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Lessons in Cartography

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For the rest of the week, Andrew gave minimal effort at practice. He walked his laps slowly, napped in various corners of the gym, and ignored Kevin's scolding. He leaned on his racquet like a crutch in the goal and watched in detached boredom as the younger strikers tried their hardest to ruffle him. Neil turned a blind eye to his unwillingness to participate since he understood that it was more likely mental exhaustion than it was antagonism. Something was weighing on Andrew, something that made him keep his knives close at hand even when they were relaxing in their dorm behind a locked door. On Friday, when Sheena decided to ask Neil why he was “letting Andrew get away with it” he walked over to the goal with the promise of talking to Andrew about his attitude. Everyone saw Andrew casually slide his hand out of his glove to flip Neil off, but no one was close enough to hear that Neil had only said, “Hey, the coffee you made this morning tasted like shit.”

Andrew's demeanor didn't change after that, but the team seemed to feel better thinking that Neil at least tried to get him to cooperate.

On his way out of the Foxhole Court after Friday's practice, Neil stopped by Wymack's office to say, “Andrew and I are heading out of town for the weekend. We should be back sometime on Sunday.”

Wymack looked at him for a moment, studying his face and posture for signs of trouble, before he waved his hand dismissively and said, “Keep your phone on.”

“Yes, Coach.”

Back at the Tower, Neil began packing for the weekend as he told Kevin and Nicky that he and Andrew would be gone until Sunday. This didn't sit well with either of them since they both assumed they would be going to Columbia that night as a group. Kevin could have driven his Lexus to Columbia, but he claimed it was an “eyesore” since it had been repainted orange. The fact that Nicky, Aaron, and Kevin couldn't quite imagine going to Eden's Twilight without Andrew to keep them out of trouble went unsaid.

“Maybe you guys could go get hammered with Matt,” Neil suggested while he hastily stuffed his clothes into his bag, which was beginning to come apart at the seams. He frowned when he noticed the frayed handles and the straining stitches down one side. He made a mental note to replace it soon.

“Boyd?” Kevin scoffed.

Nicky sighed theatrically and leaned against door frame. “He's going to Maryland for the weekend to make sweet straight-person love to Dan.”

“Okay, well, I guess you'll just have to be adults and entertain yourselves then,” Neil said. He looked down at the open bag and went over his mental checklist once more to make sure he wasn't forgetting anything.

Nicky clucked his tongue and said, “Oh, well, I guess we can't fault you two for wanting a romantic little- shit, Andrew! Wear a bell, goddamn you.”

Their complaints stopped as Andrew's quiet footfalls carried across the bedroom to his bunk. He stepped up onto the ladder to pull his packed bag off of his mattress and he raised his eyes to Neil's with a silent question in them.

“I'm ready,” Neil answered quietly.

Kevin folded his arms over his chest and looked displeased as Neil walked past him.

“Have fun!” Nicky called.

Down in the parking lot, settled in the passenger seat of the Maserati, Neil felt like he could breathe properly for the first time in a week, maybe a month. Andrew slid his key into the ignition and turned it, bringing the engine to life. The storm that had hung over their heads threateningly was clearing and rolling away before it could do them any harm.

Andrew paused and looked over at him. “I need to get something from the house.”

“Okay. I can take over driving from there if you-”

“No, I'll drive today.”

Neil nodded and kept his questions to himself. Driving, along with smoking and drinking and hitting things, helped Andrew think. Whatever he needed to think about, Neil knew Andrew would talk about it eventually if he wanted to.

As Andrew reversed the car out of the parking space, Neil pulled his seat belt out so he could shift into a more comfortable position. The summer sunlight baked the dashboard and challenged the air conditioning with heat as Andrew drove toward the interstate. Even with sunglasses and the visors pulled down, the sunlight was harsh and it seemed to bounce off everything. Neil turned up the AC and pointed the vents on the right side toward his face before turning the ones in the center toward Andrew. As the tension in his back began to unwind, Neil peeled off his armbands and tilted his seat back a little, enough to be more comfortable but not too much because he still wanted to watch the road.

They sped down the interstate toward Columbia. Andrew's hands slowly loosened around the wheel. His driving lost its aggressive edge and the Maserati wove fluidly around the slower vehicles instead of snapping back and forth between lanes. His back and shoulders melted back into the seat; his jaw relaxed enough for a quiet sigh to escape his lips. Neil closed his eyes and savored the relief. Andrew no longer seemed foggy and subdued the way he had been all week. His eyes were clear and focused and his breath was no longer catching the way it did when his depression made it difficult to breathe. Neil was cautiously optimistic for their weekend away and he ignored all of the suggestive texts Nicky kept sending.

Since Andrew clearly wasn't going to speak anytime soon, Neil pulled out his phone and texted Matt, have a good weekend. say hi to dan for me.

A short while later, Matt replied, will do!! ttyl

He scrolled through his messages and found an unread one from Allison. Rode the subway. How many showers til I feel clean again??

Neil typed back, finally run out of money?

Dan bet I couldn't do it.

Neil huffed out a little laugh at that. 50 bucks says you can't lick the sidewalk.

Don't make me come back down there just to smack your pretty face because I will.

Andrew looked over at him, flicking his eyes between Neil's face and the phone in his hands, but said nothing about the smile still stuck on his face.

It was early in the afternoon by the time they pulled into the driveway of the Columbia house. They ate a quick lunch in the kitchen and Neil chattered away about various hotels in Birmingham just to fill the silence. Andrew didn't tell him to stop, which was as much encouragement as he was going to get. They were only a couple hours away from Palmetto, only a handful of hours out of their last practice with the team, but Neil was already feeling significantly better.

Neil washed the dishes while Andrew went upstairs to collect whatever it was that he'd left in his closet. By the time Neil had their bowls and silverware washed, dried, and put away, Andrew still hadn't come back downstairs. After a few minutes of waiting, Neil decided to go searching for him.

The bedroom door was left open, so Neil silently stepped inside. Andrew stood in the middle of the floor holding a bottle of lube in one hand and a blue box in the other. It took Neil a few moments to put the words “Trojan” and “premium lubricant” together in a way that made sense.

Neil's mouth went dry.

Andrew looked up at him. “Have you been thinking about your answer?”

His heart was in his throat and he could feel an echoing throb south of his navel. Andrew's voice flooded his ears. I want to fuck you. They hadn't discussed it since the beach house. Neil had been so busy trying to figure out how to get the new team to fit together on the court that he hadn't thought about it much. Sometimes, in the rare moments he and Andrew had indulged in each other's kisses and greedy hands, Andrew would scrape a hungry look over him and grind between Neil's legs as if he were testing something, but it never went farther than that.

He croaked out, “Ask me.”

“Yes or-”

“Yes.” Neil kicked the door shut and yanked his t-shirt off while he crossed the room. “Fuck yes.” His fingers slid into Andrew's hair and Andrew lifted his face to meet Neil's mouth in a furious, off-center kiss. It lasted one scorching moment before Andrew tossed the bottle and box onto the floor near the nightstand and shoved Neil toward the bed. Blindly, Neil clambered backward onto the mattress while Andrew stood over him, looking down with cool indifference as he removed his armbands and set them aside.

Heat rolled through his body, crackling and quick like wildfire. Excitement pulled Neil's body taut like a rubber band and each beat of his heart reverberated through him. Andrew's eyes examined the ruined landscape of Neil's torso before he slowly peeled off his own shirt and nudged Neil's inner thigh with his knee.

“Move back a little.”

Neil shuffled back to lay in the center of the bed, his head resting in the valley between their pillows. Andrew climbed onto the mattress and swung a leg over Neil's hips. They were headed toward new territory, but this was familiar ground. Andrew's gravity pulled Neil into alignment with ease. Their hips rocked together, their lips pushed and pulled, their pulses raced each other. Neil's mind fell quiet while his blood roared. His body followed Andrew's lead as it had done so many times before. The word finally rustled through him like a spring breeze.

Andrew kissed him until Neil was gasping and then he drew back to look at him somberly. “I'm going to fuck you.”

“I know.” Neil's fingers went to the buttons of his jeans, fumbling to get them open. He didn't know what to expect, but he wanted this. The articles on the internet ranged from clinical to downright pornographic, but none of them left him feeling prepared. He wasn't worried, though, as long as he was in Andrew's hands.

Andrew climbed off of him just long enough to pull his jeans and underwear down his legs with enough force that Neil had to grab onto the headboard to keep from being dragged off the bed as well. Andrew ripped Neil's socks off and flung them aside. Then, he was back on top of Neil and it seemed as if his lips and hands were everywhere at once. His teeth scraped Neil's collarbone, his nails dug into the criss-crossing scars on his belly, his lips kissed his chest and left a cooling trail in their wake, his hands rubbed up the inside of Neil's thighs. Neil twisted his hands into the pillows around his head and tried to breathe deeply enough to think properly. He'd left his mind behind.

“Where,” he panted, “where can I touch you?”

Andrew flattened his tongue over Neil's nipple, his breath hot and damp, and bit down while he contemplated the question. His fingers wrapped around Neil's erection and stroked until Neil gave a shuddering little gasp. He bit the soft skin below Neil's ear and seemed to find his answer there.

He murmured, “Don't touch my ass. Anywhere else is fine for now.”

