him, something like pity or horror in their eyes.
Neil threw on his jacket and zipped it up to his chin. He didn’t bother to pack his things properly, just shovelled everything into his bag as fast as he could. His back prickled from the weight of their eyes, but he didn’t pause as he fled the changing room, using his gear bag like a buffer between himself and the others.
The air outside clawed at his skin. He inhaled, letting the cold spike through his lungs. His hands still shook from adrenaline and he shoved them into his armpits, turning up the road towards the university. Usually, he caught the bus, but so did half the team; he didn’t want to deal with them right now.
He’d been walking for about five minutes when a sleek black car pulled up beside him. He glanced over and kept walking, ducking his head to breathe into his jacket.
The window whirred softly down. “Get in,” Andrew said.
Neil stopped, peering down into the car. Andrew was sitting in the driver’s seat, looking as bored as always. The car idled next to Neil, apparently indifferent to the fact that this wasn’t a parking lane.
“Well?” Andrew said when it became evident that Neil wasn’t going to move.
Neil blinked, forcing himself to focus. “It’s fine—”
“Just get in the car, Neil.”
Neil stared at him for a long moment. Andrew didn’t argue any further. He just waited, like he knew Neil’s surrender was inevitable.
Neil clenched his jaw and carefully stowed his gear bag into the backseat. Andrew peeled away from the curb the second he got the passenger door closed, swerving into traffic without any regard for speed limits.
Neil gripped the door handle and tried to keep his voice even. “How does a guy like you afford a car like this, anyway?”
Andrew slanted Neil a look. “A guy like me?”
“We live in the same shithole, Andrew.”
Andrew grunted at that. “My mother’s life insurance payout covered the car.”
“And you didn’t put anything aside for university?” Neil said, incredulous. If he had that kind of money, there was no way he’d be living in a crappy university dorm.
Andrew sniffed but didn’t respond to that accusation. “Not going to offer your condolences?”
“You don’t seem terribly upset,” Neil said, his grip tightening on the door handle as Andrew made a particularly inadvisable turn.
Andrew was silent for a long moment. His hand shifted on the wheel as they got onto the main road that ran back to the university, and he threw the gear stick with smooth familiarity. The car roared, inertia pinning Neil to the seat as they accelerated.
“The best thing that woman ever did was die,” Andrew said finally.
There was no change to the cadence of his voice, but Neil recognized the hardness of it. He resisted the urge to touch the burn scar on his shoulder.
“My father’s been in prison for seven years,” he said.
Andrew glanced over, watching him for long enough that Neil wanted to force him to turn back to the road, where they were already going about twenty miles over the limit.
Finally, he nodded, an acknowledgement. He didn’t offer condolences either.
They didn’t speak for the rest of the drive back to the university.
“You don’t have to walk me home,” Neil said, shoving his hands in his hoody pockets. “I only had two drinks.”
“I know,” Renee said with a smile. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you.”
Neil looked at her curiously. Renee had made his instincts bristle the first day he met her, but it hadn’t been until tonight that he got confirmation of his suspicions. Renee gestured ahead of them, to where a small stone pedestrian bridge crossed a stream. She led him up the path and stopped, leaning against the railing. Neil imitated her.
Renee tilted her head, staring up at the sky. A handful of stars speckled the sky like pinholes, shining through the red-tinged smog.
“You wanted to talk?” Neil prompted after she had been silent for too long.
“I am trying to think of the right words,” she said. “You heard what Matt said about me earlier. I…do not wish to make this about me. I am not trying to play the game of who had it worse. What you went through is undoubtedly monstrous, and I do not wish to minimize it.”
Renee smiled ruefully. “You said that your father would make you watch while he killed. I…I held the knife myself.”
Neil stared at her. She threaded her fingers together, contemplating her hands. “Twice,” she said. “Twice, by the time I was fifteen, I was directly responsible for a man’s death. Neither, I think, were such great losses. I regret more what killing them did to me than the fact that they are dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Neil said, though he didn’t really know why. The sorrow in her eyes seemed to require some kind of response.
“I’m not,” she said. “Not really. It is something I am working on. But I did not say this to beg for your sympathy. I say this because I understand. The others—they are good, wonderful people, and they love me. And there is a darkness in me that they can never, and I hope will never, understand. Andrew is that for me.”
“Oh,” Neil said. He looked down at the stream, the water sparkling and gurgling beneath them. Renee understood better than Neil could have possibly imagined; she knew what it was like to have a part of you that needed to stay hidden, for other people’s safety; she knew the relief of having that part of you be seen.
Neil swallowed. “Thank you for telling me.”
“Thank you for trusting me,” she said. “I know it must not have been easy. I got the impression that you didn’t like me very much, at first.”
She was smiling, which lessened the blow, but Neil still felt compelled to apologize again. She waved him off. “I’m only glad Matt found you,” she said. “You could belong with us, you know. If you wanted to.”
Neil looked away again. “It seems almost impossible that I met you in the first place.”
“Is it?” she asked.
Neil frowned. “What does that mean?”
She raised a single shoulder. “I think we find each other. Those of us who have…rebuilt ourselves.”
“You think Matt decided to be my partner in English because he thought I was broken?”
Renee laughed. “Not so bluntly as all that. We’re just…drawn to people. It’s not necessarily something that we could articulate, we don’t consciously decide it. Our souls recognize one another.”
Neil gave her a skeptical look, and she smiled, her nose wrinkling up in a very charming way. “But there is a less esoteric explanation. Andrew told me about you.”
After all that she’d said in the last five minutes, that still threw Neil. “He did?” he asked. “But that must have been…the first week of school.” He and Matt had paired off for the semester-long project during their very first tutorial.
Renee nodded, pushing off the railing and indicating the trail ahead of them. Only a short walk remained to his dorm building, but they didn’t rush, just ambled along. “Andrew told me about you the second day here,” she said. “He recognized you right away. That you’re like us. He said he threatened to cut your hands off and you didn’t even blink.”
Neil couldn’t help but laugh. “I’ve heard worse,” he said.
Renee snorted. “Anyway, I told the others to keep an eye out for you because I was curious about whatever it was about you that had caught Andrew’s eye. And…well, once the others met you, they were determined to keep you.”
“Why?” Neil asked. Nobody had ever wanted Neil around before.
Renee stopped by his door, still smiling her endlessly patient smile. “I already told you, Neil,” she said. “We’re drawn to people. I think we were always meant to be friends.”
“You’re a very strange person, Renee,” Neil said.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now go inside, I’d like to go home and to bed two hours ago.”
Neil actually laughed. The alcohol must have gone to his head. “Night, Renee,” he said, swiping his fob against the electronic lock.
The phone slipped from Neil’s fingers as the call went dead. He dropped onto his bedspread, but he barely felt the impact. His suitcase lay open on the ground in front of him, a few haphazard items already tossed in.
His breathing came slow and shallow. His chest barely moved, the air not reaching his lungs. His vision went white at the edges, closing in. Time faded away as he struggled to hold on to the last flimsy threads of reality.
Neil jerked his head up, gasping. Andrew knelt in front of him in the narrow gap between their beds, the suitcase shoved to the side. Neil had no idea how long he’d been there, calling Neil’s name, but he couldn’t force words out, couldn’t even pry his hands away from where they were wrapped around his middle.
“Neil, look at me,” Andrew said, and Neil dragged his eyes up to meet Andrew’s. His gaze was calm, almost disinterested, but he didn’t look away from Neil once as he reached out and slid his hand over the back of Neil’s neck.
He choked, closing his eyes and biting the inside of his cheek. Andrew guided his head down and Neil pitched forward, burying his forehead against Andrew’s hard shoulder. Andrew went stiff for a brief moment as if in surprise, but his grip didn’t allow Neil to pull away.
“If you don’t breathe, you’re going to pass out,” Andrew said, his fingers tightening against Neil’s neck. Neil tried to snap that he knew that, but he couldn’t pull in enough air. His fingers clenched against his sides.
The tension drained from his muscles drop by drop. He didn’t realize that he’d begun to breathe again until he clenched his teeth and heard the air wheezing through his throat. He slowly wrestled his breathing under control, grounding himself in the feeling of Andrew’s warm hand against his skin.
His body ached like he’d just run a marathon. He turned his head and breathed in. Andrew smelled like laundry detergent and aftershave, crisp and fresh. His shirt was damp where Neil’s face had been hidden against his shoulder.
Neil waited another minute, trying to soak in the sense of safety and security, before finally pushing himself up. Andrew let him go, sitting back on his heels. Neil ran his fingers through his hair, unable to look him in the eye.
Andrew watched him for a discerning moment before standing. His knees popped audibly as he did, and Neil wondered how long he’d been kneeling there. He should check the time on his phone, but he didn’t have the energy for it. He scooted backwards and leaned against the wall, pulling one knee into his chest.
Andrew sat across from him on his own bed, mirroring his posture. For a few minutes, they said nothing. Neil could tell Andrew was keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t fall back into a panic attack, but he couldn’t muster the words to tell him to knock it off. He didn’t even know if he wanted to.
Neil found his phone in the knot of his blankets and turned it over in his hands. Andrew wouldn’t ask; Andrew never asked. They’d spent more time with each other in the last few weeks, and though Neil wasn’t sure they qualified as friends, Andrew now gave Neil a ride back from every Exy practice, and he didn’t leave the room as often in the evenings. Sometimes they even talked, when the lights were out and the darkness hid their words from the world.
“One of my father’s…colleagues, was found,” Neil said, still not looking at Andrew. “She was only a half an hour away from where my mom and I live.”
“She was coming after you,” Andrew said.
Neil nodded tiredly. “Mom thinks so. She shouldn’t have…there’s no way she should have known where we are.”
He was silent for a long moment. His memories of Lola Malcolm were distant, but none of them were pleasant.
“Mom’s going to want us to move,” he said. “If Lola could find us, others might too. She’s going to want us to disappear again.”
“You’re in witness protection.”
Neil supposed it was his own fault for feeding Andrew so many tidbits about his father over the last few weeks; eventually, Andrew had to put the clues together. He should have denied it. His mother would kill him if she found out he’d told, and Robbie wouldn’t be pleased either. But he just nodded.
“Since I was eleven,” he said. He picked at his blanket, closing his eyes. “They probably won’t let me come back next semester. We’ll have to move across the country.”
“Is that what you want?”
“It’s not about what I want,” Neil said. “I don’t get to make the calls when it comes to our safety.”
“You’re an adult,” Andrew said. “They can’t force you to go if you don’t want to.”
Neil scoffed. His mother would never stand for him trying to make such a dangerous decision.
“Do you want to leave?” Andrew asked.
“It’s the smart thing to do.” The mere mention of Lola had been enough to send Neil into one of the worst spirals he’d had in years. A new city, a new name; it might buy them a few more years of relative peace.
“But is it what you want?”
Neil fell silent. He and his mother had grown a lot better, under Robbie’s tutelage. His mother hadn’t hit him since they entered witness protection, and she rarely even raised her voice against him anymore. They would never be a normal mother-son pair, but they were no longer so interwoven that Neil felt like a tattered extension of his mother.
Even so, the past few months had been the first time Neil had been able to start feeling out the edges of who Neil Josten was without his mother breathing down his neck. It was small and a little plain, the life he’d built, and still fragile. But he didn’t want to give it up just yet. The idea of walking away made his chest tear like it had been rent with a knife.
His silence was answer enough for Andrew. “You can either stand up to them or spend the rest of your life being babysat. It’s your choice,” he said.
“And if they don’t listen?” Neil said quietly.
Andrew shrugged, pushing himself off the bed. He had a small electric kettle on his desk, and he switched it on, pulling out a container of instant coffee.