Neil meant to say “okay” but all that came out was a groan. His fingers gripped Andrew's shoulders as Andrew hooked Neil's legs around his waist and ground down against him. The scratch of denim hurt but Neil was desperate for the friction, desperate to feel just how hard Andrew was.

Suddenly, Andrew's full weight was resting on Neil and his arm was straining to reach the bottle of lube on the floor. Neil could feel the swell of Andrew's breaths and his strong heartbeat thudding in his hot chest. Heat gathered between their naked skin. Neil wrapped his arms around Andrew's middle and scratched down his back. He pressed slow, wet kisses down Andrew's neck, scratched at his shoulder blades, and hooked his ankles behind Andrew's thighs so that he could roll his hips up into his while Andrew strained his arm toward the bottle. Neil was just sinking his teeth into the hard line of Andrew's shoulder when Andrew sat up, a scowl on his face and the bottle of lube in his hand.

Neil's hands dropped to his stomach while he watched Andrew squeeze a good portion of the gel onto his fingers. When Andrew gave one of his thighs a shove, Neil pulled his knees toward his chest and took a deep breath before forcing his body to relax. Andrew kissed and bit his inner thighs while he slowly worked one finger into him.

Desire was already boiling inside him, sending hot ripples down his arms and legs and fizzing in his fingertips. His toes curled into the sheet as Andrew curled a second finger inside him, finding that spot within Neil that he'd memorized the route to months ago. Neil clamped his lips shut and swallowed a whine.

Andrew nipped the inside of his knee and said, “Let me hear you.”

He startled a breathy moan out of Neil's chest with a firm, off-beat press to his prostate and rewarded the sound with an open-mouthed kiss to the swollen vein that snaked up the underside of his dick. Pleasure cracked open like seeds and uncurled tentative roots that spread from his belly out to his limbs and up his spine. When Andrew added a third finger, his name started as a gasp and twisted into a guttural groan at the back of Neil's gaping mouth. His body tightened and jerked against Andrew's hands.

Neil cradled Andrew's head in his hands, tracing mindless circles into his hair, while Andrew licked a heavy line up the length of his cock and dipped down to swallow him whole. Then, he pulled off with an obscenely wet sound and bit a bruise into his thigh. The pain flickered dimly like summer lightning buried in the clouds.

He could feel the orgasm threatening to bloom in his belly and he lifted his head to say so. Andrew's eyes darted to the box of condoms and Neil could sense his hesitation. He rose up onto his elbows and looked at Andrew properly, trying to blink away the haze. One of Andrew's hands was still clutching the back of Neil's thigh. Pink splotches painted his naked chest. Determination shone like solid gold in his eyes.

“Hey,” said Neil. He shivered when Andrew's fingers moved suddenly inside him. “Uh, um, we can- I-”

Andrew's hand moved from his thigh to his cock, squeezing around the head as he rubbed his thumb over the bead of pre-cum forming. Andrew watched Neil's face as he heaved and shivered.

“You were saying?” Andrew asked lazily with a challenging tilt of his head. He curled his fingers hard and shoved them deeper, prying a gritty keen from Neil's chest.

“Ugh,” Neil grunted, falling back into the pillows and rolling his hips. “Just fuck me already.”

“You're still a bit tight.” Andrew twisted his fingers and quirked a smug eyebrow when Neil made a noise that was dangerously close to a whimper.

Neil grit his teeth. “Do you want me to beg?”

Andrew's calm facade was perfectly intact except for his dark, hungry eyes and the flush climbing up his neck. He was still in his jeans, still in complete control, still at a distance.

“You're always running your mouth,” Andrew stated quietly, dropping his eyes to watch his fingers working in and out of Neil's ass. “I've learned to tune you out.”

“Have you?” Neil challenged.

Andrew ignored him as if to prove his point.

Neil arched his back and tilted his head back into the pillows to moan Andrew's name loud enough that it brought an embarrassed blush to his own cheeks. The self-conscious embarrassment he felt was worth it, though, because Andrew's breath hitched.

“Staring,” Neil teased, his voice hoarse and low as if Andrew's name had scraped his throat raw. He couldn't help grinning smugly when Andrew's jaw clenched.

Andrew pulled his fingers out and Neil grunted at the sudden loss. Silently, Andrew climbed off the bed to take off his jeans and underwear. While he stripped, Neil stretched his legs out- his thighs always burned a little when he was stretched open for Andrew like this. Andrew picked up the box of condoms and turned it over in his hands. Neil's head was clearing and his body was cooling and watching Andrew open a box of condoms with the same bored expression he wore when he opened a box of cereal was odd. For an eternity, they both stared at the shiny foil square held between Andrew's fingers.

It was too quiet. All Neil could hear was his own ragged breathing. Andrew climbed back onto the bed with tension gathering in his shoulders. The air conditioning had been running long enough to cool the rooms of the house, but that wasn't why Neil shivered. Andrew was naked, hard, wanting him, and kneeling between his bent legs. Tingling patches of goosebumps broke out across Neil's skin as they drank in the sight of each other. After reading things on the internet and living in a sea of college students, Neil knew that it was common to do this sort of thing in the dark. As Andrew's gaze traveled across the battlefield of Neil's skin, Neil supposed he could understand the appeal in laying with a lover under the cloak of shadows. He also couldn't regret sprawling in the dusty sunbeam slanting in through the blinds. He and Andrew still hid themselves from the world, they buried their scars and their sharp edges under black clothing and dismissive words, but they had stopped hiding from each other long ago.

They looked for a long time and they lost momentum. Andrew's uncertainty was almost a palpable barrier between them and Neil wasn't sure if he should try to stoke the flames or smother the embers. Neither of them knew what they were doing. For a moment, Neil was sure it would end. He told himself sternly that he could wind down from this, that stopping now when his cock was aching and desperate for relief wouldn't be the death of him. If Andrew changed his mind, he told himself he would take the coldest shower of his life and they'd continue on their way to Birmingham like they'd planned.

Andrew opened his mouth, but instead of changing their course, he mumbled, “Say something.”

“What do you want me to say?”

Scowling, Andrew elaborated, “Whatever shit you usually spout when- when we-”

Andrew hated being uncertain, unsure of himself, and Neil could tell he was trying to get back on solid ground, so he sat up and pulled Andrew into a sloppy kiss because kissing was familiar and easy. Andrew pushed forward, taking control by sliding his tongue into Neil's mouth and easing Neil back against the mattress. Neil hummed appreciatively and ran his hands over Andrew's back.

“I want you to fuck me, Andrew,” Neil mumbled against his lips, looking up into his hooded eyes. “Yes or no?”

“I hate you,” Andrew sighed, biting the corner of Neil's jaw, “but it's still yes.”

“I could just get myself off if you don't want to.” Neil wrapped one hand around his dick and stroked hard once, twice, but then Andrew dropped onto one elbow and grabbed his wrist.

“You don't like getting yourself off,” Andrew pointed out as he kissed down Neil's neck to his shoulder.

Neil hooked his ankles around Andrew's calves and exhaled shakily as Andrew's tongue dipped into the hollow at the base of his throat. His heart was racing again and heat was spreading through his body, chasing away the chill. The condom fell onto Neil's belly, momentarily forgotten, while Andrew kissed and licked across his chest. Neil's thighs bracketed Andrew's naked waist, Andrew's stomach slid against his, and the vast amount of bare skin made Neil dizzy.

Neil panted, “I won't last long if you keep doing that.”

“Doing what?” Andrew mumbled before closing his mouth around the hot-iron scar and sucking wetly.

Neil's toes curled and dug into the hard muscle of Andrew's calves. He let go of his erection to clutch at Andrew's sides and Andrew ground himself against Neil's ass.

“Andrew,” Neil groaned, “just... fuck me already.” He slid his heels up the backs of Andrew's knees and pressed them into his thighs, trying to pull Andrew's body harder into his own.

Andrew gave his shoulder one last bite and moved back. He hooked his hands under Neil's knees and shoved them apart, so that he could slide his cock firmly along Neil's.

“Andrew.” Neil was throbbing and dizzy and his heart was going to punch out of his chest. “I need- just put your dick inside me, goddamn it. I'll do anything you want. You don't have to practice Monday. I'll throw away those jeans you hate. Anything. Just fuck me.”

Andrew moved down his chest and sucked a bruise just inside the ridge of Neil's hipbone while his fingers fumbled with the foil packet where Neil couldn't see. Neil buried his fingers in his hair and continued talking, telling him how good it felt to have his fingers inside him and how much he wanted this. When Andrew finally had the condom rolled onto his cock he told Neil to shut up.

The twitch in Andrew's cheek betrayed his nervousness. His mouth was tight and his eyes were cold, but Neil could feel his pulse fluttering fearfully when he slide his fingers down Andrew's neck. Neil spread his legs and kept himself still to spare Andrew the responsibility of holding him down. Andrew sucked in a deep breath while he rubbed his latex-covered tip against Neil's asshole.

“I want this,” Neil reminded him. “I'll tell you if I want to stop, I promise. I want- oh, fuck!”

Andrew had pushed halfway in and stopped when Neil cried out. The intrusion was different than Neil had expected- Andrew's fingers were clever and curling and shifting, but the hard thickness of his cock made Neil feel filled in a way he hadn't before. Suddenly Neil was very thankful Andrew had taken a long time to prepare him for this.