Neil watched him spoon coffee into two mugs and pour a generous amount of hazelnut creamer into one of them. The water boiled slowly, the sound rising to fill the air like white noise. Neil didn’t know if he could take Andrew’s advice. Robbie and his mother had ceded to his wishes to attend university, but they still saw him as a child. Neil wouldn’t be surprised if Robbie had someone from the agency in town to monitor him. In fact, he’d be more surprised if she didn’t.
Andrew split the boiled water between the two cups and held the unsweetened one out to Neil. “If you don’t say anything,” he said. “You’ll never know.”
Neil stared at him. Andrew didn’t move, implacable as stone. His expression was still one of studied disinterest, but Neil got the impression he’d stand there all day if he had to.
Neil dropped his gaze and accepted the mug. A thin film of foam ringed the black surface of the coffee, and Neil stared at it, and wondered.
It took Neil two tries to get his key into the door. He pushed it open, wandering in and closing the door behind him. He could see the vague shape of Andrew’s body under his blanket and left the light off so as not to disturb him. He bumped into his desk chair on the way and carefully steered it back into its spot under his desk.
“Neil,” Andrew grumbled.
It was the first time Andrew had spoken to him in nearly two weeks. He waved his hand in apology as he stripped his sweater off. “Sorry,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”
“Are you drunk?”
Neil inspected his feelings for a moment. He still felt a little light-headed, but it had mostly faded. “A bit tipsy, I think,” he said. “I only had two drinks.”
“Great,” Andrew muttered, uncharacteristic annoyance bleeding into his tone. “Lightweight.”
“Mm,” Neil said. He dropped his jeans on the floor and climbed into his bed in his t-shirt and boxers. He rolled onto his side, watching Andrew’s shadow in the dark room. “You don’t have to keep avoiding me, you know.”
Andrew had only been lying in bed, but somehow Neil could still tell that he went very still. “What?”
“I get it,” Neil said. “I broke a rule. I’ll back off from now on.”
Andrew didn’t say anything for a long moment, and Neil shrugged, closing his eyes. He had almost drifted off when Andrew spoke again.
“What rule?” he asked.
Neil blinked blearily at him. Andrew’s face was shadowed, so Neil couldn’t read it.
“I like you,” he said.
It was so easy. It just slipped right out, eased on its way by the alcohol and the late night. Neil would probably be annoyed at himself in the morning, but he only squirmed tighter into his blanket, sighing as he got comfortable. “I know you don’t do relationships,” he mumbled. “I’ll get over it.”
Andrew didn’t say another word, and Neil let sleep pull him under.
“You’re here,” Andrew said.
Neil looked up from where he was unpacking his suitcase. Andrew stood in the doorway, leaned against the frame. His suitcase had already vanished under his bed, so Neil assumed he had been back for a while already.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Neil said, turning back to his suitcase and hiding his smile. Christmas break had not been the peaceful retreat he’d hoped for. The shouting match that ensued when Neil said he wanted to stay at university was the worst he’d ever had with his mother.
Breathing in the familiar, slightly mildewed scent of their dormitory had been a startling relief. The meagre possessions he’d left behind welcomed him with a thin layer of dust. There was a party happening at Matt’s dorm tonight; Neil didn’t know if he actually wanted to attend, but it was nice to get the invite regardless.
He finished unloading his clothes into the drawers under his bed and wedged his suitcase in the narrow gap beneath. He stood, cracking his back, and turned back to where Andrew was still watching him.
Andrew didn’t say anything, but Neil thought he could see something satisfied in his eyes. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.
“Kevin says Exy practices aren’t starting up for a week,” he said. “We were going to go down to the court and run some drills at six. Want to join?”
Andrew’s nose wrinkled in a faint expression of disgust and he pushed himself out of the doorway, dropping the door closed behind him. Neil smirked. Andrew might not be demonstrative about it, but he wouldn’t be on the team if he didn’t enjoy it.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Neil said. “Got something better to do?”
Andrew gave him a hefty side-eye, crossing to sit on the windowsill. Neil propped his hip on his desk to watch him. Andrew had cut his hair over break, short on the sides and long and tousled on top. He shook a cigarette out, patting down his jacket pockets in search of his lighter.
Neil chewed on the inside of his mouth. “Hey, Andrew?”
Andrew glanced back at him. Neil tapped his finger against the back of his folded arms. He’d had a lot of time to think on Andrew’s questions over break. About what it was he actually wanted.
“Do you remember what you told me back in October?” he asked.
Andrew raised an eyebrow, propping his cigarette between his lips and flicking the striker on his lighter. Neil almost smiled. “About if I decided I like guys,” he clarified.
Andrew’s hand stopped on its way to his cigarette. The tiny flame blew out, but Andrew didn’t move for a long moment. When he did, it was to lower his hand, the cigarette still unlit.
“I remember,” he said.
“And I thought about it,” Neil said.
He still didn’t think he was interested in guys, per se. He’d never really been interested in anyone, but he’d never truly realized the depths of his disinterest until he’d experienced Andrew.
He was the exception to every one of Neil’s rules.
Andrew placed his cigarette down on the windowsill. “What are you saying, Neil?”
“I’m saying I’m interested,” Neil said. “At least if you still are.”
Andrew shifted. He was still sitting on the windowsill, but he now faced Neil directly. His eyes searched for a lie in Neil’s face. “There are rules,” he said.
“Okay,” Neil said. “What kind of rules?”
Andrew’s expression was unreadable. “You can’t touch me unless I say so,” he said. “And never in public.”
Neil shrugged. That much was easy. “Anything else?”
“I don’t do relationships,” Andrew said. “If you’re looking for a boyfriend, go somewhere else.”
Neil didn’t want a boyfriend. He wanted Andrew.
“Okay,” he said.
Silence overtook them. Andrew’s hand gripped the windowsill, his shadowed eyes still intent on Neil. Neil had never felt both so exposed and so exhilarated in his life.
“So?” he asked, goading.
Andrew pushed himself off the windowsill, and Neil almost stopped breathing as he crossed the short space to stand in front of him. “Yes or no?” he asked.