One of Andrew's hands pressed into Neil's belly and he lowly said, “Breathe, Neil.”

His whole body had frozen from the shocking newness of Andrew's dick being inside him and Neil had to force the breath out of his lungs. Slowly, his other muscles thawed and relaxed as well, which made it hurt less when Andrew pulled back an inch or so and slid back in until he was fully inside of Neil.

A wrinkle dug into Andrew's forehead and his breath came out in harsh puffs through his nose. His lips were pressed tightly together and his eyes flashed with something like anger as he looked up at Neil. Where Andrew was tense and restrained, Neil was the opposite: slack-jawed and bleary-eyed.

“Hey,” Neil whispered, just to get his attention, and then he tilted his chin up in a silent request for a kiss. To his surprise, Andrew leaned toward him. Neil let go of his legs, raised up on one elbow, and slid his free hand into Andrew's hair while Andrew kissed him slowly and twitched inside him. When Andrew's tongue brushed against his, a pleasant little jolt went through his core.

“Talk.” Andrew's voice was quiet and strained.

“It feels a little weird,” Neil admitted, shifting his hips. “It's different than your fingers, but it doesn't hurt. You can move now- I'm okay.”

Andrew tried to nod, but his forehead bumped against Neil's nose. He kept them like that, pressed close and breathing together, while he drew his hips back and thrust forward again. Neil's eyes fell shut and he lazily kissed across Andrew's damp forehead while he adjusted to the heavy feeling of Andrew moving inside him. Andrew broke his slow rhythm to thrust into him hard and a sharp noise tore out of Neil's throat. Neil's arm was shivering under his weight and his abdomen was cramped from being curled, so he dropped back into the pillows and blinked up at Andrew.

“Maybe, um, maybe- uh, the angle is-”

Andrew seemed to understand what he was getting at before he could articulate it. He withdrew almost completely before tilting his hips and thrusting back in, sliding roughly against Neil's prostrate. Neil tensed and gasped out Andrew's name, choking between the two syllables as pleasure crackled hotly through his body.

“There?” Andrew grunted, almost smug.

Neil nodded frantically. “Yes, yes, right there.”

Andrew thrust into him again and dropped down to catch Neil's “mpfuck” with a heady kiss. After a few more clumsy thrusts, a quick experiment of speed and force, Andrew settled into a rhythm of slow, hard thrusts that had Neil's brain struggling to make sense of everything. The push and pull of Andrew's hips between his thighs was hypnotic. His belly was full of heat and the heavy curl of an overdue orgasm tightened in his balls, his body was bent and stretched and vulnerable in a way that was both terrifying and wonderful, Andrew's skin was slapping against his, Neil's hands were scrabbling for purchase on Andrew's back, the sounds tearing out of his mouth sounded distant and desperate to his own ears. Andrew curled over him and buried his face in Neil's sweaty neck, grunting into his skin. His pace stuttered and his hips jerked forward harshly as he struggled to maintain his control.

“Andrew, fuck. Oh, God. Andrew,” Neil panted. His vocabulary was shaved down to a few words. “Andrew, yes. So good. You feel so good.”

“You're so- ugh, annoying.” Andrew's harsh tone lost its effect when he groaned.

“You feel amazing- fuck! I'm so close,” he babbled. “Fuck me harder. I can take it.”

While he rambled, Neil worked one hand between their sweat-slick stomachs and Andrew arched upward to give him enough room to stroke himself while he mercilessly fucked into him. It took only a few strokes of his hand before white, hot light flooded his body. His vision went blurry, pressure rang in his ears, tremors wracked through him while he spilled thickly into his fingers. He could barely hear himself over his thundering pulse, but he could feel the loud moan rumble in his chest.

Slowly, Neil became aware that he was still being fucked. His senses were muddled and his body was molten, unmoving. Andrew's forehead was resting on his collarbone and he was breathing hard against Neil's chest. Each thrust sent an almost painful pang of something close to pleasure through his exhausted body, but he wasn't about to tell Andrew to stop. His eyes stared hazily up at the sunny ceiling. Sweat glued the sheet to his lower back and it gathered hotly behind his knees and in his hair. Andrew's teeth suddenly bit down on his neck and it was the only clear thing in Neil's unfocused world.

Andrew changed angles, tilting forward and burying his hands in the pillows around Neil's head. Neil nuzzled into his scarred forearm, moaning quietly against the ruined skin as the slick slide of Andrew's cock began to feel truly pleasurable again. A soft, strangled noise got stuck in Andrew's throat when Neil began kissing the scars within his reach. He bit Neil's neck again and shuddered hard, thrusting frantically as he chased his orgasm into Neil's body. When he finished, he collapsed, shivering. He played with Andrew's hair and massaged the base of his skull as the last waves of pleasure rippled through him.

Andrew kissed Neil's jaw and made a short, low sound in his throat. Somehow Neil understood what he wanted and he turned to meet Andrew's lips with his own. They kissed drowsily, pausing every few seconds to breathe or quake, while they came down from their highs and Neil half-suspected they were only kissing because Andrew didn't want to look at him properly just yet. Andrew's lips were soft and slow and lazy and Neil could've lay there underneath him forever. Neil was fuzzy around the edges and melted in the middle. His thoughts were tangled and heavy like unspooled thread dropped into hot wax. His thighs were hot with the promise of being exquisitely sore within a few hours.

When Andrew finally pulled his waning cock out of him, Neil shivered and tried to reconcile himself with the empty feeling it left behind. Andrew kissed him hard like he was punctuating a rambling sentence and pulled away so that he could slip off the condom, tie it in a knot, and throw it in the wastebasket. Neil ran his eyes over Andrew's body as he moved. His strong abdomen was shivering a little and his chest was still covered in a pink flush. His hair was sweaty and sticking up in messy tufts thanks to Neil's fingers running through it. His cheeks were flushed as well, his lips dark red and damp. Pride streaked through Neil's chest at the sight of Andrew naked and sweaty and slow with satisfaction.

With the condom disposed of, Andrew padded back over to the bed. Neil straightened his legs to give him room on the mattress and winced as pain singed his inner thighs. Andrew's eyes went sharp and alert at once as he perched on the side of the bed, watching for more signs of pain and waiting for Neil to speak. The easy, relaxed atmosphere was clouded with tension immediately.

“My legs are a bit sore,” Neil explained, gesturing vaguely.

Andrew nodded once, but didn't seem soothed by this at all. Quietly, he said, “You can clean up first.”

It was a dismissal and Neil knew better than to take it personally. He knew when he moved Andrew would watch him closely, so he pushed himself upright and stood as if there were no lingering aches in his lower half.

“I'll make coffee after,” he said.

Andrew watched Neil's naked form as he walked on unsteady legs to gather up his clothing. No one else was at the house, but Neil still pulled on his underwear before venturing out to the bathroom. It didn't matter if his legs felt like they'd buckle under his weight- he felt slow and sweet and golden as honey and he wouldn't trade the feeling for anything. As he turned on the shower and yawned widely, he thought that having sex with Andrew was something he wanted to do every day for the rest of his life. He was covered in phantom sensations- Andrew was still all over him. Neil could feel Andrew's lips pressed to his, could feel his teeth in the bruise darkening on the side of his neck, could feel his cock stretching him open. A tingling shiver went through him.

He scrubbed his body clean as quickly as he could and then he climbed out, dried off, and got dressed. Andrew was laying in bed, staring up at the ceiling with the blanket pulled over his groin, when Neil knocked on the doorjamb and said, “All yours.”

Neil didn't stick around for a reply. He went straight to the kitchen and dug out the bag of coffee grounds and a filter. His ears perked up when he heard floorboards creak softly, but he kept his eyes forward as he set up the coffeepot. A short while later it was gurgling to life and soon after the smell of coffee filled the air.

Neil drank a glass of water slowly and paced back and forth along the length of the kitchen. Andrew was still in the shower. His body felt so deliciously relaxed and hazy that he didn't want to ruin it with worry, but it wasn't an option.

He'd spent weeks, months, wondering what it would be like to have Andrew inside of him and now it was over. Now he was left wondering if Andrew would ever want to do that again, he was wondering if Andrew was all right.

He knew Andrew had been thinking about it, planning for it, for at least a month. “I want to fuck you” still rang in his ears. He knew Andrew wouldn't do something he didn't want to, but the fact remained that neither of them had known what exactly to expect. In spite of Andrew's cool demeanor, Neil had felt his hands shaking.

It was impossible to keep himself from thinking of Andrew's violent, heart-breaking, wrong introduction to sex- an introduction made too early in his life, against his will, that would forever twist his perception of physical intimacy. No matter how much Neil wanted to shred the universe and rearrange it into a shape that was kinder to Andrew, he couldn't change the past. Neither of them could free themselves of their scars. All they could do was collect enough good memories to try to outweigh the bad. They had an entire lifetime to do so.

There was a time when Neil couldn't have fathomed being grateful to have met Andrew Minyard, now his gratitude overwhelmed him.

He didn't look over when he heard Andrew's footsteps. He told himself that Andrew would go out to smoke for a few minutes or a few hours and he scolded his heart for jumping the way it did.

“Neil.”