“Yes,” Neil said, dropping his arms to his side and leaning forward, curiosity and nerves sparking like electricity in his veins. Andrew stopped him with a hand on his chest, glancing down at Neil’s hands.
Neil took the hint and slid his hands into his back pockets, out of the way. When he stopped moving, Andrew gripped his chin, tilting his head towards him.
He paused, giving Neil time to back out. Neil waited for a moment before impatience got the better of him, and he ducked his head forward, bringing his mouth within an inch of Andrew’s.
Andrew bridged the final distance. His mouth was hot against Neil. He kissed with dizzying intensity, his mouth hungry and searching. Neil lost all sense of time as Andrew eased closer into his space, his hand sliding down to his waist.
His phone buzzing made them both jump. Neil fumbled, extricating his hands from his pockets and rescuing his phone from where it had been buried under the pile of detritus on his desk.
“Kevin’s here,” he said, his voice surprisingly even, considering the fact he could still hear his heartbeat in his ears.
“Make him wait,” Andrew said.
Neil snorted, shoving his phone in his back pocket. “Last offer to come practice with us,” he said.
Andrew made a sound of disgust and pushed Neil away. Neil bit back a smile and dragged his gear bag out from under his desk. “See you later,” he said.
Andrew didn’t reply, but he didn’t have to; Neil could still feel the heat of his hands on his skin, and it was with an unfamiliar lightness to his step that he headed out the door. This semester was already shaping up a lot better than the last one.
Neil woke to Andrew up and moving around the next morning. He groaned, cracking his eyes open at the light streaming through the window. His head felt foggy, but he attributed that to going to bed at three in the morning, not the two beers he’d drank.
Andrew cast him a brief glance before stripping off his sleeping shirt. Neil propped himself up and groped for his alarm clock. He stared at it, perplexed. It was seven-thirty in the morning. There was no good reason for anyone to be up this early on a day when there were no classes.
Neil watched as Andrew pulled a dark blue sweater over his head that he didn’t recognize. The feeling of discomfort ratcheted up as Andrew turned, spotting Neil.
“Problem?” he demanded.
“Yeah,” Neil said, his instincts flaring. “What the fuck are you doing in my room?”
“I live here.”
“Andrew lives here,” Neil corrected.
The guy, who could only be Andrew’s twin brother Aaron, blinked in surprise. “Well that was quick,” he said, almost to himself. He cast Neil a curious look. “How did you know?”
Neil sat up all the way, still tense. “Andrew never gets up before ten unless he has to,” he said. “Besides, you don’t look that similar.”
“Most people think we do.”
“I’m not most people,” Neil snapped. “You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing in my room?”
Aaron shrugged. “Andrew told me yesterday that we were changing rooms.”
Neil exhaled angrily. Of course. He knew Andrew was avoiding him, but it was still petty to not even give him any warning. He fumed, casting Aaron a hostile glare.
“I’m no happier about this than you are,” Aaron snapped, shoving his wallet in his pocket. “I didn’t want to move all my shit in the middle of semester, but Andrew doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Something in Neil violently objected to that statement, but he shoved down the impulse to argue. It felt too revealing. Too much like admitting how much time he’d spent learning Andrew’s mannerisms and tics.
Aaron paused with his hand on the door handle. He looked back at Neil, the irritation on his face clearing a little, making way for something more calculated. He studied Neil for a long moment.
“I guess I get it now,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to room with a guy who was obsessed with me, either.”
Neil blinked at him, uncomprehending. It took nearly five seconds for him to remember his confession last night.
He flushed in horror. It was bad enough he’d said it out loud—I like you, like some kind of twelve-year-old kid with a crush—but to have said it to the wrong brother—
“I won’t tell him what you said,” Aaron said, idly. “Not that I think it would make a difference.”
“I don’t care what you tell him,” Neil spat. “Get out.”
Aaron shrugged and left the room. Neil dug his hands into his blankets, pressing his eyes closed.
It was way too fucking early for the day to already suck this much. He threw his blankets off, knowing full well he wasn’t going to get back to sleep, and shoved his feet into his running shoes. Running wasn’t likely to make him feel better—but it really couldn’t make him feel worse, right now.
Neil crossed his legs under him, peering down at the mess of chemical equations on his paper. He’d only been back from Christmas break for two weeks, and somehow he was already falling behind.
The door clacked open and shut. Neil gestured a vague greeting without looking up. Andrew dropped his bag on his bed and Neil scratched another set of molecules into his homework.
A hand in his hair made him stop, and he let Andrew gently tug his head until he was looking up at him. Andrew moved alongside him, propping his hip against the arm of the chair.
Neil almost smiled, watching Andrew’s intent gaze slide down his face to his mouth. Their schedules this semester never seemed to coincide; despite literally living in the same room, Neil barely saw Andrew when he wasn’t asleep or at intramurals. He tipped his head up a little higher, an invitation, and Andrew bent down to meet him.
The first pass of lips was light, but Andrew quickly leaned in, pressing his mouth firmly against Neil’s as if to make up for the softness of the first kiss. Neil responded in kind, exhaling heavily. He leaned back and let Andrew press him against the chair, his lips parting as he coaxed Andrew’s mouth open.
Andrew’s hand slid down his head to cup his jaw, then lower, sliding down Neil’s chest in an unmistakeable offer.
“Neil,” he murmured. “Yes or no?”
Neil captured Andrew’s mouth in another kiss to stall for time, and nearly forgot about the question as Andrew’s tongue slid against his own. He bit Andrew’s lip when he tried to retreat.
“Neil,” Andrew said, a warning.
Neil hummed in dissatisfaction, tilting his head back so he could see Andrew’s face properly. His pupils were blown wide open, his mouth red and soft from kissing.
He probably needed to get his homework done. That was probably important.
“Yes,” he said anyway, because Andrew was hovering four inches away from his face, and Neil did not have that much self-control. He made to get up and move to the bed, but Andrew pushed him back down, swinging around the front of Neil’s chair and propping his knee up on the seat.