His head snapped up. Andrew was in the doorway, narrowing his eyes at him.

“Hi,” Neil murmured.

Andrew raised an eyebrow mockingly. “Hello.”

“The coffee will be done in a minute.”

“Bring me a cup.” Then Andrew turned and headed out to the porch.

Neil stared at the empty doorway until the coffee finished brewing. Mechanically, he took down two mugs from the cupboard. He put milk and a generous spoonful of sugar in Andrew's and just a little sugar in his own before pouring the coffee. With the steaming mugs in hand, he went to the front door. Andrew had left it ajar so Neil was able to nudge it all the way open with his foot. Andrew was sitting on the steps with two cigarettes, one in his mouth and one between his fingers. Neil gave Andrew his coffee and carefully lowered himself to sit beside him. He tried to hide his grimace as the soreness in his thighs and hips flared, but Andrew never missed a thing. Neil could see Andrew's walls going up and his heart sank. Neil remembered Andrew pulling himself into the seat of Wymack's car, his face a mess of violent colors, and saying, “Ouch.” His stomach lurched. He wanted to say that he was fine, but Andrew could read his posture, could see that there was some pain. Lying now would only make everything worse.

Andrew's entire body went so rigid that Neil worried the coffee mug would crack in his iron grip. He pulled the cigarette out of his mouth slowly, but Neil spoke first.

“You didn't hurt me, Andrew.”

Andrew's eyes bore through him, dark and distant. “You're fine, right? Is that what you're going to say, Neil?”

The words dripped venom. Neil knew the wrong move would end with both of them wounded.

“I would have said no if I didn't want it.”

When Andrew crushed his cigarette into the concrete step, his hand was shaking. He went back inside. The screen door clacked shut behind him.

“Fuck,” Neil muttered to himself. He put out his cigarette as well before taking the cups of coffee back inside. He dug out the PSU thermos and poured Andrew's coffee into it to take on the road. Then, he cleaned out the coffeepot and tidied the kitchen.

Andrew still hadn't reappeared, so once again Neil went to their bedroom in search of him. The bedroom door was open, which Neil took to be a relatively good sign, and Andrew was standing in the middle of the floor staring at the bed with his hands stuffed into his pockets. The mattress was bare and the sheets were bundled in the corner to be washed later. His shoulders were tense, bunched up almost to his ears, and rage was practically rolling off him in waves.

Various phrases rose and fell in Neil's mind like waves. I said yes. I wanted it. You didn't hurt me. You were amazing. I want you again already. You didn't do anything wrong. None of them stuck.

Instead, he asked, “Yes or no?”

Andrew didn't turn to face him, but he said, “Yes.” His voice was stretched thin and Neil knew the yes didn't go very far.

When he was standing in front of Andrew, Neil leaned in for a simple kiss. He tried to convey his feelings through slow presses of his lips and soft brushes of his tongue. Andrew kissed him back like he was too numb to move properly, pushing back with just enough pressure to let Neil know he was present. Andrew's hands remained at his sides, unwilling to touch him, so Neil settled for a simple brush of his fingers through Andrew's hair before shoving his hands in his pockets.

A bite to Neil's lower lip signaled the end of the kiss. Neil pulled back to meet Andrew's eyes questioningly.

“Tell me how bad it is,” Andrew said tightly, gritting his teeth. “Don't even think about lying to me.”

Neil lifted a shoulder. “I wouldn't want to go horseback riding right now, but I won't feel it tomorrow.”

“I wasn't paying attention.” Andrew looked ready to reach for a knife. This rage wasn't directed at Neil, but that was somehow worse. How was Neil supposed to defend Andrew from himself?

“I never said no,” Neil told him. “You would've stopped if I told you to.”

Andrew's deadened stare sent a sickly chill through Neil's chest. “You shouldn't assume things.”

“I know when I'm in danger,” Neil hissed. “I know that I'm safe with you.”

Without warning, his hands went around Neil's throat. Andrew's stare was still vacant, hollowed out by whatever thoughts were eating him alive. Even as his grip tightened, Neil didn't defend himself or struggle to break out of Andrew's grasp- running wasn't an option he was willing to consider.

“I should've killed you that first night in Columbia,” Andrew snarled. The fire in his voice was a welcome change from his apathy.

“I'm not going anywhere, Andrew,” Neil whispered.

“I hate this.” Andrew's voice shook. He scowled at his hands as if they were to blame for his inability to wring the life out of Neil. “I hate you.”

“I know.”

There was a flash of teeth and a low growl. “It'd be so much easier without you.”

Andrew meant it, but they both knew that what was easier wasn't necessarily better. They'd both fought tooth and nail to keep hold of the good things in their lives, they ran themselves ragged to reach better places. They wouldn't give each other up for anything.

It was caring, the act of prying his chest open to make room for someone, that hurt him and left him vulnerable to loss. It was a weak point that had been the cause of excruciating pain before. As Neil filled more space in his chest, the larger Andrew's hatred grew like a beast he fed and nurtured. No matter how big it got, though, it couldn't push Neil out and seal up the cracks in his armor.

They both knew this.

Andrew surged forward, seething, and crushed their lips together. Neil stumbled backward from the force of it, but he kept his balance and pushed back. This kiss was a fair fight, fire meeting fire, two equal forces colliding. It was angry and desperate and perfectly understood on both sides. Nails scratched Neil's collarbone, teeth dug into Andrew's lip. There was a drop of blood on Neil's tongue, but he couldn't tell whose it was. A groan trembled through the air they shared.

Life had left them damaged and scarred, inside and out, but somehow they still fit together perfectly. No one else could understand the horror hanging from Neil's ribs, no one else could see the shapes in Andrew's darkness.

Neil felt full and strong and, as Andrew pulled him closer, four letters clicked into place.

I love him.

As if he could sense those three words, Andrew shoved him away and wiped the back of his hand over his swollen mouth. “Birmingham,” he growled.

Neil nodded and looked down at the box by his feet. “Are we bringing the condoms?”

“You think I want to fuck you again?”

“'Value pack,'” Neil read with a smirk. “We've got thirty-five left and a whole weekend.”

“I fucking hate you.”

“But you don't hate fucking me.”

Andrew snatched the condoms and lube off the floor and stormed out while Neil bit his lips to keep from smiling. Once he composed himself, he got the thermos from the kitchen and followed Andrew outside, locking the front door behind him. Neil climbed into the passenger seat and held up the thermos in offering.

“I can drive if you want.”

Andrew took a long drink of coffee and ignored him. He started the ignition and soon they were on their way to Birmingham.

Neil slumped down in his seat and rested his head against the window. He was sated and sore, drowsy and relieved, but he knew Andrew's unease was still lurking somewhere beneath the surface. For now, though, they were all right and they were on their way to get some much needed distance from their problems.

The Maserati growled as Andrew pressed down on the gas pedal to speed around slower-moving cars on the I-20. Neil studied his profile in the bright afternoon sunlight- his strong jaw, his blank stare half-hidden by his sunglasses, his light hair that had dried in a ruffled sort of way. There was no evidence that he'd had sex not even an hour ago and Neil almost wished he'd left a mark somewhere to match the one he was sporting. Almost. After some thought, Neil decided it was better that Andrew walked away from this unmarked and unharmed.

Neil checked his phone and found some texts waiting for him- Kevin reminded him that he needed to think of a way to create solidarity between the backliners before the season started, Lizzy sent him a joke involving a lobster and a bus stop that he didn't quite understand, Tommy wanted to know why he overheard Wymack buying three plane tickets to California, and Nicky sent five excited messages about how he and Kevin were going over to Aaron's dorm for a night of drinking and video games.

His mother had taught him to forget the towns, the rooms, the names they left behind. She taught him to let go of days and months of memories as if they were nothing. Sometimes the horizon felt like it was pulling him out toward oblivion, threatening to lure him away from his new home. Sometimes he felt like he might dissipate into vapor and float away on the wind. It was during these times that he appreciated having an inbox full of random glimpses into the ongoing lives of his Foxes, glimpses of what he would return to. They were flying down the highway away from their teammates, but it didn't feel like running away as long as Neil was able to look back, slow down, and trust that they were there for him.

Neil answered Nicky, see you sunday. Then he settled into his seat and watched Andrew until his eyes grew heavy.

The journey to Birmingham was five hours and Neil was asleep for three of them. Vague, shifting dreams played behind his eyelids while he slept and, when his eyes peeled open, they were forgotten. Sitting up, he noticed was that the car was parked and silent. Andrew was gone. His mouth felt dry and sticky, his thoughts were sluggish, his neck was stiff from leaning against the window.

The Maserati was parked outside the doors of a hotel he didn't recognize the name of. Trees and a few low shrubs tried to block the view of the busy street to his left and to his right, he could see through the glass doors into the elegant foyer of the hotel. The carpet was navy blue with an intricate design done in gold. Cream columns stood at regular intervals all the way to the back where there was a row of shiny elevators to either side of a staircase that split in either direction. The front desk was tucked out of view, but he could see a few patrons milling about in attire infinitely nicer than what Neil was currently dressed in. They would stick out like sore thumbs here and Neil couldn't think of a single reason why Andrew would want to stay at a place like this for the weekend.