Neil inhaled, his eyes going wide as Andrew straddled his lap, gripping the back of the chair in one hand. Neil’s hands went up, fingers spread, and Andrew grabbed them and pushed them down against the armrests. He settled himself, propped up on his knees a few inches above Neil’s thighs.
“Still yes?” Andrew asked.
“Fuck,” Neil mumbled, his brain still completely scrambled by the fact that Andrew was in his lap. Andrew’s fingers grabbed his chin, tilting his head up. His fingers were still chilly from outside.
“Neil,” he said.
“Yeah,” Neil breathed. “Yes, Andrew.”
He was definitely going to fail chemistry.
Neil tried to avoid being in the same room with Aaron for most of spring break. It was so excruciatingly awkward that he almost wished he’d gone home for the week; he’d made the decision to stay before Andrew cut him off, when avoiding spending a week with his still-frosty mother had still been his chief concern.
By the time classes restarted he was sick of drifting from gym to common area to dining hall all day. Classes were a welcome distraction, but he was running out of the energy needed to hang out in public spaces. On the Wednesday after break he finally gave up and headed back to the dorm immediately after dinner, rather than linger in the study halls until ten.
Aaron, naturally, was there. He was much more studious than Andrew had ever been. Neil had hardly ever seen Andrew open his textbooks, whereas Aaron’s desk was constantly covered in notes and open reference books.
Neil closed the door behind him. The noise made Aaron look up. A flicker of surprise crossed his face, but he quickly schooled it to stillness. Neil wondered if he’d gotten used to having exclusive access to the dorms in the evenings.
Neil stopped halfway to his bed, his eyes catching on something under the bed. Oh, Aaron had settled in real fast.
He kicked the bra out from under the bed. “This yours?” he asked.
Aaron flushed, grabbing the bra off the floor and squirrelling it away in his backpack. “It’s my girlfriend’s,” he muttered.
“You actually have a girlfriend?” Neil asked. He’d sort of assumed Aaron would be into guys as well, based on the twin thing.
“Why do you sound so surprised?” Aaron snapped.
“Because your sparkling wit is so endearing,” Neil said. “How does someone forget their bra, anyway? Wouldn’t you notice that you weren’t wearing it when you left?”
Aaron went a deeper red, but his face was stubborn. “It must have fallen out of her cheerleading bag,” he said.
“Wow, bagged a cheerleader,” Neil said. “Do you have some secret personality I haven’t seen yet, or did you have to build her yourself?”
“That’s rich, coming from the guy who’s obsessed with Andrew,” Aaron snapped.
“’Obsessed’ might be a bit much,” Neil said, dropping onto his mattress. “Andrew’s just being a drama queen about it.”
Aaron’s expression was skeptical, but Neil ignored him. He put his headphones in and switched on his music, determined not to acknowledge Aaron for the rest of the evening.
This plan hit a major snag when Aaron pushed his chair back less than ten minutes later, studying Neil with a slight frown between his eyebrows.
Neil suffered the scrutiny for about thirty seconds before he broke. He pushed himself up onto his elbows. “Problem?” he demanded.
“What do you see in Andrew, anyway?” Aaron said.
Neil stared at him. “You really can’t conceive of one reason somebody might like Andrew? God, I can see why you guys have such a shit relationship.”
“He said that?” Aaron asked. He reddened again. “About us, I mean.”
“He didn’t have to,” Neil said. “He hates people, but he moved to university and got a dorm with a stranger rather than put in a request to share with you. It speaks.”
“Yeah, well,” Aaron muttered. “He hates me.”
Neil sucked on the inside of his cheek, studying Aaron. “I don’t think that’s right, either.”
“What would you know?”
Neil shrugged. “I pay attention, that’s all.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but Andrew’s kind of an asshole.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m kind of an asshole,” Neil retorted.
Aaron snorted, and Neil couldn’t help the uptick of the corner of his mouth. He looked away so Aaron wouldn’t be encouraged, dropping back onto his mattress.
Aaron turned back to his studies, but Neil couldn’t let go of his question. Matt had asked nearly the same thing at the party, but this nagged at him. Aaron was Andrew’s twin. He knew they didn’t have the best history; Andrew had told him something about their fractious childhoods. Still, it bothered him.
“He’s steady,” Neil said. He didn’t look away from the ceiling, but he felt Aaron’s attention return to him. “The rest of the world might be in chaos, but Andrew is like…a fixed point. He doesn’t move through the world; the world moves around him.”
His nerves failed him, and he fell silent. He waited for Aaron to mock him, but he said nothing for a long time, and when Neil looked up again he was staring at his notes, his pen held loosely in one hand. He didn’t so much as budge, his eyes unfocused, as if he wasn’t taking in a single thing.
After a minute, Neil got bored of watching, and put his earbuds back in, closing his eyes.
Neil muffled his panting in his pillow as Andrew pressed one final kiss to his hipbone before doing Neil’s pants back up. His whole body tingled with lingering sensations, and his stomach jumped as Andrew’s fingers brushed against oversensitive skin.
Andrew kissed his way up Neil’s bare chest, his hands tracing out the lines of old, faded scars. Neil exhaled as Andrew tugged the pillow away from his face, dropping it on the floor.
Neil’s eyelids flickered. He reached up and tangled his fingers in Andrew’s hair. The shaved sides were smooth and soft beneath Neil’s skin. Andrew let Neil pull him down into a kiss. His mouth tasted funny, but Neil ignored it. He felt floaty and heavy and warm and shivery all at once and he didn’t care what Andrew tasted like so long as he stayed close.
Andrew propped one elbow beside Neil’s head. His arm sank down, making Neil tip slightly. His cheek brushed against Andrew’s bare forearm. He didn’t look, though he knew what he’d see. Living in such close quarters, it was almost inevitable they’d eventually see each other unclothed, but Neil still knew how privileged he was to be so trusted.