A few minutes later, Andrew came striding out with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his dark jeans and the suspicious stares of three men in well-tailored suits digging into his back.

Once Andrew was in the driver's seat, he started up the ignition and drove forward to follow the curving lane into the parking garage just around the corner of the hotel.

“This is where we're staying?” Neil asked.

“You can afford it,” Andrew said. He climbed out of his seat to pluck the ticket the machine spat out for him and then he drove under the raised arm deeper into the garage. On the third level, they found an empty space to park in. Once the engine went silent, they climbed out to collect their bags from the trunk and then they headed toward a door in the far corner that was marked as the entrance to the hotel. Through the door, they found themselves on a landing in a wide stairwell with an elevator across from them. Neil silently followed Andrew up the stairs to the fifth floor.

Andrew led him to the room at the end of the hall and opened the door with a key card. The room was large and smelled sterile in the way most hotel rooms did. The bed was large, made of beautifully carved dark wood, with a fluffy white comforter and four large pillows and facing the bed was a wide window blocked by heavy drapes. In the corner, angled to face the rest of the room, was a large television perched on a dresser. Near the far wall were two leather armchairs with a mini-bar between them and a low, round table with a neat pile of brochures for tourist attractions and restaurants in the city.

Neil dropped his bag at the foot of the bed and stretched his arms over his head. Andrew tossed his bag beside Neil's before disappearing into the bathroom. A minute later, the toilet flushed and the sink cut on. Neil turned, expecting Andrew to come back out, but then he heard the familiar slap of water hitting the floor of a tub. Andrew had never shown much interest in baths before, but Neil supposed he might want to relax after the day they had.

Expecting a long wait, Neil kicked off his shoes and settled on the bed. His phone buzzed with an incoming message, but he set it aside on the nightstand without checking it. He picked the remote up and clicked the television on to flip through the channels. Before he could decide on something to watch, though, Andrew stepped out of the bathroom and glared at him.

“Get in here.”

Neil frowned. “What?”

Andrew stared at him flatly for a second and disappeared back into the bathroom. Confused, Neil followed.

The bathroom was larger than Neil expected- done in marble and royal blue tiles with stainless steel fixtures. There was a dimmer switch on the lights and pristine white towels stitched with the logo of the hotel chain. In an oblong silver dish between two sinks was a small collection of luxurious soaps wrapped in thin paper in front of a row of bottles filled with shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and moisturizer. Steam rose from the half-filled bathtub, which was massive and deep enough to fit at least two people in it. Andrew stood beside it, arms folded and one finger tapping impatiently against his armbands.

“You're sore,” he said, sneering.

Neil looked from Andrew to the steaming bath, understanding at last why he'd chosen a nicer hotel for this weekend. “Are you going to join me?” he asked, although he didn't hold much hope. Andrew looked like he'd rather be anywhere else.

“I'm not the one who took a dick up the ass,” Andrew spat, striding past him. He turned sharply to avoid brushing against Neil's shoulder and Neil tried not to let it sting.

He was building a wall between them as fast as he could, shutting Neil out and keeping his rage in. The kisses they'd shared, the words of comfort Neil had offered, had been a small bandage on a grave wound. Neil felt the shadow of Andrew's internal storm spreading coldly over him, but he couldn't understand the true shape of it nor could he fathom its vastness. He felt panicked and unprepared to face whatever this was, but he remembered someone who could.

“Andrew,” Neil called, leaning out of the bathroom.

Andrew looked up from where he sat on the edge of the bed. It didn't escape Neil's attention that his phone was clutched tightly in his hand.

“Are you going to call Bee?”

There was ice in Andrew's eyes.

“You can tell her about it,” Neil said, his voice softening. “I don't mind if she knows.”

“You can drown in that tub.”

Neil rolled his eyes and pulled back into the bathroom, shutting the door but not locking it. He stripped out of his clothes and climbed into the hot water. The temperature stung his skin, but as he slowly lowered his body into it he adjusted quickly. When the water was high enough, he turned the faucet off and leaned against the cold tub wall.

As the heat soothed away the lingering twinges in his lower back and his legs, Neil tried to calculate how much time he needed to spend in the tub for Andrew to be convinced it helped. He didn't mind the soreness, almost wanted to keep it like a souvenir along with the bruise Andrew left on his neck. Each faint pulse of pain was a memory of what they'd done and Neil didn't know if they would ever do it again, so he figured he might as well try to hold onto the sweet ache as long as he could. He wondered if that made him selfish.

When he heard Andrew's voice, muttering lowly, he strained his ears to make out what he was saying. Andrew's footsteps came closer to the door and then he could just barely hear Andrew saying, “-business. Yes, okay? Shut up, Bee. He's- hold on.”

Neil jumped when Andrew rapped his knuckles on the door. “U-um, yeah?”

“I'm going out,” Andrew said.

“Okay.”

Everything was too quiet after the door to the hotel room slammed shut. Neil's stomach felt hollowed out and he couldn't fool himself into thinking it was hunger.

There was no existing map for the wild terrain of Andrew Minyard. Renee had similar landmarks, Betsy understood his topography after years of training. Over a year ago, Andrew had given Neil a compass and a look that said try. Since then, Neil had learned to predict the storms in his eyes, he had explored the warm cavern of his mouth, he knew the scarred badlands of his arms, he had traced the warm plains of his naked chest and stomach. Slowly, he was learning to navigate Andrew's landscape and the more he learned, the more he felt at home at Andrew's side.

But now he found himself adrift in unfamiliar territory again, lost without a single star or sign to guide him. He was exhausted and cold in spite of the hot water enveloping him.

In a desperate attempt to warm his insides, he carefully unwrapped the secret he'd pocketed earlier and held it in his heart like a tender thing. I'm in love with him. It wasn't new, of course, but now he'd named it, now he'd claimed it, now he couldn't look away. It was what kept him aligned all along, he supposed, as he moved forward with Andrew.

It was unexpected, but not all that surprising, when his mother's voice echoed up from the grave to try to snuff it out. Neil was knocked breathless by the memory of her fingers twisting in his hair and her hard palm slamming into his ear. Love was a dangerous lie, she warned. Love was the irresistible bait in a terrible cage.

“How could you be so stupid, Abram? What have I always told you?”

Don't look back.

Don't slow-

Don't-

Neil washed himself clean of old lessons and dried-up promises and let them all slip down the drain. He felt no remorse as he climbed out of the tub and put his mother out of his mind.

Once he was dried off, he pulled on his underwear and left the rest of his clothes on the floor, knowing the mess would annoy Andrew. The air in the room was comfortably cool and the television was still on. Neil padded across the soft carpet and climbed onto the massive bed. The comforter was soft and chilly against his naked skin and he settled onto it, shivering a little.

After forty-five minutes, Neil was still alone and he felt cold all over. Andrew was motionless and eerily quiet most of the time, but his presence was something that couldn't be ignored by anyone. His silence was palpable, his stare was heavy. It made his absence all the more unnerving. Andrew glaring at him was preferable to Andrew being gone. Without him, Neil felt off balance.

Neil heaved a strange, breathy laugh into the pillow before maneuvering himself under the comforter. He pulled it up to his chin and then plucked his phone off the nightstand to distract himself from the spreading hollowness eating away at his gut.

There was one new message from Kevin and it only worsened his mood. You can't just run away every time things get a bit stressful. I won't be around to carry you next year.

Neil's thumb hovered over the buttons, frozen in shock. The problems he'd tried to put away for awhile came rushing back to claw at his throat. Rationally, he knew that Kevin was probably just bitter or bored, but he couldn't stop the part of his mind that was twisted by self-loathing from agreeing with him. The Foxes deserved a captain that didn't need to escape every few weeks. The Foxes deserved a captain that was wholly dedicated to the team's betterment. Instead, their captain was curled up in a hotel room trying to calculate his chances of ever having sex with their senior goalkeeper again.

He deleted Kevin's text and sent a message to Wymack.

what if i fuck everything up?

Ten minutes later, a reply came. don't be a dumbass.

Neil blinked at the words for a minute before putting the phone away. Wymack's answer hadn't settled him like he hoped it would.

Maybe it was just because he was feeling fuzzy from his nap in the car or because he was still twinging from the rough way Andrew had fucked him or because he shrugged out of the memory of his mother like it was a ratty coat, but Neil felt shaken and unsteady in a way he hadn't in a long time- like even the smallest nudge could send him reeling into a full-blown panic attack. It was the sympathetic- almost pitying- glances from Matt and Nicky all month, the three empty spaces on the court shaped like Dan and Allison and Renee, the way half of the younger Foxes scoffed at his clumsy attempts at leadership, and the way Kevin still talked to him like he was a child sulking in the corner. A hundred different colors melded into each other and painted his heart murky brown.

It's supposed to be easier, he thought miserably, retreating deeper under the covers.

He was tired of doubting himself, tired of fearing failure, tired of wanting Andrew when he wasn't there. He'd been laying in bed alone for an hour and a half, listening to the television and feeling sorry himself. He was tired of that too.

He wanted to detach himself, wriggle free of it all, and this desire brought back old habits. His mind quickly cataloged the items in his bag and what little he could steal from the room. There wasn't much in there that would be of use to him. He had clothes and a water bottle, but only a few crumpled dollar bills. They'd used Andrew's card. Hitchhiking would be tricky without money to offer and Neil didn't even know which direction the interstate was in. Andrew had the map.

When he realized what he was doing, Neil flinched and buried his face in the pillow with shame chewing at his throat.

Andrew will come back, he told himself.

Two hours after Neil had first burrowed under the comforter, the lock beeped and the door handle turned. Neil's heart jumped in his chest. He stayed under the covers and listened hard. Andrew's shoes thumped against the wall as he kicked them off. The door fell shut heavily. Plastic bags rustled and car keys clacked against the dresser. Soft footsteps approached his side of the bed.

The comforter peeled away from his head and Andrew blinked down at him with empty eyes. Neil looked back at him, too numb to speak.

“I got dinner,” Andrew said as if he hadn't been gone for two hours, as if this were just a normal evening.

Neil stared at him as he turned and walked back to where he'd left the plastic bags of take-out containers. The words Neil wanted to say were buried in marble and his tongue was too heavy and dull to chisel them out. Instead, he sat up and watched Andrew dig out plastic forks and napkins from the bottom of the bag that had an oddly cheerful yellow smiley face printed on it.

When Andrew brought him a box of chow mein and a can of beer, his eyes fell to Neil's bare shoulders and it was then that Neil remembered that he was only in his underwear, which made him feel more vulnerable than it should've. Andrew had seen him naked plenty of times before- he'd had Neil naked and writhing underneath him only hours before- but the way he'd left and his empty eyes now made Neil feel rejected and embarrassed. He didn't know if that was really because of Andrew's demeanor or if it was just his wounded pride filling in the blanks.

Andrew took his box of sweet and sour chicken and his beer to the armchair that faced the bed. When he noticed that Neil wasn't eating, he quirked an eyebrow.

Neil put his food on the nightstand next to the beer and slowly put his feet on the floor. He could feel Andrew's stare travel down his mostly naked form as he started walking.

“Cold?” Andrew guessed.

Neil thought he was giving him an out. “Erm, yeah.”

Andrew stood suddenly and Neil froze. When he passed, Neil could smell the heavy scent of cigarette smoke clinging to Andrew's clothes. On the other side of the room, Andrew jammed his thumb into a button on the thermostat to bump the temperature up a few degrees.

“Give it a minute,” Andrew said.

Like everything Andrew did, it meant something and Neil wasn't too far gone in his spiral of self-pity to miss it.

“Thanks,” Neil replied awkwardly.

Andrew ignored him and sat back down to tuck into his meal.

Neil went back to his spot on the bed and began eating his own dinner. He shoveled in forkfuls of soft noodles, vegetables, and strips of beef so that his mouth was never empty enough to fill up with words. Where were you? Why do you feel so far away? When his stomach was full, Neil put the box aside and opened his beer. He nursed it slowly and tried to keep his gaze from darting back to Andrew too much. Meanwhile, Andrew was staring fixedly down at his food while he took slow bites. He seemed relaxed, Neil noted, which was probably in thanks to his conversation with Betsy and the cigarettes.

I love you. The words rose in his throat like vomit. He drowned them in beer, felt them crumple and die out in his belly like embers gone cold. Then, he set the can aside and pulled the comforter up over his shoulders.

“There's aspirin and water bottles in the bag,” Andrew told him quietly.

“I'm not going to be hungover from one beer.”

Andrew pinched his lips into a tight line and exhaled slowly through his nose before he explained, “It's not for your head. When you were asleep in the car, you sounded like you were in pain.”

Neil's dream came back to him in pieces and heat climbed up his neck.

“I wasn't in pain.”

Andrew's lip curled. “I told you not to lie to me.”

“I'm not lying.” Neil couldn't keep the annoyance out of his voice. “You didn't hurt me.”

“You came and then you lay there while I kept fucking you like an animal,” Andrew growled, his voice as rough as gravel. He was curling forward, catlike and predatory, but Neil's fight or flight instincts remained quiet.

Neil matched Andrew's stubborn, heated stare with one of his own. “I liked it,” he hissed, sitting forward and letting the comforter fall down to his waist. “I came harder than I ever have. If you had kept fucking me I probably would've cum twice. I bet if you come over here and fuck me again I could get off without touching my dick at all.”

“You're an idiot.”

“You're good in bed. If you want to beat yourself up tonight you're going to have to pick a different reason.” Agitated, Neil downed the rest of the beer and got up. He kicked the sheet away from him when it threatened to wrap around his ankle. He intended to throw away his beer can, but Andrew jumped to his feet and grabbed Neil's arm when he tried to pass.

“I know how bad it can hurt. I bled- you saw it- and I ached for days,” Andrew snarled. His breath smelled like beer. “If you are lying to me-”

Neil wanted to shake him, wanted to throw him into the wall if that'd knock sense into him, but he knew better. He threw the can aside and stepped closer into Andrew's space without touching him.

“You aren't like them,” Neil whispered and his voice shook, “and fuck you if you think for a second that I would lie to you about that.”

Andrew lifted his chin and Neil met him halfway in a short, bruising kiss that was hard enough to crack the ice between them. Andrew's hand tightened around Neil's arm, but Neil knew it was only to mask his trembling.

Neil rested his forehead against Andrew's and sighed. “Is it because you don't trust me, Andrew? Or is it because you don't trust yourself?”

“You sound like Bee,” Andrew grumbled.

Neil kissed him slowly and curved one hand around Andrew's neck. “You were so good, Andrew.”

“You're in pain,” Andrew reminded him, squeezing his arm hard enough that Neil thought there'd be a bruise in the shape of his hand.

“I was a little sore, but- but I liked it,” Neil admitted, swallowing thickly. “It was like I could still feel you moving inside me. You didn't hurt me. I said yes and my answer never changed.”

“Neil-”

Neil pried Andrew's hand off his arm and guided his fingers to the scars on his stomach. “I know what pain is. I would have told you to stop if you were hurting me. If you don't trust yourself, then trust me.”

Andrew examined the war-torn landscape of Neil's chest. “Trust you? That's backfired before.”

“I had good intentions.”

Andrew hummed shortly, unmoved.

“I had a sex dream in the car,” Neil blurted out. “I wasn't in pain.”

He shifted closer to Neil and bit the corner of his jaw. “You're pretty eager for a man who doesn't swing.”

“It's like singles tennis and you're the only one I want to play with,” Neil said, smirking.

“Surprised you didn't turn it into an Exy metaphor.”

“That's a team sport,” Neil replied, turning his head to catch Andrew's lips in a quick kiss. “I know you're not a fan of sharing.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “I'd give you away in a heartbeat.”

“Did my ass not live up to your expectations?”

“It's your mouth that's the problem,” he mumbled against Neil's lips.

“Uh huh, sure.” Neil chuckled before Andrew tried to kiss the smirk off him. A deep groan rumbled in his chest as Andrew slid his tongue into his mouth. His hands curved around Neil's bare hips and pulled him forward. There was no hiding his erection when he was only in his briefs, so Neil rolled his hips forward and ground against Andrew's jeans.

He smoothed one hand down the back of Andrew's head and broke the kiss to ask, “Yes or no?”

“Neil,” Andrew warned.

Neil nudged his nose against Andrew's. “Is that a no?”

“Neil,” he sighed, annoyed.

“I can be louder, if you want. I can beg so you know just how bad I want it.” Neil cupped Andrew's jaw in his hands and kissed him slowly. He didn't pull back until he coaxed a grunt out of Andrew's throat. “I'm good with words. I can tell you all about how much I love getting fucked by you, how I want you to fuck me so hard I walk funny at practice on Monday. Tell me what you want, Andrew.”

“Neil.” Andrew's fingers dug into his hips.

Neil breathed the question against Andrew's ear. “Yes or no?”

“I'm going to throw you out the window.”

“I think they're painted shut, so good luck with that.”

“I could slit your throat.”

“You hate messes.”

Andrew nipped at his lower lip. “Speaking of, you left a pile of clothes in the bathroom again.”

“I know.”

“I hate you.”

“Every inch of me,” Neil agreed with a nod, “but that doesn't mean you won't fuck me.”

“Yeah and after I'm sewing that fucking mouth shut,” Andrew spat.

Neil grinned. “Is that a yes?”

“Yes.”

Neil tilted his head toward the bed with his eyebrows raised. Andrew ran his tongue over his teeth before nodded once. Excitement wriggled up Neil's spine as he went to the bed and sprawled back across the rumpled comforter. Andrew approached slowly, watching as Neil arched his back to work the kink out of his spine.

Neil laced his fingers behind his head and looked up at Andrew expectantly. “Whatever you want, Andrew. I'll tell you if I need to stop or if I don't like something.”

Andrew twisted his fingers in the hem of his t-shirt and hesitated.

“We have aspirin and a really nice bathtub, remember?” Neil backpedaled when he saw Andrew's jaw clench. “I'll be fine to go running tomorrow morning and everything. You're not going to hurt me.”

Andrew swallowed hard before he yanked his shirt over his head and tossed it aside. He climbed onto the bed, straddling Neil's legs, and crawled up Neil's body until he could reach his lips. He kissed Neil until he lost track of time, until his lungs burned, until his mind was hazy enough to let the stress he'd brought with him fade into nothing. His hands reached for Andrew's hair on pure instinct, but he froze a few inches from Andrew's head.