After a minute or so Andrew turned his head, breaking the kiss to catch his breath. They lay there for a moment, cheek to cheek, the air between them warm and easy.
The mattress shifted beneath them as Andrew pushed himself up onto his hands. Neil let his hands drop. Andrew’s hair hung down, the long strands from the top of his head dangling between them. The light through the window caught it, burnishing it in gold.
Neil stared, unable to stop himself. Andrew’s breath stirred his hair in tiny gusts, sending it drifting. Neil felt stuck, like a single motion could shatter the moment like glass.
Andrew didn’t move, his hooded eyes still watching Neil, and he had the sudden and unaccountable feeling that Andrew was just as trapped. His breath quickened, and he blinked quickly.
It was enough to break the spell. Neil shifted backwards and Andrew sat up. Neil felt strange and breathless in a way that didn’t seem to be related to their recent activities.
“I’ll go shower,” Neil said. He’d already showered this morning, but it was the simplest excuse for him to leave the room for the time it would take for Andrew to take care of himself. Andrew sat on his heels while Neil climbed off the mattress and found his discarded shirt halfway under Andrew’s bed.
He stood, yanking the shirt over his head. When he turned, Andrew was still watching him. He avoided his gaze, not sure what Andrew would see there. His feelings felt like they would be so transparent Andrew should see them written on his skin.
He grabbed his towel and fled to the showers. Luckily, he encountered no one in the hallway, and he got himself locked into a shower stall without incident. He didn’t turn on the water yet, just pressed his forehead against the grungy tiles.
Things with Andrew were spiralling out of control far faster than he’d ever expected. A pang of regret hit his stomach. He’d promised Andrew he’d stay unattached, and he wouldn’t violate Andrew’s boundaries by breaking that promise, but he hadn’t expected it to be so painful. He’d have to warn Andrew soon.
He stripped off and switched the water on, lingering just long enough that he was sure Andrew would be finished with the room.
When he got back to the room, Andrew had already left. He’d even changed the sheets on Neil’s bed, so there was no evidence of what they’d done earlier.
Neil closed the door behind him and rested against it. Andrew was gone, but that wasn’t unusual. He often left afterwards and returned hours later smelling of cigarette smoke and whiskey. Neil spent a couple hours studying before he gave up waiting for Andrew and went to sleep.
Andrew didn’t get back until nearly midnight.
He did not speak to Neil again that night, and the next morning he was gone before Neil woke up. It wasn’t until the third day that Neil realized that anything was wrong.
That was three weeks ago.
Neil wouldn’t go so far as to say that he and Aaron became friends, but they did at least develop a truce that allowed Neil to spend time in their room again without being subjected to the excruciating awkwardness of their first week. The second week of their new configuration was a lot more comfortable than the first. When Friday rolled around, Neil headed directly back from classes at two in the afternoon, skipping his usual gym session.
He pushed the door open and spotted Aaron sitting on his desk. He gestured in greeting and kicked the door closed behind him. Aaron didn’t respond, but—
Neil did a double-take.
Andrew gazed back at him impassively. He was wearing a t-shirt and his customary armbands, which made identifying him easier, but Neil would have known him anyway. Andrew’s presence felt like it sucked all the air out of the room, leaving a chilly vacuum.
“Were you looking for Aaron?” Neil asked, dropping his bag on the floor beneath his desk. He didn’t really want to stay here with Andrew, but he wasn’t about to let himself be driven out of his own room.
Andrew didn’t say anything. He hopped off the desk and grabbed his coat from where it was draped over the chair, walking over to the door. Neil watched him go, perplexed.
Andrew opened the door and paused. He looked back over his shoulder at Neil, as if he was waiting for something.
“What?” Neil said, irritation bleeding into his tone.
Andrew jerked his head towards the hallway. Neil frowned at him. A month ago, he would have taken that as a clear invitation, but these days he wasn’t so sure.
He took a step forward. It seemed to be what Andrew wanted, because he left the door open as he vanished into the hallway. Neil followed him, tentative. He half expected Andrew to dismiss him, but he paused at the end of the hallway, glancing back to verify that Neil was still there.
Neil checked his pocket for his key and locked the door. Andrew waited until he was sure Neil was coming before heading for the stairs. Neil expected him to head down, but they went up instead. They climbed two flights, bypassing all of the residential floors.
Questions swarmed in Neil’s head, but he didn’t want to break the silence. Andrew reached the very top of the stairs, where a locked maintenance door had a red NO ACCESS sign emblazoned on it.
Andrew jostled the handle for a few seconds before he managed to yank the door open. A blast of cold wind hit him as Andrew led him out into the gusty air. Neil wished Andrew had thought to tell him to bring a coat, too. He dragged the door mostly shut behind him, leaving it cracked in case it locked from the inside, and folded his arms around his stomach.
Andrew had already reached the edge of the roof. Neil joined him more cautiously, peeking out at the six-storey drop below them. His stomach lurched and he took a neat step back.
Andrew had no such qualms. He stood right at the drop-off, close enough that Neil wanted to grab his coat to keep him from falling. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket, lighting two and passing one to Neil.
Their fingers brushed as Neil accepted it. A shock sparked between them and Neil snatched his hand back. He took a quick drag to hide his reaction and had to hold back a cough when the caustic smoke hit his lungs.
Andrew burned through his cigarette faster than Neil had ever seen him. He exhaled, smoke billowing out of his mouth and nose like an overheated kettle. He didn’t move.
“You come up here often?” Neil asked. Andrew spared him a flat look, which was all but confirmation. Neil huffed. “And you said I’m the one with a death wish.”
Andrew tossed his cigarette off the side of the building, turning to face him. Neil was taken aback by the intensity in his eyes. It tightened everything about him, his jaw fixed and tense, like he was grinding his teeth.
He took a step, bridging the short distance between them. Neil almost retreated, so startled by the burning in Andrew’s eyes.
Andrew’s hand came up, hovering an inch away from Neil’s cheek. “Yes or no?”