“Andrew,” he mumbled. “Andrew, mm, can I touch you?”

Andrew turned his face into Neil's palm. “Don't touch my ass.”

“Okay.” Neil slid his hand around the back of Andrew's head and pulled him back down into another intoxicating kiss. He was aching, buzzing, but he wanted nothing more in that moment than to keep kissing Andrew for hours. Keeping one hand buried in Andrew's hair, Neil slid the other over Andrew's shoulder and traced light lines down the smooth skin of his chest. His fingers met the denim border and pulled back up to pinch Andrew's nipple, twisting it a little until Andrew groaned quietly.

Then, Andrew drew back, scowling. He sat on Neil's stomach and slid his hands up Neil's arms to lightly push his wrists into the soft bedding above his head- more a suggestion than a command. Neil buried his fingers into the comforter, silently agreeing to be still for awhile, and Andrew began kissing a trail down the unmarked side of his neck. After each hot breath against his skin, Neil expected a bite, expected the bruising force of Andrew's teeth, but it never came. Every third kiss was followed by a short swipe of Andrew's tongue and the wet softness of it was surprising. Neil shifted against the bed, already hard and almost ready to beg for release, and he let his sighs of pleasure grow louder as Andrew continued to lick and kiss his heated skin.

Smoothly, Andrew lowered himself so that he could grind the bulge in his jeans against Neil's hip while he continued to follow the invisible path down to Neil's collarbone. He mouthed at the hard ridge and pressed his tongue into the hollow at the base of Neil's throat. The slower he went the faster Neil's heart beat.

Andrew's enticing demonstration of his control was interrupted by two staccato vibrations in the pocket of his jeans, pressed between their thighs. Neil made a startled noise at the unexpected sensation and Andrew went up on his elbow to look down at the offending object. When he didn't move, Neil fished the phone out with two deft fingers and held it between their chests in offering.

Sitting up, Andrew opened the phone and looked at the message. “Kevin,” Andrew sighed his name with heavy irritation, “would like you to know that the children are misbehaving.”

Neil rolled his eyes and rose up to kiss Andrew's chest. “The children are always misbehaving. I'll deal with them when we get back.”

“Kevin's sulking because we left him behind.”

Neil hummed a little and kissed under Andrew's jaw. “Tell him to keep texting you. That felt kinda fun.”

Andrew muttered something under his breath and dropped the phone off the side of the bed. He gave Neil's shoulder a shove and knocked him onto his back again, following him down to continue mapping out Neil's neck and shoulders with his mouth. Neil put his hands above his head, surrendering to Andrew's thorough exploration.

By the time Andrew kissed his way across the large shapeless scar left by a harsh meeting with gravel, Neil was panting and out of patience. “Harder,” he pleaded. “Bite me. Mark me again.”

Andrew pressed a thumb into the bruise he'd left on Neil's neck earlier, putting enough pressure on it for Neil to feel a dull flicker of pain. He sighed and lifted his chin, stretching his neck invitingly. Andrew replaced his thumb with his lips before pinching the crimson patch with his teeth.

“I didn't want to leave marks.” He exhaled his admission directly onto the bruise.

“I like it,” Neil confessed.

Andrew nipped at his earlobe before kissing the corner of his jaw. “I don't want them seeing what I've done to you.”

“The team? I don't mind-”

“I don't want them seeing my marks and thinking of you like that.”

“Like what?”

Andrew tried to bury the words in the soft underside of Neil's jaw. “Like you're something to fuck.”

Frowning, Neil tried to catch Andrew's somber eyes. “Who are you worried about? Brian? I don't think he's-”

“You're an oblivious idiot. You don't see the way people look at you.”

Neil opened his mouth and closed it, stifling the urge to argue. He noticed when someone on campus wore sunglasses or a hat pulled too low on an overcast day, when someone stayed fifteen paces behind him and made all the same turns he did, when a phone call crackled oddly, when a classmate or teammate asked too many questions about his past. Andrew was similar in his constant search for predators, but he was looking out for different signs.

Vanity had never been Neil's vice, but he couldn't help wondering why anyone would look at him with hunger. Absently, he rubbed at the scars on his cheek and stared at Andrew's shoulder, unfocused. Hard fingers hooked under his chin turned his attention back to Andrew.

“He watches you in the locker room sometimes,” Andrew hissed. “That girl from Florida- the one with the obnoxious laugh- she's been flirting with you ever since she arrived in that piece of shit she calls a car.”

Neil balked. “Tara? No, she-” He stopped when he remembered her hip-checking him after practice on Tuesday and asking him if he wanted to grab dinner with her sometime. “Oh.”

“How did you ever survive on your own?” Andrew pressed a hot, open-mouthed kiss to his shoulder.

“Kiss or criticize- pick one.”

Andrew responded by licking a line up the column of his throat.

Neil groaned and bucked his hips up. “I'll change out in the shower until the marks fade,” he offered as Andrew peppered kisses below his ear. “I won't let them see.”

Andrew moved down so that he could put his mouth on Neil's chest. He placed his mouth over part of the shapeless scar left by gravel and sank his teeth into it, switching between suckling and massaging the spot with his tongue until he was sure a nice bruise would be left behind. Neil's breaths were thin and shuddering and his hands clenched into the sheets above his head. Andrew left a matching mark two inches lower, drawing out a breathy groan. Through his haze, Neil thought he felt Andrew smirk against his skin before continuing.

The seventh mark was placed just above the waistband of Neil's underwear and, by this point, Neil couldn't stop himself from mindlessly jerking his hips up against Andrew's chin.

“Behave,” Andrew commanded, putting his forearm across Neil's belly to hold him down.

Neil whispered, “I'm so hard, Andrew.”

“I am aware.” Andrew scraped his teeth just under Neil's navel before moving over to bite the jut of his hipbone.

Pleasurable pain was echoing from the bruises Andrew had left across Neil's chest. His heart was pounding, his pulse was throbbing at the back of his throat and deep in his belly. The agonizing pace was for Andrew's sake, something that Andrew needed to prove to himself, so Neil swallowed most of his pleas of faster and just fuck me already and tried his best to be patient.

When Andrew lightly ran his teeth over Neil's erection through the black cotton, just hard enough to be felt but not enough to hurt, Neil dragged a fistful of the comforter over his mouth to stifle his loud moan. The television was chattering in the background, but he was still aware that there might be people on the other side of the wall. He didn't necessarily want them hearing the noises Andrew was coaxing out of him.

Andrew nudged Neil's legs apart so that he could kneel between them. Neil bent his knees and curled his toes against the mattress.

“I want,” Andrew began, sliding his hands up the insides of Neil's thighs. He opened his mouth to continue, but then he scowled at Neil's hips and clamped his lips shut.

“Tell me,” Neil prompted quietly.

“I want to not want this.”

“It's okay to want-”

“I know,” he snapped.

Neil wondered if what happened at the house was a mistake. He'd goaded Andrew into something quick and primal so that neither of them would get stuck in the quagmire of second thoughts. He'd wanted Andrew to lose himself in the moment.

His heartbeat was slowed by the sinking feeling in his chest.

“Andrew,” Neil murmured. He pushed himself upright and straightened his legs on either side of Andrew. “We don't have to do anything.”

“It's still yes,” Andrew whispered before kissing him hard. Then, he pulled back and nodded down at Neil's lap. “Take those off.”

Neil blinked dumbly as Andrew got off the bed and walked to his duffel bag. For a moment, Neil was distracted by the roll of muscles across Andrew's naked back and shoulders as he moved before he remembered he'd been given an order. While Andrew rifled through his bag, Neil shoved his underwear down his legs and moved to the center of the bed.

His heart jumped into his throat and his stomach twisted. Andrew tossed the bottle of lube and a wrapped condom onto the bed at Neil's feet before he crawled toward him.

He knelt in front of Neil and pinned him with a hard stare. “My terms. Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil answered immediately.

“Hands to yourself. Keep the noise down- we have neighbors.”

“Okay. Do you want to tie me up for this?”

Andrew's eyes dropped to the scars on Neil's wrist. “No.”

When he touched Neil again, his hands were steady and sure.

Neil lay back with his hands above his head while Andrew moved closer, sliding his hands over Neil's toned legs. Neil's waning erection was revived with wet, bruising kisses bitten into his inner thigh coupled with a firm hand cupped under his balls. Neil clamped his lower lip between his teeth as his belly clenched with heat. Once he was achingly hard again, Andrew wasted no time in squeezing lube onto his fingers and pressing one into Neil's hole.

It was easier this time. His body remembered and complied quickly to Andrew's unspoken requests. Neil's leg tensed and tightened around Andrew's shoulder, desperate to bring him closer, but Andrew chided him with a sharp bite to the inside of his knee. Neil turned his face into a pillow and moaned softly as Andrew curled a third finger inside of him. Pleasure short-circuited his brain and everything in him seemed to stutter in shock. His heart fluttered, his lungs seized.

Andrew withdrew quickly and Neil sucked back a noise of protest. He kept his eyes on the ceiling, blinking dazedly, but his senses snapped into alertness when he heard Andrew's zipper. Anticipation simmered under his skin, arousal burned through his core. Foil ripped. Neil inhaled deeply and relaxed his body as he exhaled. He heard Andrew open the bottle of lube and then close it a moment later.