Neil stared at him, open-mouthed. Andrew tilted his head up to Neil, still rigid, but resolute.
Despite everything that had happened in the last month, despite how furious he had been, for a glimmering moment, Neil almost said yes. It would be so easy. The word reached the tip of his tongue and stumbled, Neil’s mind catching up with his body.
He yanked back, breaking the magnetism that held him there. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
Frustration twisted Andrew’s expression for a second before he jerked his head to the side to hide it. He made a cutting gesture with his hand, turning to leave.
Neil couldn’t let that happen. He ducked forward, skirting a thin line as he grabbed the open zippers of Andrew’s coat, yanking him to a halt. Andrew was forced to face him, his entire demeanour fierce and defensive, like a wounded animal.
He knocked Neil’s hands away, and Neil let go easily. Andrew didn’t turn to leave again though, so Neil held his hands up, taking a deep breath.
He ran a shaky hand through his hair. “Talk to me,” he said.
Andrew made a dismissive sound, and Neil bit back a growl. “Stop it,” he snapped. Andrew didn’t say anything, just stood there a foot away, shoulders tense. “Fuck,” Neil said. He closed his eyes, forcing himself to exhale. The calm in his voice when he spoke next was forced. “You have to say something, Andrew,” he said. “I’m good, but I can’t read your mind.”
Andrew’s jaw clenched and he looked away again. He fumbled in his pocket until he got his cigarettes out again. His hands were shaking too hard to light up, and Neil took the cigarette from him, careful not to brush his skin. He handed it back lit, and Andrew took a harsh drag that bordered on desperate.
Neil’s chest twisted. He’d never seen Andrew in this kind of a state. Nothing got to Andrew—that’s what he’d told Aaron. Something obviously had, though, and a pit formed in Neil’s stomach at the thought that he’d had a role in putting the shake in his hands.
He let Andrew smoke in silence. Each inhale steadied Andrew, and each exhale released a little of his tension. By the time the cigarette was gone Andrew’s expression was almost bored. Neil wasn’t naïve enough to think that meant he was back to his usual self; that would take more than a couple minutes and some nicotine.
Andrew tossed the second cigarette to follow the first, his chin tucked into his chest. The cold air nagged at Neil’s bare arms, but he pushed the discomfort away for the moment.
Andrew shoved his hands in his pockets. Neil scanned the parking lot in front of them. A handful of students were wandering around, but none of them looked up. They stood right out there in the open, and yet they were still virtually invisible. The idea sent a little thrill through Neil and he tipped his head up and closed his eyes, letting the wind blow his hair back, stinging his cheeks.
When he opened his eyes again, Andrew was watching him, expression unreadable. Neil held his gaze without saying a word.
Andrew broke eye contact first. He fixed his gaze on the horizon, the afternoon light bright on his wind-tousled hair.
“I talked to Aaron,” he said.
“Ah,” Neil said. “I don’t think he likes me very much.”
The corner of Andrew’s mouth pulled down briefly. “How did you know,” he said. “That it wasn’t me.”
“It was obvious,” Neil said. “You’re not that similar.”
Andrew gave him a flat look, and Neil scowled. “You’re not. I should have realized it the night before, but I was tipsy.”
Andrew’s expression flickered for a moment. “You don’t drink.”
“I felt like indulging a little,” Neil said. “It’s not like it’s an immutable rule. Besides, I only had two drinks.”
Dissatisfaction still drew lines around Andrew’s mouth. Neil sighed. “What’s this about, Andrew?” he asked. He didn’t want to think that Aaron had passed his words on to Andrew. He didn’t know how they’d get mangled passing through Aaron’s filter.
Andrew wouldn’t have brought it up if it wasn’t relevant, though. Andrew tucked his chin into his chest, eyes hooded. His voice was almost resentful as he said, “It wasn’t supposed to matter.”
Neil inhaled. A stupid, hopeful part of him leapt, but he stifled it, controlling his expression. He gestured between them. “This?”
Andrew’s silence was confirmation enough. Neil dropped his hand, staring at Andrew unabashedly. “It doesn’t have to,” he said. His mouth twitched a little. It was already too late for that for Neil, but he wasn’t about to make that Andrew’s problem. “I knew what I agreed to.”
That didn’t seem to be what Andrew wanted to hear. Neil’s traitorous heart thudded in his chest, and he folded his arms to hold off the wind. “What do you want, Andrew?”
“What do you want, Neil?” Andrew shot back.
“You,” Neil said simply.
Andrew blinked, rocking back on his heels. From him, that was like slack-jawed shock. Neil steeled himself for rejection, but Andrew didn’t say anything, just stared at him, his eyes bright in the sunlight.
“It’s fine if all you ever wanted was sex,” Neil said, picking his words carefully. “You made it clear at the beginning that’s what this was, and maybe I’m not actually cut out for that, after all. But if you want to be…” he hesitated. Boyfriends felt hideously juvenile for the way he felt about Andrew. “If you want to be something else, then we could do that.”
Andrew’s jaw worked for a moment before he spoke. “Why?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Neil said.
Andrew stared at him. “I avoided you for three weeks.”
“Which is a dick move,” Neil said. “But we had an agreement, and I broke it. It was hardly a big surprise that you disappeared. You’re predictable.”
The lines on Andrew’s forehead deepened, but he didn’t speak. Neil sighed. “It’s fucking cold out here, Andrew. I’m not going to spend all afternoon trying to guess what you’re thinking.”
Andrew’s gaze slid away, but Neil got the feeling he wasn’t looking at the scenery. His hands twisted inside his jacket pockets. He struggled, exhaling angrily through his nose. “It wasn’t,” he forced out.
“Wasn't what?” Neil asked.
Andrew’s jaw tensed. “It wasn’t…all that I wanted.”
The words were jagged, like they cut Andrew’s throat on the way out. Neil dug his fingers into his forearms, reining himself back. He felt a little wild, like he was driving too fast down the highway, on the brink of spinning out.
“Yeah?” he said, and was surprised how rough his voice sounded.
Andrew’s head lifted slowly. For all the turmoil of the last few minutes, his gaze was clear when he met Neil’s eyes.
“Yes,” he said.
The wind blew his hair into his eyes. His eyelashes fluttered against the dangling strands. Neil held his breath as he reached out, brushing his hair back. It didn’t quite reach his ears, and it fell back in his face the moment Neil let go, but Andrew barely moved. His eyes didn’t leave Neil’s for a second.
“It doesn’t have to look like how it is for everyone else,” Neil said. “I don’t think I want all that drama, anyway. It can just be…as much or as little as we want.”
He leaned forward, and Andrew’s hand moved to his waist, easy, automatic, as if they hadn’t been acting like strangers for nearly a month. He didn’t know who moved first, but then their mouths were pressed together. Andrew pushed Neil back, away from the edge, chasing every heady breath. The chill wind couldn’t touch Neil as fire raced through his veins.
Andrew’s fingers dug into Neil’s sides as he drew back, breathing heavily. His eyes caught the light, almost glowing. Neil let himself look, for once not caring if Andrew saw him staring.
“Anything we want,” Andrew said.
He didn’t phrase it as a question, but Neil heard it anyway. A smile bubbled up in him unbidden, and he tipped his head forward, rubbing his nose against Andrew’s. “Anything,” he confirmed, and slid his hand into Andrew’s hair to draw him into another kiss.
“Does this mean you’ll come back to Exy practices?” Neil asked against Andrew’s mouth, several minutes later. Andrew pulled back in offense, glaring at him. Neil grinned. “Kevin’s been harassing me for weeks about it. I think he misses you.”
“I am not talking about Exy with you right now,” Andrew said, flat.
Neil snickered, capturing Andrew’s lips again to soothe away his bristling. His hands tightened against Neil’s sides. Neil let himself get washed away by the feeling of Andrew’s body against his, close as breathing.
“Andrew,” he mumbled, pulling the last few coherent thoughts together and holding them fast. Andrew only hummed in response, drawing back a fraction of an inch to wait.
Neil blinked at him, taking in his familiar hazel eyes, the little mole beside his left eye, the tiny scar across the bridge of his nose. He exhaled, brushing his lips against Andrew’s as he murmured, “I have a new rule.”
“Yeah?” Andrew breathed, his voice low and rough.
“You are not allowed to ghost me, ever again.”
He felt Andrew’s short intake of breath, then Andrew kissed him, short and fierce, enough to make Neil’s bones go liquid.
“Never,” Andrew agreed.
“The fuck do you mean I have to move again!” Aaron shouted. “I’m not doing it! Once was bad enough.”
Neil stood to the side of the open doorway, only a step away from where Andrew stared his brother down, utterly impassive. Neil bit back a grin. Stoppable force, meet immovable object.
“Neil can help you pack,” Andrew said, turning away. Neil squawked, offended, but Andrew didn’t even grace him with a glance. “You have an hour.”
“An hour?” Aaron said, aghast. “I have midterms this week! I don’t have time.”
Neil folded his arms, leaning against the doorframe. “He seems pretty sure,” he said, aside, to Andrew. “Maybe we should compromise. We could share the room. You and me have the room in the evenings, and Aaron and his girlfriend have mornings.”
Aaron flushed a brilliant red, glancing at Andrew like he was waiting for something. Andrew didn’t react at all, which put a crack in Aaron’s fury. Neil watched, curious, at the silent exchange. He’d have to weasel answers out of Andrew later.
“Fine,” Aaron snapped, turning to his desk and sweeping his textbooks aside. “But if you get sick of him in two weeks, call Nicky, not me. And you have to explain this to Brandon.”
“He hasn’t noticed yet,” Andrew said, turning and heading downstairs. Neil was tempted to follow him, but he restrained himself.
Aaron shot him a hostile glance. “Don’t touch my shit,” he said.
Neil shrugged in agreement. Aaron’s sour mood couldn’t cut through Neil’s current high. Andrew wanted him. As much as Neil wanted Andrew. He tried to keep his giddy smile off his face, but by Aaron’s scowl, he wasn’t entirely successful.
He edged past Aaron and sat on his bed, leaning against the headboard. Aaron’s movements were jagged and he kept shooting poisonous looks at Neil.
They slid right off. Despite his gruff response, Neil didn’t think Aaron was half as angry as he pretended. Well, he was definitely annoyed about having to move; Neil watched him shovel his clothes into his suitcase without any attempt at organization and almost winced. But—
“What did you say to him?” he asked.
“Andrew said you guys talked. What did you say?”
Aaron stared at him. “So this is my fault,” he said. “I brought this on myself.”
Neil couldn’t help but snicker. Aaron wiped an exasperated hand over his face to hide his own wry smile. “Fuck,” he breathed.
“So,” Neil pressed. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Aaron said. “I just asked him what he did to make a freak like you fall in love with him.”
“Really?” Neil said. “In those words.”
Aaron shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Huh,” Neil said. He wasn’t even annoyed at the insult; Aaron was in a bad mood already. He couldn’t help but wonder what had been going through Andrew’s mind. From their conversation earlier, Neil assumed Andrew had panicked when he realized things were getting too serious, too fast, and bailed. But now he was questioning that assumption. Had Andrew really thought his feelings were one-sided?
He didn’t want to think Andrew could be that blind, considering how gone he had been, looking back on it, but it might actually be possible that Andrew was as bad at this relationship stuff as he was. Aaron’s words sent questions teeming through him.
Questions that he might actually get answers to, now. He couldn’t help smiling to himself as he dug up his phone and put his headphones in. Getting Andrew to answer them would be like pulling teeth—but Neil had time.
Now that he knew what Andrew wanted, there was no rush. He flipped through his Spotify account until he found Andrew’s set of playlists and put one of them on. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes. The bassline pounded behind his eyelids as Aaron banged around in the background, and Neil let the music take him away.