Neil looked down at him and gave him a nod when he paused with his hand on Neil's hip. Carefully, Andrew pushed inside him and Neil's mouth fell open on a breathy moan as he was stretched and filled. After Andrew was completely inside, he gave Neil a few moments to adjust. It felt strange with the soreness left from earlier, but Neil found that he liked it. Once he told Andrew that he was all right, Andrew pulled back and quickly settled into a rhythm of shallow, brutally controlled thrusts angled just right send pulses of white-hot pleasure through his belly. Andrew leaned forward and braced himself on his hands as he sped up.

“You feel so good,” Neil whispered, voice wavering. “Andrew.”

Andrew's head dropped and he groaned lowly, “Shut up.”

Neil's back arched as his body tried to push into Andrew's, but Andrew drew back to keep himself from sinking his full length into Neil. Soon Neil's quiet gasping grew into moans that he tried to muffle with the pillow. His orgasm began to build, a weight between his hips growing heavier and hotter by the second. His body tightened like a spring waiting to be released. He reached down to stroke himself, but Andrew batted his hand away.

When Neil looked down, half-wild and questioning, Andrew said, “You told me- ngh, you thought you could get off from just my cock.” He lifted his head and pinned Neil with a hard, challenging look.

“Fuck,” Neil sighed. He rolled his hips into Andrew's thrusts while Andrew drove him to the brink. Andrew sped up, sliding into him roughly. Sweat shone across Andrew's skin and dripped from his forehead onto Neil's chest. The sensation was odd- the pleasure was different enough for Neil's body to hesitate at the edge, tensing but unable to find the release it was desperately reaching for. Andrew's breathing stuttered as he watched Neil's face.

Neil was almost in a panic, driven almost mad with animalistic need. “Andrew- Andrew, I need- let me touch myself. I can't- I'm sorry, I can't cum like-”

Andrew had his hand around Neil's cock before Neil could finish begging for it, stroking him hard and fast. The dam burst. Relief swept his senses away as he came. Neil bit the back of his hand as he keened lowly. Andrew guided him through it, rocking into him gently, and gradually he brought Neil back with his hands stroking Neil's thighs. Once Neil peeled his watery eyes open and his vision cleared, he could see that Andrew's pale body was splotched with pink and his hair was sticking to his sweaty forehead. His jaw was clenched and his eyes were glazed over with arousal.

Andrew was shaking as he pulled out and slid the condom off. He leaned over Neil and jerked himself off with quick, desperate strokes. A few moments later, he shuddered and released into his fingers with a broken gasp.

Breathing hard, he met Neil's eyes, looking as blown apart as Neil felt.

As Neil's mind settled, he became aware of a small pile of facts: the wet cum on his belly was turning cold, his balls ached, his heart was thudding heavily against his sternum, Andrew's hand was hot against his hip. Andrew's touch dragged Neil's mind away from the dizzying aftermath of his orgasm and soon his thoughts were focused entirely on the man between his legs. Andrew was flushed, shivering, and slack-jawed as he tried to catch his breath. He blinked down at Neil's chest with drowsy, dull eyes. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple. Neil wondered if this was what Andrew looked like under his gear when he was defending the goal.

Somehow Andrew mustered up enough strength to stumble to the wastebasket on quaking legs to throw away the condom and the foil wrapper. On his way to the bathroom, he went to the thermostat to turn the temperature down again. Neil realized just how warm the room had gotten as he wiped his belly off with a handful of tissues pulled from the box on the nightstand. While Andrew used the bathroom, Neil wiped the excess lube off his ass and inner thighs as best he could. The toilet flushed. The sink ran for a dozen seconds. Then, Andrew emerged with his jeans left open and fading pink patches still coloring his strong chest. He came back to the bed and, swatting the bottle of lube onto the floor, he collapsed beside Neil on the mattress.

“I might stay in this bed forever,” Neil said, wrapping the dirty tissues in a clean one and dropping the wad on the floor.

“What about your precious Exy?” Andrew drawled.

Neil stifled a yawn. “What's Exy?”

“Kevin's going to have your balls when I tell him you said that.”

Neil grumbled in agreement as he struggled to sit up. His body felt soft and stretched like taffy. After a few tries, he managed to stand up and he walked gingerly to the bathroom, perfectly aware of Andrew's eyes following his naked form. Once he used the toilet and cleaned up a bit, Neil walked back out and dug clean clothes out of his bag. He leaned against the edge of the bed for balance while he got dressed and then he looked over his shoulder at Andrew.

“You need a cigarette?” he asked.

“You need aspirin?” Andrew shot back.

Neil shook his head. “No. Some fresh air sounds good, though.”

Andrew nodded and rolled out of bed. He zipped up his jeans, put his phone into his pocket, and put on his shirt and armbands. Neil put on his bands as well and then they slipped into their shoes and left the room. They took the elevator down to the lobby, which was thankfully almost empty. To one side was a bar and dining area, which was buzzing with the chatter of patrons and soft jazz music. To the other side was a parlor with deep armchairs, a fireplace, and a large television mounted to the wall. The woman at the glossy desk tucked off to the side of the doors gave them a tight smile as they strode past her to the doors.

The night air was cooled by a steady breeze. The glow of streetlights and neon signs of squarish hotels and banks competed with the pinpricks of starlight in the clear black sky. Neil's knees were still weak, but he managed to keep upright as he followed Andrew down to a small coffee shop that was closed. They sat on the wiry bistro chairs outside the dark windows and Andrew lit two cigarettes for them. The sidewalk was mostly empty except for a few groups of people wandering in and out of the restaurant next door. Each time the doors swung open, faint music and the smell of Indian food seeped out. Neil slouched in his chair and put the cigarette to his lips, sucking in a lungful of spicy smoke.

“Thought you wanted fresh air,” Andrew commented.

Neil exhaled slowly and watched the gray cloud dissipate on the cool breeze sweeping down the street. “It's a special occasion,” he joked.

“I've had you twice. It's all old news now.”

Neil snorted and looked over at him. “You moving on to your next conquest?”

Andrew hummed and blew out a stream of smoke. “I should, but you're harder to get rid of than I was counting on.”

“Well, Kevin's probably going to strangle me for ignoring his texts, so I won't be a problem much longer.”

Andrew took out his phone and flipped it open. He turned the screen around so Neil could see that there were five new messages from Kevin. Then he typed a short response and dropped his phone on the table.

“What'd you say?”

“I told him no.”

“To what?”

“Everything,” Andrew answered before taking another pull off his cigarette. His eyes flicked over to the street to watch a shiny yellow Camaro roll to a stop at the red light. Heavy music and drunken laughter poured out of the open windows. Andrew watched the driver toss a cigarette onto the pavement. Neil took note of the license plate on instinct.

Once the light turned green and the Camaro slipped away, Andrew asked, “Why are you ignoring Her Majesty?”

Neil shrugged. “I can only handle one of you up my ass at a time. I'll deal with him tomorrow.”

“Deal with him Sunday night.”

Neil put his fingers over his mouth to cover his smile. Andrew was a stranger to affection, would never admit to getting any sort of pleasure from Neil's company, but he gave hints every now and then and Neil learned to savor them.

“Shut up,” Andrew said when he noticed Neil smiling.

They lingered out on the sidewalk until their cigarettes burned down to the filters. Then, unhurried and unburdened, Neil and Andrew made their way back to their hotel room, cleaned the taste of cigarette smoke and beer from their mouths, and settled into bed with each other. The television's volume was turned down low and the sleep timer was set for forty-five minutes. Neil stripped off his armbands and then removed Andrew's with his permission. He set them on the nightstand and clicked off the lamp.

The bluish light of the television cast stark shadows over Andrew's face and glowed oddly in his pale hair. Neil studied him openly while Andrew stared back across the empty space between them.

Neil had never particularly liked staying in hotels, motels, or inns when he was on the run. Sleeping on an actual bed was always nice, but trying to sleep in a bed that wasn't his tended to make him a little homesick.

Home was a difficult concept for Nathaniel and Neil and all the boys he'd been in between. For Nathaniel, home was where he lived quietly and others died loudly. It was the place where he grew familiar with pain. Home was where he'd learned to use knives and swallow the urge to cry.

For years, home was not a happy thing.

Then, it became nothing but a memory he toyed with sometimes on lonely highways, in shadowy corners of diners, in strange rooms full of strange smells. The word “home” never fit quite right in his mouth no matter what language he said it in.

For Neil, home was the Tower, the Foxhole Court, and the house in Columbia. Home was a huddle of orange jerseys, the passenger seat of a Maserati, and a rooftop. Home was cold hazel eyes and warm keys and hot kisses.

Neil reached up to run his fingertip across Andrew's lower lip. Andrew responded by lightly pinching Neil's finger between his teeth.

“You're staring,” Andrew murmured when Neil pulled away.

“You like it,” replied Neil.

Andrew put his hand over Neil's eyes and Neil tilted his face to brush a kiss over Andrew's scarred wrist. On the nightstand, Neil's phone buzzed with another message from one of his Foxes. His smile was slow and he realized in that moment that he was perfectly content. How quietly the happiness had crept in.

Andrew kissed him once more and said, “One hundred and six.”

Neil loved his life.